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 Four

Having finished at Xi’an Coliseum, we decided to get lunch before catching our late-afternoon train out of Northlight Station and continue our westward journey.  Since there was no electricity allowed in Xi’an, I was intrigued by how they would manage powering a giant city of twelve million people.

Well, it turns out all you need is steam power.

In the olden days, writers and artists often fantasized about a genre called “steampunk”— an essentially alternate timeline of history where 19th-century industrial steam-powered machinery rose to prominence and we never developed electric motors.  Instead, as the namesake suggests, steam is primary means of power.  And to create steam, you needed a steam engine which meant you need gigantic boilers that heated water to create a heat engine.

And while I was aware of the genre, it never struck me that the basis of steampunk was actually rooted in reality.  This wasn’t like writing about fantastical warp gates and other outer space figments of the imagination like orbital defense platforms and trillion-zillion ton battlecruisers.  Steampunk was rooted in actual real-life technology, an imagining of what that version of history could’ve possible looked like.

And Xi’an is a very real-life manifestation of those imaginings.

“When you talk about power,” explains Kristen, “everyone’s always thinking about electric engines with is –surprise, surprise–using the movement of electrons to power an engine.  But before Edison and Westinghouse pushed electrons, we pushed heat.  I’m not going to bore you with the details, but to convert thermal energy into mechanical energy, you need to create heat some way.  You can burn wood, boil water, or burn diesel, ethanol, or fossil fuels.”

Kristen, it turns out, actually studied mechanical engineering at some point and was, for some reason, well-versed in thermonuclear dynamics.

“Ah, here we are,” says Li.  We’ve been riding in the horse-drawn carriage until now, on the way to lunch.  On our way, we passed through the industrial district of Xi’an which was filled with giant factories.  Smokestacks reaching high into the sky, expelling giant plumes of black clouds into the sky.

“Wow, that makes for wonderfully breathable air,” Coleman had remarked, pointing.  “All doing our bit for the earth, I see.”

In the giant factories, I’d see giant mechanical shafts turning.  Gears and cogs whirled away.  As far as I could tell, all of the power was generated from the burning done at the base of the gigantic smokestack and then apparently distributed throughout the rest of the factory via giant turning rods and axels that whirled away, driving ever smaller roads and axels.  It was a massive, well-greased machine that was mechanical through-and-through.

As we’re driving by, a bell suddenly shrilly starts ringing in one of the factories and I turn to see what the commotion is all about.  A small group of Chinese men are running towards one of the driveshafts and I see smoke pouring out of one of the complicated-looking contraptions.

“Electric engines are wonderful for productivity and efficiency,” Jack says, “but that’s not what Xi’an is built for.”  He gestures to the hubbub, “the challenge with mechanical energy like this, in addition to being horribly inefficient and losing a ton of energy by sheer heat loss, is that it’s fragile.

I watch all of the Chinese youths scramble around to try to troubleshoot the problem.  One of the driveshafts has malfunctioned and stopped turning.  But luckily the others still spinning, their respective belts and conveyors still whirling away.  If you build such an intricate but fragile cog-work system, redundancy appears to be of paramount importance.

“You’re saying that it really takes a village to keep the entire operation running smoothly,” I say.

“So you’ve deliberately set back the entire city two centuries in order to foster a greater sense of interconnectedness,” says Deepak.  “It was a generation when people actually needed to cooperate or things would literally fall apart.”

“Precisely,” Jacks says.  “Make no mistake, “Xi’an in so many ways is so bad.  Bad for the environment.  We burn a metric ton of wood to produce the same amount of electrical energy you could easy get with solar in a few days.  But what we get back with this time capsule city is an age when people actually needed to rely on each other.  An era when neighbors actually knew and talked to each other.  Because if they didn’t, they simply wouldn’t survive.”

Our carriage slowly draws away from the factory where the Chinese men in blue coveralls are still troubleshooting the broken driveshaft and another thought suddenly occurs to me.  The entire steampunk system that the CCP has constructed here in Xi’an drives another message into the 18-year-old trainees every year:  Just like individual gears and cogs that the trainees were maintaining, the trainees themselves were at very least subconsciously being indoctrinated that they too were fungible and easily replaceable.  In America, every schoolchild is taught that every American is unique and special.  That we all have gifts and something only we can contribute to this society and world.

