An Open Letter to The Infinite Monkey Cage

Not a self-portrait. See end of post for all image credits.

I listen to a lot of podcasts, and The Infinite Monkey Cage is one of my favorites. Driving to and from work is a little less unbearable when your show is on. On behalf of everyone who’s alive today because your blend of science and humor prevented me from dozing off and crashing into them: thank you.

A monkey in an infiniteyly tall cylindrical cage.
No monkeys were harmed in the making of this picture.

I was, however, disappointed by your response to ongoing criticism that your program’s title promotes inhumane monkey husbandry practices. Your assertion that an infinite monkey cage would be “roomy” is misleading at best. An infinite cage might be roomy, or it might not. An infinitely tall cylindrical cage would feel pretty cramped if it were only as wide as the monkey inside it. The monkey’s movements would be limited to climbing and spinning. While monkeys are avid climbers, I believe most would find such an environment claustrophobic.

A monkey in a cage that extends infinitely in two dimensions but not the third, ignoring a banana.
Never underestimate the importance of the cage-height-to-monkey-height ratio.

You might think that an infinitely long, infinitely wide cage would have to be better. It wouldn’t. It all depends on the cage-height-to-monkey-height ratio. A nine-inch-long Geoffroy’s tamarin, for example, wouldn’t be happy in an 8.75” high cage. He’d have more freedom to travel, but he’d be forced to maintain an unnaturally stooped posture, leading inevitably to back, neck, and/or hip pain. A veterinarian wouldn’t be able to squeeze into the cage to treat him; your only recourse would be to toss in some ibuprofen-laced bananas and hope for the best. The prognosis would be bleak: monkeys almost never comply with this treatment plan, because ibuprofen-laced bananas taste terrible.

A lonely monkey against a white background.
Solitary simian seems so sad.

A cage that extends infinitely far in all three dimensions would be roomy – but a solitary monkey in such a cage would be lonely. Monkeys are social animals and can’t handle that kind of isolation, even if you give them iPads and show them how to use Facebook. The obvious solution would be to add an infinite number of monkeys for company, but you’d need to get the density right. If each monkey were a thousand miles from its nearest neighbor, you’d wind up with a desolate cage populated by infinitely many melancholy monkeys. On the other hand, if they were packed in too tightly, the monkeys would begin to get on each other’s nerves. They’d gossip and call each other names, and soon you’d have an all-out infinite monkey brawl on your hands.

An infinite number of monkeys packed closely together.
Massed monkeys: mob mentality, madness, maybe mayhem.

Maybe you should start with a finite number of monkeys. That’s all you’d be able to afford anyway, after blowing your budget on cage construction and amenities like gravity, air, and monkey food. If you put a bunch of monkeys in a cage that extends infinitely in all dimensions, then in theory they’d be able to spread out to a comfortable density. But be careful – monkeys can travel only so fast, so if you put too many monkeys too close together, the ones in the center will die of old age before they ever get to experience roominess.

A monkey contemplating a Klein bottle.
9 out of 10 monkeys surveyed preferred The Sustainable Monkey Habitat

I don’t mean to lecture you. I’m just concerned that some of your more impressionable listeners might take your remarks at face value and wind up constructing poorly-designed, inhumane monkey cages. Perhaps you should consider changing the name of your show to something more socially responsible, like The Sustainable Monkey Habitat.

Image credits: Typing monkey from WikiMedia; spider monkey from Tancread’s flickr stream; sideways-looking monkey from’s flickr stream; banana from Wikipedia; delighted mandrill from Chris Arneil’s flickr stream; Klein bottle from Acme Klein Bottle.

Update: A finite number of monkeys respond to this letter in the last few minutes of the July 2 episode (“Does Size Matter?“).

An Open Letter to the Nice Couple Who Didn’t Have Me Arrested When I Broke Into Their House


Remember me? I’m sorry to bother you again, but I just wanted to thank you for not calling the cops or shooting me or anything. I’d also like to explain how it all happened, and why it wasn’t my fault, really.

This is not a photograph.

It all started when I got an invitation to a housewarming party. I couldn’t decide whether  to bring a present — the invitation said “no gifts”, but that doesn’t really mean anything — and if so, what to bring. How are you supposed to pick out a house-oriented gift when you’ve never been to the house before? I hate this custom. I eventually decided to bring a bottle of wine, mostly because of its ambiguity — I could just say “here’s a bottle of wine”, and leave it to others to decide whether it was a housewarming gift or just a bottle of wine I brought to a party. And I probably wouldn’t even have to say that, because most of my friends have encountered bottles of wine before and recognize them when they see them.

I don’t know about you, but for me, there’s only a certain amount of mental energy I’m willing to spend preparing to go to someone else’s party. By the time I’d finished pondering the gift question and actually selecting a bottle of wine, my pre-party mental energy budget was almost depleted, so I decided to leave the navigation to my car’s GPS system. I knew I was taking a risk — my GPS hates me — but it seemed like a good idea at the time.

