Change is in the air! Last Friday, we visited Mal for New Year’s Day. For fun, we each took a little quiz and from a list of ten items, identified what our most important priorities were in life. It’ll be neat when we revisit this topic this time next year! 😄
My top three: 1) Physical Health; 2) Wealth; 3) Interesting Hobbies.
Bagel’s top three: 1) Spiritual Enlightenment; 2) Career Success; 3) Traveling the World, Physical Health, and Interesting Hobbies. (She cheated and picked three for her third priority!)
Mal’s top three: 1) Soulmate Romance; 2) Contributing to Society; 3) Spiritual Enlightenment.
Last but not least: As I do every January, here are my goals for the new year, 2021:
My Goals for 2021
Better use the environment and my “flow-states” to my advantage. Know when I’m useless and need to just veg-out. Know when I need to exercise. Know when I need to visit the café or an external environment to get stuff done. When I need to call someone or just talk to another human-being for the sake of my own sanity to share an idea that’s about to burst, tease something out, or just ward off loneliness. Don’t “force it.” As Matthew McConaughey says: “Catch the greenlights.” Go with the flow! Everything should feel easy. If it feels hard, I’m doing something wrong. .
Be more focused. Set a schedule. When working, work. When playing, play. Don’t constantly be in a “middle-state” where I’m doing something half-ass. Middles are bad! Extremes are good! Either be “on” or “off.” Be rigid and inflexible. .
Keep a physical calendar and stick it on the fridge where Bagel and I can IRL see it and have it be top-of-mind every day. Take periodic small day-trips with Bagel (and friends, hopefully!) in order to “recharge.” A change of physical scenery is important and refreshes the mind! .
Money is (almost) everything. You attract the energies you put out in the world. In the past, I’ve always condescended money and thought it lowly and material. But after losing so much money in 2020 (thanks, stock market! And my own weak nerves!), I’ve now come around to a totally new position. Yes, health and love/relationships are important. But I’ve got those now! (Knock on wood.) So now we need to set the crosshairs on the next obstacle that’s really keeping me up at night: Financial security. Not just for myself but for Bagel too, who’s now really relying on me to figure things out. In 2021, I need to find a way to make tons and tons of money. Need that Tesla Cybertruck!! 🚘🚘🚘!!
Bagel’s Goals for 2021
Introspect to heal internal wounds and traumas.
Be honest with herself.
Focus more on establishing a solid base of friends and family; create a feeling of “home”!
NOTE: This is an ongoing original fiction story that I’m currently writing. I started writing this fictional story back on October 2, 2020 and contribute ~1,000 words to it every day on this blog. I didn’t outline the story at all going into it but it’s slowly evolved into a tale about a data scientist in his mid-thirties from America who finds himself summoned to China where’s he’s been offered a job to work for the Chinese Communist Party on a project monitoring the Uyghurs in the Chinese “autonomous region” of Xinjiang. In China, the story’s protagonist, Dexter Fletcher, meets other professionals who’ve also been brought in from abroad to help consult on the project. My story takes place several decades in the future and explores human rights, privacy in an age of ever-increasing state-surveillance, and differences between competing dichotomies: democracy vs communism, eastern vs western political philosophies, and individual liberties vs collective security. If this sounds interesting and you’d like to read more, my fiction story starts here.
“Civilization,” Jack says to us airily, “needs its monuments to human progress. Testaments that remind us all how far we have risen as a society. That while alone we may be specks of dust in the wind. But together, we bend the arc of history towards communism! To the Chinese Dream!” He sweeps his arm expansively. “These, my friends, are The Games.“
I’m unsure what I’m expecting exactly. But what I see before me at the center of the Xi’an Coliseum certainly does not disappoint.
Laid out at the center of the Coliseum is a padded obstacle course– very similar to an old American television show that I’d once watched clips about on YouTube: American Gladiator. There were apparently seven teams competing for eternal glory. But in order to be crowned the victor, they had to cross, relay-style, nine different obstacles in their paths. The obstacles, it appeared, increased significantly in difficult as the course progressed.
“That first one is a cakewalk,” Jack explains. The man consumes liquor like water and so despite it being only midmorning, he’s already three sheets to the wind. “All you need to do is cross the 30 meter-long beam without falling into the mud pit below. It’s a piece of cake.”
The starting pistol goes off and we watch the contestants fly off the starting blocks. They are kids, basically, supposed eighteen years old but they honestly look much younger. To indicate their team, they all wear matching colored shirts and shorts. They look like an army of miniature Power Rangers.
