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Names That Break Computers (bbc.com) 372

Reader Thelasko writes: The BBC has a story about people with names that break computer databases. "When Jennifer Null tries to buy a plane ticket, she gets an error message on most websites. The site will say she has left the surname field blank and ask her to try again." Thelasko compares it to the XKCD comic about Bobby Tables, though it's a real problem that's also been experienced by a Hawaiian woman named Janice Keihanaikukauakahihulihe'ekahaunaele, whose last name exceeds the 36-character limit on state ID cards. And in 2010, programmer John Graham-Cumming complained about web sites (including Yahoo) which refused to accept hyphenated last names. Programmer Patrick McKenzie pointed the BBC to a 2011 W3C post highlighting the key issues with names, along with his own list of common mistaken assumptions. "They don't necessarily test for the edge cases," McKenzie says, noting that even when filing his own income taxes in Japan, his last name exceeds the number of characters allowed.
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Names That Break Computers

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  • by fuzzyfuzzyfungus ( 1223518 ) on Saturday March 26, 2016 @05:13PM (#51783513) Journal
    Users with unacceptably deviant names will be assigned GUIDs for standardized interaction with all systems. Thank you for your compliance with this exciting and mandatory efficiency initiative.
    • All users will be assigned Social Security Numbers for standardized interaction with all systems. Thank you for your compliance with this exciting and mandatory efficiency initiative.

      FTFY - That "problem" got fixed in 1987 when the IRS required Social Security Numbers to claim children dependents on tax returns. Your tax dollars at work.

      http://www.snopes.com/business/taxes/dependents.asp [snopes.com]

    • by kesuki ( 321456 )

      Wrong, as with cod labeling all units will be assigned automatic, random, barcodes which are inked into their skin, resistance is futile death will be assigned to all non compliant software, including those with grandfathered unique names and social security numbers.

    • by AmiMoJo ( 196126 )

      Seems like there should be libraries for handling names by now. Most popular languages have libraries for handling time, URLs, regexs, Unicode screw-ups, sanitizing input etc.

      • by AmiMoJo ( 196126 )

        Actually, thinking about it this might be a problem that we can't solve today. For example, some people's names can't be written in Unicode, and even when Unicode does have the necessary characters there is no way to correctly render them for all Chinese, Japanese and Korean people. You have to pick one of the three renderings and Unicode gives you no hint which one.

        So the first step is to fix Unicode, which is kind of a massive undertaking.

        • In related news, I once had a data download blow because someone was named Nuñez. The original mainframe system had fixed-length fields (as mainframe data often does). However, the original green-screen monitors had been replaced with Windows terminal emulators and someone had entered the actual n-tilde character that would have been impossible on the IBM 3270 US keyboard. So now we have a code that maps from ñ to n~ as it's converted from EBCDIC to ASCII, expanding the length of the field and the

      • Re:Updated Policy: (Score:5, Informative)

        by Anonymous Coward on Saturday March 26, 2016 @07:22PM (#51784165)

        They do exist they are called string parsers.

        The real issue is that practically *any* integer could be a valid text character in any given input because of the number of codepages that exist. Then you have to take the trouble of identifying the specific codepage used by the input to know what can be safely excluded. Then you need to deal with non-printable control characters. Which amounts to reading bytecode from the input to make a decision on how to or what to interpret / print as a character. (Example UTF-8: First byte of any character is the number of bytes that compose that character (expressed in bits, and terminated by a zero bit.), unless it's one byte in which case the first bit is zero and the remaining 7 bits are the character data. Misinterpret a bit or get misaligned, and you start interpreting garbage.) Etc.

        Add all of this complexity to a short time span to develop libraries, (i.e. it needs to be done three days ago), and minimal budget, ("What do you mean we need to support diacritics? No we're not spending that money to add support for it. Ship the damn thing without it, if they want it they can pay for an upgrade.") and you can see why these problems exist. Mostly it's the idea that the support isn't needed for everyone so they can get away with not implementing it and blame any issues that crop up on the end user / some bug / a bad connection / etc.

        Sadly TFA is yet another call to attention for this issue, that ultimately will not be addressed unless it gets "fixed" by an unrelated upgrade / patch being rolled out that just so happens to fix these kind of issues, in addition to whatever the real purpose of the upgrade / patch was.

