Curious About Everything Newsletter #12

Why leaves change colour, wildfires in Antarctica, how bionic gloves gave a maestro his music back, and much more.

Curious About Everything, a newsletter by Jodi Ettenberg

A year ago, I started this newsletter to spotlight some of the best things I read, and to better connect with my community given the infrequent schedule of my blog posts.

This 12th CAE is a little later than I had hoped because I have been feeling unwell, but it marks a year of mostly monthly missives, something I wasn’t sure was possible with a chronic spinal CSF leak.

Thank you for coming along for the ride!

Connecting the Genetic Dots

In October, I wrote a post that pulls together many of the lingering questions I had about this leak journey. It turns out I have two genetic conditions I had not heard of, and they are a big part of why sealing my spinal CSF leak is so difficult.

You can read about those details here. Scroll down once you click, since CAE subscribers already know that I’m living in the Gatineau. Health updates are toward the bottom of the post.

Interview with The Browser

The Browser, a newsletter I love and have been a paying subscriber for since 2016, asked me to do a video interview. (For a time, they also hired me to run their Twitter feed, but I had to step down due to the leak.)

Here’s my 33 min talk with Baiqu Gonkar, covering curiosity as a means through adversity, friends who disappeared during this tough time, you (my community!), and much more.

One-Time Support Option for my Community

When I launched my Patreon, a lot of you asked for a one-time support option instead of a monthly membership model. I have finally set that up for those who want it. For clarity, this CAE newsletter is free and will remain so—I don’t plan to move to a paid Substack model. Legal Nomads will also stay as it has been: no ads or sponsored content.

One Time Support


Quote of the Month

Does the leaf who boldly
Volunteers to yellow first also
Know it’s one step closer to
Falling? May we all be so brave.
—Marshall Lyles (via)


Things I Read in November

The vast majority of you enjoyed the newsletter grouped by emojified themes, with some lighter reads at the bottom. I will stick to this format as a result. Always happy to receive feedback if you have it! Each section has one longer piece that I think is important to read, and several other great articles below it.

🌳 Nature and Animals🌳

Speaking of leaves…

🚨 Every Loss Reveals What We Are Made of: Blue Bananas, Why Leaves Change Color, and the Ongoing Mystery of Chlorophyll | The Marginalian, October 26, 2021. By Maria Popova

The Marginalian began as Brain Pickings way back when, and Maria was one of the initial curators of the social media era. Her brilliant mind and beautiful proze served as a filter (the original kind, not the Instagram kind!) for the overwhelm of information online. She recently changed her site’s name to The Marginalian, explaining why the name fit better:

In the margins of books, in the margins of life as commonly conceived by our culture’s inherited parameters of permission and possibility, I have worked out and continue working out who I am and who I wish to be — a private inquiry irradiated by the ultimate question, the great quickening of thought, feeling, and wonder that binds us all: What is all this?

This October post about falling leaves was beautiful and informative, dipping into the undercurrent of loss that comes along with the changing of the seasons.

And because we humans so readily see in trees metaphors for our emotional lives, how can this not be a living reminder that every loss reveals what we are made of — an affirmation of the value of a breakdown?

Read on for a scientific understanding of how and why leaves change colour, and some deep thoughts to ponder along the way.

🌳 Other nature and animal pieces:

  • California condors are capable, it turns out, of virgin births. “The only possible explanation was a strange one: The eggs that produced these two condors must have essentially fertilized themselves without any sperm. The phenomenon is known as parthenogenesis or, colloquially, “virgin birth.” […] Parthenogenesis has been studied in other birds, like turkeys and chickens. It’s also been documented in snakes, lizards, sharks, rays, and bony fish—both in captivity and more recently in the wild. Many of these discoveries were accidental, and all of these accidents have scientists wondering if parthenogenesis is not as rare as once thought.”

  • A new study that used the golden ratio to analyze the facial proportions of popular cat breeds popped out several breeds that are more beautiful than others. (The golden ratio calculates attractiveness by measuring and comparing the distance between different areas of the face, like the eyes, nose, and mouth.) Is there even such a thing as an ugly cat? No.

  • How did birds get such great lungs? They inherited them from dinosaurs. But why did dinosaurs have them? This Nautilus piece from 2020, written as delightful letter to kids about why birds can fly over Mount Everest without running out of oxygen, answers the question. (via)

  • Also on the bird front: ‘tis the season for long-haul bird migrations. Here’s a fun map for you and your family to track them in motion.

