The prodigal spider returns, and my cabinet of optical curiosities

I reported yesterday that the tiniest of my juvenile spiders had vanished, and I feared that she had escaped. I was wrong! She was still there, tucked away under a crossbar of the frame, being shy and quiet. Either that, or she had just taken off for a day to fight crime. She was famished and immediately chowed down on a fly this morning, so that is a possibility.

I also mentioned that in my ongoing lab clean-up efforts, I had unearthed another assortment of microscopical oddments that I tucked away in my cabinet dedicated to antique optics, and threatened to show you some of it. I now make good on that threat.

My predecessors at this university in cell biology, Drs. Abbott and Gooch, collected a few gadgets and were clearly imaging people. Some of it was just lying around in boxes, and when I find it, I fish it out and toss it onto a shelf. It’s really just junk at this point, and I have no use for any of it, but once upon a time these things cost a lot of money and I have a fondness for old technology, so as long as I’ve got the space, I’ll hang onto it.

Here’s the whole cabinet. It’s just a hodge-podge, not organized at all.

Look at this — a real treasure. That’s a Konica (now Konica-Minolta) Hexanon camera lens! Those, once upon a time, were high-end optics — now though, they don’t fit any camera I’ve got, and you can’t even get adapters to make them work with DSLRs, since the focal length is too short. I’ve thought a few times about collecting old lenses to play with photographically, when I get rich, but this one…nah, sadly, not something I could use, unless I were to also collect old camera bodies. Nope.

There are also a few cheap video lenses in view, and I’ve got a few CCTV cameras that seem to work, if ever I wanted to image stuff with RS-170 again. Ooh, 525 lines of fuzzy resolution. Also lenses from Cosmicar (a division of Pentax) and Computar (which is still around, making lenses), and several C-mount adapters for various microscopes.

I have a couple of Zeiss lamp housings and this tube for a fluorescence microscope. Someone was doing some nifty stuff in the 1970s, I suspect. There are also a couple of massive illuminator bases with interesting clamps — part of an optical bench setup?

These were some other curiosities very neatly packaged in solid boxes with faded velvet padding: something called an optibeam, a name I associate with antennas, but this has a couple of lenses, so I have no idea what it’s for. There’s also a massive syringe of metal and glass, very impressive, I might have to use it to terrify the grandchildren.

Not shown: I also have some mystery boxes of my own, with DECtape reels and Zip drives, which were all the rage in the 1990s. They seem quaint now — 100mb on a clunky plastic drive when I’m carrying around a terabyte in my pocket, on little thumbnail sized chips? Nah, they’re about as obsolete as all the junk on my shelf.

If you see something in those photos that get you excited, though, I can probably make arrangements with the university bureaucracy to ship them out. Otherwise, I predict that my successor someday will just sweep them all into a box and send them off to a landfill.

I have a talent for inspiring people to hate me

Way, way back in 2007, a guy in Morris decided to generously donate a great big fancy electronic carillon to the cemetery near my house, which was nice. Except that he programmed it to play hymns and patriotic tunes loudly, every 15 minutes, all day long, every day, from 5am to 10pm. He lived nowhere near his giant cheesy loudspeakers. I did. I complained. Other people in the neighborhood complained. Nothing was done, because this is small town America, and how dare you question a person’s right to screech Sousa marches and Lutheran hymns into your ears all day long are you some kind of commie pinko atheist or something? It went on for a few years (millennia?) with constant complaints & letters to the paper & some brave hero cut the wires & it was repaired & the guy left town in a huff & took his precious colossal beep-boop Nintendo away with him & donated it to a more grateful town in Arizona where the residents appreciate his contributions to the spiritual life of the community.

He has retired and moved away, but he still writes in to the Morris paper to tell us how much the carillon is loved in its new location, or how he visited some other town that had one and they adored it, and how Morris is full of philistines and liberals.

Well, Ted Storck is back in the paper again.

He’s still nursing his resentment. His account is accurate, as far as it goes. The bit where he says Things then got even worse… and refuses to say how is a little misleading, though. What happened, as I recall, is that town officials finally asked him to turn his music down and maybe play it a little less frequently, which I think is what prompted his hissy-fit and his decision to take his toys away.

It’s silly and stupid, but I have to note that Ted Storck has been seething in rage for fourteen years now and is focused on me as the source of his impotent grudge. That’s not good. I’ve had many obsessed haters over the years, but they all tend to be far away and more into railing at me over the internet. This goon knows where I live, and apparently visits the area now and then. I’m a little worried that some day I might open my door and there’s Ted Storck with a shotgun, and that’s how my story ends, blown away over a petty, small town dispute by an “insufferable self-important Christian” who can’t even spell “Pharyngula”.

Spider Zen: a loss, and a discovery!

I had another morning therapy session in the lab. First, the bad news: I think there was an escapee. Sound the alarms! Head for the hills! Panic! Run in circles, scream and shout!

