The New Plan

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 Nine – Passage One

Launching a targeted super-virus into a major metropolitan area is easier said than done.  Logistically, there were a thousand different things that could go wrong.  First, like any good data science project, we needed to define our parameters.  At the top of that list, obviously, were human fatalities.

“Whatever solution you devise,” Jack had told us on the platform as we were about to depart Xi’an, “it simply must do no worse than the current situation on the ground.  As long as Beijing sees that you’re moving in the right direction, you’ll be fine.  The Chinese are a patient people.  We don’t expect overnight successes; in fact, we highly suspect any achievement not borne of years and decades of pain and suffering.  But we do expect improvement.  Always.”

Jack’s words ring in my head as I watch the scenery blow past outside our speeding train window.  We’re back in modern civilization again and it’s nice to be back in the land of chrome-plated expresso machines, laptops, and gigabit wireless internet.  Though I’d enjoyed the quaint retro-steampunk world of Xi’an the two days that we were there, I was ready to return to the twenty-first century.  It was time.

Before, we’d been thinking too small.  Trying to use conventional means to reduce civil unrest and turmoil in Xinjiang.  What I’d realized after our two-day jaunt in Xi’an was that people’s behavior in Urumqi was far more complex than just simple toggles and switches on a dashboard.  We’d tried the carrot and we’d tried the stick.  Both had totally failed miserably.  It was time to bring out the Tomahawk missiles.

Besides, we were nearing the end of the second month of our engagement and so far we’d delivered no results.  No, even worse than no results.  We’d spent tons of time, energy, and money.  But some policies had actually further deteriorated the situation on the ground in Urumqi.  Negative results.  I must admit– though I had not contemplated it before, I sure as hell was now thinking about it:  What was the price of failure?

In America, even if you’re on a total debacle of a project, if it sends in total failure and catastrophe, while the project’s very public head –say, like the Secretary of Health and Human Services– may be sacked in a show of public accountability, most consultants like myself simply slink away unscathed.  We’ve already collected our tens or hundreds of thousand dollars in fees; our job is done!  And then we simply conveniently leave off the dumpster fire of a project from our CVs when we gallivant off onto our next engagement.  All is well.

But here, in China, I begin to wonder if the consequences of abject failure are similarly so nonchalant?

Similar concerns seem to be weighing on Kristen’s mind too because she’s been surprisingly open to this new direction.  That is to say– she’s been very quiet; I would’ve expected more loud protests of outrage, disbelief, and umbrage at the thought of making tens of thousands of people severely ill, if not worse, but she’s taken this recent turn of events in stride.

“So the bare minimum,” Kristen says to me over the train dining table, “is that whatever solution we propose, there simply cannot be more fatalities than are currently happening.  But on what time horizon?”

“Let’s say– a year,” I suggest.  I also have my laptop in front of my and am punching in numbers as we speak, to just explore this scenario a bit, to see what kind of outcomes we might be looking at.  Or as they say:  See the possibility space.

“So we know the Xinjiang and Kazakhstani border is currently among the most disputed in the world.  Maybe only second to the Gaza Strip.  If we loop in those casualty numbers, it’ll give us much more to work with than just using the Urumqi crime statistics.”

I nod knowingly.  This shifty little maneuver, an underhanded technique that data scientists often use when they’re trying to argue for a particular case in their favor, we call:  Moving the goalposts.

I examine the map to see the contested hot zone– it’s a region along the border by the small Kazakhstani town of Horogos.  Is this to become our new West Bank?

Of all of us, Coleman is the one with the most trepidation towards this new direction, however.  The prospect of killing thousands of innocent people hangs over him like a dark spectre.

“Guys– you are not seriously considering Jack’s idea, are you?” he says, clearly dumbfounded.  “These… these are war crimes we’re talking about.”

“War crimes,” Deepak replies, “is having hundreds and thousands of your own citizens dying every year from poverty, random missile attacks, and suicide bombings in the public market.  That should be a war crime.  How many of innocent citizens have died from the terrorist violence that’s currently going on down there today?”

“But that is not state-sanctioned violence!” Coleman protests.  “What you’re proposing here is knowingly committing atrocities.

“Wait, hold up,” Kristen says holding up her hands.  “No one is talking about killing tens of thousands of people.  In fact, if everything goes right, no one will die at all.”

“Oh, really?” Coleman says dubiously.

“We’re talking about a moderate biological agent.  Something that people might get ill from; but they’ll make full recoveries!  With these kind of programs, the fear, especially in the beginning, is what prompts action.  We’re not setting out to kill anyone year– just make them a little sick.”

