American Idol vs. Islamic Extremism

I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts yesterday, called Invisibilia, and the show focused on a unique attempt to counter Islamic Extremism, which was to run an American Idol type reality show in Somalia.  If you don’t have time to read the 40 minute podcast, you can read about it here.  If you don’t have time for either, the gist of this was that there was a plan supported by the U.N fight extremism by impacting the emotional landscape of the country.  The government at the time was unstable but had recently replaced the far more extreme Al-Shabab government that had previously held Mogadishu.  So things were better, but delicate.  Previously Al Shabab had forbit music, even at weddings, and went so far as to kill many important Somalian musicians and poets.

Hearing this story brought a number of thoughts to my head.  One was how pop culture might be used to transform a culture in a positive way.  In my last post I talked about the harms of excessive moral outrage exacerbated by social media, which polarizes and brings more instability to a culture.  Here was an attempt to do the opposite.  It might seem surprising but some of the advantages that American Idol has are:

  • democratic voting process
  • a panel of judges that are both men and women
  • one mean/tough judge, that increases the joy of the contestant when the mean judge soften to approve the contestant

It may not seem like much, but when you think about the just act of getting into the habit of voting, and getting a say in an outcome, seeing authority that is both mean and women, and a nation of people watching and sharing in the joy of a contestant who has overcome a number of hurdles.  Well maybe it’s the upper the country needs to continue to stem the tide against extremism.

Of course this also made me think how easy it is to erode culture with western culture, and that’s an entire other conversation, but the good thing here is that they not only made it about music, but also included a poetry, as part of the competition, which is big in Somali culture.  At the very least they were trying to adapt their idea to fit Somali values and traditions.

These are of course only seeds, and real change will happen slowly.  As the article says:

Which brings us to this question: Did this reality show actually change reality in any way?

It would be impossible to make the case that Somalia is a completely different country now. It isn’t.

But there is at least one undeniable change since 2013. Music is back in the streets. Brought back, slowly and painfully, through a complicated combination of political strategy and personal courage.

Anyway, I thought this was an interesting story and wanted to share it.

Fleetwood Mac and why they are so great


On October 14th, 2014 I was fortunate enough to see Fleetwood Mac in concert.  They were amazing and I would like to talk about how amazing they are.  Or rather why I think they are amazing.  I know some purists will say that Fleetwood Mac was a band before Lindsey and Stevie.  I like that older stuff, some of it is pretty good.  However, it is clear their popularity and musical ability greatly increased with the joining of Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks. On stage Christie McVie called them her musical family and as I listened I started to get a vision of that family.  They are a family who stays together despite the fact that they are all very different people.  Their strength lies in both the tensions in personality but also that musical family combination.  It is perfection for a band and few bands can claim to have such a perfect combination of personalities and talent.  I would like to speak to this perfection by talking about their musical personalities and why they fit so well together.  I’ve even given these musical personalities a name they are as follows:  The Aura, The Violet, The Craftsman, The Silence, and The House.  Perhaps you can already guess which is which.

The Aura

Both leading ladies in the bands might be described as romantics, but in very different ways.  For Stevie Nicks love and


magic go hand-in-hand.  She is as mysterious as the moon and she is the feelings of romance that you can’t quite put into words.  You will love her and not exactly know why.  She dances, she moves, she floats, and she spins.  She is the girl you want to get close to, but not necessarily the one you should bring home to mother.  She lives in dreams and want you to live there with her. Who doesn’t love to dream? She is the theater, and who doesn’t love a good show?  You recognize that loving her might also bring peril and yet you are still drawn in.  This is why she is the aura of the band.  She envelops you and you can get lost in her.  She makes you dance to her tune, helpless, enraptured.  Her voice is as hypnotic as her beauty.  She might make you cry, make you break down, and shatter your illusions of love, but you’ll always think loving her is worth it.  And it is.


