The most charming magical bar that has ever been

The other day, I got in my car and discovered a few fine strands of silk between the steering wheel and the dashboard. Just a few; some spider had been making a few exploratory leaps inside the car, leaving traces behind, and then probably left because there isn’t much spider food in there. It made me just a little bit happy, though. It’s good to see the little ones out and about.

I can only dream of someday owning a Cobweb Palace.

That’s the interior of a San Francisco saloon that existed between 1856 and 1893, established by a wise gentleman and kindred spirit named Abe Warner.

Cobweb Palace was unlike any other saloon in that it had dense spider webs fixed on the bar’s ceiling. More threads draped over the shelves that stored the liquor bottles. The spiders cast a veil over nude portraits on the walls, and some of the webs reportedly grew 6 feet wide at times. But Warner refused to destroy them.

“The spiders just took advantage of me and my good nature,” Warner told the San Francisco Chronicle. “When I first opened up here, I didn’t have time to bother with ‘em and they grew on me. It’s a great neighborhood for spiders, anyway, and the news got around among ‘em that I was easy and they founded an orphan asylum and put all the orphans to work spinning webs.”

All good things must come to an end, though, and the enchanted saloon eventually failed after a prosperous 40 year run.

Cobweb Palace would continue showcasing its curios, wild animals, and web-covered ceiling for nearly four decades, until the crowd outgrew their taste for the peculiar fortress Warner created. The saloon began to lose its luster in the 1870s, when the area became mostly industrial. Years later, the Sausalito ferries moved away from Meiggs’ Wharf, causing a bigger blow to Warner’s business.

Customers stopped coming to Cobweb Palace and Warner couldn’t make enough cash to pay the rent. The property owner had no choice but to evict Warner by 1893 to tear down the saloon and make way for new housing.

The end of Abe Warner was especially poignant. Is this me in a few years time? If it is, it’s not that terrible a way to go.

Warner is remembered in historic articles as a man whose only friends were the spiders, and in a way, they were. Warner’s best days were among the spiders that coexisted inside his bar as they kept him company long after the crowd abandoned him. Some webs had been undisturbed since the saloon’s inception until the auctioneers finally cleared them out.

Warner refused his daughter’s call to return to New York after the failure of Cobweb Palace. It would be too painful of a move after the decades spent in San Francisco. Even when local relatives wanted to take him in, Warner declined their offer, preferring his own solitude. Then, three years after the saloon’s permanent closure, Warner passed away in 1896 without a dime to his name. He was 82 years old and died alone, save for the spiders that watched over him until the very end.

What’s especially sad about that is that I haven’t accomplished anything as glorious as the Cobweb Palace. I’m going to have to get to work fast in my remaining years.

Also, anyone else read his story and think he sounds like a great character for an urban fantasy novel?

German engineering! Also, German history

Yesterday, I learned about the history of some microscope companies. I was a little surprised.

In the business of biology, there is a hierarchy of prestige. The highest rated microscopes are typically made by Zeiss, and the price reflects that. They really are sweet machines with excellent optics, and rock solid, reliable mechanicals. I adore the old Zeiss Universal, and if one dropped into my lap I would be overjoyed in spite of my shattered femurs. Second on my list would be a Leica scope, but the ranking is a little unfair — it’s based partly on reputation, not necessarily the quality of the modern instruments, and one of the reasons Zeiss is prized is pure status-seeking. Then there’s Nikon and Olympus, two Japanese companies with excellent scopes…but they aren’t German. There’s a strong cachet to German engineering, but really, the Japanese optics are pretty darned good.

My lab microscope is a Leica and I’m very happy with it. We also have a fair number of student microscopes made by American companies, and I confess with some patriotic embarrassment that they’re junk. Cheap, but junk. I had the displeasure of working with some student scopes yesterday and was dismayed at the lack of that silky smooth feel and crisp, clear optics, but then, we can’t afford to drop $10,000 each on the 30 scopes we might need to equip a student lab.

Notice that my top two microscope brands are German, and these are old companies, established in the 19th and early 20th centuries. And that makes one wonder…what were they doing during WWII and the rise of the Nazis? It’s an uncomfortable question, and a little bit unfair, since every German company had to make accommodations to coexist with the Nazis, and it’s not as if they could have shuttered their factories and labs and moved to a different country in 1933. We could ask how enthusiastically they cooperated with the regime, however.

