Creative protesters attend Apple’s World Wide Developer’s Conference

A long line formed outside Moscone West on the morning of June 6 as attendees of Apple’s World Wide Developer’s Conference prepared to be wowed by an unveiling of the company’s latest technology. A giant Apple logo was projected on the building above the scene as the crowd inched toward the entrance of the convention center, many clutching coffee cups and gazing at iPhones or iPads as they waited.

Suddenly, the conference-goers had something more entertaining to look at than the latest Tweet or email message. Five slender performance artists clad in head-to-toe spandex bodysuits wove through the techie crowd and waltzed right into the convention center, where they lined up and began a series of movements.

“Power rangers,” a bemused bystander quipped. Camera phones came out, and people laughed as they looked on, mildly surprised by the spectacle.

A couple nervous-looking security guards appeared several feet away from the spandex-clad team when they lined up inside the main foyer, but the two didn’t clash, since the performers turned and slow-walked in robotic movements back toward the door once they were asked to take it out to the sidewalk.

Video by Rebecca Bowe

Turns out, it was a form of creative protest. The colorful crew was there to bring in a message in the form of QR codes clipped to their outfits. They encouraged the iPhone-wielding passersby to scan them.

Scanning the QR code brought one to this link, a YouTube video titled, “Apple: Tax Cheating Doesn’t Sync With My Values.”

The five protesters were there with US Uncut, a grassroots organization founded several months ago for the purpose of “pressuring corporate tax cheats to pay their fair share,” according to a press release. Joanne Gifford, a spokesperson, told the Guardian that the protesters were there to bring the message that Apple was not being a good corporate citizen. “It’s very disturbing that they are doing everything they can not to give back to the system,” Gifford said.

As the Guardian previously reported, Apple is lobbying Congress for a tax holiday along with a host of other major companies and business groups under the “Win America Campaign.” According to a recent article in the Washington Post, “The idea is to encourage U.S.-based corporations to bring back, or ‘repatriate,’ up to $1 trillion now stashed in overseas tax havens by sharply reducing standard corporate income tax rates on that money from 35 percent to perhaps 5 percent.”

Yet critics argue that such a dramatic reduction in the corporate income tax would amount to a giveaway to some of the nation’s wealthiest companies — and reward tax-dodgers besides — at a time of devastating budget cuts and high unemployment. “US Uncut is demanding that Apple stop supporting the ‘Win America Campaign,’ … If Congress gives the corporations in the WAC tax coalition this loophole, it would cost American taxpayers over $80 billion,” US Uncut’s press release noted.

“Hey, Apple, if you’re going to lead the tax dodger’s lobby, then expect us to show up on your corporate storefront,” said US Uncut spokesperson Carol Gibson, “We all pay our fair share of taxes, and Apple should too.”

Protesters target Apple as a tax cheat


By Oona Robertson

Tomorrow (Sat/4), the economic justice organization US Uncut is protesting Apple Computers for trying to avoid paying $4 billion in federal taxes and for joining a corporate tax cheat lobbying group. Ironically, it is Apple’s good corporate reputation that has made it a target, as protesters hope the attention might shame the company into doing the right thing.

Apple has kept billions of dollars in profits in offshore tax havens and low-tax countries such as Ireland and the Netherlands. Through an organization called WIN America that Apple belongs to along with Google, Microsoft, and other large corporations, it is lobbying Congress for a tax holiday to bring $1.2 trillion in profits back to the U.S. to supposedly invest in the economy. Apple’s share of this tax break, $4 billion, would equal salaries for 90,000 teachers.

US Uncut is aware that the technology giant is an unlikely target for protest, due to its popularity and positive public image. Protesters are hoping that because Apple seems to care about its image in the eyes of consumers, it is more likely to respond to a protest.

“Most of the other companies aren’t really gonna give a damn if we go after them. They’re not concerned for their reputation. [With Apple] there’s a little more leverage,” US Uncut spokesperson Joanne Gifford told us. Apple did not return requests for comment.

Protesters hope to creatively drive their message home using flash mobs to get people’s attention. They are demanding Apple, “Leave the Tax Cheat Lobbying Group and Stop Lobbing Congress for More Tax Loopholes,” according to its website.

This Saturday’s action coincides with similar protests in 15 other U.S. cities, all organized by US Uncut as part of what it calls a national day of action. In San Francisco, protesters are meeting at Union Square to “discuss action ideas,” before heading over to the Apple flagship store on Market Street. Chanting, handing out leaflets and holding signs will be recommended, boasting slogans such as “Love the iPhone, hate the tax cheat,” and, “It only takes one bad apple.”

US Uncut’s website lists creative action ideas for protesters to employ, such as impersonating Apple employees by wearing turquoise blue shirts and nametags, or approaching the Genius Bar to ask questions such as, “Why can’t I sync my iPhone with my values?”

Teachers are being told to bring their pink slips and ask the “geniuses” how to save their jobs. The protesters’ last major flash mob, a music and dance number targeting Bank of America, made headlines and the hope is to replicate that level of publicity this Saturday.

Masturbation inspiration at The Magazine


Your wrist is tired, the lube is running low and you’ve exhausted all your favorite porn; it’s been a wonderfully fulfilling four weeks but the last weekend of Masturbation Month has come (pun intended) and it’s time to refresh your stash of erotic stimuli. Whether you’re lusting for vintage pin-ups or need pure smut to finish off, The Magazine‘s overflowing shelves are sure to satisfy.

Taking over an entire house at 920 Larkin Street, The Magazine’s ridiculously abundant collection of printed publications neatly encapsulates all spaces from the basement to a stunning third floor. This gigantic library of periodicals includes items both dirty and ‘clean’, some dating back as far as the 1860s and others fresh off the press. Trent Dunphy and Bob Mainardi opened up the literary collector’s wet dream in 1973 with the primary intention to be a porn trading post; bring in old porn and swap it for something fresh. The shop has inhabited their current Tenderloin location for 17 years and the owners also recently celebrated their 40th anniversary as a couple. 

A curious gander at The Magazine always ends well– it’s legitimate to say that this place can fancy a wide variety of tastes. From leg fetishes and bondage photo collections, to old school Playboys and ’50s gay romance novels, this place is serious about stocking variety. In the beginning Mainardi and Dunphy would troll garage sales and fleas for naughty gems, but at this point they’ve got such a large back stash that they can solely rely on people that bring in items to trade or sell. 


The rise in web-based porn has stolen a lot of the shop’s business but thankfully their DVD section has constantly been a hit. Even though the printed word may be struggling in our society, Mainardi doesn’t seem worried about the shop’s future. 

“As long as we’re around, there will be people who want to buy old fashioned, printed smut,” he says, sitting alongside towers of boxes, each filled with printed gems. As suspected, Mainardi gets a lot of super-fun, special requests. Just a couple he rambled off: hairy girls, girls with guns, fat girls, various ethnicities, and body modification. Only rarely can their vast collection not accommodate. 

“When we first opened, there was a man looking for photographs of women who changed their hair color. He wanted to see a woman go from blonde to brunette, or something. I couldn’t help him. I didn’t know where to start. And that really set the tone from there on out. The requests just keep coming,” he smiles. 


Mainardi sees lots of trends come, go and come again. In the beginning he says it was pretty “vanilla”, followed by an Asian fad, an explosion of fetish and gear seekers. Right now transgender materials are the hot item and there’s a slow growing marketing for British skinheads. The rise of burlesque has brought back an interest in “cheesecake” magazines, artsy ’50s porn, splashed with partially-nude ladies lounging provocatively. 

“They’re so dated,” he says holding up, “Copper Cuties”, a super PG tease that would look like a text book alongside a current Cosmo cover. “There’s a charm there that straight, hardcore porn of today just doesn’t have.”



While younger generations may not be collectors, Mainardi has been quite pleased to see an influx in younger customers. A lot of art students come by to scope out the 35 cent specials, browse the bargain bin and look for inspiration. Technology has wiped out an entire generation’s exposure to porn in paper form and watching the enthusiasm of young people “discovering” for the first time has been satisfying for Mainardi and Dunphy. 

“We both just really love what we do. We’ve always collected hopelessly,” he says in between the full tour, from the basement stacked with back issues to the top floors full of photographs and a large paperback collection. Rooms are dominated by gigantic bookcases. The stairs cluttered with additional boxes. Walls filled with posters, paintings, drawings and advertisements. There is no space left uncovered. “We’re image junkies.”


Dick Meister: A Memorial Day Massacre



It’s a dramatic, shocking and violent film. Some 200 uniformed policemen armed with billy clubs, revolvers and tear gas angrily charge an unarmed crowd of several hundred striking steelworkers and their wives and children who are desperately running away. The police club those they can reach, shoving them to the ground and ignoring their pleas as they batter them with further blows. They stand above the fallen to fire at the backs of those who’ve outraced them.

Police drag the injured along the ground and into patrol wagons, where they are jammed in with dozens of others who were also arrested. Four are already dead from police bullets, six others are to die shortly. Eighty are wounded, two-dozen others so badly beaten that they, too, must be hospitalized.

The close-ups are particularly brutal. As one newspaper reviewer noted, “In several instances from two to four policemen are seen beating one man. One strikes him horizontally across the face, using his club as he would a baseball bat. Another crashes it down on top of his head and still another is whipping him across the back.”

The film ends with a sweaty, fatigued policeman looking into the camera, grinning, and motioning as if dusting off his hands.

The film was made in 1937. It was not, however, one of those popular cops and robbers features of the thirties. It was not fictional. It was an on-the-scene report of what historians call “The Memorial Day Massacre,” a newsreel segment filmed by Paramount Pictures as it was happening on the south side of Chicago on May 30, 1937.

We’re accustomed these days to the use of videotaped evidence to show wrongdoing by abusive law enforcement officers. Video technology was unknown in 1937, of course, and though film was available, it had rarely – if ever – been used for that purpose. The 1937 film, in fact, was initially kept from the general public by Paramount’s executives. Fearful of “inciting riots,” they refused to include it in any of their newsreels that were shown regularly in movie theaters nationwide.

But the film was shown to a closed session of a Senate investigating committee chaired by Robert LaFollette Jr. of Wisconsin. The committee, concerned primarily with civil liberties, was outraged – particularly since the Chicago police had acted in violation of the two-year-old federal law that guaranteed workers the right to strike and engage in other peaceful union activities.

The committee found that strikers and their families, while noisily demanding collective bargaining rights as they massed in front of the South Chicago plant operated by Republic Steel, had indeed been generally peaceful.

But that was beside the point to the police in Chicago and other cities with plants operated by Republic and two other members of the “Little Steel” alliance that also were struck.  For, as the committee concluded, the police had been “loosed … to shoot down citizens on the streets and highways” at the companies’ behest. The companies even supplied them with weapons and ammunition from their own stockpiles.

The committee said the companies had spent more than $40,000 on machine guns, rifles, shotguns, revolvers, tear gas canisters and launchers and 10,000 rounds of ammunition to use against strikers. Republic alone had more supplies than any law enforcement agency in the entire country.

The companies were prepared to go to any extreme to remain non-union. Two closed their plants temporarily, anticipating that most of the 85,000 strikers would soon be forced to return to work because they had little – if any – savings. But though Republic Steel closed most of its plants, it continued to operate the Chicago plant and a few others.

Republic fired union members at the plants that remained open and, with police help, cleared out union sympathizers and brought in strikebreakers to replace them. The strikebreakers, guarded by police day and night, ate and slept in the plants to avoid confronting the pickets outside.

Municipal police, company police and National Guardsmen harassed and often arrested pickets for doing little more than lawfully picketing. Six strikers were killed outside Republic’s Ohio plants in Cleveland, Youngstown, Canton and Massillon.

The killings and other violence, the steadily increasing financial pressures on strikers, unceasing anti-union propaganda – all that and more combined to end the strike in mid-July, two months after it had begun.

But the steelworkers didn’t give up.  Determined to not have made such great sacrifices in vain, they turned to the labor-friendly administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt for help. They got it in 1941, when heavy pressures from the administration finally forced the steel companies to recognize their employees’ legal right to unionization and the many benefits, financial and otherwise, that it brought them and the many other industrial union members who followed their lead.

Dick Meister, former labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV Newsroom, has covered labor and politics for more than a half-century. Contact him through his website,, which includes more than 300 of his columns.


Facing the right way


It has been roughly two decades since the arrival of 3-D graphics changed video games forever. Visual fidelity and realism have increased geometrically. But though the ability of designers to render convincing buildings and 800-ton interstellar battlecruisers is at a zenith, one aspect of their games falls consistently behind: the people.

Sure, glistening muscles have long been perfected, and the hair looks better every year. Stare into the lifeless, glassy eyes of a cartoonishly-breasted video game sexpot, however, and there’s no mistaking where you are: the uncanny valley, a metaphorical location coined to describe the sudden onset of revulsion we experience when exposed to simulated humans that approach but do not attain realism (think Tom Hanks in 2004’s The Polar Express).

L.A. Noire, at long last, has built a giant suspension bridge over the gap. Team Bondi, the game’s Australian developers, relied on a new technology called MotionScan, which entails filming actors in a special room using 32 synchronized high-definition cameras that shoot from every angle, but focus on the head. The data from the cameras is then combined to create a stunningly accurate 3-D model of an actor’s face, right down to the laugh lines and the slicked-back, 1940s hairstyle. The model is then grafted onto a body rendered using conventional motion capture, resulting in the most believable human beings ever seen in a video game.

This technological innovation was crucial to L.A. Noire‘s design. As a police procedural, the game makes interrogating suspects the player’s most important challenge. Team Bondi turned to MotionScan in order to create a game that allows sharp-eyed, controller-clutching gumshoes to scrutinize the faces of potential perps, hoping to spot the telltale hard swallows, sidelong glances, and spastic blinking of a liar.

The success of MotionScan reaches far beyond the interrogation sequences, however, or even the game itself. There are important scientific findings suggesting that the interpretation of facial expressions is crucial to the way we experience empathy and understand emotions. The introduction of believable human faces into video games will have a seismic effect on the medium, revolutionizing the creation and efficacy of story and character.

L.A. Noire, like any good detective, provides elegant proof. It may be a game about arresting criminals and identifying their lies, but it is also a game whose strength lies in its tragedy. Lives are ruined, children are orphaned, and a generation of soldiers struggles to cope with the horrors it experienced on the killing fields of World War II. Though they all refuse to talk about it, you can see it in their faces. 


Pulp gaming


For all the serious discussion sparked by the Grand Theft Auto series, Rockstar Games’ blockbuster is not the most serious bunch of games. Notoriously pop-culture obsessed, the company’s otherwise earnest game stories are peppered with movie references, goofy caricatures, and dick jokes. The separation between atmosphere and content became most difficult to overlook when the series joined the current console generation with Grand Theft Auto IV. The tale of an East-European immigrant’s moral struggle to survive in America, Grand Theft Auto IV toned down its signature over-the-top gameplay in a bid for game art, but Rockstar couldn’t resist undermining its characters’ newfound complexities with immature humor.

