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!

Bucket of Eels: Eurypharynx pelecanoides

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 pelican eel, also known as the gulper eel (Eurypharynx pelecanoides). This is an eel that perhaps you’ve seen photos or videos of. As its common names imply, it has a truly gigantic mouth. Like absurdly big. The gulper eel is a deep sea species, rarely seen by humans. In fact most of what we know about the physiology of gulper eels we learn by accident, when deep sea fishing nets catch the poor creatures and drag them up to their empyrean deaths. This tragedy has led us to learn some incredibly cool things about these eels though, like the fact that at the very end of their tail, they have an organ called a photophore that glows pink.

But the real reason I picked the gulper eel for this newsletter is because someone just showed me this video of the crew of the Nautilus submarine coming across a mysterious creature that turns out to be one. You absolutely must turn the sound on for this video, because their reactions are what makes this such a perfect video.


Current status: The first little mini-season of Flash Forward just ended! The next one is coming up pretty quickly (launching May 14th) so I’m hard at work getting that together. I learned a lot from the last little mini-season, and if you’re curious about reflections on what I think worked and didn’t, all that is at the Patreon newsletter for Flash Forward. I’m trying to keep this newsletter mostly focused on non-Flash Forward stuff.

I also recently made some weird ceramics! I took a course at The Crucible in Oakland and it was really fun. A lot of the stuff I made didn’t come out the way I imagined, but it was a great experience and I just joined my local pottery studio to keep up with it. Everybody else in the class made lovely beautiful pots covered in flowers and leaves. I made a mug where to hold it you have to hold hands with a clay skeleton. You can see more of my ceramics strangeness here.


Free Business Idea: An app where you can spot good places for Instagram influencers to take selfies, geotag the spots, and get a little $ every time someone posts a photo there.

My Future Quote: I recently read  great quote by Ursula K. Le Guin about how her work defied categorization: “My tentacles are coming out of the pigeonhole in all directions." I’m going to shift that to eels, for me, personally, and if I am ever given the chance to talk about this in an important magazine say "My eels are coming out of the pigeonhole in all directions."

Other Newsletters: If you want to continually add to your pile of books to read (or just live vicariously through an incredible reader and writer) I recommend Kelsey McKinney’s newsletter Written Out.

Graph: I recently watched some adults have a discussion about the correct past tense of “yeet” (“yote?” “yeeted?” “yate?”) and many of them went off to ask their teen children for input. I didn’t even know what “yeet” meant, and had no teens around to ask, and it made me realize that I am in the Uncanny Valley of Teen Knowledge.

Free Story Idea: I am not the right person to write this story, but I’ve been thinking a lot about the rise in horoscopes as a a trend. Side note: I’m complicit in this, I find astrology memes weirdly hilarious, particularly the aggressive ones — there is something very funny to me about being willingly dragged by your own horoscope. But I was talking to a friend recently, and he expressed deep misgivings about the rise of astrology, and pointed out that any system of knowledge that is built around making sweeping assumptions about groups of people based on arbitrary signifiers (like, say, where the Sun was when you were born) is inherently bad. I don’t disagree.

Anyway, the thing I’ve been thinking about a lot when it comes to astrologists-cum-trendsetters these days (folks like Chani Nicholas, for example) is how these new Instagrammable astrology stars think about the class and power dynamics at play when put into the context of past fortune tellers. I lived in New York City for many years and often wondered about the economics of storefronts like these:

Photo by Anne Marie Clarke

Today’s astrology influencers are young, hip, and good at Instagram. These storefronts are run by women who seem to generally not be any of those things. But the offerings, fundamentally, are the same. So how does someone like Chani Nicholas, who Rolling Stone profiled and described as “the woman bringing social justice to astrology” relate to these largely working class (often, as far as I understand, immigrant) women running these shops in New York? I’m not being sarcastic with that question by the way — it’s a real one that I have. I’d love to see an analysis of the current rise in hipster astrology placed in conversation with the long-running set of businesses offering astrology in places like New York City. This is the kind of story I think Jenna Wortham would write well.


