Stephen Baker

The Numerati
Editing my Wikipedia bio
June 8, 2015General

For years I bowed to a taboo: Never edit your own Wikipedia page.

I thought to fiddle with your own page was a bit pathetic, the ultimate selfie. But it also seemed to go against the crowd-sourcing ethos of Wikipedia. It introduced an interested party into the sanctum, as if Proctor & Gamble covered itself in the New York Times.

A few people had very kindly written a bio for me. It was a bit thin and haphazard, and its lack of citations led Wikipedia to post a warning banner atop the story. It didn't meet the site's standards. I went onto the talk page in 2008 and asked for advice on how to improve the post (and remove the banner). No one responded. For the next six years, I largely ignored my Wikipedia page.

Then I got a call from Dan Cook, an old friend from BusinessWeek days. Dan now works with Pete Forsyth at a consulting company, Wiki Strategies. The heart of their business is what they call "ethical editing."

The idea is that a Wikipedia page is the online front door for countless people and businesses. It is in both their and Wikipedia's interest that the page be accurate and complete, with citations. Of course, Wikipedians also want to keep self-serving pap and propaganda off the pages. But even the subjects of Wikipedia articles should share that goal, because to turn the online encyclopedia into a promotion engine risks undermining their own reputation--especially if Wikipedia editors and readers catch on.

Dan offered to help me improve my page. This meant finding citations, organizing the different chapters of my life, and--most importantly--explaining on the talk page what we were up to, and asking people to point out any problems or shortcomings they saw. 

So now there's a better bio of me in Wikipedia. I don't own it or control it. But I contributed to it. 

link to post share:

A history of segregation in liberal Montclair
May 21, 2015General

In the late 1700s, an ambitious entrepreneur named Irael Crane set up shop in a rural settlement about 10 miles up the dirt carriage trail from Newark. In the 1790s, he built something of a mansion in what would become Montclair. It was on that same Newark thoroughfare, which would later become Bloomfield Avenue, near the corner of today's Glen Ridge Avenue..

We went to a tour of the Crane house last weekend, and saw that the Historical Society is taking a new approach to telling its stories. Instead of studying the house simply as a relic of Jefferson-age Montclair, they're looking all the life that's passed through its rooms in the two centuries since. What they found was a rich African-American narrative, and not always a happy one. 

For starters, Israel Crane had a black slave or two working in the house.  The census of 1800 counts more than 12,000 slaves in New Jersey. Even after slavery was abolished here in the early 1800s, racial segregation was common in Montclair well into the 20th century.

In 1920, the Crane house became a YWCA for African Americans. It quickly became a social hub. The "colored Y" also rented rooms to lodgers, many of them new arrivals from the Great Migration. It was a place they could spend a week or two until they found a place to live and, hopefully, a job.

The segregation wasn't as overt as in the Jim Crow south, but clear nonetheless. One woman whose recorded voice we hear tells of going often into New York City to avoid the segregated restaurants and other businesses of Montclair. In the high school, black students were steered toward the gospel choir, whites toward the glee club. It wasn't until 1930 that whites and blacks marched together at the high school commencement.

This approach to telling history brings lives and voices into otherwise empty buildings. It's much more effective than the previous version, which was like a piece of colonial Williamsburg. Interesting, to be sure, but frozen in time. Another museum that tells similar stories is the Tenement Museum in NYC's Lower East Side. I recommend both.  

(The photo above is of the Crane house before it was moved in 1965, at great labor and expense, from its old location near Lackawanna Plaza to Orange Road.... And one other note from the excellent talk. We hear about "enslaved people," but never "slaves." Is the noun slave now to be avoided? Grist for another blog post.)

link to post share:

Wisconsin Basketball: A detour on the road to greatness
April 6, 2015General

When I was a senior at college, at the University of Wisconsin, the athletic department paid me $5 per hour to teach Spanish to athletes. Some of the athletes, especially those who traveled a lot, needed help to get through their foreign language pre-reqs. Every week, I’d set up appointments at the library with runners, swimmers, and football players. None of them, as far as I could tell, was getting much out of Spanish.

Then I got the basketball captain, a point guard named Bob Falk. He had been one of Madison’s greatest high school athletes, all-state in both football and basketball. He’d gone to Kansas to play basketball, but didn’t like it there, and transferred back home to the mediocre Wisconsin team. Unlike my other students, Falk was progressing nicely in Spanish. He just needed help working his way through short stories by Jorge Luis Borges.

