Compliance at the Dryden

The Eastman House calendar had this to say:

The disturbing true story of a prank call delivered to a fast food restaurant comes to life in Craig Zobel's (The Great World of Sound) controversial new film. Night manager Sandra — convinced that the police have fingered one of her employees — falls victim to the persuasive and commanding voice on the phone. Grimly depicting human readiness to obey higher authority, Zobel's provocative film is a sure conversation-starter.

As I've mentioned to people, it was kind of preaching to the converted. In the post-screening discussion, there were skeptics: "people aren't that impressionable," or "I wouldn't do that", or "the filmmaker took liberties as things didn't get that bad". But I was pretty sure things did get that bad (although according to the moderator of the post-film discussion, it was in the worst of the 70 some-odd occurrences, and actually less-severely portrayed on film), people do fall for that, and even I could be manipulated that way. (Although my disdain for claimed "authority" makes me a tad more resistant.)

So let me back up a little.

The perpetrator – in this case, a man calling himself Officer Daniels – was using the known techniques of social engineering to manipulate his victims. It's a technique most frequently used in crimes of technology, and it rarely involves more than a brief conversation. One might call a bank (presumably with what looks like an internal number) for instance, and ask innocently, "oh, is this computer support?", "no, dang. Do you have the number handy?" Then they call that number, jot down the name of the person who answers, and ask, "Jim, hey — is it possible to get my Kindle on the network?", "no, I figured I'd ask anyway." Then jee calls someone else, "hi, this is Jim from computer support. I just,want to take a minute to check your IP address." I think you can see how with a large organization, it's easy to get small pieces of information out of a number of people which, when aggregated, is a tremendous amount of knowledge about the organization as a whole.

The exotic thing about this perpetrator is that he would stay on the phone for a long time — not only in the total duration, but with each individual person. One thing he was exploiting was to use an actor as a vetted source. At the start of the most disturbing segment, Sandra hands the phone to her boyfriend with the terse instruction, "this is Officer Daniels. He's a police officer. Do what he says." In that, he used Sandra to artificially create authority in the boyfriend's mind. Imagine if, with no explanation, your significant other handed you a phone and said that? Would your first thought really be, "I'm going to assume this is a stranger and figure it out for myself"? Of course not. Just like when you're introduced with a line, "this is my father", you automatically bestow respect — you don't say, "prove it."

Being part of the labor series, the moderator (whose name I can't remember and can't find off hand) tried to steer the discussion to one that damns the authoritarian hierarchy of low-level jobs, particularly fast-food employers. While I have disdain for that structure, I thought the reason for the behaviors portrayed had much more to do with human nature: it is in our nature as social creatures to want to help one another and that we take shortcuts to validate trust. Without those mechanisms, our society would be in a constant state of deadlock. Authoritarian hierarchy exploits those traits to business advantage, and in that way is a contributing factor to the efficiency by which "Officer Daniels" could dispatch his psychopathic plan.

What is there to thwart this behavior, though? In general, I think it is to respect anonymity of technology. A voice on the phone — just like the letters of a text message or e-mail — are not equivalent to a face-to-face conversation. If we treat indirect communication as an unreliable source, we can help avoid such situations.

It is also important to remember that we grant authority and that it is not bestowed, for the other key piece of the story is "Officer" Daniels' impersonation of a police officer. When authority is granted, there is always an option for independent thought and personal responsibility, but if it's believed to be bestowed, then an officer can bestow authority, and assume responsibility, both of which are but dangerous illusions.

The Big Burning Man Trip

So the tale starts on August 22. Like last year, I left on a Wednesday although this time I was determined: I kept telling people I was going to "win Burning Man" as if it was some kind of contest. The Amtrak left pretty much on-time late at night. I talked with a nice woman on her way to Chicago.

With the train arriving on-time, I had plenty of time for my Chicago ritual: a visit to Lou Mitchell's Restaurant and Bakery for an excellent breakfast, then a trip to the Art Institute of Chicago. I only had an hour, but it's not much longer than that I get a little burned-out. I liked the contemporary fabric arts exhibit, "Fashioning the Object: Bless, Boudicca, Sandra Backlund". I got back to the station and we left without incident.

