Stephen Baker

The Numerati
Are we at our best in airplanes?
June 7, 2016General

There are lots of reasons to think we're tragically awful drivers, each of us a menace on the roadways. I write about this whenever I'm extolling the advantages of the coming driverless cars. Some 30,000 of us are killed on U.S. roads and highways every year, and about 1.25 million globally.

The reason is that we behave like human beings. We argue, fall asleep, overrate our reflexes, answer the phone, scream at the kids, spill coffee. The list goes on, and it’s easy to conclude that we’re death at the wheel.

Look at all those great drivers

But when I drive here in New Jersey, or anywhere else, for that matter, I’m always impressed at how well the vast majority of us drives. I exit and enter streams of traffic heading down the Garden State Highway, or onto the George Washington Bridge. People, for the most part, are doing their part. Sure, there are a few wise guys shifting lanes, and an occasionally distracted driver leaks into the neighboring lane. But the others adapt to them, for the most part. They swing clear of them (sometimes adding a honk) and drive responsibly.

The trouble is that the occasional fender bender will jam up traffic for a half hour of crawling and rubber-necking. This leads thousands of frustrated commuters to the conclusion that we, as a people, are bad drivers.

I disagree.

And this disagreement extends to the air. I’m struck by how civilized people are. They smile at other people’s noisy kids, switch seats to let a couple sit together, and help each other heave outrageously heavy carry-on luggage into tiny overhead bins. They’re as diverse as America itself, and seem accepting of others, and considerate. They wait patiently for what seems like hours while the plane unloads. I’m almost always impressed, and appreciative.

Yet in this Washington Post story by Caitlin Gibson, the unquestioned premise is that we’re at our worst in the air: Rude, bullying, drunk, racist, paranoid, you name it. Of course, she has no trouble citing examples of all of the above.

But I would venture to guess that we behave better in the air than on the ground. In the air, after all, we’re under the surveillance of the entire security apparatus as well as that of our fellow passengers. We’re being watched. And I would also argue that most of us are decent and, without sacrificing too much, mean well.

Think about the numbers. There are some 28,000 flights a day in the United States alone. They carry 1.7 million people, about equal to the population of Philadelphia. Gibson reports that in the entire calendar year of 2015, the FAA recorded 99 incidents of unruly passengers. That means that on many days, 28,000 flights took off, flew and landed without a single reported incident. And yet we’re supposed to believe that we behave badly in the air?

Just imagine if those 1.7 million people spent their flying hours lazing around the house, down here on earth. I think they’d get into a lot more trouble. But that doesn’t fit the narrative of her story.

When confronted with outrageous conclusions drawn from anecdote, my mind automatically turns Trumpward.

Donald Trump is an expert of feeding myths, and his followers promptly hunt down examples to document them. It's not hard. Take any population of 11 million on earth, and you'll find certain numbers of criminals. Immigrants are no different. Yet single cases appear to justify Trump’s charges--even if, in fact, immigrants break the law less often than the rest of us. (After all, the consequences of a run-in can be ruinous for them. Indeed, President Obama, who voices sympathy for them as human beings, has been quietly jailing and deporting thousands, including women and children, as my son Jack Craver reported in the Progressive.)

Trump spins his ugly myths into perceived reality. And they’ll endure, long after he flies off for the last time in his 757.

Millions of Americans will no doubt continue to believe the most poisonous points of his message: that the American system of justice is rigged, that Mexico sends its criminals north, and that at least certain types of Americans invariably favor their particular clan over the law.

These points should not even be in discussion. But a insurgent set of beliefs is taking shape. It’s built on anecdotes masquerading as facts. It’s punishing our democracy.

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WMD: Weapons of Math Destruction
May 4, 2016General

For three feverish months late last year, I worked with a extraordinary mathematician and person, Cathy O'Neil, on her book Weapons of Math Destruction. It's coming out this September, just in time for the political season, and I think it could have an impact on the debate. More details on the Amazon page, where it's available for pre-order. 

