“In Times of Great Need, Everyone’s Suddenly a Democrat.”

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 Four

Occasionally, I smoke.  It’s not a typical habit but sometimes I’ll light up a cigarette when I’m feeling particularly tense or stressed out.  Over the horizon, dawn’s about to break and in another hour The Silver Dragon will arrive at Urumqi.  Our first appointment of the day is a nine o’clock meeting with Governor Wu at his offices in the city town hall.  He’ll be expecting a status report and an outline of next steps and how we plan to proceed.  Every time you walk into a client meeting, the hope is that you’ll be able to deliver wonderfully good news.  That you’ve met every objective for the quarter and really knocked it out of the park.  But then, sometimes, you’ll be in the situation like we’re in now.  Where the news is less than stellar.

In our defense, we’ve been consistently sending periodic status updates to the governor’s office:  Daily and weekly dashboard snapshots of the situation on the ground in Urumqi.  So at least we’re not surprising anyone with bad news.  (That’s always the first lesson in the business:  Surprises are bad.  Clients can (well, relatively) ingest bad news when they’re warned (repeatedly) ahead of time and made well aware of the risks along the way.   But if things suddenly go pear-shaped and once-theoretical risks suddenly reify with very severe, very real-world consequences, this is when you’ve got a problem.)

But things had been steadily going downhill for the past six weeks.  While our initial efforts had at first appeared promising, after the second week, incidents of petty crimes such as theft and vandalism had rebounded and climbed even higher than their previous levels.  And ever since, all of our charts had been going in the wrong direction.

I hear the garden car door open behind me and turn.  It’s Kristen.

“Up early, are we?” she asks.  The garden car is one of the more quixotic in The Silver Dragon.  Normally, China’s pretty warm and doesn’t get the deep autumn seasons.  So a clever engineer somewhere along the way decided to install a “greenhouse” car on the train to emulate foliage and fauna that the Chinese don’t normally see.  For urban folk –namely, the wealthy who could afford passage on The Silver Dragon— the garden car was a wonderous marvel.  Most of the urban wealthy in China spent their days in soaring, airconditioned office towers all of their waking hours.  To be able to enjoy nature for, even for a few hours, on a long train trip was a welcome reprieve from the pedestrian daily grind of one’s mundane Chinese life.

I’m in the garden car just because it had the proper ventilation systems to vacuum away all of my cigarette smoke though.  Gotta find some way to get rid of all of the evidence, after all.

Kristen walks over and sits next to me on the garden bench.  She’s wearing a dark blue suit pants; a beige, cashmere turtleneck; and golden hoop earrings. I’m pretty sure she’s also wearing heels because she seems taller.  It reminds me that we’re all going to need to get dolled up when we see the governor.  (And I’m suddenly reminded that I’ve spent the past two months in sweatpants in the basement of the JFL.)

“Big day, today,” I say, taking another drag on my cigarette.  “We’re not exactly going in to deliver the best of news.”

Kristen shrugs.  “Good news is easy.  Anyone can deliver good news.  It’s needing to deliver bad news and convince them to keep us around– that’s where we really earn it, right?”

I chuckle.  “True, true.  So very true.”

“Besides,” Kristen says brightly.  “We’ve got a full-proof plan!  It’s bold!  It’s daring!  They’re going to love it!”

“Our plan involves fabricating and maintaining a wild lie to feed to millions,” I say, sighing.  “In order to strike fear and worry into the lives of millions of Chinese citizens, many of whom poor farmers and common folk who are already struggling enough as it is to make ends meet and just get by.”

Kristen clasps me on the back.  “C’mon!  Don’t be like that.  It’s for the greater good.  Isn’t that what we always tell ourselves?  Follow the data?  Trust the numbers?  Instead of dwelling on all of the negative side effects, think about the good parts!  The decrease in sectarian violence!  All of the suicide bombings in the Sunday morning markets that’ll be averted!”

“Yeah, they’ll be averted because there won’t be a Sunday morning market.  We’ll be asking tens of thousands to go into voluntary quarantine when this whole thing begins.  Maybe even hundreds of thousands if we expand beyond Phase I.”

“You know what your problem is?” Kristen suddenly says, turning to look at me.  “You, Dexter Fletcher, worry way too much.”

“Jesus Christ, woman.”   I stand and flick away my cigarette, lighting another.  “How can you not worry about what we’re about to propose? To the CCP, of all people?!

