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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"The Commute"

The Commute - By Thomas Johnson

Episode XII

While there is good reason to lament your misfortune at being forced to sit for hours each day in your vehicle on your way to just trying to make a buck, there is solace (Not Much but some) in knowing it could be worse.

You could be on a BART train.

BART has been in the news quite a bit lately. They recently got a large infusion of funds which after it is stripped for bonuses, salary increases, pensions and the like might even be applied to improving the system. The we found out that for years, cameras on the trains were dummies blinking their little red lights at all the dummies who though it made them a little safer.

But now we know that they are going to replace all those cameras at great expense only to junk them when the new cars are put in service. Then came the rains, causing daily pandemonium, delays and disgust among the ridership which for some reason seems to be on the decline.

I wonder why.

Reading about the daily snafus in the paper is one thing but to really see what’s going on you have only to get on a train as I did the other day while heading to an appointment in San Francisco.

I boarded an already crowded train at the El Cerrito Plaza Station. There are only two stops on that line before El Cerrito Plaza and the train was already close to capacity. It wasn’t an ideal time for going to the city but I didn’t want to go too early and find myself with too much time in the city.

I live in the East Bay for a reason. If I step in some poop in my neighborhood, it’s dog poop. No guarantee of that anywhere in San Francisco.

Within two stops the train was at capacity.

Undeterred, the train operator kept opening the doors at each stop, admonishing riders to “move away from the doors” an action that was increasingly less possible. For some reason at each stop he kept announcing that “the train is really crowded” even though no-one outside the train could hear him and we sardines were already aware of the fact.

People have different methods of dealing with the discomfort of their train ride. The gentleman positioned a couple of squished people away from me had his headphones on and had taken to singing along quite loudly to what I suspected was some form of gospel music. However, what was emanating from his mouth sounded more like the death wail of some ancient, lost culture.

During a ten-minute delay cause by “some switching problems” he was the oblivious recipient of numerous death stares.

During the delay, I realized that packed-in and compressed as we were, had there been any emergency people would have been seriously injured if not asphyxiated to death. Had there been the heat of summer as well, the ‘death wailer’ would have been rudely told to STFU and it would not be long before tempers flared.

In the 20 or so years that I have been riding BART I have never seen a train that packed during normal commute hours. So packed that the doors were shut by the time the few disembarking riders could even get close to them.

Rather than running the car with ridership so compressed there should have been a delay. It’s unsafe and BART management is well aware. With ridership down they’re packing everyone onto as few trains as possible. Making money seems to be more important than safety.


Episode XII

I came to a stop at the South bound end of the Gilman street off ramp in Berkeley one morning last week and the scene was chaos. An army of CalTrans workers were walking amid the debris in hazmat suits while Officers from the highway patrol standing next to their squads watched.

There had been a significant number of homeless people camped under that ramp and now they worked in the rain and salvaged what they could from the exploded scene. Sweat and grime mixed with rain ran down their faces displacing any tears as they grimly picked through tattered, soaked clothing and tents strewn in the mud.

Many had chains of shopping carts roped together pulling them up the road while others with a single cart or repurposed baby stroller grabbed a few items and went down the road. They scattered in all directions.

In Oakland, last week another homeless camp suffered a similar fate, the swift and direct result of trying to look too permanent by building wood structures, moving-in porta johns, a hand washing station and trying to provide (Gasp) “services.” This camp had a name, “The Village.”

I drive all over the bay area on my route for work. I see encampments popping up in all sorts of places, in bushes and dense tree cover next to the freeway, at the edge of grape arbors, empty lots. Sometimes it’s just one tent, or three, sometimes a dozen or so. As the rents go up and buying a house has become hopelessly out of reach for an increasingly large number of people we are going to see more of this.

The people with the power to help don’t care. There may be no solution anyways. It may come to a breaking point where rich people will finally realize they can’t get their food cooked, kitchens cleaned, cars worked on or kids looked after when the people who perform these services can’t afford to live within a hundred miles of the cities surrounding The Bay.

There are those of us who know, and can feel the proximity of the street. All it takes is a couple of missing paychecks, losing your job and you’re out. You could get notice that your landlord needs to make room for his nephew’s growing family, or that he or she is cashing out and moving to a retirement community in Arizona; getting tossed-out doesn’t have to mean you did anything wrong. It just means you’re too poor.

Some people have family or friends they can turn to, others don’t. For some, their only friend is their car because once you are out of a place to live, even if you have a job, locating a new place takes time, deposit money, references, good credit. Suddenly you live in a fragile environment and one wrong move will leave you permanently on the street.

As you drive to work in your clean, dry car count yourself lucky that you are not out there on the street watching the cars indifferently go by and realize that it could be you one day. Don’t be shy with a buck or two, it helps them a lot.


Episode XI 

If you spend several hours per day in Bay Area traffic I feel your pain. Or rather I felt your pain because these days I spend lots of time in traffic but I drive a company vehicle and they pay for my gas and I’m on the clock. 

My work takes me all over the area and I see a lot of interesting things. Like how the Redtail Hawk population seems to be thriving up around Brentwood and the lower Delta and how with all this rain we’re getting the cows actually do look kind of happy. I see how almost everyone has a phone in their hand, even moms with “baby on Board” signs. It seems everyone thinks they can do it and not have an accident. They are wrong. 

I can afford to be smug since my company vehicle has a phone disable feature. I couldn’t get on the phone if I wanted to. 

