Stephen Baker

The Numerati
How Apple lost me in music (and then everything else)
March 26, 2015News

I was probably listening to my primordial MP3 player when I stopped here for coffee

In the year 2000, I was living in Paris and dying for an MP3 player. 
I finally got my hands on one. I think its capacity was 35 megabytes, which meant that it could hold eight or nine songs. Still, I liked making my own playlist, even if it was painfully short.

Perhaps the biggest shift in my digital music life came three years later, when I put my whole collection onto iTunes. Suddenly everything worked. And once it did, I just had to get an iPod. In the realm of owning, storing and playing digital music, Apple was king. And once I was lassoed in with the iPod, I lingered in the same ecosystem, later getting an iPhone, a first-gen iPad, and a few Macbooks.

Music led me to Apple, and I'm sure I wasn't alone. But then Apple began to "improve" ITunes, and with each upgrade it became more difficult to use. It began to drive me crazy. At the same time, cloud music services began to take off. 

So in the last two years, I've left Apple. I traded in my dying iPhone 4 for a Motorola with a better battery, I gave away my iPad and got a Nexus 7. I bought a Chromebook for laptop computing at home. And I stopped buying music, instead streaming with Spotify and Slacker. I still have a Mac Mini, and when I see iTunes there, I think: What an anachronism!

My point is that music brought people to Apple and led many of us away. That's why the news about Apple's new music service could be so important. While a billion-dollar music business, like Pandora's, would represent less than 0.5% of Apple's revenue, it could bring lots of people in the door, or at least keep them loyal to Apple.

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Harris Wofford, Father Hesburgh, and Martin Luther King, jr.
March 8, 2015General

Fr. Theodore Hesburgh and MLK, flanked by Rev. Edgar Chandler and Msgr. Robert Hagerty at a 1964 civil rights rally in Chicago

When I was in high school, I was lucky enough to live down the street from an extraordinary family, the Woffords. Harris Wofford, who would much later become a senator, had played a big role in the civil rights movement, as a friend and ally of Martin Luther King, jr., and an advisor to President Kennedy. One of the people he mentioned often, and with reverance, was Father Theodore Hesburgh, president of Notre Dame University for 35 years, and a great social activist.

Father Hesburgh died in late Feburary. If he had died in the '80s or the '90s, when more people were aware of his extraordinary work, his death would have been front-page news. But Hesburgh made it to 97, outliving many of his headlines. Wofford, who turns 89 next month, traveled to South Bend for the wake, and spoke with The National Catholic Reporter about Hesburgh. Here's the interview. 

Wofford also wrote a wonderful piece about the Selma march for Politico. It focuses on a crucial decision that King faced on the day of the second march. The entire movement was about giving every American fair and equal treatment under the law. So what should King do when he has thousands of eager marchers ready to go--and he receives an injunction from a well-meaning judge, ordering him to postpone the march until safety can be guaranteed? Read the story.

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Steve Levine's Powerhouse: a deep dive into battery technology
February 18, 2015General

I just raced through Steve Levine's The Powerhouse, a gripping, in-depth history of the race toward world-changing battery technology. Levine, a classmate of mine and briefly a colleague at BusinessWeek, has written books about Russia and oil. Now he turns to a technology that could spin the oil market upside-down--and Russia, too, for that matter. If electric cars go mainstream in the 2020s--still no sure thing--it will convulse global energy markets and the world economy.

And if batteries work for mass-market cars, they'll also barge into other energy markets, including the home. News emerged just last week that Tesla was developing a battery to help home-owners manage energy--buying it when it's cheap or perhaps harvesting it from their own solar panels, and conceivably moving off the grid. So advances in battery technology could also disrupt the business model of electric utilities. They could find themselves powering more cars and fewer homes. (Interestingly, Tesla uses conventional batteries. It is betting that it can lower costs simply by producing them more efficiently in a giant new fab. In this way, Tesla's strategy mirrors that of Google, which early on turned its back on cutting-edge supercomputers, instead filling its data centers with millions of commodity servers.)