  • Are we on the verge of talking with whales? Scientists used to believe that animals communicate, but do not speak. Now we aren’t so sure. “If we discover that there is an entire civilization basically under our nose—maybe it will result in some shift in the way that we treat our environment. And maybe it will result in more respect for the living world.”

  • A physicist-turned-photographer captures the incredible harmony of starling murmurations, some dense enough to blacken entire sky.

🌐 Geopolitics 🌐

🚨 A Very Big Little Country | AFAR, October 13, 2021. By Katherine LaGrave

Ever heard of Westarctica? Me neither. It is a micronation, a political entity where members claim they belong to an independent state. “What they lack in legal recognition they make up for in enthusiasm,” writes LaGrave. And there are nearly 100 active micronations around the world, largely existing online.

Westarctica started as “a basic Yahoo website with a god-awful teal-blue background, project name, and email address,” by someone named Travis McHenry—but has now become something more:

In 2015, McHenry pivoted. Instead of focusing his efforts on establishing and occupying a research station on the continent of Antarctica, he would establish Westarctica as a nonprofit focused on fighting climate change. In doing so, he reasoned, Westarctica would be a global voice for western Antarctica, raising awareness about protecting its plants and animals and ice sheets and seas.

Interesting read that taught me something new.

🌐 Other geopolitics writing worth reading:

  • On the other end of the globe: Iqaluit writer David Korgak’s story about the Arctic braids in his own family history about the land provides a rare insight into the region from someone with a past and future there. His grandfather was born near what’s now Inukjuak, in northern Quebec, and he was one of many forcibly relocated as a kid to the High Arctic, 2,000 km away. “Inuit became Canadians not because anyone asked them to, but because it was convenient for Ottawa to say they were,” writes Korgak. What will the Arctic look like in the future?

  • We're now looking at the worst humanitarian crisis on Earth.” The World Food Program says 23 million people in Afghanistan are facing starvation.

  • Wildfires burned through Antarctica 75 million years ago, charcoal remnants reveal. Scientists think they were sparked by ancient volcanic activity.

  • Reuters investigates the young people risking it all to try and topple Myanmar’s Junta. “Their utterly changed worlds since the February coup paint a portrait of sacrifice and resolve in a Burmese generation who, unlike their parents, grew up in a world of smartphones and greater political freedoms. Many are willing to pay any price to overthrow a government they say threatens to take them back to a darker past.

⚕️Health ⚕️

🚨 How The Maestro Got His Hands Back | GQ Magazine, October 28, 2021. By Gabriella Paiella.

A lifetime of pain, dystonia, and misfortune robbed world-renowned pianist João Carlos Martins of the ability to play his beloved instrument. And then a creative industrial designer named Ubiratan Bizarro Costa thought up an unusual solution: bionic gloves that would allow Martins to play once again.

The gloves are both deceptively complicated looking and incredibly precise. The hand slips into a neoprene sleeve outfitted with a 3D-printed frame and stainless steel bars on the fingers. Costa, a fan of Formula One racing, was inspired by the cars' rear suspension mechanism: When weight bears down on it, it springs back up. Without the gloves, when Martins's fingers hit a key, they stay depressed; the steel bars pop them back up.

and, when Martins does play,

it's a full-body experience; he leans in close to the keyboard, his face repeatedly crumples with emotion. He's in communion with his instrument. It's almost too intimate to watch. “As soon as I put my hands on the keyboard, if lightning strikes or there is a massive thunderstorm, I don't hear it,” Martins says. “My mind is so focused on the music. That day with the gloves, I got even more emotional than I usually do, and a little tear fell from my eyes.”

Beautifully-written, and especially emotional if you grew up playing music yourself. I played violin for a chunk of my life, and can only imagine the level of emotion for someone where music was their everything. Martins has reinvented himself over and over, writes Paiella, “no matter his age and no matter the toll. With each new challenge, he found renewed purpose. He became a new person.”

⚕️Other heath writing worth reading:

  • Mitochondria goes mainstream in this article about the body’s energy production cycles and what can make them dysfunctional. Why do some people have more energy than others? And how we can we maximize what energy we can harness? “Energy is both biochemical and psychophysical,” writes Paumgarten, “vaguely delineated, widely misunderstood, elusive as grace.” (The author seems to have enjoyed the wearables a lot less than I enjoyed reading his piece.)

  • Chakras, crystals and conspiracy theories: Sirin Kale on how the wellness industry turned its back on Covid science, increasingly promoting vaccine scepticism, conspiracy theories, and the myth that ill people have themselves to blame. How did self-care turn so nasty? The logical fallacy of wellness, writes Kale, is “the idea that the human mind is a drill sergeant and the organs of our body obediently fall in line.”

