Volume 42 Number 14

January 2 – January 8, 2008

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The Zoo Blues


This story was first published May 19, 1999

IN EARLY 1997, the San Francisco Zoo had a serious public-relations problem. The zoo wanted San Francisco voters to approve a $48 million bond measure to overhaul the facilities. But the Asian elephant exhibit was making the zoo look bad.

Tinkerbelle the elephant had been living alone since April 1995, when her longtime companion, Pennie, was put to sleep. Animal activists had been complaining that, for an animal that herds and has complex social interactions in the wild, life alone was cruel and unacceptable. According to the minutes from a board meeting of the San Francisco Zoological Society, the private group that manages the zoo, executive director David Anderson decided it was time to find a friend for Tinkerbelle. He thought he found her in Calle.

Calle was about 30 years old and on exhibit at the Los Angeles Zoo. She had put in her time entertaining humans, working shows in Las Vegas and giving rides to kids at the San Diego Zoo. Animal advocates in Los Angeles were trying to get her to a sanctuary in Tennessee. But Anderson decided he wanted her in San Francisco.
Animal rights advocates hated the idea. Gretchen Wyler, executive director of Endocino-<\h>based Arc Trust came to San Francisco to check out the zoo’s facilities. “I was devastated when I saw how small and barren it was,” Wyler told the Bay Guardian.

S.F. Zoo curator David Robinett denies that the decision to move Calle to San Francisco had anything to do with the timing of the bond campaign. “We were anxious to move ahead and get a companion for Tinkerbelle,” he told us.
Either way, the zoo was in a hurry — and it wound up with a huge problem on its hands. Before leaving Los Angeles, Calle was tested for tuberculosis. According to Susanne Barthell, who ran the Council for Excellence in Zoo Animal Management until her death last fall, the elephant population at the L.A. Zoo was known to have problems with T.B., a claim Robinett denies. But S.F. Zoo officials did not wait for the test results to come back before they brought Calle north on March 19, 1997.

The tests came back positive. The zoo had just bought a tuberculous elephant.

As soon as she arrived, Calle had to be quarantined from her new companion. And the financially troubled zoo got hit with elephantine medical bills. Calle’s treatment would run from $60,000 to $65,000 a year, curator Robinett told the city’s Commission of Animal Control and Welfare in July.

It got worse. In separating the elephants, zoo workers put Calle in the cushier exhibit quarters, which at least had some vegetation and a watering hole. Tinkerbelle was moved to neighboring quarters, without vegetation or water. She had to poke her trunk through a hole in the wall to refresh herself. (Only this month was the electrified barrier between the two areas removed permanently. Calle is cured, and the two elephants can now interact.)

The elephant debacle is all too typical. San Francisco’s zoo has never been one of the country’s best — but six years after it was placed in private hands, it’s in worse shape than ever. Privatization was supposed to save the zoo; instead it has failed it. A Bay Guardian investigation based on interviews and documents shows:

* Dozens of animals live in squalid, substandard conditions: primates have died because of disease-<\h>ridden cages, orangutans are cooped up in tiny cement boxes, rare rainforest mammals are losing hair.

* The number of zoo employees charged with taking care of the animals has plummeted — while the number of other employees has doubled.

* The U.S. Department of Agriculture is so frustrated with the S.F. Zoo’s animal mistreatment, it is threatening to fine the zoo thousands of dollars — and one foundation that had given hundreds of thousands to the zoo has withdrawn its funding.

* Thanks to a string of expensive bond issues, the public is still paying for the zoo, but zoo executive director David Anderson has seen his own salary substantially boosted.

* Marketing expenses have skyrocketed, and the zoo is heavily dependent on amusement park–<\d>type rides and other non-educational attractions to break even.

* City officials have become so skeptical of the zoo society’s ability to manage itself that Board of Supervisors president Tom Ammiano called for an audit last spring. Stanton W. Jones, an auditor who works for budget analyst Harvey Rose, is expected to release the audit late this summer.

In fact, the zoo is a case study of everything that is wrong with privatization.

A bad place to live

The push to privatize the zoo got rolling in 1990, when David Anderson was brought in from New Orleans’s Audubon Park and Zoological Garden. The zoo’s infrastructure was crumbling, and its finances were in bad shape. Sources in the Recreation and Park Department say Anderson enthusiastically advocated privatization as a solution.
Without accepting bids from other organizations, Rec and Park handed over control of the zoo to the private San Francisco Zoological Society, which had been raising money for the zoo since 1954. In the summer of 1993 the society agreed to lease the premises and take over management of the zoo, promising to balance its budget by June 30, 1998 (see “Sold!,” 10/19/94).

Anderson has made out handsomely from the deal. In 1994 the society paid him $81,443; by 1997 his total compensation had gone up to $148,500, including a $25,000 bonus — in a year when the zoo was still losing money.

The animals have fared much worse.

Within the past two months the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which governs animal care in zoos, has issued the society a warning. According to the USDA, inspectors have repeatedly notified zoo administrators about problems. If those problems aren’t corrected, the agency is now threatening to fine the zoo.

“We made it clear that they are not doing a good job on maintenance,” Wensley Koch, supervisory animal care specialist with the USDA’s western sector office, told the Bay Guardian. “Basically there’s a management problem.”
Records of inspection reports dating back to 1990 reveal problems throughout the zoo facilities — from the big cats’ lairs to the monkeys’ quarters. Wood is rotting; fences are rusting. Rats get into food areas and leave droppings.
Many of the problems are associated with the primate center, which has been a trouble spot since it was built in 1985. The colobus monkeys’ metal climbing bars were grooved. Since keepers couldn’t clean them of feces, the monkeys got sick from contact with their own excrement. The colobus population was decimated. According to Sandra Keller of Citizens for a Better Zoo, which was watch<\h>dogging the zoo at the time, 53 of the 85 primates in the center died.

“Once they opened it, the animals started dying,” Keller told the Bay Guardian. “They didn’t quarantine the new animals sufficiently when they were brought in. They basically wiped out the whole primate collection. It was heartbreaking.”

But turning the zoo over to the private society didn’t help. If anything, conditions are worse. A September 1996 USDA inspection found feces all over outdoor structures in the primate center. And in April 1997 an inspector noted that rat feces were found in the gorillas’ indoor housing area and that weeds and bushes grew out of control in the outside exhibit.

Inspectors frequently found that problems they had repeatedly brought to the society’s attention had not been addressed. For example, rotting wooden structures in the primate center went unrepaired for years between inspections; wire mesh fences keeping the colobus monkeys from escaping the exhibit continued to rust for a year after the USDA-imposed deadline to fix them.

Indeed, records from the past three years show that the zoo was regularly blowing its USDA-imposed deadlines on fixing facilities.

“When you’ve been writing ‘rust up’ for 10 years, most people get the message,” Koch told the Bay Guardian. “We’re at the point where, if the zoo doesn’t shape up, we might be forced to take an action against them. We can fine them up to $2,500 per violation.”

“If we’re looking at a monkey enclosure and we explain that a rusty enclosure is a problem and we note they also have rust at the zebra site, then the next time we come out, we don’t want to see a rusty elephant enclosure,” she said. “What becomes obvious is that either they don’t care about complying or they have decided not to. When they’re doing that, they’re using us as a quality control agency. The impression is that they have no quality control themselves.”

A 1993 incident involving an orangutan named Chewbacca sheds light on how zoo officials have tended to respond to agency involvement. Responding to an anonymous complaint, the USDA found that zoo officials had been planning to keep the 150-pound Chewbacca confined to a four-by-six-foot converted entryway for more than a year while they used his quarters to breed chimpanzees.

“From my perspective it appears that the project with the chimpanzees has been ill conceived,” William DeHaven, a sector supervisor with the USDA, noted on Oct. 12 of that year. “If you do not have sufficient space to conduct a breeding program properly, we feel it should not be conducted at all.”

USDA veterinary medical officer Richard Spira found Robinett to be uncooperative in dealing with the situation. “Incredibly, David Robinett took exception to my observation that the temporary night quarters were cramped at best,” Spira wrote to Koch. “This … is to give you a little taste of the double<\h>speak I’m getting at the zoo.”

The zoo has been no quicker to respond to problems brought to its attention by private citizens. On January 23, 1997, Barthell complained to both the zoo and the USDA. Barthell, an outspoken critic of the zoo, reported that she had seen a herd of six blackbuck standing in a driving rainstorm with no shelter, not even a tree. She also noted that 12 kangaroo were soaked and huddling against a wall for protection, their shelters too small to protect them.
Robinett responded to her concerns in writing. “This is not atypical of antelope,” he wrote. “In fact, many species react to inclement weather by seeking open space rather than cover.” He also said the kangaroo shelters were fine.

The USDA didn’t see it that way. The agency informed the zoo in February 1997 that shelter provided for both the blackbuck and the kangaroos was inadequate.

Robinett denied that the zoo has a cavalier attitude toward facilities problems.

“A lot of it is the age of the enclosures,” Robinett told us. “It is also a problem of limited resources. When you’re patching the patch of a patch — that’s when there are problems.”

He said that the zoo had to choose carefully how to spend its funds and that it gave the highest priority to the ones that officials there felt posed the greatest hazard to animals. And Wayne Reading, the society’s chief financial officer, says the infrastructure improvements are well underway, funded by donations and bond revenues.

Private zoo, public funds

When the society assumed control of the zoo in 1993, it was on the verge of collapse. City officials had neglected at least $10 million in facility maintenance; the number of paying visitors was in decline.

According to the zoo society’s lease, the city agreed to keep paying the zoo $4 million a year (to help cover the cost of civil service employees). In exchange, the society was supposed to take over the zoo and make it financially viable.

The society was not able to pull the zoo out of the red. In the spring of 1997, after four years of losing money, zoo officials admitted to acting parks director Joel Robinson that they were paying operating expenses with a loan of roughly $2.5 million from Wells Fargo as well as with money raised before the zoo went private. And in November of that year, Reading told the Rec and Park Commission that the marketing expenses for that fiscal quarter were over budget by $47,000. The society raised admissions prices in spring 1998 to cover an immediate $250,000 shortfall.

The society had already started going after an infusion of public funds. The minutes of society meetings show that for more than a year, the group devoted almost all its energy to getting a $48 million bond issue passed. According to the lease, the city agreed to sell at least $25 million in bonds to improve crumbling facilities. The society was supposed to raise $25 million from private funders by the time the bonds were sold. (To date, the society has raised $17 million.)

In June 1997, voters passed the $48 million bond issue. The zoo expected the bonds to start selling in late fall 1998, but they were delayed by a lawsuit seeking to overturn voter approval of the 49ers stadium bonds, which passed in the same election. That litigation was thrown out of court; the zoo bonds are expected to be sold this summer. The society has also taken $26 million from bonds issued for rebuilding after the Loma Prieta earthquake.

The city’s Recreation and Park Department responded to the zoo’s financial troubles by looking the other way. Rather than conduct an audit of the zoo or monitor the operation more closely, the department announced that it would no longer scrutinize the zoo’s budgets at all (see “The Secret Zoo,” 11/26/97, and “Don’t Feed the Zoo Society,” 12/10/97).

Rec and Park’s former finance director Ernie Prindle, who had been checking the zoo’s budgets until 1997, told the Bay Guardian that Anderson seemed to want the zoo to have the advantages of being run by a private organization while still being covered by a public one. When the zoo admitted in the fall of 1997 it was further in debt than it should have been, Anderson asked why the department could not just take care of the deficit and make the numbers work as it had done in the days when it was part of the city system, Prindle said.

“We had to tell him it does not work that way anymore, now that the zoo is a private contractor,” Prindle said.

Carnival or classroom?

By the end of October 1998 the zoo was in the black for the first time since the society took it over. But with that success has come controversy. Instead of investing in the animals, the society has capitalized on theme rides, such as the merry-go-round, the Puffer Train, and the Tiger Express ride.

Amusement-park attractions and a pricey marketing campaign — costing the zoo almost $3 million from 1995 to 1998 — have brought more visitors to the zoo. That plus higher ticket prices means more money. And Anderson is certain that with this increased revenue, the zoo will ultimately be able to shed its carnival atmosphere and focus on its true mission: education to foster environmental activism among visitors.

But if environmental activism is Anderson’s goal, he has a strange way of showing it. For example, when the zoo brought in a lorikeet exhibit in April 1998, it allowed its sponsors to place a display — a shiny Ford sports utility vehicle — near the site.

“If you’re setting yourself out as an educator, then you’ve got to have a source of funds,” Anderson told the Bay Guardian.

Some of Anderson’s more straightforward forays into environmental education have had trouble. One of his pet conservation projects is the Madagascar Fauna Group, head<\h>quartered at the San Francisco Zoo. Among other things, the group supports the protection of Madasgascar’s Betampona National Reserve and hopes to re-introduce zoo-bred lemurs and other endangered primates, such as aye-ayes, to the island nation’s wilds.

Since 1994, when the society assumed control of the zoo, it has spent $785,222 on its Madagascar projects.
In August 1997 Anderson brought two aye-ayes from Duke University’s primate center to San Francisco. Merlin and Calaban are the only male-female aye-aye pair in any zoo in the United States. Zoo officials hope to breed them.
Anderson speaks proudly of the work the zoo has done to educate people in Madagascar about protecting aye-ayes. But he hasn’t done such a great job protecting the ones in his care.

