Thursday, March 29, 2018

Can rewilding rescue the permafrost?

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, science, cloning, DNA, woolly mammoths, rewilding

All the people in Woolly: The True Story of the Quest to Revive one of History's Most Iconic Extinct Creatures are real, as are all the events prior to the last two chapters. Author Ben Mezrich used interviews and published materials to produce a narrative that recounts events over the past half century or so—though mostly over the past twenty-odd years—leading into a concerted effort to produce the DNA needed to revive the species Mammuthus primigenius, the Woolly Mammoth.

The main protagonist is Dr. George Church, a very active and productive genetic researcher. If you've heard his name at all, it is probably in connection with the Human Genome Project. Dr. Church is somewhat self-effacing compared to others who "got famous". Famous or not, he is a prime problem-solver, and gathers problem-solvers around him. That's what you need to tackle a project like this.

I was most intrigued by a side theme of the book, the rewilding of Siberia and possibly northern Canada, with the aim of restoring the permafrost. This entails gathering not just extinct pachyderms, but a number of living cold-adapted herbivores such as Musk Oxen. As I understand it, the large mammals of the Pleistocene fauna could churn the upper surface of the ground, which tends to allow the winter chill to make new permafrost in wintertime but blocks solar heating in summertime. The idea is to keep the huge carbon stores of the permafrost from being oxidized and thus adding many-fold to the greenhouse heating being caused by extra carbon dioxide already released by our burning of fossil fuels. That idea alone was enough to push Dr. Church over the threshold from "We can revive the Mammoth, but should we?" to "We can and we should!"

The larger key idea of the book is the concept, not of simply "finding" mammoth DNA, but learning enough from the DNA sequence to determine the key differences between mammoth DNA and Asian elephant DNA, so as to rewrite critical sections of an elephant genome and thus produce a viable mammoth ovum.

The book ends with a scene of the first mammoth returned to Siberia, perhaps as early as about 2020. However, in an epilogue by Dr. Church, he considers a more realistic figure to be 15-20 years from now. Considering the number of breakthroughs already made, a living mammoth might appear sooner than that. Producing a herd of them will take longer, but a herd is needed to have a useful effect on Siberian (or Canadian) permafrost.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Courage and maturity

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, memoirs, celebrities, depression

Major depression isn't just one thing. A collection of influences that quiet, or stifle, or crush the soul will manifest one way for some and another way for others. Ginger Zee writes of being suddenly transported into a small, strange, dark room, frequently with scolding voices shrieking her worthlessness. This is depression with just enough delusion that it almost managed to finish her off on a couple of occasions.

The overarching purpose of Ginger Zee's memoir Natural Disaster: I Cover Them; I am One is to chronicle her gradual triumph over that dark room and to offer hope for others similarly afflicted. She is a little young for memoir-writing (about 35 when she was writing the book), but she had already packed an amazing mass of life experience into this half-a-lifetime.

I have to mention while I think of it: The dark room with its scolding voices worked its way into reality with a "boyfriend" named John, a serious abuser, who actually became the expression of that inner domain, keeping her effectively locked up while accusing, scolding, shrieking her worthlessness, and forcing her to reveal passwords to all her accounts, until she managed to find the strength to flee and call 911 for help. In the book it isn't clear if she made this connection.

Ginger Zuidgeest grew up in a chaotic family and came to epitomize the need for chaos in her life to feel "normal". She wasn't abused as a child, nor neglected, but life had its way of providing a whole lot more twists and turns for her than is the usual fare. Her mother was capable of the most amazing conniption fits. I suppose that gave her just enough thick skin to answer brightly and even compassionately the trolls who complained to her via Twitter or email once she became a TV personality. Along the way the trickiness of her hyper-Dutch name was troubling enough to colleagues who had to say in on the air that they soon began calling her "Ginger Z.", and then a friend suggested she simply use the stage name Zee. It was a great idea.

She chronicles the story of her climb to becoming ABC's Chief Meteorologist, but there's little use in my re-hashing it for you. She was driven. So driven that my armchair psychologist hat practically forced itself onto my head, to declare from time to time, "Ms Zee, you aren't just the occasional depressive, you are bipolar ("manic depressive"), someone who is lucky enough that you spend a lot more time with that manic energy than in the dark room." She has, for years, endured a work schedule that would exhaust nearly anyone. She thrives on it. She even managed to wangle a series of assignments that included very high-flying paragliding, swimming in Jellyfish Lake in Palau (where she discovered she was pregnant), and a descent into the amazing Hang Son Doong cave in Vietnam (while pregnant).

