Google Earth Brings You Burning Man 3D

Google Earth For Pirates

Google Earth For Pirates

This is pretty cool. You’ll need to install Google Earth, and enable 3D buildings. Then open this KML file.  Zoom in to ground level and hold down the arrow keys, you can walk through Burning Man in 3D. You really get a sense of how vast it is when you see The Man in the distance and head towards it. It is from Cargo Cult, Burning Man 2013, although the particular day the image was taken is unknown.

From the Google Earth Blog:

Burning Man goes 3D

Over the last week or so, Google have pushed out a significant amount of new 3D imagery. If you don’t have it already, be sure to grab our our map of areas covered so far.

One of the most interesting new additions is Black Rock City, Nevada, location of the Burning Man festival that we covered back in August and later saw animated gifs of that Skybox Imaging created. The actual festival only lasts a couple of weeks each year and is in a slightly different location each year, with different street layouts and physical structures. The imagery was essentially out of date just days after the photography was captured. There was a lot of movement, with many cars, trucks, caravans and even light aircraft moving around. There were new structures going up, tents and other structures with moving coverings and intricate shapes. All of this causes problems for the technique used to capture the imagery, which involves imagery captured from multiple angles during several passes, that works best on solid, unmoving structures with no overhangs.

To fly to Black Rock City in Google Earth, open this KML file. Be sure to turn on the 3D buildings layer.

[Update: As pointed out by Ron in the comments, the 3D imagery is from the 2013 event.]

Black Rock City tent
One of several structures with intricate detail that Google must have put extra effort into modelling.

You can also type “Black Rock City NV” into Google Earth’s search (no need for any KML file). The satellite imagery is becoming more detailed every year, and this is just what is being released for free to the public.

Creepily, all the people are missing from the city. Wonder if there was some behind the scenes facial recognition going on, as all the Burners were slurped out by the Artilect in between its trippy dreams.

deep dreams animation

Wake Up, Neo – There Is No Counter-Culture

Just found this thought-provoking essay from 2013 by James Curcio at Modern Mythology. I have edited it down to highlight the most relevant passages for Burners, emphasis ours:

“Two weeks at Burning Man may be fun, but try doing it for a year and chances are you’ll come back telling me what hell is like.”


Even by definition, the idea of a counterculture expresses itself as a negation. It is arguable if a counterculture could possibly exist without the myths of the mainstream. As such it is a product of the market, and exists only insofar as it serves a function within that market.

Yet there are ideals which have been part of various vibrant (if short-lived) countercultures, which rest close to the heart of the creative process as structured by the myth of the individual: unfettered self-expression, freedom from the externally imposed social boundaries, irreverent humor, an element of egalitarianism mixed liberally with pirate capitalism, maybe even a sense of pragmatic community. History shows that these ideals are quickly lost in such movements, however, oftentimes as soon as they gain a true pulpit. The largest expression of that in recent history is of course the now somewhat idealized 1960s, a clear view of which has been obscured through a haze of pot-smoke and partisan politics.
baby softHowever, “counterculture bubbles,” Temporary Autonomous Zones and so on are regularly coming into and out of being. Countercultures remain rather toothless in regard to having any capacity to sustain themselves outside the context of the society they stand in opposition to, instead utilizing a self-referential social currency of cool-points, sprinkled liberally with pointless elitism and a side of Who Gives A Fuck? One need merely look at the transformation of musical and sub-cultural genres founded on rebellion: punk, rock and roll, and the like, and what they have transformed into during the decades of their existence. In this domain, the territory between aesthetic, ideals, and social movement becomes blurry at best…
This is not to point an accusatory finger, but rather to show the essential dependence of the counterculture upon the mainstream, because they are not self-sustaining, and every culture produces a counter-culture in its shadow, just as every Self produces an Other. Any counterculture. Punk, underground, beatnik, hippy, psychedelic, straight edge, or occult culture all stand as the cardboard cut-out Shadows of corporate America.
They will be co-opted the moment their shtick becomes profitable. It doesn’t matter that these ideologies have little in common. It is the fashion or mystique that gets sold. When all an ideology really boils down to is an easy to replicate aesthetic, how could they not? “Cool” is what customers pay a premium for, along with the comfort of a world with easy definitions and pre-packaged, harmless rebellions. Psychedelic and straight edge can share the same rack in a store if the store owner can co-brand the fashions, and people can brand themselves “green” through their purchasing power without ever leaving those boxes or worrying about the big picture. Buy nothing day, AdBusters, etc. ad nauseum all utilize this principle. Without laying the material, mythic, and social groundwork for a new society, counterculture cannot be a bridge; it almost invariably leads back to the mainstream, though not necessarily without first making its mark and pushing some new envelope.


