English’s Pronoun Problem Is Centuries Old

From The New York Times:

“Pronouns are suddenly sexy,” Dennis Baron declares at the start of “What’s Your Pronoun?” For “pronouns,” read one specific pronoun, or rather its long-lamented absence in English: the third-person singular gender-neutral pronoun. And for “sexy,” read thorny. Pronouns now come up in lawsuits, school regulations and company codes of conduct. Colleges ask students to provide their preferred pronouns; online dating sites offer pronoun options. “It used to be nerdy to discuss parts of speech outside of grammar class,” Baron, a professor emeritus of English and linguistics at the University of Illinois, writes. “Now it’s cool.”

After this slightly forced attempt at with-itness, “What’s Your Pronoun?” settles down into a scrupulous and absorbing survey. Its great virtue is to show that these issues are nothing new: Gender-neutral pronouns like “ze,” “thon” and “heer” have been circulating since the mid-19th century; others as far back as 1375.

Almost no one now defends the use of a generic “he” — but what to replace it with? Baron is surely right that no one cares for “his or her”: too unwieldy. As for the pronouns historically proposed to replace “he” or “she,” they failed to gain traction because “they look strange on the page.”

. . . .

Coiners of new pronouns might usefully counter that they want these words to look strange, so as to draw attention to the social construction of gender or the patriarchal roots of traditional pronouns. Fair enough, but the point about pronouns is that they replace nouns, and thus trade the specific for the generic — so they will probably catch on only when they are inconspicuous. In writing, a pronoun that draws attention to itself stops the reader’s eye and checks their pace at the wrong point in a sentence.

For Baron the solution is clear, and I used it (hopefully unobtrusively) in that last sentence: the singular “they.” He provides ample textual evidence, from Shakespeare on, that this is a perfectly respectable option — and so unconscious that even those who condemn it invoke it without noticing.

For the still unpersuaded, he points out that singular “they” is older than singular “you.” Only in the 1600s did singular “you” start pushing out “thou” and “thee.” Having the same pronoun for both singular and plural forms makes for potential ambiguity. So colloquial plural forms have sprung up, such as “y’all,” common in the American South, or the more recent “you guys” — an oddly gendered locution at a time when the generic “he” is becoming extinct. Still, we get by. No one considers ditching the singular “you.”

For Baron, the benefit of singular “they” is that it is often used by those in search of a nonbinary or gender-neutral pronoun, as well as those who give such issues little thought. While many language mavens are coming around reluctantly to singular “they” — in December Merriam-Webster anointed “they” its “word of the year” — some traditionalists still hold out against it. Their defense is convention. 

Link to the rest at The New York Times

Immortality, Inc.

From The Wall Street Journal:

Amid today’s technological wizardry, it’s easy to forget that several decades have passed since a single innovation has dramatically raised the quality of life for millions of people. Summoning a car with one’s phone is nifty, but it pales in comparison with discovering penicillin or electrifying cities. Artificial intelligence is being heralded as the next big thing, but a cluster of scientists, technologists and investors are aiming higher. In the vernacular of Silicon Valley, where many of them are based, their goal is nothing less than disrupting death, and their story is at the center of “Immortality, Inc.” by science journalist Chip Walter.

Seeking to slow the aging process—if not halt it altogether—is far from a novel quest. In the 16th century, the explorer Ponce de León supposedly sought a fountain of youth in Florida, and the search for magical elixirs didn’t end when he failed to find it. Even so, the medical establishment has traditionally assigned only limited resources to aging, perhaps because, as odd as it may seem, death from old age is a relatively recent phenomenon. At the end of the 19th century, life expectancy in the United States was 48 years for whites and 34 for blacks. Aging, as a cause of death, took a back seat to tuberculosis, pneumonia and much else.

Americans began living longer in the 20th century, thanks to better sanitation and more effective vaccines and medicines. But growing old meant an increased vulnerability to other ailments, from heart disease to cancer. Progress in treating those conditions, in turn, has led to a higher incidence of Alzheimer’s. And while average life spans have been getting longer in much of the world—though declining in the United States in recent years—the outer limits of longevity haven’t changed much.

