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.

The Steve Jobs Biography

Like everyone else, I started Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs biography today. It’s wonderful. In the first pages, Isaacson gives a sense of how Jobs both viewed himself and was viewed in his place at Apple: “When he was restored to the throne at Apple [. . . .]” How many companies could see their CEOs as occupying thrones? Almost no one has or had the medieval level of control Jobs did over Apple. But he didn’t exercise that control capriciously: he used it to make things people want. Lower on the same page, Isaacson describes his unwillingness to write on Jobs at first, but he says that he “found myself gathering string on the subject” of Apple’s early history. “Gathering string:” it’s something I do all the time, using the methods Steven Berlin Johnson describes in this essay about DevonThink Pro. One imagines the string eventually being knit into a sweater, but first one has to have the material.

A page later, Isaacson says “The creativity that can occur when a feel for both the humanities and the sciences combine in one strong personality was the topic that most interested me in my biographies of Franklin and Einstein, and I believe that it will be a key to creating innovative economies in the twenty-first century.” By now, such an assertion is almost banal, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t right and doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be asserted. Whenever you hear someone creating the false binary C. P. Snow discusses deconstructs in Two Cultures, point them to Jobs, who is merely the most salient example of why there aren’t two or more cultures—there’s one. You can call it creative, innovative, human-centered, discovery-oriented, bound by makers, or any number of other descriptions, but it’s there. It’s not just “a key to creating innovative economies in the twenty-first century,” either. It’s a key to being.

One more impression: while discussing the Apple II and the role of marketing guy Mike Markkula, Isaac describes the three principles Markkula adopts: “empathy,” “focus,” and, most interesting to this discussion, the “awkwardly named [. . .] impute.” The last principle “emphasized that people form an opinion about a company or product based on the signals that it conveys. ‘People DO judge a book by its cover,’ he wrote.” He’s right, and that brings up this book as a physical object: it’s beautiful. A single black and white picture of Jobs as an older man, still look vaguely like a rapscallion, dominates the cover. Another picture of him, this time as a younger man, dominates the back. The pages themselves are very white, and the paper quality is high; ink doesn’t bleed through easily, and the paper resists feathering. Jobs agreed not to meddle with the text; Isaacson says “He didn’t seek any control over what I wrote.” But he did meddle around the text, however: “His only involvement came when my publisher was choosing the cover art. When he saw an early version of a proposed covert treatment, he disliked it so much that he asked to have input in designing a new version. I was both amused and willing, so I readily assented.”

Good. I wonder if Jobs had “input” in the paper quality too. Sometimes I wonder if publishers are themselves trying to encourage people to adopt eBooks through the use of lousy paper stock and spines in books, especially hardcovers. Take Steven Berlin Johnson’s excellent book, Where Good Ideas Come From. The cover is black, with yellow text shaped like a lightbulb. Excellent design. But the pages themselves are a brownish gray, like newsprint, and the glued binding feels flimsy. The paperback is probably worse. It’s not the kind of book one would imagine Steve Jobs allowing, but the state of Johnson’s book as a physical object indicates what publishers value: cutting corners, making things cheap, and subtly conveying to readers that the publisher doesn’t care enough to make it good.

Publishers, in other words, are ruled by accountants who probably say that you can save $.15 per book by using worse paper. Apple was ruled by a megalomaniac with a persnickety attention to detail. People love Apple. No one, not even authors, love publishers. The reasons are legion, but when I think about what a lot of recent books “impute” to the reader, I think about how Steve Jobs would make them do it differently if he could. If you’re reading this in the distant future, the idea of reading words printed on dead trees is probably as strange to you as riding a carriage would be to me, but for now it matters. And, more importantly, I think books will continue to exist as physical art objects as well as repositories for knowledge as long as the Jobs and Isaacsons of the world make them.

I’m not far into the biography and feel the call of other responsibilities. But I leave Steve Jobs reluctantly, which happens to too few books of any genre. And I have a feeling that thirty years from now I’ll be reading an interview with some inventor or captain of industry who cites Steve Jobs and Steve Jobs as inspirations in whatever that inventor accomplishes.

Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong — Terry Teachout

I meant to write a long review of Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong, but enough very competent sources have that I have little I contribute beyond generic praise. I know virtually nothing about Armstrong and read few biographies; therefore I’m little able to comment on how Pops deals with the genre. But those who presumably know more than I do are impressed: The Atlantic speaks here, for example, and you can read more here, here, or here, at The Second Pass.

Teachout argues that Armstrong was more complex than his jovial public persona demonstrated. To me, the more interesting part of Pops is its subtler meditation on the relationship of the artist to society—in Armstrong’s case, race was an abiding the issue—and the virtuosity of the writing of both subject and object. Two samples will have to suffice: one of my favorite lines Teachout wrote comes early, on page 23, when he says of Louisiana, “Rarely does [the Northerner] linger long enough to pierce the veneer of local color with which the natives shield themselves from the tourist trade.” I suspect that applies to many places, and it echoes Samuel Johnson’s apt, “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.” That could apply any vibrant, culturally ambitious, and expanding city, just I might Teachout’s comment reveals more about place than many stories of travel.

