Bowflex Muscle Master 3000

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 Two

Simply put, COVID-59 had been a great filter –a biological one– that the CCP unleashed on the unsuspecting Uyghur population.  Those who listened to Beijing were most likely to make it through the ordeal.  Obedience was tested in a way like never before, with very real-world and lethal consequences for non-adherents.  Additionally, even long after the vaccine was “discovered”– the effects of the virus in the aftermath was profound– its effects lingered.  People were afraid to congregate in large groups.  An air of suspicion descended upon the land and hung over every physical human interaction like a dark cloud.  Anyone could be a lethal carrier.  You could never be too careful since every interaction was now suddenly a mechanism of possible contagion. Sure, maybe you wanted to catch the latest movie at theaters with friends. But was it worth possibly dying to go?  More than any other measure in human history, COVID-59 attacked the core of civilized society– community.  It isolated and divided us.  And in our isolation, our worst imagined fears controlled us because we could no longer interact with others.  So we listened to the state because it became not just the mainline, but the only line of information that we had.

COVID-59 was a state-created instrument of fear– it drove and kept people apart.  And it made them obedient.  Since its founding, the CCCP had always disallowed the freedom of assembly.  (When you gathered in groups, you got Tiananmen Square.)  But realistically, you couldn’t just deploy a phalanx of tanks to steamroll your citizens every time a protest sprung up.  Though the CCP would’ve loved to do that and possessed no moral or ethical qualms about such a suppression technique, the logistics were just impossible.  How were you supposed to deploy a tank squadron into the Himalayan mountains of Tibet with half-a-day’s notice if the Dalai lama started getting spicy and having ideas?  And if you did somehow to miraculously fly a C-130 over to para-drop protestor-squashing tank battalions in some remote range of Nepal, chances were that the flash mobs would’ve long disbanded and dissipated back into the ether long before you got there.

China was a big country.  And it was difficult to stomp our suppression in all its corners and pockets.

But a virus.  A biological agent that could literally be everywhere, all at once.  This was ingenious— precisely the big brother and (lethal) consequence-dispensing mechanism that the Chinese Communist Party had always dreamed about.  COVID-59 answered all the CCP’s prayers in one fell swoop– it was the complete package.

Let’s not mince words here:  This was biological genocide on a sweeping scale– one unlike any the world had ever seen.

Oh, the world.

The world was an unfortunate casualty, several tens-of-millions dead, an unpleasant side-effect of the CCP’s grand scheme.  Of course, at one point, COVID-59 had escaped China.  How could it not?  It wasn’t like the CCP exactly took measures to prevent its worldwide spread.  In fact, for weeks after the initial outbreak, the Chinese had publicly in truly reality-distortion-bubble fashion, steadfastly maintained that there was no virus.  Even as hundreds, and then thousands, and then tens of thousands of Uyghurs began growing deathly ill and perished.  For those critical first few weeks, international flights continued flying.  Conferences, concerts, and mass sporting events were all continued to be held.  And for fourteen-days, it was total open season for COVID-59 as it spread itself silently to all over the world as the CCP gave it plausibility and cover and deniability to spread.

As for me?  I’m okay.  Sure, I have my low moments.  And the knowledge that a plan I helped devise has somehow come to life and killed tens of millions does weigh on me.  But honestly, the human mind is incapable of processing horror of such scale.  Our evolution is strong and we possess plenty of defensive mechanisms to rationalize and console.  Sure, we’d developed a plan.  But it was a fictional plan.  Yes, we’d crunched all the numbers to present a realistic cover story– how many hospitalizations, how many deaths, the rate of spread, etc. All of the metrics to make the story believable.  But again, it had been a fictional exercise.  I was more like a screenwriter or a fan-fiction creator, just fantasizing imaginary scenarios.  Just because I wrote a gender-bent Harry didn’t mean I actually wanted one.

