This story was published on the previous version of my blog on Nov. 25, 2008.
Applied Knowledge Vs. Monkeys
Office of the President of Expensive Widgets Inc., Mr. Donald Von Van Vlardigen
President: Stephen, my wife said something funny last night. She said: “Put enough monkeys together and they will eventually type out Hamlet!” You know it would be great to have that on our website.
Stephen the V.P.: Errr… Why?
President: It sounds funny and clever! Anyhow, you figure it out.
Stephen the V.P.: Hmmm… I will sir.
(1 week of cogitating goes by)
V.P. calls on a consultant.
Stephen the V.P.: Hey, I need this program on our Website that attempts to explain the probability of an infinite number of monkeys writing Hamlet on a typewriter. And then people can paste text into a box and it will calculate the probability for that specific snippet of text.
Friendly Webmaster: Infinite Monkey Theorem! The low probability of that is actually hard to understand for most people. How do you tie it into your business of selling expensive widgets?
Stephen the V.P.: Errr… I want something viral! Yeah, that’s it.
Friendly Webmaster: This is a theorem of utter improbability yet people use it to give an impression of probability to a statement… Anyhow… Perhaps, you could use this to convey that the quality of your expensive widgets didn’t happen by accident and is based on novel design, carefully planned research and thorough testing?
Stephen the V.P.: Yeah, errr… Exactly!
Friendly Webmaster: So you have a page that has a quick simplified explanation on the improbability of the Infinite Monkey Theorem. Then translate it to something people can understand like the maximum amount of time it would take before the monkey hits the magic combination of keys. Then you have a Flash monkey that will start typing really fast the words you paste into the text field and a timer quickly tell you how long it would take.
Stephen the V.P.: LOLs. That is actually cool!
Friendly Webmaster: I would put a slider there so you can change the number of monkeys in order to lower the time. And then of course you can send a message to your friends with the info and have an opt-in for your New Widgets newsletter so you get something out of this. You know most people will type in something simple like their own name.
Stephen the V.P.: Hahahaha… Sounds cool, when can that be done?
Friendly Webmaster: Well, I would have to call a few experienced Flash programmers and a kick-ass graphic artist and get back to you with a time line. The engine behind the statistics model is somewhat simple so a mock-up could be made for approval quickly.
Stephen the V.P.: I should give you the name of our artistic director to see if you guys can work on it together.
Friendly Webmaster: That would be ideal!
Stephen the V.P.: How long would it take for a monkey to type out “I love you Caitlin”?
Friendly Webmaster: One sec.
A minute later…
Friendly Webmaster: It is much lower than I expected but I’m fumbling with the window’s calculator here… I think it would take 1 monkey 467,394,568,112,854,000 years if he types 2 keys a second. I do not know how you call that stuff above the 568 trillion. At this point I would apply more monkeys to the task to get a number I can conceptualize! Actually this number is wrong because I did not account for the space bar
and the leap years. Argh…
Stephen the V.P.: Lolz
Friendly Webmaster: It would be nice to have it spelled out below the clock as well (I can look up the info and add it) but I’m sure it would take longer to spell out the name of the number than the text the people put into the box.
Should we be maxing out the number of monkeys to the actual number of monkeys left on this planet (based on WWF?) Should we let people add lemurs, ferrets, cats and/or any other animal that could possibly type? I am just asking because you would have to hire a LOT of friggin’ animals to come up with a time span that is understandable for your average person. Should we have a cost calculator as well, to figure in the space, equipment and human staff required to upkeep the experiment?
Stephen the V.P.: ?!
Friendly Webmaster: You know it would be so cool if you had a turn-of-the-century design like Metropolis, with a huge circus of animals! Actually the animals could be steam-powered robots and then we would have to figure in the cost of each robot units. But then there would only be robot monkeys ‘cuz making robots in the shape of all sorts of animals would become cost prohibitive in theory.
Stephen the V.P.: This is craaaaazy…
Friendly Webmaster: No it’s not, it’s just driving the point of how improbable the theorem is by using something people could conceptualize easier than probability. At least it’s more entertaining. You know if humans could understand probability they would never utter the Infinite Monkey Theorem to begin with. More importantly it makes the case of how the quality of your widgets could not happen by accident and is based on applied knowledge, science and research. Adding many simulation variables makes it fun beyond 30 seconds and more likely to be used and shared.
Stephen the V.P.: Yeah! Throw in all the crazy variables you can think of!
Friendly Webmaster: These ideas are not random btw, they are based on applied knowledge, science and research.
Stephen the V.P.: LOL
(a few weeks goes by…)
V.P. is in the President’s office.
Stephen the V.P.: So you can play with the number of monkeys, the words typed and it will tell you how long it would take. Also it will tell you how about the required coal-to-steam energy and how much it would cost in today’s money. It will also tell you the carbon footprint and also when the experiment would stop because of lack of available resources.
President: So it would take 5 and a half years to type “Donald”… That’s all?!
Stephen the V.P.: We assumed that all the monkeys are steam-powered random programmed robots so they only need maintenance and power and they work until there is nothing left to burn. When this experiment was created for real, the monkeys kept typing in the same letters and quickly took to destroying the computer. Your first name only has 6 letters, put in your full name and you will get a different story altogether.
President: 1 quadrillion (…) Oookay, that is a lot of years! I need more monkeys!!! Hmmm… This is fun! Isn’t my wife brilliant!!! Great job Stephen!
Stephen the V.P.: Thanks sir, that should be on the website within a few weeks after the design is approved.
President: Yeah, about this immense old factory with mechanical monkeys? What does that mean?
Stephen the V.P.: I looked it up and this is an up-and-coming style of science-fiction called steampunk and it is very popular with young adults. It seems old but it’s actually very new and forward thinking.
President: Err… Could you make it futuristic like in The Jetsons?
Stephen the V.P.: Well, for the exercise to be accurate it should be set before the digital age. Monkeys randomly writing on a typewriter is a fabulous example of a gargantuan analog task which is what the Infinate Monkey Theorem is all about.
President: Hmmm… Okay well I’ll show this to my wife, see what she thinks! She is a great designer! she decorated the new house you know?
Stephen the V.P.: Very well sir.