Levine looks at the race toward battery technology from inside Argonne National Laboratory, west of Chicago. But his reporting extends to South Korea, Japan, and China, where efforts to come up with superbatteries are all racing ahead. I knew almost nothing about battery technology and learned a ton.

My one disappointment was that he didn't take us into the future, to see how the story is likely to play out. But Levine is a journalist, and a good one, but not a futurist. The story of how next-gen batteries will change the world is yet to be written. When it is, The Powerhouse will serve as a wonderful prologue. 

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Before the snow
January 28, 2015General

                                                Seen on a street in Montclair, near the Y

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The $14 transistor radio
January 26, 2015General

When I was a kid, I saved up to buy a motorboat. I didn't do any research on the subject and had no idea how much a boat with an outboard motor would cost. But I trusted that if I saved long enough, I'd get one. I think my allowance at this stage in my life was 50 cents a week.

It took a long time, but my savings eventually climbed past $20. I remember dumping all of the quarters and dimes, along with a few bills, on my bed and counting them all. It was a good feeling to have savings. But eventually I realized that even if I got to $50 or even $100, a motorboat was going to outstrip my resources.

So one day I put most of the money in my pocket and walked to Lancaster Avenue, in Bryn Mawr, and bought the other thing I was dying for: a transistor radio. I remember that it cost $14. It's hard to spend more than half of your savings on anything, but I was thrilled to have the radio. I could walk around and listen to music anywhere. I could sit out in the park across the street and listen to Phillies games. In October, I could sneak it into school, string the earplug through my sleeve, rest my head on my hand and listen to the World Series in math class. A transistor radio back then was the closest thing to an iPhone. A miracle machine.

Fast forward to now. We have a blizzard setting upon us in North Jersey, and we know from recent experience that big storms can bring down our archaic power wires and plunge us into darkness and cold. So today I did some errands. I bought kitty litter and batteries for our flashlights, and I stopped by Radio Shack and picked up a transistor radio (above). It cost $14.

It's amazing, isn't it, how what used to be a dream acquisition can turn into an afterthought? I have more recent examples. Only a decade ago, I was lusting for an iPod and was thrilled to get one for Christmas. I spent hours curating my gigabytes of music on iTunes, and then happily commuted with my new machine to and from New York. Now I look at the coffee table and see two machines--my cell phone and my tablet--which can both function as iPods, and I'm sure I could find a few more if I dug around a little.

So the question is this: What piece of technology do you lust after today--Google glassMicrosoft's HoloLensOculus RiftNikon D4?--and when will it become utterly banal? 

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The virtues of hate speech
January 18, 2015News

Remember Terry Jones? He’s the dim-witted Florida preacher who burned a pile of Korans a couple of years ago. It inflamed anti-Americanism across the Middle East, undermined U.S. diplomacy, and earned Jones a top spot on an Al Queda hit list.

Jones is a perfect test case for freedom of expression, perhaps better than the French satirical weekly, Charlie Hebdo. After all, Charlie Hebdo fit snugly within the French mainstream. It thumbed its nose at intolerance and hypocrisy in religion, government and business. In doing so, it embodied France's secular values and its laughter, which is why the murderous attack on Jan. 7 was so devastating, and why millions rallied around the paper (even if few of them read it).

The better test for freedom of expression comes from a humorless outlier like Terry Jones. He is hateful and intolerant. His message hurts our national reputation and endangers our diplomats, business travelers and tourists. The government would have every reason to shut him down. But his First Amendment rights allow him to burn the books. He has his supporters, of course. But even those of us who are horrified by his actions can appreciate how free we are (under law, at least) to express ourselves.

This is where France has limits. While a Koran burner like Jones might not get arrested there, the country does impose targeted restrictions on speech. And they leave many, including moderate Muslims, feeling that the government has double standards. (This New Yorker piece provides excellent context and detail.) Cartoonists, for example, are free to lampoon Mohammed, because religions are fair game, but it’s illegal to disparage groups of people or even the president.

