Tech Boom

A master of observation: chatting with author Sean Wilsey


“We used to call this Café High,” author Sean Wilsey says of Café International, our meeting spot, before letting out a hearty chortle. By “we” he means his late-80s classmates at the Urban School, the private prep school 10 blocks or so from the Haight and Fillmore coffee shop. By “high” I assume he’s alluding to marijuana in some form or another, but I’m too intrigued by Wilsey’s instant openness and nostalgia to probe. Despite four other high schools (he never graduated), myriad other cities (he doesn’t come back to San Francisco very often anymore), and 25 or so intervening years (he’s pushing 45), Wilsey still grasps the vibe of his native hood with the exactitude of a lifelong resident. 

“A lot of places used to look like this …Café High only stands out now because it’s a relic.” The joint, which plays reggae tunes, has scuffed floors, and whose waiters delivered a gorgeous mango smoothie to Wilsey, is no longer the stereotypical SF hangout spot. Instead, the boutique and artisanal bars and coffee houses of the tech boom are the preferred haunts for most interviews and meetings of the literati. As he discussed his own evolution on gentrification, his wide and incisive eyes, usually full of exuberant twinkle, squinted in judgment. “When it first started happening, I said, ‘Shit, yeah!’” But then it loses its edge of interestingness,” Wilsey says. “The Haight used to feel totally wild and nuts. Now I wouldn’t think twice about bringing my grandmother here at any hour of the day.”

Wilsey’s ability to instantly contextualize San Francisco’s commercial shifts despite his absence is testament to the depth of his analytical mind. The writer has managed to become a magazine mainstay, wildly successful memoirist, and, most recently, author of the McSweeney’s essay collection More Curious, because of this uncanny observational ability. He’s had a prolific and varied career and is only picking up steam. Yet, like the stories of many artists, Wilsey’s journey is one built more on compulsion than pure bliss, calling than serendipity. 

Given his background as the son of San Francisco socialites Al Wilsey and Pat Montandan, Wilsey is astonishingly self-made. “I have endured a certain amount of ridiculous preconception, especially in this town, out of the fact that I have a family that casts a shadow here,” he explains. “But I don’t feel like I have anything to do with it.” Despite his feelings of distance from his family’s legacy, Wilsey appears anything but bitter — he talks of his parents with a smile. Instead, he simply seems to have fought to find his own road.

After his tumultuous and often delinquent high school journey, he began honing his writing and eventually moved to New York City with the express desire to get a job at the New Yorker. “I said, ‘I’m not leaving until it happens.’ There was a lot of determination,” he says. Wilsey sent his portfolio to the New School, got in, and happened to find a professor who worked at the New Yorker. Wilsey had been at Newsweek organizing responses to letters, but eventually, after a year of calling the head of the messenger room, finagled a job as an in-house deliveryman at his dream publication.

“It had to be one of the favorite jobs that I ever had, because they would literally be like, ‘run this down to Norman Mailer’.” Despite the high-profile deliveries, Wilsey’s life was scrappily exhilarating as opposed to glamorous. He lived on a ferryboat that had docked at Pier 25, did restoration work in exchange for habitation, and got by on the $18,000 messenger salary.

I couldn’t help but think that the author’s early years in the industry were ripe for some sort of further artistic exploration, so it wasn’t surprising when Wilsey revealed that he is working on a new memoir that will incorporate his New York years. Our conversation began to transition from the biographical to the philosophical as we discussed his initial trepidation at the endeavor. “Until recently I’ve felt kind of intimidated about writing about New York, most notably because my editor — I love her, but she’s a badass — said, ‘Oh, you think you can write about New York?’”

While Wilsey delivered the quote with a hilariously sassy tone, he was clearly serious about the pressures of self-criticality and perfectionism in the writing world. He told me a bit about the plight of legendary New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell, whom he got to meet while at the magazine and talked extensively about in the introduction to More Curious. At the height of his powers in 1964, Mitchell stopped writing and, until his death in 1996, still came to the New Yorker almost every day without ever publishing anything significant.

Relative mystery still exists about what exactly happened in Mitchell’s mind that led to his silence. Wilsey, however, has gleaned ideas from the memoirs of one of the writer’s secretaries. “They had these flirtatious lunch dates — she was a very good-looking woman — and eventually Mitchell would tell her about what he was working on and how hard it was.” The empathy that Wilsey felt for Mitchell was palpable in his voice as he recounted his literary idol’s struggles. “He tried to bring every piece he wrote to the next level and it became harder and harder for him to do it …a bit of it has come out and its not as amazing … there’s a kind of mania in it.”   

Wilsey’s candor is so without pretense that I found it difficult to maintain a critical eye while we discussed. As he told the Mitchell story, I remembered to take in his appearance — a blue messenger cap (which appeared so poetic given his “in” at the New Yorker), a button-down, jeans. His dress and light, baritone voice both evoked a lasting youth — while he spoke with authority and maturity, his vigor and presence quelled all supposes that he is approaching some sort of Mitchell moment. 

Wilsey battles the pitfalls of self-doubt through several writing strategies. While he was immensely appreciative of my review of More Curious, he called me out for suggesting that his immaculate fact checking was “of the Wikipedia age.” “I over-research to an incredible degree, but I actually try to avoid web research altogether.” The personalized investigative process, much of which he chronicles within his pieces, seemingly keeps Wilsey focused. The compressed timing of magazine writing also appears to help the writer keep energized in his detective work and retain perspective about the inevitable imperfection of his articles. “When you have an editor and a deadline it’s harder to get caught up in the potential craziness of working in a vacuum,” he says.

Wilsey also generates genuine interest in all of the subjects that he takes on and manages to imbue them with a philosophical depth that usually isn’t instantly obvious. While we discussed “Some of Them Can Read,” his frightening treatise on New York’s rat population, Wilsey recounted a surreal piece of information that, while not making it into the essay, buoyed its thesis. “Some explorers in South America entered a crater that no one had ever entered before. They found these huge dog-like rats, but they were like, pure love, extremely friendly, and vegetarian.” Using the rats as the uncorrupted variable against their more vicious and conniving New York equivalents, Wilsey came to a startlingly deep conclusion about the beasts. “Rats are reflections of us. They are our alter egos.”

