Free-for-all… Wednesday?

Since Friday will see the beginning of my annual Christmas Countdown of various music videos themed to various holidays, regular features will not be as regular until 2021. This is basically my way of being able to take a vacation while not leaving my loyal readers without content.

So, since during Thanksgiving week Wednesday is really Friday, here’s Friday’s regular feature, in which I answer random questions from a website. Enjoy!

When’s censorship warranted?

Whenever someone wants the DJ to play Nickleback.

Okay, serious answer: We first have to remember what censorship is and is not. If a private entity, like a business, a website, a blog, a chatroom, or any other entity not affiliated with the government wants to prohibit the saying of any particular words or phrases or the posting of any kinds of images or videos, they are completely within their rights.

This is not censorship, and it’s why I’m ambiguous on the concept of, say, a bakery not wanting to make a cake for a same-sex couple because it offends the owner’s religious beliefs.

Honestly, and I say this as a queer atheist, that’s their right — just as it’s the right of people who do not agree with that stance to not patronize the business. Likewise, if I owned a business, I’d be within my rights to ban any clothing or jewelry with religious imagery or symbolism but, again, I’d also be free to suffer the economic consequences.

Of course, my second example isn’t quite the same, because it would take aim at everyone. To be similar in idea to the bakery example, I’d have to limit it to one particular religion.

What is censorship? It’s this same thing, except when it’s done by any governmental entity at any level. The analogous example to the bakery in this case is a city clerk who refuses to issue same-sex marriage licenses because it conflicts with her religious belief.

The baker is making a business decision. The government official is practicing censorship. The logic behind it is that the former is a private entity that has the right to choose those with whom they will or will not associate or do business.

On the other hand, since the government is financed by all for the benefit of all, it has no right to refuse service.

So the answer to the question, “When is censorship warranted?” is never. That’s because it’s up to us, the People, to keep an eye on things like hate speech, and incendiary language, and use the powers we have to shame and shun.

Does it work both ways, in terms of political leanings? Of course it does. And if you’re going to push in one direction against the beliefs and statements of the other side, you have to accept that they’re going to push back.

At the same time, the government has no right to shut either or any side up, with one exception, and that falls under the concept of clear and present danger. But you can look into that yourself. It will make for fascinating pre-holiday reading.

Where do you like going for walks?

As usual, for my contradictory self, I love walking in two places: in a dense urban setting with plenty of buildings and people around, and in nature — in particular beaches and forests.

I love the former because there’s always something new and interesting to discover, especially if you’re doing it in a city you thought you were very familiar with but in a neighborhood you’ve never walked through. I’ve had many an amazing photo safari on the streets of L.A. neighborhoods I’d only ever driven through before.

The flip side of that is a good walk in nature, and a large part of why I enjoy the beach and forests is that the sensory overload is just so relaxing. The seashore has a distinct smell of salt and sea-life, and the air always feels electrically fresh.

Meanwhile, the sound and rhythm of the waves, particularly as they crash on shore, is like the Earth’s heartbeat, reminding you that she is a living thing as well. Visually, there’s nothing better than the beach to remind you what you live on: a big ball of wet dirt, and from the edge of the beach to the horizon at sea, you’re seeing the transition from the minority to majority surface of the planet.

That is, there’s a lot more water than there is land, and if you watch very carefully and live close enough to ports, you can watch the ships come and go over that horizon and vanish around the curve of the Earth.

Forests are just as enchanting, though. Not only are you surrounded by the smells of the dirt and trees, and any flowers or other plants that might be around, but if you just listen, you can hear that the place is full of life that you don’t necessarily see, but you can certainly sense it.

You’ll hear birds and insects, as well as small animals skittering around in the bushes and underbrush. If you’re lucky, you may even encounter a deer and be quiet enough to get to watch for a while before they sense you and pronk off into the deep woods.

If you’re not lucky, you might encounter a bear or mountain lion, but that’s why you have to choose your forest strolls wisely.

What should they teach in high school but don’t?

Well, other than critical thinking and a combination of political science and physics, the big things missing in high school education is a course covering basic life skills.

These are things like managing your own household and finances, and preparing for that transition into that time when mommy and daddy won’t be doing it for you anymore.

Ideally, this should be when you turn 18, but some parents still can’t let go, and they’re a big problem.

Anyway, it could be a multi-year course called “Adulting 101.” Modules would include things like budgeting, covering how to balance your checkbook and why you should, why you should avoid getting credit cards as long as possible, alternatives to student loans, and whether an expensive college is really worth it anymore, depending on your career track.

Other things to cover would be the “Domestic Bliss” module. They used to teach this in high school and call it “Home Economics.” But, guess what? That was eons ago, and the classes were meant for only the girls.

Why? Well, home economics was all about cooking and cleaning and baking and making the home a castle for hubby. It was also all about figuring out how to make the household budget work based on the allowance he gave you out of the salary that he went off to earn.

It should have been called “How to be the perfect little housewife.”

