Ending with a bing, not a whimper | Chuck's World

By Chuck Sigars | Dec 31, 2013

My wife teaches college students, an environment in which technology now helps out overworked professors but carries risks.

In her specific case, my wife uploaded some classical music for her students to listen to and identify. This is nice for both sides, efficient and easy, but as my wife found out it can get tricky.

It turned out that her students were a simple right-click away from seeing all the information about the music, including composers, making it a pretty easy test.

This is metadata, the traces of digital information that most of us ignore but are there just the same, you betcha.

My son and I helped her strip the data off, but it seemed an appropriate problem for 2013. “Metadata” is actually a good candidate for Word of the Year, although “twerking” is closing fast.

Edward Snowden’s revelations informed a lot of us about just how much personal information we scatter these days, dripping out of our phones and web browsers and debit card purchases and scraped into the inbox trays of the NSA, but that’s only part of the story.

Algorithms of all sorts now infiltrate our lives. The engineers at Netflix, for just one example, looked at the data and figured out that people like to watch films starring Kevin Spacey or directed by David Fincher, leading them into the TV business with “House of Cards,” a soapy political thriller that’s about to start its second season. They figured out what we wanted, and gave it to us.

But Netflix is just finessing a culture that’s existed for a while. Amazon.com is going to make shopping suggestions based on what we’ve purchased in the past, and Google knows what ads to stick in our peripheral vision, and there’s plenty of smaller code lurking around our online lives.

We’re used to leaving trails, most of us, and for most of us it feels as harmless as the barrista who starts making our favorite drink as we walk through the door. Familiarity has advantages.

We can also do our own sleuthing. If you visit Facebook or some of the other social media sites, it’s not hard to get at least a sketch of your friends’ passions and politics.

That person is really into dogs. This one reads DailyKos daily. This one loves hockey, as bizarre as that sounds. Gathering metadata is what our brains do anyway, although none of us can explain the cat videos.

There was a little game a couple of months ago, though, one of those that floats around our online world and seems to explain a lot of the talk about Big Data. We may be alarmed at news of data mining, but it turns out a lot of us don’t mind sharing.

This was the Facebook game in which people were given a number, and had to post that many things about themselves and their lives that other people might not know.

I found it fascinating and enlightening that a former classmate of mine not only posed nude for art classes while in college, but also was a state ping-pong champion as a teenager. What the NSA might do with this information is unclear.

I was a spectator only, though. I don’t play games like this, and I’ve also been mining my own data for a dozen years in public. If there’s something you don’t know about me, just keep reading this newspaper. It’ll come up.

Oh, I can think of some trivia I haven’t exploited. For example, I’m a disaster when I get up in the morning. Not in a “not until my coffee” way, but in a rumpled mess sort of way.

My hair stands out at weird angles and refuses to be combed, and I overall look like somebody just searched me for weapons. Not a pretty sight.

And then there’s this: Up until fairly recently, I had never seen an episode of “The Sopranos.”

I know, right?

Widely considered the finest television series ever produced. Shelves jammed with award statues. Fame and fortune for the goodfellas and good gals who populated the show, which ran from 1999 until 2007, fading out in a mysterious finale that even I had heard about. I’d just never seen it.

But that was then, and this is now, and I’m the father of a woman who knows what she likes and how to make her dad like it, too. On a recent visit, she introduced me to Tony (“How ya doin’?”) and Carmella (“A pleasure to meet you”) and the rest of that wacky gang of New Jersey sociopaths.

So the culture and I clashed, and the culture won. I’ve watched a couple of seasons so far, and I look forward to a new year of learning the intricacies of waste management on the East Coast.

It also means I can share in the mourning for James Gandolfini, who died much too young this year. There was plenty of sadness in 2013, though; there always is.

And there will always be data, and metadata, although 2014 might be the year we all start taking it more seriously. I wish you a happy New Year, at any rate, and less sadness.

And I apologize in advance if you run across me early in the morning. It seriously can’t be combed, I’ve tried. But whatcha gonna do? We all got problems. Bada bing.

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