When friends asked me about Cathy's book, I described it as the dark side of the Numerati. I think that's apt. I made a point in my book, released in time for the 2008 presidential election (and crash), that the mathematicians were fallible and that the results would often be unfair. But I focused more on how they were reading us, and how their power was increasing, than on the negative implications. (One reviewer, Roger Lowenstein, went so far as to call me a "cheerleader for Big Brother.")

Cathy's book looks not only at what the Numerati get wrong, but how poisonous algorithms gain immense scale, become accepted as "truth," and generate destructive feedback loops. I had great fun working with her and recommend her book.


One of the reasons I haven't been posting recently is that I've been working on different book projects. I'll discuss the most recent one, another novel, in another post. 

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The annual storm
January 26, 2016General

As nearly everyone in the entire world knows by now, we had some snow over the weekend. A lot of snow fell, it was windy, most people stayed indoors, and a few ventured out to make good on their investments in 4x4 trucks.

Maybe this storm brought a few more inches of snow than in previous years, but it was basically the same experience. I walked into a deserted Upper Montclair and took a few pictures, which look identical to pictures from past years (except for the movies showing at the Bellevue Theater) Yet the media made a huge deal about the storm, as always.

Storms are like annual exams. Mayors and governors get a chance to show that they have their act together, or not, and we all grade them. Aside from that, nothing changes.

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2015: Revisiting fascism
December 24, 2015General


Forty years ago, I was a student in Spain. It was the year Francisco Franco died. I didn't know that I was going to be journalist, but I was interested in history, and especially fascism, which seemed at the time to be transitioning from current events to the realm of history.

Hitler and Mussolini had provided military support to put Franco into power during the Spanish civil war (1936-39). Later it became clear that Franco, for all of his faults and cruelty, was much cagier than those two. He had a sharp survival instinct. He "supported" the Axis during the first years of WWII, but told Hitler, with much regret, that his country was too devastated from its civil war to allow the Nazi army to pass through Spain and close Strait of Gibraltar, shutting off the British from the Mediterranean, and the vital oil from the Middle East. Hitler was incensed. He went back to Germany, fulminating to his aides that Franco was a damned "Jesuit." He then turned to Plan B, his disastrous invasion of the Soviet Union.

So you could make a case that it was Franco, perhaps more than Churchill or Roosevelt, who won the war for the Allies. As the war progressed, Franco was smart enough to lean away from the Axis powers as they began to lose. In the 1950s, he took advantage of Spain's strategic position, the same one that interested Hitler, and forged a strategic embrace with the United States. By the time I was there, I was listening to Phillies games on the radio station from the American army base outside of Madrid, in Torreon. Franco was the last '30s-era fascist, and he died of old age. 

I went with a couple of Spanish friends to his funeral. It was in a desolate monument in the mountains, Valle de los Caidos, built in the '40s by prisoners from the losing Republican army. When his casket was carried through the crowd, thousands of arms raised in a stiff-armed salute, and the multitude sang Cara al Sol, the hymn of the Falange, the party of Spanish fascism. I thought they were saying good-bye, and that fascism was dead. I was convinced, like many of us when we're young, that progress was linear.

A couple of years later, I was living in Quito, Ecuador, teaching English and writing fiction. And I remember wishing that I could have lived in Europe between the wars, when an entire continent was sliding toward catastrophe and everything seemed so much more interesting. The 1970s were dull. We had energy crises, stagflation, the Patty Hearst kidnapping, and some terrorists who hijacked planes. Tame stuff, by comparison. 

I guess I should have watched what I wished for. We're back to interesting times. Terrorists run caliphates, the European project is moving in reverse, and Fascism is far from dead, both in Europe and here. (Though it's not a factor, from what I can see, in Spain.)

In late October, I went on a bike ride with my Spanish friend. In the city of Caceres, I saw the name of Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera, martyred founder of the Falangist movement, etched into a church wall. This was banal in the '70s, but surprising to see forty years later. As you can see, fresh blood-colored paint is dripping from his name. 

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A trip to Spain
October 16, 2015General

The Chamberi section of Madrid

I've been tucked away the last few months, collaborating on a book project, and writing about 1,000 words a day, and ignoring this blog. The book deals with the kinds of mathematical models I wrote about in The Numerati, the ones that predict us as shoppers, voters, patients, and so on. This one is a different angle, though.