While Wilsey can’t help but uncover facts and endlessly theorize about rats, NASA, World Cup soccer, and the other facets of contemporary society that he explores, he doesn’t necessarily want to. “You have to be called to do this thing. This is what I do. Otherwise it’s very lonely and frustrating to have a literary view of the world and not be able to set it down and stop analyzing.” The moxy that Wilsey showed in climbing the literary ladder and the attention he pays his focuses is not as much a desire so much as a necessity.

After discussing his powerful impulse to write for several minutes, Wilsey grabbed the copy of More Curious that I’d brought with me and flipped to its centerpiece, “Travels With Death.”

“I never wanted to write [this as] the main essay, but this dude we met went on this insane monologue.” The dude in question, an eccentric San Antonian interested in the architectural work of Wilsey’s traveling companion, the architect Michael Meredith, presented the duo with a multi-hour tirade about Texas history. Wilsey read his response to the surreal scene out loud: “It put me on alert. I started expecting I’d have to write about all of this, and there’s no surer impediment to a good time than knowing you have to write about it.”

Marfa, Texas, an artist enclave of around 2,000 people where Wilsey lives much of the time, offers the writer shelter from the emotional burden of his constant analysis. “Marfa, though overwhelming in its natural grandeur, allows me to step outside of my mind and just chill, and that’s almost a subversive act for me.” While Wilsey’s first and last essays in his collection focus on Marfa, he doesn’t feel the same internal expectation to chronicle its happenings.

That hasn’t stopped him from receiving a fair amount of derision in the local press. He explains a particularly damning piece: “It basically said, ‘Why does he get to write the book that is going to in some way define or advance the conversation about what this place gets to be?’” Thus, even when Wilsey manages to turn off his internal self-judgment in Marfa, his neighbors sometimes manage to pick up the slack. Despite the stress, however, Wilsey is still in love with the locale. “That’s not the Marfa that I know. Marfa can be edgy, but usually very kind.”

As we left Café High and walked up Haight Street to his reading at the Booksmith, I couldn’t help but think that Wilsey is like his home — full of sharp and often biting insight, but immensely generous and restrained, lacking almost entirely in cruelty. As he regaled me with stories of ’80s quasi-brothels on Haight that were frequented by Urban students and sighed at the sight of another steel-tinged bar with stylist mixologists, I could tell that the mania of Wilsey’s life and mind were all worth it — he’s doing what he has to do.  

Check out David Kurlander’s review of Sean Wilsey’s More Curious here.

Protect light industrial businesses from Big Tech sprawl


[Editor’s Note: With the San Francisco Board of Supervisors Land Use Committee scheduled on Monday, July 7, to act on a proposal to allow the new owner of the San Francisco Design Center to evict existing tenants to accommodate tech company Pinterest, Jim Gallagher of Garden Court Antiques, one of those tenants, wrote the following guest editorial for the Guardian.]

The San Francisco Design Center has been a doing business at 2 Henry Adams street for the last 40 years.  During that time it has created thousands of good paying jobs in the city.  We are currently at risk of losing the majority of the building to tech office space.  The building is zoned for PDR-Design but a loophole in the law is being exploited by the new owners, a Chicago based investment firm.  This would lead to the loss of SF based small businesses and the jobs that they create.

 We have worked with countless interior design firms, architects and contractors as a resource for their projects.  In addition, we are an intrinsic part of a network of the PDR(Production, Distribution and Repair) businesses here in San Francisco.  These are the upholsterers, fabrication workrooms, cabinet makers, finishers, metal workers, installers and movers that make up our industry.  This industry offers above average paying jobs to a variety of people from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds that don’t necessarily have college degrees.  These jobs and those that work at them are being squeezed out of this city and when they are gone, we lose yet another piece of the soul of San Francisco.

There is no question that PDR space is being lost in San Francisco.  A recent study of PDR space in SF, showed that we currently have the lowest available PDR space of any major American city at less than 7 percent.  Mayor Lee along with Supervisors Cohen and Campos introduced legislation at the end of last year to expand the amount of PDR space and shore up the manufacturing and light industrial sector in the city.  Why then, would the Board of Supervisors even consider giving up a quarter of a million square feet of PDR space that is currently 90% occupied with viable PDR businesses?

The sad reality is that it is a simple matter of corporate greed.  The new owners of the Showplace Building at 2 Henry Adams bought the building as a PDR building, knowing the use limitations of designated PDR building and immediately began to find ways around the laws.  The loophole that they discovered was the Landmark designation.

The Landmark designation was an exception put into the PDR protections in order to help with the cost maintaining some of the historic architecture that is often found in these PDR buildings.  The idea being that PDR rents do not always bring in enough income to retrofit and maintain these old buildings.  The Landmark status would allow the owners of PDR buildings to rent out part of the building as higher paying office space in order to offset the retrofit and maintenance cost.  This sounds like a good idea until you bring in the greed factor.  This Landmark exception has become the favorite loophole for corporate investors and greedy landlords to move out PDR businesses all over the city.

In the case of the Showplace Building, it is currently 90 percent occupied by PDR-Design businesses.  According to the building owers, there are approximately 262,000 square feet of rentable space in the building.  The Common Area Maintenance or CAM fees that tenants of the building pay beyond their monthly rent is $1.25 per square foot per month.  This would mean that the owners of the Showplace building are currently bringing in nearly $3,500,000 just in Common Area Maintenance fees annually.  In what universe is this not enough money to maintain a building that was fully retrofitted 15 years ago and is only five stories high?

The idea that this building needs to granted Landmark status from the city in order to create enough revenue to maintain the building just does not pass the smell test!  This is a case of simple greed on the part of a Chicago based investment company.  They believe that they can skirt the laws that are in place to protect San Francisco based small businesses and San Francisco workers.  They do not have the best interest of our city or our workers in mind.  They simply want to exploit this Landmark loophole in the PDR protections to line their own pockets.

I would hope that the members of the Board of Supervisors and Mayor Ed Lee do not let this happen.  Please consider the consequences to our city.  Do not choose to allow a Chicago based investment company to skirt our laws and exploit this loophole.  Do not allow this greed to put several San Francisco small businesses out of business. 

This building is 90 percent full of viable PDR businesses.  We pay nearly $3.5 million dollars a year to maintain this building.  This is the perfect example of what a well-run PDR building should look like.  This building is this beautiful and well-maintained because of us.  Please don’t allow the exploitation of the Landmark status to kick us out.  We built our businesses here because we love this place and we want to continue to work and thrive here.

