Thursday, December 14, 2017

Listening to the Sandals...

...on YouTube the last couple of days brought me to this video of a guy named Junior Brown whom I don't think I had ever heard. Who is this guy?, I thought, and what the hell is he playing?

From Wikipedia:

Jamieson "Junior" Brown is an American country guitarist and singer. 

Aha! That explains it.

Brown's signature instrument is the "guit-steel" double neck guitar, a hybrid of electric guitar and lap steel guitar.

I have to admit, I've never heard of that.

In 1985, Brown created a new type of double-neck guitar, with some assistance from Michael Stevens. Brown called the instrument his "guit-steel." When performing, Brown plays the guitar by standing behind it, while it rests on a small music stand. The top neck on the guit-steel is a traditional six-string guitar, while the lower neck is a full-size lap steel guitar for slide playing. . . Brown has stated that the invention of the guit-steel was always a matter of convenience so that he could play both lap steel and lead guitar during live performances and not directly motivated by a desire to be a "one man band."

Finally,

Although Brown plays such neotraditional country styles as honky-tonk, Western swing, etc., few of his performances will finish without some blues and Tex-Mex tunes playing as well as surf rock instrumentals.

Cool.

Pat DiNizio, lead singer...

...and songwriter for the Smithereens, died at age 62.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Bruce Brown, whose...

..."documentary The Endless Summer, which followed two surfers on an epic adventure in pursuit of the perfect wave, became an unlikely hit when it was released nationally in 1966," died at age 80.

It's actually a very cool movie, with excellent surf music from the Sandals.

The Name of the Day...

...belongs to London Breed, the acting mayor of San Francisco.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

When I saw the title...

...of Noah Smith's piece in Bloomberg, "Nurture Counts as Much as Nature in Success," you know I clicked on it right away.

If you're not a regular reader of this blog you wouldn't know that "Nature vs. Nurture" is one of my favorite topics. If there's a heaven, and if I get there (stop laughing!), one of my first questions will be what is the correct ratio in that debate. (Two others would be, "Who killed Kennedy?" and, "Are markets efficient?")

My current guess -- yes, current -- is that Nurture has some role, perhaps ten or twenty percent, but that it's far outweighed by Nature. No matter how hard I worked at it, for example, I was probably destined to never make the NBA. Conversely, they probably should have just given me a college degree at birth because there was really never any doubt I'd get one someday. (Or was that nurture? I was born into a solidly middle-class family in which all four of my older siblings graduated from college.)

Mr. Smith begins his piece by saying (all emphasis mine):

As a result, it’s hard to know what people really think about the nature-versus-nurture question. My impression is that most Americans subscribe to a casual, reflexive faith in the primacy of inborn ability.

And, right away, I have to take issue with that. I'd say that most people believe just the opposite: that with hard work, etc., one can do or be anything one wants. Isn't that right? Haven't you ever heard someone say, "If I had only done X (or hadn't done X) I'd by Y today"? Or, in relation to their kids, "If we'd only pulled this lever or pushed that button our kid would have turned out [better]"? I mean, really, isn't that human nature? If someone puts a pot of water on the stove, turns on the gas, and the water boils, aren't they correct in assuming that they "made that happen"? And don't people feel they have that kind of control over just about everything else in life? I'll bet my parents went to their graves thinking it was their fault somehow that their kids didn't turn out perfectly. "If only I had done [fill in the blank]..."

Smith goes on to say:

...people whose parents are inventors tend to become inventors themselves.

And while he uses this as an argument for Nurture, I think it could cut both ways. When I was growing up, if someone became a doctor or a lawyer people would often say that "his father was a doctor (or a lawyer)" as if to imply that the child observed the parent close up, liked what they saw, and decided to become a doctor (or a lawyer) too. But couldn't Nature be the reason? If someone is a doctor, they were probably good at math and science and worked hard in school. Couldn't those traits be hereditary? If a doctor's kid became a doctor, wouldn't it be a reasonable assumption that he or she was also good at math and science and had a tendency to work hard in school (and not screw around like I did)?

Smith concludes by saying:

So many different kinds of nurture matter in determining success. Effort matters. Education matters. And social environment matters. Americans discount these factors too much. The country would be a better, richer, more equal place with less emphasis on natural talent and more on humans’ potential to improve each other and themselves.

