Stephen Baker

I went to the last Pirates play-off game...until tonight
October 1, 2013General

In 1992, we had just moved from Mexico to Pittsburgh, where I would be covering steel and other heavy industries for BusinessWeek. That October, 21 years ago, the Pirates were in the play-offs, and on Oct. 11, I drove with my 12-year-old son from our house in Mt. Lebanon to Three Rivers Stadium. It didn't seem like a particularly auspicious game. The Pirates were one game away from elimination. If they lost, and it looked like they would, it might be years before they got into the play-offs again. Their best player, Barry Bonds, was sure to sign for big dollars elsewhere. Their pitching ace, Doug Drabek, was also on his way out.





That was the last play-off game in Pittsburgh, until tonight. The Pirates won that game, incidentally, behind Bob Walk (who was the game one winner for the Phillies in the 1980 World Series). The next day the PIrates' young knuckleballer, Tim Wakefield, won in Atlanta. The following evening they were one out from going to the World Series when a single by an obscure outfielder named Francisco Cabrera drove in the tying and winning runs for the Braves.

I've just been thinking about the changes in the 21 years since that game.

* Barry Bonds, who was slender and fast that night in Pittsburgh, grew into a Ruthian body several years later, broke the home run record, and lives a life tarnished by the steroids scandal.

* My team, the Phillies, went from the cellar in '92 to the World Series the following year. Then they stank again for about a decade, then got very good, won a World Series, and now stink again. (They appear to run on faster cycles than the Pirates.)

* BusinessWeek lost interest in steel and other heavy industry. I turned to tech. They sent me to Paris and brought me back to New York four years later. In 2009, the magazine collapsed and was sold to Bloomberg.

* My son Aidan, who's never been a big baseball fan, was just starting that year in Mt. Lebanon schools. For the next six years, he did as little school work as possible. He changed, though, and will be returning to the Burgh in a couple months to be a professor at Pitt.

* Go Bucs! 



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If you buy a baseball bat in the UK, should the police be alerted?
September 27, 2013Datamining

If you buy a baseball bat in the United States, you're also likely to be in the market for balls and, perhaps, a glove. If you are buying a bat in the UK, one of the most common items is a balaclava. Amazon even offers them as a package (though without a discount).


This data comes from Amazon.co.uk, the company's British Web site. The conclusion doesn't come from hooligans or prejudiced merchants. It is just the data talking: People who buy bats in the UK are also likely to buy masks. They also buy garden choppers, which in other cultures are known as machetes.


Based on this evidence, I would bet that the average customer for a baseball bat in the UK wouldn't know much about drag bunting, much less the infield fly rule. 

This raises important questions about correlation. Would police be justified in creating a registry of baseball bat buyers in the UK? If not, how many UK citizens would favor it? Think about it. Ninety-nine percent of us, with many nines after the decimal, would never dream of bombing an airplane, especially one we're riding in. And yet we're all treated as potential terrorists at the airport. And even to utter a joke at airport security is considered a pretty serious offense. And here the Brits could conceivably come up with a list of people who are likely to buy baseball bats, machetes and masks. Amazon has their names. Are they asking for them? Should they?

You could argue, of course, that the situation is more serious in the United States, where millions of people buy killing weapons and have a Constitutional right to do so. But the sample in the US is so large, and it includes a vast majority of people who buy them to defend themselves, to hunt, to go to target ranges. Millions of Americans believe that their guns defend them from violent people (which is one reason it's so hard to pass gun-control legislation). But is the same true of those who buy bats, masks and machetes in the UK?

As a special bonus, I'm hunted down the lyrics to Balaclava, by the Arctic Monkeys. (YouTube) They don't mention a baseball bat, but you can picture it as part of the violent mix:

Running off over next doors garden

Before the hour is done

It's more a question of feeling

Than it is a question of fun

The confidence is the balaclava

I'm sure you'll baffle 'em good

With the ending wreak of salty cheeks

And runny makeup alone


Oh, will blood run down the face

Of a boy bewildered and scorned

And you'll find yourself in a skirmish

Where you wish you'd never been born

You tie yourself to the tracks

And there isn't no going back

And it's wrong, wrong, wrong

But we'll do it anyway 'cause we love a bit of trouble


Are you pulling her from a burning building

Or throwing her to the sharks?

Can only hope that the ending is a pleasurable as the start

The confidence is the balaclava

I'm sure you baffle 'em straight

And it's wrong, wrong, wrong

She can hardly wait


That's right, he won't let her out his sight

Now the shaggers perform

And the daggers are drawn

Who's the crooks in this crime?


