Author Archives: Kevin Bracken

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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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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Politics Startups

Success of Uber in Canada Has Huge Implications for Consumer Tech Companies

June 28, 2010  The roof top pool and bar offer a 360 unobstructed view of the city. The new Thompson Hotel, the new 4-star in town at Wellington and Bathurst, it is run by Peter Freed and Tony Cohon in Toronto.  TORONTO STAR/STEVE RUSSELL

This post originally appeared on TechVibes.

Each morning when I wake up, I head to one of two coffee shops: The Drake Hotel Café in Toronto or Sightglass Coffee in San Francisco.

From there, I almost always do the same thing once I get my coffee: summon an Uber. The car that rolls up within minutes is driven by a person who may or may not be a professional driver, but the ride is safe, clean, and only slightly more expensive than my coffee and bagel, every single time.

When I heard that the City of Toronto is trying to make my morning routine illegal, I was struck with a feeling of profound frustration. The City of Toronto, a sensible government that often does the right thing, has announced a bizarre but seemingly well-intentioned plan that ends up being disastrous for the very people it intends to serve.

San Francisco is a beautiful city with some serious problems. Rising rent, homelessness and theft happen at rates that would shock many Canadians. However, one place San Francisco is exploding right now isjobs. New jobs are being created every single day, and companies in San Francisco can’t even find enough qualified people to fill them. That’s right, there are more companies offering salaries north of $100,000 than there are people to fill them. Most of my friends and acquaintances in San Francisco work at companies with unlimited paid time off, full benefits packages, and six figure salaries. Simply put, San Francisco is leading the United States’ economic recovery, and is the centre of the universe for young people wishing to experiment with new business models and try their hand at the startup game.

The startup scene in Toronto is growing at a reasonable speed, but it still has a long way to go. The number one thing hindering its performance is not a lack of talent, not by a long shot. The holdup is Canadian investors and their risk aversion.

If you try to get investment for a consumer app in Toronto (versus something like, say, an enterprise app for hospitals and banks) it is an uphill battle in a climate where the appetite for risk is low. Compare this to a city like San Francisco, where the investors are looking for energetic young people building new things all the time.

The result is that San Francisco ends up being the testing ground for a lot of new apps. Every new app, really. The weird thing is, when these companies are looking for new markets to conquer, Toronto is routinely overlooked and they seek out second-tier American cities, sometimes a dozen small cities before ever coming to Toronto, despite our dramatically higher population. The result is that we don’t get to try out new technology that could improve our lives until years down the road, or sometimes ever.

Of the San Francisco-based consumer apps that have launched in Toronto in the last few years, Uber is the most revolutionary, hands down. Using Uber daily is cheaper than owning a car, a car that would contribute to congestion, and sit idle for 96% of the time. Uber has been lauded by Mothers Against Drunk Driving for reducing DUI. Its convenience is unparalleled, giving the consumer a powerful weapon in their transportation choices. I still ride the Queen streetcar five or six times a week, but I love that I can actually spend less money by splitting an Uber with my friends, and get door to door service in the winter cold. Why would the City want to eliminate this option that takes cars off the road when we all agree Toronto is facing a transportation crisis?

Imagine the city is successful in shutting down Uber. How do you think that will affect investors’ desire to invest in local startups? Not just here in Toronto, but all over Canada, from St. John’s to Vancouver. How do you think that will affect American companies’ desire to launch in Canada?

If we are trying to create high-tech jobs in Canada, why would we want to chill this burgeoning industry and generator of jobs, just to protect the embedded interests of the taxi industry? What has the taxi industry ever done for us? Uber drivers are always willing to tell you how they like driving for Uber, and they universally tell me they like it or love it. Driving for Uber adds flexibility to their lives, makes them their own bosses, and half of them tell me they are former (or current) taxi drivers, but are much happier driving for Uber.

Personally, I want these jobs to come to Canada. I want people to say, “The Toronto startup scene is exploding.” I want the city to continue to grow as a global destination for the most talented people in the world.

However, this battle of the City vs. Uber is a microcosm for the success of the Canadian startup scene as a whole. If we reward a company that is literally revolutionizing transportation by shutting them down, what does that say about our innovation climate? Make the right decision, Toronto, and write to your councillor, urging them to support jobs and innovation – or let the taxi industry choose our mediocre future.

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