red echo

A web journal by Mars Saxman: my life, reflected and filtered

October entries

Archived Entries for September, 2004

September 28, 2004

I went car shopping yesterday. I had a very simple set of search criteria: small to mid sized 4x4, import or Jeep, 6 cylinder engine, no older than '90 or so. But it was my last requirement that caused all the trouble: two hours of searching through dozens of vehicles turned up precisely two that had standard transmissions. I knew there were people out there who crippled perfectly good 4x4s by ordering them with an automatic, but I had no idea they were so overwhelmingly numerous.

September 27, 2004

What does it say about the world I live in that "Closer" has become grocery store muzak? Granted, it was one in the morning on Capitol Hill, but really - hearing Nine Inch Nails on the Safeway in-store sound system was not an experience I ever expected to have.

New variation in the "light reacting to sound" series of art project ideas: I want to build a backpack around this instant laser light show gadget. It runs on battery power and looks to be about 6-8 inches wide, so it shouldn't take much work to make it portable. All I would need is an omnidirectional mike, simple compressor circuit, backboard, and some shoulder straps. Everybody at Burning Man wears blinking lights or glowsticks at night - how cool would it be to carry around an entire laser show that automatically responds to whatever music I happen to be near? I'm a little surprised someone hasn't tried this already.

September 20, 2004

Cold today: I had to turn on the heater for the first time since last February. I am usually pretty comfortable in the cold, and rarely need the heater, but today it was particularly sharp. Summer is definitely over.

September 19, 2004

Standing in the shower earlier today, I had an idea for a way to build a simplified version of the "massive cluster of tiny lasers" gadget/art piece I described a few days ago. I had been thinking over different ways to make the laser pattern react to its environment; one obvious technique is to hook in a microphone and seed the image algorithm with level readings from different frequency bands. Then I remembered a custom computer case some guy built a year or so ago, based on a Bakelite radio case from the '40s. The radio dial became a circular graphical spectrum analyzer for the computer's sound output; he found some standard circuit designed to drive LEDs. Well, why couldn't I do the same thing with lasers? His circuit design calls for 200 LEDs, which just happens to be the unit size for bulk packages of cheap keychain lasers. I could mount a couple of microphones in the base and drive the system on ambient noise.

It would probably help to put a compressor circuit on each microphone input, so that the device would react to distant sounds when the local environment was quiet, but would still adjust to normal voice level when people came up to look at it more closely. I also would not lay the lasers out in such a rigid star shape - instead I would try to pack the lasers in using something close to an equal density, so the lines would sort of bend and twist. The effect would be more like a sort of linear aurora, or solar flare, than the straight-line rays of the "anemone" computer.

It would not be anywhere near as complex or interesting an effect as I had planned to code into software, but it would still be fun and interesting, and it would serve as a much more achievable prototype design. The cost of materials should be something like a tenth of the total I estimated for the original design. A completed prototype might even help convince some arts foundation to fund the larger project.

September 16, 2004

One of the harebrained schemes that occured to me while wandering around in the desert involved a grid of laser pointers connected to a computer, all pointed straight up into the sky. Each laser would represent one pixel; the computer would generate random abstract patterns and display them by switching individual lasers on and off. You would look through a column of light, whose depth and brightness constantly changed; the column would appear to twist and shimmer while remaining completely straight. Lasers are fun to watch out in the dusty desert air, since they seem to dance and sparkle as they reflect off of dust particles; packing a couple hundred of them together in a constantly changing array would be an effect I'd love to see.

The Starfish engine or some variation thereof is a natural choice anytime I go looking for a continuous source of random video data, and inspired a similar but almost opposite idea. Instead of projecting the image upward in a laser-straight column, project it downward, using a square of desert floor as a screen. I imagine a video projector suspended from a small cluster of weather balloons. The projector, driven by a small PC (old cheap laptop?) would hang from the apex of a pyramid of four anchor cables, lifted by the balloons. A small generator on the ground could supply power. If I could get everything calibrated just right, its beam divergence angle would match the slope of the anchor cables, so the corners of the area of illumination would match the anchor points. The effect from a distance would be a shimmering, shifting pyramid of light. You could walk inside and bathe in the light as it moved around you.

But my favorite idea, largely because it is the most achievable item on my list of audacious Burning Man art project schemes, is an elaboration of an old science fair trick. I imagine a large speaker, suspended from a tripod, pointing straight up. Mounted to a ring around the tripod, a dozen or so lasers point down and across to small mirrors mounted on the opposite sides of the speaker. The resulting beam thus bounces back up into the sky at 15-20 degrees off the vertical. Now comes the fun part: on top of the tripod, a shotgun mike sits on a rotating mount driven by a motor. The motor's rate is governed by the amplitude of the sound the mike picks up: the louder the sound, the slower it turns. An amplifier in the base of the structure drives the speaker, echoing whatever sound the device happens to be pointing at. Put this out on the playa, half a mile off the Esplanade, and let it run: it will sweep around the city, pausing for a while anywhere it hears loud noise to put on a light show synced to that sound.

