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Republicans finalize tax plan, expand benefits for working families in bid to win over Rubio

14 hours 13 min ago

WASHINGTON – Congressional Republicans finished rewriting their massive plan to overhaul the tax code on Friday, adding in a significant expansion of the Child Tax Credit aimed at boosting benefits for low-income families.

The change was added to meet demands from Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who threatened on Thursday to vote against the bill unless the credit was expanded, injecting last-minute chaos into a process.

Rep. Kristi Noem, R-S.D., one of the Republicans tasked with ironing out a final bill, said the credit had been expanded, particularly for low-income and working-class families.

"I believe that we're in a good spot and should be able to earn his support" she said of Rubio.

A Rubio spokeswoman said Rubio was waiting to see whether he'd support the final measure.

"We have not seen bill text, and until we see if the percentage of the refundable credit is significantly higher, then our position remains the same," she wrote in an email.

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady, R-Texas, said negotiations were complete but would not say if Rubio had been placated.

"We ought to have every senator's support on this tax reform bill," Brady said.

Republican negotiators have proposed to expand the Child Tax Credit from $1,000 per child to $2,000 per child, but in earlier versions of the plan, that expansion would not be available to every family. Many lower-income families would only qualify for a $1,100 child tax credit.

Noem said Friday the plan's credit for such families had been increased to $1400.

Rubio, in a series of Twitter posts earlier Friday, said he needed the credit needed to be "meaningfully higher" for families that earn between $20,000 and $50,000 a year.

Republicans passed an earlier version of the tax overhaul bill through the Senate with Rubio's support by a 51-49 margin. If Rubio were to oppose the bill, he could imperil the legislation's chances of becoming law. Complicating matters, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., is in the hospital and his health status next week remains unclear.

A number of Republicans have opposed Rubio's idea to expand the child tax credit for people in this income bracket, saying many of those families do not pay federal income taxes and would end up receiving checks from the government.

But Rubio has held strong views on this issue for years, believing more must be done to help working families.

Rubio's demands Thursday sent shock waves through Washington.

"People are really infuriated by it," said Steve Moore, who was a top economic adviser to President Trump during the campaign. Moore said it remained unclear what Republicans would do if Rubio remains intractable.

Trump on Friday expressed optimism the bill would pass, telling reporters that the Child Tax Credit is "increasing on a daily basis."

"The Democrats have done nothing on the child tax credit . . . we're putting in a tremendous child tax credit," Trump said.

The Child Tax Credit is just one component of a sweeping tax overhaul that Republicans have moved through Congress swiftly since November. The package would slash corporate tax rates, temporarily lower taxes paid by many households, and eliminate a number of tax breaks.

As Republicans sought to secure votes in the final weeks, they've made a number of changes to their plan meant to expand benefits to businesses and wealthier Americans. But Democrats – and some Republicans – have complained there should have been more done to help the middle class and the working poor.

The total package is expected to cut roughly $1.5 trillion in taxes over 10 years. Expanding the Child Tax Credit to accommodate Rubio's demands could force Republicans to scale back other tax reductions, as Senate rules limit the total amount the plan can add to the national debt.

Republicans have been crafting a plan to reconcile different bills that passed through the House and Senate in recent weeks.

After Republicans said they'd completed final changes, House members began signing what is known as a "conference report."

The House and Senate plan to vote on the measure next week. If approved by Congress, the final bill could be signed into law by Trump.

– – –

The Washington Post's Jeff Stein and Heather Long contributed to this report.

Firefighter dies as vicious winds continue to plague crews battling California wildfires

14 hours 59 min ago

LOS ANGELES – Firefighters in California will be tested by vicious winds on Friday morning as they battle a huge wildfire that has claimed the life of one of their colleagues and torched more than 700 homes.

Cory Iverson, 32, a California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection engineer, was killed on Thursday while fighting the so-called Thomas Fire in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.

"Cory Iverson … made the ultimate sacrifice to save the lives of others," said Ventura County Sheriff Geoff Dean during a community meeting on Thursday night.

Fire officials released little information about the circumstances surrounding Iverson's death. The Los Angeles Daily News reported that he perished in an accident near the community of Fillmore, where a mayday alert was sounded.

Santa Ana winds and humidity in the single digits have helped stoke the blaze that has swept through dry vegetation since it erupted on Dec. 4 near a small private college in Ojai. It has since blackened more than 249,000 acres (about 390 square miles) and is now the fourth-largest wildfire on record in California since 1932.

On Friday morning powerful winds are forecast which will subside during the day, the National Weather Service said.

"Winds will weaken Friday, turn westerly early Saturday, then become offshore and gusty again late Saturday night through Sunday evening," the service said in an advisory.

The wildfire remained a threat to some 18,000 homes and other structures in the communities of Santa Barbara, Carpinteria, Summerland and Montecito along California's coastline, especially if hot, dry Santa Ana winds return.

The Thomas Fire, which was 35 percent contained as of Thursday evening, has burned 729 homes to the ground and damaged another 175. The blaze has displaced more than 94,000 people.

The fire and others to the south in San Diego and Los Angeles counties have disrupted life for millions of people over the last 11 days.

They have caused schools to close for days, shut roads and driven hundreds of thousands from their homes and into shelters. The fires are also responsible for poor air quality throughout Southern California, forcing some commuters to wear protective face masks, local media reported.

(Additional reporting by Brendan O'Brien)

White nationalist charged with murder in Virginia car killing of protester

15 hours 41 min ago

A white nationalist accused of killing a 32-year-old woman when he plowed his car into a crowd of counterprotesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August was charged with first-degree murder on Thursday.

James Fields Jr., 20, appeared at Charlottesville District Court for a preliminary hearing, during which a previous charge of second degree murder was changed to first degree murder.

Fields would face up to life in prison if convicted of first-degree murder, while second-degree murder carries a penalty of five to 40 years in prison, according to the Virginia penal code.

Court officials and the local district attorney were not immediately available for comment.

Fields, from Ohio, is accused of killing Heather Heyer and injuring 19 people.

The incident took place amid clashes between hundreds of white supremacists and counter-protesters. After hours of clashes, a sedan driving at high speed plowed into the crowd before reversing along the same street.

Charlottesville is home to the University of Virginia's flagship campus.

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe blamed neo-Nazis for sparking the unrest in the town, where rival groups fought pitched battles using rocks and pepper spray after far-right protesters converged to demonstrate against a plan to remove a statue of a Confederate war hero.

After the rally, President Donald Trump inflamed tensions by saying there were "very fine people" on both sides, drawing condemnation from some Republican leaders and praise from white supremacists.

