Friday, December 31, 2010

The Angels and the Unicorn

            Most twenty –first century English speakers imagine themselves to be rational, logical beings.  Yet we employ a language strewn with references to things which no one presumes to exist.  We read and hear words like “angel” and “demon,” “unicorn,” and “fairy.” Yet even when seriously drunk, few people believe to have ever seen such phenomena.  And almost no one over nine years old believes in their existence. 
            One could argue that these words entered the language in an earlier, more innocent age, when people actually believed in such things, and the words live on as fossil remains of long extinct concepts or perhaps as metaphors still useful in the modern world.           
            Yet our modern world itself continues to add to this inventory of words which precisely describe the non-existent.  How many science fiction plots could hold together without the glue of “faster than light-speed travel,” often euphemized as “warp drive” or “hyperspace drive,” or “space folding; ”  (not to mention “transporter beams.”)   We need these concepts as plot devices because we have learned two very inconvenient facts:  One; there is no habitable planet other than Earth in our own star system.  Two, all other star systems are a very inconvenient distance away.   Any plot in which the time required to travel to anywhere worth going would take the greater part of a human lifetime would not be very fast-paced, and would probably not hold our interest.
            But what would be the result if, just for one year, we resolved to abstain from reading, writing, or speaking any word describing that which is non-existent.  Mind you, I do not rule out things which do not now exist, simply because they are beyond our current technology. The Sci-fi films like  Gattaca and Jurassic Park invoke technologies that do not presently exist—and perhaps will never exist.  But, unlike “warp drive,” they are not mathematically impossible technologies.  Supposing we just swore off, for one year only, the impossible. Is there some basic human need to imagine beyond the possible?  When ancient poets spun tales of gods and heroes, was this just “bubble gum for the mind?”  Or is there a fundamental human need understand what is possible—and then pretend to live in a world beyond it? 

Monday, December 27, 2010

Ancient Mines of Kitchi-Gummi, a review.

As promised, this is the cat's last book review of 2010.  I believe it is the strangest, and perhaps the most interesting non-fiction work I've ever read.

            Ancient Mines of Kitchi-Gummi  by Roger L. Jewel

            A Review and synopsis by The Cat.