Her "escape" from becoming overwhelmed by depression swings around two foci. The first is fleeing from John, the second is checking herself into a mental hospital for a week of special therapy, ten days prior to starting to work for ABC. Her description of that week shows the value of finding a truly competent therapist. In my experience there are many more who are at best marginally competent, and I wonder if my experience is ordinary or not, that more than half belong "in the bottom of the barrel." Actually, I had only one truly good psychiatrist since being diagnosed as bipolar, fortunately, at a less extreme level than most. Dr. Wilson proved to be a supremely good therapist for her, and helped her develop the tools she needed to become the person she needed to be.

Ginger Zee makes it clear that not all who experience depression will experience it "her way", but that no matter how it manifests itself, it can be overcome, and the first step is usually being willing to hold up a hand to say, "You know, I am really NOT OK." She states something we all need to keep in mind: we all have someone, usually several someones, who love us enough to be willing to help, even if it costs them time and energy.

She ends the book with a hint that the coming years may not be any less chaotic, but they will have a clearer focus, her husband Ben and their little son. She is experiencing a core of stability she feared she would never reach. Good on ya, girl!

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Animals are like us because we are like them

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, animals, animal behavior, animal psychology

A few minutes ago I saw a video on Facebook, in which a mother pit bull brings her newborn pups, one by one, to her owner to hold, until the young woman's lap is full of puppies. Then the dog rests her head in the woman's lap also, enjoying the cooing and cuddling, apparently showing utter trust in her. "Trust?" Can a dog feel trust? Why not? If we humans can (even when we find it hard to define the word), it must have come from somewhere.

The first sentence of the epilogue of The Inner Life of Animals: Love, Grief and Compassion, by Peter Wohlleben, reads,
When I look at animals, I like to make analogies to people, because I cannot imagine that animals feel so very differently from us, and there's a good chance I'm right. (p. 244)
This is the author's second published book, the first being The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate-Discoveries from a Secret World … guess what is the next book I'll look for?

In the meantime, I have had a delightful read of the lucid translation from the German, by Jane Billinghurst. Mr. Wohlleben manages a municipal forest near Hümmel, Germany. He has ample opportunity to witness animal behaviors across the spectrum of woodland habitats, from weevils in the leaf litter to the rodents, deer, and other mammals and birds that abound there. His book's 41 chapters are part essay, part story, and part lyrical musing.

Did you ever have the thought to consider happiness in an insect? Is such a thing possible? In the chapter "Alien Worlds", one animal he writes of is a weevil barely 2mm long (0.08") that feeds on fallen leaves. Having no wings, and being slow, weevils have predators aplenty. Their only defense is to be still; they are well camouflaged, looking like a bit of broken leaf stem. So they must know fear. Perhaps they feel happy when they are not fearful.

The more that scientists delve into animal communications, the more they realize that they have rather rich vocabularies, so, as mentioned in various ways in several chapters, we can have a pretty good idea that, when a horse or cat or dog greets us, they really are happy to see us (or not!). The scientists have finally figured out what most of us already knew.

Many animals raise their young, in larger numbers than was known when I was first learning Biology 50+ years ago. While many things do seem to be innate, a matter of "instinct" (one of the least-understood words out there), many things do need to be learned: bird songs, the best paths to take, the kind of nesting material to use, the most effective way to gather or kill one's next meal.

I am particularly taken with bird songs. I can recognize just a few—the "cheerio! cheerio!" of a territorial Robin or the "chick-a-dee-dee-dee-dee" of a Chickadee—but even the Robin has dozens of other calls (the Cornell Lab of Ornithology has quite a library of them). We all know that mockingbirds and catbirds and others such as the Brown Thrasher mimic the songs of many other birds. They learn them; they aren't born with them. But many birds have hundreds to thousands of songs and song variations. The ones we usually notice are the territorial defense calls, the equivalent of "This is MY tree!" We pay less attention to the little "chip chip" sounds that are actually more frequent. Those are the warning sounds the birds make to each other because we are there. People have paid attention to bird warning sounds. The birds' calls differ depending on whether the intruder is a hawk, snake, or cat, for example. There are also calls for different kinds of food, for keeping in contact when relatives are out of each other's sight, and other "relationship" sounds.

