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.

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.



Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar — Cheryl Strayed

Tiny Beautiful Things is not an Apple product but a mid-sized beautiful book that you should read. I say this even as someone with reservations about some of the content; as with many books that deal with love advice I wish more had been known and said about evolutionary biology. Yet it may be that we’ve evolved to not want to confront truths we perceive as ugly: better to turn away and signal our own goodness than to say we’re often incentivized to do things that current social conditions tell us are wrong.

TinybeautifulthingsThe end of the preceding paragraph if intentionally vague, but let me say that the book is beautifully written, bizarrely so given that it’s an advice column collection; perhaps any form, attended to with enough care, can become beautiful.

It’s hard to quote a section from Tiny Beautiful Things, even a long section, that conveys its tone. Most possible quotes sound treacly out of context (“You are loved”) or don’t appropriately convey Strayed’s mix of stories (she worked with high-risk middle-school girls and used that experience as a parable) and abstract points (see the previous mention: “You are loved”). Then again too, many people are not loved in the ways they want to be loved or by the people they want to love them. Strayed’s first answer to the first question in the book is, “The last word my mother ever said to me was ‘love.'” She starts with stories—parables, really—and in doing so she follows a millennia-old strategy; people remember the stories from the Christian Bible and the Torah but forget the tedious sections that recount lineages or offer specific rules about worship or other practices. Stories and math are eternal. A lot of specific instruction remains bound by time.

In the same opening question, she says too:

There’s a saying about drug addicts that they stop maturing emotionally at the age they started using, and I’ve known enough addicts to believe this to be true enough. I think the same thing can happen in longtime monogamy. Perhaps some of your limited interpretations about what it means to say the word “love” are left over from what you thought it meant all those years ago, when you first committed yourself to your ex-wife. That was the past, as you say, but I suspect that a piece of yourself is still frozen there.

One could alternately say, “We are all growing or dying.” The amazing thing is the number of people who choose the latter, intellectually and psychologically.

Some sections feel stoic, in the best way, as when Strayed says, “Suffering is what happens when truly horrible things happen to us.” I’d add, too, that sometimes suffering means nothing except itself. Much suffering teachings nothing and ennobles nothing. It just is, though we live in a culture in which everything must mean something. It often doesn’t.

Then there are the sections where Strayed could go deeper than she does. In one, a woman writes that the man who knocked her up isn’t terribly interested in being involved with her or the baby. They have a tenuous relationship and he leaves—probably seeking another nulliparous woman. Charles Murray’s Coming Apart applies here, but it isn’t story-driven or personal enough to merit inclusion. The fundamental forces are there but ignored.

I write this often, but I wish Strayed had read more evolutionary biology; seemingly inexplicable and cruel romantic acts and betrayals become explicable. Since I began—first I think with Geoffrey Miller’s The Mating Mind and then with others, like David Buss’s TheEvolution of Desire.

But Darwin has still not propagated outwards towards pop culture. Maybe we’ve evolved to rejection the insights evolutionary biology offers. We’re storytelling animals, and we want to reject stories that make us question our own consciousness and decision-making process. (Blindsight, though brilliant, may be unpalatable in this respect.) Railing is more fun, though, than looking for fundamentals. Words like “feel” and “feelings” are everywhere. Words like “incentives” are nowhere.

Yet the beauty reminds. So does rock-like reality: “We get work done on the ground level. And the kindest thing I can do for you is to tell you to get your ass on the floor.” A lot of us want the adoration and the success and the whatever without getting our asses on the floor.

I wrote more about Strayed in “Standard At-Risk Youth or Ex-Offender Empowerment Program: Improve Lives Through ‘X!’“, though that post may be more specialized than you’re seeking.

