Briar Patch Research

Sorry for the lack of written output here over the last few months.  I figured you just did not need another heaping serving of bad attitude.

The Reading List... and unread stack.

OK, Dammit, it is April 15, 2016…

Facebook just sucks up all of my writing, as it is sooo much easier than this site to operate.  I have resolved to try to do more here, and less there, but inertia and laziness are very powerful.

Several people have asked “what does a retired research analyst do with his time?”  The sadly obvious answer is “he reads more research.”  Aside from entirely too many academic papers on human genetic history, this is my non-fiction reading list for so far for 2016.  (Please note I was stuck at home with annoying medical issues until the beginning of April, forbidden to use fire or sharp objects.  Thankfully, I am using a regular terrestrial atmosphere full time again, so bench time is going to eclipse reading time real soon.)


I have pretty much reread Out of the Mountains, The Big Sort, Our Patchwork Nation and American Nations in an unsuccessful attempt to figure out the current trends.  I highly recommend them.

New Stuff:

Why Europe:  The Medieval Origins of Its Special Path, by Michael Mitteraur (2010)  This over-priced book was a monster to read, as I had to stop every few pages to fill in gaps that had mysteriously appeared in my education.  He addresses a central question:  “why did capitalism and colonialism appear in Europe, and not somewhere else”, and makes a convincing argument that (what we used to call) a “chain of bad events” in the Carolingian lands sparked everything.  There are some surprising surmises about marriage/inheritance patterns, and hence selective pressures on the gene pool, that (were NOT made by the author, but) can be drawn from this. 

Our Political Nature: The Evolutionary Origins of What Divides Us,  by Ari Tuschman (2013).  He does a respectable job dredging up and repurposing a bunch of social and psychological studies on human behavior.  Big news:  behavior is a genetic selection factor.  Bigger news?  He may have “done the math” to provide sufficient levels of proof toward this.

Empires and Barbarians:  The Fall of Rome and the Birth of Europe, by Peter Heather (2009)  I freely admit that I did not take the near-mandatory Western Civ class everyone my age seems to have suffered through, but thought I had pretty much filled in the gaps. This turns out not to be the case:  much of what we were taught about things like the Celts and Germans were just plain wrong, and the author pulls out a wealth of annoying little details to prove that the waves of immigration that brought Rome down were vast movements of only vaguely associated units.  He makes several analogies to other migratory episodes that could be interpreted as a genetic, or at least “ethnic” set of practices common to certain groups. 

The Great Divergence:  China Europe and the Making of the Modern World Economy, by Kenneth Pomeranzs (2000)  I have been lugging this tome around for years, and never opened it as it looked dull.  I was very wrong.  This was a well-written analysis of how and, maybe, why Europe and China seem to have turned out so differently, with deep detail on underlying themes and commonality.  Another case where I knew nothing, really about one part, and was had been misinformed about the other.

The Great Wave:  Price Revolutions and the Rhythm of History:  David Hackett Fisher. (1996). This not only was unread for several years, but served as a device to get my monitor to the right height.  Silly of me.  I am amazed at how much information was available to the author and how, well, intellectually honest he was in not drawing a conclusion.  Somehow, I had accepted both a cyclic and a random-walk view of this, using either when it was convenient to my argument.  Main result:  there have been long periods of generally rising prices and periods of stability, with non-determinable causes.  I wanted to argue some points, but my view that all technology improvements are deflationary doesn’t conflict too much with this. 

“On the stack”

American Character: A History of the Epic Struggle Between Individual Liberty and the Common Good by Colin Woodard (2016)

The Invention of Science: A New History of the Scientific Revolution by David Wootton (2016)​

January 15, 2016.

OK, 5 months or so is pushing it, even for a non-periodical blog.  Most of my output has been on Facebook, because it is easy, convenient and… habit forming.  Very habit forming.

A dear friend cross-posted a blog on Facebook a while back, the gist of which was the not-unreasonable thought that kids not having a job until you graduate from college is bad for their intellectual and character development.  The writer blamed  this trend largely on parents forcing their kids into sports as a possible ticket for scholarships and a career.  I suppose music programs would take the same hit.

For the record, I worked most summers in high school, tried to add paid work on holidays to my summer employment and occasional TA gigs when in college.  NOT working felt odd.  I am not a parent… but I did spend entirely too much time (15 years) as a supervisor and manager in retailing.I had more than my share of teen-aged staff.  While I agree that a morbid fascination with sports is bad for the country as a whole, there are some macro-trends impacting teen employment that the writer and many on-line commenters seem to have missed. 

