Category Archives: Quotations

Would a Million Monkeys on a Million Typewriters Produce the Works of Shakespeare?

alex atkins bookshelf triviaIn 1928, British astrophysicist Arthur Eddington presented a classical illustration of chance in his book, The Nature of the Physical World: “If I let my fingers wander idly over the keys of a typewriter it might happen that my screed made an intelligible sentence. If an army of monkeys were strumming on typewriters they might write all the books in the British Museum. The chance of their doing so is decidedly more favourable than the chance of the molecules returning to one half of the vessel.” In the 1939 essay, “The Total Library,” Jorge Luis Borges relates a variant of this concept: “a half-dozen monkeys provide with typewriters would, in a few eternities, produce all the books in the British Museum.” Over time, the quotation morphed into a more alliterative, memorable phrase invoking the Bard: “a million monkeys typing on a million typewriters to produce the complete works of William Shakespeare.” Huzzah! It is now known as the Infinite Monkey Theorem which states that a monkey hitting keys at random on a typewriter for an infinite amount of time would eventually type the complete works of Shakespeare. The probability, however, is very small: mathematicians have calculated to be one in 15 billion.

Such a theoretical discussion of probability begs the discussion of a real-world experiment. What would happen if you gave a half-dozen monkeys their own typewriters? Would they type anything of literary value? Glad you asked. In 2003, researchers at the University of Plymouth received a grant from the Arts Council to study that very question. The researchers placed specially modified computer keyboards in the enclosure of six monkeys, specifically Celebes crested macaques, at the Paignton Zoo (Devon, England) for a month. Vicky Melfi, a biologist at Paignton zoo, explained that the macaques (named Elmo, Gum, Heather, Holly, Mistletoe, and Rowan) were ideal animals to test the Infinite Monkey Theorem. “They are very intentional, deliberate and very dexterous, so they do want to interact with stuff you give them. They would sit on the computer and some of the younger ones would press the keys.” The researchers did not reward the monkeys for typing because they did not want them to become fixated on typing to the exclusion of other natural behavior. So what literary work did these budding writers produce?

The six monkeys produced only five pages of text between them. Alas, there was no iambic pentameter prose here; the pages were very monotonous, filled with the letter S. Near the end, they added some variation, adding the letters A, J, L, and M. There was nothing in the text that came close to being an English word. Perhaps they were writing the story of a hissing snake. Nevertheless, when they got bored of typing, they simply sat on the keyboards and defecated on them. This is, of course, nothing new — a mercurial author who is displeased with his manuscript and trashes it — in this case, literally shits on it! S’wounds!

We end this discussion of the Infinite Monkey Theorem, with computer scientist Robert Wilensky’ observation: “We’ve heard that a million monkeys at a million keyboards could produce the complete works of Shakespeare; now, thanks to the Internet, we know that is not true.” Touché!

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The Shakespeare Thefts: In Search of the First Folio
Who Are the Greatest Characters in Shakespeare?
The Most Common Myths About Shakespeare
Shakespeare and Uranus
Best Editions of Shakespeare’s Sonnets

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One of the Greatest Magazine Stories: Falling Man

alex atkins bookshelf cultureRichard Drew pressed the camera’s shutter button at 9:41 am on the morning of September 11, 2001, capturing an image of man leaping to his death that is horrific, elegiac, and poetic. This iconic photograph — “The Falling Man” — depicted one of more than 200 innocent people who jumped to their deaths that morning. It was printed on page 7 of the New York Times on the following day, etched forever in the American consciousness as a reminder of that dreadful day. Equally powerful was the thought-provoking story that writer Tom Junod wrote about the identity of that lone figure in the September 2003 issue of Esquire magazine, titled “The Falling Man.” When you read the introduction to the story, it is easy to understand why the editors of Esquire consider it one of the greatest stories in the magazine’s 75-year history.

