About Dan Seligson

Dan Seligson

Dan Seligson is a physicist, entrepreneur and angel investor living in Palo Alto, CA. After a long career in manufacturing at Intel, he has invested in a couple dozen early stage companies in healthcare, IT and financial service. In 2008, he got operational in GlobalMotion Media, a hot company delivering travel guides over mobile phones. In 2010 he founded Genormx, Inc., a DNA sequencing technology company. Dan is on the Boards of The Summer Science Program, Palo Alto Partners in Education, and the Block Island Club. He has carried his life long interest in photography to Lake Baikal, Bhutan, the top of Mt McKinley and elsewhere. When possible, he goes by bicycle. Most importantly, he is father of three kids barely in double digits.


Latest Posts by Dan Seligson

Spearfishing in Sharky Waters

July 28, 2011 by  

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In California, where I live, a striped bass might be 15” long and weigh a few pounds.  In Rhode Island the legal, aka lower, limit is 28”.  In early July, every year since 1994, the Rhode Island Freediving Club has hosted the Rhode Island Bluewater Meet, a big bass spearfishing tournament.   The meet was started in honor of Jim Warnock, a young free diver who died while training.  If you want to be in the running for a tournament prize, you need to aim for 45” or more.

Block Island is a 10 square mile pork-chop shaped piece of glacial detritus that sits about 10 miles off the Rhode Island coast.   Bait collects in its shoal waters and creates a powerful draw for striped bass on their annual northward migration, and for other species, including homo sapiens and various sharks.

3 miles wide and 6 miles long, its northern tip is about 9 miles south of the coast of Rhode Island.

Sharks aren’t a problem for most divers though.  In 13 years of seriously exploring the coast, I’ve only positively identified one shark, a vegetarian Basking Shark, and with a possible sighting of second. Many others have reported sightings, and a half dead Thresher Shark, or was it a Nurse Shark, was all washed up on beach July 4th weekend.   A very reliable report exists of a Hammerhead Shark swimming in Block Island’s New Harbor, or Great Salt Pond, in the 1960s.  In the deeper waters between Block Island and Newport to the Northeast and Montauk to the Southwest, large sharks abound, but that’s a different and well told story.

 

The aforementioned shark washed up within 400m the crowd in this photo. Shown here is a massive, messy beach party, now a 3 year old July 4th tradition with more than a little controversy about it, too.

The water is clear too, often with visibility of 25’ or more, and free dive spearfishing has become very popular.

 

On a very very still day in June, 2011, you can see to the bottom in 30' or more of water off of Charleston Beach on the West Side of Block Island.

I remember a day 10 years ago when I saw a guy in full body wetsuit walking up a steep trail carrying two big stripers.  I asked him about them.  In a few minutes I was hooked.   I bought some gear, a book, and eventually a boat.    I had realized that a boat is a lure for fishing talent, and if I wanted to learn, I needed teachers.

On August 11, 2001, I met this man carrying two big fish he'd just speared.

As it turns out, that guy, Brian, coming up the trail was no chance amateur, but a world-class spearer, and a two time winner of the Warnock Tournament.    This is now our 10th year of fishing together.

That he was coming up that trail, and not some other trail, was no coincidence either.  The trail provides access to a spot where a 19th century New Yorker by the name of Barlow found the striper fishing so sublime that he built a vacation home a short walk from the trailhead.   Erosion has taken its toll, and the stripers were nearly fished to extinction a few decades ago, but you wouldn’t know it these first few days of July 2011.

Barlow’s Point holds fish as big as 30 lbs, but that’s not what you need to place in this tournament.   Recently, the contest has been won with fish over 50 lbs.  To find fish of that size, there are a few spots that were once the sole province of rod and reelers, but have recently been explored by free divers.

So it came to pass that in the week leading up to this year’s tourney, Brian was sussing out the best of those spots, and I had the pleasure of going with him more than once.  Early in June, a rod and reeler had set a new striper record for Rhode Island, 77.4 lbs!  While what he said about it in The Block Island Times might have been all fish tale, we went out there to scout, and we were not alone in our premeditations.

Early in the beautiful morning of July 7, we drove on down to The Boat Basin to board my little boat.

 

The Oar is a fine establishment for eating, watching the boats and the weather, or using the public bathrooms. We stop there to drop off our gear.

 

On rolling but nearly glassy seas, we found ourselves in the company of exactly one other boat, and they were spearing.  We pulled up alongside them, right friendly like.  Some people would have felt like we were encroaching, but in this small world all the experienced players know each other, and Brian indeed knew the other two.  One was Dave Hochman, the reigning world record holder for stripers.  The other, John Warnock, as in the eponymous tournament, Brian described as a legend.  Like Brian, he was a two time winner of the tournament.

