Tuesday, December 31, 2013

...Earth Calling Adam Smith....hiss...

by Zach Neal

Earth calling Adam Smith. Earth calling Adam Smith…

Come in, please.

,,,,,hisss……………………………………………………………………….  …………     ……..    ….


He’s been called away or something. We’ll try again later.

So anyways, Wikipedia has a little article on Adam Smith.

“It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.”

And of course my interest lies in having dinner. I give the butcher money, he gives me some meat, the brewer gives me beer, (hey, this is fun) and so on and so forth.

As aphorisms go, that one seems fair enough.

I’m only going to discuss one of his points, just to show how it’s done:

“Agriculture is less amenable than industry to division of labour; hence, rich nations are not so far ahead of poor nations in agriculture as in industry.”

The last part of the sentence holds true. There are plenty of undeveloped parts of the world where agriculture is still conducted with a low level of technology, not much better than Smith’s time, with predictable results.

Things are a little different now.

The gulf between the developed nations and undeveloped nations in terms of agriculture is vast.

That spread, that ratio has changed since Smith’s time. Back then, the gap in technology between the developed and undeveloped world was much narrower. The world has changed, and to the nth degree.

Nothing written hundreds of years ago on the subject of economics is Gospel. Too much has changed. 

Another of his points supports this thesis by saying, ‘manufacturing lends itself to the division of labour more than agriculture.’

That’s probably still mostly true. Partially true…

That’s due to the complexity of the processes, for example making steel—and feeding raw materials, labour and some kind of motive power into the plant that makes it.

But in the 21st century, agriculture is more than just lambs in a field and a wife drawing the iron plough with the baby in a bowl at the end of the furrow, which back then was divided up to approximately what a man and an oxen could plow in a day. The fields were common land, narrow strips that were rotated in terms of crops, fallow and pasture.

Now, agriculture includes a certain amount of high-technology industrial plant for producing corn starch. It includes a plant for making vegetable oil, and it includes the makers of combines, tractors, specialty tires and the chemical industry. It includes distribution warehouses, transportation systems by land, air and sea, and buyers scouring the world for new and marketable flavours. All of it is now connected digitally in a system that allows instantaneous communication globally, something that would have taken months, back in Smith’s time.

The visualization required by the modern commercial landscape is inconceivable to a man of Smith’s day. 

They didn’t have the electronic and digital terms of reference. They wouldn’t have known what we were talking about, and yet we have the advantage of knowing what they were talking about.

They are history and we are the future of their agricultural knowledge of the time—some of the speculative philosophers of Smith’s time might have theorized us, but only in the most limited fashion.

The division of labour would seem to be fairly complex, when you consider the GPS and the onboard computers, engine and brake and transmission control, and all the cell phones and hearing aids, spectacles on the farmer’s eyes and in the farmer’s pockets and the satellites in space needed to make such a vast information and communication system actually work.

In that sense, agriculture is totally integrated into the overall economy. It’s not that it wasn’t before, but now it is more complex and more far-reaching in the sense of global commerce. This might include a sixty-cent New Zealand apple, shipped and trucked 12,000 miles, ending up in your supermarket, (and how much of the food in there doesn’t have some kind of agricultural basis?)

Someone had to figure out how to make that happen, and surely it’s not a farmer, it’s a specialist.

We are so much more specialized now, and in that sense the system has evolved into something new.

Our food chain is un-recognizable to our ancestors.

That process, from start to finish, has mushroomed, and in a sense flourished, all based on some motives of enlightened self-interest and mutual benefit, all based on that simple notion of a division of labour. Division of labour causes efficiency in this great economic engine.

There is also such a thing as division of rewards, especially when labour is exchanged for money, as this isn’t exactly the same as an exchange of commodities.

Anything Adam Smith said, way back when, is only of historical note at this point in time. He set the art of formulating economic theories on a rational basis, a scientific basis, one using measurable quantities, and leaving out all supernatural and mystical elements.

Also, I doubt if he foresaw globalization, or if he could account for a sort of fungus-ring effect, like ripples going out in a pond from a rock being tossed in. The way industry and jobs were farmed out and outsourced and ultimately exported to less expensive labour markets, even in the face of growing prosperity for an ever-increasing number of people.

