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I've gone to burningman every year since 2001. I think it's time for a break. I still enjoy burning man, but going there is a lot of work, and I want it to feel special again. Over the last nine years, I've worked hard to make each year's experience unique, trying different camps, different projects, different attitudes, and different foci. Those changes have kept the experiences fresh, but I still have started to feel like it's a bit of a slog.

I was having lunch with Megan today, and she pointed out that I should go to one of those events that always conflicts with burningman. Any suggestions?
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Monopolies tend to stifle innovation.  It's true whether the monopoly is making software or radical-self-reliance festivals. 

Burning Man is currently the best place for large-scale artists to exhibit their creative energies in a way that tens of thousands of people will see it.  It may have increased the total creative and artistic output of California, but it's also captured most of that creative energy.  I can't think of a single friend who's worked on a large art project in recent memory and *not* taken it to Burning Man.  Their market share (in terms of their share of people's free-time creative energy and their devotees' use of limited vacation days) is high and constant. 

Burning Man as an event is showing some signs of stagnation.  It still churns out a quality product, but it's not taking radical steps to innovate and push the boundaries.  I'm sure there are plenty of political realities I don't see because I'm not inside the upper echelons of the organization, but I'm surprised at how little has changed in the last five years. 

In a way it's a bit hard to separate the governmental contribution of burningman from the huge volume of participant-generated content.  Most of the large projects are funded by the curated art choices of the burningman organization, so even though they are not creating the projects, they are determining what shows up and where it's placed.  There was a year when a group wanted to self-govern their own section of Burning Man, funding art projects in the area using donations and a voting system.  Something interesting happened that year -- the art in both this renegade section AND in the main festival was substantially better. 

This is why I think a full-scale competitor would do Burning Man some good. 

There are some practical difficulties to launching a burningman competitor.  It takes a long time to grow an event from ~100 people to ~50000 without enduring potentially catastrophic growing pains.  So it's likely that the only event that could challenge Burning Man in the next decade is an existing, moderately-sized one. 
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Interesting article on the history of urban planning at burningman.

I have often wondered what would happen if they did some more bold social experiments with the city's layout.  Unfortunately, the article doesn't quite address that question.
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I vowed to myself that I'd only carry a camera for one day of burningman so that I'd be directly experiencing the event as much as possible. Here's what I recorded on that one day:

Some miscellaneous art:

Giant neuron Art car
Rocket MOM sculpture
Butterfly sculpture Bat Country / Sierpinski pyramid

They had this cylinder with lots of LEDs on the inside. The cylinder spins and makes all kinds of cool patterns for the disoriented passenger to enjoy. Like this:
Spinning light cylinder

The Cubatron has been upgraded and is now a huge 3D display with thousands of pixels. Last time there was a problem with people crawling under it and accidentally breaking it, so now crawling is enabled as a feature.

Cubatron Cubatron

Sunset is my favorite time... I loved sitting on the esplanade at sunset and eating dinner.

Sunset on the Esplanade Sunset on the Esplanade

lots more )
See the complete set on Flickr

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I have gone to Burningman every year for 9 years now.  It has changed me a lot, and I've watched it change as well. 

However, I've noticed that Burningman is becoming a lot more stable and somewhat less innovative.  I think this is part of a cultural maturation process that occurs with any cultural institution.  There's an initial phase of radical experimentation and then over time the culture starts to converge into a particular theme, with ever-tighter variations on that theme.  The projects are getting bigger and more spectacular, but they are now more evolutionary than revolutionary.

The structure of burningman is designed to allow for a lot of variation and innovation, but that variation is happening within a growing bureaucracy.  It does seem to be a law of culture that bodies of law almost always grow, so over time bureaucracies usually get more restrictive.  This has been definitely true for burningman... it's a lot harder to do an art car or a camp that serves food and beverages now than it was in 2001.  Entrenched political connections are in place

I'm not calling the creative death of burningman or anything like that.  Not by a long shot.  What I'm saying is that burningman is starting to be more like, say, Paris, than Shanghai.  Paris is beautiful and has a long cultural history to it, but it's not where the revolutionary innovation's happening.