With LA Noire, Rockstar delivers a truly grown-up game. Constructed under Rockstar’s wing, LA Noire is the first game from development house Team Bondi, an Australian company started by Brendan McNamara of gritty English mob game The Getaway. In Team Bondi, Rockstar has found the perfect studio to indulge its aesthetic while reigning in its more puerile impulses. Taking cues from Raymond Chandler, James Cain, and LA Confidential, LA Noire stars conflicted war hero Cole Phelps, who joins the LAPD as a patrolman and quickly rises through the ranks by solving murders and other crimes in an authentic-looking 1940s Los Angeles. Tempting as it must have been to lampoon the genre, there is nary a Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982) reference to be found.

Gameplay follows a simple pattern over the course of its 20ish hours: investigate a crime scene, follow leads and track down suspects, interrogate and arrest. Rockstar has long led gaming’s evolution into “cinematic experiences,” and LA Noire is a stunning example of blockbuster presentation. It has created a studied facsimile of L.A.’s exalted era, developed a new motion-capture technology that allows realistic representation of faces (see sidebar), and devoted hours of game time to cinema-quality cut-scenes.

Taking further steps to ensure that its cinematic style remains front and center, Team Bondi built in options to remove investigation aids, allowed players to completely skip action and driving sequences, and — for real noir aficionados — added the option to play the whole game in black and white. Selecting these choices points players toward the story and, in turn, reveals which elements were likely neglected during the development process. In this case, the shootouts and the driving.

It might sound like a deal-breaker, but it’s not. Flaws in the conventional gameplay of combat and vehicles are most pronounced in the early-going, where cases are shorter and less memorable; without the context of an engaging mystery, the clunky mechanics are emphasized. Driving is stiff and offers little excitement beyond passing the time between investigations. Shoot-outs and fistfights often are over in less than a minute — not nearly enough time to get the blood pumping. But once you’ve passed the first couple of desks and hit homicide — where the cases are based loosely on real-life murders of the period and play off one another in interesting ways — it becomes clear that gunplay and fisticuffs aren’t LA Noire‘s intended focus but were simply concessions to tradition and buyer expectation.

Setting expectations aside, imagining LA Noire as the triumphant return to point-and-click adventure games becomes easy. Investigations task you with wandering around and clicking on things until you click the right thing that lets you move on. Hey, that sounds like Monkey Island! Conversations with suspects are like tiptoeing through a minefield. Action sequences are filled with second chances; playing human lie detector is a merciless activity, and failing severely weakens your case. These sequences are the real stars of the game.

LA Noire is unlikely to disappoint, unless you were expecting something that the game never was. There’s a sandbox, but it isn’t really a sandbox game; nor is it a variable detective simulation. LA Noire has a stand-alone story and is a guided experience. Many of the cases are worthy of novel-length expansion, which is about the highest compliment a game like this can get. More than anything, Rockstar and Team Bondi have created an impressive and consummate example of gaming’s recent cinematic obsession. Today’s games continue to be about making decisions and working toward goals, and about strategy and winning. But more and more, games have begun to reflect our lives, cultures, and histories. If that doesn’t make them art, I don’t know what can.


LA Noire

(Team Bondi/Rockstar Games), Xbox 360, PS3


The secret life of Michael Peevey


Inside a legislative hearing room at the state capitol, things were beginning to get uncomfortable. Roughly five weeks had passed since a Pacific Gas & Electric Co. pipeline explosion killed eight and leveled an entire San Bruno neighborhood, and this California Senate committee hearing was an early attempt to get answers.

San Bruno residents who lost loved ones in the deadly explosion huddled in the front row, their eyes fixed on company representatives and agency bureaucrats as they spoke. At the back of the room, a band of immaculately dressed PG&E executives and utility lawyers sat clustered together.

Richard Clark, director of the consumer protection and safety division of the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), fielded questions from visibly frustrated state legislators. Sen. Dean Florez (D-Shafter) wanted know why the CPUC hadn’t done anything when PG&E ignored an impaired section of the ruptured pipeline even after it was granted $5 million to fix it.

“Did the PUC do any accounting when you gave them $5 million?” Florez demanded. “Do we just give them money and cross our fingers and hope they fix it? Is that what we do? Until some terrible tragedy occurs?”

Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) said the CPUC needed to step it up and start practicing serious hands-on oversight. He recalled a tragedy that occurred in 2008 when a gas leak in Rancho Cordova triggered a pipeline explosion, killing one person and injuring several others. Although an investigation determined that PG&E was at fault, the CPUC hadn’t yet gotten around to fining the company.

“We’ve got a pattern here,” Leno said. “And we’re not doing anything differently.”

Less than three weeks after CPUC staff members were grilled in Sacramento, Michael Peevey — president of the CPUC and the top energy official in the state — boarded an airplane for Madrid. He was embarking on a 12-day travel-study excursion, with stops in Sevilla and Barcelona, sponsored by the California Foundation on the Environment and the Economy (CFEE).

Peevey’s wife, California Sen. Carol Liu (D-Glendale), was along for the trip. So were two other state senators, several members of the state Assembly, CPUC commissioner Nancy Ryan, and a host of representatives from the energy industry. The group included executives from Chevron, Mirant (now GenOn, the owner of the Potrero power plant), Covanta Energy Corporation, Shell Energy North America, and engineering giant AECOM. High-ranking executives of the state’s investor-owned utilities also participated, including Fong Wan, the senior vice president of energy procurement for PG&E.

Although strict rules normally govern commissioners’ interactions with parties that have a financial stake in the outcomes of commission rulings, there wasn’t anything especially unusual about Peevey traveling internationally with a group that included representatives from the same companies his regulatory commission oversees. CFEE trips happen every year. The nonprofit has footed the bill to fly groups of regulators, legislators, and utility executives to prime vacation destinations like Italy, Brazil, and South Africa in recent years, excursions organizers say are critical for educating top-level stakeholders about worldwide best practices for sustainable systems. However, groups such as The Utility Reform Network (TURN) have decried CFEE trips as “lobbying junkets.”

As PG&E and the CPUC both work to win back the public’s confidence after their latest deadly failure, it’s worth analyzing whether their relationship — shaped by vacations together at exotic locales — has grown too cozy.



CFEE isn’t the only nonprofit that regularly flies Peevey overseas for green travel tours with high-ranking utility executives, and the 12 days he spent in Spain wasn’t the only time he spent away from official duties and in the company of the corporations his commission regulates.

These controversial getaways are just a small part of Peevey’s involvement with private-sector interests. He also chairs the board of a nonprofit investment fund created as part of a $30 million settlement agreement with PG&E. Called the California Clean Energy Fund, it funnels money into private venture-capital funds that invest in green start-ups, plus a few companies in the fossil-fuel sector.

While legislators have voiced frustration that lax CPUC oversight of PG&E on pipeline-safety issues opened the door to disaster in San Bruno, inside observers are critical of the outright favors Peevey has granted utilities, such as guaranteeing an unprecedented, higher-than-ever profit margin for PG&E as part of the company’s 2004 bankruptcy settlement.

The CPUC is set up to perform as a watchdog agency, yet social and professional ties running deep within California’s insular energy community mean regulators sometimes run in the same circles as the executives who answer to them, making for cozier relationships than the general public might anticipate. It’s an old-fashioned insider game that one longtime observer wryly characterizes as “the buddy system.” But the buddy system can bring consequences.

As the public face of the CPUC, Peevey repeatedly has been thrust into the spotlight. He has absorbed advocates’ concerns about pipeline safety, rising electricity rates, SmartMeters, missed targets for energy efficiency, and municipalities’ David-vs.-Goliath battles with PG&E to implement community choice aggregation (CCA), to name a few. He’s a magnet for public scrutiny while occupying the center seat at commission meetings, but Peevey’s behind-the-scenes engagements with private-sector organizations bent on shaping statewide energy policy demonstrate how power is wielded in California’s energy world, a system in which regulators seem to be partnering with utilities rather than policing them.

Based at Pier 35 in San Francisco, CFEE’s board of directors is composed of a small group of officers, plus a long list of members who hail from some of the most prominent businesses nationwide. Shell, Chevron, J.P. Morgan, Goldman Sachs, AT&T, and PG&E all hold positions on CFEE’s membership board, and each entity chips in to fund the foundation’s activities and travel excursions.

The group also includes representatives from labor organizations like the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and mainstream environmental groups such as the Natural Resources Defense Council. Among the emeritus members of CFEE’s governing board are some high-ranking figures, such as CIA director-turned-Pentagon boss Leon Panetta. CFEE received $45,000 in donations from PG&E in 2009 (the most recent year available) and was granted similar amounts in prior years.

CFEE spokesperson P.J. Johnston, the son of former state senator and CFEE officer Patrick Johnston and the press secretary under former Mayor Willie Brown, described the trips as valuable opportunities for top-level stakeholders to gain insight on best practices and engage in noncombative dialogue on key issues.

“The idea for us was that it made sense to have someplace where it was nonconfrontational to engage in policy, work-type discussions,” Johnston explained. He added that the trips are “all about policy, on the 30,000-foot level,” and emphasized that discussions aren’t about specific decisions pending before the CPUC.

Loretta Lynch, a former president of the CPUC who brought a reformist spirit to the agency and was never shy about rebuking utilities, is skeptical of CFEE’s stated program goals. When she was first appointed to the commission, Lynch said, CFEE contacted her to ask where she wanted to travel. If the trips are arranged to fly regulators to destinations they’ve been itching to visit, she reasoned, must-see green innovations probably aren’t dictating the itineraries. “To me,” Lynch said, “they don’t have anything to study in mind.”



The CFEE trip to Spain included a briefing on developing wind energy from AES, a company working on wind and solar development in California that also operates polluting, gas-fired power plants in Huntington Beach, Long Beach, and Redondo Beach. There was a round table on solar energy featuring a presentation from the Independent Energy Producers Association, a trade group that regularly files petitions and comments on CPUC proceedings. The trip included a tour of a desalination plant, a talk from the president of the Madrid Chamber of Commerce, and discussions about California’s energy market. Scheduled activities ended by midafternoon on some days, and the itinerary left a Friday afternoon, Saturday, and Sunday in Sevilla wide open.

Asked to comment on concerns about inappropriate lobbying, Johnston said: “We’re not guarding against anyone’s potential behavior any more than we would be on the streets of Sacramento. We’re not setting ourselves up as the guardians. We’re not facilitating that, per se, either.” He added, “I realize there are critics of any kind of travel and any kind of commingling. But it is wise for us not to close our eyes to the rest of the world, and there’s not a great appetite for spending taxpayer money on these trips.”

Yet Lynch countered that there is an important distinction between the roles of Sacramento legislators and that of utility commissioners. “Regulators are not legislators,” Lynch said. “They’re more like judges. Their decisions have the power of a judge’s decision.” By inviting commissioners along on these lavish getaways, she said, “it’s as if you’re partying with the judge.”

Mindy Spatt, a spokesperson for TURN, echoed Lynch’s concerns. “These ostensibly educational trips are essentially lobbying junkets, where utilities … wine and dine legislators,” Spatt said. TURN raised the issue several years ago, she said, when Peevey joined a CFEE trip attended by a representative of Southern California Edison “just coincidentally at the exact same time that he was penning an alternate decision in Edison’s rate case.” She added: “In TURN’s perspective, the commissioners need to be more in touch with what actual utility customers are experiencing, rather than in touch with the top restaurants in Brazil.”

While Peevey is only one of a host of officials who attend CFEE trips, he has more than just a casual tie to the nonprofit. From 1973 to 1983, he served as president of the California Coalition for Environment and Economic Balance (CCEEB), an organization CFEE grew out of and whose membership shares some overlap with CFEE.

Based in San Francisco, CCEEB was founded by Edmund G. “Pat” Brown (Gov. Jerry Brown’s father) in 1973. CCEEB backed a late-1970s proposal to construct a series of nuclear power plants along the California coastline. More recently, the group honored BP with a 2009 award for environmental education — shortly before the company and lax federal regulators were responsible for the worst oil spill in U.S. history.



Spain wasn’t the only country Peevey jetted off to with complimentary airfare in 2010. According to a Form 700 filing with the Fair Political Practices Commission, he also traveled to Germany from Aug. 1–5 for a sustainable energy study tour organized by the Energy Coalition. Joining that trip were representatives from investor-owned utilities PG&E, Southern California Edison, and Sempra, plus various city officials and energy experts from the Swedish Energy Agency.

The group stayed at the Radisson Blu Berlin Hotel, which is famous for its AquaDom. “Standing at 25 meters high, it is the world’s largest cylindrical aquarium containing 1 million liters of saltwater,” according to the hotel website. All Radisson Blu Berlin guests have free access to “the hotel’s well-being area,” called Splash, which features a pool, sauna, steam bath, and fitness room.

Based in Irvine, the Energy Coalition’s Board of Directors is chaired by Warren Mitchell, a retired chair of the Southern California Gas Co. and San Diego Gas & Electric Co.. Another director is a utility lawyer who also sits on the board of directors of the Northeast Gas Association, a consortium of natural gas companies in the northeastern U.S.

Founded in the late 1970s by John Phillips to get large businesses to reduce energy consumption in partnership with utilities, the Energy Coalition has arranged excursions for years to bring energy regulators, city officials, and utility executives to Sweden (where Phillips’ wife was born) to exchange ideas on energy issues. The nonprofit organizes an annual summit called the Aspen Accord, “an energy policy forum where cities, utilities, regulators, and end-users collaborate to identify problems and propose solutions to our most pressing energy issues,” according to a 2009 tax filing. While it used to be held in Aspen, Colo., the most recent Aspen Accord was held at San Francisco’s Westin St. Francis. Peevey gave introductory remarks, and the conference featured talks from PG&E, among others.

Craig Perkins, executive director, told the Guardian that the Aspen Accord and study trips are designed to create a venue for major stakeholders to arrive at outside-the-box solutions. “What we try to do is get everybody out of their comfort zone, if you will — that’s the best way to support more creative thinking,” he said. Official regulatory proceedings are “so rigidly legalistic and bureaucratic that it almost prevents any creative thought from happening,” he added. “We’re not in San Francisco, we’re not in Sacramento, we’re not in corporate offices — let’s just talk about these really big issues, and really big challenges.”

The Germany tour included meetings with the Berlin Energy Agency, talks about climate policy, and a tour of an eco-community in Freiburg. Perkins said utility companies must to pay their own way on the trips, but costs are covered for governmental officials.

An Energy Coalition tax filing reveals that board members receive a monthly retainer of $1,000, quarterly meeting fees of $1,000, plus $500 for each board committee meeting. Teleconferences also result in $500 meeting fees.

Several years ago, the Energy Coalition partnered with PG&E to create the Business Energy Coalition, which paid businesses including Bank of America and the Westin St. Francis $50 per KW of energy savings for banding together to reduce energy during peak load hours. According to a tax filing, total annual Energy Coalition revenue dropped from $10.7 million in 2008 to $3.75 million in 2009 “due to large revenue receipts for participant incentives” for the Business Energy Coalition program, as “revenues were used for direct pass-through payments to program participants and contractors.” In 2006, according to a CPUC filing, PG&E paid the Energy Coalition $227,373 for unspecified consulting services.

