Stephen Baker

The Boost
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Kirkus Reviews

A novel about the technology that controls our lives accelerates into an exquisite thriller on the Mexican border.

The year is 2072. Technology has left the keyboard and is implanted in our brains; those who don't have the implants are “wild,” meaning natural thinkers. Baker has created a believable, not-too-distant world with the same issues we face but on a grander scale: People spend too much time in virtual reality; there's a proliferation of porn sites and a computing-power arms race. But here, it's all done seamlessly through “the boost” in people's heads; keyboards and screens are antiques. The ghost in the machine is surveillance—surprise! A scheduled software update will enable American workers to be as efficient as their Chinese counterparts; Ralf Alvare is tipped off about a gateway that will allow Varagon Inc. to snoop, collecting personal data from anyone’s head, for marketing and advertising purposes. He is caught trying to close the software gate, his implant is removed—rather, ripped from his head—and he's soon on the run to El Paso. He's now “wild,” which isn't a comfortable state of mind for this digital genius. Baker’s characters are memorable and wickedly fun. Ralf’s companion, Ellen, has been genetically enhanced as an Artremis—a stunningly beautiful, Amazon-like ball of fire. Don Paquito is an unassuming hero who prints the last remaining newspaper, the only outlet for uncensored truth. As Ralf and his brother Simon shimmy through a tunnel from El Paso to Ciudad Juárez, they enter a world where the boost is safe from surveillance and the largest population of “wild” people in the world lives in the past. From here, they make their stand against “the virtual as real.”

Baker has written a true delight of a techno-thriller that has deep, dark roots in the present.


- https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/stephen-baker/the-boost/, April 27, 2014

LibraryJournal

"Baker has put together an intriguing cast in which the secondary characters are almost more exciting than the leads..."

Computing has moved into our brains in the near future, and when the United States loses the chip wars, the country turns to chips from China to remain technologically competitive. Ralf is in charge of the rollout of the nationwide chips upgrade, called "boosts," but he discovers that someone has deliberately left a security gate open that will allow surveillance of every aspect of people's lives. When his boost is ripped from his brain, Ralf ends up in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, one of the only communities for those living "wild" without a chip. He needs to find a way to get a new boost and prevent the chip upgrade before the government finds him and stops him for good. VERDICT Baker has put together an intriguing cast in which the secondary characters are almost more exciting than the leads, including an egomaniacal Paraguayan drug lord-turned-newspaper mogul, a beautiful but ditzy Mata Hari, and the conflicted government hit man sent after Ralf who instead spends his time enjoying Juarez. After writing several nonfiction books about technology (The Numerati; Final Jeopardy: Man vs. Machine and the Quest To Know Everything), this is Baker's first novel.

- Library Journal, April 26, 2014

Booklist Reviews

"Highly recommended to sf and techno-thriller fans."

In the not-too-distant future, just before a major update to the network of computer chips, known colloquially as "boosts," implanted in the brains of most of the world's population, Ralf, a low-level government employee who also happens to be a bit of a techno-whiz, learns that the Chinese company behind the chips has incorporated into the update a rather frightening security breach, which will allow the Chinese to monitor each and every boost-outfitted person. Before he can blow the whistle, Ralf's boost is forcibly removed, leaving him unconnected from the network and on the run, hiding out in a community of similarly unconnected people (they're called "wild"), hoping his brother, a fella with a seriously mysterious lifestyle, can help him survive. This is an exciting story, even if it's built on a familiar platform. There are plenty of other sf novels involving similar types of implants, but Baker loads this one with enough fresh material that it doesn't seem like a been-there, done-that affair. Highly recommended to sf and techno-thriller fans. Copyright 2014 Booklist Reviews.

- David Pitt, April 24, 2014

Locus

If two incidents constitute a trend—as they surely do, according to the careless metrics of desperate journalists such as myself—then science fiction is in for a spate of books in which the common furniture of the genre gets a fresh, down-to-the-roots reconceptualizing. What exactly do I mean by this?

Consider William Forstchen’s recent Pillar to the Sky, in which he takes the common, decades-old trope of the space elevator—presented nowadays in most books that have cause to employ it as an offhand bit of assumed technology used mostly to further a plot—and foregrounds it, examining the initial creation of such a device in fresh, complex detail. This recontextualizing or rethinking or inversion of background/foreground is something that I think is a very useful tool, in limited doses. I’m not sure we need to reinvent the wheel for every item in the SF toolbox. But with a few select ones where the hard edges have been smoothed down to a featureless nub, the technique proves stimulating.

Such a literary tactic often appears appealing when new developments in the real world mandate a rethink. In the case of the space elevator, new progress in materials science has made the prospect seem more do-able. And fresh economic and environmental worries also serve to propel Forstchen’s narrative.

In the case of Stephen Baker’s debut novel, The Boost, whose focal trope is that of brain implants, the impetus for tackling this bit of standard cyberpunk gear—again, used nowadays mostly as off-the-shelf background hardware—is not, I believe, technical progress, but social and cultural events. The science of inserting computers into the human brain has not really advanced much in the past three decades since such implants were a common feature of Gibsonian SF. No recent headline has really demanded we prep ourselves for some imminent deployment of such devices.

But what has happened since the cyberpunk days is the advent of mobile computing, in the form of smart phones and tablets and similar gadgets. In effect, these exterior devices mimic or mirror or foreshadow actual brain implants. And what the usage of such devices has shown us is troubling. The ways they have changed face-to-face communicating, mating rituals, recreational pursuits and a dozen other aspects of social and civic behavior is sometimes encouraging, but more often, to my mind, highly disturbing. There are now confirmed instances of cell phone addiction, and individual usage rates of 150 app interactions daily. Think about it: that’s multiple screen swipes roughly every ten minutes of one’s entire waking interval, day after day after day.

Reading The Boost, one discovers that Baker plainly knows all this and is intent on giving us a stefnal allegory about our contemporary madness. But that goal does not stand in the way of a rousing, idea-packed adventure story from this highly competent beginning novelist, whose CV as a tech writer for BusinessWeek has obviously prepped him well to speculate on cutting edge technology and its impact.

The year is 2072, and every single citizen who is not an outcast “wild” human has “the boost” in his or her head: a gadget no bigger than a fly’s wing, implanted in youth, that offers virtual reality, augmented reality, mind-to-mind communications, life-logging, auxiliary memory and general internet access. With free annual software upgrades! “Every year, some 430 million Americans wake up one day in the middle of March feeling different, smarter, snappier.”

But that upgrade is now the source of trouble. This year’s download contains a secret back door inserted by the Chinese engineers, Gate 318 Blue, allowing who-knows-what kinds of hacking. Learning of this, our hero, Ralf Alvare of the federal Upgrade Department, finds his life immediately overturned and in peril before he can even act. He’s kidnapped and his boost is surgically removed.

Escaping with the help of a mysterious Asian man, now a helpless “wild human” himself, he goes on the run, hooking up for assistance with sometime paramour Ellen (who happens to sport the fashionable “Artemis” somatype). They head to El Paso to meet with Ralf’s brother Simon, who might offer some solutions.

But on their trail, under the command of despotic, ninety-three-year-old billionaire John Vallinger, is the oversized hired killer named Oscar Espinoza. The trio of Ellen, Rafe and Simon eventually flee over the border, into Ciudad Juárez, where everyone is a wild human. There, they encounter the local crime kingpin, Don Paquito, whose old-fashioned illicit network—featuring an actual newspaper, of all antique things!—might just offer a solution to their problems and to the larger dilemma of the tainted upgrade.

Now, before we begin to look at Baker’s commentary on the nature of the boost—and by extension, our always-wired cell phone culture—let’s give him props for sheer storytelling. His tale is rendered in light, easy, smooth prose which walks the tragicomic tightrope brilliantly and deftly. There’s a definite Donald Westlake vibe to such elements as put-upon hit man Espinoza, who relishes becoming wild because it frees him from his overseer, Vallinger’s hireling, the virtual-porn entrepreneur George Smedley, allowing Espinoza to luxuriate in Mexico with lots of meals of delicious goat. Then there’s the intriguing love story between Ellen and Ralf; the surprising family dynamics of the Alvare clan; the lifestyle of being a beautiful Artemis woman; international realpolitik; and a host of other non-tech aspects of late-21st-century life.

But the most substantial aspect of this adventure is Baker’s dissection of what the boost does to baseline humans, who are deemed Neanderthals and essentially disabled compared to the boost users. Baker catalogs the dismaying shifts: people can be rudely having virtual sex while seeming to converse with you. They are content with eating tasteless protein pills and allowing the boost to fool their sensorium with artificial tastes. Eye-to-eye contact is painful. Ralf to Ellen: “It’s easier to manage memories of you…than to manage the relationship in real time.”

Perhaps the core speech occurs when older brother Simon and Ralf are talking about their different childhood experiences of the boost, echoing some of the same thoughts that Rudy Rucker has blogged about, concerning simulations versus nature.

Simon goes on to describe the generation gap that he still feels with his little brother. He and his friends grew up with their experiences grounded in the wild brain… “Then they come along and give us virtual apps that were just the crudest version of reality… When we were disappointed, they called us Luddites… But your generation was different… You accepted the virtual as real.”

And there’s the theme in a nutshell. Reality versus simulation, solipsism versus mutuality, dominance by constructs versus unmediated interactions. This is certainly one of the biggest issues of our time, explored here with sophistication and insight.

One final observation on this novel: Stephen Baker comes from outside the genre, but is as proficient, savvy and adept as any prozine-trained acolyte of Campbell. Like Ernest Cline with Ready Player One, Kenneth Calhoun with Black Moon, Jennifer Egan with A Visit from the Goon Squad, Gary Shteyngart with Super Sad True Love Story, and any number of other allied “mainstream” books, he proves that SF is now truly a universal language accessible to anyone anywhere who is willing to learn it.


- Paul di Filippo, April 24, 2014

Publishers' Weekly

"This is a strong first effort with broad appeal to readers of thrillers and SF. "

An update to the boost, a revolutionary human-computer interface, threatens to open Americans’ brains like a Facebook account left unattended in Baker’s chillingly possible debut, a futuristic thriller with a few flaws. Baker weaves a complex plot about permanently blurring the lines between real life and the digital world, humanized by a family intimately involved with the development and propagation of the boost. Technology slowly erodes privacy inch by inch, forming a strong moral quandary, but it’s undermined by the grating portrayal of China as an unrelentingly evil country that will stop at nothing for dominance, as if the U.S. wasn’t capable of the same ruthless tactics. Baker’s ear for dialogue gives each character a unique voice, but sometimes the perspective shifts abruptly, and info dumps drag down the pace. This is a strong first effort with broad appeal to readers of thrillers and SF. 
(May)

- Publishers' Weekly, April 23, 2014

Kirkus

Review Date: March 15, 2011

Are you ready for machines to take over the world? How about just a game show to start with?

That’s just the scenario of BusinessWeek senior technology writer Baker’s (The Numerati, 2008) account of the difficult birth of Watson, the IBM computer that just won a championship round on Jeopardy. Cleverly, the author’s narrative works regardless of the outcome—for either way, the setup is the same: After the birth of Deep Blue, the supercomputer that beat grandmaster Garry Kasparov in a game of chess in 1997, IBM scientists set about building another machine. This one, like all machines, basically knows nothing—but, intriguingly, can approximate thought all the same. Imagine, as Baker describes it, how we might parse this clue: “This facial ware made Israel’s Moshe Dayan instantly recognizable worldwide.” You’d have to know something about who Dayan was and probably have been around in the day when the monocular Yul Brynner look-alike walked the earth, whereas Watson would merely go through millions of iterations of binary data by way of a process that, as Baker notes, is “scandalously wasteful of computing resources” to arrive at the correct answer: eyepatch. Scandalously wasteful, perhaps. But imagine a few generations down the line, when Watson will have spawned machines that, to name just one real-world application, can store the texts of every medical-journal article ever written—weighing the newer ones more favorably than those from, say, Victorian England—to aid diagnosticians in their work. But how to get the machine to be able to parse real-world data and skirt the shoals of puns, subtleties, metaphors and all the other tricks human language allows? There’s the rub, and Baker provides a fine, often entertaining account of the false steps that led Watson, ever the literalist, to read Malcolm X as “Malcolm Ten” and to confuse Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist with the Pet Shop Boys.

Like Tracy Kidder’s Soul of a New Machine (1981), Baker’s book finds us at the dawn of a singularity. It’s an excellent case study, and does good double duty as a Philip K. Dick scenario, too.


- Kirkus Reviews, March 3, 2011

Andrew Dunn

`Jeopardy,' IBM Had Big Reasons to Be Scared of Watson Match
By Andrew Dunn - Feb 18, 2011

Plenty of observers have weighed in on Watson, the computer that International Business Machines Corp. built and programmed to play the quiz show “Jeopardy!” Few have done it better than Stephen Baker, author of “Final Jeopardy: Man vs. Machine and the Quest to Know Everything.”

Baker, formerly the senior technology writer for Businessweek, got behind the scenes at Armonk, New York-based IBM to watch a team of scientists and engineers create a machine to compete in Sony Corp.’s beloved half-hour nerd-fest of answers and questions hosted by Alex Trebek.

Adding to the challenge was one of the computer’s flesh- and-blood opponents: Ken Jennings, the Joe DiMaggio of “Jeopardy!” who won a record 74 straight matches.

David Ferrucci, the chief scientist on the team that developed Watson -- named for IBM’s founder -- understood that no matter how fast the machine was, or how many facts they crammed into its database, humans like Jennings still possessed skills no one had been able to engineer with much success.

“Any ‘Jeopardy’ machine they built would struggle mightily to master language and common sense -- areas that come as naturally to humans as breathing,” Baker writes. “On the positive side, it wouldn’t suffer from nerves.”

Baker goes easy on the hard science behind Watson, referring readers to scholarly journals for technological details. Even his description of the hardware makes the technical tangible:

Leaning Towers

“The eight towers, each the size of a restaurant refrigerator, carried scores of computers on horizontal shelves, each about as big as a pizza box. The towers were tilted, like the one in Pisa, giving them more surface area for cooling.”

Instead, he plays up the skirmishes that break out at the border between person and processor. The most engaging chapter focuses on the controversy the Watson project sparked in the artificial-intelligence community.

Some scientists feared Watson would draw attention, and funding, away from their efforts to create machines that mimic human thought, a complex and not fully understood process.

“The world would see, and perhaps fall in love with, a machine that only simulated intelligence,” Baker writes. “The machine was too dumb, too ignorant, too famous, and too rich. (In that sense, IBM’s computer resembled lots of other television stars.)”

On a more mundane level, IBM and the producers of the show were concerned about image. IBM’s Deep Blue had triumphed over chess master Garry Kasparov in 1997, but chess is not “Jeopardy!” and chess tournaments in the U.S. don’t attract nine million viewers a night. Any failure by Watson could damage the brand.

Buzzer Speed

“Jeopardy!” had its own concerns. The producers couldn’t be seen as rigging the game for or against the machine -- evoking the specter of the quiz-show scandals of the 1950s -- but they couldn’t allow the lightning-quick Watson to buzz in on every clue, steamrolling his human rivals. The solution: Watson got a mechanical thumb.

The tournament itself was taped in January and aired Feb. 14, 15 and 16. Watson’s strengths and flaws were manifest. Puns and wordplay stumped it (including a category devoted, ironically, to words found on a computer keyboard); while it excelled at more straightforward trivia such as Beatles lyrics.

Baker’s last chapter gives details of the broadcast not apparent to the TV audience, including judgment calls, equipment malfunctions (by the game board, not Watson) and the reason Watson answered a question about U.S. cities with “Toronto.”

In the end, Watson wiped the floor with his opponents, Jennings and Brad Rutter. Not only because he was knowledgeable -- both his opponents were, too -- but also because he was, after all, a machine: “It was its buzzer that killed us,” Rutter said.

- Bloomberg News, February 18, 2011

Culture Mob

Review: Final Jeopardy by Stephen Baker

by Dan Sampson February 10, 2011

Final Jeopardy by Stephen Baker

On February 14th, 15th and 16th, man will be pitted against machine in a special three-part edition of Jeopardy!. The venerable quiz show’s all-time greats, Brad Rutter and Ken Jennings, will match wits with IBM’s super-computer, Watson, in a battle royale of knowledge.