Here’s a short course in free dive spearfishing.  Take a deep breath and hold it while you dive to the bottom.  Wait while the disturbance you’ve created subsides, shoot a (legal) fish when it swims within a couple of meters from you, and swim to the surface.  There, wrestle it to submission.  Repeat.   And what is that I meant when I said shoot?  Think of a crossbow with two important differences.  Power is supplied by (large) rubber bands instead of a bow, and the meter long barbed steel spear is connected to the gun with short wire or a long rope.    And that phrase “dive to the bottom” holds a lot of mystery, as the bottom might be very far away and not at all visible from the surface.

Leaving Hochman and Warnock to themselves, we found a spot of rocks in 30’ of water and let the boat drift with the current.  Our fishfinder, a device that reads anomalies in the sound waves projected to and reflected from the bottom, and then displays those anomalies as fish on a screen and beeps from a speaker, was on fire, showing large schools of fish in mid-water.  “Dogfish”  “Dogfish?”  “Yes, dogfish, sandsharks, if they’re schooling like that.”  Moments later, “Stripers!”.  The stripers tend to hang out on the bottom.  The current was moving at 2 knots, or 1.2 ft/s, and after a time, the water was more than 50’ deep.  I might be able to touch at 50’, but I can’t hunt, so that point marked the end of the drift for us.

We motored back to the original spot and both hopped in the water, letting the boat drift along with us.   I should say, Brian hopped in and while I was getting the last details of my gear in order.  He did one dive and returned with a 40 lb striper.  I helped him get it on board, and then got in myself.   When there’s no wind and few other boats to worry about, and you have strong divers,  and they and the boat are carrying dive flags, then drifting with the boat in this manner is very easy and seems safe.

Moments after getting in the water, Brian was back with a 41' striper. We weighed it, so that number is for real.

It took me a while to get my bearings, as all the diving I’d done this season was in 30’ or less of water.  But conditions were ideal and it wasn’t long before I was able to get down to the bottom and watch the fish come and go.  Dogfish in midwater, stripers and tautog near the bottom.   Not much else besides seaweed on rocks amidst the sand.  On one dive, gasping for breath as I reached the top, I came up to find Brian in the boat next to me.  “What’s the depth?”  “55 feet.”  “Okay, that’s why I can’t get all the way down!”

On the morning of July 9, we went to the docks before sunrise, loaded up The New Normal, and headed out to the same spot.   There were already several other boats out there.  It being both a Saturday and tournament day, there were plenty of rod and reelers in addition to the spearers.    There might have been 30 boats out there by the time we left nearly 4 hours later.

 

This is a great fishing platform, not one I'm worried about getting covered in blood. A 23' Mako built nearly 30 years ago, I bought it used, sight unseen online a decade ago. The name, and its humble heritage, reflects the fact that it was purchased post Internet Bubble.

Because of the concentration of boats, and more wind than we’d had two days before, one of us dived while the other controlled the boat.  The GPS told us that the drift was 2.5 knots.  When you were diving, you didn’t need the GPS to tell you this because you easily feel and see yourself being swept along.

Brian shot a big fish, certainly over 40 lbs, but probably not a winner.  I saw some big fish, although probably not that big, and didn’t get a shot at them anyway.  We hunted and we hunted and we hunted and we found nothing better than the first.  One after another “last drift”, but no luck.  It was a spectacular morning, and the bright sun made the water’s surface into a radiant sky of its own, welcoming you as you rose along with your bubbles.

Returning to Great Salt Pond, home of The Boat Basin.

Figuring that Hochman or Warnock or someone else would bring in a very substantial fish, Brian didn’t go to Pt. Judith for the weigh-in.  As it turns out, that fish would have taken second place.  John Warnock, 67 years old, became the first 3 time winner of the tournament.  His winning fish weighed 53 lbs, 15 lbs shy of a Hochman’s 60 lb world record, but an incredible fish nonetheless.

 

Burning at Burning Man: Decompression 2010

October 20, 2010 by  

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Sunday 10/10/10. 5 weeks since Burning Man came to an end.  Also, the date of Decompression in San Francisco.  I can’t adequately answer the question “What is Burning Man?”, but “What is Decompression?” is easier.  It’s a 12 hour street party in the spirit of Burning Man, meant to rekindle the Playa vibe, extend the Burn.  I’d been warned: “it’s not the same”, “don’t expect too much”, “expensive drinks instead of the gift economy”.  And one friend said, “I’ll leave Burning Man to the Playa.”   There was no question but that I wanted to go.  The question for me was this: “Does it work?”