In addition to the $8,880 trip to Spain (comped), and the $6,583 trip to Germany last year (comped), Peevey’s 2010 disclosure form shows that he also went to Australia May 14-19 to participate in a conference hosted by the Sydney-based Total Environment Center called “Smart Metering to Empower the Smart Grid” ($12,577, comped). And while it doesn’t show up on his FPPC filing, an agenda for CFEE’s Energy Roundtable Summit from Dec. 9-10 at the Carneros Inn in Napa lists Peevey as a participant. A glance through past filings suggests that 2010 was no anomaly; it’s a typical year in the life of a jet-setting utilities regulator.



Peevey once served as president of the Southern California Edison, an investor-owned utility, and was president of NewEnergy, Inc., an electricity company that later was sold to Williams Energy. Yet his professional image is that of a forward-thinker on climate change. According to a bio on the CPUC website, he’s received awards for achievements on green and sustainable energy from various organizations throughout California.

In 2005, speaking in Berkeley at an annual conference for the California Climate Action Registry, Peevey touted a list of his accomplishments on sustainable energy. My final example of PUC actions on climate change is related to PG&Es bankruptcy, he said. When they emerged from bankruptcy last year, one of many conditions of our support for their reorganization plan was that they create a $30 million Clean Energy Fund, devoted to investing in California businesses developing and producing clean technologies.

What Peevey didnt mention is that he chairs the board of directors of that fund. As a nonprofit venture capital fund, the obscure, San Francisco-based CalCEF sounds like an oxymoron. Based on the terms of the PG&E bankruptcy settlement, its governed by a nine-member board consisting of three CPUC appointees, three PG&E appointees, and the rest selected jointly by the CPUC and PG&E appointees. Other board members include past PG&E executives, a former member of the California Energy Commission, and a former chair of the board of governors of the California Independent System Operator (Cal-ISO), the body that ensures statewide grid reliability and blocked the closure of the Mirant Potrero Power Plant for years.

The nonprofit’s stated mission is to catalyze clean energy investment to aid in the state’s transition away from fossil fuels. CalCEF president Dan Adler described it as a sort of seasoned guide for fledgling green companies that might otherwise fail to navigate the murky, complicated clean-energy sector. CalCEF is in a position to usher start-ups toward success with a combination of funding, networking, and insider wisdom on state energy policy.

Among the challenges that the clean-energy sector faces, Adler said, are the utilities themselves. “They are effectively monopoly, or oligopoly, controllers of the energy industry,” he said. “And they don’t like outside innovation coming and disrupting their work process or their relationship with their customers.”

CalCEF aims to guide the finance community “to be partners with what public policy is doing around clean tech and clean energy,” Adler went on. “There’s a tremendous amount of money to be made, but there’s also a lot of opportunity for money to be wasted. If you don’t have a private-sector investment community that understands these rules and can put their money alongside these rules in a collaborative framework, we’re very unlikely to achieve the really aggressive energy targets that California has set.”

Yet as one skeptical energy insider noted, “there are 15 to 20 other funds, with 10 times as much money, an hour south in the same field,” referring to the burgeoning clean-tech hub in Silicon Valley. It’s questionable whether the CPUC is actually fulfilling some dire need with CalCEF, this person said.

Lynch, not surprisingly, takes a dim view of CalCEF. The former CPUC president questions what business the CPUC has creating a private foundation to guide venture capital investment. “It is a fundamental distortion of the PUC’s authority,” she charged, “all in service of Peevey’s ambitions.”

Peevey’s economic disclosure showed that he holds more than $1 million in a private family trust, without disclosing whether private investments contributed to that fund.

Adler stressed that there is arms-length relationship between CalCEF board members and the companies that benefit from the fund’s investments. “Because we are a nonprofit, and because we have on our board members of the regulatory community, we recognized quickly that we can’t be making direct investments into companies,” said Adler, a former CPUC staff member who was highly regarded even by the critics of CalCEF. “So … we’ve picked the venture-capital funds that we wanted to partner with.”

CalCEF funnels its capital into three different for-profit investment firms, which in turn select the companies that will be included in CalCEF’s investment portfolio. Several directors of the partnering investment firms also sit on the boards of directors of the companies they invest in. The startups run the gamut, from carbon-offset outfits, to energy-efficient lighting manufacturers to solar and wind companies, to biofuels startups to various kinds of technology firms related to the smart grid.

But CalCEF has also poured money into companies that bolster the fossil-fuel industry. One of its first investments was CoalTek, a company developing technology for so-called “clean coal.” Asked to explain why, Adler told the Guardian, “We don’t have veto power on every deal that goes down.”

Adler said he personally believes that “there’s no such thing as clean coal,” but tempered this by adding, “there are some very smart people in our community who will tell you that there’s no future … without coal.”

Another CalCEF investment, DynaPump, is developing technology to make it more energy efficient to pump oil and gas. Asked about this decision, Adler responded: “I will say that when we were approached with this investment by the venture partner that ultimately undertook it, we had our misgivings. If you can save energy in the production of oil and gas, then you’re definitely making a contribution to overall energy efficiency.”



There appear to be some closer-than-arms-length links between CalCEF board members and the investment fund’s beneficiaries. A bio for CalCEF director Nancy Pfund, for example, notes that in her capacity as manager of an outside investment fund, she had “worked closely” with Tesla Motors, a CalCEF investment. Tesla provided CalCEF’s first investment return earlier this year after Tesla went public. A principal of one of the investment firms that works with CalCEF, Stephen Jurvetson of Draper Fisher Jurvetson, holds Tesla shares in a personal trust, according to a filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

Tesla manufactures sleek, electric, zero-emission sports cars with prices in the six-figures, and it’s gearing up to roll out a model that will cost somewhere closer to $50,000. The company’s success was helped by a sales-and-use-tax exclusion granted by the state of California last year. Peevey had a hand in that, too. Few Californians may have heard of the California Alternative Energy and Advanced Transportation Financing Authority (CAEATFA), a state body within the Office of the Treasurer, which has the power to authorize sales-tax exclusions for companies that are developing alternative energy technologies. Peevey has a seat on it.

In October 2009, according to a CAEATFA document, Tesla was granted a sales tax exclusion from that financing authority. The sports car manufacturer had received a tax break of $3.3 million as of December 2010, and stands to gain a tax break as large as $29.1 million, depending on its property purchases. As a CAEATFA member, Peevey approved the deal by proxy.

A central question is whether the CalCEF dollars that benefited Tesla and other CalCEF portfolio investments were originally derived from PG&E shareholder profits or ratepayer funds. Adler was careful to note that the initial $30 million came from company shareholders, not PG&E customers. But Lynch pointed out that every dime in PG&E coffers originates with the millions of customers who pay utility bills.

Lynch noted another provision of the bankruptcy settlement agreement, which guarantees PG&E a minimum annual profit of 11.2 percent, catapulting it forever into a higher rate of return than the 8 percent to 11 percent profit traditionally granted by the CPUC in prior decades. “They’re manipulating how big this bucket is to siphon off funds into programs like CalCEF,” Lynch said. “It’s all to give Peevey and his friends access — and to greenwash what was a very stinky deal for the ratepayer.”



In California, a national leader in addressing climate change, the stakes are high in the energy sector. The CPUC is tasked not only with shoring up transmission-pipeline safety to prevent another San Bruno disaster, but helping to chart a course away from reliance on fossil fuel-powered energy sources.

CFEE, the Energy Coalition, and CalCEF share a common thread — their missions relate to advancing the cause of a clean energy future in California. And while utility funding and partnership is evident in all three operations, the overarching goal is understood to be green.

But as Adler observed, the utilities themselves present one of the greatest obstacles to progress on a clean-energy transition. While California has increased renewable energy sources, it’s done a poor job at supplanting fossil fuel generation with green alternatives, in part because the CPUC has allowed for increasing fossil fuel power generation even as renewable energy expands. According to a listing on the California Energy Commission website, nine natural gas power plants have won approval statewide and are moving toward construction, while six new ones are under review.

The CalCEF approach to addressing climate change, rather than aggressively targeting polluting industries, is to encourage the fledgling green industry in hopes of facilitating success in partnership with the financial sector. In many cases, the backers of the clean-tech companies are the same players behind the big energy giants.

Environmental advocates are critical. “If anyone thinks the CPUC is set up to serve public interests, forget that,” says Al Weinrub, executive director of the Local Clean Energy Alliance, a group that organized against PG&E’s ill-fated Proposition 16 last year. “They never have and they never will.”

Weinrub said he viewed proponents of green energy as falling into two camps: Moneyed interests motivated by a growing new market sector, and activists motivated by environmental and social justice causes. Major green investment firms “want to de-carbonize capitalism,” he observed. “But everything else stays the same.”

Peevey is considered a major driver behind the state’s climate change legislation, and he’s highly regarded for his dedication to green energy. Yet as long as the interlocking dynamic between energy regulators and California’s largest utilities goes unchallenged, change will only come in a way that’s as comfortable, profitable, and manageable for the state’s top polluters as they wish. And in a state with an aging energy infrastructure that’s vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, that pace isn’t nearly quick enough. 













































































Coal company gets punked by the Yes Men

The Yes Men, that prankster-activist group that has ruined many a corporate exective’s day, have struck again. This time their target is the notorious Peabody coal company, which operates environmentally devastating mountaintop removal mining sites in West Virginia and has strip mining operations in Arizona.

It may take a minute to realize that Coal Cares is a fake. Designed to look like a website for a Peabody-funded nonprofit, the faux charity offers free “Puff-Puff” designer inhalers for kids living within 200 miles of a coal plant. The site features a “Kidz Koal Korner” (an interesting spelling choice that could be meant as a subtle reminder of the environmental racism issues associated with coal-fired power plants), and a selection of inhalers with themes ranging from “Miley Cyrus” to “The Bieber” to “Punk / Emo.”

The humor is dark. For example, a kids’ game page features a maze with a drawing of the character “Jimmy” at the beginning and an inhaler at the end. It’s titled, “Help! Jimmy is having trouble breathing. Help him find his inhaler, quick!”

A section called “‘Clean’ Energy” features some over-the-top misinformation about wind power: “Wind technology is another ‘alternative’ wild card. Every single year, gargantuan wind turbines kill literally thousands of birds—especially when the turbines are located in the middle of migration paths. Exploding bats are also a growing problem, as vibrations from turbines causes the rodents’ lungs to burst apart in mid-flight.”

But a press release on the Yes Men’s website reveals that the issues that inspired this hoax are no laughing matter. Peabody was targeted for lobbying against new pollution standards for power plants that have been proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency — rules that the agency has calculated could prevent 120,000 cases of childhood asthma per year in the United States.

The press release noted that the action was dreamed up by a small environmental and public health group called Coal is Killing Kids (CKK), which aims to challenge coal industry lobbying against rules that would strengthen the Clean Air Act. “We don’t have their millions, but we do have a knack for incredibly tasteless jokes,” said Veronica Tomlinson, a pediatrician and member of CKK.

“Sure, it’s kind of tasteless to say that ‘Bieber’ inhalers are a solution to childhood asthma,” said Janet Bellamy, a spokesperson for CKK. “But it’s a great deal more tasteless to cause that asthma in the first place, as coal-fired power plants have been proven to do.” Added CKK spokseperson Justin V. Bond: “It’s even more tasteless to disproportionately kill poor people.”

Hot sexy events: May 11-17


On the website for Kink Studios –‘s foray into the world of arthouse porn cinema – one scrolls down a quote from, of all people, that strapping hunk of man meat Roger Ebert. It’s about The Last Tango in Paris

The movie frightened off imitators, and instead of being the first of many X-rated films dealing honestly with sexuality, it became almost the last. Hollywood made a quick U-turn into movies about teenagers, technology, action heroes and special effects. And with the exception of a few isolated films like The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988) and In the Realm of the Senses (1976), the serious use of graphic sexuality all but disappeared from the screen.

But being the innovators, perverts, and getting-things-done Type A’s that they are, the minds behind decided to do something about this dearth of sexy, smart art. To wit, they made a film, Indietro, that combines all the flogging and excited screams that you’ve come to expect from the website’s more conventional BDSM flicks, with haunting piano trills and – gasp! – character development. They stocked the film with acting turns by Madison Young, Aurora Snow, and William Van Toland, and is written and directed by Vivian Darkbloom. 

It’s playing at Mission Control (via Femina Potens‘ programming) on Thurs/12, along with a Q&A with cast and crew. See it to believe it – and bring Mr. Ebert, won’t you?


Virgie Tovar presents “Burlesque Basics for the Shy and Awkward”

Amazing alert: the fantabulously fat burlesque star Dulce de Lecherous (Miss Tovar if you’re nasty) is doing this course on Burly Q gratis for the wonky and discombobulated set. I bet you never thought you’d be able to shimmy in stilettos, or twirl tassels with tact – but this here Virgie is ready to ease all comers – boys, girls, bois, “girls” – into stageside sexiness. Or, at least get you on the right path. We’re only talking about an hour-long class here, people. 

Thurs/12 6:30-7:30 p.m., free

Good Vibrations

1620 Polk, SF

(415) 345-0500

First Full of Kink: Indietro

Watch Kink Studios’ first foray into art porn, ask all your perverted wonderings of its cast and crew, then enjoy black and white porn and live burlesque performances. Afterwards, you can stay for the play party – if you’re a member of Femina Potens. Keep it classy, art freaks. 

Thurs/12 8 p.m.-1 a.m., $15

Mission Control

“Saburau: The Warrior’s Path of Service”

A educational run-down of positive power exchange practices in the Japanese samauri tradition. Sure, it’s not your run-of-the-mill Exiles class (they tend to focus on more explicitly S&M teachings), but that’s why this course sounds so cool. Ground your play time in a background of service-oriented community. 

Fri/13 8-10 p.m., $4 members/$10 non-members

The Women’s Building

3543 18th St., SF

Dungeon monitor training

This training is not about loving control – or maybe it is, but don’t walk into it whip in hand. Being a dungeon monitor is a big deal, a crucial role in the pursuit of a healthy S&M scene. This orientation is open to everyone, and features interactive scenes showing problematic dungeon happenings in which you’re asked to practice your better judgement to mediate. Not into becoming a monitor, per se? You’re still welcome to learn and hone your skills as a member of a smart and safe community. 

Sat/14 4:30-7:30 p.m., $5-10 suggested donation

SF Citadel

1277 Mission, SF

(415) 626-2746 

Naked Girls Reading: Burlesque legends

SF’s regularily-occurring lit night is famous for letting it all hang out. Really — the women on stage are naked as jaybirds. And though once again local luminaries like Lili St. Cyr, Lady Monster, and Cherry Galette will be orating from honored texts, this time around at least part of the show will be occuring offstage. Burlesque legends from Holiday O’Hara to Satan’s Angel will be in attendance – and you can sit next to one of the lovelies, if you’re down to shell out another five bucks. Deal! 

