Stephen Baker

The Numerati
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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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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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Reporting in Dubai and Helsinki--and lost in Shenzhen
April 26, 2019Writing the book

I just sent in the the copyedited manuscript for a book I’m co-authoring. HarperCollins will be releasing it sometime this fall, and we’ll no doubt be adding updates, at least through the summer.

I’m not going to talk about the book here, but instead the places it carried me to. Dubai, Shanghai, Helsinki, Detroit, Palo Alto, LA again and again. I avoided renting cars. I waited for buses and subways, took some rideshares, and walked a ton. When you avoid cars, especially in America, you end up walking a lot.

I’d never been to Asia, I had long hoped that I’d get invited there to talk about the Numerati or Watson. Didn’t happen, but now I had my chance.

I didn’t have any interviews scheduled, and didn’t even know which city I’d be focusing on, when I lined up at the Chinese Consulate in New York for a visa. To get the visa, I had to show hotel reservations for every night, so I booked Shenzhen and Guangzhou, both in the south. I figured I could change them if I ended up going north, to Shanghai or Beijing. And I bought a plane ticket. (LA to Hong Kong on Hong Kong Airline for $575 roundtrip. I paid another $100 for more legroom.

So after CoMotion, the mobility conference in Los Angeles, I flew off to Hong Kong—and without any scheduled interviews. What I had was a woman in Shanghai who had assured me, verbally, that she would help set up interviews.

I still hadn’t heard from her when I traveled (mostly by subway) from Hong Kong to the southern city of Shenzhen. It used to be a fishing village, or so they say, and now it’s a sprawling megapolis of 25 million people. It’s the home city of Tencent, and Internet giant, and is regarded as China’s Silicon Valley.

It turned out that the hotel I’d chosen on Orbitz when I applied for the visa was way the hell north. I came out of the subway, and found myself, in the blazing sunshine, near a bus stop. I didn’t know where I was, only that my blue blinking dot was a long way south from the Hotel.

I looked around for information about which bus to catch. It was all in Chinese. And when I asked a very friendly woman if she could help, she agreed to, even though I couldn’t understand a thing she was saying. She had my phone, and was conferring with her friend about how to get to the hotel.

It was at that point, when I felt like I was traveling. Communication was difficult. In the west, this almost never happens to me. I speak some languages, but can also speak a lot of English, especially in Europe, where it’s the lingua franca. Even if I were somewhere in the distant country, where people only spoke Swedish or Dutch, those languages are cousins.

But Chinese was foreign. And for three extremely strange days, I wandered around Shenzhen, exploring this fast-growing nook of a vast country, and still not interviewing anyone. I ate in restaurants that had pictures on their menus, because the words meant nothing.

Some photos



A storefront in Shanghai

Dancers in a park in Shanghai

Some rambling old places like this green one in Shenzhen. 

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How much digital data do we each produce?
May 19, 2010Writing the book

I'm struggling with a paragraph in my book and could use some technical help. I read this sentence in an IBM news release:

This year, there will be 1,200 exabytes of data generated from a variety of sources with 80% coming from social media sources such as blogs and wikis as well as mobile devices.  Business and governments alike are grappling with the challenge of making sense of this data deluge to turn it into new business opportunities.

Ok, I figure. If the world produces that many exabytes of data, how much, on average, does each of us produce? And how could we quantify that in terms normal people understand? Do we each spew out, on average, the equivalent of 10 Bibles of data a year. A hundred? I don't know.

So I look it up. One exabyte is one quintillian bytes, or 1 to the power of 18. Calculations are easier if we say the world population is 6 billion (though I guess it's closer to 7). So that's 6 to the power of 9. Do we each produce, on average, 200 to the power of 9 bytes? And if so, is that 200 gigabytes per person? If so, we're not talking Bibles here, but entire libraries.

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Cognitive curves: Optimizing the day
May 17, 2010Writing the book

Today I started to write my next book. As part of this process, I'm trying to figure out how to organize the day around writing. The idea is to dedicate my best brain-hours to the job--and to carry out other chores during my bleerier hours.

So I'm opening up vast sections of the morning, from 7 to noon, for writing. And I'm moving practically everything else--emails, blogging, scheduling trips, transcribing interviews, reading and exercise--to the afternoon. I'll let you know how it goes.

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An interview about writing
December 9, 2008Writing the book

This is an interview I did in early October with Marrie Stone at KUCI, a public station in Irvine, Calif. I'm listening to it for the first time as I type. Some of the sentences, I notice, are eerily similar to those I pronounced last night at the Elmhurst Library here in Chicagoland.