But there is much, much more. For example, animals (furred or feathered) of all sorts deceive one another. When you are watching a squirrel busily digging to bury acorns in the yard, and you are visible to it, it will make hole after hole, but few of those holes contain an acorn! Most are decoys, to frustrate you if you are planning to steal the acorn. They also use decoy holes when being observed by other squirrels, perhaps even the more: they don't know whether you'll steal acorns, but they know a rival squirrel will! Both deceiving and thieving are problem-solving behaviors, that is, cognitive thinking.

In this book you'll find example after example of animals that exhibit reasoning and emotions…I almost wrote, "just like ours." But really, our reasoning and emotions are like theirs. Perhaps some of our thinking is deeper and so forth, but it is similar in principle. As the author writes in "Artificial Environments", our own emotions and senses are somewhat blunted because of the built environment in which most of us live. It is hard to enjoy a starry sky when you may never see one (lifelong residents of mega-cities can go a lifetime and never see a star, not one). Few of us understand Napoleon's love letter to Josephine, telling her he expected to return home the following day, asking her, "Don't bathe!". Our noses are so overwhelmed with artificial perfumes, air "fresheners" (contaminants, I call them), and such, that we have lost the ability to detect smells that could provide warning, or enhance a joyful reunion, and many other things.

I have had a good dose of animal stories, in this book and the last. Very gratifying. Knowing the depth of feeling that even a barnyard chicken has, however, is not likely to make me into a vegan. Rather, it gives me pause, that perhaps it would be well to follow the example of some Native Americans of earlier generations, that thanked a deer for offering itself to feed his family, or a grouse for the same, even thanking a netful of fish. We may think "more" than other animals (at least some of us do), but it is not certain that we think "better". Time will tell.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

A turning point in psychozoology

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, animals, animal behavior, animal psychology

Those who care enough to read the keyword list will note the term "animal psychology". Not so many years ago this was considered a serous error. No biologist would admit that animals could think or feel pain, and one must never, ever impute emotions to them. Thankfully, that is changing, and the new book Tamed and Untamed: Close Encounters of the Animal Kind, by researchers Sy Montgomery and Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, celebrates this sea change in the "professional" understanding of what animals feel and think…or even that they do feel and think.

I hope we never again are subjected to cries of "Anthropomorphism!" when describing a pet, domestic animal, or any animal in the wild as "wanting", "loving", or even "planning". As the authors note, even paramecia (single celled, rather largish protozoa) can remember and plan. To recall a motto from an earlier post of mine:
We are like Them because We came from Them
The supposed "sin" of Anthropomorphism is to consider an animal as being in some way like a human. That takes it backwards. Everything in our psychology is based on animal psychology, and even to some extent on protozoan psychology.

The 54 essays in the book range across the Kingdom Animalia, though I don't think they managed to touch on every one of the 9 animal phyla. The majority of the stories are of vertebrates (Phylum Vertebrata, animals with an internal, bony skeleton), the next largest number are of octopuses (formerly octopi or octopodes), which are mollusks (Phylum Mollusca and class Cephalopoda). If playfulness is a sign of high intellegence, compared to creatures that don't play, the ordinary octopus is as playful as a cat or dog (or deer or horse or otter). One section does delve into other invertebrate phyla, with stories of slugs (also Mollusca), worms (Phylum Annelida), bumble bees (Phylum Arthropoda), and water bears (Phylum Tardigrada), plus the vertebrates known as amphibians, mainly frogs.

Can a bumble bee feel cheerful or downcast? Indeed it can, based on some clever research using sugar water, colored signs, and a chemical that blocks dopamine, the "happy" neurochemical. Charles Darwin wrote, "Even insects express anger, terror, jealousy and love." Biologists pooh-poohed this for 150 years. You might say that "human chauvinism" held back psychozoology by more than a century!

Of course, we are more prone to expect sorta-human responses from "charismatic megafauna" such as horses, tigers and elephants, and "charismatic mesofauna" such as typical house pets and other animals of a size that we can pick up, if they are tame enough to permit it (my cat hates being picked up and held; how tame is she?). What about chickens? One of the essays, titled "Chicken Indestructible", chronicles the day a beloved but elderly hen went missing. When she showed up a few days later, after much worry on Ms Montgomery's part about the many predators and other dangers she might have succumbed to, a little detective work showed that on a suddenly squally day, the intrepid hen had taken refuge in a hayloft until the stormy weather passed, happily eating whatever bugs were to be found there.

