Bucket of Eels: Electrophorus electricus

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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!