Elon Musk’s Success

Wednesday, December 16th, 2015

Elon Musk has been asked many times to explain his success, and occasionally he has tried:

He points to things he does that other people don’t do — actively seeking out negative feedback, for instance, and working really, really, really hard. But I think he knows that he’s different. This is what he said once to NPR, back in 2007, before the first Tesla car hit the road, before the first SpaceX rocket took off: “What I’m good at is, well, I think I’m good at inventing solutions to problems. Things seem fairly obvious to me that are clearly not obvious to most people. So…and I’m not really trying to do it or anything. I just, I don’t know, I can see the truth of things, and others seem less able to do so.”

Eight years later, he tries to boil down some more practical lessons for me.

The things you’ve been working on the last ten years or so, would they be where they are now yet without you?

“Which things?”

Everything you’ve been doing at SpaceX and everything you’ve been doing at Tesla.

“Would they happen without me? Um, certainly some things wouldn’t have. You know, I think probably not.”

So what is that that you’re doing to make that happen?

“Well, you’ve got to convince great people to join the companies and then get them to work together in concert toward a clear goal with a strategy that’s sensible.”

But surely there are thousands of people who are doing that. Why are you more successful than pretty much anyone else right now?

“Well, it’s really because people, they either have a strategy where success is not one of the possible outcomes — occasionally it’s that. And then they don’t change that strategy once that becomes clear, amazingly. Or they cannot attract a critical mass of technical talent, if it’s in a technology-related thing. Or they run out of money before reaching a cash-flow-positive situation. That tends to be what occurs.”

Sure, but even so, there’s other people who get over all those bars…

He laughs. “No, they don’t. There’s very few.”

You really think those hurdles are enough to stop nearly everything?

“Oh yeah, absolutely. Probably very often when a company starts out, it’s headed in the wrong direction. But it really depends on how quickly it can recognize that and take corrective action. But people tend to think that they’re right even when they aren’t right.”

An essential part of the Elon Musk tale of triumph is how close he came himself to complete disaster in the second half of 2008. “Yeah, we had some really, really hard times,” he says when I refer to this, “and very narrowly escaped death as a company, both for SpaceX and Tesla.” He has told the full story over and over — how SpaceX had failed with its first three rocket launches and Tesla was struggling to make vehicles quickly or economically enough, and how, when the wider market crash then came, both companies were only kept going by Musk committing the remainder of his $180 million fortune from PayPal, to the point where he was reduced to borrowing money off friends for living expenses. And how, at the last minute, doom was averted: The fourth SpaceX launch reached orbit, and the company was awarded a $1.6 billion NASA contract; other Tesla investors agreed to match Musk’s final $20 million investment and saw them through the most vulnerable moments.

Bowden on Trump

Tuesday, December 15th, 2015

Mark Bowden spent a long, awkward weekend with Donald Trump in November 1996:

He was like one of those characters in an 18th-century comedy meant to embody a particular flavor of human folly. Trump struck me as adolescent, hilariously ostentatious, arbitrary, unkind, profane, dishonest, loudly opinionated, and consistently wrong. He remains the most vain man I have ever met. And he was trying to make a good impression. Who could have predicted that those very traits, now on prominent daily display, would turn him into the leading G.O.P. candidate for president of the United States?

His latest outrageous edict on banning all Muslims from entering the country comes as no surprise to me based on the man I met nearly 20 years ago. He has no coherent political philosophy, so comparisons with Fascist leaders miss the mark. He just reacts. Trump lives in a fantasy of perfection, with himself as its animating force.


I was prepared to like him as I boarded his black 727 at La Guardia for the flight to Mar-a-Lago, his Florida home — prepared to discover that his over-the-top public persona was a clever pose. That underneath was an ironic wit, an ordinary but clever guy. But no. With Trump, what you see is what you get. His behavior was cringe-worthy. He showed off the gilded interior of his plane — calling me over to inspect a Renoir on its walls, beckoning me to lean in closely to see… what? The luminosity of the brush strokes? The masterly use of color? No. The signature. “Worth $10 million,” he told me. Time after time the stories he told me didn’t check out, from Michael Jackson’s romantic weekend at Mar-a-Lago with his then wife Lisa Marie Presley (they stayed at opposite ends of the estate) to the rug in one bedroom he said was designed by Walt Disney when he was 18 (it wasn’t) to the strength of his marriage to Maples (they would split months later).

Walt Kelly’s Fairy Tales

Monday, December 14th, 2015

Walt Kelly famously created Pogo — “We have met the enemy, and he is us” — but before that he worked as a Disney animator on Pinocchio, Fantasia, and Dumbo.