In Madagascar, aye-ayes spend time more than 60 feet high in the rainforest canopy, where they pull bugs from trees with their long fingers. In San Francisco, they live in an eight-foot-tall glass case.

Male aye-aye Merlin has had an ongoing problem with hair loss on his hind legs. As a result the zoo’s vet put him on steroids periodically from 1997 to 1998. Zoo officials blame the hair loss on two factors: premature separation from his mother, which took place while Merlin was at Duke, and the stress of being introduced to a new female.
Anderson told the Bay Guardian the hair loss wasn’t a big deal; some activists feel differently.

“That’s a shame,” Shirley McGreal, director of the International Primate Protection League, located in South Carolina, told the Bay Guardian. “Those guys cover a good distance of territory in the wild.”

But the aye-ayes haven’t been a huge success with zoogoers either. Aye-ayes are nocturnal creatures and extremely timid; Merlin and his mate, Calaban, rarely leave the shelter of leafy branches. The best chance you’ll get to see an aye-aye at the zoo is in the gift shop, on a sweatshirt or a postcard.

Paying the price

Luckily for the society, hardly any of its donors know about how the zoo animals live; it’s hard to woo grants with rusty fences, feces-filled cages, and cramped cement cells. But one funder did find out.

In September 1994, the zoo announced the opening of its $2 million Feline Conservation Center. Keepers had already raised questions about the new facility; some thought it was unsafe for the keepers because the animals could reach through the fence to the service area with their paws and claws.

When zoo administrators brought in Denver Zoo curator John Wortman, he had the same concerns. In his final evaluation to the Zoo Society, written in October 1994, Wortman stated, “I hate to sound like a broken record, but the old safety issue rises again. The repairs should have been made prior to the felines moving unto the enclosures. Fortunately, enough of the lock system functioned and no person or creature was hurt during the shake-down period.”

The keeper at the time, Terry Moyles, was fired by the zoo March 1995. Barthell and other animal advocates suspected he was dismissed because he was outspoken about the inadequacy of the facility; Robinett denied the charge.

In a Jan. 30, 1995, letter to the charitable foundation that was funding the center, Wortman described the Feline Conservation Center as “a poor design and dangerous exhibit for both the animals and the zoo keepers.”
The center’s problems got its funders’ attention. In a Feb. 19, 1999, letter to city auditor Jones, executives from the Redmond, Wash.–based Leonard X. Bosack and Betty M. Kruger Charitable Foundation blasted the zoo.

After the foundation made initial grants of more than $200,000 for the center, the letter states, “the Foundation Board also pledged two payments of $162,000 to be made in 1994 and 1995 contingent on continued progress reports. The Foundation rescinded the pledge of $325,000 in 1995 after years of unsatisfactory response from the Zoo Executive Director and the Board of Directors.”

The letter goes on to lay out how the zoo hired a contracting firm with no experience in building wildlife care facilities, how it wasted funds, and how it ignored the recommendations of its consultant.

“As John Wortman noted, the `major problem was the inability of the S.F. staff to design a modern animal facility,’” the letter stated.

Robinett denies that the zoo staff is to blame. “To say this was a screwup in design — I think that is incorrect,” Robinett told the Bay Guardian. “We have had success [with the center], especially with breeding. It’s been a very good exhibit.”

It is that attitude that makes some people worry about making animals pay the costs of privatization.
Privatization “has not helped animal care,” Ron Lippert, a longtime animal health technician and former member of the city’s Commission on Animal Control and Welfare, told the Bay Guardian. “What privatization has done is allowed the society to do more things on their agenda — without the public scrutiny they had before. It seems like this is [Anderson and the society’s] kingdom and palace, and they want to see how much they can show it off.

“But the bottom line is that with the cold, windy, and wet climate at the zoo, it’s the wrong city. It’s the wrong location. Animals who aren’t used to handling ocean climate have to handle it day in and day out. Maybe we just shouldn’t have a zoo here. The zoo society was supposed to do all this great stuff. But as far as zoos go, this one still sucks.”

Bob Porterfield contributed to this story.

Edwards Reconsidered


There have been good reasons not to support John Edwards for president. For years, his foreign-policy outlook has been a hodgepodge of insights and dangerous conventional wisdom; his health-care prescriptions have not taken the leap to single payer; and all told, from a progressive standpoint, his positions have been inferior to those of Dennis Kucinich.

But Edwards was the most improved presidential candidate of 2007. He sharpened his attacks on corporate power and honed his calls for economic justice. He laid down a clear position against nuclear power. He explicitly challenged the power of the insurance industry and the pharmaceutical giants.

And he improved his position on Iraq to the point that, in an interview with the New York Times at the start of January, he said: “The continued occupation of Iraq undermines everything America has to do to reestablish ourselves as a country that should be followed, that should be a leader.” Later in the interview, Edwards added: “I would plan to have all combat troops out of Iraq at the end of nine to ten months, certainly within the first year.”

Now, apparently, Edwards is one of three people with a chance to become the Democratic presidential nominee this year. If so, he would be the most progressive Democrat to top the national ticket in more than half a century.

The main causes of John Edwards’ biggest problems with the media establishment have been tied in with his firm stands for economic justice instead of corporate power.

Several weeks ago, when the Gannett-chain-owned Des Moines Register opted to endorse Hillary Clinton this time around, the newspaper’s editorial threw down the corporate gauntlet: “Edwards was our pick for the 2004 nomination. But this is a different race, with different candidates. We too seldom saw the positive, optimistic campaign we found appealing in 2004. His harsh anti-corporate rhetoric would make it difficult to work with the business community to forge change.”

Many in big media have soured on Edwards and his “harsh anti-corporate rhetoric.” As a result, we’re now in the midst of a classic conflict between corporate media sensibilities and grassroots left-leaning populism.

On Jan. 2, Edwards launched a TV ad in New Hampshire with him saying at a
rally: “Corporate greed has infiltrated everything that’s happening in this democracy. It’s time for us to say, ‘We’re not going to let our children’s future be stolen by these people.’ I have never taken a dime from a Washington lobbyist or a special interest PAC and I’m proud of that.”

But, when it comes to policy positions, he’s still no Dennis Kucinich. And that’s why, as 2007 neared its end, I planned to vote for Kucinich when punching my primary ballot.

Reasons for a Kucinich vote remain. The caucuses and primaries are a time to make a clear statement about what we believe in — and to signal a choice for the best available candidate. Ironically, history may show that the person who did the most to undermine such reasoning for a Dennis Kucinich vote at the start of 2008 was… Dennis Kucinich.

In a written statement released on Jan. 1, he said: “I hope Iowans will caucus for me as their first choice this Thursday, because of my singular positions on the war, on health care, and trade. This is an opportunity for people to stand up for themselves. But in those caucuses locations where my support doesn’t reach the necessary [15 percent] threshold, I strongly encourage all of my supporters to make Barack Obama their second choice. Sen. Obama and I have one thing in common: Change.”

This statement doesn’t seem to respect the intelligence of those of us who have planned to vote for Dennis Kucinich.

It’s hard to think of a single major issue — including “the war,” “health care” and “trade” — for which Obama has a more progressive position than Edwards. But there are many issues, including those three, for which Edwards has a decidedly more progressive position than Obama.

But the most disturbing part of Dennis’ statement was this: “Sen. Obama and I have one thing in common: Change.” This doesn’t seem like a reasoned argument for Obama. It seems like an exercise in smoke-blowing.

I write these words unhappily. I was a strong advocate for Kucinich during the race for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination. In late December, I spoke at an event for his campaign in Northern California. I believe there is no one in Congress today with a more brilliant analysis of key problems facing humankind or a more solid progressive political program for how to overcome them.

As of the first of this year, Dennis has urged Iowa caucusers to do exactly what he spent the last year telling us not to do — skip over a candidate with more progressive politics in order to support a candidate with less progressive politics.

The best argument for voting for Dennis Kucinich in caucuses and primaries has been what he aptly describes as his “singular positions on the war, on health care, and trade.” But his support for Obama over Edwards indicates that he’s willing to allow some opaque and illogical priorities to trump maximizing the momentum of our common progressive agendas.

Presidential candidates have to be considered in the context of the current historical crossroads. No matter how much we admire or revere an individual, there’s too much at stake to pursue faith-based politics at the expense of reality-based politics. There’s no reason to support Obama over Edwards on Kucinich’s say-so. And now, I can’t think of reasons good enough to support Kucinich rather than Edwards in the weeks ahead.


Norman Solomon’s latest book is “Made Love, Got War: Close Encounters with America’s Warfare State.” For more information, go to: www.normansolomon.com

Thou shalt have icons


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DVD "I put John Coltrane up in my headphones." So said innovative producer Madlib’s sped-up alter ego, Quasimoto, on 2000’s breakthrough hip-hop album The Unseen (Stones Throw). Although the brave crate diggers of hip-hop are doing their best to bring forth the horns of yore, as on local duo Zeph and Azeem’s phenomenal 2007 album Rise Up (Om), these days jazz is too often relegated to the unseen background or exploited by marketing giants that find ways to slap a few select jazz masters onto dorm room posters and cheap best-of holiday gift CDs. They want to sell the idea of John Coltrane to your headphones, and that’s the end of it: there’s no incentive to get out and see some live shows, whether jazz ensembles or DJ-MC combos, or to make music yourself.

So thank the most high for seven recent releases in the ongoing Jazz Icons DVD series (Reelin’ in the Years Productions). The series’s recently released second round showcases Coltrane, Dave Brubeck, Duke Ellington, Sarah Vaughan, Dexter Gordon, Wes Montgomery, and Charles Mingus in cleanly remastered, previously unreleased video recordings from the 1950s and ’60s. The vivid black-and-white images offer an almost palpable sense of communication among the musicians, partly because the studio and stage settings are so carefully arranged — many of these performances were for strikingly lit, modernist-looking European TV shows — and partly because those cats played with their entire bodies. The up-close shots emphasize this in beautiful, often artfully angled ways.

During the three performances included on Montgomery’s disc, Live in ’65, the guitarist’s brain seems to be solidly in his right thumb, which he uses like a huge guitar pick with eyes as he feels out new rhythms on "Here’s That Rainy Day" and kicks out some unparalleled octave soloing on "Twisted Blues," evidence of what Carlos Santana, in his brief afterword to the liner notes, labels Montgomery’s "ability to transform thought into music." During Ruud Jacobs’s bass solo on "The End of a Love Affair," you can only see his right hand plucking the strings, not his left hand creating the notes, and it’s as if the entire group he’s playing with is moving the missing left hand together. Pianist Harold Mabern’s contributions to the Montgomery disc, on "Here’s That Rainy Day" and "Jingles," both recorded in Belgium with Arthur Harper on bass and Jimmy Lovelace on drums, typify his talent for leaping back and forth between waterfall chord clusters and bluesy droplet lines that dance intimately with Montgomery’s chordal romps. When I worked at the Stanford Jazz Workshop with an almost 40 years older Mabern, he was known as a man whose stories were as entertaining as his musical tutorials. The Belgium session captures his sense of musical storytelling before the music and the storytelling separated.

The Coltrane disc, Live in ’60, ’61 and ’65, consists of recordings from Germany in 1960 and ’61 and Belgium in ’65. The Belgian water must have been terrific. The DVD includes three tunes performed during Coltrane’s last appearance in Europe (he died in 1967), with McCoy Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass, and Elvin Jones on drums; they sound — and look — like a release and cleansing of demons. "Naima" presents especially transcendent musical communication. You can’t call it a comeback, but put on a Jazz Icons DVD at a holiday party and watch as the room illuminates and people start to play together.


Twelve for the road


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The past year’s many exhilarations are here condensed into a month-by-month format. Let a veil of silence fall over the frustrations, and remember the yin and yang in everything, dance included.

January: Hungarian State Folk Ensemble, Marin Civic Center Auditorium, San Rafael. "Hungarian Concerto: Hommage à Béla Bartók," a brilliant presentation of traditional folk material, was choreographed within a sophisticated, contemporary setting that highlighted how the future and the past can coexist perfectly with each other.

February: Forsythe Company, Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley. Making a stunning debut with Three Atmospheric Studies, a piece that is as politically astute as it is formally challenging, William Forsythe’s new independent company confirmed his status as one of the most original contemporary thinkers about the role of dance in society.

March: Jess Curtis/Gravity, CounterPULSE, San Francisco. Under the Radar, Jess Curtis’s life-affirming cabaret, was probably the year’s single most inspired show, as poetic as it was inventive. The performers were as diverse as they come, and every one was top-notch. Radar did what good art always does: change our perceptions about who we are.

April: San Francisco Ballet, War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco. A rich month from the SFB, with the now-departed Gonzalo Garcia glorious in a slight work, Elemental Brubeck, and two of my SFB favorites, Kristin Long and Gennadi Nedvigin, in a problematic piece, Concordia. Julia Adam’s Night also returned. Adam’s choreographic voice is idiosyncratic and spunkily irreverent. Watch for her take on Sleeping Beauty this April.

May: Pick Up Performance Company, ODC Theater, San Francisco. David Gordon, who has been creating art for more than 30 years, is a master craftsman who works brilliantly with language and movement. In Dancing Henry Five he interwove formalized and pedestrian dance with Shakespeare’s language to stunning effect.

