Book recommendation: Cook County ICU

A well-done Audible recorded book and, probably, a good book in print/Kindle form: Cook County ICU. A few things that I learned from it…

The modern insurance/Medicare/Medicaid system requires that hospitals seeking to get revenue give each patient a concrete diagnosis prior to hospital admission. This results in inferior care because the doctors treating the patient become anchored to the initial diagnosis, which is often merely a guess.

Never agree to be a consultant to Hollywood. The author accepts a request to work as a medical advisor for The Fugitive (Harrison Ford plays a vascular surgeon) and puts in a huge number of hours on the project. Money is never discussed. He eventually gets a check for $1,100 (in pre-Biden money) for his work on a film that earned almost $370 million (pre-Biden dollars) at the box office.

From the author’s point of view, there were huge advances in medical technology over his 40 years of practice. The electronic medical record wasn’t one of them, however. It has delivered few benefits, in his view. The practice of having a physician look at a screen and type at a keyboard while interviewing a patient is particularly harmful.

Being sued for divorce is a common way to transition out of the middle class and into the free clinic where the author worked after retiring from the big hospital.

HIPAA is ridiculous, making it easy for insurers, hackers, and the government to get your medical information, but not you or your family members.

Cold is far more deadly to humans than heat. Although we are assured by Science that a warmer climate will result in near-term extinction of humanity, in Chicago it is the cold winter that kills people, not the hot summer.

Not every anecdote is equally rewarding, of course, but there are a lot of great ones!


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Audible: Updating Dickens with 2SLGBTQQIA+-ness

I recently listened to an “Audible Original” production of David Copperfield. My reivew:

If you love the ideas of two young English gentlemen getting naked together, massaging each other, and taking a shared bath, this is the novel for you. I downloaded the text from Project Gutenberg, however, and it seems that Dickens did not write these scenes of gay male passion. It should perhaps be retitled “Rainbow Copperfield” so that readers don’t get confused.

Helena Bonham Carter is fantastic as you might expect. Six stars for her.

It’s an interesting window into how the past can be quietly reconfigured to align with contemporary religion. A young follower of Rainbow Flagism, for example, might never realize that Charles Dickens was not a coreligionist.

Disney did the same thing with Dear Evan Hansen, but on a much faster clock. I attended the show in 2019, back when it was still legal to enter a theater in New York City. Part of my review:

One group that might not love the show is LGBTQIA. “This must be the only new Broadway show without an LGBTQIA theme or character,” I remarked. My companion, a regular at the theater, agreed, but that might be because her LGBTQIA teacher typically chooses LGBTQIA-themed shows for the public middle school crowd. The only reference to LGBTQIA issues is when teenage boys are anxious to avoid being perceived as gay (“that’s how it is in my school, too,” said the 12-year-old next to me).

When the play was turned into a purportedly faithful movie, the doctrinal error was corrected. The character who mocked gay male sexual activity in the play was turned into one who engaged in gay male sexual activity in the movie.

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An Ordinary Democrat: Gerald Ford biography

I’m listening to what is supposedly one of the best books of 2023: An Ordinary Man: The Surprising Life and Historic Presidency of Gerald R. Ford. It’s a good reminder of a lot of history 1940-1980.

The book devotes a fair amount of space to Ford’s career-ending decision to pardon Richard Nixon. The mental space that Americans devote to the prosecutions of Donald Trump certainly prove that Ford was correct in his belief that the U.S. wouldn’t be able to move on to tackle other challenges if Nixon weren’t pardoned. (Various state and local prosecutors could, nonetheless, have continued to harass Nixon for violating state/local laws but they chose not to.)

The book reminds us that the U.S. used to be a Christian society and that Americans, including Ford, were sincere believers in Christianity. Prayer is often a preclude to making a decision, for example, and Christian values are cited as a reason for making a decision. One of Ford’s reason for pardoning Nixon was that it was required by Christian principles of forgiveness.

Ford’s political beliefs seem to line up pretty well with today’s Democrats. He was pro-immigration for anyone with a tale of woe to share. He wanted 18-year-olds to vote (the 26th Amendment was passed in 1971 and signed by Nixon; Florida never voted to approve it!) and he supported most forms of welfare state expansion. In other words, Ford wanted to ensure a voter base of Americans who had never worked and would never work. Where he was out of step with today’s politicians is opposition to deficit spending. Ford considered a $30 billion budget deficit horrifying and a $100 billion deficit unimaginable (for comparison, the deficit for FY2023 was about $1.7 trillion and is on track to be higher in FY2024). He believed that deficit spending would fuel inflation, which was his bête noire. Speaking of inflation, though, many of his ideas were similar to today’s politicians, e.g., when prices go up the government should shovel out cash to people whose purchasing power has been reduced (i.e., if there is too much cash in the economy, thus generating inflation, you solve the problem by injecting more cash). Ford was passionate about deregulation to increase the U.S. economy’s production/supply capability, but that doesn’t make him misaligned with today’s Democrats, few of whom support the kind of intensive regulation of transportation, for example, that we had in the 1960s and 1970s.

