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 100: Day One Hundred!

Speaking of the Castro Theatre, check this out.

West Side Story
, The Godfather, and sing-along The Little Mermaid. All on one marquee. How awesome is that?

I’m leaving town tomorrow afternoon, and my muse can’t come with me this time, so we’re spending today and tomorrow playing in museums and working on fun projects.


This is SFMOMA, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. They’ve got an exhibit of Frieda Kahlo‘s work currently. We spend a long time enjoying that, as well as some fantastic Chinese contemporary art. There’s one piece by Sui Jianguo of Chairman Mao sleeping on a field of plastic dinosaurs.


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SFMOMA also has an excellent café. We spend most of the nice sunny day at the museum and the surrounding area.

Back at home, the muse is knitting (remember what I said about knitting? Be on your guard), while the cats keep her pinned in place.


Excellent! She’s got them distracted. Time to finish the robot.

Here’s the final sensor array. (The electrical tape is temporary, to protect the eyes, and to make it easier to test. Their cones of vision don’t overlap, so I can trigger just one at a time.)


…and then the wires from the array go to the main logic board…


…and then tap into the motor-control lines on the pre-existing circuit…


…but when I try it out, it’s not working. The toy’s radio control chip is overriding my circuit’s taps, holding the motors inactive. So, it’s got to go.

I’ve thought of all sorts of delicate ways to do this, but I’m a little tight for time. I grip the circuit board with my wire stripper, say out loud “This is a really bad idea,” and twist.



There, it’s done. No going back now. Time to close it up and give it a test.

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Why is there a knot in the wire? Strain relief, so that a tug on the wire won’t pull out the taps.
Why is the cat guarding my drill? It might move. If it does, it’s toast.

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All closed up and ready.                   Hey, screws! (sigh)

There’s a bunch more to do, and by the time it’s really ready, it’s after 2am, and the muse has gone to sleep. I’m sleepy too, but will be so happy to see it work.

So I switch it on, and the motors start working! There’s an odd noise when the motors should be stopped, but it’s basically functional.

Suddenly, “sssshhhhfffffffFFFFFFFFFFFFFT” there’s smoke jetting out of the case. It’s on fire.

  • No! No! Switch it off!
    • Pull the battery out (ouch, HOT! HOT!)
    • Blow a puff of air in through the wiring hole.
    • Open the case, see ashes flutter out, and smell burning plastic.

It’s not good. Wires across the power board are melted. Well, I did pull the control chip out with pliers. Who knows what that might have messed up.

I’m sad and grouchy and tired, so I go to sleep and dream about burning plastic and broken toys.

Random assertion: “Letting go” is vital in both art and engineering. The artist creates a vision, but does control what people will see. The engineer builds a thing sturdy and safe, but does not control the guy with pliers.

Steganographic data: 1828/3.1

Days remaining in Secret Plan 158: 9

Published in: on August 29, 2008 at 8:21 am  Leave a Comment  
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Day 41: Red Sky and the Mystery Door

For the past three days, the sun has been a funky distant red color, and you can smell the wildfires nearby.

That won’t stop the week’s celebrations, though. The Castro neighborhood is all decked out and ready for an excellent weekend-long party.

A.G. Ferrari: Human respect and great food, all in one store.

I’ll tell you, the cat’s day is off to a great start.
Oh joy, it’s time for the vet.

The 18-year-old cat says: “I know where you live.”

The 2-year-old cat says: “Hey how’d you get in the box? Is that fun? I want one too.”

Our vet is a magician. Dr. Craig founded the Linda Mar pet hospital in Pacifica. Years ago, she and her colleagues helped me out with an orange kitten who had a broken leg and a malfunctioning heart. 18 years later, he’s still a troublemaker. I hope I look that good when I’m his age.

The other magician responsible for his longevity is Shelly. The cats love it when my muse and I pack a suitcase, because it means she’s coming over soon.

Speaking of magic, just down the street from our house there’s a trans-dimensional mystery door.

It’s just a door, right there in between the buildings. I’ve never seen anyone enter or leave.

Looking through the glass, you can see a garden and a brick path going straight back, but you can’t quite see where the path leads. I’ve been curious about that door for years.

Random assertion: Most doors lead to a place you’ve never been.

Steganographic data: 1856/3.5

Published in: on June 27, 2008 at 9:16 am  Leave a Comment  
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