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I haven't read that book since the day after it came out, but from my foggy recollection, I'm pretty sure this review is better.

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A comparison of Vance and Isaacson’s books would be interesting. Eventually I'll get around to reading the latter...

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One point in favor of X succeeding: personal social skills don’t seem to be required for building a social media giant. Case in point: Mark Zuckerberg, who is ten times more awkward and less inspiring than Musk. Yet Meta still manages to be the industry leader, dumb metaverse decisions included.

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Sep 13, 2023·edited Sep 13, 2023Author

I think the bottleneck is less "personal skills" than "PR skills". If Congress subpoenas Zuck to decide whether to regulate him, I bet Zuck prepares really hard and has well-thought-out, reassuring-sounding answers for them. And if the media tries to accuse Zuck of spreading misinformation, he builds some kind of connection to friendly journalists and anti-misinformation groups and has respected people say good-PR things that soothe people's worries. Musk is just going to tell these people to go f*** themselves.

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I see what you mean, but I also think you underestimate his PR skills. If I had to summarize Elon’s “magic sauce” it’s that he is good at building a narrative that he’s a genius, working on incredible projects, etc. This is his true skill, not being an engineering wizard. Most of the people that dislike him intensely in government and media are themselves disliked by the majority of the population.

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Sep 13, 2023·edited Sep 13, 2023Author

"If I had to summarize Elon’s “magic sauce” it’s that he is good at building a narrative that he’s a genius, working on incredible projects, etc."

I'm not sure of this - is the "Musk's projects are incredible" narrative stronger than would be expected from the actual incredibleness of his projects? I think maybe a little stronger, but not so much I'd call it a real exceptional talent of his. It's crazy how much more advanced SpaceX is than anything else that any of its much larger competitors or big national governments were able to do.

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There was a huge media push about a decade ago to frame Elon as this genius engineer guy saving the world. He was even in Iron Man. It was everywhere.

There are plenty of people doing just as amazing things that aren’t nearly as famous, largely because I argue they don’t understand the power of marketing and storytelling as well as Elon does.

Again this isn’t saying that their accomplishments aren’t real, or that he’s just faking expertise, but that it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. He gets the best people and the best government contracts because he understands this power of PR and narrative. A whole lot of people seem to think he’s running these companies entirely on his own, which is patently absurd. He’s very very good at getting good people to work for him.

To paint him as someone oblivious to this is a naive view IMO.

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Sep 13, 2023·edited Sep 13, 2023

I could be reenacting my own trauma here, but "he's very very good at getting good people to work for him" is IMHO his real secret sauce. Hiring good technical people is *hard*, especially when you're trying to hire people more expert than you. That he can do this at companies which are widely known for their terrible working conditions is impressive.

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Also a talent that Steve jobs had.

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Sep 13, 2023·edited Sep 13, 2023Author

Who else is doing equally amazing things and is less well known?

Vance says that the Iron Man people approached Elon rather than vice versa. They were filming in Los Angeles, someone told Robert Downey Jr there was an impressive space magnate with a factory nearby, and RD thought it would be a good acting project to study him.

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Literally everyone that has a high level position in all of his companies? How many people working at space x or Tesla other than Musk are household names?

He’s also the richest man in the world, which brings its own PR benefits.

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From what I've heard, it was Downey's idea in the first place. When producing the first movie, the director didn't really know how to portray the larger-than-life comics persona of Tony Stark as a realistic human character, and after some brainstorming, RDJ said "we need to talk with Elon Musk." This is why Musk got a cameo in the sequel: Tony Stark's personality was based on him.

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Artist Tyrant is not arguing in good faith, so you're wasting your time engaging with them.

Like many people, the starting point is not "Musk is interesting, what can I learn"; the starting point is "Musk is evil because he will not accept DEI hegemony", everything subsequent flows from that axiom.

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I'm curious how you would distinguish a "media push" from "a bunch of people independently spread a meme, and once it takes off enough, traditional media desperately echoes it to seem hip and cool and with-it". I feel like I've seen examples of both, but am ill-equipped to tell the difference, other than the rare cases where I'm there to see it start.

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Sep 13, 2023·edited Sep 13, 2023

Perhaps it's the very scale of his projects that makes people remember the big successes. This review never brought up The Boring Company, for instance; a proposal that made me go "what the hell?" when I first heard it and which seems or does not seem to be making progress, depending on what coverage I'm reading when. Ditto NeuraLink.

https://www.vox.com/recode/2022/12/8/23498861/elon-musk-boring-company-tunnels-finished

Now, I know Vox is a little sour on Musk, but the big visionary project seems to have stalled for various reasons (one being that the self-driving cars aren't good enough yet). I wouldn't be surprised if it turned out to instead revolutionise how large tunnels are dug or the likes, but that's not at all the same as "you'll be ferried in your car on a moving walkway in a tunnel and then raised up by elevator to the very front door of wherever it is you want to go".

EDIT: I seem to have conflated The Boring Company with the Hyperloop, apologies, they're both basically tunnels so far as I can tell but if The Boring Company is about "digging tunnels better, faster and cheaper" I think that is a lot more achievable than whatever the Hyperloop was/is supposed to be doing.

The political switch has an awful lot to do with the coverage, I think, as well as the simple passage of time and reality hitting the ambitious projects on the head. When he could be seen as at least liberal, with some genuflection in the direction of progressivism, then he was the Tony Stark of our days.

Now he's next thing to Orange Man Bad and is ushering in fascism in America. (The amount of *seething* over Twitter before he bought it, with the appeals to stop him in order to preserve democracy, and the gloating over perceived losses once he did buy it was amazing. The 180 on what a blue check mark meant was also amazing - the same people who were smugly repeating what a blue check mark said as 'the expert has spoken, shut up idiot conservative' were now 'all it means is that you're verified as a subscriber, it doesn't mean anything else and nobody ever at all used it as meaning the right opinion because it was an expert saying it')>

I have much the same view of him as I do of Trump: he's not as marvellous as his fans make out, and he's not as terrible as his detractors make out. He's smart and driven and ambitious, and part of that is sometimes when he shoots for the moon, he hits it and sometimes he misses.

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I don't understand your point about the blue checkmark. What it signified *did* change, didn't it? From a "we've checked that this vaguely-famous person really is who they say they are" which doubled as a kind of Official Acknowledgement Of Being A Public Person, to something any old dick and harry can buy even if they are in no way a Public Person (Semi-Officially-Acknowledged or otherwise). People being annoyed at people who bought their blue checkmarks as a pure transaction, while respecting the people who'd been *awarded* a checkmark in the old regime, seems entirely unsurprising, and in no way hypocritical.

(If the US government began selling Medals of Honor for a thousand bucks, I expect people who currently kowtow to medal-wearing vets would start hissing and booing at the "fakes" — how is this different? In both cases, maybe the kowtowing to the original group is excessive, but the signifier has plainly changed meaning, and its original salience or lack thereof is irrelevant to the legitimacy of complaining that whatever meaning there may have been earlier has been completely washed out.)

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Hyperloop was just a tech whitepaper that Elon and some engineers at Tesla released. It was not ever one of Elon's companies, although he did find some design contents.

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> is the "Musk's projects are incredible" narrative stronger than would be expected from the actual incredibleness of his projects?

There's a pretty well-known argument about this wrt Tesla. If we look at current market capitalization, Ford (stock ticker: F) is worth $50 billion. That is the price of owning all of Ford if you could buy all of the stock at current prices, which you can't do.

Meanwhile, Tesla (ticker: TSLA; this makes me wonder if Elon Musk is trying to get T) is worth $840 billion by the same metric, or just under 17 times as much. I am much less confident in the sales figures I pulled off the internet just now than I am in the market capitalization numbers, but they tell me that last year Ford "sold" 4.2 million cars and Tesla "delivered" 1.3 million, or 0.31 times as many cars as Ford. (I'd really like to compare number of cars manufactured, but good luck figuring that out.)

If neither company had outstanding stock and therefore they both had a market capitalization of zero, how likely would you be to conclude that owning Ford would be 17 times worse than owning Tesla?

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If you buy Ford you also have to pay off it's debt which makes the ratio a little less crazy. "Ford Motor long term debt for the quarter ending June 30, 2023 was $93.895B, a 10.45% increase year-over-year." vs. "Tesla long term debt for the quarter ending June 30, 2023 was $0.872B, a 69.91% decline year-over-year."

Using debt + market cap we get a ratio of ~6 instead of 17 (which is of course still substantial, but quite as crazy). Also the trends in sold/delivered debt/profitability definitely favor Tesla over Ford which is prob. worth something (though whether it's 6x or not is another question).

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I assume that your average Ford is still quite a bit less expensive than your average Tesla, though of course not by a factor of 55 ?

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Whereas Ford is a mature company founded 120 years ago, Tesla was founded 20 years ago and has been growing torridly ever since. The difference is very material to any valuation of the two companies.