My early career goals did not include driving all over the place, going to homes and repairing appliances, gym equipment and lawn tractors. Like many young males my plan was to become Tommy Fast Fingers guitar Icon. I imagined myself doing power squats on stages bigger than football fields while swarms of females alternated between screaming and swooning. 

As luck would have it, I was far better at purchasing guitars and guitar equipment than I was at playing it. No amount of practice could change the fact that I am as tone deaf as a boiled cabbage. Many of you are aware that such a condition has not stopped many so-called musicians but it stopped me and one day I took pictures, posted the whole mess on Craigslist and ended my musical ambitions.  

I never regretted it. 

Do I want to ride around the bay area repairing stuff forever? Not for what they pay me. Like many of you the years since the recession that kicked-in solidly near the end of 2008 have been a challenge. I was laid-off from my investigator position with the public defender in Seattle. A short stint in San Francisco did not result in a job with the local public defender. In this country they will spare no expense to jail people but when it comes to defending them every state comes- 

up short. So I started a livery service, but it didn’t take long for the ride hailing companies to come along. 

I didn’t have an app so I got killed. 

Over the last few years I’ve often had to get plenty creative in generating income. Many of the services I provided via ads on Craigslist: Mobile auto repair, Mobile appliance repair, Dump runs, drain cleaning and such are all now provided by companies offering these things via an app on your cell phone. You may even work for one of these outfits. 

I’m not complaining. It’s forced me to move-on, expand my horizons, write more and learn new things; like Python, JavaScript, Go-Language and how to make quality small dog clothing that doesn’t cost a fortune and can actually handle a few trips through the washer without coming out like an old rag. 

Here’s to everyone getting closer to their goals this year. 


Episode X

While I’m well aware that recreational marijuana is now legal in California and ‘‘tokin’ on a number while ‘diggin’ on the radio’’ is a favorite California tradition I wish people would quit doing it while driving on Bay Area Freeways.

It doesn’t make you a better driver.

It might ease the trauma of your hour-plus commute but it puts you (and others) at risk. Not just from the risk of poorly coordinated reflexes and delayed reaction to common commuting events creating a collision hazard: But from the emerging California marijuana enforcement scheme which is about to turn many drivers into legal guinea pigs.

Marijuana is known as a gateway drug, primarily by those in law enforcement and the drug treatment industrial complex. From another standpoint its gateway function was to offer an excuse for cops to seize your person, possessions and gain access to enter your home and trash your house. Now that it’s legal some of these excuses are either gone, or limited.

Cops hate that.

So if you think that the legalization of recreational pot is going to keep the cops off your back you’re sadly mistaken. They are going to step-up enforcement of pot related DUI’s. The smell of pot might not give them a reason to bust down the door to your house but you better believe if they smell it coming from your car they will aggressively pursue a conviction.

Take the following scenario for example:

Driver [A] is cruising down the road on a sunny day smoking a fat joint; his large clouds of smoke and the thick aroma trailing behind him as he drives.

Driver [B] who only smokes pot occasionally in the comfort and safety of his home is behind driver [A] when he hits the smoke and aroma stream, causing the interior of his car to smell as if he had just smoked it.

Officer Smith who has just merged onto the freeway from an on-ramp did not see driver [A] at all but certainly smells the marijuana.  He pulls over driver [B] who vehemently insists “it was that guy in the car in front of me.”

However, Officer Smith is unimpressed because he knows he smelled weed in driver [B’s] vehicle and now this driver will have his car searched and be subjected to some tests, like a very cheap and unreliable field breathalyzer unit, known to produce false positives and possibly a cheek swab which has yet to see court acceptance; but it will. He may also be subjected to blood and/or urine tests.

Driver [B] under the above circumstances would still be subjected to these events even if he never smoked pot. But the occasional use could be a problem for him if it was recent. There’s still no set standard on what amount of THC in the blood makes you too impaired to drive at any given moment under California law. He could still be arrested for it even if it was the day before just because trace amounts are in his blood or metabolites of THC appear in his urine.

Driver [A] would be pretty much toast if Officer Smith got behind him instead of driver [B]. The cop would likely arrest him immediately and take him in for a blood test.

If you think that marijuana doesn’t linger long enough to leave a cloud of smoke and aroma as I described you may be new to California, unaware of what pot smells like or you drive a hundred thousand dollar car with the windows up and climate control engaged. The weed available today is potent and smells strong whether burning or not.

The rest of us roll with our windows down most of the time when weather allows, we smell plenty of weed we ain’t smoking.

Smoke your weed at home if you have to smoke; do us all a favor.


Episode IX

Have you ever felt as if your entire life has a “Check Engine” light? Traffic can make you feel that way.

For those on a set schedule you see your commute from that vantage. It looks basically the same every morning on the way in and the same every evening on the way back home; barring any serious accidents. For those who may drive for a living or work a non-traditional schedule the commute takes on many different forms.

But that is changing.

Soon, it seems any commute no matter what time of day or where you are in the Bay Area will look the same; slow and congested with no relief in sight. Gone are the days of reasonably traffic free windows such as the one formerly after the main commute which happens from about 5am to 10am. This luxury can still be had in many parts of the area after 8 or 9pm but during the daylight hours it has become quite extinct, as I discovered this morning while commuting on I-880 south to Hayward.

I was only going about 27 miles and stupidly thought that an hour and a half was plenty of time given that I left at 10am, a time which used to signify the end of the serious morning traffic congestion. It also signifies the daily decriminalization of driving in the HOV lane if you are the single occupant of your vehicle; something that is supposed to help traffic move faster.

