Elon Musk may be a pain. But he’s not nuts

This morning’s Observer column:

You don’t have to be a psychiatrist to wonder if Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla, is off his rocker. I mean to say, how many leaders of US public companies get into trouble with the US Securities and Exchange Commission for falsely claiming that they have secured funding to take their company private at $420 a share – and then get sued and fined $40m? Or can you imagine another CEO who deals with Wall Street analysts by swatting away questions about his company’s capital requirements as if they were flies. “Excuse me. Next. Next,” he replied to one guy who was pressing him on the subject. “Boring, bonehead questions are not cool. Next?”

The view from Wall Street is that Musk is too volatile to be in charge of a big and potentially important public company. The charitable view is less judgemental: it is that, while he may have a short fuse, he’s also a gifted, visionary disrupter. But even those who take this tolerant view were taken aback when he declared at a recent public event that he could see “one million robo-taxis on the roads by 2020”…

Read on

Murray Gell-Mann

Nice obit of the great (but prickly) physicist in the New York Times. Excerpt:

Much as atoms can be slotted into the rows and columns of the periodic table of the elements, Dr. Gell-Mann found a way, in 1961, to classify their smaller pieces — subatomic particles like protons, neutrons, and mesons, which were being discovered by the dozen in cosmic rays and particle accelerator blasts. Arranged according to their properties, the particles clustered in groups of eight and 10.

In a moment of whimsy, Dr. Gell-Mann, who hadn’t a mystical bone in his body, named his system the Eightfold Way after the Buddha’s eight-step path to enlightenment. He groaned ever after when people mistakenly inferred that particle physics was somehow related to Eastern philosophy.

Looking deeper, Dr. Gell-Mann realized that the patterns of the Eightfold Way could be further divided into triplets of even smaller components. He decided to call them quarks after a line from James Joyce’s “Finnegans Wake”: “Three quarks for Muster Mark.”

With Dr. Gell-Mann at the forefront, physics took on a Joycean feel. Before long there were up quarks and down quarks, strange quarks and charm quarks, top quarks and bottom quarks, all stuck together with particles called gluons. The funny nomenclature was as much a Gell-Mann inspiration as the mathematics.

Muster Mark must’ve been delighted.

Mayday, Mayday

Enoch Powell was right. All political careers end in failure. Or, to be precise,

“All political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure, because that is the nature of politics and of human affairs.”

Size matters. (But so does speed)

Although I’ve been a relatively early-adopter (aka sucker) of tech gadgets for much of my adult life, I’ve generally been relatively slow to upgrade my mobile phones. One factor was that I moved from being on a mobile contract to buying the phones outright and choosing the mobile data deal that suited me best. (I make very few voice calls.) I had an iPhone 4 for years, and when I eventually moved to an iPhone 6 I kept that for years too, reviving it a year ago with a new battery. (It’s the one on the right in the picture.) But in recent years it’s become sluggish and I began to find it increasingly hard on my ageing eyesight. I resisted the temptation to move to an iPhone X for various reasons: the outrageous prices, for one; and, more importantly, I don’t like Face ID and find fingerprint authentication very convenient for the few security-conscious services that I use.

So I had more or less resigned myself to soldiering on with the 6. After all, it did the jobs I needed it to do. And if I needed to read, there was always my iPad. But then I had a conversation with a friend who’d also had an iPhone 6 for years and whose circumstances had recently changed. He’s been spending a lot of time in hospital in the last six months, and didn’t want to be lugging around a laptop, or indeed even an iPad. He’d found, though, that it’s very difficult to run a busy life on such a small phone. So he bought a used iPhone 7 Plus on Amazon.

Next time we met, he extolled the virtues of the bigger format. It made it much easier to browse and to use web-forms, he reported. He found it easier to keep on top of his (formidable) email load — which he would normally have managed on a laptop. And the phone was quicker — a lot quicker — than his iPhone 6.

I followed his example and bought an iPhone 7 Plus on Amazon. My conclusion: it was good advice. The phone came with a year’s guarantee. It has a much faster processor. Web browsing is easier. The camera is a lot better. My email response rate has improved. I make fewer typing mistakes. And I’m using my iPad less. There are still things it’s useless for — blogging, for example. But overall, it’s been a revelation. It’ll do me for a few years, I think.