Day 104 and 105: Bringing Home Sand

This morning the camp next to us is having a bloody mary party. You’re supposed to bring a cup, but one guy forgot his. In exchange for a cup, he’s providing an eloquently-sung limerick of questionable taste for the entire camp.

Today I head back to the city. I’m having a fantastic time, but there are things I still want to do at home before my coach turns into a pumpkin.

I’m proud to be an original member of Open Kitchen Camp.

Side Note: These two have posted some more fun pictures from the trip here.

I spend the morning relaxing and hanging out in high places, and then it’s time to drive.

…and drive…

…as I get closer to the highway, I realize how good the muse’s voice will feel on my ears. I avoid getting a ticket, but ride the line pretty tightly.

The drive is long but easy, and I get home just in time to meet my muse at Fattoush for a late dinner.

The next day, back in the city, I can see that there are bits and pieces of the playa all around this place, like real gargoyles hiding in amongst the stone ones.

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Someone’s secret plan involves putting two digital mushrooms on top of their car.

There are inventors everywhere, and now that I’m looking, there are less-subtle connections as well…

This Café Flore is in the playa mood for sure. Luckily their roof is made of metal.

In the evening, the sky is totally clear, except for this crazy little strip of fog.

Clearly someone in Hayes Valley is summoning that. Need to find out how.

Random assertion: Every place you see sees you as well. And it remembers.

Steganographic data: 1810/4.8

Days remaining in Secret Plan 158: 5

Published in: on September 3, 2008 at 7:40 am  Leave a Comment  
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Day 103: Food, Love and Robots

I’m on breakfast duty this morning, so it’s cinnamon french toast. Christine’s got some strawberries, which don’t hurt the situation at all.


The name of our home on the Playa is Open Kitchen Camp. The plan is to make a lot of very excellent food, and share it with anyone who wants to stop by. This is a lot like what these two do at home, so they’re natural at it. No one ever turns down Christine’s cooking.

We’ve got extra french toast, so we bring it around to our neighbors. It’s so easy to make friends here.


Shannon’s actually in the final stages of (hopefully) becoming a BRC Ranger. The Rangers are here to keep the peace, so the police don’t usually have to. He’s the kind of guy they’re looking for, big, smart and friendly.

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Everyone here is ready for a perfect day, and today is perfect. I hear someone got good pictures yesterday of a huge dust devil with a tent stuck in it, way off the ground.

It’s time to get on a bike and disappear into all of this.


Here’s what Open Kitchen Camp looks like from the top pf a nearby structure (after the storm clean-up):


Burning man is different things to different people. I’m discovering what it is to me.

  • A place where people can be as expressive as they want to, in any way. It’s fun to watch, but talking to or joining them is better. Jump into the chicken-shaped car. Teach someone a new trampoline move. Ask about the flaming hula-hoop.
  • A place where people fix things for each other, just because they notice something broken. And clean up random trash just because they see it. (You try to be careful, but sometimes the wind takes something.)
  • …but most of all, it’s a place where you can do handstands several stories off the ground without anyone calling the police.


Many of the art structures can be climbed on. Most of them don’t have handrails. Shannon and I spend the better part of the day out on the Playa, finding random fun everywhere.

Sometimes we wish we had brought a camera, and sometimes we’re glad we didn’t. Anyway, someone’s usually got one.

Robotics is a funny thing. In order to make one work, you need to take into account everything you know about the environment it’s going to be facing.

By the time we get back, we’re ready for some shade-time, and I’ve got a full understanding of the environment in which this robot needs to survive.

It needs modification, or it won’t work. First, some serious dust shielding.

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Next, I add some extra electronics, pulled from a few small devices I thought to bring with me.

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What are these for? Well, there’s more to the environment than dust (though there is a whole lot of that). Everywhere you go, there’s the “m-Ch-m-Ch-m-Ch” sound of dance clubs. Robots need a way to work with that too.

…so now it’s ready. Just waiting for the sun to go down.


Besides running an open kitchen, Shannon and Christine have done an art project for the Playa. This year’s theme is the American Dream. C&S have made a structure out of flags, and attached markers, so people can write what the American Dream is to them.

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Cars aren’t typically allowed on this part of the Playa, but we got permission to use one to transport the project.

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Here’s my contribution to the artwork:

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Extra points if you recognize the image.

As soon as it’s done, we head straight back to run the kitchen! Christine’s made mushroom risotto, and she’s got slaves (including me) cutting up fruit for the sangria.

Again, it’s really easy to make friends. People we’ve never met before stop in to have dinner with us.

The smoke detector’s been disabled again, of course.

Partway through dinner Christine commands me to do a handstand on a camp chair.
I’m not your trained monkey!” I reply, and then do exactly as I’m told.

