A Grammar Lesson from Dilbert

Grammar - DilbertThis is from the 18 May 2015 Dilbert comic strip. It highlights one of my favorite bits of grammar: the implied verb predicate. I’m sure that’s not its actual name, but that describes it. In the panel, Alice uses a common construction, “I hate Mondays more than Garfield.” What Alice clearly means is, “I hate Mondays more than Garfield hates Mondays.” Wally, of course, intentionally misunderstands her to mean, “I hate Mondays more than I hate Garfield.” Wally does this to make Alice angry, although she hardly needs the help.

In that construction, there is no way other than context to know the meaning of the sentence. But when pronouns are used, the meaning is clear. If the subject is used, the meaning is Alice’s intent: “I hate Mondays more than he hates Mondays.” If the object is used, the meaning is Wally’s interpretation: “I hate Mondays more than I hate him.” The problem is that people rarely get this right.

Almost no would write, much less say, “I hate Mondays more than he.” It sounds both pretentious and incorrect. So people will almost always say, “I hate Mondays more than him,” even though they clearly don’t mean that they hate Mondays more than they hate Garfield. It’s hard to know what to do.

A few years back, I wrote, How Good is Scott Turow? It was about a single line of dialog from his novel, Innocent. A character says, “I know a lot more than him.” It is apparently meant to convey that the speaker knows more than his father knows about computers. But it literally means that the speaker knows more about computers than he knows about his father. And that is also true. It’s brilliant!

But I don’t actually think that Turow is such a great writer that he realized what he was doing. I figure he just wrote the sentence the way people speak. And the way people speak is to throw objects at the end of sentences. So instead of thinking of the sentence as a shortened version of a clearer sentence, they think of it as an analogy to a sentence like, “I love her.” So what is one to do?

In speaking, I don’t give it a second thought. People already think I’m a pedant, so I say it the wrong way. But in writing, I can’t do that — at least when I notice the problem. (I’m sure people can find tons of examples where I messed this up; this site isn’t copy edited.) So I just add the extra text, “I hate Mondays more than he does.” That way, I get the best of both worlds. It’s right and it sounds right.

American’s Over-Criminalization

Glenn GreenwaldBut there’s a reason the US has become a sprawling, oppressive penal state, imprisoning more of its citizens than any other nation in the world, both in raw numbers and proportionally. There are actually many reasons: the profit motive from privatized prisons, the bipartisan nature of the “tough-on-crime” agenda, the evils of the Drug War, mandatory minimum sentences, the disproportionate use of arrest, prosecution and imprisonment against minorities.

But one key factor is over-criminalization: converting relatively trivial and harmless acts into major felonies. The postal worker who just engaged in an act of nonviolent political protest — flying a gyrocopter to the US Capitol lawn to protest the corrupting role of money in US politics — faces up to nine years in prison on multiple felony charges. That is over-criminalization, as are the shamefully large number of people in prison for selling prohibited narcotics to consenting adults who wanted them, or even for just possessing them.

—Glenn Greenwald
Denny Hastert is Contemptible, But His Indictment Exemplifies America’s Over-Criminalization Pathology

Public Shaming and the Power of Employers

Adria Richards' Photo of 'Hank' and FriendI just read Jon Ronson’s excellent new book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. I will probably write about it later in a general sense. But I wanted to highlight of the cases that Ronson discusses in his sixth chapter, “Doing Something Good.” It tells the story of a guy named “Hank” who was at a tech conference. He and a friend were making jokes involving sexual innuendo to each other. It bothered another conference attendee, Adria Richards. So she snapped a picture of the two and posted it on Twitter. This lead to “Hank” losing his job. When “Hank” posted a comment on a tech website about getting fire, all hell broke lose on Richards, who ended up getting fired as a result.

This incident is presented in the book in as objective a way as it probably can be. It’s easy to look down on Richards, but her basic critique of the situation as privileged white guys misbehaving without consequence is borne out by the end result of the whole thing. “Hank” got a new job almost immediately. As of the writing of the book, Richards still hadn’t been able to find another job. But to look at this whole episode as an incident between two people is wrong.

