Stephen Baker

The Numerati
Dark Site: The Boost Trilogy--Alissa's Story
February 9, 2018Marketing the book

Dark Site, my new novel, is for sale at Amazon's Kindle store. Price $2.99.

The year is 2043. It’s as close to today as we are to 1993. Pods roam the streets of Washington, and black drones circulate above. Sometimes they swoop down, wrap their metallic arms around their targets, and carry people away, high above the Virginia exurbs. The drones slowly shrink into dots, eventually disappearing into the southern skies.

These drones are usually taking people to Dark Sites. Alissa doesn't think about it too much until her friend is carried away. Then Alissa, a high school senior, does some research. Her conclusion:

“It used to be that we had prisons, and if you were a criminal, that’s where you went. Everyone else was free (at least once we were done with slavery). A Dark Site is sort of a middle ground. You don’t have to be a criminal to go there, but you’ve probably done something wrong. Or maybe they think you’re going to do something wrong. So they hold you there. And if they think you’re dangerous, it could be forever.”

Alissa lives with her father in small apartment on Columbia Road, in Adams Morgan. He doesn’t know it, but Alissa’s billionaire grandfather had her spirited off to Jakarta a few months earlier, and she returned with a tiny chip, barely the size of a bee’s wing, implanted over her right temple. It’s a Chinese cognitive chip, a Boost. She’s the only kid in Washington with one, and it’s a secret.

Boosts are the global rage. The Chinese have implanted their entire population, and productivity is soaring. It’s like they’ve taken an evolutionary step forward. And the US is under enormous pressure to match them. But naturally, some people resist the idea. The more vocal ones, including Alissa's friend, Javier, are ending up in Dark Sites.

Here I’m going to stop telling the story, and instead ask a question. If the new brain chips give the Chinese a cognitive boost, and if the United States is preparing its own chips for a national rollout, when exactly should the president get his or her implant? Should the president be first? It wouldn’t make sense, after all, for the rest of us to get these powerful processors in our heads, and for the president to remain “wild.” That would be silly.

I should add a word about the Shotgun app. It's one of the outstanding, almost magical features of the Boost. In Shotgun, one person rides on other person’s chip, and experiences the world through that person’s eyes and ears (or virtual versions of them). It’s through this Shotgun app that Alissa finds herself in the White House. The story rolls from there.

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The Eagles, the Phillies, and JFK
February 4, 2018General

                                              Tommy McDonald in action


On Super Sunday, a trip back to the roots of my Philadelphia Eagle fandom…

In November of 1963, I turned eight. My father promised to take me to Franklin Field, in Philadelphia, for my first Eagles game. My two favorite players for the Eagles were a scrawny wide receiver named Tommy McDonald (5-9, 175 pounds) and a running back named Timmy Brown (who would later play Spearchucker Jones in the movie Mash). The quarterback was Sonny Jurgensen, who months later would be traded to the Redskins.

Two days before the game, President Kennedy was assassinated. In one of his most controversial decisions as commissioner of the the NFL, Pete Rozelle, decided not to cancel the games, insisting that football was “Kennedy’s game.” Philadelphia Mayor James Tate tried to get a court to stop the game. But he failed. A famous Philadelphia sportswriter, Sandy Grady, wrote, “I am ashamed of this fatuous dreamland.”

My father was disgusted by Rozelle’s decision, and refused to take me to the game. (Tommy McDonald, according to a Sports Illustrated story, couldn't stop crying the whole game.) Since the season was already drawing to a close, he told me we’d go the next season.

That would be 1964, my first big year as a Phillies fan. Behind Jim Bunning, Johnny Callison and Richie Allen, the rookie of the year, the Phillies held onto first place almost the entire season. In September, my father bought World Series tickets. But the Phillies suffered an epic collapse. Ahead by 6.5 games with only 12 games left, they spiraled into a 10-game losing streak. (And if you’re wondering as you watch the Superbowl why Philadelphia fans seem to have such a chip on our collective shoulder, that collapse is seared into our memory, even of those born long after ‘64.

                                           (I still have that yearbook somewhere...)

The last day of the 1964 baseball season, the St. Louis Cardinals had the passed the Phillies in the standings. But if the hapless Mets could beat the Cardinals, the Phillies would pull into a tie. There was still hope.

On that October 4, I was at Franklin Field with my father. It was my delayed birthday present. The Eagles were beating the Steelers. Every few minutes, they would announce on the PA system the score from Busch Stadium in St. Louis. The Cards were clobbering the Mets. All I remember from that football game is the death of the baseball season.