Stephen Baker’s Final Jeopardy: Man vs. Machine and the Quest to Know Everything (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $24) tells the story of Watson’s development, from the initial grand idea to it’s unveiling as the top-ranked challenger to previous big-time Jeopardy! winners.

In an age where computing technology has permeated almost every part of life, and our reliance on it is greater than ever, the concepts of knowledge and intelligence are due for an examination. To take an obvious example, it is no longer necessary to remember a friend’s telephone number as cellphones store the information for us. Similarly, GPS gives us driving directions on demand, online banking ensures we pay our bills on time, and the internet as a whole is a trove of information that yields answers to almost any question with a simple Google search. Needless to say, what we know and the information we need to retain have both changed substantially over the years.

The beauty of Baker’s book is that it is more than just an account of the IBM team’s efforts to build a machine that mimics human intelligence (which is, to be sure, warmly and humorously described), it is also a fascinating look at the nature of knowledge, understanding, and recollection.

As Baker explains, when presented with a question human mental processes run in parallel so we can parse the different components of the question at the same time, getting us (at least) close to an answer much faster. We also have the immeasurable advantage of understanding context and, in a setting such as Jeopardy!, benefiting from anticipation: a human contestant has an advantage since she knows the category the question falls under so is already summoning and sorting through all her knowledge of that subject. A computer, on the other hand, doesn’t actually “know” anything. It has a defined set of data and reacts only to input, so each question is, in effect, answered in a vacuum.

Baker skillfully weaves the two threads of the story together, and the book contains many passages that make the reader not only assess what they think but how they think, and how they have absorbed and stored the knowledge they possess. It’s books like this that remind us there is still so much we don’t understand about our own brains, and that the journey of discovery has only just begun.

Will Watson be triumphant? This might be the only occasion on which I’ll suggest turning on the television instead of picking up a book, but I have no choice…you’ll have to watch the show to find out.

Final Jeopardy: Man vs. Machine and the Quest to Know Everything will be on bookshelves on February 17th. Pre-order now at HMHBooks.com.


- Dan Sampson, February 10, 2011

Shelfari (Amazon)

Two Men Vs. Machine: Stephen Baker on Watson, IBM, and Jeopardy!

By Tom Nissley

Earlier this week, I outlined my haphazard preparation for what turned out to be nine bewilderingly fun games of Jeopardy! (well, the ninth was less fun). Really, what my preparation amounted to was forty years of turning my omnivore's flypaper outward toward the world, and then spending a couple of weekends cramming in whatever extra facts I thought might be most worth having stuck somewhere in my head. Meanwhile, another Jeopardy! contestant was nearing the end of his its training period: roughly four years of ingesting reams of information, constructing guessing and wagering strategies, and playing thousands of practice rounds, many of them against former Jeopardy! champions, with the backing of a team of dozens of engineers, not to mention 16 terabytes of state-of-the-art hardware.

That contestant is, of course, Watson, the machine built by IBM to win the next generation in a line of John Henry-style challenges, this time battling all-time Jeopardy! champs Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter in a three-day match set to air Feb. 14-16. (One hopes that neither Jennings nor Rutter will "die with a buzzer in his hand, lord, lord.") Stephen Baker, a former technology reporter at BusinessWeek and the author of The Numerati, a well-received book on the brave new world of data mining, got an inside seat for the development of Watson, and he was at the taping of Watson's shows last month. His account of the machine and the match, Final Jeopardy, will be released the day after the shows air (a Kindle ebook is already available, which readers can update for free with the final chapter--about the match--beginning on the 17th).

Of course, I've had Jeopardy! on the brain lately, and I was very eager to read Final Jeopardy and talk to Baker, and he was happy to talk too, although even off the record he declined to divulge anything about the results of the big match. The book is a fascinating glimpse into a high-profile technological sprint, and, for those of us who care, an equally interesting look at how to prepare for the game, if you are made of silicon rather than carbon (although carbon-based forms could likely learn a thing or two from the machine). I came away equally impressed by the brainpower and determination that went into building a machine that can play this very human game as well as any human can, and by the remarkable machines we already have in our damp heads, which can still (for a few months yet at least) hold their own against this closet-sized, parallel-processing juggernaut.

You can get a glimpse of how human Watson seems (especially when Jennings starts beating it to the buzzer, and most especially when it says, "Let's finish 'Chicks Dig Me'") in this advance clip of a practice game, and tonight, PBS's Nova has an hour-long documentary on Watson. And for my conversation with Baker about Final Jeopardy, you can listen to the two-part audio below, or read the transcript after the jump.


- Tom Nissley, February 9, 2011

The Seattle Times

IBM computer squares off against 'Jeopardy!' champs

An IBM computer takes on top "Jeopardy!" champs Feb. 14-16, including Seattle's Ken Jennings. Learn more about the matchup through the book "Final Jeopardy: Man vs. Machine and the Quest to Know Everything" and a NOVA documentary "The Smartest Machine on Earth."

Seattle Times book editor

Why would IBM, one of the world's information powerhouses, spend four years building a computer whose sole mission is to win a television game show? A NOVA documentary airing Wednesday and a new book, "Final Jeopardy: Man vs. Machine and the Quest to Know Everything" (Houghton Mifflin, $24) both explore IBM's quest, which goes to the core of how both humans and computers "think."

The television show is "Jeopardy!," described in the NOVA program as "pop culture's IQ test." The computer is Watson, named after IBM's founder, the repository of 10 million documents (no Internet surfing allowed on "Jeopardy!") and the object of its programmers' arduous attempts to get it to think like a human, including developing a knack for the right bet. The human contestants: longtime "Jeopardy!" champions Brad Rutter and Ken Jennings, the Seattle-area resident whose 74-game winning streak in 2004-05 was the longest in the show's history.

Both the documentary and the book, by technology writer Stephen Baker, advance a man-vs.-machine match that will air Feb. 14, 15 and 16 (7:30 p.m., KOMO-TV) on "Jeopardy!" The prize is $1 million (if he prevails, Jennings has promised to donate his winnings to local charity Village Reach). The NOVA show and Baker's book cover the same material, though the book is the place to go if you're really interested in this version of the quest for creating Artificial Intelligence (AI).

The NOVA documentary begins with early footage of attempts to develop AI in the 1950s and '60s (think clunky robots). Those projects showed promise, but eventually they stalled out.

The AI concept got a boost with the 1968 Stanley Kubrick film "2001: A Space Odyssey." Several AI scientists interviewed for NOVA describe this film as a Proustian memory — remember HAL, the spacecraft computer that plots to sabotage the mission? ("Open the pod door, Hal ... Hal? Open the pod door, Hal!")

The idea that a computer could compete with a human's brain was resurrected in 1997 with the match between chess champion Garry Kasparov and IBM's "Deep Blue." The computer won, but programming a computer to win at chess is an exponentially simpler task than "training" it to understand the vagaries and nuances of human language.

The seed of the upcoming match was conceptualized in 2004, according to one version of the story, when a senior manager in IBM research met for dinner with a small team of employees in a New York state steakhouse. Suddenly the entire restaurant cleared out, decamping to the bar next door to watch the latest installment of Jennings' grand winning streak. What was all the fuss about? thought the manager. An idea was born — to match an IBM computer with contestants in the Hollywood game-show world.

The NOVA documentary follows the development of "Watson" over four years. If you're rooting for the humans, it's a pleasure to watch the programmers squirm and scheme as they attempt to deconstruct the intricacies of the "Jeopardy!" format (the host gives an answer; the contestant must come up with a question that matches it). The answers often rely on puns and double meanings, and a deep knowledge of pop culture is required.

In a particularly satisfying moment, project manager David Ferrucci, like a protective parent, gets seriously peeved when the host for a "Jeopardy!" test round keeps making fun of Watson's clueless answers. But the programmers persist, and Watson gets progressively less clueless. Its accuracy rate marches uphill.

By now you may be wondering: What is the point of all this, other than good fun on a few nights in February? Consider the possible applications for a computer that can intelligently answer humans' questions, writes Baker: Computers that staff customer-service call centers; answer arcane tax questions; research legal precedents; delve into mountains of obscure medical research like "a bionic Dr. House," after the grouchy hero of a popular TV show.

Baker's lively book is available now as an e-book — except for the final chapter. He will write that after the match, and the final version of the book (in print and e-book) will be published Feb. 17. That last chapter should be a doozy. This match has as many implications as another man vs. machine contest, that of John Henry versus the steam drill. Of course, we all know how that came out.


- Mary Ann Gwinn, February 7, 2011

The Broke and the Bookish

Julia Reviews "Final Jeopardy" by Stephen Baker

Title/Author: Final Jeopardy: Man vs. Machine and the Quest to Know Everything by Stephen Baker
Publisher/Year Published:2011 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
How I got this book: I got this as an eBook from netGalley
Why I read this book: I love three things. Reading, Jeopardy and computers. This book is the love child of those things
Rating: 4.5 stars

I love Jeopardy. I have no idea why, but lately I have just been so into the show that I have the DVR set to auto-record. When I heard that there was going to be a match between a computer and the two famous Jeopardy winners, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, I was instantly excited. But this excitement led to some questions. How was it built? Is Watson just hooked up to a search engine or were their complex algorithms involved? But even before that, how would you teach the computer enough about the English language to be able to perform a search let alone play Jeopardy?

Then I found this book.

Final Jeopardy not only holds the answers to my above questions, but really delves into the man vs. machine thought. How do we as humans learn a language? How do we measure perception? And then once we know all of this, how do we teach it to a machine? If you are even the slightest bit interested in artificial intelligence this book is for you. At the same time, it is not so down in the computery depths that someone who knows little of data-mining algorithms won't be able to understand. I think it is a very accessible book.

If you think about it, it is quite a lot to teach a computer to understand English. I remember one example from a pre-Watson project that the book points out. The question was "What was Fracis Scott Key best known for?" A computer could recognize Francis and Scott as names but Key may be a noun. "In its hunt, the computer might even spend a millisecond or two puzzling over Key lime Pies." Then, Baker points out, there isn't even a verb in the question so even if the computer went to the Wikipedia page of Francis Scott Key it could guess that he was "best known" for being an American lawyer!

But that was the beginning. This book is seriously an awesome journey into the depths of computer human interaction, as well as delving into the puzzling quirks of language. Why did it lose a half star? There were points that dragged a bit longer than I wanted, but not too badly. The way I am thinking, the things that I thought were too long were probably the part someone else really was looking forward to and vice versa.

But I still have more book left. A partial eBook was released the 26th which does not include the last chapter called "The Match." They are holding this chapter until after the match airs from the 14th through the 16th. If you buy the partial eBook, the final chapter will arrive as an update after the match on the 16th.

I am highly interested in computers and language, but I think if you are even remotely interested in the evolution of technology (the technology of the Future, if you will), give this book a try. I am excited to have read it in preparation for the match, because now I get to be the know it all who gets to say "You know how they made that right? It's not just a search engine"

A partial eBook is available now. It holds off the final chapter (which talks about the outcome of the match, which airs February 14 - 16). If you buy the partial eBook, the final chapter will arrive as an update after the match on the 16th. The hardback book will be out in stores the 17th.

- Julia, January 27, 2011

The Book Bag

If you are in the slightest bit paranoid, worry that Big Brother is always watching or like to believe that you are not a number, but a free man (or woman), then this may not be the book for you, as it will do nothing to dispel any of those worries. If, on the other hand, you think 'the mathematical modelling of humanity' sounds like one of the sexiest things ever, and are chomping at the bit to learn more about it, then you might well be interested in what Business Week journalist Baker has to say.

It's 2009 and with technology zooming ahead at a startling rate, millions of pieces of data are being gathered about each and every one of us on a daily basis. From the websites you visit to how long you spend there and the ads you click on, from the regularity with which you buy cereal and caviar, either alone or in the same shop, to your opinions on the important (politics) and less important (deodorant) issues of the day, you provide an unthinkable amount of information to anyone who is prepared to listen, without even thinking about it. For a long time this has provided a rich but untapped data source, sitting idle for those with the resources or skills to analyse it, and now that time has come.

Did you know, for example, that there are people whose sole purpose in life (at least from 9-5) is to build and refine massive, number crunching machines that pour over vast streams of data at the speed of light and pick out the subtle patterns from it all, providing answers to questions you've never bothered to think about: How much would a shop have to lower the price to tempt shoppers of a certain age or income to switch from Coke to Pepsi? Does the time a cow spends snoozing in the shade affect the quality of the meat it will give a year down the line? Can changes in the number of words a person regularly uses be an accurate predictor of early onset Alzheimer's? Does your definition of the word 'justice' indicate a firm political allegiance, or mark you out as potential useful swing voter?

This book, split into sections which focus on shopping, terrorism, medicine and voting among others, takes us on a whirlwind tour of this emerging new field, and how it relates to each and every one of us. Because, whether we like the idea or not, there are people out there who monitor our every move. They might not know our names or shoe sizes, but they know which neighbourhoods we live in, what we spend our money on, how we relax at the weekends, even what our blood pressure has looked like over the last few readings. Using all this information, they can and do pull together profiles, and batch us in with other people with similar values, income levels or lifestyles (healthy or otherwise). Then the fun really starts, as everything from in-store price promotions to mail shots and newspaper adverts are then targeted to reach the right people with the right message. It takes bog standard market research to a whole new level, and it's either fascinating or scary, depending on how you look at it.

People have been categorised through social profiling forever. Way back when it was demographic classification based on your age, your race, you post code, your income level. The same principles still apply, but using technology, companies can drill down deeper, looking at more intricate groupings at the flick of a button. What's more, once they have this information, Baker discovers, some companies will treat you rather differently. Some offer preferential rates to old versus new customers, or those from a certain 'tribe' (the new equivalent of Social grades A, B, C1 etc) or penalise others when they think they can get away with doing so.

So where does all this data come from? While some of it originates from the traditional sources of public records or mailing lists, increasingly it is us, the consumers, who provide it. Or, as Baker says, Today we spy on ourselves and send electronic updates minute by minute. And it's not just what we say, but how we say it too – looking at blogs, for example, some machines use subtleties such as choice of font type or colour and frequency of emoticons to draw all sorts of conclusions about the authors. There's not a lot we can do about it, either. While your initial reaction after the chapter on shopping might be to ditch the loyalty cards and deprive Mr Tesco of his constant stream of data about your personal shopping habits, it's soon clear that this is just the tip of the iceberg, and like it or not, you are being analysed and targeted in many other ways outside the supermarket walls.

This is not a book about computers taking over the world. Though artificial intelligence is better than it's ever been, many of the companies featured in the book still do things the old fashioned (i.e. human) way, just with a little help from their electronic friends. Imagine you want to know how many times a certain word appears in an electronic text – no one with any sense would read through it manually counting by hand when you have CTRL F for precisely that. The companies we learn about do exactly the same – they use the computers to identify patterns and flag them up so that a for-now-still-human eye can digest them. That level of comprehension is still needed, until computers can factor in every variable for what is significant, and filter out the rest. And, someone has to tell the computer what to look for in the first place.

The chapter on medicine was one of the most interesting for me, but also perhaps one of the most unreal at this time. Predictive analytics is a fascinating area, but the idea that certain illnesses can be predicted is still a bit of a fantasy at present. The chapter on online dating which followed, perhaps a little illogically, was also intriguing as it examined the science of attraction and the idea of a formula for matchmaking ideal partners.

Baker writes with journalistic flare and the book is well structured, engaging and suitably simple that even the most data illiterate of us can understand it. After all, it's not so much about the numbers, per se, as what those numbers represent. It has a bit of an American angle to it, but that doesn't make it less relevant to us on this side of the pond, since the concepts are similar, even if we're not, as yet, quite as obsessive about some of the areas such as health insurance eligibility or premiums.

The book poses a lot of questions, but provides answers to the vast majority, and food for though with the remainder. The readable style had me ploughing through the pages quickly, and each chapter brought fresh insights into an area I'd really not thought much about before. What this book won't do, however, is tell you all the inside secrets. You'll learn about the various different companies who feast on our data, and the various different things they use it for, but just like a magician, they don't reveal their secrets. But, while you might not understand the finer points of the complex computer coding involved, you're still left pondering the implications of it all.

Thanks go to the publishers for supplying this book.