But forget all that sexist hoo-hoo. The core stuff is genuinely necessary for everyone: How to cook, how to bake, how to clean, how to stretch the food budget the farthest and in the healthiest way, and to keep it practical and modern, “How to get along with your roommates” is definitely a part of this class. How to allocate chores, how to settle disputes, how to split bills and finances, and so on.

And then there are all those other bits, like laundry, auto maintenance, negotiating a lease/rental agreement and tenant’s rights, how to open a bank account, how to make a resume and do a job interview, how to negotiate a raise, and so on.

The problem is that, currently, the schools are too focused on teaching the kids how to pass standardized tests instead of actually teaching them, and that’s got to change.

But I think another disincentive to bringing back the basic “blue collar” vocational-style programs that schools used to have is the mistaken belief on the part of the schools that the parents are teaching this stuff to their kids.

And the parents probably either think the same thing about the schools, or just assume that their kids will figure it out.

Well, I didn’t learn any of these from either entity, at least not officially. I sort of learned cooking by watching my mom do it, but she never officially trained me.

Hell, I didn’t even learn typing in school, I had to learn that myself — but that’s probably the reason I can often hit 95 wpm by touch without errors. I didn’t learn the “right” way. I learned the right way for me.

What would happen to a society in which no one had to work, and everyone was provided enough food, water, shelter, education, and healthcare for free?

This seems like the inverse of the previous question. If we can’t train our kids how to Adult and take care of themselves, then why not provide everyone with all of the necessities?

A common answer, I’m guessing (and I’m not trying to strawman) is that if people were given that kind of freebie, then they’d all just become lazy and dependent and never do anything.

Fortunately, that’s not how human nature works. You’d get maybe 20% of the population that would decide, “Okay, this is great,” and just kick back and enjoy all the freebies.

But the key to it is this: We’d only get the necessities for free. Your food isn’t going to be steak and caviar. It won’t be crap, but it won’t be fancy. Likewise, depending on your family size, you might get anything from a studio apartment up to possibly a small single-family home of the type that was once called a “starter,” but nothing fancier.

Oh yeah — clothing falls under shelter, actually, but it would be a basic wardrobe — maybe enough tops, bottoms, socks, and undies for a two week cycle, one or two fancy outfits, and the minimal assortment of shoes — business, business casual, and sport/leisure.

But again, all of it off the rack and not fancy, although you should be able to choose your colors, designs, and sizes from a catalog.

Education could be handled through the tons of existing online free courses that libraries and universities already have, and educational advancements could actually serve as a credit system to up the “niceness” of the previous categories. “You’ve mastered Italian 1? Congratulations, your food and clothing allowances are now increased by 20%.”

Healthcare would cover all the keeping you healthy and not dead stuff, but none of the unnecessary procedures like rhinoplasty or breast implants or liposuction.

Note that entertainment, hobbies, and any other luxury items are not covered, and this is where the system creates incentive.

See, it doesn’t say “Nobody ever needs to work again.” It says, “No one who doesn’t want to has to work again.”

But if you want to, and there’s something you’d like to earn money for, then the jobs are out there for you to find. The best part is that you don’t have to work full-time because you’re not trying to pay for the basics.

Instead, it’s an ad hoc thing. For example, say you want to go to a concert and take your SO, and the tickets you want are $250 each. Not covered under the basic minimum programs. However, you’ve got an app and can pull some gigs, and you can plan exactly what you need to do and win to earn enough for the tickets and some incidental cash on top of that.

If you’re more ambitious, with all the time you have not working for mere survival, you can create — whether it’s art, music, ideas, businesses, whatever. And, again, you’ll still have enough consumers who will be able to afford your stuff because there are plenty of people for whom “just the basics” are never enough.

Finally, there are those who would not go back to work for money in any active way but, instead, would volunteer their time and talents because now they could — and that’s the 20% of people on the other end of the spectrum.

So, we have probably 20% never working at all and 20% volunteering, leaving the 60% in the middle. Out of that bunch, maybe 10% would start their own businesses or other creative ventures, and the remaining 50% would effectively be the workforce.

And there’s a lot of work, because you have either corporations or government who have to manufacture, allocate, and distribute all of the aforementioned freebies.

The obvious question is this: If no one is paying for those things, then where does the money come from? The honest answer is that we’d have to redefine money first — but given the scenario, we already have.

Remove the need to pay for the basics, and you’ve removed the need for money. Everyone is provided everything when we all share all the resources with each other. So the subsequent economy is one in which skill and knowledge are directly traded for needs and desires.

It becomes the ultimate barter economy. And yes, maybe we create a currency based on that — but instead of it being “This piece of paper is worth X amount because the government says it has credit enough to cover it,” we’d wind up with something like “This barcode (or blockchain) is valid in exchange for 250 standard labor units based on work done by the bearer,  [Name].”

The person or entity receiving that code has now acquired 250 standard labor units, which they can turn around and spend on what they please. And the economy is still flush with money. The only difference is that it is now truly capital produced by the workers — who are controlling the means of production — and not bullshit produced by bankers.

But don’t call it communism. That’s naïve. Call it what it really is: A future that will leave no one behind, but reward those who really do have ambition and talent. If you’re the kind to bitch about “lazy welfare queens” (a myth created by Ronald Reagan), then you should actually love this system.

