Elon Musk: Book Review
Elon Musk, Walter Isaacson (2023). This is the biography of Musk, once the richest person in the world and the creator of Tesla, SpaceX, and multiple other businesses. A person getting the seemingly impossible done, while simultaneously having serious psychological problems—claiming both Asperger’s and bipolar disorder. Musk apparently sees himself as the savior of humankind, including his mission to Mars when humanity crumbles on earth. I’ve tried to understand elites and what drives them toward Machiavellian ruthlessness. Did Genghis Khan also view himself as humanity’s savior?
Musk is a risk-taker and seems to prefer risky ventures immediately over more thoughtful long-term approaches. His shoot-from-the-id responses backfired with Twitter (now X); his authoritarian approach with a nasty streak does not play well with most of us and especially poorly with advertisers. Thankfully he has expressed no interest in meat packing. An interesting thought experiment is to what extent the infamous elites throughout history had similar personalities to Musk. Isaacson notes similarities of Musk to Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, while Tim Cook is quite different. How important are Musk’s characteristics for long-term progress?
One of Musk’s strange views is that the world is underpopulated. Given the world has 8 billion people and headed for 10, I can only guess what he’s referring to. Granted, the big birthrates are in the less-developed world, but the Earth would be a better place with fewer of us. My number one guess is Musk means people like him, preferably fathered by him. I believe he has 11 kinds, mostly using IVF.
Near the end, Isaacson has a good summary. “The explosion of Starship was emblematic of Musk, a fitting metaphor for his compulsion to aim high, act impulsively, take wild risks, and accomplish amazing things—but also to blow things up and leave smoldering debris in his wake while cackling maniacally. His life had long been an admixture of historically transforming achievements along with wild flameouts, broken promises, and arrogant impulses. Both his accomplishments and his failures were epic. That made him revered by fanboys and reviled by critics. … He regularly propelled himself to the Karman line of craziness, the blurry border that separates vision from hallucination. His life had too few flame diverters” (pp. 611-2).
Isaacson compared Musk to Steve Jobs. Steve Wozniak asked: “Did he [Jobs] have to be so mean? So rough and cruel?” (p. 6). That could be asked about a lot of elites. Was Musk the most extreme?
The book is long and most of it the detailed impressions of Isaacson having spent a couple years with Musk to create a complex perspective. I’m particularly interested in the individual companies he founded and what drives him. Here goes.
Chapter 1: Adventures.
Chapter 2: A Mind of His Own: Pretoria, the 1970s. Musk was born in 1971. “He had a preference for things that were more precise, such as engineering, physics, and coding. … But he didn’t have the emotional receptors that produce everyday kindness and warmth and a desire to be liked. He was not hardwired to have empathy” (p. 19).
Chapter 3: Life With Father: Pretoria, the 1980s.
Chapter 4: The Seeker. “Physics could teach everything about the universe except why. … Will artificial intelligence develop in ways that benefit and protect humanity, or will machines develop intentions of their own and become a threat to humans” (p. 30).
Chapter 5: Escape Velocity: Leaving South Africa, 1989. Chapter 6: Canada.
Chapter 7: Queen’s: Kingston, Ontario, 1990-1991. Learning: “How to work collaboratively with smart people and make use of the Socratic method to achieve commonality of purpose” (p. 45). Strategy games were a Musk passion.
Chapter 8: Penn: Philadelphia, 1992-1994.
Chapter 9: Go West: Silicon Valley, 1994-1995. “I thought about the things that will truly affect humanity. … I came up with three: the internet, sustainable energy, and space travel” (p. 57).
Chapter 10: Zip2: Palo Alto, 1995-1999. “Munk was a demanding manager, contemptuous of the concept of work-life balance. … Like Steve Jobs, he genuinely did not care if he offended or intimidated the people he worked with, as long as he drove them to accomplish feats they thought were impossible” (p. 64). “His new wealth allowed his desires and impulses to be subject to fewer restraints, which was not always a pretty sight. But his earnest, mission-driven intensity remained intact” (p. 66).