There, Zeiss disappointed me. Zeiss used forced labor from the concentration camps during the war.

On October 18, 1944, 200 female workers were allocated to the ZEISS Goehle-Werk, an additional 300 women had been transported from Auschwitz on October 28, 1944, and yet another 200 were transported on December 14.

According to prisoner statements, the prisoners were guarded by female SS members who were armed with rubber truncheons, which they used. Some of the guards had previously worked at ZEISS-Ikon. The women were housed on one level of the factory, and they worked two or three levels below.

The ZEISS Werk Reick, located in the southeastern part of Dresden, was one of four ZEISS-Ikon AG plants in Dresden. Like the ZEISS-Ikon Goehle-Werk, it became the site of a subcamp in October 1944. However, unlike the other subcamps with female prisoners in Dresden, the Werk Reick is less well known. That may be because of no trial was held, in contrast to the case of the Goehle-Werk. The camp evacuation took place in mid-April 1945 after the allies occupation.

Moreover, there was evidence that during the war (1941-1944), ZEISS has utilized thousands of forced labor workers, which comprised about 30% of all its employees. Furthermore, according to reports, ZEISS also provided direct economic support to the national and local Nazi-party organizations (Reference: 6. Carl Zeiss. Die Geschichte Eines Unternehmens. Band 2, 2000).

Yikes. They profited from slave camps.

You might argue that, well, they had to. Optics were critical to the German war effort, and the Nazis basically held a gun to the head of every company in their territory. They just did what they had to do. But then, I read about Leica during WWII and the Leica Freedom Train.

“Under considerable risk and in defiance of Nazi policy, Ernst Leitz took valiant steps to transport his Jewish employees and others out of harm’s way,” said Abraham H. Foxman, ADL National Director and a Holocaust survivor. “At a time when the Nazis were steadily advancing their nation on a path toward war and the Holocaust, Leitz had the courage to defy their directives while risking his life to save others. In the moral void that engulfed the world in those nightmarish days when the cruelty of the Nazis ran rampant, Ernst Leitz had the Courage to Care. If only there had been more Oskar Schindlers, more Ernst Leitzs, then less Jews would have perished. We remember and honor his act of selfless moral courage in the face of absolute tyranny.”

Yeah. The company saw what was coming and started hiring Jewish workers and assigning them to foreign offices to get them out of harm’s way.

As early as 1933 and continuing as late as 1943, Leitz quietly established what has become known as the “Leica Freedom Train”, a covert means of allowing his Jewish employees, their families, and even non-Jews to leave Germany under the guise of being ‘assigned’ overseas. These refuges were sent to Leitz sales offices in France, Britain, Hong Kong and the United States. They were trained, housed at company expense and paid a stipend until work was found for them in the photo industry.

As new Leitz “employees” arrived in New York they made their way to the Manhattan offices of E. Leitz Inc., each with a symbol of freedom around their necks – a new Leica Camera. The total number of escapees has never been established but may have been as high as 200-300 in the United States alone.

Unfortunately, the company wasn’t large enough to employ 6 million people overseas.

I am now a little happier with my Leica DM (although I really had no complaints about it before), but I’m giving a few dirty looks to my Wild (a Zeiss-associated company) M3C, even though it is an objectively magnificent tool.

It’s like reading the letters section of my local newspaper!

Small town newspapers occasionally get letter-feuds going — it fuels subscriptions, since you really want to know how angry Sally Jo is going to get with Fred over his dog tearing up her petunias, and the back and forth can go on for months. Sometimes science gets that way, too.

The backstory: Augustin Fuentes wrote an editorial for Science in which he pointed out that Charles Darwin was a flawed, prejudiced Victorian man, as part of a celebration of the 150th anniversary of the publication of the Descent of Man. While he may have been somewhat more progressive than many of his contemporaries, he still had awful racist views.

Darwin portrayed Indigenous peoples of the Americas and Australia as less than Europeans in capacity and behavior. Peoples of the African continent were consistently referred to as cognitively depauperate, less capable, and of a lower rank than other races. These assertions are confounding because in “Descent” Darwin offered refutation of natural selection as the process differentiating races, noting that traits used to characterize them appeared nonfunctional relative to capacity for success. As a scientist this should have given him pause, yet he still, baselessly, asserted evolutionary differences between races. He went beyond simple racial rankings, offering justification of empire and colonialism, and genocide, through “survival of the fittest.” This too is confounding given Darwin’s robust stance against slavery.

