Bucket of Eels: Nemichthys scolopaceus

Hi. It's Rose. You signed up for this newsletter, I promise.

Welcome to today’s bucket of eels. I’m Rose. Let’s pull out some eels, shall we?

Today’s eel: every edition of this newsletter is named after an eel. Today’s is the Slender Snipe Eel (Nemichthys scolopaceus). The slender snipe eel can grow to be five feet long, while still only weighing a few ounces (because it’s… slender… get it?). According to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, “Snipe eels have birdlike beaks with curving tips. Their beaks are covered with tiny, hooked teeth—the eels sweep their beaks through the water to entangle the antennae of tasty shrimp.” They live in the deep ocean, between 2,000 and 3,000 feet down, and are one of several species of snipe eels who all get their name from the bird who shares a long, skinny beak, the snipe.

Listen, I’m not going to lie to you, I picked this eel because I think it looks hilarious. In every image of it, the eel looks like it just told a really good dad joke. I mean come on:

We all need something funny today, don’t we?

Current status: I’m neck deep in working on the Flash Forward book and it’s both very exciting and COMPLETELY TERRIFYING. Working with Matt Lubchansky and Sophie Goldstein (geniuses, each of them) on this has been incredible, as has seeing the other ten artists in action. I’ve already learned so much about how comics are made. I’m also deep in the writing now, and it’s honestly the scariest thing I’ve ever done. Later on in this newsletter I’m going to talk about ghost-posts from my past, and one thing that doing this book has me thinking about is just how permanent books are. It sounds cliche, but it’s true. Obviously I want to get everything right when I write/make anything, but with a book, if you get something wrong you can’t really fix it. And the stakes just feel so much higher. Which means that for each fact and anecdote I’ve been trying to find primary sources, to make sure I’m 100% on point for everything. That process has been… maddening? You wouldn’t believe the number of anecdotes that are tossed around (even in academic journals!) with little to no sourcing. Or if they do cite a source, that source usually cites another and another and another until you’re looking at a whole year’s worth of fishing magazines on eBay because that seems to be the only way to find the original source for the story. (Yes, I bought the fishing magazines.) Anyway, that’s what I’ve been up to these days. It’s a bit like this over here at the moment:

Ghost Posts: From 2012 to 2014 I wrote for Smithsonian Magazine’s “Smart News” blog. It was one of my first jobs out of graduate school, and it wasn’t particularly glamorous. Every week I had to research and file 12 posts, most of them under 800 words. This was the era of aggregation blogs — sites that existed to suck up interesting content from other places on the web, add a bit of extra something to them, and push them out. It was often a raw numbers game — the more content you created, the more likely you were to have something take off.

These kinds of posts are not necessarily bad. The best ones synthesize disparate pieces of news and information bubbling up around the world and reveal some strand of connectivity between seemingly disparate ideas. I wrote a few of those. I also wrote plenty of them that were simply re-upping someone else’s original reporting and essentially going: “huh, isn’t this neat?”

I’m not ashamed of my work for Smart News but I am haunted by it.

Nothing I published was wrong, or misleading. None of the posts themselves are embarrassing. But they have taken on a life of their own.

When I was writing for Smart News, aggregation blogs like it were common. Lots of places were playing the same game. Readers understood, I thought, what they were getting when they clicked. If they wanted more, they could go to the original stories which were always linked to and quoted from excessively. When I was writing for Smart News, I almost never heard from readers.

Now, I hear from them all the time. Today, whoever runs the Smart News ship is doing an amazing job at keeping those stories alive. I still see pieces I wrote eight years ago pop up on Facebook, shared by friends or in groups. I’m credited for them in viral Tweets. And more than ever I’m getting emails and DM’s about them from people who think these posts are equivalent to a well-reported story. I’ve been asked for help with paternity cases and help training dogs and help tracking down historical documents. I’m asked for more details about posts I honestly don’t even remember writing, ones that were more quotations from elsewhere than my own words. I even get requests from news outlets, radio shows, podcasts, to come on their program and talk about the story. Each time I point them to the original reporter (again, linked and quoted extensively in the post) who actually wrote the story in question.

I’m not sure why this is, exactly. Have we all forgotten about aggregation, the specific visual markers of these kinds of posts? Today, the block-quote heavy style we used is rarely sighted online. Or were readers actually never that clear on what these posts were, they were just less inclined to reach out and ask questions? Perhaps the uptick in messages has less to do with the public’s media literacy, and more to do with the idea that getting in touch with journalists is a totally normal thing to do. I’m not sure.

