Stephen Baker

The Boost
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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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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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An online Playboy in a cyberworld swimming in porn
June 22, 2014News

The news industry in the age of the boost (2072) is dead. People with brain implants get most of their news directly from e-commerce companies and governments, and they spend most of their online time in the world of entertainment. For many, this means the virtual world, and a lot of what they're doing in that world involves sex.

This fits into the plot of The Boost. Without giving away too much, think of it this way: if you have vital news to communicate to a large population, where do you find everybody?

This is the business model for a site called Badoink (don't want to link to it by adding .com). Jasper Hammill outlines the strategy in an article in Forbes. The idea is to offer a news and features magazine, and to finance the journalism with links to porn sites. Hammill compares it to Playboy, which published big-time writers and featured great interviews, all of them financed by soft porn. The Badoink site looks like Maxim, which updated Playboy's model for the '90s.

Anyone's guess if this venture will work. Most don't. But I expect news to continue to cozy up with the parts of the entertainment industry people will pay for. That means porn, gambling, sports, games and comedy. 

This isn't entirely new. When Jimmy Carter wanted to reach an important demographic in 1976, he looked to Playboy, but later regretted it. 


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Amazon Fire phone: One step closer to the Boost
June 19, 2014News


Amazon's new phone is out, and one of its features, Firefly, brings it closer to The Boost. Firefly allows a user to point the phone at practically any object, send an image to the cloud, and have it recognized and located in Amazon's warehouses. Hit buy, and it will be at your doorstep in a day or two. It even works with movies and songs. 

In The Boost, where nearly everyone has a brain chip, most artifacts of the physical world are also identified and tagged. There's less need for physical objects, because more and more of our lives occur in the entertainment and communications hubs on the chip. (In fact, much of the physical world looks abandandoned.) But it occurs to me that Amazon, if it continues along the line traced by Founder Jeff Bezos, will one day be looking into brain chips. It's the natural evolution of the brand.

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A presidential birthplace lost to China
June 5, 2014News


A Tiananmen Square anniversary post.

The scenario. Twenty-nine years from now, the Chinese offer their cognitive brain chips, or boosts, to the rest of humanity. This presents a no-win choice to the Americans, who have no similar technology in place. If the Chinese chips prevail, they will rule the next stage of technology, and all of the commerce and information that runs on it. But to take a pass on the chips might mean settling for relative Neanderthal status while the rest of humanity advances into Cro-Magnon. 

This is all history by the time of my story, in The Boost. But as a result of the negotiations that occur between the Americans and the Chinese, China extends its dominance across the Pacific, as the Americans did in the 20th century. And they take over Hawaii--the birthplace of President Obama. If you look at history, maps change, often dramatically. 

Far-fetched? 

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IBM's Watson can't taste what it cooks
March 6, 2014News

Years before he headed up the team to build IBM's Jeopardy computer, Watson, David Ferrucci co-authored a book. It's called Artificial Intelligence and Literary Creativity--Inside the MInd of Brutus, a Story-telling Machine. The idea was to program a computer to recognize various elements of story-telling--from coming up with a plot to creating characters--and then let it start authoring. Brutus effectively assembled words into coherent sentences and paragraphs, Ferrucci later told me. But it had no way of knowing if what it created was any good.

And that's the problem with teaching machines to be creative. To date, they haven't been blessed with good taste. Sad to report, that's even true when Watson ventures into the kitchen. But perhaps it can find a role as a wild and inventive sous-chef. 

Anshul Sheopuri is on the IBM team training Watson for kitchen work. The idea, essentially, is that most humans are locked into cooking with combinations that we know. Tomatoes, for example, go with oregano, and with Parmesan cheese. Someone might try throwing in a pinch of marjoram with that, or an ill-advised turnip. But outside of celebrity chefs, most of us paint with a small and conservative pallet.

IBM's goal is to get Watson to experiment, suggesting combinations most people would never consider. For this, the IBM team has the computer reduce food to its molecular components, and then rearrange them based on each ingrediant's chemistry and what the computer has gleaned from lots of written material about food. It then comes up thousands of new recipes. Based on its readings, it gives each recipe a score for novelty, its quality to blend with other foods (pairing) and "pleasantness."

Of course, this is all academic. For the computer, pleasantness, along with everything else in the universe, is simply a string of ones and zeros that appears to correlate with other ones and zeros that make up its point of reference. It's up to human beings to pick the most promising looking recipes, cook and taste them.


The results include novel blends, such as the sweet and piquant Caymanian Plantain dessert (above). Have to say, though, I glanced at the recipes, and they didn't look as surprising as I would have imagined. I wouldn't be at all surprised to see the Swiss-Thai quiche on the menu of the Asian fusion restaurant down the road. But the caution could come from conservative humans. Maybe the people on the IBM team picked the recipes that they liked best, and that they figured fellow humans coming up to their food truck at South by Southwest were most likely to enjoy. Watson is hard-pressed, at least for now, to make such judgments. So my guess is that it didn't get a chance to fly its freak flag.