That is the backdrop to Mr. Walter’s absorbing story, which he begins with a visit to Alcor, the Arizona-based organization that says it preserves corpses at minus 124 degrees Celsius “in an attempt to maintain brain viability after the heart stops.” (Current “patients” include baseball legend Ted Williams.) While this life-extending strategy, known as “cryonics,” is often ridiculed, the individuals profiled in “Immortality, Inc.” are high-status, highly regarded figures whose initiatives can’t be easily dismissed. What links them, writes Mr. Walter, is that “they are all troublemakers at heart.” They believe that the “conventional approaches” of most medical researchers and practitioners are, “at the very least, misguided.”

One key figure in the story is Bill Maris, a venture capitalist with a background in neuroscience. In 2012, dismayed by the lack of research into aging, he began meeting with some of his fellow Silicon Valley heavyweights, like Google co-founder Larry Page, who took an immediate interest. In short order, recounts Mr. Walter, they met with Arthur Levinson, an Apple board member who had spent 14 years as chief executive of the biotech trailblazer Genentech. Less than a year later, Mr. Levinson founded Calico, a company devoted to drug development and extending the human life span. Google kicked in $750 million, as did the pharmaceutical company AbbVie.

Mr. Levinson’s maverick mind-set shines through in a discussion he had a few years ago with several scientists and doctors. According to Mr. Walter, he asked them how much the average life span would increase if all cancer were eliminated. Most assumed about a decade. The answer, said Mr. Levinson, was just 2.8 years. The prospect of such a modest return helped inspire Mr. Levinson and his Calico colleagues to concentrate even more intensely on unraveling the mysteries of life-span biology. (One of their finds, so far, is a rodent native to Africa that shows “little to no signs of aging.”)

. . . .

“As recently as five years ago,” Mr. Walter writes, “the great pashas at [the National Institutes of Health] . . . looked upon aging research as largely crackpot.” He faults the Food and Drug Administration for refusing to classify aging as a disease. As a result, clinical trials—the foundation of medical research—can’t be conducted.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

PG was going to opine but, surprisingly, decided not to do so.

Inside the Critics’ Circle

From The Guardian:

Although I’ve been reviewing books for half a century, this little treatise caused me to do some anxious head-scratching. Phillipa Chong, a tenure-hungry assistant professor at a Canadian university, here presents an earnest sociological analysis of an activity that for me has been sometimes a chore, always a test of punctuality and proficiency, on occasion a wickedly thrilling chance for retaliation, but mostly a source of pleasure. Reading the product of Chong’s jargon-clogged research, I found that I lacked all symptoms of the professional malaise that afflicts her informants, who suffer, she believes, from “epistemic uncertainty”.

I may be a shallow fellow, but I’ve never worried about what Chong clumsily describes as the “lack of groupness” among reviewers. Who cares that no certificates of “accreditation” enrol us in “the institution of literary criticism” or that we “inhabit nonprofessional spaces”? I also hadn’t realised that I was supposed to function as a “market intermediary” or – with luck – as a “cultural consecrator”.

And none of the eight successive Observer literary editors for whom I have worked ever ordered contributors to “enact their duties”, which would have sounded unusually bossy. When they patted me on the back, was I being commended for “satisficing in the face of practical constraints”? I hope so, because satisficing, I gather, is a “cognitive heuristic” that defines an “acceptability threshold”.

Editors are employers and I’ve always been reluctant to question their reasons for commissioning me. Now I learn from Chong that they exercise “homophilous logics” resembling the algorithms that connect strangers on hook-up websites. This prompts her to liken assigning reviews to “making a good match”: well, then, next time a Jiffy bag arrives, I’ll regard it as the invitation to go on a blind date.

. . . .

“Well, I first try to read the book,” says one critic she quizzes. Another interviewee, mindful that sociology aspires to be a science, carefully spells it out: “I get the book in the mail. And I spend time reading it from beginning to end.” Chong, impervious to irony, describes this as the critic’s “review process”.

