I was crossing the parking lot, my arms laden with almond milk (Capers was having a sale!) when an elderly woman approached and asked: “Did you vote for me?”. I stopped and eyed her uncertainly. Now whenever I’m approached by strangers, my first instinct is to either a) ignore them or b) feign some pressing commitment that prevents me from engaging them in conversation (“Gotta get this liver to the transplant bank pronto!”) – unless, of course, she’s cute in which case I have all the time in the world for idle chit-chat. Well, while the elderly woman in this instant wasn’t exactly cute (okay, maybe in that adorable old granny way), I did break with protocol to respond with a: “Pardon me?”

“Did you vote for me?”she repeated.

She certainly didn’t look familiar. I tried to place the face – and came up empty. “Uh, what party were you running for?”

“I wasn’t running,”she informed me. “I was walking!” She guffawed, slapped my arm, then ambled off, chuckling to herself.

What the hell -? I kept an eye on her, half-expecting her to start up a conversation with some passersby or begin rooting through the contents of a nearby garbage can. Nope. She simply grabbed a seat on a nearby bench and quietly waited for the bus.

Hunh. Maybe she wasn’t crazy after all, just some incredibly affable local/eccentric who elected to approach me because…I seemed friendly and/or approachable, a caring and kind-looking individual who instantly put her at ease with my palpable sincerity and obvious warmth?


Nah. If she wasn’t trying to distract me while her partner lifted my wallet, then I’m going with crazy.

Tonight, I watched a Frontline report on the Bernie Madoff affair. Fascinating- and, frankly, more than a little scary for anyone who invests (which is pretty much everyone but Carl who keeps his cash in the shoebox buried in his backyard). Madoff is accused of running one of the biggest Ponzi Schemes in history. To those of you who don’t know what a Ponzi Scheme is, it’s essentially a scam that pay out investors with monies from subsequent investors. So long as new investors are brought in to replenish the cash pool, the system works and all those who came before keep getting paid and are non the wiser – but eventually, the system grows too top heavy and collapses. Coincidentally, we were talking about this very subject at work the other day and my writing partner Paul was quick to point out that, even though the Madoff is reputed to have cost investors upwards of 65 billion dollars, it cannot be considered the biggest Ponzi scheme in history. According to Paul, that honor belongs to Social Security.

Hate to say it but he may be proven right.

Some recommended reading –

The Drowned Life, by Jeffrey Ford

Drowned Life

Blog regulars know that I’ve been a big fan of author Jeffrey Ford since discovering him, alongside many of you, through a former Book of the Month Club selection: The Empire of Ice Cream. I have yet to read a Ford book I haven’t liked – and that’s saying a lot. His latest collection of short stories, The Drowned Life, is no exception. Some beautifully told tales headlined by the surrealistic opener concerning a regular Joe who can barely keep his head above water and ends up going under – both figuratively and literally. Interestingly, this one struck me as Ford’s most personal collection to date.

The Unwritten #1, by Mike Carey and Peter Gross


Tom Taylor, son of the late author Wilson Taylor whose wildly popular children series (that, amusingly enough, bears more than a passing resemblance to the tales of a certain bespectacled boy wizard), has it good. The inspiration for his father’s literary hero (Tommy Taylor), the adult Tom enjoys a sort of cult status among the books’ many fans. Until, that is, evidence surfaces suggesting he may not be the son of the late author after all. As his one-time fans turn against him, a flustered Tom scrambles to make sense of the baffling turn of events – only to have things go from worse to weird when elements of his father’s book series begin to take on a life of their own. A whole mess of fun.

42 thoughts on “May 15, 2009: Wandering Eccentrics, Ponzi Schemes, and Some Recommended Reading

  1. Carl is absolutely right. Were an individual or corporation to set up a system like social security they’d be arrested and tried for fraud. As it is, social security is grinding its way to insolvency. And the government not being content with one such pyramid scheme, they threw in medicare for good measure. So tell Mr. B. to take the shoebox and invest in gold. (or maybe spices; have you checked out how much saffron costs? far more valuable than gold, weight for weight).
    Your book recommendations are duly noted and added to the list. As for the little old lady, consider it psychic resonance. She has your kind of humor, apparantly minus the paranoia or she’d have not approached you. That beats my smile of the day; a psychiatric patient who decided to wander out of the E.R. into the parking lot. In the nude. Fortunately, he was convinced to go Roman with a blanket toga, and to return to his room without a fight.
    And best of all, the weekend is here. So in the next 48 hours or so we can hope you’ll share with us the greatest movie title in cinematic history.

