Category Archives: Miscellaneous

The Death of Bruce

Bruce ought to like ants, I thought.

I was seven years old, and I was playing God — though I didn’t think of it that way at the time. My aim was to create a glorious paradise for the lone inhabitant of my domain: Bruce.

I had found Bruce in my parents’ garage, and I managed to catch him without pulling his tail off — a feat of which I was quite proud. I should mention here that Bruce was an anole, that common backyard-dwelling lizard that can change from green to brown.

Bruce’s Garden of Eden would be the 2.5-gallon aquarium that had previously housed a school of guppies, all of which had recently died as a result of my attempt to convert them from freshwater to saltwater. In that aquarium, I lovingly sculpted for Bruce a dirt landscape that sloped down to a “pond” at one end of the tank. I added sticks. Leaves. Grass. All that was missing was food.

I was pretty sure that lizards ate insects, so I went looking for some. And right there in our front yard, I hit the jackpot: Against the curb was a beautiful anthill — plenty of food for my little Bruce!

I carried Bruce’s aquarium outside, scooped up a generous chunk of the anthill with a trowel, and dumped it about six inches away from Bruce, who didn’t seem to notice. After watching until I grew bored — probably about ten seconds — I left, intending to come back every once in a while to see whether Bruce had yet found the food I’d so lovingly provided for him.

As it turned out, Bruce didn’t find the ants, exactly; they found him. At least, that’s how I imagine it went. All I know is that when I came back to check on him, he was lying upside down, his body swollen and motionless, covered with a swarm of fire ants.

And so for the second time in as many weeks, I emptied out that little 2.5-gallon aquarium and honored its erstwhile occupant, whose death I had caused, with a shallow backyard grave marked by a cross fashioned from popsicle sticks. (This, I believed, would ensure Bruce’s entry to heaven.)

It was a shame that Bruce had to die, but at least I learned a valuable lesson: Don’t try to feed a lizard five hundred fire ants all in one go. Of course, I never put this lesson into practice, and that does still make me feel a bit guilty. But what can you do?

Perhaps tomorrow I’ll go out and catch another lizard.

I Know Why We Sleep


image source:

I’ve heard several scientists say that we still don’t really understand the purpose of sleep. In their TED talks, Russell Foster and Jeff Iliff propose some possible explanations. Foster’s ideas sound like mere common sense, while Iliff’s suggestion is more interesting: He claims that during sleep, waste products are purged from our brains. In other words, your brain poops while you’re sleeping.

That may be true. But I have my own theory. It’s kind of a joke, but deep down, I think there might be something to it. It’s something that any parent will recognize as an almost certain truth. And it’s simple: Sleep evolved so that little kids would periodically shut down, leaving parents free to do the things that they need to do in order to keep their family alive.

Consider what happens when you have a baby: You’ve got this tiny, helpless thing that screams incessantly, thereby attracting predators that Mommy and Daddy have to keep fending off. After a while, this thing starts crawling all over the place — into thorn bushes and ant hills, and over the edges of cliffs — so you have to spend all of your time running around protecting it from self-inflicted injuries. And on top of that, the thing keeps putting everything into its mouth. Constant vigilance is required to ensure that your baby doesn’t choke or poison itself.

Under these circumstances, a mother and father living on the high plains will never have time to do anything. They won’t be able to gather food, cook a meal, build a shelter, make clothing, start a fire, or even take a dump without their baby going off and getting itself killed. So all the people whose children don’t periodically shut down will be weeded out by natural selection. Of course, this must go back much earlier than humans. Our shrew-like ancestors also would have needed time to hunt, gather food, find shelter, and so on. And so they would have needed for their children to sleep, too.

If my theory is correct, one must ask why adults also need sleep. But it could simply be that an adult’s need for sleep is just a remnant of what was vital in childhood, or that sleeping as an adult provides other benefits, as described in the brain-poop theory. What’s telling is that kids need so much more sleep than adults, thereby giving their parents time to get shit done.

