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In defense of Elon Musk

May 7, 2020, 1:03 PM UTC

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The archetype of the eccentric genius goes back way before Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, before Marie Curie and Nikola Tesla, before Mozart and Shakespeare. Think of Sappho and Pythagoras or even to myths like Icarus and Daedalus and Cassandra. In the 20th century, we added a new twist: the eccentric genius billionaire, like John D. Rockefeller and Howard Hughes.

There’s an obvious reason why the genius needs to be eccentric—the better to see the world not as it is, but as it could be. Change is hard, the forces of stasis powerful, the views in favor of the status quo entrenched.

Which brings us to the case of Elon Musk.

Lately, we’ve been focused on the first half of the archetype, the eccentric, with him. It’s almost hard to remember that Musk helped pioneer online payments despite the power of the credit card industry, pioneered private spaceflight despite the power of defense contractors and government space agencies, and pioneered the first popular electric car in a century despite the powers of the auto industry, the oil industry, and a few others.

Instead, it’s the Tesla and SpaceX CEO’s hijinks that have drawn all the attention. The crazy tweets, the crazy lawsuits, the crazy baby name that I can’t mention here not because it’s inappropriate but because my web typography skills don’t encompass all the proper characters. And to the dear PR person who emailed me yesterday with an offer to interview the developer of the Instagram photo filter that allowed Musk and his girlfriend Grimes to post a picture of the young lad with faux facial tattoos, sorry, no, I can’t even.

But even if we have a little fun with Elon now and then, we should still acknowledge that making electric cars cool and relatively affordable (complete with a nationwide charging network to address the range issue) is an awe-inspiring and possibly planet-saving move. That putting hundreds of broadband satellites in space to offer fast Internet service to everyone in the world (without going bankrupt even once) could be another game changer for the planet.

That’s not to say that everything Musk does is making the world better. His recent attempt to keep a Tesla factory open during a shelter-in-place order was accused of putting lives at risk, for example.

But who knows what comes next? We might still be debating Musk’s deeds as we scooter across the red landscape in our Tesla Mars rovers.

Aaron Pressman

@ampressman

aaron.pressman@fortune.com

NEWSWORTHY

If life is a video game, the graphics are great, but the plot is confusing. Facebook revealed the first 20 members of an eventual 40 who will form its independent content decision review board. The board is to serve as a type of appeals courts for users who disagree with the social network's decision to remove their content from its site. The co-chairs are Helle Thorning-Schmidt, the first woman to serve as prime minister of Denmark; Jamal Greene, a Columbia University law professor; Michael McConnell, a former U.S. federal circuit judge; and Catalina Botero-Marino, dean of law at the Universidad de los Andes in Colombia.

Funding secured. After the U.S. wireless industry just consolidated to three titans, somebody in the U.K. must have gotten jealous. On Thursday, Telefonica's O2 and Liberty Global's Virgin Media announced a deal to merge valued at $38 billion. The combination will claim over 46 million video, broadband, and mobile subscribers.

If this works, I'm treating myself to a volcano lair. If you're keeping score at home, Zoom got unbanned in New York City schools on Wednesday thanks to the video conferencing service's improvements in security and privacy.

Why is there no Flat Mars Society? In the latest virtual product launch, Microsoft debuted its Surface Book 3 convertible tablet/laptop and Surface Go 2 iPad-wannabe. It's mostly a typical speeds and feeds update, with faster processors, better graphics, yadda yadda. The starting price of the Book is up $100 to $1,600, while the Go sticks with its old price of $400.

We are literally a brain in a vat. On Wall Street, we learned more about the initial damage to the tech industry from the coronavirus pandemic. Square's revenue increased 44% to $1.4 billion, but said it sees a big slowdown in its business and set aside a large reserve for loan losses. Its shares, previously up 9% in 2020, lost 3% in pre-market trading on Thursday. Lyft did better than analysts expected, but was still slowed. Revenue grew just 23% to $956 million. Lyft's share price, which had cratered 39% this year, jumped 16% in pre-market trading. At PayPal, where processing volume rose 18% to $181 billion last quarter, the company said it's seeing strong demand in this quarter due to increased online shopping. Its stock price, up 19% in 2020, gained another 8%.  

Secretly creating a zombie apocalypse. Self-driving car startup Cruise developed its ride hailing app internally. It was not based on the acquisition of Sidecar as we said in Tuesday's newsletter.

(Headlines this morning courtesy of our favorite eccentric billionaire genius.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

Apple has come out with praise-worthy keyboards for its newest laptops and iPads, and there's also some software magic happening to improve the writing experience. For iPad users, there's now a re-thought cursor/pointer experience that works with a mouse or trackpad. TechCrunch's Matthew Panzarino interviewed Apple SVP Craig Federighi to get the story on how it came about.

“When we were first thinking about the cursor, we needed it to reflect the natural and easy experience of using your finger when high precision isn’t necessary, like when accessing an icon on the home screen, but it also needed to scale very naturally into high precision tasks like editing text,” says Federighi.

“So we came up with a circle that elegantly transforms to accomplish the task at hand. For example, it morphs to become the focus around a button, or to hop over to another button, or it morphs into something more precise when that makes sense, like the I-beam for text selection.“

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

Sheryl Sandberg: The coronavirus pandemic is creating a ‘double double shift’ for women. Employers must help By Sheryl Sandberg and Rachel Thomas

Exclusive: Alphabet vets raise $400 million to remake America’s infrastructure By Jeff John Roberts

No buses, no problem. Some cities provide subsidized Uber rides amid pandemic By Danielle Abril

Google and Gates Foundation to help spread digital payments in developing countries By David Z. Morris

India and Japan offer land and funding to lure factories out of China By Eamon Barrett

The pandemic makes the case for more transparent layoffs By Michal Lev-Ram

(Some of these stories require a subscription to access. There is a 50% discount for our loyal readers if you use this link to sign up. Thank you for supporting our journalism.)

BEFORE YOU GO

The mother of Elon Musk's new son, the musician and artist known as Grimes, shouldn't be overlooked in any tally of modern-day eccentric geniuses, even if she's not a billionaire. Dinner in the Pressman household on Wednesday night involved mom and dad getting schooled on some of Grimes' best tracks, award-winning albums, and arresting if disturbing visual artistry. Rock on.

Aaron Pressman

@ampressman

aaron.pressman@fortune.com