Stephen Baker

The Numerati
Donkey Show, the novel

April 3, 2022Writing the book


My new novel, Donkey Show, is out in trade paperback. The digital version will come next month, with the official launch.

The idea for the novel came back in the 80s. I was working as a general assignment reporter at the (now defunct) El Paso Herald-Post when a freelance photographer returned from a harrowing experience across the border, in Ciudad Juarez. A reputed drug lord, Gilberto Ontiveros, and his henchmen had beaten and mock-executed the photographer, Al Gutierrez, apparently mistaking him for a DEA agent. Guiterrez brought back a death threat from Ontiveros for our lead drug reporter, Terrence Poppa.

The newspaper, naturally, ran with this as a series of front-page stories, nothing less than a crusade. It was accompanied by editorials accusing the Mexican government of sheltering the drug lord. This pressure eventually led to Ontiveros' arrest. Our editors viewed it as a journalistic triumph.

Poppa was an excellent, hard-working reporter, who later was nominated for a Pulitzer for his investigative work. In his Herald-Post series, he reported that Ontiveros traveled around Juarez in a Mercedes limousine with a carload of "pistoleros" in front or back. The drug lord's trademark, he wrote, was a briefcase with the words "The Boss" spelled out in diamonds.

For my novel, I started with that same story, but changed it in crucial ways. What would happen, I wondered, if everything in the story had been wrong--if the original reporting had been flawed, and if the death threat had come not from the drug lord, but by underlings who wanted to see him thrown in jail. In such a case, the newspaper would be running its crusade based on misunderstandings. And the reporter--a lazy one, in my story--would have to put the pieces together.

Thats the essence of Donkey Show. I placed the story in 1993, just as the United States and Mexico (and Canada) were finalizing a continental free trade agreement (Nafta). This gives the fictional newspaper more leverage in its campaign. Its still a time when regional newspapers carry weight. The digitalization of media is still in the future. Cell phones, huge with antennas, are luxury items for the rich. In short, information is more scarce, and the resulting ignorance drives the plot on both sides of the border.

My 2014 novel, The Boost, also takes place along the border, though in the future, not the past. In fact, the protagonist of The Boost, a coder named Ralf, is the great grandson of Tom Harley, the lazy death-threatened reporter of Donkey Show.


El Paso at dusk

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Donkey Show: New novel coming soon

December 19, 2021News

My new novel, Donkey Show, will be coming out early next year. Like The Boost, it takes place along the U.S,-Mexico border, in El Paso and Juarez.


The skinny:

A news photographer limps back across the Mexican border. He's bloodied, his cameras smashed. And he delivers a menacing message from a notorious drug lord to one of his colleagues. "Tell Tom Harley he's dead meat."

This death threat transforms a half-hearted reporter into an unlikely hero and kicks off a rollicking cross-border drama. Roaming from a love nest in El Paso"s shadeless barrio to a dusty car wash across the river in Juarez, Harley starts to untangle a story in which hes a leading actor. But can he tell the truth once he finds it?

In Donkey Show, Stephen Baker weaves a tale of deception, dueling ambitions, and international intrigue, most of it taking place within a 10-minute bike ride of the newsroom. Nearly everyone involved, it seems, shapes their stories to fit their dreams. But they have to survive the madness on the border for these dreams to come true.

(I have built a new website, www.stephenbakerbooks.com, and will be blogging there much more once the book is published, probably in February.)

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Being the wrong @stevebaker on Twitter

December 16, 2021Final Jeopardy

I'm looking at my notifications on Twitter, and they're pretty ugly. @pressuresounds writes: "@stevebaker is a liar and a hypocrite...." Others lambast me for Covid policies, Brexit, chumminess with Boris Johnson. It becomes pretty clear that hundreds of people on Twitter confuse my tag with that of @stevebakerHW, a prominent British member of parliament, a Tory and a Brexiteer. When I first signed onto Twitter, in January of 2008, the platform was relatively new, and I had what I believed at the time was good luck. I could establish an address with my name, with no numbers or other flourishes. I was the first Steve Baker, or at least the first who wanted to call himself that. Now I'm paying the price. My notifications are overwhelmed with angry Brexit and Covid tweets from the UK. I tried to minimize the damage by blocking @stevebakerHW. But that just kept a single MP from communicating with me. What I need is a way to block every tweet intended for him. That job is beyond even the highly-touted AI of a social media giant.