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Biking in NYC: FDR's Four Freedoms Park
September 15, 2013General


Riding bikes in New York yesterday, we made our way onto Roosevelt Island, that little tongue of land in the East River. The southern tip of the island used to be occupied by an 1856 asylum for small pox patients. But in the early 70s, we learned, the Lindsay administration added a few hundred yards of landfill and hired the famous Philadelphia architect, Louis Kahn, to design a park dedicated to Franklin Roosevelt's Four Freedoms. (Freedom of expression and religion, freedom from want and from fear.)

Kahn designed the park as an infinity triangle of green, bordered by linden trees and concrete walls and brick walkways. And then he died. (A great documentary on Kahn is called My Architect) That was in 1974. New York was on the brink of bankruptcy. The park didn't get done. For a few decades, vandals had their way with the old smallpox building. It's now a ruin, but it's "landmarked," in part because its architect James Renwick, also designed St. Patrick's Cathedral. 


Renwick Ruin (Tug44)

For anyone in New York, I'd recommend an excursion to this tip of Roosevelt Island, especially in fall, when the linden trees will turn bright red. It's a beautiful space. There's no traffic

It struck me that my few minutes on that point of Roosevelt Island was a river experience like no other I've had in New York. The rivers are so huge in NYC that they're usually experienced in the distance. But on Roosevelt Island, you're almost surrounded by surging river, and you get a feeling for the water pouring by. (The current was so strong that if I had tried to swim over to Manhattan, I probably would have ended up around the Statue of Liberty, more dead than alive.) Standing there reminded me of being on the point in Pittsburgh, where the Allegheny and the Monongahela form the Ohio, or even on the tip of Ile St. Louis in Paris.  

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Katie Hafner's Mother, Daughter, Me
September 5, 2013General


When I was at journalism school at Columbia, I had an evening editing class. This was in the '80s, when New York was a lot more dangerous than it is now. Before the first class, one young woman asked if anyone would be heading north on the 1 train and could walk her to her apartment in Washington Heights. It was an iffy neighborhood by night. Worse, the 181st Streeet station was way down in the ground, and featured a creepy elevator ride to the street. I lived 20 blocks north of there, in Inwood, and agreed to walk her home.

That's how I met Katie Hafner. Every week we would trek northward together. Stepping out of the elevator, we would drop into a bodega and buy a few bottles of beer, and then drink them in her apartment, and talk. I remember talking about literature. Katie had done her junior year in Germany and loved Kafka. I recall she even had a picture of him, or perhaps a drawing by him, on her wall. I was into the Latin Americans. We probably talked about journalism, too. I don't remember. But I do remember thinking that we were friends, which we were, and assuming that we knew each other. That, in retrospect, was less clear.

I just finished reading Katie's luminous memoir, Mother, Daughter, Me. She takes us along on a cross-generational adventure: a year in San Francisco with her elderly mother and her daughter. It sounds simple enough, but these relationships are twisted and frayed by a history that Katie manages to relate with a blend of unflinching honesty and humor. Her mother, an alcoholic, had largely neglected her two daughters as she dragged them from coast to another. She lost custody of them when Katie was 10. Katie's teenaged daughter, Zoe, had lost her father to a sudden heart attack when she was 8, and then suffered through her mother's failed rebound marriage to one of her teachers. She and her mother clung to each other like two shipwreck survivors. When Katie's mother arrives, the San Francisco home simmers with jealously, guilt, and regrets. Each one of them threads back to history, some of which Katie discovers as she does research for the book.

It's a wonderful read. What was especially interesting to me was how Katie and, especially, her mother, communicated through signals and indirect language. They even carried on a war over flatware. And Zoe appeared not to perceive it. As Katie tells it, she was used to more straight-forward communcation. I've met Zoe, albeit briefly, and I wouldn't be surprised at all if she picked up all sorts of signals but chose, for her own reasons, to bulldoze through them. 

But we don't get Zoe's analysis on this. In fact, there are very few points, at least that I can recall, where Katie asks the other two protagonists what they were thinking during the scenes she describes. She records the action, along with her own thoughts, but doesn't add this overlay of retrospective reporting. There's a logic to this. We live the scenes and are left to interpret them as we wish, just as we do in our own lives. What's more, there's no guarantee that Katie's mother and Zoe wouldn't edit their recollections. Most of us do.

