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
I got to do some fun voicing recently! You can hear me as the voice of the
omniscient narrator on WBUR’s Endless Thread. You can also hear me read some old quotes from anti-chain-store agitators on the most recent episode of Pessimists Archive.
I wrote for WIRED about why it might be time to rethink who has “the right stuff,” and consider sending folks with disabilities to space.
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: