So, this week I’m going to talk about the titles I came up with for my 13-part blog series on my relationship to Perl that I did on my Other Blog. When you do a long series like that, you have a number of challenges: presenting the topic concisely, laying the groundwork for the following week, the simple grind of cranking out the next 1500 words. But there’s also the issue of coming up with titles. Naming things is hard. In my technogeek life, it’s probably the thing that we fight most about. In fact, there’s a famous quote we’re wont to trot out at times:
There are only two hard things in Computer Science: cache invalidation and naming things. —Phil Karlton
Sometimes you see people online wondering why this saying is famous: naming things is easy, they say. These are invariably young programmers who have never had to deal with users who can’t understand why a feature doesn’t (or can’t) work because they’re confused about what it is because it’s so poorly named. Or the pain of having to use a word in one sense when talking to sales (because they use the industry standard definition) and a different sense when talking to fellow techies (because they use the literal meaning) and an altogether different sense when talking to management, because they use a completely arbitrary defintion that they got from the guy before the guy before the guy before you, who was invariably a young programmer who didn’t understand that naming things is hard.
So, yeah: coming up with good names for things is hard. Coming up with consistent, good names for things is harder. Coming up with consistent, good names for things 13 weeks in a row is very difficult indeed, and so hopefully I can be forgiven for doing only a mediocre job of it.
The first two or three came to me fairly naturally, and they established the pattern: quotes, either direct or paraphrased, that referenced different cultural things. These might be songs, poems, television shows, movies, quotes by famous people, or whatever. Several of them were as easy as the first few; some of them were so hard that I almost spent longer searching for a good title than I did writing the post in the first damn place. Some of them are so obsure I don’t expect anyone else to know what the hell I’m on about; some were obscure enough that I didn’t know them myself until I Googled them for the purpose of the series.
Here’s the 13 titles I came up with, along with the hints I gave out last week. Honestly, some of the hints are fairly obscure as well, but I didn’t want to make it too easy.
- The Road So Far: a Winchester recap
- The Power of OOP: Johnny Colla would have done a mean sax solo
- A Møøse Once Bit My Sister: I apologize for the obscure references; those responsible have been sacked
- A Worthy Program, Exceedingly Well Read: also, profited in strange concealments ...
- Speaking with the Speech of Coders: a present from Vietnam
- Perl is Engineering and Art: what’s to learn? it’s a snake ..
- The Most Powerful Weapon Which You Can Use to Change the World: according to Tata, not Perl at all ...
- Endless Forms Most Beautiful and Most Wonderful: there was grandeur in his view of life from the Beagle
- That’s Why I Failed Recess: it was funnier when Rudy said it to Fat Albert
- What We Talk About When We Talk About DWIM: involving two couples and a bottle of gin
- Please Mr. Perl, Will You DWIM?: a plea to m’colleague Hugh
- The End of the Beginning: once described as “sounding more like the Primitives than the Primitives”
- Here’s to Future Days: why are they called “twins” if there’s three of them?
Now let’s look at which each one references, as well as discussing its relevance to the particular post it ended up tagging.
The Road So Far
This is what they put on the title card when they do a longer recap on the TV show Supernatural. The card looks like this, or maybe like this. The protagonists of the series are the Winchester brothers, thus this is “a Winchester recap.”
This was a fairly natural choice for the first post in the series, which told a highly abbreviated version of my programming life, from age 14 or so, up to the present. It’s a cool reference if you get it, but it still works well if you don’t.
I think a lot of people think of Supernatural as a teeny-bopper series, probably because it’s on the CW along with other teeny-bopper series like Gossip Girl, or The Vampire Diaries. Of course, I was watching Supernatural when it was on the WB ... which was the home of Charmed and Dawson’s Creek, so I suppose I’m not digging myself out of that hole very well. I dunno; I suppose it is a teeny-bopper series in many ways, and it’s probably gone on far beyond when they should have called it quits, but I still enjoy it. Call it a guilty pleasure. Besides, every now and again Felicia Day shows up, and that just makes it all worthwhile.
The Power of OOP
My second post in the series was about object-oriented programming, or “OOP” for short, and what makes it so useful. So it seemed natural to harken back to Huey Lewis & the News’ classic 80’s song, “The Power of Love”. The hint refers to the great sax player of the News, Johnny Colla (who was also a co-writer of “The Power of Love,” as it happens).