            A few years ago, a friend of mine, a geologist, handed me a book and said, “Here—read this.   I think you’ll find it interesting.”       He neither endorsed nor contested the views of the author.  He just said, “Read it and tell me what you think.”   He went on to explain that the book did not belong to him—it was borrowed and would have to be returned in one week.  He also mentioned that it was out of print and could not be easily replaced.    I asked, “What is it about?”
            He explained that the shores of Lake Superior are dotted with abandoned copper mines, and some of these mines were worked thousands of years ago.  Though the mining methods were primitive, using stone hammers and fire, the mines were so numerous that the total amount of copper removed was still massive—some estimates run as high as one billion pounds.  Recent, more careful estimates put the figure at closer to 50 million pounds.
            Still, that’s many times the amount that the Indians could have ever used. In most parts of North and South America, the Indians used no copper at all. Where it was used, it was used in tiny amounts for personal ornaments. Tribes living near the Great Lakes, where copper was easily obtained, made a few wood-working tools and a few arrow points. But that still accounts for less than 2 percent of those 50 million pounds of copper. So where did it go?  This is a question that has puzzled archaeologists for a hundred years.
            This is the question that Roger Jewel addresses in his book. He assumes that it was the Indians who were mining it, or possibly Indians in collaboration with someone else.  But if the Indians weren’t using it themselves, then who were they trading it to, and for what were they trading it?
            Carbon 14 tests on fragments of the wooden ladders left behind consistently yield dates showing that mining activity began about 2,500 BCE, and continued uninterrupted till about 1,200 BCE, and then abruptly stopped.  As soon as I read this, I said, “Aha!  They were supplying copper to the sea traders from the Eastern Mediterranean!”   The sea trade in the Aegean began after 3,000 BCE,  first with Sumerians, then Minoan/Cypriots, Mycenaeans, Canaanites,  and others.  But it all ended about 1,200 BCE, when a Dorian invasion wiped out every civilization in the Eastern Mediterranean except Egypt.
            The mining activity resumed about 1,000 BCE, and then petered out about two hundred years later.  Jewel doesn’t mention it, but this is exactly what we should expect, since by 1,000 BCE, the Phoenicians had built a trade empire similar to the one which had collapsed earlier. (The name “Phoenician” suggests that it may have been the same empire, since the name phoenix refers to a mythical bird which perishes in fire, and then rises from its own ashes.) But about 800 BCE iron smelting technology improved, and the price of iron dropped sharply, and its use became widespread. After that, the Iron Age had begun, and there was less demand for brass or the copper and tin needed to make it.
            When you consider the dates when these mines were used, it seems likely that the sea traders from the Eastern Mediterranean were the culprits.  Jewel draws the same conclusion, for the same reasons.  No other part of the world had the technology to build ocean-going ships as early as 2,500 BCE.     And if the copper had been supplied directly to the Egyptians, then the trade would not have abruptly stopped about 1,200 BCE.
            When the Bronze Age began, rich surface deposits in the Near East were quickly exhausted.  As copper became precious, traders went searching for new supplies, first to the British Isles, and then, according to Jewel, to North America.  This, he believes, was the copper that fueled the Bronze Age.
            The copper in question occurs as native copper—not just copper ore.  Chunks of pure copper weighing several ton were left behind by the miners because they had no means of easily moving them, or of cutting smaller pieces off.
            The mining process used was simple.  The area has old lava flows that contain copper, which was deposited by water in the cracks in the lava.  The miners would find a copper vein on the surface of an old lava flow and then build a huge fire on top of it. After a few days of continuous fire, they would clear away the ashes and dump cold water on it. This fractures the rock so that when cool, you can simply pick up large chunks of rock and smash them with stone hammers to remove the copper.  The mines were usually cylindrical holes sunk vertically into the rock, 5 to 30 feet deep and 3 to 30 feet in diameter. Many of the abandoned mines have been re-worked and expanded in historic times, which obliterates all traces of the original mine.  Therefore, the amount of copper removed by ancient miners may be much larger than estimates based on the number of mines still there.  As for evidence that the copper was shipped to the Mediterranean, Mr. Jewel supplies a few facts and a lot of conjecture.  But his conjectures fit the facts perfectly, and it’s difficult to conceive of any alternative explanation that would fit them at all.
            If Mr. Jewel’s conjecture is correct, then we should expect to find Minoan artifacts in Michigan, because if boatloads of copper were being shipped to the Near East, then boatloads of whatever  they traded for would have been shipped from the Near East to Michigan—and some of it should still be there. Have we found such things there?  There have been a few finds, but not the vast amounts we should expect.  That’s part of the puzzle.
            From one site that dates to nearly 2,700 BCE (the earliest site so far discovered), they found a cast copper double bladed axe which precisely matches the design of Minoan axes used as a religious symbol at that period. One site, dated to 1,500 BCE, yielded a beautifully made copper serpent.  But Native Americans did not begin using the serpent as a symbol till the Mound Culture, which was somewhat later. Yet this symbol was widely used in the Near East, and was the symbol of the goddess Astarte.
            One piece of evidence that can’t be dismissed are the signatures on an old Indian land deed.   An official New Hampshire land deed, dated 1681, conveys a parcel of Indian land to colonists who purchased it. Some of the Indians could write their names in English, and did so.  Others claimed they would prefer to sign their names in their own written language. The marks they placed on the deed were dismissed by the colonists as random scribbles made by savages pretending they could write. But these marks have now been discovered to be a form of an ancient Cypriot language.
            Jewell quotes the late Dr. Barry Fell, a Harvard epigrapher, for several pages on this subject:
            Fell says that about a dozen different systems of writing were in use by North American Indians when the colonists arrived. In the early nineteenth century, a missionary, James Evans, adopted an Algonquian written language for teaching the Christian religion to Indians. Evans was later wrongly credited with “inventing” the Cree script. But by translating the entire Bible into Cree, he simply preserved this script, and it survives today in Cree tribal lands.
            Dr. Fell says that in 1978, some Basque scholars at the museum in San Sebastian contacted him about the inscriptions on some old Basque tablets.   Noticing that the symbols were identical to the Cree Syllabary,  he tried substituting  Cree sound values, and the resulting language sounded like Basque. He sent these translations to leading Basque linguist, Imanol Agire, who confirmed that it was indeed Basque. Thus, by using the Cree Syllabary, we can now translate ancient Iberian inscriptions.  The Grand Basque Encyclopedia now describes this connection.
            Dr. Fell says that the Indian treaties were signed in a script called Mamalohikan, which was in use till at least 1727 in Northern Main, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia.  Fell says that Mamalohikan symbols are from an ancient Cypriot system of writing, first deciphered in 1871. This system died out in Europe after the reign of Alexander the Great, when the Greek alphabet replaced many other forms of writing.  Therefore this script would have to have been brought to the new world before Alexander.
            Dr. Fell says that though this information is rejected by most archaeologists, it is now firmly enough established among European Linguists as to be incorporated into their most learned publications.
            Jewell then cites other cultural evidence.  He points out that the megalith builders, active in Europe during this time frame, built structures all over Europe. But the main concentration seems to be near sea coasts. Similar structures are found in the new world.  He provides a map with a black dot placed at each megalith site. The pattern shows dots along the coastline of the Mediterranean, from the Aegean and Greece, to Italy, Sicily, and Iberia, up the Atlantic coast and all over the British Isles, and then they are found again along the coast of Nova Scotia and Labrador, down the St Laurence River, and around the Great Lakes.  They are also found in the Hudson River valley, and along the coast of New England.
            Jewell observes that after the melting of the last glacier, the removal of weight from the earth’s crust has caused the land to be uplifted from time to time, and that these uplifts have changed the drainage of the Great Lakes many times. One of these uplifts occurred about 1,600 BCE.  Prior to that time, the main drainage of Lake Superior was through the Ottawa and St Laurence rivers. One could sail from the Atlantic to Lake Superior using this route. But the uplift cut off this route and blocked the outflow till the lake level rose to where it began draining through the Hudson River system.  So both the St Laurence and the Hudson, at some point in time, provided a sea route to Lake Superior.
            Jewell says that religion in both the Mediterranean and the British Isles involved the worship of two deities: the male sun god, Baal, whose symbol is the bull, and the female earth goddess, Astarte (Ishtar,) who is usually depicted as a bare-breasted woman holding a serpent. (He says that the pagan feast of Beltane is really “Baaltane.”)  These symbols are often abstracted to a minimalist depiction of just bull horns or serpents.
            Stone dolmans, usually a large boulder set on three smaller stones, have been found in the Great Lakes region.  Jewell says they are inscribed with a sign identical to the markings on similar dolmans in Europe.  He says the inscriptions are the sign of Baal.  And on both sides of the Atlantic, we find sun calendar chambers.   These are nearly horizontal shafts cut into hillsides so that on a single day each year, usually the spring equinox, the sun’s rays strike the end of the shaft.  According to Jewell, this was not just for time-keeping, but was a religious observance. When the phallic shaft of light from the male sun god penetrated and impregnated mother earth, new life would spring forth.
            One of the most striking items of evidence cited by Jewell to prove ancient trade contacts between Europe and America was the discovery in 1992 that Egyptian mummies contain traces of nicotine and cocaine, both of which are found only in New World plants.  In 1992, Dr. Svetla Balabanova was hired to run drug tests on hair samples taken from mummies.  Dr. Balabanova, of the Institute of Forensic Medicine in Ulm, is highly respected in her field, having pioneered groundbreaking methods for detecting drugs in hair.  When the first tests were positive for both nicotine and cocaine, she assumed there must be an error.  She repeated the tests, using the most reliable method known.  This involves first washing the hair in pure alcohol, and then testing the alcohol and the hair separately.  If the alcohol tests negative but the hair tests positive, then the drug in the hair could not have come from outside contamination.  This test is accepted in any court on the planet as positive proof.  But even this test yielded the same results.  Finally, she sent the sample to several other labs, but they all tested positive.  When she published the results, she was scoffed at.  But Rosalie David, Keeper of the Egyptology, Manchester Museum, heard of the results and decided to have samples from the mummies in her own museum tested. They all tested positive for nicotine.
            But even with all of this evidence, one part of the puzzle that would still remain unsolved is this:   What did the Indians receive in exchange for all that copper, and where is it? Why has it left no trace?  Fortunately, there is one more line of evidence:  DNA.   There are four main haplogroups found in mitochondrial DNA of Native Americans, called A, B, C, and D. These are of Asian origin.   But there is another type, called X, which is mostly a southern European type, and which is found either in very small amounts or not at all in most Indian populations. 
            But Algonquian speaking people, especially Chippewa and Ojibwa, have a higher percentage of this European type; in some tribal groups it’s as high as 20%.  Jewell doesn’t say so, but since this European genotype comes only from mitochondrial DNA, we can guess what was being traded—wives!  Mitochondrial DNA is inherited exclusively from the female line; only European women could have brought those genes to America.
            It’s unlikely that these women would have come here as wives of colonists, because if colonies had been established and maintained for 1,500 years, they would still be here.  Or at least some trace of them would still be here.  And colonists would have demanded some goods from the Mediterranean in exchange for their labor.  And even if they were slaves, a supply of goods would have been required to maintain them, and these goods would have left a record.  Instead of the paltry handful of Minoan artifacts found near the Great Lakes, we’d be finding tons of it.
            Jewell stops short of saying so, but the most economical explanation is that the European women who brought these genes to America were simply slave girls who were sold to the Indians as wives in exchange for the copper. Slavery was the accepted practice all over Europe at that time, and women were a tradable commodity.  (As late as the 10th century AD, Vikings were capturing Irish girls and selling them to the Moors in Spain.) Since the Mediterranean people at that time were people with olive skin, dark hair and dark eyes, their offspring would not have looked much different from Indians. We should not expect to see blond haired blue eyed Ojibwas. Before the Celtic and Gothic invasions, Europeans did not have those features.  
            For me, Jewell’s book only reinforces a conclusion I’ve had for some time:  The reasonable question is not, “Was there ever a period of trans-Atlantic trade in ancient times?”   The question should be, “Was there ever a period without such trade contacts?”  The answer is yes.  From the onset of the “dark ages” until the voyages of Columbus, there was a suspension of trade contacts for a thousand years.  A similar suspension of about 200 years followed the Dorian invasions of 1,200 BCE.  Except for that, Europe and America have had at least limited trade contacts for most of the last 5,000 years.
            One group that never completely stopped sailing to America was the Basque whaling community.  These people, who are probably descended from Eastern Mediterranean sea traders, continued to visit the shores of eastern Canada.  But they never ventured more than a few miles inland, and had minimal contacts with the natives.  Their settlements, winter fishing camps, left little trace except crude stone shelters.  They were not conquerors, merchants, or colonists. If they traded with the Indians at all, they supplied them nothing that changed their technology or changed their history.  And when they returned to Europe, they sold their whale oil and ivory without telling anyone where they got it. So their voyages had no effect on the history of either continent.
            Still, on Columbus’s first voyage, a large part of his crew was made up of Basque whaling captains.  Columbus went out of his way to recruit Basque whaling captains.  Why?
            Ancient Mines of Kicthi-Gummi is awkwardly organized, poorly written, and the printing is so bad that most of the drawings, maps, and photos are nearly unreadable. Yet it is still a fascinating read.        