But in China, the message in this communist country is the opposite.  Every Chinese citizen is part of something greater, to be sure.  But each person, on their own, is also only a simple cog in the great machinery.  Building on this metaphor, a more complicated aggregate component like a driveshaft or steam turbine may then be considered a municipality– the larger, more important ones being maybe considered the alpha cities– your Shanghais and Beijings.  But the message was loud and clear– the whole is infinitely more important than any individual constituent piece.

I don’t know what CCP politburo member dreamed up this whole “everyone-18-year-old-spends-a-year-in-Xi’an-steampunk-world” system, but it’s ingenious.  Implementation and execution aside –no easy feat, to be sure– just on a purely psychological brainwashing-level of the Chinese youth, it’s seriously Mensa-tier strategic thinking.

Deepak and Coleman start some debate with Kristen over the finer points around the laws of thermonuclear dynamics (a bit absurd considering their respective backgrounds) but I mentally check out and begin thinking over the situation in Xinjiang with Uyghurs.  That’s the project we were brought here to help solve, after all.  The crux of all of the civil unrest there lies in the fact that there’s a fundamental philosophical chasm between the Uyghurs and the rest of China.  But how to bridge this divide?


Home is a peculiar idea.  We all of course have our own ways of defining it.  Some people tie home to a specific geographic place, like their hometown.  Others define the concept more as a feeling— for example, when you’re financially in a stable and worry-free place.  Or when you feel socially fulfilled and secure, surrounded by close friends and family.

For me, personally, while all of those are elements are certainly true, when I reflect on my past three years living here in Wobbleville, those descriptors –if I really think hard about it– don’t capture the essence of “Home” for me.  I’ve felt very much at home these past three years but financially, they have been the most precarious of my entire life.  I have definitely never been financially poorer than I currently am right now, that’s for sure.  And as for friends and family, well– Bagel’s here with me.  So that certainly helps.  But when I spent my year abroad in Bageltopia, where we first met all those years ago, that was unequivocally not home, despite the fact that she was around a lot.  The weather was scorching hot and incredibly humid.  Us Wobbles are not built for Bageltopian weather.  It was rough.

So why have I felt so at home here in Wobbleville these past few years?  Though I have been lucky to make a couple good friends here through Meetup, we really only see each other several times a year.  And again, I’m super financially poor here.  Maybe not quite in dire straits, but definitely on my way there if things keep degenerating at their current pace.

Yet, Wobbleville feels like home to me emotionally.  First– the weather.  Omg, the weather.  You really don’t think this is a big deal until it is.  When I step outside and the air feels cool and crisp, that makes me feel good.  No bustling traffic or homeless people on every street corner.  Just quiet, idyllic countryside.  To be fair, Wobbleville is very similar to my own hometown in terms of geography, climate, and demographic composition.  Lots of white people.  Tons of churches.  No litter anywhere.  People are not rich here but we’re solid salt-of-the-earth people with our salt-of-the-earth ways.  No snobbish urban coastal elitism here.

The other thing is the general pace of life.  It’s chill and relaxed.  If I want to go anywhere, I just hop in the Bagelmobile and drive there.  No running to the metro station to try to catch a train.  No hustling and bustling down busy, crowded sidewalks which smell like urine and marijuana.  Here, the car is king. (Sorry, environment! No mass transit here!)  And that total freedom to go anywhere at any time whenever I want is a big part of why I feel like this is home. I feel like my self-centered egotism is fulfilled here. Do you taste that? That’s the taste of freedom.

For me, “home” isn’t about friends or family.  Or about financial security.  (Though, again, those are immensely important and I’d prefer to have both than to not.)  But for me, personally, home is somewhere I feel comfortable with my daily life routines.  It’s somewhere that I enjoy the weather and can easily get the food I like to eat (like Jersey Mike’s!).  And it’s a place where I can easily talk to my neighbors about whatever interests me and us.  Interestingly, back in my college days (eons ago), I found myself often offending people left and right with my conversation and thoughts.  It wasn’t even deliberate; it just happened.  But now, when I reflect on it more, I think that was a consequence of them.  Not me.  They were people who didn’t share my values.  And so conversation was incredibly tough.

(But to fair, I have certainly offended here in Wobbleville as well; the proportion of strike-outs has just been far smaller.)