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Telsa has all the signs of being a bubble stock, but the market can remain irrational longer than you can stay solvent, as they say. In its non meme form, you can see a more grounded high valuation being a bet on Tesla's ability to control a huge % of the electric market share as that inevitably takes over the auto market.

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Sure but IIRC for Tesla's value relative to make sense relative to other car manufacturers you'd have to expect them to be owning basically the entire current car market if not more. That seems like an awful lot of growth to be plausible.

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"Torridly" is a reach. The company has been aggressively slashing costs on their cars to keep sales up in the face of competition, eating hard into their margins.

A lot of the expectation of future value with Tesla seems to be the belief or hope that it will become a "network effect" company: that Tesla charging networks will become the de facto US national charging network, and that the Tesla car OS will become the Windows of EV/Self-Driving cars. Both seem rather unlikely in the long run.

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If I was a professional trader, quite likely, if the market price is any judge.

If the people making this argument think that market price is totally wrong, then by all means, go ahead and short TSLA. If they're right, it's a great deal!

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founding

I mean, rational people also look at the price of gold, or the price of Bitcoin, and are perfectly aware that valuation and logic are not always closely linked.

And as others have said: the market can stay irrational longer than you stay solvent.

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It is largely because of stuff like this I have to disagree with Musk being bad at PR. I understand what's meant here (basically lots of people dislike him and he doesn't care that much to placate them) but he is the richest man in the world rather than another merely rich and successful company founder because of his PR skills.

Musk is the richest man in the world not because he has a lot of money in the bank but because of what he owns, specifically lots and lots of very valuable Tesla stock. Now, Tesla is a fine company that can even turn a profit these days, but at a market cap of ~$860 billion it is the world's seventh most valuable company; the stock price is quite high relative to current business fundamentals (A better comparison than Ford is Toyota, the world's largest carmaker and a pretty solid business, which has a market cap of under a third of Tesla's with roughly 4 times Tesla's annual revenue). So if you buy Tesla shares at a high price and thus help make Musk the world's richest man, you do it either because 1. you believe that Tesla will, in the future, be worth a lot more because of self-driving or incredible growth prospects whatever, or 2. you intensely love Elon Musk and Tesla and want to support them. Both of these things are probably the most important factors driving Tesla's share price up, and are entirely dependent on marketing and PR done largely by Elon Musk personally.

It is only a little hyperbolic to say that Musk's many stunts have created a kind of technophile cult of personality around him that he has leveraged into becoming the world's richest man. This is not someone who is bad at PR! It is just a different skillset than making everyone blandly accept him. There's lots more to say on this topic, but probably you get the idea. I'd say Musk is bad at PR in the same way as e.g. Donald Trump, who lots of people hate but did manage to become President of the United States through a combination of strong media skills and personal charisma. Musk went for getting rich instead, which is probably for the best because a lot of the profile of him here reminded me strangely of descriptions of Napoleon[1].

[1] Incidentally I remember seeing an Elon Musk tweet where he strongly endorsed the Age of Napoleon podcast, so consciously or not there might be some real affinity there.

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> Musk went for getting rich instead

"Instead" seems like the wrong word; Donald Trump has been rich for a long time.

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"is the "Musk's projects are incredible" narrative stronger than would be expected from the actual incredibleness of his projects?"

It depends which narrative and which facts you compare/contrast. If you consider the self promotion and public image he's cultivated and the cottage industry of Tesla/SpaceX bulls and Musk click-bait content, then compare that to a more skeptical or jaded view of Tesla and SpaceX, yes. It's a bit like Jobs/Apple and consumer tech - one of the great things Tesla did was turn an appliance into a gadget, which has the benefit of being judged in a different way.

(Sidenote: Anyone know how close we are to rocket launches being frequent enough for having both rocket building and rocket refurbishing operations to make a lot of business sense? Not to minimize the achievement of implementing lower-stage landing as well as SpaceX has, a lack of use-case is the reason the old proofs-of-concept weren't further developed, prior to them.)

Did Vance write about fraud and production problems at Tesla? I read "Ludicrous," by Edward Niedermeyer and it's worse than the headlines, according to him.

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Are you sure the Zuck approach described above is better than the Musk one hypothesised?

I'm not sure it is.

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Sep 13, 2023·edited Sep 13, 2023Author

Can you explain more? If Congress is threatening to shut you down, isn't it better for business to say nice reassuring things to Congress that make them like you, than to tell them to f**k off?

(regardless of whether you secretly think Congress should f**k off and he is morally in the right)

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The idea is that having the love of the people will allow you to stand up to Congress after having told them to f**k off.

Worked for Caesar, kinda.

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... or would stomp him out of existence very hard.

But, yes, Caesar did not rely solely on the love of the mob to try and crown himself King...

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I think it's more complicated than that. I'm combining "placating Congress" with "placating the media", because I think they're basically the same skill of placating-the-broad-political-cultural-regime. If you offend the media too badly, they can . . . well, they can do what they're doing to Elon now. I don't know how well it's working; it seems to be working very well, but part of their strategy is to make you think that. But it can't be great for him. It's definitely not as easy as "you tell Congress to f**k off, the media reports on this fairly and accurately, and you are hailed as a hero by the common man."

That "kinda" is hiding a lot!

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I wasn't necessarily suggesting it was a good idea/strategy, just what I understood of Jack Johnson's comment - though he's now replied directly so...

But as to your own reply - I think the media IS reporting fairly on Elon Musk i.e. he's turned alt-right (or always was alt-right, just was hiding it better) and that is burning a lot of the goodwill liberals/leftists had for him given he's more or less single handedly created the EV sector as a viable car segment (with the obvious impact on climate change).

Obviously, liberals and left leaning folks like myself aren't going to be too fond of Elon Musk new/revealed alt right tendencies. I tend to be forgiving, and most of us are but terminally online leftists... well, not so much. Kinda goes with the terminally online aspect.

Some companies may decide it's best avoiding advertising on X but, I dunno, Fox managed to make money out of old scared/outraged right wingers. Maybe X can do the same with younger right wingers?

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I'm definitely not making a moral point, more of a Danegeld point ("That if once you have paid him the Dane-geld. You never get rid of the Dane" with apologies to Danish readers).

Once you've bowed and placated them once, they are incentivised to do it again.

I'm not an expert in US politics or social media, but I think in other situations where someone has power over you it isn't always the right solution to say nice reassuring things to them.

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This position on tribute is kinda silly, though. There were all _kinds_ of good reasons to pay tribute, such as the Danegeld historically. For one thing, if you pay it, you get at least a chance to reconstitute after being beaten or harassed by an insurmountable force.

Paying tribute is a bit like paying protection money - no-one does it because they like it, but depending on the context, it might be a lot better than the alternative.

It's a political tool that's been used all over the world for literally millennia.

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I'm not espousing "never pay protection money" I'm saying there are arguments against it. In Scott's original comment it seemed taken as obvious that the "rational" Zucklike actor should always pay the protection money. I don't think that's true, and I don't think it's true in the situation described.

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Right, I think it's less about skills and more about willingness to play the game. Zuck is willing to roll over and show his belly when he's threatened by power, whereas Musk wants to exert power of his own. Zuck can be relied upon to do what the various organs of power within the United States want him to do, but Musk wants to make his own decisions like he's the goddamn player character.

I've previously expounded here on my theory that there's five independent power centres in the United States: Washington, Wall Street, Silicon Valley, Hollywood, and the news media (which lacks a geographical metonym). I might modify that to say there's really five and a half, and the 0.5 is Elon Musk.

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Half of Congress WILL massively respect someone who tells them to go f*** themselves...

This is (one of) the lessons of Trump – in a world where you can NEVER make the complaining classes happy, you might as well at least earn the respect of everyone else who also has contempt for the complaining classes.

Certainly better than kowtowing to them as Zuck did – has that improved Meta's image any amongst the Left? While not at all impressing the Right.

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I somewhat disagree with the framing here -- the first job that Zuckerberg had was building a social network from scratch (in a very different competitive landscape to the current one), which was well-suited to a move-fast hacker, and did not require any PR or much social skills; it was predominately a technical problem. By virtue of the company's growth rate and various political and economic accidents of history, Zuckerberg is still the controlling shareholder of Meta, and so he's managed to keep the job of CEO and has hired a great team around him. The job of running Meta now is very different than his original job, and does require PR, leadership, and interpersonal skills.

The job that Musk has today with X is a very different one than Dorsey had when he built Twitter or that Zuckerberg had when he built Facebook; it's more like the new job Zuckerberg happens to have now as CEO of a major social network. Twitter already had a robust network of users, and also had a lot of regulatory baggage (FCC consent decrees), global legal commitments around content moderation, election integrity, anti-terrorism, etc., and a large existing org.

