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Culture War Roundup for the week of May 27, 2024

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Gentlemen, it is with deep regret that I must urge you to consider to drop Elon...

Okay, okay... so I can't pretend I was ever much of a fan of his, and given my past comments about him here, some might even consider me biased against him. I am, however, very much a fan of the ethos he represents. "Move fast and break things", regulations stifling innovation, anti-credentialism., etc., etc. are all ideas close to my heart, and this is precisely why I'm worried Elon going down in flames would irreparably damage the reputation of the entire techo-libertarian ethos, and why I'd like to persuade fellow weird nerds to give the guy a skeptical look.

I always felt there was a bit of a motte and bailey with the arguments for Elon's greatness. The bailey being that he has/will revolutionize anything he touches, that he will take us to Mars, where we will be chauffeured around by self-driving electric cars via a network of vacuum-tunnels. The motte is something to the effect of "look at how much his companies are worth", and I have the impression that it's integrity heavily depends on some parts of the bailey being true, or there's no reason to value anything he does at it's current levels. Going from good to bad:


His takeover went a lot better than I expected. I fully expected him to face the full wrath of the Powers That Be for opening it up, and while he did face an advertiser boycott, and does still occasionally censor dissidents, the truth is Twitter is a much more open space than it used to be, and a lot more stable than any of the haters or hopeful skeptics could have predicted. Were it not for the boycott, what he did might have even been a formula to turn it into moneymaker, but as it stands it seems to be stuck at a decent and stable state. That would have been fine, but Elon's issue is he had to go into substantial debt to buy it, so he does need it to be a moneymaker. This is probably where all the ideas like login walls, and limiting previously open APIs came from. While this comes off to me as "greedy" / "needs this stuff to generate money", there's one thing that comes off as "no longer able to maintain the project", and it's the sudden appearance of porn bots. It seems that nobody likes having them around. Old Twitter, for all it's faults, was able to keep a lid on them, but nowadays they roam freely, so it does feel like it's a sign of weakness.


A fundamental problem for SpaceX is that there just isn't all that much demand for space. The entire space launch market on Earth can gross you $4.28 billion. So even if he monopolized the entire industry, he won't exactly be paying for those Twitter loans this way anytime soon. His solution was to grow the market - to come up with services he can sell that depend on high-volume low-cost launches, like Starlink or Point-to-Point.

At a glance, Starlink seems at least plausible, but I think it will be a struggle to make any kind of profit from it. Between launches being expensive, the sheer amount of satellites required, their 5-year lifespan ensuring the costs will be recurring, and fees for Earth-side ISPs, I doubt they're anywhere near the break-even point. Elon seems to agree. Starship is supposed to be the cure for all their ills, but anything reliable seems years away, even in an optimistic scenario.

Point-to-Point is dead on arrival. The idea here is that if you get rapid reusability right, you can outperform long-haul flights by making several trips in the time it would take a plane to make one. If they get their rockets to stop rapidly disassembling, then we can start talking about reusing them fast enough to make a roundtrip on the same day. While they might be able to crack the former at some point (again, years away IMO) the latter is unrealistic, given that even with Falcon 9, the shortest reuse time they managed to achieve was 21 days. And this is without going into details like how much would the ticket have to cost, for the idea to make any sort of sense, or which city would want to have a starport anywhere near it.

I don't know if they were hoping to make any significant amount of money from government contracts, but if they were, it's not looking good for them either. The Artemis mission is an utter clown show right from the drawing board (the whole speech is pretty great, if you have time to kill). I'm prepared to lay a significant portion of the blame for that on NASA itself, and their autistic levels of obsession with reusability, but I don't think it's NASA's fault that the current mission architecture requires something to the tune of a dozen launches, in order to get one rocket to the moon. The... suboptimal... architecture in itself might not have been that much of an issue for SpaceX. The contracts are signed, so as long as they could deliver, they'd get their money, but they can't seem to deliver. There's already a big slip up with the schedule, and no sign of getting close major milestones like ship-to-ship refuelling. On top that, they have actual competition. A date that could mark the turning of the tide for SpaceX is 29 September 2024, that's when Blue Origin is set to go to Mars. As far as I understand, the mission is deemed high-risk, so it might very well end the same way as SpaceX' Starship launches, but if they get it right (on the first attempt, no less), while Starship can't even get to orbit, that might trigger a cascade of "wait, what have you guys been doing all these years?" from investors and NASA administrators.