Your latest SF gentrification soundtrack: Cold Beat, Thee Oh Sees, Violent Change, and more


Is San Francisco doomed?  The legendary SF punk band Crime said so 35 years ago on their album San Francisco’s Doomed. Yet with tech money flowing into San Francisco and musicians being priced out of the city, the phrase has taken on a new resonance among those musicians who have stayed in town.

There’s been no shortage of music and other art forms lamenting the sea change in our dear city: Earlier this month, Katie Day drew accolades and vitriol with “San Francisco (Before the West Falls),” and tonight [Wed/25], cabaret singer-songwriter Candace Roberts will celebrate the debut of her theatrical “Not My City Anymore” with a party at the Gold Dust Lounge (where the music video was shot).

Stepping up to the plate for the indie/garage/punk kids is Hannah Lew, currently of Cold Beat, formerly of Grass Widow, and most recently the curator of a compilation whose name differs from Crime’s album by one contraction: San Francisco Is Doomed.  Released on Lew’s Crime On The Moon label, the compilation features 13 songs by either former or current San Francisco bands and artists, from Thee Oh Sees to Erase Errata to Violent Change, all of them dealing with the tech boom’s effect on the city and its music scene.

Lew has lived in the city since 1989, and was a first-hand witness to the ascent of the city’s garage-rock scene to international prominence as a member of Grass Widow. Though she plans to stay in the city, it’s increasingly difficult for musicians in San Francisco to keep up with increased prices. Most of the artists on the compilation have since moved.

“People are moving here to make money now,” Lew said. “It’s never really been like that before — not since the Gold Rush. Because of that there’s a lot of foodie culture…things catered to people with a lot of money. I think that creates a cultural divide.”

The compilation isn’t an act of war against the “techies,” though; according to Lew, some of the artists on the compilation actually work in the tech industry. It’s not a benefit album either. It’s simply a snapshot of the time and place in which SF musicians currently exist. 

For now, Lew and Cold Beat are still headquartered and playing shows in the city — the compilation seems timed nicely to coincide with the release of the band’s latest, Over Me, which will be out July 8 (a music video for the first single just premiered over at NPR). But it’s hard to say the band is part of a “scene” anymore. Bay Area scenes have come and gone, of course, from psychedelic rock to ’80s thrash metal, and, as others have noted, it’s increasingly apparent that the garage-rock movement is at the end of its lifespan. The question of whether or not San Francisco’s music scene is truly doomed relies on a different equation — whether musicians are willing to move into San Francisco. And according to Lew, it’s not exactly an attractive option for most.

“I can’t really imagine people moving here for a thriving music scene without the rent prices going way down,” she said. “Usually the towns with a thriving music scenes are affordable to live in. But it’s hard to even find an affordable practice space in San Francisco these days.”

“There’s nothing we can do about it,” she added. “[San Francisco] is becoming more of a fancy town. But we just want to talk about it and hopefully provide another voice in that conversation.”
San Francisco Is Doomed Record Release

With Cold Beat, Synethic ID, Violent Change, Caged Animal

July 1, 9pm, free

Brick and Mortar Music Hall

1710 Mission, SF


Listen: Katie Day’s anti-tech bro jam “San Francisco (Before the West Falls)”


Between POW!’s “Hi-Tech Boom,” the schticky “Google Bus Song” from Cachebox, and Violent Vickie’s “Fuck You!!!!!”, it’s safe to say San Francisco musicians — the ones that are left here, haha! sorry — are currently leading the nation in anti-gentrification music.

This is a good thing, of course. It means the city still has a pulse. You know what we’ve been sorely lacking, however? As Emma Goldman basically said, give the people a summery, socially conscious anthem we can fucking dance to.

Enter Katie Day, who self-released her new EP, Burn It to the Ground, yesterday. There’s a lot to like here, including a love song for the Lower Haight, but the instant earworm is a semi-tongue-in-cheek indie-electro-pop jam called “San Francisco (Before the West Falls),” with shimmery, bubble-gum synths and keys layered with lyrics that lament the bygone days when coffee was 80 cents, and give serious side-eye to the tech bros moving into her neighborhood: “Someone told me about the boys next door/They put the boards on the window of the record store/And now the kids don’t get to play no more…”

“The extreme wealth disparity we’re experiencing in SF as a result of tech can make living here as an artist straight-up oppressive, but I think having a song that speaks to that oppression and makes you want to get up and dance anyway can negate any feeling of self-pity, even if you’re living under constant threat of eviction while there’s trained German Shepherd acting as an elevator operator at the Google office,” Day wrote me when I asked about her inspirations. “It’s something they can’t take away from you.”

Get your un-gentrifiable dance on when she plays with Stages of Sleep, New Spell, and Memory Motel this Sat/7, 8pm at Amnesia.


Dear United States: #Jessicastux discrimination shows SF inequality


Dear United States,

Yes,  you’ve found San Francisco out. You’ve got us. Our city is not the bastion of equality we claim it to be. 

It’s something most San Franciscans know, but now you, the country, are getting a peek at how discriminatory our local institutions can actually be.

Just last week, the news of Sacred Heart Cathedral Prep’s discrimination against young Jessica Urbina went viral. Urbina just wanted to wear a tuxedo in her yearbook photo, and the Catholic school, Sacred Heart, said it would not print her photo in a yearbook because she wasn’t in a dress.

The resulting social media firestorm blew up in national media, propelled by the hashtag #jessicastux. Today Sacred Heart issued an apology, offering to work on its policies moving forward.

“On Friday, May 16, the school communicated that it will change its policy regarding senior portraits. We agree with our students who showed solidarity with their classmate that the current policy regarding senior portraits is not adequate to meet the needs of our families or our mission. We will involve our students, families, and Board in crafting the updated policy.

Many people suggest that the past few days have been deeply revealing about our school community. We agree. We are an imperfect community that can and does fail. We are a community that is open to self-reflection, and to the constructive criticism and leadership of its students, as well as to the criticism from members of our broader community. We are a community that strives to grow, improve and do what is right. We are a community that sees, in all situations, an opportunity to learn.”

But before we let Sacred Heart be crucified in the court of public opinion, let’s remember an old religious maxim: let ye who is without sin cast the first stone. And when it comes to inequality, San Francisco has many sinners.