I’m not actually a huge fan of “The Power of Love,” nor its companion piece “Back in Time,” both off the Back to the Future soundtrack. As far as I’m concerned Lewis & the News peaked with Sports, and it’s all downhill from there. By the time Huey was declaring that it was “Hip to be Square,” I was embarrassed to admit that I’d ever seen them live. (But I did, with Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble opening, and it was a great show, I gotta tell ya.)
A Møøse Once Bit My Sister
No self-respecting programmer should have missed this one, which is of course is a reference to the ultra-classic Monty Python and the Holy Grail. As you probably know, all the credits of the film are at the begining, and the Pythons couldn’t let it get too boring, so they peppered it with lots of moose references (for whatever reason). The title is a direct quote from the credits, and the hint is a paraphrased version of a later credits quote.
For a post extolling the virtues of Moose, but also lamenting a few of its warts, there was no way I could pass up this title.
A Worthy Program, Exceedingly Well Read
This is one of the ones I spent a lot of time trying to find a good reference for. The post was about legibility: the idea that a good program should be able to be read like a good story. After several fruitless Googles, the phrase “well-read” popped into my head. I wondered what the origin of that phrase was. Of course, if you’re a native English speaker and you spend any time at all poking at the origins of common phrases, you know what the answer is 80-90% of the time: Shakespeare did it.
As it is here. I paraphrased the relevant bit for the title, and I used the surrounding context for the hint. Here’s the full text, from Henry IV, Part 1:
In faith, he is a worthy gentleman,
Exceedingly well read, and profited
In strange concealments, valiant as a lion
And as wondrous affable and as bountiful
As mines of India.
This is Mortimer speaking about Glyndwr, whoever that is. I never read Henry IV, personally. Still a good quote though.
Speaking with the Speech of Coders
Every once in a while we Americans wake up out of our egocentricity and remember that not all our blog post readers share our Western heritage. By this point in my blog series, I felt it was time to pick a reference from the other side of the world. I spent some digging through the Tao Te Ching, which is normally my go-to source for pithy quotes from the Orient. I poked around The Art of War and Hagakure, both of which I also like, but they weren’t very helpful for this post, which was about linguistics. I think I even explored the Analects briefly, but I lean much more towards Taoism than Confucianism, as you might imagine of one so obsessed by balance and paradox.
Then suddenly, after long and futile searching, it hit me: I already had a great source which would be perfect for this. “The Red Cockatoo” is a short poem by Chinese poet Po Chu-i (also romanized as Bai Juyi), who lived in the Tang Dynasty and is very popular in both China and Japan (at least according to his Wikipedia page). There are several different translations, but I prefer the one by Arthur Waley, the great British sinologist who gave us excellent translations of both the Tao Te Ching and the Analects. Here it is in its entirety:
Sent as a present from Annam
A red cockatoo.
Coloured like the peach-tree blossom,
Speaking with the speech of men.
And they did to it what is always done
To the learned and eloquent.
They took a cage with stout bars
And shut it up inside.
Beautiful, and piquant. The hint refers to the fact that “Annam” is an ancient Chinese name for Vietnam (or part of what is modern Vietnam).
Perl is Engineering and Art
This one was obvious to anyone who read this particular post, which spent a good deal of time analyzing a sidebar from the O’Reilly book Learning Python entitled “Python is Engineering, Not Art.” I almost didn’t use this title, actually, as it’s so much more obvious than all the rest. But then I decided that this title was just too good to pass up. The hint is obvious as well, or at least is so in hindsight.
Fun side note: the animal on the cover of Learning Python is a rat. Write your own joke here.
The Most Powerful Weapon Which You Can Use to Change the World
Another tough one to title. This post covered several different subtopics that didn’t really fit anywhere else, so there wasn’t a great choice for a title anyway. One of the topics I covered was my school experience with programming, so I started looking for quotes on education and ran across this one by Nelson Mandela:
Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.
There’s a bit of contention on whether he actually said this or not (and whether he used the word “which” in it if he did), but overall it seemed solid enough.
The hint refers to one of Mandela’s nicknames: “Tata” means “father” in Xhosa. His other nickname is “Madiba,” but some have argued that it’s inappropriate for non-South-Africans to use that one.
Endless Forms Most Beautiful and Most Wonderful
This one was a little easier. The post was about evolution, so it made sense to peruse the words of Charles Darwin, who was not only a very influential scientist, but also an eloquent writer. The full quote is:
There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.
