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Names that make computers go crazy

this is an excerpt from my upcoming book, Humans vs Computers, about wrong assumptions, computer bugs and humans caught in between

In 1961 IBM introduced a new monster processing system, called 7074. The beast was normally delivered in several trucks, required a room of 40 by 40 feet, and weighed more than 41,000 pounds. The system had a disk storage unit with a capacity of 28 million characters and could process almost 34,000 operations per second. Still, the IBM 7074 was no match for Hubert B. Wolfeschlegelsteinhausenbergerdorff.

Hubert rose to fame in 1964 when Associated Press carried the story of how his name broke the IBM 7074 supercomputer at the John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance Co. Hubert had 26 given names, one for each letter of the alphabet, and 666 letters in his surname. In order to finally get his insurance card issued, Hubert had to clip his name to 44 letters (with spaces), and the application still had to be processed manually instead of on the computer. Hubert decided to use only his eighth given name, the initial letter of his second given name, and the first 35 letters of his surname.

Various versions of the Guinness Book of World Records print Hubert’s surname with either 590 or 666 letters. Later in his life, probably as a result of increasing digitisation and the intolerance of computers, Hubert was mostly known as Hubert Blaine Wolfe+590. Hubert passed away in 1997, but with 816 letters in his name, excluding spaces between the words, he still holds the world record for the longest name.

Although modern computers work at much more than 34 kHz, unusually long names still break them. In 2013, Janice Keihanaikukauakahihuliheʻekahaunaele started a campaign against the Hawaii Department of Transportation for not being able to print her name on a driving licence. The licences had space for only 34 characters, one fewer than Janice’s last name. The driving licences also could not show the ‘okina, the Hawaiian accent that looks like an apostrophe, despite the fact that the native name of the state, Hawaiʻi, also includes that symbol.

Journalists from KHON2, a TV station in Honolulu, picked up Janice’s story. After public pressure, the government caved in and changed the policy to allow up to 40 characters in a name on a driving licence. This required an upgrade to computer systems across the state.

It’s not just long names that cause weird computer problems. Short names do as well. Take, for example, the story of Stephen O, a South Korean living in Virginia, USA. Several of Stephen’s credit card applications were rejected because local banking systems could not record a single-letter last name, presumably to prevent people from just entering initials in the registration form. Stephen was only able to get a driving licence under the surname OO. This caused problems when he tried to get car insurance, because the credit agency couldn’t match any of the records. The credit agency computers recorded Stephen’s last name as Ostephen, presumingly ‘upgrading’ the name from Korean to Irish. In one database, after a lengthy search, he was found under blank-blank-O.

Stephen finally gave up fighting computers and changed his name to Oh. Mr Oh didn’t have a choice but to surrender to binary logic.

Although a single-letter last name might sound unusual, it’s not that uncommon, especially with Romanisation of far-east-Asian names. A notable example is O Rissei, the famous Japanese Go player (Japanese normally write the family name before the given name, so O is his surname). Single-letter given names are also possible. A good example is A Martinez, the American actor famous for his roles in 80s soap operas, who shortened his name from Adolfo to just one letter. Of course, different countries have various rules for name length – for example, Sweden does not allow single-letter names, but the UK does.

With increased computerisation of travel records and identity document systems, bad software causes constant confusion and problems for people with even slightly longer names. Airlines require that the names on a passport exactly match the names on that person’s ticket, and government organisations cross-reference passenger data with their own records. But name-length limits vary.

To understand the scale of inconsistency, you just need to check the various standards. For example, the Passenger and Airport Data Interchange Standards of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) allow up to 64 characters for each of the given name, surname and up to three middle names in passenger records. However, ICAO’s guidance on passports requires names to be printed in font size between 10 and 15 characters per inch, which allows up to roughly 40 letters in each of the names. However, the same standard requires the machine-readable part of a passport to fit the full name into 39 letters, including spaces between the words. Some governments impose even shorter limits. For example, Australian passports fit up to 31 characters for name fields, including all spaces.

Even in the same country, systems often have erratic length limits. For example, the US Nonimmigrant Visa Application (DS-160) has space for 31 characters for each name, but the I-94 Arrival/Departure Record fits 17 characters for the last name and only 13 for the given name. The US Social Security Administration accepts two lines of 26 characters per name. The Application for a US Passport (DS-11) allows 21 characters for a last name, 17 for the first given name and 16 for the middle names.

To make things worse, systems not dealing with international travel have their own limits. For example, UK Government Data Standards allow 35 characters for each name, but only 70 characters in total for the full name, consisting of the title, first given name, surname and all middle names. Yet birth certificates are issued for longer names as well. On 31 December 1986, Margaret Nelson from Chesterfield in the UK gave birth to a baby girl. Margaret and her husband, John, wanted to give their newborn daughter 207 names, but that didn’t fit on a birth certificate. Eventually the parents settled for just 139 given names. Tracy’s full name has 140 words. When spaces between words are included, the name has 995 characters. Imagine Tracy filling in an immigration form with the field ‘any other names you were known by’. For a (slightly) more down-to-earth example of a long name, remember Uma Thurman and Arpad Busson’s daughter, Rosalind Arusha Arkadina Altalune Florence Thurman-Busson.

Of course, people can be born with just one given name and then change it to almost anything these days. The UK Deed Poll service allows standard applications with up to 150 characters in a name, but for a special fee accept even longer names. David Fearn from Walsall, in the West Midlands, changed his name in 2006 to a collection from all the James Bond movies recorded until then. He is now officially known as James Dr No From Russia with Love Goldfinger Thunderball You Only Live Twice On Her Majesty’s Secret Service Diamonds Are Forever Live and Let Die The Man with the Golden Gun The Spy Who Loved Me Moonraker For Your Eyes Only Octopussy A View to a Kill The Living Daylights Licence to Kill Golden Eye Tomorrow Never Dies The World Is Not Enough Die Another Day Casino Royale Bond. This James Bond’s full name has 69 words or 310 characters without the spaces between words. Just imagine the famous Sean Connery scene at the casino table when he introduces himself as ‘Bond, James Bond’, but spells out all the other names in between.

Bond movies seem to inspire fanatics, at least in the UK. Emma Louise Hodges from Birmingham, in 2012, when she was 28 years old, changed her name to a combination of 14 Bond Girl names. She is now Miss Pussy Galore Honey Rider Solitaire Plenty O’Toole May Day Xenia Onatopp Holly Goodhead Tiffany Case Kissy Suzuki Mary Goodnight Jinx Johnson Octopussy Domino Moneypenny. (Miss is one of her given names, not a title.)

Sure, all these examples are completely crazy outliers, but if you’re building or testing software that records personal information, make sure you can accommodate very short or unexpectedly long names as well, at least to the ICAO limits.

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