Stephen Baker

The Boost
Long before Snowden: My time at the NSA
June 7, 2014Datamining


The secretive National Security Agency wanted some publicity, if you can believe it. This was in 2005. I was working on a  BusinessWeek cover story about the coming age of data, and the NSA put me in touch with the chief of its mathematics group, James R. Schatz.

In the age of growing data, Schatz told me, "There has never been a better time to be a mathematician." And that was precisely why he was on the phone. The market was hot for math. Wall Street was gobbling up mathematicians, and so were the Internet giants, like Google and Yahoo. The NSA was hard-pressed to compete for brainpower. In this race, the NSA was handicapped. It was limited to U.S. citizens, and while the banks and Web companies could offer stock and big salaries, the NSA could only offer government pay. Its pitch: Patriotism, interesting work, regular working hours, and a suburban life style near its base in Ft Meade, Md. 

I went on later to meet James Schatz in Ft. Meade while working on the Terrorism chapter for the book that grew out of the BusinessWeek story, The Numerati. (We met at the National Cryptologic Museum down the road from the black glass headquarters pictured above.) Anyway, I was thinking about his concerns when I saw the NYT story this morning on how the Internet giants are building defenses against the spies. Wonder who'll win that battle of brains.

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A presidential birthplace lost to China
June 5, 2014News


A Tiananmen Square anniversary post.

The scenario. Twenty-nine years from now, the Chinese offer their cognitive brain chips, or boosts, to the rest of humanity. This presents a no-win choice to the Americans, who have no similar technology in place. If the Chinese chips prevail, they will rule the next stage of technology, and all of the commerce and information that runs on it. But to take a pass on the chips might mean settling for relative Neanderthal status while the rest of humanity advances into Cro-Magnon. 

This is all history by the time of my story, in The Boost. But as a result of the negotiations that occur between the Americans and the Chinese, China extends its dominance across the Pacific, as the Americans did in the 20th century. And they take over Hawaii--the birthplace of President Obama. If you look at history, maps change, often dramatically. 

Far-fetched? 

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Kevin J. Anderson and religion in other worlds
June 4, 2014General


Kevin J. Anderson, the prolific sci-fi author, sat at a panel with me at Comicpalooza in Houston. We have the same publisher (Tor), but I've published one novel, he's on #125 at last count. He knows a thing or two. When someone in the audience asked him how he creates new worlds in his fiction, he had a ready answer, complete with an acronym: PERSIA.

P stands for politics. Who's in charge? How do they maintain control?
E = economics. Do they have money? What is valued and exchanged? What do the inhabitants do for work?
R is religion.
S is science. What do they know, and what can they do with this knowledge. It's related, naturally, to politics and economics.
I is the murkiest to me: Intelligentsia. Is there a group with special knowledge? Do they threaten the rulers, or do they run the place?
A is art. What do they create for beauty, and what does it say about their civilization?

I thought about these categories for The Boost. One that comes up nearly empty is religion. There's no talk of religious affiliation (though it could be argued that the brainwork to run the boost courses through neural pathways devoted in previous generations to prayer). Some of the characters, however, think about religion. At one point, Ellen looks from her window in El Paso toward Juarez, where the people lack cognitive chips (and are considered "wild"). 

"She wonders if wild people are more religious than everyone else. That would make sense, since they carry around more mystery in their lives--or at least fewer answers. They have almost no idea of what diseases they're most likely to get, or what food and medicine to take to avoid them. It's like a crap shoot. When you get down to it, they don't know that much more about their lives and their bodies than the cavemen did. Then again, even with all the advances from the boost, the applications that spot cancer cells and obliterate them with nano agents, the programs that stimulate neurons and reverse diseases like Parkinson's and MS--despite all that, people still die with chips in their heads. Death just comes a couple decades later, barely a blink in eternity. So religion shouldn't be that much less relevant, she thinks. The wild people just have more empty time to consider it."

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Hunger Games, Divergent or Fahrenheit 451?
June 3, 2014Marketing the book


It wasn't until after I'd written The Boost that I learned it was dystopian. I just thought it was a book about the future, both good and bad. Now I'm interested in catching up on this genre I participate in. I searched dystopian books on Google and found a few I'd read--and a bunch I haven't gotten to yet. I'd welcome recommendations.

Here's what I've read: 

1984, by George Orwell. Beautifully constructed book, pervaded by grimness and despair. Very few laughs. 
The Road, by Cormac McCarthy. Much like 1984, but post-apocalyptic. Love persists.
Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley. Read it in high school. Only remember the drugs.