On that somber note, bridging the ‘63 Kennedy assassination with the ‘64 Phillies collapse, I look forward to watching the Eagles in the Superbowl tonight.

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Google answers my mail
December 6, 2017General

Just yesterday, I asked a friend about freelancing possibilities. She wrote back to my Gmail account with the news that a certain spending spigot was closed off. She also provided the status on something I’d written. (Delayed, but still plowing ahead)

Right above the reply blank (and below the email), I saw three possible responses. They were cooked up by my co-reader of this email, Google’s computer. All I had to do was pick one of them, and hit the send button. My choices:

Cool, Thanks!
No Worries, thank for the update!

These were viable responses. I could conceivably have chosen one of them, but only if I could remove the exclamation points, which remind me of a certain tweeter in chief.

The AI reading our emails is getting a lot smarters. It’s moved beyond primitive targeting for ads, and is now zeroed in on our motives. Why did we write the email? What were we looking for? The computer is interpreting our dialogues, or at least their dynamics. It can come to all kinds of conclusions, even judging the relationships in which we appear to be dominant, and others in which we tread closely to subservience.

Today, a new chapter. A friend sent out a Gmail alert that her account may have been hacked.

Google, no doubt perceiving the emergency, provided sober-minded answers, with none of those light-hearted exclamation marks.

Thanks for the heads up.
OK, thanks.
Got it.

For a few minutes, I toyed around with the Gmail system, trying to elicit suggested replys from the server. It seems to be a sporadic effort. This makes sense. Google, after all, is attempting to automate a layer of our communication. The company will want to roll it out slowly, gathering data from users, and calculating which types of people make use of it, and which types of communication do they use the most, and under what circumstances? An AI can learn a lot from humanities’ emails.

On the drive last summer between Butte, MT., and Pocatello, Idaho.

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Confederate copies, and the joys of recyling
August 20, 2017General

In the late 1800s, the Metropolitan Bronze Co. in Bridgeport, Conn., had a steady business making statues of Civil War soldiers. As Marc Fisher writes in the Washington Post, many of the statues featured the same moustachioed Northern soldier wearing a greatcoats and holding a rifle to his chest. Towns throughout the north and midwest bought copies of this soldier to plant in front of the post office, or on the village green.

Then someone at the company saw another market opportunity. They could sell the very same statue as a Confederate soldier in the south. All they had to do was change the insignia on his belt from US to CS, for Confederate States. Pretty soon, they were shipping scores of the same statue to towns across the Mason-Dixon line.

It wasn’t too long before Confederate veterans in a Georgia town noticed that the soldier was wearing a Northern greatcoat and a union cap, not the shorter southern jacket and “slouch” hat of the south. They angrily buried the Yankee statue face down. (photo from Washington Post, above)

This forced Metropolitan Bronze to add a bit of customization for their Southern customers. But the bare minimum. It was the same guy, but with a different hat and jacket.

This got me thinking about how all of us re-use content in our lives and our jobs. If the subject of hitchhiking comes up at a dinner party, for example, I immediately look around the table and try to remember if anyone seated there has heard my story about hitching in Argentina during the Dirty War in 1978. If the answer is no, I’m liable to recycle my old story, replaying some of the sentences almost verbatim. Like most people, I have hundreds of my “greatest hits” cued up and ready to roll. Just like Metropolitan Bronze, I’ll edit a few of the details for each audience. (If my wife is there, I’m more likely to keep it short, since these re-runs test her patience.)

It’s so much easier to re-use content, whether it’s statues or stories, than to come up with something fresh. When President Trump heads out to Arizona this week for one of his mass rallies, you can bet he’ll replay about 100 of his favorite lines, adding just the thinnest veneer of Southwest customization (and maybe a pardon for Joe Arpaio). Trump is a replay machine.


When my parents died, I inherited a portrait of a 19th century ancestor of mine named Matthias Ludwig. When we looked at the back of the canvas, we saw a name scrawled in pen: Thomas Sully. This was a famous painter! He wasn’t on the level of his American contemporaries, like Gilbert Stuart, the portraitist of George Washington. But still, I’d seen paintings by Sully in the leading museums. And we had one.

Then I did some research. Like most artists, Sully had high artistic ambitions, and he also had to make money. So while he labored for months on his artistic projects, including the paintings I’d seen at the Metropolitan Art Museum, he made money by painting Philadelphia’s bourgeoisie, including Matthias Ludwig, for $50 a pop.

