The Good. The Bad. The Asinine.

The Importance of Being Earnestly Who I Want You to Be

Hi, Norrie, my name is Tim, and I’ve been thinking about you a bit lately. Well, ever since you won the right to be recognised as neither male nor female, which is to say, the right to be yourself.

Now, you don’t know me, and I don’t know you. In fact, as far as I know, I’ve never met anyone who has grappled with gender-identity issues. So I really don’t have any idea what your life has been like. I know nothing about how difficult your childhood might have been, or how much bullying, scorn and hatred you have endured. I know nothing of the internal struggle that none of us can see, nor the external struggle that we all perpetuate.

But one of the benefits of being a heterosexual male born into a heterosexual male’s body is that I am pretty much an expert on you. No one is more qualified than me to talk about you. Not even you, Norrie.

Because I actually do know you. I read about you in the paper, see. Sorry that’s not quite true. Bill Muehlenberg read about you in the paper, and I read Bill Muehlenberg’s blog about Bill Muehlenberg reading about you in the paper. And I heard all about you on talk-back radio. And I got 84% in Year 10 Biology. And I like apples. Especially Pink Lady apples, which are tastier because they know they’re ladies. If you were an apple – good lord, what am I saying? You couldn’t be an apple, you’d just confuse everyone. Who’s ever heard of a Pink Sir-or-Lady-I-haven’t-decided-yet apple? Or a Non-gender-specific-Grandparent Smith?

But it’s not just about apples, Norrie. It’s about freedom, and Jesus, probably. Oh and the children, I’m pretty sure it’s about the children somehow. But mostly it’s about me, Norrie. Me. Did you not think about how your court case would affect me?

Up until last week, my man-brain was happy sitting in my man-body, smiling a man-smile, and thinking man-things, like “Jeez it’s awesome being a man in a man-body, which is but one of the two options available, the other being a chick with awesome boobies”. But you just had to go ruin everything, and now everything is ruined, because you ruined it. The words “man” and “woman” don’t mean anything anymore, so I have no idea what to call my mankini, which is devastating. Worse than that, anything with two options now confuses the shït out of me. The last time I drove up to a T-intersection, I went straight ahead. And if someone asks me a true or false question, I answer frue, but maybe I should answer tralse. Either way, I sound like an idiot, Norrie. What’s next? Rosé? Three-quarter pants? Dimmable lights? Labradoodles? Michael Jackson? It’s madness, Norrie. Madness.

Please stop. If not for me, then for freedom and Jesus. And apples. Oh and the children, but don’t ask me whose children, because I don’t know. Actually I’ve changed my mind. Please just stop for me. Thanks, Norrie.

Yours fruely,


Keeping it simple

I’ve been to a lot of weddings. And I went to another one on Friday. It was pretty much like all the others – the beer was cold, the canapés were warm, and the guests were hot. But as I stood chatting to new friends, waiting for the bride to arrive, a nervous tension suddenly filled the room. What’s that sound? Are people whispering? Why yes, Tim, yes they are. And the whispering is getting louder… spreading through the room like Vegemite. Which is to say, pretty quickly, but not as quickly as mayonnaise. Eventually, the whispers made their way to me, and my eyes, once bright with anticipation, were now glistening with shock and sadness – the bride wasn’t coming.

Which is just as well, because the grooms didn’t really need one.

Yes, grooms. For this wasn’t just any wedding. It was a same-sex wedding. So there wasn’t really any nervous tension. And there was no whispering, or shock, or sadness. There wasn’t even any Vegemite, but it wasn’t my party, so I shouldn’t complain. There was, however, a large group of very happy people, gathered together to celebrate with Michael and Gregory.

And as I stood there, one smiling face amongst many, I was struck by a sudden thought. This wedding was remarkable, but only for the fact that it shouldn’t be remarkable. And then I had another thought, which was also remarkable, because I rarely have two thoughts so close together.

The whole same-sex marriage ‘debate’ is really quite simple. It’s not a battle between competing ideologies. It’s not about political point-scoring. It’s not about trying to reach a middle ground that we can all be happy with. It’s not about gay and straight, left and right, liberals and conservatives, or compassionate realists and Bill Muehlenberg. It’s not about tradition, slippery slopes, or flawed science. And it sure as shït aint about Jesus.