Between those two jobs he produced fairy tale comics, now collected in Walt Kelly’s Fairy Tales — and promoted in this video:

How the Universal Symbols for Escalators, Restrooms, and Transport Were Designed

Monday, December 14th, 2015

The universal symbols for escalators, restrooms, etc. were created just 40 years ago, for the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), as the bicentennial approached:

To determine what these symbols ought to look like, DOT approached the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA), the nation’s oldest and largest professional design organization. Together, they reviewed hundreds of symbols in use around the world and set out to develop their own set that could convey diverse messages to America’s tourists.

Universal Down and Help

Designing the initial 34 symbols took nearly a year, and the project was so intense that the firm worried they might lose other clients. In the pre-computer era, Cook and Shanosky drew hundreds of sketches on tracing paper and discussed them with the AIGA’s project committee, turning in version after version of each symbol. The committee discussed each draft in exacting detail, returning pages of notes to Cook and Shanosky, which today fill a giant, overstuffed binder that Cook has kept for years.

Universal Baby Changing

Simplicity began with the male figure. The character built upon previous stylized figures from earlier symbol sets, but Cook and Shanosky’s own sleek, no-details figure set the tone for the other symbols in the DOT set. The figure has since been dubbed Helvetica Man by the designers Ellen Lupton and J. Abbott Miller, a name Cook appreciates. Like many designers, he has a deep respect for the font Helvetica and its clean, no-frills appearance.

Universal Restrooms

Creating simple, easily understood symbols required that the designers grasped the essence of what they were trying to communicate. Understanding the basics of the human form is relatively easy, and even differentiating gender with Helvetica Woman’s dress seemed a straightforward enough task. But the design team also needed to tackle more complex, abstract subjects. For example, how do you portray authority—what makes Helvetica Man official? Apparently, a hat is the answer, and a sash across his chest and waist, as shown in the symbols for customs and immigration (in the pre-TSA days, the design group dismissed a similar symbol for airport security, noting that it’s “not an official person who does security”). It’s strangely effective; there’s nothing like an official-looking hat to give a person an air of authority.

Universal Customs

There was also a debate about whether to include Helvetica Man in the symbol for stairs. Look at the design we know today—a single line, bent into ascending or descending right angles—and it’s hard to think anything except “stairs.” But before there was a universal symbol, it was unclear how much detail was necessary, and the committee thought a figure using the stairs might make the symbol clearer. Eventually, they took him out, concerned that his inclusion leaned too much towards an illustration, rather than a symbol. But they made the opposite decision for the escalator symbol, deeming the escalator without Helvetica Man too abstract to be specific.

Universal Stairs and Escalator

Our Era of Outrage

Sunday, December 13th, 2015

Even the New York Times accepts that South Park perfectly captures our era of outrage:

Now, it was as if our culture had been shining an Eric Cartman-shaped Bat-signal and “South Park” answered. You could see the news from college campuses — safe spaces, trigger warnings — and conclude that America was more radically leftist than ever. You could read a dispatch from the Republican primary — border walls, refugee panic — and conclude that it was more reactionary than ever. The country is deeply polarized, and between two poles is precisely where the quasi-libertarian “South Park” most likes to swing.

How NASA Created a Flight Simulator for the First Astronauts Landing on the Moon

Sunday, December 13th, 2015

NASA created a flight simulator for the first astronauts landing on the moon — using Space-Age technology:

Fifty-four years ago, we tested out Project LOLA — the Lunar Orbit and Landing Approach simulator — at the Langley Research Center in Virginia. The pilot perched on a gantry, peeking out the cockpit at a close-circuit TV system that tracked along detailed lunar mosaics in response to their commands.

Project LOLA 1

Project LOLA 2

NASA constructed four models at different scales, so the cockpit could track over the murals simulating a landing. The largest was on a six-meter (20-foot) diameter sphere, simulating the lunar surface from an altitude of 322 kilometers (200 miles) so every 1 centimeter covered 5.7 kilometers (1 inch per 9 miles). The three smaller full-relief scaled sections at 4.5 meter (15 feet) by 12 meter (40 feet). The final model of Crater Alphonsus scaled to just 1 centimeter for every 61 meters (1 inch to 200 feet). The lunar surfaces were created by carefully hand-painting and airbrushing the surfaces using detailed photographs taken from earlier lunar missions.