Chapter 11: Justice, Palo Alton, the 1990s. Chapter 12: X.com: Palo Alto, 1999-2000. Musk founded X.com which turned into PayPal.
Chapter 13: The Coup: PayPal, September 2000. Others viewed entrepreneurs as risk mitigators rather than risk takers. Musk “had a level of certainty that causes him to put all of his chips on the table” (p. 86). PayPal went public in 2002; Musk’s payout was $250 million.
Chapter 14: Mars: SpaceX, 2001. After the moon, the US space mission almost stopped with the grounding of the shuttle missions.
Chapter 15: Rocket Man. Musk had an idiot index, finished product costs at a percent of materials, which was extremely high for rockets. He did audacious things, then figure out how to make them profitable. He focused on the cost to get each pound of payload into orbit, beginning with increasing the thrust of engines and making rockets reusable.
Chapter 16: Fathers and Sons, Los Angeles, 2002.
Chapter 17: Revving Up: SpaceX, 2002. First, SpaceX rockets propelled by engines using liquid oxygen and kerosene. Tom Mueller was Musk’s first hire. Musk wanted people that made things happen. People worked hard, but were afraid to deliver bad news or question a decision.
Chapter 18: Musk’s Rules for Rocket-Building. SpaceX, 2002-2003. Manufacture in-house to save money while moving urgently, given an impossible schedule. Problem of demoralizing employees. Steve Jobs had his equivalent reality-distortion field. What could go wrong? “Musk took an iterative approach to design. Rockets and engines would be quickly prototyped, tested, blown up [rapid unscheduled disassemblies], revised, and tried again, until finally something worked” (p. 114).
Chapter 19: Mr. Musk Goes to Washington: SpaceX, 2002-2003. Gwynne Shotwell was collegial and became CEO. NASA and the Defense Dept. used cost-plus contracts to Boeing or Lockheed, giving the government control but there were no incentives to keep costs down, innovate, or do anything quickly. SpaceX bid on performing a specific task or mission. Making money required success.
Chapter 20: Founders: Tesla 2003-2004. Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning started a company called Tesla. JB Straubel built all-electric vehicles using lithium-ion batteries. They formed a partnership under Musk.
Chapter 21: The Roadster: Tesla, 2004-2006. Musk wanted to build the manufacturing process and factories for mass-production. US Manufacturers started spinning off parts makers in the 1970s, requiring far-flung supply chains. By 2005 Tesla had a “mule” to show off and test before production. Musk was board chair and Eberhard CEO. Musk got involved in design and engineering.
Chapter 22: Kwaj. To move quickly on SpaceX rockets they tested on a Pacific atoll (near the equator with extra thrust), a struggle to get to, plus the hazards of salt water.
Chapter 23: Two Strikes: Kwaj, 2006-2007. The result was rocket failures.
Chapter 24: The SWAT Team: Tesla, 2006-2008. Manufacturing proved more difficult than design, especially making them efficiently. Lithium-ion cells were glued together to form bricks, then assembled into a battery pack with a cooling mechanism. The design of the car was too complex. The initial roadster cost $140,000 or more.
Chapter 25: Taking the Wheel. Tesla, 2007-2008. Eberhard was out. Chapter 26: Divorce, 2008. Chapter 27: Talulah.
Chapter 28: Strike Three: Kwaj, August 3, 2008. Tesla was hemorrhaging cash and SpaceX crashed three rockets.
Chapter 29: On the Brink: Tesla and SpaceX, 2008.
Chapter 30: The Fourth Launch: Kwaj, August-September, 2008. The Falcon was the first privately built rocket to launch and reach orbit. SpaceX got a $1.6 billion contract with NASA to make 12 round trips to the Space Station.
Chapter 31: Saving Tesla. Tesla got a loan from the Dept. of Energy and got a contract from Daimler for battery packs.
Chapter 32: The Model S: Tesla, 2009. Musk wanted a large touch screen.
Chapter 33: Private Space: SpaceX, 2009-2010. Falcon 9 became the SpaceX workhorse carrying cargos and astronauts into orbit and the Space Station and return to earth. They cut costs, like a NASA latch costing $1,500 to a $30 mechanism.