Where do we draw the line? As Yogi Bhajan put it, “money is as money does.” The question is how individuals utilize or leverage the potential energy represented by that currency, and what ends it is applied to. Hard nosed books on business such as Drucker’s Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices say exactly the same thing, in a less epigrammatic, Yoda-like way: profit is not a motive, it is a means…


Though this “revolution” certainly didn’t start in the 1960s, there we have one of the clearest instances of what good bed-fellows mass marketing and manufacturing make when branded under the zeitgeist of the counterculture. The moment that psychedelic culture gained a certain momentum, Madison Avenue chewed it up and spit it out in 7up ads. If a movement gains momentum, it becomes a market. This was used to sell these “psychedelic clothes” to a wider market. When people bought those hip clothes to make a statement, whose pockets were they lining? It’s a revolving door of product tie-ins, and it all feeds on the needs of the individual, embodied in a sub-culture. The rise of Rolling Stone magazine could also be seen as an example of this; a counterculture upstart turned mainstream institution.
Fashion embodies a state of mind, a culture. But it is not that culture. An example of this can be seen in Harley Davidson driving lawyers in their forties. As the company rose to prominence in the 1920s and beyond, Harley Davidson developed its brand off of what they sold, functionally, yet in later years that became a shtick that was re-marketed to people that needed not an alternate form of transportation, but instead what Harley Davidson had come to “mean.” The bottom line here, as discussed previously: we live in a culture where appearances count for a lot more than reality.
Those who position themselves as extreme radicals within the counter culture framework merely disenfranchise themselves through an act of inept transference, finding anything with a dollar sign on it questionable. To this view, anyone that’s made a red cent off of their work is somehow morally bankrupt. This mentality can only end one way: they will wind up howling after the piece of meat on the end of someone else’s string, working by day for a major corporation, covering their self-loathing at night in tattoos, and body-modifications they can hide. That is, unless they lock themselves in a cave or try to start an agrarian commune.
Growth on its own is never a clear indicator that the underlying ideals of a movement will remain preserved. If history has shown anything, it is that successful movements lose substance either through shallowing their core values until they become an empty, parroted aesthetic, as with most musical scenes and their transition from content to fashion; or the movement’s core values are so emphasized that the meaning within them is lost through literalism, as we can see in the history of the world’s major religions. The early Christian Gnostic traditions of “love thy neighbor,” “all is one,” and the agape orgies were replaced by the Roman Orthodoxy and the authority provided through the ultimate union of State and Religion. The hippies traded in their sandals and beat up VWs for SUVs and overpriced Birkenstocks. It oftentimes seems that succeeding too well can be the greatest curse to befall a movement, and it is a well-documented fact of cultural trends that when the pendulum swings far in one direction, it often turns into its opposite without having the common decency to wait to swing back the other way…
1-BUILLThus, the utopian dreams of most countercultures are rendered somewhat toothless by the brilliantly co-optive myths of capitalist culture. One might hope this is a temporary state of affairs, as the hippy movement hoped that primal territorial and ideological conflicts are some sort of prolonged hold-back rather than the underlying reality of the human condition. Regardless, hope alone does not bring change. The paradigms that root a culture in ideological stasis are too strong for any single “revolutionary” or grass-roots movement to effectively shift them all at once – all that results from demonstrative radicalization is further polarization, disenfranchisement and estrangement. If, on the other hand, people find alternatives that truly work for them, which allow for new cultural possibilities (and blind-spots), they will likely spread by virtue of their efficacy. If social groups can establish greater sufficiency, they become less dependent on the structures of government and business, though it’s unlikely they’ll be able to escape the establishment of their own versions of the same. It almost seems that such things can only happen blindly, naturally, as bees pollinate flowers.
So we come to it.  
As counterculture scenes grow and enter the market place – all the elements of it have been defined, commodified, and made replicable. This is precisely the same process that occurs from one generation to the next. It isn’t that any subculture – or any “scene” for that matter – needs to be revitalized once it has reached this stage. They are all dead shells, ideas which at one point in time served a purpose, and are now just fetishes. 
Perhaps the line between “Home” and “Defaultia” was always destined to get blurrier, as the amount of money involved increases.

Who’s The Best Burning Man Talker?

