Burning Man 2007
Tom Davis

Last updated: September 8, 2007

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I took many fewer pictures this year than last; I used a video camera mostly. The text below assumes that the reader is familiar with Burning Man. If not, I wrote a much more descriptive web page after our first visit in 2002. I have web pages for the other years as well. Here they are:

Burning Man 2002
Burning Man 2003: Photos
Burning Man 2003: A sordid tale
Burning Man 2004
Burning Man 2005
Burning Man 2006

Note: A larger version of any image (sorry -- not too many this year) can be obtained by clicking on it.

This piece of art was, to my mind, "the coolest thing on the playa". It was a pair of almost full-size 18-wheelers copulating. I remember seeing some desperate notes going by in the Burning Man mail lists before hand begging for money to complete the project. It must have been incredibly expensive, but what an art piece!

The Biscotheque

In 2007 we were again associated with camp Nosefish, although this year it didn't have much to do with either noses or fish. For the past few years, the Nosefish art projects have been placed on the 3 o'clock plaza, and we have shared the plaza with many other camps, but the most interesting one was Espresso camp that gives away espresso coffee every morning starting when they wake up (at about 7:30 or so) and ending at 11:30 or noon. We have been very good "customers" for a couple of years and got to know Bruce and Pam, the folks who serve the coffee.

We decided that this year we'd apply for a position right next to Espresso camp and that we would give away biscotti (small Italian cookies, perfect for dipping into espresso). We managed to do that, and we built our "Biscotheque" (complete with a bisco-deck) right next to Espresso camp on the 3 o'clock plaza.

Most of the people in our camp were the same, but since we were next to Espresso camp, we had a great deal of interaction with them as well. We shared food, conversation, et cetera, and served each other far too many espressos and biscotti. In addition to Pam and Bruce, Espresso camp had two others: Bill and Kara. Our camp consisted of our leader, Howard, his wife Franziska and her son John, myself and my wife Ellyn, Greg, Beth, Erin, Mary, Andrea, Chris and Chris for a total of 12.

The Biscotheque is a small, 2V optimal geodesic dome with an extra shaded platform on top from which we (and anyone else) could view the plaza from about eight feet up. Since the playa is dead-flat, eight feet of elevation gives a tremendous view. We served from a small opening in the front, just to the right of where the espresso was served.

We opened up on Monday morning along with Espresso camp, and it was great fun handing out biscotti. I'm afraid that Howard and I monopolized it most days. He and I apparently tend to get up early, and by the time our campmates were up, we were usually completely ensconced in the Biscotheque.

It might seem like just handing out free cookies would be boring, but it was the exact opposite. In addition to the obvious fact that there can be a lot of interaction with your "customers", we started playing games ourselves. Every hour or so we'd change strategies. For example, we'd decide to see if we could push one variety of biscotti over another (we had four varieties: vanilla almond, almond, anise and hazelnut), so we'd change the order that we announced them, change the descriptions, and so on. It was like a giant marketing lab.

If you called the almond biscotti "almond" you didn't unload nearly as many as if you called it "classic Italian almond". If you named a variety last, it was more likely to be chosen, et cetera. The anise biscotti were a bit of a problem, since some folks don't care for the anise taste (a bit like licorice), so we started pronouncing it as "a niece" rather than "an us" which worked better.

At one point we announced seven varieties: "anise, almond, anise, vanilla almond, anise, hazelnut, and anise". That actually got more of the anise biscotti chosen.

By the last day, we also discovered that it didn't really matter what you called them. For a while we were announcing our varieties as, "five day old sushi, used motor oil, anus, and nuclear waste". We had sword-fights with the tongs. Toward the end, when we realized that we had too many biscotti and no intention of taking them home we introduced a "minimum two" policy, we insisted that people take additional biscotti to their friends, if they had any friends, we used the "new math" when somebody asked for a few, and they always got more.

As the week went on, we developed a more and more complex "patter" where we'd reuse stuff that worked and modify the stuff that didn't. Since the patter took longer and longer, we'd often ask new folks if they wanted the biscotti "with or without banter". A surprising number of people had no idea what the word "banter" means, so we'd explain that it was a little skit we'd do for our own benefit; not necessarily for theirs...

