Stephen Baker

The Numerati
Home - Viewing one post


February 15, 2010About Stephen

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.


©2023 Stephen Baker Media, All rights reserved.     Site by Infinet Design

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