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The word “Awesome” January 26, 2010

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I haven’t done any formal quantitative analysis, but from my own experience, this word was used when I was growing up, then used rarely at all, and now seems to have experienced a rebirth. Things people don’t necessarily mean about something when they say it’s “awesome”:

  • It’s earnest and not self-conscious about it. (Schindler’s List: Awesome?)
  • It’s subtle. (Hints of flavor in wine: Awesome?)
  • It’s cultured. (Art house film: Awesome?)
  • It excels in one area, but not in another. (“That painting is awesome! – except the lake” ?)

What do they mean, then? A few things. The most important, however, is touched on in the last of the list – what is being described works as a cohesive whole and isn’t able to be vivisected, is impervious to analysis or analysis would kill the magic spark.

The second is a sense of separateness from the quality being described, of shedding any responsibility for the manner in which it’s good. Even when someone says, “I am awesome,” there’s a sense that there’s something not self-made about them, as if they’re saying, “I just came out this way.”

The third item being communicated is their role as a delighted consumer, as an audience – they’re being presented to, not doing the presenting, and whatever is being presented is effective, it just works.

That last item’s the one that gets the most play, despite it being tertiary. There is something feminine, or infantile, about being completely wrapped up in a presentation, lacking not only negative criticism, but any criticism at all other than a thumbs-up gesture. Because of this, “awesome” is often used as a kind of preemptive shield from having to defend why something is liked when the likable aspects aren’t respectable. It’s accepting a bare minimum of vulnerability to ensure that any requests for a respectable feature will be seen as aggressive. “Awesome” is how a person prevents himself, and more importantly others, from seeing his own inconsistency – cognitive dissonance on demand. His professed taste, a cornerstone of his reputation will be spared by insisting the impugning evidence:

  1. cannot be analyzed;
  2. despite this, it must be good because it’s doing it for him;
  3. and anyhow, he’s not defending it because he’s not responsible for it.

If Albert tells Bob “THING is awesome,” what he’s trying to do is make Bob choose between giving up belief in Albert’s good taste and Bob’s own belief THING is actually blunt, dull, gimmicky, schlocky, etc. Which will Bob choose – Albert’s judgment, or his own? Bob can’t even ask Albert to defend THING, because Albert’s implied he isn’t willing to, and because of that Albert will be agitated should Bob bring it up.

Which is why at the end of the day, using the word is a very minor implied threat and, consequently, a status play.

Circumstancial evidence suggesting Dexter killed his wife December 22, 2009

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Masuka saw Rita kissing the neighbor, and doesn’t know there was no history or future to the kiss.

Quinn saw Dexter out at a club and thinks it was because Dexter was getting some strange. He knows Dexter was unfaithful to Rita while the two were dating.

Dexter had two angry outbursts that day – he punched Quinn and was arrested for assault.

Dexter can’t account for his whereabouts around the time Rita died.

The police think they just ran Trinity out of town.

Rita’s bath will be the only Trinity kill without the finger pointing to ash that’s been licked onto a surface.

The Mitchells will be thoroughly interrogated; they will mention that Kyle Butler as at their house when the police came; this name will be hot in Miami Homicide’s mind because a Kyle Butler was killed in Miami recently. They will describe Dexter, who was already under suspicion for being at the house too soon.

They will also tell the story of Thanksgiving, when Kyle Butler ate dinner at their house and attacked Trinity.

Deb just found out Dexter’s brother was Brian Moser, the Ice Truck Killer, to whom she was engaged and to whom she was almost victim. I doubt the similarity – Dexter killing his wife – will be lost on her.

New Facebook feature idea: Friend-request acceptance noted as explicitly obligatory December 11, 2009

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My idea for a Facebook feature: In addition to the “Confirm” and “Ignore” buttons on friend requests, there is another button that says “I Guess I Have To,” and if this is how your request was accepted, your notice says, “John Doe reluctantly accepted your friend request.”

Additional friend request acceptance options

Your friend request was reluctantly accepted.

This would be especially useful for:

  • coworkers, especially bosses
  • “middle” family, not close enough to mistreat yet not distant enough to ignore
  • friends of friends with whom you aren’t really friends
  • people who you think will comment with uncomfortably high frequency on your Facebook stories

In short: Facebook is attempting to violently collapse all of my parallel lives, parallel lives that sometimes took years to build. I like integrity as an ideal, not as reality.

