“Zero Tolerance” and “Maximal Force”

“Zero tolerance is the approach they’re using,” Deepak is later explaining to us over lunch through a mouthful of lasagna bolognese.  “The policy is pretty simple:  Use ‘maximal force’ against all infractions as a deterrent to prevent future mischief by your citizens.”

After giving us the “shock and awe” presentation on Oracle, Vanessa and Alan fielded a few more questions and then wrapped up the meeting since they needed to peel off to attend to their other responsibilities.  Shu also wandered off somewhere to do something but the rest of us decided to all get a late lunch together at the cafeteria.  As foreigners, we were all strangers in a strange land and it was nice to be part of a tribe, even if we’d just met that morning.  After getting our food from the bazaar, we got a table as far away from everyone else as we could in the cafeteria corner.  Since it was late afternoon, the seating area was luckily sparsely populated.

Katherine frowns.  “What do you mean,” she asks Deepak, “by ‘maximal force,’ exactly?”

“It’s exactly what it sounds like,” Deepak says, shrugging.  He leans back, having finished his lasagna, and pats his professorial potbelly contentedly.  “For every single infraction they observe in Ürümqi, no matter how trivial,” he explains, “the CCP likely levies the maximum penalty– I’m guessing either imprisonment or maybe even death.”

I raise an eyebrow.  “You think the Chinese Communist Party is summarily executing Uyghurs by firing squad if they’re caught littering?”

Deepak shakes his head.  “No, of course not, don’t be absurd.  That’d be a total waste of bullets.  The CCP’s probably following Singapore’s model and hanging rule-breakers at high-noon in the public square.  That way it’s a twofer– no money wasted on bullets and you make a very public, very visible example to your citizens.”

“You cannot possibly be serious.”

“Why not?” Deepak asks and he rolls his eyes.  “You Americans are so naïve.  You think your precious Geneva Convention and humanitarian ideals are so high and mighty, so important.”  He harpoons a lone meatball on his plate, apparently having caught a second wind.  “You in the west can only think your lofty thoughts because you’re an obscenely rich and privileged country with a population that’s never exceeded 350 million.”  He points his fork at me.  “And yet, you Americans somehow manage to occupy the best, fattiest midsection of an entire continent.  You’ve never lived in a country of 1.4 billion people.  China, India, Indonesia– together, we’re half of the world’s population.  And yet, our people collectively on average live on less than two of your American dollars a day.

“When you’re trying to build a new world order in this environment of crushing poverty, like Xi’s been trying to do for a decade now, it’s necessary to curtail individual freedoms for the greater good.  If one homeless person litters without consequence, then everyone litters.  Soon your streets run with filth and garbage.  The drainage and plumbing get backed up.  Sewage seeps into the water supply.  And then you’ve got Detroit on your hands, just like that.  But if you make an example– swiftly and visibly— then after a few public executions and lots of tears, people start getting the gist and falling in line.”

Continue reading ““Zero Tolerance” and “Maximal Force””

You’ve Gotta Give Them Credit

You’ve gotta give ’em credit.  This is unequivocally impressive. Terrifying on a base and primordial human level.  But impressive.

What I see on the holo-projection takes “invasion of privacy” and cranks it to eleven-thousand.

The GUI that Alan’s brought up shows rolling lists of collected data for all of the so-called ‘persons of interest’ in Ürümqi: most recent purchase transactions, educational backgrounds, work histories, call records, web-browsing activity, subway metro swipes, rental histories, music and video playlists, cabs called, everything.

On one of the tabs, I see that you can literally filter by “7-Eleven Visits.”  Jesus.  It’s all here.

“Oh, it gets even better,” Katherine says in a flat voice.  “Go ahead, show ’em.  We’re getting to the good part.”

Alan taps on a little red figurine who looks like she’s sitting in her apartment in front of what I imagine must be her computer and the entire holo-model zooms inside, into her bedroom there on the 40th-some floor of her building complex.  It’s an incredibly lifelike render and even I’m stunned for a moment.  It’s almost as if we’ve just stuck an ultra-high resolution camera into this woman’s apartment.  The render’s quality is astronomical and easily clears the uncanny valley; it’s photorealistic.

“Via thermal imaging and x-rays from the outside, the system can reconstruct what’s happening indoors too,” says Katherine.  “Now, in all fairness, some of the specificity’s interpolated.  For example, the system doesn’t actually know if this rando’s couch is that exact shade of periwinkle blue.  Once you get to that granularity, it’s just kinda guessing.”

“Good lord,” says Coleman.  “This has gotta be illegal, right?  You guys are able to just look in, on anyone, at any time?”

Chopra laughs.  “Illegal?  This is China, my man!  Are you high?”

Looking at everything, I guess I’m honestly surprised that any of this surprises me at all.  For years, we’ve known about deep fakes.  And while I don’t really pay any attention, I know youngsters and their videogames have been growing increasingly more advanced every year.  More realistic graphics, more lifelike models, constantly blurring the line between real and virtual worlds.  It was just a matter of time until someone used the technology this way.

Vanessa’s presentation is definitely slick.  Despite my moral and ethical reservations, I feel the seductive pull of the technology.  What JFL’s assembled here in this basement is next-generation stuff– an application well beyond anything I’ve seen in the States.  Not because America is behind technologically– obviously, we have 7G and fiber too.  (America invented 7G.)  But the CCP’s ability to operate with zero concern for citizen-privacy is immensely liberating and gives their technologists and scientists a much wider reign on how they can apply the same tech that everyone else also has.

Surprise, surprise, when you don’t give a chit about human rights, it turns out you can do a lot.

Continue reading “You’ve Gotta Give Them Credit”


Y’hallo!  Welcome to the Wobbleverse!  😀🤗👋

Salutations! This is my humble little corner of the web.  This blog, more than anything else, reflects my personal growth and interests over the years gone by.  It’s been a long and winding road!  Over the past decade, I’ve dabbled in data science and day-trading, but starting August 2020, this blog has most recently morphed into a container for The Alphabet Game (TAG) and a fiction story. TAG, in its present form, is a daily writing exercise where I’ve been putting ~400 words to paper each day, every single day.  I’m happy to report that for three months running now, I’ve kept up the streak! 😁

Originally, TAG started with standalone non-fiction entries and for about two months I tried to build a corpus of material for a data science project called Wobble2. The rules are simple: Write ~400 words about any topic under the sun as long as the first word of the entry corresponds with “that day’s letter”– so, for example, today’s letter (Fri, 10/30) is “Y.” Over the past few months, I’ve written about Calvin and Hobbes, great directors, GPS, The Dewey Decimal System, The Fast and Furious, spirituality, fate & destiny, and public figures whom I really appreciate and admire.

