30 April 2007

"Stunnel" enters the English language

One of my hobbies is language, languages, and the grammar and etymology that goes along with it. For instance, I really like words that entered the English language as someone's name, like "sandwich" or "boycott."

I'm hopeful then that I've succeeded in creating a new word. As some of you might remember, I have christened the proposed tunnel under the Bering Strait, the "Stunnel." I admit, it's not the nicest sounding of words but given the history of naming tunnels under bodies of water by combining the name of the body of water with the word tunnel (e.g. "Chunnel"), I figured it was the only option.

Last week, I was speaking with the governor off-record and asked her if she'd heard from her friend Wally Hickel about his trip to Russia to learn more about the Stunnel. In the course of that conversation, I mentioned how I had started calling it the "Stunnel" and she laughed.

The next day, at a press conference for the Sonya Ivanoff bill-signing, I decided the best way to get my new word to enter the English language would be to get someone in a position of power to use it. So I asked her the same question about Wally Hickel - on record - and she said:

I am sure that he will want to talk to me about the Chunnel, tunnel...
at which I prompted her with "Stunnel" and she continued
Stunnel, yes, as Jesse calls it, I'm anxious to talk to him about it. He's a visionary.
Admittedly, it's not the ideal since she did attribute it to me but at least she said it. Now, if I can just get the ADN or KTUU to use that cut, it'll be official.

29 April 2007


As some of you particularly perceptive types figured out, I was away in Juneau this past week, seeing what the legislature is like up close and personal. It was certainly an edifying trip and I had many, many Socratic moments in which I learned the depth of my own ignorance time and again (an important note to those of you who take these writings without the requisite grain of salt).

This trip will, of course, influence these posts as I return to my daily existence in Nome but I'm not sure there are too many particular observations I feel tremendously compelled to share right now.

But I did want to make this note: Bert Stedman, at last Tuesday's press availability, said his Finance committee is focusing on a couple of major issues like AGIA, PERS/TRS, and the capital budget. He didn't come right out and say it but he did strongly intimate that it would be difficult for any other major (or minor) piece of legislation to make it through Finance before the end of the session.

I think this sets up a good test case of relative influence in the capital and a way to figure out what's going on behind closed doors. It seems to me that the only way legislation (beyond the big three) is going to get passed is if someone is well connected enough to convince Stedman and Hoffman to move it through committee.

For instance, let's keep an eye on the Ocean Ranger legislation and see just what the cruise ship industry is able to accomplish in these remaining weeks.

22 April 2007


I'll not be posting here for about a week, while I am out of town and have less time for this sort of outlet.

But before I go, let me point you to the ADN's front page treatment of the All-Alaska Sweepstakes. This has been news in Nome for about a year and I would point out that not everyone in town shares the same optimistic outlook that the article appears to portray.

20 April 2007

New favorite web site

Thanks to that Alaska Newsreader, this is my new favorite web site:
The Russians are joining the party late! And - as hard as it may sound - someone has a more far-fetched idea than they do!

Incidentally, I've changed my mind: this project should not be known as the "Runnel" but rather as the "Stunnel."

I might be developing an unhealthy fixation on this topic.

19 April 2007

More on the Runnel

There's some interesting articles out there about the proposed tunnel under the Bering Strait today (none, naturally, from Alaska media).

Here's a bit that grabbed my attention:

This time, it is being promoted as an economic, not a political, project, said Viktor Razbegin, a deputy head of industrial research at the Ministry of Economic Development and Trade and longtime proponent of a bridge or tunnel for the roiling strait.

"It is a strategic for us to develop this land," he said of Russia's poor northeastern district, Chukotka, and neighboring areas in Siberia. "We cannot do it without a railroad."

Part of me wonders to what extent the economic viability of this project is linked to the widespread warming temperatures in the Arctic.

