Kristen Berman and the Science of Transformation
How do Burning Man events trigger transformation, and what does that look like? Stuart and behavioral scientist Kristen Berman go deep on the psychology of change, and what that looks like in Black Rock City and beyond. Can participating in a Burning Man event really make you more generous, more tolerant, more civic-minded? What’s the role of the 10 Principles in all of this, and how important is the physical environment of Black Rock City?
Kristen Berman explores human behavior at Duke University, at Google, with her consulting firm Irrational Labs, and at Black Rock City. She wrote “Keeping Up With the Joneses at Burning Man” and co-wrote “Hacking Human Nature for Good.” And of course, she’s got a TEDx talk: Don’t Listen To Your Customers.
KRISTEN: All of our lives have been disrupted. There’s a really big opportunity to disrupt our habits, our routines, and our norms at this moment, or able to kind of make a change. You don’t have to go back to the same thing as you did before. It’s a great time to just. Break something and make a change. The whole thing is broken. So I think we have to break our norms as well.
STUART: Transformative experience and around the Burning Man world for any length of time. And I guarantee you, you’re going to hear that phrase or, or some variation of transformational transformation thinking. Uh, but what does that really mean? And is it even really a thing at all? I mean, as much as I’m a true believer, I am also a skeptic at heart, and I just want to put a little science around this phenomenon, uh, or at least at least apply some critical thinking.
Otherwise, honestly, to me, it just sounds like a bunch of new age, transformational, hippy dippy magic. I mean, first of all, What kind of change are we talking about, change your hair color, change your playlists, or are we talking about something deeper, more lasting, changing your attitudes, changing your beliefs, changing your way of life.
I mean, we’re talking about changing your pants or, or changing your mind. And if we are talking about changing minds and hearts, shouldn’t we be able to measure that somehow. I mean, establish some kind of causality. That’s why out of all of the scholarly angles that have been used to try to figure out this Burning Man thing, I’m personally the most drawn to behavioral psychology and it’s sexy stepchild, behavioral economics.
It seems to me that if the answers to these questions are going to be found anywhere it’s on this part of the academic spectrum. I’m Stuart Mangrum and our guest today is a behavioral scientist and a Burner who recently published an article in the journal – wait for it – Behavioral Scientist with the absolutely intriguing title, keeping up with the Joneses at Burning Man for the collective benefit.
She has done the behavioral economics thing for Google, with Duke university and with her own consulting firm. And she’s the coauthor of hacking human nature for good, welcome Kristen Berman.
KRISTEN: Hi, how’s it going?
STUART: Fantastic. I am so excited because I’ve only recently discovered the amazing field of behavioral economics. I just read Richard Taylor’s book last year, “Ain’t Misbehavin,’” and it kind of blew my mind. But for our listeners, tell us what is a behavioral scientist and what is behavioral economics?
KRISTEN: Great. Typically in a rational world, we make decisions only based on time and utility. So we think about how much we would spend and if our preferences align to that, and we make a rational decision. In the behavioral economics world, not all of that’s true. So you may walk past a restaurant and want to go in because you see a long line and a long line signals that other people like it.
This is fairly irrational, but we use these heuristics every single day to make decisions, and the field of behavioral science or behavioral economics studies, basically how we take these shortcuts in life and in our decision-making. Sometimes these are very helpful, you know, we never have to make every single decision every minute based on time and utility.
But sometimes they’re also irrational and they kind of push us to maybe make some mistakes in places we would otherwise, if we had all of the time and resources in the world, make a different decision.
STUART: Now are they actually mistakes or are they based on our real desires and our real values?
KRISTEN: It’s a good question. So there’s a nice clip from Jerry Seinfeld that describes this better than I could. It’s very funny. If you Google night guy morning guy, which basically says I’m going to stay up late watching Netflix, and I’m just going to binge on Netflix and in the morning, I’m going to get up and I’m going to hate myself because I’m tired.
Now in the moment watching Netflix was what you wanted to do, but that’s your present self that’s your present self. That’s today’s self talking. Like in the moment we want to eat the M&Ms, we want to stay on our couch. Your future self wants you to go to work, do the deadline, call your mother, eat better, exercise. And so it’s not that we are necessarily rational, we’re just making decisions more for our current self than our future self.
