Author: Sean Talbot

June 28, 2011 Sean Talbot

It’s high summer – the bugs are out, and you should be too. Luckily, there are many more places to enjoy the out doors than the bustling avenues around Flattop and the Glen Alps. Outlined here are a couple of hikes – of varying difficulty – that are not far from Anchorage, and have some semblance of solitude.

•Bear Mountain and Mount Eklutna
•Blacktail Ptarmigan Rocks and Roundtop Mountain

June 14, 2011 Sean Talbot

Senator Mark Begich fielded questions on Alaska Public Radio Network’s (APRN) “Talk of Alaska,” in an unprecedented cross-platform broadcast for the show. The weekly statewide radio program, hosted by Steve Heimel, featured both a TV crew and live studio audience.

June 10, 2011 Sean Talbot

UAA alumnus Cole Robbins is riding her bike from California to Alaska. Some might call it crazy; she calls it performance art.
“Alaska is home for me, and I haven’t been back in years,” she said.
She’s riding for a dual purpose: to support the Children’s Hospital of Oakland, and to gather stories and information for her graduate thesis.
“I always wanted to be involved in art therapy, but I didn’t want to get my degree in it,” she said.

April 26, 2011 Sean Talbot

Congratulations. You’ve graduated college. You’re free! Now what? Do you think you have to run to the nearest big American city after college in order to start paying off those loans? Sure, you’ve got some major debt to deal with, but other than that, you can go anywhere now, and be anything you like! If…

April 19, 2011 Sean Talbot

“How many of you have made mistakes?” Richie Farrell asked the Wendy Williamson audience. Nearly everyone raised his or her hand. “How many of you have had those mistakes broadcast on national television?” he added. No hands rose. Farrell, a former heroin addict whose book What’s Left of Us outlines his first week in detox,…

April 12, 2011 Sean Talbot

Mike Humphrey made his best attempt to answer questions from the indignant crowd. For an hour and a half, he laid out the changes he had made to the University of Alaska employees’ health care plan, and the employees were not at all happy.

As the Benefits Director for UA, Humphrey has to adapt the current employee plan to cohere with the new health care reform laws.

That includes tripling health care costs for Phil Jensen, a Journeyman Carpenter for the Facilities and Maintenance Department.

Jensen started working for UAA last September. He then had a good impression of the benefits the university offered.

“Everyone talked about how great the benefits were,” he said. “I should have known better. It has been my experience that many people here at the University don’t come from a background with cost-efficient health insurance.”

Coming from the construction business, where work isn’t always guaranteed, Jensen found UAA a good fit.

“As a carpenter, what I do here is light duty in comparison to what I used to do,” he said.

Come July 1, covering his family’s health insurance needs is going to get a lot harder.

But Humphrey says it’s the only realistic option.

Implementing the new health care laws into the UA’s plan will cost up to $3.5 million a year, according to Humphrey. The money has to come from somewhere.

Humphrey has considered other options: find a way to get older employees to retire, thus reducing insurance costs by risk alone. Or he could incentivize employees to improve their lifestyle and personal health.

He also suggested an easy fix that would shift the cost to the customer: the students.

As a former UAA student, Jensen knows about college debts. “I know it’s unfair to pass the cost onto the students,” said Jensen. “But it doesn’t make it any easier on my paycheck.”

Like Humphrey said – the only realistic option, “is to change the plan itself.”

Jensen isn’t so forgiving. “The huge price increase is a real kick in the balls,” he said.

“It is a fairly large hit especially with my wife and I expecting our fourth [child] in July,” he added.

One question Humphrey faced at his presentation was the potential for new recruits to turn their nose up at the high cost of benefits.

Someone in the crowd spoke up.

“It’s better than the lower 48. At least we have jobs here.” The employee flock murmured agreement.

The new UA health care plan comes with a number of “enhancements,” as are being called the reform law changes. Included:

  • Students will now be allowed to be on their parent’s health care until age 26.
  • There will be no more pre-existing medical condition restrictions for children under 19.
    (the corresponding law for adults doesn’t take effect until 2014)
  • There will be no more lifetime maximums.

Dental and vision plans are not changing. However, a tobacco charge will take effect in 2013. Smokers and chewers beware: if you’re still on the leaf, you’ll be charged more for insurance than the quitters and the abstinent.

Jensen sees the exorbitant increase as his responsibility.

He expected the cut in wages, but he also knows they will rise the longer he works for UAA. Unfortunately, history shows that insurance does, too.

When asked if he would have still taken the job with the new benefit plan, he replied, “I don’t know.”