Here, in Wobbleville though, I’m largely surrounded by people much less fragile who similarly share my values, especially out in the country away from the city center and younger university populations.  And honestly, that’s made all the difference.  Home is where you can be yourself without being socially ostracized and punished for it. Home is where you feel comfortable.

“The Tall Grass First Gets the Scythe.”

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.

Chapter Five – Passage One

“Hierarchy is extremely important to the Chinese people,” Alan is telling us.  “Do not use your western ways of thinking here in Xinjiang.  Try to be more open-minded and set aside your own biases and preconceptions.”

It’s the next day and we’re all gathered back at Building 11.  Everyone has signed onto the project.  We’re all gathered back in the laboratory trying to figure out what exactly it is that we’ve signed on for.  That morning, Alan is walking us through some preliminaries.”

“A good example,” continues Alan, “is that in the west I know you have the saying, ‘The squeaky wheel  gets the grease.’

“So true!” says Coleman, giving two big thumbs up.  For some reason he has sunglasses on even though we’re all inside and it’s only a bit past nine o’clock in the morning.  I might be imagining it, but I’m pretty sure there’s liquor on his breath.

“Well,” says Alan, “here in the east, we have a saying of our own– ‘The tall grass first gets the scythe.’”  Alan gives us all a flat look.  “Need I say more?”

“Sure,” says Katherine.  “Message received, loud and clear.  We all believe in democracy.  You believe in communism.  We tell our kids to be themselves and follow their dreams.  You guys tell everyone to be the same and fall in line.”

“It’s not just that,” says Shu softly.  “In China, following your dreams could easily mean ostracization, death, or worse.”

“You need to understand,” adds Vanessa.  “In China there’s safety in the group identity.  To conform is to be safe.  To be different is to be noticed.  Always remember that.”

“Is being noticed really so bad?” asks Coleman.  “It doesn’t get you extra bread in the breadlines or something?”

Alan rolls his eyes.  “This is China in the 21st century.  Not the Soviet Republic.  We have no breadlines here.”

Deepak chimes in.  “This strict adherence to hierarchy isn’t only Chinese.  India, Pakistan, Indonesia, and the entire Middle East has practiced a similar system for centuries now.  It all dates back to Europe, anyway.  Kings, queens, dukes, duchesses, and the whole lot.  There’s extreme comfort and direction in everyone knowing their place in society at all times.  The stability is security.  It’s not all bad.”

“Alright,” I say.  “This is all good to know.  Nice history lesson.  But where’s all this going?  What are we supposed to do with this?”

“The goal here,” Vanessa says patiently, “is right now the Uyghurs feel a strong sense of group identity.  They’re a regional people with a rich culture that dates back centuries to the days of Genghis Khan.  There’s obviously a huge Muslim population there as well, courtesy of our Kazakhstani neighbors.

“We, Team China, are going in to assimilate them though.  We don’t want them loyal to their Uyghur ways.  We want them worshiping China.  So we need a way here to reprogram their loyalty.  We want them subservient to the good ol’ red and yellow.

I raise my eyebrow.  “And you think we can help you with that?  Two data scientists, a political mercenary, and an academic?”

New Construction Everywhere

“How is it everywhere I look, everything’s always under construction all the time?” I ask.  “I’ve literally seen ongoing construction everywhere I’ve been in the two days that I’ve been in the country.”

“Chinese construction crews work three eight-hour shifts, around the clock,” says Erin pointing out the window at one of the construction cranes.  Beside it, a giant pneumatic piledriver is noisily hammering giant steel stakes of enormous, unimaginable girth into the ground.   “It’s nonstop, seven days a week, 365 days a year,” Erin says.  “You’ve seen it everywhere, all the time, because it is literally everywhere.  No breaks, ever, even on holidays.  When you have 1.4 billion people in your country and 9.6 million square kilometers of land, there’s no reason not to always be building.  How do you think Chinese GDP’s been growing by double-digits year over year for the past, I dunno, decade or so?”

I nod, already knowing much of what Erin is telling me.  I’d rehearsed and memorized my lines on the plane on the flight over, in preparation for what ended up being my informal interview with Charlotte that’d just happened that morning.  And I’d said all the right things.  But seeing the insane growth and all of the construction activity up close, first-hand in person was an entirely different matter altogether.  As they always say:  You don’t know until you know.