JERRY SEINFELD: You’re watching TV. And I stay up late because I’m a night guy. Getting up after five hours sleep, that’s morning guy’s problem.
KRISTEN: It’s not always what we really want to do, but the world is tempting. The world is very tempting to us. And so we tend to over prioritize today.
STUART: but isn’t the whole edifice of economics built on a rational person hypothesis. How can we let that go? I mean, isn’t that what everything is based on?
KRISTEN: Yeah, so well, the behavioral economics view is basically there are some things that are rational or we’re not actually making decisions optimally. But many times those shortcuts are as You mentioned just a hundred percent. Okay. And those are the shortcuts that we’re taking. Then we should basically take those shortcuts because they’re actually a rational assessment of how to use our time. I mean, I think looking at Burning Man, this would be viewed as a very irrational behavior, right?
We’re not optimizing for time and money. We do a lot of unpaid labor and we give away our goods. We produce goods for unclear market value. There’s no transparency of information. You’re just riding around the playa. So I think we’re all acting quote, unquote irrational when we’re on the playa.
STUART: Tell me more about that. How does that actually work? And how does that manifest out in, in a Burning Man event space like Black Rock City?
KRISTEN: I think one of the bigger observations from Burning Man, this is kind of a macro one. I’ll pull back for a minute. It’s just the way that Burning Man is. Laid out from a market perspective is actually kind of like the real world and that we really value land.
So we really want to be in a location. If you talk to your camp, the leader right before the placements come out, everyone is nervous and they really want a good placement. And this is actually how our. Default world is also built. We want a good home. We want to own it. We have an American value of owning it, but that actually tends to be cross-cultural as well.
So we have this value of kind of land at Burning Man. The difference I think at Burning Man, is that the way to get land or higher status in society is very different from the default world. In the default world, you make a lot of money. You get a good job and you have a nice LinkedIn and in the Burning Man world, you give away your goods.
You’re nice to people. You have kind of extravagant experiences and that’s a ladder as a different ladder. We’re climbing, but still the human condition exists. We want a kind of high status and we work hard for it. It’s just the ladder we’re running up is different.
STUART: So that notion of status coming from what you give rather than from what you acquire.
Seems to pretty much turn consumerism on its head. And to me, it actually hearkens back to more traditional cultures like the famous potlatch cultures of the Pacific Northwest, is this somehow tapping into some more natural human behavior in the sense of evolutionary biology.
KRISTEN: I think we could say that, you know, we grew up in tribes and you can imagine actually a nice study would be seeing if people are as generous with their tribe at Burning Man as, without their tribe.
Like there’s still some in grouping that happens even at Burning Man. Well, if I have Chapstick, I’m always going to offer it to my campmates. I may sometimes offer it to other people. And so we have kind of a sense of community at Burning Man, by which we don’t and other places. And I think this goes back to kind of, we are our norms. We are who we surround ourselves with.
In the default world, if I’m around everybody who has the same value of climbing the corporate ladder, and then I’m going to do that too. And I think in the default world, and in many times we ascribe kind of agency, like, that’s my preference to work hard in a corporate setting. I actually think Burning Man shows a little bit of that they’re not necessarily a preference, it’s a norm. And in Burning men, the norm is to be generous to give your chaps to go away. And so we’re, again, we’re kind of working on the same human condition, but in a different environment of decision-making. But if you create a society with a lot of altruism, everybody’s all of a sudden going to be altruistic, and it’s not that humans are altruistic or not.
It’s at the norm that we drop them into kind of drives our behavior. We’ve created a really cool environment, or you’ve created – everyone’s created a really cool environment at Burning Man where it’s, it’s a reciprocity and altruism environment. Yeah.
STUART: Yeah. Reciprocity, though, without the kind of tit for tat reciprocity.
One of the things that I think is really super interesting about gifting is a lot of times when people first get out there, they have to unlearn everything they understand about gifting. Right? Gifting in our consumerist society is so heavily wrapped up in reciprocity, in value assessment.
Just think about somebody who doesn’t get you a Christmas present one year. Are they going to slip off your list next year? If they got you something bigger than you got them, how are you going to feel about it? So they have to kind of unlearn those behaviors and learn how to experience the pure joy of the gift, right?
