Monday, July 04, 2011


Happy 4th of July. It is a good thing to celebrate the birthday of the greatest nation in all of history. Not perfect, but the best we humans have done thus far.

I am working a bit today, mostly because we are going to be going away for a few days later this week and wanted to finish a particularly useful piece of code for the accounting report system. Along the way, I discovered a flaw in my design. These are always frustrating; especially when, as in this case, the design flaw touches on several aspects of the software and thus testing the fix is more time-consuming and tedious. But this design flaw was particularly frustrating, because there were signs of the problem that I overlooked. The most significant sign that I had a problem in my design was to be found in the names that I was using.

Briefly, the flaw was that I was only requiring that a single item be configured where I in fact needed two related items. As I went through my code making the change, I found that I had been confused all along, as I sometimes used one name when describing the configured item, while at other times I use another name. The two names accurately described the two items I needed, but I missed the hint until just today.

I mention this because this is one of those principles of programming that I have developed over my career: if I don't know what to name something, then I don't understand it. And if I don't understand it, I haven't fully investigated it. Normally, if I have trouble with a name, I back away from the code and attempt to clarify my understanding before I move forward. In this particular case, I let my (mistaken) belief that I knew what I needed obscure the hint that the naming issue was giving me.

I love this for another reason. The issue of naming is one of those things that touches on multiple disciplines. The centrality of naming is one of the reasons that I have confidence in the Genesis story - the God who made us understands that if we cannot name something, we don't understand it. So, one of His first tasks for man was to name the animals. It matters not to me whether you believe in the historicity of the Genesis account; it is difficult to deny the insight of the second chapter of Genesis in this matter.

This issue of naming touches in the political realm as well. One of the great powers of the media is that it often gets to name the forces within our society. The power of naming allows the namer to define the item named. It is why politicians look to name bills. The name of the bill becomes its meaning, even if they are not in fact the same thing. To name is to define and to control understanding.

Finally, I have found this principle true in my own life. Early in my adult life, I was struggling with some personal issues. I flailed away, trying to get a handle on what I was doing, until a friend gave me a name. In retrospect, the name was only partly accurate. But at the time, the name gave me something to address. In addressing the name, I found the ability to overcome the underlying issue and to move past a continuing area of struggle.

I recommend it as a life principle. If you do not understand what is happening in life, try to name it. The process of naming can often bring the understanding that has heretofore eluded you.

It also works if you write software...

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