Musk's task at Twitter was not to "build a social media giant"; that was already done, it's what he paid $42B for. The challenge for Twitter was more of a typical MBA textbook "how do we fix this broken, rudderless, unprofitable company?" which is very much a socio-political organizational challenge. I'm sure in addition there is a big technical component like "why can't we run this company with 10% of the technical staff?" but that is a mundane technical challenge that many CTOs would feel comfortable stepping into, not requiring a revolutionary/visionary invention that nobody has pulled off before.

To be fair Musk has brought in a CEO at Twitter, but I'm skeptical that Yaccarino actually has authority; can you imagine her bringing Musk to heel on anything? I suspect she's more of a glorified COO, when it comes down to it. (This last part is fairly idle speculation on my part, to be clear.)

In short, impressive as his portfolio is, I don't think Musk has demonstrated a track record with the sort of problem that Twitter faced at the time of his takeover. And his superpower on hiring doesn't seem to translate well either; "colonize Mars" is a unique mission that people are willing to work late nights to advance even at risk of being fired on the spot, "build a free-speech social media platform" has less of a ring to it. Employees must be asking themselves why work at X and not at Facebook, where they have zero chance of being arbitrarily fired? I think Twitter has so much regulatory, technical, and organizational debt that it's going to be very hard to succeed at iterating as quickly as he wants to.

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"free speech platform" is an oxymoron (as Musk already has shown by nudging the software so it shows his own tweets more often ?)

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I think the https://www.astralcodexten.com/p/if-you-can-be-bad-you-can-also-be argument applies here.

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I think that I've spotted a flaw in your logic ?(!)

> You're admitting there are people worse than you - [lazy cousin Larry,] Alex Jones, the fossil fuel lobby, etc.

One of these is not like the others.

We owe compassion (among other things) to other fellow human beings (including Alex Jones). We do NOT owe this to non-human entities (including groups of humans).

When we say that platforms are fundamentally evil, it's because there are fundamental reasons, coming from what is involved in their very definition, that make them be a net negative for human flourishing.

A recent example (which in some ways just repeats old arguments, but in his usual brilliant way) would be Cory Doctorow coining the term "enshittification [of platforms]" :

https://pluralistic.net/2023/01/21/potemkin-ai/#hey-guys

More specifically, and what prompted my first reaction : the closed, proprietary nature of platforms is incompatible with the practice of free speech. (Compare with the liberal governments being banned from engaging into censorship.)

Now of course, there probably *might* be a way to rein in platforms with an extremely heavy legal framework, where most of their damage would be minimized... but why bother ?

(Also reminds me how allowing privately owned press (opposed to journalist-association press) after WW2 might have been a mistake that we are now paying for.)

Again, they aren't human beings, we don't owe them anything, not even a right to exist, why tolerate them, especially when we can just use protocols (or even something else) instead ?

(The reason why the USA and China tolerates them, is likely because they give them a lot of power : respectively internationally, and against their own citizens.)

P.S.: I've left out potential discussions of limits (what about a group of only two humans ?), and of what we owe to non-human living entities...

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https://twitter.com/St_Rev/status/1676598397489250304

"Today I learned that Cory fucking Doctorow is being given credit for coining 'enshittification'. In 2022. I used it in 2013, and I'm probably not the first."

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Yeah, I agree. What Twitter really needs in a leader is a boring management guy to come up with a way of monetizing their product without either: bankrupting the company, pissing of their entire client base, destroying their technical base or being destroyed by the government. Musk is not that guy.

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Zuck also was operating in a very different marketplace when he founded FB than today. FB's contined if wavering success is mostly for legacy reasons, not because of Zuck's continued wise leadership. If Zuck never worked in social media but became a billlionaire in some other space and then bought twitter in 2022, I don't expect he would have any chance of significantly growing the company.

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As somebody who also worked on getting humans to Mars (the Orion project, which now only going to the moon after a large demotion), yeah having good ideas at those companies is soul crushing.

Getting trivial changes done to anything takes 6-12 months. I’m talking 1 hour fixes. Because they weren’t planned for already, so they can’t even be planned in this 3 month cycle.

And on the workload front I used to put in 70+ hour weeks every once in a while, so working for SpaceX would be a large step up in quality of getting things done and getting to build the cool stuff, while not being a horrendous downgrade in the other dimensions (though 75 hour weeks eat you alive. It’s basically 6 hours of sleep per night and every other moment is reserved to working or getting ready for work / commuting).

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Wow you worked on the Orion project? Can you say more? I basically only know what's in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orion_(spacecraft) which of course leaves out all the fun anecdotes.

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So, whose idea was it to name it just like another mildly infamous spaceship project ?

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Project_Orion_(nuclear_propulsion)

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The most entertaining possibility would be "it's the same project, just 1000000 pivots and de-scopings later".

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What eventually gets shipped: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ford_Orion

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Hilarious ! XD

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I understand the frustration... but my impression is that space exploration is one of the fields where very thorough, very systematic planning with very conservative change cycles is the most promising approach to get something that works at the first attempt - even if it takes longer and costs more than planned. Compare the JWST to the most recent "Starship" launch for illustration.

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Sep 13, 2023·edited Sep 13, 2023

Yes, but space flight is not AI alignment – you don't have to get it right the first time. Building lots of starship prototypes and letting some of them fail is still cheaper and faster than whatever the people running SLS are doing.

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I would withhold judgment on that until one of those prototypes has done what SLS has done. So far, Starship has not even reached LEO, and there are some ridiculously high hurdles before it even attempts to go farther.

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Starship 2nd launch is imminent:

https://arstechnica.com/space/2023/09/starship-is-stacked-and-ready-to-make-its-second-launch-attempt/

The third launch is expected until years end, maybe there will be even two. IThe project is iterating quickly.

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Keep in mind that government money is much more closely tracked than business money. Unless you have an Apollo-project situation where the president is backing you every step of the way and Congress wants to beat the damn Russki's, no one is going to take kindly to millions of tax payer dollars blowing up a bunch of times when it could be done more slowly but right at once.

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A thousand times this. US Government money is tracked to the cent.

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Has the FAA approved it? I don't doubt that Musk is ready to blow up the next one ASAP, but last I read, the FAA had a long list of to-dos for SpaceX.

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Sep 13, 2023·edited Sep 13, 2023

No, not how mishap reports work. SpaceX leads the mishap report for the April 20 launch (IFT 1), they compile the list in collaboration with FAA, and then they turn it in for review. SpaceX turned in the mishap report on Aug 21, and FAA reviewed it and closed the case however many days ago. It's in the mishap report where you find the 63 items which SpaceX themselves listed, and they've spent the last 5 months fixing them. Elon just reported that SpaceX are done with all 57 items that are required for the upcoming flight (IFT 2), with the exception of 6 items that are required for later flights (IFT 3, 4 etc). What they're waiting for now is a launch license, which gets issued by FAA. It's currently unclear if we're waiting for SpaceX to apply for the license or if FAA are currently reviewing the license. Regardless, launch license is expected in the next few days or weeks.

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But SpaceX is also Musk's most incredibly successful project so far, so I would NOT bet against it. (Well, for mildly outrageous goals like first stage landing and recovery, Mars colonization is something else...)

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Yea, SpaceX is the company that's the farthest ahead of the competition. Like we're talking monopoly level dominance. SpaceX has launched 80% of all payload to orbit in the whole world in 2023, and they've steadily increased launch cadence by 40% year-on-year for the last 6 years. The closest competitors are probably 10 years behind in terms of technology.

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You are just grossly unfamiliar with the topic.

SLS is like 5x the development cost so far and has been in development since 2011 (6 years delay). And they only have 5 scheduled flights at a marginal launch cost of $4.5B per launch. Meanwhile the Starship flight of April (IFT 1) was literally just a telemetry gathering event that had about a 50% chance of even reaching orbit. The primary goal was to just clear the launch tower. They're using a fundamentally different development approach. In IFT 2 in the coming days or weeks, SpaceX are testing hot staging, which is a new approach to staging, which again has downgraded their odds for success. Once again they're putting probability of reaching orbit at 50%. These exploding rockets are not "failed missions". They're literally expected to blow up, the same way the Falcon boosters when they worked on figuring out booster reuse.

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founding

Starship may turn out to be a bust, but Falcon Heavy reached LEO and beyond, five years ago. And unless you have a conniption any time someone says the words "on-orbit assembly", anything you can do with a ginormous NASA SLS, you can do with three Falcon Heavies at maybe a quarter of the cost.

The SpaceX way is faster, better, and cheaper than the NASA way, or the LockMart/Boeing/Grumman way. So much so that the NASA way is increasingly "hey let's just pay SpaceX to do it for us".

