The New York Times reviews ‘Vice’ and the story of Dick Cheney's America

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Bale, thickening and graying before our eyes, burrows into the personality of a shrewd operator endowed with whatever the opposite of charisma might be. His Cheney lacks any trace of charm, humor or warmth, except sometimes in the company of his family. Dick’s devotion to his wife and their two daughters is genuine, but what motivates him above all is the study and acquisition of power, a vocation in which he has Lynne’s fierce and unstinting support.

The Great Scooter Crisis of 2018

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By Peter Horn

In a rare show of local bureaucratic efficiency, the powers that be in San Francisco heard the desperate cries of their constituents and came together to confront the city’s most pressing issues. Or issue, rather: The Great Scooter Crisis of 2018 (“TGSC2018”).

In a zero-sum resource environment, this act of bravery is not without consequences. All police officers with pre-2010 rent control who’ve managed to maintain an address in the city will be reassigned to the elite Scooter Task Force (“STF”). In a move lauded by local officials as fighting fire with eco-conscious fire, the 2,298-person task force will be given an armory of fully stocked AR-15s and unrestricted use of the city’s 14 police horses normally deployed to city parks in the fight against glass bottle-riddled picnics. They will be given orders to use lethal force when necessary, and if scooter traffic near the Philz truck on Marina Boulevard in the last two weeks is any indication, there will be blood.

With the recent surge in property crimes around the city, the STF is encouraging citizens not to leave valuables in their cars while officers’ resources are occupied by the scooter threat. Citizens should expect additional BART delays as well as a generous amount of public nudity and urination on the trains wholly unrelated to TGSC2018.

Then there’s the question of where to store the abominable things once the threat has been neutralized. Thankfully the city’s leaders had a Plan B after a Mission District homeowners group objected to spray-painting them blue and tossing them in Zuckerberg’s yard. The 95 affordable housing units in the Natalie Grub Commons complex just received its 6,581st lottery application, and it’s going straight to the top of the waiting list.

Critics of the plan will be comforted to know institutional investors have begun to show interest in the Affordable Scooter Storage sector despite its unfortunate abbreviation, and rumor is WeWork is eyeing a WeScoot concept where members pay a premium hourly rate to store their scooters in units with exposed beams and ironic wall murals.

None of these measures, of course, are free, so budget dollars will need to be reallocated from less urgent uses. Homeless shelters and opioid abuse clinics will temporarily shut their doors, while mental health facilities will be converted to post-traumatic scooter centers to give reeling citizens a safe place to work through the stages of Scooter Inconvenience (“SI”).

San Francisco is truly a world class city, complete with its share of world class problems. We can all rest easy knowing our leaders are facing these pressing issues head-on, one two-wheeled menace at a time.

"Sacramento Proud" - A native shares his thoughts on the Stephon Clark tragedy

By Ryan Hanlon | @ryan_hanny 

The Stephon Clark tragedy has shook my community to the core.  Aside from an enlightening stint at UC Berkeley for college, I have spent virtually my whole life in Sacramento.  Naturally, I am a loyal Sacramento Kings fan.  While strong ties to the community certainly grant me an emotional stake on this issue, my qualifications for writing this article end there.  I was raised by a conservative white family in the middle class suburb of Elk Grove.  I am not a police officer, and I have no family or close friends that have served in law enforcement.  I also have never served in the military or been in a combat situation.  Thus, I am lacking perspective on both sides of this equation.  Then again, maybe it is precisely that lack of perspective that affords me the objectivity necessary to write this article. 

On the evening of March 27th, 2018, a good friend and I went to see the Sacramento Kings play the Dallas Mavericks at the Golden 1 Center in Downtown Sacramento.  Why, you might ask?  Good question.  On paper, this tank-fest of a game is about as intriguing as another 50 Shades of Grey sequel, but, as I mentioned, I am a loyal fan.  When we arrived close to game time we were greeted by a notably diverse group of hundreds of citizens protesting the shooting of Stephon Clark. 

To be honest, my immediate reaction was one of annoyance.  Of course I sympathize with Stephon Clark’s family, friends, and community for their tragic loss.  I also recognize that racially charged police violence is a legitimate issue that communities face across the country.  But what the hell do the Sacramento Kings and their fans have to do with this horrible tragedy?  This might be my last chance to see the great Dirk Nowitzki play, and these protesters are denying me that opportunity for something that neither I nor the thousands of other men, women, and children standing dumbfounded outside the arena gates had any part in?

As the protesters continued to stand their ground, the Kings promptly notified fans that they would not be able to get into the arena and that they would be receiving refunds for the price of admission.  My friend and I then went to a local bar where we found other exiled Kings fans.  Over a couple beers and some appetizers, my friend and I began to engage in an in-depth and constructive conversation about what we had just witnessed and the circumstances surrounding it.  Over the course of the night, I couldn’t help but overhear many other Kings fans engaging in similar conversations, though some less constructive than others. 

Some folks openly supported the protest.  Others didn’t seem to mind the protest or the effect it had on their night.  The more common sentiments, however, were along the lines of, "There is a place called the State Capitol! This is not a good way to get their point across." And my first instinct as stated above: “What the hell do the Kings and their fans have to do with this?”  As the beer and conversation continued to flow and the Kings continued to lose the game (or win the draft lottery war, depending on how you look at it), I quickly realized that I was missing the point. 

Because the protest directly affected me, it forced me to think about the issue in a way that a protest marching on the steps of the Capitol never would have.  It forced me to seek out the facts in an effort to develop an informed opinion both on what happened to Stephon Clark and the method of protesting the same.  It made me feel uncomfortable.  And that is the point.  The protest is working - people are talking, and, more importantly, people are listening

Fortunately, one of the most influential voices in my community is setting an example by engaging in constructive conversation about these issues.  While the Sacramento Kings organization has not done much right from a basketball standpoint over the past decade plus, they’ve handled the recent protests with class and grace.  On March 22, 2018, the first night the protest denied fans access to the Kings game, the Kings’ owner, Vivek Ranadive, stepped up and addressed the Kings fans, the protesters, and the NBA by making a simple and straightforward live statement expressing compassion and promoting unity. 