The Fall of Saigon is covered extensively, good background for those interested in what seems to be a continued pattern of U.S. military failure. The heroism of the helicopter pilots is referred to. They flew in terrible weather and were exposed to small arms and RPG fire from the ground in order to rescue Americans and Vietnamese from rooftops and the U.S. embassy. Let’s never complain about having to fly a Robinson R44 again!

The book reminds us how much less competitive the U.S. was. There weren’t any obstacles to getting into the University of Michigan, for example, which is today far too elite to be a realistic possibility for most white or Asian Americans. Similarly, with no elite connections or claim to victimhood, Ford found the gates of Yale Law School open to him in 1938.

The book didn’t turn me into a huge Jerry Ford fan. He was a full participant in the delusional government spending and expansion programs that resulted in the hyperinflation of the Jimmy Carter years. But the decisions to pardon Nixon and Vietnam-era draft dodgers seem to have been good ones (Wikipedia has some background on these).

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Elon Musk at war in Ukraine

Can a private citizen change the outcome of a foreign war? The answer is “Yes” for Citizen Musk. From Elon Musk, the book:

An hour before Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, it used a massive malware attack to disable the routers of the American satellite company Viasat that provided communications and internet to the country. The command system of the Ukrainian military was crippled, making it almost impossible to mount a defense. Top Ukrainian officials frantically appealed to Musk for help, and the vice prime minister, Mykhailo Fedorov, used Twitter to urge him to provide connectivity. “We ask you to provide Ukraine with Starlink stations,” he pleaded. Musk agreed. Two days later, five hundred terminals arrived in Ukraine. “We have the US military looking to help us with transport, State has offered humanitarian flights and some compensation,” Gwynne Shotwell emailed Musk. “Folks are rallying for sure!” “Cool,” Musk responded. “Sounds good.” He got on a Zoom call with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, discussed the logistics of a larger rollout, and promised to visit Ukraine when the war was over.

Every day that week, Musk held regular meetings with the Starlink engineers. Unlike every other company and even parts of the U.S. military, they were able to find ways to defeat Russian jamming. By Sunday, the company was providing voice connections for a Ukrainian special operations brigade. Starlink kits were also used to connect the Ukrainian military to the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command and to get Ukrainian television broadcasts back up. Within days, six thousand more terminals and dishes were shipped, and by July there were fifteen thousand Starlink terminals operating in Ukraine.

How much of a difference did this make?

“Without Starlink, we would have been losing the war,” one Ukrainian platoon commander told the [Wall Street Journal].

Musk is lucky that the Russians don’t currently have a space machine like Bird One (from You Only Live Twice) that can vacuum up the Starlink satellites!

Elon Musk ended up making decisions at least as consequential as any made in Kyiv, according to Isaacson:

“This could be a giant disaster,” Musk texted me. It was a Friday evening in September 2022, and Musk had gone into crisis-drama mode, this time with reason. A dangerous and knotty issue had arisen, and he believed that there was “a non-trivial possibility,” as he put it, that it could lead to a nuclear war, with Starlink partly responsible. The Ukrainian military was attempting a sneak attack on the Russian naval fleet based at Sevastopol in Crimea by sending six small drone submarines packed with explosives, and they were using Starlink to guide them to the target. Although he had readily supported Ukraine, his foreign policy instincts were those of a realist and student of European military history. He believed that it was reckless for Ukraine to launch an attack on Crimea, which Russia had annexed in 2014. The Russian ambassador had warned him, in a conversation a few weeks earlier, that attacking Crimea would be a red line and could lead to a nuclear response. Musk explained to me the details of Russian law and doctrine that decreed such a response. Throughout the evening and into the night, he personally took charge of the situation. Allowing the use of Starlink for the attack, he concluded, could be a disaster for the world. So he reaffirmed a secret policy that he had implemented, which the Ukrainians did not know about, to disable coverage within a hundred kilometers of the Crimean coast. As a result, when the Ukrainian drone subs got near the Russian fleet in Sevastopol, they lost connectivity and washed ashore harmlessly.

He also called the Russian ambassador to assure him that Starlink was being used for defensive purposes only. “I think if the Ukrainian attacks had succeeded in sinking the Russian fleet, it would have been like a mini Pearl Harbor and led to a major escalation,” Musk says. “We did not want to be a part of that.”