On the leg from Chicago to Reno (and the return) I used up my Amtrak mileage points on a roomette which is definitely the way to go. I can handle a day or two sleeping in coach (if I come from being well-rested) but having a place to lay down horizontal is fantastic. Add in the complimentary coffee, meals in the dining car, and a shower in each rail car, and it's awesome.

I met my first fellow Burners and spent a lot of time in the sightseeing car chatting with them and others. I felt like I had one vacation in Chicago, and was on to my second on the train. By the time we got past Denver, more Burners got on. I almost got interviewed by a guy named Duccio but time got the best of us and we were in Reno before I had the chance. I was probably the only person hoping for a delay: I also wanted to get in closer to check-in time at the hotel, but the train ran promptly.

I had to dawdle for a few hours before starting my third vacation in Reno. I saw lots of people heading to Burning Man but only chatted with a few. I spent more time than I thought it would take cutting out the "Blue Highway" font stencil I made for my Lonely Lamppost project. I also decided to try and mitigate uncertainty (see last year) so I signed up to take the "ToFlame" bus. I had to pay extra since my stuff amounted to three huge 50-pound bags (which is included as checked bags on Amtrak) along with two more smaller bags I packed full of water jugs. I was able to tote all my stuff on a luggage cart I made; I figure it totaled about 300 pounds.

The ToFlame bus was scheduled to pick up people at the Reno airport then stop by the SaveMart which was only a few blocks from the hotel. It's a block off I-80 and a major last-stop for the deluge of Burners from California. So I hauled my 300 pound pack over there and hung out with some people making their final purchases, and a bunch of people hitching rides. After I was there I probably could have managed a ride, but I felt better with the bus — especially when the bus finally arrived (actually two of them) about 3:30 p.m.

From there it was a matter of getting 60 people from both buses to buy their provisions and all get back on. It was like herding cats and we didn't leave SaveMart until probably 4:45 or so. Mind you, the "scheduled arrival" was something like 5 p.m. at Burning Man. Ha ha. Traffic on the narrow Rt. 447 north of Fernley, Nevada was heavy and we even stopped completely for 20 minutes or so.

We got a chance to watch about half of The Beast Pageant on the bus, much to the amusement of the rowdy passengers. There was even another Rochesterian: and, of course, I knew her (albeit through her parents). Once we got to Burning Man we had to head to the Will-Call ticket area as half of each bus needed to pick up tickets. We finally made it through the gate and were all dropped off at Esplanade and 6:30 (the address, not the time). The bus ride was like a third vacation; Burning Man itself the fourth.

I dragged my stuff out to 7:00 and found some nice people on Foxglove to camp next to. I set up camp and helped them with their shade before heading out to explore. I looked for a girl from the bus on the other side of the city with no luck, but I found some fire spinners and met a guy who had a neon-orange boat decked out as an art car. We chatted for a bit and he took me for a ride. After that I realized I was hungry, having not eaten for hours, but I couldn't resist checking out the Pier which included a crashed pirate ship with a crooked deck and galley. It was an incredible piece and they had projectors that created the illusion of ocean waves on the Playa, visible from the deck. Walking back to my camp, I noticed the sky was brighter than I expected: it was in fact 4 a.m. when I got in. I guess I had bucked my circadian rhythm which would have me in bed by 7 p.m. Pacific time.

On Monday I met the people across the street and helped them wire the lights on their Blue Whale art car (which we later named "Connie"). The whale was new although the base vehicle had been through several incarnations in the past.

I stopped by the ARTery and got my Lonely Lamppost placed at 1:00 at 2600' — about halfway from the Temple to the 2:00 corner of the Esplanade. (Funny enough, it was almost exactly the opposite side from where I was camped.) Matt drove Lauren (another artist) and I to our respective sites. I assessed the nearby artworks (both from the map at the ARTery and by sight-lines) and tweaked my location closer to 12:45, putting me at the intersection of "Burn Wall St.-Dream Tree Rd." and "The Man-Black Rock Bijou Rd." I headed back to camp and painted the signs for the lamppost (with only one heat-induced typo of "Biiou" on one side), carted it out, and got it set up before dark.