(Reporting by Ian Simpson and Jon Herskovitz)

Readers write: Letters to the editor, December 15, 2017

18 hours 31 min ago

Telemedicine means change

I wrote the following brief essay a few weeks ago as a nursing student at UAA regarding telemedicine after a classroom lecture on the subject. After reading the article written by Tegan Hanlon (Dec. 13), it seems an appropriate response:

I have mixed emotions about telehealth. I believe that it has its place in the practice of medicine in remote regions; however, I fear it will one day trend toward a time when physician care will shift more toward telehealth and away from the traditional office visit model, even when that care is provided locally. I also envision it as fraught with liability, along with a trend toward attorneys specializing in "telemalpractice." Nevertheless, we are a litigious society and we do love our lawsuits; to that end, I envision 1-8-0-0-T-E-L-E-S-U-E commercials popping up on cable TV with monotonous regularity in the years to come, featuring some handsome, hungry, young attorney sporting a "come hither" smile and an air of solicitous smarm. This means that the next step in telehealth will be an entirely new philosophy espousing patients' rights in the technological world — authored by IT nerds and the legal profession, of course.

Perhaps I judge mankind (and lawyers) too harshly; however, the fact is that traditionally medicine is a hands-on practice, one that evokes feelings of warmth and caring, and represents true therapeutic communication between the provider and the patient. Yet there is no denying that I am a dying breed; my generation was not born with a cellphone clutched in one fist and a joy stick in another, so, eventually, I suppose I will have to bow to the inevitable and accept that the world — and the way in which people connect — is changing. I might even learn to embrace it. Someday, anyway.

— Karen Niebert
Anchorage

ADN delivering the news

Just because someone doesn't like the reality of national news, that doesn't make it "fake news." Personally, I find the ADN well-rounded and informative.

— Della Dempsey
Wasilla

State's savings going fast

It appears Alaska state senators are posturing for the upcoming session. Shelley Hughes argues we don't need spin but honesty and can further cut the budget. Of course we can; it's not zero yet. Talk about spin — she and her fellow leadership senators completely ignore the real issue, portfolio preservation. I'm talking about the Constitutional Budget Reserve and the Permanent Fund.

Refusing to balance the budget, they have forced the drawdown of the CBR by about $3 billion per year since 2015, when it stood at $10 billion and is now $3.9 billion. If they stonewall in 2018 it mostly depletes the fund. This is a stunning $10 billion loss in three years. For those who are investing- and portfolio-management challenged, and it's apparent our Senate leadership is, they just blew an easy $400 million per year income (.04 X 10B).

Further, the deficit after 2018 will have to be paid out of the Permanent Fund earnings. Without getting into the earnings reserve vs. the core, 4 percent is a proven safe withdrawal rate, so

.04 X 60 billion yields $2.4 billion. With a deficit of $2.8 billion minus the $2.4 billion, that leaves $400 million to be made up with taxes. It also leaves nothing for a PFD check.

Keep some PFD payout, then more taxes. With a stabilized economy, our legislators would have time to responsibly pare the budget. If we don't get this fiasco under control soon our savings will further erode with no realistic means to replenish it.

— Ron Silva
Eagle River

Tax bill hypocrisy sickening

I have not seen the final version of the federal tax bill, but the hypocrisy shown by its proponents is sickening. Adding to the national debt should only be done when it is required for the good of the nation, not the good of the wealthiest.

When the wildly optimistic dreams about revenue growth meet with reality, cuts will have to come from somewhere. If they have successfully funded the military, that leaves Medicare, Medicaid, nutritional assistance, Social Security and other social programs to absorb the cuts. These are the programs that the wealthy do not need, but they are very important to a lot of Americans.

Our representatives have forgotten who elected them. If you want to vote for a Republican in future elections, make sure that you pick a better one in the primary. I know that there are a lot of them out there. Let's not end up as serfs. Remember, we all do BETTER when we ALL do better.

— Mark Beaudin
Anchorage

The views expressed here are the writers' own and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a letter under 200 words for consideration, email letters@adn.com, or click here to submit via any web browser. Submitting a letter to the editor constitutes granting permission for it to be edited for clarity, accuracy and brevity. Send longer works of opinion to commentary@adn.com.

Prep boys basketball: Palmer tops Eagle River in season opener

Thu, 2017-12-14 21:44

Clayton Southwick poured in 24 points to power Palmer past Eagle River 60-41 Thursday in the boys basketball opener for both teams.

Dae Osiensky added 10 points for the Moose, who led by double digits after the first quarter (18-8).

Aaron Davis led Eagle River with 13 points.

Prep hockey: Service skates past East in overtime; South drops Eagle River

Thu, 2017-12-14 21:23

Service 3, East 2, OT

Samual Bourdon scored with less than two minutes remaining in overtime Thursday to lift the Service hockey team to a 3-2 win over East.

Luke Martensen and Anthony Roberts furnished assists on the game-winning goal at Ben Boeke Arena.

The Cook Inlet Conference victory for Service came despite 50 saves by East goaltender Lane Fox. Jordan Watson stopped 24 shots for Service.

During regulation, Devon Ament scored twice for East (0-8 in CIC games) and Slade Hallett scored twice for Service (3-6).

South 5, Eagle River 1

Five Wolverines scored goals and the South hockey team rolled Eagle River 5-1 Thursday in a CIC game at the MacDonald Center.

Ryan Bailey and Cason Martin tacked on goals in the first period, Carter Eaton and Sam Jemmings scored in the second and John Fabeck added a power-play goal in the third period for the Wolverines.

Eagle River's Austin Linn scored in the second period.

The Wolverines outshot the Wolves 33-18.

Police: Man hitchhiking from Anchorage to Homer is wanted on felony charges

Thu, 2017-12-14 20:13

The Anchorage Police Department is warning the public that a man thought to be hitchhiking from Anchorage to Homer is wanted for felony charges.

Daniel A. Grosser, 38, has a warrant out for his arrest in a case out of Kodiak, where he is charged with kidnapping, assault, robbery and tampering with evidence, among other charges, online records show.

Grosser is 6 feet tall, 209 pounds, with black hair and blue eyes, police said in a statement.

"If you see Grosser hitchhiking do not pick him up and call 9-1-1 with his location," the statement said.

The Concepcion of competition: South wrestling brothers are always competing

Thu, 2017-12-14 19:51

Whether they're fishing, riding their dirt bikes or hitting the wrestling mats, South High brothers Aedyn and Adam Concepcion are always competing against each other.

Two middle brothers in a family of five kids, Aedyn, a sophomore, and Adam, a freshman, have been wrestling since their dad introduced them to the sport when Aedyn was 6 and Adam was 5. They've been practicing with each other nearly every day since.

The brothers are small in stature — Aedyn wrestles in the 106-pound class and Adam wrestles at 98 pounds — but they've put together some of Alaska's biggest results this season. Both are Cook Inlet Conference champions, and they are a combined 89-1 this season heading into this week's state tournament at the Alaska Airlines Center.

Aedyn won a state title at 98 pounds last season as a freshman. Both he and Adam are ranked No. 1 in the state in their respective classes.

"Both of those guys are very dedicated to the sport," South coach Darin Pestrikoff said. "You ask them to do something and not only are they going to do it, they're going to go a little bit further than your normal expectations. They're very motivated."

Off the mat, everything is a contest for the hyper-competitive brothers. Pestrikoff said that on a fishing trip with the Concepcion clan last summer, there was a constant competition to see who could catch the biggest rockfish.

The jury is still out on who won — both bros claimed victory — but whenever their various competitions are over, they go right back to joking around with each other, Pestrikoff said.