I say that I’m haunted by these posts, but I don’t mean it in a bad way necessarily. More in a literal way. I’m followed by their ghosts, constantly reminded that they exist and that people still read them, and will continue to read them, and ask me about them.

A journalist’s job should never be taken lightly, but it can be hard to internalize the stakes of a 300 word post that is mostly quotes from other places. Especially when you’re writing 12 a week. These ghosts remind me that everything I put out there matters. Every person who reads my work, no matter how long after I create it, is doing so because they’re trying to find something out about the world. And I have a responsibility to them.

Right now my ghosts are friendly. But if I fuck something up, they might really turn into ghouls.


What I’ve written/done recently:

Bucket of Eels: Anguilla dieffenbachii

Hi. It's Rose. You signed up for this newsletter, I promise.

Welcome to today’s bucket of eels. I’m Rose. Let’s pull out some eels, shall we?

Today’s eel: every edition of this newsletter is named after an eel. Today’s is the large Longfinned eel (Anguilla dieffenbachii).

I came across a fact about this eel when reading this story, about an eel named Åle that supposedly lived for 155 years in a backyard well in Sweden. Turns out, it’s unlikely that Åle (a European eel, Anguilla anguilla) was quite that old, but eels can live quite a long time. Apparently there was once an eel named Pute who lived in a Swedish aquarium for 85 years. I could find no record of Pute, so perhaps the following is also untrue, but then another expert in the story said that "in another eel species, the large long-fin eel in New Zealand, there are individuals more than 100 years in age in natural waters.” One hundred years! 

The average life expectancy of a human in the United States (78.69 years) is less than Pute, and certainly less than these New Zealand eels. So of course I wanted to know more about these octogenarian New Zealand slimeybois. 

The New Zealand longfin eel does indeed have a long fin — according to guidebooks the easiest way to identify this eels is to look for its lengthy dorsal fin that runs about two thirds of the way down its body. These eels live the majority of their lives in freshwater, and only head out to see to mate and then die. They’re hefty eels, too, weighing about thirty pounds as adults. Oh and they can climb things. Apparently, in their quest for the sea, they often wind up trapped in hydropower dams. But unlike fish, who just kind of die there, these eels can leave the water and climb up and down small ladders to get through the obstacle

The Māori of course have a long relationship with this eel. They call the Anguilla dieffenbachii “tuna” and the eel is both an important food source as well as a whole bunch of mythology around the creatures. Because these eels get so big, and live so long, they can really feel like river monsters (also known as taniwha to the Māori). If you respect your local taniwha, you will be safe and protected. But if you do not, watch out. 

I picked a super long lived eel for this newsletter because I’m thinking about the last ten years, and the next ten. Total, that’s 12% of Åle’s life, but it’s probably 23% of mine. What I’m saying is that I’m running out of time to find a river to haunt, so please excuse me, I have some real estate prospecting to do. 

🌕🌖🌗🌘🌑🌒🌓🌔🌕 2019 🌕🌖🌗🌘🌑🌒🌓🌔🌕

As if ends of years weren’t existentially exhausting enough, we’re now also now enduring the end of a decade. Every year around this time, people reflect back, and then reflect on the reflecting back, and now we’re all doing that but upped an order of magnitude. We were so naive in 2010, weren’t we? Or maybe we weren’t. I don’t know. 

I’m not going to try and recap the decade, or predict the next one. But I do like to take time at the end of every December to combat my feelings of inadequacy by recapping what I actually did do each year. I’m a list maker. I’m the kind of list maker who adds things to the list that have already been done, so I can check them off and feel satisfied. This is that list, but for the whole year. 

🔮 I made 20 episodes of Flash Forward, and beyond making 20 episodes I made a season of the show that took some big risks. You can read about how that went here. 

📖 I sold a Flash Forward book! 

🌶️ I reported an episode of 99 Percent Invisible.

📚 I helped make an episode of The Allusionist.

🎙️ I guest hosted Call Your Girlfriend.

🎧 I started a goofy newsletter about bad podcast ideas.

🖊️ I wrote some stuff. 

🏺 I got a hobby! I now make weird ceramics. You can see them mostly on Instagram. I’ve actively resisted turning this hobby into a side hustle this year. I refuse to make a separate Instagram account, or sell these things, or even take commissions from friends generally because the whole point of this is that it truly doesn’t matter if I’m good or if any of the stuff I try works. And it’s been SO good for my mental health. Bonus: when you’re working with clay your hands are dirty, so you can’t really touch your phone. 

💉 I got zero new tattoos this year, but I will remedy that next year. On the list include a sketch I drew of the noodlebeasts I’ve been making in clay, and Leibniz’s unicorn. Possibly also David Bowie.

