Friday, June 19, 2009

Tiny Victories

Working in pensions administration is usually about as exciting as it sounds. This may sound disparaging, but when I consider some of the excitement from my previous career in retail management (having a store manager arrested for theft, watching other ones walk off the job, trying to find a tactful way to tell another manager that his wife can't keep hitting on other employees and so on), a little predictability sounds absolutely stupendous. The highlights aren't nearly as stirring, but they can still provide an interesting diversion.

Take for example my colleague Kevin, a wicked sharp fellow with a background in economics (and the inventor of the term anticipointment) who dwells in the next cube at work. Because he actually understands a lot of the background operations that are used in pension calculations, he gets called upon to answer a lot of in-depth questions that would leave me (and even some of my more experienced colleagues) absolutely dumbfounded.

Some of these questions are from people who simply don't trust the calculations used to determine the value of their pension. Their concern is understandable; after all, it is their money, and they are going to be depending on this income for the rest of their lives, which science is working on making a very long time indeed. That said, when a firefighter or office manager who hasn't done hard math since high school wants to know exactly how their commuted value is determined, and you direct them to the Canadian Institute of Actuaries website which describes an immense calculation with something like 47 variables in it, and then they complain they don't get it and want you to explain it to them, Kevin gets that call.

So yesterday, Kevin has an "a-HA!" moment, and proudly produces a sheet with some kind of regression analysis or Tralfamadorian calculus or some such all over it. Seriously, it wasn't that big, but so many letters and numbers and strange symbols, it looked like Sesame Street ate the Klingon alphabet and then threw up. (The illustration is simply how it looked to me, another guy who has ducked math instruction since high school.) "Got it!" he says.

"I'm extremely flattered that you think I might recognize the significance of this," I replied honestly. "What does it do?"

He dumbed it down enough for me to understand that he had found a document that detailed exactly how the rate of interest is determined in one of the calculations used int he pensions business. "I have a guy who is constantly trying to work his own way through this and who thinks I'm his private arithmetic tutor. Now I can just give him this and tell him to go fish. It's the peacemaker, man."

I took another uncomprehending look at it, and then at him. "So you're telling me," I intoned seriously, "that you've found a weapon of math destruction?"

"That is just so awful," he said as he walked away. But that didn't stop him from using it a minute later, so I am chalking that one up for Team Liberal Arts Grad.

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