Category Archives: Education

Amusing Monday: Bill Gates talks toilets again

Microsoft founder Bill Gates remains obsessed with human waste — in a good way, of course. His goal is to improve sanitation throughout the world and thereby reduce suffering from disease.

Poop is a subject that never goes out of style with comedians, and Ronny Chieng of “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah” is right on top of the subject. In a conversation with Bill Gates, shown in the first video, Chieng demands to know why Gates has been carrying around a jar of human feces.

“Toilets are something that we take for granted,” Gates responds, “but billions of people don’t have them.”

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is funding a major campaign to get engineers and other smart people to design a small-scale treatment device that generates energy while producing useable water. It’s called the Reinvent the Toilet Challenge.

Ronnie Chieng is asking some good questions, but I’m not sure why he needs to blurt out a bunch of four-letter words, when five-letter words like “waste” and “feces” work quite well.

“We’ve put several hundred million into this to show it can be done,” Bill says.

“Several hundred million dollars?” Ronnie responds. “Oh my god, is Bill Gates literally flushing his fortune down the toilet?”

Those who have been following Bill Gates’ efforts for a few years won’t be surprised at his desire to improve sanitation in places around the world where flush toilets are just a pipe dream.

Last month, Gates carried a jar of human feces onto the stage with him in Beijing where he addressed an audience at the Reinvented Toilet Expo.

“This small amount of feces could contain as many as 200 trillion rotavirus cells, 20 billion shigella bacteria and 100,000 parasitic worm eggs,” Gates said, as quoted by National Public Radio. His prepared speech can be found on the website of the Gates Foundation, along with a press release.

About 20 exhibitors were able to show off their inventions, including household toilets capable of internally processing small amounts of waste as well as commercial-sized treatment plants that turn waste into drinking water, electricity and ash.

Sedron Technologies, based in Sedro Woolley, is working at both ends of the spectrum. On the larger scale, its Janicki Omni Processor dries out solid waste and uses it as fuel. On the smaller scale, its new Firelight Toilet was just unveiled at the recent expo and explained in a news story by reporter Julia-Grace Sanders of the Skagit Valley Herald.

Gates discusses what he calls “clever toilet” technologies in the second and third videos on this page. In addition to NPR, the Expo was covered by Popular Science and The Hindu, which localizes the story for its audience in India where sanitation is a monstrous issue.

As I said, Bill Gates has been obsessed with this issue for quite awhile. In 2015, I featured a video about the “ultimate taste test” using sewage effluent. The tasters were Gates and Jimmy Fallon of “The Tonight Show.” See Water Ways, Feb. 9, 2015.

Amusing Monday: Wild and Scenic Rivers to be featured on U.S. stamps

In the coming year, you could choose to use postage stamps depicting the Skagit River in Washington, the Deschutes River in Oregon, the Tlikakila River in Alaska, and the Snake River, which runs through portions of Wyoming, Idaho, Washington and Oregon.

Skagit River: Wild and Scenic Rivers stamp
Photo: Tim Palmer

These rivers are among 12 Wild and Scenic Rivers to be featured in a pane of stamps scheduled to be released as Forever stamps in the coming year.

The year 2018 has been celebrated as the 50th anniversary of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, with a special celebration in October, so I didn’t think I’d be writing about this topic again so soon. But I couldn’t pass up a mention of these stamps that show off some beautiful photographs by Michael Melford, Tim Palmer and Bob Wick. The pane of stamps was designed by art director Derry Nores for the U.S. Postal Service’s stamp program.

Deschutes River: Wild and Scenic Rivers stamp
Photo: Bob Wick

The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act was created by Congress in 1968 to preserve sections of rivers with outstanding natural, cultural and recreational values. Although the Snake River runs through portions of four states, the designated section is actually just a 67-mile segment downstream of Hells Canyon Dam along the Idaho-Oregon border.