Maybe free trade is a good thing, but unregulated free trade might not be such a good thing. Unsupervised and uninspected free trade might not be such a good thing.

According to Thomas Hobbes (or somebody) ancient men led lives that were ‘nasty, brutish, poor and short.’

Their lives were pretty simple back then. The human condition has improved by all statistical measures, and with the increase in population we can take a better sample even.

You have to be able to measure things, even such things as progress.

Are we making progress?

Are we backsliding, or is this just a temporary glitch in a system that works?

What causes such glitches?

When all this has worked itself out, what comes next?


Back then, Smith knew virtually nothing of ‘entitlements,’ everything from the GST rebate here in Canada to pensions, home heating grants, student grants, all kinds of government largesse. Although he would have recognized patronage, even corruption, as some of the Prime Ministers of the time (back then, when the whole notion of party was coming into being) governed by patronage, handing out key appointments, and they somehow kept a government going. Some would forget that that’s what a government is for—to manage and run a country. As to whether Smith had any great philosophical notions about social questions, such as the rise of social capital or the welfare state, or secular humanism, or social democracy, that is unknown to me. These entitlements are a tool of government fiscal policy, make no mistake. The government has a social agenda, and well it should have.

“A monarch’s greatest glory lies in the health and happiness of the people,” still holds true today although I forget who said it—probably some monarchist somewhere.

However, the point I am trying to make is that a marketplace, which is what Smith was talking about in his book, is certainly social, but it is not a government in any sense of the world.

These are two different things, no matter how closely intertwined in mutually dependent self-interest.

It is a dichotomy, and a struggle at times to see which system will rule the other.

It is cause and effect, supply and demand, but it is up to the government to manage the equitable redistribution of excess wealth—and the wealth of nations was the subject of his book after all—for the market seems incapable of doing that fairly and equitably.

Surpluses and excesses that are not reinvested into the marketplace end up being hoarded and essentially dead to the economy when its reinjection would do much social good. Cash flow trumps bullion held in reserve any day of the week.

A nation’s wealth consists not in its visible wealth, the result of seven or ten years output, but in its actual output at any given moment in the instantaneous digital world we now inhabit.

As for pensions and the like, which tend to stimulate local economies, (and everything is politics, and all politics is local politics,) rather than the government develop an infrastructure of arbitrary redistribution (strictly merit-based) they have delegated the supervision of aforesaid monies to me.

Maintaining the health and welfare of the people, and without people a state has little or no reason (or right) to exist, creates its own commerce. Adam Smith, I think, would have, or at least should have, been opposed to austerity. To him, the ideal marketplace was a model of rationality, but of course real life isn’t like that all of the time.

I choose to redistribute the funds to a local grocer. They are the most efficient local grocer—hence their prices are lower and I get more bang for my buck. They have merit. Some folks patronize other stores—based on their relative perceived merits.

The citizen subsists, commerce flows, the progress of civilization continues, and the state is perpetuated in a symbolic dance.

The interconnection between commerce for all, and prosperity for all, is easy enough to see.


Check out ‘The Vatican Caper,’ my debut thriller at Barnes & Noble. Available as an ebook or in 5 x 8” paperback.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Hearts and Minds.

Secl. (Wiki.)

by Zach Neal

Community journalists have always faced the challenge of objectivity.

There’s no real litmus test for it and we should probably always assume that we ourselves have some kind of bias or prejudice towards one point of view or another.

There are two sides to every question. It’s an unfortunate truism because there is a third side, an uncommitted side.

On the question of global climate change, there are believers and disbelievers. There are also the uncommitted.

This helps to explain all the time, money and effort in the quest to sway public opinion, always the surest guide to changes in the political, social, and economic landscape.

It is nothing less than a battle for the hearts and minds of the people.

We all have a stake in its outcome.

I, personally, do not have a string of thermometers all over the globe, reporting back in real-time to some heavy duty algorithm-crunching hardware, in order to determine if global warming is real or not. And I’m smart enough to know that I can never really find out the truth for myself. And there is no good reason for any other person to take my word for it, even if I could do so.

Unless I was prepared to present my evidence, one way or another and they were prepared to accept the data.

That works both ways.

I don’t necessarily have to take someone else’s word for it, either. I don’t have to accept someone else’s data.