“Relax,” she says.  “We’re just giving a run-of-the-mill update and gently suggesting an idea.  No one’s pulling the trigger on anything yet.  We’re just introducing an idea into the ether.”

“An idea built on lies!”

“So what?  Geez, grow up, Dexter.  Look around you.  I may be Australian but I’ve slaved away my fair share of man-months deep in the salt-mines of America.  Where has all that free-flow of information gotten you, exactly?”

Kristen’s retort brings me short.  I want to protest, but there’s a part of me that knows she’s right.  America’s holiness around first amendment, free speech rights hadn’t exactly done the country any favors in the online age either.  Our indices for civil unrest, crime rates, and unhappiness stood, after all, among the highest in the developed world.

“I sleep fine at night,” says Kristen, “because ultimately you need to look at the ends that we’re trying to achieve.  So a few tens of thousands of people get stuck at home for a few months.  Is anyone hurt or dying?  No.  Will some people get cabin fever?  Sure, they’ll get restless and bored, probably.  But you know what?  Bored is better than dead.

“Additionally,” she continues.  “Mom and pop businesses won’t shutter.  We’re proposing that the CCP step in with one-time loans and grants after ‘the virus’ strikes.  This will build gratitude in the Uyghur populations, at least among the merchant class.  That in their time of need, when an Act of God unfortunately struck, that Xi’s government was there!  That the Chinese Communist Party saved the day!  That the Chinese National Guard built hospitals at record speed!  Only in a time of emergency and desperation does everyone suddenly become fans of big government. In times of great need, everyone’s suddenly a Democrat.”

Undercover Brother

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 Eight

“Okay, guys.  Seriously.  This isn’t working.” 

Kristen leans back in her oversized beanbag chair and rubs her eyes tiredly.  It’s late in the evening and we’re all exhausted.  In the preceding weeks, we’d taken the liberty of special-ordering a king’s ransom-worth of office furniture to our little lounge here in Building 11.  So now at least we were able to work in more relative comfort.  Though it’d been necessary to convince Yu-Law that these items were “crucial” to the Uyghur suppression effort and so all of the expenses had gone blithely onto the Corporate AmEx.

Kristen flips through various charts and dashboard on her monitor; we see a projection of it all on the wall.

“Clearly, this is not what we want,” she says, frustrated.

On all the graphs, the amount of turmoil and discontent in Urumqi has only increased since we’d joined the project several weeks ago.  This is bad.  When you’re a data scientist and your sole value towards a project is measured only in bar graphs, there’s literally nowhere to hide.  No beautiful storytelling to obscure the total lack of results or excuses to explain away the abysmal outcomes.  The numbers and charts are all there, in the harsh light of day, for all to see.

We were failing.

We’d tried running an advertising campaign in the city promoting good behavior.  Building on top of China’s Social Credit System, Uyghurs would be rewarded with additional food rations if they ratted out on their fellow neighbors who were planning protests.  So far, no full-scale riots had exploded in the city yet, but acts of vandalism on public, government property were definitely on the rise.  There was a giant banner of Xi Jinping that hung from the public court house in Urumqi which had been defaced by spray paint last weekend and other miscreants had similarly defiled one of the statues celebrating The Great Mao in Hongshan Park in Hongshancun district.  So far, none of the vandalism done was irreversible, but the offenses were becoming increasingly brazen.

Despite our campaign to promise more food to good citizens, the program had generated very few leads though.  The only thing we could recommend was increase the number of “peace security officers” that were on patrol.  But again, that was bad optics and the last thing Yu-Law wanted.  So that idea was quickly scrapped.

“The problem,” Deepak says from his table, “we don’t have someone on the inside.  We need to better understand why they’re protesting in Urumqi.  What they’ve unhappy about.”

“Are you suggesting we go in undercover?”  Coleman looks dubious.  “I don’t know, man.  I think I’d kinda stick out.”

“Obviously, not you, genius.”  Deepak turns to Alan.  “Could you go in?  Infiltrate their ranks?”

Alan shifts uncomfortably in his office swivel chair.  “Me?  Really?”

Asians are generally a skinny folk.  For whatever reason, whether due to genetics or severe childhood malnutrition, Chinese people, were usually on the thinner, shorter side.

But Alan Chen is most definitely an exception.

Alan has a boyish face with bubbly cheeks and a short, rotund stature.  This was not exactly the look of a man who had suffered the great privations of the proletariat.

