Nine Months Later

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 Ten – Passage One


“Record number of hospitalizations continue for a second week as the novel coronavirus sweeps around the world.”

“With no end in sight, the global death count continues to mount day over day from this horrifying new virus.”

“World leaders are powerless…”

“Turn it off,” Kristen says from the bed.  “I don’t need to hear any more.  I really don’t.”

I click the remote but nothing happens.  I click it again but still no avail.

“Sorry, I think the remote’s dead.”  I’m lying on the sofa opposite the small television in the room.  It’s where I’ve been the past two days.

“Get up and turn it off.”

“I would if I could.  But I can’t.”

“Oh my God, you are the laziest sad sack of human being ever.”  Kristen gropes around the bedside and find her left heel which she hurls at the display.  She misses by a solid meter to the right.

The front door knob starts turning and my body involuntarily tenses.  A moment later, Deepak and Coleman just push in from the outside though and I relax again.  Deepak shoves aside the empty beer cans on the round table in the room to clear space and  Coleman’s carrying a carboard box what smells, miraculously, like pizza.

“Breakfast is here!” Coleman says, rubbing his hands together.  “Oh my God, it’s cold out there.”

By “out there,” Coleman of course is referring to the Tibetan Himalayas.  That’s right, we’re still in China.  At this rate, we might never leave.  But instead of the Four Seasons in downtown Shanghai, the powers that be have saw fit to hole us away in a secluded monastery nestled in a small hamlet a few meters from China’s border with Bhutan.  There’s a stone tower with a gong in it that sounds every hour and the walls of the monastery are built with query stone that I suspect likely predate all of China.

“How on earth did you guys find pizza?” Kristen asks, as she leans over to grab a slice, still underneath the warm covers.

“State secret,” Coleman says and he takes another bite.

“Uh huh, right.”

Still, no one’s complaining.  It’s been a long nine months.  To me, it seems like just last week we were in Governor Wu’s office in Urumqi explaining our plan.  Little did we know how literally it would be taken.  For weeks after the meeting, we’d been housed under Chinese state security in Urumqi.  It hadn’t been so bad.  We’d continued to work on our models and crunch the numbers.  When escorted by Alan or Shu and a few plainclothes guardsmen, we’d even been allowed to wander around Urumqi for a bit.  We’d visited and worshipped at the mosque which required that we all dressed in shapeless clothing that covered all skin.  Kristen had also needed to wear a hijab that covered her face, neck, and all hair.  All in all, for those first few weeks at least, it had felt somewhat like an extended vacation.

And then just six short weeks later, we started hearing reports of a viral illness which had supposedly originated at the local Tuesday morning fish market.  And from there, everything, in rapid order, spiraled as all hell broke loose.

I don’t often think about the past because I don’t consider it a useful exercise.  Generally, I don’t feel like we make mistakes.  Because if we’re doing the best we can with what we have at any given point in time, can you really call it a mistake?  Is not having enough information a crime?

But looking back at the path we’ve traveled so far, I think it’s fair game to say that we probably could have done things differently.  It is conceivable, or at least within the realm of possibility, that we possible hadn’t acted with the utmost wisdom in the matter.

What the Xi government ended up doing really makes perfect sense if you think about it.  The most daunting roadblock to usurping any region of people is religion.  For Islam, praying five times a day in a mosque towards the qibla (formerly the direction of Jerusalem; now the direction of Mecca, after 624 CE), is a paramount, core part of their faith.  In this way, COVID-59 was genuinely a bonafide, devout Muslim-killing virus.  It selectively targeted, by the very way it was explicitly designed and engineered in Chinese labs, the people who were most faithful and dogmatic about their religion.  To be clear, many Muslims adjusted and followed the advice and direction of the CCP after the virus started spreading:  To not gather in large public places (like mosques) and continued to pray at home, safely and isolated.

But many more gathered en masse at Salar, Shanxi, Tata Er, and Han Teng Gi Li– the four major and largest mosques in Urumqi.  Obviously, one can only venture as to guess as to their reasons and motivations for ignoring the quarantine orders, even in the face of such deadly pandemic, but they congregated and prayed five times a day, every single day.  Did they believe that their faith would save them?  Did they disbelieve the Chinese authorities?  Only they could tell you.

But they’re all dead now.  So we’ll never know.  The most devout were the first to die– horrifically and en masse.