June: Joe Goode Performance Group, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco. We may know what Goode thinks of the frailties of the human heart, but we continue to watch because he keeps exploring ways to express his loves and concerns. Humansville was a fine example of dance as installation.

July: West Wave Dance Festival, Project Artaud Theater, San Francisco. The best West Wave in years — focused and straightforward — was also the last under Joan Lazarus’s stewardship. Let’s hope that showcasing quality artists (think Amy Seiwert and Kate Weare) will be utmost in the minds of future organizers.

August: Zaccho Dance Theatre, Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, Beckett, Mass. Watching Joanna Haigood’s haunting Invisible Wings performed in a place that served as an Underground Railroad station was both chilling and inspiring.

September: Nora Chipaumire, ODC Theater, San Francisco. Always a stunning dancer, the regal Chipaumire returned to the Bay Area with equally impressive choreography, including Chimurenga, inspired by her life in Zimbabwe.

October: Oakland Ballet Company, Paramount Theatre, Oakland. Whether this company’s tale will become a rags-to-riches story remains to be seen, but watching the hundreds in the audience give the fledgling new troupe their rousing support was not be missed.

November: San Francisco Hip Hop DanceFest, Palace of Fine Arts, San Francisco. Treading a fine line between the community groups that form her primary base and the main-stage artists that are pushing the genre ahead, producer Micaya again put on a smart, well-paced, and highly enjoyable weekend of hip-hop dance.

December: Margaret Jenkins Dance Company, Project Artaud Theatre, San Francisco. Other Suns is the first piece in a trilogy that Jenkins is crafting with China’s Guangdong Modern Dance Company. If the remaining parts push as fiercely at the edges of the physically possible, they will be something to look forward to in 2009.

Acting pleasant


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George Bernard Shaw once titled a bound collection of his dramas Plays Pleasant and Unpleasant, thus inadvertently summing up any year in any theater scene anywhere. But this is a happy time, so we can concentrate on the former.

The pool of local acting talent, in particular, spoils us in the Bay Area. While it’s not hard to find a strong performance from last year, finding room to list them all is another story, and a much longer one. But there’s space enough to list a few especially deft turns from 2007, including feats of physical and verbal dexterity, like the trio of weirdly gesticuutf8g women in Crowded Fire’s wowing production of Lisa D’Amour’s word-struck trailer-park gothic, Anna Bella Eema. Cassie Beck, Julie Kurtz, and Danielle Levin never left their chairs, but watching them — under the superb direction of Rebecca Novick (who stepped down as CF’s artistic director this year) — you didn’t want to leave yours either.

Then there was Alias‘s Carl Lumbly, skipping rope like a welterweight throughout his opening monologue in Jesus Hopped the "A" Train. A world-class actor with an East Bay address, Lumbly crossed the bridge this spring to appear in SF Playhouse’s excellent local premiere of Stephen Adly Guirgis’s raucous drama. As in many Playhouse productions, the cast (astutely directed by the ensemble’s Bill English) was strong as a whole, but the moments when Lumbly’s upbeat, ever-hopeful death-row sociopath played unlikely mentor to a young neophyte out of his depth (a solid Daveed Diggs) were truly prime time.

The physically and comically nimble cast of writer-director Mark Jackson’s notable premiere, American Suicide — a smart, lively, and very funny adaptation of Soviet Russian Nikolai Erdman’s scathing 1928 comedy that had its lock-solid debut at the Thick House in February — also merit special mention for their fine fleshing out of the play’s arch, cartoonlike histrionics. Headed by the pitch-perfect pair of Jud Williford and Beth Wilmurt in what would have been a suicide mission in lesser hands, they managed the mishmash of zany caricature, a certain 1930s allusiveness, and macabre social satire with engrossing panache. The Coen brothers might have attempted something similar in The Hudsucker Proxy, but remember: they had special effects and coffee breaks. These actors work without a net — though the show’s madcap pace put them at risk of ending up in one.

Although not necessarily as athletic as the title might lead you to expect, Sex (at the Aurora Theatre) threatened to be hard enough, given that the play, while an interesting theatrical relic, has little in its lippy melodrama to shock audiences 80 years after its scandalous Broadway opening. Furthermore, stepping into Mae West’s shoes is a fine-line idea that had better be managed with grace and attitude. Fortunately, Delia MacDougall (in the attention-grabbing role West wrote for herself) proved a dazzling tightrope walker in pumps, creating a West-worthy impression in no way reducible to a mere impersonation (which is still fine at parties). (MacDougall, incidentally, was a hilarious part of Jackson’s American Suicide cast.) Costume designer Cassandra Carpenter decked out MacDougall and the rest of the company beautifully in pristine period threads indicative of the unexpected degree of life director Tom Ross and his thoroughly fine cast found in the play.

And as memorable costumes go, I wonder who among us present for Kiki and Herb: Alive on Broadway (at the American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Theater in July) could forget that frilly-legged chiffon number (by designer Marc Happel) on Justin Bond as the singing, slinging half of those two lounge legends? Needless to say, in the brilliant haute tastelessness of the Kiki and Herb aesthetic, this was genius swathing genius.

But back to casts (and premieres): the Custom Made Theatre Company scored a real coup, if not a coup d’état, with the Bay Area premiere of Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins. The small black box company assembled a terrific cast and offered a smart production design in no way lessened by its clearly low-budget proportions. Artistic director Brian Katz’s agile execution, if that’s the right word, of Sondheim’s musical-drama rumination on the men and women who tried to assassinate various American presidents was one of the year’s little big surprises and, heading into election year 2008, left us on a feel-good note.



› kimberly@sfbg.com

SONIC REDUCER Does post-postirony still really translate as … irony? Or does any freaking thing matter at all, because the smirking, snarky ’80s are so very back that we’re backpedaling madly in our kooky plastic-and-who-really-cares-about-that-legendary-flotilla-of-plastic-in-the-Pacific-Ocean kiddie pool with what-the-hell carelessness, basking in apathy and gloss? Does that mean we’re ready to embrace our inner bigot? The jerkiest, knee-jerk reactionary responses from back in Grandpappy’s day, namely the Ronald Reagan era? Can our dingiest backward notions give us edge cred, convince us that we’re getting down as hard as those bad boys and girls of Vice et al., and provide fodder for schoolyard taunts, barroom brawls, dirty limericks, and — sweet — even songs? Aw, you’re so cute when you’re smug as a bug.

It’s hard to know what to think or feel or which cheek to plunge one’s tongue into while listening to Katy Perry’s "UR So Gay," off her self-titled digital EP and 12-inch (Capitol). Amazement or repulsion? Gay bashing in song can get as overt and stomach turning as Jamaica’s so-called murder music: see Buju Banton’s entreaties, on "Boom Bye Bye," to shoot gay men in the head and burn them alive. But it’s hard to parse the goofy novelty of "UR So Gay": it rides the new wave deca-dance rail between mild offense — for metrosexuals, gay straight men, gay men who want to own the word gay, and folks in favor of good music — and milky outrage. Has there been such a borderline-bashing Cali pop case since Josie Cotton’s 1980 "Johnny Are You Queer"? The Rizzo look-alike spun ’50s girl group tearjerker motifs — from the True Romance–style single cover art to her nyah-nyah-wah-wah plaintive bad-girl character’s delivery. "Why are you so weird, boy? / Johnny, are you queer boy? / When I make a play / You’re pushing me away," Cotton pouts. Oh, the perils of falling for someone who doesn’t flog for you — and never will. The conflicted "Johnny" hinged on tweaking the highly codified conventions of ’60s pop and doing the dirty by speaking the unspoken, even as an undercurrent of rage from a straight woman scorned surged beneath the number’s carefree contours.

In contrast, the blogged ‘n’ buzzed "UR So Gay" — riding on word of mouth for the woman who told me, "My mouth never shuts up, unfortunately" — references pop history, filtered somewhat through the ’80s, in Perry’s Cyndi Lauper–esque prom-queen styling. Apart from displaying a thick vein of social conservatism that disapproves of a metrosexual muddying of waters, songwriter Perry purveys all-’90s pop, swamped with an over-the-top arrangement, as the track’s heroine slags her ex: "I hope you hang yourself with your H&M scarf / While jacking off listening to Mozart / You bitch and moan about LA / Wishing you were in the rain reading Hemingway / You don’t eat meat / And drive electric cars / You’re so indie rock it’s almost an art / You need SPF 45 just to stay alive. You’re so gay and you don’t even like boys…. I can’t believe I fell in love with someone that wears more makeup than …"

Perry’s litany of insults, backed by a loping, going-nowhere beat, isn’t stereotypically gay — doit, what self-respecting stylish homosexual swain would get stuck on Mozart, Hemingway, and H&M? If anything, the list reveals the general throwaway nature of the tune and the cluelessness of the singer. Nonetheless, the "you’re so gay" chorus rankles, ever so softly, ever so wispily homophobically, in the way it detaches gayness from sexuality and attaches it firmly to notions of pretension, aloofness, and inaccessibility — under the guise of harmless good fun and quasi truth telling. It’s dumb and juvenile, and it makes straight women who watch their homophobia emerge when they lash out at men look bad. And much like Howard Stern and his ilk’s supposedly playful trash talking, that doesn’t mean it’s not hateful.

Of course, that’s not how Perry, a 23-year-old Santa Barbara native and star of Gym Class Heroes’ "Cupid’s Chokehold" video, whose music has appeared on MTV’s The Hills and Oxygen’s Fight Girls, sees it. The song, she said in a phone interview, is "provocative, and my mouth is a loose cannon. I speak my mind. I get into trouble." She sees herself in line with Lauper, Joan Jett, and "girls who aren’t afraid to take chances" — though you can’t ever imagine Lauper or Jett warbling "UR So Gay"<0x2009>‘s lines.

Perry wrote the song, she said, after "I was finally dumped by my ex shortly after a breakup that lasted twice as long as the relationship — you know how that goes." Stymied for a chorus, she said, she just blurted in frustration, "Oh, he’s so gay!" and at the urging of her roommate she made that the hook. "If you listen to the song, it’s not associated with sexuality," Perry said. "It’s about guys who use flatirons and gayliner. The general feeling when I play that song is that everyone’s laughing and singing along, and I’ve had girls come up to me and say, ‘I’ve had that boyfriend — thank you, homegirl, for writing that song!’ The positivity of the song means it’s not a negative thing."

It’s all positivity when you’re not gay, of course, and Perry isn’t suffering negatively on any level: this spring the song will usher in a full-length, which the songwriter worked on with Glen Ballard (Alanis Morissette, No Doubt), Dave Stewart (the Eurythmics), and Dr. Luke (Kelly Clarkson, Avril Lavigne), among others. "Having a record release is a phenomenon these days because the music industry is a crumbling Babylon," Perry explained. Whatever it takes to rise above The Hills.

Eat the faith


Michael Pollan’s just-published book, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto (Penguin Press, $21.95 cloth), has a placental look: its monumental predecessor, The Omnivore’s Dilemma (Penguin Press, 2006), appeared not even two years ago, and at about 200 pages the new volume is slight. But don’t be deceived: Defense isn’t an afterthought. It makes up in passionate intensity what it lacks in heft, and, page for page, it contains more intellectual and moral nutrition than practically any other book I’m aware of.

If Omnivore was a large conceit, Defense is a potent essay whose subject is, finally, the ways in which food science has misled us into various foolish wars: against fat, against carbs, and on behalf of supplements, to name just a few. With each battle, we eaters of the so-called Western diet — that scientifically produced and not very healthy amalgam of refined flour and sugar, industrially manipulated fats, and grudging sprinkles of monocultural vegetables, fruits, and meats — drift further away from our evolutionary moorings and must depend on yet more science (this time medical) to help right the balance. Great fortunes have already been made in the selling of lousy food to a captive and credulous population that then must pay out another fortune in health care bills. Nice work if you can get it.

Defense certainly rends the veil of infallibility in which contemporary science tends to cloak itself, and in doing so it raises the question of what we mean by "science." The word’s pop meaning is clear enough and involves microscopes, centrifuges, supercomputers, and a presidium of authorities in white lab coats. But the word’s Latin root means "to know," and Defense convincingly establishes that knowledge is not the exclusive purview of the lab-coat people. "There are more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamed of in your philosophy, Horatio," Hamlet instructs us, and they won’t all surrender their secrets to Horatio’s fancy gadgetry. We put ourselves at risk, in fact, when under the rubric of science we set aside millennia of human discoveries and understandings of the world — when we stop eating what we’ve long eaten, for instance, and open a bag of manufactured quasi food, like Doritos.

Science should be about skepticism, not faith, and perhaps in laboratories it still is. But these days, when it enters the public domain it morphs into something elsesomething suspiciously like dogma.

Paul Reidinger

› paulr@sfbg.com



REVIEW Call cupcakes girlie, kiddie, or just plain preschool, but who can resist those so-sweet, too-cute, whimsical morsels? The humble cupcake’s still-raging popularity can’t be completely attributed to the benediction of desirability bestowed by Sarah Jessica Parker et al. after the guest appearance of Magnolia Bakery’s sugared units on Sex and the City, nor to its star turn at socialite weddings like that of aristo makeup artist Jemma Kidd and the Earl of Mornington.

