Sunday, December 17, 2017

Monkey First!

The following story is not true nor has anyone claimed its true, but it has a point:

A company gets a contract to do the following: train a monkey to sit on a 10-foot pedestal and recite some passages of Shakespeare. After a week they announce they have made progress! They invite their investors to see what progress they have made! They unveil a curtain and there is... a 10-foot pedestal.

This story was in an article about how Google does moonshots-- that is, high-risk, high-reward, innovative work. The article is here. (How the Atlantic makes money when they have stuff online is a mystery to me. Perhaps they do in a very innovative way.)  The point is that its BAD to have tangible results (like the pedestal) that are not getting at the heart of the problem. So Google has various incentives to do the important stuff. Their slogan is MONKEY FIRST.

This also applies to our research.  The following sequence of events is common:

1) Prove some scattered results.

2) Pedastal or Monkey? You could write up what you have, polish it, write up some nice LaTeX macros to make the writing of the paper easier OR you could try to find the unifying principle that would be hard, and might not work, but if it works that would be, as the kids say, Jawesome (Jaw-dropping awesome). The sad answer is that which you do might depend on when the next conference deadline is.

More generally there is a tension between safe do-able research(Pedestal) and high-risk, high-reweard research (Monkey).  Is our incentive structure set up to encourage high-risk high-reward? The Tenure system is supposed to do it and it DOES in some cases, but not as much as it could since there are other factors (salary, promotion to full prof, grants).

Does the system encourage high-risk high-reward? Should it? Could we do better? What are your experiences? I have no answers (especially to the question of what are your experiences) so I welcome your comments.


  1. Is this connected to dumping your tables?

    1. If I ever become famous (perhaps through this blog!) the following could be an Exercise in some class (not sure what subject): Compare and contrast

      Dump your tables


      Monkey First

      I had not realized it when I wrote the post but YES they are related.

      Similarities: Both have to do with knowing when to STOP working on something and work on something else.

      Diff: Dump your tables is abanding a path that won't lead anywhere. Monkey First is abanding a path that almost surely will lead somehwere (the Pedastal) but is not worth much

      Diff: Monkey first is NOT my expression or idea- I am just popularizing it here. Dump your tables is mine and may well be the title of my biography if I ever get famous.

  2. You want your research to be read and known to the top people in the area. They are busy. If they conclude that there is little that one can learn from reading your papers, they will stop reading them.