Isn’t this a bit like the United Nations in Gaza? For 75 years, they’ve been providing nearly everything that the Palestinians to raise the next generations of soldiers/martyrs and simultaneously claiming to be involved only in peace/defense. Musk strengthened Ukraine’s defensive capability, which gave them more resources to put into offense.

Like the UN, Musk tried his hand at diplomacy:

He took it upon himself to help find an end to the Ukrainian war, proposing a peace plan that included new referenda in the Donbas and other Russian-controlled regions, accepting that Crimea was a part of Russia, and assuring that Ukraine remained a “neutral” nation rather than becoming part of NATO. It provoked an uproar. “Fuck off is my very diplomatic reply to you,” tweeted Ukraine’s ambassador to Germany. President Zelenskyy was a bit more cautious. He posted a poll on Twitter asking, “Which Elon Musk do you like more?: One who supports Ukraine, or One who supports Russia.” Musk backed down a bit in subsequent tweets. “SpaceX’s out of pocket cost to enable and support Starlink in Ukraine is ~$80M so far,” he wrote in response to Zelenskyy’s question. “Our support for Russia is $0. Obviously, we are pro Ukraine.” But then he added, “Trying to retake Crimea will cause massive death, probably fail and risk nuclear war. This would be terrible for Ukraine and Earth.”

Eventually he ended up in a text message exchange with Ukraine’s Vice Prime Minister Fedorov:

Musk: “Russia will stop at nothing, nothing, to hold Crimea. This poses catastrophic risk to the world…. Seek peace while you have the upper hand….”

After his exchange with Fedorov, Musk felt frustrated. “How am I in this war?” he asked me during a late-night phone conversation. “Starlink was not meant to be involved in wars. It was so people can watch Netflix and chill and get online for school and do good peaceful things, not drone strikes.”

In a world of war profiteers, Starlink seems to have been the only involved company that didn’t get rich off the conflict:

[SpaceX President/COO Gwynne] Shotwell also felt strongly that SpaceX should stop subsidizing the Ukrainian military operation. Providing humanitarian help was fine, but private companies should not be financing a foreign country’s war. That should be left to the government, which is why the U.S. has a Foreign Military Sales program that puts a layer of protection between private companies and foreign governments. Other companies, including big and profitable defense contractors, were charging billions to supply weapons to Ukraine, so it seemed unfair that Starlink, which was not yet profitable, should do it for free. “We initially gave the Ukrainians free service for humanitarian and defense purposes, such as keeping up their hospitals and banking systems,” she says. “But then they started putting them on fucking drones trying to blow up Russian ships. I’m happy to donate services for ambulances and hospitals and mothers. That’s what companies and people should do. But it’s wrong to pay for military drone strikes.”


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Elon Musk and videogames

When not working, does the world’s greatest innovator sit in a cardigan reading books, à la Jimmy Carter or Bill Gates? Elon Musk by Walter Isaacson:

One key to understanding Musk—his intensity, focus, competitiveness, die-hard attitudes, and love of strategy—is through his passion for video games. Hours of immersion became the way he let off (or built up) steam and honed his tactical skills and strategic thinking for business.

Musk had enjoyed all types of video games as a teenager in South Africa, including first-person shooters and adventure quests, but at college he became more focused on the genre known as strategy games, ones that involve two or more players competing to build an empire using high-level strategy, resource management, supply-chain logistics, and tactical thinking.

His only indulgence was allowing breaks for intense video-game binges. The Zip2 team won second place in a national Quake competition.

In 2021, he became obsessed with a new multiplayer strategy game on his iPhone, Polytopia. In it, players choose to be one of sixteen characters, known as tribes, and compete to develop technologies, corner resources, and wage battles in order to build an empire. He became so good he was able to beat the game’s Swedish developer, Felix Ekenstam. What did his passion for the game say about him? “I am just wired for war, basically,” he answers.

This seems like a good time to drag out a TED talk by a neuroscientist, Daphne Bavelier. This was sent to me by a neuroscientist who hates video games and has spent years trying to prevent his son from playing them. He admits that there is no scientific basis for his hatred and cites Prof. Bavelier.

What is the rationale for telling kids to get off their Xboxes if Elon Musk thrived on shooter games and #Science says that games are beneficial?


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Elon Musk and coronapanic

From Elon Musk by Walter Isaacson…

“The coronavirus panic is dumb,” Musk tweeted. It was March 6, 2020, and COVID had just shut down his new factory in Shanghai and begun to spread in the U.S. That was decimating Tesla’s stock price, but it was not just the financial hit that upset Musk. The government-imposed mandates, in China and then California, inflamed his anti-authority streak.