Yes, it would. And the country might be a better place if everyone had a pony. But this reminds me of what my friend Jamie (who grew up in Scotland and has lived all over the world, including Chicago) once told me: America's greatest strength is also one of its greatest weaknesses -- the idea that anyone can grow up to be anything. It's obviously a strength because, unlike the Old World, an individual isn't stuck into the class in which he was born, but through hard work and determination can become president of the United States (think Bill Clinton), a billionaire (think Steve Jobs) or pretty much anything he or she wants. It's a weakness, however, in that people are also led to believe that anyone can achieve these things despite not having innate intelligence, innate social skills, etc. and it makes for a lot of very disappointed people. And a lot of people who -- wrongly -- blame themselves for not achieving such dizzying heights of success. This, in turn, leads to a lot of discontent.

So, should I beat myself up for never having made it to the NBA? Probably not; I'm only 5'7". (But maybe with a little more hard work I could have made my high school team. Or is the tendency to work hard innate? And, anyway, I was never very passionate about basketball in the first place. Is that something you can change about yourself?) Should I hold myself responsible for never having become a billionaire? Maybe. I don't know. What do you think?

Monday, December 11, 2017

Tracy Stallard, famous...

...for serving up Roger Maris's 61st home run in 1961, died at age 80.

Mr. Stallard's life wasn't all that noteworthy other than that one pitch, but his name has some significance for me. You see, growing up (and even today, if I'm honest), I was always conscious of having a girl's name for a last name.* (It could have been worse; I once knew a guy named Rick Lisa.) Even more than some jackass asking me if I had a brother named Dick ("Yes, as a matter of fact I do!" "Really?" "No!"), I always worried that having a girl's name for a last name would somehow make me less . . . manly. So even though Tracy as a first name is probably more often a girl's name, I was always prepared to trot out Tracy Stallard as an example of a man -- a professional athlete, no less -- with the first name Tracy.** So imagine my relief when Tracy McGrady came along and became such a star. I thought for sure that every mother in America would want to name her firstborn son Tracy. "Tracy is a girl's name? Are you crazy? Haven't you ever heard of Tracy McGrady? Sheesh."

P. S. My wife has run into her own trouble concerning our last name. "What's the name?" "Tracy -- Julie Tracy." "Okay, Tracy..."

* Maybe that explains my obsession with unusual names, hence my Name of the Day feature.

** Turns out Tracy is actually Mr. Stallard's middle name. Same with Tracy Kidder. Shhh!

Friday, December 8, 2017

William Gass, a writer...

...whom you may have never heard -- and I admittedly haven't read -- died at age 93. I remember his name from a college English class in connection with his work, In the Heart of the Heart of the Country. From his New York Times obit (my emphasis):

Since his first novel, “Omensetter’s Luck,” was published in 1966, Mr. Gass was one of the most respected authors never to write a best seller. (He wrote only two other novels but many novellas, short stories and essays.)

He received a raft of awards, including two National Book Critics Circle Awards for collections of criticism and philosophy: “Habitations of the Word” in 1985 and “Finding a Form” in 1997. He won four Pushcart Prizes, the Pen-Faulkner Prize and a $100,000 lifetime achievement award from the Lannan Foundation in 1997.

The novelist John Barth, a fellow practitioner of metafiction, predicted that Mr. Gass would someday rank high in the history of American arts and letters. “If he doesn’t,” Mr. Barth said in 1999, “it will be history’s fault.”

As I said, I've never read anything by Mr. Gass. Since I recognized his name, though, I read his obituary with anticipation. And I found it encouraging; here was a guy content to live in obscurity writing works of fiction that he thought had real value, rather than best sellers that would have made him rich. I've started novels by writers like Stephen King and John Grisham and just couldn't get very far. It's not that I'm some kind of literary snob; I actually don't read much fiction. But I just don't like wasting my time on pulp fiction. So I admire someone like Gass who decides he's not going to write for a popular audience but instead aspire to create the highest quality art possible. Looks like he never got rich, but he lived comfortably. I hope he gets the recognition he deserves some day.