Here’s one of Sully's ambitious paintings, A Mother and Her Son:

See the detail in the sky and the fabric, the relationship between the mother and the boy? That took some work. Every detail was fresh, or at least most of them were.

Now look at Matthias Ludwig.

I’m guessing that this came from a template. Sully probably used the same coat and shirt, and the same dark background, and he would plop a face into it. He recycled content. Everyone does.

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Scenario planning for Trump White House
May 16, 2017General

I like to look at the Trump administration as a series on Netflix or Amazon (which one day soon it will be). For me, the template is Wolf Hall. A king is surrounded by courtiers and flatterers, and they engage in endless (and lethal) power plays. Henry VIII wasn’t anywhere near as incompetent as Trump, but the basic scheme still works.

One frightening future episode is coming into focus for me. I would hope that the adults surrounding Trump, people like his national security advisor McMaster and Defense Secretary Mattis, have taken steps to protect the world from an Oval Office tantrum that goes nuclear. They must have pieced together some sort of circuit breakers so that if Trump gives the order to launch nuclear missiles, someone has the opportunity to countermand him. (If they don’t have these circuit-breakers in place by now, yesterday’s news that Trump revealed classified information to the Russians should mobilize their efforts.)

So one morning Steve Bannon walks into the Oval Office and whispers to the president that the two most senior members of his national security team have taken away his nukes. Maybe it’s true, maybe it’s "fake news." How does Trump respond?

For starters, he gets very mad, very quickly. That’s his power! And they’ve taken it away (or at least might have done so, which for Trump is pretty much the same thing). Bannon reminds him that their behavior undermines the Constitution. It’s criminal, even treasonous.

Should the president call McMaster and Mattis, and confront them with Bannon’s charge? He could, but what does he say when they deny it? He has no proof, only Bannon’s words. As he deliberates, the seeds of treachery and grievance are already sprouting in his mind, and leafing out. 

He sits down and composes a series of angry tweets. One of them charges that powerful people inside and outside his administration are hatching plots, and he will have them sent to Ft. Leavenworth! Another reminds his followers that they elected him, and only him, as commander in chief! A third mentions outlines the tremendous power of the commander in chief, including NUKES! 

A Constitutional crisis is upon us. Practically everyone in Washington, with the notable exceptions of Trump and Steve Bannon, wants those nuclear circuit-breakers in place. But they do represent a quiet coup d’etat. 

Trump is beside himself with righteous rage. He asks Bannon if Mike Pence is part of the plot. Bannon nods gravely.

Trump is so mad he’s shaking. How does he assuage this burning grievance? How does he assert, for once and for all, his absolute power over the nuclear arsenal? And how can members of his own party in Congress stop him?




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As Franco Died
April 1, 2017General

I continue to write fiction, though I haven't published any of since The Boost, in 2014. One novel manuscript is making the tours of the publishing houses, but it hasn't sold it yet. In mid-March, I was walking through the snow in Montclair and trying to think of new stories to write. And then it occurred to me that I wrote several stories in the '90s. No one bought them. And back then, self-publishing was extravagantly expensive, and known derisively as "vanity press." Unthinkable. So my stories just moved, digitally, from one computer to the next, and hung out by themselves in the cloud.

Since then all of us have been granted free rights to publish anything we want, globally. We may not have readers, but that's not the point. At least it's out there, with a shareable URL, and if it finds a few readers, so much the better. 

When I wrote these stories, in the '90s, I was living in Pittsburgh and working for BusinessWeek. And, no offense to Pittsburgh, but I wanted out of there in my head, mostly to exotic places I'd lived in my 20s. I wrote this one, As Franco Died, to put myself back in my junior year in Madrid. Another one takes place in Quito, Ecuador, where I taught English briefly in the late '70s, and the (unpublished) novel, Donkey Show, plays out on the El Paso/Juarez border, where I met my wife and got married in the mid-80s. 

 I was thinking about Arianna Huffington as I wrote this story. At that point this glamorous Greek immigrant was guiding her rich Republican husband, Michael, toward the Senate in California. She established her stardom there, even though she ended up losing in that race). She was on my mind as I wrote about Paloma.

Later, in 2005, Heather Green and I had written a BusinessWeek cover story on how blogs were going to shake up everything. We used it to launch the blog. And strange as it seems now, Arianna met with me for an hour one afternoon in the lobby of the Four Seasons Hotel. She wanted me to write in Blogspotting about her new venture, The Huffington Post. Her venture grew quite large. Mine folded when Heather and I left a collapsing Businessweek, four years later. I told Arianna at the time that she'd inspired this short story. I sent it to her, but never heard back, though she gave me a very nice blurb for The Numerati.

