Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Only Idiots Own Pit Bulls

There's never been a truer statement. Own a pit bull terrier? If so you're a moron. You can't not be. Show me the counter example. Show me the guy with the 175 IQ who keeps pit bulls. Show me the retired English professor. Show me the Boeing engineer. Show me the pediatrician. I'll wait. Being an idiot, you probably don't even know how to look.

You see, pit bulls, almost alone among dog breeds, are capable of unpredictable and unprovoked savage violence against humans, no matter how well they've been domesticated or trained. There is no such thing as a safe pit bull. They are responsible for over 50% of reported dog attacks in America annually. Think about that. That's one out of over 100 breeds responsible for more than half of all attacks.

But it gets better. Most dog bites result in non-serious injuries. Pit Bull attacks disproportionately result in maiming or death. Most dogs, when provoked, will only attack people they perceive as weaker - children and the elderly. Pit Bulls and only Pit Bulls make no distinction between adults and children. They will attack anyone.

My evidence for all of that? Only the most comprehensive multi-decade study of American dog attacks ever conducted:


So let's ask a question. Why would a person choose a pit bull? Let's draw up a list of pros and cons. We already know the cons: pit bulls, no matter how well trained, are capable of unprovoked lethal violence against anyone. There's the check mark in our con category. So what are the pros?

How about maybe, they make good guard dogs? No, sadly they don't. They don't have the guard dog instinct. They conspicuously don't make a top-18 list of best guard dog breeds. Although the author notes that many people use them as guard dogs anyway, counting on their mere scary appearance to be a deterrent to a trespasser.

Which bring us to the next "pro" consideration. Is this a cute, charming or handsome dog? Well, you be the judge.
So no. It's not a dog that works, it's not particularly intelligent or beautiful, it possesses no special skill or ability. It really has only one outstanding trait, and that's that it's unpredictably savage and that it attacks people at far higher rates than any other dog. Why is that so hard for Pit Bull fanciers to admit? Why do sites like these blame the pit bull's reputation as a scary savage dog on "media hype"? Are the mauling statistics not convincing? Do they think that Basset Hounds are sending children to the hospital with these kinds of facial wounds with equal frequency as pit bulls but the media conspiracy just suppresses it?

So I mean, why not get a golden fucking retriever? Why would you get a pit bull? Even if you strongly disagree with me on the aesthetic question and you think this breed is handsome and beautiful, why get the one dog most statistically likely to maim your children? I don't get it. Is it that handsome and beautiful? Is it such a compelling dog in all other respects that you're willing to roll the dice on the maiming, and willing to pay higher insurance premiums? Of course it isn't.

In fact, there is only one "pro" to owning a pit bull terrier, and now we get back to my main point. The only reason to choose a pit bull is because you believe it is some kind of fashion accessory. You believe it's stylish. Specifically, you think that because the pit bull is a bad-ass dog, that it somehow makes you a bad-ass to own one. You're hoping that by owning an unpredictably violent dog, you will be thought of as a tough guy.

And to conclude, there's only one kind of person who would a) want to acquire a bad-ass reputation via dog breed selection, b) think that pit bull ownership actually accomplishes this, and c) think that pit bulls aren't really that dangerous. And that's a massively stupid person. And since the only reason to select the most savage dog in the breed book is to make this fashion statement, it follows that every pit bull owner is massively stupid.

Have a great day.

Monday, October 25, 2010

PhDs who Insist on the "Doctor"

Imagine a guy who boasts to everyone that he's in Mensa. What would you think of a guy who boasts about being in Mensa? Would you have a higher, or lower opinion of this person? You would listen to him blather on about some recent meeting, or the upcoming national Mensa symposium, and what are you thinking? I wouldn't presume to speak for you, but I'm guessing you'd be thinking: "Who is this doughy load, and why am I talking to him?" And it's ironic and sad, because I'm guessing the only point of being in Mensa is to improve the regard other people have for your intelligence. Imagine the Mensa guy's disappointment when he discovers that the only thing membership in Mensa demonstrates is that you are a) insecure, b) a douche, and c) not all that intelligent because you couldn't figure out A and B.

This seems obvious to me. Yet this point eludes some of our nation's PhDs, specifically the ones who insist on being called Doctor, and the ones who sign their name in the style of this email I recently received. It was an email from a marketing firm, apologizing for sending me an incorrect survey. It was signed:

Dr. Jan G. West, Ph.D.
Chairman and CEO
National Business Research Institute, Inc. ('NBRI')
15305 Dallas Parkway; 3rd floor
Addison, TX. 75001

What kind of a tool do you have to be to sign your name this way? Who on God's green earth is impressed by a PhD? You know what this is? This is stolen valor. You know, the crime of impersonating a veteran? That's what putting "Dr." in your signature is. Or asking to be called doctor outside the confines of the campus. You deliberately stoke the confusion of others who are temporarily and erroneously impressed that you're a medical doctor - you know, an actual doctor.

There's nothing wrong with getting a PhD. But to tack it on the end of your name - wow. Does a PhD really demonstrate superior intelligence? Does it even demonstrate mastery of a specialized area of knowledge? I'm assuming Dr. Jan G. West, Ph.D. got her doctorate in marketing. If you need a refresher on the rigors of a masters level marketing education, I report about my first hand experience of it here. As usual, I give a pass to anyone whose PhD was earned in engineering, comp sci, the hard sciences. Areas where specialized knowledge is very real and urgently important. You know, like the specialized knowledge an actual doctor has. But when you talk about the specialized knowledge a marketing PhD has, you are talking about the richest, most pungent and concentrated bullshit known to man. You're talking about pure bullshit extract, a clear liquid dispensed with an eye dropper while wearing rubber gloves. There is nothing useful, nothing, in marketing at the PhD level, except to practice your ability to weave impenetrable tapestries of gobbledegook on the page, for the benefit of professors who will grade you only on how inscrutable it is.

This is the substance of Dr. Jan G. West, Ph.D.'s implied boast. She's boasting that only a smart cookie such as herself could have qualified to forgo joining the workforce in order to spiral deeper and deeper into marketing academia. Furthermore, it's a statement that she thinks there's actual value in a marketing PhD. And finally, it's predicated on the assumption that others would be impressed by the decision. Dr. Jan G. West, Ph.D. is wrong on all three counts. In fact the only thing in her signature that impressed me at all was the inclusion of her middle initial. Oh no, wait - it didn't.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm off to a very important meeting.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

People Who Offer You the Sugar Free Versions of Things as if There's No Difference

I am fed up with this. I just spent a week as the houseguest of a very nice woman, who despite all her positive qualities had a terrible and offensive habit. She would serve her guests the low-fat, no-sugar, gluten-free, low-carb, or diet version of whatever food staple was being innocently offered. And she would offer it as if she was providing the genuine article. As if there was no actual difference between an ice tea and a diet ice tea. As if skim milk can get the job done in a cup of coffee. Because I was in the tricky position of being a guest and she was offering me hospitality, I couldn't really speak my mind and give her the verbal abuse that such behavior warrants. Instead I had to play polite and continually find new excuses of why I wasn't going to finish my bowl of no sugar added ice cream, or my bagel with fat free cream cheese.