Project LOLA 3

Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle

Saturday, December 12th, 2015

The modern Taser was named after Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle. The name is an acronym for Thomas A. Swift’s Electric Rifle. And it rhymes with laser, of course.

If you haven’t read any of the original Tom Swift novels, be warned: they could not be more dated. I particularly enjoyed this passage from the 1911 novel:

That’s just what I want. Elephant shooting in Africa! My! With my new electric rifle, and an airship, what couldn’t a fellow do over in the dark continent!

His new invention is not a stun gun, by the way.

Extraordinary Educators

Saturday, December 12th, 2015

A study of extraordinary educators found some common factors:

Profiles are presented of six superior educators whose students achieved an excellence far beyond what might be expected of them. The subjects were a speech and drama teacher, a girls’ basketball coach, a choral music teacher, an art teacher, and principals of an elementary and a secondary school. The major finding of the study was that, without exception, these leaders gave a high number of correctives. Any deviations, even minor ones, from their high standards were corrected quickly, and not infrequently very sharply. Other significant findings were: (1) they were purposive, demanding perfectionists; (2) they had a sense of humor and tended toward self-deprecation; (3) they gave only a limited amount of praise; (4) they stressed self-discipline, responsibility, and always doing one’s best; (5) they attained a high amount of time on task; and (6) they were very family oriented.

Deep Survival

Friday, December 11th, 2015

The lesson of Deep Survival, Scott Berkun says, is that the people who survive abandon their mental models of the world and open their eyes:

They don’t try to force the world to be a certain way: instead they respond to the world like a child, taking it to be what it is, and working within the real world to try and survive (or thrive).

Small-Game Fallacies

Friday, December 11th, 2015

Game theorists study small games, with limited and precise rules, but applying their small-game conclusions to the “large games” of the real world can go terribly awry:

Most studies in experimental economics suffer from small-game/large-game effects. Unless these experiments are very securely anonymized, in a way the players actually trust, and in a way the players have learned to adapt to, overriding their moral instincts — an extremely rare circumstance, despite many efforts to achieve this — large-game effects quickly creep in, rendering the results often very misleading, sometimes practically the opposite of the actual behavior of people in analogous real-life situations. A common example: it may be narrowly rational and in accord with theory to “cheat”, “betray”, or otherwise play a narrowly selfish game, but if the players may be interacting with each other after the experimenters’ game is over, the perceived or actual reputational effects in the larger “games of life”, ongoing between the players in subsequent weeks or years, may easily exceed the meager rewards doled out by the experimenters to act selfishly in the small game. Even if the players can somehow be convinced that they will remain complete strangers to each other indefinitely into the future, our moral instincts generally evolved to play larger “games of life”, not one-off games, nor anonymous games, nor games with pseudonyms of strictly limited duration, with the result that behaving according to theory must be learned: our default behavior is very different. (This explains, why, for example, economics students typically play in a more narrowly self-interested way, i.e. more according to the simple theories of economics, than other kinds of students).

Small-game/large-game effects are not limited to reputational incentives to play nicer: moral instincts and motivations learned in larger games also include tribal unity against perceived opponents, revenge, implied or actual threats of future coercion, and other effects causing much behavior to be worse than selfish, and these too can spill over between the larger and smaller games (when, for example, teams from rival schools or nations are pitted against each other in economic experiments). Moral instincts, though quite real, should not be construed as necessarily or even usually being actually morally superior to various kinds of learned morals, whether learned in economics class or in the schools of religion or philosophy.

Small-game/large-game problems can also occur in auditing, when audits look at a particular system and fail to take into account interactions that can occur outside their system of financial controls, rendering the net interactions very different from what simply auditing the particular system would suggest. A common fraud is for trades to be made outside the scope of the audit, “off the books”, rendering the books themselves very misleading as to the overall net state of affairs.


A related error is the pure-information fallacy: treating an economic institution purely as an information system, accounting only for market-proximate incentives to contribute information via trading decisions, while neglecting how that market necessarily also changes players’ incentives to act outside of that market. For example, a currently popular view of proposition bets, the “prediction markets” view, often treats prop bets or idea futures as purely information-distribution mechanisms, with the only incentives supposed as the benign incentive to profit by adding useful information to the market. This fails to take into account the incentives such markets create to act differently outside the market. A “prediction market” is always also one that changes incentives outside that market: a prediction market automatically creates parallel incentives to bring about the predicted event. For example a prediction market on a certain person’s death is also an assassination market. Which is why a pre-Gulf-War-II DARPA-sponsored experimental “prediction market” included a prop bet on Saddam Hussein’s death, but excluded such trading on any other, more politically correct world leaders. A sufficiently large market predicting an individual’s death is also, necessarily, an assassination market, and similarly other “prediction” markets are also act markets, changing incentives to act outside that market to bring about the predicted events.