So, how’s that for a theory? I think there might be something to it. Maybe sleep is mostly about recharging, getting rid of waste, and conserving energy. But perhaps there was also some evolutionary pressure for children to sleep longer hours than their parents and to nap during the day, not for the sake of recharging or conserving energy, but for the sake of giving their parents time to do what was necessary to keep the child alive.

This is why I thought about changing my name …


This is what I’ll look like in the future.

The above picture should require no explanation, but I’ll give one anyway.

Apparently there’s a trend right now — and I’m probably the last one to have noticed it — wherein people Google their first name together with the word “meme” and then share with their friends whatever they find. I thought I’d give it a shot, so I typed “Olen meme” into the search field and hit enter. At first, I wasn’t surprised by the result.

Google said to me:

Did you mean:
dolan meme       alien meme       olev meme       elan meme

This is the same response I get from people when I introduce myself and tell them my name. They assume that I meant to say something else. Because no one’s named Olen. Except for me. And a bunch of people in Scandinavia. Evidently, there are more people named Olev than Olen, which is a surprise to me.

Well, I was about to close the browser window and move on with my life, when at the last second, I decided to click on “images” just to see what would pop up. Lo and behold, the picture at the top of this post was the very first image in the results. The second was a picture of Morpheus from The Matrix.

I had no idea what the text in the picture meant, so I plugged it into Google Translate, which identified it as Finnish and translated it to, “Old young woman from Turku.” And so I still have no idea what the text in the picture means. If anyone can give me a better translation and explain the whole thing to me — image and text — I’ll send you a lollipop engraved with my initials.

So that’s my result for the “first name + meme” search, for what it’s worth (which is nothing).

Try This Brisket Recipe!


Wow. I just had the most succulent, juicy, tender brisket ever. (The leftovers are pictured above.) The recipe can be found here. If you like beef at all, give it a try. I promise that you will not be disappointed. (But note that this is not supposed to be a “barbecue” recipe.)

Seriously, this piece of beef ended up being the highlight of an already pretty good day. I was out getting groceries with my father-in-law at about noon, and we spontaneously decided to buy a chunk of brisket.

“Do you know how to cook this?” he asked.

“Yes,” I answered.

Except … the last brisket I cooked was four years ago. All I knew was that it has to be roasted slowly, at a relatively low temperature. I was thinking that I might just rub some random items from our spice cabinet on it and bake it. I could look online for advice about temperature and duration.

So when we got home, I sprinkled some all-purpose seasoning salt over it, squirted some expired spicy mustard on it, and threw it in the oven. Then, when I was trying to look up how long I should cook it, I found THE RECIPE. With the brisket already baking, I ran to the store and got the ingredients that I didn’t already have, came back home, and put them on the meat 30 minutes into the baking time.

So obviously I didn’t follow the instructions exactly. In addition to the timing differences that resulted from buying the ingredients after putting the meat in the oven, I used the aforementioned expired mustard instead of the dry mustard called for by the recipe. And I used water instead of beef broth, simply because I feel weird adding beef broth to beef — or maybe because I wanted to limit the number of things I bought.

I didn’t measure anything, either. I’m actually morally opposed to the use of precise measurements in the kitchen, on theoretical grounds. I mean, even supposing that there is an optimal amount of ingredient X, why should we expect that amount to coincide perfectly with one of our arbitrarily standardized discrete measures? So I just put heaping spoonfuls in a bowl, mixed them together, and then sprinkled them on the meat. (I definitely put in less salt than the recipe calls for.)

At 5:30 pm, I took it out of the oven, topped it with its own juice, and sliced it. As soon as the knife slid into the meat, I knew that it was a success. The texture was just right. And it smelled glorious. We ate it with some horseradish and savored every bite.

As I said, you really have to try this recipe if you like meat at all. It’s incredibly easy, and it will be well worth the effort. (It just requires patience as you wait for it to bake.)