I was horribly mistaken.

For a distance of less than 30 miles it required nearly a two hour head start to reach my destination on time. No amount of lane switching, steering wheel pounding and rubber necking to see why we were not moving helped in any way shape or form to propel my Jeep more rapidly to its destination. Luckily the person I had an appointment with was also driving in Bay Area traffic and misread traffic in a similar manner so I was spared the frustration of spending all that time for nothing.

Soon traffic will be far worse due to the shopping frenzy that appears from the Thanksgiving holiday through New Year’s Eve. There will be more accidents, more traffic, more people driving with alcohol in their system and fewer parking spots.

I understand that little Billy needs that ultra-cool new video game console and Uncle Bob has made many a hint of how much he would enjoy a bottle of that artisan small batch rye whisky he has been raving about. I understand that you only have a 45 minute window from the time you get off work ‘till the time you have to pick the kids up from school and drop little Sally at ballet; but please be watchful and considerate out there so we can all make it to next year.

Happy commuting.


Episode VIII

I’m on I-80 just at the Carlsen  Blvd exit in El Cerrito when I observe a recently erected, very brightly lit traffic sign informing me that the exit for Highway 24 is a mere 8 minutes away. It is about 6 PM on a Tuesday.

I’m not heading that way but since I do write about the commute I figure I should test it out even though from the traffic I’m in it is laughably inaccurate. 18 minutes later I’m passing through Emeryville where another sign wrongly informs me that it will only take 20 minutes to reach the Oakland Airport. Total time to the Hwy 24 exit is 23 minutes.

The new sign informing me of the time to Hwy 24 is part of the so-called SMART system [Safety, Mobility, Automated, Real-time Traffic Management] AKA, the I-80 Integrated Corridor Mobility Project that Caltrans thinks will speed things along for the roughly 270,000 motorists who use the stretch of Freeway between the Carquinez and Bay bridges. It consists of a number of signs positioned at the side and on trellises over each lane of the Freeway. It costs about $79 million dollars depending on who you ask.

The first official test o the system was on or about September 3rd of 2015. The system is made to operate in an emergency with arrows over the lanes indicating whether the lane is clear or to move over or if the lane is closed ahead.

$79 million dollars to accomplish what watching the lanes in front of you or your GPS was already capable of doing is a waste; especially if the signs are not accurate.

 The sign I passed giving me the wrong time to the airport is an older sign that has been giving wrong information for years. Anyone who takes that route regularly knows that from Emeryville to the Oakland airport is only 20 minutes if there’s light traffic. The signs are operated by “engineers” in the Oakland traffic control center who are monitoring progress via the cameras mounted on long poles, sensors and signs on the Freeway. To be fair; occasionally the signs are correct, or nearly so. But for that price tag they should be spot-on.

Apparently there are some new signs on San Pablo Avenue which is a known escape corridor but only if you have a destination somewhere from San Pablo to Emeryville but it’s not clear what the signs accomplish. Are they to discourage motorists from leaving the freeway? Once you get on San Pablo Avenue during the commute rush and see that it’s not going to help you a bit that’s discouraging enough; no sign needed.

Elsewhere other attempts at moving cars along faster haven’t panned out. The new “Pay to Play” lane between Dublin and Livermore on I-580 which allows single occupancy vehicles to use the diamond lane for a fee added to their Fastrack account doesn’t amount to much, because the diamond lane often moves only slightly faster than what us poor folks can afford; especially at $7.50 a pop for when traffic is at its worst.

I hate to leave out BART but the funding measure on the ballot this month if approved will only serve to keep it on life support. It’s a great system but how long is it supposed to last if we don’t give it a serious infusion? I read recently that a BART janitor made around $276K in salary and overtime last year and this is the third year the guy has made a six figure salary. That’s just one guy. There have been plenty of similar stories over the years and this seriously discourages people from wanting to fund the system. Especially if you consider that it’s just the tip of the mismanagement iceberg.

You don’t need “engineers” to see that fewer cars or more lanes are the only solution to gridlock anywhere in the Bay Area. $79 million would have been a great start for a viaduct project. Throwing band-aids at it will just nickel and dime us to death. We need a big, serious solution. If the people collecting fat salaries tasked with the job of coming-up with solutions can’t do it; it’s time to cut some fat salaries.


Episode VII

I’m on my way back from Foster City on 1021 north when a loud knock on my windshield has me scanning for the telltale star shaped crack. I don’t see one but suddenly another rock hits…I try to get out of the lane but I have to wait a few moments before a spot opens up.

The offending gravel truck in front of me has a warning printed on the back side:

WARNING Stay Back 60 feet. Owner not responsible for windshield damage.

This is a dubious legal claim. People make them all the time; it does not mean they have any basis in law or fact. The truck is a good 30 feet long plus the trailer it’s towing full of gravel is at least another 20 for a grand total of 110 feet. The owner of this vehicle is making the claim that every time this truck gets on the road it gets 110 feet of roadway all to itself and if some gravel from the battered, leaking trailer damages your vehicle it’s too bad for you.

That’s why I have a dashcam. The legal claim on the back of these trucks is false but it’s too bad for you if you can’t prove that the truck in front of you caused the damage. I was doing okay without a dashcam then one day as I was coming up the freeway off ramp heading home after picking up a little Chihuahua pup who I was sitting for, some guy suddenly swerved into the space I had left between me and the car in front of me then slammed on the brakes.