At the beginning of October though, my interests slightly shifted and I embarked on writing a novel!  I’ve tried in the past and have never made it very far but this time, things are different; I’d posted about TAG on Reddit and found a new writing friend so together we’ve been writing and posting ~400 words every single day.  (And it was following her lead that I decided to switch over from writing daily non-fiction entries to fiction passages.  Inspired! ✊🔥🚀)

This is the first time I’ve ever tried publicly writing a story like this though.  Writing and posting serial installments every single day honestly makes me feel a bit old-school, like Charles Dickens.  But a month in, I’ve gotta say:  I like it!  Having a writing friend to share daily progress with and get comments/feedback from certainly makes a difference.  But also– I’m honestly really liking WordPress and its entire system of tagging and organization.  (Tools I never had when I wrote longhand in spiral notebooks before.)

Anyway, if you’re newly arrived, welcome!  Upon alighting, good places to start for my non-fiction entries would be The Alphabetical Index or The Mind Map if you like visualizations.  And there’s also the TAG subreddit where /u/munchmallowqueen and I give each other comments and feedback.  Finally, if you’re interested in my nascent story, I’m currently in the middle of writing Chapter 4; but here’s where you’d go to start from the beginning.

Enjoy!  😊

PS.  Full disclosure, by the way:  When it comes to my non-fiction entries, in order to (try) to keep my identity a secret, I’ve changed the names of people and other minor details (like location names, geography, or dates and times) in an attempt to preserve the anonymity of all parties involved.  I write under pseudonym because sometimes I write about sensitive subjects and if I’m ever job hunting, I don’t want a potential recruiter to Google my name, find this blog, and then immediately jump to any conclusions about me based solely on my writings. That’d be muy no bueno! ☹️😦😓

“Xinjiang is a Powder Keg Waiting to Explode.”

“Xinjiang,” Vanessa says calmly, “is a powder keg waiting to explode.  It’s crucial we monitor the Uyghurs because if left unchecked, they could easily spread unrest to the rest of China like a contagion, sending the whole country spiraling into chaos.”

“Exactly,” Alan agrees, “in the past three months alone, we’ve already contained two bouts of arson against public property, two meetings that nearly grew into protests, and one violent knife attack during Sunday morning market in the Shuimogou District.”

He looks at me pointedly. “All thanks to our ‘monster-science-project-thing’ as you say.”

“So your solution is to monitor every single one of your citizens 24/7 in real-time?” Coleman asks in disbelief.  “Are you insane?”

I hold up my hand.  “Alright, wait.  Catch a breath, everyone.”  I turn to Vanessa and Alan.  “How accurate is this representation you’ve built?  What data are you accessing?”

“If you’re asking about latency,” says Alan, “it’s about four minutes behind right now.  Everything you see on the board happened roughly four minutes ago in the past.  We’re obviously trying to shorten that lag.  But with the sheer magnitude of data at this distance, over 7G and fiber, we’re kinda hitting the limits of physics.”

“You’re using 7G wireless in Ürümqi to collect all of the IoT signals within the city, processing and compressing onsite, and then fibering all that out, right?” asks Katherine.  Her earlier anger seems to have subsided a little, curiosity apparently winning out over indignation, at least for the moment.

“That’s generally correct,” says Alan.  He glances at Chopra and Coleman and sees only blank stares.  This may all as well be Greek to them.  “I can, uh, walk anyone interested through the data architecture later in finer detail if you wish.”

Chopra may not know what’s technically going on, but he gets the gist.  “So basically,” he says, “there’s no individual privacy in Ürümqi.  This… device lets you track all Uyghur whereabouts in the capital constantly, around the clock… if they’re at home or en route to work or eating out, etcetera.  Right?”

Alan and Vanessa exchange glances.  Vanessa nods.  “Show them.”

Sighing, Alan reaches over and grabs a tablet that’s on the table, tethered to the board, and begins tapping on it.

In the 3D holo-city-model, three dozen or so of the little pedestrian figurines suddenly tint vermillion.   And all of the remaining figurines fade to maybe 20% opacity.

“Additionally, here shaded in red are all persons of interest,” says Vanessa.  “On these people we possess significantly more surveillance.”

Alan taps a few more times on his tablet and a new holo-projection springs to life above the dome.

Continue reading ““Xinjiang is a Powder Keg Waiting to Explode.””

The Eye

We all turn to Katherine but it’s Vanessa who actually speaks next.

“You’ll find that this version in fact significantly improves on Ms. Henley’s original design.  And while we’re certainly grateful for her initial work on the idea, it’s come a long way since those early stages.”

“Did you just steal this right out of Foogle’s Labs in Darwin?” scoffs Katherine.  “Some kinda cloak-and-daggers corporate espionage?  Bribery?  Coercion? No, I bet it was blackmail. You likely got some dirt on Tunney, didn’t you? I bet you probably turned him, that gutless slimeball.”

“Oh, don’t be dramatic,” Vanessa says dismissively, waving her hand.  “This isn’t a Grisham thriller. And it’s not like you Australians have a monopoly over creating totalitarian police states.”

“Can someone please for the love of God just explain what we’re looking at?”  Coleman is looking around at us, clearly increasingly agitated that he’s utterly in the dark.  “What the hell’s going on?  I see a mini-model metropolis –granted, a super-expensive and detailed one– of some random city.  Why’s everyone so worked up?”

I turn my attention back to the miniature city and study it for a moment.  It’s fascinating how the human mind works when it’s trying to tease out a riddle.  All of the pieces are here and I feel like I have everything I need to put this puzzle together.  Katherine’s sudden departure from Foogle.  Her work in Darwin.  All of us suddenly here in Jinshui.  The CCP initiating a state surveillance apparatus in Xinjiang.  Like individual discs sliding into place in a rotary combination lock, I slowly piece it all together.

Chopra beats me to the punch though.

“This is a model city of Ürümqi, isn’t it?” he says, “the capital of the Xinjiang Province.  You’ve somehow built a real-life proxy representation of the city.”

“And it’s even more than that,” I add, the last tumbler finally falling into place.  “This is real-time, isn’t it? That’s why everything’s in motion.  You’ve got IoT sensors all over the city tracking every movement of every Uyghur and you’re streaming all of that raw data into a system somewhere to reconstruct what’s going on in Ürümqi, all of it, at this very exact moment.”

I gesture towards the mini-city, sweeping my arm.  “And this is a 3D-visualization of that, right?  It’s not a physical model at all.  Rather, it’s a hologram.  Just like the fancy projectors you have mounted outside that hide this compound from spy satellites overhead. But here just on a vastly tinier scale. This monster science project thing lets you track and visualize every single Uyghur in the city in real-time at any time.”

“Good lord,” says Coleman, his eyes growing round.  “You mad lads legit created The Eye of Sauron.  Jesus.”

Continue reading “The Eye”

The Reveal

Vibrant, fluorescent lights flicker on overhead and my eyes take a moment to adjust.  When they do, I’m looking at a gigantic miniature city on a massive stainless steel table that’s laid out before me.  The mini-city and the table it’s on is positively gigantic, maybe the size of sixteen ping-pong tables arranged 4×4.  It takes a minute and I need to blink a few times, but then I realize what’s odd.

The city’s in motion.

And by motion, I mean that the little miniature people and cars in the city are all moving around.  Miniature pedestrians are walking along sidewalks and little delivery trucks, sedans, vans, and school buses are driving up and down the city streets, halting and going at stoplights, dropping off kids, the whole nine yards.