Why? Because under this system, there’s no way that someone who doesn’t want to work at all is going to get those mythical big-screen TVs, or even be able to buy alcohol or weed or whatever. If they want it, they’ll have to become part of that 50%.

And wasn’t that the goal all along?

Happy Thanksgiving, all! Here’s to smooth sailing on into 2021.

Amazing animal adaptations to the human world

If you think that animals haven’t continued to evolve in the wake of having wound up in the middle of human cities and culture, then you haven’t been paying attention. Our friends — furry and otherwise — are catching up to us. And why not? Some of them try to emulate us as much as possible, while others are just really good at reading our body language. Others still are good at figuring out patterns independent of our behavior, while a final group doesn’t think much, but knows how to follow instinct.

Let’s start out with our emulators.

It’s a typical Monday morning as you make your way from your house on the outskirts of the city to the subway station for your regular morning commute to your office downtown. You get on the train and take your seat, armed with the newspaper or touch pad or smart phone as the usual distraction, when you notice a half dozen or so unaccompanied dogs casually enter the last car with you and, like any other commuter, take their seats. They sit or lie quietly as the train heads off for the city and, as you stand to get off at the central station, so do they.

This would be an unusual sight in most major cities, but to the residents of Moscow, Russia, it has become quite routine. In the twenty years since the break-up of the Soviet Union, the changing face of this metropolis of nearly twelve million has forced its population of stray dogs to learn the ways of their human counterparts. By night, they live in the deserted industrial areas outside of the city, a canine population last estimated five years ago at 26,000. By day, they head downtown, where the people are and, more importantly, where the free food is, and they do it the same way the humans do.

No one taught the dogs how to navigate one of the world’s busiest subway systems. They have managed to figure it out on their own, and have also learned the concept of traffic signals. Stray dogs have been observed waiting for the light before crossing the street, and they aren’t just taking their cues from humans – they exhibit the same behavior when the streets are devoid of people. What they do take from humans are their lunches, and some enterprising dogs will use a well-timed bark to startle a hapless pedestrian into dropping their shawarma onto the pavement, to be snatched away by the successful hunter. When not using this technique, they will scavenge from dumpsters, or just hang out in busy areas waiting for the inevitable handout. They’ve also been known to exploit human psychology by sending in the cutest puppers in order to do the heavy-lifting of begging for the whole pack.

Yes, these dogs are playing us.

Why they have figured out these tricks is fairly obvious: their environment changed when downtown was revitalized and they had to adapt. How they do it, though, is another question, and zoologists are still studying them to figure it out. The dogs can’t read signs, so their subway navigation, which includes getting on and off at the right stops, is still a mystery, as is their ability to obey a traffic light on their own. It would be one thing if they had been trained – but they have not.

This isn’t the only example of animals adapting to the human world. The next group are the pattern seekers, who use repetitive and predictable cues to figure out how to safely navigate the space in order to feed.

In Japan, crows have been observed exploiting roads and traffic in order to crack nuts that they can’t themselves — but the most remarkable part of this is that they use the traffic signals to tell them when it’s safe to go into the road to fetch the good stuff.

Next is the animal to exploit humans by using instinct over intellect, although ultimately a bit of both: Clever Hans, a horse that appeared to know how to do simple sums and count, until it was determined that what the horse was really doing was reacting to subtle human emotions given away as the horse approached the answer. Hans could literally tell when he’d hit the right number via tapping his hoof until the humans reached maximum excitement, by which point he’d learned that “Decrease in excitement means stop.”

At least this is a few orders of magnitude above the animal that reacts strictly by instinct, with no intellect involved — the “avoid that moving shadow and get out of the light” reaction common to cockroaches, who are far less intelligent than horses. They don’t think about what they’re doing or why. They don’t have the brain capacity for that. Instead, they just automatically skittle away from things perceived as danger. This is a very common behavior among animals, and in fact extends all the way down to single-celled organisms, which will also instinctively and automatically swim away from chemical signals that they consider unpleasant or dangerous.

That’s how survival and evolution work, and it’s how life on Earth evolved from being mindless single-celled organisms that only know “swim toward food, swim from trouble” to the complex primates that seem to be top of the food-chain for the moment and, at least for now, have developed our technology far enough to start to fling ourselves out into the solar system.

And that process is also how we inadvertently help all of our domesticated animals to evolve, so it shouldn’t be any surprise that as we develop more technology and empathy, our companions develop more empathy and intelligence. Sure, I don’t know whether it’s us or our pets getting smarter, or if it’s a mutual act, but whichever it is doesn’t matter. The only important part is that we seem to be increasing the emotional bond between ourselves and our animals that are above the purely instinctual level, since most of that latter group seem to be nothing but pests.

Maybe this will lead us to a meatless world, or at least one where all of our meat is grown in labs or fabricated from plant products. If you’ve never seen dancing cows, happy goats, laughable lambs, pet pigs, or even redeemed raccoon and frisky ferrets, you should. The more I learn about animals, the less I want to eat them.