Just Art: Balloons, The Rainbow, and High Voltage Discharge

A 6 block section of the city, tucked in just east of Interstate 280 in San Francisco’s China Basin is cordoned off and access controlled.  After 20 minutes or so of waiting in line, a ticket seller scrutinizes our costumes.  If we’ve shown enough commitment, we get in for $10, otherwise $20.  The Playa dust on my camera helps, and we get the real Burner rate.    While waiting in line, people are insular.  Is this going to be an SF freak show, or a transcendant Burn?

Reunion of the Familiar

A guy had just Sharpie’d himself on the chest, letting us all know he wanted to buy mushrooms.  The smell of street food was pervasive.  Music and people milling in the daylight.  The scale was different from generic Street Fair; too many cranes. My friend L wanted to find her friends from Fire Camp.  They were set up with Medi Tent and fire control equipment only a few feet from the entrance.  There were hugs, and L had begun her reunion with the familiar. Crowds were thick.  Some lined up for not wickedly overpriced beer.  Some for food.  Some to get spanked at Scarbutts.  Some for their favorite bands on sound stages up and down the Strada.  Art cars were parked; Art Cars here in SF!, but not moving.  Art buses, again stationary, were loaded with revelers.  Music blared, both DJ’d and live.

A free cup of coffee comes with a spanking of any strength at Scarbutts.

Walking into My Own Dream

On the Playa, I had spent what seemed a lifetime at a small theme camp called The Paddy Mirage.  An authentic Irish Pub built by Irish Burners, first produced in 2003, it’s been a fixture ever since.  Good music, good drinks, good feelings, all for free.  I wandered in one night and for 6 hours it became home.

The Paddy Mirage on the Playa in Dawning Light

Was it a mirage, this feeling of home, of belonging, or Playa magic?  Now, so many weeks later, I can only describe it as a dream.  As I walked past the Heart Deco art bus, dancers swaying, leaning over the railing, dribbling beer down to the ground, I had my own reunion with the familiar as the actual building of The Paddy Mirage came in to view.  Silly as it may seem, it made me shiver.

The Paddy Mirage, or at least part of it, on the Strada

Inside, it was crowded, shoulder to shoulder.   The dancing was frenetic.  The room was alive.  The music was more boink, beep, bloink of Techno than soul-infused House, and certainly not Irish.  There was no way I could have spent 6 hours there tonight, not even with some kind of mind alteration.   Feeling something like, “You can’t go home again”, I wandered out.  Overall, it had the look and feel of Burning Man, and the real building!  Something was missing.  What was it?

Making New Friends

One of the great things about Burning Man is the way you can go up to anyone, really anyone, and start a conversation.  Another facet of this is that your most casual interactions with people there turn out to be richer than you’d get in Default Reality, aka home.   The more of this you can bring home with you, the longer the After Burn.  As the night wore on here at Decompression, as the concrete pillars of overpasses, and the exteriors of neighboring buildings became lost in the darkness, the suspension of disbelief became all the easier, and these special interactions with fellow humans went on the upswing. Farthest south on the Strada was the 22nd St. sound stage.  A man with a sitar played.

South Asian music seemed so right for the Playa.

The Raga Camp that Wasn’t

I hadn’t seen it on the Playa, but I’d read about the Sacred Cow Grille and its DJ “spinning bhangra jungle, Bollywood beats, and tabla’n'bass”.  One night after returning home I had a richly detailed dream of a place called Raga Camp, where men and women in colorful authentic dress served an unending stream of lassis, banana frappes, nan, pooris, parathas, pakoras, spicy sweet biryanis, channah massalas, saffron rice and everything Desi, set beside a stage where a boy genius played morning ragas on guitar as dawn came,  his mother running her hand through his hair before he shrugged her off with a smile, and he was accompanied by older musicians, white, brown, black, red and yellow, carrying sitar, tabla, veena, Les Pauls, mandolins, cellos, fiddles and licorice sticks, whose ever increasing numbers and skill pushed the boy to his limit, after which he walked off to loud and long applause, while the band played on and the sun shot through the far away ridges. The rhythms of South Asia seemed so right for the Playa.  Here, again, had I walked in to my own dream?  At least for a Burner, Decompression was not your average street fair.

Uniting with the New

I came out of this reverie to enter yet another, finding myself surrounded by a troop of performing artists.  The sexiest clowns in the world, or at least that’s how they promote themselves, the Sisters of Honk, were waiting to go on stage with a German Band called Wahnder Lust.

Her Strada name was Cupcake.

Navi-tall beauties from Stilts Camp were strutting about in devilishly seductive outfits.

