Stephen Baker

The Boost
A Philosophical Quintet
April 21, 2014General

I flew to Amsterdam over the weekend to participate in a so-called Philosophical Quintet. It was a televised roundtable about the future of technology and its intertwined conundrums. I was there with Peter-Paul Verbeek, author of Moralizing TechnologyMaartje Scherme, an expert on the ethics of human enhancement, and John Gray, a prominent Britiish philosopher. Our 55-minute discussion, moderated by the journalist Clairy Polak, is below.

Our show was one of dozens of lectures and panels in a huge event in Amsterdam called the Philosophy G8. It all took place in a beautiful downtown building, the Beurs van Berlage. The lectures were packed. Philosophy, at least in Amsterdam, is a big draw. It's amazing, really. Our session, which was broadcast nationally, ran from a little after midnight until 1:15 in the morning. The studio audience was standing-room only.

On Saturday, I had a free day to enjoy Amsterdam. My first stop was the beautiful Rijksmuseum, which I knew would get very crowded very soon. I was one of the first in at 9 a.m., yet by the time I got to Rembrandt's famous Nightwatch, a crowd had gathered. 

But once I left the museum's central hall, featuring the most famous masterpieces, the place was pretty empty. I think my favorite painting was by an artist I'd never heard of, a contemporary of Vermeer named Gabriel Metsu. Below is his Sick Child, which was painted during an outbreak of the plague. Not a cheery subject, but I find the painting fabulous, worthy in fact of a place in the central hall.

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Kirkus on the Boost: "an exquisite thriller on the Mexican border"
April 17, 2014Marketing the book

Here's your one-stop shop for reviews of The Boost, which will come out May 20. These are from Kirkus, Library Journal, Booklist and Publishers' Weekly, publications that bookstores and libraries use to scope out what's coming. (Excerpt of The Boost here



A novel about the technology that controls our lives accelerates into an exquisite thriller on the Mexican border.

The year is 2072. Technology has left the keyboard and is implanted in our brains; those who don't have the implants are “wild,” meaning natural thinkers. Baker has created a believable, not-too-distant world with the same issues we face but on a grander scale: People spend too much time in virtual reality; there's a proliferation of porn sites and a computing-power arms race. But here, it's all done seamlessly through “the boost” in people's heads; keyboards and screens are antiques. The ghost in the machine is surveillance—surprise! A scheduled software update will enable American workers to be as efficient as their Chinese counterparts; Ralf Alvare is tipped off about a gateway that will allow Varagon Inc. to snoop, collecting personal data from anyone’s head, for marketing and advertising purposes. He is caught trying to close the software gate, his implant is removed—rather, ripped from his head—and he's soon on the run to El Paso. He's now “wild,” which isn't a comfortable state of mind for this digital genius. Baker’s characters are memorable and wickedly fun. Ralf’s companion, Ellen, has been genetically enhanced as an Artremis—a stunningly beautiful, Amazon-like ball of fire. Don Paquito is an unassuming hero who prints the last remaining newspaper, the only outlet for uncensored truth. As Ralf and his brother Simon shimmy through a tunnel from El Paso to Ciudad Juárez, they enter a world where the boost is safe from surveillance and the largest population of “wild” people in the world lives in the past. From here, they make their stand against “the virtual as real.”

Baker has written a true delight of a techno-thriller that has deep, dark roots in the present.


Computing has moved into our brains in the near future, and when the United States loses the chip wars, the country turns to chips from China to remain technologically competitive. Ralf is in charge of the rollout of the nationwide chips upgrade, called "boosts," but he discovers that someone has deliberately left a security gate open that will allow surveillance of every aspect of people's lives. When his boost is ripped from his brain, Ralf ends up in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, one of the only communities for those living "wild" without a chip. He needs to find a way to get a new boost and prevent the chip upgrade before the government finds him and stops him for good. VERDICT Baker has put together an intriguing cast in which the secondary characters are almost more exciting than the leads, including an egomaniacal Paraguayan drug lord-turned-newspaper mogul, a beautiful but ditzy Mata Hari, and the conflicted government hit man sent after Ralf who instead spends his time enjoying Juarez. After writing several nonfiction books about technology (The Numerati; Final Jeopardy: Man vs. Machine and the Quest To Know Everything), this is Baker's first novel.


In the not-too-distant future, just before a major update to the network of computer chips, known colloquillay as "boosts," implanted in the brains of most of the world's population, Ralf, a low-level government employee who also happens to be a bit of a techno-whiz, learns that the Chinese company behind the chips has incorporated into the update a rather frightening security breach, which will allow the Chinese to monitor each and every boost-outfitted person. Before he can blow the whistle, Ralf's boost is forcibly removed, leaving him unconnected from the network and on the run, hiding out in a community of similarly unconnected people (they're called the "wild"), hoping his brother, a fella with a seriously mysterious lifestyle, can help him survive. This is an exciting story, even if it's built on a familiar platform. Thee are plenty of other novels involving similar types of implants, but Baker loads this one with enough fresh material that it doesn't seem like a been-there, done-that affair. Highly recommended to sf and techno-thriller fans. --David Pitt