Let's stop the charade. I'm nearly unread in this genre. I took Fahrenheit 451 out of the library, but didn't read it. I saw the movies of Never Let Me GoThe Children of Men and A Clockwork Orange. Which dystopian books should I read? Hunger GamesOryx and CrakeDivergent?

***
Incidentally, looking for the links to these books, I just came across the Amazon interview with Veronica Roth, of Divergent. She gives a nice piece of advice to writers:

"Want something else more than success. Success is a lovely thing, but your desire to say something, your worth, and your identity shouldn’t rely on it, because it’s not guaranteed and it’s not permanent and it’s not sufficient. So work hard, fall in love with the writing—the characters, the story, the words, the themes—and make sure that you are who you are regardless of your life circumstances. That way, when the good things come, they don’t warp you, and when the bad things hit you, you don’t fall apart."


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American dullards: What happens here when foreigners get brain implants?
May 31, 2014Marketing the book


A nation of dimwits?

The year 2043, in the world of The Boost... Early in the year, the Chinese moved to implant cognitive chips, or boosts, into their entire population, and they offered chips to all of humanity. Workers with chips were more productive, enhanced diplomats communicated wordlessly in negotiations, children with chips aced the standardized tests in minutes!. Still, Americans resisted Chinese chips, worrying about privacy and safety issues, and sovereignty--not to mention religion.

An outtake from the novel: 

In the end, a grassroots movement forced the government’s hand. Across the country, parents filed successful suits, pressing the Commerce Department for rights to import Chinese processors for their children. Overnight, normal students budded into prodigies. Within months, exclusive private schools around San Francisco and New York were demanding Chinese processors in the heads of incoming students. Tech companies entered into bidding wars for capped engineers from Asia. Thousands of “cognitive tourists” were traveling to Malaysia and Singapore and returning with startling powers. An enhanced elite was taking shape. It threatened to turn the wild majority of the country--which still included the government--into a vast underclass of dullards.


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Bush health care book hits NYT bestseller list
May 28, 2014General

The Boost isn't my only book out this month. The other one, a book I wrote with athenahealth's Jonathan Bush, just hit the New York Times Bestseller list. It's called Where Does it Hurt? An Entrepreneur's Guide to Fixing Health Care.  It feels great to be slotted in at number six, ahead of Mariano Rivera, and biting at Timothy Geithner's heels.


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Paul di Filippo reviews The Boost
May 21, 2014Marketing the book


I've trimmed a bit. The full review is in the Sci-Fi journal, Locus

...Reading The Boost, one discovers that Baker plainly knows all this and is intent on giving us a stefnal allegory about our contemporary madness. But that goal does not stand in the way of a rousing, idea-packed adventure story from this highly competent beginning novelist, whose CV as a tech writer for BusinessWeek has obviously prepped him well to speculate on cutting edge technology and its impact.

The year is 2072, and every single citizen who is not an outcast “wild” human has “the boost” in his or her head: a gadget no bigger than a fly’s wing, implanted in youth, that offers virtual reality, augmented reality, mind-to-mind communications, life-logging, auxiliary memory and general internet access. With free annual software upgrades! “Every year, some 430 million Americans wake up one day in the middle of March feeling different, smarter, snappier.”

But that upgrade is now the source of trouble. This year’s download contains a secret back door inserted by the Chinese engineers, Gate 318 Blue, allowing who-knows-what kinds of hacking. Learning of this, our hero, Ralf Alvare of the federal Upgrade Department, finds his life immediately overturned and in peril before he can even act. He’s kidnapped and his boost is surgically removed.

Escaping with the help of a mysterious Asian man, now a helpless “wild human” himself, he goes on the run, hooking up for assistance with sometime paramour Ellen (who happens to sport the fashionable “Artemis” somatype). They head to El Paso to meet with Ralf’s brother Simon, who might offer some solutions.

But on their trail, under the command of despotic, ninety-three-year-old billionaire John Vallinger, is the oversized hired killer named Oscar Espinoza. The trio of Ellen, Rafe and Simon eventually flee over the border, into Ciudad Juárez, where everyone is a wild human. There, they encounter the local crime kingpin, Don Paquito, whose old-fashioned illicit network—featuring an actual newspaper, of all antique things!—might just offer a solution to their problems and to the larger dilemma of the tainted upgrade.