It was not being pro-Science that prevented Musk from embracing measures that proved ineffective against SARS-CoV-2, but a mindless anti-authority attitude. (Keep in mind that the author is a huge hater of Donald Trump, a passionate supporter of Democrats, and a believer in cloth masks against an aerosol virus)

When California issued a stay-at-home order later in March, just when the Fremont factory was starting to produce the Model Y, he became defiant. The factory would remain open. He wrote in a company-wide email, “I’d like to be super clear that if you feel the slightest bit ill or even uncomfortable, please do not feel obligated to come to work,” but then he added, “I will personally be at work. My frank opinion remains that the harm from the coronavirus panic far exceeds that of the virus itself.” After county officials threatened to force the plant to shut down, Musk filed suit against the orders. “If somebody wants to stay in their house, that’s great,” Musk said. “But to say that they cannot leave their house, and they will be arrested if they do, this is fascist. This is not democratic. This is not freedom. Give people back their goddamn freedom.” He kept the plant open and challenged the county sheriff to make arrests. “I will be on the line with everyone else,” he tweeted. “If anyone is arrested, I ask that it only be me.” Musk prevailed. The local authorities reached an agreement with Tesla to let the Fremont factory stay open so long as certain mask-wearing and other safety protocols were followed. These were honored mainly in the breach, but the dispute died down, the assembly line churned out cars, and the factory experienced no serious COVID outbreak.

The controversy became a factor in his political evolution. He went from being a fanboy and fundraiser for Barack Obama to railing against progressive Democrats.

(It cannot be that Democrats evolved, e.g., from being against same-sex marriage to being in favor of gender affirming surgery for teenagers. It is Musk who changed.)

Musk does not love our nation’s second most famous warrior against COVID-19:

… he wasn’t impressed by Joe Biden. “When he was vice president, I went to a lunch with him in San Francisco where he droned on for an hour and was boring as hell, like one of those dolls where you pull the string and it just says the same mindless phrases over and over.”

“Biden is a damp sock puppet in human form,” Musk responded [regarding Biden’s celebration of GM as the most important company in EVs at a time when GM was shipping 26 cars per calendar quarter]

Nor did Musk appreciate the evolution of California progressivism:

“I came there when it was the land of opportunity,” he says. “Now it’s the land of litigation, regulation, and taxation.”

Isaacson, much as he hates Republicans, attributes Musk’s mind-poisoning to libertarianism. But for this poison, Isaacson suggests, Musk might still be among the righteous. How stupid are libertarians? Isaacson describes Peter Thiel not wearing a seatbelt while Musk drives and crashes a McLaren:

Thiel got a ride with Musk in his McLaren. “So, what can this car do?” Thiel asked. “Watch this,” Musk replied, pulling into the fast lane and flooring the accelerator. The rear axle broke and the car spun around, hit an embankment, and flew in the air like a flying saucer. Parts of the body shredded. Thiel, a practicing libertarian, was not wearing a seatbelt, but he emerged unscathed.

Isaacson doesn’t explain why John Stuart Mill and Milton Friedman are against seatbelts in supercars. (I would like an explanation of why the rear axle broke! A pothole on Sand Hill Road?!? Quelle horreur! Acceleration per se doesn’t seem like a plausible cause. In the video below, Musk says “the rear end broke free”; Isaacson, the Harvard graduate, may not have understood that this describes wheelspin, not the rear axle and wheels coming off the car.)

Speaking of coronapanic, Musk and Bill Gates meet in March 2022. They had to agree to disagree on Mars colonization (Gates thinks lacks practical value, as do I, though planning to get to Mars means that if you fail your engineering work makes getting to orbit dirt cheap.)

At the end of the tour, the conversation turned to philanthropy. Musk expressed his view that most of it was “bullshit.” There was only a twenty-cent impact for every dollar put in, he estimated. He could do more good for climate change by investing in Tesla. “Hey, I’m going to show you five projects of a hundred million each,” Gates responded. He listed money for refugees, American schools, an AIDS cure, eradicating some mosquito types through gene drives, and genetically modified seeds that will resist the effects of climate change. Gates is very diligent about philanthropy, and he promised to write for Musk a “super-long description of the ideas.”

