Aimee Mann – @#%&*! Smilers

Aimee Mann Smilers

@#%&*! Smilers is Aimee Mann’s seventh studio album, and as a pretty big Aimee Mann fan, I have to say that the album represents a sonic shift for her. To break it down: gone are the electric guitars, and in their place, lots and lots of keyboards and synthesizers.

The new aesthetic is immediately noticed on the first track “Freeway,” which also happens to be the first single. The second major difference is the addition of a brass section, which I believe has never appeared on an Aimee Mann record so far. In this album, they appear on a number of songs. Third, the album as a whole is much more percussive than other albums in her catalog: even the piano serves more of a percussive function than anything else.

“Borrowing Time,” the fifth track on the album, best represents this new aesthetic. The song has a driving drum beat, and two synthesizers in the background. The brass section appears in the chorus and never really goes away. They even get a solo in the bridge.

Other songs on the album exhibit a much simpler arrangement: just vocals, piano, and strings. Such songs include “Phoenix” and “It’s Over,” and these songs almost sound Beatlesque in their structure and sound. But that’s not surprising, considering Aimee Mann has publicly acknowledge the influence that the Beatles had on her.

But you know that it’s still an Aimee Mann record because of one thing: her voice. Yes, that voice, that unmistakable voice. In my opinion, Aimee Mann probably has one of, if not the, best voices in pop music. And if you can believe it, her voice on this album is even better than before, as it gets more expressive and somewhat deeper.

And of course, she’s still singing about the same things: deeply flawed characters going through life’s minor victories and tragedies, but melancholy doesn’t sound much better than when she sings it. She still possesses the knack to dole out a line or two, which belying their brevity, manages to express something deeply emotional about the subject.

If you are an Aimee Mann fan, I think you would not be disappointed with this album. I know I am not, and I have been looking forward to this record ever since I discovered Aimee Mann two years ago. I am going to see her in DC in August, and I am definitely exicted.

Scalia is Correct

Surprise, surprise! A self-identified liberal like myself actually think that Scalia got it right in yesterday’s Heller decision, even though I find some of his reasoning unpersuasive.

But the biggest reason why I agree with the substance of the decision is this: every other right enumerated in the Bill of Rights refer to individual rights, not collective rights. So, from a consistency point of view, it would make little sense to interpret the Second Amendment as protecting a collective right when all the other enumerated rights are individual rights.

Having said that, here are the parts of Scalia’s decision that I found unpersuasive.

First, his decision to focus first on the operative clause rather than the prefactory clause is puzzling, because the whole question is whether the amendment protects an individual or group right. Thus, it would make much more sense to talk about what function the prefactory clause serve for the rest of the amendment. Instead, Scalia argues, in his section on the operative clause, that the amendment protects an individual right. So when he talks about the prefactory clause, he has already made up his mind. This seems to me to be begging the question.

As to whether the prefactory clause does or does not limit the right to gun ownership, the answer is not so clear cut. To me, the language of the 2nd amendment is not as well-constructed as the rest of the bill of rights, so it is plausible for reasonable people to disagree. I happen to think that the amendment does confer an individual right, not because I subscribe to Scalia’s brand of originalism, but because, like I said earlier, it seems out of place to place a group-right protection amendment in a document that protects individual rights.

An aside: I find reading Scalia’s opinions hilarious at times precisely because of originalist interpretation. For example, in the Heller opinion alone, the sources that he cites range of a House of Lords debate in 1780 to a London gentlemens magazine in the same period. To me, this seems absurd, but it makes for a fun read. At least as fun as reading a Supreme Court opinion can be.

Second, I fail to see any reason for any political upheaval, because the opinion itself really doesn’t say anything substantive about how to regulate this right. Sure, the Court pronounced that possession is a right, but it does not say that this is an unlimited right, and Scalia even says that the ruling does not cast any shadow of doubt on regulations such as sale of arms, or concealment laws, and so forth.

The ruling itself is largely symbolic in other words, and I fail to see how this benefits any political factions SUBSTANTIVELY. Sure, the anti-gun faction can claim this as a moral victory, but then again, I never thought that a total and complete ban on firearm posession is legitimate. Instead, what will actually happen is a flood of litigation, and this a good thing, because laws are pretty much useless without interpretation. And there is a lot of catching up to do, since the 2nd amendment has never received any real analysis in the court of law before the Heller decision. And since we are dealing with public safety, I predict that most courts will not interfere too much reasonable state regulation. However, Scalia does say in one of his footnotes that rejects rational basis as a standard of scrutiny, but I have trouble seeing courts using strict scrutiny on this. In other words, the field is now wide open, which might be a bad thing for people who want complete bans, but I think this is a better approach because it is more balanced.