This is from the conclusion of Darwin’s seminal On the Origin of Species, and is in fact the only time Darwin ever uses the word “evolve,” in the first edition. (And, in the second, he added the phrase “by the Creator” to make it clear what he was talking about.)
The hint, of course, is a bit of the quote above, combined with a reference to the famous ship that Darwin sailed on, HMS Beagle.
That’s Why I Failed Recess
The ninth post in my series was about Getting Shit Done, and, when I was trying to think of a title for it, I kept remembering a joke from my childhood. As the hint suggests, I’m pretty sure the first time I heard it was on Fat Albert. It might have been Rudy who said it, or then again it might have been Russell—he was always a smartass. Then again, we’re talking about 40-odd years ago, so I might be misremembering altogether and it was never in Fat Albert at all.
Anyways, here’s how I remember the joke:
A: I don’t play. That’s why I had to quit school in the third grade.
B: Whaddaya mean?
A: ‘Cause the teacher said “recess,” and I said “no, I don’t play.”
There are countless variations of this joke, including the more concise version I used for my title, used in the common venacular, multiple rap songs, blog posts by other people, Facebook user names, tweets, and Internet memes. In fact, this is a meme from before we knew what memes were.
Plus it’s really funny.
What We Talk About When We Talk About DWIM
Along about Part 10 I wrote a post that was so damn long I had to break it into two pieces. Originally the title of this post and the following one were going to be switched, so that the title of this one could be a callback to the mention of “m’colleague” which I had dropped into the text. (Instead, I ended up using that for the hint for Part 11.) But eventually I made the switch to the titles that we have now because it just made better sense: this post was a fairly long digression in the form of a story from my college days, and this title fit that perfectly.
The title, of course, is a paraphrase of the title of a famous short story by Raymond Carver, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” as well as the book which contains it. In the story, two couples talk about everything but love over a bottle of gin (thus the hint), but really love is all they’re talking about. You see the parallel in my post.
Really, though, I’m not a huge Carver fan. The best thing about “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” is probably the title. “Cathedral” is better.
Please Mr. Perl, Will You DWIM?
If you are a connoisseur of Britsh comedy, the television series at the very top of your must-see list is of course Monty Python’s Flying Circus. After that, it should be The Young Ones and Blackadder, although we might quibble over which one should come first. Next on your list, before Fawlty Towers, before Red Dwarf, and, yes, even before AbFab, should be A Bit of Fry & Laurie. If you think of Hugh Laurie simply as House, or (even worse) as the insipid father of Stuart Little, you really don’t know Hugh Laurie (in fact, you may not even realize he’s British). Likewise, if all you know of Stephen Fry is his voice—he’s the Cheshire Cat in the Tim Burton version of Alice in Wonderland, the narrator of Little Big Planet, and a prolific audiobook narrator, including the UK version of the Harry Potter books and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy—you’re missing out.
A Bit of Fry & Laurie is at once similar to Monty Python and also removed from it. There’s still a certain amount of the surrealism (perhaps a bit less), but very little of the physical comedy such as the Ministry of Silly Walks or the Gumbys. Most of it was like taking the best verbal humour of the Pythons (such as the Argument Clinic, or my all-time favorite, the penguin on top of your television set) and cranking it up to 11. Stephen Fry would often do the heavy lifting in such sketches—playing the Groucho, or the Abbot, role—but Hugh Laurie had many talents other than just being an outstanding straight man. One of which is an amazing range of musical ability: he plays guitar, drums, harmonica, sax, and, of course, piano. At the end of every show, Fry would turn to Laurie (who he often referred to as “m’colleague”) and say: “Please Mr. Music, will you play?” To which Laurie would respond by playing the piano in a loungy sort of way, usually while Fry mixed ridiculously named cocktails such as the Swinging Ballsack. Occasionally he would elaborate the phrase to enhanced levels of flowery silliness; my favorite of these was:
I say, as I like to on these occasions, those six refreshing words that unlock the door to sophisticated evening happiness. I say: Please Mr. Music, will you play?
If you’ve not yet had the pleasure, I highly recommend it.
