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Football Spotlight

The New York Times has swung its spotlight on Boulder once again, but this time with the somewhat implausible notion that CU is leading the way to end college football. The motivation for the piece is a pair of votes by two regents against approving the contract for a new football coach–not because of any objection to the coach himself, but to protest supporting a game that damages the brains of its players.

This arguably is the third strike against football here at CU, but don’t expect any changes.  There was first a series of recruiting scandals that took out most of the university administration, then there continues to be an uproar over the amount of money collected and spent on football and how little goes to benefit players, and now we are recognizing the incongruity of higher education being the site for systematic brain damage leading to early death or suicide. Add them all up you’d think this would be the death knell for the sport at CU. Don’t hold your breath, (though it would probably end college admissions scams we’ve heard so much about recently)….

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Spring is Here…

…and while in other places flowers are blooming and trees are leafing out, in the Rockies it is fall.

Falling rocks, that is:


This is a spot on the road between Boulder and Nederland a little above Boulder Falls that GG has always been very wary of.  Fortunately it appears nobody got hit by a rock, though once you start having rockfalls in a spot there is an increased risk of more.  Probably the state highway department will have a close look in the near future.

Springtime is a big time for rockfalls as solid freezes of the winter give way to freeze-thaw and bigger temperature swings on canyon walls. Occasionally cars get crushed, usually cars parked under steep rocky slopes. More hazardous are rockfalls into dwellings.

Forced Pooling note

Just a quick pointer to a real rarity–an op-ed on oil and gas development that seems firmly based on fact.  The Boulder Daily Camera weighed in on the rather ridiculous forced pooling laws in Colorado (the next time some oil and gas advocate claims that Colorado is the strictest state in the country for development, remind them about Colorado’s forced pooling laws, which are the nation’s loosest). As a quick reminder, forced pooling means that your minerals can be developed against your wishes; GG discussed this at somewhat greater length awhile back.  In some states it takes 50% or more of the rights holders to trigger this.  In Colorado, it is a single rights holder. In some areas, oil companies have canvased neighborhoods looking for one resident willing to sign over development rights, which would unlock the whole area.

Means Vs. Ends

Heated rhetoric seems the tone of the day, but it is interesting to see where the battle lines get drawn.

On the national stage, nobody wants to see more gun deaths–there is no disagreement about the end goal.  Homelessness? Would like to see less of that, along with poverty and malnutrition. Education? Most Americans want their kids to get the best education possible. Even something more polarizing is probably not as extreme as it seems–nobody wants there to be lots of abortions, though there is a serious disagreement on how close to zero is fair and appropriate. What there is for all these topics is a massive disconnect on the means.  Usually when you agree on a goal there is room to compromise on means (say by some combination of gun purchasing checks and school security or mental health outreach). What is amazing about modern American culture is that so many of the hot-button arguments are over means and not ends.

Its not clear to a mere grumpy geophysicist why this should be.  Certainly there are cases where there are some actors for whom the means are ends (gun manufacturers, say, in a gun control debate have little interest in shrinking their market; public school teacher unions are not eager to support private school vouchers). So it might not be a surprise that some will be acting to make a debate over means as polarized as possible, but why does this seem to push policy makers to the fringes of the debate? Most of us are in the middle somewhere, we all want to get going in more or less the same direction. As Rodney King said long ago (and had placed on his tombstone), can we all just get along? Most of these questions are not winner-take-all; compromise and examining the outcomes of different blends of solutions can move us toward a better world.  As a scientist, a field where we like to see some experimental results to guide us, GG is frustrated by the lack of ability to focus on solving a problem rather than simply arguing over methods and getting nowhere….

That said, there are a few winner-take-all arguments out there. Most of them involve land, and one of them got GG thinking on this.   Read More…

Pay Scales

“Wow, I get to be paid to go to school!”

That was the reaction of GG’s classmate years ago upon learning that, not only had he been accepted as a graduate students at a prestigious university, but that he would actually get paid for the privilege. After four years of shelling out big bucks for a bachelor’s degree, getting to this point seemed amazing.