Ah, I see.  This is clearly how we sleep at night.  Clearly.

“We just need to manufacture pretext for Chinese withdraw from the region,” Alan chimes in.  “A bunch of people will get the flu but everyone will ultimately be fine.” 

As we’re discussing this ludicrous idea, I do notice how everyone is conveniently omitting talking about the second part of Jack’s plan, which for some reason everyone’s suddenly become very fond of.  Assuming some biological agent we create doesn’t mutate into a super-virus and turn into the next Bubonic Plague that slaughters everyone, Jack’s entire proposal hinges on the idea that after Chinese withdrawal, the Uyghurs will turn on themselves; that in the absence of Chinese infrastructure and support, the entire region will degenerate into a chaotic morass of death and destruction.  No one mentions this part.

The Chinese Dream and Leaving America

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 Five

Leaving America though, if I’m reflecting honestly, was one of the easiest things I’ve ever done.  The thing is– I simply no longer belonged there.  It’d slowly but surely grown into something I no longer recognized, like a favorite sweater that once fit snugly and served you well which you wore for many years.  But then slowly frayed and faded over time until one day, you looked in a mirror, and seriously didn’t like what you saw reflected back.

The truth was, even though America billed itself as a democratic republic, increasingly over the years, the country had grown increasingly autocratic in many ways.  Sure, on paper, it was “one person, one vote” and there theoretically existed those highly vaunted “checks and balances” that you always learned so much about growing up as a kid.

But the reality was that, especially with the first term of the DTJ administration, for all practical purposes, via executive actions, Junior had unilaterally curtailed everything from voting rights to freedom of the press.  America’s founding principles of “every man was created equal” (unless you’re black) had become more a mythological shingle that we hung in front of the shop to avoid any actual public scrutiny.  People saw it every day, was comforted by it, and walked by contented, blissfully ignorant that they were in fact living under an increasingly authoritarian regime wherein all men were definitely not created equal.

I take another bite of my chicken-rice and chew for a moment.  The koi fish in the pond before me swam happily about.  I wonder, briefly, if they even at all realize or comprehend that they’re all in a pond.  Do they believe that the entire koi universe simply stretches the length of their enclosure?

Yet, the koi really are so beautiful.  What Shu said earlier had struck a chord.  Is it such a crime to rely on others?

Maybe I was looking at America the wrong way.  Growing up, we were taught individualism as a prime directive. Be yourself. Everyone’s a snowflake. Everyone’s special.  And sure, one could simply lounge about sipping fancy dry martinis all day and spew bile and reams of discontent at DTJ or whatever poor hapless soul who happened to be in office. That ankle-high bar isn’t a particularly ambitious reach.  But at the crux of it, thinking back about why individualism was such a cornerstone of the American identity– I realize now that there’s a fundamental basis of mistrust behind that core philosophy.

Here in China, I see that people simply trust their government.  The CCP wants to steamroll your ancestral home to make way for the 2008 Beijing OlympicsSure, no problem.  The government wants to forcibly relocate your neighborhood to across the province for the new metro line?  Awesome, sign me up.  There was never any pushback. Chinese citizens simply trusted that their government knew what it was doing and that whatever inconveniences or sacrifices that was being asked of them was simply for the greater good. For the Chinese Dream.


Now, to be sure, this extreme deference has led to a totalitarian regime that’s curb stomped human rights, enabled forced sterilizations, and sprouted “mandatory reeducation camps.”  But a more glass-half-full read on everything would also fairly conclude that the vast majority of Chinese citizens did have enough to eat, had jobs, and had roofs over their heads.  And ever since the Chinese economy entered a “hybrid-pseudo-capitalistic-model,” the younger working generations in the major urban centers like Beijing and Shanghai now also had a way to constantly save up and buy the latest iPhone, PlayStation, or whatever shiny-new-toy-of-the-week.  Consumerism was slowly becoming the new frontier now that Maslow’s basics needs were increasingly being met.

So, in short:  America to me had grown increasingly into a place where we didn’t trust our leaders.  We didn’t trust our most educated, men and women who had trained for decades to hone a specific expertise.  In America, we believed in equality– freedom of speech had allowed everyone a seat at the table.  And then the internet and social media had given everyone megaphones so we could hear everyone’s voice equally.

But did I really want to live in this world?  A world where everyone had an equal voice?  Where the pot-smoking teenager in his mother’s basement had the same amplification and audience as Nobel-winning laurates?

