Something about Golden, Colorado

The Thinker by Rodin

Last summer my wife and I spent four nights in Cambridge, Massachusetts. There was something unexpectedly special that I discovered in Cambridge. I can see why my wife is enamored with the Boston area as a retirement area, despite the impression I get that most Bostonians are anxious to retire from Boston.

I spent Monday night having dinner with colleagues at the Table Mountain Cantina in Golden, Colorado. I spend two weeks a year near Golden at the Denver Federal Center in Lakewood, and this is my second week this year to hang out here. When looking at dinner options, nearby Golden is an obvious choice, as it is just a few miles to the west. And so there we were again in downtown Golden, except this time choosing to dine at the excellent but affordable Table Mountain Cantina, rather than at Woody’s Pizza across the street, with its terrific all you can eat specialty pizza, salad bar and beer cheese soup buffet (only $10.23).

So I have slowly become more acquainted with Golden over the years. Each visit leaves me more intrigued by this small city of just 19,000 people. It’s much like Buffalo, Wyoming would be if it grew up. In fact, my attraction is becoming more than casual. I feel the need to rent a room for a week or so just to amble around the city to see if my instincts are right. Could Golden, Colorado by my ideal retirement community?

Golden often gets overlooked because twenty miles to the north is the more famous city of Boulder. My brother lives there. It seems to be a haven for liberals (particularly the physically fit ones). Golden may have more history than Boulder, as it was first founded by gold prospectors in the 1850s. Clear Creek runs through the middle of Golden. It briskly carries rains and snowmelt from the Rocky Mountains, which it sits right next to. Clear Creek feels more like a river than a creek, particularly during the snow melt season. It is undeniably pretty, cascading downhill at an impressive velocity and full of abundant and clear mountain water. It was no wonder that in 1873 Adolph Coors decided it was an ideal location for a brewery. The Coors brewery is still there, and gets it its water directly out of Clear Creek. The brewery forms a small industrial side of Golden. If there is an area of Golden to dislike, the brewery area would probably be it.

Mainly though Golden feels like a 21st century anachronism of a small mid-20th century town. It feels vibrant, healthy and whole. It sits close to Denver but it feels a world apart. To its west loom the Rocky Mountains. To its east is a tall mesa that hides the Denver skyline, making it feel like it is in a valley of its own. It is a city that feels isolated from the Denver metropolitan area but really is not. In fact, light rail is coming into Golden. In a few years it will be possible to take light rail all the way from Golden to Denver International Airport far northeast of Denver.

Golden’s downtown is just lovely. There is simply no other way to describe it. It is incredibly clean and modern and feels as safe as I suspect it is. There are a few chain stores in the city, but no Wal-Marts to be found, at least inside the city itself. Mostly you have hosts of independent businesses lining Washington Avenue and neighboring streets: restaurants, boutiques, antique and coffee shops. Golden has a vibrant main street that forms the center of the community. Ambling down Washington Avenue is a joy. It is hard not to spend long minutes perched on the bridge over Clear Creek mesmerized by the constant rush of clear falling water. On Monday night it was running briskly, but not so briskly that some residents were not out on the rocks dipping their legs into the creek. A cool and clean mountain breeze funneled over the bridge, cascading into my nostrils and making me feel invigorated and glad to be alive.

Everyone has their idea of what a retirement community should look like. For me it does not involve ugly track houses in Arizona or Florida, or shuffleboard at a seniors’ center, but being part of a real and vibrant community. Golden has a university, the Colorado School of Mines, so it has a strong and enduring educational presence, borne out by the many young people walking around. Ethnically, no getting around it: it is overwhelmingly white, but there is a modest Oriental community. The housing in Golden is a mixture of new condos along Clear Creek and historic, Victorian-style houses, all seemingly well maintained. Parks and bike paths abound. For the athlete, a brisk run or bike ride to the top of Lookout Mountain is close and invigorating. At the summit on a clear day you can see the airport more than thirty miles away. There you can also find the museum and grave of Buffalo Bill.

Golden is a city but has a small town village feeling, and yet it is connected to the Denver metropolitan area. Being close to a cosmopolitan area is important to me. Granted, Denver is hardly the most impressive metropolitan area I could pick, but it would definitely do. It has all the things one looks for in major cities: museums, sports teams, concert halls and major universities. As I noted before, the whole Denver area has a progressive feeling to it, epitomized by Denver’s emerging light rail system.

