2003 logo

1+1=0
By Jerry Tuttle, FCAS, CPCU
Society of Actuaries 2003 Actuarial Speculative Fiction Contest

(The events and persons in this story are fictional. Any resemblance to real people is purely unintentional.)

    The miniskirted waitress brought two more beers to the table. She leaned over as she placed each beer bottle on the table, inviting the two male patrons a teasing look down the top of her blouse. She flipped her blonde hair, batted her long eyelashes, and flashed a big smile through her shiny red lipstick. Each of these gestures was designed to elicit a greater than average tip from the two considerably drunk young men. She did not understand that the two men were actuaries who could easily estimate a 15% tip to within a couple of pennies, no matter how drunk or distracted they were.

    “To my fellow Fellow,” toasted Stanley Wu to his friend Ed Kochowski, surveying the long row of empty beer bottles, and clearly pleased with himself for what he thought was a clever toast. Ed clinked beer bottles with his old friend. Ed and Stanley had just gotten their actuarial exam results, and with this, their final exam, they would be inducted as Fellows at the next Society meeting.

    “It has certainly been a long road to Fellowship,” mused Ed. “Partial exams, new exam structures, transition rules, nation specific exams. So many boring books and articles to read for each exam. Plus no matter how much they think they ask thoughtful questions, there were always those damned trivia questions. These should have been the best years of our lives - in our twenties, single, making good money - and instead we spent these years studying for the exams.”

    “I think the Society owes us, big time,” Stanley replied. “The Fellowship bonus our company pays us does not make up for what the Society put us through. I want to find some way of really being a pain in the ass to the Society.”

    “So what do you want to do?” Ed asked. “Hack into the Society’s computer?”

    “I think that’s been done before,” Stanley said. “Do you remember a couple of years ago someone did that and switched all the exam results around? It took them months to resolve all the student complaints. That was pretty funny - until we realized it affected our exams too.”

    “Well, I don’t really want to do anything that messes things up for other students. But it would be sort of fun to play with their heads at the Society,” Ed said. “Let’s see. What do we do best?”

    “That’s easy,” Stanley replied. “What we do best is take actuarial exams.”

    “Hmm. What do you say we take them all over again?” asked Ed with a sly smile.

    “Why on earth would we want to subject ourselves to that torture?” asked Stanley.

    “It wouldn’t exactly be US taking the exams. What if we take the exams under a phony name?” asked Ed.

    “A phony name? Isn't that called Identity Theft? That must be illegal."

    "How can it be illegal? Exactly whose identity would we be stealing?"

    "Good question. Taking the exams again is so ridiculous that it almost makes sense! What if you and I each use the same phony name, and we alternate - you take the spring exams and I take the fall exams?”

    “Great! What name should we use?”

    “I don’t know. What’s your favorite number?”

    “e to the pi i. Oh, you mean my favorite non-negative integer? Then you should have said so. Zero.” Ed wrote down a zero on a napkin. He stared at it. He rotated it ninety degrees, then another ninety. Of course, it still looked like a zero.

    Stanley took the napkin. He wrote in letters Z-E-R-O under the zero. He rotated it ninety degrees. The he rotated it another ninety. “Look,” he said excitedly. “There’s our phony name!” The letters were upside-down and reversed, but the spelling was clear: O-R-E-Z.

    Ed read the letters aloud. “Orez,” he said. “It almost sounds Spanish, but I don't think it is. How about Joe Orez? After all, Joe really is nothing.”

    Stanley raised his beer bottle. “Another toast,” he announced. “To the birth of a new actuary, soon to be a Fellow. To Joe Orez.”

    Ed and Stanley clinked their bottles and took a drink. They noticed a couple of attractive women at the bar. “What do you think, Ed - should we offer to buy them drinks?

    “Nah,” replied Ed thoughtfully. “After all, we may be Fellows, but we’re still nerds.”

    Ed and Stanley left the bar and began making plans to fabricate Joe Orez. They decided they would each need a picture ID to get into an exam center. Joe would need an employer, and it had to be one nobody had ever heard of. They quickly listed off other things they would need.

    The next day after work, they practiced a Joe Orez signature until they could both do it identically. They changed into black shirts with black ties, they each slicked their dark hair back with gel in a decades old style, and they put on black sunglasses. They went into a stationery store that sold passport photos, paid fifteen dollars each, and had their photos taken and laminated onto official looking IDs.

