Stephen Baker

The Boost
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Kevin J. Anderson and religion in other worlds
June 4, 2014General


Kevin J. Anderson, the prolific sci-fi author, sat at a panel with me at Comicpalooza in Houston. We have the same publisher (Tor), but I've published one novel, he's on #125 at last count. He knows a thing or two. When someone in the audience asked him how he creates new worlds in his fiction, he had a ready answer, complete with an acronym: PERSIA.

P stands for politics. Who's in charge? How do they maintain control?
E = economics. Do they have money? What is valued and exchanged? What do the inhabitants do for work?
R is religion.
S is science. What do they know, and what can they do with this knowledge. It's related, naturally, to politics and economics.
I is the murkiest to me: Intelligentsia. Is there a group with special knowledge? Do they threaten the rulers, or do they run the place?
A is art. What do they create for beauty, and what does it say about their civilization?

I thought about these categories for The Boost. One that comes up nearly empty is religion. There's no talk of religious affiliation (though it could be argued that the brainwork to run the boost courses through neural pathways devoted in previous generations to prayer). Some of the characters, however, think about religion. At one point, Ellen looks from her window in El Paso toward Juarez, where the people lack cognitive chips (and are considered "wild"). 

"She wonders if wild people are more religious than everyone else. That would make sense, since they carry around more mystery in their lives--or at least fewer answers. They have almost no idea of what diseases they're most likely to get, or what food and medicine to take to avoid them. It's like a crap shoot. When you get down to it, they don't know that much more about their lives and their bodies than the cavemen did. Then again, even with all the advances from the boost, the applications that spot cancer cells and obliterate them with nano agents, the programs that stimulate neurons and reverse diseases like Parkinson's and MS--despite all that, people still die with chips in their heads. Death just comes a couple decades later, barely a blink in eternity. So religion shouldn't be that much less relevant, she thinks. The wild people just have more empty time to consider it."

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Bush health care book hits NYT bestseller list
May 28, 2014General

The Boost isn't my only book out this month. The other one, a book I wrote with athenahealth's Jonathan Bush, just hit the New York Times Bestseller list. It's called Where Does it Hurt? An Entrepreneur's Guide to Fixing Health Care.  It feels great to be slotted in at number six, ahead of Mariano Rivera, and biting at Timothy Geithner's heels.


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Slideshow of an odyssey from El Paso to Big Bend
April 28, 2014General


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Why my characters race to El Paso
April 28, 2014General

One spring day a couple of years ago I started to write a novel. It featured a young man named Ralf. Recently, some bad and very violent people had opened up his head, right above the temple, and ripped out his cognitive chip, or “boost,” leaving Ralf “wild.” The future United States in this story is not a hospitable environment for the wild. They cannot exchange messages, nor can they look anything up or locate themselves on a map. They have no money, which is all virtual. Ralf, a software engineer, feels as if he’s suffered a lobotomy.


On the first page, I had Ralf on the run, with his girlfriend, Ellen. Where was I going to send them?


To El Paso. It was a no-brainer for me. Even though I lived in the border city for only 16 months in the mid-80s, El Paso is where my stories gravitate. The writer Linn Ullman makes the case that picking a place precedes a plot, and that each of us has a special place or two to tell a story: “In your life there a few places, or maybe only one place, where something has happened. And then there are other places, which are just places.”


I had just moved back from Venezuela and was looking for a newspaper job when I first visited El Paso. I figured I was ready for a big city paper, like Dallas, Miami, or Los Angeles, one that might send me back to Latin America. But I found a cheap Southwest flight to El Paso and flew out to spend a weekend with my roommate from Venezuela.



The view toward Juarez from my old neighborhood, Sunset Heights


He picked me up at the airport. The desert light was blinding. He pointed to the Franklin Mountains, which stretched into the downtown. Compared to the bright green mountains of Caracas, they looked to me like big piles of dirt. I wasn’t impressed. As we drove toward the city on I-10, he gestured beyond the oil refineries, to the purple mountains to our south. That was Mexico, he said. He took a few turns through the downtown, through the hurly burly of South El Paso, which felt like Mexico, and then across a bridge into Ciudad Juarez, which was real Mexico. We had a beer in the Kentucky Club, a throwback saloon with a polished mahogany bar. The place was growing on me.


I ended up with a job at the now defunct El Paso Herald-Post. We worked in a newsroom where the sun streamed in through the blinds, lighting up all the smoke. There were old guys (my current age) working there  who ambled off to city hall or the police station mid-morning, had a drink or two at lunch, and then spent the afternoon writing up eight or ten inches of news and trading jokes, some of them at the expense of coastal newcomers like me. I don’t think those guys ever went to Juarez.