How the Media Inspires Mass Shooters

Thursday, December 10th, 2015

Mother Jones investigates how the Media inspires mass shooters:

As part of our investigation into threat assessment, Mother Jones documented the chilling scope of the “Columbine effect”: We found at least 74 plots and attacks across 30 states in which suspects and perpetrators claimed to have been inspired by the nation’s worst high school massacre. Their goals ranged from attacking on the anniversary of Columbine to outdoing the original body count. Law enforcement stopped 53 of these plots before anyone was harmed. Twenty-one of them evolved into attacks, with a total of 89 victims killed, 126 injured, and nine perpetrators committing suicide. (See more about this data here.)

The Lure of Luxury

Thursday, December 10th, 2015

Paul Bloom explores the lure of luxury:

What drives people to possess so much more than they need?

Maybe they have good taste. In her wonderful 2003 book The Substance of Style, Virginia Postrel argues that our reaction to many consumer items is “immediate, perceptual, and emotional.” We want these things because of the pleasure we get from looking at and interacting with high-quality products — and there is nothing wrong with this. “Decoration and adornment are neither higher nor lower than ‘real’ life,” she writes. “They are part of it.”

Postrel is pushing back against a more cynical theory held by many sociologists, economists, and evolutionary theorists. Building from the insights of Thorstein Veblen, they argue that we buy such things as status symbols. Though we are often unaware of it and might angrily deny it, we are driven to accumulate ostentatious goods to impress others. Evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller gives this theory an adaptationist twist, arguing that the hunger for these luxury goods is a modern expression of the evolved desire to signal attractive traits — such as intelligence, ambition, and power — to entice mates: Charles Darwin’s sexual selection meets Veblen’s conspicuous consumption.


There is a further explanation for our love of such goods, which draws upon one of the most interesting ideas in the cognitive sciences: that humans are not primarily sensory creatures. Rather, we respond to what we believe are objects’ deeper properties, including their histories. Sensory properties are relevant and so is signaling, but the pleasure we get from the right sort of history explains much of the lure of luxury items — and of more mundane consumer items as well.


Our beliefs about the hidden nature of things influence the most seemingly sensory experiences, such as the taste of food and drink. Protein bars taste worse if they are described as containing “soy protein,” ice cream tastes better when labeled “high fat,” and cola is rated higher when drunk from a cup with a brand logo. Neuroimaging studies reveal that areas of the brain associated with pleasure are more active if you believe that you are drinking expensive wine. Perhaps the most troubling finding was reported in a working paper called “Can People Distinguish Pâté from Dog Food?” The answer is no: if you grind up a product called Canned Turkey & Chicken Formula for Puppies/Active Dogs in a food processor and garnish it with parsley, people cannot reliably distinguish it from pork liver pâté.

The depth of pleasure, and, in particular, the importance we give to history, applies to many domains, including food, artwork, and luxury goods. From this perspective, the lure of such goods is not limited to their utility or beauty or to our beliefs that possessing them will impress people. Part of the lure is that we believe these items have a certain sort of history. The pleasure we get from these objects is genuine and aesthetic, not mostly sensory.

Read the whole thing.

What Really Happens When You Get Shot

Wednesday, December 9th, 2015

So, Wired has a decent article on what really happens when you get shot — summary: “bullets are magic” — but what caught my eye was the accompanying photograph:

Pistol and Round

Is that CGI? Is that even a bullet? It’s way out of focus, but it looks like a rimmed brass casing. It also looks bigger than the muzzle opening, which oddly lacks any burning gasses. The slide isn’t reciprocating, either. Oh, and there’s no finger on the trigger. Who painstakingly makes such an image?

Brainy Bunch

Wednesday, December 9th, 2015

The Brainy Bunch family has put 7 kids in college by age 12:

When Mona Lisa Harding sent her oldest child, Hannah, to school, homeschooling was not even on her radar. But by the time Hannah was in third grade, a friend convinced Harding to give it a try.

“We saw that maybe we could do better and we totally missed (Hannah) being gone,” husband Kip Harding said. “There was a lot of homework in the evenings, and we just decided to pull her out. It was a scary time at first, but we started and it was working out great and we just never looked back.”

Mona Lisa first ordered workbooks by each subject and grade level that her friend recommended.

