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 Three

Turning a bustling metropolis into a barren, disease-ridden wasteland isn’t exactly something that I can put on my CV so on the car trip over to Alan’s undisclosed, mysterious location, I’m mostly contemplating my future in silence.  Or what might be left of it at this point.  With COVID-59 having killed off 12% of the global population and climbing, it’s unclear to me if after this ordeal concludes, that there’ll be much of a world to return to.

I should mention, by the way, if it seems that we’re relatively nonchalant about a global pandemic that’s killing off tens of millions, it’s because we were vaccinated.  We’d gotten our shots about nine months ago right at the very start before we’d gotten shipped down here to Shingatse (near Bhutan).  Of course, I hadn’t known this then– they’d fed us some line at the time about the immunization being a standard, run-of-the-mill flu shot.  It was only later that Alan had told us the entire story.  And that’s when the pieces had really settled in– the enormity of what was in the process of happening.

The truck pulls up at an unremarkable, nondescript building in what must be downtown Shingatse and we climb out of the back.  Alas, no more plush, black Lincoln town cars for this motely crew– we ride in the back of Libyan demolition trucks now.  This is what the world has come to.

“What do you think he wants?” Kristen asks.  It’s only midmorning but I can already smell the booze on her breath.  While I probably should’ve seen it coming, of all of us, Kristen was the one who became raging drunk these past nine months while everything had unfolded.  Coleman had taken up weights and Deepak and retreated deep into his studies.  I’d thrown myself into work– we weren’t officially on assignment from the CCP any longer but we’d still had our laptops and they’d left our data access credentials intact.  The night we’d departed Urumqi had been harried and frantic. 

I’d been asleep in my room in bed when I’d heard the slight rustling of sheets and felt someone gently shake me awake.  When I finally came to, in my groggy and hazy state, it was Shu beside my bed, fully dressed in a white winter parka and duffel in hand, ready to go.

“Wait– what?”

“Shhhhh,” she’d said softly.  “Get your things, Dexter, it’s time to go.”

By the time I’d properly dressed and gathered my few things, the others were already all waiting downstairs at the landing.

“What’s going on?” I’d asked Alan.

“Never mind,” he’d said.  “It’s time to go.  There’s a car awaiting you guys outside.  Stay in Shingatse.  Accommodations have been set up.  Under no circumstances go to the airport or try to leave the country.  They’ll get you.”

“Who’ll get us?”

My head was spinning.  It was the middle of the night.  What on earth was going on?

Alan sighed and looked at all of us.  Coleman’s the only one who appears as confused as I am while Deepak looked still half-asleep.  Only Kristen, I remember, had a hard look on her face.  Outside, it was pitch black and rain had started coming down, hard.  There was a black town car awaiting us in the oval and it slowly dawned in me: We were four foreigners at the far end of the world in the middle of the night.

“Guys,” Alan finally said, “there’s been a coup.  Xi Wiping’s out.  It’s unclear who’s at the top now but whoever it is, you guys are better off away from this whole mess.  It’s time to go.  We’ll be in touch.  Remember, no matter what, no airports.  Don’t try to leave the country.  No matter what.”

With that, we’d all gotten into the car and had left.  That was nine months ago. 

And now we were getting into another car and going back.  Going back to where it all began.

When Shu opens the door, I see inside they’re in a small apartment.  It’s old but Shu has noticeably kept it clean and tidy.  I see Alan in a faded white shirt wearing striped suspenders in the back working at a desk. For some reason, his left arm is in a makeshift sling.

“Dexter!  Kristen!  So good to see all of you!”  Shu gives me a hug and I think, ah—she must’ve been vaccinated too.

Even here, in the middle of po-dunk China, away from all the glitz and glamour, Shu is looking magnificent.  Her face is maybe a little tired and there’s some lines and crinkles around her eyes that I don’t remember before.  And her hair may not have the same bright luster that I last remembered.  But raging global pandemic considered, she looks great.