If this book appeals to you then we think that you might also enjoy Bad Science by Ben Goldacre and The Tiger that Isn't by Michael Blastland and Andrew Dilnot.


- Zoe Page, November 2, 2009

The Wall Street Journal

Mr. Baker offers a highly readable and fascinating account of the number-driven world we now live in...

Drilling Through Data

By JOHN DERBYSHIRE
September 15, 2008

The world is buried in data, great banks and drifts ofthe stuff. In recent years a new technology has emerged: computerprograms that will drill through it all to pick out patterns and trends-- information that may be useful to marketers, politicians, employers,doctors, matchmakers or national-security analysts. Such programs are extraordinarily sophisticated, and their creators need to be veryclever indeed. A doctorate in math or computer science is pretty much required. Stephen Baker calls such whizzes the Numerati. Using "datamining," they seek out veins of useful ore in the mountains of factsthat computers accumulate every day.

[Bookshelf]1

In "The Numerati," Mr. Baker offers a highly readable and fascinating account of the number-driven world we now live in. He shows us, for instance, how political consultants, mining databases that track consumer and "lifestyle" preferences, sort us into tribes bybehavioral proxy. Cat owner? Likely Democrat. NRA member? Probably Republican. Mailings and phone calls can then be targeted more accurately. Health professionals, especially when treating older patients, are now monitoring such things as weight, body temperature and pulse by having a computer follow data streams from sensors on clothing or even from sensor-laden "magic carpets" laid around the house. Disturbing patterns prompt the computer to signal a problem. The Numerati are taking over dating services, too. How do you find that special one in a million? By mining the data of the million. How do you improve your own chances of being found? By the same techniques that companies use to show up first in a Google inquiry -- "search engine optimization," now a flourishing industry.

The Numerati are even mining the output of bloggers, those stream-of-consciousness online diarists and self-promoters. "What makes the blog world especially valuable to marketers," Mr. Baker writes, is "its unfiltered immediacy." What do consumers think of your new product? What desires are still not satisfied by products of this kind? You can commission a poll or wait for the sales figures to come in . . . or you can read the blogs. Better yet, you can hire Numeratito write programs that will read them for you, since there are now more than 20 million bloggers in the U.S. alone.

The Numerati
By Stephen Baker
(Houghton Mifflin, 244 pages, $26)

There is active advertising to be done on blogs, too.If you read these things, or write one, you know that Google's Adsense service will automatically place context-related ads on a blog page,splitting the click-measured revenue with the blogger. So far, so good.But Adsense has set in motion an ugly arms race online as robotbloggers -- clever computer programs -- have generated hundreds of thousands of spam blogs, or "splogs."

A splog, though unreadable, is seeded with words that will attract Google ads. A computer-user may be annoyed at finding himself staring at a screenfull of gibberish but click on an ad anyway, allowing the robot blogger to harvest revenue. This sleight of hand has the Numerati hard at work getting their software to distinguish between a blog and a splog. Mr.Baker gives a helpful sketch of the math involved, each blog reduced to a vector in a space of several dozen dimensions.

In Mr. Baker's chapter on terrorism, we meet Numerati who seek traces of the abnormal and unexpected in their data sets and who must then try to identify the individual "subjects of interest" who are generating those traces. The task of matching abnormal data to actual individuals, though, presents problems -- their names, for example. Researching a book about math once, I turned up 32 different Latin-alphabet spellings of the Russian name "Chebyshev." Arabic,Indian, Chinese and African names present especially daunting challenges. Mr. Baker quotes a Numeratus, a Ph.D. in computational linguistics, who has researched the electronic recognition of names for more than 20 years: "Untangling global names," he says, "will continue to confound us for generations."

To make things worse, terrorists themselves aredata-savvy and skillful exploiters of the Internet. "Hundreds of DutchWeb Sites Hacked by Islamic Hackers" reads the headline on a technical news site I was just reading. Jihadists may want to take us back to the seventh century, but they are willing to detour through the 21st to get us there. It doesn't help that our National Security Agency, the proper home of anti-terrorist Numerati, is restricted to hiring U.S. citizens and paying civil-service salaries while their competitors inrecruitment -- Yahoo, Google, IBM Research -- can cast their networld-wide and engage in bidding wars for top talent.

So the Numerati follow the electronic trails that we all now leave behind us as we work, shop, travel, date, trade or fall sick: What then of our privacy? What if the NSA, having scrutinized my data trail and determined that I am not a terrorist, sees that I may be cheating on my taxes? Or that I am running for public office while subscribing to a pornography service? Mr. Baker cites Jeff Jonas, a security Numeratus who got his start working for casinos (places also keen to spot "subjects of interest"). "We technologists," Mr. Jonas warns, "had better spend a little more time thinking about what we'recreating." Mr. Baker acknowledges that privacy is a problem -- we are,after all, the raw material of data mining. Are we also its beneficiaries? He offers a qualified "yes."

Mr. Derbyshire is the author of "Prime Obsession: Bernhard Riemann and the Greatest Unsolved Problem of Mathematics."


- John Derbyshire, September 15, 2009

Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

Die Numerati

Die große Überrumpelung

Von Milos Vec

16. März 2009 Das Bonmot, wonach die Zukunft früher auch besser war, hat einen wahren Kern. Ihn bilden empirisch überprüfbare Hoffnungen und Ängste über das, was uns künftig erwarten mag. Die große Kulisse für das Theater der Fortschrittsgefühle bilden jene Wissenschaftsrevolutionen, die in den vergangenen Jahren in dichter Folge über uns hereingebrochen sind. Disziplinen ändern ihr Profil, sie verbinden sich mit anderen Fachrichtungen zu neuen Handlungsmöglichkeiten. Was an den Peripherien von Fächern und scheinbar verstreut geschieht, wirkt sich infolge zunehmender Vernetzungen in rasanter Weise gesellschaftlich aus. Das geschieht häufig unerwartet für die Betroffenen und auch für den Gesetzgeber.

Zwei kompakt geschriebene Bücher folgen den Spuren zweier atemberaubender disziplinärer Umwälzungen, deren Konsequenzen bereits jetzt praktisch greifbar sind. Stephen Baker ist mit seinem Band „Die Numerati“ auf Spurensuche bei den Mathematikern und Informatikern, die unsere Daten lesen und im Auftrag wechselnder Agenten interpretieren. Helga Nowotny und Giuseppe Testa denken in ihrem Buch „Die gläsernen Gene“ über die gesellschaftlichen Folgen der Molekularbiologie nach.

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Im Visier der „Numerati“

Den zunächst disparat klingenden Themen ist mehr gemeinsam, als es auf den ersten Blick scheint. Sie verdeutlichen, welche regulatorischen Herausforderungen für eine Gesellschaft zu meistern sind, in der der zeitliche Abstand von Grundlagenforschung zu Anwendung geschrumpft ist, in der Grundbegriffe unseres Weltverständnisses neu mit Inhalten gefüllt werden und in denen es noch kaum Übereinkünfte über die angemessenen Standards in Recht und Ethik gibt.

Bakers Buch „Die Numerati“ ist anschaulich um sieben Personenkreise komponiert, bei denen die Datenrevolution aktuell besondere Leistungsversprechungen macht oder womöglich schön eingelöst hat: Arbeitende, Käufer, Wähler, Blogger, Terroristen, Patienten, Liebende lauten Bakers personalisierende Kapitel. Sie sind im Visier der „Numerati“, seines neuen Kollektivs aus Mathematikern und Informatikern, das in der Lage sei, „die Informationen in unserem Leben zu beherrschen“.

Partnersuche per Fragebogen oder in der Dorfdisco?

Die technische Botschaft Bakers lautet auf all diesen Feldern optimistisch, dass Statistiker weitreichende Schlüsse aus unserem Verhalten ziehen können: Mit einigen Angaben ist der Bürger in seinen Werthaltungen und politischen Orientierungen klassifiziert und in seinem Konsumverhalten entlarvt; immer ist er dabei manipulierbar. Baker neigt dabei wie seine wissenschaftlichen Protagonisten zu Pauschalierungen und Gruppenbildungen, seine Szenarien entsprechen nicht unbedingt den Alltagserfahrungen. Netzbewohner, denen der Computer schon so manches völlig unpassende Produkt nahebringen wollte, weil er sich über Cookies auf der richtigen Spur unseres Geschmacks wähnte, wissen das.

Auch wenn man der Leistungszuversicht also (noch) nicht folgen will, so bleibt doch die Faszination einer kollektiven Anstrengung, das data mining zu optimieren. Baker berichtet über die automatisierte Auswertung der Einträge von Bloggern, aus denen Werber herauslesen wollen, wie ihr Produkt öffentlich dasteht; die amerikanischen Wahlkampfmaschinerien möchten wissen, wo und wann der Einsatz um schwankende Wähler besonders lohnt. Patienten und Ärzte fragen, welche Indikatoren verlässliche Rückschlüsse auf bestimmte Krankheiten zulassen, die die Praktiker in der klinischen Zeitnot und situativen Beschränktheit nicht ermitteln können. Je komplexer die Herausforderung wird, desto neugieriger darf man auf das Ergebnis sein. Ob die Partnersuche per Fragebogen doch mal zu brauchbareren Ergebnissen führen wird als die Spontaneinschätzung in der Dorfdisco?

Ein knappes und gedankenreiches Buch

Hoch im Kurs stehen bei Baker die Abwehr terroristischer Gefahren durch Datensammeln. Überwachungstechnologien am Arbeitsplatz werden nicht als jener Horror benannt, als die sie sich auch ohne rechtswidrige Übergriffe darstellen. Umso dankbarer darf man dem Übersetzer für jene Fußnote sein, die auf rechtskulturelle Differenzen beim Datenschutz verweist. Ein weiteres Fragezeichen gehörte hinter jene Weltsicht, die von einer technokratischen Planungs- und Steuerungseuphorie getragen wird.

Ein Parallelstück zur Mobilisierung der Statistik bilden die von Nowotny und Testa beschriebenen „gläsernen Gene“. Ihre Sichtbarkeit repräsentiert die Biomedizin, welche unsere Identität aktuell durch wissenschaftliche Dechiffrierungen neu erfindet: Wer wir sind und was wir sein könnten, ist zugleich gewisser und ungewisser denn je. Dem Autorentandem ist das Kunststück gelungen, ein ebenso knappes wie gedankenreiches Buch zu schreiben, das vor allem durch seine Kombination von Ausgewogenheit, Scharfsinn und Perspektivenreichtum überzeugt.

Der bioethische Diskurs ändert die Parameter

Folgt man dem Buch in seiner Bestandsaufnahme, dann wird nach der biomedizinischen Revolution kaum etwas beim Alten bleiben. Anders als Baker können der Molekularbiologe Testa und die Wissenschaftssoziologin Nowotny auch die theoretischen Implikationen benennen. Zu den Diskontinuitäten gehört, dass die Natur ihre moralische Autorität verliert; dass sich Natürlichkeit als ein zunehmend fragwürdiges kulturelles Konstrukt entpuppt.

Was die Forschungslabors hervorgebracht haben, ist durch Kommerzialisierungen schneller an die Gesellschaft herangetreten, als wir vor wenigen Jahren wahrhaben wollten. Die Überrumpelung zieht eine Leere nach sich, die durch Faktizität aufgefüllt wird.

Wo Bakers munterer Technikoptimismus im kecken Staunen endet, da diktieren Nowotny und Testa präzise die Zukunftsfragen: Was ist Leben, was heißt Gemeinschaft oder Zugehörigkeit und was Individuum? Schon jetzt ist erkennbar, wie die Standardsetzung im bioethischen Diskurs die Parameter ändert. Nationale Gesetze werden teils flankiert, teils unterminiert durch neue Institutionen und ihre normativen Produkte. Anstelle des Parlaments und seiner verbindlich klaren Vorgaben wird es zunehmend hybride und fragmentierte Formen von Regulierungen geben.

Einhegung des Neuen

Das fügt sich gut in die Szenarien des Wandels von Staatlichkeit, die auch durch andere Felder vorangetrieben werden. Was manchem wie eine bedenkliche Schwächung von tradierter Nationalstaatlichkeit anmutet, wird von Nowotny und Testa ausdrücklich gutgeheißen. Ihre Präferenzen lauten Prozeduralisierung, Audits, Governance-Netzwerke: Das Neue ist mehr Diskurs als Antwort, mehr Pluralität als hegemoniale Deutungen. Vermutlich, sagen sie, wird es die angloamerikanische Kultur mit ihrem richterlich geprägten Case Law besser in den Griff bekommen als das kontinentale Recht in seiner Vorliebe für das Gesetz.

Interessanterweise wird gerade von den beiden Wissenschaftlern die Regulierungsaufgabe stärker herausgestellt als beim Beobachter Baker. Trotz ihrer Zurückhaltung gegenüber harten Verboten ist ihr Buch von einer untergründigen Skepsis gegen die Segnungen vermehrten Wissens durchdrungen. Das Neue wird durch technische, ethische und rechtliche Standards eingehegt werden müssen, deren Konturen wir noch nicht kennen. Schon die Repräsentation von Wissen und von Identität wird die Linien der Intervention vorgeben. Es liegt nahe, dies auch als Selbstbeobachtung der Wissenschaft zu verstehen. Die skeptische Positionierung wäre dann ein Plädoyer für Zurückhaltung: Auf hohem Wohlstands- und Wissensniveau werden die Entscheidungen komplizierter, und manche Technovision verliert an Reiz.


- Milos Vec, March 16, 2009

The Guardian (UK)

The Numerati...

Or revenge of the math nerds, in which a BusinessWeek reporter hangs out with millionaire techies in the vanguard of data mining. "The Numerati," he announces, "want to calculate for each of us a huge and complex maze of numbers and equations." Once they have us mathematically modelled, they can better target us with political ads or supermarket offers. Um, great. But also, nanomachines in your body could deliver streams of data to monitor your health in real time and nip illnesses in the bud they are already doing it with slightly bigger machines shoved into surprised cows.
The book is breezy and colourful, if vague on technicalities (see Ian Ayress more detailed Super Crunchers ). Happily, Baker also has a streak of scepticism. A 75% success rate in demographic analysis might be OK for political campaigns, but the maths will have to get a lot stricter, he warns, when applied to fields such as "medicine and policing". (Do you want to be put in Guantanamo Bay on a 75% chance that you are a terrorist? Oh wait, that already happens.) And floods of personal data can always be turned to invidious purposes. Quick, cut up your supermarket "loyalty" card and wear a hoodie.


Public: Information: Books: Not strictly a numbers game: A new breed of data analysts is invading our privacy

 

BYLINE: Christopher Exeter

SECTION: PUBLIC; Pg. 47

 

The Numerati, by Stephen Baker, Jonathan Cape, £17.99

The 1936 Charlie Chaplin movie, Modern Times, tells a tale of Little Tramp and his struggle to survive in the modern, highly industrialised world as a factory worker on an assembly line. The factory's desire for mundane tasks to be performed ever more quickly leads to workers having to be force-fed, ultimately leading to Little Tramp suffering a mental breakdown.

Chaplin's movie holds eerie parallels with today's paranoia with collecting, collating and analysing data. Both the public and private sectors are obsessed with what we do and how we live. Each day we innocently leave trails of data about ourselves in our wake, which are then crunched and munched by a new intelligentsia that Stephen Baker calls the numerati. His book explains how they have unknowingly infiltrated our lives, analysing what we do and then manipulating our behaviour.

Through a series of vignettes - worker, shopper, voter, blogger, terrorist, patient and lover - Baker explains how our lives are mathematically modelled. Sometimes the transformation this brings is good, but in many instances it is not, and serious public policy problems are raised, most notably over privacy.

Baker's book is a fascinating and terrifying account of our modern times. And as with Chaplin's movie, you can't help but think that those who are driven to collect unnecessary data about our lives - the police, supermarkets, local authorities, the identity and passport service and others - will eventually be driven paradoxically mad by their pointless endeavours.


- Steven Poole & Christopher Exeter, January 12, 2009

Ars Technica

In the future, human motivations won't be sifted only by the psychologists and ministers, but increasingly by the "numerati," those high priests of data who, like God, know us better than we know ourselves.

Stephen Baker, a writer for BusinessWeek, has just published a new book on these folks called (appropriately) The Numerati. He looks at the same world Tancer sees—one where computer-crunched data can answer both our deepest and our most trivial questions about human behavior—but he's always wondering to himself about what might be lost in the process of tabulating a life.

