Stephen Baker

The Numerati
Peter Copeland's journalistic voyage
October 15, 2019General


A young news reporter covers a dreadful fire in Chicago. His editor tells him to hunt down the chief, and find out how many trucks are there, and how the fire started. The chief, she says, will be wearing a white helmet. The reporter runs up to a man with white headgear and starts asking questions--before learning that he’s talking to the chaplain. 

That’s Peter Copeland at work, on his first assignment, back when reporters still called in their stories and editors, the phone propped between ear and shoulder, typed the words, and made carbon copies. Over the following decades, Copeland would cover the border, Mexico, the Pentagon, and report on wars in Central America, Africa and the Middle East. Along the way, he stayed true to the orders he heard from that editor in Chicago: Get the facts--including middle initials--and don’t let other stuff get in the way.

He has written an excellent memoir, Finding the News: Adventures of a Young Reporter. I should mention that Peter is a great friend of mine. He had worked at the El Paso Herald-Post before I got there, and when I moved to Mexico, for BusinessWeek, in 1987, Peter was Scripps-Howard's Mexico correspondent. I counted on him as my cultural, culinary and journalistic guide. He and his wife Maru had a home in Colonia Roma, which for me was the warmest and most welcoming spot in all of Mesoamerica. 

Now, back to the book. The fascinating tension in Peter’s memoir runs between his journalistic values--just the facts--and the confusion arising from the context surrounding those facts. Again and again, he finds himself in situations that he doesn’t at first understand. They’re foreign. And he has to make sense of them in order to find and describe the facts.

We see this from the get-go, when he is a foreigner to fire departments. Later, he’s a foreigner to Mexico. The place seems inscrutable. He learns Spanish, and yet Mexican sources hide their meaning under layers of hints and allusions. There’s a sense there that saying things clearly is not just simplistic, but also simple-minded, and even dangerous. Newspapers are puzzles and publish their stories in code. Peter is helped immensely in his assimilation by falling in love with Maru Montero, a dancer from Oaxaca. But that adds emotional complexity to the story he’s covering. He covers the deadly 1985 earthquake wondering the whole time where Maru is, and if she’s OK.

Later in his career, Peter finds himself covering another foreign and Byzantine culture: The Pentagon. Once again, he would have to stitch together a network of sources and interpreters, and use them to get to the facts and make sense of them.

Parts of this book seem to harken from a distant time. It’s not just the technology--the typewriters, telephones, telexes, and even newspapers--it’s the role of the journalist: the person we’re counting on to get the story. With the expansion of digital and social media, that reporter increasingly seems to be lost. Stories  pop up on the screen, and it’s often up to the consumers themselves to decide whether to believe them.

Great reporters, needless to say, are still doing brave work. But their reporting swims on screens with a lot of crap. And often, for political expediency, it’s dismissed. At the same time, the business model for reporting is disintegrating. This reduces to a whisper the “share of voice” for diligent reporting.

I read an early draft of Peter’s book. My sole contribution was to push for more lessons throughout the narrative. Digging out stories and telling them well is central to our democracy. Here’s hoping that Peter Copeland’s vivid experiences inform the coming generation of reporters.

 



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Spain: sidestepping the avalanche of Santiago pilgrims
October 12, 2019General


After a baptism in Manzanares El Real, north of Madrid

I've been going to Spain since I was 16. I try to go at least every other year, and take some kind of strenuous trip with my lifelong friend there. Back in 2011, we biked the last 200 miles on the pilgrimage "camino de Santiago." Since then, spurred by movies, books, and social media, throngs of new pilgrims have been making their way to Santiago. It's on millions of people's bucket list.

This is the scourge of Europe. It not really fair for me, as a tourist, to criticize everyone else for crowding into my idyll. But that's the long and short of it. The goal, increasingly, is to search out the spots that still feel like Spain, where people lead their normal lives. So on the first leg of my trip--10 days through the south with my wife--we avoided Granada and Cordoba, and instead went to Caceres and Cadiz. 

 



After a wedding in Caceres

After that trip, I went northwest with my Spanish friend, to Galicia. We hiked along a gorgeous coastal trail called "O Camino dos Faros," or the Lighthouse Way. People in these small fishing villages realized that they could turn the goat-herds trails along their coast into an attraction, one that would generate business for hotels, restaurants, and a handful of taxis. 