“I still keep in contact with my friends in the Carpenter’s Union,” he added, with the sort of nod that makes you think twice about what he means.

April 5, 2011 Sean Talbot

Kokayi Nosakhere is calling every college student in America to help end child hunger. A grassroots activist who has been working for over a year, Nosakhere has one goal in mind: ending child hunger in Alaska by 2015. The former Food Bank of Alaska Food Stamp Outreach Coordinator says he’s gotten the word out enough…

April 5, 2011 Sean Talbot

As if there wasn’t enough trouble in the world – tsunamis, civil war, nuclear meltdown – Parking Services is raising permit fees this fall.

But they’re making up for it, according to Glenna Muncy, Director of Parking Services. The money is going to helping students who don’t necessarily have cars to park.

In an effort to promote carpooling and more sustainable transportation, Parking Services signed UAA on with two programs:  Connect, a campus rental car program by Hertz, and Zimride.com, a commuter website tailored for students and their immediate networks.

Connect by Hertz is a self-service car-share program, which makes rentals available to students who need occasional transportation, but don’t want the financial burden of owning a car.

Here’s a quick rundown of how it works:

To sign up, a student pays a $35 membership fee, which goes toward a driving record check and administrative costs. When they want to rent a vehicle, they pay $9-12 an hour–depending on what type of car–and they get 180 miles to run errands, go snowboarding, or impress a first date. And a gas card takes care of fuel.

Let me repeat that: the gas you burn is covered in the rental price.

About that you-have-to-be-25-rule in order to rent a car? Not so here. Any student over the age of 18 will be able to rent them out.

UAA will be the first Connect location in Alaska. However, the memberships are transferable, so if a student travels to another Connect city, they can rent a car there as well.

The program aims to be sustainable and green, but Muncy realizes what is practical in Alaska and what isn’t.

”We probably won’t go for hybrid vehicles, just because they’re not very reliable in winter,” she said.

Starting in the fall, the fleet will likely consist of one sedan and one SUV.

One might think Commuter Student Services would be the organization to bring up a program like Connect, but services like these are expensive. Parking Services stepped up to bring the program to UAA. The funds come, in part, from the roughly $200,000 in citations they collect every year.

“For Parking Services to take responsibility and come up with these fantastic options to improve commuter life,” says Sarena Hackenmiller, Manager of the Student Union and Commuter Student Services, “it’s amazing. And it’s super green!”

Zimride: a carpooling dream

Zimride.com is a commuter website geared specifically toward commuter college students. Users can set up rides, schedules, and determine how much they’ll charge passengers.

The entire user network is exclusive to the campus, so the anonymity of craigslist gets tossed out the window. Those concerned with safety can narrow rides down and offer them to only their personal network. In addition, users can sign up for Zimride through Facebook, and manage their rides through that.

Of course, students can use Zimride for more than just commuting to school. It’s there for work, road trips, pub-crawls, anything.

Zimride is gaining popularity on campuses on the west coast. San Francisco, for example, has more than 170 commuter rides available, according to their website. Los Angeles has nearly 350.

“Alaska’s not the metropolis that California is, so it might take a while before it picks up,” said Muncy. “You may have good luck or it might be sporadic.”

The more people that sign up and use the service, she says, the faster and more efficient it will be.

“The commuter options have gotten better,” said David Murdoch, Commuter Student Services Coordinator. “If only people would start using them.”

“It’ll help people be more conscious about the environment, Hackenmiller said, “and to find other methods of getting around.”

When I signed up with Zimride, they emailed me the information I needed to get started, and I also received this bite of information: “The average person spends $5,000 per year on their car. By sharing your ride, you can split the cost and save enough to buy either: 416 burritos, 25 small goats, or a seven-day Hawaii vacation for two.”

“It’s really exciting to see UAA move toward efficiency and progress,” said Hackenmiller.

And with gas prices rising toward the hole in the ozone layer, these options make the new price increase disaster a little less painful for students.