My Luck with Tomatoes


Orange Oxheart Tomato

Gardening is for old people. At least, that’s what I used to think; but now I’m doing it.

I started last year. Tomatoes were the thing to grow, so I picked up a couple plants at a nearby nursery. I tried the Carmello and Homestead 40 varieties. Those were what the store had in stock, and the tomatoes pictured on the labels looked good. The Carmello plant did well. It produced a few dozen tomatoes, and they were fairly sweet. It was enough to make me want to try again this year.

Now I’ve gone all out. Back in March, I planted some Black Krim, Yellow Pear, Pink Brandywine, Orange Oxheart, Mortgage Lifter, Sweet Millions, Celebrity, and Early Girl. I’ve gotten tomatoes from all the plants except the Black Krim, and I’m ready to share the results.

  1. The Mortgage Lifter has been by far the most productive of them all, and its tomatoes have been reliably delicious. They’re medium-sized and very sweet. My wife and I both rate it as the best of our plants this year.
  2. Next is the Orange Oxheart. It has been fairly productive, and the tomatoes are HUGE. (See the picture at the top of this post.) They are very sweet, and it’s hard to tell whether we prefer them or the Mortgage Lifter.
  3. Coming in at third is the Sweet Millions plant. It’s a cherry tomato variety, which I wasn’t excited about initially, just because I think cherry tomatoes aren’t very sexy. However, it ended up being extremely productive, and the tomatoes are indeed sweet. So it really lives up to its name.
  4. Fourth is Celebrity. It has been extremely productive, but the tomatoes are merely pretty good — not nearly as sweet as the three varieties described above, but better than the run-of-the-mill grocery store tomato.
  5. The Pink Brandywine plant is hard to place. It has only produced three tomatoes (and it doesn’t look like it will produce many more). They have all been large. The first one was just about the nastiest tomato I’d ever eaten; I think something had gone wrong with it, though. The second one split open on the vine, and I picked it early, cut out the bad part, and ate the rest. It was fantastic. The third one made it to full ripeness intact, and it was also delicious — even more delicious than the Mortgage Lifter tomatoes. If the Brandywine vine had produced more tomatoes and if they had been uniform quality, this one would definitely be higher on my list.
  6. The Yellow Pear variety seems to me mostly a novelty. They’re small, pear-shaped, and yellow — hence the name. The plants haven’t been especially productive, and the tomatoes don’t have an outstanding taste, so at the moment they’re not on my list of tomatoes to grow again next year. To be fair, I should disclose that I planted them from seeds a little late in the year; they might have done better if they’d been planted earlier.
  7. Last (and least) is the Early Girl variety. I bought them because they’re supposed to produce tomatoes earlier than other varieties. They did indeed do so, but the tomatoes tasted just like ordinary grocery store tomatoes, which is to say they were not very good at all.

I’ve left off Black Krim because I haven’t gotten to try any yet. I do have one plant that has about five tomatoes on it, and they should be ripe in a week or two. I expect them to be pretty good, because I’ve had a Black Krim tomato before, and I liked it.

Below is another picture of an Orange Oxheart (right) next to an Early Girl.



I also planted okra this year, since it’s supposed to grow well in Houston. I was surprised to see that the flowers are quite pretty, though they don’t last very long. Below is a picture of one.

IMG_0715Note to anyone who plants okra: The “fruit” will grow in size without limit, but you need to pick it early (when it’s only two or three inches long). Otherwise, it will be tough and fibrous. I fried some with cumin, and it tasted really good!


CVS: A Beacon of Hope in the War on Stupidity


Nasty. Ugly. Dirty. Death. Everyone should associate these words with smoking.

I just saw the announcement that CVS will stop selling cigarettes.


Really, this decision is one that should have been made by all major drugstores back in 1964, when the surgeon general finally acknowledged decades of mounting evidence that cigarette-smoking is one of the stupidest, most harmful habits ever conceived by humans. I mean, the irony of selling addictive carcinogens alongside antibiotics and other life-saving drugs is downright emetic. The fact that no major companies made this decision earlier is a testament to a general lack of conscience in the business: Money, not customers’ well-being, has always been sovereign.