It’s the cupcake’s retro kitsch pedigree — grounded in the benevolently nostalgic, innocent hue of childhood — that really gets us going. The individual serving size reads as special, invoking the same sort of princess-for-the-day feeling you might have experienced as a four-year-old at your own birthday party. Would that you were iced as immaculately and crowned with candy sprinkles. The very notion of cupcakes allows for more play, more impulsive edible decorations, and more diversity: why settle for one hunk of layer cake when you can have a banana and a coconut cupcake? Because it’s really all about the cake — in a petite, perfect, non-guilt-inducing size. You too can be the girl — or boy — with the most diet-ready portion of cake, because as Cupcake! (Chronicle Books) author Elinor Klivans writes, these perfectly manageable sweet things "are sure to charm and delight the inner child in everyone."

So where to tempt a ravenous inner child? Where better than at a sprinkling of Bay Area boutique bakeries almost exclusively devoted to cupcakes? Love at First Bite in Berkeley’s gourmet ghetto rolls out 12 to 15 flavors daily, including a Southerninspired Hummingbird of bananas, pineapple, and pecans topped with cream cheese, and a Matcha Green Tea cake topped with tea-infused whipped cream — both ideal chasers to a Cheeseboard pizza. Kara’s Cupcakes off Chestnut in San Francisco’s Cow Hollow–Marina District goes the no-less-delicious route with mostly organic ingredients sourced from throughout Northern California. The owners are avid boosters of community-supported agriculture, so you can take the edge off that guilt (thanks to Gilt Edge Creamery dairy products) as you nibble their passion fruit, banana caramel, or chocolate fleur del sel–filled cupcakes.

For a real rosy dose of my latest food fixation, waltz into the two-months-old That Takes the Cake on Union Street for that most mysteriously decadent of cupcakes: red velvet. The bakery’s version of the Southern-style, cocoa-infused piece of down-home exotica — colored during World War II, cooks’ legends have it, with grated beets or beet baby food — is made with vegetable-based food coloring, vinegar, and cocoa, which turns reddish brown in reaction with the other ingredients. Falling apart in tender crumbs beneath a rich, ivory cream-cheese frosting, the cake is as deeply red as a Dario Argento giallo, as heavy on the rosso as a steak torn from Stuart Anderson’s flank, and as rose red as love, my love. All that red coloring might raise eyebrows in some quarters, but who gives a damn, Scarlett, when you have extraordinary beauty and delectable substance in one pint-size, munchable package? (Kimberly Chun)

LOVE AT FIRST BITE Tues.–Fri., 10:30 a.m.–7 p.m.; Sat., 10 a.m.–7 p.m.; Sun., 11 a.m.–5 p.m. 1510 Walnut, Berk. (510) 848-5727, www.loveatfirstbitebakery.com

KARA’S CUPCAKES Mon.–Sat., 10 a.m.–7 p.m.; Sun., 10 a.m.–6 p.m. 3249 Scott, SF. (415) 563-2253, www.karascupcakes.com

THAT TAKES THE CAKE Tues.–Sat., 11 a.m.–7 p.m.; Sun., noon–6 p.m. 2271 Union, SF. (415) 567-8050, www.saralynnscupcakes.com

Great Scott!


› a&eletters@sfbg.com

Though orchestra leader and electronics pioneer Raymond Scott may not exactly have been a household name, his sonic inventiveness succeeded in seeping across the larger social synapse of America’s television generation. Credited with founding 20th-century music’s dubiously named exotica genre — a kind of pop counterpart to art brut that included everything from Claude Debussy’s Javanese tribalism to Clara Rockmore’s theremin, Arthur Lyman’s vibes and chimes to electronic voice phenomena séances — Scott created a corpus that was as unique as it was bizarre.

In fact, Scott’s variety of assorted musical approaches was extraordinary: he composed everything from syncopated so-called cartoon jazz to proto-synthesizer radio jingles to ambient albums for toddlers. "The concept of electronic music for babies in the early 1960s usually strikes folks as either extremely clever and useful or totally insane," says Jeff Winner, aficionado, RaymondScott.com archivist, and coproducer of many Scott reissues. And truly, Scott’s role as a radiophonic designer and a thoroughly American surrealist in the autodidactic tradition of Joseph Cornell or Stan Brakhage is unparalleled in the almanac of recorded music.

It’s appropriate, then, that this new year marks the centennial anniversary of the birth of a man in whose absence the ether of the 20th century may have sounded radically different — or, at the very least, would have had fewer blurbs, blips, and zoinks. In celebration, the Raymond Scott Archive and Basta Records — the geniuses behind the comprehensive Manhattan Research Inc. (2000) and the 1997 reissue of Scott’s Soothing Sounds for Baby, Volumes 1–3 (Epic, 1963) — are planning a yearlong audio bacchanal that will revisit every major era in the composer’s 50-year career. According to Winner, this will include the release of a documentary by Scott’s only son, Stan Warnow; a series of electronic and jazz rarities recordings; and live tribute concerts on the East and West Coasts.

Born Harry Warnow in 1908 to a Jewish Russian immigrant family in New York City, Scott pursued his early passion for science and music by attending a local Brooklyn technical school before entering the Institute of Musical Art (later the Juilliard School) in the late 1920s. He began his professional career as an in-house musician at CBS, where he worked in varying capacities for the television and radio network — as a session man, orchestra conductor, and creative director — for decades.

In the interim, the always resourceful musician recruited five compeers and formed the Raymond Scott Quintette — so called because, according to Scott, using the correct "<0x2009>‘sextet’ might get your mind off music." Under Scott’s direction, the Quintette produced a striking oeuvre that blended the compositional and stylistic aesthetic of big band jazz, the amorphous motifs of soundtrack and sound effects records, and the playful narratives of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. The song titles alone are surrealism in miniature — "New Year’s Eve in a Haunted House," "Dinner Music for a Pack of Hungry Cannibals," "In an Eighteenth Century Drawing Room," and Scott’s most celebrated and oft-repeated piece, "Powerhouse." So successful were these instrumentals that within months of their debut the Quintette were contracted with 20th Century Fox to score major motion pictures. These songs would also become the adolescent soundtrack of Saturday morning after Warner Bros. secured the rights to the Quintette’s catalog in 1943 and Warner musical director Carl Stalling inserted huge swathes of Scott’s work into the immensely popular Looney Tunes.

Using the generous salary from his work at CBS, Scott bankrolled his own electronics studio — a sort of junior BBC Radiophonic Workshop — which he christened Manhattan Research in 1946. Though its initial function was to produce radio ads and jingles, the Long Island, NY, laboratory’s true purpose was to develop unheard and unimagined forms of electromechanical and synthesized tones. Predating the widespread use of integrated circuits and analog synthesis, the photocell tone generators and polyphonic sequencers constructed at Manhattan Research were completely unprecedented in sound technology.

"Given the amazing, tiny, and cheap technology that’s everywhere today, it’s a real challenge for us moderns to appreciate how difficult and s-l-o-w the process was," Winner explains. "It was always laborious, tedious, and extremely time-consuming. Designing, theorizing, soldering, then testing…. Wiring, rewiring, and testing again and again…. Hour after hour, year after year — literally — decade after decade."

The records spawned from these contraptions — the Clavivox, the Electronium, and the Circle Machine — often consisted of limpid pools of sustained sound multitracked with sharp sine wave helices and processed glitches. The almost childlike primitivism and free-form tonality that template Scott’s work bely its enchanting subtlety, prefiguring the kraut rock pastoralism of Brian Eno and the lush microtones of contemporary digital artists Christian Fennesz and Nobukazu Takemura. In fact, Winner recalls that when a colleague introduced Eno to Scott’s music years ago, Eno "was indeed impressed. He agreed that some of Scott’s electronic music is similar to some of his own."

Though his success as a producer and inventor was subordinated to his very popular role as an orchestra conductor and jazzman — creating a kind of night-and-day personality that alternated between the smiling TV bandleader and the dial-twisting mad scientist — Scott continued his nocturnal research unabated. Along the way, the once-gregarious musician became more obsessive and secretive regarding his unwieldy instruments, some of which extended wall to wall with their untranslatable, blinking consoles.

The fruits of his labor only became clear later, as the impact of Scott’s brilliance was measured in the younger technologists and musicians who joined his mission in the ’50s and ’60s. Budding musical technician Robert Moog began working with Scott long before he invented the first modular synthesizer that bears his name. Motown impresario Berry Gordy was so impressed with Scott’s mysterious Electronium that he recruited the inventor to the label’s expanding R&D department and bankrolled Manhattan Research’s 1971 move to California, where Scott would spend his final professional years toiling unapologetically on the apparatus.

"During [those years,] among the very few who were thinking about electroinstruments, no one foresaw a consumer market for hardware," Winner explains of Scott’s lifelong work. "Almost no one wanted those kinds of sounds yet." With this centennial celebration — and a bevy of new studio discoveries — Scott’s work may finally be recognized for its uncompromising beauty and understood as the revolving soundtrack for a century of technology and dreams, human and machine.

Bold as love


The only thing that prevented Entrance’s resplendent Prayer of Death (Tee Pee) from being one of my top picks for 2007 was that it came out in 2006. Lately, when I want music to overwhelm me I reach for Prayer of Death. Alas, it wasn’t always so with Entrance, the nom de plume of Baltimore-born Guy Blakeslee. I first saw him perform in a dingy college basement sometime after the release of his 2003 debut, The Kingdom of Heaven Must Be Taken by Storm (Tiger Style). He played with a drummer, and while the two summoned an impressive racket, Entrance’s blown-out blues felt too much in the shadow of the ascendant White Stripes.

Four years later, the White Stripes are a parody, while Entrance has moved on to Los Angeles and sounds more and more visionary. He’s hardly the first to try to harness the invocatory power of early death-letter blues — associated with the likes of Charley Patton, Son House, and Skip James — with a Dionysian surge of electricity, but rarely has abandon felt so reposeful as on Prayer of Death. Arrangements for slide guitar ("Grim Reaper Blues"), violin ("Silence on a Crowded Train"), and sitar ("Requiem for Sandy Bull") roll and tumble, but Prayer of Death‘s power finally rests with Blakeslee’s fearless vocals, which tirelessly weave sandpaper scratch, banshee wail, and larynx-bursting vibrato. The lyrics read as so many death wishes until you realize Blakeslee has composed a suite about the revelatory power of song, specifically its ability to wrest life from a void. The boldness of the endeavor is further revealed in the fact that this is the first Entrance album without a cover song — though the title track’s skeletal gospel will have you double-checking the track listing of Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music (Smithsonian Folkways, 1952) to be sure.

Watching Entrance unleash his killer power trio at the otherwise lackluster Source Family show at the Cafe du Nord a couple of months ago, I couldn’t help wondering why his project hasn’t received more plaudits. Perhaps it’s simply the result of East Coast critics all too eager to pull the retro trigger. Entrance isn’t the only one at this special Great American performance who deserves better than the implicitly denigrative "freak folk" tag. Kyle Field finally checks back in from the endless summer for a slow stroll through his Little Wings songbook, and Nevada City’s Mariee Sioux can’t lose with her majestic verses. Throw in Vetiver’s Andy Cabic on DJ duties, and you’ve got a bill that’s some kind of dream team.


With Mariee Sioux, Little Wings, Lee Bob Watson, and DJ Andy Cabic

Jan. 10, 8 p.m., $16

Great American Music Hall

859 O’Farrell, SF


“Why not do something really special?”


› a&eletters@sfbg.com

DIY fever is raging right now, racing across bridges like a maddening epidemic here in the Bay. It’s so damn thick that I can feel it leeching onto the back of my throat and sticking there like the unpleasant stench of some urine-soaked thrash pad where 20-odd squatters, each with a dog, are hiding out. But times are tough, as the Bay Area underground music community discovered earlier this month when 21 Grand, the Oakland grassroots platform for experimental art and music, shuttered its doors. It was a shocking blow — proving, after the closures of Mission Records and Balazo 18 Art Gallery before it, that the outlook continues to be challenging when it comes to maintaining an all-ages performance space without the unfriendly rap on the window.

The members of Didimao — three San Francisco transplants from different parts of the globe — make up a minute fraction of those mourning the perhaps temporary loss of the East Bay arts hub. In fact, they seemed somewhat reluctant to talk about their two-year-old project, instead filling in the spaces left by my questions by glorifying the old Mission punk scene or changing the subject and plugging away at their favorite local band at the moment.

During our two-hour conversation at the Inner Richmond ice cream shop where bassist Matt Chandler works, the trio continuously stressed the impact outfits such as Dory Tourette and the Skirt Heads, Curse of the Birthmark, and TSA have had on Didimao. Guitarist-vocalist Sergey Yashenko must have name-dropped Stripmall Seizures — a group Chandler plays with — at least 15 times and at one point even proclaimed that the Seizures are the best band in the country.

As our discussion unfolded, however, at least one thing became pretty clear: Didimao simply aspire to share their music, which works an unconventional vein similar to that of their predecessors yet feels out of touch with the current Bay Area music scene. "Scenes get so specialized in this city. If you go to a noise show, it’ll be strictly noise. If you go to a free jazz show, it’s only free jazz," Chandler said. "There’s so much shit going on that it almost acts against itself. I come from a small town in Indiana, and all the people who make noise or who are in a weird rock band are forced to hang out together and influence each other. Here it seems like people who are into noise are into nothing else. And they’re fascist about it."