“Hold this,” Kristen says and she pushed a brown paper bag concealing a bottle into Shu’s chest.  Brusquely pushing past Shu, Kristen stomps over to Alan, who’s still sitting at his desk.  Alan looks up.

“Kristen!  Good to–“

POW!  Kristen socks Alan straight across the face.  His glasses go flying off and he reels back in his chair, actually falling out of it onto the barren clay floor.  I’ve never seen a megaton nuclear warhead detonate but this surely comes close, I’m fairly confident.

“You lying sack of shit!”

Kristen winds up and looks like she’s about to kick Alan in the ribs while he’s down but Coleman dashes over and restrains her, barely in the nick of time, knocking over stacks of books on the coffee table.  Sheafs of paper go flying.

“Oh my God, you crazy woman!” Alan shouts from his fetal position on the ground, his arms covering his head as is expecting another attack.  “I had nothing to do with it, nothing!  I didn’t know!”

“Like hell you didn’t know!” yells Kristen; Coleman’s arms are still wrapped around her waist, holding her back.  But even with all of that Bowflex muscle master training, I can see he’s straining to keep Kristen restrained.  Hell hath no fury like a woman’s wrath.

“He didn’t know!” Shu says, running over and is kneeling at Alan’s side.  “None of us did!”

“If I was part of this, do you I think I would’ve sent you all away?!” Alan exclaims, massaging his jaw in disbelief with his good hand.  “We’ve been tapped here for the past year just like you guys!”

I look around and finally have a moment to absorb our dingy surroundings.  It’s a small one-bedroom apartment and from appearances, it looks like Shu’s been living in the bedroom while Alan’s been camped out here in the common area.  There’s a small kitchenette, a small desk that Alan had been working out, and two crummy looking sofas and a coffee table; all three look like they’d been extracted from a dumpster at some point in time.

It was not exactly a shining image of luxury.  And Kristen seems to have finally taken a moment to absorb everything too– she looks like she’s finally calmed down a bit.  Deepak spies a crystal decanter half-full of something amber in the corner.  He saunters over to pour several glasses and hands us each a tumbler.

“Alright, alright, I think we need to start at the beginning.”  He takes a seat on the fraying sofa and takes a long sip.  “What do you guys know?”

Cai Xia: Banished Political Exile

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 Four

That night I’ve sitting alone at a table in the dining car with my laptop and thoughts mulling over what Coleman and I had learned from Alan earlier in the day.  Of course the situation in Xinjiang was much more complicated than we’d been initially told.  And while I had done searches online for information about Cai Xia and her son, Cai Fudong, those results had been unsurprisingly sparse.  Looking through the archives, there had been one article in The Times about Cai Xia and her expulsion forty years ago from the Central Party School, the highest educational institution in the CCP that was responsible for training the regime’s next generation of leadership on the highest level.  Aside from that one article though, I’d been unable to find any other information on Xia.  Again, it was unsurprising that western media hadn’t exactly fallen over themselves to cover the incident.  In the west we may put freedom of the press upon the pedestal but we also shackle it to advertising dollars to keep the lights on.  Alas, we’re all beholden to someone.  Thus, some random article about a professor’s expulsion from China half-a-world away isn’t, let generously say, top-of-mind for your average American.  No page clicks; no coverage.

And on Cai Fudong, the son who’d be in his forties now, I’d found exactly nothing.

Which I guess makes sense.  If you wanted to stage an epic, revenge-styled payback story against all the people who ever wronged you, then it’d make sense to stay under the radar.

From her brief article on Wikipedia though, I’d learned that after Xia had fled China as a political exile, she’d relocated to the states with her then-newborn child, Fudong.  The Wikipedia article only gives years and not exact dates but if its timeline is to be believed, then Fudong couldn’t have been much older than one-year-old when he and his mother had been banished to America.

So this is the fate of those who speak out against Xi.  Banishment to foreign lands; out of sight, out of mind.  I frown.  But when I think about it a bit more, it remains a mystery to me how Fudong managed to make his way back into China years later as an adult.  Surely, he was on every single CCP-blacklist in the country.  China may be communist but it’s not incompetent; Fudong should’ve never been able to set foot on native Chinese soil ever again and the fact that was indeed back in the politburo, and not rotting away in some dank, unnamed Chinese prison somewhere in the Tibetan mountains, definitely meant there was more to the story here that I obviously didn’t know.

