Arachnophobia is irrational

You are allowed to have irrational fears, and it’s fine if you have a personal aversion. What is not fine is when you use that irrational fear as an excuse to disrupt other people’s lives, as has happened lately with ten schools in England closed for three weeks because headteachers were afraid of a spider infestation.

Hundreds more children have been told to stay at home after the presence of false widow spiders has closed a tenth school.

Thousands of families have now been affected by closures across east and north London since last week after infestations of the venomous were discovered on school sites.

Parents have spoken out against the disruption caused by schools deciding to close their doors for up to three weeks on the discovery of the spiders, calling it “over the top” and “ridiculous”.

John F Kennedy Special School became the latest school in Newham to close due to spiders on Friday. Campuses in nearby Stratford and Beckton have also been closed for the foreseeable future.

These spiders are close relatives of the ones I’m working with — apparently, they’re finding Steatoda grossa in the schools (I’ve got Steatoda triangulosa and Parasteatoda tepidariorum). They can bite, and cause an unpleasant blistering and rash, but you have to really torment the little beasties before they can do any harm. OK, I can imagine schoolkids doing exactly that, but the problem isn’t the spiders, it’s the malicious little thugs in your classroom.

But here’s the thing: you can’t get rid of them. They’re everywhere. They tend to hide in out of the way corners, so you probably don’t see them very often, but really, they are ubiquitous. Lately I’ve been searching for them and have become fine-tuned to spotting them, and they’re everywhere: they’re in your homes, your attics, your garages; they are lurking under your bed and other furniture, they’re quietly making cobwebs in the corners of your window frames, they’ve filled up your crawlspaces and the spaces within your walls. If they’re in the schools, they are in the students’ homes. They love those nice shadowy spaces in all human constructions — we’re in a long-term commensal relationship with these spiders. They’re not picking on schools selectively.

I’m sorry, but if you’re going to shut down schools over this routine and mostly harmless occupation by a few small organisms, you’re just going to have to shut down all of England. And Europe. And Asia. And the Americas. The spiders haven’t figured out how to live in Antarctica yet, so I guess we’re all going to have to hide in that continent, quivering in fear of itsy-bitsy spiders.

Until they move in to whatever shelters we build, that is.

The histrionics are over the top. Check out the photos on this article — they’ve got exterminators in biohazard suits hosing down the schools with pesticides. I’d be more afraid of the goop they’re spraying than of spiders.

Standards of beauty may have changed significantly in 5000 years

A 5000 year old grave in Iran contained the remains of a 25-30 year old, upper class woman. There’s something distinctive about that skull, though.

She’s got a prosthetic eye! Only it’s not your standard glass eye, it’s a ball made of tar and fat, with delicate capillaries made of gold wire, and a diamond shape incised into the ball where the iris would be, and apparently it was held in its socket by a strap around the head, so it must have bulged out quite a bit. Also, it’s black.

This wasn’t an eye made to hide a disfiguring wound, it was made to accentuate it. She must have been terrifying.

(There’s a “reconstruction” at the link, but it doesn’t look like much effort was put into it, like they just drew a black ball on the face of a contemporary Iranian woman.)

I am not a juror today

Welp, that was an exercise that was both instructive and a total waste of time.

I showed up at the courthouse at the appointed time, with about 40 other people. The jury assistant had us surrender everything — phones, tablets, books, papers, etc. –although one little old lady smuggled her phone in, which we discovered when it started ringing loudly in the middle of the proceedings. We were given little pamphlets about our duties and ushered in to watch a video about jury duties, although actually we spent a lot of time sitting waiting for it to be started (the clerk didn’t seem to know how to run a DVD player), and once it was done we spent an awfully long time staring at a blank TV screen waiting for them to move on to the next step, which was to be shuffled off to the actual court room, with the judge, the defendant and his attorney, and the prosecuting attorney were all waiting for us.

About 20 of us got seated for the jury. It was apparently random, and I was not picked. Then the questioning began, the voir dire. It was stuff like, “Do you know [reads long list of potential witnesses]?” It turns out most of the names were cops, and it begins to sound like an army was dispatched to arrest the lone defendant. This being a small town, several people knew all the named people, so they had to be grilled on how they knew them and whether their acquaintance with them would interfere with their ability to judge them. Then there was the question about knowing or being related to any of the other jurors, and hands went up all over the place. Same grilling. Interestingly, there was also a question about whether religious convictions would interfere, and there were three women who clearly belonged to the Brethren church (long skirts, long hair tied up in a bun — we call them “bun ladies” around here), who announced that they could not stand in judgement over a man, and they were dismissed.

As people were dismissed, new people were called up out of the pool and the questions were repeated. I saw the pool shrinking, but I was never called before they finally settled on the 12 jurors, fortunately.

I say “fortunately” because, while I was willing to serve, as information about the case dribbled out, it became clear to me that I couldn’t do it. It was a drug case, with a guy who’d been arrested for growing marijuana, and as I listened to the questions being asked, I realized how I’d have to answer. I could not in good conscience convict someone for an act thats criminality was arbitrary and unjust, and I wouldn’t be able to set aside my principles to abide purely by the letter of the law. If I had been called up, I would have been dismissed within moments for that.

Also, I wouldn’t even have had a chance to answer the prosecuting attorney’s question, “What three things come to mind when you think of law enforcement?” I would probably have started with “petty thugs who shouldn’t be trusted with a gun” before the bailiff would have hauled me out behind the chemical shed. He also asked jurors what they thought of the War on Drugs, and my answer might have gotten profane and earned me a contempt of court fine.

Well, they asked! They said we had to answer honestly, too.

So I got to go home early. I’m still on the hook to be called up to serve until sometime in January, though — I just hope it isn’t another marijuana case.

Jury duty tomorrow

Maybe. Being on sabbatical means I had no excuse to skip it, but what do you think the odds are that the lawyers send me away for being a godless sciencey nerd? I’ll prepare for a long day, but I kind of expect I’m not the kind of person they’ll want to serve — you know, all weird and stuff, not representative of the community.

But I wouldn’t mind experiencing it all!

I’ve been possessed!

You’re not going to be able to trust that I’m the author of anything I post here. You see, last night I read this thing about how the alt-right was furious at Taylor Swift because she endorsed some Democrats — the fury of Andrew Anglin, that demented Nazi, was gratifying to see — and it included one of Swift’s videos. Now I’m rather ignorant of Swift. I’ve probably heard her songs before, but just as the usual pop music background noise, I’ve never made the association between who she is and what songs she sings, and this was the first time I’d actually paid attention to any of her music.

Uh-oh. I liked it. It’s catchy and energetic. It’s got a good message, too. I can see how the kids can get into her.

And then, as if that wasn’t bad enough, I decided to watch some TV before bed, and some alien force made me turn on The Great British Bake-Off. God help me, I watched two episodes before tearing myself away.

It was all the niceness. It was a shock to the system, and might just kill me. A couple of hours without rage? What will keep my heart beating?