By the time we rolled in, in late September, traffic along the trail was sparse. Not that I'm complaining! In our first full day of hiking, we came across only two other parties, one German, the other Italian. 

 

 



Off the coast near Malpica

The maps of this northwest stretch of coast feature stars for every recorded shipwreck. There's a veritable constellation of them, and you can understand why when you walk high above the raging ocean slamming against the rocks. It's known as the Costa da Morte, Galician for Coast of Death. It's anyone's guess if if that brand sparks tourism.

Galicia, originally settled by Celts, feels a bit like Ireland, and has a similar climate. On day three of our hike the rains came, and according to our weather apps, they were going to stick around for a while. So we drove east, for sunnier weather. The nice thing about Spain is that you can go virtually anywhere, find beauty and eat and drink royally.

We toured the province of Ourense, and got lost in the woods near a town called Parada de Sil. Later we hiked around an ancient Roman gold mining operations, Las Medulas, whose denuded mountains look like imports from Utah or New Mexico.

 

 

 



Las Medulas

We eventually made our way to Leon, where we'd started our bike pilgrimage eight years earlier.



Cathedral Square in Leon


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Reporting in China
September 10, 2019Writing the book


A sidewalk sweeper in northern Shenzhen

When I flew to China last November, for book reporting, I still didn't know if I had any interviews, nor exactly where I was going to go. I decided to visit the new, high tech city of Shenzhen. It's just a (long) subway ride from Hong Kong, and the home city of tech giants including Huawei and TenCent. Then I figured I'd go to Guangzhou, the former Canton, just up the Pearl River from Shenzhen (an 18-minute bullet train ride). And I'd end up in Shanghai.

 

 



Taxi in Shenzhen

Shenzhen, said to be a fishing village into the 1980s,  has a shiny new downtown with lots of skyscrapers. But I stayed about 15 miles north of there, in older stretch of the city that reminded me a lot of working class neighborhoods in Mexico City. That curvy blue building (above) could easily be in Mexico's Colonia Roma or Cuauhtemoc.

I booked my Shenzhen hotel on Orbitz, and it turned out to be way north. I caught a city bus, and I had a blue dot on my phone map, where the hotel was supposed to be. The dot, it turned out, wasn't in quite the right place. So, with the help of some women in a furniture store, I flagged down one of the taxis (above). He wedged my suitcase in front of his feet. I climbed on the back, and we zipped to the hotel.

 



English school in Shenzhen

This school could also be in Mexico. I think some of the similarity is due to the sub-tropical climate, which feels to me like Mexico. And the buildings can be more bare-boned, because of the heat. 

In China, as in the other places I reporting for the book, including Dubai, Helsinki, LA, Detroit and Tampa, I avoiding renting a car, and used public transportation, and occasional ride shares. It was easy in China. The subways are great. Buses, as usual, take more time to figure out. 

I was tempted in Shanghai to ride a bike. Rideshares are all over the place. In fact, some seem to die and fade into the landscape. I didn't have a helmet, though, and didn't feel like braving the traffic.



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Guilty scooters, innocent cars
September 5, 2019News


Another NYTimes story on those pesky, disruptive and downright dangerous electric scooters. The Times ran a very similar story just two months ago, Scooter Madness, from Memphis. It’s a common theme.

In our upcoming book, Hop Skip Go, we discuss scooters in the Los Angeles chapter (Inching Toward Topanga Canyon). They can be a valuable last-mile component, supporting public transit. I was doing reporting in Santa Monica, where my co-author John Rossant now lives. Bird and Lime were new in town. And it was great to zip on scooters two miles to the Metro line, and catch the train downtown. I could move around in LA without renting a car.

The coverage in the Times is the technology equivalent of ethnocentrism. The writers happen to be looking at the world from the perspective of a motorist. So even though our cars soil the air and contribute massively to planet warning, even though we’ve molded the world to their every need, entire urban topographies in blacktop, and even though an estimated 1.35 million human beings die every year in auto accidents, it’s the scooters that are dangerous and intrusive.

