12th November 1999 at 00:00
They're smart looking creatures, but there are just too many Penguins says Arnold Evans.

Writing this article should have been a doddle. I planned to remind readers that the Internet will revolutionise education only if teachers, pupils, parents and possibly even politicians recognise the wisdom of Dr Johnson's famous statement: "Knowledge is of two kinds. We know a subject ourselves or we know where we can find information on it."

I intended to pad out the piece with a couple of paragraphs about the folly of bombarding pupils with facts, facts, facts if the subject matter itself held no interest for them. To clinch my case I was going to rely on the words of a little girl whose review of a book on penguins consisted of one sentence. "This book," she wrote, "told me rather more about penguins than I wished to know".

This sort of article never takes too long to write, so when I began work as the theme tune for Countdown began, I had every intention of having it finished it in time for Neighbours. But before I could begin, I had to confirm that Dr Johnson and the girl had said what I was claiming they had. It only took a few flicks through The Oxford Book of Quotations to verify the good doctor's words. Yet when I checked the index I discovered that, unlike the pelican, the penguin had never inspired anyone to utter anything worthy of recording for posterity. This wasn't much of a surprise but the girl's review is so often quoted I expected to find it in one of the anthologies of quirky quotations I had been given. Zilch.

But I didn't give up, not when there was an Aladdin's cave of useless information only a couple of mouse clicks away. I simply had to key "penguin" into Yahoo!, Excite and a few of the Internet's other search engines. I logged on just as Richard Whiteley and his brainy chums were settling down to the conundrum. I logged off - none the wiser - as Kirstie was gathering up her script and urging Newsnight's viewers to have a lovely weekend.

It was then that I made my big mistake. I decided to "give it another 10 minutes". Four hours later, bothered and bewildered, I managed to get to bed for one of those fitful sleeps in which your limbs twitch as though animated by Java script.

The whole of Saturday and Sunday disappeared down the same nerdy plug hole. It wasn't that I ever thought that what the girl said about penguins was particularly amusing or even pertinent. In fact I knew I probably wouldn't use it in the article anyway. But that made not a hoot of difference. The quote had achieved the status of the Holy Grail - it was my personal Moby Dick, my raison d'etre.

The story does not have a happy ending. It's now 2am on Monday morning. I haven't sourced the quote but I have found out rather more about penguins than a man of mature years with a mild allergy to feathers should ever have to know.

The World Wide Web contains countless photographs and film clips of penguins, digitised recordings of their tedious chirping, campaigns to save them, instructions on how to make papier-mache models of them, the lyrics of Frank Zappa's Penguins In Bondage, worksheets, FAQs, charts, graphs, jokes, quizzes, poems and a surreal fairy story about how a rookery of Nazi penguins have brought anti-Semitism to Antarctica. There is so much information about these blasted birds on the Web that there is to my certain knowledge at least one site devoted exclusively to listing the sites that are devoted to listing sites devoted to them.

And that's not counting the acres of cyberspace devoted to ice hockey team the Pittsburgh Penguins or the villainous Penguin, played by Burgess Meredith in the Batman television series, or the ones you p-p-p-pick up, or the famous paperbacks, or "the penguin event", which is the technical term for an electron-positron collision in the sub-atom apparently.

I suppose I have learned something of value during the course of this wasted weekend -the Internet's search engines do not fulfil the same function as the index in a book. Input the same word and each gives you an almost completely different set of results. All of them only scratch the surface of what's available on the Web. They're fine if all you want is a taster of what's available but frustratingly ineffective if you are ever foolish enough to try to use them to track down a particular fact.

For once, Dr Johnson didn't get it right. There is a third kind of knowledge which he seems to have overlooked: knowing where to find information is of no earthly use unless you also know exactly how to find it.

Send Arnold a Penguin this Christmas on

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