Uber cuts protested by New York City drivers

By Steve Light and Isaac Finn
2 February 2016

In response to a 15 percent fare cut announced by the company over the weekend, hundreds of Uber and other taxi drivers protested Monday at the Uber headquarters near Queens Plaza in New York City. They expressed anger that their already meager incomes would be reduced even further by the company’s action, forcing them to work even longer hours.

Uber driver rally against rate cuts

Uber is an international “ride share” service, whose drivers are treated as independent contractors rather than as employees. As of last summer, the company was valued at $17 billion. The rate cut was reportedly undertaken to increase the company’s market share, in competition with Lyft, another ride-share service, as well as regular taxis and car services.

The super-exploitation of Uber and other taxi workers is just one aspect of the ever-widening economic inequality in the city that is the financial capital of the world. With astronomically high living expenses, millions of low-wage workers are barely eking by in a city where are workers, according to a recent report, need to earn an hourly wage of least $38.80, roughly four times the current minimum wage, in order to afford the city’s 2015 median asking rent of $2,690.

A significant proportion of the rally was composed of drivers from countries such as Nepal, China, Russia, and the Caucasus region, reflecting the super-exploitation of immigrant workers. Signs expressed anger at wage cuts by billionaire owners. Trucks, cars, and taxis rolling by the rally blew their horns in support and were met with cheers from the drivers.

Many Uber drivers are part-timers, and net an average $300 per week for 25 hours worked, from which they still have to pay for gasoline, insurance, vehicle expenses, and self-employment taxes. Recent reports show drivers making $2.89 an hour, less than half the official minimum wage.

The development of Internet-based service using cell phone apps has greatly intensified competition, forcing drivers to work longer hours to try make sufficient income and pay off their investments for cars. The technology-based changes in the taxi industry have led to protests against Uber in at least nine countries in Latin America, Europe, Canada and the Far East.

Uber and other drivers at the rally spoke to reporters from the WSWS .

Victor, an immigrant from Russiam with two years experience, stated, “Even before they dropped the price we were working with very low margins. We already have to pay for inspections and insurance. We are always risking getting a ticket, and if we do we have to pay it.

“One of the guys did the math, and if you work about 57 hours, under the new rate, after expenses you are making about $9.50 an hour. Why not work in a warehouse, if they are only going to pay that much?

The protest at Uber headquarters

“When I joined Uber two years ago, I knew the rates and then the company changed the rules. I have already bought the car, the dealer doesn’t change the cost because of this, and my insurance is the same. I know in other states things are different and a lot of the drivers just work part-time, but we already paid out thousands of dollars for these cars.

“They say we are ‘partners’ but they didn’t ask us anything before making these changes. I think a lot of people will leave Uber, and then there will be less drivers. We might be really busy, but eventually the market will adjust and this will hit us hard.”

Pemba Sherpa, an immigrant from Nepal, who has worked for Uber for five months, decried the rate cuts, “They are trying to kill us. We have to pay rent, plus the cost of a car, which is between $60,000 and $65,000, and they are asking us to work for just over $4 an hour.

“When I started working for Uber, I asked them, ‘should I get the black car?’ and they told me to get it. Then they told me I had to pick up UberX clients for less money, or do pulls, which means I have to pick up multiple clients at the same time. If you are doing pulls, I could be picking up six people and they are all paying $2 each that is less than a subway ride. It is like I am a bus driver, but I did not sign up to be a bus driver.

“We are entrapped because we already bought the cars, and they just keep changing the rules. They send us our times and conditions every night, and we have to accept them or we won’t be able to work.”

Another Uber driver, added, “They want us to work for $4.89 an hour, and you can’t take care of your family for that. We will be working longer hours for the same amount of money, and that is an insult.

“We already have to pay for the cars, for insurance. We have to pay for dry cleaning for our shirts, and we are getting less money than if we worked at McDonalds.”

Parminder Singh, an Uber driver and former taxi driver, explained “Uber just keeps adding cars, and making things worse for us. New York taxi companies can’t add more cars, because that increases congestion on the roads and makes things worse.