This construction pace was ludicrous.  Back home, in New York, it’d taken three years for the inept Cuomo administration to finally rebuild the aging and anciently dangerous Tappan Zee Bridge.  Three years!  In comparison, I know from my interview prep that China lays down 33,000 kilometers of expressway every five years.  Comparatively, the entire US interstate system, built during the Eisenhower era, spans only 78,000 kilometers and took three decades to build.

Shortly after passing by the interchange, our bus reaches a giant walled compound that spans something like a hundred football fields in length. In the middle of literally nowhere off the narrow, two-lane dirt road suddenly sprouts what appears to be a ginormous, 14th century medieval stronghold that rises high into the sky like some mirage in the desert.  It’s as if some prepubescent tween who was playing a city simulator videogame like Skylines or Civilization decided to just plop Alexandria, circa 331 BC, into the middle of rolling Chinese farmland in the eastern plains.  It’s literally the most random thing I’ve ever seen.

Jesus, once we get up close I see that the walls must be twenty stories tall! The entire complex must’ve been what Constantinople looked like in 740 AC! (When Emperor Leo III rebuilt the Theodosian walls that guarded the capital of the Byzantine Empire.)

“This is an office park?” I ask Erin in disbelief as our bus rolls up to the wrought iron gates of the giant stone fortress. “What kind of lunacy is this?”

Erin just chuckles. “Wait until you see what’s on the other side.”

Our bus halts at the gated entrance (I’m honestly half-surprised there isn’t a moat and drawbridge) and a helmeted, body-armor-wearing security officer clad in black does a round around our vehicle with a Deutsch Hound apparently sniffing for bombs. After several minutes of inspection and a conversation between our driver and one of the officers, the red-striped crossbar eventually lifts and two other stern-looking, helmeted and goggled security guards with automatic rifles strapped across their chests wave us through. As we drive past I can’t help but notice the sizable cache of automatic weapons that’s locked in metal cages in the back of the stone guard tower behind the officers and their closed circuit monitors. It’s only a fleeting glance but I count at least three rows of small firearms and munitions. It’s clear that whatever happens inside of Jinshui is apparently important enough to properly secure with violent force.

But in a moment, we’re past. And what I see next beyond the gate totally stuns my brain.

Heaven and Hell

Heaven, hell, and the entire idea of an afterlife is an intriguing concept.  A solid stretch of my life, when I was a child I attended Awana and church service every Sunday.  I remember memorizing a ton of bible passages and getting awarded neat patches that my mom would then iron onto my Awana vest.  But in addition to that (and this was a bit later when I was older) I also distinctly remember being incredibly impressed with the entire concept of there existing an afterlife.

In economics, we learn that humans are generally treated as rational actors and then when faced with choices, we’ll usually behave in ways that maximize our self-benefit or whatever utility function we care most about.  So either satisfying ourselves, caring for our families, fighting for our country, etc.

Where economics fails though is that it assumes the rational human cares about what happens immediately in this corporeal life.  Meaning:  If you go rob a bank or murder a ton of innocent people, you’ll go to jail for probably the rest of your life or face summary execution by lethal injection (or the firing squad in Singapore).  And that lifelong imprisonment or threat of capital punishment is generally enough of a deterrence to prevent folks from doing bad things.

But what if you believe in an afterlife?  Now the entire calculus has changed because the time horizon for the consequences of your actions have been stretched way out into the future, beyond even this corporeal life.  Now, if you commit a massive crime, like flying airplanes into the towers, because there is an afterlife in which you’ll be rewarded for your behaviors, you no longer fear whatever might happen in this corporeal life.  This material existence we’re currently living is incredibly transient, a mere blink of the eye in the grand scheme.

The entire concept of an afterlife really screws with economics.  Or at least it should.  In order for society to function,  which it mostly does, peace is predicated on people generally not believing in heaven and hell actually existing.  As long as we care/fear about what happens in this life, then societal peace and order will be maintained.

But if there is ever a day when God or Jesus or Mohammad or whomever descends from the heavens and shows us that divine power does exist, then civil society will basically crumble overnight.  So, basically:  The entire wellbeing, safety, and health of human civilization rests on human beings never en masse witnessing any miracles that affirmatively prove God’s existence.  The fate of our species depends on it.

