The Professor in the Cage: Why Men Fight and Why We Like to Watch — Jonathan Gottschall

How many people are willing to admit: “I concluded that I’d been wrong about MMA people, fighters and fans alike?” Admitting to being wrong is a paradoxical show of power: the power to say that you’re weak, rather than pretending to be strong, which only the strong can do. The Professor in the Cage is full of paradox, beginning maybe with the author himself: a cerebral professor who pursues fighting. I get why he does and why he gets the reactions he does. I don’t do MMA but people are surprised that I run and lift. Are those activities in natural opposition to cerebral writers? To anyone in cerebral professions? Not to me, but, evidently, to many.

prof_in_cageA lot guys start MMA because they fear for their own masculinity and want to prove it: “Football captains and bullies don’t need martial arts. They already know they are strong and tough. Guys turn to martial arts when they fear they are weak.” Or, at least, they do in situations—like most of the contemporary Western world—when their physical safety is mostly assured. Much later, in the final chapters, Gottschall says, “half my reason for taking the fight was to try to do a brave thing—to redeem myself, at least in my own eyes, for all the times I’d flinched when I was young.” There may be other possibilities for redemption. Like, say, letting go.

Or channeling your energy in different directions.

The stories of entrepreneurial competition are legion. Gottscahll puts his energy in physical direction, in part because he’s an English professor by day—and a failing one at that. We have certain things in common, Gottschall and me, except I got out earlier, and I haven’t published the books he has. In some ways, though, Gottschall is a warning: How can someone who has done so much interesting work still get no traction in English departments? He could be a cautionary tale in my own warning essay about grad school.

Towards the end of the book Gottschall writes,

I’ve said I took up fighting partly in hopes of getting fired. But that’s only half-true. Becoming a real college professor has been the great ambition of my adult life, and a big part of me is still reluctant to give up on it. In truth, I probably feared being fired as much as I hoped for it.

He also observes that, contrary to what he thought he should do, he finds that “if you train in MMA, it’s hard to stay in the closet about it.” Which may true of any passion or activity that makes you feel most alive. However much you’re supposed to hide it, it’s hard to suppress that instinct. It’s who you are. It makes you slightly evangelical. For Gottschall, too, he finds himself “on crutches, or limping in a walking boot,” which makes MMA fighting particularly hard to ignore. I sometimes reach for metaphors related to lifting and running because they’re handy and relatively easy to understand. They’re also what I know. All of us have stocks of experience and knowledge and that’s part of what colors, filters, or constructs our world.

At base Gottschall is looking for life. In this respect he is like a novelist. He finds it fighting more, maybe, than fucking (or perhaps another book on that subject is yet to emerge). It may not be a mistake that one of James Wood’s books is The Nearest Thing to Life and it in turn discusses novels. Life and life-feeling are tricky to define yet continually sought. Cooperation and competition are perpetually cooperating and competing with each other. In The Professor and the Cage they are physically embodied. That physical embodiment propels the book forward. I don’t think I’ll spoil the book by saying that its denouement is a 47-second fight. In ritualized fighting the journey is the destination.

We find life in many places. Gottschall finds it in the cage.

Other have written about him. “Survival of the Fittest in the English Department: Jonathan Gottschall tried to save literary studies. Instead he ruined his career” is interesting throughout. Is it a surprise that three of the most interesting academics in and around English—Gottschall, Camille Paglia, and William Deresiewicz—have such a strained relationship with the rest of the discipline? I don’t have their fortitude or seeming indifference to material possessions. Give me a new iMac and a $14 hipster cocktail stat. More importantly, Paglia’s two-decades-long protest has led to near-zero change. The structure of the system impedes change and will at least until tenure goes away. In the meantime, though, there is life in the cage.