Reporter Kimberly Cauvel of the Skagit Valley Herald wrote about the Skagit River stamp, quoting photographer Tim Palmer and salmon biologist Richard Brocksmith, executive director of the Skagit Watershed Council.

Snake River: Wild and Scenic Rivers stamp
Photo: Tim Palmer

“Clearly Skagit belongs in that group of rivers to celebrate around the country,” Richard told her. “There’s no other single river anywhere in Washington, maybe even the country, that exceeds all superlatives for its unique beauty, fisheries resources, recreational values, natural free-flowing condition and local contributions to our economy such as Skagit’s agriculture.”

With the largest runs of Chinook salmon among Puget Sound streams, one could also argue that the Skagit plays a key role in the effort to save the Southern Resident killer whales from extinction.

Other Wild and Scenic Rivers featured as stamps in the upcoming release (with photographer) are:

  • Merced River in California (Melford),
  • Owyhee River, a tributary of the Snake River in Oregon (Melford),
  • Koyukuk River, Alaska (Melford),
  • Niobrara River, a tributary of the Missouri River in Nebraska (Melford)
  • Flathead River, Montana (Palmer)
  • Missouri River, Montana (Wick)
  • Ontonagon River, Michigan (Palmer),
  • Clarion River, Pennsylvania (Wick)

Since 1847, official U.S. postage stamps have been used to promote the people, places and events that represent the history of the United States.

Tlikakila River: Wild and Scenic Rivers stamp
Photo: Michael Melford

“The miniature works of art illustrated in the 2019 stamp program offer something for everyone’s interest about American history and culture,” Mary-Anne Penner, executive director of the USPS Stamp Services Program, said in a news release Nov. 20.

The Postal Service previewed 20 upcoming stamps or sets of stamps for 2019 in the news release. The stamps honor people including Marvin Gaye and Walt Whitman and range in subject from the USS Missouri battleship to four species of frogs. So far, I’ve been unable to obtain release dates for these stamps, but some info should be posted soon in the USPS Newsroom. Also, if you haven’t heard, the price of a Forever stamp will rise from 50 cents to 55 cents on Jan. 27, as approved by the Postal Regulatory Commission.

If you’d like to see the state-by-state list of Wild and Scenic Rivers, go to the map on the Wild and Scenic Rivers anniversary website and click on any state.

Previous Water Ways blog posts about this year’s anniversary:

Twelve Wild and Scenic Rivers stamps are scheduled for release in 2019. // Source: U.S. Postal Service

Hydrophones open a world of underwater sound to people at home

Listening to the sound of whales in Puget Sound from your computer at home is becoming easier than ever, thanks to a new hydrophone on Whidbey Island and its connection to a more sophisticated computer network.

Organizers anticipate that thousands of human listeners could add a new dimension to scientific studies, raise awareness about the noise that orcas endure and perhaps alert authorities when sounds are loud enough to harm marine mammals in the vicinity.

The new hydrophone (underwater microphone) at Whidbey’s Bush Point was installed last summer, but it stopped working soon after it was announced to the world in early November, when news stories appeared in print and on radio and television. The timing couldn’t have been worse, said Howard Garrett of Orca Network, a partner in the venture.

“We finally got the word out just as it crashed and just as J pod came into Puget Sound,” Howie told me. “We got it working after J pod had left.”

It appears that there was a problem with both the hydrophone itself and the power supply that runs a critical computer, experts say. I decided to wait and write about the new hydrophone when readers could go right to the Orcasound webpage and listen to the live sounds of underwater activity. With Whidbey’s hydrophone back in operation, one can now listen to sounds from two hydrophone locations using a web browser:

  • Orcasound Lab: This location on the west side of San Juan Island is a major thoroughfare for the endangered Southern Resident killer whales as they come east through the Strait of Juan de Fuca or south from the Strait of Georgia.
  • Bush Point: This location on the west side of Whidbey Island picks up the orcas as the enter or leave Puget Sound through Admiralty Inlet, their primary route to and from Central and South Puget Sound.

