“Shared Experience Holds Together a Society.”

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.

Chapter Eight – Passage Three

“Freaking better than YouTube and videogames, eh?”

After the obstacle race, there is a raging afterparty that’s held on the top level of the Coliseum.  As the plebeians of Xi’an file outside, we stick around in our seats for a while longer and I watch a small army of Chinese janitorial staff begin dismantling and cleaning the obstacle course.

“They take it apart after every competition?” Kristen asks curiously.

“The grand competitions take place the final Sunday of every month,” Alan explains. “Each time the configuration of the course is different.  The obstacles themselves are the same but they’re arranged differently.”

“And occasionally,” Jack says, his eyes twinkling, “they even introduce a new obstacle!”  He slaps Alan on the back.  “Ah, grand times!  Grand times!”

From my stone bleacher, I watch the custodial staff, all decked out in matching grey one-piece suits, attack the cleaning job.  There must be at least a hundred of them and they are well-coordinated, moving briskly and efficiently, as if on some invisible timer.  They work in small groups of three-to-five people and quickly move to their respective tasks.  A handful of groups begins draining the mud swamp.  Two other groups work on dismantling the scaffolding for the monkey-bar obstacle.  So on and so forth.

I can’t help but think back to what manual labor unions look like in America where it takes a dozen grown men an entire morning to fill a pothole in an asphalt street.  At the rate they’re working, the legion of Chinese custodians will have cleared and cleaned the entire obstacle course in under an hour.

For the larger sheet metal that needs to come down, several teams of the Chinese cleaning men and women work a complicated-looking mechanical pulley crane to take down individual sheets before placing them on steel gurneys to be wheeled away by other teams.  Bereft of any kind of electronics or technology, they need to hoist the giant sheets down with nothing but thick twine rope, six people to a side, collectively lowering the sheet metal until it’s safely reached the ground.

“So these are all 18-year old trainees, actually,” Li says to me.  I turn and apparently she’s noticed that I seem to be more fascinated by the ongoings of the deconstruction and cleanup crew than I am by the free-flowing alcohol.

“Isn’t it dangerous, doing so much by hand?” I ask.  “It seems unnecessarily risky and old-school.  Simple industrial grade machinery would make this whole process a hundred times safer.”

“Tsk, tsk,” Li clicks her tongue.  “You Americans are always so concerned about safety.  Yes, of course people get hurt every month.  Minor or major injuries.  Every few years, at least one of the kids will even die on the job, an unfortunate fatal accident usually caused by carelessness.  It’s part of their training to cycle through all of the activities though, including cleaning, construction, and maintenance.”

“You think it builds character?”

“That and comradery and empathy and respect.”  Li looks at me.  “In America I know you westerners outsource your cleaning to a lower class.  And to be fair, we do too, once the kids become adults.  But in the beginning, for at least a single year, every Chinese citizen, no matter how rich or from what background, or whatever their family name, will learn what it means to mop grime off of public restroom stall tiles, plunge toilets, and–” she motions to the obstacle course rapidly being deconstructed “–work in teams to accomplish dangerous tasks.

“Laws don’t hold a society together, Dexter,” she says to me.  “Shared experience does.”

“For instance,” Li says to me as she points over at a small team of teenagers trying to dismantle a scaffolding of steel beams, “over there, you’ve got 18-year old Ming Tao, the heiress of Tao family fortune, working side by side with 18-year old Zhi Zhen Wong, scion of the Wong family fortune.  The Taos are an ancient bloodline that dates back to the Chinese Civil War in 1949.  Great-Great-Great Grandpa Tao started with a single aluminum canning factory that canned tuna and sardines.  Three generations later, the Taos are the steel magnates of China, one of the two major manufacturers of the metal.”

I follow Li’s gaze and see a small group of Chinese youths indeed working very efficiently. They’re working as if they’re being timed; which I guess they probably are.

“And?” I ask.

Li rolls her eyes.  “And the Wongs are the rival steel manufacturing family.”

“Ah.”  I frown.  “Wait, but they don’t–“

“–of course they don’t.  Mandatory two year service is required of everyone.  But the wealthier families will of course submit their children to the national training regime under pseudonym.  For security and privacy purposes.”

“So you’ve essentially got a modern-day Montague and Capulet situation going on here then?” I say.  To my American, fan-fiction writing mind, this arrangement is positively wild.

Li shrugs.  “Maybe and maybe not.  But the National Program takes great lengths to place, let’s say, optimally.  Of course, the cadets are all informed that placement is wholly random.”

“Which is a lie, of course.”

