Who is behind Elon Musk?

Elon Musk

He named his sixth child X, after the rockets he plans to send to Mars to save humanity. He investigates the man who asked his biographer: “But in your opinion, am I crazy?”

Browsing through the life and works of Elon Musk , a term occurs frequently. The founder of Tesla and SpaceX says it in front of a lobster fried in squid ink when he asks his future biographer very seriously: “Do you think I’m crazy?”. He also discusses it with his latest wife, the musician formerly known as Grimes, now renamed c (the symbol of the speed of light), who defines herself as “a hybrid between a fairy, a witch and a cyborg”: “I’m crazier or are you crazier?”. Above all, the question did not sound far-fetched when, after an imprudent tweet in open markets in which he said he was ready to buy back his company at 420 dollars a share (a number synonymous with cannabis, for a whole series of vague reasons that Wikipedia details ), the stock was first suspended for excessive growth, then the stock exchange authority fined him two fines of 20 million dollars each, temporarily removing him as president of the company and finally his board of directors removed him Twitter for three months. Like any Trump. If you wanted, the examples could multiply ad infinitum, but you understand the meaning.

Musk with his current partner, the musician Grimes, known as c, like the symbol of the speed of light (Getty Images) 

If this almost fifty-year-old who wonders about his mental health were the most popular artist of the moment, there would be many precedents and no scandal. But this is the engineer, as he likes to call himself, who has decided to revolutionize private transport and transform humanity into a multiplanetary species, setting up plan B for the ruined Earth on Mars. One, to put it differently, that he must know how to calculate quite well otherwise electric cars and rockets will crash. And that, although they have both occasionally crashed, more often than not they succeed. So much so that in the meantime Teslas are also starting to be spotted on Italian roads, rockets leave for the International Space Station at a rate of once a month and he, in all of this, has briefly ousted Jeff Bezos from the throne of the most person richest in the world with a personal wealth of almost 200 billion dollars, the GDP of New Zealand. If not actually solve it, we will at least try to dispel the mystery of the most “visionary” entrepreneur (another recurring anglicism, now cleared) around.

A wall of silence

I’ve been trying to interview Musk for years. At the umpteenth attempt the European press office told me “come to Paris in the meantime and try a Tesla or see our new batteries”. I didn’t rush into that sort of starter and they no longer answer me (Musk also has a reputation for changing spokespersons – which he bypasses by communicating with his 42 million followers on Twitter – like one does with Kleenex during a flu). I wrote, among others, to Adeo Ressi, an Italian-American entrepreneur who boasts the title of his best friend. To Tom Mueller, former head of launches at SpaceX. To Kevin Holland, another veteran of his. To Hamish McKenzie, author of Insane Mode , a Muskian hagiography. Nothing, zero, nada. So, beyond the robust press coverage the man has produced, the only direct source is Ashlee Vance , Bloomberg BusinessWeek reporter and Elon Musk author . Tesla, SpaceX and the challenge for a fantastic future (Hoepli), a 380-page tome resulting from over 30 hours of interviews which mostly took place during as many dinners. It is an authorized biography, and this obviously determines its tone (the criticisms, from the mouths of a couple of academics, are piled up without conviction in the last paragraphs), but it is a well-documented book, well written and essential for understanding the character . I ask Vance, who is in his forties and is in lockdown in Mexico, if Musk liked the book: “At first, yes. He just contested that he had paid for the BMW for an American trip and not his brother Kimbal and that it wasn’t true that SpaceX engineers were complaining because he was taking all the credit. He called it 95 percent accurate. But as the newspapers reviewed it, the attitude changed until a couple of his furious phone calls We broke off relations for almost three years, until a conciliatory email from him a few months ago.”

Former bullied child

On the other hand, if he had had a more standard sensibility, Musk would have realized on his own that not everyone would have taken some of his revelations very well. Like: “I suffered a lot (with my father). He is capable of taking any situation, no matter how beautiful it may be, and making it ugly” to the point that with his first wife they forbade their five children (another died as a newborn) from hanging out with him . Or the farewell from Mary Beth Brown, his assistant for ten years, who he had even had joint custody of the children, fired immediately when she had asked for a raise (since then all digital trace has been lost) . Or again when he candidly admitted that it bothers him a little to know that his offspring won’t have as tough a childhood as hers, because she believes that she “gave him additional reserves of energy and willpower.” Which is like realizing that the concentration camp, when it doesn’t kill you, strengthens you.