Yes, dear country, you spent the last week utterly aghast that San Francisco, the champion of marriage equality, could discriminate against an LGBT teen.

You really don’t know the half of it. 

Take our public schools. Even as we celebrate the 60th anniversary of Brown vs. the Board of Education, an investigative report by the San Francisco Public Press revealed massive inequality in San Francisco public elementary schools. Though the SFUSD suffered funding cuts totalling $113 million in the 2009-10 school year (after numerous annual state cuts), some public schools managed to stave off layoffs and provide excellent facilities for their children. The catch? Only the elementary schools attended by rich families survived, bouyed by nearly $3 million in PTSA fundraising in 11 elementary schools.

But 35 of SFUSD’s elementary schools raised no money at all. These schools are not surprisingly attended mostly by the city’s poorest families, and their schools were met with brutal cuts.

The SFUSD is only now allowing students to wear hats (including some religious headgear), and is only now considering raising its minimum wage to San Francisco’s minimum of $10.24 an hour (as a state entity, it only has to pay $8 an hour).

And lest we pick on the schools too much, the explosive tech industry has had its impacts on San Francisco equality too. As taxi drivers flock to rideshare companies like Uber, Lyft and Sidecar, there are fewer drivers to drive wheelchair-accessible taxis. Those rideshare companies don’t yet have a plan to offer service to our city’s many persons with disabilities. Even our beloved regional transit system, BART, has new proposed “trains of the future” offering less space for electric wheelchairs to move around as well.  

San Francisco has also seen massive numbers of folks displaced by the tech boom, symbolized (and even exacerberated) by our city’s most hated/loved/over-discussed behemoths, the Google buses.  

We’ve even got the second highest inequality in the United States, fast headed for number one. Go us.

And though Bill O’Reilly at Fox News loves to make funny videos about San Francisco’s homeless while he talks up our love of hippies, he’s got it all wrong (unfortunately). The city issues numerous citations against homeless youth for the act of sitting down in the Haight Ashbury district (the birthplace of the Summer of Love), and has struggled with policies to help the homeless for over 10 years running. 

Also, did we mention one in four San Franciscans are food insecure? That means about 200,000 San Franciscans don’t have enough money to eat healthily, and many are near starvation. 

Yes, dear country, San Francisco espouses many loving principles, and we do have an innate sense of justice to help immigrants, the poor, and the marginalized.

But we still have a long, long way to go. 


A San Franciscan. 



Kitten Grenade on why you shouldn’t underestimate the ukulele


By Rebecca Huval

Kitten Grenade takes the ukulele seriously. Katelyn Sullivan picked up the instrument when she was lonely and unhappy in Los Angeles, jonesing to be back in San Francisco. Now the instrument adds chiaroscuro to her self-titled debut EP released this January: the lilting chords contrast her brassy voice and its message of heartbreak.

“It’s got a deep soul, the ukulele,” she says ahead of her Friday, May 2nd show at the DNA Lounge. People unfairly pick on the instrument for being silly, Sullivan says, and she laughs when she reveals that she now has eight of them. Like a defensive cat lady, she says, “Each one has a different sound and personality.”

Her band, started in January 2013, is built on the idea of contrast. She named it Kitten Grenade after her art illustration thesis about juxtaposition: “Something cute and fuzzy, and something destructive. That idea captures a lot that’s in the music and my life.”

Even though Sullivan is engaged to her boyfriend of eight years, she says she’s dealt with her share of tragedies and unrequited loves that have wormed their way into her lyrics. Just recently, Sullivan has been coping with the death of her fiance’s 24-year-old brother, who fell off a balcony. Grief enters her songs through a “heartbreak filter.” In the first track on her EP, “Anomaly,” she sings about a lovers’ quarrel: “Touching fingers, eyes linger everywhere they’re not supposed to be/Said I’m sorry, no you hurt me, or were you not listening.” Her minimal orchestration, with mournful harmonies and light percussion, set the stage for her clarion voice to deliver these confessional lyrics.

Not every track is a tear-jerker. The surprisingly upbeat “Death Song” uses catchy, syncopated ukulele strumming to accompany Sullivan’s dreamy melody. The song begins quietly, “We started out without our lungs and somehow learned to breathe,” and builds to a shout, “the dust that we create is all that’s left of our dreams.” Her track “Gray,” with some vaudevillian-tinged vocals, uses ethereal background singing and the higher registers of the ukulele to seem reminiscent of Yael Naim. With musical role models from Fiona Apple to tUnE-yArDs, Sullivan reflects the range of their difference in her broad palette of styles.

Her lyrics are uniquely San Franciscan as Karl enters: “Oh these starry eyes get misty, fog rolls in and hides the misery.” Originally from Maryland, Sullivan has lived in San Francisco for 10 years. She adores the music scene here and playing with fellow band Halcyonaire, “the freaking sweetest guys.” But given the recent tech boom, she advocates that music supporters see shows regularly to keep artists from leaving the city. “I make that a goal to make a band’s week by seeing their Wednesday 11 o’clock show. It means a lot to me, so you have to pass it forward.”

She’s seen San Francisco from both sides: before as a retailer on 16th and Valencia Streets, and now as a tech worker for the karaoke app StarMaker. “I get to sing all the time,” she says. “I love my company — they’re down-to-earth and they’re all about getting people to sing.”

Sullivan herself needed some coaxing before singing in public. She started her musical life in middle school through opera and musical theatre, and her training shows up today in her voice’s creaminess and smooth projection. But she went through a period in high school when she was too shy to sing. She abandoned music for art school, where she met her current fiance.

“He helped me find my confidence,” she says. “If I hadn’t met him, I wouldn’t have the confidence to go up on stage and sing these personal songs. The path of life is so interesting. If I hadn’t lost my confidence, I wouldn’t have gotten into art and illustration, I wouldn’t have met my fiance, and that’s how I regained my confidence. Life wouldn’t have been the same if I hadn’t had that hiatus.” Contrasts formed Kitten Grenade and continue to give it a full-bodied sound, with ukulele playing that is both sweet and seriously soulful.