Not that the tabulation is avoidable. "Turning us into simple numbers was what happened in the industrial age," Baker notes. "That was yesterday's story." But it took the advent of the computer before this rage to quantify escaped the factory floor.

Understanding people is hard work. Computers promise to make the task easier, but at a cost; because they can only understand coded and categorized data, coded and categorized data is sought out by the numerati in industries ranging from retailing to casinos. All the squishy stuff—emotions, for instance—count for little unless they contribute in some way to the data store. Behavior that can't be turned into numbers is simply bracketed, left out of the machine analysis altogether.

Baker treks across the country, talking with various numerati, the data wizards who work in advertising, retailing, national defense, human resources, and health care. Despite his constant skeptical impulse, Baker's talks also convince him that there's an upside to the quantification of human life. Once computers can act on data, they become capable of finding patterns, unexpected matches that a human could never decipher. When done well, the work of the numerati makes our lives better by providing ads we want to see, products we want to buy, a safer world, jobs that better fit our skills and interests, health care that matches our bodies and genetic makeup. Think of it as the benefit of computerized hypertargeting.

Not that easy access to all this data generally makes the public feel warm and fuzzy—the opposite is often true. For instance, a Carnegie Mellon student recently found that given only three data points—gender, birth date, and ZIP code—87 percent of the US could be pinpointed by name. Yes, technology is amazing, but isn't there something vaguely disquieting about having one's identity plucked so easily from among 300 million US residents? And reduced to only two numbers and a letter?


- Nate Anderson, January 5, 2009

Fortune Magazine

"The implications may sound a bit Big Brother-esque, but Baker believes we have as much to benefit as to risk."

Baker, a BusinessWeek writer, believes that a world broken down into ones and zeroes - the tools of mathematical algorithms - can be reassembled to offer rich and useful portraits of its inhabitants.

The "Numerati" he describes are the computer experts, analysts and statisticians able to sift through the mounds of data we produce every day when we surf the Web, chat on our cell phones, and shop.

The idea is to use mathematical modeling so bosses will get the most work from us. Retailers will make sure we see the most effective advertising. Pollsters will be able to predict with great accuracy who we will vote for.

In punchy chapters with titles such as "worker" and "voter," Baker chronicles the most forward thinking of the Numerati in their efforts to make an impact.

In one of the more provocative sections, Baker pays a visit to IBM's Thomas J. Watson Research Center where a mathematician is building a database of the company's employees. It breaks each worker into a set of skills and knowledge that will help IBM match people to work in much more efficient ways.

In another section, Baker and his wife sign up for an internet dating service, logging in interests and desires to see if they will be matched.

The implications may sound a bit Big Brother-esque, but Baker believes we have as much to benefit as to risk. He hits privacy concerns hard, and explains that with time, we can use these tools to our advantage. And he leaves readers with a curious desire to study math.


- Jessi Hempel, December 26, 2008

Las Vegas Business Press

Math appeal: How number-crunchers have you pegged

...
Back in school, solving math problems could feel like playing detective. An exercise would give lengths for three sides of a figure and let you solve for the fourth. With formulas, or in some cases, algorithms, you'd find X. In "The Numerati," author Stephen Baker describes a world in which people become the math and behavior becomes the mystery. Everyone watching us, including marketers, politicians and bosses, take data we've given them and use algorithms and numeric tools to forecast what we'll do next.

"The Numerati" describes how our gadget-infested society has created troves of clues about our habits. Grocery-store loyalty-card swipes hint about what we eat. Google searches trace ideas zipping through our heads. Cell phone calls track who we know.

The next step, Baker writes, is drawing connections and conclusions; math wizards -- the Numerati -- and computers will do it. Our data pile is titanic; a comScore study earlier this year found that Yahoo, for example, gathers 110 billion pieces of data a month from users.

"The Numerati" by Stephen Baker, 256 pages, Houghton Mifflin, $26.

 
The Numerati world that Baker, a writer for BusinessWeek, describes is both chilling and hopeful. In it, bosses will have a precise way to measure how many keystrokes, mouse clicks and Web visits produce work (scary). But doctors will use machines to monitor our health constantly, spotting problems before they become harder and more expensive to treat (soothing).

Corporate growth pushed Numerati into shopping, Baker argues. Before World War II, smaller stores served smaller areas, he argues, and service was personal. Merchants knew who shopped and could show them what they wanted.

Industrialization changed everything, Baker writes. Stores grew, ownership decentralized and shoppers had to find items themselves. In the future, computer chips or radio-frequency tags in loyalty cards will combine with in-shop cameras to restore the shopkeeper's guiding hand, Baker argues.

"When the stores get to know us, they'll recognize us ..." he writes. "They may calculate we're running short on cat kibbles and they won't forget that we spike a gallon or two of eggnog every holiday season."

In the office, Baker shows how e-mail tracks communication and productivity. Messaging shows who talks to whom in and across departments. E-mail can spot a tortured soul: Someone who messages infrequently may be depressed and looking to leave. Or it could spot a distressed company: A torrent of messages from an informal klatch detailed Enron Corp.'s disintegration.

Baker's research brings him to Las Vegas, where he watches for cheats in visits to a casino's "crow's nest." Monitor-watching security staff think they have one when they see a woman illegally toss an extra $5 chip on an already placed bet. (She was drunk, not crooked, it turns out). Baker also meets Jeff Jonas, who founded data-mining company Systems Research and Development in Las Vegas after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Jonas, Baker recounts, started locally in 1995, developing aquarium-tracking software at The Mirage. Fish were disappearing, meaning some were eating others; Jonas' system, Baker wrote, gauged fish survival rates by type, so the hotel-casino could invest in those likeliest to survive.

Jonas graduated from tracking fish to tracking people, building a system called NORA -- nonobservational relationship awareness. The system, Baker writes, sifted casino data, from personnel files to credit card applications, looking for common threads with known cheats, goons and grifters.

"NORA might see, for example, that Krista, who was on the suspect list, has the same phone number as Tammy, who had just applied for a job as a blackjack dealer."

The system didn't decide whether Krista and Tammy were partners in crime, Baker writes; people had to explore the tie. For all of their data collection, the systems "The Numerati" describes could spark wrong conclusions. In a medical example, machinery detected an 8-pound overnight spike in a woman's weight. The woman's fluids hadn't surged; her dog had joined her in bed. In a computer dating example, Chemistry.com, though informed with profiles, almost failed to match the author and his wife.

If shopper-chasing data miners incorrectly surmise that a buyer of Brussels sprouts and Diet Coke will also buy mahi mahi, consequences are minor; a cash register will dispense unwanted coupons. But mistakes in terrorist-chasing data-mining can destroy lives.

Jonas, who sold Systems Research and Development to IBM for undisclosed millions, told Baker he fears the technological march to track us will escalate indefinitely; more machines will gather our data, more cameras will track our steps. If mounting data are mishandled and misconstrued, Jonas says, public privacy is threatened and innocent people may be falsely tied to crooks. Therefore, to protect privacy, Baker writes, Jonas has built protections into NORA. The system will sift lists for ties to known terrorists, but until data matches appear and companies ask for names, people's identities will stay secret.

"The Numerati" could leave people confounded by calculus in despair; math would seem to offer the best, or only, path to career success. Baker says no.

"And the rest of us? We should grasp the basics of math and statistics -- certainly better than we do today -- but still follow what we love," he writes. "The world doesn't need millions of mediocre mathematicians and there's plenty of opportunity for specialists in other fields."

Matthew Crowley is a copy editor for the Business Press' sister publication, the Las Vegas Review-Journal. He can be reached at mcrowley@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0304.

- Matthew Crowley, December 15, 2008

The Independent (UK)

Imagine a future in which our bosses work to get the best out of us, where retailers regularly bombard us with targeted advertising, where pollsters try to predict our voting habits and dating agencies our romantic preferences. Sounds rather like now, doesn't it?But with the help of the Numerati – those computer experts, statisticians and analysts that give Stephen Baker's book its title – advertisers, employers and the rest will be able to pinpoint our tastes with ever increasing accuracy. 

But with the help of the Numerati – those computer experts, statisticians and analysts that give Stephen Baker's book its title – advertisers, employers and the rest will be able to pinpoint our tastes with ever increasing accuracy.

From medical records to movie tastes, more of our personal information is becoming available to those who know how to tap the digital stream, and it's being exploited to track and predict our shopping lists, our political predilections, even the state of our health. The Numerati's ongoing project, writes Baker, is "the mathematical modelling of humanity."

Much of his book is made up of information that anyone who's been paying attention already knows or could surmise. By turning a person's habits at work or play into numerical data, computers can analyse behaviour for the benefit of employers who want to optimise their workforce, digital marketers trying to ensnare us based on the content of our emails, and so on. "Advertisers," Baker writes, "can anticipate people's online journeys – and sprinkle their paths with just the right ads."

This much is familiar to anyone who regularly uses the internet. That such processes are becoming more sophisticated isn't surprising in itself. Baker often fails to give enough mathematical detail to make those processes fascinating, and rarely produces compelling portraits of the Numerati themselves. Instead we get vague descriptions of the views from their office windows, or of the coffee shops in which he waits with his laptop to meet them.

The book also suffers from poor timing by touching on pollsters' activities in Virginia during the 2005 gubernatorial election. Evidently written before the recent presidential election, it misses a trick: there's surely another book to be written about the number crunching of Obama's personal Numerati there.

The narrative nonetheless heats up in the chapter on voting patterns. Baker describes with some clarity the shift from easily definable social and voter demographics in previous decades, to the current fragmentation, with today's Democrats frequently hiding among communities of Republicans and vice versa. Pollsters now require far more detailed data to do their jobs, while advertisers need more advanced tools to help consumers to cut through the crap in a world of endless choice.

Later in the book, Baker and his wife become willing guinea pigs for an online dating agency eager to prove its matchmaking skills. Set up at first with a slew of unfamiliar women, Baker soon realises that he's entered his age preferences incorrectly. He tweaks his online profile and – hey presto! – up pops Mrs Baker at the top of the list. The site matches partners using not only their stated preferences, but also the elements of their personality that are unintentionally revealed in their profile by, for instance, the breadth of their vocabulary. Even our love lives can be broken down into ones and zeroes.

On the other hand, the author is at pains to emphasise the Numerati's limitations. Computers might be able to cope with extremely complex tasks, but some of the most simple human skills are beyond them, such as picking out the words "Osama bin Laden" in different languages – the name has 11 different spellings in Chinese alone, which a computer must be taught.

In a constructive conclusion, Baker stresses that the work of the Numerati needn't be sinister. They aren't some crack squad of computerised clergy holding sway over our every thought; they want to make our lives easier.

Wouldn't you rather be targeted with ads matched to your tastes than a barrage of irrelevant promotions? Isn't it comforting to think there are increasingly efficient ways to second guess terrorism? And surely any early warning system for future health problems should be welcomed? Meanwhile, computer models that track an employee's productivity will doubtless prove useful to any HR departments looking to make savings during a lean 2009. The Numerati can, and probably will, provide them with the necessary tools.


- Tim Walker, December 12, 2008

Milenio Online

Reseña: Los Numerati Stephen Baker

Descifrando nuestro ADN digital

Esta novedad editorial busca explicar cómo cada click, cada llamada telefónica, cada compra con tarjeta bancaria, va construyendo el perfil de cada uno de nosotros.
Foto: Especial

Imagina que estás en un café, quizás en el mismo tan ruidoso en el que yo estoy sentado ahora. Una mujer en la mesa de tu derecha está tecleando en su laptop. Giras tu cabeza hacia su pantalla. Ella navega en internet. Tú observas. Las horas pasan. Ella lee un periódico en línea. Te percatas que ha leído tres artículos sobre China. Sondea películas para ver el viernes en la noche y ve los cortos de Kung Fu Panda. Da un click en un anuncio que promete conectarla con sus compañeros de la preparatoria. Tú te quedas sentado tomando notas. Con cada minuto que pasa, estás aprendiendo más sobre ella. Ahora imagina que pudieras observar a 150 millones de personas navegando al mismo tiempo”.

Así inicia el libro Los Numerati (The Numerati) de Stephen Baker, y no hay mejor de resumir lo que tratará. Esta novedad editorial –publicada en agosto del presente año bajo el sello Houghton Mifflin Harcourt– busca explicar cómo cada click, cada llamada telefónica, cada compra con tarjeta bancaria, cada correo electrónico enviado, va construyendo el perfil de cada uno de nosotros que después alimentará infinidad de bases de datos.

Este autor, que ha escrito por más de dos décadas para la revista de negocios BusinessWeek, resalta la importancia de “los Numerati”, un selecto grupo de profesionales que hacen las veces de “Gran Hermano”. Son matemáticos, ingenieros, programadores que cuentan con “las herramientas y las habilidades que pueden ser utilizadas para descifrar nuestro movimientos, deseos, dolencias, hábitos de compra y, con esto, predecir nuestro comportamiento”. Pero aunque parezca ciencia ficción, Baker no habla del futuro, sino de un presente en pleno desarrollo.

Desde hace algunos años, en compañías como IBM se ha tratado de recopilar toda la información de los empleados y con ella crear modelos matemáticos, que al tener una alta capacidad predictiva del comportamiento de los mismos, pueda servir para mejorar la productividad y automatizar la administración. Con estos modelos las empresas podrían saber en qué puesto se desempeñará mejor cada empleado, cómo formar los grupos de trabajo más compatibles, qué tan rentable es cada trabajador, cuál es la mejor manera de incentivarlos, y cómo establecer calendarios y programas de productividad, entre muchas otras cosas. Pero no sólo servirá para entender a los trabajadores. Este gran cúmulo de datos, puede traducirse en modelos matemáticos que nos expliquen como consumidores, votantes, ciber-ciudadanos, pacientes, amantes y hasta posibles terroristas.

Este libro, del que todavía no hay traducción al castellano y que es prácticamente imposible conseguirlo en nuestro país, es una lectura necesaria para los amantes de las nuevas tecnologías y de todas aquellas personas interesadas en explorar la infinidad de posibilidades que nos ofrece el mundo digital.

Miguel Ángel Vargas Vaca

- Miguel Ángel Vargas Vaca, December 1, 2008

The New Scientist

THIS book will send a shiver down your spine and leave you glancing over your shoulder. But it is no ghost story. You really are being watched.

Journalist Stephen Baker takes us to meet the spooks who are watching us, a group he calls the Numerati. They are a growing band of mathematicians and computer scientists tasked with processing the flood of electronic traces we leave behind, to reveal and ultimately influence the way we shop, vote or even fall in love.

As the mathematicians explain to Baker what they are doing and how, it becomes clear that their subjects have little choice about participating in what Baker calls "the mathematical modelling of humanity". As a worker, shopper, voter or blogger, your data is being collected and crunched. Every click of your mouse is fodder for the Numerati.

The Numerati don't simply want to know what we are doing - they want to wrest control of our behaviour. A shopper who often uses shopping discount coupons, for instance, might find their supply cut off or find themselves targeted by adverts exploiting their known weakness for Belgian chocolates. Voters might receive phone calls calculated to appeal to someone with their particular educational background, area code, children's ages and income. Those who use dating websites will find that the Numerati have chosen their potential mates.

These examples and others make a compelling case that as more of our information populates databases, and as the mathematics used to mine them grows increasingly sophisticated, the Numerati will become a powerful force. At the moment, though, these methods still have their share of flaws.

In its hunt for covert enemies, Baker says, the US government leans heavily on a mathematical crutch to compensate for shortfalls in human skills - such as fluency in Arabic or front-line intelligence. For now, this crutch is not a very solid support, IBM's chief scientist tells Baker, explaining that today's data mining techniques are still not producing the goods. He ought to know, having designed software to track known and future crooks in Las Vegas casinos, which, after 9/11, was enlisted by the CIA for hunting terrorists.

These techniques are, nevertheless, inexorably eroding our privacy, something that will surely grow more concerning if, as Baker suggests, they come to dominate commerce, policing, healthcare and more.

Unfortunately he seems unwilling to devote much space to how we might cope with this Orwellian future. We never find out how the march of the Numerati might be regulated, or how individuals might regain control of their own data. Given widespread worries over government phone tapping in the US and compulsory ID cards in the UK, some suggestions would have been welcome. If the Numerati are going to get your number and everyone else's, let's keep an eye on theirs.