With time, this type of computer chef will be able to incorporate all sorts of other analysis in its recipes, incorporating data about health, disease, prices and supply chain. In fact, those areas are in Watson's comfort zone. Cooking? Well, it's still learning. The problem, from Watson's perspective, is that the boss has this thing called a tongue. 

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Why IBM's Watson is slow out of the blocks
January 9, 2014News

Picture a high school graduate of staggering genius. Her skills are spell-binding, but at this point, she doesn't have any experience in the work place or, for that matter, know anything. What's more, her social skills are abysmal. Now when this prodigy knocks on the door of Citigroup or the Mayo Clinic or General Electric, what can she offer?

Selling such a job candidate is more or less the challenge the IBM team has when they try market Watson to corporate customers. It's a fabulous machine. With its blend of big data retrieval, natural language, question-answering and analytics, It represents cognitive computing, the future of knowledge work. But what job can it do today?

We don't know. In these early days, Watson, just like other newcomers to the job market, will take boring jobs for which it's overqualified. A call center assistant, for example. People see that and wonder what all the fuss is about. Spencer Ante of the Wall Street Journal reports (behind firewall) that Watson's numbers are disappointing, and below projections. IBM is now building an entire Watson division.

But Watson, like that high school prodigy, is still in the development phase. This has to be frustrating to investors who are looking for winners in the next stage of the information economy. But it's just the way things move. It's similar, in a sense, to the early period of the personal computers, when no one knew exactly what they'd do. People said that homemakers would use computers in the kitchen, to keep records of food and manage recipes. Finally, speadsheets and word processing programs gave people a reason to buy the machines. (And then many promptly wondered why anyone would do anything else on a computer, including hitching it to a network.)

The fact is that cognitive computing technology, like Watson, will not only do jobs. It will transform work. In information industries, having question-answering machines on hand, in pockets, always on call, will alter our thinking about knowledge and what we have to know. But we don't yet know exactly how these machines will get from here to there, nor which companies will build them. Changing metaphors, if this is spring training and I'm trying to pick the two teams in the World Series, I'd bet on IBM and Google, one coming from the corporate side, the other from consumers. 

***
I was quoted in Spencer's story, which got me an invite to Fox Business News yesterday to discuss Watson's challenges. I went in there, got made up and waited and waited while they aired Gov. Chris Christie's never-ending press conference about the Bridgegate scandal. In the end I was bumped. It reminded me of going to Chicago for a day of Numerati events on the day that Gov. Rod Blagoyevich was arrested for trying to sell Barack Obama's Senate seat. And then when I was pitching Final Jeopardy and had a nationwide slot on Ira Flatow's Science Friday, most markets pre-empted me to cover the fall of Hosni Mubarak. You might assume that I'm unlucky. I'd just say that news happens on a frequent basis. Going back to Fox Biz today...

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Pyongyang Chronicle: The demise of a trickster
December 14, 2013News

Word that Jang Song-thaek was a trickster emerged the day he was executed, or perhaps the following day. Chronology is always hard to nail down in North Korea. In any case, a 2,000+-word government news release disclosed that in addition to being a gambler, thief, capitalist, careerist and a lesser form of life than dog, Jang was also a trickster. It would seem that the government was unaware until very recently of this fact. You might expect as much. After all, don't tricksters keep secrets? They do. Perhaps better than anybody.

But signs that Jang was a trickster had been evident for years, perhaps decades. Insiders in Pyongyang were aware that Jang was--not necessarily in this order--the dictator's uncle, confidente, coach, and that he was a trickster. At least one person must have seen him lift $4 million from one account or another. They don't have automatic withdrawals in North Korea. People do such work. But such people also know to keep quiet when a trickster who happens to be the second most powerful person in the realm tells them mum's the word. Several others knew that he blew millions in international casinos. People who lose that kind of money get seen. Many of those who saw him at crap tables in Macao later told government inspectors that Jang, surprisingly for such a notorious trickster, lost his millions with good cheer and forbearance. They wished him the best and looked forward to his return. 

So it was known. Jang was a trickster, but largely a discreet one. When his nephew, Kim Jong-um, showed interest in executing criminals and traitors, Jang pointed toward other people, professors and army officers, certainly not to himself. He was not stupid.

It's hard to say, in retrospect, what led to the clapping incident. I should say the non-clapping incident, or perhaps half-hearted clapping one. The leader had spoken. Everyone was clapping. Clapping is what is done. It is loud and enthusiastic, probably more loud than enthusiastic, in truth, but it is carried out whole-heartedly, with solid impact, maximum noise, and preferably a smile. And there was Jang, his expression grim, like that of someone who had lost millions in casinos. He may have been suffering the ravages of a hangover. He was barely touching his palms to each other. People noticed. Among a circle of people surrounding him, morale collapsed. Yes, Jang was a trickster. That much they knew. He was hardly clapping. That was new. 

He was arrested tried and executed the next day, or maybe the following one. Why do tricksters meet such untimely ends? 

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The Boost: Galleys out
December 3, 2013News


Just got a box of these galleys of The Boost. It's coming out late spring. Fun to page through it. I like the pages and the font. It's missing corrections that I sent in yesterday. But I guess that gives meaning to "uncorrected proof." If anyone would like to review the book or turn it into a feature film, please get in touch.

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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