Stephen Baker

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Pyongyang Chronicle: The demise of a trickster
December 14, 2013News

Word that Jang Song-thaek was a trickster emerged the day he was executed, or perhaps the following day. Chronology is always hard to nail down in North Korea. In any case, a 2,000+-word government news release disclosed that in addition to being a gambler, thief, capitalist, careerist and a lesser form of life than dog, Jang was also a trickster. It would seem that the government was unaware until very recently of this fact. You might expect as much. After all, don't tricksters keep secrets? They do. Perhaps better than anybody.

But signs that Jang was a trickster had been evident for years, perhaps decades. Insiders in Pyongyang were aware that Jang was--not necessarily in this order--the dictator's uncle, confidente, coach, and that he was a trickster. At least one person must have seen him lift $4 million from one account or another. They don't have automatic withdrawals in North Korea. People do such work. But such people also know to keep quiet when a trickster who happens to be the second most powerful person in the realm tells them mum's the word. Several others knew that he blew millions in international casinos. People who lose that kind of money get seen. Many of those who saw him at crap tables in Macao later told government inspectors that Jang, surprisingly for such a notorious trickster, lost his millions with good cheer and forbearance. They wished him the best and looked forward to his return. 

So it was known. Jang was a trickster, but largely a discreet one. When his nephew, Kim Jong-um, showed interest in executing criminals and traitors, Jang pointed toward other people, professors and army officers, certainly not to himself. He was not stupid.

It's hard to say, in retrospect, what led to the clapping incident. I should say the non-clapping incident, or perhaps half-hearted clapping one. The leader had spoken. Everyone was clapping. Clapping is what is done. It is loud and enthusiastic, probably more loud than enthusiastic, in truth, but it is carried out whole-heartedly, with solid impact, maximum noise, and preferably a smile. And there was Jang, his expression grim, like that of someone who had lost millions in casinos. He may have been suffering the ravages of a hangover. He was barely touching his palms to each other. People noticed. Among a circle of people surrounding him, morale collapsed. Yes, Jang was a trickster. That much they knew. He was hardly clapping. That was new. 

He was arrested tried and executed the next day, or maybe the following one. Why do tricksters meet such untimely ends? 

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The Boost: Galleys out
December 3, 2013News


Just got a box of these galleys of The Boost. It's coming out late spring. Fun to page through it. I like the pages and the font. It's missing corrections that I sent in yesterday. But I guess that gives meaning to "uncorrected proof." If anyone would like to review the book or turn it into a feature film, please get in touch.

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IBM's Smart Machines details era of cognitive computing
November 14, 2013News

Imagine this. The baby is sleeping upstairs. One of those monitors in her room plays her noises down to the kitchen. The parents can hear her thrash and gurgle. But those sounds are in the background. More prominent is a computer voice that announces: "The baby wet her diapers at 1:23. She's been awake for four minutes." She cries. Is it time to nurse her already? No, the computer says. Her stomach hurts. 

I picked up this idea from the new book from IBM Research, Smart Machines: IBM's Watson and the Era of Cognitive Computing. It is co-written by John Kelly, the director of IBM Research and Steve Hamm, my friend and former colleague at BusinessWeek.

It's a useful, concise and engaging guide to the future of computing--which is also the future of knowledge, sensing, decision-making and discovery. I read it in about two hours. It led me from employment opportunities for Watson to frontiers of Big Data and the physics of new computing. It's hard to summarize the future of cognitive computing, but these two sentences come pretty close: "In the programmable-computing era, people have to adapt to the way computers work. In the cognitive era, computers will adapt to people."




Now, back to the baby example. Given what we know about data, it really shouldn't be so surprising that machines will be able to decode baby noises. With enough data about the noises babies make, apps will be allow babies to talk to us. Of course, not all babies will use the same noises. I imagine that the program will come with a standard template, and that parents will have ways to correct the machine's early mistakes, helping it to customize its analysis for each baby. And as those fixes make their way to the cloud service, it will grow more sophisticated, just like Google Voice or Siri. 

Another similar challenge, I imagine, will be to interpret the noises and gestures of animals, and to get them also to talk to us. This animal analysis could probably benefit from smell sensors. They could pick up molecules of chemicals signaling an animal's fear, confusion, hunger and sexual drive.

