On Names

I read this delightful children’s book called “Lauren Ipsum” by Carlos Bueno and Ytaelena López about a girl named Lauren who journeys through Userland trying to find her way back home. It utilizes Computer Science topics weaved into Lauren’s story. One of the delightful characters she meets is Eponymous Bach, a woman who composes ideas and puts her name on them. “Eponymous” is an actual word that means giving a name to things. For a name to be eponymous, it must use someone’s name behind the thing or idea. The Eponymous Bach character made me think about the power of names.

You can go on Wikipedia and find an article about Eponymous laws. These are laws named after people, like Moore’s law, the observation that the complexity of integrated circuits doubles every 2 years, or my personal favorite, Murphy’s law, which states anything that can go wrong will go wrong. To fall into the Wikipedia trap, you can search for Eponym to find a whole list of other eponymous things.

Names allow us to put into words complex ideas. I’ve been coding on a daily basis for a little over a year now, and I’ve started to recognize design anti-patterns, or the ways not to design a piece of code. For example, when a piece of code becomes too long to do what you thought was a simple task, we call that a “code smell”. Typically, if that occurs, you scrap that piece of code and start over because the resulting code become hard to maintain in the future.

Another anti-pattern, called the “Big Ball of Mud”, is when a software project is strung together with little or no architecture. This results in code that is sloppy, duct-taped, and difficult to maintain. This is common when there are poor business practices, huge developer turnover, and code entropy. A friend who works at a large, public company told me the engineers who initially wrote the code for their product took many shortcuts to meet release dates, which was in conjunction with their IPO. After becoming public, many of these engineers sold their stock and left the company, leaving code that was hard to maintain and close to being useless. The result is a system that may be prone to errors and difficult to scale up and add more features.

Giving names to ideas makes those ideas more comprehensible and cohesive or “sticky”. For example, my roommate uses the horoscope as a heuristic to quickly judge someone’s character. The horoscope provides a quick framework for personality types. It plays off the elements, earth, wind, fire and water, and uses it to describe behavior and traits. For example, Capricorns, who are Earth signs, are more grounded and set in their ways. She will use that to categorize the Capricorns she meets. Of course, we may not really fall into these buckets or groups, and my roommate takes this with a grain of salt, but it’s just a guide to aid with understanding personality. The same goes for the different Myer-Brigg’s types.

Names act as a heuristic, or shortcuts, for our brains. As an example, if we know people with the same name, in my case, I know a few people with the name Michael, Nick, and Chris, I’ll give each one a nickname. And my friends will typically give me a nickname back. In fact, the name of this newsletter is the “Jear-Bear Letters” because some fine folk over the past summer started calling me “Jer-Bear”.

In olden times, names would include titles. Alexander the Great, Pliney the Elder, Joan of Arc. These would help with passing down stories through oral tradition. Saying Alexander doesn’t have the same ring as Alexander the Great. If you’re going to tell someone a story by word of mouth, their more likely to remember it if you put a descriptor title to it. If you’ve read Lord of the Rings, or A Song of Ice and Fire (the book series for the TV Show, Game of Thrones), you will recognize your character immediately given the character’s title.

Sometimes, in fantasy tales, names have a literal power. For example, in “The Name of the Wind”, by Patrick Rothfuss, you can summon the wind by bellowing its name. In the Harry Potter series, Lord Voldemort is the household name everyone fears to the point where not many will utter his name. The words we use to call each other or ideas have a profound effect. When you become a household name, people will stick your name to your face, your brand, and your life’s work. Take Madonna for example. When you bring her up in conversation, we are ignited with thoughts about Material Girl, Evita, or that recent song “4 Minutes” whom she has a duet with Justin Timberlake.

When you can put a name to an acronym, you make it into a mnemonic acronyms in which you can use to your advantage in everyday work. For example, I’ve been designing websites, and I use Robin Williams’ graphic design principles in her book, “The Non-Designer’s Design Book”, known as “CRAP” (Contrast, Repetition, Alignment, and Proximity). When I’m coding, I use the SOLID principles for good practices in object-oriented design.

Next time you start learning something new, learn the concepts by associating them with names. If they don’t have names, give them one. If you don’t have a name, give yourself one.