Monday, December 21, 2015

ELON MUSK :: Ashlee Vance

Until I started reading about Tesla Motors, Elon Musk was just another local tech guru to me. I didn't know much about him and wasn't particularly moved to find out. Then I saw my first Tesla, the Model S. I'm no gearhead, but I've always been a car nerd to the extent that I love a beautiful form.

Cars these days don't often float my aesthetic boat, but I just about tripped over my own feet when I saw that Model S. What a gorgeous piece of machinery. A piece of art, really (seriously, if you ever go by a showroom/store, sit in one - the attention to detail and artistic form are thrilling, down to the flow of the dashboard).

Now my ears were open when Musk or Tesla was the topic of news or conversation. The more I learned, the more my interest was piqued. What kind of businessman shares his patents with the world? Could Musk actually care more about the advancement of the electronic car, green energy, and the human race than the almighty dollar and market share (or at least care at all)?

One night I saw Musk on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert and the genius man-nerd blew my socks off. Here was a guy talking in all seriousness about colonizing Mars, striving to be environmentally sound, and making the world a better place. What parallel universe had I encountered?

I noticed the relatively new (May 2015) Musk biography by Ashlee Vance was available through my local library in audiobook form and jumped in line to get a copy. Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future is a meticulously detailed, riveting look at a complex, brilliant, maddening, and compelling man and one of the best books I read this year.

I adored Musk as a total book nerd of a kid growing up in South Africa. His upbringing was often rough and difficult to read about, but also illuminating. A real boy genius, Musk was working with computers at a young age and developing his own code and games by ten or twelve.

It was wonderful to see Musk's current ideals about the environment and progress bubble forth at such a young age. Even in his twenties Musk bucked the norm and spoke out about green energy and space exploration.

As an adult businessman, Musk seems to have the qualities that breed both success and adversity. Ever an optimist, he tends to set unrealistic deadlines and insist they be met. Driven and demanding, sometimes perceived as callous, he sometimes seems genuinely unaware of how he can come across and quite often evidences a very generous spirit. It has been speculated he is somewhere on the spectrum for Asperger's. True or not, he is a compelling mix of characteristics.

I found myself really falling in like with this man, his optimism, and drive for better things for humanity. How can you not admire the fortitude required to become the first person to build a private rocket? His vision for the electric car was not just to build a car, but to build the best car. And build it he did. In November 2012, the Tesla Model S was the first unanimous winner of Motor Trend's Car of the Year award. It beat out eleven other vehicles, including Porsche, Lexus, BMW, and Subaru. Motor Trend believed the Tesla is:
Proof positive that America can still make great things...the vehicle handled like a sports car, drove as smoothly as a Rolls Royce, held as much as a Chevy Equinox, and was more efficient than a Toyota Prius.
Consumer Reports gave the Model S the highest car rating in history, 99/100, while proclaiming it "likely the best car ever built." Pretty high praise. I was all in.

Then Musk got married and made a remark to his wife on their wedding day that screamed "misogynistic dick." I was unsure how to fit that remark in with the rest of the Musk profile, that of a man who regularly hires women as his top executives, including the President and CEO of SpaceX, and his right-hand person on all matters. Maybe it was a one-off. Maybe it didn't come across in the context of the book. Maybe he really is a dick. The book does not shy away from a full portrayal of Musk, good and bad, but I couldn't help but like him in the end.

It should be noted that after first refusing, Musk gave Vance full access to his life and those around him, for better or worse. Vance did a fabulous job portraying this multi-faceted man as fairly and fully as can be expected in a work such as this. I was truly riveted, and that is no small testament to Vance's ability to winnow a vast amount of dense and complex information into something workable and interesting.

I ended up with some clear perceptions about Musk:

  • While I wouldn't want to work for him now, I would clamor for the opportunity if I were young and had the talents necessary to work in one of his industries
  • I wouldn't want to marry him, but I would love to spend time with him
  • I sure as hell would want him working on my project

The book is somewhat heavy on business deals and specifics of the industry, but (1) that's likely a requirement for much of audience interested in Musk and his work, and (2) it was necessary to show how Musk deals with business setbacks (and there have been many) and achievements. Don't let this dissuade you. I'm not the audience for those facts, but I still enjoyed every minute of this biography.

STREET SENSE: Readers interested in the future of industry and how one of our greatest technological leaders got his start and continues to make his mark will want to read Elon Musk. Heck, even if you're not interested in those things I highly recommend it. I'm generally not interested in those things and I found it to be a fascinating character study that got me interested in them.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE: GM pulled together a team to study Model S, Tesla and the methods of Elon Musk. "It's worth pausing for a moment to meditate on what Tesla had accomplished. Musk had set out to make an electric car that did not suffer from any compromises. He did that. Then, using a form of entrepreneurial judo, he up-ended the decades of criticisms against electric cars. The Model S was not just the best electric car, it was best car, period, and the car people desired. America had not seen a successful car company since Chrysler emerged in 1925. Silicon Valley had done little of note in the automotive industry. Musk had never run a car factory before, and was considered arrogant and amateurish by Detroit. Yet one year after the Model S went on sale, Tesla had posted a profit, hit $562 million quarterly revenue, raised its sales forecast, and became as valuable as Mazda Motor. Elon Musk had built the automotive equivalent of the iPhone, and car executives in Detroit, Japan, and Germany had only their crappy ads to watch as they pondered how such a thing had occurred.

COVER NERD SAYS:  I really like this cover. I find everything about Musk interesting and unique, from his personality to the way he speaks to the way he looks. This picture evokes some of the mystery of Musk to me, and I love the mechanics in the background. It also has sneaky-good mirroring of the red, "white" and blue machinery highlights in the title and author text. Well done.

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About Malcolm Avenue Review

I was lucky enough to be born and raised in a nifty, oak-shaded ranch house on Malcolm Avenue, a wide-laned residential street with little through traffic, located amid the foothills of Northern California. It was on that street and in that house I learned most of my adolescent life lessons, and many grown-up ones to boot. Malcolm Avenue was "home" for more than thirty years.

It was on Malcolm Avenue, through and with my family and the other families that made up our neighborhood of characters, that I first learned about and gained an appreciation for the things I continue to love the most to this day: music, animals, photography, sports, television/movies and, of course, books.

I owe a debt of gratitude to that life on Malcolm Avenue. It gave me a sense of community and friendship, support and adventure. For better and worse, life on that street likely had the biggest impact on the person I've become. So this blog, and the things I write here, are all, at their base level, a little bit of a love letter to Malcolm Avenue.


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