When you strip away all the theories and theology, you’re left with just one thing.

A couple.

Two people who have had the good fortune to find a partner, but the apparent misfortune of being gay. Who tell us they’ve found love, only to be told that it’s not the right kind. Who want to stand up before their family, their friends and their country, and proclaim their love without shame or fear. That’s all it’s ever been about. Two people, in love, who want the same chance at happiness that the rest of us take for granted.

I don’t think that’s a lot to ask. Do you?

Laugh, Cry, Blow Shit Up

Ok folks – tis the season.

The season for big movie premiers, that is.

This has caused me to reflect that, when it comes to movies, I’m a man of simple tastes. Not for me is your elitist art-house crap, with its eight minute shots of some moody chick staring at a rain-spattered window. Nor am I enough of a poseur to sit through international ‘think’ pieces. Sure, it might impress the girls to be the sort of guy who spends his hard-earned on watching tribal people scratching around in grinding poverty for one hundred and forty five minutes, but you’ve got to ask yourself: what kind of girls?

No, for me, cinema is panto. I watch movies for the same reason most people drink soft drink – it’s cheap and sweet and it gets you high. A movie should be about the noise and the fury, full of attractive people doing spectacular things. You should laugh, you should cry and, if you’re me, you should get endless, simple-minded pleasure from watching shit get blown up. And it should be clever. The main objection I have to art-house is that it’s clever in exactly the wrong way. It’s all about feelings, when it should be about wit. It’s chock full of aesthetics when it should instead be brimming with spectacle.

I don’t want to see a compelling walk through someone’s psychic landscape. I’d rather watch a full-pelt run through an alien landscape. With rayguns. I’m not interested in breathtaking stills of stark, natural beauty, and long, abstract shots where nothing happens in a beautiful way for minutes at a time – ‘movies’ is short for ‘moving pictures’. Which means stuff should move.

And yes, there is a place for exploring the startling strangeness and complexity of the internal workings of the human psyche. For the stark discomfort of emotional compromise, the dirty surrender of individuality that is socialisation and the totally meaningless insanity of pain. There is definitely a place for all that stuff, and for me that place has a name.

It’s called a book.

So, this summer break, do yourselves a favour. When you’re choosing a movie, don’t try to look sophisticated or clever. And ignore your children, too. You’ll regret all the hours you spent pretending to enjoy saccharine morality tales about talking animals in your grey-haired years.

Instead, spend your eighteen dollars going to see something that you’ll actually enjoy, even – in fact, especially – if it has a stupid name and an explosion on the poster.

I AM NO LONGER AN ATHEIST. Oh wait, yes I am.

As some of you may have guessed, I am an atheist. A pretty strong atheist, too. Intellectually, I mean, not physically. I can only do about 10 push-ups.

But as strong as my atheism is, and much like my believing counterparts, I have the occasional moments of doubt. A crisis of no faith, if you will. After all, no one can be 100% confident in their beliefs 100% of the time, so every now and then I catch myself thinking, “What if I’m wrong?”.

What if I’ve missed something? Is there some argument or evidence for god that I haven’t seen or understood? Should I finally get around to reading the Book of Mormon? Do I really need 72 virgins, and if so, how will I remember all their names? Will Lord XenuNote 1 forgive me for laughing at his spaceship if give him a massage?

Thankfully, tpeople like William Lane Craig exist to help set me straight. Craig is something of a celebrity in Christian Apologetics circles – he’s always on the cover of “People (are going to hell)” magazine – as he appears to bring an air of intellectual respectability to Christian beliefs. He has everything figured out logically, you see, so Christians need not be embarrassed about believing some of the things they do. You know, like that whole Trinity thing, or angels.

Anyway, he has just penned a piece for that other bastion of intellectual respectability – Fox News – in which he lists out the five best arguments for Christianity. I was a little nervous when I sat down to read them. Would this be the moment I would have to publicly recant my atheism? How many ‘likes’ would it get on Facebook? Once I converted, who would teach me how to pick on gays and single mothers?