I saw big experiments in 2006 and 2007, with projects like Euchronia (aka the Waffle) and Crude Awakening.  Both of these projects were bold and different.  The most unusual art cars showed up around 2002-2006.  I've seen a lot of nice stuff for the last couple of years, but nothing that really blew my mind.  I'll write about what I did really like in a little bit.
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I just finished with Burningman 2009. Stories and photos will come later. For now:

I'm now starting a 3-day camping trip in the Mono Lake / Yosemite area.

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I willl be giving two talks at Future Camp at Burning Man

Wednesday 2-3pm, Future Salon, Matt Bell, The Future of Computer Vision

Thursday 1-2pm, Mind Expansion, Matt Bell, Extreme Lifehacking

Future camp is at 9:00 and F. Note that this is not where I'm camping.

I'm off on Sunday (or maybe Monday morning) and will return between Sunday and Wednesday of next week. (I'm considering a little diversion on the way back to check out some other places like Mono Lake.)
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After flailing around for a few hours trying to understand python web frameworks (despite my complete lack of experience doing any kind of web programming whatsoever), I got the advice from [ profile] proctologiste  to try out CherryPy, which turned out to be an extremely simple framework that I could comprehend and use despite said lack of experience. I managed to do a horrendous hack to allow a user to enter their votes into the system simply by clicking on links in a bunch of HTML that I prototyped using LiveJournal's "Rich Text" editor.

However, I've built a functioning web frontend to my photo-pairing app in approximately four hours. That's really not bad.

I can now click away and vote on potential photo matches.

I'm still missing lots of features, but this is the first functioning end-to-end demo.  If this does turn into a burningman project, I'll have to get moving on it.  I'm slightly concerned that when I do the full version of this project that Flickr will shut me down for downloading 10000-20000 photos off their site.  We'll see.  :-)

Off to bed.

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I thought I'd allocate a lot of my copious free time this year to doing a huge burningman art project.  Instead I ended up traveling for a long time.  I'm back, it's now July, and there isn't much time.  A friend told me today that I have one more day to submit an art project for placement in the open playa.

There's an idea I've been kicking around for a bit.  It could work as part of a well-attended theme camp or as open playa art. 

If you're interested in helping me on the project or if you think it would work well as part of your theme camp, please let me know.  I haven't chosen a place to camp yet.

Here's the idea:


I have noticed during my travels around the world that there are certain similarities that show up across widely varying cultures.  I have a huge number of pictures documenting this, and they often make interesting side-by-side comparisons -- eg beachgoers in England vs beachgoers in Vietnam, a temple in Vietnam vs a church in London, kids playing in India vs kids playing in Amsterdam etc.  They are signs of how ideas have spread across our world yet evolved to suit the local environment.  Since I have a large number of photos that I plan on tagging, I could fairly easily write a program that picks potentially good compare-and-contrast photo pairs based on the tags, and presents them to a user.  The user can vote yes or no based on whether the photo pairing is interesting.  As more and more photos are voted on by users, the pairings will get better and better.  (I will be using the user input as the "natural selection" fitness function in an algorithm that will basically evolve better pairings)*

The user experience will consist of sitting in front of a big projected screen and pressing buttons to vote on the image pairs as they show up.  People could run through the pairs as fast or as slow as they want, and known (or evolved) good pairings would be mixed in to keep people entertained.

*My backup plan is that if the awesome algorithm doesn't produce interesting results, I'll turn it into a photographic version of "hot or not" where people repeatedly vote on the best photo of a random pair, and the photos that show up will start getting better and better.

The overall contraption would likely consist of a 8x8x8ft cube made by stretching fabric over a pipe skeleton.  Since projectors suck power, I'd need to have (or have access to) a generator.   It could work well as part of the inside of a theme camp's dome (provided the theme jives with this project).