With an agility and speed that I didn’t think possible, they sprint across the 30-meter high beam with zero difficulty and hand their batons off to their teammates, who then take off sprinting.
“Next,” Jack commentates, “you’ve got the net-rope-wall.”
Indeed, the next obstacle is a vertical wall of netting that looks like it was requisitioned off some 14th-century pirate ship. The kids reach the netting all at roughly the same time and begin scampering up it like monkeys. The dexterity is inhuman.
“This is crazy,” Coleman says. “How are these kids in such insanely excellent shape?”
“Well, you’re saying the Championship Round,” says Li. “So they are the very best of this year’s crop. That said, the CCP expects all of its citizens, men and women, to be of a certain physical condition. It’s mandated by the state.”
I think back to my days of youth. Most of my days were spent playing Xbox or PlayStation. And while I was never exactly fat, per se, I also could never in a million years navigate an obstacle course replete with rock climbing walls, giant foam battering pendulums, springboards the way these kids are doing.
Finally, on the fourth obstacle, the course takes its first casualty.
The challenge is to navigate a series of monkey bars like you’re at the jungle gym. For the life of me, I can’t imagine even attempting the challenge– the upper body strength you’d need must be spectacular. A girl in a red shirt who’s maybe in third place finally loses her grip after trying to swing from one bar to the next and plunges in the muddy depths, ten meters below and there’s a collective gasp of both awe and disappointment from the crowd.
“This is unreal,” says Deepak looking around at the crowd who are on their feet cheering. “In India we also have national service but it’s nothing like this. I think I spent my time digging ditches. You guys have gone ahead and turned it into a full-sail spectator sport though. This is unbelievable.”
“All in the name of national cohesion,” Jack says without taking his eyes off the games. “Might as well kill two birds with one stone, right?”
Looking around, I also see that all eyes are on the games. This is spectacle with purpose. The Chinese bystanders are totally absorbed; all their attention fixated. For many of them, in this city with no electricity, this event was probably the highlight of their week. At least until next week. Apparently, this is how you keep peace in a land of billions.
On the fifth obstacle, the boy wearing a blue shirt mistimes his step and gets full-on body-slammed by the foam wrecking ball. He goes flying into the mud pit ten meters below. Such a shame too because the blue team was in the lead with only two obstacles left. The crowd collectively wails in disappointment.
“So sports betting is a thing?” says Kristen looking around. Tons of people are throwing away their ticket stubs in disgust. It’s down to the yellow and black teams who are vying for the lead into the final stretch. Apparently, the teams save their more athletic and best for the final leg of the relay. They’re neck and neck– the final obstacle is apparently an Indiana Jones-inspired obstacle– you need to make it across a platform of tiles and inscribed on each tile is a number. Spy the pattern to step on the right tile. But step on the wrong tile and it crumbles beneath you, plunging you into the mud pits below.
“Jesus, this is unreal,” says Coleman. “You’ve gotta solve brain teasers too?”
“All part of the curriculum,” Li says, shrugging. “Not just about brawn. You gotta be able to think fast on your feet.”
Their pace have slowed considerably and all of the teams are at the final obstacle now. I can’t make out the exact numbers on the tiles but I guess it must be something like figuring out the next number in the Fibonacci sequence or something. Or maybe they’re multiplying giant three-digit and four-digit numbers together in their heads. Who knows.
The girl in the yellow shirt and a boy in a black shirt are virtually tied. And the crowd is at this point on its feet cheering. They’re a mere several meters from the end.
Two tiles from the finish line the girl in the yellow shirt steps on the wrong tile and it crumbles beneath her; she hurtles down into the mud pit, arms reaching upwards, her face a mask of shock. The crowd goes absolutely insane.
The boy in the black shirt makes it to the finish line and wins the event. He grabs the golden trophy that’s sitting on a silver pedestal awaiting the victor and thrusts it up into the air, victorious and triumphant. The crowd roars and I can feel the stone amphitheater shake beneath me. It’s complete pandemonium and my ear drums feel like they’re about to burst. I don’t know it until then, but I suddenly realize that I am too am on my feet, apparently swept away in the moment like everyone else.
The rest of the world slowly comes back into focus and I look over at Jack who’s beaming.