Also, from that fateful meeting with Governor Wu, it’d taken a short six weeks before, we now know, patient zero had started the spread in the Urumqi fish market.  Three weeks!  So, certainly– somewhere in some frozen biohazard storage locker somewhere in the bowels of some deep-underground Chinese dungeon, the CCP had clearly already been working on COVID-59.  Maybe already for years even.  So the building blocks had all been there. It’s not like they’d created the virus because of us.

Besides, the official line from Beijing was that this was freak of nature incident.  An unholy unfortunate consequence of contamination at the fish market by bat feces or someone eating a rodent or something.  I can’t remember now, but there’d been some sort of story that was of course entirely speculated, completely unverifiable, and yet simply presumed the truth by everyone somehow.

Surely, you couldn’t put this crisis at our feet, right?

That day that Coleman and Deepak had somehow commandeered pizza was the day that we’d gotten the call though.  It’d been simple and had arrived by secure message on our smartphones.


Alan, Shu, and Van.  We were being summoned back, somewhere.

“Hmm,” Kristen says, looking at her phone, still eating her pizza slice.  “Do we go back?” A crease has formed between here eyebrows.

“Do we have a choice?” asks Deepak.

“Just when I was starting to get used to this place,” Coleman says while lifting a dumbbell with one hand.  He taken up weight training for the nine-month duration that we’d been holed up and his once scrawny frame and had grown impressively lean and muscular.  The kid was 23, good lord.  Did I possess such drive back when I was his age?  Of course, the monastery hadn’t had a weight room so Coleman had eminent domain’ed one of the empty rooms in on the ground floor that’d formerly, in some previous life somewhere, been a meditation space; and had had mats, dumbbells, medicine balls, rope, and a Bowflex Muscle Master 3000 flown in by drone.  This was in the early days before everything had exploded into a full-scale global pandemic.  Back when if you had enough money, you could still get the drones to deliver whatever you wanted or needed to anywhere you were willing to pay for.  Even a far-flung monastery in the hinterlands of the Tibetan outskirts.

Coleman’s biceps were now the size of my head.  Like I’d said, we’d had a lot of downtime.

“It’s All Connected.”

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 Three

So it turns out they had tried exactly that. 

“We brought in a team of specialists two years ago,” Alan patiently explains.  “The most experienced professionals and prominent academics in all the land.  Knowledgeable and well-connected to Xinjiang, from China’s biggest and most successful companies as well as the prestigious Chinese Academy of Sciences– the most famous university in China, the equivalent of England’s Oxford.”

“Huh.  That’s nice.  Gathered the country’s best and brightest to go in and occupy and restore peace in a foreign land.  What could possibly go wrong?”

“Everything,” Alan sighs.  He looks at the scenery outside the train windows, racing by.  We’re cruising by pastoral rolling hills of gorgeous, untouched Chinese countryside.  Alan takes a moment to compose his thoughts.

“To understand the extent of the catastrophe that ensued though,” he continues after a beat, “it’s necessary to first know how the Chinese government functions.  Everyone thinks they know what communism and socialism is.  In the west, you’ve painted beautiful myths about communal sharing and the laboring class owning the means of production.  And while that’s nominally true, people also forget that leadership still needs to exist.  In a company, you can’t just have everyone being an individual contributor and there existing no middle management.  A world without hierarchy may be socialism; but it’s also chaos.”

Having been in my own fair share of Silicon Valley, libertarian pipedreams gone horribly awry, I nod my head knowingly.  I’m no political scientist, but I’ve seen my fair share of office politics.

“And the problem with the project two years ago,” Alan says, “is that everyone was connected to someone.  What you need to understand about China is that it’s all tightly connected and interwoven.  Even if you’re the department chair or endowed professor at the Academy of Sciences, that endowment actually comes from somewhere.  Similarly, if you’re the chief executive of some Chinese megacorp, you only have the position because you’ve been installed with the blessings of the regime.  No one ascends to any position of power in the communist and socialist structure without a network of deep alliances, coalition-building, backroom deals, and back-scratching. Everyone’s got dirt on someone because they otherwise wouldn’t even be there in the first place. Does that make sense?”