Wonderful stories abound in this enjoyable book, and I won't ruin any more of them by repeating them here. It's worth anybody's while to curl up with this one and devour it from end to end.

Stats - Russians more discreet this month

kw: blogs, blogging, spider scanning

I always look at my stats as soon as I open Blogger. This month, March 2018, has begun in an interesting way. The heavy spider activity I've noted a few times in the past has not resumed, but a lower level of extra activity centered around Russia is evident. Compare the past month with the past week:

The darker tone on Russia in the map for the past week tells the story. The near-doubling of activity, from 40-45 daily to 70-80 (most days), seen in the left half, is mostly due to Russian views or downloads of blog posts. The graph on the right shows that much of the activity is on a roughly daily schedule, but not steady. Other, more scattered clumps are also seen.

For the past day, week, and month, I gathered the actual numbers:

For the past month, the ratio (Russ+Ukr)/USA = 0.48; for the past week, it is 0.75, and for the past day it is 0.81.

I don't pretend to discern motives. These are at present simply curious facts.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Poems are her bread and butter

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, memoirs, poetry

The title was enough: Poetry Will Save Your Life, by Joan Bialosky. I like poetry, though more in a now-and-then kind of way. Breading her memoir, we find that for Ms Bialosky, poems are her life. Not only is she a poet and author, someone who manages to craft a living from her craft; she finds sustenance and guidance in the poems she has gathered.

I imagine that she has collected a great many of others' poems over the past five or six decades. How she culled 43 special ones around which to weave her own coming of age story, only she knows. She likes poems that rhyme and those that don't; poems with rhythmic structure and poems that seem structureless (maybe she sees structure I cannot fathom). Her taste is wide-ranging, from the famous (such as Robert Frost or R.L. Stevenson) to the scarcely known (Li-Young Lee or Yehuda Amichai), at least to me.

I don't know what to say beyond that. I have a very few, very special poems that I treasure, but I'll keep them to myself here. Did they save my life? I don't know; we all have our own elixir, can we but find it. Simply this: I enjoyed the book.

Tuesday, March 06, 2018

We can't lie to Google

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, data mining, data analysis, big data

There is a very interesting and useful tool available from Google, Google Trends. It provides a taste of Big Data (or Data Mining) to all of us. It tracks search terms (all of them) that have been entered in the Google search box for the last 14 years. It charts their relative popularity. Here is an example:

This is just the top of a page of charts related to these searches. There are breakouts by region and certain subtopics or related searches. Just from this chart we can see three things:
  1. While on average the Grand Canyon is the most popular of the three, the relative popularity of these three National Parks varies over time (this chart shows 5 years).
  2. All three parks' popularity varies with the season. I presume that in springtime and early summer, people are planning vacations.
  3. Each park had a spike of interest in a narrow time frame. I'll leave it to you to figure out which event triggered which spike. (Hint: high wire; seismicity; sesquicentennial)
Here is a clue to the value of meta-analysis made available by a tool like this: people search for what interest or concerns them, and there is nothing to be gained by lying about it. They really want to know. Thus, a result like this is more telling:

Here, seasonality of weight loss searches is quite evident. My impulsive analysis: a big spike in January is related to this most common New Year's Resolution, followed by sustained interest until mid-summer, then a slacking off as people enter first vacation season and then the holiday season, and have other things on their minds. Also, it is clear that many more people are worried about their weight than about smoking (and I may not have used the most common search term about this; GTrends is very literal and there are lots of ways people ask questions. But I could have searched for Topics instead).

Just out of curiosity I removed the weight loss portion. This amplified the remaining "stop smoking" result, and it is had no seasonality.

The little arrow at center-right in the diagrams shows that you can download the data (I haven't tried it) for analysis using Excel. This allows you to compare a great many search terms or topics, to winkle out all the variations, and sum them up for a general picture, or parse them by country or region or whatever. Note that if you mix topics and search terms, they are measured on different scales, because a topic gathers many search terms.

I'll refrain from going on and on, for this is a book review, after all. Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are, by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, introduces the new things that are being done because we have enormous data sets available, and even the more because certain of them (such as Google searches) give more truthful information than "traditional" methods of social study such as surveys.

