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Don't call me Ishmael

Choosing a name for your new PC

By Verity Stob, 22 Jun 2009


'No, you don't understand,' the White Knight said, looking a little vexed. 'That's what the name is called. The name really is "The Aged Aged Man."'

'Oh, do get on with it, you pedantic old weirdo,' snapped Alice crisply.

Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll (1871), revised Verity Stob (2009)

It started when we were all in the Pre and Pretzel (or more precisely huddled outside, for such is the fate these days of those foolish enough to befriend smokers) sitting out the Twitpocalypse over a few jars of Fullers' finest.

 A fox terrier wandered up, snuffling under the table for dropped fragments of hand-cooked, double-aged, triple-virgin Drunken-Goat-cheese-and-Andalucian-red-onion flavoured crisplet. (You will have inferred that the P and P is a gastro pub.)

I like fox terriers, so I foolishly put out my hand to stroke the beast. But before I could touch him, a haughty female voice rang out:

'Stephen? Stephen! Stop bothering those people and come here at once.'

Now, I don't really see the point of a male fox terrier not called 'Montmorency', so I admit I am biased. But surely no dog, from the noblest Great Dane to the rattiest little miniature, should be called 'Stephen'. Stephen is simply not a dog's name. To moniker a mutt thus is an act of nominal incaninity.

I intimated this to my drinking companions, but using smaller words.

'Good spot, Verity,' said Mike. '"Stephen" is definitely unsuitable for a dog. As is "Richard".'

'Although some first names do work fine,' observed Colin. '"Mike" is quite all right, for example. "Come here, Mike! Sit, Mike! Bad Mike!" It just rolls off the tongue. And as for "Verity", that is a perfectly beautiful name for a b-'

'"Colin" on the other hand, could never successfully be attached to a pooch,' I interrupted. Colin smiled complacently and prematurely. 'It's far too stately and stolid. No, "Colin" is definitely a tortoise's name. It invokes a typically chelonian view of life, myopically peering at a piece of lettuce for minutes on end before taking a slow motion bite, retreating into your shell with a wheeze whenever it is your round, and so on.'

After this the conversation really got off the ground. Following up on the discovery of the properties of 'Colin', Dave observed that 'Peter' was also an unsatisfactory name for dog (Dave's preferred adjective was 'crap'), but a great name for a budgie. Everybody else pointed out that 'Dave' was a crap name for a TV channel.

Somebody pointed out that Lord Cardigan's horse, on the occasion he led the Light Brigade charging to its doom, was named 'Ronald' (I googled this up afterwards, and found to my astonishment that it is perfectly true). We wondered if the course of British military history would have been different if the beast had been blessed with a proper, horsey name, like 'Desert Orchid' or 'Sanyo Music Centre'.

We began to work our way through all the names we could think of, seeing if we could detect trends. This was harder than you might suppose. Male middle class names were often hopeless (Phillip, William) but sometimes fine (Roger, Timmy). It was found that exotica such as 'Ambrose', 'Clovis', 'Maly' and 'Gretchen' were generally okay (I demurred on 'Gretchen' but was overruled) and the 'jocular pairings' name generation algorithm generally produced results that remained acceptable even after the supposed drollness wore off: 'Salt and Pepper', 'Paint and Stripper' and even 'Dolce and Vita'. If you want to find a good name for your dog, get two.

Then somebody pointed out that 'Mark' was a rotten name for a hound but a fine name for a file server, and I realised we were on the brink of creating a key resource, for which the Internet has been gasping ever since the first DNS server cranked up into life. I diligently kept notes of the conversation on soggy napkins and half-beermats, and the next day was able to distil the essence of our night's work into a few simple tenets, which I present below.

The 10 key rules for naming computers and stuff

Rule 1: (In the Python manner) Naaaaaaaaah hobbits!

Rule 2: An enlargement and clarification of rule 1. We mean not only no Frodo, no Bilbo, no Merry, no Pippin, no Marmadoc Brandybuck, nor Adalgrim Took, nor Lobelia (Bracegirdle) Sackville-Baggins; we also mean no Gandalf, no Gollum, no Preciousss, no Treebeard, no Sauron, no Glóin son of Gróin nor yet Glóin son of Thorin, even if your network does support mixed case, UTF-8 and spaces in its names. The ban also implies no Eöl, no Rohirrim, no Melkor, no Mordor, no Sindarin, no Eleventy-first birthdays and definitely, absolutely, certainly no Tom bloody Bombadil.

Curiously, however, 'Tolkein' is quite a good name for a server.