I could just shrug my shoulders and roll my eyes and say I don’t know.

I can remain uncommitted.

Interestingly, the uncommitted hold the balance of power. This is why both sides court, educate, attempt to persuade, or even just intimidate the uncommitted into a state of apathy.

Sometimes just muddying the waters helps, especially if one side or the other isn’t clearly winning the battle.

If the water is muddy, it must also be deep, or something.

No matter who you are talking to, no matter what the subject matter, no matter what the time and place, you will never, ever be getting more than half the story.

If the person doing the talking is lying or mistaken, then you are not even getting that much—you’re getting a lot less than half a story.

That’s why a good journalist listens to both sides—and this requires a certain amount of objectivity. It’s a good skill to have, because it works as a full-time bull-shit meter.

Little warning bells go off when things don’t add up and you recognize that maybe someone has an interest.

And when you figure out whose interest is best served by facts and truth, and whose interest is best served by lies, half-truths, uncertainties and smoke-screens, then basically you just need to ask more questions.

The more specific the questions, the more specific the answers should be, and if a speech full of rhetoric ensues then you are onto something.

One side has facts, figures, measurable statistics, long-term studies and the other side has a smoke-screen and a lot of rhetoric.

What you do next is your call as a journalist, but if you’re any kind of a writer at all, you’ll get your point across in a professional manner.

Other than that, brevity is king.


Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Soloing on a Henry Farman Shorthorn.

Henri Farman Shorthorn training aircraft. (Wiki.)

by Zach Neal

A group of us stood watching on the badly cracked paving outside the hangar. This lad by the name of Harry volunteered to be first, in fact he insisted.

He had a strong desire to prove he could fly. That’s what the rest of us thought.

We all thought we could fly, although a good number did show some signs of a very rational nervousness. The instructors had given us all about two or three hours of time in a dual-seat Farman. These planes, the ones the instructors used, had slightly more powerful motors, and they were a lot newer to boot.

When the instructor took off, we sat and watched how they moved their hands and feet as the plane responded. It wasn’t exactly dual control.

Harry was quickly strapped in. There was some nervous chatter as we patiently waited our turn.

The motor was running loudly in our ears, and the blast from its prop put up a lot of dirt and crud in the air. It stung the eyes. You could feel the grit, and it was necessary to blink and turn away.

Our classmate Harry put on the gas and she moved away. He was blasting it as hard as it would go. This was a tired old machine, and the supposedly seventy horsepower motor was marking time as it built the revs. Harry trundled along, and you could see the wing tips going up and down in some syncopated beat, a tin-pan-alley kind of beat.

The plane staggered into the air. I checked my watch again, out of habit, the man had taken so long to get going. He was waiting so long to pull up. He had taken off at ten fifty-three a.m.

We watched the back end of Harry’s plane. It bobbled in left and right bank and with wings waggling, he beat through the turbulence over the long line of trees at the aerodome’s verge.

“Hold her, laddy…”

“How high is he, sir?”

“Shush, boys!”

“Looks like about one fifty,” I murmured to tow-headed little Dicky.

Dick Littlehampton, nice fellow from Exeter. He was nineteen, I was seventeen and a half, but had lied about my height. Hah! That’s a joke. Yet I stood as nervous as anyone else as we watched Harry diminish in size over the south. Then he tried to turn.

He almost made it.

He must have been about a hundred eighty feet.

“NO-o-o-oh!” ground out the instructor. “Shit!”

Harry had turned left, and was diving into the turn, he was ninety degrees through the turn and coming back around. The top of the wings and tail were about all of the plane
that was visible, as the booms are just framework.

The tail wind. The tail wind was such that the plane had dropped out of its flying speed range…it would only go so fast, and could only go so slow without falling out of the air.

Harry smashed into the tree line after disappearing in a heart-thudding beat of time. A frozen mental image that will stick with me forever. Harry crashed at about ten fifty-four and thirty seconds a.m.

We stood quiet as the instructor slumped his shoulders and wouldn’t look at us for some long moments. We could hear a siren’s wail and the sound of engines and voices calling from three quarters of a mile off, but the voices carried on the wind.