That is a tough task for any owner of a sports franchise, especially considering he couldn’t have had much notice.  He said nothing particularly profound, and he for the most part took the politics out of his message (which is difficult to do), but he squarely addressed the situation, voiced support for the family, and preached solidarity.   Every NFL owner had the opportunity to make a similar impact for their respective communities last NFL season, and while some issued statements and/or stood with players in direct response to President Trump’s lambasting of the NFL for not changing its policy on the anthem protests, none that I am aware of made live public statements to positively address the anthem protest itself.  Sure, there are different facts and dynamics at play in the NFL which do not make the comparison apples to apples (less NFL games, a different demographic of fans, players protesting as opposed to citizens, and a different method of protest), but these complications do not excuse inaction – or worse – condemnation.  Mr. Ranadive may have no idea how to build a front office, but he is miles ahead of the field when it comes to steering a franchise and a community through delicate social issues. 

After the March 27th protest again denied fans access to the Kings game, Mr. Ranadive continued to engage in constructive conversation when he sat down with the leaders of the protests to discuss how to come together and move forward.  The result of that meeting was a partnership between the Sacramento Kings, Sacramento Black Lives Matter, and the Build. Black. Coalition in an unprecedented effort to fundamentally transform Black communities through investment in black youth in Sacramento.  The partnership’s effort to support black youth in Sacramento began promptly this past Friday (March 30, 2018) when current Kings players Vince Carter and Garret Temple and Kings legend Doug Christie appeared at a local event titled “Kings and Queens Rise: A Youth Voice Forum for Healing." Again, the Sacramento Kings lead by example and use their platform to foster togetherness. 

We should all follow the example set by the Sacramento Kings.  We should all engage in this process, not be dismissive of it.  We should all be respectful of and receptive to other people’s viewpoints, not criticize the manner in which they express them.  We should all search for common ground. 

I am not here to tell you what your opinion should be on the issue of racially charged police violence in our country. That is for you to decide.  But keep in mind, despite what the media would have you believe, your opinion does not have to be confined to the extremes of either “fuck the police” or “tough shit, when the police say stop, stop.”  That’s the easy way out.  While I’m on my soapbox, I’d argue that either extreme almost presupposes that you have not thought critically about the issues, reviewed the objective facts, and/or discussed the issue openly and respectfully with others who may disagree with you (posting provocative comments on social media does not count in my book).  You can support some aspects of the protests and disagree with others.  There is room for nuance.  I doubt this article takes an extreme enough position for those who protested at the Kings games on March 22nd and March 27th, and I am certain this article does not satisfy those who left the arena cussing and screaming at the protesters.  But that is just fine. 

What happened to Stephon Clark was undoubtedly horrific and representative of a larger issue in our country.  I do not presume to have all the answers for how to best address this issue.  I do know, however, that any significant social issue cannot be effectively addressed without the leadership of those in positions of power and influence.  While I couldn’t disagree more with President Trump’s characterization of this tragedy as a "local issue," I do agree with how my community and its leaders are working to address it on a local scale.  I can only hope that, when given the opportunity, people and organizations in positions of power in other communities across the country will follow the example set by the Sacramento Kings in the wake of the Stephon Clark tragedy.  Now, more than ever, I am #SacrametoProud

"I Am A God: Prologue" debuts April 5th in the 16th Annual Oakland International Film Festival

Henrik Sertima is a nerdy budding photographer planning to invent and distribute a unique line of film cameras ordained with ancient Egyptian symbols. In the midst of an ordinary day hanging out with his friend Kevin, he sees a supernatural vision. Their whole world is turned upside down after this revealing experience. As Henrik makes progress with his inventions the visions intensify. He becomes determined to find out what these visions mean and what he must do. I AM A GOD is a magically surreal story of self discovery that summons ancient truths.

Get your tickets here. 

For those who can not make the debut, the film will also be showing April 6th - 10pm at Jack London Regal... The perfect way to end your First Friday Festivities. See you there! 

Author Steven Pinker appears on the Joe Rogan Podcast, insists on a positive outlook of the world

Steven Pinker is a cognitive psychologist, linguist, and popular science author. He is Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University, and is known for his advocacy of evolutionary psychology and the computational theory of mind. His new book "Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress" will be released in February 2018.

Bay Area yoga teacher Jamila Ekukpe seeks to spread a unique perspective with her practice

By Connor Buestad

When you take a yoga class led by Jamila Ekukpe, the first thing you notice is how professional she is as a teacher. Clearly experienced with her craft, Ekukpe welcomes students into her downtown Oakland studio with an aura of confidence that puts one at ease when they lay down their mat for a class. She takes a direct and thoughtful approach throughout, drawing on both her understanding of the human body and her emotional intelligence to lead her classes to a better place each session, both physically and mentally.

Although she could easily be mistaken for yet another highly qualified yoga instructor that Bay Area yogis are lucky to choose from, look deeper and you will find a person that has much more to offer than a series of timed asanas. She has a much deeper message to share.

Born and raised in Dallas, Texas by Nigerian parents, Ekukpe had very little yoga influence in her life growing up. It certainly wasn’t a path she envisioned for herself growing up. After graduating from high school, Ekukpe decided that a career in the Air Force would give her a stable career path and a chance to see the world. Unfortunately, that’s not how it played out for her at all. Instead, she was faced with empty promises unfulfilled and a serious back injury that required extensive rehab.

Because the Air Force had given her a taste of life in California, Ekukpe decided to stay and enroll at San Jose State to pursue her degree post service. Upon completion, she found herself in the corporate world of Bay Area real estate. Although successful, Ekukpe found that it didn’t allow her to sufficiently spread her perspectives on both mental and physical fitness. Perspectives and opinions that she takes very seriously.