Of course, people should ride and park the scooters responsibly, and wear helmets. And the scooters' corporate owners should work with cities, instead of bulling their way in markets. What's more, their business model isn't terribly eco-friendly. Their short lifecycles render the contraptions almost disposable. Also, a lot of energy is spent trucking them around town for refueling and deployment. 

But the far bigger problems in cities come from cars. We need fewer of them. Scooters can and should be part of the solution.


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Richard Florida saw the future...and liked our book
September 4, 2019Marketing the book


When I was covering Pittsburgh (and the steel industry) for BusinessWeek in the mid-90s, I dropped by Richard Florida, then an urban studies professor at Carnegie Mellon’s Heinz School. His research, at the time, focused on the future of the Rust Belt.

It was a pressing interest in Pittsburgh. While the city itself managed to transition from industry to health care and tech, the surrounding mill towns, places like Homestead and Wheeling and Youngstown, were in dire straits. Florida at the time, as I recall, was upbeat, and believed the vast region, with its great state universities, strong institutions, and crucial resources, including fresh water, could remake itself.

A few years later, in 2002, I was working in Paris, when Florida published his breakthrough best seller, The Rise of the Creative Class. The book has stayed with me through the years, because it laid out our future with eery precision. His argument was that the knowledge economy would take root in global hubs that would have a few things in common: Leading universities, openness to diversity, including races, ethnicities, and sexual orientation, along with great restaurants and lively art and music scenes. These special places would host a global elite, a borderless bunch that felt nearly as comfortable in Copenhagen or Hong Kong as in Palo Alto, Calif.

Florida called this elite the "High Bohemians." They included the coders and designers, software architects, financiers—in short, most of the people who have been thriving for the past two decades. Most have advanced degrees. They like places with high quality of life, including food and art, and good parks. And these features, increasingly, make each city even stronger, richer. It is this process that has pushed up rents in New York and San Francisco, LA and Austin to levels that drive people, literally, into the streets.

This was the coming divide that Florida pointed to. While the cities thrive, he predicted, the country (and world) faced the risk of leaving vast post-industrial populations far behind, feeling lost and, yes, angry.

Richard Florida saw all of this coming.

So… When it came to hunting for “blurbs” for our upcoming book—Hop Skip Go—How the Mobility Revolution is Transforming our Lives— John Rossant (my coauthor) and I agreed that Richard Florida would be among the very best to get (at least among those not named Ophra).

It’s such a pain to ask for blurbs. People are busy. And you’re saying, in effect, “Hey, could you spend a few hours reading this, and then give me a slice of your valuable brand?”

Nonetheless, we asked Florida, through our agent, Jim Levine. And he promptly said yes. Some blurbers need a little help, “remembering” parts of the book they found especially trenchant, sometimes even coming up with words to describe them.

But Richard Florida raced through the book, wrote that he liked it, and delivered a very nice blurb. I'm grateful. 

“The automobile era is giving way to a new form of networked mobility, driven by digital technology but involving everything from new forms of transportation and electric, driverless vehicle to bicycles and our two feet. In this engaging and important book, Rossant and Baker tell the eye-opening story of this mobility revolution and what it means for our society, our planet, and each and everyone one of us.”


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Iconoclysms: Shattered in Venice, Rome and Barcelona
July 5, 2019General

 

 

 



The painting above, Saint Dominic of Silos Enshrined as a Bishop, was painted by a Spaniard named Bertolome Bermejo in the 1470s. It was just two decades before Columbus’s first voyage to the Americas, the expulsion of Jews from Spain, and the Christian victory in Granada, the Moors’ last foothold in the Iberian Peninsula. 

My friend Tim Harris and I were studying in Spain in 1975-76, the year Franco died. We had an art history class that took us to the Prado once a week. Few visitors to the Prado paid much attention to the Gothic art of Bermejo. The masses were upstairs, crowded around the later masterpieces by Velazquez, El Greco and Goya. We’d eventually get there, of course. Everything in history is chonological, and we were still in the late middle ages. Still, it felt special to be exploring the museum’s hidden corners.

Tim and his wife, Tara Key, have turned the hidden corners of art and art history into a model for travel. While others have their bucket lists, and make sure they cross off all the must-sees, whether the Mona Lisa or Anghor Wat, Tim and Tara return to the same handful of cities again and again. They do research. They hunt for meaning.