Becoming Freud: The Making of a Psychoanalyst — Adam Philips

Becoming Freud could be called “Reading Freud” or “Defending Freud,” because it has little to do with how Freud became Freud—there are decent, let alone good, answers to this question—and much to do with other matters, worthy in their own regard. The story—it is only tenuously a biography—is consistently elegant, though not in a flashy way; Philips reminds me of Louis Menand and the better New Yorker writers in general in this regard. Consider this: “Freud developed psychoanalysis, in his later years, by describing how it didn’t work; clinically, his failures were often more revealing to him than his successes.” Twelve words before the semicolon are balanced by eleven after, and the paradox of failure being more “revealing” than success is unexpected and yet feels right. As the same passage shows, Becoming Freud is also pleasantly undogmatic, unlike many modern-day Freudians, or people who claim Freud’s mantle or cite his work. I ran into some of those people in academia, and the experience was rarely positive on an intellectual level. Some were lovely people, though.

becoming_FreudIt is hard to get around how much Freud was wrong about, yet Philips manages this deftly by interpreting him interpreting others, rather than on his conceivably disprovable claims. Freud in this reading is literary. In Becoming Freud we get sentences like:

Freud’s work shows us not merely that nothing in our lives is self-evident, that not even the facts of our lives speak for themselves; but that facts themselves look different from a psychoanalytic point of view.

But this sounds like a description of language or of literary interpretation, rather than the final statement on the relation of facts to the mind.Plus, I’m not sure facts are all that different—but I sense that Philips would argue that’s because of Freud’s influence. Philips further tells us that “We spend our lives, Freud will tell us in his always lucid prose, not facing the facts, the facts of our history, in all their complication; above all the facts of our childhood.”

In short, Becoming Freud is closer to literary interpretation than to biography, much as Freud was closer to a literary critic than a psychologist. I’m not the first to notice that he writes of patients more like characters than like people. Philips reminds us that Freud’s “writing is studded with references to great men—Plato, Moses, Hannibal, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Goethe, Shakespeare, among others—most of them artists; and all of them, in Freud’s account, men who defined their moment, not men struggling to assimilate to their societies. . .” These passages also, I think, show the book’s interpretative strengths and its sometimes exhausting qualities.

There is no real summing of Freud’s influence, when remains even when few will take his supposed science seriously. Yet despite the unseriousness of the science, talking therapy is still with us. The word “despite” seems appropriate in discussions of Freud: Despite the dubious effectiveness of talking therapy it remains in widespread use because we don’t have good alternatives. Many of us are socially isolated and lack friends; Bowling Alonew is prescient and TV and Facebook are not good substitutes for coffee or 3 a.m. phone calls. For centuries the West has valorized individual freedom and attempted to vaporize community bonds. We may be victims of our own success in this respect, and we’re now tasked with building communities based primarily on common interests. In therapeutic terms, we use the tools we have not because they are good but because they are better than nothing. Freud is in contemporary respects not good but he did articulate some of the ideas that would define the 20th Century. Getting a couple of major peaks is often more important than consistently being minorly right. I may be more inclined temperamentally towards the latter.

Sentences like this abound: “In this period of Freud’s life—as in any period in anyone’s life—the discrepancy between the documented and the undocumented life is striking, and can only be imagined.” Yet such issues sort of defeat the purpose of biography, no? It may also be why novelists like writing the lives of famous people: one gets to imagine their inner and outer selves without the pesky need for proof.

Philips’s Freud is an idealized person and for that reason I like this Freud better than most writers’s Freud. As Philips points out repeatedly the book is inadequate as a biography; he says all biographies are, which may be true to some extent, but the fewer the facts the less adequate the interpretations that might be drawn from them. Becoming Freud is similar to Alain de Botton’s Kiss & Tell, though Botton’s book is a novel. Here is The New Yorker’s take. There is a novel in there somewhere. We don’t know and likely can never know Freud. Few modern writers have such privilege, unless maybe they delete their entire email histories before they die.