  • ProPublica’s analysis of five years of modeled EPA data identified more than 1,000 toxic hot spots across the country and found that an estimated 250,000 people living in them may be exposed to levels of excess cancer risk that the EPA deems unacceptable. Here is their toxic air map, which plots industrial air pollution in America, searchable by zip code.

  • Thread from an atmospheric chemist on the ways we can improve ventilation (including in classrooms) as Covid continues.

🫂 Society & Culture 🫂

(I wasn’t sure what emoji to go with here, so I went with people hugging.)

🚨 The Subtle Look and Overwhelming Feel of Today’s Misogyny | Culture Study, November 7, 2021. By Anne Helen Petersen

This new Culture Study article focuses on the nuances of misogyny that can bleed into day-to-day life, but rarely rise to the level of being called out as such. “Misogyny is outward hostility, then, but it also the feeling of shame, the fear of social shunning and loss of status, and the threat of desolation.” As always, Petersen puts her own spin on controversial topics:

14) Male Partner Exceptionalism Just Generally

A dad alone on the playground with their kid isn’t to be celebrated unless we also celebrate a mom alone on the playground with their kid. That we don’t, and never have, speaks to just how low the bar is for hetero male participation in parenting.

Celebration does not make these moments “normal”; it keeps them exceptional. It is settling for “he does more than his dad did” and calling it good, even thought it’s anything but.

17 examples total. Some are specific to the America of the moment (e.g. the lack of paid parental leave). I’d consider adding patrilineal surnames to the list, honestly, instead of giving a child both names as some cultures do.

Either way, a very interesting read on ways that marketing companies position themselves to engage people via shame.

🫂 Other society & culture pieces worth reading:

  • Really interesting read from a student born and raised in Pune, India who came to the United States to study—and all the culture shock that followed. I particularly liked the small details I’d never have thought of, like: “switches, door locks, and keys work the opposite way - they’re vertically or horizontally inverted from what I’m used to.”

  • We’ve already had Thanksgiving here in Canada, but the American holiday is right around the corner. Long marginalized and misrepresented in US history, the Wampanoag tribe is bracing for the 400th anniversary of the first Pilgrim Thanksgiving. This tribe helped the Pilgrims survive for their first Thanksgiving. As the Washington Post reports, they still regret it 400 years later.

  • Merriam Webster has released its annual list of new words added to the dictionary this year. Among them, digital nomad (was doing it before it was cool!), horchata, otaru, dad bod, and more.

  • According to a 'Public Toilet Index' released in August 2021 by the U.K. bathroom supply company QS Supplies and the online toilet-finding tool PeePlace, the U.S. has only eight toilets per 100,000 people overall — tied with Botswana. (Iceland leads their ranking, with 56 per 100,000 residents.)” For decades, U.S. cities have been closing or neglecting public restrooms. Where did all of the USA’s public toilets go?

  • Research shows that, young or old, single people are more social than their partnered peers. But there are hidden costs to living alone in a society that defaults to couples: for a couple, living separately is around 28% more expensive than living together.

  • [I]n reality, history can’t go away. Everything present is made of the past—the cities we inhabit and the language we use and the clothes we wear and what they make us feel. Every word in this sentence was first given significance by people now long dead.” Mournful, thoughtful read about how how the haunted memories of the past inform our daily lives.

  • It’s been 42 years since Douglas Adams wrote The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, one of my favourite books. A fun short piece on the cultural influence of the Hitchhiker’s series. See also this 2020 piece on the Hitchhiker’s guide to the number 42.

  • A brief read on how one writer believes being curious is more important than being smart.

📱Technology 📱

🚨 5 things you should know about Facebook | Popular Information, October 26, 2021. By Judd Legum

By now many of you will have heard of whistleblower Frances Haugen, a former Facebook product manager who shared a huge amount of internal Facebook documents to the media. There were hundreds of resulting stories published about the documents, so I am spotlighting this Legum article because it summarizes the released documents into five succinct, important points. Per Legum,

The documents paint a disturbing picture of a company that is a key source of information for hundreds of millions of people in the United States and billions of people around the world.

📱 Other tech pieces worth reading:

🔗 Some Lighter Reads 🔗

A few fun links to end the month.

  • Angelo Fregolent, now 94, parked his Lancia Fulvia 1962 outside the newsagent he ran with his wife, Bertilla Modolo, in Conegliano in 1974 - the couple then retired and left the car there.” A car parked on a street in Italy for 47 years becomes a tourist attraction.

  • Ever wondered what a pumpkin looks like inside a CT machine? You’re welcome.

That’s it for November!
- Jodi