She seems not to notice that a third reviewer shrugs off her inquiry about his or her “physiological and emotional, or otherwise embodied, reactions”. “When a book is good,” this person replies, “a book is good.” A fourth reviewer almost audibly yawns when asked about his tendency to be lenient. “I’m from the midwest,” he says, “and I’m sort of a naturally nice person.” So much for the “culture of evaluation” Chong says we live in, which she aligns with the “audit culture” of high finance. “I am both expanding and contracting the generalisability of the framework,” she declares, unaware that the rickety scaffolding of theory has collapsed around her.

Applying the criteria of identity politics, Chong finds that her subjects are reluctant to “identify” as reviewers. “I’m primarily a book writer,” one reviewer defensively snarls; others announce “I’m mostly a writer” or “I mostly write”. Their epistemic qualms have a bottom line: reviewing is ill paid and Chong is bemused by the “nonmonetary form of profit” – AKA enjoyment – that we dedicated toilers derive from it. “What it means to be a writer,” she sighs, “is unclear.”

Link to the rest at The Guardian

MERCUTIO: I am hurt.
A plague o’ both your houses! I am sped.
Is he gone, and hath nothing?

William Shakespear, Romeo and Juliet

How ‘Big Law’ Makes Big Money

From The New York Review of Books:

“There is an estate in the realm more powerful than either your Lordship or the other House of Parliament,” one Lord Campbell proclaimed to the peers in the House of Lords, in 1851, “and that [is] the country solicitors.” It was the lawyers, in other words, who kept England’s landed elite so very, well, elite: who shielded and extended the wealth of the landowners, even granting them legal protection against their own creditors. How did they pull off this trick? Through a nimble tangle of contracts, carefully and complicatedly applied, as Katharina Pistor explains in her lucid new book, The Code of Capital: by mixing “modern notions of individual property rights with feudalist restrictions on alienability”; by employing trusts “to protect family estates, but then [turning] around and [using] the trust again to set aside assets for creditors so that they would roll over the debt of the life tenant one more time”; and by settling the rights to the estate among family members in line for inheritance. Solicitors maximized their clients’ profits and worth through strategic applications of the central institutions at their disposal: “contract, property, collateral, trust, corporate, and bankruptcy law,” what Pistor calls an “empire of law.”

The landowners themselves may not have understood this morass of legal relationships, this web, in Pistor’s words, of “claims and counterclaims, rights and restrictions on these rights.” No matter: by lawyers’ legal codifications, their wealth was increasing. The sort of legal logic applied in nineteenth-century England grows only more complicated, and more profit-generating, when the asset in question is not a hectare of country land but stocks and bonds and shares—when an entire organization is coded as a legal person (who can own assets and who can sue) through incorporation. The very form of a corporation, “by encouraging risk taking, by broadening the investor base and thereby mobilizing funding for investments, and by creating the conditions for deep and liquid markets for the shares and bonds that the corporation issues,” maximizes profit. And though today we live in a nominally democratic society, Pistor argues that a “feudal calculus” extends to our age: superior legal coding—that is, fancy private lawyers. Using the central institutions of private law, they make certain assets more valuable, and more likely to create value. “For centuries,” she writes,

private attorneys have molded and adapted these legal modules to a changing roster of assets and have thereby enhanced their clients’ wealth. And states have supported the coding of capital by offering their coercive law powers to enforce the legal rights that have been bestowed on capital.

Corporate law is “no longer primarily a legal vehicle for producing goods or offering services but has been transformed into a virtual capital mint.” Nowhere is this more true than in financial services corporations.

. . . .

Since the 1960s lawyers associated with the school of “law and economics,” developed at the University of Chicago by Aaron Director and Ronald Coase, among others, have been explaining how legal devices are invented to enable transactions to be conducted more efficiently. The basic line of argument is clever but monotonous. In case after case, the true function of a legal construction is shown to be that it aligns incentives of various economic actors—businesses, consumers, workers, and governments—in efficient and productive ways. For example, although granting property rights secures a kind of monopoly for owners, it encourages investment because legal owners can expect to reap the long-run benefit of up-front expenditures.

