Is Storm Chasing Immoral?

For me one of the most disturbing aspects of the Joplin tornado, which left at least 117 people dead when it struck southwestern Missouri on May 22, is that it was pursued by at least two teams of storm chasers, one of which was filming for a national TV show. Some might argue that storm chasers serve a valuable scientific purpose in gathering data that will allow the destructive forces of tornadoes to be better understood and predicted, so that lives will be saved in the future. And it’s true that after the Joplin tornado, as is often the case, storm chasers were among the first on hand to help the survivors, arriving well before EMTs and firemen. But for me it’s impossible to overlook the fact that for most who undertake it, storm chasing is strictly a recreational activity. The emotional reality is that storm chasers enjoying immersing themselves in a force of nature that takes lives. Indeed, their activities may actively contribute to the death toll.

It’s been 12 years since I went tornado-hunting myself. I was reporting a story about weather junkies for a now-defunct magazine. I spent a long day driving around Oklahoma with Cloud 9 Tours (which was one of the outfits on hand for this year’s Joplin twister), then got caught up in reporting the aftermath of that year’s deadly tornado, an F5 twister that tore through the town of Moore, Oklahoma. It was one death in particular that made me forever question the morality of storm chasing. I was never tempted to go again. Continue reading Is Storm Chasing Immoral?

Dude, Your Jetpack’s Here


Just spent the morning doing something I’ve  been wanting to try for years: Fly a jetpack. JetLev, the unit’s manufacturer, just completed the first production model and let me be the first media to experience it first-hand. Instead of a rocket expelling hot gas, you’ve got twin nozzles shooting out high volumes of water at low pressure. You’re tethered to the surface by a 33-foot-long flexible hose. It’s a total hoot. Note that I’d only been flying this contraption for a few minutes when the video was taken. I got better — a little — after logging about 30 minutes total flying time; I was able to go higher and keep the thing under better control; the demo pilots can pull off some really impressive flying. I’ll be writing about the experience soon for Popular Mechanics.

How Dogs Read Our Minds

I’m currently in northernmost Quebec, in the Inuit village of Puvirnituq. The seemingly endless expanse of snow and ice, the biting subzero temperatures and the howling wind, powerfully drive home the resourcefulness of the Inuit, who for over a thousand years thrived in this unforgiving landscape with only stone-age technology. But what powerful technology it was: fire, seal-skin anoraks, snow-carving knives for making igloos, and above all, dogs. Yesterday afternoon I went for a dog-sled ride with expert musher Jean-Marie Novalinga, whose team pulled us across a flat, wind-scoured landscape. Unlike dog teams in Alaska, those in this part of the Arctic are harnessed in a loose fan formation, as if one were being pulled by a feral pack of dogs. One there in the empty expanse, man and dog working together, the partnership feels like a very primal relationship indeed.

It is, at heart, both a practical relationship and a deeply emotional one. “You have to feel connection to your dogs,” Novalinga said. “It’s the only way to work together.”

Anyone who has ever lived with a dog knows what he means by connection. Humans and dogs have a way of intuiting one another’s emotions – of feeling like we know what the other is feeling — that is unique among all the species on earth. But how they can achieve it is something of a biological puzzle. After all, dogs and humans are not particularly closely related species. Our last common ancestor lived far back during the age of dinosaurs. Dogs are more closely related to whales than they are to us. We are more closely related to mice than to dogs. So why should we feel such a powerful and unique bond? Continue reading How Dogs Read Our Minds

The Dark Psychology of the World’s Most Dangerous Sport

Fear shuts down thought. Under conditions of intense fear, the amygdala activates the locus ceruleus, which releases high levels of noradrenaline in the prefrontal cortex. This works to deactivate the whole of the lateral prefrontal cortex. In essence, the fear system pulls the plug on all our higher-level cognitive processes. The time to make a plan is not when you wake up inside a burning building.

Unfortunately, most of us have a hard time appreciating before the fact how non-negotiable this effect will be. That failure can result in tragic consequences – especially when it comes to one particular recreational activity that demands self-reliance in a potentially fatal environment. What is it? Continue reading The Dark Psychology of the World’s Most Dangerous Sport

Getting Lost, and Loving It

The most exciting thing about travel for me is the delicious sense of disorientation, that Alice-in-Wonderland sense that even the smallest, most mundane details of life have been switched around. For me, getting lost in a strange place isn’t necessarily a bad thing at all. I like the sense of being totally cut off from the predictable world of my everyday life, immersed in the strangeness of the new. In the current issue of Travel + Leisure magazine, I have a short article talking about how traveling without navigational aids can boost your awareness of the world around you.