Drop Dead Gorgeous Girls on Stilts

And Miss Rodeo Texas, wearing her costume on the clock, promoting Texas Rodeo across the land.  Couldn’t ride a bull, she said, but wanted a life around the Rodeo, so she entered the beauty contest and became the ambassador.   Has an email address that will make you laugh.

She said this was her uniform, but was she pulling my leg?

Yes, it was starting to feel like Burning Man.  The way people spoke so openly about themselves is signature Playa; and I’m not just referring to the fact that Miss Rodeo Texas spontaneously pulled her red checked cowgirl shirt away from her body, inspected herself, and said to me, “And I don’t even have my fake boobs in tonight!”  The Playa, or in this case the Strada, is a great equalizer.   Strangers come together and find themselves fast friends, if only for a moment.  These two below, acting like the oldest of friends, were just two partigirls colliding, had never met, and were not a bound pair, but that’s how they seemed and photographed.  The Playa makes everybody friends for 15 minutes, or more.  That’s not a bad way to live.

Girls Who Had Never Met

Best Street Party Ever

Eventually, Wahnder Lust did play

Wahnder Lust Lead Singer and Harmonium Player

and the Sisters of Honk did join them.

Wahnder Lust with the Sisters of Honk

The visuals were out of Weimar Germany, but the sounds were 2010.

And then I was swept up by the Glitter Girls of Glitter Camp,

Glitterati is the plural of what? Glitteratus?

and crowded back in to The Paddy Mirage where by now the crowd was so dense it couldn’t even be called elbow to elbow.   As we left, a guy carrying an LED-illuminated bikini top approached one of the beauties.   His gimmick, and not everyone has a gimmick, was to put the bikini on the Strada girls, any girl, carefully adjusting it to make sure that the fit was just right and secure against the body, and then to ask someone to take a picture of him with her.

Itsy bitsy teeny weeny yellow LED Bikini

We all laughed at what a good gig he had going, and he had so many takers!

Decompression had by now become the best street party ever.   But was it Burning Man?

Decompression and the Knock Out Mouse

Hypothesis driven science is often practiced by isolating a phenomenon.  In physics, you might create an unnatural environment where only the one thing you care about exists at all, and then probe or prod it, measure it and analyze it without any interference.

In more complex systems, like the biology of mammals, or sociological experiments like Burning Man, you need to proceed differently.  In biology, when a scientist is trying to understand the function of a section of DNA, one approach is to turn off that gene and observe changes to the organism’s development or its behavior.  A mouse that’s had one of its genes turned off for this kind of experiment is called a Knockout Mouse. Decompression is a kind of Knockout Burning Man.  By studying the behavior of the model organism, that is Decompression, we can hope to understand the role the missing piece plays in Burning Man.

The Ultra Marathon Factor

Burning Man is an endurance event, a metaphor not much explored in the literature.  More than any other factor, more than the fact that you can buy a beer, text your friends, or get home in 30 minutes, the most important difference between Burning Man and Decompression is that one is an ultra marathon and the other is a long party.

At BRC, you have to dress comfortably, eat right, and have your mind ready for days of it.  Here at Decompression on the Strada, you’re talking about 12 hours at most, unless you planned to go to an after-party which might run another 5 hours or so.  That doesn’t require the same mindset, the same commitment as seven days (plus travel!) on the Playa.  You can always see the end when it’s only a few hours away.  Here, if your feet hurt because you made a stupid choice of shoes, then you might think about just ending the night early and going home.  On the Playa, that’s not a solution at all.

This ultra marathon aspect gives Burning Man part of its unique and most difficult to reproduce qualities.  When you’re there, you’re a member of a community, however trite it sounds, and your membership is paid for with your commitment to the ultra marathon and what it demands.   Having crossed through the admissions gate where you’re asked about firearms, explosives and water, you’re in, a member of the entire, gigantic, too big to conceive extravaganza.  Nothing more is required of you, except participation.

Everyone there knows, at least implicitly, that you’ve given up a lot to be there, that you’re going to be cramping from dehydration some time every day, that over the course of a week you’re going to need something you don’t have, that over the course of a week you’re going be giving someone else something they need, that you’re going to be exhausted but not petulant, that you’re going to open to others.  It’s the only way you can survive out there.  All this conspires to make you treat your fellow Burner differently on the Playa than you treat strangers you meet in the City.  And it conspires to change the way you treat yourself.  There’s no exit, so you just keep going, find a way to survive, or better, to thrive, or better yet, paraphrasing George Gershwin, to rise up singin’, to spread your wings and learn to fly.