COVID-59 was frightening in its contagiousness.  Most viruses carry an infection rate of 1.5-2x.  Meaning for every person who caught it, it was likely any close contact between infected carriers with healthy people would likely spread every 1.5-2 people you met.  But COVID-59 possessed an unfathomable 7x infection rate, putting it even more lethal that the Bubonic Plague which in the 14th century killed off over fifty million Europeans, roughly 25% to 60% of the continent at the time.

The other characteristic of COVID-59 was that it possessed a ridiculously lengthy 14-day incubation period.  Unlike the Ebola virus which often killed its host in 2-3 days, COVID-59 would actually lie in wait and fester for two weeks before any symptoms began to show in its carrier host.  This meant people who thought they were perfectly healthy unknowingly, if they violated state quarantine orders, were super-spreaders.  Those who visited mosques not only to pray, but also to birthday parties, family dinners, and holiday events.  They’re the ones who carried the virus wide and far to all they contacted and touched.

Coleman and Blackness in China

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 Six – Passage Two

“Real talk a sec.  Stop being dim a moment,” says Coleman.  “I’m talking about wherever I go and whatever I do in this country, people seem to treat me like some kinda zoo exhibit.  A sort of endangered species on display for all to see.”

I sigh and fold my laptop lid.  It’s clear I’ll be getting no work done this morning.  Earlier on our car ride from JFL to the Jinshui High Speed Rail station that was 30-some kilometers away, we’d stopped by a Seven-Eleven convenience shop that’d literally been in the middle of nowhere, some small village off the bypass.  It’d been early and everyone needed orange juice and whatever in China passed for convivence-store breakfast (in this case, boiled eggs marinated in soy sauce and tasteless rice cakes).  As chance would have it, there was some local school bus that’d also similarly stopped over while we were there while apparently on some sort of field trip.  The Chinese school children had filtered out of the bus in abject wonder and crowded around Coleman like he was some kinda celebrity.  Smartphones out, snapping selfies, the whole nine yards.

“Coleman, dude,” I say, “put yourself in their shoes.  You know China’s a closed country.  No open borders.  Heavily controlled and restricted movement everywhere.  For those kids, seeing an actual black person was like meeting Tom Cruise or something.  Look around you– does this particular part of China strike you as remarkably multicultural and racially diverse?”

“But I’m not a museum display!”

“Good God, man, stop whining.  You should be happy!  You’re gonna grace their Instagram and Facebook feeds today.  Or whatever Chinese copycats of those are here in rip-off country.  You’ll be famous for all of fifteen minutes, or maybe more like two, and then everyone’ll forget and move onto the next TikTok video or whatever.  Who cares?”

“I care.”

“And you’re the only one,” I say.  “Stop being ornery about it.  To these people you’re OJ Simpson, Michael Jordan, and Barack Obama all rolled into one.  These kids have only seen black people in movies, in TV shows, and on their Saturday morning anime cartoon shows.  To them, you are the entirety of black people.”

“Jesus!  We’re well into the twenty-first century!  This isn’t the 1700s!”

“So what?” I shake my head.  To be fair, I was over a decade older than Coleman, a total newb so painfully fresh right outta school.  But it still struck me as absurd just how bubbled college-grads were these days.  Were they seriously learning anything on those fancy college campuses?

“It’s not like western progressivism is evenly distributed the world over,” I patiently explain.  “And with an authoritarian, autocratic country like China, the cultural value systems are even more stark because they’ve top-down resisted western liberal ideology.  If it feels in certain facets like the 1700s around here, it’s because the Communist party wants it to, at least culturally.”

I look at Coleman for a moment.

“Also, didn’t you study political science?  Jesus, why do I even need to be telling you this?”

Coleman huffs up, clearly agitated.  I obviously struck a nerve.

“I specialize in American elections,” he says.  The amount of pompousness in his tone is palpable.  “Specifically, American political and electoral history and innerworkings.  How the proverbial sausage is made.”

I raise an eyebrow.  “If you consider yourself a high-end charcutier,” I say, “it’d still behoove you to know about bacon and prosciutto.  Your precious American sausages aren’t the alpha-and-omega of it all, you know.”