A strange thing about this crowd is that people are hungry for science. They like it. All these hobbies that made it impossible to get a date in high school have suddenly become valuable skills in the desert.

So another way I’ve been making friends is to have the telescope out when it’s dark. Jupiter is showing off, and you can see moons all around it.

I’ve had this red telescope since I was eleven.

If you’ve got a telescope, a lot of sangria and a friendly audience, here’s something useful to know: Nearly all of Jupiter’s moons are named after his… well, conquests. It’s a good thing he was so busy; it makes for excellent and lively conversation.

Tonight we also get to celebrate. Shannon’s passed his training and tests with flying colors.

We never doubted he would.

Once the food is gone and the kitchen closed, the three of us head out to play. One of the highlights is the sculpture by the Flaming Lotus Girls. There are levers all over it which let you control the flame jets.


It’s not all that safe, and I like it.


We head back around 11:30, and have some more tasty food, courtesy of Christine and my Muse. Then Shannon and I put the robot on the back of his bike and head out. Christine’s the smartest one. She’s going to sleep.


So it actually worked. The best thing about running the robot was just letting it wander off. People would cluster around it, and then jump back when it freaked out.

“Hey, and angry little ball!”
“He’s not angry… look, he’s lost.”
“Aw, he just wants to find his home.”

At one point, it rolls over and leans against a pair of legs in pink fishnets. Then it runs away, dodges the rest of us, and comes back to her.

“Hey, I think he’s in love with me. Cool.”
“I want one.”

I got a tiny clip of low-quality video, but mostly left the camera off and just enjoyed.

We met some very fun people over the robot’s antics.

When the robot gets sleepy, we put it back on the bike and start riding out into the desert. Just straight out, away from lights and sound.

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If you ever want to be alone, it’s really easy. And the stars are fantastic. That sand, however, can make for (WHAM! ow.) slow riding.

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If you’re wondering what all of this would looks like from far far above the ground, here you go:

Nothing’s allowed to be taller than the Man, but we’re really close at the moment.


Normally a huge flash of fire in the distance means paperwork for someone. Not here.

We get back after 3, and go to sleep. Outside the window there’s a quiet-ish dance club and an excellent moon.


Random assertion: Food and Love are two of the universal languages. Sometimes, they’re one.

Steganographic data: 1824/3.5/18.5

Days remaining in Secret Plan 158: 7
(Note: As I’m posting this, I’m already at the end of SP158, and about 30 minutes from heading back to work. Don’t worry, I’ll finish the other posts.)

Published in: on September 2, 2008 at 7:03 am  Comments (1)  
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Day 102: Ceti Alpha Five

With radios in our cars, Christine, Shannon, Tanja and I hit the road, on the way to the Playa. It’s about five hundred miles, and it’s slow going, but we’ve got radio chatter on our side.

::Everyone here?::
::::Here, we’re right behind you::::

We’ve got three vehicles, and one of them is pulling a trailer. And we drive as it gets dark.


…and drive and drive. And I learn some things about Burning Man.

::::So what about critters?::::
::Nothing lives there::
::::Mice? Beetles? Scorpions? Mosquitos?::::
::Nothing lives there. It’s like Mars, but with more dust. If you see a tumbleweed, it’ll be a major event::
::See dry scrub by the road? That’s the Amazon jungle compared to where we’re headed::

…and drive and drive…

::::How are the stars?::::
::In camp there’s too much light, but you can ride out into the desert, past all of the lights. Then they’re great::
::::I think I’m going to sleep outside, under the stars. No tent::::
::You’ll, ah, well okay. It’s up to you. Remember that there’s dust::
::::Right, I got that. Dust is okay::::

…and drive…

::::Everybody awake?::::
::Yep, we’re good::
(pause)          :::Yeah, I’m here:::
::Okay, time to stop for gas and coffee::

…and pick up supplies…


We’ve left the highway, and are on a dark, winding road in the middle of nowhere.

I’m wondering, what happens when you take 30,000 people, and put them in an environment where:

  • There’s no commerce. No one buying or selling anything.
  • There’s no contact with the outside world. No phone, almost no internet.
  • Everyone’s a visitor, no one lives there. Not even plants and animals.
  • The environment is harsh and serious.
  • There are no rules about clothing at all.
  • There’s fire and alcohol and drugs.

Do people turn evil? When do they wake up? Why do they go to sleep? Sleep… sleep sounds nice. NO! HEY! I’m awake. I’m awake.

It’s easy to spot other Burning Man vehicles. Sometimes it’s the bikes, or overburdened rear suspension. Other times it’s the elephants and eyeball-chickens painted on the side.


It’s still dark when traffic gets really slow. R e a l l y   s l o w, stop. S l o w stop.

It looks like the last scene from Field of Dreams. Hundreds of cars, all slowly headed the same place.