I wasn’t driving fast, and I reacted quickly but still knocked his bumper off. The impact wasn’t even enough to knock the puppy from her perch in the front seat but on these new hybrid cars that’s enough to cause significant damage.

The guy’s car was still at an angle when my car hit him so I opted to wait for a cop because anyone could see that he had cut into my lane. I took plenty of pictures. Cops drove by us but never stopped. The jerk who cut me off called the cops but they never came. The guys wife, the passenger, his wife apparently got out of the car and grandly staggered over to a bush , dropped to her knees and began to holding a very loud prayer session thrusting her arms to the sky and crying.

I’m not making this up.

The cops never came. The guy refused to give me his insurance info but that’s actually against the law so I gave him mine anyways. Then, according to my insurance company the pair went doctor shopping. However, they couldn’t find a doctor who would say there was anything wrong with them and my insurance company was willing to fight it in court if I wanted to but the pay-out wasn’t that much and we settled out of court.

Had I had a dashcam in the first place they would have been paying me; although I just had a dented bumper and one cracked signal lens. Since then, I always have one running. I started with a pair of GoPro’s. One on my dash and one aimed out my back window. They have good resolution and can handle an impact. However, they only run on batteries, there’s no way to use your cigarette lighter power outlet and the batteries were giving-out three quarters of the way through my 42 miles to and from work. I got a cheaper dashcam with 1080p resolution that runs off my lighter outlet and it’s on whenever my engine is running. A 30 gig mini memory card holds plenty of video.

It’s less than a hundred bucks plus shipping; well worth the investment. I don’t endorse any particular brand; do a little research and you should be okay. 


Episode VI

Last week I concluded my experience with a bogus ticket and subsequent victory via failure to appear in court by the citing officer. This week one of the local fish wrappers published a list of the things cops look for to pull you over, and possibly search your vehicle.

Let’s be clear, if a cop wants to pull you over he or she can easily come up with some fallacious pretext and unless you have video admitted in court showing otherwise the stop will be viewed as good. But let’s look at this list:

Driving under the speed limit is supposed to be a sign that the driver may be hiding something. Keep in mind this list is created by cops so anything that a non-cop does is suspicious. Driving under the speed limit might simply mean you slowed down because you are driving through one of the Bay Area’s notorious patches of pothole ridden freeway and you choose not to shred your tires or beat your suspension to death. There are a lot of reasons to drive slower than the limit; it’s not suspicious unless maybe you had a few shots of tequila but then you’d likely be swerving all over the road as well.

Cops say having “specialty tools” that can open up interior panels where drugs might be stored during the smuggling process is a good reason to search a car.

Maybe.

The same goes for multiple cell phones. Unless you are a cell phone sales person or a complete electronics junkie it’s hard to see why you would need a bunch of them in your car. However, I have several now outdated phones floating around my house that I haven’t got around to tossing out; would that look suspicious to a cop?

Perfect driving is suspicious, as is driving the speed limit. Courts all over the country have made these types of outrageous rulings. In 2014 the Tenth Court of Appeals ruled that driving with good posture and hands at 10 and 2 on the steering wheel were grounds for suspicion and upheld a traffic stop.

I drive the limit and usually engage my cruise-control to maintain it; there is nothing suspicious about it. Being polite to an officer during a stop is viewed as suspicious. Believe me when I tell you I want to be belligerent to a cop when I’m pulled over because I take much care to stay legal and drive safe. So when I get pulled over I think it’s bullshit and want to say it.

I also like not getting shot, tased or pulled out of my car by the cop and his backup and/or arrested tossed in jail then charged with assaulting their fists and boots with my face and body parts; so I am polite.

Another thing that cops say is suspicious is a car heavy on religious symbols such as crosses, Jesus fish emblems and bumper stickers. Apparently having faith is now an indicator of illicit behavior. Cops also say that if you have an older car with new tires and a shine that you might be trying to blend in with normal traffic to smuggle drugs. So now taking care of your things, or not being able to afford a new car and replacing your bald tires because they are not safe are suspicious.

Also, don’t get caught with air fresheners or potpourri because that could indicate you attempting to mask the odor of the drugs you may be smuggling. It could also be an attempt to mask the odor of the Great Dane slobber your dog graciously deposited on your passenger seat but you are not a cop so you are suspicious.

What happens when a cop pulls you over based on one of these purely manufactured pretexts searches your car and finds no drugs or contraband? They hate to go away empty, so you will get a ticket for something.

Coming soon: Staying home because you don’t like getting pulled over for bullshit reasons? That’s suspicious.

Also there’s bad news if you’re a cop apologist with a bunch of pro-law enforcement stickers on your car; that’s suspicious.

I can agree with that one.


Episode V

By Thomas Johnson

In episode IV, I told the aggravating tale of a crap ticket for a peeling license plate. This time we go inside the courthouse and see what they have in store for Bay Area commuters.

You might not know this but not long ago Alameda and many California counties were engaged in a pay-to-play racket exactly like the one that caught so much attention in Ferguson Missouri. Simply put, if you got a ticket and wanted to fight it in court you had to pay the entire ticket amount. Once they have your money how likely are you to get it back?

After riots and unrest in Ferguson the pay-to-play racket was exposed and many counties in California rather quietly phased out that system. If you want to fight the ticket via mail you still have to pay the full ticket, so we still lose either way. To fight it in person you have to take time from work.

