What I Learned from a Surfer

“In every part of the globe it is the same! Hatred, fear and unreasoning hostility have possessed men’s hearts! But the Silver Surfer will have no part of it!” 
“Silver Surfer #1 (1968)” 

What troubles me about the state of the world today is how much hate, fear, and prejudice I see. I like this line because it sums up how I feel. No matter how much hate I see, I will not embrace it. 

(Image courtesy of deviantart’s Kryptonite-Kid).

Silver Surfer Descending

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Change the Culture Vlog4: Is the Internet Trying to Kill God?


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Change the Culture Vlog3 – Learn About Malcolm X


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Heroin and Other Drugs – Change the Culture Vlog 2

heroin image



I talk about the need for reform regarding drugs. I focus on heroin, but the discussion applies to all illegal drugs. I discuss the dangers of prescription painkillers. Use of these pills often leads to drug abuse. Looking at recent news, I mention the tragic passing of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman (“Capote,” “Doubt,” “25th Hour”). Hoffman died in New York City of an apparent overdose. I compare the advantages and disadvantages of twelve-step programs relative to drug legalization. Finally, I invite viewers to comment to continue the discussion.



Facts About Heroin


Overdose of Philip Seymour Hoffman



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Change the Culture – Vlog 1

I’m going to transition from blogging in print form to video blogging. I want to explore the possibilities of a video format. I hope it will be more engaging and create fuller discussions. This is an experiment, so I may come back to the print medium, but take a look at this video. I hope that you enjoy seeing me and hearing my voice.

Change the Culture

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Song Analysis “Calling Cards” Neko Case

It used to be much harder to call someone. If you were driving on an interstate highway, it was particularly challenging. You would look for a McDonalds or a gas station, hoping it had a pay phone. If there was a pay phone, you either needed coins or a calling card. Calling cards could be pre-paid in an amount like $5 or $20. Later on, calling cards could be linked to your credit card. And when you did call, you couldn’t be sure that there would be a person to pick up on the other end.

Of course now, it’s ridiculously easy to call someone. You touch a screen and suddenly you’ve connected to another person. I bought my first mobile phone from my friend Milad when we were both college freshmen. That was in 2000 and I was 18. For four years of high school, I relied on pay phones when I needed a ride, which was often. By 17, I was driving so this became less common, but there were times I still got rides, especially when weather conditions made driving difficult.

This song, “Calling Cards” (off the 2013 album, “The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You) by Neko Case expresses nostalgia for the era of pay phones. Interestingly, Maroon 5 made a song called “Pay Phone” around the same time. If you didn’t grow up with pay phones, you might not realize how much a pay phone call meant. A pay phone call then meant something different from what a mobile phone call means now. You knew it took some effort to make the call. There was a bit of desperation in a pay phone call. Of course, virtually everyone had phones at home so a pay phone call might have meant that the person just couldn’t wait to talk to you.

Neko Case is talking about calling another musician. She says, it was good “to hear you in those songs you wrote/ Made me think there was something coming.” It sounds like she was touring at the time because she called from a pay phone. Remember, she’s talking about an era in which we weren’t constantly updating people on our “status.” When people didn’t know how someone was doing, they called someone.

Then there’s there this poignant bit, “Every dial tone, every truck stop, every heartbreak
I love you more.” Presumably, the truck stops are where she is stopping to call. Each point of contact draws her closer to this person. If her relationship is a book, each call is a page. The heartbreaks and disappointments that we choose to share with others makes us better friends and stronger families.

She mentions the satellites that “blew up” the pay phones. She means that mobile phones, linked by connections with satellites, killed the pay phones. She says,

“Even when we’re not together

With our arms around each other

With our faith still in each other.”

It’s a beautiful wish to say that you want to imagine your arms around your loved one, even when you’re not physically together. And you put faith in each other. You trust each other. You speak honestly to each other.