This goes more into the realm of Vibe Analysis, but an interesting thing to look at is Elon's "Starship Update" presentations (2018, 2022, 2024). The first one goes great for him, he is largely able to sell his vision of building a self-sustaining city on Mars. The press asks him a few skeptical-ish questions about the details, but he's allowed to brush them off ("Boil-off? Pfft, that's easy!"), and is taken seriously, even as he's making wild promises/predictions (orbital flight within 6 months, manned flight within a year). The second one is largely a repeat of the first and the reception is still warm, but by the third the vibe changes completely.

Every engineer / techie probably had the experience of working with a sales / marketing guy BSing the client, promising impossible things in order to make a sale. What is perhaps less common is having the marketing guy trying to BS the very techies responsible for delivering on the fantastical ideas being sold, but I've had that experience as well, and Musks latest presentation reminds me of it. Exciting announcements of imminent success are met with a wall of silence, but that's the reaction you're always going to get, when you're trying to hype up a crowd that knows exactly how far away they are from reaching any of these goals.

SpaceX being private, I can't tell what their financial are, but unless they pull a rabbit out of a hat (and possible even if they manage it), I think they're toast.


In theory that should be the strongest company, since they have actual factories, producing actual cars sold to actual people... but that's never the argument used to support their value it's always about great innovations that are just around the corner:

  • Cybertruck!
  • Tesla Semi (it beats diesel, NOW!)
  • Revolutionary new batteries!
  • Self-driving cars!
  • Robo-taxis!
  • Optimus!!!

Listen to the last few quarterly earnings calls, and it's always the same story. Any moment now they'll crack some great new thing, and it's gonna be bigger / faster / stronger than anything anyone has every done, "by orders of magnitude", but they never seem to have anything to report on that they actually cracked, and are ready to go with. Cybertruck is a meme by now. Semi, which was supposed to be shipped to the tune of 50K this year, looks like it will be lucky if it reaches 50. The revolution in batteries turned out to be a minor iterative improvement, if that. The way Elon is talking about self-driving is especially bewildering. He seems set on the idea of "photons in, controls out", and maybe I'm a simpleton, but I have no idea why you would kneecap your system by deliberately cutting it off from other sources of data. I'd literally have an easier time believing they're close to cracking it, if he completely glossed over the implementation. And as far as I can tell Optimus is a manually controlled puppet, that they can't find a practical use for, by their own admission.

If he actually delivered on any of this stuff, I'd probably be more cautious about criticizing the company, it wouldn't even have to live up to the hype, but it looks like the cycle for the company and it's supporters is "cusome product, get excited for new product", with the "consume product" bit crossed out. I think it's the hype that will do them in, and I don't think they can even pull off a "let's get back to the basics" and just make good cars anymore, because of the insane valuation their hype has gotten them. And again, they have actual competition now. Feel free to make the case that they make the best cars, but even if that's true, I don't think that's going to help them much, when other companies make good enough cars that are more affordable.

It won't be long now...

As always in Vibe Analysis, timing is tricky, but something's in the air. Between Tesla's top brass cashing out, and deciding this is a great moment to spend more time with their family, construction projects being halted, people getting fired, public opinion turning against Elon, and everything depending on a rabbit (possibly multiple rabbits) being pulled out of a hat, it feels like things are hanging on by a thread. If investors pull out, I don't think either of his companies has strong enough fundamentals to survive.

I would love to be proven wrong. If Elon delivers, all that happens to me is that I look a bit silly for shitposting on the Internet (and will also have to pay for some outstanding bets about Starship going to orbit), but on the plus side, I'll be driven around by robo-taxis, as I watch a livestream from the latest moon landing. If he doesn't, we're up for a massive collapse of wealth, call-off for our return to the moon, and the cratering of the credibility of the entire techno-libertarian memeplex.

The idea of in-group policing was commonly disputed on our site / subreddit, the idea being that no movement or subculture is a monolith, so you can't blame people for the excesses of their group. I happen to disagree, I think it's extremely important to call out the excesses of your in-group, so if you happen to be an Elon fan, please try taking a skeptical look at the guy's endeavors. If nothing else, if you conclude he still comes out on top after a more skeptical analysis, you'll get the chance to hone your arguments.

I don’t have time to detail everything I think you have wrong but re SpaceX one thing you leave out as a potential economic case is space mining. Could be insanely valuable.

Also most financial analysts value Starlink quite highly. Maybe you are missing something they are not.