“Of course,” scoffs Li.  “That goes without saying.  Millions of 18-year-olds filter through this program in Xi’an every year.  The organizing committee–“

“–who I’m guessing you’re of course familiar with–“

“–yes, but of course–”  Li bats her eyelashes coquettishly, “but more to the point– once the kids are handed off to the National Training Regime, great pains have been taken to build a Chinese Wall between the civilian and military arms of China.  And the National Training Regime falls under military jurisdiction.”

“So the idea is that all of that Tao family aluminum money won’t help Ming here.”  I say.  To say the least, I’m a tiny bit skeptical.  That’s akin to saying in America that a Bush or Obama somehow went into service and was given zero preferential treatment.

“Well,” Li says, “it actually works better than you might imagine.  As you know honor of the family name is still a big deal here.  You may be training under pseudonym, but cadets are still assigned to barracks–“

Li searches the air a moment, apparently trying to figure out a suitable analogy for my apparently uncivilized and puny American mind.

“Maybe something to your Gry-fan-dor home or Pufflehuff house system?”

“That’s the United Kingdom, an entire ocean away, but okay– I get your point.”

Li shrugs. “Whatever. All is the same to us. West is simply the West.” She continues, “In China’s two-year system, there is likewise a ‘House Cup’ conceit and the barracks which scores the most points per each year will win eternal glory and go onto the Wall,” Li explains.  “Similar to your Top Gun program of your Tom Cruise?  So it behooves the teams to work together in all of their interests.  Finishing poorly likewise bring eternal shame upon your family name.”

I nodded. In a ridiculously twisted way, I’m starting to slowly understand how China’s authoritarian and behemoth autocratic system has survived so long, amidst an ocean of western liberalism. Buffeting always against inexorable tides of progressivism and human rights constantly crashing against its shores.

“For instance,” Li says, “now that they are about to finish cleaning, “inspectors will come in to evaluate the quality of their effort.”

As Li speaks, I see teams of adults now descent upon the scene; these people are dressed in pale-blue jumpsuits and have clipboards in hand.  They are apparently here to judge.

“China is not as large as you might imagine,” says Li. “Swift shame accompanies any hint or scandal or impropriety or preferential treatment. So it’s in the wealthy and powerful’s interest to keep the identities of their children secret throughout the course of the program.”

The Two Ministers

NOTE: This is an ongoing fictional story that I’m currently writing. I started writing this fiction story back at the beginning of October 2020 and contribute ~500 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.

Interstice Two – Passage Two

Fading, evening slowly turned to twilight.  As night descended, shadows from the tall maples behind them loomed long, spreading across the wooded hill.  Nothing escaped.  As the sun sunk lower into the horizon, the shadow spread ever farther.  Johann sat on the cabin’s porch stoop and watched as the darkness slowly lengthened, swallowing everything.

“Do you think we’re doing the right thing?” he asked.  Johann took a long drag on his cigarette.  “If we sign onto this, hundreds of millions will die.  People with lives.  Families, jobs, dreams.  With one decision, we’d be taking all of that away from them.”

“If we don’t do this, billions will die.  You’ve read the data.  You’ve seen the projections.”  Beck sighed and ran his hand through his thick blonde mane.  “We knew this is what we were signing on for when we joined.”

“But what if the data is wrong?  Or if the predictions are inaccurate?”

“They’ve never been so far.  Do you doubt them now?”

Johann flicked his cigarette into the darkness and rose to his feet angrily.  “Don’t you?  This is a monumental decision.  Why are we trusting a computer of all things to decide for us?  A machine?!

“It’s because it’s monumental that we’re trusting a machine,” said Beck calmly.  “Can you imagine a human making a decision like this?  An actual red-blooded, able-bodied person deciding?”

“No… I guess not.”

“If we’d wanted to live easy lives, we would’ve never become politicians, never run for office.  I always wanted to open a small café, did you know that?”

Johann smirked.  “A café? You?”

“Yes.  It would be high in the Swiss Alps.  A lovely little timber café.  One I’d build with my own two hands.”

“Ja, you cannot possibly be serious.”

“Oh, but I am,” said Beck with a completely straight face.  “It’d have a single chimney made of granite.  I’d haul the quarry stone up there myself, on a sled tied down with rope.”

“But instead, you became a politician.”

“Yes,” sighed Beck gloomily.  “I did.  What was I thinking?”

“A thankless and most miserable profession.  You know what’s funny?  No matter what I do, half of my country hates me?”

“Only half?”  Beck laughs.  “No matter what I do, well over 60% hate me.  There is a permanent 45% who hate me.  At least if you believe the polls.  No matter what I do, I never win them over. Every election, it’s always the same.”