Anyway, if this could be of interest to your camp or is something you might want to help with (even if it's just contributing photos), please let me know your thoughts.

more... )

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On the Eastern side of Toronto there is a new multi-use development project called the Distillery. The masterminds of this project are engaged in a transfer of coolness on an unprecedented scale. The massive renovation of an old distillery contains numerous artists' studios and galleries but also some extremely pretentious restaurants and condominiums. The galleries are the crossroads of this transfer... the artists strut their stuff hoping for sustenance from patrons, while the yuppies can feel edgy and hip by walking among the seeds of the artists' creative minds.

The shocking part was the totally unexpected presence of two very large sculptures from Burningman. One was the giant climbable Tripod alien, minus the laddder that makes it climbable. The other was one of my favorites from a couple of years back– a giant enigma-headed crouched figure. The Tripod alien was presiding over some sort of outdoor catered event. I felt this Indiana Jones-esque rage burning inside of me, as if some treasure is about to be whisked off by the Nazis -- “That belongs on the PLAYA!” This must be how the Mission hipsters felt when the yuppies started moving in. In my ideal world, all the sculptures from past burningmen are placed in giant sculpture parks that can be rented out for all-night dance parties.


However, I had some rational thoughts about this after getting over my initial distaste. First, this means that the artists are getting revenue off their work and this will lead to more future work. Second, Burningman art is designed to be accessible. It has to work when the primary audience is a bunch of brain-fried Burners wandering through a city of loud, intense wonders. As a result, unlike, say, Abstract Minimalism, Burningman art is easy for almost everyone to relate to and often has a playful, hands-on appeal. This means even trophy wives will like it. They will be shaken out of whatever routine they're in and captivated momentarily by something very alien to them. I watched it happen several times. Perhaps this is even more important than showing it to Burners. Now all I have to do is get over my whiny exclusionist visceral distaste.
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I didn't take many photos at burningman this year.  I was too busy having adventures and meeting people.  Here are the few I did take:


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After going way hard-core the last couple of years, I'm taking it easy for this year's burning man.  Thus I'm only doing a moderate-sized art project.  A friend of mine asked me to create some interesting lighting for a dance/chill/meditation space complex she's designing. 

I came up with the idea of creating a lamp that is surrounded by inward-facing mirrors so that light must bounce one or more times before exiting the box of mirrors.  By appropriately shaping the exit holes, I can get multitudes of interesting patterns.  The resulting light cast out seems to be equal parts geometry, fractal patterns, and randomness. 

One of the constraints of the project was that the light pattern should have fivefold symmetry.  This limited my choice of shapes.  I settled on something akin to a five-sided pyramid with a truncated top, attached to an inverted mirror of itself at the bottom.

Here's what it looks like in the light:

On the inside:

And here's the light pattern it casts with various choices of exit hole:

These pictures are okay, but imagine that each little pattern copy moves in a different direction when you move the lightbulb.  The results are hypnotic ... each pattern encircles the others in a luminous pentagonal square-dance. 

Note that this is a 1/3 scale version with a very dim lamp.  The real version is supposed to light up a 60ft dome, so I'll need a much brighter lamp, like this 750W monster:   (This is me comparing its brightness against the brightness of the projectors it will be competing with.)
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I took a while to do it, but here are the pictures from Matt's 28th, Julie's 27th birthday / housecooling / giant settlers of catan party.

I actually managed to clean all the playa dust off the game in only half a day.  Since everyone at the party wanted to play, people formed teams and made collective decisions.  The teams were just like real governments... slow and full of internal dissension.  However, unlike real governments, large amounts of alcohol were supplied during the legislative process.

(insert funny caption here)

See more in flickrland...
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This is a tale of virgin sacrifice...

In our hastily-assembled camp, there was a couple who had never been to Burningman before, but were eager to do something cool to participate for their first time out.  Their names were Orion and Dia.  Orion had decided that he wanted to construct a shape called a stellated dodecahedron out of lumber. 

