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.