She ends by saying, “I’ve got calling cards from twenty years ago.” Clearly, a 20-year-old calling card isn’t going to let you make calls. But she can’t throw them away. It’s a memento. It’s a souvenir. It reminds her of her past and of her friend as well as the relationship they shared. The melody of the song is gentle and soft. It’s a bit melancholy, but not depressing. Together, the melody and lyrics describe a sweet memory of a time long past.

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Operation Snow White: A Shocking Conspiracy That Really Happened

Operation Snow White: A Shocking Conspiracy That Really Happened

Thousands of members of a mysterious religious group simultaneously infiltrated the U.S. government so that they could influence policies in favor of their religion. It sounds like the pitch for a suspense novel, but it really happened and there are federal court records to prove it.

In 1973, the Church of Scientology (founded by Dianetics author L. Ron Hubbard) began implementing a plan to infiltrate governments around the world so that they could pressure politicians into adopting more favorable policies toward CoS. Their primary target was the U.S. government but the plot extended over 30 different countries and 136  separate agencies, embassies, and consulates. It involved up to 5,000 agents working for CoS. In June 1976, one Scientologist agent, Gerald Wolfe was arrested. The plot, known internally within CoS as “Operation: Snow White” did not end until 1979.

Much of the action of Operation: Snow White  seems tame by today’s standards, but not all of it. It seems many of the agents entered the IRS (Internal Revenue Service, the chief agency in charge of taxation in the U.S.) and pilfered piles of documents. Yet even this seems more suspicious when you realize that, at the time, the IRS was claiming CoS owed millions of dollars in taxes. Also, the conspiracy took a much more sinister turn in November 1974, when the agents bugged a private meeting within the IRS’s D.C. office. They had planted a small device in the conference room the day before the meeting. During the meeting, the audio was transmitted to a car parked in the parking lot of the Smithsonian museum where agents were recording every word that was spoken.

The conspiracy did come to light. The case went to court. Eleven Scientologists were convicted and went to jail for five years, including Mary Sue Hubbard, wife of CoS founder L. Ron Hubbard. A five year sentence seems extremely lenient for such a massive infiltration of the U.S. government. It is quite probable that more than one of these conspirators returned to the CoS after release. Also, the Scientologists got what they wanted. The IRS did grant them tax-exempt status. Hubbard never had to pay them those millions they demanded.

How does this change how you view history? Are you angry at your U.S. history for never covering this intriguing event? It is interesting, but it is also revealing in what it says about the way our world works. It actually is possible for special interests to hijack our government. And even when the people responsible are caught as they were here (for the most part, L. Ron Hubbard himself is an exception), they live on and presumably go right back to doing what they were doing before.





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Song Analysis – “All Too Well” Taylor Swift

I’m not a big fan of long prefaces, but I think it’s warranted here because I’m breaking from tradition. When I started this blog, I often analyzed songs but for over a year I stopped. Now I am returning to song analyses. Basically, I quit because I thought music was prohibited in Islam and I am back because I now reject that view. I probably should do a post where I really break down all the arguments in my head, for and against, but this is not that post. I hope my readers realize the many challenges of writing to a mixed audience of Muslims and non-Muslims. I suppose I have some readers who could stop following me from now on because they disagree with me. Of course if they do so, that’s their prerogative. To put my position simply, the position that Islam bans all music strikes me as inconsistent with what I know of Islam. There is far too much musicality in the recitation of Quran, the calling of the adhan, and the poetry of the Companions for me to accept that a good Muslim eschews all music. Added to this is all the music in the natural world from the songs of birds, to the chirping of crickets, to the haunting melodies made by whales. I think humans have a musical impulse and Islam proposes to purify that impulse by urging people to choose the best of music. I think we are to reject the music that is crude, crass, offensive, and distasteful. What this means is that I choose to write about music, but only music that does not encourage drug (including alcohol) abuse and sexual abuse.

“All Too Well” as written by Liz Rose and Taylor Swift
I walked through the door with you, the air was cold,
But something ’bout it felt like home somehow and I
Left my scarf there at your sister’s house,
And you still got it in your drawer even now.