“In the Air Force, I experienced obstacles with race and gender that I didn’t feel I deserved to face. For a lot of reasons it was unhealthy for me. By the time it was over, I had physical scars from my back injury and some mental scars from the culture there,” she explains.

As Ekukpe continued to rehab from her back injury, she found that yoga was an essential ingredient in getter her back on her feet both physically and emotional. Enamored by the process of healing and growth, Ekukpe began to feel the desire within her to teach yoga herself. She found a teacher training program with Annie Carpenter and hasn’t looked back.

“Teaching yoga really brings out the best in me. It allows me to connect with the public and share my teachings in a way that benefits not only my students, but myself as well. When I walk into a class, some people might make judgements based on how I look or what my background is, but that fades away when a class starts. All that matters is the hour at hand and how it makes people feel. I think that can be very powerful.”

When taking a class with Ekukpe, it is easy to be inspired by her calm confidence that she brings to the room every session. Her physical gifts as a yogi are easy to spot, but her emotional response to her class is equally as valuable. A long path has lead Ekukpe to finally be teaching yoga in the Bay Area. We are lucky to have her and learn from her journey.  

The GOP’s Licensing Deal

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By Peter Horn | @PeterCHorn

They thought they were getting a two-bedroom, two-bathroom slice of the American dream. A condominium built to the specifications of luxury befitting a man whose name nearly always appears in gold.

Sure they saw the warning signs. He’d nearly lost it all in a series of failed Atlantic City casino investments, and did he really call into the New York tabloids under a false alias to brag about his lascivious pursuits?

Maybe he’s flawed, but aren’t we all? And doesn’t that make his return to prominence that much more impressive? That much more relatable? That much more American?

So they looked past the red flags and signed on the dotted line. Trump Ocean Resort Baja. Trump Towers Tampa. Trump Towers Fort Lauderdale. For some, the down payment represented a lifetime’s savings.

Contrary to what they were led to believe, these condo projects were not to be built by Donald Trump. Rather, the giant gold letters in the marketing materials were the product of a licensing deal.

But a pig with lipstick on it is still a pig. And a poorly built condo sporting gold letterhead is still a poorly built condo.

These investors learned the hard way what the GOP soon will: Donald Trump is not a master developer; he is a master of short-term marketing and risk insulation.

When the Republican Party saw him take the stage in front of those pulsing, feverpitched crowds of red baseball caps, it saw an opportunity to rebuild a proud but dated brand. It saw a redevelopment plan.

Sure they saw the warning signs. A sham “university” that preyed upon desperate individuals striving to better their lives. An audio tape bragging about using a position of power to sexually harass women.

But isn’t there something in the bible about casting the first stone? And did you see the size of those crowds?

They will soon learn that, like so many of his recent condominium developments, Donald Trump has no equity stake in the GOP. This wasn’t a redevelopment. It was a short-term licensing deal.

And this licensing deal was no different than the rest: Trump stamped his name, offered a brand infusion by stoking the flames of resentment and animosity, then placed others around him in the first-loss position.

The failure of Obamacare repeal? McConnell. Potential tax reform failure? Cohn and Mnuchin. Russia? Let me give you the number for Jeff Sessions.

This has become Trump’s MO: positioning himself and his family to reap the financial rewards of his personal brand, while spreading the investment risk to all those around him. Capturing the upside, offloading the downside.

So it will be with the GOP. If and when things turn south, others will take the fall. Then when the party is no longer convenient, no longer accretive to the Trump brand, he’ll pull those gold letters down and walk away.

And those who chose to look past the warning signs in hopes of a GOP redevelopment will be forced to pick up the pieces of yet another broken Trump licensing deal.

They won’t like what they see.

You're Going to Die Presents YOU'RE ALIVE at SF's Great American Music Hall

By Alison Sperling | @ali_sperling | alison.sperling@gmail.com

It’s not meant to be a threat – that You’re Going to Die – it’s a fact. The reality that many of us find this fact imminently threatening is the charge and challenge of a bi-monthly performance series held at The Lost Church in San Francisco, the name of which places this fact front and center: “You’re Going to Die” (or, “YG2D” for short). On Friday, August 11th, YG2D will host its largest evening yet at the iconic Great American Music Hall in San Francisco. It’s a show that evidences YG2D’s vital and growing cultural influence in the Bay Area, a show that, especially for newcomers, will be a debut on a main stage in one of the leading cities in the world for the arts.

Over the past eight years, the YG2D movement has been taking shape around the city. It’s a movement centered on mortality – your own, yes – but also the mortality of those we have lost, and of those whom we are terrified to lose to death. It features an open mic packed with no longer than five-minute performances by poets professional and amateur, local musicians, comedians, storytellers of many forms, who each take as their task the subject of death and dying. YG2D also presents curated shows with featured performers ranging from full bands to spoken word, but all talented artists and always entertainment experiences inspired by a shared engagement with mortality. This is the ongoing project of Ned Buskirk, who curates, manages, and hosts the series. If performers go over their allotted time, Ned will come up on stage and hug them as a cue that their time is up. It’s that sort of thing, deeply introspective but wildly, frighteningly, thrillingly shared, a mutually agreed upon public vulnerability.

It was in May of 2009 when Ned and Sara Buskirk opened the doors to their San Francisco apartment for the first open mic that would eventually become the “You’re Going to Die” series. Crowded into their living room, people took turns standing and reading something – a poem, a spoken word piece, a page of Shakespeare, a toilet paper wrapper. I had only just met Ned then, maybe a year before, but it was clear he was extraordinary, adorned in plastic jewelry (no one seems to remember why), as he read a rumination on two black birds he spotted in a distant parking lot, but which turned out to be instead a wind-caught plastic bag dancing upside down on its handles. Acting as both the evening's host and performing as a writer -- a dual role that he would continue to develop as YG2D took shape --  Ned's persona and his writing had us in fits of laughter spontaneously checked by moments of contemplation. Maybe this is the balance that YG2D attempts to strike, a lightness of heart that doesn't refuse or shy away from the heaviness of grief.

Ned smiles at YG2D's first open mic, held inside his apartment in 2009.