Friday, December 24, 2010

Swifties, Year End Recap

   "This is the part of the store where we keep the disk operating systems," he said docilely.
"I've baked another cake," she retorted.
"I did have myself chrome-plated," he reflected.
   "I don’t feel like a Scandinavian anymore,” he said disdainfully.
 "It's  another letter from the honey producer's association," he said beleagueredly.
"I've contributed to the church bake sale,” she said piously.
"I  always  keep my lingerie in the Rolodex," she said, still undefiled.
"We  MacDuffs  were  born  to  be  sneaky,"  he  whispered clandestinely.
"I'm  returning that no good 18 wheeler you loaned me," he said truculently.
   "I’ll never loan it to you again,"  he replied relentlessly.        
"If you’ll all be very quiet, I think we’ll discover which coffin contains the time bomb,” said the inspector cryptically.
"Our ship will be torpedoed,"  he worried subconsciously.
"I like to float around in the harbor with a light on my head,” he said boyishly.
    I've done it before and I can do it again," said Dr. Frankenstein remonstratively.
   “Is that the swindler coming down the stairs", he asked condescendingly.
   "The tire you loaned me is no good", he said flatulently.
   "I manufacture kitchen furniture," he said counter-productively.
“We Persian magicians should have a co-op,”  he said congenially.
    “We’ll settle this matter with the toss of a coin,” he said flippantly.
    “There aren’t many Scrabble pieces left,” he said futilely.
    “And then my bra broke,”  she extrapolated. 

Friday, December 17, 2010

Electronic Pickpockets

  If you are carrying your credit card in your wallet in your hip pocket or in your purse, is it possible for a stranger who brushes past you to retrieve your name, credit card number, and expiration date? Yes, if they have the right equipment and you have the type of card that uses an embedded chip instead of a magnetic strip.    NBClosangeles has a brief report on electronic pickpockets.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Year End Re-cap of Limericks

            2010  RE-CAP
All  The Cat’s Limericks posted this year, on
If you wish, you may email this list to your friends, (or enemies, depending on how you feel about limericks,) by clicking the “envelope icon” at the bottom of this post, and filling in the email address(s).        First:  The Cat’s own limericks:
This winter, just north of Bordeaux,
A Frenchman got lost in the sneaux.
And as this is written,
His feet are frost-bitten.
They think he’ll be losing a teaux.

Appraisal of priceless antiques
Requires at least several wiques.
This sounds like bologna,
But some things are phogna,
And pedaled by swindlers and sniques.

The limerick is often risqué.
To write them like that doesn’t pue.
But when writing in haste,
Though I aim for the chaste,
I often get carried awue.

The farmer explained, with a laugh,
That his heifer gave birth to a caugh,
Yet gave him no cream,
As had been his dream,
Nor milk—but just haugh and haugh

Rabbit Limericks-- Arguing with myself over how to deal with the rabbits in my garden:
My garden is cursed by the rabbit
Who destroys as a matter of habbit.
Oh, for an owl
Or some other large fowl,
Or hawk that can swoop down and grabbit.

And then I thought:
Please spare me your rabbit invective.
An owl is not very effective.
Just use a four-ten;
He won’t bug you again.
A gun’s a much better corrective.

And then I thought, Hey!
A rabbit’s a source of good meat,
And reasonably yummy to eat.
Not as large as a heifer,
A good hasenpfeffer
Could still make my supper complete.


There once was an evil marquis
Who taxed all the peasants with gluis.
His cuisine was quite haute,
And wherever he’d gaute,
The crumbs would be given out fruis.

King Lewis, who was three apples high,
Was painted as blue as the sky.
Though his tint was superfluous,
They called him king Smurf-Lewis,
Until he could wash off the dye.