Oh, your sweet disposition and my wide-eyed gaze.
We’re singing in the car, getting lost upstate.
The autumn leaves falling down like pieces into place,
And I can picture it after all these days.

And I know it’s long gone,
And that magic’s not here no more,
And I might be okay,
But I’m not fine at all.

‘Cause there we are again on that little town street.
You almost ran the red ’cause you were looking over me.
Wind in my hair, I was there, I remember it all too well.

Photo album on the counter, your cheeks were turning red.
You used to be a little kid with glasses in a twin-size bed
And your mother’s telling stories about you on a tee ball team
You tell me ’bout your past, thinking your future was me.

And I know it’s long gone
And there was nothing else I could do
And I forget about you long enough
To forget why I needed to

‘Cause there we are again in the middle of the night.
We dance around the kitchen in the refrigerator light
Down the stairs, I was there, I remember it all too well, yeah.

Maybe we got lost in translation, maybe I asked for too much,
And maybe this thing was a masterpiece ’til you tore it all up.
Running scared, I was there, I remember it all too well.

Hey, you call me up again just to break me like a promise.
So casually cruel in the name of being honest.
I’m a crumpled up piece of paper lying here
‘Cause I remember it all, all, all too well.

Time won’t fly, it’s like I’m paralyzed by it
I’d like to be my old self again, but I’m still trying to find it
After plaid shirt days and nights when you made me your own
Now you mail back my things and I walk home alone

But you keep my old scarf from that very first week
‘Cause it reminds you of innocence and it smells like me
You can’t get rid of it, ’cause you remember it all too well, yeah

‘Cause there we are again, when I loved you so
Back before you lost the one real thing you’ve ever known
It was rare, I was there, I remember it all too well

Wind in my hair, you were there, you remember it all
Down the stairs, you were there, you remember it all
It was rare, I was there, I remember it all too well

Here is a heartbreaking, evocative love song from Taylor Swift. In actuality, Swift shares creative credit here with Liz Rose, Grammy winning songwriter and frequent Swift collaborator. For better or worse, many of our favorite artists do not compose their work alone. But let’s not get so lost in assigning credit that we lose sight of the aching beauty of this piece.

What’s striking here is how these little pieces of memory are what makes this love so special in her eyes. There is the wind in her hair, the wild abandon of getting lost on a road trip, the photo album he showed her with pictures of him as a boy, an evening spent dancing in the kitchen, and the scarf, oh the scarf. As a scarf sometimes ties an ensemble together, the image of the scarf ties this song together.

At the beginning of the song, the scarf seems like a trifle, a throwaway. She mentions leaving her scarf at his sister’s house and it just seems meaningless. Yet the way she says he still has it “even now” makes me think she feels he’s held on to it more than a little too long. It’s like one shoe dropping making you listen intently for the other shoe to drop.

Also, she catches my attention when she says, “Maybe this thing was a masterpiece ’til you tore it all up.” She’s a very clever songwriter, perhaps the greatest of her generation, but I wonder if even she is aware of all she’s implying here. Yes, she thinks her love is something beautiful and she’s blaming him for ruining it, though the “maybe” makes her a bit kinder than she’s been in past break-up songs. It’s so easy to play armchair therapist and you rarely ever know if you’re right or wrong, but doesn’t it seem like she’s saying she wants her relationship to be something she can show off? You don’t make a “masterpiece” to make yourself a happy. You make it to show the world what a genius you are.

And then she just blows me away when she wails like a banshee on the line “And then you call me again just to break me like a promise.” You really have to hear this with your own ears to get it. This is the line that I anticipate for the whole duration of the song. It’s so confessional, it’s so vulnerable and yet it’s laced with venom. His words make her feel miserable, “breaking” her. But she’s gotten so used to it because he broke promises to her all the time. And then she hits a passive-aggressive home-run with “so casually cruel in the name of being honest,” using the assonance of promise/honest.  He’s probably telling her things like she’s needy or she’s superficial which are probably what he honestly feels, but it’s so insulting to her that she classifies it as cruelty.

