Tuesday, December 18, 2012

“Beasts of the Southern Wild” and the Dream of a Post Racial America

Beasts of the Southern Wild has been showing up on plenty of year end "Best of" lists lately.  But I'm not the only one who had some issues with the film's handling of its own subtext and its approach to race relations in a post Katrina southern Delta.  Head on over to The SF Informer to read my thoughts on just why, in the year of the Avengers and Twilight, Beasts of the Southern Wild may be the biggest stretch of escapist fantasy to hit theaters this year.


Monday, December 17, 2012

Inner Sunset Skeleton

This is the Inner Sunset Skeleton.  Its been up in the window of this apartment on the 1500 block of Irving for as long as I've lived here and this is only the most recent in its recent string of exciting costumes.  At first it was naked, but then it showed up one day dressed like Bumblebee from Transformers.  Its worn this exciting Sriracha inspired ensemble for the last couple of weeks (complete with fancy china) and will hopefully be sporting all sorts of great looks in the future.  Watch this space for updates.   

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Hacker Collectives and the San Francisco Tech Scene

Source: Danny O Brien

What is the role of "hackers" in the 21st century?  And what does it mean to be a part of this culture as the main stream grows increasingly in demand of their skills?  This article that I've written for the SF Informer investigates how a hacker space in San Francisco, Noisebridge, is responding to these challenges through a combination of new technology and traditional, communal based ideas and decision making.     


Thursday, October 4, 2012

Global Frackdown

For anyone unfamiliar with Food and Water Watch, they are a national environmental organization who focus on issues related to protection of water resources and food supply.  Their organizing has influenced a ban on hydraulic fracturing in New Jersey, prevented the privatization of public water resources in numerous communities and aided in numerous other related issues throughout the country.  I have started contributing to their blog, so go check it out and support a good organization. 

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Rural Energy Challenge: How the Liquid Petroleum Gas Industry Seeks to Exploit the Developing World

Source: Propane.pro

This past week, representatives of the World Liquid Petroleum Gas Association (WLPGA) met in Bali, Indonesia for their annual World Forum.  It was the typical mix of high fees ($2000 for Association members), seminars, cocktail parties and gala dinners.  But it was also a showcase for the industry’s new commitment to expanding their market in the developing world.  Within the industry it is referred to as "The Rural Energy Challenge."  It is the question of how to exploit the developing world's rural populations into purchasing as much liquid petroleum as possible.

One of the main focuses of the conference was the launch of the “Cooking for Life” program.  Described on the WLPGA web site as, “A 5-year global campaign…to reduce death and illness caused by traditional yet harmful cooking fuels used by millions worldwide,” Cooking For Life seeks to Introduce, “LP Gas as a clean and safe alternative for cooking in developing countries,” through the combined efforts of governments, public health officials, NGOs and, of course, the Petroleum Gas Industry. 

The industry has already begun to draw international criticism for its widespread use of hydraulic fracturing (or fracking), a process of LPG and oil extraction that involves the high pressure injection of water, sand and toxic chemicals into underground shale formations.  Linked to a rise in earth quakes in the Midwest and widespread contamination of well water, the process is exempt from the parameters of the Clean Water Act.  Companies are not required to reveal the mixture of contaminants that they are releasing into the water supply, and heavy lobbying efforts by the industry have prevented many uses of the practice from being linked to water contamination.  Fracking is gradually encroaching upon other countries as well, a moratorium on the practice having been lifted in South Africa as recently as earlier this month. 
The process is perhaps most famously known for its ability to make water flammable:

Regardless of this violent extraction process, LPG sits squarely within the realm of nonrenewable fossil fuels, a distinction which the industry puts great time and effort into distancing itself from.  The WLPGA paints itself as a clean burning and environmentally sound “modern energy,” a cheap alternative to coal that, at least in the United States, could lead to independence from foreign energy imports.  

The role of liquid petroleum as a solution for third world health risks is spelled out in a recently published study commissioned by the University of Pennsylvania, and funded by the WLPGA.  The study notes that 2.0 million deaths occurred in 2009 due to indoor air pollution, the tenth highest cause of avoidable death worldwide.  This risk is isolated within low and middle income countries where solid fuels such as coal, wood and biomass are used for cooking.  The study then draws a connection between this health issue and the solution inherent in higher usage of clean burning liquid petroleum gas.  Granted, one of the studies main points is that, “More research is needed to understand the appropriateness of policies given the health, economic and environmental tradeoffs among the fuel alternatives.”  Alternative methods, from solar energy production to cleaner burning stoves and improved ventilation, suggest a plethora of methods existing alongside that of more widespread LPG usage.  But accepting this would muddy the narrative of the WLPGA.    