Joe Orez's ID card

    The clerk didn’t blanch as both Ed and Stanley signed their new ID as Joe Orez. Behind the black sunglasses they looked pretty similar, and they both had deep voices that even sounded similar. They had decided on a company name for the ID cards - Stanton Consulting - a partnership, that unlike a corporation did not have to be registered and would therefore be hard to trace. Over the next few days, Stanton Consulting got a post office box, a cell phone with a recorded message, a company credit card, an e-mail address and a web page.

http://www.stantonconsulting.us

    They agreed on a few ground rules. They would use one of those free online calendars that the Internet companies were always pushing, to post which of them were going to be Joe each day. If Joe appeared in public, he would only wear all black, including the sunglasses, with slicked-back hair. As long as there was no chance they could inadvertently both be Joe simultaneously, Joe could send e-mails, answer the phone, attend actuarial meetings, and do everything any other actuary could do.

    Joe registered for the first two actuarial exams. He registered online, and he paid with the company credit card. Ed helped Stanley study by preparing comprehensive study notes. They figured by working together, they could cut the study time by about two-thirds. Stanley and Ed were not particularly well-known actuaries, but now they were afraid someone might recognize them when they showed up for an exam. So although Joe registered to take the exams in New York City, where both Stanley and Ed worked, they decided to change the registration at the last possible moment to Buffalo, where no one knew them, claiming there was an emergency business trip. Stanley as Joe Orez showed up for the exams in Buffalo, presented his picture ID at the door, and took the exams without anyone being the wiser. Six weeks later, Joe Orez’s candidate number appeared on the list for passing both exams.

    Joe continued signing up for exams two at a time, with Ed and Stanley alternating every six months on who actually appeared for the exam. Joe passed every exam he took, and undoubtedly people noticed his name on the pass list multiple times for each sitting.

    Meanwhile Ed and Stanley decided to start taking Joe public. Joe signed up for the online Society and Rebel Outpost discussion forums, and he started posting comments. Joe would critique each exam he took, and he would also comment on rating and reserving practices, current events, ethics, and whatever else touched his imagination. If someone wanted to discuss the quantity and size of shrimp at the Society convention cocktail hour, Joe was ready with a comment. His comments were usually well thought out, and he seemed to have a greater knowledge of actuarial practices than someone still taking exams would normally have. But his comments also had a slight nasty tone to them, and they often generated some spirited discussion.

    Joe also showed up for some out-of-town actuarial club meetings. In his unconventional outfit, he always attracted some attention. He would be sure to ask a question during the discussion period, always stating his name. However, he would not stay and mingle at the cocktail party afterwards.

    It didn’t take long at this rate for Joe to pass his last exam and become a Fellow. In fact, since Joe’s date of birth had been manufactured, he became one of the youngest fellows ever. Joe registered for the annual Society meeting, proudly wore his name badge, and got his Fellowship diploma. He duly posed for pictures with the other new Fellows, but refused to remove his sunglasses. He flinched intentionally when the photos were taken, so none of the official Society group photos captured him very clearly. He didn’t mingle much at this meeting, where he thought the chances were greater that he would run into someone from New York who would know him.

    As a new Fellow, Joe was recruited for Society committee assignments. He only joined committees where he could participate by teleconference rather than in person. He joined an exam committee with the condition that he not be expected to attend meetings, as his employer did not reimburse those expenses. He dutifully graded his assigned exams at home and conferred with his grading partners by telephone. He joined several other committees with the same condition, and he always participated fully. Every committee chairperson gave Joe high ratings, and they recommended him for higher-level positions up the committee hierarchy.

    Occasionally Joe would get a telephone call. Ed and Stanley had bought a cell phone with minimal monthly minutes, and had put a recorded message on it that answered with the name of Stanton Consulting. There was a menu with a choice of employees, none of whom could answer the phone right now, but please leave a message and they would call you back. When someone left a message for Joe, Ed and Stanley would figure out which of them should answer it, and one of them did. They did the same with incoming e-mails. They were careful not to schedule two different teleconferences for the same day. They used one of those European e-mail anonymizer services so that even if they both sent e-mails on the same day, the anonymizer would disguise the fact that the e-mails came from two different computers, making this fact impossible to trace.

    Joe started becoming famous, at least in actuarial circles. He wrote study notes, he participated on twice as many committees as the average actuary, and he was an outspoken critic in the online discussion forums for everything: the way the exams are administered, the quality of speakers at Society meetings, the Society election process, and some common actuarial techniques whose theoretical bases were a little weak. He politely declined invitations to speak at panel presentations, but otherwise Joe had become popular and one of the better-known younger Society members.

