We sometimes find poetry in the oddest places.
For the past ten years, I’ve mainly earned my living as a web software developer, and I’ve seen a lot of technology trends come and go. One trend I really miss has to do with the naming of pizza boxes. I’m not talking about actual pizza boxes, but about rack-mounted servers, high-powered network computers — they’re usually manufactured by Sun Microsystems, or sometimes Hewlett-Packard or IBM — that websites or technology departments run on.
You see, in the mid-90’s it was the standard custom for network administrators to think up “themes” for the names of the machines in their various networks. At J. P. Morgan bank, where I worked from 1992 to 1994, our middle office trading system boxes were named after American rivers: mississippi, wabash, missouri, columbia, ohio, hudson (all lower case, the Unix standard for machine names). The back-end database servers were fish — flounder, barracuda, swordfish, tuna — and the IT department workgroup servers were an oddly-chosen selection of famous comedians: martin, leno, wright, murphy, piscopo.
There are two main types of workers in a technology department: developers like myself who write programs and build applications, and system administrators who run networks or servers. I’ve always been glad to be a developer rather than a sys-admin, except that this means I’ve never gotten to name a network. I envy the sheer power of this privilege. It allows you to impose your tastes and beliefs, at least in one literal sense, on those around you. To copy a file, I would have to run:
scp brooklyn@piscopo:/usr/local/home/brooklyn/filename .
even though I didn’t particularly like Joe Piscopo. I wanted to go into the workgroup network, decommission piscopo and put up kinison, but I was not the admin and this was not my right.
Thinking up network names was an art, and there seemed to be a wisdom to it. For instance, I noticed at JP Morgan that the secure back-end machines in one network had difficult names like penobscot or pawshatucket, whereas the front-end machines were cherokee and hopi. It seemed like an arcane and metaphysical act was taking place in this bestowal of names, and I wanted to be a part of it.
In fact, I would sit on the subway and dream up machine names for my imaginary network. One day I’d be using british authors: woolf, wodehouse, doyle, lawrence, wells. The next it would be rock guitarists: kaukonen and anastasio on the back end, page and garcia up front, gilmour and townshend running the heavy apps. It would have made me very happy, if I could have ever created one of these networks. I wouldn’t even care what the network was used for. I just wanted to name the machines.
You probably think that’s all I have to say about the naming of pizza boxes, but actually there’s more. After I left J. P. Morgan, I worked for a few years at the online division of Time Warner, and it was there that I began an epic battle with my sys-admin over the naming of my machines.
I was managing the deployment of a new advertising network to deliver and track ads, which would go online with two machines and expand to four. I was on a tight deadline, and guess I had to bug Hans (the sys-admin in my department) a little too much to set up my machines, because when they arrived they were named moan and groan.
I didn’t like this (though I admired the deftness of his message) and in fact I suspected ulterior sources of hostility, because it happened that a couple of months earlier Hans had organized a department-wide pool tournament, which I proceeded to knock him out of in the first round. It was his tournament, and he didn’t seem too happy about this. I was pretty sure moan and groan was his way of getting me back.
I decided I wasn’t going to take this, so I wrote an email to our boss stating that my co-workers and I were about to embark on a very difficult project that was probably going to consume all our free time for the next three months, and that the least we could hope for was to not have to constantly look at the names moan and groan for the next three months.
Our boss replied with a one-sentence message to Hans: “change these machine names”.
Because I’m a bastard, I actually sent Hans a follow up email asking if he would please rename the boxes eightball and nineball.
He never responded, but the boxes arrived with new names: cornflakes and wheaties. I’m sure this was meant to be some kind of subtle insult, but I liked the names, and my co-workers did too. When it came time for us to add two machines, we asked Hans to name them frootloops and luckycharms, and he did, and we were friendly after that.
Then, a few years later, “theme” names for computer networks began to go out of style. This is probably due to the influence of humorless consulting firms that inspect network installations and force dull methodologies upon the poor admins. So now, instead of hoffman, deniro and streep, or dandelion, daisy and carnation, we get prod01, prod02, dev05, etc. etc.
You can’t find networks with good names anymore, and I’m really mad about this.
I began this story by talking about found poetry, and that’s where I’d like to end it. These server names were like poetry to me. They were simple words that carried tremendous aesthetic appeal, and they also carried both important concrete (functional) and abstract (personal) meaning. I find poetry in lots of places, but pizza box names were as good as found poetry ever got, for me.
Where have you ever found your own found poetry, if you have found any?