Money for refugees? I haven’t heard of Bill Gates doing anything for the 1.7 million Afghans recently expelled from Pakistan nor for the nearly 400,000 Palestinians expelled by Kuwait. Gates wants to fight climate change and also make some money betting that nobody wants electric cars:

Gates had shorted Tesla stock, placing a big bet that it would go down in value. He turned out to be wrong. By the time he arrived in Austin, he had lost $1.5 billion. Musk had heard about it and was seething. Short-sellers occupied his innermost circle of hell. Gates said he was sorry, but that did not placate Musk. “I apologized to him,” Gates says. “Once he heard I’d shorted the stock, he was super mean to me, but he’s super mean to so many people, so you can’t take it too personally.” The dispute reflected different mindsets. When I asked Gates why he had shorted Tesla, he explained that he had calculated that the supply of electric cars would get ahead of demand, causing prices to fall.

[after Gates keeps hitting Musk up for cash] “Sorry,” Musk shot back instantly. “I cannot take your philanthropy on climate seriously when you have a massive short position against Tesla, the company doing the most to solve climate change.”

“At this point, I am convinced that he is categorically insane (and an asshole to the core),” Musk texted me right after his exchange with Gates. “I did actually want to like him (sigh).”

Musk’s investments in Neuralink should be considered nonprofit donations in my opinion. This is blue sky research of the type that governments typically fund because there is no reasonable expectation of a return on investment.

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Elon Musk and “pedo guy”

I was shocked and horrified when Elon Musk called a young brave Thai cave rescuer “pedo guy” for no apparent reason. Why would someone who’d volunteered to fly from his comfortable and safe British home to risk his own life to save Thai teenagers be subject to any kind of criticism?

Elon Musk, the book, sheds some light on this topic. First, Musk was goaded into helping and then told to continue working on a mini-sub:

“I suspect that the Thai govt has this under control, but I’m happy to help if there is a way to do so,” Musk tweeted. Then his action-hero impulse kicked in. Working with engineers at SpaceX and The Boring Company, he began building a pod-like mini-submarine that, he thought, could be sent into the flooded cave to rescue the boys. Sam Teller got a friend to let them use a school swimming pool for testing that weekend, and Musk began tweeting pictures of the device. The saga became a global news story, some criticizing Musk for grandstanding. Early on Sunday morning, July 8, he checked with a leader of the rescue team in Thailand to make sure that what he was building might be useful. “I have one of the world’s best engineering teams who usually design spaceships and spacesuits working on this thing 24 hours a day,” he emailed. “If it isn’t needed or won’t help, that would be great to know.” The rescue team leader replied, “It is absolutely worth continuing.”

Of course, the mini-sub wasn’t needed after all.

There the story would have ended, except that a sixty-three-year-old English cave explorer named Vernon Unsworth, who had advised Thai rescuers on the scene, gave an interview to CNN dissing Musk’s efforts as “just a PR stunt” that “had absolutely no chance of working.” Unsworth suggested, with a giggle, that “he can stick his submarine where it hurts.” Trolls and detractors fling insults at Musk every hour, and occasionally one sends him into orbit. He responded with a barrage of tweets attacking Unsworth, concluding one of them with “Sorry pedo guy, you really did ask for it.” When another user asked Musk if he was calling Unsworth a pedophile, he responded, “Bet ya a signed dollar it’s true.”

Musk sent an “off-the-record” email that BuzzFeed made public:

“I suggest that you call people you know in Thailand, find out what’s actually going on and stop defending child rapists, you fucking asshole,” Musk began. “He’s an old, single white guy from England who’s been traveling to or living in Thailand for 30 to 40 years, mostly Pattaya Beach, until moving to Chiang Rai for a child bride who was about 12 years old at the time. There’s only one reason people go to Pattaya Beach. It isn’t where you’d go for caves, but it is where you’d go for something else. Chiang Rai is renowned for child sex-trafficking.”

My impressions from following the headlines were, of course, wrong. The guy with whom Musk had traded insults was not one of the actual cave rescuers who’d left a comfortable English home. He was an old British guy living in Thailand who had a lot of experience exploring the cave, but his main role in the rescue was providing phone numbers for British cave rescue experts. Unsworth did not bring out any teenagers himself. Musk was simply guessing that Unsworth was a sexpat rather than merely an expat who loved Thai culture. The guess was not supported by tabloid investigation. Daily Mail found the 63-year-old Unsworth living with a 40-year-old girlfriend:


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Elon Musk’s biggest failure to date: the solar roof

Since the mid-1960s, the U.S. has been embarked on a program of rapid population expansion via low-skill immigration (Pew):

We bring in low-skill migrants who are destined to become lower-than-median earners (if they work at all) and insist that they be provided with at least reasonably high quality housing. This makes sense only if the cost of building housing, and delivering the required energy to that housing, can be reduced via innovation.