In 2011, BMOrg announced their change to a non-profit on a mission to save the world. Since then, we sure have seen a lot of panel discussions and jetsetting from Larry & Co. I guess what they’re doing must be working, since they claim 160,000 people wanted to go to Burning Man this year. The well-crafted pop culture campaign mixing print media, references in The Simpsons and other mainstream shows, celebrity endorsements from P.Diddy and politicians and Generals, has all combined to make it harder than it’s ever been before for Burners to go to Black Rock City. We’re hearing reports that many camps have been absolutely decimated this year by the Hellish ticket situation, even if they were on the list. And it can only get worse, not better.

Not to worry, we’re told: “just be After-Burners now“. A bit too old, a bit too jaded, don’t really care if you can’t afford a ticket any more, just look back fondly on your time there – and make way for the starry-eyed virgins and cashed-up yuppies to arrive. The borg wants new minds to mold.

Clearly, there’s no need for any more promotion. So, junkets. Panel discussions. Is it promoting regionals? Is it asking for donations?

The mission of The Burning Man Project (from Guidestar):

Burning Man Project provides the infrastructural tools, educational programs, art programs and other frameworks that allow people around the world to apply the 10 principles of Burning Man in many communities and fields of human endeavor.

And, buried within their new web site (to find it I clicked Menu, The Culture, Philosophical Center, About Us – a faster way would be Menu, The Network, About Us):


The mission of the Burning Man organization is to facilitate and extend the culture that has issued from the Burning Man event into the larger world. This culture forms an integrated pattern of values, experience, and behavior: a coherent and widely applicable way of life.


The Burning Man organization will bring experiences to people in grand, awe-inspiring and joyful ways that lift the human spirit, address social problems and inspire a sense of culture, community and personal engagement.

So, is that working? Are We The Burners, through this our community vehicle, bringing experiences to people, and inspiring awe? Are the ambassadors representing us and our values, or speaking for themselves?

See for yourself and please let us know in the comments.

Who gave the best talk? Who best represents Burner values to the world? We report, you decide…

Harley Dubois at The Feast, 2014

Crimson Rose, 2009

Crimson Rose, Panel Discussion, 2014

Will Roger, 2014

Bear Kittay TEDxTokyo (and Robot), 2014

Bear Kittay TEDxBlack Rock City – 2014?

Bear Kittay TEDxOaxacaca, 2013

Bear Kittay TEDxStockholm, 2015

Larry Harvey, TEDxBlack Rock City, 2011

Larry Harvey, Charlie Rose 2014

Larry Harvey, Le Web London 2013

Larry Harvey, John Perry Barlow, Le Web London 2013

Marian Goodell, TEDxBay Area 2014

Marian Goodell, TEDxTokyo, 2014

Chip Conley and Marian Goodell at the Commonwealth Club, 2014:

Larry Harvey, Marian Goodell, Jenn Sander, Kelly Anders in Paris, 2013:

Danger Ranger, San Mateo 2014

Burner Julia Wolfe, age 9

What do you think, Burners? Should we donate so there can be even more promotion of Burning Man, so it gets even harder to get tickets?

Who is representing Burner values to the world the best?

Analysis: 2013 Burning Man Project Financials

It’s been about a week since BMOrg finally released the IRS Form 990 for the Burning Man Project, for 2013. They made a great fanfare on their blog about how this heralded a new era of transparency for them, but now that they are a non-profit, they are required by law to release the 990 details publicly. In fact, there is very little in the way of new transparency from the Org. It’s about a year now since Larry Harvey promised us a “clean, well lighted suite of rooms”, and we don’t appear to be any closer.

The big news they revealed is that each director was paid $46,000 to pass over their share as a partner in the tontine Black Rock City, LLC. A tontine is an archaic corporate structure with military origins, used to finance the opium-trading vessels of the British East India Company and to organize the Freemason’s Hall in London. What it means is “last man standing”, basically if you leave you can’t come back, and the last one alive gets everything. A most unusual structure for a dance party, begging the question who was advising them back in 1996-97 when they commenced the corporatization of the event.

They don’t have the money yet – it is accounted for on the books of the Burning Man Project as a loan to related parties. They may have been paid out in 2014, we won’t know until 2016.