My roommate, who tutored the athletes in math, got a tougher assignment. Wisconsin had just landed a blue ribbon recruit from Maryland, a silky smooth 6–8 forward named James “Stretch” Gregory. Stretch, they hoped, would lead the Badgers toward the big time — appearances in the NCAA tournament, maybe a national championship. That was the dream.

Stretch needed help in math, lots of it. The season was at stake, as was the dream of a blue-chip program. The athletic department gave my roommate a blank check. The more hours he could put in, the better. Stretch’s eligibility hung in the balance, and so did Wisconsin’s future as a blue-chip program. Or so it must have seemed at the time.

So the two of us, from our tables at Helen C. White library, had a role with that team. Our two players, Falk and Stretch, certainly had their moments. Stretch, with 17 points a game, led the team in scoring. And in mid February, Falk hit a game-winning jump shot from the deep corner to shock the reigning champions, Bobby Knight’s Indiana team.

But then Stretch had a minor brush with the law, and had to take part in a program for first offenders. This appeared to distract him from math, which put my roommate on the hot seat.

Stretch got through the year, and was in good standing when my roommate and I (and Bob Falk) graduated and went our separate ways. But the following year, Stretch lost his academic eligibility in the second semester. He didn’t bother taking his finals that year, which spelled the end of his days in Madison. (He did go on, however, to star for U. Wisconsin-Superior, in Division Three.)

A young assistant coach from that team, Bo Ryan, also branched out. He won Division III championships at UW-Platteville, before moving to Milwaukee and finally, Madison. Ryan has since lifted Wisconsin basketball to an elite program. The dream from those days when we were tutoring has finally come true. I wondered, as Ryan watched Josh Gasser and Sam Dekker dart past Kentucky defenders, if he images of Falk and Stretch and that improbable win over Indiana popped up in his memory.

I’d like to think that today’s Wisconsin basketball players might still be grappling with Borges’ Spanish or algorithm design — in short, taking advantage of the academic side of college. But I’d also bet that if a big star were on the verge of losing academic eligibility, the team wouldn’t rely on the time and tutoring skills of a single engineering student.

link to post share:

How Apple lost me in music (and then everything else)
March 26, 2015News

I was probably listening to my primordial MP3 player when I stopped here for coffee

In the year 2000, I was living in Paris and dying for an MP3 player. 
I finally got my hands on one. I think its capacity was 35 megabytes, which meant that it could hold eight or nine songs. Still, I liked making my own playlist, even if it was painfully short.

Perhaps the biggest shift in my digital music life came three years later, when I put my whole collection onto iTunes. Suddenly everything worked. And once it did, I just had to get an iPod. In the realm of owning, storing and playing digital music, Apple was king. And once I was lassoed in with the iPod, I lingered in the same ecosystem, later getting an iPhone, a first-gen iPad, and a few Macbooks.

Music led me to Apple, and I'm sure I wasn't alone. But then Apple began to "improve" ITunes, and with each upgrade it became more difficult to use. It began to drive me crazy. At the same time, cloud music services began to take off. 

So in the last two years, I've left Apple. I traded in my dying iPhone 4 for a Motorola with a better battery, I gave away my iPad and got a Nexus 7. I bought a Chromebook for laptop computing at home. And I stopped buying music, instead streaming with Spotify and Slacker. I still have a Mac Mini, and when I see iTunes there, I think: What an anachronism!

My point is that music brought people to Apple and led many of us away. That's why the news about Apple's new music service could be so important. While a billion-dollar music business, like Pandora's, would represent less than 0.5% of Apple's revenue, it could bring lots of people in the door, or at least keep them loyal to Apple.

link to post share:

Harris Wofford, Father Hesburgh, and Martin Luther King, jr.
March 8, 2015General

Fr. Theodore Hesburgh and MLK, flanked by Rev. Edgar Chandler and Msgr. Robert Hagerty at a 1964 civil rights rally in Chicago

When I was in high school, I was lucky enough to live down the street from an extraordinary family, the Woffords. Harris Wofford, who would much later become a senator, had played a big role in the civil rights movement, as a friend and ally of Martin Luther King, jr., and an advisor to President Kennedy. One of the people he mentioned often, and with reverance, was Father Theodore Hesburgh, president of Notre Dame University for 35 years, and a great social activist.

Father Hesburgh died in late Feburary. If he had died in the '80s or the '90s, when more people were aware of his extraordinary work, his death would have been front-page news. But Hesburgh made it to 97, outliving many of his headlines. Wofford, who turns 89 next month, traveled to South Bend for the wake, and spoke with The National Catholic Reporter about Hesburgh. Here's the interview. 