My namesake (left) with Boris Johnson

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First to Fall: Elijah Lovejoy and freedom of the press

May 31, 2021General


In the 1830s, a minister from Maine named Elijah Lovejoy ran a religious newspaper in St. Louis, Mo.  At that time, St. Louis was a small settlement with French roots, and also the primary port for Missouri, a slave state. Slavery and free-thinking newspapers, Lovejoy soon learned, were a lethal mix.

Like many New Englanders at the time, Lovejoy had always opposed slavery. But he was a gradualist. Slavery was evil, and it should fade away, was his thinking. Maybe some of the enslaved millions could sail back to African enclaves, such as Liberia. The fear he shared with many was that to push for the immediate freedom of people in bondage would lead to disruption, chaos, perhaps civil war. During this period, abolitionists represented only a wild fringe of public opinion. They were bound to make trouble, moderates like Lovejoy believed.

But when Lovejoy found himself in a slave state, the atrocity of the "peculiar institution" became all too clear. Lovejoy saw it as a heinous sin against the founding principles of the United States, and against God. He became an abolitionist, and started to evangelise in his newspaper, The Observer.

In his new book, First to Fall, Elijah Lovejoy and the Fight for a Free Press in the Age of Slavery, Ken Ellingwood guides us through Lovejoy's short and turbulent life. With impressive reporting, from diaries, letters and newspapers of the time, Ellingwood brings alive these western frontiers, where in following decades much of the battle over slavery would erupt. The writer, a longtime foreign correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, doesn't need to draw the parallels to America today. Sadly, they're all too clear.

The issue, then and now, centered around the rights of people in a democracy. Slavery not only deprived an entire people of their freedom. It also poisoned the body politic by stirring up fear and torment among white people in the south. In 1831, shortly before Lovejoy moved west, a slave rebellion in Virginia led by Nat Turner claimed 62 lives, including 55 whites. It was the premonition of similar revenge on a continental scale that terrified southern whites, tightening their emotional grip to slavery in those decades before the Civil War.

Words, as they saw it, could incite revolt. And Lovejoy didn't hold back on them. That at least was the justification for the pro-slavery mobs that stormed Lovejoy's offices, first in St. Louis, and two more times after he moved up the river, to Alton, a small port in the technically free state of Illinois. The final time, in 1837, the mob not only broke his printing press, dropping the pieces of it in the MIssissippi River. They firebombed the building and killed Elijah Lovejoy.

It may be that recent history weighs too much on my analysis. But reading Ellingwood's book, it was hard not to think of the more recent mob breaking into the Capitol last January, and the people shouting, "Hang Mike Pence!"

In both cases, the mobs feared that they might be losing their country. In January, it was because the wrong candidate won the presidential election. In Lovejoy's case, it was that freedom for slaves threatened doom for the antebellum south.

This book, while inspiring, is no hagiography. Lovejoy, in Ellingwood's telling, was a human being with all sorts of faults. He railed against immigrants, and distrusted Catholicism. He made strategic blunders and communication gaffes. And yet, for a few tense months, he acted heroically, defending his truth and American democracy. He was ready and willing to give his life for it.

Just as Nat Turner's rebellion galvanized the forces of slavery, Lovejoy's martyrdom transformed the nation's view of abolitionism. As word of his death spread east, it became clear to many not only that slavery was incompatible with American democracy, but that it threatened Constitutional rights, such as freedom of the press, on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line. The abolitionists weren't so crazy after all.

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Tom cats and lightning bugs: Two approaches to data

July 16, 2020General


On a summer evening in the Northeast, an orange tom cat creeps under a wooden fence and hides in the bushes behind a bird-feeder. It’s getting dark. The cat is hidden and silent. His tail twitches. Above him, wrens and blue jays and cardinals land on the feeder. This cat has placed himself at the most highly trafficked node of a network. Seeds spill from the feeder. A blue mourning dove, its head bobbing like a pigeon, pecks at the ground. The cat leaps from behind the bush and nabs it.

