Valley of the Gods: A Silicon Valley Story

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9781476778945: Valley of the Gods: A Silicon Valley Story
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In a riveting, hilarious account, reporter Alexandra Wolfe exposes a world that is not flat but bubbling—the men and women of Silicon Valley, whose hubris and ambition are changing the world.

Each year, young people from around the world go to Silicon Valley to hatch an idea, start a company, strike it rich, and become powerful and famous. In Valley of the Gods, Wolfe follows three of these upstarts who have “stopped out” of college and real life to live and work in Silicon Valley in the hopes of becoming the next Mark Zuckerberg or Elon Musk. No one has yet documented the battle for the brightest kids, kids whose goals are no less than making billions of dollars—and the fight they wage in turn to make it there. They embody an American cultural transformation: A move away from the East Coast hierarchy of Ivy Leagues and country clubs toward the startup life and a new social order.

Meet the billionaires who go to training clubs for thirty-minute “body slams” designed to fit in with the start-up schedule; attend parties where people devour peanut butter-and-jelly sushi rolls; and date and seduce in a romantic culture in which thick glasses, baggy jeans, and a t-shirt is the costume of any sex symbol (and where a jacket and tie symbolize mediocrity). Through Wolfe’s eyes, we discover how they date and marry, how they dress and live, how they plot and dream, and how they have created a business world and an economic order that has made us all devotees of them.

A blistering, brilliant, and hysterical examination of this new ruling class, Valley of the Gods presents tomorrow’s strange new normal where the only outward signs of tech success are laptops and ideas.

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About the Author:

Alexandra Wolfe is a staff reporter for The Wall Street Journal and writes the weekly column “Weekend Confidential.” After graduating from Duke University, she worked as a staff reporter for the New York Observer, The Wall Street Journal, and then Condé Nast Portfolio. As a freelancer, she wrote regular columns for Bloomberg Businessweek, features for Travel + Leisure and Departures, and has written cover stories for Vanity Fair and Town & Country. The Valley of the Gods is her first book. She lives in New York City.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Valley of the Gods

1



Asperger’s Chic

John Burnham wanted to mine asteroids. He had always been a little bit different. Instead of reading school textbooks or his summer reading list, he read Plato, Aristotle, and a modern-day “neoreactionary” thinker who goes by the pen name Mencius Moldbug. A self-declared libertarian and “self-directed learner,” motivated to study on his own, Burnham felt like he didn’t need teachers to tell him what to do. He was a terribly behaved student.

By the spring semester of his senior year of high school in 2011, John had been rejected or wait-listed from all ten colleges he applied to except the University of Massachusetts, just over ten miles away from where he lived in Newton, Massachusetts. He didn’t really care, though, since the idea of enduring another four years of dull lectures and drearier tests was less than appealing. It was a distraction from what he had always wanted to do, which was to go into space—and reap trillions of dollars from the valuable minerals that existed in asteroids.

Burnham wasn’t delusional. He knew what he was talking about. While most of his classmates read Tess of the d’Urbervilles and The Great Gatsby, he was researching nickel, cobalt, and platinum on S-type (silacaceous) asteroids. With bright blue eyes, blond hair, and a seemingly permanent smirk, he was popular with girls and distracted himself with brief high school flirtations, but John still had plenty of time for his loftier interests. As he procrastinated doing the homework assignments he found pointless, he scoured the Web, stumbling across bloggers whose ideas were at least more interesting than those of his current teachers.

His favorite was called Unqualified Reservations, written by the reactionary blogger Mencius Moldbug, whose real name is Curtis Yarvin. An engineer living in Silicon Valley, Yarvin described himself in his blog’s “About Me” section with the words “stubbornness and disrespect.” Burnham was hooked.

One night, when John was up reading Patri Friedman’s blog, he came upon a new posting announcing a call for applications to a fellowship called 20 Under 20. Sponsored by the Thiel Foundation, it offered twenty students under twenty years old $100,000 to drop out of school, forgo college for the duration of the fellowship, and start their own companies. Drop out of school? Burnham didn’t have to be convinced. He wasn’t sure what his mother and father, a Congregationalist minister and a financial investor, respectively, would think of the idea, but he was curious to find out more.