Tom Simonite is technology editor for NewScientist.com


- Tom Simonite, November 27, 2008

The Daily Telegraph

Data-surfing data serfs

-- Simon Ings recommends three books that show how to harness the power of numbers...

Late in the day, and carrying little by way of new information, Stephen Baker's The Numerati is none the less a strikingly well-argued and positive account of a wired, watched world in which private lives are no longer an option.

In the near future Baker describes, you will pay a company called SpareMetheDetails.com to provide you with an exercise regime to address all those medical complaints and physical shortcomings you'd rather not know about; your online dating agency will boot you off the website because your ex-wife is emailing lies about you; and the supermarket, knowing you're disloyal (you chase bargains wherever you find them) will drive you away with absurd and inappropriate offers.

By digitising our every commercial exchange, and by inviting us to digitise more and more of our social dealings, the "Numerati" - the mathematician wizards who set the policies of institutions, insurers, retailers and governments - are increasingly able to model how each of us behaves in any given situation. In some respects, they already know us better than we know ourselves. The digital revolution that promised to bring tailored goods and services to my door will soon only give me what they think I deserve.

Getting us to face that future with confidence is Baker's task. For a start, he says, we are not being turned into numbers. "Turning us into simple numbers was what happened in the industrial age. That was yesterday's story." Our mathematically parsed lives (from our daily spending habits to our voting patterns) reveal us as complex entities that bloody-mindedly refuse to behave like components. In the control rooms of commerce and the state mathematics brings us to life. Whatever future our mathematical avatars are ushering in, it will not be an assembly-line future.

Baker's reassurances continue: "The ideal industries for the Numerati are those in which they can goof up regularly and still top the status quo." Digitising people en masse is hard; digitising individuals (attempting, for example, to track terrorist cells through the digital ether) is fraught beyond all imagining. Though the book is subtitled "How They'll Get My Number and Yours", the chances are that they won't. Not, anyway, if Jeff Jonas has his way. Jonas, who sold his relationship trawler to the CIA, is now a privacy advocate, frantically re-engineering his work to protect individual rights. If Jonas's story is typical, there is money and kudos to be had from reining in and humanising the future Baker describes.

Baker tracks down and talks to Jonas and many other key players in this digitised realm. Most of his subjects are not mathematicians. They come from the humanities. They studied history. They dropped out and messed around for years before stumbling on their Big Idea. Mathematics is simply their lingua franca. The future is wildly interdisciplinary: David Heckerman, a researcher at Microsoft, applies spam-detecting algorithms to HIV, work that could one day lead to an Aids vaccine.

What kind of world are the Numerati making for the rest of us? If decisions that affect us are going to be based on the real-time mathematical modelling of people then we had better make sure that those models reflect reality, and not some prejudiced take on it. Over the next few years, therefore, we can expect to find ourselves arguing ever-more desperately with the "computer says no" apparatchiks of the information economy. "At work," Baker warns, "perhaps more than anywhere else, we are in danger of becoming data serfs - slaves to the information we produce." To win our arguments - and save our selves - we will have to be able to explain exactly why "their" models of us are wrong. It's an onerous obligation, to be sure, but one "that will lead many of us to give more thought to who we are".

It would do us no harm, either, to know more about the maths underpinning those models - and it would be hard to imagine an easier, friendlier, more entertaining introduction than John Barrow's 100 Essential Things You Didn't Know You Didn't Know. In his introduction, Professor Barrow bends over backwards to understate his book's value. Certainly, it's a title you are supposed to dip into. Most of Barrow's stories describe mathematical conundrums. There are biographical pieces, and some historical oddities. My favourite is the 1918 Soundex phonetic system, invented to deal with spelling errors in censuses. There are even belly laughs - as when a change in the points system saw the football teams of Grenada and Barbados attacking their own goals in the 1994 Shell Caribbean Cup.

I suspect the craft behind this fun book will only really come to light as we attempt to tell Barrow's stories to our friends. Suddenly, we will realise how much effort Barrow has expended in explaining difficult things simply.

Ian Stewart, unlike Barrow, believes in the sturdiness of his Cabinet of Mathematical Curiosities, and advises puzzle buffs to work through his book in order. His confidence in his handiwork is not misplaced, and his anthology is more structured than Barrow's. Stewart began collecting mathematical trivia when he was a schoolboy. The child is clearly the father of the man in this case, and the book's goofy and unabashed enthusiasm will charm any interested teenager. That said, Stewart does not write nearly as well as Barrow. At his very worst, he comes across as someone you should avoid at parties, stuffing his over-elaborate conundrums with weak jokes and execrable puns. His book is more of a collection of puzzles than the tour of wonders his title implies. While providing a great deal of mathematical entertainment, he can't help but remind us that mathematical ability, like musical ability, is not character forming. It is not urbane. It is not intuitive.

Stewart communicates very well over the divide that separates the Two Cultures. Barrow, on the other hand, makes you forget the divide is there.


- Simon Ings, November 26, 2008

The Philadelphia Inquirer


A brave new world of snoopy software


Reviewed by John Allen Paulos
--Big Brother in a Chip might be an alternative title for Stephen Baker's book The Numerati. With gee-whiz enthusiasm, the BusinessWeek columnist tells a number of fascinating stories about ever-cheaper, ever-more-powerful computer chips and the tools and techniques they make possible, tools and techniques that will increasingly and dramatically affect nearly every area of our lives.

The bulk of the book is devoted to examples. A particularly nice one concerns the chips and new software that will monitor our buying habits in supermarkets via the use of store cards and smart carts. These will note what we buy and infer from our purchases whether we're on a budget (relatively constant expenditures), following a diet (low-fat foods) or have fallen off one (high-fat ice creams).

The cart will also remind us if it finds we've forgotten something, and determine how brand-loyal and price-sensitive we are. It will discover our buying personalities and likely demographic characteristics, track our path through the store, and suggest changes in layout to stimulate sales of high-profit items.

Through interviews with scientists at various software companies ranging from giants like Yahoo and Google to a number of smaller boutique firms, Baker attempts to humanize the story of those he terms the "numerati." They are the mathematicians, computer scientists and others who are every day devising better software models of us as consumers, workers, patients, lovers, voters and even terrorists. Despite its topic, the book contains no mathematics, although Baker does periodically hint at notions from statistics, operations research, and graph and network theory that make the new software possible.

Interestingly, a few numerati are even analyzing blogs, because bloggers provide unfiltered, raw, generally honest reactions to products (from diarrhea medicines to golf clubs) that information-hungry companies want. Countless blogs are scanned for mention of these products (or issues), and the computer is taught to determine the sex, approximate age, and other demographic characteristics of the bloggers. The information obtained helps companies discern tastes and target ads (much as Google and Amazon are doing already).

On the drawing boards, too, are new medical software programs and devices that churn through volumes of information to monitor patients' health, especially that of older people. One example is a floor sensor that can detect changes in the speed and symmetry of Grandpa's gait, the frequency of his visits to the refrigerator or bathroom, and other characteristics. The sensor then determines whether he's especially unsteady in the morning (maybe too many meds the night before), or whether he's on the verge of a stroke, as well as the probability of a host of other conditions.

> Phone software can detect if the time it takes Grandpa to recognize loved ones' voices has grown a fraction of a second longer and draw tentative conclusions and an invitation for specific tests. This would be especially helpful with Parkinson's disease, which often signals itself by changes in voice and gait as much as a decade before it's diagnosed by doctors.

The chapter on terrorism tells of the torrent of data available from the FBI, CIA, and publicly available databases, as well as monitored phone calls (some legally, many not), Web site visits, transportation records, tax filings, ubiquitous cameras, and who knows what else? This informational tsunami rushes past the National Security Agency's numerati, who attempt to pan nuggets out of the torrent.

Baker duly notes the danger of false positives in this endeavor. With ever more pieces of information and ever more superficially suspicious interconnections among them, the vast majority of the people picked out will likely be innocent. Note the million or so names on the airline watch list - and appreciate the continuing importance of habeas corpus.

Since mathematics is a somewhat imperialistic discipline, the same software tools and data-mining techniques useful in one domain apply in many other disparate realms as well. The ideas employed to find terrorists' messages and their senders are also used to find e-mail spam and its origins, to find dangerous molecules in our blood, to find suitable fits between workers and jobs, or to find potentially compatible mates. The connection among these various tasks is often nominal, consisting in no more than the fact that they all use similar mathematical tools.

Despite the slightly sinister sound to the title word numerati, Baker writes near the end of the book that these folks and their mathematical tricks will, for the most part, make our lives easier (unless we're trying to hide our hangover from the snooping floor). Far from being controlling, they will allow us to be more fully who we choose to be. Just as we all drive cars without understanding what a carburetor does, we'll all use these software tools without understanding how dynamic optimization works.


John Allen Paulos, a professor of mathematics at Temple University, is the author of the best-sellers "Innumeracy" and "A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper," as well as "Irreligion: A Mathematician Explains Why the Arguments for God Just Don't Add Up." His "Who's Counting?" column on ABCNEWS.com appears the first weekend of every month.

- John Allen Paulos, November 23, 2008

The Guardian (UK)

"Forget astrology and the stars; your future is encoded within the trail of numbers that you leave behind you...."

They've got us all figured out

Every time you do a web search, or use a loyalty card, one of the 'numerati' does the maths on you, writes Marcus du Sautoy

Can you predict what the next numbers will be in each of these strings of digits?

123454321234543212. . .

11235813213455. . .

993751058209749. . .

The first sequence has a clear rhythm to it. The second is a little more tricky, but look closely and you might notice that it uses the previous numbers in the string to build the next one. This is the Fibonacci sequence, nature's favourite set of numbers and the first code to be cracked in Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code. The third sequence is much trickier. At first it looks random but if you come at it armed with the right knowledge you might recognise that it is part of the decimal expansion of pi, starting at the 44th decimal place. Once you know this you have total control over the sequence and can predict every twist as it speeds off to infinity.

Mathematics is all about spotting patterns, finding the underlying logic in the seemingly random and chaotic world around us; and using this information to predict future behaviour. Traditionally maths has been used to make predictions about inanimate objects, like the orbit of planets or the weather. But as Stephen Baker explains in The Numerati, mathematicians are increasingly turning their attention to human behaviour. What if those strings of numbers are records of the things you've bought, places you've travelled to, websites you've visited, parties you've voted for? Find the pattern in the numbers and mathematicians will be able to predict - with surprising accuracy - what your next move will be. The 'numerati' is the name Baker gives to the group of latterday fortune-tellers whose job it is to decode our behaviour. His book explores the lives of such people and attempts to analyse how powerful they have become.

Until recently, the abstract language of mathematics seemed to have no relevance to the murky worlds of consumer trends, political preferences and dating. The change that has made the rise of the numerati possible is digitisation. All of us today leave an extensive trail of numbers wherever we go. Almost everything we do - from visiting a website to texting a friend - is translated into ones and zeros, which are stored somewhere and available to those who know how to access them. For example, every time we enter a search into Google, a simple code called ASCI translates each letter we type into a string of 0s and 1s, which are sent out across the internet.

When we unload our shopping trolleys at the checkout, the bar codes of our purchases are stored by our loyalty cards, providing a record of our eating habits. When we walk down the road, our movements are likely to be tracked by CCTV, converted into digital code and stored on computer mainframes. Even our moods and thoughts get translated into zeros and ones by the technology we love and rely on, as thousands of us pour our states of minds on to blogs. Forget astrology and the stars; your future is encoded within the trail of numbers that you leave behind you.

For those with the ability to interpret it, this data trail is a goldmine. Advertisers and politicians have long dreamed of being able to target their messages - or products - at individuals on the basis of highly detailed information about them. Now this dream is becoming reality. By analysing the geometry of our mathematical pathways, mathematicians can cluster people with shared interests and passions, creating ever smaller, more specific groups to target.

For example, Baker talks to one of the numerati, Dave Morgan of AOL, who picked up a correlation between people visiting the Alamo Rent A Car website and surfing romantic movie sites. It isn't an obvious match; only in retrospect could it be traced to an escapist tendency. But once the pattern was identified, advertisers could find all sorts of clever ways to exploit it - for example, by bombarding this particular group with offers for weekend breaks in country hotels.

Baker argues that the numerati have become incredibly powerful in a range of fields, from the workplace to the voting booth, from health care to counter-terrorism. He even puts the maths to the test to see if a dating agency can pair him with his wife; when he eventually unchecks the box requesting someone several decades too young, Mrs Baker pops up top of the list. There is no denying that the digital revolution has opened up exciting new territory for mathematicians. The numerati are no fantasy; they exist. Baker is telling us about a phenomenon that is important and often overlooked. That makes his book urgent and exciting.

But there are also significant flaws. Baker's slick journalistic style grates after a while - especially when we are forced to hear about him supping yet another coffee in a cafe as he waits for his next interviewee. And maybe it's because I'm a maths nerd, but I hoped for more detail about the maths involved. Baker's mathematical descriptions are often superficial, and indeed he seems to regard the maths as little more than magic. His numerati come across as sorcerers armed with mysterious, secret knowledge, not as scientists with tools that can be rationally analysed. This has the effect of making them seem more sinister than they are.

The book becomes more interesting when Baker turns his attention to the political implications of the numerati's activities. There are clear issues of civil liberties at stake, as well as of consent. Most of us have no idea how much of our lives are being tracked. If we did, we would probably be horrified. At the same time, it is hard to deny that the numerati do much that is good. Baker's analysis is pretty balanced, and he spells out why we should be grateful to the numerati, as well as concerned in some areas. Increasingly, for example, the numerati use their skills to monitor health care; homes for the elderly are being wired with technology that can record fluctuations in weight or a decrease in mobility, triggering a hasty visit from a doctor. If you're joining a dating agency, you want to exploit the skills of mathematicians to find the perfect partner. And, as Baker points out in his chapter on the use of the numerati by pollsters, anything that helps politicians target individuals on issues that they care about, rather than simply trotting out bland platitudes, is a good thing.

There is a tendency within our society to view science with suspicion, whether it is stories of nano-robots infiltrating our body and messing with our DNA, black holes appearing in the Large Hadron Collider in Cern that will swallow up the universe, or genetically modified crops sweeping the world and destroying all in their path. All scientific progress involves steps into the unknown, and that inevitably entails risk. That is why books like this are valuable. Once you know about the science and its implications, you are in a much better position to distinguish sinister developments from mere hype.

So when it comes to Baker's numerati, all of us have a responsibility to understand how much companies and government can or cannot use or abuse the maths. This book won't make you an expert on how the mathematicians do their tricks, but it will make you more aware of the the implications. Read it and you'll have a much better idea of who has got your number.

Marcus du Sautoy is the new Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at the University of Oxford and author of Finding Moonshine (Fourth Estate)


- Marcus du Sautoy, November 23, 2008

The Times (of London)

It's written in a breezy journalistic style and it avoids sensationalism even when this must have been tempting.

Times Online Logo 222 x 25

 
 
November 21, 2008

The Princeton Companion to Mathematics and The Numerati: How They'll Get My Number and Yours

The Times review by Ian Stewart

The Princeton Companion to Mathematics edited by Timothy Gowers et al
Princeton, £60; 1,008pp Buy the book

The Numerati: How They'll Get My Number and Yours by Stephen Baker
Jonathan Cape, £17.99; 272pp Buy the book

The Numerati is short, has no formulas, and no overt mathematical concepts beyond ordinary numbers. It's written in a breezy journalistic style and it avoids sensationalism even when this must have been tempting. It is about the numerical data that supermarkets, banks and internet service providers collect and how they use it - or hope to use it. The numerati have got your number. They've been collecting data for years but until recently had no idea what to do with it.

Your supermarket loyalty card is not free. You pay for it by allowing the supermarket to collect information about your purchases. They know that you always buy a particular brand of razor. Occasionally you pick up a chocolate bar at the checkout. They know how frequently you do this, what your total spend is. So far they've used this data in limited ways. But soon the numerati will be making more effective use of your personal data to persuade you to buy stuff that you wouldn't otherwise have bought. “You like Cherry Coke. How much would Pepsi have to slash the price of its Wild Cherry Cola to entice you to switch?” The hold over you will be even greater when they can track your shopping cart as you pass through the store, link that to your loy-alty card and flash messages on a screen pointing out bargains that they think will appeal to you. And this kind of thing will also happen in your relations with your employer, your vote, your doctor, even your love life.