A few minutes later, it’s a bit darker in the garden, and tiny lights flicker in the summer air. These are fireflies, or lightning bugs. These insects carry chemicals in their abdomens that produce the yellow or pale red light. The patterns of these lights send signals to potential mates who lie below, in the grass. Each species has different signals. When a female  lightning bug below sends back the appropriate signal, the male lands and mates. This is risky for the bugs, because at the same time they’re going through their mating ritual, whippoorwills in the nearby trees are looking for their evening meal.

If you look at the tom cat and the lightning bug, they represent two different approaches to data. The cat is stealthy. It shares no data. He places himself at the busiest intersection in the network and he hunts. He inspires fear, which affects the behavior of the birds.

The lightning bugs, by contrast, share data to get data. Yes, it involves risk, but they weigh that risk (or evolution has accomplished that calculation for them), and it’s worth it for them. In this sense, they represent a more modern approach to data.

 

 


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Peter Copeland's journalistic voyage

October 15, 2019General


A young news reporter covers a dreadful fire in Chicago. His editor tells him to hunt down the chief, and find out how many trucks are there, and how the fire started. The chief, she says, will be wearing a white helmet. The reporter runs up to a man with white headgear and starts asking questions--before learning that he’s talking to the chaplain. 

That’s Peter Copeland at work, on his first assignment, back when reporters still called in their stories and editors, the phone propped between ear and shoulder, typed the words, and made carbon copies. Over the following decades, Copeland would cover the border, Mexico, the Pentagon, and report on wars in Central America, Africa and the Middle East. Along the way, he stayed true to the orders he heard from that editor in Chicago: Get the facts--including middle initials--and don’t let other stuff get in the way.

He has written an excellent memoir, Finding the News: Adventures of a Young Reporter. I should mention that Peter is a great friend of mine. He had worked at the El Paso Herald-Post before I got there, and when I moved to Mexico, for BusinessWeek, in 1987, Peter was Scripps-Howard's Mexico correspondent. I counted on him as my cultural, culinary and journalistic guide. He and his wife Maru had a home in Colonia Roma, which for me was the warmest and most welcoming spot in all of Mesoamerica. 

Now, back to the book. The fascinating tension in Peter’s memoir runs between his journalistic values--just the facts--and the confusion arising from the context surrounding those facts. Again and again, he finds himself in situations that he doesn’t at first understand. They’re foreign. And he has to make sense of them in order to find and describe the facts.

We see this from the get-go, when he is a foreigner to fire departments. Later, he’s a foreigner to Mexico. The place seems inscrutable. He learns Spanish, and yet Mexican sources hide their meaning under layers of hints and allusions. There’s a sense there that saying things clearly is not just simplistic, but also simple-minded, and even dangerous. Newspapers are puzzles and publish their stories in code. Peter is helped immensely in his assimilation by falling in love with Maru Montero, a dancer from Oaxaca. But that adds emotional complexity to the story he’s covering. He covers the deadly 1985 earthquake wondering the whole time where Maru is, and if she’s OK.

Later in his career, Peter finds himself covering another foreign and Byzantine culture: The Pentagon. Once again, he would have to stitch together a network of sources and interpreters, and use them to get to the facts and make sense of them.

Parts of this book seem to harken from a distant time. It’s not just the technology--the typewriters, telephones, telexes, and even newspapers--it’s the role of the journalist: the person we’re counting on to get the story. With the expansion of digital and social media, that reporter increasingly seems to be lost. Stories  pop up on the screen, and it’s often up to the consumers themselves to decide whether to believe them.

Great reporters, needless to say, are still doing brave work. But their reporting swims on screens with a lot of crap. And often, for political expediency, it’s dismissed. At the same time, the business model for reporting is disintegrating. This reduces to a whisper the “share of voice” for diligent reporting.

I read an early draft of Peter’s book. My sole contribution was to push for more lessons throughout the narrative. Digging out stories and telling them well is central to our democracy. Here’s hoping that Peter Copeland’s vivid experiences inform the coming generation of reporters.

 



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Spain: sidestepping the avalanche of Santiago pilgrims

October 12, 2019General


After a baptism in Manzanares El Real, north of Madrid

I've been going to Spain since I was 16. I try to go at least every other year, and take some kind of strenuous trip with my lifelong friend there. Back in 2011, we biked the last 200 miles on the pilgrimage "camino de Santiago." Since then, spurred by movies, books, and social media, throngs of new pilgrims have been making their way to Santiago. It's on millions of people's bucket list.