The Thiel Foundation turned out to be the charitable arm of an empire belonging to Peter Thiel, founder and chairman of the Founders Fund, a major Silicon Valley venture capital firm that had invested in companies such as Spotify, the music streaming subscription service, and the ride-sharing service Lyft. Burnham clicked from article to article: from the Forbes magazine piece that described Thiel’s chef and butler to the Fortune article calling him one of best investors in the country.

In 2011 Thiel was a youthful forty-three. He had just announced the fellowship in fall 2010 at a conference called TechCrunch Disrupt. The conference was sponsored by TechCrunch, a website dedicated to news and gossip about the valley, and also served as a tech company directory, listing founders, investors, and financing rounds. At first, Thiel’s announcement was a way to call attention to what he considered the waste of time and money spent on a college education. He also railed against the political correctness he thought universities propagated. By selecting a group of high school students who would otherwise have gone to four-year institutions to start life early, he hoped to prove that the college model was outdated. Burnham was already familiar with some of Thiel’s projects and often outlandish ideas. While he ran his hedge fund, Clarium, or funded Silicon Valley start-ups by day at the Founders Fund, Thiel also had a penchant for pursuing original causes, no matter how crazy they seemed.

One of these was the Seasteading Institute, a project to create a libertarian community at sea, where people could buy a man-made island and govern themselves. The head of the Seasteading Institute was a then thirty-four-year-old former Google engineer named Patri Friedman, grandson of the economist Milton Friedman. Patri’s ideas regularly popped up on Moldbug’s blog, and vice versa. Burnham often read Friedman’s libertarian musings, and when he saw the fellowship advertised on his site as well, the seventeen-year-old knew he had to apply.

The application asked questions such as “What do you believe that no one else does?” Burnham had a ready answer: just about everything. While on the surface he seemed like a typical high school senior, with a cheery demeanor and outgoing personality, it was as though he lived on another plane that hovered over everyone else his age. His mind was up in the sky.

As Burnham saw it, the application wasn’t only an entrée to Silicon Valley but also a way to reach a farther frontier: space. If anyone could help him get there, it was this Thiel character, with the big ideas, contrarian outlook, and a willingness to back crazy concepts. Winning the fellowship would present a way out of even more years of inculcation of an educational canon that had never made sense to him, as well as a chance to focus full-time on these bigger-picture problems that he would soon hear as a steady refrain throughout Silicon Valley as “changing the world.” John didn’t just want to be a Thiel Fellow. He needed to become one. Otherwise he was going to backpack around Europe instead.

In Silicon Valley, he thought, people might take seriously what his friends and teachers ridiculed back in Boston. There, they too might believe they could live on Mars someday. Out west, in the promised land, they wouldn’t look at him like he was crazy when he talked about the money that could be made from mining asteroids.

So he started writing his answers. Why did we need to go to space? “At the core of the Earth is the most unbelievable mother lode of heavy elements,” he explained. The problem was accessing them. “Dense elements have over the eons sunk into the depths of the Earth.” Burnham had long wanted to figure out a way to dredge up at least some of these. He didn’t understand why no one had done so already.

He thought more about that application’s first question. While most people didn’t think we urgently needed to get to space, most people also believed in a set of basic beliefs that he didn’t. Take democracy, for one. Why, he wondered, did everyone believe in it so blindly? Instead, John thought, democracy was really oligarchy: government by a select few. He’d borrowed this idea from Moldbug’s blog and then looked for the same concept in Plato. “Plato is magnificent,” he said matter-of-factly.

Some of his political views had been informed by reading about the history of the French Revolution and the writings of Edmund Burke, an Irish-born political thinker and member of the British Parliament in the eighteenth century. Burnham grappled with the idea of how monarchy and democracy are similar, about how they are both the rule of the many by the few.

He wondered why none of his friends asked the questions he did and why his teachers were always telling him his interruptions were bothersome. He didn’t think he was all that different from the people he read, only the people he met. Was he too influenced by these blogs, by the opinions of others? he wondered.

The next question was one that Burnham had been thinking about for as long as he could remember: “How would you change the world?”

· · · 

He had researched a number of asteroids. He didn’t understand why so many people had been against NASA’s spending more than $224 million on its unmanned mission to the asteroid Eros 433 in 1996, for example, when he felt certain that the platinum and gold floating up in that asteroid would be worth trillions. The spacecraft took four years to reach the solid space rock, then orbited it for another twelve months, gathering essential data.