The logistics of sending any kind of vehicle or probe to a specific asteroid in the asteroid belt for mining are so ludicrously expensive in terms of energy/momentum spend that the astrophysics community has largely treated space mining as a joke proposal for science fiction books since about the 60s - and that's before you get to the economics problems (there is virtually nothing in space worth mining and returning to Earth that couldn't be extracted more profitably on Earth in the first place). The case for space mining is a complete, unsalvageable disaster. "Short" version:

  • Getting places in space is convoluted to begin with, and all trips beyond Earth orbit require carefully calculated momentum assists from various heavenly bodies. The error on these calculations is pretty large relative to the size of most asteroids. It's infeasible to pre-plan a route so specific and so accurate that one could send a spacecraft to a specific asteroid in the asteroid belt once, let alone reliably at different times. The energy and time cost for any such trip would be enormous as well.
  • Long, energy-intensive trips necessitate bringing a lot with you. If an asteroid mining mission is crewed, you need food and water for many months, radiation shielding, a mechanism to avoid significant harm due to bone and muscle density losses, etc - space is extremely unfriendly, and long voyages are not desirable.
  • And these trips are one-way. You will need an implausibly vast store of resources and a powerful engine to make it back to Earth in any reasonable amount of time. It's barely possible today to bring enough fuel for a two-way trip in an extremely light craft to a much closer celestial body (the moon). You'd need a bunch of fuel-only pre-flights to stockpile the resources needed to get to one asteroid and back, and substantially more than that to impart enough momentum on mined asteroid fragments that they can be shipped anywhere useful.
  • Quick side note: you are NOT going to planets or planetary satellites for resource extraction. The gravity wells around planets make these almost-guaranteed to be one-way trips. I guess in principle it's not impossible to set up a planetary or satellite resource extraction operation, but it already takes civilization-scale logistics to get off of Earth - we'd be well into science fiction by the time you could practically mine planets or satellites of planets.
  • You get to your asteroid, and... It's mostly silicon, iron, nickel, and other crap you can dig up back on Earth for way, way cheaper. There might be some high-value exotic elements like Californium that are kinda valuable, but how do you find any?
  • You would need survey equipment, a bunch of which has to be entirely novel, since a lot of Earth-based survey techniques depend on liquid injection.
  • You also need digging tools. I am actually pretty confident you can build those from mostly raw materials available on most asteroids, and even do so economically. I am less confident about the thermodynamics and robustness of such equipment being good enough to extract meaningful quantities of anything out of any asteroids.
  • Now you need to do something with all the stuff you mined. Remember, there's virtually nothing you can profitably send back to Earth, and what you do find has such a limited market that your mission to one asteroid cost orders of magnitude more than the TAM for the material. There's maybe, maybe a plausible case to be made for antimatter, presuming we had a useful application for it by the time this whole mess is feasible - but I bet it would be cheaper to just invent a way to make and capture antimatter on Earth.
  • So basically, you can only really use the resources you find in space. And the farther you have to ship it, the more compelling it becomes to instead just send it one-way from Earth.
  • At this point it should be clear that you very much do not want to send people to mine asteroids. We could imagine instead sending autonomous mining probes...
  • Except now you have lots of new and interesting different problems, chiefly that mining stuff is not at all a straightforwardly automated task, and you'd need really powerful software consuming a lot of power to coordinate surveying, mining, and payload delivery autonomously (on top of the already large and heretofore unmentioned energy expenditure just to mine in the first place, and the payload delivery expenses). You'd very likely need fabrication facilities for the entire suite of things needed, including unimagined novel requirements discovered on-site, meaning solar panels, semiconductors and lithography equipment, forging and casting tools... All of which has virtually no heatsinking and an endless bath of radiation to contend with during manufacturing.
  • But suppose you actually got that insanely complex symphony of automation humming along. Great job, you can now... build more space robots, I guess. Whoopie. I suppose you could start working on even more stupid science fiction vanity projects like Dyson spheres or Matrioshka brains or whatever. If this was your plan all along, I am interested to learn how you managed to trick someone into funding the entire world's GDP a dozen times over into the first thousand steps of this plan.

I don't doubt that SpaceX will happily take the money of anyone foolish enough to ignore all of the above at their own expense and perform their services as advertised. But their business model does not depend on people with more money than common sense - their big moneymaker is, as others have noted, building a novel telecommunications network with broadband-like performance and selling it to the US government, using novel reusable rocket components that cost orders of magnitude less than the previous state-of-the-art and that can be launched quickly and regularly. I expect their next steps for profitability all revolve around expanding the use of this network to things like surveillance satellites, content providers, etc. I grant that they have some appetite for ridiculous vanity projects like the mars launch stuff, but this is ultimately a manageable marketing expense. But for anyone with some rudimentary literacy in the subject, it should be clear that space mining is not a sustainable business, and as a marketing stunt it is extremely boring (heh).