Is this mathematics? Or is it just numbers? The data may be numbers, but what you do with it involves high-powered maths. Vast amounts of mathematics lurk just under the surface of our lives, making everything possible.

Some of these developments are good, some bad - loss of privacy, even a police state. Another key question, strangely missing from the book, is: will we let these things happen? As the numerati build ever more effective weapons to control our lives, we may decide not to play their games. For every advertisement on the web there is a free add-on to block it. And ultimately, we can spend only what we earn. The numerati may encourage us to spend it on them, rather than on the opposition, but this arms race has a cost. Like air miles, it could become self-defeating - expensive to operate and of little value once everyone is doing it.

WITHOUT mathematics our world would be very different - no internet, no mobile phones, no satellite navigation, no passenger aircraft, no CDs, no digital cameras, no MRI scanners. Yet this almost total reliance of our society on mathematics is largely unknown and unappreciated. There are many ways to drag mathematics out of the wings and into the limelight, and these two books follow very different strategies.

The Princeton Companion to Mathematics contains contributions by about 100 of the world's leading mathematicians, and its editor, Timothy Gowers, is a winner of the Fields Medal, the highest honour in mathematics. It concentrates on pure mathematics, done for its own sake without any specific application in mind. Its coverage is broad, but it is not an encyclopaedia.

The core is a section on the different branches of mathematics. At school we encounter a few basic concepts in arithmetic, algebra, geometry, calculus, probability and not much else. The professional community recognises about 100 major branches of mathematics, with names such as “algebraic topology” and “stochastic processes”. They represent the hidden world of frontier research, and they are as unlike school mathematics as composing a symphony differs from playing scales on a piano.

It is almost impossible to convey much about these frontier activities without employing technical terms, formulas and abstract concepts. The Companion makes a heroic attempt to keep these to a minimum, but the minimum is fairly big. A mathematics undergraduate would feel comfortable with this part of the book, but a school student would struggle.

Most of the rest of the book is accessible to anyone with an interest in mathematics and some basic high school background. There are biographies of mathematicians and a discussion of the origins of modern mathematics. There are essays on applications of mathematics to areas such as chemistry, biology, traffic flow, transmission of digital information, money, medicine, music and art.

The Companion is an ambitious attempt to do something valuable, and it is not the fault of contributors or editor that it is impossible to realise this ambition completely. The book conveys the breadth, depth and diversity of mathematics. It is impressive and well written, and it's good value for money.

 


- Ian Stewart, November 22, 2008

The Irish Times

Unlike the shadowy cultists who populate Brown's fiction, however, the Numerati are all too real, and they're busy calculating how to make you buy more stuff.

 

 

CON TEXT- NUMERATI

 

BYLINE: KEVIN COURTNEY

November 18, 2008 Tuesday

 

Numerati - they sound pretty sinister?They are mathematical Machiavellis, using their vast knowledge of numbers to manipulate ordinary people and bend human behaviour to their will.

Is this the plot of a new Dan Brown novel?

No, but it is the premise of a sensational new book by business journalist Stephen Baker. Unlike the shadowy cultists who populate Brown's fiction, however, the Numerati are all too real, and they're busy calculating how to make you buy more stuff.

How do they do that?

Wherever we go, and whatever we do, we leave an easy-to-follow electronic trail. Every time we log on to the internet, send an e-mail, pay a bill by credit card or send a text from our phone, we reveal something about ourselves, our lifestyles and our shopping habits. The Numerati are the ones smart enough to pull all that disparate data together and create a profile of each individual consumer. They pass this knowledge to the marketing men who will then tailor an advertisement or marketing campaign and aim it specifically at you.

That's creepy - I feel like I'm being watched.

You are. Everything you do, from buying a ticket on the Dart to buying tickets for the hot new rock gig, can be tracked, analysed and collated, and fed into a database. But all this info would be useless without the unique skills of the Numerati, who are able to and make marketing sense out of all that data.

So, who are these geeks that are trying to rule the world?

You'll find them ferreting away at their algorithms in such major companies as Google, IBM, Intel and any other organisation that deals in large quantities of data. And you'll also detect them in the world of security, using the data to try and counter crime and terrorism.

They can do all this just by crunching a few numbers?

Never underestimate the power of mathematics. According to Baker, all human activity can be broken down into a series of ones and zeros, which can then be turned into mathematical models that predict our behaviour as shoppers, workers, potential terrorists and even lovers. Once our lives, loves and interests are laid bare, the marketing men can make a killing.

But are we really that easy to manipulate? We're not automatons, you know.

In the old days of the industrial revolution, time-and-motion experts would go into factories with their stopwatches and analyse workers' daily habits. These days, however, there are a million more ways to get information about our lives. We can be identified by birth date, postcode and our computer's ISP number, and tracked via CCTV, credit-card usage and our car number plate. It won't be too long before floor sensors can tell which way we distribute our weight when we stand. All this information is grist to the marketing mill, and allows advertisers and marketing people to home in on their prime target - you.

Omigod. Now I feel like Jason Bourne, with faceless people out to get me. How can I evade capture?

You can do small things such as binning your loyalty cards, which tell the Numerati where you like to shop. Or you can switch to cash when you buy your Prada and Louis Vuitton. But unless you become a hermit, eating nuts and berries and dressing in old potato sacks, you're not going to escape the Numerati. If you're out there on the high street, they'll find you - and sell you something.

It's like they're in my head.

It won't be long before the Numerati really do get inside your head. Neuromarketing uses electro-encephalography to find out what we're thinking when we buy. Neuromarketers have discovered, for instance, that shopping floods the brain with happy hormones.

Try at home:  "I couldn't help myself - it was like an invisible force guiding me straight to the Gucci counter."

Try at work:"Okay, people, this kid buys a Milky Bar every day - how do we get him to switch to Curly Wurly?"

 


- Kevin Courtney, November 18, 2008

The Financial Times

Their data are fodder for marketers, politicians, intelligence analysts.... It is fascinating stuff...

The Numerati: How They’ll Get My Number and Yours
By Stephen Baker
Jonathan Cape £17.99 256 pages
FT Bookshop price: £13.39

I know a guy – let’s call him a cycling anarchist – who lives life in permanent rebellion against the corporate world. He campaigns against all the evils of consumer society. He would not set foot in a supermarket. But I have a new mission for him: to go behind enemy lines – as a barnacle.

The boffins who use algorithms and geometry to analyse our consumer habits have identified the barnacle as the bane of retailers. A barnacle is someone who buys only discounted goods – hitching a free ride like a mollusc clinging to the side of a ship, as author Stephen Baker describes it in The Numerati. They cost retailers money. So a cycling anarchist could erode the profits of Tesco or Wal-Mart by filling his basket with their loss-leaders and two-for-ones. Imagine if he enlisted the help of others.

But it won’t be one-way traffic against the numerati – the ranks of mathematicians chopping up our world into a series of numbers to manage human behaviour. Retailers are hitting back against barnacles by excluding them from mailing lists and, online, by bombarding them with ads and diverting them to slow servers. Retailers are becoming experts at converting customers into “true friends” who fall for seductive inducements to buy (high-margin) treats.

You don’t have to be a cycling anarchist to be concerned about what Baker calls the “mathematical modelling of humanity”. Most of us are at least faintly uneasy about the ubiquity of data compiled about our lives. We should be. The Numerati shows us just how far this process has already gone, how much further it has to go – and how little we can do to avoid it.

Baker, a BusinessWeek writer, goes about his task with a jaunty enthusiasm. He is careful to point out that he himself is a liberal arts graduate, as if to reassure us that he won’t get bogged down in the complex mathematical and computing science that the numerati thrive on – and he doesn’t. He includes no algebra and no geometrical diagrams. There are lots of descriptions of the numerati that emphasise their ordinariness – they sport goatees, wear rugby shirts and jeans and munch Chinese takeaways. They work for IBM, Intel, Accenture and university research units.

Actually, they are pretty much a class apart. The ones we meet in the book are based in the US, but they are a cosmopolitan lot from across Asia, the Middle East and eastern Europe as well as the US itself. Their otherness is enhanced precisely because most of us have only a vague understanding of how they do what they do. They are busy compiling and interpreting data about almost every aspect of our lives – data we so carelessly litter these days – with the intention not just of predicting but of influencing how we behave.

Baker runs through how the numerati are breaking us down and classifying us as workers, shoppers, voters, terrorists, patients and more. They are not working alone. Their data are fodder for marketers, politicians, intelligence analysts and doctors, not to mention governments. It is fascinating stuff. Did you know that a political consultancy in the US, using consumer data, has tagged 175m people into 10 “tribes” that define their political leaning? The method is 75 per cent accurate in identifying swing voters, so a political party has a three in four chance of success in targeting the audience needed for victory – far more efficient than broadcast ads or mailshots.

There are many potential benefits for the individual in this kind of data analysis, not least in enhanced medical monitoring and diagnostics. But a method that is 75 per cent accurate means a 25 per cent rate of failure. That might be acceptable when the only consequence is a door slammed in the face of a political canvasser. But what if more is at stake? The fact is, as Baker reluctantly concedes, a range of worrying issues is raised by the march of the numerati, from questions of privacy to potential injustice and worse, largely because they don’t seem to be much bothered by the concept of truth. “The key (for the numerati) is to forget about the truth – or at least put it to one side,” he writes. “The kind of statistical analysis we’re discussing here … is by its nature approximate. It’s based on probability.”

It is not just my friend the cycling anarchist who should be worried. We all need to be concerned about what happens when the geeks make a mistake. The most disappointing omission from this book is the almost complete lack of discussion about how the numerati of the financial world got it so horribly wrong. We had better hope that their colleagues in intelligence and other realms do a better job of crunching our numbers.

Hugh Carnegy is the FT’s executive editor


- Hugh Carnegy, November 17, 2008

The Sunday Times (UK)

Paranoia sells. This is because it is always justified. They are out to get you. Only this time they don't have bombs, guns and knives but far more dangerous weapons - algorithms and fMRI machines. Algorithms are mathematical processes that will break you down to a quivering mass of 0s and 1s; fMRI machines are brain scanners that will reduce you to your grey matter, a dumb flow of electrons and glucose. The marketing men have got hold of these things and they're going to use them to extract first your freedom and then your soul. But the good news is that you probably won't mind because you'll be getting all this really cool stuff.

Google is an algorithm, one that provides an exact and efficient way of searching the internet and ordering the results. This may seem like a small thing, but it points to the way the chaos of the contemporary can be controlled by numbers. The hierarchies generated by this algorithm now rule the world.

The marketing power of numbers is the subject of Stephen Baker's book. The Numerati are the mathematicians who are finding ways to sell things to you and you alone. Old ways of marketing are no longer effective. We're wise to their ways and they are phenomenally inefficient - vast sums of money are spent on reaching millions of people, only a tiny percentage of whom are likely to be interested in your product.

Numbers can fix this. But first the numerati and their computers have to know who you are. This is easy. Almost anybody in the world can be identified by sex, birth date and post code. Furthermore, you are dripping algorithms - your phone, your computer, your credit, your car number plate, your face (on CCTV) are all being turned, minute by minute, into the language of 0s and 1s that computers can understand. Worst of all are loyalty cards, whose only function is to imprison you in your habits and impulses.

Baker knows his stuff and he knows his subjects - the book is organised around a series of interviews with the numerati, alarmingly clever people at IBM, Intel, Accenture and even America's National Security Agency (they chase terrorists with numbers). And he gives us plenty of scary/weird information about how they are chasing us. They do it by fitting us into categories - if you are the sort of person who buys product A, then you will be interested in ads or offers about product B. So, when you surf the net, you will increasingly be bombarded with messages about the joys of B. This can produce some startling correlations. People in America who liked romantic films, for example, were also drawn to ads for Alamo car rentals. Nobody knew why until, one day, they realised that romantic types were drawn to weekends away. This is how the numbers nail you.

You can get revenge by being a “barnacle shopper” - going from shop to shop buying special offers and using coupons clipped from the tabloids. The companies hate you for this because you cost them money; in fact, they want to “fire” you. They're already doing this on the internet by bombarding you with ads in which you're not interested and on porn sites - I'm not kidding - by shunting you to the slowest server. They're only nice to people willing to pay top dollar.

But this is relatively tame stuff compared to “neuromarketing”, the subject of Martin Lindstrom's book. Using fMRI machines and advanced electroencephalography (basically, the measurement of electrical activity in your head), marketers can watch what happens inside our brains. Lindstrom (a “brand guru”) has run a research programme in which he tested various brands' marketing strategies while watching people's brains. This is, he says, “a historic meeting between science and marketing”.

It produces some startling results. Warnings on cigarette packets, for example, don't work. They light up the same parts of the brain as the desire to smoke. Also people don't necessarily say what they mean. Some subjects said they didn't like a television show, but the level of involvement shown by the scans indicated they did. This renders lots of old market-research methods - focus groups, for example - redundant.

But the big thing demonstrated by the science is that shopping is a profoundly intoxicating experience. It floods the brain with dopamine, the hormone involved in motivation and reward. Very strong brands - Lindstrom mentions iPod, Harley-Davidson and Ferrari - light up the brain in the same patterns seen in nuns who were shown religious imagery. It's often said that shopping is a kind of religion. Here, apparently, is the hard evidence.

Lindstrom is good at exposing our vulnerabilities. He notes, for example, the festishisation of the shopping experience. The internet is full of “unboxing” images - see, for example, unboxing.gearlive.com, a site that provides you with the joy of taking a product out of its box without the financial stress of actual purchase. He also shows the way our reason is subverted by the exploitation of “somatic markers”, patterns of association. A good somatic marker tells you not to stick your hand in a flame; a bad one tells you to buy an Audi because it is Vorsprung durch Technik, even though it is no better than any number of other often cheaper cars.

But, in the end, both books are unsettling. Partly because they are badly written. Baker, especially,has a nasty habit of throwing in empty descriptions - “his neatly trimmed goatee hovering over my fried fish” was one slice of colour writing I could have done without. More important, Baker and Lindstrom are both too thrilled by these technologies to ask serious questions about their applications. In essence, the numerati and the neuromarketers are in the business of reducing and controlling human impulses with ever-more intimate and invasive strategies. In doing so, they elevate shopping - not an activity that enhances the spiritual stock of humanity - to the level of a world-defining mythology. So be paranoid, be very paranoid, use cash when you can, lie about your feelings to anybody with a clipboard and, above all, junk your loyalty cards


- Bryan Appleyard, November 16, 2008

The New York Times


November 2, 2008

They’ve Got Your Number

Maybe you’re the kind of person who doesn’t believe that the kind of person you are can be deduced by an algorithm and expressed through shorthand categorizations like “urban youth” or “hearth keeper.” Maybe I’d agree with you, and maybe we’re right. But the kind of people — “crack mathematicians, computer scientists and engineers” — whom Stephen Baker writes about in “The Numerati” clearly see things differently. In fact, they probably regard such skepticism as more fodder for the math-driven identity formulas they’ve created to satisfy the consumer-product companies and politicians who hire them.

Baker, a writer for BusinessWeek, categorizes the categorizers into seven chapters: some number crunchers seek to decode us as shoppers, others as voters or patients or even potential terrorists. In all cases, the idea is to gather data, use computers to compile and interpret it, and draw conclusions about how we will behave — or how we might be persuaded to behave. “We turn you into math,” one of his subjects declares. Sometimes the data comes from firms that collect it from public records or subscription lists, or that conduct exhaustive attitudinal surveys, concluding on the basis of whether you own cats or subscribe to gourmet magazines which political “tribe” you belong to, and thus how a campaign should approach you (or not). But the most interesting information comes from us, particularly by way of our online activities. Baker’s savants monitor our collective (if anonymous) Web surfing patterns for “behavioral clues” that, for example, help advertisers decide when to hit us with what pitch.