  2. Am I the only one who sees the obvious?

    That old lady was clearly Ashleigh in disguise in an effort to mess with Joe’s mind even outside of work; and it worked. That women is tricky, and if I’m right (which I am), then it means that her tricks have now expanded to the outside world at large. For all we know, I could be Ashleigh in Internet disguise, and I’ve been fooling Joe with my apparent Chinese guy persona for AGES.

    One never knows…

  3. Ha! I’ve done stuff like that old lady! 😀 I’ve got to remember that one. Hee. My cousin Ralph (who’s like…75) does that sort of thing ALL the time, too. I usually ask for ‘toll’ money when I hold the door for people at the post office (we have a very friendly post office 🙂 ), and most are good-natured about it. There have been a few sour-pusses…so I just make faces behind their backs when they walk past. 😀 I am SUCH a grown-up!

    Have a nice evening, Joe!


  4. I think Carl has a good point there. I’m not planning on retiring ever. When I get to old to do whatever I end up doing (prolly teaching high school but I haven’t gotten accepted to the program yet so…), I’ll pick something else up. Social security is going to be dead by then. 🙁

    Your old lady sounds like quite the prankster! I’m glad to see the elderly in Vancouver have a sense of humor! 😉

  5. There’s one bigger than SS. Hint: My congressman just signed on to co-sponsor H.R. 1207.

  6. Never thought I’d write this – but I’m in PG15’s camp on this one… definitely an Ashleigh event!

    Hmm… starting to sound like a TV show or comic book pitch here… Forget HORSE WHISPERER or MEDIUM, think: GERIATRIC GURGLINGS…

    …By day, she’s a just your normal studio PA just messing with her boss’ paranoid psychoses. By night, she enters the meandering minds of the neighbourhood elderly, coercing them to do her bidding! [insert maniacal type music]

    [Be kind, I’m on a pension!]

  7. I disagree with Paul’s assertion that Social Security is a Ponzi scheme. According to the the Social Security Administration:

    “There is a superficial analogy between pyramid or Ponzi schemes and pay-as-you-go insurance programs in that in both money from later participants goes to pay the benefits of earlier participants. But that is where the similarity ends. A pay-as-you-go system can be visualized as a simple pipeline, with money from current contributors coming in the front end and money to current beneficiaries paid out the back end. As long as the amount of money coming in the front end of the pipe maintains a rough balance with the money paid out, the system can continue forever. There is no unsustainable progression driving the mechanism of a pay-as-you-go pension system, and so it is not a pyramid or Ponzi scheme.”

    Social Security’s financing goes up and down because of unstable population demographics. This is why the social security trust fund exists. It currently has about 2.4 trillion dollars in government bonds enabling it to pay out full benefits until 2052. In order to continue paying the same benefits .54% of GDP in extra revenue will be required. That’s less than we are spending on the war in Iraq.

  8. Hi Joe:

    Some thoughts:

    Would you consider people who like to Twitter to be Twits for short?

    Why are the protagonists of most books, television shows and movies, male? If you think of some of the biggest novels and movies of all time, the heros are almost 100% male. Please explain your perspective.

    Would you agree that Canada’s health care system is like a hospital gown, because you just think you’re covered?


  9. Joe,

    Funny you should bring up the Madoff scandal. Late last night, I watched a CNBC documentary on the Stanford Group scandal. Apparently, he has run a Ponzi scheme in the Carribean for the past several years.

    Will Stargate Universe employ shaky camera techniques like the movie Cloverfield? I have been told that some moviegoers had actually gotten motion sickness from watching the movie. I don’t want to get sick watching TV.


  10. Coucou Joseph =)!!!

    Lol il ce passe vraiment des choses bizzard dans votre vie, vous ne save pas si c’est une folle ou un vrai candidate?…d’ailleur candidate a quoi? lol

    Aujourd”hui je suis inviter à un anniversaire, sa me changrea les idées avant mon stage.