Yet Golden is close to lots of attractions of its own. Red Rocks outdoor amphitheater is just a few miles away, and it regularly draws major performers. Its biggest attractions are the looming Rocky Mountains which it sits next to. It is literally a gateway to the continental divide since it is the last exit before I-70 climbs toward points west. I’ve never tried skiing, but I might be inspired to try since skiing is abundant in Colorado and close by. If not skiing there is so much more outdoorsy stuff: hiking, nature watching, biking, rock climbing and camping. Golden is ideally located at the nexus between nature and the city.

I also want an active retirement. I currently teach as an adjunct at a community college. Right next to Red Rocks Amphitheater is Red Rocks Community College. Potentially I could teach part time there, and it would be an easy commute. I could bike there without much difficulty.

While I haven’t looked at real estate prices, I suspect Golden is much more affordable than snooty Boulder to its north. Colorado also gets real winters, something near and dear to my wife, although she might find the light, powdery snow offensive to her eastern sensibilities. The mile high dry air might take some getting used to, but I am here so often I don’t notice it anymore. I do know that I appreciate dry air, which Colorado has in abundance, along with plenty of sunny days. Most of the year you can live comfortably and without an air conditioner. Just open the windows.

What’s not to like about Golden? It would take some time in the city to figure out if there are downsides worse than the Coors Brewery. I do know how it feels. To me, it feels comfortable, snug and has a strong, hometown gravitas. I suspect I could spend the last (hopefully) thirty years of my life quite comfortably in a condo overlooking Clear Creek in downtown Golden. If I can convince my wife to do it, I’d like to spend a week or two in Golden and find out.

Ding ding ding went the light rail

The Thinker by Rodin

Gasoline is back at four dollars a gallon. I am still smiling because my 2005 Honda Civic Hybrid continues to purr along nicely, averaging about thirty-five miles per gallon around town and forty plus miles per gallon on the highway. If gas stays at these prices for long, Americans will probably reluctantly start purchasing hybrids again. Yet, much of the growth in car sales over the last year has been from Americans resuming bad habits by buying those behemoth SUVs like the Ford Explorers and Lincoln Navigators. You would think we would have learned by now.

We may pine to live farther away from the city, but it is increasingly becoming a privilege only for the rich. This was brought home to me by a recent report on NPR, also carried by MSNBC, about a woman in Montana named Myriam Garcia. She is forced to carpool forty-five miles to Helena, Montana to do ordinary things like buy groceries. Between high gas prices and the economy she cannot afford to drive alone anymore, so she looks to neighbors going into town and commutes with them. In fact, the further you get from a city, the more your life is tied to your automobile. As oil supply remains about the same but demand keeps increasing, it’s easy to see why cities are luring people back to them. Cities have the virtue of being relatively efficient, and one way they are more efficient is they have networks of buses, subways and (increasingly) light rail to connect them together.

You may not realize it if you don’t travel much, but there is a light rail craze underway in American cities. As I travel relatively frequently, I see it more often than not in the cities I visit. I particularly see it in Denver, which I visit at least twice a year. Lakewood sits on Denver’s outer edge. Business takes me to the Denver Federal Center in Lakewood. Over the last few years, I have noticed a lot of light rail construction. Last year I watched a light rail bridge being constructed over Route 6. This year I saw tracks for the light rail mostly in place and ramps and overpasses for the light rail also being constructed. I haven’t checked if light rail is going all the way out to Denver International Airport, but I expect it will get there eventually. It’s quite a haul from DIA to Lakewood, but I expect within a few years I will be able to take light rail from the airport to Lakewood, obviating the need to take the Supershuttle. I noticed a new light rail station is under construction at the Denver Federal Center. I can probably walk from there to my hotel without much difficulty.

The whole Denver area has been very public transportation-friendly for decades. Denver’s RTD (Regional Transportation District) is very commuter-friendly. It addition to local buses it has regional buses, some that take commuters deep into the Rocky Mountains where they can still enjoy a rural life while earning money to pay for it in the city. I took a regional bus from Lakewood to visit my brother in Boulder a couple of weeks ago. It cost five dollars for a thirty plus mile trip. I enjoyed a lovely scenic ride through the Rocky Mountain foothills as well at no extra charge. My bus stop was about a thousand feet from my hotel. Many employers in the Denver area offer subsidies so their employees can take RTD buses and light rail.