Have you ever lied to a survey taker, or on an online survey? Many folks do. Voter polls are notorious for inaccuracies, particularly during hotly-contested elections, such as the recent circus featuring Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Trump. Nearly every poll was dramatically wrong, nearly every time. Why? This is more than just bad poll question design (which is all too frequently done on purpose), this is a case that many of those who were going to vote one way either said, "I don't know for sure" or flat-out lied to the pollster. Consider someone who answers the telephone at work, and it is a poll taker. They aren't supposed to call workplaces, but they frequently do anyway (where else you gonna find people at midday? And with so many folks declining to even answer a phone at dinner time...). The office worker agrees to a "quick poll", and soon enough the big question comes, "Who do you prefer in the Presidential election?" This person is a closet Republican in New York City or San Francisco, and knows she'll be overheard by co-workers, with whom she never, ever talks politics. How do you expect her to answer? In those cities, you can lose your job over your Presidential preference.

The author of Everybody Lies shows a number of ways that he and others gather data from Google searches (he calls them his favorite data set), from Facebook likes, and a from number of other data collections about our behavior online. He also places emphasis on what he calls New Data, data we didn't have available before. Online behavior traces are one kind of New Data, but the concept is not new. For example, in 1854 Doctor John Snow mapped every death from cholera for the year in the Soho area of London, hundreds of them. That counts as Big Data for the 1850's! His dot map, shown here, helped him pinpoint a specific water pump as the source of the cholera epidemic; it was a pump on Broad Street, just above and right of center in this map (the dark bar there shows nearly 20 deaths in a single multi-family house). This was both Big Data and New Data for the time.

Getting back to November 2017: People who didn't get nearly as much press as the daily pollsters, but who were looking at "sentiment analysis" of internet searches, were saying, "Not so fast..." but were generally ignored. But it was they who were right. That is because, while we can lie to Google,
we don't because what is the point? We search for what we really want to know. And if someone wanted to mess with Google's search results database, and skew what it reports, it would take a huge effort, even by spambot standards. Even bot-masters have better things to do with their time!

There are some arenas in which we do lie, even to our computers. Facebook is an example. We post mostly positive stuff. We also primarily like to see positive stuff. In fact, when we see too much negative material in our newsfeeds, many of us either block or unfriend the purveyor thereof. So we tell our Facebook "friends" about what is going well with us, and we ask Google about what bothers us.

A number of fascinating and unexpected results show up. For example, would you expect a larger proportion of sports stars to come from comfortable, middle-class backgrounds, or from poor or working-poor backgrounds? Many people think that desperation to escape the ghetto drives talented kids to excel so they can actually get out. Analysis of the history of every professional sports figure counters that expectation. Most successful professionals in baseball, basketball, etc. come from middle-class backgrounds. One major factor: There are a whole lot more middle-class people than poor people in America. But even in proportion, the percentage of middle-class youngsters who excel in sports is greater than the percentage of poorer kids. We could go into a lot of possible reasons why, but it's a side point here. Truly great players like LeBron James, who was raised by a poor single mother, are the exception.

Late in the book the ethics of data mining arise. Many people are a little creeped out to learn that a trend analysis can reveal so much about them. Meanwhile, CEO's of retail companies are drooling over the same data, trying to figure out how best to induce us to part with our cash. One aspect is A/B testing. It isn't hard for the programmers at Google or Facebook to write code that, for example, puts a bluer "click here" button on an ad sent to everyone from a certain set of web servers, and a purpler button to everyone else. Which one gets a greater proportion of clicks? Do the words "click here" or "try it" or "join up" work best? When billions of ads are being shown, a 1% advantage comes to thousands or millions of potential sales. Ethical or not, that cat is out of the bag. There is no putting it back. We simply need to stiffen our own backbone of ad resistance if we wish to avoid being manipulated.

A fun side note. I am learning to use Incognito Mode and Duck Duck Go searching when I want to research something to buy. Otherwise Google and Facebook and just about everyone else spends the next month or three sending me ads related to something I already bought (or decided not to buy). When they get better connected to the retailers, so they know I bought it and probably won't buy another, and when they get better connected to Amazon's database of "people who bought this also bought these", it is likely that my ad resistance will become a lot harder to maintain! They'll have a pretty good idea what I want next, before I know I want it.

That is the world we live in. Teach your children well. Maybe they'll become more canny and cautious Web users than we have been.

Friday, March 02, 2018

Investing - what Buffett can do and you cannot

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, investing, short biographies, letters

Warren Buffett, the Sage of Omaha, is legendary for parlaying a modest fortune into billions, primarily by investing. He is considered a genius at stock picking. Warren Buffet's Ground Rules: Words of Wisdom from the Partnership Letters of the World's Greatest Investor, by Jeremy C. Miller, tells the real story, at least about the first 13 years, the BPL years.

