Why snowstorms in Chicago can mean sunny in Seattle

You might have wondered — as you gazed out your sunny Seattle-area window, and listened to news of record cold and snow sweeping the midwest and East coast — is there a connection?

Yes, there is.

“Our weather often is the just the opposite of what it is in the eastern part of the united states,” says Cliff Mass, professor of Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Washington.

“When we are cold, like it was just before Thanksgiving, they tend to be warm,” says Mass.

The reason we’re yin when they’re yang, and vice versa, has to do with the jet stream and “ridges” of high and low pressure in the sky, as Mass explains it.<--break->

Continue reading

Beauty, Harmony and Art, in a NASA photo

I’m sharing this just because I found it strikingly beautiful.  With a little cropping, it could be frameable.

Is it a tree? A cross-section of veins and arteries?

"Yukon River" "alaska"

According to the caption from NASA’s Earth Observatory, this satellite photo of the Yukon River in Alaska reveals the branches that break away from the main stem of the river as it reaches its delta region.  The river empties into the Bering Sea. At this point, on January 11th, 2010, the sea is frozen along the shore, so you can’t tell where land meets sea.  The frozen river is covered with snow, but the smaller branches stand out dark against the snowy surroundings.

Findings I like, this month

These bits of research failed to make headlines, but you might enjoy them, as I did (disclaimer: I didn’t look into the quality of any of these studies):

  • “Parents Influence on Children’s Eating Habits is Small.” Really?  How could that be?  Apparently, the community, peers, television viewing, and the “food environment” are more important.   I don’t think they were able to separate out young children from teenagers, for this study from Johns Hopkins University.  It claims to be the first-ever study to look at parental influence on eating habits.  (The news release is here.)
  • Autism Medication is Ineffective for Repetitive Behaviors. This is from Seattle Children’s Hospital.  They compared a common anti-depressant (citalopram) that is used to control repetitive behavior in children with autism against a placebo, and found no benefit.  The children wring their hands, or rock back and forth.  The drug was prescribed because some clinician thought that there was a common problem with the brain chemical serotonin.  (The news release is here. )
  • A New Material to Use Inside the Body — Blending Crustaceans and Polyester. Some University of Washington researchers are bio-engineering a substance that can blend two important qualities, stickiness and sturdiness.  You want a severed nerve to be able to grow back in the right direction, so you need some scaffolding that it can grab onto, like a wisteria in your garden.  And you need something that won’t dissolve too easily inside the body. This is an interesting blend, of shells and polyester.  They claim it has prospects for muscle and tendon repairs, too. (The news release is here.)

Chitosan and polyester fibers, at the nano scale.

Chitosan and polyester fibers, at the nano scale. (UW)

  • A Faustian Bargain, for Our Brains? This theory — and it’s more like a hunch — says our evolutionary history is a two-sided coin.  In exchange for evolving bigger, intelligent brains, we may have also been cursed with cancer.  Apparently, humans are more cancer-prone than other primates, and it may be related to a gene that kills off potentially bad cells.  By being more lax, our bodies are able to grow bigger brains.   (The news release is here.)

Returning from a detour into the demise of newspapers

This blog has been idle while I’ve spent the last couple weeks working on (and coordinating) KPLU’s coverage of the end of the Seattle P-I as a newspaper, and the prospects of Seattle becoming a No Newspaper Town.  Our 3-part series really captures the anxieties and hopes of this moment in history.  It also brought out a number of thougthful comments form listeners/readers.  We’ve done a lot of continuing coverage on the topic, which is all grouped on the page linked above.

My personal contribution was to explore the question, What’s next? That led to a lot of reading on the future of journalism, various theories of social media, and the underpinnings of the business of news.  It’s the business model that’s collapsing, where advertising subsidizes news, and the smorgasbord of news/entertainment is bundled together in a single package.    (Note: the written version is not a verbatim transcript of the radio story — part of KPLU’s experiment in adapting to online consumers.)

The short answer, by the way, seems to be:  Nothing will replace newspapers, in the near future. Something else has to evolve.

A return to science, coming soon, along with further experiments in “new media” …

The Arctic is what Puget Sound once was

These photos (below) are from a website run by NASA called Earth Observatory, which features satellite photos and pictures taken by astronauts from Earth orbit. They show how a warming Arctic is affecting glaciers. But, I also found these photos interesting because it helps me imagine and understand what happened in the Seattle area during the ice ages.Puget Sound is also a fjord, and we all learn in grade school that it was carved by glaciers, and that the glaciers were once a mile thick above downtown Seattle. When those glaciers melted and retreated they left steep hillsides, lakes, and a deep watery trench.

Satellite  image overviews of the Ellesmere coast, July 22 and August 29, 2008.

The channels that look like rivers would be like the channels between Seattle or Tacoma and Kitsap.

Medical clinics where you shop

Last week, I wrote a story about the mini-clinics inside grocery and drug stores. It included this paragraph:

“Most treatments are priced at 59 dollars. You’d be billed twice or three times as much at a traditional urgent-care clinic. MultiCare accepts insurance and Medicaid, so most people end up with just a co-payment either way. To break even, the mini-clinic needs to see at least 25 patients a day. That covers rent and the salary for the Nurse Practitioner who staffs it. The one-person staff keeps costs down – along with treating only minor ailments. Is this the next big trend? Not yet, despite hype from some chains. It’s been moderately successful in other parts of the country – but not a revolution.”

For Tacoma’s MultiCare health system, the key is integrating the retail clinic with their larger system. Many of the patients (including the two that I interviewed in the drugstore) were referred from MultiCare’s traditional urgent-care clinic, which was overcrowded.

The question I did not address, but hinted at, in the story is this: Are these retail clinics a good indicator of how much you pay for inefficient overhead during your basic medical appointment? We’ve been hearing for years how wasteful the medical system is, and how paperwork eats up a big share of every dollar. But this seems to be a graphic illustration, at least for all those visits that didn’t need fancy MRI machines and surgical suites nearby.

Microbes on the beach

More on microbes. This time, it’s the effort to understand the vast number of species that live all over our environment. Most of these (like 95%) can’t be grown in the laboratory, so they haven’t been studied much. For the past decade there’s been a rush to use new DNA sequencing technologies to identify and learn about these bacteria. That’s how we became aware of how little we know.

One effort along these lines is happening in my backyard, or not far from it. A group at the University of Washington is sampling mud from Lake Washington. They’re developing ways to pinpoint species that live there, focusing on bacteria that subsist on methane and related compounds. If you’re interested, you can read a summary from the press release, or visit the lab’s website.