Pssst, Hey Kid. . . the First One’s Free

by Whatsblem the Pro

They even have digital Ex-Lax -- IMAGE: Oda-Dik

They even have digital Ex-Lax — IMAGE: Oda-Dik

Los Angeles television station KTLA ran a news item this week giving parents everywhere something new to worry about: that their children might be getting blitzed out of their young minds. . . on digital drugs.

“From online predators to simply too much screen time, we’ve all heard about the potential dangers of the Internet and our children. . . but have you heard of something called ‘i-dosing?’ Parents warn it’s an alarming new trend where kids could be using their iPads and iPods to get intoxicated. They’re called digital drugs. They’re free — accessible — and legal. But do these beats alter the brain the same way street drugs do?”

Digital technonarcotics? It sounds like something straight out of science fiction, or the weirder elements at Burning Man. . . even if – especially if – it’s just a silly prank.

KTLA isn’t the first TV newsroom to trot this one out, and surely won’t be the last. Back in July of 2010, Wired ran a write-up about Oklahoma’s City’s Channel 9 News reporting the same story, warning parents that “digital drugs” – a euphemistic name for something science calls “binaural beats” – could be a gateway to doing real drugs. The Daily Mail, second-most popular newspaper in the United Kingdom, also picked up the story.

“Kids are going to flock to these [web] sites just to see what it is about and it can lead them to other places,” said Mark Woodward, who Channel 9 identified as a spokesman for the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. Citing the use of digital drugs as an indication of willingness to experiment with real narcotics, Woodward was clearly sounding an alarm.

“So that’s why we want parents to be aware of what sites their kids are visiting and not just dismiss this as something harmless on the computer,” he elaborated. “If you want to reach these kids, save these kids and keep these kids safe, parents have to be aware. They’ve got to take action.”

Gosh, Mr. Woodward! That sounds serious!

Not surprisingly, both KTLA’s coverage and the Channel 9 piece were a bit on the lurid side. The Channel 9 reporter actually claimed that “websites are luring kids with free downloads” in an attempt to equate downloading an mp3 file with a visit from that perennial bugaboo of straitlaced parents everywhere, the schoolyard drug dealer who tells kids that the first one is free. Goddamn the pusher man!

The less conservative among us who have actually had some experience with recreational drugs may be tempted to speculate that kids who try to get wasted by wearing headphones are probably already partying it up to some extent, and are simply trying to score their drugs for free. Regardless, it seems prudent to ignore the alarmist tone and the dark warnings about so-called “gateway drugs,” and take all this with a large grain of salt and tongue pressed firmly into cheek. Still, one has to wonder. . . is there any truth at all to any of this talk about getting high on mp3 files?

If you’re willing to abandon all skepticism and believe whatever you’re told by J. Random Internetperson, then the sheer number of web sites touting binaural beats and YouTube videos of teenagers allegedly exhibiting dramatic reactions to them might make a true believer out of you. If, however, you prefer actual science as an information source over the dark and vast wellsprings of mis- and disinformation that make up the bulk of the Internet, you might be disappointed; as shocking as it sounds, people on the Internet sometimes do say things that are not true. Some of them believe what they’re saying; some do it just for fun; some are trying to sell you something.

So what is a binaural beat?

Heinrich Wilhelm Dove

Heinrich Wilhelm Dove

Back in 1839, a German scientist by the name of Heinrich Wilhelm Dove discovered that if you play a tone into your left ear at a particular frequency, and play a similar tone into your right ear at a slightly different frequency, the brain plays a little trick on itself, and you hear a beat where no beat exists, at a frequency that is the difference between what your left ear hears and what your right ear hears. The two tones must be below 1,000 Hz, and the difference between them cannot exceed 30 Hz. . . so if you’re listening to a 400 Hz tone in one ear and a 410 Hz tone in the other, you’ll hear a 10 Hz beat even though both tones are constant. The beat is all in your head.

The explanation given by web sites that sell recordings of binaural beats is that this has the power to radically reshape your mental state through a process called ‘entrainment,’ in which the beat frequency influences your brainwave activity and basically alters it by force. While it all sounds more or less plausibly scientific, the truth is that controlled tests of binaural beats and their effect on the human brain fall quite a bit short of producing the dramatic effects claimed by purveyors of binaural beat recordings. One of the more popular vendors, a site called iDoser, offers a dizzying array of audio files that they claim have the same effect on people as marijuana, cocaine, heroin, psilocybin, LSD, or even Viagra. 