On the Strada, the interactions are just slightly different, not bad, in fact they’re great, but you can feel it not being Burning Man.  Maybe it’s because you know you can go home, maybe because you realize that the stranger is not dependent on you, maybe because you feel the press of time to do something and the clock is running out.   On the Playa, Burning Man Time is a joke because there is no clock.

George Eliot and The Girl Who Scrubbed Me

In George Eliot’s 1876 novel, Daniel Deronda, the incandescent Gwendolyn Harleth marries well but not wisely, leaving her to wonder what life is all about.  In the late pages she says to Daniel Deronda, “I want to be like you.  I want to make other people glad to have been born.”  This is the gift that Burning Man gives to us.  It makes us glad to have been born.

Picture this scene on the Decompression Strada.  My friend L and I are walking through a crush of crowds, Tokyo subway dense, almost immobilized.  Everyone around us is happy, calm, talking, watching robotic fire sculpture dance to music, or watching nothing at all.  Suddenly, there’s commotion.  Two girls are running fast along a path that has spontaneously opened up beside us.  Their gait has the grace of ballerinas, one arm swept low, the other reaching high, neck stretched, head up, radiant smiles.  They’re a blur.   One wears orange foam cylinders, 3 cm in diameter, 15 cm long, hundreds of them, glued to her body, or body suit, so the that square ends stick straight out.  She is a living breathing scrub brush.  She is past us and nearly gone, but something catches her eye, L catches her eye, and she circles back.  She gives a huge smile of recognition, unalloyed joy, and throws her arms around L.  She is smaller than L, so L bends forward to embrace her, echoing Brush’s joy.  She is fully committed, unhesitant.  Oh!  They are the oldest of friends, and they are just finding each other, so unexpectedly.  Brush releases L, and then runs circles around her several times, spinning as she goes, brushes in full body contact all the way around.  I expect a pause, but there is none, and then Brush and her pal are gone.

L is ecstatic.  ”Who was your friend?” I ask. “Never seen her before,” she says.  It was street theatre, marvelously acted, conveying the sincerest authenticity of feeling.   A masterful performing artist, a performance artist, both, gifting her wares for any stranger lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time.  Whether we were scrubbed, or just watching, she made us all glad to have been born.  That’s Burning Man.  No pictures.  It happened to quickly.

Jugtown Pirates

Our feet, L’s, mine, and her friend K’s, are killing us.  We head towards the exit.

K's Medusa Hair turned every head on the Strada

Something tugged though, saying “please don’t go”.  A girl playing violin, or was it fiddle, or is there a difference?  Silver pants.  Black foam hair.  Sitting by herself, now joined by a clown.  She’s got a lovely tone, exceptional flexibility.  Are we hearing Gypsy music, or classical, or songs of my grandfather’s Eastern Europe and Russia, or hillbilly?

Meg May of the Jugtown Pirates and Clown

A crowd builds.  A clarinet, some percussion, a mandolin, some kind of blown keyboard, all join her.  We are glued in place, cannot leave.  Are they together?  Is this all spontaneously formed?  Vocals are added.  He is bad, and we want him to go away.  Piece after piece they play.  We are dancing. We are transported, but to where?  Another place?  Another time?  Another reality?  A girl next to me says she lives with these people, and they are the Jugtown Pirates.

As Casey Stengel used to say, “You can look it up”.  A mittleuropean man standing round is one of her teachers.  This is family.  We are admitted in.  Finally, dramatically, in virtuoso, not merely so-so coda, the violinist brings it all together and they are done.   Applause!   I introduce myself.  I thank her. Something special happened there, not quite like on the Playa maybe, not long enough for that maybe, but something special.  We can go, now.

Does it work?

Back to the question of the day.  Does Decompression, despite the commercialism, despite its short time scale, despite its lack of physical hardships; does Decompression work as a simulacrum of Burning Man?  Yes. Yes!

On the Strada, Mr. Silverman eats fries.

Burning at Burning Man ‘Til Dawn and Beyond

October 17, 2010 by  

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The Far Corner of the World Black Rock City is laid out on a circular grid.  Position along the circle is measured clock-like rather than compass-like, with camps and art beginning at about 2:30 and ending at about 9:30.  The vast majority of the circle is empty Playa.  That’s where The Man burns and where art installations come and go.  Where the Playa meets camping, that’s the Esplanade.  All along the Esplanade, there are dance venues, bars, and clubs.

Over in the farthest corner of world at BRC, at 2:30, was scaffolding, propane tanks, stacked speakers, projectors and projection screens, and stages, all of which became at night The Opulent Temple. The Paddy Mirage Sunrise at the Hookadome Nexus in the Morning Head further into the camping area, and you get to the named streets, in alphabetical order.  As more and more people participate, more streets with higher letter names are added.