September 13, 2004

Burning Man was a major discontinuity marking the end of summer and a shift into some new phase, much like my trip to New York broke the year into halves oh so many months ago. I've been back for almost a week but I still don't quite feel like I've touched down to earth. This could have something to do with the fact that I've brought the "go go go! sleep when you're dead" mode back from the desert with me. Last night it was a dinner party that didn't really start until 11 PM; Saturday it was two different parties, then the Seattle Art Museum at 3 AM for the open-all-night finale of the "Van Gogh to Mondrian" exhibit; Friday a late night out in the rain for drinks and sushi; Thursday more sushi with friends and a late night playing Scrabble. Tonight is pool night; tomorrow - who knows?

Amid all this activity my brain feels abuzz with creative energy. Much of it is Burning Man-oriented, of course - I am overflowing with concepts for playa art projects to build and improvements on my desert camping gear. But I also spent a few hours yesterday afternoon at my piano, working on a couple of new songs and developing accompaniments for some older ones. It won't last forever, but it's a nice state to be in.

Skybeam post-mortem

The skybeam project was a qualified success. From an engineering point of view, it didn't work out too well. We arrived after dark on Monday, too late to move the skybeam parts out to the project's assigned spot, much less to begin construction. I borrowed a friend with a pickup and got the parts placed Tuesday morning, but dust storms kicked up by afternoon causing whiteouts that made construction impossible. It wasn't until Thursday that I could actually get back out and begin assembly. My campmate Kimmi and I put everything together according to the original design, but when we attached the color gels to the spotlight assemblies, it turned out that the reflectors worked a bit too well - the sunlight bouncing back into the lamp produced enough heat to melt the gels. I spent all afternoon jury-rigging, redesigned the lights, and by an hour after dark I had finally gotten everything put together. Much to my disappointment, only one of the lights actually worked - the green bike kicked out a furious bright light, spectacular and satisfying, but no amount of cranking on the red or blue bikes had any visible effect.

By this point I was exhausted from a full day of work in the sun and desperately needed dinner. It was too dark to do any serious troubleshooting, anyway, so I called it quits and decided to come back later and see if I could fix the other bikes.

Saturday morning I returned to the skybeam with tools, figured out what had gone wrong with the installation of the red and blue generators, and made what repairs I could. By this point, however, the green bike had been used so heavily that its rubber generator wheel had torn completely off, and the steel bicycle wheel had ground halfway through the generator shaft!

I had been worried that people wouldn't notice the skybeam unless it was in use - that they would only come and check it out if they saw the big light fire up. But the remote placement of my project worked to its great advantage: with very little competing light in the area, its pyramid of marker lights (one on each bike and one atop the tower) turned out to be visible for over a mile across the playa and attracted plenty of attention. Even with only one or two bikes working, there were people playing with the project every single time I stopped by.

By Sunday night, when I brought a group of friends by to check the project out, the machinery was broken once again. It was dark and I didn't have enough time to troubleshoot thoroughly, but as far as I can tell people just used it to death. Friction heating had melted the outer layer of rubber on the bicycle tires where they met the generator roller; I suspect that the heat from the reflected sunlight in the spotlights may have melted the insulation on the power cables.

From an artistic point of view, though, the technical problems weren't that important. Problems or not, people were curious about the skybeam and eager to play with it. The fact that it only half worked did not seem to particularly bother anyone but me. In fact, I met a couple of people on Sunday and Monday who had been out to the skybeam and thought it was really cool. The color-mixing effect would have been fun to play with, but the sheer brightness of the light was impressive and satisfying on its own. A 60 watt halogen bulb doesn't seem like much in the city, where we're surrounded by such light sources, but out in the Black Rock Desert most lights are ordinary flashlights or chemical glow sticks. The skybeam, by comparison, was outrageously bright - a blinding glow exceeded only by the spotlights on the Temple of Stars.

I'm less disappointed than I feel like I ought to be, given that the project only ran for part of two nights, instead of six, and never had all three lights working at once. People clearly enjoyed the skybeam as an experience anyway, and I feel like I accomplished something pretty cool in spite of some formidable logistical obstacles.