To some extent, the jury is still out on whether or not you can have any sort of profound effect at all on the human brain with binaural beats (aside from what you get from music in general); some studies suggest that they may be helpful as an adjunct to surgical anesthetics, while other studies seem to directly contradict those findings, or show that the effect is no different than what happens when you listen to Mozart, jazz, or dubstep. Some examples:

At Duke University Medical Center, a study in which psychiatrists tested the effects of binaural beats on academic performance found that, on average, subjects who listened to them performed better on an alertness test and were in a better mood than subjects who listened to normal recordings of “pink noise.” A person’s mood is a pretty subjective thing, though, and there was no comparison with ordinary music. . . so it’s possible that anything with a good beat would have the same effect, binaural or not.

Another study conducted in the Anesthesiology Department of Yale Medical School measured the relative anesthesia requirements for sixty patients, split into two groups: one group listened to a binaural beats recording both before and during surgery, and the other group listened to a blank tape. There was no difference in the levels of anesthesia required between the two groups. . . but a different study, at Ninewells Hospital’s Department of Epidemiology in Dundee, Scotland, claimed that patients listening to binaural beats required significantly less of one type of anesthetic – fentanyl – than patients who listened to classical music or a blank tape.

At New York’s Mount Sinai School of Medicine, researchers played binaural beats to thirty people undergoing either a stomach bypass or lower back surgery, and found that while the bypass patients needed less anesthesia than a control group, the lower back patients needed slightly more.

What does it all mean? The idea that you can get high on sound is certainly an interesting one, but even in the studies that seem to show a reduced need for anesthesia, the focus was more on the effects of stress than on the allegedly narcotic power of Heinrich Wilhelm Dove’s parlor trick. You might be able to improve your mood or slow down your pulse a bit by strapping on a pair of headphones and listening to a binaural beat (and you might not), but there’s simply no reason at all to believe that you can simulate the effects of different recreational drugs just by grooving to an audio recording. If you’re a concerned parent, relax; those teenagers you see on YouTube freaking out over what’s coming through their headphones are just mocking the gullible.

Oklahoma City News 9 reports on the terrors that lurk in your child’s iPod

If you want to experiment with binaural beats for yourself, there’s no need to pay anyone or trust some stranger’s YouTube videos. You’ve even got a choice: both Gnaural and rival DIY binary beats suite SbaGen are free of charge and available for Windows, MacOS, or Linux.

Burning Man: Love It or Leave It?

by Whatsblem the Pro

IMAGE: Whatsblem the Pro

“If you don’t like the way it’s run, go start your own event!”

When people start talking about the negative aspects of Burning Man – whether they offer solutions or not – it’s a good bet that others will cite the inevitability of change, and say things like “if you don’t like what Burning Man has become, go start your own event!”

It’s a sentiment that recalls a bumper sticker often proudly displayed on redneck pickup trucks during the Vietnam War era, that read “America: Love It or Leave It.” Like that bumper sticker, it expresses an idea that is strongly counter to the culture it pretends to support. Burning Man, like America, is supposed to be a participatory place where you take enough pride in your citizenship to actively criticize what needs criticizing, and try to fix it.

In more specific terms, “go start your own event” ignores and clashes with at least three of the much-vaunted Ten Principles – Civic Responsibility, Communal Effort, and Participation – as well as some of the most deeply-held unofficial tenets of our culture, like the idea of a ‘do-ocracy’ in which you are expected to refrain from merely complaining about problems you see in favor of actually getting involved in solving them. What’s behind “if you don’t like it, go start your own event” is a deeply jingoist attitude suitable only for insufferably flippant spectators who are assuming you are a spectator too. . . and a spectator is one of the worst possible things you can be at Burning Man without committing some kind of actual crime.

Even the corporation that runs Burning Man seems to put a lot of effort into encouraging burners to spread the culture around and start new events rather than trying to change the existing one. . . but what they don’t mention is that they insist you move forward only with their approval and their trademark licenses. In other words, you can go start your own event if you don’t like the way they run Burning Man, but you have to do it the way they — the people who run Burning Man — tell you to.

Corey Rosen, aka ‘Endeavor,’ hasn’t left Burning Man; he loves it and still works as a Greeter each year. He is, however, currently in the process of spreading the culture around by starting his own event. . . the Digital Renaissance Faire, a gathering that in spite of the name has everything to do with burner culture and burner values, and nothing whatsoever to do with the Renaissance Faire.

Since he — like nearly all burners — is creative and has ideas on how the Burning Man model could be improved, Rosen is doing it his own way instead of slavishly following the example set by the Burning Man organization’s decisions.