“What in fresh hell is this?” says Coleman, bewildered.  “Some kinda model train set on steroids?”

“Please don’t touch anything,” Vanessa says wearily. “But feel free to take a look around. Though please do be careful.”

Her tone makes it sound like she’s a parent chaperoning a school dance who’d really much rather just be at home nursing a pint of scotch.

I take a step closer to the miniature city to get a better look.  The details on the tiny models are amazingly intricate and lifelike.  One of the skyscrapers even has little window-washing men cleaning the building’s glass façade, dangling from steel cables to do their work.  Upon inspection, I see that the entire mini-city’s actually in fact enclosed under a thin glass dome.  Clearly, whoever slaved away on the model didn’t want anyone touching anything, a sentiment I can most definitely understand.  I search for familiar landmarks in the model but don’t see anything I immediately recognize.

“This is impressive,” I begin, “how did you guys–“

“Good god.  You lunatics actually built it.”

I turn and see Katherine’s half a step behind me.  Her face has paled, drained of all color, and she looks like she could suddenly faint so I reach out to help but she just swats my arm away.  She pushes past me, walks up to the miniature city, and puts her hands and face right up against its plexiglass enclosure, like a kid looking into a candy store from the outside.

“Hey!” snaps Vanessa.  “No touching!”

Katherine just ignores her.  A moment of awkward silence passes and the rest of us just look at each other.  Whenever you’re in a group of adults and someone outright transgresses, blithely deciding to simply not follow rules, it always gets weird.  Like, no one ever knows what to do. Is someone supposed to tackle her?  Reprimand her sternly?  The protocol’s honestly unclear.

Finally, it’s Chopra who speaks up. “You recognize it, don’t you?” he says softly.  “You know what this is.”

Katherine gives a short, bitter snort.  “I damn well should.  After all, I designed it.

Continue reading “The Reveal”

Under Normal Circumstances

Chapter Four

Under normal circumstances, I’m generally already a pretty curious person.  I’m constantly always looking stuff up on Wikipedia (Jimmy Wales is one of my all-time heroes and on my personal Mount Rushmore) and I’ll always follow wherever my curiosity leads me.  I simply just need to know.  I’m one of those people.

So, being in China, in the most mysterious environment ever –that is, some secret Chinese Communist Party-backed laboratory in the middle of literally nowhere– of course I’m going to follow the exotic, genetically-altered Asian beauty to see whatever she’s wanting to show us.  Life is rife with moments when you’ll need to make tough, difficult choices that take weeks of deliberation.  This isn’t one of them.  This is a total no-brainer.

“Lead the way,” I say to Shu, standing up from my barstool.  I stretch my arms above me for a minute and it feels good to finally be back on my feet with free range of motion.  Homo sapiens had not evolved over 300,000 years and stumbled out of Africa in a drunken stupor to spend most our waking hours sitting on our asses.  We’re just not anatomically built for it; but in a cruel twist of fate, nowadays that’s all we mostly do. It’s a genuine tragedy.

Shu leads the way and everyone follows.  Apparently, we’re all curious people.  We shuffle after Shu out of the faculty-esque lounge like kindergarteners on a class field trip, turn the corner in the hall, and then begin descending down several flights of steps deeper and deeper into the bowels of Building 11.

Of course, we’re headed to the basement.  It’s always the basement.  Every time.

At the bottom once the stairwell ends, Vanessa walks up to the front of our little group and scans her palm against a semi-translucent glass security plate next to a ginormous titanium, concrete door.  Looking around me, I feel like we’re about to enter some sort of super-secure secret bunker, the kind of installations typically reserved for presidents, dictators, or mega-rich billionaires paranoid about zombie apocalypses.

“You guys really watch a lot of American action movies,” Coleman says from somewhere behind me, clearly admiring our surroundings.  “I do like the décor though.”

“This facility’s built to withstand nuclear war,” says Alan.  “You’re about to see why.”

After a moment, the security scanner beeps, apparently satisfied with Vanessa’s handprint.  Two dozen giant steel tumblers grind and unlatch as the massive vault-like blast door unlocks and slowly swings open.  We all step through.

Continue reading “Under Normal Circumstances”

The Thing You Should Consider

“The thing you should consider,” she says, “is what happens in your absence.  Using your knowledge and skills, you have a chance here to be in the room when critical decisions are being made and have a say in what happens.  If you walk away now, who knows how things will end up in Xinjiang?  Yang will just bring in another team to head the project and it could eventually all end in famine or genocide, especially given the direction things are currently going.  You could prevent that.”

I search my conscience.  Do I care that countless millions of total strangers from a province that I’ve never set foot in could possibly die if I did nothing?  Indonesia in 1965; the Khmer Rouge in in the 1970s; Rwanda in 1994? Am I swayed?

Weirdly… no.

As soon as Shu tries to guilt me along this tact, my brain immediately formulates its own counter-rationalizations:  First, it’s not immediately clear to me at all that with my help, things will not end up actually being worse.  It’s perfectly possible that Yang and his puppeteers behind the curtain take my work and bastardize it, using it for some even greater evil.  These massive machine learning models and pipelines that data scientists build are tools.  And once you’ve built the actual tool, how one uses it is an entirely different matter altogether.  For example, the same image recognition software that helps a mother find her lost child in a crowded mall could be the same software that helps a totalitarian dictator hunt down and assassinate political opponents.  To a computer, a human face is just a face.  In all those old 007 secret agent movies, there’s always a “head scientist” who works for the Bond supervillain and if I’m not careful, I could totally unwittingly become that scientific accessory to evil. A supervillain-enabler. Most definitely not a good look and a categorically, maximally undesirable outcome.

Second, in all honesty– I feel a sense of detachment.  I know that makes me a horrible and heartless human but, unfortunately and inconveniently, it’s simply just true. (At least if I’m being honest with myself.)  I’d grown up in America all of my life and had led an extremely sheltered and privileged existence.  For the most part, two very big oceans had separated me from most of the world’s concerns.  And thus, for better or worse, again, if I’m being genuine: In my heart of hearts, I’d grown numb and apathetic to the headlines, especially international headlines, that I’d seen on endless repeat, looping again and again over the many years and decades now.  Mass starvations in Darfur or thousands dying from drought in Ethiopia and Somalia.  Even when I read about those events, they just felt like they were far away, in another galaxy and solar system.

Appealing to my desire to possibly prevent genocide is a losing argument.  And, give her credit, Shu seems to read from my expression that she’s failed to persuade me or move the needle at all. Apparently, this card wasn’t the ace that she’d thought she’d had.

I see her flash a quick glance at Vanessa, who’s still standing with Alan across the room.  It’s probably imperceptible to most, but I notice that Vanessa gives a smallest of nods back.  Apparently, the Queen Bee has given her underling some kind of greenlight on, well, something.

“Very well then,” Shu says, sighing.  “I guess there’s really only thing left to show you at this point.”

Chopra and I look at each other.

