Stephen Baker

The Numerati
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February 15, 2010

My email: steve(at), Twitter: @stevebaker
Author page on Facebook:

A few things about me:

I live in Montclair, NJ, with my wife, Jalaire. Our three sons are away studying and working.

We live in a split-level house. One realtor referred to it as a "starter." We have two cats, Rocksand and Thome. I can walk to the train or bus stop for access to New York City. (Bus takes about 25 minutes in the best of times.)

Until November of 2009, I was a senior writer covering technology for BusinessWeek. In the summer of 2005, I came out of a cover story meeting with a strange assignment: to write a cover on math. I didn't know much about math, but I went around interviewing mathematicians, at MIT, Bell Labs and elsewhere. One morning I was interviewing Samer Takriti, the head of stochastic analysis at IBM Research, and he told me about a project that involved building predictive mathematical models of thousands of IBM employees. That day it struck me that if IBM could analyze data to optimize its work force, other companies could study the rivers of data we were all producing, and model us as shoppers, voters, patients, etc. This was the data economy. I wrote about it in a BW cover, Math Will Rock Your World, and later in The Numerati.

When the company went up for sale, in the summer of '09, I positioned myself for the exit. I went on to write the story of IBM's Jeopardy computer in Final Jeopardy--Man vs Machine and the Quest to Know Everything(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Feb. 2011).

After that, I took a sabbatical. In May I went on a bike ride with a Spanish friend along the pilgrimmage route to Santiago de Compostela. During that time, I was also writing a dystopian novel called The Boost. .It features a lot of the technology I'd been writing about, but refined to the exacting standards of 2072. It was published by Tor Books, a division of MacMillan. Kirkus Reviews called it "a true delight of a techno-thriller that has deep, dark roots in the present."

I also co-wrote a healthcare book with Jonathan Bush, co-founder of athenahealth. It's called "Where Does it Hurt?" and was published by Penguin Portfolio in May of 2014. It reached #6 on the New York Times bestseller list (sandwiched between Edward Snowdon and Mariano Rivera).

We moved to the New York area from Paris (Rue Oswaldo Cruz, 16th ar.) in 2002. We lived there for four years. I used to run in the Bois de Boulogne. (It was a wonderful time to be earning dollars in France.)

Our apartment in Paris, featuring my right foot and Jalaire's back. I was just starting with the digital camera and was a little too eager with the solarized look. But in this shot I like what it does to Jalaire's blouse.

At the very end of my book leave, in June of 2007, I rode my bike from Frank Lloyd Wright's Falling Water, near Pittsburgh, to Montclair, stopping en route at Gettysburg. (I'd like to free up more time so that I can bike the Oregon Trail.)

I started at BusinessWeek as the Mexico City bureau chief. My whole schtick back then was Latin America. I'd worked in Venezuela and Ecuador, and at a paper, the Herald-Post, in El Paso.

I was working in Pittsburgh in the mid-90s, covering steel, when I noticed that the magazine was giving me very little space for my stories. When I started writing about software and the robots at Carnegie Mellon U., they got more generous. That was during the first Internet boom. I moved into technology.

My favorite novel, at this moment, is Richard Ford's Independence Day. I also love John Updike's Rabbit series. Earlier in my life, I used to say that my favorite novels were Julio Cortazar's Rayuela (Hopscotch) and Thomas Mann's Magic Mountain. In late 2013, I started reading Marcel Proust's A la Recherche du Temps Perdu. It wasn't going to be quick. But I realized that part of the reason it seemed so difficult in the past was that translations wrenched the French into English syntax. Reading it in French is a lot more fun, and it's smoother. One other note: When I reading the paper book, I would often confront two pages of the same paragraph and find it daunting. No paragraph breaks, no dialogue. Just two pages of gray. But reading it on the Kindle I simply scroll downward. It's a stream of French. It took me more than a year, but I finished it. And unlike many books I read, I'll never forget it.

I went to college at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, majoring in Spanish and History, and I took my junior year at the University of Madrid. Later I got a masters in journalism at Columbia.

Back in Pittsburgh, I wrote a novel that takes place on the border between El Paso and Juarez. It's called Donkey Show. I haven't published it (yet), but it shows up on a shelf in The Boost, which means, I guess, that I'll have to publish it sometime between now and 2072.

I decided to become a journalist when it became clear that fiction-writing wasn't going to earn me a nickel. (The stories I wrote in my early 20s managed to be both pretentious and shallow at the same time, which is not an unusual combination.) I had moved back from Ecuador and was living at my parents' house in Philadelphia, earning money doing yard work and taking care of my infant nephew. One day my mother told me that I would never find a job in journalism without looking a bit more actively. About a week later I got a call from a friend. There was a job at a weekly in Ludlow, Vermont, the Black River Tribune. Was I interested? That was my step into the trade.

After I worked at a paper in Venezuela for a year in the mid 80s, I thought I was finally ready for a large U.S. daily, one big enough to send me abroad. I applied in Miami and Dallas. They had loads of Spanish-speaking foreign correspondent wannabes on staff. Here's how it works, they told me: You go to a suburban bureau, cover school boards and fires and crime. If you do well, you get a job at the metro desk. And eventually, you might get a foreign assignment (but probably not). I went instead to the El Paso Herald-Post, not a great newspaper by any stretch, but lots of great colleagues and a wonderful and wacky city for news. (Much of the action in The Boost takes place along that border.) After a year there, I got the job as BusinessWeek's bureau chief in Mexico City.


A view from the El Paso neighborhood of Sunset Heights across the border to Ciudad Juarez, Mexico

I grew up in Rosemont, Pa., outside of Philadelphia, and went to Harriton High School. (I include this just in case any old classmates are wondering if I'm the same Steve Baker they vaguely remember.)

