Fingers On The Scale

Image: Wikipedia/Laika ac

Mike Matson’s story “Fingers on the Scale” is the winner of The Art of the Future Project’s short-story contest exploring the world of 2035 in support of the Atlantic Council’s Global Trends 2035 report. Mike, a three-time finalist in the project’s previous contests, is a writer based in Louisville, Kentucky, with a deep interest in international affairs. He has almost 20 years of government experience, and degrees from The American University and the Joint Military Intelligence College, both in Washington, DC. In addition to 13 years in the Beltway before escaping to Kentucky, he has lived, studied, and worked in Brussels and Tallinn. He can be found on Twitter at @Mike40245.

“Congratulations on your high points AR award, son,” Jim said from the Audi’s front seat. His newly minted 1st grader sat in back, deftly waving his hand in the reality glove while he watched his tablet. Trevor was his name. He was a typical kid with a mop of blond hair that fell like his dad’s. Jim Richter was his dad and Jim had just sat through an end of school year ceremony scrunched up in a chair designed for a grade schooler, and not his lanky, 6’2” frame. His son had passed the 100 Achievement Rating points mark for the year.

“Thanks, Dad!” said his son. “I was doing fist pumps yesterday. I beat everyone but Heather.” Heather was the smartest kid in class and the one everyone measured themselves against.

“Trevor, remember what I said, it isn’t polite to brag.”

“Don’t worry, Dad. I only talk about that stuff with the other kids like me.” That brought a surprised look. His son looked up, met Jim’s gaze in the mirror and smiled. Jeez, even 1st graders are doing it. Jim probed a little.

“What do you mean? What kids like you?”

“You know, the smart ones. The high AR and oy scores,” he replied. “Me, Brendan, Heather, Lucy, Jesus.” He thought about it for a second. “We also count Gabe because he has such a great POE. I heard a teacher tell his mom it was one of the highest in the school.”

Trevor was one of three kids in class who had broken the hundred-point AR barrier. While nice, Jim was a bit bemused. The AR score was misused more than IQ. Parents bragged about them. Graduates put them on their resumes. Employers looked at them as important as GPA+, the newer GPA metric which factored in extracurricular activities and athletics. Everyone obsessed over them.

AR was the best known metric in the field of “opportunistics,” the discipline of quantification and practical application of opportunity designed to impact intergenerational social mobility. In the formal literature it was called Applied Generational Mobility. But AGM lacked cachet. After a pundit dubbed it “opportunistics,” the name had stuck.

Trevor clearly knew oy was also important. “Oy,” (OIA) stood for “Opportunity Point + IQ against Achievement Rating.” An advanced metric of opportunity points combined with IQ, measured against an individual’s 52 week rolling AR. OIA had been statistically proven to have a better predictive validity of a child’s chance of success than the discredited Common Core metrics. It was the difference between using a scalpel and a club to separate children into educational tracks.

///

Opportunistics was the logical convergence of several disparate fields. First had been the rise of big data analytics and its application in pro sports. Then came the insanity of constantly testing every aspect of K-12 education. The secondary benefit of incessant testing was its production of massive data sets with a deeper level of granularity, allowing for sports-styled analytics. It was only a matter of time before children were measured like they were athletic prospects.

But testing-based analytics alone did not create opportunistics; the accessibility of previously unavailable datasets did. The US Government had always collected ridiculous amounts of data, they just were not obtainable until later. Open records laws evolved to force most agencies to provide near total access to data, as long as PII was protected. Electronic health records created by ACA offered new insights. Census data were placed online. Even most criminal records became available.

And then came commercial data sets. Behavioral modeling had resulted in hundreds of precise consumer profiles based on online activity. Combining government data, school metrics, and marketing data sets, the resulting mashup created a data-rich picture of society which could be scaled from the national level to local communities, and eventually down to the individual level.