🐉 For next year, I’m working on some really exciting projects. I’m not sure how many of them will actually happen (I’m in the process of finding funding for all of them) but even if half of them pan out I’ll be busy and happy next year.

I hope you all have a tremendous rest of 2019, and enter the decade in whatever style you choose. Decades are arbitrary constructs if you want them to be. See you on the other side.

Bucket of Eels: Electrophorus electricus part II

Hi. It's Rose. You signed up for this newsletter, I promise.

Welcome to today’s bucket of eels. I’m Rose. Let’s pull out some eels, shall we?

TODAY’S EEL: every edition of this newsletter is named after an eel. Today’s is the Electrophorus electricus or the Electric eel. But wait, you might be thinking, didn’t we do this one already? We did! But guess what, there’s news about this eel that is both very interesting and thematically relevant to this newsletter so we’re doing it again. 

I first told you about the electric eel back in May, and in that newsletter I talked about the ways in which scientists have tried to measure just how electric an electric eel really is. But since that newsletter, new research was published that strongly suggests that there may in fact be more than one electric eel species out there. A Brazilian researcher named Carlos David de Santana believes that there are actually three different species of electric eel. He came to this conclusion by looking not just at DNA, but also at the environments that these eels live in and their behavior. Here is the always excellent Ed Yong at The Atlantic, writing about the differences:

One of the trio retains the original name Electrophorus electricus, and de Santana now calls it Linnaeus’s electric eel, after the legendary Swedish taxonomist who classified it. The two others are now Volta’s electric eel (Electrophorus voltai), after the Italian physicist who built a battery based on the animal, and Vari’s electric eel (Electrophorus varii), after Richard Peter Vari, a famous ichthyologist who was part of de Santana’s team until his death in 2016. (Most of the eels used in previous research are likely to be Vari’s eels, since they’re the only species from Peru, the only country from which these animals can be legally exported.)

This kind of oversight — thinking that something is one thing when in fact there is nuance between them — isn’t uncommon in biology. And it’s especially common when the animal is unusual and poorly studied. As Yong notes, “there are likely four distinct species of giraffe, three species of mola mola, and two species of African elephants.” 

I also want to quote from another section in this Atlantic piece, because it’s wild.

Collecting these animals from the wild, as de Santana did, is not easy. “I do it by myself, or with the help of really experienced fishermen,” he says. “I don’t allow students to do it. It’s never safe.” Even if he wears rubber gloves, the sweat that builds up inside them eventually links up with the water outside them, creating a continuous conductive layer. Bottom line: You can’t collect electric eels without suffering shocks, which de Santana compares to getting hit with a Taser. It’s even worse in the dry season, when more than 10 individuals can occupy a single stream. “When one starts to discharge, the others do too,” says de Santana. “You just get used to it. You do what you have to do.”

You do what you have to do! Sometimes that means getting shocked by strange fish in the name of knowledge! 

So now you know, and the next time someone brings up electric eels you can be that guy at the party and say “well, actually, there are three different species of electric eels so you’ll need to be more specific.” 

STATUS: Waiting, waiting, waiting. I’ve pitched what feels like a billion projects, and I’m waiting to find out which ones (if any) are going to happen. I hate waiting. 

STATUS II: The last time we talked about Electrophorus electricus I wrote an essay about work taxonomies. It’s an odd cosmic coincidence that in that essay I talked about my various work “buckets” and there were three of them (just like there are in fact three species of Electrophorus electricus). 

In that essay, I mentioned launching a secret Patreon, for all the things that fall into a bucket that I’m excited about, but that doesn’t really pay. In the essay I called it “FICTION” but it encompasses more than that. It’s mostly fiction, but it really holds all the things that I can’t put on Flash Forward, or sell to publications. That essay went out to you lovely subscribers in May. And the Patreon remained secret, totally unlaunched, for months. 

Then, just a few weeks ago, on an episode of the Flash Forward BONUS PODCAST, I mentioned it. I talked about the same things I mentioned in the essay here — my fear that nobody will donate, my worry that Flash Forward listeners will feel like they shouldn’t have to give twice, my anxiety that peers will see another Patreon as desperate and sad. 

I had assumed that I’d put out that Bonus Podcast and then carry on sitting on the secret Patreon for some undetermined amount of time, possibly forever. But what actually happened, was that a handful of Flash Forward listeners put on their detective caps and found the Patreon page and donated to it! Which was so, so lovely. And also a tiny bit terrifying. But mostly lovely! 