With soda, I think you'll all agree, society has successfully managed to mentally distinguish the regular and diet versions. If someone offered you a coke, and then when you said yes, handed you a diet coke, you would look at it in confusion and say, "I thought you said you had a coke?" We view these two items (properly) as unique and non substitutable. Unfortunately this sense of clearly distinguishing diet products from their regular counterparts hasn't percolated up to the ice cream or tea markets, as evidenced in my recent experience in this minefield of a pantry.

There was a Seinfeld episode, an old one, where Kramer is down in Florida at Jerry's parents house. He mentions that he's hungry and Jerry's mom says something like "Would you like me to make you an omelet?" Kramer perks up immediately at this unexpected good fortune and says yes, please! Jerry's mom goes to work but starts advising Kramer on the particulars of what he's going to get:

Mom: "You don't mind cottage cheese, do you?"
Kramer: "Oh sure, sure. That's fine."
Mom: "And I don't actually have any eggs. I use egg beaters."
Kramer: "Uh.... sure. Ok."

And then there may have been one or two additional qualifications, and at each step Kramer signs off on it, with increasing unease, until by the end it becomes plain that this will be the most disgusting, inedible, unappetizing omelet in the history of western civilization. But Kramer by this point has committed himself. It's funny.

But at least in this frightening scenario Mrs. Seinfeld had the decency to warn Kramer at every step of the way about what was in store. And so when Kramer presumably ate the foul concoction he knew what he was getting. At least he wasn't caught unawares. This was the triple offense of my host's bowl of no-sugar-added ice cream. First you have the fact that no-sugar-added ice cream tastes like a frozen bucket of bus depot mop water. Second you have the shock factor. You were expecting ice cream when you spooned yourself that bite. You had no opportunity to steel yourself for the flavor of a barium milkshake. And third is our old friend the presumption of ignorance. My host assumed that I wouldn't know the difference. She assumed that ice-cream and no-sugar-added ice cream are substitutes, that they can be swapped without anyone being the wiser. "Is there a problem with the ice cream?" she questioned. "A problem? This is no-sugar-added ice cream, asshole!" I didn't reply.

There are some people, you'll agree, who are highly health conscious and their kitchens reflect their dietary priorities. You'll find lots of fresh vegetables, fruits, yogurts, rice cakes, protein bars, that kind of stuff. My host, on the other hand, didn't follow this model. She had, from all appearances, a kitchen full of the kind of junk food staples that I love. There were chips and pretzels, and microwavable stuff, there were sodas and Snapples, and the freezer was full of desserts. I think, in her mind, the fact that all of it was the diet-version made it okay.

But it really isn't okay. If you're eating no-sugar-added ice cream, you're eating a bowl of shit. Why not just have real ice cream, but have it less often? Or, instead of salt-free potato chips, how about you just have no potato chips whatsoever? These freakish, terrible tasting, golem like simulacrums of guilty-pleasure food are a lose lose situation for everyone. They provide no pleasure, and they still give you the guilt. Even so, I don't mind if you take this approach to your life - eating this foul chow - as long as you don't try to make me participate. You know how people who don't drink tea or coffee still might keep some in the house for guests? Keep some real food in your house just in case a person comes along who naturally recoils in disgust from things like Crystal Light.

At the end of the week, and at the end of a long day, my host asked the table if we'd all like some hot cocoa. At this point in our stay, you'd better believe, we had wised up to the reality of this kitchen. Our eyes darted around. Did cocoa sound good right about then? Of course it did. But what were we actually going to get? What kind of frightening liquid would actually appear in that steaming mug? Finally we said yes, but I watched the preparation like a hawk. First, out came the tea kettle, which our host filled with tap water. She got it going on the stove. Then out of the pantry came this box:

At this point I began the process of mentally preparing to drink sugar free hot chocolate. As the tea pot whistled our host asked if anyone wanted whipped cream. "No!" I cried out in fear before she had barely finished the question. Eventually, we all ingested a mug of this hot, watery solution, and as we did so, I privately made a vow to myself.

I vowed that when the day came that I myself would offer hot chocolate to my own guests, that it would go a little differently. On that day I will take some fresh whole milk and bring it to a simmer in a pan on low heat. Then - I bring out the block of baker's chocolate. Shaving off a chunk, I melt it separately with sugar, water, and a dash of salt. When the milk is mixed in, mmmmm - and I won't forget the marshmellow, my guests can choose full size or minis.

When my guests drink the cocoa.... some of them enter a state of pure relaxation and pleasure. Some weep. Some just whisper a silent "thank you". And some are involuntarily taken back to their earliest memories of home and family, like that guy at the end of Ratatouille.

That's my vow, and I also can state with certainly you will never be given the low calorie bullshit in any other disguise. If it took a week of watery dairy, artificial sweeteners, and fat free spreads to teach me this, well then maybe it was a lesson I needed to learn.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

260 Annoyances

241. A post office clerk who won't let you borrow the packing tape.

242. An usher making an announcement before the movie.

243. The fact that I can no longer hear any song from the Nutcracker without a voice in my head saying "Coming this Christmas".

244. When someone starts telling you a long-winded joke that you've already heard, and you miss the window of opportunity to interrupt them.

245. These breath-freshening-seed-things in the bowl when you walk out of an Indian restaurant. What are they and why do they taste so terrible?

246. Why does every word processor or email service assume that @ is part of an email address? I type @ and whatever I write next immediately turns blue and underlines itself and auto-links to an email pop-up. Have we all forgotten that the @ existed for quite some time prior to email and had other uses?

247. People who get on my elevator on an intermediate floor and then get off on another intermediate floor. Thanks for wasting my time.

248. People whose Halloween costume is clearly just their club outfit.

249. Getting a whiff of homeless.

250. Can we please stop calling movies and books "An American..." whatever? Maybe, way way back, this was some kind of genuine attempt to say something meaningful about the culture. Now though it's just utter laziness.

251. Who are these people who want to be my friend on Facebook who I haven't seen or talked to in years and only had the barest acquaintance with back then anyway? Do they not have any other friends? Or are they trying to break some record? Either way, I'm turning you down sucker.