In the long run, it might be better for France to open the way for more irresponsible, unfair or hateful messages, communication that angers and unsettles the great secular majority. People will complain. But the upshot will be clear: Go ahead and battle with words and images. That’s how civilized societies fight.

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The dance of the incumbents: IBM and US Steel
January 14, 2015News


IBM's new Z13 mainframes start at $200,000

When newcomers barge into an industry, they do the easy stuff. That’s logical enough. But as they get experience, they shinny up the value chain and displace the incumbents. “Oh, they’re just handling the bottom of the market,” the incumbents say, as they abandon one market after another. “They can’t touch our jewels.”

I saw this drama play out when I was covering steel in the ‘90s, and I see it now in the computer industry, specifically with IBM.

First steel. If you wanted quality steel in the 1980s, you went to a company that made it the traditional way, by reducing barge-loads of iron ore to liquid metal in a 2,900-degree (f) blast furnace, and then refining it. It was an enormously expensive (and dirty) industrial process. The two biggest producers were U.S. Steel and Bethlehem Steel.

During those years, so-called minimills were spreading across the country. They “made” steel by melting scrap. Viewed as little more than junkyard entrepreneurs, they crawled into the industry at the ground floor. They sold rebar, those ugly gnarled rods that reinforce concrete.

Good riddance, the big steelmakers said. They weren’t making money with rebar, anyway. But by ceding those lowly markets, they were unwittingly feeding a powerful insurgency. Through the years, the minimills, led by Nucor Corp., invested in new technology and refined their processes. Every time they entered a different steel market, prices collapsed, forcing out the traditional steelmakers. By the time I got to Pittsburgh in 1992, the beleaguered big steelmakers would say defiantly: “But do you think Nucor can make the hood of a Cadillac?”

Nucor is now the nation’s biggest steelmaker. Its market capitalization is $14.1 billion. That may not sound like much, but it’s more than four times the value of US Steel. Even if Nucor steel doesn’t go into Cadillac hoods, the company has helped itself to a big chunk of the market. What’s more, the traditional steel makers have had to invest in exotic technology to hold onto their shrinking top-end, from car hoods to shiny stove tops and washing machines.

Something similar has been happening in technology. In the 1950s and ‘60s, IBM grew into the world’s biggest and richest computer company by selling expensive mainframe computers to companies around the world. Mini computers, personal computers and most recently, cloud computing, ate away at that market. But IBM could still sell hardware to companies that demanded top-of-the-line performance, reliability and security.

As commodity computers claimed more markets, IBM shedded much of its hardware business, turning to more lucrative software and services. But Big Blue still clings to mainframes (in large part because they link customers to the company's software and analytics services). The newly unveiled Z13 will sell for $200,000.

As commodity producers invade a market, they always leave opportunities at the top. But those markets shrink. With time, the usurpers dominate, while the displaced champions, if still alive, are left servicing a small and shrinking niche.

Often, the old champions embrace the new technologies. I read that U.S. Steel is considering building an scrap-melting furnace at its Gary Works. This would have been heresy in the ‘90s. And IBM is pushing hard at cloud computing. But it's challenging for old companies to adapt their entrenched processes and culture to the new ways. It requires rapid change, and this hard work is often up to executive teams that have spent 30 years climbing up through the old system--and are only five or 10 years from retirement.

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How futuristic will the future be?
January 2, 2015Marketing the book


I got an email from a friend who just read my manuscript of the prequel to The Boost. The working title is Dark Site. For a story that takes place about 30 years from now, in 2044, he said, it had a few anachronisms.

Bandages, for example. When people get a brain chip, or "boost," implanted above their right temple, they have that patch of scalp shaved and the incision covered with a small bandage. The bandage signals that a person has passed to this new order--from wild to enhanced--and is probably still struggling to master the brain-machine interface (or even to find the computer in his or her head).