Possibly the biggest difference between Burning Man and the Digital Renaissance Faire is that, at Burning Man, only the corporation that runs the event — known as “the Org,” or “BMOrg,” or even “the Borg,” — is allowed to make any money. On the plus side, this means that nobody is trying to sell you drinks or t-shirts. . . but a miserly three to four percent of the ticket revenue is paid out as arts grants, while hordes of participants build and transport their art to the event without any remuneration at all, often spending huge sums to do so. In recent years, even the art projects lucky enough to get grants from the Org have had to turn to crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo to raise the rest of the money necessary to build and transport the mind-blowing creations that are a large part of what makes Burning Man so popular and successful.

In contrast, the Digital Renaissance Faire issues shares to all active participants, in proportion to their level of participation. At the end of the week, any profits generated are distributed to the people who actually build the event, bring the art, put on performances, organize workshops, and otherwise contribute.

Corey Rosen and his Digital Renaissance Faire are not a threat to Burning Man; the DRF doesn’t take place the same week as Burning Man, for one thing. . . and the DRF is actually designed to facilitate Burning Man, by providing large art and theme camps with both a testbed where they can shake the bugs out of their projects before taking them to Black Rock City, and a convenient spot to store their gear year-round that is not terribly far from the playa.

Since Rosen practices transparent accounting and shares the event’s take with the artists, performers, and workers who actually build it and operate it, it would be seriously unjust to say that he’s trying to commercialize the aspects of the event that are inspired by Burning Man. If Rosen was trying to cash in on Burning Man’s cachet and ethos, he’d do it just like the corporation that runs Burning Man does it: by keeping the accounting secret, and keeping the lion’s share of the profits for himself. Instead, he directly facilitates the art, theme camps, performers, etc. by cutting them all in for a percentage. Meanwhile, at Burning Man, only three to four percent of the ticket revenue – which is not the only income generated by the event – goes out as art grants; furthermore, those grants only go to those few projects hand-picked by the people clutching the purse strings. . . and as for the workers who build all the infrastructure, most of them don’t get paid at all.

Corey Rosen, acting in good faith on the constant exhortations from the corporate heads of Burning Man, is trying to spread the culture. . . but he’s also trying to play fair with the money, and his transparent business model that shares the revenue equitably with the participants who build everything presents a serious threat to Burning Man’s Board of Directors. If Rosen succeeds and proves that his business model is sound, the tiny group of amateur oligarchs that own Burning Man will no longer be able to claim that such a business model is an unworkable pipe dream. If that happens, they may very well come under pressure to follow Corey Rosen’s lead, and finally step down from the back of the cash cow they’ve been riding for decades.

Rosen has a lot to teach us about what actually happens when you act in good faith by taking the Burning Man Org at their word, and do what they tell you to do.

[NOTE: As you read Rosen’s account of his dealings with Burning Man, keep in mind that most of the Ten Principles were not written by anyone at Burning Man. . . for instance, “Leave No Trace” began as an ad campaign by the Federal Bureau of Land Management, and came to the playa via the Cacophony Society.]

Corey Rosen speaks:

My first interaction with the Burning Man organization about the Digital Renaissance Faire was back in October of 2012. I got in touch with my main contact over there to tell him we were planning a co-op festival, and he said Burning Man could not sanction the event because the participants were being paid. He then explained to me that Burning Man is working on another way to work with events similar to theirs that are more profit-driven. I came to find out that certain events given approval by Burning Man do pay talent, so I didn’t understand why an event that pays all the participants based on the profit of the event would be a problem. I also found that asking that question might cause problems, so I chose not to.

For over a month, I reached out to my contact at BMOrg to work with him on making sure we were in compliance with the event we were inspired by, with little response. Most of the responses I did receive were to tell me that he was too busy to contact me.

Once we launched our website, I received this email from him:

You are not a sanctioned event and did jump the gun to modify the Ten Principles and list them as if they were your own invention and writing. For trademark purposes it is better to not alter something and instead link to the original thing in a way that is clearly not plagiarized.

I think you should actually take them down because the Principles can be misconstrued to be something you originated and they are not. They are clearly derived from Burning Man’s Ten Principles.

Right now my understanding is that it is better to say you have been inspired by the Ten Principles of Burning Man and link to them vs. change them and make them seem like they are your own. I think you should also say “this event is not related or affiliated with Burning Man or The Burning Man Project, but we have been inspired by the guiding Principles of Burning Man.”