Still, it was fun to return to that world. I went to my agent 10 years ago this November, right before Thanksgiving of 2005. We were discussing another project, but I mentioned to him that I was writing a BusinessWeek cover story about the coming mathematical modeling of humanity.

Lots has changed since that time. I was in Toronto, on the first weekend of my book tour for the Numerati, in September of 2008. Negotiations to rescue Lehman Bros fell through, and lots of radio and TV shows were more interested in the collapsing global economy, and Barack Obama's race toward the White House (and the emergence of Sarah Palin as a national celebrity), than they were in my book about the mathematical modeling of humanity.

Since then, Big Data has become familiar to the point of fatigue. 

Anyway, with the project completed (save some editing), I'm taking off for a bike trip to Spain. My friend and I will tour the region of Extramadura, the dry Western lands that gave the world its hard-scrabble conquistadores, Hernan de Cortes and his coarse copycat, Francisco Pizarro. We'll end up in Seville.

I'm going to be reading Siempre Nos Quedara Madrid, by Enrique del Risco, as recommended by my friend and neighbor, Alexis Romay, author of La Apertura Cubana. I'll have it on my phone. Wouldn't want to add the weight of a paperback. 

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Facial recognition surveillance
August 12, 2015News

Policemen in San Diego, according to the New York Times, are stopping people, pulling out their iPads, and taking pictures of them, and then sending the images to a cloud-based service that matches their faces to those in a criminal database.

This surveillance appears to be discriminatory. The police stop far more young black and hispanic males. Some 3 of 4 don't match up to criminals. But those who do are in for a long and trying day, or far more.

But I think it's important to understand where this surveillance technology is heading. If a couple of policemen can snap a pictures and send them one by one to a cloud service today, within short years surveillance cameras will be automatically doing that work, at industrial scale. They'll be able to scan crowds at demonstrations, parades, baseball games, wherever, and within seconds generate lists of the participants, their address, occupation, estimated household income, and criminal record.

This is the near future. We can complain about it, but the response will always be that a system with "knowledge" is more efficient, more productive, and above all, safer. That argument, I think, will always prevail. This is the logic, featuring the exponential advance of information technology, that leads to the Boost.

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Gospel Prism
June 26, 2015General

I just finished reading an extraordinary book called Gospel Prism, by Gerald Weaver. In one sense, I’ve never read another book like it. But in another sense, every book I read and every book I write is similar, because Gospel Prism is about every book and even goes so far as to try to be every book.

Needless to say, it’s a very ambitious novel.

Some history. I met Gerry Weaver in the ‘70s. He was a roommate of a friend of mine at Yale. I haven’t seen him since. But during those decades, he rose to a powerful staff position in Congress, was embroiled in a scandal there in the early 90s, and spent some time at a minimum security prison. This experience provides the setting and context for Gospel Prism, though the book stretches far beyond the jail walls in its themes and its scope.

A couple of years ago, Gerry got in touch with me and told me that he’d written this novel. He wondered if I might read it and provide feedback. I said yes. About a week later, an immense envelope arrived in the mail. 

I was a bit overwhelmed. I was (and am) used to helping people tell stories and organize their thoughts. But Gospel Prism wasn’t journalism or a traditional story with a beginning, middle and end. It was a big, weighty hunk of literature. It was unclear and dreamlike.

In many ways, Gospel Prism was the opposite of everything I write. My goal in writing is to make it so easy and fun that people forget they’re reading. If there’s a difficult concept or technology, I try to sand it down to a smooth surface. 

Gerry takes the opposite path. He wants readers not only to remember they’re reading, but to celebrate it. Reading, after all, is miraculous. It’s how we share ideas and experiences not only from one person to another, but also from century to the next. It may be closest thing we have to a universal brain.