Actually, the problem is that I’ve moved some of the juveniles to my larger cages, and the one that seems to have gotten away was tiny, and I think she may have found a crack in the lid and scurried off to even wider vistas. In the future, I’m going to have to grow the babies to a larger size before moving to the bigger cages. Oh well. I hope she prospers out there!

The fun news, though, is that while I was tidying up I found a Mystery Box in one forgotten corner. It was full of antique microscopy gear! I think much of it might have come from my predecessors, Dr Gooch, who retired just a few years ago, or Dr Abbott, who retired a few years before I was hired here. This box contained an oddball assortment of video adapters — nothing that fits my current microscopes, and they’re all fitted with the old C-mount style threaded fittings for, like, CCTV cameras. I’ve been collecting these odds and ends for years, and I’ll add them to my mini-museum shelf. I’ll sort them out tomorrow, and maybe post a few photos here — I should probably catalog them at some point, because while they aren’t actually useful to me, except as curiosities, maybe someone out there could find a purpose for some fragment of a Zeiss scope from the 1980s.

Dawkham? Hamkins? What shall we call this unholy team-up?

It’s a portent of the end times. Ken Ham has found common cause with Richard Dawkins.

Of course their common cause is built entirely on Dawkins’ regressive, fallacious views on sex and gender. They can be wrong together, how sweet.

What happened is that a) Dawkins is old, white, and British, and there’s currently an epidemic of TERFishness sweeping through that population, and b) he read a book by hack named Debra Soh and thinks it’s definitive, and c) has been regularly endorsing bad takes in genetics, which is a bit embarrassing. So now he’s jumped on the “chromosomes are destiny” bandwagon.

If you’ve never heard of Debra Soh, it’s because she’s a darling of the right, and you don’t get out enough (good for you). I first heard of her through the posturing clowns of Mythicist Milwaukee, and then…well, read her own bio.

Her writing has appeared in Harper’s Magazine, the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, the Globe and Mail, Scientific American, New York Magazine, Men’s Health, CBC News, Real Clear Politics, and many other publications. Prior to writing The End of Gender, she was a weekly columnist and resident sex scientist for Playboy.com.

As a journalist, Dr. Soh writes about the science of human sexuality, politics, and censorship in academia. She was profiled in the New York Times as one of “The Renegades of the Intellectual Dark Web,” and in Penthouse Magazine as the December 2018 cover story and “Penthouse Crush.” In 2021, Dr. Soh delivered an invited address and Q&A about The End of Gender at the Oxford Union.

She recently appeared on The Megyn Kelly Show, Real Time with Bill Maher, the Joe Rogan Experience twice, Dose of Dr. Drew, The Femsplainers, The Ben Shapiro Show, Fox News Primetime with Mark Steyn and Katie Pavlich, The Greg Gutfeld Show, and Dan Savage’s Savage Lovecast.

You’d know all about her if you were tuned in to Fox News, Joe Rogan, and Ben Shapiro, as I would assume, Dawkins must be. As for her book, I haven’t read it, nor do I intend to, so I sought out the most favorable review of it I could find. It’s by Barbara Kay. You Canadians might know of her; she’s a fanatical conservative anti-communist xenophobe and anti-semite. So you can trust her summary of the book, right?

According to Soh, then…

Fact: There are only two biological sexes, and they are not “assigned” at birth. Male and female gametes (eggs, sperm) determine our sex, and sex is binary, “not a spectrum.” Fact: Gender, too, “both with regard to identity and expression,” is biology-based and therefore binary. “It is not a social construct, nor is it divided from anatomy or sexual orientation.”

Classic feminists gave us the concept of “social construction.” Feminists believe gendered differences in interests, presentation and behaviours are due to patriarchy and learned behaviour. Science tells us otherwise, Soh says. Male and female brains are demonstrably different. Now, Soh says, feminist chickens are coming home to roost, because—this is a trenchant insight—“If gender is thought to be learned, masculinity will remain the gold standard and femininity will be reduced to aberrations of it.”

None of that is true. That trenchant insight doesn’t even make any sense. This is what impressed Richard Dawkins? It’s the same thing that impressed Ken Ham!

If you read that and think, like I did, that “Gosh, that claim that the Bible endorses a chromosomally-based determination of sex sure sounds stupid,” then you ought to feel the same way when you read that Richard Dawkins thinks that sex is a binary determined by XX/XY chromosomes.

I am going to be so entertained when the two of them go on tour together.

Spider therapy works!

Again, I spent another hour in the lab this morning, doing nothing but feeding spiders and cleaning up. I’ve been throwing flies at them every morning, and they’re still ravenous. I may have been under-feeding them. They’re growing young juveniles, and we all know how much teenagers can eat. The ones I’ve moved out of their little 130ml containers into spacious 5.7l living quarters are also doing fine, although they’ve just picked out one corner to fill with cobweb so far. Curiously, they’ve all picked the same corner of their respective cages, the one closest to the timed light.