What about America’s most successful innovator? His contribution to this challenge has been the solar roof. From Elon Musk:

Musk had helped his cousins, Peter and Lyndon Rive, launch SolarCity in 2006, and he bailed it out ten years later by having Tesla purchase it for $2.6 billion.

As always, he invoked to [Brian Dow] the steps of the algorithm and proceeded to show how they should be applied to the solar roofs. “Question every requirement.” Specifically, they should question the requirement that the installers must work around every vent and chimney pipe sticking up from a house. The pipes for dryers and ventilator fans should simply be sheared off and the solar roof tiles placed on top of them, he suggested. The air would still be able to vent under the tiles. “Delete.” The roof system had 240 different parts, from screws to clamps to rails. More than half should be deleted. “Simplify.” The website should offer just three types of roofs: small, medium, and large. After that, the goal was to “accelerate.” Install as many roofs as possible each week.

[during a sample installation in 2021] Musk clambered up a ladder to the peak of the roof, where he stood precariously. He was not happy. There were too many fasteners, he said. Each had to be nailed down, adding time to the installation process. Half should be deleted, he insisted. “Instead of two nails for each foot, try it with only one,” he ordered. “If the house has a hurricane, the whole neighborhood is fucked up, so who cares? One nail is going to be fine.” Someone protested that could lead to leaks. “Don’t worry about making it as waterproof as a submarine,” he said. “My house in California used to leak. Somewhere between sieve and submarine should be okay.” For a moment he laughed before returning to his dark intensity. No detail was too small. The tiles and railings were shipped to the sites packed in cardboard. That was wasteful. It took time to pack things and then unpack them. Get rid of the cardboard, he said, even at the warehouses. They should send him pictures from the factories, warehouses, and sites each week showing that they were no longer using cardboard.

“We need to get the engineers who designed this system to come out here and see how hard it is to install,” he said angrily. Then he erupted. “I want to see the engineers out here installing it themselves. Not just doing it for five minutes. Up on roofs for days, for fucking days!” He ordered that, in the future, everyone on an installation team, even the engineers and managers, had to spend time drilling and hammering and sweating with the other workers. When we finally climbed back down to the ground, Brian Dow and his deputy Marcus Mueller gathered the dozen engineers and installers in the side yard to hear Musk’s thoughts. They weren’t pleasant. Why, he asked, did it take eight times longer to install a roof of solar tiles than one with regular tiles? One of the engineers, named Tony, began showing him all the wires and electronic parts. Musk already knew the workings of each component, and Tony made the mistake of sounding both assured and condescending. “How many roofs have you done?” Musk asked him. “I’ve got twenty years of experience in the roof business,” Tony answered. “But how many solar roofs have you installed?” Tony explained he was an engineer and had not actually been on a roof doing the installation. “Then you don’t fucking know what you’re fucking talking about,” Musk responded. “This is why your roofs are shit and take so long to install.”

The one-nail idea proved to be unworkable, failing during installation rather than requiring a hurricane. Musk’s intervention did result in reduced installation time, but he never got anywhere near the goal of 1,000 roofs per week. A year after the above events, and following the firing and replacing of quite a few top managers, the company was at 30 roofs per week.

(We tried and failed to get a Tesla solar roof for our house in Maskachusetts. See Tesla Solar Roof (the price is not the price). Here in Florida, we are theoretically using all solar power via paying a little extra every month. That extra money is funding a utility-scale solar array owned and operating by Florida Power & Light.)

In the rush to expand the U.S. population, nobody seems to have noticed that attempts to reduce construction costs have failed. The single-family home is still stick-built by developers in more or less the same way as 100 years ago. The dream of lower cost via prefab did not pan out. Apartment buildings aren’t getting cheaper to construct, in constant dollars, I don’t think, but inflation has been reduced by lowering quality. Developers use flammable wood and sprinklers instead of concrete. “Why America’s New Apartment Buildings All Look the Same” (Bloomberg 2019)

Los Angeles architect Tim Smith was sitting on a Hawaiian beach, reading through the latest building code, as one does, when he noticed that it classified wood treated with fire retardant as noncombustible. That made wood eligible, he realized, for a building category—originally known as “ordinary masonry construction” but long since amended to require only that outer walls be made entirely of noncombustible material—that allowed for five stories with sprinklers.

By putting five wood stories over a one-story concrete podium and covering more of the one-acre lot than a high-rise could fill, Smith figured out how to get the 100 apartments at 60 percent to 70 percent of the cost.

the buildings have proved highly flammable before the sprinklers and walls go in. Dozens of major fires have broken out at mid-rise construction sites over the past five years. Of the 13 U.S. blazes that resulted in damages of $20 million or more in 2017, according to the National Fire Protection Association, six were at wood-frame apartment buildings under construction.

