dark forest with mysterious eyes

As the first asteroid confirmed to have originated outside the Solar System whizzed by at roughly 85,000 mph, scientists scrambled unsuccessfully to figure out some way to catch up to it. Was it different from the asteroids in the belt between Mars and Jupiter? Was it even an asteroid? What if it was some kind of technology designed by an alien race?

The Breakthrough Initiatives program observed and gathered data from the asteroid, but found no evidence of life or signals indicative of technology. For all we’ve learned about space, the more we realize we don’t know, especially when it comes to aliens. More… “Should We Stop Looking for Intelligent Life?”

communist symbol as a question mark

Until January 27, 1973, all young men were required to register for the Selective Service and were eligible to be drafted into military service. A month after I had turned 18 in 1955, I received my letter telling me to report for the mandatory Selective Service physical and registration . . . After my physical examination, I stood totally naked in a line with 24 other young men on the third floor of my Selective Service Center, when a sergeant with a clipboard approached and asked several people to step forward. My name was the first he called. There were other names, but I paid no attention after he called mine.

I had been poked and prodded. I had peed in a cup, bent and spread my cheeks, and had my testicles held while I coughed. I had no doubt about the physical exam. I was on the University of Illinois wrestling team, lifted weights every day, and was in excellent physical condition. I looked forward to my second year at the Chicago’s Navy Pier Campus of the University. More… “College Manifesto”

crystal bowl filled with toffee candies

The star shape cuts into the circular handle that tops the lid of my candy dish. The star is echoed as it expands into the many cut diamonds which multiply as they eclipse over the round shape of the lid. The pattern starts again where the lid meets the bowl, continuing on and on all the way to its base. As the diameter of the bowl’s circular shape increases, so, too, does the size of the diamonds, only to follow the reverse pattern as it decreases in size where the bowl’s shape comes together in a nice gathering of diamonds at the bottom. The pattern seems to be infinite, and yet it is not. It finishes at the base of the bowl.

It is an old bowl, a treasured possession of my Gran’s. It always sat on her coffee table, and it was always full of candy, mostly the soft caramel toffees that she loved so much. As children, we were allowed to have one, but only one, and only after we had eaten the sumptuous feast that Gran had prepared for our visit. She always made our favorites — fried chicken, mashed potatoes, and coleslaw. My mouth waters at the memory of these special recipes.

I make Gran’s chicken for supper. I coat the chicken pieces with cornflake crumbs, salt, and pepper and bake it in the oven. Then I make the coleslaw with her unique combination of cabbage and raisins. I add small, colored marshmallows. The salad dressing, another of Gran’s secret recipes, softens the marshmallows so they melt in your mouth. My kids like the spongy sweetness next to the bitter crunch of the cabbage. I don’t recall if Gran ever added marshmallows to the salad. Perhaps she did. More… “The Crystal Bowl”

Computer code

Place a horse head from the Paleolithic paintings of Chauvet Cave beside footage from a Netflix show and compare them. Both are art, in the broadest sense, and both are (primarily) visual, but the similarities end there. In his essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Walter Benjamin already anticipated most of the differences that you’d be able to find between the two: that the cave paintings were likely made for sacred ceremonial purposes and that the show is an economic product. That each of the cave’s images are fixed in both time and place while the television show’s come to us whenever we want, no pilgrimage required. And most importantly, that while the Netflix show is a counterfeit replicated endlessly in the form of code, the images in the cave are each authentic in their uniqueness. This presence of the singular in art, Benjamin called its “aura,” and the annihilation of aura by technology is the foundation of contemporary art.

It might seem counterintuitive to think so, but the popular dissemination of technology is necessary for the electronic image to function as conceptual art. This isn’t necessarily true with any other medium and has much to do with the value that we as postmodern consumers of images and memes place on a removed and ironic perspective. For example, conceptual video art didn’t reach its proper golden age until the 1960s, with the advent of relatively cheap portable recording equipment. There were, of course, films made before the middle of last century that were art, but it was mostly high art — The Battleship Potemkin, Metropolis, etc. — which still retained the heavy grandeur of Benjamin’s aura. The films themselves might have been mechanically reproduced and distributed, but they were experienced as singular events which communicated their own significance as too dense, too substantial, to be seriously considered as simply products for consumption. More… “Conspiracy Theory As Art”

From spearheads to skeletons, mummies to mastodons, caskets to ritual masks, the North’s soil has yielded thousands of clues to bygone lives. But only once have motile shadows returned from this underground realm. In 1978, during construction of a new rec center in the town of Dawson City in Canada’s Yukon, a backhoe unearthed 533 newsreels and feature films dating from 1903 to 1929, many of them thought to have been lost to time’s ravages, others previously unknown. Stored initially in the town library’s basement, they had been interred in an old gym pool that double-functioned as an ice rink. There they rested like Snow White in her crystal coffin. The pool site was part of the Dawson Amateur Athletic Association’s building, which opened in 1902 and soon after began screening films. Some of the cache’s contents played again in the rebuilt Palace Grand Theatre 15 months after their discovery, almost 50 years after their disappearance. More… “Moving Pictures from the Permafrost”

Volcano spewing lava into a wine glass

Being from Istanbul, I have known a thing or two about Hungary: how it was under the Ottoman Empire for nearly 160 years, how the Orient Express passed through Budapest on its way from Paris to Istanbul, connecting the West to the East, and how the Hungarian-made Ikarus buses with their articulated bellies like accordions serviced Istanbul for half a century. What I didn’t know was how hip Budapest has now become, with its graffiti-adorned streets, trendy boutiques, and ruin bars converted from abandoned buildings.