This aspect is interesting to me because a lot of the work that both Katie and I do involves precisely this type of reporting: Asking people what they were thinking/hoping/scheming when they did something. We know, of course, that people aren't always honest, and we try to overcome that by asking others. But I'm wondering if Katie, after climbing into what I believe to be a loftier realm of writing and reporting, finds it hard to return to the trade we learned together all those years ago.

Just one other point. I think of my 24-year-old self talking to Katie in her apartment about Kafka and Cortazar and that angry editing professor, and I wonder if I asked her even one question about her family. Or if I did what she answered. I have no recollection. It goes to show how little I know my friends. Sadly, that's no great revelation. What unsettled me more as I read the book was the idea that while she has plunged deeply into her own life, distilling it into a wonderful book, my own life marches on uninspected. It's like a blizzard of post-its, snapshots and jottings still waiting to be processed and understood. That might be the greatest gift of Mother, Daughter, Me. It shows us how rich each life can be if we stop and peel back the layers.

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Futility of infallibility: Baseball's new machine umpires
September 4, 2013General


CB Bucknor calls strike three (http://mopupduty.com/)

Here's a snippet of the drama in baseball. Let's say the Yankees are a run down with two outs in the bottom of the ninth. They have the bases loaded. Their best hitter, Robinson Cano, quickly falls behind in count, 0-2. At this point, the pitcher should throw a pitch or two off the plate. Cano, he knows, has to swing even if it's close, because the umpire might call it a strike. The pitch comes at 95 mph. Cano sees that it will be outside, maybe by three or four inches. Will the ump expand the strike zone that much? He has been giving the outside strike all game, but usually only by an inch or two. Still, there's a chance he might call this one a strike, especially if the catcher "frames" it well, catching the ball on the outside of his mitt, making it look closer to the plate than it is. Who knows? The ump might be tired and want the game over. That could influence his judgment. What's more, this ump loves the drama of a called third strike, especially when it punches out a star like Cano. He's famous for his karate-like gestures on these calls, and his bellowing Steeeeeeee-rike! Cano cannot risk taking the pitch. He swings, and manages to spoil it by fouling it off. Now the count is 1-2. The drama continues.

Lots of people are frustrated by this human factor in sports. They want infallibility, and they clamor for machine replays. Starting next year, baseball will allow managers to appeal a few plays per game. In the first year, at least, they won't be able to appeal balls and strikes. But when the goal is infallibility, the human role is going to be under siege. And machines, I have no doubt, will eventually be ruling on the pitches.

For now, umpires' mistakes are part of the game. They represent an element of chance. Machine replay is an attempt to remove this chance from the game. But the entire game is built on chance. It's chance that places a pebble in the path of a grounder, causing it to hop over the shortstop's glove. It's chance when a shift in the wind turns a lazy fly ball into a cheap home run. Over time, as Greg Hillis points out in a very nice essay (ex TheSlurve), these lucky breaks even out. The length of the baseball season accomplishes this. Good teams might get bad breaks, and while they might not win six of their next 10 games, they'll win 60 of their next 100. Bad teams get good breaks, but still lose most of the time.  The key is to be playing well enough to sustain a blown call, a bad hop, a cheap home run, and still win.  

Umps blow calls. It's part of the drama. They are powerful actors in the drama. Delivering their tough calls to machines turns them into functionaries and moves physical baseball one step closer to fantasy sport, or video games. Now that I think about it, that might be where the push comes from in the first place. There's never a blown call on the xBox MLB2K13, is there?

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Is every "solved" problem an opportunity?
July 18, 2013General

It was 15 years ago that Scott Rosenberg blogged about a new search engine called Google. (He recalled it in this blog post.) He point back then was that search was not yet a solved problem, as many thought at the time, and that this new Google could advance the field. That much seems clear now. But the nature of prescient articles: They seem obvious once the world catches up.

This got me to thinking about other problems that might seem solved now, but could actually use a transformational improvement. Some ideas:

1) Spinach cleaner. We have this centrifuge of a sieve that that dries lettuce or spinach in a jiffy. That solves the drying problem, but not the cleaning bottleneck. You still have to wash it leaf by leaf. I make this Chinese spinach salad that scrunches up massive amounts of green stuff and bathes it in a ginger, sesame, soy sauce. It takes me almost a half hour to clean the lettuce. Even then, my wife makes a face as she eats it and says, "a little grit."

2) Rear-view mirrors. There has to be an solution for to blind spots, doesn't there? (I guess this one won't matter for too many years, because humans might not be long for driving these machines.)