The End of the Beginning
Here at Part 12 I finally decided to start wrapping things up. However, I knew it would take me (at least) two posts to conclude satisfactorily, so I needed a title to reflect that. “The End of the Beginning” is (appropriately) the final track on the sophmore album of the Darling Buds, Crawdaddy. Although Crawdaddy came out in 1990, it definitely has that late 80’s sound, including a remarkable similarity to the Primitives, particularly their first two albums Lovely (‘88) and Pure (‘89). Although technically speaking the Primitives were English while the Darling Buds were Welsh. But to us stupid Americans that subtle distinction is lost.
Although it was a Brit who made the comparison I reference in the hint: specifically, Dave Kendall, creator of MTV’s 120 Minutes. He made the clever observation in his review of Crawdaddy, and I couldn’t help but agree, even though I probably like the Darling Buds a bit more than the Primitives. But it’s a close thing.
The first track on Crawdaddy, “It Makes No Difference,” has one of the coolest hooks of the 80’s. Too bad you’ve never heard it.
On the other hand, if you want to hear this track, YouTube is your friend.
Here’s to Future Days
And finally we reached the end, and I decided to touch on my thoughts about Perl’s future. The title for this one took absolutely no thinking or searching at all. While there can be no doubt that Into the Gap is the pinnacle of the Thompson Twins’ career, Here’s to Future Days is also a great album, the last of the good TT records before they transmogrified into Babble (whose debut was better than the last three efforts from the Twins put together ... not that that’s saying much).
Here’s to Future Days was also (probably not coincidentally) their last album as a threesome: it may not have seemed like Joe Leeway was adding much other than standing around looking cool (much as Andrew Ridgely did for Wham!), but apparently that was an illusion, because they sure sucked without him. Definitely most people think of the Thompson Twins as a trio, and wonder what’s up with calling themselves “twins.”
But of course the truth is the name has nothing to do with the number of band members. The first (little known) TT album was recorded with four members, and the second featured a whopping seven, before they trimmed it down to the famous three, who would go on to produce the Twins’ three great albums: Quick Step & Side Kick (known simply as Side Kicks in the US), Into the Gap, and Here’s to Future Days. Nope, the name was simply a reference to Thomson and Thompson, the detectives from The Adventures of Tintin who only look like twins.
“Future Days” is the track on this album that contains the lyrics “Here’s to future days / Here’s to future ways,” which is what I hear in my head whenever I read this title. If you’d like to have it stuck in your head as well, YouTube can arrange that for you.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, I spent quite a bit of time mentally wrestling with a title for this post itself. Should it be some sort of self-referential thing, being that it would be the title of a post about titling posts? Should it somehow proclaim to the world that it was a meta-title? Should it be a quote about naming things, or about clever wordplay?
In the end, I decided to make it a shout out to one of my favorite book-gifts as a child. I got my fair share of fiction, certainly, but my family also recognized that an aspiring writer must have a love of language, so I got a fair number of dictionaries, thesauri, etc.
I was eleven years old on Christmas in 1977, the year that my grandfather presented me with the Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins, which had been published for the first time that very year (although much of it was derived from the earlier version, which was similarly titled but without the “Morris”). It’s a “dictionary” only in the sense that the entries in it are alphabetized. Lovingly crafted by husband and wife William and Mary Morris, it’s not so much a reference work (although it can be used as such) as it is a mishmash of fascinating tales of how English expressions came to be; I was fond of just opening it to a random page and reading whatever I found there. I was rarely disappointed.
The Morris’ youngest son Evan carries on the family tradition on the web, writing as the Word Detective. On his “about” page, he quotes fellow etymologist John Ciardi:
The more words I traced back through time for our readers, the more I appreciated Ciardi’s observation that each word, no matter how humble, was “a miniature fossilized poem written by the human race.”
And that’s what this exercise in naming was like: a verbal archaeology expedition, a paleontologist finding words trapped in amber. My love for this sort of thing is certainly directly traceable back to the Morris dictionary, and the many hours I spent perusing how words and meanings become bent and reshaped to suit new ends across the generations. Yeah, I was a weird kid.
So, this week’s installment, while longer than I’d anticipated (and probably longer than you’d hoped), at least may provide some insight into how these titles get here and where they come from, and why I tend to obsess over them more than is probably healthy. Next week I probably won’t be so garrulous, most likely because I’ll be busy catching up on all the things I didn’t do this weekend because I spent too much time on this blog post. But it’s been fun. For me, anyway. For you ... well, didn’t anyone tell you not to read this blog?