Sun/15 8:30-10 p.m., $15-20

Center for Sex and Culture

1349 Mission, SF

(415) 552-7399



The underground


Compilations often serve two purposes, sometimes at the same time: they can be brief introductions or exhaustive overviews. The San Francisco label Dark Entries just released BART: Bay Area Retrograde, a collection of local, underground music from the early ’80s, which feels like a bit of both. Representing local bands — from Danville to Palo Alto, Berkeley, and SF — that gravitated toward an alienated, synth-driven sound, it’s a meticulously curated snapshot that feels complete in itself, but is also a primer for the minimal synth revival. With many songs verging on 30 years old, label owner and DJ Josh Cheon and co-curator Phil Maier have compiled tracks that were un- or little- known in their own time but now sound very much of the moment.

There are many names for the variety of styles represented across BART‘s 11 songs — synthpop, post-punk, and cold, minimal, or new wave are only the most common. But nearly half of the songs are complete obscurities — four are previously unreleased and two appeared only in small, self-released editions — and the compilation as a whole is difficult to pin down. These are artifacts from a lost era, our local contribution to an international group of artists who created music that was bound to be marginal, faced with intense rock chauvinism and Reagan-era optimism.

BART kicks off with three songs (Nominal State’s “Middle Class,” Batang Frisco’s “Power,” and Necropolis of Love’s “Talk”) that sound like a blueprint for the current renaissance of icy analog futurism by groups like Xeno and Oaklander, Staccato du Mal, and The Soft Moon. But curveballs like Wasp Women’s No-Wave-y “Kill Me” and The Units’ peppy ode “Mission” alleviate the future-shock claustrophobia and put the compilation in a category of its own — it’s as much a love letter to the Bay Area’s taste for the goofy and willfully weird as an archival release.

There’s a sense of playfulness that’s immediately apparent in the presentation. Eloise Leigh’s eye-popping jacket design is satisfyingly heavy on pink, blue, and yellow, and comes as a six-panel fold-out poster rather than a standard cardboard pocket, suggesting it would prefer wall space rather than a slot on the shelf. Comprising liner notes from the Guardian’s Johnny Ray Huston and band data on one side and Dr. Art Nuko’s painting Getting Bombed in San Francisco on the other, BART the consumer object feels like something that belongs nowhere so much as Valencia Street’s overflowing vintage zine store, Goteblüd. And while the music contained on the vinyl within can be dark and brooding like “Talk,” or abrasive and fractured like Standard of Living’s “N.F.A.,” the most memorable songs, to me, are the frothy ones: Danny Boy and the Serious Party Gods’ parody-of-a-parody “Castro Boy,” and the above-mentioned “Mission.” The former riffs on Zappa’s “Valley Girl,” but ups the raunch with ad-libs about fisting, while “Mission” builds up to its irrepressible chorus with verses celebrating the unassailable pleasures of being high and eating burritos. Even if you aren’t already a minimal synth nerd, BART is a fun album.

With its variety of styles and lyrical themes, BART holds together not only because there’s a high baseline of quality, but also because of the built-in context. In addition to the design, a lot of work clearly went into finding and collaborating with these long-defunct bands, from securing unheard demos to listing the synth models used for each track. It’s a meticulously assembled record, a guided experience that points out what is so unsatisfying about downloading some lost classic from a sharity blog and deleting it, unlistened to, months later. Its local focus also sets it apart from the compilations that helped define minimal wave, although it contributes to that canon as well.

As the underbelly of an underground dominated in the retelling by figures like Chrome, Flipper, and The Residents, BART‘s new audience lives in a skewed world, where technology provides us with nearly endless opportunities to connect, where analog synths are revered for their warmth and character, and where the Mission is gentrified. Yet faced with an excess of information every time we make a decision, the rough edges of this serious, cynical music offer opportunities to disconnect from the endless demands of the present. The past will always have the advantage of seeming coherent, but BART‘s biggest success is in the way it captures the innovative, corrosive energy of its time. * *


The fun side of bikes


Paul Freedman, a.k.a. the Fossil Fool, is a singer-songwriter and builder of elaborate art bikes who lives in San Francisco’s Mission District. Since 2001, when he decided to apply his Harvard University education to building custom bikes, accessories, pedal-powered products, and mobile sound systems, Freedman created Fossil Fool and Rock the Bike to sell his creations and provide a platform for his performances and alternative transportation advocacy work.

But anyone who’s watched Freedman build and ride his creations — such as his latest, El Arbol, a 14-foot fiberglass tree built around a double-decker tall bike with elaborate generator, sound, and lighting systems and innovative landing gears — knows this is a serious labor of love by an individual at the forefront of Bay Area bike culture. We caught up with him recently to discuss his work and vision.

SFBG How did Rock the Bike start?

FOSSIL FUEL I was working at a shop in Berkeley and I decided to make my first bike music system, which I called Soul Cycles. So I had that other job at a bicycle nonprofit, which is cool, and that was the first impetus. I did two innovative things with my first bike music system: I put the controls on the handlebars, which I’d never seen anyone do, and I put speaker back-lighting to make the speakers look nice at night. I used a really nice CFL fluorescent lamp, and I started playing around with those and it looked great, so that was our first product for those first three or four years.

SFBG What was going on in the larger culture at the time that led you to believe your interest in bikes and technology was going to be fruitful or make an interesting statement?

FF I care deeply about biking and a lot of the people I was with did too, but I felt like the bicycle advocacy scene was not very effective when it came to actual outreach. I felt like the thing that had been really formative for me was this person-to-person interaction, in my case by hanging out with the guys who started Xtracycle, and going on quests to get ingredients for dinner and riding late at night with the music systems on the tour. I felt like those experiences were what made bicycling appealing, but the bike advocacy scene was using guilt trips and telling people you should ride a bike because you’re too fat and you should ride a bike because there’s too much traffic. And I felt like we needed to shift that mindset and really start focusing on the fun aspects of biking and the social aspects to grow the scene.

SFBG Do you feel like it has, and what effect do you think it had on those who weren’t already riding bikes?

FF I think it’s moving that direction. Even within traditional bike advocacy groups, those people are starting to really focus on their events and creating community, in a good way, and challenging themselves with doing so. And I think that’s really positive.

SFBG Your timing also dovetailed with heightened green awareness — with a push for renewable energy, concerns over peak oil, and things like that.

FF Yeah, I feel that transportation choices are the main thing people need to examine about their lives with respect to their impact on global warming. And that’s not just a feeling, that’s the consensus of the Union of Concerned Scientists. They say that if you want to have an impact on the planet, positive or negative, the first thing you should consider is your transportation habits. So that means flying, it means driving, and everything else. I don’t think it’s really beneficial to focus on what people need to do with a car, like they need to drop their kids off. It’s more important how people do the optional things with cars like the trips to Tahoe, and the flights to Mexico. It’s those optional things I want to focus on, which is why I’m so interested in Sunday Streets, which is like the antidote. It’s this thing you can do here, that you can walk and bike to, that’s as fun as driving to Tahoe.

SFBG Through your technology and design work, it also seems like you’re showing a broad range of what people can do on a bike, with lots of cargo or a whole performance stage setup. Do you think design is convincing people that bikes are more versatile that they thought they were?

FF Oh yeah, I think that would be a really beneficial outcome of this work. By riding through town with our music gear, of course people are going to look at that and think, oh yeah, I could probably go to Rainbow Grocery and buy a bunch of food for my household on a bike. So it would be a great outcome if people would make that connection.

SFBG Is there anything about San Francisco that makes people here more receptive to your message?

FF San Francisco is a very tight city geographically. It’s not like Phoenix. The blocks are pretty short here and the distances are pretty short here, and you can ride year-round here, which is not true in Boston where I grew up.

SFBG The focus on technology and design here also probably helps, right?

FF Oh, for sure. This is an awesome place to be prototyping and doing funky mechanical, electrical art. There’s a lot of support for it. There are places like Tap Plastics for learning about fiberglass. There are lots of electronics stores that serve the Silicon Valley tech developer communities. You can buy stuff there that’s helpful. You can learn about Arduino [an open source microprocessor] at Noisebridge. There are a lot of resources for doing interactive art here or for doing bicycle-related projects. There are a lot of welders here.

SFBG Where do you think we are on the arch with this stuff — the beginning, the middle? — in terms of gaining wider acceptance of biking as an imperative and an option for anyone?

FF I think there’s an important generational shift underway, and I don’t know whether it’s my focus on bikes that leads me to meet all these kinds of people, but it feels like I’m meeting more people these days that are going to pick their next city or their next neighborhood based on how it is to bike there. They’re bringing it up in conversation, it’s not me. So it seems like people are really considering what their daily life is going to be like and how the community feels, and biking is one of the symbols of a whole swath of other beneficial things. They know that if they see a bunch of bikes when they visit a place, then there’s probably a lot of other cool stuff like music, arts, farmers markets. Those kinds of things are sort of linked together, and the bike is the key indicator. So there’s been this generational change of thought. The idea that having a bigger, faster car is better, I just don’t think that’s popular with these people. They no longer believe it.

SFBG It’s having cooler bike.

FF It’s having cooler bike and being able to use it and not have to step into the stress of car culture if you can avoid it.

SFBG What’s your next step?

FF One of the really positive things for me has been the Rock the Bike community, with its roadies, performers, musicians — all types of people who are on our e-mail list. So I can just say, I need three roadies for a three-hour performance slot and there’s going to be a jam at the end, so bring your instruments. That’s an awesome thing and it’s just going to improve, so I think the community will grow as we continue do gigs where we have fun and the people have fun.

In terms of my own art, this tree [gesturing to his El Arbol bike] has been my focus for the last year or two, and it’s not done yet. It has to look undeniably like a tree. It looks like a tree, but with a light green bark that you really don’t see in nature, so that has to change. I want it to have brown bark, but I still want it to do beautiful things at night with translucency. And I want it to have a true canopy of leaves, so that when you’re far away from it at Sunday Streets and you’re wondering whether to go over there, you’ll see a tree. Not just a representation of a tree, but I want them to be like, how the hell did he ride a tree over here?

SFBG Why a tree?

FF I don’t know. You get these ideas, and you start drawing them and can’t shake them. There are all sorts of reasons why trees are interesting. They are gathering points.

SFBG And you’re doing some very innovative design work on this bike, such as the landing gear.  

FF The roots. Yeah, that’s never been done before. Through the course of doing the project, people would send me tips and interesting things, and one guy sent me a link to a photo of tall bikes being used in Chicago in the early 1900s as gas lamp lighting tools, and they were very tall. I’d say 10 to 12 feet tall, and they were tandems, so there was a guy on top and a stoker on the bottom providing extra power, and they didn’t have landing gears. So they would ride from one lamp to another and hold the lamp as they refilled it. And I just love that story because if you were growing up in Chicago, and you saw these gas lamp people coming by in the early evening to turn the lights on, and if you were a little kid trying to fall asleep or whatever, that would have an indelible mark on your childhood, and that whimsical quality is what I’m going for. That should be part of what it’s like to grow up in the Mission District in 2011.

SFBG How does that fit into the other cultural stuff that you’re also bringing to the bike movement, the music you’re writing, design work, the style, and the events that you’re creating?

FF Sometimes I wish it wasn’t so multipronged. I would clearly be a better performer and musician if it was the only thing I did, so I apologize to all my fans for not putting 100 percent into the music. But I put 100 percent into the whole thing, including creating bikes and running Rock the Bike, which is a business.

SFBG But are you doing all these things because you find a synergy among them?

FF It’s the fullest expression of who I am.

SFBG Where do you see this headed? What will Rock the Bike be like five years from now?

FF I would like to see the quality of our entertainment offerings steadily improve to the point where people genuinely look forward to it, and not just to the gee-whiz aspect of look what they’re doing, but just for the feeling of being there. So I’d like to challenge ourselves with the quality of the music, how it is to be engaged in the setup process — because I think the setup is cool, with biking to the event and engaging in the transition to a spectacle, where every step along the way is part of the show. I like that idea. I’d like to challenge ourselves to be a carbon-free Cirque du Soleil, a show that is slamming entertainment and they bike there and pedal-power everything: the lighting, the sound, the transportation. And I want the performers to be just as good.

SFBG Are there people in other cities doing similar things?

FF The Bicycle Music Festival is spreading to other cities, which is cool. I think there are going to be over a dozen bicycle music festivals this summer. In terms of people doing really inspiring work with bike culture or this kind of mobile art, you definitely see some amazing things at Burning Man. That’s probably one of the best venues for this type of art. But I can’t think of another city where people are doing all of this. I’m part of a group on Flickr called Bicycle and Skater Sound Systems, and there’s nothing on that whole group that I see as being on this level. I don’t know why.

SFBG When you ride a cool custom bike down the street, the reactions it elicits from passersby is just so strong and happy. What is that about?

FF It’s a reaction to an expression of personal freedom. People light up when they see you expressing yourself, and a part of them thinks, oh yeah, that would be fun, I’d like to express myself. And there are just so many ways to express yourself and be human — and that’s something that we need to remind ourselves because, in many ways, our personal freedoms are declining and there’s more surveillance.

SFBG And people might take that spark and do any number of things with it.

FF One of the very cool things about bicycle art is that it’s mobile. So you ride your bike and you might turn heads a couple dozen times a day. I ride this tree, and if it’s in the full mode where it’s 14-feet tall and there’s music on, and I’m going from here to Golden Gate Park, I’d estimate that 500 people see it. There’s probably no other art form you can do that with. I can’t think of any other that’s like that. So it’s a really cool art form. Those people aren’t paying you, but you shared art with them, and it’s a good way to get exposure. It’s a great way for a lot of people to see your art.

SFBG With your mobile, pedal-powered stages, you’re also demonstrating green ways of powering even stationary art.

FF It is an interesting time for pedal power. I feel like there’s a turning point that’s maybe beginning in the field of events with how they’re powered. I think there are going to be a lot more people who are going to festivals in the coming years who are looking at the diesel generators and saying, ‘My summertime festival experience is being powered by diesel.’ And I think there are going to be a lot of people seeing that and wanting to do something else.

SFBG Have the technologies for how much juice you’re able to get out of pedal power been advancing since you’ve been working on it?

FF Yes, it’s truly impressive right now, particularly if you’re putting that juice into music because we have very efficient generators where there’s no friction interface anymore, nothing rolling on the tire, it’s all just ball bearings rolling on the hub. Then we put that power into these new modified amps, and they have a DC power supply now, as opposed to an AC power supply, so we don’t have to put the power into an inverter. So the net sum of that is one person can pedal-power dance music for 200 people, which is pretty amazing and inspiring.

SFBG And the battery technology is also improving, right?

FF Yeah, the batteries are what you use for the mobile rides, and that’s getting better. If you’ve been to a bike party, it’s just incredible how many good, loud sound systems there are right now. It’s a very kinetic art form, although I wish people would focus more on the visual aspects of their system, because I feel like there’s a trend to get big and loud fast. But I wish there were more people doing the work that Jay Brummel is doing, where he doesn’t just want to ride on a bicycle, so he turned his bike into a deer and he steers by holding the antlers.

SFBG But there has been some push-back from the police. Have you gotten many tickets?

FF Well, I got tickets for riding up high on this quadracycle. There is a law against riding tall bikes in California. It says you shouldn’t ride a bicycle in such as manner as to not be able to stop safely and put your foot down. Obviously you can’t put your foot down on a tall bike.