Smudges of black smoke streamed up and over the windbreak of tall spruces or firs or something. There was a farm over there. We used to go over to the fence and talk to the horses sometimes, at least I did.

“All right, who’s next then?”

He looked at the list on the clipboard in his hand.

“Alexander.” A quiet lad of rakish slenderness stepped forward.

He snapped off a quick salute and pathetically stood to attention, and it looked as if his knees were about to give out on him. He’s ready to shit his pants.

“What did he do wrong, Alexander?” sighed the instructor. “And relax, would you?”

“He turned too soon,” said the boy. “Not enough height.”

“Do you think you can do any better?”

He didn’t want to send anyone that’s not ready. Or didn’t he care anymore? He seemed kind of burnt out to me, but then I’d seen it before.

The rest of us paid rapt attention to every word, every comment, every inflection, every nuance. We moved along the line to another machine that the mechanics were busy preparing.

Alexander took a hell of a long time to fasten up his flying suit. To get the gloves, and the fastenings just right. The poor guy was borderline hyperventilating.

“Next one better get ready,” suggested the instructor.

A boy started, flushed, and looked guilty. A lot of eager beavers here today.

Alexander was in the hot seat. The prop was flipped over and it was time for his initiation.

We watched it warm up for a while, it was a strangely subdued bunch of lads. We know this had to be done, and that it would be our turn soon. Yet we felt curiously detached from Alexander.

It’s like watching a lab rat.

His engine revved up and he was moving across the grassy aerodrome.

The plane pulled up to ten feet, and dove down five, then back up to about fifteen or twenty. The engine burbled along, and we all thought he was smart to pick up as much speed as he could.

He was approaching the tree line, and just when we expected him to pull up and out, the engine note died down suddenly and he flopped the plane down and it went sliding towards the trees.

There was a crunching sound, and there was the impression of a big heavy object, dark and limp, flung out of the machine as it hit.

“Fuck,” said the instructor.

It’s difficult to say if Alexander throttled back in panic, or if the motor just coughed at a bad time.

All right, who’s next?”

We moved along to the next Henri Farman.

It was one of our reserve machines, a spare we kept around in case a plane broke down and was taken out of service. Soon another lad strapped in and with heavily-beating hearts we watched his takeoff.

This time the man got it right. He made the turn from an altitude of at least five hundred feet, although we held our breaths when he lost a good two hundred or two fifty in the turn. His plane roared overhead as he passed down the runway at about three hundred feet.

“Yay!” some guys yelled.

“Shut up!” bellowed the instructor, but they couldn’t restrain themselves.

“Shut the hell up!” he barked in anger.

Finally the noise faded into sullen silence, a silence which became suddenly ominous with the realization…

The lad did not return. He’d gone behind us somewhere, muffled or blocked by the hangars lined up in a row. He must have made the second turn, right?

But we never saw him again. The next two guys seemed to do better, and made a successful take off and circuit. They both made a successful landing. Then it was lunch.

After lunch, it was a couple of more boys, with one more crash, then it was my turn.

Well. I must say, it had in fact been quite educational. Watching all them other guys, man, if I have to fly a dozen miles, I don’t plan on doing that. My guts flipped over a few times when he pointed at me, but then the calm came. I noticed a new sticker on the side of the engine casing, and it somehow reassured me. A little.

When you stand beside a plane, you can hear certain things in the engine noise, when you sit right in it, it’s pretty loud and anonymous.

Tweaking the throttle a few times, I waved the men away from the front of the wings.

As she idled, I pulled my mask down and gave the instructor a big smile.

“Relax, you’ll live longer,” I told him in a shout.

He didn’t smile, just nodded.

“Make us proud, boy,” he mouthed at me.

I could barely hear him. I had my motivation, as the actors say.

They really are just children, aren’t they.


I checked the windsock, advanced the throttle gently, firmly and in a linear fashion.

Not jerky. Feel the power and watch the little clumps of grass begin to pass by under me.

At some point the breeze begins to tug at your clothing. Watch the speedometer.

Hmn. I should have asked the mechanics if it was a good one. No time for thinking, things are beginning to happen.  She felt light, and I wanted to hold her down till she reads forty-seven on the dial, if not even a little more. But she was definitely up now.