Sounds from hydrophones in several areas of Puget Sound have been available for years, thanks to the efforts of Val Veirs and his son Scott, affiliated with Beam Reach Marine Science, along with a host of other volunteers and organizations who have helped maintain the hydrophones. In the past, network users would need to launch a media player, such as iTunes, on their computer to receive the live audio stream. The new browser-based system requires no additional software.

Photo courtesy of Beamreach.org

One can also listen to a hydrophone at Lime Kiln Lighthouse, a favorite spot of the orcas on the west side of San Juan Island. The Lime Kiln live stream, a project of SMRU Consulting and The Whale Museum, can be heard on SMRU’s website. I’m hoping that Scott can add the hydrophone to his list. Orcasound, which is managed by Scott, still has a link to Lime Kiln that requires iTunes or another player.

At the moment, hydrophones that had been in operation at Port Townsend Marine Science Center, Seattle Aquarium and Neah Bay are out of operation for various reasons, Scott said, but he is working with folks at each location to see if the hydrophones could be brought back online using his new browser-based software. He would also like to expand the network with more hydrophones to pick up whale movements.

Scott’s vision of this hydrophone network involves using the technology to organize people to improve our understanding of orcas and other marine mammals while building a community concerned about the effects of underwater noise.

Scott said he has been surprised at the number of average people who have caught on to specific calls made by the whales. By identifying the calls, one can learn to tell the difference between fish-eating residents and marine-mammal-eating transients. More advanced listeners can distinguish between J, K and L pods. Check out Orcasound’s “Listen” page for information about sharing observations, learning about orca calls, and listening to archived recordings of calls.

One story I’ve never told goes back to 1997, when 19 orcas from L pod were in Dyes Inlet. It involves a phone call I received from my wife Sue. I was working at the Kitsap Sun office and away from my desk when the call came in. When I checked my voicemail, I heard what I thought was the mewing of tiny kittens. That made sense, I thought, because we had recently adopted two one-day-old kittens whose mother had abandoned them at birth. But the sound on my phone was not kittens after all but killer whales. My wife was in a boat on Dyes Inlet helping researchers who had lowered a hydrophone to listen to the orcas. Sue was holding up her cellphone and leaving me a voicemail from the whales.

The sound I heard on my phone was something like the following call, although multiplied by many voices:

      1. K-pod-S16-stereo

Scott told me that he would like to come up with names instead of numbers for the various calls. The one above is already being called “kitten’s mew,” although it is better known as “S16” among the scientific community. See the website “Listening for orcas” or the longer “Southern Resident Call Vocabulary.”

Orca Network is well known for collecting information about whale sightings, but now people are also reporting in when they hear the sounds of whales. That is especially helpful when visibility is poor. Both the sighting and sounding information can at times be useful to researchers who follow the whales at a distance and collect fecal samples to check out their health conditions. Observers can send notes via Orca Network’s Facebook page or via email.

Photo courtesy of Beamreach.org

Howard Garrett of Orca Network mentioned that many people are tuning in to the underwater sounds even when whales are not around. They may listen for hours with an expectation of hearing something interesting, but listeners also come to understand the world occupied by the whales.

“You get to experience what the orcas’ lives are like,” Howie told me. “It’s a noisy world for the killer whales.”

Scott agreed. “The most powerful thing that these live streams do is inspire people to listen. What they come to understand is what quiet is and that ships are the dominant source of noise out there.”

Knowing where a hydrophone is located, one can go to MarineTraffic.com and identify one or more ships that may be making the noise. “I do want people to call out outlier noise polluters,” Scott said.

Because federal funds for running the hydrophones has mostly dried up, Scott launched a Kickstarter campaign to design and get the new system up and running. It was great to learn who the supporters are, he said, noting that he knew only about a third of the people who are regular listeners. One woman in Romania became an expert in listening to the whales and wrote a paper about how to improve the hydrophone network.