First is the relentless sprawl of heavily zoned suburbia.  Most places with entry-level, kid-friendly jobs are more than walking distance from schools and homes, requiring either the kid be dropped off by a (usually working) parent, or have access to a (expensive to purchase and maintain, much less insure) vehicle.  Hardly cost effective for them. This was true even back when I was in high school.  Public transit is seldom available when needed. 

 Second, the workplace is changing: there are precious few positions left that can be done by untrained staff in need of near constant supervision. We used to try to have “eyeballs”on the sales floor, both to help customers and cut “shrink.”  We hoped that the reduction in theft and increase in sales would more than offset the added wage cost, but that was rarely the case.  Inexpensive cameras, and a small, trained staff, do a far better job at lower cost.  Registers and “the cashwrap” area used to be fairly complex… laser UPC scanners, card scanners and registers that count back the required change have reduced front end personnel slots by at least half in most operations. 

 Automation, web-sales, improved technology and sophisticated supply-chain systems have cut out a lot of the entry-level retail staff that used to be “shock absorbers” for busy seasons.   Self-service ordering and checkout kiosks are further reducing job opportunities. I did a back-of-the-envelope calculation with some friends a few years back, and we guesstimated that the tripping point for self-service kiosks was around $13.00hr for the cashier...  I will bet that labor costs are up, and kiosk costs are down since then.  Cleaning and straightening a retail sales floor, while still performed “on the run” during the sales day, is increasingly being moved towards kid-unfriendly late-shift and after-hours time slots, often for insurance reasons. Pumping gas, changing oil and performing undercarriage lubrication used to provide a major source of entry-level, part-time employment.  Lawn care?  Right.  Arduous, often dangerous, and usually filled by very hardworking adults from “out of town.”

 Third… the legal and insurance environment around business right now is fraught. Most small operations are up against the 50-employee wall, and stringent rules as to what constitutes full or part-time help.  “Casual labor” as a budget item is pretty much a thing of the past.

Finally… sad, but true, experienced, higher-performance, time-flexible adults are available, often for the same price as an entry-level trainee.  We had a major population bubble just as automation, process re-engineering and better quality control in manufacturing started removing jobs from the economy.  There are “uncounted scads” of older potential employees in most markets who can be up and running fairly swiftly, and tend to hang around if the job suits their needs.  This is extremely important… as a store manager I spent at least a full day a week interviewing, hiring and training new staff.  One key feature of today’s youth is not being personally in control of their time.  If the kid “needs to study this week”,  “can’t work on holidays” or pull a 4-hour shift in the evenings, well, sorry, I can’t use them.  Oh… can they pass a random drug test?  We shall leave the discussion of coddled aristo-puppies and helicopter parents for another time… after several drinks, perhaps.

Working is a good thing, and it is VERY important to build the habits of punctuality, diligence, attention to detail and perseverance early in one’s life.  Sadly, many parents and schools seem unable to instill these traits, and the stopgap of doing it through entry-level trainee positions is fading fast.  There are many locations and situations where this doesn’t hold true—family businesses leap to mind, for example, though they are an increasingly smaller portion of the economy.  Moving to a labor-hungry boom-town might help too.  Chasing certification in various common software products, IT security, or design might provide some of the benefits teen-work held, and increase their marketability in a way that waiting tables doesn’t.

2015.08.22:    “Rant, cavil, bitch, moan and whine…”

My current domicile has a pest problem:  two extra layers of government.

The People’s Republic of Long Rivers had a lot of problems, but it lacked functioning counties, and there was nothing even remotely resembling a “home owner’s association” in my neighborhood.  The Authorities in the PRLR liked to keep as much power as possible in Scenic Hartford (AKA:  “Hotfud”) and counties just seemed messy to them.  Somehow, without much of their help, all of us looking after our own affairs managed to keep our area neat, tidy and proper, with mostly rising real estate prices, over the thirty five years we lived there.  We seldom needed Outside Help in determining what trees we should plant where, what an appropriate color for our lawn umbrellas might be, and whether we really needed that big a garden.  NO one cared what plants we landscaped with, unless they were, ummm “psycho-pharmaceutically active.”

Now, a seemingly endless line of purported stakeholders now stand between us and the prudent, independent, operation of our fully paid-for property: 

The Home Owner’s Association,  which contrary to its name, will lack any homeowner input until another 1,000 or so houses are built in this development.  They have issued an excruciatingly detailed rule book that changes without warning or owner input, and have opinions about The Most Unusual Things.  Their existence is mandated by a plethora of laws and regulations imposed by Higher Authorities, who seem obsessed with stormwater runoff and street maintenance.

The City  we live in, which has been pretty well behaved.  In fact, the few functionaries I have encountered have been… scarily friendly and competent.  My only reservation is that they seem to be another layer of burro-crats unnaturally obsessed with water usage and runoff.  Coming from a coastal community it just seems… odd.  (OK... the rain is a bit excessive at times.  MUCH of the time.)  They also seem neither to sand or plow snow.  Southrons: what can you say?  It has also been alleged by an unreliable source that they are the reason we have to put up with a hybrid Bermuda grass and not something nice in our yard.