“We just want to raise our kids, but you can’t do that on this much money. I work from noon until 1 or 2AM. My son is nine years old, and I never see him. He wants to see me, but I can’t because I am at work.”

Asked about the political issues raised by his working conditions, Singh added, “The city should be responsible for taking care of the people that live here. When I was in Yellow Cab we had protested in front of the Governor’s office, to make things better for all the drivers, but the politicians still have not done anything.

“My feeling is that the city should be providing jobs to people with qualifications. We should not have people becoming drivers, when they are trained for something else.”

“Uber is 1,500 drivers, and they will make us homeless” Bahkyti Yori asserted. “What happens when we cannot cover our insurance, financial costs? We will lose our cars, everything.”

Pasand Sherpa told the WSWS, “Uber lowered the rate 15 percent but Uber takes a high percentage, 30 to 35 percent, but there is no percentage increase for us. It was $8 at the start for riders but now it is $7. Every trip they charge us 35 percent. They discount from the customer’s side but not from the driver’s side. Wages are going down but we are working harder. It was better but now we would have to drive 500 miles. We don’t have a union. The Taxi Workers Alliance organized this.”

Medallion (yellow cab) taxi drivers joined the rally in support of the Uber drivers. Iqbal Singh, a yellow cab driver for 25 years, was there in support of the Uber drivers. “We came out to fight with them. Uber made $62 billion. If they are cutting back the fare, so they make less, then yellow cabs also make less money. They can then cut the fare again and make it even worse. We want Uber to have a set price.”

An Uber driver for two years, Shamsu Uddin said, “The jobs came online before for $3 per mile, then $2.15, and now again forty cents less. We can’t even make $100 to $150 an hour. How can we make the mortgage payments or pay for the new car or take care of our family. I drive twelve hours a day. Everything goes up in price, every bill, but not us. We built the billionaire boss. There are many competing companies–Yellow, Green, LYFT, Uber, Gate, Bayer, and now Juno is coming in April. [Mayor] De Blasio said it is not good for the driver but he set this up.”

Tenzin Wangyal assessed the situation, “I think there is a decent amount that can be made by drivers but the company takes 30 percent and the driver is left not making much. They structure the system to get people to fight against each other. It needs to be structured to bring people together. This should not only be including taxi but all people should support this fight. It is about fairness and justice. People just keep talking. No one is doing anything. That is why we are here, for our voice to be heard. They make the same speech, but it is the same old reality. It is time to act now and do the right thing. It is for democracy and justice.”



Cheap cab ride? You must have missed Uber’s true cost

When tech giants such as Google and Uber hide their wealth from taxation, they make it harder for us to use technology to improve services

A striking French taxi driver protests against Uber in Paris.
A striking French taxi driver protests against Uber in Paris. Photograph: Charles Platiau/Reuters

To understand why we see so few genuine alternatives to US technology giants, it’s instructive to compare the fate of a company like Uber – valued at more than $62.5bn (£44bn) – and that of Kutsuplus, an innovative Finnish startup forced to shut down late last year.

Kutsuplus’s aspiration was to be the Uber of public transport: it operated a network of minibuses that would pick up and drop passengers anywhere in Helsinki, with smartphones, algorithms and the cloud deployed to maximise efficiency, cut costs and provide a slick public service. Being a spinoff of a local university that operated on a shoestring budget, Kutsuplus did not have rich venture capitalists behind it. This, perhaps, is what contributed to its demise: the local transport authority found it too expensive, despite impressive year-on-year growth of 60%.

On the other hand, “expensive” is everything that Uber is not. While you might be tempted to ascribe the low costs of the service to its ingenuity and global scale – is it the Walmart of transport? – its affordability has a more banal provenance: sitting on tons of investor cash, Uber can afford to burn billions in order to knock out any competitors, be they old-school taxi companies or startups like Kutsuplus.