You probably already have a sense that this sort of thing is going on, but Baker uncovers some surprising details. A chapter on efforts to convert the information disclosed by bloggers and users of social networks is among the most interesting. Baker offers an anecdote about a firm called Umbria helping a cellphone company that’s decided to charge more for Bluetooth data connections, a move that “sent bloggers into a fury.” Umbria, which studies bloggers and divides them into tribes, concluded that all the spleen-venting was coming from the “power users,” whereas “the fashionistas, the music lovers, the cheapskates” did not care. “With this intelligence,” Baker writes, the company could placate the power users by offering them “free” service (while raising the prices on headsets) and “continue charging everyone else.” He goes on to describe Umbria’s efforts to teach its computers to interpret blogs and draw conclusions from different phrases, font choices, background colors and even emoticons.

On one level, this is just the low comedy of the profit motive: our finest techno-­wizards and their beautiful machines wrestling with the meaning of “:)” so that some cellphone company can micro-target its fee increases. But Baker also, in effect, offers a counternarrative to the usual story about the digital revolution. While millions of ordinary citizens have been em­powered to express their individuality with a panoply of new tools, a smaller number of people have been working out the most efficient ways to convert those individuals into numbers on a spreadsheet.

We used to go about our business and let marketers try to catch up with us. “Today,” he writes, “we spy on ourselves and send electronic updates minute by minute.”

The most cautionary chapter concerns information-age tools that hunt for terrorists and other bad guys, which risk being “repurposed” in dangerous ways. The most optimistic one deals with data mining and health care, predicting a time when “networked gadgets” will monitor our weight, our physical activity and even our bathroom time to help us live “healthier, happier and longer lives.” Both chapters — all the chapters, really — involve a lot of speculation (many sentences begin “Let’s say . . .” or “Imagine . . .”). By and large, Baker seems to accept much of what the new “counting elite” say they can do now or will be able to do someday, but sometimes their claims and Baker’s credulity are all the reader has to go on. At one point, a data cruncher who is devising ways to improve office-worker efficiency says the underlying stochastic calculus isn’t too hard to understand, starts to explain a formula . . . and then he stops, and Baker lets it drop. Presumably he was simply more interested in keeping up his short book’s crisp pace, but “The Nu­merati” could have used a few more specific and nonhypothetical examples, like that Bluetooth anecdote. Baker makes only passing mention of the application of extensive mathematical modeling that the typical reader is most likely to be familiar with: the Wall Street version, which has proved, shall we say, fallible.

Still, Baker may be right in saying the mathematicians and computer scientists he writes about are or soon will be “in a position to rule the information of our lives.” Maybe you don’t believe in the version of you that some guy is coaxing out of a computer in the nondescript offices of a company you’ve never heard of. But that’s not what matters. What matters is whether that guy, and his clients, believe in it. :(

Rob Walker writes the Consumed column for The New York Times Magazine. His latest book is “Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are.”


- Rob Walker, November 2, 2008

The Internet Review of Books

What the number crunchers mean to us

THE NUMERATI
By Stephen Baker
256 pp. Houghton Mifflin $26

Reviewed by Marci Andrews

Stephen Baker’s Numerati is a patchwork quilt of biographies of the people among us who are busily bridging the gap between reality and science fiction. Far from a collection of simple vignettes, Numerati shows how the work of these brilliant men and women will likely affect the rest of us.

What is a “Numerati,” you ask? “Numerati” is a term Baker has coined to refer to the people who are using the sea of data spawned by the Information Age for their research into just about every aspect of American life. These brilliant scholars are using the power of mathematics, computing, and a mind-boggling array of cross-pollinated sciences in their analyses. The results are already both startling and fascinating—and they’re just getting warmed up.

Each chapter of the book is rife with colorful stories about individual Numerati, how their work began, what they are researching now, and how they might affect the world around us in the not-so-distant future. In the “Worker” chapter, for example, Baker sounds a wake-up call for office workers around the globe. According to Baker, thanks to the Numerati, the inhabitants of offices will be analyzed as carefully as any baseball player. Statistics on expertise, communication skills, productivity—you name it—will be available on each.

While Baker makes an argument for having reliable information available on just how well you do at work, the idea may still make some people uncomfortable. Though this information is nominally made available to management for the purpose of team building, a process largely dictated by human interaction right now, it’s difficult to look past the potential for abuse. If that’s not enough to give you pause, Baker also discusses pattern recognition. This work is intended to let management know who is falling into communication patterns that typically indicate attitudes toward the office. For example, employees who are unhappy and thinking about leaving will often begin to lessen their communication with their coworkers—fewer interoffice phone calls and emails. Yikes.

The “Shopper” chapter covered the information I first thought of when the topic was introduced, and then some. After all, many of us are aware that our shopping habits are closely examined by marketers and retailers. Those of us who shop online have been leaving a trail of our shopping preferences for years now. The Numerati are loving it, too. That wealth of shopping data will eventually help retailers price their wares for optimum profit. For example, based on shopping data, they’ll be able to get a good idea of how many more purchases they can pull in if they lower an item’s price by a given percentage. They’ll also be able to better guess what other items their customers might want to buy based on their purchase history.

This chapter was significantly less shocking to me, personally. I’ve adjusted to the idea that if I buy a dog collar from Amazon.com, the next time I visit the site I may be offered deals on dog treats or a dog training books. What’s more surprising are the statistical connections that can be made from my purchases. For example, people who purchase tickets to romantic movies are more likely to rent cars on weekends. Apparently the statistical explanation has to do with exposure to the idea of romantic getaways inspiring consumers to rent vehicles for their own getaways.

This book fills the gap between the world we live in today and those laid out in some of sci-fi’s greatest universes, like those in the Terminator series or some of those envisioned by Philip K. Dick. In these universes, the powers that be draw their power from technology (or are technology) and its ability to track and understand human behavior. The steps from today’s world to science fiction’s worlds have always seemed comfortably unrealistic, or at least distant. No more.

The topic has the potential to be incredibly dry and hopelessly impenetrable, but thanks to Baker’s definite knack for capturing the Numeratis’ passion for what they do, and no small talent in the explanatory department, his book is delightfully accessible. In fact, by the time I’d finished the Introduction, I’d already checked to see if he’d written any other books. Sadly, the answer is no. Personally, I hope the answer is “not yet.”

While there are a number of elements in Baker’s book that are disturbing, all of it is a fantastic read for absolutely anyone from techie initiate to expert interested in technology and its likely path in the not-so-distant future. The only drawback to the book that I can see is the distinct possibility that it might not age well. The future is tricky to predict, after all. Even so, I’m willing to bet that it could be interesting to revisit Numerati in a decade or so to see how close various predictions came. All in all, though, home run for Baker, and I’ll keep my fingers crossed for more books from him.



- Marci Andrews, October 13, 2008

The National Review

The Number-Crunchers
New data-mining techniques raise questions the Numerati can't answer.

By Robert VerBruggen

Over the last several years, most Americans have probably noticed that a lot of businesses, especially on the Internet, have been making careful use of statistical analysis. Netflix predicts what star rankings its customers will give certain movies, based on the rankings they’ve given others. Amazon recommends books that fit a customer’s preferences. Websites display different ads to different visitors depending on what other websites they’ve visited.

All of these abilities come from the painstaking analysis of mountains of data, executed by what Business Week’s Stephen Baker calls The Numerati in his new book by that name. And these number-crunchers don’t limit themselves to entertainment: They dig through supermarket shoppers’ purchases, looking to improve advertising and store layout; analyze relationships so they can develop matching technology for dating services; research the genes and behaviors that can cause disease; tease out information that might give insights into voting patterns; and much, much more.

The Numerati is a fascinating and fast read. Baker has a knack for describing statistical techniques in ways that everyone can understand, without formulas and without jargon, while illustrating them with real-world issues.

For example, he takes readers inside Chemistry.com’s matching process. The site’s algorithm is based on a system that anthropologist Helen Fisher developed: Various hormones turn people into optimistic Explorers (dopamine), group-focused Builders (serotonin), logical Directors (testosterone), and people-skilled Negotiators (estrogen). After taking a lengthy survey, each potential lovebird is assigned a dominant and secondary type, and these types — along with demographic information — guide the computer’s matches.

And of course, in an election season, who could forget about the data wizards working over poll numbers at campaigns across the country, hoping to convince undecideds and get contributions from more dedicated partisans? The data is increasingly available from aggressive companies — ChoicePoint “quietly amasses court rulings, tax and real estate transactions, birth and death notices”; Yankelovich conducted a huge survey about values; and Acxiom “keeps shopping and lifestyle data on some 200 million Americans” — nearly every adult in the country.

With this data, campaigns can use powerful statistical techniques to divide the country into smaller and smaller segments, and then to target those segments individually. The Yankelovich survey, for example, found ten value “tribes” that politicians can “microtarget.” In looking to reach the survey’s “Right Clicks,” a tech-savvy, Republican-leaning group, a campaign might go after white males with broadband Internet connections. Or rather, whiteness, maleness, and broadband ownership might be three of the countless factors a statistically well-equipped political team might use.

Then there’s the issue of terrorism. By statistics’ very nature, data miners can only narrow down a suspect list. So while these techniques can arguably help make us more secure, lots of innocent people could find themselves under scrutiny, as well. Also, since the Numerati can make lots of money in the private sector, and since the private sector can hire non-citizens, the nation’s counterterrorism operations are at a severe disadvantage when it comes to hiring number-crunching talent.

Despite its wealth of information, The Numerati isn’t a perfect book. Baker tries to humanize his subjects by briefly profiling them, but he never goes beyond a formulaic physical description, and the reader never feels like he knows Baker’s sources. The Numerati are fascinating for what they do, not who they are, so one wonders why Baker didn’t just leave out these mini-profiles entirely.

Also, while Baker neatly summarizes what the Numerati are up to, he seldom tries to analyze these trends or figure out what their activity could mean for society; when he does attempt this, it’s usually not very insightful.

For example, in the book’s conclusion, he notes how employers have called on the Numerati to police our productivity — through such techniques as snooping in search of time-wasting Internet use — but claims we can “turn these tools to our advantage.” How? By “prowling for love on Chemistry.com” and using other consumer services (on our own time, presumably). Well, sure: In some ways, the Numerati’s work helps those it touches, and arguably, the good outweighs the bad in the end. But if a guy finds a hot date, that doesn’t change the fact that his workplace has taken the form of a Panopticon, so this really doesn’t address the initial problem of workers losing all privacy. “These tools” are still recording every click he makes.

The biggest problem with the Numerati stems from human nature, and it would have much improved Baker’s book if he dwelt upon it a bit more: People pursue their own interests, and manipulate others when the situation calls for it. Advanced statistics provide a powerful new tool for this. As he mentions, it can be profitable for supermarket chains to tempt customers away from their diets by sending them ads for candy, or arranging the store so they’re more likely to walk past the Doritos display.

Is that a problem that requires government intervention? Or is the real problem that better analytical methods could make Big Government more seductive? After all, Thomas Sowell once noted that Soviet Union planners “had to set over 24 million prices,” an impossible feat under Soviet-era technology. But as today’s private companies learn to collect more and better data from their customers, and it becomes increasingly possible to set more and more prices from a central computer — what happens when the state thinks it can do the same thing for the whole economy? And once it starts along that road — say, with a nationalized health-care system — what else will it do with its powers?

The questions keep piling up. At some point, could advancements in genetics turn the Western world into Gattaca? Is it a problem that the Karl Roves and Mark Penns of the world are ever better at massaging their message to influence voters — or, given that our democracy has always hinged on the whims of clueless “undecided” voters anyway, does it really matter how the nation’s cynical pols convince them? Baker takes no positions, offers no prescriptions.

Bottom line: Stephen Baker’s The Numerati offers a glimpse of the future. But someone else will have to tell us how to live in it.

— National Review associate editor Robert VerBruggen edits the Phi Beta Cons blog.


- Robert VerBruggen, October 10, 2008

The Christian Science Monitor

The Numerati is a book about math that won’t cause liberal-arts majors to heave it across the room. The slender volume contains not a single esoteric Greek letter or mystifying equation.

What’s more, writer Stephen Baker artfully conjures up vivid images to explain what he’s talking about and why a reader should care.

“The Numerati” is a more literary name for what used to be called “number crunchers,” the mathematicians and computer geeks who understand programming, probability, and seemingly incomprehensible theorems. Teamed with ever more powerful computers linked to the Internet, they’re on a mission.

“They’re looking for patterns in data that describe something almost hopelessly complex: human life and behavior,” Baker writes. “The audacity of their mission is almost maddening.”

They aim to figure out what we’re going to buy, who we’re going to vote for, how well we do our jobs, perhaps even who we’re likely to fall in love with, by analyzing the statistical patterns of data.

Think you carefully guard your privacy? Think again. It’s becoming an almost impossible task.

We all leave a trail of digital bread crumbs from our cellphone calls, Internet searches, credit card purchases, and blog entries, or on our home pages at social-networking sites such as MySpace or Facebook.

Even withholding our names doesn’t necessarily make us anonymous anymore. Eighty-seven percent of Americans can be identified by name if only their gender, birth date, and postal zip code can be determined, one recent study found.

Data whizzes, Baker concludes, “are adding us up. We are being quantified.”

East Germany used to employ thousands of spies to find out what their citizens were up to. That’s so 20th-century.

Today, “The computer will rat on us, exposing each one of our online secrets without a nanosecond of hesitation or regret…. we are in danger of becoming data serfs – slaves to the information we produce.”

We meet the Numerati in their offices, at cafes, going about their work. They seem like regular folks, though most don’t seem to have given much thought as to how computerized profiling is changing the world.

Using massive data crunches, for example, stores will be able to spot and discourage “barnacles,” shoppers who nip in to buy only discounted items. Barnacles will be identified and removed from mailing lists, not offered coupons, and otherwise deterred from shopping at that store. Shoppers who’ve shown they’re big spenders, on the other hand, could be offered extra benefits.

Political strategists already seek the help of the Numerati.

“If the data we emit gives off even the slightest whiff of ‘swing voter,’ the political Numerati will be hot on our tracks,” Baker says.

The aim: Calculate the rate of return for each advertising dollar so that ads reach only the exact people they are designed to influence.

We’re being watched and quantified. In fact, a mathematical double of each of us is being created for the Numerati to observe and experiment on. “In this new world, all of us are going to face situations in which our most intimate data is exposed, at least to somebody,” he says.

Baker, a senior writer and technology blogger at BusinessWeek, isn’t a dystopian about our shrinking privacy. He simply notes that there’s not a lot we can do about it.

We can read the small print on website privacy disclosures before we sign up (even better, one wonders, how about employing computer programs to read the legalese and alert us to any potential privacy problems?).

Someday people may market their personal data themselves, in essence, get ahead of the curve and profit from what’s going to be found out about them anyway.

At least some of the time, most people will want to be found and analyzed. We’ll want our digital identity to be out where computers can find it, whether we’re searching for love or money, Baker says.

The incentives to make ourselves intelligible to machines will be too strong to resist. “We need good page rank. We must fit ourselves to algorithms.”

Governments and businesses have long collected information on us. But never before could they collect the various bits and pieces in one spot, and then sift, shake, and sort them into a coherent picture.

The old programming adage – “garbage in, garbage out” – is growing less true, Baker says.

Powerful new algorithms are going through your digital garbage and turning it into a gold mine of data about you.

Gregory M. Lamb is on the Monitor staff.


- Gregory M. Lamb, September 30, 2008

St. Petersburg Times

Some say environmentalism is the new religion, "green" the new god. But for a small set of the sharpest mathematicians and engineers and computer scientists — whose undetected imprint in our lives grows at an outsize rate — it is the datum that is deity.

These are the The Numerati, the eponymous clan described in BusinessWeek contributor Stephen Baker's new book. To put not too fine a point on it, they believe that just about everything, even infinitely complicated subjects such as love, is describable and explainable through data. One might say they wish to measure out our lives in coffee spoons — which means, of course, they must intently watch us while we make the coffee.

Samer Takriti, a 40-year-old, IBM-employed stochastic analyst (one who tries to generate predictions from random events), is currently enveloped in a project to redefine human-resources management by translating his colleagues into mathematical symbols. IBM wants to "develop a taxonomy of the skills of its 300,000 employees" and has therefore enlisted Takriti and his team to catalog its workers' habits (even the most mundane) and change individuals into "quantifiable financial instruments." Like, you know, numbers.

