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2011/03/28

On The Importance of Unique Strings

I find generalized mail notices to be counterproductive. I get a lot of mail, from many dozens of mailing lists, from many dozens of commercial ventures I occasionally throw money at or want to throw money at, and more. I don't pay attention to it always. I write things to check things and send me email, and even then, I don't often read it. So why would I want to have every little thing beep and pop up and eat my attention when it arrives? Especially when, as a programmer, a lot of problem solving just goes away when that sort of beep draws me out?

So, a while ago, I wrote jBiff, which announces when I have mail (the traditional roll of biff and xbiff) via Jabber/XMPP (thus the "J"). I wrote it so I could configure search strings, so that I could have it biff when I got mail from:

  • My boss and coworkers - because I can name no worse feeling than hearing my boss come up behind me and asking "Did you get my email?"
  • My wife and kids
  • My parents
  • A select set of friends
  • The office voice mail
  • My bank - which tells me when I have run out of money
  • The Weather Channel - which tells me when there's severe weather in my area. (I work in a sub-basement so I can't just look out the window.)
And it's pretty much in that order. If you're top of that list, I'll get warned within two minutes of receiving the mail, and the bottom get checked every twenty minutes, all thanks to crontab.

So, I was surprised at getting alerted that a boutique amp manufacturer has given away a 2x12" cabinet. I'm not remotely surprised at receiving this email (and no, I didn't win) but I am surprised that it popped up on Google Talk. And it took a little poking.

My eldest son is named "Niel". Not "Neil" or "Neal", but "Niel", as my grandfather was named "Niels" and I wanted to honor my history. And ensure that nobody's going to spell either his first name correctly on first pass, to go with nobody ever being able to pronounce his last name. I can be cruel. 

And the representative from the boutique amp manufacturer is named "Daniel".

Daniel.

Because I used my son's first name, not his whole email name, I got alerted. I have since fixed it, but as a reminder to both myself and others, I'm putting this out there: Don't match a short string when you can match a longer, more unique string, or else you'll get false positives.