Kitten Grenade

With Electric Strawberry and The Stand Out State
Friday, May 2
7pm, $10
DNA Lounge
375 11th St, SF
(415) 626-1409

POW!’s Byron Blum on staying put


When John Dwyer announced that he was leaving San Francisco for LA a few weeks ago, he caused a bit of blogosphere melodrama, to say the least. One thing that wasn’t controversial: His vocal support of the young’uns in POW!, whose album is out on Dwyer’s own Castle Face Records. With the record out this week, we caught up with Blum to hear about the passing of the baton.

I set my laptop on the wobbly table outside of Mojo Bicycle Café and make a sheepish remark about having a computer in tow for an interview I assumed would involve a plethora of tech industry shit talking. I was meeting Byron Blum, guitarist and vocalist of POW!, an SF garage trio with a ratty, fuzzy sound and a new album that pummels our city’s digital infiltration. 

“Oh, are we gonna talk about tech?” asks Blum, straight-faced with an air of disappointment in his voice. I laugh awkwardly and nod my head yes. He hands me a tortilla chip in agreement. We bond over the street we both call home, noting the usual Divisadero characters and talking favorite spots before launching into grievances about the changing landscape.

“All the quick fixes showing up around the city—the cranes everywhere, the condos—redevelopment that’s so disposable looking. Fuck this,” he says from behind round sunglasses. “Our neighborhood is so timeless, so beautiful, so San Francisco. These convenient solutions are not sustainable. I get bummed out.”

A quick listen to POW!’s debut full-length, High-Tech Boom, and it’s obvious the landscape isn’t all that’s getting Blum and his bandmates down. The album was released mere days ago on John Dwyer’s Castle Face Records, but conversations around the punchy, aggravated lyrics have been hot for weeks.  Lines like, “There’s a new breed creeping into town/they’re starting up and taking over…” and “I’m seeing red as they take away our bread” aren’t shy to point fingers at the deep-pocketed “noobs” — as coined by Dwyer in his own strongly worded press release promoting the band’s new tracks.

The audible volatility of High-Tech Boom feels spot on with the pissed-off vibes breeding in the Bay: The guitar encourages sly rebellion, the drums rabid and tense; the synth sneers and stirs. These songs birthed from a place of anger and aggression — seeing his friends displaced and then replaced with entitled strangers left Blum feeling obligated to write about the changes.
“As a songwriter, I want to have something important to say. I don’t want to just sing about cool shit,” Blum explains, clarifying that this doesn’t mean he wants to take sides in the debate or hand out advice. “I don’t have answers to what rent should be for the world. That’s not my department. I’m just writing about what’s happening in my environment. Naturally, I feel resentful after seeing what’s been happening to my friends. I wanted to be able to give something to them. “

Amidst all of this unrest, Blum seems chill, relaxed, and in general, happy with San Francisco. He attributes keeping it cool to his newfound “acceptance phase”: It is what it is, a notion he repeats when passing a fleet of corporate buses or gross construction. He repeats that it’s no one’s fault — which I take to mean he’s not blaming the individual, expensive toast-consuming, one-bedroom-renting computer cats in our hood — and reminds me that punishing those who find success isn’t fair either. Unfortunately, their success still jeopardizes that of others, and alongside Dwyer and Ty, a host of Blum’s artist friends have flown the roost in search of decent rent.

Blum isn’t packing his bags for SoCal…yet.

“I’m gonna stay until it feels right to go. I still feel like I have stuff to do here.”

POW! album release party
With Warm White, Mane
7:30pm, $5
Makeout Room, 3225 22nd St, SF


Article overlooks key findings and new academic research


By Corey Cook

I am writing in regard to Reed Nelson’s story “’Poll’ showing 73 percent approval for Mayor Lee was flawed.” As one of the two authors of the survey, I am deeply disappointed in the many insinuations in the article and the author’s cavalier abandonment of evidence or reason in order to make his politically expedient, but otherwise inane, point.

In fact, the author is so quick to dismiss the findings of the study, which is based upon accepted methodology, and which had nothing to do with mayoral approval scores, that he actually misses the entire thrust of the study – that voters in San Francisco are deeply ambivalent about the current environment, concerned about the affordability crisis, and not trusting of local government to come up with a solution.

You’d think the Bay Guardian might find that an interesting subject. Under a previous editor I have little doubt it would have. Instead, the author mind numbingly asserts that the mayor’s approval rate – a largely irrelevant number – is clearly overinflated and the survey must then be “bogus” (meaning fake or phony). While other scholars might find the popular characterization of their work as “fake” somewhat amusing. I do not.

The author relies on two main sources to claim that an on-line panel survey is “bogus”, the New York Times “style guide” and the “website publication” of Southeast Missouri State University Political Scientist Russell D. Renka, who is neither a survey researcher nor a political methodologist, and who does not seem to have published anything in this field (or even in political science based on his on-line vita), but who does seem to have a fairly robust home page that includes cute photos of his grandkids.

It’s not the kind of “source” that I would utilize to deride another academic’s work as “bogus”, and I could suggest some other (actual) publications to consider, including Harvard political scientist Stephen Ansolabehere’s peer reviewed article in Political Analysis titled “Does Survey Mode Still Matter?” from 2011 that compares national surveys fielded at the same time over the Internet (using an opt-in Internet panel), by telephone with live interviews (using a national RDD sample of landlines and cell phones), and by mail (using a national sample of residential addresses).

The authors of that study conclude that “comparing the findings from the modes to each other and the validated benchmarks, we demonstrate that a carefully executed opt-in Internet panel produces estimates that are as accurate as a telephone survey and that the two modes differ little in their estimates of other political indicators and their correlates.” But unfortunately that peer reviewed publication by a Harvard political scientist seems to contradict the simple assertion that a survey result the author doesn’t like must be phony.

Let me say that I don’t considered this issue “settled” in the scholarly community, but it is far from the case that serious on-line panel surveys ought to be derided as “bogus.” My preference would be to do a 1,200 person phone survey. If the Bay Guardian would like to commission such a survey, I would enjoy working with you on that project. But given the various cost limitations that preclude such a robust research design, this is not an altogether bad alternative.

That said, feel free to poke at the methodology and suggest that the numbers for Lee might not reflect that of the overall population because of the timing of the survey or because it was only conducted in English (though I’d disagree with you there – that likely holds down his numbers), or frankly just that surveys do often get it wrong. Even the best random sample is outside the margin of error one time out of 20 according to basic probability theory.