Link to the rest at The New York Review of Books

As far as the last paragraph about “granting property rights,” that’s what happens when you buy a house. Your “monopoly” on your house means you get to choose who lives in it. If a stranger walks into your house off the street and falls asleep on the couch and you don’t like him/her doing that, local law enforcement will come and arrest that person and remove them from your house because, as the owner, you have a monopoly right to exclude those who you don’t want sleeping on your couch.

For the record, PG is not now nor has he ever been a part of Big Law. The closest he has ever come to working with financial services corporations occurred a long time ago when he represented a small country bank in a single litigation matter (yes, he/they won), but that’s it.

On the other hand, a long time ago, he used to do a lot of consumer bankruptcies for indigent Legal Aid clients and financial services corporations were usually among the largest creditors who were stiffed in the bankruptcy court.

As far as the OP, Big Law and Big Clients, if you don’t want a complex economy and its accompanying benefits, there are a variety of places with much simpler economies and much greater poverty that may be available for you.

One more point – the various kinds of modern property rights established by law include copyrights, that allow you to prevent others from meddling with the invisible intellectual property that is represented by the books and stories you write.

Application of Financial Disclosure Laws to Art Purchases in Belgium

Note from PG – He found the following on Clancoo website at the link below. That link lead him to a PDF of a document created by Oliver Lenaerts that was in Clancoo website files. PG’s link is to the Clancoo website. The link to the document stored on the Clancoo website from which PG draws his excerpts is HERE.

PG’s interest in this matter concerned the role that many literary agents play as financial advisors for their authors with respect to contract provisions, the amount of advances, whether or not to accept an offer or not, etc.

PG acknowledges that the parallels are not perfect, but he does believe there may be similarities between the two groups with respect to hidden agendas, etc. Of course, in the United States, agents acting for authors are virtually unregulated even though they almost certainly have some implied fiduciary obligations when they receive large amounts of money from one or more publishers that should be passed on to an author.

As an example, there is no law or regulation of which PG is aware that prohibits a literary agent from commingling funds that belong to one or more authors together with the agent’s funds in a single bank account. An attorney would likely be subject to a disciplinary proceeding should s/he take the same action with client funds. More than one lawyer has been disbarred and prohibited from practicing law for such actions.

One final note – The OP includes many footnotes that PG has omitted (you’ll likely notice traces in the excerpt). If you are interested in deepening your understanding of this topic, it will be well worth your while to review the entire document.

From Clancoo:

The regard for art as a luxury acquisition with the sole purpose of enjoying it in your private home, has undergone some dramatic changes over the past fifteen years. Art is being regarded as an accessible investment. The ability to enjoy art is increasingly tangled up with the possibility of reselling it and making a profit. That rise has caused many art dealers, investors, auction houses and economists to regard art not as a luxury acquisition but rather to regard it as a financial asset.1 And so it can happen that etchings of Picasso are being traded over the counter like coffee futures for millions of euros. The vision of art as an asset has led to an enormous boost on the art market and an increasing financialisation. The manner in which certain artists are being promoted by the press and other media and how their prices are being monitored in indexes and databanks indicates the existence of a market.2 As a result, the chance that an art dealer turns into an investment consultant who defends the interests of the buyer, increases. The attitude, often unarticulated but persistent, that art is being bought in a context of appreciation for its intrinsic and aesthetic merit, may perpetuate reluctance to regulate the art market. Wrongly. If purchasing art is no longer caused by a spontaneous injection of aesthetics but becomes a calculated risk, then regulation becomes inevitable. Art transactions, certainly in the higher segment of the market, appear to be, in essence, investment contracts. In this article we shall, first and foremost, describe the predominant types of art transactions. Subsequently, we shall describe the most important preoccupations of an art investor and the existing protection rules. Thirdly, we shall analyse the criteria the Belgian legislator has put forward to determine whether an artwork qualifies as a financial asset and the consequences thereof on the art market.

