Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Opinion: Google's Name Handling Laundry List

I have a GooglePlus account, with which I have done nothing. Partly because it's still a closed Beta and not everyone I know is in the 20 million internationally, but mostly because Google has rushed out a half-baked product to suit itself. I'm talking about the perceived screw-up with names and identities. 

Before you howl "Google doesn't listen to its' customers" (us), please remember that you are Google's product, the customers are the advertisers who pay the bucks.
You may or may not agree with Anton P. Nym (aka 'Steve') "Google+ identity policy is horribly thought-out and carries with it the stench of Suits..." or with Kevin Marks ('Identity Theatre' piece) "...so it is explicitly designed to exclude 'people not like us' from the space." 

It doesn't matter whether you agree or not. Google is a corporation with a fiduciary responsibility to generate profit. The whole "do no evil" motto is bunk, always has been. 

The problem Google Plus has with user names is a sideshow to the main issue, albeit a comedy sideshow. I believe it's a result of muddle-headed thinking by the management with some bad advice from the engineers. 

Care of Charlie Stross, Patrick McKenzie pointed out in his blog last year (before all this blew up), programmers almost always get name handling wrong. Here's the programmers name handling laundry list. RC
  • People have exactly one canonical full name.
  • People have exactly one full name which they go by.
  • People have, at this point in time, exactly one canonical full name.
  • People have, at this point in time, one full name which they go by.
  • People have exactly N names, for any value of N.
  • People's names fit within a certain defined amount of space.
  • People's names do not change.
  • People's names change, but only at a certain enumerated set of events.
  • People's names are written in ASCII.
  • People's names are written in any single character set.
  • People's names are all mapped in Unicode code points.
  • People's names are case sensitive.
  • People's names are case insensitive.
  • People's names sometimes have prefixes or suffixes, but you can safely ignore those.
  • People's names do not contain numbers.
  • People's names are not written in ALL CAPS.
  • People's names are not written in all lower case letters.
  • People's names have an order to them. Picking any ordering scheme will automatically result in consistent ordering among all systems, as long as both use the same ordering scheme for the same name.
  • People's first names and last names are, by necessity, different.
  • People have last names, family names, or anything else which is shared by folks recognized as their relatives.
  • People's names are globally unique.
  • People's names are almost globally unique. Alright, alright but surely people's names are diverse enough such that no million people share the same name.
  • My system will never have to deal with names from China.
  • Or Japan.
  • Or Korea.
  • Or Ireland, the United Kingdom, the United States, Spain, Mexico, Brazil, Peru, Russia, Sweden, Botswana, South Africa, Trinidad, Haiti, France, or the Klingon Empire, all of which have "weird" naming schemes in common use.
  • That Klingon Empire thing was a joke, right?
  • Confound your cultural relativism! People in my society, at least, agree on one commonly accepted standard for names.
  • There exists an algorithm which transforms names and can be reversed losslessly. (Yes, yes, you can do it if your algorithm returns the input. You get a gold star.)
  • I can safely assume that this dictionary of bad words contains no people's names in it.
  • People's names are assigned at birth.
  • OK, maybe not at birth, but at least pretty close to birth.
  • Alright, alright, within a year or so of birth.
  • Five years?
  • You're kidding me, right?
  • Two different systems containing data about the same person will use the same name for that person.
  • Two different data entry operators, given a person's name, will by necessity enter bitwise equivalent strings on any single system, if the system is well-designed.
  • People whose names break my system are weird outliers. They should have had solid, acceptable names, like 田中太郎.
  • People have names.