    Well, Joe was popular with the masses, but he was not quite so popular with the Society staff and with the elected board of directors. To them, Joe seemed to be constantly criticizing them. Unbeknownst to Ed and Stanley, the Society staff and board were getting tired of Joe's unending criticisms. Joe was the topic of a board meeting, when everyone realized the strangest thing - everyone had heard of Joe, of course. But as well-known as Joe was, nobody on the board could remember ever meeting him.

    The Society staff pulled up Joe's file. He had passed all the exams, including the Professionalism course. He had attended the annual meeting where he was inducted as a Fellow, and he was included in the group photo of the new Fellows, although he was pretty unrecognizable behind his dark glasses. He had served on numerous actuarial committees, paid his dues on time with a valid credit card, and had written numerous formal and informal documents. However, he never attended any more actuarial conventions, including the ones where he should have attended to present his papers.

    "Why don't we just call him, and invite him to appear at the next board meeting?" someone asked. "In fact, let's tell him we want to give him a plaque in recognition of his many contributions to the Society. Then when he shows up, we'll tell him to stop his countless criticisms of us, or else."

    President Damien Brady agreed to make the call personally, right in the middle of the board meeting. As expected, Joe did not pick up the phone, so Damien had to leave a voice mail message. Not thirty minutes later, Damien got a call on his cell phone. Joe thanked Damien for the honor, told him it was a great privilege to make a few minor contributions to the Society, but Stanton Consulting discouraged such trips. Damien suggested the Society would pay Joe's expenses, and he could speak to Joe's boss if it would help. Joe replied that his own personal modesty suggested such a trip was unnecessary, and Joe quickly but firmly declined and hung up.

    The board was now more mystified than ever. Although Joe seemed to thrive on the publicity his criticisms generated, he would not even appear at a little board meeting to pick up a plaque.

    Damien decided that it was just too strange that nobody had ever met Joe Orez, and some members of the board half-jokingly questioned whether Joe really existed. For someone with Joe’s numerous actuarial accomplishments, such a thing seemed ridiculous. After considerable discussion, it was moved and seconded in a motion that was not to be recorded that Damien authorize $1,000 to pay for someone to prove once and for all whether Joe Orez really exists. The board knew it could not afford a licensed private investigator for $1,000, but they thought another actuary could solve this problem cheaper and quicker. Damien suggested his old college buddy and fellow actuary, Rafael Gonzalez.

    Damien chose Rafael for several reasons. Rafael was a well-respected Fellow, but quiet and probably not well known among the younger actuaries. He worked in New York City, as did Joe. Plus, Rafael was somewhat of a mystery buff, having actually entered the Society's actuarial fiction contest with an original mystery story a few years back.

    Rafael was certainly surprised to get such an unusual request, but it piqued his curiosity and he accepted. The first thing he did was dial Information, but there was no telephone listing for a Joe or Joseph Orez, either listed or unlisted, in New York, New Jersey or Connecticut. He pulled up the Stanton Consulting web site and confirmed that Joe’s business phone on the web site agreed with his listing in the Society yearbook. He did a search to see who had registered the company web site, and that name agreed with the name of an IT employee on the site. Rafael wondered if he could just show up at Joe’s office and surprise him, but Stanton had a post office box with no street address. He tried a different approach; he fired off an e-mail to the president, Roger Stanton, asking for a meeting to discuss a potential consulting assignment. Soon afterwards Roger replied, thanking Rafael for his interest in Stanton Consulting, but regretfully declining because Stanton only has a limited staff and was not accepting new projects right now.

    Rafael gathered a collection of Joe Orez’s bulletin board postings. He studied them, but he could not come up with any reason why they might be particularly unusual. He decided for fun to forward them to Judy Maguire, an English professor friend of his. At first Judy did not find them unusual either, although she commented that Joe obviously has a highly narcissistic personality. However, a week later, she e-mailed Rafael to tell him she had made a surprising discovery. Judy had run the e-mails through a computer program designed to test authorship. Similar to the tools used to test whether Francis Bacon or someone else wrote some of Shakespeare’s plays, Judy concluded that due to the frequency of Joe’s word patterns, the probability was high that more than one person wrote the Joe e-mails. Judy had a couple more scholarly tidbits: “I don’t know if this is significant, but did you know the name Orez is the Hebrew word for rice? But I checked with some linguistics experts, and Orez is not a Hebrew surname and doesn’t seem to be a surname of any known nationality.”

