Manufacturing Pretext for Chinese Withdrawal

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 Two

Manufacturing pretext for a Chinese withdrawal from Xinjiang is now top-of-mind for everyone involved.  We’re due to arrive in Urumqi in just under six hours and at that time, the Premier of the Western Provinces will be expecting a full report of our analysis and recommendations of further action.  We had two months to put together a plan.  And of course we’re going to do it all in six hours.  It always, without fail, happens this way.  But of course.

Luckily, we’re on a state-of-the-art train with highspeed wireless internet.  And everyone’s also brought their laptops, of course.  We have six hours to bang out a killer report for the Premier.  It’s do-or-die time.

On consulting projects, the way it works is that the client –in this case, the Chinese Communist Party– often approaches us with some kind of general question.  It always starts because the client is unhappy with something.  On most traditional projects I’d done previously , it was about how to incentivize more people to sign up for health insurance or how to persuade more customers to buy Widget X this Christmas season.  Projects can come in all kinds of flavors, but the two most popular are “one-time reports and recommendations” and “long-run projects.”  With “one-time reports,” those simply require analysis of a previous event.  For example, the giant American airport, LAX, had contacted us one summer to request that we help them analyze the catastrophic Christmas season that they’d had the previous year.  Due to weather snarls, TSA security lines had taken hours, hundreds of passengers had missed flights, and it’s been a complete debacle from beginning to end, making national headlines.  It was such a bad look that LAX had engaged us to perform a one-time analysis of why that particular Christmas had been so calamitous– they were keen to learn lessons and insights to prevent such disaster from ever happening again in future Christmas seasons.  We engaged, worked on the project for a month, delivered a report and final presentation, and that was that.

And then there are “long-run campaigns.”  These are projects that possess long, multi-month time horizons and are demarcated along some specific start-date, like the start of the World Cup or the Olympics.  We prepare ideas and materials to help a clients gather ideas on how to acquire purchases or impressions (general brand awareness).  Timewise, these projects are demarcated into two distinct phases:  “Before Go-Live” and “After Go-Live.”  As the name suggests, the client keeps us engaged (and keeps paying us!) after the “Go-Live” of the event and we stick around to continue monitoring traffic, incoming revenue, page click-throughs, etc.  All is done in real-time and then we continue to give the client recommendations on places the campaign may be falling short, places we are doing well, and places where we think we might be able to do even better.

Meeting Premier Wu in Urumqi was the first in-person meeting with the top-brass that we’d be having with the CCP.  So far, my entire time in China had been abstract, hidden away in the JFL in Jinshui.  But things were about to get much more real.  If we didn’t impress Premier Wu, I suspected our trip in China would become far less comfortable than the luxury that’d we been treated to so far.

“Right now, the problem is that the people perceive the benefits of public dissent more favorable than they fear the consequences of being caught,” I say, thinking aloud.  “So we’re hoping that by elevating the costs, we can deter the undesirable behavior.”

“Instilling fear only works though if it’s not a hollow threat,” Deepak says.  “If you threaten that some virus has suddenly swept the land, people may barricade themselves at home for maybe a week or two.  But eventually, you know that someone will most definitely wander outside.”

I reflect on my own experience. Deepak is definitely right on the mark. There’s always that guy. The one who simply must know with his own two hands and his own two eyes. Normally, I’m rooting for him; but this one time, he’s a sore thorn in our sides.

“No matter the situation, there will always be the risk-takers; people who climb free solo,” Kristen says.  “The key to making this work will be to identify these people and make examples out of them.”

Coleman stares.  “Guys, we’re not wantonly killing hundreds of people just to set an example.”

“No, of course not,” I agree.  The beginning of an inchoate idea is beginning to congeal in my head.  Like a ship far off in the fog slowly drifting closer, I begin to make out its faint outline.  Ideas are born in our minds by millions of neurons and synapses firing away, like electric impulses in a thunderstorm.  I have no idea what cross-pollination of lived experience, fantastical thinking, and Hollywood movies happens, but I’m struck by a sudden thought.

“I wonder if it might be possible to set up a Potemkin kind of situation?” I muse aloud.  “People growing ill and being hospitalized.  No one actually dying but the fatality rates soaring?”

Kristen furrows her brow.  She’s been pacing this entire time, towards one end of the train car and back, up and down the aisle.  She’s definitely a pacer.

She stops pacing.

“I really want to dismiss your idea as absurd.  But it’s actually not as dumb as it first sounds,” she finally says.