But the other thing I’d like to draw your attention to is that you’ve missed the entire point of the survey. Why do you focus on mayoral approval when it’s a survey about attitudes towards affordability and tech? In fact the article notes that “(i)nterestingly, the USF “poll” also found that 86 percent of respondants (sic) said that lack of affordability was a major issue in the city, while 49.6 percent of that same group considered housing developers to be most at fault for the astronomical real estate prices.” So apparently that part of the survey wasn’t bogus.

Here were our four findings:

* San Franciscans are of two minds: a clear majority of respondents say the city is going in the right direction, yet affordability is seen as a significant, and newly exacerbated problem.

* Most respondents see the tech boom as most strongly helping tech executives and workers. Though there is little sense that respondents and their families benefit from the tech boom, a clear majority say that tech is also good for other white collar workers and the city overall.

* The public strongly supports the idea that the city government ought to enact policies to preserve affordability but were skeptical of public officials’ ability to deal with these issues.

* Despite these concerns, there was little interest in making it harder for tech companies to come to San Francisco. For now, keeping the economy strong appears to be the priority, and we expect that feelings about the economy will likely stave off a substantial political “backlash” at least at the present time.

While Ed Lee has high approval scores, they are tepid – much more “good” than “excellent”. And those numbers erode on affordability, what the voters regard as the city’s most important issue. And we found that people don’t articulate a high degree of trust in mayor in dealing with affordability. Yes, they trust him more than they do others (like developers, or the Board of Supervisors), but not much. This survey help me understand what happened on the 8 Washington vote. Voters like the mayor, as they do Newsom incidentally, but don’t buy their argument that the development would address housing affordability. His popularity didn’t have coattails on this issue.

It strikes me as a real missed opportunity for your journalists to trash the poll, based on really flimsy grounds, rather than address it’s important, and yes, ambivalent findings.



Corey Cook, Ph.D.

Rise of the machines


CAREERS AND ED As digital gizmos invade our pockets and our lives, the fear of machines replacing human work is as pervasive as ever. But of course that fear isn’t unique to the computer age.

As far back as the 1800s folk legend John Henry competed against a great railroad-building machine, hammering holes for railroad tracks in dirt and rock with the power of his arms.

In that tall tale of flesh versus steel, man won against automaton, and time marched on. The industrial revolution’s tech advances put farmers out of jobs, industrial robots put American factory workers out of jobs, calculators put abacuses out of jobs. So what’s new this time around?

Apparently, it’s a matter of speed.

MIT professors Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson, authors of Race Against The Machine: How the Digital Revolution is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity, and Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy (Digital Frontier Press) say our modern robots are becoming so advanced, so quickly, that we can’t retrain our workers fast enough to keep up.

“Now the pace is accelerating, it’s faster than ever before in history, as a consequence we’re not creating jobs at the pace we need to,” Brynjolfsson told 60 Minutes anchor Steve Kroft in a segment on robots in November.

The nation’s unemployment rate was 7 percent last November, the most recent number available from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s not counting the millions of underemployed people in the United States, working low or minimum wage jobs that don’t pay the bills.

Those workers are slowly being replaced by machines, from bank tellers (ATMs) to the Golden Gate Bridge toll takers (“pay-by-plate” systems). San Francisco weathered the job loss well, at least on paper. As Mayor Ed Lee is quick to tout, the city’s unemployment rate was at a low of 5.3 percent in September last year.

Maybe that’s because we’re in the eye of the storm. The Bay Area tech boom is a robotics boom too, and even small startups could innovate, upending entire industries.

San Francisco-based Momentum Machines calls its upcoming burger maker the “next generation” of fast food. They don’t mean Captain Picard serving up beef patties; they do mean burger disruption.

Momentum Machines’ burger machine can do everything a human can do, faster. It makes 360 hamburgers per hour, medium rare, or well done (if you please). It slices tomatoes, doles out pickles, and throws everything on a bun. The company promises this will “democratize” fast food — because everything in tech must be itemized, democratized, and then evangelized.

The company said this will, in the words of its website, “free up” all the hamburger line cooks in the restaurant.

Perhaps more telling is this section of its website, tucked well down at the bottom of its page.

“We want to help the people who may transition to a new job as a result of our technology the best way we know how — education. Our goal is to offer discounted technical training to any former line cook of a restaurant that uses our device,” they wrote.

Momentum Machines declined to be interviewed, citing a busy upcoming project. (Double-cheeseburgers?)

We also reached out to Super Duper Burger, and a spokesperson straight-out laughed at the idea of a robot burger cook. But that doesn’t mean economic forces won’t push the machines to eventually take over.

If thousands of fast food workers were replaced by machines, what would their next jobs be?

If the MIT professors are right, the robot revolution will not be stopped. Like the Terminators, they keep coming, and John Connor won’t save us. But maybe we can find peace and coexist.

That’s what they do at

Deep inside the Mission District brick fortress known as the Armory, over 35 robotic porn stars sit on shelves, waiting. They’re the talent of the website Fucking Machines, started by the Bay Area’s fine purveyors of pornographical pleasure,

John Henry has nothing on a fucking machine named Fuckzilla, a “Johnny 5” (from the movie Short Circuit) look-alike whose arms operate as high-power vibrators. While two women mount his appendages and scream for their lives, a webcam mounted in his face gives viewers an up-close view of the action.

The actresses who use them were not available for interview. But the filmmakers say they go gaga over it.

“The directors ask the girls ‘why do you like machines more?’ They always say it’s because (the machines) don’t get tired,” Sam, a videographer at told us.

The machines are powerful too. The Intruder MK II has a fucking speed up to 500 RPM and exerts a torque (twist strength) of 3 foot-pounds. “One of our highest counts was a woman who went through 58 orgasms in a four hour period,” videographer Aaron Farmer said.

I asked the pornographers if they lost any porn star employees since gaining the high-stamina bots. Turns out it was a noob question: most talent are freelancers and contractors in the industry, unless they run their own website.

So the machines aren’t displacing any jobs there. But they did create some.

“I was hired for Fucking Machines,” Aaron Farmer, the five-year videographer and sometimes director at told us. They even have a machine shop in the armory, which while used for other purposes, also helps maintain the nearly 40 Fucking Machines on site, and even builds new ones.

Somewhere along the way, outsmarted us all, riding the wave of tech disruption that one day may affect us all. Let’s hope we’re ready.