    Bisou =) Bonne journée!

  11. I think the older woman was an emissary from the future giving you a warning about the perils of runaway government spending (etc.), having also planted the seeds of skepticism in your writing partner’s mind. Coincidence? I think not. (Yeah, I know, I mostly ripped that off from Timescape, with an admiring nod to Back to the Future.) — I wish I could say more, but I promised pg15 I wouldn’t blow his cover.

    It warmed my little heart to see a Jeffrey Ford book in your reading list. Your description of his latest prompts me to check it out right away. Empire of Ice Cream was such an excellent read, but for some time I haven’t been able to get back to the authors I promised myself to read more from — e.g., Ford and Paolo Bacigalupi, whose “Wikiworld” both entertained and intrigued me so thoroughly. Your particular mention of Ford gives me the nudge I need. Thanks so much for lending the personal perspective that tends to be absent from standard book reviews.

  12. I am surprised you did not report her for stalking you.

    At least the old lady was not stalking your home.

    You have been paranoyed since the day that guy came to your house.

    Will you ever be normal again..Oh were you normal before??

  13. Hi Joe,

    You do realise of course that the old lady approached you because she thought you were cute! According to my mother she still feels the same way inside as when she was 25, but she certainly does’nt fancy men her own age. As for myself, If the good Lord spares me to reach old age I fully intend to employ a John Sheppard look-a-like to run after me hand and foot. ( shirt optional!)

  14. Ipersonally think the scheme the british government has been on for the past god-knows-how-long has to be the biggest fraud job in years with MPs of all parties lining their pockets, flipping and generally milking the british taxpapayer whilst bestowing upon itself huge pay rises and inflicting huge tax hikes both backdoor and open on honest hardworking brits is reprehensible and they should all be hung, drawn and quartered.

    *can someone help me off my soapbox now please?*

  15. Hey Joe,

    Firstly, you used the phrase *average Joe* and I realized that you are not the average Joe. Although your name is Joe.

    Facinating, right?

    Also, that elderly woman is my new best friend. 😆 And I think I know why she picked you. You do have the look of *quite a lovely young man* as my grandmother used to say. Uh… I just realized my mom uses that phrase. And she’s already used it to describe you. Yeah… my mom thinks you are a lovely young man. And I haven’t the heart to set her straight. 😉

    Secondly, Social Security IS the biggest ponzi scheme. But what’s worse about it is that we’re FORCED to pay it. So ridiculous. It wouldn’t bug the crap out of me so much if we had a choice. I’d happily NOT pay Social Security and then NOT collect the *benefits* toward the end of my life. But since I’m forced to pay into that mess it’s worse than what Madoff was doing. At least Madoff had the decency to be true to his name. He made off with everyone’s money. 🙄 I wouldn’t ever have invested any money with him. My money is safe. I’ve invested in M&M’s.

    Thirdly, I’m beginning to think that ascendedalteran’s secret identy is none other than Michael J. Astrue. 😯

    @pg15 Ashleigh? Is that you? Excellent disguise as the old lady. Joe didn’t suspect a thing. I suggest you disguise yourself as a 30-something white guy with a mustache and drive by Joe’s house in a white van. That will REALLY get him going.

    @das AH! I’m SOOOOO using your *toll* thing. I’m the one always stuck holding open the door for everyone and their thankless brother when I mean to just hold it open for my mom. 👿 But now I’ll also hold out my hand and ask for a toll fee! PRICELESS!!!! I’ve never been so excited to hold a door open. And… when I get a dirty look I will look them straight in the eye and say, “Oh you think I do this for free? It’s a thankless job.” Bwahahahaaa!!!

    Ok. I’m blaming this post on the stinkin’ dogs. They woke me up at 5am. Actually a giant Ziggy nose to my armpit was quite the rude awakening. Oddly, not for him. I thought dogs were supposed to smell BETTER than humans? Yet that pup just shoved his nose straight into my armpit and left it there for a good 10 count. Anyway I got just one hour shy of a full nights sleep. I need a full nights sleep to keep me just sane enough to not be certifiable.


