Monthly Archives: February 2014


Solunar Tables – a Fish Tale

Every morning, Television weather forecasters advise their viewers as to when is the best time to catch a fish. They have oh-so-scientific-looking graphs that tell you that you should go out between 12:52 and 1:47 AM or at 3:30 PM or other such specific times on given days.

Did you ever wonder where this came from? The best times to fish or to for that matter to hunt are calculated from Solunar tables – obviously catfish bite at the same time of day that deer make themselves available for shooting. Sure, lots of fish and game seem to be more active during the twilight hours around dawn and dusk, but that’s not what the solunar tables are all about. They are constructed from astrophysical relationships of the sun, the earth and the moon.

solunar table for fishing

solunar table for fishing

The idea behind this is that humans have been hunting and fishing for hundreds of thousands of years, so surely that wisdom can be subsumed by a scientific approach. In 1926 a fellow by the name of John Alden Knight looked at what he thought were 33 factors which influence the behavior of both fresh and saltwater fish. His studies revealed, he claimed, that only three recurrent factors mattered. They are The positions of the sun and the moon, and the tides. Obviously tides aren’t an issue here in Arkansas, so we are left with the solunar (sol for sun and lunar for moon) effect.

When the original research was done only the approximate time of moon rise and set were used. This was later refined to include intermediate periods of activity that occurred midway between the two major periods. Thus the more evident periods were called major periods and the two intermediate periods, shorter in length, were called minor periods.

That’s it. Fisherman’s tales not withstanding, I find no credible reports with properly controlled studies which support this hypothesis. So why do the use of solunar tables persist? My guess is the old expression “even a blind squirrel finds an acorn once in a while.” Combine dumb luck with the propensity to remember positive results and forget (or reject) negative results and you have the immutable solunar theory of hunting and fishing.

So what’s the harm? It’s the fact that a weatherperson on a local television station, if trained in meteorology, is about as close to a real scientist as a lot of folks get. I would hope that a scientifically trained person would do a better job of distinguishing between what is real and what is not. As a scientist I try my best to be guided by a definition of science from one of the great minds of the twentieth century, Nobel Prize winning theoretical physicist Richard Feynman. “Science is what we do to keep from fooling ourselves.”

If you want go fishing, go when the weather is nice, take a beverage of choice, and don’t expect to catch a fish. You will not be disappointed. If you do catch a fish, well that is even better.

Affordable Care Act

Disincentivizing Work

The Republicans have a bright and shiny new word they’re using to bash the Democratic Party in general and Obamacare in particular — Disincentivize. As in Obamacare disincentivizes Americans to work.

This characteristically disingenuous attack on The Affordable Care Act (ACA) comes from a purposeful misinterpretation of a recent Congressional Budget Office report titled “The budget and Economic Outlook: 2014 and 2024.” About 30 pages out of 175 addressed the ACA.

The point the Republicans tried to exploit was a couple of lines that said “The ACA will reduce the total number of hours worked, on net, by about 1.5 percent to 2.0 percent during the period from 2017 to 2024, almost entirely because workers will choose to supply less labor — given the new taxes and other incentives they will face and the financial benefits some will receive.”

See, ensuring access to healthcare takes away jobs! No, not really. What the report said is some people who previously had to keep a full-time job just to be insured may not need to. The ACA ensures that affordable insurance is available to individuals regardless of pre-existing conditions or income.

People who can now get insurance on the open market can decide to work less, or retire a little earlier than they would have. If a person retires early, this opens up a job for another worker — a far cry from taking away jobs.

Once it was clear that jobs weren’t being taken away, the Republicans switched to the disincentivise mantra. This is their argument: If a person doesn’t have to work to maintain access to expensive health insurance, then they won’t work. Access to affordable healthcare makes us lazy. Really, that’s what they think.

Republicans have traditionally resisted just about everything which contributes to the quality of life. People are lazy because they would like to be able to spend more time with their family? People are lazy because after working long and hard, and saving their money, would then like to retire a little earlier? People are lazy because they would rather not work two jobs if they didn’t have to? Really?

Americans already work the longest hours among workers in the industrialized world. That means we have less time to be with our families, less time to enjoy time with friends, less time to volunteer for our church or club. What is wrong with this picture?

You know what else disincentivizes people to work? Those things that contribute to the enjoyment of the American dream — the 40-hour work week, overtime pay, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and now the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

Should we get rid of the mortgage deduction for home ownership and the dependent allowances on our income tax? Saving money disincentivizes work? Meanwhile, the Republican controlled House of Representatives will be taking the next two weeks off, on our dime. What’s that about disincentives to work?