On my laptop, I flip over to some Excel spreadsheets and data dumps that Alan had also provided us earlier.  Though we’re on a highspeed, maglev train racing under the cover of night across the Chinese northern hinterlands, I still have blazing-fast gigabit wireless access.  (Back in New York, the densest urban center in America, sometimes I couldn’t even get signal when I was standing in the wrong place in my bedroom.)  Even though the previous project two years ago had apparently failed miserably, I was still curious to study and read over what had previously been attempted and succeeded or failed.  As a data scientist, a constant curiosity for evermore information is what separates amateurs from professionals.  And I, to toot my own horn a bit, was definitely no greenhorn.  To say the least, I’ve seen this rodeo more than once.

Looking at all of the data that Alan has provided, there are dozens of way to look at the data.  If you focus only on the decrease in petty crimes and acts of vandalism, then some of the harsher methods that the Xi loyalists had employed appeared to be effective.  But during that same period of martial law, factory output and commercial goods generation fell precipitously and the unemployment rate had skyrocketed.  Civil unrest was like one of those annoying air bubbles you’re trying to eliminate when you were trying to lay down carpet; it never totally disappeared– it just went elsewhere.  And depending on whatever metrics you wished to highlight, you could tell whatever story you wished. 

“Burning the candle at both ends, eh?”

I look up and see Kristen is at the other end of the dining car.  She’s wearing a white sweatshirt and grey sweatpants; evening garb, I guess.  It’s just the two of us at this hour, supper dining hours having already long since passed.  She helps herself to some guava juice that’s in the cabin refrigerator behind the counter and appears to be looking for snacks.

“Just trying to figure out how to make sense of everything going on,” I say.  “What are you doing up?”

She locates a remote on the counter and clicks it.

Over the dining bar, there’s a display that I hadn’t noticed earlier.  A Chinese news station blinks to life and the news anchor is reeling off highlights of the day.  I obviously don’t understand a word that she’s saying but pleasant visuals that stream by accompanying the bright, enthusiastic rapid-fire news anchor speech.  Apparently, it was yet another harmonious day of peace and prosperity in the middle kingdom.  Part of me strongly suspects that when the only news is state-sponsored news, then every day was likely similarly glorious.

Kristen tears open a plastic bag of baby carrots and pops one into her mouth.

“I’m trying to decide how I feel about all Uyghurs in Xinjiang getting all of their news from a single official source,” she says, chewing thoughtfully.  “Back home in Darwin, it’s not like this at all.  There’s half-a-dozen outlets and even then, a chunk of Australian don’t believe any of them and instead prefer to just get their news from their Foogle feeds.  And lord knows the provenance of those articles. Seriously, no one knows what’s true and what to believe anymore; it’s just all noise.

“America’s the same,” I shrug, “as is every single other liberal democracy in the world.  You guys are in good company; join the club.”

On the display, the news station crew appears to have visited the National Zoo in Beijing and the camera’s zooming in on a pair of giant pandas who appear to have produced offspring.  Apparently this is an infrequent and momentous event, worthy of national celebration.

“Do you ever wonder,” Kristen asks me, “if maybe Xi’s onto something?  Maybe not full-up Mussolini-style autocracy; but maybe not a complete free-for-all like what we have in the west, either.”

I shake my head and motion to the display. 

“No way.  If we left it up to some central authority, we’d just be seeing panda mating rituals all day.  I don’t know about Australia but in America, I’m actually one of those people who solely gets my news from my custom Foogle feeds.  And I’ve chosen to live in a neighborhood and community that reflects my values and beliefs.” 

Kristen is looking at me like she’s befuddled so I try to clarify what I mean.