Coming from Kristen, this is pretty much qualifies a bonafide compliment.

Alan picks up the thread.  “With state-controlled media, it’d be easy to fabricate fatality numbers.”

“But if the truth ever got out,” says Coleman, “no one would ever trust the media again, right?  Isn’t legitimacy a concern here?”

Alan shrugs.  “On the Chinese internet, even behind the Great Firewall, there are already dozens of popular conspiracy theories.  We live in an age where people just believe whatever they wish to believe anyway.  If the truth got out, it’d –ironically– just be considered another conspiracy just like all of the others.”

Quelling Dissent Quietly is a Puzzle

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 Six

“Meeting the locals will be a crucial part of the project,” Alan is saying.  “If we’re going to build a campaign to win over hearts and minds, we’re going to need to know how they feel and think.”

It’s a few weeks later and we’re back in Building 11 again.  For days we’d tossed about dozens of ideas.  No matter which approach we came up with, the chief obstacle was always the same:  The key challenge in Xinjiang was that there existed a small but vocal faction of protestors in the region who resented Chinese control and rule.  Using the state surveillance apparatus, we’d gleaned their whereabouts.  Overhead satellite imagery told us where they convened, an old building in the Shuimogou district above a convenience shop stuck between a clothing store and a rundown Chinese restaurant.  Once they entered the building though, we had no idea what happened inside.

“I don’t understand,” Coleman says.  “In Ürümqi, the people have everything.  The local municipality provides government-sponsored housing and daily food rations for the destitute.  No one goes hungry or without a roof over their heads.  Why are people plotting in secret to overthrow the regime?”

“The discontent and disillusioned are predominately the young, new generation,” says Alan.  “Among the older folks, for decades, there was never a single peep.  But increasingly, as young people return to Ürümqi after studying and working abroad, they’re appalled by what they see in their hometown.”

“Is it possible,” asks Deepak, “to simply restrict all movement in and out of the capital?  Lock down all of the borders and disallow free movement between provincial and city borders?”

Van sighs.  “So obviously, it’s possible.  Anything’s possible.  But if we can help it, we’d prefer not to.”  She taps a few keys on her computer and projection of China springs up on the wall.  Some areas are colored in light pink.  “These colored regions represent potential zones of turmoil by what we’ve been able to observe.  When we operate in Xinjiang, it’s critical to understand that we’re operating under a microscope.  While there is some western press covering Xinjiang, what’s really important is that we don’t provide any fodder to China’s other autonomous regions that would instigate rebellion or action.”

“But you guys control of the media, right?” Coleman asks.  “Why are we worried about this?”

This is my cue.  I’ve actually been studying this data in the last few weeks and my findings aren’t what I expected.

“The Great Firewall of China,” I explain, “is considerable but not impregnable.  In fact, with each passing year, the CCP has actually been losing its ability to control information within the country.  There’s a significant uptick in people using VPNs, among other methods, to circumvent state control.  While once formidable, the sieve is slipping.”

Kristen chuckles.  “Have you ever tried containing the internet?  It’s easier said than done.”

“Right,” says Van.  She turns to Deepak to answer his question.  “So like I was saying earlier.  If we did just shut down all movement in and out of Xinjiang, there’s no way to do that quietly.  We’re talking about closing down border checkpoints, shutting down airports, and barricading all ports of entry.”

“Yeah,” I say.  “And also, you’ll need to enforce it too, which is a whole other project in itself.  There’s gonna be coyotes illegally ferreting people in and out– what are we going to do with these folks?  The Chinese army is just supposed to shoot rulebreakers on sight?”

“Right, and then you just know that some kid’s gonna snap a photo of it with his ancient 3G Huawei phone: his 80-something Grandma being shot in the back as she flees Chinese border patrol on foot–“

“–and that’ll eventually make it onto the frontpage of Reddit, The Post, or worse.”

We all sigh.  This is a puzzle, alright.  Quelling dissent in Xinjiang– but doing it quietly.

Millions Died That November

Millions died that November.  It happened all at once and so suddenly that not a single country or soul on earth was ready for it.  To this day, we’re still not exactly sure what had changed, but it was as if God had flipped some kind of master switch of life and death.  The numbers that eventually came to pass made the Pol Pot death marches in Cambodia in the late 1970s seem like amateur hour.  The massive fatality rates landed like waves crashing against the beach with ever-increasing intensity, exponentially.  First 4,000 deaths a week which people professed to be disturbed by; but in their heart-of-hearts just considered, “That’s the way it goes.” Then 8,000 the following week; then 16,000; then 32, 64, 128, 256, 512, 1,028 by week nine… that’s over a million people dying every week1,028,000.  It just took us just nine short weeks to get there.