On my arraignment date I went to the courthouse in Oakland and waited outside traffic court until the door was opened by an elderly bailiff who immediately began issuing instructions in a low, mostly inaudible monotone with no pauses between words. From working in public defense I know my way around the courts so it wasn’t a problem for me. But I heard others saying things like: “WTF?” and “What did he just say?” One miffed young woman spoke-up in a loud voice: “Excuse me; no-one here understood a word you just said.” She was ignored.

This is the general attitude of court personnel. They are not burdened with any concerns for anyone who does not work in the court or in law enforcement. Their behavior is superior and demeaning. Frankly, it’s disgraceful and the truth is: If you treat people in this manner you are simply incompetent and should be fired immediately.

Truth doesn’t prevail much in courtrooms.

Once inside you hear some more instructions from the unintelligible bailiff along the lines of “keep cell phones off, no recording of any kind” and “pay attention.” Then you watch a video explaining all the rights you supposedly have regarding your case. The judge arrives nearly an hour later than court was supposed to convene. Yet on the Minute Order detailing the proceedings I was handed after I entered my plea it claimed 9:00AM; a complete fiction.

In this court the judge is called a Commissioner His name is Taylor Culver. Commissioner Culver began by informing us we were there to be arraigned so all he wanted to hear was guilty or not guilty. First he handled the red light runners. If they pled not guilty he showed them a video of themselves. One woman went a car length past the line but she did stop. That’s running a red light, so make sure you stop behind the line at red lights.

One thing a defense investigator is good at is taking as close to verbatim as possible notes. I have had many a prosecutor try to trip me up on the stand to no-avail, and even been accused (falsely) of having a hidden recorder; my notes are good. In addition to rudely berating the defendants and making the statement that he is “the only one in this courtroom who is special.” I heard Commissioner Culver use the phrase: “What about the money?” no less than 18 times prior to my name being called, leaving no doubt as to his true function in that court. It was disgraceful behavior and didn’t bode well for my chances of winning if it went before him. The California Code of Judicial Ethics states:

“A judge shall be patient, dignified, and courteous to litigants.” Culver was anything but. When my name was called I went to the podium, said: “Not guilty and I exercise my right to a speedy trial.”

That was it; I took my Minute Order proving that I was in court and showing my new court date and got out post haste. I had been there three hours and forty-four minutes.

I called a buddy of mine from my misspent year in law school but he had cases in court the day of my trial. I then contacted a few other attorneys. If I was going to lose this money I’d rather it go to a lawyer than the state but nobody had any experience with a ticket like this and I was on my own.

I researched my case carefully. I took lots of pictures of other cars with similarly peeling plates, of city and county busses with similarly peeling plates and even of police car license plates at the Oakland motor pool all with plates that looked like mine. I blew them up, attached them to cardboard and labeled them as exhibits. I did not send a discovery request to the officer, DA or highway patrol. In this case I didn’t want to alert them I was putting up a serious fight.

 Following court rules I created the legal form list of exhibits and a number of other documents to support my case. I also drew-up a peremptory challenge even though I was sure Commissioner Culver would deny me my right to have someone other than him hear the case. I had to build-up cause for an appeal.

The day of my trial I arrived at court to see that another judge was going to be hearing my case. This was good news as far as I was concerned. As I waited I couldn’t see the cop who wrote the ticket. A section of seats close to the bench was where they sit. We waited for quite some time obviously to give all the cops time to show-up for court but finally it started. The judge announced that the following people were having their cases dismissed because the officer did not show-up.

I was one of those people. I was not unhappy that I didn’t get to present my case. I’ll take a win like this any way I can get it.

Now I have a dash cam and a couple of hidden cams. California Senate Bill 411 known as “The Right to Record Act” was signed into law by Governor Brown in 2015. You have a right to record the cops; don’t believe them if they tell you otherwise. It’s a double edged sword, but at least if you get a ticket for something you didn’t do you have proof.

I drive very carefully and don’t exceed the speed limit. I have a nice new set of shiny non-peeling license plates.


Episode IV

Sometimes when you are watching folks blatantly do something that could be very costly to them because it’s against the law you wonder where the cops are. As I watched a string of solitary commuters slowly pass in the HOV lane I didn’t have long to wonder. Highway Patrol, the cops were behind me with their lights on.

With traffic moving at about 15 mph and the fact that I had not changed lanes for a few miles, knowing my car is registered, smogged and insured; my first reaction was extreme irritation. It’s annoying to see the cops ignoring obvious lawbreaking to hassle you, when you know you haven’t done anything wrong.

My passenger side brake light was out. My general feeling about this is that it’s irresponsible for law enforcement to interrupt the morning freeway commute with stupid crap like a taillight stop. Stopping the productive class from going to the places where they are productive is interfering with commerce as far as I’m concerned.

To make it worse, the state feels they should also collect $25 for this interference. This is called a “proof of correction fee.” A taillight bulb is manufactured somewhere and then enters the stream of commerce. We consumers are not involved in the manufacturing or shipping of this product and therefore as long as it is properly installed it’s absurd that the state can collect money from us when it fails; not to mention the fact that we have to go find some other cop to sign-off on the ticket.

But this cop wasn’t done. He was up to something, making small talk about my license plate. As a highly trained and experienced public defense investigator I know how cops operate. He was trying to elicit some sort of incriminating response.

But why?

Did he think it was a stolen plate?

A stolen registration tab?