BMOrg had the business valued by 2 different professional assessors. One came in at $4.5 million, but this was discounted by 35% because control of the business was split 6 ways. They restructured the business and came up with a sale price of $7.39 million. The transaction appears to have been structured in such a way that the 6 directors have donated most, but not all, of the value to the Burning Man Project. This may net them a tax deduction of $1,185,667 each (I’m not a professional accountant so, if my friends from Xero North Sydney are seeing this, or any who are, please chime in).

Ostensibly, this seems very altruistic of the 6 Founders, emphasizing a commitment to Gifting, Civic Responsibility, and – dare I say – Decommodification. However, before we get too excited in handing out the accolades, there are many things about this transaction that remain a mystery, and will not be revealed to us for at least another year. One wonders why this is, if they are turning over a new leaf of transparency?

bm trademarkThe most significant area where transparency is still lacking, is Decommodification LLC. Before giving away their share in the ongoing profits of the Nevada event, they sold the main assets of the business – its trademarks, ownership rights of photos and art, and other intellectual property. Who did they transfer these to? Themselves. That’s why Decommodification, LLC exists, and they are charging the Burning Man Project for the use of their trademarks. Once again, something which had been speculation on our part, is now officially confirmed by BMOrg. The annual royalty fee is $75,000. This license is exclusive, and sub-licensable. It seems that it would cover use of the trademarks in all events worldwide, including by regional subsidiaries. We don’t know how much Decommodification, LLC is obliged to pay Black Rock City, LLC for acquiring these assets, and how much the Burning Man Project is expected to buy them back for in the future.

This fee is based on the valuation of the trademarks by the independent appraisers

It seems extraordinary to me that these expert appraisers would value the Burning Man trademarks, an internationally famous name responsible for at least $30 million a year in revenue, at $75,000 – 0.25% of sales.

In 2018, these Intellectual Property intangible assets will be transferred by Decommodification, LLC back to the Burning Man Project – unless the Directors vote unanimously against that. This is by no means a done deal yet. Will the transfer be a gift, or a sale? Larry Harvey and Danger Ranger both expressed slightly different opinions on the Voices of Burning Man:

    • Speaking for myself, I don’t see why we should be compensated for the transfer of the trademarks. I can say with complete confidence that it will not be a big payday; this has never been our intention.

Last gift? Does this mean they won’t even be attending any more, once the Project has been officially handed over to its Foundation?

The gift of Black Rock City, LLC was valued at “cost” of $7.39m. This is most likely balance sheet assets minus liabilities.

LLCs are different from Incs, in that they don’t have stock. Instead, the partners share in the spoils of the business. LLCs can distribute cash to the partners. We know nothing about what happened between Black Rock City, LLC and the Founders, before they gave their shares of the business to their non-profit foundation. Did they get a payout, on their cut of the profits accumulated over nearly 30 years of putting on this festival? And can this payout be offset by a tax deduction, from the donation of their partnership slot to the non-profit?

We also know nothing about the various salary payouts over the last few years. All we have to go on is the marked jump from $2.8 million to $7.2 million, which our reader A Balanced Perspective incorporated in his guest post calculations on the cash-out. [An addendum to that post follows this article. He feels that these disclosures from the new transparency may invalidate his earlier assumptions; my personal belief is that it is too early to say, as almost all the details of the transaction are still being kept secret].

Also still an unexplained mystery, is the million dollar+ “Other” amount – the difference between the fees paid to the BLM (according to them), and the “BLM and Other” line item on the Afterburn Report. This is the festival’s largest expense after payroll.

Let’s take a look at the combined entity, Burning Man Project (incorporating Black Rock Arts Foundation):

Screenshot 2015-02-03 16.45.22

My updated spreadsheet shows that the combined “Burning Man Arts” entity has become much more expensive to maintain, expenses almost doubled from 2012 to 2013. The largest expense is salaries, with CFO Jennifer Raiser taking home $111,000, paid staff $172,000, and “management fees” of more than $300,000. They also spent $45k on travel and $17k on conferences – this is apparently in addition to the $425k and $100k spent on these by BMOrg (source: Afterburn report).

In 2016, we will see the Form 990 for 2014, the first year that the Burning Man Project and Black Rock City LLC were totally integrated. No-one outside the company has seen the top line revenue numbers for Burning Man, which we understand to be $30 million from comments made by Marian Goodell. Will these sales be reported as sales of the Burning Man Project, or will they just show a single line item for the net profit of Black Rock City LLC? If it turns out to be the latter, we’re really not getting anything new in the way of transparency and opening up the books.