KRISTEN: Yeah. And again, I do think that comes back to norms. Like you drop somebody in and they see another person giving them a gift and… We call it actually like behavior contagion, where if, if you smoke, I’m more likely to smoke. But if I see you giving that, I’m more likely to give. And so. It is a little bit of a contagious environment to actually have somebody give something to you.
And you’re like, okay, they’re asking nothing in return, and you just go and you do the same thing for somebody else. And actually when I, you know, in the very beginning, when I was telling friends who had not been about it, this is the thing they’re most surprised at. How is it not this market based economy?
That’s one of the most special things about Burning Man is there’s no expectation of reciprocating.
STUART: And no suspicion of ulterior motive. In Time Square if somebody offers you a gift, what are you going to say, right? There’s a great – I wouldn’t call it “experiment” – it’s more of a performance art piece that I saw. The guy who had a crisp stack of $1 bills and went out to a city corner and literally could not give money away because everybody thought he wanted something for it.
They thought it was like that, like that penny that they put in the fundraising appeal to make you open it up to think that they’re giving you money.
KRISTEN: Yeah, we actually did that. We wanted to do research on payday lending. And so we stood outside of a payday lender and offered to give people the same money that they would’ve gotten at the payday lender.
And nobody took us up on it because it was free money.
STUART: What? Nobody?
KRISTEN: Yeah. And it was… They don’t just don’t trust that… they didn’t trust us. And I think that a sad kind of fact on our society is that we’re not there. The idea that you could just give something to somebody is hard to swallow.
STUART: Do you think that Decommodification or creating a decommodified space has something to do with that? with lowering people’s guards?
KRISTEN: You know, I think, I think so. I, for lawyers, if you think about their time, I don’t know if you have lawyer friends, but the lawyers know exactly how much money their time costs. Every 15 minutes is, you know, X hundreds of dollars. That means they’re getting very scarce on their time. They have a time value of money.
And then what they anecdotally say is in leisure time, they’re much more scarce with their time because they understand the time value of their time. So if they’re spending time with their spouse, it’s costing them $800 to do it. And I think when we put a value on everything in society, that every single thing has a dollar value, then that makes us think in dollar values and we commoditize everything. When you take away that completely, you kind of have of freedom to, to value things other than in a monetary way could be in a social way, could be in a status way, which, you know, again is a different way to value things, but still is kind of the human condition where we’re putting some assignment on it, on our reputation.
STUART: Yeah. And being in an environment that doesn’t have all the usual status markers that you don’t see me driving up in my Mercedes or parking in front of my McMansion, I think has something to do with it too. Right. It’s a little bit of an equal.
KRISTEN: Yeah. And I think though, you know, one of the first year the one wheels came to Burning Man. This is the first time I was like, we should ban this, because usually…
STUART: What’s a One Wheel?
KRISTEN: The One Wheel is like a scooter, but it’s like a cool little and it’s like a squat. Yeah.
STUART: It was exactly what it sounded like.
KRISTEN: Yeah. It’s kind of like a cool tech tool. Like it’s, it seems a little techie, but it gets you places fast and it’s actually really fun.
But the problem with this is it’s visible wealth. And most of the time at Burning Man and your visible wealth is at your camp. And it’s usually for other people. So if you’re going to like do ice cream sandwiches to everyone, you’re actually giving away your wealth. I think Burning Man has a problem when people start making purchases for just them, because then we’re going back into the default world norms by which I see a one wheel, next year
I want a One Wheel. I see a big bike, next year I want a big bike, and it’s not: I see somebody’s giving away ice cream sandwiches next year. I want to give away grilled cheese. What we want is the race to the top to be around giving away things, not personal wealth. Bikes getting bigger. I think that’s actually something to measure like our bikes getting bigger over the years.
Cause you see somebody else’s cool bike and we actually don’t want that. That’s the race that we’re all in, in consumerism anyway.
STUART: I think we do want bigger tires though, because skinny tires get stuck in playa.
KRISTEN: Yeah, yeah. So there’s some limit to this. This is actually Robert Frank’s analogy. Bear with me for a minute while I do this analogy, elephant seals, meeting practices. So elephant seals have different mating practices in that it’s a winner take all. The male who wins against other males, gets all the women. And so what happens with these elephant seals is that they get so big eating to prepare for the fight that some of them end up dying because they’re eaten by sharks.