Here, a woman cooks with a solar cooker supplied by the Senegal Solar Cooking Initiative, just one of the many alternative responses to the indoor contaminants issue ignored by the WLPGA. 

Source: Senegal Solar Cooking Initiative 

Just one example of how the WLPGA is masking its market based intentions is in the Global Alliance For Clean Cook Stoves.  This coalition of governmental, private and NGO organizations is part of the United Nations Foundation and describes its mission as seeking to, “Save lives, improve livelihoods, empower women, and combat climate change by creating a thriving global market for clean and efficient household cooking solutions.”  The organization’s web site displays a banner of smiling children in some undefined Sub-Saharan village, but even a cursory examination of the site’s content soon leaves any mention of health issues far behind.  “The Alliance has identified the creation of a thriving global market for clean cook stoves and fuels as the most viable way to achieve universal adoption”, reads one of the group’s mission statements.  Having already conducted “Market Assessments” in 16 countries, the alliance’s main priority is the manipulation of international markets to make them better suited to receive the full supply of patiently waiting liquid petroleum.

After all, who could argue with smiling brown people standing around stoves?  

Source: The Alliance for Clean Cookstoves

It is not just world health statistics that allow the LP industry to create an image of a clean and progressive fuel provider.  In the first four months of this year, US Co2 emissions saw a surprising and dramatic drop, plummeting to the lowest levels in twenty years.  The reason for this drop was quickly attributed to the increase in domestic electricity generation from natural gas.  According to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA), natural gas is the fastest growing segment of US energy use.  Between 2004 and 2011, the percentage of domestic electricity derived from natural gas increased from 17.9% to 24.8%.  During this same period, the seemingly unshakable dominance of coal as the nation’s go to source for its energy saw a subsequent decline, decreasing from 49.8% to 37,.5%.  Finally, in April of this year, the two sources converged at an even 32%. Within the ensuing months, natural gas became, for the first time, the nation’s top supplier of electrical power. 

For those seeking to further bolster the image of natural gas as a clean alternative energy source, the connection was clear.  Admittedly, liquid petroleum is a cleaner burning fuel than coal.  But the direct connection between the drop in Co2 and the rise in gas usage is not as direct as the industry would prefer to see it.  A report by Co2 score card indicates that, though coal reduction plays a part in this decrease, it is more to blame on lower usage of fuel in general due to the mild winter of 2011-2012.  The report cites mild weather as responsible for 43% of this reduction.  Conversely, coal to gas conversion is responsible for only 21%.  On top of all this, the drop in emissions was based in Co2, while the main greenhouse gas emitted by frack wells is methane, a gas twenty times more potent than Co2.  

Source: University of Connecticut 

According to the US Department of Energy and the EIA, there is little indication that natural gas will remain a cheap alternative relative to coal.  The cost of LPG is increasing even as the cost of coal is seeing slight declines, and a reverse of the supply pattern and Co2 decline is expected to reverse in the following year as coal regains its dominance of the energy chain.    

Meanwhile, numerous countries are already being used as success stories of the LPG industry.  In Indonsiea, Senegal and Brazil, combination of subsidies and marketing have made LPG into the top energy source.  But these changes often come with stark socioeconomic contrasts.  Senegal in particular has seen its subsidies indirectly benefitting the wealthiest segments of its population, with only 19% of the LPG allocations servicing the poorest individuals, while in Brazil less than half of rural residents use LPG as their main fuel source.  As stated in the findings of U Penn, “While universal subsidies have been able to rapidly reduce solid fuel usage in favor of LPG, they fail to be a sustainable solution for the poorest members of its population.”

Source: Alliance for Clean Cookstoves

Instead of being cast by its opponents as a speculative industry with no regard for the adverse effects of its methods, the Petroleum Gas Industry has found a way to drape itself in altruism.  Using the issue of household contaminants as a wedge, it has already begun to reshape its image while expanding into a vast, untapped population of potential customers.  With the statistics of the World Health Organization on their side, and supported by groups like the Alliance for Clean Cook Stoves  the move to exploit the buying power of the third world is instead being cast as a gallant march towards progress. 

