Berkshire BYD Technology Bet Based on Munger’s View of BYD Manager


“BOOK VALUE: Berkshire Hathaway’s Charles Munger reads businesses well — and, as a bibliophile, he goes through several books a week.” Source of caricature and caption: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.

At a Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting a few years ago, I remember hearing Warren Buffett say that he stays away from technology stocks because he does not know how to judge which technologies are likely to succeed in the long-run. So I was a bit puzzled by the news that Berkshire Hathaway was investing in BYD, a Chinese company producing an electric car.
The passages quoted below may partially solve the puzzle: the investment in BYD was pushed by Charlie Munger and David Sokol, and was based more on a judgment about the quality of BYD’s management, than the prospects for BYD’s technology.

(p. C1) Mr. Munger’s views have pushed Berkshire into some surprising directions. Several years ago, Mr. Munger learned of an obscure Chinese maker of batteries and automobiles called BYD Inc., which hopes to create a cheap, functional electric car.

A Chinese tech company is nothing like the shoe and underwear makers Berkshire had been buying. But Mr. Munger was enthusiastic, less about the technology than about Wang Chuanfu, who runs BYD. Mr. Wang, Mr. Munger says, is “likely to be one of the most important business people who ever lived.”
Mr. Buffett was skeptical at first. But Mr. Munger persisted. David Sokol, chairman of Berkshire utility MidAmerican Energy Holdings Co., paid a visit to BYD’s factory in China and agreed with Mr. Munger’s assessment. Last year, MidAmerican paid $230 million for a 10% stake in BYD.
“BYD was Charlie’s idea,” Mr. Buffett said. “When he encounters genius and sees it operating in a practical way, he gets blown away.”

For the full story, see:

SCOTT PATTERSON. “Here’s the Story on Berkshire’s Munger.” Wall Street Journal (Fri., MAY 1, 2009): C1 & C3.

If the Medici Had Not Intervened, Galileo “Would Have Been Killed”

(p. D7) The Franklin Institute and its aspiring blockbuster, “Galileo, the Medici & the Age of Astronomy,” are something of an odd couple — a circumstance explained, like so much else, by history.
. . .

Meanwhile, the exhibition leaves provocative questions — about the nexus of church and state, as well as science and faith — unanswered. If Galileo was still a court favorite, and science was so revered in Florence, why weren’t the powerful dukes able to prevent his 1633 trial, heresy conviction, and sentence of house arrest?
Galileo’s patrons did, in fact, intervene on his behalf, Filippo Camerota, vice director of the Institute and Museum for the History of Science and one of the exhibition curators, said in an interview. “If the Medici were not there,” Mr. Camerota said, “he would have been killed.” Good to know.

For the full commentary, see:
JULIA M. KLEIN. “Exhibition; What Galileo Saw.” Wall Street Journal (Tues., APRIL 28, 2009): D7.
(Note: ellipsis added.)

RIP Marjorie Grene, Who Helped Polanyi with Personal Knowledge


“Marjorie Grene in 2003.” Source of photo and caption: online version of the NYT obituary quoted and cited below.

The NYT reported, in the obituary quoted below, that philosopher Marjorie Grene died on March 16, 2009, at the age of 93.
Although I studied philosophy at the University of Chicago, my time there did not overlap with Marjorie Grene’s and I don’t believe that I ever met her, or ever even heard her speak (though I did occasionally walk past her former husband David Grene, on my way to talk to Stephen Toulmin).
I am increasingly appreciating Michael Polanyi’s book Personal Knowledge in which he introduced his view of what he called “tacit knowledge.” In particular, I am coming to believe that tacit knowledge is very important in understanding the role and importance of the entrepreneur.
So if Marjorie Grene was crucial to Personal Knowledge, as is indicated in the obituary quoted below, then she is deserving of serious consideration, and high regard.

(p. 23) In Chicago, she had met Michael Polanyi, a distinguished physical chemist turned philosopher; she ended up helping him research and develop his important book “Personal Knowledge” (1958). The book proposed a far more nuanced, personal idea of knowledge, and directly addressed approaches to science.

“There is hardly a page that has not benefited from her criticism,” Dr. Polanyi wrote in his acknowledgments. “She has a share in anything I may have achieved here.”
. . .
Her sense of humor sparkled when she was asked about being the first woman to have an edition of the Library of Living Philosophers devoted to her — Volume 29 in 2002. Previous honorees included Bertrand Russell and Einstein. “I thought they must be looking desperately for a woman,” Dr. Grene said.

For the full obituary, see:
DOUGLAS MARTIN. “Marjorie Grene, a Leading Philosopher of Biology, Is Dead at 98.” The New York Times, First Section (Sun., March 29, 2009): 23.
(Note: ellipsis added.)

The reference for the Polanyi book, is:
Polanyi, Michael. Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy. Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 1958.