Wofford also wrote a wonderful piece about the Selma march for Politico. It focuses on a crucial decision that King faced on the day of the second march. The entire movement was about giving every American fair and equal treatment under the law. So what should King do when he has thousands of eager marchers ready to go--and he receives an injunction from a well-meaning judge, ordering him to postpone the march until safety can be guaranteed? Read the story.

link to post share:

Steve Levine's Powerhouse: a deep dive into battery technology
February 18, 2015General

I just raced through Steve Levine's The Powerhouse, a gripping, in-depth history of the race toward world-changing battery technology. Levine, a classmate of mine and briefly a colleague at BusinessWeek, has written books about Russia and oil. Now he turns to a technology that could spin the oil market upside-down--and Russia, too, for that matter. If electric cars go mainstream in the 2020s--still no sure thing--it will convulse global energy markets and the world economy.

And if batteries work for mass-market cars, they'll also barge into other energy markets, including the home. News emerged just last week that Tesla was developing a battery to help home-owners manage energy--buying it when it's cheap or perhaps harvesting it from their own solar panels, and conceivably moving off the grid. So advances in battery technology could also disrupt the business model of electric utilities. They could find themselves powering more cars and fewer homes. (Interestingly, Tesla uses conventional batteries. It is betting that it can lower costs simply by producing them more efficiently in a giant new fab. In this way, Tesla's strategy mirrors that of Google, which early on turned its back on cutting-edge supercomputers, instead filling its data centers with millions of commodity servers.)

Levine looks at the race toward battery technology from inside Argonne National Laboratory, west of Chicago. But his reporting extends to South Korea, Japan, and China, where efforts to come up with superbatteries are all racing ahead. I knew almost nothing about battery technology and learned a ton.

My one disappointment was that he didn't take us into the future, to see how the story is likely to play out. But Levine is a journalist, and a good one, but not a futurist. The story of how next-gen batteries will change the world is yet to be written. When it is, The Powerhouse will serve as a wonderful prologue. 

link to post share:

Before the snow
January 28, 2015General

                                                Seen on a street in Montclair, near the Y

link to post share:

The $14 transistor radio
January 26, 2015General

When I was a kid, I saved up to buy a motorboat. I didn't do any research on the subject and had no idea how much a boat with an outboard motor would cost. But I trusted that if I saved long enough, I'd get one. I think my allowance at this stage in my life was 50 cents a week.

It took a long time, but my savings eventually climbed past $20. I remember dumping all of the quarters and dimes, along with a few bills, on my bed and counting them all. It was a good feeling to have savings. But eventually I realized that even if I got to $50 or even $100, a motorboat was going to outstrip my resources.

So one day I put most of the money in my pocket and walked to Lancaster Avenue, in Bryn Mawr, and bought the other thing I was dying for: a transistor radio. I remember that it cost $14. It's hard to spend more than half of your savings on anything, but I was thrilled to have the radio. I could walk around and listen to music anywhere. I could sit out in the park across the street and listen to Phillies games. In October, I could sneak it into school, string the earplug through my sleeve, rest my head on my hand and listen to the World Series in math class. A transistor radio back then was the closest thing to an iPhone. A miracle machine.

Fast forward to now. We have a blizzard setting upon us in North Jersey, and we know from recent experience that big storms can bring down our archaic power wires and plunge us into darkness and cold. So today I did some errands. I bought kitty litter and batteries for our flashlights, and I stopped by Radio Shack and picked up a transistor radio (above). It cost $14.

It's amazing, isn't it, how what used to be a dream acquisition can turn into an afterthought? I have more recent examples. Only a decade ago, I was lusting for an iPod and was thrilled to get one for Christmas. I spent hours curating my gigabytes of music on iTunes, and then happily commuted with my new machine to and from New York. Now I look at the coffee table and see two machines--my cell phone and my tablet--which can both function as iPods, and I'm sure I could find a few more if I dug around a little.

So the question is this: What piece of technology do you lust after today--Google glassMicrosoft's HoloLensOculus RiftNikon D4?--and when will it become utterly banal? 

link to post share:

The virtues of hate speech
January 18, 2015News

Remember Terry Jones? He’s the dim-witted Florida preacher who burned a pile of Korans a couple of years ago. It inflamed anti-Americanism across the Middle East, undermined U.S. diplomacy, and earned Jones a top spot on an Al Queda hit list.

Jones is a perfect test case for freedom of expression, perhaps better than the French satirical weekly, Charlie Hebdo. After all, Charlie Hebdo fit snugly within the French mainstream. It thumbed its nose at intolerance and hypocrisy in religion, government and business. In doing so, it embodied France's secular values and its laughter, which is why the murderous attack on Jan. 7 was so devastating, and why millions rallied around the paper (even if few of them read it).