How did society respond?  Predictably, I guess.  Like Billy Bob Thornton once remarked, “Basically, it was the worst parts of the bible.”  Civil services broke down overnight.  Kind of pointless to show up for your job when there was a 50/50 chance you could contract the virus and just suddenly die.  The stock market, which had rebounded so spectacularly, nosedived once more– plummeting something like 10,000 points in a single day.  It was Black Monday all over again:  Speculators, investors, and day-traders lost everything as margin calls swept across the land and bank accounts were cleaned out.  Flooded with redemption requests that destroyed their livelihoods, every week some new hedge fund manager was flinging himself or herself off a Wall Street skyscraper.  We didn’t know it then but they were the smart ones; the lucky folks.  It was a merciful swift end in the cold, heartless, brutal new normal that was to come.  Grocery shelves were picked bare, schools were abandoned, airlines went bankrupt, and the economy once more halted on a dime– except this time, it wasn’t a voluntary crash like it had been back in March.  It was the real thing.

And then, what happened next– if there were ever some executive one-pager, some Cliff Notes or Spark Notes for how humanity operates in its darkest hour– what happened next basically goes down as the pinnacle HBS Case Study that best represents the human species:  One day, long after humans have already gone extinct by our own hand, some alien race will discover our remains in some epic archeological excavation and scratch their little alien head(s).  “Jesus,” they’ll wonder.  “Was this a tragedy or a comedy?”

In a nutshell, the place it all began:  That infectious diseases biolab in Wuhan, China– It developed the first successful vaccine.

And China refused to share its vaccine with the rest of the world.

The Dewey Decimal Classification System

Melvil Dewey was one of the great intellectual giants of his time.  One of his awesome inventions that I’ve been recently studying is the Dewey Decimal Classification System.  Dewey first began developing the DDCS in 1873 while he was working at the Amherst College library and finally published its first version in 1876.  Over time, the proprietary system has slowly evolved and is currently maintained and licensed out to small libraries by the OCLC; the latest revision of the DDCS was released in 2011.  Today, the Dewey Decimal Classification System is used in more than 200,000 libraries in over 135 countries.

The DDCS fascinates me because it represents one man’s vision of how all of human knowledge should be mapped out.  In the DDCS, knowledge is organized into ten divisions:

  • Class 000:  Computer Science, Information, and General Works
  • Class 100:  Philosophy & Psychology
  • Class 200:  Religion
  • Class 300:  Social Sciences
  • Class 400:  Language
  • Class 500:  Science
  • Class 600:  Technology
  • Class 700:  Arts & Recreation
  • Class 800:  Literature
  • Class 900:  History & Geography

Then each division is further organized into more granular subdivisions.  For example:  “010” corresponds to “Bibliographies” and “790” corresponds to “Sports, Games, & Entertainment.”  For instance, if you were trying to search for a book on “Tom Hanks,” it’d likely be classified in 791 (“Public Performances”).

Building on Dewey’s work, I feel like I can adopt his DDC system when I build my own ontology of Wobble2.  Online, I found some great work by Cameron Mence who has used the D3 library to build this nifty tree map that represents a subset of how books are distributed in the DDCS.

Of course, whenever you start trying to develop meta-level schemas, taxonomies, and ontologies to organize all of human knowledge, you’re going to import your own biases into the project.  If you’re a human being, it’s simply impossible to be unbiased.  Thus, the DDCS has sustained its fair share of criticism over the centuries since its inception.  Times change and the world around us, and how we understand it, likewise evolves.  A great example:  In 1932, topics related to “homosexuality” were initially added under 132 (“mental derangements”) and 159.9 (“abnormal psychology”).  In 1932, that’s simply how humans (or at least, the humans in power who organized libraries) viewed the world.  But what’s fascinating is watching how human knowledge progressed and evolvedBy 1952, “homosexuality” was added to the 301.424 range (“the study of sexes in society”) and in 1989 was added to 363.49 (“social problems”).  It wasn’t until 1996 that it was added to 306.7 (“sexual relations”) which OCLC calls its current “preferred location.”