Chapter 34: Falcon 9 Liftoff: Cape Canaveral, 2010. SpaceX.
Chapter 35: Marrying Talulah, September 2010. “Musk’s emotional settings range from callous to needy to exuberant” (p. 214).
Chapter 36: Manufacturing: Tesla, 2010-2013. Beginning in the 1980s CEOs shut down domestic factories to offshore to cut costs, as the US lost a third of manufacturing jobs. Offshore meant little feel to improve products. Musk wanted tight control (part of obsessive-compulsive disorder). He wanted all phases under his direct control. (Steve Jobs, by comparison was only interests in conception and software, and offshored production.) Tesla bought a retired Toyota factory and Model S cars rolled out in June 2012. Musk and Straubel partnered with Panasonic for batteries.
Chapter 37: Musk and Bezos: SpaceX, 2013-2014. Jeff Bezos had Blue Origin.
Chapter 38: The Falcon Hears the Falconer, SpaceX, 2014-2015. Practicing to land a reusable rocket, “grasshopper.”
Chapter 39: The Talulah Roller Coaster: 2012-2015.
Chapter 40: Artificial Intelligence, OpenAI, 2012-2015. DeepMind for computer neural networks for AI. Amazon had Alexa. Sam Altman and Musk set up nonprofit OpenAI, with ChatGPT. Then Neuralink to create chips to connect human brains to computers. OpenAI went for-profit.
Chapter 41: The Launch of Autopilot, Tesla, 2014-2016. They considered radar or lidar.
Chapter 42. Solar: Tesla Energy, 2004-2016. SolarCity for solar panels created by Musk cousins. They used an aggressive sales force. Tesla started making refrigerator-size batteries for the home called Powerwall and poor-performing SolarCity bought by Tesla.
Chapter 43: The Boring Company, 2016. Musk created this company to build massive tunnels to move motor vehicles.
Chapter 44: Rocky Relationships. Trump won in 2016, Musk hoped he would govern as an independent, not a resentful right-winger, then considered him a conman.
Chapter 45: Descent into the Dark, 2017. Nevada Gigafactory made batteries for Tesla. Generally, assembly lines started with people which were replaced by robots over time. Musk did the opposite, automating everything, then discovering that it didn’t work. Where there were holdups, the line was de-automated.
Chapter 46. Fremont Factory Hell, Tesla, 2018. This was the car-assembly factory. “By 2018, Tesla had become the most shorted stock in history” (p. 277). The plant was turning out 3,500 Model 3 sedans a week, but Musk demanded 5,000, which he achieved. His 5 commandments: question every requirement. Delete any part that can be deleted. Simplify and optimize. Accelerate cycle time. Automate: that comes last. Tech managers need hands-on experience. When problems exist, go to the problem (below the managers).
Chapter 47. Open-Loop Warning, 2018. Chapter 48: Fallout, 2018. Claiming to take Tesla private, which caused SEC reaction and fines. A typical problem using Twitter. Then smoked pot on the Joe Rogan show. JB Straubel retired in 2018. He needed a vacation, then worked on a side venture recycling lithium batteries. Straubel later joined the board of Tesla.
Chapter 49: Grimes, 2018. Chapter 50. Shanghai, Tesla, 2015-2019. A Tesla factory in China in 2018.
Chapter 51: Cybertruck: Tesla, 2018-2019. Rethinking trucks using stainless steel, which was not well liked.
Chapter 52. Starlink, SpaceX, 2015-2018. Using internet services as a revenue source, with SpaceX launching its own communication satellites, called Starlink. The satellites were made cheaper and simpler; Falcon 9 was launching them into orbit by 2019.
Chapter 53: Starship: SpaceX, 2018-2019.
Chapter 54: Autonomy Day: Tesla, April 2019. Attempts at autopilot continued with problems.
Chapter 55: Giga Texas: Tesla, 2020-2021. The Freemont plant was producing 8,000 cars a week at capacity. New plants were to be built in Austin and Berlin. Giga Texas was huge at 10 million square feet.
