Puppy Love

Dogster hosts photos and profiles of almost 20,000 canines

Ted Rheingold is like a lot of dog-obsessed San Franciscans. He ends his e-mails with sign-offs like "Much woof and bark" and "Bark out." He still mourns his boyhood pet, Sparky, a Dalmatian/ pointer mix who died in 1987 ("the best dog a boy could have"). He digs pups' nicknames -- he's especially fond of "Boogerbutt" -- and smiles just looking at pictures of canines. Yet the creator of Dogster, a hugely popular Web community for dog owners that launched in January and already hosts photos and profiles of almost 20,000 animals, doesn't have a hound of his own. His landlord won't allow it.

Rheingold and his wife, Molly, plan to make "dog-friendly" a top priority when they start looking for a new place, but for now Rheingold has to enjoy other people's pets. And he's got plenty to enjoy.

The enormous success of Dogster -- it's been mentioned in Wired and the New York Post and on CNN and the Howard Stern Show, among other places -- has taken Rheingold by surprise. "I didn't expect this kind of response," says the tall, dark-haired 33-year-old, who works out of a tiny room off the hallway of a Duboce Triangle flat. He was inspired to start his business by the popular online meeting place (for humans) called Friendster.

But "business" is perhaps a misnomer: Rheingold maintains Dogster, which just about breaks even, as a "labor of love." He works on the site two to three hours a day, fixing bugs, adding features, and answering e-mails; for his day job, he runs One Match Fire, a company he started that builds custom Web sites. Dogster began as a way for Rheingold to make a little money to offset "the vagaries of contracting," but it has grown well beyond what he imagined: "It's all turned out to be much more work than I expected." Even so, he says, when he and his handful of contributors work on the site, "We just sit around and laugh."

Each Dogster page displays a dog's photo (or as many as 10) and gives basic biographical information: name, breed, city, age, sex, and weight; nicknames; likes and dislikes; favorite foods, toys, and walks; and an "arrival story." Most pages are purely devotional, but some are wacko ("Sparky the Wonder Dog"), and others are tongue-in-cheek ("Bernal Heights Coyote"). There's a low-key advice column called "I Like It Ruff." Profiles can be posted for free, and Rheingold intends they always will be. He also intends to keep Dogster strictly for dogs -- though users have tried to post profiles of cats, fish, guinea pigs, birds, horses, mythological canines, stuffed animals, and (particularly after Howard Stern mentioned the site) porn.

As he scans through his favorite pages, Rheingold has few complaints about his hobby. He wishes folks weren't so demanding about new features ("People feel that Dogster is their right"), and he'd rather not get so many "long, impassioned" e-mails about the pet fight du jour (pit bulls, backyard breeders, PETA), but that's about it; his guiding principle is "fun." He's not going to add bulletin boards or listserv capabilities, in part because they can become forums for meanness. "There's a whole world of places to find out what's wrong," Rheingold says, "and most of us spend too much time on them."

Dogster has inspired at least one imitator: HamsterSter.com went live in April, created by a Georgia college student who admired Rheingold's site. There are hundreds of pet-related Web sites, of course, but Rheingold has encountered no others dedicated to posting photos of any old dog (as opposed to specific breeds). Snakester.com is, indeed, devoted to reptiles, but it doesn't post photos. Fishster.com is just a blog unrelated to piscatorial partiality; Lobster.com sells decapods to eat; Birdster.com, Ferretster.com, and Petrockster.com are all, as of this writing, unregistered. Next up for Rheingold is Catster, which he hopes to launch in early July. He's agonizing over the logo and color choices because, he insists, felines are "more chic and reserved" than dogs.

But does he like them? "I would have a cat if Molly weren't allergic." (Karen Zuercher)

Foursquare Scandal

The International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, the Pentecostal group founded in 1923 by legendary faith healer Aimee Semple McPherson, will begin its annual convention at the Hilton on Tuesday, and it promises to be memorable for reasons church leaders may wish they could ignore. In March, evangelist Paul Risser resigned in humiliation as Foursquare's president and CEO after acknowledging that he had squandered $15 million of church money in two investments that the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission has identified as Ponzi schemes.

As media scandals go, Risser's pales in comparison to the one engineered by McPherson, the flamboyant Foursquare founder known as Sister Aimee. At the height of her career, she allegedly faked her own kidnapping while trysting in Carmel with the married sound engineer who helped broadcast her radio sermons. She died of an accidental barbiturate overdose in an Oakland hotel in 1944. To this point, no one has accused Risser of anything more than being a sucker.

But that hasn't quelled grumbles from within the Los Angeles-based church as to how the spiritual leader of 5 million worldwide adherents could have fallen prey to con artists, especially since the church's governing board says it was never consulted about the investments.

Which brings us to the convention.

"A lot of us want answers that haven't been provided and we don't intend to leave San Francisco without them," the pastor of a large Foursquare congregation in Southern California tells Dog Bites, on condition that his name not be used. "To put it mildly, I would say you could expect some fireworks."