“Like, I don’t need, and frankly don’t care, if people the next neighborhood over disagree with me on most things, especially culture issues like immigration, abortion, taxes.  I care about my taxes.  If they want to pay more because they’ve got kids or whatever who attend the public school system, then good for them.  They can vote for higher taxes in their district.  How does that quote go?  ‘Perfectly reasonable minds can disagree.’  That’s fine. Agreeing to disagree is a gift!  At the day’s end, for practical purposes, you’re not a citizen of the world; or even of America or Australia.  You’re a citizen of your state, of your specific community.  It’s called federalism for a reason.”

The Thing You Should Consider

“The thing you should consider,” she says, “is what happens in your absence.  Using your knowledge and skills, you have a chance here to be in the room when critical decisions are being made and have a say in what happens.  If you walk away now, who knows how things will end up in Xinjiang?  Yang will just bring in another team to head the project and it could eventually all end in famine or genocide, especially given the direction things are currently going.  You could prevent that.”

I search my conscience.  Do I care that countless millions of total strangers from a province that I’ve never set foot in could possibly die if I did nothing?  Indonesia in 1965; the Khmer Rouge in in the 1970s; Rwanda in 1994? Am I swayed?

Weirdly… no.

As soon as Shu tries to guilt me along this tact, my brain immediately formulates its own counter-rationalizations:  First, it’s not immediately clear to me at all that with my help, things will not end up actually being worse.  It’s perfectly possible that Yang and his puppeteers behind the curtain take my work and bastardize it, using it for some even greater evil.  These massive machine learning models and pipelines that data scientists build are tools.  And once you’ve built the actual tool, how one uses it is an entirely different matter altogether.  For example, the same image recognition software that helps a mother find her lost child in a crowded mall could be the same software that helps a totalitarian dictator hunt down and assassinate political opponents.  To a computer, a human face is just a face.  In all those old 007 secret agent movies, there’s always a “head scientist” who works for the Bond supervillain and if I’m not careful, I could totally unwittingly become that scientific accessory to evil. A supervillain-enabler. Most definitely not a good look and a categorically, maximally undesirable outcome.

Second, in all honesty– I feel a sense of detachment.  I know that makes me a horrible and heartless human but, unfortunately and inconveniently, it’s simply just true. (At least if I’m being honest with myself.)  I’d grown up in America all of my life and had led an extremely sheltered and privileged existence.  For the most part, two very big oceans had separated me from most of the world’s concerns.  And thus, for better or worse, again, if I’m being genuine: In my heart of hearts, I’d grown numb and apathetic to the headlines, especially international headlines, that I’d seen on endless repeat, looping again and again over the many years and decades now.  Mass starvations in Darfur or thousands dying from drought in Ethiopia and Somalia.  Even when I read about those events, they just felt like they were far away, in another galaxy and solar system.

Appealing to my desire to possibly prevent genocide is a losing argument.  And, give her credit, Shu seems to read from my expression that she’s failed to persuade me or move the needle at all. Apparently, this card wasn’t the ace that she’d thought she’d had.

I see her flash a quick glance at Vanessa, who’s still standing with Alan across the room.  It’s probably imperceptible to most, but I notice that Vanessa gives a smallest of nods back.  Apparently, the Queen Bee has given her underling some kind of greenlight on, well, something.

“Very well then,” Shu says, sighing.  “I guess there’s really only thing left to show you at this point.”

Chopra and I look at each other.

“Oh, come on,” Shu says as she puts her hand on my forearm and bats those long, alluring lashes again.  “You’ve come all this way, from so far.  Aren’t you at least a little curious?  It’ll only take a bit.”  She looks at all of the others, assembled in the room.  “You can all come to see.  I promise it’ll be worth your while.  You won’t want to decide on anything yet without seeing this first.”

Continue reading “The Thing You Should Consider”

TikTok: The Beginning of the End of American Tech Supremacy

TikTok is one of those of those apps that was honestly barely on my radar.   Oh man, if there were ever a sign that I’m super-old and practically prehistoric, this would be it.  That some new “short video sharing” app had skyrocketed into the stratosphere, somehow succeeding where Vine had failed, that also managed to defeat long-entrenched incumbent powerhouses like YouTube and Facebook Video.  I was genuinely shocked, I tell you, shocked.

