Geeks Electrifying Burning Man

At Burners.Me, we like to bring you commentary, facts, stories, and opinions about Burner culture from a variety of different perspectives. And one of those is the nerds. Or in some cases, über-nerds. Because these are the ones who came to rock it on the Playa.

Dr North, keynote speaker at the IEEE Global Technology Conference; how technology can help all of humanity

The IEEE, which is the world’s largest professional association for the advancement of technology, was well represented this year, with the keynote speaker from their annual conference Dr Mike North’s Reallocate camp IDEATE, and now, as we hear from IEEE Spectrum, a whole camp dedicated to electrical ninjaengineers.

Burning Man is a weeklong end-of-summer bacchanalian arts festival that promotes radical self-expression and experimental community building, held annually on the playa of Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. This year’s festival took place between 27 August and 3 September, and amid the 60 000 revelers was the Alternative Energy Zone (AEZ)—an oasis of nearly 500 engineers and engineering-minded campers.

The AEZ made its first appearance at the 2000 festival, as 50 people camping without generators. The group has grown to delight in building ecological living structures powered by sustainable energy devices. This year’s AEZ was composed of 90-plus distinct subcamps, without a fossil-fuel generator in sight. Instead the zone was awash in homemade “evapotrons” (wind- or solar-powered devices that evaporate wastewater, important in the crowded drainage-free conditions), swamp coolers (which provide air conditioning through water evaporation), heat-deflecting yurts, and wind- and solar-powered electrical microgrids. Daily tours showcased these wonders and taught people how to do for themselves.

“This is a village of doers who bring extra parts and fittings with them in case someone needs repairs,” says outgoing AEZ leader “Jolly” Roger Wilson, creative director for the Willits Kinetic Carnivale, an annual steampunk festival in Willits, Calif., who started out as an architect-turned-film industry computer modeler; he worked on such films as 1982’s Tron. “They’re good at making stuff that works. There is some very elaborate engineering here,” Wilson says. Past whimsies include a timed laser that indicated the location of a passing satellite every night, solar-powered racing vehicles, and a solar hot-dog cooker fashioned from an abandoned satellite dish.

Such undertakings let engineers stretch their knowledge, teach nonengineers basic skills, and get festival attendees thinking about their energy consumption year-round.

“It’s an entire village of power nerds—everyone has an interesting project or fascinating background,” says Shawn Brenneman, a Google software engineer in Mountain View, Calif., who turns “impractical tensegrity structures”—made of cables and struts that rely on tensile forces to stay up—into artistic living spaces in his camp, Tensile Town. “Even people who aren’t engineers by trade here build hard things as hobbies. It’s a way to try something new in a space of people who are all into that.”

Take the Cult of Levitating Plywood, a time-honored AEZ camp so named for suspending a 14-square-meter plywood second story inside a 7.3-meter-diameter geodesic dome—a project that evolved over several years from computer models made during the creators’ MIT undergrad days. The camp also boasts a 400-watt solar-power grid that charges batteries and also powers a snow-cone machine, a rice cooker, a refrigerator, several homemade swamp coolers, and decorative blinking LED lights.

“They may not all be engineers by profession, but pretty much everyone in AEZ is an engineer by mind-set,” says Christine Robson, who just completed a computer science doctorate at University of California, Berkeley. She and fiancé Josh Weaver, a Google electrical engineer and computer scientist, are among the Cult of Levitating Plywood’s founding members. “A lot of engineers end up working in just one field, so this is a way to stretch our engineering breadth and do projects outside of our comfort zones,” Robson says.

The impact can extend far beyond the festival itself. Involvement in the AEZ prompted Geoff Horne, a Silicon Valley computer scientist and a former leader of the AEZ, to rewire his home for solar energy. David “Keyman” Kulka, an audio engineer who’s president of Studio Electronics in Burbank, Calif., and helped construct the AEZ’s 0.125-W FM radio station, says the experience has led him to embrace teamwork. “I tend to take care of myself, not offer or ask for help with things, and sort of live in a bubble,” he says. “This sort of attitude is not ideal on the playa, so I’ve learned to open up, ask for and offer help.”

Even nonengineers get into the spirit. Wilson’s best friend, Richard “Cousin Dickey” Weinkle, a retired insurance agent, learned how to wire his trailer for solar energy after Wilson caught him with a generator. “I’m the poster child for a nonengineer being able to learn this stuff,” Weinkle says. “Most engineers aren’t people persons. The folks at AEZ are effusive, and they try to help you with your projects. Being here made me pay attention to how I was living my life. My home now has solar power, water collection, and a vegetable garden.”

Weinkle and Wilson are going so far as to begin planning a self-sustaining community in Willits that will be engaged in building, electronics, farming, and the arts. “I want to take some of the qualities that I find at AEZ and Burning Man and have them year-round,” says Wilson.

via Electrifying Burning Man – IEEE Spectrum.

Lost Traditions of Burning Man

Perhaps following on from the excellent Oral History of Burning Man that was recently published, the Burning Blog has put up a post sharing some of the past traditions of Burning Man.