People are starting to crank up their music, and some get out of their cars and ride bikes along with the traffic. They’re ready to be there.

I notice it’s getting light in the East.


It’s strange to be in a never-ending line of cars as it gets light. I turn up my own radio, playing Long Line of Cars by Cake.


As we get closer I notice the vehicles are really interesting. There are all sorts of things attached to them.

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When I get to the security check, I’ve been driving for about eleven hours, and it’s real daylight. The guy looks in my car.

“Been here before?”
“What’s this?”
“What… oh it’s a robot.”
“Goodonya! Where’d you get that?”
“Made it this week.”
“Fuck me, welcome to the Playa robot maker! Is this video camera registered?”
“That’s a telescope.”
“Best answer all morning! Go on then.”


At the gate, there’s a “playa-virgin” ceremony to go through which involves contact with dust (I chose to walk on my hands through it) and ringing a big bell. I shouted an exclamation from Cabin Boy. If you’ve seen it, you know which one.

Now I’m inside the temporary place they call Black Rock City.

We don’t have a space pre-registered, but Christine turns on her charm, and sweet-talks us into being able to share someone else’s spot in an excellent location, right in the middle of everything. It’s so handy to have a cute woman in the group.

It’s a nice morning, but it’s going to get hot, so the first task is to build the sun-shelter. It’s a lot of work, but we’re pretty fast.


The ground is hard and flat, and the dust covering it looks and smells just like tan gym chalk.

We haven’t got a ladder, but that’s not a problem.

We take time to anchor the structure really well, because it’s a little windy. Better to be safe about it.

Once it’s up and stable, I have got to go exploring. I grab some water, hop on my bike, and vanish.


I don’t bring my camera with me, for two reasons:

  • The dust is in everything.
  • It’s already clear to me that this is a place where if you’re seeing something through a camera, you’re missing it.

I ride for miles and miles, and after a while every oddity starts to seem sensible and normal. The outfits are excellent. Right away, I see…

  • flamboyant glittering things with giant wings and metal teeth
  • viking helmets and capes of green fur
  • very sheer skirts which start at the waist, and end just below the waist

…and right away I’m glad I brought my hat. It’ll help me fit in.

Note: Don’t worry, people will doubtless post pictures some of the things I’m describing. Search for Burning Man 2008 in a few days, and you’ll see them.

I ride out into the desert, toward the Man (an 80-foot-tall structure which will be burned in a few days). There are dust devils out here. Pretty big ones. When they hit you, I have to close your eyes and mouth, and hold my breath.

Riding my bike as fast as I can through a really big dust devil, I discover that there are (WHAM!) soft patches of sand which will grab your tire and throw you off. I lie in the sand and check my bleeding shin, waiting for this one to pass, but it doesn’t.

After a while, it clears up, and then immediately gets worse. I feel like it’s stripping a layer of paint off of me.

I should have brought a dust mask and some goggles. Next time. For now, I’ll make do, and try to find my way back to camp. Visibility is less than 20 feet, so it takes a while.


I’m told this dust storm is very unusual. It lasts all day long.

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All day. The wind is outrageous. Venturing out into it is sketchy, but a few people still do.

Back at camp, I borrow a dust mask permanently (thanks guys!), and decorate it so I can tell it’s mine.


We venture out now and then to make sure the structure is still holding, and get supplies from our cars. Even inside the trailer, the dust is everywhere. By the way, I’ve decided not to sleep outside tonight.

There’s some old guy with grey hair in the mirror.

The dust isn’t just in my hair, it is my hair.

THIS is Ceti Alpha Five!

The best thing about being trapped in the trailer is the spicy Indian chicken my muse made for us. It’s the perfect lunch, sort of like pure concentrated love.

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In the evening, the wind starts to slow down, and we go out to survey the damage. It’s a mess, but the structure held. Just barely.


As it calms down, people start to emerge. They’re still wearing masks, but for miles around you can feel the beginning of that a very very large party.


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People are helping each other rebuild their camps, focusing on the music and decoration first. If someone needs something, someone they’ve never met gets it for them.


I’m told this skull-tree marks “Firstcamp,” occupied by the founders of Burning Man.

The night turns lively right away. Music, dancing, fire, food, and thousands of friendly people.

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The huge jets of flame near our camp are actually coming from a tricycle driven by a stunningly beautiful woman. With fire.

Is it okay to fall in love just for a few minutes at a time?
I’ve decided that it is, and that this may be an essential skill here. I have not checked this with my muse.

You can just see her excellent boots here. Love, I tell you.

While searching for a friend of hers, Christine ends up leading me into a birthday party, where the theme is simply “Pink.” The cute birthday girl, Ali, makes it clear that I haven’t work nearly enough pink to her party, so she starts giving me things. Pink things.