A recent article in The Information, a tech news site, suggests that during the first three quarters of 2015 Uber lost $1.7bn while booking $1.2bn in revenue. The company has so much money that, in at least some North American locations, it has been offering rides at rates so low that they didn’t even cover the combined cost of fuel and vehicle depreciation.

Uber’s game plan is simple: it wants to drive the rates so low as to increase demand – by luring some of the customers who would otherwise have used their own car or public transport. And to do that, it is willing to burn a lot of cash, while rapidly expanding into adjacent industries, from food to package delivery.

An obvious but rarely asked question is: whose cash is Uber burning? With investors like Google, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Goldman Sachs behind it, Uber is a perfect example of a company whose global expansion has been facilitated by the inability of governments to tax profits made by hi-tech and financial giants.

To put it bluntly: the reason why Uber has so much cash is because, well, governments no longer do. Instead, this money is parked in the offshore accounts of Silicon Valley and Wall Street firms. Look at Apple, which has recently announced that it sits on $200bn of potentially taxable overseas cash, or Facebook, which has just posted record profits of $3.69bn for 2015.

Some of these firms do choose to share their largesse with governments – both Apple and Google have agreed to pay tax bills far smaller than what they owe, in Italy and the UK respectively – but such moves aim at legitimising the questionable tax arrangements they have been using rather than paying their fair share.

Compare this with the dire state of affairs in which most governments and city administrations find themselves today. Starved of tax revenue, they often make things worse by committing themselves to the worst of austerity politics, shrinking the budgets dedicated to infrastructure, innovation, or creating alternatives to the rapacious “platform capitalism” of Silicon Valley.

Under these conditions, it’s no wonder that promising services like Kutsuplus have to shut down: cut from the seemingly endless cash supply of Google and Goldman Sachs, Uber would have gone under as well. It is, perhaps, no coincidence that Finland is one of the more religious advocates of austerity in Europe; having let Nokia go under, the country has now missed another chance.

Let us not be naive: Wall Street and Silicon Valley won’t subsidise transport for ever. While the prospect of using advertising to underwrite the costs of an Uber trip is still very remote, the only way for these firms to recoup their investments is by squeezing even more cash or productivity out of Uber drivers or by eventually – once all their competitors are out – raising the costs of the trip.

Both of these options spell trouble. Uber is already taking higher percentages from its drivers’ fares (this number is reported to have gone up from 20% to 30%), while also trying to pass on more costs related to background checks and safety education directly to its drivers (through the so-called safe rides fee).

The only choice here is between more precarity for drivers and more precarity for passengers, who will have to accept higher rates, with or without controversial practices like surge pricing (prices go up when demand is high).

Moreover, the company is actively trying to solidify its status as a default platform for transport. During the recent squabbles in France – where taxi drivers have been rioting to get the government to notice their plight – Uber has offered to open up its platforms to any professional taxi drivers who would like a second job.

Needless to say, such platforms – with properly administered and transparent payment, reputation and pricing systems – ought to have been established by cities a long time ago. This, along with the encouragement and support of startups like Kutsuplus, would have been the right regulatory response to Uber.

Unfortunately, there’s very little policy innovation in this space and the main response to Uber so far has come from other Uber-like companies unhappy with its dominance. Thus, India’s Ola, China’s Didi Kuaidi, US-based Lyft and Malaysia’s GrabTaxi have formed an alliance, allowing customers to book cabs from each other’s apps in countries where they operate. This falls short of creating a viable support system where innovators like Kutsuplus can flourish; replacing Uber with Lyft won’t solve the problem, as it pursues the same aggressive model.

The broader lesson here is that a country’s technology policy is directly dependent on its economic policy; one cannot flourish without the active support of the other. Decades of a rather lax attitude on taxation combined with strict adherence to the austerity agenda have eaten up the public resources available for experimenting with different modes of providing services like transport.

This has left tax-shrinking companies and venture capitalists – who view everyday life as an ideal playing ground for predatory entrepreneurship – as the only viable sources of support for such projects. Not surprisingly, so many of them start like Kutsuplus only to end up like Uber: such are the structural constraints of working with investors who expect exorbitant returns on their investments.