  16. Ha, sounds like Kate finally escaped from the nursing home! That lady sounds exactly like one of the residents! Of course, how she got to your neck of the woods would be a bigger mystery…since they have one of those alarms on her…

    401ks are looking to be a close 2nd to Social Security…at least that one you have a little control over. I’m getting to the point where I’m with Carl & the shoebox idea…

  17. In my opinion, the entire stock market is one giant Ponzi scheme. But hey, I’m cynical. Still…it just seems to me a system where the money is often just figures on a page and doesn’t truly exist isn’t a good system to put your faith in. Just like a pyramid, it relies on its base to continue to grow, funnelling money to the top (those taking money out). But there is no guarantee – it’s a gamble, plain and simple. It isn’t a requirement to invest in the market, so if people stop paying in, and start demanding their money – much of which is only on paper – it collapses, as we have seen. It’s a scheme of some kind… maybe not a true Ponzi scheme, but a scheme nonetheless.

    As far as Social Security goes…it does have the same appearance as a Ponzi scheme, but unlike the stock market, there is a ‘guarantee’ that the base would continue to support the top because people are required to pay into it. Sure, folks at the top paid in less, but since the base is paying in more, it should offset the difference created by cost-of-living increases and such. Also, in theory, that base is infinitely renewable and ever-expanding. However…the guarantee is only effective if people are honest in paying their taxes – especially employers, since they must match what is taken out of the employee’s check. Of course, because of this a lot of employers decide instead to pay under the table. So, sure – there are plenty of workers out there, but that doesn’t mean all are paying into the system, which punches all sorts of holes in the theories of how it should work.

    Ugh…this is too heavy a subject to think about first thing in the morning. I’d much rather know how Wraith produce webbing, or something… 😉


  18. Joe: Glad you liked The Drowned Life. Thanks for the write-up. Congrats on your own upcoming short story.

  19. Will we ever be in the financial part of the future where they don’t use money(startrek),,hmm, don’t think so. and don’t even get me started on ss and the gov’t, yuck,poo. when I am old enough to collect, they say it will all be gone anyway…
    — Some of the people are supposedly getting checks in the mail from the Madoff scheme, yeah right, the checks in the mail, haven’t we heard that one b4.!! Kinda glad I had no money to invest that way..but still if I did, my check would be ,,ah ok..
    –Joe, did Ashleigh put a sign on your back(better check it) to attract these types,,not sure what it would say,, but maybe when you turn a certain way it lights up or sets off their bat(ty) senses,like spider senses,,, Have a safe weekend.! 🙄

  20. Hey Joe, are you sure that Ashleigh wasn’t watching and filming the whole thing from a concealed location? And if pg15 hadn’t been posting here for so long I might have suspicions on that side, too.

    das, why am I not surprised by your latest revelation? 😉

    I wasn’t going to comment on Ponzi schemes and Social Security and Medicare, but I just can’t help myself. I have to agree with Paul on this one. ascendedalteran referred to “unstable population demographics” – apparently the government thought that the population would keep increasing fast enough to keep more people working than retired, which is a rather unrealistic approach to things and does look rather like a Ponzi scheme. But if the government and insurance companies keep up what they are doing to the practice of medicine here in the US, they will force enough doctors out of business and make becoming a physician unattractive enough to keep most young people from even considering it as a career. That way, there won’t be enough doctors to go around and the old and ill people will die off and “decrease the surplus population” (Dickens). Then everything will be just dandy and the system will be restored to its proper balance and run just fine again. Of course, our legislators don’t contribute to social security and have their own retirement and medical benefit plans. Perhaps if they were in the same boat as the rest of us, they would get serious about fixing the system. *steps down off soapbox* Sorry, I just needed to vent. I feel better now.

    Anyway, to get back to more blogworthy topics: Joe, are you going to finally reveal the title of the SGA movie this weekend? BTW I’ve started reading Land of Laughs and am really enjoying it.

    I’ve got to go wake my charming children and start making the waffles now.

