Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future — Ashlee Vance

Vance’s Elon Musk biography is informationally good but aesthetically average, or even slightly below average (aesthetics are graded non-linearly). You should read it, though, if for no other reason than because Musk is like a High Elf in Middle Earth at the time of The Lord of the Rings: he seems like he belongs to an other age, and I mean that as an extreme compliment. Even compared to other High Nerds he is extreme, and extreme to an extent I thought I understood but didn’t until this book and maybe not even after this book. The scale of his ambition and achievement is epic—so epic that he attracts haters as rock stars attract groupies. The same sexual energy groupies channel into music haters channel into Musk. Elon Musk reminds us, probably inadvertently, that criticism is easy and achievement is hard. Internet culture makes criticism easy, cheap, and pervasive, but achievement remains undebased.

elon_musk_vanceThroughout the book Musk comes across as different from baseline humans; I’m often told that I seem different (and this is rarely meant as a compliment, though even its slightly negative connotation rarely shades to insult), but Musk is way different in terms of values, and in behavior. He tells his then-wife Justine that if she were his employee that he would fire her; as a kid he “seemed to drift off into a trance at times. People spoke to him, but nothing got through when he had a certain, distant look in his eyes. This happened so often that Elon’s parents and doctors thought he might be deaf.” He had a “compulsion to read” and “From a very young age, he seemed to have a book in his hands at all times.” I identify: I have the same problem today, but without the need to constantly innovate and to to beat everyone, everywhere, all the time, at all things. I’m okay with being; Musk, it seems, has never been okay with being.

In life there is much superficial talk about values, like what a person wears or eats, but very little about real value, like how a person makes life vastly better through the provision of goods, services, and arts that can’t exist without an individual driving those things into existence. We think of artists as special because they do those things, and technology and business are Musk’s arts. But he cannot act alone: someone like Lucian Freud, as described in Geordie Greig’s biography, can lose friends and alienate people in a way that someone building businesses can’t (and Musk appears not to have Freud’s lasciviousness, which I note as a fact but do not condemn). Musk has that arguably harder task, though it is a task he assumed early and has never wavered from. His Sauron is things wrong with the present, and he is the Aragorn who can set them right, but his battle is more ambiguous and harder to achieve than Aragorn’s. Corporeal foes are rare but attractive to the human mind, while abstract foes are common and ignored. The link between belief and behavior is stronger in Musk than almost anyone else’s.

It is common to say that some person overcame “incredible odds,” but Musk really did, and is continuing to do so: the full story is outrageous and its flavor can’t really be gained here, but Vance writes that “As 2007 rolled in 2008, Musk’s life became much more tumultuous. Tesla basically had to start over on much of the Roadster, and SpaceX still had dozens of people living on Kwajalein awaiting the next launch of the Falcon 1.” Things get worse. One or both companies were days away from bankruptcy. During that period his ex-wife, Justine, took him for a shocking amount of money in divorce court; at that time Philip Greenspun and friends’s book Real World Divorce: Custody, Child Support, and Alimony in the 50 States didn’t exist, but too many stories like Musk’s drove its creation. If we had any on-the-ball literary agents, they’d be selling Real World Divorce to conventional publishers.

The most interesting question raised by Elon Musk may not be about Musk’s psychology, but about the psychology of his haters (sometimes Vance comes across as one: the book’s introduction is terrible, and there is some idiotic commentary on pages 347 – 350 that I’m not going to further address). Something drives people to root for the failure of others. Legions of assholes, at Valleywag and elsewhere, have wanted, gleefully, to see SpaceX and Tesla fail. The reasons for this are strange: both companies may reshape human life for the ambiguously better. Why root for someone who is doing unalloyed good to fail? I don’t have a good answer. I’m not sure anyone does.