252. Discovering that a TV show you like has commercials aimed exclusively at the elderly.

253. When you find out a famous person has died, and everyone you tell already knows.

254. Movies that are hoping you won't notice that everyone in the late 80's or early 90's has a cell phone.

255. A commute with the sun in your eyes each way.

256. Thinking you've found a shortcut but ending up in residential neighborhood labyrinth hell.

257. A kid in a fight who screams "I'm going to sue you!" at the other kid. Why do kids think this is such an effective threat?

258. Attn: people who are planning to visit Australia / New Zealand. When you get there, particularly if it is your first time, you are suddenly going to find yourself under the impression that you are a great travelogue writer and observer of culture. You are going to feel compelled to write long emails, essays, and social media posts about your every experience. When this urge occurs, you need to stop, calm yourself, and repeat to yourself in a whisper: "Nobody cares that I'm in New Zealand. Nobody cares that I'm in New Zealand." etc. "I don't write well." and "I have nothing interesting to say." also work fine.

259. A Robin Williams tearjerker, or a Billy Crystal romance.

260. Let me explain exactly what's wrong with putting everyone you talk to on speakerphone. You know, from being on the receiving end of a speakerphone conversation, that you have to strain to hear every word. When someone has you on speaker, they sound fuzzy, far away, and static-y. Now, on the flip side, it's great to be the one putting everyone on speaker, because it's hands free and oh-so convenient. So here's how it all tallies up: when you put someone on speaker, you get to enjoy added ease and convenience, at the equal-and-opposite expense of the other person's ease and convenience. Therefore, if you put someone on speaker when you're alone, you are a selfish asshole. You are saying "I am going to give you an echo-y, low-volume phone call, full of background noise and static - all so that I don't have to hold a phone cradle." The act is an announcement that you are a prick. In fact, speakerphones should come with an automated asshole message. Whenever you press the speakerphone button, there should be a bell tone, and three robotic female voices that say "Dooooouche!" in a major chord.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

20 Questions: 2010

1. What happened to binaca?

2. Why are Village Voice movie reviews always negative?

3. Why do nightclub bouncers always have their ties in a Windsor knot?

4. If cancer was cured entirely, would the anti-smoking crusaders call it quits? Or would they press on like nothing had happened? Would taxes on cigarettes be lifted? Would they allow Marlboro ads on TV? I would love to see this play out.

5. TV Judge shows. Are these people actually judges? Are these, like, actual courts? Do they follow actual law with respect to procedure and evidence and all the rest? Are their verdicts binding? Or is it all some kind of charade? I have a feeling like there's some fine print I'm missing here. If it's not really a court of law, why would anyone take their case there? Why would you take your small claims problem to someone whose primary goal is to entertain a home audience? And finally, why not actually put real court cases on TV, instead of the Judge Judy show, so that people can actually learn a little bit about how the law works, instead of this cheez wiz version of law? Oh wait, I guess they do. Court TV. Kind of boring, that Court TV.

6. How come, on the highway, everyone turns their headlights on when the sunset has just barely started? You know, when there's still a good hour of daylight left? The minute the sky gets just a little orange, wham, all the lights come on. I can't speak for anyone else but until the actual moment of dusk, putting on my lights does not offer one iota of additional visibility.

7. How can they show TV advertisements for a better TV than the one you already have? If they try to impress you with the crispness of the image, doesn't that just prove that your own TV is good enough?

8. Every time I watch a boxing match on HBO I always see one bewildering statistic. The announcers will state what the weight class is, and what the weight limit is, and then casually announce the boxers' true weights, which are always 5 or 10 pounds heavier that the maximum weight permitted. "Shouldn't the boxers be, uh, disqualified then?" is what I'm always thinking. Boxing's practice of "weighing-in" days before a fight does not make sense to me. These boxers scientifically starve themselves down to goal weights for the specific hour of the weigh-in, and then spend the next day hurriedly putting the weight back on in time for the fight. How does it make sense to permit this? Just weigh them in 30 minutes before the fight! What's the argument against this? Plus, how can the boxing authorities implicitly condone the unhealthy rapid weight gain and loss, in a sport that's supposed to be about peak physical health? What other official sports governing body would allow tactical anorexia to be a legitimate strategy?

9. When you have to give your address on an internet form, and there's a drop-down list of countries, why the is Antarctica always on there?

10. Why does the supermarket constantly change all the aisles around? Just when I learn where the soda is and where the bread is, I show up and it's all different. What was wrong with the old configuration?

11. How do Civil War magazines find new headlines every month?

12. Why is nothing a doctor scribbles on a prescription slip ever remotely legible?

13. To the people who think all cell phone talking while driving is inherently dangerous, even if done on a hands-free headset: do you think talking to the other passengers in the car is similarly dangerous? If no, what exactly is the difference between talking on a heads-free handset and talking to the person in the backseat?

14. You know in movies or on TV when they show you a newspaper that has a front page headline that supposedly is part of the plot... like "Batman Saves City" or something. Do you ever look to see what the other headlines are on the newspaper? Do you try to read the actual text of the "Batman Saves City" article? I think sometimes the text is gibberish, but occasionally, JUST occasionally, they actually compose a whole article and put it in there just in case someone like me actually tries to read it. Does anyone know any examples of when the two-second shot of the newspaper actually contained a fully coherent, plot-appropriate story in the small print?

15. How come every other species of animal can just squat and give birth, but humans require drugs and specialists and training and hospitals and surgery? Are we really that weak and fragile compared to every other animal?

16. What would someone with Tourette's shout if they had never been taught any curse words?

17. Sometimes when I'm on the elliptical machine at the gym, I'm browsing channels on the built-in TV. And sometimes, because there's always a Star Trek episode airing somewhere, I'll stumble on a good Next Generation episode, like the one where the Enterprise blows up before every commercial. So for about 1 second, I say "Hey, I think I'll watch this." And then I realize - hmm, I'm at the gym. Do I really want to be watching Star Trek: The Next Generation at the gym? And, reluctantly, I change the channel and look for something manlier to watch. And it's not just Star Trek of course. What else have I been too ashamed to linger on? The Golden Girls? Antiques Roadshow? Has this ever happened to anyone else? Wanted to watch one thing on the gym TV but reluctantly felt it didn't reflect well on you? Maybe I should start my own gym, where the promise is that we offer a TV safe-zone, where's there no judgment.

18. I'm seriously weirded out by what I only recently discovered about Joe's Stone Crabs. This is the famous restaurant in Miami that serves the Stone Crab claws. You can read a brief synopsis here, but the basic idea is that the crab is caught, a single claw is severed, and then the crab is thrown back, where over the course of a year they can grow back their missing claw, at which point (gulp) they get dragged up in the net again.