"What I like about it is they compete hard against each other, but then they're still brothers and they're still happy with each other no matter which one ends up walking away the winner," he said.

On the mat, their strengths are their timing and their speed. They try to accumulate points with takedowns while keying on an opponent's tendencies.

"We're both mostly shooters," Aedyn said. "Mostly just let them up and then take them down."

"We're just quick," Adam added.

The only blemish on the brothers' records this season is Adam's loss to Anchorage Christian's Caleb O'Hara last month in the 98-pound championship at the Lancer Smith Memorial tournament in Wasilla. Adam got thrown in the final 10 seconds.

It was the only time he was taken down all season, and the match is still on his mind.

"I was stalling," Adam said. "I just needed to work on my base and getting more points."

The Concepcions are two of 26 South wrestlers who qualified for this week's state championships. The Wolverines won their sixth straight CIC title Saturday.

At state last year, Colony won the team title and South finished fourth.

"Last year we were a pretty young team and now that we've got more experience under our belts I think we're gonna be good," Aedyn said. "(Colony) has a lot of good guys, but we have pretty much the same caliber of guys in the same weight classes as them."

[South wins 6th straight CIC wrestling title]

Adam wants to follow in his brother's footsteps and win a state title as a freshman. Aedyn's goal is another title, although he said there is more pressure going into the meet as a defending champion.

Aedyn said his best memory from last year's state tourney was looking into the stands at the Alaska Airlines Center and seeing his big family taking up a whole section and cheering him on.

When the Concepcions wrestle, it's an excuse for a big family get-together. Their parents, siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins often are in attendance, and they're expected to be there again when the brothers hit the mats Friday morning.

"It is always a fun time when the Concepcion clan shows up," Pestrikoff said. "They really do travel in a pack.

"They're a very family-oriented group. It brings the energy up in the gym when they show up."

Prep bowling: Dimond’s Wahlberg and Chugiak’s Moore post top scores

Thu, 2017-12-14 19:47

Dimond's Tyler Wahlberg (266) and Chugiak's Jadyn Moore (201) rolled the day's top scores at Thursday's high school bowling matches at Center Bowl.

The bowlers' next match will be January 11th in Eagle River.

Last week's matches were canceled do to deteriorating weather and road conditions and will be rescheduled at a later date.

Boys

Dimond 33, East 2 — Dimond: Tyler Wahlberg 266; East: Kyle Lewis 177.

West 33, Service 2 — West: Nathan Hansen 191; Service: Rhys Williams 156.

South 29, Chugiak 6 — South: Ian Vollstedt 189; Chugiak: Kolton Reeves and Quentin Jackson 171.

Eagle River 35, Bartlett 0 — Eagle River: Joseph Herr 235; Bartlett: Dakota Faison 211.

Girls

Dimond 25, East 10 — Dimond: Emma Hundrup 191; East: Iris McKeon 179.

West 31, Service 4 — West: Gillian Wurts 157; Service: Dianny Melger 107.

Chugiak 35, South 0 — Chugiak: Jadyn Moore 201; South: Angelina Young 169.

Eagle River 35, Bartlett 0 — Eagle River: Allison Szewczyk 190; Bartlett: Aryel Williams 144.

Spackman out as Chugiak football coach, Harmon in at South

Thu, 2017-12-14 19:31

The football coach merry-go-round continues to whirl in Anchorage, where the Chugiak Mustangs are looking for a new head coach, and the South Wolverines have found one.

Roger Spackman is out at Chugiak, and Walter Harmon is in at South.

Spackman, who earlier this year guided Chugiak to the Railbelt Conference title and a semifinal appearance in the state playoffs, is the third Anchorage coach to step down, joining South's John Lewis and Dimond's Nick Winkler.

Spackman resigned after four years as head coach but said he isn't leaving the program.

"I really want to still coach," he said. "I'm not going to step away from the program, I'm just going to change my duties."

A science and PE teacher at Chugiak, Spackman said he grew weary of the many duties required of a head coach.

"I just got to a point where I didn't want to deal with all the things a head coach has to deal with," he said "I'd much rather just step back and let somebody who is younger step in and go crazy. That's the main thing. I'm not really ready to retire or anything, it's just a deal where I've been a head coach a long time."

He said he hopes Ryan Landers, who served as his offensive coordinator, becomes Chugiak's next head coach.

At South High, Harmon will ascend to the head coaching spot after several years as an assistant coach for the Wolverines. He replaces Lewis, who led South to three state championships in 14 seasons and was the only head coach in school history until now.

South principal Wendy Pondolfino said Harmon isn't a teacher at the school but is a longtime member of the coaching staff. He's a Dimond High graduate who enjoyed considerable success as a Pop Warner youth coach.

He's also a bit of a comedian, as he demonstrated in a Facebook post after his hiring last week.

"I'm excited for us all and look forward to building on the foundation that John Lewis started 14 years ago," he wrote.

Then he answered a few questions that allowed him to poke fun at West coach Tim Davis, known for his natty attire, and Bartlett coach John Jessen, known for his sometimes-colorful attire:

1) Yes, I will update my jokes.

2) No, I will not wear a top coat like Coach Tim Davis.

2a) Although I may consider Coach John Jessen pants.

3) No, I cannot get you free tickets to games.

4) Yes, I will bring my brand of silly to the field every day.

National ski championships still a go at Kincaid Park

Thu, 2017-12-14 19:07

When people say Anchorage is a hotbed for cross-country skiing, the "hot" part usually isn't literal. But December temperatures in the 40s make you wonder.

Warm, wet conditions have chased this weekend's Besh Cup ski races from Kincaid Park to Fairbanks. Sunday's second annual Solstice Tour of Trees will see more walkers than skiers on Kincaid's Mize Loop. And the park's snowmaking system is on hold until lower temperatures arrive.

But scant snow and marginal trail conditions aren't threatening the U.S. Cross Country Championships, slated to begin at Kincaid in less than three weeks.

"We feel very confident we can host this event," Joey Caterinichio, the chair of the national championships organizing committee.

Moving the championships elsewhere "is not even in the discussion," she said. "The weather looks promising to make more snow, and we do have enough of a base."

Kincaid's snowmaking loop was groomed Thursday morning, said Tamra Kornfield of the Nordic Skiing Association of Anchorage. The West High ski team practiced there during the day and Junior Nordic skiers planned to be on the trails Thursday night, she said.

"It's pretty thin and there are some patches of brown," Kornfield said. "… There's still a good base and when it's frozen, we're able to scratch it up and make it skiable."

The season "started out so strong," Kornfield noted, but recent warm, wet weather has diminished the impact of that early snow.

Caterinichio has a couple of reasons for her confidence.

The forecast promises lower temperatures between now and the first of the year, and that will allow the production of man-made snow. "Anything under 30 (degrees), we can make snow," she said.

And even with minimal snow, trail groomers can furnish a loop of 2.5 to 2.7 kilometers, Caterinichio said. She recalled a recent championship race series in Vermont, where skiers made do with a 1-kilometer loop.

"It's not ideal, but I do think 2.5K can be covered, and if we can get 5K, that'd be great," Caterinichio said.