My favorite bike is the tamdem;
In fact, you can even expand ‘em.
They can be built for four,
Or for five or six more,
Or for integers chosen at random.

By pawning his father’s shillelagh
An Irish Hawaiian named Delagh
Obtained enough cash
To fix his old Nash,
And purchase a new Ukelelagh.

A professor who taught at Duquesne
Had reason to carp and compluesne.
His students were dense
As the posts of a fence,
And they drove the man nearly insuesne.

While reading the works of Voltaire
A banker was seized by a baire.
He argued that he
Had a right to be free,
But the creature had hold of his haire.

A fetishist lad from Helsinki
Whose motives for pastries were kinky
Molested some scones
Who had no chaperones
And had an affair with a Twinky.

“Grave robbing is just so macabre,”
Said the frightened young girl with a sabre.
“If we can’t rob the dead,”
The grave-robber sead,
“Then who in the heck can we rabre?”

Yes grave-robbing’s awfully macabre.
We’re never quite sure whom we rabre.
I may be a ghoul,
But I’m surely no fhoul.
This sucker’s a banker named Babre!

I suspect that Jean Baptist LaMarck
While wandering about in the darck,
Found his new theory
By asking the queory,
“Do these creatures all come from the arck?”

Burnt offerings given to Zeus
Might often involve a young  geus;
Or maybe a ewe
Or a nanny goat tewe,
But rarely an elk or a meus.

A dealer in kitsch and in tchotchkes
Could sell you some clock keys or wotchkes,
Or a chastity belt,
And so it was felt,
Did a vigorous business in krotchkes.

If smoke leaves your lungs feeling rough,
You might just make this your last pough.
If you think once or twice,
You’ll take this advice,
And not just go off in a hough.

A rapist who hails from Bombay
Has a fetish for girls’ lingerie.
The rustle of crinolines
Excites his adrenalines,
But of course, they still get in the way.

Sounding the great highland pipes
Made the dogs emit howls, yips, and yipes.
With their paws on their ears,
And their eyes full of tears,
They begged me, “Please stop!  Holy cripes!”

It seems that the very best pipers
All started while still wearing diapers,
And continued, I might mention,
Till drawing a pension,

Bernie Madoff with the money.
Some people suppose that it’s funny.
But I doubt if you’ll hoot,
If some of the loot,
Was taken from you and your honey.

An Arab whose lawn had been sowed
Some divine intervention was showed.
As though cut with a scythe
Was the character "Pi."
Surely this was the Pi Allah mowed.

Give her a red poinsettia
And I doubt that she'll ever forgettia.
But make sure she heaves 
If she eats all the leaves,
Or else she will surely regrettia.

It seems that our medical arts
can patch up our livers and hearts,
Yet fail in the goal
Of treating the whole,
While fixing the various parts. 

And finally, limericks by authors unknown:

There once was a fellow named Clarence
Who Simonized both of his parents.
The initial expense,
He said, was immense.
But he saved it on wearence and tearence.

There once was a girl from St. Paul
Who wore a newspaper dress to a ball.
The dress, it caught fire,
And burned her entire
Front page, sporting section and all.

The lady who’s wed to Montgomery
Says the wearing of clothes is mere mummery.
She has frequently tea’d in
The costume of Eden,
Appearing delightfully summery.

A woman who came from Antigua
Once said to her spouse,
“What a pigua!”
He answered, “My queen,
Is it manners you mean?
Or do you refer to my figua?”

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Extending Human Lifespan by Growing New Mitochondria

A recent issue of Life Extension Magazine has an interesting piece on mitochondrial regeneration.

            About forty years ago, a few biologists began taking a look at aging, and what causes it.  Many concluded that mostly, aging was caused by cell damage from free-radicals generated by oxidative reactions within the body.  Thus, the anti-oxidant industry was born.  We all began taking anti-oxidants in the hope of slowing down, if not stopping, the clock of cellular aging.  And of course, anti-oxidants do work, to some degree.  If they did not, we wouldn’t still be gobbling them down after forty years.  And some anti-oxidants, such as vitamin C, are necessary for life.  Without them, we die.
            But a central problem still remained:  When sometime in early middle-age, we begin to notice a drop of both physical and mental energy, the main problem, besides hormonal decline, is simply that individual cells can no longer generate the level of energy they once did.  And they lose this capacity to generate energy because the mitochondria, the organelles within the cell which account for nearly all cellular energy production, have, after fifty years of service, become worn out and damaged such that they are barely functional.  They become damaged by free-radicals.  Yet protecting the mitochondria from oxidative damage is extremely difficult, since these organelles are where oxidation has to take place—this is where we burn sugar to make energy.
            But now it appears that a new approach has become available: generating new mitochondria.  In the Special Winter Edition of Life Extension Magazine is an article about PQQ (pyrroloquinoline quinone), a compound that seems to induce bio-genesis of new mitochondria.  The article says that PQQ is a natural substance that is found in all plant species, and is present in human milk.  But humans cannot synthesize it. That would make PQQ an essential micronutrient.   Like all Life Extension Foundation publications, the article contains elaborate references, citing over sixty research works published in peer reviewed scientific journals.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

China Grain Imports to Rise Sharply.

    According to a report in Dec 10, Wall Street Journal,  Rabobank Group predicts that in the next few years, China's imports of corn (maize) will increase from the present 1.3 million metric tons (51 million bushels)  to over 25 million metric tons, making China the world's largest grain importer.  Corn prices over the past year have already increased 60%, to over $5.60, and reserves are now at a low level.  Some analysts predict that corn could reach $7.00 per bushel this spring if China increases imports. All this would be good news for corn farmers and for the economy of entire corn-farming regions--bad news for people who want to eat corn-fed beef or make cheap ethanol.  ( Rabobank Group is a global agribusiness lending concern, based in Utrecht, Netherlands. )

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Iowa Farmland Bubble?

The Dec 5 Des Moines Sunday Register banner headline read: Why Farmland is Skyrocketing.  The Register reports that due to rising corn (maize) prices,  Iowa farmland is now changing hands at prices  over $8,000 per acre,  and some parcels have sold for up to $14,000.   They suggest that a speculative bubble may be building.   This would not be the first time this has occurred in Iowa--it also happened in the early 1920s and in the late 1970s.  Both times, the inevitable crash resulted in a severe depression for rural counties.   The nationwide recession in the U.S. today is probably less severe than that endured by most rural Iowa counties in the 1980s, after the farmland price collapse at the beginning of that decade.  Are we doing this again?
    Between 1972 and 1979,  Iowa farmland climbed from  $2,495 per acre to a peak of $5,711.  Then by 1986 it had crashed to only $1, 519.   By 2000, It had taken took 14 years to climb back to $2,291 (still less than it had been 28 years earlier.)  But by 2009 it had nearly doubled to 4371, and in just one more year it has doubled again.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Is Wall Street Useful?

