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Elon Musk by Walter Isaacson review – arrested development

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Who or what is to blame for Elon Musk? Famed biographer of intellectually muscular men Walter Isaacson’s dull, insight-free doorstop of a book casts a wide but porous net in search of an answer. Throughout the tome, Musk’s confidantes, co-workers, ex-wives and girlfriends present a DSM-5’s worth of psychiatric and other theories for the “demon moods” that darken the lives of his subordinates, and increasingly the rest of us, among them bipolar disorder, OCD, and the form of autism formerly known as Asperger’s. But the idea that any of these conditions are what makes Musk an “asshole” (another frequently used descriptor of him in the book), while also making him successful in his many pursuits, is an insult to all those affected by them who manage to change the world without leaving a trail of wounded people, failing social networks and general despair behind them. The answer, then, must lie elsewhere.

There’s a lot to work with here, but it doesn’t make reading this book any easier. Isaacson comes from the “his eyes lit up” school of cliched writing, the rest of his prose workmanlike bordering on AI. I drove my espresso machine hard into the night to survive both craft and subject matter. It feels as though, for instance, there are hundreds of pages from start to finish relaying the same scene: Musk trying to reduce the cost of various mundane objects so that he can make more money and fulfil his dream of moving himself (and possibly the lot of us) to Mars, where one or two examples would have been enough. To his credit, Isaacson is a master at chapter breaks, pausing the narrative when one of Musk’s rockets explodes or he gets someone pregnant, and then rewarding the reader with a series of photographs that assuages the boredom until the next descent into his protagonist’s wild but oddly predictable life. Again, it’s not all the author’s fault. To go from Einstein to Musk in only five volumes is surely an indication that humanity isn’t sending Isaacson its best.

The prologue to the book contains what in Hollywood writers’ rooms and lesser MFA programmes is called “the inciting incident”. On a playground in 1980s South Africa, Musk was beaten so severely by a pack of bullies that his nose required corrective surgery even decades later. According to Isaacson, his father sided with the bullies. These are acts of violence and betrayal that do have lifelong consequences, as Musk himself has said (and as my own often-punched nose can attest to). What’s both fascinating and depressing is how Musk has internalised these acts of bullying. Twitter (now known as X) was a slime pit of racist and misogynistic savagery even before Musk bought it, but he has given the bullies all but carte blanche and is now planning to remove the block feature, so that users who are being metaphorically punched in the nose will not be able to lift their arms in defence.

The biggest revelation here involves Musk allegedly telling engineers to “turn off” the coverage of his Starlink satellite systems in Crimea just as Ukrainian drone subs were approaching the Russian fleet in Sevastopol. In response to reporting of this episode in the book, Musk took to X to say: “There was an emergency request from government authorities to activate Starlink all the way to Sevastopol. The obvious intent being to sink most of the Russian fleet at anchor. If I had agreed to their request, then SpaceX would be explicitly complicit in a major act of war and conflict escalation.” Isaacson himself went on to “clarify” his own book and to claim that the Starlink coverage never extended to Crimea in the first place. “Musk did not enable it,” he wrote, “because he thought, probably correctly, that would cause a major war.” But in echoing Musk’s statements, Isaacson became a propagator of Russian messaging about Ukraine’s actions leading to a wider war (“Seek peace while you have the upper hand” General Musk bullied the Ukrainians) – a supposition that has been disproven countless times and that marks those who believe in it as useful idiots for the Kremlin.

This wasn’t the first time I held Isaacson’s judgment in low regard. Vaccine sceptic Joe Rogan is “knowledgeable”. Musk’s humour – he took the “w” out of the Twitter sign in San Francisco because “tit” is so inherently funny – has “many levels”. Linda Yaccarino, Musk’s almost comically bumbling CEO of X is “wickedly smart”. The amount of time devoted to the points of view of Musk and his acolytes can’t help but distort the narrative in his favour, especially because Musk is the ultimate unreliable narrator. “Elon didn’t just exaggerate, he made it up,” a former colleague tells us.

Highest on the list of things Musk won’t shut up about is Mars. “We need to get to Mars before I die.” “We got to give this a shot, or we’re stuck on earth forever.” The messianic part of the Muskiverse is his attempt to put 140m miles between himself and his father as he tries to turn humanity into a “multiplanetary civilization” even though we are having a hard enough time making it as a uniplanetary one. But Musk also knows what’s keeping us from reaching the lifeless faraway planet, and he’s not afraid of telling us: “Unless the woke-mind virus … is stopped, civilisation will never become interplanetary.” There is a far more interesting book shadowing this one about the way our society has ceded its prerogatives to the Musks of the world. There’s a lot to be said for Musk’s tenacity, for example his ability to break through Nasa’s cost-plus bureaucracy. But is it worth it when your saviour turns out to be the world’s loudest crank?