Gregg Easterbrook in last month's Atlantic mentioned Siberia in his article on winners and losers of global warming:
For generations poets have bemoaned this realm as cursed by enormous, foreboding, harsh Siberia. What if the region in question were instead enormous, temperate, inviting Siberia? Climate change could place Russia in possession of the largest new region of pristine, exploitable land since the sailing ships of Europe first spied the shores of what would be called North America. The snows of Siberia cover soils that have never been depleted by controlled agriculture. What’s more, beneath Siberia’s snow may lie geologic formations that hold vast deposits of fossil fuels, as well as mineral resources. When considering ratification of the Kyoto Protocol to regulate greenhouse gases, the Moscow government dragged its feet, though the treaty was worded to offer the Russians extensive favors. Why might this have happened? Perhaps because Russia might be much better off in a warming world: Warming’s benefits to Russia could exceed those to all other nations combined.
I wonder if there's be any implicit or explicit discussion in the halls of Russian government about future warming trends and the viability of this particular project. The "Runnel" has been widely scorned in many media accounts because of what previous ideas have produced. But I haven't seen anything that takes into account what future warming trends might mean.

The times they are a-changin'. Perhaps the project is more viable now.

18 April 2007

"Forward" Funding

It's not quite clear to me why lawmakers deserve the pat on the back they seem to think they deserve for putting a billion dollars away for future education funding.

As I understand, this is a billion dollars that gets put in the bank so that next year when lawmakers sit down and decide how to fund education, they've already got the money to do it. (Of course, what happens to the money generated from oil taxes next fiscal year - will that be saved as well?) Lawmakers are trumpeting this as the end of pink slips for teachers because school districts will know how much money they're getting.

But will they? I haven't seen any coverage of this billion dollars being tied to a particular base student allocation or funding of the ISER study or any of the other numerous variables that affect how much school districts get from the state. As I understand it, all that's different now is that school districts know they're getting money from the billion dollars next year, they just don't know how it will be apportioned, which is essentially the same position they're in now.

As well, it doesn't even seem to me that this money is formally tied to education (which may be unconstitutional at any rate). Could lawmakers next term, if need be, put the dollars into some other program? There'd be pressure for them not to, of course, but I can envision scenarios in which the money doesn't go to education.

Lawmakers should get a pat on the back for saving the money, particularly for education and particularly compared to last year's capital budget. But it doesn't seem to me like they deserve a pat on the back for forward funding education like they've always been asked to because, in fact, they have not done that.

Advice for the ADN

Here's a study I wish someone at the ADN - and every other cost-cutting, reporter-firing, we-only-print-fluff newspaper in the country - would read:

Even as newspapers around the country send reporters packing at the behest of the papers’ investors, a new study finds that the fastest way to profits may be spending more, not less, on the newsroom. Two marketing professors crunched four years’ worth of economic data from 1,400 daily papers in the United States, and they came up with a formula to determine the most profitable mix of spending—whether in the newsroom, to improve news quality; in the circulation department, to hook more readers; or in the ad sales department. They found that investing in the newsroom has the biggest impact on a paper’s bottom line: Improving news quality not only increases circulation; it’s actually as effective in luring advertisers as putting money into ad sales teams. (The authors also found that having more ads in a paper increases circulation as well, because Americans love to flick through them.) The researchers then ran the newspapers in their sample through their formula and found that most papers (60 percent of papers with small staffs and 80 percent with large staffs) are near the right spending balance; however, many (22 percent of small papers and 15 percent of bigger ones) could raise profits by putting more money into the newsroom. On the other hand, cutting newsroom spending, because it exerts a negative influence on other forms of revenue, inevitably forces further cuts and sends a newspaper into a “suicide spiral.”

“Uphill or Downhill? Locating Your Firm on a Profit Function,” Murali K. Mantrala et al., Journal of Marketing

On the other hand, if I didn't have the ADN to critique I'd hardly have anything to write about. The foibles of lawmakers are only interesting for so long.

The "Runnel"

Though this will likely come to naught, here's news that sends a frisson of excitement through some Western Alaskans:

Russia plans to build the world's longest tunnel, a transport and pipeline link under the Bering Strait to Alaska, as part of a $65 billion project to supply the U.S. with oil, natural gas and electricity from Siberia.

