The week of November 29, 2015

Disasters, from the personal to the cosmic

By Jesse Hicks

This past week in the United States, we celebrated Thanksgiving, with all its attendant feelings of generosity and goodwill. It was a time for reflection on all the things for which we owe thanks. But that time is over now, and in this week’s issue of the Kernel, we’re taking a look at the darker side: at disasters, whether they’re personal, natural, or always looming somewhere over the next horizon, perpetually waiting for their time to come.

First, Joseph Flatley takes us inside the world of Ben Davidson, a Pittsburgh-area “conspiracy entrepreneur” who’s turned his fascination with outré ideas into a full-time job. Every day he posts a new video on YouTube, on topics ranging from the threat of solar flares to the government’s use of airborne chemicals to combat global warming—which may or may not exist. With an easy, laid-back authority, he weaves an intricate tapestry of occult knowledge, and it’s earned him more than 250,000 subscribers. He even offers premium subscriptions for viewers who want more of his unique worldview. Perhaps speaking most importantly to his success, he rarely talks about having an audience; to him, his work is all about serving a “community” of like-minded individuals, people who may have never felt comfortable talking about such topics in polite company. With his YouTube channel, his Kickstarter-backed roadshow, and now a weekend conference, he’s offered his community something vital: a place where they can feel safe talking openly.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, Nithin Coca looks at the long-running project to build a tsunami warning system for the Indian Ocean. In 2004, a massive wave killed more than 200,000 people in one of the worst natural disasters known to history. Sadly, many of those deaths came due to lack of an adequate warning system; if people in many of the poorest, most populous countries had known the wave was coming, they would have had hours to evacuate. Coca details the unique challenges in making sure such a tragedy doesn’t happen again. Today, thanks to a dedicated team of scientists and researchers, the Indian Ocean region has its own warning system, and when the next wave comes, people will be ready.

On a totally different scale of “disaster,” Eugenia Williamson recalls her own personal Internet catastrophe, where she inadvertently found herself pitted against Macaulay Culkin, Patton Oswalt, and Tom Scharpling. She’d made the mistake of not paying proper reverence to Culkin’s pizza-themed Velvet Underground cover band. The keywords “Macaulay pizza-themed Velvet Underground cover band” proved catnip for music journalists and bloggers, who by and large treated the idea with a seriousness it probably didn’t deserve. When Williamson published a list of jokey questions she’d submitted to the band—“pizza-themed, of course,” in the words of the band’s publicist—she was blindsided by a flood of Twitter hate, including from Oswalt and his followers. Like most Internet outrage, it burned out in a day or two. But why was it so easy to stoke in the first place?

Enjoy the issue.

Illustration by Max Fleishman