Stephen Baker

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Nelson Rockefeller's strange choices
October 19, 2013General

Imagine living in a place with a view like this with all the money you could ever want. While you're at it, imagine that you have a fabulous art collection, with enormous Warhol portraits of you and your wife, and lots of Picassos, including a set of intricately woven tapestries based on his paintings and overseen by the master himself. Nelson Rockefeller had all that, and he decided to remodel a dank basement at his family estate, Kykuit, to house the collection. 

Here in New Jersey, we have a split-level house worth only a fraction of one of Rockefeller's canvases. And yet there is not one room here that is uglier or more depressing than the basement in which he housed his art collection. (One exception might my "office," a converted laundry room.) We were told on our tour of Kykuit yesterday that Rockefeller had the architect Philip Johnson help him design the space. The result is a claustrophic corridon with no windows, ceilings hung at about seven feet and lined with ugly ceiling tiles. 

He had plenty of money to build a beautiful space for his art. He had hundreds of acres with spectacular views of the Hudson, or, looking in the other direction, the family's "reversible" nine-hole golf course bordered by forest. Yet he stored his art in the basement. Maybe it felt "modern" to him, a respite from the old stuff upstairs. Maybe he wanted a quiet place he could wander to in the middle of the night, in his bathrobe and slippers, and have a drink.

The larger point for me is that the beauty we experience has more to do with the choices we make than the resources at hand.

One other note about Nelson. He did what he could to add modern comforts to this grandfather's mansion. He dug a couple of extra swimming pools in the garden (since buried) and installed false book shelves in the study, which open up to show a color television. What a throwback it is. A state-of-the-art from the late sixties, it's probably 25 inches, maybe 27. Again, I thought, this guy had all the money in the world, and he had to watch the kind of TV that people today leave out on the sidewalk, hoping against hope that someone will pick it up.

In Nelson's defense, have to say that he placed statues beautifully.  

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October 9, 2013General

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* Go Bucs! 

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

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

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

Renwick Ruin (Tug44)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CB Bucknor calls strike three (

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Love of vinyl, part 4
July 4, 2013General

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Cicadas: A week in the life of a 17 year old
June 4, 2013General

The 17-year cicadas have emerged from the ground in Montclair, NJ, and they're making a racket near my house. If you're me, you pedal slowly toward the noise. You see cicada exoskeletons piling up along the roads. You see them on trees and telephone poles. The noise grows louder. When you finally reach the noise--and it often seems elusive--you look up. At first, you don't see much. Then you notice the movement. It's hundreds of cicadas flying around in the top branches, mating.

They don't have much time. It might be a couple of weeks. They have to mate, lay eggs, and then die. And then the process begins anew, 16+ years underground, a week molting and growing new wings, and then a frenzy of mating up high.

You could imagine their short above-ground life as a week in the existence of a reckless 17-year-old human. Picture it. The kid learns how to drive, uses the wheels (or wings) to engage in a mating ritual, scores in the first day or two and then, sadly, drives off a cliff.

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Another perspective on Spain
June 4, 2013General

Antonio Sanz Domingo, my biking compadre and friend of 47 years, put together a slide show of our two-wheeled romp through central Spain last month. The photo of me eating (It looks as through I'm dealing with a wobbly molar) is in the parador of Sigüenza, where we had given up on riding through the rain and were consoling ourselves with a feast. 

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