You don’t have to be too bright to figure out that the Denver area is smartly positioning itself for the future. Those cities that will prosper in the 21st century will be cities like Denver, but also Portland (Oregon), Baltimore, Washington D.C., Boston, New York and now Los Angeles. Washington D.C. has had Metrorail since the 1970s but its high cost makes its reach limited. Inside the city, the D.C. City Council is wisely putting in streetcars along K Street and other streets to go places the Metro will not but faster than the local buses. Out here in the suburbs where I live, a Metrorail extension is well underway that by the end of this decade will extend well past Washington Dulles airport. I will live three miles from a new Metrorail station.

Perhaps not coincidentally, the Washington region was one of only two regions that reported increases in housing prices last year. I know my house’s price has begun to recover. Fortunately, I have no immediate plans to sell it but I do have confidence that when I do, it will be in high demand because my neighborhood will be conveniently connected to the larger community.

The automobile age is clearly not over, particularly in places like China and India where they are getting a taste for personal mobility. But its gradual decline is not too hard to discern because as cheap oil ends permanently we will have to find more efficient ways to live, so living closer to places you need to go will become important. A savvy real estate prospector only needs to look at these trends to understand where to invest. My suggestion: vacant lots in and just outside the city.

As I approach retirement age, I too am rethinking my retirement based on these new trends. At one time I thought a city like Helena, Montana might be a good place to retire. Now I realize it is too small and too remote. It is too risky a place to live on a fixed income. Where I live now would be ideal, except I won’t need a house this big much longer, and I am already annoyed by the hassle of maintaining a house. Wherever I end up, it is likely to be closer in, not further away from civilization. Frequently running buses or a light rail station will need to be nearby. It will be in or around a transportation-friendly city, allowing me to get where I need to go by public transportation without undo hassle. Preferably, the street will have a bike path on one side. Hopefully, it will also have a culture and values that match my own. There are plenty of places still to visit, but two candidate cities come to mind based on what I have seen so far: Boulder, Colorado where my brother is already living and Portland, Oregon. Both cities meet my prerequisites. Boulder probably ranks higher for the convenience of family nearby and it is not in an earthquake zone. (Water and wildfires are a concern, however.)

I have pretty much decided that I can cross off my list any city without light rail, or at least firm plans in place to add light rail. These cities get it. As more of us try to fit on the same planet, we need to connect more, not just in cyberspace, but also in real life. It will be a Back to the Future experience. For light rail is essentially the trolley reborn. The DC Trolley Museum, which I visited six years ago with my father, rather than being the past, is now a harbinger of our future. I feel like Judy Garland in Meet Me in Saint Louis. I can’t wait to get on board.

Send me to the Democratic National Convention!

The Thinker by Rodin

Am I a good enough of a blogger to go to the 2008 Democratic National Convention? I don’t know, but I intend to find out. The New York Times reports that the Democratic National Convention Committee plans to be more inclusive toward bloggers at next year’s convention. While it will likely be more fun for bloggers to be across the street at ProgressCon2008, I am still intrigued with the idea of being a blogger at the Democratic National Convention. The convention is scheduled for the Pepsi Center in Denver from August 25-28th, 2008.

Starting in just one week the DNCC will begin taking applications from bloggers, who can apply to attend as either state or general bloggers. I will most likely have to apply as a general blogger. The application process will end on April 15th. It is likely that the number of bloggers given credentials will be in the dozens, not the hundreds, which unfortunately makes my chances of getting in rather minute.

Still, nothing ventured, nothing gained. I do have some good credentials. I am about to start my sixth year of blogging and few bloggers out there can say that. I have written close to 250 political posts in those years, or roughly one third of all my blog entries. Nor am I your typical blogger. No three line blog entries with misspelled words and punctuation for me. If I attend the DNC, my readers will get the high level of writing and perspective likely unavailable on many other blogs.

In the event that I am selected, it will not be a cheap event. Doubtless, the hoteliers will push up their rates for the duration of the convention. Airfares will be steep too. When I add in my other costs, this event could easily cost me $2000. This makes me wonder whether my readers would help subsidize the cost of my trip. Would having Occam’s Razor at the DNC be worth paying for? Perhaps you can let me know in the comments. If it looks viable and I am selected, I may solicit donations by putting up a PayPal Donate button.

How newsworthy will the convention be? If recent history is any guide, there will be little news to cover. The Democratic presidential candidate is likely to be selected by February. The vice presidential pick will likely follow within a few months. The reason to go to the convention is simply for the unique experience it presents. After all, it is an event that only happens every four years. Moreover, virtually any Democrat of significance will be there.