“In the picture, he departs from this earth like an arrow. Although he has not chosen his fate, he appears to have, in his last instants of life, embraced it. If he were not falling, he might very well be flying. He appears relaxed, hurtling through the air. He appears comfortable in the grip of unimaginable motion. He does not appear intimidated by gravity’s divine suction or by what awaits him. His arms are by his side, only slightly outriggered. His left leg is bent at the knee, almost casually. His white shirt, or jacket, or frock, is billowing free of his black pants. His black high-tops are still on his feet… The man in the picture… is perfectly vertical, and so is in accord with the lines of the buildings behind him. He splits them, bisects them: Everything to the left of him in the picture is the North Tower; everything to the right, the South. Though oblivious to the geometric balance he has achieved, he is the essential element in the creation of a new flag, a banner composed entirely of steel bars shining in the sun. Some people who look at the picture see stoicism, willpower, a portrait of resignation; others see something else — something discordant and therefore terrible: freedom. There is something almost rebellious in the man’s posture, as though once faced with the inevitability of death, he decided to get on with it; as though he were a missile, a spear, bent on attaining his own end. He is… in the clutches of pure physics, accelerating at a rate of thirty-two feet per second squared. He will soon be traveling at upwards of 150 miles per hour, and he is upside down. In the picture, he is frozen; in his life outside the frame, he drops and keeps dropping until he disappears.”

Almost 20 years later, reflecting on that photo, Richard Drew states: “I never regretted taking that photograph at all. It’s probably one of the only photographs that shows someone dying that day. We have a terrorist attack on our soil and we still don’t see pictures of our people dying — and this is a photograph of someone dying. “

The Falling Man’s true identity has never been established.  The photos reveal that he was dark-skinned, lanky, wore a goatee, dressed in black pants, and a bright-orange shirt under a white shirt. Some believe it was Jonathan Briley, an employee at the Windows on the World restaurant. Miraculously, the FBI found his body the next day. Juno concludes his article:

“Is Jonathan Briley the Falling Man? He might be. But maybe he didn’t jump from the window as a betrayal of love or because he lost hope. Maybe he jumped to fulfill the terms of a miracle. Maybe he jumped to come home to his family. Maybe he didn’t jump at all, because no one can jump into the arms of God.

Oh, no. You have to fall.

Yes, Jonathan Briley might be the Falling Man. But the only certainty we have is the certainty we had at the start: At fifteen seconds after 9:41 a.m., on September 11, 2001, a photographer named Richard Drew took a picture of a man falling through the sky—falling through time as well as through space. The picture went all around the world, and then disappeared, as if we willed it away. One of the most famous photographs in human history became an unmarked grave, and the man buried inside its frame—the Falling Man—became the Unknown Soldier in a war whose end we have not yet seen. Richard Drew’s photograph is all we know of him, and yet all we know of him becomes a measure of what we know of ourselves. The picture is his cenotaph, and like the monuments dedicated to the memory of unknown soldiers everywhere, it asks that we look at it, and make one simple acknowledgment.

That we have known who the Falling Man is all along.”

For further reading:


The Wisdom of Eleanor Roosevelt

alex atkins bookshelf quotationsEleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962) was a national treasure. As First Lady of the United States (holding the record for longest period served, from 1933 to 1945), humanitarian, politician, and activist. Although she had a difficult, unhappy childhood, but she overcame monumental obstacles and setbacks to live a very rich, fruitful, and fulfilling life. In her tireless support of women’s rights, civil right, and global human rights, she earned the respect of the entire world; Harry Truman referred to her as the “First Lady of the World.” In a Gallup poll conducted in 1999, Roosevelt she was ranked the ninth most admired person in the 20th century. Not only did she have an insatiable curiosity, she was extremely generous with what she learned; she was always willing to inspire others with her wisdom. In his eulogy for Roosevelt, Adlai Stevenson remarked, “What other single human being has touched and transformed the existence of so many? She would rather light a candle than curse the darkness, and her glow has warmed the world.” Bookshelf presents the timeless wisdom of Eleanor Roosevelt:

Many people will walk in and out of your life, but only true friends will leave footprints in your heart.

One’s philosophy is not best expressed in words; it is expressed in the choices one makes… and the choices we make are ultimately our responsibility.

Happiness is not a goal; it is a by-product.

It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness.

Do the things that interest you and do them with all your heart.

Remember always that you have not only the right to be an individual; you have an obligation to be one.

Probably the happiest period in life most frequently is in middle age, when the eager passions of youth are cooled, and the infirmities of age not yet begun; as we see that the shadows, which are at morning and evening so large, almost entirely disappear at midday.

Only a man’s character is the real criterion of worth.

You can never really live anyone else’s life, not even your child’s. The influence you exert is through your own life, and what you’ve become yourself.

