The Color-Challenged Actuary:
It's Not All Black And White
By Jerry Tuttle

    Some day I will retire from the exciting world of actuarial work. I probably will do some part-time work to earn some income, but I won't be selling house paint or cosmetics, and I won't be cutting bomb wires for the bomb squad. That's because I am color-challenged.

    Color-challenged, mind you, not color-blind. A small percentage of males and a smaller percentage of females are born with various degrees of color vision deficiencies. Some people cannot distinguish between red and black for example, or see red, orange, yellow, and green as the all the same. More of us do see colors-just not as many as you see. We have difficulty distinguishing small differences among red, orange, yellow, and green. These colors may all seem somewhat shifted towards red. I stop my car for the top traffic light, but I don't really think it's red; I'm never sure whether a single flashing traffic light is red or yellow. In addition, someone with a weak recognition of red may not be able to distinguish purple from blue. We see the color; we just can't tell what it is.

    I just don't even think in terms of colors. This is truly a consistent theme of my life. Here's an example: One Web site has a clever use of the Sesame Street characters to proclaim the daily Terrorism Alert Color. When I saw that page, I wondered why grouchy Oscar was the lowest terrorism level, and gentle Elmo was the highest. Someone had to explain to me that each character was chosen for his color-Elmo is red and Oscar is green-which simply hadn't occurred to me. I can see those particular shades of red and green. I just don't think in terms of colors.

    I don't think my color-challengedness has hindered my career as an actuary-colors are not essential in what actuaries do. Colors are essential in some occupations and businesses (aviation, sea search, gardening, electronics, textiles, and the like), and colorblindness tests are not uncommon for prospective employees in some of those businesses. I passed the actuarial exams, but I wouldn't have an actuarial job if I had to pass one of those colorblindness tests with the numbers made of colored dots.

    Colors have become increasingly important in actuarial work in recent years, with handouts and on-screen presentation in brilliant and numerous colors. Unfortunately, the subtleties of those pie and bar charts are usually lost on me.

    To my surprise and chagrin, recently I received a color-coded spreadsheet, with the claims color-coded by line of business. I couldn't distinguish one line from another, and as I scrolled down the spreadsheet past where the color guide disappeared, I could no longer even remember the guide.

    I recently attended a CAS online Web conference. There were 44 participants, and each person was assigned a unique color. Interestingly, for some reason a few names appeared in error on the list twice, so sometimes a name had two assigned colors. None of this helped me distinguish Bill from Bob, or Bill from Bill.

    In Excel 2000, you can enter FORMAT CELLS FONT COLOR and choose among 56 different default colors for your font. So for example, you could make your auto claims values red and your GL claim values green. With conditional formatting, if a cell has a condition such as the value "AUTO," you can give it the font color red, and so on. Of course that assumes you can recognize red from among the 56 colors.

    I put each of Excel's 56 colors in its own cell, and then I used Visual Basic to provide the COLORINDEX number for each of these colors. Surprisingly, Visual Basic does not assign unique COLORINDEX numbers. For example, yellow, pink, blue, and light turquoise each appears twice. So if Excel and Basic can't agree on colors, what hope do I have?

    In ancient times when men wore ties, one morning I decided to wear a white shirt with red stripes to work, and I picked a red tie to go with it. I felt quite well dressed that day until a friend mentioned that my shirt had green stripes, not red. When I buy a suit, I ask the salesperson to show me a few ties that go with the suit, rather than trying to pick ties out myself. My suits are blues and grays, by the way.

    Laser tag is a challenge for the color-challenged. I attended a company event at a laser tag arcade. (Your kids can explain laser tag if you are unfamiliar.) We made a pretty sight shooting each other with our colored lights. Yes, colored-the red team and the green team. I kept shooting my own team, because I didn't recognize our team color. And I had to get so close to opposing team members to be sure of the color that they would shoot me first. Special note to actuaries: Detailed performance stats after each round indicated that I broke the arcade record for the largest negative score.

    Recently I had a problem with a particular cell in a spreadsheet. A colleague looked at it and asked, "Didn't you notice that cell is a different color than the other cells, and didn't you wonder why?" Well… no… I didn't.

    When I was in kindergarten, I had a box of eight Crayola crayons. I loved my box of eight crayons because I could identify each of them: red, yellow, blue, green, orange, brown, purple, and black. But I was in trouble when the box of 48 came out, and there were colors called green-blue, blue-green, green-yellow, olive green, sea green, spring green, and yellow-green. Nowadays there is a box of 120 different colors! You can actually see all 120 colors on Crayola's Web Site. Well, maybe you can see all 120….

(Editor's Note: Mr. Tuttle inadvertently submitted this article in font colors of periwinkle, pale blue, and lavender, but our printing process is unable to reproduce those colors. Mr. Tuttle graciously consented to plain black and white.)

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