Three Monkeys - Ten Minutes : Presidents Page June 2002

The description at the top of my web site reads as follows "This page is called Three Monkeys - Ten Minutes. Why is it called that? Well, you may remember the old question - If an infinite number of monkeys with an infinite number of typewriters were given sufficient time, would they eventually produce all the works of Shakespere? Given that, what would it take to produce all of my stuff?"

This has always appealed to my sense of modesty about my work as well as being amusing. More importantly other seem to react well to it as a concept. I guess I should point out at this point that this quip is not original to me - I filched it from one of Scott Adams' Dilbert cartoons. Didn't somebody say that all great art is theft. Well if they didn't they should have.

This brings me to an interesting e-mail I got the other day. The correspondent asked my if I knew anything about the origins of old saying "hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil". While my page or writing has nothing really to do with this saying, if you look at the top of the page, you will see the obvious reason for the query - the three monkeys acting out the saying by their poses. My reason for using the picture was simply that this was the only picture of three monkeys I could find. There do not seem to be any pictures out there of monkeys sitting in front of typewriters.

The e-mail made me curious so I did a bit of research on the web, What I did manage to find was that these three monkeys and the phrase are part of Japanese tradition although they probably originated in China. They represent the three truths (Santai) of Tendai Buddhism. The Three Monkeys may also represent the Three Sacred Dieties of Sannő (the Sannő Sansei).

The most famous representation of these monkeys is to be found at the Toshugu Shrine in Nikko, Japan. This shrine was build in the 17th century to honor Ieyasu Tokugawa, the first shogun and founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate. There is a carving of the Three Monkeys on the Sacred Stable at the Toshogu Shine. Monkey carvings were thought to help keep horses healthy. There are other carvings of animals at this shrine including a Phoenix, but none of them represent the phrase.

So why use monkeys to represent this particular phrase. After all it isn't really in the nature of monkeys to live by this philosophy. The generally accepted reason is that the phrase is represented as it is because monkeys represents a pun in Japanese. In Japanese the saying is translated as "mizaru, kikazaru, iwazaru". The word for monkey "saru" sounds the same as the verb-ending "zaru" (which means "no").

All that, and the only reason I use the title is that its the punch line of a Dilbert comic which in turn is derived from a problem posed by people playing with the implications of transfinite mathematics. And a very interesting intellectual exercise it is too. The whole area of infinities is quite mind bending and worth a look if you are interested in having your mind bent.

Here is a little example to get you started. You are looking for a place to stay and you come across a hotel with an infinite number of rooms. But all the rooms are full - an infinite number of people already in residence. No problem, just move the person in room one into room 2. The person in room 2 into room 3. From 3 into 4 and so on. Then you can move into room one - no sweat. Working with finite numbers of hotel rooms this makes no sense, but with infinities there is no problem with this solution. In fact there is no reason that even if all the rooms are full why you cannot fit in another infinite number of people.

If you want something a little more taxing, perhaps you can try to figure out why those who study transfinite mathematics refer to two kinds of infinite number. For those of you who react "but infinite is infinite", see if you can see what is the fundamental difference between the number of whole numbers (0,1,2,3...) and the number of fractions which can be found between 0 and 1. Before you ask, yes both of them are infinite. I can give you a very limited explanation of the difference, but I have to wave my hands about when I do so. If you are interested, perhaps you could ask me at the next PIG.

This is the last column in the current series because it is my last as Phoenix president before lucky Lynelle gets to take over turning them out. I have just had a look at my first such column and I see that I complained of writers block then and I have complained of it since. It is not that I do not enjoy writing these columns but I do find it hard work. As a result, the frequency of these columns is likely to drop off, especially as I will not have bits of administrivia to pad it out.

One last point, I am writing this column a couple of weeks before Con With The Wind but you should get to read it after the con. In the event that we manage to get new people on board as a result of the con, I would just like to remind you all to make them welcome.