Wednesday, August 06, 2008

A crisis of identity

Women get married all the time. And divorced. And you know what happens then? They change their names. Not always, but often. Very often.

You would think that most organizations would understand this issue. Every day, companies, organizations, and schools acquire new and fancier computer systems to track people. They track what people buy. They track where people work. They track the people that track people. The systems do fancy things like allowing you to enroll in classes, view your grades, and pay your bills all from a single web interface. Nifty. Very Nifty. Very smart. Very complicated.

I know how complicated some of these systems, and systems-of-systems are. I am a software developer. I have seen some of them in action, at the lowest levels. They're ugly. The easier that front-end is to use, the uglier the back end probably is. That's just the way computers work. I know that having to update multiple systems, track changes, and keep things in sync is work. It's hard work. It's damned boring work.

You know what annoys the hell out of me? Very smart, nifty, complicated computer systems that fail to take into account that nearly 50% of the population may someday change their name. Does getting a new name immediately invalidate a person's existance? No. Not according to the women (primarily) who just got married. And not according to the police. Or credit bureaus.

And yet, the process of changing one's name can make you want to move to Mexico and sell seashells on the beach for the rest of time, just to avoid the endless paperwork, bureaucracy, and aggravation it takes to switch a few letters around.

I have been married for a little over 7 years by now. One might assume that by now, all of the bugs have been worked out of my name-change-process. One might assume incorrectly.

This spring, I took a class at Wash U (yes, I'm naming names! Damnit!). It was short, one-credit, and the tuition is covered by my employer (nope, not naming them) The total bill was about $500. I enrolled, submitted a tuition voucher, went to class, submitted my final grade. And then received a bill. The problem is, as far as I can tell, that I hold my undergraduate degree from Wash U. They know my maiden name. My employer has never heard of that maiden. Somewhere along the line, Wash U decided that they were going to ignore the name I enrolled in my class with, ignore the payment voucher that I submitted, and staunchly refuse to admit that I am married. And send me a tuition bill.

The first one I ignored. I thought it was informational. After all, I submitted my voucher and my grade. After the second one, I called work. They told me that they will happily pay, as soon as they are billed. Today I called Wash U. They now tell me that they have no record of my voucher (which they had to receive before they would finish processing my enrollment in the class. I made phone calls back then too. I know they processed it.). Oh yeah, and they're about to send my unpaid tuition bill into collection. Thanks. A lot.

Did I mention that every time I go online to check my enrollment or my billing status, Wash U calls me by my maiden name? And happily shows me my undergraduate transcripts? I guess the dozen pieces of paper I submitted with the correct name were ignored. Unfortunately for me, the credit bureaus know my many aliases and will have no trouble assigning that bad debt to the correct person.

I hope to hell that things don't get that far. Today, I have submitted vouchers again, along with a note about the name problem. Maybe this time Wash U will figure out who I am. Maybe.

Selling seashells on the beach is sounding better every minute.

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