“Oh please.”  Coleman scoffs.  “My massive intellect can’t be bothered with these obscure meanderings of these plebians.  Who knows what going through their empty heads?  These Neanderthals are the very definition of the collective herd.  There’s not a single original thought in the whole lot of them.”

“The Chinese people may be unoriginal but they’re united.”

Coleman and I both sit up in seats a little straighter and look behind us.  It turns out Alan’s been there the entire time, apparently eavesdropping.  Coleman doesn’t turn red exactly but I can tell he’s at least a tad embarrassed.  Good to know the kid’s still capable of at least a little shame.

“Oh.  Alan.  Sorry, I didn’t mean–“

Alan holds up his hand.  “No worries.  No offense taken.  Well, maybe a little taken.  But your ignorance speaks more about you than us.  Don’t worry, I’ll sleep fine tonight.” 

Coleman frowns.

“Even if your descriptions are incomplete,” Alan continues, “there is a seed of truth in them.  You’re correct that the Chinese people are wholly more collective in their identities than westerners.  Whereas you emphasize the individual, here in the east –especially the rural east– the family name is still everything.  Your family’s reputation in a village is your destiny.  Remember that most of these rural Uyghurs and Chinese in the region have never set foot outside their province.  For them, it’s truly a small world.”

“But you’ve got the internet!  Smartphones and YouTube!”  Coleman protests.  “Geographical parochiality is no excuse for ignorance.”

Alan merely shrugs.  “Yes and no.  It’s accurate that with the CCP’s Broadband Initiative a decade ago, all of China is indeed connected and online. But seeing black people on YouTube and in movies is a far cry, you’d surely agree, from meeting them in the flesh and blood.” Alan pauses and his furrows his brow. And then adds:  “Though I do feel it’s ironic that parts of rural China have internet connectivity but not clean running water or food security.”

It’s my time to shrug. “Internet’s actually trivial, if you really think about it,” I say.  “You can easily generate electricity with a hand-crank.  And internet is simply beamed to you from satellites up in outer space.  But clean running water requires infrastructure.  And modern crop yield, if you’re not already surrounded by developed agriculture, requires supply chains.  It’s not as ironic as you might at first suppose, to have internet before you have food and water.”

Alan can only shake his head.  “I guess?  Still, something insane about it all, if you ask me.”  He turns to Coleman.  “Dexter’s right though.  We’ve brought in you Americans to consult and advise on this project in Xinjiang.  But to get anywhere with it, you need to understand China and Xinjiang.  We obviously value your western perspectives, else you wouldn’t be here at all.  But you’re going to need to learn a lot about us too.”

“I actually don’t get why you didn’t bring in people more specialized and familiar with China,” I say, voicing a thought that’s been percolating in my head for a while now.  “Why bring in a bunch of people who know nothing about this entire geographic region and history?”

Alan looks at me.  “Who says we didn’t try that first?”

Reaching a Decision

Reaching a decision isn’t easy.  After Yang leaves the room, our phones collectively ding! And we all see that we’ve received further information on our devices.  I quickly read through the material. 

The highlights:

  • If I decide to participate, for nine months of work, I’d be paid 300,000 US dollars in biweekly installments.  The job would begin immediately.  Even after taxes, that’d be a cool ~$200,000 or so.
  • All lodging, food, and transportation expenses during my stint, both inside and outside of China would be provided and paid for.
  • Our team would be headquartered out of Jinshui.  In the event we did need to travel outside of the compound, additional security personnel to escort and transport us safely would be provided.
  • I’d have to sign an NDA guaranteeing that I’d never share any details of whatever work I did inside of Jinshui with outside third-parties, including the American government.  Any material (code or otherwise) that I developed during my employment would be solely owned by Jinshui Future Laboratory.  I’d forfeit all claim to anything I helped create during my tenure with JFL.
  • I have until midnight, tomorrow, to provide my answer.  I submit my response (surprise, surprise) via my phone and biometric thumbprint scanner that’s on my device.

Well, the money is certainly excellent– prorated, it’s solidly above what I normally make from my usual consulting gigs.  And it’s intriguing to me that they’re expecting the nature of our work to possibly take us outside of China.  But honestly, with a job like this, the crux (for me, at least) really boils down to a question of conscience.  While the promise of $200k is alluring, I’ve already made enough at this point (and tucked enough away in savings) that I was comfortable.  Certainly not rich.  And I couldn’t retire anytime soon.  But I didn’t need $200k.  This was a sum of money that I’d, monetarily at least, be perfectly fine walking right away from.  (Albeit, sad about.)