“But that got a little tedious and a little boring,” Mona Lisa said. “We started to get away from boxed curriculum and went into just reading for pleasure and reading what the kids wanted to read.”

Out of the Harding’s homeschool experiment, their kids started to blossom, learning math, reading and science at a much faster rate than their peers. They would find a subject their child excelled in and really hone in his or her skills in that field of study.

“Hannah was whizzing through the math and saying, ‘Mom, do I really have to do the rest of this chapter? It’s so repetitive,’” Mona Lisa said. “And we’d say no just do the odd (questions) or the even ones or just skip the rest of that chapter because we know that you know that… and next thing you know, she’s ready for some advanced math.”

When Hannah was 12, the Hardings looked into having her take a junior college class. She took one, did really well, and wanted to try it again. By her third semester, she wanted to do a full load, Kip said, and they enrolled Hannah in college full-time.

Mona Lisa said all the kids started following Hannah’s example. Kip and Mona Lisa didn’t make their kids do all the problems, questions and chapters but let them move at their own pace. Their kids’ impressive resume stands as a testament to their unconventional education methods.

Their results haven’t been bad:

  • Hannah, 26, engineer: MS in math at 19
  • Rosannah, 24, architect: BA at 18, working on masters
  • Serennah, 22, doctor: resident at the Naval hospital at Bethesda
  • Heath, 17, entrepreneur: MS in Computer Science
  • Keith, 15, composer: BA in music at 15, will start masters in fall
  • Seth, 13, wants to be professor: sophomore, history major
  • Katrinnah, 10, wants to be lawyer: in classes at Faulkner University
  • Mariannah, 8, wants to be surgeon
  • Lorennah, 5, wants to be actress
  • Thunder, 3, wants to be race car driver

Sam Harris’s Salon Interview

Tuesday, December 8th, 2015

Sam Harris shares the excised portion of his recent Salon interview:

[Note: Salon deleted the following section from the interview.]

As long as we’re talking about the regressive Left, it would be remiss of me not to point out how culpable Salon is for giving it a voice. The problem is not limited to the political correctness and masochism I’ve been speaking about — it’s also the practice of outright deception to defame Islam’s critics. To give you one example, I once wrote an article about Islamist violence in which I spoke in glowing terms about Malala Yousafzai. I literally said nothing but good things about her. I claimed that she is the best thing to come out of the Muslim world in a thousand years. I said she is extraordinarily brave and eloquent and doing what millions of Muslim men and women are too terrified to do, which is to stand up to forces of theocracy in her own society. I also said that though she hadn’t won the Nobel Prize that year, she absolutely deserved it — and deserved it far more than some of its recent recipients had. And in response to this encomium, Salon published a piece by the lunatic Murtaza Hussain entitled, “Sam Harris Slurs Malala,” which subjected my views to the same defamatory and dishonest treatment that I’ve come to expect from him. And this sort of thing has been done to me a dozen times on your website. And yet Salon purports to be a forum for the civil discussion of important ideas.

Most readers simply don’t understand how this game is played. If they read an article which states that Sam Harris is a racist, genocidal, xenophobic, pro-torture goon who supported the Iraq war — all of which has been alleged about me in Salon — well, then, it’s assumed that some journalists who work for the website under proper editorial control have actually looked into the matter and feel that they are on firm enough ground to legally say such things. There’s a real confusion about what journalism has become, and I can assure you that very few people realize that much of what appears on your website is produced by malicious freaks who are just blogging in their underpants.

I’m not saying that everything that Salon publishes is on the same level, and I have nothing bad to say about what you’ve written, Sean. But there is an enormous difference between honest criticism and defamatory lies. If I say that Malala is a total hero who deserves a Nobel Prize, and Salon titles its article “Sam Harris Slurs Malala,” that’s tabloid-level dishonesty. It’s worse, in fact, because when one reads about what a nanny said about Brad and Angelina in a tabloid, one knows that such gossip stands a good chance of not being true. Salon purports to be representing consequential ideas fairly, and yet it does this sort of thing more often than any website I can think of. The latest piece on me was titled “Sam Harris’ dangerous new idiocy: Incoherent, Islamophobic and simply immoral.” I don’t think I’m being thin-skinned in detecting an uncharitable editorial position being taken there. Salon is telling the world that I’m a dangerous, immoral, Islamophobic idiot. And worse, the contents of these articles invariably misrepresent my actual views. This problem isn’t remedied by merely publishing this conversation.

[Of course, Salon didn’t actually publish that part of the conversation.]