You get to your asteroid, and... It's mostly silicon, iron, nickel, and other crap you can dig up back on Earth for way, way cheaper. There might be some high-value exotic elements like Californium that are kinda valuable, but how do you find any?

Why would there be californium on asteroids? You might find some plutonium from interstellar dust (although Earth is again a better source of that), but there's no process that generates californium near enough to Sol that it would actually get here before it decayed.

There's maybe, maybe a plausible case to be made for antimatter, presuming we had a useful application for it by the time this whole mess is feasible - but I bet it would be cheaper to just invent a way to make and capture antimatter on Earth.

"On" Earth is plausibly not true, although "around Earth" definitely is. The most concentrated reservoir of antimatter in Sol System is Earth's Van Allen belts. Estimates I've seen are that you can't get the price below a billion a gram making it in particle accelerators due to inherent inefficiencies (currently it's more like trillions), while scoops in the Van Allen belts could conceivably do it for millions.

The elements that are most amenable to asteroidal extraction would be tellurium and the strongly-siderophile metals (Ru,Rh,Pd,Re,Os,Ir,Pt,Au), all of which are strongly-depleted in the crust due to tellurides and native metals (the primary forms of these elements) sinking into the core. Some of these are useful and as such humongously expensive. But, yes, there's the issue that you need to refine them on-site because of the delta-V needed for the return trip, and more generally the Space Bootstrapping Problem where a lot of space industries only make sense if there are other space industries to absorb their products.

A couple of mitigating factors I'll note:

  1. if you were to mine asteroids with people, you would not need radiation shielding for the time on the asteroid, because you could use the asteroid itself - digging deep on asteroids is pretty easy energetically. You still need the radiation-shielded craft to get there, though, which sucks.

  2. mass ratios look far nicer if you bite the bullet and start using nuclear. This sucks for takeoff from Earth because people will get apoplectic, but for things like a return mass driver or an orbital-transfer burn there's less of an issue there. This is getting into issues of "do you really think they're going to let Elon Musk buy a breeder reactor and reprocessing plant", though.

"Getting places in space is convoluted to begin with, and all trips beyond Earth orbit require carefully calculated momentum assists from various heavenly bodies. The error on these calculations is pretty large relative to the size of most asteroids. It's infeasible to pre-plan a route so specific and so accurate that one could send a spacecraft to a specific asteroid in the asteroid belt once, let alone reliably at different times. The energy and time cost for any such trip would be enormous as well."

I'm already lost on your first point. NASA has already done this. For both asteroid belt asteroids and near earth asteroids. If you don't swap your inches and centimeters then yes you can go to a specific asteroid. It is not too complex, we understand orbital mechanics.

There is no reason to mine in space while everything we need is much cheaper to obtain on earth. It’s unnecessary science fiction to build “industrial tech” settings that include asteroid mines and lunar helium farming or whatever.

There is no reason to mine in space while everything we need is much cheaper to obtain on earth.

This seems to presume that this state will persist into some unspecified eternity. Politics alone can make space mining plenty competitive. It's the same reason why "peak oil" predictions kept getting bodied.

There is no need to mine the new world when everything is much cheaper to obtain in Europe. Some have argued that most colonies actually did cost their home countries much more than they brought in, but one can't argue with the results. THE USA!

The new world actually did offer resources not available, or available only in very short supply, in Europe.

Same could be said for space. You can't find 6 trillion dollars worth of platinum laying around here anywhere!

And if there’s ever a demand for $6 trillion worth of platinum the same way as for sugar and tobacco, you’ll have a point.

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Just from the sheer energy inputs, space mining rockets will not compete with terrestrial dump trucks while there are any appreciable mineral reserves on earth. When industrial civilization reaches out for asteroids, it will be "resorting" to spice mining, not "advancing" to space mining.

There is also the matter of $5 trillion platinum asteroids and the like, but the price of such metals would crater if you tried to sell any appreciable amount.

Space mining may become advantageous if we have significant material demands in orbit.

THE SPICE MUST FLOW! It all depends on if how we value energy in the future. We are sitting next to a basically infinite supply of it.