Not to mention his ideas about women.

In “Descent,” Darwin identified women as less capable than (White) men, often akin to the “lower races.” He described man as more courageous, energetic, inventive, and intelligent, invoking natural and sexual selection as justification, despite the lack of concrete data and biological assessment. His adamant assertions about the centrality of male agency and the passivity of the female in evolutionary processes, for humans and across the animal world, resonate with both Victorian and contemporary misogyny.

“GASP!” went some scientists. How dare he be so rude? Think of the harm it will do to science education if we reveal the flaws in our heroes! So they fired off a letter to the editor.

We fear that Fuentes’ vituperative exposition will encourage a spectrum of anti-evolution voices and damage prospects for an expanded, more gender and ethnically diverse new generation of evolutionary scientists.

Oh, dear. So rather than be interested in the truth, we should conceal those past embarrassments, lest a creationist discover them. This is a terrible idea, because eventually someone will discover them (they’re in books in the public domain, you know), and then it’ll be the cover-up that is the scandal. Have they learned nothing from political history?

In The Descent he demolished the slavery-justifying view of different races as separate species, so inspiring the anti-racist perspectives of later anthropologists like Boaz. On sexism, Darwin suggested that education of “reason and imagination” would erase mental sex differences. His theory of sexual selection gave female animals a central role in mate choice and evolution.

On races, sure, he was better than many, and he also criticizes the race “science” of his day, noting that none of the proponents of that dangerous nonsense could even agree on the number and boundaries of the various races. He was an abolitionist, but as we Americans should know from our history, you can oppose slavery while still having demeaning views of black people. While it is correct that he demolished the idea of different races as different species, he still thought the races had different characters, which is a belief that still feeds racist views. Like this, from the Descent of Man.

There is, however, no doubt that the various races, when carefully compared and measured, differ much from each other,—as in the texture of the hair, the relative proportions of all parts of the body, the capacity of the lungs, the form and capacity of the skull, and even in the convolutions of the brain. But it would be an endless task to specify the numerous points of structural difference. The races differ also in constitution, in acclimatisation, and in liability to certain diseases. Their mental characteristics are likewise very distinct; chiefly as it would appear in their emotional, but partly in their intellectual, faculties. Every one who has had the opportunity of comparison, must have been struck with the contrast between the taciturn, even morose, aborigines of S. America and the light-hearted, talkative negroes.

Oh, those light-hearted negroes, chattering away happily out on the plantation, with their distinct mental characteristics! How dare you accuse Darwin of still clinging to the stereotypes of his day, and being less enlightened than he should have been?

What about his views on women? Did Darwin really think the differences in intellect between men and women would be erased by education?

Here my comparison to conflicts in the letters section of my local newspaper falls down, because Science hasn’t published what should be the next reply in the chain. Holly Dunsworth called the Darwin apologists on their claims by actually reading their citation that purportedly shows how egalitarian Darwin was. Ooops. Here’s Dunsworth’s letter in full:

Whiten et al. described Fuentes’ editorial as a “distorting treatment” of Darwin’s writing in Descent of Man.

As counterpoint to Fuentes’ points about Darwin’s racism and sexism, Whiten et al. wrote that,

On sexism, Darwin suggested that education of “reason and imagination” would erase mental sex differences (1, p. 329).

From that sentence, a reader might reason that Darwin wrote about how educating women could make them equal to men in mental powers. And, a reader might imagine that Darwin advocated for such a thing.

Darwin did neither in the cited passage which says,

In order that woman should reach the same standard as man, she ought, when nearly adult, to be trained to energy and perseverance, and to have her reason and imagination exercised to the highest point; and then she would probably transmit these qualities chiefly to her adult daughters. The whole body of women, however, could not be thus raised, unless during many generations the women who excelled in the above robust virtues were married, and produced offspring in larger numbers than other women. As before remarked with respect to bodily strength, although men do not now fight for the sake of obtaining wives, and this form of selection has passed away, yet they generally have to undergo, during manhood, a severe struggle in order to maintain themselves and their families; and this will tend to keep up or even increase their mental powers, and, as a consequence, the present inequality between the sexes. (1, p. 329)

There is no hope for women and, by the end, Darwin is back on about how men are superior and suggests that they may evolve to be even more so.

