Skip to content

John Lam's Blog


The origins of yak shaving🔗

OK so I find it amusing that, in the process of hunting down a reference for the algorithm that Donald Knuth used to reward bugs in TAOCP, I found the earliest documented mention of the term yak shaving by Carlin Vieri:

From: "Jeremy H. Brown"
To: [email protected]
Subject: GSB: 5:30pm, 7ai playroom
Date: Fri, 11 Feb 2000 16:00:56 -0500 (EST)

"Yak shaving."  Our very own Carlin Vieri invented the term, and yet
it has not caught on within the lab.  This is a shame, because it
describes all too well what I find myself doing all too often.

You see, yak shaving is what you are doing when you're doing some
stupid, fiddly little task that bears no obvious relationship to what
you're supposed to be working on, but yet a chain of twelve causal
relations links what you're doing to the original meta-task.

Here's an example:

"I was working on my thesis and realized I needed a reference.  I'd
seen a post on comp.arch recently that cited a paper, so I fired up
gnus.  While I was searching the for the post, I came across another
post whose MIME encoding screwed up my ancient version of gnus, so I
stopped and downloaded the latest version of gnus.  

"Unfortunately, the new version of gnus didn't work with emacs 18, so
I downloaded and built emacs 20.  Of course, then I had to install
updated versions of a half-dozen other packages to keep other users
from hurting me.  When I finally tried to use the new gnus, it kept
crapping out on my old configuration.  And that's why I'm deep in the
gnus info pages and my .emacs file -- and yet it's all part of working
on my thesis."

And that, my friends, is yak shaving.  (Not that this particular
example happened to me recently or anything.)  

Another example of yak shaving might be "I need to ask  a
question about our group project.  <Person>'s hard to track down.  But
I know <person> will be at GSB tonight, so I'll go there too."  You
see, in this case GSB isn't socializing or slacking off, it's part of
your work -- hanging out there, you'll be connected to your project
via the process of yak shaving!

Now, having been introduced to the term and the concept of yak
shaving, and also having had it pointed out to you that attending GSB
is actually an important part of your research, you are morally bound
to come to GSB tonight and discuss the finer points of yak shaving,
and in particular the subtle distinctions between some forms of "yak
shaving" and "flimsy rationalizations".

****************** G I R L  S C O U T  B E N E F I T ******************
******************        5:30pm  7AI Playroom       ******************