So let’s get real– there’s really only one question here:  Do I want to help the Chinese Community Party curb stomp human rights and suplex democracy in China by maybe a half-century or more? Or do I walk away from not just the money, but also maybe the most fascinating data science and social experiment that I’ll probably ever be offered?

“Admit it, you’re intrigued.”

I look up and see Shu standing in front of me. Somehow, she’d approached our bar unnoticed while we’d had our heads down, reading through the documents.

Continue reading “Reaching a Decision”

The Great Robert Bork: “It Would Be an Intellectual Feast.”

Robert Heron Bork is one of my all-time heroes.  Not for his values– many of those are incredibly problematic and I don’t agree with many of Bork’s beliefs at all.  But Bork was a man who lived and died on his convictions, even if they were wildly unpopular.  And I really respect that.  It’s easy to believe in something when it’s en vogue.  But when your opinion’s against the grain, and a lifetime-appointed-SCOTUS-seat is on the line, and you still stick to your guns… well, that’s really something.  I admire Robert Bork even though I vehemently disagree with him on fundamental, core issues.   I think this is perfectly reasonable and not contradictory at all.  People are complicated, multi-faceted, multi-dimensional creatures.  A simple black-and-white view of the world, IMHO, is over-simplified, reductive, foolish, and moronic and I personally hold people with such unnuanced worldviews in stupendously low esteem.  Maybe that’s just me though.  I don’t know.

Another trait about Bork:  This guy was super-arrogant.  Like, Level-9000-Arrogant on a 1-10 scale.  Look up chutzpah and you’ll find a photo of Robert Heron Bork.  An example:  It’s common for SCOTUS nominees to extensively prep for their senate confirmation hearings with a practice called “murder boards.”  It sounds gruesome but is basically just practicing answering really tough questions that a committee will likely grill you with.  After all, these hearings are a nationally televised event, with millions of Americans watching, and this is literally the biggest stage.  The stakes don’t get any higher than a SCOTUS seat.  (I personally think it’s even more significant than being the president.)  But Bork didn’t prep at all.  He just waltzed into those senate confirmation hearings and shot from the hip.  Yes, ultimately— it went poorly.  But genuinely, in that moment:  Do we not agree this was totally boss and a baller move?

I know today’s entry about Bork may feel non sequitur and weird but firewalk with me a moment back to those senate confirmation hearings during that fateful autumn of 1987: Bork, a preeminent conservative scholar, resplendent Yale Law professor, and towering intellectual giant, was lobbed a total soft-serve of a softball from fellow Republican, Alan Simpson of the great state of Wyoming:  “Why do you want to serve on the Supreme Court?”

To which Bork replied, publicly, in front of all those whirling cameras and microphones, live on C-SPAN before millions of watching Americans:  “It would be an intellectual feast.”

What an absolute legend. 

The man desired to preside over the highest court in all the land not out of a sense of duty or wanting to help his fellow American citizen or higher purpose or to do any corporeal good in the actual, material world.  But rather:  It was a tremendous intellectual challenge.  A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to grapple with titanic struggles of legal scholarship and the foremost quintessential questions of our times.

I should add– Bork also answered numerous other questions during those 1987 hearings extremely honestly, giving remarkably detailed replies on matters of abortion, religion, and race-relations.  The man was endlessly curious and relentlessly honest.  He was also, in the end, categorically rejected by a vote of 58 to 42– the largest margin of defeat for a SCOTUS nominee in the history of the Supreme Court, an ignominious record that still stands to this day.  His defeat, in fact, gave rise to the addition of a new verb in the Oxford English Dictionary:  Getting “Borked.”

Bork died of complications from heart disease on December 19, 2012. Mr. Bork– personally, I’m glad you never made it to the Supreme Court. But I really admire that you never withdrew your name (a coward’s move), even when you knew that defeat was inevitable. You lived and died on your beliefs and I applaud the strength of your convictions. Thank you for being who you were.

Mulan (2020): Atrocious

Disney kowtows to China with Mulan (2020) and still manages to spectacularly fail.