Among all the industry talk about market exploitation and expansion, it is this implicit condemnation of an “undeveloped” life style that is perhaps most insulting.  Talk of creating “environmental and economic benefits for the developing world” reeks of a kind of tacit judgment of any life style that does not service the fossil fuel industry.  Drawing a line between what is “modern” and what is not as a means to expand the market for fossil fuels is a position that simultaneously insults millions of people in rural populations and misrepresents the undeniable issues of indoor air contaminants as only curable through market based innovations.    

To end on a positive note, here is an anti fracking protest in Capetown, South Africa. 


Monday, August 20, 2012

San Francisco, PETA and the stigma of "Homelessness"

Source: SF Gate

This July, San Francisco announced a plan to pair homeless individuals with shelter dogs who have a history of behavior issues of have proven difficult to adopt.  The program was immediately controversial.  The resulting opposition by some animal rights groups, as well as the narrative created by the media, serves as a stinging example of the way homeless populations are stereotyped and stigmatized.  
Overseen by San Francisco Animal Care and Control, Wonderful Opportunities for Occupants and Fidos (WOOF), is providing eight participants with a small weekly stipend and employment counseling, as well as full food and health services for their dog.  In exchange, the individuals must be currently residing in steady housing, have no history of violence and be either sober or seeking treatment for drug abuse.  Any panhandling activity will result in expulsion from the program.  The participants are currenlty being instructed in basic training and animal care, while the dogs are being gradually trained in interacting with humans.

The program is being funded through a private grant of $10,000 by San Francisco socialite Vanessa Getty, who wanted to respond to the rampant overcrowding of San Francisco shelters, and was conceived by Myor Ed Lee's point person on homelessness, Bryan Dufty.

In a video produced by the ACAC, program leaders visit the participants in their housing prior to the beginning of the program.

Among news outlets, the SF gate so far stands alone in choosing to portray those involved by actually portraying those involved, printing a number of photographs of the WOOF participants and their dogs.

Source: SF Gate
The individuals profiled above bear little resemblance to the photographs provided by most news media and blogs.  Animal news magazine Global Animal wrote uncritically of the proposal, but simultaneously described San Francisco as being, "notorious for streets overflowing with beggars".  They accompanied their story with the preceding image, an image from an unrelated Flickr stream which was then copied by an article by the Huffington Post:  

Photo Credit: Beverly & Pack/flickr 

Though it is a stated goal of the WOOF program to reduce pan handling, the exclusivity with which headlines made use of the word reduces the homeless population to the level of Global Animals' supposed overflow of beggars.  The program was announced as, "Puppies and Panhandlers," by the Huffington Post, while the local ABC affiliate's headline read, "SF Program will pay panhandlers to rescue dogs."  Fox News' headline read, "San Francisco Program Pairs Pan Handlers With Pound Puppies."  Granted, it is likely that many of the participants do have a history of pan handling.  But it seems irresponsible to exclusively refer to this activity, and to repeatedly use it to define a group of otherwise diverse individuals.

However, WOOF's key opponent remains People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.  In a blog post published on July 17th, PETA provided the following image, also taken from an unrelated Flickr stream: 

Photo Credit: Franco Folini/flickr

The attached headline reads, "San Francisco Gives Dogs to Pan Handlers", and the article warns that, "Handing over troubled animals to troubled people will save neither, and it places both at risk of injury, further trauma, and a bad end."  Author Michelle Kretzer cautions that, "Many homeless people are battling substance-abuse or mental-health issues,  If they are unable to adequately meet their own needs, the last thing the city should do is saddle them with the needs of another individual."  

This came in concert with PETA's issuing of a letter to city officials.  Written by spokesperson Teresa Chagrin, the letter warns that, "Handing over troubled animals to troubled people will save neither, and it places both at risk of injury, further trauma, and a bad end," adding, "It should be out of the question to play Russian roulette with these animals."  The organization went on to offer $10,000 in matching funds.  In return for the program being shut down entirely, PETA would supply training and materials for homeless individuals to be put to work distributing leaflets for spaying and nuetering.  Their chief concern was addressing the issue of pan handling without getting any animals involved. 

"It is one of those issues where everyone just holds their breath and prays," Chagrin says.  Now that the program is in effect, PETA's funds are no longer on the table, and the organization remains extremely opposed to the idea.  Chagrin describes it as, "Putting troubled animals with troubled individuals and hoping for a miracle."