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Honestly, I am not sure. I have worked in space engineering for years and my impression is that the big space agencies and companies have a lot of inertia and reluctance to consider new ideas and change. A lot of the processes have been built up in response to past failures, but they also stifle a lot of innovation. When people come in with a fresh approach and the resources to implement them, they have tended to get quite far. You can look at how SpaceX has done, but also the early days of the space program at NASA were a lot more open to innovation than today. Its true the JWST worked, whereas Starship hasn't (at least not yet) but the way in which these projects work is different. The JWST was a very expensive, one-off space telescope that pushed the limits of what was possible - and by, the way, despite its success it has come at the cost of a lot of other possible astronomical projects - Starship is not a one-off, it has been designed from the beginning to be mass produced. Of course, whether Starship will ever meet its goals is another thing, but even if it doesn't I don't think the approach to building it will be the fatal flaw.

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You can do that - and 17 billion dollars and 20 years later you might launch the first one, which will likely reach orbit on the first try.

Or you can build and blow up a bunch of much cheaper ones, and 20 years later you're launching 60+ rockets a year - and recovering a large portion of them so you can re-launch them again later. And you've spent about 5% as much money.

SLS runs into the problem that so much effort has been put into the rocket that it cannot fail. If it blew up, there would be calls (more calls that is) to cancel the whole thing as a bad job. Which is also why they ran into problems with e.g. replacing the batteries meant they needed to wheel it back into the shed, because they're buried 6 layers deep - the thing is a jeweled watch, so changing anything, even obviously replaceable parts like batteries, is an enormous production.

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This, although with the caveat that the larger the rockets have gotten, the slower the testing and prototyping. Something like a Falcon 9 blowing up on the pad sucks, but it's not a huge disaster - whereas a fully stacked Starship Superheavy blowing up on the pad is like setting off a small nuke, and even the last failure from April set them back by almost six months. You have to start doing more "linear" development style testing because of that.

Maybe it would be different if they had some kind of offshore launch platform where they could take more explosive risks, but not where they are in Boca Chica.

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Sep 13, 2023·edited Sep 13, 2023

Uh, for an engineering task like this, building rockets quickly to observe all the ways in which they fail catastrophically seems like the default right thing to do to me?

Slow feedback cycles are death. To me, that's a core anchor in planning research projects. I work on AI science and math, not rocket engineering, but this very much seems to me like something which would carry over to almost all types of projects where you're attempting very novel things. You're trying to do things that will yield the most bits of relevant information per time and resources invested possible as quickly as possible.

Actually building a version of the rocket to observe how exactly it will blow up seems excellent for that, if this is an option you have. Direct contact with reality, tons of high dimensional data. Many answers to research questions you didn't even necessarily realise you needed to be asking.

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Charlie Stross (no friend of Musk) has pointed out that it's how we used to test military aircraft in the US in the 1950s. The way SpaceX is doing it now is actually better, since there's no risk of killing dozens of test pilots.

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Really? Observing all the ways in which a rocket filled with 5000 tons of fuel can catastrophically fail seems the smart thing to do? Your intuition is obviously different from mine...

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founding

The first thing you do is set off maybe 50 tons of rocket fuel in the middle of some desert, see how big the kaboom is, and calculate how far away you need to keep people and valuable property from the 5000 ton rocket before you see what happens. Then, yes, you probably do find a sufficiently remote site to launch a bunch of 5000 ton rockets and see what happens.

If anyone heard a loud kaboom out near Dugway, UT yesterday morning, well, I'm not sure I can comment on whether that might be relevant here, but I'm definitely not saying it's *not* relevant.

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Sep 20, 2023·edited Sep 20, 2023

Or at AFRL at Edwards AFB both in the past and in the not to distant future.

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founding

We asked; Edwards would have been much more convenient, but they said "No". So Dugway it is, for the foreseeable future.

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This was also the reason I had a much better time overall working at citadel than at Google (despite the downsides).

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It's such a pity because it used to be that it was quite easy to do crazy idea innovation at Google even for people at the bottom (20% time and stuff). I know, I was there and I did it.

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Uh-uh. You don't get to call anything "the Orion project" unless it involves nuking Heaven. You worked on the utterly lame, international-law-compliant pseudo-Orion "project."

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I worked on ISS early in my career. My very first software fix took 18 months from “writing” it (about 2 hours) to it launching on the ISS. This bug was to help prevent ammonia leaks into the station atmosphere! 18 months of potential failure waiting to happen… crazy.

“Writing” is in quotes because it was done in this control system application, MatrixX, that let you build logic blocks with drag and drop.

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Small note: Community Notes existed before Musk and I don’t think he’s improved it in any meaningful way. He did change its name from Birdwatch.

I read this book when it came out - thanks for review will have to reread I think.

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It's seemed much more common and better the past few months; I could be convinced that this was an illusion, but I'm not convinced yet.

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It was in beta when he bought it. Or it had just been rolled out or was in the process of being rolled out. I’m sure he likes it and has supported it!

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I do believe the main change has been a broader rollout.

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Did Birdwatch ever question tweets from the White House?

I think that is your answer as to whether it’s improved in any meaningful way.

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I never saw Birdwatch but I regularly see Community Notes. It seems to at least have become much more popular during Musk's reign. The average quality of the notes is also surprisingly high.

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The vetting system for people who can write Community Notes is pretty well-designed - you have to have used Twitter/X for a period of time, then you sign up and then all you can do is vote up/down notes. If you vote for a hidden note that later becomes unhidden (they are unhidden when they reach net +5 votes), then you get one point. You have to score five points before you can write notes. Once you start writing notes, you get points based on the votes for and against your notes, and you can lose note-writing privileges if your score drops below five. You can't score more than +5 per note (so you can't get +500 for a really good note and then write as much crap as you like).

When you vote for/against a note, there are a list of categories and you tick which ones the note is good/bad in. I'm assuming there is both an automated consensus system and some manual vetting of these.

What is obvious about the CN vetting system is that it takes a long time to build up a large pool of CN writers - it's pretty plausible to me that it's being used much more now more because there are now a large pool of people writing notes and it took a long time to vet the people in that pool, rather than it being anything Musk has specifically done.

If Musk has done anything, it's more that his own tweets get community noted from time to time, screenshots of those go viral, and this publicises community notes so more people sign up.

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If anyone is interested in the details, Vitalik wrote up a really good post going into how the algorithm works

https://vitalik.ca/general/2023/08/16/communitynotes.html

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Fascinating how similar this is to Slashdot's meta-moderation, an approach to quality that I would love to see adopted more widely. Make that digital reputation Black Mirror episode real again!

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Yes, it reminded me of that too.

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I remember seeing a talk by the UK rapper Akala a couple years back. A (paraphased) line that stood out to me:

"You spend your 20s reading about how to become successful and think you know it all. Then, later, when you actually try and build something yourself, you realize just how difficult it is to make anything even moderately successful, and your respect for people who have done so grows exponentially".

I think a lot about this when I hear the weird sub cult of people who hand wave away Elon Musk's accomplishments and dismiss him.

You don't have to like Musk, he is absolutely a massive tool on a regular basis. But he is, by any reasonable metric, an outlier and an exceptional human being, who's achievements speak for themselves.

We shouldn't conflate politics with recognition of the above.

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But allowing crazy billionaires to do whatever they want is by itself a political stance, one that's rapidly becoming unpopular.

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False dichotomy. Saying you have respect for Elon's accomplishments is not the same thing as thinking he should have carte blanche to do whatever he wants.

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It is a kind of endorsement. Politics is war, arguments are soldiers etc etc. I don't say that I personally think this way, but I'm sure many do.

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They should try thinking differently, then.

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Sure. But they won't.

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That's no reason to grant their opinions any legitimacy.

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Dangerous mindset because you can ascribe whatever implications you like to someone's statements. Unless there is a weight of context to suggest otherwise I'd lean on assuming people mean what they say.

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Speaking of context, this is one reason why Twitter/X is such a garbage fire : navigating the tree of tweets (to get a better sense of context) is so cumbersome that I'm suspecting it's hard by design...

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This is all very well said

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The thing is, Musk's brand has always included a significant moral dimension. He's always pitched himself as the cool tech visionary trying to save humanity. Certainly in my social circles this seems to have been an early motivation for people to join the not-so-weird sub-cult of people who think Musk is the apex of homo sapiens.

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I like the phrasing you've used. And I agree, there's definitely a moral element intertwined when someone is trying to "save" humanity, but through their own means.

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That only worked as long as you didn't notice that he was just repeating what other philosophers said, WITHOUT GIVING THEM CREDIT.

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This is where I feel most disappointed by Musk's Trump-esque turn -- I'm shocked at his consistent lack of courage. His speaking truth to power clams up real fast when it comes to, say, China torturing prisoners.

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Re "everyone always thinks Musk companies will fail but then they succeed", worth noting that he has also had some flops (e.g. the boring company or the Hyperloop). He still has a pretty good batting average in tough businesses, but it's far from guaranteed.

(also, most likely outcome seems to be "twitter keeps working about as well as before but he still loses money on the deal because of the general tech downturn". Is that success or failure?)

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The book talked about Hyperloop a little. It suggests Musk originally made it as a throwaway comment to make fun of California's high-speed-rail boondoggle, sort of "if you were going to do a COOL high-speed train system, here's how I would actually do it". Then everyone got excited about it, Musk himself got caught up in the general excitement, but it's not clear he took it seriously as a company (I don't know what the relationship between that and Boring Company is).