NOTE: This is a fictional entry in an ongoing story that I’m currently writing. I started writing this fiction story back at the beginning of October 2020 and contribute ~400 words to it every day on this blog. I didn’t outline the story at all going into it, but after four weeks it’s evolved into a tale about a data scientist in his mid-thirties from America who finds himself summoned to China where’s he’s been offered a job to work for the Chinese Communist Party on a project monitoring the Uyghurs in the Chinese “autonomous region” of Xinjiang. In China, the story’s protagonist, Dexter Fletcher, meets other professionals who’ve also been brought in from abroad to help consult on the project. My story takes place several decades in the future and explores human rights, privacy in an age of ever-increasing state-surveillance, and differences between competing dichotomies: democracy vs communism, eastern vs western political philosophies, and individual liberties vs collective security. If this sounds interesting and you’d like to read more, my fiction story starts here.
Coleman and I look at each other. And I look over at Deepak also. On everyone’s faces, I see the gears grinding in their heads, behinds their eyes, weighing the dilemma and choice at hand. I know my own outward appearance is also the same– a veneer of calm and cool that obscures intense brain processing. Katherine’s words get through to me; give the woman credit. She knows what buttons to press. The cogs are spinning and we’re all neurologically crunching, all those mental cycles whirling away.
Because the truth is– for all of Coleman’s high-flung rhetoric about discrimination, human rights, and state abuses of obscene, unchecked power– at the day’s end, we are, the four of us gathered here today, in this random Chinese Communist Party-backed laboratory cafeteria in the rural countryside, ultimately curious people. Our entire lives, even Coleman, we’ve schlepped away behind a computer screen or Excel spreadsheet. Everyone here is privileged. For Deepak, it was in academia, that old reliable ivory tower. For Coleman, it was as a political operative in DC, straight out of school, being a hired gun for the politician-of-the-day. With me, it was contracting gigs; being flown around, housed, and wined-and-dined on consulting engagements. And as for Katherine– ha. Before Foogle, she’d worked in the Valley. Of all of us, she’d learned the ropes and came of age in probably the most distanced, reality-distorted bubble on planet earth.
For all four of us, we’ve lived our entire lives on some orbital space platform a thousand miles above earth in geosynchronous stasis. I’m not proud of it but I at least have the self-awareness to know what we are. To know that, in our mental-conceptualized worldviews, other human-beings aren’t really humans to any of us. Rather, humans are just nodes in some socio-graph or they’re numbers in columns on some spreadsheet. They’re not living, breathing people with lives, families, jobs, futures, and dreams. But rather– they’re data points. Data points in one great big game of control and influence.
Because if I’m being real, if we’re really getting down to brass tacks here– that’s what this is all about: Control.
Since time’s dawn, man has long sought to control (or at least, manipulate) other men. To impose our own value systems on others to build and shape what we believe is a worthy and good society. Early on, it was by violence and brute force. Cavemen and Neanderthals using clubs to bludgeon each other; he with the biggest bat winning dominion over all others. Then in modern times we left our Cro-Magnon ways behind and embraced modern warfare, giving up our sticks and stones for tanks, guns, and atomic bombs.
But eventually, man found civilization. We traded our tanks for magazines; we gave up on the God of War and instead submitted to the God of Advertising. No longer did we rely on violence to persuade; instead, we used marketing. Newspapers, magazines, radio, television, and –eventually, now– the internet.
Katherine, Deepak, Coleman, and me– you see, we’re not social creatures. We’re nerds. Nerds who have spent a lifetime studying and who’ve learned the necessary skills and knowledge to analyze and understand daily life as data; and to influence the world around us with technology. Each and every one of us is a nuclear warhead, a weapon of mass destruction. After all, as they say: Knowledge is power. And we’ve spent a lifetime, countless all-nighters at the university library, in the computer lab, or on the job acquiring it.
Calvin and Hobbes occupies rarified air in my brain. Running from 1985-1996, Bill Watterson’s eleven years of illustrated adventures featured six-year old Calvin (whose wisdom far exceeded his years) and his tiger friend, Hobbes, and captured millions of imaginations around the world, from those of youngsters to fully-grown adults. The legacy of Calvin and Hobbes lives on to this day, and I suspect, forever. One day people will forget about Shakespeare and won’t be able to tell you a thing about James Joyce (I doubt, actually, the average person off the street today could tell you a single thing about Joyce) but I’m pretty sure Calvin and Hobbes is going to endure.