Do we want a machine announcing that Rover is hungry or horny or needs to go out for one reason or another? That could be too much information. But the marketplace will iron out those issues. For now, we at least know from a very good IBM book that the technology is en route.

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How I shamelessly exploited Twitter (and don't anymore)
November 8, 2013News

Five years ago, I was the Twitter guy at BusinessWeek. As Roben Farzad recalled Thursday on Brian Lehrer's show, I wandered around the the offices telling colleagues to tweet. Now, as the new Twitter stock debuts, I barely tweet anymore. The reason: Much as I'd like to, I don't participate anymore in the "nugget economy."

I'll explain. When you tweet, you send out a nugget of information wrapped in self-branding. If people like that nugget, they retweet, and the information spreads, along with the branding. Maybe they respond with interesting information, or a relevant link. Those nuggets can be valuable. When I was at BusinessWeek, nuggets I harvested turned into blog posts and stories. And the branding was vital for me. BusinessWeek was in late stages of collapse, and I needed the branding to promote my post-BW career, and (hopefully) to sell books. My brand, as I saw it, had been locked up in the magazine for 20 comfortable years. But now I needed to fashion it into a lifeboat.

An example of how shamelessly I used Twitter for my own ends. I started on Twitter on Jan. 5, 2008. I was in Steve Rubel's office at Edelman, above Times Square, asking him how Heather Green and I could update our three-year-old story on blogs. (I remember the day because Barack Obama had just won the Iowa caucases, and his face was on every television in the lobby.) Steve urged me to jump onto Twitter. At that point, I remember, he had 2,400 followers. And he asked them with a tweet why @stevebaker should get onto Twitter. Responses poured in. He was clearly at the controls of a powerful tool. I had a book, The Numerati, coming out later that year and wanted some of that network magic. But how was I going to get thousands of followers?

After a month on Twitter, I had barely 100. But then I came up with a plan to leverage my mainstream journalism asset. I would write a BusinessWeek article explaining Why Twitter Matters. But instead of calling up the usual sources, like @jayrosen_nyu, @jeffjarvis, and @biz (Twitter co-founder Biz Stone), I would research the piece on Twitter. I would tweet topic sentences for each paragraph, and the Twittersphere would respond with examples, links, and insights. Hopefully, they'd discuss and argue. Through this process, Twitter would write the story. Word would quickly spread about this story, and people who wanted to participate would follow me. I would catch up to Steve Rubel, or even pass him! I'd be hoisted up in the nugget economy.

It turned out that turning 250 tweets into a coherent article took a lot of work. But it worked. The article went mildly viral and my Twitter following quintupled, finally reaching 1,000. My evil strategy worked. And I even won a minor magazine award for the story. (I'll note, in passing, that traditional journalism awards carry zero weight in the nugget economy, not unless they're branding giants, like Pulitzers. If I were still focussed on nuggets, I'd trade my dusty old Overseas Press Award for 10,000 Twitter followers in a minute.)

Months after that triumph, the economy cratered and BusinessWeek spiraled toward death. I left after Bloomberg snapped it up for barely the price of a Superbowl commercial, and I got a book contract to write about IBM's Jeopardy computer, Watson. Since then, I've been doing books. That has removed me from the nugget economy. Much of what I'm doing is vaguely secret. For instance, I'm co-writing a healthcare book that Penguin will publish next spring. But they're not publicizing it. So I don't either. As a result, I don't generate good targeted nuggets. And my Twitter presence has degenerated into the occasional note about my life, a wine I drank in France, a slideshow from Africa. I'm a scattered Tweeter, virtually lapsed.

Now that I think about it, though, I should jump back on. I have a novel coming out next spring, The Boost. Maybe if I break down the first chapter into 150 nuggets.... No, really, I should get serious about this.

But this social media marketing is so exhausting, don't you think?







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Flickr asks me to stop paying money
May 21, 2013News

A few years ago, I decided that to load all my photos to Google's Picasa. That would be my cloud repository. But then Google tied Picasa into Google+, and suddenly I had to figure out which "circles" I wanted to share with. I screwed up a few times and shared photos with large crowds of strangers. So I bagged the service and decided to pay Flickr $25 for a pro account. Flickr, as Mat Honan details in a Gizmodo post, used to be a cutting-edge social site in 2005, when it was sold to Yahoo. That began its slow descent into irrelevancy. I didn't care about that, though. I just wanted a place to store my photos.

