Saturday, Jul 23, 2016
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Apostrophe punctuates woes with computers

NEW YORK - It can stop you from voting, destroy your dental appointments, make it difficult to rent a car or book a flight, even interfere with your college exams.

More than 50 years into the Information Age, computers still get confused by the apostrophe. It's a problem familiar to O'Connors, D'Angelos, N'Dours, and D'Artagnans across America.

When Niall O'Dowd tried to book a flight to Atlanta earlier this year, the computer system refused to recognize his name. The editor of the Irish Voice newspaper could book the flight only by giving up his national identity.

"I dropped the apostrophe and ran my name as 'ODowd,'•" he said.

It's not just the bad luck o' the Irish. French, Italian, and African names with apostrophes can befuddle computer systems, too. So can Arab names with hyphens, and Dutch surnames with "van" and a space in them.

Michael Rais, director of software development at Permission Data, an online marketing company in New York, said the problem is sloppy programming.

"It's standard shortsightedness," he said. "Most programs set a rule for first name and last name. They don't think of foreign-sounding names."

The trouble can happen in two ways, according to Mr. Rais.

•One: Online forms typically have a filter that looks for unfamiliar terms that might be put in by mistake or as a joke. A bad computer system will not be able to handle an apostrophe, a hyphen, or a gap in a last name and will block it immediately.

•Two: Even if the computer system is sophisticated enough to welcome an O'Brien or Al-Kurd, the name must be stored in the database, where a hyphen or apostrophe is often mistaken for a piece of computer code, corrupting the system.

That's what happened during the Michigan caucus in 2004, when thousands of O'Connors, Al-Husseins, Van Kemps, and others who went to the polls didn't have their votes counted.

"It was a real slapped-together computer system the party put together and a lot of people were left out who were registered to vote. It was a real pity," Michigan political consultant Mark Grebner said.

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