At the risk of sounding like I’m telling you to eat your vegetables, I’m going to zoom out one more step from the last post about units and talk even more generally about the importance of names. Whatever you think of Juliet’s famous answer, the reality is that if you want to get someone a rose, or even just to talk about a rose, you need to know what it’s called. Naming things is a very powerful human skill that allows us not only to better communicate our thoughts but to better form our thoughts in the first place.
Author (not actor) Robin Williams begins The Non-Designer’s Design Book with what she calls “The Joshua tree epiphany”:
Naming allows us to categorize information and to build up our understanding of the world, but that organization can only happen if we learn the names instead of glossing over them. For instance, consider these statements about three different trees:
If we do not make note of the tree names, the statements become so general that they lose almost all interesting meaning:
A person who does not bother noting the tree names will still find the names familiar, and he might build up a delusion that he knows something about them. Each new fact he encounters that might have solidified or expanded his knowledge instead just adds to the fog of vaguely familiar-sounding words cluttering his mind. Of course, we cannot categorize and retain everything we encounter, but to have any hope of being competent or successful engineers, we have to pay attention to names.
One of the most common frustrations for those of us providing tech support is customers not telling us what product they are having trouble with. Besides the basic problem of not communicating even the most fundamental aspect of what they are talking about, these customers quickly lose the good will of the person helping them: if someone can’t be bothered to name what they are talking about, what are the chances that they have hooked it up correctly and are using the correct protocol to talk to it?
I hope what I’m saying here is really obvious, yet it is at odds with some trends in education, where facts (as opposed to concepts) seem to get less and less respect. There is nothing really conceptual behind most names; you just have to learn them if you want to be effective, and that’s probably true in every field. I’m not saying everything must be memorized and that there is no room for cutting and pasting; by all means, copy and paste GP2Y0A21YK0F when writing a question about it, but you should still look at it so that if someone mentions the GP2Y0A02YK0F instead, you know you’re not talking about the same part.