SFBG The fact that you have landing gears on your bike didn’t make a difference?

FF Well the officer didn’t take it seriously, but the court sided in my favor. The judge was flipping through photos of the landing gear the entire trial — he couldn’t stop flipping through them. And he asked, ‘How do you get on? Where do you step?’ So I was like, ‘Well, you step here, you step there, and you swing.’ It was pretty fun. 


Saturday, June 18

11 a.m.–10 p.m., free

Various locations, SF


Boxed out


The Board of Supervisors is gearing up to revisit whether telecommunications giant AT&T should be permitted to install 726 new metal boxes on city sidewalks for a communications network upgrade, without completing an environmental impact review.

At an April 26 meeting, the board spent several tedious hours listening to concerns such as whether the boxes would attract graffiti or clutter the sidewalks, and debated the finer points of whether the project could legally be considered exempt, ultimately resolving to take up the issue again May 24.

Meanwhile, a small cadre of tech-savvy San Franciscans has seized on this debate as an opportunity to drum up enthusiasm for an alternate vision of a citywide communications future, one with faster connection speeds that wouldn’t necessarily be controlled by the AT&T and Comcast duopoly.

At the meeting, AT&T California President Ken McNeely, dressed in a sharp suit, trumpeted the company’s proposed upgrade, part of a new system called U-verse. “This is the largest single upgrade to the San Francisco local phone network in more than a century,” he said. “Our network will provide the next-generation IP technologies that San Francisco needs to provide if it wants to continue to attract the best and brightest in the region.”

Yet Rudy Rucker, bearded and clad in a camouflage T-shirt, sounded a different note. “The U.S. is No. 30 in the world in Internet speed,” he said. “The boxes are not the way to go. What we need to do is rework the entire infrastructure of how we do communications in the city. We’re relying on copper lines. We need to pull all those out, recycle the copper, and put in fiber-optic cable.” Rucker is a cofounder of MonkeyBrains, an independent Internet service provider (ISP) based in San Francisco.

AT&T’s U-verse upgrade would enable it to offer connection speeds three times faster than current service — but not nearly as fast as what fiber proponents envision. Several members of the tech industry interviewed by the Guardian cautioned that another AT&T upgrade might be necessary after less than a decade to keep pace with technological advancement. At that point, it’s anyone’s guess whether those boxes would continue to be useful. AT&T did not respond to a query from the Guardian.


When it comes to Internet speeds, the United States trails Asia and some European countries. “We’ve fallen from first place,” said Ashwin Navin, who founded several tech startups including a file-sharing company called BitTorrent. “It’s really put our software and technology industry at a disadvantage.”

According to a website that compares connection speeds using data compilation, California ranks 23rd in the nation, while San Francisco doesn’t even clear the top 30 cities nationwide, Navin noted.

Yet much faster connection speeds are possible — even commonplace — in countries such as Japan and Singapore. “Right now, the average download speed in San Francisco is something around eight megabits,” explained Dana Sniezko, who’s emerged as a tech activist since creating a website called SF Fiber, which calls for a neutral, open, affordable community fiber network. “What U-verse is going to offer is about three times that. Something like fiber can offer service that’s 1,000 megabits [called a gigabit], or even much larger than that. Fiber allows you to really have a huge capacity for the future.”

Put in practical terms, Sniezko said, the difference between a connection speed of eight megabits and a gigabit amounts to downloading a full-length feature film in 90 minutes, versus several seconds. And since fiber also can deliver faster upload speeds, it opens the door to new possibilities. “It lets individuals potentially come up with really innovative and creative ideas,” Sniezko said. “If you wanted to have your own streaming TV channel from your house, you could. Or anything, really.”

Fiber already exists under San Francisco city streets — but most places lack the direct connections to homes or businesses, so the capacity is not realized. The city’s Department of Technology and Information Services (DTIS) convened a study in 2007 for developing the infrastructure to create a full-fiber network, deeming fiber “the holy grail of communications networking: unlimited capacity, long life, and global reach.”

Since then, progress has been slow. AT&T’s new system would also be based on fiber, but information would still travel to homes or offices over copper phone lines, resulting in slower speeds than a direct connection could supply.

On a recent afternoon, MonkeyBrains cofounder Alex Menendez scrambled up a ladder leading from his small Potrero Hill office space to show off some rooftop antennas and laser devices. There was a clear view from the flat, sunny roof to the office building the laser was pointed at, many blocks away. Secured to a hand-built metal stand, the gadgets were part of the company’s high-speed Internet network, which counts KQED among its roughly 1,000 subscribers.

Menendez was explaining how his small company is able to use these microwave devices in combination with fiber-optic cables to provide high-speed Internet by leapfrogging from node to node throughout San Francisco.

Menendez said he didn’t feel strongly one way or another about AT&T’s metal boxes. “But it raises a more interesting issue: what’s the 50-year-down-the-line solution? There’s much better technology out there. It could be super-affordable, with a wide-open, massive amount of bandwidth.”

But, he added, it won’t happen without the support of local government.


The City and County of San Francisco owns an underground fiber-optic network spanning more than 110 miles, used mostly for municipal and emergency purposes. AT&T has its own fiber — and with a history going back more than a century in San Francisco, it also has a lock on the market.

AT&T owns underground cables, copper phone lines, and rights-of-way, making it necessary for small market players to interface with the corporation and pay fees. This makes it difficult for local ISPs to compete on any meaningful scale. “They have the right to trench the street,” Menendez explained. “We don’t.”

Mendendez and others are looking at micro-trenching as a possible way around this. Last summer, Google hosted an event at its Mountain View headquarters called the Micro-trenching Olympics (“A very Google-y thing to do,” according to a company representative speaking in a YouTube video) to find out which contractor could best slice a one-inch wide, nine-inch deep trench in a parking lot and install fiber-optic cable inside. The idea behind micro-trenching is that it’s fast and minimally disruptive — and best of all, it doesn’t interfere with existing infrastructure, so there’s no need to pay a fee to AT&T, or any other company.

Some in the tech community are hoping it will signify a new and efficient way to link fiber-optic cable directly to homes and businesses, ultimately resulting in the kind of Internet speed that would let you download a movie in less than ten seconds. With micro-trenching, there would be no need for utility boxes.

Navin, Mendendez, and several others have talked up the idea of micro-trenching a small area in the Mission District to bring fiber-optic, high-speed Internet to an entire neighborhood. Yet their early conversations with the city’s Department of Public Works suggest that it may be a slow process. “They were like, ‘What is this?'” Menendez recounted. “There’s no established permitting process.”

Meanwhile, Board of Supervisors President David Chiu recently asked DTIS to examine the possibility of leasing excess capacity on city-owned dark-fiber infrastructure, which is currently in place but not being used. This could boost bandwidth for entities such as nonprofits, health care facilities, biotech companies, digital media companies, or universities, Chiu said, while bolstering city coffers. “There are many places in town that need a lot more bandwidth, and this is an easy way to provide it,” he said.

Sniezko noted that other cities have created open-access networks to deploy fiber. “This is really effective because it’s a lot like a public utility,” she explained. “The city or someone fills a pipe, and then anyone who wants to run information or service on that pipe can do so. They pay a leasing fee. This has worked in many places in Europe, and they actually do it in Utah. In many cases, it’s really cool — because it’s publicly owned and it’s neutral. There’s no prioritizing traffic for one thing over another, or limitation on who’s allowed to offer service on the network. It … creates some good public infrastructure, and also allows for competition, and it sort of revives the local ISP. Chiu’s proposal is a little bit in that vein, it sounds like. But he hasn’t released a lot of details on it yet, so we’re still looking.”

Visit for more info


TED taps Flux to talk about building community through art


In the wake of its artistic and community-building success building the Temple of Flux at Burning Man last year, which I profiled in “Burners in Flux” following a five-month immersion journalism project, the nonprofit Flux Foundation has been selected as finalists to address TED2012: Full Spectrum. TED, which stands for Technology, Entertainment and Design, has become the country’s premier cutting edge speakers forum.

Principal artists Rebecca Anders, Jessica Hobbs, Catie Magee, and Peter Kimelman will travel to New York City to do a live presentation with three other Flux crew members to the TED selection panel on May 24. The opportunity was opened up by a great video the team produced, which accentuated the transcendent nature of this collaborative art project, closing with the line, “We built community through art and we’d like to show you how.”

That idea – big art as a catalyst to creating community – was a major theme in my article, as well as the conclusion of my book, The Tribes of Burning Man: How an Experimental City in the Desert is Shaping the New American Counterculture, which focused the Temple of Flux. And it’s something the Flux crew is continuing to do out in its American Steel workspace in West Oakland, where they are working on another ambitious new installation art piece.

Brollyflock, “a renegade flock of umbrellas,” was commissioned by event producer Insomniac for the Electric Daisy Carnival in Las Vegas and Noctural in San Bernardino, and which the crew hopes to display at TED2012. But to realize its ambitious goals, Flux Foundation has started a Kickstarter campaign with a $2,000 goal, so kick in if you want to see this homegrown success story continue to ascend.

TV eye


HAIRY EYEBALL In 1976 artist Clive Robertson reflected on a performance he gave that same year, in which he dressed up as and restaged pieces by the famous postwar German performance artist Joseph Beuys. “We have to adapt legends so that they become portable and can fit into our pockets,” he wrote. “Unfortunately for the artist, that is the fight we label history.”

Robertson was addressing his own anxiety of influence in the face of Beuys’ then-ascendant status within the art world, but his comments also provide a gloss on the struggle that curators and art historians face in their own practice. In the case of “God Only Knows Who the Audience Is,” a parting gift from the graduating students of California College of the Arts’ Graduate Program in Curatorial Practice, currently on view in the galleries of the school’s Wattis Institute, it is a struggle undertaken with great intelligence and economy.

Smartly conceived and staged, “God Only Knows” is a dialogic tale of two histories. One is a survey of the nonprofit artist-run organization and gallery space La Mamelle (which became ART COM in the 1980s) that existed in various incarnations from 1975 through 1995 and forms an important, if under-recognized, chapter of Bay Area art history. The other traces a concurrent shift in performance art, largely made possible by the advent of video technology, away from the artist’s body and toward the disembodied artist.

La Mamelle was, appropriate to its name, a nurturing organ for the local art scene. In addition to hosting events and organizing exhibits, the organization released videos, audio-zines, and microfiches, and published anthologies as well as the regular magazine in which pieces such as Robertson’s “The Sculptured Politics of Joseph Beuys,” quoted above, first appeared.

The constant proliferation of publications and media put local artists such as Chip Lord, the video collective Ant Farm, Lynn Hershman, and Bonnie Sherk — who all have pieces or documentation of early performances on display here — in touch with other artists around the world and vice versa. The aforementioned artists had wandered to the end of the conceptual inroads that had been laid down by the likes of Andy Warhol and Beuys, and were now operating in a new media wilderness, with only their VHS cameras to guide them.

“God Only Knows” successfully locates these artists and their work within a continuum of practices that stretches into the present. Others have followed Robertson in treating Beuys and his practice as source material (“identity transfer” in his words), as evinced by nearby pieces in the first floor’s survey of performance art that de-centers the artist’s body as both a performance’s agent and its living trace, such as Whitney Lynn’s 2010 re-do of another Beuys performance, or Luis Felipe Ortega and Daniel Guzmán’s 1994 video Remake, in which the duo stages “improved upon” versions of canonical performance art pieces.

The exhibit’s second floor takes us into the ’80s and ’90s, where the message is clear: television opened up the potential for art to reach new audiences. Greeted by the ponderous, mustachioed visage of Douglas Davis in his The Last Nine Minutes, a live-to-video performance realized in 1977 for Documenta 6, we immediately see how video dissolved the time lag between action and its documentation. Bill Viola’s 44 portraits of television viewers (1983-84) staring silently into their TV sets, made for WGBH in Boston, screens on the other side of the entrance.

In the middle of the gallery, playing across what the accompanying brochure calls an “archipelago” of viewing stations, are various video pieces by La Mamelle and ART COM artists, as well as those by artists such as the Borat-like Olaf Breuning, whose work plays off of the spectacle of TV shows. Meanwhile, at the back of the room, Mario Garcia Torres’ jarring 2008 nine-channel compilation of artists’ TV cameos from the past four decades (Dali doing a car commercial; Warhol appearing as himself on The Love Boat) tabulates the increasing banality of art’s intersection with television.

Yet despite the histories laid out in “God Only Knows Who the Audience Is,” Bravo’s Work of Art, YouTube, and the continual meddling presence of James Franco, video has yet to kill the performance art star — or at least the demand for the star’s body, as demonstrated by Marina Abramovic’s recent MOMA retrospective, in which the real attraction was not the controversial restagings of her greatest hits, but her daily physical presence.

The irony, of course, is that exhibit’s online half-life, which continues today. The Flickr and Tumblr are still there. The artist is still present to those who navigate to those pages, even though Abramovic left the building long ago. God only knows who’s still watching.



The title of German painter Christoph Roßner’s current solo show at Romer Young, “The Hat, That Never Existed,” is a tip-off. Roßner’s smudged, over-painted, and half-erased depictions of things and people — trees, candles, top hats, houses, old men — scan as disappearing acts rather than fixed portraits (the way the canvases have been hung even suggests that a few have gone missing from the gallery). “Ghoulish” is the operative word here. Not much separates the faceless specter of Ghost from the skeletal visage in Grinser; and Roßner can make even a rock look like an Expressionist coffin. That’s not lazy journalistic shorthand, either: Roßner’s rough-hewn bleakness is of a piece with the Old World aesthetics of, say, George Grosz. The séance lasts only one more week, though, so act fast.


Through July 2

CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Art

1111 Eighth St.

(415) 551-9210


Through May 14

Romer Young Gallery

1240 22nd St., SF

(415) 550-7483


Nothing’s fixed


CYCLING The SF Bike Coalition’s valet parking was strangely empty for a blazingly sunny Saturday event by the Ferry Building. “They’ve just been leaving their bikes around,” a bored attendant told me of the crowd assembled for the Red Bull Ride + Style fixed-gear competition. But that wasn’t out of apathy to their rides — these attendees wanted to keep their bikes close.

Candy-colored fixies were turned upside-down on their handlebars, stacked in piles with the steeds of their owners’ friends. Young men (there were a lot of young men) kept their hands firmly locked in riding position, rolling their bikes back and forth as they spoke, some times gesticulating with them for added effect. Those slim, messenger-style backpacks were much in evidence.

In the competition arena, no one strayed far from their bikes either, except for the spectacular falls that sporadically broke up the action. Strap-on fixed-gear pedals make for epic wipe-outs; one soldier was taken off the field on a stretcher.

Save for the lone female who rolled about during the event’s interminable “practice times,” all riders were male. This was about bros on bikes. Indeed, as the final race around the hazardous, hairpin track was announced between Bay Area childhood friends Jason Clary and Kell McKenzie (Clary won), the announcer took a moment to salute their relationship. “You guys have known each other since you were 14? It’s bro versus bro! Fixed-gear nation!”

