I’ve never worked for a newspaper, but if I did this is approximately the article I would have written concerning the children recently freed from the Tham Luang cave in Thailand.
Saman Gunan, a Thai Navy Seal, dove into a sea of ink, swam through approximately 2.5 miles of unfamiliar darkness, wrestled himself and his oxygen tank through cold underwater channels barely bigger than his own body, while fighting a swift current, to save children who were not his own and that he did not know. He died on July 6th, 2018, swimming in a dark underwater labyrinth that he was in no way obligated to traverse, while laying the groundwork for other divers to successfully rescue 12 children and their adult coach who had become trapped in a cave in Thailand when it flooded.
He is survived by his widow.
No statue could hope to capture his spirit, no song could give note to his courage, no tribute made by human artifice could be adequate to his heroic sacrifice.
The rescue operation was completed on July 10th, 2018 thanks to the work of a remaining team of Thai Navy Seals, and several British volunteers. Against impossible odds, their actions saved all thirteen lives at risk. The survivors were taken to a local hospital for examination and will be closely monitored for any ill effects.
Thailand has no shortage of heroes today.
Elon Musk, CEO of Space X and Tesla, attempted to provide assistance via manufacturing a child-size submersible. He coordinated with divers at the sight, and leveraged his social media accounts for rapid feedback on his prototype. Conditions at the cave altered such that the submersible, designed and delivered in only a few days from the United States, became unnecessary. Due to an unexpected abatement in rainfall, and higher than anticipated efficacy from pumps in reducing the flood levels, extracting the survivors became easier than had earlier been feared making the submersible unnecessary.
I waited to write this until I knew that all the children would live, because other than the tragic loss of Saman Gunan, that was obviously going to be the most important part of this story. Since all the children made it out alive, to my way of thinking, that means all news articles about the incident from here on out should basically give minor updates and do nothing but praise Saman Gunan and the rest of the dive team. I saw some videos of what is involved in swimming in a dark cave, and watching that on my computer screen is as close as I desire to come to that experience.
There’s another lesson here, though, that I think needs to be learned for the sake of future incidents. I don’t think it’s going to make it into a news article, either. I regret that I’m probably going to spend more words talking about that than the heroism of Saman Gunan. What I have to say is about how a culture responds to people putting forth genuine effort to assist, and the ways in which that can be very bad or very good. And unfortunately, the way it can also be very dangerous.
During this incident, on twitter, someone reached out to Elon Musk and asked if he’d be able to help. He initially responded that he imagined the Thai government had the matter well in-hand, but that he’d be happy to look into it. To give some context, if you don’t know who Elon Musk is, he’s a guy that’s basically done two impossible things (to date):
1. He founded a company called SpaceX, and led the design team that built the world’s first reusable orbital rocket. No other entity on Earth, including entire governments, has ever done that.
2. Concurrently with the first, he founded a company called Tesla that produced the world’s first mass market electric car. That was more of a logistical and marketing challenge, but he succeeded.
Lately, he’s been getting a lot of flack. So far as I can tell, the inflection point happened when he launched his Tesla Model S into space. People felt this was wasteful, because only a very few news articles about the launch bothered to mention the fact that the rocket was expected to explode so it would have been irresponsible to put an expensive payload on board. So Musk decided to do something that would excite people about space, although unfortunately even people who should know better seem not to have taken it that way. For context, test payloads are usually a big chunk of concrete so this was a bit more fun.
The entire purpose of SpaceX is to dramatically increase human access to space, so Musk is very passionate about the subject. He’s even likely to beat NASA to Mars. Although this is an approximation, to give you a sense of how good SpaceX has been at that goal (the whole team deserves credit of course, and Musk acknowledges this), it used to cost something over $400 million to launch a rocket. SpaceX can do it for $60 million and that number is expected to go down in the future.
There’s a whole other list of stuff he’s done, but suffice it to say this: If you want something built quick, that nobody has ever built before, Elon Musk has the engineering talent to get that done for you probably as quickly as humanly possible. He also served as his own lead rocket designer when the company was starting out, because no one reputable believed in his company. He learned to do that from books. The dude is firing on all cylinders.
Have you ever built something?
And tried to get it to work?
Back to the cave now, and I’ll try to pick up the pace. Thanks for sticking with me.
Earlier this week, it was thought that due to the heavy rains and the flood levels in the cave, that it might not be possible to extract the children for several months. In Thailand it is not common for children to know how to swim, and that was true of the children trapped in the cave. The children had also been there for several days and weren’t in the best of health. It took trained divers several hours to get from the cave entrance to the children. The water was cold, there was a swift current, and again the trip had already ended the life of a trained Thai Navy Seal. It didn’t seem realistic that you’d be able to get children out of there in those conditions.
So, this being the case, Elon Musk and his team figured they could make a submersible. The child would crawl inside, the divers would do the hard part and maneuver the submersible around like they do with their oxygen tanks, and maybe what looked like it would take months could be done in a few days and protect the children from harm. Musk engaged his engineering team, got feedback from the divers about how big the submersible needed to be, and they executed the design in a few days.
During that time, the rains unexpectedly stopped. From my research, that is not common in Thailand this time of year. It was pure dumb luck. This enabled the pumps the teams were using at the cave to lower the flood levels and make the trip much safer. Instead of having to keep the children submerged for the entire trip, they’d be able to keep them above water for most of the journey.
Because manufacturing a prototype submersible isn’t easy, and because it’s a seventeen hour flight from California to Thailand, by the time Elon Musk got there with his submersible the children were already okay.
And the internet lost its goddamn mind.