The Reno Gazette-Journal, in a story headlined “Burning Man Founders Sold Festival for $276k”, looked at the numbers, and spoke to BMOrg’s Communications Director Megan Miller:

“It is definitely incomplete information”…While all of the information required from the Internal Revenue Service is in the documents, Miller said, Burning Man cannot yet disclose revenue information from this past year’s festival, nor the one prior since the organization currently is undergoing an outside audit for 2013 and 2014.

All of this missing information that Burners have been seeking should be available before this year’s end, Miller said.

“Coming soon”…11 months away, at least.

“None of the finances were shared before. We didn’t share how the transaction happened, who was paid what. We thought this was a good opportunity to share,” Miller said.

They still haven’t shared how the transaction happened, or who was paid what. They have simply shared the information they were required to by law, as they did the previous year. They share more information about the finances in the Afterburn reports, than in this Form 990.

…all profit made from the festival will flow directly into the nonprofit’s coffers. Burning Man is required as a nonprofit to use any surplus funds to further its worldwide mission of expanding minds through art….

According to one appraiser, the shares were worth $1.23 million each, though another appraiser estimated that each share was worth closer to $809,000, according to the 990 form filed for 2013.

…Since becoming a nonprofit, Burning Man is focusing more on fundraising for its grant programs, including the “honorarium” program that funds projects for artists who want to create art for the playa, the playa being the desert flat where the main event is staged.

We do not yet know if they have increased the size of the individual Art Grants, or are going to award more grants than in previous years.

Burning Man this year discontinued its donation ticket sales, in which Burners could opt to purchase a ticket for more than the previous $380 value to help someone else buy a ticket at a discounted price.

I think the Reno Gazette-Journal’s new Burning Man beat reporter Jennifer Kane, who has not actually been to the event yet, has got her VIP Donation Tickets mixed up with her VIP Pre-Sale tickets. Donation tickets are out, after 1400 were sold at $650 last year. They claim that the Pre-Sale enables lower income Burners to get a discounted ticket, despite the clear mathematical difference between a $410 premium for Pre-Sale and a $200 discount for Low Income. If VIP tickets were there to enable those who can’t afford it to attend, at $800 there should be double the number of Low Income tickets. Pre-sale sold out quickly, bringing the non-profit a cosy $3.3 million cash. Nice way to start the year!

“This is the beginning of what we hope to do a lot more of,” Miller said, noting that the Burning Man organization will be posting its forms annually on its website in an effort to be more transparent.

I hope that the long-awaited transparency turns out to be more than just publishing the information they are required to by law. Compliance is not the same thing as openness.

Having said that, I commend the Founders for choosing to keep the cash in the business to fund more Art. I hope that this will continue into the future.


A Balanced Perspective writes:
The BMOrg’s donation of the BRC LLC to the Burning Man Project, and the process the BMOrg utilized is very honourable. The Burning Man’s Nonprofit Financial Information Released, and the 990 form of 2013, are a first step towards ‘a well-lighted suite of rooms’. Larry, Marian, Danger Ranger, Harley, Will, and Crimson deserve our immense gratitude upon their donation. But, there is much more information required for ‘a well-lighted suite of rooms’.
I must apologise for parts of the cash out posts and my other comments. While I was correct in regards of what occurred, of that they donated the BRC LLC to the Project for near to $0, I was very wrong in regards to the numbers from their donation of the BRC LLC, dba Burning Man, to the Project at the end of 2013, and the 2014, 2015, and 2016 numbers, my numbers were way too big. I estimated the tax deduction in due of the donation was $30 or $45 million, utilizing a market value method of valuation of 1x or 1.5x of sales, but they utilized the cost method of valuation, of assets upon the ledger minus the liabilities, resulting in solely $7.4 million of deductions upon tax levies. I do not understand the rationale of why the profitable $30 million revenue stream was valued at solely $0, but, it is very honourable of the BMOrg to donate the BRC LLC to the Project for such a low deduction upon tax levies.
I estimated $1 million for 2014, 2015, and 2016 for licence of the Burning Man(TM) name and trademarks in due of the missing $1 million they wrongly stated, in ‘Where Does Your Ticket Money Go’, they paid towards the BLM as a usage fee within 2013, but they will licence the name and trademarks to the Project for solely $75,000 each year. I apologise for being wrong in this manner, what the BMOrg did in donating the BRC LLC to the Project, and taking solely $75,000 each year for the licence of the trademarks, is very honourable.
In addendum, by appearance, they will solely take near to $1 million each, if even that, and, perchance, a very big tax deduction for the other part, as payment for the Burning Man(TM) trademarks within 2018, which is very honourable. I estimated they would take $2 million each for the trademarks, with a high number of $3 million each, I was wrong in this estimate. I based this estimate upon the continuation of their estimated pocketing of $4 million each year of 2010, 2011, 2012, and 2013, based upon the difference in the afterburn reports from the payroll number and what employees, by simple maths, were in actuality paid. This results in an estimated $16 million take towards their pockets, in total, from 2010 to 2013, which remains a valid estimate, whether they took this as salaries, or as distributions of retained earnings, prior to their honourable donation of the BRC LLC to the Project. Might any person desire to dispute this, tell us where is the missing $4 million of payroll, when they stated towards us payroll increased from $2.8 million in 2009, to $7.2 million in 2010, with solely 30 employees to pay, and contractors being on a different line in the ledger, and paying little towards temporary labourers.
This lowers my estimate of their cash out, from near to $40 million, to within the mid-twenty million dollar range, from 2010 until 2018, I apologise. But, we are not of the knowledge of the amount of cash they took towards their pockets prior to their honourable donation of the BRC LLC to the Project, they do not desire to tell us, thus, this is solely an estimate.