Now, before we begin to look at Baker’s commentary on the nature of the boost—and by extension, our always-wired cell phone culture—let’s give him props for sheer storytelling. His tale is rendered in light, easy, smooth prose which walks the tragicomic tightrope brilliantly and deftly. There’s a definite Donald Westlake vibe to such elements as put-upon hit man Espinoza, who relishes becoming wild because it frees him from his overseer, Vallinger’s hireling, the virtual-porn entrepreneur George Smedley, allowing Espinoza to luxuriate in Mexico with lots of meals of delicious goat. Then there’s the intriguing love story between Ellen and Ralf; the surprising family dynamics of the Alvare clan; the lifestyle of being a beautiful Artemis woman; international realpolitik; and a host of other non-tech aspects of late-21st-century life.

But the most substantial aspect of this adventure is Baker’s dissection of what the boost does to baseline humans, who are deemed Neanderthals and essentially disabled compared to the boost users. Baker catalogs the dismaying shifts: people can be rudely having virtual sex while seeming to converse with you. They are content with eating tasteless protein pills and allowing the boost to fool their sensorium with artificial tastes. Eye-to-eye contact is painful. Ralf to Ellen: “It’s easier to manage memories of you…than to manage the relationship in real time.”

Perhaps the core speech occurs when older brother Simon and Ralf are talking about their different childhood experiences of the boost, echoing some of the same thoughts that Rudy Rucker has blogged about, concerning simulations versus nature.

Simon goes on to describe the generation gap that he still feels with his little brother. He and his friends grew up with their experiences grounded in the wild brain… “Then they come along and give us virtual apps that were just the crudest version of reality… When we were disappointed, they called us Luddites… But your generation was different… You accepted the virtual as real.”

And there’s the theme in a nutshell. Reality versus simulation, solipsism versus mutuality, dominance by constructs versus unmediated interactions. This is certainly one of the biggest issues of our time, explored here with sophistication and insight.

One final observation on this novel: Stephen Baker comes from outside the genre, but is as proficient, savvy and adept as any prozine-trained acolyte of Campbell. Like Ernest Cline with Ready Player One, Kenneth Calhoun with Black Moon, Jennifer Egan with A Visit from the Goon Squad, Gary Shteyngart with Super Sad True Love Story, and any number of other allied “mainstream” books, he proves that SF is now truly a universal language accessible to anyone anywhere who is willing to learn it.


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Sierra Blanca, TX


From The Boost

"The car speeds ahead, past crumbling clapboard houses and deserted strip malls, and under rusted and rickety bridges. There was a time, Ralf thinks, when society marked its progress on the physical landscape, building skyscapers, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Eiffel Tower, even simple and stately porched homes, like his grandparents’ place in Montclair. But in the last half century or so, most of the landmark projects have been virtual.... For most Americans, he thinks, progress is defined in software apps. The physical Oklahoma looks abandoned."

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Slideshow of an odyssey from El Paso to Big Bend
April 28, 2014General


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Why my characters race to El Paso
April 28, 2014General

One spring day a couple of years ago I started to write a novel. It featured a young man named Ralf. Recently, some bad and very violent people had opened up his head, right above the temple, and ripped out his cognitive chip, or “boost,” leaving Ralf “wild.” The future United States in this story is not a hospitable environment for the wild. They cannot exchange messages, nor can they look anything up or locate themselves on a map. They have no money, which is all virtual. Ralf, a software engineer, feels as if he’s suffered a lobotomy.


On the first page, I had Ralf on the run, with his girlfriend, Ellen. Where was I going to send them?


To El Paso. It was a no-brainer for me. Even though I lived in the border city for only 16 months in the mid-80s, El Paso is where my stories gravitate. The writer Linn Ullman makes the case that picking a place precedes a plot, and that each of us has a special place or two to tell a story: “In your life there a few places, or maybe only one place, where something has happened. And then there are other places, which are just places.”


I had just moved back from Venezuela and was looking for a newspaper job when I first visited El Paso. I figured I was ready for a big city paper, like Dallas, Miami, or Los Angeles, one that might send me back to Latin America. But I found a cheap Southwest flight to El Paso and flew out to spend a weekend with my roommate from Venezuela.



The view toward Juarez from my old neighborhood, Sunset Heights


He picked me up at the airport. The desert light was blinding. He pointed to the Franklin Mountains, which stretched into the downtown. Compared to the bright green mountains of Caracas, they looked to me like big piles of dirt. I wasn’t impressed. As we drove toward the city on I-10, he gestured beyond the oil refineries, to the purple mountains to our south. That was Mexico, he said. He took a few turns through the downtown, through the hurly burly of South El Paso, which felt like Mexico, and then across a bridge into Ciudad Juarez, which was real Mexico. We had a beer in the Kentucky Club, a throwback saloon with a polished mahogany bar. The place was growing on me.


