Entrepreneur, traveler, public speaker
Kevin Bracken
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Events

Remember the time Burning Man let Tesla advertise under the Man?

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Paul Addis sets the man on fire early Tuesday morning during a lunar eclipse in 2007 – Photo by Tristan Savatier

Beyond the usual kvetching about Burning Man being “better last year,” or the timeless tale of being taken over by elites, it seems like there is actually a growing fear that Burning Man is, once and for all, being irreparably infiltrated by Silicon Valley. The latest to jump on the pile is person whom I admire a great deal, Breaking Open the Head author Daniel Pinchbeck, who wrote this post about why he is skipping Burning Man. This has particular significance to me as it was his book that cemented my desire to go to Burning Man; this year will be my tenth.

The Time Burning Man Allowed Tesla to Advertise for One Day  

The concerns mostly seem to focus on Silicon Valley infiltrating Burning Man and “ruining” it from the outside, but let’s rewind to 2007 when Burning Man almost allowed itself to be “ruined” by Silicon Valley from the inside, until it was ironically saved by an arsonist vandal who later committed suicide. The theme of 2007 was The Green Man, a response to what a decent faction of Burners said was unconscionable consumption and a huge carbon footprint for an event with radical roots.

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To make The Green Man theme not completely hollow, Burning Man came up with a novel idea to finally allow brands in: the Green Man pavilion would be a “World’s Fair” type demonstration of world-changing technology. From the Burning Man website:

The Burning Man stood atop a structure that resembled green mountain peaks. Nestled at its base was the Green Man Pavilion, 30,000 square feet of shaded exhibition space for the display of interactive artistic, scientific and educational models, a trade show-type display of emerging technologies. This pavilion was surrounded by the Mangrove, made from simulated trees fashioned from recycled industrial materials.

Beneath the pavilion were a number of green technologies, some from very large brands; including a prototype of the now-famous Tesla Roadster. Elon Musk is a well-known burner and I can understand why this seemed like a good idea at the time; on the website, the project’s “artist” was listed as Aaron Platshon, a former Tesla product manager.

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The one condition these brands had to agree to was that they would strip the logos from their products, and simply provide them as “white labeled” objects, much as the closer you are to Center Camp, the less you will see corporate logos on rental vehicles like Budget trucks and U-Hauls. The effect was the creation of a de facto “corporate pavilion” of Burning Man-approved companies allowed to display directly under what is supposed to be the very symbol of decommodification. Even the loosest reading of the Ten Principles makes this decision a head scratcher.

The Corporate Pavilion Goes Down in Flames

Burning Man faced a tremendous amount of criticism that year, both from within the community and without, including a scathing Business 2.0 article that made it sound like Larry Harvey himself had orchestrated Burning Man’s big cashing-out. People screamed on ePlaya, Tribe and elsewhere that Burning Man had finally jumped the shark, sold out, and that they were livid.

That year, the gate opened at midnight on Monday. Monday afternoon was extremely dusty, with a several hours-long whiteout that deterred most people from going to the corporate pavilion. Monday night was clear, but the dust storm had delayed many people’s camp setup, so very few people were outside their camps. Around 2 AM, a total lunar eclipse overtook the moon. While everybody was looking at the moon, Paul Addis climbed the man and set it on fire with a blowtorch. An amplified voice at Opulent Temple, the only sound camp that was up and running, shouted, “Oh my god, the man’s on fire!”

Sure enough, the man was on fire. Personally I thought this was awesome – it was the chaos that older burners always lamented the loss of, the unpredictability, the makings of  a Cacaphony Society prank. Other people were not amused.

Conspiracy Theories 

Was the 2007 Early Burn an inside job? Obviously not, but it had the makings of a good conspiracy theory. Did Larry Harvey want to deflect the criticism of the corporate pavilion? Did he want people to focus on the enemy without instead of the enemy within, like George W. Bush and Osama Bin Laden? Was Paul Addis just a fall guy to preserve the empire? While these are all absurd ideas, one fact is extremely lucky for Burning Man: After the Early Burn, literally nobody ever mentioned the corporate pavilion ever again. The people who actually saw it must number a few hundred at most, many of whom have probably stopped going to Burning Man.

