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The Actuary The magazine of the Institute & Faculty of Actuaries

Subject 103.1

The historical basis of subject 103.1 lies in the 14th-century work of RamÓn Llull, Ars Magna Generalis. In this book, Llull described his thinking machine, a device consisting of three concentric and independently rotating circles, each sporting various words or denotative letters (figure 1). This device allowed the creation of exciting new thoughts by application of appropriately random rotational effort. A more complex random phrase-producing device was seen by Gulliver in Lagado (the capital of Balnibarbi figure 2 across) in his travels as narrated by Swift in the 18th century. The machine in question consisted of a large frame of independently rotating, inscribed wooden cubes, which occasionally produced meaningful phrases. Gulliver related his meeting with the professor responsible for its operation as follows:
‘After Salutation, observing me to look earnestly upon a Frame, which took up the greatest part of both the Length and Breadth of the Room, he said perhaps I might wonder to see him employed in a Project for improving speculative Knowledge by practical and mechanical Operations the World would soon be sensible of its Usefulness.’
Millions of people have visited Llull’s homeland of Majorca over the last 20 years to pay homage to him and to his invention; it is not known how many people have been to Lagado in recent years (probably very few, for it does not seem to have been discovered yet by the Sunday colour supplements).

The Oulipo movement
The 20th century saw an important contribution to the subject with Raymond Queneau’s Cent mille milliards de poèmes, published in 1961. In this work Queneau provided ten sonnets, each of 14 lines, constructed so that each line of a sonnet could be exchanged with the equivalent line of any other sonnet without causing any grammatical or metrical inconsistency; thus the work implies a total of 1014 possible poems. The book was the first generally accepted creation of the Oulipo movement, the Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle. Queneau intended the combinatorial potential of the work to be exploited by conscious decisions of which lines to join together; he disapproved of randomly choosing the lines. However, the work lends itself naturally to such randomisation. How else could one arrive at verses as wonderfully potent as:
C’était à cinq o’clock que sortait la marquise
pour consommer un thé puis des petits gateaux
une toge elle portait qui n’était pas de mise
qui sait si le requin boulotte les turbots?
[It was at five o’clock that the marchioness left/to take a tea and some friandises/an unfashionable toga she wore/who knows if the shark guzzles the turbots?”

Random management tools, proverbs, and perverbs
An obvious application of this random phrase-generation concept is the creation of meaningless quasi-intellectual management tools. In the last three years, according to the Wall Street Journal, over 10,000 management fad books were published in America. This number seems rather low, and could usefully be augmented by use of our random management tool generator. In table 1, we see a simple example of how three rolls of a six-sided die can quickly generate up to 216 new, sophisticated management tools. ‘Decentred market focus’, the ‘kinetic production matrix’, ‘dynamic mover advantage’ these are just a few examples of the marvels so easily obtainable.
As far as randomly generating some content for our new tools is concerned, we have a simple procedure. It is evident from examining those management fads that have blighted airport bookshops’ shelves in living memory that, generally, each fad does no more than repackage some venerable, unfashionable proverb. Thus we have real options analysis (don’t put all your eggs in one basket), corporate venturing (nothing ventured, nothing gained), first mover advantage (he who hesitates is lost) the list is, sadly, a long one. So, to generate content, all we need do is randomly select a proverb from a suitable listing.
However, Seneca warns against such a trivial approach. In his admonitory discourse on the futility of maxims (epistle 33), he tells us:
‘For a man to support his weakness by the best known and briefest sayings is disgraceful; it is time for him to lean upon himself. He should make such maxims, not memorize them.’
Accordingly, Subject 103.1 also teaches the more advanced ‘Perverbs approach’ whereby, using sophisticated stochastic models, we randomly combine halves of different proverbs to produce perverbs. Thus we may end up with, for instance:
– ‘the road to hell can’t make him drink’ as the suggested content of our new ‘strategic quality cycle’;
– ‘birds of a feather butter no parsnips’ as the intellectual motor behind our ‘kinetic customer value’;
– ‘the proof of the pudding shall die by the sword’ as the brains beneath ‘decentred market focus’.
There has been much debate of late over how best to calibrate the perverb model, as readers of The Actuary’s letters page will no doubt have noticed.

Rise of the MSG
Just as our new discipline can generate management techniques which help us to run our company, it can also be used to generate appropriately interesting shareholder objectives and mission statements. Let us greet the MSG, the mission statement generator.
One of the features of our random phrase-generating technique is that, unless we pack the menu with synonyms, we shall generally find a pleasing variety of results. However, the mission statements, corporate core values, shareholder objectives, et al, of the world’s major companies do not lend themselves to a process that implies variety, for the simple reason that most of them are identical.
Thus a ‘genuine’ MSG might look something like:
To avoid falling into the trap of copying our competitors, it may therefore be fruitful to construct a deliberately unusual MSG. Using results from such as our new shareholder objectives will have the great advantage of distinguishing us from the common herd. No longer shall we be fighting on the ground of our competitors’ choosing: we shall be setting the terms. And, of course, we shall expect to gain much business as a reward for our valiant honesty. A typical MSG although please bear in mind that this is but an example, and has not yet been adopted in practice (as far as we know) is shown in table 3:
Ongoing developments
We are looking at a growing and rapidly evolving discipline at the cutting edge of communicational quasi-neural technology. In my next article, where we examine the latter half of Subject 103.1, we shall see how to construct random executive message-writing packages (with optional random footnote generators) which can dynamically facilitate rolling out these new sophisticated tools across the corporate-digital platform landscape to maximally impact shareholder added hygiene value and totally enhance interactive cross-border e-brand synergy. E***y.