 An update to the boost, a revolutionary human-computer interface, threatens to open Americans’ brains like a Facebook account left unattended in Baker’s chillingly possible debut, a futuristic thriller with a few flaws. Baker weaves a complex plot about permanently blurring the lines between real life and the digital world, humanized by a family intimately involved with the development and propagation of the boost. Technology slowly erodes privacy inch by inch, forming a strong moral quandary, but it’s undermined by the grating portrayal of China as an unrelentingly evil country that will stop at nothing for dominance, as if the U.S. wasn’t capable of the same ruthless tactics. Baker’s ear for dialogue gives each character a unique voice, but sometimes the perspective shifts abruptly, and info dumps drag down the pace. This is a strong first effort with broad appeal to readers of thrillers and SF. (May) 

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The Boost: an excerpt
April 15, 2014Marketing the book

My publisher, Tor Books, just released an excerpt of my upcoming novel, The Boost. It's also on the Amazon and B&NWeb sites. I'll cut 'n paste below. As the book begins, Ralf and his girlfriend, Ellen, are on their way from Washington, DC to El Paso. Ralf has recently had his cognitive implant, or boost, ripped from his head. He's newly "wild," and very unhappy about it. And he's being secretive about it with Ellen.

The photo, above, incidentally, is a shot I took out the car window of Juarez as we were motoring down I-10 on the west side of El Paso a couple of weeks ago. I took a lot of pictures down there and in the Big Bend, and I'm planning to use them to illustrate a big social media push behind this book. Since much of America in The Boost is something of a post-industrial wasteland, I tended to focus on the decrepit, forlorn and wind-swept in this swing through West Texas. I don't want to overdo that side of things, or people will think it's grim. I don't think of the book that way all. In fact, it wasn't until I'd finished writing what I thought was a cheery brand of sci-fi that I learned that my book was "dystopian."

Anyway, I have a new author page on Facebook. I might put a bit of money into promoting it. Have to say, though, the design possibilities on that page are pretty limited. I'm having more fun with a new Tumblr blog, RalfLostHisBoost. I might also put a few dollars into promoting on Goodreads, where I also have an author page (but find myself spending more time chatting with fellow readers in the Proust group). 

Here's the excerpt:


Sunday, March 6, 2072: Ten days before the national cognitive update

9:02 a.m. Central Standard Time

“The way you talk, I can tell you’re wild,” she says.

He has just awoken. He slept like a corpse from the DC suburbs to the Mississippi, stirred  briefly to glimpse down at the mighty river, and then fell into another long nap. He pauses, trying to collect his thoughts. Their burnt-orange Sheng-li is driving itself west along a lonely stretch of 1-40. Oklahoma scenery flies past their windows at a constant 97 miles per hour.

“How far to El Paso?” he asks.

“You see?”

“See what?”

“Only a wild person would need to ask.”

He shakes his head slightly, and tugs at the rim of his red baseball cap, a relic with a stretched-out P on the front. “How far is it?”

“830 miles.”

“When do we get there?”

“3:31, if we’re going downtown, 3:33 to the Stanton Street Bridge, 3:33 to Cielo Vista Mall, 3:54 to...”

“All right, I get the picture.”

With a blink of her green eyes, she snaps back from her processor, or “boost.”

“I know you’ve gone wild, Ralf, because I’m not getting anything from you at all.”

He shrugs.

“Is it gone, or did you somehow turn it off?”

He looks away from her, out the window to the south, at the rusted remains of oil derricks, and the gray hills stretching to the horizon. They’ll head west to the Rio Grande, then turn left, following the river to the border, which divides El Paso from Ciudad Juarez, the notorious outpost of the wild in North America. He knows these facts and doesn’t have to look them up, even if he could.

He listens to the wind whistling past the car, the hum of the hydrogen engine. That’s all he hears. No videos, no soundtrack, no info blasts. He hears himself breathing, as if for the first time. He knows they’ll get to El Paso sometime after 3. Ellen said so. But he has no idea what time it is and has nothing to tell him. People used to wear wrist watches or look at the screens of their cell phones. But once the processors moved into the heads, clocks slowly disappeared, along with computers and televisions and telephones, and all the other machinery that he remembers piling up in his grandparents’ basement. That’s all in the head now, he thinks. But not in mine.

He looks at Ellen. With a couple of wardrobe commands, she has turned her pullover to gold and her skin-tight leggings to black, with deep blue highlights. They shine like the feathers of a raven. She’s staring straight ahead, living in her boost. He knows she’s been spending hours on end in virtual Rome, with a college friend of hers, checking out Etruscan art. But by the way she’s shifting her weight in the seat and moving her lips, he wonders if she’s having sex. If so, is it with him? Ellen has the face of Greek goddess. It’s the Artemis line: a perfect oval surrounded by wavy golden hair, the nose slightly turned up at the end. Her lips move slightly, as if trying out sentences. They look like parentheses drawn by a sharp red pencil. Ellen is his processor now.

“What time is it?” he asks.

 Chapter One
9:21 a.m. Central Standard Time
Ralf’s memory is shot. His whole life, he has been considered a prodigy of the digital world. But the detailed time-tagged images, the videos, notes, links, they’re all gone. All that remains is the wet brain, where memories, if you can call them that, well up in pools of appetites, regrets, and desires. He can fish out only snippets of conversation. The blurry pictures he summons seem to change and fade. They’re not distinct images: more like ideas with ghostlike transparencies hovering over them. It’s a sorry excuse for a brain, he thinks. There’s good reason people like him are called wild.