I still haven’t shared a link to the Patreon page on my most public social channels (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram) but now that the eel is out of the bucket, so to speak, I’ll share the link here with you in case you want to support my weird projects that way.

So here it is, the secret Patreon.

What does this mean for this newsletter, you may wonder? Great question.

  • If you’re a paying subscriber to this newsletter, you’ll get the weekly blog posts that go out to the Patrons, so no need to shift over if you don’t want to. I’m sending out a blog post to Patrons at the end of this week.

  • If you’re a non-paying subscriber you’ll continue to get these extremely irregular newsletters as if nothing has changed.

Doesn’t this eel illustration look like an eel and an otter had an illegitimate lovechild? Just me? Okay… moving on.

FICTION: Till Death Do Us Part

Hello Mr. Jackson, welcome. I have good news. This is heaven. You’re allowed to celebrate a little sure, take your time.

Before I bring you in I have a few questions for you. Heaven is probably not going to be what you expected, and I want to be sure I understand how to best get you situated.

How old are you?

Don’t I know? Yes, of course I know, the question is meant to test you not me.

And where were you born?

I’m not going to take notes by the way, don’t be alarmed, I remember everything.

What was your favorite food?

What was your favorite television show?

Did you watch any reality television Mr. Jackson?

Yes, American idol counts.

Okay, what about reality dating shows...

Really any of them. A Shot At Love With Tila Tequila, I Love New York, Love Island, I’m feeling generous so I’d even count The Real World. No? Not even The Bachelor? Hm. Okay.

Why do I ask? Right, it’s a common question. We find that people who watch those shows fare far better here.

Sinful? No. I don’t know why you all think that. It’s actually great preparation for heaven.

Yes, I was about to explain why if you would stop interrupting.

Your first wife Mira is here, which is good news. I’d imagine you’re quite keen on seeing her again, yes? Right, I would expect so. The wrinkle is that her first husband is also here. They have been living in heavenly bliss for ten Earth years now. And here you come along. Do you see where I am going here? Things can sometimes get a bit, tricky. Heaven is not unlike the show Ex on a Beach. Are you familiar with it? Too bad, it is a wonderful program. And would make you far more prepared for this whole ordeal.

But never fear, we have unlimited time to catch you up. Come with me, there’s a viewing room over here. Where shall we begin? I’m partial to Are You The One season eight.

Yes, I’m quite serious. It’s your choice Mr. Jackson, but I must insist you watch until I feel you are ready.

That’s all for this newsletter! Thanks for reading!

Bucket of Eels: Mastacembelus shiranus

Hi. It's Rose. You signed up for this newsletter, I promise.

Today’s eel: every edition of this newsletter is named after an eel. Today’s is the Malawi spinyeel (Mastacembelus shiranus).

Today’s eel was selected because it lives in Lake Malawi, a place I just recently visited (more on that later in the newsletter). I wanted to feature an eel from the Malawi region (the Southeast, in case Malawi isn’t on your mental map of the continent) and it turns out there are a few interesting options. The Mastacembelus apectoralis, for example, lives in Lake Tanganyika and has evolved to lose both its color and it’s pectoral fin

The trouble is that eels in Lake Malawi aren’t particularly well researched. This is true of eels in most lakes and rivers, they’re a notoriously under-studied creature across the globe. But Malawian eels are overlooked in particular because they have the misfortune of sharing their lake with some of the most scrutinized fresh-water fishes of all time: cichlids. You may not know them by name, but you’ve almost certain seen a cichlid before. They’re the colorful fish that dart about in many fresh water aquaria. If you see a little, colorful fish in a freshwater tank, it’s probably a cichlid. They come in a dizzying array of shapes and colors naturally, and have been bred into an even trippier kaleidoscope. Cichlids in Lake Malawi and Lake Tanganyika are also one of the classic examples of something called “adaptive radiation.” Because they won’t swim across large stretches of sand, the cichlids in each lake evolved from one common ancestor to hundreds of different species simply because they don’t mix with one another. Between Lake Malawi, Tanganyika and Victoria there are over 2,000 species of cichlids.

Anyway, this is supposed to be about eels. Sorry. The cichlids once again steal the show! The point is that these cichlids have been so closely studied in East African lakes that the eels have gotten short shrift. In fact, the eels of Lake Tanganyika and Malawi are also quite good examples of adaptive radiation. But they’re not as cute as the cichlids, and have been mostly ignored. 