I got close enough to success that I want to give the project another try - at next year's Burning Man, if not sooner. Perhaps I can bring it to Critical Mass, or just set it up on the beach some weekend. I have a few months to make improvements; in retrospect, I'd have been better off purchasing prebuilt components instead of trying to build my own spotlights and bicycle generators. My original reflector design would have provided a tighter focus than a standard par can, but the results I actually got after redesigning the system to avoid gel meltdown were no improvement. The generators, similarly, were reasonably good in theory, but for the amount of money I spent on various redesigns while constructing them I could have bought prebuilt generator modules and let someone else's engineering team solve the problems I spent so much time worrying about.

Camping notes for next year

Camping on the Black Rock Desert is a lot different than the sort of camping I usually do. My usual minimalist style is much more difficult to accomplish comfortably out on the dead flat playa than in some temperate forest. Up in the mountains, you can generally take advantage of natural features: there are rocks and logs to sit on, trees to cast shade. The ground is generally covered in pine needles, moss, or pebbles. The playa, by contrast, is a malignant cartesian plane: you get a flat surface and lots of dust. The rest is up to you: there is nothing to sit on, nothing to cook on, nothing to rest under. You have to bring every square inch of shade and ground cover. You can't even use the ground directly; it is powdery dust that covers anything that touches it, and unless you like bathing in it you have to limit yourself and everything you set down to little islands of carpet.

It's been long enough since my last Burning Man trip that I had forgotten the application of some of these lessons. My kit was pretty similar to the setup I brought last time: a tent, a couple of chairs, a basic backpacking kitchen, a ground cloth, and some plastic bins full of gear. But I neglected to bring anything resembling a table, and there was no way to keep my tent organized or keep the dust out of my clothes.

Some ideas for next year, then: a table would be most convenient, both for cooking and for pouring water. I kept having to brace my water bottles awkwardly on the hood of the van. A table would also provide a good excuse for a place to leave my boxes of food and miscellaneous supplies.

My ground cover was not half large enough. There was enough room for my tent and a little six-by-two foot porch, but I had to carry my cooking gear over to the domes if I wanted space to prepare a meal.

Cooking is a real pain out in the desert and I really never wanted to spend any time at it. I brought nothing but five-minute, boil-in-bag dehydrated backpacker meals and even those were a daunting task at times. The cans of fruit and applesauce worked beautifully, though, and the chips & salsa were a reasonable hit. Some of my campmates ate soup direct from the can, without bothering to cook it first; this sounds weird back at home but it made a lot of sense out in the desert. Weight is not an issue, after all.

Clif bars worked fine, though I was pretty sick of them by the time I left. I should have brought a wider selection of portable food. Jerky, fruit leather, and sesame sticks would have been nice.

More light would have been convenient; it's hard to remember just how powerfully dark it gets in a city run on battery power. I had my indefatigable LED headlamp and a simple flashlight for my tent, but one of those 6V lanterns would have made it much easier to keep my things straight at night.

My clothes were too neatly divided into daytime/nighttime wear. I had to return to camp every day at sunset to grab a fleece jacket and swap my goggles, which wasn't such a bad thing in itself, but it would have been nice if I could have carried some lightweight windbreaker stuffed into a backpack for those nights that got cold faster than I expected.

The FRS radios didn't work very well. It took a lot of work just to get simple messages through, and using them to meet up again after the group got separated only worked once.

Chafing sucks. Bring cornstarch or leave the kilt at home.

Bring more hand lotion. Lots of it.

Pop-up travel trailers are reportedly quite cheap.

September 9, 2004

I've just uploaded photos from my Burning Man trip. It's a simple Photoshop web gallery for now; I'll add commentary and names as time permits.

September 8, 2004

Back from Burning Man

I'm back home safe and sound, albeit exhausted and a touch dazed. I wandered up the hill to get lunch and felt I was observing the world around me through a thick sheet of glass: this is where I live, yes? this is my neighborhood? Everything familiar became a bit strange. Increasing the aura of surreality, I crossed paths with two of my campmates, independently, in less than five minutes.

Burning Man resists summary, and this week was no exception. It was an intense, exhilarating, maddening, uncomfortable, frustrating, blissful rush of a week. I often feel that life is a bit too slow for my taste - I hunt for a little more excitement, a slightly higher velocity; Burning Man cranks that spigot I'm trying to find all the way open, for a flood of energy and experience far too broad to absorb.

back row, left to right: Aaron, Ami(?), Amanda, Corvis, some random passerby (with cattle prod and top hat), me. Middle row: not sure, Owen, Janna, Elizabeth, Paul, Alex (with feet on the sign), Graeme (with blonde mohawk), Jesse, Juliet, Lanny. On the ground: Kimmi, Delaney, Calvin. Lane is in the back on the trampoline, mostly hidden.

August entries


photo © 2001 Stacie Mayes