Free Story Idea #2: There’s a pretty well documented new-ish trend of people treating their pets like kids, or at least like humans. According to Nielsen “95% of U.S. pet owners consider their pets to be part of the family.” That’s up from 88% in 2007.  But we actually know incredibly little about pet physiology and health. For example: you might be aware that grapes (and raisins) are poisonous to dogs. But did you know that we have no idea why? Veterinarians have no clue what it is about grapes that make dogs go into kidney failure. And in fact, not all dogs do. Some dogs can eat grapes without a problem, while others die from eating just one. And again, we have no idea why! (I learned this the hard way recently when our dog ate some bread that contained an absurd number of raisins.) But given that trend I mentioned earlier, how humans are spending more and more money on their animal companions, buying houses for them, literally having Bark Mitzvahs for them (I could not make this up), shouldn’t there be more money also going into research on things like why the hell a grape could kill a dog that just became a man and probably chewed on his tallit? As far as I can tell, the answer is no! Someone should look into this though.


Stuff I did recently:

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🚀 Rose

Bucket of Eels: Gymnothorax javanicus

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 Gymnothorax javanicus, or Giant moray eels. You might think that moray eels are one species, but in fact moray is the family (Muraenidae) and there are 200 different species of moray eels out there. The one you probably imagine, when you hear “moray eel” is the big, mostly green one. That’s Gymnothorax javanicus, the Giant moray eel. And they are truly giant! They can grow to 9.8 feet long, and weigh up to 66 pounds. Absolute units, these eels.

There are many cool things about Gymnothorax javanicus but here’s my favorite thing: they cooperate with groupers to hunt. According to some research done in the Red Sea, groupers and Giant morays have a whole coordinated hunting routine they do. First, the grouper spots some prey hiding in a crevice. Being a big fish, the grouper can’t squeeze itself into these small spaces, so it goes and looks for its buddy, a Giant moray. When the grouper finds a moray, it does a little head wiggle and find swish, basically saying “I spotted something tasty!” The moray then follows the grouper through the reef, to where the poor little fish hiding out. When they’ve arrived, the grouper does another head wiggle and fin dance, and the eel strikes. If the eel misses, and the fish escapes out of the reef, bam, the grouper is there to collect. Here’s a clip of the odd couple in action. SO COOL!

Current status: Flash Forward just returned! I spent most of yesterday in a panic because something was wrong with the audio and I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what it was. My friend Mike, the genius that he is, figured it out and saved the day. Mike makes a podcast about sounds called Reasonably Sound, which you should absolutely go listen to because it’s really good.

A few other announcements!

  • NEW MERCH! I’m really excited about the new merch on offer at Topatoco. New shirts! Trophies! Cool weird stuff!

  • NEW PATREON TIERS! $5+ Patrons now get a BONUS EPISODE to go along with every regular episode. $7+ Patrons get access to a book club! Plus all the regular past stuff!

  • I talked about my favorite television show, BBC’s Fake or Fortune, on this episode of FAVES, a podcast about all our favorite stuff.

Stuff I’m reading/enjoying

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“It’s Easy”

I’ve been hard at work at this season of Flash Forward, and I want to pull the curtain back a little bit on something that’s been bugging me. One of the things that’s really important to me -- in fact one of the things that I think makes Flash Forward special -- is including a diversity of voices as experts on the future. This is easy to do when I think about it comparatively. To be better than most futurist coverage, all I have to do is talk to literally any not-white-men. But I don’t just want to be better by comparison, because that bar is horrifyingly low. I want to offer a vision of the future that is truly inclusive.

To that end I’ve been tracking the diversity of the voices on Flash Forward for the past few years. At the end of Season Three I published my data. The show has always been balanced when it comes to gender, often skewing more towards women’s voices. But when it comes to racial diversity, I wasn’t quite where I wanted to be. In Season Three, my experts were  70% white and 30% people of color, and in the blog post about the season I pledged to change that ratio by 10%, shooting for 40% voices of color on the show. I failed. Season Four was a little better, but I had only managed to increase the voices of color on the show by five percent, not ten.