I don't know, is that crossing some kind of a line? I've made my peace with being a carnivore. I've made my peace with eating live oysters or tossing lobsters in a boiling pot... but do I really want to eat a limb of something that is still swimming around in the ocean? How can I enjoy my meal when somewhere out there is the remainder of this crab? Probably a very angry crab.

19. When am I going to get "tapped" to join a secret society? I want it all: the secret greeting, the tattoo, a ring with a glyph on the inside. I'm ready dammit! Tap me!

20. Imagine Abraham Lincoln speaking. Imagine the whole scene: he's standing on a wooden stage, he's got the beard and the hat, he's got both hands on his coat, and here he goes: "Four score... and seven years ago..." Now hold it right there. That voice you imagined. The Lincoln voice. Kind of barrel chested. Kind of like Sean Connery but without the Scottishness. Where did you get that from? There are no recordings of Lincoln's voice. None. Never were. And yet, not only do you know Lincoln's voice, in a pinch you could probably do a good impression. What's that about? Do you think maybe we have some kind of collective national memory of Lincoln's voice, that's been passed down successfully for 150 years? That strikes me as odd. There's no Washington voice. No Jefferson voice. To me, the authoritative Lincoln voice was always the Lincoln from Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure. That's the Lincoln voice against which I judge others. But I have no idea if it's accurate, and who living today would know better? We're dealing with a hand-me-down impression that's had a century and a half to morph and mutate. For all we know the real Lincoln sounded like Pee Wee Herman.

Friday, May 07, 2010

The Popularity of "Isabella"

As of today, May 8, 2010 it is now a fact that Isabella is the most popular baby girl name in America. Isabella. Like the Spanish queen. How did this happen?

Most baby names hover at a consistent popularity. A quick tour through the Social Security baby names website reveals that Emily sat in the top spot from 1996 to 2007. Before that, Jessica and Jennifer enjoyed similar long stays at #1. For most of the century, Mary was the undisputed champ. Most names don't rise or fall much in the rankings for any given year. In the very long run, they do tend to cycle. New moms and dads reject the names of their parents' generation but embrace the names of their grandparents. Some names are perennials. Some have religious associations or nationality associations or run in families. It's all fairly predictable.

But Isabella has come out of nowhere. Before 1990, it didn't crack the top 1,000 girls names. Look at this table showing Isabella's ascent through the girls' ranks. The 1990s shows the name coming from nowhere and vaulting to the top 100. The 2000s shows Isabella climbing like a machine to the #1 spot.

And don't be misled by the fact that the yearly ranking gains got smaller and smaller for Isabella. Climbing from #800 to #600 might involve a hundred girls. Climbing from #4 to #2 requires thousands of girls.

I am fascinated by the rise of Isabella. And I'll admit, I'm feeling a bit of the schadenfreude. Let me explain. People who for decades chose #1 baby names like Jennifer and Jessica did so because they liked the names. There was no illusion when you named a girl Jessica in 1995 that you were stepping outside the mainstream or making a hip choice. However, I feel certain that all of the Isabella moms and dads over the last 15 years chose the name partly because of its perception of exotic uniqueness. The last thing they wanted was a common name. They didn't want something like Jane or Lisa, the sort of name where if the teacher called it out in class, half the hands would go up. No no no, they wanted something bold. So they chose the hauntingly beautiful Isabella, confident that no other girl not descended from Spanish royalty would share the name.

Now look at them. Unique? Isabella is now officially the least unique name choice in the United States. It is the commonest name. You may not appreciate it now, but just wait 20 or 30 years, when all these Isabellas are grown up. Have you ever wondered why your mom's friends are all named Linda and Barbara, but those names don't seem to exist in any other age group? That's Isabella, 50 years from now.

So yes, I do relish the disappointment of these parents who thought they had found something unique and special, and didn't realize they had inadvertently climbed on the largest bandwagon and selected the trendiest name of the decade. There's another wave close behind Isabella by the way, and it's called Sophia. Watch out for that one in the coming years.

But none of this explains why Isabella, specifically, got so popular. Why Isabella? Well, we know it's a variant of Elizabeth. We know that "Isabel" or "Isabelle" has been around for a long time in America, for anyone wanting that Spanish flavor on Elizabeth. But "Isabella" is really going whole hog with the Spaniard thing. It would be like naming your son Pierre without any French stock in your family. Why would you do that? For this reason, Isabella seems to me to be an unlikely choice to become the #1 girl's name in the US.

Some of you may be thinking that the popularity is due to the book Twilight, but think again. Twilight was published in 2005, a good 15 years into Isabella's rise to fame. To understand my theory of why Isabella vaulted it's way to #1, I need to explain my longstanding and larger theory on baby name popularity.

A lot of people think that name trends follow celebrities. Moms like to name baby girls after the women they admire or envy. Sometimes these women can even be fictional characters. Well, I say this is only partly true. If you really want to know where baby names come from, don't look at the name of the admired celebrity. Look at what the admired celebrity names her baby. It's the baby names that the admired women select that catch on.

The single best example of this is the name Emma.

Emma's stock had been rising slowly throughout the 1990s. Some of this I believe is the cyclical effect of granny names coming back into fashion. Emma had been very popular in the late 19th century. In 2001, Emma clocked in at 13,300 girls in 13th place. In 2003, Emma hit a surprise peak of 22,686 and the #2 spot. Even though it continued to stay high in the rankings afterward and actually hit #1 in 2008, no year exceeded the 2003 total of 22,686 Emmas.

So what the heck happened in 2002? Here's a clue:

Jennifer Aniston, playing the role of Rachel on Friends, named her baby Emma. That's it. Now even though Jennifer Aniston in real life may have questionable taste and intelligence, the character of Rachel was the perfect fantasy. Beautiful, stylish, smart, funny... she came from money and was climbing the corporate ladder at Ralph Lauren. So when she named her baby Emma, guess what about 22,000 other women decided to do? Is there any other explanation for the spike? Followed by the steady decline afterward?

Other examples abound. Check out the name Lily. Yes, it too has been gaining in popularity gradually for 20 years - again the grandma effect. But what do you suppose could have pushed *Lily* into the top 20? How about Sex and the City?

Again, it wasn't the mom's name, Charlotte, that gained ground. Charlotte has been rising recently, it's now in top 100 - but during the run of the show was stuck in the 200s. No, it was her daughter Lily that people wanted to mimic.