“Nothing new there,” says Coleman.  “Same way with American politics.  You’re describing a universal truth, buddy.”

“No,” says Alan, “you don’t get it.  Sure, favoritism and cronyism exist everywhere.  But at least in the west, the money is divorced from the power.  Your Silicon Valley billionaires can build their own corporations and Super-PACs to air commercials against your government.  Hell, you dismantle and rebuild your governments every four years, anyway.  But the point is, your wealthiest and most powerful may achieve their riches honestly or dishonestly, but after they’ve obtained it, they can do whatever they want with it.  Build their own nation states in the south pacific, run attack ads and campaigns against your sitting presidents, it’s all fair game.

“But in China, though we’ve minted more billionaires than the rest of the world combined in the recent decade, all those billionaires sit at the mercy of Xi.  Though impressive on paper, their vast wealth is all stored with the People’s Bank of China, a nationalized institution.  Remember, the laboring class owns the means of production.  Which may administratively means that the people do collectively own everything.  But there’s still a government.  And ‘the collective will of the people’ still need to me implemented by some state apparatus.

“So basically, you’re saying all that money can just be frozen or disappear at any time,” Coleman says slowly. The kid’s starting to get it.

“Exactly,” Alan nods. “Don’t you ever wonder why those anti-corruption charges that sweep China every few years are conveniently accompanied by periods of peace and minimal societal turmoil?  Billionaires just conveniently go to jail for life for ‘fraud charges’ and the like.  It’s simply suppression under the veneer of ‘draining the swamp’ and that’s where the difference lies.”

“What happened two years ago?” I ask.  “Why did that project fail?”

Alan’s a good guy but he has a habit of rambling sometimes.  Someone occasionally needs to set him back on track.

“Right.  So this is actually important for you to know.”  Alan blinks a few times and takes a moment to wipe down his glasses.  You can see the gears and cogs whirling away; he’s clearly trying to figure out how to summarize a ridiculously complicated geopolitical situation for Coleman and me, total neophytes.

“The first thing to understand is that Xi’s control has been waning in recent years,” Alan begins.  “The guy’s getting old and there’s a new guard vying for supremacy.  So realize that in this respect, Xinjiang has come to symbolize far more than just the Uyghur population.  It’s a proxy battle in many ways to show who’s the true leader of the CCP.”

“Alright,” Coleman says slowly.  “Sounds like we’ve got some good ol’ fashioned palace intrigue.  So set the table for us.  What we got?”

“Xi represents the hardliners,” Alan explains.  “The curmudgeon’s old school.  If he had his way, Urumqi would be a smoking crater by now.  23 million Uyghurs, in his mind, is a pittance in the grand scheme when his dominion, that’s still growing with no sight in end, is at 1.4 billion and ever climbing.  He’s cranky that this entire ordeal has already dragged on as long as it has.”

“So in his mind,” I summarize, “this whole situation in Xinjiang can be remedied with a few well-placed ballistic missiles.”

“Exactly.  But of course, there’s Cia Fudong, the son of the previous CCP viceroy, Cia Xia, the prominent former Central Party School professor who was exiled from the country forty-some years back.  Her son’s been building power slowly over the decades since returning to China and has accrued a loyal following– people who also think that Xi is taking China down the wrong path.”

I rub my temples, feeling a throbbing inchoate but inevitable.  “Okay, great.  So Xinjiang on a more meta-level isn’t about the Uyghurs at all.  But is a battle of egos to demonstrate very publicly who’s got the power.”

“There’s actually a third contender in the wings,” says Alan shaking his head, “but I’m just gonna gloss over that part for now.”  He looks me.  “So in a nutshell, yes.  What happened two years ago with the group we assembled then was that half were loyal to Cia’s strategy of a more peaceful and measured approach towards the Uyghurs.  While Xi loyalists instead wanted to send in the tank battalions and burn it all to the ground.  The impasse slowly built to a crescendo, dragged on for months, and then before things could come to a head, Xi disbanded the entire initiative when it started looking bad for him.”