So who or what is responsible for Elon Musk? “Growing up in South Africa, fighting was normal,” Musk says, and there’s a whiff of desperate masculinity floating through the book, as rank as a Pretoria boys’ locker room. It is not a coincidence that the back jacket features a fully erect penis (some may argue it is actually one of Musk’s rockets, but I remain unconvinced).

When his parents divorced, a young Musk chose to live with a father he describes as having subjected him to “mental torture”, over his imperfect but loving mother. He will keep coming back to that darkness, and is likely to submerge himself into it all the more as the realities of mortality enfold him. When you are as messed up as our hero, there is a lot of psychological work to be done to stop the downward spiral, work more boring than building a rocket. Work even more boring than this book.

It is no wonder that Musk has renamed Twitter “X” after his favourite letter. X is also a crossing out, the opposite of a tick, and that is what Musk has been steadily doing to his legacy. Isaacson’s book constantly tries to build dramatic tension between the species-saving visionary and the beaten bullied boy. But we know the ending to Musk’s story before we even open it. In the end, the bullies win.

Elon Musk by Walter Isaacson is published by Simon & Schuster (£28). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply.


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Adidas chief exec: Kanye West ‘didn’t mean what he said’ with antisemitic comments

Bjørn Gulden, chief executive of Adidas, has lamented the end of the company’s lucrative partnership with Kanye West, saying, “I don’t think he meant what he said,” regarding the rapper’s antisemitic comments in October 2022.

West, who has changed his name to Ye, wrote on X (formerly Twitter) that he was “going death con 3 On JEWISH PEOPLE … You guys have toyed with me and tried to black ball anyone whoever opposes your agenda”. On Instagram, he posted a screenshot of a conversation with Diddy, where he wrote: “Ima use you as an example to show the Jewish people that told you to call me that no one can threaten or influence me.” Ye had caused further anger earlier that month by including T-shirts with the slogan White Lives Matter in a Yeezy fashion show in Paris.

Later in October, Adidas ended a creative partnership with Ye that had begun in 2015, saying his comments were “unacceptable, hateful and dangerous, and they violate the company’s values of diversity and inclusion, mutual respect and fairness”.

In December, Ye caused further outrage after posting an image of a swastika blended with the Star of David to X and praising Adolf Hitler and Nazis in an interview with Infowars host Alex Jones. “I see good things about Hitler,” said Ye. “Every human being has something of value that they brought to the table, especially Hitler … [Nazis] did good things too.” He added: “There’s a lot of things that I love about Hitler.”

Now, speaking on the Norwegian podcast In Good Company, Gulden elaborated on the rapper’s departure, prior to Gulden’s tenure which began in January after he left Puma.

“I think Kanye West is one of the most creative people in the world,” he said. “Both in music and what I call street culture. So he’s extremely creative and has together with Adi created a Yeezy line that was very successful. And then, as creative people, he did some statements, which wasn’t that good. And that caused Adi to break the contract and withdraw the product. Very unfortunate, because I don’t think he meant what he said and I don’t think he’s a bad person – it just came across that way.

“That meant we lost that business. One of the most successful collabs in history – very sad. But again, when you work with third parties, that could happen. It’s part of the game. That can happen with an athlete, it can happen with an entertainer. It’s part of the business.”

With its futurist silhouettes and pop-cultural heft, Yeezy became a successful brand for Adidas, generating £1.3bn in 2021, 7% of Adidas’s overall annual revenue. It was a major source of income for Ye, who took a reported 11% royalty cut.

After cutting ties with Ye, Adidas was lumbered with more than £1bn of unsold Yeezy stock. In May, Gulden announced plans for the stock, saying it would be sold but with a “significant amount” of proceeds handed to groups which combat hate speech, including the Anti-Defamation League, the Philonise & Keeta Floyd Institute for Social Change (run by the family of George Floyd) and the Foundation to Combat Antisemitism. At the time, Gulden said: “There is no place in sport or society for hate of any kind and we remain committed to fighting against it.”

Jonathan Greenblatt, chief executive of the Anti-Defamation League who had condemned Ye as a “vicious antisemite” who “put Jews in danger”, welcomed the move as “a thoughtful and caring resolution”.

But the musician will still earn his share of profits, which has caused some consternation. Josef Schuster, president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, said Adidas’s donations were “highly commendable … [but] the fact that Kanye West would profit financially from the sale is highly problematic”.