I used to play the clarinet in grade school. I took it up again for three years in Mexico. I also scratch at the guitar. But I think at this point, I'm better off saying that I don't play any instruments.

Ponferrada navigator

This is my friend, whom I've known since my clarinet-tooting years in grade school. He's looking at a map in Ponferrada, Spain. We'd had a very difficult morning of pedaling on the Camino de Santiago. But the next day would prove to be even harder.

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My Resume
August 15, 2008

Stephen Baker, Twitter @stevebaker


Author of Final Jeopardy--The Man-Machine Battle for the Future of our Minds (Houghton Mifflin, Spring, 2011); and The Numerati (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2008 in North America, and 20 foreign publishers) Blogs at Also has written The Boost, a dystopian novel that will be published by Tor Books in 2013.

The Numerati

Following a BusinessWeek cover story, Math Will Rock Your World, The Numerati looks at the explosion of digital data and the rise of the applied math gurus who use it to model and predict the behavior of shoppers, voters, patients, terrorists, and even lovers. A Wall Street Journal review calls it "a highly readable and fascinating account of the number-driven world we now live in."


Senior Writer 2003-09
Lead writer on a 2005 cover story, Blogs Will Change Your Business, written in the style of a blog and introducing the Blogspotting blog. Revised the story, using input from readers through blogs and Twitter, and produced another cover in 2008, Beyond Blogs. The online version of the updated blog story is the most viewed and shared article in the magazine's history and has generated more than 7,000 comments. The math cover was the most clicked and linked BW story of 2006. Introduced in a 2007 cover story, Google and the Wisdom of Clouds, the search giant's cloud computing strategy through a profile of a 26-year-old programmer. A 2009 cover story on social-network data looked at Facebook and Twitter, and analyzed how much a "friend" is worth.

Acting Senior Editor, Information Technology 2002-03

Returned from Paris and filled in as tech editor in New York, having never been an editor, worked in New York, or covered technology in the United States. Led a tech team of 18 in New York, Silicon Valley and elsewhere. Later resisted pressure to remain an editor and chose instead to return to writing. This was widely regarded at the time as a puzzling career move.

Europe Technology Correspondent 1998-2002

Covered the Internet, software, and wireless technology in Europe, writing a cover on the rise of Nokia, also chronicling the fall of the Baan Company, the growth of English as Europe's language, and the battle for control of the mobile Internet.

Pittsburgh Bureau Chief 1992-98

Wrote on the fall of Westinghouse and the rise of the minimills. When editors lost interest in heavy industry, switched to cover transplants and robotics. Won 1997 National Educational Writers first place for The New American Worker.

Mexico Bureau Chief 1987-92
Won Overseas Press Club award for cover story on the Mexican auto industry, Detroit South. Created a stir with expose of presidential cronies, The Friends of Carlos Salinas.

Other Experience

Reporter, El Paso Herald-Post 1985-86
Wrote about election fraud in Juarez, hidden drug plantations in New Mexico, and a mysterious fainting epidemic in San Francisco del Oro, Chihuahua, that affected only teenaged girls.

Reporter, The Daily Journal, Caracas, Venezuela 1983-85
Covered a racketeering suit against the state oil company and eventually got booted off the oil beat, at the government's insistence. Quit and freelanced for The Wall Street Journal and oil trade publications.

Freelance journalist, Washington, Buenos Aires, 1982-83
Wrote articles on the Nicaraguan economy, the rise of Peru's Sendero Luminoso, and the
military coup in Suriname for The San Jose Mercury-News, The Los Angeles Times, and other papers. Covered Argentina's transition to democracy for USA Today.

Managing Editor, The Black River Tribune, Ludlow, VT 1978-1980
Ran a weekly paper covering seven towns and a ski mountain (and Aleksandr Solzhenitzyn's compound).


MS. Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism 1981
BA. University of Wisconsin, Madison (majors in history and Spanish) 1977
Junior year at the University of Madrid, Facultad de Filosofia y Letras 1976


Fluent Spanish and French, serviceable Portuguese



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Some Pix
July 20, 2008

I had interviews at Google while writing this cover story on their cloud computing (and really, the future of much of computing itself), and I stopped to get some breakfast at a fast-food restaurant in San Jose before catching the flight back to Newark. I took this shot with my phone. I like the colors.

So the publisher, Houghton-Mifflin asked me to get photos taken for all the promotional stuff and the book jacket. I called up my good friend Carolyn Cole, who used to work with me in El Paso and Mexico City. Since then, she's turned into one of the leading war photographers of our generation, and has won loads of prizes, including a Pulitzer, for doing work like below. So getting her to take my head shot was a little like asking Philip Roth to work up the copy for the flap on The Numerati's dust cover.

So this is one of the scores of pictures Carolyn took. Disclosure: A bit of uneven photoshopping on the bags under my eyes.

Here's a laughably low-res shot I took in muted light, with my phone, of my wife and me. I like the contrast of noses.

Here's my son at the door of our Paris apartment building. He's waiting go roller-blading. I love this shot and at some point I'll use it to illustrate something, maybe privacy or identity.

My wife found this old picture on her computer and sent it to me to illustrate "the next book." This dates from my first days with a digital camera in Paris, when I was smitten by solarization and so eager to take pictures that, for lack of other subjects, I would turn the camera on myself.

Lunchtime, with Rocksand and Thome

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Drawing trees and torch lit paths
July 18, 2008

Tim Knowles hooks up trees to paint pictures, as you can see on his site. But I was so taken by this picture of a nighttime ramble with a torch that I'm sharing it here. No, it has nothing to do with The Numerati, but I need some shelf on this blog to include these sorts of things...

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Kirkus Reviews -

LibraryJournal - Library Journal

Booklist Reviews - David Pitt

Locus - Paul di Filippo

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