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Harry Newton's In Search of The Perfect Investment Newton's In Search Of The Perfect Investment. Technology Investor.

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8:30 AM EST, Thursday, May 10: OOPS. That's the title for today's column. We used to call it CHECK. And our corporate motto was CHECK. CHECK. CHECK. The idea came because IBM had THINK. But I always that THINK was too non-specific. It didn't cause you to do anything. But CHECK. That was something you could sink your teeth into. Like checking why I was losing tens of thousands of dollars on my Kagara Zinc. ... at least according to Smith Barney's online brokerage account, which had "forgotten" to update its system since March 22. Or the contractor whose spreadsheet software was automatically bumping his fee, when he had agreed to a flat fee. Or the telephone bill that was billing us for lines and equipment we no longer had.

I could go on and on. The grossest mistakes come in accounts which look pretty, organized and have authority, i.e. they were printed by a computer. Many accounts look like they draw from a real "database." But I've learned otherwise. Many companies simply allow their employees to add any old crap into their monthly billing system, with no checks and balances. And it's worse when the salesman sells you a deal, but the invoice doesn't reflect the plan. And the reason? The company's accounting system database of "plans" doesn't include the "plan" which you agree to. (The phone company -- any phone company -- is especially egregious on this.

What's most amazing -- maybe not -- is how all the "mistakes" are in their favor, never in my favor.

The Wizard Drops the Curtain. This came from yesterday's New York Times Op Ed page. It's a fascinating piece on Mr. Buffett. Richard Dooling wrote it:

Omaha: THE Berkshire Hathaway Corporation held its annual shareholders meeting here last weekend, drawing a record 27,000 capitalist faithful from all over the world to worship at the Qwest Center in downtown Omaha. Onstage, the chairman and investor in chief Warren Buffett and his partner and vice chairman, Charles Munger, once again entertained the well-washed and well-heeled masses and educated them in the doctrine of value investing.

And what’s not to worship? Berkshire shareholders gained $16.9 billion in net worth last year alone, an 18.4 percent increase in per share book value. Even more fun, the guy in charge, despite being the second-wealthiest man in the world, is a prize ham who loves to play his ukulele, show a video of himself “winning” a rigged one-on-one game against LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers, and then kick off the shareholder meeting by sending the singer Jimmy Buffett onstage to pretend he is a distant cousin who believes “that blood is thicker than water” and therefore he — the Margaritaville Man — should be Mr. Buffett’s successor.

Succession was much discussed at both Saturday’s shareholder Q. and A. session and at the Sunday press conference that was sandwiched between the shareholder-only shopping day at Borsheim’s Fine Jewelry and the annual dinner at Gorat’s Steak House. Warren Buffett is 76 years old, and Mr. Munger is 83. Nobody sitting with me in that audience wanted to think about anybody but Mr. Buffett in charge; his talk of stepping down is as if the Wizard himself, in an unwelcome inversion of Oz protocol, keeps calling attention to his own mortality.

On the operations side of Berkshire Hathaway, Mr. Buffett tells the crowd, he has three outstanding candidates who could replace him as chief executive, and that Berkshire’s board of directors knows exactly how to proceed and who should take over if he should “die tonight.” On the investment side, Berkshire is not as well prepared. In the short term, Mr. Buffett says that he would rely on Lou Simpson, the portfolio manager of Geico insurance (a Berkshire subsidiary), to fill in for him if the need arose. But Mr. Simpson is only six years younger than Mr. Buffett, and Berkshire is looking for a candidate who could stay in charge for the long haul.

Mr. Buffett and Mr. Munger, therefore, propose to find a person or persons with a proven ability to invest large sums and to whom they could entrust a chunk of cash — say, “just a few billion or so” — in a portfolio of investments that could quickly be enlarged, if performance warranted, to the near-hundred-billion dollars managed by the Wizard himself.

Despite all the talk about a viable successor, Mr. Buffet looked to be in good health and has no plans to retire. He merrily fielded questions about his diet while washing down See’s chocolates with regular Coke (“I hate diet anything”). He attributes his continuing vigor to never smoking or drinking alcohol, to calories (“I like lots of calories”), to the longevity of his ancestors, and to the lack of “job stress.”

He was his usual self at the microphone, making impromptu riffs laced with wisecracks, concrete investment wisdom, jokes and an encyclopedic recall of the history of investing, with special attention to debacles brought on by the hubris of anybody who tried to get rich quick. If a reverie takes him off into a flight of high-level financial jargon on how executives are compensated, he immediately catches himself and abruptly summarizes with homespun wisdom like, “Compensation committees are cocker spaniels when they should be Dobermans.”

The proceedings weren’t all merrymaking. Environmentalists and members of Indian tribes begged Mr. Buffett to have the Berkshire subsidiary PacifiCorp remove hydroelectric dams from the Klamath River in northern California. And after the Q. and A. session, Mr. Buffett allotted half an hour for shareholders to enter pleas for Berkshire to reconsider its investment in PetroChina, a subsidiary of China National Petroleum, on the theory that the parent company does business in Sudan and therefore theoretically contributes to the genocide there. Mr. Buffett was respectful and politic, even visibly moved, but also of the opinion that he could not influence either matter. All in all, the faithful seem unenthusiastic about the search for a successor. Perhaps Berkshire could invest in anti-aging technologies, or maybe a biotech outfit that could clone the man whom Charles Munger referred to at one point as “a ferocious learning machine.”