Imagine what would have happened in this situation if neither “Hank” nor Richards had to fear for their jobs. “Hank” would have been a little shamed and would have been more careful about what he said in public. Richards would have felt that she had made the world a slightly better place. And that would have been the end of it. It was “Hank’s” employer who decided that he needed to be fired. This was not some big publicity hit to the company. Both the primary people in this incident were unknowns and very few people were even aware of the incident. “Hank’s” friend, as far as I know, was not fired.

Richards’ firing makes more sense as a result of business thinking. Because of the backlash against her, a DoS attack was launched against her company, crippling its website. But given the situation, this firing is even more outrageous. The company showed absolutely no backbone and no loyalty. It reminds me of something I hear constantly from employers, “Workers aren’t loyal anymore!” The history of this is pretty clear: it was employers who first stopped being loyal. But those involved in the DoS got what they wanted: the firing of Richards. Why was that their target?

Neither Richards nor “Hank” are powerful people, although clearly “Hank” is part of the bourgeois whereas Richards is not. But these kinds of fights have got to thrill the power elite. As long as the lower classes are fighting amongst themselves, the truly powerful have nothing to fear. This is, of course, the purpose of the bourgeois as laid out in Chris Hedges’ Death of the Liberal Class. As a result, maybe we should be attacking the “Hanks” of the world. I really don’t know. But I do know that the more direct target is the system itself, and it exists at the pleasure of the power elite. No amount of interpersonal understanding is a substitute for direct organizing for the purpose of economic change.


Obviously, I don’t know Adria Richards. But based upon her Twitter feed, she’s a smart, articulate, and capable person. Why hasn’t anyone in the tech industry hired her? I probably know the answer: it is an incredibly insular and petty industry that nonetheless pats itself on the back (Constantly!) about how open-minded and “diverse” it is. (Look at all the diversity in the photo above!) Silicon Valley should be ashamed. But I think it lost the ability long ago.

Government Contracts and Small Business

Matt YglesiasI grew up in a family that always had small businesses. I’ve also worked for various small businesses. And as a result of this, I’m not that keen on small businesses. Here in the United States, we tend to fetishize the small business. But I think that is just a cover for being pro-corporate and pro-rich. It sounds so much better to talk about “small businesses” just like we talk about the “family farm.” But in general, I’ve been treated much better by larger businesses. Small businesses are much more likely to abuse their employees and, for that matter, the environment and the law more generally.

Just the same, when it comes to the government, it is the larger businesses that are a pox. And so it makes sense that the government should try to spend its money with small businesses. The more money that goes to big businesses, the more direct corruption there will be. Big businesses can and do lobby the government for special laws and for contracts. (In general, the way this works is that they get the requests for proposals to be structured in such a way that the particular company is at a clear advantage.) And there are other reasons, as well. For example, pushing contracts to small businesses is a way to limit inequality. Thus, the 1997 Small Business Reauthorization Act, which required that 23% of all federal contracts go to small businesses, is a good thing.

Not surprisingly, during the Bush administration, no effort was made to reach this goal. So much for the Republican Party’s pretense that it is the defender of the small business. But when Obama got into office, he promised to take this requirement very seriously. But as Matt Yglesias reported last week, The Government Says Small Businesses Get 23% of Federal Contracts. Reality Says Otherwise. It’s actually kind of shocking, but it would seem this is more about the government deluding itself rather than some effort to fool the people.

There are three ways that the percentage of small businesses getting contracts is overstated:

  1. Five Year Loophole: when a small company is bought by a larger company, the government continues to consider it a “small business” for five years. This is despite the fact that the law says the company should be reclassified within 30 days.
  2. Eligibility Loophole: The 23% only applies to federal contracts that are eligible to small businesses. This turns out to be only 77% of contracts. Thus, even if the 23% target were reached, it would represent only 18% of all contracts.
  3. Errors: Roughly a half percent of all contracts (2.5% of the small business contracts) were simply misidentified as being given to small businesses

Yglesias noted that it may not be reasonable to expect 23% of government contracts to go to small businesses. He thinks that the government would thus be better off redefining the target and then reporting the data correctly. I wonder if this isn’t a bad way for the government to encourage small businesses. It does reek of the indirect measures so loved of neoliberals. My own experience with various micro-businesses is that various government policies that are trivial for big businesses are onerous for very small businesses. (For example: inventory taxes.) If the government actually cared, it would do something about this. Giving out contracts to small businesses is a good thing. But this whole 23% target business seems more about PR than actually leveling the playing field for smaller businesses.