There is not enough known about Freud to even make his biography feel novelistic. Whether this is good or bad depends on the reader.

Review: The CODE Keyboard (With Cherry MX “Clear” switches)

In the last three months, a bunch of people have written to ask if I’ve tried any keyboards since 2011’s “Further thoughts on the Kinesis Advantage, Unicomp Space Saver, and Das Keyboards” (evidently Google has brought my keyboard articles to the top of its search rankings again). The short answer is yes, but only one, and I bought it: the 87-key CODE Keyboard with Cherry MX “Clear” switches. The switches are slightly quieter than the Kinesis Advantage’s Cherry MX “Brown” switches, while still retaining excellent tactile feel. If I were using a conventional keyboard, I’d very slightly prefer the Unicomp Ultra Classic to the CODE keyboard, but in real-world usage the difference is tiny. Anyone who is noise sensitive or works in the same room as other people should use the CODE Keyboard, however, which is substantially quieter at little cost to feeling.

87-key CODE keyboard

There isn’t much more to say about the CODE Keyboard: it has backlighting, which is nice if you care about that sort of thing (I don’t). It comes in a 87-key version, which is also nice because it’s smaller and because many of us don’t need extensive number pad use. It feels durable and in the two or so years I’ve had it I haven’t detected wear. The Unicomp Ultra Classic has a slight edge in the durability rankings because its predecessors—the IBM Model M—have been in service for decades. Unicomp and IBM keyboards are so good that Unicomp suffers because it sells a product that doesn’t need to be replaced. The CODE Keyboard is likely to be similarly durable, though it’s only been on the market for a couple years. If it has any weaknesses they’re not apparent to me. The profile is close to as slim as it can be without compromising function. I’ve never been a fan of Apple’s chiclet-style keyboards, though they’re obviously necessary for laptops.

I haven’t been posting about keyboards, though, because companies haven’t been sending them lately—I guess that since Anandtech and Ars Technica have begun reviewing keyboards, a site targeting writers and readers rather than hackers and gamers gets bumped to the bottom of the priority queue. Outlet proliferation is even greater: there’s an active Reddit subsection devoted to them, and Googling “mechanical keyboards” brings up more background than I have time or inclination to digest. Writers also tend to be less vocal about their love for gadgets than tech people.

I’m also much less interested in experimenting with different keyboards because I don’t perceive much room for improvement over the good keyboards we have now. Until neural implants get developed and keyboards become as weird a curiosity as Victorian-era telegraph machines are today, we’ve probably gotten to be around as good as we’re likely to get.

87-key CODE keyboardWhen I first bought a Unicomp Ultra Classic I was in college and a couple tiny companies made mechanical keyboards, including Unicomp and Matias (whose early products were so screwed up I never tried the later ones). Today web startups are common and people are used to buying things online; dozen companies or more are making mechanical keyboards, and it’s hard to pick a bad keyboard. Any of them will be much better than the keyboards that ship with most computers.

Plus, as said earlier, the good options have mostly driven out the bad, or forced the weak early keyboards to be improved. Matias’s more recent keyboards apparently don’t have the ghosting that made earlier versions useless. Companies like Vortex are producing physically small keyboards that have programmable keys, as is the obnoxiously named POK3R. Other companies have produced wireless Bluetooth versions and versions with extra USB ports, neither of which matter to me. A profusion of ultra minor variations is a hallmark of maturity. Most of the keyboards still have Darth Vader or computer nerd aesthetics, but that probably speaks to their target audience. Except, possibly, for the CODE Keyboard, none of the current mechanical keyboards seem like Apple made them.

87-key CODE keyboardBut the real news is no news: a bunch of keyboards exist and they’re all pretty good. The word “slight” appears three times in the first two paragraphs because there aren’t clear winners. If you type a lot and aren’t interested in the minutia, get a CODE Keyboard and put the rest out of your mind. If you want a more ergonomic experience and have the cash, get a Kinesis Advantage and learn how to use it (and be ready for weird looks from your friends when they see it). Options are beautiful but don’t let them drive you mad.