Maybe these buildings won’t burn, but I expect them to degrade and sag more than a concrete apartment building would and be more resistant to rehab.

So… even our most successful innovator, backed up by $billions in capital, hasn’t been able to scratch, much less dent, the problem of housing costs being far higher than what immigrants can afford. And yet we continue to keep our border open.

Health care, obviously, is not affordable for today’s typical migrant, though the true cost is often disguised either by an employer or the government (Medicaid). Let’s also look at car prices. A car is the typical family’s third largest expense after housing and health care. It seems unfair to compare today’s pavement-melting SUVs to the cars of 1965. Maybe we could look at the bottom end of today’s car market as a comparable. CNBC says that this is 30,000 Bidies. That translates to about $5,500 in 1965 dollars (BLS). How much did a car cost in 1965? Hemmings says that a Corvette cost $4,223 in 1965 while a Mustang with a V-8 was $2,734. A basic Dodge Dart was $1,959 and a full-sized Chevy Impala was $2,295 (I think both would seat 6 humans, so they actually had more utility than today’s cheap cars!), according to this source.

So… the costs of producing all of the basics of American life have gone up, in real terms, since the modern immigration wave began, we do not seek to preferentially admit those who are likely to earn higher incomes, and even heroes such as Elon Musk can’t get the construction industry out of its productivity stagnation.

As there is no Spanish tile option for the Tesla solar roof, I don’t think that we would be able to get one. I typed in some data on our house, including that we pay $600/month for electric (the average number might be closer to $500) and got a quote from their web site:

If we assume a zero interest rate environment, the purchase price works out to 606 months of electric bills. The roof then pays for itself in 50 years. Perhaps it would be fairer to subtract the likely cost of a new tile roof since we will need one of those eventually. Let’s call that $80,000. Now we’re down to a 39-year payback period. This is before considering the subsidies from working class renters that our rulers have generously decreed.


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Elon Musk provides inspiration for the damaged

One defining principle of our age is that a damaged human is an economically useless human. Parents weren’t nice to you? You can be mean to others for the next 75 years. Back pain at age 50 when working for the government? Retire on disability (see “A Disability Epidemic Among a Railroad’s Retirees” (NYT): “Virtually every career employee [at the government-owned Long Island Rail Road] — as many as 97 percent in one recent year — applies for and gets disability payments soon after retirement. … The L.I.R.R.’s disability rate suggests it is one of the nation’s most dangerous places to work. Yet in four of the last five years, the railroad has won national awards for improving worker safety.”) Back pain at age 50 when scraping by on minimum wage? Segue to SSDI and Medicaid-funded opioids.

Elon Musk (the book) is a good inspiration to power through the pain, both emotional and physical. Tending to confirm The Son Also Rises: economics history with everyday applications, his mom’s mom was divorced and Elon’s mom was divorced and Elon himself is now thrice-divorced. Elon’s mom could be brutally frank and Elon’s dad was just plain brutal, as was life growing up in South Africa.

His most searing experiences came at school. For a long time, he was the youngest and smallest student in his class. He had trouble picking up social cues. Empathy did not come naturally, and he had neither the desire nor the instinct to be ingratiating. As a result, he was regularly picked on by bullies, who would come up and punch him in the face. “If you have never been punched in the nose, you have no idea how it affects you the rest of your life,” he says. At assembly one morning, a student who was horsing around with a gang of friends bumped into him. Elon pushed him back. Words were exchanged. The boy and his friends hunted Elon down at recess and found him eating a sandwich. They came up from behind, kicked him in the head, and pushed him down a set of concrete steps. “They sat on him and just kept beating the shit out of him and kicking him in the head,” says Kimbal, who had been sitting with him. “When they got finished, I couldn’t even recognize his face. It was such a swollen ball of flesh that you could barely see his eyes.” He was taken to the hospital and was out of school for a week. Decades later, he was still getting corrective surgery to try to fix the tissues inside his nose. But those scars were minor compared to the emotional ones inflicted by his father, Errol Musk, an engineer, rogue, and charismatic fantasist who to this day bedevils Elon. After the school fight, Errol sided with the kid who pummeled Elon’s face. “The boy had just lost his father to suicide, and Elon had called him stupid,” Errol says. “Elon had this tendency to call people stupid. How could I possibly blame that child?”

When Elon finally came home from the hospital, his father berated him. “I had to stand for an hour as he yelled at me and called me an idiot and told me that I was just worthless,” Elon recalls. Kimbal, who had to watch the tirade, says it was the worst memory of his life. “My father just lost it, went ballistic, as he often did. He had zero compassion.” Both Elon and Kimbal, who no longer speak to their father, say his claim that Elon provoked the attack is unhinged and that the perpetrator ended up being sent to juvenile prison for it.