As it happens, a friend of mine, the travel writer Matt Gross, has been thinking along the same lines. Matt spent years traveling around the world writing the Frugal Traveler column for the New York Times. Now he’s started a new column called “Getting Lost,” in which he describes his attempts to deliberately disorient himself in places around the world that he has never visited before. Given our mutual interest in the topic, we decided to interview each other. My answers to Matt’s questions can be found over at his website, The Minor Glories.

Most of us try hard not to get lost. Where did you get the idea to deliberately throw yourself into the experience? Continue reading Getting Lost, and Loving It

How to Hunt Like a Caveman

A mist hangs in the forested valley as dawn approaches. Somewhere a lone bird calls. I sit on my haunches, listening. There are wild pigs in this forest, somewhere. Daylight might draw them up through this thicket to the ridgeline behind me. My quarry is a razor-tusked beast that can weigh several hundred pounds and is famous for exacting violent revenge on hunters. I check my weapons—a wooden bow and a single stone-tipped arrow—and find myself wondering: Is this really a great idea?

So begins my latest “I’ll Try Anything” column in Popular Mechanics, about my time stone-age hunting with Santa Cruz wilderness expert Cliff Hodges. You can read the full story here.

Montana Ranching: The Uncensored Story

The New York Times is running a story tomorrow that I wrote about hardcore vacation ranches out West, where guests take part in running real working cattle ranch. (It’s already available online, though.) Unfortunately, they had to cut out some of the more vivid scenes from the piece. “We’re a family newspaper,” my editor said. I didn’t think that what they took out was all that gruesome, but in my estimation it went a long way toward establishing just how hardcore these experiences are. This isn’t a Disney Channel version of cattle ranching; animals get castrated, have their ovaries pulled out, get tags punched into their ears, and all the rest.

At any rate, in the interest of full and complete reporting, I’m putting the full version online below, so those of a more hardy disposition can learn what these ranches are all about. Continue reading Montana Ranching: The Uncensored Story

Coming Up for Air

I’m heading home this afternoon from Aruba, where I spent the last two days diving in the C-Quester 3, the first operational sub built by the Dutch company UBoat Worx. It’s really a blast! Last night we motored over in it from the marina to a seaside restaurant, where we had dinner and enjoyed the sunset. I’ll be posting more about this in the future, including some cool video that we shot.

Hunting With Home-Made Weapons


Recently I traveled to Santa Cruz, California, to write about a wilderness-skills enthusiast who hunts big game using home-made weapons of stone and wood. It wasn’t until I was crouched in the undergrowth of the Santa Cruz mountains, waiting for a 300-pound boar to come strolling within bowshot, that I realized how incredibly dangerous an undertaking this could be. That doesn’t daunt my guide, 30-year-old Cliff Hodges, who has killed a 450-pound black bear with a stone-tipped arrow. I’ll post more about this when the article is published in Popular Mechanics. In the meantime, here’s a short video I made about Hodges, with the help of my 13-year-old niece (and video wunderkind) Anna Emy. Thanks, Anna!

My Strange Journey With Antivirus Guru John McAfee

As I stepped from the rickety wooden dock onto John McAfee’s motorboat, I felt like I was in a scene straight out of Heart of Darkness. Here I was, a visitor in a strange land, embarking on a journey up a tropical river in search of the truth about a larger-than-life figure living in self-imposed exile.

“Are we going to find Kurtz?” I joked.

McAfee laughed and gunned the engine. The mood turned more Apocalypse Now, as he cranked the boat up Belize’s twisting New River, our wake surging through the mangrove roots on the bank. Every quarter mile or so the unmarked channel forked, and McAfee assured me that if we took the wrong one we would wind up in Guatemala, hopelessly lost, or else stuck for good, with no way out except to wade mile after mile through nearly impenetrable, crocodile-infested swamp.

Only later would I realize just how truly Kurtz-like the mission had already become. On that day, what had started out as a sympathetic profile for Fast Company would slowly evolve into something more like a take-down, as I realized that McAfee’s position in Belize was much more compromised than I had imagined. Finally I understood why he had kept asking–playfully, I had thought–whether my story was going to be an expose. As the facts emerged, it became clear that I would have to write just that.

What I still don’t understand is whether an expose was what he wanted all along. Did he, like Kurtz, crave the blade? He had, after all, kept bringing up the idea of the expose. And he kept scattering clues of dark import in my path. But why? Was it that he craved the publicity? Was he diverting my attention away from something else? Or did he have some other plan altogether? Given that the subject is an avowed prankster like John McAfee, we may never know the whole truth.

Read the story here.

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