Why Muni won’t earn a dime off the tech buses


Every day mammoth private buses squeeze into San Francisco public bus stops, and every day they contribute to the delay of countless Muni buses. Riders walk around the Google, Apple and Genentech luxury rides and into the street to board their grimy, underfunded public transit system. 

Now finally, the mayor has announced the near-approaching implementation of a pilot program to permit and regulate the tech industry’s private coaches. If approved by a vote from the SFMTA Board of Directors on Jan. 21, the pilot will begin. The only catch is, though they’ll charge those companies for the cost of implementing the program, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency won’t make any money off of the tech shuttles.

The chronically underfunded Muni won’t get a lift from Google. Yesterday (Mon/6) we finally got an explanation as to why.

On the 8th floor of the SFMTA offices, the transit agency’s director Ed Reiskin told reporters that his hands were tied by California Proposition 218, which limits what new revenue municipalities can raise without voter approval.

“Only the voters of San Francisco can enact a tax that generates excess revenue,” he said. 

“This isn’t new,” Reiskin said, but he’s only half right. Though Prop. 218 was passed in 1996, this is the first time anyone at the MTA has touted it as a reason not to profit off of the tech shuttles.

We even asked Mayor Ed Lee this question just a month ago, and got a two-minute response that did not once include Prop. 218

Part of this might have to do with the nebulous quality of Prop. 218. An implementation guide from the California Budget Analyst office puts it this way: “Proposition 218’s requirements span a large spectrum, including local initiatives, water standby charges, legal standards of proof, election procedures, and the calculation and use of sewer assessment revenues. Although the measure is quite detailed in many respects, some important provisions are not completely clear.”

The waters of Proposition 218 are murky: is the government charging for the use of Muni stops a fee or a tax? In that grey area lies the answer on whether the city truly can’t charge tech buses to help fix Muni, or if this is just political cover for a government who doesn’t want to piss off tech.

Tellingly, that’s pretty much what Reiskin said.

“There’s a lot of benefit these services (buses) are bringing to San Francisco,” Reiskin told us after the press conference. “We wanted to resolve the conflicts without killing the benefit.”

“I imagine if we sat down with them and said ‘we wanna start taxing you guys’ they’d say ‘screw it, we don’t want to do the shuttles.’”

The 18-month pilot will recoup an estimated $1.5 million, the estimated cost of the project, according to the SFMTA. The project would give approval for use of 200 Muni stops by private shutle providers, out of 2,500 Muni stops in the system. We’ve reached out to California’s budget analyst office to dig into Proposition 218. 


Bus riding tech workers respond to national spotlight on evictions


Evictions are rippling through San Francisco. Tensions are high. Tech workers with gobs of cash are driving up the rental market in what may be the newest tech bubble — or the city’s new reality. Protesters took to the street earlier this week, blocking a Google bus to draw attention to gentrification, and our video of a union organizer posing as a Google employee shouting down those protesters lit up the Internet

In the wake of that national spotlight on San Francisco’s outrage, the Bay Guardian decided to talk to the bus-riding techies themselves and ask how they felt about the new tech revolution. Are they at fault for displacing long time San Franciscans? What did they make of Monday’s outrage?

We returned to the scene of the protest, 24th and Valencia streets, where workers from Yahoo, Genentech, Google, and others line up at Muni stops to be whisked away in mammoth private buses. Most had hands in their pockets, turning away when asked questions. Others decided to talk, but none would go on the record with their names.

“We’re very aware of the sentiment in the city against us,” one tech worker with grey hair and glasses told us. “But hopefully this (protest) leads to a positive conversation.”

He said that the envy was understandable. Public transit in the city “isn’t the best,” he said, but pointing to any one company to be at fault isn’t productive. 

“Our economy lacks upward mobility, and the haves and have-nots are divided all over the country,” he said, not just in San Francisco. 

But some of the techies themselves are “have nots,” as one tech worker, a middle-aged Java programmer sitting in Muddy Waters cafe, could attest to. As we watched the tech buses ride by, he told the Guardian he’s been out of work for a few months now. He used to work for a computer sketch software company called Balsamiq. 

He’s lived in the city for 22 years. When he first moved into town, he lucked into renting a room for $175 a month. Now his rent is much, much higher, though he wouldn’t say by how much.

This is not the viral video of the staged argument, but from the same day. A protester enters the Google bus, and a bus rider shouts her out.

“I’m sympathetic,” he said, of the discord on rising rents. “But getting rid of tech isn’t the solution.” He pointed to a need for more affordable housing.

A blonde haired Apple employee told us that although he makes more money than the average San Franciscan, he can’t afford to buy a home here. He’s lived in the city three years, and worked at Apple for four. He took a balanced view of the protest, saying the stunt started a national look at inequality.

“It’s keeping (the conversation) at the front and center. You could argue it’s not fair to target one company, but I see both sides,” he said. 

Tech should do its part to pay its fair share, the 19-year cafe owner of Muddy Waters said. Hisham Massarweh said he likes the tech folk, who are great for business. But the transit issue needs to be worked out, he said. He once got a $250 ticket for parking in the same bus stop outside his store that the tech buses park in every day — ticket and permit free. 

Across the street, Jordan Reznick, a PhD student and teacher at California College of the Arts, said she’s seen many of her friends displaced. “I feel a lot of animosity towards Google and Google workers,” she said, as we sat just behind a line of Google employees waiting for their bus.

“I live in a small place with a family of four,” she told us, as it’s the best she could find in this market.

As she ran off to catch her ride to work, the Guardian approached a man who sat waiting for the same Google bus that was protested earlier in the week. 

“San Francisco doesn’t have its shit together,” he said. The protest was about housing, but San Francisco needs to address that fast. And as for the Google buses, there’s no framework for Google to pay the city, yet. “If they could (pay) they would, going forward I’m sure they will.”

We asked him point blank if he felt guilty watching longtime San Franciscans lose their homes. 

He took a drag of his cigarette, looked me in the eye, and said, “Every day. I love San Francisco with all my heart, and I feel tremendously guilty. Every day.”

As the bus pulled up he hopped on and headed to Mountain View.