Gospel Prism drives home this theme by running through the canon of Western literature. Each chapter draws from a different classic and delivers a different life lesson. It wrestles with the biggest questions, about life, love,  and God. It starts with Don Quixote, and runs through Shakespeare, Dante and Milton. It’s a book about books, and it’s only fitting that toward the end it takes the voice of the ultimate bibliophile, Jorge Luis Borges. 

I’m not going to try to summarize the book in this review. (I’m sitting in a Starbucks in Sacramento and have a redeye flight to catch in San Francisco in only 10 hours!) 

So I’ll just break out one part of it: The unreliable narrator. Gospel Prism’s first chapter, Lepanto Road Dogs, is modeled after Don Quixote, which (if we put the Bible to one side) features perhaps the most famous unreliable narration in literature. It’s supposedly written by a Moorish historian, Cide Hamete Benengeli. His text was translated into Spanish by an unnamed (and no doubt unreliable) “morisco,” and it was then edited for the reader by the one-armed Spaniard (who, like Gerry, spent time in prison), Miguel de Cervantes. (The battle in which Cervantes lost his arm, Lepanto, is referenced in the book. I have no doubt that I missed hundreds of other references, but I caught that one.)

Gerry Weaver plants plenty of seeds of doubt in his own narration. The beautiful female Jesus who guides his narrator along his journey tells him to “be suspicious of all words, even and especially the word of God, because words are limited in and of themselves and by the human minds that form and then hear them.”

Hundreds of pages later, the narrator remembers telling his mother a fib. With that lie, he recalls, ”[T]he secrets of an entire universe had just opened up to me. She could not see that I had told her a lie and there was something about that which had been sublime and had been more than liberating.”

So the character, who for some reason winds up in prison, likes to lie, and it’s his story we look to for truth. Funny enough, we might find it there.

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Editing my Wikipedia bio
June 8, 2015General

For years I bowed to a taboo: Never edit your own Wikipedia page.

I thought to fiddle with your own page was a bit pathetic, the ultimate selfie. But it also seemed to go against the crowd-sourcing ethos of Wikipedia. It introduced an interested party into the sanctum, as if Proctor & Gamble covered itself in the New York Times.

A few people had very kindly written a bio for me. It was a bit thin and haphazard, and its lack of citations led Wikipedia to post a warning banner atop the story. It didn't meet the site's standards. I went onto the talk page in 2008 and asked for advice on how to improve the post (and remove the banner). No one responded. For the next six years, I largely ignored my Wikipedia page.

Then I got a call from Dan Cook, an old friend from BusinessWeek days. Dan now works with Pete Forsyth at a consulting company, Wiki Strategies. The heart of their business is what they call "ethical editing."

The idea is that a Wikipedia page is the online front door for countless people and businesses. It is in both their and Wikipedia's interest that the page be accurate and complete, with citations. Of course, Wikipedians also want to keep self-serving pap and propaganda off the pages. But even the subjects of Wikipedia articles should share that goal, because to turn the online encyclopedia into a promotion engine risks undermining their own reputation--especially if Wikipedia editors and readers catch on.

Dan offered to help me improve my page. This meant finding citations, organizing the different chapters of my life, and--most importantly--explaining on the talk page what we were up to, and asking people to point out any problems or shortcomings they saw. 

So now there's a better bio of me in Wikipedia. I don't own it or control it. But I contributed to it. 

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A history of segregation in liberal Montclair
May 21, 2015General

In the late 1700s, an ambitious entrepreneur named Irael Crane set up shop in a rural settlement about 10 miles up the dirt carriage trail from Newark. In the 1790s, he built something of a mansion in what would become Montclair. It was on that same Newark thoroughfare, which would later become Bloomfield Avenue, near the corner of today's Glen Ridge Avenue..

We went to a tour of the Crane house last weekend, and saw that the Historical Society is taking a new approach to telling its stories. Instead of studying the house simply as a relic of Jefferson-age Montclair, they're looking all the life that's passed through its rooms in the two centuries since. What they found was a rich African-American narrative, and not always a happy one. 

For starters, Israel Crane had a black slave or two working in the house.  The census of 1800 counts more than 12,000 slaves in New Jersey. Even after slavery was abolished here in the early 1800s, racial segregation was common in Montclair well into the 20th century.