Noise — at maximum abrasiveness and volume — nonetheless happens to be the key ingredient in Didimao’s repertoire. On its self-titled debut on the Cococonk label, the group heavily recalls the Butthole Surfers at their most acid damaged, mixing cow-punk riffs with improvised moments of dark, tripped-out electronics and pummeling tumult. Yashenko’s guitar buzz-saws harshly with loose, Middle Eastern–inspired arrangements and feedbacked clatter, while his buried Slavic yodel sounds as animalistic as a howling dog. Chandler musters hasty, fuzz-prone bass lines to match the breakneck tempos of drummer Miguel Serra, and the two of them fluctuate from slam-dance explosiveness to free-rock noodlings to western rhythms and back again.

Serra clued me in that Didimao’s songwriting process is informed by both their limitations and how they’d like to sound. "I feel like a lot of our songs right now are dictated by what we don’t want to sound like as much as what we do want to sound like," he explained. "None of us are virtuosos by any means, so it’s kind of hard to have an idea of what you want to sound like and just pull it off.

"We come up with something and try and make it as acceptable to our standards as possible," Serra continued. "Recently, we’ve really wanted to be kickass, so on a lot of our new songs we’re, like, ‘How do we make this song kick more ass?’<0x2009>"

In addition to all of the ass kicking in the recording studio, Didimao have one other goal they would like to tackle in 2008, an ambition Yashenko returned to repeatedly throughout our chat.

"In the future, what we really want to be doing is playing mainly all-ages shows outdoors for free, because we all have jobs and don’t really need the money," he said. "In the end you probably end up doing all kinds of different shit, but after doing it so many times you want the shows to be this special event. So why not do something really special, you know? Like start doing shows in Ocean Beach at 3 a.m." *


With Trainwreck Riders, Stripmall Seizures, Tinkture, and People Eaters

Fri/4, 8 p.m., $6

924 Gilman Street Project

924 Gilman, Berk.

(510) 525-9926


There will be cocktails


It’s a premiere night at the new Sundance Kabuki Cinemas, and publicists, requisite reporters, and lobby loiterers are looking for Robert Redford. After driving into the city from a stay in Carmel, he’s here — at least until he disappears down a hall or around a corner. While available, he sings the praises of Emile de Antonio (soon to get a retrospective at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art) but says he isn’t privy to odd rumors that — while some crucial and truly independent SF film spaces are struggling — one of the Sundance’s upscale theaters might be devoted to local and experimental film.

SFBG What connections will there be between the Sundance Cinemas and the large number of film festivals that happen in the Bay Area? For example, the American Indian Film Festival happens in San Francisco every fall, and I was wondering if it might take place here.

ROBERT REDFORD I can’t answer that — I would love it if it could, both from a personal standpoint and from a political standpoint in working to free Leonard Peltier, which hasn’t happened yet, which is a crime. I think the fact that [Bill] Clinton didn’t pardon him and yet pardoned Mark Rich was a complete failure on his part.

Two festivals that I can guarantee we’ll have a strong connection to, though, are the San Francisco International [Film] Festival and the [SF International] Asian American Film Festival. (Johnny Ray Huston)

Bubblin’ crude


› johnny@sfbg.com

The Kodak Theatre is no country for old women — or for young women, based on the most archetypal American movies of this awards season. A few months after a Coen brothers’ bro-down brought the silencer heard ’round the world and the bowl cut seen ’round the world, Paul Thomas Anderson returns with There Will Be Blood, an even more male-dominated, United States–is–his story. False prophets and fatal oil profits entwine with murderous intent in Anderson’s latest act of three-act bravado: oligarch Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) and preacher Eli Sunday (Paul Dano) engage in territorial pissings that span decades, while women are scarcely seen and heard from even less. In fact, No Country for Old Men almost qualifies as Douglas Sirk–ian melodrama next to Anderson’s maverick revision of Upton Sinclair’s 1927 novel Oil!

My, what a big movie Anderson has made. There will be no doubt among viewers that this 158-minute epic has Orson Welles–ian aspirations, from its Citizen Kane–like dedication to the rise and fall of a megalomaniac to its less-focused portrait of a not-so-magnificent or Ambersonian family line. These are the post–Robert Altman years of Anderson’s relatively fledgling career, in strictly literal terms. Now that Altman is dead, Anderson no longer treats him as a prime well of auteur inspiration, instead favoring the sprawling likes of Welles, Elia Kazan, Terrence Malick, and Stanley Kubrick. He presides over some bizarre marriage of Welles’s and Kubrick’s spirits in There Will Be Blood‘s worst moment — a finale that searches for a version of Rosebud in a mansion that resembles the Overlook Hotel, only to find plentiful redrum in a bowling alley instead. Set between cowardly quotation marks, this garbled conclusion seems to prove a colleague’s remark that Anderson doesn’t trust his instincts as a filmmaker.

Yet Anderson taps into an instinctive talent in many, if far from all, of the mute passages and dialogue duels that precede that coda. He’s aided by the sick pull of Jonny Greenwood’s vanguard score and gonzo performances from both of his lead actors. While Day-Lewis is more consistently successful, it’s Dano who stokes the film’s intrigue, through subtle smiles during their characters’ early jousts, a brief spell of deflated defeat when he’s betrayed, and a hilarious (if only temporary) victory in his home court of the pulpit. When There Will Be Blood is a marriage or battle between Day-Lewis’s performance and Anderson’s imagery, it’s even better. The potent isolation and claustrophobia of the film’s first half hour are outdone by a tour de force sequence in which oil and its elemental force paint the future black.

There Will Be Blood is sneaking into theaters in a manner consistent with that of recent butt-numbing epics, such as Malick’s 2005 The New World, which appear more concerned about their potential place in film history than with what statuettes they might pick up in the spring. This outlook isn’t necessarily a virtue, nor does it automatically result in better cinema, as Malick’s goofy yet haunting recent effort proved. Anderson has made another great leap forward, or at least away from, the putrid stench of 1999’s god-awful Magnolia, but only those with a penchant for fanboy prose are claiming he’s used oil to paint an instant masterpiece. Amid the empty promises of Todd Haynes and others, it’s easy to see why they’re raving, though. Anderson’s audacity here is worth puzzling over — and probably praising more — in times to come. *


Opens Fri/4 in Bay Area theaters


1300 on Fillmore


› paulr@sfbg.com

Ordinarily one would be distressed, though these days hardly surprised, by the news that a farmers market in the midst of the city was being displaced by a brand-new building full of luxury condos, with a fancy restaurant on the ground floor. Although farmers markets, like coyotes, have been modestly flourishing in the city of late, they are still a delicate species whose natural habitat — often parking lots — invites predation by developers. Then there is the horror of contemporary architecture, which reflects, simultaneously, our fetish for the industrial and our indifference to the touch of the human hand, the small but artful detail that gives warmth and life to big buildings with expansive spaces. Without that touch, too many of our just-raised edifices are nothing more than triumphal and simplistic tombs made of concrete, steel, and glass.

The Fillmore farmers market began in the spring of 2003, in a parking lot at the corner of Fillmore and Eddy, and was of particular value not least because it brought high-quality fresh produce at reasonable prices to one of the city’s less golden neighborhoods. One chilly evening a few weeks ago, I found myself at that corner and was completely disoriented; a huge building had sprung up in the parking lot, like a giant mushroom after an autumn rain, and the few blocks of Fillmore below Geary seemed more than ever like one of Manhattan’s canyons, with the valets at Yoshi’s smiling and motioning to passersby like those guys who try to lure people into girlie shows in North Beach.

We weren’t on our way to Yoshi’s, as it happened, but to 1300 on Fillmore, a quietly glamorous new restaurant that brings a touch of Mecca SF–like magic to a historic, jazz-inflected neighborhood. (Meantime, to end the suspense, if any: the farmers market, though displaced, survives nearby, at Steiner and O’Farrell.) Although the restaurant keeps a poker face to the street — just a succession of smoked-glass panels, like a display of the world’s biggest sunglasses — its L-shaped interior is both spacious and clubby. A wealth of wood glows with warmth under the halogen spot lamps, while all of those windows are hung with tall, gauzy draperies, ready to billow in a breeze that will never blow through.

If we were somewhere in the South, the absence of a breeze would grow oppressive at a point well before high summer, and we would stomp our feet and demand mint juleps or iced tea. But we’re here, in our blue state and ice blue city, so we must make do with the Southern touches chef and owner David Lawrence brings to his sophisticated menu, beginning with the triangles of corn bread that quickly appear at the table, ready to be spread with butter or, for those with a bit of derring-do, pepper jelly, or best of all, with both.

The smaller courses range from homey to urbane. An example of the first is a plate of hush puppies ($13), half a dozen peeled shrimp dipped in a peppery batter, deep-fried, and presented in a crock with a side pot of ancho chile rémoulade. The cosmopolite, tempted by but wary of deep-frying, might let his companion order this dish, and maybe the fat fries too ($6), with homemade ketchup, for overkill, while choosing for himself the oyster bisque ($9) — classy, but tasting at least as much of cream as of oysters — or the sautéed wild mushrooms ($9) seated on a bed of white polenta. These last two dishes were brought to us slightly underseasoned, but a handsome little tray of salt and ground pepper was already on the table, which made it easy for us to take corrective action and implied we were meant to.

Undersalting was a more serious issue with the maple-glazed beef short rib ($28), a thick disk of meat with a bit of bone sticking out of the middle. It looked like a wheel that had flown off a Weber kettle. We could taste the maple on the surface of the meat, which was fork tender and moist, but once we penetrated to the interior of the great disk, we found ourselves in dim lighting indeed. The beef’s enveloping sidekicks — fried onion rings on top, mashed potatoes underneath — were good but peripheral in every sense.

Better was arctic char ($25), a salmonlike fish presented as a breaded and crisped fillet, almost perfectly square, nested atop a tasty hash of roasted brussels sprouts, fingerling potatoes, bits of lobster, and balsamic gastrique. I didn’t detect much Southern influence, but the flavors and textures were beautifully integrated and the portion size was ideal, especially with the wheel of beef looming across the table.

If the savory courses seem as much Pacific as Gulf Coast, the dessert menu speaks with an unmistakable drawl. There are first-rate beignets ($8), three doughnut torpedoes lightly dusted with cinnamon and powdered sugar and ready for dunking into either warm chocolate sauce or coffee foam, which had a root-beerish fizz along with a hint of chicory: New Orleans coffee, we guessed. A gingerbread napoleon ($8), meanwhile, looked "like the de Young Museum," according to a tablemate with whom I’d been pleasurably commiserating about the de Young Museum. At least the napoleon — an elaborate modernist construct of wafers, gingerbread pudding, whipped cream, and a square of apple-caramel jelly — was edible, as opposed to bulletproof.

Service: attentive if slightly erratic (some dishes to the wrong people). These are usually teething troubles, and the best thing about teething troubles is that you outgrow them to have a long run, which you’re pretty sure you will. You’re jazzed. *


Daily, 5–11 p.m.

1300 Fillmore, SF

(415) 771-7100


Full bar


Well-modulated noise

Wheelchair accessible

Free range


› le_chicken_farmer@yahoo.com

CHEAP EATS Happy New Year. I was lying in bed one night toward the end of the old one with the lights on and my eyes open, thinking about the usual: death, emptiness, and whether or not dildos ever really break off inside people and get lost. Weirdo the Cat jumped onto my pillow, pawed my hair, sniffed my ear, sat there staring at me, and was all, like, "Meow."

Meanwhile in the coop, four little chickens huddled together for warmth — or, check that, three chickens huddled together for warmth and the fourth was off by herself in a nest, eyes wide open, thinking about death and dildos as if her sole purpose in life were to remind the chicken farmer of the chicken farmer. There’s one in every flock, usually at the punk end of the pecking order, and in case you were wondering, they’re the hardest to kill and the easiest to eat.

They were protesting outside KFC — people, not chickens. It was PETA, not CETA, I’m sure. Placards complained of poor working conditions for factory farmer chickens, something about broken wings and sawed-off beaks. I smiled and waved, honked my horn, and renewed my commitment never to eat at KFC, because Popeye’s is 10 times better.

Broken wings. Sawed-off beaks … Your chicken farmer shudders at the thought, but what really tears her up inside, besides death and dildos … I’ll take you back to bed in a moment, don’t worry. Or do, but please bear with me: it’s New Year’s, a time for bitching and moaning and, yeah, moaning. And bucking, but we’ll get back in bed, I promise; it’s just that you see these small-farm happy homeschooled organic free-range egg cartons that say "vegetarian diet" …

Are you kidding me? What greater cruelty can there be than to deny an animal its favorite thing in the world to eat? And if you’re a chicken, uh, that ain’t tofu. Hello. It’s not even salad or corn or grass. I’m sorry to have to be the one to inform you that chickens’ favorite food is pork. The other white meat. In fact, one reason they debeak the poor things is because they are not above eating the original white meat, or in other words, one another.

What turns chickens into cannibals? Lack of animal protein. Stress. General anxiety disorder, often accompanied by feelings of worthlessness, meaninglessness, and, in short, baconlessness.

You do the math.

