Archive for the ‘San Francisco’ Tag

No honeymoon for gay marriage in California

Everybody knew that Tuesday’s ruling on Proposition 8 from the California Supreme Court could only be another charged moment in a long and continuing battle. Even though the 18,000 marriages that followed a favorable court decision here last May will stand, Tuesday’s decision upholding the ban on gay marriage was a near-term victory for social conservatives.

The court had signaled back in March its reluctance to intervene in the ballot initiative process and overturn the will of the voters. But the lone dissenter in the 6-1 decision Tuesday, Justice Carlos Moreno, wrote eloquently (see pp.151-175) about just how much is at stake:

The rule the majority crafts today not only allows same-sex couples to be stripped of the right to marry that this court recognized in the Marriage Cases, it places at risk the state constitutional rights of all disfavored minorities. It weakens the status of our state Constitution as a bulwark of fundamental rights for minorities protected from the will of the majority.

If California invariably serves as America’s cultural vanguard, what seems odd now is how the state appears to be behind the times. Iowa, of all places, is looking more socially progressive. Moreno cited the recent decision striking down a ban on gay marriage by that state’s high court, whose justices pointed out “the long and painful history of discrimination against gay and lesbian persons” in many parts of the country.

Moreno continued: “I realize, of course, that the right of gays and lesbians to marry in this state has only lately been recognized. But that belated recognition does not make the protection of those rights less important. Rather, that the right has only recently been acknowledged reflects an age-old prejudice … that makes the safeguarding of that right by the judiciary all the more critical.”

Reactions on both sides of the ruling have been heated, to say the least, and San Francisco is abuzz with demonstrations.

SFprotest

“Well, looks like religiously inspired hatred has won the day over the values this formerly great nation was founded on,” said one of nearly 1,800 commenters on SFGate.com Tuesday afternoon.

“Its not about equality folks. It’s about bowing down to the homosexual agenda or being called a bigot,” said another.

And as another made clear, the costly battle is far from over: “As expected from a legal standpoint, but nevertheless disappointing from the larger view of justice for all. Back to the voters and if the trend continues Prop 8 will be repealed by a decent majority in 2010. Onward!”

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Google, Kindle and The Library of Babel

Technological innovation seems almost strangely commonplace these days, from say, contact lenses that could layer data directly onto your view of the world to robots fighting far-flung wars to computer systems perhaps smart enough to compete on “Jeopardy!” All astonishing developments in their own right, and yet the most profound change of our times may yet be purely informative in nature: The digitization of all that we read.

At the University of San Francisco on Sunday I participated in a symposium on “Life after the MFA” for students graduating the writing program. Unsurprisingly, the technological upending of books, magazines and newspapers was a particular focus. Fellow panelist Patrick Dunagan, a poet who works as a specialist at the USF library, spoke with some alarm about the rate at which books and print periodicals there are going the way of the dodo. The idea is that many are being replaced digitally. I expressed a bit of surprise to him about this afterward, whereby he asked me when I last conducted any research in a library. Point taken. If only Borges were still hanging around and could rejoin the discussion.

visualofbabel

One theme I hoped to suggest in my part of the talk was that print vs. digital isn’t a zero-sum equation. We can still love books and newspapers while getting charged about the possibilities of digital publishing. In many ways the latter remains a Wild West — and without a doubt has blown holes in some old ways of doing business. But in my view the rising digital infosphere is far more expansive and generative than it is destructive.

In a recent essay published in the Wall Street Journal, author Steven Johnson explores both the thrill and potential chill of electronic books, a fast-growing realm thanks to Amazon’s innovative e-book reader, the Kindle, and Google’s Book Search service, home to approximately 10 million scanned titles and counting. One exciting aspect Johnson flags with regard to ideas and research:

Before too long, you’ll be able to create a kind of shadow version of your entire library, including every book you’ve ever read — as a child, as a teenager, as a college student, as an adult. Every word in that library will be searchable. It is hard to overstate the impact that this kind of shift will have on scholarship. Entirely new forms of discovery will be possible. Imagine a software tool that scans through the bibliographies of the 20 books you’ve read on a specific topic, and comes up with the most-cited work in those bibliographies that you haven’t encountered yet.