As for Armstrong, he saw through much that not all do, judging from shows like Entourage or the laments of other celebrities:

I can’t go no place they don’t roll up the drum, you have to stand up and take a bow, get up on the stage. And sitting in an audience, I’m signing programs for hours all through the show. And you got to sign them to be in good faith. And afterwards all those hangers-on get you crowded in at the table—and you know you’re going to pay the check.

It’s that last bit—”and you know you’re going to pay the check”—that resonates most, the little indignant detail that is nonetheless part of what Armstrong implies one has to do to succeed in the music and show business. Other businesses have their little indignities, and it’s one of Teachout’s considerable strengths that he never leaves the grounding of his subject yet offers many roads from his subject to the wider world. I point to just one, but there are many other available if you’re willing to walk through 400 short pages in Louis Armstrong’s shoes.

Mr. Playboy: Hugh Hefner and the American Dream — Steven Watts

The standard for general nonfiction books these days is Alex Ross’ The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, which reaches astonishing depth in its use of music to explore history and culture as much as vice-versa. A book need not be as sophisticated as that one to still be worth reading, but less ambitious ones still ought to at least strive toward that standard. Steven Watts’ Mr. Playboy: Hugh Hefner and the American Dream doesn’t, or at least doesn’t obviously. It starts with a promising enough subject—a cultural symbol for much of the last 50 years—and an equally promising premise—that he will illuminate society based on one symbol. Alas, neither occurs, and we’re left with a book that does neither particularly well.

The reasons why a decent book that could be good isn’t aren’t always obvious, even if symptoms of its problems are. I keep coming back to James Fallows’ comment:

Here is something that is common knowledge in the publishing business but that few “normal” readers know: that the average article in a good magazine is much, much more carefully edited than almost any book. Yes, books can last forever while magazines go away after a week or month. But in a high-end magazine – like, well, the Atlantic, or the New Yorker, or the New York Review of Books, or one of a dozen others that invest in good copy editors and fact checkers – you’re far less likely to find typos, grammar errors, careless repetitions and contradictions, or simple made-up facts than you’ll find in books.

I don’t think it’s an accident that Ross normally writes for the New Yorker, as his book is impeccably edited. Before discussing the content of Mr. Playboy, its noxious style and innumerable mistakes have to be noted because they so distract from the reading of it. In Charlie Wilson’s War, such problems were relatively minor but noticeable. In Mr. Playboy, they’re glaring and enormous. We learn that: “[…] Hefner also emerged as a serious shaper of, and commentator on, modern American values.” He was also a “serious, influential figure in modern culture,” who “played a key role in changing American values, ideas, and attitudes” (all on 3). Hefner and Playboy shaped rather than just reflecting “American values” (4). He also helped transform “sexual values” (4). He personified “the mass-culture overhaul of modern society” and “he was a child of popular culture” (both on 5). The magazine became a “cultural litmus test [… for ….] modern American culture” (6). Playboy became a “cultural trendsetter” (6, again). Hefner positioned himself “as a dissenter in modern America” but “expressed many of the deepest impulses of mainstream American culture [… appearing on] the cultural skyline […]” (7). And he “presented a compelling vision of the good life in modern America” (7). I don’t know how often “modern” is used and in how many different ways and contexts, but the author or editor should do a “find” using a word processor and figure it out.

Enough of the introduction. The first chapter tells us Hefner’s boyhood fantasies “mirrored larger patterns in America’s emerging culture of self-fulfillment […]” (12). “The popular culture milieu of Depression-era America” helped shape Hefner (18). The Hefner family was susceptible to “modernizing influences” and “American popular culture” (19). “In certain ways they had embraced modernity.” Hefner’s mother “displayed a modern side” (both 21). Her modernity is mentioned again on page 26, where we also learn “American popular culture molded Hugh Hefner’s boyhood character,” and it’s mentioned one more time on 32. On 27, we learn more about “Popular culture.” After college, “Hefner’s emotional and ideological maturation received an added boost from American popular culture” (56). “Playboy’s appeal was rooted more deeply in the broad social and cultural milieu of postwar America” (72). You don’t say? I had no idea popular culture affected Hefner or Playboy.

On page 35, Hefner was dating a girl but “met someone else.” Two lines down, he “met a young woman who had been a classmate.” On page 40, “He became roommates with Bob Preuss, established a fresh circle of friends, and threw himself into a new round of experiences.” Why not just describe the circle and experiences? Further, we find out that “Bob Preuss, a roommate at the Granada House, was struck by [Hefner’s] candor in talking about sex” (46). Really? I had no idea this Bob guy existed.