He tries to dredge up memories from his last full day in Washington. That would be … day before yesterday? He isn’t sure, and doesn’t want to ask Ellen. He remembers sitting at breakfast with Ellen in their second-story apartment in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood, just two blocks up from the zoo. The last specks of snow were melting from the branches across the street, but spring was still a good month away. He was sipping a protein blend and flipping through college basketball highlights in his boost, when a message popped up from Suzy. “Have to talk.”

He messaged back. “Talk talk?”

“Face to face.”

They agreed to meet for coffee at the Taizhou Tower, near Dupont Circle, and Ralf hurried out to his bike. 

Ten minutes later he was sitting across from Suzy, blowing warm air onto his frigid hands. She looked just like Ellen, but a half foot taller. Instead of wavy shoulder-length hair, the standard Artemis style, she kept a just a hint of blond fuzz on her skull. Suzy carefully dipped a corner of her scone into her steaming glass of greenish tea. She greeted him with a nod. He messaged her: “What’s up?”
She frowned and shook her head. “I meant ‘talk,’” she said.

Ralf sat up straight in his chair and coughed. He found face-to-face conversations awkward and he tried, whenever possible, to sidestep them. He nodded, looked at Suzy’s eyes, and quickly shifted his focus a few millimeters down, to the less threatening terrain around the bridge of her exemplary nose.
Over the next few minutes, Suzy whispered across the table to him, the old-fashioned way, laying out the issues. Ever since Suzy’s arrival, earlier in the year, they’d been working closely in the chip lab at the Department of Health and Human Services, overseeing the annual processor updates. Every year, some 430 million Americans wake up one day in the middle of March feeling different, smarter, snappier. Some inevitably complain that they’ve lost memories or have to concentrate harder to send messages. Some say they notice more ads popping up, or soundtrack music that’s hard to mute. But most are satisfied. Their heads work better.

Preparing for the updates is a long process. A few months before the scheduled date, the code comes in from China. A technical panel reviews the changes, and draws up a summary for the Senate subcommittee and the White House. Once the design is approved—largely a formality—the chip is divided into a dozen segments, so that no single person has access to the entire architecture. This is Suzy’s first cycle. She’s a junior staffer on segment 3, which is mostly data storage, along with other odds and ends. Ralf heads up the all-important segment 4, which runs communications, including six different radio signals and the vital interface to the wet brain.

This year, the country is scheduled to receive the update on March 16. If it goes smoothly, the process will begin with the general population, followed by Congress and the Supreme Court, the vice president and the cabinet, and finally the president. Then, presumably, the country will be on firm cognitive footing for the next year.

Suzy asked Ralf, as he waited for his coffee, to take a look at one of the gates, 318 Blue, in his segment. She had its counterpart in hers, and had found an anomaly. He called it up in his boost, and saw, to his shock, that 318 Blue was wide open.

She didn’t have to say another word. Ralf knew. The Chinese were updating the chip with a version of their domestic software. Its surveillance gate was open for both communications and data. What Ralf didn’t understand—and still doesn’t—is how Suzy Claiborne spotted the anomaly. She was new to the department and often asked him questions that a sophomore comp-sci student could answer. She was perhaps the last person Ralf would have expected to notice an open gate.

As Ralf looks back, the rest of that day is a blur. The details are lost with his boost. But he remembers the general outlines and can bring back fragments of the day, each one wrapped in the animal blend of emotions and physical sensations, chiefly nausea and jangling nerves.

His idea, he recalls, was to upload Suzy’s segment into his head, match the two sections, and figure out commands to close the gate. Otherwise, as he saw it, companies would have free run in everyone’s boost. They could mine lifetimes of memories. Experts had been declaring privacy dead for decades, but this would obliterate the last vestiges of it.

Ralf was a hacker, had always been one. He knew he could close the gate. He felt he had to. He can still picture Suzy, standing over him as he locked his bike across from the frozen Botanic Pagota on the Mall, whispering that his plan was “reckless.”

“If you didn’t expect me to do something,” he messaged her, “why’d you loop me in?” But even as she complained, she transferred her segment file onto his boost, and he was busy exploring it as they made their way into HHS and climbed the stairs to the lab. In the file he could see the open gates. 
While Ralf knew that carrying Suzy’s data was risky, he hardly expected to be nabbed the very first day. His messages, like anyone’s, could be intercepted, but the surveillance gates in his own boost were locked down, at least as far as he knew.

Minutes after he reached the office, two uniformed security guards hustled him out of the building. Ralf remembers that his colleagues turned their heads from him, as if embarrassed. He felt ashamed. He remembers wondering why one of the guards had grabbed his dirty green gym bag.

Next thing he knew, he was stretched out on a hospital bed in a white room. The sheets on the bed were rumpled. The curtains on the small window high above the bed looked like rags. Smudged on the wall above the sink was a single footprint, far too large to be Ralf’s. The sound in his head, if you could call it that, was the solitary hum of consciousness. He had never felt so alone. He summoned his mapping function to see where he was. Nothing came up. Just the same hum. He called up his messaging. Nothing. Ralf felt a surge of panic. He thrashed, and knocked a metal tray from the side of the bed, sending bits of debris falling to the floor. He looked down and saw the tray lying on his gym bag. He felt soreness on the side of his head. He reached up and touched a bandage.

