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Macheide’s Aurelian Dream

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The Contingencies Article – Some Explanatory Notes

Disclaimer: The following notes regarding “Next Best Thing to an Aurelian Dream,” published in the September/October 1990 issue of Contingencies, do NOT tell what the article “means.” Even when I can say here with any definitiveness what a particular word or phrase used as basis within the dream, at best that is but a symbol with far more extended meaning, as is the case in any dream.

  • Next Best Thing [title; concluding paragraph] — Cambridge Dictionaries currently defines this phrase as “the thing that is best, if you cannot have or do the thing you really want.” Obviously that online resource was not avaiable to me in 1990 when I wrote my article, but I meant precisely that, with the thing I could not have or the thing I could not do being that . . .
  • Aurelian Dream [title] — which is the same Aurelian Dream I now come back around to in this post. Which, as I’ve noted already here, I will never be able to succinctly or definitively describe and may never be able to fully realize — that is, I may always be only jumping (forward, one would hope) from one “next best thing” to the next “next best thing.”
    Somewhere I’d picked up the impression that an “aurelian dream” was but another way to refer to utopia — that is, not merely envisioned, but seen as the perfection of a goal . . . but as a goal that would be unattainable. Curiously, I can’t easily find any reference to such an image now . . . so was the reference equally obscure back in 1990? Oh well. I did mean it with an implied point to a utopian goal. (And yes, with a peripheral but intentional reference to the Beatles’ Golden Slumbers. Intentional enough, that I do find myself singing that song in my head every time I re-read my Contingencies article.)
  • cabal [preface note] — the magazine editors’ word, not mine . . . but pretty accurate. Wikipedia described a cabal as “a group of people united in some close design together, usually to promote their private views or interests in a church, state, or other community, often by intrigue, usually unbeknownst to persons outside their group.” OK yeah, perhaps we were trying more for “intriguing” than for “intrigue,” and if we were “unbeknownst” maybe it’s only because “they all moved away from me on the bench,” as Arlo would describe the typical reaction to our group’s zaniness. As I’ll relate in further pages of this post, I’d been struggling for at least a decade to get something going in the direction of this “next best thing.” Finally, I caught the ear of several key godfathers in the pension software arena, and somehow we managed to cross lines of competitive self-interest to launch the bulletin board system that was the supposed focus of my article. Cabal? Yeah . . . all mysterious and secretive about the magic we were casting. We were playing the alchemists, promising gold out of common lead. Aurelian dreams . . .
  • in parables–or in tongues [preface note] — again the magazine editors’ words, not mine. And I had to chuckle, given my upbringing, steeped as it was in the parables of the gospels and the tongues spoken by the apostles. Ummm, so can we think of our “Aurelian dream” as actuarially equivalent to divine truth, eh? I’ll dodge that mild sacrilege and let’s just say that although the article came straight out of a dream, most of its content was rather straight black-and-white “courier”-style text that any pension actuary of the day would have readily understood, no metaphor at all to it. As will be evident from some of the background given in the notes on this page of this post.
  • A. Richard LaBombarde — the name under which the article was published. Not until a full year later would I write A Guide to Nondiscrimination Requirements for Qualified Pension and Profit-Sharing Plans under the name I now use. The story behind that name change being somewhat peripheral to the focus of this post (although that 1991 book is quite definitely not at all peripheral to my Aurelian dream), other than to take note that yes, I was widely known as “Rich” by those who were then reading Contingencies.
  • While riding on a Metroliner south . . . I dreamed a dream [¶1] — One of my actuarial colleagues did correctly pick up my implied reference to Bob Dylan’s Dream. Although I don’t know if even he was aware that I meant my reference to flow all the way on through to the closing lines: “Ten thousand dollars at the drop of a hat / I’d give it all gladly if our lives could be like that.” As in, with the express implication of the price tag I would have then placed on a reasonable price for a lifetime subscription to our actuarial bulletin board, if only “it could be like that” (in my case, meaning of course if only we could have my Aurelian dream). Then again, all obscure references and implied values and other metaphors aside, my intro phrase was simply and plainly the truth: I had the dream that gave me the Contingencies article during the closing minutes of a Metroliner train trip from New York City back to Washington, D.C., where I was then living and working.