Morning Music: Cowboy Junkies

The Trinity Session - Cowboy JunkiesI’ve always thought of Cowboy Junkies as the band who did a cover of the original “Sweet Jane” off 1969: The Velvet Underground Live. But I’ve liked all their slow and sensual music. I’ve listened to The Trinity Session to exhaustion. But it is a really long time since I’ve even thought of the band.

I was surprised to find that the band is still together. This is doubtless because Cowboy Junkies is a family band composed of siblings Michael, Margo, and Peter Timmins along with Alan Anton on bass and Jeff Bird on pretty much everything. It’s nice to think that the band being as conflict free as its music. There is a fine performance of the band at the Newport Folk Festival in 2008 available on YouTube that is very much worth checking out. But let me just present “Blue Moon Revisited (Song for Elvis)” here, which is a remarkable fusion of original material with one of my favorite songs, Rodgers and Hart’s “Blue Moon”:

Anniversary Post: Adolf Eichmann’s Execution

Adolf EichmannOn this day in 1962, Adolf Eichmann was executed. But they screwed up and he didn’t actually die until a couple of minutes past midnight on 1 June. Eichmann serves as a good example of the continued hunt for Nazis. In general, I’m not too keen on the process. In the 1950s and 1960s, it was clearly called for. But today, it seems strained as the pool of criminals has dried up and the wrongdoing decreased. I’m glad that Eichmann was brought to justice. But, of course, I think it was wrong to kill him. It’s interesting that people have claimed that if ever the death penalty should be applied, it should be applied to Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. When I’ve heard that, I’ve been outraged. People have no sense of perspective. Eichmann’s crimes were almost unimaginably worse than Tsarnaev’s. Still, I don’t believe in killing other human beings — regardless of how horrible their crimes were. And Eichmann’s were indeed horrible.

I have frequent “tea dates” with my cousin Joan. We are similar in many ways, but where we differ is in the mercy-justice continuum. It’s a place where no one can ever get it right because there is no “right.” In looking at all the injustices of the world, there are always trade-offs between holding people accountable and forgiving them. And I greatly admire people like Joan who are out there every day fighting the good fight. My tendency is to understand where those people are coming from and just to accept that I could easily be the one acting as they do. Obviously, Joan too empathizes with others, and I too judge and hold people accountable. It’s just a question of tendencies. And the truth is that I often think of my tendency to quickly forgive may be just a sign of personal cowardice.

So in the case of Eichmann, I clearly come down on the side of justice. That one isn’t even close, because he was a public figure and society needed to say, “You don’t do this!” But with lesser figures, it is much harder for me. The case of Oskar Gröning seems ridiculous to me. Had he been found 30 years ago, I might think differently. Even today, he is hardly the worst around. So there is also the question of selective prosecution. And I continue to hear people complain that he doesn’t show remorse. You know who shows a lot of remorse? Psychopaths. They’re great at it!

But I understand that others fall somewhere else on this continuum and feel we must continue to seek justice against those who wronged in the past. But I’m glad that I am the way I am. Because ultimately, I don’t think the justice urge can ever be satisfied. There will never be enough justice. In fact, with every second that goes by, the justice deficit gets worse. But I doubt that punishing 90-something Nazis will really do anything to make genocide any less common. And I doubt that it will make the survivors feel any better. There are more effective ways to make the world a better place.

But Adolf Eichmann’s execution 53 years ago? It’s hard not to see that as an important justice.

The Advertising Failures of the Web

Too Much AdvertisingI’ve been on the web since its very first days — back when it was just httpd and Mosaic — long before Netscape. So I’ve watched it evolve. There was a (brief) time when blinking text was a cool thing. And then it became a no-no because it was annoying. Overall, changes were for the better. But then people started to figure out how to monetize the web. Advertising started to appear. And the web regressed. Yes, you might have been shamed out of putting blinking text[1] in their pages. But if you have advertising, you can be certain that there will be something at least as annoying on your page.

