A couple of months ago, I was listening to the Joe Rogan podcast, and heard an amazing tale from Burning Man. Joe, who is a very public advocate for hallucinogenic drugs, was interviewing Dr Bruce Damer, a long time Burner (’99). He was recommended as a guest for Joe by Dennis McKenna, whose brother Terence was called the Patron of Psychedelic Drugs in his New York Times obituary – Timothy Leary called him “the Timothy Leary of the 90’s”.
Dr Damer, a technologist and virtual world pioneer, gives seminars at the Pentagon, as well as lecturing Burners on psychedelic drugs.
They kick the podcast off with the “craziest story of all time”, which Bruce Damer originally told to Boing Boing, about being at Burning Man during Hurricane Katrina and hacking into military/intelligence satellites to watch the action:
JR: “You were partying at Burning Man with people who work at the Pentagon”
JR: “That gives me great discomfort, to know that people who work in the Pentagon are partying at Burning Man”
BD: “Rocking! We called for Blackhawks…
Our camp was doing the Wi-Fi for the public and emergency networks, the private network…we had a dish, so we could take over satellites. One of our guys took over a recon satellite from the National Reconnaissance Office. He took this thing offline – this was a Pentagon move…Our Pentagon satellite phone rang, the general on the other side was saying “what’s going on” and then instructed the guy not to answer. We then had control of this satellite and could watch Katrina come in. The government wasn’t doing anything to help people, with all this equipment.
He worked on the Asian tsunami relief efforts, then he went straight to Afghanistan, then he went to Baghdad, then he came to Burning Man.
He works under Title 10 money doing extreme comms, extreme emergency relief efforts. This guy’s invented all this technology, cellphones in rubberized cases that come down on parachutes and run for a month… Here we have a natural disaster happening in our own country, barreling in. Nobody at Burning Man knows it’s happening, but we watched it come in.
You could watch video from orbit on this guy’s screen. You could watch people walking…we saw the first levee breach on this guy’s screen at Burning Man…hi-res reconnaissance imagery…the Iridium phone kept ringing. This is an innovative genius type guy that is totally respected in that organization. The general that initiated the enquiry was covering him, so that the general could then contact Space Command and say “I can’t get any information”. He had put the satellite in some kind of failsafe fall-back mode, so they would spend the next several days trying to get back into it…we could burn hydrazine and locate stuff on the Playa.”
The whole podcast is worth listening to. Dr Damer gave a lecture at Burning Man in 2012 about shamans, the Pentagon and NASA at the Palenque Norte Psychedelic Salon.
The Palenque Norte journey began with the legendary Entheobotany Conferences held at the Chan Kah hotel near the ancient Mayan ruins just outside of Palenque, Mexico. There, Terence McKenna, Jonathan Ott, Ann & Sasha Shulgin, and a host of other psychedelic luminaries passed along many insights, discoveries, and wild tales to the fortunate Tribe members who were there. And it was at the end of the pool where Terence McKenna gave some of his last talks at the Chan Kah. Years later, then in 2003, a few alumni from those conferences decided to have a “Palenque reunion” at the Burning Man Festival, and so they organized a lecture series to continue the Palenque tradition.
Bruce Damer takes the 2012 Palenque Norte audience at the Burning Man Festival on a far flung journey into what he calls his practice of “global multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-technic shamanism” where you “put yourself on the shelf” and dive deeply into the worlds of Pentagon think tanks, NASA mission designers, the tribal cultures of Pakistan, the Swiss [bankers], Egyptologists, IT professionals, and Christian Evangelicals, to come back with the true alchemical gold. With apologies to Terence McKenna, he says “there is no dominator culture” and that if we aren’t careful we can collectively fall for cartoon epistemologies, chase chains of weaker and weaker claims, and become a victims of our own delusions, and fall prey to others’ unsubstantiated theories. Bruce advises everyone to become their own best skeptic and develop “critical intelligence”. If someone says something that strikes you as flaky or just doesn’t feel right, Bruce suggests that you think it through before you pass on their meme.
So this is the type of people at Burning Man. It’s not all drugged up hippies looking for an orgy. Some of them advise the Pentagon and NASA. Some of them can hack military/intelligence satellites, and get Generals to cover for them. Former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO, General Wesley Clark, is now a Burner. He ran for President, as did Denis Kucinich who attended for the first time this year.
Burning Man takes place on former military land. Many of the people who played key roles in its early years have a military/intelligence background.
Blackhawks on the Playa would not have been a big deal. Every year, military aircraft fly overhead. It is close to Naval Air Station Fallon.
Other aircraft spotted flying over Burning Man over the years include Chinooks, F-14’s, F-16’s, F-18’s, F-22’s, C-130’s, even a flight of V-22 Osprey tilt-rotors.
Pacific Standard magazine published a great story last year by Brian Calvert, The Merry Pranksters Who Hacked The Afghan War, about the Synergy Strike Force – Burners who have serious juice in the military/intelligence world.
Their leader, Dr Dave Warner, is described as:
a former U.S. Army drill instructor, self-avowed “hippie doctor,” PhD neuroscientist, technotopian idealist, dedicated Burner, dabbler in psychedelics, insatiable meddler, and (weirdest of all) defense contractor.
