Apr 15, 2022
A one-word magical spell. Several years back, that’s exactly what Joseph Tartaro thought he’d discovered. It was a spell that, if used properly, promised to make one’s problems disappear. And so he crossed his fingers, uttered the word and cast the enchantment on himself. The result, however, was anything but magical.
Unbeknownst to Joseph, by unleashing this spell, he’d earned a lifetime membership into a cursed community. A clan made up of folks who, through no fault of their own, had become nameless and invisible. Today, the story of these unfortunate souls, the dark digital arts that took so much from them and the wizardry needed to give them new life.
Special thanks to Sarah Chasins, Tony Hoare, Brian Kernighan and to Patrick McKenzie for writing that wonderful list of assumptions programmers believe about names. And also to all the folks who spoke to us and emailed us with stories of their own ‘problematic’ names.
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DOWNLOAD BRAILLE READY FILE HERE
LULU MILLER: [crosstalk] You start. You start. You start.
LATIF NASSER: Hey, I’m Latif Nasser.
LULU: I’m Lulu Miller. This is Radiolab and today we have a story about emptiness
LATIF: Can fill your life with trouble.
SIMON ADLER: Could you be making more money as a bad guy but you’ve decided to use your powers for good?
JOSEPH TARTARO: Uh, yes.
LATIFF: It comes to us from the very troublesome producer Simon Adler.
SIMON: Yeah, so let me introduce you here to Joseph.
JOSEPH TARTARO: Joseph Tartaro, I’m an offensive security consultant.
SIMON: Essentially a professional hacker for hire.
JOSEPH TARTARO: Hired by companies to, you know, break into things and find flaws and vulnerabilities and then show them how we found those.
SARAH QARI: And hey Joseph, this is Sarah. I’m also on the line too.
JOSEPH TARTARO: Okay, awesome.
SIMON: And producer Sarah Qari and I called him up a couple years back now, because a couple years back, he found a flaw that almost broke him.
JOSEPH TARTARO: I guess a little bit, yeah.
SIMON: And it all started with ...
SARAH: What was behind your decision to get a vanity plate?
SIMON: A license plate.
JOSEPH TARTARO: Uh, I was just bored. [laughs] And obviously people like to customize their vehicles, you know? People get vanity plates related to a hobby of theirs or their work, or any other sort of interest, so ...
SIMON: One day he surfs over to the California DMV’s website.
JOSEPH TARTARO: And I start picking out hacker-related funny stuff.
SIMON: You know, to see if it’s available. Stuff like…
[sound effect: typing on keyboard]
JOSEPH TARTARO: SysCall.
SARAH: What’s that?
JOSEPH TARTARO: Like a System Call for programming.
[sound effect: typing on keyboard]
JOSEPH TARTARO: NopsSled. It’d probably be involved to explain.
SARAH: This is gonna go over your heads.
JOSEPH TARTARO: Yeah, yeah.
JOSEPH TARTARO: It might confuse you.
JOSEPH TARTARO: Another was RTFM. You know, “Read the F’ing Manual?”
[sound effect: typing on keyboard]
SIMON & SARAH: Aha!
JOSEPH TARTARO: You know, stuff like that.
SIMON: Anyhow ...
JOSEPH TARTARO: As I was going through ideas, one of them was Null.
[sound effect: typing on keyboard]
SIMON: Null. N-U-L-L, which, to a computer isn’t really a word at all, it’s a symbol.
JOSEPH TARTARO: Correct. It means that the field or value is empty.
Like in a spreadsheet, if a cell has nothing in it, not even a zero, the computer stores that emptiness as, well as ‘null’.
SIMON: So this license plate would effectively say “blank.”
JOSEPH TARTARO: Correct.
SIMON: Okay [laughs].
JOSEPH TARTARO: So I just went, “Oh, that’s kinda cute.”
JOSEPH TARTARO: And then I thought, “This might lead to a funny scenario.”