A Lesson for Today

So before you start shaking your fist at the cloud and saying, “Damn Silicon Valley bros! Stop infiltrating our event!” don’t forget “your event” once invited Silicon Valley in all by itself, and that nothing is new under the sun.

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Personal

The Time Adam Vaughan Pressured Me To Change a Torontoist Post

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In September of 2007, Toronto’s most interesting temporary nightclub, CiRCA, was about to open. Exiled New York City club king Peter Gatien of Party Monster fame granted me an interview about the entertainment facility; I was thrilled. The club had faced years of delays, mostly regulatory, led by an alliance between the AGCO and Adam Vaughan. Vaughan was the local councillor in the ward, and one of his raison d’êtres was putting a cap on the number of nightclubs in Toronto’s Entertainment District, something about which we frequently sparred in public forums.

I faithfully transcribed my interview with Peter Gatien in the Torontoist post and I was very happy with it. It gave a glimpse into an amazing project many people thought was going to be just another mega-club on Richmond Street, when it was so much more. Not everybody was happy with the post, though.

A day after I posted it, my phone rang. It was Adam Vaughan and he was pissed. Apoplectic even. His objection was the following line in the post, specifically the second clause:

My guess is it’s probably some special interest like real estate developers, my guess is their contributions to campaigns have influenced politicians who might want to help companies develop in the area. -Peter Gatien

He yelled at me for roughly twenty minutes, saying the post was libelous. I objected, saying I had only transcribed another person’s words, and he said I knew nothing of the laws of Canada because I was a “foreigner.” He said that Torontoist could be sued, I could be sued, and I should know better than to insinuate that he took money from developers and that they were affecting his judgment on the local nightlife issue. He brought up his decades-long journalism credentials, as well as his campaign promise not to accept developer money. He was furious.

What I did next was definitely the wrong move: I changed the post without asking my editor David Topping. Adam had given 20 year-old me a good scare, and he convinced me that I was somehow guilty of libel. I removed the line that says, “my guess is their contributions to campaigns have influenced politicians who might want to help companies develop in the area,” and replaced it with a line I had edited out for brevity: “To the condo developers, this area is still pretty cheap.”

For the record, I know Adam Vaughan never accepted developer money for his campaigns. He made a point of this and published a list of his contributors; no developers were on the list.

This story is one of three times Adam and I publicly faced off; the other notable one was when he called me “a tough little 20 year-old” for challenging his infamous “mess of drugs and graffiti” video that he eventually pulled from his first campaign website.

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Politics

The UP Express is Pretty Bad

Andreas Souvaliotis had a piece on Huffington Post today called I Rode Toronto’s New Airport Express Train and It Was Awful, which reminds me: so did I, and it was also awful. I insisted to my wife that we try out this new technological wonder, as it runs by our apartment every 15 minutes, despite her protests. I bought both of our tickets (total: $44) when she reluctantly agreed.

Sure enough, I would be regretting my decision, as our estimated 20-minute ride to Bloor GO station (roughly Bloor & Dundas) ended up taking over an hour as we sat behind a random red light three minutes east of the airport for about 50 minutes, despite no other train traffic crossing our path.

Luckily I live-tweeted and recorded the whole thing with a stopwatch (64 minutes to Bloor station!) and Global News (video above) ended up doing an on-camera interview an hour after I got home. A Metrolinx spokesperson said it was a signal malfunction, and I understand these things happen. I believe that the trains are usually on time. However, my feeling is this: To charge $27 for this train is insane. If you split an Uber between two people it will always be cheaper, and almost certainly more convenient, as you can take it to any transit connection you want. UP Express should cut the fare to $6, $7 and $10, for Weston, Bloor and Union Stations respectively. Otherwise, nobody will ride this thing after the Pan Am games (and, judging by how bad the signage is at Pearson, possibly not even during) and it will become a money pit.

UP Express has offered a refund; I am supposed to be getting a cheque in the mail in “4 – 6 weeks.” Stick to Uber or the subway for now, the UP Express is not worth the premium.

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Personal

Announcing What’s Different in Canada: The Book!

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We are extremely excited to announce What’s Different in Canada – the book! Featuring expanded content, original illustrations by Marie Poliak, and bonus material, to be released in July. And best of all, if you subscribe to the newsletter, the ebook is completely freeFind out more at What’s Different In Canada.com.