I. Types of Art Transactions

A. Auction Houses

Public auction houses account for a substantial proportion of art transactions. They are the counterpart of trading platforms where stock is being traded, it being understood that art is less liquid: so, to resell you must wait for a suitable auction.3 As the agent of the owner, the auctioneer solicits offers and determines the final bid. The most obvious characteristic of this sale platform is the unpredictability of the knock-down price. Because the final sales price results from the open bidding, it is accepted as the fair market value.4 Knowledge of the reserve price would be helpful to the buyer in setting the value of an artwork. If this price is not met during the bidding, the piece will be withdrawn by the auctioneer.

B. Art Galleries

Purchases may be made privately through a gallery or an art dealer. A gallery manages a significantly lesser volume of works than an auction house. A transaction through a gallery is ordinarily in the nature of a purchase at a non-negotiable price. This is especially true for commercial galleries where the taste of the consumer determines whether a purchase shall take place. Rarely, such a dealer will disclose information on past sale prices in order to enable the buyer to determine whether the price is fair. The purchase is determined by the aesthetic reaction the buyer has with the artwork. A promotion gallery, however, represents artists who are selected on the basis of artistic expertise and market knowledge.

In many cases, a promotion gallery represents the artist exclusively and exercises control on the marketing and distribution of the works of that artist. Hence, in the world of contemporary art trading, it is difficult to use the name of promotion galleries without entertaining thoughts of a financial investment environment. An emphatic process for some dealers (thinking from the perspective of the artist), is a technical process for the others (thinking from the perspective of the market).5 Private art dealers operate on the secondary market and offer artworks with provenance. They invest only, at a given point in time, in the value of artworks and are less concerned by the value of an artist’s entire oeuvre on the long term.

C. Art Advisors

As investing in art gradually grows in popularity over the years, opportunities arise on the art market to address the concerns of investors. Logically, the importance of such advice increases in relation to the growth of the sums invested. In order to consider a transaction as an investment, the advice component must be part of the sales process. The bets on that are greater if advisors assist investors in getting the deal through. The advisory function of an art dealer cannot be qualified unambiguously. Certainly, one might expect that an art dealer makes certain (price) statements incidental to art purchases. Doing so, however, does not necessarily mean that he acts as an art advisor. A buyer may solicit certain advisory information regarding the investment value of particular artworks, but, if a buyer relies upon such representations and it can be ascertained that the art dealer’s representation induced the purchase, there is a potential conflict of interest.6

D. Art Funds

Since the beginning of the 21st century, there has been a tendency towards financialisation of the art market. In the wake of that tendency, art funds were rising fast. The art funds industry peaked in 2012 and since then has then slowed down. That decline is due to the fact that art funds have certain handicaps. The most important one is sustainability. It is difficult to create an industry around it because there simply isn’t the depth in the market. Investible art relates to a very small segment of the market and you can’t pour millions into it. Put another way, no significant profits can be made of it. Another burgeoning area is the art lending industry which emerged out of the fund business. Art lending allows the lender to leverage against art and taps into a new business model.

. . . .

III. Art as an Investment

The most obvious investments are shares and bonds. An investor buys shares in anticipation that the investment will offer a return on the sum paid as a result of the efforts of the management of the company whose shares are being sold. The Belgian legislator has taken the view that the subject-matter (shares or something else – e.g. art) of an investment contract is irrelevant and has, therefore, enlarged the scope of the financial rules intended to protect investors.16 The law no longer applies the notion of ‘share’ but the wider notion of ‘investment instrument’ and tackles “alternative investments in movable properties”.17 The legislator has introduced in article 3, §1, 4° of the law of 11 July 2018 relating to the offering of investment instruments to the public and the admission of investment instruments to trading on the regulated market (the ‘Prospectus Law’), certain criteria in order to determine whether an investment instrument is available or not:

If rights are acquired which make it possible to execute a financial investment and which relate to one or more movable goods that are part of a group and whose collective management is assigned to one or more persons acting in a professional capacity (unless those rights provide for unconditional, irrevocable and complete delivery in kind of the goods).