As Mr. Buffet answered questions over the weekend, the list of his successor’s essential qualifications seemed to grow. Any candidate, or candidates, should be able to “see around corners” and be “wired to detect risks” including new and unforeseen investment hazards for which the past offers no guidance. In line with Mr. Buffett and Mr. Munger’s antipathy for lavish executive compensation, Berkshire’s new stock picker in chief would be expected to remain at the helm for the long term, even though he or she could make more elsewhere.

A few times Mr. Buffett expressed the fear that his successor would be the type of investor who would make 99 intelligent decisions and then one fatal blunder. Both he and Mr. Munger characteristically played down expectations, proclaiming that managing $100 billion in assets is like steering an ocean liner and that no one managing such a vast enterprise could hope to beat the Standard & Poor’s 500 by more than 10 percent per year. Instead they’d be more than pleased to find an investor who could outperform major stock indexes by several points and not make any huge blunders.

Even though Mr. Buffett says that he personally thinks better and more clearly in Omaha than he does in New York (“less chatter”), his successor will not be required to live here. His replacement could live anywhere, because all that is really required is “the same information everybody else has and a quiet room to think in.”

Hmmm. That’s a tough one for us Omahans to take. Still, we might be appeased if this successor met a few other qualifications. First, any new chairman or investor in chief of Berkshire Hathaway should be able to play the board to finesse the king-jack of trump at bridge when the bid is seven spades. The candidate should also be able to strum the ukulele; live in a house in central Omaha that he purchased in 1958 for $31,500; and be willing to appear with Regis Philbin on a mock game show, “Who Wants to Be a Jillionaire?”, and then leave in disgust when told the prize is only a billion.

This person should also have read every book on investments in the Omaha Public Library (some of them twice) before age 10, should be a disciple of the economist Benjamin Graham; should be in love with investing and returns but care little for spending the money; should be able to donate more than $30 billion to the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation; should be above all else funny and ... well, there may be more.

The perfect Mother's Day present: This is the $204 Philips 8-Inch Digital Picture Frame.

Grab a memory card. Load it with pictures of the family. The thing will cycle through hundreds of photos -- as many as your memory card will hold. Memory cards it supports are: CompactFlash Card type I, Memory Stick, Memory Stick PRO, MultiMediaCard and SD Memory Card. I saw a one gigabyte SD card on sale today for $18.97 from Cyberguys. That gig will easily hold 670 digital photos from my favorite point and shoot camera, the Canon SD800.

The clarity on this thing is so incredible, it's distracting.

Justifiable homicide
Sarah walked into a pharmacy and told the pharmacist that she needed some cyanide.

The pharmacist asked, "Why in the world do you need cyanide?"

Sarah explained she needed it to poison her husband.

The pharmacist's eyes got big and he said, "Lord, have mercy. I can't give you cyanide to kill your husband! That's against the law! I'll lose my license; they'll throw both of us in jail. Absolutely not, you can NOT have any cyanide!"

Sarah reached into her purse and pulled out a picture of her husband in bed... with the pharmacist's wife.

The pharmacist looked at the picture and replied, "Well, now. You didn't tell me you had a prescription."

New kosher computers
Kosher computers now available. differ from non-kosher computer:

+ The "Start" button has been replaced with the "Let's go. I'm not getting any younger!" button.

+ You hear "Hava Nagila" on startup.

+ The cursor moves from right to left.

+ When Spell-checker finds an error it prompts, "Is this the best you can do?"

+ When you look at erotic images, your computer intones, "If your mother knew you did this, she would die."

+ It comes with disk cleaning software from Manischewitz that advertises it gets rid of all the "schmutz und drek."

+ When running "Scan Disk" it prompts you with a "You want I should fix this?" message.

+ The PC shuts down automatically at sundown on Friday evenings.

+ It comes with two hard drives - one for fleyshedik (business) and one for milchedik (games).

+ Best of all, if you have a kosher computer, you can't get SPAM.

This column is about my personal search for the perfect investment. I don't give investment advice. For that you have to be registered with regulatory authorities, which I am not. I am a reporter and an investor. I make my daily column -- Monday through Friday -- freely available for three reasons: Writing is good for sorting things out in my brain. Second, the column is research for a book I'm writing called "In Search of the Perfect Investment." Third, I encourage my readers to send me their ideas, concerns and experiences. That way we can all learn together. My email address is . You can't click on my email address. You have to re-type it . This protects me from software scanning the Internet for email addresses to spam. I have no role in choosing the Google ads. Thus I cannot endorse any, though some look mighty interesting. If you click on a link, Google may send me money. Please note I'm not suggesting you do. That money, if there is any, may help pay Claire's law school tuition. Read more about Google AdSense, click here and here.
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