For a long time, the Taj Guest House was about the only place you could get a beer in Jalalabad. The provincial capital, about 30 miles from the infamous mountains of Tora Bora, has been the main staging ground for U.S.-led forces in the eastern part of Afghanistan since the early days of the war. When I showed up in the city in November 2011 to report on the propaganda efforts of a franchising Taliban, I found myself at the Taj. There wasn’t much to the pub—just a bamboo-covered bar, a fireplace, a glass-fronted cooler with some Heineken stacked inside, and a few bottles of vodka and other spirits lined up under the red glow of a lamp.
Plus there was an odd little sign: “We share information, communication, (and beer).”
…Looking like a cross between a mountaineer and a mathematician, he had a salt-and-pepper beard and curly hair that hung down to his shoulders, and he favored a uniform of black polo shirts over tied-dyed tees. His name was Dr. Dave Warner.
War zones attract a lot of sketchy characters. In Afghanistan and Iraq, where defense contractors have generally outnumbered soldiers on the ground, the cast of extras has been especially sprawling and inscrutable—security experts, mercenaries, aid workers, engineers, intelligence types, and consultants of every kind. It was just a guess, but given the array on the roof, I took Warner and his team for spooks of some kind.
I was at best half right in my guess about Warner’s occupation. He did indeed work for U.S. intelligence sometimes, he explained, but he wasn’t a spy. On principle, he refused to get a security clearance, out of a belief in something he called “radical inclusion.” The most valuable information in a conflict or disaster zone, he said, was information that could be shared with everybody.
The term radical inclusion stopped me. I recognized it from the summer of 1998, when I had gone to Burning Man, the hedonistic-fire-worshipper-art-festival that occurs every summer in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. Radical inclusion is one of the event’s “Ten Principles.” When I mentioned this, Warner’s eyes lit up. He dug into his T-shirt and pulled out a shining Burning Man medallion. “Dude,” he said, grinning in the firelight. “This is a Burner bar.”
Warner’s entire team – which he called, in all seriousness, the Synergy Strike Force—had just attended Burning Man that summer. He himself had been attending annually since 2002. And the bar, it turned out, was his bar…It was not only a place to drink and flop but also a kind of grand social experiment—an outpost of the Burning Man ethos in the Afghan desert…
The war effort, in short, was sophisticated when it came to deploying lethal hardware like drones, but clumsy in just about every other way. A few people in the upper echelons of the command structure were painfully aware of this. Warner knew because he had their ear. He had connections in the Defense Intelligence Agency, the CIA, the Army Special Forces, and the Office of the Secretary of Defense. He also knew what an unlikely figure he cut—a Burner among bureaucrats. When I asked him later why the Department of Defense had turned to him, he shook his head and laughed. “Oh,” he said, “they’re fucking desperate.”…
Eric Rasmussen, one of Warner’s early sponsors at DARPA, has come away similarly awed by the doctor’s capacities. “I was taught by multiple Nobel Prize winners, and Dave is the equal of any of them in intelligence,” Rasmussen told me. Warner has been “trendsetting for a number of very forward-thinking organizations, like the Strategic Studies Group for the Chief of Naval Operations, like DARPA, like the Office of Naval Research,” among others. “He has shaped curriculum for the Marine Corps. He has influenced curriculum for National Defense University. He is a remarkable intellectual force who has managed to hold on to his idealism through everything.” What’s more, he has done it all without a security clearance. “And that,” Rasmussen said, “if you remember the kind of work that he does—and for whom—is astonishing.”…
I was just beginning to get used to his way of talking, which alternated between turgid military jargon and gonzo flights of fancy. (“I’m dismantling the Death Star,” he told me later, “to build solar ovens for the Ewoks.”)…
The group was also engaged in various maker-ish side projects worthy of Burning Man. Gold was busy building a methane generator from PVC pipe and an old oil drum. The design, popular among self-sufficiency buffs on the Internet, allows you to filter the gasses that come off human waste into pure methane, which can be used as a fuel source…
Last summer at Burning Man, members of the team gathered once again, and Warner invited me to join them. So I headed out to the Black Rock Desert and pitched a small tent next to Warner’s giant RV. He came out of nowhere, from the dust and the wind, as I was struggling with some rigging for a tarp. He was drinking a beer, wearing a tied-dyed shirt and cutoff jean shorts, with a tie-dyed bandana on his head and another around his neck. “We’re going to the temple,” he said, “for a service.”…
Warner gathered with other members of the Synergy Strike Force. He nailed a pakul hat to the wall, hung an Afghan scarf around it, and added a Synergy Strike Force patch. Around us, Burners wept and prayed. And at the end of the festival, the temple was burned to the ground, with everything in it.
Read the full story here, it’s a great read. Dr Dave Warner sounds like a hero to me. Definitely in the running for the “best Burner” prize.
Here are some links to other stories about the Synergy Strike Force:
Their online hub, with links to many more photos, is at reachback.org
Peace Intelligence. That seems like something that the world could use a lot more of. Sadly, the Synergy Strike Force’s Afghanistan operations have now stopped, due to lack of funding (they needed about $5,000 a month for their Internet connection). Now THAT would have been a good use of the non-profit Burning Man Project’s $30 million annual budget.