After about four hours of this, I'd be pretty tired, and just sat in our shade area like a zombie after we closed down. As a result, I also spent a lot less time this year out looking at art; after all, we were doing a sort of performance art all morning long. I think that a week is about the right amount of time to do this. We got to be pretty good at our "banter", but it wasn't long enough that it got boring.

In the end, the Biscotheque unloaded almost 3000 biscotti during the week!

Monkey Chanting

I'd heard of monkey chanting before: a friend made a "Sounds of Burning Man" CD a few years ago, and to my mind, his recording of a monkey chant was the best cut on the CD.

I was always a bit curious about it, but at Burning Man there are so many things about which I was "a bit curious" that monkey chanting never rose to the top of the list, and it certainly wouldn't have this year either (because it conflicted with classes on building "flame-effect devices" -- propane canons, flame throwers, et cetera), except for a funny coincidence.

I've got a coach (Lisa) for my running and cycling and we talk a couple of times per month about how things are going and in late August I told her that September was going to be a catastrophe, training-wise. I had a math conference and then was leading a problem-solving workshop in early August after which Ellyn and I were off to Germany for a week. Then I screwed up my courage (since I had never met any serious athletes who would even consider going to Burning Man) and said that on returning from Germany I was going to spend a week getting ready for and then ten days at Burning Man. Then a totally unexpected thing happened: she was excited and said that this year she was going too, for her first time.

Lisa said her new boyfriend had gone many times, and was a leader of the monkey chant, and had I heard of it? Anyway, that was what convinced me to go, in spite of the fact that I might not learn how to make fire-breathing dragons.

The idea of a monkey chant is simple: there's a leader and a couple of hundred followers, and if you're a follower, you just do what the lead "monkey" does. The lead monkey is in the center of a circle, and is surrounded by a few (maybe 8 or 10) lieutenant monkeys facing out so that everyone in the crowd is at least facing one of them. The leader turns around a lot, but obviously can't be facing everyone at the same time.

Most of what is done is, obviously from the name, chanting, but it's simple to follow, quite rhythmic, and mixed with a lot of stuff where you interact with your neighbors by jabbering at them, laughing or crying with them, et cetera. It's like a large orchestra led by the lead monkey, making sounds that humans can make without instruments.

The first chant I attended lasted for almost two hours, according to the schedule, but I had to leave in the middle to give a "lecture" at Math Camp. Luckily, there was a break in the middle after about an hour and I could slip out without disturbing the chant. It was an amazing experience, and I decided to forgo another fire arts workshop the next day to go again. I'd talked to Lisa in the meantime (she'd come by to visit the Biscotheque) and (since she's one of the monkey lieutenants) said that I should try to be in her group.

The next day I got there about 15 minutes early so that I could sit where I wanted, but when I arrived, there was a guy finishing up his class in the monkey chant area. It was a talk full of very reasonable recommendations about how to improve your relationships with other people by paying attention not only to what they say, but to all the other signals they are putting out.

Well, I thought he was wrapping up his class. It was one of those cases of "do as I say, not as I do": the schedules allow a few minutes between events so that one group can clear out and the other come in, but he ran right up to the monkey chant start time. Then he took another question from his audience. He was getting literally hundreds of signals, many not at all subtle, that his time was up, but although he was telling us to pay close attention to such things, he was completely oblivious. Finally, the monkey chant leaders started a moderately quiet chant outside the tent which caused dozens and dozens of the folks inside to leave -- not subtle at all, but he just kept going. Finally, the chanters increased the volume to a level where he couldn't go on, and that's the only reason he stopped.

And if that wasn't annoying enough, the last thing he did was to announce that interested people should come up and collect his business cards if they were interested in hiring him later in total violation of the Burning Man spirit.