Rebecca Katz, an administrator for ACAC, has been overseeing the training sessions and finds fault with many of the criticisms.  "To make an immediate assumption that anyone who has every been homeless is unfit for caring for an animal is unfair" she stated.  Finding a note of classism in the equating of homelss indivudals with abusive or negligent behavior, Katz says that, "We see animal abuse in wealthy homes as often as in poor homes."  In response to the assertion that these are troubled individuals, Katz argued that "These are people in supportive housing.  Which means stable housing," noting the predominance of studio style housing in which the individualism reside.  

Describing PETA's letter as unfortunate  Katz said that one participant had already been removed from the program to seek additional treatment, while one unresponsive chihuahua had already been exchanged for a more well behaved dog.   She stressed that the screening process for program participants is more intensive than the placement process for any other dog owner.  "We know the power of the human animal bond," she concluded, "We have a number of people who change their situation in their life because of their dog.  That’s the beauty of the symbiotic relationship." 

Concern about the welfare of shelter animals is a valid one.  However, the coverage of this issue expresses a dis interest in fully understanding the stories of those involved, preferring to dismiss them with derogatory terminology or to simply portray them as exclusively young, male and white.  There is a  vast margin between the reasonable expression of concern and the casting of assumptions based entirely on a person's class and social status.  The substance abusing individuals described by PETA are notably barred from involvement, and the inevitable disaster described in much of WOOF's press seems to bare little resemblance to the actual program.  Instead, we are left with another rotation of the news and blog cycle that diminishes an at risk population, while further perpetuating a set of narrow and stereotypical imagery.  

Monday, June 4, 2012

Abandoned School of the Arts: Part 2. The Things They Left There

Inside and out, the remains of the San Francisco School of the Arts, abandoned since 2002, intersect with the belongings of an ever changing rotation of squatters.  Though more secure since a crackdown in early 2010, and the looming demolition of the property following its acquisition by SF State this April, the school remains cluttered with the two groups' dueling patinas. 

Inside, out of date text books share space with improvised bed rooms formed out of rearranged book cases and salvaged mattress.  Class room cabinets and teacher’s desks hold piles of clothing and personal hygiene products.  

A swamp of empty muscle milk containers hints at a fortuitous dumpster dive...

...while an empty milk carton lies discarded by a long gone student. 

A pile of clothes, luggage and trash is the only memory left by some long since vacated tenant.  

"Be back...soon.  Wait for me.  Get warm and comfy  Love Justin.".

Demolition is planned for sometime this summer, following which the school will be converted first into a sporting green, and then into a Clinical Sciences building. 

Friday, June 1, 2012

Abandoned School of the Arts: Part 1. The Place That was Left There

On April 26th, following a ten year legal battle, the former site of the San Francisco School of the Arts was purchased by San Francisco State University.  The site had been vacant since 2002 and, despite repeated attempts to secure the property, continued to be a frequent stopping point for squatters and graffiti taggers.  The site remains a restricted gallery for the work of these outsider artists, with numerous murals displayed outside and within the 2.5 acre campus. 

In some places, the graffiti takes on a mean spirited tone, defacing the work of earlier artists.

More often, the distinction between art added before and after the abandonment of the site becomes unclear.  Many of the school's walls retain the projects of its students and, as with this mural, there is little indication as to the piece's true origins.  Is this "art" created before 2002, or "vandalism" added on afterwards?  

In early 2010, an article was published through SF State’s X-Press magazine, detailing the status of the property.  Soon after, perhaps because of the increase in exposure, the broken windows and squatter entrances were boarded up again, the door handles secured with screws and metal plates.      

In the rear of the one of the court yards, someone has placed a chair and carpet at the foot of a cement gorilla statue, as if requesting an audience with the space's final remaining inhabitant.  Its forlorn, simian caretaker. 

Stay tuned for part 2, in which we take a closer look at the objects left behind since the school's abandonment. 

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Touchdown Jesus

In 2004, the Solid Rock Church in Mason Ohio constructed the world's largest scale statue of Jesus.  In 2010, the statue was struck by lightning, caught on fire and burned to the ground.  The statue was insured for twice its value.

Courtesy of Cincinnati.com, June 15, 2010
Courtesy Datyon Daily News, June 15 2010