Coleman furrows his brow in consternation.

“So basically you people have yourselves a Chinese civil war on your hands and you’ve dragged us into the middle of it?”

Shu Qi: “Great Artists Steal.”

“Shouldn’t I be?” I reply.  “This is the opportunity of a lifetime.  Unfettered access to all of that personal citizenry data.  Zero privacy requirements.  This is a total treasure trove, ripe for analysis a thousand different ways, every data scientist’s absolute dream.  But from a moral and ethical standpoint, it’s pretty much a slam dunk, one-way, guaranteed ticket to hell.”

Up close I see Shu is classically beautiful in the way that is popular in China these days:  Light, creamy complexion, long curly bangs, round face, and large green eyes.  They’re a light, ocean-green, entirely unnatural and knockout gorgeous.  China is currently the only country in the world that allows CRISPR techniques to be used on developing fetuses (unborn babies), though the allowable genetic edits are still limited.1

Anyway, it doesn’t surprise me in the least that she is the marketing guru of the group.  Selling is all about appearances.  And with a face and body like that (also most certainly genetically or surgically altered, I’m pretty sure), you’re already halfway there.

“I think there’s another way of looking at it that perhaps you’re not considering,” Shu says.  Her voice is soft, supple, persuasive.  “A more optimistic interpretation of the task.”

“Oh?  Enlighten me.”

“You are in a privileged position to shape the very course of human history,” Shu says.  “You know it; I know it; we all know it.  This is the Chinese Century.  And you’re, right now, at this very moment, on the ground floor, at the very beginning.  What happens in China this next decade is where it all begins.”

“That’s… a bold statement.” is all that I can say.

Chopra, who’s been sitting next to me on his barstool the entire time, listening, speaks up.  “What makes you think China’s going to be the new global superpower?  The only thing the Chinese has ever excelled at is leading from behind.”  Chopra sits up a bit straighter in his barstool and begins gesticulating with his hands, going into full-on professor-mode.  “China’s good at sitting back, seeing what works everywhere else in the world, and then shamelessly copying those successes wholesale.”  There’s definitely more than a hint of disdain in his voice as he says this.

Shu turns to look at Chopra.  “And what’s so wrong with that?” she asks.  “Didn’t that great American, Steve Jobs, whom you all idolize so much, once say that ‘good artists copy; great artists steal’?”

“That was Picasso actually,” I say.  “And also– we don’t all idolize Jobs.  That guy was a total ass.

“The problem with stealing,” Chopra says patiently, “is that it’s not leading.  Any idiot can steal.  You just look at what works and then copy itHow difficult can that possibly be?

“Uh, pretty difficult?” I say.  “The path to success it littered with a long line of corpses.  You need to climb over each and every one of them to get to the top.”

Apparently sensing an opening, Shu smoothly changes gears.

  1. At least, legally.  The aftermarket for unapproved CRISPR edits offers considerably more selection but are substantially more dangerous as well.  Once CRISPR went mainstream in China, rich Chinese parents went wild.  Skin tone and eye color are two of the most popular edits.  (It’s also possible to add up to another 10cm of height or so, though that edit is significantly steeper, price-wise.)

Continue reading “Shu Qi: “Great Artists Steal.””

Scaffolding, Structuring, and Restructuring

Sometimes, you don’t always get things right on the first try.  Looking at everything I’ve written so far (this story officially began on Friday – Oct 2; I’m three weeks in!  I’ve written every single day consecutively for 21 days!  Wohoo!) I realized this morning that Chapter 3 isn’t going to work.  Beginning Ch. 3, I was already at a chapter word count of 3,776.  And since I try to contain each chapter to ~4,000 words, I knew that I’d need to wrap up Chapter 3 with today’s entry.

