Scunthorpe in reverse

In software development, there’s a thing called the Scunthorpe Problem. It’s not some weird, arcane topic about memory allocation; it’s actually bone simple. The central question is: “How do you police text inputs to keep naughty words out?”

The naive answer is simple string matching, so you’d check to see if the input contained any of a set of rude words.

The problem then crops up, because there are nontrivial legitimate occurrences of a number of those sequences of letters, and dumb rude-word-police algorithms that just check for “contains” will kick out all sorts of perfectly reasonable inputs. This leads to a number of annoyed customers, not the least of which would be the denizens of a quaint village in Lincolnshire. Or men named “Dick,” say. (The first link in this post includes a list some infamous examples, including blocked searches for “Superbowl XXX” (because “XXX” means porn), or the blocked domain registration for, etc.)

So you have to be smarter.

But you can also turn this around, and that’s what this post is about. If you’re manipulating user names to create something unique, you should be cautious about your recipe, and you probably SHOULD use a fairly dumb string filter to alert you if your proposed scheme results in unfortunate combinations.

To Wit: Our customer base at work is comprised of largely big government contracting firms, and in this pond there is near-constant merger/acquisition/spin-out behavior. This leads, inevitably, to changes in people’s email addresses. MOST of the time, this is no big deal: becomes

However, in one such case happening now, the new company has shifted to first-initial-last-name for emails — from Joe.Blow to jblow, for example. This SEEMS innocuous, until you come to the case of my client contact named something like Steve Hittman.

I mean, it could be something else. It could be Francis Uckley. Or Charles Unter. But you get the idea. (It is not any of these, but it’s just as bad.)

One wonders when the Exchange administrator at the new firm will notice, and what — if anything — they do about it.

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