In 1920, the Crane house became a YWCA for African Americans. It quickly became a social hub. The "colored Y" also rented rooms to lodgers, many of them new arrivals from the Great Migration. It was a place they could spend a week or two until they found a place to live and, hopefully, a job.

The segregation wasn't as overt as in the Jim Crow south, but clear nonetheless. One woman whose recorded voice we hear tells of going often into New York City to avoid the segregated restaurants and other businesses of Montclair. In the high school, black students were steered toward the gospel choir, whites toward the glee club. It wasn't until 1930 that whites and blacks marched together at the high school commencement.

This approach to telling history brings lives and voices into otherwise empty buildings. It's much more effective than the previous version, which was like a piece of colonial Williamsburg. Interesting, to be sure, but frozen in time. Another museum that tells similar stories is the Tenement Museum in NYC's Lower East Side. I recommend both.  

(The photo above is of the Crane house before it was moved in 1965, at great labor and expense, from its old location near Lackawanna Plaza to Orange Road.... And one other note from the excellent talk. We hear about "enslaved people," but never "slaves." Is the noun slave now to be avoided? Grist for another blog post.)

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Wisconsin Basketball: A detour on the road to greatness
April 6, 2015General

When I was a senior at college, at the University of Wisconsin, the athletic department paid me $5 per hour to teach Spanish to athletes. Some of the athletes, especially those who traveled a lot, needed help to get through their foreign language pre-reqs. Every week, I’d set up appointments at the library with runners, swimmers, and football players. None of them, as far as I could tell, was getting much out of Spanish.

Then I got the basketball captain, a point guard named Bob Falk. He had been one of Madison’s greatest high school athletes, all-state in both football and basketball. He’d gone to Kansas to play basketball, but didn’t like it there, and transferred back home to the mediocre Wisconsin team. Unlike my other students, Falk was progressing nicely in Spanish. He just needed help working his way through short stories by Jorge Luis Borges.

My roommate, who tutored the athletes in math, got a tougher assignment. Wisconsin had just landed a blue ribbon recruit from Maryland, a silky smooth 6–8 forward named James “Stretch” Gregory. Stretch, they hoped, would lead the Badgers toward the big time — appearances in the NCAA tournament, maybe a national championship. That was the dream.

Stretch needed help in math, lots of it. The season was at stake, as was the dream of a blue-chip program. The athletic department gave my roommate a blank check. The more hours he could put in, the better. Stretch’s eligibility hung in the balance, and so did Wisconsin’s future as a blue-chip program. Or so it must have seemed at the time.

So the two of us, from our tables at Helen C. White library, had a role with that team. Our two players, Falk and Stretch, certainly had their moments. Stretch, with 17 points a game, led the team in scoring. And in mid February, Falk hit a game-winning jump shot from the deep corner to shock the reigning champions, Bobby Knight’s Indiana team.

But then Stretch had a minor brush with the law, and had to take part in a program for first offenders. This appeared to distract him from math, which put my roommate on the hot seat.

Stretch got through the year, and was in good standing when my roommate and I (and Bob Falk) graduated and went our separate ways. But the following year, Stretch lost his academic eligibility in the second semester. He didn’t bother taking his finals that year, which spelled the end of his days in Madison. (He did go on, however, to star for U. Wisconsin-Superior, in Division Three.)

A young assistant coach from that team, Bo Ryan, also branched out. He won Division III championships at UW-Platteville, before moving to Milwaukee and finally, Madison. Ryan has since lifted Wisconsin basketball to an elite program. The dream from those days when we were tutoring has finally come true. I wondered, as Ryan watched Josh Gasser and Sam Dekker dart past Kentucky defenders, if he images of Falk and Stretch and that improbable win over Indiana popped up in his memory.

I’d like to think that today’s Wisconsin basketball players might still be grappling with Borges’ Spanish or algorithm design — in short, taking advantage of the academic side of college. But I’d also bet that if a big star were on the verge of losing academic eligibility, the team wouldn’t rely on the time and tutoring skills of a single engineering student.

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