So the chant got started very late, the chaos in trying to set up the chant with way too many people there I wound up jammed in a section almost opposite from where I wanted to be. I think it was due to the completely messed up start, but the chant that day didn't seem to go as well. At least in my section, people kept getting up and leaving or trying to come in to replace the vacated spots, and although it was fun, it wasn't nearly as good as it had been the day before where everyone seemed to be in sync. To make matters worse, I was due in Math Camp again and with the delayed start, I could not wait for the natural break in the chant to leave, so I became one of the troublemakers. I don't even know if they finished; a few minutes later, just as I was arriving at Math Camp all hell broke loose in the form of a real doozie of a dust storm. I was pinned down at Math Camp (in a pretty well-protected tent) for an hour, and the monkey chant area would have been pretty exposed.

But the chant on the first day was really a great experience!

Here is a Quicktime movie of the Monkey Chant. It's about a minute and a half long and is 19 megabytes in size.

The MEZ Screen

As he has for many years, Chris brought back his MEZ screen that ran at night in the Nosefish camp. As always, it was a hit, but this year he added a few amazing features that made it better than ever.

The MEZ screen consists of a video camera connected to a computer and the computer's video out is projected on a giant screen. The camera "looks" at the people in front of the screen who are lit by a couple of fluorescent light fixtures. As people dance or do whatever in front of the camera, the images are processed in real time by the computer and modified versions are projected on the screen. What makes it wonderful is that the modifications vary with time, and now there about an hour of different effects as Chris just adds new ones each year. Some of the new effects are so fabulous that I think either some of the older ones should be removed, or perhaps the new effects should be repeated more often in the sequence.

Some of the modifications are simple, like texture-mapping objects of various sizes on top of the original pixels, but taking the colors of the underlying pixels. If the texture maps are small, the image looks almost real, but changing the size affects the effect considerably.

The new effects that were breathtaking amounted to modifications in time and weird color transformations. The time effects included some running of time in reverse, but even better, delaying the scan lines by different amounts from the top to the bottom of the screen. If you turn around in place when this effect is active causes you to look like you're twisted up like a screw. Twirling poles made beautiful patterns of lines on the screen.

One of the nearby camps this year gave away thousands of "light sabres" so that mock "Star Wars"-like battles were going on all the time, but it also meant that a lot of the MEZ screen participants happened to have long poles to cause the wonderful effects.

Math Camp

In "real life" I'm a "math guy"; here's my main math activity now, so I was interested a couple of years ago when I found that there was going to be a "math camp" at Burning Man. The first year there was basically nothing: a couple of guys who thought of the idea got placed with the "Group W" camp ("Group W" being the bench where Arlo Guthrie had to sit when he was rejected from the draft because of his crime of littering in the song Alice's Restaurant -- the camp even has a "Group W bench"). But no math.

Last year we stopped by a couple of times and there were a few activities. Maybe more occurred, but the times I was there at most a couple of other people dropped by including an amazing guy who was a math teacher but in addition was quite a good magician (and in addition was stark naked except for some body paint). He had all sorts of great tricks which were better (from a mathematician's point of view) than standard tricks in that they had not only a mathematical aspect but required slight-of-hand in addition to work. He showed us all sorts of stuff, but my favorite line from him (since he was, at the time, stark naked) was, "Nothing up my sleeve!"

This year, although it didn't get started until a couple of days into the event (I went there the first time I think on Tuesday and they were just setting up camp) there was much more going on. They had a series of "lectures" lined up and every afternoon there was "pie time" (or maybe "pi time") at 3:14 when pie was eaten (the mathematical constant represented by the Greek letter pi = π = 3.14159265...) Later in the afternoons there was a homebrew liquor tasting, but I'm not sure what that has to do with mathematics except maybe that a lot of us are drunks.

As one would expect at an event like Burning Man, some of the "math" was pretty flaky: new-age crap mixed with completely distorted ideas about quantum mechanics, string theory and pyramids, but there were a bunch of hard-core mathematicians there. I know that I'm getting to be quite an old geezer since one of the props at the camp was one of those old huge wooden slide-rules that used to hang at the front of every math classroom when I was in high school. Somebody asked if anybody knew how to use it, and I was able to deliver a "lecture" off the top of my head and had a large crowd who were amazed at how nicely that stone-age technology worked with only two moving parts and no electricity. I was also pretty amazed that I remembered what all the scales were...