3) Touch screens. At some point, we're going to communicate effortlessly with these machines, and our kids or grandchildren will say: Let me get this straight. You actually wiped your greasy fingers on screens (and couldn't see them in sunlight)?!

I might think of more through the day. It's a hot one here in Montclair...





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Love of vinyl, part 4
July 4, 2013General

Here's a brew of desire, relief or regret that many modern music lovers may never experience. It comes when you're sitting comfortably, enjoying a record album. As the fourth or fifth song ends, you hope that there's just one more song on the side. You might even pray for it. Because if it's over, it spells the end of a trance and the need to climb out of the chair and turn over the record, or worse, find another one equally good. 

I just went through that process while listening to The Band's concert album, Rock of Ages (which I bought 40 years ago this coming winter). Life is a Carnival was finishing, and I was hoping for an encore. No such luck. Since it's Fourth of July, I'll mention in passing that The Band makes great listening for this national holiday (even though most of the members came from Canada). They have songs about the American experience, many of them about working, as soldiers (Night They Drove Old Dixie Down), farmers (King Harvest), even musicians (Stage Fright). 


While I'm on music, a big change in my digital life. I've grown tired of the music collection I've amassed on iTunes. There are about 5,000 songs there, but I've heard my favorites way too often. So I've switched to a Slacker subscription ($10/month). This gives me streaming and downloads. It introduces me to new music, and adds welcome surprise. It's as if I've gotten a brand new music collection. Its headquarters is my phone, with auxiliary outlets in my tablet and laptop.

Fourteen years ago, while in Paris, I predicted this development. It came a little later than I expected. Here's the BusinessWeek online article:

My wife makes fun of me for all the machines I carry on my walks around Paris. I often take off from home with a Walkman hitched to my belt and a cell phone in my pocket. And I can always tell when the phone is ringing because it produces a sandstorm of interference on the Walkman. 

This makes for problems. The other week I was crossing the Champs Elysees when I heard the telltale interference on the Walkman. I reached toward my pocket and knocked the radio off my belt. It landed with a thud and the batteries fell out. With the phone still ringing, I scooped up the radio and one battery. Then I hustled after the other, which was rolling downhill toward the Tuileries Gardens. The light changed, and cars honked as I hurried across the wide boulevard cradling the radio like a wounded bird. Serves you right, my wife would have said.

Then the key point: ...I won't be carrying around all these machines too much longer. These devices, like so many others, are converging into one...As cellular handsets develop into Web-phones and data connection speeds grow faster, people will be able to tune into Internet radio on their cell phones (if that's what we're still calling them), and the connection will be in stereo.

One problem with my predictions was the timing. I figured these services would debut in the early years of the 2000s. For most users, it took another decade. And instead of paying for music on the phone bill, as I predicted (and the phone companies fervently hoped), I'm paying my Slacker bill through iTunes--a development that would have taken some explaining back in '99. 

One other prediction that turned out to be premature: ...With time, though, audio buffs will be able to call up songs using voice commands, and the phone will download an entire CD while it's playing the bars of the first song. Needless to say, if the music industry is going to survive in cyberspace, you'll be using your voice commands not only to order the music, but also to pay for it....

 


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Datamining discussion with Brown Political Review
June 30, 2013Datamining

I had a Skype chat on Friday with Ben Wofford, co-editor in chief of the Brown Political Review. This one focused more on government datamining. (The AlJazeera one earlier in the week looked at tech companies.) If I seem a bit familiar with Ben, he's a close friend of the family.


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AlJazeera: Google as Big Brother
June 28, 2013Datamining

Yesterday I learned about Dataium. It's a company that aggregates Web surfing data and provides it to auto dealers so that they can predict the preferences of customers, and perhaps even set the appropriate price for each one. I heard about this from Ashkan Soltani, an independent data researcher who was discussing data with me on an AlJezeera show, The Stream.

Maybe I'm jaded, but I'm not too bothered that an auto dealer would seek out information about customers and tailor pitches and prices for them. Dealers have always discriminated. That's what they do. They focus on a customer's clothes and jewelry. They note which people are impressed by sound systems or leather upholstery, and they figure that they'll pay more for such things. Good car dealers read humans. They observe and they deal. And now they use data. Doesn't surprise me too much.

That was the pattern during our half-hour show. Ashkan and Birgitta Jonsdottir, a Pirate Party MP from Iceland, objected to the datamining that big companies like Google and Facebook carry out. I was less bothered.