            In the Nov 29  The New Yorker, is an article by John Cassidy: “What good is Wall Street?”  Mr. Cassidy interviewed a number of highly placed financial industry insiders and experts, including  Vikram Pandit, CEO of Citibank, Fred Goldberg, former IRS commissioner,  Ben Friedman, professor of economics at Harvard, and Paul Wooley, founder of the Center For the Study of Market Dysfunctionality  at the London School of Economics. These and a dozen others were all asked about the same question:  Does the financial industry actually serve any socially useful function.  The respondents represented several different constituencies.  But these academics, government regulators, and CEOs all reached a broad consensus on three points:
  1. About a third of what Wall Street does, (its traditional banking function) is absolutely essential—the world economy would collapse instantly without it.
 2. The other two-thirds, (high-stakes proprietary trades in exotic derivatives, etc.) are of no social utility whatsoever.
 3.  It’s the useless part that poses most of the systemic risk to the world economy—and also makes most of the money.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Reseting the Human Cell Clock

   In the June 2010 issue of Life Extension magazine is an interview with Michael West, PhD, CEO of BioTime inc.  Dr. West claims that his company is taking human body cells, (somatic cells) and restoring them to an undifferentiated state (like a stem cell) and also restoring them to a youthful age.  These cells are called iPS cells (induced pluripotent stem.)   BioTime is using a patented proprietary technology called ReCyte to accomplish this transformation.  They use genes (transcription factors) that are normally active only in reproductive cells.  ReCyte uses genetically engineered testicular cells to express large quantities of Oct4, Sox2, and Lin28 to transform a patient’s body cell back to an earlier state.  
            When perfected, such a technique could supply large quantities of “patient specific” youthful, undifferentiated cells which, if introduced into a damaged organ could make whatever repairs are required, taking their instructions from the surrounding tissue and essentially rebuilding the organ. 
            The transformation of old somatic cells into undifferentiated young stem cells has been accomplished before, using cloning.  If an adult body cell nucleus is introduced into an egg cell that has had its nucleus removed, the resulting cell can be tricked into thinking it’s a fertilized egg cell and begin dividing—and producing stem cells.  And such cells are both undifferentiated and youthful—but not always with enough telomere length to be “totally youthful.”               
            Every chromosome has strands of DNA on each end called telomeres that function as a cell clock. Each time the cell divides, the telomeres shorten.  After some finite number of divisions, the telomeres are too short—and the cell will no longer divide.  But the reproductive cells have the ability to re-divide indefinitely with no change in telomere length. Yet as an embryo develops past a certain stage and tissue begins to differentiate, then each additional division causes telomere shortening.  And that’s what limits life span.  Cells continually die or are damaged, but each cell can regenerate itself only a set number of times.  When cell replacement fails to keep pace with cell damage and death, we call this aging.  But this limitation, though natural, is still artificial.  Some species of animals can regenerate entire lost organs.  At some point in our evolutionary past we too must have had this kind of ability, but it’s been turned off.  We are now looking for the switch to turn it back on.
       In one of the sidebars of this article, is an interesting philosophical reflection.  Death only dates back to the development of multi-celled life.  But for most of the time life has existed on Earth, all life was mono-cellular, and death was not required.  An individual cell might be eaten by some other organism, but it might also divide and reproduce, and keep doing so indefinitely.  Death was a possibility, but not a destiny.  And all cells were reproductive cells.  But somewhere these sex cells evolved the ability to grow “helper cells,”  additional cells to help in the main function of reproduction—by finding food—fending off predators, or whatever.   So what happens to these ancillary systems once the primary goal of reproduction has been accomplished?  Having fulfilled their function, they are cast off to die.  By now reproduction had become sexual, and the sex cells themselves do not all die—some become part of the next generation.   And of course, the sex cells have to survive—as they contain the genes.  But today, the rest of the organism, this “life support for a bunch of DNA,” has evolved a brain and a conscious sense of self—and we’d prefer not to die—at least, not just yet.  So, in the greatest of ironies,  these brains now search for the code to immortality in the one part of the body which still has it—the sex cells. 

Thursday, November 18, 2010

What Do Tea Partisans Want?