Finding and funding projects that would not have such constraints would not in itself be so hard; what will be hard, especially given the current economic climate, is finding the cash to invest in them.

Taxation seems the only way forward – alas, many governments do not have the courage to ask what is due to them; the compromise between Google and HM Treasury is a case in point.



Mark Zuckerberg and philanthrocapitalism


By Nancy Hanover
8 December 2015

Last Tuesday Mark Zuckerberg, co-founder of Facebook and the 16th richest man in America, and his wife Priscilla Chan announced they would be donating 99 percent of their Facebook shares, currently valued at $45 billion, to charity during their lifetime.

The gift was announced in the form of a letter to their newborn child announcing the formation of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI), a Limited Liability Company (LLC) dedicated to “advancing human potential and promoting equality” by means of “philanthropic, public advocacy, and other activities for the public good.” “Our initial areas of focus will be personalized learning, curing disease, connecting people and building strong communities,” the billionaires wrote.

The intended and immediate media reaction was gushing praise. TheGuardian, for example, referred to Zuckerberg as a “generational superman” and stated, “The rest of us can probably agree, twitticisms aside, that a $45bn donation—more than double the Ford, Rockefeller, and Carnegie foundations put together—is pretty generous.”

“His previous extraordinary philanthropy gives plenty of reason for optimism,” continued the British newspaper, “whatever mis-steps there have been along the way. What will he do now? Can he manage his great gift without letting the political seep into the charitable? How will he change the world next?”

National Public Radio (NPR) enthused, “The letter has a sweeping vision, traversing social and political issues that are controversial.” It quotes Zuckerberg’s concern for those who “wonder whether you’ll have food or rent, or worry about abuse or crime potential,” and report his assurances that “investments in technology in particular can solve these problems.”

On a more somber note, the New Yorker hinted at the nervous worries of the ruling elite, baldly claiming, “Charitable giving on this scale makes modern capitalism, with all of its inequalities and injustices, seem somewhat more defensible.”

To all of this, the WSWS can only reply: far from it! Technology cannot solve the problem of social inequality. The journal Science just published a study entitled “ Democratizing education? Examining access and usage patterns in massive open online courses ” which confirms the fact, well known to public school teachers, that economic class—not technological access—is the overwhelming factor in determining educational success.Science goes even further to state, “Our findings raise concerns that MOOCs and similar approaches to online learning can exacerbate rather than reduce disparities in educational outcomes related to socioeconomic status.”

Access to the Internet does not obliterate class society. And it is absolutely indefensible that “curing disease,” the ability to receive a good education and access to communication technology should become objects of charity.

The phenomenon of “philanthrocapitalism,” the brain-child of “social investors” seeking to “do well by doing good,” has become a credo among some members of the young billionaire set. It is predicated upon what the WSWS has described as the return of the aristocratic principle —the notion that if the population is to have basic rights, it will be at the whim of the very rich.

Inseparable from the staggering growth of financial parasitism and social inequality, from which Zuckerberg and his ilk benefit, is the repudiation of the social rights of the working class. Moreover, Zuckerberg’s latest announcement calls into question any democratic input, much less control, over the resources created by the collective labor of society.

Instead of massive public works projects addressing the social problems of our day, we are told that the financial elite—good, caring people—can “get things done,” bypassing the annoying traditional legal and governmental bodies!

The fact is, and always has been, that charity aims to degrade and demoralize its recipients and undermine class consciousness, while pleasantly easing the conscience of its wealthy patrons. As the great Marxist Frederick Engels put it, such donations amount to “giv[ing] back to the plundered victims the hundredth part of what belongs to them!”

Zuckerberg’s business arrangement, however, was not primarily targeted at convincing the 84 percent of the world’s people who subsist on less than $20 a day, or the three-quarters of the world’s working population which cannot secure a permanent and stable job, or even the 40 percent of young people of Zuckerberg’s generation who lack full-time work, of the wonders of capitalism and the beneficence of its elite.