Ned smiles at YG2D's first open mic, held inside his apartment in 2009.

If it isn’t already obvious, Ned is a friend of mine. I think he’s my best friend, though he is likely to have other best friends besides me. I admit this because I want to acknowledge my bias about Ned, about YG2D, about the many ways in which I feel invested in this movement, in my friend. [Over the last eight years there have been a number of well-done (more objective) write-ups about YG2D.] Ned has a kind of courage in facing mortality, born perhaps from the loss of his mom in 2003, which has informed YG2D from the start. It’s a courage that translates into the YG2D events and into the countless substantive, intimate relationships he has with community members and friends. He encourages in others an experience in vulnerability, a kind of shared, communal emotion around loss and the ways we might mourn and recover from loss together. He’s the kind of person you trust with your heaviest of feelings, the kind of person who is willing to bear them for others as if they were his own.

For those of us who have been attending YG2D’s since 2009, who have seen the events change and grow, take new forms in new venues, it’s hard not to feel like this August 11th show at the GAMH is a kind of culmination, the pinnacle of an organic, spontaneous night eight years ago in a San Francisco living room. Now, it’s an event that will likely sell out a major Bay Area performance venue. It’s astonishing, what we all can do together, what feelings and what people YG2D has given voice to, what spaces it has filled with those willing to face difficulties together, and with strangers. But YG2D is only getting started, with some big announcements on the way about the movement’s future (follow YG2D on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter for updates). Don’t miss a chance to take part in this fully curated entertainment experience on the biggest stage YG2D has taken yet: “A Mortal Celebration.”

 

Ned onstage at a YG2D event, inside  The Lost Church  in SF.

Ned onstage at a YG2D event, inside The Lost Church in SF.


Complete show information and link to tickets below:

Get your tickets HERE

You're Going to Die Presents...
YOU'RE ALIVE: A Mortal Celebration featuring
Major Powers & The Lo-Fi Symphony
Midtown Social
with special appearances by
Scott Ferreter + Chelsea Coleman
& words from
Angela Hennessy
@
Great American Music Hall
Doors at 8pm
Show at 9pm

You're Going to Die offers a concert series proudly presenting great artists as they deserve to be presented: in the concert context of acknowledging their brilliant beaming mortal magic.
YG2D Presents curated shows steeped in the context of mortality, showcasing inspiringly enlivening musical acts with movingly entertaining spoken word.

On Friday, August 11th @ Great American Music Hall, YG2D proudly presents both friends & inspiring artists, Midtown Social & Major Powers & the Lofi Symphony...

Deeply inspiring & guaranteed to make you sweat just as much as it makes you think, Midtown Social presents a message of solidarity & hope, voiced by a community of people who are as diverse, bold, authentic, & vulnerable as the community in which they were forged. Midtown Social asks us all to come together, to find common ground, love & camaraderie, to fight for our communities, way of life, & rights—and to stand together as one.

Major Powers & The Lo-Fi Symphony plays Adventure Rock™. Imagine Mary Poppins writing songs for Weezer during a cliff diving competition between Freddie Mercury & Tom Waits while Danny Elfman makes out with Indiana Jones during a game of Dungeons & Dragons.

Angela Hennessy is an Oakland-based interdisciplinary artist and Associate Professor at California College of the Arts where she teaches courses on visual and cultural narratives of death and textile theory. Her current project, The School of the Dead, is a program for the decolonization of death and grief through the radical inquiry of aesthetic and social practices that mediate the boundary between the living and the dead.

The San Francisco Frozen Film Festival comes back to The Bay

By Galen Barbour

Once again small theatres around San Francisco stock their drawers with tickets of yet another film festival. But before we scurry our mouse and eyes to the next piece of luscious click bait let me first spill some words on why SFFFF (Friday-Sunday at the Roxie and Piano Fight) is unlike any other and commands your attention.

There are a lot of film festivals in San Francisco, but rarely do we find such a diversity of content. Yeah, the content varies; drama, comedy, skate/surf, feature-length, shorts, animation etc. Yes, it’s also hosts Bay Area artists as well as those international.

But the actual medium involved pushes the bounds and breadth of this years Frozen Fest; Super 16, wind-up, Super 8, CGI, stop-motion, illustration sometimes multiple disciplines can be found getting down in one soupy feature.

The most exciting aspect of this year’s festival (for me) is the experimental films section where we are beckoned to feed our imagination not only with creative writing that challenges our perception and expectations, but also forms of mixed media that challenge our formal institutions of which we are use to adhering to.

This is important for a few reasons. The breaking of our creative norms allows new concepts to flower through the cracks. Also, well, we have the technology. Finally the power is for us, and we, the people can do some amazing things with it.

This diversity of content and technology is also mimicked in the context of the material.  We have here stories of at fishing dating app users, abandoned shopping malls, Oakland scrap yards, Mythology indigenous to Argentina, surreal Armenian skate films, homosexuality in India. Stories of societies extremes. Some of them destitute, hopeful and resilient. Others price-jacked, anxious and still wanting more. All of them purely human and brought to you in one of the most creative art mediums: FILM.

Don’t be scared come on in. Below is a link to the site so you can see for yourself.

SFFFF website:

http://www.frozenfilmfestival.com/pdf/2017_Line_Up_v.b.pdf

(GQ) Mahershala Ali Thinks We Can Still Make this Country Great

Ali was born in Oakland and graduated from St. Mary's College in Moraga

Ali was born in Oakland and graduated from St. Mary's College in Moraga

But not in the MAGA way. After winning every award under the sun for his role in 'Moonlight,' Mahershala Ali used his platform to speak up for love and tolerance. And though he’s been profiled by Berkeley cops and placed on the terrorist watch list for having a Muslim name, he still believes that "in time the pendulum will swing in the right direction.”