              In the October 16-17 issue of Wall Street Journal was an article by Jonathon Haidt entitled, “What Tea Partiers Really Want.”  I felt the article was well done and reasonably fair-- which is quite unusual for a WSJ opinion piece.  Most of us feel that the Tea Party types are a motley collection of homophobes, gun nuts, fundamentalists, racists, and jingoists who have no clear idea what they believe in, but are very sure what they are against—everything and everybody.  The author does not deny this, in fact he is writing as a conservative, trying to warn other conservatives that whatever these people are, they aren’t really conservative Republicans.   And though Republicans may reap short term gains at the polls, the author is certain that to whatever extent they ever take over the Republican Party, they’ll wreck it.  
            Yet he claims that the Tea Partisans’ objection to what they see as “liberal policies” may have a coherent basis, at least, more coherent than the random behavior of unsupervised morons.    He says  that TP types believe in Karma--that there is some kind of cosmic law which ordains that people reap what they sow—that virtue ultimately prevails and that people make their own bad luck.  And they therefore feel that by taxing virtuous and hard-working winners to prop up a bunch of hopeless losers, liberals are not only being unfair to the virtuous, but contravening the laws of nature.  (And possibly even doing a disservice to the losers themselves, by shielding them from the hard lessons that might force them to abandon their shiftless ways and become successful.)
            Of course, whether you buy that people get what they deserve—that bad luck only falls to those who have somehow brought it on themselves—depends largely on where you’re coming from.  Mainly, it depends on whether you’ve actually had any bad luck.
            I grew up with my little brother, Ken, who was stricken at the age of eight months with a paralytic fever (possibly polio) which left him trapped for life in a body that could neither speak nor walk.  It’s difficult to see how an eight month old could do something to deserve this fate.   And this fate affected not only Ken, but the whole family, especially my mother, who was the hardest working and most devout Christian I ever met.  Don’t think that this particular kind of misfortune was all that uncommon. In the Mulberry Street neighborhood alone-- within 600 ft of my front door--three children, not counting my brother, contracted polio, and it destroyed the lives of every one of them. So the idea that people in desperate circumstances have always brought it on themselves has seemed me to be a particularly cruel hoax.  But I do suspect that Tea Party types actually believe it, and that this is one of their animating principles. 
            Yet I suspect that they have an additional reason for backing the political agenda of an economic class to which they do not belong:  they are Tory workers.   Forty years ago I had a friend who was completing his MSW in Iowa City. He had written a paper about the Tory worker phenomenon and he told me about it.   In a union organizing campaign, even when all workers agree that in their own particular industry, a union contract would double wages, some workers will oppose the union and back the company.  Do not confuse this with the situation where in a concentration camp some inmate will inform on the other prisoners for an extra crust of bread.  Here at least, the guy gets a crust of bread.   But the Tory worker gets nothing at all, except the chance to earn the eternal contempt of his fellow workers.  I have actually been in organizing efforts where some of my colleagues admitted that a union contract would double their wages, but still opposed it.  Were they hoping that by backing the company, they would enhance their job security?  No; they cheerfully admitted that it was a union contract that would give them security--the boss would give them only a pat on the back, and then dump them when it became convenient.  So what could they have been thinking?
            Fortunately, my friend explained it to me.  He said that these people are such pathetic losers that they have given up taking actions that will produce concrete improvements in their lives.  Instead, they have a rich fantasy life, in which they imagine themselves as managers, as wealthy entrepreneurs, or even as heirs enjoying vast inherited wealth.  So when asked to take a position on an issue which pits the servants against the masters, they back the masters, even though they are not members of that group.  Asking them to take position against their overlords requires them to them to choose between this fantasy life and their real world life—to reject the fantasy in exchange for a chance at a better reality—and they won’t do it.   The fantasy life is all they have left.
            Not everyone who opposes redistributive politics is a Tory worker.  In America, a small businessman who nets less than $40,000 a year might reasonably oppose expenditures for improving opportunities for those on the very bottom, even when the tax bite to implement this would surely fall on those at much higher incomes than his present level.  Why? Because if people on the bottom ever had much real opportunity, then they would be unlikely to accept the lousy minimum wage jobs he offers. 
            But people vote according to many things other than personal economic interest.  Sometimes when people get themselves far enough out of poverty that they would never qualify for any new social benefits,  yet have incomes still low enough that they would not be the ones paying most of the tax hit for any redistributive programs, one might think that such people would be neutral.  They would say, “Who cares? I have no dog in this fight.”  But this seldom happens.  Many of you are in this situation, and so am I.  Most people in this situation feel morally obligated to take one side or the other.  Either they help those who are much poorer than themselves take from those who are much richer—or help those who are richer keep what they have taken from those who are poorer.   (Warren Buffet sadly says, “Yes, there is a class war and my class is winning.”)  Those of us in the middle—you’d think we’d be neutral—but we never are.  We either back the poor against the rich—or back the rich against the poor.   I always back the poor, partly as a matter of ethics. If a rich man thinks that his country treats rich men badly, he can always give away his money and be poor immediately.  But the reverse option does not exist for the poor man.   Yet I suppose my willingness to make life more agreeable for those on the absolute bottom may also relate to a perceived self-interest.  Life, from what I’ve seen of it, is quite uncertain.  Each of us is just one accident, one lawsuit, or one serious illness away from poverty.  You’d have to be a pretty myopic optimist to think that you have no chance at all of becoming exponentially poorer, or that you have much more than a non-zero chance of becoming exponentially richer.

Epistemological Deficit

      The is an article in the Nov 29 issue of Nation Magazine by Benjamin R. Barber (Walt Whitman Professor Emeritus at Rutgers University) entitled "America's Knowledge Deficit."  He says that even more alarming than the influence of money in politics is the knowledge deficit of the voters.  It's not that voters no longer know any facts (which they don't) but that they no longer seem to understand that there is such a thing as a fact, as distinct from an opinion. He claims that many of his students could not tell you in which century the American Civil War occurred, or on which continent we find Iraq. (These are college level students.)  But as depressing as this may be, even more depressing is that many students, and an increasing percent of the electorate, fail to appreciate that the answers to these questions would be facts--they are either true or false--they can be either proven or disproven.  They are not opinions.  No one seems to remember what a fact would look like, or how its truthfulness might be tested.
  The link I provided hits a pay wall--sorry.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Burlap Price and Global Inflation

      A brief article buried in the inside pages of the Wall Street Journal on Nov 17 mentioned a recent price surge in  two indexes of obscure raw industrial commodities, which might be seen as a predictor of future inflation.  But it also could be seen as a predictor that global industrial growth is about to recover in early 2011.  These two indexes,  The Commodity Research Bureau's raw industrial spot index, and the Journal of Commerce-Economic Cycle Research Institute industrial prices index, both track price movements in things like burlap, tallow, hides, cotton, lead, plywood, etc.   And both of these indexes are now at or near all time highs.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Early Christianity