I'm not sure what to think about Boring Company. It doesn't feel very exciting right now, but it did get a contract to dig lots of tunnels in Las Vegas and is valued at $6 billion. If anyone else had created a $6 billion startup that was digging exciting infrastructure five years after being founded, they'd be world-famous. I don't know how much we should discount Musk for being so famous that it's easy for his companies to get publicity and resources.

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Re. the last sentence: a lot. Who else would have had the clout to bamboozle officials into funding another doomed-to-fail project after the first was so underwhelming?

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Which was the first?

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Sep 13, 2023·edited Sep 13, 2023

The "loop" under the LV convention center.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p8NiM_p8n5A

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I mean, it's a tunnel.

The job of The Boring Company is not to make tunnels better, it's to make tunnels cheaper. Building tunnels currently costs something like a billion dollars a mile, which seems to just be a manifestation of cost disease because nobody can figure out why it should be so expensive.

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AFAICT, the Boring Company has made tunnels cheaper by making them smaller and skipping all the parts that make them safe to use.

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Building tunnels doesn't cost a billion dollars a mile. There was a single subway tunnels that cost that, *including* stations (which are a majority of the cost), which also had to be much bigger to be able to contain subways. We already know how to get tunnels for orders of magnitude less than we pay for them. The bottleneck is competent government planners, not contractors.

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Sep 13, 2023·edited Sep 13, 2023

You have to move a bunch of earth out of the way, stop the tunnel from falling in on itself, and (for passenger tunnels) devise some way of getting everyone out if there's a fire. And then you've got to maintain an underground structure for decades. While I absolutely concede that we could probably build safe tunnels for much less than we currently spend (particularly in the Anglosphere), I think there are good fundamental reasons to think that surface infrastructure is always going to be cheaper.

That said, there's definitely money to be made here if you can figure out how to, say, build an underground power transmission cable for merely 2x the cost of an overhead line rather than 10x, because a lot of people seem to really hate looking at pylons and they're holding up a lot of necessary grid expansion.

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" Who else would have had the clout to bamboozle officials into funding another doomed-to-fail project after the first was so underwhelming?"

Judging from the COVID kickbacks, an awful lot of people, at least in NY.

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You're really failing to convince me here that the boring company is a flop

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My recollection at the time was Elon dumped a white paper on the internet and said, "Someone else do this, I don't have the time." Those calling that a 'failure' for Musk seems a little off. Sure, he suggested it, but mostly his involvement in the project seems to be cheerleading. (E.g. holding an annual hyperloop competition seems to be exactly this kind of hands-off approach.)

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> I'm not sure what to think about Boring Company.

I think the way to think about the Boring Company is that it's mostly a joke company that he founded for the lulz; it's where he launches his joke products like the flamethrower. He was initially bullish that they would somehow be able to get a 10x cost improvement in tunnel boring machines, claiming to have found room for 4x improvement in speed from a thermodynamic first principles analysis, but he does not seem to have achieved much. (I was fairly skeptical that there would be that much free lunch, but he did manage a 10x cost improvement with SpaceX so I felt a strong inclination to defer to him at the time.)

Regarding the valuation, as the Twitter acquisition showed, he can text his buddies and raise billions. I don't index too much on Boring's $6b valuation; it just means he persuaded VCs to pay $675m for ~11% ownership stake during the zero-interest rate period, it doesn't say much about the company's ultimate profitability. For non-Musk founders I'd say that's a strong signal, but I think we've established that there's billions of dollars available for whatever project he's working on, with sparse due diligence, based on his reputation earned with Tesla and SpaceX.

Neuralink is another one to put in the "not a home run" bucket. Seems more like an excuse for him to get involved in speculative neuroscience stuff and hang out with neuroscientists, which to be fair is fun.

IIUC each of these companies are something like 1-2% of his time so it's also plausible that these are just fun relaxing meetings for him, not his primary focus.

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I have my conspiracy theory Musk meant Boring to be Rapid Underground

1) He builds totally not rapid transit tunnels for cars to cut every corner he couldn't cut as transit company

2) Makes some legal-technical compromise to make it work like subway, like Tesla-Bus that is totally not a train cart of modular train

3) Uses his popularity to bend elected politicians into being lenient on red tape

When it didn't happen I actually calibrated my view on him a lot

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This is the exact type of comment that confuses me. Background: I'm a tunnelling engineer in California, very pro-public transit, very anti-Musk for about 8 years now.

The California High Speed Rail project will be the fastest train speed anywhere in the US. In my view it's an exciting new type of project we haven't built before. But in public opinion it's panned as a disaster or "boondoggle" project. Yes I admit it has schedule problems and cost overruns, and this is a legitimate gripe about the project. But this is unfortunately normal for a construction project in California, or the US in general.

The Boring Company Las Vegas system is tunnelling a ~14 ft diameter tunnel that can fit 1 lane of car traffic, and it's light on some safety features like ventilation, exit walkways, or fire suppression systems. It will use Tesla cars, driven by Tesla employees. In my view this is basically an underground Uber system, but it will probably have more expensive fares to regain the capital costs of building the tunnel (Boring Company is paying for the tunnels, and casinos are paying for the stations, they do NOT have funding from City of Las Vegas AFAIK). But this expensive Uber system is exciting??

I think some observers see the situation as "The City of Las Vegas agrees that this company is legitimate" when really it's more like "okay, sure, we give you permission to build us a bizarre gadgetbahn system on your own dime, good luck".

Maybe California HSR fails, maybe Boring Company fails, maybe California HSR succeeds, maybe Boring Company succeeds. But I feel that the public is putting points on the scoreboard before the projects are completed.

Also, on a more abstract level, why would anyone trust a private company to make good public transit? If your transit system can make 20-30% of its revenue from fares, that's considered a win. Most of the budget is funded with tax dollars because transit is considered a public good. I agree that private companies can be more efficient than government, but public transit seems like an especially bad industry for a private company - they would need to charge sky high fares to regain capital costs, and they don't have eminent domain powers either. (Eminent domain probably isn't needed in Las Vegas - the casino owners, with large properties all along a single line, will probably be on board. But the plan doesn't scale to other cities.)

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The fact that Musk chose to put his weight and efforts behind putting more cars on the road, ostensibly to solve climate change is what ultimately gave me pause and brought me to my present position that Musk is not necessarily good for humanity (although I'm not necessarily convinced he's a menace for humanity either). Before this I was a huge fan and thought he was going to propel humanity forward, kicking and screaming.

It appears that if he really wanted to make a massive dent in climate change, he would have worked his miracles to fix the US's car addiction and road-brained design, and create massive public transit systems that would be doing for them what Tesla is doing for EVs. The simplest explanation for why he didn't do this is that he's more interested in winning capitalism (although he is undoubtedly a nerd at heart), rather than serving humanity. This also aligns with his other efforts, although I would classify some of them as well-intentioned but flawed and possibly dangerous (e.g. AI alignment).

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Sep 15, 2023·edited Sep 15, 2023

He might just have thought that convincing USians to abandon their car-centric culture was a losing proposition in the short term. (Especially with Bush Jr. infamous "The American way of life is not up for negotiations. Period.")

In the medium term, economies of scale for battery making and much better know how in electric vehicle production would open up alternatives.

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That doesn't seem like a satisfactory answer considering how much he seems to relish going against the grain. I think profitability and building something cool seemed to be his primary motivations here.

Nothing wrong with that, it just doesn't seem like the actions of somebody who is more concerned with ensuring an egalitarian thriving future for humanity.

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Oh yeah, but one does not necessarily prevent the other...

As a successful businessman he probably has a sense, to parallel the review, of what is just outlandish but possible (in the relevant time period), and what is guaranteed to fail ?

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"worked his miracles to fix the US's car addiction and road-brained design, and create massive public transit systems that would be doing for them what Tesla is doing for EVs."

I don't think this is the kind of miracle that Musk can pull off. Maybe he knows this, and went for something more feasible?

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Sep 13, 2023·edited Sep 13, 2023

I think Hyperloop and The Boring Company perfectly illustrate his approach and its limitations - both ideas arise out of considering physical limits and rounding off everything else to zero. Except it turns out that the obstacles to commercial feasibility lie elsewhere in those cases. You can't reduce transit economics or subway OPEX factors to applications of physical laws, so it's hard to get Elon to care about or even notice them.

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To my knowledge the boring company (unlike SpaceX) hasn't successfully reduced tunneling costs (beyond just building smaller tunnels, which do come with lower capacity). Even on the purely technical side, he failed to improve TBMs like he did rockets.

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Yeah, and this is what I mean - from a physics-based best-case analysis, "build smaller tunnels" jumps out at you, but it turns out there are a bunch of operational reasons not to do that.