This time around, it is more about cold, hard cash-management and future business opportunities. As the New Yorker notes, philanthropists “Zuckerberg and [Bill] Gates are placing some very large chunks of wealth permanently outside the reaches of the Internal Revenue Service.” The magazine adds that, “The size and timing of the tax benefits to Zuckerberg and Chan are uncertain, but they are likely to be large.”

Despite this, the liberal editors of the New Yorker add, “by all means, let us praise Zuckerberg and Chan for their generosity. And let us also salute Gates, who started the trend.”

Jesse Eisinger of ProPublica (the investigative journalism web site), however, has aptly pointed out that the “emperor”—or “the generational superman”—has no clothes. Eisinger explained that Zuckerberg’s decision to create a limited liability company for his Facebook shares was essentially “mov[ing] money from one pocket to the other.” Analyses of the Chan Zuckerberg “gift” by business commentators have confirmed this.

• It reduces taxes for the billionaire family. American tax law provides a deduction for stock sales based on “fair market value.” As Facebook stock is presumed to appreciate in value, at the time CZI donates stock to a charity, it will write off—not the cost of the stock when they received it from Zuckerberg—but its price at final sale. Therefore any gain in value is never taxed. Forbesreported that Zuckerberg “can potentially use that to shelter billions of other income.”

Judged by past practice, Zuckerberg’s interest in this aspect of the deal cannot be insubstantial. He already uses a donor-advised fund (the Silicon Valley Community Foundation), a relatively new and wildly popular device that generates an immediate tax deduction but has no requirement for charitable contribution. He also reportedly employs the “Double Irish” loophole to shift profits to the Cayman Islands. Gabriel Zucman, a tax haven specialist at UC Berkeley, dryly remarked, “I applaud their emphasis on ‘promoting equality’ but that starts with paying one’s taxes. A society where rich people decide for themselves how much taxes they pay and to what public goods they’re willing to contribute is not a civilized society.”

• The LLC has no legal responsibility to help anyone. There are no transparency requirements or rules regarding the disbursement of its assets. It is exempt from the “5 percent rule,” which stipulates a minimum of 5 percent of the holdings is to be donated each year. All decisions regarding the new business entity will be under the control of the Chan-Zuckerberg family.

• In fact, commentators have indicated that the LLC appears to be designed to function as a conduit for projects that contribute directly to Facebook’s future success. The company aims to “connect the world so you have access to every idea, person and opportunity,” and make a strong emphasis on the advancement of the “Internet” and “personalized learning”—all goals which tied into Facebook’s interest in better Internet connections and further personalization of the online experience. The education market is now being inundated with companies peddling such ed-tech tools promising individual learning.

• The entity will be entirely free to funnel billions into “education reform,” e.g., opening up the K-12 market by lobbying for legal changes and supporting pro-market politicians. Lobbying, dubbed “participating in policy debates,” is part of CZI’s core mission. Had the entity been set up as a traditional tax-exempt foundation—a 501(c)(3)—it would have been legally barred from these political activities. Zuckerberg has already established himself as a key operator in undermining public education and bringing in profit concerns to the K-12 “market.”

• CZI will invest in for-profit companies and participate in joint ventures, also leveraging Zuckerberg’s efforts to penetrate the highly lucrative “education business.” Last September, Facebook teamed up with a charter school network, Summit Public Schools, to refine its personalized learning plan. Two thousand students and 100 teachers in Summit were involved, but with Facebook on board, the effort is now set to expand. CZI also previously invested in AltSchool, a for-profit private school chain ($20,000 a year tuition) run by venture capitalists and other investors.

Five years ago, Zuckerberg made a similar grand announcement of a cash infusion (the “previous extraordinary philanthropy” referenced by the Guardian, above) into the impoverished Newark, New Jersey school system. Almost 30 percent of the money went into the development of charter schools, which now enroll more than one-third of the city’s schoolchildren. Millions more went to consultants. The school “reform” movement that Zuckerberg financed worked with the American Federation of Teachers local to impose merit pay and scapegoat educators for the problems created by poverty. All in all, there has been no improvement in Newark’s education system.