People read the negative crap and because of readers, writers produce it. In “Subtle Mid-Stage Startup Pitfalls” Jessica Livingston writes:

An unfortunate by-product of success is a greater amount of public criticism. Once you make it to the mid-stage, you may start to become well known, especially if you have a consumer product. Two things can happen at this point with the public that always catch founders by surprise: first, complete strangers will start to assign bad intentions to everything you do. Second, the media will only be interested in one thing about you: controversy. Because controversy equals page views. No actual controversy? No problem; they’ll manufacture some.

You can’t prevent yourself from being a target. It’s an automatic consequence of being successful. So the best you can do is react in the right way when people attack you. To some extent you have to resign yourself to letting people lie about you. You can’t engage with every crazy hater or troll. But sometimes you do need to react, especially if something happens that makes more people angry at you than usual. So someone should be watching Twitter, but perhaps not the CEO.

And be very careful about what you say, both as a company and as individuals, even in what might seem like private conversations. Anything you say can turn into a news story nowadays. And you don’t even have to have said something bad–just something someone could willfully misinterpret.

Musk has been willfully misinterpreted by too many people with big megaphones. He has been misinterpreted at least somewhat by Vance, whose journalistic inclination to want to see both sides, even when one side is wrong, occludes his vision. The first pages of the biography wrongly give doubt too prominent a place. I will note that I wouldn’t want to work for Musk’s companies: I don’t have the temperament for 80-hour weeks in pursuit of any cause, however amazing, and his level of abrasiveness would make me quit. Whatever the flaws in his methods, they are effective. Towards the end of the essay Livingston says that companies must above all else “Ship great things.” Musk does that, and, more amazingly, he ships great things that are made of atoms, rather than things made of bits. Awe should have a prominent place in stories about him. Awe has been evacuated from much of modern life, but it still exists in human-dwarfing technical projects.

Too bad we so rarely stop to feel it.

Like many successful (and presumably unsuccessful) alpha nerds, “Elon’s constant yearning to correct people and his abrasive manner put off other kids and added to his feelings of isolation.” Nerds care more about being right than liked (though this can be comical when they’re determined they’re right and they’re, or when they’re dealing with indeterminate problem spaces like social life).

We find that Elon’s parents divorced but little about what might be the real reasons why they did. His school experience was horrible, though at least it appears he wasn’t raped, as was apparently somewhat common at British boarding schools for a long time. He worked as few others do (something he has in common with Kelly Johnson). Extreme achievement often or maybe always requires extreme effort, which is an underappreciated point, especially in contemporary political discourse. One person said, “Elon was the most straight-laced dude you have ever met. He never drank. He never did anything. Zero. Literally nothing.” Except, apparently, “video game binges.” At Zip2, his first startup, “Musk never seemed to leave the office. He slept, not unlike a dog, on a beanbag next to his desk.” The metaphor is again her interesting and maybe misplaced.

That said Musk isn’t today and wasn’t then a messiah: “Musk feel into the classic self-taught coder trap of writing what developers call hairballs—big, monolithic hunks of code that could o berserk for mysterious reasons. The engineers also brought a more refined working structure and realistic deadlines to the engineering group.” In searching for a business, he thought that, based on working at the Bank of Nova Scotia, “bankers are rich and dumb [. . . which] had the feel of a massive opportunity.” A few pages later: “He had an inkling that the bankers were doing finance all wrong and that he could run the business better than anyone else.” Yet the big banks are still with us, and while Paypal has been reasonably successful it hasn’t displaced big banks and if anything the big banks are bigger and richer. Musk also favored Microsoft servers for a startup, which is totally bizarre, then or now, and X.com (Paypal’s predecessor) almost failed due to technology problems.

The relationship between Musk and his ex-wife, Justine, became sordid, and to be fair however much I admire Musk I wouldn’t want marry him. Oddly, too, years ago I read Justine’s novel Bloodangel, but it wasn’t any good.