Which brings us to the Malawi spinyeel, found only in Lake Malawi. The Mastacembelus shiranus is rarely traded by aquarium hobbyists. In fact, one aquarium site notes that, “The only African spiny eels you are likely to find in the shops are the ones from Lake Tanganyika, in particular Mastacembelus moorii and Mastacembelus plagiostomus. Mastacembelus moorii is sometimes known as the mottled spiny eel though sometimes is simply labelled as the Tanganyikan spiny eel. It is a beautiful fish, with a dark snakeskin pattern set against a creamy-brown background colour. The pectoral fins are yellow. Mastacembelus plagiostomus is also from Lake Tanganyika and is another very attractive fish, this time with a cream to salmon coloured body and dark brown, saddle-like bands running over the back and about two-thirds of the way down the flanks. This handsome fish doesn't have a common name as such, but if you see it, it'll probably be called either the Tanganyikan spiny eel or simply the African spiny eel.”

The Mastacembelus shiranus, or, as the locals call it, “nkhungu,” has a delightful little nose and pretty spots. Scientists think that it might travel around and spread across the large, deep lake using floating rafts of vegetation. Also, I’m just going to sneak this in here at the end: Technically, Mastacembelus shiranus is a fish, not an eel. Sorry.


Current status: I just returned from my aforementioned trip to Malawi, in Southern Africa. I went with my partner, whose best friend of over twenty years has been living there for the last two years. Malawi is a beautiful country, that has also been thrown under the bus repeatedly by colonialism and failed aid projects. (I recommend the book Malawi: A Place Apart for a primer on some of this.) Almost 70 percent of the people of Malawi live on less than $1.90 a day. Most people do not have power or running water. About a third of the country’s square mileage is taken up by Lake Malawi, a gorgeous, deep and incredibly fascinating body of water. 

I’m not going to say all that much about my personal experience in Malawi here. There is far too much writing by white ladies about their time in Africa, and I only spent a handful of days in the country. But I will share with you some photographs of the safari we went on in Malawi’s next-door neighbor, Zambia. Here’s what South Luangwa National Park has to offer.


Essay: First let me just say: I’m tired. I can’t believe it’s June. I’ve been putting off this newsletter for too long, which is rude to all of you and in particular those of you who pay to subscribe and were promised something more regular. I’m sorry.

Last week, we spent a night on Domwe Island, in Lake Malawi, and by some strange twist of spacetime ran into two people who live down the street from me in Berkeley, California. One is a professor at UC Berkeley, the other an undergraduate student of his. They were on the island looking for Spotted-necked otters — large, long creatures who can be identified down to the individual by the pattern of white spots on their necks.

I interview scientists all day, but I admit that whenever I meet a scientist in my “off time” I get a little flustered. Sad, maybe, is a better word. Embarrassed is perhaps even more honest. If we get to talking about what I do, I often have to tell them that at one point I wanted to be in their shoes. To be on a lake in Malawi, binoculars around my neck, waterproof notebook stuffed into a pocket, looking for otters. Ever since I was a kid, that was my dream. Today, it’s not what I do. And when they inevitably ask how I got into this thing, science journalism, writing, I have to figure out how to explain how I went walking the same path they are on, to this other one that I’m on now.

I don’t know how to do that without being self-effacing. I quip, light heartedly, about how, well, it’s funny, you see, I love science, but I’m terrible at doing it. I make a joke about staring into a microscope for 10 hours a day sexing krill and wondering what it was all for. I hope they laugh. Sometimes they do. Sometimes they don’t. Either way, the message I tend to convey is “I wanted to do what you do, but I wasn’t good enough, or smart enough, or patient enough. So I failed, and now I do a second-rate knockoff version.” I’m like a groupie, someone who wanted to be in their own band but couldn’t hack it, and now pitifully follows actual artists around hoping to live vicariously through them. That’s the message I convey at least.

There are absolutely scientists who think that people who once pursued science and now instead work in journalism are failures, too dumb or frivolous to hack it in research. I know because they’ve sold me so. I’ve also been told by scientists (physicists, actually, exclusively) that anybody who chooses to go into social science, or the humanities, only does so because they’re not smart enough to do math or physics. This is why, for the longest time, I avoided the job title “science writer,” because it sounded like an admission of failure. Not a scientist, a science writer, someone who tried and failed and now just chronicles the deeds of people she could never compete with.

So at this long wooden table on Domwe Island, with hyraxes making all kinds of ungodly noises behind us and bats swooping into the light to eat the bugs that were trying to eat my legs, I did my usual song and dance about how I failed and now do this other thing and it felt terrible.