Anyone who has ever seen a chicken light into a pork chop will join me, I trust, in boycotting vegetarian-diet chicken farming. There. I have taken my stand for ’08. PETA, I hope, will picket Rainbow Grocery and Whole Foods, a.k.a. Whole Paycheck. And by the way, to answer yet another rhetorical question, the only thing less ethical than denying an animal its favorite food is to then not put that poor animal out of its misery and onto my plate, where it wants to be and belongs. Trust me.

You already know about "free range," right? That the joke is on us? Just because you open a chicken’s door for an hour or two a day, that doesn’t mean it will ever go outside and play. I swear, I had my chicken door open all day every day for a week before they ventured from the safe familiarity of the coop into beautiful Sonoma County, and then I had to lure them out, finally, with ham sandwiches.

So: Free-range chicken ? free-range chicken. Happy chicken ? vegetarian chicken. And a true free-range chicken can’t possibly be truly vegetarian anyway, because if it’s outside and can’t find pork chops, it will certainly scare up roly-polies, spiders, worms, locusts, cicadas, mice, centipedes, a dead hummingbird …

The other day I saw a tiny line of beetles marching in a line outside my chicken coop door with little BETA placards. I smiled and waved and honked my horn.

Grasshoppers, caterpillars, brick bugs, moths, larvae, ticks, termites, ants, earwigs. Hold on a second, I need more lube. Crickets …

My new favorite restaurant is Happy House Korean BBQ, and I didn’t even get the barbecue! Me! Cal kook soo with clams. That means noodle soup. It’s $9, $10 for just the noodles and slivered cucumbers in a starchy broth, but the clams were good, and they give you all the little bowls of kimchi and stuff too, so … *


Mon.–Wed., 11 a.m.–midnight; Thurs.–Sun., 11 a.m.–4 a.m.

1560 Fillmore, SF

(415) 440-1990

Takeout available



Hamster dance


› andrea@altsexcolumn.com

Dear Andrea:

I have a friend a few years younger than me. We were recently at a bar talking about his girlfriend and my wife. After a time, he confided to me that in the past few weeks he has been having trouble getting it up and was very concerned that he would have to take erectile dysfunction meds for the rest of his life or that he was losing his edge. We are both in our early 40s and in good shape and health.

My answer to him was that he should not panic. It seems to me that as the weather gets colder, the days become shorter, and we set the clocks back, our bodies, which are much more attuned to nature than we are generally aware, prepare for winter and slow down. I noticed that my sleep patterns changed at the visible onset of winter. I’ve been less interested in sex and other physical activities. I also remember that in the spring, when the days get longer and the sun shines, I get really horny all of the time — or at least I did last spring.

Are there any studies to support my thesis? Is any of this quantifiable?


Regular Reader

Dear Reg:

Pretty much, yes. What a great question to get on a gloomy winter day just a few days shy of the solstice. Let us thank all the little gods and goddesses for the end of the %#@&*%@ darkness, with extraspecial gratitude reserved for Flora, Persephone, Maia, and anyone else who is usually depicted wreathed in posies and scattering petals through the newly verdant forest while the little animals frolic … ahem. Why do I have spring fever when it isn’t even spring?

I’m not sure if there has been any serious research done on humans and libido fluctuation through the seasons, but because the slightest fluctuations in reproductive capacity can cost high-stakes meat producers serious money, plenty of hormone-titer and testicle measurements have been done on bulls and boars and other large horned or tusky beasts, and yes, those characteristics do fluctuate with the seasons, and by quite a bit too. Mostly, though, males get all maleish during their breeding season, whenever that may be, but one of the most striking differences between ourselves and most of our animal cousins is our lack of an estrus cycle and corresponding male big-balls cycle. However …

It’s nice that I happened to mention little animals frolicking, because have I got a frolicking animals story for you: "Sex Ends as Seasons Shift and Kisspeptin Levels Plummet" (at www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2006-12/iu-sea122806.php). It concerns a neuropeptide most excellently named kisspeptin. Oh, and it’s about Siberian hamsters. Kisspeptin triggers the release of the important reproductive hormones gonadotropin-releasing hormone and luteinizing hormone, without which we (and the hamsters) would not experience puberty, libido (in the hamsters at least), or conception. Hamsters placed in a winterlike environment with short days and low light immediately experience a drop in kisspeptin and with it the hamster equivalent of mojo workin’. Happily, though, the winterized hamsters were just as sensitive to kisspeptin as the summer hamsters were; as the article emphasizes,

"What is really striking is the disappearance of kisspeptin in animals experiencing winter-like days, yet the ability to respond to kisspeptin when we provide it," said Timothy Greives, lead author of the study. "These data show that the disappearance of kisspeptin in the brain is likely critical in turning off reproduction during winter."

So is kisspeptin supplementation the answer to your problem? Oh, I wish, but hormone feedback loops are way too serious and complicated to mess with when we don’t know what we’re doing, and in this case we truly haven’t the faintest. Plus, seen any kisspeptin on the supplement shelves recently? So no, of course it isn’t the answer, but I think it’s worth paying attention to the fact that we are, as you say, "much more attuned to nature than we are generally aware." We might try adapting to the season by either simply expecting less of ourselves and our partners in the depth of winter — a winter break, as it were — or bringing our opposable thumb–having, tool-using human best to bear on the problem. Try (or rather suggest to your friend that he try) light therapy, as prescribed for seasonal affective disorder. And why do you think the midwinter tropical vacation is so popular? Surely froofy umbrella drinks are available in the frozen north; there must be another, better reason for heading to summerier climes with your sweetie as the days get short and dark. Failing that, we could do what sensible large fauna (and many types of flora too, come to think of it) do when the weather gets nasty: hibernate.



Andrea is home with the kids and going stir-crazy. Write her a letter! Ask her a question! Send her your tedious e-mail forwards! On second thought, don’t do that. Just ask her a question.

Staying power


› a&eletters@sfbg.com

Looking back at the Bay Area art scene in 2007 affirms our perennial difficulty in holding on to ambitious players. It’s an oft-repeated story. Given San Francisco’s commitment to nonprofit and alternative models over commercial ones and the high cost of living, artists find it easier to start off than to build their careers here. Since the art world in general has been buoyed by brisk sales, art fairs, and biennials, the Bay Area’s condition applies as much to high-profile curators, dealers, and administrators as to artists.

Curatorial flux is particularly apparent. Madeleine Grynsztejn, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s Elise S. Haas Senior Curator of Painting and Sculpture since 2000, recently announced her new position as director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. René de Guzman left his post as director of visual arts at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts to become senior curator at the Oakland Museum of California. Daniell Cornell, currently the director of contemporary art projects and curator of American art at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, will become the deputy director for art and senior curator at the Palm Springs Art Museum, while the Berkeley Art Museum — which is embarking on a capital campaign for a new building — saw senior curator Constance Lewallen and director Kevin Consey leave for various reasons. This means there are a number of key positions that, when filled, will change the directions of these important venues. Or will they? Such turnovers have happened before, and frankly, institutions rarely undergo radical makeovers.

In 2007 new curators began or continued their programs. In May, Liz Thomas, the Matrix curator at BAM, began her first slate of shows with Allison Smith’s participatory, craftsperson-based Notion Nanny project, Rosalind Nashashibi’s film installation, and Tomás Saraceno’s current "suspended environment" (through Feb. 17), revealing a solid and diverse range of emerging international practices. This curator’s strategy is to build slowly rather than open with a bang.

The program moves at a faster and flashier clip at California College of the Arts’ Wattis Institute, where in fall 2007 curator Jens Hoffman began his first season of programming with a sporty graphic identity and high-concept group shows. These include "Pioneers," a nod to Bay Area mavericks from gold rush groundbreakers to conceptualists; "Passengers," a long-term, rotating round-robin show; and "Apocalypse Now" (through Jan. 26), a political "attack" he curated with international biennial-favorite artist duo Allora and Calzadilla. The pair’s works were also highlighted as the main fall exhibition at the San Francisco Art Institute’s Walter and McBean Galleries, which are programmed by curator Hou Hanru. Hou’s exhibits started in fall 2006, and in 2007 they included "World Factory," a two-part group show that boisterously explored conditions of global capitalism in various media while serving as a test ground for the 2007 Istanbul Biennial, which he also organized. Hoffman and Hou are key figures in an international circuit of curators that also includes SFAI dean Okwui Enwezor, and the three simultaneously work on projects here and abroad. (Full disclosure: I teach at both of the aforementioned schools.)

It’s been difficult, though, to gauge these projects’ impact on the doggedly localized Bay Area art scene — or how their curators will take to the regional climate. Such curatorial presence has provided an opportunity for a larger number of artists and other curators to pass through the region, and it’s offered platforms for provocative group shows that are rarely staged in museums around here. The bottom line, though, is that in the present model of international art, change is driven by the marketplace, and these institutional spaces exist outside the commercial gallery arena that makes certain cities more visible art hubs than others.

There was, however, movement in the local commercial realm. Catherine Clark broke from 49 Geary to open a Chelsea-style space in the shadow of SFMOMA. Ratio 3 unveiled a surprisingly large and cannily designed new space near 14th and Valencia streets, not far from Jack Hanley Gallery’s two spots on Valencia (another recently debuted in New York) and Southern Exposure’s just-opened second temporary site. Combined with other galleries nearby — Intersection for the Arts, Needles and Pens, Adobe Books, etc. — the neighborhood could be turning into a destination alternative to the exhibition spaces on the first block of Geary. The Dogpatch neighborhood shows promise of becoming another art zone with the ambitious Silverman, Ping Pong, and Ampersand galleries, which have all been staging interesting shows, though the area is still a bit under the radar.

All said, we’re at a transitional moment, and forward thinking seems in order. The year ahead offers huge potential for new faces, directions, and already scheduled programs at many of the aforementioned venues. I’m anticipating the Gilbert and George show at the de Young Museum, Lee Friedlander at SFMOMA, and a Paul McCarthy project at the Wattis, as well as the 2008 openings of the California Academy of Sciences and the Contemporary Jewish Museum. All provide plenty reason to stick around. *


The following exhibitions, events, and films enthralled me with their winning combinations of joy, originality, and serious subtext.

Pina Bausch Tanztheater Wuppertal’s Ten Chi, Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley

The Book of Shadows," Fraenkel Gallery

Liz Larner’s lecture, San Francisco Art Institute

"© Murakami," Geffen Contemporary, Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles

Mitzi Pederson’s "Unlet Me Go," Ratio 3

Ratatouille, directed by Brad Bird

"A Rose Has No Teeth: Bruce Nauman in the 1960s," Berkeley Art Museum

“Rudolf Stingel” Whitney Museum of American Art, New York


Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Unknown Forces installation, REDCAT, Los Angeles, and his film Syndromes and a Century

Technology in wartime


› annalee@techsploitation.com

TECHSPLOITATION War changes everything, including technology. We are roughly six years into what the George W. Bush administration calls the war on terror and what hundreds of thousands of soldiers know as the occupation of Iraq. Gizmos that a decade ago would have been viewed entirely as communications tools and toys are now potential surveillance and killing machines.

Don’t believe me? Consider how much the Web has changed. Referred to naively 10 years ago by Bill Clinton and Co. as the friendly, welcoming "information superhighway," the Web is now the National Security Agency’s surveillance playground. Last year a whistle-blower at AT&T revealed that every bit of Internet traffic routed by AT&T was also being routed through an NSA surveillance system. Millions of innocent people’s private Internet information, including online purchases and e-mail, was being watched without warrants.

Cuddly consumer robots epitomized by Sony’s Aibo robot dog have changed too. The company that makes adorable Roomba vacuum robots, iRobot, just announced a huge deal with the United States military to make reconnaissance and killing robots called PackBots for use in combat zones. Already, 50 PackBots have been deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. These are the ground versions of crewless aerial vehicles, remote-controlled spy planes that can also shoot weapons.

Tech security expert Bruce Schneier describes technology as having "dual uses": one for peacetime and one for war. The Wii video game console, for example, is great for transutf8g physical movements into movements onscreen. That makes the Wii great for party games in which you swing your arms to move dancing penguins on the screen. It also makes a great interface for remote-controlled guns in a combat robot. Just move your arm to aim.

In a time of war you can’t enjoy a party game without thinking about your game console being used to kill people. I realize that sounds melodramatic, but looked at pragmatically it’s quite simply true.

Once you realize that every form of technology has a dual use, it becomes much easier to argue for ways of limiting the uses that aren’t ethical or legal. Consider that a roboticized antiaircraft cannon (similar to the PackBot) turned on its operators during a field exercise in South Africa in October 2007, killing nine people before it ran out of ammo. The software error that led this robot to slaughter friendly soldiers is no different from errors that make your Roomba crash. What do we draw from this analogy? Perhaps robots that are perfectly legal as vacuums should be illegal on the battlefield. Perhaps no weapon should ever be completely autonomous like the Roomba.

Questions like these led me and my colleagues at Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility to put together a conference at Stanford University on the topic of technology in wartime, focusing especially on ethics and the law. Coming up on Jan. 26, the conference will be a day packed with talks and panels about everything from dual-use technology (Schneier will be a keynote speaker) to what happens when robots commit war crimes. We’ll also hear from people who are appropriating military technologies for human rights causes — the very technologies that let military spies hide online also help human rights workers and dissidents shield themselves while still getting out their subversive messages.