Here is one okay review from Slate. So far almost all the commentary I’ve seen on Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future has been by people who miss the plot. There are better essays to be written. As so often happens journalists are letting us down, but then again they’re letting us down because we let them let us down.

Lurid & Cute — Adam Thirlwell

No one knows anything and no one beyond the protagonist has any consciousness in Lurid & Cute. It’s the sort of book whose good reviews make one learn to distrust good reviews. The book is not bad. It just sort is, as if someone hoovered up the thoughts of a bright but unambitious hipster and failed to organize them adequately. The narrator isn’t as intellectually associative as someone like Roland Barthes or Camille Paglia, whose styles can sometimes be forgiven for their insights.

Perhaps unsurprisingly I’ve been unable to sell Lurid & Cute on Amazon, where repeated price drops get matched by bots with excess inventory. Sometimes the market speaks and it’s wrong; other times, it speaks and it’s right. The novel starts cleverly:

I liked the bright vibe. But also I knew that although I liked the vibe it was not the vibe of my usual bedroom, just as the girl who was sleeping beside me in what seemed to be a hotel room was not my happy wife. It was that kind of problem situation, and while I acknowledge that some people would not feel that this is after all so bad – and that waking beside a person who is not ethically your own is just the usual way most humans enter the moral realm and therefore, kiddo, live with it – still, I could not be so suave.

But it goes nowhere, albeit in a way that’s hard to describe. The preceding sentences are representative: Thirlwell or his narrator is fond of length, and if you too are fond of length and of digression loosely related to whatever is kind of at hand, you may like it too. The style is often simultaneously too normal and too weird: “The entire history of my wasted time seemed sad to me, like it turned out to be a menace where no menace seemed to be visible, and I berated myself that, vigilant as I always was for signs of menace, I had not noticed that the true menace was right there [. . . ]” The book seems to offer itself as an example of wasted time, too, on par with the YouTube videos mentioned on page 22, but maybe its point is that time wasted and time well-spent are similar. Or more likely the point is the lack of a point, in which case there better be a great story in there. There isn’t here.


Try Merritt Tierce’s Love Me Back instead. That novel stays with me long after I finished. It’s a novel about struggle that’s not a struggle to read, a novel indirectly about politics that doesn’t slap readers in the face with politics, a novel about sex as it’s had now without being polemical. There’s so much there and so little in Lurid & Cute.

Kelly: More than My Share of It All — Clarence L. “Kelly” Johnson with Maggie Smith

Kelly: More than My Share of It All comes by way of Paul Graham and I see why Graham likes it: Kelly is the sort of person who barely exists anymore. Kelly worked on numerous important aerospace engineering projects from World War II into the 1970s, and he oversaw vital projects like the SR-71 Blackbird and the U-2 Reconnaissance plane—both of which were major innovations. In an era of the totally fucked up F-35 and numerous similar systems, it’s shocking to read about genuinely innovative projects completed on time and sometimes even under budget. It’s shocking too to read about someone who sounds like a person rather than a bureaucrat, and who argues for responsibility instead of buzzwords:

There is a tendency today, which I hate to see, toward design by committee—reviews and recommendations, conferences and consultants, by those not directly doing the job. Nothing very stupid will result, but nothing brilliant either. And it’s in the brilliant concept that a major advance is achieved.

kellyAt the time Kelly worked, large aerospace and related companies acted like Google or Apple do today—perhaps because their founders still ran them. Kelly writes about how he once “telephoned Walter Baird [of the Baird Atomic Company] personally since he and I had worked together on a number of other Skunk Works projects. He immediately agreed to pick up his end of the log.” A direct call to a decision maker is often an improvement over hundreds of hours of committee bullshit. Many people know this intuitively but many systems, in universities and business, have run to committee. Kelly writes, “I fear that the way I like to design and build airplanes one day may no longer be possible.” In that sentence I think he should have “may” before “one,” but the important point remains: that day has arrived.