Remaking a classic, beloved cartoon into a live-action is no easy task.  And I have a lot of empathy for the multibillion dollar conglomerate empire that attempts the feat.  I really do.  But it is rare and truly striking to me that one could mess up this badly.  Disney’s new Mulan (2020) live-action doesn’t quite reach “Crimes-Against-Humanity” badness.  No one’s going to quite get dragged to the Hague for this one.  But Niki Caro and the (non-Chinese) writing staff of this latest Disney+ dumpster fire certainly gave it the old college try.

Bagel and I watched the movie this past Tuesday and since then I’ve been sitting with my thoughts, trying to organize some kind of coherent review on what happened.  I think, in summary, Mulan (2020) is the single most anti-feminist and female-anti-empowerment story I’ve seen in the past decade.  It’s genuinely very impressively backwards and I couldn’t believe that so many major American outlets had reviewed Mulan (2020) so positively.  (The movie currently sits at a solid 75% by professional critics on RT!)

As many people have noted elsewhere, but I’ll repeat again briefly here:  In the cartoon, Mulan was just an ordinary girl.  She joins the army under the guise of a man, and through hard work and intense training, manages to solve problems to save the day in very human ways.  In this 2020 live-action version, Mulan inexplicably has superhero powers because she’s been endowed with some kinda mystical “Qi” energy/ability/talent from birth.  Additionally, Mulan suddenly now has a younger sister who’s only teleological purpose, as far as I could discern, was to just get married because that’s apparently what all women in China who don’t have superpowers are allowed and expected to do.  Bagel, I should mention, also hated the movie and sent me this video essay that really excellently deconstructs all the ways Mulan (2020) is terrible.

Other headscratchers and disappointments:  That whole Gong Li subplot, the criminal omission of Mushu (Dumbledore’s Fawkes phoenix and Gong Li’s witch-creature-thing makes the cut but not a magical talking mini-dragon? C’mon!), and the super-criminal omission of everyone’s favorite “I’ll Make A Man Out of You” song.

If I had to sum up all of my opinions about Mulan (2020) into a single thought, it’d be this:  Disney turned Mulan into a Marvel superhero story and created a female-anti-empowerment masterpiece in an attempt to crack the Chinese box office, but totally failed.

Rent-a-Girlfriend: An Encomium to Anime & Manga

Reaching into my bag of analogies, here’s what I’ve got for you today:  Sometimes you’re on a high-protein diet.  You’re eating nothing but healthy foods:  Lots of Kashi cereal, quinoa, fruits, asparagus, spinach, and broccoli.  You’re a machine and your body’s a temple.  You only shop at Whole Foods, eat organic, and nothing but the best of the best enters your system.  You are, after all, what you eat.

And then, there are other days:  Häagen-Dazs Double Chocolate Chip and Rocky Road, Kettle Salt & Vinegar chips, beer, wine, the worst of the worst.  You know the diet is awful but it just tastes so good, at least initially.  You’re fully cognizant, in your infinite wisdom, that you’ll pay for such extreme decadence later and that you’ll regret having consumed such unqualified abject garbage into your body.  But you simply don’t care.  YOLO, etc.

Reading manga, I essentially equate, to consuming garbage.

Very little of it is, shall we say, intellectually or spiritually nourishing.  And much of it, at least the material I like (Rent-a-Girlfriend; Code Geass; The Pet Girl of Sakurasou; My Youth Romantic Comedy Is Wrong, As I Expected; Bakuman) is at best, “problematic” and at worst, outright sexist. And I don’t even mean, “of-its-times-sexist.” I mean, content that is literally being produced today, in 2020.  (It’s important to keep in mind that Japanese culture is, in many ways, different than here in the west and I encourage everyone to not immediately leap to judgment.)  But in summary, the conclusion stands:  This isn’t James Joyce or Bleak House.  I generally pride myself on being a well-read and deep thinking individual.  But I’m telling you, no human being is able to operate in the highest gear, that redline gear, all the time.  If you try, you’ll simply burn out and die.

Thus, that’s why I’m a big fan of anime and manga.  Like anything else, there are tons of flavors of the mediums– some extremely deep and philosophical (eg. Death Note).  And while I do enjoy such fare, that genre of anime/manga is definitely not my default, go-to content.  Nah.  At the end of a long day when I’m at the end of my rope and am running on fumes, I reach for the light and feel-good stuff.  And I regret nothing!  Mwahahaha!