Burning at Burning Man: Dancin’ and Chillin’

October 13, 2010 by  

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What is it about camping with 52,000 strangers that makes us willing and able to dance all night, night after night?  Who knows?  In my case, there had been no precedent.  Was it just Mid-Life Crisis with a sprinkling of Playa Dust?   The music, Techno and House, Soul and 60s, whatever some spinner wanted to spin, blasted straight to the heavens.  Night and Day.  It rocked the desert, giving every step across the Playa a kick that’s not there at home.  If that’s not enough, the dancers on an art car passing by will get you in the spirit. Something is happening here, and but it’s hard to know what it is – to paraphrase Dylan.

The Sirens hailed me over

Siren Dancers on an Art Bus

A Small Club with No Name

Electroluminescent wire wrapped into the shape of animal masks.

My adoptive family was the good people at Hung Far Low Camp – whatever that name means – and they were getting ready to head out for the night.   Across from us, this world class example of electroluminescent wire masks drew a crowd while waiting for its owners to put them on.  Three of us headed over to a small club where a nephew was the DJ.

The DJ is My Adoptive Nephew

A couple of geodesic domes 60′ across and about 15′ high were linked together.  In one, there were lounge chairs.  The other was the dance venue. A bar was set up and drinks were free, since serving drinks for a fee would have been a violation of the No Commerce Clause of the Burning Man Code.  Lights were strung from the scaffolding.

Lights, Bar, DJ and Dancers

You entered and exited through fabric draped over gaps in the scaffolds, tent-like, but a tent whose scale echoed Arabia and not Yosemite.  The music was loud, the lights pulsed and the electronic beat got lots of people moving.  There were small groups, larger groups and what appeared to be single people. But in 4 days, I met only one other person actually traveling solo.

When her boyfriend looked at her, smoke poured out of his eyes.

A Taiwanese New Yorker who couldn’t have been 24 told me about her job at the world’s most recognizable NGO.  She had flown from Kabul to San Francisco, met her boyfriend, bought everything they’d need for a week of Burning Man, rented a car, and made the drive to BRC.  While we danced, she tried to score some mushrooms from me, but I was out.

Every once in a while, it seemed like someone put a coin in the blue blonde and she swept the dance floor with her heated moves and see-through getup.  Then she’d sit down and charge up until the next coin was dropped.

I started to do the arithmetic.  There were 52,000 people here, almost all of whom were out dancing.  This club held 50 or maybe 75 people.  Were there a thousand clubs like this?  No, but there had to be hundreds. In each one, people were having the time of their lives, feeling that it was all so unique.  So many people.  Would Malthus conclude that he was wrong, or that the payday was just down the road?  Is the uniqueness an illusion, or is it real?

Brian Doherty, author of “This is Burning Man,” tries to find the commonalities, having had a decade of Playa experience to distill them.  The uniqueness is real, but they cluster.  The lessons learned are the memes of Burning Man, some of them entering the rest of society.  One of these is that there is more art in all of us than we know.

The artist is illuminated from within.

It’s locked inside, and we’re fearful of letting of it out.  At an event like this, where we are surrounded by creativity, both intimate and on a huge scale, the creativity of others permeates our skin, cracks our armor, and begs us to be creative ourselves.  We respond by recognizing that there is less reason, less than we expected, to let fear prevent us from living the life we want for ourselves.  Doherty says, “I started living again instead of living in fear.”

Giant Heart in the Middle of the Desert

I split up from the couples I had been with and headed out in to the Playa.  No map.  No plan.  Just unencumbered time and the world’s biggest carnival.  By now it was late, but what is late when you’re on Burning Man Time?  It never occurred to me to look at my watch.

I wander in to another dance venue, a raver’s heaven.  It appears to be little more than a single wall:  a huge wall of speakers, on top of which is a sound room for the DJ, and above and below which is neon, the most signficant piece of which is a giant heart.

Neon Heart atop sound studio atop stacked speakers to die for

Hundreds of people danced, stood around, milled about, mixed, talked and came in and out.  Many wore backpacks or carried water bottles to guard against dehydration, one of the enemies of the desert.

Hundreds of dancers, watchers, talkers, millers and ravers

Zooming in to the upper right of this picture you can see a string of blue lights heading towards the sky.  It’s a real string, a single string, floated by hundreds of illuminated helium balloons, arching upwards, yearning for the heavens.  A catenary or a parabola?   It’s a simple idea, but to pull it off, the artist must  assemble vast infrastructure.  And that’s part of the magic of Burning Man. It commands so much commitment.  And for what, besides the joy it gives us, the audience, and then reflects back on her or him, the artist?