Jim was one of the first to see the potential of the convergence. Research had recognized the barriers to social mobility, but it had failed to identify more than a few crude actions which could be taken to develop or improve social mobility paths. This was no longer the case, and opportunistics was born.

An economics professor at Northwestern University, he used his academic research into social mobility and created what was known as the Opportunity Matrix. Prior research had shown parents who were more involved gave their kids a leg up later in life. Jim started a small company and sought to measure this by quantifying thousands of individual items. His team gave each item or event an “opportunity point” score. The resulting Opportunity Matrix sought to measure almost everything which could happen in childhood and keep score.

How many opportunity points was it worth being enrolled in Cub Scouts? Playing catch in the backyard? Owning a cat? Getting a diploma? Getting arrested? It all became quantifiable. Jim’s company wasn’t the only company working on the concept. And a world obsessed with metrics and success ate it up.

Opportunistics did for individuals what 3D printing had done for manufacturing. There was no longer a one-size fits all approach to public policy, education, or government services; solutions could be tailored to help towns, classrooms, and individuals. The power to take ownership towards achieving the mythological middle class status—by revealing hidden obstacles and showing how to overcome them—was put in the hands of everyone. Opportunistics created a post-industrial revolution in societal development. Like every economic revolution there were new classes of winners and losers. Jim was one of the winners.

///

Jim, Trevor, and his wife Susan stopped at the store on the way to O’Hare. Trevor wanted a new set of artificial reality glasses for the trip.

As Susan was at the register waiting on the cashier to ring up the glasses she glanced at the software for sale behind the counter. Half the titles were about opportunistics. How to test better. Parenting self-help programs. The latest apps. The cashier saw her looking at the titles.

“Ignore those, it’s all crap,” she said as Susan touched her phone to the pay reader.

Susan knew Jim heard this a lot, and it certainly was a popular topic in her law firm. She tried to avoid commenting.

“I was a solid B student in school.”

Here we go. Susan started plotting the clerk in her mind.

“Our CBM (Census Block Measures) was good and trending up. Our school was distinguished. I had a good POE for two parents with just HS diplomas.”

Good neighborhood. Distinguished school. Negative modifier for parents. A positive POE. Something was missing. “That all sounds promising, why do you think it is flawed?” She asked nonchalantly.

“I got pregnant my senior year.”

Bingo. Unwed teen mom. That’s a surefire matrix killer.

“My parents wanted to send me to school while they raised my daughter. But colleges wouldn’t look at me anymore. Their magic math said I was doomed. Only place I could get in was community college. Now I’m going to night school.”

“I’m sure the night school will help in the long run. And you certainly care for your daughter.”

“It’s too late for me. But I’m tracking my daughter on a great new app. It gives suggestions for ways to improve her scores based on what she’s already done. I’m enrolling her in a dance class next week it found through its search function.” She beamed. “How cool is that, the app will go out and find things for me to help her based on her needs!”

“I hadn’t heard of that app, that’s rather impressive,” Susan said. “What’s it called?”

“Let me link it for you.” She held out her watch and Susan touched her phone to it, transferring the link for the app. “I want her to have a good score when she hits kindergarten.”

“I thought you didn’t believe in all this.” Susan waved at the titles.

“I want to give her the best chance possible, right? Everyone else is doing it. If I don’t, she’ll be left behind.” She huffed indignantly. “I’m not one of those free rangers who intentionally ignores the numbers. I just think it’s rigged.”

“Good luck with your daughter’s class.” Susan handed the glasses to Trevor and quickly left. As she headed to the front of the store, Susan flicked her wrist and threw the data to Jim’s device.

“Possible foundation candidate,” was all she said as she walked outside. Jim looked over her shoulder at the clerk and nodded.

///

Jim’s family booked a private jet to Tokyo. Once on the plane he pulled out his laptop. Universities tracked school children starting at elementary school level, looking for good fits. Military recruiters did the same. Jim helped NU’s admissions department by crunching his proprietary algorithms to find diamonds in the rough. His personal preference was to run self-made CBM and POE watch lists against personalized income, ethnic, and parental quality tables.

