Shameless Mann Family Plug

In the May issue of Wired, my cousin, Charles C. Mann, has an excellent article on the emergence of aquaculture — fish farming on a scale similar to Purdue-brand chicken manufacture. A number of species have been fished to the brink of extinction, he says, and as the demand for fish among developing countries grows exponentially each year, theres real threat of “the aquatic equivalent of a neutron bomb.” Cam, as we Manns like to call him, says that the solution may be ocean ranches, motorized pens that roam the seas for months and then arrive at their destination chock full of plump protein ready for market.

Now, I like fish as much as the next guy, but — well, I don’t really like fish. They’re filthy little googley eyed freaks, in my opinion. I mean, I’m thrilled that technologies like aquaculture may save cod, the beloved national fish of Portugal (and, I believe, the chief ingredient on every item on our wedding menu). But what intrigues me about the article — what I love about every one of Cam’s articles — is his ability to make a technical subject as accessible and fascinating as a Michael Crichton novel.

Above all, I marvel at Cam’s clever openings, which always hook the reader. In this article, he talks about a mysterious buoy off the coast of New Hampshire. “Unlike a regular buoy, it has an access hatch that leads to an inner chamber crammed with enough electronics to merit its own IT staff. … The buoy is the antenna, eyes, and brain of a sprawling apparatus suspended beneath the surface like a huge aquatic insect … the creature’s body is a group of three cages, each resembling a gigantic toy top. Inside the cages are swirling, stupid mobs of fish.”

Stupid mobs of fish — Love it!

In “Homeland Insecurity”, Cam opens with three telling examples of how high-tech attempts to thwart crime have seriously backfired — thus setting up his article on how the best security systems, be they airport screeners or thumbprint scanners, learn how to “fail smartly.” Another Cam article, “The Year the Music Died” (a Wired cover story), he opens with an informal conversation he had with the editor of Billboard, where the man predict that the entire music industry will collapse in five years.

I owe my interest in freelance writing largely to Cam. Though he manages to make a living at it full-time, and I manage to earn just enough for the occasional Snickers and Fruit Roll Up, every time I read one of his articles it pumps me up. In fact, the subject of my most recent story for Penn Arts & Sciences, “Bird’s-Eye View of the Amazon” (PDF here), was written about by Cam years ago. My article is a profile of Clark Erickson, the Penn archeologist who has proven that much, if not all, of the Amazon rain forest was actually engineered by humans. Cam wrote about Erickson, too, in a cover story for the Atlantic with the fabulous title “1491.” In it, he explains that recent research has shown how the Americas before Columbus were far more populous and advanced than we ever thought possible. And though he discusses about a half-dozen scientists in addition to Erickson, Cam’s article was probably still the best background reading I found on the man.

One of these days, I promise, I’ll beat him to a scoop. But in the meantime, it’s nice to think that somewhere, deep down, there might actually be a writing gene encoded in the Mann family DNA. Either that or male pattern baldness.