Thoughts about Dexter’s fourth season, one episode before the finale December 8, 2009

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I was talking with my brother, and we imagined the following exchange in the writers’ room during the initial stages of writing the fourth season.

WRITER #1: Okay, so Dexter’s got a wife, he’s got a kid. He’s trying to “have it all” and I think a good theme will be not just how he manages to juggle all of these lives, but also which parts of these lives he’s willing to sacrifice for parts of other lives.

WRITER #2: I think that’s a great idea for Dexter. Okay, we’ve got these other characters, too. What can we do?

WRITER #1: I’ve kind of been throwing this idea around for Deb for a while, privately. I’m just putting it out there; if it doesn’t do anything for you, just let me know.

WRITER #2: Sure.

WRITER #1: I’m thinking we should give her a new career.

WRITER #2: Wow, interesting. What have you got in mind?

WRITER #1: We make her a cop.

(silence)

WRITER #1: I’m sorry I brought it up.

WRITER #2: No, it’s just … Wow. It’s so out of left field. It’s a direction we’ve never considered taking her before.

WRITER #1: I know! That’s what makes it so exciting. Think about all the possibilities.

WRITER #2: It’s a complete change for the character. I’m liking this idea a lot. Okay, I think we’ve got everything we need here. Let’s get to work on outlining.

WRITER #3: What about Batista and LaGuerta?

WRITERS #1 and #2, together: Oh, shit.

I would say this season has been skippable if it weren’t for Deb. Now that Deb is an honest-to-God cop, I like her as a character much, much more. It makes her a threat to figuring out Dexter’s lie, which makes us respect her – makes us wonder what she’s up to, what she’s thinking.

Because, more than anything else for her character, I want Deb to know Dexter’s secret. Deb’s arc has been to worship her father, then realize her father isn’t a platinum standard to which she must hold herself, and now we’re seeing her surpass her father. I want Deb to surpass Harry in every way – I want her to be a better cop, a better person, but I also want her to see Dexter for what he is and not be overcome by it.

Harry only knew Dexter the Monster. He didn’t know Dexter the Human – indeed, Dexter the Human didn’t exist. This vulnerability is what killed him: when he saw Dexter the Monster in full form and didn’t have a broader, or at least alternate, vision of Dexter – Dexter the Human, the identity he was laying the foundation for – his perception of his son wasn’t robust enough to defend against the horror.

Deb doesn’t have this problem. She only knows Dexter the Human. (She has the advantage of Dexter the Human becoming real over the past several years). When she learns Dexter’s secret, she will have a fuller picture – Dexter the Monster counterweighed by Dexter the Loving Husband, Dexter the Loving Father. She could withstand it, and then Dexter would have that connection that has been so elusive to him – what he has with his victims, what he had with Doakes in the final episodes of the second season, what he had with Miguel Prado in the third season. Unlike those fleeting connections, though, his connection with Deb wouldn’t be temporary. Dexter’s secret wouldn’t be the death sentence it has been for so many others.

This isn’t without problems, of course. How does Dexter explain Doakes’ death? “That was an accident; I was only trying to frame him so he would get the death penalty,” doesn’t strike me as very defensible.

I could also see the writers’ trying to make exactly the opposite point: Dexter connecting on that level is unhealthy. It is, in fact, impossible: that side of Dexter is a killer, and is in fact so strong a killer that just seeing this side of him will kill. Rather than trying to connect on this level – what Dexter sees as his true person, his core – he needs to re-define his core and work on making what were once false connections into genuine connections. This seems a perfectly valid way to tell the story.

Under this paradigm, Trinity would basically be a case study in someone who was either not willing or not able to redefine this core. He’s got a lot in common with Dexter – a lot of death in his immediate family, with Trinity being at least partly responsible (like Dexter). His rituals are like Dexter’s – he is recreating the death of his loved ones. He is an example of what Dexter would become if he makes these genuine connections with people while retaining his identity as strictly Dexter the Monster – if he cannot change what these real connections are really connecting to.

This theory isn’t mutually exclusive with Deb knowing, though. I think the two narratives fit together well. His connection with Deb would be one of these connections that once was fake and now is real; the connection isn’t anchored in Dexter the Monster, but Dexter the Human. Coincidentally, almost unrelatedly, she knows the Monster exists.

As for Batista and LaGuerta: Who cares? What a waste of words, film, time. I get the angle: Batista’s genuineness and heart will be a salve to LaGuerta’s politicking, and LaGuerta’s cunning will protect Batista’s ingenuousness. But it doesn’t matter; it doesn’t do anything for me. The writers didn’t provide enough contrast with LaGuerta’s compromised, calculated life to make Batista-as-oasis all that compelling. Further, one of the only interesting parts of the story of their relationship would have been to see who brought up marriage first – Batista or LaGuerta. My guess is that the writers thought if we showed the actual conversation, it would reinforce what we already thought about the characters. If we don’t see it, though, we just appear in this situation of them being married without hitting us over the head with the idea that Batista means it and LaGuerta doesn’t.

(By the way, after I heard the captain’s assessment of the marriage, and said he hoped their marriage wouldn’t be as amoral as the decision that led to it, I couldn’t help but think to myself, “Captain is right.”)

I’ve been predicting (read: hoping) that Deb, not Dexter, would be the one to finish Trinity. This is looking pretty unlikely after Dexter framed Stan Bodri so well. I wanted this for a lot of reasons:

  • I want Dexter to see that as his priorities change, as he becomes human, that the control being lost is not necessarily being ceded to forces that will harm him.
  • I want Deb, not Dexter, to be the one to catch Lundy’s prey.
  • I don’t imagine a pre-killing table-talk with Trinity would be that insightful or exciting.

Right now, my perfect finish to the season would be: Dexter and Trinity square off, but because Trinity never yielded his Monster Essence to his Human Essence, he is the more effective killer. He overwhelms Dexter. Deb, however, has figured out that Arthur is Trinity – and busts in, killing Trinity and saving Dexter. His human connections are what save him from this future version of himself.

Bonus if she’s figured out Dexter is a serial killer.

New Facebook feature idea: Further friend count breakdown December 2, 2009

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My idea for a Facebook feature: Under your “friends” count, it has sub-counts that further break down the friends list. How about displaying the number of friends:

  • Who have 3 or more mutual friends with me
  • Who appear anywhere in my uploaded photos, or I in theirs
  • On whose wall I have written, or who have written on my wall, in the past half-year, both including those messages exchanged on birthdays and then only messages that aren’t birthday wishes
  • Who are not my race
  • Who have logged into Facebook in the last two months

I’d also like to see figures such as the ratio of friends I requested to total friends, and the combined ratios of those friends who requested me (i.e., are the people who added me people who normally take the effort to add friends or not?).

I understand that the reason these stats are not provided is because it encourages even more status-posturing than already goes on in Facebook, diluting its use as a connectivity tool among people who are already friends and converting it to a status tool to impress people who are not already your friends. But it’s kind of already that way. This kind of returns Facebook to at least a mapping of real-world circumstances, by letting me know who is a real socialite (part of large groups of very interconnected and diverse friends) vs. who is just posturing (I request you because you’re a friend of a friend and we shook hands at a bar one night and exchanged pleasantries).

“Gratitude journal” fails to increase someone’s happiness December 1, 2009

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Gretchen Rubin hostilely interviews herself to quell nerves about a bad reaction to her book:

You tried many different happiness strategies. What didn’t work?
Lots of things. I never could keep a food journal—I just couldn’t remember to write things down. Laughter yoga left me cold. I was annoyed by my gratitude journal.

Gratitude is something we like other people to feel about us because it increases our status. We feel gratitude in low-status situations – when someone does something for us that we were unable to do.

I think a gratitude journal would remind us of all the ways we’re not really in control of our lives, making it seem like everyone around us has to do us favors because we’re ineffectual people. It’s also “looking down,” so to speak – we see all that we have and realize how much we can lose, and reinforces an idea that we don’t really deserve it; we should be grateful for it.

Idea: Keeping a journal of that to which you feel entitled, that which you have because you deserve it. Instead of, “I’m grateful someone held the door open for me on the subway,” I would replace it with, “I have a nice apartment and I’m not that thankful for it; I expect it.”

A Question August 27, 2009

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Does anyone else have a sneaking suspicion that news articles about women being accused of actually being men (Caster Semenya & Lady Gaga, recently) strategically select the in-set pictures to show the accused’s most mannish features or – barring that – to show the largest possible mysterious wrinkle in the crotch of their pants?

On Guilt August 24, 2009

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I don’t remember where I read it, but I didn’t make it up: The difference between guilt and shame is that you can brag about feeling guilty, but you can’t brag about feeling ashamed.