It took extraordinary imagination to read that passage from Descent of Man and present it casually in Darwin’s defense as Whiten et al. did.

Now that’s a distorting treatment.

Wow. That passage could be happily quoted by MRAs, anti-feminists, and the general mob of misogynists as perfectly compatible with their views. Do not get into a sparring match with Dr Dunsworth, she’ll cut you.

One other curious thing about that passage…Darwin at the time he wrote Descent of Man was, unfortunately, lacking in a good theory of inheritance and had stumbled into pangenesis — he was basically a Lamarckian. That’s what that bit about how an adult woman had to be trained to “energy and perseverance” so that she would similarly train her daughters, who over many generations might rise to be as smart as a man, if such clever daughters might succeed in producing as many children as those other silly, flighty women. It’s not only profoundly sexist, it’s bad evolutionary logic! He’s not touting the equality of women at all — he’s simply promoting his wrong ideas about the inheritance of acquired characters.

(I’ve written about this before, so this is old ground. Darwin had some even more blatantly sexist passages in the Descent of Man. What’s really going to “encourage a spectrum of anti-evolution voices” is this embarrassing idolatry.)

How can you bring people to reason without a whip?

I’ve been doing a little research lately into the use of common, happy atheist terms, like “reason”. Here’s a truly hideous example of how the vague word “reason” can be used as a tool to advocate for great evils. Did you know that kidnapping, torturing, and murdering people is the only way to get others to recognize the virtue of rational thought?

Bonus points for treating reason and religion as equivalent enlightened phenomena.

Plagues in history

Here’s an interesting chart (although, portraying pandemics as spiky spheres is a bad choice — people are not good at visualizing relative volumes, and putting those volumes in a perspective that reduces the size of older one is a terrible idea) showing various afflictions on the human species over time.

The Black Death was the big one, but look at HIV — it’s amazing how our culture diminished the significance of that one, pretending it wasn’t happening even as its victims were dying in hospitals, and as prominent figures fell to it.

Smallpox coulda been a contender for the biggest plague of them all, but humans invented something that stopped it in its tracks: vaccination. If only people recognized the importance of that today…

This book is full of nasty words

I find I’m only able to read it in short bursts, so it’s taken me a while to finish it. Stollznow’s On the Offensive: Prejudice in Language Past and Present is a catalog of slurs. It’s fascinating, but every page is basically, here’s a hurtful horrible word. Here’s where it came from. Here’s why it’s so awful. Here’s the context where it’s sometimes used in a non-awful way. So sure, you’ll get a few pages of thoughtful discussion of the various permutations of the n-word, which is useful to know, but it’s sort of exhausting as well.

It’s organized by category, so it’s easy to get your surfeit of racism on one day, and sexism the next, and ableism after that. The chapter on ageism was personally useful, at least. It provides a guide in how to address me.

Elderly person and elderly people are commonly used as polite terms. As a noun, elder has positive connotations and suggests seniority rather than being old. The word implies a sense of dignity and respect, and even power, influence, and authority, in phrases such as our elders and betters, elders of the tribe, the village elder, and elder brethren. (Ironically, in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, elder is the lowest ranking in the priesthood and typically refers to younger men.) In early English, elder was the comparative of old, while eldest was the superlative form (i.e., old, elder, eldest), so elder was equivalent to modern day older. The comparative adjectives older and elder are generally perceived as more polite than the unmarked adjectives old or elderly. While elder has retained positive connotations, elderly has now acquired ageist associations. Older is relative; everyone is older than someone else, so it has become the preferred term that is used in phrases such as older person, older people, older adults, or older Americans, as a general descriptor for people in later life.

Unfortunately, I lived in Salt Lake City for too long, and the Mormons, as usual, ruined everything. “Elder Myers” is a name that would be embossed on a plastic tag over the pocket of a starched white shirt on a beardless guy wearing a black tie, not me. I guess you’re just going to have to address me as that cranky geezer.