Briefly noted: Mozart in the Jungle — Blair Tindall

Mozart in the Jungle is surprisingly good and an ode to all the sex musicians have, the drugs musicians do (“I watched Janet bent over the desk to snort cocaine through a straw” occurs on page 2), and most notably a cautionary tale about the economics that underlie their industry. In Mozart in the Jungle Tindall succeeds as few do yet still barely succeeds enough to feed herself. The later sections, as she contemplates her own approaching infertility, she turns melancholy, because she knows that while others in her age group have families she has an oboe. Many adventures at age 22 are slogs at 40, and this is something many 22-year-olds know in passing but don’t feel till they’re much older.

Mozart_in_the_jungleTindall’s relative success still feels like failure to her, financially and, often, artistically. Megan McArdle’s recent post on journalism strikes many notes similar to Tindall’s; the two are both writing about glamour industries battered by changing economics and excess supply (facilitated by digital transmission) relative to demand. In Tindall’s case, the number of financially secure oboe players is probably in the single and low double digits. She makes that threshold, but only in an artistically tedious way. For her, the smart thing to do is get out. When she makes decisions as a 20-year-old, she fails to realize that as a 35- or 40-year-old she will want and feel different things.

In school she finds that “my classmates toiled harder over their textbooks than I did over my oboe, yet they didn’t receive the same special attention.” Attention, though, is a dangerous stimulant, and so too are other stimulants, here recalled and made comic by an older mind reviewing a younger event:

Jose took off the same black turtleneck and dashiki he wore every day, the odor of his unwashed body mixing with cheap musk. We kissed, embracing as the climate of Brahams’s G-minor quintet washed over us. Jose peeled away my top gently, caressing my shoulders, nuzzling my neck and pulling back the covers. I could see another woman’s menstrual blood smeared on the bottom sheet, but I let him push me back on the bedding.

It goes… okay. The gap between fantasy and reality recurs through the memoir, to the very end:

A young person who dreamily “wants to go to Juilliard” or “be a concert pianist” should research the reality of those statements. [. . .] I’m one of those part-time musicians now. When I do play music, it is a joy. The reality of performing full-time wasn’t the fantasy I’d imagined as a little girl. What offers me a meaningful life today are the infinite possibilities in our modern world, of which music is only one. Thousands of people have been influenced by the Sierra magazine articles I’ve written about environmental conservation.

Incidentally, that quote also sums my feeling about grad school in the humanities.

Tindall also wistfully sees her Upper West Side neighbors go from libidinously ravenous, providing her a voyeuristic thrill as they have continual passionate sex, to parents, while Tindall plays the oboe and can’t or won’t maintain long-term relationships as her child-bearing years slip away like leaves off a tree in Boston in autumn. The memoir also came out before Tindall stalked her ex-boyfriend, Bill Nye, so there may be more to her story and character than Mozart in the Jungle.

Briefly noted: “Mate” is out and it’s good — Tucker Max and Geoffrey Miller

As previously noted, Mate: Become the Man Women Want is out and it’s good.* As the book says in the introduction, “Your culture has failed you and the women you’re trying to meet.” The book is part of the remedy. When I read the draft a couple months ago I told Tucker, “I wish I could teleport a copy of Mate back in time and give it to my 13-year-old self, and then instruct him to read it once a year for the next decade.” That’s still true. If you know any teenage or early 20s guys who are likely straight, give them a copy of this book. It is not going to be useful for everyone and indeed I expect some of you to strongly dislike it. People like how-to in many fields but often not this one.