But there will be pitfalls, too, especially with respect to evolving market forces. The all-powerful search engine that is Google, and the ways in which it guides users to digital content of all sorts, could impact how books actually get written:

Writers and publishers will begin to think about how individual pages or chapters might rank in Google’s results, crafting sections explicitly in the hopes that they will draw in that steady stream of search visitors.

Individual paragraphs will be accompanied by descriptive tags to orient potential searchers; chapter titles will be tested to determine how well they rank. Just as Web sites try to adjust their content to move as high as possible on the Google search results, so will authors and publishers try to adjust their books to move up the list.

What will this mean for the books themselves? Perhaps nothing more than a few strategically placed words or paragraphs. Perhaps entire books written with search engines in mind. We’ll have to see.

A strength of Johnson’s essay is that he doesn’t pass judgment on these possibilities; he concentrates on laying out in lucid terms what he sees coming. (Another recent piece of his, on how the web’s information ecosystem changes how we get our news, is also well worth reading.)

The latter segment above, under the subhead “Writing for Google,” got me thinking about a worn adage heard in MFA programs everywhere: “Write what you know.” If that advice translates fundamentally to writing from a place of experience and passion, it could take on fresh meaning in the digital future — when the suggestion to “Write what you can search engine optimize” may well become a growing temptation.

UPDATE: Some wonder if Google already has too much sway with its Book Search service, including the U.S. Department of Justice.

Waking up to America’s economic nightmare

April2DowWith the roughly 1,500-point rise in the Dow Jones average since early March, it seems investors have been dreaming about the good old days. This Bloomberg chart from last Thursday’s trading marks the apparent disconnect — you don’t have to be a stock market maven to sense that the dramatic rally will likely prove to be, in the parlance of Wall Street, the kaput kitty hitting the pavement.

Take your pick of grim indicators. For the last two months the Consumer Confidence Index has plumbed its lowest depths since its inception in 1967. As we learned Friday, the nation lost another 663,000 jobs in March, bringing the total to 5.1 million since the recession began in December 2007. Unemployment may be a lagging economic indicator, but there’s little to suggest that the wave is cresting or will be any time soon.

But the worst sign of all right now may be this: America is still stuck in the anger stage. Recently I overheard a classic strain of the outrage in a coffee shop in Noe Valley (hardly ground zero for hard times), in a conversation between two rather comfortable looking middle-aged adults. One was wailing away on America’s preferred punching bag, Mr. Wall Street Executive, for “raping the taxpayers” without remorse. His hair was so on fire that I feared his head might actually explode. Soon the talk hit on the hypocrisy of the Obama administration’s forcing General Motors chief Rick Wagoner to fall on his sword while Wall Street’s lords of finance so unfairly kept feasting on federal bailout funds. Somehow the disastrous story of the SUV-bloated American auto industry didn’t come up.

Indeed, we must also be in a recession of genuine awareness. While New York Times columnist Frank Rich can himself be shrill at times, he’s got it right regarding the continuing blame game:

Why is there any sympathy whatsoever for a Detroit C.E.O. who helped wreck his company, ruined investors and cost thousands of hard-working underlings their jobs, when there is no mercy for those who did the same on Wall Street? Might we, too, have a double standard? Could we still be in denial of the reality that greed and irresponsibility were not an exclusive Wall Street franchise during our national bender?

A prominent financial expert I interviewed last week for a forthcoming magazine piece on the economic crisis said to me at one point in our conversation, “Almost everybody who was part of the system failed.” He wasn’t only talking about Wall Street institutions, government regulators and the media.

Easily enough we get whipped into a frenzy over unjust executive bonuses or the sins of the media’s prime time ding-dongs. But what of America’s common financial lifestyle over the last two decades? As Rich continues, in answer to his own question: “Any citizen or business that overspent or overborrowed in the bubble subscribed to its reckless culture. That culture has crumbled everywhere now, and a new economic order will have to rise from its ruins.”

Even better put, it will have to be built from them. That will be painstaking, no doubt — block by block, brick by brick, as has been said by a certain someone. But right now, it seems, too many people are still standing on the outskirts shouting about who plundered the village, rather than heading into the collective rubble and really starting to pick up the pieces.