The project, which Russia is coordinating with the U.S. and Canada, would take 10 to 15 years to complete, Viktor Razbegin, deputy head of industrial research at the Russian Economy Ministry, told reporters in Moscow today. State organizations and private companies in partnership would build and control the route, known as TKM-World Link, he said.

This is an idea that has been tossed around before but the Russians seem pretty serious, though I note the costs are based on a "pre-feasibility" study and this could just be yet one more example of Russia beating its chest on the world stage.

Here's my favorite part:
"The project is a monster,'' Yevgeny Nadorshin, chief economist with Trust Investment Bank in Moscow, said in an interview. "The Chinese are crying out for our commodities and willing to finance the transport links, and we're sending oil to Alaska. What, Alaska doesn't have oil?''
This is one thing that will torpedo the idea.

The other is this: when the tunnel emerges from the Bering Strait on the Alaskan side, what infrastructure will it meet? I've been to both Diomede and Wales and I'm not sure they're quite primed for economic development. Nor is Nome, for that matter.

Still, it's fun to think about.

17 April 2007

One by one

Governor Palin clearly has a strategy to minimize bad press: hire all the good reporters in Alaska.

At least, that's the conclusion I reached after reading this bit of news:

Governor Sarah Palin announced today the addition of long-time Alaskan, Larry Persily, to her Washington, D.C. office. Persily currently works as Editorial Page Editor at the Anchorage Daily News.
This announcement follows the previous news of Sam Bishop's departure from the staff of the News-Miner. Meghan Stapleton, the governor's press secretary, is also a former media type as well.

(When I spoke with candidate Palin in October, she mentioned something to the effect of "well, the folks at the Anchorage Daily News editorial page don't want to see me elected." Ah, irony.)

I, incidentally, am weighing an offer from the Palin administration myself...not.

Meth Letter

So I took my disgust with the ADN's article on suicide to its letters page over the weekend. Ironically, the ADN re-wrote my letter to make it less critical.

The letters editor removed all reference to Alex deMarban who wrote the piece. That might be paper policy (a curious one) but it has an effect on my point. I wrote this:

However, I was disappointed by a sentence early in the piece in which Mr. deMarban says "state and tribal officials" attribute the high rate to several causes, including methamphetamine.
The ADN changed it to this:
However, I was disappointed by a sentence early in the piece, in which state and tribal officials attribute the high rate to several causes, including methamphetamine.
That might not seem like much but what it does is put the onus on proving the connection between meth and suicide on the "state and tribal officials" and not on the reporter who made the claim, Alex deMarban.

But, you might say, surely deMarban is just a reporter who is reporting what people told him. Yes, that's true but the whole point of my letters is that the meth point was not followed up on, which is deMarban's job.

Also, "state and tribal officials" can't "attribute" the high rate to anything because they don't exist as a single entity. deMarban got that sentence by - presumably - talking to a number of people and then lumping them together into one sentence. That's fine but it makes it even more incumbent on him to back up those claims later in the article.

12 April 2007


Some folks on the Nome Common Council are looking at expanding Nome's city limits, given the gold mine that's expected to start producing gold at Rock Creek, just a few miles north of town. The idea is that if the city can generate more tax revenue from the mine, then tax rates in the city can be lower.

Sounds straightforward enough to me and I've been busy educating myself on what the Local Boundary Commission is and how annexation can happen according to the state constitution, statute, and regulation.

You can learn all sorts of neat stuff when you start looking at a new topic. For instance, did you know city governments can charge differential tax rates and provide differential services? There's been some grumbling about this idea among folks who live just outside of town and folks in town who don't want to, say, bus children in from the expanded limits. But that might not have to happen if the city didn't want it to.

The annexation procedure also seems remarkably detailed and extensive. I can understand why the state doesn't want city governments just taking over territory at will but it does seem like Alaska law creates a presumption against annexation and expansion.

Who knows where this idea will go. The mayor and city manager wanted to create an ad hoc committee to look at the idea and explore the issues at play but a powerful councilmember (he's of the "grumbling set") put his foot down and delayed its creation at least until the next meeting. The Nome Council is a status quo body and I wouldn't be surprised if they can't even get their act together and create an exploratory committee.

