Stephen Baker

The Boost
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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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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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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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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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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