But last week, a16z ran one of their handy “news summary” episodes that happened to cover TikTok and so I got to learn all about this newfangled, shiny object.  To me, TikTok is noteworthy not because it suddenly became super-popular among teens and tweens, but because it is the first super-popular global app that’s gotten a foothold in the American market that was built in China.

How were internet super-giants such as Google and Facebook outflanked by the much-smaller, nimbler TikTok?  The always-thoughtful Eugene Wei wrote a great in-depth analysis of how TikTok was built from the ground-up to prioritize a watcher’s “interest-graph” over his/her “social-graph.”  Dinosaur-era networks like Facebook were built on the foundational theory that you’ll most probably like what your friends like.  And that may or may not be true.  But what’s incredibly more powerful is if the algorithm can simply understand you— TikTok’s super-granular tagging (done by armies and legions of humans in China) is a large part of what makes this possible.

The young blood today likely doesn’t know this, but I’m old enough to remember a time when “Made in China” was actually a sign of extraordinary cheapness and low-quality.  It was a kinda pejorative label applied to some commodity item being built by the lowest bidder in the middle kingdom.  Well, that era has certainly ended.  Software prowess, innovation, and invention –which many thought for the longest time was the sole dominion of Silicon Valley and the Americans– has been taken over by the Chinese.  I’ve written before how I believe this next century will be The Chinese Century and this whole latest TikTok saga just further reinforces my belief in that sad inevitability.

What I think is especially intriguing (if somewhat predictable, I guess?) is that America’s response, under Trump, towards this new changing of the guard is to simply threaten to ban TikTok in America, or at least force ByteDance’s divestiture.  At the moment, it’s increasingly looking like ByteDance will be selling and handing over all US operations to Oracle (which is fascinating).  Oracle, the enterprise colossus run by Larry “It’s not enough I win; everyone else most fail” Ellison.

Buckle in for the ride folks; this is probably the Fort Sumter moment of the global geopolitical tech wars.  Things are about to get interesting.

Andre Agassi: “I hate tennis with a dark and secret passion.”

Talent can be both a gift and a curse.  What we are good at may not necessarily be what we love. When it is, then the world is beautiful and great. But when it’s not, it becomes hell on earth.  On one hand, you can say “it’s a good problem to have.” Which is true. But from another perspective, it’s a curse.  When you are have no options, you are not responsible for choosing.  The choice is simply forced upon you and you can comfort yourself, always, that the path you are on is simply your destiny.  These were the cards you were dealt and you’re just going through the motions, following the predetermined script.

But when you do have options, choosing can be both liberating and damning. Because then you are truly responsible for whatever comes next.  Thus, this choice can a burden.  If you realize your talent and potential, doing so may consume your entire life requiring thousands upon thousands of hours.  Maybe you’re good at tennis.  But maybe you’re also good at painting!  Or writing!  Or software development!  Or basketball.  Who knows?

But if you don’t pursue and realize your God-given talent, you may also later regret it for the rest of your days.  Emotionally, you might not be able to rationalize away the feeling that you could’ve possibly been a great, possibly been a contender.  Maybe one of the best to have ever played the game.

I learned on Reddit today that Andre Agassi positively despised and hated tennis.  His father, who was Armenian and immigrated to the US from Iran, was a professional boxer and exerted constant pressure of Agassi to play the game and win.  He even built a tennis court in their backyard so Agassi could practice!  To be clear, Agassi possessed tremendous talent.  But in his autobiography, Open, Agassi talks about how tennis consumed his every waking moment and was an enormous, tremendous burden.

Sure, in a way, it’s a privileged perspective.  But I honestly urge empathy if you’re able to summon it.  This gift/curse is a genuine struggle that many people legitimately face.  Andre Agassi —1996 Olympic Gold medalist, eight-time Grand Slam champion, and winner of 30 million USD in prize money— hated tennis.  As the old adage goes: “Be kind to everyone; inside, everyone fights their own war. Everyone bears their own cross.”