I do not understand the rationale as to why the BMOrg delayed 10 months in disclosing the information we have been requesting upon their cashout. It would have been easy peasy for them to state this the prior March (or May, or July, or September, or November) when queries upon payments towards them, and towards their Decommodification LLC, were presented. I might understand of them stonewalling any query upon how much cash they took towards their pockets prior to their honourable donation of the BRC LLC to the Project, but I do not understand the rationale as to why they did not answer the queries upon the donation and upon the years after the donation. The first step in proper public relations is to get in front of an issue, of which, they did not do. Two simple paragraphs were all that might be required, with the statement of that it was preliminary and unaudited.My desire is, now that their honourable donation of the BRC LLC to the Project is complete, and ticket sales were increased from $12 million in 2010, to $30.5 million in 2015, and their cash out is near to completed, is that they might cover all costs of the awesome artists (of which, they do not plan to do within 2015), present to the artists a fair contract, pay all DPW a very fair wage, and provide full transparency, this spring, as to where the ticket money in actuality went within 2014, and is planned to go in 2015, in the place of stating towards the artists, and towards DPW labourers, of that ‘we do not have the cash to pay you’. In addendum, support the mutant vehicle owners, sound camps, and other camps providing entertainment, by gifting them several thousand free tickets to the event, this is solely fair.

The Burning Man Project is a 501(c)3 taking donations, my belief is they owe the donors of art, labour, cash, and stock, to the Project, and to the profitable subsidiary corporation of which they have near to total control, much more information as to where the money did go, and as to where the money is to go, in addendum to their conflicts of interests, purposed towards the DONORS being of the ablility to make an informed decision as to whether they might desire to make their donation of their art, labour, cash, or stock.

‘A Balanced Perspective’

Deep History of Drugs

Benjamin Breen at The Appendix has written this fascinating overview of the scientific discovery of illicit drugs. It’s concise, rather than comprehensive, but it makes for a good Sunday read.

It skips Ecstasy, which was invented by pharmaceutical giant Merck just before World War I. MDMA was later synthesized and popularized by Burner (and Bohemian Grover) Sasha Shulgin, who passed away in Berkeley this year at the age of 88.

It also misses the “discovery” of Magic Mushrooms by JP Morgan’s PR guy Gordon Wasson; their psycho-active ingredient psilocybin was synthesized by Albert Hoffman, the same chemist who “accidentally discovered” LSD. Both of these substances had actually been around for thousands of years, used in ritual hallucinogenic ceremonies like the Ancient Mystery Rites of Eleusis which Burning Man was based on.

Re-blogged from The Appendix:


Meiji Meth: the Deep History of Illicit Drugs

“We’re not going to need pseudoephedrine,” Walter White mutters through clenched teeth. “We’re going to make phenylacetone in a tube furnace, then we’re going to use reductive amination to yield methamphetamine.” Chemicals go in, and out come 99.1% pure crystals glittering with the brilliant azure of a New Mexico swimming pool.

The invention of Breaking Bad’s blue meth has become the stuff of television legend, and has even inspired a spate of real world knock-offs. But few know the true origin stories of illicit drugs—for instance, the strange fact that methamphetamine was actually invented in 1890s Japan.

