Stephen Baker

The Boost
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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.

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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.

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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. 

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Before the snow
January 28, 2015General

                                                Seen on a street in Montclair, near the Y

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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? 

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Books of 2014
December 30, 2014General

This might be the shortest book list of my life. There are three reasons for this. One is that the Proust includes five big books, and each one took me about a month when I was fully engaged. For the first half of the year, I was hooked. I didn't regard it as a book so much as a place I went. It was an apartment, in France in the 19th century, and I was there with a long-winded and hypersensitive artist whose behavior was often absurd. His sentences seemed endless. He could be boring and repetitive, but also brilliant, and funny, and I wanted to hang around with him and inhabit his world. Toward the end of these big tomes, I would promise to take a break and read one or two of the books piling up on my list. They would be so much easier, I told myself. It would be like a vacation. 

So I'd finish The Shadow of Young Girls in Flower (II) or The Guermantes Way (III), I would spend a week or so picking up one of those other, easier books on my list, and reading a few pages. But there was only one thing I felt like reading. So I'd dive back into the Proust. This was the rule until I got to volume five, The Prisoner, in which the narrator holds his girlfriend, Albertine, in captivity in his Paris apartment. If she breaks free, he fears, she'll pursue lesbian lovers. The very prospect torments him. (It's hard to take this at face value, since Proust himself was gay and, as he told a colleague at least once, he turned his male lovers into female characters in the book, giving them masculine names like like Albertine and Gilberte.) The narrator frets obsessively for about 400 pages. Except for one long scene of a public shaming at a soiree, It's tedious. I put it down for days on end, and only willed myself through it while on vacation.

By that point, my two books had been published. Where Does it Hurt? came out on May 15, and The Boost landed a week later. Within weeks, I was writing my own novel, Dark Site, the prequel to The Boost. I figured I'd give myself a Proust vacation until I finished it, which turned out to be Dec. 3. The short days and long evenings of winter, I've always found, are better suited for long books. 

Now I'm on the other volume of the Albertine duo, Albertine is Gone. It's marginally better than The Prisoner, but still, from my perspective, the second worst of the lot. This might be because these two volumes were unedited manuscripts at the time of Proust's death, in 1923. His brother tidied them up and published them. I would hope that Proust himself would have have cut out lots of the boring stuff, and perhaps condensed them into one shorter volume. 

Spending much of this year with Proust has altered the way I think about the passing of time, and memories, and also how I think about literature. In fact, I was already back into Proust a couple of weeks ago when I was rereading the manuscript of my prequel. It has a first-person narration by a self-obsessed man who makes a number of ridiculous choices. I realized as I read it that I'd unwittingly lifted a bit of Proust. (I don't think too many readers would draw this connection.)

In one of my short Proust vacations, I read Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl. It  came highly recommended from a friend, but I kept putting it down. It just wasn't for me, and I had to speed read the last 100 pages or so just to see how it ended. Even so, I decided to feature a first-person narrator, a bit like hers, in my own novel. Like hers, mine would be less than entirely credible, let alone lovable. 

So there you have it. Proust, Gone Girl and Dark Site. My literary year of 2014.

I just took a look at the list I wrote a year ago. My point was going to be that tackling one huge book, like Proust's, makes a year more memorable than the usual pot-pourri. But there are some real winners on that 2013 list. It was pretty memorable, too. Still, I'm taken with the idea of big projects. Candidates for the coming year might be Don Quixote or the Bible. But first I have to read the last volume of Proust, which is very long....

* I'll write about two Spanish-language books, El Ruido que Hacen las Cosas al Caer and La Apertura Cubana in a separate post. 

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The Serial Podcast: when the narrator intrudes
December 30, 2014General

Sarah Koenig, photo by Meredith Heuer

I’ve been listening to the Serial podcast both for the crime story it tells and as an exercise the journalist narrative. I’m behind most listeners, who have heard the whole 12 chapters. I just heard #7 last night on the elliptical, and I hated it.

I’ve thought about this over the last half day. It comes down to Sarah Koenig’s narrative. In the previous episodes, I got to appreciate her voice. She guides us through her education. She’s a rookie crime sleuth. And she’s dealing, for the first time, wiith people caught up in crime, cops, witnesses, and most important, the convicted killer, whom she hopes to find innocent. To tell her story, she has to put us in the head of Adnan Syed, who’s serving a life sentence in the Maryland Correctional Center for a murder he says he didn’t commit.

She stitches together the voices of the cops and lawyers and friends and experts, along with Adnan’s, and tells us how she’s evaluating all of this evidence. She teeters on the edge of getting in the way too much, but manages to restrain herself. It works.

That is, until the episode I heard last night. The entire segment carries us away from Baltimore, the scene of the case, to the law school at the University of Virginia, where a professor named Deirdre Enright runs an Innocence Project. What follows is almost like a therapy session for a puzzled journalist. Koenig becomes the story. Am I thinking about this the right way? Is it OK for me feel Adnan’s guilty one day and innocent the next? … Oh, you find me skeptical? Let me describe my symptoms to you (at considerable length and not very articulately). It goes on.

I think the chapter flopped, but I still appreciate what Koenig and her team are doing, and I can relate to the narration issues. When I pitched the Numerati, following a BusinessWeek cover story in early 2006, I took the same approach. Like Koenig, I was going to be at the center of the story. I would take readers along on my education into the world of the math geeks who were busy using data to redefine and conquer the world.