Mate_CoverThe book emphasizes empathy: “If you always try to understand the woman’s perspective—what they want, why they want it, and how to ethically give it to them—then you will find it much easier to become attractive to them, and you’ll be much more successful with your mating efforts.” There are no shortcuts. For a while I’ve been describing the empathy gap, because I increasingly think that the average man doesn’t much understand or try to understand the average woman—and vice-versa. That’s why books like Mate, or Self-Made Man: One Woman’s Year Disguised as a Man, are valuable: they work to close the empathy gap.

Parts of the book will be obvious to older guys who have their lives together—that showering and grooming are important will not be news, but most of us can also probably remember the shambling smelly kids in school. Other parts counteract some of the more dubious parts of our culture, like the claim that women are attracted most by money and that all women are “gold diggers.” For most women most of the time other things matter most, like how “individual women just your fuckability by your social network. So you had better have proof—social proof—that it exists.” Most people, men and women, who want a relationship reasonably want to know the person they’re having a relationship with, and that means knowing friends and family—and knowing they exist. Many of us have had the experience of sleeping with someone who keeps us totally separate from the rest of their lives. Sometimes that can be good—we don’t “count”—but for actual relationships it’s not.

There are still hilarious metaphors and comparisons, like “[A lot of guys think they need to have a ton of money,] then the women will just magically appear, like monarch butterflies to milkweed, flies to honey, rappers to Scarface posters.” But there are fewer of them: The book is entertaining but it leans informational. I at least felt rueful for my teenage and college self when I read some sections. Perhaps my favorite moment occurs two-thirds through the book, when Max and Miller are noting some of the artistic skills that women like, like music, storytelling, and, saliently for this quote, drawing:

The key thing here is to cultivate actual skill rather than indulge in modernist expressionism or abstract art. The poet John Ciardi pointed out, “Modern art is what happens when painters stop looking at women and persuade themselves they have a better idea.”

I’ve never read as concise and accurate description of why so much modern art is so bogus.

The bibliography is useful.


* As also previously noted, I now know Tucker well enough to not be an unbiased critic.

Enlightenment 2.0: Restoring sanity to our politics, our economy, and our lives — Joseph Heath

There is something futile about this otherwise consistently interesting book, and Heath says as much towards the end:

It should go without saying that writing books about the decline of reason is not the sort of thing that is likely to slow the decline of reason. It is simply preaching to the choir. Anyone who makes it to the end of a three-hundred-page book on the subject is obviously not part of the problem. Furthermore, the project of reversing the trend is too big and too complicated for any one person to accomplish much.

Enlightenment_heathNonetheless I enjoyed and recommend Enlightenment 2.0; here is Alex Tabarrok’s review, which introduced me to the book. Its subjects and sources seem eclectic at first: Hollywood movies, Fox News, politics, 18th Century writers, philosophers, economists. Not all its examples are plausible. But the single golden braid of what rationality means runs through the book, and Heath identifies patterns I’ve inchoately felt but never quite described. Readers who are familiar with the extensive irrationality literature—Thinking, Fast and Slow is perhaps the best, though not the only, example—may find sections repetitive. Yet the overall impact is strong.

Reading the irrationality shows how rational, logical people are proving that people are irrational and illogical. Yet it takes rationality to demonstrate how we aren’t, and that alone may justify rationality (the existence of the contemporary world shows that it is possible for rationality to flourish). In most domains, too, individuals suffer most of the consequences of irrationality: If you spend more than you make, you suffer more than me; if you sleep with people you shouldn’t, you suffer more than me. The exception comes from voting; I don’t see Bryan Caplan cited in the index but Heath points to many of the themes Caplan does in The Myth of the Rational Voter, another recommended and yet depressing book because it posits a problem to which there is no good solution. Comedy is one partial solution, as Heath says about liberal comedians attacking conservative lunatic initiatives, and so is setting up the right systems, or right sort of systems:

To the extent we are able to achieve something resembling rationality, it is usually because we have good kludges. As productivity expert David Allen put it, ‘To a great degree, the highest-performing people I know are those who have installed the best tricks in their lives. I know that’s true of me. The smart part of us sets things for us to do that the non-so-smart [sic] part responds to almost automatically, creating behavior that produces high-performance results. We trick ourselves into doing what we ought to be doing.’