Oh, hey, geezer isn’t in the book, but silly old fart is.

We really ought to pay more attention to historians

One of my worries, as I have benefited from choosing a career in the sciences as the world goes mad for practical educations, is that I see all the non-STEM fields being neglected by a capitalist perspective on universities. This is not good. Balance in all things, please, and we should support the entirety of knowledge, not just the bits that give us missiles and antibiotics (although, at the same time, I think students in non-STEM fields would benefit from a little more math and science — liberal arts educations are currently a bit asymmetric, with science students expected to broaden their horizons while the history majors get to ignore calculus and physics).

So here’s a historian taking the “STEM Bros” to task, entirely justifiably.

The last two decades have seen the rise of the Irritating STEM Bro.™ Two well-known examples are Neil deGrasse Tyson and Steven Pinker: Great Men from Important Science Backgrounds who blithely talk and write about the history of their topic as if they are expertly qualified polymaths. Both use the word ‘medieval’ pejoratively, and see the history of science as an inexorable, teleological march of progress from the fantastic Classical Period to the Terrible Medieval Dark Ages and then woo Renaissance! And then things gradually getting better and better until hurrah! We are enlightened and clever in the 21st century!

Quite simply, though, this is insulting, ahistorical nonsense. The problem, which Irritating STEM Bros™ don’t understand – or more likely don’t want to acknowledge – is that our modern categories of ‘science’, ‘religion’, and ‘magic’ do not map in any meaningful way onto the medieval period. So let’s first examine this problem of categories.

The whole thing is entertaining, but this bit made me laugh.

Psychologist Steven Pinker’s 2011 book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined has as its central thesis the idea that violence has declined over time, and that we now live in the most peaceful era yet. This is, he tells us, due to five main developments: the monopolisation on the use of force by the judiciary stemming from the rise of the modern nation-state (as expressed in Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan of the mid-17th century); commerce, feminisation, cosmopolitanism and the ‘escalator of reason’.

It’s this last factor, which is of most interest here, this ‘escalator of reason’ which says that we now apply ‘rationality’ to human affairs. This, Pinker tells us, means there’s less violence in modern society than there was because we’re more rational. And he’s not shy to use the Awful Irrational Medieval Dark Ages as a counterpoint to the Brilliant Post-Enlightenment Modern Times of Awesome.

Why laugh? Because I have eyes and ears and I live in 21st century United States of America, in a red county, in a town that is full of churches, and I can look around and see all the “rationality”. 40% think a greedy, incompetent grifter was a great president, and about the same number think God created the Earth in a literal 6 days. I suspect that your typical medieval peasant wouldn’t have been quite so delusional. Not that they wouldn’t have had their own follies, but sheesh — people are still people, and haven’t become noticeably more intelligent in the last thousand years.

Now I’m hungry for snails

They’re still digging things out of Pompeii? Cool. Here’s an open food stand that’s beautifully painted and would tempt me even now:

Known as a termopolium, Latin for hot drinks counter, the shop was discovered in the archaeological park’s Regio V site, which is not yet open the public, and unveiled on Saturday.

Traces of nearly 2,000-year-old food were found in some of the deep terra cotta jars containing hot food which the shop keeper lowered into a counter with circular holes.

The front of the counter was decorated with brightly coloured frescoes, some depicting animals that were part of the ingredients in the food sold, such as a chicken and two ducks hanging upside down.

Analysis revealed traces of pork, fish, snails and beef remaining in the cylindrical containers. What I really need to know is what spices were used and how they were prepared, and I’m not handing over a single as until I smell the food being cooked.

Can the Wehrmacht be absolved?

They were just soldiers fighting for their country, right? Not Nazis. Comrades in arms, brave fighters, etc.

Three Arrows says no, and I learned a lot of things. The Holocaust and WWII were not separate things.

The officer class was fully enrolled in the antisemitic agenda, and were explicitly committed to genocide and enslavement. They kept their soldiers informed of the same, and they all knew exactly what they were fighting for. In particular, you have to sympathize with how Russia was shaped by this event: the Eastern Front wasn’t just a war, it was a campaign to exterminate the native population and enslave the few survivors to serve as captive labor to German colonizers. The Wehrmacht knew this. How could they not?

Don’t get cocky, fellow Americans. He ends on this quote from an American president.