  • after leading a training session [¶1] — for a small group of pension actuaries working in the northeast for the actuarial consulting firm for which I was then employed. We met in the conference room of the New York office. I’d taken the Metroliner north from Washington, D.C. that morning, served as the only speaker and facilitator for our training session, then rode the Metroliner back south after we were done for the day.
  • every-enrolled-actuary-knows-what [¶1] — the proposed regulations on the nondiscrimination rules under IRC 401(a)(4), that would be. At the time the Contingencies article was published, I was quite correct: every enrolled actuary would have known exactly what I was saying, not only because it was at that time it was head-ahd-shoulders the top emerging issue, and not only because I was already by then well known as a leader for training sessions on the issue, but also because almost like one hesitates to speak a demon’s name lest it call the demon out of the dark, I was mincing my reference to the topic — as no doubt the magazine’s software review consultant well knew, thus right from the start encouraged the editors to resist changing or explaining a single word, although outside the group I was naming, quite likely I was already speaking “in tongues.”
  • hypnagogues [¶1] — see Wikapepedia’s article on Hypnagogia. As mentioned, the Contingencies article came to me in one of those dreams that comes to fatigue just as it slips off into sleep. Some of my best dreams have been hypnagogia . . .
  • well-dispersed, restructured, disparity-imputed, cross-tested PIA-offsetting waves of employees [¶1] — again, thanks to the then-proposed regulations on nondiscrimination. I intended the surreal feel of layer on layer on layer somewhat like Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues, suggesting a landscape gone rather insane. Yet once again, any enrolled actuary of the day would have seen the rather strict logic behind it: I was describing quite accurately the procedure by which one would prepare for the general nondiscrimination test a la the 1989 regulations (i.e., before the rate groups introduced in the 1991 version, for which I myself can claim a large share of credit, in no small part due to the dream I had dreamed here). And yes once again, although quite logical for a seasoned practitioner, I was actually visualizing this in my waking dream.
  • whimsically at random [¶1] — I’m poking a bit of fun at our own profession and these proposed regulations we were struggling to understand. I’ll leave that to a longer discussion for some other day. Suffice it to say that in the actuarial profession and within the nondiscrimination regulations, absolutely nothing is random nor whimsical. Although in my dream, it almost seemed as though . . .
  • Marathon Man “safe” harbors [¶1] — again, I doubt I needed to footnote this for any knowledgeable pension actuary of that day (again, as suggested by the magazine’s software review consultant advising against changing or explaining any word of my article). But for a background note after the fact, I’ll at least take the opportunity to thank one of our attendees at that New York training session for his outraged reaction to the proposed regulations. Once we reached an overload point somewhat like reaching the tipping point at Three Mile Island, he literally threw his papers in the air proclaiming that faced with the burden of going through the general nondiscrimination test, employers would rush en masse to amend their pension plans so as to fit into the straitjacket of safe harbor designs prescribed by the proposed regulations, eliminating most if not all of the flexibility then existing in the pension arena (not to mention, those consulting fees for handling the customized designs that would be wanting the general nondiscrimination test). That partner’s tantrum came back to me in my Metroliner dream in the form of Dustin Hoffman, faced with the Nazi’s drill, screaming “Safe, safe, safe!!” Eventually I would reiterate my Contingencies article reference in a cartoon I would draw for the Enrolled Actuaries Report, based on that same Marathon Man image of being forced to choose “safe” (harbor) when faced with the pain of the general nondiscrimination test (drill). And yes, when I wasn’t writing cryptic articles for professional periodicals, I was known to draw a cartoon here and there.
  • the year I first began my pension actuarial career [¶1] — for the record, 1976, which by quite happy accident happened to be the first year in which ERISA was effective. Shall I aim for making it 40 years, unrounded?