Life: The Mortal Coil – Seasons

Looking back on the years, I feel life can generally be segmented into four seasons:  Years 0-18, 19-40, 41-60, and 61-80.  Sure, folks live past 80; but for myself, personally, my health has never been the greatest.  So I think reaching anywhere even close to 70-80 would be a genuine accomplishment.  Also, for most people, especially upon reaching those septuagenarian and octogenarian years, one’s overall health usually declines.  Longevity of life is not quality of life.  And especially towards the end, those two traits often inverse each other.  So, personally, I don’t much desire to get very long in the tooth.  I would much rather live a happier but shorter life, than a longer, more disease-ridden/Alzheimer-filled inglorious end that drags on into eternity.  Slowly dying from a thousand cuts is painful.  I know this is morbid stuff but it’s just what happens to be on my mind this beautiful Friday morning.

Once I break down life into the idea of seasons, I see I’m nearly about halfway through it.  That’s an odd fact to contemplate– being halfway finished with life.  Of course, this is an optimistic projection.  Tragedy could befall me tomorrow.  But assuming nothing extraordinarily unexpected happens, I’ve advanced about halfway through this mortal coil.

If I take stock of my progress so far, at the 50% mark, I think I’ve done alright.  Of course, I wouldn’t mind having more money or more land.  Having a giant McMansion with a dedicated housekeeping staff and chef would be certainly nice.  So I guess on that front, I’ve come up a little short (okay, a lot short). So by that metric at least, my life is a complete failure. That’s fair.  I honestly thought that by this point that I’d have acquired all of those material possessions.  (Though one challenge about owning big properties, that I’ve heard my friends grumble about, is that the cost of maintenance and upkeep is honestly the killer expense.  Ie. The initial cost of acquisition of a bajillion acres or whatever is actually a tiny fraction of what it costs to keep all that acreage looking nice and civilized in the long run.  So that’s something nontrivial to consider.)

Anyway, aside from material possessions, the most important development by far that’s happened to date is that I met Bagel.  I’ve mentioned this before but I honestly never thought an S/O was in the cards for me.  Meeting Bagel had never been part of my life plan.  I’d always been a lone wolf and thought that I would be forever.  But luckily, I was wrong!

Looking forward, I’ve got about 50% of life left.  Not sure what the future holds but right now my number one priority is to make a ton more money.  So I’m working on that.  Secondly, I’m also contemplating taking up woodworking.  I spend most of my days inside in front of my computer moving pixels around so it’d be nice to take up a hobby that’s very physical and hands-on.  I also have a few other data science projects and musings that I need to either start or finish.  And finally– gotta make sure to keep in good health and not get derailed again.  Life:  So much left to do and so little time!

Lev Grossman: A Beacon of Light and Hope for Aspiring Writers Everywhere

Lev Grossman is one of my favorite writers.  I don’t remember exactly where I’d read it (it may have been on his blog?), but Grossman once recommended a way of writing long-form fiction that has really stuck with me:  Create two new Word documents.  In the first document, list all of the mechanical events that you want/need to happen in your story.  For example:  Alice meets Bob, Alice wins the World Cup, Bob’s dog dies, etc.  And then in the second Word document, list all of the feelings that you wish for your reader to experience when reading your story.  For example, a feeling may be “grief and loss” or “victory and triumph.”  After you have finished both Word documents, now see how many events you can pair from Document A with feelings from Document B.  Eg. “Alice wins the World Cup” could be paired with “victory and triumph” and “Bob’s dog dies” could be paired with “grief and loss.”  Also, multiple feelings can be associated with the same event.  It’s a fun and informative exercise which also then serves as a good kinda roadmap for your long-fiction writing!

Grossman also occupies a special place in my brain because he is one of the few authors I have actually ever met in person.  I have two signed books!  The first was when I met him in 2011 at the Barnes & Noble on 86th and Broadway when he was promoting The Magician King (at that signing, a fan had asked, “Mr. Grossman– did you ever think about titling TMK another name?  To which LG had replied:  “Well, I actually felt like calling it, The Magician Queen.  But that was only after seeing an advert for TMK in the Times.”)  The second was at the Brooklyn Historical Society in 2015 when he once did an event.  I still vividly remember these two encounters.  When I’d met him at B&N, I’d asked what advice he had for an aspiring writer.  And his response was:  “Read as much as you humanly can.  Always be reading.” and “Never, never, ever give up.”  He mentioned that it took him 17 years of writing other stuff before he finally wrote The Magicians at the age of 40. (And at the BHS, he signed my tattered copy of Warp!)

