High Tech and High Touch

By Stephen Rosen

When my 25-year-old grandson Jascha — an Elon Musk admirer and entrepreneur himself (The Dream Lab)  — visited us in East Hampton recently, he was completely engaged in reading Ashlee Vance’s smart biography (Ecco, $28.99). He hoped to see at least one Tesla, and then on his last day here, getting on the Ambassador bus to leave, he spotted two!

As it turns out, East Hampton boasts a handful, and sighting Teslas here is popular. One will be on display at the Authors Night event on Aug. 8; a tour of the Tesla factory is being auctioned then to benefit the East Hampton Library.

“A modern alloy of Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Howard Hughes, and Steve Jobs, Elon Musk is the man behind PayPal, Tesla Motors, SpaceX, and SolarCity, each of which has sent shock waves throughout American business and industry. Mr. Musk has dedicated his energies and his own vast fortune to inventing a future that is as rich and far-reaching as a science fiction fantasy.”

If this jacket copy seems like breathless puffery, the Elon Musk of this book actually lives up to such positive prose — and supports the notion that he is a force of nature. As of last month, Mr. Musk had an estimated net worth of about $14 billion.

Based on 50 hours of exclusive interviews with the subject and almost 300 people who know, work with, or worked for Mr. Musk, this timely and beguiling biography tells us of a very complex, ambitious man who leads a tumultuous life of world-changing companies, grave disappointments, business resurrections, and massive successes. Mr. Vance has written a valentine to high stakes and high tech.

Fans of the television series “Halt and Catch Fire” will recognize the supercharged business atmosphere and intensely focused lives of computer nerds who yearn to do whatever it takes to change the world . . . yesterday. (See Walter Isaacson’s book “The Innovators,” reviewed in The Star on April 9, to glimpse the types of quasi-nerdy high-functioning world-beaters Elon Musk resembles.)

Mr. Musk designed a computer game at age 12 and was a multimillionaire at age 27. In July 2002, eBay offered $1.5 billion to buy PayPal. Mr. Musk netted about $250 million, and he was off and running. Here’s a synopsis of his entrepreneurial enterprises:

PayPal is a worldwide payments system that provides online money transfers — electronic alternatives to traditional paper methods like checks and money orders. In 2014, PayPal moved $228 billion in 26 currencies across more than 190 nations, generating a total revenue of $7.9 billion.

Tesla Motors is an automotive and energy storage company that designs, manufactures, and sells electric cars, electric vehicle power train components, and battery products. In 2013, Tesla posted profits for the first time in its history. Global cumulative Model S sales passed the 75,000-unit milestone in June. Mr. Musk has said that he envisions Tesla Motors as an independent automaker aimed at offering electric cars to the average consumer, beginning in 2017 at prices starting at $35,000.

Space Exploration Technologies Corporation (SpaceX) is an aerospace manufacturer and space transport services company with its headquarters in Hawthorne, Calif. Mr. Musk founded it in 2002 with the goal of creating the technologies to enable humanity to reduce space transportation costs (using fully and rapidly reusable rockets) and eventually colonize Mars.

SpaceX’s achievements include the first privately funded, liquid-propellant rocket, Falcon 1, to reach orbit (Sept. 28, 2008); the first privately funded company to successfully launch, orbit, and recover a spacecraft, Dragon (Dec. 9, 2010), and the first private company to send a spacecraft, Dragon again, to the International Space Station (May 25, 2012).

In 2006, NASA awarded the company a commercial orbital transportation services contract to design and demonstrate a launch system to resupply cargo to the space station. SpaceX, as of May of this year, has flown six missions to the station under a cargo resupply contract and plans to transport crew.

SolarCity is a company that designs, finances, and installs solar power systems, performs energy-efficiency audits, and retrofits and builds charging stations for electric vehicles. The company had more than 2,500 employees as of December 2012. The overall U.S. market for solar photovoltaic systems has grown from 440 megawatts of solar panels installed in 2009 to 6,200 megawatts installed in 2014. SolarCity helped found a rooftop photovoltaic power station solar-advocacy organization, the Alliance for Solar Choice.

Elon Musk emerges from this well-researched book as a worthy role model and mentor to my grandson and to a generation of adventurous entrepreneurs.

 

“Russian Tattoo”

A young Elena Gorokhova marries an American astrophysicist visiting St. Petersburg, comes to the United States to live with him in Texas, divorces, and moves to New Jersey.

She struggles with life in suburbia as a stranger in a strange land, with a new marriage and raising a challenging daughter, and yet portrays her life with charm and novelistic immediacy so feelingly that you experience with her “laughter, sorrow, joy, regret, love, and hurt,” as Alan Alda says in praising “Russian Tattoo” (Simon & Schuster, $26) and her bittersweet recollections.

Often moved to tears, I read this beautifully written and heartfelt memoir because “I felt her pain”; I’m familiar with the resettlement problems faced by émigrés from the former Soviet Union who moved to the U.S. starting in the 1990s, at the end of glasnost and perestroika. Helped by foundation grants and a career in science, I developed a program to teach U.S. capitalism and job searching to very high-functioning and credentialed scientists among those émigrés. Some had double doctorates from prominent Russian academic institutions and were driving taxis when they arrived in the U.S. Many became lifelong friends once they landed safely in careers worthy of their superb training.