UPDATE: On a related note, Wall Street conspiracy theorists and/or Hollywood screenwriters will find plenty of grist in this Times front-pager on Larry Summers’ enriching hedge fund days at D.E. Shaw prior to joining Team Obama:

D. E. Shaw does not like to talk about what goes on inside its modish headquarters near Times Square. There, esoteric trading strategies are imagined, sketched on whiteboards and modeled on supercomputers by an elite corps of math wizards and scientists, most of them unknown to the outside world….

At Shaw, Mr. Summers, the professor, was often the student. The arrogant personal style that turned off some Harvard colleagues seemed to evaporate, Shaw traders say. Mr. Summers immersed himself in dynamic hedging, Libor rates and other financial arcana.

He seemed to fit in among Shaw’s math-loving “quants,” as devotees of math-heavy quantitative investing are known. Traders joked that Mr. Summers was the first quant Treasury secretary because he had once ordered dollar bills to be printed with the transcendental number pi — 3.14159… — as the serial number.

Paging Dan Brown and Ron Howard?

Could marijuana light up the economy?

The debate about whether to legalize marijuana in the United States has never been a mainstream one. So it’s been fascinating to watch how much attention the concept has gotten lately, however viable it may or may not be.

Preoccupation with Mexico’s violent drug war is one factor; marijuana is the largest source of revenue for the cartels’ multibillion dollar business north of the border. Commodify the major cash crop through legalization, the idea goes, and its cost will plummet, putting a serious dent in the bad guys’ bank accounts.

taxing_marijuanaBut the larger issue lighting up the idea seems to be the battered American economy. In February, California state lawmaker Tom Ammiano proposed legislation that would regulate the cultivation and sale of marijuana, with a potential tax windfall of more than $1 billion to help bail out the state from a severe budget crisis.

On Thursday, the legalization concept wafted all the way up to the presidential level. In a live Internet “video chat” with Americans, President Obama found himself responding to a question that had been voted among the most popular of those submitted by the public: whether the controlled sale and taxation of marijuana could help stimulate the U.S. economy. “I don’t know what this says about the online audience,” Obama quipped. “The answer is no, I don’t think that is a good strategy to grow the economy.” By Thursday night, CNN’s Anderson Cooper was jabbering at length about the idea with law enforcement officials.

The issue of taxation just cropped up in another intriguing way. The Drug Enforcement Administration caused a stir in San Francisco on Wednesday when it raided a locally permitted medical marijuana dispensary. In part there was outcry because just days prior U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder had announced that the feds would no longer prosecute medical marijuana dispensaries where they are allowed under state and local law. So why the bust now?

So far the DEA isn’t sharing any details, but according to the San Francisco Chronicle, “A source in San Francisco city government who was informed about the raid said the DEA’s action appeared to be prompted by alleged financial improprieties related to the payment of sales taxes.”

It’s difficult to gauge the Chronicle’s anonymous source, but if accurate, the explanation seems rather odd. Last I checked, there was no national sales tax in the United States, so why would the federal government be interested in that issue? Moreover, while I’m not sure whether it applies to medical marijuana, prescription drugs are exempt under the current California sales tax regime.

The federal government does oversee interstate commerce, and U.S. border security, of course — perhaps better clues to the DEA’s continuing interest in the case. (Was supply at the SF pot club the real issue?) Which takes us back to the headline-grabbing drug war. You don’t have to stare for long at this DOJ threat assessment map tracking the Mexican cartels to notice the densely covered trajectory that runs the length of I-5, from San Diego to San Francisco to Seattle.

Sex commune and the city

Ah, San Francisco, you gotta love this town. And loving it must include acknowledging that from time to time certain of its, um, cultural stimulations can seem a bit absurd. This was on display yesterday in the Sunday Styles section of the New York Times, which reported on the One Taste Urban Retreat Center, a 38-member live-play arrangement housed in “a shabby-chic loft building” in the city’s South of Market district. Its men and women (their average age the late 20s, the Times says) make meals together, practice yoga and meditation, and run communication workshops for groups of visitors. Oh, and also:

At 7 a.m. each day, as the rest of America is eating Cheerios or trying to face gridlock without hyperventilating, about a dozen women, naked from the waist down, lie with eyes closed in a velvet-curtained room, while clothed men huddle over them, stroking them in a ritual known as orgasmic meditation — “OMing,” for short. The couples, who may or may not be romantically involved, call one another “research partners.”