“It must be your handsome face. They are just jealous.”

Beck chuckles. “I suppose so.”

The two men stood there for a moment, neither saying anything; they simply stared out into the darkness of night.

Johann lit up another cigarette.  “You know, my mother, bless her heart, held the most dim opinion possible of our parliament.  When I was a child, she was always shaking her about ‘these clueless men’ as she called them.  Talking all day and not knowing a single thing about their people.  She held enormous disdain for the whole lot.”

“Was she wrong?”

 Johann laughed.  “No.  No, she was not.  She was spot on.  If anything, she gave us too much credit.”

Now that the sun had retreated behind the hills, the temperature had dropped precipitously.  And the night had grown cold.

“I’m heading inside,” said Beck.  “You coming?  The vote’s early tomorrow morning, after all.”

“I think I’ll stay out a bit longer.  Tell Hilda I’ll be right in.”

“Very well.  Don’t stay out here too long.  These Swiss nights grow cold in a hurry.”

The Fast and the Furious

Fast Five, FF6, Furious 7, and The Fate of the Furious rank among the best movies that have ever been made.  Nowadays, the common move in Hollywood is to lean on superhero properties (Marvel and DC) or remake children’s book with giant established followings into big budget film franchises (Harry Potter, Maze Runner, Hunger Games, etc) that make gangbusters at the box office.  That is why when the first FF film hit the screens in 2001 and then just kept spawning sequels, it was such a pleasant surprise and rarity.  I have personally seen all of the films and have been a loyal fan since the very beginning.  But most people consider the franchise truly hitting its stride with Fast Five in 2011 when Universal really opened its wallets and let Justin Lin and the crew run roughshod in Rio de Janeiro.  Also:  They brought in The Rock as Diplomatic Security Service agent, Luke Hobbs, who chases Brian and Dom.  What a great movie.

I’ve written before about how the great Wesley Morris calls FF “the most progressive force in American cinema” and “incredibly important” but today I really want to dissect what it is about these films that tickle my fancy so much.  In a nutshell, I think FF hits my kitsch button which is the main reason I enjoy these films so much.  Consider, for instance, this clip of The Rock single-handedly redirecting the torpedo from the nuclear submarine towards the Chechen separatist bad guy truck that is out to get them:


Or this one where Dom jumps (in his car) over a highway chasm to save Letty from imminent demise:


Or this one where we are shown the value of teamwork:


How can one watch these scenes and not be enamored with the FF film franchise? I humbly submit that it is simply not possible. What I really appreciate though, about the franchise, is that since Fast Five, there has been a very self-aware attempt with the series towards “one-upmanship” with every subsequent installment. In Fast Five you got Brian and Dom pulling the bank vault in two Subaru WRXs through the streets of Rio, FF6 introduced the world’s longest airport runway (somewhere in Chechnya, I think?), and Furious 7 gave us several magnificent set pieces: Cars parachuting out of a jumbo airliner transport, cars taking on a Predator Drone, and cars building-jumping through the Etihad Towers in Abu Dubai.

And then, of course, Fate of the Furious gave us: Cars vs Nuclear Submarine:


Riding the Bus & Meeting Erin – Part I

Following the directions on my phone I make my way to my assigned bus seat.  There is a young brunette woman already sitting in the window seat when I arrive.  She looks a few years younger than me with her hair done back in short ponytail and is wearing a pair of aviators and wireless, oversized pink earmuff headphones; it’s clear she completely oblivious to the outside world lost in her own Spotify playlist or some other auditory universe.  This wouldn’t be any of my concern except her North Face backpack and jacket are sprawled in a tangled heap on my aisle bus seat.

“Excuse me,” I say, tapping her on the shoulder.  “Do you mind?”

“Oh!  Sorry!” she says, snapping out of her reverie.  She hurriedly moves her stuff from my seat.  “My bad, my bad,” she apologizes.  I make her accent out to be English– closer to a proper Queen’s English than cockney or estuary.

“No worries,” I say as I take my seat.  The bus lurches backwards; it appears like we are departing.

She eyes me over, giving me a second look.  “Hey,” she says, “are you also staying at the Four Seasons downtown?”

I blink, surprised.  “Yeah, I am.  You are too?”

She smiles.  “Indeed!  My name’s Erin Morgan,” she says, giving a small wave.  “I’m here on a contracting project for VenPulse.  I saw you in the hotel dining area this morning.”


“Yeah, you’re a tall, lanky white guy with unruly red hair in a sea of short Asian people.  And you’ve got a whole Malcolm Gladwell look going– it’s difficult to miss and not remember.”