I also did some cleaning therapy, scrubbing down a couple of benchtops. The place may be cleaner than it’s been in 20 years now! I bundled up some of the old fish gear; some got thrown away, another big coil of irrigation tubing was brought home. Maybe Mary will think of some use for it in the garden. There’s plenty left, but I hate to part with the PVC pipe and fittings.

I should have started doing this long ago. Committing myself to at least an hour of semi-mindless maintenance, even when I’ve got to set aside class prep and grading for a bit, gets my day off to a good start and soothes my stressed-out brain.

Everyone should do it. Tend to your spiders, whatever they may be!

“…your fine ointment, brand new and expensive Could have been saved for the poor…”

Christ.

First, I have to say that I can’t imagine choosing to sit around listening to “worship songs” on a Sunday morning. It’s like deciding to jump into a bush full of chiggers, as far as I’m concerned, and then, when that wasn’t sufficiently excruciating, stuffing fire ants in my ears. But this guy, Ben Kirby, was willingly inflicting televangelist noise on himself.

From his couch in Dallas, Ben Kirby began asking questions about the lifestyles of the rich and famous pastors when he was watching some worship songs on YouTube on a Sunday morning in 2019. While listening to a song by Elevation Worship, a megachurch based in Charlotte, the evangelical churchgoer noticed the lead singer’s Yeezy sneakers were worth nearly the amount of his first rent check.

Kirby posted to his 400 followers on Instagram, “Hey Elevation Worship, how much you paying your musicians that they can afford $800 kicks? Let me get on the payroll!”

Plus, Kirby wondered, how could the church’s pastor, Steven Furtick, one of the most popular preachers in the country, afford a new designer outfit nearly every week?

Now he’s happily filling up his Instagram account with photos of the exorbitant styles of preachers. Hey, I fill up my instagram with photos of spiders, and even I think that is creepy. I haven’t subscribed to his account because I really don’t need frequent reminders to know that televangelists are selfish, lying scum.

On his feed, Kirby has showcased Seattle pastor Judah Smith’s $3,600 Gucci jacket, Dallas pastor T.D. Jakes’s $1,250 Louboutin fanny pack and Miami pastor Guillermo Maldonado’s $2,541 Ricci crocodile belt. And he considers Paula White, former president Donald Trump’s most trusted pastoral adviser who is often photographed in designer items, a PreachersNSneakers “content goldmine,” posting a photo of her wearing $785 Stella McCartney sneakers.

I really don’t need to know the details.

In his book, Kirby writes that these pastors who have enormous social media followings aren’t just simply pastors anymore, he writes. Often they are motivational speakers, corporate coaches and leadership consultants. Kirby said he has heard of churches where a volunteer was designated solely for the purpose of carrying the pastor’s Bible. Often, he writes, these pastors have private entrances, reserved parking spaces, security details and a gaggle of personal assistants or handlers. And, often, they promise blessings from God to their followers if their followers bless the church.

Oh, stop it. I’m feeling sick.

Kirby notes how the fancy-sneaker-wearing preacher trend has taken off while the resale market for sneakers has also boomed. In 2019, Kirby posted a picture of Pastor John Gray wearing the coveted Nike Air Yeezy 2 Red Octobers, selling at the time on the resale market for more than $5,600. If a pastor buys or receives a new pair of shoes as a gift with a lucrative resale value and chooses to wear them, it can demonstrate to followers that he can afford to not resell them.

We don’t even tax these assholes.

Across the United States, the biggest-name pastors and worship leaders produce best-selling books and albums, often earning huge salaries and housing allowances from their churches. And many of the biggest churches, which do not have to disclose their revenue publicly, often generate opulent untaxed revenue.

Ben Kirby still considers himself an evangelical Christian. I wouldn’t be able to stomach the hypocrisy.

The perfect Republican

At the rate he’s going, Madison Cawthorn will be president one day.

Madison Cawthorn’s political origin story is that of an innocent Christian boy transformed through tragedy into a fierce freedom fighter. This tale begins with Cawthorn as a popular home-schooled teenager. He played football in a faith-based league, worked at Chick-fil-A, and was destined for a long and rewarding military career. Tragically, his path to the U.S. Naval Academy was derailed by a brutal car crash. Cawthorn, then just nineteen, was “declared dead on the scene.” But then a miracle happened. He kept the faith and fought his way back to a fulfilling life. In short order, he became an inspirational speaker, self-proclaimed CEO of a real estate investment company, and Paralympic athlete.