Oh!  One more memory:  No signed book at this one, but I also once saw the leverus in Portland at Leakycon in 2013.  I don’t remember the exact details, but for some reason, he (and several other authors) were in heated competition and his task was to extract as many red-colored balls from a source basket full of yellow-colored balls to put into a target basket in 60 seconds.  Haha, until the end of my days, I will always remember the MC (Maureen Johnson, I think?) in the background commentating, “And now here’s Mr. Grossman– demonstrating the Harvard vs Yale technique for colored-ball extraction.”  I’m probably misremembering at least part of that but in the final ten seconds, Grossman just took the source basket and dumped the entirety of its contents into the target basket.  Clever!  All that Ivy League education turned out useful after all!

My final thought on LG appreciation –aside from just the way I love how he writes and speaks (an unholy concoction of “highbrow meets lowbrow” is really the only way I know how to describe it)– is how open he’s been in print and online with his struggles against depression, especially after his divorce from his first marriage.  I just saw him at Muskogee MiniCon this afternoon (go, Thunder! ⚡✊) where he was virtua-touring The Silver Arrow and the man looked, more than anything else, content.  He’s married again now with two smaller children in his new marriage and happily living in Brooklyn.  Good for you, Mr. Grossman, and truly, thank you.  I’m so happy to see you make it to the other side.

“I don’t believe in magic, [but] books are very, very close. They’re the closest thing we have.”

Lev Grossman (August 5, 2014)

Lost Opportunities – Nope

No one knows what the future holds. It has infinite potential.

Looking back on what has passed, it’s easy to identify what appear like lost opportunities.  Jobs not taken, promotions not achieved, relationships not pursued.  If I only would have bought Tesla stock a decade ago, I’d be rich now.  Or if I would’ve studied X instead of Y.  Or moved to A instead of B.  The list is endless.

This kind of thinking is commonplace and entirely erroneous.  As I’ve mentioned before, I feel like I’ve honestly never made a mistake.  To that end, I don’t waste any time thinking about what might have been.  The past is exactly that:  The past. There are two parts to this:

Part 1:  Feeling good or bad about your current life stage is a transient, ephemeral feeling.  It’s impossible to hypothesize whether if things would be better or worse for the simple reason no one knows what might have actually happened.  Yes, maybe you bought Apple stock in the 80s and went on to be a billionaire.  But all of that money led to half a dozen divorces and a cocaine addiction and you ended up dead before 40.  There is no counterfactual to life.  What’s appears “good” now (like winning the lottery) may in a year’s time be a terrible curse– plenty of those stories abound.  Fake friends coming out of the woodwork to fleece you; relatives calling in; etc.  And on the flip-side:  What seems like “abject tragedy” now could somehow later be “the best thing that ever happened to you.”

Part 2:  One of my favorite scenes in The West Wing is sometime in S7 when Josh (or maybe it’s Santos?) is looking at the election map with Leo; they’re in the final stretch and trying to figure out what states to give up spending in, and where to bet the remainder of their campaign funds.  Santos says to Leo:  “Are you sure we want to do this?  It feels like we’re closing a lot of doors.”  And Leo replies:  “The best strategies always do.”

There’s no way to Monday-morning-quarterback life.  Like that scene in The Dark Knight Rises— sometimes you just need to climb the pit wall without the harness.  There’s a time for caution and a time to go all in.  Ray Dalio reflects similarly in his book, Principles, when he decided in the early days to close shop on Bridewater’s China expansion.  Though it was lucrative and possessed huge potential, Dalio just couldn’t wage war on so many fronts and so he gave up some potentially golden hens abroad in order to nurture others closer to home, here in America.  (In the end, I conject that things worked out fine for Ray.)

If you have any regrets with the life you’ve lived so far, don’t.  Regrets are dumb.  Focus on the present and future.  By ruminating on the past, you’ll just shoot yourself in the foot even more; actually missing opportunities in the here and now.  Now that’d be the true tragedy.

Today’s parting thought: For some reason, I am just absolutely amused to no end with the very notion of Tom Cruise somehow being The Last Samurai in the entirety of Japan. Another 2003 cinematic masterpiece, this one courtesy of Edward Zwick: This time around, the Samurai and Bushido culture, which has existed since the 12th century (that’s nine centuries (900 years) ago, for anyone who’s counting) somehow culminates with Tom “Mission: Impossible” Cruise as being the last warrior of an ancient caste that dates back nearly a millennium. That is honestly so genuinely great on so many levels. Truly, legit entertainment; fiction done right.