This season, I’m once again shooting for that 40% number. And once again, I’m failing. For this little mini-season of five episode (which, again, launched today!) I’m currently at 32% not-white experts.

I say all of this not to try and walk back my target of 40%, I’m still committed to trying to make that happen. I say it because I want to push back on a narrative I hear a lot at talks about diversifying sources, which is that it’s easy. Sometimes, on these panels or at these talks or even just in conversation with writers and scientists, folks will say something like “it’s not that hard! Just reach out to different people!” And often in those situations I nod, and agree, and say “you just have to TRY.”

There is some truth to this, I think. There are lots of reporters who could stand to just try. There are lots of reporters who simply go to the same sources over and over, who don’t even think about the balance of their stories, and who really could vastly improve their work by literally just trying a tiny bit harder. But once you start trying, you’ll find that it’s actually not as easy as people say. Folks of color are underrepresented in the sciences, which literally means there are fewer of them. In some fields, there are hardly any at all. I have an episode coming up that’s about materials engineering, and let me tell you there are precious few not white men who publish papers in that field. Plus, many of the women (and particularly women of color) in these fields have to be judicious and careful with the kinds of press they do.

For this current season, I’ve been tracking who says yes and who says no to interviews. I almost always reach out to women of color first for every episode, and so far 60% of them have declined. 40% of those women have sent me to their white male coauthor or colleague. For comparison, only 30% of white folks I’ve asked for an interview (regardless of gender) have declined to do one. I want to be clear: I do not judge anybody who says no. Everybody is navigating their own tangled web of politics and optics. But the data is interesting, given the narrative that actually it’s easy to balance out your sourcing, if you just try harder.

But what I really want to say about this narrative of “it’s actually not that hard,” is that it doesn’t matter. And in fact, arguing that it’s easy devalues how important it is. Diversifying your sources is, in some cases hard, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it. Diversifying your sources is worth working hard at, because it makes your work better. And I worry a little bit that by saying “oh it’s easy” we’re giving folks who don’t actually recognize the value of that work an out. Once it becomes not easy, it drops off the table, and they go back to their regular sources. I’d love to see a more honest evaluation of source diversity — one that recognizes that even if it’s harder, it’s worth doing. And for Flash Forward, I’ll keep working on it, even when it stops being easy.

p.s. if you happen to know anybody who works on open ocean farming who’s not a white person, hit me up! I am in need.


Fiction

I’ve recently tried to start writing some fiction in earnest, something I’ve loved doing for a long time but never thought was accessible to me. In many ways the fictional scenes in Flash Forward came from an urge to slip some fiction into my life, under the guise of reporting. To that end, I’m trying to do some more quick flash fiction writing. Here’s a bit of something I’m working on.

Leonora Piper had long hair. Long down to her butt. It was impractical but her one frivolity. Most people had no idea. She kept it pinned up, caged in hats and an internal architecture of pins. At the boardwalk sometimes there was an artist who makes sculptures out of toothpicks — roller coasters and complicated pirate ships — and Leonora sometimes imagined that within all that hair these pins created a whole tiny world. Men walking to work carrying lunch boxes, women taking children to school, sailors navigating little ships in the sea of her hair. It was only in the bath that she ever really let it down.

In the bath her hair floated around her, like some living being. She pushed the eddies around and watched it react immediately and organically — ways she never did. It was soothing to the point of mesmerism, her hair, but you can’t mesmerize yourself. At least not fully. At least that’s what Eusapia told her. No matter how hard she tried, gazing eyes soft at the magical swarming stranger, breathing gently, she couldn’t mesmerize herself. But she could mesmerize others.