Those interested in the true history of Burning Man, should also check out “how it all really began” as covered in our piece Seeking Divine Truth at Burning Man; as well as Scribe’s great book The Tribes of Burning Man – How an Experimental City in the Desert is Shaping A New American Counterculture, and the documentary Dust and Illusions.

You can watch the full documentary here.

Here’s some stories from the official blog:

I’ll never forget my first sunset at Burning Man. The sun hit the mountains and all around me rose this eerie noise, as almost everyone in sight stopped whatever they were doing and howled, yelled and cheered the sun down. The hair on the back of my neck prickled in response to this tribe of people celebrating the end of a day.

That stopped happening in the last few years, and now the sunsets pass relatively unannounced by our communal voices. What other traditions are vanishing or lost entirely? Burning Man culture is strongly based on oral tradition, and I love a good story, so I (in one case, literally) sat at the feet of those who have been attending Burning Man longer than I, and asked them to tell me stories.

There were dozens of replies, I’ve highlighted a few below. I did not include any of the memories of epic theme camps from years gone by, (Bianca’s Smut Shack! Xara! Jiffy Lube!), as that could be an entire blog post of its own.


“We used to raise the Man, the participants did. One year it was just the kids, all lined up pulling on the rope to raise him* back to standing. Back when he had feet and stood on the ground. Back in the day. He used to lie on the ground for the day on Sunday, and you could put what you needed to onto him, tucked into his legs or wherever. Then when the Man burned, your item/tribute/memory burned along with him. ” -Molly

Photo by Stewart Harvey, 1991.

DaveX also remembers this: “…lowering the Man on Burn day to be stuffed with whatever fireworks were at hand. Then in the evening the community (lead by the kids) would pull the Man back up with a big rope-and-lever thing. Of course there was the jumping over the burning chest of the Man once he had fallen. I learned this from Fireman Dale as I watched him do it. He would sprinkle fireworks in the fire as he jumped…”

Crimson Rose used to climb the Man for a dance performance, pre-Burn.


Andie Grace directed me toward the very entertaining Burning Man Glossary, which states that the Java Cow is a “Community legend which appears with hot coffee at sunrise on the morning of the Burn and asks the question: “Do you want cream or sugar with your coffee?”.

Java Cow, 1993. Photo by Carvermon


As well as lost traditions, there are a few that, while still ongoing, could use some extra attention as we acculturate our newer Burners.

OPENING FIRE CEREMONY: Monday afternoon of event week, Crimson Rose (a Burning Man founder and resident Fire Goddess) captures a flame from the sun and lights the Cauldron that stands in the Keyhole entrance to Center Camp. This same flame is carried in a procession on Burn Night to the Man, and the Fire Conclave utilizes this flame to dance for the Man before it is burned.

Will Roger, a Burning Man founder and Crimson Rose’s long-time partner and shiny new husband, shared that the crowds have been getting smaller and smaller each year for this ceremony.

MOOP RACES: “Any given individual running after a loose piece of paper or feather, to the cheers of onlookers saying ‘save the Playa!’” -JimmyTheKid

2 HOURS PLAYA CLEANUP: “Even as a new Burner I knew to “bring extra socks for DPW and donate 2 hours to cleanup”. A lot has changed since then, but I miss that as a cultural expectation.” -Miss Roach

Miss Roach makes an excellent point. Did you take 2 hours out of your burn this year, to clean up MOOP? It’s in the Survival Guide, and even on the back of your ticket. Our fearless friends with the Playa Restoration Team are in the desert right this moment, doing the final cleanup. Next year, perhaps we can make their job even easier by all making an effort to take 2 hours to clean up MOOP in the public areas of Black Rock City.

As we focus on spreading our culture out into the world (via the Burning Man Project, the Regional Network, and in many other ways), a strong connection to the way things used to be also provides valuable context…and some great stories.

Burning Man veterans, what are some traditions (personal, camp, Burning Man-wide) that are being forgotten? Talk story to us, in the comments section below. Virgin and more-recently-attending Burners, come gather around the fire and listen to the way things used to be.

And don’t forget, my fellow Burners. Sunset, next year: howl that sun down, for all you’re worth. Tell your friends.

* While we technically refer to the Man as a genderless “it”, common parlance tends to give him gender-specificity.

Brody works in the Art Department and has been attending the event since 2004. She likes hugs and Snacks and increasing the amount of happiness in the world.

via Burning Blog » Blog Archive » Lost Traditions of Burning Man.

Some conspiracy theorists believe that Dr Dre owns Burning Man. For others, the link between Burning Man and the War on Drugs, as made by the Wall Street Journal and Reality Sandwich in 2008, also provides an interesting lens of historical perspective through which to view the festival. Those who want to start digging deeper into these rabbit holes, should also read Dave McGowan’s fascinating and eye opening seriesInside The LC: The Strange but Mostly True Story of Laurel Canyon and the Birth of the Hippie Generation“, and consider The Hidden Dangers of the Rainbow. We’ve also written a piece looking at some of the Legal History of Burning Man, and previous uses of the Playa – did you know it once used to be a military facility?