Curious About Everything Newsletter #11

Including reads about Hawai'i, turning cadavers into compost with nature burials, Van Gogh, and inventions that changed the world.

Curious About Everything, a newsletter by Jodi Ettenberg

End of September already. Hard to believe!

I’m still trying to figure out the best format for the links that I share. The feedback from CAE#10 was that you like the emojis added to break up the format, so I shall continue with them.

This month I’m splitting it up a bit differently: instead of a Grab Bag and main longer excerpted links, I’m doing it by theme. There was a lot to share with 9/11 anniversary and some of the other events going on in the world. So I’ve got one big read per section, plus a grab bag of other things within it.

As with last month, curious if you prefer this way, or the Main / Grab Bag structure of prior newsletters? Let me know via reply or comment!

Quote of the Month

“Writing feels like home to me fundamentally, even when everything else feels like a hurricane.”
— Amanda Gorman

Things I Read in September

So many dense and important topics to be curious about, that I am dividing this section into themes for this month. I have one longer piece that I think is important to read, and several other great articles below it.

🧳 Travel Reads 🧳

🚨 Hawai’i is Not Our Playground | AFAR Magazine, September 2, 2021. By Chris Collins.

Hawai‘i is the destination of choice for many a dreamy vacationer, but as Chris Collins writes, the state has been “tamed and reinvented for the mainlander imagination”. In this thoughtful piece, Collins saw the island through the eyes of activist Kyle Kajihiro.

“Even people who are otherwise politically conscious—they’d get to Hawai‘i and their brains just slip into vacation mode,” Kajihiro told me. “They have this vision of Hawai‘i as this multicultural paradise. They don’t understand that there’s a history of colonialism and dispossession inscribed in the landscape itself.”

The Indigenous population, estimated to be 683,000 in 1778, was down to 24,000 people by 1920. Sacred sites were destroyed alongside the Native population, and the language, culture, and traditions alongside them. Today, writes Collins, “the once-thriving Indigenous population suffers disproportionate levels of poverty, addiction, incarceration, and homelessness.”

🧳 Other great travel pieces:

  • In much of the travel writing about Angkor Wat, the city is portrayed as “lost”, having only been rediscovered by the French. This statement endures, despite the fact that, as Allison in Cambodia details, it is “specifically not abandoned or forgotten and not home to a lost city.” Well worth a read, and hopefully helps reshape some of the lazy travel storytelling that keeps reiterating the same trope. (Via Travelfish’s newsletter.)

  • How bad photography has changed our definition of what it means to take a “good” picture, from Collectors Weekly. If you look at trends in photography over the years, what’s popular at any given moment is very different from a different era. These days, technology itself is intruding into the aesthetics and culture of what ‘good’ means when it comes to photography.

  • How finger-counting gives away your nationality, both the order that you count, and which fingers you use. This has been a topic of debate among fellow travelers for years, so I enjoyed this BBC article!

  • Food can conjure up a sense of home, but “when the memory of home is too painful and when home doesn’t really exist anymore, sometimes these things tend to be kept behind closed doors, in private kitchens”. Beautiful piece on the private nostalgia of cooking for places lost.

  • Why your first aid kit should include tampons. (Useful for medical emergencies, starting a fire, and more!)

  • What’s behind the explosion of Van Gogh interactive exhibits? Apparently these traveling shows can all be linked back to Netflix’s Emily in Paris. I went here in Ottawa—the cover image for this newsletter is a picture from the exhibit—and found it lovely, having no idea that the genesis was a Netflix show I never saw.

🦠 COVID-19 Reads🦠

🚨 Six Rules That Will Define Our Second Pandemic Winter | The Atlantic, September 20, 2021. By Katherine J. Wu, Ed Yong, and Sarah Zhang.

The dream team of COVID writing (to me, at least!) means that this piece was truly well thought out and also instructive. What’s ahead for North America as it barrels toward winter?

Some quotes:

Vaccines work more like dimmer switches than on/off buttons.

As the authors write, this is because as vaccination increases a higher proportion of cases will appear in vaccinated people, which is what normally happens when a huge majority of the population is vaccinated.

If vaccines are breaking the link between infections and hospitalizations, then they are working as intended:

The COVID-19 vaccines were originally meant to prevent severe infections. They do so very well. But for a few brief months, we thought they could do even better. Unexpectedly spectacular clinical-trial results from Pfizer and Moderna raised hopes that these vaccines could protect against almost all symptomatic infections. […] But, from the very beginning, vaccine experts warned that respiratory diseases are especially tricky to immunize against.

On kids:

Kids still seem relatively resilient against SARS-CoV-2 compared with adults, as they always have been. But compared with the variants that came before it, Delta is a faster spreader, and therefore a larger threat to everyone who is unvaccinated—which means children are now at greater risk than they were before.

On risk analysis:

Relative risk will keep shifting, even if the virus somehow stops mutating and becomes a static threat. (It won’t).

Worth a read in full.

🦠 Other important COVID-19 pieces:

  • Some of the misinformation I’ve seen online these days states that vaccinated people are equally able to get / transmit COVID-19 to others as unvaccinated people. That is not the case. Vaccines do prevent transmission, just not as well as they did with Alpha. And you can’t transmit a virus you don’t have.

  • A daily pill to treat COVID could be just months away, scientists say.

  • According to hacked data, a right-wing group founded last year made millions of dollars for consultations and prescriptions through their coordinated misinformation network.

