Welcome to this newsletter. Let’s start with an FAQ? Side note: have you ever thought about the way we use the acronym FAQ? It’s a total lie. Nobody has asked me any of these questions, and certainly not frequently. But it’s a useful structure to answer questions you might predict, or perhaps even want people to ask so you can answer them. Most of the time FAQ’s on websites should be called “Useful Rhetorical Questions To Help Explain This And Make It Seem Interactive” but URQTHETAMIS is really unwieldy. Anyway… on with the farce.
What is a bucket of eels?
Good question. I wrote about it here. If you don’t want to click on that link here’s the tl;dr version: I read a book about art making that asked me to imagine my creativity as some kind of spiritual and divine force, a “Great Creator.” I was having trouble with that. I tried thinking of other things, other ways people had described creativity, and vaguely remembered a story about a poet describing writing like “catching a tiger by the tail.” So maybe, I thought, the “Great Creator” was just a giant container of tiger tails. This image was delightful to me — a snooty old-timey banker standing in front of a vault that, when opened, is fully of writhing tiger tails. This image made me think of eels, I guess because tiger tails, unattached from their feline bodies, are quite eel like. And because I am never one to shy away from an extended metaphor, I ran with it. Now, when I’m struggling with the idea of creativity, I try to imagine reaching into a bucket of magical eels, and pulling one out.
That is what this newsletter will be like. Some of the eels in here will be tiny babies, some will be old and tired, some will be well trained and others stubborn and slimy and possibly slightly zappy. You never know what might come out until you reach into the bucket.
What’s the deal with the free/paid thing?
Some newsletters will go out for free (like this one), but the good stuff will cost a tiny bit of money.
Stuff you get for free: updates about what I’ve published recently and links to work I love.
Stuff that costs a small number of dollars: original fiction, behind the scenes stuff about the projects I’m working on, essays about everything from grapes to media ethics, cartoons, pictures of my dog, and other ephemera. You might even get to vote on what my next tattoo should be (sorry mom).
This one is free, to show you what I mean. Let’s begin, shall we?
Today’s eel: every edition of this newsletter will be named after an eel. Today, it’s the Anguilla rostrata, or the American eel. Both American and European eels spawn in the Sargasso sea in the United States, but American eel populations have been declining rapidly since the 1970’s due to over fishing. Fun fact: the breeding cycle for American eels is ridiculously complicated and we still don’t actually know every element! Second fun fact: American eels can live more than 50 years in the wild! Wow. (Image: Ellen Edmonson and Hugh Chrisp)
Current status: I’m not one who generally subscribes to the efficiency industrial complex. The endless books and Medium posts about squeezing productivity out of every single moment of the day ooze dystopian capitalism, in my opinion. But there is a concept in a book called Getting Shit Done (which, to be clear, I have never actually read, I’ve just been told that this comes from this book) called “open loops.” The idea is that any and all unfinished tasks are open loops, that drain your energy even when you’re not working on them. In the back of your mind, they exist like little open vents, taking little sips of attention every time you think about them. Right now, my life is full of open loops and waiting. They’re all exciting things -- projects I’m super stoked about, and can’t wait to tell you about. But they’re all in various stages of waiting: waiting to hear back from various people with money or contracts or edits or notes. Endless “just checking in on this” emails. It’s making me, a person who is already fairly neurotic, a complete nightmare. I started a screenplay to pass the time! I’m not kidding.
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.) But I’ve recently realized that I’d like to actually try writing fiction properly (see: screenplay above) and to practice, I’ve been writing short stories pegged to slides I bought online. Here’s one such story.
Patricia had petitioned for some other color. Why did it have to be red? Of all the colors out there, red was certainly one of the worst they could have chosen. She understood, begrudgingly, why the rule existed. They labeled all the GMO fruit at the grocery store, why should GMO children be any different. But red? Couldn’t they have picked a color that didn’t scream “stop!”
Henry was too young to really notice his wardrobe. A whole closet full of little red sweaters and socks and shoes. Henry loved clothing with hoods, he loved to pull the soft sweatshirt fabric up and nestle his head into it, wiggling side to side and cooing. Besides the monochromatic outfits, he was a mostly normal kid. Not even mostly normal, she corrected herself, normal. Totally normal. Variation was to be expected in every child, but any time Henry deviated from the very center of any bell curve there was a new question: was it chance, or was it something else?