March 29, 2011 Sean Talbot

Pot culture in Alaska is taking on a whole new dimension. Now that the synthetic alternative, Spice, has proven to be far more harmful (See “Senate Bill 17 would ban synthetic marijuana,” in The Northern Light, March 1), the talk of the town is returning to its roots in marijuana. Marijuana has long been a…

March 22, 2011 Sean Talbot

The University is trimming the fat off of employee health care benefits. Currently, University of Alaska employees aren’t required to provide documentation for their claimed dependents to receive medical benefits. As of July 1, they’ll have to break out the birth certificates to prove that their kids are their kids. Under the new documentation plan,…

March 1, 2011 Sean Talbot

The handpicked artists in the upcoming 3D Invitational are the cat’s pajamas of the current UAA art community. The Student Union Gallery is kicking off this annual show on March 3 with a 5 o’ clock meet ‘n’ greet ‘n’ check-it-out reception. As of today, the votes will be counted and invitations mailed out to…

March 1, 2011 Sean Talbot

Brewery: Rogue Brewery Brew: Chatoe Rogue IBU: 35 Stars: :*: :*: :*: Welcome to the revolution. Rogue Brewery is on a grow-your-own kick, so they brewed up a blondie. The Chatoe First Growth Single Malt Ale is made with four ingredients grown on site, a nice, earth-conscious touch. The brew pours a cloudy dark gold…

February 22, 2011 Sean Talbot

A drum circle led by Jesse Wright started the kickoff of Black History Month that continued through the afternoon of Feburary 1st in the Student Union. The kickoff continued with culinary joy and discussion. Ears and eyes went to keynote speaker Dr. Cheryl Easley, Dean of the College of Heath and Social Welfare while noses…

February 15, 2011 Sean Talbot

Brew: Red Chair, NWPA Brewery: Deschutes Available: January to April ABV: 6.2% IBU: 60 For those who aren’t fond of pale ale, Red Chair is a decent in-between to try. On the pour, there’s almost no head (but pour it too quickly and you’ll have to wait for the clouds to subside). It’s a little…

February 8, 2011 Sean Talbot

I’ve just been told that I can do a regular column on Beer. What a blast. What they may not know is just how vast a subject it is – for it’s more than ‘just a drink’ with hops, water, and barley; it is a culture in and of itself, one that knows political borders…

February 1, 2011 Sean Talbot

Soon after Chinese president Hu Jintao’s visit to Washington last week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) passed an interim rule that will allow the import of more poultry products from China and other countries. This will include places that have recently had outbreaks of avian influenza, commonly known as bird flu. Though the USDA still has to approve the methods of slaughter in China, a major block from those imports has been lifted.
The move has some questioning the motives of the USDA, including the priority of trade and politics over food safety.
“It’s not up to the USDA to make money. They’re supposed to uphold their standards of food safety,” said Melanie Leydon, a junior in the Economics department.
To many Americans, the concept of the U.S. trading with China is uncharted territory. This is despite the fact that China’s increasing food safety standards have grown to be a familiar headline in the media’s eye.
Regulation increases include banned pesticides used on crops, toxic chemicals used in milk, pet food recalls.
After the mad cow disease scare swept through the news in 2003, many countries, including China, banned the import of American beef, which is still in effect. But consider the negotiating deal on the president’s visit. If the U.S. will import Chinese chicken, China could lift the ban on American beef.
“China’s food safety system is virtually non-existent,” said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food and Water Watch, a watchdog organization the monitors the safety and sustainability of U.S. consumed food, water and fish.
“The USDA’s first responsibility is to protect U.S. consumers from unnecessary food safety risks – not rush through the process to help trade negotiators open the Chinese market to U.S. beef,” Hauter said.
In 2006, the last time Hu Jintao visited Washington, D.C., the USDA announced that it approved the import of Chinese poultry, as long as it came from an approved source. Congress later blocked regulations that would have allowed those imports.
“The sudden reversal of the [USDA’s] position smacks of political pressure taking over at USDA, just like it did in 2006. Regardless of who occupies 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, trade always seems to trump consumer protection,” Hauter said.
In October of last year, the U.K.-based insurance company RSA-China announced the results of a survey showing that food safety was more of a concern for Chinese citizens than getting cancer, having an unsafe drinking water supply or drunk driving. The final results showed that earthquakes and dangerous food took the top two concerns.
These food safety effects go beyond the meat industry. The RSA survey was taken soon after a scandal of melamine, a chemical that can be toxic, killed seven and sickened more than a quarter million.
Additionally, in 2007 and 2008, U.S. ports denied the import of dried apples preserved with a toxic chemical, mushrooms laced with illegal pesticides, and other fruits and vegetables from Latin America and the Caribbean containing high amounts of pesticides and contaminating bacteria.
The public can only wonder: what if the USDA hadn’t followed its own rules then? The interim rule went into effect January 24, but the USDA is taking public comments on their decision until March 25, 2011.
Part of that public reaction has been to question the responsibility of the USDA in making this decision, as Andrew McConnell, a freshman and Business major, did.
“If they [the USDA] are skipping out on regulations, it leaves it up to our interpretation. It’s denying U.S. citizens’ safety without their consent.”