Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Some Skunk Funk

… that is the title of a famous Brecker Brothers Jazz tune. (See here for a great performance). Unfortunately, it is also what I discovered when I opened my suitcase after its damp contents had been fermenting for a week. (See here for the long story).

Nonetheless, I’m very happy to have the suitcase back. For a while I was sure that I would never see my snoopy T-shirt or my hiking boots again. A huge thanks to the nice people at the Benasque physics center for hunting down the suitcase. And also a huge thanks to Adam Nahum who hand-carried the suitcase back from Benasque to Oxford.

I've washed the stinkin jeans several times now and they are still a bit skunky and a bit funky... but they are recovering slowly.
Saturday, July 3, 2010

The Short Life of Hugo the Spider

A few weeks back, I returned home to my Oxford abode, walked into the bathroom and discovered an enormous spider sitting in the middle of the floor looking hungrily at me. Now, as I've mentioned before on this blog, I'm not really much of a fan of spiders. I immediately decided that the house was not big enough for the both of us and I went to get my trusty spider-destruction-device: My hiking boot.

As I planned my attack, I noticed that this spider was clearly a different breed from the enormous Shelob that I encountered last summer. Shelob was a brown and slightly hairy, totally ginormous, orb-weaving (and probably physicist eating), creature. The current spider (who unlike Shelob, was already inside my house), was a large black (and probably physicist eating) spider, who did not appear to have a web. This probably meant he was a hunting spider -- which meant he was fast and probably had good eyesight. So I snuck up on him slowly, and brought down the hiking boot with a very swift blow.

Unfortunately, the spider was quick --- quicker that the boot. It jumped out of the way, scampered to a corner of the bathroom and hid in a little hole (a spider-hole, as it were) where I could not get it. He won this round, but certainly there would be others.

The next day, when I came home from work, I was again greeted by the spider in the middle of the bathroom floor. Now, despite the fact that a spider's brain consists of only two ganglia, it had clearly learned that I was a threat. As soon as it saw me, it scampered off to its spider hole again. This behavior repeated itself almost every day for a week. I would return home, and as soon as it saw me it would run away. Never did I have any chance to splat him with my boot. Eventually, I conceded that I would be sharing my apartment with a huge black spider. He could have the bathroom during the day, but when I came home at night, he had to go back to his spider hole. Being that I was resigned to having a roommate, I figured he should have a name: Hugo.

I returned home from work every day and I would yell "Hugo, I'm home" (Hoping this would prompt him to pre-emptively evacuate). Sometimes when I was showering I would see him try to sneak out of his hole, and I'd talk to him. "OK, Hugo... you can look around a bit now, but when I get out of the shower, you better be gone again"... and usually he was. After a few weeks of this, he didn't seem quite so scary any more. He was clearly pretty frightened of me, and I started to feel bad about making his life so difficult.

So bit by bit, Hugo went from a physicist-eating monster to a harmless pet. He didn't seem to have any plans of murdering me in my sleep, so I stopped making a point of chasing him back to his hole. Not that I became a big fan of spiders overnight, but maybe Hugo was OK. At least he had personality.

Then one day I came home from work and Hugo was sitting in the middle of the bathroom floor as he often was... but this time he was half-upside-down and seemed to be having convulsions. Clearly he was a very sick eight-legged animal. I don't know much about spider-health so I just talked to him and encouraged him to recover. I figured the best thing I could do was probably just to let him try to recover on his own.

Sadly, the next morning, Hugo was stone cold. Somehow I felt a small twinge of sadness for Hugo. He was an exceptional spider --- if for no other reason because he managed to slowly make me not afraid of him. I still don't know what killed him. Two possibilities come to mind:

(1) Hugo could be (and probably was) Hug-ette. Some species of spiders die shortly after laying eggs. Possibly this was simply Hugo's time to go. (And possibly I will be meeting Hugo Junior in the near future).


(2) Some other spider (or other insect) had taken Hugo in battle. While this may sound unlikely, given Hugo's unusual size, a few days later I spotted a much smaller, but very very quick looking spider who could possibly have done the job. I went after him with my hiking boot -- but I missed.