Patricia’s earlier child, Winona, has developed slowly. But she was a normal baby, and everybody assured her it was normal for babies to go at their own pace. People said that about Henry too but then they’d always pause a bit. It was normal for normal babies, but little Henry, dressed perpetually like some kind of poisonous bug, wasn’t a normal baby.
Every afternoon, she watched Henry playing out in the side yard. Henry loved to swing out there for hours. There was a little rez dog that liked to come up to the fence and say hello. This was partially why Henry loved to play out there of course, swinging on the swing and making all kinds of noises, hoping the little dog would notice and come say hello. Technically, he wasn’t supposed to come in contact with dogs yet, he was too young and the doctors worried about some contamination or some such. But Patricia rolled her eyes. If they wanted to use this community and this land for their little experiment, they were going to have to figure out how to deal with rez dogs just like the rest of them. And if they really cared all that much, they could give her extra money to fix the fence.
Some afternoons she would day dream about Henry running away with the little dog. Some genetic instinct, accidentally unlocked in the tinkering would kick in and he’d scrabble his way under the fence and off into the woods. Years later they’d find him, still somehow wearing red sweatpants, the dog now wearing the red hoodie. She could already see the headlines: “Little Red Riding Hood’s Revenge.” Until then, though, the little red boy was her responsibility, and he needed new pants.
I sent this very excellent drawing to an artist show what I was thinking for something. It’s unrelated to anything else in this newsletter.
Thoughts: I’ve long been interested in the placebo effect. (I’m a big fan of it, for the record. Long live the placebo effect!) And recently I’ve been thinking about the placebo effect in the context of pop psychology. You know the stuff: power pose, left brain/right brain distinctions, the marshmallow test. Most of these have been, if not completely disproven, at least significantly complicated by follow up studies. Psychology is in the midst of reckoning with a replication crisis. A recent study found that only half of psychology studies can be repeated.
But one of the key things about pop psychology is that it’s popular — it’s right there in the name! Pop psychology is so popular that a ton of people can tell you what the marshmallow test is and believe it to be true, or truly think that listening to classical music increases your brainpower. Which means I think we could in fact a bit of moment of manifestation, created by psychology itself.
Let’s take power pose for example — the idea that if you stand in a “powerful” position, you can not just increase your confidence but actually change your body’s chemistry. The idea was proposed by a researcher named Amy Cuddy, and in her paper she writes: “High-power posers experienced elevations in testosterone, decreases in cortisol, and increased feelings of power and tolerance for risk; low-power posers exhibited the opposite pattern.” Cuddy has one of the most popular TED talks of all time about this, and you’ve almost certainly heard about it. The problem is that it’s almost certainly not true. Cuddy and her work has been one of the main public targets of those critical of these studies, and all evidence suggests that if the impact of “power pose” isn’t totally untrue, it’s certainly been overstated.
But we also know, from actually reproduced psychology studies, that the placebo effect is a powerful force. Amy Cuddy’s TED talk alone has been viewed almost 50 million times. Her work is well known, and the concept of the “power pose” has infiltrated popular culture. Millions of people probably think that it’s real. So… could it have become real? Power pose wasn’t a phenomenon when Cuddy described it, but it might be now. She might have actually created this effect, by describing it. Isn’t that weird?
Charlie Loyd (who has a very good newsletter of his own) suggested a name for this that I love: “Massively multiplayer online placebo effect, or MMOPE.” I like to think of it as pop psychology’s ouroboros moment.
I used to end my old newsletter with a series of little things like this. So here we are again! Sorry this one was long, I was just trying to show you what this newsletter will contain!
I have a question about: What is the future equivalent of those license plates that try to evade red light cameras? Will we put weird spray on the numbers of our houses to avoid surveillance drones?
Internet hole I most recently fell down: The Worldbuilding Stack Exchange website is incredible. Recent highlights include: "What kind of animal could a centaur ride, and how" and “Spiders In Space: How to design a space suit for an arachnid?”
Weirdest thing I googled this week: “podcast listing names of snakes” (it was this, by the way, and I maintain this is the best podcast ever made)
What my mom said about the last newsletter: shoot I need to make sure she knows how to subscribe to this new version.
Upcoming eels (aka what’s in the pipeline for this newsletter):
The short reign of crying as a personal brand
The rise of the defensive parenthetical
The tyranny of photography in marathon history
My blog posts are haunting me
Deactivation and power
This is an example of what the paid version of this newsletter will look like. If you get the free one, it won’t include all of this, just some. You can upgrade your subscription here.