It seems that there is no end to the madness, however. First we got static images. Then we got animated gifs. Then Flash came in and that continues to be the standard way that advertising is forced on us. But there are even worse ways that we are so assaulted. A common, but old, way is something that is still seen on websites: the double underline. These are horrible active links that cause a popup window to appear if the user is foolish enough to simply move the mouse over them. They are extremely annoying.

Apparently, website owners realized just how horrible these things were, because they are now only seen on smaller websites that are desperate for revenue. The larger website owners seem to have realized that such stupidity actually pushes readers away. But advertisers keep trying. The most recent that I’ve seen is one where the text below a certain point is moved down (sometimes, it is at the very top of the page). Then a video ad is inserted into the gap. It runs silently, unless you run the mouse over it. You can just scroll down below it. But when the commercial is over, it disappear, re-scrolling your screen and screwing up where you are in the text. You can also close the ad, but that requires mousing over it and at least hearing some of it.

I consider this kind of advertisement even worse than the mouse-over pop-ups, because at least they don’t disturb your reading experience if you are careful with them. So the question is how long will these new monstrosities be with us? Is it possible people will be okay with them and the ads will become common? I really don’t know. But allowing such ads shows a complete lack care for one’s website readers.

It seems to me that all of this advertising nonsense stems from the fact that the website community has not been smart about selling advertising. Advertisers get far more bang for the buck in web advertising. When I briefly had Google ads on Frankly Curious, I was outraged that I only got revenue if a user clicked. I could have a banner ad for Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream. Clearly, such an ad is unlikely to get many clicks. But it is actually quite effective in subconsciously causing my website visitors to grab a pint of Cherry Garcia when they are at the supermarket later that evening. The issue is not that I don’t get a couple of cents; it is that Ben & Jerry’s doesn’t have to pay for what is clearly a profitable service provided them.

As a result, website ads have gotten out of hand. If websites only had to provide the ad-to-content ratio that television does, there wouldn’t be a fifth as much advertising on the web. And there wouldn’t be all these horrible “innovations.” As it is, there are websites I avoid — like The Washington Monthly — because they are so clogged up with ads that they take forever to load. It’s sad. And it makes the internet a lot less usable. It’s like living in a William Gibson novel, but without all the cool stuff.

[1] I really wanted to make that text blink, but there is apparently no simple way to do it. Apparently, blinking text can cause epileptic seizures, so it isn’t a good idea even as a joke.

Judith Miller’s Gift for False Certainty

Matt TaibbiMiller is not a gifted writer in the normal sense, but she does have one very obvious skill on the page: certainty. (Here it comes: Hitler, another otherwise plodding writer, had the same talent!) Miller on paper is so sure of herself that the reader may find his or her self mesmerized by the lack of qualification. This unwavering quality in her writing is very unique and helped sell a fake war to a whole country.

Years later, she is still blind to the fact that that was the flaw, the abject certainty she brought to her work. Instead of addressing that profound and no doubt deeply unsettling personal problem, she repeated the mistake, apparently spending all of these years in the wilderness coming up with a 400-page explanation for why nothing that happened was her fault. It’s amazing on the one hand, but also depressing, even for her sake.

Matt Taibbi
Judith Miller’s Comeback

Write to Your Representative About TPP!

Trans-Pacific Partnership

Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of the country. It is time to write your Congressional Representative about the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). I’ve heard some whispers that fast-track authority has enough votes in the House. This is it, my friends. This is the last stand. If we don’t stop this in the House, then we are going to get the TPP. And as I’ve said before, it isn’t going to be a major thing. The American worker has already been harmed almost as much as she can be. But this is yet another step in the wrong direction.

So all you have to do is call or write your Representative. But I know that most people don’t know their Representatives. So you can use the Find Your Representative tool on the House of Representatives’ website. All you need to know is your zip code. In some cases, there will be more than one Representative. It is perhaps best to get your “zip code plus 4,” which you can can look up at the USPS website. Regardless, it isn’t hard. And it is really important — for the country.

