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.

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”.

I took an actuarial exam yesterday and am happy with how I did. I left one blank, had four that I consider near guesses (could only rule out one or two answer choices) plus the probably background noise of me just misreading questions or fatfingering a key on my calculator. I will be glad if I pass but if I didn’t, I think I’ll have been close.

I ran a training session with the new hires and caught up on work I had put off. The day was frantic and I had only barely regained my abilities to interact with no calculators when I got a message from a coworker.

Him: Best loss listing ever.
Me: Howso?
Him: The entire description for this loss is “cleaning tools, testicles”.

Messages like this are why I fear an open laugh as my entire company would be able to hear us laugh. “Cleaning tools, testicles” means that at some point, some person in a claims department somewhere decided that the only additional information required to move forward on a workers’ compensation claim was “cleaning tools, testicles”. Someone thought that, in its entirety, described what had happened to the listed injured person. There was no additional information as to the line of work, the time of day, the type of person (presumably male?), or environment that solicited “cleaning tools, testicles” nor the chain of events that lead up to or followed “cleaning tools, testicles”. A simple mystery. One that will probably solved by a urologist and someone somewhere in an HR department.

I got in work very early on Monday. A coworker was returning from vacation and I wanted to have something done in advance of his return. Work started for me at 6am and I was largely finished by the time he got into work. I told him what I had done, he told me to make some changes and I spent the day making them. One or two parts were rather tricky so it wasn’t until the end of the day that I finished. I shot the lead a note that I was done but it probably needed some clean-up and asked to talk in the morning.

This morning, I arrived and the lead shot me a message of “for time’s sake, let me make the fixes and I’ll go over them when I’m done”. Seven hours later he messages me. “Done, please do an editorial review.” Cool. I open the work file and almost nothing of my work remained except for two things: Modifying the color of the column headers and a single calculation. I wasn’t mad or upset, but smirked at how wrong I had been. How absolutely off-base I had been with my assumptions, how naively I treated calendar year accounting, and how underdeveloped my accrual calculations had been. I started laugh. A non-actuarial coworker heard me, and asked what was funny.

Me: Imagine someone asks you to make a sandcastle and after getting some basic instructions you do it. You finish and you look at it and go “eh, not bad. Could use work though.” You tell the person who requested it that you’re done and they say “I need to make a few changes” and you think “I guess I didn’t nail it but I helped!”. At the end of the day you come back and see a completely new sand castle there. So new, in fact, you think they trucked in their own sand because it’s not even same color. On closer inspection you do see that they did use some of your work: a single plastic figurine you had added to yours was preserved. Then the person asks you to check their sand castle to make sure it conforms to what they wanted.
Her: Oh.

Actuarying hard.

Insurance companies often write multiple lines of business. A given firm may insure people’s cars, the drivers of those cars, their houses, maybe their businesses. Each of these lines shows different loss characteristics and these can change over time. Part of my job is taking a loss listing and assigning the losses to categories so I can then do juju on them as similar groups. Sometimes this isn’t straight forward so I’ll contact someone more familiar with the client who may know. Today I had one of those calls:

Me: So, there’s a claim in 2004 with no real description except that it happened to a fuel oil company. Lists a destroyed vehicle, and about five million more in property damage but no one was injured. What was happening there?
Broker: Oh, that was an explosion.
Me: Any more detail?
Broker: Guy thought he had turned a valve off, turns out he hadn’t. Underground parking lot filled with gas until the building’s heat kicked on and triggered an explosion.
Me: Wow. Gonna call that auto liability.
Broker: Those are rare, though.
Me: How about the loss in 2007? That looks like a bundle of about eleven claims.
Broker: Oh, that was the beginning of the shale boom in that area. New guy operating a truck and he didn’t properly seal a container and it exploded. But that was a one time deal.
Me: Good to know, that’s AL (short for auto liability) too, and in 2011? Again, this one lists a lot of auto liability but no details.
Broker: Oh yes. A truck was on the highway and some volatiles were leaking because it wasn’t properly closed and it started a fire and there was a small explosion.
Me: Uh, huh. Soooooo….
Broker: That’s probably AL too.

I’m an actuary and don’t really do loss containment or preventative action, but it seems like if your three largest claims are all caused by exploding vehicles that someone didn’t properly operate, maybe you should work on that.