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Puneet · Nayyar


August 15th, 2006

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NEVER WRONG
Marnie Alexis Friedman
 
“Again? Howie, no, really, I don’t think that’s right.”
“Of course it is, Miranda. It was a unanimous decision.”
“Howie, it’s been me for four years running. Surely there’s one other person at the company who’s made some bit of difference.”
“Everyone else’s job is pure rote, nowadays. Sure, some of the members of the actuarial team are still calculating weighted-average rates for ‘just-in-case’ scenarios, but that work has been entirely theoretical, because your model is never wrong. Face it – your work is the most significant thing this company – this industry – has ever seen.”
“But I didn’t do anything this year. The first year, sure, I guess I deserved it; that’s when
I built the model. But since then, all I’ve done is tweak it a little, optimize things, automate a bit more. Nothing substantive.”
“Miranda, the decision is final. You are the 2021 Employee of the Year, whether you like it or not.”
* * *
 
“So…would you mind? He really wants to meet you – you’re like a rock star to him.
He’s the only kid I know who said he wanted to be an actuary from the time he was six years old.”
She choked back a snort, remembering how actuarial work had been her last choice, a field she’d chosen only when it became clear that her ailing parents would need more monetary support than the meager stipend offered to graduate students. “Of course. I’d be delighted. Let me know what’s a convenient day.”
“Umm…well, he’s…he’s actually here right now,” Drew stammered.
She paused. “Well then, come on over. I’ve got a meeting in an hour, but nothing pressing till then.”
“Great! Thanks! Really, thanks.”
A few minutes later, Drew and his son appeared in the doorway of her office. She rose to greet them. “Hi, come on in, I’m Miranda Stayton.”
“Miranda, this is my son Andrew.”
“Andy,” corrected the young man. He shook her hand. “It’s, like, really great to meet you.”
“Thanks,” she answered, sitting down and gesturing to him to do the same. “I understand you’re majoring in actuarial studies?”
“Yeah,” he said. “Which pretty much means I’m majoring in ‘Miranda Stayton’s Amazing Model.’ Of course, it’s all proprietary so we can’t analyze it at all, but mostly we talk about how it’s changed everything for actuaries.”
She narrowed her eyes at him. “But you’re still covering the basics, right? Life Contingencies, Theory of Interest…”
“Oh, yeah, sure. But they told us we’ll only need it if we work for one of Duckrene Life’s competitors.” He laughed. “But your only competitors are the companies you don’t want to buy, right? So it’s, like, hardly worth learning.” He noticed her expression and anticipated the interruption she was about to make. “No, no, I’m totally learning it. Gotta pass the exams, right? But I mean, that’s all it’s for. I’m out in two years, and hopefully Duckrene’ll hire me straight outta school.”
She nodded, smiled briefly. “Good luck to you. You know we won’t hire actuarial students who haven’t demonstrated exam success. But we also won’t hire people without a firm understanding of the material on exams they’ve already passed. After all, we’re constantly refining the model. Can’t update mortality assumptions without understanding joint life probabilities, right?”
He grinned. “Alright, I’ll start paying better attention. But can I ask you one question?”
She restrained herself from pointing out that he already had. “Certainly.”
“I’ve been wondering about this a lot…Me and my friends have talked about it a little, but when we asked the professor he said he didn’t, like, waste time on impossible questions. But I was wondering…”
“Yes?” she prompted, knowing what would come next as he trailed off.
“Well…I was wondering, what happens if your model is ever wrong?”
“Andy!” Drew cut in angrily. “Her model is never wrong.” He glanced at Miranda apologetically. “Sorry…kids, you know?”
“But I’ve heard it was off by a few days a few different times!”
“Andy!”
“It’s alright, Drew,” she said. “Three times. Three times, the model has been off by one day.”
“Isn’t that, like, bad?” He was clearly nervous, but his relief upon asking the question that had been plaguing him was evident.
She smiled, reassuring him. “Having the model off by one day throws off my actual-to expected ratios in the eighth or ninth decimal place. We only track six decimals. So no, I don’t think a few anomalous results are so bad. Mortality never used to be measured out to the day, anyway – that’s only been possible because the PIDs transmit a signal directly to our databases upon the death of their owners. You’ve heard of IBNR, claims ‘incurred but not reported,’ right?”
Andy nodded.
“But you’ve only heard that in the context of health claims. There are no more IBNR life insurance claims, because the Personal IDs report death as soon as it’s…‘incurred.’ But Andy, to answer your question – if the model ever turns out to be wrong, we’ll fix it. That’s all. That’s why it’s so important to remember all the material from the exams – the only way to fix the model is to understand where it went wrong, and you can’t do that without a firm background in all the material.”
Andy nodded, apparently placated. Miranda could see him formulating another question, the logical follow-up, but then he glanced at his father and apparently thought better of it. “Thanks,” was all he said. “I don’t want to bother you too much; it was really nice meeting you.”
“Nice meeting you, too,” she said, standing up and shaking his hand again. “Good luck with your studies. I’ll look for your name on the pass lists.”