“Oh, come on,” Shu says as she puts her hand on my forearm and bats those long, alluring lashes again.  “You’ve come all this way, from so far.  Aren’t you at least a little curious?  It’ll only take a bit.”  She looks at all of the others, assembled in the room.  “You can all come to see.  I promise it’ll be worth your while.  You won’t want to decide on anything yet without seeing this first.”

Continue reading “The Thing You Should Consider”

Shu Qi: “Great Artists Steal.”

“Shouldn’t I be?” I reply.  “This is the opportunity of a lifetime.  Unfettered access to all of that personal citizenry data.  Zero privacy requirements.  This is a total treasure trove, ripe for analysis a thousand different ways, every data scientist’s absolute dream.  But from a moral and ethical standpoint, it’s pretty much a slam dunk, one-way, guaranteed ticket to hell.”

Up close I see Shu is classically beautiful in the way that is popular in China these days:  Light, creamy complexion, long curly bangs, round face, and large green eyes.  They’re a light, ocean-green, entirely unnatural and knockout gorgeous.  China is currently the only country in the world that allows CRISPR techniques to be used on developing fetuses (unborn babies), though the allowable genetic edits are still limited.1

Anyway, it doesn’t surprise me in the least that she is the marketing guru of the group.  Selling is all about appearances.  And with a face and body like that (also most certainly genetically or surgically altered, I’m pretty sure), you’re already halfway there.

“I think there’s another way of looking at it that perhaps you’re not considering,” Shu says.  Her voice is soft, supple, persuasive.  “A more optimistic interpretation of the task.”

“Oh?  Enlighten me.”

“You are in a privileged position to shape the very course of human history,” Shu says.  “You know it; I know it; we all know it.  This is the Chinese Century.  And you’re, right now, at this very moment, on the ground floor, at the very beginning.  What happens in China this next decade is where it all begins.”

“That’s… a bold statement.” is all that I can say.

Chopra, who’s been sitting next to me on his barstool the entire time, listening, speaks up.  “What makes you think China’s going to be the new global superpower?  The only thing the Chinese has ever excelled at is leading from behind.”  Chopra sits up a bit straighter in his barstool and begins gesticulating with his hands, going into full-on professor-mode.  “China’s good at sitting back, seeing what works everywhere else in the world, and then shamelessly copying those successes wholesale.”  There’s definitely more than a hint of disdain in his voice as he says this.

Shu turns to look at Chopra.  “And what’s so wrong with that?” she asks.  “Didn’t that great American, Steve Jobs, whom you all idolize so much, once say that ‘good artists copy; great artists steal’?”

“That was Picasso actually,” I say.  “And also– we don’t all idolize Jobs.  That guy was a total ass.

“The problem with stealing,” Chopra says patiently, “is that it’s not leading.  Any idiot can steal.  You just look at what works and then copy itHow difficult can that possibly be?

“Uh, pretty difficult?” I say.  “The path to success it littered with a long line of corpses.  You need to climb over each and every one of them to get to the top.”

Apparently sensing an opening, Shu smoothly changes gears.

  1. At least, legally.  The aftermarket for unapproved CRISPR edits offers considerably more selection but are substantially more dangerous as well.  Once CRISPR went mainstream in China, rich Chinese parents went wild.  Skin tone and eye color are two of the most popular edits.  (It’s also possible to add up to another 10cm of height or so, though that edit is significantly steeper, price-wise.)

Continue reading “Shu Qi: “Great Artists Steal.””

Scaffolding, Structuring, and Restructuring

Sometimes, you don’t always get things right on the first try.  Looking at everything I’ve written so far (this story officially began on Friday – Oct 2; I’m three weeks in!  I’ve written every single day consecutively for 21 days!  Wohoo!) I realized this morning that Chapter 3 isn’t going to work.  Beginning Ch. 3, I was already at a chapter word count of 3,776.  And since I try to contain each chapter to ~4,000 words, I knew that I’d need to wrap up Chapter 3 with today’s entry.

But looking at what I’d written, I see that it’s not possible– I didn’t leave myself enough runway to gracefully and believably wrap up the scene I’m currently in the middle of.  Oops.

Thus:  Today, I’ve decided to move 10/17 and 10/18’s story entries to their own miniature “Interstice One” section.  This frees up 528+452=980 words which I think then ought be enough to wrap up this current scene and Ch. 3.  Even when I was writing them, I always felt that those two entries were kinda different “on background” pieces anyway.  So this actually works out.

Before-Restructuring vs After-Restructuring.

Three weeks into writing this story using the TAG and “4,000-words-per-chapter” format has made me realize that imposing these arbitrary constraints on my writing has actually helped me become a more productive and creative writer.  Like, it’s weird.  Intuitively, you might think (or at least, I would’ve initially thought) that imposing constraints would “cramp my style” or somehow “hinder the writing process” but it’s been the exact opposite.  Previously, whenever I began writing a fiction work, I never finished because halfway through, I’d lose interest, get frustrated, and then abandon the project.  It’d always get to a point where I’d feel:  “What am I doing?  Where am I going?   Where am I?  What am I doing with my life?  Omg.”  And then I’d quit.

But this time around, with TAG and my meticulous spreadsheet-wordcount-tracker, it feels different.  Weirdly, it feels more like a coding project now.  I have wordcount milestones.  I have a sense of pacing.  I have a feeling of knowing where I need to go.  A roadmap, albeit, still nascent, is beginning to form and crystalize.  Characters are simply falling out of my brain and literally putting themselves on the page.  It’s like watching a plant or rain forest grow.

By the way, in programming, this practice of “restructuring” is common– so common, we even have a word for it:  “Refactoring.”  The simple truth is that even the all-time greats– the JKRs, Lev Grossmans, and Max Barrys of the world, aren’t able to write everything perfectly on their first try.  In fact, the only author I know who’s able to one-and-done entire novels in a single shot is John Scalzi when he wrote The Consuming Fire in two weeks.1

Anyway, my point today:  Most authors are unable to “get it right” on their very first try.  And thus, rewriting/restructuring/refactoring is important!  The story I’m working on now, is the first piece of long-form fiction that I’m just writing every day, entirely without an outline and without a plan.  Previously, I’d pour hours into brainstorming characters, worldbuilding, and coming up with all kinds of clever acronyms for shadowy, mysterious organizations that sounded cool.  There was even a period (years ago) that I bought an actual, real-life baby book and had fun just flipping through the thing, jotting down names that sounded alluring and nifty to me.

All those projects ultimately went nowhere and ended in complete failure.

So this time, I’m completely winging it.  No outline and no plan.  Just putting out 400 words a day and seeing where it all goes.  I am going to try to refrain from editing anything my first run though.  But I’m gonna consider today’s restructuring “a mulligan.”  Technically, I’m not writing anything new– but rather, I’m just relabeling some parts.