My read on the issue is that there's some support for this idea from a "silent majority" in this town, particularly among those folks who don't like this mine and would like any opportunity to stick it to NovaGold. But the grumbling set is always a bit louder and might prevail.

11 April 2007

Hopping on the bandwagon

ConocoPhillips jumped on the bandwagon today and is now calling for some sort of regulation of greenhouse gas emissions. I particularly liked this part of the announcement:

ConocoPhillips has said it will spend $150 million this year to research and develop new energy sources and technologies – a 50 percent increase in spending from 2006.
This is a company that is making between 3 and 4-billion dollars a quarter in profit. And 150-million is all they can kick in.

What I don't understand is why private industry isn't investing all they've got into non-petroleum R & D. Everyone knows oil is warming our world, that it's going to run out at some point, that before it does that it's going to get more expensive, that even if it doesn't get expensive it'll still likely come from unstable regions of the world, and that we should all wean ourselves off of it. Whoever comes up with the next big thing in energy - cheap, clean energy - is going to be a gazillionaire. Just imagine what the patent to a workable and large hydrogen fuel cell would be worth. Conoco - and every other major energy producer that has hopes of sustaining profits well into the century - should be putting all it has into research.

Alaska Newsreader

The ADN has a new feature called the Newsreader, which links to all sorts of Alaskan news all over the web. I like it - it seems like a reasonable addition to my morning rounds of Alaskan news.

(Although, I'm surprised the ADN would post some of what it does. For instance, what about this:

House tied in knot over assistance to seniors. The story of the day out of the Legislature is continued tension among lawmakers and Gov. Palin over whether to bring back the longevity bonus program (a campaign promise of hers) or whether to replace it with a needs-based assistance plan for seniors (pushed by many lawmakers). As AP and others report, the House spent part of the day arguing about it; eventually the assistance-program bill was yanked off the floor while the Senate passed its own version. Juneau Empire describes it as a win for House Democrats, who are trying to bring back the bonus. KTUU (with video) boils it down to this: “Should mere mention of the longevity bonus - not funding, but references to the program in state statutes - be allowed to stand?”
Doesn't this make it horribly clear that the ADN was absent in covering the major legislative story of the day? Every important statewide media organization had a story on the longevity bonus debate... except the ADN. And the Newsreader highlights that? Not to worry, the ADN's Juneau correspondent was busy writing an important story on wolves.)

I post about the Newsreader because they say they're willing to link to blog posts. I don't know if they read this blog but it would be neat if they linked to this post about the Newsreader.

Anything you can do, I can do meta.

10 April 2007

Meth Connection

In the largely unsurprising (month-old) news about the suicide rate among Alaska Natives, this part grabbed me in particular:

What's happening? State and tribal officials said Natives battle the same basic afflictions they faced two decades ago, with new factors thrown in, such as methamphetamine.
The reason it grabbed my attention is that the connection between meth and suicide is not as immediately obvious to me as, say, alcohol and suicide or depression and suicide. In fact, in the several presentations I've attended and reported on about meth, I can't recall suicide being discussed.

So I was intrigued by the claim by "state and tribal officials" that meth was linked to a sustained high suicide rate and read on to find out what the connection was. And I read on. And on. And on. And I reached the end of the article without another mention of meth.

Given how much meth education there is in Bush Alaska right now and how much community leaders are trying to prevent the stuff from ever arriving here, this is a claim that is likely to roil the waters and make people agitated. And instead of substantiating the claim - or even attributing the claim directly to someone - Alex deMarban leaves it hanging all the way to the end. How was this not caught before publication?

09 April 2007

Easter Spill

It's hard to tell what about the newest Prudhoe Bay spill is worst for BP:

  • that the spill happened at all;
  • that it wasn't BP that did it but VECO;
  • that it happened because a guy lost a contact lens;
  • that it wasn't actually oil that spilled (the stuff BP is supposed to get for us) but diesel.
On the plus side, at least it wasn't corrosion that did it.