His work with the admissions office to find disadvantaged kids was one way he gave back to help others. He had also created a nonprofit foundation with money from his company to match resources to localities in order to improve fundamentals scored through CBM.

CBM scores were ubiquitous and a key component of opportunistics. Similar to the stock market, CBMs were analyzed through dozens of different technical and quantitative metrics such as what was a CBM’s one, three, and five year trailing average and what was the spread +/- between a CBM’s medium income and ARs. Local governments tailored budgets to address issues flagged by CBM analysis. Real estate listings included CBM scores in MLS listings. Home values hung in the balance. It became the basic building block for public policy planning.

Then there was Jim’s personal favorite, POE – Possibility Over Environment. POE was often equated to the Wins Above Replacement (WAR) stat in baseball. Given a child’s environment, a combination of parental modeling, CBM score, and a basket of other metrics, how well should child X be expected to perform. Students who had a high POE had found a way to break through mobility retarding obstacles and were achieving above their expected statistical mean. Nurture overcoming nature. CBMs with clusters of “hypos” (high POE children) was one of Jim’s red flags for further investigation.

Jim had been watching several CBMs on Indian reservations. He also had CBMs in Appalachia, southern Texas, Mississippi, and multiple urban areas watch-listed. Each had clusters of hypos. He knew a hypo rich area had a statistically significant chance to spread to neighboring CBMs, and he was evaluating them to support, or was supporting, several of them through his foundation.

He eventually found seven 4th graders he liked. He flagged them for the admissions office. The children’s families would get NU recruitment materials. Jim identified two for NU’s social counselor as new case files. The counselor’s job was to work with a child’s family, and her school’s family resource center, to keep the child on a path to success.

///

The conference in Tokyo was uneventful. After a day of sightseeing, they flew commercial to Shanghai for another conference. Then Hong Kong and Shenzhen for meetings. Susan and Trevor came with him. Trevor was racking up opportunity points for foreign travel at such an impressionable age.

The pattern was the same in each Chinese city—conference or foundation work during the day, clients at night. Consulting was one of the ways his company made millions. Parents in the US and other countries, China in particular, spent lavish amounts to help their kids gain an advantage. He had hundreds of private clients in China for whom his company offered boutique plans tailored to an individual child. His company was not alone. Individual specialization was a massive worldwide industry. His job on this trip was to leverage his position as company president to woo the richest clients, and one-on-one facetime did this best.

He reviewed progress on the individual opportunity matrix his company had created for each client. Metrics were agonized over together. Sometimes the client brought along their own expert and the discussions became pleasantly technical. Often the child came along. Several times he administered a customized cognitive evaluation.

He then discussed options for the future with his clients: What foreign schools were better, Switzerland or England? Should the tutors focus on languages or math based on the child’s test scores? Should marriages be arranged, and where should the bride (or groom) come from? Did the facial success analysis recommend plastic surgery and if so, what procedures?

The permutations were endless, the commissions limitless. His company’s bottom line grew fatter.

After a five-day respite of relaxing at the most exclusive resort on Macau, his family headed home while he headed for his second to last stop, Phnom Penh. The Cambodian government had hired his foundation on a two-week, pro bono contract. He put significant effort into his foundation to compensate for his consulting work, which had made him rich beyond measure.

///

It was day four in Phnom Penh when he received a knock on his hotel door. Jim had just returned from a restaurant where he was arranging with local leaders for his foundation to sponsor several schools.

Before him stood two Asian men in cheap suits.

“Can I help you?” he asked. In poor English the man on the right replied.

“We would like to talk to you about a consulting contract.”

“I request consulting contracts go through my company so we can assign you to the proper counselor. I can give you the contact information and you can start there.”

“Please sir. We were referred to you by,” and the man who had done the speaking named an individual who Jim would never publically acknowledge he knew. A man who was an international pariah. A man who also happened to be one of his very private clients. OK, I think know where you’re from. He couldn’t help it, he looked both ways down the hallway before responding.