They had ripped out his chip. For Ralf, whose boost had been installed on his first birthday, this amounted to a lobotomy. He was wild. For the first time he could remember, at least with the remaining hunk of brain in his head, he cried.

He remembers hearing explosions, and wondering if it was thundering outside. Then a young Asian man came into his room. The sculpted arms and shoulders of a body builder seemed to burst from his tight white T-shirt. He had a primitive twentieth-century look to him, unenhanced. He didn’t say anything, but simply placed his hands on Ralf’s shoulders, sat him up, reached down for Ralf’s gym bag, zipped it closed and handed it to him. Then, still without a word, he placed a firm grip on Ralf’s elbow and led him out of the clinic to the street. He stayed in the doorway and waved good-bye.
Ralf didn’t know where he was or what to do. If his boost had been in place and working, dozens of streams of information would be informing him, orienting him, messaging, carrying out thousands of risk scenarios, in short, making him aware. He would have figured things out. But as a brain-surgery patient, recently sequestered and newly wild, he walked in a fog.

He made his way down a tree-lined street and came to an esplanade with an Alexandria Metro stop he recognized. King Street/Old Town. He considered taking the Metro back to the Mall, where he’d left his bike. But he couldn’t pay for a ticket without a credit beam from his chip. As a wild man, he was broke.

He would walk. Without geotags, even that was a challenge. He wondered which way to go and got no directions. The only signal coming from his wet brain was the same gentle hum, with no data, no meaning. He was full of questions but powerless to answer them. He looked at the February sun, low in the southern sky, and took off for the north. In time he felt hungry, but found no signals leading him toward food. He was on his own. He wanted to see Ellen, and to hug her. But he could not message her. He dug into his ancient memory for her whereabouts and came up empty.
He remembers the crunching sound and feel of his footsteps on gravel as he walked north from Alexandria, across the Potomac, and back to his bike. Were they watching him as he walked? 

Are they following us now? He turns around and looks out the back window of the car.

“You’re not going to see anything back there,” Ellen says. “This isn’t a movie from 2010.”

He peers up, through the windshield. “If any drones are following us,” she says, “they’re no bigger than bees. They might even look like bees. Kind of useless to look for them.” Though Ellen’s an artist, she’s up to date on spy gadgets. Some of her contract work for the Pentagon includes drone design, which on occasion she incorporates into her leggings and blouses.

Ralf sits back. He’s small, dark and wiry, with deep-set violet eyes and black hair that curls around his ears. He’s good-looking, to such a degree that his mother convinced him to avoid all of the enhancements they were offering in middle school. He contemplates human beauty, and pictures Ellen without the Artemis package. That reminds him of Suzy, which in turn reminds him once again of the fix he’s in. Funny, he thinks, how thoughts meander in the wet brain.


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 stately porched homes, like his mother’s place in Montclair. But in the last half century or so, most of the landmark projects have been virtual. What new physical construction there is comes from the Chinese, who have money for such things. For most Americans, he thinks, progress is defined in apps. The physical Oklahoma looks abandoned.

They pass a sign for a Civil War battle at Honey Springs. A Civil War battle in Oklahoma? Ralf wonders if he lugged around that morsel of data, unknown and unread, in his processor for twenty-eight years. He considers the trove of information stored on that chip, entire years of video, every virtual world he’s ever entered, every song he has ever heard, every conversation he’s ever had, the full database of all his messaging, even much of his sex life. All of it gone.

“Listen,” Ellen says, stirring him from his reverie. “How about this? You tell me what you know. I’ll do the same.”

He pauses for a moment. “It’s classified,” he says.

In their three years together, she has heard that same phrase a thousand times. “Let me get this straight,” she says. “They tie you down, take out your boost, patch you up, and send you as a wild man down to El Paso, and you have to protect their secrets?”

Ralf wants to tell her what he knows. But first he’s attempting to run risk-reward calculations in a brain not built for such work. It’s painfully slow, and does not deliver answers, only ideas.

“They didn’t send me to El Paso,” he finally says. “That was my plan.”

“Because your brother lives there?”

“My family has roots there, too,” he says. “My grandmother grew up there. Her father was a big shot on a newspaper.”

“That’s quaint,” Ellen says, before returning to Ralf’s brother. “I thought you two didn’t get along. Now, he’s the one you run to?”

“I wouldn’t call it running, exactly.”


“I’m taking a trip,” Ralf says.

“Semantics,” Ellen says flatly. She gestures toward the backseat. “So you usually take trips with no more luggage than that disgusting gym bag of yours?”

“Actually, I wasn’t even planning on bringing that.”

Ellen pauses and looks at him. He stares straight ahead, as if he were driving the machine. These kinds of conversations, he thinks, would be a lot easier if he had driving to focus on.

“Let me tell you what I worry about,” she says.

He glances at her and nods.

“I’m worried that you want to go to Juárez to be at home with all of those wild people. I love you, Ralf, I really do. But that is the single-most … It’s the scariest place on earth, and if you want to live there, or even visit, we’ve got a big problem.”