Competitive fixed-gear racing is, relatively speaking, a nascent addition to the legion of bone-cracking thrill fests enjoyed by extreme sports fans. The sport’s lexicon is borrowed from the death-defying ride tactics of gonzo bike messengers, a profession that has to sprint to keep up with e-mail and 3-D projection technology to stay salient for corporate America.

San Francisco is one of the messenger bike meccas. The city has given birth to some epically fly-terrifying fixie films — guys slaloming down from Twin Peaks, diving into traffic, holding onto buses for acceleration, basically using the ridiculous speed you can achieve on a fixed- gear bike for pure chaos (in the eyes of the pedestrian, surely).

But street stunts do not a competitive sport make. On Saturday, it was apparent that everyone was trying to figure out just what Ride + Style meant. The week before the event, the Guardian interviewed Austin Horse, one of New York City’s best-known bike messengers, by e-mail.

“Nobody knows what to expect about Ride N Style,” he wrote. “It’s very mysterious, but the riders know it’s going to be a challenging and compelling event because it’s coming from Red Bull. [Editor’s note: Apparently Red Bull’s sponsorship is a big deal. Red Bull also sponsored a downhill bike race through a Brazilian favela, the aerodynamic inanity of Flutag, and your most jittery friend in college who had a dorm room full of Red Bull crates. Remember that guy?] The result is that all the riders are a little more anxious about this race than other events. What we do know is that it’s gonna be a sprint with features some guys aren’t going to be comfortable with. It’s a little scary.”

The second half of the day was given over to what was billed as the most cutting edge part of the competition: the freestyle contest. Covered in sherbet colors, spiders, geometric whorls, and playing card designs, they looked every bit the background for an extreme sports tournament.

“Only rarely have events invested in features tailored to the constraints and potential of this type of riding,” Horse says. When the cameras are off “people practice wherever they can — skate parks and street spots.”

In San Francisco, one of the most reliable spots to watch good fixed-gear freestyling is in the Harry Bridges Plaza, the strip of asphalt between the Ferry Building and where Ride + Style was erected in the more ample Justin Herman Plaza. You can go out to Harry Bridges at dusk most days and see people hopping their bikes off the ground, spinning in the air, twerking their handlebars, riding backward in tight figure eights, and stopping on dimes.

But the ramps took it up a notch — so up that spectators began to compare the competition to those of BMX bikes, which can catch a lot more air than fixed gears. It wasn’t a coincidental connection: some of the competitors announced on the microphone that they were usually on a BMX, and Jeremy Witek, the lead designer of the ramps, told me during the construction phase that this was the first time he’d been asked to make structures like these for a fixed-gear competition.

There were some hands-down highlights of the freestyle portion — Kohei “Kozo” Fuji flew in from Osaka to bust the first fixed-gear back flip in international competition. But many of the routines seemed strangely suited for their setting. The beauty of the fixed-gear lies in its simplicity — one pump of the legs, one rotation of the wheels, the easy mathematics of human body and machine.

But the novelty of seeing these lifestyle bikes thrust into the bright lights and loud announcers of the X Games variety wasn’t lost on those least jaded of San Franciscans — the Embarcadero tourists. Washing my hands in the Embarcadero Center bathroom, I heard a young woman essentially ask her mom what the hell this crazy city of bikes is up to. “Does San Francisco always have this?”

Girl, it does now. 


Power and shared wealth


In the 1930s, political cartoonists often portrayed California’s monolithic Pacific Gas & Electric Co. as a giant octopus, its tentacles extending into every sphere of civic life. If money buys influence, the cephalopod analogy may still be apt today when considering the company’s tally of corporate giving, part of a detailed filing with the California Public Utilities Commission.

PG&E’s largesse, measured in thousands of dollars in donations, spills into a broad array of nonprofit organizations, educational institutions, chambers of commerce, and volunteer-led efforts throughout the state. PG&E’s corporate giving is so broad that it even extends to several organizations affiliated with appointees to the Independent Review Panel convened by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) to investigate PG&E’s deadly San Bruno pipeline explosion.

While the utility undoubtedly advances worthy causes with its myriad donations to youth groups, cultural centers, organizations fighting AIDS and cancer, arts councils, environmental groups, and other charitable entities, corporate contributions always reflect a calculated decision, notes Bob Stern of the Center for Governmental Studies.

“They’re a big company, and they’re trying to, shall we say, ingratiate themselves with a wide swath of community interests, including nonprofit groups,” Stern told us. “The cigarette companies did that all the time, and it was very effective … because nonprofits then laid off on ballot measures, for example, or they would oppose ballot measures that would increase cigarette taxes. My bottom line is, businesses don’t just spend money gratuitously. There is a business reason a business spends money — campaign contributions or donations. And they have to justify that to their shareholders.”

In mid-October 2010, CPUC president Michael Peevey announced his selection of five expert panelists for the newly created advisory body on the San Bruno explosion. In an official filing, Peevey ordered PG&E to fund the panel, which would be tasked with gathering facts and making recommendations to the CPUC “as to whether there is a need for the general improvement of the safety of PG&E’s natural gas transmission lines, and if so, how these improvements should be made.” A report on the panel’s initial findings is expected in the coming weeks. The effort is on a parallel track with the federal investigation now underway at the National Transportation Safety Board.

The appointees bring a wealth of knowledge and expertise to the table. Panelist Karl Pister, for example, chairs the board of the California Council on Science and Technology, served as chancellor at UC Santa Cruz, and has taught civil engineering. Jan Schori has an insider’s understanding of how an energy company is run thanks to her past experience as CEO of the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD).

Yet some of Peevey’s appointees to the Independent Review Panel have ties to PG&E. Panelist Paula Rosput Reynolds formerly held positions at the investor-owned utility, according to her bio, including serving as an executive of the PG&E’s interstate natural gas pipeline subsidiary. An understanding of the company’s inner workings could be considered an asset, but it also raises questions about her independence.

Panelist Patrick Lavin serves as an executive council member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, which represents PG&E employees. He’s also on the board of directors of the California Foundation on the Environment and the Economy (CFEE), a nonprofit that counts PG&E among its membership. CFEE sponsored a two-week trip to Spain last November for government officials, energy industry representatives, and others to study “renewable energy, infrastructure, public private partnerships, desalination, and rail,” according to its website, picking up the $8,880 tab for Peevey to join the trip. The nonprofit received donations from PG&E totaling $45,000 in 2009, $45,000 in 2008, and $40,000 in 2006 — the three most recent years available.

Schori, meanwhile, has clearly held roles in the past that have placed her in an adversarial relationship with the utility considering that SMUD — a public power utility — has engaged in territorial battles against PG&E. Yet Schori also serves on the board of the Climate Action Reserve, a nonprofit that also counts former PG&E vice president of operations Nancy McFadden — the architect behind PG&E’s ill-fated ballot initiative Proposition 16 — on its board of directors.

Climate Action Reserve received $45,000 from PG&E in 2009, according to a CPUC filing. Schori also previously served on the board of directors of a nonprofit called the Alliance to Save Energy, which was co-chaired by former PG&E CEO Peter Darbee, who was expected to step down April 30 with a retirement package totaling nearly $35 million. The Alliance to Save Energy received $45,000, $35,000, and $35,000 in PG&E donations in 2009, 2008, and 2006, respectively. Schori did not respond to a request for comment.

The chair of the San Bruno Independent Review Panel is Larry Vanderhoef, former chancellor of UC Davis and a highly respected academic. As an ex-officio trustee of the UC Davis Foundation, Vanderhoef is engaged in soliciting private-sector contributions for the university. UC Davis has received an average of around $200,000 in philanthropic contributions from PG&E each year since 2005. In an e-mail to the Guardian, spokesperson Claudia Morain noted that Vanderhoef “has never been involved in PG&E solicitations.”

PG&E’s contributions to the two nonprofits and the university represent very small portions of the total budgets of these three entities, particularly in the case of UC Davis. At the same time, they are relatively large sums compared to the contributions the company generally makes. The city of Berkeley, for example, received just $2,500 from PG&E in 2009. Most organizations receive less than $10,000, but certain groups are given much more. The UC Regents, for example, received a $406,400 donation from PG&E in 2009.

“The panel members are all eminently qualified to perform the important job that has been entrusted to them.” CPUC spokesperson Terrie Prosper told us. “It is not surprising, or inappropriate, that the panel members also are involved in philanthropic activities of various kinds in California. Nor is it surprising that PG&E, California’s largest public utility company, in its own donations to various public and nonprofit institutions and its other philanthropic activities, supports some of these same worthy causes. These philanthropic activities in no way impair the independence, good judgment, or valued public service the members of the Independent Review Panel are giving to California.”

Stern, of the Center for Governmental Studies, said PG&E contributions to organizations affiliated with members of the Independent Review Panel did not necessarily raise a red flag. “Sure it has some impact, but not in terms of disqualification. That’s off the table as far as I’m concerned,” he said. “I have 15 members on my board of directors. I would never say that because we got a grant worth $200,000 from PG&E that that would affect my board member ruling on a PG&E matter,” he added, speaking hypothetically.

As members of an advisory group rather than public officials, he noted, the panelists would not be in violation of any conflict-of-interest rules. “Certainly there’s always a question of bias and appearance of impropriety. And the question is, how extensive is it? It’s a whole bunch of different factors. It’s all gradations. There is no rule on this, obviously, but it’s an appearance question, and whether or not the appearance looks like they’re going to be biased.” At the end of the day, he added, the question would be settled by “looking at the final results and seeing what the final results say.”

The case against consolidation


With officials predicting that San Francisco will spend $500 million annually on health care costs for city employees and retirees, the Board of Supervisors Government Audit and Oversight Committee held an April 28 hearing to analyze why hospitals costs are higher in Northern California than Southern California, and why costs have escalated in the last decade.

A panel of experts outlined a list of cost drivers and identified hospital consolidation as the major culprit — a finding that fueled concerns that costs will skyrocket once Sutter Health, which operates the California Pacific Medical Center that took over St Luke’s in 2005, builds a 555-bed hospital on Cathedral Hill. The board will consider approving the project as soon as this summer.

Ellen Shaffer, codirector of the Center for Policy Analysis, said that the city’s recently approved Health Care Services Master Plan (“Critical Care,” 11/23/10) provides San Francisco with leverage to collect and analyze data and make informed health choices.

Shaffer noted that since 1960, when there were 26 hospitals in San Francisco, facilities consolidated so frequently that by 1990, only 12 hospitals remained. And by 1998, the three largest hospital networks controlled 43 percent of hospital beds — compared to 18 percent just four years earlier.

“Today in San Francisco, the most expensive of the northern counties hospitals get $7,349 per patient per day on average,” she said. “In Los Angeles County, the figure is $4,389.”

David Hopkins, a senior advisor at the Pacific Business Group on Health, said that Sutter Health, which reported a 30 percent increase in net income in 2010, already controls 44 percent of hospital beds in San Francisco. Catholic Healthcare West controls 28 percent, and UCSF controls 26 percent. “Insurance companies say Sutter’s size and dominant position give it an upper hand in contract negotiations,” Hopkins observed.

Healthcare planning and policy consultant Lucy Johns said technology is another key cost driver. “It’s a medical arms race,” Johns said. “Every hospital wants the latest everything.”

Jane Sandoval, a registered nurse at St Luke’s, said that what residents and workers need is access to affordable healthcare, not luxury care at overpriced rates.

“We’d rather have enough staff and the ability to care for all patients than work in a facility that’s likened to a five-star hotel,” Sandoval said. She noted that State Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones filed suit April 13 to intervene on behalf of the plaintiff in a whistleblower suit against Sutter Health, which has been accused of fraudulently charging insurers millions of dollars for anesthesia services that either weren’t provided or were billed higher than typical rates.

Anne McLeod, senior vice president of health policy for the California Hospital Association, an industry trade group, claimed that Northern California’s higher hospital prices are primarily due to higher labor and living costs in the Bay Area. “Wages are a huge component of hospital costs, and they represent the fastest growing component of costs,” she said.

But Glenn Melnick, a professor of health care finance at the University of Southern California, said that even if a hospital was airlifted from Los Angeles to San Francisco, its costs would still be 38 percent higher after adjusting for local differences. “When hospitals consolidate into large systems that dominate a specific region, that hospital system has the power to demand contracts from health plans that include high reimbursement rates for their services and limit the ability of health plans to offer low-cost products and share the data consumers need to compare costs across providers,” Melnick said

Sup. David Campos, who called for the hospital costs hearing, observed that the cost of creating jobs includes health care benefits. “So to the extent that things like hospital consolidation are increasing costs, the hospitals themselves are implicated,” he said.

But CPMC media relations manager Kevin McCormack noted that CPMC/Sutter has invested more than $7 billion since 2000 on technology, facility construction, and improvements to address medical needs and state seismic safety requirements.

“Sutter Health appreciates its role in ensuring that health care is affordable. And we realize that holding the line on prices without compromising quality will require additional cost reductions,” McCormack said. “To this end, doctors and nurses and support staff throughout our Sutter Health network are working aggressively to substantially reduce expenses.”

He denied that Sutter had engaged in inappropriate anesthesia billing practices. “The lawsuit paints a false and inaccurate picture,” McCormack said.

He also said that plenty of competition remains in Northern California. “The decision by the California Public Employees Retirement System in 2004 to shift a significant number of members away from Sutter-affiliated hospitals to other providers demonstrates there’s plenty of healthy competition,” McCormack said.

But Campos said the hearing clarified that, while there are different factors why costs are going up, one of the most important is hospital consolidation. “We need to ensure that we understand that, even in face of higher labor and cost of living costs, hospital costs in Northern California are still 30 percent higher than Southern California,” Campos said.

Noting that CalPERS excluded Sutter from its network, Campos added: “We need to follow suit in terms of saying that we’re only going to do business with hospitals that are responsive to our concerns and follow best practices.”


Calvin Trillin, Deadline Poet


Yet Another Chapter in Trickle Down Economics

“C.E.O.’s in finance, technology, energy and beyond are pulling down multimillion-dollar paychecks. What many of these executives aren’t doing, however, is hiring.”

                                                                                                                                                                                                 -the New York Times

If you await a downward trickle,

You’ve just received a wooded nickel.



Live Shots: Bomba Estéreo at the Independent, 4/19/11


Do you ever go to a concert and realize that the lead singer is your new style icon? From the peacock feather in her hair to the flamingo tee-shirt and chipped red nails, Liliana from Bomba Estéreo has got definite style chops. But the sold out audience at the Independent last night, April 19, wasn’t there just to see what hip threads Liliana might throw on. They were there to hear the band’s utterly unique music, a mix of electronica and traditional Colombian beats.

I grew up with a Puerto Rican dad, which meant that on Saturdays we’d be blasting classic salsa from the KPOO radio station. Those classic Latin rhythms just become a part of any Latino kid’s body, so I love that Bomba Estéreo has kept so much of their roots present in their music while at the same time venturing into the future by mixing in technology.

At one point in the show, someone yelled out “Psychedelic trip!” as a plethora of colors and images danced on the stage and the beat became almost trance-like and hypnotic. There was definitely some major heat and energy coming off the stage — luckily it didn’t become a full out fuego.