In the second half, though, we get into the writing of the book, as a craft. (This is for a series called Writers on Writing.) This is the only interview, as far as I can recall, where I got to ramble on for a minute or two about my unpublished novel, Donkey Show. (I'm thinking, incidentally, that if the economy continues to swoon and crisis deepens in the publishing industry and the press , it might be the perfect opportunity to publish that book myself--online and for free. I'll take any and all recommendations.)

For anyone in the Chicago, by the way, I think I'll be appearing this evening on Chicago Tonight. We're taping this afternoon. (I'd better iron the shirt I stuffed into my briefcase...)

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Was I writing about software?
November 23, 2008Writing the book

Yes, the instructions the Numerati prepare for their machines are encoded in software. I know that. But as I wrote the book I avoided that term. I don't consider them software people. I think in many cases other people handled the code-writing. More to the point, in today's world, with computers connected to practically every business and transaction, software is nearly everywhere. And yet to refer to it by name evokes in many the image of Bill Gates, or perhaps thousands of coders hunched over keyboards in San Jose or Bangalore. In any case, in this review in the Philadelphia Inquirer, math writer and professor John Allen Paulos repeatedly refers to the Numerati creating software.It's not a big deal and it's not untrue. I'm flattered that Paulos, author of the best-selling Innumeracy, reviewed the book.

Dr. Marcus de Sautoy, from his Web page

Another eminent mathematician, the Oxford professor Marcus de Sautoy, reviewed the book in today's Guardian. Here's the blurb that I can picture one day on the back cover of the paperback:

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 he would have like to have seen more math--or as the British would have it, maths.

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.

He goes on to review the examples from the book and writes:

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.

And he concludes:

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.

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Data or datum?
August 16, 2008Writing the book

I talk to a lot of people about data. Some of them are experts. And every time I hear one of them say, "Well the data tell us..." or "The data clearly show..." I wince, because that person is going to have a little issue with my book. I chose in the book to make data a singular noun. I see it like sand or hair, or other collections of things that we express in the singular. I went this way because the book is oriented toward non-specialists, and most of them--like me--never use the singular form, datum.

In the same vein, I reversed the copy-editor on many occasions when she replaced my "who" with "whom." When I'm talking, I don't say, "Whom are you talking to?"

If the book had been about baseball, I would have upset the purists by referring to Runs Batted In as RBIs. I would never say that Ryan Howard leads the league in RBI (if he still does at this point, which I doubt). And while I'm on it, it would be very hard to bring myself to replace attorney generals or the proper attorneys general.

By the way, two of the first copies of the book arrived yesterday in Montclair. We're in Erie, and will see them after a seven-hour drive.

Ryan Howard. Does he produce lots of RBI, or RBIs?

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Ira Glass on storytelling
August 12, 2008Writing the book

I came across this clip on a Booklist blog (while searching fruitlessly for the review of The Numerati on the site.) I enjoyed this talk, and especially appreciate the point that even when we spend months and months researching and piling up data, in the end we have to be storytellers.

Well, since I can't find the review on the site, I'll cut and paste the text that was emailed to me. I get a special kick out of the next-to-last sentence, which seems to suggest that humanity's last great hope in the battle against machines is... sarcasm.

[STARRED]The Numerati.
Baker, Stephen (Author)
Sep 2008. 256 p. Houghton, hardcover, $26.00. (9780618784608). 303.48.
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.

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Keeping the math cover story out of the blog... For months on end
July 21, 2008Writing the book

(This is a blog post from early '06, written after I had finally published the cover story that led to The Numerati)

I’ve been leading a secret life on this blog. For months and months I worked on this math cover story. I was talking to mathematicians and people who use math, and it was dominating my thinking. It was in many ways the most interesting thing going on—and I couldn’t blab about it in the blog.

This created a disconnect, one that I think is going to continue to frustrate mainstream bloggers like us. On many days, I had to wrench myself away from math, visit my aggregator page and force myself to switch subjects. Occasionally, I gave in to temptation and posted a thought or two about math. In this battle between two subjects, math didn’t always win out, of course. I’m sure as the editors waited for the story and saw blog posts continue to go up, they had good reason to wonder if blogging was getting in the way.

I think blogging strongly influenced the development of the story. When it came time to write, I wanted to write it in a looser more conversational style, like the blog. What’s more, I wanted to be clear with readers from the very start that I knew very little about math, that I was an outsider visiting this world. That sort of disclosure is much more common in blogs. In traditional journalism, by contrast, we usually write as though we know what’s going from the start.

So I wrote a first draft in first person. Some people liked it, some didn’t, but I’m sure they all agreed that it didn’t read like a traditional BW story. The top editors said, in effect, nice try. But they wanted the traditional approach: Less me, more clarity.

So I ripped it up and started over. During this process, I tinkered with some cover ideas that might attract even mathophobes. Those too got the nix. What do you think?
paris math cover.jpg

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