And how about the girl's name Regan? Know any girls named Regan? I know two. They were both born in the 70s. Chances are if you know any Regans, they were also born in the 70s. Why? Have a look at this picture:

Yes, that's the Regan they are all named after. The possessed girl from the Exorcist. Portrayed by Linda Blair, the character's name was Regan MacNeil. Now, do you really think American women in 1973 were so charmed by the pea soup spewing, demon-possessed girl Regan, that they all decided to poach the name? Not exactly. You may have to watch it again, or just think back to it, but try to remember the character of Regan's mother.

The mother, Chris, played by Ellen Burstyn, was Jennifer Aniston squared. Take some time to refresh your memory. Not only was she devastatingly beautiful, but she was impossibly wealthy, and all of it self made. She lived in an impossibly opulent mansion in the best neighborhood of 70's Georgetown. She was single. She was an author (smart!), an actress, (artistic!) and her apparently regular cocktail parties and soirees brought guests from the highest echelons of Hollywood and government. (popular!) Even though the movie was not about her, she was front and center for most of it, and her incredible career and lifestyle was the stuff of dreams. (except the demon baby part).

I estimate, based on data from socialsecurity.gov, the movie produced around 1,500 Regans that wouldn't have otherwise existed. Starting in 1973 and ending in 1981. And like I said I've met two of them. Both admitted that the Exorcist was the inspiration for their parents.

So where does this leave us with Isabella? The name took a long time to reach #1. But as we've disccused, it broke into the top 1,000 names, out of nowhere, in 1990. In 1990 there were 215 Isabellas. in previous years there were less than 200, and therefore they don't appear on the site. In 1991, 300 Isabellas. In 1992, 500. In 1993, 827. In 1994, 1,275!

What happened in 1992 or 1993? We can't credit the grandma effect because the name had never had cyclical popularity or any kind of historical vogue. So where was the originating event - which is to say, what admired woman named her daughter Isabella, right in this time period? Well, ladies and gents, it took some searching, but I've found your answer.

Nicole Kidman and husband Tom Cruise adopted a girl, Isabella, born December, 1992.

Here she is today, Isabella Cruise Kidman. Patient zero.

This is literally the Isabella that spawned all the others. Thousands upon thousands of knockoff Isabellas, including thousands yet to be born, to ever more increasingly dumb portions of society that will manage for many more years yet to not have heard the word about the commonness of this name. I grant you, the only moms who were consciously emulating Nicole Kidman were the ones giving birth in 1993, 94, and maybe a few more beyond. But this was enough to start the wave. Thereafter, there were enough baby Isabellas to inspire copycats from moms who admired those mothers.

Nicole Fucking Kidman. Rich, erudite, gorgeous, talented, Tom Cruise-marrying Nicole Kidman. I have to assume the name was her idea and not Tom's. This Isabella thing, and the decades we're all going to have to put up with it, are all her fault. Thanks Nicole Kidman. Look what you've done.

Look what you've done.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Even If You Can Make a Useful Contribution, Do Not Butt Into the Conversations of Strangers

Don't be an asshole. Don't do it. Do not insert yourself into the conversations of strangers, simply because you feel you could make a useful point, or could clarify something they've misstated.

It's bound to happen. You'll be sitting there on a bus, on in line at the coffee shop, or waiting in the dentist's office, and you'll overhear a conversation that relates directly to a strong opinion you hold, or an area of your personal expertise. You'll hear the strangers making factual mistakes, or wondering aloud about questions you could easily answer. You'll hear them make arguments that are plainly wrong for at least 3 reasons you can think of immediately. And you'll hear them serve up good-humored conversational softballs to which you could respond with any number of funny quips.

You will want to butt-in. The urge may be so strong that it seems irresistible. You will rationalize it to yourself. You'll think "These guys will be thrilled that they just happened to pose questions in earshot of someone who knows the answers! It's their lucky day!"

But you are dead wrong. You are setting yourself up to look like an insufferable prick, and the only thing you will make the strangers feel is a secret desire that you drop dead.

Imagine talking to your friend on the crosstown bus:
You: "I heard KFC's grilled chicken actually has more calories than the original recipe."
Friend: "You don't say?"
You: "Yeah, it's cause of the marinade."
(Suddenly, Colonel Sanders himself turns around from the seat in front of you)
Colonel Sanders: "Actually that's not true. The grilled chicken only has 2/3 the calories. And it doesn't even have a marinade."
Friend: (Silence)
You: "Fuck off, Sanders."

The more you know about the topic, the more you will feel compelled to butt in. This happened to me last week at a bar. The strangers were discussing a movie that happened to be one of my favorites. They were arguing over the fine points and they couldn't remember certain details. It was a fun, jocular conversation, they were laughing, and they were making lots of little errors in talking about the film.

I sat there and I knew what I had to do. I had to keep my mouth shut. I could have lectured them for 20 minutes on all the fine points of the film. I could have delivered an impromptu symposium on it. But the conversation - and this is what you have to understand - the conversation they were having was not really about the movie. The movie didn't really matter. What it was really about was a couple of friends unwinding after a long work day and sharing a couple of beers. Having a few laughs. Enjoying some good company. Even though we were in a public place, there was an expectation of privacy. And if it just so happened that their casual banter involved talking about a movie - and not even getting it right - then that was their prerogative. They couldn't remember the actor's name? Didn't matter. They were having more fun trying to figure it out than they would have if I butted in like a google search result.

There are circumstances I guess where you can break the rule and butt-in. If someone gives bad directions, or someone is about to get on the wrong train, then it's okay. If you can be a good samaritan and save someone from headache and inconvenience then do it. But otherwise stay out. Allow the strangers to say things that are wildly incorrect. Allow them to be offensive.

One of my goals in life is to write a book. And the reason is because I want to someday be tempted by the ultimate butt-in scenario: some strangers talking about my book while I am sitting right there. The urge to say "Actually, I wrote that book." will be so overwhelming, that by resisting it I might break out into sweats and the shakes - but it is the ultimate test. Because anyone who says "Actually, I wrote that book." is a douche. And that's the question you have to answer. When push comes to shove, when all the chips are down: will you respect someone's privacy? Or will you be a douche?

Sunday, April 04, 2010

What the Hell is "Gay Panic" and Why is "Hot Tub Time Machine" Guilty of It?

I saw Hot Tub Time Machine last week. Funny movie. I recommend it. One habit I have is reading reviews of movies after I see them, to see if I agree with the critics and to see if they had any additional insights on the film.

So I'm reading some reviews of HTTM, and mostly I'm interested to see if the critics can give the film an endorsement for being funny, despite the raunch factor. To my surprise, the critics didn't seem to mind the raunch. Par for the course, they admitted. Roger Ebert was downright refreshed. No, the real problem was that HTTM traded in the lowest form of bigot comedy - not racism or sexism, but something called "gay panic." Well this was a new one to me.

