Key Performance Indicators (KPIs)

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 Six

KPIs –or Key Performance Indicators– are the critical benchmarks that any data science project is based upon.  For example, back in the US on the other projects that I’d slaved away on in the past, KPIs were often mundane metrics that you’d pretty much expect from any pedestrian, vanilla project:  The number of new people who enrolled for healthcare during November, the amount of advertising revenue that a marketing campaign was currently generating, etc.

In our case, since project was a bit more exotic, the KPIs of our assignment were likewise more exotic as well.  We measured our success in Xinjiang among two primary metrics:

The first was a scorecard gauge of the number of crimes committed in Urumqi on a given particular day.  Crimes obvious comes in all flavors of the rainbow –from petty theft to arson to murder– but for our overhead reporting purposes, we had a single summary statistic that aggregated all crime numbers.

By the way, I should take a slight detour to mention here:  In data science, the devil is entirely in the details.  There’s a famous saying in our profession:  “All models are wrong.  But some are useful.”

At the score of data science is the desire to make sense of reality around us with numbers– to somehow quantify the ineffable.  In a case like looking at the crime statistics in Urumqi, we needed a single number to summarize how are policies were performing in the capital.  But if we instituted a policy that decreased petty theft but increased murders in the city, was that a win?  All crimes are not so obviously we then need to weight these metrics somehow.  But how, and who, determines that?  Does every murder equal five incidents of petty theft?  Ten incidents?  Etc.

As you can see, the entire project quickly turns into a scenario modeling and analysis exercise.  For example, we’d devised two models to measure crime differently.  Crime, in China, is broadly categorized under three classes:  Trivial (Class 1), Moderate (Class 2), and Severe (Class 3).  For example: Trivial would be your petty theft or drunken pub brawl (where no one was injured); Moderate would be the vandalization or destruction of property; Severe would be murder or inciting subversion of state power.  (Notably, in China, assembling in groups larger than fifty people required a local municipal permit.  For instance, a wedding with over fifty guests?  You’d need a permit for that.  And violation of this mandate would result in a Class 3 violation of Chinese law which carried a hefty fine and, depending on the kind of meeting, imprisonment or even death by execution.)

Our first model had a 3x multiplier for Class 2 crimes and a 10x multiplier for Class 3 crimes.

Our second model featured a 6x multiplier for Class 2 and 15x for Class 3.

But our models were consistently failing to manifest real-world results that we expected.  Week after week, the scorecards on our dashboards remained unchanged (or went the wrong direction!); despite the fact that our analyses and models had predicted certain outcomes.  But for some reason, in the real world, we were not achieving our KPIs.

After Alan explained the way that we’d set up our models to Jack, Jack had just thrown back his head and laughed.

“Making Urumqi a totalitarian police state, despite whatever you may have been told, is never going to work.  Occupation simply breeds hate and resentment which’ll fester.  Maybe quietly at first, but make no mistake.  It will most certainly boil over.”

“So what do you suggest?” Kristen asks, irritated.  I also felt my own collar growing hot.  Who was this lazy bum to lecture us on our efforts?  What did he know about suppressing minority populations in communist regimes?

“My thought,” Jack says, “is you loosen all of the restrictions.  Withdraw.  Give it a year or two.  Hell, give it maybe six months.

Alan stares.  “What?”

“All of the electricity and civil services in the region are entirely reliant on Beijing,” Shu says, “without a Chinese presence, the entire area will degenerate into complete anarchy in a matter of weeks.  Supply chains, crops, clean running water…”

Jack waves his hand.  “So what?  The Uyghurs want freedom?  I say, give it to them.”  He turns to me, “you westerners have a saying, do you not?  The grass is always greener on the other side?”  Jack laughs.  “There is no grass on the other side!  Or if there is, it’s all yellow, dying, and dead!”

I turn to Alan, “Just out of curiosity, what would have happened if Beijing withdrew from the region?  This is nothing we’ve never modeled, right?”

Alan frowns.  Of all of the hundreds of scenarios that we’d entertained and tried over the weeks, simply giving up and going home had definitely not been anything that anyone had thought of.  His forehead creases in that way which always happens when he’s consternated.

“Well,” Alan says slowly, Kazakhstan would most definitely see a withdrawal of that magnitude.  They’d most definitely be shocked.  It’s been over a century of contesting that geographic region.  To suddenly pick up and just go home…”

Coleman interrupts.

“Guys, wait up.  You’ve all just spent weeks telling me how Xi and China is the most honor-bound society on the planet.  Even if this plan somehow yielded results, which is still dubious to me, what on earth makes you think that Beijing will go along with this?  Wouldn’t this be an ultimate sign of great shame and surrender?”