Two of the four national-championship races are sprints, which are held on a short loop anyway. The other two are distance races, including mass-start 20K and 30K races on Jan. 7.

At stake are national titles, prize money and, for the men especially, the potential of earning spots on the U.S. Olympic team. Several of the nation's top women, including Anchorage's Sadie Bjornsen, clinched spots on the team with early season World Cup successes in Europe and won't be at Kincaid for the national championships.

[The Olympics are approaching. Here's how Alaska skiers are getting ready.]

Many skiers will come to Anchorage from the Lower 48. They are no doubt looking at temperatures in Anchorage and wondering whether the races will happen or not, but as Caterinichio pointed out, that's what it is like to be a cross-country skier in a world where snow and cold are no longer dependable.

"It's frustrating being a skier these days," she said. "All around the world, sites are like this. People are starting to accept this happens. Instead of panicking and canceling (trips), they are trusting people like us to tell them we can do it."

While climate change has impacted the sport in recent years, skiers have always had to be adaptable when faced with unfavorable conditions. A West High graduate, Caterinichio remembers high school teams riding buses to Turnagain Pass for races during the snow-challenged winter of 1985-86.

"In 1985 we skied at Turnagain Pass every weekend," she said. "In the 1990s, there were times we were skiing on Beach Lake with no snow."

Kornfield said some of that adaptability make be needed for Sunday's second annual Solstice Tree Tour on Kincaid's Mize Loop. With trails more icy than snowy, she expects to see more walkers than skiers.

"We recommend people bring ice grips," Kornfield said. "With the last couple of years, I think everybody has several pairs of those."

Emaciated polar bear in viral video is a warning, but not necessarily a climate victim

Thu, 2017-12-14 18:34

The photographer who captured a now-viral video of an emaciated polar bear in northern Canada said Thursday that the animal is not necessarily a victim of climate change, but is a sign of things to come if global temperatures continue to rise.

Those points were echoed by two longtime polar bear researchers, including one who said some polar bears starve because they're poor hunters.

The heart-wrenching footage of the extremely thin bear, dragging itself across the eastern edge of Somerset Island and scrounging hopelessly for food on land, has rocketed across the internet in recent days, sparking a debate on whether its gaunt condition should be blamed on climate change.

Paul Nicklen, co-founder of the SeaLegacy conservation group on Vancouver Island in Canada, said his group used the phrase "the face of climate change" when posting images of the bear on its Web page and on social media.

But the group also said it did not know why the bear was starving.

In an interview Thursday, Nicklen said he filmed the bear for about three hours in August before it walked to the ocean and swam away. He said he doesn't know whether the bear's emaciation was tied to illness, injury or some other factor.

He said the bottom line is that scientists fear the world's population of about 25,000 polar bears will drop significantly in the coming decades, and the animal could disappear in the next century because of climate change.

"These (images) aren't data points on a paper," he said. "This is what a bear looks like when it starves."

Steve Amstrup, the former director of polar bear research in Alaska at the U.S. Geological Survey, said Wednesday the exact cause of the polar bear's severely malnourished condition can't be determined.

But that's beside the point, said Amstrup, now with Polar Bears International, a conservation group.

"It would be incorrect to say this bear is clearly being killed by global warming or climate change," said Amstrup.

It's possible the bear is simply a poor hunter, Amstrup said. He witnessed that exact situation in the 1980s during an autumn research season in northern Alaska.

A young polar bear he saw then was in the same physical condition as the Somerset Island bear, hardly able to move and weighing a fraction of what it should. The bear Amstrup saw had apparently not learned the hunting skills it needed, he said.

"These kinds of things have happened," he said. "But organizations that would like to deny climate change, this is one thing they point out. They say, 'Oh, this happened in the past, so it's no big deal.' The big deal is this is a warning to us of the kind of thing that will become more frequent in the future."

Increases in carbon emissions and greenhouse gasses are directly linked to a warming planet and melting sea ice, he said.

Shrinking sea ice in recent years has reduced the hunting grounds where bears pursue their main prey, seals. They've been forced to spend more time on land, hunting less energy-rich meals that can range from rodents to caribou. If they're lucky, they might find whale carcasses left by Alaska Native subsistence hunters.

"When you take the ice away, you're basically taking away their dinner table," said Amstrup.

[Photos: See the polar bears of Kaktovik]

USGS officials involved in polar bear research could not be reached.

Geoff York, who also worked many years as a USGS polar bear scientist in Alaska, now works for Polar Bears International with Amstrup.

From the video, it's hard to tell the polar bear's age, said York. The face of a dominant older male would often be scarred from years of brawls, and this bear lacks those signs.

That doesn't mean it's a young bear, he said.

The video is a sad thing to witness, York said. But this could simply be an "old, injured, or sick bear struggling to survive."

"But is that bear consistent with what we expect as the Arctic warms? Sure," he said.

York said he didn't have much hope the bear is still alive, because it was in such poor condition.

But polar bears can be remarkably resilient.

About a decade ago, he captured a bear as skinny as the one in the video, though it didn't appear as close to death, he said.

"It was literally one or two seals away from making it," York said. "But it got lucky."

Scientists caught the same bear two years later, this time doing fine.

"Polar bears have an incredible physical resilience to go from very thin to very fat, to make that shift, so it can be difficult to look at a bear and say it's a goner," he said.

The polar bear population in the Baffin Bay region, east of where Nicklen filmed the bear, is considered stable, York said. But its long-term outlook isn't good as sea ice continues to melt.

Some polar bear populations are struggling, including in the southern Beaufort Sea region that includes part of northern Alaska.

About 15 years ago, while working for the USGS in that region, York began to see unusual signs that polar bears weren't doing well. Some bears had died inexplicably in their prime. He wasn't seeing younger bears, and many bears were thinner.

In 2014, scientists reported that southern Beaufort Sea polar bear numbers plunged 40 percent during this century's first decade.

Meanwhile, the Chukchi Sea population, whose range includes northwestern Alaska, appears to be holding steady, though "unprecedented" ice loss increasingly puts the fate of those bears in question, York said.

[Southern Beaufort Sea polar bears take a big hit]

Nicklen, with SeaLegacy, said he's pleased the video has drawn so much interest.

"I'm trying to break down the walls of apathy and spark a global debate," he said. "I think this is doing that."

Anchorage’s new $80M software system routinely screws up paychecks, unions say

Thu, 2017-12-14 18:13

Two of Anchorage's largest city unions have filed breach-of-contract complaints over missing pay and other errors tied to the launch of the city's $80 million new business software called SAP.

Three months after the launch of the new system, union officials say paychecks have been routinely wrong. Some employees are still owed money from October paychecks, the officials say.

"A lot of us aren't high earners, so a lot of folks missing a couple hundred dollars out of a paycheck, it really hurts," said Terre Gales, vice president and chief shop steward of the Anchorage Municipal Employees Union.

A representative of the administration of Mayor Ethan Berkowitz wasn't immediately available for comment Thursday. A spokeswoman, Kristin DeSmith, said the city couldn't directly discuss the complaints, citing personnel rules.

The reports of error-riddled paychecks are the latest twist in a troubled, massively complex software upgrade project that began in 2011 and has since ballooned in cost. As of July, the price tag had topped $81 million.