One could profitably read this book next to Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future. Musk is a Kelly-like figure, and, together with Zero to One, Kelly tells a story about how large swaths of the nominal technology sector have become sclerotic. Every single person working on the F-35 should be required to read Kelly. But the people at the top of fat and lax military-industrial companies are already getting theirs.

The sense of differences extends to Kelly’s university experience, where he writes that “The professors were broadminded people, with interests and contacts outside the university. They took a personal as well as professional interest in their students.” Today “a personal as well as professional interest” leaves professors open to university politics and sexual harassment claims. Money is tighter; he writes of how the University of Michigan built a wind tunnel and let Kelly operate it part time. He says, “The money didn’t mean anything to the university; renting the tunnel afforded them a chance to see what the students could do.” Money today means a lot to universities, and the faculty seem powerless to reverse that trend.

Kelly and Kelly are about taking reasonable risks with good cost-to-payoff ratios. Risk does imply the possibility of failure, though, and reasonable failure isn’t tolerated in many big institutions. That may help explain why startups are so important, why much innovation happens on the Internet, and why Amazon.com’s ebook systems are so important for writers. Much of Kelly is not written particularly well, but the larger points it makes make it a fascinating historical document anyway, and a reminder of what can be accomplished by determined people in systems that let them succeed.

Briefly noted: Men: Notes From an Ongoing Investigation — Laura Kipnis

Men is charming but inessential; like many essay collections it is better taken from a library than bought, though I bought and resold my copy. That being said the essays within were detailed, thoughtful, good on a sentence-by-sentence level, and made me re-evaluate almost of all of the subjects (like Larry Flynt or a movie I’d never heard of: House of Games.

The Flynt essay shows Kipnis being thoughtful and non-dogmatic:

[Hustler] was also far less entrenched in misogyny than I’d assumed. What it’s against isn’t women so much as sexual repression, which includes conventional uptight femininity, though within its pages, not everyone who’s sexually repressed, uptight and feminine is necessarily female: prissy men were frequently in the crosshairs too. In fact, Hustler was often surprisingly dubious about the status of men, not to mention their power and potency […]

men_kipnisThe ending of the essay is also excellent for reasons I’d rather not spoil: if John McPhee read this sort of thing, I could imagine him smile.

House of Games is not as visually compelling as it should be; the movie is ripe for a remaking because Kipnis is right about the script, and, as she says (perhaps without fully appreciating it):

Every woman adores a con man—to steal a page from Sylvia Plath. Especially one who knows you better than you know yourself, who looks into your eyes and reads your dirty secret desires, who knows what a bad girl you really are under the prim professional facade, and then takes you for everything.

Is it true? Maybe, for some values of “truth.” That said, not all of the sentences are true: “As we know, modern market societies require ambition, because they’re premised on social mobility, which is essential to a flourishing democracy.” All of those clauses are untrue: we don’t know what the sentence says we know; market societies don’t require ambition (they may sometimes reward the unambitious with a quasi-basic income, allowing them to do other things) and are based on giving people what they want, and democracy doesn’t necessarily mandate market societies, at least in theory. Most people, however, want More (defining “More” broadly), and democracies attempt on some level to give people what they want.

Like so many culture writers Kipnis is missing evolutionary biology, and the addition of it would make her even less politically palatable to the chattering set (already her essay “Sexual Paranoia Strikes Academe,” at the link and included in the collection, is accurate and contrary to Right Thinking and therefore all the more despised).

Kipnis complains about clichés, which is a good sign, but she’s still willing to use the word “problematic” (5), which is a bad sign. But the rest of the book is fun enough to make the bad sign ignorable.

Life: The life of the artist edition

I lived for a considerable time with an older, extremely talented actress. She scorned my cleanliness theory and maintained that theatre is shit, lust, rage and wickedness. ‘The only boring thing about you, Ingmar Bergman,’ she said, ‘is your passion for the wholesome. You should abandon that passion. It’s false and suspect. It sets limits you daren’t exceed. Like Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus, you should seek out your syphilitic whore.