“Thanks again, Miranda,” said Drew, propelling his son out of the office.
Miranda sat down again at her desk, thinking of the three heart-stopping moments Andy’s question had recalled to the forefront of her memory.
Betsy Coble, languishing in the cancer ward of a top-rated hospital, her 56-year-old body not quite as feeble as the model had projected it to be. Adrian White, lawyer by day, dare-devil motorcyclist by night, whose luck had held out longer than the model predicted. Nathan
Reynolds, a nondescript man in a nondescript job whose life was notable only in that its length defied the model.
Each of them had caused her stomach to churn and her palms to sweat, had forced her home early with an excruciating migraine. And each died by the end of the day following the model’s projected date of death. Betsy had faded away painlessly as she slept. Adrian’s notorious lack of attention to detail in his nightlife meant that it came as no surprise that his brakes, the pads nearly worn away, had failed at a critical moment.
And Nathan was found in his nondescript bed, suffocated, presumably by a nondescript burglar who’d taken a nondescript television.
Miranda could hear Andy’s unasked question: What happens if you can’t fix the model? She pushed the disquieting question and the unsettling memories from her mind, then busied herself preparing for her meeting.
* * *
“Thanks, Tim. Glad to see Marketing’s on track for the new product roll-out. Alright, so that leaves…Actuarial. Miranda?”
“Things are on track. We’ve validated all the assumptions for the new product, and we’ll review actual-to-expected beginning one month after launch.”
There was a slight snicker at the word “assumptions,” and a larger one when she finished speaking.
“Great. And what are the actual-to-expected for the First Pioneer UL? It’s been a year since that launched.”
“Actual-to-expected are one, across the board.”
A few eye-rolls, one appreciative long, low whistle. “Your model’s deadon even for mortality in the Moon colonies?”
“Of course, Chuck,” cut in Toni, a twenty-year company veteran. “The model is never wrong.”
“Yet,” corrected Miranda automatically. “But it could be, and that’s why we’re tracking actual experience.”
“Alright, thanks, Miranda.” Howie regained control of the meeting with the practiced aplomb of a COO. “Anything else?” His direct reports shook their heads, glancing around. “No? Alright, you’re dismissed.
Don’t forget about the Employee of the Year dinner on Thursday.”
* * *
Returning to her office, she began writing her speech for the dinner. She looked over her speeches from previous years, and began with the same platitudes: “I’m so honored, I’m overwhelmed that the model has proven to be so useful to our company, I’m grateful to the members of my department who have improved the model in ways I would never have thought of on my own.” She wondered, briefly, if it sounded stilted always to refer to it as “the model.” On rare occasions, she called it “our model,” but she never, never referred to it as “my model” in front of anyone in the insurance industry, or the media. She hardly used the phrase at all, in fact.
She outlined her speech, focusing, as she had the previous three years, on the value of teamwork and the importance of having a staff unafraid to criticize and correct. Writing somewhat by rote, she was jolted back to her senses when the computer gave a distinctive set of beeps. An alert message popped up on the screen, simply a number: “410136788.”
Toggling her screen over to the always-running terminal for the model, she entered the policy number, adjusting it with her own personal code of adding one to the first digit, two to the second, and so on.
Policy: 533582467
Owner: Burlock, Taylor, Mr.
Address1: 117 Cardinal Circle
Address2: n/a
Address3: Liliorat, MA 02384
DOB: 11/17/1967
PDOD: 12/12/2021
ADOD: n/a
As she’d feared – well, known, based on the distinctive computer beeps – the policyholder’s projected date of death was yesterday, but he wasn’t actually dead yet.
A quick inquiry on the policy documents revealed that the not-yet-late Mr. Burlock was a senior executive at Pharm Phresh, a leading drug manufacturer. Miranda hurriedly Net searched the company, and found that it was in the midst of a battle royale with its leading competitor; each company had accused its rival of corporate espionage. Dirty, underhanded tactics had been used so much in the long-ongoing fight that the NewsNet hardly bothered reporting on it anymore.
* * *
She buzzed her assistant, complained of a migraine, grabbed her purse and briefcase, and left the office. Stepping into her transport, she tapped the “Home” icon and let the craft propel itself through the mild, prerush hour traffic. Minutes later, she walked into her bedroom, took her anti-migraine medication, and hoisted a different black leather briefcase over her shoulder. As she got back in her transport, she switched to “Manual Entry Mode” and typed in the address she’d memorized from the computer screen.
In half an hour, she was approaching the front door of Taylor Burlock’s split-level house. She rang the bell, and a balding man opened the door momentarily, peering at her suspiciously. “Mr. Burlock?” she asked unnecessarily, having verified that he was recently estranged from his wife and lived alone.
“Yes?”
Even as he answered, she was opening the briefcase, closing her hand around the cold metal, pulling it out, aiming it directly between his eyes.
She whispered the words she’d only said aloud three times before.
“My model is never wrong.”
And squeezed the trigger.
 
 
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