But who will wear bandages in 2044? Won’t there be membranes that cover the skin, breathe like skin, and decompose over time, either blending into the skin or flaking off like dandruff? Could be, I thought. So I switched bandages to “patches.” I’ll leave it up to readers to figure out for themselves how advanced those patches are. (an example)

I also had my characters pick up groceries at a supermarket on Columbia Road in Washington (the same Safeway I used to shop at in the ‘80s). I knew this sounded outmoded as I wrote it. My friend agrees. So I’ll have them order more food. (It’s too bad, because excursions onto the street are good chances for the characters--and readers--to get some fresh air, and run into people.)

Try as I might to fish out anachronisms from the future, part of me is in rebellion. The future, as I see it, invariably carries a lot of the past. Look around you today. How much of what you see could have been there 30 years ago, in early 1985? From where I’m sitting, lots of elements could be from '85--the moccasins, the coffee cup, the lamp, the fan. Much is the same. And some things, like the flat-screened TV, are mere upgrades. But there are a few differences, like the Nexus tablet playing Lee Morgan on a Sonos Wi-Fi speaker.

The point is, some things change, but lots don’t. So I’ll yank the supermarkets from the prequel, just to be on the safe side. But if I make it to 2044, I won’t be surprised if I’m still wandering through frigid produce sections.

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Books of 2014
December 30, 2014General

This might be the shortest book list of my life. There are three reasons for this. One is that the Proust includes five big books, and each one took me about a month when I was fully engaged. For the first half of the year, I was hooked. I didn't regard it as a book so much as a place I went. It was an apartment, in France in the 19th century, and I was there with a long-winded and hypersensitive artist whose behavior was often absurd. His sentences seemed endless. He could be boring and repetitive, but also brilliant, and funny, and I wanted to hang around with him and inhabit his world. Toward the end of these big tomes, I would promise to take a break and read one or two of the books piling up on my list. They would be so much easier, I told myself. It would be like a vacation. 

So I'd finish The Shadow of Young Girls in Flower (II) or The Guermantes Way (III), I would spend a week or so picking up one of those other, easier books on my list, and reading a few pages. But there was only one thing I felt like reading. So I'd dive back into the Proust. This was the rule until I got to volume five, The Prisoner, in which the narrator holds his girlfriend, Albertine, in captivity in his Paris apartment. If she breaks free, he fears, she'll pursue lesbian lovers. The very prospect torments him. (It's hard to take this at face value, since Proust himself was gay and, as he told a colleague at least once, he turned his male lovers into female characters in the book, giving them masculine names like like Albertine and Gilberte.) The narrator frets obsessively for about 400 pages. Except for one long scene of a public shaming at a soiree, It's tedious. I put it down for days on end, and only willed myself through it while on vacation.

By that point, my two books had been published. Where Does it Hurt? came out on May 15, and The Boost landed a week later. Within weeks, I was writing my own novel, Dark Site, the prequel to The Boost. I figured I'd give myself a Proust vacation until I finished it, which turned out to be Dec. 3. The short days and long evenings of winter, I've always found, are better suited for long books. 

Now I'm on the other volume of the Albertine duo, Albertine is Gone. It's marginally better than The Prisoner, but still, from my perspective, the second worst of the lot. This might be because these two volumes were unedited manuscripts at the time of Proust's death, in 1923. His brother tidied them up and published them. I would hope that Proust himself would have have cut out lots of the boring stuff, and perhaps condensed them into one shorter volume. 

Spending much of this year with Proust has altered the way I think about the passing of time, and memories, and also how I think about literature. In fact, I was already back into Proust a couple of weeks ago when I was rereading the manuscript of my prequel. It has a first-person narration by a self-obsessed man who makes a number of ridiculous choices. I realized as I read it that I'd unwittingly lifted a bit of Proust. (I don't think too many readers would draw this connection.)