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even aside from that, it's not really a huge improvement - price scales with tunnel diameter (which determines capacity for car tunnels). It makes more sense to do it for subway tunnels (which often are built too big, e.g. in Bart) but musk doesn't want to do those.

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To be fair, the bull case for the project is compelling - if tunnels are small, then we can dig more of them and have smaller stations, which could reduce the overall difficulty of those projects. If you just buy a building, and dig an elevator down into the basement and then dig horizontally to connect to the loop network, that is potentially much easier to construct and much less work to plan, vs. a major subway station that's a huge multi-year construction project.

So even if you need to build 10x as many stations to maintain throughput, you might be able to do so for cheaper than 1/10 the cost of a subway station.

The bear case of course is just that all of the existing research on public transport seems to point to the idea that to get high throughput you need lots of large train cars, and the hypothetical throughput of the Loop systems is way, way lower than equivalently-priced subways, so you'll need to build way more stations than if you were building subways even controlling for the smaller tunnel/station size.

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So I think the bull case is reasonable (well, the details don't quite work out, but I could be wrong in my calculations), but it's also not something new he contributed - we already know how to dig smaller tunnels, the arguments against depend on local politics (and occasionally fire safety). With rockets or EVs he could successfully solved previously-unsolved engineering challenges, with tunnels he didn't (it'd be different if he'd invented a vastly better TBM or something).

Another important difference here: With aerospace and car manufacturing, the US is at the technological forefront, so he could start at the peak and hire a lot of top experts to work with him. With infrastructure though, the US is pretty behind many other countries - Spain already know how to build tunnel projects for 3% of American costs. So it's inherently less likely that someone could reduce costs by being a really good engineer.

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He originally hypothesized that he could reduce the per-unit-area cost of digging as well, this doesn't seem to have panned out yet.

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"Failed to improve TBMs like he did rockets" - huh? SpaceX builds and launches the most successful rocket in human history.

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Failed to (improve TBMs like he did rockets). I'm saying he didn't replicate his rocket success to tunneling.

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Oooooooooh hahahaha. Notice how you can read that same sentence in two different ways!

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the somewhat conspiratorial take is that Hyper loop was pushed to stop some public transport funding from going through, which then conveniently went away as the hyper loop failed. The guy does run a car company after all. It’s demonstrably against his interests to support public transport.

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It was the California high-speed rail. "Trying to stop that from going through" is superfluous and no reasonable person would waste time on it. Also, if it succeeded it would decrease the amount of driving in one state by ~5% ten years down the line. This isn't worth Elon's time to sabotage and he probably hates it for the same reason everyone in California hates it.

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I don’t agree with most of what you wrote there. California is a huge leader when it comes to regulations, technologies, culture, etc. A well-functioning public transportation system in California is a HUGE beacon for other places to do the same. More importantly it pushes a vision of a future world that is car free. This is absolutely worth his effort to sabotage. Seeing it only as this single thing with 5% of the population using it is missing the bigger picture.

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The state of California is dysfunctional and terrible at building infrastructure and has been for many years (look at the SF subway or the San Jose Bart extension). Blaming Elon Musk for sabotaging it is kinda like blaming him for making the Washington Generals lose a baseball game.

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Losing a baseball game would be a new low for the Generals.

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I believe in them.

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> A well-functioning public transportation system in California is a HUGE beacon for other places to do the same.

It certainly would be. But conversely, building a tremendously expensive boondoggle of a high speed rail project that runs from Motherfucking Bakersfield to Motherfucking Merced, doesn't touch the major cities, certainly isn't integrated with any other transport system, and which burns assloads of money while carrying tiny numbers of passengers per day... that will be a beacon for other places not to bother.

Which is a shame because there's at least one place in the US where high speed rail actually makes a lot of sense (DC to Boston) but it certainly isn't California as anyone with a map could have told you at any point in the past.

Interestingly it looks like Florida is busy demonstrating how to actually build a useful train system.

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SF to LA is a not-unreasonable third or fourth project for a veteran HSR-building agency to take on as a bigger challenge. It's a wholly possible project, but has some significant barriers.

The through-NY project (DC to Boston) should be project two or three, as the NYC tunnelling is a tricky problem and you need some experience.

Since the first project is likely to be a bit of a disaster as you build experience, my recommendation for the hypothetical "US National High-Speed Rail Building Agency" would be

1. Chicago-St Louis. This is the easiest possible project. Two large cities, nothing big enough to be worth stopping at in between (though an out-of-town stop for Springfield would be fine and would buy off some politicians), largely flat terrain.

2. Chicago-ORD-Milwaukee-Minneapolis/St Paul (possibly with a stop as MSP). This one should be a home run for an agency that has got its feet under the table. There are some harder technical challenges (airport-area construction), the terrain is less flat (you go through the Wisconsin Dells) but manageable, and you connect to the other service

3. Boston-Washington. You're in a much more densely populated area; you have to get into and out of New York (which probably requires a new Hudson River tunnel and then either crossing the East River twice, or bringing a tunnel under the whole of Manhattan), you have to deal with the political arguments between cities in New England over the route (Providence or Worcester), you have to run through Philadelphia and Baltimore, you have to get into the centers of Boston and DC. But these are the normal sorts of problems.

4. Either Chicago-NYC or LA-SF. Both have far worse terrain than anything you've looked at before. Both have many plausible routes (e.g. Chicago-Fort-Wayne-Columbus-Pittsburgh-Harrisburg-Philadelphia-NYC vs Chicago-Toledo-Cleveland-Pittsburgh vs Chicago-Toledo-Cleveland-direct to NYC; in California, while Bakersfield-Merced is shared by any route, there are at least four ways into LA and three into SF) - which cities you pass through generates a lot of lobbying/politics, so you have to be able to manage that.

The problem is that CAHSR is a brand new agency that is doing "brand new agency" mistakes, and California has dysfunctional politics that means that it can't make decisions.

Like: they've overspending on the Bakersfield-Merced section because they've stolen the entire budget for the LA and SF tunneling to use to buy off farmers in the central valley.

They can't make up their minds over the routes into LA and SF (they have officially picked routes, but you can tell they haven't really picked them because the politicians who favour the other routes are still lobbying for changes and the sorts of technical decisions like ordering TBMs haven't yet been made).

They haven't made the obvious decision to spend a little bit of money electrifying the existing LA-Bakersfield and SF-Merced railroads so they can run CAHSR trains from LA to SF from day one (slowly on the existing lines, fast through the valley). This is because they won't admit that the SF and LA bits aren't going to be finished "soon", and that the temporary solution will be in place for a decade or more meaning it's well worth doing.

Also CAHSR is doing a really bad job of actually building and is overspending even above what the overdesigned route should cost.

LA-SF should be about three hours with HSR all the way, if they'd just wire the track so the HSR train can run at normal speed into the cities, it would be about six hours - about the same as driving. Not great, but it would get far more passengers than Bakersfield-Merced, and they could then dig tunnels into the two cities and speed things up as they go. But that would involve having an agency that is interested in running trains, rather than one that is interested in making Gavin Newsom cut ribbons. If no-one uses it, no-one complains about the service.

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It's not exactly the same topic, but this should be of interest to you :

https://www.construction-physics.com/p/how-the-car-came-to-la

(A lot of which is actually about electric streetcars.)

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Just as a clarification - the last and third-from-last paragraphs in that comment are about how a competent organisation would rescue the project even now, not about what CAHSR should have done, but what CAHSR, if their senior management were all replaced by competent people, would do now.

What they should have done in the first place is identified the most politically or technically difficult bits and then done those first, because they will take the longest. In both cases, they are the crossing of the mountains from the Central Valley to the city and the entry-route to the city station.

Just as an illustration (there's more to this, plenty of which I'm not expert enough to comment on), there are three obvious possible routes into San Francisco from Merced, one is to cross the mountains from Merced to approximately Gilroy, then come up Silicon Valley to San Jose and connect to CalTrain and use Caltrain up to San Francisco. The second is to continue up the valley as far as Modesto or Manteca, then cross the mountains to Fremont and rebuild the Dumbarton Rail Bridge to connect to Caltrain (between Menlo Park and Redwood City stations). The third is to carry on up the valley all the way to Stockton, then come around the northern edge of the East Bay (through places like Antioch and Martinez) and then cut a new tunnel under the Bay and then have underground platforms under the Caltrain terminus.

The further north you go in the valley, the better the connection to Sacramento from SF (if you have to go via Merced, then it's useless; via Stockton is very reasonable). If you have a station in the East Bay (either at Fremont or in the Richmond/Berkeley area) then that's serves a different group of people. Crossing south of San Jose serves the area south of San Jose (Morgan Hill, San Martin, Gilroy, etc). Using Caltrain track (well, new track along the same ROW) serves both San Jose and San Francisco. Using the Dumbarton Bridge means that trains from LA can't serve both SJ and SF, so they each get half the overall service (which should still be adequate) but that also means that SF-SJ passengers need a separate train: you could run a "super-Baby Bullet" on the HSR track doing SF-SJ non-stop if you want. Running only from SF means passengers from SJ have to use the Baby Bullet and transfer at 4th and King or at Transbay (depending where the HSR terminates).