The better test for freedom of expression comes from a humorless outlier like Terry Jones. He is hateful and intolerant. His message hurts our national reputation and endangers our diplomats, business travelers and tourists. The government would have every reason to shut him down. But his First Amendment rights allow him to burn the books. He has his supporters, of course. But even those of us who are horrified by his actions can appreciate how free we are (under law, at least) to express ourselves.

This is where France has limits. While a Koran burner like Jones might not get arrested there, the country does impose targeted restrictions on speech. And they leave many, including moderate Muslims, feeling that the government has double standards. (This New Yorker piece provides excellent context and detail.) Cartoonists, for example, are free to lampoon Mohammed, because religions are fair game, but it’s illegal to disparage groups of people or even the president.

In the long run, it might be better for France to open the way for more irresponsible, unfair or hateful messages, communication that angers and unsettles the great secular majority. People will complain. But the upshot will be clear: Go ahead and battle with words and images. That’s how civilized societies fight.

link to post share:

The dance of the incumbents: IBM and US Steel
January 14, 2015News


IBM's new Z13 mainframes start at $200,000

When newcomers barge into an industry, they do the easy stuff. That’s logical enough. But as they get experience, they shinny up the value chain and displace the incumbents. “Oh, they’re just handling the bottom of the market,” the incumbents say, as they abandon one market after another. “They can’t touch our jewels.”

I saw this drama play out when I was covering steel in the ‘90s, and I see it now in the computer industry, specifically with IBM.

First steel. If you wanted quality steel in the 1980s, you went to a company that made it the traditional way, by reducing barge-loads of iron ore to liquid metal in a 2,900-degree (f) blast furnace, and then refining it. It was an enormously expensive (and dirty) industrial process. The two biggest producers were U.S. Steel and Bethlehem Steel.

During those years, so-called minimills were spreading across the country. They “made” steel by melting scrap. Viewed as little more than junkyard entrepreneurs, they crawled into the industry at the ground floor. They sold rebar, those ugly gnarled rods that reinforce concrete.

Good riddance, the big steelmakers said. They weren’t making money with rebar, anyway. But by ceding those lowly markets, they were unwittingly feeding a powerful insurgency. Through the years, the minimills, led by Nucor Corp., invested in new technology and refined their processes. Every time they entered a different steel market, prices collapsed, forcing out the traditional steelmakers. By the time I got to Pittsburgh in 1992, the beleaguered big steelmakers would say defiantly: “But do you think Nucor can make the hood of a Cadillac?”

Nucor is now the nation’s biggest steelmaker. Its market capitalization is $14.1 billion. That may not sound like much, but it’s more than four times the value of US Steel. Even if Nucor steel doesn’t go into Cadillac hoods, the company has helped itself to a big chunk of the market. What’s more, the traditional steel makers have had to invest in exotic technology to hold onto their shrinking top-end, from car hoods to shiny stove tops and washing machines.

Something similar has been happening in technology. In the 1950s and ‘60s, IBM grew into the world’s biggest and richest computer company by selling expensive mainframe computers to companies around the world. Mini computers, personal computers and most recently, cloud computing, ate away at that market. But IBM could still sell hardware to companies that demanded top-of-the-line performance, reliability and security.

As commodity computers claimed more markets, IBM shedded much of its hardware business, turning to more lucrative software and services. But Big Blue still clings to mainframes (in large part because they link customers to the company's software and analytics services). The newly unveiled Z13 will sell for $200,000.

As commodity producers invade a market, they always leave opportunities at the top. But those markets shrink. With time, the usurpers dominate, while the displaced champions, if still alive, are left servicing a small and shrinking niche.

Often, the old champions embrace the new technologies. I read that U.S. Steel is considering building an scrap-melting furnace at its Gary Works. This would have been heresy in the ‘90s. And IBM is pushing hard at cloud computing. But it's challenging for old companies to adapt their entrenched processes and culture to the new ways. It requires rapid change, and this hard work is often up to executive teams that have spent 30 years climbing up through the old system--and are only five or 10 years from retirement.

link to post share:

©2023 Stephen Baker Media, All rights reserved.     Site by Infinet Design

Kirkus Reviews -

LibraryJournal - Library Journal

Booklist Reviews - David Pitt

Locus - Paul di Filippo

read more reviews

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

The Boost: an excerpt
- April 15, 2014

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

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

Why Nate Silver is never wrong
- November 8, 2012

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

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

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

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

Rethinking books
- October 3, 2010

The coming privacy boom
- August 17, 2010

The appeal of virtual
- May 18, 2010