Thoughts on “The Anthropology of Childhood” by David Lancy

As noted previously, The Anthropology of Childhood is excellent, and now I can say that it is excellent throughout. There are too many points to summarize the book effectively or even to hit many of its main points. One could productively read it with Bryan Caplan’s Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids, since both books argue, sometimes implicitly, that upper-middle class Western child-raising practices have become crazed, neurotic, and conceivably even counter-productive (and almost certainly counter-productive in life-satisfaction terms). Consider this example, from Anthropology:

An interesting contrast can be made with WEIRD [Western, Educated, Industrial, Rich, and Democratic] society, where girls are not usually assigned sibcare [sibling care] duties and where young mothers labor alone without the guidance of their old female relatives. “The relative isolation of the nuclear family . . . means that each woman rears her newborn infant from scratch” and young, urban mothers are unprepared for squalling, active, and very unhappy babies (Hubert 1974: 46–47). The foibles of clueless parents have proven to be quite entertaining, as evidenced by “reality” TV shows such Nanny 911, which aired in the USA between 2004 and 2007, and Supernanny (2004 – 2011), in which a competent nanny brings order and harmony to dysfunctional families.

anthro_of_childhoodYet almost no one considers this point, or many similar points.

Wealth may enable a wide range of non-adaptive behaviors and beliefs that can be sustained primarily because we’re rich enough to sustain them. Bedrock beliefs held by many Westerners about the nature of humans and families are actually culturally selected, and some of those beliefs surprised me. Nerds, however, may be unpopular because nerds often attempt to interject facts into belief- and feeling-based conversations; I suspect many citations to The Anthropology of Childhood, and especially the sections on infanticide, will not go down well.

Still, self-deception also helps explain why so many people adapt seemingly non-functional behaviors; Charles Murray describes many of those behaviors in Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, a book that like many true books that puncture popular beliefs is deeply unpopular in many quarters. Most people can, if they choose to, easily see whether their partners exhibit traits related to fidelity, tenacity, conscientiousness, grit, and so forth—but many if not most of us choose to ignore these obvious signals. Our values are observed everywhere.

There seems to be a growing bifurcation in American society between crazed, neurotic, and anxious upper-middle class two-parent households in which little Madison needs ice-skating lessons, soccer practice, oboe lessons, and round-the-clock enrichment activities, or else she’ll never be a “success” and will become a drug-addicted prostituted without even a public-school degree, and single-parent low-income households in which any babysitter is a good babysitter and survival is everything. The former need to chill out and the latter… I actually don’t see a good public policy for the latter, though both the political left and right have many strongly held opinions, neither of which have done much to countervail the larger trends Murray describes. Another writer, Michel Houellebecq, describes them as well, though much more obliquely.

The Anthropology of Childhood is, as Michael Erardjan suggests in the New York Times, going to become my go-to baby gift for those who have recently spawned, though careful readers may find sections disconcerting:

Another common tactic used by new mothers is to exaggerate the resemblance between the newborn and their husband [. . .] In spite of the confidence with which humans claim “he looks just like his father,” experimental studies show that babies cannot be reliably paired to their parents on the basis of appearance (Pagel 2012: 315). Studies in our monogamous, adultery-condemning society have shown that 10 percent of men designated as the biological father of a particular child are not (Buss 1994: 66–67), so the baby’s anonymous appearance confers a survival advantage.

If 10 percent of men designated as the biological father of a particular child are not, one has to ask what kinds of fictions prevent a society in which DNA testing is cheap and easy from automatically doing so as a matter of standard practice. The answers may get very ugly very fast.

I want badly for Lancy to write an advice column; something like Cheryl Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar is beautifully written and yet so utterly conditioned by contemporary American beliefs, and so utterly unfamiliar with cross-cultural comparisons or evolutionary biology. Read it anyway—that beauty! that feeling!—but read it with Lancy. Compare and contrast. Imagine what Lancy might say about the myriad of problems medicated, neurotic Americans experience, or think we experience. Most contemporary advice columnists are as much repositories of conventional thinking as religious figures were a century or two ago. Lancy is different. Lancy knows things. But the things he knows we instinctively want to reject—which is why reading him is so valuable.


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