But looking at what I’d written, I see that it’s not possible– I didn’t leave myself enough runway to gracefully and believably wrap up the scene I’m currently in the middle of.  Oops.

Thus:  Today, I’ve decided to move 10/17 and 10/18’s story entries to their own miniature “Interstice One” section.  This frees up 528+452=980 words which I think then ought be enough to wrap up this current scene and Ch. 3.  Even when I was writing them, I always felt that those two entries were kinda different “on background” pieces anyway.  So this actually works out.

Before-Restructuring vs After-Restructuring.

Three weeks into writing this story using the TAG and “4,000-words-per-chapter” format has made me realize that imposing these arbitrary constraints on my writing has actually helped me become a more productive and creative writer.  Like, it’s weird.  Intuitively, you might think (or at least, I would’ve initially thought) that imposing constraints would “cramp my style” or somehow “hinder the writing process” but it’s been the exact opposite.  Previously, whenever I began writing a fiction work, I never finished because halfway through, I’d lose interest, get frustrated, and then abandon the project.  It’d always get to a point where I’d feel:  “What am I doing?  Where am I going?   Where am I?  What am I doing with my life?  Omg.”  And then I’d quit.

But this time around, with TAG and my meticulous spreadsheet-wordcount-tracker, it feels different.  Weirdly, it feels more like a coding project now.  I have wordcount milestones.  I have a sense of pacing.  I have a feeling of knowing where I need to go.  A roadmap, albeit, still nascent, is beginning to form and crystalize.  Characters are simply falling out of my brain and literally putting themselves on the page.  It’s like watching a plant or rain forest grow.

By the way, in programming, this practice of “restructuring” is common– so common, we even have a word for it:  “Refactoring.”  The simple truth is that even the all-time greats– the JKRs, Lev Grossmans, and Max Barrys of the world, aren’t able to write everything perfectly on their first try.  In fact, the only author I know who’s able to one-and-done entire novels in a single shot is John Scalzi when he wrote The Consuming Fire in two weeks.1

Anyway, my point today:  Most authors are unable to “get it right” on their very first try.  And thus, rewriting/restructuring/refactoring is important!  The story I’m working on now, is the first piece of long-form fiction that I’m just writing every day, entirely without an outline and without a plan.  Previously, I’d pour hours into brainstorming characters, worldbuilding, and coming up with all kinds of clever acronyms for shadowy, mysterious organizations that sounded cool.  There was even a period (years ago) that I bought an actual, real-life baby book and had fun just flipping through the thing, jotting down names that sounded alluring and nifty to me.

All those projects ultimately went nowhere and ended in complete failure.

So this time, I’m completely winging it.  No outline and no plan.  Just putting out 400 words a day and seeing where it all goes.  I am going to try to refrain from editing anything my first run though.  But I’m gonna consider today’s restructuring “a mulligan.”  Technically, I’m not writing anything new– but rather, I’m just relabeling some parts.

The adventure continues!  Here we go!  😀

  1. And you know what?  That book is awful.  I’m generally a Scalzi fan.  Agent to the Stars, Fuzzy Nation, Old Man’s War, and Redshirts (a Hugo winner!) are all wonderfully amusing and entertaining books.  OMW I actually even consider “sci-fi cannon,” right up there, maybe a notch or two, below Ender’s Game. But TCF was honestly just so bad.  I know it sold well and made all kinds of bestseller lists but Scalzi, IMHO, really phoned that one in and coasted on his reputation and good name.  TCF’s quality is genuinely lacking.  Scalzi wrote TCF in two weeks and it shows.  Very blatantly and extremely clearly.  I actually own TCF on my Kindle which I genuinely regret buying; it is one of the very few books that I’ve ever bought and not finished.  After that experience, I began just borrowing all subsequent Scalzi releases instead from my local library; I’d really felt burned. ☹️


Synchronicities have been on my mind recently.  First pioneered by the German analytical psychologist, Carl Jung, a “synchronicity” is the idea that there are no random coincidences.  In other words– coincidences happen for a reason.  And even if we, the puny human, cannot comprehend what or why an event has occurred, there is a greater masterwork at play, a bigger story being told, that we are simply not privy to.  Our windows of perception are tiny, myopic, and pathetic in the grand scheme.