As to what to say or write, it doesn’t much matter. Just say you are against it. I’ve included the letter that I sent to my Representative, Mike Thompson. Feel free to use any part of it. The main thing is to make contact. We don’t need this “trade” deal.

Dear Representative Thompson:

I know you are leaning against providing the president with fast-track authority for the TPP. I hope you will decide against it. There are many things I don’t like about the treaty, in as much as I am able to know about it. I am especially concerned about ever more restrictions on intellectual property rights. And I say that as a writer who gets (small) royalty checks every year. But as everyone knows, “life plus 70 years” was created for the good of corporations, not creative people. And applying stricter IP laws overseas will just leave less money for those people to buy other goods we export that employ more people.

But my biggest concern is simply that we have an economy where all productivity gains go to the very top. So even if TPP increases GDP, what good is it if those gains are not widely shared? No one (most especially the president) has ever dealt with this criticism. And I think it is because the powers that are pushing TPP don’t care. They are living in the past when increased GDP really was good for all. It isn’t anymore. And that disconnect between productivity and shared gain is what we need to deal with now. We can look at new trade deals after we see some improvement on economic inequality.

One other issue is that Obama’s term is almost up. It is very likely that it will be the next president who actually makes the deal. While I certainly hope that this president will be Hillary Clinton or another Democrat, it could certainly be a Republican. I don’t like the idea of President Walker pushing for changes in an already questionable treaty.

For these reasons and more, I encourage you to vote against providing fast track authority for TPP.

Frank Moraes

Are you still here?! Isn’t there something you should be doing?

Partisan Polarization on Economic Issues

Joshua HuderJoshua Huder over at Rule 22 wrote an interesting, but I think ultimately misleading article, Left or Right? Who’s Further From the Middle? It has to do with this recent dust up over Peter Wehner’s ridiculous claim that the Republicans haven’t gotten any more conservative while Democrats have become way more liberal. Some people have used the standard Voteview graph that shows both parties getting further away from the center, but the Republicans doing so in a much bigger way. Huder pointed out that this only represents roll call votes, and so is a skewed sample. I’ll come back to that issue in a moment.

The obvious response to this idea is that the roll call votes still tell us a lot. And Huder doesn’t disagree with that. His whole article, however, is basically an apologia for the Republicans. He certainly wouldn’t agree with that characterization. But all he’s really doing is making a political science argument that there are incentives for Congressional Republicans to push for roll call votes that allow them to show how conservative they are to their base. Fair enough. But the issue is not how conservative Congressional Republicans are in their heart of hearts. The issue is how conservative the party itself is.

All Huder adds to the discussion is that Republican politicians have reasons for what they do. This is obvious. I think we’ve been arguing this for a long time. The narrative goes something like the following. Congressional Republicans come largely from very safe districts and states. Thus, any candidate who wins the nomination will win the general election. Thus, Republican condidates compete with each other to see who can be the most conservative — the most pure. This situation is made all the worse with conservative groups like the NRA that “score” votes. But claiming that Congressional Republicans are rational to appeal to their crazy base misses the point.

Here is the Voteview graph that I mentioned above. There are a couple of things worth mentioning about it. The first is that it doesn’t show any real movement at all for northern Democrats. So the entire “liberal trend” is based upon southern Democrats. And as we know, there aren’t that many southern Democrats. Those that used to be southern Democrats are now Republicans who are as crazy or crazier than any of the other Republicans. So the Democrats, even by this accounting, are no more liberal than they were in 1960:

House Polarization - Voteview

But I think this graph is distorted in a way that no one talks about. I’m interested in what has happened to the Democrats regarding economic issues. Voteview did provide a graph on social issues. And in that one, we’ve seen that the House Democrats have gotten much more liberal. I suspect that on the issue of foreign policy, Democrats are roughly as liberal now as they have been. This implies that on economic issues, Democrats have become more conservative. This is certainly what I’ve noticed based on observations over the years.