On the consumer end, he advocated “consumer efflorescence” and “consumer products” and gave a model for the “stylish consumer” (all on 4). The early 1900s saw “the explosive growth of a consumer economy” (this phrase combining a cliche and repetition on 19). Alfred Kinsey’s findings shocked a society “committed to consumer conformity” (45). We learn about “an economy of abundance” and “material abundance” (the latter twice) on 73). On 74 we find the Cold War “molded these elements of abundance […]”, and that Life magazine ran photos showing “consumer amenities.” And on 75, we hear more of “people intoxicated with abundance.” Playboy encouraged “young men into a fuller enjoyment of American abundance in all of its material and emotional dimensions” (80). On page 83, we learn of “a climate of […] widespread abundance.” On page 104, we learn that postwar American has “consumer abundance.” Chapter seven is titled “An Abundant Life.” Mr. Playboy has an abundance of abundance.

On page 86, Playboy begins through “working in the small Superior Street town house in an atmosphere marked by common purpose and camaraderie […],” and we find out below that “A sense of closeness marked the office atmosphere.” At the top of the next page, “An early staffer observed, ‘There was a closeness there […]'” followed by, “Amid this warm atmosphere [….]”. Did anyone edit this book in a modestly serious fashion? If that weren’t enough, cliches occur too frequently, as when Hefner and Playboy “had taken the country by storm” (3). His first wife “scarred him for life” (48). “Everything seemed possible” (61). Something “captures [Hefner’s] imagination” (62). “It helped drive the final nails into the coffin of traditional Victorian morality […]” (121).

Watts chronically makes the kind of mistakes I mark in freshmen papers. He says, “[Consumer society] was intimately connected to a larger ethos of pleasure, leisure and entertainment” (129). How is it connected? He says “important elements of fantasy went into the presentation of these “real” young women.” That sentence isn’t needed because he goes into those element later in the paragraph. He says of one Playboy staffer who feels superior to the organization, “The reasons were complex” (92). Don’t say the reasons are complex—show why they are complex.

There’s more, but I don’t have the heart or, more importantly, the interest to observe every problem that could’ve come out of a student essay. Most of my examples came from the first half of the book because I didn’t read the second as carefully. Mr Playboy also shows why magazines like The New Yorker and The Atlantic are so good, aside from their editing: either might’ve taken the 70,000 or so words in this book, compressed them a 6,000 word article, and lost little if any meaning while giving the virtues of compression. If Watts had hired me, many of these problems could’ve been avoided. The above barrage is free, however, and if anyone (like his publicist, for example) knows how to forward said advice to Watts before the paperback edition, I’d highly encourage you to do so. It might alleviate some of the book’s problems. There is an inherent danger in studying a person wittier and deeper than you are in that quotes and jokes from one’s subject will upstage the writer. On page 106, surrounded by banal commentary, Watts quotes Hefner saying:

There’s nothing dirty in sex unless we make it dirty. A picture of a beautiful woman is something that a fellow of any age ought to be able to enjoy […] It is the sick mind that finds something loathsome and obscene in sex.

It’s the kind of elegant stylistic and intellectual formulation Watts seldom gets to. Perhaps the most self-referential part of Mr. Playboy and its author comes amid a discussion of Hefner’s enormous and apparently misguided effort to write a piece called “the Playboy philosophy” every month. Watts says, “While [Hefner’s] unadorned prose could be crisp and illuminated with flashes of insight and passion, more often it was turgid and repetitive.” This sentences applies to Mr. Playboy, and Watts shows no sense of the irony in his committing of the same sins he projects on Hefner.

Still, occasional passages, if not redemptive, do convey signifance. Watts likes the amusingly sophomoric through phrases about how “a new commitment to pleasure penetrated [tee-hee] into the most intimate, personal realm of human life…” Bits have surprising pathos, like a quote from one of Hefner’s former girlfriends described on page 205. He also reveals an original thought about Playboy and its creator on page 53 when he says:

Hefner also struggled to shape his views of the world into some kind of cohesive form. In typical adolescent fashion, this bright young man had soaked up a mishmash of ideas and theories during his high school and college years, ranging from Hollywood movies to Freud, popular cartoons to Darwin, Protestant theology to Tarzan.

Such random influences can’t be so unusual given American pop culture, and this section helps show some of the internal contradictions of Playboy’s later philosophy, or faux-philosophy. Such moments are too rare in Mr. Playboy, and I don’t think they’re the fault of the subject—they’re the fault of the writer. Maybe if Watts better connected the facets of Hefner’s life to anything besides themselves, the book would have been improved. As it was, the ten or so girlfriends listed through the latter half of the book only demonstrate that Hefner famously likes to date young. If there’s a better known facet of his life, I’m not sure what it is. Perhaps one day a better biographer will come along and show us what’s really new.

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