Now the scarf comes back. I wish I could pore over all of these details because there’s so much to be said for them all. But the long and short of it is that he nicked the scarf the first week they were together and he’s still holding on to it even though they’ve broken up. I love the way she says “’cause it reminds you of innocence.” I suspect he’s not even aware that he’s keeping it because it’s a symbolic token of an ideal that he has in some ways betrayed. He just knows he can’t let go. I can’t even quite pinpoint the emotion she’s feeling about it, though she seems much more self-aware. Does she pity him for needing her, or at least a piece of her, so much? Does she treasure the sweetness of a boy whose love extends past her, to even the objects she has touched? Or is she numb and analyzing this like a cold clinician, seeing the symptoms of a boy who now realizes the mistakes of his past? It could be any or all of those.

As she closes the song, the memories come flooding back. She sees the wind in her hair on their road-trip. She sees him dancing on her downstairs kitchen floor. “It was rare, I was there, I remember it all too well.” The three-part structure of this line oddly reminds me of Caesar’s “I came, I saw, I conquered.” And though Caesar was triumphant where Swift seems defeated, there’s something about the boom-boom-boom form of this that makes you think it’s just way too fast. Closing with “I remember it all too well” and of course using the title itself as a coda is just stellar writing. But also she’s vividly illustrating this thorny human problem of memory. By saying she remembers “too well,” she’s implying that she would like to forget. Perfectly understandable as the pain she feels is clear as day. But would she really? These moments seem so special, so dazzling in their beauty, that it seems like such a shame if she were to lose the memories of them. So what do you choose – do you forget even the best moments because they lead you to pain or do you remember even the worst moments because they’re wrapped in a bittersweet joy? Blue pill or red pill?

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What the Fuck: Contextual Meaning of an English Idiom

What the Fuck: Contextual Meaning of an English Idiom

People say “what the fuck” (WTF) a lot. It’s a very ordinary phrase. Or is it? Have you ever stopped to consider how unusual “what the fuck” is. What are you really saying when you say it? What do you mean when you say it? Does it always mean the same thing?

This phrase depends a lot, in fact, almost exclusively, on context. Stripped of context, it means almost nothing. Or to take it from a different angle, it potentially means so many things that you can’t decide.

Say a man is driving a car and another car hits his rear fender. Shocked by the impact, he says, “What the fuck?” Here the meaning is fairly clear. If he said, “What just happened?” it would mean the same thing, essentially, though the “fuck” adds a shade of anger to the mix. It’s like saying “What just happened?” plus “Fuck the guy that did that to me.”

Say a celebrity, let’s just use Lady Gaga here, goes walking down the red carpet in a dress made out of Dixie cups. This is hypothetical – I don’t believe she’s done this. A typical response might be “What the fuck?” Now, the phrase doesn’t really mean – “what just happened?” as it did previously. Now it says, “I am confused because I do not know what I am looking at.” And that’s another quite common use for this phrase.

Confusion is a key element of WTF. I don’t know that one is always expressing confusion with WTF but more than one use of WTF does express confusion.

You could say that WTF is the synonymous with “what the hell” or even plain “what.” But I think that misses the mark. While I would concede that there are instances where you can substitute “what the hell” for “WTF” without a huge change in meaning, this is not always the case. “What the hell” is interesting in its own way because it can easily switch from meaning “I don’t know what this is” to “let’s try this because we have nothing to lose.” For an example of that second meaning, consider a guy asking a girl, “Wanna go to Vegas?” and her replying affirmatively, “What the hell –  let’s go.” I can’t explain why but somehow WTF can’t pull off this transition. Maybe because the f-bomb gives off a kind of anger that won’t let it happen.

WTF also has a feature, and I promise I’ll explain – that’s like a rebuttable presumption of rhetoricality. It can be a rhetorical question but sometimes it clearly demands an answer. Going back to the guy in the car collision, he intended WTF rhetorically, not expecting anyone to answer. But here’s a situation where I think WTF would be intended to be answered. Say two guys are living together – Mike and Frank. Mike discovers three dirty plates in the bathtub. Plates in hand, he goes to Frank and says, “What the fuck?” It seems clear that in this context WTF means something like “What on earth could be your rationale for doing this?” So when we hear “WTF,” we tend to think that it’s the kind of question we wouldn’t answer, but there are some contexts where we had better answer it.