But on the other hand, the Heller decision has now made guns a salient political issue in November, which is bad, because the politics of guns is rarely civil or reasonable. Most of the time, it’s dominated by fear-mongering. My prediction is that the issue of judges will play a greater role in the election, with Heller joining Roe as a political litmus test. So pay attention to what the candidates say about what kind of judges they will appoint.

Of course, I already wrote about McCain’s views, so it comes as no surprise that he heartily applauded the decision and blasted Obama on his “guns and religion” bit during the primary.

Happiness is a Warm Gun Baby…

Bang Bang, Shoot Shoot: The Supreme Court has ruled, 5-4, that the DC ban on handgun ownership is unconstitutional, as the Second Amendment confers individuals the right to own firearms for self-defense and hunting.

The case, District of Columbia vs. Heller, is the first Supreme Court interpretation of the Second Amendment in US history. The opinion has not been made available electronically as I’m writing, so my thoughts on that will come later. But as a follower of Constitutional jurisprudence, I am excited in a geeky kind of way because of its historical and legal precedent.

UPDATE 1: Why am I not surprised that Scalia wrote the opinion of a 5-4 vote on a controversial issue?

UPDATE 2: Kennedy really seems to be the swing vote on the current Court. Without him, the opinions line up exactly like how you would expect: Scalia-Roberts-Alito-Thomas vs. Ginsburg-Souter-Stevens-Breyer. So it comes down to Kennedy, and he lines up with the conservative bloc.

UPDATE 3: The opinion is here (pdf). Peruse.

UPDATE 4: This is the final update before I say anything substantive, but here’s one reason why I love reading Scalia–not because I agree with his substantive decisions, his methodology, or his interpretive stance–but rather how he writes.

Witness Footnote 5, accompanying Scalia’s claim that the right to own firearms is an individual right, not a right which is predicated upon membership in some collective entity:

JUSTICE STEVENS is of course correct, post, at 10, that the right to assemble cannot be exercised alone, but it is still an individual right, and not one conditioned upon membership in some defined “assembly,” as he contends the right to bear arms is conditioned upon membership in a defined militia. And JUSTICE STEVENS is dead wrong (emphasis is mine) to think that the right to petition is “primarily collective in nature.”

I find it hilarious that Scalia uses such strong language to make what I think is an uncritical point. He just feels the need to beat the shit out of Stevens’ opinion (figuratively of course, although Scalia is of Sicilian descent…)

Sigur Ros – ara batur

I will have much more to say about the new Sigur Ros album, titled Med Sud I Eyrum Vid Spilum Endalaust, their fifth studio album.

But for now, enjoy the 7th track from the album, titled “ára bátur.” I chose this song not because it is representative of the new album (because it isn’t), but because it is such a beautiful song. Sigur Ros is a band known for crafting songs that uplift and transcend, and even by the band’s own standards, this song is about as uplifting and transcendental as they come.

It starts out like a usual Sigur Ros composition: with some stately piano playing in minor key as a prologue to the lead vocal. Over the course of nearly 9 minutes, the song slowly builds up. With 7 minutes left to go, a rather subdued string section is introduced, and at 6 minutes, you hear a brief appearance by the horn section, which quickly disappears. At about 5 minutes left, a backing choir is introduced, albeit very far back in the mix. From about 4 and half minute left, the vocal disappears completely, leaving only the piano. An upright bass is then introduced, then the strings and the horns make their re-entrance, still rather subdued and low in the mix. Then they get louder and louder, and the vocals are re-introduced. At about the 2 minutes left mark, the singer disappears, and the choir comes back. Then everything, and I mean everything, goes higher, higher, higher, and higher, until they seem to just be able to touch God or something. And then, BAM! Climax! The choir soars, and the cymbals crash and timpanis roll, and the horns are almost angelic. Then, just as it quickly soared to the heavens, the song descended back to earth with about half a minute left, ending on the same vocal plus piano arrangement that began the song.

My suggestion: play this song as loudly as you possibly can get away with, either in complete darkness, or stand on top of a high mountain on a bright, clear day, and wait until the end, when everything just suddenly kicks in. If you do not feel transcendence washing over you, if you do not feel like you are face to face with eternity, if you do not feel touched to the very core of your being, well you, my friend, are not human.

The emotional power of the last couple of minutes, in my opinion, are only rivaled by the ending section from “All I Need” by Radiohead (when the entire string section kicks in and goes apeshit) and the long coda from “Purple Rain” by Prince.

