Stephen Baker

The Boost
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Going to school on Gone Girl
June 29, 2014General

A couple of weeks ago, as I was sketching out the prequel to The Boost. I downloaded Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl. I wanted new ideas about plotting and character development, and what better source than a massive best-seller that a good friend called "compulsively readable?" 

It starts well: "When I think of my wife, I always think of her head." The narrator goes on to describe its shape and angles, "like a shiny, hard corn kernal or a riverbed fossil."  Then he adds a touch of dark foreshadowing. "You could imagine the skull quite easily."

After that first paragraph, I felt that I was in the hands of a master. And I prepared to enjoy the first easy reading in months. (I'd been plowing through Proust since Thanksgiving, with a few breaks for non-fiction.) I would be spending consecutive weekends in Cape Cod and Nantucket, and I had the perfect beach reading, and even a Kindle with a non-reflective screen. It was almost luxurious to have a book written in modern American English, with protagonists who lived the lives of people I know (One is a laid-off journalist). 

But something unexpected happened. I kept putting the book down. The plot didn't grip me. I didn't care about the characters. My mind wandered. 

This isn't to rip the book, or to discourge people from reading it. Judging from its sales, and reviews, people are crazy about it. It just wasn't right for me. 

However, I can still take lessons from it. One device Flynn uses is the unreliable narrator. She has two of them, and they take turns hiding important facts from the readers. They admit such awful things about themselves that you tend to believe them. But their revelations are calibrated to gain credibility, so that they can hide the more damning aspects of their existence. (By the way, next time someone tells me that readers want "likeable" characters, I'm going to cite Gone Girl as a counter-example.)

This reading has changed my thinking about my prequel, Washington at War--2043. I was planning to write it with the same omnicient narrative that I use in The Boost, skipping from character to character and reading most of their minds. (For some reason, I never got into Don Paquito's head.) Now I'm considering having one of the characters tell the story. And it might be someone who's up to no good. 

(In the spirit of Gone Girl, I came upon the scene below near the Walnut Street market in Montclair.)

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My next novel: Washington at War
June 20, 2014General

I'm working on my next novel. It's a prequel to The Boost, and I'm calling it Washington at War. It takes place in the crucial years of 2043/44, when China and the United States battle for tech supremacy in the age of brain iimplants. The implants, or boosts, will become the platform for virtually all human communication--news, business, entertainment, diplomacy, and virtual worlds. Whoever rules the boost runs the world. Needless to say, the stakes are large.

I have a plot sketched out. I'm wondering, though, whether to tell the story more or less as I did in The Boost, with an omniscient narrator going from character to character, or to try something different. I'm toying with the idea of a first-person narration. In this case, this character wouldn't be entirely reliable. He (and I think it's a he) wouldn't know everything. And he might not be the nicest person in the story. In fact, he might be something of a villain. 

I'll let you know what I decide, but would welcome ideas.

The art, incidentally, comes from Fritz Lang's Metropolis. I was looking for images of Washington at War, and all I came across was Revolutionary War art featuring Gen. Washington. That's about three centuries too old. So I opted instead for an old image of the future.

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Will kids have to hack cars to drive them?
June 11, 2014General

Google's braintrust in a robotic car

Driverless cars are inevitable, I believe, because they're safer by orders of magnitude.
 Robotic drivers don't fall asleep, drive drunk or fiddle with text messages. Today's NYTimes lays out the numbers. Of course, if it were up to us, that wouldn't matter. We smoke, eat bacon cheeseburgers and ride motorcycles without helmets. 

So what will force the change? Insurance companies. They'll start, I'm guessing, by offering rich discounts to people who hand over the driving to robots. As these numbers grow, the economics will shift. Those who insist on driving their own cars will have to pay hideous premiums. Imagine what it's like today to get insurance when you have a couple of drunk driving convictions on your record. That's what it'll be like for those who want to drive on robot-dominated roadways.

In The Boost, which takes place in 2072, all cars have been robotic for decades. Ralf, the protagonist, has had his brain chip, or boost, ripped from his head, and is now "wild." At one point, he marvels that back when his mother was a teenager, in the late 2020s, people still had the freedom to drive cars. 

"They'd make phone calls, turn around to yell at their kids, even get drunk or fall asleep--all while driving a three-ton machine that was getting instructions from no one but them. It wasn't only the people who were were wild. Cars were, too."

One question is whether kids in the future will be able to "hack" robotic cars to be able to drive. It'll be hard for them, of course, if there's no steering wheel.

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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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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