        PS: Read the summary, if "NULL" is considered a valid error result from a string parser, then that parser needs to be rewritten to support proper error codes. Practically anything could be valid input and returning the error status as part of the damn output string is ASKING for trouble. Why? Because then you need a parser to check the error status, so the original parser just made more work for the caller, and guess what? Something tells me the caller didn't check for the EXACT error string correctly, and thus interpreted "Null" as "NULL". Hence the error given to the user.

  • by angel'o'sphere ( 80593 ) on Saturday March 26, 2016 @05:15PM (#51783521) Journal

    http://www.kalzumeus.com/2010/... [kalzumeus.com]

    Nothing to say, read it.

    There is similar stuff about Dates, Time, Time Zones etc. on the internet. I should make a collection of it.

    But I can't figure how to write into my /. journal nor how to use the old /. bookmark feature.

  • I was working the help desk at Intuit when a beautiful Indian woman employee required assistance with her laptop. Her last name was 26 characters long and ended with the word "porn". No one could pronounce her last name beyond the first few syllables. My coworkers and I referred to her as "Miss Porn" while repairing her laptop. Behind her back, of course.
    • A user account feature of a company I worked for tried to censor names. Any name with any censored word buried in it got turned away. Mr. Brass and Mrs. Lassiter, we never got to serve them.

      • Mr. Brass and Mrs. Lassiter, we never got to serve them.

        I had a Chinese-American teacher called Mr. Fuch. The other teachers had a hard time trying not to mispronounce his last name. They all fucked it up.

      • by samkass ( 174571 )

        I have this problem sometimes. My kids have my last name, Kass, and several of the new interactive things at Disney World a few years ago refused to accept their names, or later refused to accept my email address as a place to email their creations.

    • Was more likely a Thai lady than an Indian.
      "Pon" or "Porn" is a common last syllable in Thai, for given names as well as family names.

      Perhaps she was Indian by birth but Thai by ancestry?

      • Perhaps she was Indian by birth but Thai by ancestry?

        Not sure how she came about the last name. Intuit had her stuffed into a small conference with 30 other Indians. They're all talking to each other while working on their laptops, which help desk couldn't fix because they were personal laptops. Their boss was a big guy in the center of the room who talked over them on a conference call. Weirdest scene I've ever seen in Corporate America. That was in 2004 or so.

  • by jader3rd ( 2222716 ) on Saturday March 26, 2016 @05:18PM (#51783533)
    Just pick one already.
    • by wisnoskij ( 1206448 ) on Saturday March 26, 2016 @05:26PM (#51783581) Homepage

      More to the point, care about the future. Do you really want your children's children to be called Robert Smith-Schmidt-Maier-Kilgore? Not picking a single last name is just a huge FU to all future generations.

      • by JustOK ( 667959 ) on Saturday March 26, 2016 @05:35PM (#51783631) Journal
        They dealt with that during the Name2K crisis
        • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

          by Anonymous Coward


          Our staff has completed the 18 months of work on time and on budget. We have gone through every line of code in every program in every system. We have analyzed all databases, all data files, including backups and historic archives, and modified all data to reflect the change.

          We are proud to report that we have completed the "Y-to-K" date change mission, and have now implemented all changes to all programs and all data to reflect your new standards:

          Januark, Februark, March, April, Mak, Ju

      • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

        by Anonymous Coward


        I trust you understand that hyphenated last names in English have a definite form.
        For example, Dr. Martin Lloyd-Jones used both his mother's and his father's last names in a hyphenated form.
        When children come about, one of the names, usually the mother's last name, is dropped.
        So Dr. Lloyd-Jones child would be come Robert Jones.
        Now Robert Jones may want his mother's name and become Robert Smythe-Jones.
        Only in America would the atrocity of a multiply hyphenated name stand a chance of occurring since

      • Here the parents are allowed to give their kids hyphenated last names, but once they reach 18,they can use one or the other, or continue using both. The next generation, in the case where both parents have hyphenated names, can use either parents hyphenated name, but not both. They can also use one name for the kid, no hyphen. No way are we going to put up with that crazy crap of names growing crazily long like the Queen or other royalty. Sounds good much like a fancy show dog.
        • I like the system described in, if I remember correctly, the Arthur C. Clarke novel, The Songs of Distant Earth [wikipedia.org] whereby a husband and wife kept their respective last names until their first child was born. If the child was a boy, they all took the husband's last name; if it was a girl, they all took the mother's last name.
    • by swb ( 14022 )

      Must have been what turned Leopold Ritter von Sacher-Masoch. He refused to accept having his name truncated and kept entering it despite the abuse he took.