We’ll also have a panel on so-called cyberterrorism, or destructive hacks aimed at taking down a nation’s tech infrastructure. But should fears of cyberterror lead to total government surveillance of the Internet? Cindy Cohn, the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s legal director, will talk about how the NSA used AT&T to spy on US citizens and the suit the EFF has brought against AT&T for vioutf8g its customers’ privacy rights.

If you want to find out how to change the way militaries are appropriating consumer tech or just want to learn more about how war is changing the way we use technology, come to Stanford on Jan. 26 for the conference. It’s open to the public, and you can register at www.technologyinwartime.org. The cost of admission gets a you free lunch and a T-shirt, as well as a chance to talk to some of the smartest people in the field. See you there!

Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who wants smart defense to replace buggy offense.

Cindy Sheehan’s SF values


OPINION A major difference between Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s values and my values surfaced last month.

On Friday, Dec. 14, I learned that since 2002, Pelosi has been a silent partner in the George W. Bush regime’s torture policy. As a Bay Area resident for the past 15 years, I can say with confidence that the use of torture is not a San Francisco value.

According to a Dec. 9 Washington Post article, Pelosi was one of four members of Congress to witness a "virtual tour" of secret CIA detention sites. Officials have described the briefings as "detailed and graphic." The article, by Joby Warrick and Jan Eggen, revealed that the House Intelligence Committee received 30 briefings on the CIA’s torture chambers and the "harsh techniques interrogators had devised to try to make their prisoners talk."

In 2003, Congressperson Jane Harman (D-Calif.), who was also present during the briefings, filed a letter of protest over the interrogation program. After the Democrats won control of the House in 2006, Pelosi passed over Harman, who was in line for chair of the Intelligence Committee, instead naming Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas) to the position. Harman, who publicly voiced her discontent at her demotion, was punished for speaking out when Pelosi would not.

Pelosi and I both know that the use of torture is outlawed under both the US Army Field Manual and the Geneva Conventions. I have chosen to speak out against the Bush administration’s use of torture. Pelosi has chosen to remain silent.

Through her complicity and her actions, Pelosi continues to support an illegal policy that harms our soldiers in the field and is counterproductive to winning the hearts and minds of the Arab and Muslim world. Even committed warmonger Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) realizes that the use of torture as a tool to garner information is a flawed and inhumane strategy.

Pelosi has used her position as Speaker of the House to protect the criminal Bush regime, and although she has pledged to hold the president accountable for the Iraq war, she continues to give him the money, and therefore the means, to wage it.

San Franciscan values are good values. We want every person to be guaranteed the very same basic human rights that Pelosi and her wealthy cronies enjoy: peace, shelter, nutritious and plentiful food, health care, education, and the right to live free from torture. I would add the right to marry whomever one loves regardless of gender or orientation.

The neocon hatemongers have tried to make the word liberal an obscenity. Fox News jester Bill O’Reilly has publicly stated that al Qaeda can "go ahead" and "blow up" San Francisco. We cannot allow our values to be marginalized and ridiculed any longer. Our values must spread across this nation because we care about people and we care about true freedom and real representative democracy.

Pelosi abdicated her role as defender of our values and needs years ago, but especially so when she countenanced torture and refused to impeach the Bush regime when San Franciscans voted overwhelmingly in a referendum for impeachment.

The choice is simple and clear in California’s District 8. If you want San Francisco values represented in Congress, vote for me in November. If you support torture and war crimes, then vote for Pelosi. *

Cindy Sheehan

Antiwar activist Cindy Sheehan is running for Congress as an independent.



› tredmond@sfbg.com

It’s gotten to the point where you don’t have to make fun of the president anymore — the rest of the country has gotten so insane that George W. Bush almost looks normal. Just think about 2007:

One presidential candidate said aborted fetuses could have replaced immigrant workers. One said he wanted to be sure to shoot Osama bin Laden with American-made bullets. One said he’d seen a UFO. One said he wanted to deport 400,000 immigrants but was too busy.

A prominent conservative writer said Jewish people need to be "perfected." A bathroom stall in Minneapolis became a tourist attraction.

And Gavin Newsom screwed his secretary, Ed Jew didn’t know where he lived, people ran naked for mayor, Halloween was cancelled … It was, by any standard, a banner year for the Offies.


Gavin Newsom, faced with news of his sordid affair with Ruby Rippey-Tourk, told reporters that "everything you’ve read is true."


Jennifer Siebel, Newsom’s girlfriend who said "the woman is the culprit" in the mayor’s notorious affair, posted a message on SFist.com insisting she’s a "gal’s gal."


Siebel said Newsom’s affair with Rippey-Tourk "was nothing but a few incidents when she showed up passed out outside of his door."


Newsom’s press secretary, Peter Ragone, admitted to posting fake pro-Newsom comments on the SFist blog under a friend’s name.


Newsom announced he would go into rehab.


The Muni Metro T line opened for business with delays that crashed the entire underground train system.


Newsom announced on camera that he wasn’t going to talk to ABC’s Dan Noyes anymore, saying, "You just send some other reporters. It’s going to be a lot easier now."


State senator Carole Migden crashed her state-owned SUV into another car in Marin when she took her eyes off the road to answer a cell phone call.


Sup. Chris Daly set off a press furor when he said Newsom was refusing to answer questions about his alleged cocaine use.


Newsom’s press office announced that Halloween was cancelled, and the mayor refused until the last minute to allow portable toilets to be set up in the Castro.


Suspended Sup. Ed Jew, who was charged with accepting $40,000 in cash from a tapioca store chain, insisted he was going to give half the money to a neighborhood parks program.


Jew insisted he lived in a Sunset District house that had no water service and said he showered at his flower store (where reporters were never shown an actual shower).


Mayoral candidate Grasshopper Alec Kaplan stole Jew’s house numbers, was arrested for playing his guitar naked on top of his purple taxicab, and was sentenced to nine months in jail for threatening a passenger.


Yoga instructor George Davis was arrested four times while campaigning for mayor in the nude.


Chicken John Rinaldi insisted he was running for second place and considered using the slogan "The other white mayor."


Paul David Addis was arrested for setting fire to the Burning Man icon four days before it was supposed to be burned, then was later charged with attempting to burn down Grace Cathedral.


Jerry Lewis created an imaginary character for his muscular dystrophy telethon called Jesse the illiterate fag.


Ann Colbert said that Jews need to be "perfected."


The bathroom stall where Larry Craig was arrested for public sex became a tourist attraction.


Britney Spears shaved her head. Paris Hilton went to jail.


Spears’s mother lost her contract for a book on parenting after her 16-year-old daughter Jamie Lynn became pregnant.


Tickets to the Hannah Montana concert in Oakland were sold for as much as $1,000.


Southwest Airlines kicked a woman off a flight for wearing too short a skirt.


Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee said he would oppose same-sex marriage "until Moses comes down with two stone tablets from Brokeback Mountain saying he’s changed the rules."


Huckabee announced that if all of the nation’s aborted fetuses had gone to term, the United States wouldn’t need low-cost immigrant labor.


Huckabee told Rolling Stone he’d pardoned Keith Richards for a 1975 traffic ticket.


Former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani said he would have liked to have kicked all 400,000 undocumented immigrants out of the city, but he was too busy fighting crime.


Rep. Dennis Kucinich said he’d seen a UFO.


A Los Angeles company called 23andMe offered to test your DNA for $999 and tell you if you’re related to Marie Antoinette, Jesse James, or Jimmy Buffet.


Police in south Florida were put on alert after blogger Perez Hilton falsely announced the death of Fidel Castro.


Sen. John McCain told workers at a small-arms factory in New Hampshire he would "follow Osama bin Laden to the gates of hell" and "shoot him with your products."


Iran’s president said there are no homosexuals in his country.


Sen. Dianne Feinstein voted to confirm Michael Mukasey as attorney general even though he refused to say that waterboarding is torture.


President Bush said democracy might not be in the "Russian DNA."


A Florida production of The Vagina Monologues sought to avoid controversy by changing its name to The Hoohaa Monologues.


President Bush predicted a "nuclear holocaust" if Iran develops weapons of mass destruction.


Vice President Dick Cheney had executive power for two hours and five minutes while President Bush was under sedation for a colonoscopy.


The European Commission put a video clip on YouTube promoting European films by showing 18 couples having sex with the tagline "Let’s come together."


The mayor of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., suggested the city create a robot toilet to combat gay sex in public bathrooms.


Pope Benedict XVI declared that Protestants don’t have real churches and their ministers are all phonies.


The Supreme Court ruled that a high school student could be suspended for displaying a sign that read "Bong Hits 4 Jesus."


A news Web site in Pasadena outsourced its local reporting to India.


Former senator Mike Gravel announced during a presidential candidates debate that the other Democrats frightened him and asked Barack Obama whom he wanted to nuke.


Sen. McCain changed the lyrics of the Beach Boy’s "Barbara Ann" to "Bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran."


Sen. Joe Biden declared Obama is "the first mainstream African American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy."

Godzilla versus Mothra


› sarah@sfbg.com

When retired entomologist Jerry Powell caught two tiny light brown apple moths in a blacklight trap in his Berkeley backyard last winter, he had no idea of the furor his find would unleash — especially in the communities that were subsequently sprayed with female moth pheromones, a process that could come to San Francisco this spring.

Native to Australia and now found widely in New Zealand and the United Kingdom, the LBAM (or Epiphyas postvittana, as it’s known in bug circles) is classified as a plant pest, but it had never before been reported on the United States mainland, though it was found in Hawaii in the late 1880s.

So its discovery, first in Powell’s trap in February and then throughout the Bay Area and the Central Coast in March 2007, drove the US Department of Agriculture to declare a statewide emergency and issue quarantine and extermination directives.

The USDA’s problem, as Powell explained, is that unlike many moths, which only lay eggs on oak trees or eat holes in sweaters, the LBAM can lay eggs on and eat many, many plants.

"From each batch a hundred tiny caterpillars hatch and feed on a wide variety of shrubs and trees, using silk to tie the leaves up into bundles," Powell told the Guardian.

According to the USDA’s Web site, this pest could infest up to 80 percent of the continental US and attack 2,000 types of plants, causing huge economic and environmental damage.

Officials with the California Department of Food and Agriculture estimate the LBAM could cause up to $640 million annually in crop damage and control costs in California alone.

So starting last summer the CDFA required nurseries to either destroy infested plants or treat them with chlorpyrifos, an organophosphate pesticide derived from World War II nerve gas.

The agency also made ground applications of Bacillus thuringiensis (a genetically engineered bacteria) and hand-applied female moth pheromones in other infested areas, including Napa, Vallejo, and Mare Island.

But the agency’s most controversial act was the spraying of entire communities, including Santa Cruz, with Checkmate, a synthetic female moth pheromone made by the Oregon company Suterra. Since male moths use the real pheromone to detect females, flooding an area with similar-smelling stuff is supposed to confuse them and prevent mating.

The controversy, according to four lawsuits filed in Monterey and Santa Cruz counties, in which 73 percent of the moths have been found, began when the CDFA acted with minimal notice, without fully disclosing Checkmate’s contents until after the spraying occurred, and without adequately demonstrating that the moths were enough of an emergency to exempt the spraying from the California Environmental Quality Act.

Not to mention the sentiment, expressed by numerous members of the sprayed-on communities, that they felt as if they had been airlifted into Vietnam. For three nights in a row crop dusters, flying at 500 to 800 feet, traversed the skies, coating homes and gardens, parks and playgrounds with scentless, invisible, and largely untested female moth pheromones while freaked-out citizens were advised to remain indoors to avoid unwanted exposure.

Numerous health complaints were recorded after the spraying, along with questions about the scientific efficacy of the plan and the worry that the CDFA had paved the way to do an end run around due process — and next time could use heavy-duty pesticides.

Gina Solomon, senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, told the Guardian the spray’s contents are everyday chemicals, often labeled natural or organic, that degrade pretty rapidly into nontoxic by-products.

"But we did have a concern about tricaprylyl methyl ammonium chloride, a mild respiratory irritant, which could be of concern in a high dose to sensitive asthmatics," Solomon said.

Solomon gave the CDFA credit "for not picking a pesticide off the shelf," adding, "But it’s funny to see them trying to do the right thing, then tripping up over the public process. People don’t like planes going overhead spraying stuff and feeling like this is happening without their consent. I feel that if [the CDFA] is going to be inflicting this stuff on us, they need to let people know exactly why."

And with some scientists claiming that pheromones aren’t powerful enough to attract every single moth, Solomon is concerned the CDFA could decide to spray more toxic stuff.

"They could technically spray an insecticide, but I guarantee they’ll face a major protest, and it wouldn’t make any sense," Solomon said. "For all its nastiness, the moth is not a human health threat. It’s a threat to agriculture, nurseries, and gardens. We’re not talking about malaria."

Retired entomologist Powell suspects the LBAM was well established in California when he found it, given that it was trapped in a dozen counties within the next month.

"They had probably been here a few years before they happened to bumble into my light trap," he said. "And whenever you have anything that feeds on all kinds of plants, it doesn’t become a general defoliator but gets scattered around and causes minor damage. The problem is for nurseries that were forced to shut down and fumigate, but it’s not likely to become a noticeable pest in the garden. It’s likely to attract parasites and predators of similar species in the area."