Rule 3: As with dogs and humans, so, mysteriously, with PCs and peripherals. 'Brian' is not really a PC's name, but is quite acceptable for printer or scanner, whereas 'Jonathan' is obviously a silly name for a Laserjet but is quite viable as a little LAMP intranet machine.

Rule 4: Don't be too cute. Specifically, don't borrow from fictional computers. It was done to death 20 years since. If you call the first octo-core 64-bit machine on the premises 'Hal9k' or 'DeepThort', you will a) hereafter experience a whiff of irritation every time you need to connect to it and b) advertise your lack of imagination to your colleagues.

Another example of excessive cuteness is the dodge of calling a file server 'Jeeves' or 'Bunter' (server nearly equals servant, geddit?). Sorry about that, guys.

Rule 5: In the absence of any other pointer, and frankly to my irritation, Windows PCs are boys, and possibly a bit common, whereas Macs are girls, and distinctly posh. A MacBook Air is much more likely to be a Felicity than a Wayne. Presumably this is because frilly-girly Macs are supposedly filled with sugar and spice and all things nice. Grrrr. So much for emancipation. To think Emmeline and Germaine died for this. Yes you do; they were the G4s we slung out the year before last.

Linux machines are a bit androgynous, and should be named in a non-committal manner, for example 'Hilary', 'Evelyn', 'Vivian' or 'Kim'.

Rule 6: It is quite tempting to adopt a domain as a source of names. In this context we mean domain not in the Windows domain sense, nor yet in the TCP/IP sense, but in the non-technical 'walk of life' sense. 

For example, you might name your principal machines for characters in the Addams family, and it works pretty well: 'Lurch', 'Thing', 'It'. You have an instant 'small office' domain. 

'First names popular in New Zealand' is a much larger affair, suitable for a whole medium-sized company network, and comes with a pleasing mixture of Scots and Maori: Angus, Gavin, Morag, Ngaire, Rongo. If your network cabling is that new type of Cat5 doubly-insulated against high levels of whimsy, you might consider using railway stations closed by Dr Beeching.

The fictional works of JRR Tolkein provide sufficient proper nouns for a larger domain yet but, as I think I may have mentioned in passing, the committee does not think this advisable.

Rule 7: Jim demanded the right to file a minority report against Rule 6. He is against the use of groups of names, having been traumatised by an experience in his teens. He was trying to gatecrash a party in a certain area of town. He knew that the flat number was 56b, but could only remember that the road name was 'something to do with flowers'. Setting off he supposed he could nail the precise location by asking passers-by.

Naturally enough - you are ahead of me here - when he arrived in the Estate near the Gas Works, he discovered that every single thoroughfare bore a floral name: Rosemary Walk led to Daffodil Hill, adjoining Poppy Lane and Lavender Avenue. It goes without saying, yet somehow salted Jim's wound as he crunched around over broken glass in futile pursuit of unlocatable fun, that the district had barely a blade of grass growing among its wee-stained concrete and burned-out cars, much less the burgeoning blossoms implied by the nomenclature.

I'm not quite sure how this parable applies to the company LAN, but I agreed to put it in rather than disappoint.

Rule 8: Some people like to name their machines thing like '001Aaaargh' in order to come first in a sorted list. This behaviour should be discouraged. We are not firms of cowboy plumbers, competing for first place in the Yellow Pages.

Rule 9: A lapse into a pico-gobbet of real, useful technical information here. (Cor, but I am good to you. I could have saved this up for Stack Overflow and likely got 100 bounty points and a silver medal.) Don't use an underscore in the name of a Windows machine. I think the wizard discourages this, and it is right. You might think it has worked, but DNS misery is the sure-fire sequel. You are listening to the voice of one who was sent out to doom on a demo in front of the customer with a machine named 'Something_Sim' by a supposedly friendly party.

Rule 10: A good name ages with the machine to which it is attached. For example, it all very well to call the brand new server 'Zeus' in honour of the all-powerful leader of the Greek gods, but a few years later mighty Zeus has become an overstretched single-core Pent III 500 with a massive 256MB of RAM, and the name is distinctly silly.

We find that naming machines for contemporary politicians works well. I can't tell you the pleasure we had in putting out our fat old Dell server, 'Prescott', for the recycling man to take away to render down to cattle feed, and I hope to secure an early upgrade for my prematurely obsolete netbook 'Blears'. Its running costs are much too high.

That, then, is the Pre and Pretzel drinking club's guide to PC naming, and I wish you joy of it. 

What's that you said Sooty? It's company policy that all your PCs are given names like 'nplqe5' and 'nlhy9b' as a matter of course, and therefore all the foregoing is irrelevant? Well, perhaps that is telling you something. If they can't be bothered to give their machines proper names, is it not possible that they think of you as a hash code too? ®

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