I went to bed at 6:30 am. I don’t have a particularly good reason for this as I mostly rebeat the video game Bastion. My day then started around 1:00pm which was equally idiotic as that was late enough to guarantee I’d waste the day but early enough that I wouldn’t be too awake for my day wasting. My frustration led me to start cleaning out my gmail inbox. So I started replying to outstanding requests, caught up with replies to long-standing email threads and formally recognized the failures and oversights that come with ignoring a message for a few months.

The last message I addressed was regarding a recipe exchange I had signed up for in September that I couldn’t bring myself to opt out of. My reply became oddly personal, and I’ve included it below. It started out as an apology and morphed into a meditation on my current life.

I’m a terrible person. Where a normal person would probably have just dropped it or maybe apologized or phoned it in, I’m trying to fix something I’ve left broken for months. I hope it proves to be more akin a broken piece of furniture where time doesn’t exacerbate the failure as opposed to say dropping an egg where failure to attend to it tends to be more problematic the longer it’s left to sit. I fully recognize I’ve fundamentally mis-understood this recipe exchange.

In 5th grade I opted out of a Pollyanna at Christmas but the teacher assumed I had just failed to sign up so I was assigned to give someone a gift. Everyone got something but that person and I felt absolutely mortified by the injustice of it. The teacher swooped in and gave the person a gift on my behalf saying something about it being lost in the closet. Normally adults aren’t so naked in their willingness to save face for children but Mrs. Newton was. I miss her.

I bake. It rewards repetition in a way that other types of cooking doesn’t seem to and this recipe is up near the top in terms of total batches done. I made the mistake of tripling the batch size once thinking a six quart stand mixer would take it. All was going well until, like Icarus I realized I had reached too far and my dreams melted away at 2am in a darkened kitchen as I scraped bits of cookie dough from a thousand kitchen surfaces. Such hubris.

Recipes have a provenance to them, or at least can. My mother would punish my brother and I with authentic Irish cooking so I had little to start from. After she and my father split up, we took on boarders at the house and this cookie recipe was my housemate’s girlfriend’s mother’s, or so she told me (the girlfriend). She was Mormon and I was tickled to be added to a lineage of some sort but the ingredients suggest either substitutions of a much more recent vintage (although the idea of an octogenarian homemaker seizing up pudding as the silver bullet for chocolate chip cookies would be a lovely master stroke). I was later looking up cookie recipes and I found that the recipe below was actually first published by Good Housekeeping in the late 90s. A shorter lineage than I even suspected.

The usage of vanilla pudding adds a toothsomeness to the crumb that lets the cookie coat the mouth and it does so without being cloyingly sweet.

The recipe:

Cream these together

2 sticks butter
227g brown sugar
2 3.4 oz packages of instant vanilla pudding

Then mix this in until the mix has lightened a bit
2 eggs

Then slowly mix these in
287g flour
6g baking soda

Then fold in these
285g chocolate chips
5g vanilla

Preheat to 375 degrees F (this should have come up first)

The pudding makes so these cookies don’t spread too much. I tend to also chill the dough before dishing onto cookie sheets. Also, I recommend a relatively small dough ball. Maybe between the side of a walnut up to maybe the size of a quail egg.

5.5 minutes on each side (if you do two sheets at once, remove tray, rotate top and bottom tray, and rotate each 180 degrees, tiny cookies can cook unevenly)

I hope you’re well and have received recipes from people who’ve proven to be less of a lackwit than myself.

Hit “send + archive” left me with an empty inbox.  This feels nice.