So they’re too big to actually get away from their predator. This is not good, but the second elephant seal male, who’s like going to be fighting for the winning spot, there’s no way he would just stop eating, he may win the fight. So there’s no incentive in an individual level to change my behavior.
What happens is the group suffers because the seals get so big that they’re going to get eaten. Now, why does this matter is that basically, if you could put a rule for all elephant seals to say, stop eating at this certain weight so that nobody dies from these predators, but you’d still have somebody who won this would be better for the individual and for the group to kind of paternalistically set some norm that says everybody can not go beyond a certain weight.
In society, basically we have this individual and group tension a lot. Where is an individual? My desire may be to get a bigger bike, my desire maybe to not wear a helmet. It may be to smoke. But the reality is if everybody did that, the group norms would go down. At Burning Man, we have a limited amount of resources. I don’t know if we’re there yet, but a thought exercise it’d be at what level do you want to restrict people’s individual expenditures because basically you don’t want the race to the top to change from group to individual. I know this is a convoluted story. I hope folks are following.
STUART: I’ve certainly seen some concierge camps that really seemed like there was an elephant seal there with the era of elephant seals.
KRISTEN: You know, it’s an applicable story for the burn.
STUART: Yeah. Um, and I hear you though, because I think that’s a lot of what people react to. People usually describe their reaction to plug-n-play camping as, like, oh, that’s commodification, when in fact it’s participation or it’s really just kind of overconsumption. Yeah. It hearkens back to your default world modes of status based on consumption rather than status based on generosity, right?
KRISTEN: Yep. And that’s, I think where are these plug and play camps at and display a lot of wealth, get other people to think they need things. And this probably isn’t good for everybody to think that they need, you know, canvas glamping tents. And at some level it’s not bad if only a few people do it, but if everybody starts to do it, this is the problem. If I were doing placement, I would hide any of the plug and play camps. So people just can’t see them,
STUART: Put ‘em out on L street and they can ride over on their one wheels for the rest of the city. Yeah. How did you end up going to Burning Man in the first place?
KRISTEN: Good question. This would have been my 11th year. I went to University of Wisconsin and had a group of friends from college about, had gone one year before, and I had moved out to California. They brought me and I have that group and I’ve been going ever since. I feel very lucky. I’m from Wisconsin. We don’t usually, I don’t think anyone in Wisconsin knows about Burning men. Honestly, that’s a mass generalization, but count me to California. You’re swimming in it. So I started swimming.
STUART: So let’s talk about transformation. You know, Burning Man is so many people self-report or describe it as this transformative experience, uh, which sounds kind of whoopty doo until you actually look at some of the science that’s been done.
I was just going back over the preliminary report outs from, uh, Molly Crockett and Daniel Yudkin and that team, right? And I was just stunned by this, that 76% of the people said that they were somewhat too profoundly transformed by their experience.
And by the way, this is not just a burning in, this is also at other so-called transformational festivals, like lightning in a bottle.
Right. Which really kind of gets my goat. But Hey, we’ll, we’ll go on. And 85% of them said that it was lasting or permanent. How does that work at a psych level? If you’re going to a behavioral or biological level, we hook those people up to an MRI machine before and after the sensor information, what, what sort of changes do we see in their, in their brains?
KRISTEN: I don’t think you’ll necessarily see changes in their brains. You know that analogy, it says like you’re a fish swimming in water and you don’t know you’re in water. I don’t think people realize when they’re in the default world that we’re in water and what that is. And so when you get transported to a different norm, a different scene, it basically opens up the imagination and creativity to know that you’re swimming in water in the default world.
And there could be another way to organize a city. There could be another way to interact with humans. A lot of behavioral science and behavioral economics comes down to, we are basically a product of the environment that we live in. This is sad for most people to realize and internalize our attitudes, preferences and beliefs are important, but the biggest motivator for us to do anything is the environment that we operate in.
And that the M&Ms are close to me. I’ll eat more of them. If they’re farther away, I’ll eat less. Burning Man is just a massive change of the environment by which, you know, everything has changed and you stick somebody in a new environment. I would hope they’re transformed. Right? It’s actually the essence of behavioral science is that Burning Man should change you because the environment has changed so much.