I laugh.  “Ha.  I suppose so.  I’m Dexter Fletcher,” I say.  “I’m also here on a job.”

I search my mind to see if Erin’s company, VenPulse, rings any bells.  It does not.  It is common in China though for the CCP to set up its numerous contracting gigs through various shell companies and fronts.  It’s a tangled web, but if you dig deep enough, just about everyone is only a few degrees of separation away from the communist regime.  Behind the curtain, it’s the government ultimately footing the bill.  This is the simple inevitable outcome that results when the state controls who’s in the business, who isn’t, who wins, and who loses.

“What specific line of work do you do at VenPulse?” I ask.

“Oh, a little bit of everything,” she replies nonchalantly.  “Specifically, I work in security.  But out here, I’ve found that they’ve been just about as interested in what I’d done previously. It’s a topic that’s arisen a lot, surprisingly.”

“Have you been out here long?”

“I’m six months in on an eight-month assignment,” she says.  “So it’s been a decent chunk of time.  Yourself?”

“Today’s my first full day,” I say.  “I just got in last night.”

“Ah, a greenhorn,” Erin says smiling.  “I bet you’re feeling you’ve really wandered through the looking glass.”

“It’s been a bit of an adjustment,” I admit.  “Above everything else, I’ve been impressed with how swiftly everything has moved,” I say.  “Just 72 hours ago, I was sitting in my apartment in Brooklyn.  But since then, I was contacted online, tested via a virtual assessment, flown halfway around the world, and now I’m sitting here on a bus leaving Shanghai.  It’s been a whirlwind of a ride.”

Erin chuckles.  “You don’t need to tell me.  Before this, I was with the NHS in the London office.  It took me two months just to wait for my drug tests to clear so I could onboard at Norfolk.  And then another month before they processed all of my paperwork so I could actually start.”

“So, what’s their secret?” I ask, genuinely curious.  “How do they get everything done so quickly?”

Erin tilts her head to think for a moment before answering.  Outside the bus window, the Shanghai cityscape has begun morphing into rolling fields with pastures full of sheep and cows.  We’re just about to leave city limits and enter the countryside.

“I think one big advantage,” Erin finally says, after thinking a moment, “is that the Chinese were so far behind.  The west did everything first.  It’s like in Africa how the Ugandan government didn’t even bother setting up telephone poles and lines.  They just went straight to satellite and cellular; everything was wireless from day one.  When you’re last to the party, you can skip over all of the mistakes that everyone else ahead of you already made.  It’s essentially like taking an exam for which you already know all of the answers.  When you get it last, you get it best.”

“So what you’re saying makes sense for infrastructure,” I say.  “Like, I can understand why their highways, hospitals, and mass transit systems are all so futuristic and advanced.  Xi had the luxury of a blank slate to begin with and hasn’t been bogged down with legacy baggage.  But does that apply to bureaucracy?”

“Sure it does,” says Erin.  “Lemme tell you a story.  Back home, in Fulham, we wanted to build a bicycle lane, right?  Just a dumb extra lane next to the main road so us bicyclists wouldn’t be run over like second-class citizens.  Oh my god, lemme tell you– getting that thing built was akin to moving heaven and earth.  Being a young naïve twenty-something at the time, I’d volunteered to lead that project since I’d been attending university nearby and enjoyed bicycling.  Biggest mistake of my life, I tell you.  We had to get the Fulham town council onboard and then win over the neighborhoods that the lane would go through.  And then the roadside businesses opposite the lane had an opinion, because of course they would.  The entire project, sixteen measly blocks, took a year to approve and then another six months to build.”  Erin shakes her head like she’s remembering a horrid memory.  “It was awful.  Absolutely awful.  Everyone had a voice and everyone had an opinion.  And so it took forever.  You could’ve been forgiven for thinking we rebuilding Buckingham Palace or something.   But no, it was a bicycle lane.

Understand Your Own Flow States

Flow states are critical in harnessing your full potential.  This is self-knowledge I first discovered in college and have been exploiting and refining ever since.  Paul Ford once insightfully remarked that “intelligence is not evenly distributed” when you talk about the workday or workweek.  Sometimes you’re deep in the weeds and really need to rev up those RPMs in order to debug a tricky coding problem or reason through a piece of logic.  Other times, you’re in cruise-control mode and barely mentally there.  Your body may physically be at the office for the sake of appearances but you’re really a thousand miles away on Cloud 9 daydreaming about that long-lost girlfriend, getting that last donut, or otherwise just entirely mentally blank, from brain exhaustion or something else.  And then other times, you’re somewhere in the middle– the tank’s about half-full.  You recognize you’re sufficiently fatigued that you’re definitely not at your best.  But also that you’ve got a little bit more inside that you can give before you conk out for the day.