The wings rocked but it’s insignificant. I don’t even try to steady it, for the plane has dipped first one way then the other. But it almost corrects itself. The plane is a smooth four feet up from the grass, and so I took it back another notch on the elevator. Smoothly, yet pretty slowly she picks up more altitude. At this point I was looking at treetops about one hundred yards away, and realized the thing has made it up to about twenty five or thirty feet. I risked taking a look down and over the side.

It was deceptive. I certainly wouldn’t like to fall from even this low height. Yet it was also clear to me that I would in fact clear the trees. The speed picked up a smidgeon, and the trees passed below me. The thing bucked a little. My heart skips, but no problem.

I already knew there’s bumpy air here.

The altimeter wasn’t even registering, so I just held the throttle tight against the stops and waited some more. The speedometer registered an even forty-eight, so I nudged just a tiny little bit of up elevator out of it.

The engine roared. Sitting there, I risked a backwards glance. I wondered if those other guys felt this sense of triumph. My altimeter showed about two hundred feet, and so for a moment I studied some houses below me. What an odd perspective. And how small they get so quickly. The buildings seem flat from above, a two-dimensional world.

The plane achieved an altitude of about three hundred feet. The village was coming up. Without even really thinking about it, just a touch on the rudder pedals. Zoom directly down the full length of the High Street, past the church steeple. I wished I had more throttle, it would be nice to make more noise if possible. It was possible to see a number of people coming out of doorways and looking up at me. Children in a lane-way, under a line of trees, waved and shouted. I could see them jumping up off the grass as if to reach out and touch me.

Glance at the clock, forty-nine knots, four hundred feet, two-fifteen p.m. The village is about two miles down the road from the gate. We walked it once or twice.

“Focus, Mister!”

I felt like God up there. I knew I could do this, everyone else showed what not to do. The plane seemed strong, and the Henri Farmans weren’t known for their neck-snapping acceleration. The key thing is not to panic. To stay ahead of the plane. To anticipate that it stalls if you go too slow, or turn too tight…

The altimeter said six hundred, better keep an eye on that thing. Yet I had a full tank of fuel. I knew exactly where I was. There was a girls school up there somewhere, where the little stream went under the trees and entered the forest.

They were out playing field hockey and I wished I could tip my hat to them, but it was too tightly strapped on. I waved and a couple of girls waved back, and I could see the matron sternly stride forward with her mouth opening up. Nothing wrong with my eyes.

I’ve been up for what seems like ten minutes. I doubt the instructor will give me shit if I bring it back in one piece.

At this point, it might just make his day...

A gentle turn, wide, maybe a quarter of a mile wide, as I centred up on the road that led to camp. Soon the guardhouse and the gate were in view. On my left the aerodrome proper, with its long line of hangars, and a small and intense group of individuals standing in front of a row of aircraft just like this one.

I gave the rudders a kick and waggled at them briefly. Hope they saw me.

I put down and then up into it, and bucked like a steer being roped or a horse being broken. I put in left rudder and did a circle over the field, and came out of it again right over the guard houses. To be honest, I was delaying my landing for some reason.

I just didn’t want to come down. And then to have to stand there, and watch the others fly. One at a time, will he live or will he die? Very depressing, very hard on the back and legs. Your feet just ached sometimes.

Finally it was time to reduce the throttle. With a thrill I recognized that she responded like any other machine. She does what should be expected. She began to gently and slowly descend, and I stared at the throttle lever, trying to memorize just where it should be set.

Might need that information tomorrow. And ‘we’ touched down about seventy yards from the class watching on the concrete. I throttled way back, there was no sense in crashing into them or the hangars. I brought her gingerly to a stop, only ten yards from where it had started.

And that was my first flight in a Farman Shorthorn. Ultimately it turned out to be a very dangerous plane, for our side, anyway. I think the Germans should have pitched in and bought us a lot more of those trainers. They might have won the war.

The first Canadian Division loaded up thirty thousand men and sailed across the Atlantic. And due to training accidents and a lot of sickness, they had suffered ten percent casualties, more than ten per cent, before they even got to France.

The Allied flying services took about fourteen thousand casualties during the war.

They say about eight thousand of those casualties were in training. I’m just glad I wasn’t one of them. 

Judging by what I saw, the figures seem accurate enough.