Variety: "The pic ... later features projectile vomiting (twice), wayward pee and some of the lowest gay-panic humor in recent memory."

The Onion's AV Club: "Machine is engaging enough, but its characters’ path to redemption would be more satisfying if it weren’t greased with authentically ’80s-style casual sexism, gay panic, and frat-comedy clich├ęs."

The New York Times: "The undercurrent of misogyny and homophobic panic that courses through most arrested-development, guy-centric comedies these days is certainly present here."

Rolling Stone: "But Pink goes way too broad with the screenplay partly credited to Sean Anders and John Morris, who lift a gay-panic joke out of their own She's Out of My League."

Film Journal International: "Not all the jokes land, of course; the movie unfortunately doesn't avoid the tired gay-panic gags that continue to plague most buddy comedies..."

I could have gone on. This was a common complaint. Now, the charge of homophobia - that one I'm familiar with. Movies that make jokes at the expense of gays. I've seen those. But the charge of Gay Panic... that's not really the same is it. Gay Panic isn't Gay Bashing. It's something else.

It's something more subtle. Direct accusations of homophobia in films like Hot Tub Time Machine seem to have died down lately. And I think this is not because everyone has mellowed. I think that the line of scrimmage has simply been moved. Those who would make jokes in sex comedies about men fellating each other have been pushed back towards their own goal and are now being accused of "gay panic" rather than outright homophobia.

I'm trying to figure out what the dictionary definition of gay panic is, but Google isn't being much help. I'm also trying to figure out where in HTTM some sort of offense to homosexuals occurred, and I'm coming up empty on that too. What Google and Wikipedia are telling me is that gay-panic is a term concocted as a legal defense by those whose have committed acts of violence against gays. A hetero person discovers that someone he is talking to is homosexual, or is actually hit on by that person, and the hetero guy becomes enraged, losing all bonds to sanity, and turns violent. Gay Panic is thus invoked as a form of temporary insanity to get violent thugs off the hook.

Now I have to say, that's pretty loony. I hope no one actually skipped any jail time on that legal defense. But this definition of gay panic is clearly not the one being employed in these film reviews. As best I can tell, when the New York Times or Variety is accusing HTTM of trading in gay panic jokes, they are referring to scenes where the (hetero) characters are panicking in the context of a homosexual act that may be about to occur or that they may have to participate in.

I'm mentally going through the movie and I can think of four instances where homosexuality was referenced at all, let alone panicked over. They are:

1) In the car ride to the resort, two of the characters get into one of those back and forths of "You're gay." No, you're gay." No, YOU'RE gay."

2) Rob Corddry, Craig Robinson and John Cusack all get into the hot tub naked. (off camera). The fourth guy is reluctant to disrobe and join them and has a line, something like "I just don't like the idea of a bunch of dudes naked together in a tub."

3) Rob Corddry and that same guy (forgot his name) are about to have a threesome with a woman. Corddry is very gung-ho about it, but the other guy is uncomfortable. He has a line where he says something like "Sure I'd be into a threeway, but not with another dude!".

4) Rob Corddry makes a bet where if he loses, he has to fellate Craig Robinson. He does this only because he believes his victory in the bet is inevitable. For hilarious reasons, fate conspires to make him lose the bet. There is then a prolonged scene where Corddry and Robinson do indeed panic at the idea that they will have to make good on the bet and go through with the BJ.

These are the only times in the movie where any kind of gay activity is referenced at all. If I've missed any, please let me know. Presumably the charge of gay panic is being applied to these scenes.

Now here, finally, is where we get to my main question and the point of this blog. Does Political Correctness now dictate that heterosexual men, in films or in reality, are no longer permitted to be disgusted at the thought of committing a homosexual act? Is that what being accused of gay panic means? This is what I mean when I say I think the line of scrimmage has been moved. It used to be the case that overt, anti-gay prejudice was unacceptable. Now it seems that any expression of distaste at the thought of participating in gay sex is the new standard for opprobrium. And if that's truly the case, then I call foul in a big way, and say no to the new standard.

In the four references I cited above, I think you can make the case that the first one was a bad idea - you don't need a comedy reinforcing the use of "gay" as an insult that straight guys use on each other. The 40 Year Old Virgin had the same joke if I recall. I think movies could, by and large, make a point of not having characters call one another gay, the same way they make a point of not having anyone smoke. So if you want to get on HTTM's case that the "No, you're gay" routine in the car was in bad taste, I'm on board.

But as for the other three scenes, no dice. I stand my ground. There is nothing offensive to homosexuals there. It is simply a fact that hetero men are grossed out, always will be grossed out, at the idea of homosexual coupling. Hetero men are biologically hardwired to be that way. If men weren't grossed out by the thought of gay sex, if the idea was somehow a neutral one rather than a negative one, then the animal kingdom wouldn't have gotten very far. If same-sex coitus was a sort of acceptable, runner-up activity if you struck out with the ladies that day, then what species would have survived or thrived? It's not enough to be attracted to the opposite sex, it seems to me. You must also be repulsed at the idea of mating with your own gender for procreation to work. Straight sex and gay sex can't be interchangeable in the mind.

What this means is that no matter how progressive or enlightened we are, no matter how accepting of gay rights we are, no matter how well we can, intellectually, wrap our minds around the idea of gay sex being fine and dandy for those who enjoy it, we will never overcome the natural revulsion to participating in such sex ourselves. And no campaign to overturn that reality will ever be successful. 1,000 years from now, immature boys just beginning to understand their sexuality will taunt others in the playground with accusations that hey, that kid likes to suck cock. And the lesson that such language is offensive to gays will have to be taught and retaught every generation. That project will never be over.

Many people like to point out the similarities between the struggle for gay rights and the struggle for civil rights for blacks, or suffrage for women - they compare the laws against gay marriage to anti miscegeny laws and draw those kinds of parallels. And I just kind of sit back and brood on that. To some extent, yes there are similarities. But the big difference is the one I just discussed. No one is born a racist. You have to be taught that. People are, on the other hand, born to be powerfully sexually attracted to one gender, and (in most cases) powerfully sexually repulsed by the other. Therefore, while I can envision a world free of racism, I cannot envision a world free of "gay panic". And of course gays are not immune from this panic either. What would your average gay man say when contemplating sex with a woman? Would he be neutral about it? Or would he say "Ew! Tew-nahhhhhh!"