Apparently there are benefits to this of all sorts. One recently divorced man, “a baby-faced 50-year-old Silicon Valley engineer,” told the Times that “the practice of manually fixing his attention on a tiny spot of a woman’s body improves his concentration at work.”

Past practices at the center, which has been operating for over four years, include naked yoga. Anyone who has ever participated in a public yoga class knows this would be a remarkably ill-advised idea, no matter the direction in which it might be stretched. One Taste reportedly discontinued it after word got around and “many voyeuristic non-yogis showed up.” (Ya don’t say.)

San Francisco and surrounds has a well-known heritage, of course, of communal sexual experimentation and spiritual seeking. As far as I know per the history books, combining the two has never led to any particularly enlightening results.

janisandband

What I find intriguing about this story isn’t a matter of morals or taste — it’s that the language and marketing themes are age-old, and not newly convincing. One Taste’s web site says that “Orgasmic meditation is a technique that develops mindfulness, concentration, connectedness and insight in a paired practice that focuses on sensation generated through manual stimulation of the genitals.” The practice can “facilitate greater physical and mental health, deeper connection to relationship” and can even be “a method for spiritual aims.”

In the Times report, a once timid patron turned instructor speaks of “the lingering velocity of my desire and my hesitation to give into it.” The proprietor and leader, Nicole Daedone, admits “a high potential for this to be a cult.” And while the article notes toward the end that Daedone’s current boyfriend, a wealthy software entrepreneur, “makes financial resources available” in support of the business, curiously, one stone remains unturned: cash flow. One Taste’s own program listings are also conspicuously absent information about what its participants are required to pay.

This just in: No newspaper at all

More American newspapers appear to be accelerating toward demise. For anyone who’s been paying attention to the industry, it’s been clear at least since last fall that 2009 would be a year of considerable destruction. Take the spreading flame of digital technology, pour on a vicious economic downturn and quickly you have a raging forest fire. In the New York Times today Richard Pérez-Peña reports on which U.S. cities soon might not have a major daily print paper at all. Perhaps it’ll be Seattle or Denver. Or maybe San Francisco. Just a short while ago the prospect would’ve been inconceivable.

I like the forest fire metaphor here because it suggests an essential part of the picture that in many quarters still isn’t getting its proper due: The fertile rebirth that follows the destruction. I’ve been surprised to see a degree of pessimism even from some who’ve already been toiling on the frontier:

burningnewspaper“It would be a terrible thing for any city for the dominant paper to go under, because that’s who does the bulk of the serious reporting,” says Joel Kramer, the editor and CEO of Minneapolis-based MinnPost.com, in the Times today. (Kramer was formerly editor and publisher of The Star Tribune.) “Places like us would spring up, but they wouldn’t be nearly as big. We can tweak the papers and compete with them, but we can’t replace them.”

Really? There’s a tendency to equate the withering of the old medium (newsprint) with the demise of what it has delivered (news reporting). But increasingly it’s going to be delivered digitally. If the old media companies don’t do it, others will, because the demand (and therefore market) for it is undeniable. Sooner than we probably realize, we’re all going to be walking around carrying some kind of digital newspaper in our hands. Organizations will arise and mobilize to provide the reporting in it. And people will pay for it. (Businesses are also likely to advertise around it.)

Indeed, formidable challenges remain to working out viable business models. But the field is increasingly wide open and waiting to be seeded. (New tracts soon available!—see above.) You can look at the crisis as a tragedy, or you can look at it as an opportunity.

As Pérez-Peña notes, the Washington Post had a newsroom of more than 900 people six years ago, with fewer than 700 now. The LA Times newsroom is half the size it was in the 1990s, with a staff of about 600 today.

Call me crazy, but that’s still an awful lot of resources with which to gather and produce stories. Without the major printing and distribution costs of their antique brethren, digital ventures still will probably need to be considerably smaller and more nimble to succeed. (In the near-term economy, at least.) Even if some early experiments haven’t been so impressive, my sense is that those who survive and thrive will do so especially via robust local and regional reporting, fast dwindling in many places now. (Apparently the LA Times has some other strategy in mind.)