    • by PPH ( 736903 )

      I'm sure at one point this was discussed by Mr Cowboy and Ms Neal.

    • by Sigma 7 ( 266129 )

      Hyphenated names are a good way to merge families rather than demanding that the family lineage must go through the father and/or mother. If anything, it's progressive.

      For example, Mr. Johnson marries Miss Johnson, and decide to go for the classic hypenated name of Johnson-Johnson.

      Later, Mr. Johnson-Johnson meets Miss Johnson-Johnson, creating the new Johnson-Johnson-Johnson-Johnson family.

      • And the blended family of Mr. Master and Mrs. Bates. Pity poor Johnny Master-Bates. Think of the children!
        • My daughter had some social issues with a class mate when she was in the 4th grade. We told her don't worry about it, in high school she'll get whats coming in the form of karma. The other girls name? Jenny Swallows.

          Here we are 6 years later, and yes, Jenny does have quite a lot to deal with at school....

    • As someone who did account renames for a couple of years, I don't think this guy was joking.
      Hyphenated names are the worst, just comes off as some pretentious bullshit from someone who thinks they are hanging on to some heritage prestigious names. That shit is long gone, that era is gone, the people who had hyphenated names, 80 to 200 years ago? They probably came from a very wealthy family and were holding on to some kind of name that's been around for 1000 years, but nowadays? I can't help but feel it's

      • Everyone i know of with hyphenated names ended up getting married after some professional career where the name had some value. One is a lawyer who had her own practice for 10 years before getting married. The other is a real estate agent who spent a ton marketing her name before getting married. The latter almost decided not to marry because of the issue.

        • The other is a real estate agent who spent a ton marketing her name before getting married. The latter almost decided not to marry because of the issue.

          That's about the silliest thing I think I've ever heard. It's not like (a) you have to take a new name when you marry or (b) you can't take it but use your old name as a professional alias.

    • by Megane ( 129182 )

      Not very well know fiction relating to this: The Man Whose Name Wouldn't Fit: Or, The Case of Cartwright-Chickering

      One-line synopsis: Arthur Duane Cartwright-Chickering, is fired from his job because the new computer that processes employee files cannot handle his long name.

      I have a copy of it somewhere, under stuff. I'd read it if I knew where it was right now.

  • Aw, come on ... (Score:4, Informative)

    by Alain Williams ( 2972 ) <addw@phcomp.co.uk> on Saturday March 26, 2016 @05:21PM (#51783545) Homepage

    Her name in a (web) form would be put into a database field as a string ... the word NULL is a keyword, not a string "NULL". I am not saying that this did not happen, I just find it hard to see how a string and a database keyword could possibly be confused ?

    It would be: INSERT INTO Customer (Surname) VALUES ("NULL")

    not:: INSERT INTO Customer (Surname) VALUES (NULL)

    • There's some app-tier logic that tends to fuck this up. I myself had to deal with it.

      In my case, I had written a set of webservices that took in parameters as POST form variables, and updated records accordingly. Parameters that were not sent were not modified. POST form variables are string-only, so I had originally planned for the empty string ("") to be the value indicating "set this field to null", but that caused problems for the web-tier developer, so (under mild protest) I made it so the string "null

    • INSERT INTO Customer (Surname) VALUES ("NULL")

      Actually, I would hope that particular line would be more along the lines of

      INSERT INTO Customer (Surname) VALUES (?)

    • You execute the code, parse the output and assume any field with the value "null" is null.