Here's the link to As Franco Died, on Medium.


I went through several photos to illustrate the piece on Medium. None was quite right, but I sprinkled them in anyway. 

I saw that woman in a plaza in Aranda del Duero (I think). We were riding our bikes through there a few years ago. It was just about to start pouring. 

This is a wall in Caceres, Spain. It's an homage to Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera, a charismatic Fascist in Spain before the Civil War ('36-'39). The Republicans executed him in the early months of the war, and he became a martyr to Franco's cause. You used to see his name on churches, streets and plazas all over Spain.

This is a wall near Merida, which was a large Roman city. We biked through there a couple of years ago, en route to Seville. 

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Can we blame the NYTimes for our ignorance?
January 3, 2017General

An antiwar demonstration in NYC, before the Iraq invasion

It seems that every time we’re surprised by something, whether it’s the emergence of Isis or rising anger from white middle America, people blame the press, and especially the New York Times. Why weren’t they covering it?!

People rail against the Times.. And one of their prized examples is botched coverage of the run-up to the 2003 Iraq war. The Times sold us on Iraq’s alleged Weapons of Mass Destruction, the line goes, and led us like millions of lemmings into the Iraq war.

I was reading the New York Times then, and it just isn’t true. The coverage included different points of view. The arms inspector, Hans Blix, and his Egyptian colleague who oversaw nukes, Mohamed ElBaradei were both highly skeptical, and begged for the inspectors to be given time to do their job. I read their arguments in the Times.

The French, of course, opposed the war, and while their foreign secretary, Dominique de Villepin, preened and strutted way too much, his message was included in Times coverage. The case on WMD, he argued, was far from clear, and war not necessary, especially with inspection teams at work on the ground in Iraq. He predicted presciently that Iraq, like the old Yugoslavia, would break into vicious tribal and ethnic violence following an invasion. This was all known. And at least a few people suggested in Times articles that the Bush administration was using fears of WMDs to fight a war they wanted.

On a Feb. 15, 2003, I went with my kids to a massive antiwar demonstration on Second Ave in Manhattan. Hundreds of thousands of people were there, and millions of others protested in cities around the world. Now some of them were simply anti-war, or anti-Bush. But loads of them were like me, convinced that this was not a war to fight, at least not yet. And most of them got a lot of their ideas from the Times. Even for those who didn’t read it directly, Times coverage worked its way onto NPR and throughout mainstream news (One interesting note: In 2003, blogs and social networks were still in infancy. Mainstream still ran the show, along with cable TV.)

So I'd argue that much of the Times’ coverage was OK. It was the weighing and placement of the articles that bent the paper toward subservience to the Bush-Cheney administration, and to war. Pro-war articles by people like Judith Miller, fueled by lying and exaggerating “sources,” ran on A1, and the skeptical ones quoting Hans Blix appeared under much smaller headlines inside. What’s more, editors let France’s opposition morph into a political story, one in which France curried favor in the Arab world by sticking its thumb in Uncle Sam’s eye. They should have paid more front-page attention to the gist of the French argument.

Still, plenty of people had reason to be skeptical, and they could fuel this from reading the Times. So it bothers me to hear politicians and others defend themselves by claiming ignorance, in this case and others, and blaming the press for it.

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Screwed as workers, pampered as customers
December 13, 2016General

The piazza at Marzamemi, a fishing town in Sicily


A friend of mine is convinced that the entire world is built for the extreme rich. I would argue, instead, that they get an obscene share of the wealth, but that they don’t benefit from it as much as they’d like, or he believes.

The tech world has eliminated many of our jobs, but in doing so has provided aspects of luxury living for the vast rest of us. We can afford limos on demand, even if the chauffeurs can’t make a living wage. We can afford TVs the size of a wall with a thousand channels. It used to cost a lot of money to build up a huge music collection and wire a house with stereo. Now it takes just a few hundred dollars to hitch every room to a Sonos system. For a $10 monthly streaming subscription, we get all the music we could ever want.

Here, the rich people have a point to make. The quality of that streamed music, they might say, isn’t really that great. If you had a decent stereo, you’d practically hear the space between the bits.

True, but that makes my point. The person streaming the Four Tops on Spotify, as I am at this moment, thinks the quality is just fine. So the rich person, as if to justify his money, spends thousands of dollars for a top-end stereo. And yes, the quality is higher. But the difference is subtle. A ton of money for a small improvement. If you look at it that way, the rich are getting ripped off. 