The thing is, that’s not actually how I feel. I’m good at what I do, and what I do is difficult. Any good scientist can tell you that asking the right questions is not only the key, but often the most challenging piece of the job, and that’s what journalists have to do every day. Writing is hard! Keeping the public’s interesting nearly impossible! It’s not that I wasn’t smart enough to sex krill for ten hours a day, or learn R, or navigate the bizarre power dynamics of a lab (honestly I think that last bit seems like the hardest of all). It’s that the payoff didn’t seem worth it to me and I found something else that I really love, that is extremely difficult, and that I’m good at doing.

Now I just need to figure out how to say that next time I meet a biologist in the wild.


Flash Forward: A quick programming note on Flash Forward! May 12th marked the show’s four year anniversary! I’ve done 94 episodes, interviewed hundreds of guests, and whispered sweet nothings about the future into the ear holes of millions of people. By the end of this year I’ll hit 100 episodes. One hundred! I’m so incredibly grateful for everybody who’s ever listened to the show, said nice things about it, agreed to be an expert, volunteered their voices for the future, and just in general supported the project. 

On June 11th I wrapped up the second little mini-season of the year. As you may know, I am really focused on making sure Flash Forward’s guests are as diverse as possible across many different axes. (I publish my data and goals here.) I’m really proud of this BODIES season on that front in particular. I think it provided a nice antidote to the way that futurism usually talks about bodies. Half the guests are POC, 20% are disabled, 20% are trans or non-binary. We talk about ableism, bodily autonomy, where the self actually lies, cultural narratives and how tech intersects with all of those things.

Over the last month I’ve run a little promotion on Patreon for Flash Forward: become a Patron before June 30th and you get a prize in the mail! Here’s the truth about why I’m currently running the Patreon promotion you’ve heard me talk about on the show:  this year, my ad sales company has only sold 3/20 ad spots on the show. Which means that so far this year I’ve made only 15% of what I expected to make on the show. This is... very bad! Ad sales traditionally made up about 1/2 of the show's revenue. If I can't figure out a way to make up the difference I'll have to stop making the show basically. As you can probably guess, making Flash Forward takes a ton of time, and I do have to pay rent and feed my dog and all of that. It's a bit embarrassing to publicly admit that the show is sort of failing right now, but here I am!


What I’ve Done Recently

That’s all for this newsletter! Thanks for reading!

Bucket of Eels: Electrophorus electricus

Hi. It's Rose. You signed up for this newsletter, I promise.

TODAY’S EEL: every edition of this newsletter is named after an eel. Today’s is the Electric eel (Electrophorus electricus) and I’ll tell you right off the bat that I’m cheating with this one. Electrophorus electricus is not technically an eel, despite its common name. It’s actually a knife fish. But I picked it for today’s newsletter for two reasons: one it’s really cool, and two the idea of blurred taxonomic lines based on common names is in keeping with the essay you’ll find later on in this newsletter.

So let’s start with the cool facts! The Electric eel is, indeed, electric. This is pretty obviously the coolest thing about them. They produce electricity via three different organs which have three different names: the “main organ,” the “Hunter’s organ” and the “Sach’s organ.” You might be able to guess which two of those are named after people.

These three organs make up four fifths of the eels body, a cool 80 percent. That would be like if everything from your waist down and your mid-chest up was made up of organs specifically dedicated to producing electricity. And the electric eel can actually produce two different kinds of electricity using these organs — high and low voltage. If you’re unlucky enough (or tasty enough) to be given the high voltage treatment, the Electrophorus electricus can hit you with up 600 volts. Some sources go as high as 850 volts, but I haven’t found much evidence to back up that number. “Up to 600V” is what a noted electric eel researcher Kenneth Catania (who we’ll return to in a second) cites in his paper, but that number comes from a 1957 study, and there doesn’t seem to be much trying to quantify how shocking these eels can really be since then.

According to National Geographic, “the shock of an electric eel has been known to knock a horse off its feet.” If you are like me and read that sentence and are like “has been known by WHO and under WHAT circumstances, please tell me more?!” I have you covered. Apparently around 1800 a naturalist named Alexander von Humboldt was working in South America. And like many men at the time, von Humboldt was fascinated by electricity, and particularly animals that could generate electricity. He had brought some electric eels with him on his trip to South America but they hadn’t fared well on the journey, so he asked the local people if they could rummage up some electric eels for him to look at and do experiments with. The story goes that they told him, yes, sure, they could get some eels, and to do so they would “fish with horses.” Here’s researcher Kenneth Catania explaining what supposedly happened next, from a Scientific American podcast:

And after a little while the fisherman came back herding about 30 horses and mules. They made a huge noise as they galloped into this pool and there was this kind of epic struggle or sort of battle you could almost say between the horses and the eels. The way he described it the eels emerged from the mud, swam to the surface. Some of them pressed themselves against the horses, shocked the horses. It was really a spectacle.