“Don’t worry,” he says. “My destination’s El Paso, not Juárez.”

Ellen studies his profile and concludes, after a few seconds, that further questions will get her nowhere. So she sits back, and as the car hurtles west through Oklahoma, she tells him her side of the story.

Two days ago, Ellen says, she was working at home, creating herds of dinosaurs for a virtual safari site, when she got a message from her friend Robin. “She said they were rounding up every Artemis they could find. Tall ones, fat ones, every shape and flavor.”


“The government.” Then she stops for a moment, replaying the conversation. “Actually, she didn’t say that … but I assumed it was. I messaged you twenty-three times and couldn’t even leave a note.”
By messaging friends in her network, and friends of friends, Ellen learned that young men wearing green sweaters had arrested two Artemis women, or Artemi, at a lunch spot on Capitol Hill. Fifteen minutes later, they picked up one near Chinatown, and then one in Farragut Square. “I did the numbers and figured they were eighteen to twenty-three minutes from our house,” Ellen says. “So I got in the car.”

He asks her where she went.

“I didn’t know where to go, so I put it on a shuffle route in Georgetown,” she says. “Then Julie messaged me that she saw you on the 14th Street Bridge. She said you were walking and looked terrible.”

“Yeah, I love her, too,” Ralf says, ransacking his mind to come up with a face for Julie.

“She was worried for you.” Ellen goes on to say that she headed over to the HHS building on the Mall, figuring that Ralf would be there. When she arrived, he was bent over his bike, trying to wrench it free without the signal from his boost.

“So why do you think they were picking up Artemi?” Ralf asks.

“Call me naive, but I’m guessing it has something to do with the update, and that hole in your head,” she says.

He shrugs. “Then why do you think they didn’t stop us from leaving town?”

“Maybe I wasn’t the Artemis they were looking for.”

This leads the conversation straight to Suzy, a subject that they’ve agreed tacitly to avoid. Ralf dated another Artemis in grad school. This raises Ellen’s suspicion that he might be drawn to her largely for the beauty she shares with Suzy and a few thousand other women in the country, plus others in South America. No words from Ralf could put these doubts to rest.

“Why would they pick up all these people based on what they look like?” Ralf says. “Kind of primitive, wouldn’t you say? They have machines that can ID her boost in about two milliseconds.”

“Maybe her boost isn’t in her head.”

The idea, so simple, leaves Ralf stunned. He lowers his head and says nothing.

“What I don’t get,” Ellen goes on, “is why they rounded up all the normal Artemi and didn’t just focus on the one with no hair?” She considers it for a second, and then answers her own question. “I guess she could have bought a wig.”

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Painter George W. Bush updates Warhol in irony
April 14, 2014General

It turns out that when former president George W. Bush set up his easel to portray the world leaders he knew, he didn't rely for source material on his own memory, or even on snap shots he may have taken with his camera phone. He Googled them. He even Googled the image of his own father.

Viewed from the tech angle, this is a cloud story. Bush offloads storage and "memory" work onto networked computers, just like the rest of us, and he locates them with search. He's living in 2014. Why wouldn't he?

But it appears he didn't burrow through the thousands of images of these world figures, looking for just the right one. Most the time, he seems to have picked the first picture shown, or one that shows up on Wikipedia. This is where the irony comes in. His show is marketed as his personal brushes with the historical figures of his (and our) time, but he simply reworks and reissues archetypal images. In doing so he fortifies them.

In this way, you might say, he's playing with us, almost as Andy Warhol did when he created art from the mass-produced labels on Campbell's soups. I "know" these people, Bush could be saying, just the way the rest of you do, from Google. And I'm not telling you anything about our meetings. He doesn't, for example, show Germany's Angela Merkel from above and behind, the perspective he must have had when he gave her the surprise neck massage in 2006. In the end, it's only by focusing on the significant diverges between the photos and the painted portraits that we can hope to find the artist, our former president. 

In another way, you could argue that #43, as he likes to call himself, is participating in our national life in an open and democratic way. He's not relying on the special access he enjoyed, but instead he's using source material available to all of us, from classrooms of fingerpainters to legions of water-colorists in retirement homes. He's invoking no privilege. The question, of course, is whether he brought back interesting or surprising insights from the time he actually spent with those distinguished people. His artwork, like so much else in his life, leaves the question open. 

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Ray Bradbury: Does detail undermine credibility?
April 7, 2014General

Ray Bradbury's stories are beautiful and spare, like poetry, or bare surrealist art. I think of paintings by de Chirico, such as the Prodigal Son (above). I read the Martian Chronicles for a Coursera class on Sci Fi and Fantasy, and we had to write 300-word essays about every book. Here's what I wrote about Bradbury:

The characters in Martian Chronicles are continually comparing numerous different worlds: The earth that they remember or the one that they imagine, and the Mars that they experience, both in life and in dreams. Out of these changing perspectives, the characters--Martians and earthlings alike--attempt to come to grips with what is real and enduring, both in life and the universe. A crucial element of their analysis involves the level of detail that they perceive.

In our traditional view, detail provides credibility. An eyewitness, for example, who can remember what the suspect was wearing, or the color of the car he was driving, is more likely to be believed. But in the Martian Chronicles, detail raises suspicion. Meticulously rendered towns and machines seem too perfect to be true. In The Earthmen, the Martian Mr. Xxx explores the spaceship, marvels at the astonishing level of detail inside, and attributes it to the visual and auditory fantasies of psychosis. This leads him to shoot three men.