You know what happened next. I just want to say the following in my defense:

  • My friends live at 1200 Big Street*, and my GPS directed me to the corner of Big Street and Side Street.
  • The house on that corner — your house — has a big 1200 over the front door.
  • The housewarming invitation included a request not to wear shoes inside the house. There was a big pile of shoes on your doorstep.
  • Your front door was open.

So of course I walked up to the  door (okay, your  door), took my shoes off, and went inside. The first thing I noticed was that there were only two people in the living room, and that they were people I didn’t know, but that didn’t seem too unusual — everyone else was probably in the back yard, or the kitchen, or getting a tour of the house, or something. So when I asked “is this Bill and Kathy’s housewarming?”, it was really a rhetorical question. You were supposed to say yes, introduce yourselves, and tell me everyone else was out back. When you deviated from the script and said “no”, I thought you were kidding. What else would I think? That I’d wandered into the wrong house? A house that just happened to have the same house number, an open door, and a pile of shoes? At the exact spot that my GPS led me to? What are the odds of that? I think I took a couple more steps into the room (okay, your living room) before I stopped and said “really?”.

Thank you for giving me directions to my friends’ actual house. And thank you for believing me. It’s heartwarming to know that there are people out there who are so trusting — although, when I walked past your house on the way back to my car after the party, I couldn’t help but notice that you’d closed your door.

*Names and addresses have been changed, on the theory that it might not be the best idea to post “here’s the address of some people who don’t mind if their house gets broken into”.

An Open Letter to a Guy Who May or May Not Be Named Dan, Regarding Our Recent Text Message Exchange

Dear Dan,

Dan's hand has been pixelated to preserve his privacy.

I hope you don’t mind if I call you Dan – your first text was “hey this is dan”, so I’m guessing that’s your name. And I’m sorry I didn’t respond right away, but I just kind of assumed you’d somehow magically realize it was a wrong number. I was wrong.

Your second message took me by surprise. As a general rule, I don’t welcome unsolicited photographs of strange men’s body parts, but I wasn’t offended at all by yours. That’s probably because the body part in question was your hand, it was next to a package of felt-tip pens, and the accompanying text was “these are the biggest sharpies they have. will they work or u want bigger?”. Sure, someone with a junior-high mentality could interpret “or u want bigger?” as some sort of crude innuendo, but I don’t think you meant it that way.

I’m not sure why I responded the way I did. I’m sorry. I just wrote the first thing that came to mind. “I don’t know anyone named Dan” was a lie, and a pretty transparent one at that. Of course I know people named Dan. Dan is a very common name. But all the Dans I know are either distant acquaintances or friends I’ve drifted away from over the years; I can’t think of a single Dan that I’m on Sharpie-buying terms with. To be honest, I’m not sure I’m on unconditional Sharpie-buying terms with anyone. There are people who’d buy me Sharpies if they happened to be going to the store anyway, but I can’t think of anyone I could call at 3am to run out and buy me Sharpies immediately, no questions asked. They’d all ask questions, Dan. Questions like “Do you know what time it is?” or “Can’t it wait until morning?” or “Did you say Sharpies?”. What’s wrong with me, Dan? Why do I fail to inspire that kind of loyalty and trust? Is it because my text messages are filled with lies and half-truths?

Continue reading “An Open Letter to a Guy Who May or May Not Be Named Dan, Regarding Our Recent Text Message Exchange”

Terror in the Skies: An Open Letter to Vance Gilbert

He may look innocent, but how do we know he doesn't have a book hidden in that guitar?

Dear Mr. Gilbert,

I read your recent blog post and several other articles all over the Internet about your experience being pulled off an airplane and questioned about the book you were reading. Much of the debate has centered on the issue of whether you were the target of racial profiling, but the fact is, this incident isn’t about race, or security theater, or overzealous airline employees, or post-9/11 paranoia. It’s about procrastination.

You really need to work on your time management skills. Your flight was less than two hours long; that’s just not enough time to read up on aircraft design, formulate an evil plan, and carry out that plan. You should do all your reading and planning in advance, and then gather all the materials you need before boarding the plane.

Continue reading “Terror in the Skies: An Open Letter to Vance Gilbert”

An Open Letter to the Bees Swarming on My Front Porch

Dear Bees,

I’ve been a fan of yours for a long time, so let me start by saying thank you for all the hard work you put into pollination and honey production. Also, I love the expression “hive mind”, which never would have been coined if it weren’t for you guys (well, I suppose someone might have used that phrase, but it would have referred to an itchy allergic reaction and wouldn’t have been nearly as interesting). So, thanks again.
Continue reading “An Open Letter to the Bees Swarming on My Front Porch”