I am uncertain at this point if you should even directly link to the Ten Principles. So I guess the safest thing you can do right now is remove the plagiarized ones you have on your site and simply say “we have been inspired by Burning Man and it’s guiding principles” and then we can talk again.

I’d rather you not promote your event at the Artumnal Gathering until we have had the proper time to review this. I am sorry, but these things take time to properly vet. As I told you on the playa we have about fifty official regional events a year and what you are doing does not fit into the process we have in place at the moment. What you are doing is not something we have done before and we are not prepared to recognize it as official or sanction it at this time.

I enjoyed talking to you about it on the playa but I also told you then that the “profit sharing” model and this not being originated through the regional network made it something that would require careful consideration and we cannot directly affiliate with it at this time. I am truly sorry I could not get complete clarity and meet with you when you wanted. To be perfectly honest I feel you rushed the process and even now at a time when I must focus my energies elsewhere you are being a bit demanding. I realize you don’t mean to be so, but I need to be clear that I gave you no permission on behalf of Burning Man to take the steps you took.

I immediately changed the text on the website accordingly, and received this follow-up e-mail later that same day:

Thanks and forgive me if I am a little edgy right now. It has been a very busy Fall and I am in final production mode for Artumnal Gathering.

Yes, it is fine for you to talk to people about your event and fine to tell them about your unusual concept and that you are a burner and are inspired by Burning Man.

I received no more contact until I reached out to him about my not getting on the list for the Burning Man Summit in April, which I found out three days before the event. Nothing malicious there, just someone forgetting to submit my name and getting no help from the Burning Man organization.

Some time after my last contact with the BMOrg, we decided to put together a decompression event. We even called it DRF Decompression. Less than twelve hours after posting the event details on Facebook, we received a message from Burning Man sent to my partner’s e-mail address, saying that we had to change the name of the event because Burning Man owns the name Decompression. I had multiple people telling me to fight it, but I chose to let it go, be cooperative, and change the event name.

The most recent interaction I had with Burning Man was right before the event. Since we are creating the Digital Renaissance Faire as a participation-funded co-op festival, we have been given many things to make this event successful. I had the idea of creating a Digital Renaissance Faire token to give out as a gift to the community that inspired us. I found a token company and we were going to buy a thousand of them and give twenty each to the DRF community members going out to Burning Man. When I told the owner of the token company what we were doing and what our event was all about, he decided to donate 10,000 tokens so I could give a hundred to each of our community members, to gift out at Burning Man. I thought this was a generous offer and graciously accepted.

Unfortunately, the tokens could not be shipped and in our hands until the Monday the event started. I posted on my page for help looking for a place to have them shipped to, and someone coming to the playa Monday night or later to receive them. Instead, I received a phone call from my partner saying she received a cease and desist order from Burning Man telling us that we were not allowed to bring our “promotional material” to the event.

I contacted their intellectual property attorney and spent almost two hours on the phone with him explaining that they are not promotional material, but gifts for the community that inspired us. Once he understood what our non-corporate community-based entity was all about, he said I could bring them out but only give them to campmates and close friends. 

If you’re in Northern California and you’d like to learn more about the Digital Renaissance Faire and maybe show a little support, you have a golden opportunity coming up on November 11th, when the DRF Synchronicity Celebration takes place simultaneously in three separate California towns: Vallejo, CA; Nevada City, CA; Lake Tahoe, CA.

Spring: In the Air, and on FIRE

by Whatsblem the Pro

Mr. President, we must not allow a trebuchet gap!

Mr. President, we must not allow a trebuchet gap!

Have you ever wanted to set something on fire and fling it straight to Hell with a trebuchet, then set the trebuchet on fire and dance your crazy ass off?

I know, stupid question. We all have. It’s a universal dream, held in common by all humanity, everywhere.

If you haven’t yet managed to make that dream come true for yourself, Spring Fling is for you. They’ve got the trebuchet, they know the secret of making fire, they’ve got Opulent Temple, Dancetronauts, and Digital Apex personnel to play the special music for you. All they need is your crazy dancing ass, and the world can finally end happily. . . and it’s free!

It seems like new burner events are popping up everywhere lately, like mushrooms. . . and pretty much everyone agrees: that’s a good thing. As a culture, we need to spread and grow. We need to find opportunities to preserve and evolve our more radical artistic and recreational tendencies, and get ourselves out from under the thumb of the corporation that runs Burning Man. Regional events, sanctioned or unsanctioned, are the scaffolding that makes that happen.