Chemists have been fascinated by recreational drugs for a very long time. Robert Hooke, the short-tempered genius who discovered cells, was also the author of the first academic paper on cannabis. In the fall of 1689, Hooke ducked into a London coffee shop to purchase the drug from an East Indies merchant, and proceeded to test it on an unnamed “Patient.” It was evidently a large dose. “The Patient understands not, nor remembereth any Thing that he seeth, heareth, or doth,” Hooke reported. “Yet he is very merry, and laughs, and sings… and sheweth many odd Tricks.” Hooke observed that the drug eased stomach pains, provoked hunger, and could potentially “prove useful in the Treatment of Lunaticks.”


An early depiction of cannabis from Jean Vigier’s Historia das Plantas (1718), originally published in French in 1670.The John Carter Brown Library at Brown University

Hooke also strongly hinted that he’d personally sampled his coffee shop score: the drug “is so well known and experimented by Thousands,” he wrote, that “there is no Cause of Fear, tho’ possibly there may be of Laughter.” (There were good reasons that Hooke’s readers might be afraid of a new drug—this was, after all, a world where pharmacies sold ground up skulls and Egyptian mummies as medicine).

Historians have largely ignored Hooke’s adventures with cannabis, entertaining as they may be. Albert Hoffmann’s accidental discovery of acid, however, is well known. In fact it’s arguably the most famous tale of drug discovery, challenged only by August Kekulé’s famous dream-vision of the benzene molecule as an ouroboros, which preoccupied Thomas Pynchon in Gravity’s Rainbow.

Even LSD, however, has a more obscure prehistory. Roman physicians described a painful disease called the sacred fire (sacer ignis) which by the Middle Ages came to be known as St. Anthony’s Fire—“an ulcerous Eruption, reddish, or mix’d of pale and red,” as one 1714 text put it. Sufferers of this gruesome illness, which could also cause hallucinations, were actually being poisoned by ergot, a fungus that grows on wheat. Several authors, most recently Oliver Sacks in his excellent book Hallucinations, have noted a potential link between ergot poisoning and cases of dancing mania and other forms of mass hysteria in premodern Europe.


“The Beggars” by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, a painting believed to show victims of ergotism.Wikimedia Commons

By the 1920s, pharmaceutical firms began investigating the compounds in ergot, which showed potential as migraine treatments. A Swiss chemist at the Sandoz Corporation named Albert Hoffman grew especially intrigued, and in November 1938 (the week after Kristallnacht) he synthesized an ergot derivative that would later be dubbed lysergic acid diethalyamide: LSD for short.

It was not until five years later, however, that Hoffman experienced the drug. Immersed in his work, Hoffman accidentally allowed a tiny droplet of LSD to dissolve onto his skin. He thought nothing of it: hardly any drugs are psychoactive in such minute doses. Later that day, however, Hoffmann went home sick, lay on his couch, and

sank into a not unpleasant intoxicated-like condition, characterized by an extremely stimulated imagination. In a dreamlike state, with eyes closed (I found the daylight to be unpleasantly glaring), I perceived an uninterrupted stream of fantastic pictures, extraordinary shapes with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colors. After some two hours this condition faded away.

Three days later, the chemist decided to self-administer what he assumed was a tiny dose to further test the drug’s effects. He took 250 micrograms, which was actually roughly ten times higher than the threshold dose. Within an hour, Hoffman asked his lab assistant to escort him home by bicycle. Cycling through the Swiss countryside, Hoffman was shocked to observe that “everything in my field of vision wavered and was distorted as if seen in a curved mirror.”

By the time he arrived home, Hoffman decided to call a doctor. However, the physician reported no abnormal physical symptoms besides dilated pupils, and Hoffmann began to enjoy himself:

Kaleidoscopic, fantastic images surged in on me, alternating, variegated, opening and then closing themselves in circles and spirals, exploding in colored fountains, rearranging and hybridizing themselves in constant flux.

Hoffman awoke the next morning “refreshed, with a clear head,” and with “a sensation of well-being and renewed life.” In an echo of Hooke’s report about his friend’s cannabis experience, which left him “Refreshed…and exceeding hungry,” Hoffman recalled that “Breakfast tasted delicious and gave me extraordinary pleasure.”

One of the interesting aspects of Hoffman’s story is how detached it was, both temporally and culturally, from the 1960s context with which LSD is often associated today. This delay between the scientific identification and the popular adoption of a drug is a common story—and in no case is it more stark than in the gap between the discovery of meth and its widespread adoption as an illicit street drug. Methamphetamine was synthesized by a middle-aged, respectable Japanese chemist named Nagai Nagayoshi in 1893.