So: turbo-summary of the infant Elon. Born in Pretoria, South Africa, on 28 June 1971, her mother was a model and dietician and her father was an engineer and real estate entrepreneur, who soon divorced. He fiddles with the Vic-20 computer and plays Dungeons & Dragons , pastimes well known to the reporter’s generation. He doesn’t do sports and reads the Encyclopedia Britannica , a great topos, always a little suspicious, about precocious geniuses. Result: they bully him heavily, to the point of breaking his nasal septum by pushing him down the stairs at school. He immigrated to Canada for college. Then University of Pennsylvania for economics and physics. In ’94, at the dawn of the Internet, he did two internships in Silicon Valley and understood that that was where he belonged. They took him to Stanford for his doctorate but he immediately left to found Zip2 , an advertising system on maps before Google Maps (it would be worth 22 million) and then , which would become Paypal (165 million was his share when eBay took it over ). With this peculiarity, after having spent a million on one of the 62 McLarens in the world, he can dedicate himself to his true interest: colonizing Mars, where Earthlings will be able to take refuge when the climate has finally gone crazy. In 2002, with 100 million dollars of his own, he founded SpaceX .

Elon Musk with SpaceX’s Dragon capsule, which transported the first astronauts to the International Space Station in 2020 (Getty Images) 

Space self-taught

Now, sending men into space is the international benchmark for something terribly difficult. Musk is self-taught but studies like crazy. He hires the best engineers (one of them: “He asked so many questions that he learned 90 percent of what you knew”). He calls the first rocket Falcon 1, after the Millennium Falcon starship from Star Wars , which seems to cement his reputation as a stopped-development big boy. But he also creates avionics systems, the IT equipment that on rockets never cost less than 10 million dollars, for just 10 thousand. In this middle ground between infantilism and reasoning man thrives. When they tell him that it is impossible to use friction welding on rockets, he proves that the opposite is true. And when Jeff Bezos steals the precious specialist who knows how to make it, he takes it so well that he renames the competitor Blue Origin “BO”, slang for body odor , the smell of sweat.

Once the shuttles were decommissioned, NASA entrusted them with the mission of bringing astronauts into orbit with a billion-dollar contract that it will share with Boeing. No more landings, he promises, and in December 2015 he manages to land a Falcon 9 in the desert. Only reusable rockets, if we want to make space missions more affordable. Waiting to take the first space tourists on board. Every now and then a rocket explodes but last year, with the Demo-2 mission, yours was the first private company to get a human crew safely to the International Space Station. So far, three have succeeded: America, Russia and him. While he was in the atmosphere he came up with the idea of ​​Starlink (in truth he stole it from someone who had told it to him, but let’s not quibble), that is, a series of low-orbit satellites (costing around 10 billion) for give access to the internet in every area of ​​the world.

E-Car: is it real glory?

Coming back down to earth, so to speak, if you say Musk you immediately think of Tesla , but neither the name (a tribute to Nikola, pioneer of the electric motor) nor the prototype of the car are his. The company was founded in 2003 by Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning. Musk invests almost seven million dollars in it and begins his climb that will end with the ousting of the others. The gigantic obstacle, for a car with more acceleration than a Ferrari and originally made up of 80 percent batteries (now they are a third of the total weight), is to dissipate the heat produced without causing them to explode. The first model, the Roadster, costs 100 thousand dollars, with 400 kilometers of autonomy. It generates good press, but little turnover. In 2012 the Model S arrives, a sedan that travels almost 500 kilometers and has a double trunk because the engine is the size of a watermelon and fits between the rear wheels. Other details: falcon wing doors (immensely more complex than gull wing ones because once raised they regroup above the roof). An operating system that is updated remotely, like that of cell phones. The reckless promise of being able to recharge it for free at Tesla stations. Motor Trend unanimously named it Car of the Year. Then Consumer Reports gave it 99 out of 100, the highest score in its history. Fearing they could not beat it, Daimler Benz and Toyota bought shares of the company (10 and 2.5 percent).

Musk at the presentation of the Model 

“The Unified Field”

In 2015 the Model X, an SUV, was released. The following year, Musk acquired SolarCity , America’s first solar panel installer. And the Gigafactory in Nevada, the largest electric battery factory in the world, comes into operation . What biographer Vance calls “Musk’s unified field theory” is now taking shape. That is: “Tesla produces battery packs that SolarCity can then sell to end customers. SolarCity supplies solar panels to Tesla charging stations, allowing them to offer customers free charging. New Model S buyers often choose to convert to the ‘Musk lifestyle’ and install solar panels on the roof of their home.”

