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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
July 24, 2014

First appeared in print in The Rhino Times, Greensboro, NC.


Outer Banks, We Didn''t Playtest, Borlaug

This year it''s Salvo, North Carolina, where we''re spending our ""beach week."" Either you know what it means to spend a week in the Outer Banks, or you don''t.

If you don''t know why somebody would spend thousands of dollars to rent a furnished house for a week, here''s a quick overview:

1. Walking on hot sand and prickly weeds to cross over dunes to reach the closest thing to real surf on a sandy shore that you can find on the Atlantic coast of the United States.

2. Walking or driving to the other side of the island to rent jet skis, kitesurfing gear, or a catamaran for a family picnic on the placid waters of the inland sound.

3. Driving in long lines of cars on a single north-south highway to get from whatever beach you''re staying at to your destination ---- a lighthouse, a restaurant, the movie theaters, the miniature golf course, or the grocery store.

4. Buying souvenirs ranging from gimcrack to practical or decorative items that you''ll still be proud to use after you''re home from the beach.

5. Bringing along a laptop so you can pretend that you''re going to do serious work while you''re vacationing.

6. Spending time indoors with your family while it rains, or applying sunburn ointment after a sunny day. Playing games, watching DVDs, reading books. Being unproductive until it''s time to fix or clean up after meals.

This doesn''t work if you can''t let go of the hurried pace of ordinary life. The traffic will make you insane ---- or kill you, as you take stupid chances passing cars cruising along at five miles an hour under the speed limit. Unless you slow down your expectations and repeat the mantra ""I''m at the beach"" whenever you find yourself getting impatient.

Still, there are things that can be improved ---- and I''m happy to report that many of these improvements have been accomplished.

For a long time, Food Lion was pretty much it, which is fine if you like shopping at Food Lion. A few years ago, Harris Teeter opened a few stores on the islands, which meant I could get much of the quality I''m used to in the food we eat at home.

This year, though, a miracle has happened. Fresh Market has opened a store in Nags Head, and the quality is exactly what we have come to expect from all the stores in this fine local chain.

Except for one miserable horsefly-bitten year in Corolla, we have always stayed in beach towns south of Nags Head ---- Rodanthe, Avon, and this year''s return to a house in Salvo that has an elevator.

Since all the houses here are on stilts, bringing in bags and groceries requires shlepping every item up at least one flight of stairs ---- and usually two or even three flights, since kitchens are commonly placed on the top floor.

That''s fine for the young and fit. But I''m here with an old man''s knees and about a hundred pounds (body weight, not English currency) more than I should be hefting up and down stairs. I like the elevator.

In these southern beach towns, the roads are narrow and the grassy verges can be wet and miserable after a rain. Pedestrians pose a constant hazard to motorists, and vice-versa.

We have long wished that there were a safe place to walk ---- and I''m happy to report that in the Rodanthe-Waves-Salvo strip as well as in Avon, sidewalk construction is well under way.

It''s only a single sidewalk, on the sound side of the road and set well back from the driving lanes, usually beyond the drainage ditch. Because most pedestrians and joggers and even many cyclists use the sidewalk, driving has been far less perilous.

Beyond that, most of the pleasure of a beach vacation is the company you bring with you.

This year it happens that all our children and grandchildren are sharing the house with us for part of the time, at least, which gives cousins a chance to know each other better and lets us observe how our genes are being expressed as beauty and genius in the third generation.

But the beach is also a wonderful place when my wife and I come here, just the two of us.

And last winter, I came to the beach alone to jumpstart a long-stalled novel. I stayed in one of the ""cabins"" at Spa Koru in Avon. My suite was nice enough for a small family to live in for a week or more; but for me, alone, it gave me privacy to work ---- and a health club across the parking lot where I could work out and get myself closer to being in shape.

It worked great. If only I hadn''t gained back all the weight I lost, and atrophied all the muscle tone I put on, during April, May, and June ... But the novel got its jump start, and I finished it just before coming to the beach this summer, so I didn''t have to take that albatross with me.

(It was an albatross only while it remained unfinished; now that it''s done, it''s a splendid work of fiction that will bring delight to millions ---- OK, dozens ---- of readers.)

Many people in Greensboro take their beach vacations on the South Carolina coast, since Myrtle Beach is an hour-and-a-half closer by car than the Outer Banks. For many years, that was our choice. Before that, there were several years we stayed in the house of a friend on Ocean Isle.

Both places had their attractions. Myrtle Beach is more built up, with more shopping and amusements than the Outer Banks. But there are also a lot more condominium towers so the beaches are occupied by a much larger population.

And Ocean Isle and its neighboring islands are relatively undeveloped, so shopping or fine dining aren''t options unless you drive to Myrtle Beach or Wilmington. But the beaches are never crowded.