Eric Dishman, a 40-year-old anthropologist, finds dissatisfying the murky information that patients provide their doctors (e.g., "I usually sleep eight hours, but sometimes only five, but I make up for it on the weekends . . . "). He is therefore engineering a system of home surveillance that records occupants' every move; a special carpet in one's kitchen, for example, would register fluctuations in body weight and send the data directly to the doctor.

Beyond that, a team at MIT is experimenting with implantable nanosensors in mice. They hope that such devices to collect and transmit medical data will soon be used in humans. Interesting, no doubt. Rather scary, too.

Liam Julian, a St. Petersburg native, is a research fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution.


- Liam Julian, September 28, 2008

Seattle Post-Intelligencer

A fascinating look at how our personal data is used

 

 

We do it all by reflex by now.

We click our mouses, we punch our cell phones, we insert our credit and debit cards. And every move we make is creating an individual portrait of our wants and needs and preferences.

This vast mass of personal data is drawing increasing interest from marketers of many stripes for many different reasons. These forward-looking mathematicians and analysts are the subject of Stephen Baker's utterly fascinating new book, "The Numerati" (Houghton Mifflin, 216 pages, $26).

Baker, a veteran journalist at BusinessWeek, manages to explain this cutting edge phenomenon and its sometimes-frightening impacts in accessible prose. He also provides many trenchant examples of how this data is organized and analyzed.

Baker even sets up a nifty little experiment at an online dating site (chemistry.com). He and his wife (pretending to be single) fill out its extensive questionnaires in hopes of discovering whether it would indeed match them as great potential matches. (It did -- once he discovered he had mistakenly excluded women of her age.)

But Baker also does not shy from potential problems with all this data mining and analysis. He writes: "As we encounter mathematical models built to predict our behavior and divine our deepest desires, it's only human for each of us to ask, 'Did they get it right? Is that really me?' "

 

Stephen Baker discusses "The Numerati" at 8 p.m. Tuesday, at The Elliott Bay Book Co., 101 S. Main St., 206-624-6600.


- John Marshall, September 25, 2008

Willamette Week

Smile, you’re on PC.

BY JOHN MINERVINI

Every day, you leave behind a stream of consumer data like a trail of bread crumbs: juicy tidbits like your credit card purchases, your Facebook pictures, your text messages and a thousand other informational fragments. And just as in the German fairy tale, there is a host of hungry crows behind you, just waiting until your back is turned to swoop down and devour these instructive morsels. The crows are companies like Google and IBM, and little by little, their computers are gobbling up bits of your behavioral DNA and reassembling them into a mathematical model of you. That way, they can predict what you’ll buy, whom you’ll vote for, what you’re sick with, and even whom you should date. It’s frightening, it’s incredibly lucrative, and it’s all covered in The Numerati (Houghton Mifflin, 256 pages, $26). BusinessWeek reporter Stephen Baker takes an in-depth look at the work of the math whizzes who are turning humans into equations.

The good news? Nobody cares enough about you in particular—unless you happen to be a suspected terrorist or a presidential hopeful—to put a face with your texting habits or your penchant for electronic porn. That’s because, at present, Google’s computers aren’t big enough and their algorithms aren’t sophisticated enough to deal with individual people in all their complexity. As of right now, computers are lucky if they can tell the difference between a loyal Clorox consumer and a bargain-hunting barnacle.

But it won’t be that way for long. One of the Numerati’s overarching goals is the eventual unification of disparate realms of consumer data—financial ratings, criminal records, buying habits, medical monitoring, social networking, electronic scheduling, even personality profiling (thanks, Match.com!). That way, in the future, when you mark on a health insurance application that you are a non-smoker, Humana can gently correct you, citing thousands of guilty nicotine sensors in your bloodstream. That way, when you apply to adopt a child, the adoption agency will be able to call up all your ex-lovers from eHarmony to find out how you manage your aggression. That way, based on your patterns of movement, your demographics and the content of your emails, the FBI will be able to predict with 92 percent accuracy that you are a pedophile and put you under surveillance before you’ve committed any crime.

In the face of such digital encroachments, Baker remains remarkably level-headed, with an attitude comprising equal parts awe, fear and fatalism. After all, one could make the case that Americans are compensated for unwanted privacy violations by better health monitoring, safer borders and micro-targeted marketing. And one thing’s for sure—there’s no going back. Market forces favor the firm with the most data and the best algorithms; so—for the time being at least—it’s a race among Google, IBM, Yahoo, Accenture and a host of other futuristically named companies to see who can get furthest and deepest into our wallets, our Rolodexes, our planners and our very minds.

 

READ: Stephen Baker reads at Powell’s City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-4651. 7:30 pm Thursday, Sept. 25. Free.

- John Minervini, September 23, 2008

Time Magazine

The Skimmer

 

They're watching you. And every time you click on a website, make a cell-phone call, swipe a credit card or walk past a security camera, they take note. Stephen Baker could have easily gone for spooky in this depiction of the Numerati--his term for the computer scientists and mathematicians who sort through all the data we throw off in our daily lives, helping corporations and governments predict (and manipulate) our next move. But Baker's deep reportage goes beyond smart shopping carts that entice us to run up our grocery bills and political messages crafted on our preference for Chianti. The Numerati are also behind the algorithms that drive matchmaking websites, the National Security Agency's work to nab terrorists before they strike and, increasingly, the cutting edge of medicine. Consider a "magic carpet" that detects changes in your elderly father's weight and gait--tipping off his doctor to a potential illness. The Numerati, Baker writes, try to model "something almost hopelessly complex: human life and behavior." They're making progress.


- Barbara Kiviat, September 19, 2008

Portfolio

In Praise of Big Brother

An author argues that sophisticated data tracking will save us from diseases and ourselves. But at what price?
Man sitting at bus stop
IThe Numerati, Stephen Baker envisions a world in which our email and blog postings, our credit-card and grocery purchases, our pulse rates and facial expressions, and even our physical movements (handily tracked by our cell phones) will be fed to a new Brahmin class of math geeks devoted to sending us customized shopping choices, targeted political ads, real-time medical alerts, and the names of potential dating partners, not to mention (lest we be shirking on the job or hiding an illness) alerts to our bosses and insurance companies. If you’re a crook or a would-be terrorist, an army of data-interpreting sleuths (the Numerati of Baker’s title) will model your behavior and ferret you out. If you’re a potential Tide buyer or an undecided voter in a swing state, they’ll do pretty much the same. If you’re a candidate for Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s—maybe the vocabulary in your email becomes less expansive—they’ll know it before your doctor does. Baker, a longtime BusinessWeek writer, foresees our having a technological “dashboard” that will serve as a “control panel for our lives.” Sensors attached to our bodies will provide streams of data on our health and wellness. Though the technology is still in its infancy, it will one day “empower” us.

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Human beings have always produced oceans of information. (Some might call it garbage.) Every phone call, every trip to the watercooler, every purchase of gum or cigarettes, adds to the kaleidoscope of who we are. But until now, most of that data has been lost. Our written words “moldered on pages,” as Baker notes, and our movements went untracked. Now that those troves of information can be digitized, it remains only for them to be modeled and the disparate and random streams of data to be sifted and interpreted for their hidden coherence. Do more nocturnal trips to the bathroom (recorded by a swatch of “magic carpet” in the hallway) signal the onset of a medical problem? If you listen to the same music as other likely Barack Obama voters, are you worth an extra marketing expense to his campaign? 

Baker is convinced that his Numerati, a half-dozen of whom he profiles, will eventually bring this world about. He is pretty much their cheerleader. In a typical passage, he describes Nathan Eagle, who is attempting to use cell-phone data to map “the DNA of our behavior.” Will he link us to new friends and lovers? Will he discover in our text messages valuable commercial information? Eagle’s scheme, Baker writes approvingly, “is about using our data to make ourselves happier, richer, and surrounded by more friends—or perhaps just to know ourselves better.” 

The era when technology was not so unreservedly trusted is now only dimly recalled. The computers of my youth were fortresses of metal, forbidding accomplices to the Department of Defense and the Rand Corp. Members of the present generation, though tethered to their Apples, associate technology with openness and freedom. 

In the former Soviet Union, the computer busted what had been a monopoly on information flow. It became a tool of liberation. But surely, in a free society, prying electronic eyes should also have their limits. And we should question whether we want a dashboard to control our lives.

Baker grapples with at least the first of these issues. He acknowledges that the Numerati’s vision troubles those who want to preserve an iota of privacy. But he does not seem bothered by it. Writing about technologies that exploit the dynamics of social networks like Facebook, Baker hypothesizes that when employees misbehave, their bosses will be able to figure out which of their office friends to monitor as likely accomplices. If this sounds like prying, Baker urges us to “look at the bright side.” Meaning: “Once the Numerati master these techniques on us, maybe they can use them to catch terrorists.” This is a tad too facile. Security has always been the excuse of snoops. When Baker concludes, “We’re going to have to reevaluate our ideas about privacy,” I was reminded of those nightmare scenes of an ultraconformist future out of The Twilight Zone

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This darker threat is probably less political than sociological—that the Numerati will redefine people as the mere sum of their data. To the man with a hammer, as the saying goes, everything looks like a nail. To the Numerati, our every breath becomes a nail for digital marketing. 

It’s true that many of the applications that have so enchanted Baker are undeniably appealing. In the medical world, data flows too slowly; would that it were wired. And Baker is a charming writer. In a chapter on digital matchmaking, he wonders why the computer can’t match him to the wife to whom he is happily married. 

Yet I keep thinking that he embraces the commercial bent of the Numerati too unconditionally. Baker speculates that technology will enable political candidates to target their pitches, and on that happy day, “it will be as though they finally understand us.” Not quite. It’s more likely that pols will have finally mastered the art of selling their campaigns like soap. Baker himself likens voters to “buckets of broccoli eaters or Mars Bars buyers in the supermarkets.”

This leads to a troubling question: Can one’s character really be deconstructed into predictive “buckets”? In other words, are we fully reducible to math? 

A final question is whether the technology will work. For instance, will scouring the random jottings of bloggers for references to deodorant or beer actually predict their behavior and tastes? There is a serious risk of “garbage in, garbage out.”

To his credit, Baker makes no claim of perfection on the part of the Numerati. (He tells of how one electronic sensor relayed news of an apparent sudden weight gain by a patient; it turned out that her cat had joined her in bed.) And he admits that the technology has a long way to go before it is viable. In the meantime, this is an eye-opening and chilling book. 

- Roger Lowenstein, September 18, 2008

Peter Galuszka

Read “Numerati” for a Penetrating Look at Data Mining

numbers.JPGThe “Numerati are an evolving class of quant-humping, algorithm experts who will be playing an enormous role in shaping our society, our economy and our lives. They are the types who founded Google and Yahoo but they are going beyond simple searching to manipulating and massaging the tremendous mass of data that we generate from Web clicks and cell phones.

Stephen Baker has written an engrossing, elegant little book (Houghton Mifflin) about the entire genre of data mining mathematicians who are at the controls of this revolution. It’s been a while since I’ve read a business book this good, but I must disclose that Steve has been a colleague of mine off and on for 20 years. I have always admired his writing and analytic talent and his way of explaining things in ways that are both warm-hearted and wry.

Who are the Numerati? There’s Samer Takriti, the Syrian-born math Ph.D. who works for IBM and is an expert at stochastic analysis, or trying to tie predictions to random seemingly events. M.I.T.-trained Frenchman Pierre Haren is a whiz at arranging that airplane passengers from mainland China and Taiwan don’t bump into each other at Singapore’s airport. And, there’s Rayid Ghani, a Pakistani whose expertise is studying shopping behavior by examining lots and lots of receipts. These are just a few.

Non-techies such as myself can learn a lot from Steve’s book. For instance, bargain-clipping shoppers who roam from store to store snapping up specials are called “barnacles” by data miners because they are useless drains on grocery chains which count their very slender profit margins in tens of a percentage point. In the political realm, there are “Right Clickers,” who are conservatives who are so savvy with computers they instinctively click on the right side of a mouse and are prime candidates for Web-based fund raising.

And, if you have an elderly parent as I do, you might be interested to know that data miners are considering putting in linoleum kitchen floors filled with sensors that can reveal tell-tale signs of problems such as weight gain. If the gain is sudden, it can mean that the elderly one is retaining lung fluid because of heart malfunctions. Or, erratic patterns can signal the onset of Alzheimer’s.

Steve visits the National Security Agency which has drawn criticism for collecting billions of data bits from e-mails and cell phone calls after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The problem, an NSA mathematician explains, is that while they can handle the massive data, it is really hard to match a name with a face, which is the sine qua non of snaring terrorists.

Some of the material is familiar as are some of the fears. Bosses can hover over us with an electronic clipboard threatening our personal privacy. Every single movement of our life can be tracked thanks to grocery loyalty cards and traffic toll payment devices.

There has been plenty written about the Data Big Brother controlling us. To Steve’s credit, he doesn’t fall victim to hyperventilating paranoia. He addresses the good and the bad that can come with the Numerati’s growing ability to watch us and predict our next moves.

My only criticism is that the book is a little too short. I wanted Steve to draw even more detailed sketches of the individual Numerati. All in all, though, his book is excellent.


- Bnet, September 3, 2008

BookPage

Data is the new black

Any time we log on to a website, make a cell phone call or swipe a credit card, we leave a virtual trail behind. That much is clear (or should be) to any technology user. Nonetheless, The Numerati (Houghton Mifflin, $26, 288 pages, ISBN 9780618784608) by BusinessWeek writer Stephen Baker will be an eye-opening read for even the techiest among us. The Numerati, he explains, are the computer scientists and mathematicians who analyze our every click in an effort to learn how humans shop, work and consume media. He writes, “In a single month, Yahoo alone gathers 110 billion pieces of data about its customers,” but notes that sorting through data and assembling useable patterns is a mighty task—there’s still plenty of untapped potential. At Carnegie Mellon, grad students analyze old Enron emails for hints about the company’s downfall. IBM uses staffers’ contact lists to track employee engagement and productivity. An unnamed grocery chain assesses purchasing patterns; someday, that data could be used in “smart carts,” with screens that display targeted information or special
offers. Fascinating? Yes. Creepy? Sure. But Baker also points out that there’s a non-commercial aspect to the Numeratis’ work: applications for medicine, security, even love (via better matches for online daters). After all, the Numerati are people, too.

- Linda M. Castellitto, August 27, 2008

Booklist

Every click we make, every cell phone call, every credit-card purchase enlarges our “digital dossiers,” business journalist Baker explains in this bracing behind-the-screen investigation into the booming world of data mining and analysis. Our digital echoes collect in a vast ocean of data that marketers and government agencies alike are eager to trawl, if only it were charted. Enter the top-notch mathematicians Baker dubs the Numerati. Baker gamely visits eerily high-tech companies and speaks with algorithm whizzes intent on quantifying everything we do in all arenas of life in order to mathematically model humanity and manipulate our behavior. Baker’s report on microtargeted marketing, the use of workplace data to “optimize” employees, the scrutiny of online social networks, and the robotic reading of millions of blogs supports his warning that we’re “in danger of becoming data serfs—slaves to the information we produce.” This is a fascinating outing of the hidden yet exploding world of digital surveillance and stealthy intrusions into our decision-making processes as we buy food, make a date, or vote for president. Yet, as Baker assures us, we are not helpless. For one thing, machines still can’t process sarcasm. Read and resist.

- Booklist, August 12, 2008

Publishers Weekly

 In this captivating exploration of digital nosiness, business reporter Baker spotlights a new breed of entrepreneurial mathematicians (the “numerati”) engaged in harnessing the avalanche of private data individuals provide when they use a credit card, donate to a cause, surf the Internet—or even make a phone call. According to the author, these crumbs of personal information—buying habits or preferences—are being culled by the numerati to radically transform, and customize, everyday experiences; supermarket “smart carts” will soon greet shoppers by name, guide them to their favorite foods, tempting them with discounts only on items they like; candidates will be able to tailor their messages to specific voters; sensors in homes or even implanted in bodies themselves will report early warnings of medical problems (“have you noticed Grandpa has been walking slower?”), predict an increased risk of disease in the future or adjust a drug for a single individual. An intriguing but disquieting look at a not too distant future when our thoughts will remain private, but computers will disclose our tastes, opinions, habits and quirks to curious parties, not all of whom have our best interests at heart. (Sept. 15)

- PW, July 14, 2008




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