Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Correlation without confusion

In other words, the assumption of eponymity.

At the Wendy's fast-food restaurant, part of the ordering process is giving the cashier my name. That name becomes a prominent part of the receipt. Moments later, the person finishing my order calls out the name so that I can go to the front and pick it up.

McDonald's on the other hand assigns each customer a short number to serve the same purpose.

In computing, such things (the name or the number) are called correlation identifiers.

Some years ago, when I ate at Wendy's every week with my friend Thom Boyer, the cashier would most often ask, "May I have your name?" On occasion, however, the question was subtly different, "Will you give me a name for your order?" Always one to pounce on subtle differences in meaning, I began naming my order "Boris."

For picking up my order, this worked out just fine. Until one of our regular visits, when upon walking into the restaurant, an employee greeted us by name. In that restaurant, I had become known as Boris.

The assumption is that a person will give his or her own name. The assumption of eponymity.

In other languages (such as French and Spanish) one gives one's name not by saying, "My name is Boris," but rather by saying (in translation), "I call myself Boris." In English, we take a similar stance when we say things like, "My friends call me Boris."

The fast-food correlation identifier is short-lived. Just a few minutes. The way it is used gives a clear example of the fact that identifiers in general are part of a relationship between the identified and another party, rather than an attribute that I own. Things like my given name, my parents' names, my date and place of birth, and even other dates of significant events in my life are also less attributes, and more part of my relationship with society. Mathematically, we could say that an identifier is (part of) a relation and not a property.

This came to my attention recently during a conference session run by Joe Andrieu at the Internet Identify Workshop in Mountain View, California. From the notes of which, this quote, "Identity is about self, but in practice, it’s about how we relate to others."

Another influence in these thoughts is this post by Phil Windley about anonymity. My fast-food example is really an instance of this. Even though one of the restaurants asks for my name, I am free to give any name that I wish, and my anonymity is intact.

[Added June 21, 2017 this facsimile of the folium rectum of a Wendy's receipt which clearly shows the correlation identifier used for the associated order]

[Added June 22, 2017 showing the McDonald's correlation in action, with the correlation ID clearly visible on both the receipt and the order itself]

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