As it turns out, Risser had invested his and his former congregation's money in one of the Ponzi schemes even before becoming Foursquare president in 1998 and had crowed to friends about the great returns he had received, church sources say. Dozens of ministers and others within Foursquare viewed his success as a green light to plunk their money down, these sources say. Jeff Miller, 54, a Foursquare pastor in Riverside, lost his $140,000 retirement savings. "It looked so good that I was planning to retire at 57," he says. The widow of a church district supervisor who worked under Risser lost the $1.8 million she had collected from her husband's life insurance policy after his death in an auto accident.

In 2000, Risser and his wife bought a million-dollar home in Downey, Calif., that had belonged to musician Richard Carpenter, brother of the late Karen Carpenter. About the same time, Risser engineered the sale of Foursquare's historic Los Angeles radio station, KFSG-FM, to a commercial broadcaster for $250 million.

Church officials say the $15 million Risser acknowledged losing came from radio station proceeds. The church has provided almost no information about its finances, including how the rest of the radio windfall is invested, upsetting even some veteran ministers. (Officials have promised to provide more information at the S.F. confab.) Since March, Foursquare has been under the stewardship of Risser's handpicked vice president, Jared Roth, who is expected to be a leading contender for the presidency when the group's governing council appoints Risser's permanent replacement at the convention.

Some have questioned whether, despite his resignation, Risser has really ceded power. Under Roth, church news releases have continued to praise Risser, and, church sources note, he continues to occupy a corner office at the denomination's headquarters -- two months after the financial debacle became public.

As the Foursquare delegates are trying to square the church's finances, the city's restaurants figure to be big winners. For three days before they get here, they'll be fasting. (Ron Russell)

A Sure-Fire Way to Liven Up Cocktail Parties

Are you like us? Do you and your friends while away the hours reading excerpts from poorly conceived, noxiously executed lifestyle columns in the San Francisco Chronicle? Well, it's time to put your knowledge of the local limning lineup to the test! Play SF Weekly's favorite new party game, Columnist Match, and try to identify the authors of the telltale excerpts below. (We haven't played any dirty tricks: Each columnist has only one excerpt.) Need a couple of hints? Don't be fooled by columns with a title; as readers learned when "Real Stories" inexplicably became "Life Studies" one week after its debut, names don't mean anything. Indeed, success in Columnist Match requires more subtle skills of recognition -- a keen eye for cliché, a dead ear for language and pacing, and an uncanny ability to differentiate between columnists who can't be bothered with trifling matters like tone and voice. Answers below.

1) If there is anything that we have learned from the Temples story, which was widely reported in the media, it is that adoption can be a confusing, wrenching, and discouraging process.

2) She may be married to San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom and hobnob with some fancy people, but Guilfoyle Newsom is no D.A. Barbie.

3) There is something particularly unsettling and ominous about the nature of this war. It is both unprecedented and familiar, high-tech and primitive. ... This war is a home movie of Lord of the Flies: chaotic, brutal and as intimate as a strangers breath on our necks.

4) A Hummer says something about its driver that is vastly different than the language of a Crown Victoria, or a Yugo.

5) They talk again that night. And the next morning. And the following night. And every day, twice a day. He also writes her letters. Romantic letters.

6) As horrified as I was to be staying in an apartment complex where not one resident took the New Yorker, I was just as de-horrified, even relieved, to live among people who, dare I say, rented.

7) Magic Johnson is not to be confused with Michael Jordan or Michael Jackson, but why not?

8) Oakland street minister Donald Weeks has been portrayed as both a saint who has healed drug addicts and a sinner cloaked in a robe and collar who sexually abused a boy, depending on whom you ask.

9) The centers success doesnt stem from always changing lives. Its because it just helped people live them.

10) Even after a double americano, we despair of our own inarticulate speech, its sentence fragments spliced together with the crutch-word like, and doubtless the outward sign of inward fuzzy thought and spiritual vagueness. Even more crushing is our reflection on another of Jones aphoristic remarks: I sometimes think of Anglicanism as the Zen Buddhism of the West -- quoted in 101 Reasons to be Episcopalian.

A) "Life Studies" by Marianne Costantinou, in Datebook

B) "Contra Costa Living" by C.W. Nevius, Bay Area

C) Ken Garcia, Op-ed page

D) Joan Ryan, Bay Area

E) Chip Johnson on the East Bay, Bay Area

F) "Over Lunch" by Laurel Wellman, Datebook

G) "Female Spectator" by Jane Ganahl, Datebook

H) "Failing at Living" by Ms. Gonick, Datebook

I) "Pop Culture" by James Sullivan, Datebook

J) Herb Caen, dead but often reprinted

Answers: 1-B, 2-G, 3-D, 4-I, 5-A, 6-H, 7-J, 8-E, 9-C, 10-F

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