 The County  has been pretty much not a factor.  My few interactions, mostly with the Sherriff’s office for some permits, has been uniformly smooth, pleasant experiences.  One snippysnark observation:  the county seats in Iowa were generally magnificent, extravagant structures with the ornate sensibility of the late 19th century, when money just wasn't a problem and taste wasn't much of an issue.  IMHO, governments and banks should look important.  The County buildings here just look like large, quietly competent office buildings.  I am not sure this is an improvement.

The State  has also not been a problem.  Voter registration was swift, voting was easy, and I have read nothing about the, ummm, irregularities I had come to expect in The Old Place.  With a few small quirks, changing our cars and licenses over was rapid and painless.  They like Very Big Roads, and there are many “8 lanes to nowhere special” situations, but it bespeaks advance planning and is hard to whine about, at least till all four of your lanes suddenly shrink down to a single lane and a speed trap.

The Empire  itself, peace be unto it and its Beloved Leader. Same same.  Some of their minions seem to want to control the wet spot on my lawn where the air-conditioner vent drips, and the drainage swale across my backmost yard, but Other People seem to be working on this issue.

All have opinions as to how much and what we can do.

While I understand that Governments are instituted among Men to secure our rights and derive their just powers over me from my consent… but this many layers of governance seem destructive to that end.  Something needs to be done.  I have no (0.00) clue what, but a quasi-governmental body essentially dedicated to regulating yard art, awning design and landscaping seems surplus to my current need.

 2015.05.13  Rant of the Day:   He's baaaaack....

Three years ago, knowing that Connecticut, The State of Despair, had played out its hand, we brought in a home inspector and told him to find anything that could delay or impede a sale, and we had every issue addressed over time.  Other preparations for sale included professional painting, floor refurbishing/polishing, and helping our landscaper buy a new boat.  We hired a stager for advice, but contracted or bid the interior work ourselves.  Damn, the place looked good. It looked so nice we almost didn’t want to move.  Almost. 

In early 2014 we purchased a building lot at a Carefully Unnamed 55+ Community just opening near Durham, NC.  Our house in the People’s Republic of Konnetikut went on the market in early March, and we got a fully satisfactory offer before the “for sale” sign actually got put up, even before our first open house.  We might have been able to get more, but strongly preferred to take the money and run.  Our salesperson did so much keeping things moving along that we didn’t begrudge a single dime spent on commissions.

We packed 55+ bankers’ boxes of books, 2 sets of hobby implements, 10 cases of painting and dust-catchers.  Other stuff hit consignment, was sold to the homebuyer, or met Mr. Crunchy.  Instead of a mover, we used “one of them pod things”… actually, one 17 footer and another 6 footer from another supplier we needed at the last minute— we were told it was the last container of any sort available in New England for that period.  After a few days in The Motel of Mysteries, we closed on May 30, skeedaddled, and spent until June 9 in an extended stay habitrail that probably didn’t predate the Civil War… at least by much.  Our things showed up here eventually.  We have just finally bought what I hope is the last piece of replacement furniture, and have begun terraforming the yard.

“The Village”, as I have come to call it, is “out in the middle of nowhere”, centrally located in the Triangle.  We were the 203rd of what will be 1300 homes by 2019. 

We chose a “mostly single floor” home design that was originally 2 bed/2 bath, but was tweakable to give us 4 bedrooms and 3 baths, actually an en suite master on each floor and a slightly larger garage which is still too narrow for people with fat cars.  Essentially, we picked the highest option grade on the middle range of houses, again aiming for the best resale value, which should eventually please our Executor to no end. The house was manufactured—we would say “stick built with a wide, though constrained, palette of options” within 4 months.  The interior colors are very similar to a vanilla ice cream soda, and the exterior is a tasteful mix of Dull and Boring Putty Tones.  There is a very limited yard.  One cool thing is that the site is such we have a neighborhood parklet right across the street instead of another house to gaze upon. 

As you can imagine, the community is a huge construction site, though our end of things is pretty much done for now.  These builders are fast, and I have never once seen a cleaner worksite.  I bought a small position in their stock.  I have replaced three tires.

The demographics are interesting… 55+, though most folks seem, so far to be 65+/- 2 years.  There are very few visible elderly.  Our block has lawyers, school teachers, a retiring college president, a bunch of former techies and consultants. There are quite a few locals, but the bulk of the population seems to be from “New Europe”, especially Greater New York and Washington.  So far, almost everyone in our development has been very nice… in fact, everyone down here has been nice.  Scary levels of civility.  They even drive the speed limit.