Let’s see what he had to say.

God provides the best explanation of the origin of the universe

Quick! Someone tell the physics professors!

Here Craig presents a dumbed-down version of his already dumbed-down Kalam Cosmological Argument (he is writing for Fox News, after all). If you haven’t heard it already, it goes something like this:

  1. Everything that begins to exist has a cause; and
  2. The universe had a beginning to its existence; so that must mean
  3. The universe had a cause. Ima call him ‘God’ and use him to pick on gays and single mothers.

This argument is the reason why the word ‘specious’ was invented. If you think about it for a couple of seconds, you will very quickly realise that:

  • The conclusion has been smuggled into the opening premise;
  • That premise should apply equally to God himself;
  • Even if you admit that the universe’s current form had a beginning, it in no way negates the possibility that some other form of universe existed before that;
  • Even if you admit there was a first cause, there’s no reason to assume that he’s an angry old man with a son named Jesus who hates us having fun but desperately wants us to love him.


God provides the best explanation for the fine tuning of the universe

Craig’s second argument essentially says, “We exist, so the universe must have been set up for our existence.”

Then again, the universe also seems quite keen to get rid of us, so…


God provides the best explanation of objective moral values and duties

And which god would that be, William?


God provides the best explanation for the historical facts concerning Jesus’ life, death and resurrection

According to Craig, “most historians” agree that Jesus thought he was the son of god, performed miracles, and was crucified, until a group of his lady-friends found his empty tomb, and it was discovered that he was actually alive and well and living it up on some kind of lecture tour. He then tells us that he “can think of no better explanation of these facts” than “God raised Jesus from the dead”.

Ignoring his rather generous definition of “facts”, it’s clear that William just isn’t thinking hard enough.

What if everyone just made the whole thing up?

God can be known and experienced

Finally, we have this:

Down through history Christians have found through Jesus a personal acquaintance with god that has transformed their lives.

Well that’s certainly true, William. Like all of these people who have claimed to be Jesus. Or Oscar Ramiro Ortega-Hernandez, who not only claimed to be Jesus but that he’d been sent back to earth to kill President Obama. Or Mohammad, if you substitute “Christians” for “Muslims” and “Jesus” for “Allah”.


Oh. That’s all you had. I expected more.

But now that I think about it, I’m not sure why.



  1. In Scientology, “Xenu was … the dictator of the ‘Galactic Confederacy’ who 75 million years ago brought billions of his people to Earth (then known as ‘Teegeeack’) in a DC-8-like spacecraft, stacked them around volcanoes and killed them using hydrogen bombs.” – Wikipedia (back)

I have an idea… Part 3

Yes, I know, I have been incredibly slack with this series, and even my die-hard reader has lost what little interest he feigned initially. But I am nothing if not lazy. And persistent. So I’ll give you all a quick recap, before dazzling you with Part 3 of this interminably feeble attempt at esoteric intellectualism.

We learned in the previous two posts that expected values are a kind of average outcome, and, if we act rationally, we should be indifferent between two sets of outcomes with the same expected value. We also learned that the risk component of every insurance premium is calculated by considering three things:

  1. Characteristics of the life insured that affect the risk, but which they can’t control;
  2. Characteristics that affect the risk, but which they can control; and
  3. Random risks which no one can predict, or control.

Or, if you’re into catch-phrases: people are things, people do things, and shït happens. Keep that in mind, should you choose to ignore all common sense and read on.

All in all, Bob has had a pretty good buck’s party. He didn’t get kicked out of the races, he managed to keep his dinner down, and when the stripper was looking for someone to incorporate into the show, he picked someone else. And now, at 2am, as he’s meandering through Kings Cross and past the throngs of tipsy, giggling, scantily-clad ladies, there’s only one thing on Bob’s mind.

Kebab. Must get kebab.

So into the kebab shop he goes. “Lamb, please. And hommus. And lettuce, tomato, taboulli, cheese, and BBQ sauce. But no onions, I might still pick up”. Suddenly, Bob is struck by an idea. An idea so brilliant, so monumentally profound, that he immediately resolves to dedicate his life to its fruition. He turns to the kebab shop owner, and with a glint in his eye, and goosebumps on his soul, he says, “Throw some calamari in there, too.”