The adventure continues!  Here we go!  😀

  1. And you know what?  That book is awful.  I’m generally a Scalzi fan.  Agent to the Stars, Fuzzy Nation, Old Man’s War, and Redshirts (a Hugo winner!) are all wonderfully amusing and entertaining books.  OMW I actually even consider “sci-fi cannon,” right up there, maybe a notch or two, below Ender’s Game. But TCF was honestly just so bad.  I know it sold well and made all kinds of bestseller lists but Scalzi, IMHO, really phoned that one in and coasted on his reputation and good name.  TCF’s quality is genuinely lacking.  Scalzi wrote TCF in two weeks and it shows.  Very blatantly and extremely clearly.  I actually own TCF on my Kindle which I genuinely regret buying; it is one of the very few books that I’ve ever bought and not finished.  After that experience, I began just borrowing all subsequent Scalzi releases instead from my local library; I’d really felt burned. ☹️

Reaching a Decision

Reaching a decision isn’t easy.  After Yang leaves the room, our phones collectively ding! And we all see that we’ve received further information on our devices.  I quickly read through the material. 

The highlights:

  • If I decide to participate, for nine months of work, I’d be paid 300,000 US dollars in biweekly installments.  The job would begin immediately.  Even after taxes, that’d be a cool ~$200,000 or so.
  • All lodging, food, and transportation expenses during my stint, both inside and outside of China would be provided and paid for.
  • Our team would be headquartered out of Jinshui.  In the event we did need to travel outside of the compound, additional security personnel to escort and transport us safely would be provided.
  • I’d have to sign an NDA guaranteeing that I’d never share any details of whatever work I did inside of Jinshui with outside third-parties, including the American government.  Any material (code or otherwise) that I developed during my employment would be solely owned by Jinshui Future Laboratory.  I’d forfeit all claim to anything I helped create during my tenure with JFL.
  • I have until midnight, tomorrow, to provide my answer.  I submit my response (surprise, surprise) via my phone and biometric thumbprint scanner that’s on my device.

Well, the money is certainly excellent– prorated, it’s solidly above what I normally make from my usual consulting gigs.  And it’s intriguing to me that they’re expecting the nature of our work to possibly take us outside of China.  But honestly, with a job like this, the crux (for me, at least) really boils down to a question of conscience.  While the promise of $200k is alluring, I’ve already made enough at this point (and tucked enough away in savings) that I was comfortable.  Certainly not rich.  And I couldn’t retire anytime soon.  But I didn’t need $200k.  This was a sum of money that I’d, monetarily at least, be perfectly fine walking right away from.  (Albeit, sad about.)

So let’s get real– there’s really only one question here:  Do I want to help the Chinese Community Party curb stomp human rights and suplex democracy in China by maybe a half-century or more? Or do I walk away from not just the money, but also maybe the most fascinating data science and social experiment that I’ll probably ever be offered?

“Admit it, you’re intrigued.”

I look up and see Shu standing in front of me. Somehow, she’d approached our bar unnoticed while we’d had our heads down, reading through the documents.

Continue reading “Reaching a Decision”

The Great Robert Bork: “It Would Be an Intellectual Feast.”

Robert Heron Bork is one of my all-time heroes.  Not for his values– many of those are incredibly problematic and I don’t agree with many of Bork’s beliefs at all.  But Bork was a man who lived and died on his convictions, even if they were wildly unpopular.  And I really respect that.  It’s easy to believe in something when it’s en vogue.  But when your opinion’s against the grain, and a lifetime-appointed-SCOTUS-seat is on the line, and you still stick to your guns… well, that’s really something.  I admire Robert Bork even though I vehemently disagree with him on fundamental, core issues.   I think this is perfectly reasonable and not contradictory at all.  People are complicated, multi-faceted, multi-dimensional creatures.  A simple black-and-white view of the world, IMHO, is over-simplified, reductive, foolish, and moronic and I personally hold people with such unnuanced worldviews in stupendously low esteem.  Maybe that’s just me though.  I don’t know.

Another trait about Bork:  This guy was super-arrogant.  Like, Level-9000-Arrogant on a 1-10 scale.  Look up chutzpah and you’ll find a photo of Robert Heron Bork.  An example:  It’s common for SCOTUS nominees to extensively prep for their senate confirmation hearings with a practice called “murder boards.”  It sounds gruesome but is basically just practicing answering really tough questions that a committee will likely grill you with.  After all, these hearings are a nationally televised event, with millions of Americans watching, and this is literally the biggest stage.  The stakes don’t get any higher than a SCOTUS seat.  (I personally think it’s even more significant than being the president.)  But Bork didn’t prep at all.  He just waltzed into those senate confirmation hearings and shot from the hip.  Yes, ultimately— it went poorly.  But genuinely, in that moment:  Do we not agree this was totally boss and a baller move?

I know today’s entry about Bork may feel non sequitur and weird but firewalk with me a moment back to those senate confirmation hearings during that fateful autumn of 1987: Bork, a preeminent conservative scholar, resplendent Yale Law professor, and towering intellectual giant, was lobbed a total soft-serve of a softball from fellow Republican, Alan Simpson of the great state of Wyoming:  “Why do you want to serve on the Supreme Court?”

To which Bork replied, publicly, in front of all those whirling cameras and microphones, live on C-SPAN before millions of watching Americans:  “It would be an intellectual feast.”

What an absolute legend. 

The man desired to preside over the highest court in all the land not out of a sense of duty or wanting to help his fellow American citizen or higher purpose or to do any corporeal good in the actual, material world.  But rather:  It was a tremendous intellectual challenge.  A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to grapple with titanic struggles of legal scholarship and the foremost quintessential questions of our times.

I should add– Bork also answered numerous other questions during those 1987 hearings extremely honestly, giving remarkably detailed replies on matters of abortion, religion, and race-relations.  The man was endlessly curious and relentlessly honest.  He was also, in the end, categorically rejected by a vote of 58 to 42– the largest margin of defeat for a SCOTUS nominee in the history of the Supreme Court, an ignominious record that still stands to this day.  His defeat, in fact, gave rise to the addition of a new verb in the Oxford English Dictionary:  Getting “Borked.”

Bork died of complications from heart disease on December 19, 2012. Mr. Bork– personally, I’m glad you never made it to the Supreme Court. But I really admire that you never withdrew your name (a coward’s move), even when you knew that defeat was inevitable. You lived and died on your beliefs and I applaud the strength of your convictions. Thank you for being who you were.

Quelling Unrest in China’s Autonomous Regions

“Quelling unrest is an art as much as it is a science,” Yang says, steepling his fingers, “and we are hoping to solicit your help for a particular task.  All in the name of peace, of course.”

“Of course,” says Katherine.  “Uh huh.”

“As you are likely aware,” Yang says delicately, “the Xinjiang Province has been an increasingly active zone of conflict here in China.  It is of growing concern.”

The Indian guy next to me chortles.  I nearly do too but manage to catch myself.  Calling Xinjiang an “active zone of conflict” is like saying, “There was a small disagreement in Concord and Lexington in 1775.”