Life was meant to be lived, and curiosity must be kept alive. One must never, for whatever reason, turn his back on life.

The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.

Your ambition should be to get as much life out of living as you possibly can, as much enjoyment, as much interest, as much experience, as much understanding.

You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, “I lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.”

Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.

I think, at a child’s birth, if a mother could ask a fairy godmother to endow it with the most useful gift, that gift would be curiosity.

You must do the things you think you cannot do.

We are afraid to care too much, for fear that the other person does not care at all.

No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.

It is not fair to ask of others what you are not willing to do yourself.

One thing life has taught me: if you are interested, you never have to look for new interests. They come to you. When you are genuinely interested in one thing, it will always lead to something else.

You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.’ You must do the thing you think you cannot do.

People grow through experience if they meet life honestly and courageously. This is how character is built.

In the long run, we shape our lives, and we shape ourselves. The process never ends until we die. And the choices we make are ultimately our own responsibility.

When you cease to make a contribution, you begin to die.

Autobiographies are only useful as the lives you read about and analyze may suggest to you something that you may find useful in your own journey through life.

With the new day comes new strength and new thoughts.

The Wisdom of Tom Shadyac
The Wisdom of Martin Luther King
The Wisdom of Maya Angelou
The Wisdom of a Grandmother
The Wisdom of the Ancient Greeks
The Wisdom of Lady Grantham
The Wisdom of Morrie Schwartz
The Wisdom of Yoda
The Wisdom of George Carlin
The Wisdom of Saint-Exupery
The Wisdom of Steven Wright
The Wisdom of Spock
The Wisdom of Elie Wiesel

For further reading: You Learn by Living: Eleven Keys for a More Fulfilling Life by Eleanor Roosevelt
The Autobiography of Eleanor Roosevelt

Famous Last Words of Celebrities

atkins bookshelf quotations“The tricky thing in the ‘last word’ business, as in so much else, is timing. Do you think of something clever years before and try and remember it to trot out at the appropriate time? Do you rely on last-minute inspiration?” writes Sir Richard Stilgoe in the introduction to The Bedside Book of Final Words by Eric Grounds. “How can you control your last seconds so that you say your pithy sentence, check that someone’s got it down accurately, then die?” Fortunately for biographers and collectors of last words, many famous people have said some very interesting things — some a bit haunting — that were actually recorded in one form or another for posterity. And, of course, with the prevalence of social media, we now have a record of final tweets or emails. Here are famous last words of celebrities:

Kurt Cobain: “I love you. I love you.”

Princess Diana: “Oh my God, what is happening?”

Whitney Houston: “I’m gonna go see Jesus, want to see Jesus.”

Michael Jackson: “More milk.” [By milk, Jackson was referring to propofol]

Steve Jobs: “Oh wow. Oh wow. Oh wow.”

Heath Ledger: “Katie, Katie, look…it’ll be fine, you know, I just need to get some sleep.” [Speaking to his sister over the phone.]

Leonard Nimoy: “A life is like a garden. Perfect moments can be had, but not preserved, except in memory. LLAP. [Live Long and Prosper]” [His last tweet]

Bill Paxton: Thanks for the good wishes. It will help me face this ordeal. [Final email before heart surgery.]

Elvis Presley: “”I’m going to the bathroom to read.” [Spoken to fiancé Ginger Alden; Elvis was reading The Scientific Search for the Face of Jesus by Frank Adams published in 1972]

Frank Sinatra: “I’m losing it.”

Paul Walker: “We’ll be back in five minutes.”

Amy Winehouse: “I don’t want to die.”

Read related posts: How Many Words Does the Average Person Speak in a Lifetime?
Writers’ Deaths that are Stranger than Fiction

How Long Does it Take to Read a Million Words?
How Many Words in the English Language?
How Many Books Does the Average American Read?

For further reading: The Bedside Book of Final Words by Eric Grounds (2014)
What Book Was Elvis Reading When He Died?

Choose the Way You Want to Spend Your Limited Time on Earth

alex atkins bookshelf quotationsIt is possible to become discouraged about the injustice we see everywhere. But God did not promise us that the world would be humane and just. He gives us the gift of life and allows us to choose the way we will use our limited time on earth. It is an awesome opportunity.