The Violet

Beautiful like a flower and modest as a violet; this is Christie McVie.  She is the sweet girl next door.  Pretty, honest, with a heart of gold.  She is the one that grows up into that mother that knows how to take care of everyone, both physically and emotionally.  She’s never wild in public, and she doesn’t dance all that well, but when she does dance you know she’s happy and you can’t help but smile when you watch her.  She is the girl you fall in love with and feel safe.  When she sings you know, she knows the score.  Her love is nurturing, solid and tangible.  You want to be with her everywhere. You listen to her and sigh, and smile, each note on her keyboard vibrates your heart a little bit.  Listening to her songs it is the same feeling you get when you taste sweet confection or a fresh baked cookie.  She is the treat you deserve after a hard day and will always make you feel right with the world.

The Craftsman

Where Stevie draws you in, Lindsey goes out and grabs you.  Where Stevie wants you to believe in magic, Lindsey tells


you that you need no other plane of existence than this one.  He puts you in the here, and now and says “Listen…to…me”.  His voice and guitar will make you pay attention.  He is the hammer and chisel.  He is the designer.  He is a mastermind with background vocals, providing substance and melody to each song.  Through his genius all members of the band, as amazing as they already are, are even better because of him.  He constructs and he builds, then he sands it and varnishes it, and he works harder than everyone else, even though his genius might just qualify him to sit back and tell other people what to do.  His musical brilliance comes from the deepest heart of him, and yet he has no trouble digging to that depth to reveal it all to the listener.  You love to watch him, because you never know what he’s going to make, but you know you are going to like it in the end.  He has an intensity that is unmistakable and his greatness towers over you.  He is both humbling, but at the same time you know that his music makes you better than you are too.


The Silence

Who hears John McVie?  Everyone does, they just don’t know it.  When the others aren’t making noise, what is left?  Silence.  Like silence, John McVie is always there.  He stands in the same spot on stage, playing his bass with a stolid dedication that makes him a fixture, a landmark, an unchanging stone that all can depend on.  When there is anger and bitterness, he is playing his bass.  When there is joy and celebration, he is playing his bass.  When there is tenderness and sorrow, he is playing his bass.  When things are unfamiliar, he stands there, playing his bass.  He is that musician who will play as the Titanic goes down.  In his bass are the silent things like honor, dignity, and respect.   The silence provides solitude, peacefulness, and reflection. There at the beginning, he will be there until the end…silently playing his bass.

The House

But how would these 4 different, but amazing musical personalities ever choose to be in the same place if they didn’t


have a house to play in?  This is Mick Fleetwood.  He is the rhythm which brings them all together.  While John is reliable like a rock, Mick is reliable like a faithful valet or butler.  You might be dying on the inside, but he is going to make sure you look presentable and that the show must go on.  He is that kind of servant where you are never quite sure if you’re in charge though, or whether he is.  He is the soul of Fleetwood Mac.  He is both the history and the one who has made history.  He is also not afraid to play the buffoon, making everyone smile and laugh, breaking the tension when it’s high.  When you walk into the house you immediately know that your stay will be a memorable one.  Despite the genius of Lindsey, somewhere in the back of your mind you’ll wonder if Mick isn’t the real genius by finding a way for all these extremely talented musicians to stay in his house.  After all, every musician knows that it’s the drums that set the pace that everyone must march to.  And they all do it willingly because they know they are better together in that house than anywhere else.  He is the reason you get to say, “I love Fleetwood Mac”.

How Our Will Is Not So Free – Part II

In Part I, I hoped to get you into a relaxed frame of mind as you consider the possibility about the existence of free will.  That perhaps our subscribing to free will is more trouble than it’s worth and that life can be no less wonderful without it.  So here is the way that I like to look at our ability to make choices.

In a previous blog post I talked about the fortunes of life perhaps depending on the choice between Pepsi and Coke, so let’s stick with soda (or pop if you


prefer) to start our little thought experiment.  Let’s say you live in a world in which there is only one beverage you know about, and that beverage is Coke.  When you are thirsty and you need something to drink, there is no decision to make it is going to be Coke.  Free will does not enter into the decision.

Now this is not particularly realistic.  So let’s add a choice like Pepsi into the mix.  They taste different, but both can quench your thirst.  Which one do you choose?  Well let’s see what might go into making a decision.  You are at the store that sells the only two beverages that are available and which one do you choose?  Likely your choice will come down to statistical probability.  If you absolutely had no preference, your decision would simply be random.  Over the course of your life you would probably have picked Coke 50% of the time and Pepsi 50% of the time, provided you had a choice.  Nothing in your life that you have learned has caused you to lean one way or another, there are only two choices, and thus your choice is limited and can be simply equated to flipping a coin.