He asked me me how long I had the car, was the plate on it when I got it and other questions that didn’t add up. Then he went back to his vehicle where another cop was waiting. I gave him nothing; never admit anything to a cop.

Soon he appeared at my passenger side window and gave me the ticket instructions. Looking at the ticket I saw the tail lamp violation listed as correctible; but there was another violation marked non-correctible. It was CVC 5201.1 (c). Based on his questions I knew it had something to do with my plate but the ticket didn’t indicate it. What it means when it’s a non-correctible violation is that you pay the face value of the ticket or you go to court, get arraigned and then have a trial.

I looked at him. He was smirking; he knew it was bullshit and enjoyed it. I hope his mom is real proud of him.

I went home and looked it up:

(c) A person shall not erase the reflective coating of, paint over the reflective coating of, or alter a license plate to avoid visual or electronic capture of the license plate or its characters by state or local law enforcement.

In essence this officer was charging me with deliberately scraping the reflective coating off my license plate in order to evade the California surveillance state such as red light cameras and plate readers attached to police cars.

Total fine with fees: more than $1,104.00

Yes, my plate was peeling due to normal wear and tear, exhaust fumes, exposure to sunlight and so on. But I didn’t have anything to do with it. I bought the car that way and barely had it two years at the time of this incident. So there was no way they were taking my money without a fight. This is nothing but blatant money grabbing.

Never heard of such a thing? Here’s a link to a Sacramento Bee piece on it:

http://www.sacbee.com/news/local/transportation/back-seat-driver/article28724602.html

Next time: Off to court I go….


Episode III

It’s a fine morning. I managed not to hit “snooze” several times and I’m well ahead on time; slightly ahead of the sudden inexplicable massive slowdown that often occurs while descending into Castro Valley from Oakland.

I’m in lane number three doing slightly under the limit when I come across a rarity these days. It’s an early 70’s Datsun pickup looking like at some time over the last forty some years every square inch suffered some sort of impact. But these things were made out of a solid gauge of steel and could take some punishment.

For those not up on their automotive history, Datsun is now known as Nissan here in the U.S. Nissan was formed in Japan in the 1930’s and Datsun was a brand name. They phased out the brand in the late 1980’s but they used to make some pretty tough little trucks.

The punishment it was suffering now is that the new owner had lowered it to within inches of the highway. This was accomplished through a series of torsion bar adjustments and lowering blocks and creates a hopping effect when traveling over bumps in the road at any speed above ten miles per hour. It also creates sparks and changes the name of the occupants from driver and passenger to “shock absorbers.”

Every time he hit a bump the rear wheels hopped several inches to the left or right. Understandably he was driving quite a bit slower than the flow of traffic. If I experienced this sensation it would scare the heck out of me. In the automotive world there are these people called engineers. They design stuff with a purpose in mind and it usually works pretty well. Messing with the way cars are designed isn’t the best idea even if you think it looks cool.

But this guy probably didn’t care you see; he is the illest. About 20 stickers all over his rear window declared this status:

Illest.

I presume it’s some sort of a lifestyle brand but when you put 20 stickers on a beat up 70’s Datsun it takes on a different dimension. One day his little side hop feature might hop him into a pothole on one of Northern California’s neglected stretches of Freeway and he will find himself the illest indeed.

Soon after, I see a dark sedan coming up fast in the number two lane. It is swerving, jerking, slowing and speeding. In these cases it’s tough to figure out where you should go. Is the person drunk? Suffering a medical emergency? It’s a late model black Mercedes.

I barely get out of the way in time and as it approaches and passes I see that it’s a couple engaged in a spirited domestic violence incident; really going at it. I finally breathe again as they get past me but fully expect them to careen out of control and end-up a fiery mess all over the road.

But they don’t. I never see another sign of them again. I hope they work it out. As for me, I survived another commute in the Bay Area.


Episode II

It’s been a while since I visited another state but here in California and especially in the Bay Area people love their stickers. Not just bumper stickers but all sorts placed just about anywhere on the car. In the Bay Area commute you have plenty of time to read them. You can learn a lot.

One thing I’ve found interesting is the evolution of the fish emblem. It started out with the basic Jesus fish, then came one with a cross inside. Some say “Jesus” or “Faith” or come with a bible verse designator. Of course somebody had to answer that and there was the “Darwin” fish with little prehensile limbs. We can’t forget the “Gefilte” fish followed by the “Satan” fish which spawned “fish & chips” and of course the “Science” fish with rocket fins. There’s “Evolve” and “Sushi” too. Everyone gets a fish.

For bumper stickers you have the dwindling yet classic “Real musicians have day jobs.” The newer generation of musicians doesn’t really drive cars so you won’t be seeing that one much. “Keep Tahoe Blue” is another California classic as is “Mystery Spot.” My personal favorite is one I saw in Berkeley more than ten years ago “End Unwanted Seismic Activity NOW!”

By far, the most popular stickers today are the stick figure family, which even come with stickers representing the dogs and cats. They are everywhere. I have seen one set stretched all the way across the rear window of the minivan. Are these people fertile or what?

A kid in the 4 to 9 year old range probably thinks a stick figure family is pretty cool. If I had a kid in that age range and they wanted a stick figure family I suppose I might put one up there. Maybe there are plenty of adults who are kids at heart or who are very proud of their families and didn’t do it for the kids at all.

Either way; so what?