“Come in.”

///

Jim was again working on foundation matters when the stewardess spoke to him.

“Sir, you requested to know when we entered international airspace.”

“Thank you, Maria. Can you please get me a bourbon and a Cohiba?”

“Of course, sir. Pappy or Four Rose?”

“Pappy, please.” With that Maria went to the Lear’s galley while Jim closed his browser.

He double clicked an icon for an e-reader, entered the passcode and selected a particular book. He triggered the hidden virtual machine program by searching for an obscure word in the book. Inside the VM a browser tunneled out over the jet’s satellite connection. The signal bounced off five servers using a powerful encryption tool. When the session was over there would be no trace on his laptop.

The flight attendant handed him the bourbon and the cigar on a tray with a cutter. He logged into his off-shore company’s private server, currently located in Belarus. Then he took a moment to cut and light the cigar and enjoy a few puffs. It gave him time to refocus to the task at hand.

The company was registered in the British Virgin Islands through a law firm in Liechtenstein with its numbered bank account in Singapore. It had no overt connection to him or his university, company, or foundation. He took a sip of the 23-year-old bourbon.

It was time to get to work.

///

Jim took a two week private “vacation” to a Maldives resort every year. It was the perfect place to relax and unwind, and that’s what he told everyone he did. He was off the grid.

In reality it was a centralized, yet remote, location to meet his most toxic clients. It was a rogues’ gallery of dictators, dons, and dangerous individuals.

Unmarked jets from across the Middle East and Central Asia landed at the resort. These clients were not in the least interested in social mobility or helping others. They were interested in one thing—regime, dynasty, or individual survival. Arab Sheiks and Russian Oligarchs rubbed elbows at the bar as they waited for their appointment.

His clients provided Jim the most intimate details of their individual lives and the most sensitive data on their countries, all in order to game the system and hoard the possibilities for themselves. Jim maintained their information on his Belarus server.

His Cambodian visitors arrived on day three. Negotiations were intense. They were paranoid, and more than once the contract almost fell through due to reticence to provide the necessary information. Finally, Jim agreed to create a totally separate communication and data retention system from the rest of his secret clients. That sealed the deal. The first bitcoin and data transfer were executed before his guests left. Both were obscenely large.

///

The flight from the Maldives to Dulles was uneventful. When he landed the Lear taxied to the general aviation terminal. He made a quick call to his wife to let him know he had made it back. She knew he would be staying a few days in DC before coming home. Trevor said hi.

He could see through the window three men standing just inside the glass. The shortest of the three men stepped forward as Jim went inside, extending his hand. “Mr. Richter, it’s good to see you.” The speaker was 5’7,” mid 50’s, and starting to go soft in the middle. He wore jeans and faded loafers, with a nondescript blazer over a blue shirt. The hair was gray, the eyes brown and keen. One of the other two men was similarly dressed but taller and younger, and the other was obviously an IT guy who was attempting to dress up for the day by wearing a clean T-shirt.

“Hello, Alex, good to see you. I figured you would be here yourself.” Alex was his Agency handler.

“Wouldn’t miss it. We would like to talk to you for just a bit today before you head to the hotel. We have a conference room right over here.” He held out his hand to indicate where to go, and all four of them went down a short hallway to a private room.

As soon as the door was closed Jim handed over his laptop. Mr. T-shirt went to a corner and started dumping the hard drive.

After a little small talk Jim broke the ice.

“I must say your intelligence was spot on. They made the approach just like you anticipated. I don’t think I agreed too soon. In fact, I was afraid I’d lost them when I laid out the data requirements.”

“Yes, we were on pins and needles listening in. But you played them masterfully.” Stroking an asset just back in from the field was standard tradecraft.