On hearing this announcement, my first reaction was to worry that a lot of smokers — people wedded to their “freedom” to be slaves to nicotine — might boycott CVS. Really, though, this worry is unfounded. It was certainly a calculated decision, and I have no doubt that CVS thoroughly analyzed the risks and the benefits of it after determining exactly how many customers they’d lose and how much positive media attention they’d receive.

Regardless of CVS’s underlying motives, this decision is a good thing. What’s important is that people stop smoking. And hopefully, this will be the trigger that sets the dominoes falling, with Walgreens and all other major retailers following suit. Then maybe cigarettes will become rare, and fewer people will be enslaved by nicotine.

But it’s not just retailers who should step up. At some point, I’d also like to see authors and filmmakers break off their romance with the cigarette. The curling wisp of smoke climbing up through the air from the glowing tip of a cigarette has been a staple image, a shorthand for the definition of cool, for as long as novels and films have existed. It still is today, and I think that needs to stop. The image of a cigarette should be shorthand for “dirty,” not “cool.”

Still, this is a very good first step. Perhaps we will actually be able to eradicate smoking within the next generation.

Thank God.

This might also be a good time to look around and see what else needs to be changed. Maybe we can respond better to other hazards than we did to cigarettes. That is, maybe next time it won’t take us a hundred years to bring about the needed change, and we won’t see companies covering up ugly truths that they’ve known about for decades.

One possible candidate for the next issue is sugar. We’re seeing a similar trend of mounting evidence about the negative effects of sugar. And yet, so many of our foods have far more sugar than good taste would suggest they should contain. Obviously, sugar isn’t quite the same as tobacco, and we can’t ban it entirely; but maybe we can bring about a much-needed shift in our culture. It’s demand for sweet foods that fuels businesses’ decision to dump (literally) sickening amounts of sugar into their products — breakfast cereals, snack foods, soft drinks.

I grew accustomed to eating less sugar when I lived in China for five years. Upon returning to the States, I wanted to continue eating foods with less sugar. I still remember how I felt on my first few trips to the grocery after my homecoming. As I pulled products off the shelves to look at the ingredient lists, I was disgusted to see that sugar was in the top three ingredients on just about everything. It was infuriating. There seemed to be no companies who were interested in providing low-sugar products. (And those that were interested only seemed to provide foods that were sickeningly sweetened with artificial alternatives.)

Then I realized the true source of the problem: Consumers tend to choose the foods with the most sugar. The manufacturers are only giving us what we’re asking for. The same was true of smoking. Thus, as with smoking, the impetus for change regarding the amount of sugar in our food will have to come from us — the consumers. Not the government, and not the executives at the food companies.

So I hereby beseech you to join me in demanding that manufacturers produce foods that are lower in sugar.

I actually think that our culture is ripe for a voluntary reduction in sugar. Think about coffee. It’s “cool” to drink coffee black, even though it’s bitter as hell. It’s an acquired taste, and there’s an element of pride in it. The same is true of dark chocolate (though entirely unsweetened cocoa is a frighteningly bitter beast indeed). This sort of trend, combined with people’s growing awareness of the health hazards of high sugar intake, might make a general shift possible.

I could see the same sort of trend happening with soft drinks. In fact, I would like to make a recommendation to Coca Cola: Start marketing an unsweetened line of Coke using the same classic recipe but without 33 grams of sugar in every can. Call it “Coke Pure” instead of Coke Classic. I guarantee you, even if it tastes like charcoal, you’ll see a bunch of hipsters and purists start drinking it and insisting that it tastes better than sweetened soft drinks. Try it. Please.

Anyway, back to cigarettes. Good job, CVS. You’ve given me a spark of hope that maybe we humans actually can avoid destroying ourselves out of sheer greed, stupidity, and intemperance.

We’ve still got a long way to go, though.