On Oct. 6, the SAP system, named for the German company that created it, started issuing paychecks for the first time. At the time, several hundred employees reported pay mistakes, though city officials said that was to be expected. Some brought complaints directly to the Anchorage Assembly a few weeks later.

[Timeline: Anchorage's increasingly expensive software project drags on]

At roughly 500 employees, AMEA is usually the city's largest union. The union covers a wide range of city workers, including nurses, engineers and parks and recreation staff.

At first, union officials tried to work through the paycheck issues with the Berkowitz administration, Gales said.

With the problems persisting, the union this month filed what's known as a "grievance," a formal step toward resolving labor disputes, according to Gales.

The Anchorage firefighters' union also has taken that step in recent weeks. Mike Stumbaugh, the president of International Association of Firefighters Local 1264, said his union had filed two grievances so far, which he described as "pretty sweeping." One involves delinquent payments to state and city retirement accounts, Stumbaugh said, and the other has to do with the paycheck mistakes.

City officials weren't able to say whether additional unions also had filed complaints.

Stumbaugh said his union has seen some of the more significant and confusing errors, since police and firefighters don't work normal shifts. Like Gales, Stumbaugh said that he's aware of union members who are still owed money from an October paycheck. Meanwhile, some were overpaid.

Stumbaugh said the situation has slowly been improving and that city payroll staff had been hard at work trying to fix errors. Instead of nearly all his members having problems every payday, it's now down to a few dozen, Stumbaugh said. He himself hasn't had issues.

"The goal is just for everyone to get paid right," Stumbaugh said.

The problems could add up to a substantial cost for the city. Payment errors trigger contract clauses that levy penalties against the city. In the case of the fire union, it's $50 a day to an employee as long as the pay error lasts. The AMEA contract calls for a $60 daily penalty.

Stumbaugh said his union isn't interested in collecting the penalties, which he said would likely take a lawsuit. He emphasized that he and other union officials just want the errors fixed and for people to be paid what they're owed.

He suggested the city may have been too hasty in launching the system.

"You have to have a deadline sooner or later, but I'm not sure that we were ready for it," Stumbaugh said. "And obviously, the proof is in the pudding: Paychecks are still routinely wrong."

The union grievances could end in arbitration, or a private third party coming in to settle the issues. But that's unusual. Stumbaugh said he expected the unions, the mayor and the Assembly would work together in the coming weeks.

How to make a killer crêpe (and what to fill it with)

Thu, 2017-12-14 17:35

Winter holiday season is often a time when you need a few quick and easy recipes for anytime-snacking. Enter the crêpe, one of France's beloved street foods.

The savory version known as galettes, originally from Upper Brittany, enlist buckwheat flour for a thick, moist pancake and are filled with everything from smoked fish and sausage to ham and cheese or egg. Sweet versions, made with unbleached wheat flour, originally from Lower Brittany, are what most of us think of as the crispy-edged French crêpe. Both are deeply satisfying and traditionally served with a small bowl of sparkling hard apple cider.

While not difficult to make, it takes a few turns at the stove to get crêpes just right. I hadn't made them in years, actually, but having just returned from France with my family, the request as soon as we landed back in Alaska was for crêpes au Nutella. You'll need a crêpe pan or a well-seasoned non-stick skillet. (I've been using Ballarini PFOA-free Italian skillets lately and find the 8-inch perfect for crêpe making.)

For the batter, you can add your flour to a bowl, make a well and add the remaining ingredients before whisking vigorously. However, it's easy to use a blender, which makes for a quick batter that gets aerated just so and yields a light and fluffy crêpe. You can use this as a basic recipe, but if making a sweet version you can add, if desired, two tablespoons of granulated sugar to the batter.

I usually keep my batter in the blender or pour it into a large measuring cup with a spout and gently pour and tilt the pan at the same time, twirling so the batter coats the pan in one even layer.

The first one is often the frumpiest of the lot — a bit lumpy, but gobbled hot from the pan with a squeeze of lemon and a smear of good honey or jam, it's actually my favorite. The more presentable ones are thin and barely golden, with frilly edges. Let guests eat them hot from the pan with their choice of sweet filling, or add the savory fillings while the crêpe is still in the pan.

Basic crêpe batter

Makes 10-12 (8-inch) crêpes

1 1/3 cups low-fat milk (2 percent)

3 large eggs

½ teaspoon salt

1 cup buckwheat flour (or unbleached white all-purpose flour)

1/3 cup unbleached white all-purpose flour

3 tablespoons melted unsalted butter

Butter or neutral oil, for greasing pan

Optional savory fillings: fried egg; smoked salmon or leftover cooked salmon; ham and cheese, sautéed spinach and crème fraiche. NOTE: If making a sweet preparation, add 1 to 2 tablespoons granulated sugar to the batter when you add the eggs. Sweet fillings: salted caramel and sautéed apples; Nutella or jam; fresh bananas and berries; chocolate or strawberry sauce …

1. Place milk, eggs and salt in a blender. Cover the blender and blend at low speed for about 15 seconds. Add the flours and melted butter and blend for 45 seconds on high speed. If desired, pour mixture into a measuring cup with spout and let sit 30 minutes or, cover and refrigerate for one hour and up to overnight. Bring to room temperature before cooking.

2. Place a well-seasoned crêpe pan (or an 8-inch non-stick skillet) over medium heat. Brush pan with butter or oil. When pan is hot, lift pan from heat and tilt pan, pouring in 2 to 3 tablespoons of batter; quickly swirl the pan so the batter creates a thin even layer. Return pan to the heat. Cook for about one minute, until you can easily lift the edge of the crêpe using a thin spatula. If browning too quickly, reduce heat. Turn crêpe and cook other side for about 30 seconds. Turn onto a plate and continue with the remaining batter.

Kim Sunée is the bestselling author of "Trail of Crumbs: Hunger, Love, and the Search for Home" and "A Mouthful of Stars." Her new book, "Everyday Korean," is out now and available at Barnes and Noble and Amazon. For more food and travel, visit kimsunee.com and instagram/kimsunee.

[Bacon mac and cheese gets a Korean twist]

[Chicken pot pie, baked in a skillet and minus the fuss]

Charging for school buses? Anchorage School District wants your input on how to fix its budget gap

Thu, 2017-12-14 17:15

The Anchorage School District is asking the community how it should fix its budget gap for next school year, including whether it should start charging students to use the school bus.

If the level of state funding remains unchanged for the 2018-19 school year, the district anticipates a general fund budget gap of roughly $9.7 million, or about 1.7 percent of the total general fund budget. The gap is driven by factors including increasing insurance costs and utility bills, according to a budget document.

To close the gap, the district will have to reduce its spending. As part of that process, it created an eight-question online survey to get public input, according to a statement from Anchorage School District Superintendent Deena Bishop.

"Information gathered informs the School Board and administration about the pulse of our community," she said.

The survey asks community members what they value most in schools and in what areas they think the district should cut spending. It includes questions about whether the community supports increasing student fees for activities and supplies to preserve teaching positions and class sizes, as well as whether the district should ask students who use the school bus to pay for the rides.