STUART: So I’m a little disappointed that I’m not going to persuade anybody to bring an FMRI machine out to the playa, but that’s OK.
KRISTEN: Actually I have a friend, Zarinah Agnew, who’s a neuroscientist and really lovely. And she studies basically people together and she’s been wanting to do that. So I do think that if she can get the funding to bring it in this dust, then…
STUART: We had a theoretical physicist, Adam Brown on a few episodes, you know, and I, I really, really wanted to get a particle Collider out on playa too, but he, he talked me out of that. Hey, it’s tough enough just to get our bikes to work out there, right? Molly Crockett and her team did some experimentation, right?
KRISTEN: Yeah, I was actually on her… I was a volunteer for that. So…
STUART: Cool. In addition to the survey work, there were some actual experiments done. Tell me about, I don’t know, the dictator game is that, is that one of them?
KRISTEN: Yeah. Basically you want to see how generous people are. She did two studies seeing how generous people are in the beginning of Burning Man.
And then she also looked at them at the end. And the question is when you have to give away a little bit of money to an anonymous person, How much money do you give away? And some of it was, I think, gifting too, where you’re saying it’s not money it’s gifts. Some of her results show that we, over the course of the burn, get more generous in how we treat strangers. But usually you have an effect. If you’re in a repeated game, which means with my spouse or my friends, or a stranger I know that I’ll see 10 times I will be nicer because I understand that reputation matters. In a game where it’s a one-time player game. I’m going to just take money from you because why not?
In a pure economic model, it doesn’t really matter. I’m never going to see you again. And I think Molly’s study more showed that even of those one-time player games, people are more generous as time goes on at the burn. The idea of basically learning from your environment is the theory of change here.
It can be contagious. I see somebody else giving and I can then take a social cue and actually do it. That’s probably the bigger takeaway for coming in the default world is this behavior contagion, my behavior affects other people’s. And so if you can get a group of people together, changing their behaviors, that could actually have spillover effects to other groups and it has to be visible.
So I love Burning Man culture, but I think a lot of it is too contained in the Burning Man culture. I want to have it. Well, actually one time Zarinah and myself. Went out on Mission Street and started giving compliments to people. we would strategically stand and we would compliment them. That’s like a normal thing you would do at Burning Man.
So we’re like, let’s just try to do it on Mission Street. And I’m not saying that that’s the scalable solution, but you see other people giving compliments, maybe you’ll give a stranger a compliment on the next block. We should try to get interestingly creative about how we show our Burner spirit.
STUART: That’s exactly what I was going to ask you about next.
It’s kind of the million dollar question for us. And one that we keep asking ourselves, but how dependent is this transformative experience on the place and how much of it is based on the people, but I’m hearing it from you. It’s more of the people than the place. Are there unique things about our event environments like BlackRock city or Tank lu Rue or Hierapolis that helped this process along?
Or is it really just a matter of being with the right crowd of people and modeling their behavior?
KRISTEN: I would call it the environment. Yeah. If I were to stick somebody in, drop them into an environment, then they will adopt those norms. When we think about transformation, you kind of want the full environmental change.
Now, when we think about getting people to bring that back into the real world, they may just want to bring one behavior back in.
Maybe it’s that they give more compliments or that they offer their seat on the bus. Cities in general are a platform for experimentation. And the way that the playa is, it has micro experimentation.
So each little camp does their own thing. And so each little camp could imagine bringing something back to the real world. And I think in cities, it feels more like a blah, like the whole city is the same thing. And so. There’s a little bit, and this is kind of a long-winded answer, but a little bit potential to say there’s no one answer and how to create transformation. It’s like a game of experimentation where we can just try lots of things.
STUART: And other cities have their own kind of psychogeography baked in too; advertising and commercial enterprises, and all that stuff.
KRISTEN: Yeah, you could imagine actually in Cuba, I don’t know if they still have it, but we went about five years ago, there was no advertising and it was a crazy experience to just realize like, Oh wow, the streets have no billboards. And so it would be interesting for just a city in the US to say no advertising. We don’t know if it’ll work. We don’t know if this is interesting, but let’s try, let’s measure and see if people are texting and driving less.