Characterizing the announcement not as a “gift” but as “an investment vehicle,” ProPublica’s Eisinger concluded, “Instead of lavishing praise on Mr. Zuckerberg … this should be an occasion to mull what kind of society we want to live in. … The point is that we are turning into a society of oligarchs.”

Precisely. The real gift involved has been zero interest rates and quantitative easing—the injections of trillions of dollars into the stock market by the US Federal Reserve—which has fabulously enriched the financial oligarchs and sent the stock market soaring. With the tech-centric NASDAQ hitting all-time highs this year, not just Facebook but all of Silicon Valley is awash with billions of dollars. In a development reminiscent of the dot-com bubble, there are now over 100 US-based “unicorns”—start-ups valued at $1 billion or more—with some “decacorns” valued at $10 billion or more. Private equity firms and venture capitalists control more liquidity than they know what to do with.

A glimpse of this milieu is pointed to in Vanity Fair ’s recent article “Unicorns and Rain Clouds,” which warns that the stock euphoria has created a debauched culture that harkens back to the dot-com collapse of 1999. They note that the skyline says a lot. There’s a new, recently occupied Facebook building, designed by Frank Gehry, with a rooftop park and what it claims is the largest open floor plan in the world. A new, glassy Salesforce Tower is under construction, slated to become the tallest building in San Francisco. And on it goes.

The reporter, Nick Bilton, observes, “Shortly after the Facebook IPO, I learned about a secret group within the social-network company called ‘TNR 250’; it was an abbreviation of ‘The Nouveau Riche 250’ comprising Facebook’s first 250 employees, many of whom had become multi-millionaires. The members of TNR 250 privately discussed things they wanted to buy with their windfall, including boats, planes, Banksy portraits, and even tropical islands. …

“A prominent Facebook employee’s birthday party was orchestrated like an elaborate wedding, with ice sculptures, chocolatiers, and half a dozen women who walked around with card tables hanging off their waists so that guests could play blackjack while staring at their chests.”

Bilton sardonically notes, “In the past, they’ve suggested, [these] people were just trying to get filthy rich. Now they are trying to ‘make the world a better place.’”

Not only is social inequality at levels unseen since the days of Louis XVI, but so is the hubris and hypocrisy of the parasitical elite. But the deeper significance of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is its illustration of the open subordination of all aspects of US society to the capitalist market and the caprice of the new financial aristocracy that rules America.

It is becoming more and more obvious that the obscene wealth of the super-rich is inseparable from the nature of capitalism, a dying system which is conducting a deep-going social counterrevolution: dismantling public education, destroying the cities, water systems, housing, roads and all public infrastructure, systematically impoverishing millions, raping the planet’s resources—and, above all, visiting a perpetual state of imperialist war across the globe.

This demonstrates, once again, the utter incompatibility of present-day capitalism with the most fundamental principles of democracy. Neither charity nor philanthropy is needed from this decadent and outlived capitalist system.

The author also recommends:

A further comment on Paulson’s gift to Harvard: Public education and American democracy [6 June 2015]

Facebook founder’s gift to Newark schools: The return of the aristocratic principle [28 September 2010]



Janis: Little Girl Blue–Amy Berg’s valuable documentary about singer Janis Joplin

By David Walsh
5 December 2015

Janis: Little Girl Blue, the documentary about rock and roll singer Janis Joplin (1943-1970) is currently playing in New York City and Los Angeles. It will have a digital and television premiere on PBS’s American Masters early in 2016. Wewrote about the film when it was shown at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival.

Written and directed by Amy Berg

Amy Berg is making a name for herself as an interesting documentary filmmaker. Her Deliver Us from Evil (2006), about a Catholic priest who admitted to molesting and raping 25 children, and West of Memphis (2012), about the frame-up of a number of young men for the supposed “satanic” murder of three eight-year-old children, were both systematic and compassionate.

In Janis: Little Girl Blue, Berg turns to the life and career of rock and roll singer Janis Joplin, who was immensely popular for the last several years of her life until her tragic demise from heroin and alcohol in October 1970.