“We are poised to become a much better organizer of people,” Scott said. “One option is for notifications. We can send out notifications using a new app that allows people to tune in when the whales can be heard.”

Notifications are not yet an option, but I told Scott that I would let people know when this option becomes available.

Computer programs have been developed to recognize the sounds of orcas, record various data and send out an alert, but the human brain has unique capabilities for understanding sound. Together, computers and human listeners can capture more information than either one alone. Scott said.

“I think we might have a friendly competition between humans and machines,” he noted.

Most hydrophones are designed for listening in the human range of hearing, but Scott would like to install more advanced devices capable of capturing the full vocal range of an orca. Such sounds could then be more completely analyzed. Perhaps someone will discover the still-hidden meanings of the orca vocalizations.

Email notifications for blog posts are back following disruption

Some of you may have noticed that you were no longer receiving email notifications of posts to the blog “Watching Our Water Ways.” Somehow, around the middle of October, this function just disappeared. I’ve been trying to get it back, and now, thanks to some behind-the-scenes work, email notification of new blog posts is back in operation.

I’ll concede that some people probably never noticed the lapse, and others might have been happy to avoid the email. But I’m pleased that many people continued to read the blog and offer their comments. This email function, along with RSS, allows people to quickly see a topic and decide if they would like to continue reading.

If you want to sign up for email notifications, simply type your email and zipcode into the box in the right column under the recent comments.

As always, my primary goal is to focus on issues related to Puget Sound, but I’m open to conversations about anything water-related. Each Monday, I try to feature something a little off-beat, humorous, artful or amazing.

I’m always open to comments and suggestions. If you have a moment, please let me know if you think this blog is worthwhile, and let me know what kind of topics you would like to me to write about.

Here are some of the Water Ways headlines (with links) from the past six weeks that you might have missed:

Amusing Monday: Finding a pathway to enjoy great poetry

I’ve been reading at least one poem a day for awhile, thanks to the American Academy of Poets, which delivers a poem by email each day of the week. Anyone can sign up for this service, called Poem-a-Day.

One poem I read a few months back has stayed with me, and I’ve read it again and again. It’s called “To Brooklyn Bridge” by Hart Crane, and it is part of a “long-form” poem presented in a book published in 1930. I was captured by the mysterious symbolism, as I struggled to piece together what the narrator was observing and what Crane was saying in his lyrical manner. Here’s the poem, followed by some personal observations about writing:

To Brooklyn Bridge

By Hart Crane, 1899-1932

How many dawns, chill from his rippling rest
The seagull’s wings shall dip and pivot him,
Shedding white rings of tumult, building high
Over the chained bay waters Liberty—

Then, with inviolate curve, forsake our eyes
As apparitional as sails that cross
Some page of figures to be filed away;
—Till elevators drop us from our day . . .

I think of cinemas, panoramic sleights
With multitudes bent toward some flashing scene
Never disclosed, but hastened to again,
Foretold to other eyes on the same screen;

And Thee, across the harbor, silver-paced
As though the sun took step of thee, yet left
Some motion ever unspent in thy stride,—
Implicitly thy freedom staying thee!

Out of some subway scuttle, cell or loft
A bedlamite speeds to thy parapets,
Tilting there momently, shrill shirt ballooning,
A jest falls from the speechless caravan.

Down Wall, from girder into street noon leaks,
A rip-tooth of the sky’s acetylene;
All afternoon the cloud-flown derricks turn . . .
Thy cables breathe the North Atlantic still.

And obscure as that heaven of the Jews,
Thy guerdon . . . Accolade thou dost bestow
Of anonymity time cannot raise:
Vibrant reprieve and pardon thou dost show.