  • Rapid testing is barely available here in Canada, despite the country having purchase a lot of them when they became available. Distribution issues, policy issues, politics, all play into it—but it’s the private citizens who lose out. In Europe, friends and readers report that these tests are free or very low cost. They’re being used for gatherings small and large as an extra measure of protection. So this piece from STAT about how the US (and Canada, I would argue!) should be using rapid tests more is something I agree with completely.

  • We heard a lot about how many COVID-19 patients lost their sense of smell and taste, but less about parosmia, when things smell or taste like absolute garbage. It turns out this condition may affects a percentage of COVID-19 survivors. Profile of a COVID-19 patient about her experience with parosmia: “chicken tastes like if you had cat food and left it out for three days.” Yikes!

  • A new Ed Yong piece (from September 29) about the next pandemic and what we still need to do to protect ourselves from it. There’s truly been no better science writer than Ed, I would argue, to synthesize the data and still keep all of the nuance that everyone else seems to lose.

  • And, I laughed:

🇦🇫 Afghanistan Reads 🇦🇫

🚨 The Other Afghan Women | The New Yorker, September 6, 2021. By Anand Gopal.

If you read one piece in this section, please make it this one. It follows a woman named Shakira from rural Afghanistan, spotlighting her views about the last hopeless decades of death and ‘liberation’.

Nearly every person Shakira knew had a story about Dado. Once, his fighters demanded that two young men either pay a tax or join his private militia, which he maintained despite holding his official post. When they refused, his fighters beat them to death, stringing their bodies up from a tree. A villager recalled, “We went to cut them down, and they had been sliced open, their stomachs coming out.” In another village, Dado’s forces went from house to house, executing people suspected of being Taliban; an elderly scholar who’d never belonged to the movement was shot dead.

Shakira was bewildered by the Americans’ choice of allies. “Was this their plan?” she asked me. “Did they come to bring peace, or did they have other aims?” 

Powerful, very different piece to the many I’ve seen about the country and its very tragic history of occupation and oppression.

🇦🇫 Other moving, important Afghanistan pieces:

🌳 Nature Reads 🌳

🚨 To Be a Field of Poppies | Harper's Magazine, September 20, 2021. By Lisa Wells.

A really interesting piece about turning cadavers into compost. Instead of cremating or burying bodies, this turns the dead into an homage for new life. While for some, religious affinities may prevent this from feeling like a comfortable option, others may find it elegant and beautiful. I personally love the idea of the full circle, going back to the Earth when I pass and helping the forests in the process.

 The carbon output from a year’s worth of cremations in the United States is roughly equivalent to that from burning 400 million pounds of coal. Alkaline hydrolysis has less ecological impact, but like cremation, it wastes the body’s energy; instead of going up in smoke, nutrients are flushed down the drain. Even the mushroom suit, according to critics, adds nothing to the decomposition process that soil itself can’t provide.


In the early days, Katrina called her idea the Urban Death Project. It was as direct a name as she could come up with, a way to refuse euphemism in an industry otherwise saturated with it. But it didn’t quite capture the regenerative aspect of [the technique]. So when she formed her company in 2017, she named it Recompose. The term is canny branding, but it’s also a fair description of the process, in that the very molecules of the dead are taken apart and reassembled, as the pilot study put it, into a material that is “unrecognizable visually, chemically, or microbiologically as human remains.”

Fascinating read.

🌳 Other nature pieces:

  • Bird photographer of the year photo gallery! Of course I needed to share this. (15 pictures)

  • Female octopuses throw things at males that are harassing them, it turns out. From the piece: “One female octopus threw silt 10 times at a male from a nearby den who was attempting to mate with her. She hit him on five occasions". Can you blame her?

  • United States will remove 23 species, including the ivory-billed woodpecker and Bachman's warbler, from the endangered list—because they are now officially extinct.

  • Owls Near Me. Exactly what it sounds like you’re getting.

  • Wonderful fun here: River Runner, a site that allows you to click and drop a raindrop anywhere in the contiguous United States and watch where it ends up.

🇺🇸 A Few 9/11 Reads 🇺🇸

Given that it was the 20th anniversary of the 11 September terror attacks in New York and elsewhere, I wanted to share some related links. I was on a flight when the attacks happened, and landed in France (where I was heading to study for a year) with no clue that the world had changed fundamentally while I was above the clouds.

Here are several powerful pieces:

  • Moving, raw piece profiling Glenn Vogt, the former manager of Windows of the World, the restaurant that used to sit at the very top of the North Tower. Having survived 9/11, while 79 of his employees died, he is “still searching for permission to move on”.

  • Toxic fumes from the Twin Towers and surrounding area have been linked to many immune and other conditions. While the security issues are always part of the dialogue, it’s the survivors who often get left behind. This piece discusses dementia cases in first responders from the area.

  • I Wrote the Lead Times Article on 9/11. Here’s What Still Grips Me.” NYT’s Serge Schmemann, 20 years later. (Archive link for reading if you can’t access it.)

  • And, if you wanted more: Pocket put together an “Essential Reading” list for 9/11, curating some excellent articles.

🔗 Some Lighter Reads 🔗

A few fun links to end the month.

The idea of a seat belt for transportation safety doesn't begin with Nils Bohlin, the Swedish engineer who conceived of a three-point shoulder and lap belt for automobiles in 1958. Other innovators, like 19th century aviator George Cayley, recognized a need to keep humans from being ejected out of planes and other moving vehicles. But it was Bohlin, a Volvo engineer, who sought to improve upon the two-point lap belts, which could sometimes do more harm than good in the event of an accident.

That’s it for September!

Much love from the Canada,

p.s. My Patreon is now up to 259 people, including a few new people from last month’s newsletter. Thanks so much for your support!