SIMON: Because if some programmer had done a sloppy job, it was possible the DMV’s computers would mistake the word "null” for the symbol null. And they did, he wondered ...
JOSEPH TARTARO: Can I get a ticket? [laughs]
[music: jaunty clarinet and flute]
SIMON: With this license plate, some sloppy code and a bit of luck, he’d be effectively invisible. So he ordered the plate, bolted it to his car and discovered that he was right, that yes, the DMV’s computers were terribly programmed—just not in the way that he had hoped.
[music: jaunty clarinet and flute music]
JOSEPH TARTARO: Um …
SIMON: So one morning …
JOSEPH TARTARO: You know, went out to get the mail.
SIMON: Opened up his mailbox and peered inside.
JOSEPH TARTARO: I had a wad of envelopes. It was like 15 envelopes. You know, with my name and my address and everything. I was just like, “What the hell?” Because I don’t really get mail. But then I open the first one up and it’s like, “I got a parking ticket.”
SIMON: And not just any parking ticket.
JOSEPH TARTARO: It said, “You have a ticket for, you know, parking in a handicap stall” that’s written for, like, a Mercedes. And so, I’m like, huh?
SIMON: ‘Cause that’s not his car.
JOSEPH TARTARO: Uh…no.
SIMON: What type of car do you have? Did you have?
JOSEPH TARTARO: Just like an old beater.
[soft, hesitant violin plucks]
JOSEPH TARTARO: And then I opened up the next one and it’s like for a Toyota in Corona, California.
SIMON: Not his car, not his city.
JOSEPH TARTARO: Okay.
SIMON: And as he opens up the next one …
[strings intensify, woodwind instruments join]
JOSEPH TARTARO: Fresno County.
SIMON: And the next one ...
JOSEPH TARTARO: Rancho Cucamonga.
SIMON: And the next one.
JOSEPH TARTARO: Cypress College.
SIMON: Each of them is — is a parking ticket, a traffic ticket for a different car, a different violation, and a different part of the state that it says he’s responsible for paying.
JOSEPH TARTARO: Just didn’t make sense.
SIMON: So he jumps on his computer, surfs over to the site of the collection company listed on all of the tickets, trying to see if they’ve made a mistake or something. But what he saw there was that those tickets in his mailbox were just the tip of the iceberg.
JOSEPH TARTARO: There were hundreds and hundreds of tickets. It was like $10,000 or something.
SARAH: Oh my god.
SIMON: What it appeared was happening was that instead of his Null license plate being stored as blank, every blank license plate was being stored as null. And so every ticket written without a plate number, maybe cuz the car didn’t have one or the cop forgot to fill it in was being sent to Joseph.
JOSEPH TARTARO: That is my theory.
SIMON: [laughs] God.
JOSEPH TARTARO: Yes.
SIMON: And so what’s your reaction to that?
JOSEPH TARTARO: Well, I thought it was hilarious.
SIMON: Oh, okay.
JOSEPH TARTARO: Because it’s clearly not me. I don’t have 30 cars. I haven’t lived all up and down the coast of California. And so who in their right mind would think that any of these were mine?
JOSEPH TARTARO: I thought it would be a funny phone call and then it getting taken care of, but …
CHRIS NULL: Okay, I’m recording, looks like it’s got a good level. Uh, I’m…
JOSEPH TARTARO: … I was wrong.
SIMON: Because unbeknownst to Joseph when he chose that license plate he became an unofficially adopted son of a certain family.
SARAH: Can you just say your name and what you do?
CHRIS NULL: Yeah, it’s Christopher…That was a joke.
SARAH: [laughs] Oh you got me.
CHRIS NULL: It’s Christopher Null, N-U-L-L.
SIMON: The Null family.
CHRIS NULL: I’m a technology and business journalist.
SIMON: And he says his problems began with the internet and a rejection.
CHRIS NULL: At some point along the way in the early-2000s, you know, I tried to register for an online service.
SIMON: Like AOL or something.