Or if they have less consumerism in these broader ways or no change. And maybe that’s okay too. Um,
STUART: I’d be content to just get the ads out from the urinals and from the talking ads inside elevators and all that other yeah.
KRISTEN: Yeah. It’s true.
STUART: So yeah, strange year, the we’re in of not having Black Rock City to go to, I’m particularly interested in this, as we design experiences that aren’t in our favorite dusty place. Did you happen to go to any of the virtual universes, to any of the multiverses?
KRISTEN: I didn’t. I was sad to miss it, but I wasn’t able to go. I heard it was amazing.
STUART: Well, as we design online experiences that are admittedly long Trek, short of the full immersive experience, what are some of the lessons you think we can bring into those, into the design process for those online spaces?
KRISTEN: I live in a community house. There’s 14 of us. We have, in COVID we now, we’re all COVID safe. We have dinners every night. And one thing that we’ve learned is people enjoy the dinner as much more when it’s not 14 people, but it’s two people or three people because you have a stronger sense of connection.
It’s more memorable. You can devolve more. I think the opportunity for online experiences is also to remember like the one to many mode is very tempting because it’s so easy to get many people to log on to a zoom call or something, but. The beauty of a lot of experiential things is that you connect with people one-to-one and it’s hard to have space for that.
Actually, I just talked to my cousin who’s in high school and started to be freshmen. And there’s, they have no concept of hallways in zoom, right? You’re not the teacher who lectures you, and then you go to the next class, you have a little bit of a break, but.
Where do these kids gossip and joke around and have a hallway conversation?
It feels like schools may have missed that idea of spontaneous small conversation and one-on-one connection, but, but hopefully online experiences can bring a little bit of that love back in.
STUART: Keep it real and keep it intimate.
KRISTEN: Yeah, exactly.
STUART: That’s true. Any advice you want to give to Burning Man Project is we try to struggle through the strange, strange frontier.
KRISTEN: Well, I’ll do two pieces of advice. One is more to Burners of like, I think the real tough thing in society is keeping up with the Joneses mental model. You see something other, somebody else’s doing and kind of the thought exercise here is like, would you rather live in a house where you are the smallest shack and a house of mansions, or you have, you know, a shack, but everybody else has a shack.
I think people kind of intuitively know that it would be tough to live next to a lot of mansions. And what that does is it basically causes us to have a race, to get more things and do more and compete with others. But I think the question that we should ask ourselves in life is what are we competing for?
In Burning Man, the real hack is that we’re competing in the race of generosity, giving altruism, but on a personal level, you can ask yourself, what’s your race? W where are you racing? And can you make sure that your incentives are to go up the right ladder?
Because if you go up the wrong letter, you’ll just keep going up the ladder.
Cause the ladder is so good. So making sure you’re on the right ladder feels important. And the other kind of thought exercise, especially for COVID is behavior. Change happens a lot in what we call a window of opportunity. So if you move jobs or you move homes or you just have a big life transition, you’re more likely to adopt a new habit.
And that’s because your environment of decision making has changed. It’s very difficult for me to meditate every day, if I’m doing the same thing every single day. And now all of a sudden I’m trying to meditate versus if I move homes and now I have a different routine, a different walk to work, different bedtime routine.
I can kind of disrupt that in an easier way. All of our lives have been disrupted. And so there’s a really big opportunity to disrupt our habits, our routines, and our norms. At this moment, we should be disrupting Burning Man as well because we’re able to kind of make a change. You don’t have to go back to the same thing as you did before. For organizers of Burning Man for theme cab organizers, she was like, it’s a great time to just break something. We weren’t doing the same thing before the burn and after the burn, we haven’t cleaned up. The whole thing is broken. So I think we have to break our norms as well.
STUART: I love it when people advise me to be disruptive, and to break things. Thank you. Thank you so much, Kristin Bergen for joining us today. This has been a really great talk.
KRISTEN: Very happy to be here. This is really lovely. I really appreciate the thoughtful questions. They were great. Just very fun.
STUART: Yay. All right.
STUART: Thanks again, Kristen. And thanks to all of you for listening. Be sure to catch our special year end holiday extravaganza show. Yeah, I know. With Reverend Billy at the stop shopping choir or naughty Santos than you can shake a candy cane and I, with the flaming tuba, the placement consultants, we’ll be recording that one live on December 18th.
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