  • Teh (Score:5, Funny)

    by MichaelSmith ( 789609 ) on Saturday March 26, 2016 @05:21PM (#51783549) Homepage Journal

    An asian co-worker of mine who's family name is Teh has found that his name is almost impossible to type in tools like microsoft word, which auto correct Teh to The.

    • Not being able to type it in Word is just not knowing how to use Word. The Autocorrect options are very adjustable. Add the word to the dictionary and be done with it.

      Now as for every other piece of damn software out there such as Windows 10's built in autocorrect which affects all apps, that's not so easy.

    • Early Microsoft Word spellcheckers almost always converted Clinton into Klingon (the word, not the language).
    • An asian co-worker of mine who's family name is Teh has found that his name is almost impossible to type in tools like microsoft word, which auto correct Teh to The.

      Failure to pay attention to "auto-correct" is a user error. Also, please not that with Word (and other word processors) this issue is handled by adding the word to your dictionary.

      This is *NOT* exclusively a Microsoft Word issue, but thanks for your Micro$loth prattle.

    • An asian co-worker of mine who's family name is Teh has found that his name is almost impossible to type in tools like microsoft word, which auto correct Teh to The.

      In other words, your friend was just one google answer away from finding out how to add his name to a custom dictionary in Word.

      • Yeah he knows how to do that but all the other people typing his name (like at the power utility for example) have to learn it just for him.

    • Oh dog! sometimes autocorrect is teh ducking worst :(

  • My uncle experienced this problem with our last name: Blank. When filling out a form it returned with an error: Last name cannot be left blank. This is still a running joke in our family. Never experienced it myself.
  • by jeffasselin ( 566598 ) <<moc.liamg> <ta> <ednilocamroc>> on Saturday March 26, 2016 @05:42PM (#51783669) Journal

    I've had issues a few times with filters on names rejecting mine for supposedly referring to a body part...

    • I heard a story from a college friend of mine about someone in his family, his dad I think, getting in some trouble while drinking with some Army buddies. So these three friends go out and have a few too many and are picked up by the local police for public intoxication or something similar. The cop asked for their names. They replied in turn, Dicks, Cox, and Bahl (pronounced like "ball"). The cop thought they were trying to be funny. They were hauled off to the station and were only released after the First Sergeant showed up to verify their names.

    • by rgmoore ( 133276 )

      This is a common enough event that it has a name: The Scunthorpe Problem [wikipedia.org]. Naive spam blockers are a pox on the internet.

  • I could never create his account (last name as ID). It took me some time to realize the parser was picking up on the keyword long. It was decades ago, so I expected things like that were fixed.
  • Iceland does not allow babies to be named [wikipedia.org] in a way that does not conjugate correctly in Icelandic for all the case endings. And when the new story broke it caused much mirth and amusement among the "land of the free" who bragged about their freedom to be named Lakshumanan Satyavakeeswaran or Venkatachalapathy Ramanujadasan Seshadrinadhan Kodandaraman Aiyengar. Now, who is laughing?

    It is high time the government refuses to register any name that is not Unicode compliant, within so many bytes with some res

    • Unicode? Fuck no. Latin characters abcdefghijklmnopqrstuvwxyz. No spaces, no apostrophes, no arbitrary puncutation marks, and no fucking emojis, non-fucking emojis, or any emojis at all.
      • by Teun ( 17872 )
        Since 1968 ASCII all the way!
        If a redneck can't read it must be un-American

        You honour you're nick :)
  • Ridiculous Premise (Score:4, Insightful)

    by BoFo ( 518917 ) on Saturday March 26, 2016 @05:55PM (#51783723)
    Data cannot break computers. Data whose contents differ from the possible preconception of application programmers can cause errors in poorly designed, written, or tested applications.
  • Try typing Björn into a lot of web site name fields. I'm not sure that slashdot should be too vocal on this, I don't think the umlauts would have shown up until recently.
    • Slashdot has always supported at least Latin-1, which includes umlauts. Although there was a brief period of time when you had to write them as HTML entities.

      Slashdot supported Unicode for a while, but support for anything beyond Latin-1 was later disabled due to the antics of page-widening trolls and such. Why reach for a newspaper to swat that fly when you can grab a sledgehammer instead?