I will be surprised if this news does not provoke some sort of legislative kerfluffle:

Early this summer, the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services will begin distributing more than 20,000 doses of Gardasil ®, the first vaccine to prevent cervical cancer, to public and private clinics statewide.

The state will pay Gardasil’s cost only for girls age 9 through 18 who are eligible for the Vaccines for Children’s program. The state intends to continue providing all other vaccines currently recommended for children at no charge.

Gardasil - and public provision thereof - has sparked debates in numerous other states. I attended a presentation on it earlier this year and was surprised to hear some of the Alaska natives in attendance ask pointed and sharp questions about the vaccine that betrayed a deep skepticism of making it widely available.

Add to that the fact that there are some social conservatives in Juneau who are likely disappointed their same-sex benefit issue is drying up and are looking for a new issue and you've got the makings of a great issue for folks to huff-and-puff and look self-important on.


I generally respect what I hear from Sen. Kim Elton but this particular comment stuck in my craw:

"It just makes sense, given the fact that some people are talking about deficit spending next year, that these programs that are run by the federal government and mandated by the federal government ought to be paid for by the federal government," Elton said.
He's quoted in reference to a decision by his subcommittee to not add funding for the state to takeover some permitting oversight. It stuck in my craw because if potential deficit spending by the state is the issue, perhaps current deficit spending by the federal government should also be considered.

More broadly, though, let's consider what this story says about the state of news reporting in Alaska. There were numerous Senate Finance subcommittees that made numerous decisions about how the state will spend money. Between the two heavyweight news organizations in this state (the ADN and the AP), this is the one story that can be mustered about those decisions (about a week after the decision was made, I think). What about all the attention the Public Safety subcommittee gave to the VPSO program and Trooper recruitment? Anyone want to update us on those decisions?

Conversely, the ADN and the AP might be able to argue that the Finance subcommittee decisions are just a small part of the process and that to report on what they do is to report in media res. Really, they might say, just wait until the final budget comes out and we'll update you on what's different from last year. That might be alright except that to do so would prevent the public from weighing on those decisions.

The larger problem with picking a single issue and writing one scattershot story on it is that it privileges that issue and that particular funding issue over all the many other policy calls that are being made in the subcommittee process. Now, everyone is wondering about who should permit wastewater in the state and almost no one is thinking about the other billions of dollars in the state budget.

If the ADN and the AP are going to use their considerable spotlight to report on Juneau, I'd just ask for a little consistency and continuity of coverage.

05 April 2007


I think it was David Guttenburg who said at yesterday's House Democrat press availability that the first thing he did after he heard the results from the state-wide advisory vote was check to see how his district voted to get the advice of his constituents.

That sparked an interesting thought: we know how the "advice" the people of Alaska gave lawmakers in toto but what advice did they give their particular representative and did enough districts vote "yes" to the amendment to justify putting it on the ballot if lawmakers voted solely on how their district voted?

Since I know no media organization in this state is going to do the research to answer that question, I took a look through the district-by-district results this morning (slow news day). The answer to the question is "close, but no cigar."

Twenty-five House districts supported the measure and 15 opposed it (2, 3, 4, 7, 8, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 32, 37, 38, 39, and 40). By my calculations, you need at least 27 votes in the House to get a constitutional amendment on the ballot.

Seven Senate districts (B, D, K, L, M, S, and T) opposed the measure and 13 supported it. Two-thirds of 20 is 13.3 and I'm not sure if they round up or down .

I also wanted to know if there were any disjunctive results, i.e. were there any districts that voted opposite what you might expect their representative to believe? I don't have any special insight into what every single representative believes so - in the tradition of every good academic - I used the easiest shorthand I could find, namely party affiliation. This is a very crude tool but let's assume that Democrats oppose the amendment and Republicans support it, even though I know there are exceptions.

Using this tool, Reps. Peggy Wilson (R-2), Woodie Salmon (D-6), Scott Kawasaki (D-9), Max Gruenburg (D-20), Bob Buch (D-27), and Mike Hawker (D-32) and Sens. Al Kookesh (D-C) and Bill Wielechowski (D-J) represent districts that didn't vote the "party line" so to speak.