He exits the kebab shop to rapturous applause and the awe-struck admiration of the gathering crowd. And then, from out of nowhere, some drunken moron bumps into him, and sends his epiphanous creation crashing to the ground.

As Bob stares down at the battered remains of his life’s work, but mostly the remains of the battered calamari, his supreme joy quickly evaporates. Much faster, I might add, than the BBQ sauce on the pavement, which would also evaporate, if given enough time.

So what does Bob do? Why, he does what any Aussie bloke would do when some drunken moron bumps into him. He briefly exchanges pleasantries (so that I can refer to the drunken moron as Wayne instead of “drunken moron”) and then he gives Wayne a shove. Wayne protests – it was an accident! Bob doesn’t care if it was an accident, Wayne ruined his fücking kebab. There’s a bit of yelling, and a bit more shoving, the poor kebab gets stepped on a few times, people start yelling “Fight!”, and before either of them realise what’s happening, Bob’s drunken fist is flying towards Wayne’s drunken face.


What happens next is the subject of my grand, actuarial idea.

So what does happen next?

Well as we all know, lots of things could happen next. Assuming Bob’s punch finds its mark, Wayne could now find himself in possession of anything from a bit of a headache, to a split lip, a black eye, or a broken jaw. Then again, maybe Bob’s only street fighting was as Honda on his SNES, and he only manages to hit Wayne with 100 quickly-delivered but surprisingly-gentle slaps on the arm (which, by the way, could be countered with a well-timed hadoken). Maybe he’s so drunk as to miss Wayne completely, and they end up laughing about it. Or maybe he connects, and Wayne stumbles backwards, hits the back of his head on the pavement, suffers a cerebral haemorrhage, and dies (yes, it happens).

So we’re agreed – lots of things could happen. But what will determine what actually happens? Under what circumstances would Wayne end up with a fat lip, and what might result in his death?

Answering that question is if course very difficult. No one can predict the future with absolute certainty, except maybe Dumbledore, and he’s dead. But as with all things actuarial, we can narrow the range of outcomes and assess their relative probabilities by looking at the risk factors. So let’s assume for a moment that Bob’s punch does find its mark. If our resident actuary, Joanne, could use her Casio FX82TL to freeze time at the moment of impact, how would she go about guessing the outcome?

She’d probably start with Bob, as the most obvious risk factor is Bob’s strength. And she’d quickly discover that Bob’s strength is rather impressive. He clearly lifts, bro – a lot. While copping a feel of his bicep, she also notices a tattoo that says “UFC 112 – HEAVYWEIGHT CHAMPION”. Hmm.

Turning her attention to Wayne, she notices that his physique is, shall we say, less impressive. In fact, it appears to be geared more towards punching out P&Ls than his fellow citizens (not that there’s anything wrong with that). His arms are, however, apparently strong enough to hold himself up on his crutches.

Having assessed the two combatants, Joanne then begins to examine their surroundings. And she discovers that, while Bob and Wayne are currently standing on a concrete pavement, they are only a few metres away from a large area of grass. Fred Nile is also stumbling out of a nearby bath house, but that’s by the by.

With her analysis now complete, Joanne realises that things aren’t looking too good for Wayne, and it seems pretty unlikely that he’ll hobble away with nothing more than a fat lip. Meanwhile, their relative physiques, the fact that Wayne is on crutches and they’re standing on concrete, means that he now has a very good chance of sustaining a serious injury – possibly life-threatening, depending on how he falls. At the very least, it’s clear that the range of outcomes would be very different if the two physiques were reversed, and they were in a jumping castle. Of course, we’d then be left with the problem of deteriorating jumping castle entry standards, but that’s an issue for another time. (Crutches and kebabs in a jumping castle. Honestly!)

As Joanne considers the situation a little further, she realises that, much like insurance, the range of outcomes really comes down to this: people are things, people do things, and shït happens.