Obviously, flow states are a kinda spectrum.  But in my own life, I’ve found that there are broadly four different demarcation points on the gauge that are significant.  The first level, 100%-Awesome, is my first 90 minutes of every morning.  I wake up, make my coffee, and all of neurons are refreshed and rearing to go.  This is definitely when I do my most creative work.  Sometimes, I’m so taken with an idea I don’t even brush my teeth immediately after I wake.  I keep a cot next to my computer setup and I literally just roll straight out of bed to my computer and begin writing.  (Sometimes coding, but usually writing.)

After 100%-Awesome, I usually brush my teeth.

The second level, for me, is somewhere around 70-80%.  At this level, I can do some coding.  Writing is kinda shot.  But there are large parts of coding that is honestly mechanical and blue-collar-esque.  Eg. I need to write mock stubs for the database or need to write a new REST API call.  I know exactly what I need to do.  But I just need to do it.  I can usually give about two hours here in this zone.

Somewhere between Level 3 and Level 2, I try to exercise.  Exercising actually requires surmounting a “hump of inertia” first so if I deplete my energies too much, I’ve found I actually can’t rouse myself to exercise. The trick is starting your exercise routine at the very tail end of Level 2 before you’ve dropped too far into Level 3 territory.

Level 3 is around 40-60%.  Alrighty, at this level, motivation is definitely starting to wane.  The neurons are basically tired for the day and many have checked out entirely.  When I get to Level 3, especially the tail-end of Level 3, I reach for the “cruise-control tasks.”  Unloading and loading the dishwasher or spending time with Bagel like going grocery shopping together.  Usually, Bagel likes to eat together and watch a TV show too.  Well, watching TV is literally among the most braindead activities that exist in modern human life.  So when I’m at Level 3, I can dutifully contribute my daily Bagel Time that she requires in order to maintain our relationship, without wasting any of my high-performance cycles.

Level 4 is somewhere around 10-20%.  At this point, we’ve hit the iceberg for a good solid two hours already and most of the compartments are flooded.  At this point, nothing is going to get done.  Literally, nothing.  I’m in a vegetative state and usually can’t even summon the wherewithal to brush my teeth and shower.  But I have a super-picky OCD-habit where I literally can’t get into bed until I’ve showered.  So if I’ve mismanaged by day for some reason, and get stuck in purgatory, I will literally just lie down on the floor on my back.  The key is starting the daily shutdown subroutine with enough juice left in the tank to actually finish shutting down.  Else, I just get stuck in the middle of shutting down for the day.  Once I’ve sufficiently “recharged,” I then climb up, off the floor (a herculean effort sometimes, truly), and finish the routine– brushing my teeth, showering, and going to bed.

And that’s a typical Wobble day!  The next morning, we do it all over again!


Feeling good is important. That sentiment may seem banal and trite but for me, it was a lesson hard learned. When I was a younger man, all gasoline and no brakes as they say, emotions felt of little import. Sure, feeling happy or excited was useful. And feeling manic was definitely helpful towards being productive. But more than anything else, when I was younger, I was very much drawn towards action. No matter the circumstance, just knock off the next task on the list. Move, move, move.

As a young person, as long as you’re still on the rails of high school, then college, then work– this system works decently well. As long as you stay on those well-worn rails, you can generally cruise control through life with minimal thought. Study, graduate, make money, pay bills, repeat. Emotions never really entered the equation much anywhere.

But after getting derailed, I’ve come to realize that emotions actually do matter. They matter when you can’t just put everything on autopilot. When there’s no academic calendar or Dilbert-style office overlord driving your schedule, you’re suddenly on the hook for what to do next. And this individual freedom to decide “what’s next”— that really depends on feeling good, if you wish to be productive.

What I’ve come to learn after writing and publicly posting ~300 words every day is that writing is a kind of barometer for me about my mental and emotional state. It’s the proverbial canary in the coalmine. If the words come easily and flow– I’m in a good state. If I’m blocked, I’m apparently in a bad state or tired, even if I don’t feel bad or tired.

Related to this, by the way– the 85 percent rule! Tim Ferriss interviewed Hugh Jackman! (I absolutely love that episode and recommend it with every fiber of my being.) But basically: I’m at my best when I’m loose, operating at 85% capacity, and feeling good. That is my optimal state.

I’ve also come to learn that if you’re having trouble sleeping, writing the 300 words right before bed actually works quite well. It’s a good exercise that tires out those neurons.