So what do you prioritise? East Bay residents not having to go into SF? San Jose? SF-Sacramento? the Valley south of SJ? Stockton and Modesto? If you make a decision, someone will be angry.

Personally: I'd pick the central route over Dumbarton Rail Bridge; bring the Central Valley line up as far as Modesto, and put in a three-direction junction ("delta junction", or "wye") so you can later extend to Stockton and Sacramento (and, maybe even later, Reno). Add an additional high-speed track pair to the CalTrain which the HSR track connects to after crossing Dumbarton, and run a Super-Baby-Bullet between SF and SJ. Trains from LA would alternate between SF and SJ. You could just catch whatever train leaves first and then transfer at Fremont if you prefer that to waiting in LA.

But the important thing is that you have to tunnel through the mountains, that tunnel will take several years to bore, and that's the longest part of the construction process, so you need to start it first. At the moment, all there is between Merced and San Francisco is lines on a map.

Working from here: I'd announce that we're electrifying the Livermore pass and the Valley subdivision and that trains will run from 4th and King to Los Angeles Union Station from day one, but will run at conventional speeds from SF4K to Merced and Bakersfield to LAUS until high-speed track is laid. I'd also announce that we're locking in all the designs between Merced and Bakersfield, because the delays involved in changing - even if to a cheaper and better design - would be more expensive than just getting on and building.

Next, I'd announce that we are reopening the routes into the cities, develop a mid-level plan for each possible route and then put them to a vote (either in the California State legislature or by referendum). The day after the vote result, I'd place the orders for the TBMs, because we'd have sufficient specificity on the routing to know how many TBMs we'd want for each route. Then I'd roll out detailed station designs for each of the stations on the route and enough detail on the route so people know exactly what land is going to be affected by eminent domain.

Finally, I'd work with people who have built one before, even if they don't speak English. The country of Spain has some of the best experts in the world high-speed rail design and manufacturing, half of California speaks Spanish. Why on earth aren't there a bunch of Spanish people being hired by CAHSR? Sure, it's a different Spanish, but not that different!

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Where's Tangier-Casablanca on the list?

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> They haven't made the obvious decision to spend a little bit of money electrifying the existing LA-Bakersfield and SF-Merced railroads so they can run CAHSR trains from LA to SF from day one (slowly on the existing lines, fast through the valley).

You clearly have no idea what the actual situation is. The freight railroads are extremely anti-electrification and the owner of the LA-Bakersfield line has refused to allow scheduled passenger service over the line since 1970.

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When you say California is a huge leader in regulations, I think this is true, but not in the positive way you seem to intend.

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founding

A well-functioning public transportation system in California, especially one based on high-speed rail between Los Angeles and San Francisco, is exceedingly unlikely to happen, and if it does happen will send approximately the same message as the Apollo program - "this is wicked cool, but way too expensive and nobody should really try to do it again". Again, it's not worth Elon's time to sabotage the self-sabotaging.

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Too complicated - Musk likes cars (i.e. he thinks they're "cool") and really really hates being in public transport due to all the people he'd be in close contact with.

That's why it's always "pods" with him and not trains.

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Doesn't everybody?

A wise man once said, public transport goes from a place that isn't exactly where you are to a place that isn't exactly where you want to be, at a time that isn't exactly when you want to leave, and in the company of people you wouldn't choose to be with.

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No, most people hate driving.

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There is a reason that the rich people solution to transport is "have a driver". The choice of either having to drive or having to share with other people is the one that the rest of us deal with because we can't afford to take taxis everywhere or hire a chauffeur full-time.

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Driving doesn't scale. It's nice to be the only one (if you have someone else driving you and a comfortable car, at least), but no one wants to be around other drivers and the net impact is negative

https://youtu.be/j4s9WDDRE2A?si=vOmXfRpoXba2AkE0

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If only someone was working on a self-driving car...

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I don't think that's true. I personally would far rather drive for half an hour than ride a subway for half an hour, and it's not even close.

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Sep 13, 2023·edited Sep 13, 2023

As a European, it seems to me that Americans dislike public transport much more than Europeans do.

Some of the problem you mention only exist if the public transport is underdeveloped. Within a city, taking the subway is great, when there are subway stations everywhere, and the subway comes every few minutes. Between cities, trains are great, much more fun than driving, assuming, again, that trains are frequent enough and that they can get you to every town.

The problem that's left is the people you have to ride with.

Which reminds me that I heard the theory that the real reason Americans don't like public transport is the racial division in the US. According to that theory, Americans of different races distrust each other and don't want to ride together.

Is there any truth to that? I'd like Americans to tell me whether that makes sense.

(Edit: I'm sorry that one person found that insulting. I didn't mean it that way. It is not *my* opinion.)

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> Within a city, taking the subway is great

I just met someone in Shanghai for lunch. The meeting place was the mall over 打浦桥地铁站. (If you want to see it on a map, you can use google maps, but you might want to stick 上海市 at the beginning of the search. Baidu maps will also work.) I went by subway, from 延长路地铁站. And a friend arrived by taxi, but started out near 四平路地铁站.

Between the two of us, the distance to the site was fairly comparable. But I took more than twice as long to get there by subway as my friend did to get there by taxi. And this is actually being fairly generous to the subway system, since almost all of my travel time was done down the same line. (I did need to transfer once, and that's a long walk.)

It's true that there are subway stations everywhere and the train comes every few minutes. But it is nevertheless not a time-efficient way to go medium-to-long distances.

American public transport is dysfunctional in many ways. San Francisco's idea of a subway system reaches almost nowhere in San Francisco, though it does manage to hit the downtown office hub. ( https://www.bart.gov/system-map ) As you can see from the map, it is not conceived of as an intracity transport system at all - it is supposed to be a commuter aid. The lack of population in California means that the passengers put up strong resistance if you want to board when the train is more than about 30% full. This is less of a problem heading to San Francisco in the morning, but it's a severe problem trying to leave at the end of the day.

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Apologies for off topic, but do you live in Shanghai? I live in Hangzhou, to my knowledge haven't noticed any other expats in China (if I'm not being too presumptuous on the basis of your name...) commenting here.

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Sep 13, 2023·edited Sep 13, 2023

The issue is when your fellow passengers smell like they haven't showered in 2 weeks, or act like they're on drugs. If you want to experience this for yourself, try visiting LA and taking a bus and a subway.

Edit to be super clear: No, there is no truth to that claim, and it's pretty insulting to boot.

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Hmm, I wonder why this is an issue for subways, but not tramways ?

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How dare you sir, I am a classist not a racist!

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If there's no truth to that claim, why does the Atlanta mass transit system have a widely-known racist backronym?

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Sep 13, 2023·edited Sep 13, 2023

I'm sorry if that claim is insulting. I apologize.

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That is an epiphenomenon of the actual issue, which is that rich people don't want to hang out around poor people, and public transit is for poor people. Looking at the buses that pass my office multiple times a day, the ads on the side are clearly for poor people to look at: "don't commit welfare fraud," "how to quit vaping," etc. I would much rather ride on a multiracial rich bus than a monoracial poor bus.

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Sure, but if the places and times are close enough to what you want then it can still beat the overhead of owning and operating a car - and a competent and adequately-funded transit planner can set the locations of stops and times of services so that they cover what most people want. And that's before you get into the positive feedback loop of homes and businesses being sited so they have good transit links...

(Context: currently waiting for my car to be fixed so I can sell it for more than the scrap value, because even as a hiker and mountaineer I don't use it nearly enough to justify the amount I spend on keeping it running.)

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I live in Munich, and I vastly prefer public transportation over the car for going anywhere within the city limits.

Of course, public transportation is prone to downward spirals - once it has the reputation of "only for people who can't afford a car", it gets difficult. But it doesn't have to be that way - it's a choice.

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It will get better with time, as "people who can afford a car" becomes similar to today's "people who can afford an helicopter / private jet".

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A lot of cities have far-from-optimal mass transit, but even an optimal system has fundamental limits that (IMO) make it quite inferior to driving somewhere where driving is practical. If the future really is a mass transit future, I expect that that will correspond to a decrease in people's quality of life rather than an improvement in the experience of taking mass transit.

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And Munichs system is not even one of the good ones.

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I prefer whichever option is more convenient. At rush hour, often that's public transit. Most other times, it's my car.

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I would blame it on amount of red tape - public transit is ton of capital, ton of legal work, being an easy prey to any litigation and in case of success - likely slapped with regulation so you don't make too much profit

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Well, for instance in Ukraine, the Hyperloop failed for obvious reasons.

https://yuzhmash.com/en/yuzhmash-will-take-part-in-the-hyperloop-project/

(The Southern Machine-making Plant is back to making rockets/missiles, just like in USSR era.)

