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

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

How Free Trade Wrecked England.

                              THE STORY OF THE CORLISS

            There is an antique fair held every year in northeast Iowa, at a place called Antique Acres. While most of the things to be seen at Antique Acres are items brought to the fair by individual collectors, there is a museum which houses a permanent collection of large stationary steam engines.  They have about six engines, though their boiler is only large enough to operate one at a time. The prize of their collection is a large Corliss engine. The Corliss was an American invention, and it marked a radical improvement in engine efficiency. The Corliss used spring-loaded valves. The engine still used an eccentric driven off the crankshaft to re-cock the springs and trigger the release. But when a valve on any Corliss opens or closes, it is being snapped open or shut by a spring, and the action is almost instantaneous.  This allows more precise valve timing, which radically improves efficiency.  I saw my first Corliss at the Smithsonian, about 1986.  Though still on display, it had been part of the exhibition of 1876, in fact it had been the crown jewel of that show—the summation of 19th century American genius.
            In 1999, my wife and I spent a week in London, and we spent most of the week in museums. At the Science Museum, they have a magnificent collection of old steam engines, including a small demonstration model built by James Watt himself. But what caught my eye was a huge old Corliss, shown in the above photo.  I asked why it was there. Wasn’t this museum just for British technology? I was told that this was indeed a British engine, and was shown the bronze nameplate. It was built in England, about 1885 I think—under license from Corliss USA.  This was pretty astounding. Why? Well, let’s take a look at what happened to the British industrial base in the 19th century. 
             At the start of the 18th century, England lagged far behind most of Europe in technology. So they deliberately became the most protectionist economy in the world.  All imports were heavily taxed. (Many novels set in that period mention smugglers or smuggling.) Local manufacturing thrived.  Factories became profitable and the profits were re-invested in those same factories, since investment in overseas facilities would make no sense if the output of such facilities could not be imported to England.  By the end of the Napoleonic Wars, after a century of protectionism, England led the world in every kind of manufacturing.  So, at the Congress of Vienna in 1815, Britain did an about face and proposed a free trade agreement. There is little advantage having a technological lead if you can’t pry open other countries’ markets to make use of that lead.  And no one will open markets to you, unless you open yours.
          But there’s a paradox. Any trade advantage gained this way will be short lived.  As soon as you open doors to imports, capital will begin to flow out of the country.  If a British factory owner chooses between building a new factory in England and building it in India or some other low-wage country, the low-wage option will surely be more profitable.  So when Britain adopted free trade, they began a period where for several decades, no Englishman with money invested it in England.  Being starved for capital, their industrial base declined, and their standard of living stagnated.
               Germany quickly realized that free trade with England would not benefit Germany.  If their factories lagged behind England, being forced to compete with British goods would only put them further behind, and eventually put them out of business.  So Germany pulled out of the free trade agreement and instead adopted the protectionist policies of Frederich List. The various German-speaking states entered a “Zollverein,” or customs district, in which goods among member states moved freely, but other goods was kept out.  This plan was superbly successful, and German industrial output doubled every decade for the rest of the century.  This boom paid for schools, so that near universal literacy was quickly achieved, and as Germany became food self-sufficient, German workers were better fed than the English.
               As Wm Engdahl points out in his excellent book, A Century of War, when Germany began to shift away from free trade in 1850, they produced only tiny amounts of iron. But by 1900, they passed Britain and by 1910 their output was 50% higher than Britain, at 15 million tons. Between 1880 and 1900, their steel output rose over 1000 %.   The situation was the same for coal, textiles, electric power, and chemicals.  In fact, Germany practically invented the modern chemical industry.  Mr. Engdahl’s book was not written till a few years after my visit to the Science Museum. But even then I knew that England’s 19th century free trade policy had cost it much of its manufacturing base. I knew this in spite of the fact that most history books take elaborate pains tell you the opposite, or at least manage to avoid discussing it.  (The royal tailors prefer not to discuss “the king’s new clothes.”)  But I was astounded to discover that as early as the 1880s,  Britain had lost not only manufacturing capacity, but had totally lost its edge in technical innovation. Think about it.  The steam engine is a British invention.  In 1840, Britain made the finest steam engines in the world. Yet by the 1880s, the American Corliss engine was so superior that British manufacturers were paying patent royalties for the privilege of building it.  Yet you could read 10,000 pages of nineteenth century history, written within that century, and find total agreement that free trade was a boon to England and would make the English rich.  In fact, even at the close of the 20th century, fully a hundred years after free trade had finished wrecking what was once the greatest manufacturing base in the world, the standard explanation by the leaders of British government, business, and academia was that free trade was wonderful, and no one could disagree except those fools who didn’t quite understand it.
        But it was all self-delusion, lies, and nonsense.  If any of it at all had been true, then that bronze plaque in the Science Museum could not exist.  But it did exist. Archaeology is history, except that the artifacts speak for themselves. Histories can be in error, or can be written to deliberately deceive. Engdahl claims that Arnold Toynbee, the premier British historian of the 20th century, was a British MI 5 agent for nearly his whole life.  But iron doesn’t lie.  It is what it is.
          All archaeology draws inferences about a society by observing the remains of its material culture. When you walk through a museum, an antique shop, or even a junk yard, you are studying the remains of our own material culture. And there are “Rosetta stones” hiding behind every corner, if only we could read them. Here’s to the perusal of elderly iron. 


Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Matching the Message to the Market


            I just got my hands on a copy of The Heliand.   Some of you may be familiar with this work.  It’s also known as the Saxon Gospels.  In about 820 AD, King Louis the Pius, the son and immediate successor of Charlemagne, commissioned a Saxon poet to translate the New Testament into the Saxon language.  He felt that the long and bloody struggle to convert the Saxons to Christianity might be easier if the Saxons could hear the stories of the gospel read to them in their own language.   
            But the poet tinkered with the message to match the market.  Instead of a “word for word” transliteration, he produced an imaginative fiction--loosely inspired by the gospels. It is a heroic epic poem in which Jesus is depicted as a warrior chieftain of a band of bold thanes.  Of course, that is exactly the kind of story that these people could relate to.  The Saxons are the original “Klingons.” For the gospel to be at all attractive to them, the poet had to add a little “Saxon violence.”  In the early nineteenth century, this work was re-constructed and translated into modern German and modern English.  I’m using an English translation from the Old Saxon done by Mariana Scott, published in 1966 by the University of North Carolina press. Let me share a brief excerpt.  This is the account of the arrest of Jesus in the Garden of Olives.  I’ll pick up the story just after Judas has betrayed Jesus with a kiss, and the mob of angry Jews is about to seize Jesus:
They surrounded Christ Savior.            There stood the wise men
Grieving greatly--            Christ’s goodly disciples,
Before this most dreadful deed;            and to their Dear Lord they did speak:
“Were it now Thy will,” quoth they,                “My Wielder, My Liege,
That they shall slay us                        with the spear-point here,
Shall wound us with weapons,            then would naught be one whit as good,
But that we might die                        here for our Dear Lord,
Pale in expiring.              Then plenteously wroth grew he,
The swift swordsman,                        Simon Peter.
It welled up with his heart,             so that not a word could he speak,
So sorrowed his soul,                        since they were about to enchain
His Beloved Lord there.            Bloated with anger, the bold-minded
Thane strode ahead,                        stood before his Liege,
Hard by his Lord;                        nor was his heart e’er in doubt,
Fearful within his breast,            but he drew his bill,
The sword at his side,             and with the strength of his arm
He struck the first of the foe                        standing before him,
So that Malchus            was marked by the knife
On his right side,                        slashed by the sword’s edge.
His hearing had been hewn:                        sore was the hurt  ‘round his head,
So that sword-gory,                        cheek and ear in mortal wound
Burst sunder,                         and blood did spring forth,
Welling up from the wound.                        Then was the cheek indeed scarred
Of the enemy’s leader.            Those around stood away,
Dreading the bite of the bill.                         Then spake  God’s Bairn
Himself to Simon Peter, said                        that he should put his sword,
The sharp one, back in its scabbard.              “If I truly cared,” said He,
"To wage conflict            against this crowd of the warriors,
Then I would remind Him,  the Glorious,            the Almighty God,
The Holy Father            in the Kingdom of Heaven,
That He send hither to Me            a host of His angels,
Wise in warfaring;                        these men could not indeed withstand
Their weapon-strength ever.                        Nor could such a host of warriors
Stand against them, though gathered            together in groups.
Still they could not save their lives.                        But the All-Wielding Lord,
The Father Almighty,                         hath marked it otherwise:
We are to bear all the bitterness,             whatsoever these
                        People bring unto us…”            

            If this strikes you as radically different from any biblical account of this event you’ve ever read, you’re absolutely right.  Jesus was not a warrior chieftain—He was a spiritual leader.  The disciples were not a band of bold thanes—they were Jewish fishermen, and the Jews were not a clan. Peter did own a sword, and he did attempt to defend Jesus.  And yes, he did draw that sword and smite the servant of the High Priest, severing his ear.  But in no way was he any kind of berserker.  In fact, the whole point of the original story—that Jesus had deliberately surrendered himself to be crucified—is eclipsed by this emphasis on the boldness and courage of the disciples.  But the idea of meekly surrendering was totally foreign to the Saxons.  They were, in effect, the original “Klingons.”  So the story had to be altered to make the message match the market.
            I’ve shown you a portion of the Heliand to make a simple point, which is that throughout history, all Christian scriptures, and for that matter, scriptures of all religions have been regularly and systematically re-interpreted make the message match the market.  You can’t sell buggy whips to sky-divers, or snowmobiles to Bedouins.   A church that refused to re-interpret its message to meet the challenge of changing expectations of the faithful would be like a used car dealer that refused to roll back the odometers.  There might actually be a few such dealers, but that’s not how you stay in business.   Any scriptural text is subject to a variety of interpretations.