Stephen Baker

The Boost
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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.

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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. 

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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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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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Bad people are... Nazis
January 26, 2014General


Kristallnacht, November 9, 1938


So venture capitalist Tom Perkins frets that the very rich might suffer the same fate as Jews in Germany in the 1930s.


This is nothing new. A few years ago, Steve Schwartzman, head of the Blackstone private equity firm, equated President Obama’s proposed tax hikes with Hitler’s invasion of Poland. And lots of people find ways to compare Obamacare to Nazi policies. One North Carolina politician, perhaps just to be evenhanded, said it was worse than Hitler, Stalin and terrorism combined.


There are probably books to write about a common sense of victimhood we have in this country, one that no level of wealth or privilege can assuage. And of course, they’re scandalously insensitive to those who suffered terrible crimes at the hands of butchers. But what strikes me is how primitive the thinking is. I would expect people who can feed themselves, perform basic hygiene and organize nouns and verbs into sentences to come up with better metaphors.


Tom Perkins, after all, is capable of nuanced thinking. All kinds of startups knocked on his door through the decades, and he was able to think through business plans, technology trends, the patterns of social and economic behavior, and put his firm’s money on Amazon, Google and Genentech. Yet when it comes to historical analogies, he sounds like a kindergartener.


The problem, I think, is that many people, rich and poor alike, don’t spend too much time thinking about history. As a result, we have an impoverished historical vocabulary. There are only a handful of things we all know, and one of them is that Hitler was a monster. So he becomes the common receptacle for everything that’s bad. His policies created victims, and those feeling victimized, like Perkins, find common ground with people facing a holocaust. And Hitler deceived well-meaning negotiators, so every diplomatic deal with an adversary is compared to Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement at Munich.


This kind of thinking is tantalizing. After all, we barely need to know how to talk. Thumbs up and down will suffice. Now that I think about it, didn’t the Roman leaders make use of that gesture to signal life or death for the gladiators? Maybe we could widen our historical references to include that colorful detail. Nah. Probably better just to equip Hitler with thumbs. Easier.

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Books, 2013
December 31, 2013General

Thinking of books I read in 2013. A sampling...

Anna Karenina, by Tolstoy. I had read it in my 20s, and remembered almost nothing of it. Figured it was a good book to read in winter months, so I downloaded. I found it frustrating to read on the Kindle app, so I actually went to Watchung Booksellers and paid nearly $20 for a nice big paperback. I'd say I read it dutifully, enjoyed the scenes of 19th century life, but didn't get caught up nearly as much as Tolstoy might have liked in the ethical and spiritual issues. 

Trees of Smoke, by Denis Johnson. A great novel about trust, family, America, and a life running on auto-pilot in Southeast Asia. 

Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel. I had picked up this book a couple of years ago and found it unreadable. Then I started hearing that so many of my friends loved it, so I gave it another try. This time it worked. I've bought the follow-up, Bring up the Bodies, but haven't gotten to it yet. What I love about her style is the way she manages to make the story clear while providing a minimum of context. Sometimes you have to stop and figure something out. Who is this person? Who is the "He" she's referring to, etc. But this keeps the author hidden, and makes it feel like the story is being imparted directly, without artifice. It's full of artifice, of course. Otherwise it would be unintelligible. But she builds the context with little bits, small phrases between commas and short asides. 

1493, by Charles Mann, Globalization. I learned a ton about the modern world reading this book, and I read it while traveling in Brazil's Northeast, where the effects of decisions made right after 1493 were all around us. The hills were blanketed with sugar cane and many of our hosts had ancestors brought from Africa five centuries ago to farm it.  

El Camino, by Miguel Delibes. Small town life in Spain under Franco and the Church. Funny and beautiful, reminded me of Mark Twain. I read this while preparing for the bike trip in Spain, where we rode through lots of small villages like the one Delibes describes.

Mother, Daughter, Me, by Katie Hafner. A wonderful memoir, which I reviewed in September.

The Ball: Discovering the Object of the Game, by John Fox. An engaging history of the ball, by an anthropologist.

Catastrophic Care, by David Goldhill. I was working most of this year on a health care book, which is coming out in May. I'll write about it in a separate post, and will flog the issues as we approach publication. But the book, of which I'm the co-writer, shares a perspective with Goldhill's book. 

L'Adversaire, by Emmanuel Carrere. This is the story of Jean Claude Romand, a Frenchman who fabricated an entire false life for nearly 20 years, and killed his family when his secret started to come out. Sounds gruesome, but most of the book is about a guy surrounding himself with an ever more complex web of lies. I'd read it in 1999, soon after we moved to Paris. One of the best non fiction books I've ever read.

In the Garden of Beasts, by Eric Larson. The American ambassador to Germany and his family try to make sense of what's happening in Berlin in the 1930s. Great reading. I enjoyed the American side, too. So interesting that Roosevelt settled on a fairly obscure history professor, whose specialty was the American South, to represent the US in Europe's most important post (though I'm sure the Paris hands would have disputed that, back then). It's seems so quaint. 