Over the 200 years since von Humboldt’s account of this eel vs horse battle, everybody basically concluded that he was lying, or, at the very least, exaggerating. But in 2017, Catania, decided to test this out in the lab. And he found, to his surprise, that the eels would indeed leap out of the water to deliver shocks to dummy arms and plastic toy threats that they encountered. Here’s how Vanderbilt University’s press team described the work: “To visually illustrate this effect, the researcher painstakingly covered a plastic arm and a plastic crocodile head with a conductive metal strip and a network of LEDs. When an eel attacks these targets, the electrical pulses it generates cause the LEDs to light up brightly.”

Not satisfied to rely solely on plastic crocodile heads, Catania then decided to subject himself to such airborne shocks in the name of science, by literally sticking his bare arm into a tank with an electric eel. You can read all about that here. May we all find a cause we care about enough to literally stick our arm into a tank hoping an electric eel will leap out of the water and shock us.

STATUS: Excited and a tiny bit overwhelmed. This Sunday (the 12th) marks the four year anniversary of Flash Forward. It’s a weird time to celebrate the show’s anniversary. Some things are going really well: I’ve got some cool projects in the works, I’m excited about the upcoming mini-season on BODIES, and I’m loving the Flash Forward book club discussions. Some things are going less well: the show is still teetering on the edge of financial stability, the ad sales market for indie shows like mine is rough, and the podcast landscape is starting to shift towards rewarding television people who’ve never heard a podcast other than Serial in their lives. But I’m trying to focus on the good stuff, and recognize the things I can and can’t control. I’m going to celebrate the anniversary by going on a hike with some friends and seeing Detective Pikachu which I am unironically very excited about.


ESSAY: In The In Between

I mentioned in the eel section that the second reason I picked Electrophorus electricus for today’s patron eel/saint is because it’s an example of a creature that everybody calls one thing, but is actually another. I’ve been thinking about this a lot, the ways we divide and taxonomize animals and the way we chop up our time and work product. I went on a hike recently with some friends, and somehow we started talking about what makes something a species. I told them about “grolar bears,” and their strange, controversial status — living, breathing, huffing and puffing embodiments of the peril inherent in staking vast environmental goals on one iconic species, and how easily biology can pull the rug out from underneath our neat little categories. I’ve also been reading Jenny Odell’s book How to do Nothing which really drills down on why we’re so focused on turning every possible output into something visible to the capitalist market, and how to resist those urges where we can. I’ve been thinking about the future of Flash Forward, given its impending anniversary, which means I’ve also been thinking about the future of my not-Flash Forward work too. The two are tied up together forever, given the (as of now) finite nature of time, where one takes the other has to give.

Recently, Patreon announced some changes to its offerings and options. The specific details aren’t important, but yesterday was the last day new creators could launch a page to make sure they locked in the old, slightly lower rates. Many friends of mine scrambled to do so, making essentially placeholder pages and soft launching them to park on the spot. I made one too, and in designing the page I spent a lot of time thinking about how to describe the work that might fall into that page’s bucket, which really meant thinking about where my buckets lie and how full of both eels and money they are. Here’s a bad sketch. (If you’re wondering what the hell this bucket of eels analogy is, go here for context.)

Vaguely, the work I do (or want to do) falls into three basic categories: JOURNALISM, FLASH FORWARD, FICTION. Journalism is relatively straightforward, and while the journalism industry as a whole is crumbling due to mismanagement, a sustained opposition campaign by the right, and a tidal wave of well paid and persistent press people, my own individual position is slightly more secure. I know I can pitch and sell stories. My money level is higher than my eel level for that bucket. Flash Forward occupies a bit of a middle ground, straddling journalism and fiction. (Incidentally this often makes it hard to fundraise for -- it’s not enough fiction for fiction grants, and too much fiction for journalism rants.) Flash Forward currently teeters on the bleeding (as in red) edge of financial stability.

Then there’s the third bucket — the bucket I have done the lease int professionally but that is currently the most alluring: fiction. Here, my eels are very high and lively, leaping out of the barrel to shock me every so often. But financially, fiction is challenging, particularly for a new, unproven writer. Did you know that you generally have to write the entire book of fiction before you can ask if anybody will pay you for it?! Short stories are perhaps easier to get published but pay abysmally.

Many writers and artists I know solve this problem — that creative work often doesn’t pay a living wage — using Patreon. Lucy Bellwood and Monica Byrne are two particular models for me, but there are many others too. And so in my attempt to sooth this raucous swarm of eels, and lock in this low rate at Patreon, I made a creator page that might serve as a cash input for my FICTION bucket.