Also, the waves in the bight of the Carolinas are lower, the tidal flats wider, and the water warmer. If you want to swim in the ocean, it''s safer and tamer along the coast south of Wilmington.

The Outer Banks catch rollers from the broad Atlantic, and though the waves are never as high or crashy as you find on the steep coasts of California or Hawaii, you still get more of a sense of untamed ocean than farther south.

As you drive past road workers repairing damage from Hurricane Arthur ---- or remaking roads so they''ll better withstand future hurricanes ---- you are reminded that in the long run, the ocean is going to get its way.

It''s not quite as irresistible as, say, volcanos, earthquakes, and comet strikes, but if you go to war with the ocean, in the long run the ocean''s gonna win.

For now, though, these barrier islands protect the still, warm waters of the sounds, where there''s plenty of room for high-speed water sports without having to cope with rollers and breakers from the sea.

And perched on these islands are temporary houses that we can enjoy while they last. Anything you build on these shores is temporary, but so are human lives, and there are people who have enjoyed the same beach house for generations.

That''s permanent enough, as long as you don''t expect other people to pay for you to rebuild when a hurricane knocks your house down.

For years, my wife and I talked about our dream of someday buying a beach house of our own. Until I finally realized it was like my dream of owning a boat. Some dreams are only nice while they remain dreams.

Beach house or boat, once you own it you have to take care of it ---- and pay for it ---- even when you''re not actually using it.

I think of all the things I couldn''t afford to do through the year if I were paying so much for ownership of items I would only use now and then.

So why not rent from the nice people who have built lovely homes in these beach towns? I can vacation for a week or two in a million-dollar beach mansion ---- without having to make the mortgage payments year-round, or rush to the coast to board the thing up when a hurricane threatens.

But even if all you can afford is a place several rows back from surf or sound, you''re still at the beach, living the unhurried life of Carolinians on vacation. It''s therapy. It''s practically a necessity.

Life is nicer in Greensboro because so many people got rid of all their tension at the beach.

*

One of our children brought a new party game to the beach. It consists of a deck of cards, and the name of the game says almost everything: We Didn''t Playtest This At All.

The game consists of turning over cards and playing them on each other. Almost every card has the potential to make somebody lose. When you lose, you''re out of the game. The last player in the game wins.

Normally, that would be no fun at all. ""Out of the game"" usually means that everybody else is still playing, and you''re not.

But the cards in We Didn''t Playtest This At All are so fraught with peril that with five or six players, it''s quite possible for all but one player to lose before every player has even had a turn.

Games are short. But then you immediately start the next game. And the things going on are so bizarre and, often, funny that it''s fun to stay at the table after you lose.

There are expansion packs, like the Chaos Pack. You turn over one Chaos card at the beginning of each game, imposing a strange, easy-to-forget rule which, if you break it on any turn, is likely to cause you to lose.

My favorite was the Chaos card called Taboo, which forbids you to say any word containing the syllables ""win"" or ""lose"" unless it''s actually written on a card.

Since most of the conversation during the game consists of discussing whether someone has won or lost, it''s as if everyone were getting a hand clapped over their mouth every time they try to speak.

Another Chaos card forbids you to say the correct name of any card. Instead, you have to think of synonyms for every card title in the game.

There are lots of games of rock, paper, scissors ---- but the cards prescribe outcomes that have nothing to do with the normal rules of rock smashes scissors, scissors cut paper, paper wraps rock.

I have no idea whether the game is replayable. Once you''ve seen all the cards, is it over? We played till we ran out of cards in the main deck. But I have a feeling we''ll try it again before Beach Week is over.

Highly recommended for groups of silly people who are able to have fun when the stakes are incredibly low and losing is as fun as winning.

*

2014 is the centennial of Norman Borlaug. He was born in 1914 and died in 2009 ---- a good long life ---- and he was working to change the world right up to the end.

Penn Jillette says of Borlaug: ""Norman is the greatest human being in history, and you probably never heard of him.""

I had never heard of Norman Borlaug. I knew of his work, but always assumed it was done by a whole bunch of scientists, working on separate projects. And he himself would probably say much the same ---- except that this is almost always true of scientific and technical achievements, and it doesn''t diminish the contribution of the individual who led the way.

The only reason I know Borlaug''s name today is because a friend of mine, microbiologist Mark O. Martin, wrote a column about him, comparing famous people who accomplished nothing (including, but not limited to, everyone named Kardashian) with a truly great person who is virtually unknown: http://microbesrule.blogspot.com/2014/07/fame-versus-impact.html

What did Borlaug do? He bred plants.

He got his doctorate in plant pathology and genetics from the University of Minnesota and then took up a research position in Mexico in the 1940s, when Mexico was facing famine because of crop-destroying blights.

What Mexican farmers needed was a strain of wheat that was disease-resistant. But there were several diseases that wiped out crops there, and it would be hard to develop a strain that could resist them all.