To me, Watterson’s genius lied not in the gorgeous art or the sparkling characters and dialogue –though those are all superlative, to be sure– but in the sheer, unbridled imagination and creativity of the work. Calvin had alter-egos like Stupendous Man and Spaceman Spiff, built mind-boggling inventions like the Transmorgifier, Duplicator, and Time Machine (all cardboard boxes in different horizontal orientations), founded games like Calvinball and foundational clubs like G.R.O.S.S. (with First Tiger Hobbes). He maintained a lifelong rivalry with Susie Derkins, the girl somewhere in his neighborhood, an antagonistic relationship with Mrs. Wormwood and Rosalyn, and created snowmen masterpieces that, if there were any justice in the world, would find homes in the Louvre and Met.
In his eleven years, Calvin never grew a single day older. And yet, he possessed more wisdom than just about all of us. What’s funny is that as a child, I often skipped the long, wordy strips when Calvin and Hobbes rode their toboggan or red wagon through the woods. There were just so many words. But as an adult, years later, when I revisited the strip, those cartons –long winding contemplations about culture, media, and the tenuousness of existence– are among my favorites. Calvin and Hobbes was so far ahead of its time and Watterson really pushed the envelope and, I would argue, redefined the entire genre in showing the world that cartoons were a serious medium with serious things to say.
“Most of us discover where we are headed when we arrive” and “loving the work” is what matters. If we truly love what we do then there is no obstacle too great or setback too severe that will deter us. Watterson famously never authorized McMeel, his publisher, to merchandise Calvin and Hobbes. It was a bitter, long-drawn dispute but Watterson prevailed in the end; he’d felt that such a commercial move would compromise the artistic integrity and authenticity of the cartoon. It is rare that you hear about someone turning down tens of millions of essentially free money based solely on principle. Bill Watterson, thank you for giving us your genius and creativity. The world is better off for it; you are truly a shining star to us all.
Crimes against humanity, however, seldom deterred the American consumer from buying Chinese though. Whether it be Microsoft Xboxes or Apple iPhones, all of the consumer electronics that millions of Americans enjoyed on a daily basis were manufactured in China, the land of the cheapest labor on planet earth. It turns out when you’re not required to pay minimum wage and can employ child slave labor to mass produce your goods and sew your Nike tennis shoes, then you can churn out widgets for sale at basement-bottom prices (which are then sold at your local super-conglomerate big box retailer like Walmart).
“Tell me,” says Charlotte, leaning forward. “Let’s just cut straight to the chase, as you Americans say, Mr. Fletcher. How do you feel about the Xi regime? What is your opinion of our fair country?”
“I’m a fan,” I say evenly. “Otherwise, I wouldn’t be here.” I’m ready for this question have rehearsed my answer dozens of times; I reel off my response effortlessly, on autopilot.
“Obviously, China’s track record is less than stellar,” I say, stating the obvious. “But I’m also cognizant that it’s a country of 1.4 billion people. And that there’s a long and complicated history that is diverse, multicultural, and tangled. Under Xi’s leadership, as terrible as some things have been for some people in some parts of the country, it’s also undeniable that in the three decades under his totalitarian rule, China has lifted more people out of poverty than any other civilization in the history of humanity. Thanks to Xi, farmers and people from the rural hinterlands have healthcare for the first time in their lives, infant mortality rates are way down, average Chinese life expectancy is way up, and production across all sectors –agriculture, technology, finance, and manufacturing– have all boomed, seeing double-digit growth, year-over-year, for the past fifteen years.”
I butter another beignet and take a bite, shifting my weight in my chair. The powdered sugar on top is heavenly. “So, in summary,” I say, “I’m a fan. As the old saying goes. You can’t make an omelet without cracking a few eggs. And it’s simply the case that Xi’s made quite a few omelets in the three decades that he’s been in charge.”
I finish and lean back in my chair. That’s it. Whether my entire trip here continues from this point forward depends on how well I’d just delivered what I’d said. If it wasn’t sufficiently convincing… well, then this is going to be one very short trip.
“That’s… a rather enlightened view,” Charlotte finally says. She smiles and takes a sip of her tea, the first I’ve seen her drink since the start of our conversation. “I’m glad to hear that,” she says. “It’s not often that we speak with Americans who have… such a big-picture comprehension of the state of things.”
I shrug. “America’s a big place. I’m sure you’ll find all sorts of us from all walks and corners, if you look hard enough.”
Charlotte chuckles. “Ah, well, that is the beauty of your American internet, it would seem.” She slides the manila folder that she’d extracted earlier from her briefcase over to my side of the table. “Thanks to your world-wide-web, as you call it, I don’t even need to come looking for you. Conveniently, people like you always have a way of finding their way to people like me.”