Smart Machines : IBM's Watson and the Era of Cognitive Computing by John Kelly and Steve Hamm. I 

There were others, I'm sure. If I think of another, I might add to the list. But the one that's been keeping me busy since mid-November is Marcel Proust's giant novel, A la Recherche du Temps Perdu (In Search of Lost Time). After our trip to France in November, I was looking at French books on the Kindle, and Amazon promoted the entire work by Proust for $3,99. I thought what the hell. I'd always thought that someday I'd read it. Why not now/? So I've been spending at least an hour a day, sometimes much more, curled up at home or in a cafe, waltzing through 19th century French with a wordy, sickly, hypersentitive aesthete as a guide. So far, I've made it through 22% of the total, probably about 850 pages. That means I'm about halfway through the second volume, A L'Ombre des Jeunes Filles en Fleur (known as Within the Budding Grove). I'm not tiring of it the least bit, and I figure I'll finish the whole work around May, when this health care book and my novel, The Boost, both come out. 

Proust's novel is one book that I find easier to read electronically. One reason is that when I look at two full pages of the paper book, the big blocks of grey in tiny font can seem daunting. Sometimes the two pages feature one single paragraph, other times just a mega-sentence or two. But if I blow up the font and read the book on a screen, the language goes by like a stream of words, and I don't obsess on finishing something or getting anywhere in particular. I imagine it feels a bit like the Appalachian Trail. Yesterday I blew up the font even bigger and flipped through tiny pages of it on my phone while on the elyptical trainer at the Y. (So you could probably conclude at this point that I've plunged into the deep end.)

Last weekend, I took a short break from the novel and read Edmond White's short biography of Proust. It had quite a bit about Proust as a closeted gay author. At one point, Andre Gide gave Proust, whose sexuality was no secret (though not openly discussed), a hard time about the negative treatment he gives to homosexuality in his Sodom et Gomorrhe, a volume I'll probably be reading in March or April. Proust reportedly told him that most of the girls the narrator falls in love with are actually based on men he loved. There the reader encounters the beauty and mystery of love. And Proust apparently didn't have much of the positive side left over for the gays and lesbians in Sodom et Gomorrhe (which for some reason, possibly squeamishness, is translated in English versions as Cities of the Plain

We can only speculate about what Proust's life would have been like, and how his art would have changed, if he had lived in a time when rich asthmatics (like him) can live normal lives, and gay men and women can not only develop open and loving relationships, but also marry. He would no doubt have been an artist under such conditions, but anyone's guess as to what he would have written.

***

Funny that only a full week after writing this post do I remember, while staring at the book shelf, that I read Ian McEwan's latest novel, Sweet Tooth. I'm still sitting here reassembling the plot in my head, where it was utterly absent for months. Not a very consequential novel, I guess. But I'll read anything Ian McEwan writes, if only for his sentences, story-telling and intelligence. 


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Watson Off-Broadway show is born, a cousin of The Boost
December 6, 2013General

The other night I saw Watson in the theater. This wasn't just the IBM Watson, but a whole posse of them--all played by a single actor. It was a new play, The Curious Case of The Watson Intelligence, which is opening this month off Broadway (a stone's throw from the Port Authority). Written by Madeleine George, it's an engaging group of stories about intelligent helpers named Watson. One helps Sherlock Holmes, another Alexander Graham Bell, and a third is a not-too-distant future version of IBM's Jeopardy machine. It's a question-answering robot that can provide information. It's like Siri or Google voice a couple or three years from now, endowed with fairly primitive empathy "awareness" and more context than today's version.

IBM invited me to the show. I took along a galley of the Boost, hoping I could deliver it to Madeleine George, because I view her play and my book as first cousins, both progeny of the IBM Watson project. (I had to leave the post-performance panel discussion to catch my bus back to New Jersey.) It was 2011, after I had finished and published Final Jeopardy, that I felt a certain discontent. I had worked hard on the book, was proud of it, and I thought it wrestled with fundamental questions facing us, such as how are we going to use our minds in the future, and much a part of our "thinking" will be done in conjuntion with a computer of some sort? The book didn't sell all that well. Actually, I think people were interested in the Jeopardy project, but figured they knew enough about it from the TV shows and all of the surrounding publicity and interviews. To many, reading the book probably looked like overkill.

I wanted to reach a broader audience. So I took the advice of a Spanish friend and began writing a novel that takes place in this future. That became The Boost. I just got the galleys this week, and it will be coming out this May or June. In my book, most people (except for the wild) operate networked cognitive chips in their head. It looks at how we store and regard memories and knowledge, and how we network with these chips for friendship and love, while coping with massive surveillance. The template for this world, needless to say, already exists, and some form of the technology, descending from machines like the iPhone and Google Glass, is en route (whether or not it actually goes inside the head).

