Pop Art: How Popcorn Works


I had never seen popcorn pop, so I decided to take the kernels outside of the bag and heat them over a stove. It’s a little creepy to watch them start expanding and then rupturing, but it quickly becomes amusing and subsequently delicious.

popart from Lilian Bui on Vimeo.

If you’re wondering how popcorn “works,” here’s the description according to about.com:

Popcorn kernels contain oil and water with starch, surrounded by a hard and strong outer coating. When popcorn is heated, the water inside the kernel tries to expand into steam, but it cannot escape through the seed coat (the popcorn hull). The hot oil and steam gelatinizes the starch inside the popcorn kernel, making it softer and more pliable. When the popcorn reaches a temperature of 180 °C (356 °F) the pressure inside the kernel is around 135 psi (930 kPa), which is sufficient pressure to rupture the popcorn hull, essentially turning the kernel inside-out. The pressure inside the kernel is released very quickly, expanding the proteins and starch inside the popcorn kernel into a foam, which cools and sets into the familiar popcorn puff.

Given my new, buttery fascination, I would push for a redesign of popcorn bags far and wide so that more people could enjoy the process. Then again, there’s probably a safety hazard attached to standing too close to the microwave for too long.


Unique New York

I’ve been to New York City before. But just because you’ve gone once, twice, or even twenty times, it doesn’t mean you’ve been to New York City. Every single trip I’ve taken has been entirely different from the last, and that’s because this urban jungle lends itself to everything from serendipitous encounters to the inexplicably bizarre–the kind of magical realism you can only hope to encounter in a Gabriel Garcia Lorca novel.

Joe and I saw this clip on Louie CK one night. We immediately decided we had to go. (Well, we decided immediately but didn’t really get around to doing it until 3 months later.) The episode (Season 3, Episode 4) is a love poem to New York told through a lens tinged with melancholy and nostalgia, thanks to the tactful eye of Susan E. Morse, Woody Allen’s go-to editor. Among so many other things in Manhattan, the episode features Russ & Daughters, an appetizing store on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

The word “appetizer” comes from the Latin word appete, which means “to desire.” At Russ & Daughters, one can very easily deduce its colloquial meaning: “the foods one eats with bagels.” Even further, there simply isn’t a better word to describe what you feel upon entering the store. It’s as much a feast for the eyes as it is for the belly. We ordered almost everything you can see in the clip: pickled herring, bagels with lox, and the chocolate babka. (It was all mind blowing.)

…And then there was the Birdman. Maybe you’ve heard of him. We definitely hadn’t before last night. But let me back up a bit.

After dinner, I had a specific musical craving for Black Sabbath (you know, to wash down the pickled herring.) Naturally, Joe and I wandered into the nearest record store that we could find–Rainbow Music.

Imagine, if you will, a pack rat’s paradise. A sizeable space made small by tons and tons of stuff. In this case, it was music. We squeeze into a narrow aisle of CDs stacked up to eye level–and then some. There’s barely enough room to walk through it face forward; you have to sidestep your way through to browse the CD titles. A short, older man approaches us and asks us what we’re looking for. Although I have no idea how, he knew exactly where the Black Sabbath CDs were and pulled them for us within seconds.

“They call me the Birdman,” he says, without us asking. “They made a documentary a few years back. It won some awards. People come in here asking me for pictures and stuff.” At this point, I’m hooked. There was no question that [1] we would stay and chat and [2] we would buy something. Talk about sales strategy.

The Birdman, a 73-year old Wall Street veteran who speaks with a thick New York accent, runs Rainbow Music as a sort of passion project. Having cashed out on his hedge funds long ago, he says the store isn’t about the money. (I asked him for any helpful trading tips, but like any good poker player, he kept his cards close to his chest. However, he did let slip his endorsement for pharmaceuticals and food stocks.) Despite not actively researching what’s trending these days, he’s managed to intuit what “the kids” are listening to. In the organized mess of an inventory, I spotted Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Miles Davis, Janis Joplin, Joan Jett, Michael Jackson, Frank Zappa within easy reach. Somehow, he even pinned me for a Django Reinhardt fan within two minutes.

(I realize that the organization of the CDs could probably just come from people sorting through them and setting them down closer to the front of the stacks. For my own purposes, I may just stick with my theory that he’s a musical clairvoyant.)

“This is all going away next month,” he tells us while ringing up our CDs (by hand and on paper, no less). I can’t tell whether there’s sadness in his voice or if I just imagined it. “We’re moving all of it to the Internet. You sell things a lot faster there.” We learn that the building landlord is leasing the store space out for something else, so the Birdman’s son is going to help open an online store–even though he doesn’t currently own a computer. They’ve been there for 14 years.