James Carey, a professor of entomology at the University of California at Davis, is not a specialist in the LBAM. But he does know about invasive biology, having worked on the Mediterranean fruit fly. And in Carey’s opinion, the moth can’t be eradicated. It’s already widespread, he said — and disruptive mating pheromones have never been able to eradicate anything.

"It’s not numbers that matters, but numbers of locations," Carey told the Guardian. "It’s like metastatic cancer, where it’s not a matter of a tumor but of tens of thousands of tumors. So any [pockets of moths] that are not 100 percent eradicated can repopulate entire areas."

He acknowledges the USDA’s valid pest-related concerns. "But their entomologists should be able to argue that eradication is feasible, or face the facts that without effective tools not only to eradicate but to detect the moth it’s not possible," he said. "Pheromones are weak tools; not all moths come or respond to them. Even in an orchard they don’t work that well."

Casey warned that the CDFA will try to say that if we can’t eradicate the moth with pheromones, we’ll have to spray more pesticides. "But what if you can’t eradicate it because it’s too far gone?" he asked.

As for the unlikely scenario in which fixed-winged aircraft fly sideways between high-rises and the Transamerica Pyramid as they spray clouds of pheromones across the Castro, Chinatown, and beyond, Carey observed, "These moths can live in little pockets, so San Francisco will become a reservoir for them."

The CDFA’s Steve Lyle told the Guardian that at this point the agency has completed treatment for 2007 and is evaluating what it will do in 2008 and where it will do it.

"It’s fair to say that the entire program is being assessed, but we have made no definitive decisions and made no announcements," Lyle said.

With the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment reassessing whether Checkmate causes harm to people, plants, and pets, Lyle added, "The moth is of serious concern to the feds. Unfortunately, this invasive pest is established in an urban area."

USDA public affairs specialist Larry Hawkins was a little less vague. "Since LBAM has been found in San Francisco proper and in the East Bay, these areas are likely to be treated in 2008," he said. "But we’re considering whether to treat them through ground applications or aerial application."

Hawkins said any control action "will be preceded by informational meetings with the public, so any actions will be fully disclosed."

David Dillworth, executive director of the nonprofit Helping Our Peninsula Environment, which is suing the CDFA over the Monterey spraying, advised San Francisco to get proactive and lean on its elected leaders.

"San Francisco still has time to get Nancy Pelosi and Dianne Feinstein, whose backyards will be sprayed, to put pressure on USDA to stop the eradication, since at this point all they can really do is control the moth," Dillworth said.

Pelosi’s press secretary, Drew Hammill, told the Guardian that Pelosi is "checking with state and city officials regarding the spread of this species.

"While the Speaker understands the consequences this moth can have on our precious ecosystem," Hammill said, "she is also concerned about the prospect of spraying any substance into the air in our city and its possible effects on public health and organic farming in our state."

Solar man


› steve@sfbg.com

GREEN CITY Two years ago Tom Price called me from the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast. We didn’t know each other, but he’d read some of my articles about Burning Man, including "Epilogue as Prologue" (10/4/2005), which culminated my seven-part series by looking at how burners were projecting their culture, skills, and ethos into the outside world.

The most obvious example I used was the group that went straight from Burning Man 2005 to Mississippi to help clean up after Hurricane Katrina, which hit during the event. "If that isn’t applying our ethos, I don’t know what is," Burning Man founder Larry Harvey said in my article. "The very skills needed to survive at Burning Man are the skills needed to respond to a disaster."

Price had been a little busy mucking out flood-damaged homes and rebuilding a Buddhist temple in Biloxi, Miss., but the he’d called home for the past five months had finally gotten an Internet connection, and he’d just found my article. "Dude, we’re still here," he told me excitedly by phone. "It’s happening just like you wrote. We’re doing it."

As I started to learn, Price was an accomplished idealist for whom "doing it" means working to save the world. In college in Utah he spent a year in a shanty he erected in the main college square urging the university to disinvest in apartheid South Africa, and his removal led to a court case that expanded free speech rights. He worked as a journalist chronicling threats to the indigenous Kalahari tribes in Botswana and as an environmental activist and lobbyist in Washington DC, where he eventually became the main contract lobbyist for Burning Man, an event he loves.

In Mississippi he turned an encampment of do-gooder burners into an organization he dubbed Burners Without Borders. Price spoke so passionately and eloquently about what they were doing that I just had to go, working with them (as both journalist and laborer) for a week and writing a Guardian cover story about the experience ("From Here to Katrina," 2/22/06).

It was a project and a moment that seemed to capture both the scale of the environmental problems facing this country and the enormous potential of motivated individuals to creatively deal with them.

From there Burners Without Borders went on to create a program that recycles the huge amount of wood used by the more than 40,000 people who now attend Burning Man every year, donating it to Habitat for Humanity for the construction of low-income homes. And the group has sent contingents to do cleanup work after floods in the Pacific Northwest and cleanup and reconstruction in Pisco, Peru, after the massive earthquake there in 2007.

Price became the first environmental director for Burning Man, reflecting its Green Man theme last year.

One of the most notable projects to grow from that endeavor finally came into full bloom Dec. 18, 2007, when a 90-kilowatt solar array — some of which was used to power the eponymous Man at last year’s event — was placed in the town of Gerlach, Nev., as a donation to the Washoe County School District.

It will give the school free, clean power for the next 25 years, saving the district about $20,000 annually — money that can surely be put to better use than paying for fossil fuels.

The project was a joint venture between venture capital firm MMA Renewable Ventures (which put up the money), Sierra Pacific Power (which offered a substantial rebate for the project), and the Price-led burners who donated their labor.

"MMA put up the money, and the rebate from the utility paid back almost all of it, with the difference made up by Burning Man and its volunteers," Price said.

Price said 10 volunteers — including Eli Lyon, Matt Deluge, and Richard Scott, who were in Pearlington, Miss., with us — worked eight hours per day for 51 days to do the work that made the project pencil out.

Matt Cheney, CEO of MMA Renewable Ventures and a resident of Potrero Hill, said he approached people he knew at Burning Man a year ago, wanting to help the event’s new green goals. "One of the simplest ways to do it was to green up the Man with solar," he said.

Price helped guide the project past the anticorporate sentiments of burners. "A lot of people were afraid that Green Man would spell the end of Burning Man because there was corporate participation," Price said.

Instead, this creative partnership has become a model for the future and a job for Price, who is now executive director of the new nonprofit Black Rock Solar, which aims to replicate the Gerlach project at schools, hospitals, and other public institutions in Nevada and other states.

"We’re taking fiscal capital and social capital and combining them in a way that’s really never been done before," Price said.

John Hargrove, who runs the rebate program for Sierra Pacific Power, agrees the burners have created an entirely new model.

"They’re able to do installations that wouldn’t get done otherwise," Hargrove told the Guardian. "Clearly, they are donating a tremendous value to the project. The Burning Man, Black Rock Solar people are very unique. They’re not in it to make money."

Yet the model they’ve created allows capitalists to make money, albeit at lower returns, by tapping into a universal sense of goodwill and a desire to save the planet.

"We call this not-for-profit work. We’re operating on metrics where we don’t have to make our typical returns," Cheney said, noting that the price points for this project were about 25 percent lower than for a typical big solar project. And he thinks the undeniable public benefits of projects like this will attract more support from powerful players in the public and private sectors.

"It was the right moment in time to do something like this," Cheney said. "It’s one of those good ideas that happened at the right time and has taken on a life of its own."



Comments, ideas, and submissions for Green City, the Guardian‘s weekly environmental column, can be sent to news@sfbg.com.

A hard line on 55 Laguna


EDITORIAL In spring 2007, Assemblymember Mark Leno talked to Ruthy Bennett, the point person on the A.F. Evans proposal to build a major housing development on the old University of California at Berkeley Extension campus in San Francisco. Bennett was running into some problems: the site’s neighbors didn’t think the project included enough community mitigations. And Evans was looking for ways to fund a much larger community center and possibly some affordable housing.

Leno was interested in the project in part because it included plans for 80 units of housing for queer seniors. Open House, a local nonprofit, had been trying to find a site for an LGBT retirement complex for some time, and Evans had agreed to make that part of its project. The assembly member had a friendly relationship with the chancellor of the UC, which owned the land, and he told Bennett he might be able to intercede and help reduce the lease amount the UC wanted to charge the developer. Leno brought Sup. Bevan Dufty, whose district includes part of the site, to the meeting.

Leno told us he made some progress: the UC had wanted $20 million, but he talked the chancellor down to $18 million. "With that $2 million, we were able to substantially increase the size of the community center," he said.

But at the same time, UC representatives apparently walked away from the table thinking they had a final, done deal — that representatives of the city and the state had signed off on a price, which was now set in stone. "Unfortunately, UC’s position is predicated on a deal that doesn’t work well for moving this project forward," Sup. Ross Mirkarimi told us. Now that Mirkarimi is demanding greater affordability in the housing — which is largely high-end rentals — Evans is saying it needs a break from the UC, and the UC won’t budge an inch.

And somebody needs to budge, or this deal needs to be scrapped altogether — because it’s not good for the city.

Remember: this is public land that’s been used for public educational purposes for a century. Now the UC and Evans want to turn it into a private, for-profit housing complex. And only a minimal amount of that new housing will be available at a price that’s affordable to the vast majority of San Franciscans.

Of the 420 units, only 16 percent (roughly the legal minimum) will be affordable. None of the 80 LGBT units will be rented at anything but market rates unless Open House can raise the money to subsidize them. That’s not acceptable: building high-end apartments for the rich does nothing to help the city’s housing crisis, and while we agree there’s a need for supportive community housing for LGBT seniors, middle-class and poor queers need a place to retire too — and this will do nothing for them.

The project was on the fast track until state senator Carole Migden squeezed the UC and forced a delay until late January. The city has plenty of leverage here: not only does the site require rezoning, but the supervisors would also have to sign off on a plan to hand over a piece of Waller Street to the developer.

At this point city officials need to take a hard line: either Evans and the UC up the affordability level to, say, 40 or 50 percent and guarantee that some of the senior units will be subsidized, or the project dies. Period.

We agree with the neighbors of 55 Laguna who say the site has been empty for too long, is an eyesore, and attracts crime. It’s 5.8 acres of land in a central part of the city, and it shouldn’t remain a crumbling ghost of a former college. But the UC and a private developer can’t set all the terms here either — and the city can do a whole lot better than the deal on the table right now.

Amending the solar plan


EDITORIAL San Francisco assessor Phil Ting wants to encourage more city residents and businesses to put solar panels on their roofs. It’s a noble idea, but the legislation he and Mayor Gavin Newsom have proposed needs work.

Ting told us he’s concerned that buying and installing solar panels is too expensive and that the cost is discouraging people from taking these steps toward putting the city on a path to greater reliance on renewable energy. So he’s put forward a two-pronged plan to lower the price: Using funds generated by the sale of Hetch Hetchy power, the city would offer cash payments of between $3,000 and $10,000 to residents and businesses that go solar. Then city bond money would be used to finance the remaining installation costs, and customers could pay back the city over 20 years.

The bond money Ting is eyeing comes from a measure passed more than 15 years ago, after the Loma Prieta earthquake, that makes money available for seismic upgrades to commercial property. For various reasons, including the complexity of the requirements, almost none of the $350 million in that bond fund has been spent, so with the approval of the voters it could be redirected to solar programs.

There are several problems with this approach.

We’re always a little leery of spending public money to benefit private property owners (and let’s remember that almost everyone who owns a home in San Francisco has seen its value increase dramatically in the past few years, despite the market slowdown). And while Ting and Newsom are right that the Hetch Hetchy money doesn’t come directly out of the General Fund, it’s still public money that could be spent on other programs — and the mayor is fighting against a plan to spend more city money on affordable housing.

But global warming and energy independence are important enough that we could live with the cash incentives — if the program were tailored to support community choice aggregation and public power. Instead, in its current draft, the plan would amount to a large incentive for electricity customers to snub the upcoming city program and stick with Pacific Gas and Electric Co. The language of the measure requires that applicants for the incentive program be eligible for a similar state program — but that state program is administered by PG&E and two other private utilities and is available only to their customers.

Starting sometime this year, if all goes well, San Francisco will be in the retail electricity business, competing directly with PG&E. Ting told us he’ll make sure the language is fixed to make the program available to all, but we’d go further: a city incentive program should help the city’s efforts. The first benefits should go to city customers, and they should be tailored as incentives for residents and businesses to stick with municipal CCA power and reject PG&E.

The bond money is problematic too. As it stands, landlords could pass along half of the costs of that money to tenants, many of whom don’t pay their own electric bills anyway and thus would get no benefits. That’s got to go: if the city is going to offer cheap loans to let landlords upgrade their buildings (and thus increase the value of their property), the supervisors shouldn’t pass any measure that sticks tenants with any of the costs.

The city of Berkeley is working on a similar program that seems much more simple: property owners can borrow money for solar panels and pay it back through increased property taxes. Sup. Gerardo Sandoval has suggested San Francisco pursue a similar plan, and Ting and the mayor should take that into consideration.

There’s the kernel of a good idea here — but the supervisors need to make some significant changes to what the mayor and the assessor are proposing before this plan moves forward.