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July 6, 2011 / BrianOFlan

Alphabetical Order vs. Chronological Words and Prefixes

Especially when it comes to naming computer files, it’s important to pick a name that will allow you to clearly tell which version is the latest:  “Flannery Family Taxes 2010.pdf” is a good name for the final copy but “Flannery Family Taxes 2010-d20110605.pdf” tells me exactly when I produced that version.  I will pay more attention to that one than “Flannery Family Taxes 2010-d20110415.pdf”.

Christa hates my habit of saving multiple versions of a file.  “Just keep the latest version.  Why keep all these in-between files?”

I try to explain how much work I have lost by making a change to an important document only to erase hours of work while saving it.  If I have a new file name every hour or every save, I can always find the second-latest version and minimize these kinds of “Select All, Delete, Save” disasters.

Notice the use of ISO 8601 dates to allow for easy sorting:  I can sort by modified date or created date but even if I sort by name, “20110605” sorts after “20110415”, as it should.

But there is no ISO 8601 equivalent for relative terms like “before” and “after”.  In fact, terms like these consistently sort in the wrong order:

  • “post-” sorts before “pre-“
  • “new” before “old” and “original” (“orig”)
  • “after” precedes “before”
  • “finish” precedes “start”

The only pairs I can conjure for correct sorting is “beginning” vs. “end” and “earlier” vs. “later”.  Try mixing up terms like using “before” or “backup” with “new” instead of “after”.  Pairing “old” with “post-” allows you to specify what changed in the file name:  “post-accountant_review” or “post-found_lost_paperwork”.  (“Post” is a near archaism, however:  It sounds like I’m referring to the mail.)

What a funny problem of our language.

Alternatives to relative terms:

  • Time-stamps, where we started.  But “d20110606” must wait until one day after “d20110605” unless you start adding time details:  “d20110605T1130” or “d20110605T113015” to include seconds (more than one change per minute?) — or “d20110605T1130Z” to clarify that thee timezone is UTC.
    • Note that ISO 8601 often uses dashes to separate parts of the date and colons to separate parts of the time.  Colons are no good for file names and dashes seem unnecessary characters as long as days and months use leading zeros (“20110605” instead of ambiguous “201165”).
  • Another workaround involves abandoning words and prefixes of relative chronology in favor of absolute versions:  “version1” vs. “version2” or “ver1” or “v1”.  If you are distinguishing more than just versions, perhaps “alternate2” or “alt2”:
    • Flannery Family Taxes 2010-d20110605-alt2.pdf” vs. “Flannery Family Taxes 2010-d20110605-alt1.pdf
  • But by the time you are arbitrarily enumerating alternate versions, why not just name what alternates:
    • Flannery Family Taxes 2010-d20110605-no_deductions.pdf” vs. “Flannery Family Taxes 2010-d20110605-donations_deducted.pdf

One Comment

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  1. BrianOFlan / Jul 21 2011 03:21

    “First”, “second” and “third” work in alphabetical order.

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