Joplin grew up in Port Arthur, Texas, a sea port on the Gulf of Mexico and at the time the center of a large oil refinery network. Her father was a mechanical engineer in the oil industry. In high school, as Little Girl Blue details, Joplin felt persecuted and an outcast.

The civil rights movement and the social developments of the late 1950s and early 1960s were obviously critical to the course of her life. One of her first musical memories, Berg’s film notes, was hearing folk singer Odetta’s version of “Careless Love.” Joplin tried folk singing in Austin, Texas, before first moving to San Francisco in 1963, where she sang but also developed a methamphetamine habit and became “skeletal.”

After a brief period back home in Port Arthur, Joplin returned to San Francisco in 1966 and became the lead singer for Big Brother and the Holding Company, a “psychedelic rock” band. A major breakthrough took place at the Monterey Pop Festival, one of the first of the large, well-publicized music festivals, in June 1967, where she sang a memorable version of Big Mama Thornton’s “Ball and Chain.”

Janis: Little Girl Blue

Berg’s film follows the vicissitudes of Joplin’s professional and personal life. She left Big Brother in 1968 and went out on her own as the leader of her own band. She continued to use serious drugs. A friend says blithely, “We shot heroin for fun.” She eventually took off for Brazil to clean herself up, where she fell in love with an American traveler.

Berg treats Joplin’s life with a great deal of sympathy. The singer, who exuded confidence and bravado on stage, was beset by anxiety and insecurity. She told a Montreal reporter in 1969, “Send me your review. I agonize over all of ’em. Man, I’m really neurotic. I really want people to love me.”

Joplin’s recordings are not generally as good as they could be and she tended, as filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker remarks, to “shout and scream.” It will elicit cries of outrage from some, but, in my opinion, there is very little of the “San Francisco Sound” that stands the test of time: too much self-indulgence, too many drugs, too much self-delusion.

However, anyone who saw Janis Joplin in person, especially in a more intimate space, is not likely to forget it. This writer saw her in concert three times in 1968 and 1969, including on a bill with B.B. King only a few hours after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in April 1968. I have never from that time to this seen a performer as generous and as giving—and as vulnerable. One almost inevitably fell in love with her.

Janis Joplin in 1970

Her last boyfriend David Niehaus comments in Berg’s film that Janis “could feel everybody else’s pain.” She could not be oblivious, Niehaus explains, to suffering, her singing represents an “entire honesty.”

Laura and Michael Joplin, Janis’ younger siblings, participated in the making of Berg’s film and are interviewed in it. They were present at the public screenings at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2015. Each makes a highly favorable impression. They spoke with considerable affection, four decades or more later, about their elder sister. Laura described Janis’ emotional life as a “roller coaster” from early on. She made clear that her sister hated “racism” (Port Arthur had an active branch of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1950s) and felt strongly about “integration” and “equality.” Footage of Janis’s mother, after her daughter’s death, reading a letter from one of Janis’ admirers explaining how the singer had affected her life, is also very moving.

The final and perhaps most apt comment in Little Girl Blue comes from John Lennon, on a talk show following Joplin’s death. Lennon observes that no one is asking the most important question, why people take drugs in the first place. He suggests that it comes from a “problem with society. People can’t live in society without guarding themselves from it.”



Google Accused of Tracking School Kids After Promising Not To


In a complaint (PDF) filed Tuesday with the Federal Trade Commission, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) claims that “despite publicly promising not to, Google mines students’ browsing data and other information, and uses it for the company’s own purposes.” The EFF says Google’s practice of recording everything students do while they’re logged into their Google accounts, regardless of the device or browser they’re using, puts the company in breach of Section 5 of the Federal Communications Act.

Last Wicked Full Moon Rave


TBT: Joey and I (on the left) at the last successful Wicked Full Moon Rave in 2001 on a beach near Santa Cruz in California. The Wicked rave collective attempted another FMR in 2001 but the police escorted the crew and participants out of Santa Cruz County. These free beach parties defined the early rave community in the Bay Area.