    Not sure what to make of the rice and the Hebrew reference, but armed with this knowledge that Joe’s identity was now more suspicious than ever, Rafael decided to take a bold step. He e-mailed an actuarial survey to every Fellow. The idea was brilliant, if somewhat unethical, and depended on a well-known security flaw in most people’s word processing software: Rafael’s survey contained a hidden file attachment. If the recipient completed the survey and e-mailed it back to Rafael, Rafael would then have a small piece of spy software installed on the recipient’s computer. Rafael was sure that the egotistical Joe could not resist the opportunity to comment on Society matters, and indeed Joe was among the first Fellows who returned the survey.

    Several days later, Stanley and Ed met for beers in the same bar where the Joe Orez idea had originated. Each of them had some Joe Orez news to share with the other.

    Stanley explained that he discovered someone was hacking into his home computer. Stanley considered himself quite the computer techie, and he had some elaborate anti-spy software. He was able to probe backwards into the computer of the person doing the spying until he discovered that person’s name. He didn’t recognize the name, until he ran it against various databases of names. “You’ll never believe who it is – another actuary!” he exclaimed. “I never heard of him, but he is some older guy named Rafael Gonzalez.”

    “I checked my computer, and I made sure to encrypt anything personal. As far as Rafael knows, he has hacked into Joe Orez’s computer. In fact, I added a bunch of actuarial spreadsheets and memos with different dates under Joe’s name. Then I probed Rafael’s computer, and I discovered he is on a mission from the Society to track down Joe’s identity.”

    “Wow! What do you think we should do about this?” asked Ed.

    “I think we should divert Rafael’s attention a little bit. I did some research on him, and I was able to recreate enough of his employment and personal history to be dangerous. I pretended to send Rafael’s resume to Stanton Consulting. Then I sent Rafael an e-mail under the name of Roger Stanton, president of Stanton Consulting, thanking Rafael for his resume and interest in the company, but unfortunately there are no job openings at the moment. Soon Rafael’s resume will go out to two hundred random actuarial employers. I wonder if one of those two hundred is his current employer?”

    “That should slow him down a little!” replied Ed. “Now I have some news for you. I picked up a phone message for Joe today from one of the younger Fellows. The Society presidential election is coming up, and the Nominating Committee has put up a pretty stodgy candidate. The younger Fellows want Joe Orez to run for Society president. Isn’t that hilarious?”

    “What a goof that would be! I say we run Joe for president. After all, he is so opinionated that he would make a wonderful candidate,” Stanley replied.

    Ed agreed, and the two of them sent in the form to run Joe for Society president. Joe was deliberately vague on his background – purposely omitting his college degree, for example, since that would be something traceable. They couldn’t have the scandal of Joe claiming to have a degree from, say Harvard, when Harvard would have no record of him. Although his education was lacking, in his short actuarial career Joe did have an impressive resume of Society committee assignments and publications.

    In the following months, Joe participated in the spirited online debate over Society presidential issues, never failing to reply to any issue, no matter how trivial. Joe always took the youthful, liberal, anti-establishment position, much to the dismay of the older and more conservative actuaries. The Society had grown so much in recent years, that there was talk that Joe had a majority of the membership behind him. However, it was well known that the younger actuaries felt disenfranchised by the Society and were unlikely to vote in the election.

    Breaking with tradition, the Nominating Committee’s candidate called Joe and invited him to a face-to-face debate, to be shown live over the Internet. Joe politely declined, not wanting any more exposure than he already had.

    Stanley and Ed were having a great time with all this, howling in laughter in how easily the Society had been duped over the whole Joe Orez charade. Another thing they found pretty funny was a letter Rafael had sent to Roger Stanton, apologizing for the fact that somehow his resume had been sent to Roger in error. Stanley wondered how many similar letters Rafael had written to other companies. Rafael seemed no closer to discovering Joe’s secret.

    “Rafael doesn’t know what Joe looks like. Do you know what Rafael looks like?” Ed asked.

    “No, why?”

    “I went to the post office box an hour ago to pick up Joe’s mail, and there was a middle aged guy hanging around near Joe’s box as if he was waiting to see who opened it,” Ed explained. “I decided not to go to the box with him there.”

    “I thought Rafael gave up on outing Joe. But if Rafael is still at the post office, maybe Joe himself should pick up the mail today. How about if I get dressed up as Joe and get the mail?”

    “I love it! That will really freak Rafael out,” replied Ed.

    Stanley went to the post office dressed as Joe, waited until there was a large group of people he could sneak behind, and picked up the mail. Rafael had been waiting a long time for someone to take mail out of Joe’s box, and he was not ready for someone to do so. By the time Rafael recovered from his shock, Joe was long gone. Stanley could see Rafael cursing from a distance away, that he had missed his chance to catch Joe live.