Everything, at least in his head, holds together. The Model 3 (which, if the brand hadn’t already been registered by Ford, he wanted to call E so he could say that the acronym for the three models was SEX) is the $35,000 sedan with which Musk wants to conquer the global middle class environmentally warned. The enthusiasm for the first 500 thousand bookings is buried by a perfect storm of production bad luck. Delays. Failures. And at least two major market recalls of the previous model. Short sellers, investors who specialize in short-selling shares of companies whose failure they predict, smell blood. Tesla becomes the most shorted stock in the world. Musk fights like a lion. He buys his own shares with 25 million of his money to increase their value. He argues via social media with the attackers. It resists.

But there are those who say no

Among the speculators convinced that the man is a bluff is Aaron Greenspan . Graduated in economics, he lives in San Francisco developing software and investing in the stock market, including Tesla with profit. He agrees to talk to me after reading a 138-page complaint he filed against Musk. He says: “Tesla is the biggest financial scam ever, the astonishing results of which exist only in the stories of its CEO. For starters: how many cars does it sell? Nobody knows because the company talks about ‘deliveries and not ‘sales’ And he makes the money, mostly, by selling green credits to other petrol or diesel car companies.” In reality, sales numbers exist. While it is true that Tesla has collected over 350 million dollars by selling credits to those who, by law, had to repay for the pollution produced (not to mention the other 295 million pocketed in two years, again as credits for zero-emission vehicles in return for a free battery replacement project that never started). The lead that is least convincing to Greenspan is that of alleged mental instability: “Smoking a joint live on the radio was not an accident, but a perfectly successful PR maneuver. Until a few days before, everyone was talking about his grotesque accusation ( ‘paedophile’) to a British rescuer from that team of Thai kids trapped in a cave. A joint was enough to make her disappear from the news!”.

John Markoff, technology correspondent for the New York Times for decades , has more doubts , the one quoted in Being digital by Nicholas Negroponte (“Why can’t I just pay for his pieces?”): “At the Los Angeles presentation of Do You Trust This Computer ?, a documentary on the risks of artificial intelligence that Musk had financed, the producer had to go on stage and escort him off because he was saying incoherent things. A very embarrassing moment.” It was the period in which, as Musk recounted in an interview interrupted several times by tears, “I didn’t leave the factory even for 3-4 days at a time, to the detriment of my relationship with my children and my friends”. And speaks one known for having set the threshold for pain from overwork above 80 hours a week (“rather manageable”), describing the “non-linear” increase in blood pressure when it approaches 120 (“insane”). To sleep he gulps Ambien, a popular sedative.

I ask Markoff, who is working on a big book about Stewart Brand, the technologist who holds the copyright to the Stay Hungry attributed to Steve Jobs, what Musk’s reputation is in the Valley now that things seem to be going well for him: “Paradoxically worse than they once were , for having repeatedly threatened to move the headquarters to Texas even though California has financed it with over a billion dollars. Not to mention the billion and three paid by Nevada to attract the battery factory. For a total of around 5 billion , between loans and deductions, pocketed during the Obama administration. If you declare yourself a libertarian, someone who believes that the less state the better, you make yourself look like a hypocrite.” Even more so if, as a leading member of the so-called Paypal Mafia, together with the infamous Peter Thiel, perhaps the only Trumpian technology entrepreneur, you were part of the former president’s widely disgusted cabinet of advisors.

What’s in his brain?

The real concern of Markoff – whose head as we speak via Zoom floats on the virtual background of a pond – concerns Neuralink , the human-machine interface on which Musk has put a hundred neuroscientists to work. These are 4 or 6 micron electrodes to be implanted in the brain through robotic surgery, with the aim of promoting symbiosis with computers: “Musk imagines that it will allow us to control the machines better, I fear that, if anything, it will make us controllable “.