And then it hits her: “Wow! That sounds a lot like the pithy phrase that Tim used at the beginning of this post. Also, time is still frozen, so Ima go steal a Chanel handbag.”

And she lived happily ever after. Well, at least until she turned up to work on Monday. She is an actuary, after all.

Why we should pay this Bill some attention

In my last post, I mentioned how I find Bill Muehlenberg’s blog both self-affirming and wildly amusing. What I forgot to mention is that it is also instructive.

Now, more than ever, the governing of a modern, supposedly secular democracy is a like a chess tournament, with hundreds of games being played out on a wide range of issues. In many, if not most, of these games, change-resistant conservatives are doing battle with change-embracing liberals (the literal kind, not the Tony Abbott kind). And much like an actual game of chess, knowing your opponent’s strengths, weaknesses and tactics is crucial.

Take the same-sex marriage debate, for example. When locked in a marriage equality chess match against someone like Bill Muehlenberg, it’s extremely useful knowing that he relies heavily on his Bishops, has an irrational fear of Queens, doesn’t believe in mating with a Knight, and gains a lot of confidence from the support of his mindless pawns. All of this information can be used against him, and greatly increases our chances of winning.

Understanding the way people like Bill think is therefore immeasurably important – even if it leads to the conclusion that they don’t think at all. Bill’s latest post, “On the Subject of Subjectivism”, is a perfect example.

He begins thusly:

I really like Dr Pepper. But for some odd reason, many people do not. Now, I do not think that those who dislike DP are miscreants who need to face the death penalty. I don’t even think they are in any way wrong. That is because when it comes to matters of personal taste, there really is no right and wrong. There are simply subjective preferences, likes and dislikes.

Sounds quite reasonable, doesn’t it? Maybe Bill’s not that bad after all…

But of course not everything is just a matter of subjective taste. There are many things which have objective reality whether we know it or not or like it or not. For example, there are objective truths such as: 2 + 2 = 4. This truth does not depend on your subjective feelings and tastes.

No, actually, he really is that bad.

The two quotes above highlight a very important point about the way Bill and other conservatives think. They are actually capable of deploying sensible, superficially nuanced arguments, but only as a way of backsolving to their already-held positions. The conclusion is decided first and the arguments are decided second, and if anyone comes along with an opposing argument, why, it must be the opposing argument that’s wrong, because it can’t possibly be the conclusion. And so, instead of Bill reading his own analogy and seeing it for what it really is – an obliviously ironic defence of homosexuality – we end up with something else entirely: “People can’t help their preferences, but you’re not allowed to be gay, because I know addition”. I would call it asinine, but to do so would be to do that fine word an extraordinary injustice. So I’ll just call it ironic.

Bill then decides to copy and paste 600 words from C.S. Lewis, which is notable only because it raises the average word length of the post as whole, before concluding with the following:

So as we fight the various culture wars, we must also fight the big ticket items, and in this case that means standing up for objective truth and universal right and wrong. Without that we will simply flounder and sink in the quicksand of relativism and subjectivism.

Once again, that all sounds reasonable, right? I’ll even go so far as to say that I completely agree. Moral relativism is a ridiculous concept, and if there are no objective moral truths, then pretty much anything can be justified. There’s just one problem. What happens when the source of your objectivity is itself subjective?

It’s all very well for Bill to claim he’s married to objectivity, but it’s somewhat cheapened by the fact that Christianity is his father-in-law. He would, of course, be singing a different objective tune if he’d been born in Riyadh, instead of Jebusville USA. The fact that Bill seems to be the only person who doesn’t realise this highlights another important point about how conservatives think. It is apparently impossible for them to consider the world from a different point of view.

There will, unfortunately, always be chess matches to play, and there will always be Bill Muehlenbergs to play against. And if we want to win the game, or at least, not throw the board back in their faces, we need to remember one thing.

For people like Bill, irony and empathy just don’t compute.

Oh, and they really are terrified of Queens.

A prediction

Sometime in the near future, marriage equality will come to Australia. It might be during the next parliament, or the one after that, or maybe even the one after that. But it will come.

But that’s not the prediction.