How about back pain, the standard American initiative-killer?

For his forty-second birthday, in June 2013, Talulah [Riley; photo below] rented an ersatz castle in Tarrytown, New York, just north of New York City, and invited forty friends. The theme this time was Japanese steampunk, and Musk and the other men were dressed as samurai warriors. There was a performance of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado, which had been rewritten slightly to feature Musk as the Japanese emperor, and a demonstration by a knife-thrower. Musk, never one to avoid risks, even needless ones, put a pink balloon just underneath his groin for the knife-thrower to target while blindfolded. The culmination was a demonstration of Sumo wrestling. At the end, the group’s 350-pound champion invited Musk into the ring. “I went full strength at him to try a judo throw, because I thought he was trying to take it easy on me,” Musk says. “I decided to see if I could throw this guy, and I did. But I also blew out a disc at the base of my neck.” Ever since, Musk has suffered severe bouts of back and neck pain; he would end up having three operations to try to repair his C5-C6 intervertebral disc. During meetings at the Tesla or SpaceX factories, he would sometimes lie flat on the floor with an ice pack at the base of his neck.

(I didn’t understand the appeal of SSDI and opioids until, at around age 50, I decided to repeatedly throw a friend’s 7-year-old onto a couch. This required a twisting motion and, the next morning, I could barely move.)

Elon Musk worked like a demon for years after this injury (I think that we can be confident that the surgeries did not render him “good as new”) and also after the malaria+Stanford misdiagnosis that nearly killed him (see previous post).

Maybe all of this damage will eventually catch up with him, but until then I think we can all look to Elon as inspiration to stop making excuses!

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Elon Musk and the founding of OpenAI

I was surprised when listening to Elon Musk at the important role Musk played in the founding of OpenAI (I had heard that at one point, but then forgot it).

Before he was worried about population collapse, Musk was worried about AI. His interest in LLMs seems to date from 2013 when he invested $5 million in DeepMind, which was later acquired by Google.

Musk proceeded to publicly warn of the danger. “Our biggest existential threat,” he told a 2014 symposium at MIT, “is probably artificial intelligence.” When Amazon announced its chatbot digital assistant, Alexa, that year, followed by a similar product from Google, Musk began to warn about what would happen when these systems became smarter than humans. They could surpass us and begin treating us as pets. “I don’t love the idea of being a house cat,” he said. The best way to prevent a problem was to ensure that AI remained tightly aligned and partnered with humans. “The danger comes when artificial intelligence is decoupled from human will.” So Musk began hosting a series of dinner discussions that included members of his old PayPal mafia, including Thiel and Hoffman, on ways to counter Google and promote AI safety. He even reached out to President Obama, who agreed to a one-on-one meeting in May 2015. Musk explained the risk and suggested that it be regulated. “Obama got it,” Musk says. “But I realized that it was not going to rise to the level of something that he would do anything about.”

Musk wasn’t happy that Larry Page at Google, who was now in control of the technology, did not share his concern.

Musk then turned to Sam Altman, a tightly bundled software entrepreneur, sports car enthusiast, and survivalist who, behind his polished veneer, had a Musk-like intensity. Altman had met Musk a few years earlier and spent three hours with him in conversation as they toured the SpaceX factory. “It was funny how some of the engineers would scatter or look away when they saw Elon coming,” Altman says. “They were afraid of him. But I was impressed by how much detail he understood about every little piece of the rocket.” At a small dinner in Palo Alto, Altman and Musk decided to cofound a nonprofit artificial intelligence research lab, which they named OpenAI. It would make its software open-source and try to counter Google’s growing dominance of the field. Thiel and Hoffman joined Musk in putting up the money. “We wanted to have something like a Linux version of AI that was not controlled by any one person or corporation,” Musk says. “The goal was to increase the probability that AI would develop in a safe way that would be beneficial to humanity.” One question they discussed at dinner was what would be safer: a small number of AI systems that were controlled by big corporations or a large number of independent systems? They concluded that a large number of competing systems, providing checks and balances on each other, was better. Just as humans work collectively to stop evil actors, so too would a large collection of independent AI bots work to stop bad bots. For Musk, this was the reason to make OpenAI truly open, so that lots of people could build systems based on its source code. “I think the best defense against the misuse of AI is to empower as many people as possible to have AI,” he told Wired’s Steven Levy at the time.

I asked a friend who works at OpenAI (for $1 million per year!) if this vision had been realized, i.e., if I could download the source code and tinker with it. He laughed.

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