Of course, everything has a few drawbacks:

The locals don’t even know that they don’t have a clue about pizza.
Good, even great, breads are easy to find in quite a few astonishing bakeries, but at eye-watering prices.  Decent pastries and such are hard to find.  Learn to bake your own. 
So far, all of the nonPizza food is too sweet and bland.  Even the sauerkraut, which tastes like coleslaw.  Don’t get me started about the iced tea.
Somehow, I just expected much better barbecue than I have found, though I am still looking.  Too much time in the Midwest, I guess….
MLBTV thinks we are a suburb of the Imperial City, and have blocked any Yankee game involving either Baltimore or something called the Gnats.

The following is not to be construed as professional advice, but represents the personal views of a small group of highly skilled and experienced individuals who have, so to speak, “been there and done that.” 

Hire a stager, preferably one both you and your salesperson are comfortable with.  Do what they say.  Your house needs to be attractive to someone else NOT you.
The best approach to moving is to donate everything but your jewelry, collectables, family records, personal weapons and clean underwear to charity, and buy everything new once you settle in.  Honest.  It isn’t worth cleaning, packing, moving, unpacking and recleaning it. 
Pack sentimental items first. Get them out of sight.  You will NOT have time to gush over old pictures and prom dresses when you start to move.  You WILL freeze and burst into tears when something you never knew you cared about heads for the dumpster.
Don’t think you can’t do an adequate price assessment on your own.  We tracked the market for homes like ours, watched Zillow and its competitors, visited several open houses, and built a simple price-band model that was more accurate than what our experienced honestly excellent salesperson used— never forget that salesfolk are incented for quick sales, not maximum prices. 

PLEASE: Read someone you don't like-- watch some news you can't stand, and make damned sure your personal, corporate and political messages are going out on EVERY single channel your audience might be using.

First, let me say upfront that I am a news junkie.  I fully subscribe to what we used to call Niven’s Law, which went something like “The only thing that will harm you faster than something you don’t understand is something you don’t know.”  The news comes on when I wake at 0500, and lulls me to sleep at night… I have usually worked alone, and just like hearing people talk in the background, I guess, and besides, I spent most of the last 20 years making a fair living at being able to extract critical action triggers (“Nooz yousguys can use”) from the background noise faster than my coworkers.

I had some conversations this holiday season and recent neighborhood events that shocked and scared me.  I found that a bunch of my closer friends have essentially given up on hearing any news at all, except for sports.  Many had dropped their cable TV packages and got their entertainment from Hulu, YouTube, and other sources.  Spin, the noise of politics and sensationalist reporting is driving people back into their comfort zones—all were deeply concerned about politics, but no one wanted to hear about it anymore.  For those with grandkids, “I Dream of Jeannie” reruns seem a whole lot more family friendly than CNN or MSNBC.  Several specifically mentioned that the news was giving their children nightmares.  At least two couples said they had cancelled their cable TV packages entirely, and were accessing information solely over the web.  I had never even heard of the entertainment programs they reported watching.

Demographically, the group was mostly 55 to 60 year old Caucasians and “latinos,” fairly evenly split by sex, overeducated, financially conservative but socially liberal.  Some thought they would eventually die on the job, some because of finances, some because “they had no life” other than work. Politics were all over the place, but none had ever failed to vote.  The social links were through being neighbors, with some having a shared history of leadership in the scouting movements or local sports, and being old friend’s new spouses.

I was fairly certain that this was happening with “youngsters” but was completely unaware that it had spread into what I would call “The Voting Class.”  Part of me wants to say that they are just being rational, and it is far to early to be concerned yet, as NEITHER party has, in fact, picked their candidates, and almost anything could happen by November.  Another part of me, though, is almost gibbering in stark, primal terror. No wonder politics seems so weird right now—no one is paying attention to anything anyone outside of their “in-group” says.

When I was a mere slip of a Westchester lad, and TV still new, we had three networks, maybe a public channel, and if the wind was right (literally) some local stations in other cities… I think 8 stations all told.  There were two major newspapers available, plus other with varying degrees of finer focus.  We bought the New York Times, Daily News, Reporter Dispatch, Patent Trader and North Castle News.  Most had a “recognized” spin, but offered some degree of balance. Pretty much everyone was getting the same news, at mostly the same time.  

This is no longer the case:  broadcasting passed seamlessly through narrowcasting to microcasting.  You can get more news than you might want to consume without EVER encountering an opinion at variance with those you already hold, or having your ideas challenged, or even encountering the faintest hint that your facts might be, shall we say, suspect?  Each clique will grow to be more like itself, until there is, finally, no room to maneuver, or compromise or coexist.