Hyperloop is a hyperfast transport project inside low-pressure tubes that in theory should allow travel at 1,200 kilometers per hour. Musk is a supporter: here is a prototype developed by one of the companies that have embraced the cause 

The last mention, in the constellation of seemingly crazy ideas he is engaged in, goes to HyperLoop , a magnetic induction transport system inside low-pressure tubes. A kind of pneumatic post for humans at 1,200 km/h which would allow you to go from Rome to Milan in less than half an hour. Seven or eight years ago a riot of renderings, prototypes, an ad hoc company called The Boring Company . Boring means “digging tunnels” but also “boring”, and in Musk’s mind the second meaning must have prevailed. Vance agrees: “All traces of it have been lost. I have no evidence that it is digging anywhere, although a couple of startups have become passionate about the idea. Perhaps, trivially, it is not a sufficient challenge for someone who competes with Mars” . What do you care about revolutionizing the commute of millions of people here and now, multiplying the speed of trains by six, when the only station that interests you is the space station? This is the man, for better or for worse.

Musk at the presentation of The Boring Company, the company founded to dig the tunnels in which the Hyperloop superfast trains should travel (Getty Images) 

Home and family

The sentimental illiterate who, at the first meeting with his future second wife, the twenty-year-old actress Talulah Riley, will propose, with an unconscious Allenian paraphrase, to show her his collection of rockets (“I was skeptical, but he really showed me the videos of rockets”). And who, when they break up, will confide his logistical worries to the biographer (“I have to find a girlfriend. That’s why I have to be able to carve out some time for myself. Maybe another five or ten hours… how much time does a woman want every week? What is it the minimum wage? I don’t know”). And yet, in his brief but intense periods as a bachelor, he would have had a relationship with Amber Heard, married to Johnny Depp (who then disparaged him by calling him Mollusk ), or even – according to the tabloids – “a threesome with her and her friend Cara Delevingne.” For having some high-functioning Asperger’s traits, she has said surprising things, like this to Rolling Stone : “If I’m not in love, if I’m not with a stable partner, I can’t be happy.” A recent interview with New York Times über-writer Maureen Dowd was titled “Taking Off into Domestic Bliss.” Precisely to signal the calm, with Tesla which alone is worth (inexplicably in a year in which very few have thought of renewing its car fleet) more than the six main automotive companies put together, after years of storm. What does Musk do in his spare time? He watches anime , listens to audiobooks and podcasts. The number one rule he imposed on the entire family is taken from Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy : “Don’t panic.” While his personal commandment remains that “if the daily roller coaster isn’t incredibly scary, then I’m doing something wrong.” When it comes to savoir vivre .

Last May his sixth child was born, which in the registry office goes by to the Archangel-12, the CIA reconnaissance plane that he and his wife prefer). At home, however, they abbreviate it to Monthy Python: “No one expected the Inquisition”).

The lord of memes

To Dowd, who closes the interview with a kind of Proust questionnaire, he replied “it’s probably true” when asked if he “would rather be a meme lord than a millionaire”. In reality he already is. A whiff of him causes internet tsunamis. One syllable and the stock market goes berserk. During the GameStop affair, in which legions of small investors challenged short speculators, one of his onomatopoeic chirps (“Gamestonk”), interpreted as support for the cause of the company under attack, was enough to make the shares rise by a further 157 percent. cent (“A bubble that produces another bubble” was the most wicked but acute joke).

Also in January, the invitation to “use Signal” had increased the value of a title of the same name that had nothing to do with the messaging application. Lastly, having announced that he had bought Bitcoin for 1.5 billion dollars, announcing that he will accept them as payment for Teslas, has caused the cryptocurrency to break unprecedented records. Not paying, he declared that he had bought a lot of Dogecoin , other virtual money inspired by memes about Japanese Shiba Inu dogs, as a dowry for his last-born, hoping that they would become the “internet currency” (result: +16 percent ). All this love for cryptocurrencies, in addition to endorsing speculative instruments that economists like Nouriel Roubini see as absolute evil, also explodes yet another contradiction in his trumpeted concern for the Planet, since the computers used to create them absorb 0 .56% of the world’s electricity needs.

Here he is the subsidized libertarian, the autistic romantic, the energy-intensive environmentalist. “Aren’t there more pressing problems on Earth than Mars?” provokes one of the rare critics in the cited biography. Vance replies: “Of course, but it’s an objection that we can make to many: everyone is interested in what turns them on, not another.” He goes so far as to hypothesize that Musk has set up this whole circus to combat his “deep insecurity, a deep-rooted tendency towards self-sabotage”. He confided to him: “I would like to die on Mars” and then humorously added “but not at the moment of impact. Ideally I would like to go and visit it, come back here for a while and then go up there when I’m seventy or so.” , and stay there.” Wives and children “would probably stay on Earth.” Unless, between now and then, he hasn’t found a solution to this interstellar commute of love.

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