But that isn't offensive. That's normal. So when Rob Corddry balks at sucking Craig Robinson's dick, that is, dare I say it, a normal response to that predicament. Is it Gay Panic? Well what does that mean, and what's wrong with it?

It should probably be pointed out that in HTTM, none of the supposed gay panic scenarios involved anyone actually being gay or being mistaken for gay. The real gay-panic is supposed to involve one person's sudden discovery that the other is gay. That never happens in HTTM. The reluctance of Clark Duke (I looked up his name) to get into a hot tub with three naked guys is not about his fear that one or all of the men are gay or that gay sex is somehow imminent - it's about his fear of being perceived as gay by others. And that fear, in turn, is not about the diminished social standing that comes with being perceived as gay, it's about that perception limiting his chances with women and inviting overtures from real gay men, reasons that strike me as being entirely sound, with motivation that's deeply biologically hardwired. It is, in short, normal, fine and inoffensive.

If the situation was reversed (always a handy tool to sift through PC bullshit) and it was a gay Clark Duke asked to participate in a threeway with a dude and a girl, and Duke wanted no part of it because he wasn't into girls, would I, as a straight guy, be offended? Nope. Could a film critic cry out "Straight panic!"? Again, nope. If a gay Rob Corddry lost a bet and was forced to perform oral sex on a woman, and Corddry got all panicked at the thought, would that disturb me? Uh.... no. Why would it?

So the charge that Hot Tub Time Machine is guilty of something called gay-panic falls pretty flat for me, and it concerns me that the new standard of being a right thinking person includes being forbidden to take a negative position on your own participation in homosexual sex, lest you be committing the crude faux-pas of gay panic. Being grossed out at the thought of gay sex if you're straight, or straight sex if you're gay, is the most normal thing in the world. Where's the offense?

Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Problem with the New Yorker's Cartoon Caption Contest

Every week, the New Yorker has a cartoon caption contest. They provide the cartoon on their website. They accept caption submissions. They choose three finalists and open it up to a public vote. There's no money, but the the winner gets the caption published in the magazine, along with their name.

The real prize of course, not openly acknowledged but universally understood is that one's mother will swoon with pride and joy if one wins the contest. "Hey mom, guess who got their cartoon caption published in the New Yorker?" is the sentence that the winner is permitted to speak. Because of the high value of this prize, I have been trying for months to win this friggin' contest. Thousands of entries are sent in every week and only one wins, so the odds are small. But still, most of the entries suck donkey balls, and so winning it shouldn't be so difficult. And yet success eludes me, most likely because the judges themselves also suck various parts of pack animals. Some of the "winning" captions are unbelievably bad. Even Roger Ebert, writing here about his own frustrations with the winning captions, was himself proposing stupid substitutes.

But let me tell you the problem with the contest. Besides bad entries and inept judging, the contest has a built in flaw that no one seems to have caught. Before I explain it in detail, have a look at some previous contest cartoons and the winning captions:

Okay now take a close look at the one with the subway panhandler in the hammock. And consider the winning caption "Brother, can you spare a lime?". Funny, right? Cause lime rhymes with dime. And he's not a typical beggar, see. He's on some kind of tropical vacation. And he's begging for fruit. In the subway.

Now I grant you, if you've been staring at that blank cartoon for a long time, trying to caption it, and someone says to you "How about 'Brother, can you spare a lime?'" then yes, you're liable to laugh and admit that that's a good one. But now, imagine opening up the New Yorker and looking at the same line, on the same cartoon - not realizing that it was a caption contest winner - just thinking that it was a normal cartoon. What do you think about it now?

Well, it doesn't make a lick of sense, does it? Why is there a guy on a hammock in the subway between two girders? Why is he wearing a Hawaiian shirt and begging for fruit? Sure, you get the pun, but the pun doesn't explain the image. The image requires an explanation. The caption contest winners never furnish explanation. They only serve as verbal solutions to the puzzle of the image. The image is always something nonsensical, like a piano filled with fish; and the winning captioner is always the one who can find the pattern in the nonsense, with something like “They were caught swimming off the Keys.”

But this is insufficient. If you opened up the magazine, and saw that fish cartoon, you would simply be baffled by its randomness. The bizarre scene of the image demands some sort of explanation that’s anchored to reality. It has to speak to some sort of truth about music, or culture, or the shoddy state of public aquariums, or I don’t know what. But what it can’t be is some kind of pun that merely relates the concept of fish to the concept of pianos. That doesn’t work. All of the caption contest winners have this problem.

The winner needs to be the one that makes the cartoon feel organic. The winner needs to fool you into believing that the caption and image were created concurrently, with a point in mind, and not that one was reverse-engineered from the other. This is such an obvious problem, but the contest just rolls on, oblivious.

You might be saying that all this complaining and nitpicking is because I’m just bitter that I haven’t won. That I'm somehow saying that all that stands between me and earning my mother's love is the stubbornness of the New Yorker. And you'd be right. And yes they are.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

My Attempt at a Jay Nordlinger Corner Post

In last week's Impromptus I had a followup to my Corner post of Wednesday last that engendered much comment. To briefly recap, I had written "I have written here and elsewhere, most recently in Impromptus, on a subject that raised a few eyebrows and occasioned much comment." Judging by the overwhelming response in my inbox, I see more discussion is warranted. I had responded previously on this topic, propelled to do so by a hearty influx of supportive email, but I see by the reaction solicited by the original item that, clearly, I had not given the subject a full airing.

Elsewhere I've written on peripheral topics, and I'm pleased to say they've borne just as much conversational fruit. (A quick search should bring up a trove of such). But I'd be remiss in not mentioning an item I included just two weeks previous, in which I mused that the response the original piece excited was notable not only for its volume but for the passions aroused. When I then wrote that I'd written similar observations, regularly, for years, and had predicted the elicited reaction at least once in NR dead-tree, I was deluged with letters! And - even though I've printed a few of the best in this space, I'd like to share just three more.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Final Fantasy is now Entirely About the Modeling of Realistic Human Hair

Final Fantasy is ruined. This great series of videogames, one that for over a decade delivered the best games of all time, strung together like pearls, has now officially died. By focusing on what didn't matter and ignoring what made the series so wonderful, Square-Enix has neutered the series. Specifically, they've abandoned the notion of creating "role playing games". And they've directed their energies, I think exclusively, on an aspect of gaming I wouldn't have considered essential: the realistic rendering of human hair. As a fan of the series since the beginning, I have to say, I didn't see that coming.

There were hints, I suppose, going back as far as the pointless and stupid Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within.