Here's one.  Pretty, isn't it?  Thanks wikipedia.

Most first time burners take it easy on the participation side.  Hey, a couple of nice costumes and a smile counts as participating, right?  Not for him.  Orion wanted to build the thing out on the playa, and have it be 20ft tall.

He had never built one before, save for some small drawings and experiments.

Yeah.  It's easy to just scale it up to 20ft.

Oh, and another small problem.  They live in Toronto (which is in Eastern Canada for you geographically challenged folks), so they had to fly out to San Francisco and buy all the wood the day before leaving for Burningman.  No time to test, make brackets, or preassemble.

So Orion and Dia flew into SF, rented a van,  and bought 1000 pounds of lumber, a shitload of screws, a handsaw, and a drill.  The next day, they left for burningman. 
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We've been at Burningman four days.  In a remark that had serious consequences, I told [profile] frogpyjamas... "Wow... the weather's been perfect out here.  It's pleasantly cool and there hasn't been a single dust storm."  The remark was immediately noticed by the sophisticated monitoring system of the Ministry for the Moderation of Optimistic Expectations and forwarded to the Bureau of Calamity for prompt action.  If only the US government was so efficient. 

Two hours later things looked like this:

It's a photo of our camp.  Note Orion's amazing stellated dodecahedron and the giant Settlers game in the background.  Don't see them? Neither do I.  Yes, people were playing our Settlers game in this weather.   They didn't want to lose their reservation. 
Hey [profile] crotchgoblin... if you're reading this, thank you so much for those goggles you gave me last year.  They are airtight and make dust storms freakin' fun.

The storm blew a couple of our structures down.  We held on to the rest until we could figure out how to secure them properly.

The next day was more of the same.  Dust storm, then a little rain, then a big dust storm, then a pounding rainstorm.  Dust transforms the familiar world around you into a post-apocalyptic adventureland. 

Rain is rare and incredible at burningman.  I had to go out bicycling in the rainstorm, and I found all kinds of wondrous things.

Schadenfreude.  It took down a metal dome.  That was one hell of a storm.
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We finally finished the giant Settlers of Catan game, a few hours before we were supposed to depart for Burning Man.  The wet spray paint on the houses wasn't even fully dry when we packed it all away at 5am.

We were worried that our efforts to do Settlers as a burning man project were in vain.  Relatively few people have even heard of the game, and most people at burning man can barely rub two neurons together and run around with the attention span of a gnat.

However, we were proven wrong. 

There were people coming by to play Monday morning, even before we had the damn thing set up.

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I lasercut 28 houses and all the signs over the last 2 days.  This represents about 9 hours of lasercutting.  We now have 24 hours to paint everything, package it, and get it out to burningman.

All spread out on my floor:

A finished house:

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We finally finished the hexes for the giant Settlers of Catan boardgame.

Here's a quick assembly of the land hexes.  (The whole setup, with the water hexes, just barely fits in my backyard)

Now we have 5 days to do the resources, markers, dev cards, houses, cities, roads, and  bins for players to use.  No time like the present!

[profile] frogpyjamas and I have been working our asses off to make this happen.  Steve and [profile] zingkotori have come by and helped as well.

I have giant floodlights in my backyard at 1am.  My neighbors must be curious.  I hear them moving around and opening their window shades.


Aug. 16th, 2007 11:56 pm
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The sheep for the giant Settlers of Catan game arrived today.  (Instead of resource cards, we have actual resources.  :-)  My coworkers are always marveling at all the strange stuff I get in the mail.

So I got 24 sheep for only $30.

This is why China will thoroughly kick our ass in the next half-century.  Can Americans produce sheep for $1.20 a pop? I didn't think so.

I wonder what the poor Chinese laborers think of all the weird superfluous stuff they make for us.
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We spent a day working on [profile] frogpyjamas's burningman project idea, the giant sized Settlers of Catan board game.

We rocked and made a ton of progress.

See more progress photos at:


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