The SF Documentary Festival highlights Bay Area culture in its 16th year

By Galen Barbour

Cinematic Documentary Film Making. An art form which is becoming increasingly more relevant in the age of high quality consumer-priced media equipment and low quality media outlets. When the lines blur between news media and social media, reality and reality T.V., we can look to this humble craft to give us clear and compelling insights to the narratives of the humans caught between the headlines. Now in its 16th year SF DocFest in some ways seems more relevant than ever. Focusing intently on the people pushed amidst the stronger currents of these modern times.

2017 has not been the best year for many people. Politicians, machines, corporate contractors and insurance salesman maybe. But for the humans working below them, not so much. For those that wield the brush of the camera, a hammer, or steering wheel of an Uber, things may seem a little rough at best, possibly even bleak.

Maybe it's for that reason that in this day and age events like SF DocFest may guide us back to elements of humanity lost in the fog of our time.

Flush with everything human, this years DocFest is rife with sweat, blood, drama tears and humor. Angolan style, Vodoun, Narcorridos and environmental change are just a few of the tales in this years two week long festival. There is also homage paid to our strong but struggling class of artists here in the Bay.

San Francisco Film collector Stephen Parr takes on a Sonic Adventure by peeling through a tiny piece of his rich collection. Two of the three blocks of short films are either on or from Bay Area Artists. As well as a very interesting piece on the rise of the East Bay Punk scene, which sold out its first night.

Interestingly still, is the dozens of screenings that host the filmmaker at the event so you can get insights from the people behind the creation and execution of the film.

Whatever your flavor, you are sure to find it at this years DocFest. Enjoy!

"Love in A.I." - Further Exploring Artificial Intelligence

Ben Goertzel (OpenCog/Hanson Robotics)

Ben Goertzel (OpenCog/Hanson Robotics)

By Galen Barbour

Have you ever loved anything unconditionally? If so how could you be sure? The question has been a debate of philosophers and experts of the mind for a millennium. Now the burden has fallen on the desk of scientists working on Artificial Intelligence. Quite possibly the most serious and provocative advancement of technology now paws at what could be the final gate between human and machine: our emotions. At a recent lecture held by Consciousness Hacking, doctors Julia Mossbridge (IONS) and Ben Goertzel (OpenCog/Hanson Robotics) discuss their recent efforts to enable our machines to feel love. The irony? They may teach us more about this emotion than we know ourselves.

--

It’s a balmy Wednesday night in the SoMa district of San Francisco. We are at an event hosted by Consciousness Hacking. A group of technophiles whom employ the use of wearable technology such as biometric sensors and EEG machines are spread throughout the room. They got their start in San Francisco but the group is an active online community with over 3700 Meetup members spread over the world.

The head organizer, Mikey Seigel, looks better suited to be found on a spiritual retreat center, encouraging people to unplug rather than be under the fluorescent ambiance of office lights; everyone plugged in. But don’t let the bare feet and eccentric hair fool you. Mr. Seigel is pragmatically forward thinking in ways that misses much of consumer-oriented tech culture.

By wearing devices that read your heart rate, blood pressure and brain wave activity, the Consciousness Hackers gain insight into how our body copes to certain emotions and mental states. Mr. Seigel Postulates, that by first visualizing our emotions we become more aware and able to alter them. By stabilizing your emotional and physical states you are then able to exude that balance and insight to the world around you, effectively making the world a healthier place.

“We have a real responsibility to ensure that the technology in our pockets, (that we’re) wearing on our wrists, soon going to be covering our eyes, implanted in our bodies. That the technology is supporting humanity in the deepest and most profound way possible.”

Our discussion tonight aims to incorporate that goal into the design of A.I. A technology of which, at the moment, does all of our finding for us. Food, shelter, clothes, drugs, partners, rides, movies, music…the list is indefinite.

We are joined by Julia Mossbridge and Ben Goertzel to discuss a project they are working on which infuses A.I. with the ability to love in the better interest of humanity. It began with Goertzel’s involvement with Hanson Robotics, known internationally for their freakishly life-like robots. Goertzel’s wide acclaim for his open-source approach to Artificial Intelligence has garnered lots of attention and progress towards his work.

Dr. Mossbridge is the founder of The Mossbridge Institute and creator of the Choice Compass, a guidance app that helps with those hard to make decisions. Mossbridge has focused her studies into the science of emotion, working closely with IONS (Institute of Noetic Sciences). With Hanson as the body, Goertzel behind the mind, and Mossbridge providing the heart, this love-enabled AI could be the most developed Human-like A.I. in creation.

Mossbridge elaborated that by enabling an AI to love it could “Enhance the well being of all beings. Humans interacting with an A.l. in this state are likely to feel increased unconditional love and are more likely to take actions to promote the well being of themselves and others.”

This is where it gets sticky, by this definition of love how can we really know the program actually loves? We ourselves have not all come to an agreement of what love is. How can we make sure that the love being promulgated by the program is genuine and not just an elaborate simulated copy of emotion? “The reason why (this) is so hard is because we don’t know how to do this with other beings.” In the end she theorizes that we must rely on trust. Followed by further analysis.

This too becomes sticky because we validate one unknown with another. Although these feelings are tacitly understood amongst us, they are still not well defined by science. And here you enter into the crux of the A.I. community; the split between Artificial intelligence (A.I.) and Artificial General Intelligence (A.G.I.).

A rough definition between the two is that A.I. (also known as weak A.I. or reductive A.I.) is a program that works to reduce the number of possible outcomes in a domain based on certain parameters. They work toward a single function and are confined through the input of their domains, their answers are fielded through specific algorithms. This technology is the magic behind our sourcing apps (Netflix, Google, Pandora etc…) and although powerful at processing complex requests, they are only capable of executing queries relative to their algorithms.

A.G.I. differs from this model in that it can complete novel tasks through autonomous decision-making. It does not work through the confines of any single reductive algorithm but rather a multi dimensional layering of various algorithms.

In Goertzel’s words his A.G.I. uses, amongst other things, a “hyper graph of probabilistic logic engines, evolutionary learning engines, pattern mining, neural net mining and imitation learning.” In this way we can think of A.G.I. as a multi faceted decision-making engine, instead of a rigid A.I. system that processes huge amounts of data.