Why hadn’t technology improved? Why couldn’t a payload of 487 kilograms of spacecraft, sensors, and electronics be stored on Eros 433 for less than hundreds of millions of dollars? he wondered. He had studied every aspect of Eros. The wind there was solar wind. The hill was shallow, and the wind as strong, so why couldn’t they use solar sails to move it? he asked.

Burnham figured the only expensive part would be getting up there. He had heard about Virgin Group founder Richard Branson’s space tourism company Virgin Galactic, but wasn’t particularly excited about it­—and that was before one of their spaceships crashed. He saw it as a vacation for only the wealthy. And the teenager had high hopes for SpaceX, a rocket company founded by Elon Musk, a friend of Thiel’s and a cofounder of PayPal, as well as Blue Origin, a space exploration company funded by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.

If the government wasn’t doing anything about it, at least these guys were, he figured. But what none of them was doing was developing a robot to mine the asteroids. Burnham wanted to make that happen. “I don’t think this should actually be terribly impossible,” he wrote on his Thiel fellow application. All the robot would have to do was dig.

Burnham figured that the robots would excavate the minerals and then bring them back to Earth to be processed. Eventually they could be processed in space, but he thought it should probably happen on Earth first even though some of the minerals might be destroyed in the process. He had already thought about how to get these chunks of rock from Earth’s orbit to its surface. Maybe foils, parachutes, or balloons could work, he mused. The chunks would have to be small enough to burn up in the atmosphere, and their orbit would have to degrade into the ocean. “I’d hate to cause another Tunguska event over a major city, or even a small town,” he said in his application. “Bad publicity.” He was referring to what happened over Siberia in 1908, when a large asteroid believed to weigh 220 million pounds and traveling 33,500 miles per hour disintegrated five miles up in the sky, setting off an explosion as powerful as the atomic bomb later dropped on Hiroshima, Japan—times 185.

Someone must have considered this idea already, Burnham thought to himself. Maybe at SpaceX? He wanted to meet whoever these people were and be part of this discovery, or perhaps it would be a race, if there were a lot of people working on it. “The first one there becomes the next Standard Oil,” he thought. “In any case, this is the easiest way that I can see to fulfill one of the dreams of the last fifty years of space exploration: to make space profitable.”

But to John, the most exciting part of space was the idea of a new frontier, or “the next frontier,” he said. “Space is big. I bet that it’s big enough so that if a group of people want to create a society that completely contravenes every legal and moral principle of the United States, they’ll be free to find a place to do it.” This place would be a new Plymouth, Massachusetts; or a new Jamestown, Virginia; or Salt Lake City or San Francisco. “Space allows for people to fulfill that primal urge to pioneer,” he wrote.

· · · 

When Burnham told his parents about his desire to apply to the Thiel Fellowship, they were supportive. They had long wondered what to do with their unconventional genius. They couldn’t reconcile the subjects and ideas that interested him—far more advanced than anyone else’s his age—with a known academic track.

Burnham’s parents thought it might be possible for him to learn something in college but that he’d likely learn more outside the system. His father, Stephen Burnham, told the New York Times, “I would say in four years there’s a big opportunity cost there if you could be out starting your career doing something that could change the world.”

John’s parents couldn’t get him excited about any age-­appropriate institution, and he didn’t want to leave his education to his online heroes, such as Friedman or Moldbug. Here was a fellowship run by a man with a real track record. Somehow it seemed to fit with their child’s uncanny musings and excite him. He could be the harbinger of a new kind of prodigy: the self-directed learner whose superior skill set demanded a new kind of plan not yet available on the ivy-covered East Coast track. The track of private school to boarding school to college wasn’t working, despite their son’s apparent brilliance. Here was a respectable option, at least.

A few months later, among Burnham’s rejection letters from college came an acceptance to the Thiel Fellowship’s final round. To him, it was the closest he’d come to getting to space. To the Burnhams, it was some kind of direction—the opposite of what they feared he’d find at the University of Massachusetts, where he would be even more bored than he was in high school.

Burnham had already been screened twice on the phone; first by his blogging hero Patri Friedman, who was helping Thiel organize the fellowship and choose the finalists. “We talked a fair bit about asteroid mining,” Burnham remembered excitedly. He then spoke with Danielle Strachman, the Thiel Foundation staffer in charge of providing a structure for what the fellows would do once they got to California.