After stepping back out into the litany of Manhattan on a Friday night, it’s hard to tell whether being in the store was like stepping back in time or if it was just a crude affirmation of the current times. Even though Lower East Side counterculture  warrants the existence and perpetuation of vintage music stores like Rainbow, the Birdman has decided to resign from a brick-and-mortar setup to sell his stuff using digital means. I can’t imagine the buying experience being the same without meeting the Birdman face to face, and goodness knows I wouldn’t have paid $23 for a used CD if he hadn’t chatted us up.

The Birdman from Jessie Auritt on Vimeo.

Joe and I drove back to Boston blasting Black Sabbath, full of good food and good stories. I know that the next time I trek to New York, it’ll be completely different and probably even stranger than the last. I can’t wait.

Keep Austin Weird

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Now, there’s a slogan I can get behind. I like to think of Austin as the black sheep in the Texas family. Ironically, it’s where weirdos (like me) feel like they can fit right in. Heralded for its progressive, neo-hippie, counter-culture vibe, Austin is a good place to be yourself–or just about anybody else.

Last week, I flew to Austin for the beginning of SXSW. I was only in the city for two days in order to attend the Integrated Media Association Conference (iMA 2013). Fortunately, I was able to wander around a bit to explore the city.

First, let’s hash through what Austin is known for:

  • Being the live music capitol of the world
  • Its diverse assortment of Tex-Mex food
  • Loosen-your-belt, lick-your-fingers BBQ

I will confirm that Austin is all of those things and more. You will never be found wanting for live music with venues left and right. Whether your musical cravings are for lo-fi acoustic performances or bare-your-soul rock n’ roll, there’s a space for that in Austin. (Heck, even the airport books live music for the listening pleasure of departing and arriving passengers!) As for Tex Mex, you not only can have tacos for lunch and dinner but also for breakfast. Gems like Arturo’s will provide your taco fix as soon as you wake up in case you can’t wait until lunchtime. For belly-bursting BBQ, you might want to avoid the two-hour line at Franklin‘s and head to Lambert’s instead. No doubt about it–Austin is a great place to be a carnivore. (For more recommendations, check out Foursquare’s Best of Austin list.)

Given my short stay, I don’t have as comprehensive of a view of Austin as I’d like. Then again, it’s simply another excuse to go back.

Things I’d like to do next time:

Slow News Days


I recently watched Paul Salopek’s talk from the MIT-Knight Civic Media Conference: The Story and the Algorithm. He’s a peculiar fellow with plenty of idiosyncrasies to boot. Soft spoken and hoarse, he paced around the stage while reading from a stack of stapled papers to an audience that strained to hear him. He was a stark contrast to the bombasters who preceded him, yet it was all so appropriate for the topic at hand: slow journalism.

Taking inspiration from the slow food movement, Salopek advocates the slowing down of our tendencies to overshare our lives. We have so many ways to tell stories these days that we inflate news feeds with minutia–from photos of our food to passive-aggressive tweets about things that irk us. We have so many outlets that we have begun abusing the media that make it possible to share our lives in meaningful ways.

Don’t get me wrong. I completely acknowledge the value of being able to instantaneously share my newfound obsession with the BBC series Dr. Who at the exact moment that I realized that I loved the show. (I immediately received reactions via tweet and text message from the same friends who have been trying to convert me into a fan for the past two years.) The 21st century is an amazing and important time for technology. Like Salopek, though, I fear that our hyperconnectivity with others attenuates the connection we have with ourselves.

Salopek chooses to endorse his slow news movement by walking (yes, walking) across various continents while inviting his audience to follow along online as he documents this journey. He calls it a “collective walk into the future.” It’s undeniably experimental, and I’m still dubious as to whether or not it is going to make a big enough impact to affect a large-scale change in technology. However, it’s worth thinking about. I realize that I’m guilty of inflating the importance of everyday trifles, so I welcome this shift in thinking.

I’m not about to start any cross-continent treks, so don’t get your hopes up. What I’m going to try is a social media diet. No Twitter, no FourSquare, no Instagram, no Facebook for a few days. These instantaneous methods of sharing take away from being in the moment itself, and they take away from the time we have with the people we share these moments with. I’m invoking the days of old in which photo uploads happened AFTER the fact and blog posts (or dare I say it–xanga entries) were fully thought-out reactions to life instead of impulsive comments that we push out the proverbial (though technologically advanced) door.

Technology provides so many ways to tell stories, construct our identities, and share our lives with each other. Let’s not diminish our attention spans, shorten our tempers, and cheapen the process of learning about ourselves along the way.