To take a closer look at the grey area between these two lets take the complex A.I. that finds profitable emerging markets for investment firms. Many of which use A.I. to web crawl the internet on forums and product feedback pages. Using natural language processing, the crawler picks out words that the program recognizes as emotions. The program then funnels these emotions into a list associated with the product being discussed and may include some meta-data on the users such as location, sex etc. The program is then able to decipher the general attitude towards a product or service. However, does it know what that emotion means? The context behind it? No that job remains the domain of humans…for now

Goertzel explains that we have a number of ways in which A.I. is and will be implemented. We can engineer it for combat against one another, brain-washing ourselves into buying things, or to help us in a compassionate manner in which betters the life of the individual and the public. By incorporating the open source system we can assure that no one interest is weighing bias on our decision-tech.

One could only imagine how bad this could swing. But even today we have examples like Tay A.I. that lead to an ominous future.

Tay A.I. was Microsoft’s twitter chat-bot that was pulled off the internet within 24 hours of its release due to its racist, anti-semetic and misogynist language. The program made online headlines garnering apologies from Microsoft and more fear and uncertainty from people already hesitant about the future of thinking programs.

The initial idea was harmless, Microsoft wanted to test an autonomously thinking machine programmed to use the language offered by users in conversation. By placing it online the programmed could receive bottomless and diverse input data. This meant no need for private writers or a breach of privacy to access peoples chat history. However, by talking to misogynist racist assholes, Tay became one. This arguably could have been avoided if the program were open source with the implementation of oversight algorithms that look for these words. As well Tay illustrates the big difference between an A.I. that knows what to say, yet not why.

This incredible failure addresses how far we have yet to go. In reality, there are very few examples of true A.G.I. because the jury is still out on what truly drives free thought. Much of psychology is speculative at best and difficult to prove. It’s an explanation built upon layers and layers of theory. Collectively, these theories paint the best schematic behind what we know as consciousness and free thought (as far as science is concerned). In the quest for true general intelligence in machines scientists are turning psych theory into math then setting these algorithms to motion in virtual spaces known as hyper-graphs (in Goertzel’s Open Cog system it is known as the ‘Atom Space’). This is how we have developed the many overlapping AI paradigms that are implemented in the ongoing quest towards artificial thought. Including but not limited to; probabilistic logic engines, evolutionary learning engines, pattern mining, neural nets and imitation learning.

Without even scratching the surface we can see how there may be conflicting systems. However in this sea of differing paradigms of thought there emerges one very popular theory; thought cannot be divorced from emotion.

A classic example of this being Deitrich Doerner’s Psi model. Psi is an emotional motivation model that explains behavior through social, cognitive or physical demands (or ‘urges’). It was later adopted by Joscha Bach in his Micro Psi model of A.I. Although a strong explanation of behavior it presented fundamental differences to the Open Cog Prime framework. Which explains behavior through a model of action, outcome, memory and reinforcement. Through adopting pieces of Bach’s Micro Psi model which deal with emotion as a motivational factor along the pathway towards decisions and later action Goertzel was able to bolster both Open Cog and Micro Psi into a more Dynamic and comprehensive model aptly named Open Psi which incorporates more potential than either did separately.

This is a dramatically brief example of these two concepts however, it does stress how an open source framework can be useful in including many differing theories under one construct. As we continue to explore and develop our understanding of ourselves a malleable framework which can incorporate the change in this formless science may not only be efficient but vital to achieving an A.G.I. which helps, rather than exploits. As Goertzel put it, “It's not a matter of if it's going to happen, it’s a matter of what its going to look like."

Book Review: “Hard to Grip” – An SF Native’s Memoir of Youth, Baseball, and Chronic Illness

By Connor Buestad | Connor@Section925.com

Growing up on the shores of Ocean Beach in San Francisco’s Sunset District, Emil DeAndreis had little interest in ever becoming a successful author, or even a serious student for that matter. From the moment he picked up a whiffle ball bat on a dirt road and took his first swing at one of dad’s fastballs, baseball was always the top priority in DeAndreis' life. Soon enough, he was throwing heaters his dad couldn’t reliably catch, which led him to high school city championships inside AT&T Park, and a record breaking college career in Hawaii pitching against a cast of Division I stars, many of which were destined for the Big Leagues.

As is so often the case in the game of baseball, DeAndreis career path led him through a forest of ups and downs, featuring stories of triumph, devastation, humor and everything in between. Nothing was more dramatic for DeAndreis, however, than when the professional bound pitcher was diagnosed with a chronic illness, putting a halt to a career and way of life that would be difficult for anyone to come to grips with, no matter how tough they claim to be.

Nearing 30 and void of the ability to pump baseballs past hitter’s bats any longer, DeAndreis tapped into his natural talent for writing to produce “Hard to Grip – a memoir of youth, baseball and chronic illness” which was released this spring. The book is an absolute pleasure to read, with something in it for everyone. From rich, honest, comedic, sometimes vulgar descriptions of what it was like growing up at the turn of the millennium in San Francisco, to heartfelt accounts of baseball battles at all levels, to the pain, insecurities, and resiliency required to stare a debilitating ailment like Rheumatoid Arthritis in the face and not let it beat you, this book comes at its reader in a multitude of ways.

The book doesn’t stop there, as it is also a love story of sorts, as well as a story of the power of friendship, not to mention a story of what is required to chase down a dream with reckless abandon, refusing to take no for an answer.

Throughout the book, DeAndreis does a masterful job of keeping the reader on their toes, with virtually every page producing a quiet chuckle and a painful twinge as he takes you into his world to chase his baseball dream, seemingly alongside him. By the end, DeAndreis reaches a point of enlightenment that takes him far beyond the petty box scores of a college baseball game and into a place of contentment with challenges few people are required to face at such a young age. As a reader, it feels like you are your working your way through the rigors of DeAndreis’ life, never sure of what lies ahead, but always willing to turn the next page.