Until that time, the opponents of marriage equality will continue to fight it, tooth and nail. Neither of which is effective against logic.

But that’s not the prediction.

As they have done so many times already, they will paint marriage equality as the worst thing that could possibly happen to us. It will lead to the inevitable and rampant acceptance of incest, pedophilia, bestiality and Alf re-runs. A whole generation of children will grow up in unnatural, mentally-abusive families, and then be forced into hairdressing. That’s if they manage to exist in the first place, since gay people can’t have children, didn’t you know. They’ll tell us it’s the single biggest calamity that will ever befall our little patch of the earth. Seriously.

But that’s not the prediction.

This is the prediction.

Once marriage equality comes in, the objections will stop. The bigoted fear-merchants who fought for so long, and warned of such dire consequences, will put down their tooth and nail, pack up their placards, and fade into obscurity.

If you think about, this seems rather odd, given what they tell us is at stake. If they really believed in their cause, you’d think they’d continue the fight until they won. That’s what we’re doing, after all. But you can bet your gay bottom dollar that they won’t do that at all.

Which, although odd, isn’t really surprising. It seems to happen with every movement for social change. Why is no one out there campaigning against female suffrage? Where are the people who want to deny citizenship to Indigenous Australians? What happened to all the people who thought racial integration sounded the death knell of the New World?

They’re gone.

Or possibly at home, listening to Alan Jones.

Either way, perhaps they don’t believe in their cause as much they think they do.

I have an idea… Part 2

Regular readers of this blog will have recently attended their first actuarial lecture. Some of you may have learned something (see Note 1 below if you didn’t), but, at the very least, you all realised that actuarial lectures are awesome, and you have a strong desire to attend more.

Well, if there’s one thing I hate, it’s disappointing my regular reader. So here goes… Lecture 2 starts now.

Suppose you live on the planet Fluff. As it turns out, Fluff is very similar to Earth, and Fluffers, as Fluff’s inhabitants are known, are very similar to us humans. They breathe oxygen, eat chicken parmigiana, and mostly work in the porn industry. There are a few differences, however. For starters, they are lucky enough to have 11 Kardashians. They also have a different god to us, and life is a little different under the Fluffer god:

  1. Instead of being called ‘God’, their god insists on being called by his name, which is John.
  2. John’s pretty nice, and spends all his time preventing heart attacks, lung cancer, and lightning strikes, such that no one ever dies before the age of 80.
  3. As soon as someone turns 80, John sends a taxi to bring them to heaven. The really devout people get a stretch Hummer. Fckwits get a Camry.

As you might have guessed, Fluffers don’t really have a huge need for life insurance, given that everyone knows exactly when they’re going to die. And on the few occasions someone is actually stupid enough to take out a policy, the actuaries have it pretty easy – “Oh, you’re 30, and want $50,000 when you die? That’ll be 50 thousand divided by 50, please, whatever that is.” (Note 2)

One day John decides that life on Fluff is a little boring. So he determines that he’s not going to stop people having heart attacks any more. And while everyone was a little shocked when Betsy dropped dead at her 30th birthday party, (a) no one was surprised to see a Camry pull up out the front, and (b) people soon realised that life insurance might be a good idea.

That was a crazy day over at Mutual Fluffing, I can tell you. Thousands of people ringing up for life insurance, management in a panic, the call centre, whose name was Jarad, didn’t know how to work the phone… only the actuaries remained cool, which was the first time actuaries had been described with that particular adjective.

“Don’t panic!” they said. “We’ll just see how many people die of heart attacks over the next year. If we divide that by the total population, that will give us a rough idea of the probability of dying of a heart attack. Then if someone wants to insure their life for $100,000, we can just multiply that amount by the probability of dying, and that will give us the expected value of the policy. And that’s the premium we should charge.”

And John saw the way the actuaries were calculating premiums, and saw that it was good.