Chapter 56: Family Life, 2020. Chapter 57: Full Throttle: SpaceX, 2020. SpaceX carried to astronauts to the space station in 2020. Boeing: “Maybe we want the people who aren’t the best, but who will stick around longer” (p. 349). Those with drive moved to SpaceX.
Chapter 58: Bezos vs. Musk, Round 2: SpaceX. 2021. Bezos and Musk were alike, with disruptive industries through passion and innovation, abrupt with employees, thought long-term, and were thin-skinned. Bezos focused less on engineering at Blue Origin. By 2021 SpaceX had 2,000 Starlinks in orbit. Musk had a conspiratorial mindset, assuming hidden agendas by news organizations—like the Washington Post owned by Bezos.
Chapter 59: Starship Surge: SpaceX, July 2021. The rocket engine Raptor used supercooled liquid methane and liquid oxygen. Musk used “idiot index”: total cost of component divided by cost of raw materials.
Chapter 60: Solar Surge: Summer 2021. Solar City did not perform well, installing few solar panels on roofs.
Chapter 61: Nights Out, Summer 2021.
Chapter 62: Inspiration4: SpaceX, September 2021. Lots of space junk.
Chapter 63: Raptor Shake-up: SpaceX, 2021.
Chapter 64: Optimus is Born: Tesla, August 2021. Optimus was a humanoid robot to be make at Tesla.
Chapter 65: Neuralink, 2017-2020. JCR Licklider wrote “Man-Computer Symbiosis” in 1960. Siri used voice to interact. Neuralink would implant small chips in brain linked to interchange.
Chapter 66: Vision Only: Tesla, January 2021. 273 accidents by Tesla drivers using driver-assist in 2021.
Chapter 67: Money, 2021-2022. Musk became the world’s richest man early in 2021, vaulting past Bezos. Tesla was valued over a trillion. He paid $11 billion in taxes after exercising options. He functioned best in survival-or-die mode.
Chapter 68: Father of the Year, 2021.
Chapter 69: Politics, 2020-2022. Musk fought COVID restrictions, railing against progressive Democrats, becoming “anti-woke.” Biden claimed Detroit lead the world in electric vehicles, when GM sold 26, while Tesla sold 300,000. So much for being a centrist. Life lessons included empathy not an asset, do not fear losing, be proactive, optimize, double down, pick your battles.
Chapter 70: Ukraine, 2022. Russia invaded Ukraine at the end of February, 2022. Ukraine was able to retain internet using Starlink stations and Musk send hundreds of terminals, ultimately 15,000 by July, keeping Ukraine online. Musk did not like Ukraine using drones to attack Crimea or any offensive purposes. Ultimately, the Pentagon paid SpaceX for the service and assumed responsibility. Musk said: “How am I in this war?” (p. 433). Starshield was developed specifically for military use.
Chapter 71: Bill Gates, 2022. Musk and Gates had some similarities with analytical minds, focus, and arrogance, and not destined to like each other. Gates asked Musk for nonprofit donations, while shorting Tesla stock which irritated Musk. Asked why: “To make money.” Apparently, Gates couldn’t believe Isaacson would ask such a “stupid question.”
Chapter 72: Active Investor: Twitter, January-April, 2022. Musk was doing great with Tesla valued at $1 trillion and three other companies in the billions. So, he decided to buy Twitter: “Twitter is an ideal—almost too ideal—playground for Musk. It rewards players who are impulsive, irreverent, and unfiltered, like a flamethrower for the thumbs” (p. 442). Musk had thousands of tweets. Plus, he thought the Twitter folks were woke, limiting right-wing comments.
Chapter 73: “I Made an Offer,” Twitter, April 2022. Why buy Twitter? “It was fun, like an amusement park. It offered political smackdowns, intellectual gladiator matches, dopey memes, important public announcements, valuable marketing, bad puns, and unfiltered opinions” (p. 457).
Chapter 74: Hot and Cold: Twitter, April-June 2022. Musk offered $44 billion ($54.20 a share), 30% above market, then had second thoughts. Too bad. The lawyers said he was stuck.
Chapter 75: Father’s Day, June 2022. Chapter 76: Starbase Shake-Up: SpaceX, 2022. Chapter 77: Optimus Prime: Tesla, 2021-2022. The robot emulating a human.