In The Third Expedition, Capt. John Black sees a town that looks so much like Green Bluff, Ill., that it frightens him. “It looks too much like Green Bluff,” he says. He suspects it’s a trap, or perhaps an illusion. By contrast, the level of earth-like detail in the town suggests to his colleague, Hinkston, that God has been at work on Mars. No one accepts what appears to be detailed reality at face value.

That is true of nearly everything in Bradbury’s Mars. Experiencing a different planet is so close to magic, or a dream, that every detail is suspect. The possibility of an agreed-upon version of reality dissolves. In such a scenario, everyone experiences something akin to insanity--or at the very least is hard-pressed to prove their sanity. This same dynamic can occur on earth. After all, once humans are free to find and interpret their own realities, all consensus dissolves--without even flying to Mars.

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Big Bend: A walk to Dog Canyon
April 1, 2014General

Dog Canyon

When I tell people we vacation in West Texas, they wonder what in the world could be out there. And I know I'm feeding all of their prejudices by leading this post with a sandy desert photo. It can look a little bleak. If I wanted to promote Big Bend National Park, I'd focus on the beautiful Chisos mountains, and the Santa Elena Canyon of the Rio Grande which feels like a cathedral full of birds. But today I'm focusing on the dry side.

Have you ever driven through seemingly empty countryside, whether farms or forests, and wondered what it would feel like to get out of the car and just walk through it? That's what appealed to me about Dog Canyon. If you look at the photo above, the canyon is the little notch between the mountains. We walked to it one hot afternoon. It's about two miles from the road. 

It's not as empty as it may look. We found lots of the usual plants, of course--creosote bushes, yucca, sotol--as well as a number of flowers.



Towards the end of the walk, we found ourselves on a river wash. The soil was sandy, and it led us into the canyon. It reminded me of a hideout for outlaws in the westerns. You can picture the sharpshooters posted high on the cliffs. 



We found a bit of shade and, after making sure that snakes hadn't found it first, we relaxed. Then we began the walk back to the car. (Next time I think we'll take a little more water.) That was our first day in Big Bend. In following days, the walks got prettier, greener, and shadier, more post-card worthy. But now that I'm back in New Jersey, I appreciate the dry intensity of Dog Canyon. Walking to it felt like traveling.

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Is The Boost anti-Chinese?
March 18, 2014Marketing the book

In the America of The Boost, which takes place in 58 years from now, the Chinese are pretty much running the show. Their dominance of the next stage of technology has catapaulted them to the top. That victory, which I'm planning to detail in a prequel, happens in the 2030s and '40s, when they come up with the first and best cognitive implants for the brain. These are networked supercomputers, and people who have them appear to function at a higher and more efficient level. So when the Chinese offer these chips and software to the rest of the global population, who can turn them down? To do so would relegate populations to a backward status. It might be similar to siding with the Neanderthals while the Cro-magnons are already busy making tools and covering their cave walls with fabulous art. The word for people without these chips, or "boosts, is "wild."

Why would the Americans resist the Chinese chips? Lots of reasons. Whoever controls the chips also dominates the market for information, because almost all of the machines and services in our lives, from televisions and phones to computers and credit cards, move into the chip. It gobbles up and destroys other markets, much as the cell phone does today. What's more, whoever operates the chip can monitor the population, and control it with apps and software updates.

So by the time the book begins, the Americans have essentially lost the battle for control of the information economy. Those with the most power in the United States (the villains in the book) are corporate lobbyists who work closely with the Chinese.

This brings me to the reason I'm writing this. I got my first review of The Boost. It's in Publishers' Weekly. And while the reviewer has some nice things to say about the book ("a strong first effort with broad appeal to readers of thrillers and Sci-Fi)  s/he laments a "grating portrayal of China as an unrelentingly evil country that will stop at nothing in its quest for dominance." 

I certainly didn't intend that. As I see it, the Chinese role isn't all that different from what the U.S. presence must have felt like in much of the world following World War II. They have a lot of power, money and influence. They put up new buildings, export machines, and have a lot of say about the direction of local governments. In short, they advance their interests. As far as "evil" goes, most if it in the book is carried out by lobbyists and their corporate patrons.

It'll be interesting to see how other reviewers read it. Anyone with a blog or publication want to see a review copy?

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IBM's Watson can't taste what it cooks
March 6, 2014News

Years before he headed up the team to build IBM's Jeopardy computer, Watson, David Ferrucci co-authored a book. It's called Artificial Intelligence and Literary Creativity--Inside the MInd of Brutus, a Story-telling Machine. The idea was to program a computer to recognize various elements of story-telling--from coming up with a plot to creating characters--and then let it start authoring. Brutus effectively assembled words into coherent sentences and paragraphs, Ferrucci later told me. But it had no way of knowing if what it created was any good.

And that's the problem with teaching machines to be creative. To date, they haven't been blessed with good taste. Sad to report, that's even true when Watson ventures into the kitchen. But perhaps it can find a role as a wild and inventive sous-chef. 