For years, there’d been rampant speculation in the west that if Xi’s iron fist of domination and control was to finally loosen, or rather– be forcibly pried open, that it would start in the Xinjiang Province.  In the past decade, Xi’s CCP had gladly picked up the baton of colonization off the ground where the British had dropped it like a flaming potato two-and-a-half centuries ago, doused and dusted it off, and then happily continued the imperialist tradition.  Territory by territory, the Chinese Empire had slowly expanded:  Macau, Tibet, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and now, Xinjiang.  All of these regions were previously independent territories with their own peoples, cultures, and local governments.  But under Chinese rule, they were slowly assimilated into China’s fold.  First, they were “autonomous regions” and each was structured (laughably) under a rule of “two governments, one country.”  But over subsequent decades, inciting events in every region had “required” the CCP to “reluctantly move in to restore and maintain the peace.”  Funny thing was that after “restoring the order,” the Chinese National Guard just conveniently never left.  And slowly over time, the Chinese national security apparatus just weaved its way into the local governments and social fabric of each autonomous region.  They went from being initially “helpful” to being “important” to then being “necessary” until finally becoming “indispensable.”

“What do you want our help with in Xinjiang?” I ask, finally speaking up.  May as well join this circus and see where it all goes.

“Xinjiang is currently a tinder box,” Yang says.  “With the unfortunate violence and riots that happened last month, it appears like we’ve reached an inflection point with the province.  As you know, the CCP has extended nothing but goodwill towards the Xinjiang people.”

“And by ‘goodwill’ you mean ‘convenience police stations’ every other block, I assume?” says Katherine.

“We do what is necessary to keep our citizens safe,” Yang says evenly, “and police is an integral component of that equation.”  He gestures towards Katherine.  “You, Ms. Katherine Henley, of all people should know that.  After all, until recently, you led Foogle’s Smart City initiative in Darwin, Australia, did you not?  In particular, the division to ensure public safety and trust?”

Katherine’s eyes narrow but she says nothing.

Yang turns towards us.  “We have here, a collection of unique individual talents.  Mr. Coleman Hughes,” Yang looks at the skinny black guy, “you are a political consultant and were instrumental behind the scenes helping DTJ win the most recent presidential elections in America.  Mr. Deepak Chopra, you are an academic who specializes in colonial history.  I found your dissertation on the Indian/Pakistani border separation of 1947 fascinating.”

Chopra, the Indian guy sitting on the barstool next to me, merely stares back at Yang. His expression gives nothing away.

Yang then turns to me.  “And last but not least, Mr. Dexter Fletcher, you are our resident data science expert.  You freelance for the American government and in your free time, do open-source work in cryptocurrencies.  May I also add, you are quite an accomplished fan fiction author.”

The room suddenly feels about ten degrees hotter and I’m pretty sure I turn at least a little red.  Out of the corner of my eye,  I see Katherine raise an eyebrow and hearing Yang mention her most recent gig finally jogs my memory. This is rich– the woman who single-handedly nearly turned Darwin into a unitary police state has the gall to judge me. That’s great.

“And on Team China,” Yang continues smoothly, “we have Shu Qi, Alan Chen, and Vanessa Tan.  Shu specializes in marketing and promotion– there’s literally nothing on this planet that she can’t sell you.” Shu bats her long lashes and smiles. “Alan grew up and was raised in Xinjiang; he knows everything there is to know about the province, and Vanessa –well– Vanessa does a bit of everything.”

Yang clasps his hands together.  “Between the lot of you, we are hoping that you’ll help us create a new campaign plan to win over the hearts and minds of the Xinjiang people.  Over the past decade, Xi has thrown every tool in the toolbox at the province but we’ve been… unsuccessful.  We’re now trying a more soft-power approach, you could say.”

“You want us to help China assimilate Xinjiang?” I ask, somewhat incredulous.  This is most definitely not consulting work even remotely related to Echelon.  Like, at all.

“I, and the Xi government, want a safer future for all Chinese citizens,” Yang says calmly, “and that includes all of the good people of Xinjiang.”  He checks his watch and sees the time.  “And now, I’m afraid I must be off for another appointment.  I’ll take my leave now but feel free to mingle amongst yourselves.  If you have any questions, please ask Shu, Alan, or Vanessa.  They will be here all morning to answer any queries you may have.  Thank you for your time this morning.  I really do hope you will join us.”


1. Explain why the CCP has brought us to China - Campaign to win "hearts and minds" of the people. - First project: Quell civil unrest in the Xinjiang Province. 2. Introductions.

A Meeting of the Minds & Intellectual Discourse

“Poverty,” Yang sighs, “is the great undoing of democracy.  When people are poor and struggling to simply put food on the table and a roof over the heads of their loved ones, then all of your high-minded western ideals about ‘freedom’ and ‘human rights’ mean nothing.”  You have all grown up in the west.  And most of you have never personally faced the scourge of starvation up close, first-hand.”  Yang pauses.  “I have.”

Well, on this count, the Chinese man, from whom I’m getting increasingly serious Mussolini vibes, is right.  Back in the States, I grew up in the Midwest, went to school and worked in the Northeast, and never once in my life ever even entertained the prospect of not having enough to eat.  Sure, my folks were seldom at home growing up but there was always a Hungry Man in the freezer that I could pop into the microwave to nuke (3 minutes and 45 seconds for the Salisbury Steak) that instantly gave me dinner.  Such was the beauty and victorious success of the United States.  America had waged war on poverty and kicked its ass.

But Yang has a point.  Hungry Man had not disseminated as successfully to the rest of the world.  In fact, most of the rest of the world didn’t even own microwaves.  Or refrigerators.  It didn’t take a rocket surgeon to know that the majority of the world population outside the States lived on less than two American dollars a day. 

“So for that simple reason,” Yang finishes, “democracy will never succeed in China.  At least not now.  Our tech, finance, and manufacturing billionaires and trillionaires would just paradrop rice and free televisions to the masses in return for their votes.  Is that the world you want?  A country run by the richest and most powerful?”

Katherine frowns.  “Well, how exactly, pray tell, do you describe what you have now?” she asks.  “With the Xi regime?”

“Well, to be sure,” Yang says, “Xi hasn’t always been the paragon of good leadership.  But he’s undoubtedly better than whatever we would’ve had in his absence in a democracy– that is to say, the uneducated mob.

The skinny black guy is quiet, though it’s unclear to me if he’s been convinced.  Personally, I suspect he’s not.  In my experience, when people grow quiet, it usually means that they’re unswayed and that they’re often just processing.  They’re racking their brains to see what anecdote or Snapple factoid that they can cherry-pick in order to formulate a rebuttal that’ll succeed in a public forum.  Succeed, in the sense, of convincing the rest of us that they’re right.  That’s all most people care about these days when exchanging ideas with strangers:  Being right.

Yang turns to Katherine to finally answer her question, a question we all had on our minds.  She’d just been the first to put it into words.

The First Meeting: “Freedom-Loving People Within Our Borders Must Be Stopped.”

“Ostensibly, I know you’ve all been told that you’re being brought onboard to help consult for The Echelon 2 Project.  And this is accurate.  It’s true we could use your expertise in suppressing the free flow of information within China’s borders and stomping out any hint of dissent or assembly that we’re able to detect within our population of 1.4 billion.”

No one blinks an eye.  We know why we’ve been summoned.  We all know we have particular skills and how our unique skillset can be used.