We do know for sure what a couple of representatives think, however, based on their public statements. One who has been particular vociferous in his opposition to benefits is Rep. Mike Kelly (R-7), who has pushed the issue hard at every opportunity and on the op-ed pages. Much to his chagrin, I am sure, we learned on Tuesday he represents a district where the majority of voters do not want to vote on a constitutional amendment in 2008. The irony is fantastic.

UPDATE: I guess I was wrong when I said no state media organization would report this information. Of course, it was the ADN's editorial page that did the job and they only looked at Senate districts and so didn't learn about Rep. Kelly.

04 April 2007

Vote about a vote about a vote

Yesterday on KNOM we described the advisory election as a "non-binding vote about whether the Legislature should vote to have a binding vote next year." Apparently, Nome voters responded to our passive-aggressive response to the Legislature, inculcated our natural news media cynicism, and stayed home. Turnout in Nome was about 13 percent yesterday.

I was correct in one part of yesterday's prediction and incorrect in the other. The measure failed and I was wrong about either how liberal Anchorage is or how much they would sway the electorate. But I was right in that people on the losing side are already - rightly - pointing out that the ballot is meaningless because so few people turned out. (We had an AP story this morning quoting Hollis French saying something to this effect. I can't find it on-line.)

Finally, thanks for the discussion on my post about reasons to vote "no." My larger point was that we heard a lot about the "sanctity of marriage" in this debate but almost nothing about the "sanctity of the constitution." I find constitutions profound and important documents which should rarely be tampered with.

This vote will change nothing in Juneau.

03 April 2007

A Minor Prediction

I cast my advisory vote about midway through the day today and I was the 77th person in Nome to do so, which means turnout is headed towards something less than 10 percent, if I calculate correctly.

So I'm curious what will happen if only an abysmally small amount of Alaskans bother to advise lawmakers today. If the vote is in favor of putting the amendment on the ballot, I imagine quite a few Republican lawmakers will claim some sort of mandate and try to put the measure on the ballot, though it will likely fail in the senate (and probably the House as well).

The more interesting question is what happens if the vote is not in favor. Will the Republican representatives who have been pushing this thing accept defeat graciously and let it fade into the legislative twilight? I don't think so. I think they'll cite the low turnout - which just about anyone could have foreseen when you call an election in April - as a reason the vote should be disregarded and will press ahead with the issue.

Incidentally, I think the measure will fail because I think Anchorage voters will dominate the electorate today and I think they'll generally be voting "no."

02 April 2007

Voting No

Herewith, five reasons to vote "no" on tomorrow's same-sex benefits advisory election that have nothing to do with what you believe about the policy of granting employment benefits to same-sex partners of state employees:

  • Constitutions should not be used to make policy calls. The U.S. tried that with Prohibition and it did not work. Constitutions are documents that set the parameters for a government to work within (e.g. there are branches of government, the head of the executive is called the governor) and then people need to make the policy calls within those rules.
  • Amending the constitution changes the rules of the game, post facto. The policy call to provide same-sex benefits was legally and constitutionally established by the existing rules of the game. The state supreme court is as legitimate a part of this government as any other. Presumably, we pay those judges to do something besides look pretty in their robes. In their ruling, they were simply doing the job we ask them to do - hold up laws to the standard of the constitution. This decision should be seen as a triumph of the constitutional system.
  • Speaking of rules of the game, there is no constitutional provision for an advisory vote. Tomorrow's vote doesn't even fall into the rules of the vote established by our constitution's writers.
  • If state lawmakers really want to know what we think, why not conduct a poll? It would save money, save our time, and result in probably a more accurate sampling of the population. This election is going to cost a lot of money and it will likely only represent the opinions of those who are excessively partisan on this issue because they'll be the ones most likely to make it to the polls on a non-traditional election day.
  • If state lawmakers really are interested in what I think, why are they moving ahead with a constitutional amendment in the legislature? If tomorrow's vote is intended to figure out what Alaskans think so that lawmakers can be guided in their decisions, it seems like a group of lawmakers have incredible powers of clairvoyance.
I'm most swayed by the first and last reasons.