For over 40 chapters, “Hard to Grip” seems to grab the reader’s attention with the first sentence of every new story DeAndreis tells, and he never seems to let go. The book itself starts with a prologue that puts the reader on the pristine mound of AT&T Park in San Francisco’s city championship baseball game. DeAndreis paints an immaculate picture of the feeling of pitching inside one of Major League Baseball’s cathedral-like ballparks, fending for his identity; a 15-year-old desperate to prove himself to his boyhood brothers of Lowell High School.

The book gives way to the author’s story of growing up in The City with two small parents and one huge baseball dream. We learn of his mother’s arthritic wrists and dashed dreams of a career in music, the awkwardness of being a “baseball junkie” at a college prep school obsessed with the SAT, and of a friendship with a brash, cowboy-like catcher named Charlie forged inside San Francisco’s forgotten batting cages.

DeAndreis’ high school years, like so many others, are full of stories that teach the author “how to be a man,” but they are told from a comedic angle that few authors could pull off with so much color. Part I of the book concludes with DeAndreis’ first trip to Hawaii as a high school senior, a place where his baseball dreams were solidified. An excerpt follows:

“I watched a group of players jogging in black shorts and green, Underarmour shirts with the triangle-studded H logo. Some kids long-tossed down the left field line. I observed two players throwing bullpens. A group was hitting off of tees into a net, another in the cage. The clink of aluminum bats was everywhere. Someone yelled “rotate!” and the action stopped and bodies migrated. The artificial grass was spongy; the ground balls took true bounces. What a place. I wanted to be jogging casually in H shorts, drinking cold water from the cooler after a pen, getting the ice wrapped around my arm by the trainer. I glanced at the stadium: immaculate, with waxy green seats shaded under a hulking cement overhang. Enough seats for hundreds, lights for night games in perfect 80-degree baseball weather.”

Soon enough, DeAndreis finds himself on the islands, with a baseball in his left hand and Division I jersey on his back. For the next four years, there was never a dull moment, from dealing with the onset of chronic illness, to partying into the wee hours on 80-degree Hawaii nights, to falling in love with his future wife, DeAndreis describes college life that has a way of bringing about the best kind of nostalgia out of a reader.

Eventually, “The real world” sets in for the author, in dramatic, gutwrenching fashion. With a professional baseball opportunity in writing, and a life of continued adventure on the horizon, DeAndreis is struck with the crushing realization that his baseball dream has died and he’s the only one who truly knows it at the time. The reader can relate to DeAndreis' valiant struggle to not only beat a debilitating disease, but also come to grips with a changing identity and all that it entails. As is true throughout the book, DeAndreis is able to tie in a degree of humor and drama to keep the reader locked in for every curveball that life throws the resilient lefty’s way.

A passage in a chapter titled “Kansas” sums up this sentiment nicely: “Baseball was a bitch, and it was a savior. I stretched my shoulder against the car hood, finished my beer. I felt the angst, the serenity, and the splendor of the game swirl warmly in me like being in the eye of a hurricane.”

I won’t give away the book’s ending, but it is chalk full of suspense, adventure, hilarity and vivid color that is present throughout the pages of “Hard to Grip.” But as the reader comes to predict as they make their way through the pages of DeAndreis memoir, there is no “happy ending” in a Hollywood sort of way. This book is a far cry from your typical rom-com baseball movie that’s desperate to please the masses and make a buck. Instead, it is a raw, sometimes all-too-real account of a San Francisco native running down a dream.

In the process, you’ll meet his best friend who relentlessly rides the busses of the minors, his girlfriend who refuses to leave his side and a group of friends who don’t know how to say no to a good time. You’ll also meet a chronic illness, that rears its ugly head at the worst time possible, determined to derail a love affair with baseball and life in general.

As it turns out, “Hard to Grip” is a product of DeAndreis’ ultimate battle. Surely, no bases loaded jam in the bottom of the 9th inning even compares. But as we learn from the book, with the thrill of victory comes the agony of defeat. Fortunately, DeAndreis has the guts to share his story, regardless of the outcome.  

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To purchase “Hard to Grip” click here.

"The many meanings of 'Moonlight'" - Exploring what the film meant to say most

By Connor Buestad | Connor@Section925.com 

By now, we all know of the hype that surrounds the film "Moonlight." We know that it won this year's Academy Award for Best Picture in the most dramatic/memorable/weird way possible, first losing to "La La Land," then finding out the announcement was incorrect and "Moonlight" had actually won. We also have heard how Bay Area native Mahershala Ali became the first Muslim actor to win an Oscar as Best Supporting Actor. Furthermore, we've heard how "Moonlight" became the first ever film with an all-black cast to win Best Picture. For these reasons and more, I sat down to watch "Moonlight" and see for myself why it has garnered so much love since its release. But by the film's ending, I was more concerned with the question of, what was that film really about? What was its most important theme or lesson to take away from it? What is the most important thing to glean from such a celebrated film here in the tumultuous times of 2017? 

The best compliment I can give to the film "Moonlight" is that it makes you think. It makes you ponder a laundry list of subjects and issues that all unfold in less than two hours. By the time the last scene arrives, and young Chiron or "Little" is standing alone on a moonlit beach in Miami, the viewer has wrestled with a long list of life's questions. All questions that have clearer answers than when the film begins with Juan climbing out of his car to check on his successful drug dealing business.  

Barry Jenkins was the director of "Moonlight," and we can never be sure of the main message he wanted to deliver above all the others. But let's take some time to explore some of the candidates for his most important themes.   

The crush of capitalism  

"The Wire" has been praised endlessly for being a television drama that exposed Americans to the inner-workings of their country. People love to praise "The Wire" for unveiling the dark underbelly of America's government, police force, public schools, gangs, news business and more. Well, "Moonlight" does a great job of this as well. One way the film explains the pressures of a dog-eat-dog capitalistic structure is through the dramatic scene when Juan finds Chiron's mom smoking crack in the passenger seat of a car. Juan is understandably angry to see such destructive behavior from a seemingly promising young mother. But when he airs her out, Juan is quickly put in his place. After all, he provided the crack rocks to Paula in the first place. Maybe not directly, but Juan was where Paula was going for drugs. And as much as Juan wanted Chiron to have a clean mother, he wanted a nice car and a nice place to live with his girlfriend even more. Juan needed to get paid, and who doesn't. Simple as that.  