  21. @ Trish – But see…I actually ENJOY holding the door open for people! It (usually) makes them smile! Oddly enough, the ones who often never smile, and rarely say thank you, are older women between the ages of 55-70. Dunno why. Young kids say thanks – even the ones that look like hoodlums – old men say thanks, young women say thanks…but something about old biatchy broads just prevents them from acknowledging a good deed. Still…I do it anyway…then I make faces behind their backs. 😀

    @ Sparrow_hawk – Wot revelation? The ‘toll’ money, or the faces?? Or the fact that I’m only reading Elric because I find him incredibly hot? 😉


  22. @ S_h – DOH! I only told Deni about that last part…in e-mail. Dangit. Well…there goes any chance of an ‘intelligent discussion’, eh? 😛 WP REALLY needs an edit feature…just for times like this when I forget what I said publically vs what I said privately.

    *makes a face at WordPress*


  23. Hi everyone, nothing to add today (I’m being quiet, mysterious and introspective, plus, I’ve had no sleep) except to tell you all to have a great weekend!

    @Das: I lied. Yikes, I’m only a year away from becoming a “old biatchy broad”? Holy crap.

  24. Awesome view of the lil’ ones’ toys, world domination, and in the steps to dominations potential extinction. wheeeee.

  25. Well, that certainly *sounds* like Social Security… or as I like to think of it, that part of my earnings that I may as well flush down the toilet for all the good it does me.

  26. Hey Joe,

    Just saw the season finale of Smallville, which was pretty good. Alaina Huffman was in it, and I was wondering if she filmed it before starting SGU or at the same time? And are there any legalities that prevent an actor/actress from working two shows at once?

  27. So, Ashleigh has a time machine and her future self has decided to torment your present self? What will your future self do to her to make her come back and harass you?

    Look both ways when crossing the street next Tuesday. At least you have the “be very suspicious of white vans” thing down pat.

  28. das said:

    Wot revelation? The ‘toll’ money, or the faces?? Or the fact that I’m only reading Elric because I find him incredibly hot?

    Well, actually I was talking about the first two items, but it was very brave of you to mention the bit about Elric right here in the open on the blog… (I knew all along that you would feel that way about him – he’s just your type!)

    No, I’m not smirking -well, maybe just a small smirk. Just a smirklet. 😉

    And I agree with you about the biatchy old broads. I am precariously close to that age range, but I don’t expect to ever be in that category. At least, I sincerely hope not. Many elderly women seem to have a sense of entitlement that probably contributes to their not saying thank you when you hold the door for them. They seem to feel that you should be holding that door for them. And you should let them barge in ahead of you in the grocery line. And turn make a right turn in front of you from the left hand lane on the highway.

    But to get back to Elric – I’m glad that it is the BotM entry for June since I was going to start reading it next anyway. I’ll figure out a way to get my questions and comments out even though I won’t be here for the discussion.

    @shiningwit I’ll help you off of your soapbox if you’ll return the favor for me.

    BTW: I just got home from attempting to see Star Trek at the local IMAX theater. About 20 minutes into the film, the power went out in the theater. We sat there for about 5 minutes with the emergency lights on, and then they announced that the power was out and they wanted us all to go out to the parking lot where they would pass out rain checks for the show. There was an orderly and calrm exit from the theater while we all joked about Klingon sabotage. When we got out there, we saw the first fire truck, then the second arrived – accompanied by a couple of police cars. When the third fire truck showed up, we figured out that there would be no rain checks handed out and that the theater management had simply used that as a clever ploy to avoid panic while they evacuated the theater. I can’t wait to find out what really happened. But I’m bummed that I didn’t get to see Star Trek on the REALLY BIG screen.

    @otros ojos I love your icon!

  29. Well, while the elderly woman in this instant wasn’t exactly cute…

    Hm. Let’s see. Vancouver yesterday? Nope, it wasn’t me, I swear.

  30. So my dear Joe,

    Stargate Atlantis Extinction… well good riddance of those awful wraith!!! However, you did say that the wraith will have a presence beyond the end of the series…. so if I’m a betting man, I would say it has to do with the Lost tribe faction… THE VANIR.

    I’m takin in bets everyone!!!

  31. Don’t look now, Joe, but one of the doggies has spoiled your Stargate Atlantis movie title surprise for us. Pfft, “man’s best friend” my butt.

    So…Stargate Extinction, eh? Very nice. I’m betting it’s the Wraith; after all our exploits in the Pegasus galaxy, they must have only a handful of hives left. Only problem is, “Extinction” is the title of an episode of Star Trek Enterprise. Heh. Did you know that? 😉

    Oh, and one more thing: you will meet an elderly gentleman 3 days from now. For the love of God, do not stare him in the eye.

