J and D's Corner

From the Letters Archive

There's never a dearth of letters from the technologically challenged (& those unclear on practically every other concept), and I don't know why I bother to write this stuff, but at least it exercises the fingers.

To:  AV Press

Date: 05/25/2011

Re:  No Free Lunch

A recently published letter from a reader touted hydrogen gas-burning turbines as being a vastly cheaper power source for trains than current Diesel engines, which is an incredibly incorrect assertion.  This tweaked one of my pet peeves, namely the abysmal level of understanding that exists within the general public with regard to both basic physics and basic economics. 

I have always held the belief that every high school graduate should not only have the ability to read, write & do basic arithmetic, but should also have been given a real gut understanding of the core facts that underlie both economics and physics.  At the core of those core facts is the truth wrapped into that good old saying “there is no free lunch”.

Applied to energy, the saying reminds us that you never “create” energy, only move it around from place to place and from one form to another.  In both cases losses & inefficiencies introduce costs that must be accounted for.  Hydrogen proponents, for example, typically don’t understand or simply ignore the fact that hydrogen first requires the expenditure of large amounts of energy to isolate and thereafter is a bitch to handle, both of which are major system costs that must be paid.

Economics works the same way, with the societal value represented by money taking the place of energy.  When we embark on some grand scheme of social engineering, be it providing economic security, medical care, or managing the transformation of our energy supply, there is never a free lunch.  One way or another, every cost must and will be balanced out.

We are constantly being ill-served by those who “hide the weenie”, a phrase which means intentionally hiding the unfavorable aspects inherent in whatever they are pushing.  Remembering that there is never a free lunch is both your best defense against these people and your best tool in making intelligent choices.

John Wilson

Incidentally, the letters editor edited out my reference to "hide the weenie", a phrase which had been popular in my engineering/systems work environment as a reference to, as the letter indicates, hiding unfavorable aspects of, or problems with, some project being promoted.  Apparently, although I never heard it used that way, it is also one of the ten million slang synonyms for sexual intercourse.  Good thing I never used it in a speech!