A string of illuminated He balloons yearns for the unattainable

Dancing on the Playa in the dark, with a huge neon heart pulsating, stacked speakers blasting the special sound they blast when there are no walls, a possessed DJ possessing you with her spins and mix, surrounded by hundreds of people you don’t know.  Something catches your attention.  Is it a vision or is it real?  She’s on a long trajectory you follow first with your peripheral vision, on a guided mission targeted at you.  She puts her bright face and body flowing with the juice of youth right in front of you, dancing, smiling and saying little.  Then she’s gone.  Mirage? Playa Magic?  Your mind wanders to the curves and their almost mathematical perfection.  To describe them with equations, that seems too cold.  Still …

ParametricPlot3D[ {Sin[t]^3*Cos[u], Sin[2t]*Cos[u], Sin[u]}, {t, 0, 2Pi}, {u, -Pi/2, Pi/2}, PlotPoints -> 100]

Anything said would be too much

First Look at the Temple

More walking and I come upon a vast party.  There must be thousands surrounding a stage with live band, a stage with a bar and a crazy huge neon bird.  Huge - like 100′!

Thousands dance to a live band outside the Temple of Flux

And all this beside a building I can’t really see and don’t understand.  It turns out to be The Temple of Flux, a massive wooden creation which will burn on Sunday, the day after The Man goes down on Saturday.

The Temple of Flux - photo by James Addison

A masterpiece, a labor of love, the artists creating it for us and themselves, but for only a week.  The Temple’s design evokes 20th century Finnish architect Eero Saarinen and his curvaceous forms, including the inverted catenary of the St. Louis Arch, and in particular this Yale Whale from my home town.

Ingall's Rink, New Haven, CT. (Copyright Yale University)

Apocalypse Now

One man’s apocalyptic vision was burning.  So much burns here.  He carefully pitched his logs to create the feeling of collapse, collapse of humans, kings, civilization.

Three vast and trunkless legs of fire stand in the desert.

Subliminally, his vision was shaped by Shelley’s Ozymandias:

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Although the metaphor was both fitting and depressing, the heat from the fire drew people near.  All that dancin’ requires some chillin’, or in this case warmin’.

Chillin' while warmin' in the heat of the apocalypse

The artist, tending his fire, wanted nothing more than to be talking with his audience. And so we talked.

Burning Man is such a great venue for artistic expression because artists are the alpha dogs that make it happen, whatever it is.  Artists are adored here.  The adoration is not delivered with a check.  There’s nothing to buy.  The adoration is cerebral,  emotional and often physical.  The so-called After Burn, re-entry into real life, let’s say Reno, must be particularly hard for the artist.

To be continued

Burning at Burning Man: Naked Came the Astronomer

October 11, 2010 by  

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Burning Man is an annual week-long celebration of radical self-expression, community, arts and music.  Since 1989, it has been held in the Nevada desert concluding on Labor Day, the first Monday in September.  It had never been in the cards for me to attend, but on its 2nd day I realized that this year was different.  On short notice, I got in my car and started driving.  7 hours later I arrived alone at the entrance to Black Rock City on Thursday night, not knowing what to expect, not even sure I’d get a ticket.

Burning Man Box Office, Black Rock City, NV

I did get in though, after which gate keepers decked out in full regalia of feathers, leathers and EL wire, or almost nothing at all told me I was a virgin, rolled me in the dust of the Playa, hugged me and sent me in the dark into the campgrounds of a crowd that would grow to a record 52,000 by Saturday Night.  In 2006, attendance had been 39,000.

Satellite Photo of Black Rock City, 2006 - Ikonos Satellite Imagery

That’s not enough guidance for a virgin.  Not enough!  You’re supposed to get a guide to What Where When, or so I learned later, but the crowds were bigger than anticipated.  Ergo, no guide.  Instead, I relied on the kindness of strangers.  Fortunately, that was there in abundance.

The crowd, the venue, the ideas of Burning Man, all are huge; too much for any one person to take in; far too much for a single blog post.  This is the first of several vignettes of what I saw and what I took away.

Naked Came the Astronomer

Much is made of nudity at Burning Man, if only because it photographs well.  As Bruce Sterling said in his epochal 1996 Wired piece, getting naked is the easiest, cheapest way there is to cop an attitude. Lots of folks at Burning Man are copping attitudes. But nudity is not the same as overt sexuality.  The two are confused in the media.  There’s very little overt sexuality.  As Irish photo journalist Barbara McCarthy observed, much less than in Dublin.

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Competitive Nudity: She's 50% more naked than anyone else.