  • IRC 415(e) [¶1] — combined limits on benefits and contributions, still effective in 1990 when the Contingencies article was published, eventually repealed later that decade, but already by that time far from being the “hairiest” calculation, particularly with the proposed regulations giving us the general nondiscrimination test. That reference to 415(e) was a very deeply personal one to me. Straight out of college so quickly to a marriage that I skipped graduation ceremonies, then so quickly back from the honeymoon to the first job of my career at an insurance company, after morning with the Personnel Department I was taken to my first actuarial student assignment — not to the life insurance department with most of the new actuarial students, not to the health insurance department or the pension department nor even to the investment division, but instead to serve for the insurance company’s own thrift savings plan. Where after lunch they sat me down with the Internal Revenue Code and opened it to section 415(e). I could have barely described a pension plan, much less have made head or tails of plan qualification or benefits versus contributions or any of it. “Don’t worry,” I was told, “This is new law so nobody else knows what it means either. But we are worried that the president of our company might be in violation of 415(e), so we want you to become expert in this, then let us know.” So ummmmm, I did. Even 15 years after its repeal, I am so expert on 415(e) that I can tell better than most how to take advantage of the hole left by elimination of that relic.
  • pension expense still meant pension contribution [¶1] — Then if 415(e) served well as marker both for the start of my actuarial career as well as for the dividing line between the simple and the complicated, then this allusion to the revolution in accounting brought by SFAS 87/88/106 likewise served as marker both for the start of my service as a research actuary as well as a dividing line between traditional versus new ways of viewing pensions.
  • material on the actuarial exams was not three laws out of date [¶1] — meant not only as a complaint about how disruptive the fast pace of change had by 1990 become, but written with a mild bit of personal bitterness. By the time the Contingencies article was published, I had all but given up trying to pass that one last actuarial exam I needed in order to become a Fellow of the Society of Actuaries, so remained only an Associate the remainder of my career. The last 3 or 4 times I sat for that last exam, I had been spending too much time on real work to be able to study sufficiently for the exam itself . . . ironically, more often than not with that work involving me helping to draft the very law that would be changing the content for those exams. And by the final time I bothered to sit for the exam, I shot myself in the foot by spending more time “correcting” those who had posed the exam by pointing out how the law had changed to make the questions posed obsolete . . . technically getting the answer right in the sense of what I needed to be using for practical application, but not winning enough points out of that to slip me over that edge I kept touching (all of my last 3-4 times managing to get the highest failing score one could get, so quite possibly within a point or two of getting that FSA, if I’d “behaved” and given the obsolete wrong answer that would have pushed me through to fellowship).
  • carefree things actuaries delight in doing [¶1] — If actuaries would only stop treating it like a trade secret and admit it without worry about being laughed at, they might find enough pride in it to even use it to recruit new troops to the cause: actuaries really do have fun . . . when free to do actuarial work without being forced to twist and squeeze it into the tax code.
  • reasonable in the aggregate [¶1] — something we used to be allowed to be. Now that’s not supposed to be good enough, although decades later I’ve still been unable to discern any real improvement that came from restricting that freedom.
  • mysterious conjurer staring into the crystal ball [¶2] — a passing reference to my own past experience: about five years before I wrote the article, the insurance company for which I was working established a position for a “futurist” – rather a rare step for so conservative an institution. My “conjurer” was a personal nod back to him. But although even he probably would not have caught the glance I gave him and although surely nobody else (even the many who’d heard me speak so respectfully of him) saw more than a general metaphor, that works just as well. My point was that although I’d been pushing for an actuarial knowledge system for nearly a decade by then, as of 1990 such a system remained a matter off into the future, almost to the fortune-telling type of future.