I think about the 11-day trip my wife and I took to Italy in late October. We had what most people in my town would consider a fairly economical vacation, at least for our graying generation. It cost about $6,000 for the two of us, maybe a tad more. From a class perspective, we traveled mid-bourgeois. We paid an extra $100 each way for Economy Plus, rented the cheapest little car (and paid for insurance, which I don’t do in America). In Sicily, we stayed in hotels for less than $100 a night, and also spent less than $100 for the best dinners we could find, with wine.

Now what if we had loads of money and were willing to spend $50,000 for that week, would our experience have been superior? I’m trying to imagine. Maybe instead of hanging out on the Piazza in Siracusa, we’d have spent an afternoon on a yacht. Our hotel room would have been bigger, and with a view (we had only a skylight) and maybe we’d have champagne or prosecco on ice.

But at some point, we’d walk down to that Piazza, where the kids are playing football on the smooth stone, and the baroque Catholic cathedral sits like an intruder atop the sturdiest imaginable Greek temple to Diana. (It was built around 500 BC, and it looks to me as though those massive Ionic columns will still be standing for centuries after the church has crumbled.)

The money they spend is on the edge of the experience. Maybe they find better restaurants to eat at. (We didn't find the food as special as we'd expected.)  I’m sure they'd spend more on wine. But we had some very nice bottles for between $10 and $20 in restaurants. You could have convinced me that a couple of them were $100+.

My point isn’t that the middle class is winning in this economy. And the trends, from politics to automation, are not good for many of us who have to work for a living. But the same companies that are screwing us as workers are busy pampering us as customers.

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Remembering Joe Old
July 24, 2016General

This photo accompanied our special report on sentencing. Joe Old is on the right.

Thirty years ago, when I was starting out as a reporter at the afternoon paper in El Paso, the Herald-Post, I got an assignment that sounded ominously like a term paper. The job was to analyze the sentencing patterns of the district judges in El Paso, and see if any of them gave tougher sentences for certain crimes, or were less than even-handed. My partner for this job was a reporter named Joe Old.

I barely knew Joe at that point. But I could see he was different. Most of the other reporters had a touch of cynicism, which serves as an insurance policy against looking dumb. Joe was older than us, and didn't have time for such silliness. And while most of us were focused on getting good clips, so that we could climb the ladder, to jobs in Dallas, LA, or in my case, Mexico, Joe’s ambition was simply to do great work in El Paso. He believed in the promise of journalism, and in himself. He was shameless in his idealism, which is rare in a newsroom.

We were both single and footloose that year. We had plenty of time, both to work on our project and to laze around talking about books and history, to drink beer and eat Mexican food on one side of the border or the other. Within a year, I got a job at BusinessWeek and moved to Mexico and got married. Joe remarried the same month. Our lives moved apart

All these years later, I’m so sad to see on Facebook that Joe died last week. Last time I saw him was in 2008.

Joe found life endlessly interesting, and took the bumps with good humor. He already had three ex-wives when I met him, and he was great friends with all of them (though, in the spirit of journalistic rigor, I should note that I have only Joe’s word on that). He had served in the Air Force as a helicopter mechanic in Taiwan and returned with a passion for China. He was well into a PhD program in Chinese history at the University of Illinois when he decided to make a switch, and to write history while it was happening. So he plunged into journalism. First he covered crime at the City News Service in Chicago. Then he went down to El Paso, arriving about a year before I did.

As we started the criminal justice project, Joe hoisted a few huge boxes onto his desk. This was a goldmine, he said. In the boxes were thousands of papers, each one the disposition of a criminal trial in the El Paso courts. It had the name of the defendant, the charge against him or her, the attorney, the judge, and the sentence. What we had to do, he explained, was code these papers for those various data points, and then enter them into the brand new tool we had, the newsroom’s first IBM personal computer.

I didn’t know what to call it then, but Joe and I were launched into data journalism. We spent long evenings punching the numbers and letters into the computer, and then backing them all up onto floppy disks. As we went along, Joe, who read widely, explained to me the principles of Boolean logic. We were going to be able to use it to formulate queries, and the computer would reveal the judges’ patterns.

It took a long time, but we crunched all the numbers. By culling out Spanish names, we got a glimpse into how Hispanics and Anglos were sentenced for similar crimes. One Hispanic judge, for example, seemed to treat his own people much more harshly. Another judge sent prisoners away for twice as long as the average. We couldn’t read too much into our study, however, because the numbers were relatively small. One or two life sentences could move a single judge’s numbers.