Madeleine George takes a different tack. While my chip is in the head, her's functions in another person, or robot, who tends to our needs. It's engaging, smartly written and wonderfully acted. I'd say it goes on about a half hour too long. But I can understand why. She has a lot of great material, and chopping out scenes has to be painful.

Probably no surprise, my favorite parts of the play took place in the near future in which a woman, a computer scientist who has left IBM's Watson team, is building a next-generation empathetic and conversational AI. She becomes emotionally entangled with this intelligence, which seems to shift between the machine and humans. Is that happening? Or is it something she feels because she spends her life threading these two cognitive systems?

This was fascinating, and well acted. The same trio of actors also traced other 19th century dramas, both involving helpers named Watson. They were entertaining and kept my attention, but it was the 21st century part that captivated me.



                                                                         Madeleine George

I went to the play with Steve Hamm, my frend and former BusinessWeek colleague. We edited each other's stories. He now works as a blogger-videoman-content guy at IBM. (His post on the play) After the play, I was trying to summarize for him my feelings, and I dipped into the spiel we would give each other in the editing process. It goes like this: "You have a lot of great stuff! Loved the part where (fill in the blank), and also (ditto)....(Changing voice to more somber tone)  I think we need to make it clearer up top where we are taking this story. And actually, instead of covering the whole industry, why not focus on one company, or even one person? Yes, I know you have a lot of great stuff about the marketing angle. That's another story! etc etc.

Long story short: The play about Watson is very good. It has what it takes to be a niche success. But the theme of the human helper isn't nearly as compelling as the other developing intelligence that works in conjuntion with us, cohabiting in our minds. If Madeleine cut out the 19th century scenes and expanded the 21st, it could be a big hit. 

Or maybe she could move on straight to The Boost. She'd be great for it.


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Photos from France
November 7, 2013General


We took a week in France, and traveled a lot more than usual in that time. We started in Avignon, drove down to Narbonne, stopping for lunch in Nimes. Then we dipped into the Pyrenees on a personal quest, before hurrying up to Lyon, mostly to eat, and then finishing in Paris.

All in all, a wonderful time. Below, a picture of the best bottle of wine we had on the trip which, oddly enough, was at the worst restaurant, a touristy place with slovenly service in Avignon. 


The second best came at the best restaurant, Le Viverais in Lyon. Some might notice that we ordered the Cote du Rhone in Avignon and wine from the Avignon area when we were dining on the cote of the Rhone. Rookie mistake. Still, no complaints. 


We had a nice last dinner at Astier, in Paris (below), in the 11th arrondissement. The wine list, though, was terrible, at least for those wanting to spend less than $80 on a bottle. We paid about $55 for a Cotes de Rhone that tasted like two-buck-chuck


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Is Bill Clinton today's Joe Dimaggio?
October 21, 2013General

I was listening to Slacker as I cooked last night, and Mrs. Robinson came on. I remember hearing the song when I saw the movie, The Graduate, before going to summer camp in 1968. The most famous line: 

"Where have you gone, Joe Dimaggio, a nation turns its lonely eyes to you..."


Dimaggio and Monroe

That got me to thinking about time. When I heard that song, I was 12. Joe Dimaggio had been retired from baseball for 17 years. Lots had happened in the interval. TV was born, and went from B&W to color. Dimaggio had married Marilyn Monroe, divorced her, and she had killed herself. The Kennedy presidency, the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam war, the assassinations. A lot had happened. Rock and Music was just a form of southern blues when Dimaggio retired. Now we had the Doors' Light My Fire, the Beatles' Sgt Peppers, Motown.

These were huge changes. So when Simon & Garfunkel sang about Joe Dimaggio, it evoked values from a distant time. But it was only 17 years. Maybe it seemed far back just because I was young. Did it seem so distant to people who were then in their 50s? I ask, because if you mention a figure from 1996, it seems to me almost like yesterday.

This led me to wonder how 12-year-olds today would regard a historical figure from the 1990s. The world has certainly changed a lot since then. The Internet has exploded, as has 9/11 and all of its repercussions, the Obama election, the global economic collapse. Kids today have been living their share of history. So which name would evoke for them what Joe Dimaggio's did for me?

I thought about sports figures who retired back then. Joe Montana, Cal Ripken? Nowhere close. Michael Jordan? Closer, no doubt. Then I considered a different realm, which led me to Bill Clinton. He was president in a time of (relative) peace and strong economic growth. It was pre-9-11. Is he today's Dimaggio? I have no idea.

***

A couple of notes, comparing '68 to '51. The number one hit in 51 was Patti Page's Tennessee Waltz. In 1968? The Beatles' Hello Goodbye. (I was going to embed it here, because their outfits are priceless. But the video includes a 30-second Vidal Sassoon ad I didn't feel like hosting.)


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