The First Meeting: “Freedom-Loving People Within Our Borders Must Be Stopped.”

“Ostensibly, I know you’ve all been told that you’re being brought onboard to help consult for The Echelon 2 Project.  And this is accurate.  It’s true we could use your expertise in suppressing the free flow of information within China’s borders and stomping out any hint of dissent or assembly that we’re able to detect within our population of 1.4 billion.”

No one blinks an eye.  We know why we’ve been summoned.  We all know we have particular skills and how our unique skillset can be used.

“But the truth,” Yang sighs, “is that mere suppression of information is unfortunately no longer sufficient.  There needs to be, shall we say, a more proactive means of prevention.”

I raise an eyebrow.

“As you all well know,” Yang continues.  “The plague of western liberalism is slowly but surely sweeping the world.  Here in China, we’ve more successfully resisted its effects.  But the internet is vast. Despite our glorious government’s best efforts, our citizens are increasingly being seduced by dangers like ‘democracy’ and ‘independent thought’.”

Yang shakes his head sadly.

“It may work in the west.  Though I personally don’t think it has.  But I’ll tell you this– as certain as the sun rises in the east, western liberalism and democracy unequivocally will not work here in China.  The clear majority of our citizens still live in the rural hinterlands and are uneducated.  Corruption would be rampant, even more than it already is.  And society and civilization would devolve into chaos.  One day, we might be ready.  But today is not that day.  And thus, today, freedom-loving people everywhere within our borders must be stopped.  They are like a disease that threatens the health of the greater whole, all of China.”

The blonde woman speaks up.  “Alright, that’s a nice speech.  But can you just tell us what you’re asking for? From us?  Specifically?”

Yang smiles.  “Ah, Ms. Henley.  Always one to cut to the chase.  Very admirable.”

Hearing her name and seeing her face suddenly stokes a long-dormant neuron back in my brain somewhere.  The woman in the armchair is Katherine Henley, previously a fast-rising star at the social media search giant, Foogle, back in the United States.  Just less than a year ago, she’d been the media darling of Silicon Valley and on the cover of every news glossy in the Bay Area.  I hadn’t followed events closely, but apparently at some point she’d made some waves, sparked controversy, and there’d transpired a spectacular fall from grace.  And now here she was, it appeared, in China.

The skinny young black guy also raises his hand, speaking up.  “Wait, hold up a sec.  Yang, man, you made about seventeen different leaps of logic in your opening statement there.  Clarify for us for a moment– why exactly are the legions of Chinese poor unworthy of voting?”


Organization is paramount as the content on this blog begins to grow.  I’m now on average adding about 800-1,000 words a day.  Assuming I can sustain this pace for a year, I’m looking at annually adding 292,000 – 365,000 words.  Put in perspective, Tolstoy’s War and Peace was “only” ~587,000 words.  At this rate, I could write that in less than two years!

Haha, just kidding.

Obviously, not all words are created equal.  And my writing, like anyone else’s, will be more “quality” on some days versus others.  And that’s okay!  I listen to several “writerly” author podcasts and a quote that always stuck with me (but I can’t remember who said it ☹️) that I heard years ago was, “Writing is like carving an ice sculpture.  But first you need the block of ice.”

I generally think of fiction writing using the “Joe-Abercrombie-Layering-Paradigm.”  Abercrombie describes his writing as a series of methodical steps, similar to painting a Photoshop composition.  First, you draw a basic pencil outline.  And then you ink it.  Then comes the base colors.  Then shadows.  And finally, the highlights.  Now, to be sure, not all initial pencil outlines are necessarily good.  Some are most definitely superior to others and you can’t just dump garbage on the page and expect it to somehow miraculously evolve into a Rembrandt.  But, another writerly piece of advice that numerous authors have repeatedly raised which I think is useful:  “Don’t expect too much from your first draft.”  You’d never look at pencil sketch and be upset that it’s not the Mona Lisa.  Thus, in that same way, for me at least, the first phase of fiction writing is just getting the basic plot and characters down. Abercrombie himself has remarked that it’s often not until he’s finished his first draft of a novel that he actually realizes what it’s about!  Imagine that! Writing tens of thousands of words without initially knowing where you’re going!  It’s a thing!  And it works!  You just need to persevere and have a little faith.