I hopped onto the subway and saw a woman with several reusable shopping bags clutched tightly around her. Her hair was thin and her face was framed with large brown glasses like a destitute Ayn Rand stunt double. The bags had cats on them. A white man with complicated hair and beard, a salmon shirt and lime shorts walked by her and this woman started screaming at the man as he took a seat. She didn’t appear to have teeth so her yelling was frantic and non-nonsensical but contained obvious vitriol. Another lean fellow walked on in pastel tank top partly covered in tattoos and sat next to the hirsute watermelon. He too was yelled at by the doppleganger of the materfamilias of objectivism. Other people entered and exited but only those two fellows were accosted. I was somewhat angered by the fact that this crone was yelling at what appeared to be gay men. But she was toothless (literally) and was almost a physical symbol of the depravity that comes from hatred. The couple later left the train after some affectionate handplay and was again targeted by a volley of glossolalia. They furrowed their brows at her as she stewed in her portable squalor. I hope she was secretly yelling “you’re well dressed and I wish I had your sense of style!” but got angered at her lack of annunciation or possibly “is that an ironic tattoo of a cat dressed as a pharaoh or possibly something deeper of a pharaoh dressed as a cat?” and she was vexed by knowing that she’d never know.

I doubt that’s the case. I wish the march of progress didn’t so often feel like a funeral procession.

I related the story about the half-eaten bread pudding to my supervisor who replied with. “I was just fine. I saw it told everyone to take it. Is quite good.” This made me wince a little and I saw that she had a cup of it behind her. “Can you at least microwave it a little?” and she agreed to. Later I got an IM from her: Microwave melted chocolate. Even better. You are genius.

I suppose I’ve received worse news.

This incident made me step back and realize that I’ve been dealing with coworkers that have terrible taste in baked goods for nearly a decade. Do none of these people have grandmothers? Do none of them bake? Even on the days where I phone it in and use brownie mix people are agog over it. On my last day I should pull a Wizard of Oz and tell everyone “the power to bake was within you the whole time” before disappearing.

Maybe it is time to get Blackout Baking up and running.

Last Wednesday my work group went on a canoe trip and followed it up with a barbecue at a coworker’s house. I had baked a key lime cheesecake and half baked a bread pudding (thinking I’d serve it warm at the barbecue) and asked my boss to bring them. He was coming later and I had no place to store the baked goods while we canoed. He arrived, I asked him about the cakes and his reply was “aaaaah, shit”. So they waited in the work fridge for my return after Colossalcon.

I came in Monday, checked their status and found the bread pudding was half gone and the key lime cheesecake was completely gone. The cheesecake doesn’t surprise me but the bread pudding? It was only half-baked. Underdone bread pudding has the texture and appearance of croutons covered in chocolate chips and baby snot which never struck me as toothsome.

This rivals the time my coworkers at my previous employer ate 2.5 lbs of seized fudge which had the taste and texture of chocolate chalk.

Coworker #1: We should eat in the breakroom.
Coworker #2: I agree.
Coworker #3: We should eat in the conference room.
Coworker #2: That makes sense.
Coworker #1: Where are most people?
Coworker #3: The breakroom.
Coworker #2: No they aren’t.
Coworker #1: Then let’s go there.
Coworker #3: Ok.

Everyone wound up eating in an entirely separate meeting room. My coworker’s comment on this was “we aren’t stubborn, we will easily listen to a leader, but no one usually wants to be one.”

The CARe seminar is an annual event focused on property casualty reinsurance actuaries. Almost the entire work group was present from across three time zones and we had gotten permission to go canoeing.

We headed to the canoe rental place, changed, all received life preservers that made us look like idiots, and were taken a few miles up stream on the Brandywine river. I opted to canoe at the request of a coworker who had no watercraft experience and wanted me to pilot. I had no problem doing this until she screamed whenever we approached either the banks or an overhanging branch. This wasn’t the kind of gentle scream of surprise or a yell so much as the scream of someone being stabbed. I was relieved to find that she made the same scream while using a trampoline.

After a little under two hours, we left the Brandywine Creek, a remarkably domesticated body of water and went to one of my coworker’s houses for a bit of a barbecue.

We were all there. It sounds trite but my team very rarely gets together. The last time was 16 months ago and that was only for an global meeting of the analytical teams. Here we were, chatting and eating in a first order approximation of friendship. Everyone still had a certain amount of excess courtesy but we were by and large relaxed. We ate well, drank a little, and then had a camp fire. There was a guitar that two people played acceptably but sadly no one knew how to play any songs that everyone knew. A Québécois coworker played what seemed like the Tracy Chapman version of “What’s Up?” by Four Non-Blondes and we filed out when we were done.