Last week was “Graduate Student Appreciation Week“, but in contrast to the feeling mentioned above, some would argue the students are hardly appreciated. Consider the recent proposal from the Committee on Rights and Compensation, a CU-Boulder student-run group fighting insufficient wages and a hostile work environment. Their proposal was that graduate student wages be increased 25% instead of the 6% raise that the University of Colorado has budgeted. How should we look at compensation?

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Whither Water?

Although in some ways overexploitation of water resources has faded out a bit as climate change has caught the focus of those worried about the sustainability of civilization, it hasn’t gone away. Water managers in the western U.S. have probably paid closer attention to the possible changes in climate than…well, nearly everybody. And unlike many others, they are looking to act. But how?

The California drought that ended in early 2017 was a preview of all the problems climate change is apt to generate.  While the snowpack and rainfall amounts were not as low as in the late 1970s drought, the heat was noticeably greater, and research found that the intensity of the drought on vegetation was greater than the older, drier drought because of the higher amounts of evaporation and transpiration. And then the drought ended in dramatic fashion, with big snowpacks and rainfalls leading to the erosion of the spillway of the Oroville Dam in late winter of 2017. Basically feast or famine.

So what is the rational response to this? Frankly, it is to have more water storage, ideally with less evaporation. And, somewhat oddly, increasingly variable precipitation puts pressure on the usual alternative of improved water conservation.

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Just Hear “No”

Every now and then the amusing politics of Boulder provides a real reflection of problems at a broader scale. And while the continued principled posturing can get a geophysicist grumpy, there is a lesson in here somewhere.

Boulder, you see, has purchased a lot of open space land. It makes the town a wonderful place to live, but somebody has to set the rules on this land.  Sitting as we do at the base of the Rocky Mountains, at an ecotone between the plains and the mountains, there is real ecological value to much of this land. A considerable amount of the conserved land is agricultural and has been for about 150 years. A fit and outdoorsy population over a quarter million strong in the county wants to recreate on these lands. Balancing these demands is not easy.

What we see are special interest groups that coalesce around specific aspects of open space management.  Mind, all agree that open space is good, but they are fierce adversaries in how the land is used. Dog lovers have a group dedicated to making as many trails as possible open to dog use. Mountain bikers have their own lobbying group dedicated to opening as many trails as possible to bikes. Climbers too will weigh in for access to their special sites. Conservationists lobby to preserve as broad an ecology as possible. Prairie dog advocates seek ever more ground for prairie dogs while agricultural tenants demand their removal.

Three things stand out.  One, obviously nobody will win everything. And two, all these groups feel put-upon. Thus three, the folks making and enforcing the rules are pretty much vilified from all sides.

The funny thing is that most folks in Boulder are in many–or even all–camps. Riding a mountain bike, walking a dog, admiring the wildlife–lots of Boulderites do all of these things. So we aren’t even talking about shades of gray–we are talking about tints of brown from mixing all these paints together just a bit differently. And yet the advocacy groups often use exaggerated language and promises of the end of all that is good on open space if trail XX is not opened or closed to some use. At times it is like watching a bunch of 2 year olds fight over a toy.

So here is where we need to recall a lesson we should have gotten as children: play nice and we all will enjoy our time together; play selfish and nobody has fun. The strategy of exaggeration and vilification may seem effective in the short run, but it is corrosive in the long run. It leads to dog haters putting out poisoned bait, the dog lovers letting Rover roam where sensitive nesting grounds are, to mountains bikers cutting illegal trails in the foothills–all of which have happened here in Boulder. It is time to accept that when society says “no” it means “no.” You don’t make the rules on your own; you have to engage the body public. And this means you need to accept compromise–you have to respect the “no” you disagree with.

The good news from Boulder is that compromise happens.  While every group can lament a loss, they can also tout a gain. Sometimes the compromises are more clever than you might anticipate: a trail that is open to bikes some days and not others. Or a place where dogs can be walked on leash but not to roam free. Sometimes they can be surprisingly strict: there are areas where you are not allowed to walk at all. But they might be balanced by other areas where you and your bike and your dog can prance about at will.

The key to successful compromise is accepting the things you cannot do.  Fail in that and you are no longer credible as a negotiating partner.  And this is the risk of all who promote absolutism in the pursuit of their goals (and it is easy to think of national examples of the same). If you can’t accept “no” for an answer, don’t expect anybody to want to play with you–or let you play on our land.