The point is that becoming more liberal regarding LGBT rights is great, but it isn’t compensation for allowing the minimum wage to atrophy. Or for pushing more job killing “trade” deals like the TPP. Or abandoning the labor union movement. These are the issues that most matter not just to me but to the American people. And largely the Democratic Party has managed to maintain its status as the liberal party based upon social issues. This is a major problem. We shouldn’t allow the party to do that because it really hurts the country in terms of economic debate.

So I think the discussion should be what has happened to the parties regarding economic issues. And in that regard, the Democrats have gotten more conservative. And the Republicans have gotten absurdly more conservative. So the Democratic shift with regard to these issues has actually made the extreme shift of the Republicans seem more reasonable than it actually is. People arguing that the Democrats have become more liberal should either stick to discussing social issues or be laughed out of polite society.

Morning Music: Joe Scarborough

Joe ScarboroughDigby posted the following video under the headline, Everybody Thinks They’re a Singing Star. It is Joe Scarborough singing a song called, “Reason to Believe.” It is not the great Tim Hardin song. It is rather a country song written by the ex-politician and current television pundit. It’s not a terrible song, but it is most clearly the sort of thing that is only released when the “artist” is already famous.

Huffington Post called it a powerful antiwar song, when it was first released. That’s what you get from the media when you are well connected: flattering lies. The song is not at all antiwar. It is sung from the perspective of a parent who has a child fighting in one of our recent post-9/11 wars. The parent doesn’t like that the child is in harm’s way, but still finds a “reason to believe.” Pretty much, the song comes down to this: it sure is sad that there are evil people in the world that require us to be constantly at war.

What’s sad about it is that there are so many sing-songwriters who are vastly superior to Scarborough. But they don’t even get their music produced, much less released by a major record company, much less get booked on The View. But the way to approach this sort of thing is most definitely not to claim that it is garbage. It isn’t. See that guy there playing the the mandolin? He’s great. See the woman singing backup? She’s great. Hear the invisible violin player? Great as well. But what this shows is the absurdity of meritocracy. Even if you think that Scarborough was great as a politician or a television host, he clearly isn’t great as a singer-songwriter. Yet there he is.

Anniversary Post: Pearl Hart

Pearl HartLet’s just call this Pearl Hart Day. On this day in 1899, she committed one of the last recorded stagecoach robberies. She was a colorful character.

Born sometime around 1871, Hart was raised in an upper middle class home in Canada. In her late teens, while at boarding school, she fell in love with a bad boy. The two of them had two children, which Pearl quickly shipped off to be raised by her mother. And the two of them had an turbulent relationship, finally splitting up in 1893. She then made her way to Colorado.

For a while, she made a living doing various things. It would seem that she primarily got by based upon her looks — even working as a prostitute and madam at one point. But one day, Hart received news that her mother was ill and she needed to come home. Around this time, she hooked up with a guy named Joe Boot. The two of them tried to make some money by mining for gold, but that didn’t work. So they came up with the idea of robbing the stagecoach.

Apparently, stagecoach robberies were such a thing of the past that there was no shotgun man on the vehicle. So the two of them managed to rob it and get away with $431.20 — well in excess of $10,000 today. But within a week, a posse managed to track them down and bring them to jail. Hart escaped before the trial, but was caught two weeks later. At the trial, she gave an impassioned speech about how she wasn’t a criminal and only did what she did to get home to see her dying mother. And the jury found them both not guilty.

The two were quickly arrested again on another charge, mail tampering. It sounds like a set-up to me. Regardless, Joe Boot was given a 30 year sentence. Hart was given just 5 years. But within two years, Joe boot escaped and was never heard from again. It was doubtless easier for a single man to get away than it ever was for a woman. What’s more, Pearl Hart had been widely photographed, so people knew what she looked like. However, she was given a pardon by the governor after two years under the condition that she get the hell out of the territory.

After her life of crime, she went on to star in a show where her robbery was recreated and then she spoke of the horrors of her life in prison. (It doesn’t sound like it was that bad; it sounds like she managed the situation rather well.) She would later do various things, including work for Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. And then, after 1928, she disappeared from the historical record. It is thought she lived into the 1950s and maybe even to 1960.

Happy Pearl Hart Day!