In addition to the $9.7 million general fund budget gap, the district is anticipating a $3.5 million gap in its transportation budget — nearly 14 percent of that budget's total.

School Board member Tam Agosti-Gisler said transportation funding has not kept pace with inflation, forcing the district to dip into its operating budget to pay for buses.

She said community members have brought up charging for bus service before. The survey simply punts the suggestion out to the public to see what they think, she said.

People can take the survey through Dec. 22. It can be found at asdk12.org.

The district is scheduled to present its 2018-19 budget to the Anchorage School Board in February and to the Anchorage Assembly in March.

How UAA grew from an afterthought to a vital part of Anchorage

Thu, 2017-12-14 16:53

Looking at the sprawling UAA complex on the east side of town, it's hard to imagine, or in some cases remember, that it wasn't always there.  The linear campus fills the land along Providence Drive from Lake Otis to Elmore. Most people in Anchorage have some association with the school; many have taken at least one class there, if not more, and community support is widespread, even with a struggling hockey team. It's unusual not to see a jacket or hat with the Seawolf logo on it on any trip around town.

It wasn't always so.  In fact, there was a time when many city leaders firmly opposed the establishment of a University of Alaska campus here.

It wasn't so long ago that any mention of the University of Alaska was assumed to mean the campus in Fairbanks. This went back to the parceling out of traditional and remunerative institutions when the territory was new. Across the West as Congress created territories and states, founders sought to spread future largesse. One town would get the university — Eugene, Missoula, Seattle. Another would get the capital — Salem, Helena, Olympia. And another was conceded as the commercial/industrial center – Portland, Butte, and Tacoma, which was expected to be the major rail and port city in Washington. Not all states followed this course, but most did. Alaska followed suit: Juneau got the capital, Fairbanks the university, and Anchorage the railroad headquarters.

But then demographics upset the scheme, aided by strong leadership from some unexpected quarters. Visiting University of Alaska faculty began offering college level courses at Fort Richardson in 1950, and then the Anchorage Community College opened in 1954, with night courses at Elmendorf. Right from the beginning there were calls for more courses and more diverse subject areas than the infant school could offer. Teachers needed fifth-year courses; accountants needed professional development, engineers needed career upgrades. Pushed by growing demand from Anchorage's expanding population, the school grew akimbo. ACC was originally a partnership of the Anchorage School District and UA. Concerned about a potential competing institution, soon after he became UA president, William Ransom Wood oversaw the incorporation of ACC into the statewide university.

[New UAA program reflects rock-solid faith in Alaska's future]

But in 1958 a new school, Alaska Methodist University, began planning for an opening in Anchorage. Many of Anchorage's movers and shakers were put off by the notion of far-off Fairbanks controlling the state's only college, and quickly and enthusiastically embraced the idea of this new, "their own," university. Also, many who were of a conservative frame of mind liked the idea of a private, rather than public (government funded) school. Foremost among these was Bob Atwood, publisher of the Anchorage Daily Times, then the state's largest-circulation newspaper. Despite plans, AMU would not offer classes until 1965.

In 1966 voters approved bonding for buildings for ACC; several opened in 1970. Yet an evolving, expanding and maturing state university was not Atwood's idea of the city's future. But it was the idea of one city father, and he put his foot down: That was Elmer Rasmuson. Anchorage would need a campus of the state university, he understood; AMU was not a sufficient option. And as both the major civic and commercial manager in Anchorage, and as president of the UA Board of Regents, and Anchorage mayor after 1964, he prevailed.

In reality, the writing had been on the wall from the start. As Anchorage outstripped Fairbanks in population and commercial growth, becoming Alaska's dominant city, the demand for additional college courses burgeoned. New oil money funded new buildings, and also a new, sister entity, the Anchorage Senior College, which offered upper division and graduate courses.

[UAA student has winning design for new 'artistic license plate']

AMU was never a financially viable undertaking; by the 1970s it survived only with aid from the state, and after Attorney General Avrum Gross declared that unconstitutional, the school closed in 1976. Reorganized with a more limited vision, it reopened as Alaska Pacific University in fall 1977.

Meanwhile, under the sure hands of first Lew Haines, then later Lee Gorsuch and others, and driven by the demographics, UAA grew into what we see today.

Beloved and highly regarded former history professor Will Jacobs has reconstructed UAA's history: "Becoming UAA: 1954-2014." It's a worthy read!

Steve Haycox is professor emeritus of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@adn.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

Tax plan is no gift, but season’s spirit lives in our communities

Thu, 2017-12-14 16:51

With the passage of the Republican tax bill, it's clear that "we the corporations" and "we the wealthy" got taken care of in spades, while "we the people" got thrown a bone; a mixed bag of temporary tax cuts for individuals and families. Judging by opinion polls, I am not alone in this assessment of the tax bill that passed the Senate by a one-vote margin.

A new (Dec. 10) USA Today/Suffolk University poll finds only 32 percent of Americans support the GOP tax bill. According to USA Today "this is the lowest level of public support for any major piece of legislation enacted in the past three decades, including the Affordable Care Act in 2009." A majority of Americans "predict their own families won't pay lower taxes as a result of the measure, and an equal 53 percent say it won't help the economy in a major way."

A Reuters/Ipos poll, released after the Senate's passage of the tax bill, comports with the sentiment expressed in the USA Today/Suffolk University poll. When asked "who stands to benefit most" from the plan, more than half of all American adults surveyed selected either the wealthy or large U.S. corporations. Fourteen percent chose "all Americans," six percent picked the middle class, and two percent chose lower-income Americans. Clearly we are leaving out we the people when it comes to whom Congress chooses to address.

If Congress and the Trump administration are all about serving the corporations and the wealthy where do we the people go? To the ballot box? This is still an option. However, this option is less viable thanks to gerrymandering and the influence of big money. With Citizens United and super PACs now funding most major elections, corporations and the wealthy have the upper hand at the ballot box. To the courts? From all the lawsuits against the Trump administration it's clear that we the people are already in this arena, which unfortunately requires a lot of time for appeal proceedings to run out. Sadly, this leaves the right to assemble — taking to the streets — as one of the few places for we the people to be heard.

But hey, it's the holiday season and I don't want to go there nor do I want to dwell any further on this latest overlook of the poor and the middle class.

Still, in asking where do we the people go?, I'm happy to report that in my community of Juneau we the people go to Nutcracker Ballets and holiday pageants to see children and/or grandchildren perform. We go to church to celebrate love and faith. We join in service to feed the hungry and help the homeless. We go with friends to local arts and crafts fairs. We bake cookies and make the rounds of office Christmas parties. We escape into the Seattle Seahawks' bid for a playoff spot. We let go of politics and renew ourselves in the brethren of neighbors and community.  We the people just go about being everyday folk that form the fabric of America. Thanks goodness for that.

Kate Troll is the author of "The Great Unconformity: Reflections on Hope in an Imperiled World." She has more than 22 years of experience in Alaska fisheries, coastal management and energy policy. She lives in Douglas.