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Politics

#GardinerEast Debate Foolishly Assumes Humans Will Still Drive Own Cars in 2031

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Every so often, a debate that would normally be of trivial importance in another city becomes this all-consuming monstrosity in Toronto; today’s cataclysm-du-jour is the removal of the eastern span of the Gardiner expressway. On one side is essentially every transportation expert in Canada in favour of a plan to remove 10% of the expressway to create a grand boulevard and open up the land to development. On the other side is a small cabal of the Mayor, some lobbyists and the CAA in an option disingenuously called the “hybrid” option, which actually just preserves the existing road. Proponents of the latter have argued that removing the expressway will add 3-5 minutes of commute time for a small number of drivers by 2031.

The problem? Humans won’t be driving cars in 2031.

Lest we forget: self-driving cars are already here. Teslas will get highway self-driving in the next firmware update, you don’t even need to buy a new car. Many new cars already have “active follow,” which allows hands-free gridlock movement. Mercedes has created a self-driving truck. And most notably, Google’s self-driving cars have driven millions of miles on public roads with only a single accident not caused by a human driver in six years.

Self-driving cars will eliminate gridlock and double the capacity of the highway system. One of the things that will surprise children in 2031 is that yes, just 15 short years ago, people actually drove their own cars. We will have self-driving taxis that can cheaply take us and a few others (reminiscent of UberPOOL in New York and San Francisco, but robotic) and the need to own a private vehicle for city driving will quickly evaporate.

With this in mind, provided we continue to build at least some kind of appropriate public transit in Toronto, commute times will actually decrease over time, for both the “remove” and “hybrid” options. So why would we ever spend an extra $500M to improve the commute times of people in 2031, while ruining any chance at building a beautiful waterfront east of Jarvis, when their commute times may actually be half of what they are today?

#tearitdown

 

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Politics

Why I Now Support the NDP

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I was one of those Americans who threatened to move to Canada if George W. Bush was reelected. Rewind to March 2003: I was 17 years old living in New York. Classmates were still mourning relatives who’d lost their lives on 9/11. The Patriot Act, the War on Terror, and the War in Afghanistan had been in full swing for a year and a half. The president announced that our country would be conducting a campaign of “shock and awe” to oust President Saddam Hussein from Iraq. There were whispers of a possible draft, right as I was about to reach draft age. I led a walkout at my high school to protest the illegal invasion.

Right at that time, the Prime Minister of Canada, Jean Chrétien, announced that Canada would not be joining this senseless war of adventurism. At that moment I declared that if George W. Bush was reelected, I would move to Canada, and decided to visit Toronto for the first time.

Chrétien’s Canada circa 2003 was an amazing place for a young progressive. Beyond Canada refusing to be complicit in the war, Ontario and British Columbia had just legalized same-sex marriage as I was starting the Gay-Straight Alliance in my high school. The GDP grew by 3.1% that year. The country was on track to a sensible drug policy. The wealth gap was still small compared to the US. Many of these things could be attributed to the Liberal majority in both Ottawa and Queen’s Park, and it left a lasting impression. After I moved to Canada, my support for the Liberals continued, even as the Conservatives wrested power and have formed the government for the last 9 years.

Tomorrow morning, an e-mail from me will be sent to NDP supporters in the new University-Rosedale riding in Toronto, urging people to support and donate to the Jennifer Hollett campaign. How did this happen? Bill C-51. Bill C-51 is Canada’s version of the Patriot Act, and it has passed the House of Commons with the unanimous support of the Liberal Party. I am shocked, outraged, and feel so disappointed in the party I have supported since 2003. C-51 is an egregious violation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms that has been roundly criticized by experts from all ideological backgrounds, and the NDP is the only party that can repeal it. A vote for the NDP is a vote to repeal C-51, and I will be knocking on doors to tell people my story this summer.

Last weekend I went to my first NDP event, Jennifer Hollett’s campaign launch. I was surprised to be greeted by so many who knew me, and I realized, maybe the NDP has actually been the party for me all along. Ideologically, I have always been more progressive than the Liberal Party, and I see in the NDP a party committed to building a more compassionate Canada, and bringing a social democratic government to this country. I am inspired by Jennifer and her team. They said the NDP couldn’t win in Quebec; they did. They said the NDP couldn’t win in Alberta, they did. They say the NDP can’t form the government federally. Don’t let them tell you it can’t be done.

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