Finally, I found it fascinating (though, I guess, predictable) that nearly the entire 200 range covering “religion” is actually just all about “Christianity.”  Amusingly, all of the world’s thousands of other religions (for example, including Islam– a pretty big one at 24.1% vs 31.2% of Christianity, globally) are relegated to just a narrow band inside the 290s.   Christianity occupies everything else in the 200s!

When Mental Models Go Stale + Levels of Certainty

Mental models are important.  But we need to always consider how fresh our models are.  I like and agree with Derek Sivers’s take that he normally never immediately responds to most questions because his answer will “be erroneously based upon old and outdated self-knowledge.” So here’s my rant for the morning:  IMHO, people really should attach a confidence interval (or “level of certainty”) with their predictions or comments.  Generally, unless I otherwise specify, I usually speak with around an 80% confidence.  Meaning, I am roughly 80% certain in whatever I’m talking about and in my position.  But sometimes, I am much less or much more certain.  In those cases, I will usually specify.

For example, yesterday a friend asked me about Sam Harris.  I know of Harris and have listened to his podcast before.  But several years back I’d lost interest in him and had stopped listening.  Every single one of his episodes –at least for a stretch that I’d listened to– had devolved into an opening ten minutes of airing grievances.  Whether fairly or unfairly (most likely the latter), I’d come to think of Harris, at least as he presented himself, as “the most aggrieved man in America.”  (Also, his podcast’s old name, Waking Up, always struck me as enormously condescending.  So that was already one strike.  His podcast’s new name, Making Sense, is marginally better but still has a whiff of superiority about it that slightly irks.) As of yesterday, my mental model of Harris had understandably gone stale.  That is, I had no idea what he’s up to nowadays, what news surrounds him, etc.

Thus, when I opined on Sam Harris, I think it was responsible that I gave “my-mental-model-of-him-has-staled” qualifier.  I have data on him that I can convey to you, but my impression is an old impression.  And thus, just being cognizant of that actually makes me more amenable to receiving and processing new information on Harris.  If more people followed these guidelines I’m laying out, I think we’d live in a much saner world.  People should go about being, and sounding, much less certain.  You’re more willing to receive and process new data if your cup isn’t already flowing over. The world is rapidly changing and we’re constantly revising our internal models to approximate what on earth is going on around us. In fact, coupled to this thought: As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become infinitely more weary of anyone who sounds certain about anything. In fact, if we ever converse, the more certain you sound, the less I’ll probably think of you. (Also, no offense intended, but if you’re young, this especially applies to you.)

The MCU Model vs The DCEU Multiverse Model

Multiple universes and timelines have been recently popularized by Rick & Morty, Community, Steins;Gate, and the entire DC Cinematic Extended Universe (DCEU).  Though parallel universes and timelines have long been a well-trodden science fiction trope, I think mainstream folks more generally expect something like the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  Under the brilliant (genius?) direction of Kevin Feige, President of Marvel Studios since 2007, MCU’s Phase I-III comprised the first twenty-three films of Marvel’s single shared cinematic universe.  This was an incredible ten-year run starting with Iron Man in 2008, culminating with Avengers: Endgame (April 2019) and ending with Spider-Man: Far From Home (July 2019).  One day, I’m sure historians will reflect on the unprecedented feat; it’s genuinely remarkable to me that Feige and his team pull of single, consistent, coherent world, the way they did.  Truly, bravo.

It’s been fascinating to watch Marvel’s crosstown rivals, DC, make a similar attempt, fail spectacularly, and then reboot with more a “Multiverse Model.”  Eg.  I just read today that Batfleck will be returning to don the cowl once more in The Flash (Summer 2022).  This will be happening despite the fact that Robert Pattinson is the new Batman in Matt Reeves’s separate The Batman movie.

Personally, I’m a fan of the Multiverse model. Obviously, I have no evidence to back up what I believe. Maybe the life we’re currently living is truly all there is. Maybe. But maybe not. Maybe there’s a billion, trillion Wobbles all walking around somewhere at this very moment. Some Wobbles became writers and others became lawyers or software programmers. Chances are, at least one Wobble became (or tried to become) an authoritarian dictator that oppressed hundreds of millions.

Across all of these timelines, I like to think all of the Wobbles share a common core, a single soul. Sometimes, when we dream while sleeping, we may catch glimpses of our parallel selves, all leading their own lives in their own timelines. Anyway, just my belief. 😊

Sonya Blade is played by Bridgette Wilson-Sampras from Extreme Ops!