Thus I was able to empathize with Ms. Gorokhova’s memoir — her travails of parenthood, of living in a new society, of marriage across cultures, of raising an independent child, and her relationships with her daughter and with her strong mother, who comes for a visit and stays for 24 years. She deserves a medal and a double valentine.

Here is how she describes a job interview with a dean at a college where she will teach language education.

 

“I saw from your résumé that you’re from Leningrad.”

“The real capital, much more beautiful than Moscow,” I gush, watching the dean half-close his eyes as if he had the image of the Hermitage imprinted on the insides of his eyelids.

“All those free universities and free health care,” says the dean dreamily, and I don’t know if I should say something to qualify the adjective free or keep quiet. I don’t want to tell him about hospital wards without water or sheets, or abortions without anesthesia, or university admissions boards with lists of party bosses’ children in their desks, so I remain silent. . . .

“Congratulations,” says the dean [when he offers her the job]. . . .

I say goodbye and [the dean] probably thinks I am smiling because I have enjoyed his musings on all those free perks I foolishly left behind, but the truth is I can already imagine [my husband’s] laughter when he hears about my new boss, the socialist with a Gucci belt.

 

This is one example of how her outsider viewpoint is able to make her unfamiliar new experiences resonate with our familiar ones — and make us realize that we share our lives and insights with hers. She helps us “see ourselves as others see us.”

 

“Shrinks”

Jeffrey A. Lieberman, M.D., is professor and chairman of psychiatry at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, director of the New York State Psychiatric Institute, and author of more than 500 scientific articles on mental illness and psychiatry. He is an authoritative guide in his masterful and astonishing new book, “Shrinks” (Little, Brown, $28), a great read, on the scientific origins, evolution, and revolutions in brain science and psychiatry, once considered the “stepchild” of modern medicine.

It was Buckminster Fuller who, speaking of Freud’s and Einstein’s dramatic discoveries, said that the greatest discovery of the 20th century was our understanding that the “invisible” is more important than the “visible.” One can debate the merits of this remark, but Einstein still stands tall and his work has prevailed, while Freud’s work has been diminished by brain research using functional nuclear magnetic resonance, other techniques, and by modern psychopharmacology.

“The Brain is wider than the Sky . . . [and] deeper than the sea,” Emily Dickinson wrote. Whether poetic understatement or poetic license, it partially captures a sense of mystery, complexity, and grandeur we feel when we contemplate the brain.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, one in four persons will suffer from mental illness and will need psychiatric attention more than any other specialty — and many will consciously avoid it even though treatments have been proven effective. Mr. Lieberman’s book attempts and succeeds very well in presenting “an honest chronicle of psychiatry with all its rogues and charlatans, its queasy treatments and ludicrous theories.”

The story addresses what mental illness is, where it comes from, and how it can be treated. The optimistic author believes that modern compassionate psychiatry is finally a true science that can “lead any person out of a maze of mental chaos into a place of clarity, care, and recovery.”

He shows this by dividing the book into three sections: the story of diagnosis, the story of treatment, and the story of psychiatry’s rebirth as a legitimate science. He presents compelling case histories of his patients, such as a schizophrenic daughter of parents who thought she merely needed to shape up, “buckle down, and get her act together.” Nevertheless, she responded well to hospital care, antipsychotic medicine, and cognitive therapy.

He tells us that no one was ever “cured” of homosexuality, even though many psychiatrists (including one whose son was gay) tried to do so from the mid-1950s to the mid-1990s. “Sexual orientation disturbance” was ultimately eliminated as a disorder in 1987. Indeed, Dr. Saul Levin became the first openly gay leader of the American Psychiatric Association in 2013. Sadly, Russia and Nigeria still pass antihomosexuality laws.

One recurring character is Mr. Lieberman’s colleague Eric Kandel, who is both a psychodynamic psychiatrist and a biological psychiatrist. By studying brain structure, he discovered there were no anatomical changes in the activation of nerve cells in short-term memories, but long-term memory produces enduring structural changes in new synaptic connections. In 2000, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his studies of neural circuitry and the biology of memory.

Mental illness still carries a stigma. Patrick J. Kennedy, when diagnosed with bipolar disorder as a member of Congress, said, “We need our families and friends to understand that the 100 million Americans suffering with mental illness are not lost souls or lost causes. We’re fully capable of getting better, being happy, and building rewarding relationships.”

Mr. Lieberman’s superb book helps us understand this as well as his medical specialty, as it matured from a “psychoanalytic cult of shrinks into a scientific medicine of the brain.”


Stephen Rosen, a regular contributor to The Star, lives in East Hampton and Manhattan.

These three books will be featured at Authors Night on Aug. 8, with Jeffrey A. Lieberman appearing at the cocktail reception and Elena Gorokhova hosting one of the dinners. The website is authorsnight.org.