  • changes in the heart of man [¶2] — probably overlooked as a toss-off phrase, eh? This article was written as tightly as could have been (again, as recognized by the magazine’s software review consultant, who advised not changing or deleting a single word), and this phrase was no exception. As might be seen in my notes in the rest of this post (if and when I ever get far enough into it), a very huge feature of the vision I had been pushing regarded the flexibility and organic nature of the reality that an actuarial knowledge base would need to represent. That is, in short, absent reflecting those “changes in the heart of man,” this aurelian dream would never truly be much more than quickly rusting tin utensils.
  • cajole [¶2] — Remember in Men in Black II how Jones had left himself clues that he knew only he would remember, then did remember even beyond amnesia? Yeah, well “cajole” is one of those triggers for me. Back in 1990, I had a thing for words with “j” in the middle, especially off the beaten path laid down by prefixed words such as “injection.” Dig up any of the articles, poems, letters or anything else that I wrote back then, and without exception any mid-J word was no accident. Here, “cajole” was a key meant for me, and I know the door with the lock it still works in. Nobody else needs to know; the article still works well enough for everyone else without needing to know the map the article gives me unfolding out from that internal “J.”
  • Information Services Division [¶2] — written with a mild touch of disbelief that such a division may ever have become persuaded to move in any positive direction toward creating a real actuarial knowledge base. To this day, 25 years later, I distrust efforts of techie types for this endeavor. Too often I’ve been involved on projects that might have managed pieces, only to face resistance and back-pedaling and lack of vision et cetera ad nauseum. In 1990 when I wrote the Contingencies article, I’d spent almost half a decade unable to get my own employer’s tech department to show any interest in the project, so to some extent this reference was very directly pointed back against them, since the bulletin board system cited by the article was only finally being built by an outside “cabal,” rather than by any major company’s systems people. But I could back-date this remark to a decade or two before its publication, or today 25 years later could repeat it today, and I fully expect I’ll be able to repeat it several decades from now, and retain the same suspension of belief in expecting that any progress on the dream could really have emerged from the computer department.
  • anticipate future opportunities rather than juggle past crises [¶2] — see preceding bullet. A quarter century after writing my Contingencies article, unfortunately this segment remains completely entrenched in the sort of “dream” we think of as nightmare. As in, tech types engaged in attempting to build actuarial (or pension or benefits or related) knowledge bases these days still get themselves all tangled up with trying to reconfigure past situations instead of reaching toward future opportunities. Yeah alright, so I was using this article to air a grievance or two, but only when it was crucial to the aurealian dream I was trying to describe. And here as much as with any other characteristic: if an actuarial knowledge base cannot be flexible enough to grow into – indeed, to create – the future, then it will be as flat as a movie set in a Grade B Western.
  • less time than we scheduled [¶2] — another tongue-in-cheek poke at our computer people. Now, ask me how long I would schedule for it. Try: a week to get it off the ground and into the hands of every pension actuary, is all it would take to start it; then, the rest of our lives to build and grow with.
  • bionic pension actuary [¶2] — yes, bionic. We’ll come back around to this in some of the other pages of this post. Technically, as ought be clear whether read as metaphor or read as vision or read as any concrete expectation of reality, my “aurelian dream” meant something that I or any other pension actuary would be able to use without actually becoming bionic. But that it not to say that I rule the bionic out of the question. Some 5 years before this, I had been disappointed at failing to find any interest out of envisioning bionic possibilities for intellectual operations in future tech, even out of a group supposedly aimed at envisioning the future. And a year after my Contingencies article, I would even be talking seriously with some neurosurgeons about actually experimenting in the bionic direction suggested by my article. Now, 25 years later, my vision is not quite so sci-fi as it must have sounded then.
  • Hard-wired to EEG-like electrodes [¶3] — see previous bullet in these notes: in 1991, I actually sought such wiring. For now, I’ll leave that escapade to another page of this post. Suffice it to say that my 1990 article was not quite so wild-eyed speaking in “parables” or “tongues” as seemed to some. To my knowledge, what I described here had not yet (in 1990) been done, but although I had been seeing it in my Metroliner dream, I knew it could actually be done, there and then.
  • transmitters with constant access [¶3] — aka, wireless. We didn’t have it commercially available in 1990, but not only did my Metroliner dream envision it, but I knew it would be here before I finished my own career.