Yesterday, the same day that Yahoo agreed to buy Tumblr for $1.1 billion, I received the strangest email from Flickr. The company virtually begged me to stop paying it money and to switch to its free ad-based service with a terabyte of storage. I obediently complied.

I should mention that Flickr's service of late has been dreadful. The links between Flickr and Apple's iPhoto are a bad joke. But I do manage to store my photos there, and starting today I'll be doing it for free. As Rob Hof notes, the Tumblr acquisition is Yahoo's bid to wrest some social media traffic from Facebook. And the change to a free, virtually limitless Flickr is no doubt part of the same strategy. I have little doubt that Yahoo will start pushing me, the way Google did, to share my photos with my circles of friends.

And I'll push back, or withdraw. It's not that I don't want to share photos. I do. But only about 1% of them. Some of my reluctance has to do with privacy. My friends and family in some of the photos haven't agreed to be posted. The other issue is quality. Most of my photos are boring to everyone but me. Actually, probably half of them bore even me. I keep them simply as historical artifacts. So I want to pick and choose which ones I post. A few might go on Facebook, or on this blog. But the rest of them ascend into this great big shoebox in the sky. For now, it's Flickr.  

Near Hotel Dieu, Ile de la Cite

One of the first photos I uploaded to Flickr, back in 2005, when Flickr was hot. This one is from Paris, in 2002, just before we moved back. I took it with my first digital camera, a Sony that actually recorded photos on a mini CD. That baby, I figure, must be about 13 by now.

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If Rupert meditates, what about Bashar?
April 22, 2013News

I read (in Quartz) that in his tempestuous ninth decade, Rupert Murdoch is looking to Transcendental Meditation for some peace of mind.  I always wonder about such strategies. If your work-a-day life is full of marauding, dissembling, corporate backstabbing, and if your media properties, like The New York Post, grub after money and page views by exposing innocent people as "Bag Men" for terrorists, is it possible to find peace by shutting your eyes and focusing on breathing? (If you haven't read this Onion piece on the Post, it's worth a click.)

It comes down to what you can buy in this world. You can buy $10,000 bottles of wine, and chateaux with exquisite views, you can buy politicians and the allegiance of thousands of workers. It's the free treasures--love, faith, friendship, a peaceful night's sleep, among others--that are in fact priceless. 

Anyway, the news about Rupert reminded me of Tony Soprano, who went to a psychiatrist when the business of violent crime began to mess with his head. The doctor faced an impossible job. And this led me to wonder what sort of therapies other moguls, war lords and cretins might pursue.

Bashar Assad, for instance. The Syrian leader must be at least as stressed as Rupert. I wonder if he's considered a three-day get-away, perhaps to the Mii Amo Spa in Sedona, AZ. Just imagine if he could delegate the war to a capo and sign up for a Jojoba Butter Massage, an Herbal Detox and perhaps spend an hour in the desert doing Tai Chi. Certain risks exist, even at a spa. The Bio Aquatic Cranial could awaken unwelcome associations, and the Circle of Power would no doubt deliver Bashar--in mind, if not body--right back to his palace in Damascus. My concerns, though, are less with the Bashar than the other guests at the spa. Imagine, you spend all that money to relax in the Sononan Desert, and next thing you know this guy arrives with his mustache and his entourage--and suddenly everything feels... toxic.


Bashar before...


And after....

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BusinessWeek screwed up. Move on.
March 2, 2013News


Lots of outrage over BusinessWeek's ridiculously ugly and insensitive cover image from a week ago. Like most people, I'm stunned the cover made its way through the editorial process. I would have thought that editors would have given that cover one look and asked: Are you kidding?!

This has led to charges that BusinessWeek is racist, and is buying into the narrative that poor people, many of them racial and ethnic minorities, "caused" the housing crisis by borrowing irresponsibly. In any case, I'm for moving on.