The Lonely Lamppost at Burning Man, 2012

Lonely Lamppost by Zhust at Burning Man 2012

Upon returning to camp, we all headed out and got in line behind Charlie the Unicorn Goes to Burning Man to get registered with the Department of Mutant Vehicles (DMV). That night, after a great meal with my new friends across the street (Mama Kabuke's Big Tent, formerly It Still Stings Camp) I called it an early night and crashed around midnight or so.

One of my nightmares about Burning Man is having to deal with someone who puts their noisy generator right next to my tent and having to deal with the uphill battle of teaching them what "considerate" means. So this night I was awakened around 3 by a noisy generator placed right next to my tent. My solution was to just get up and move it twice the distance from me. The next day I asked and was welcomed to camp with Mama Kabuke's crew. Problem solved.

Tuesday I explored a bit in the day. While yelling compliments from the "Compliments" booth around 4:00 and Dandelion, I met Little Wave from Winnipeg and chatted with her a while. I couldn't manage to convince her to join me for dinner, but I did get a woman from our camp to go. It was at Sacred Cow at the 7:30 plaza — I found out about it from a couple Burners I had met in Reno. On the way home from that, we stopped at a "bar" which was actually mostly non-alcoholic: "When Life Gives You Lemons" served lemonade and other lemony treats. She and I got talking about languages and she suggested immersion rather than translation: read a book in Italian and try and pick up what you can from context alone, or watch a familiar movie in Spanish. I thought it good advice.

After we got back I was on my own again and wondered what to do. I had brought a game I called my "Parrot Cards" (because they have parrots on them, but pronounced like "Tarot", not "parrot"). I had noted the Burning Man addresses ran from 2:00 to 10:00 which coincided with the numeric playing cards, so I added letter tiles and had a way to pick a random address. The playing card suits have traditional Tarot meanings which I simplified with diamonds meaning the body, physical, or external world, clubs meaning the mind, emotions, or internal world, hearts being the suit of religion, love, and heart, and spades being the suit of the military or challenge. I gave "readings" to a few people but mostly used it myself.

So I drew the 10 of diamonds and G, sending me to the dance clubs at the edge of the city. I tend to find it an okay pastime to dance to club music, but I'm easily drawn away to other things. I hung out at Robot Heart at 10:00 and Germanium for a bit before walking back home — again noting the warming eastern sky of dawn. I was awestruck by the sheer number of attendees, with tents, RV's, art cars, installations, and public spaces. The official tally, I gather, was about 52,000 people.

Wednesday I slated as my day to do as little as possible. I sent out a few postcards, and I got to drive Connie to the Temple. I met a guy who was building a whale to be a performance space, I think at the northern end of Rt. 1 in California. As far as the Temple of Juno was concerned, it kind of left me cold — I didn't feel very connected with it.

That night I was hanging out with T. from camp and some people came by and asked if they could drop off their drunk friend who they were unable to drag back home. I would have told them to keep trying, but I let T. answer. I was surprised when she gave an emphatic "absolutely." She insisted on asking who was going to stop by in the morning, and she hung out with the guy for a while until he passed out. Her philosophy was to try and embrace the 10 Principles of Burning Man as much as possible, even when it might be inconvenient.

It's a lesson I'm going to have to let sink in: do good when it's easy, when it's inconvenient, when it's difficult, and eventually, when you don't think you can.

On Thursday, I was invited to be one of the four official drivers of Connie. The DPW says it's only the driver and the driver's spouse, so Jordi ordained himself three spouses.

I happened upon Hair of the Dog (HOTD) camp during the day and said hi to Troy, my birth-twin (same month, day, and year.) I blundered around some more and came upon this camp that offered to do a polygraph and shaman cleansing ritual. I had to give it a go. The idea was to use the polygraph to divine a painful event, then to use shamanism to transform the event into a point of growth and healing. It was unnerving but effective, especially for a sciency-guy like me.