An elder statesman of Japanese science and medicine, Nagayoshi Nagai and his wife hosted Albert Einstein in 1923.Wikimedia Commons

A member of the Meiji Japanese elite, Nagayoshi devoted much of his energy to the chemical analysis of traditional Japanese and Chinese medicines using the tools of Western science. In 1885, Nagai isolated the stimulant ephedrine fromEphedra sinica, a plant long used in Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine.

The year before, in July 1884, Sigmund Freud had published his widely-read encomium to the wonders of cocaine, Über Coca. Cocaine was radically more potent than coca leaves, and chemists the world over were on the lookout for other potential wonder drugs. It’s likely that Nagai hoped to work the same magic with ephedra—and in many ways he did. Ephedrine is a mild stimulant, notable nowadays as an ingredient in shady weight-loss supplements and as one of the few drugs historically permitted to Mormons, (although see thisresponse post for an interesting breakdown of the debate over “Mormon tea”). Currently, on T.V there are so many drugs for sale, yet we are in a “war on drugs” you can even find a “ dr oz guide on how to buy garcinia cambogia” if this were a real war, how could such things be allowed?

But in 1893, Nagai blazed a chemical trail that would live in infamy: he used ephedrine to synthesize meth.

As with LSD, it took the world a couple decades to catch on. In 1919, a younger protégé of Nagai named Akira Ogata discovered a new method of synthesizing the crystalline form of the new stimulant, giving the world crystal meth.

It wasn’t until World War II, however, that meth became widespread as a handy tool for keeping tank and bomber crews awake. By 1942, Adolf Hitler was receiving regular IV injections of meth from his physician, Theodor Morell. Two years later the American pharmaceutical company Abbott Laboratories won FDA approval for meth as a prescription treatment for a host of ills ranging from alcoholism to weight gain.


Ambar: a potent mixture of methamphetamine and phenorbarbital, shown here in a mean-spirited 1964 advertisement that appeared in the Journal of the American Medical Association (Vol. 1, No. 5385).

The rest is history—by the 1960s, “tweakers” had made meth a byword for deranged drug addicts, and it lost its standing in the scientific and medical communities. Much like heroin, which was originally marketed by Bayer as a companion to aspirin (the company still technically owns the copyright to the name), meth began life as a wonder drug only to segue into a depraved middle age.

It all points to an interesting and unexplored dichotomy in the history of drugs: there’s a huge gap between the inventors of illicit drugs—usually rather austere, cerebral and disciplined—and their consumers.

I’m guessing that Robert Hooke, Nagayoshi Nagai, Albert Hoffman, and Walter White would have a lot to talk about.

This post is part of a larger series. Read the next installment.

Burning Man seems tailor-made for the psychedelic movement. Founder and Director Michael Mikel, aka Danger Ranger, used to hang out in a house in the Berkeley hills in the early years, with a bunch of techies from the Mondo 2000/WIRED scene and acid straight from Stanford’s Chemistry Lab, which provided the gear for the original “acid tests”. In a panel discussion with This Is Burning Man author Brian Doherty in July 2013 , Danger Ranger said:

“I have a connection to Silicon Valley that goes back to the beginning of the personal computer…We were all hanging out a lot, I was meeting people who were from Mondo 2000 which was the pre-cursor of Wired magazine. We were going to parties, I’d go over to their house in Berkeley, they had connections to the Stanford Chemistry Lab, they had drugs that had not been outlawed yet – it was out on the edge, it was really crazy. A lot of the connections came from out of that tech industry because we knew each other and we hung out” [YouTube, from 19:20]

Larry Harvey and Grateful Dead songwriter (and Electronic Frontier Foundation founder) John Perry Barlow gave an interview in London for Tech Crunch last year, where they described the long history of inter-relationships between psychedelic drugs, the counter-culture, and the tech industry, as outlined in John Markoff’s book What the Dormouse Said.

Burning Man takes place on Federal Land, where marijuana is illegal even if you have a medical prescription for it in your home state. Alcohol is illegal for anyone under the age of 21, and cigarettes are an illegal drug if you are younger than 18. Even Ambien, Viagra, and Xanax are illegal if you don’t have a current doctor’s prescription for them.
Given all that, I’m wondering – have you ever done illegal drugs at Burning Man? This poll is totally anonymous and there is no way to track your vote back to you, you don’t need to provide a name or email address to answer.