A stick figure family has no effect on me or anyone at all and that’s why it boggles my mind that there are people who hate so much that there is a demand for stickers that say “Fuck You and Your Stick Figure Family.” If someone went out to a store or went online, bought a sticker like that and took the time to install it on their window there’s something wrong with them. Maybe they can’t have kids, or maybe lost them in a custody battle, or maybe suffering through the bay area commute day after day has them coming unraveled and they need a place to focus the impotent rage. No matter what the reason, posting your hate for all to see doesn’t do anyone any good and just labels you as a jerk. 


Episode I

By Thomas Johnson

Dropping down the U-shaped ramp I accelerate as it straightens out. A combination of over the shoulder looks and drivers side mirror glances tells me the lane is clear and I ease onto I-80 in North Richmond at the incredible speed of 13 miles per hour.

I scoot my butt around a bit trying to find the most comfortable position as I brace for the 42 mile drive to my job in Pleasanton; a trip that in current traffic will take me an hour and a half.

If I’m lucky.

Today I will spend at least three hours heading to and from work. Most days I can keep it down to two and a half because I take the back way for my morning commute past San Pablo Dam reservoir to Orinda where I catch Hwy 24 for a couple miles before taking the Hwy 13 ramp which allows me a reasonably traffic free bypass of the Albany/Berkeley/Emeryville shorefront clusterphuque that is the bane of many a morning commute.

But this morning I got wind of some road work backing-up the Dam road as we call it. I got wind of it via my small CB radio which beats any app on your cell phone any day and doesn’t depend on any grid or outside power source.

So today I join the masses on the long slog to the maze.

If you are a prudent and observant driver you notice many things. Things like the fact that your fellow commuters are not being very observant. They drive while texting and talking on their phones. Some are using electric shavers or applying cosmetics. Others are waving their arms around or violently shaking their heads to eardrum shattering beats or guitars. Some drive as if they are paralyzed, rigidly looking straight ahead never looking over their shoulder or at the mirrors. This is why you need to be a prudent and observant driver; it reduces your odds of becoming a statistic.

Things speed up a bit as we all approach the merge where I-80 and I-580 meet. To my left several single occupancy cars pass using the HOV lane. I am pretty sure a 2002 Chevy Camaro does not get a pass to be in that lane especially since the driver is the only occupant. Moments later my lane picks up and I leave the Camaro far behind. It never fails to boggle my mind why people would risk the very large fine and drive in a lane that is not even moving faster. Are they awake? Have they been doing it forever and never got caught? Do they think they could come up with a plausible excuse and get out of a ticket?

I see it every day and I wonder.

Finally, I get past the maze and merge onto I-580 east. The California Hotel vanishes behind me on the right as I pick up speed, pick my lane and set my cruise control hoping for smooth sailing. Total time to get from El Sobrante to this point: One hour.

Which I will never get back...

The Bay Area: King of Urban Parks

By Kyle Heise

When I began teaching the English names of animals to my students in Mallorca, I started with those located from my home region: the East Bay. I knew the abundance of animals from the immediate parks and open spaces around my house would be a good jumping off point. Besides, I was supposed to transmit parts of my culture to these children and parks are part of it, right? I delved through the usual list of our animals and fell into an immense diversity of owls, squirrels, deer, turkey, hawks, bobcats etcetera. My list was almost never ending.

It wasn't until the Mallorcan students could only muster a percentage of my list that I recognized my home region’s unique place in the world. I sat there in my classroom filled with little Catalan speaking children, thinking of how spoiled I was to grow up with the docile belief that all urban areas cradled such diversity, that every child was as lucky as I was to grow up with access to the quality of parks and open spaces abundant throughout the Bay Area.

These very open spaces and landscapes are the precious habitats of all the animals I was able to boast about. This seemingly infinite variety of life doesn’t exist unless we, the citizens of my region, foster an environment for them to thrive in. I am fortunate to be from an urban area nestled between numerous open spaces and landscapes. Our geography is uniquely equipped to handle the symbiosis of urban parks unlike any other in the world. We are lucky that since its discovery, the Bay Area has been viewed as a landscape to protect. 

From the very beginning, the first European settlers to the San Francisco Bay were awed by the unprecedented body of water they discovered. In fact, the first Catalan explorers in the mid 18th century called the San Francisco Bay the “harbor of harbors.” It was forthwith viewed as an area to cherish and protect. Throughout history, the revelations of grandeur by the earliest settlers were heeded by those who followed.

From pioneers like John McLaren and John Muir, to modern contemporaries like William P. Mott Jr. and Charles Tilden, the Bay Area has seldom ceased to be on the forefront of land conservation. Today we see well over half (as much as 75% depending on your sources) of the viable land in the region protected within a matrix of park systems throughout the nine county greater Bay Area. Our convergence of parks and cities is unparalleled across the globe. Sure, certain cities like Paris or New York are well-known for possessing parks with grandiose descriptions and vibrant flora, but what these parks lack is the access to the true wilderness and biodiversity found in the Bay Area. These urban parks across the globe act as escapes from the concrete jungle, a last touch to a natural world increasingly forgotten. And here in the Bay, we are confronted daily with the beauty of the natural world. Simply put, there is no escaping the reach of our parks.