Things carried on in this way for a while, until one day the actuaries noticed something unusual. Looking at the characteristics of all the people dying, they noticed that men tended to have a lot more heart attacks than women – around twice as many, in fact. This created a few problems:

  1. While they were collecting the right amount of premium in total, if men were having twice as many heart attacks as women, they were also paying half as many premiums.
  2. If men were paying half the number of premiums, then, in order to keep everything fair, each premium should be twice as much. That is, men were getting their insurance at half price, and the women were making up the shortfall.
  3. If insurance was relatively cheap for men, and relatively expensive for women, women would soon stop buying it.

The actuaries realised that if they wanted to continue selling life insurance, they’d have to charge different premiums for men and women. So that’s what they did.

And John saw the way the actuaries were calculating premiums, and saw that it was good.

Eventually, however, John realised that he actually didn’t like Fluffers that much after all, so he decided to stop preventing lung cancer, too. Once again there was a mild panic at Mutual Fluffing, and, once again, the actuaries had the answer.

“You know what we’ve noticed about all these people dying from lung cancer? They’re all smokers. If we want premiums to remain fair, we need to charge smokers a higher premium than non-smokers.” So that’s what they did.

And John saw the way the actuaries were calculating premiums, and saw that it was good.

Ultimately, however, John accepted that he actually wasn’t very nice after all. In fact, he was a bit of a wanker, and couldn’t be bothered stopping anyone dying. And if you paid attention earlier, you’ve by now realised what that meant – people started getting zapped by lightning.

“Actuaries, actuaries! What do we do now?!” pleaded the managers at Mutual Fluffing.

“Hmm… Well, lightning doesn’t discriminate by sex or age. And people don’t choose to get struck by lightning. It’s just a completely random event that no one has any control over. So we should just increase everyone’s premium by the same amount.”

And John saw the way the actuaries were calculating premiums, and realised something important – something that would come in handy if he ever stumbled across an awesome blog on Earth. Each premium was comprised of three components:

  1. Things that increased the risk, but over which the life insured had no control (e.g. sex);
  2. Things that increased the risk, and which the life insured could control (e.g. smoking);
  3. Risks that no one could predict, or control.

Or, if he needed a catchy phrase that was easy to remember – “People are things, people do things, and shit happens”.

He also realised that it was probably time that the Son of John left home. In a Camry.

But that’s another story.


  1. You learned that an expected value is an average outcome for a wide range of probabilities and consequences, and we should be indifferent between two sets of events that have the same expected value. Or you would have if you’d paid attention. (back)
  2. Premium payable annually in advance, and assumes John’s monetary policy is so effective that it keeps interest rates at 0% at all times. Also assumes that John’s bans on expenses, regulatory capital, profit, and coveting your neighbour’s ox remain in place. (back)

I have an idea…

And, even better than that, it’s an actuarial idea. Now I know what you’re thinking. Actuaries have the most amazing spreadsheets, the funniest jokes, and the best estimates (that’s a funny joke right there, trust me), but they tend not to have that many new ideas.

Ah, but we do.

For example, did you know that it was an actuary that invented the telephone? That’s right, Herbert J Smigglepants invented it over lunch one day in 1822, because he was sick of talking to people face to face. History gives all the credit to Alexander Graham Bell, of course, but history is full of lies, isn’t it. Like the moon landing.

These days actuaries are still having ideas. Although actuarial techniques were developed primarily in the field of insurance, today those techniques are applied to a whole range of industries and issues. From managing the distribution of electricity, to climate change and weather forecasting, it often helps to think about things actuarially.

And that’s what I’m going to do.

Before we get to the actual idea, however, I have to explain a few concepts. So prepare yourself – you’re about to attend your first actuarial lecture. If it’s anything like my first actuarial lecture, you’ll trip on the way in, ask a stupid question, and then fall asleep. Yours won’t be quite that fun, but pretty close.

All actuarial science is built on three distinct but related concepts. The first two are chance and consequence. That is, “What is the probability that a particular event will occur?” and “What are the consequences if it does occur?”. Throw in an allowance for the time-value of money, and boom, that’s the essence of anything actuarial. Normally the goal is to estimate these probabilities and consequences, and use them to work out the expected cost of a particular set of events, over a given period of time. This cost is called the “expected value”, and is essentially the distillation of a wide range of possible scenarios into a single, average outcome.

