Saturday, March 25, 2006

Keeping up Appearances, or Google and Tuberculosis

Left: Gavin Newsom and UnwireNow launch free WiFi in Union Square in March 2004

It’s interesting to see how the Chronicle and Examiner
can often differ in their takes on the same or similar news items. For instance, let’s look at two subjects which are near and dear to many a San Franciscan’s heart and which in many ways are similar: Google and tuberculosis.

Today’s’ Chronicle reports on the alarming increase in drug-resistant TB, both globally and locally, pointing out that San Francisco has the highest rate of tuberculosis in the country, and that more and more TB patients are showing up with the newest drug-resistant strains. The story highlights how immigration creates a vector for the new strains, which has hit the Asian immigrant community particularly hard. Meanwhile, the Examiner ran an AP wire story with little or no mention of the local dimension.

But where the difference in coverage and viewpoint is particularly interesting is in stories running in both papers today covering the ongoing contracting process for the Newsom administration’s TechConnect project, which among other things promises a municipal wireless internet service, which would be free of charge for ordinary users.

The free WiFI project is controversial for a number of reasons. Some argue that it puts unwitting users at risk of having their personal information and browsing habits appropriated and exploited by either government (presumably for security purposes) or by commercial vendors (for marketing targeting purposes), both compelling privacy concerns. Others of a less conspiratorial tone have characterized it as fad policy, which uses the presumption of bringing poor people into the internet age to provide a convenience perk to employers, small business and yuppies. This is probably closest to the truth as poor people (particularly those without computers) need free WiFI about as much as they need cake, and we all know that the predominant user of such a free and pervasive service will be indolent yuppies snooping on their co-workers MySpace profiles while sunning in the park. One question that is rarely raised: should this be the city’s job?

Instead, today’s Chronicle focuses on the increasing appearance of an increasingly chummy relationship between Mayor Newson and Google honchos Larry Page and Sergey Brin. Google is the leading competitor for the TechConnect project, and are big on pervasive WiFI, and San Francisco is not their only target; they have been actively wooing New York, to the point of purchasing significant infrastructure related real estate in Manhattan. Google operates free WiFI pilot projects both here in Union Square and in New York’s Bryant Park.

The Chronicle story, by Verne Kopytoff, includes documentation of over 150 pages of communications between mainly secretaries of the Mayor and Google’s top twins. But while the headlines intimate the budding of a close friendship between Newsom and Brin and Page, which brings an awkward appearance to any contracting relationship, others might see business as usual. Free rides to global bullshit sessions in Davos and ski trips are not much different than what lobbyists work with in Congress, and Kopytoff’s (is that name real?) intimations that a close relationship comes from moving in the same social circles is rather precious. Of course Newsom, Brin and Page are going to be running in the same circles: they’re all rich and/or powerful and Generation X. It’s a comparatively small circle compared to elite circles of older age groups and everyone knows each other.

The more interesting story, strangely enough, is in the Examiner. But whether it is interesting because of the questions raised in the article, or because of the questions raised by the existence of the article itself, is in itself a big question.

Justin Jouvenal (where do they get these names?) writes about Kimo Crossman, a blogger who would appear to be, well, obsessive about the appearances of impropriety in the TechConnect deal. Crossman, whose blog and postings at are a compendium of all things critical of the initiative, is accused of abusing open government laws in his zeal to reveal all about the deal. The article repeats many complaints from city officials that Crossman has crossed the line in advocacy by piling on more and frivolous requests for information in order to punish what he feels is municipal foot-dragging on earlier requests.

Well it IS rather clear from a review of his postings that Crossman is what many a veteran activist would call a “process junkie” or “mole person”. However, the timing of the article would seem to present yet another appearance problem for the Ex and the Newsom press office. It looks awfully “fed”, and there’s no detail on what the nature of Crossman’s requests are and how they would be considered vexatious. Also, Jouvenal got DTIS honcho Ron Vinson’s name wrong. The whole article stinks of, well, green, and I don’t mean as in Matt Gonzalez, or money. Just green.