To that end, from April 26th to 28th the Mojave Desert fifteen miles outside of Barstow will come alive with lights, beats, poi spinning/fire dancing, pyrotechnics, whatever amazing talents and gear you bring with you, and a sky full of high-velocity objects of your choice zooming devil-may-care to a fiery doom. “Bring your tools,” exhorts the website for the event. “Bring your hard hats. Bring your party pants.” Bring that inanimate object you hate, too, for the trebuchet.

You’ll also get an opportunity to learn something about meteorite hunting, and maybe even find a meteorite or two of your own. The dry lake bed where Spring Fling is being held is prime territory for meteorite hunters, and you’ll undoubtedly witness some innovative techniques for finding them.

Due to the site being private property (though it is adjacent to BLM land), Spring Fling has some unusual restrictions – no glass is allowed, for instance – but for the most part, this decommodified leave-no-trace event will be free of the rules and restrictions that prevail in Black Rock City. The judicious reader will appreciate the depth and quality of that freedom when I mention that you must sign a liability waiver to attend, which legally speaking is a lot less laughable than the somewhat less than binding ‘contract’ we see on the backs of Burning Man tickets. Spring Fling isn’t going to be total anarchy, but it will definitely be potentially fatal in a good way.

Attention, meteorites: You can run, but you can't hide.

Attention, meteorites: You can run, but you can’t hide.

Here’s the events schedule for Spring Fling 2013:


Friday night we will hold a large bonfire at Center Plaza. There will be music and the Beer Garden will be open (the Beer Garden is free, however there is a two beer limit).

A smaller trebuchet will be launching whatever you bring to launch, up to fifteen pounds.

The entertainment tent will have some stupid movie playing, and there will be popcorn available. Bring your own chair.


During the day the Beer Garden will be open, body painting will be offered, and a geologist will be leading hikes for meteorite hunters. Several camps will have music playing and other attractions.

All Day: Trebuchet building will start early; please bring your tools and hardhat. Yes, a hardhat is required. We will have the main frames already assembled. The goal is to have it completed by 3PM and a test firing at 4:00 PM.

9:30 AM  10:30 AM: Coyote Dirt Pancake Breakfast. Join us at Center Plaza for some warm pancakes.

11:00 AM – 1:00 PM: Mud wrestling competition will take place. Winner will be the second to launch the large trebuchet. Showers will be available for you to clean up.

1:00 PM 2:00 PM: The 3K Coyote Run. Try our obstacle course and see if you can make it to the finish line. Mud, fire, Sand People, coyotes, beer/soda, water. . . and hopefully more Sand People. Winner will be third to launch the large trebuchet. Showers will be available for you to clean up.

1:00 PM – 2:00 PM: Ultimate Animal Costume Dodge Ball. Bring your animal costume or paint your body to look like some sort of animal. Last person standing will be fourth to launch the trebuchet.

2:30 PM – 3:30 PM: Burning Man Lessons. Come and learn about Burning Man and how to prepare and participate in this epic journey. Hear from experienced burners and let them teach you how to prepare, setup camp, what to bring, the do’s and don’ts of Burning Man, and anything else you want to know.

3:30 PM 5:30 PM: Fire poi dancing lessons. Want to learn how to dance with fire? Come to this event and learn the art of fire poi dancing. Our instructors will teach you the basic skills and equipment needed.

4:00 PM: Listen for the horn, bell or some other large noise. The practice launch will be underway.

3:30 PM 5:30 PM: Beer Pong/Quarters Tournament. We will teach you how to play Beer Pong with the big dogs. This a 21-and-over activity; wristbands will be checked.

4:00 PM – 5:30 PM: Communal camp clean-up. Please join us in preparing the large trebuchet for launching and general camp cleanup. We will do a general camp cleanup and prepare the area around the trebuchet for the burn. This will be a communal effort so please come.

5:30 PM 6:30 PM: Fire display and show. You won’t want to miss this.

6:30 PM: Join us in the plaza for the Memory Launch. During the day a hay bale will be available to which you can affix a note, photos of loved ones, etc. . . anything you would like to symbolically fling away or give a special ride. This launch will be one of sorrows, pains and joys. Once the hay bale has burned to ashes, the party will begin.

After the Memory Launch, we’ll have a fire show and start launching other things with the big trebuchet. When the moon rises above the mountains around 10:00 PM, we will burn the trebuchet to the ground with a fireworks show to celebrate the event.


The gate will open at 8:00 AM and you can leave at that time. We’re asking for volunteers to help break the large tents down and load them on the big truck. Please clean up your camping area and haul all your trash out.

For more information, check the Spring Fling website, or the Facebook page for the event.