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The Actuary The magazine of the Institute & Faculty of Actuaries

ALM and visions of sin

In 1842 Lord Tennyson penned a Blake-esque poem, The Vision of Sin, which started as follows:
I had a vision when the night was late:
A youth came riding toward a palace-gate.
He rode a horse with wings, that would have flown
It went on to reach an actuarial climax somewhere in the middle with the lines:
Fill the cup, and fill the can:
Have a rouse before the morn:
Every moment dies a man,
Every moment one is born.
We are men of ruin’d blood;
Therefore comes it we are wise.
Not of course actuarial in the reference to pre-breakfast apéritifs, which I am told are now rare except when FSA deadlines loom, but in the stationary population conjecture, ‘Every moment dies a man, Every moment one is born.’
Charles Babbage, famous for his pioneering work with mechanical calculating machines as well as for allowing poets to find a rhyme for the previously intractable cabbage saw the great error in these lines at a time when Britain’s population was expanding. He wrote to Lord Tennyson, upbraiding the poet for his inaccuracy, and suggested ironically that he alter the lines to the following:
Every moment dies a man,
Every moment 11/16th is born.
Here, then, we see a great new opportunity for actuaries to break out into a new field: actuarial literature modification. Of the millions of novels, poems, and other creative works with which the world has been graced to date, there must be thousands which the actuarial profession can bravely improve.
To get an idea of how we as a profession can contribute, we need look no further than the following examples. Last year the Spectator, a weekly journal (established in 1828, it is the oldest continuously published magazine in the English language), ran a competition in which readers were invited to contribute letters of complaint to authors of ‘non-rigorous’ poetry and prose. The winning entries included the following.

Wordsworth and Daffodils
In relation to Wordsworth’s poem Daffodils, which starts with the familiar lines,
I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.
the following letter of rebuke was suggested:
‘Dear Mr Wordsworth
‘I write to request that you dilute the exhilaration of your experience with the plain water of reality, this with especial reference to the floral profusion in your poem beginning “I wandered lonely as a cloud”. The specificity of your enumeration, being unqualified with an adjective of approximation, reduces the veracity of your vision; for certain it is that no man could number to that degree of exactitude within the paucity of time afforded by a single glance, and I am confident that no machine with such capability has yet been devised. Furthermore, if the daffodils were indeed fluttering in the breeze, this would clearly compromise the accuracy of a visual assessment, some blooms being subject to multiple reckoning and others to omission. I suggest, therefore, that you limit your application of poetic licence to “several thousand” or, should you wish to preserve the scansion, “some thousands”.’

Matthew Arnold and Dover Beach
And then we have Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach, with its very dubious references to ‘sonic phenomena at the land/sea interface’:
The sea is calm to-night.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits;
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.
‘Dear Mr Arnold
‘I fear that Dover Beach reveals a poor understanding of sonic phenomena at the land/sea interface. The character of sound generated by movement of pebbles across a beach varies widely, depending mainly on pebble size-distribution, beach profile, tidal forces, wind velocity, and temperature. Ada Lovelace and I have devised an algorithm of these determinants and, by applying it to data implicit in verse 1, we have ascertained that the sound which you heard was akin to a lullaby, not a dirge.’
(Ada Lovelace was the daughter of Lord Byron she was a renowned mathematician, collaborating with Babbage in the design of his calculating engine.)

Shakespeare and mortality
This new form of ALM, then, can be the profession’s long-sought way to shape the development of human culture in a way that may garner some positive public image for us. Shakespeare’s many references to mortality could be the first step in our campaign for greater rigour. Let us hope only that we avoid a damaging mis-spelling scandal.