You might say at this point, wait, I can choose to pick Coke or Pepsi more often.  Okay then, but why would you?  What particular reason would you have for choosing one over the other?  This question is particularly devilish so I’ll get back to it later.  As for now, you have no reason to choose one more than another, and so quite simply you wouldn’t; it’s a flip of the coin, which isn’t free will.  Generally people don’t do anything without a reason.

Now let’s throw in a reason.  Your mother who you revere and think is wonderful always brought you a special souvenir coke when she’d go away somewhere, and so drinking Coke sometimes reminds of that warm feeling.  This is an influence that impacts your decision making. All of a sudden your preference for Coke perhaps goes to 60% (40% Pepsi) because when you’re thinking about your mom you’re in a mood for Coke, taking away from it always being a completely random decision.   Now since Coke is a little less sweet, perhaps your blood doesn’t react well to too much sugar, a genetic trait running in your family, and you can’t tolerate Pepsi as often and all of a sudden you’re at 75% Coke, 25% Pepsi.  Then you find that the makers of Coke are a little more efficient at running their business and are able to have more sales on their product.  As someone who is money conscious all of sudden you are buying Coke 85% of the time, Pepsi 15%. A really hot girl or guy is in the Coke commercial – 90%/10%.  Finally your Dad is a mean person who beat you as a child and he always drank Pepsi.  All of a sudden you are only drinking Coke again.  Your choices are a function of the things that influence you.

For every answer there is a question.  You’re money conscious, but where does that come from? Perhaps your father despite being abusive was very disciplined with money and so you gained that skill from him.   What if you decide that you aren’t going to let your father’s action impact your decisions and


get a Pepsi out of spite.  Great, but what would cause you to be so defiant and rebellious.  Perhaps your mother showed that trait.  Perhaps you were inspired by Martin Luther King, Jr. that you learned about in school.  Perhaps you were inspired by the movie Braveheart.  There may be many possible influences, the point is that you believe that defiance is a positive way of dealing with such childhood trauma and that idea had to come from somewhere.  Many people do not have such boldness.  Perhaps that is not a weakness, perhaps they just feel the best way to cope is for them to completely dissociate themselves with their Pepsi drinking dad as way of staying stress free and peaceful.  They learned this from a self-help book that they read on letting go of the past.

Now going back to an earlier question, what prevents you from just preferring one drink over another for no reason?  People seem to do things for no reason all the time, and I would have to agree.  But doing something for the hell of it is also a trait.  There are people who will never be like that all their lives.  Some people say, I’m just going to be a Coke drinker even though I like both of them well enough, because hey why not, I’m a wild and crazy guy, and I just want to be on team Coke.  Where does this spontaneous side come from?  An aunt you love and revere whose always taking chances and is a thrill seeker?  A friend you went to college with who just loved to be spontaneous?  But if your spontaneous next year you might just be on Team Pepsi.

The reasons for our decisions are so varied and complex that such a breakdown for why we make the decision we do is not always clear, but it is clear that we are conditioned by multiple influences over different scales of time to reach those decisions.  Your choice of beverage might really be something like this:

Coke 70% – Tastes better, grew up with it, family drank Coke

Trying something new 10% – Your mom always encouraged you to try new things and that variety is important so you aren’t afraid to take a chance when something catches your eye

Dr. Pepper 10% – You also like the taste and it reminds you of your years in grad school when you and your friends used to always take a break from studies and get a Dr. Pepper

RC Cola 5% – They were out of Coke, you wanted a cola and you hate Pepsi

Tolerable Beverages 5% – when your favorite choices aren’t available you can tolerate maybe an Orange Crush, Fanta, or Root Beer because it’s better than any of the other choices you’ve been given.

And then finally you might have a special category of beverage you’d hate and never choose unless you had been in the desert a real long time and had no other choice.

In our minds we think about all the things we have drank and see them all as choices and feel like we are consciously making the choice with our free will, but the truth is that we are conditioned into those choices and if we really thought about it, we usually do get a Coke, and the other beverages are choices but low probability ones.