The only blog-safe items among them are these:


…so now I have another hat not to wear when I travel interdimensionally.

Still, she’s right. I do belong at her pink party now. Those glasses make it hard to see exactly who’s who. They’re sort of like ultra-powerful rose-colored beer goggles. I decide that’s too much danger, and wear them up on the brim of the hat.

It’s late when we get back to camp. We make dinner (a combination of Christine-love and Muse-love).

While I’m cooking the potatoes, the trailer’s smoke alarm goes off. Excellent, giant jets of flame from hot fire-bike-chick, and my potatoes set off the alarm. I pull it from the ceiling, disable it, and set it outside. Anyone else complains about the potatoes, they get the same.

After dinner, I head out on my own, exploring. By 3:15, I’m back in bed, catching up on two days’ sleep.

Random assertion: When no one’s looking and there are no rules, people will help each other.

Steganographic data: 1826/0.7/15.0

Days remaining in Secret Plan 158: 8

Published in: on August 31, 2008 at 8:32 pm  Comments (1)  
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Day 101: Baskets of Glass

So you already know some of what happens today, but not all.

I wake up to her eyes, but also to the realization that the fire wasn’t a dream, and even if I could repair the damage to the robot, I’d never have time to troubleshoot the problem today.

About half an hour later, she had done what a muse does. I still can’t remember exactly what she said, but without even looking at it I knew the cause of the failure, and how to fix it.

Geek Details: The drive power circuit is basically an H-bridge, with power transistors instead of switches or relays. So if your control logic is (ahem) backwards, then the “all motors off” resting state turns into “hold the motors still but heat up the high-power resistors as fast as you can and see what catches on fire first” mode.

A quick look at the injured robot verifies that this is what happened, and I should be able to fix it. So I set it aside and we go out to play at another excellent museum.

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This is the De Young Museum in Golden Gate Park. They’ve got a huge exhibit of Dale Chihuly’s glass work now. Unlike many exhibits, non-flash photography is allowed in this one.


If you’ve seen Chihuly’s work before, then you know to expect a lot of really huge, cool, brightly-colored pieces that resemble sea creatures. The techniques he and his assistants use to make these things are extraordinary.

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So I’m drawn to the one that looks like an urchin. So what.
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All of these bright forms are beautiful, and pretty much what I expected to see. The part of the exhibit that took me by total surprise was the Baskets series. These are made (from glass) to look like Native American basket work. I love them.

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There’s a lot of great work in this exhibit, and none of it is safe to climb on.

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Quick aside #1:
Shannon and Christine are leaving for Burning Man today. They’re all packed up and ready to go. I’ve never been there, but it sounds like a lot of crazy fun.

They strongly encouraged me to come with them, but I had to decline. It’s the last few days of my vacation, after all.

Shannon’s bike plays the William Tell Overture as he rides.

Quick aside #2:
One of my muse’s superpowers is that she can hear 4-leaf clovers. Walking outside the museum with me today she stopped, leaned down, and handed one to me.

I’ve pasted this one into the book I’m about to read.

Back at home, we’re relaxing and working on projects again.

I get the repairs all done on the robot’s power circuit, and the motors still won’t move. Just as I’m starting to think it’s not going to work, the house starts to smell really good.

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The smell of fresh scones kicks something in my brain, and I get it.

The motor power’s not connected. Yeah, so I, um, plug it in, and the motors leap to life, making me cheer and dance in a less-than-dignified manner.

Quick aside #3:
In case you still had any doubt about knitters being good at math and logic, check this out. I snuck a picture of her notes:
My muse is planning something involving purple yarn and possibly a blowtorch.

I get the robot all closed up and do the first real operational tests.

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…so that’s it. You’re all caught up now.

Random assertion: Once a decision
> HEY WAIT! That can’t be all! What about the sandstorm? What about the smoke detector and the fuzzy pink hat?

Oh right, that. Okay, so I actually called Shannon back a few days ago, and left a message:

“Hey sir. When I said I no, I was clearly malfunctioning. If the couch is still available, I’m in. And I’ll build something to bring. Maybe a robot, we’ll see.”

…and so I’m all packed up too.

In the back seat, you can see the yellow robot (not yet desert-proof, but there’s time) and yes, the Captain Goldfish hat. There’s a telescope in there somewhere too.

…and my muse made fresh scones for me to bring, as well as spicy Indian chicken and other great food-love. She knows what I’m going to need, always.

At 7:30pm, we start the drive.

As it turns out, there will be no dividing line (sleep) to separate today from tomorrow. So I’ll draw the line here, at 7:30. Tomorrow things get a little interesting.

Random assertion: Given the choice, pick the thing you’ve never done before.

Steganographic data: 1818/4.4

Days remaining in Secret Plan 158: 8

Published in: on August 30, 2008 at 10:08 am  Comments (1)  
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