Chapter 78: Uncertainty: Twitter, July-September 2022. Chapter 79: Optimus Unveiled: Tesla, September 2022.
Chapter 80: Robotaxi: Tesla, 2022. Musk was all in on self-driving, which proved elusive. He wanted robotaxis with no steering wheel or petals, which was a bad idea.
Chapter 81: “Let That Sink In”: Twitter, October 26-27, 2022. The kitchen sink episode which Musk apparently thought was hilarious. Twitter headquarters was the opposite of Musk-world and he made rapid changes, which had problems. Some 75% of employees left.
Chapter 82: The Takeoff: Twitter, Thursday, October 27, 2022. Musk fired top manager “for cause” just before their stock options vested.
Chapter 83: The Three Musketeers: Twitter, October 26-30, 2022. Tesla and SpaceX employees landed like locusts at Twitter.
Chapter 84: Content Moderation. Musk had to figure out what “free speech” meant. “On social media, a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on it shoes. Disinformation was a problem, as were crypto scams, fraud, and hate speech. There was also a financial problem: jittery advertisers did not want their brands to be in a toxic-speech cesspool” (p. 524).
Chapter 85: Halloween: Twitter, October 2022. The tradeoff between advertising and raucous free speech, like a tweet on Paul Pelosi attacked by male prostitute, which Musk allowed. Musk just did not deal well with human feelings and relationships, the focus of Twitter. Advertising continued down.
Chapter 86: Blue Checks: Twitter, November 2-10, 2022. Musk instituted blue checks for anyone willing a pay a subscription fee, Twitter Blue: Isaacson called it a “Hindenburg-level flameout,” as false sites Tweeted ridiculous things like Pfizer was giving insulin away for free.
Chapter 87: All In: Twitter, November 10-18, 2022. Employees had to be all in or fired with three months severance, then required a code-writer review, then fired coders not up to par.
Chapter 88: Hardcore: Twitter, November 18-30, 2022. Twitter went from 8,000 employees to 2,000. “Tim Cook, who took over Apple in 2011, was different. He was calm, coolly disciplined, and disarmingly polite. Although he could be steely when warranted, he avoided unnecessary confrontations. Whereas Jobs and Musk seemed drawn to drama, Cook had an instinct for defusing it. He had a steady moral compass” (p. 559). Musk had to deal with Apple on Cook’s terms.
Chapter 89: Miracles: Neuralink, November 2022.
Chapter 90: The Twitter Files: Twitter, December 2022. Twitter content moderators banned “harmful speech.” This either prevented to spread of false information, repressed opinions, or represented a dark collusion between the Deep State conspiring with Big Tech for power. Musk increasingly thought it was the Deep State. In any case there were “tribal bunkers.” Europe did have hate-speech regulations. Matt Taibbi showed that Twitter had special systems for the FBI (“a de facto collaborator with the FBI”), politicians, and intelligence agencies and there were the tweets on Hunter Biden’s laptop. Twitter used “visibility filtering” to downplay certain tweets and “shadow banning” which became invisible. Were these done with a political bias?
Journalism evolved from viewing government with suspicion on Vietnam and Watergate to increased comfort with the government; ditto, social media leaders. The FBI did note that some tweets were run by Russia intelligence.
Chapter 91: Rabbit Holes: Twitter, December 2022. Chapter 92: Christmas Capers, December 2022.
Chapter 93: AI For Cars: Tesla, 2022-2023. OpenAI Founded by Musk and Sam Altman, with Musk working on self-driving cars, Optimus, and Neuralink.
Chapter 94: AI For Humans: X.AI, 2023. Altman formed a for-profit arm, including ChatGPT and GPT-4 in 2023. Google issued Bard. Musk had Twitter tweets and Tesla video. Musk’s new company was X.AI. Musk wanted it to write code and be “a maximum truth-seeking AI.”
Chapter 95: The Starship Launch: SpaceX, April 2023. Musk loved risk, although regulatory agencies did not, but he assumed risk needs to continue. He was fine with blowing things up.