As with most new concepts, it helps to look at an example. Suppose you find yourself in the world’s most boring casino, a not-for-profit Mormon church hall with beige corduroy couches that only serves light beer. In this casino, there is only one game you can play, called Satan’s Evil Coin Toss Game. A man in a Satan suit flips a coin, and if you guess right, you win a dollar, which you can then use to buy some magic underpants in the gift shop. The question is, how much should the casino charge people to play, if they want to break even in the long run?

As it turns out, we can work this out by calculating the average outcome, or expected value. In this example, it’s calculated as:

Expected Value = 50% x $1 + 50% x $0 = $0.50

That is, if the casino charges everyone 50 cents to play Satan’s Evil Coin Toss Game, they can expect to break even in the long run.

Easy, right?

Where expected values really come in handy is comparing two different sets of events, with two ranges of possible outcomes. Once again, it helps to look at an example. Suppose you go to the slightly more exciting casino up the road. This one has full strength beer, leather couches, and two games to choose from. In the first game, you have to pick a number between 1 and 1,000, and if you guess correctly, you win $1,000,000. In the second game, they just give you $1,000. If both games are free to play, which game should you choose if you’re being completely rational?

At this point, you’re probably thinking one of three things:

  1. Oh man, a 1 in a 1,000 chance at a million, sign me up!
  2. A guaranteed $1,000? Lock it in, Eddie.
  3. Why the fuck am I still reading this? The Bachelorette is on.

The answer, however, is “either”. That is, a rational person should be completely indifferent between the two games. That may sound odd, but don’t be alarmed, it just means you’re reckless. Or boring. Or irrational.

The answer lies in the expected values, which, as you’ve now probably guessed, are the same for each game:

Game 1
Expected Value = 0.1% x $1,000,000 + 99.9% x $0 = $1,000

Game 2
Expected Value = 100% x $1,000 = $1,000

As I said, all of this is just groundwork for my grand, actuarial idea. I still need to explain a few more things, which I will do over the next few posts, but the main thing to remember from this post is that:

  1. An expected value is essentially an average outcome for a wide range of probabilities and consequences; and
  2. We should be indifferent between two sets of events that have the same expected value.

OK, I think I’ve bored you enough for now. Who wants to play Satan’s Evil Coin Toss Game? $1 a throw.

It’s not easy being grey

Ladies, gentlemen, Google internet bots – I need tell you something. For some of you, it will come as a bit of a shock. For others, it’s just confirmation of a long-held and possibly subconscious suspicion.

That’s right, everyone. I’m grey.

Yes, you heard that right. Grey. As grey as a wet week. Greyer than Liberace in that greyscale photo I once saw. Pure, unadulterated, 100% bet your life on it, grey.

Being grey is, I’m sure you can appreciate, a huge part of who I am. I wear grey clothes, I have a lot of grey friends, I go to grey clubs, I listen to grey music (Rene Greyer and Green Grey are my favourites), and I live in what I believe to be a pretty grey-friendly city. My partner is also grey (obviously), and, like most loving couples, we have a lot of socks. Sure, our grey socks might look a little different to your black & white socks, and maybe the thought of us having grey socks grosses you out a bit, but when it comes down to it, my socks and your socks are both about the same thing (keeping our feet warm, obviously).

For most of our history, the world was a very black and white place, and it wasn’t that long ago that an announcement like this would have been unthinkable, or, at the very least, extremely inadvisable. Sure, friends have often asked me if I’m grey. And yes, people still wonder if this or that celebrity or sportsman is grey, and it still makes the news if one of them actually is. There are even some people out there, in 2013, who would love to take our grey socks away from us, or in some cases bleach them white! But it doesn’t bring with it the social (and sometimes literal) death it once did.

So give it a try. Try and see people as they are, not how you think they should be. Beware of absolutes. Try and live a little outside your own narrow experience, and accept that, while we are all heading to the same place, there are 7 billion ways to get there. And your way isn’t necessarily better than anyone else’s.

But most of all, recognise that diversity is a gift, and the richness of our shared experiences is enhanced by the differences in the people around us.

Life’s better with a little grey.