O harp and altar, of the fury fused,
(How could mere toil align thy choiring strings!)
Terrific threshold of the prophet’s pledge,
Prayer of pariah, and the lover’s cry,—

Again the traffic lights that skim thy swift
Unfractioned idiom, immaculate sigh of stars,
Beading thy path—condense eternity:
And we have seen night lifted in thine arms.

Under thy shadow by the piers I waited;
Only in darkness is thy shadow clear.
The City’s fiery parcels all undone,
Already snow submerges an iron year . . .

O Sleepless as the river under thee,
Vaulting the sea, the prairies’ dreaming sod,
Unto us lowliest sometime sweep, descend
And of the curveship lend a myth to God.

“To Brooklyn Bridge” apparently is one of the poems by American poets studied in college courses, but I never encountered it before. It offers a challenge of interpretation that was sometimes within my grasp but often just out of reach. I eventually succumbed to seeking out analyses of the poem by others, and I found it mentioned in a number of student study guides. I was drawn to a description by Schmoop.com, which includes this comment:

“Published in 1930, The Bridge was panned by many for being too darned difficult and wordy. We’ll say it straight up: This poem, like much of Crane’s work, is incredibly difficult in the sense of, ‘What the heck is this guy even talking about?’ But the payoff is worth it, because Crane is such a master of language that you’ll be carried away by the emotion and musicality of the poem even when you’re scratching your head. (Don’t worry – Shmoop is here to keep your head-scratchings to a minimum.)”

If you read on in the study guide, you learn about the stark, literal meanings in the poem, at least from Shmoop’s perspective. It did help me to fill in some blanks and complete the puzzle in one sense, but I rushed back to read the poem with its imaginative images and rhythmical style.

An audio recording of the poem accompanied by music and images can be enjoyed in the first video on this page. The second video is from Annenberg Media’s series “Voices & Visions,” which describe the life and work of 13 of America’s most famous modern poets.

Poetry is much different from news writing, of course. When writing about complex issues, I try to explain the concepts in a simple way without insulting the reader’s intelligence. Helping people go deep into a subject is like adding layers, one by one, while staying on firm ground. I try to be explicit, leaving little to the imagination.

Poetry is about describing things in ways that have never been said before, to encourage the reader to think and feel about things while stretching the imagination. Poetry can help writers of all kinds find a voice that is both familiar and grounded, yet imaginative and exciting.

I’ve written a lot about bridges and culverts and salmon-passage problems — the physical structures, the engineering challenges and the dynamic forces of water. But bridges also serve as a powerful symbol of change, representing movement from one place to another, passage of time from past to present to future, and, for some, a transcendence to a higher spiritual consciousness.

As one analyst mentioned in the Study Tiger guide:

“As mankind could build the Brooklyn Bridge in physical space, Crane seems to be saying that mankind can build the same kind of ‘bridge’ in their spiritual life to find a connection to God. Because Crane never states these poetic themes explicitly but leaves them for the reader to discover themselves, the act of reading and studying Crane’s lines can be thought of an another type of bridge, where learning the meaning of the poem is ‘walking across’ the bridge to a new kind of knowledge.”

State Sen. Christine Rolfes sees ongoing need to tackle climate change

Climate change will likely emerge as one of the top five issues facing the Washington Legislature next year, predicts state Sen. Christine Rolfes of Bainbridge Island, a key leader in the state Senate.

Sen. Christine Rolfes

The issue is not going away, she told me, despite (or perhaps I because of) voter rejection of a billion-dollar climate change initiative on last week’s ballot.

“If you are in elective office and you are aware of threats to the climate and the future of the state, there is a moral imperative to do something,” she said, “even though this particular proposal didn’t pass.”

Still on the table are a multitude of ideas for clean power, cleaner transportation and greater energy efficiency, she explained as we sat down to coffee on Monday at a Bainbridge Island establishment.