Can our lives really be predicted so easily?  Our decisions already pre-determined? The answer, of course, is “no”, because life is full of unexpected events.  Even if everything that occurs is deterministic you are an incredibly small part of everything and cannot follow the chain of events. And perhaps your penchant for trying new things leads you to a beverage you love more than Coke.  Perhaps you fall in love with a girl who loves Dr. Pepper and that becomes your preferred drink since you both like it and it’s something you can share.


Life is full of events that we don’t know are coming and it is those intersections that throw us out of our comfort zones and give us new experiences that shift the probabilities and possibilities of choices we can make in any given situation.  Whether you are open or closed to new situations also depends on the various things that can influence us as human beings.  We are animals born with a unique mixture of genes, in a part of the world we had no choice in, raised by people who we had no choice over, while our senses feed us information every day we exist to a brain that has been conditioned over millions of years to process all that information amazingly well and do its best to help us survive.  Yet most things we will never know or understand fully, closing off an entire range of possibilities that we might choose from.  And so what if we are not consciously making our choices?  We are a complex mixture of nature and nurture and in such a symphony who wants to pick out a single note from a single instrument.  Just sit back and enjoy the music.

Music – Perspectives from an 80’s child


I love 80’s music.  It’s almost an obsession. It’s the decade I was first aware of music.  As I was driving in to work this morning I had my 80’s play list on.  The song Waiting for a Star to Fall by Boy Meets Girl came on and I was reminded about how much I listened to that song to build up my courage in asking a girl out that I was for.  That and I Can’t Fight This Feeling Anymore by REO Speedwagon.   The fact that I never ended up asking any girl out and that it was all shattered dreams isn’t the point, but what I do think is neat is how music is so trans-formative in bringing back memories; sometimes long stretches of memory and in great detail.

I remember long nights in our house, sitting alone, listening to the radio, waiting for songs I liked to come on so I could record them on cassettes.  Wading through endless radio ga-ga, yelling “Let the music play!” sometimes not even knowing who I was listening to, because they wouldn’t announce the name of the band.  I remember the waiting, getting cramped legs because I’m so excited about a new band or album that I’m almost in hysteria in anticipation. And, after what feels like the longest time, when it finally plays, you go insane.  Thinking to yourself that if somebody’s watching me, they’ll think I’ve gone crazy in the nightYou might think that my description here is superfluous or overkill, but I am sure all of you can remember being in your room, spinning round and round and shakin’.

And that’s the other great things about music, is the way that it can make us move.  Sometimes the desire to move with music is simply irresistible.  You lose your self-control and your legs just start dancing like it was reflex, and having it feel like the most natural way to express yourself.  Maybe you remember waiting for that catchy song to play at prom so you can strut across the floor to the girl you like and say “Let’s dance”. Or waiting for that super romantic song so you can experience the sensation of human touch, and wondering if with every breath you take she will notice how sweaty your palms are getting.  Worried that you’ll step on her feet and not get a second chance.  Hoping it’s all not too good to be true being so close to someone you like and lovin’ every minute of it. Then you might nervously slide your hands down to her waist hoping she doesn’t tell you to keep your hands to yourself and that the look in her eyes isn’t an angry one.  And if she smiles…well…one thing leads to another.

Music is this great binding force that connects us to other people in both space and time.  As seasons change, no matter where we roam, music has people dancing in the street from Europe, to Africa, to China to middle eastern countries like Iran. So, far away places love music too, whether you live in Buenos Aires or live your life in a northern town.   People are people and all around the world music is touching their heart and soul and wouldn’t it be good if we could let our love of music bring people together everywhere.

I believe that the promise of tomorrow is in celebrating the things that we share.  The world isn’t going to get better by holding out for a hero, so go over to your neighbor and say “Hello” and see if you like the same music.  The great thing about music is that falling in love with it is not a once in a lifetime experience.  People who aren’t music lovers, well they don’t know what they are missing.  It ain’t enough to just have music on in the background.   You have to sing it loud, and lose yourself. Music can make you laugh or cry and it will always feel good.  Having music in your life can improve it beyond your wildest dreamsWould I lie to you? Don’t answer me.  I make mistakes; I’m only human.  Just put in some of your favorite songs and don’t stop believin’.  It’s the only way I know to stay forever young.