Suffice it to say, there is a tremendous attractiveness to this idea. Various religions and schools of philosophical thought have long worked synchronicities into their teachings. In Buddhism, for instance, there’s the entire idea of karma and resurrection. That whatever slings and arrows we may be bearing in our current life (or good fortune, too), are the direct consequences of our decisions and actions that we made in our previous lives. That there is indeed a method behind the madness.

Obviously, this is an unfalsifiable belief.  There’s no way to prove its affirmative or negative, so there it goes, onto the dusty self right between the Flying Spaghetti Monster and Russell’s Teapot (good ol’ Bertrand– love that guy).  But like religion, belief in synchronicities is a kinda salve in world that can at times otherwise be cold, cruel, and unfeeling.  It comforts us to believe that a tragedy or accident was meant to happen.  That the towers were meant to fall.  That, for some reason, that was God’s plan.  That Gramps was supposed to die of cancer or that the family dog was supposed to be hit and killed by that asshole drunk, college kid.  When humans tell themselves stories that impose meaning onto the chaos, it gives us hope.  Hope that a new day will dawn and that the sun will yet again, one morning, shine once more.

On the topic of synchronicities, today I took the leap and posted an entry onto the /r/writers subreddit to see if there were any brave souls who were willing to partake in this daily “Alphabet Game” writing challenge with me.  (I even ended up setting up a whole new subreddit dedicated to the project!)  I’ve been lone-wolfing it for about two months now since the beginning of August and was just curious if anyone else would be keen on joining the great adventure.  And I got some takers!  /u/MrHeavenTrampler, /u/munchmallowqueen, and /u/Fluffyfrenchfries have all enlisted!  Wohoo!  Haha, welcome aboard, ladies and gents.  I have no idea where this ship is going, but we’re off!  Onward to new horizons!  🎉


Spirituality is not often a locus of focus these modern days.  Whereas it was front and center in Native American life and in ancient times, spirituality is nowadays much more relegated to third-class citizenry, if even that.  To be sure, we’ve made such tremendous leaps and bounds in science and technology that much of the practical motivation has disappeared (no more rain dances to the weather gods necessary when you’ve got Monsanto, John Deere, GMO seeds, and GPS-guided tractors on the job) but putting that aside for a moment, it’s struck me as I’ve gotten older just how vacuous living daily life has become in spirituality’s absence.

Ask ten different people what spirituality is to them and you’ll receive at least eleven different answers.  So I’ll just clarify what I mean when I discuss “spirituality.”  To me, “spirituality stuff” is what you’ll find in the “New Age” religion section at any Barnes & Noble.  It’s an attempt to explain (currently) unanswerable questions like, “What happens when you die?”; “How does Karma and resurrection work?”; and supernatural phenomena like visions, déjà vu, or lucid dreams.  Often, these conversations will also involve phrases like “energy levels” and crystals/gem stones (very similar to the kind you’d find at Wall Drug).  Meditation is also super-huge.

Honestly, I never knew anything about any of this but Bagel is really super into it.  And thus, I’ve gotten really into it.  I like it!  To me, it’s extraordinarily arrogant to think that human beings, a species that doesn’t even fully understand gravity yet, can in good-faith “close the door” on all of the New Age spirituality stuff.  Russell’s Teapot and Flying Spaghetti Monster are all in the realm of possibility, no matter how ludicrous they may at first sound.  My general stance on all of this is thus:  “Is it useful?”  Once we leave mathematics and the hard sciences, it all just becomes unfalsifiable belief claims anyway.  So why not believe what motivates and inspires you?  The philosopher and founder of American Pragmatism, Charles Sanders Peirce (1839–1914) calls it “experiential cash value” and I think he’d agree with me.