“But the truth,” Yang sighs, “is that mere suppression of information is unfortunately no longer sufficient.  There needs to be, shall we say, a more proactive means of prevention.”

I raise an eyebrow.

“As you all well know,” Yang continues.  “The plague of western liberalism is slowly but surely sweeping the world.  Here in China, we’ve more successfully resisted its effects.  But the internet is vast. Despite our glorious government’s best efforts, our citizens are increasingly being seduced by dangers like ‘democracy’ and ‘independent thought’.”

Yang shakes his head sadly.

“It may work in the west.  Though I personally don’t think it has.  But I’ll tell you this– as certain as the sun rises in the east, western liberalism and democracy unequivocally will not work here in China.  The clear majority of our citizens still live in the rural hinterlands and are uneducated.  Corruption would be rampant, even more than it already is.  And society and civilization would devolve into chaos.  One day, we might be ready.  But today is not that day.  And thus, today, freedom-loving people everywhere within our borders must be stopped.  They are like a disease that threatens the health of the greater whole, all of China.”

The blonde woman speaks up.  “Alright, that’s a nice speech.  But can you just tell us what you’re asking for? From us?  Specifically?”

Yang smiles.  “Ah, Ms. Henley.  Always one to cut to the chase.  Very admirable.”

Hearing her name and seeing her face suddenly stokes a long-dormant neuron back in my brain somewhere.  The woman in the armchair is Katherine Henley, previously a fast-rising star at the social media search giant, Foogle, back in the United States.  Just less than a year ago, she’d been the media darling of Silicon Valley and on the cover of every news glossy in the Bay Area.  I hadn’t followed events closely, but apparently at some point she’d made some waves, sparked controversy, and there’d transpired a spectacular fall from grace.  And now here she was, it appeared, in China.

The skinny young black guy also raises his hand, speaking up.  “Wait, hold up a sec.  Yang, man, you made about seventeen different leaps of logic in your opening statement there.  Clarify for us for a moment– why exactly are the legions of Chinese poor unworthy of voting?”


Organization is paramount as the content on this blog begins to grow.  I’m now on average adding about 800-1,000 words a day.  Assuming I can sustain this pace for a year, I’m looking at annually adding 292,000 – 365,000 words.  Put in perspective, Tolstoy’s War and Peace was “only” ~587,000 words.  At this rate, I could write that in less than two years!

Haha, just kidding.

Obviously, not all words are created equal.  And my writing, like anyone else’s, will be more “quality” on some days versus others.  And that’s okay!  I listen to several “writerly” author podcasts and a quote that always stuck with me (but I can’t remember who said it ☹️) that I heard years ago was, “Writing is like carving an ice sculpture.  But first you need the block of ice.”

I generally think of fiction writing using the “Joe-Abercrombie-Layering-Paradigm.”  Abercrombie describes his writing as a series of methodical steps, similar to painting a Photoshop composition.  First, you draw a basic pencil outline.  And then you ink it.  Then comes the base colors.  Then shadows.  And finally, the highlights.  Now, to be sure, not all initial pencil outlines are necessarily good.  Some are most definitely superior to others and you can’t just dump garbage on the page and expect it to somehow miraculously evolve into a Rembrandt.  But, another writerly piece of advice that numerous authors have repeatedly raised which I think is useful:  “Don’t expect too much from your first draft.”  You’d never look at pencil sketch and be upset that it’s not the Mona Lisa.  Thus, in that same way, for me at least, the first phase of fiction writing is just getting the basic plot and characters down. Abercrombie himself has remarked that it’s often not until he’s finished his first draft of a novel that he actually realizes what it’s about!  Imagine that! Writing tens of thousands of words without initially knowing where you’re going!  It’s a thing!  And it works!  You just need to persevere and have a little faith.

Anyway, with WordPress, I have something this time around that I previously never had in my spiralbound notebooks when I wrote longhand:  Extensive organizational tools!  By far, the most useful which I’ve poured hours into, is WP’s tagging system.  As I’d mentioned earlier, the surface area of this blog is growing at a rapid clip.  Thus, as I pour out the words, I’ve attempted to organize all of it with some high-level schemas:

And on my fledgling story front, all that is accessible via:

Honestly, part of me really enjoys organizing my writing.  Almost as much, if not more, than the actual writing.  Weird OCD trait, I guess. So little time; so much to write and organize! 😊😀😁

Jinshui Future Laboratory

Chapter Three

Nine o’clock nears and I find myself in Building 11, making my way to the meeting.  Though the building is reopened, not all renovation has completed.  The lobby is a well-lit and sparse arrangement with modern-looking chairs around round white tables but there is still yellow caution tape that’s up everywhere that cordons off where not to go.  I follow a series of hand-drawn signs; someone has helpfully scrawled:  “9 AM MEETING!  THIS WAY!  ⬆️⬆️⬆️” on sheets of paper and taped them every ten meters along the wall.  I honestly kind of feel like a rat being led along in a maze.

Eventually, I reach an open room that appears to be some kind of lounge and see several other folks who are already there:  Four Chinese, two white people (me and another blonde woman who’s draped herself in the oversized corner armchair), an Indian guy, and a super-nerdy looking, skinny black guy in a plaid shirt and huge over-sized glasses.  Aside from one of the Chinese men who looks older, we all look about the same age, mid-twenties to mid-thirties.

Actually, once I get closer I see that the black guy is considerably younger– maybe in his early twenties.

The woman looks vaguely familiar, though I can’t place her face in the moment, and I don’t recognize anyone else, so I just give a small wave to everyone and sit on a barstool at the bar next to the Indian guy. He gives me a small nod when I sit down but his expression is otherwise inscrutable.  The room is quiet, though I appear to be the last one that everyone was waiting for.  After I sit, the older looking Chinese guy rises to his feet to address the room.  He’s a handsome fellow with a lanky frame and slicked back, black hair.  He’s wearing wireframe glasses and a suit blazer but without a tie and has his polo shirt open collar.

“Welcome, everyone,” he smiles looking around at us.  “My name is Yu-Law Yang.  I am one of the directors here at the Jinshui Future Laboratory.  First, I would like to thank all of you for making the trip.  I know our humble lab here in Jinshui is a good distance away for most of you, especially those from abroad.  Secondly, I apologize for much of the secrecy.  It may seem exaggerated and overblown but is unfortunately necessary.”

Yang pauses a beat but no one interrupts him.  It’s early and most of us are still jet-lagged.  Or we’re just patient people and have seen this movie before.  So Yang just clears his throat and continues.

“The reason you’ve all been brought here,” he says, “is because we’re looking for some help with a sensitive subject.”

Classic Tetris World Championships

Joseph Saelee: TWELVE maxouts in two hours. Legendary.

November is going to be lit.  People who know me will know that I’ve been a diehard Tetris fan my entire life.  Back in the day, it was Tetris on the TI-83 Plus.  Then at some point I got a Nintendo DS and Tetris DS probably remains my favorite handheld version to this day (though Tetris Ultimate on the 3DS is a close second).  However, my absolutely favorite version is, by far, Tetris on the NES.  Though the game was released back in 1989, I only discovered it a few years ago when the (now famous) “Boom! Tetris for Jeff!” 2016 CTWC video landed in my YouTube recommendations.  It was mesmerizing.  That same week, I remember running to my local pawn shop and getting both an NES and a copy of the game.  I was instantly hooked.

