Small Wonders: Pay close attention to your metadata

Thanksgiving is just a few days away. And I am already annoyed.

Though delicious, it will be the same meal, cooked the same way and eaten with the same people. The same tired stories will be shared, the same confounding statements will tick me off, and we’ll end the night painfully full, leftovers in hand, dreading the hairpin turn into the insanity of Christmas shopping and overspending.

Yeah. I’m a little grumpy. I think I've got bad metadata.

Though I have a passing knowledge of things technical, just enough to get me into trouble before running to the computer repair shop, I work with geniuses.

Seriously. These guys make computers sing and dance, beam digital TV signals thousands of miles into the sky, bounce them off invisible satellites and into homes across the country. All so parents can have a few moments of peace to burn dinner, pay the bills or stare at the dusty ceiling fan thinking, “I really should clean that. Maybe tomorrow.”

I am a woeful wordsmith among bit-rate blacksmiths, and they have taught me more than they will ever know, not just about computer technology, but about the way the world works. And there is one word, one thing, that always seems to be at the center of every technical discussion: metadata.

Often referred to as “data about data,” says, “Metadata describes how and when and by whom a particular set of data was collected, and how the data is formatted.”

Metadata is a small file that rides along with a big file; a little information booklet that comes with bigger, more intricate bundles of files. The little file — the metadata — is a set of generic details about the big guy, providing much needed instruction and insight.

For you analog thinkers, consider a book. Metadata is the information before and after the story, the author’s name and biography, summary, table of contents, copyright, publisher's information and page numbers.

But not only is metadata descriptive, it is structural. Structural metadata tells other systems how to deal with that host file, its physical makeup, what it likes, what it doesn’t, how to work with that file as it passes through the matrix of this world.

Since video files are just containers of picture and sound assets traveling together waiting to be played, they need a manual to hand over to the next machine that plays them; something to tell the next receiver the structure of what it is receiving, how to play this complex package of sights, sounds and emotions in synchronization and correlation with each other.

Kind of like us.

Our past, our experiences, our genetic stuff; the people, feelings and achievements — some good, some bad — we've collected along our way. All metadata.

Imagine metadata as a chatty little biographer and coach sitting in the sidecar of the motorcycle you’re driving down the highway of life, barking orders and telling everyone you pass all of the filthy details of your existence. Scary.

It's the gruesome details of every remarkable and regretful thing you've ever done, or had done to you. Specters of every relationship, dream, desire and sin, you've embraced or tried to forget. Everything that makes you the person you see beyond the mirror.

But it's also what's behind an old lady's smile — that memory, cue or familiarity that makes someone you've never met before and will never see again light up in kindness as you walk past them on your way to work.

Fathers write it for their sons, mothers for their daughters. And vice versa, which is much more subtle and insidious.

It is the set of expectations and assumptions that goes before you when you have Thanksgiving dinner with your family and friends; all the preset arguments and pet peeves, joys and unhindered love you know you're going to encounter.

But, unlike files, you get to add to your own metadata. You can change it, update it. Keep what works, overwrite the data that doesn't and add new information and experiences to make sure you play out optimally.

That's what I need to work on.

The geniuses I interact with each day confound, frustrate and amaze me. They're like family. But they know metadata. And surrounding yourself with good programmers and engineers, bosses and co-workers, dreamers and doers, pastors and princesses, friends and loved ones who all want the best for you is how we write good metadata for ourselves. And for them.

Even if we don't understand what the hell they're talking about.

PATRICK CANEDAY makes the best pumpkin pie. Ever. Contact him at Friend him on Facebook. Read more at

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