The overwhelming vote against Initiative 1631 was not a vote against taking action on climate change, according to Sen. Rolfes. It was a message that voters want to take action in a different way. As chairwoman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, with its special focus on budget issues, she will play a key role in the passage of any climate-change measures. See Kitsap Sun, Jan. 6, 2018.

Some people are always going to vote against taxes, she noted, but the swing votes were from people concerned about the huge amounts of money involved, the so-called “loopholes” regarding who would pay the tax, or the uncertainties over how the money would be spent.

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Amusing Monday: Rare moments frozen in winning wildlife photos

Celebrating the power and beauty of nature, the National Wildlife Federation attracted more than 23,000 photographic entries to its annual photo contest.

Baby Animals category, second place, by Loi Nguyen
Photo courtesy of National Wildlife Federation

Winners in the prestigious contest came from seven states — Alaska, California, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Oregon and West Virginia. They represented six nations — Canada, England, Hungary, Kenya and Kuwait as well as the U.S.

“Whether lifelong professionals or avid amateurs, all winners display a love of wildlife and an appreciation of how photography can help bring nature to life in a way that inspires others to take action and protect it, both at home and abroad,” states a news release announcing the winners last Thursday.

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Salmon migration on display during Saturday’s Kitsap Salmon Tours

Recent rains are bringing chum salmon into numerous streams on the Kitsap Peninsula, according to Jon Oleyar, biologist for the Suquamish Tribe. But more rains are needed to help the salmon reach the upper tributaries and fully seed the system, he added.

Chum salmon swim up Chico Creek on Thursday (11-1). // Photo: Emma Jeffries

“The fall fish are right on schedule,” Jon told me, “but I wish they had more water, especially for the tributaries.”

Folks attending the Kitsap Salmon Tours this Saturday should be able to see fish in most locations on this year’s list. Read on for details.

The fall chum themselves seem larger than average this year, Jon said, which means the streams need a little more water than usual for the fish to easily swim upstream.

Salmon can move quickly upstream and become stranded in too-shallow water after a downpour followed by a dry period, he said. In a worst-case scenario, fish may die before spawning. Once the rains have saturated the soil, the risk of low flows is reduced, but as of today we’re not at that point yet. Heavy rains last Saturday brought many fish into the streams, he added, but streams levels have dropped somewhat since then.

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Amusing Monday: Ig Nobel prizes make us laugh, then think

Roller coasters and kidney stones; voodoo dolls and abusive bosses; and wine with fruit flies were all part of this year’s Ig Nobel Prize ceremony at Harvard University.

The annual ceremony recognizes seemingly off-the-wall research, most of which is published in actual scientific journals. Judges are looking for studies that first make them laugh and then make them think, according to Marc Abrahams, who founded the Ig Nobel awards in 1991.

Abrahams, the master of ceremonies, serves as editor of the “Annals of Improbable Research,” a publication that seeks out oddball investigations in science and other fields.

As usual, the ceremony shows that researchers really do have a sense of humor. This year’s theme was “the heart,” as reflected in a heart trophy and an opera performed during the ceremony. The full show, presented in the video on this page, contains skits, stunts and demonstrations.

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Media minds need new ways to inform people about climate change

The headline on Margaret Sullivan’s column captures the urgency of the moment: “The planet is on a fast path to destruction. The media must cover this like it’s the only story that matters.”

Margaret writes about media issues for the Washington Post. In her column, she worries that the public is missing the story of the century, even as both print and television news outlets dutifully mention the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

How much coverage the average person is able to see and understand is another issue. When the IPCC report came out, the network TV stations dedicated a few minutes to the report but not as much time as they spent covering Kanye West’s visit to the White House, according to Brian Stelter of CNN.

The IPCC’s 33-page “summary for policymakers” (PDF 1.3 mb) is dry reading. It lays out the facts but does not use alarming language to stir people to action. While reading it, I could envision how it might put many people to sleep. Still, I urge everyone to struggle through the document and understand the dire consequences that will come from the failure to act.

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