My opportunity to rediscover Hungary arrived last October when Budapest hosted the Terroir forum, where chefs, journalists, winemakers, and sommeliers got together to discuss the legacy and the future of Hungarian gastronomy. When the founder of the Toronto-based Terroir Symposium, Arlene Stein, told me there would be local food and wine showcased, like Hungarian grey cattle, goose liver, and the sheep-like Mangalica pigs with their curly wool coats and marbled meat, I was intrigued. When she told me that there would be a wine-tasting event by the winemakers of Volcanic Wines of Pannonia, I was sold.
More… “The Renaissance of Hungarian Food”

In Argentina, cash is king. An enlightened despot when your pockets are full, and a wrathful monarch when you’re insolvent. Amid a frantic departure from Buenos Aires, I learned this lesson the hard way.

I was in Argentina to visit my girlfriend. We met in Brooklyn, where she’d moved for a job. She worked as an au pair for a family with an infant. The company she was hired through sponsored her visa. We had been dating for almost a year when the family moved to California, and thus she chose not to renew her contract. Rather than help her find a new placement, the company dropped her. She lost her visa and had to move back to Argentina.

Despite the bad circumstance that forced her to move home, we decided to make the most of the trip. I was excited to visit my girlfriend and her family and learn about her home country. We toured Argentina, rounding out our trip in Buenos Aires. More… “Cashed Out in Buenos Aires”

This essay concerns a graphic novel that actively engages with racist rhetoric, post-colonialism, and oppression. As such, certain language and terms are incorporated in the book and within this review.

The cover of Yellow Negroes and other Imaginary Creatures by Yvan Alagbé shows the profile of a young African man with his eyes closed. A pair of light-skinned hands encircles his neck. On the back cover, we see an older, seemingly Caucasian man, balding and with a mustache, his mouth ajar. A pair of dark-skinned hands lies on the man’s shoulders (perhaps belonging to the figure on the front) suggestively seeming to also be inching their way up to the neck.

These two men are Alain and Mario, respectively, the two central figures in the book’s title story. This pair of images might suggest that within lies an overly simplistic story of racial animus, but  “Yellow Negroes” (or “Negres Jaunes” in French) is far more complex and haunting than that fleeting impression would suggest. The story has long been regarded as a masterwork in Europe, one of the seminal French comics of the 1990s. Now it’s available in English for the first time, and, despite the considerable span of years and cultures, it — along with the other stories in this slim volume — remains as trenchant and relevant as when it was first published. More… “Yvan Alagbé’s Political Menagerie”

Evil fisherman lures young mermaid with cash

A few months back, a story broke about R&B singer R. Kelly’s alleged cult. There was, of course, an immediate divide between those who supported the singer and those who believed his career should have ended decades ago due to similar accusations. The situation reminded many of Taz’s Angels, an alleged escort service/prostitution group out of Miami which rose to fame via social media. Prostitution rings and “harems” are not as uncommon as many of us would like to believe, but these two cases are unique because they have the allure of fame. In the age of social media, fame has become a drug as addictive as cocaine. Much like the substance, fame maintains a look of sugary-sweet innocence while eating people alive from the inside out. Celebrities become idols, worshipped for anything from winning a Grammy to buying a toothbrush for themselves.

Social media has become a new avenue for the average Jane to create her own brand and become self-employed, but the cost of this is often using images from your personal life to grow an overly devoted following. We are all constantly being pushed: follow her, like this, buy that. It is to the point that if you say you don’t have social media, people often think that you are lying. At its best, social media brings us closer to the people we love, whether we know them in real life or not. There is a point, however, and society has reached it, where close becomes too close, particularly because we all try to only show the best of ourselves on the internet. Just read the comments of any celebrity or internet-famous person and you’ll see how mere humans have been exalted to the status of gods and goddesses. We have moved beyond forming strong opinions about people we don’t know, which is odd enough in itself. We are now in the realm of idolizing these people to the point where we often refuse to hold them accountable for their wrongdoings. This type of worship can have very dangerous consequences. More… “The Danger in Devotion”

Both the TV and the viewer exclaim, "I Love It!"

During a protracted period on the couch with a stomach virus a few months ago, I found the only thing I could keep down was HGTV. The voices on these shows were so soothing and nonjudgmental, and the hardwood floors, finished cabinetry, coordinated backsplash, and designer-rustic farm sinks so aesthetically pleasing that I was lulled back to health before I knew it. I came away with a deep appreciation for how this programming functions in our culture.

To begin, it is useful to observe what these shows are not about. They are not about self-improvement. To be sure, they focus on improvement — i.e. on the production of a nicer envelope for living. But no effort is made to improve the health, wealth, or moral fiber of the clients being served. This, quite frankly, is a relief. We have passed through the cultural interlude in which we were bullied relentlessly about eating better, exercising more, and brightening up our personalities (not to mention our teeth). This, I believe, has made us acutely aware of how lazy and inherently imperfect we are, creating anxiety and anger as the eventual byproduct. Our current political situation can be understood as a backlash against that wearisome imperative that we be better than what we are inclined to be.  More… “Our HGTV Moment”