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Virtual cloud monkeys go bananas writing Shakespeare

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A developer and Simpsons fan has reported his first success in an experiment to test the infinite monkey theorem: that primates could produce Shakespeare by randomly pressing keys.

Jesse Anderson set up software to generate random sets of nine ASCII characters and then match them against the complete works of Shakespeare, retaining useful letter matchings while deleting anything else. After over 5.5 trillion characters, he has now completed a near perfect copy of the Bard’s “A Lover’s Complaint,” a 11,621 character poem contained in an appendix to Shakespeare’s sonnets.

Anderson used Hadoop’s MapReduce with Amazon’s Elastic MapReduce and Ubuntu Linux to run the simulation. He was inspired by a scene in the classic "Last Exit to Springfield" episode of the Simpsons, in which Mr. Burns is revealed to have monkeys working on future screenplays. Anderson tells El Reg that he started the experiment in the spirit of fun, funded it entirely himself, and is now following up to see the end results and to share them with others.

“I did an interview with Fox News about this and their viewers started ranting about how this was a waste of government money,” he says. “I’ve funded this entirely by myself out of a spirit of inquiry. It’s disappointing when people only try new things to make money.”

Originally, Anderson made use of the free aspects of Amazon’s EC2 service, but as the project grew he was looking at around $20 a day to keep the simian simulation going. He then transferred the system to a home PC and is finishing the research himself to avoid living off peanuts to economize.

The mapping of other Shakespearean character sets is also continuing, with Anderson currently just two characters from finishing The Tempest and seven short of As You Like It. Technically, the experiment isn’t an exact test, since running through every conceivable letter in the hope of getting an exact match of the entire text – not mere nine-0character snippets – would take billions of years of trial and error. But it is statistically possible.

Anderson’s technical fix, however, is a lot more successful than earlier attempts. An earlier experiment in 2003 at Paignton Zoo in Devon, UK, saw six Sulawesi crested macaques being given a computer and left to get typing. The primates proved unsuccessful, mainly pressing the letter S and then destroying the computer and urinating on the keyboard – although some may argue that their last act could be construed as an accurate review of much of Shakespeare’s comedic output. ®

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