By that point, both Burnham and his parents found the possibility of winning the fellowship even more selective than getting into an Ivy League institution. When they met the other finalists, most had been accepted to prestigious universities such as Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. They chose the fellowship instead. The list of finalists leaked out, making them suddenly objects of intense interest from media outlets around the country. As John said to the Times, “[The fellowship] is giving them that opportunity even though their personalities and characters don’t quite fit the academic mold.”

The final rounds took place in spring 2011 at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in San Francisco. To get to the subterranean conference room in the lower lobby of the behemoth building, parents and finalists walked aimlessly through the cavernous space, asking staffers to point them to the Thiel Foundation’s event. When they finally found the small room, they encountered Burnham and nearly forty other finalists who were nervously walking back and forth up and down a narrow hall outside the room where they would be giving brief presentations. They whispered in huddles outside, wondering who everyone was.

After a tense few minutes, they filed into the room to see Thiel himself standing up at a podium, and an audience of casually dressed San Francisco techies who would be their mentors, if they were selected. That March day marked the last round of the selection process. Following the candidates’ presentations, everyone attended a reception at Thiel’s house. Later, audience members would fill out forms ranking the fellows. A few weeks later, the top twenty would be picked.

· · · 

Thiel has an angular, expressive face, and a direct demeanor. That day, like most days, he wore tailored jeans, a polo shirt, and sneakers. He was used to public speaking, and did so in crisp, clear sentences, with no added emphasis on his many controversial points. He presented forgoing a college education as entirely logical.

He, like many of the...

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Book Description Hardcover. Condition: New. In a riveting, hilarious account, reporter Alexandra Wolfe exposes a world that is not flat but bubbling—the men and women of Silicon Valley, whose hubris and ambition are changing the world.Each year, young people from around the world go to Silicon Valley to hatch an idea, start a company, strike it rich, and become powerful and famous. InThe Valley of the Gods, Wolfe follows three of these upstarts who have "stopped out" of college and real life to live and work in Silicon Valley in the hopes of becoming the next Mark Zuckerberg or Elon Musk. No one has yet documented the battle for the brightest kids, kids whose goals are no less than making billions of dollars—and the fight they wage in turn to make it there. They embody an American cultural transformation: A move away from the East Coast hierarchy of Ivy Leagues and country clubs toward the startup life and a new social order.Meet the billionaires who go to training clubs for thirty-minute "body slams" designed to fit in with the start-up schedule; attend parties where people devour peanut butter-and-jelly sushi rolls; and date and seduce in a romantic culture in which thick glasses, baggy jeans, and a t-shirt is the costume of any sex symbol (and where a jacket and tie symbolize mediocrity). Through Wolfe’s eyes, we discover how they date and marry, how they dress and live, how they plot and dream, and how they have created a business world and an economic order that has made us all devotees of them.A blistering, brilliant, and hysterical examination of this new ruling class, The Valley of the Gods presents tomorrow’s strange new normal where the only outward signs of tech success are laptops and ideas. Seller Inventory # 5636359

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Book Description SIMON SCHUSTER, 2017. Hardback. Condition: New. Language: English . Brand New Book. In a riveting, hilarious account, reporter Alexandra Wolfe exposes a world that is not flat but bubbling--the men and women of Silicon Valley, whose hubris and ambition are changing the world. Each year, young people from around the world go to Silicon Valley to hatch an idea, start a company, strike it rich, and become powerful and famous. In Valley of the Gods, Wolfe follows three of these upstarts who have stopped out of college and real life to live and work in Silicon Valley in the hopes of becoming the next Mark Zuckerberg or Elon Musk. No one has yet documented the battle for the brightest kids, kids whose goals are no less than making billions of dollars--and the fight they wage in turn to make it there. They embody an American cultural transformation: A move away from the East Coast hierarchy of Ivy Leagues and country clubs toward the startup life and a new social order. Meet the billionaires who go to training clubs for thirty-minute body slams designed to fit in with the start-up schedule; attend parties where people devour peanut butter-and-jelly sushi rolls; and date and seduce in a romantic culture in which thick glasses, baggy jeans, and a t-shirt is the costume of any sex symbol (and where a jacket and tie symbolize mediocrity). Through Wolfe s eyes, we discover how they date and marry, how they dress and live, how they plot and dream, and how they have created a business world and an economic order that has made us all devotees of them. A blistering, brilliant, and hysterical examination of this new ruling class, Valley of the Gods presents tomorrow s strange new normal where the only outward signs of tech success are laptops and ideas. Seller Inventory # BZV9781476778945

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