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.

There’s a heck of a lot more to identity than what genes you carry

I’ve done the 23andMe test. I’m 50% Scandinavian.

More significantly, I knew my great-grandparents personally; my great-grandmother was a Swedish immigrant, while my great-grandfather was part of a Norwegian-American community in Minnesota that had been around for generations. They spoke some kind of Norwegian/Swedish/English pidgin, they had connections with the Old Country, we ate Scandinavian food at home, we went to a church that had services in Swedish and Norwegian.

I think I can confidently say that I’m a Scandinavian-American.

The other 50% of my genome is mostly English/Irish/Scot. That side of my family emigrated to America in the 17th/18th century. All cultural vestiges of that connection have been scoured clean by a few hundred years of history, poverty, and total immersion in this mongrel American pastiche we live in, and they retained no connections with family on the other side of the Atlantic. I wouldn’t be as comfortable with claiming to be a British-American, despite my genes sending a clear signal of my biological ancestry.

Elizabeth Warren is not Indian. A few genetic scraps from a distant ancestor do not make you an Indian, any more than the 0.6% of my DNA that is Iberian makes me a Spaniard.

Bustamante’s analysis places Warren’s Native American ancestor between six and 10 generations ago, with the report estimating eight generations. “The identity of the sample donor, Elizabeth Warren, was not known to the analyst during the time the work was performed,” the report says.

Eight generations back means she’s about 0.4% Indian, with zero cultural association. No Indian tribe recognizes her as a member. I think it was a terrible mistake for Warren to play the genetic essentialist game and essentially vindicate racist arguments about one drop of blood making you a member of a racial group, and if vague rumors of a distant relative being a Cherokee princess makes you an Indian, then a multitude of people who belong with 99% certainty to the oppressor genetic group that committed genocide get to play Indian. This is just wrong.

That said, I have a bit of sympathy for her in that she’s trying to defend herself against a racist bigot who has been mocking her remote, slight Indian affiliation by using it as a pejorative. Warren did not use her ancestry as a tool to gain an advantage, to her credit, and it’s shameful that anyone would think that association with one of the most strongly oppressed groups in this country is a way exploit the system.

We’re now at the point where we’re grimacing a bit at Warren’s exaggeration of her connection to Indian culture, while at the same time we’re tolerating a president who openly expresses contempt for Indian culture. All the hypocrites who are berating Warren ought to be even more aghast that Trump is frequently using “Pocahantas” as a slur. But they aren’t.

Also, it’s naive to think that Trump would pay up on his $1 million dollar bet. He’s always been a welcher.


Jennifer Raff weighs in. She’s an expert on this stuff.

Maybe Santa will bring me some high end optical gear for Christmas this year

I admit, I drooled a little bit: HHMI has developed this cool gadget for imaging embryos. It’s got everything: a culture chamber for mouse embryos, the latest light-sheet imaging tech, and fancy digital processing so no matter how the embryo rolls or drifts, it realigns the image. It’s been built by Phillip Keller, who did some amazing work with visualizing zebrafish.

Until now, the best views of living embryos came from fish and flies. A decade ago, Keller and colleagues developed the first “digital embryo” of the zebrafish, a kind of see-through, striped minnow often studied by scientists.

Fish embryos have the advantage that they’re shaped more like a ribbon draped over a ball of yolk, which means you can almost ignore one dimension. Mice start out sort of 2-dimensional too, but are eventually shaped like little balls with all kinds of movement in 3 dimensions over time. I’m finding that spider embryos are similarly obnoxiously thick. But look at what this machine can do!

Also, amazingly, they’re giving it all away for free. The software is all downloadable, along with plans for building the scope (building one from scratch is still out of my budget, though), and they offer free access to the instrument out at Janelia Farm. Maybe someday — I’m still working on just getting reliable embryo production and am thinking about some basic genetics, and years from now when I’m ready to do some advanced digital imaging, maybe they’ll come in boxes of Cracker Jack.

Or better yet, some of my students will move on to do it for me.

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.)

What goes with anti-vax, flat-earth, and cancer quackery?

Classic conspiracy theories galore at this facebook page, United 4 Truth. But also this:

Do you want the explanation that goes with this? No? Too bad, I’m going to inflict it on you anyway.

How does human DNA in vaccines contribute to the rise of gender identity confusion?

WI-38 is the cell lines from a FEMALE aborted fetus, used to cultivate viruses used in vaccines. When you inject the DNA from a FEMALE (carrying two X chromosomes) into a MALE (who already carries one X chromosome and a weaker Y chromosome) you now have an overload of the X chromosome.

Now we have an onslaught of BOYS who think they should be GIRLS.

Do we have male DNA in vaccines? YES! MRC-5 is the code given to the fetal cell line also used to cultivate vaccine viral components, and it comes from a MALE aborted fetus. Do we have girls thinking they are boys? YES! Is it as prominent as boys wanting to be girls? NO!

Why? Because girls have two dominant X chromosomes. When they are injected with a vaccine containing MRC-5, they aren’t just getting a Y chromosome, but yet another dominant X chromosome, on top of the two they already have. That’s why you don’t see as many girls wanting to be boys as you do the other way around.

These vaccines contain negligible amounts of human material — the cells are used to produce the viruses that are purified for injection. Also, even if you are injected with fragments of human chromosomes, that doesn’t imply that your cells will incorporate them into their genome, so chromosome dosage is irrelevant.This is like suggesting that if you drink milk, you’re actually swallowing whole cows, and this explains why some people say “moooo.”

Labels, and the saga of Cornerstore Caroline

Related to my previous post, the latest tale of a white woman calling the cops on black people is the story of Cornerstore Caroline. A video went viral of her on the phone, calling the police on a black child, accusing him of grabbing her sexually in a bodega. We since have the surveillance video from the store that shows that, at most, a child brushed against her while walking by. She berated the whole family for this imaginary offense so loudly that the kids were crying.

Well, now she’s got an excuse. Or rather, multiple excuses.

The self-described unemployed “feminist and a humanist” variously insisted she was groped in the bodega and acknowledged the boy had only touched her accidentally — and accused his mom of pretending to be a cop, then later leaving a threatening message for her.

“I would like to apologize to her daughter and her son but not to her. She could have walked away, but she didn’t. I’m also a Buddhist, [but] I let my temper show,” Klein said.

“I’ve been called racist before, and I’m not.”

So…she couldn’t be bad because she’s a 1) feminist, 2) humanist, 3) Buddhist, 4) not a racist. OK. We all know no member of those tribes could possibly be wrong. I guess the camera was lying.

I’m going to get a button that says “GOOD HUMAN” to cover all my bases and get exempt from all accusations of wrong-doing.