Harry Potter

Harry Potter shaped my entire generation.  It is literally no exaggeration to say that.  When I was growing up, the book releases were, I kid you not, actual events.  Our local Barnes & Noble in town would decorate its interior and then at midnight, once the release embargo lifted, dozens of us Potterheads would stream into the store to buy the new book.  Kids were dressed like witches and wizards with the robes, scarfs, and everything.  It was truly a sight to behold.  This day and age, I can’t conceive of a book, any book, inspiring such a turnout.

When I reflect on HP and what it made it so special to me (it was literally released right when I was in junior high school so I was smack middle in its intended audience), I have to point to its worldbuilding more than anything else.  In an interview, Rowling once remarked that she felt “the foremost responsibility of an author is to give the reader a full security and confidence that someone’s hand is unwaveringly at the rudder.”  This quote has always stuck with me.  When you read HP, it always felt like there was a firm hand at the rudder, effortlessly guiding the ship. The world was so rich and fully realized that it felt real.  Not only to middle-graders, but to adults too.  Rowling had a talent for moving the action at a good clip while including just enough mise en scène to make the whole enterprise believable.  It was a tremendous accomplishment.

I have found writers to generally fall into three camps:  “Character-driven” (RCW’s Spin); “Plot-driven” (Da Vinci Code); or “Worldbuilding-driven” (HP).  Personally, I don’t really read for characters.  I like Plot and Worldbuilding.  To me, characters are largely a vehicle for the worldbuilding and whatever “message” or “experience” the author is trying to impart.  For instance, in HP, Harry’s essentially a vessel.  Sure, he experiences pangs of lust for Cho Chang, affections for his friends and family, and ambition for Quidditch, etc.  But the guy doesn’t really have a personality.  He’s a cardboard cutout– the generic middle-schooler that turns into a high-schooler.  There are set pieces like The Big Sports Tournament (The Tri-Wizard Cup) and The Big Dance (The Yule Ball), but mostly –to me at least– Harry’s a paint-by-numbers kinda character.  Which I think is Rowling’s intention.  Because what is fascinating about the HP books is the worldbuilding.  You’ve got Hogwarts and Diagon Ally, the Wizarding High Court, minister, government, and currency.  Etc, etc.  Harry’s just basically there to be an empty seat to take you to Gringotts and everything else.

Harry Potter possesses a kinda bland universality.  Meaning, I don’t really know where Harry would stand on policies like universal basic income, abortion, or reparations.  Again, I think this is Rowling’s intention; that is, Harry doesn’t have very specific politics (other than general banalities like “believing in courage and loyalty”) so he doesn’t run the risk of alienating any potential readers (or their parents!) who may not share his values. It’s a good strategy to sell as many books as possible!

Fate & Destiny

Paperman (2012)

Hillary Clinton, to me, represents the very embodiment of fate and whatever higher powers that govern our universe, most clearly at work. IMHO, Clinton’s political career, a complete flaming train wreck of tragedy, unequivocally proves that God clearly exists. Clearly, humans do not control their own destinies.

How else can one explain the bizarre and totally bonkers election in November 2016? The wife of a celebrated President (well, maybe a little less celebrated now, but I remember the 90s… it was different then), a senator, and then the Secretary of State. Secretary of State! She has literally represented America on the world stage at the highest levels. And then ultimately losing to… Donald Trump? Seriously?

I genuinely believe, as long as you try your absolute best and have done everything you positively can, as long it’s fated to be, the universe will meet you halfway to make it happen.  And if it’s destined to not be, well, no matter how hard you try, no matter how determined you are, no matter how many sacrifices you make, it will simply not come to pass.  Period. If you think human will alone is sufficient, I suggest you look at Clinton’s life story. Give it a nice long read; it’s hefty. Aside from Michelle Kwan, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone else work so much, try so hard, come so close, but then still ultimately fail in the end. Hillary Clinton was (and still is) the Ultimate Hufflepuff. And I honestly say that with the utmost admiration. I disagree with many of her positions, but I also consider myself a fellow Hufflepuff. And so I admire her grit and sheer doggedness, even (especially) in the face of complete and total abject failure.

Life is short and can sometimes be cruel. But I feel as long as we maintain a perspective that there are truly higher powers at work, pulling the strings in ways we cannot always (or even begin to) comprehend or understand, such a mentality will help console ourselves in bad times and stay humble in good ones. Hillary, you tried your best and I’m genuinely sorry it didn’t work out. For what it’s worth, I rooted for you.

“In the absence of light, darkness prevails.”