“I’ve got it.” Deepak says suddenly and we all turn to him.  “Coleman’s right, of course.  Beijing will never just withdraw from the region voluntarily.  But if we manufactured pretext… if we somehow, someway provided a reason to withdraw…”

“…you mean something like a natural disaster?” says Shu.  She taps her fingers against her lips.  “Something like–“

“–something like a man-made disaster,” Kristen finishes the thought.  I realized what Deepak was getting at a split second before Kristen did but it makes sense.  In the most awful, frightening way possible, it makes sense. 

“You want to manufacture a kind of biological crisis,” I say aloud.  “In one fell swoop, it would solve all of the problems.  Some of the old guard, which has been the most resistant to Chinese control, would be the most vulnerable.  And the new generation, the most politically active, have the softest hands the world has ever seen.  China’s weened them for years now to use smartphones and computers– this a is a generation that couldn’t milk a cow or farm agriculture if their lives depended on it.”

“By withdrawing Chinese support for maybe a year after they were to accidentally receive some kind of plague would send the entire region into chaos,” says Alan, “hundreds of thousands would likely die.  Maybe more depending on the potency of the biological agent.”

Jack nabs the final shrimp dumpling from the dim sum bowl.  The old man honestly looks the most alive I’ve seen him since we’d arrived on our trip yesterday.  He chews slowly and thoughtfully, and then swallows.

“Maybe,” Jack says.  “But you’ve gotta admit– it really could be the answer to all of your problems.  It really could.”


NOTE: This is an ongoing original fiction story that I’m currently writing. I started writing this fictional 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 Four

Kristen closes the lid of her MacBook and rubs her eyes.  “Guys, let’s give it a break,” she says.  “We’ve been going at it for three hours now.  I need a breather.” 

I look up at the clock and see that it’s indeed nearing noon.  Somehow, the entire morning has whizzed by in a complete blur.  Funny how time flies when one is nation-building and I hear my own stomach grumble.  Nothing whets your appetite like playing God, after all. 

Van nods.  “Let’s take twenty, everyone.  It’s Tuesday which means the chicken-rice cart ought be out on the main lawn if you want to get some air.  I recommend it.” 

I grab my jacket and head outside.  Nothing stands between a man and good chicken-rice.

Outside the air’s crisp and cool.  It’s September and autumn’s in full swing here in Jinshui.  The grounds of the office park is built to emulate traditional Japanese koi ponds dating back to fifth century BC and I stop my amble a moment to admire the little red and golden fish swimming around.  It’s an ocean of vibrant orange, white, and vermillion.

“They look pretty happy, don’t they?” 

Shu walks up from behind me and kneels by the water’s edge.  I see in her hand she has a small knit pouch of something and she flicks a handful into the pond.  Ah, it’s fish food.  The koi swarm in and it’s a complete feeding frenzy.

“I guess so,” I say, watching the koi fight over the flecks.  “It must be pretty nice to just be able to laze around all day and get free food.  Never having to worry about being hunted or needing to fight to survive.”

Shu laughs.  It’s soft, proper laugh, the kind that is polite and trained.  Back from a time when young women attended finishing schools and learned about manners from stern headmistresses and textbooks.

“These koi are domesticated.  They’ve won the genetic lottery.  Because of their beauty, they’ve come to mean prosperity and good luck.”  She smiles.  “It’s win-win for everyone.”

“It’s good if you can get it,” I say, shrugging.  “But these fish wouldn’t last two seconds in the wild.  Their bright colors would make them instant fodder.  They only live such good lives because they’ve got sugar mommas and daddies fending off the wildebeests.”

“Is that such a crime to rely on others?”  Shu asks.  She stands and walks away, leaving me with a distinct feeling that I’ve somehow offended her.  But my stomach resumes its growling and I have no more time to overthink the situation.  It’s chicken-rice time.

Van was right.  The chicken-rice is positively sublime.  It comes in a litter-sized Styrofoam container that I’m confident undoubtedly contributes towards climate change once it’s discarded into some monstrous landfill that’s likely the size of Mount Fuji but that might as well be the story of mankind.  Enjoy the moment today and kick the can down the road.  Different day; someone else’s problem.

I have no idea where everyone’s wandered off to, but I take a beat to simply bask in this moment of being alone.  There’s a bench by one of the footbridges that’s off the cobblestone path.  It’s out of the way and secluded so I decide to eat lunch there.  Everywhere, the trees and foliage have all turned red and orange and leaves rustle in the slight breeze.  As a child growing up, China was always a distant land which may well have been a completely different planet.  Growing up in the rustbelt Midwest of America, I’d never imagined in my days of youth that I’d one day be in China.  Working for communists, nonetheless.  I chuckle.  Unbelievable.  What would that Dexter of yesteryear think of the Dexter of now?  Traitor to America?  Betrayer of the red, white, and blue?