This is the scourge of Europe. It not really fair for me, as a tourist, to criticize everyone else for crowding into my idyll. But that's the long and short of it. The goal, increasingly, is to search out the spots that still feel like Spain, where people lead their normal lives. So on the first leg of my trip--10 days through the south with my wife--we avoided Granada and Cordoba, and instead went to Caceres and Cadiz. 

 



After a wedding in Caceres

After that trip, I went northwest with my Spanish friend, to Galicia. We hiked along a gorgeous coastal trail called "O Camino dos Faros," or the Lighthouse Way. People in these small fishing villages realized that they could turn the goat-herds trails along their coast into an attraction, one that would generate business for hotels, restaurants, and a handful of taxis. 

By the time we rolled in, in late September, traffic along the trail was sparse. Not that I'm complaining! In our first full day of hiking, we came across only two other parties, one German, the other Italian. 

 

 



Off the coast near Malpica

The maps of this northwest stretch of coast feature stars for every recorded shipwreck. There's a veritable constellation of them, and you can understand why when you walk high above the raging ocean slamming against the rocks. It's known as the Costa da Morte, Galician for Coast of Death. It's anyone's guess if if that brand sparks tourism.

Galicia, originally settled by Celts, feels a bit like Ireland, and has a similar climate. On day three of our hike the rains came, and according to our weather apps, they were going to stick around for a while. So we drove east, for sunnier weather. The nice thing about Spain is that you can go virtually anywhere, find beauty and eat and drink royally.

We toured the province of Ourense, and got lost in the woods near a town called Parada de Sil. Later we hiked around an ancient Roman gold mining operations, Las Medulas, whose denuded mountains look like imports from Utah or New Mexico.

 

 

 



Las Medulas

We eventually made our way to Leon, where we'd started our bike pilgrimage eight years earlier.



Cathedral Square in Leon


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Reporting in China

September 10, 2019Writing the book


A sidewalk sweeper in northern Shenzhen

When I flew to China last November, for book reporting, I still didn't know if I had any interviews, nor exactly where I was going to go. I decided to visit the new, high tech city of Shenzhen. It's just a (long) subway ride from Hong Kong, and the home city of tech giants including Huawei and TenCent. Then I figured I'd go to Guangzhou, the former Canton, just up the Pearl River from Shenzhen (an 18-minute bullet train ride). And I'd end up in Shanghai.

 

 



Taxi in Shenzhen

Shenzhen, said to be a fishing village into the 1980s,  has a shiny new downtown with lots of skyscrapers. But I stayed about 15 miles north of there, in older stretch of the city that reminded me a lot of working class neighborhoods in Mexico City. That curvy blue building (above) could easily be in Mexico's Colonia Roma or Cuauhtemoc.

I booked my Shenzhen hotel on Orbitz, and it turned out to be way north. I caught a city bus, and I had a blue dot on my phone map, where the hotel was supposed to be. The dot, it turned out, wasn't in quite the right place. So, with the help of some women in a furniture store, I flagged down one of the taxis (above). He wedged my suitcase in front of his feet. I climbed on the back, and we zipped to the hotel.

 



English school in Shenzhen

This school could also be in Mexico. I think some of the similarity is due to the sub-tropical climate, which feels to me like Mexico. And the buildings can be more bare-boned, because of the heat. 

In China, as in the other places I reporting for the book, including Dubai, Helsinki, LA, Detroit and Tampa, I avoiding renting a car, and used public transportation, and occasional ride shares. It was easy in China. The subways are great. Buses, as usual, take more time to figure out. 

I was tempted in Shanghai to ride a bike. Rideshares are all over the place. In fact, some seem to die and fade into the landscape. I didn't have a helmet, though, and didn't feel like braving the traffic.



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Guilty scooters, innocent cars

September 5, 2019News


Another NYTimes story on those pesky, disruptive and downright dangerous electric scooters. The Times ran a very similar story just two months ago, Scooter Madness, from Memphis. It’s a common theme.