In one of my short Proust vacations, I read Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl. It  came highly recommended from a friend, but I kept putting it down. It just wasn't for me, and I had to speed read the last 100 pages or so just to see how it ended. Even so, I decided to feature a first-person narrator, a bit like hers, in my own novel. Like hers, mine would be less than entirely credible, let alone lovable. 

So there you have it. Proust, Gone Girl and Dark Site. My literary year of 2014.

I just took a look at the list I wrote a year ago. My point was going to be that tackling one huge book, like Proust's, makes a year more memorable than the usual pot-pourri. But there are some real winners on that 2013 list. It was pretty memorable, too. Still, I'm taken with the idea of big projects. Candidates for the coming year might be Don Quixote or the Bible. But first I have to read the last volume of Proust, which is very long....

* I'll write about two Spanish-language books, El Ruido que Hacen las Cosas al Caer and La Apertura Cubana in a separate post. 

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The Serial Podcast: when the narrator intrudes
December 30, 2014General

Sarah Koenig, photo by Meredith Heuer

I’ve been listening to the Serial podcast both for the crime story it tells and as an exercise the journalist narrative. I’m behind most listeners, who have heard the whole 12 chapters. I just heard #7 last night on the elliptical, and I hated it.

I’ve thought about this over the last half day. It comes down to Sarah Koenig’s narrative. In the previous episodes, I got to appreciate her voice. She guides us through her education. She’s a rookie crime sleuth. And she’s dealing, for the first time, wiith people caught up in crime, cops, witnesses, and most important, the convicted killer, whom she hopes to find innocent. To tell her story, she has to put us in the head of Adnan Syed, who’s serving a life sentence in the Maryland Correctional Center for a murder he says he didn’t commit.

She stitches together the voices of the cops and lawyers and friends and experts, along with Adnan’s, and tells us how she’s evaluating all of this evidence. She teeters on the edge of getting in the way too much, but manages to restrain herself. It works.

That is, until the episode I heard last night. The entire segment carries us away from Baltimore, the scene of the case, to the law school at the University of Virginia, where a professor named Deirdre Enright runs an Innocence Project. What follows is almost like a therapy session for a puzzled journalist. Koenig becomes the story. Am I thinking about this the right way? Is it OK for me feel Adnan’s guilty one day and innocent the next? … Oh, you find me skeptical? Let me describe my symptoms to you (at considerable length and not very articulately). It goes on.

I think the chapter flopped, but I still appreciate what Koenig and her team are doing, and I can relate to the narration issues. When I pitched the Numerati, following a BusinessWeek cover story in early 2006, I took the same approach. Like Koenig, I was going to be at the center of the story. I would take readers along on my education into the world of the math geeks who were busy using data to redefine and conquer the world.

In some chapters, I was thin on material, and I had to fill in the holes myself. I felt sometimes like a Broadway empresario who has to dance for the crowd while waiting for the actors to show up. In the dating chapter, the evidence was very flimsy  that the algorithms of were any more powerful than a geographical match. So I wrote about how my wife and I signed up to see if it would match us. It was a page or two of comedy.

My approach worked for some readers. Others would have preferred less of me and more computer science and math. In any case, it was an issue I grappled with.

In the following book, Final Jeopardy, I would tell the story of IBM’s Watson computer. In my first draft, I inserted myself into the story, just the way I had in the Numerati. My excellent editor at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Amanda Cook, told me to get the hell out. This had to be a historical narrative, and I had no place in it. She was right.

Koenig can’t get out of the Serial Podcasts, and she shouldn’t. But I hope in the coming episodes she steps back a bit and lets the story itself, and the characters involved, do more of the telling.

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Prequel to The Boost: Dark Site
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The Boost: an excerpt
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My horrible Superbowl weekend, in perspective
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My coming novel: Boosting human cognition
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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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Wall Street Journal excerpt: Final Jeopardy
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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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