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@adn.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

These Alaska women are carving out a niche in the age-old taxidermy industry

Thu, 2017-12-14 15:55

Samantha Huckstep stood in front of a Kodiak brown bear mount in her garage last month and held a flashlight at the tip of its nose, aiming the light into its round, dark, glass eyes.

"If the two glares are in the middle of the eyes, you know they're centered," Huckstep explained.

A hunter had killed the brown bear in July, and Huckstep wanted to make the dead animal look alive again. As a taxidermist, that's her job.

Huckstep, a 29-year-old who once worked as an animal control officer, started the taxidermy shop in her garage in Eagle River in 2015.

Nationwide, more and more women are entering taxidermy, an age-old industry long dominated by men, according to Larry Blomquist, who has organized the World Taxidermy & Fish Carving Championships since 1994.

"The number of women entering the industry and having an interest in taxidermy is much higher than it was years ago," he said.

Taxidermists in Alaska say the trend is apparent here, too, on a smaller scale. Huckstep is part of it. She said she wants to help reinvigorate and modernize the industry.

"When I started hunting, I wanted to preserve the animal and use it to the fullest," Huckstep said.

Blomquist said it's hard to say exactly what's driving the increase in women in taxidermy. Some theorize that more women are hunting and that has something to do with it. Others say the internet has opened a window into the once shadowy industry, showing people that taxidermy is more of a technical artistry than a morbid craft. In some other states, it has become a hobby for hipsters.

For Huckstep, taxidermy is about immortalizing memories and using all parts of the animal killed.

"A lot of anatomy goes into it," Huckstep said in her garage, staring into the brown bear's eyes, surrounded by antlers, black bear hides, fish molds and a life-size Dall sheep mount.

Huckstep grew up in a hunting family. She said she remembers two deer heads hanging on the wall of her parents' home and always thought taxidermy was something she might like to do.

In 2014, she finally decided to quit her job, take out a $40,000 loan and go to taxidermy school.

At her secluded Eagle River home, at the top of a steep driveway, she keeps learning by studying YouTube videos and photographs. Every once in a while she looks out her window and sees a moose or bear ambling by.

To re-create the brown bear in her garage, Huckstep draped its tanned hide over a giant white foam mold — like a mannequin — manufactured Outside.

She sculpted the mold to fit the brown bear hide and carved foam pieces to create muscles in the arms. Around the eyes, which she set with clay, she tucked the hide to create its eyelids and eyebrows.

"I want it to resemble real life as much as possible," she said.

Over the decades, she said, taxidermy has changed.

"In traditional taxidermy, they didn't care about anatomy," she said. "They just shoved it full of sawdust and rags and newspaper. They used arsenic and formaldehyde. Today's taxidermy — you're not going to get sick on this stuff. A little kid could go over and lick it and survive."

Just north of Eagle River, in Chugiak, Andrea Radford also started a taxidermy shop in her two-car garage.

Radford, 40, said her husband is in the military and was stationed in Alaska in 2007. She had a job offer at an oil company, but turned it down. She wanted to work from home at a job with flexible hours so she could spend more time with her daughter, who is now 13.

"I wanted something artistic and detail-oriented that would still keep me working with the public," she said.

Radford said she decided "taxidermy would be the way to go." She hunted and fished, she said, "so turning to taxidermy was a pretty easy transition." She worked as an apprentice for a taxidermist in Anchorage for a year before opening her own shop in 2012.

Some of her customers say they're surprised to see a female taxidermist, she said, and many have asked who scrapes the fat from the animals' hides, a process called fleshing.

"A lot of them just assume that I don't do it," Radford said. "So they're kind of surprised when I say, 'No, I do it. It's not a big deal.'"

In Anchorage, Russell Knight opened Knight's Taxidermy nearly three decades ago. He said in the past six years or so, he's seen the number of women interested in taxidermy spike.

"They're taking taxidermy to a new level and turning it into more of an artistry," he said.

Knight also serves as the vice president of the National Taxidermists Association and he starred in a reality TV show on the History Channel about his taxidermy shop.

This summer, Knight had three interns at the shop and all were women, which he said was once unusual.

"We didn't generally have gals like Carri Ann just show up and want to know about taxidermy and I contribute that to a lot of factors," Knight said. Those factors include TV shows about taxidermy, magazines about taxidermy and the endless internet, he said.

"You can Google anything now. You can go see anything. People are now understanding that taxidermy is an art and not just a bunch of gross guys spitting tobacco on the floor," he said.

Carri Ann Mueller, a 43-year-old who lives in Chugiak, was working as the marketing manager at an outdoors retailer when she met Knight. She said she started hunting more than a decade ago, picking it up as a new hobby after running marathons became too tough on her knees.

After she shot her first mountain goat in 2016, Mueller said, she became interested in taxidermy. She wanted to make a rug out of it, and it seemed economical to learn to do it herself. Like Huckstep, she said she wanted to use the whole animal.

Mueller said she asked Knight if he would help her, and she became an intern at his shop. She works for free and last month was finishing up a caribou shoulder mount.

"It's a special kind of art," she said. "Some girls like knitting, some girls like crocheting, some girls like quilting and here I am sewing animal hides — it's totally a different type of hobby."

Maybe one day, she said, she'll start her own business.

In Kenai, Amanda Alaniz, a trapper, is just getting started crafting animal mounts and is practicing with her own hides. Her main business is fur sewing, she said, though she would like to eventually make taxidermy a larger chunk of her work.

"I've always been interested in dead things," Alaniz said.

Alaniz, 31, said she has a budding interest in rogue taxidermy — the creation of fantasy animals, like mice with mohawks.

She is currently working on crafting a unicorn out of a horse cape and an African oryx horn. To amp up the oddity, she plans to spray paint it black and white.

In Eagle River, Huckstep's more traditional business has continued to grow.

Last year, she had 160 taxidermy jobs and in 2017, that number topped 250, she said. The jobs range from antler mounts to life-size mounts to skull cleanings. That's where her beetle colony comes in.

Last month, Huckstep lifted the lid of an unplugged freezer behind her garage and the thousands of flesh-eating beetles inside scurried out of sight.

The stench of decay leaked into the air. Huckstep put two black bear skulls into the freezer and closed the lid. The beetle colony, she said, would eat any remaining scraps of meat left on the bears' bones, cleaning the skulls.

In a nearby shed, a grizzly bear hide hung covered in a salt mixture. In her pickup sat the massive head of a bison. Taxidermy requires heavy lifting, she said, and it can get messy.

"I have to shower anytime I leave the house," she said with a laugh.

But Huckstep said it's worth it. Her favorite part of taxidermy is the end result and giving her creation back to the hunter.

"I love the customer coming up. I love the expression on their face," she said.

One day, Huckstep said, maybe she'll start her own taxidermy school in Alaska so she can pass on the centuries-old craft.

Found: Another star system with eight planets, just like ours

Thu, 2017-12-14 15:26

Only a handful of star systems have more than a single planet. With eight worlds, our solar system has long taken the prize for the biggest lineup. But no longer.

Our corner of the galaxy now shares the record with another system, Kepler 90, NASA and Google researchers announced Thursday. A Google algorithm uncovered a scorcher of a planet, a rock 30 percent larger than Earth, orbiting a star a few thousand light-years away. This planet, Kepler 90i, brought the total number of planets circling its star to eight – just like our solar system's octuplets.