I ended up with a job at the now defunct El Paso Herald-Post. We worked in a newsroom where the sun streamed in through the blinds, lighting up all the smoke. There were old guys (my current age) working there  who ambled off to city hall or the police station mid-morning, had a drink or two at lunch, and then spent the afternoon writing up eight or ten inches of news and trading jokes, some of them at the expense of coastal newcomers like me. I don’t think those guys ever went to Juarez.


I did much of my reporting, on both sides of the border, on bicycle. I could zip back and forth across the bridges without waiting in customs lines. And because the climate was so dry, I didn’t have to worry about showing up at interviews drenched in sweat. It was reduced to rings of salt. Sometimes I carried a huge walkie talkie in my back pocket.


Now there are lots of reasons El Paso was special for me. It was my first time living in the American West, and in the desert. I could buy my beer and hot sauce in Juarez, and eat dinner there. I enjoyed my colleagues at the paper. My eyes adjusted to the desert and the mountains, and found the colors. Most important, I met my future wife and stepson there.


But El Paso was also a weird place, an isolated outpost of the United States that shared a valley with Mexico. The border introduced conflict and often comical misunderstanding into almost every story.


When I was there, my colleague Terry Poppa was writing hard-hitting stories about a Mexican drug lord named Gilberto Ontiveros, known as El Greñas, or Mophead. One day a part-time photographer of ours was taking a picture of a hotel Ontiveros was building in Juarez. The photographer was abducted for a few hours, beaten, and sent back with a death threat for Poppa.


There was nothing comical about that. But when that death threat arrived, the editors of our paper started walking taller. They had found their mission: to defend freedom of expression and expose the hypocrisy in Mexico, where drug lords and crooked politicians were in evil cahoots. They had a case to make, of course, but they knew little about Mexico, and they filled their chest-thumping front-page editorials largely with cliches.


I twisted this incident around and used it as the dramatic lynchpin of my yet-to-be-published novel, Donkey Show.  The story features a bike-riding journalist (hmmm) who loves languages and wants to be a foreign correspondent--and is also a lazy reporter. He writes a story about a drug lord that’s filled with hearsay. (The man is said to have a harem, and tigers as house pets. He has a glass eye that he pops out and sometimes puts in people’s cocktails as a joke…) This story appears to earn the reporter a death threat, and we’re off and running. (This fictional reporter, incidentally, is the great grandfather of Ralf, the chip-less hero of The Boost.)


The title Donkey Show itself refers the kind of comical misunderstanding so common on the border. Back when I was reporting there, before recent drug wars scared tourists from Juarez, men would whisper, “Meester, you want see Donkey Show?” The first time I heard one of these guys, I thought he was saying something about “Don Quichotte,” which is what the French call Don Quixote. Why, I wondered, would this man telling me something so urgent about a translation of 17th century literature?


A donkey show, it turns out, involves the promise, using the word loosely, of a sex exhibit involving animals. These border entrepreneurs somehow manage to interest carousers in such a show. Then they lead them from bar to bar, selling them overpriced drinks (and getting kickbacks), telling them at every stop that the donkey show is coming up, just a little bit later. (The Mexican word for this is “ahorita.”)  Perhaps some tourists actually see a donkey show. Who am I to say they don’t? But most of them, I’ve been told, reach the end of  their nocturnal odyssey falling-down drunk and much poorer, and still waiting for the show. Like much of what passes for knowledge along the border, it’s shrouded in myth.  


I’ve lived in lots of special places, including Paris, Madrid, New York, Vermont, Washington DC, and Quito, Ecuador. Given a choice of my various addresses, I think most people would put El Paso toward the bottom of a wish list. And I’ve been wondering why my mind always wanders there. I've concluded that in addition to the border, the sunshine, the weirdness and great food, it has to do with a period of freedom in my life.


It was a time when I felt I could go anywhere. If journalism didn’t pay, English classes were a fallback, and in most places I could get by on less than $10,000 a year. El Paso, though, was the last stop of my solo career. Within two years, I was living in Mexico with my wife, kids, a dog, a serious job for a Fortune 500 company. It was what I wanted and wouldn’t trade it back for anything. But everytime you move forward, you leave something behind. It's easy for me to see now why I dream of those days of riding my bike across the border and falling in love.


This message on the Juarez mountain urges people to find truth in the Bible. One character in The Boost sees the same message in 2072 and wonders if the wild people in Juarez might be closer to the mystery of religion....

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Kirkus Reviews - https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/stephen-baker/the-boost/

LibraryJournal - Library Journal

Booklist Reviews - David Pitt

Locus - Paul di Filippo

read more reviews



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


My next book: IBM's Jeopardy mission
- March 22, 2010