Anshul Sheopuri is on the IBM team training Watson for kitchen work. The idea, essentially, is that most humans are locked into cooking with combinations that we know. Tomatoes, for example, go with oregano, and with Parmesan cheese. Someone might try throwing in a pinch of marjoram with that, or an ill-advised turnip. But outside of celebrity chefs, most of us paint with a small and conservative pallet.

IBM's goal is to get Watson to experiment, suggesting combinations most people would never consider. For this, the IBM team has the computer reduce food to its molecular components, and then rearrange them based on each ingrediant's chemistry and what the computer has gleaned from lots of written material about food. It then comes up thousands of new recipes. Based on its readings, it gives each recipe a score for novelty, its quality to blend with other foods (pairing) and "pleasantness."

Of course, this is all academic. For the computer, pleasantness, along with everything else in the universe, is simply a string of ones and zeros that appears to correlate with other ones and zeros that make up its point of reference. It's up to human beings to pick the most promising looking recipes, cook and taste them.

The results include novel blends, such as the sweet and piquant Caymanian Plantain dessert (above). Have to say, though, I glanced at the recipes, and they didn't look as surprising as I would have imagined. I wouldn't be at all surprised to see the Swiss-Thai quiche on the menu of the Asian fusion restaurant down the road. But the caution could come from conservative humans. Maybe the people on the IBM team picked the recipes that they liked best, and that they figured fellow humans coming up to their food truck at South by Southwest were most likely to enjoy. Watson is hard-pressed, at least for now, to make such judgments. So my guess is that it didn't get a chance to fly its freak flag.

With time, this type of computer chef will be able to incorporate all sorts of other analysis in its recipes, incorporating data about health, disease, prices and supply chain. In fact, those areas are in Watson's comfort zone. Cooking? Well, it's still learning. The problem, from Watson's perspective, is that the boss has this thing called a tongue. 

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Medicine: How to spend $2,000 in 15 minutes
February 21, 2014General

A few days after my adventure with the blood clot, I returned to the cardiologist's office for a check up. We don't have national health care in this country, but the scene in this office felt grim and inefficient, like something I might expect in a mid-sized city in Romania. The shades were drawn, lights low. A movie no one seemed to watch blared on a flat-screen.

When I signed in, I saw an enormous complex of shelves stuffed with fat manila folders. Despite tens of billions of dollars of government subsidies (as part of President Obama's stimulous package), this practice still finds a reason to avoid investing in electronic medical records. (As I write, I realize my reference to the Romanians may have been unfair.)

A medic finally retreived me from the lobby and took me to an office. She set me up for an electrocardiogram. I told her that I'd had one at the hospital only a week earlier (and probably would be paying $1,000 for it). She retreated with her machine.

Finally, the doctor looked at my leg. She explained a thing or two about the clot, and cleared up some misunderstandings on my part. I thought that the medically thinned blood was busy eroding the blood clot, much the way water from a hose breaks up a clump of mud. Turns out that the blood-thinner is merely to ensure that more blood won't add to the clot. Within a month or two, the clot should shrink and dissolve by itself, molecule by molecule. If I hadn't taken blood thinners, she said cheerfully, the blood would have kept adding to the clot, eventually occupying my whole leg. I didn't dare ask her what would happen then.

She wanted to make sure, she said, that the clot hadn't in some way affected the work being done by the left chambers of my heart. So she sent me upstairs to a sister company for an echo-cardiogram. It's based on ultrasound. They rub you with goo and then slowly run a machine over it. You see the heart carrying out its exersions. The rushing blood sounds almost like the ocean. (What do I know? Maybe before taking my blood thinner, it sounded more like a swamp.) The exam took about 15 minutes. Afterwards, someone presumably analyzed the report.

They haven't gotten back to me yet, 10 days later, but my wife saw the bill: More than $2,000 for the test alone. I could go up and see the exact number, but I don't want to. It just makes me mad at this gauging, dysfunctional mess of a health care system we have. I'm sure the insurance company will end up paying less. And then I'll pay my 20% cut of whatever number they settle on. As a consumer, I'm powerless in this transaction.

                                                      You need good eyes to see my name.

As I mentioned to the cardiologist, I just finished writing a book with Jonathan Bush, co-founder and CEO of athenahealth, about how to fix this same health care system. It's his book, but I wrote it, and Penguin-Portfolio is publishing it in May. It's called Where Does it Hurt? An Entrepreneur's Guide to Fixing Health Care. For my own education, I guess it was good for me to experience the system we criticize in the book. I should mention that lots of the people I've met along the way, including the doctors and nurses, have been just fine. And we don't complain about them in the book, either. It's just that they're stuck, as are we all, with a dreadful system.

I won't lay out the arguments of the book here. But the basic premise is that the industry needs to be massively disrupted, and that the forces that run it--the big research hospitals, pharma giants, insurance companies and the government--are committed to sustaining much of the status quo. Bush, a medical tech entrepreneur who happens to be a member of the Bush family, thinks that only outsiders can shake things up. The book lays out the argument for a revolution based on plentiful information, innovation, customer service, transparent pricing, and competition. More later.

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

Friday evening I flew from Phoenix to Newark with a planeload of football fans from Denver and Seattle. They were heading to the Superbowl. Though I didn’t know it at the time, I had thrombosis in my left calf and would be spending most of the weekend in a hospital. On balance, I would say, I had a better weekend than many of those fans I was sitting with.