         What I THINK I LEARNED ABOUT EARLY CHRISTIANITY.                                                                                                           
                  A few years ago,  I took a course on early Christianity taught by a retired professor of philosophy and religion.  We used Lost Christianities, by Dr. Bart Ehrman as a text, but the instructor added several insights gleaned from his own vast readings on the subject. What follows is a brief summary of what I learned about early Christianity, at least as told by Dr. Ehrman, and by the instructor, both of whom have spent their whole lives studying it. What I learned was in sharp contrast to the things I was given to believe as a student in a 1950s Catholic high school. I was taught that:
                  From the death of Jesus until the Council of Nicaea, there was just one set of Christian beliefs,  except for a few  heresies and minor disagreements, which were eventually settled at the council of Nicaea. And although some heresies kept coming back over and over, Christianity was mostly a single trunk that split into two main branches only after the Great Schism, (and many more branches after the Reformation.)
                                                                                                 Sects and Violence
                  What appears likely is:
1.      Even during Jesus’ lifetime, his disciples often were confused by the things Jesus said.  After his death,  they began to argue about who Jesus really was, what his mission had been, and to whom his mission  had been directed.
2.      Though St. Paul wrote at least 7 of the Pauline epistles, none of the 12 disciples personally wrote a gospel that survives today. None of them were literate, and none of them spoke Greek, the language in which the entire New Testament was written.   But any one of the disciples may have dictated some kind of account that was later used by others to write such a gospel. The books of Mathew, Mark, and Luke, though they were not written till nearly 100 AD, by which time all of the original disciples would have been dead, are probably  based on writings indirectly linked to one or more disciples. The synoptic gospels, Mathew, Mark, and Luke, closely agree on many so points that they were probably partly copied from a common source, called the “Q material” by bible scholars.  The Gospel of John was written a generation later, by someone who was probably not even Jewish.
3.      All surviving Gospels show a strong Greek philosophical bias because most literate Jews would have been literate only in Greek, and would have had a background in Greek philosophical concepts. And of course, a lot of Jewish religious ideas can’t even be written in Greek, as there are no exact Greek words for them. 
4.      Every gospel, including any of the dozen or so “apocryphal” gospels, is equally likely to have an apostolic source--even though many are obvious forgeries.  That is, even forgeries may be partly   based on a source that was originally traceable to an apostle.  And all surviving gospels were probably altered from their original form, early on, to suit the purposes of whoever was copying them.   The most obvious example is that no surviving gospel even mentions the total destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD, even though they were all written after that event. Some claim that Luke: 21.20 obliquely refers to this.  But the Romans killed every man, woman, and child in the city, destroyed the temple, and hauled off its sacred treasures as trophies, which could easily be seen as the fulfillment of Jesus’ prophesies.  So is it conceivable that these Jewish followers of Jesus wouldn’t even mention it? They probably all mentioned it, in great detail. But the Roman church, very early on, would have cut that part out as a way of downplaying the brutality of Rome.  History is written by the winners.
5.      The “proto-orthodox” faction, the group that later came to dominate the church, did not even exist until the late third century, though it grew out of a movement started by Paul, (whose version of Christianity was generally rejected by those who had actually known Jesus.)
6.      Constantine’s motives for making Christianity the official religion of Rome were largely political. The empire was coming apart, and having a common religion that would transcend ethnic divisions would hold it together—but only if Christianity could first heal its own divisions.
7.      In the year 325, he convened the council of Nicaea, and all Christian bishops were required to attend.  He charged them to agree among themselves, once and for all, just what Christians believed.  By 329, they had reached no agreement whatsoever. There were over 200 bishops, each one with his own scriptures, each with two hundred years of tradition, and each believing that his own group was the true  Christian church.  There were four main factions.
8.      The Ebionites were simply Jewish Christians.  They accepted some of the Book of Mathew, and they still considered themselves Jews.  They were circumcised, and they followed the Law of Moses, just as Jesus had done. They accepted Jesus, not as God, but as the Messiah.  They were found both in Palestine and in Diaspora.  The apostles themselves had belonged to that kind of community.  And they would all have considered the idea of a divine Jesus as blasphemy.
9.      The Marcionite sect, which rejected all things Jewish, was started by Marcion of Sinope, born in Asia  Minor early in the second century, the son of a bishop.   He had come to believe that the god of the Old  Testament (who he believed was a nasty, ruthless god) and the god Jesus talked about, (a loving, compassionate god,) could not possibly be the same.  So he concluded that there were two gods: The old, nasty god who had created the universe, including man, and the kindly god who had sent Jesus to rescue us from the old one, by his apparent sacrifice. (Marcionites did not believe that Jesus had really died on the cross, because they believed that he had no real physical body—only the appearance of one.  But the “old god,” they believed, was fooled into accepting  the sacrifice anyway, and man was set free.)  Marcionites believed there were two gods—but Jesus wasn’t one of them.  Marcionites rejected the Old Testament, but embraced most of the writings of Paul, most of the Book of Luke, and Marcion’s own writings, particularly The Antithesis, which is a repudiation of the Old Testament.  By 325, most of Syria and  Asia Minor was Marcionite.  We can see why such a religion would have appeal in that part of the world.  At one time, under the Persians, this area had been Zoroastrian, with a belief in two deities locked in mortal combat.   Old ideas die hard.
10    The Gnostics were not a single sect, but a diverse group of sects that probably broke away from apocalyptic Judaism, and were well established before Jesus.  But Jesus was the most apocalyptic of Jewish teachers, so at his coming, some of the Gnostics seized upon Jesus as their own prophet, and became the Gnostic Christians, giving Christianity their own Gnostic interpretation.  These Gnostics believed that Jesus had not really died on the cross; they believed that he was purely spirit, and could not suffer or die.  They believed that Jesus had come to save all mankind, not by dying on the cross, but by communicating some secret knowledge—the Gnosis.  They believed that Jesus was not divine but was an aeon, (something like an angel) a spiritual being less than divine but more than human. They believed that all material existence was evil, or at least miserable, and they also believed that some malevolent deity, probably the god of the Old Testament, had created this miserable material world and trapped humans in physical bodies-- but that humans were originally intended to be spirits. The Gnosis would show us how, by denying the flesh, we could escape our bodies and be free again—free of the material world---and spend eternity with a far superior god than the one who created this stupid material world.  Gnostics were found throughout the Greek Christian world, including major Hellenistic centers like  Antioch and Alexandria.
11    Note: At this point, we have considered three main groupings of early Christians, and none of the three thought Jesus was divine--and only one of the three thought he was truly human. (Even today, Armenian Rite Christians deny the humanity of Jesus.)