I have trouble calling most of my coworkers friends. There are two notable exceptions, one being a coworker with whom at first I clung too for mutual self-defense and another whom I helped get hired. They both felt a little more distant here. My two previous workplaces spoiled me. One was a summer camp and the other was medical device design. The former involved one living with ones coworkers and the other had project arcs that were long enough that one often worked long hours for an extended stretch with a group. No one would be able to do all aspects of a medical project so you got used to relying on people. At my current workplace, many projects are parallelized more than anything with no one having unique abilities in the group. The distance could be born to the stereotypical introversion of actuaries or maybe I’m too noisy. In the mean time, I will keep giving them baked goods.

Accredited actuaries must complete continuing education hours each year and conferences are held to meet these needs. My boss is active in one of the regional education bodies and invited a coworker and I to go. The first session was on a piece of legislation affecting insurance companies which requires a certain type of financial report each year. The discussion was a round table and I quickly realized that no two people there had the same experience. Some people were reserving actuaries, others pricing, others do everything. Each in different lines, each in different size firms, and across a spread of states that may choose to interpret the requirements differently. This was a gathering of actuaries specifically in the property casualty field and a presentation specifically for companies that’d be affected and still there was enough diversity among 35 people that no one really had anyone else they could specifically ask.

The next session was a presentation by the president of a risk retention group, a special type of insurer, in this case for schools. The presenter made a few interesting notes:

1) The firm expects more people to be going through schools but for less time.
2) Schools offering credit for work and life experience are popping up.
3) The IT dream for insurers hasn’t come. I think the phrase was “IT was a promise that turned out to be a black hole that sucks in money.”
4) Schools being liable for sexual assault is leading towards universal requirements that students take online defense and anti-assault training. Huge drop in claims for schools that do.
5) Top tier schools are stuck for innovation. Regional colleges are mostly doing the innovative stuff.
6) For Profit schools haven’t really taken off.

Some of the other sessions were either above me or boring, but one later in the day focused on actuaries on Capital Hill. The presenter talked about how he realized the actuarial world needed to get better at messaging when a leading Republican senator said “I like actuaries, they’re truth tellers. But I don’t know what you’re saying half the time.” The presenter also made mention of another law maker who had said “I didn’t really buy climate change when the scientists talked to me about forecasts or hippy dippy types kept talking to me, but when actuaries started giving presentations about the effects, I knew something was happening”. This last part made me a little proud. The presenter also noted that it was hard to get actuaries to go to DC. “People who can talk to a lawmaker and have that kind of numerical skill are usually bought up by someone”. Interesting.

The day was long. I knew two people there from outside of my firm out of 200 but I imagine that’ll change over time. It felt good to be part of a larger actuarial community but I was alarmed at how few people there were under the age of 40. Many of the students present weren’t necessarily going into the actuarial field. I hope it’s not the case that I’ll be forever part of the younger attendees.

“Looks good, put a disclaimer on it and send it out.”
“Really? You don’t want to change anything?”
“Nah, it looks great. Didn’t find any errors.”

And with that, my first solo pricing was out in the world. The work wasn’t particularly complicated but it required a bit of leg work and I had taken steps to explain my assumptions so a 3rd party could follow. The recipient received the work, said thank you, and any errors or insights were now part of some vaguely defined “record””. Hooray, I suppose.

I’ve been doing solo pricing for about a year. I’m to the point where I can figure out when I need to raise my hand and ask for an adult and when I can just kind of run with something and add a footnote pointing out what I did. I consider it the actuarial equivalent of being able to ride your bike in a straight line but having trouble turning. Luckily, many destinations are a straight line from where I currently am. The critical question seems to be “why shouldn’t I do this” vs. “why should I do this other thing”. Often there’s a collection of acceptable methods and it’s more a process of removing the wrong ones and picking rather than simply drawing the correct tool from the rack. Maybe this changes over time (I imagine it does) but hopefully it doesn’t represent hubris or laziness.