Probably the impression most people have is that Buffett was somehow prescient, and could time the market. The reality is much more prosaic. Ground Rules is about half large extracts from the Partnership Letters that Buffett wrote to his partners (initially three family members), from 1956 to 1969; and about half Miller's analysis, a valuable asset in its own right.

Buffett's style of active investment management bore (and bears) no resemblance to that of the managers of the roughly 2,000 funds of the "Growth" variety, and even of most of the 1,500 or so "Value" funds, let alone all the other categories. He was an early Value investor, but Value has a different meaning nowadays.

After working in the investment field on his own and for Benjamin Graham, the "father of Value investing", he set up Buffett Partnership Ltd., with his own money and that of a few relatives. When Graham retired, Buffett already had savings of about $175,000 (more than $1.5 million in today's dollars). BPL was set up with about $100,000, having the stated goal to beat the performance of the Dow Jones Industrial Average by 10% yearly. In those 13 years he never had a down year, and usually beat the Dow by much more than 10%. He had parlayed the $100,000, plus other funds added as partners were added, into about $50 million (in 1970 dollars; more than $300 million in today's dollars). How?

Buffett had learned deep value investing from Ben Graham. His motto was, "You don't buy stock, you buy the business." That is, even owning one share, you should think like someone running the business. He developed his own ideas upon that foundation, so that he soon had three kinds of investments in the BPL partnerships:

  • General – Graham-style value stocks: with much research, companies were found whose total stock value was less than the raw asset value of liquidating the company. Stock of companies with management who had a reasonable chance of keeping the business from foundering could be purchased with almost total certainty that the stock value would increase, probably by a great amount. Such "low hanging fruit" are very rarely to be found today, nor at nearly any time since about 1970. Buffett liked a stock to not grow fast, at first, giving him time to buy a lot of it, a little at a time so as not to stir up market activity around it. Later he split this category into two based on size, particularly once BPL had much greater funding. Most General stocks represent small companies, and a million-dollar investment could buy the whole company, or totally skew the market for it.
  • Workouts – Arbitrage opportunities in today's lingo: companies in trouble, or with more cash and idle capital assets on hand than the value of all shares of stock. He would obtain a large amount (10-20%) of a small company's stock, giving him leverage (and often a seat on the Board), so that he could influence company operations. He would influence, or force, company management to get rid of unprofitable operations and concentrate capital where it could do more good, both in a business sense and a financial sense. Sometimes he was vilified in the press, much as T. Boone Pickens was a generation ago, and Nelson Peltz has been in recent years. With no more than a couple of exceptions, he avoided eliminating jobs in large numbers, even at the cost of a few more percentage points in a stock's value. I don't think either Pickens or Peltz ever cared one whit how many jobs they eliminated.
  • Controls – Ownership of more than 40%, and of course more than 50%, of a company's stock would give Buffett total control of operations. His last Control was Berkshire Hathaway, which he still controls. 

Does any of this sound like "timing the market"? Buffett repeatedly expressed his disdain for the very thought, and claimed he had no interest in market timing. He preferred stocks that were independent of market movements, and chose Generals in particular for this characteristic. This took a lot of research, in an era without electronic research tools.

So, whichever sort of investment one plans to make (most of us will find Workouts and Controls out of our reach!), these simple steps must be adhered to:

  • Set a goal toward which you are willing to work, hard.
  • Research, research, and research some more to locate publicly-traded companies that offer a great chance to meet that goal. This minimizes risk.
  • Follow a disciplined plan to obtain an appropriate amount of the stock (this can take months or even years).
  • When the goal is met, sell, perhaps as gradually as you bought in. The whole process is likely to take several years. Buffett didn't care for any time horizon shorter than 3-5 years.

Doing so sounds simple, but is emotionally impossible for more than about one person in a million. Buffett had an emotional detachment from the decisions he made that just might be unique. He also had the business acumen to successfully arbitrage or control a company he had bought. It is one thing to understand what he did. It is another to do any part of it. That is why there are so few investment billionaires.

This reminds me, in a sideways way, of something Art Linkletter said when he was interviewed late in his life. He was asked how he had such success interviewing children for his show "Art Linkletter's House Party" (I was in the audience once, at age 8, but wasn't called up on stage to talk with him). He said, "I can tell you my secret, but you can't do it. The kids have to know you are at the same mental level." Ground Rules tells you Buffett's secrets. Bet you can't do it.