Elon Musk, this is what real expertise looks like


Good morning. I’m Paul Thornton, and it is Saturday, Dec. 17, 2022. Let’s look back at the week in Opinion.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Elon Musk this week, even before the self-proclaimed “chief twit” kicked multiple journalists off Twitter on Thursday. The billionaire and former world’s wealthiest person owns Twitter, so the question of whether Musk was within his right to suspend the accounts of several reporters who cover him — plus one that tracked his private jet’s movements — has an easy answer: Of course he was. But the ability of a single person — let alone someone who took over Twitter waving the flag of free-speech absolutism — shows just one of the perils of today’s extreme wealth concentration. When a billionaire can buy a media outlet, such as Twitter, and turn it into his mouthpiece, expect more tantrums of extreme consequence like Musk’s “Thursday night massacre.”

My ruminating on Musk started before Thursday. Early this week, reports started coming out of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory that scientists there finally achieved a fusion ignition, in which the smashing together of two atoms produces more energy than what goes into the reaction. This comes after decades of experimentation with a potential carbon-free energy source that could represent one of the biggest steps forward for humanity. When the Department of Energy announced this milestone Tuesday, the administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration rightly hailed it as “the first tentative steps toward a clean energy source that could revolutionize the world.”

Then the scientists did what responsible scientists do: They avoided overpromising. They cautioned us not to expect nuclear fusion to save humanity any time soon, because replicating and scaling up this technology on an industrial scale will take decades of additional research and billions more in funding. As the director of Lawrence Livermore put it: “With concerted effort and investment, a few decades of research on the underlying technologies could put us in a position to build a power plant.”

Hearing this, the caution shown by scientists who had just pulled off a monumental feat for humanity, I couldn’t help but contrast it with Musk’s insufferable showmanship. Remember the hyperloop? Tunnels under much of Los Angeles? Intercontinental travel by rocket? The $35,000 Tesla? Each of these ventures promised to make revolutionary leaps toward solving problems that decades of engineering could only improve incrementally. They all came with slick computer-generated imagery or cleverly staged presentations, drawing investment from Musk’s fellow billionaires and considerable interest from politicians. Taking public transportation “sucks,” (Musk actually said this), so here’s a Tesla tunnel. High-speed rail isn’t futuristic or fast enough, so here’s a Mach-1 hyperloop, or at least a drawing of it. You’ve probably seen at least one of the futuristic renderings of Musk’s techno-utopia that make transportation planners look like hapless Luddites — and that’s probably all you’ve seen, because the science, engineering and economics of pulling all this off are really hard.

You can only imagine the CGI renderings and showmanship from this single successful nuclear fusion ignition had Musk somehow been connected with it. Instead, we got cautious expressions of hope from scientists who have dedicated their lives to this work. This is what real expertise looks like. Remember this the next time a billionaire promising that he alone can fix it takes over a social media company or, God forbid, the U.S. government.

Five reasons to sign the Kevin de León recall petition. The embattled city councilman started showing up to meetings again, and it hasn’t gone well. De León’s colleagues have taken him off City Council committees and even walked out of meetings he’s attended, but there’s nothing they can do to force him to resign. Now, he faces a recall in his district, leaving it up to his constituents in Council District 14 to decide his fate. The Times’ editorial board gives those voters five good reasons to sign the recall petition against De León. L.A. Times

And the City Council has a lot of work to do, now that Mayor Karen Bass has signed a homelessness emergency declaration (and frankly, De León’s defiant presence is arguably holding up much of that work). The editorial board hopes the new mayor can find success where her predecessor and the City Council have failed, but doing so will require bold action: “We say: Go for it. Make the most of the emergency declaration. At this point, in a city of 42,000 homeless people where more fall into homelessness most years than are permanently housed, the mayor needs every tool at her disposal. And the city needs a mayor who is willing to use them.” L.A. Times

Her lonely boycott hasn’t hurt In-N-Out Burger, but small decisions do add up. Karen Stabiner doesn’t like the fast-foot chain’s politics or conspicuous religiosity, so she chooses to vote with her wallet. She wonders if her one-person boycott has any effect: “But I try to do the right thing, as I define it, which raises the obvious question: If my actions don’t make a dent, financially, and if I have supported other dubious entities (sometimes without knowing it), why bother avoiding In-N-Out? I could order a Double-Double burger, and the world would just keep spinning.” L.A. Times

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The sad plight of P-22, Los Angeles’ mountain lion. I’m not alone when I say that, as someone who used to regularly run the trails in Griffith Park, our beloved puma in the Hollywood Hills has almost certainly seen me many more times than I’ve seen him. But his survival against the odds in the nine square miles of habitat that Griffith Park affords him (far off the 150 or so a typical male mountain lion requires) has earned the respect of an entire city. So, news of his capture and ill health this week broke my heart, as it did for editorial writer Carla Hall: “If only he could scamper back to Griffith Park like he did seven years ago, that would be ideal. But he may have finally outgrown it. Wherever he goes next will be a test of whether we care enough about the extraordinary lions in our midst to find this one a place worthy of his last years.” L.A. Times

If you didn’t know this about me, now you do: I am a sober alcoholic (on the wagon for many years now). You should also know that the booze-sodden celebrations between Thanksgiving and New Year’s can present challenges for people trying to remain sober. So, I wrote about the feelings of pain and loneliness that the holidays can trigger in people recovering from addiction, and the things you shouldn’t say to someone at a party who isn’t drinking. L.A. Times

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