She taps the manila folder.
“Inside here,” she says, “you’ll find a phone. Standard-issue, encrypted, and secure. And it has everything inside that you’ll need next. You are to discard of your current phone immediately after we finish speaking here. Do you understand?”
I nod and Charlotte gets up, preparing to leave.
“Is that it?” I ask. “I was told there would be a preliminary interview after I’d completed the assessment.”
“This was it,” says Charlotte, putting on her overcoat, a black and white fur-lined affair made of minx and some other endangered species, I’m sure. “Congratulations, Mr. Fletcher. You passed. I hope for all of our sakes that you’re as comfortable in the kitchen as your manners suggest.”
“In the kitchen?”
Charlotte looks back over her shoulder. “We’re in the business, Mr. Fletcher, of making omelets. Of all shapes and sizes, of all kinds and flavors. I hope you’re ready, Dexter. I hope you know what you’ve signed up for.”
And with that, she disappears into the morning bustle, through the revolving doors, and out of sight.
Similarly, one of the main reasons I write is I enjoy learning about random subjects and physically actually jotting that information down somewhere helps me retain it. Writing is a vehicle for not just expression, but also understanding, comprehension, and retention. For example, back in August I looked up GPS to finally learn how the thing works. Mind you, this is a technology I use every day in the form of Google Maps but I somehow never knew that the US government actually owns the Global Positioning System which consists of 33 satellites (not in geosynchronous orbit!) and can intentionally degrade its service (accuracy) anytime it wishes. But now I know!
Like all twins, coding and writing are also significantly different though. When I think of coding, I think of Kat from Robin Sloan’s Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore (2012). She is basically the Terminator, driven by an insatiable desire to know. Despite it being nine years since I read the book, I still remember one scene where Kat only owns black t-shirts because it makes dressing very easy in the mornings. She didn’t want to waste any brain cycles on deciding what to wear (a moronic, worthless activity unless you’re trying to pair-bond, which she wasn’t) and so it was simply more efficient to just own a wardrobe of entirely one clothing item. I, personally, employ a version of this strategy as well.
Coding is beautiful in the way that a fancy rocket ship is beautiful. It’s sleek, shiny, and futuristic. You take one look at the thing and can’t help but give a low whistle at its sheer technical magnificence. The aerodynamic shape and raw, unadulterated engineering prowess. Coding is definitely the sexy one, the supermodel beauty who graces Vogue covers.
Creating something new is always the easy part. It’s actually finishing the damned thing that is the challenge. I am especially guilty of this– enormously prone to begin half-a-dozen projects (day-trading, writing, data science) and finish/continue none of them. I’m not proud of it and this morning I’m going to take some time figuring out how to do better.
The root problem really isn’t difficult to grasp; put succinctly: I lack discipline. It’s natural to possess enormous enthusiasm at the beginning. A new idea or flight or fancy strikes you. And you’re off to the races, not sleeping or eating until you’ve finally If you examine my GitHub commit history, you’ll see that on most projects, the early days is when all of my commits happen. But then the weeks pass and that initial optimism wanes. Why?
Part of the problem is I’m drawn to novel challenges. When I examine my GitHub commit history, I see the times when I get a second wind on a long-gestating project is when I encounter a new technical challenge that requires new learning. For example, I recently received a new requirement for which I needed to learn BITFIELD and Sever-Sent Events. New stuff! Fun times! I was back to the races.
Instead of entirely being powered by novelty and love of learning and knowledge, the answer to my lack of discipline is fear, which I have found to be a particularly inspiring motivator. In particular: Bagel’s Wrath.
Over the years we’ve been together, she’s come to absolutely hate my undisciplined nature. She hates that I begin and never finish things and my very American, very accepting attitude of, “Fail fast and often; there is no shame!” She comes from a very different, “completest culture” that is very shame-driven. And so she’s developed a habit of randomly bursting into my man-cave to check up on me. If I’m not doing what I’m supposed to do (eg. programming), she will harangue me for about fifteen minutes and then whack me with an 18-inch long summer sausage that we keep in the refrigerator. The sausage is hard and cold; it hurts.
Of course, I’m still prone to distraction– like writing this blog post. But because of the Bagel Panopticon, I’m only allowed to indulge in my distractions when she’s either away at yoga class, shopping, or sleeping. So it’s really only under the cover of dark that I’m able to write these posts. The Eye of Bagel Sauron sleeps, but only barely.