On my first real visit, during pi time, I was talking to some gal who noticed that there were a bunch of sudoku puzzle books and she announced that she was really good at them and would like to race somebody. I've never raced, but I think I'm pretty good, too, so we picked two copies of the same book, both turned to puzzle number 47, and went to work. I had no idea how fast or good she was so I was pushing myself as hard as I could, always terrified that I'd be beaten, but when I announced that I was done, she was flabbergasted: she only had filled in a few spaces.

(I am quite good: here's my paper on the mathematics of sudoku.)

I showed her my solved grid and she was flabbergasted again: "How did you do it without notes?" Her grid was covered with little notations about possible candidates for the slots and other stuff. I usually use methods that don't require such notes and since this puzzle was at "intermediate" level (whatever that means), I hadn't needed much. Anyway, she talked me into signing up for a lecture on Sudoku the next day, and although I did prepare it and show up, that was the day of the giant dust storm that hit almost at the same instant I arrived at Math Camp. It would have been impossible to give the talk: everybody was huddled behind the best tent wall for protection and the whiteboard was out in the open. We spent basically an hour backed up against the wall, after which the intensity went down enough that I decided to head home. Unfortunately, Math Camp was all the way across the playa from us (we were in the 3 o'clock plaza and Math Camp at about 8 o'clock and "I"). I was going to visit the next day for pi time, but there was an even worse storm on Friday, so I never made it over, and that's just as well: there was much better wind protection in the Biscotheque.

One of the things that made math camp much more successful this year was that apparently last year later in the week a bunch of folks from Finland arrived, camped with Group W, and they hit it off. So they returned this year and althogh most of them were not strictly mathematicians, they were all interested and quite good backgrounds (vastly better than the average American). They were uniformly fun to talk to.

Early Burn

This year there was a total lunar eclipse at about 2 am on Tuesday morning and while it was going on and everyone who was awake was watching it, somebody set fire to The Man. The fire was put out and the Burning Man organization immediately announced that they'd replace The Man with a new one, which they did. A photo of the toasted man, taken the day after the fire, appears on the right. The guys in the cherry-picker are examining the damage.

I talked to a lot of folks about this early burn, and the responses I got, at least from veteran burners is that other than the fact that the arsonist risked the lives of some people who might have been under the man, that in fact, this act actually fit better with the anarchist image that BM likes to promote than with a totally orderly, predictable event. Also, the almost uniform opinion was that there was no need to replace The Man -- just burn the charred stump on Saturday.

This year the theme was "The Green Man" which originally only peripherally had to do with "saving the earth" and "living green", but by the time the event began there were even corporate-sponsored exhibits under The Man. They were moderately tastefully done, but still, it was not, in my opinion, in the spirit of Burning Man. We only went to The Man once this year, and were very disappointed. There was nothing much to do except read long, preaching signs and it was not a center of activity. Compared to previous years, the supposed center of everything was deserted.

My Art Project

I've always been impressed with art projects that get a lot of bang for the buck -- projects that were relatively simple to construct, but have a great idea behind them, and when you look at them, you say, "Damn! I wish I'd thought of that."

I have worked on a few projects that took a great deal of time and were pretty cool, and I do like it when other people spend a lot of time on giant cool projects, but I'm lazy and would much prefer to do a simple cool project. This year I finally came up with one: a sign way out on the playa, far away from everything, that said "Accordion Practice Area". I later improved the concept, and the final sign said, "Accordion Practice Area: 5000 Yards" with an arrow that pointed across the boundary fence.

It only took a couple of hours to make my sign, and it was sort of fun going through the official Burning Man art system, called the "Artery" to get placed at an appropriate place out on the playa. I got a call from somebody from the Artery after I applied and she said she thought it was a good idea, and wanted to make sure that it was lit at night (so that spectators wandering around on bikes or art cars wouldn't crash into it) and that I had a plan for securing it to the ground and to remove it without "leaving a trace".

I attached a couple of bicycle rear blinker lights to it, each powered by a pair of AAA batteries, and in fact they lasted through the entire event, from Sunday afternoon when I installed it until the following Saturday afternoon, even though I never turned them off. The lights were advertised to last for 200 hours on one set of batteries, but who would believe that?