The bath was also where her hip hurts least. When she was feeling extra decadent she would place a towel at the bottom of the porcelain tub, folded into a neat little square. A saturated plinth, just soft enough to make her feel like she was floating. Almost like her hair. And the deep ache in her hip would leave, mostly, for a bit. Instead of an ever present ache, it became like the after sensation of an itch, where you can’t quite remember where you scratched. Half satisfying half maddening. Like when you move your hands from a comfortable resting position and can never quite find that configuration again. But even that odd ghostly sensation was better than the ache. Leonora spent a lot of time in the bath.

Mostly nobody cared. Her children were old and headstrong enough to be off without her and her husband had no sense of time unless it was his own. Their house in Boston was small enough to keep tidy easily, and far enough from her parents that they would call before arriving. Nobody had to know how long she spent in the bath. Nobody ever asked. And so she sat and gazed in the middle distance nd thought about hypnosis and hair and old ghosts until the water was cold and her hands no longer looked like hers.

This was the worst part. The hands. She learned early not to look at them. They terrified her. Like she had dozed off and woken up in someone else’s body. Someone old, maybe dead, at the bottom of a bog or a slow moving river. The hands once sent her over, out and off into the darkness, and she wound up curled and covered in towels in the corner of the bathroom for half a day, convinced he was a ghost or an intruder of some kind of in between.

Leonora had a few friends. They made lunches for one another and complimented the tidiness of each others houses and gossiped about the neighbors and the horrible smell that always came from the laundromat on Wednesdays. They talked about children a little and husbands even less. They ate sandwiches and traded opinions about wallpaper. Leonora felt like she barely knew them. On good days she assumed they too were roiling inside. On bad days she assumed it was just her, and that these women never felt like a layer of wallpaper that had been wet and covered with a new one, but could still hear the goings on in the room, muffled through the paste and paper. Eavesdropping on normal life, flat and wet and hidden. They never showed any signs of weakness. Then again, neither did she.


That’s all for this bucket! Thanks for reading! I will leave you with this terrible photoshop thing I did for a friend that involves a Giant moray. I refuse to explain this.

Bye!

Bucket of Eels: Mastacembelus armatus

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 “zig zag eel,” or, if you prefer Latin, Mastacembelus armatus. Unlike the other eels we’ve covered on this newsletter, this little buddy is popular among the home aquarium crowd, and I can see why. It’s pretty snazzy looking! I will admit that looking this eel up was a bit of a moniker maze. Some places, including Wikipedia, say that the zig zag eel is also known as the “tire track eel,” while aquarium specialty shops say that in fact they are two entirely different species, with the “tire track eel” being dubbed Mastacembelus favus. “Some confusion surrounds the scientific names of the spiny eels, and the Tire Track Eel is very often referred to as Mastacembelus armatus in addition to its more widely accepted name, M. favus,” says That Fish Place. Another site says that in fact the name “tire track eel” is just being thrown around willy nilly for all sorts of eels. “There are actually several spiny eels that are called Tire Track Eels, and so are often mis-identified,“ says Animal World. “This is a common name that is used for 3, sometimes 4 different species. Besides being used for M. armatus and M. favus, it is also a common name used for the Half-banded Spiny Eel Macrognathus circumcinctus, and occasionally for the Black Spotted Eel Mastacembelus dayi.” For the sake of accuracy, today’s newsletter is dedicated to Mastacembelus armatus and armatus alone. Could I tell the difference between the two if you put a gun to my head? No, absolutely not. Is the image attached to this newsletter truly a zig zag eel? I hope so!

That said, if you’re looking to add an eel to your tank, it’s probably worth learning the difference. True zig zag eels grow to be about 35 inches long, while the other species its confused for tend to be only about 28 inches long. Oh also, don’t mix them with small fish, because they will absolutely eat them all while you’re asleep. Another thing worth knowing: According to Aquarium Advisor, you’re in it for the long haul with these guys “The Zig Zag eel is an excellent option for someone who’s looking for a lifelong pet,” they write. “They live for up to 18 years, making them a perfect part of the family.”