Give that thought a little time to dissolve throughout your mind. It’s a resilient meme. Now that I’ve read it, when I hear anybody say, “I feel guilty,” “I feel bad,” I’m just unable to believe them. What I hear instead is what I think is the actual message: “I have done something that, despite my wishes and efforts, will no longer be secret, and I am worried that this information will damage my standing in my social networks. It is very important to me that you believe this behavior is atypical!” Guilt, in this scenario, is simply a special case of fear resulting from the possibility of high-status people discovering a lie you’ve told them. As the penalty grows greater and more likely, you harbor a greater feeling of guilt.

This as opposed to shame, which is a feeling that results from doing a behavior that is usually used for classifying someone as low-status. For example, suppose I’m at a party at a friend’s house, and I break his television. I’m now low-status. I’m ashamed. I feel a strong urge to replace it, to replace my social status, to convince my friend I’m not a net liability to his life.

This is an important insight. Guilt incites us not to right the wrong, but to spread our version of the wrong through our social networks. Shame incites us to right the wrong, and to keep the wrong a secret.

Needs to be more pithy? Here: Guilt incites justification; shame incites rectification.

A quick summary of my work in recent years May 1, 2009

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Between December 1999 and May 2001, I made six trips to the Amazon to perform certain functions fulfilling duties as an independent contractor with the League of Superheroes. Included in these (not an exhaustive list) were saving Blazing Bolt from three independently designed death traps, two of which were designed by Insanium Man; stopping a nefarious corporation from strip-mining a mountain range adjacent to the river; and protecting a hidden tribe of Amazon women, earning an honorary chieftain status within their clan.

For the next three years I was held in a secret prison in Rwanda and interrogated using ancient Chinese methods perfected during the Warring Nations period (despite learning my interrogators’ long-dead language, my memory was rewritten to prevent me from exacting justice). It should be noted here that I did not give any vital information to my interrogators. I eventually escaped by crafting a skull key out of the bones of the raw fishheads they gave me for my one weekly meal. After unlocking my cell, I proceeded to disable no less than 10 ninja guards, steal the legendary magic carpet of the immortal necromancer al-Wahir Zahanarhi, outrace between five and six dozen Tomahawk missiles and thousands of rocket-propelled grenades upon my wizardly vehicle, and make it to the nearest U.S. embassy. This is a summary; I have left out certain superfluous information; please see my completed filed report for those items excluded here (e.g., the discovery of my first skull key attempt and punishment in what my captors colloquially called the Desert Scorpion Box; the thirteen days and nights of solving riddles upon a tightrope; etc.) Some information has also been withheld for state security purposes.

Agency, Power, Control, & Self-Determination December 2, 2008

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Over at Monadology:

He or she didn’t mean it that way, but it sure did make those million World of Warcraft players he described sound like complete failures in the real world and their online comforts but frail distractions from their quiet desperation.

This is pretty much what I was trying to say, with the exception of replacing the world “frail” with “powerful.”

HB worries about denying these people human agency, but I don’t know how to maneuver around the fact that when two people both pursue a single unshareable thing, only one of them will walk away affirming the reality of human agency. Talent is not equally distributed, and I think ultimately there is some form of a zero-sum game going on. There are going to be winners and losers in a competitive environment. Some people will go close to undefeated, which means there are some people who will be close to perpetual failure. That means that there are going to be some people who walk around with very limited control over their lives, and so the world is a scary place. We can encourage them to try, but doing so, I think, demonstrates a lack of proper respect to their experience.

When we encourage people “to make better homes, to produce good food, to manufacture good products” – we’re assuming the problem is a person who doesn’t realize how much control over their lives they have. But most people run thousands of mini-experiments a day to test their control over their lives, and to wave our hands and say, “Try more,” fails to see that. Besides, what are “better homes,” “good food,” “good products”? “Good” is a relative word, and their homes, food, and products are only “good” if they’re better than someone else’s. Which is exactly the point! We’re talking about people who persistently lose, whose yield from effort is reliably less than other people’s.

These people are losers, regardless of whether or not we use a word to identify that phenomenon. “Winners,” “losers,” “addicts,” were around before people knew to call them winners, losers, and addicts. I think this is hard for generally capable people to understand – they are familiar with their own powers of self-determiniation and self-definition. But losers do not have the ability to define their person in defiance of the definition being constantly projected onto them – this is central to their identity as a loser.

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