Self-described “newsosaur” Alan Mutter offers some intriguing advice for those who reportedly may launch the first digital-only newspaper in a major U.S. city, from the ashes of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. “Be different” and “cop an attitude,” he suggests. “Think of the site as more of a blog than a newspaper.”

Hmm, it seems there’s no shortage of that to go around… but I like his closing thoughts: “The work you do will play a major role in helping to define the future – and the future economics – of local news coverage. Take risks, try everything and have fun. Whatever you do, don’t look back.”

Precisely the poet we needed

Kay Ryan was in town for a reading on Friday night at the San Francisco Center for the Book. It was packed. It occurred to me it was absolutely right she’d become our U.S. Poet Laureate in a time of so much turmoil near and far. The universe has a way of balancing itself, even when it seems barely to be standing on one foot. Some comic concision to cut through all the gloomy cacophony—just the thing.

jamjarI’ve been an admirer for years of Ryan’s pithy assessments. They seem even more necessary right now, and not just for their luminous resuscitation of dead language and reanimation of cliché. As she put it on Friday, one of her interests has been considering extremity and trying to “cool things down” a bit. Claims found in “Ripley’s Believe it or Not!” became the source for her latest collection The Jam Jar Lifeboat & Other Novelties Exposed. The poem “Murder at Midnight” departs from Ripley’s assertion that “If everyone who was told about it told two other people within 12 minutes, everybody on earth would know about it before morning.” Determines Ryan:

But people would begin getting it
a little bit wrong. Long before daylight,
the ‘murder at midnight’ would be
‘sugar stolen outright.’ The fate
of the dead man would not extend
beyond his gate. Only those
right now missing his little habits,
his footfall, his sleeping noises,
will know, and they can’t really tell;
news doesn’t really travel very well.

Whether Ripley’s math quite holds up under scrutiny I can’t say, but no matter. This morning a friend from a group of old high school buddies emailed to suggest that we all start using the trendy messaging service Twitter to banter and keep in touch on a more frequent basis. With three email accounts, IM, Facebook and a blog already running me apace on the digital information wheel, I’m thinking I’ll gently decline for now, and refer him to Sasha Cagen’s fine essay posted yesterday, This Is Your Brain on Twitter.

Faces of the recession in San Francisco

I thought it would be illuminating to get past the abstract brutality of the reported figures, to match some real faces with the numbers. A short visit today to the California Employment Development Department on Turk Street provided about 40 of them.

“Unemployed Men sitting on the sunny side of the San Francisco Public Library” by Dorothea Lange. Feb. 1937. Courtesy of the San Francisco History Center.

“Unemployed Men sitting on the sunny side of the San Francisco Public Library” by Dorothea Lange. Feb. 1937. Courtesy of the San Francisco History Center.

At a “job focus workshop” for people collecting unemployment insurance, the EDD instructor directed the conversation around two crowded conference room tables. People of all kinds listed their occupational fields and spoke briefly about how their job search was going. Not at all well. A few remained upbeat, but the discouragement and resignation among many was palpable. To some degree it was a matter of the diverse Bay Area economy, but the breadth of the carnage was still astonishing. No age or job sector was immune.

There were as many mid to senior-level professionals as working class folks, if not more of them. David, a lawyer for an energy company. Linda, a commercial real estate broker. Michael, a manager from a biotech firm. Also present: several people in marketing and sales, two people in the printing business, two bank tellers, an accountant, a travel agent, a telecom maintenance worker, a warehouse manager, an ice cream delivery truck driver, a construction worker, a creative director for an advertising agency, an environmental consultant, a mental health worker and a professional photographer.

The health care industry is said to be one of the few bright spots right now in terms of prospects. But here, too, was Olga, a soft-spoken middle-age woman, recently laid off from her job at a nursing home. Next she tried to pick up work as a home-care provider, but that didn’t last either. Apparently people losing their jobs are also giving up on health insurance for themselves and their families.

“This week I’ve been going door to door at offices downtown, asking to see if they need a receptionist,” Olga said. “Nothing yet.”

Someone across the room let out a small sigh.

Recently, a friend of mine who works downtown noted that the buses headed there during morning rush hour have been noticeably less full. Some popular lunch spots have started to look sparse. On a recent afternoon she was in a sandwich shop when a Latino man walked in, approached the counter and simply began pleading in a broken accent.

“I need a job,” he said, “I need a job.”