CHRIS NULL: And put in my name, and then I would get an error that would pop up and say, “This field cannot be blank.”
SIMON: And he was not alone.
WES NULL: And I’d be like, “Damnit, my name is right there.”
SUZIE NULL: The whole screen would go gray and then freeze.
BILL NULL: It said, “Not a legal name.” Now, I’m a lawyer, so it’s kinda curious to not have a legal name.
SIMON: That’s Wes, Suzie, and Bill.
WES NULL: Last name.
SUZIE NULL: N-U-L-L.
BILL NULL: Null.
WES NULL: Null.
LATIF: So what what is coming up? What is going wrong, actually?
SIMON ADLER: Yeah. So like, behind the computer screen?
SIMON ADLER: So it could be any number of things, but likely, the programmer accidentally put in some quotation marks. So it says, like, it should say, "If null, then" but instead, what they put is, "If quotation marks null then." And the thing is, well, that sounds like it should be an easy problem to solve. It's not like this happens just one place in the code because once it gets inserted into the code, then as these programmers are working off times, they're copying and pasting chunks of it from one place into another. So this error is is just running rickshawed...
LULU: It's all over!
SIMON ADLER: All over the entire software!
LULU: It's like a low stakes Y2K.
LATIF: Well for one family like it's targeted on one family...
JOSEPH TARTARO: Yeah, yeah. So yeah, it's much easier to just not let people use their name. Rather than spend millions of dollars on fixing it for the for the dozen people that it's impacting.
SIMON ADLER: But boy, does it impact them.
BILL NULL: I had to have it corrected.
SIMON: Bill here says he sometimes gets letters from, like, the IRS or Medicare.
BILL NULL: Stuff from the government written out to “William No Last Name.”
WES NULL: Or Verizon sends me bills regularly that just say, you know, “Dear Dr. Undefined.”
ADAM NULL: At first I couldn’t even see the end of it, it’s just an avalanche.
SIMON: Adam Null here woke up one morning in college to find all of the university’s undeliverable emails in his inbox.
ADAM NULL: I think the sum total was about 30,000.
SUZIE NULL: The most difficult thing was with State Farm.
SIMON: And Suzie Null was once trying to process an insurance claim, and discovered that her name had been replaced by a punctuation mark.
SIMON: As in, it would say, “Suzie Comma” instead of “Suzie Null?”
SUZIE NULL: No, it didn’t have a name at all, it just had a comma.
SIMON: [laughs] Okay?
SUZIE NULL: And I’m like, “Oh the Null glitch strikes again.”
SIMON: And resolving these Null glitches
CHRIS NULL: [sighs] ...
SUZIE NULL: We all love calling customer service, right?
SIMON: ... is just about as hellish as you would imagine.
[ARCHIVAL CLIP, Automated Phone Response: Thank you for calling. Please be assured that your call will be answered as quickly as possible.]
[elevator music plays]
JOSEPH TARTARO: Oh my God.
SIMON: Like when Joseph called the DMV to deal with his Null license plate ...
JOSEPH TARTARO: They said, "Wow, you have a lot of tickets. You owe a lot of money. But we have nothing to do with citations."
SIMON: You've gotta call this other number. So he does that. Tries to explain that these aren't his tickets.
JOSEPH TARTARO: They're like, "All this is from the word 'Null,'" but they don't care. They just say, "What's your ticket number?"
SIMON: And he's like, "No, you don't understand."
JOSEPH TARTARO: And they're just like, "Ticket number, ticket number, ticket number." And we just got into, like, this back and forth. "Okay, dumbass. We're done here."
[dial tone, music ends]
JOSEPH TARTARO: [laughs]
SIMON: I will say the common thread in all these stories that I'm hearing, which is the "Null" glitches seem to manifest in situations that are already frustrating.
SUZIE NULL: That's true, actually.
SIMON: Like dealing with your insurance company is already frustrating.
SUZIE NULL: Yes.
SIMON: And then just dial up an extra serving of frustration on top of that.
