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Wednesday, September 21, 2016

There's no such thing as a FREE Lunch!

     A common phrase heard when someone is trying to sell you on a "free government handout" is "There's no such thing as a FREE Lunch!".  Meaning simply, someone somewhere has to eventually pay for the program no matter how "free" it is. 

     The same can be said about facts of our physical world.  In physics there are some very basic laws you just cannot violate no matter how hard you try.  The most basic one is Newton's 1st Law of Energy which simply says "Energy cannot be created or destroyed, but only changed in form".  You can channel it into other forms but you cannot add to it or subtract it.   For example a ball held above the floor has a certain amount of built in energy.   Potential energy from gravity pulling at it along with Thermal Energy inside the ball (measured with temperature) and of course Mass Energy (E=mc2).   If I drop the ball it gains Kinetic energy and loses Potential Energy at the same rate.  If it hits the floor some of the Thermal Energy might move from the ball to the floor (if the floor is cooler) or some of the impact energy might go into Thermal energy of the ball and cause it to gain Thermal Energy.

    But whatever way you slice it, the total amount of energy ALWAYS stays the same.

    You can't fool Mother Nature (or Newton's Laws)

    So what does this have to do with anything a regular person needs to care about?

    A lot actually.

    In our world today we are constantly trying to beat Mother Nature at her own game and we think in some way we have but when looked at from afar we see really nothing is changed.   We didn't cheat Mother Nature at all.  We simple re-directed its energies to other things.

    Take for example, Genetically Modified fruits and vegetables.  We can engineer a better looking
tomato or one that can last a harsh shipping environment better or be more resistant to bugs or mold, but the energy needed to produce that fruit had to come from somewhere.    Back in the late 1990's I would go to the store to buy vegetables and would buy these things that looked LIKE tomatoes (they were red in color and round and about the size of a baseball).  But when you took them home and cut them open they would have nothing but water inside them.  I called them Styrofoam Tomatoes because that is what they tasted like.   They had no flavor at all and I stopped buying them.   It turned out that the tomato growers liked these tomatoes because they had stronger inside walls and outside layer to withstand shipping without being damaged.   That's great if you want to use them as packing peanuts but as something for a sandwich or salad forget about it.   Here you see the energy that was normally used to create sugars and other nutrients was diverted an put to use in building a stronger tomato.   You gave up something for another.   Energy was diverted from one use to another use.   There was no free lunch here.  

   The same happens when food engineers create plants that produce MORE food per plant to increase profits.  For example if I create an corn plant that has 4 ears of corn per plant instead of 3, I have increased production of corn by 33%.   But if that corn plant is still getting the same amount of water, air and sunlight where did the energy come from to produce that 33% more kernels?   It had to come from somewhere on the plant.  Maybe it came from the nutrient value of the corn?  Maybe from the starch or fiber in the corn.  Maybe from the disease protection inside the corn plant?  Somewhere there was a trade off and many times we won't find out where until its too late.   Like when a fungus infestation begins to destroy acre upon acre of corn plants.  Again, nature provides no free lunch buffet. 

    How about all those time-saving gadgets we've created?   Let's take the microwave oven for
example.   On the surface we saved lots of time cooking home made meals.   We could go to the store and buy all kinds of pre-cooked foods and just pop them into the microwave oven and POOF! We have an instant meal (and with moms and dads working longer hours to pay for those taxes children needed simpler meals that they could cook themselves).  But looking back now we see that all those simple ready to eat meals came with all kinds of added sugars, carbs and chemicals.   Those easy-to-prepare-foods came with a price tag of easy-to-put-on-pounds-of-fat.    To fix this we have had to go to they gym and spend countless hours and energy to take off those pounds of fat.   Or if this was too hard to do, we had to buy new bigger clothes and spend thousands of dollars in medical bills for high blood pressure and Type-2 diabetic medications.   No energy was saved.  Energy was just diverted from cooking to other uses.

   So often we are sold the idea we can have "BOTH-AND" when it comes to advancements in technology or when it comes to government programs.   We can have BOTH good food AND plentiful food.   We can have BOTH large amounts of food and AND good nutritional food.   We can have BOTH high paying jobs AND low unemployment.    In reality much of our world is an EITHER-OR basis.   We EITHER get good food OR lots of bad food.   We EITHER get food that cooks fast OR food that is good for you (and your waistline).   We EITHER get high wages OR we get low unemployment.  Trade offs have to be made.  Choices have to be evaluated and decided on. A price comes with our decisions and energy is redirected to other areas.

There is no such thing as a free lunch!


Wednesday, September 7, 2016

A real life version "It's a Wonderful Life"

    One of my favorite movies to watch during Christmas is "It's a Wonderful Life" and no matter how many times I have watched it I will watch it at least once every December.   A major scene in the movie is when the banks fail and there is panic in the streets as people rush to take out all of their money.   But their money is not there.  It's tied up in loans and mortgages around the city of Bedford Falls.   James Stewart's character  George Baley tries to calm everyone's nerves and tell them that the local bank will guarantee their deposits but not for another week.   The people however can't last that long.  They need their money now to buy food and pay bills.  George's new wife, Mary, then realizes they have enough cash on their person from their wedding gifts to keep the bank open.  George uses the money to give the people enough money to hold them over and when it's all done they have $2 left to go back into the safe.  They put other peoples needs above their own desires to have a beautiful honeymoon and "drink the finest wines and eat the finest caviar".   Their selfless act would save hundreds of people who only be able to show their gratitude years later when George was in need of help.
Henry and Frieda Vogel

    Recently, I found out that this story was not pure fiction.  When I was out in Southern Illinois for a Vogel family reunion I was talking with a cousin of mine, Sharon, about some of the Vogel family history.   I asked Sharon, "I was reading about Grandpa Vogel's history and saw that he was president of the Hoffman Farmer's Bank.  Now I know grandpa was pretty good with his money, but he didn't have more than an 8th grade education.  Why would they make him bank president?".   Sharon then told me the story about how during the Great Depression, the bank almost went completely under.  Then your grandpa got together with 3 other farmers and they pooled their money they had saved at home together and were able to re-open the bank and keep it running.   The money grandpa used was money that they had been saving for some new furniture.   Because of their efforts a lot of people in the area were saved.   To thank grandpa for his efforts they later made him president of the bank and he helped get the bank on more sound financial footings (not bad for a guy with an elementary education).

    Sharon went on to tell me that grandpa would get so angry when he would hear people say that FDR had pulled the country out of the Great Depression.  He would say, "NO! It was the little people like US that helped get this country out of the depression!  Not FDR!"

    It makes me wonder how many other stories like my grandfather's are out there that are untold as well.   Just ordinary people stepping in to prevent a crisis using their own money and resources.  Would people like Donald Trump, Bill Gates or Warren Buffet do such a risky and selfless act of heroism?  I sincerely doubt it.   But out there, today, in our small towns and farms there are people like Henry Vogel ready to step up and do the right thing for their communities and their stories will never be told until years later.