    A few more months passed, and finally it was time for the election. Joe dutifully voted for himself as president, as did Stanley and Ed, so they know Joe would get at least three votes. When the votes were counted, Joe had been elected Society president.

    “This is great,” exclaimed Stanley. “Can you imagine all the reforms we can push through as president? Where should we start?”

    “Are you crazy?” Ed asked. “Joe doesn’t exist. He can’t be president. Plus, he is going to have to appear in public at the convention, to attend board meetings and club meetings, and to give all sorts of speeches and presentations. How do we get permission from our boss to do this? We can’t keep saying that Joe can’t travel. I hate to say this, but I think it’s time to give up the charade.”

    “You’re not saying that you want to confess Joe is a fraud, are you?” asked Stanley.

    “I think we’ve taken this too far. Yes, I think it’s time to confess,” replied Ed.

    “Do you mean confess publicly, like Dustin Hoffman did in the movie ‘Tootsie’? I don’t think so,” Stanley said defiantly. “I’d rather die first than admit defeat.”

    “Die? Wow – what a great idea! Let’s kill Joe! It would be so easy! All we need to do is write an obituary and have it printed in the newspaper. Do you think the newspaper actually verifies each death notice it prints?”

    Ed made a quick call to The New York Times, and he learned the minimum price of an obituary was $172. “Boy – the cost of dying is more expensive than I thought! At least we can stop paying Society dues for him.”

    Stanley looked at Ed with a tear in his eye. “This is so sad. Are you sure we should do this? I feel like I’m losing a good friend.”

    “I think it’s the merciful thing to do. Let Joe go out with the dignity he deserves.”

    “Oh, let’s do one more thing before Joe dies. Let’s send our friend Rafael a little package,” Stanley said, and he and Ed prepared a box. They included a note, and they dated it October 31.

    The obituary appeared in the Times on November 3. Just to be sure the Society saw it, Roger Stanton faxed a copy to the Society office.

Joseph P. Orez, 25, of New York City, died unexpectedly in his sleep on November 1. Mr. Orez was an actuarial consultant and partner at Stanton Consulting. He was a Fellow in the actuarial society and despite his young age had recently been elected its president. A private ceremony was held on November 2 for family and close friends. Memorial donations may be made to the Actuarial Education and Research Fund in Schaumburg, Illinois.

    Phone calls and e-mails to Stanton Consulting received an auto-reply that the company was devastated by the death of Joe Orez, and that the company was temporary closed. Several weeks later Roger Stanton sent out an e-mail that the company could not survive without its only actuary, and the company, which was a partnership, was dissolving. Soon after, the telephone, web page, e-mail and post office box were all closed.

    Damien Brady, the Society staff and the Society board considered the Joe Orez matter closed. They thanked Rafael for his work and discharged him from his duties. Rafael found the obituary extremely puzzling. He had many unanswered questions. Why was there was no specific mention of surviving family members? What was the name of the funeral parlor? Where were Joe’s remains? Rafael checked with the Times. The obituary had been faxed to the newspaper with the letterhead of a funeral parlor, and the newspaper had a valid credit card charge for $172 for the obituary from Stanton Consulting. Rafael then tried to check on the funeral parlor, but nobody had heard of it. He called Information, and there was no personal phone listing for any member of Stanton Consulting. He was not happy with this turn of events.

    The next day, Rafael received a box at work with the following note, dated October 31:

Dear Mr. Gonzalez,

Although you and I have never met, I know you took an avid interest in my life and activities. I am not feeling well, and I will not be needing these any longer. Perhaps you would like them as a small remembrance of me.

Sincerely,
Joe Orez

    The box contained the two pairs of Joe’s black sunglasses. As Rafael munched on his lunch of Chinese take-out food at his desk, he looked at the sunglasses, thought about Joe, and then looked at his food. Chicken with broccoli and rice. Rice? Didn’t Judy the English professor say that Orez is Hebrew for rice? And Hebrew is read from right to left. If you read Orez from right to left, you get Zero. Could that mean something? Nah.

END


Copyright 2003, Jerry Tuttle

The idea for Joe is loosely based on a similar idea that appeared in the 1960's television show "Room 222."

The author would like to thank the many friends who helped with early drafts and with some of the details of this story; the staff of the Casualty Actuarial Society who explained some of the administrative details of Society membership and explored the possibility of creating a fictional actuary; and Leslie who cheerfully darkened my hair, took the photos, and otherwise put up with the eccentricities of Joe Orez with no more than a rolling of her eyes.