SUZIE NULL: [laughs] Yeah.
SIMON: And when the Nulls finally find someone who at least understands the problem, the solution that's often offered is ...
SARAH NULL: Well, you can change your name. And I said, “Are you suggesting I change my name to “quote N-U-L-L quote”, to match the databases you’re working with?”
SIMON: This, by the way, is Sarah Null.
SARAH NULL: And they’d go, “Well that’s one thing that would work.” And I said, “Well, clearly that’s not an option, right? Clearly I’m not going to change my name where it’s not even letters anymore.”
SARAH NULL: It was—it was a pretty absurd suggestion, yeah. [laughs]
[slow operatic music with harp]
CHRIS NULL: It's also—What was my?—, I was gonna say something else really—it was gonna be really great, but I forgot it.
SIMON: Again, Chris Null.
CHRIS NULL: Oh no. I remember. It's not just people with the name "Null," right? This story plays out in a much different way for millions of people.
[slow operatic music with harp returns]
LATIF: And we’re gonna get to that…
LULU: After a quick break
[LAUREN: My name is Lauren from Huntsville, Alabama. As a member of Radiolab’s exclusive membership program, the lab I provide a steady source of funding so radio lab can continue to bring us stories not to mention exclusive perks join at radiolab.org/join.]
LATIF: So before the break… Simon you were just telling us stories of migraine inducing computer problems targeted to specific people with the specific last name of Null, it's not just about those specific people?
SIMON: No. Not in the least. In fact, the sort of problems we're talking about with these Null folks exist for all sorts of different people. And they seem looking at this story or started digging into this, it seems that they exist because of this fundamental difference between the way we humans process information and the way computers process information.
TANYA CHAWLA: Hold on, hold on. There's too many wires that can so…
SIMON: So if we're not very careful about translating between the two, we can make digital life difficult for a lot of people.
What's going on?
TANYA CHAWLA: The business school flooded with sewage last week.
TANYA CHAWLA: And we were like, "Yes! America's premier business school!"
SIMON: This by the way is a former intern Tanya Chawla.
TANYA CHAWLA: I'm an undeclared sophomore at the University of California, Berkeley.
SIMON: She's taken a bunch of computer science courses where they've talked about this translating. And in one of those classes, she says last year…
TANYA CHAWLA: Okay, it's not that interesting of a story, but I took a class called "The Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs." And I didn't go to lecture, but the one time—or, like, the few times I did go to lecture, one of the times the professor was like, "When you create webpages and you ask for names, there's things that you should think about." And so—because we're like the future of technology and programming—on the lecture slide, our professor included this list.
SIMON: The list was compiled by this computer engineer, Patrick MacKenzie, and was titled, "Falsehoods Programmers Believe About Names." It was these 40 bullet points with a preamble that read ...
TANYA CHAWLA: "All of these assumptions are wrong."
[orchestral music begins]
SIMON: And now as a public service, Tanya will read us some highlights from that list.
TANYA CHAWLA: Ahem. "People have exactly one full name." That's an assumption. "People have exactly one full name which they go by." "People have exactly N names for any value of N." It's—it's such a CS thing to say, using the variable N, but it's a thing.
SIMON: People don't have first names that are over 20 letters. And people don’t have last names that are less than two letters.
VIVIAN U: I and my family for one.
SIMON: Wrong and wrong.
VIVIAN U: My name is Vivian U. Single letter ‘U’.
SIMON: The list goes on.
TANYA CHAWLA: "Peoples' names do not contain numbers." Wrong. "Peoples' names are not written in all caps." Wrong. "Peoples' names are not written in all lowercase letters."
[orchestral string music enters]
TANYA CHAWLA: Wrong. Thank you.
SIMON: But come on…
LA RAINNE PASSION: My name is La Rainne Passion
SIMON: At least we can all agree 1st names don’t have spaces in them
LA RAINNE PASSION: Actually there’s a space between the La and the Rainne of my name.