  • by Anon-Admin ( 443764 ) on Saturday March 26, 2016 @06:00PM (#51783753) Journal

    Most programmers can not even figure out how to validate a f--ing email address, let alone a persons name.

    How about they fix the email problem first and stop rejecting my email address ^_^@mydomain
    Yes, you can put that on my domain listed below and email me, and yes it is a valid email address as per the RFC.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Most programmers can not even figure out how to validate a f--ing email address, let alone a persons name.

      How about they fix the email problem first and stop rejecting my email address ^_^@mydomain
      Yes, you can put that on my domain listed below and email me, and yes it is a valid email address as per the RFC.

      Because the spec for email address is is ridiculously complex. The problem isn't that programmers can't validate email addresses, it's that they can't write good specs for email address in the first place.

    • You're gonna have to let us know just how many "test" emails you receive in the next few days!

    • by StormReaver ( 59959 ) on Saturday March 26, 2016 @06:53PM (#51784031)

      Programmers who write database-aware programs that choke on the literal words, "null", "blank", or whose programs can't accept an apostrophe are simply incompetent or just plain stupid. There is absolutely no excuse for that kind of idiocy.

  • Story sounds suspicious. Null as a string is not a reserved word or a name that should cause problems unless they are doing some really weird shit. You might check a string for being NULL but you would never check a string to see if it was equal to "Null" (unless you are employing retard programmers).
  • The treaty of Hudaibuyah" [cyberistan.org] is famous for the reason given for its abrogation. Mohammad claimed the treaty signed when had been weak was no longer enforceable, once he became strong.

    All the names people gave themselves when we database programmers were weak is no longer enforceable once we became strong. Now we enter the name of the baby at birth in the hospital. If the name could not be entered, tough luck, pick a new name proud parents! Not born in a hospital? Hospital does not have computer? tough luck,

  • My last name tripps up decency filters on websites. My wife tried to create an account on some website and it wouldnt accept our last name in the registration field saying foul language wasn't allowed.

    My last name.. Dike

  • It happened to me in Spain. Foreigners get IDs that start with an X, while natives' IDs start with a 0. There was this system to get the payroll ant it wouldn't accept an ID if it didn't start with a 0. The IT zombies tried to convince me once and again that I was inserting my password incorrectly as the illiterate "sudaka" I obviously was. It wasn't till I used technical jargon and told them to log on using the VNC that they took me seriously and fixed it.

  • Sorry, but if a last name of "Null" breaks your code, you're a shit coder.

    The same for name fields- a 50 character limit should be the minimum. Database space is cheap, what exactly do people think they're saving by restricting a name field to 20 characters or so?

    It pisses me off when a site insists that your last name HAS to be more than 2 characters, or that your first name can't be a single letter. Believe it or not, some people DO have names like that. If he was still alive someone like e. e. cummings [google.com] w

  • Your name could be Cherry Chevapravatdumrong. She's one of the producers on Family Guy.
    http://www.imdb.com/name/nm221... [imdb.com]

  • The fancy-pants name for this is the semipredicate problem [wikipedia.org]

    I don't recall how I stumbled upon that article; but it's one of my favorite "look at me, I can use a long word for it" things now.

  • by psychonaut ( 65759 ) on Saturday March 26, 2016 @06:44PM (#51783973)
    The article neglects to mention perhaps the most famous case of all, Hubert Blaine Wolfeschlegelsteinhausenbergerdorff, Senior [wikipedia.org]. And that's just an abbreviation -- his actual surname (or so he claimed) was 666 letters long.
  • I run two e-commerce stores based on osCommerce and had this exact issue with a customer whose last name was Null. There is a common function in osCommerce (tep_not_null) trying to see if the argument is empty. One of the things it looks for is the string "null". When I discovered this, I removed that part of the test (which never made sense to me.)

  • by l3v1 ( 787564 ) on Sunday March 27, 2016 @10:39AM (#51786667)
    B.S. It's not names that break computers, it's idiot coders who couldn't care less. I mean seriously, a "Null" as a name to break a name input? Maybe they should write an article about the most idiotic programmers who somehow got to work on real life systems for real money and got away with it.

We gave you an atomic bomb, what do you want, mermaids? -- I. I. Rabi to the Atomic Energy Commission