Friday I took Connie out on a tour by myself. I drew the 3-of-diamonds (referring to physical or material things) and L so I headed there. Some people on Iris St. came out and stopped me to give me lemonade. This was a theme all week: this was my first sober (well, sober-ish) Burning Man, and I had no trouble finding non-alcoholic treats. Curiously, it was all lemonade (even Mama Kabuke's kept the booze in back and offered water, "gay-torade", and lemonade to passers-by.)

My logical side was irritated by the accuracy of the Parrot reading to find the Otic Oasis out there: indeed a physical thing, and one I forgot that I wanted to see. I parked Connie and walked to it. It was very cool. I hung out at the camp adjacent and tried to solve their puzzle/interlocking pieces. Their kitchen yurt was amazing: all cut from laminated pieces.

On the way back toward the center of the city, two girls stopped me and I gave them a ride: Playa Kitty and Elise. They were headed to Discofish at 7:15 and Edelweiss which was just around the corner from Mama Kabuke's. We stopped at my Lonely Lamppost for a minute on the way, and got about 100 feet away when a dust storm hit. I didn't realize it would last so long and didn't set the brake. When another woman had leaned her bike against Connie, that was the only way I realized we started being blown backward as her bike fell over. In all it lasted an hour before we managed to gradually make small steps back in tiny clearings.

Saturday I took a crew out for an art tour: Elise (my secret Playa-crush, not the one from yesterday), Emily, Amy, and Momma all piled into Connie and we headed out. Funny enough, it seemed I was either alone in Connie or I was delighted to shuttle women. We headed out to see Burn Wall Street which was being prepared to burn, although the graffiti was most excellent.

When we got back, a couple of the guys had set up a comically obvious snare trap with gin, tonic, and one of Beckster's giant juggling dildoes. Then Zen took another and tucked it into his shorts and did weightlifting, pretending his penis was hanging out unbeknownst to him, smiling broadly at people who responded uncomfortably and awkwardly to his antics (universally, even). I was laughing so hard I was crying.

After dinner we went out to the Man burn. We had a spot just a few people back. Despite a bit of agoraphobia (considering thousands of people behind me) I enjoyed watching the burn up close. I couldn't resist taking a lap and oggling the art cars surrounding the man. It was great.

I walked to the Burn Wall Street site and checked out more art cars. I sat down and was thinking I could go for a nip of whiskey. A guy sat down next to me and stuffed a bottle of bourbon into my field of view. He said his name was Yuri. It took a few minutes to ask, but it turned out he was the bartender at Lux for a while. He was just walking through looking for someone to sit near. Once again, the "Playadipity" and finding Rochestarians everywhere found confluence.

The burn, while not spectacular, was participatory. Everyone was chanting to burn the fuckers down and cheering more loudly than average whenever one fell. It was all quite cathartic.

On Sunday we fetched my lamppost with Connie. It survived just fine. The site was pretty clean and I only found a few little fibers. I took it apart back at camp. I also packed up my stuff and got ready to leave on Monday, figuring on sleeping in the Big Tent somewhere for the night.

I had a few drinks that night and went to the Temple Burn. Just as when I visited earlier in the week, I wasn't particularly moved. I'm not sure why exactly.

Monday I helped clean up camp and take apart Connie. Jordi and Devon drove me out to the bus stop. It arrived before they left and the whole process was much smoother than entry. We even left via the 12-mile entrance, bypassing the entire exodus line (which I gather wasn't particularly bad this year anyway). The only hassle was with the Eldorado Hotel shuttle driver who was reluctant to let anyone on board who had any dust on their luggage. Nonetheless, I got in fine.

On Tuesday evening, the Amtrak left pretty much on-time. This time the fellow Burners were numerous, leaving one-at-a-time as we progressed across the country. It was a bit disconcerting to become more judgmental each passing mile: it didn't matter on the Playa, but now these people were turning into alcoholics, egomaniacs, and slackers before my eyes. Disconcerting but fascinating.

Nonetheless, I still had a good time talking with them. I told my tale and mentioned that I was "going to win Burning Man". Well, after arriving to camp solo and getting to drive an art car, having a great time, and getting excellent meals, I think I won. Kate jumped up and ran to her seat. She said someone had given her a sticker which she reluctantly took, passing it to me:

I Won Burning Man

I Won Burning Man