  • Cray [¶3] — or today, perhaps simply to a working version of the cloud. More on that on another page of this post. For now, suffice it to say that my Metroliner dream and my Contingencies article envisioned having immediate access to virtually unlimited storage and computing power. Again, that was not commercially available in 1990; but we’re close to having it now via the Internet . . . perhaps.
  • golem [¶3] — of course, a reference to the “animated anthropomorphic being, magically created entirely from inanimate matter” of Jewish folklore that inspired the Sorcerer’s Apprentice legend, with all implications completely intended for my Contingencies article. But also a personal reference: my own first IBM personal computer I’d named Golem; so to some extent, I was dreaming of this bionic pension actuary as a descendent of that first computer . . . quite appropriate for me to do so, given the reason I’d purchased that PC and the uses to which I put it. Again, as will be described on other pages of this post. And also again, the fact that my own private reference would have been unknown to most readers did not make my article any the less meaningful to the average Contingencies reader.
  • integrate [¶3] — For those who know me well enough to know how carefully I reserve this word when speaking of any pension-related matter (and due to the pension implications, have even been known to imply more than meets the eye when I use the word in non-pension matters), suffice it to say that I did not select this word casually. And I’ll try to come back around to this point on some other page of this post, but the implication I meant to give by using that word is in fact quite crucial to a well-oiled actuarial knowledge base. But again, if the average Contingencies reader failed to see more than might have come via “coordinate” or some other database-oriented alignment, that ought not have hobbled my bionic pension actuary much if any.
  • complex [¶3] — Again, I’m careful with certain of my words. Alright then, with all my words. But words like “integrate” and “complex” do hold special meaning to me. And I fully meant this reference to “complex” to entail a mapping of knowledge both real and “imaginary” (where as mathematicians do well know, imaginary doesn’t mean that it isn’t meaningful and useful).
  • bureaucratic audit spreadsheet [¶3] — So, does anyone in the business still even remember the spreadsheet we were supposed to be applying to determine reasonability of pension actuarial assumptions? Eh, technically my allusion to “rigid results” was a teasing dig. The underlying point I was aiming for was that goal we kept aiming for then and continue to aim for 25 years later, whether in pension nondiscrimination rules or pension funding or pension accrual of benefits or pension just-about-everything: how to achieve the perfection that a rigid calculation cannot ever quite express.
  • no artificial-intelligence nightmare [¶3] — As I’ve noted on other pages of this post, my aurelian dream – as seen in my Metroliner dream and as being described in that Contingencies article – is not merely knowledge base, nor merely artificial intelligence, nor just networking, but something that incorporates all of those and reaches farther toward something more organic . . . yet more than even that.
  • perusing back issues of the Code [¶3] — Heh, I suppose I’m the only person who enjoys doing that, and I don’t even have to be unemployed or retired to do so. Or even employed in the field, for that matter!—don’t be surprised to catch me reading old copies of the Code 20 years after they’ve long forgotten what portions of it I used to know best.
  • actuary of ancient legend [¶3] — Another private reference that works ok for the average Contingencies reader who doesn’t need to know more. Suffice it to say for good cause were the very first actuaries indistinguishable from the king’s prophets.
  • I saw the computer-enhanced mind of this actuary [¶4] — Several years later, when single-handed I came the closest I’ve ever managed to creating my aurelian dream (“BIKE,” to be discusses on another page of this post), one close actuarial colleague said that my creation was like having “Adrien’s mind” at his disposal via his computer. Perhaps that’s as close a description to my aurelian dream as might be had: not merely knowledge base, not merely AI or networking, not merely anything organic . . . but rather, an extension of my mind via my computer. And then not merely my rather limited mind, but the collective mind of my colleagues, their clients, employees . . . .
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    • [further editing underway]

      bumper sticker [] - macheïde

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Written by macheide

30 March 2015 at 4:08 pm

Posted in macheide

Tagged with , ,


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