But Borlaug recognized that there probably couldn''t be a ""miracle wheat"" anyway. Instead, he developed a mix of wheat seeds, each resistant to one or more of the known pathogens. By growing all the varieties together, if a pathogen wiped out all the non-resistant plants in a field, the resistant ones would continue to thrive ---- the crop would not be ruined.

Borlaug bred these plants with existing high-yield varieties of wheat. Because the grain was so heavy, they needed to have shorter, sturdier stalks, with more grain-bearing stalks per plant, so each seed yielded far more grain.

His strategy of higher yields with a mix of disease resistance, combined with modern cultivation practices, including adding fertilizer to poor soil, led to radical increases in wheat harvests in Mexico. By 1963, instead of needing to import wheat just to survive, Mexico became a net exporter of wheat.

Driving all of this was the fact that when Borlaug reached Mexico to begin his research, he could see people starving because of crop failures and poor harvests.

He never forgot that this was not just a series of scientific problems ---- these were real human beings, adults and children, who were chronically malnourished, susceptible to illness at the best of times, to starvation and death when crops were bad.

So there was always a sense of urgency about his work. When he was sent to Pakistan and India to try to work a similar miracle in a time of famine and war, he plunged in and provided variations on his succesful Mexican wheats to both of the warring nations.

Despite initial resistance, Borlaug was able to demonstrate radical success wherever his seeds and his methods were employed, and government intervened to increase the acreage devoted to growing Borlaug''s wheat.

So successful was Borlaug''s ""Green Revolution"" that even though his seeds and methods were far from universally adopted, overall crop yields in Pakistan and India nearly doubled between 1965 and 1970.

Billions of people whose lives were blighted by chronic hunger and who were always at the risk of starvation now had enough to eat, and nations that were international food beggars were now self-sufficient.

Borlaug did all this before direct gene alteration was even possible. He used traditional methods of cross-breeding plant strains with desirable traits ---- the same methods which, in previous centuries, had allowed Mexican farmers to develop maize from a normal-sized cereal grain to the huge ears of corn we grow today.

The same techniques that turned tomatoes from small berries into large sliceable fruits, and potatoes from tiny, toxic roots into the safe varieties that sustain the lives of millions of people around the world.

But with more knowledge of what was actually happening inside the plants, Borlaug accelerated the process so that instead of taking many generations, the whole Green Revolution took only a couple of decades.

What he began with wheat soon extended to rice and maize and then to non-cereal crops. It is no exaggeration to say that Borlaug is the man who saved a billion lives.

However, there were some environmentalists who regarded the human population itself as the worst blight on the earth, and therefore opposed saving billions of lives. They attacked the Green Revolution for promoting ""monoculture"" planting and their attacks were augmented by ignorant resistance to these ""modified"" crops in some of the very countries where they were most needed.

In a quotation I found in the Wikipedia article about Borlaug, Borlaug said:

"Some of the environmental lobbyists of the Western nations are the salt of the earth, but many of them are elitists. They've never experienced the physical sensation of hunger.

""They do their lobbying from comfortable office suites in Washington or Brussels. If they lived just one month amid the misery of the developing world, as I have for fifty years, they'd be crying out for tractors and fertilizer and irrigation canals and be outraged that fashionable elitists back home were trying to deny them these things.""

What no one worried about the ""population explosion"" understood was the effect of prosperity ---- of food security ---- on population. Instead of continuing to grow exponentially, the birth rate in prosperous societies declines naturally.

It seems that when people come to believe that there is now and will continue to be plenty to eat, they sharply reduce their reproductive rates.

It''s as if having more children is a response to hunger. Knowing that there isn''t enough for everyone to eat, our genes must take every opportunity to put one more mouth into the competition, increasing their odds of at least one surviving to reproductive age.

But when we know all our children will almost certainly reach adulthood, our genes don''t have the same compulsion to keep buying more tickets in the survival lottery.

Borlaug''s work can even be seen as helping save the Earth''s forests. By creating high-yield strains and replenishing soil nutrients, farmers can raise so much more food on the same land that there is no need to cut down forests to get at the soil beneath them.

The fact remains that since the Green Revolution, famines only happen now for political reasons ---- war, corruption, ignorance, or genocidal policies keep the Green Revolution from reaching the people who need it.

The Green Revolution has succeeded spectacularly wherever there were stable governments, adequate infrastructure, and people educated enough to understand the new practices: Mexico, India, and Pakistan, but not the chaotic ""nations"" of Africa, where famines have needlessly claimed millions of lives.

Borlaug came out of retirement and worked to the end of his life, lobbying to bring not just food but improved agriculture to every hungry nation on Earth. He could not solve every problem ---- but the problem he could solve, he did, as far as it was within his power to influence the nations and peoples of the Earth.

Happy hundredth birthday, Norman Borlaug. The whole world is a better place ---- more humane, more prosperous, more fair ---- because of your life and work.


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