Top of Mind: week ending 8/17/2018

Elon Musk’s Boring Company

Most of the Musk news this week has been about the hole he has dug himself into on the specious Tesla buy-out rumors that he himself started. But my attention this week has been drawn to his other hole-digging activity: The Boring Company. Both Los Angeles and Chicago are in talks with him to construct point-to-point transit tunnels to a major sports stadium and airport, respectively. On Wednesday Wired had a piece about the LA tunnel to Dodger Stadium and Crain’s Chicago had one about the O’Hare one.

So. Many. Questions.

I studiously ignored the spate of articles that appeared when Musk first announced this … venture? endeavor? showertime epiphany? But these articles and some other talk I’ve heard have sent me down a rabbit hole. I know a little bit (a very little bit) about what it takes to actually construct transit tunnels, and Musk’s primary innovation—save money by boring tunnels with smaller diameters, which will then carry autonomous vehicles with smaller clearance requirements than conventional rapid transit rolling stock—doesn’t quite compute. Tunnel size has little to do with the cost. The problem goes (pardon the pun) much deeper. Anyway, Musk says that the company would fund the construction of the new lines with private money and make back its investment by operating the system and leasing the terminal real estate. It would cost the public nothing.

If I were a more cynical individual, I would be tempted to say that this is not the real business plan, and would suggest that Musk’s real business plan is giving mayors and governors the opportunity to look like infrastructure visionaries at no upfront cost to them in return for (a) open-ended concessions on public land, and (b) a soft regulatory touch on aspects of Musk’s other ventures that require state or municipal approval. If you view it as a big, flashy government relations play for Tesla it’s actually kind of genius.

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Shahzeen Attari

I came across a talk that environmental activist/engineer Shahzeen Attari gave at the Long Now Foundation’s salon series, The Interval. It was released back in June but for some reason it only appeared in my podcast feed this week. Her work focuses on constructing effective narratives of climate change. Think of it as narrative science, or, more accurately, narrative engineering: designing, building, and shipping narratives that focus the general public on the desperate need to address climate change. It is every bit as interesting as it is important, and it has been banging around in my brain ever since I listened to her talk. Check out the whole talk here.

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Anna Karenina

I continue to slog through this masterpiece of western literature at the brisk pace of about 50 pages per week, mainly on the subway to and from work. (It’s strangely satisfying to know that my weekly commute equates to approximately 1,500 words of Tolstoy/Garnett prose. The commute time-to-word count conversion is something I plan on deriving for all future books.)

I just can’t bring myself to be interested in the fate of the characters, despite the occasionally brilliant moments of tension, reversal and revelation. What keeps me reading, apart from my mulish insistence that I crawl across the finish line on this one, are the moments of beautiful and deep characterization, which come every dozen pages or so. My favorite bit from the last week was nine year old Seryozha, Anna and Aleksy’s son, and his resistance to book learning. I loved this paragraph:

His father and his teacher were both displeased with Seryozha, and he certainly did learn his lessons very badly. But still it could not be said he was a stupid boy. On the contrary, he was far cleverer than the boys his teacher held up as examples to Seryozha. In his father’s opinion, he did not want to learn what he was taught. In reality he could not learn that. He could not, because the claims of his own soul were more binding on him than those claims his father and his teacher made upon him. Those claims were in opposition, and he was in direct conflict with his education. He was nine years old; he was a child; but he knew his own soul, it was precious to him, he guarded it as the eyelid guards the eye, and without the key of love he let no one into his soul. His teachers complained that he would not learn, while his soul was brimming over with thirst for knowledge. And he learned from Kapitonitch, from his nurse, from Nadinka, from Vassily Lukitch, but not from his teachers. The spring his father and his teachers reckoned upon to turn their mill-wheels had long dried up at the source, but its waters did their work in another channel.

That spring/mill-wheel image at the end is so good. Also, the scene a few chapters later where Seryozha briefly reunites with his mother nearly made me cry. So maybe there’s something to this book after all.

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Theranos

Last weekend we were camping and I brought along John Carreyrou’s justly famous book on the Elizabeth Holmes and her ill-fated hemato-tech concern. Long after my family was in the tent snoring, when the fire had burned down to dim embers and the Milky Way was shimmering majestically in the clear night sky above me, I was sitting hunched over on an uncomfortable picnic bench, running down my phone battery by using it as a reading lamp, in a frenzy to get to the end of this book. I think I read the whole thing in under 24 hours, which makes me feel less bad about taking six months to read Anna Karenina. It is hard to believe that Carreyrou is just reporting the blow-by-blow events as they happened. Not that I doubt it, but the book’s narrative arc is an almost perfect tragic thriller. Of course there’s already a movie version in the works.

That said, I may have taken the wrong lesson from this book. Of course, overpromising investors and taking many millions from them while delivering the med-tech equivalent of vaporware is very bad. Never do that. Also, don’t run your company on lies, vindictiveness, and paranoia. Of course. But, reading the book, I got the sense that there was a way that this concept could have actually worked out. Holmes’s insistence on the device being a certain small size and on the blood sample being a certain very low quantity from the very first prototype seemed to prevent the development of (bigger, thirstier) prototypes that actually could have done what she wanted them to do.

It seems like if you could get a bigger device that required more blood but which actually did the thing, your task then becomes optimizing and shrinking, which is much easier to do when the device actually works. If I’ve learned one thing from the history of computers it’s that devices that are the size of airplane hangars can shrink to the size of a post-it note, while also improving exponentially in functionality, in the period of a generation. Maybe that could have been the case here. But who wants to wait a whole generation?

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Good Stationary and Pens, and the Bloggers Who Blog About Them

A few weeks back I kind of unintentionally found myself enmeshed in a new hobby-cum-obsession, namely old fashioned-style writing on dead tree paper with ink. I bought a Pilot Metropolitan fountain pen, a bunch of paper and notebooks from Rhodia, Maruman, Midori, Nock Co., and lower Manhattan’s very own Bowne & Co. The result is that I have found myself writing, like, 100% more than I used to. For years I avoided fountain pens and nice paper as the realm of fancy-pants posers, but the tactile experience really is quite nice. And since writing can often be unpleasant, little things like the aesthetic pleasure of good pen on good paper help a lot to keep my butt in the chair and the words pouring out of my brain.

It also should come as no surprise that there is quite an active community surrounding stationary and pens (and pencils!). These blogs have quickly become some of my favorite online media. Here is an incomplete list of stationary/pen/pencil blogs that I have been reading in recent weeks:

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Vaughan Williams’s “Pastoral Symphony”

As gloomy as British classical music can be, it really reached a peak of elegiac melancholy in decade immediately following the First World War. Elgar’s cello concerto is probably the poster child for this, but Vaughan Williams’s Third Symphony does Elgar one better in my book.

Over the weekend I realized I am not as familiar as I would like to be with Vaughan Williams’s numbered symphonies, so I downloaded a few of the early ones. This one, dubbed the “Pastoral”, really stood out. I’ve listened to it maybe half a dozen times already, and will probably do so again this afternoon. It is something of a requiem for the casualties of the First World War, but avoids dramatic displays of bereavement in favor of a kind of grieving placidity. I don’t know how else to describe it. The trumpet solo in the second movement and especially the soprano solo in the fourth movement are incredibly evocative. You can listen to the whole symphony on Youtube.

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