Hello, I’m Mr. Null. My Name Makes Me Invisible to Computers

Sometimes, my name leads to harmless hilarity. Other times, it leads to frustrating annoyances.

PRETTY MUCH EVERY name offers some possibility for being turned into a schoolyard taunt. But even though I’m an adult who left the schoolyard decades ago, my name still inspires giggles among the technologically minded. My last name is “Null,” and it comes preloaded with entertainment value. If you want to be cheeky, you will probably start with “Null and void.” If you’re a WIRED reader, you might move on to “Null set.” Down-the-rabbit-hole geeks prefer the classic “dev/null.”

As a technology journalist, being a Null has served me rather well. (John Dvorak, you know what I’m talking about!) The geek connotations provide a bit of instant nerd cred—to the point where more than one person has accused me of using a nom de plume to make me seem like a bigger nerd than I am.

But there’s a dark side to being a Null, and you coders out there are way ahead of me on this. For those of you unwise in the ways of programming, the problem is that “null” is one of those famously “reserved” text strings in many programming languages. Making matters worse is that software programs frequently use “null” specifically to ensure that a data field is not empty, so it’s often rejected as input in a web form.

But what if lastname isn’t “null” but is “Null” instead? Essentially this is another spin on the Y2K problem, and what happens next will depend a lot on the quality of programming underlying the website or app that’s doing the work. Most will accept “Null” without complaint. Some will loop back to the input screen and tell the user to try again, that the last name field can’t be blank (But it’s not blank! That’s just my name!) Some will tell the user that “null” is a reserved term that can’t be used. And some will just crash. The unique challenges inherent with the Null Dilemma can be a surprisingly difficult problem to solve. It turns out it’s also surprisingly common, and it seems the larger the company is behind the application or the website, the more trouble it will have with my name.

When Null Won’t Work, Nothing Will

This has all gotten to the point where I’ve developed a number of workarounds for times when this happens. Turning my last name into a combination of my middle name and last name, or middle initial and last name, sometimes works, but only if the website doesn’t choke on multi-word last names. My usual trick is to simply add a period to my name: “Null.” This not only gets around many “null” error blocks, it also adds a sense of finality to my birthright.

Sometimes, my name leads to harmless hilarity, particularly when mailing lists don’t know what to do with the word. American Express is probably the biggest perpetrator, regularly sending junk mail to my house addressed to my business—but dropping the “Null” from the name. The company called “Media LLC” is often helmed by a mysterious gentleman who is addressed only as “Mr.”

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