Current status: I’m prepping the next season of Flash Forward right now, which means that I’m oscillating wildly between being very excited for this season and completely freaked out that nobody will listen. Please listen?

My recent work


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The Rise of the Defensive Parenthetical

When you’re learning how to write — whether it’s fiction or non — one of the first things people say is that you must “know your audience.” In general this is good advice. Are you writing for children or adults? Are you writing in the local newspaper or for an international publication? Is this a pamphlet for dog lovers or an instructional guide for model train enthusiasts? Knowing your audience also means that you can make some educated guess about who they really are — what they know, what they don’t, and maybe even how they feel about certain issues. The Sun Herald readership probably doesn’t need to be told where Biloxi is, because they’ve driven through it 100 times, whereas a BBC audience might need a bit of help. A magazine like Playboy probably doesn’t have to explain what certain sex toys or positions are, where a BBC audience might need a bit of hand holding. (Or, more likely, might never hear about it at all, as the topic would likely be deemed too risqué for the hallowed halls of British Broadcasting.)

At its peak usefulness, knowing your audience gets even more subtle. When you really know your audience, you can write in a tone that they’ll understand and expect: hopeful, optimistic, snarky, silly. An audience you really know also really knows you, or at least your publication. The most extreme example perhaps is a publication like The Onion, where the audience knows that every article is satire. But there are gradients here too — long-time readers of MAD Magazine or Rolling Stone or Jezebel know the kinds of humor (or lack thereof) to expect from the pieces they find there.

People talk a lot on the internet about the removal of context — the phenomenon in which one sentence or clip can be plucked out of its world and dropped into another one. This isn’t new, of course, but it causes all kinds of problems: memes are made, reputations are ruined, and days are lost arguing over whether something makes more or less sense “in context.” Internet scholars can and do track these conversations, quantify all the ways that something can become a meme, and think deeply about the way that being able to snip out just a tiny section and share it everywhere can have ripple effects. I’m not an internet scholar, but I would like to posit that there’s a specific linguistic tick that has intensified because of the ability to share anything, anywhere, for anybody.

Two things are happening online these days. First: You can no longer really “know your audience” in a world of Twitter and Facebook and Instagram and the rest. Second: Whatever audience you might have, is no longer loyal to you or your publication. In other words, you don’t know them, and they don’t know you. With the click of a button, your audience can suddenly become anyone, and they’re ready to rip you apart. Taken together, this manifests itself in the actual language journalists use, and (I think) has resulted in the rise in a linguistic tool I’m clunkily calling “defensive parentheticals.”

Here’s an example. Last year, Jaya Saxena wrote a piece for Elle about the sexy impracticality of high slit dresses in a fun internetty way: by wearing one around Manhattan. It’s a funny and good piece, and if you’re familiar with Elle’s online style (or Saxena as a writer), totally in keeping with the kinds of work they do. But within the piece, Saxena writes, “I'm not an idiot. I recognize that dresses like this are not designed to be practical for everyday use.” Would the average Elle reader really have this critique, or was this written to stave off the random people (probably men) on the internet who might find their way to this piece and decide they should let Saxena know that in fact, these dresses are not meant for trips to the bodega?

Here’s another example, on an Alexis Madrigal piece about the ins and outs of mobile-device email signatures he writes, “(Yes, I know I'm taking this too seriously. Sent from a nerd in data heaven. Expect overthinking.)” Long time readers of The Atlantic (or Madrigal) should expect an overly serious rumination on technology. It’s the newcomers who might roll their eyes, and who Madrigal is perhaps trying to appease.

Here are a few more examples:

Jezebel: “Yes, I know Michael Keaton’s character eventually gets the hang of it and they ultimately negotiate an equitable arrangement together; that doesn’t change the fact that the basic joke of the film is “What if dad... was MOM?”” Here the writer is making sure the reader understands that in fact she has indeed watched the entire movie she’s critiquing! A generous reader might assume that to be the case, but the author still feels the need to clarify.

