The Power Of The Name

May 16, 2010

Walking home from an excellent dinner the other day the subject of the Name or True Name came up, a recurring idea in most fantasy literature; the idea that you have one True Name, pronounced just so, is both Yours and which has Power over you. It’s something that’s come up a lot in my thinking lately, as both a parent and as a sysadmin; part of my job, in both cases, is the granting of names.
As a parent, the Name is something you hammer into your kid, over and over again, all the time. Whether it’s good or bad or encouraging or get away from there or don’t touch that, you always start with the name, and then the rest; Maya well done, Maya don’t do this, Maya we’re proud of you, Maya stop. For sysadmins, in contrast, naming machines is an underappreciated responsibility; machines develop personalities if you’re not careful, idiosyncrasies built on a history of patch levels, shifting roles, legacy software, environmental conditions and the habits and discipline of their administrators. In that sense as with parenting the subject is a living, evolving Rorshach test, ultimately becoming those things it is shown, and the ways it is treated.
If you’ve got a small shop, it’s OK if machines get a little quirky; resources get repurposed, your air isn’t always cool and dry, power isn’t always clean and sometimes you’ve got to put long-retired, senescent old warhorses back on the front lines because it’s turned into that kind of war. But in a big installation that’s something you just can’t afford, and we put thousands of hours of planning effort into preventing machines from getting finicky; those machines are culled from the herd fast, because idiosyncratic machines are a sign of deep-seated systemic problems. And when those problems finally surface they’re inevitably going to be horrible.
The Flight Out
And to some extent, the Name is the seed of all that; a machine called HP-WWW-DEV-RH4-R5-S11-A simply isn’t going to be permitted to develop a personality; it’s going to get treated very differently than a repurposed workstation called “Snorklewhacker”. And it occurs to me just now that maybe that’s the deeper reason for the old myth that you should never rename a boat; not so much that you shouldn’t rename it as you shouldn’t dramatically change your behavior towards it, forcing the hardware to bend and stress in ways it’s never had to before.
So I’m increasingly finding myself feeling very cautious about the tone of voice I use with Maya, particularly when I’m trying to teach her her own name at the same time as I’m trying to teach her not to throw food on the floor or herself down the stairs. She needs to know her name; it’s my responsibility to make sure she does. But it’s a Name, it’s hers, and it’s not to be invoked lightly or something she should be taught to fear; parents don’t exactly have the luxury of a bare-metal reinstall or cheap upgrades, it turns out.