The downside of this project is that I have no idea how many people saw it or whether they liked it. It was placed on a pretty direct route between a couple of important installations, and I figured that quite a few people cycling between the two would see it. I initially asked for placement out near the boundary fence, but in fact was placed at about 12:30, 4300 feet from The Man.

The placement of the art is done by the Artery. They basically "nail" CDs to the playa with numbers drawn on them where your art is to go. To get "placed", you go to the Artery and they escort you out to your location so they'll be sure you place the art where it's supposed to be. I guess that's so they can make sure later that you've cleaned up your mess at the end of the event.

The placers just have GPS coordinates for all the art and they drive you out in golf carts to your site. Both Greg and I had art to install and we both had GPS units, so we asked if we could just have the coordinates, but the Artery folks insisted on taking us out, which was sort of fun. We didn't ride in the cart, but just rode alongside on bicycles, but talked to the Artery guy all the way out, and of course he knew a lot about many of the other installations. Of course when we got to our sites, we hardly looked at them, but just punched in a GPS waypoint so we could find them later. With GPS now good to 20 or 30 feet, and with the playa basically offering half the universe of sky to find GPS satellites, there was no chance of not being able to find the sites again.

Dust and Wind

There is always a lot of dust in the air. The images to the left and right were taken on a relatively calm night seconds apart with almost no wind. The image on the left was taken without a flash and the image on the right, with a flash. Every dust particle in the air reflects the flash back to the camera, so it's clear that the air is loaded with dust.

Imagine what it's like if there is some wind! This year we experienced four very windy days. The first two were the Saturday and Sunday before the event officially opened, and that was a real pain since we couldn't just hide from the wind and dust; we had to set up our camp. One thing that everyone should bring are those dust masks that cover the nose and mouth. It sure improves breathing, but it's still no fun to work in a dust storm. As we drove in from the gate to the campsite, we had to stop a couple of times due to complete white-outs where all I could see out the window was white in every direction.

Monday and Tuesday were beautiful days and then we got hammered again on Wednesday. (I was trapped at Math Camp inside their tent that was jerking around in the wind. At that point I sort of wished I were in "Engineer Camp", but the tent stayed down.) During that storm a lot of big art got knocked down including the huge "Tallgrass" structure in our plaza that was perhaps 100 feet tall and made of bamboo. That was sad since when it was lit up at night it served as a beacon to help us find our way home from anywhere on the playa.

On Thursday there was an even stronger windstorm, but we just holed up in our tent inside our geodesic dome that was nailed to the ground with enough 2-foot rebar stakes to hold it in place during a hurricane. The rangers warned of 60 mph winds. I'm not sure if they were that strong, but they were pretty impressive, and during the storm, for the first time I can remember on the playa, there was some rain and an incredible rainbow afterwards.

Luckily, the wind died down every night, since it's really no fun to get caught in a white-out while you're in deep playa in the dark, which has happened to me a couple of times in years past.

Food Notes

This section is basically for my own use: to note down what worked and what didn't, food-wise. Since every year I forget to make notes and make the same mistakes over and over, if I put them here, I'll be able to find them next year. Your mileage may vary, but this is what we did and (in my opinion, of course) what we should have done. If you're a vegan, you won't like what follows ...

We do NOT like to cook: we wanted stuff that could be eaten out of the package or required at most hot water to cook. No cooking equals no cleanup other than licking the spoon!

What tastes really good is to purchase roasted chickens (wwe got ours from Boston Market) and to tear all the meat off the bones and to seal about half a chicken into the quart-size ziploc bags. Put two of these into gallon bags, freeze them solid, and keep them in the cooler. Next year, just get two chickens. Four were way too many for the two of us, even though we were able to give away a lot of the meat to other campmates. Keep all the skin since the fat and salt taste great.

We took way too many "cup of soup"s We used two.

Two loaves of standard bread, frozen are just about right. We had a two blocks of cheese and a two large dry salamis that made great lunches. This was about the right amount.

We took three bags of gorp and used zero. Take one next year.

Take two bottles of concentrated coffee if Espresso Camp isn't there next year.

About three boxes of cereal is about right, despite the fact that we didn't eat much this year -- unless we bring biscotti again.

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