There's so much attention these days on whether words or images are appropriate, or true, or fair, or "hurtful." And the upshot is that people can get into trouble, or even wreck their careers, by saying or publishing something stupid. This leads to caution, self-censorship, boredom. BusinessWeek's editor, Josh Tyrangiel, has taken lots of chances in the last couple of years. Many of them have worked. The magazine is lively and very good (even though I'm not crazy about the design). He, like the rest of us, should to be free to commit misjudgments with something close to impunity. 



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Brain implants deliver new sensations
February 19, 2013News

I might have to move up some of the dates in my upcoming novel, The Boost. It takes place in a world in which most of us carry cognitive implants. Now, with the latest news from Duke researcher, Miguel Nicolelis, I think that day may come earlier than my projected 2043. Nicolelis and his team have hooked up rats to infrared sensors, and linked them to the part of their brain that governs touch. This light is invisible to mammmels. But when it went on, the rats immediately started touching their whiskers. They felt the light as touch. (Here's the BBC report.)

The early  uses for this technology will be to help people with disabilities. Conceivably, a blind person could regain sight, or some version of it, through another sense. Already, people are moving prosthetic limbs with their thoughts. But in the longer run, as I see it, advances in brain-machine technology will extend to the population at large. Imagine downloading an app where you "feel" infrared light or police radar. You might not want it on all the time. But it would have its uses.

Nicolelis has a bigger announcement coming up next month. The Telegraph speculates that he and his team may have pioneered communication between two brains. We'll see. But if that type of communication isn't coming soon, it's coming later. Eventually, I'm betting, we'll all be facing the question of whether to wire our brains--or to stay back in the cognitive slow lane. 


This is a look at one of the experiments. You can make more sense of it if you read on Nicolelis' blog and look at the other videos. 

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Ed Koch is gone. Enjoy Steve Ballmer
February 3, 2013News

Ed Koch, the late mayor of New York, was loud, garish, outspoken, and in love with his own opinion. He considered it the truth, even when it was patently self-serving, which it often was. And he patted his own back for telling it. In short, he was insufferable--but more authentic in his own way than the great majority of fellow politicians.

In the realm of CEOs, you can say many of the same things about Microsoft's Steve Ballmer. He's loud and way out there. He's often wrong, whether he's dissing the iPhone or hyping the Zune. By most measures, he has failed spectacularly in his job. He took over a dominant (though, to be fair, declining) tech franchise and has ridden it south. Most CEOs in his position would duck interviews. But Ballmer, like Koch, is a talker. He rolls right on.

In the latest interview with Bloomberg BusinessWeek, he dismisses competition from Dropbox. He refers to the company as a "fine little start-up" and says that 100 million users "sounds like a pretty small number to me." Apparently he thinks that a start-up with that many users is powerless to disrupt the nature of a business software market that is his cash cow. Or more likely he believes that the new cloud-based Microsoft Office responds effectively to that disruption.

It doesn't matter. We don't have too many CEOs who speak with the candor (and apparent job security) of Steve Ballmer). He reminds me of Ed Koch. If I held Microsoft stock I'd be apoplectic. But as an observer, I enjoy having him around. 

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IBM's Watson trundles off to college
January 30, 2013News

IBM will be sending a version of its Watson computing system to RPI (Rensselaer Polytechnic), the company announced today. It's part of IBM's ongoing effort to work with universities to train data scientists. (An earlier one, which I wrote about for BusinessWeek, was a co-production with Google.) It's little surprise that Renssalaer gets the first Watson: RPI is where David Ferrucci, the head of the Watson team, got his doctorate. And RPI computer scientists collaborated with IBM on the Jeopardy project.

This work with universities is central to IBM's Big Data strategy. As researchers use Watson for their projects, they're bound to develop applications for the system, broadening into medicine, finance, corporate governance, and scientific discovery. As they do this, the Watson technologies could evolve into a platform. It's by distributing the technology this way that IBM can hope to gain a lead over its most likely competitors in extracting learnings from Big Data. They would include Google and HP, among others. 

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My coming novel: Boosting human cognition
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Why Nate Silver is never wrong
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The psychology behind bankers' hatred for Obama
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"Corporations are People": an op-ed
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Wall Street Journal excerpt: Final Jeopardy
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Why IBM's Watson is Smarter than Google
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The coming privacy boom
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The appeal of virtual
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