Kids can smell blood in the water  

"Moonlight" does a great job of showing how perceptive kids can be. When they see vulnerability in a peer, they are adept at identifying this and grabbing the power that is left there for the taking. When Chiron is a young boy, it is no coincidence his peers dub him as "Little." And it is a name that follows him everywhere, even chasing him in-between chain link fences into Miami crackhouses. "Moonlight" does a great job of showing how fast Chiron's world seems to be spinning around him. The cinematography allows the viewer to step behind Chiron's lens of life and notice how hard it must be. Chiron seems to be developmentally delayed. Not the fastest runner or the quickest to respond to a question; he is even afraid to talk. It wouldn't be a stretch to assume that Chiron's mom was already a client of Juan's drug business before her son was born. The sad result is that Chiron seems to be out in stormy seas without a paddle. He can't defend himself intellectually or physically, and sadly, non of it is his fault. Unfortunately, the kids of Chiron's community know his drawbacks all too well, and they choose to make his life hell because of it.  

How school violence manifests itself  

Certainly one of the most dramatic scenes in "Moonlight" is when a teenage Chiron storms through the heavy doors of his high school, marches into his classroom, grabs a wooden chair, and breaks it over the back of his longtime bully, Terrel. With the type of school shootings you see so often today in America, this type of school violence is certainly believable, as ruthless as it appears when it unfolds. Of course, by this time in the film, we have seen the steps that led to this outbreak of violence. We understand why it had to be done. We almost have to smile when we see Chiron escorted down the steps by police in handcuffs. Terrel had it coming! But without knowing that Chiron's dad was never around, that his mom was smoking crack and hassling him for money, that he had been bullied and beat up all his life, that his sexuality was a secret, it would be easy for us to criminalize Chiron as a typical thug acting a fool. But with the help of "Moonlight," we know all too well why Chiron needed to crush Terrel with that chair. It had to be done. 

The struggle to be yourself

Throughout "Moonlight," Chiron is on a mission to find himself and become comfortable in his own skin. To act and live like he truly feels, instead of playing a role laid out for him by society. Everyday people struggle with this task every single day. We all know how hard it is to be yourself, but when you find yourself in Chiron's case, "being yourself" is extraordinarily difficult. Growing up on the mean and macho streets of inner-city Miami, there is little room for Chiron to express the fact that he is a gentle, thoughtful and caring young boy. He has no interest in fighting. But of course, he must learn to fight in order to survive. Chiron is also gay. A fact that makes his social life all the more tricky in the environment he is raised. Because of this, Chrion is forced to live a life of secrecy, only sharing one honest sexual experience for his entire life. As an adult, Chiron plays the role of a muscle bound drug dealer with a grill and a chain and a intimidating car. Certainly Chiron is failing to "be himself," but "Moonlight" helps us understand why this simply wasn't possible.   

The difficulties of being a good parent  

If you want to understand how and why so many good-intentioned parents end up failing miserably, look no further than "Moonlight" for some explanation. Chiron's mother Paula is a strong, graceful, beautiful woman at the beginning of the film. She has all the makings of a good mom, but she instead falls short. For one, she is a single parent in a rough neighborhood with limited time to look after Chiron. She compounds the problem of falling for the allure of drugs. A habit she can't keep at bay, no matter how much her son means to her. When Juan attempts to fill the role of a good dad to Chiron, he is met with obstacles of his own. Sure, Juan can extend a tender hand to Chiron and explain that is OK to be gay. But when asked point blank if it is OK to sell drugs, Juan doesn't have much of an answer. Surprisingly, the only adult who turns out to be able to handle the rigors of parenthood is Kevin. Out of wedlock and recently out of prison, at least Kevin is able to keep things together by lowering his expectations in life and grinding out a job at a diner.  

Real progress is painful and incremental

The opening scene of "Moonlight" paints a grim picture. One of a torn down community filled with poverty, drugs and heartache. By the end of the film, all of the characters have made positive progress in their life, but they do so in a very real way. The progress is made in slow, choppy fashion, with tons of interruption and heartache. Still, the characters show that the formula of two steps forward and one step back still moves lives in the right direction. Chiron takes years to accept his sexuality and stand on his own two feet. He might still be in the closet, but he still exhibits the courage to drive down to see Kevin and express his true feelings. He might be a drug dealer in Atlanta, but he still has found a way to morph into an independent man who has the emotional and financial means to take care of his mom. The same concept holds true for characters like Kevin (once a insecure youth concerned with popularity is now a humble and hard working father). And likewise for Juan (a drug dealer who matures enough to take on the role of a father for a lost boy in the community).  

Beauty can be found just about anywhere  

"Moonlight" does a sneaky good job of showing the beauty of Miami, even in one of its most downtrodden neighborhoods. Even when Kevin convinces a young Chiron to engage in his first fight, the bout takes place on a earthy green patch of grass, with the bluest of skies. When Juan takes Chiron into the ocean to learn to swim, the viewer gets the feeling they are in the water right there with them, easily floating in fresh saltwater under the warm Florida sun. Even when Chiron sits down to dinner with Kevin in a beat up diner, drinking wine out of plastic cups, there is something romantic about the scene that couldn't be conjured up in a more sterile environment.  

In sum, "Moonlight" is a wonderful film for many reasons. And judging by the Academy's Best Picture award, credit has been given where it is due. But to me, the reason why "Moonlight" is brilliant is because of the window it provides into worlds unknown to most in Hollywood or thereabouts. In a time where fake news prevails and Trump reigns all powerful, there has never been a time where a truthful explanation to America's problems is more needed. Fortunately, "Moonlight" is there to provide just that. 


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