12   The fourth and smallest faction was mostly a Roman faction.  They accepted several gospels and the writings of Paul, and believed that Jesus was divine, had come to save all mankind, and was also human.   For Romans, this was no contradiction. For a Roman, being divine was no big deal. Emperors were often proclaimed divine after their death, and Caligula proclaimed himself to be divine.  So being divine and human was easy--in Rome.  This group had no special name, but scholars call it the Proto-orthodox faction, and at the council of Nicaea, they eventually prevailed.  They were the smallest faction, but they enlisted the support of Constantine, who saw a political advantage in such a belief set.  Why?  Firstly; for any Roman, to be required to join a religion started by someone who wasn’t even divine was an insult.  Secondly, Constantine had already claimed the authority to appoint all bishops, and was about to require all bishops to accept the Bishop of Rome as the head of the church.  So he planned to control a church whose leader claimed to speak for Christ on earth.  But if Jesus was just a man, what would this gain?  Constantine did not want to rule a debating society; he wanted to hold the reins of a church that claimed to speak with the authority of God.  
13   Today, nearly every Christian church, except the Roman Catholic, accepts that Jesus had two brothers— his twin brother, Thomas, and also James.  And most Protestants believe that James was the eldest. (Thomas’ full description is Didimis Judas Thomas;  Didimis is Greek for twin, and Thomas is Aramaic for twin.  So his name was Judas, but they just called him “the twin” so as not to confuse him with the other Judas, Judas Iscariot.  But Athanasius made a concession to those who thought that the Messiah must fulfill the prophesy that “A virgin shall conceive and bear a son.” (Note: In some cultures, the word for “virgin” is used to mean any unmarried young woman.)  His creed, in accordance with Mathew and Luke,   agreed that Mary was a virgin--probably over the outraged opposition of the Ebionites, who maintained the Jesus was just a plain flesh and blood human, born of the sexual union of man and woman.
14    When I was in high school, a priest recommended a book entitled Athanasius Against the World.  This book details the struggle between Bishop Arius and Bishop Athanasius at Nicaea.  As explained by the priest, the book made the following claims: That Arius was then the most respected Christian scholar in the world; That Arius maintained that Jesus was not divine-- and about 85% of the delegates agreed; That Athanasius led the minority faction that argued for a divine Jesus.  As the council wore on, Arius won additional support, and eventually Athanasius alone argued for his point.  Then, according to Athanasius Against the World,  Athanasius prayed a lot and through the power of the Holy Spirit, everyone was converted and they all signed the document which Athanasius had written, now called the Nicaean Creed.   
15    The previous paragraph is not really controversial, except for the last line.  What really happened is that Athanasius did eventually make one convert—Constantine, and that was all he needed.  Constantine surrounded the hall with soldiers and announced that no one would be allowed to leave until they signed the creed. Eventually, they all signed.  Constantine was not trying to be a bully, but he faced a problem.  It had become obvious that there would never be any one creed that all delegates would agree on voluntarily.  Yet uniformity was needed if his plan for unifying the empire was to work.  If a creed were “shoved down their throats” the bishops would be pretty unhappy about it.  But no one particular coerced creed would be any more or less loathsome than any other. So if he had to choose a creed and force everyone to sign it, he felt he may as well choose one that would work for Rome.  And Athanasius convinced him that his own plan was just such a creed.
         Athanasius had made a good faith attempt to craft a creed that all could stomach, but this was not  easy.  The Romans insisted that Jesus was God—the Ebionites insisted that Yahweh was God, and the Gnostics really felt that the only true god was the Holy Spirit. But that left three gods, which outraged the Ebionites, who, being Jews, were strict monotheists.   Athanasius proposed the idea of the Holy Trinity, but he not only failed to convincingly defend such an idea, he couldn’t even explain it.  So he said, “It’s a mystery— just believe it.”  I don’t mean to give the impression that the idea of “The “Trinity” was original with Athanasius. That Idea had been around a long time, at least since the late second century, especially among the Coptic Christians.  And both Arius and Athanasius would have been familiar with it because, as young priests, they had worked together in Alexandria, the queen city of             Egyptian Christianity.
                        Christianity had been brought to Egypt by St. Mark, so I suppose that some may        conclude that the doctrine must have come from St. Mark, but I would doubt that. Mark would have been a devout Jew, and as such, would have regarded the idea of a divine Jesus as blasphemy—as did the Ebionites and all other Jewish Christians. More likely, Mark would have told them about Jesus praying to his heavenly Father, (Yahweh) and also told them about the power of the spirit of God, (Yahweh’s spirit) and about the special mission of Jesus, the Messiah (Yahweh’s adopted son.)  Remember John: 1, For to so many as received him, he gave the power of becoming Sons of God.”  What do you suppose the term “Sons of God” means, if everyone who accepts baptism  becomes a “Son of God?”  None of this would suggest a divine trinity—Just one god--who had a very powerful spirit and a very special adopted son.
                        But sometime after Mark died, the Egyptians probably evolved a message that would suit Egyptian expectations, and began teaching “The Trinity.” How did they reconcile this doctrine with the concept of “one god?” They didn’t have to—unlike Mark, they weren’t monotheists. They had always believed in many gods, but three  main ones: Isis, her divine son Horus, and the river god, Osiris. So they already had a divine trinity--for hundreds of years, and that’s what they wanted to keep. Apparently,             Arius never bought into the trinity, but Athanasius did. That may have been the original cause of the end of their friendship.  By the council of Nicaea, they were at least arch rivals, and perhaps bitter enemies. When 85 % of the delegates accepted the  Arian version of Christian doctrine, Athanasius must have been consumed with jealous rage.  Whether his passionate attempt to undermine Arius’ support was motivated by jealousy or by sincere faith--we can never know. Athanasius lived long after Nicaea,      and in 367, performed the final editing of the Christian cannon of scripture. 
    But just because you have silenced a man does not mean that you have convinced him.  After the creed was signed and everyone went home, the bishops went back to  teaching and practicing as they always had, each according to his own conscience.  But old bishops died and new “orthodox” ones were appointed, and eventually a degree of orthodoxy prevailed in most parts of the empire, but probably not until a few dissenting congregations were slaughtered by roman armies.  And in areas off the beaten path and outside the power of Rome (places like present day southern France, or Transylvania,)             bishops continued to teach as they liked.
  And that’s where “heresies” come from.  If you look at all the heresies throughout the ages, none were new ideas.  They were all forms of early Christianity which, in certain remote regions, had never been completely stamped out, even though the church and its military allies made numerous bloody attempts to do so.   The modern Unitarian movement, for instance, seems to trace from 16th century Transylvania.  But though the word “Unitarian” did not exist until the 16th century, Arian Christian communities have             existed in Transylvania for many centuries. Congregations which do not accept “The Trinity” have been called “Arian Christians” only since the council of Nicaea. But in Transylvania, such congregations have probably existed since the 2nd century and still exist today, in spite of occasional bloody attempts at repression.     
To sum up: Christianity, as we know it today, did not exist until the 4th century, and was the invention of a bitterly contentious committee whose final report was negotiated and signed only under duress.  Thus far the words of today’s unholy gospel.

                  If I have misrepresented the views of either the instructor or Dr. Ehrman, my most abject apologies. Such misrepresentation is not deliberate, but the inevitable result of the over-generalization required in so brief a treatment of so complex a subject.  Summing up the entire course in five pages is a bit like making a mosaic tile rendering of the Mona Lisa using just eight tiles.
                                                                                    Heretically Yours,  The Cat