I don’t have the fucking slightest clue what the guy is singing about; for all I know, he could be singing about the flavors of ice cream that he likes. But by God, he sings about the flavors of ice cream as if they constitute the very core of his existence! The first time I finished hearing this song, chills just went down my spine. It’s one of those spookily beautiful things that makes you agree with what Goethe said a long time ago:

“A man should hear a little music, read a little poetry, and see a fine picture every day of his life, in order that worldly cares may not obliterate the sense of the beautiful which God has implanted in the human soul.”

With this song, Sigur Ros has just re-affirmed the beauty of music.

Word? Word! Word?! Word.

Thinking about George Carlin’s death has made me think about my own relationship with words. I started to think about how it came to be that I, a 11 year old who came to America from China, who didn’t speak a lick of English when I got here, am now in posession of an undergraduate degree that is almost exclusively concerned with words.

For that, I have to give credit to two things: The Cat in the Hat, and Hip-Hop. Yup, those were the two things that really made me interested in learning English. To this day, I think those two things have definitely contributed to the way I am today.

First, the Cat in the Hat. I remember picking up this book in my first ESL class in 6th grade: it attracted my attention because of the bright cover (probably one of the very few instances in which my judging a book by its cover has paid off), and also because of the weird title. As an 11 year old Chinese boy, I had no idea what the fuck a cat in a hat could possibly mean. I have to confess that over 11 years ago, I took the school’s copy of the book home without telling anyone, but in my defense, I did return it in the end.

So there I was, sitting at home with my pocket English-to-Chinese dictionary, and more confused than ever. I could find definitions for each individual word, but sentences made no sense, because back then, I had no grasp of the English syntax, so I didn’t know what a properly and/or idiomatic sentence looks like. Plus, the verse style probably threw me off. But I labored on, partly because of the crazy illustrations, and also because of the fact that the book rhymed. Yes, rhyming blew my mind back then, because to someone who didn’t speak English, having the ability to rhyme different words seemed like something unattainable, the Holy Grail, so to speak. Finally, to my mind back then, there was something unsettling about the story, or at least what I could make of the story: I mean, a cat that does magic tricks and wreak havoc? What the fuck? To be honest, that story still doesn’t make a whole lot of sense (has anyone figured out what the Things are supposed to be?)

Second thing: Hip Hop. Specifically, Dr. Dre’s 2001, which dropped in 1999. By 1999, I had assumed a command of the language sufficient enough to carry on a normal conversation, read most things, and write a straight-forward paper. But what was missing, at least it appears to me now, was a command of the language that does not show pure technical grasp, but rather cultural literacy. In other words–slang–and to be more specific–profanity.

Why are slang and profanity important? My answer is roughly a Heideggerian one: because they are situated language used by people who belong to a linguistic community that is defined by more than technical rules. Proficiency with slang and profanity indicates a certain level of familiarity with one’s social context such that one knows the prevalent, if unwritten, rules and norms of society. You can always tell if someone is a foreigner, because he might have a perfect grasp of grammar and syntax (I’d even argue that most foreigners do have a better grasp of English grammar and syntax, since unlike most natives, they’ve actually had to learn it), but he will not pick up on the slangs and the idioms, and yes, the swearing, that belongs to the natives. Such things are not really governed by the same kind of logic that governs regular speech, but they are things that one picks up one just by living in a community for a certain period of time.

Having said that, I remember the first song I heard off of 2001 was “Forget About Dre,” which was the second single for that album overall. I remember hearing this song on the radio in my friend’s car, and after hearing Eminem tear through a verse, I was hooked, I was sold on it for life. Up to that point, I had never heard anyone use the English language in such an unusual way as Eminem did in that song. At first, I couldn’t even make out what he was rapping because he was rapping so quickly. Even after I found a printed sheet with the lyrics on it, I still had no idea what half of what Eminem was rapping about.

And on an even more visceral level, the very act of listening to a song filled with so many swears excited me, because as a kid, you were taught to never say these words because they were “bad.” So of course that just made me want to hear and use them all the more. Suffice to say, hearing so many “forbidden” words in one song was a kind of liberating experience for me back then.

Plus, there was something linguistically fascinating about profanity for several reasons. First, I’m always interested in the etymology of a swear word: I want to see where it came from, who or what popularized its usage, and what kind of logic governed its evolution. Second, profanity and slang, at some basic level, are very creative. Third, profanity is quite fluid when it comes to grammar, as “fuck” shows, profanity can be used almost as a substitute for any kind of word, whether it’s a noun, verb, adjective, adverb, etc. And depending on how creative you are, you can use multiple profanities that modify each other to create a sentence that is both colorful and interesting.

The rest, as they say, is history. So instead of taking the usual Asian immigrant route and doing really well at math, I pretty much abandoned that boat and hopped on the English bandwagon. And now, after 11 years, I have a degree that is almost completely predicated upon reading and writing, and in a year, I’m going back to another 5 to 6 years of reading and writing in a Ph.D program. Sometimes I think that maybe if I didn’t abandon math, I would have made a nice living as a computer engineer, or invest banker, or financial account, and get paid way more than I do now.