What to watch



Beginners (Mike Mills, U.S., 2010) There is nothing conventional about Beginners, a film that starts off with the funeral arrangements for one of its central characters. That man is Hal (Christopher Plummer), who came out to his son Oliver (Ewan McGregor) at the ripe age of 75. Through flashbacks, we see the relationship play out — Oliver’s inability to commit tempered by his father’s tremendous late-stage passion for life. Hal himself is a rare character: an elderly gay man, secure in his sexuality and, by his own admission, horny. He even has a much younger boyfriend, played by the handsome Goran Visnjic. While the father-son bond is the heart of Beginners, we also see the charming development of a relationship between Oliver and French actor Anna (Melanie Laurent). It all comes together beautifully in a film that is bittersweet but ultimately satisfying. Beginners deserves praise not only for telling a story too often left untold, but for doing so with grace and a refreshing sense of whimsy. Thurs/21, 7 p.m., Castro. (Louis Peitzman)



The Good Life (Eva Mulvad, Denmark, 2010) Portraits of the formerly wealthy are often guilty of peddling secondhand nostalgia for some ancien regime while simultaneously stoking schadenfreude toward the now-deposed (just ask Vanity Fair). Eva Mulvad’s melancholy character study of 50-something Annemette Beckmann and her aged mother, Mette, avoids both traps even as her subjects — formerly wealthy Danish expats living on the dole in a cramped apartment in a coastal Portuguese town — offer few inroads for sympathy. Narcissistic and petulant, Annemette blames the loss of her family’s wealth on the 1974 nationalization of Portugal’s then-Communist government, and claims that her cosseted upbringing has made it hard to find a job (“Work doesn’t become me,” she gratingly protests at one point). Mette, who is more likeable, is a resigned realist whose sole comfort, aside from the pet dog, seems to be her knowledge that she is not long for this world. Comparisons to Grey Gardens (1975) are inevitable here, but the Beckmanns simply aren’t as interesting or possessed by as idiosyncratic a joie de vivre as the Beales, making The Good Life a tough slog. Fri/22, 3:45 p.m.; April 28, 6:45 p.m.; and May 1, 9:30 p.m., Kabuki. (Matt Sussman)

Hahaha (Hong Sang-soo, South Korea, 2010) Do you remember a time you behaved badly (not horribly, but bad enough that you felt ashamed) but you didn’t really think about it until long after the fact, say, when getting drinks with an old friend? If you can’t, than the latest from South Korean director Hong Sang-soo will probably jog your memory. As with many of Hong’s films, Hahaha’s premise is similar to the above scenario: two 30-something buds get together and reminisce about their recent trips to the same seaside town. Shown in episodic flashbacks, we start to realize that the incidents and players in their separate accounts overlap into one story filled with terrible poetry, domineering mothers, stalker-ish behavior, and poorly made choices. Hong’s films are primers in how not to treat your fellow human beings (straight dudes are usually the culprits), so take notes. Fri/22, 9:15 p.m.; Mon/25, 9 p.m.; and Tues/26, 3:30 p.m., Kabuki. (Sussman)

I’m Glad My Mother is Alive (Claude Miller and Nathan Miller, France, 2009) Codirected with his son Nathan, this latest by veteran French director Claude Miller is an about-face from his acclaimed 2007 period epic A Secret. Viscerally up-to-the-moment in content and handheld-camera style, it’s a small story that builds toward an enormous punch. Thomas (played by Maxime Renard as a child, then Vincent Rottiers) is a lifelong malcontent whose troubles are rooted in his abandonment at age five by an irresponsible mother (Sophie Cattani). Neither the attentions of well-meaning adoptive parents or the influence of his better-adjusted younger brother can quell Thomas’ mix of furious resentment and curiosity toward his mere, whom he finally develops a relationship with as a young adult. As usual, Miller doesn’t “explain” his characters or let them explain themselves, yet everything feels emotionally true — right up to a narrative destination both that feels both shocking and inevitable. Fri/22, 6:45 p.m., and Mon/25, 9:30 p.m., Kabuki. (Dennis Harvey)

Meek’s Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt, U.S., 2010) After three broke down road movies (1994’s River of Grass, 2006’s Old Joy, 2008’s Wendy and Lucy), Kelly Reichardt’s new frontier story tilts decisively toward socially-minded existentialism. It’s 1845 on the choked plains of Oregon, miles from the fertile valley where a wagon train of three families is headed. They’ve hired the rogue guide Meek to show them the way, but he’s got them lost and low on water. When the group captures a Cayeuse Indian, Solomon proposes they keep him on as a compass; Meek thinks it better to hang him and be done with it. The periodic shots of the men deliberating are filmed from a distance — the earshot range of the three women (Michelle Williams, Zoe Kazan, and Shirley Henderson) who set up camp each night. It’s through subtle moves like these that Meek’s Cutoff gives a vivid taste of being subject to fate and, worse still, the likes of Meek. Reichardt winnows away the close-ups, small talk, and music that provided the simple gifts of her earlier work, and the overall effect is suitably austere. Fri/22, 9 p.m., and Mon/25, 4:30 p.m., Kabuki. (Max Goldberg)

Stake Land (Jim Mickle, U.S., 2010) Not gonna lie — the reason I wanted to review this one was because of the film still in the SFIFF catalog. Rotten-faced vampire with a stake through its neck? Yes, please! But while Jim Mickle’s apocalyptic road movie does offer plenty of gore, it’s more introspective than one might expect, following an orphaned teenage boy, Martin (Connor Paolo, Serena’s little bro on Gossip Girl), and his gruff mentor, Mister (Snake Plissken-ish Nick Damici), on their travels through a ravaged America. As books, films, and comics have taught us, whenever a big chunk of the human race is wiped out (thanks to zombies, vampires, an unknown cataclysm, etc.), the remaining population will either be good (heroic, like Mister and Martin, or helpless, like the stragglers they rescue, including a nun played by Kelly McGillis), or evil — cannibals, rapists, religious nuts, militant survivalists, etc. Stake Land doesn’t throw many curveballs into its end-times narrative, but it’s beautifully shot and doesn’t hold back on the brutality. Larry Fessenden (director of 2006’s The Last Winter) produced and has a brief cameo as a helpful bartender. Fri/22, 11:30 p.m., and Mon/25, 9:45 p.m., Kabuki. (Cheryl Eddy)



The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu (Andrei Ujica, Romania, 2010) Andrei Ujica’s three-hour documentary uses decades of propagandic footage to let the late Romanian dictator — who was overthrown by popular revolt and executed in 1989 — hang himself with his own grandiose image-making. While the populace suffered (off-screen, you might want to bone up on the facts before seeing this ironical, commentary-free portrait), the “great leader” and his wife Elena were constantly seen holding state dances, playing volleyball, hunting bear, and vacationing hither and yon. (We even see them on the Universal Studios tour.) There’s no surprise in seeing them greeted with enormous pageantry in China; but it’s a little shocking to see this tyrant welcome Nixon (in the first-ever U.S. presidential visit to a Communist nation), lauded by Jimmy Cartner, and hobnobbing with Queen Elizabeth. This grotesque parade of self-glorifying public moments has a happy ending, however. Sat/23, 12:45 p.m., Kabuki; Sun/24, 5:15 p.m., New People; May 1, 1:30 p.m., PFA. (Harvey)

Life, Above All (Oliver Schmitz, South Africa/Germany, 2010) It’s tough enough to simply grow up, let alone care for a parent with AIDS and deal with the suspicions and fears of the no-nothing adults all around you. Rising above easy preaching and hand-wringing didacticism, Life, Above All takes as its blueprint the 2004 best-seller by Allan Stratton, Chandra’s Secrets, and makes compelling work of the story of 12-year-old Chandra (Khomotso Manyaka) and her unfortunate family, unable to get effective help amid the thicket of ignorance regarding AIDS in Africa. After her newborn sister dies, Chandra finds her loyalty torn between her bright-eyed best friend Esther (Keaobaka Makanyane), who’s rumored to hooking among the truck drivers in their dusty, sun-scorched rural South African hometown, and her mother (Lerato Mvelase), who listens far too closely to her bourgie friend Mrs. Tafa (an OTT Harriet Manamela), for her own good. Cape Town native director Oliver Schmitz sticks close to the action playing across his actors’ faces, and he’s rewarded, particularly by the graceful Manyaka, in this life-affirmer about little girls forced to shoulder heart-breaking responsibility far too soon. Sat/23, 4 p.m., and April 28, 6 p.m., Kabuki. (Kimberly Chun)

The Mill and the Cross (Lech Majewski, Poland/Sweden, 2010) One of the clichés often told about art is that it is supposed to speak to us. Polish director Lech Majewski’s gorgeous experiment in bringing Flemish Renaissance painter Peter Bruegel’s sprawling 1564 canvas The Procession to Calvary to life attempts to do just that. Majeswki both re-stages Bruegel’s painting — which draws parallels between its depiction of Christ en route to his crucifixion and the persecution of Flemish citizens by the Spanish inquisition’s militia — in stunning tableaux vivant that combine bluescreen technology and stage backdrops, and gives back stories to a dozen or so of its 500 figures. Periodically, Bruegel himself (Rutger Hauer) addresses the camera mid-sketch to dolefully explain the allegorical nature of his work, but these pedantic asides speak less forcefully than Majeswki’s beautifully lighted vignettes of the small joys and many hardships that comprised everyday life in the 16th century. Beguiling yet wholly absorbing, this portrait of a portrait is like nothing else at the festival. Sat/23, 12:30 p.m., SFMOMA, and April 27, 9 p.m., Kabuki. (Sussman)

Mind the Gap Experimental film fans: come for the big names, but don’t miss out on the newcomers. Locals Jay Rosenblatt (melancholy found-footage bio The D Train), Kerry Laitala (psychedelic 3-D brain-dazzler Chromatastic), and Skye Thorstenson (mannequin-horror music video freak out Tourist Trap, featuring the acting and singing stylings of the Guardian’s Johnny Ray Huston) offer strong entries in an overall excellent program. International bigwigs Peter Tscherkassky (the 25-minute Coming Attractions, a layered study of airplanes, Hollywood, and Hollywood airplanes — not for the crash-phobic) and Jonathan Caouette (“Lynchian” has been used to describe the Chloë Sevigny-starring All Flowers In Time, though it contains a scary-faces contest that’d spook even Frank Booth) are also notable. New names for me were Zachary Drucker, whose Lost Lake introduces a transsexual, pervert-huntin’ vigilante for the ages, and my top pick: Kelly Sears’ Once it started it could not end otherwise, a deliciously sinister hidden-history lesson imagined via 1970s high-school yearbooks. Sat/23, 4:45 p.m., and May 1, 9:45 p.m., Kabuki. (Eddy)

The Troll Hunter (André Ovredal, Norway, 2010) Yes, The Troll Hunter riffs off The Blair Witch Project (1999) with both whimsy and, um, rabidity. Yes, you may gawk at its humongoid, anatomically correct, three-headed trolls, never to be mistaken for grotesquely cute rubber dolls, Orcs, or garden gnomes again. Yes, you may not believe, but you will find this lampoon of reality TV-style journalism, and an affectionate jab at Norway’s favorite mythical creature, very entertaining. Told that a series of strange attacks could be chalked up to marauding bears, three college students (Glenn Erland Tosterud, Tomas Alf Larsen, and Johanna Morck) strap on their gumshoes and choose instead to pursue a mysterious poacher Hans (Otto Jespersen) who repeatedly rebuffs their interview attempts. Little did the young folk realize that their late-night excursions following the hunter into the woods would lead at least one of them to rue his or her christening day. Ornamenting his yarn with beauty shots of majestic mountains, fjords, and waterfalls, Norwegian director-writer André Ovredal takes the viewer beyond horror-fantasy — handheld camera at the ready — and into a semi-goofy wilderness of dark comedy, populated by rock-eating, fart-blowing trolls and overshadowed by a Scandinavian government cover-up sorta-worthy of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009). Sat/23, 11:30 p.m., Kabuki; Mon/25, 6:15 p.m., New People. (Chun)

World on a Wire (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Germany, 1973) The words “Rainer Werner Fassbinder” and “science fiction film” are enough to get certain film buffs salivating, but the Euro-trashy interior décor is almost reason enough to see this restored print of the New German Cinema master’s cyber thriller. Originally a two-part TV miniseries, World on a Wire is set in an alternate present (then 1973) in which everything seems to be made of concrete, mirror, Lucite, or orange plastic. When the inventor of a supercomputer responsible for generating an artificial world mysteriously disappears, his handsome predecessor must fight against his corporate bosses to find out what really happened, and in the process, stumbles upon a far more shattering secret about the nature of reality itself. Riffing off the understated cool of Godard’s Alphaville (1965) while beating 1999’s The Matrix to the punch by some 25 years, World on a Wire is a stylistically singular entry in Fassbinder’s prolific filmography. Sat/23, 8:45 p.m., Kabuki, and April 30, 2 p.m., PFA. (Sussman) SUN/24

A Cat in Paris (Alain Gagnol and Jean-Loup Felicioli, France/Belgium/Netherlands/Switzerland, 2010) Save your pocket poodles, please: Paris, as cities go, is most decidedly feline. From 1917’s silent serial Les Vampires to its uber-cool 1990s update Irma Vep, cat burglars and the Parisian skyline have gone together like café and au lait. Add actual cats and jazz to the mix for good measure (even Disney saw fit to set its jazzy 1970 Aristocats in the City of Light). At just over an hour long, the animated A Cat in Paris is an enjoyable little amuse-bouche that employs all the standards of the cats-in-Paris meme: Billie Holiday warbling on the soundtrack, a dashingly heroic antihero who scales the rooftops as if he studied parkour under Spider-Man, and the titular untamable black cat who serves as his partner in crime. Complete with a climatic Hitchcockian set piece on the rooftops of Notre Dame Cathedral, A Cat in Paris has a refreshingly angular and graphic, almost cubist, feel. Directors Alain Gagnol and Jean-Loup Felicioli’s work certainly doesn’t rank among that of countryman Sylvain Chomet (2010’s The Illusionist), but this family film is worth checking out if kitties up to no good in Purr-ree simply make you want to le squee. Sun/24, 12:30 p.m., Kabuki, and May 1, 12:30 p.m., New People. (Michelle Devereaux)



Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Werner Herzog, U.S., 2010) The latest documentary from Werner Herzog once again goes where no filmmaker — or many human beings, for that matter — has gone before: the Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave, a heavily-guarded cavern in Southern France containing the oldest prehistoric artwork on record. Access is highly restricted, but Herzog’s 3D study is surely the next best thing to an in-person visit. The eerie beauty of the works leads to a typically Herzog-ian quest to learn more about the primitive culture that produced the paintings; as usual, Herzog’s experts have their own quirks (like a circus performer-turned-scientist), and the director’s own wry narration is peppered with random pop culture references and existential ponderings. It’s all interwoven with footage of crude yet beautiful renderings of horses and rhinos, calcified cave-bear skulls, and other time-capsule peeks at life tens of thousands of years ago. The end result is awe-inspiring. Mon/25, 7 p.m., and Tues/26, 9:30 p.m., Kabuki. (Eddy)