Here’s the problem: As many of you likely know, I already have a Patreon creator page. Flash Forward only survives, in fact, thanks to Patrons. The value proposition for this setup is simple and obvious. These kind, loving souls donate every episode, and in return they get a discrete and established thing: a podcast they know they like.

A personal creator page is different. Patrons give some money every month for… what? So I can try strange things that people might not even like?

And the two aren’t, cannot be, discrete entities. There is inherent overlap between Flash Forward and my fiction — they both come from the same brain after all. Some Flash Forward patrons might be interested in this other stuff, and some might not. But those who are interested likely won’t want to pay twice, and those who aren’t certainly don’t want to pay even once for non-Flash Forward content.

It’s a bit like this newsletter as a whole. Bucket of Eels is not the Flash Forward newsletter (you can get that by becoming a $2+ Patron). But I can’t really excise Flash Forward from this newsletter either. People who subscribe to this are, I think, curious what I’m up to generally, and a lot of what I’m up to is the podcast. Maybe some of you listen, and I know some of you don’t. And I’m not quite sure how to reconcile these different pages and buckets in a way that works for everybody (myself included).

I should also admit that there’s a deeper, darker fear about a personal Patreon that keeps me from even linking to this thing I’m writing at length about in this newsletter, even among you readers who literally opted into this and have made is nearly 1000 words deep into this meandering essay. And that’s this: Donating or not to Flash Forward (setting aside expendable income) simply reflects your feelings about the show. Not everybody likes podcasts. Not everybody likes the format of Flash Forward or the topic. That’s fine! A personal page, however, feels like a referendum on my whole worth as a person who creates things. I’m asking you to give money not to a specific output, but to me, a person who has ideas and would like to materialize them.

Launching a Patreon, and asking people to donate not to a project in particular, but to my more general creative output, is terrifying. What if no one donates? What if people DO donate but hate what I wind up making? What if people see this page as preposterous? Self indulgent? “Can you believe she thinks people will just give her MONEY?” Lucy Bellwood’s book 100 Demon Dialogues depicting a “tiny, petulant demon who embodies workaholism, imposter syndrome, and fear of missing out” is quite relevant here, and my demon is currently very loud.

I haven’t linked to this personal Patreon page in this essay on purpose. I’m not ready to actually ask people for money for me to do fiction and other weird projects (nor have I figured out what makes sense when it comes to rewards for various tiers). But maybe one day I will be. Or, maybe one day, there will be a better system than one that tries to mimic traditional patronage models that value output and product first and foremost.

FICTION: Speaking of fiction, here’s some!

General Meeting Schedule

I. Member Arrival and Meeting Warm-Up (19:00-19:15)

II. Open Forum (19:15-19:30)

III. Coordinator and Committee Reports (19:30-20:00)

IV. Meeting Agenda (20:00-21:30)

Item 1: Accept or Deny Panda

Proposal: The People’s Republic of China would like to send a Panda to the colony. The first panda on Mars (see attached proposal). Do we accept or decline?

Decision: Decline, we have no way of keeping a panda alive.

Item 2: Condom Rationing, Sex Rationing, or Both

Details: The colony is down to its last 100 condoms, and is not due for another shipment for six months. Pregnancy in the colony is extremely dangerous and cannot be allowed for the time being. We must decide how to mitigate this risk.

Proposal: Ration both the remaining condoms, and sex.

Decision: Approved, committee formed to create rationing algorithm.

Item 3: Distillery Project

Proposal: A four team committee to develop a distillery to reuse leftover fruit and grain into consumable spirits.

Decision: None*

*Secretary Notes: The meeting was going well until Item 3. Who knew condom and sex rationing would be less controversial than alcohol? The delegation from Bahrain said they would only approve if women were banned from consuming the alcohol. This was ferociously rebutted by the delegation from Germany. The American delegation refused to even entertain the idea, arguing that drunk people in a Martian colony would be a great way to get everybody killed.

To make their point, the American delegation began showing slides of alcohol fueled idiocy from their home country: car crashes, fire work accidents, something involving a turkey and a barrel of hot oil that nobody could quite understand. Then they began showing images of scantily clad women and arguing that this proposal would surely lead to the colony’s first rape. At that, the delegation from Japan leapt up and pulled the plug out of the projector.

Things only got more chaotic from there. The Canadian delegation revealed that they had been making their own moonshine all along, and pulled out their little flasks. It was the only way to get through these meetings, they said. Several people stormed out of the pod.

We all agreed to revisit the question next week.

That’s all for this newsletter! Thanks for reading!

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