Which brings me to Tim and Tara’s book, Iconoclysms. It’s a memoir, but also an exploration, of three artists and three cities. A pivotal moment occurs on an early trip to Venice, where they walk into a small museum and are startled to see a damaged painting by Antonello da Messina, a Renaissance master. It’s a Pieta, but looks like Christ’s face, and those of the angels surrounding him, have been wiped with Clorox, or maybe battery acid.

This opens a mystery. It appears to be a badly botched restoration. When did it happen? Were they happy with the result? Could they be? Did they try to fix it, perhaps making things worse? What exactly happens when you come very close to destroying a masterpiece?

Tim and Tara dig through old books and question experts. Questions arise. If it were possible to restore the faces, should it be done? Or is the painting, instead, what it has become? If you look at the emptiness where the faces used to be, it forces you to imagine them. In that sense, the painting has aged into modernism.



Pieta (detail), by Antonello da Messina 

If you look at the St. Dominic painting from Spain, and then the Pieta by Antonello, you can see that at least the part of Spain depicted by Bartolome Bermejo was still hewing to the Gothic model of medieval Europe, while some 1,000 miles away, Antonello was deep into the Renaissance. He'd even traveled to the Low Countries, and he may have been the one who introduced oil painting to the Italians. 

Later in the book, Tim and Tara are in Catalonia, learning everything they can about Josep Jujols, and artist/architect who collaborated with the more famous Antoni Gaudi. During the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), anti-clerical forces torched the interior of a church he had built, Sagrat Cor de Jesus. Looking at it afterwards, Jujols said that the fire had given it a tonality that would have taken centuries to develop.

Tim (Tara takes the photos) weaves this exploration into the time of their lives. They have loved ones dying. They’re living in Manhattan and 9/11 happens. They go to Venice, and later Roma and Barcelona, to take refuge, find something about the world and themselves, to find beauty, peel back our history, and to celebrate the chance we have to do these things. 


It’s a model not just for traveling, but for learning and living.



Tim and I, and his friend Choni, traveled to the western city of Caceres in the spring of 76. He took this picture of me with some of the locals who found us curious. Caceres is now a Unesco World Heritage Site, and locals no longer find foreigners the least bit exotic.


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Reporting in Dubai and Helsinki--and lost in Shenzhen
April 26, 2019Writing the book

I just sent in the the copyedited manuscript for a book I’m co-authoring. HarperCollins will be releasing it sometime this fall, and we’ll no doubt be adding updates, at least through the summer.

I’m not going to talk about the book here, but instead the places it carried me to. Dubai, Shanghai, Helsinki, Detroit, Palo Alto, LA again and again. I avoided renting cars. I waited for buses and subways, took some rideshares, and walked a ton. When you avoid cars, especially in America, you end up walking a lot.

I’d never been to Asia, I had long hoped that I’d get invited there to talk about the Numerati or Watson. Didn’t happen, but now I had my chance.

I didn’t have any interviews scheduled, and didn’t even know which city I’d be focusing on, when I lined up at the Chinese Consulate in New York for a visa. To get the visa, I had to show hotel reservations for every night, so I booked Shenzhen and Guangzhou, both in the south. I figured I could change them if I ended up going north, to Shanghai or Beijing. And I bought a plane ticket. (LA to Hong Kong on Hong Kong Airline for $575 roundtrip. I paid another $100 for more legroom.

So after CoMotion, the mobility conference in Los Angeles, I flew off to Hong Kong—and without any scheduled interviews. What I had was a woman in Shanghai who had assured me, verbally, that she would help set up interviews.

I still hadn’t heard from her when I traveled (mostly by subway) from Hong Kong to the southern city of Shenzhen. It used to be a fishing village, or so they say, and now it’s a sprawling megapolis of 25 million people. It’s the home city of Tencent, and Internet giant, and is regarded as China’s Silicon Valley.

It turned out that the hotel I’d chosen on Orbitz when I applied for the visa was way the hell north. I came out of the subway, and found myself, in the blazing sunshine, near a bus stop. I didn’t know where I was, only that my blue blinking dot was a long way south from the Hotel.