Cesar Chavez (1927-1993), Latino civil rights activist, labor leader, and co-founder of the National Farm Workers Association (United Farm Workers union). Chavez won numerous awards for his passionate advocacy of social justice, including the Pacem in Terris Award (1992) and the Presidential Medal of Freedom (posthumously in 1994). His personal motto “¡Sí se suede!” (translated from Spanish: “Yes, it can be done!” or “Yes, we can!”) was adopted by the United Farm Workers in the 1960s and several decades later by Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in 2008.

A Curmudgeon’s View of Politics

alex atkins bookshelf quotations“A curmudgeon’s [a cantankerous old codger] reputation for malevolence is underserved,” writes Jon Winokur, author of The Portable Curmudgeon. Incidentally a curmudgeon is an ill-tempered person, a “cantankerous old codger.” Winokur continues, “They’re neither warped nor evil at heart. They don’t hate mankind, just mankind’s excesses.” And there are plenty of excesses to go around. Take politics, for example. Is there a greater example of man’s greed for wealth, power, and idiocy? But let’s hear what world-class curmudgeons think of politics and politicians:

Oscar Levant: “[A politician] will double-cross that bridge when he comes to it.”

Hillaire Belloc: “The standard of intellect in politics is so low that men of moderate mental capacity have to stoop in order to reach it.”

H. L. Mencken: “A good politician is quite as unthinkable as an honest burglar.”

Henry Miller: “One has to be a lowbrow, a bit of a murderer, to be a politician, ready and willing to see people sacrificed, slaughtered, for that sake of an idea whether a good one or a bad one.”

Karl Kraus: “The secret of the demagogue is to make himself as stupid as his audience so that they believe they are as clever as he.”

George Carlin: “So maybe it’s not the politicians who suck; maybe it’s something else. Like the public. That would be a nice realistic campaign slogan for somebody: “The public sucks. Elect me.” Put the blame where it belongs: on the people. Because if everything is really the fault of politicians, where are all the bright, honest, intelligent Americans who are ready to step in and replace them? Where are these people hiding? The truth is, we don’t have people like that. Everyone’s at the mall, scratching his balls and buying sneakers with lights in them. And complaining about the politicians.”

George Carlin (again): “This entire country is completely full of shit… Think of how we started. This country was founded by a group of slave-owners who told us all men are created equal. Oh yeah, all men, except for Indians and [blacks] and women, right?… This was a small group of unelected, white, male, land-holding, slave-owners who also suggested their class be the only one allowed to vote. Now, that is what’s known as being stunningly and embarrassingly full of shit. And I think Americans really show their ignorance when they say they want their politicians to be honest. What are these [freaking] cretins talking about? If honesty were suddenly introduced into American life, the whole system would collapse!”

Read related posts: The Wisdom of George Carlin

For further reading: The Portable Curmudgeon by Jon Winokur
Last Words by George Carlin, Free Press (2010)
Brain Droppings by George Carlin, Hyperion (1998)

The Sea Refreshes Our Imagination and Rejoices Our Souls

alex atkins bookshelf quotations“The sea refreshes our imagination because it does not make us think of human life; yet it rejoices the soul, because, like the soul, it is an infinite and impotent striving, a strength that is ceaselessly broken by falls, an eternal and exquisite lament. The sea thus enchants us like music, which, unlike language, never bears the traces of things, never tells us anything about human beings, but imitates the stirrings of the soul. Sweeping up with the waves of those movements, plunging back with them, the heart thus forgets its own failures and finds solace in an intimate harmony between its own sadness and the sea’s sadness, which merges the sea’s destiny with the destinies of all things.”

From “Regrets, Reveries the Color of Time” by French novelist Marcel Proust (born Valentin Louis Georges Eugène Marcel Proust in 1871; he died in 1922), found in The Complete Short Stories of Marcel Proust translated by Joachim Neugroschel. Proust is best known for one of the longest novels ever written, In Search of Lost Time, published between 1913 and 1927. Published in seven volumes, the novel contains 3,031 pages and 1,267,069 words (9,609,000 characters). It will take the average reader (at 300 words per minute), about 45 hours and 27 minutes to read the entire novel, excluding any meal and bathroom breaks, of course.

For further reading: The Complete Short Stories of Marcel Proust translated by Joachim Neugroschel
Proust’s Way: A Field Guide to In Search of Lost Time by Roger Shattuck

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