Stephen Baker

The Boost
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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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Why is dentistry sane?
October 2, 2014General

I went to the dentist yesterday and ended up getting my tooth prepared (to put it as nicely as possible) for a crown. I paid a $560 co-pay, which I think is 50% of the total. I think it's pretty good value for the money. If I were uninsured, it would be $1,120. Either way, as a consumer, I'm satisfied.

Compare that to a recent trip to the cardiologist (concerning my now disappeared blood clot). I had an ultrasound on my legs, to see if the clots were gone. This involved spending 15 minutes with a technician  who pushed an a sensor again my vaselined legs, and gazed at the images on the monitor. She wasn't allowed to tell me what she saw (though she was nice enough to do so "off the record.") That set of images was then sent to a "reader," a doctor qualified to interpret them. This is serious medicine. The cost of mistakes is high, and they have to buy insurance against it. The machinery, I'm sure, is expensive, in part because it's sold to an spendthrift industry and the price can be absorbed into wildly inflated bills.

Speaking of which… The bill for the ultrasound came to me the other day. The hospital charged $2,095 for it. The insurance company paid $597. And then the hospital, which has some sort of nodding-winking relationship with the insurer, gives another $1,348 as a “discount.” I pay about $11,000 out of pocket every year for this coverage, and I’m still left with a co-pay of $149--which is about what I might expect to pay for the service in a sane health care economy.

I’m not a happy customer. I feel that money is being thrown around capriciously. I have little choice, because we're talking about my heart. This dynamic--life-or-death leverage in a market with little price accountability--has driven health care to 19% of our economy. (That's one reason we can’t afford to reform health care as drastically or as quickly as we should.)

                                                                       How much is that worth?

Compare the cardiology experience to the dentist making the crown. He’s a professional, an expert. He spends a full hour preparing the tooth, making the molds, crafting a temporary molar and making sure it fits. Then he sends the mold to a manufacturer, which puts together a meticulously made replacement piece for my body. It’s unique and sturdy, and it contains all kinds of composites that must be expensive. All of this is done, and my tooth is new (or as new as it’ll ever be)  for $1,120.

He earns the money and gets paid, and the bill is as simple as the ones from the roofer or the tree surgeon. He’s dealing with me as a customer and selling me a service. Many of his customers aren’t insured. So he has to compete in the marketplace. While I'm sure exceptions exist, dentristry, for the most part, is sane.

As Jonathan Bush and I wrote in Where Does it Hurt?, when medical procedures are not included in the false economy of current  insurance plans, prices go down. Lasix surgery, which is not covered by most insurance plans, is an example. Prices have plummeted over the last 30 years. The health care economy fares better where patients can be shoppers.

Coda: Today in the mail, I receive a letter from Englewood Hospital, the "non-profit" which charged $2,095 for the ultrasound. They have a foundation, and tell me about an exciting opportunity. I can donate up to $50,000, and that money will be matched dollar-for dollar, by other donors.

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Bruce Sterling's vision looks like The Boost
September 20, 2014General

"Imagine Amazon subways. The Internet of Things is not a world where Amazon literally buys, owns and manages your subways. Instead, it's a world where Amazon's skills at logistics have crushed the subway unions and are managing riders as if they were packets in one of Amazon's gigantic robotic distribution centers."

--Bruce Sterling, The Epic Struggle of the Internet of Things

Couldn't Amazon run this better?

A few days ago, I downloaded 
Bruce Sterling's essay on the Internet of Things. It's worth noting that I bought it on Amazon for $3.99. In that way, Sterling and the rest of us are building the very structures whose power over us is only going to grow. 

The way Sterling sees it, five huge companies are positioned to dominate the next stage of the Internet. They are Facebook, Google, Apple, Amazon and Microsoft. In his view, these companies will be extending their dominion from screens to the physical world. And as they do, they will increasingly dominate our economy, our jobs, our politics, in short, the planet. 

This is more or less the vision in The Boost, and its sequel (which I'm now writing), Washington at War. It's based on laws of the marketplace. These companies need to grow and expand, or they'll die. At the same time, computing is getting cheaper, smarter, and smaller. They have to use these advances to insinuate their services ever deeper into our lives. We are their frontier. 

Whether or not we eventually have chips in our head isn't the issue. They'll surround us with so much computing and sensing and surveillance that they might as well be in the head, and I'm betting they'll eventually go there.

Sterling predicts that the Chinese Internet of Things "will likely be much better known as the "Firewalled Internet of Heavily Censored Things with Chinese Characteristics." But he doesn't speculate on how that Chinese Internet will interact with our own.

This interaction is a central premise of The Boost. The idea is that the Chinese will be freer to implement a system of surveillance, efficiency and control (all eventually managed through brain chips), and that the rest of the world will remain hopelessly backward, uncompetitive and "wild" --until they get the implants themselves.

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Paint, print and words: relative value
August 31, 2014General

Philemona Williamson, Solitary Reflections, 1996

We were having coffee yesterday with two wonderful Montclair artists, the painter Philemona Williamson and Jay Seldin, a globe-trotting photographer. They were complimenting each other's work, and Jay suggested that they trade pictures. And then I offered short stories for their images. That drew a laugh. Maybe I'd have to come over and read to him until he fell asleep, Jay said.

We finished our coffee without making any deals. And that got me to thinking about the economics of painting and photography. Each of Philemona's paintings is unique. They cannot be shared or uploaded. She's virtually impervious to the Internet economy. 

Jay Seldin, Havana Street

In addition to taking beautiful photographs, Jay is a master printer. But unlike Philemona, he can make copies of his work. Because photography is now digital, the economic model of the industry is in brutal transition. LIke musicians and writers, photographers increasingly have use the free distribution of their art to build their brands, and then figure out how to make a business from that. Jay leads groups of amateur photographers on tours. In the coming year, he's heading to Cuba, Ethiopia and Myanmar. (His next project is a photo-shooting trip with a friend down highway 89, from Montana's border with Calgary to the Mexican border south of Tucson.)

So when they talked about trading art, it's no wonder they didn't come to an agreement. They work in different economies, and they're growing apart by the day. 

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Booklist Reviews - David Pitt

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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