Our parks are big. Real big. From seashores to forests to rolling hills, our various parks encompass a vast biodiversity. The Bay Area is one of 35 biological hot spots in the world. These hot spots cover small areas of the globe yet contain the majority of our biodiversity. The Golden Gate National Recreation Area, with its 80,000 preserved acres, 19 distinct ecosystems and over 2,000 plant and animal species, shadows the numerous state parks and the massive East Bay Regional Parks District (EBRPD) that cradle our natural landscape. The EBRPD is the largest urban park syndicate in the country and oversees more than 120,000 acres. It is a major highlight in the grassroots push for land conservation. Our local state parks are impressive as well. Mt. Diablo boasts one of the most awesome viewsheds in the world. 

The various state and regional Redwoods parks scattered around the Bay make the world’s tallest trees accessible beyond well known reserves like Muir Woods. An informed local will go to Samuel P. Taylor State Park in Marin or the many South and East Bay preserves to find Redwoods without crowds. To our immediate north we can follow Point Reyes National Seashore for miles, or flip your orient and descend onto the many protected beaches that protect our shorelines south towards Santa Cruz. Point Reyes is also the only National Seashore located on the Pacific coast. And lest we forget the Bay itself is a natural playground as well! The lands between the evocative John Steinbeck-esque rolling foothills shelters woodlands valleys of oaks and grassy knolls that provide small escapes for suburbia-- usually right in our backyards. The variety of protected landscapes is astonishing. Here in the San Francisco Bay Area, our adherence to land protection, and the diversity of it, makes our region a bastion of the natural world. 

The Bay Area's unique geography is a lifeblood to the dynamic spirit of the region. Our geography and regional features have fostered innovation and creative ventures across many capacities. From the Marin County mountain biking revolution in the ‘70s and ‘80s to the birth of Burning Man at Baker Beach, our parks have been central to our cultural evolution and foundation of our regional spirit. And I like to think that our parks reflect our people: we prioritize both hard work and hard play. We incorporate parks and the natural world into our innovations because they are a part of us. We use them as an escape from urbanization and an exploration into the natural world.

What would we think if along Crissy Field the hangars were replaced by apartments built by the highest bidder? What would we think if we had gone through with the dreadful Reber Plan to fill in the bay? Or if the Marin Headlands fell victim to high-end developers?  That's not what happens to our parks and landscapes because that’s not who we are. We are as dedicated to the preservation of our own environment as any other cause. We’ve used our parks as a method to increase our living standard. We've delicately weaved the natural world into the social construct of our communities via our parks.

The Bay is a hub for innovation in many industries and disciplines: tech, sports, academics etc. Our parks, like our communities, are leaders in their respective fields. They champion positive agendas and are beacons of conservation to the rest of the world. Of the 90 species originally listed as endangered within the Bay Area by the 1973 Endangered Species Act, none have gone extinct. In fact many species originally thought to have left are returning e.g. bald eagles and beavers.

We have seen our mistakes in the past and are on the forefront of restoration. We restore marshlands and buy up new lands to save entire watersheds, not just the riparian environments. Our appreciation and cultivation of the natural world cleanses our prejudices and reminds us of our greater impact. This shows in the relentless agenda to protect and promote our parks through park initiatives like the nationally championed “Find Your Park” campaign. We promote the parks because we feed off their spirit and energy.  Our famous authors and musicians and artists echo their beauty in their words and works. Those who were only lucky enough to pass through have always left with marvelous impressions of the landscapes. It's one of the main reasons those who visit the Bay Area leave with nothing but good praise. Muir said 'climb the mountains and get their good tidings.' As citizens of the Bay, we've made it far too easy to heed and project their messages. 

The Bay Area within the greater umbrella of CA and the western states are the representatives of the cliche wild west and open space. The cliche still rings true, to an extent. We have open spaces and the wild among us. We are exposed to nature unlike many large metropolitan regions of the world and many of our communities are enclaves within the parks. This exposure provides the world class views, the quick shangri-la escapes, and the connection to natural world many of us are all accustomed to.

This is not normal around the world. We are special and we know it. That's a quality all of the Bay can agree too. We may not all be mountain bikers or hikers or surfers or botanists or bird watchers, but we can all agree that we are lucky. Lucky about where we live and fortunate enough to incorporate the immense biodiversity the Bay Area provides into our lives. The chance to let our natural world be consumed into a sprawling metropolis presented itself and we did not fail ourselves nor our posterity.

Teddy Roosevelt said the natural world belongs to the past, present and future generations of the world. Roosevelt referred to all species. The natural world isn’t just ours. We preserve this land because it is a sanctuary for us, its visitors, its plants and animals, both present and future.

This is not to say we are doing the best we can. There still are roughly 90 plant and animal species who share our environment that are listed as endangered. The natural landscape is forever vulnerable to our appetite for destruction and urban growth. What’s promising is for how à la mode as encroachment is around the world, the Bay Area remains a stalwart in the success of parks and people together.

The pressures from the sprawl and the increased migration into the region pose an imminent dilemma for the people. But in a world of increasing human impact, the survival of myriad species rely on our grace for continued existence. However, history shows that the residents of the Bay Area value the symbiosis between people and parks. From John Muir to William Mott Jr., our citizens have triumphed the conservation movement. We are our own Lorax.

Nowhere does a large and influential urban center protect its land in such a hefty percentage. The Bay Area is a gem among the world with its accessibility to the natural world. The balance reflects its people's ability to innovate. We champion what many call America's best idea: the National Park Service and its conservation ideals. We do not underestimate the clean airs and abundant wildlife so close to one of the world’s most renowned urban areas. We cherish it. We are champions of the symbiosis between park and people. We are the kings of the urban parks.