I looked around for information about which bus to catch. It was all in Chinese. And when I asked a very friendly woman if she could help, she agreed to, even though I couldn’t understand a thing she was saying. She had my phone, and was conferring with her friend about how to get to the hotel.

It was at that point, when I felt like I was traveling. Communication was difficult. In the west, this almost never happens to me. I speak some languages, but can also speak a lot of English, especially in Europe, where it’s the lingua franca. Even if I were somewhere in the distant country, where people only spoke Swedish or Dutch, those languages are cousins.

But Chinese was foreign. And for three extremely strange days, I wandered around Shenzhen, exploring this fast-growing nook of a vast country, and still not interviewing anyone. I ate in restaurants that had pictures on their menus, because the words meant nothing.

Some photos

 

 



A storefront in Shanghai



Dancers in a park in Shanghai



Some rambling old places like this green one in Shenzhen. 


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Brain-squinting: How to operate a cognitive implant
February 14, 2018Marketing the book


This is an excerpt from Dark Site: Boost Trilogy--Alissa's Story. In the scene, Alissa, a 16-year-old from Washington DC, has just gotten a cognitive implant in her brain. It's a powerful networked computer, though only the size of a fly's wing. But she needs help learning how to operate it...

 

A therapist came in. Noli. She was Japanese and extremely nice, though she treated me like a baby. First, she told me how lucky I am to have blue eyes and blond hair. Then she lifted up my hand and patted it for a while, the way I do when our poodle, Gilda, puts her paw in my lap.

Noli taught me a lot about how to operate the Boost.

“Look at a space behind your eyeballs,” she said. I tried. It took a while, but eventually I could make out a dark screen. A black dot seemed to float in the middle of it. She told me to concentrate on that dot, and to move it up and down with my thoughts, and to one side or the other. I did, and it moved.

“Now squint with your brain,” Noli said.

I didn’t want to be rude to her, because English wasn’t her native language. But I explained that we squint with our eyes, not our brain.

She insisted. I should stare at the dot and try squinting with my brain. So I tried to give it a contraction. The dot seemed to jump in place.

That was a click, Noli said. By steering that dot with my mind and brain-squinting on it, I would navigate entire worlds with my new chip, she said. For starters, she had me follow the dot down what looked like a corridor of applications. She told me to stop at one called Life Diary. I did, and with more clicks, I filled out a little menu and clicked OK.

What did that accomplish? I asked.

She told me that from that moment, every minute of my life for the next 20 years would be recorded. Everything I saw, every conversation, every meal I ate, it would all be there. (In fact, I’m looking at that conversation right now. It’s easy to find, because it’s at the very beginning of my records. Noli has my hand in hers and is explaining that it’s hard to find certain scenes. She says that search is “a work in progress.”)

I asked her about words. How was I going to send messages with my thoughts? She told me to be patient. The Boost needed some time to link up words with what they mean to me. She said it was a “learning algorithm” and I laughed, because she had a cute way of pronouncing her Ls.

As she left, Noli told me not to obsess over the Boost, just to forget about it. It would adapt to my brain, she said.

“You can’t turn it on by thinking,” she said. “It just happens.”


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Dark Site: The Boost Trilogy--Alissa's Story
February 9, 2018Marketing the book


Dark Site, my new novel, is for sale at Amazon's Kindle store. Price $2.99.

The year is 2043. It’s as close to today as we are to 1993. Pods roam the streets of Washington, and black drones circulate above. Sometimes they swoop down, wrap their metallic arms around their targets, and carry people away, high above the Virginia exurbs. The drones slowly shrink into dots, eventually disappearing into the southern skies.

These drones are usually taking people to Dark Sites. Alissa doesn't think about it too much until her friend is carried away. Then Alissa, a high school senior, does some research. Her conclusion:

“It used to be that we had prisons, and if you were a criminal, that’s where you went. Everyone else was free (at least once we were done with slavery). A Dark Site is sort of a middle ground. You don’t have to be a criminal to go there, but you’ve probably done something wrong. Or maybe they think you’re going to do something wrong. So they hold you there. And if they think you’re dangerous, it could be forever.”