Anyway, with WordPress, I have something this time around that I previously never had in my spiralbound notebooks when I wrote longhand:  Extensive organizational tools!  By far, the most useful which I’ve poured hours into, is WP’s tagging system.  As I’d mentioned earlier, the surface area of this blog is growing at a rapid clip.  Thus, as I pour out the words, I’ve attempted to organize all of it with some high-level schemas:

And on my fledgling story front, all that is accessible via:

Honestly, part of me really enjoys organizing my writing.  Almost as much, if not more, than the actual writing.  Weird OCD trait, I guess. So little time; so much to write and organize! 😊😀😁

Can Originality Be Replicated?

Originality has long been the last bastion of human creativity.  Sure, John Henry may have died in the end and lost to the locomotive, but human beings have generally taken pride in the steadfast certainty that even when Skynet does eventually take over, at least the damn machines won’t be able to paint great art, compose orchestral masterpieces, or write works of literary genius that touch the deepest depths of the human heart and soul.

Well, no. At least, I don’t think so.

Bagel asked me yesterday why exactly I was embarking upon this crusade to input an entry a day, cycling through the alphabet as many times as necessary, in order to put everything I know, each entry 300-700 words, into WordPress.  Aside from being a fun exercise that helps me practice writing daily, the other real reason is I’m trying to generate a corpus of material for Wobble2– a facsimile of all of my thoughts, positions, opinions, and beliefs.

I have a theory, entirely unproven, that given the right corpus, I could code a reasonable replica of myself, at least for a limited universe of Q&A.  The dream here is to write software that could eventually synthesize answers in a way that I, Wobble Prime, would answer them. This premise is directly inspired by The Turing Test and TV shows like Westworld and Devs. If the simulation generates identical answers as the original, why is the simulation any different or “less than” the original? (Gotta love humans and our fascination with making ourselves obsolete!)  So, here’s an example desired outcome:  Eventually, I want to build out Wobble2 to a state where it could answer a question like, “Would Tom Hanks make a good president?”

To answer this question, Wobble2 would need to look up its entry for “Tom Hanks.”  And then it would need to look up its entry for “president” (and infer that the question meant, “President of the United States”).  From here, Wobble2 would need to compare all of the qualities I associate with good/bad presidents and cross-reference those traits with Tom Hanks’s characteristics.  Finally, depending on the results of that comparison, Wobble2 would then render a “Yes/No” response, an emotion associated with that response (“hell yeah!” or “tepidly optimistic?” or “that’s a very bad idea.”), and some supporting body of evidence for how it got to its conclusion.  I still have kinks to work out, but in my head I think it could work!  This is, in a nutshell, how I’ve been spending my time these days.

Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.

Eleanor Roosevelt (spurious?)

Oliver Sacks – “What Really Matters”

Oliver Sacks is one of my heroes. The New York Times calls him, “The Poet Laureate of Medicine.” This man could really write. Of all of his works though, which there are many, his writing that has most resonated with me which I’ve kept closest, is the essay he published in the NYT on February 19, 2015– mere months before his death later that year due to terminal cancer. I literally keep a PDF of that essay on my desktop.

We often hear the advice to “live each day as if it’s your last.” “Carpe diem” and “to seize the day.” But do any of us truly do that? And what would doing so actually entail? Being caught up in the news cycle of the day? The latest umbrage and protest?

In today’s busy life, especially in 2020, a genuinely strange year, I have taken the advice to mean focusing on what is essential to you. And letting the rest recede. As I’ve grown older, I’ve increasingly detached from the world and have instead begun focusing on only what I feel truly matters to me. Upon learning of his terminal diagnosis, Sacks wrote on February 19, 2015 (emphasis, mine):

I feel a sudden clear focus and perspective. There is no time for anything inessential. I must focus on myself, my work and my friends. I shall no longer look at “NewsHour” every night. I shall no longer pay any attention to politics or arguments about global warming.

This is not indifference but detachment — I still care deeply about the Middle East, about global warming, about growing inequality, but these are no longer my business; they belong to the future. I rejoice when I meet gifted young people — even the one who biopsied and diagnosed my metastases. I feel the future is in good hands.

Oliver Sacks – “My Own Life” (The New York Times, February 19, 2015)

I don’t have terminal cancer, but I do value my time. And I don’t feel like we should wait until we’re at death’s door to properly value time and to value our own lives. If not now, then when? If not you, then who? If not here, then where?