Nostalgia for the Light (Patricio Guzmán, France/Chile/Germany, 2010) Chile’s Atacama Desert, the setting for Patricio Guzmán’s lyrically haunting and meditative documentary, is supposedly the driest place on earth. As a result, it’s also the most ideal place to study the stars. Here, in this most Mars-like of earthly landscapes, astronomers look to the heavens in an attempt to decode the origins of the universe. Guzmán superimposes images from the world’s most powerful telescopes — effluent, gaseous nebulas, clusters of constellations rendered in 3-D brilliance — over the night sky of Atacama for an even more otherworldly effect, but it’s the film’s terrestrial preoccupations that resonate most. For decades, a small, ever dwindling group of women have scoured the cracked clay of Atacama searching for loved ones who disappeared early in Augusto Pinochet’s regime. They take their tiny, toy-like spades and sift through the dirt, finding a partial jawbone here, an entire mummified corpse there. Guzmán’s attempt through voice-over to make these “architects of memory,” both astronomers and excavators alike, a metaphor for Chile’s reluctance to deal with its past atrocities is only marginally successful. Here, it’s the images that do all the talking — if “memory has a gravitational force,” their emotional weight is as inescapable as a black hole. Tues/26, 6:30 p.m., Kabuki, and April 28, 6:15 p.m., PFA. (Devereaux)

The Sleeping Beauty (Catherine Breillat, France, 2010) Fairytales are endemically Freudian; perhaps it has something to with their use of subconscious fantasy to mourn — and breathlessly anticipate — the looming loss of childhood. French provocateuse Catherine Breillat’s feminist re-imagining of The Sleeping Beauty carries her hyper-sexualized signature, but now she also has free reign to throw in bizarre and beastly metaphors for feminine and masculine desire in the form of boil-covered, dungeon-dwelling ogres, albino teenage princes, and icy-beautiful snow queens. The story follows Anastasia, a poor little aristocrat, who longs to be a boy (she calls herself “Sir Vladimir”). When her hand is pricked with a yew spindle (more of a phallic impalement, really), Anastasia falls into a 100-year adventurous slumber, eventually awakening as a sexually ripe 16-year-old. It all plays like an anchorless, Brothers Grimm version of Sally Potter’s 1992 Orlando. And while it’s definitely not for the kiddies, it’s hard to believe that many adults would find its overt symbolism and plodding narrative any more than a sporadically entertaining exercise in preciousness. Your own dreams will undoubtedly be more interesting — perhaps you can catch a few zzz’s in a theater screening this movie. Tues/26, 6:15 p.m., and April 27, 6:30 p.m., Kabuki. (Devereaux)

THE 54TH ANNUAL SAN FRANCISCO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL runs April 21–May 5. Venues are the Sundance Kabuki, 1881 Post, SF; Castro, 429 Castro, SF; New People, 1746 Post, SF; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 151 Third, SF; and Pacific Film Archive, 2575 Bancroft, SF. For tickets (most shows $13) and complete schedule visit>.

Stage Listings


Stage listings are compiled by Guardian staff. Performance times may change; call venues to confirm. Reviewers are Robert Avila, Rita Felciano, and Nicole Gluckstern. Submit items for the listings at For further information on how to submit items for the listings, see Picks. For complete listings, see



Vice Palace: The Last Cockettes Musical Thrillpeddlers’ Hypnodrome, 575 10th St; (800) 838-3006, $30-35. Previews Fri/22-Sat/23, 8pm; Sun/24, 7pm. Opens April 29, 8pm. Runs Fri-Sat, 8pm; Sun, 7pm. Through July 31. Thrillpeddlers presents composer Scrumbly Koldewyn’s revival of the 1972 musical revue.


Passion Play Live Oak Theatre, 1301 Shattuck, Berk; (510) 649-5999, $10-15. Opens Fri/22, 7pm. Runs Fri-Sat, 7pm (also May 1, 18, and 15, 2pm). Through May 21. Actors Ensemble of Berkeley presents the West Coast premiere of a time-travel play by Sarah Ruhl.


The Busy World is Hushed New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness; 861-8972, www.nctcsf,org. $24-40. Wed-Sat, 8pm; Sun, 2pm. Through May 1. New Conservatory Theatre Center presents the world premiere of a play by Keith Bunin.

*Caliente Pier 29, The Embarcadero; 438-2668, $117-145. Wed-Sat, 6pm; Sun, 5pm. Open-ended. Teatro Zinzanni presents a new production conceived in San Francisco.

Collected Stories Stage Werx, 533 Sutter; Z(800) 838-3006, $20-25. Fri-Sat, 8pm (alos April 24 2pm). Through May 7. Stage Werx presents David Margulies’ drama about art, ethics, and betrayal.

Cordelia NOHspace, 2840 Mariposa; (800) 838-3006, $18-20. Wed-Thurs, 7pm; Fri-Sat, 8pm. Through May 7. Theatre of Yugen presents world premiere of an abstraction of Shakespeare’s King Lear.

*40 Pounds in 12 Weeks The Marsh, Studio Theater, 1074 Valencia; (800) 838-3006, $15-35. Call for dates and times. Through April 30. Pidge Meade’s one-woman show extends its successful run.

*Geezer Marsh, 1062 Valencia; (800) 838-3006, $20-50. Thurs, 8pm; Sat, 5pm; Sun, 3pm. Through July 10. The Marsh presents a new solo show about aging and mortality by Geoff Hoyle.

*Into the Clear Blue Sky Phoenix Theater, 414 Mason; 913-7272, $15-17. Thurs-Sat, 8pm. Through April 30. In our post-apocalyptic future as imagined by J.C. Lee, New Jersey is a pitched battleground of mythic proportions, and the moon is open for business. Against a spare backdrop of torn, crumpled fragments of letters and skillfully understated lighting (designed respectively by Ben Randle, Christian Mejia, and Alexander C. Senchak), a nuclear family of four experiences a severe meltdown. We meet a deadbeat dad who disappears into space (Christopher Nelson), a runaway daughter whose hands are disfigured by chemical burns (Dina Percia), a slightly unhinged, Neruda-quoting mother (Pamela Smith), and a banished son, Kale (Eric Kerr), who sets out on a hero’s quest to bring his sister home. The second part of the “This World and After” trilogy, being staged this season in its entirety by Sleepwalkers Theatre, Into the Clear Blue Sky may be set in a futuristic world beset by cannibals and sea monsters, but its primary concerns are those close to the heart. In fact, the most sympathetic character by far is the lovelorn neighbor boy, Cody (Adrian Anchondo), who would wear his heart on his sleeve if he had sleeves to wear it on; a bare-chested, face-painted, poetry-spouting Sancho Panza to Kale’s Quixote. Under Ben Randle’s direction, the actors morph easily from their characters into parts of the set and even the lighting team, making the most of a small budget with their large collaborative effort. (Gluckstern)

KML Reboots Traveling Jewish Theater, 470 Floriad; $10-20. Thurs-Fri, 8pm; Sat, 7 and 10pm; Sun, 7pm. Through Sun/24. The sketch comedians present a new show about the pleasures and pains of technology.

Loveland The Marsh, 1062 Valencia; (800) 838-3006, $20-35. Fri, 8pm; Sat, 8:30pm (also May 1 and 8, 7pm). Through May 8. Ann Rudolph’s one-woman show continues its successful run.

M. Butterfly Gough Street Playhouse, 1620 Gough; (510) 207-5774, $20-28. Thurs-Sat, 8pm. Through April 30. Custom Made Theatre presents David Henry Hwang’s award-winning play.

Party of 2 — The New Mating Musical Shelton Theater, 533 Sutter; 1-800-838-3006, $27-29. Fri, 9pm. Open-ended. A musical about relationships by Shopping! The Musical author Morris Bobrow.

The Real Americans The Marsh MainStage, 1062 Valencia; 282-3055, $25-35. Fri, 8pm; Sat, 8:30pm. Through April 30. Dan Hoyle’s hit show returns for another engagement.

Sea Turtles Exit Theater, 156 Eddy; $15-25. Fri-Sat, 8pm; Sun, 3pm (also April 28, 8pm). Through April 30. GenerationTheatre presents an original play by David Valayre.

Secret Identity Crisis SF Playhouse, Stage 2, 533 Sutter; 869-5384, $10-20. Thurs-Sat, 8pm (no show May 7). Through May 14. Un-Scripted Theater Company presents a story about unmasked heroes.

Shopping! The Musical Shelton Theater, 533 Sutter; (800) 838-3006, $27-29. Sat, 8pm. Open-ended. A musical comedy revue about shopping by Morris Bobrow.

A Streetcar Named Desire Actors Theatre, 855 Bush; 345-1287, $26-38. Wed-Sat, 8pm. Through June 4. Actors Theatre of San Francisco presents the Tennessee Williams tale.

Talking With Angels Royce Gallery, 2901 Mariposa; (800) 838-3006, $21-35. Thurs-Sat, 8pm. Through May 21. A play by Shelley Mitchell set in Nazi-occupied Hungary.

Tape The Dark Room, 2263 Mission; $10-20. Fri-Sat, 8pm. Through Sat/23. The 4th Mirror presents a production of the play by Stephen Belber.

Twelfth Night African American Art & Culture Complex, 762 Fulton; (800) 838-3006, $15-35. Sat, 8pm; Sun, 3pm (no performance April 24). Through May 1. African-American Shakespeare Company presents a jazzy interpretation of the Bard.

*Wirehead SF Playhouse, 533 Sutter; 677-9596, $30-50. Tues-Wed, 7pm; Thurs-Fri, 8pm; Sat, 3and 8pm. Through Sat/23. Perfectionism’s ruthless class dimensions come to the fore in SF Playhouse’s smart, fun, and sharply staged Bay Area premiere about the super-smart posthumans of the near future, and the rest of us. A shady China-based conglomerate with a name that sounds like Sin-Tell sells a scintillating if dangerous procedure for those already well connected: a hardwire boost to the neural circuitry that gives the recipient more than an edge on the competition and something just shy of godlike powers. Two friends and colleagues in a banking firm (Craig Marker and Gabriel Marin) and their variously class-marked but equally ambitious girlfriends (Lauren Grace and Madeleine H.D. Brown) are all drawn into this cyborgian gold rush, and it gets sticky in more ways than one, as meanwhile a brash local DJ named RIP (Scott Coopwood) raps sardonically over the airwaves about this latest twist in an old game. SF Playhouse’s Susi Damilano directs a charismatic cast (including a terrific Cole Alexander Smith in a related series of frenetic roles) in Matt Benjamin and Logan Brown’s culture-jamming riposte to tech-mad humanist hogwash about Progress. It gets you thinking. (Avila)


*Beardo Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby, Berk; (510) 841-6500, $17-26. Thurs-Sat, 8pm; Sun, 5pm. Through Sun/24. Shotgun Players present a an original songplay about Rasputin.

East 14th – True Tale of a Reluctant Player The Marsh Berkeley, 2120 Allston Way, Berk; (800) 838-3006, $20-50. Sat, 8pm; Sun, 7pm. Through May 8. Don Reed’s one-man show continues.

*Eccentricities of a Nightingale Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison; (510) 843-4822, $10-55. Tues, 7pm; Wed-Sat, 8pm; Sun, 2 and 7pm. Through May 8. Bracketed literally from beginning to end by fireworks, Aurora Theatre’s production of Tennesee Williams’ The Eccentricities of a Nightingale offers some serious bang. On the surface, a tragic-comic tale of unrequited love in small-town Mississippi, Eccentricities plunges into deeper waters, exploring the ever-waged war between societal norms and its misfits — and the struggle to remain true to oneself — with a subtly layered approach. Protagonist Alma (Beth Wilmurt), the titular Nightingale, isolated by her complicated family circumstances and her own mild eccentricities, carries a long-burning torch for the boy-next-door, a rather callow young doctor (Thomas Gorrebeeck) with a terrifyingly overprotective mother (Marcia Pizzo). But Alma’s yearning, as much habit as attraction, has less to do with a dream of settling down with a nice doctor husband, but rather of freeing herself from the conventions that threaten to crush her spirit. Alma’s nervous artistic temperament hides a solidly pragmatic core, and when she has her young doctor alone in a hotel room at last, her plea for him to “give me an hour and I’ll make a lifetime of it,” rings not of desperation but of the adventure she craves. Director Tom Ross deftly brings out the gentle humor and bittersweet victory in the text via a strong cast and stellar design team. (Gluckstern)

Not a Genuine Black Man The Marsh Berkeley, TheaterStage, 2120 Allston Way, Berk; (800) 838-3006, $20-50. Thurs, 7:30pm. Through May 5. Brian Copeland’s one-man show continues.

Out of Sight The Marsh Berkeley, Theaterstage, 2120 Allston Way, Berk; (800) 838-3006, $20-50. Sat, 5pm (no show Sat/9); Sun, 3pm. Through May 8. Sara Felder’s one-woman show returns.

Singing at the Edge of the World The Cabaret at The Marsh Berkeley, 2120 Allston Way, Berk; (800) 838-3006, $15-35. Thurs-Fri, 8pm; Sat, 5pm. Through Sat/16. The Marsh presents a one-man show by Randy Rutherford.

Slices 2011 pear Avenue Theatre, 1220 Pear, Mtn View; (650) 254-1148, $15-30. Thurs-Sat, 8pm; Sun, 2pm. Through April 24. Pear Avenue Theatre presents its annual festival of short plays.

Snow Falling on Cedars TheatreWorks at Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro, Mtn View; (650) 463-1960, $24-67. Tues-Wed, 7:30pm; Thurs-Fri, 8pm; Sat, 2 and 8pm; Sun, 2 and 7pm. Through April 24. TheatreWorks presents a stage adaptation of the David Guterson novel.

Three Sisters Berkeley Reperory Theatre, Thrust Stage, 2025 Addison, Berk; (510) 647-2949, $29-73. Dates and times vary. Through May 22. The creators of Eurydice and In the Next Room present a new take on Chekhov.

The World’s Funniest Bubble Show The Marsh Berkeley, Cabaret, 2120 Allston Way, Berk; (800) 838-3006, $8-50. Through July 10. The Amazing Bubble Man returns.


Alonzo King LINES Ballet Yerba Buena Center for the Arts; 701 Mission; (415) 978-2787, Wed/20-Thurs/21, 7:30pm; Fri/22-Sat/23, 8pm; Sun/24, 5pm. Check for prices. Alonzo King LINES Ballet’s new Triangle of the Squinches—the title refers to a structural device—is a dance about affinities. Dance is often described as “architectural,” and architectural creations are sometimes described as having “dancing” qualities. Architect Christopher Haas created what looked like a solid wall that made up of rubberized strings, and another wall – monumental, but also malleable – out of corrugated cardboard. The dancers’ movements infused these seemingly solid structures with motion. But the choreography stayed on the level of “Let’s see what we can do with this.” Still, LINES is LINES. The dancing, particularly by newcomers Courtney Henry and Michael Montgomery, was gorgeous. Mickey Hart’s score had a beautiful shimmer to it, combining earthly sounds with celestial ones. (Felciano)