Phone Bumping: Dumbest Thing Ever

Keeping up appearances in China is completely and totally unnecessary.  Here, newly arrived, people could reinvent themselves however they wished.  There was no longer a need to maintain any false pretenses and you possessed no obligation of allegiance to your former self.  Here in China, we could all start over and be anyone we wished to be.  It was a place for new beginnings.

As I pondered my new reality in this ancient country I now unexpectedly found myself in, I suddenly feel the phone in my pocket begin to buzz.  I check my device and see I have two new messages.  The first is directions to my accommodations for the evening– I’d been put up in Building 67 which, according to the map, contained the guest dormitories which was conveniently several buildings down from the cafeteria.  And the second message is a meeting notice– I’ve been summoned to a gathering that’ll be held tomorrow at nine o’clock in Building 11, a small laboratory tucked away in the southwest corner of the campus.  When I tell Erin about my newly assigned agenda, she raises an eyebrow.

“Building 11 just finished its renovations, last week,” she says.  “I didn’t even know it was back open yet.”

“I thought this entire complex is new,” I say.  “Isn’t it early for renovations?”

“Well, there was a horrible explosion last month,” Erin explains.  “A terrible accident.  I was over in Building 22 and had felt the ground shake from there.”

I frown.  “There was an explosion?  We’re in an office park.  How on earth does that happen?”

“I dunno.  But anyway, nothing to worry about, I’m sure.”

We finish up our dinner, chat a bit more, and then decide to call it a night.  It’s getting late and I’m totally wiped.  It’s been a long day.  Before parting ways, Erin and I bump our phones to trade contact info.  It takes me a moment fumbling around with my device before I finally get to the right screen to make the whole wireless exchange of bits and bytes work.  But seriously, it’s the dumbest-looking thing I can imagine; I can’t believe this is how kids nowadays interact.

“It sounds like some kinda grotesque sex act,” I grumble.  “Seriously?  ‘Phone bumping?’  Please come ‘bump my phone?’  What the hell ever happened to business cards?  Do you kids even know what those are?  Honestly, this entire world’s gone mad.”

“Get used to it, old man,” Erin scoffs, when she hears my grumblings.  “It’s the 21st century.  Something called technology.”

Later that night in my guest dormitory (a simple room with a small twin-sized bed and desk; nothing fancy), I fall asleep the moment my head hits the pillow.  My first full day in China had come to a close.  What would the next day bring?

Supreme Court Shenanigans

Passing of the torch.

Keeping up with news and current affairs is honestly not high up on my list of priorities these days.  In fact, it’s not on my list at all.  As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I honestly didn’t learn about George Floyd’s death until weeks after it had happened.  And the shenanigans in both Seattle and Portland also only hit my radar weeks after the events had already concluded.

But, despite my best efforts to stay ignorant, the news of Amy Coney Barrett winding her way this week through Senate Confirmation Hearings to become a SCOTUS justice, which is of course a lifetime appointment, is honestly so fascinating that I’m going to dedicate today’s entry to the subject.

This story is so rich and interesting on so many levels.  Good lord, where to start.

Merrick Garland being stonewalled for a year… RBG dying with less than two months left to go… Ginsburg, for all of her many accomplishments, really messed this one up.  I know it’s bad form to speak ill of the dead (RIP RBG), but IMHO, she really screwed this one up royally.  I understand the allure of wanting to be replaced by the country’s first female president.  I really do.  But I really don’t think Ginsburg calculated the worst-case-scenario on this one.  Barrett’s going to undo Roe vs Wade and RBG’s entire legacy and life work.  Ginsburg had a chance to let Obama pick her successor.  But she wanted glory and to make history.  And now here we are.

One important takeaway from this whole sad fiasco is that we need to be cognizant of not being swept away our own imaginary narratives that we’re constantly playing through our heads.  You know exactly what I’m talking about.  Somewhere in the back of your mind, you’re imagining your own life story as a Ron Howard movie, some Oscar-winning masterpiece for the ages.  And so you want to hit the predictable plot beats to provide the non-fiction events that’ll be fodder for that sweet, sweet Academy Award bait.  I know it; you know it; we all play this fantasy reel in our minds.

But don’t get caught in the trap.

Your narrative is entirely imaginary in your own head.  And as they say:  “If you want to make God laugh, make a plan.”

RBG got caught in the trap; in the fiction of her own imaginary self-created narrative.  Giving the baton next to Hillary to let the first female president in American history anoint her successor.  And, well, then things didn’t break the way she thought they would.  So now we have consequences of that gross, grotesque miscalculation.

Don’t make the mistake RBG did.  Get out of your own head.  Pay attention to what’s actually going on around you.  And always account for the worst possible scenario.

Because if you don’t; it may just happen.