Perhaps she was right, perhaps it was all romantic drivel in the wash of pop art and shady drug scenes. I don’t know. All I know is that this beautiful and brilliant actress lost her memory and her teeth and died at fifty in a mental hospital. That’s what she got for expressing her feelings. (35)

—Ingmar Bergman, The Magic Lantern, which should be bad but isn’t. Consider it recommended. I think like the actress yet live closer to Bergman.

How many actresses have lived like the actress but not got what she got “for expressing her feelings?” Be reluctant to generalize from anecdote!

From 2015 many things stand out, among them corporal punishment, the prevalence of disease, the need to make music when it cannot be effectively recorded and played back at will, and relentless reading in a land without TV.

The gym, otherwise known as The Temple of Iron:

[I]f we compare the practices of organized religion and the gym, we can identify many similarities: the faithful of both church and gym travel to a separate building, wear special clothes, eat special food and take part in shared rituals that are performed with complete absorption and dedication. For those for whom religion is no longer a marker of identity, and who do not take part in the social aspects of religious observance, going to the gym fulfils many of the same individual and social needs. The major difference is, of course, that churchgoers polish their eternal souls with a view to attaining happiness everlasting, while gym-goers train their bodies for rewards in the here and now.

That’s from The Temple of Perfection: A History of the Gym, which so far oscillates between thoughtful (as in the quoted paragraph) and exceedingly annoying (“The body, how it is interpreted, represented, used, shaped, and presented in private and public, plays a central role in the transformation of abstract social discourses into lived actions and identities”—which could say, “People interpret other people based on their bodies,” but why use eight words when eighty are available?). Always be wary of writers who use the word “discourse,” because it’s so often a marker of bogosity, and a sign that the writer should read Paglia’s “Junk Bonds and Corporate Raiders: Academe in the Hour of the Wolf.”

under_armourI go to the gym or run most days, and I have a fascination with articles about the saints of apparel industry—like “Skin in the Game: Under Armour knows athletes. Can it sell to everyone else?” (notice the eroticized accompanying photo, shot by someone who knows his business) or “Chip Wilson, Lululemon Guru, Is Moving On.” One does not have to be a writer for Mad Men to see that these companies are trying, perhaps successfully, to tap into mythic associations and aspirations; both articles could fit into Virginia Postrel’s book The Power of Glamour. Glamour is sometimes its own reward.

The gym, at least the one I go to, is more multiethnic than most of my friend circles or the parties I go to. The net of people caught by the squat cage is wider. There are also interesting gender divisions: men do more free weights and women do more cardio (though they’d probably be better served by free weights). Modesty in the gym is however not a virtue, and in most gyms I’ve seen a lot of eye-fucking goes on, for perhaps obvious reasons. If people once met and mated through religious organizations and now do while pressing, one could add this example to Chaline’s book.

 

 

Laptops, students, distraction: hardly a surprise

Jake Seliger:

I originally wrote this in 2008 but just updated it.

Originally posted on The Story's Story:

This post grew out of a comment responding to the question, “What Restrictions Should Student Laptops Have?” It’s of interest to me because I’m a graduate student who teaches English 101/102 and takes classes at the University of Arizona. In addition, this post dovetails nicely with “Desktops versus laptops.”

I hadn’t realized that the questioner in the original Slashdot post referred to high school students who would keep the computers.

The short version: leave restrictions or lack thereof to the teachers or instructors.

For background, read Why I ban laptops in my classroom, I Don’t Multitask, professor vs laptop and then Paul Graham’s Disconnecting Distraction followed by Is Google Making Us Stupid? in The Atlantic. If Paul Graham finds the Internet ceaselessly distracting, what hope do freshmen have? I hear from friends that they feel like they can’t go more than a half hour…

View original 1,015 more words

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