"Her movements (which mirror the actions of real actors) feel about right, and her hair blows convincingly in the wind." - Roger Ebert

"As you watch Aki, voiced by Ming-Na, you're struck by how realistic her hair is and imagine that much of the budget must have gone into giving it a special shampoo- commercial glow." - The New York Times

"It is said that a full third of the film's budget was spent on making the heroine's wispy hair convincingly wispy; how many heads of organic hair they could've bought is apparently irrelevant." - The Village Voice

Those of you who remember the movie remember that even though the hair was amazing, it was boring, the story made no sense, and the characters sucked. If only we had recognized this in 2001 for what it was: a warning siren. It was lauded though, at the time, for its groundbreaking CGI. We see now, 9 years later that a movie can only coast for a very short distance on special effects alone. Who now would rent or own this dog? The visuals, which looked fine at the time, now seem distinctly old hat. (There's a lesson here about Avatar by the way) But even in 2001, we can see Squaresoft's earnest passion to animate an uber-realistic head of follicles. Why? Why do they care so much about hair?

I have a pet theory. If you cast your mind back to the release of Final Fantasys 1, 4 and 6. (1, 2 and 3 in America) you remember that they were heralded as incredible games with terrible graphics. Even by the standards of the day, Final Fantasy games were far behind the curve, visually. Now as a fan I forgive that entirely. I personally would much rather that the limited memory available on an NES or SNES cartridge go toward gameplay depth in an RPG at the expense of graphical wonder. And the sales of those games bear that out. In fact, they prove a point. If a game that good doesn't need cutting edge visuals to be a best-seller, then the visuals aren't really what make an RPG good.

But here's where the pet theory comes in. Square knew it had a bestselling franchise. It also knew that the franchise had a reputation for butt-ugliness in the graphics dept. Square doubtlessly felt much great shame and experienced a loss of face. The President of the company may have even drawn out his seppuku knife and angled it at his ribs. So they committed to turn this complaint on its head. The worst looking graphics? From now on we'll have the best looking graphics. Final Fantasy games ugly? From now on, no game will be more beautiful. And the obsession with prettiness was born.

That also marks the exact moment when the gameplay excellence began to decline. And little did we know that the series would eventually become solely about hair. Thick, lustrous, silky hair. Feathered hair. Wind swept hair. Waterlogged hair. And the hair physics! A hair physics engine so complex and powerful that it could probably play Deep Blue to a draw at chess.

A brief recap of the franchise since it started going downhill:

Fans loved 8, but at the time I was worried. The Junction system didn't have the Materia system's depth, exploration and leveling didn't pay off quite as much, and the card game was given too much importance. I appreciated that the movies looked great (particularly the opening movie), but I was alarmed that the story was so weak. (No villain practically the whole way. What's-his-name, your schoolmate who turns bad, was set up nicely as a villain, but then abandoned)

IX was excellent. The crystal system was too simplistic, and again the real estate for meaningful exploration continued to shrink, but as a game it was fine. Chocobo Hot and Cold was a highlight.

X was the bombshell where you realized that the train was heading, permanently, in a new direction and you'd better ask yourself if you were on board. While superficially a huge world, in truth it was claustrophobic. No freedom to explore. No backtracking at all until the game was 90% over. The Sphere Board superficially appeared to offer freedom of customization, but in truth forced each character down a narrow development path. (If you think Kihmari is the exception, try making him a black mage). And the story that earned so much praise, made precious little sense.

X-2 was the same deal.

XI I ignored.

XII. Now number 12 was in some ways an improvement over 10. But while the characters all had rich, exciting, nuanced and compelling hair, they didn't have much in the way of personality. The story was so convoluted, incomprehensible and poorly written, that even now I can't remember a single thing about it. Not a thing. I cannot provide a summary, and I think I beat the game. I think there were some bad people in an army who wanted some bad things. And there were lots of political interludes where people I didn't know discussed incredibly urgent matters that made no sense, and then many of them died. I think the hero's name was Vaan. And there was another guy who was supposed to be a kind of Han Solo character but ended up being pretty lame. That's all I remember about 12.

XIII. And now we get to the death knell. The end of the line. The deeply disappointing, completely inexcusable Final Fantasy 13. Now you might say it's unfair of me to judge a game I haven't seen or played, but I ask you - since I never intend to see it or play it, how long am I supposed to wait to pass judgment? Can't I just say that it sucks? Consider: 1) No towns. 2) All shopping is done from save terminals. 3) It's the Sphere Board system all over again. 4) Every map is just a straight line tunnel with fancy graphical wallpaper on the sides. 5) The story (from what I've read) is weak-sauce Aeon Flux, and the hook of "If they win they're going to die anyway" was lifted directly from FFX.

Most of that I would have expected, but the complete abandonment of non-linearity did come as a surprise. We knew this was where the train was heading. Each sequel since VIII has given you less and less freedom. But we've suddenly and unexpectedly arrived at total, unforgiving linearity. We are now fully on rails. The only navigational spaces in XIII are death tunnels. The story is utter nonsense and the characters (Lightning honorably excepted) are apparently really annoying.

But the game does have one saving grace, and here I quote a review of the import:

"The Graphics: My God, I want to eat everyone's hair." - Tim Rogers, actionbutton.net

Yes. The hair is stunning. Judging the game purely on the hair standard, which I have to assume is how Square-Enix intends it should be judged, the game is an obvious home run. Let's check out some stills:

That is some great animated hair. I have no doubt each individual hair has independent motion and under windy conditions is programmed to move with a partly-randomized, partly-scripted flutter that mimics pure realism. And then upon contact with any other neighboring hair is programmed to interact with the correct balance of friction and attraction. I think this is the technology Peter Jackson used to animate battles in Lord of the Rings with 100,000 orcs, only now it's being used for hair.

The only reason I am bitching is because I used to love these games. They accomplished something that all video games want to do, and few succeed at: immersion. Not the kind of immersion where you like the game and are into it. The kind where the game permits you to be the director of the story - where you can put yourself in the game. This series used to put you in the driver's seat to an extent not seen anywhere else. You could explore and fight and adventure in your own way and at your own pace while still staying within the confines of a scripted story. A massive world was given to you, one that you could navigate by land, sea and air. Because you could customize your hero with great depth, the game gave you an opportunity to personalize the experience. No two players played Final Fantasy VI or VII the same way. No two players had the same experience. Now look at XIII, and turn the question on its head: Will any two players have a non-identical experience? Is this a game, or some kind of bad movie where you occasionally tilt a thumbstick upward to move the story along? I don't plan on finding out.

I hope there's a backlash. I hope Square does a reassessment and decides to go back to basics. The series could be great again. But for now I say so long to Final Fantasy. I wish it well, with lots of conditioner and no split ends, but I will look elsewhere for gaming this year.