PS.  As a silver lining I’m actually a fan of Barrett ascending to the highest bench in the land.  Up until now, Harvard, Yale, and Columbia (and especially Harvard and Yale) have had a near monopoly on SCOTUS justices.  Sure, they’re good schools.  Nothing wrong with going to Harvard, Yale, or Columbia; I won’t hold it against you.  But they’re not exactly, uh, representative of the United States of America, right?  Our fair country of ~330 million; most of whom, to state the obvious, did not attend one of these three schools. (To give a little context, there are 237 law schools in the country.)  HYC are among the most selective schools not just in the US but on the face of planet earth.  Barrett is a graduate of Notre Dame Law School which has appointed a whopping ZERO number of SCOTUS justices.  It’s just my humble opinion but I generally think this is good.  Between HYC, those three schools account for something like A THIRD of all SCOTUS justices who have ever sat on the court in the ~244 years that America has existed.

SCOTUS needs to represent all of us, all American citizens.  And c’mon, Real Talk for a moment: Notre Dame is an elite school too.  (President Bartlet, the best president in American history (with apologies to FDR and Lincoln; you guys are a close second and third, respectively), graduated from Notre Dame!  Go Fighting Irish!)  So for this reason, I like Barrett getting the nod.


Kitsch is honestly the best. I am such a huge sucker for kitsch. It’ll get me every time. This morning, I wanted to examine it, this strange fascination of mine. Why am I so drawn to the gaudy and flamboyantly terrible? What exactly is it about poor taste that I find so undeniably attractive?

Several years ago, in the Before Times, Bagel and I visited South Dakota.  Of course, we visited Mount Rushmore.  Bagel enjoyed seeing how that was built and I do truly marvel at the remarkable feat of engineering that Gutzon Borglum achieved.  Genuinely extraordinary, especially with the downright rudimentary tools he had at the time.  (Though I suppose you can say that of every generation.  One day, I’m sure future human beings will look back on our time now and wonder how on earth Musk launched (and landed) reusable rockets into and from space.  It’s inevitable.) 

Like I’d mentioned, my interest was much further piqued during the stops we made the following days after visiting Rushmore, at Wall Drug (Wall, South Dakota) and –my favorite!– The Corn Palace (Mitchell, South Dakota).  Is it the aesthetic that pleases me?  I guess, kinda?  That’s certainly part of it.  But I think partially why I like kitsch so much owes to the same reason I worship at the altar of Michael Bay and think the man’s the greatest film director ever. (Again, I remind everyone– Bay has not one, but two, movies in The Criterion Collection. Right up there next to Kurosawa where the man belongs!) More fundamentally though, on some level, I’m annoyed with entire hierarchy and dichotomy of “high-brow” vs “low-brow.”  Like, it genuinely irritates me that some people are so snobbish and hoity-toity about art.  If the entire enterprise is all subjective anyway, then how come a bunch of experts can get together and praise a Van Gough or Rembrandt to high heaven while condemning, I dunno, Penny Arcade or Mega Tokyo?  It’s all subjective!  Why do people get to be snooty about art and fashion at all?

Thus, I consider it my solemn duty to be a rebel and stick it to the man!  I enjoy and celebrate kitsch because, in part, I am philosophically aligned with the principle.  Praising kitsch is a reminder to us all that we really shouldn’t take ourselves (or anything, really) too seriously.  Life’s a transient journey, lived a quarter-mile at a time.  May as well enjoy the ride.

Michael Bay

Bad Boys II (2003) – Will Smith and Martin Lawrence go to town!

Ku Klux Klan members get a shellacking in this 2003 cinematic masterpiece by Michael Bay. I say with the utmost absolute sincerity possible that I am confident, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that no other human being on planet earth has informed my own value system and moral foundation as much as has Michael Bay. Growing up in the nineties, Bay was everywhere. And ever since, to this day, he continues to be a constant fixture in my thought space, a cornerstone of my belief system and personal identity.

I missed the first Bad Boys (1995) and The Rock (1996) but every single Bay film since, starting with Armageddon in 1998, I’ve been there on opening weekend at the theater. I dragged my entire family to see Pearl Harbor in 2001, and was there for Bad Boys II in 2003. Yes, I even saw The Island (2005). In college, that summer I was staying in midtown New York with my buddies all working Wall Street internships; that’s right– we all went to Transformers (2007). I personally went twice.

When you watch a Michael Bay film, especially those early ones when Bruckheimer was still keeping him reined in, those movies represented everything I genuinely believed being a man meant. The difference between right and wrong. The humor and masculinity, the dedication and camaraderie, the spirit of sacrifice. Good lord, the sheer American patriotism. I dare you to find another film director who is as virtuosic as Bay is at putting on the big screen what it means to be an American. Oh, right. You can’t. That director doesn’t exist.

In today’s entry, I tip my hat to Michael Bay. Mr. Michael Benjamin Bay, I salute you. Everything I am today, my very moral and ethical foundations, I owe to you. Thank you.