People are fascinated by the f-word by itself for numerous reasons. It’s taboo and human nature makes people really crave the things that society forbids. There’s also its touted versatility as when people claim it’s the rare word that can be any part of speech. Personally, I disagree with this belief on multiple levels. One, it’s not true. I don’t see how you could ever use the f-word as a conjunction (e.g. and, or) and the conjunction is a part of speech. Two, lots of English words switch-hit as different parts of speech and it doesn’t seem to add much to their charm. For instance, “walk” can be both a verb and a noun, but does that make “walk” any less boring as a word? Also, while I’m being an iconoclast and tearing down myths I might as well add that the f-word did NOT originally mean “Fornication Under Consent of King.” Instead, like many of our English curse words, it descended from older German words, in this particular case, a verb, “fokken,” which meant “to strike.”

Personally, I avoid swear words in my own conversations. I’ve indulged in this essay because I feel I wanted to explore the f-word intellectually. My mother taught me that an intelligent person doesn’t need the crutch of curse words to express himself or herself. I sort of hope she doesn’t read this, but I also think it’s something of which, upon reflection, she could be proud.

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How to Be the Best

Khalifa Abu Bakr Siddiq (Radiallahu anhu, May Allah be Pleased with him) said, “I have been placed in power over you, though I am not the best of you.” Scholars have tried to interpret what he meant when he said this. There were numerous statements of Prophet Muhammad (Salla allahu alaihi wa sallam, Peace be upon him) that clearly showed that Abu Bakr (R) WAS the best of men after the Prophet himself (S). For example, Ibn Abi Mu’alla narrates that Rasulullah (S) said, “There in no one among people more beneficial to us in his companionship, or generous with his wealth than Ibn Abi Quhafah (an alternate name for Abu Bakr).” So Abu Bakr (R) could have easily said that it was common knowledge that he was the best of the Sahabah. Yet he said he was NOT the best.

Some will say this is a simple act of humility. I think humility is a major aspect of this saying, but I think there is more. While Rasulullah (S) was present, he was the best of men. But he did not spend a great deal of time or energy talking about how he was the best. In fact, one could say there is an Islamic akhlaq (behavior) of being the best. Part of this akhlaq is that one does not belabor the point of how great one is.

Another thing to consider is that people can be better in some ways and worse in other ways. Some Muslims might say that Umar (R) was more courageous than Abu Bakr (R). Some Muslims might say Ali (R) was more eloquent than Abu Bakr (R). Some might say Uthman (R) had more modesty than Abu Bakr (R). I do not want to digress into a debate of this nature, but I want to make the point that different Sahabah excelled in different ways. Abu Bakr (R) may have had this is mind as well.

Also, the context of the speech makes its meaning more clear, as one might expect. Later in the same speech, Abu Bakr (R) asked the people assembled in the masjid to assist him when he was right and to straighten him out when he was wrong. Human nature being what it is, you don’t tell people how great you are and then ask for their help.

A hidden beauty of Abu Bakr (R)’s wise speech is how well it applies to all sort of leadership. For instance, in Islam we believe that Allah made the human being “the best of creation.” The human species holds rule over all other creatures. Now apply Abu Bakr’s words to this form of leadership. “We (humans) have been put in power over you (all other organisms), though we are not the best of you.”

Isn’t a cheetah faster than a man? Doesn’t a hawk have sharper vision? Doesn’t the lowly dog have a more acute sense of smell than a human? These are scientific facts. We should not think too highly of ourselves and imagine that no animals could be our peer. Rather, we should recognize that Allah (Subhana wa Ta’ala, Glorified and Most High) gave us the intellect to rule over the planet and both the intellect as well as the rulership are part of a trust that we had best use responsibly.

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