Birgitta, for example, complains that Google customizes results for what a specific user is most likely to be interested in. A cook who looks for dressing, for example, might see salad dressings among the top results, while a deer hunter might see a link about skinning a carcass. That doesn't bother me. But Birgitta and Ashkan fear that the big data companies are putting blinders on us, giving us little perspective outside of our own spheres. 

I agree that we find ourselves in self-reinforcing information ghettos. But most of the responsibility is ours. We choose our Facebook friends, and they tend to link to a bunch of stories we agree with. Many of us avoid blogs and channels that challenge our views. If we wanted to broaden our horizons, we could change. It's not Google's fault.

Ashkan says that instead of tracking our behavior, companies might simply ask us for our preferences. But I'd actually rather have Amazon figure me out than answer a survey. There might be people with similar tastes who enjoy a book in a category I wouldn't know in advance. Amazon, for example, lined me up with John Vaillant's The Tiger, one of the best books I've read in recent years. But I wouldn't have clicked Tigers or Siberia in a list of preferences.

My other point is that information workers, including journalists, need a vibrant advertising industry to support them (us). The datamining advertisers blunder in many ways. They hide what they're doing, they cross lines, they raise suspicions and fears. But I want them to figure out how to do it right, and to succeed. 

Incidentally, a tip from Ashkan. For privacy and security online, he suggests eliminating flash from your computer.

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My answers about government datamining
June 15, 2013Datamining

An Italian journalist sent me questions the other day about the government datamining we've been learning about of late. I answered her questions. Since maybe only one of these sentences will turn up in her article, and in Italian, I figured I might as well blog our exchange:

Q: Do you believe that data mining is necessary to keep the US safe? What occured in Boston was just the last of a series of attacks and I have read that American public opinion is divided right now between the ones who favour safety and those who defend privacy.


A: Some degree of data mining is inevitable for a modern state to protect itself, not only from terrorists, but also from crime, traffic and industrial accidents and catastrophic weather. The question is not whether we sacrifice our privacy for safety, but instead how much the government can see, what the limits are and how they are enforced. Right now, it seems as though the government reserves the right to define all those limits for itself. It asks us to trust its judgment. I think the limits will have to be spelled out, and the citizens will demand and deserve some sort of oversight over these operations, perhaps by a congressional committee (even though confidence in Congress is at all-time lows).


The other important point is what the data can be used for, and what conclusions can be drawn from it. Imagine, for example, that in their hunt for terrorists dataminers find possible evidence of tax fraud, or perhaps a ring of pedophiles. Can we expect them to turn a blind eye to it? I don't think so. In that case, what begins as an invasion of privacy to protect the nation turns into a surveillance state.


Q: The Verizon and Prism scandals have definitely brought to light the fact that American citizens’ privacy cannot be taken for granted and is virtually non-existent. Do you think what is happening will help change the situation? I mean, will this monitoring of people’s private communication diminish or finish after the scandal or will it go on as usual?

A: In my book, The Numerati, I argue that data mining is pervasive, in government and industry, and will only grow. Privacy advocates are sure to put up a fight, as will a number of government regulators. But the trends favor datamining. Consider what most consumers in the world are interested in. Most of them want convenience and economic savings, a cleaner environment, less waste, and more safety. Data mining promises results in all of these areas.


I should add that the data economy is full of hype, and that many of the promises turn out to be exaggerations, or false. In my book, I argue that the most problematic area is in data mining for terrorism. Companies like Amazon and Google, after all, can study the behavior of billions of shoppers, while anti-terrorism data miners have very little behavioral data about terrorists.   

 

Q:  International web users are also involved and I myself may be under surveillance after sending these emails to you…. Some people willingly publish personal data on social networks, others do not realize the dangers. What is your advice to internet users? Will people become warier when using the web after this datagate?


I think people will grow increasingly sophisticated about their data, and how to protect the secrets that matter to them. That said, it is remarkable how careless people are. A decade ago, hotels in the United States were among the biggest purveyors of pornography. Guests paid $10 or $20 to watch pornographic channels in their rooms. Who knows how many of them stopped to wonder, or to care, whether they were sharing their choices with the management of the hotel. That business has declined sharply, because travelers now bring laptops to their rooms, and look at Web sites. So now, their Web wanderings are available not only to the hotel, which runs the Wi-fi network, but also to a host of Web sites and their partners. These people may say in surveys that they care about privacy. And perhaps they do. But their appetites and desires lead them to share intimate details about their cravings with a broad range of companies and yes, the government.


My point is that while people claim to care about privacy, they often are not willing to forego convenience, pleasure, economic savings or the promise of security for it.



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