    Be right back. Gotta go wash my van. I don’t know why I got a white one; you can see every single speck of dirt of ’em!

  32. Oops, that’s “on ’em” at the end there. Damn, it must be this itchy moustache of mine distracting me. I think I’ll go comb it.

  33. @Sparrow_hawk: Thank you! Sometimes it’s fun to pretend to be a goth grrrl. — I’ve been admiring your choice of username for some time, since I really, really love Ursula Leguin’s Earthsea trilogy, and wanted to read a lot more about Ged before he lost his magical power, alas. Still, better to have loved and lost, and I also now have a more durable edition of the trilogy than what I read as a young’un. By and large, all’s well that ends well. And I guess I should end now before I get kicked out for overuse of clichés.

    *exits laughing over Carl’s comment*

  34. @Das: I do hold the door open for people when I see they are struggling. So the UPS guy with the dolly in one hand and the clip board in another, the elderly couple with walkers (yes, they each have a walker… well this IS Florida after all 😉 ), the mom with the stroller and two little ones in tow.. all get my assistance. And happily. But they are always the ones saying, “Oh thank you!” I’ve had too many people (from all walks of life… even strapping young men) push by me as if I were an inanimate object. Poor manners is such a pet peeve of mine. Humor is always a great way to deal with rudeness. Believe me, when I ask for toll money for holding the door open I’m going to be doing it with a massive smile on my face. 😀

    And shouldn’t you be reading? *cracks whip* Read! Read!

    @Deni: Aw c’mon. You’ll make the awesome-est of biatchy old broads. I doubt you’re that close to it, though. My mom used to think that. At 62 she’s still the biggest kid I know. 😀 I really need to call you about dinner. 😀

  35. Sparrow Hawk: So glad no one was hurt through your movie.

    I saw this about SGA’s movie title: “Producer reveals Atlantis movie title … maybe.. The Stargate Atlantis movie now has a finished script and a working title, executive producer and co-writer Joseph Mallozzi reported on his blog this week. Mallozzi teased fans that the movie title may be revealed over the weekend. Today, this photo surfaced — at his dogs’ Twitter account, of all places! ”

    I hope the dogs don’t get in trouble with management! I knew dogs having a blog was a bad idea. 🙂


  36. Ya know…the word ‘extinction’ doesn’t exactly entice me to wanna watch the movie. 😛

    NO reading today – GARDENING! Gardening in a yard with more mosquitoes than the Amazon jungle! God…NEVER, EVER have there been this many ‘skeeters around here! I’m all bit up, which means in a few days I’ll be coming down with West Nile Virus now. 🙄 But I did get my Japanese garden cleaned up and the fountain running, and planted some more herbs, and added flowers to a little do-nothing bed outside my kitchen window. Let’s see if they take…flowers do not like my yard (shady, with acidic dry soil).

    Gotta go get din-din!


  37. @Trish: Definitely, I’m in Tampa next weekend! As to being a biatchy old broad, nah, that would be no fun. I’ve been in the bedroom all afternoon, Mr. Deni is painting the living room, had to get the dogs outta there and we’re bored to tears in here, especially Elway and Flannery. Yeah, Flannery who was dying a few weeks ago has dragged all the toys in (about 40 of them) and is generally being a pain in the ass to everybody. Talk about biatchy old broads…:) She’s gained some weight back, so it’s good to see her keeping everybody else in line as she always has! By the way, your mom sounds great!

  38. Could the lady who stopped you had been Kim Campbell in disguise? (Yes, I know you don’t directly elect the PM in Canada, but I wanted to show off how much I do know about my northern neighbor. If Rick Mercer ever stops me on the street, I’ll know what not to say.)

    I picked up the first issue of The Unwritten because it sounded intriguing (and for Mike Carey, of course) but I’m not quite sure what I thought of it yet. I’ll need to read it again to get a feel for it.

    I missed the Frontline episode, but I’ve heard the same comment about social security before. What makes it not a Ponzi scheme, thought, is that the government is upfront about where the money you put in goes and where the money that will be paid out to you is supposed to come from.

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