In our upcoming book, Hop Skip Go, we discuss scooters in the Los Angeles chapter (Inching Toward Topanga Canyon). They can be a valuable last-mile component, supporting public transit. I was doing reporting in Santa Monica, where my co-author John Rossant now lives. Bird and Lime were new in town. And it was great to zip on scooters two miles to the Metro line, and catch the train downtown. I could move around in LA without renting a car.

The coverage in the Times is the technology equivalent of ethnocentrism. The writers happen to be looking at the world from the perspective of a motorist. So even though our cars soil the air and contribute massively to planet warning, even though we’ve molded the world to their every need, entire urban topographies in blacktop, and even though an estimated 1.35 million human beings die every year in auto accidents, it’s the scooters that are dangerous and intrusive.

Of course, people should ride and park the scooters responsibly, and wear helmets. And the scooters' corporate owners should work with cities, instead of bulling their way in markets. What's more, their business model isn't terribly eco-friendly. Their short lifecycles render the contraptions almost disposable. Also, a lot of energy is spent trucking them around town for refueling and deployment. 

But the far bigger problems in cities come from cars. We need fewer of them. Scooters can and should be part of the solution.


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Richard Florida saw the future...and liked our book

September 4, 2019Marketing the book


When I was covering Pittsburgh (and the steel industry) for BusinessWeek in the mid-90s, I dropped by Richard Florida, then an urban studies professor at Carnegie Mellon’s Heinz School. His research, at the time, focused on the future of the Rust Belt.

It was a pressing interest in Pittsburgh. While the city itself managed to transition from industry to health care and tech, the surrounding mill towns, places like Homestead and Wheeling and Youngstown, were in dire straits. Florida at the time, as I recall, was upbeat, and believed the vast region, with its great state universities, strong institutions, and crucial resources, including fresh water, could remake itself.

A few years later, in 2002, I was working in Paris, when Florida published his breakthrough best seller, The Rise of the Creative Class. The book has stayed with me through the years, because it laid out our future with eery precision. His argument was that the knowledge economy would take root in global hubs that would have a few things in common: Leading universities, openness to diversity, including races, ethnicities, and sexual orientation, along with great restaurants and lively art and music scenes. These special places would host a global elite, a borderless bunch that felt nearly as comfortable in Copenhagen or Hong Kong as in Palo Alto, Calif.

Florida called this elite the "High Bohemians." They included the coders and designers, software architects, financiers—in short, most of the people who have been thriving for the past two decades. Most have advanced degrees. They like places with high quality of life, including food and art, and good parks. And these features, increasingly, make each city even stronger, richer. It is this process that has pushed up rents in New York and San Francisco, LA and Austin to levels that drive people, literally, into the streets.

This was the coming divide that Florida pointed to. While the cities thrive, he predicted, the country (and world) faced the risk of leaving vast post-industrial populations far behind, feeling lost and, yes, angry.

Richard Florida saw all of this coming.

So… When it came to hunting for “blurbs” for our upcoming book—Hop Skip Go—How the Mobility Revolution is Transforming our Lives— John Rossant (my coauthor) and I agreed that Richard Florida would be among the very best to get (at least among those not named Ophra).

It’s such a pain to ask for blurbs. People are busy. And you’re saying, in effect, “Hey, could you spend a few hours reading this, and then give me a slice of your valuable brand?”

Nonetheless, we asked Florida, through our agent, Jim Levine. And he promptly said yes. Some blurbers need a little help, “remembering” parts of the book they found especially trenchant, sometimes even coming up with words to describe them.

But Richard Florida raced through the book, wrote that he liked it, and delivered a very nice blurb. I'm grateful. 

“The automobile era is giving way to a new form of networked mobility, driven by digital technology but involving everything from new forms of transportation and electric, driverless vehicle to bicycles and our two feet. In this engaging and important book, Rossant and Baker tell the eye-opening story of this mobility revolution and what it means for our society, our planet, and each and everyone one of us.”


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read more reviews



Prequel to The Boost: Dark Site
- December 3, 2014


The Boost: an excerpt
- April 15, 2014


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


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


Why Nate Silver is never wrong
- November 8, 2012


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


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


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


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


Rethinking books
- October 3, 2010


The coming privacy boom
- August 17, 2010


The appeal of virtual
- May 18, 2010