The end of the Yeezy product line contributed to a £350m drop in sales for Adidas in the first quarter of 2023, in a year-on-year comparison with 2022. Announcing those results in May, Gulden said: “2023 will be a bumpy year with disappointing numbers … the loss of Yeezy [is] of course hurting us.”

Ye, who has hinted at a 2024 presidential run to follow his 2020 campaign, has kept a relatively low profile since his antisemitic comments, though has remained a tabloid fixation for his relationship with girlfriend and co-worker Bianca Censori. The couple were pictured together at London fashion week last week.

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FTX sues Sam Bankman-Fried’s parents, claiming they received millions in gifts

FTX is suing the parents of Sam Bankman-Fried, two longtime Stanford Law School professors, alleging that the couple inappropriately used company funds to enrich themselves through gifts and donations.

The cryptocurrency company, now operating under CEO John Jay Ray III, an expert in helping companies recover after bankruptcy, claims Joseph Bankman and Barbara Fried received funds from their son’s company in the form of gifts and donations to specific causes.

The lawsuit is the company’s first legal pursuit against Bankman-Fried’s parents for their role in the company.

“As Bankman-Fried’s parents, Bankman and Fried exploited their access and influence within the FTX enterprise to enrich themselves, directly and indirectly, by millions of dollars,” the lawsuit said. “Despite presenting itself to investors and the public as a sophisticated group of cryptocurrency exchanges and businesses, the FTX Group was a self-described ‘family business’.”

The lawsuit said Bankman and Fried received a $10m gift and a $16.4m luxury home in the Bahamas, where FTX was based, “despite knowing or blatantly ignoring that the FTX Group was insolvent or on the brink of insolvency”. The couple also advocated for “tens of millions of dollars” of company funds to be used for political and charitable contributions, including to Stanford and to Mind the Gap, a leftwing super political action committee (Pac) co-founded by Fried.

The couple “either knew – or ignored bright red flags revealing – that their son, Bankman-Fried, and other FTX Insiders were orchestrating a vast fraudulent scheme to profit and promote their personal and charitable agendas at [the company’s] expense”.

The company is also accusing Bankman of trying to help cover up FTX mismanagement and fraud, saying that he “portrayed himself as the proverbial adult in the room – and was uniquely positioned to fulfill that role – as he worked alongside inexperienced fellow executive officers, directors and and managers responsible for safeguarding billions of dollars.”

The couple has not publicly commented on the lawsuit, though a spokesperson last year told the New York Times that Bankman had worked for FTX for 11 months and said “most of his time was spent identifying worthy health-related charities”.

Bankman-Fried faces seven counts of federal charges, including charges of fraud and money laundering. After spending months under house arrest in his parents’ home in Palo Alto, Bankman-Fried was sent to a Brooklyn jail in August after a judge ruled he had tampered with witnesses. The former FTX CEO had leaked to the New York Times personal writings of Caroline Ellison, Bankman-Fried former romantic partner and former chief executive of Alameda Research, the hedge fund that was connected to FTX.

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Bankman-Fried’s lawyers have been fighting for his release from prison ahead of his 3 October trial start date.

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Instacart shares jump 43% in grocery delivery business’s Nasdaq debut



Shares in online grocery delivery business Instacart jumped 43% in its Nasdaq trading debut on Tuesday.

While shares dropped back in later trading, ending the day up just over 12%, the price pop was the second successful initial public offering (IPO) in a week following the sale of British microchip designer Arm.

Instacart’s shares started trading at $30 and closed at $34.23, valuing the company at about $11bn. That’s about half the valuation it received from investors last March.

Instacart’s core business is to send couriers to grocery stores to pick out orders and deliver them to homes, but in recent years it has expanded into advertising and technology services, including artificial intelligence operations.

Instacart executives pitched the offering as an opportunity to get in on a revolution in the grocery business that, they said, had notably lagged in developing technologies to meet shifting consumer habits.

US consumers are ordering more groceries online than they did before the pandemic, when demand for home delivery soared, but they are doing so less often. Instacart has only recently started making profits after years of losses and faces strong competition from Uber and DoorDash.

Instacart’s share offering was backed by big investors, including PepsiCo, Norway’s Norges Bank and Sequoia Capital.

Among the winners from the IPO is Apoorva Mehta, 37, who co-founded the company in 2012 and stepped down as CEO in 2021. Mehta’s 10% stake in the firm is now valued at $1.3bn.

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Instacart currently has more than 3,000 employees and about 600,000 “shoppers” – independent contractors who pick up orders. The company has said it will pay bonuses to shoppers who have delivered at least 5,000 orders and a $20,000 bonus to those who have delivered at least 15,000 orders.

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