Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The Cactus Ball:

My wife and I walked into the grand ballroom: parquet floors gleamed under candle-laden chandeliers, white panelled walls reached high up to the ceiling. There were a few guests, but the floor was mostly occupied by... cacti.

Some of these succulents were quite tall, reaching up to our shoulders. Most were shorter, about waist high, and there were some about knee high. Most were of the columnar type. We did not spot any chollas or prickly pears. As we looked more carefully, we noticed that there were no pots. All of the cacti were in fact sitting directly on the floor, and they had no roots at all. Small buds were present at their bases, keeping them upright.

Stranger still, as we stared at this strange promenade, we noticed that the cacti were moving very, very, slowly: a stiff, prickly procession around the centre of the elegant room. It was a cactus ball.

The opposite doors opened, and we made our way through the creeping green and grey crowd towards the next room, eager to see what was next. But just as we approached the threshold, a wind started to blow, and all the candles went out at once. A dim green glow came from the ceiling, which was covered with glow-in-the-dark stars. The wind blew harder and harder, and we could see the chandeliers swinging as the air rushed around and around, like a tornado in a box. Soon, it was hard to stand, and I began to worry that we would not be able to hang on. The cacti were still stolidly moving, implacably orbiting, immune to the tempest.

Suddenly, we lost our grip, and the wind picked us up and began to push us backwards around the room. As we began to go faster, I worried that we would eventually encounter one of the cacti, and I did not look forward to a back full of spines. Of course, that encounter immediately occurred, and I shuddered as I felt the impact. Then another, and another, as we were whirled mercilessly through the needled forest.



And just as suddenly, the wind was gone, the candles came back up, and the doors flew open, and more guests came in at a frenetic speed. People swarmed about, moving at breakneck pace, darting here and there, as if on fast forward. I tried to speak, to look about for my wife, but I couldn't. I was now one of the cacti.

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 Wednesday, November 07, 2007

La Cucaracha

Factoid for the day: cockroaches seem to have been morphologically stable since the Carboniferous, i.e. over the last 290 to 354 million years.

Modern cockroaches are more similar to their ancient fossil ancestors than any other extant insect - except they are a lot smaller. Some cockroaches from the Permian (about 250 million years ago) were over a foot long. Wouldn't want to step on that at night - it would go like a skateboard!

I haven't seen it in the movies, but most ships in history have had very serious cockroach problems because of the lack of predators. Captain Bligh had the Bounty doused with boiling water to deal with this. We have a cockroach problem at the South Pole's Scott Base in Antarctica for the same reason.

They were among the few creatures to make it through an ancient disaster event called the Permian-Triassic boundary, where 90% to 95% of marine species went extinct, as well as 70% of all land organisms. On an individual level, perhaps as many as 99.5% of separate organisms died as a result of the event. But cockroaches made it.

Other things that made it through and became more important as a result: mosses and worts, therapsids (where we come from), and bivalves.

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