For now, I’ll go in long straight lines and at minimum try to pedal faster.

The floor below went silent about two weeks ago. No more odd hour doorbell rings, no more smells of foreign spices, and no more late night I’m-not-sure-what parties. It was nice. Mail started piling up for my downstairs neighbors and an “APARTMENT FOR RENT” sign went up. Were they evicted or maybe left for the season? On my way up to my apartment, I saw no light under their door and out of curiosity turned the knob. The door opened and the apartment was full of stuff. I recognized a few items from the one or two times I’d interacted with them. I shuffled around their floor stealing glances at the artifacts of habitation which suggested way more than two people lived there. My eyes wandered over how their book cases were arranged, what furniture was used, how the TV was the focal point, and the spareness of their kitchen compared to mine. After a minute or so, I walked out and went to my unit.

I prepared dinner and then asked my housemate if he wanted to have a look. He said yes and we wandered down. The door was now locked. So I knocked as a check. No response.

Had someone come home? Was someone there when I visited the first time? I’m not sure. But I contacted the landlord who said their lease was continuing through August.


As homeownership becomes a serious consideration I find myself chewing on living arrangements. My space is shared with my housemate which works out by and large well. I by and large control the layout of things as I simply have more stuff and take up more space with it. My housemate does most of his activities outside the apartment while I don’t. At summer camp I shared my bedroom with two others through the age of 26. My downstairs neighbors seem to have something similar to that (or simply have a radically different arrangement where notional bedrooms aren’t used as such). I watched an action movie with an action scene that took place in a kitchen and I couldn’t help but stare at the counter tops. So many things to consider.

A recent hire asked me to her desk to help figure out why a data table in Excel wasn’t working properly. Data tables can be somewhat testy and when we got this one to work my coworker did a little dance and ran to tell another coworker we had figured it out.

I laughed, illuminated by her delight and said “Work is a lot more fun with you guys [the cohort of new hires] around”. She looked at me and said in her slight accent “That’s because you were jaded”. I’ve been at my current firm for less than three years and I’m “jaded”. Two weeks ago a coworker said I wasn’t spontaneous. I’m boring and jaded… I have some work to do.

The charge of being unspontaneous took me back. I’m been caught yelling things like “DR. SPACEMAN” and doing things like challenging people to foot races to settle disputes. Have I changed? Do I not have the spare 10% for the ridiculous or has some spontaneous part of me died? Is the office place just a bad environment to express it or am I just busy? Was it that I tend to send out meeting invites for training and tend to bake things on the same day of the week?

The paradox is that to prove her wrong, I can’t plan anything. I mentioned it to a coworker and his immediate response was “this calls for a glitter bomb”. Great, but the planning of such undoes spontaneous. And I feel like spontaneous and random are different, so bringing in the glitter bomb but not placing it until the mood moved me seems to somehow cheat.


Me: Hi, I have a few questions about the pricing for the account you passed me.
Broker: (in a strong Dutch accent) Yes yes, what is it that you need?
Me: I’ve not priced many life and health accounts before, is there much development on these losses?
Broker: Development?
Me: Yes. Usually due to reporting lag losses for some period of time I higher a year after the close of the accounting period vs. a few months.
Broker: All payments must be requested within 90 days of billing.
Me: So claims don’t pop up later?
Broker: No. It’d be billed to successive years. Most people with chronic conditions go to the Netherlands but there is one little boy who is fighting a bone marrow infection and has been for two years. Everyone hopes he gets better.
Me: Me too.
Broker: Curacao has less than 200,000 people on it, Mr. Robinson.

In a very basic way, the goal of a reinsurance broker is to know his customer. This fellow seems to.

At the end of the call, he mentioned that he may try to arrange a call between me, him, and the chief actuary of one of the largest insurers on the island. I sounded a bit flummoxed at this, having never really talked directly to a client, and he added “don’t worry, he hasn’t been an actuary for that long”.

I mentioned the call to my boss “I’m terrified.” Her response was “me too”.