Alissa lives with her father in small apartment on Columbia Road, in Adams Morgan. He doesn’t know it, but Alissa’s billionaire grandfather had her spirited off to Jakarta a few months earlier, and she returned with a tiny chip, barely the size of a bee’s wing, implanted over her right temple. It’s a Chinese cognitive chip, a Boost. She’s the only kid in Washington with one, and it’s a secret.

Boosts are the global rage. The Chinese have implanted their entire population, and productivity is soaring. It’s like they’ve taken an evolutionary step forward. And the US is under enormous pressure to match them. But naturally, some people resist the idea. The more vocal ones, including Alissa's friend, Javier, are ending up in Dark Sites.

Here I’m going to stop telling the story, and instead ask a question. If the new brain chips give the Chinese a cognitive boost, and if the United States is preparing its own chips for a national rollout, when exactly should the president get his or her implant? Should the president be first? It wouldn’t make sense, after all, for the rest of us to get these powerful processors in our heads, and for the president to remain “wild.” That would be silly.

I should add a word about the Shotgun app. It's one of the outstanding, almost magical features of the Boost. In Shotgun, one person rides on other person’s chip, and experiences the world through that person’s eyes and ears (or virtual versions of them). It’s through this Shotgun app that Alissa finds herself in the White House. The story rolls from there.


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The Eagles, the Phillies, and JFK
February 4, 2018General


                                              Tommy McDonald in action

 

On Super Sunday, a trip back to the roots of my Philadelphia Eagle fandom…

In November of 1963, I turned eight. My father promised to take me to Franklin Field, in Philadelphia, for my first Eagles game. My two favorite players for the Eagles were a scrawny wide receiver named Tommy McDonald (5-9, 175 pounds) and a running back named Timmy Brown (who would later play Spearchucker Jones in the movie Mash). The quarterback was Sonny Jurgensen, who months later would be traded to the Redskins.

Two days before the game, President Kennedy was assassinated. In one of his most controversial decisions as commissioner of the the NFL, Pete Rozelle, decided not to cancel the games, insisting that football was “Kennedy’s game.” Philadelphia Mayor James Tate tried to get a court to stop the game. But he failed. A famous Philadelphia sportswriter, Sandy Grady, wrote, “I am ashamed of this fatuous dreamland.”

My father was disgusted by Rozelle’s decision, and refused to take me to the game. (Tommy McDonald, according to a Sports Illustrated story, couldn't stop crying the whole game.) Since the season was already drawing to a close, he told me we’d go the next season.

That would be 1964, my first big year as a Phillies fan. Behind Jim Bunning, Johnny Callison and Richie Allen, the rookie of the year, the Phillies held onto first place almost the entire season. In September, my father bought World Series tickets. But the Phillies suffered an epic collapse. Ahead by 6.5 games with only 12 games left, they spiraled into a 10-game losing streak. (And if you’re wondering as you watch the Superbowl why Philadelphia fans seem to have such a chip on our collective shoulder, that collapse is seared into our memory, even of those born long after ‘64.



                                           (I still have that yearbook somewhere...)

The last day of the 1964 baseball season, the St. Louis Cardinals had the passed the Phillies in the standings. But if the hapless Mets could beat the Cardinals, the Phillies would pull into a tie. There was still hope.

On that October 4, I was at Franklin Field with my father. It was my delayed birthday present. The Eagles were beating the Steelers. Every few minutes, they would announce on the PA system the score from Busch Stadium in St. Louis. The Cards were clobbering the Mets. All I remember from that football game is the death of the baseball season.

On that somber note, bridging the ‘63 Kennedy assassination with the ‘64 Phillies collapse, I look forward to watching the Eagles in the Superbowl tonight.


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Prequel to The Boost: Dark Site
- December 3, 2014


The Boost: an excerpt
- April 15, 2014


My horrible Superbowl weekend, in perspective
- February 3, 2014


My coming novel: Boosting human cognition
- May 30, 2013


Why Nate Silver is never wrong
- November 8, 2012


The psychology behind bankers' hatred for Obama
- September 10, 2012


"Corporations are People": an op-ed
- August 16, 2011


Wall Street Journal excerpt: Final Jeopardy
- February 4, 2011


Why IBM's Watson is Smarter than Google
- January 9, 2011


Rethinking books
- October 3, 2010


The coming privacy boom
- August 17, 2010


The appeal of virtual
- May 18, 2010