The New York Times: “As Al Pacino’s character says in his famous speech in the 1999 movie “Any Given Sunday,” the difference between glory and failure is “inch by inch, play by play.” (Yes, I know the movie is about the other “football.”).” The New York Times is a newspaper based in, and geared towards Americans, where nobody calls soccer “football.” Does this clarification need to be there unless the writer is trying to stave off angry Brit’s from his inbox?

The Washington Post: “Yes, I know about the fur stores in Vail, and I’ve window shopped at the Prada boutique in Aspen.” This one is less about the loss of audience, and more about the loss of that audience’s faith in the writer. We might assume that a person writing a story about their constant ski trips is familiar with the offerings at skiing destinations?

Of course this isn’t completely new — people have been trying to stave off counterarguments in text for as long as there have been arguments in text. In fact, there’s a fancy rhetorical name for this: procatalepsis, or “refuting anticipated objections.” (It’s also related to, perhaps a cousin of, the “don’t @ me” sentiment that very specifically references Twitter nit picking via the @ symbol.) But it seems to me like I’m reading more of these little asides that aren’t trying to rebut well founded critique, but instead anticipate and react to a person who might have no context for what they’re reading and no desire to trust the writer. In other words: someone who wasn’t the audience we’ve always been told to know. The defensive parenthetical exists to address the people who stumbled upon a piece from Twitter, and are itching to return to Twitter to yell about it.

Is this something any of you have noticed? I’d love to see examples as you come across them. Send them my way!


Fiction: I’ve recently tried to start writing some fiction in earnest, something I’ve loved doing for a long time but never thought was accessible to me. In many ways the fictional scenes in Flash Forward came from an urge to slip some fiction into my life, under the guise of reporting. So here’s a bit of fiction I’ve been working on.

Chas had never seen so many deer before. In suburban New Jersey where he mowed his lawn every week and paid his taxes and bought ice cream and walked the dog, deer had been eradicated for at least 30 years. It had been a fight, he vaguely remembered. They had gotten so populous that deer were swimming across the river into New York City because there was such stiff competition for food. Something had to be done, they said.

So they had done something. And that was so successful that the program expanded across the country. He couldn’t remember if the plan had been to kill all of them all along, or just most of them and someone got overzealous. But either way, there were no more deer. And he barely noticed. Their vegetable garden was going well, aside from the squirrels, which were also being slowly eradicated thanks to a new program modeled on the deer. He would have been happy to never think about deer again really.

But then he made the mistake of showing his daughter Bambi. And she asked about deer. And he had to explain that yes they used to be everywhere but now they were gone forever. And she cried. And he found himself Googling “deer experiences” late at night and packing his family in the car for a 15 hour drive to Appleton, Wisconsin to see some deer.

The deer in the park weren’t quite the same deer that once desperately swam across the river into New York looking for food. Nobody thought to preserve their DNA, they were a pest anyway, and the extermination just happened so quickly. So the deer at the park were close but not exact — a genetic guesstimate that scientists made in the lab. A little spottier, a little shorter, slightly longer necks, but close.

There were some other kinks too. In order to make the deer friendly to people, they had to tinker with the genes. They could have trained them, but that would cost too much money they said. So they tinkered their way to a friendly deer. What they didn’t realize was that those genes were somehow linked to feeding behaviors. So the deer wouldn’t eat on their own. They required people to feed them by hand. Which, in the words of the park designer, was a great business opportunity. Price of admission now included a tiny bag of feed — but you could buy more of course. And you should, because without you to feed them, the deer would starve.

“The Only Park Where You’re Encouraged to Feed the Animals. Their Lives Depend On It!” the sign said.

Chas bought his daughter several feeding packets, and the deer ate happily and gently from her hand. He fed them too, wondering whether their muzzles and mouths were always so soft, or whether that’s something else the scientists added.


Right now I’m into:

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