SIMON: Well, hyphens. There are no hyphens in first names.
EH-DEN PERLA: I am Eh-den Perla. ‘E-H-hyphen-D-E-N’.
SIMON: Wrong as well. But we’re not done yet.
[orchestral string music resturns and intensifies]
TANYA CHAWLA: "Peoples' first names and last names are, by necessity, different."
YANG YANG: My name is Yang Yang
YANG YANG: And yes we do exist.
TANYA CHAWLA: "People have family names shared by their relatives." Wrong in Iceland.
SIMON: And on and on.
TANYA CHAWLA: "No million people share the same name."
MOHAMMAD WANG: Mohammad Wang.
TANYA CHAWLA: No, no!
[orchestral string music intensifies]
SIMON: 150 million people have the first name Mohammed, and 92 million use the last name Wang.
MOHAMMAD WANG: That’s a huge number…
SIMON: And on.
[orchestral string music intensifies]
TANYA CHAWLA: And then 40. This is my favorite one. "People have names."
[orchestral music ends]
CHRIS NULL: So yeah, it's not just me because I have an unusual last name.
SIMON: One more time, Christopher Null.
CHRIS NULL: So do I feel personally attacked? No, I just feel—I feel sadness that this issue can’t be easily resolved and we can all live in name harmony [laughs].
SIMON: Now, to wrap this thing up, our man from the top, Joseph Tartaro, over the course of four years, he was told countless times to just change his license plate, that that would resolve the issue. But being a man of principle.
JOSEPH TARTARO: I never did because that’s not a solution and it doesn’t actually fix the issue.
SIMON: So he fought this thing. He made hundreds of phone calls, spent untold hours on hold. Even went to his local sheriff’s office to get this resolved. And today, his license plate still reads “Null,” his record has been cleared by the DMV, and more than that…
JOSEPH TARTARO: If you try to look up my information on the website, it doesn’t let you search the word “Null” anymore. So, I don’t know.
SIMON: [laughs] Wait, what on earth could that be?
JOSEPH TARTARO: I don’t know if they just put a block in, or…
JOSEPH TARTARO: They just stopped taking tickets, or what. Somehow, it’s started a whole new conversation of, “Well now you really can’t get tickets.”
SIMON: Well, right. Are you — have you arrived at the promised land here after four years of darkness?
JOSEPH TARTARO: Potentially.
[soft orchestral music]
LATIF: This story was reported by with help from Sarah Qari and Tanya Chawla. It was all produced by Simon with music and sound design also by Simon Adler.
LULU: We'd like to give special thanks to Sarah Chasins, Tony Hoare, Brian Kernighan and all the folks who emailed us with stories of their own, quote unquote problematic names.
LATIF: Just to let you know, this episode is sort of an appetizer. We’re cooking up an entire hour long episode about names. It’s gonna be coming down the feed soon here. So keep an ear our for that.
LULU: I’m Lulu Miller
LATIF: I’m Latif Nasser. Thanks for listening.
UNKNOWN: Radiolab was created by Jad Abumrad and is edited by Soren Wheeler. Lulu Miller and Latif Nasser are our cohosts. Suzie Lechtenberg is our executive producer. Dylan Keefe is our director of sound design. Our staff includes Simon Adler, Jeremy Bloom, Becca Bressler, Rachel Cusick, W. Harry Fortuna, David Gebel, Maria Paz Gutiérrez, Sindhu Gnanasambandan, Matt Kielty, Annie McEwen, Alex Neeson, Sarah Qari, Anna Rascouët-Paz, Arianne Wack, Pat Walters and Molly Webster, with help from Carolyn McCusker and Sarah Sandbach. Our fact checkers are Diane Kelly, Emily Krieger and Adam Shybil.
[RON: Hi, I'm Ron from India. Leadership support for Radiolab science programming is provided by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, Science Sandbox, Assignments Foundation Initiative and the John Templeton Foundation. Foundational support for Radiolab was provided by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.]
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