The Real Costs of Fossil Fuels

Arguments against sustainable energy sources always include the fact that they are taxpayer subsidized and so more costly than they appear. These kinds of claims have been expressed before, but it is always worth reviewing the subject. How about the subsidies for fossil fuels? The direct cost of a gallon of gas, the cost at the pump, is currently about three bucks a gallon. The indirect costs can add as much as another $10 or more to the real price of a gallon of gas, bringing the total to something like $15 a gallon.
The direct costs are easy to calculate and include the cost to find produce, transport, refine and distribute the gasoline. These costs will continue to rise as crude oil becomes more scarce. It is increasingly harder to find the oil. And what oil is found is in smaller fields, deeper in the ground, farther out to sea, or all of the above.
As an example of the extremes taken to find and produce crude oil, the BP oil spill in the Gulf occurred at a well in 5,000 feet of water,

BP oil spill

BP oil spill

which was to be drilled another 18,000 feet below ground for a total depth of about 23,000 thousand feet. That is more than 4 miles below the surface of the ocean. Existing leases in the Gulf will necessitate drilling in water twice that deep.
The real run-up on the price of a gallon of gasoline comes from the indirect costs which include, but are not limited to military, environmental and healthcare costs.
Military costs to secure access and transportation of foreign oil are difficult to calculate, but the Congressional Research Service estimated well over $100 billion per year. These cost estimates do not include the direct cost of two wars in the Persian Gulf region. Estimated addition to the cost of that gallon of gas: $4.
war for oil

war for oil

Indirect costs for healthcare come about from burning that gasoline. Much asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), lung cancer and heart disease can be attributed to air pollution from automobile exhaust. Additional healthcare costs in Los Angles due to air pollution are put at about $1,200 per person, per year. Nationwide, the estimate is $75 billion dollars per year. Estimated addition to the cost of that gallon of gas: $3.
What is hardest to calculate, but in the long term the most damaging is the cost to the environment.
Obvious costs include everything from lost profits and wages for tourism and fisheries in the gulf due to oil spills to various global phenomena. Some are quantifiable — others not. Insurance companies are at the forefront in trying to put a value on property losses due to climate instability.

global warming is triggering more severe storms

global warming is triggering more severe storms

Here is one example. The estimate to mitigate a one-meter sea level rise from global warming is about $250 billion. Increased droughts, floods, hurricanes and tornadoes are all costly and the predicted result of global warming. This is admittedly a guess — but, estimated cost to that gallon of gas: several more dollars per gallon.
Finally there is the incalculable cost of environmental degradation – loss of habitat and biodiversity. What is the value in dollars to maintain a stable environment for our children’s future?


Salt of the Earth

The history of civilization is closely connected to salt. Up until about 100 years ago salt, Sodium Chloride, was one of the most sought after commodities known. The word salary derives from Latin salairum or salt money. Roman soldiers were paid in salt.

The importance of salt pervades our language with numerous expressions: not worth his salt, salt of the earth, back to the salt mine,

salt mine diorama

salt mine diorama

rub salt in the wound, and others.

The Catholic church dispenses not only holy water but also holy salt, Sal Sapientia, the salt of wisdom. In the Torah, the book of Numbers, is written: “ It is a covenant of salt forever before the Lord…” A custom in medieval Europe was to put salt in the mouth of a newborn, as evil spirits apparently feared salt. Protection against the bad luck of spilling salt was to throw salt over ones shoulder to “cover your back” from evil spirits.

So why the importance of salt? First and foremost it is essential to life as indicated by the fact that we have a taste bud dedicated just to salt. Salt, more specifically the Sodium ion, is used to control nervous transmission in all forms of life. Substances which interfere with Sodium binding at specific surfaces within cells, called Sodium channels, are powerful poisons.

Too much of good thing however is a problem and the human population has a problem with salt. Because salt readily dissolves in water it can’t be stored in the body for future use but must be replaced daily. The world health organization (WHO) set an upper level of salt consumption at five grams – a scant teaspoon- per person per day. WHO surveys show that global salt consumption per capita nearly twice the recommended amount.

“Nearly all populations across the world are consuming far more sodium than is healthy,” said Dr Dariush Mozaffarian, from the Harvard School of Public Health. “Clearly, strong government policies are needed, together with industry cooperation and collaboration, to substantially reduce sodium.”
Heart disease is the leading cause of death worldwide and is impacted by high blood pressure which correlates with high salt consumption. Also stroke, kidney failure, and blindness are all indicated in hypertension (high blood pressure).
An additional use of salt which becomes a health issue is its use as a food preservative. Fishermen from Scandinavia were able to market Cod across Europe and beyond via salting as a preservative. Salt dehydrates tissues which makes them more stable to bacterial spoilage. Salt cured ham, corned beef, pickles, and Kimchi are just a few of salt preserved foodstuffs.
The historical importance of salt cannot be over emphasized. The Doges of Venice and Genoa acquired wealth and power from the sale of salt collected from solar evaporation ponds on the Mediterranean and Adriatic sides of Italy.

Landscape with Mill near the Salt Ponds

Landscape with Mill near the Salt Ponds

One of the reasons Jefferson sent Lewis and Clark west was the rumor of a salt mountain near the Missouri River. The collapse of British rule in India began when Mohandas Gandhi lead a protest against a salt tax.


A local connection with salt is the big black cauldron in the center of Dover, AR. Sequoyah, creator of the Cherokee syllabary, lived north of Dover on the Illinois Bayou in the 1820s. He used the pot to boil down brine from a saline seep to make salt.