But then again, when I hear a new slang that makes me go “hmm, that’s interesting,” or whenever I hear someone like Nas kick some crazy ridiculously complicated rhyme, I’m glad that I stuck it out with The Cat in the Hat and finally understood what Dr. Dre was talking about when he says “Who you think brought you the OG’s, Eazy-E’s, Ice Cube’s, and The D.O.C.’s, the Snoop D-O-double-G’s, and the group that said ‘motherfuck the police‘?”

George Carlin is Dead: Long Live George Carlin!

From the New York Times: “George Carlin, Irreverent Comedian, Dies at 71.

What an absolute shame! George Carlin was all set to receive the Eleventh Annual Mark Twain Prize for American Humor this year at the Kennedy Center, and now he dies of heart failure. It is such a tragedy. But you know what, even if he’s not there to receive it in person, he surely deserves that award, not only for his contribution to comedy, but for his contribution to words and free speech.

Besides being a tremendously funny guy, George Carlin, is first and foremost, a lover of words. And as someone who grew up loving words, I am deeply saddened by his passing. In his monumental routine titled “Seven Dirty Words” (original script here), the very first thing he says is:

“I love words. I thank you for hearing my words. I want to tell you something about words that I uh, I think is important. I I say, they’re my work, they’re my play, they’re my passion. Words are all we have really.”

To me, that is not only the essence of comedy, but the essence of all human thought. George Carlin not only employed words to make us laugh, he also used them to make us think about the absurdities of convention, political correctness, and most importantly, censorship.

George Carlin was a true comedic genius, because like every comedic genius, he was a first-rate satirist, provocateur, and polemicist. He made us realize just how retarded some of our limits on free speech are, and he poked fun at them through absurdity. And I will contend that we need people like George Carlin more than ever, because in a world where torture is called “enhanced interrogation techniques,” when civilian casualities are called “collateral damage,” when illegal kidnapping is called “rendition,” we need people like George Carlin who are unafraid to pierce through the veil of bullshit and tell it exactly like it is.

America has just lost another incisive social commentator, one of those people whose job, like Jonathan Swift, is to keep us on our toes, point out our hypocrisies, and all the while make us laugh until our stomachs hurt and we are rolling on the floor.

In the court of the King, only the Jester can speak truth to power, and with George Carlin’s passing, we just lost another Jester. But I’m consoled by the thought that right now, somewhere in heaven, George Carlin is probably chillin’ with Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor, and they are probably busting God’s balls and having a good time.

Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss

Over at the G Spot, Kathy G has some good thoughts on what an Obama presidency might mean. Unfortunately, if I’m reading her correctly, it doesn’t amount to much as far as the structure of the political system goes:

“But you know what? Ultimately, I don’t think that they as individuals are to blame for that. I don’t think Barack, or Hillary, or Edwards, are bad people. I don’t think that Barack Obama, for example, went into politics so he could sell civil liberties down the river in favor of giveaways for the telecom industry. But the incentive structure in politics these days is such that he decided he had more to gain by supporting the FISA “compromise” than by opposing it.”

That about sums up my view of the situation. Kathy G specifically mentioned the FISA bill, but another example related to Barack Obama is his close ties with the ethanol industry and his advocacy of using ethanol as an alternative fuel source.

This never made any sense to me from an energy policy perspective. First of all, it takes oil to make ethanol, so the claim that ethanol would get us off oil and toward energy independence is factually not true, at least not with the kind of technology that we have right now. Second, ethanol is made from corn, and while this might be good for all the corn-growers (of which the state of Illinois is the second-largest, coincidence, I think not), it will further contribute to the already existing food shortage around the world. So on top of using oil to make ethanol, we’d also have to use corn, another valuable commodity. The math just doesn’t work out.

Yet Barack Obama has thrown his weight behind such a policy proposal, and it doesn’t take a genius or a Political Science degree to figure out why: he came from the second-largest corn-growing state in the union, and if he wanted to win Iowa in the primaries, he pretty much had to get on the ethanol bandwagon. This isn’t surprising, because this is what rational choice theory predicts what a rational person would do.

All this shows is that politicians are rational actors in a rational system, and by rational I don’t mean substantive rationality, but purely instrumental rationality. The problem, in other words, is STRUCTURAL and SYSTEMIC; therefore, it is unrealistic to expect that any single individual can overcome the incentive structure and the rules of the game. So while I was being partially joking when I titled this post after the famous The Who song, there is a certain truth in it: the institution outlasts the individuals, and it is very difficult for individuals to change the institutions.