Weekend Reading: Apocalypse Now!

In this weekly roundup, we scour the Web for our favorite long-form articles, collecting them here and on Longreads and Twitter. This installment focuses on statistics, secret agents, and guns.

The 2009 Leonid meteor shower.     Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Could there be a more fitting end for us than to be crushed by a giant replica of a popular snack food?

I love conspiracy theories. I generally don’t believe them but they do make excellent reads. Cascading through page after page of poorly cited Wikipedia entries on the true meaning of The Shining (Stanley Kubrick helped fake the moon landing) or Lincoln’s real assassin (hint: his dog) is nothing if not wildly entertaining. Still, it seems statistically unlikely that they’re all wrong. Some wild speculator somewhere has to have gotten one right at least once, right? So just to play it safe, I file all conspiracy theories under “Probably Not, But I Wouldn’t Be Surprised.”

Lately my lackadaisical defense of insane ideas has become a problem. It’s the Mayans. I can’t definitively say they were right about the end of the world, commonly interpreted by loons as December 21, but there is an awful lot of weird stuff happening. An increased frequency in Bigfoot sightings, hyper-intelligent dogs driving cars, space spiders, anything at all to do with John McAfee, and now, right on cue, there’s a giant asteroid on its way, one course-altering gas pocket explosion away from careening into Earth. The best part? It’s shaped like a peanut. Could there be a more fitting end for us than to be crushed by a giant replica of a popular snack food?

It’s just all coming together too well for me to comfortably dismiss everything with 100 percent confidence. Sure, the asteroid is a week or so early, but even getting the month of the apocalypse right is still pretty impressive, I think.

I keep thinking about Robert Heinlein’s 1952 short story, The Year of the Jackpot, about a middle-aged statistician that correctly predicts the end of the world. The hero, Potiphar Breen, works for an insurance company but studies cycles in his spare time; geographic, cosmic, social, the works. When too many weird things start happening at once, he decides its “time to jump” and flees into the wilderness with his lady friend. Of course, Heinlein was kind of a lunatic (you kind of have to be to write a lifetime’s worth of original science fiction I think), but he had a way of making everything sound totally reasonable. I’m not advocating that everyone run off into the woods, I’m just saying it can’t hurt to keep an eye out these next few weeks and know that as a reader of Outside, your chances of survival out there are that much higher.

Anyway, having officially stated my position on the end of the world, here’s your Weekend Reading! The winners of last week's quiz will be honored as kings in the next age of man.

Can we ever truly appreciate nature, or are we just trying to realize impossible ideals from centuries past? James Somers investigates our modern relationship with the great outdoors. Outside.

"That’s the paradox. In a culture pervaded by artifice, by self-awareness and advertising, the grand gesture away from it all—'Fuck it, I’m going into the wild'—is just another trope. We’ve seen that movie. In fact it was called Into the Wild and for the parties involved it was sort of a pathetic catastrophe. This is the bind I’m in: I feel small in urban life—'tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized,' as Muir put it. I want to get away for a bit. I’m inspired by Thoreau and company to get really away. But in the very breath of my demand for the “authentic” wild, the un-guided tour, I’m cringing at how flaccid and disgracefully naive I probably sound—how much like one of Krakauer’s goons, the kind of person who will either gentrify the woods or get myself killed in them. This reaching toward the outdoors, far from clearing my head, confounds it further. This deep-seeming thing I crave may well not exist. Or worse, it does—and I’m too bound up by ego to seize it."

Natural gas is plentiful and burns cleaner than coal, but our search for it may alter the planet in ways we never imagined. Marianne Lavelle, National Geographic.

"These days tank trucks, sand haulers, flatbeds stacked with pipe, and cement mixers rumble continually over the winding two-lane roads. Here and there in patches cut from forest or farm are flattened, four-acre mounds of fresh dirt. For a few weeks at a time tall derricks rise from these drill pads, and the trucks and trailers congregate around them. Contaminated water from the new wells pours into tank trucks or into lagoons lined with dark plastic. The derricks soon disappear, but the wells stay, connected by clusters of green pipes and valves to permanent new pipelines, condensate tanks, and compressor stations. Much of Pennsylvania has been transformed since 2008."

The story of an 18-year-old FBI informant who infiltrated an ecoterrorist cell and may have ended up incriminating innocent people. Dean Kuipers, Outside.

"Anna had a sharp tongue and was quick to laugh, and McDavid was both attracted and intimidated. She dropped names of activists she knew and had obvious experience, while he was a newbie who hadn’t done anything. McDavid was an occasional student at Sierra College, in his hometown of Auburn, California, a gentle, athletic redhead who’d played high-school football, had worked as a carpenter, and was interested in political protest and anarchist theory. He came from a loving family and had never experienced any particular radicalizing event other than a few sobering moments when he grasped the effects of construction sprawl on his beloved Sierra Nevada. The wildest thing he’d ever done was march against the war in Iraq."

Gun control advocates have no idea how to regulate the 300 million weapons in American hands. Maybe it's time for an entirely different approach. Jeffery Goldberg, The Atlantic.

"These gun-control efforts, while noble, would only have a modest impact on the rate of gun violence in America. Why? Because it’s too late. There are an estimated 280 million to 300 million guns in private hands in America—many legally owned, many not. Each year, more than four million new guns enter the market. This level of gun saturation has occurred not because the anti-gun lobby has been consistently outflanked by its adversaries in the National Rifle Association, though it has been. The NRA is quite obviously a powerful organization, but like many effective pressure groups, it is powerful in good part because so many Americans are predisposed to agree with its basic message. America’s level of gun ownership means that even if the Supreme Court—which ruled in 2008 that the Second Amendment gives citizens the individual right to own firearms, as gun advocates have long insisted—suddenly reversed itself and ruled that the individual ownership of handguns was illegal, there would be no practical way for a democratic country to locate and seize those guns."

How Anne Kelley Knowles is using geography and technology to reshape the way we look a pieces of history. Tony Horwitz, Smithsonian Magazine.

"Scholars have long debated Lee’s decision to press a frontal assault at Gettysburg. How could such an exceptional commander, expert in reading terrain, fail to recognize the attack would be a disaster? The traditional explanation, favored in particular by Lee admirers, is that his underling, Gen. James Longstreet, failed to properly execute Lee’s orders and marched his men sideways while Union forces massed to repel a major Confederate assault. 'Lee’s wondering, 'Where is Longstreet and why is he dithering?'' Knowles says. Her careful translation of contours into a digital representation of the battlefield gives new context to both men’s behavior. The sight lines show Lee couldn’t see what Longstreet was doing. Nor did he have a clear view of Union maneuvers.

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