I did much of my reporting, on both sides of the border, on bicycle. I could zip back and forth across the bridges without waiting in customs lines. And because the climate was so dry, I didn’t have to worry about showing up at interviews drenched in sweat. It was reduced to rings of salt. Sometimes I carried a huge walkie talkie in my back pocket.


Now there are lots of reasons El Paso was special for me. It was my first time living in the American West, and in the desert. I could buy my beer and hot sauce in Juarez, and eat dinner there. I enjoyed my colleagues at the paper. My eyes adjusted to the desert and the mountains, and found the colors. Most important, I met my future wife and stepson there.


But El Paso was also a weird place, an isolated outpost of the United States that shared a valley with Mexico. The border introduced conflict and often comical misunderstanding into almost every story.


When I was there, my colleague Terry Poppa was writing hard-hitting stories about a Mexican drug lord named Gilberto Ontiveros, known as El Greñas, or Mophead. One day a part-time photographer of ours was taking a picture of a hotel Ontiveros was building in Juarez. The photographer was abducted for a few hours, beaten, and sent back with a death threat for Poppa.


There was nothing comical about that. But when that death threat arrived, the editors of our paper started walking taller. They had found their mission: to defend freedom of expression and expose the hypocrisy in Mexico, where drug lords and crooked politicians were in evil cahoots. They had a case to make, of course, but they knew little about Mexico, and they filled their chest-thumping front-page editorials largely with cliches.


I twisted this incident around and used it as the dramatic lynchpin of my yet-to-be-published novel, Donkey Show.  The story features a bike-riding journalist (hmmm) who loves languages and wants to be a foreign correspondent--and is also a lazy reporter. He writes a story about a drug lord that’s filled with hearsay. (The man is said to have a harem, and tigers as house pets. He has a glass eye that he pops out and sometimes puts in people’s cocktails as a joke…) This story appears to earn the reporter a death threat, and we’re off and running. (This fictional reporter, incidentally, is the great grandfather of Ralf, the chip-less hero of The Boost.)


The title Donkey Show itself refers the kind of comical misunderstanding so common on the border. Back when I was reporting there, before recent drug wars scared tourists from Juarez, men would whisper, “Meester, you want see Donkey Show?” The first time I heard one of these guys, I thought he was saying something about “Don Quichotte,” which is what the French call Don Quixote. Why, I wondered, would this man telling me something so urgent about a translation of 17th century literature?


A donkey show, it turns out, involves the promise, using the word loosely, of a sex exhibit involving animals. These border entrepreneurs somehow manage to interest carousers in such a show. Then they lead them from bar to bar, selling them overpriced drinks (and getting kickbacks), telling them at every stop that the donkey show is coming up, just a little bit later. (The Mexican word for this is “ahorita.”)  Perhaps some tourists actually see a donkey show. Who am I to say they don’t? But most of them, I’ve been told, reach the end of  their nocturnal odyssey falling-down drunk and much poorer, and still waiting for the show. Like much of what passes for knowledge along the border, it’s shrouded in myth.  


I’ve lived in lots of special places, including Paris, Madrid, New York, Vermont, Washington DC, and Quito, Ecuador. Given a choice of my various addresses, I think most people would put El Paso toward the bottom of a wish list. And I’ve been wondering why my mind always wanders there. I've concluded that in addition to the border, the sunshine, the weirdness and great food, it has to do with a period of freedom in my life.


It was a time when I felt I could go anywhere. If journalism didn’t pay, English classes were a fallback, and in most places I could get by on less than $10,000 a year. El Paso, though, was the last stop of my solo career. Within two years, I was living in Mexico with my wife, kids, a dog, a serious job for a Fortune 500 company. It was what I wanted and wouldn’t trade it back for anything. But everytime you move forward, you leave something behind. It's easy for me to see now why I dream of those days of riding my bike across the border and falling in love.


This message on the Juarez mountain urges people to find truth in the Bible. One character in The Boost sees the same message in 2072 and wonders if the wild people in Juarez might be closer to the mystery of religion....

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A Philosophical Quintet
April 21, 2014General

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

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






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


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


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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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The Boost: an excerpt
- April 15, 2014


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


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


Why Nate Silver is never wrong
- November 8, 2012


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


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


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


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


Rethinking books
- October 3, 2010


The coming privacy boom
- August 17, 2010


The appeal of virtual
- May 18, 2010


My next book: IBM's Jeopardy mission
- March 22, 2010