Cawthorn’s quasi-biblical biography captured the hearts of many in North Carolina’s 11th district, who last year elected him one of the youngest Congressmen in American history. While most political careers are assisted by mythmaking, Cawthorn’s self-spun narrative is particularly fictitious. In truth, he’s a college dropout, credibly accused sexual predator, and fan of the Third Reich who had no path to the Paralympics and was rejected by the Naval Academy. Contrary to Cawthorn’s past statements, he was not declared dead at his car’s crash site, and his real estate “business” appears to have only purchased a single foreclosed lot.

But what Cawthorn lacks in integrity he makes up for in resiliency. The determination and durability he demonstrated throughout his post-crash recovery—plus his natural born charisma—served him well during his Congressional bid. Cawthorn used these skills to convince many low-information voters that he was a soldier of some sort, then leveraged the credibility conferred by this false perception to cast his Democratic opponent, a retired Air Force Colonel named Moe Davis, as a “dishonorable” ally of terrorists. This warped reality led to a bizarre Election Day moment in which a voter essentially recognized Cawthorn as a decorated war hero. “Hey,” the voter began, “thanks for, uh, doing your service—.” Before he could finish, Cawthorn interjected: “It’s an honor to get to fight for America,” he said.

The article also points out something important: while Cawthorn is the most extravagantly dishonest of the Republican valor-thieves, Democrats do it too, unconvincingly rubbing themselves up against the “glamour” of big-money defense contractors and citizen enthusiasm for bigger, better, nastier weapons. That’s a mistake.

Democrats would do best to frame war as what it is: a deeply damaging experience for American service members, their families, and the world. In their failure to do so, the left has not only perpetuated conflict but also failed to define peace. The Pentagon has stepped into this vacuum and convinced the American people—a majority of whom want a smaller military footprint abroad—that peace is armed, dangerous, and MAD. Those who describe it otherwise, or call for the peacekeepers to put down their guns, are deemed weak-willed and anti-American.

Unwilling to challenge this consensus, Democrats continue to concoct war stories or cozy up to the military establishment in hopes of insulating themselves from criticism. Take Bernie Sanders’s support of the F-35 fighter jet being based in his hometown of Burlington, a highly controversial position that a political scientist once half-jokingly suggested to me was directed “almost at the point of a gun.”

Dulce et decorum est and all that. They really need to read beyond the title.

Didn’t we already know this?

Sydney Powell (remember her? One of Trump’s most ridiculous defenders?) is being sued for defamation, because her lies cost a company that made voting machines a heck of a lot of money. Her defense is a grifter’s work of art.

Right-wing lawyer Sidney Powell is claiming in a new court filing that reasonable people wouldn’t have believed as fact her assertions of fraud after the 2020 presidential election.

The election infrastructure company Dominion Voting Systems sued Powell for defamation after she pushed lawsuits and made appearances in conservative media on behalf of then-President Donald Trump to sow doubt about the 2020 election results. Dominion claims that Powell knew her election fraud accusations were false and hurtful to the company.

Did you believe anything she said? Then Sydney Powell believes you weren’t a reasonable person. Ha ha, don’t you feel foolish now?

I guess that was the kraken, the revelation that Powell was a fraud and a liar.

Spiders everywhere!

There’s a lot of flooding in New South Wales, Australia (can I come visit, please?), and as the floodwaters rise, so are the spiders. You’d think the citizenry would be pleased to meet their usually-hidden fellow denizens, but noooo.

At the same time, rising floodwaters surrounded Melanie Williams’s home, thousands of spiders scaled the fence in her front yard.

“That was enough to really freak me out, I had never seen anything like it before,” she said.

“I am an arachnophobe from way back so I hope they’ve gone back to wherever they came from.”

Wait. How can you be an arachnophobe in Australia? They’ve got such big, gorgeous spiders all over the place! You’re just seeing more than usual right now, and the floods are bring out the cute little cuddly ones.

Here’s a good explanation of the phenomenon.

A plague of spiders might seem apocalyptic, but experts say the episode is easily explained.

Professor Dieter Hochuli leads Sydney University’s integrative ecology group and has made a career out of examining what drives the ecology of animals and plants.

He described the phenomenon as “fascinating” and said the spiders were always there — we just don’t usually notice them.

“All this is happening under our noses, but we just don’t know what’s going on,” he said.

“There’s this vibrant ecosystem happening all the time.

“What happens with the floods is all these animals that spend their lives cryptically on the ground can’t live there anymore.

“The spiders are the really obvious ones as they throw out their webs.

“Just like people, they’re trying to get to higher ground during a flood.”

Exactly. Just like I know there are plenty of spiders around during our long Minnesota winters. They’re just hunkered down in the leaf litter, or deep down in the soil, or under rocks, or in compost heaps, or in my basement. Spring is just when they creep out and start flourishing and bringing beauty and joy back to the world.

Which reminds me…it’s time for my morning spider therapy session. I’ve got to work fast because I teach a class on Tuesday mornings.