What we had to do, we agreed, was take our charts and graphs to the judges, all nine of them, and get their insights. So we started a series of interviews. If I had been working alone, I would have taken the relevant studies to each judge and spent maybe 20 minutes getting the necessary insights and caveats for the story.

Joe didn’t work that way. For him, each interview was a priceless opportunity to sit down at length with the judges, and to discuss not only our study, but also the American judicial system, the judges’ backgrounds, philosophies, what they’d studied in law school, their work as lawyers, their feelings about crime and punishment and the state of American society. We sat in the judges’ chambers, the tape recorder whirring away, and the interviews went go on and on. Most of them took more than two hours.

Back in the newsroom, we spent hours and hours transcribing the interviews. For Joe, this process was a chance to catch important points that he’d missed. He would come by my desk, excited,  and show me underlined quotes from one judge or another. “We have to get this in there,” he said. “This is great.” Then he’d laugh, and tell one of the other reporters just how great our stories were going to be.

Finally it came time to write our report. This was a concern for me, because I was convinced that Joe would push to get every single detail into the stories, and that he’d water down our revelations with too much context. The thing couldn’t read like a law journal, I said. He agreed, but said it also couldn’t scream its conclusions like the New York Post.

We found a middle way. I’m not sure how much impact the report had. But it highlighted the discrepancies, and it was fair. Even a few of the judges said as much. Later it won a Silver Gavel award from the Texas Bar Association. By that point, I was working in Mexico. I think the paper was too cheap to send Joe to Austin to receive the award. I’m not sure about that. I wish he were around to ask. He’d remember. He always did.


My condolences to Joe's widow, Monica Wong, and to all the students whose lives he touched at El Paso Community College


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"To Catch a Cat" by Heather Green
July 15, 2016General

I have this habit when I'm writing. I call it a paragraph stroll. When I finish a paragraph, and sometimes even when I don't, I get up from my disorganized and disgusting desk and make my way toward friendlier climes. Sometimes, when I was at BusinessWeek, it was to the snack bar, which really wasn't a whole lot less gross than my desk, but at least provided a chatting potential. Sometimes I took strolls down the long hallways, with the big posters of old BW covers (none by me). I'd occasionally wander to the windows by the copy machines and gaze down from the 43rd floor to midtown Manhattan. I had lots of places to stroll.

But my most common landing spot was Heather Green's office. It was only five or six steps from mine and was as neat as mine was messy. She had framed photographs on the walls, a spotless desk and a fairly comfortable chair for me to sit in. Heather worked far more consistently than I did. She was usually busy with something. But she was nice enough to take a few minutes to chat. Sometimes it was about work, since we did a number of projects together and were co-bloggers. But more often it was about books we were reading, movies, French, her life, my life.

These interactions with colleagues were what I liked most about the job. Heather and I were (and are) friends.

And yet, here's what's really weird. While Heather and I were talking about all sorts of things, I had only the slightest notion of what she was up to across the river, in Union City, NJ. I knew she had a boyfriend named Matt, and I seem to remember hearing once that they'd rescued a stray cat. (She asked me one time if we wanted to adopt a kitten. I caucused briefly with our two cats and came back with a negative.) In any case, she and Matt were running an entire cottage industry out of Matt's house in Union City. She and her future husband were coaxing strays, jury-rigging traps to catch them, and networking with loads of fellow cat rescuers, both in North Jersey and online. It was like a second career, full of mystery and adventure, and I had virtually no idea.

The other strange thing is this. Heather and I wrote together. That's what we did. We edited each other's stories, we collaborated on cover stories, we even shared a blog. Our business, if you boil it down, was coming up with words, sentences and paragraphs. And yet I had no idea that Heather had the writing skills--the scene-setting, dialog and characterizations--of an excellent novelist. That part of her was lost to me.

I got an email from her a few months ago asking if I'd give her manuscript a preliminary read. Naturally I said yes. And that's when I encountered this wonderful book. It's lively and funny and, at points, disarmingly honest. It introduced me to a good friend who, it turned out, lived a life I knew next to nothing about.

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The Boost: an excerpt
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My coming novel: Boosting human cognition
- May 30, 2013

Why Nate Silver is never wrong
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The psychology behind bankers' hatred for Obama
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"Corporations are People": an op-ed
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Why IBM's Watson is Smarter than Google
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Rethinking books
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The coming privacy boom
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The appeal of virtual
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