That’s what it all boils down to. The Financial Services and Markets Authority (‘FSMA’), which is the financial regulatory agency in Belgium, applies the notion of ‘alternative investment products’ for products which are offered to the public as an investment and which, directly or indirectly, relate to movable property and which do not take the form of traditional investments (e.g. shares) which are well-defined in Belgian financial law. Below is an analysis of the circumstances under which art could qualify as an ‘investment instrument’ in the meaning of the Prospectus Law.

Link to the rest at Clancoo

Happy ever after: why writers are falling out of love with marriage

From The Guardian:

Greta Gerwig’s film adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 classic Little Women begins with an adult Jo March entering the smoke-filled, man-filled offices of a New York publisher in hopes of selling a story. “If the main character’s a girl make sure she’s married by the end,” the editor decrees. “Or dead, either way.”

Alcott herself never married and thought that Jo “should have remained a literary spinster”. But after publication of the first volume of the book, covering the March sisters’ childhood, Alcott was flooded with letters from fans demanding to know whom the little women had married. In rebellion, Alcott “made a funny match” for Jo, forgoing the obvious choice of Laurie in favour of Professor Bhaer, a middle-aged German, “neither rich nor great, young nor handsome, in no respect what is called fascinating, imposing, or brilliant”.

Gerwig reworks this disappointing ending by conflating Jo’s fate with Alcott’s. In the film, we see Jo negotiating the terms of a book deal. She agrees to marrying off her heroine to get the book published but won’t sell her off cheaply, negotiating the percentage of royalties and keeping the copyright, as Alcott did. Gerwig could be charged with cakeism: she simultaneously serves up a feminist outcome while feeding the audience a romantic resolution, and this time with a hunky husband.

Romance plots “are, evidently, some of the deep, shared structures of our culture”, wrote critic Rachel Blau DuPlessis in Writing Beyond the Ending (1985). The convention of “married or dead” female characters persisted in fiction well beyond the Victorian era. But if the romance fantasy was long doled out to women as a compensation for powerlessness elsewhere, contemporary writers are increasingly turning the marriage plot on its head.

In Such a Fun Age, one of this year’s hottest debuts, Kiley Reid pokes fun at wokeness and provides a nuanced consideration of race. She also subverts expectations of the young woman’s coming-of-age novel by giving her main character, Emira, different priorities. “Emira’s dealing with a very ‘humans in late capitalism’ period of her 20s, which leaves her questioning everything,” Reid told the New York Times. “Am I holding my friends back? Should I be living in a different apartment? How do I make more money? What do I want to do?” Boy problems – refreshingly – don’t even make the shortlist. Emira’s reaction to a racist incident at an upscale supermarket is self-inquiry rather than revenge: “More than the racial bias, the night at Market Depot came back to her with a nauseating surge and a resounding declaration that hissed, You don’t have a real job.” As the interracial love subplot plays out, it’s a job with benefits, rather than a good marriage, that proves to be the holy grail.

Reid joins other present-day novelists relegating romance to the back seat. In Writers & Lovers, to be published in May, Lily King addresses subjects including grief, the creative process, and the anxieties of student debt and short-term employment. There’s a love triangle as well, but here, too, the ultimate aim is financial freedom.

Link to the rest at The Guardian

PG’s admittedly inexpert observation of a variety of book covers he stumbles across during his near-daily online life does not indicate that publishing marketers (a cover is, after all, one of the chief marketing/advertising tools for indie and commercial publishers) have given up on female/male romance as an advertising message.

Does “a job with benefits” match romance in its ability to attract readers? Perhaps it does. PG doesn’t claim a great deal of insight into the world of fiction written by women for (presumably) mostly women. (He acknowledges and is firmly aware that many books written by women are intended for and avidly read by an audience comprised of men, women and whatever other genders may exist in the world. He has read and enjoyed many such books and expects to do so in the future.)

My favorite writer

My favorite writer is Jane Austen, and I’ve read all her books so many times I’ve lost count … I imagined being a famous writer would be like being like Jane Austen. Being able to sit at home at the parsonage and your books would be very famous and occasionally you would correspond with the Prince of Wales’s secretary.”

~ J. K. Rowling