Though it puzzled me : why would you want Hyperloop when you can have as cool (and probably more efficient) hydrofoils ?

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voskhod_(hydrofoil)

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If you take a physics-based approach, Hyperloop is obvious (and, BTW, not invented by Musk - you can find vactrains in 50s sci-fi, and no doubt the idea is much older). The things that slow down trains are air resistance and rolling resistance - take them away and you can make a faster and more efficient train!

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Sep 13, 2023·edited Sep 13, 2023

Low capex is part of the efficiency of water transport, that's why it kept being used even after the rail revolution.

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Modern ports are not that low on capex. But river transport doesn't need something as big as ocean transport.

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Yeah, but they are able to move how many orders of magnitude more freight than hyperloop would ?

(But maybe Hyperloop should - in most instances, not in this one where high speed boats are viable - be compared to air transport instead - would it be even big enough to fit a container ??)

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Hyperloop, as proposed by Musk, would carry essentially no freight, not even an air-type container.

Hyperloop, if built as an evacuated maglev carrying a full-size train, would be able to carry lots of freight, but probably very expensively and passengers are generally better sources of revenue. Personally, I'd describe the second as "not Hyperloop" (because it abandons all the original ideas in Musk's Hyperloop proposal and goes back to pre-hyperloop vactrain ideas), but I suspect that Musk fans would not.

At any rate: Hyperloop, if built realistically, would provide airline-speed transportation, primarily for passengers (not for freight) with *enormous* capacity compared to an airline - 10,000 passengers per hour, which is comparable to flying an A380 every 4 minutes, would be a mid-level capacity.

The sensible way to do this is to have a small number of giant hub stations (the back of my envelope said that you'd need ten for the United States, but it might be nine or eleven or something) and then connect them via conventional high-speed rail to the entire surrounding area.

You'd have one station for California (located somewhere like Fresno). Catch a CAHSR to Fresno, leaving every 10 minutes, taking about 90 minutes from SF (a similar time from LA, Sacramento, SJ, about 110 minutes from San Diego). Transfer to Hyperloop, arrive in Trenton NJ five hours later, transfer to the Acela HSR and you're at Penn Station NYC, NY in another 30 minutes - or Philadelphia, PA about the same time; about an hour to Washington DC, a bit less to Baltimore MD; a bit over an hour to Boston, MA. Would people use that competing with flying? Well, that mostly depends on the quality and speed of the transfers at Fresno and Trenton. Overall SF to NY time-in-transit would be about seven hours, which is similar to flying. And that's from Transbay to Penn Station, much more central than SFO and JFK. If those services are, say, every ten minutes, then your worst-case scenario for transferring is 20 minutes hanging around. That's very competitive with flying. The smallest reasonable trains would have a capacity of 500 passengers; which would mean a minimum of 3,000 an hour, or 50,000 per day to sustain that frequency, which seems plausible if the fares are reasonable. You could easily step up to 10kpph or more frequency by running longer trains more frequently.

I have no idea what costs would be, but if you could keep the fares reasonable, I suspect a lot of people would choose that sort of route.

The killer with hyperloop is that it's a go-big-or-go-home gamble; you need a huge catchment area for one station (like: all of California), you need to build the connectivity for people to get from the catchment area to the station, you need to build at least two stations, you need to build an enormously long hyperloop line, and you'd have to do all of this before taking in a single cent in revenue. If it works, it could be enormously profitable. It could also lose every cent of a multi-trillion dollar investment. There just isn't enough money that is looking for that level of risk.

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Apparently, the idea is some 200 years old, but it has never gone anywhere, for lots of good reasons. https://spectrum.ieee.org/hyperloop-is-hyper-old

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Sep 13, 2023·edited Sep 13, 2023

This article is worth it for the engraving alone ! :D

----

"thousandfold pressure difference"

That's not a fair way to present the issue - after all the difference is "only" ~1 atmosphere ! (Which is roughly that of a standing human being, IIRC ?)

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The whole story of Musk's invention of the "Hyperloop" seems by and large to be badly misunderstood. Most people seem to believe that Musk's sole contribution to the centuries-old idea of running trains through evacuated tubes was his addition (literal and otherwise) of some modern "hype". Some further believe (perhaps by conflation with either the Boring Company or the various companies without ties to Musk that sprang up to explore this idea in the wake of the excitement generated by his announcement) that Musk himself attempted [in vain] to commercialize the technology.

None of this is even remotely true. In the first place, the key idea that Musk first dubbed Hyperloop and hyped as "a cross between a Concorde, a railgun and an air hockey table” was not the basic idea of a vacuum train, but a clever refinement to this idea that would have indeed have been (to the best of my knowledge) an *engineering* innovation original to Musk.

You can still read the details of this original proposal in the white paper released to describe it, which is still up on Tesla's web site (https://www.tesla.com/sites/default/files/blog_images/hyperloop-alpha.pdf) (and gives due credit to the vacuum train forerunners of this proposal). Briefly, the key idea was to kill two birds with one stone by mounting a giant fan on the train cars with the dual purpose of reducing the degree of evacuation necessary to maintain within the enclosing tubes, and simultaneously, providing the levitation of the train within these tubes (necessary to avoid friction) without resort to expensive maglev technology.

Had this out-of-the-box idea panned out, it would have eliminated at a stroke two of the largest hurdles standing between this old idea and economic viability, and Musk would be deservedly acclaimed for it. Instead, it was quickly forgotten, for the simple reason that, while at least superficially plausible in theory (Musk having run his idea past engineers at his companies before airing it) it proved unworkable in practice, when tried by some competitors in the open competitions hosted by SpaceX to advance the idea of Hyperloop.

Those open competitions (for which SpaceX provided only the test track and the ground rules) constituted the only material effort that Musk himself ever made to develop his "hyperloop". He had an intriguing idea for making a hitherto-uneconomical concept economically viable, put it to the test at low cost, and abandoned it once it was found to be unworkable.

All of that strikes me as exactly how this sort of thing should go. It's hardly fair to lay the attempts by others to capitalize on the hype cycle surrounding "Hyperloop" to revive the concept of vacuum trains *without* adequately addressing the economic obstacles that had historically stymied their commercialization, and the ensuing failures of these attempts, at Musk's door.

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Yeah, that's fair. Disclosure: I actually work at a startup that spun out of a university Hyperloop team (though we're several pivots down the line, and had already pivoted away from Hyperloop when I joined). According to my colleagues who were around at the time, the problems with mounting a jet engine directly in front of the passengers became apparent very quickly, whereas the technical challenges of building a vacuum maglev (while still very hard) at least seem possible to overcome.

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Curious, what are these problems ?

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I'd have to ask, but I think the basic answer is "safety". You'll note that not even military fast jets have the pilot directly in line with the whirring blades o'death.

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Thanks, I had forgotten that I read it - I like his writing style, it's such a shame he's wasting so much time on Twitter/X...

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At first I thought this was part of the Dictator Book Club series!

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It isn't now, but no telling what the future might bring.

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If he wasn't constitutionally ineligible I wouldn't put it past him to run for President at some point. Maybe he'll settle for Governor of California.

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To me the worst thing he's done at Twitter/X is elevate the blue checks to the top of the reply stream. Reading the top replies was my favorite part of the site. Now you have to wade through dozens, or hundreds of posts of nonsense to get to actual good posts. And since no one does that anymore, good posts don't get much replies or likes anyway.

My time spent on Twitter has dropped to almost zero for this reason. But on the flip side, my productivity and outlook on life have improved significantly. So maybe I should thank him.

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author
Sep 13, 2023·edited Sep 13, 2023Author

I didn't realize he did that!

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So, I mostly avoid engaging with twitter, but I do engage with a bunch of people who engage with twitter quite a lot, and it sounds like "negative impact on the general user experience of twitter" has actually been a more or less continual subject of discussion since he took over. Some of that may be negative valence attached to Musk himself, but they're attached to concrete changes like this which actually do affect people's experience of the site.

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There’s a script you could maybe cobble together with some chatgpt help you could run with Ublock which can likely fix this. I have a similar one running that deletes all tweets from my timeline that don’t have ArXiv links in them.

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Yeah but like I said, few bother to wade down to find the good stuff anyway, so a) it doesn't bubble to the top based on number of replies and likes like it used to, which b) makes the good posters not bother as much. In the past I've gotten 100s of 1000s of views on replies to popular tweets. That will never happen again, even if I bought a blue check. There just isn't the engagement in the replies like there used to be.

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Ah, yes. Ye cursed network and broken-network effects.

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I ddin't know that was possible to do, wow, thanks for the life improvement hack.

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You're welcome! The script I use is `twitter.com##[aria-label="Timeline: Your Home Timeline"] article:not(:has-text(/arxiv.org/i))`.

Just click on Ublock, then on the gears which when hovered over say "Open the dashboard", paste it on any new line, then click 'apply the changes'.