A little background. I had fallen the previous Sunday. (lesson: Don’t walk down stairs in your socks reading something on your tablet.) Two days later, when walking up a hill in Scottsdale, I noticed a tightness in my left calf. Bruising, I thought. A day later, I had a few free hours and the weather was nice. So I put on shorts and hiked up Camelback Mountain. The calf was still tight, and I saw for the first time that it was swollen. At this point, I think it’s safe to say I was guilty of self medical malpractice…

So, let’s compare my weekend experience to that of my fellow travelers from Denver. Friday night, I drive home from the airport and have a drink with my wife and listen to music, and then go to bed. It is at that point that she sees my swollen leg and orders me to go to the doctor the next day. The Denver fan I’m picturing takes public transport to a midtown hotel and spends the evening partying around Times Square. While I wouldn’t trade my evening for his, we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.

Saturday, I wake up and go to the doctor’s office. He takes one glance at my calf and says I probably have deep vein thrombosis--a blood clot. If the blood clot works its way loose, it could travel to my lungs, leading to an embolism and a very serious situation. He sends me to the hospital.

The Denver fan is probably waking up at about that time, perhaps with a hangover. Still, he faces a full day in New York. The weather’s nice. I’d say his Saturday is shaping up better than mine.

I check into the emergency room. They give me tests, ascertain that I have a blood clot. They clamp on my first of several identity bracelets, drill a medicine port into my left arm, and then I wait a number of hours to be wheeled up into a room.

Needles bring out the chicken in me
I’m not a big fan of the food scene around Times Square. There are loads of overpriced chains, a Hard Rock Cafe, a Bubba Gump shrimp place, an Applebees. But whatever they find, it’s infinitely better than the hospital dinner I eat, an institutional meal with slabs of tasteless turkey, mashed potatoes made from powder, and string beans that have been boiled for hours, or perhaps days, on end. At this point, strong advantage for the Denver fan.

And things get worse for me. Because while the Denver fan is carousing, my roommate and I are trying to get some shut-eye. It’s probably easier, on balance, to get sleep in a train station than a hospital. Nurses and medics shout up and down the halls. They barge into the room and turn on the light, waking you up to take blood pressure or stick a thermometer in your mouth.

What’s worse, my roommate, who came in a day earlier with chest pains, has a lot of monitors attached to him. And when they fall off or become detached, which they tend to do when he rolls over, alarms go off. At around two in the morning, an alarm rings. He hits his nurse button, I hit mine. But nothing happens. I finally climb out of bed (risking pulmonary embolism) and go out into the corridor in my skimpy nighty to call for help. He bellows NURSE! from his bed. Someone finally comes. Later, a few people spend what seems like a half hour setting him up with an IV. An hour later, he yanks it out, climbs out of bed, and spends a long and noisy time in the bathroom. The nurse, in as civil a tone as she can muster, later gives him hell for that.

Sunday morning, I think it’s safe to say, the Denver fan is having a much better weekend than I am. But this is where things begin to turn in my favor.

Morning in the hospital is the best time. Light streams in through the windows. Breakfast is much better than dinner. I'm not facing the dark and disturbing emptiness of a hospital night, at least for a while. I have music (to blot out my roomie’s TV), a Kindle, all the services of a smart phone. I master the bed controls to lift my legs and my head, turning it into a sheeted barca-lounger. Best of all, they tell me I’ll soon be getting released.

Compare that to the Denver fan. To be fair, maybe he’s not waking up with a hangover. But he probably is. He staggers over to Times Square, where the breakfast scene is bleak. Security and logistics dictate, he has been told, that he has to get to Giants Stadium a full three hours before kickoff. (It’s as if he’s flying to Israel!) And he’d better give himself some extra time, because the New Jersey Transit connections are bound to be crowded and slow.

As he and hordes of football fans march toward Penn Station, I’m out of the hospital and getting my blood-thinning meds at a pharmacy. It's not fun yet, but I’m facing a free afternoon, followed by dinner and an evening watching football on the tube.

From what I’ve since seen, the commute to Giants Stadium is a nightmarish ordeal for the football fans. Thousands of them are jammed on the platforms of the Frank Lautenberg transit station in Secaucas. Some take four hours to get to the game. Walking would be quicker (though I’m sure a stream of pedestrians marching up Route 3 would  attract the attention of eagle-eyed snipers guarding the stadium).

Long story short. I’m free. The Denver fan is being shuttled from one confinement to the next. And in the biggest confinement center, Giants Stadium, after all the waiting and lines and security procedures, after all the questionable food around Times Square, and probably too much to drink, he has to sit there for four hours and watch his beloved team get absolutely clobbered. He has nothing to cheer about.

I put the cats in the basement and walk up to bed after the game, happy to be home. The Denver fan has another hellish commute back to Manhattan. He’s surrounded by delirious Seattle fans. Some of the trains didn’t leave until 12:30.

The next day, we wake up to about four inches of snow, and it snows most of the day. Plane flights are cancelled. I’m writing this on Tuesday evening. That Denver fan might be getting home about now. I hope so, because more snow is coming in a few hours.

                                                   Fans in the Secaucas station (AP photo)

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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