“The agreement and first data tranche are all on the hard drive. The North Koreans have agreed for me to review their prior efforts, and have me develop a new CBM overlay. In addition, I also convinced them to sign a service contract to monitor and advise over the long term.” He took a sip from a water bottle. “They want me to concentrate on two tracks, one for the ruling elite, and the second for their science and technical cadre.” Alex looked very pleased.

“Jim, I don’t have to tell you what a treasure trove this is. North Korea is the hardest target in the world. Getting a CBM overlay of their entire population, weekly data updates on the innermost details of their entire ruling class, and being able to track their next generation of S&T cadre, well…” he paused, “It’s probably the greatest intelligence coup we have ever had against this target.”

“I admit, being able to see the data is exciting. North Korea is the last analytics frontier.” Jim leaned forward. “I’ve worked with enough dirty clients to see where they want to go. But even I was amazed at the depth of control they want and the granularity of their data.”

Alex’s partner discretely checked to make sure the recorders were getting everything. First impressions from an asset were often some of the most revealing. And they would run the recording through facial scanning and thermal imaging to check for nonverbal deception. But after three years of working for the government, Jim was one of their more vetted sources.

“And as great as the Korean coup is, the data from your other clients is just as good. It continues to give us insights into the ruling elites of a dozen important countries.” He pulled out an envelope with a single piece of paper in it. “We would like to thank you on behalf of a grateful country.” Jim looked at the significant number printed on the piece of paper he pulled out of the envelope.

“Please be sure to route it anonymously to the foundation.”

“Of course.”

Alex looked over at the IT guy, who gave a thumbs up. “I know it has been a long trip. Security will drive you to the hotel so you can rest and tomorrow we’ll start the debriefing.”

Jim looked concerned. Alex saw the look and nodded for him to speak.

“The other part, is it really necessary?”

Alex debated what to say. Normally an asset wouldn’t know operational details, but if Jim didn’t sell the future formula modifications with 100% confidence, the North Koreans would smell a rat. Alex took an indirect approach.

“Let me tell you a story. In 1982 it was the Cold War. We found out the Soviets wanted a specific piece of software to control their gas pipeline. So we let them steal it, but put flaws in the software. The pipeline blew up. We did the same thing later to the Iranian nuclear program. Those software manipulations helped give us a critical edge against an intractable foe. Your efforts are no different.”

“Bullshit!” Jim got a little animated. “We’re not messing with a factory or pipeline. You’re planning to cause chaos within the development of an entire generation!” Alex took it in stride, he had been expecting some resistance.

“Not chaos, but we do want to hinder the development of the North Korean S&T community. And we absolutely want to insert fissures into their ruling class. Make it less cohesive, less capable. Maybe then the next generation won’t be able to keep a firm grip.” Jim didn’t look convinced. “Through selective matrix modification by 5-15% at the group level, or sometimes on an individual basis, our analysts are convinced we can significantly disrupt the North Korean regime.”

“I still feel it’s wrong.”

Alex didn’t mince words.

“Yes, it is. Just like secretly advising dictators or helping rich families here who already control most of the wealth keep the spoils for themselves is wrong.” Jim flinched and Alex bored in relentlessly. “I know you’re conflicted because what you created is abused by so many, even while it made you rich. And I admire the balls you have to launder millions from your secret clients back into their own countries to help the masses.” The agency shrinks had prepped Alex what to say. “Your foundation and under the table charity work is a wonderful legacy.” Alex softened his voice.

“But the hard truth is opportunistics has created the ability for countries to gain a strategic advantage at the most fundamental level. The productiveness of our society is one of our greatest advantages. Others see that and are trying to replicate it, often for perverse reasons. North Korea is one of the worst and they won’t hesitate to use this against their own people.” Alex stood up.

“We can’t let that go unchallenged. All we are doing is laying our fingers lightly on the scale to tip the balance in our favor.” Alex then said something Jim had heard hundreds of times, from Susan, from the parents in Trevor’s class, and from his private clients. “We just want what’s best for our children.”

Not for the first time, the words unsettled him, just a little.