"For the first time, we've discovered an eighth planet in a distant planetary system," Paul Hertz, head of NASA's astrophysics division, said during a media briefing. This discovery required an advanced technology to comb through the gargantuan amount of data obtained by the Kepler space observatory.

[Astronomers have discovered the closest 'Earth-like' planet to our solar system]

The Kepler telescope, which trails millions of miles behind Earth like a loyal pup, has gazed out into space since 2009. During that time it has brought in data from 150,000 stars. When an exoplanet crosses in front of one of them, Kepler registers a subtle dip in that star's sunlight.

Fishing for those dips within the massive database is a challenge. "The Kepler mission has so much data it is impossible to examine manually," Christopher Shallue, a Google AI software engineer, explained during the briefing.

With help from Andrew Vanderburg, an astronomer at the University of Texas at Austin, Shallue developed a machine-learning program that detects light curves. (Google and NASA have been collaborating for years; in 2013, they unveiled the Quantum Artificial Intelligence Lab, a machine-learning facility at the space agency's Ames Research Center.) The scientists did not give the program, called a neural network, explicit instructions to find the characteristic curves of an exoplanet. Instead, it had to learn by example.

"A neural network is loosely inspired by the structure of the human brain," Shallue said. "You can think of the neurons as switches." The U-shaped dip of Kepler 90i passing in front of its star was too weak a signal for human detection. But it was strong enough for the AI, churning through 14 billion data points, to detect.

Astronomers are confident that the exoplanet exists and that its surface temperature could exceed 800 degrees Fahrenheit. It has a shorter orbit than Mercury's, completing a circle around its star once every two weeks. "This is almost certainly an exoplanet," Vanderburg said, with the odds of a false positive being 1 in 10,000. Already, the results from this deep data dive have been accepted for publication in the Astronomical Journal.

But the number of worlds is not the only similarity between our solar system and the Kepler 90 system. As in ours, Kepler's small, rocky planets are closest to the sun and its gas giants farthest away. Kepler 90 itself is larger than our sun, though not extremely so.

The planets in our system are far more spread out, however. Neptune is, at its closest, 2.8 billion miles from the sun. The most distant gas giant in the Kepler 90 system is 93 million miles from its star. "All the planets are found scrunched very close to their star," Vanderburg said.

Because the telescope has only observed the system's center, it may contain still other worlds. "It's very possible that Kepler 90 has even more planets that we don't know about," Vanderburg added. Any planet with a longer orbit – a world as far from Kepler 90 as Jupiter is from our sun – would pass by the observatory undetected.

(On the other hand, some astronomers argue it's possible that our solar system has unknown planets, such as Planet Nine, lurking on the fringe. Perhaps we could reclaim our galactic exceptionalism once again.)

The Kepler telescope is in its twilight years. In 2013, two of four reaction wheels that had kept it on target failed. Without a fix, the mission was doomed.

Desperate to salvage the $550 million craft, researchers turned to the only available support: the sun. They harnessed the pressure of solar radiation to stabilize Kepler, as The Post reported in 2014. With two functional wheels and the force of the sun acting like a crutch, the craft could once again focus on distant stars. The reborn project was given the name K2.

During the Kepler and K2 missions, astronomers have confirmed the location of 2,500 exoplanets. Kepler has detected another 5,000 exoplanet candidates, which await confirmation.

The K2 mission was funded for an additional three years of life in 2016. The spacecraft's fuel is expected to run dry at some point in 2018.

Why net neutrality was repealed and how it affects you

Thu, 2017-12-14 15:18

The Federal Communications Commission voted Thursday to repeal Obama-era net neutrality rules, which required internet service providers to offer equal access to all web content without charging consumers for higher-quality delivery or giving preferential treatment to certain websites.

The vote is a big win for Ajit Pai, the agency's chairman, who has long opposed the regulations, saying they impeded innovation. He once said they were based on "hypothetical harms and hysterical prophecies of doom."

These are the rules that were repealed

The original rules went into effect in 2015 and laid out a regulatory plan that addressed a rapidly changing internet. Under those regulations, broadband service was considered a utility under Title II of the Communications Act, giving the FCC broad power over internet providers. The rules prohibited the following practices:

Blocking: Internet service providers could not discriminate against any lawful content by blocking websites or apps.

Throttling: Service providers could not slow the transmission of data based on the nature of the content, as long as it is legal.

Paid prioritization: Service providers could not create an internet fast lane for companies and consumers who pay premiums, and a slow lane for those who don't.

[GCI, Alaska Communications vow not to penalize Alaskans when net neutrality rescinded]

How it could affect you

Many consumer advocates have argued that if the rules get scrapped, broadband providers will begin selling the internet in bundles, not unlike how cable television is sold today. Want to access Facebook and Twitter? Under a bundling system, getting on those sites could require paying for a premium social media package.

In some countries, internet bundling is already happening. In October, Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., posted a screenshot on Twitter from a Portuguese mobile carrier that showed subscription plans with names like Social, Messaging and Video. He wrote that providers were "starting to split the net."

Another major concern is that consumers could suffer from pay-to-play deals. Without rules prohibiting paid prioritization, a fast lane could be occupied by big internet and media companies, as well as affluent households, while everyone else would be left on the slow lane.

Some small-business owners have also been concerned these issues will affect them, worrying that industry giants could pay to get an edge, and leave them on an unfair playing field.

"The internet, the speed of it, our entire business revolves around that," David Callicott, who sells paraffin-free candles on his website, GoodLight, said last month.

E-commerce startups, for their part, have feared they could end up on the losing end of paid prioritization, where their websites and services load slower than those run by internet behemoths. Remote workers of all kinds, including freelancers and franchisees working in the gig economy,could similarly face higher costs to do their jobs from home.

The argument against regulation

"It's basic economics," Pai said in a speech at the Newseum in April. "The more heavily you regulate something, the less of it you're likely to get."

The FCC chairman has long argued against the rules, pointing out that before they were put into effect in 2015, service providers had not engaged in any of the practices the rules prohibit.

"Did these fast lanes and slow lanes exist? No," he said in the speech. "It's almost as if the special interests pushing Title II weren't trying to solve a real problem but instead looking for an excuse to achieve their long-standing goal of forcing the internet under the federal government's control."

Several internet providers have made public pledges in recent months that they will not block or throttle sites once the rules were repealed. The companies argue that Title II gives the FCC too much control over their business, and that the regulations make it hard to expand their networks.

The internet was already changed

Perhaps the repeal won't change the direction of the internet. In November, Farhad Manjoo argued that the internet has already been dying a slow death, and that the repeal of net neutrality rules only hastens its demise.

He wrote that the biggest U.S. internet companies — Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google and Microsoft — "control much of the online infrastructure, from app stores to operating systems to cloud storage to nearly all of the online ad business."

Meanwhile, most American homes and smartphones connect to the internet through a "handful of broadband companies — AT&T;, Charter, Comcast and Verizon, many of which are also aiming to become content companies, because why not."

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