The worst part of this whole thing is that so-called “Sunshine” ordinances are routinely used to invade the privacy of government employees and harass government departments, and have become a routine weapon of the vexatious, ranging from fake lefto journalists at the Bay Guardian to rancid right-wing “Common Law” activists who inundate local tax assessors with information requests and fake documents. One wonders what Jouvenal’s take on “Sunshine” laws would be if he worked at the Guardian.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Holy Cow

Left: Scientology's Mission in San Francisco's North Beach

Apparently, the powers that be at Scientology San Francisco understand that politics is the real show business in this town. Word comes from Matier & Ross that Mayor Newsom is dating a Scientologist. Angela Alioto, whose law offices are located next to Scientology’s main offices in the city, introduced that Scientologist to the Mayor. I suppose that would be alarming to any rational person, given that Scientology has a history of using famous people, primarily in show business, to promote its agenda, and that agenda has been judged by reliable people to be questionable. It might be even more alarming if one remembered reading an item in Leah Garchik’s column last summer:

Right: Newsom has dated a wide variety of celebrities in order to cultivate an image of emotional maturity

“The winner of the Ladies of Disaster Lunch that was auctioned at a fund- raiser last spring for Yick Wo Elementary School was lawyer George Shieman, who bid more than $700. On Friday, Office of Emergency Services Chief Annemarie Conroy, Police Chief Heather Fong, Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White and District Attorney Kamala Harris went to the North Beach Restaurant with Shieman and some pals, who arrived with literature from the Church of Scientology. Shieman talked about some of the church's programs, invited the four to Scientology facilities and gave out materials at the end. Auction organizer Pia Hinckle described the women as "shanghaied ... for close to two hours'' while their host tried "to bring them to the light of Scientology.'' But Hayes-White, with whom I spoke on Friday evening, said it had been a "very interesting lunch'' and that Shieman and his friends "weren't trying to convert us.'' She said they asked many questions about their careers and seemed particularly interested in Harris' and Conroy's forays into politics. As to the tour of the Scientologist facility, Hayes-White she said she "might do it. I'm an inquisitive person.'' She said she wasn't so much interested in the program, but "I love to go into buildings and look at the fire safety aspects.'' Shieman also placed a winning bid of $1,000 for a tour of City Hall with Mayor Newsom.”

Left: Jim Jones accepts appointment to the Housing Authority Commission in 1977

While there may indeed be cause for concern, we would submit that Scientology by itself is not necessarily the vector of that concern. The real problem is that San Francisco is no stranger to the occasional emergence of crackpot religions as political players. Certainly we all remember the Burton Machine’s dalliances with the People’s Temple.

Or the fact that a number of city political luminaries – including a former police commissioner and a former redevelopment agency official – are involved with Soka Gakkai, an offshoot of Nichiren Bhuddism which has been accused in the past of having cult-like emotional and financial control over its followers, and whose increasing political power in Japan has undermined the legitimacy of a political establishment which has reigned supreme for half a century.

And, lest we forget, let us ask now: What the fuck is Amos Brown doing playing with the Moonies? Please? Somebody?

Right: Clint Reilly, Janet Reilly, and Cassock-wearing Pedophile Shield Wiliam Levada, pretending to be comfortable

But then, who are we to point the finger at these oddities? Yes, Scientology is a bizarre, power-hungry religion, which bilks millions from its followers only to reveal to them that their bad karma comes from outer space. Yes, Soka Gakkai is a bizarre, power-hungry religion, which bilks millions from its followers only to reveal to them that if they chant long and hard enough they’ll stop worrying about all the money they’ve lost. As for the Moonies, we won’t even go there. But can we even go to the enormous and real influence over politics and culture waged by the Catholic Church in San Francisco? Are Clint Reilly’s Little Black Room and his direct line to the Vatican really any less strange than Willie Brown marshalling the People’s Temple as an army of precinct captains? You tell me.

What is it about this place? You would think that as a community, we would have outgrown the self-absorbed “spiritual exploration” phase by now, especially after the particularly bad trip we went through in the 70’s.

Discussion on The Wall Forum