I wrote and posted this piece on sfraves (sfraves@hyperreal.org) after the last FMR:

“My first rave was a Wicked Full Moon many, many years ago. That night was an epiphany for me — a genuinely transformative experience of the highest order. I learned so much that night. It wasn’t called PLUR then, but it was the same thing. A new way of loving and respecting other dancers. The sharing of a mystical bond. The union of flesh and spirit. I thought that night that I could spend an eternity with these people and be happy.

When I heard of the Wicked FMR location — that we were going back down Highway 1 to those mystical days on the beach — I was astonished and elated. It had been six years since a Wicked Full Moon. I never thought I’d dance on a beach near Santa Cruz to Wicked house music again.

But, I thought, can one have a renegade on those beaches now days without being busted? To help assure our success we made a special pre-dance ritual to the great god Apollo and Pan, and I left a candle burning on the outside altar when we left. The gods rewarded us with a perfect night: a radiant full moon awesomely reflected on the ocean, cloudless sky, shining stars, agreeable climate — and absolutely no squad cars:) I mean, the party went off perfectly.

All of us driving down were from back in the day of the first Wicked FMRs. We were so charged with anticipation. Me, I got on a metaphysical roll when we got out of the car and started walking down those familiar railroad tracks, and I’m still in that place now. Non-stop bliss, brothers and sisters.

We arrived early to help with the set up. Then power up at 2 AM and those first few beats. Markie!!! A collective shout of joy went up from the crowd. The tribe was together again. Ravers under a full moon. It doesn’t get any better than this.

I wondered who would be there after all these years. Familiar faces I hoped, but I was also eager to see many newbies in the tribe too. A tribe without new blood dies. Again, everything as one would hope. Lots of old friends and so many lovely new faces. But the same eclectic mix as in the old days. Hippies young and old. Costumes. New school ravers. Fire acts. Drummers. People swimming in the nude. Hip hop kids. And, to my joy, many of you from sfraves. I was really hoping some of you would experience this thing that is so important to me — I wanted to share it with you — so I’m very grateful to all of you who danced with us last night. Ryan and his girlfriend, Mutex, Becca, Usa (former list member and HK crew), and many more — every one of you made the night special for us.

The music — WELL, it is Wicked. Markie, Jeno and Garth are at their best doing a full moon. In this case, the house that Jack built was built on sand. Stronger than concrete to my mind. Jeno, that sweet shy gifted man. If you know him you know how hard it is to get him to smile. This morning he was one happy little boy. And Garth dancing about in the DJ area. People doing what they love, yes.

Visuals and special effects. Hell, you have Mother Nature. Nothing better.

My favorite thing is greeting the dawn with my tribe. The morning star was shining brightly. The moon setting in the ocean. Dawn breaks. Flights of birds. Some bats whizzing around on the cliffs. Freshness in the air. Dancing and the beats as the sun comes up. Then…you get to look into your brothers’ and sisters’ eyes. Really see them. And what you see is a look that is both far away and meditative, yet loving and open. Immediate connection. At that point I took a walk on the beach. Every person I met smiled with that look and said simply: “Good Morning.”

We left at eight (before I wanted to, but I wasn’t driving) and the party was still going down with Garth’s moving house music.

It was great fun walking back up the tracks with all the happy ravers. Such a feeling of unity, of shared fun. One moment on that walk sticks in my mind. A beautiful hippy kid in a sarong was walking ahead of us. He had trouble keeping it on, and he didn’t have much underneath. So we shouted to him that it was so hard for boys to keep their skirts on these days. He blushed bright red. Then we caught up with him, and he looked at us with that FMR dawn look and said, with much feeling: “Good Morning.” We all hugged.

For me, folks, this is what raving is all about. These moments. You dancers. The music. And, the best, a full moon. That’s why I have not stopped raving and dancing. I never will. And I hope, from the bottom of my heart, that all of you have many moments like this as you grow into a community that really is all races, all creeds, all ages — dancing together as one.

Much Love,