Much is made, too, of the Gift Economy.  You don’t buy.  You don’t barter.  You give.  Everyone is encouraged.  In fact Burners go overboard in compliance, to give something to the community.  We’re not talking here about a Costco sized bag of Snickers, although someone did hand me a much appreciated Snickers for fuel in the middle of the night.  What’s sought is something of yourself.  Art installations, cooking galleys, radical kindnesses; these are the gifts Burning Man is about.

Bliss Dancer: The Largest Nude on Campus

Having made a last minute decision to attend, I had barely enough time to get water and food in a cooler.  It was on my way out of the house that I grabbed a solar telescope, a tripod, some sign board and fat markers, planning to give people a rare view of the sun and something of myself.

A solar telescope is not just a normal telescope with a filter to prevent your eyes from getting singed.  Instead, its filter is designed to take advantage of atomic properties only explained by quantum mechanics, and built with modern processes made cheap by the semiconductor industry.  It passes only the light from hydrogen atoms that have been whacked hard by other hydrogens. This in turn allows you to see motions of hydrogen gas as it flows on the solar surface, in particular the dramatic flares and ejections of solar storms visible on the rim.  It’s rare that anyone but an astronomer would get to look through these telescopes, so I figured bringing one out to the sun drenched desert would be an unusual gift. The photo below is by Brian from Bountiful, Utah, USA [CC-BY-2.0], from Wikimedia Commons.

The Sun in Hydrogen (Balmer) Alpha

At Camp Far Hung Low, a group of 30 people or made their home next to me in tents, RVs, and far out foam igloos they’d pre-fabbed in Seattle, LA and elsewhere, and then assembled in place quickly.

Desert Home: Highly reflective foam igloos stayed cool during sleeping hours.

I used their stoves, shared food with them, and horsed around with their teenage daughters.  The tatoo on this woman in the group, V, evoked a conversation about living and dying that I would never have been able to have with her outside Black Rock City.  Armor is stripped away, and you engage with people you’re normally too busy, that is cool, or not cool enough to approach.  It changes you for back home.  V explained that the tatoo covered up scars of invasive surgery.  She had made something beautiful out of a painful memory.

Sakura, Cherry Blossoms: symbolizing renewal, transience and beauty

When I set up the telescope one afternoon, V’s mates were queuing up to see the coronal flares and other spectacular phenomena.  V had come from a shower.  It was an outdoor, no privacy shower hosted by another camp.  She was wrapped in a towel.  She couldn’t hold the towel and focus the eyepiece at the same time, so she dropped the towel and observed in full nudity while I tried not to observe her.  She was just dropping her towel to free her hands.  Her nudity meant nothing more than that.  I couldn’t objectify her.  I had already had far too serious a conversation with her, and her remarkably sweet giant of a boyfriend.

She was only the first of three people to observe naked.  The second had also come from a shower, but not carrying a towel.  Not wanting to dry off with her clothes, she had walked miles from shower to camp in nothing but bikini underwear.  She was 26, a New Yorker, staying at a camp called Whiskey and Whores.  Every camp has its own admissions and cost policies.  At W&W, the sole fee was three gallons of booze.  I happened to be camped on her route home, and she stopped to see what was there to see.  White panties and nothing else.  She must have had pangs of modesty though, because she pulled a long denim skirt from her backpack to cover her bottom.  Her naked top she left exposed while peering in to the objective. As for the third, below, the less said the better.

He only wore a towel to block the daytime glare.

All this takes some adjustment. I spoke to women who never get naked, and to women for whom it has become second nature.  I don’t think the men ever get used to it.   I overheard one man watching a completely naked and nubile young woman walk not far from my camp, nonchalant as could be.  He said, “There’s nowhere else in the world you can see something like that.”  And his friend said, “Sho cain’t Bo.”  I concur.   And for a photographer like Barbara McCarthy, the raw material is so great it’s a chance to be Edward Weston all over again.

Fine Art of Burning Man - photo by Barbara McCarthy

A Glossary of Terms:

Black Rock City, NV – The city of Burning Man that grows up out of the Black Rock Desert on a dry ancient lake bed, burns bright for a week around Labor Day, and is then dismantled.

EL wire – electroluminescent wire.  Available in a wide range of colors, easily shaped, efficient lighting that is the favorite of self-decorating light artists.  About $1 to $2/foot.

Playa – the flat open expanse of alkali desert encircled by the camping area.  It is home to the many art installations, some meant to burn to the ground, as well as dance venues, and spontaneous self-expression that make this a unique event.
To Burn, v. i., – to participate at Burning Man.  Marshall McLuhan said of his writing about LSD, I’m only an observer, not a participant in these matters.  At Burning Man, the operating rule is that you must be a participant, not an observer.