Lots of people said Elon Musk should mind his own business. Lots of people said he was doing the whole thing for publicity. Lots of people just objected to him in general, because somehow some people on twitter are still actual Communists in the year 2018 (seriously?!?!? look up the death toll on that sometime), or because they don’t understand how economics works, or that money isn’t the same thing as wealth, or that billionaires don’t literally have a billion dollars in cash laying around somewhere.
I’ll be honest, I’m an abashed Elon Musk fan. But you know? I’ll extend an olive branch. I kinda get the backlash. Elon Musk is the real life Hermione Granger. He’s just super into his books, probably a little bit on the spectrum, and when you’re super frustrated with your own life you really don’t want someone leaning over and saying “It’s Levio-SUH” no matter what their intentions. It’s super goddamn frustrating.
Plus, even though it isn’t really his fault because he doesn’t write the articles, and even though he objects to a lot of inaccurate reporting, the fact that he’s in the news all the time being talked about makes him kind of in your face.
The most creative thing I do every month is making up some new excuse to tell my HOA about why my lawn hasn’t been mowed yet, and it can be difficult in those times to think that some other guy out there has the energy to be CEO of two giant companies at the same time I’m struggling to type up an email that says I was out of town unexpectedly and can’t mow my lawn. Again.
We tend to nitpick at people like that, and we tell ourselves because they’re way up there and we’re down here, that it’s okay because we’re not hurting them. So you say a bunch of stuff about unions in his factories, that isn’t even really true because that same union betrayed all those workers a few years earlier, so all the workers at that factory hate that union. And you say stuff about safety and quality on his super cheap electric car that will probably be self-driving soon, because well… honestly on that one I’m going to have put on my tinfoil hat and say Big Oil and the major car companies might be behind a few of those articles. We all have people in our lives and society that we don’t have to see every day who fill that “indicator of badness” purpose for us. I’ll leave you with your goodwill and good intentions. You’re probably a good person. I’ll even allow that it usually doesn’t matter when you need to blow off steam.
Except there’s a fly in that ointment.
What happens when:
1. You have a massive reach.
2. It really is “Levio-SUH.”
3. The fact that it’s “Levio-SUH” is a matter of life and death
4. Nobody can see the future (a pretty safe bet)
Let’s replay the exact same scenario, except this time the rains don’t stop. The cave floods. It gets very cold. Before long, the trip back and forth will become too dangerous even for the expert divers. The window in which the divers can act becomes very short. The carbon dioxide levels in the cave start to get high. The other team that was going to make a submersible isn’t even done with the design. The whole world knew there wasn’t much of a chance anyway except…
Nobody does anything.
The facts on the ground are not altered. Outside forces do not come into play. Twelve children and their coach just die. A few more divers die trying to rescue them, too, because it’s a pretty hard thing to be able to put your hand on kid and accept the fact you can’t save them. I’m too lazy to mow my lawn every week, and I’m scared to death of tight spaces, but I think I’d still have to try if I’d seen a kid look at me for help and I was his only way out.
That’s a tight story, beginning middle and end.
That story doesn’t have some slightly autistic but brilliant billionaire arriving in a deus ex machina to throw a wrench in the gears.
We like stories that makes sense. In real life, billionaires don’t appear out of nowhere and solve your problems. That only happens in Karate Kid II, and that was the worst movie of that franchise. What was he doing there? Didn’t he have something better to do? Why was he so interested in Cobra Kai? Wasn’t his company wondering where he was the whole time? That isn’t real life.
We all know how real life is supposed to go:
What else could you do? You can’t be blamed. It’s not your fault. If you should have done something, well, no one told you it was your responsibility or approved of what you should have done. It wasn’t up to you. If you had gone there and tried something, you might have failed and that would have been embarrassing, especially because no one gave you permission to fail. Yeah, you might have succeeded, but probably not, and if you did go and risked failure then it would have to feel real. It wouldn’t be imaginary anymore. You’d really fail and it would really hurt.
You’d have to stick your neck out there, when no one told you to… but here’s the secret:
Nobody is in perfect authority. Nobody has the perfect answer. Everyone is trying their best. It’s all people deciding for themselves what’s right. It was always up to you all along. You might be right.
It kind of makes me sick to see all those people laugh at Elon Musk on twitter. Oh, I imagine Elon Musk will be fine. He’s got rockets and electric cards to work on, but it still feels like kind of a dick move to tell anyone, no matter how powerful they are, that they were trying to use the lives of children for publicity. That would hurt my feelings. Again, I imagine he’ll be fine. But that’s an ugly, cynical culture to promote.
What worries me is that someone, somewhere, might have an idea about something that really matters, and they’ll think:
When Elon Musk tried to save those kids they accused him of arrogance, and he’s a billionaire who founded two amazing companies. Everyone called him stupid and he’s got rockets better than NASA. They said it wasn’t his business, but his business is making prototypes. What am I supposed to do? I’m just some nobody. I better not do anything. Nobody will even know I had an idea if I shut up about it.
That’s a terrible lesson. That’s an evil thought to put in someone’s head, even if they’re a billionaire. And we should hope for a better future than that. We should demand a better culture than that.
Whenever there’s something terrible going on, I’d like to live in a world where everyone shows up with their absolute best ideas, and we choose the ones that are most likely to work. I want people to be vulnerable and show their earnest thoughts. I’d like to live in a world where the people whose ideas didn’t work out can go home with their chins high, because at least they tried and they weren’t some coward who stayed home because they were afraid people would mock them. I think that’s much a better world, and I think that’s the society we should strive for.
Saman Gunan is a hero, whose name I am barely worthy to type.
The laurels go to the dive team, and the survivors for keeping their wits about them. They’re the ones who deserve the credit for this one.
It’s not really Elon Musk’s fault that the news portrays things in a certain way and mentions his name all the time, even when it annoys you.
But also, thanks Elon and your team for showing up and trying. It took guts.