I would call myself a “high-performing person” and would not call myself a productivity expert, but one of my most-used programs prevents me from using other programs effectively: Mac Freedom. For ten dollars, this program will turn off your Internet access for a specified period of time (you can get it back by rebooting, should you really need it). The Internet is amazing but can also be noxious and distracting. Freedom reminds me that I should pursue my long-term goals and that most “news” is total garbage and that my life (and the world) is not going to get better based on whether I inhale someone else’s intellectual garbage. I’d argue Facebook is even worse than news in this respect, and, now that everyone is on Facebook, the quality of Facebook has declined further: people are worried about what their moms and bosses and employers will think, so they shunt the real parts of their lives to pseudonymous services.

Still, much news is superficially attractive and has that dangerous quality of feeling like learning even when it isn’t. I’m susceptible to it and, even before reading about Allen, I’d developed some strategies for resisting. Those strategies aren’t perfect and depending on what I’m working on I may genuinely need the Internet, but most of the time concentration is the scarcest resource, rather than information. And well-structured information is scarcer than “information,” which makes books more valuable than many articles. Still, I need to trick myself into remembering this.

Heath notes that some concepts are not intuitive, don’t make us “feel” correctly, and yet are essential for the workings of modern life. But it’s easy for demagogues or just plainly ignorant politicians to appeal to feelings that are popular but simplistic and wrong. Heath says that liberals have a harder time with this, as their preferred policies require coordination and complex understanding of multiple moving parts.

I like the observation in “I can tolerate anything except the outgroup,” in which Scott Alexander observes that Team Red and Team Blue seem more often to decide on issues based on opposing whatever the other one wants, rather than initial dispassionate analysis followed by decision.

My favorite issue that works along these lines is housing policy, which is especially interesting because both Team Red and Team Blue tend to oppose sensible, affordable housing policies, but for slightly different reasons. As I wrote here (and have written elsewhere), housing affects everything from schools to the real power of money (which may be different from “income”) to the environment to intellectual growth and development. Yet housing policy has devolved in the last forty or so years and is barely on most people’s radar. Markets are dysfunctional due to land-control uses. Team Blue is concerned about incomes, and sometimes even real incomes, and housing policy is hugely important in this domain. Team red is concerned about markets, at least superficially, and yet housing and land development is widely distorted. (Team Red often opposes markets when markets don’t produce their desired social outcomes, which is a topic for another time.)

As a side note regarding the subtitle, I’ll say that I don’t feel my life to be insane or not sane. I’ll also say that this is not true only of politics, but also some weirdly large swaths of the humanities:

[Harry] Frankfurt’s important contribution [via the book On Bullshit] was to have distinguished between lying and bullshitting. What characterizes the bullshitter is that, unlike the liar, who at least maintains the pretense of telling the truth, the bullshitter has simply opted out of the truth-telling game. There is no pretense with the bullshitter. Although producing ordinary declarative sentences that would normally be evaluated under the categories of truth and falsity, the bullshitter is not even trying to say something that sounds true.

When someone has opted out of the truth-telling game there is almost no reason to talk to them.

Much of Enlightenment 2.0 is distressing to those of us who like to imagine ourselves as rationalists. Yet the world is still by many metrics improving. I’m tempted to start a new series in which every December I post “Good news in review,” since most news is biased towards problems, deaths, fuck-ups, and the like. Yet overall by most metrics people are living longer, healthier, and more productive lives. That’s a huge but under-emphasized point. Many of the big, preventable killers in the United States—like cars and guns—could be better dealt with through policy, as long as people understand just how many other people die from those causes. Most of us don’t attend to them, however, and prefer salient deaths like shark attacks and terrorism.

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.

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