This year, because of COVID-19, the CTWC organizers did something very special.  Normally, the event happens in person at the Portland Retro Gaming Expo in Oregon every October but this year because of the virus, they organized an online tournament!

Since 2012, CTWC has been a 32-person tournament and happens single-elimination-style over the course of a single weekend.  The shindig starts on Friday and by Sunday, a champion is crowned.

This year’s online tournament is wild though.  They expanded participation to become a 64-person tournament and qualifying rounds lasted an entire week, Oct 12-18. The extended format also now allows for double-elimination in the “group stage” play during the first two weekends of November. 

Last week, I literally had their Twitch channel up every single day on my second monitor and was watching hours of Classic Tetris each day. Since folks were attempting qualifying runs from all around the world from Finland to Japan to Spain to here, the good ol’ USA, there was nearly always some Classic Tetris on, ready to watch.  It was amazing.

Converting a meat-space event into a virtual one is no easy feat. And while I didn’t participate in the tourney (am nowhere near good enough!) I did read through the rules that they posted online. In particular, I found this section (specifically, Rule 9) impressive about how a judge verifies a player’s authenticity:

Since everything is streamed over Twitch, they needed to be thoughtful about how they would suss out bad actors who were trying to cheat. This verification system, while simple, I feel is a reasonable deterrent.

In this age of COVID-19, everything has changed. It’s unclear, at the moment, if things will ever return to normal. But personally, I am really enjoying CTWC 2020 this year. It’s a genuinely remarkable logistical accomplishment and, importantly, really gives folks, especially those far away and who are younger, a chance to participate who otherwise never could. Not everyone can fly to Portland and stay in hotels for a weekend every year! This year’s online tourney has truly democratized the competition– hooray for technology! 😊😀😁

Millions Died That November

Millions died that November.  It happened all at once and so suddenly that not a single country or soul on earth was ready for it.  To this day, we’re still not exactly sure what had changed, but it was as if God had flipped some kind of master switch of life and death.  The numbers that eventually came to pass made the Pol Pot death marches in Cambodia in the late 1970s seem like amateur hour.  The massive fatality rates landed like waves crashing against the beach with ever-increasing intensity, exponentially.  First 4,000 deaths a week which people professed to be disturbed by; but in their heart-of-hearts just considered, “That’s the way it goes.” Then 8,000 the following week; then 16,000; then 32, 64, 128, 256, 512, 1,028 by week nine… that’s over a million people dying every week1,028,000.  It just took us just nine short weeks to get there.

How did society respond?  Predictably, I guess.  Like Billy Bob Thornton once remarked, “Basically, it was the worst parts of the bible.”  Civil services broke down overnight.  Kind of pointless to show up for your job when there was a 50/50 chance you could contract the virus and just suddenly die.  The stock market, which had rebounded so spectacularly, nosedived once more– plummeting something like 10,000 points in a single day.  It was Black Monday all over again:  Speculators, investors, and day-traders lost everything as margin calls swept across the land and bank accounts were cleaned out.  Flooded with redemption requests that destroyed their livelihoods, every week some new hedge fund manager was flinging himself or herself off a Wall Street skyscraper.  We didn’t know it then but they were the smart ones; the lucky folks.  It was a merciful swift end in the cold, heartless, brutal new normal that was to come.  Grocery shelves were picked bare, schools were abandoned, airlines went bankrupt, and the economy once more halted on a dime– except this time, it wasn’t a voluntary crash like it had been back in March.  It was the real thing.

And then, what happened next– if there were ever some executive one-pager, some Cliff Notes or Spark Notes for how humanity operates in its darkest hour– what happened next basically goes down as the pinnacle HBS Case Study that best represents the human species:  One day, long after humans have already gone extinct by our own hand, some alien race will discover our remains in some epic archeological excavation and scratch their little alien head(s).  “Jesus,” they’ll wonder.  “Was this a tragedy or a comedy?”

In a nutshell, the place it all began:  That infectious diseases biolab in Wuhan, China– It developed the first successful vaccine.

And China refused to share its vaccine with the rest of the world.

The Dewey Decimal Classification System

Melvil Dewey was one of the great intellectual giants of his time.  One of his awesome inventions that I’ve been recently studying is the Dewey Decimal Classification System.  Dewey first began developing the DDCS in 1873 while he was working at the Amherst College library and finally published its first version in 1876.  Over time, the proprietary system has slowly evolved and is currently maintained and licensed out to small libraries by the OCLC; the latest revision of the DDCS was released in 2011.  Today, the Dewey Decimal Classification System is used in more than 200,000 libraries in over 135 countries.

The DDCS fascinates me because it represents one man’s vision of how all of human knowledge should be mapped out.  In the DDCS, knowledge is organized into ten divisions:

  • Class 000:  Computer Science, Information, and General Works
  • Class 100:  Philosophy & Psychology
  • Class 200:  Religion
  • Class 300:  Social Sciences
  • Class 400:  Language
  • Class 500:  Science
  • Class 600:  Technology
  • Class 700:  Arts & Recreation
  • Class 800:  Literature
  • Class 900:  History & Geography

Then each division is further organized into more granular subdivisions.  For example:  “010” corresponds to “Bibliographies” and “790” corresponds to “Sports, Games, & Entertainment.”  For instance, if you were trying to search for a book on “Tom Hanks,” it’d likely be classified in 791 (“Public Performances”).

Building on Dewey’s work, I feel like I can adopt his DDC system when I build my own ontology of Wobble2.  Online, I found some great work by Cameron Mence who has used the D3 library to build this nifty tree map that represents a subset of how books are distributed in the DDCS.

Of course, whenever you start trying to develop meta-level schemas, taxonomies, and ontologies to organize all of human knowledge, you’re going to import your own biases into the project.  If you’re a human being, it’s simply impossible to be unbiased.  Thus, the DDCS has sustained its fair share of criticism over the centuries since its inception.  Times change and the world around us, and how we understand it, likewise evolves.  A great example:  In 1932, topics related to “homosexuality” were initially added under 132 (“mental derangements”) and 159.9 (“abnormal psychology”).  In 1932, that’s simply how humans (or at least, the humans in power who organized libraries) viewed the world.  But what’s fascinating is watching how human knowledge progressed and evolvedBy 1952, “homosexuality” was added to the 301.424 range (“the study of sexes in society”) and in 1989 was added to 363.49 (“social problems”).  It wasn’t until 1996 that it was added to 306.7 (“sexual relations”) which OCLC calls its current “preferred location.”

Finally, I found it fascinating (though, I guess, predictable) that nearly the entire 200 range covering “religion” is actually just all about “Christianity.”  Amusingly, all of the world’s thousands of other religions (for example, including Islam– a pretty big one at 24.1% vs 31.2% of Christianity, globally) are relegated to just a narrow band inside the 290s.   Christianity occupies everything else in the 200s!