In some chapters, I was thin on material, and I had to fill in the holes myself. I felt sometimes like a Broadway empresario who has to dance for the crowd while waiting for the actors to show up. In the dating chapter, the evidence was very flimsy  that the algorithms of were any more powerful than a geographical match. So I wrote about how my wife and I signed up to see if it would match us. It was a page or two of comedy.

My approach worked for some readers. Others would have preferred less of me and more computer science and math. In any case, it was an issue I grappled with.

In the following book, Final Jeopardy, I would tell the story of IBM’s Watson computer. In my first draft, I inserted myself into the story, just the way I had in the Numerati. My excellent editor at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Amanda Cook, told me to get the hell out. This had to be a historical narrative, and I had no place in it. She was right.

Koenig can’t get out of the Serial Podcasts, and she shouldn’t. But I hope in the coming episodes she steps back a bit and lets the story itself, and the characters involved, do more of the telling.

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News-Decoder: a global news startup
December 17, 2014General

When I was in my 20s, I wanted to be a foreign correspondent. I changed jobs and continents every year, hoping eventually to land a job as a correspondent for a major publication or wire service somewhere in Latin America. I taught English in Ecuador, freelanced in Madrid and Argentina, and worked at newspapers in Venezuela and on the U.S.-Mexico border, in El Paso, Texas.

To understand the stories I was covering, I needed input from the rest of the world. I had to learn about banking (Latin America was buried in foreign debt) and oil. Events in Europe were crucial, because after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Latin America was competing with Eastern Europe for investments. Japan, at that point, was an economic juggernaut, and was investing in Mexico and Brazil. Chinese labor at some point was going to compete with the region…

There was a lot to follow. I did the best I could. I read The Economist and Foreign Affairs. I struggled my way through Le Monde Diplomatique. (All of this was on paper, often weeks or months behind the news.)

There were no Web sites back then, and no public Internet. But imagine how much more I could have learned if I’d had a connection with a network of a few hundred people like me around the globe. It would have been a dream to share ideas, photos and links to articles with people living in Moscow, Havana, Warsaw, Beijing, Managua, and Berlin. I can only imagine what I would have learned, and how it would have improved my coverage.

That type of rich communication is possible with today’s technology, but where do you go to find it? How do you learn about the domestic pressures weighing upon the leaders of Russia or Iran, now that oil is cheap, or feelings toward ISIS in Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood has been hounded into hiding?

That’s where News-Decoder comes in. It’s a global affairs startup, geared toward young adults. The founders are a group of foreign correspondents, most of them with roots at Reuters. Nelson Graves, a friend of mine since the early ‘80s, is the project leader. Take a look at this page. If you’re living somewhere interesting in the world—and all of us are—jump aboard.

Raul Alfonsin speaks to a crowd before 1983 elections in Argentina. One of those dots is me.

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The evolution of A.I.
December 16, 2014General

I visited my Amazon author page today and happened upon a conversation about artificial intelligence (AI) and evolution. Are Darwinian forces pushing the development of AI?

I wrote a response, which I’ll cut-n-paste here:

Perhaps we give intelligence more credit than it deserves in biological evolution. The shark has proven a survivor on earth, with a model that hasn't changed in tens of millions of years. Lots of animals are smarter, no doubt including thousands sea animals that have gone extinct. Intelligence only goes so far. The shark has the smarts it needs to operate the killing machine that it is, and to mate. Lots of animals survive by growing sharp teeth or thicker fur, by seeing better, by expanding lung capacity or sloughing off a virus that kills others. I would say that the development of the computer owes much more to intelligent design than evolution.

The evolution of the computer, if we want to call it that, occurs in the marketplace. And if the buyers are backward, or ill-equipped, or blind to its qualities and potential, then it fails. If you take a brand new 24-inch iMac to a medieval peasant, it's useless to him. He can't even plug it in. So, if we're disappointed in the progress AI has made over the last 50 years, it's been limited in part by the imagination of the consumers, including ourselves. That said, AI has made enormous progress even over the last five years. Its impact on our lives is already enormous, and will only grow in the age of data.

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AI and talking dogs
November 12, 2014General

I was talking yesterday to students at Newark Academy. The subject was Artificial Intelligence, and I started off my talk with a question about dogs. If you could give your dog some drug or therapy which would enable it to speak, I asked, how many of you would sign up for. Hundreds of kids raised their hands. There's clearly a market for talking dogs.

I pointed out that talking dogs might not turn out to be great conversationists. They might wander the house repeating "I'm hungry, I'm hungry," or go on forever about other urges or desires. Maybe they'd tell us that they don't like us, or agitate against leashes. Living with talking dogs would also raise delicate issues. If you're having a private conversation, is the dog hearing it? Does it understand? Will it spill our secrets? 

The point of this thought experiment is that we humans have had language more or less to ourselves for about 30,000 years. But in the coming years, we'll be surrounded by talking machines. We won't be sure exactly how much they understand, and we can't be sure they'll respect our secrets. Unlike talking dogs, these machines will be experts in data retrieval and analysis, and will have fabulous math skills. 

The point? All of us should be preparing ourselves to be sharing our jobs and our lives with this next generation of cognitive machines. The key is to figure out which jobs they'll be doing, and to be in a position to work with them--and not be replaced by them.

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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