In the year of worms


TOFU AND WHISKEY That voice. Those eerie, singular vocals that are somehow both alien and intimately familiar. They sound like electric Tesla coils wrapped in whipped silk. San Francisco’s Hannah Lew is most often heard harmonizing by three with her striking post-punk trio Grass Widow. With newer project Cold Beat, it’s her vocals alone above the needling guitars and anxious synths of a different band.

Lew has been writing songs as Cold Beat for some time, in between Grass Widow releases and tours, but this week she releases her first EP under the moniker: Worms/Year 5772, with songs inspired by the trauma of Lew’s father passing away a few years back. While Cold Beat is mainly a Lew production, she enlisted many local rock ‘n’ roll luminaries to both play on the album and back her up at shows.

The record’s sound is rounded out by guitarist Kyle King, drummer Lillian Maring, and Shannon and the Clams’ Cody Blanchard on guitar and synths. The live band features King, the Mallard’s Greer Mcgettrick on guitar, and Erase Errata’s Bianca Sparta on drums. That live version will celebrate the release of the EP with a show at the Night Light in Oakland Tue/5.(Cold Beat also plays Great American Music Hall on Nov. 14.) But before that, Lew spoke with the Bay Guardian about the origins of Worms/Year 5772, her DIY record label and music video projects, and the songs she played at her wedding last week:

SF Bay Guardian What inspired you to write new music as Cold Beat, outside of Grass Widow?

Hannah Lew I always write songs and sometimes they just didn’t totally feel like Grass Widow songs. I just kept collecting them and not really knowing if I should release them. As the tunes started accumulating I decided I should get a band together and figure out a way to share the songs. When Kyle King and I started playing — his energy really enabled the songs to come to fruition.

SFBG Can you tell me a bit about the songwriting process with Worms/Year 5772 and how the themes of “death, Internet surveillance, paranoia and science fiction” translated into the music?

HL “Worms” was written as a response to my grief about my father’s death in 2009. I couldn’t help but imagine worms eating his corpse — which was a very visceral image I couldn’t get out of my head…I think the horror of this was something I couldn’t really share with anyone, and in taking time to write more songs on my own I started realizing that it was good for me to have an outlet for some other concepts that were a bit more personal.

I always turn to science fiction when I am trying to understand or relate my feelings. It gives me a change to explore depths of doom and hope that I can more easily imagine not on this earth. In writing all the lyrics alone for Cold Beat there is a little more of me just in my own head which can be great and sometimes paranoid or depressed. I get really bad insomnia and many Cold Beat songs were demoed at 5 or 6am.

Grass Widow lyrics are always more of a conversation where as Cold Beat lyrics are more like an interior dialogue. It’s kind of like describing a dream to someone.

SFBG Does “Year 5772” refer to the Jewish calendar? Why did you make this connection?

HL My late father was a rabbi and I was raised very religious. I was writing Year 5772 about a dystopian post-apocalyptic dream I had that seemed to take place in some distant future and I started thinking about how the Jewish calendar is already in Year 5772 — actually a couple years later now since the song was written a few years ago — and how our concept of the future is based in what point in time we imagine ourselves in — but the concept of linear time is very relative.

I guess being Jewish is kind of futuristic and ancient simultaneously. I like the idea of collapsing time and writing a song that takes place in a landscape outside of time. I also like thinking about existing in many times simultaneously.

SFBG Did you find the solo songwriting process freeing or more complicated without the group’s input?

HL Some of the Cold Beat songs were written during the time Grass Widow was writing our last record — Internal Logic. Somehow they just seemed more personal and better spoken from one voice instead of related by three people. I think the complicated part for me was deciphering which songs were Cold Beat songs and which ones to give to Grass Widow.

Grass Widow is a great space where the three of us would relate and abstract our feelings and dreams together. But there were some things I was going through that I couldn’t synthesize with anyone else and just had to express on my own. I like having conversations about concepts with bandmates, but I also like working alone.

Luckily I can do both! I think it is important to be able to do things on your own so you know who you are and have something to offer a collaborative project. Just like in love.

SFBG You got married last weekend — what key songs were on your playlist? Are you willing to give up any other details?

HL It’s all kind of a blur. but it was so much fun! Some friends of ours put together a wedding band with Kyle King as the band leader. My husband (whoa!) and I put together a set list for the band to play of all our favorite dancing songs. I think the party really went crazy during the Dick Dale version of “Hava Nagila” and we got lifted up in chairs and everything, but also [the Flamin’ Groovies song] “Shake Some Action” was pretty epic too.

My friend Henson Flye made giant clamshells and Raven Mahon made a moon photo backdrop. We had a choir of friends sing “I’ll Be Your Mirror” while I walked down the aisle. It was really beautiful and a beautiful way for all our friends to express their love and friendship and show us support and for us to throw a fun party for everyone. We’re lucky to have a lot of love. Still buzzing from it!

SFBG As with Grass Widow (HLR), you’re putting Cold Beat out on your own label, Crime On The Moon. Can you tell me about the label, and why you’re sticking with DIY?

HL I really enjoy doing everything myself. HLR has been a great experience and we really took the time to make critical decisions about how we wanted to do business. I figured I could easily do it myself with Crime On The Moon since I had the experience of putting out the last few Grass Widow releases. One drawback is that when you put music out on a label you have an instant fan, publicist, and advocate — so when you’re on your own you have to manufacture your own confidence for what you are doing. But having good bandmates and support from your friends goes a long way!

SFBG You also make music videos — will you make any for Cold Beat? Are you working on any others currently?

HL Mike Stoltz, who made the Grass Widow “11 of Diamonds” video and collaborated with me on “Give Me Shapes,” is in the process of editing a Cold Beat video for “Worms.” So that will be out in the next couple of weeks! I am always updating my site ( with new finished videos I make for other bands.

SFBG Anything else you want people to know about Cold Beat or about other upcoming projects?

HL Well I’m excited for our EP to be released November 5. We’ll have copies at our record release show at the Night Light in Oakland with Screature and Pure Bliss. Then we’ll be touring the West Coast to follow that.

I’m also releasing a seven-inch [that] Raven and I recorded with Jon Shade on drums under the name Bridge Collapse. We recorded with Kelley Stoltz and I’m looking forward to releasing those songs along with a compilation of SF bands writing songs as a response to the tech boom. So a lot of exciting Crime On The Moon projects ahead!


Tue/5, 9pm, $6

Night Light

311 Broadway, Oakl.