If your name is ‘Null,’ you may have problems doing anything online

names like null cause problems for computer users coding matrix main
It’s one thing to have a name that is unusual to those around you, but when it confuses websites and computing systems in general, it’s a whole different kind of headache. What do you do if you go by just one name? What if your last name consists of just one letter? These problems have arisen in the past, and continue to frustrate users well into the digital age.

The BBC reports on one woman who is struggling with her name. Jennifer Null was warned by her husband before she took his surname that there would be some problems. After their marriage, the couple moved, as most newlyweds do. The problems began for her when she tried to book their flight. “We moved almost immediately after we got married so it came up practically as soon as I changed my name, buying plane tickets,” she says. She got an error message from most websites, which assumed that she was leaving the surname field blank. She was getting messages to try again. When Null got fed up and called the airlines for help, the employees on the other end didn’t believe her.

Programmers use the word “null” in database fields to indicate that there is no date to fill. Though system administrators have tried to set up their programs to avoid problems for people with names like Null, it’s not an easy task. Jennifer Null has had problems beyond booking plane tickets. Areas where data entry is important, such as on a government tax website, has also led to obstacles. When the Nulls needed to set up a utility bill in the city they moved to, they hit the wall again.

It appears that the more important the website or service, the harder it is to overcome the strict controls. So for people like the Nulls, the inconveniences mostly occur in the most crucial circumstances. When Jennifer was working as an on-call substitute teacher, she used a service that notified her by phone of available work, as the online service would not function correctly for her. “I feel like I still have to do things the old-fashioned way,” she says.

Incidents in which computer systems encounter cases they were not designed for are called “edge cases.” Once such example is the case of Janice Keihanaikukauakahihulihe’ekahaunaele, a Hawaiian whose 36-character surname didn’t fit on state ID cards or on most websites. Her complaints led to changes in government computer systems to better accommodate citizens with unique names like hers.

“Every couple of years computer systems are upgraded or changed and they’re tested with a variety of data — names that are well represented in society,” says programmer Patrick McKenzie. “They don’t necessarily test for the edge cases.” McKenzie’s interest in computer systems’ shortcomings has led to his creating a list of what programmers should look out for when designing databases intended to store personal names.

McKenzie himself has dealt with issues in this area, due to his living in Japan. “Four characters in a Japanese name is very rare. McKenzie is eight, so for printed forms it’ll often be the case that there’s literally not enough space to put my name,” McKenzie says. “Computer systems are often designed with these forms in mind. Every year when I go to file my taxes, I file them as ‘McKenzie P’ because that’s the amount of space they have.”

McKenzie has converted his name into katakana, the Japanese alphabet that phonetically spells out foreign words, in an effort to improve his situation. When his bank’s computer systems underwent an update, katakana support was lost. For some time, McKenzie could not access his account online. He had to send a paper request from his branch to the corporate IT department so somebody could edit the database manually.

As computer systems expand globally, programmers have tried harder to lower edge case incidents. McKenzie notes that the Worldwide Web Consortium, an Internet standards body, has tackled this issue specifically. It may be some time before all names function correctly, but in the meantime, people like the Nulls will just have to live with it.


Canada’s winters inspired a startup to warm homes with cryptomining heat waste

Cryptomining may be the key to untold riches and the future of currency, but it’s also an environmental nightmare. Heatmine, thinks it has the answer, but it could mean bolting a mining rig onto every home and business in the country.
Smart Home

The Echo Wall Clock can help you keep track of multiple Alexa timers

Amazon just released the Echo Wall Clock that was announced at its September new hardware device event in Seattle. The Echo Wall Clock is an analog clock that also indicates the minutes remaining on one or more Alexa timers.
Digital Trends Live

Cryptocurrency investor Ian Balina sees a comeback for cryptocurrency in 2019

We chatted with crypto investor Ian Balina on what the future is for cryptocurrencies and Bitcoin. He also gave us three things to look for when we are investing our own money.
Home Theater

What’s new on Netflix and what’s leaving in January 2019

Our complete list of what's new on Netflix for January 2019 and which titles will be removed will help you catch up on your bingeing, and also ensure you don't miss any titles heading into the streaming ether.
Digital Trends Live

Twitch streamer Fuslie gives a glimpse of her life and future plans

Today, we welcomed Twitch streamer Fuslie to talk about how her career goals shifted from becoming a veterinarian to a full-time streamer. Also, she shared what her future plans are for streaming and created content.
Home Theater

Confused about LED vs. LCD TVs? Here's everything you need to know

Our LED vs. LCD TV buying guide explains why these two common types of displays are fundamentally connected, how they differ, what to look for in buying an LED TV, and what's on the horizon for TVs.
Product Review

The Asus ZenBook 14 is a tiny notebook that gets lost in the crowd

The ZenBook 14 aims to be the smallest 14-inch notebook around, and it succeeds thanks to some tiny bezels. Performance and battery life are good, but the notebook lacks a standout feature other than size.

The best MacBook deals for December 2018

If you’re in the market for a new Apple laptop, let us make your work a little easier: We hunted down the best up-to-date MacBook deals available online right now from various retailers.

How to connect AirPods to your MacBook

If you have new AirPods, you may be looking forward to pairing them with your MacBook. Our guide will show you exactly how to connect AirPods to MacBook, what to do if they are already paired with a device, and more.

Hitting ‘Check for updates’ in Windows 10 opts you into beta releases

Users who are careful about keeping their system updated should watch out -- Microsoft revealed this week that clicking the Check for updates button in Windows can opt you in to testing beta code.

Secure your Excel documents with a password by following these quick steps

Excel documents are used by people and businesses all over the world. Given how often they contain sensitive information, it makes sense to keep them from the wrong eyes. Thankfully, it's easy to secure them with a password.

Which Macs are compatible with MacOS Mojave?

Is your computer ready for Apple's big Mojave update? Here's what you need to know about MacOS Mojave compatibility, what Macs can successful download Mojave, and the requirements you need to know about.
Emerging Tech

Awesome Tech You Can’t Buy Yet: Booze-filled ski poles and crypto piggy banks

Check out our roundup of the best new crowdfunding projects and product announcements that hit the web this week. You may not be able to buy this stuff yet, but it sure is fun to gawk!

Change your mouse cursor in Windows with these quick tips

The standard mouse cursor is boring, so change it! With this guide on how to change your mouse cursor in Windows, you can choose to use one of Microsoft's pre-installed cursors or download something a bit more extravagant.