Potato Chips, French Fries, and Metadata

November 22, 2008
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Here in the U.S., we’re coming up on our Thanksgiving holiday. One of the discussions that always comes up in conjunction with this is food, and specifically, potatoes. Mashed? (of course) Boiled with parsley? (maybe) French fries? (not with this meal!)

So now I’m thinking about my paternal grandfather, who emigrated to the U.S. from Wales in 1929, followed shortly by my grandmother, father, and aunt. (Yes, I’m talking about “Scotty the Welshman”

Here in the U.S., we’re coming up on our Thanksgiving holiday. One of the discussions that always comes up in conjunction with this is food, and specifically, potatoes. Mashed? (of course) Boiled with parsley? (maybe) French fries? (not with this meal!)

So now I’m thinking about my paternal grandfather, who emigrated to the U.S. from Wales in 1929, followed shortly by my grandmother, father, and aunt. (Yes, I’m talking about “Scotty the Welshman” from my book.) Grandpa and Gramma Thomas became proud U.S. citizens and lived over 50 years in their new country, but they always retained their Welsh identity and menu preferences.

Grandpa loved his fish and chips. He and Grandma would talk about how they had to eat broiled fish and boiled potatoes because of the rationing during World War I, and how nice it was to have fried potatoes any time they wanted them.

But Grandpa never called them fried potatoes or even french fries. They were chips. And when a young waitress at a lunch counter asked him if he wanted chips with his ham sandwich, he always said yes. It was Gramma who would have to call the young waitress back and explain that he wanted french fries, not Lays potato chips. You see, even if Grandpa had just had an extended conversation with the waitress about how much he wished they had “fish and chips” on the menu, but he’d settle for a “ham sandwich and chips,” Gramma just knew that the waitress probably didn’t make the connection.

I think about them sometimes when I’m embroiled in a metadata discussion about how much documentation is really needed and how explicit data definitions need to be. 

Yes, even with a holiday coming up, I’m still talking about data and metadata most of the day. The past few weeks, many of my discussions tend to be with members of the Data Governance & Stewardship Community of Practice, and there tends to be an ocean between some of us. (I mean this literally – how cool it is to hear my grandparents’ accents in some of our community members… )

The answer to “how much documentation,” it seems, depends in part on whether the users/beneficiaries of those data definitions all have the same cultural background. It depends on whether their frame of reference includes two continents and and ocean between, or just a lunch counter and some familiar red vinyl stools.

And it depends on how they would react if they ordered french fries and got potato chips, instead.

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