What would intrigue me the most though would not be meeting these Democratic luminaries, most of whom are likely to be too busy to shake my hand. I am more interested in documenting the atmosphere of the convention. Only a few of us have the opportunity to attend a national political convention, and in general, you have to be willing to spend years working with your state and locate political committees to get on the convention floor. Yet it sounds like the DNCC might allow bloggers access to the convention floor. Television is no substitute for being present. I want to take it all it in so that through my eyes you can be there too.

Probably next April I will let you know whether I was selected.

My second home

The Thinker by Rodin

I am back in Denver again. More specifically, I am back in Golden, Colorado, which hugs the Denver metropolitan area’s western edge. As usual, the group of us out here on business together is staying at the same hotel. Actually, we rotate between two hotels. One is a Courtyard Inn. Just across a street is a Residence Inn. Since they are both owned by Marriott, they are effectively one hotel.

Usually when we come to town to do testing or training, we cannot all fit in one hotel, so we spill over into the other hotel. The testing that we will do this week is smaller scale. Only about a dozen of us will be participating in this test, so we are all in the Courtyard Inn. That is a bummer, for many of us have been here many times before. And although the Courtyard Inn arguably offers a better breakfast, the breakfast at the Residence Inn is complementary, as is the Happy Hour at 5 PM. Therefore, we generally prefer the Residence Inn where the rooms are also larger and the amenities nicer.

This is my fourth year coming to these hotels. I figure this is my eighth stay. This is my third stay this year alone. The hotels and the surrounding neighborhood have become so familiar by now that it is starting to feel like a second home. How do I know? I remember the last time I stayed at the Courtyard Inn in January, and the plate of fresh baked chocolate chip cookies placed in the lobby in the evenings. It is now Pavlovian. I expect the cookies to be there and they had darn well better be there because I am salivating for them before I walk in the lobby in the evening.

The clerks behind the counters do not know me by name yet. I do not know their names either, but gosh darn are they looking familiar to me. There is the blonde haired woman who services us in the morning at the Courtyard. When I stay in the Residence Inn, there is the Fox News Channel blaring away in the dining room of each morning. (I did complain about their preference in “news” networks, but it has not seemed to have worked.)

I remember things I should not remember. I know that, toward summer at least, Wednesday is hamburger and hot dog night at the Residence Inn. The Happy Hour there can be bountiful or frugal, but many of us figure it is enough calories to suffice for dinner, so why go out to eat? I know how they will dress down the beds in the Courtyard versus the Residence Inn. In the Residence Inn, they are into pillows. If there are not at least six of them on your bed, they figure you may not have enough pillows. At the Courtyard, they do not believe in blankets. If you get cold, you fish one out of your drawer.

I have had a couple days where I have woken up and for a minute, I did not know whether I was at home or in the hotel. Maybe this is a sign of age. On the other hand, maybe this is a sign that Denver is becoming something of a second place of residency for me.

I do not need directions to the pool, or the hot tub, or the exercise room. I have been to all of them repeatedly. I find I like the exercise room in the Courtyard better than in the Residence Inn: they have a useful weight machine. I know exactly where the icemakers are. I have learned that when staying in the Courtyard, to ask for a room facing the mountains, so you do not have to hear the traffic from Route 6 all night.

I am sure all this familiarity is good for Marriott’s bottom line. I would not say that I am loyal to this hotel, since someone else is making the reservations. I do sometimes wonder what all the other hotel experiences around here are like. I suspect I will never know.

It is not just these hotels that are becoming routine but the same traveling experience is repetitious too. I often end up on the same flight from Washington Dulles to Denver. I know I will fly United because that is our contract carrier. I know which flights offer the wide body aircraft. I know that when I arrive at Denver International I will be deposited on the B Concourse, because that is where United rents space. I know that the Wolfgang Puck restaurant is on that concourse. I know where the money machines and the restrooms are. I think I even have memorized the recorded speech on its people mover.

The flights are becoming the same too. I have eaten the same identical United Airlines $5 snack pack on the last four successive flights. I know that I can listen to flight chatter on channel nine. I know the flight west typically takes three hours and fifteen minutes, and the flight back two hours and forty-five minutes. I have learned how to pack my liquids. Denver after all is a mile high. If I leave the cap on the shampoo bottle on too tight, its contents will burst (which is one reason I put liquids in a plastic bag). There is an art to tightening a travel bottle enough so that it bleeds a little with the air pressure, but not enough so that it leaks any of its contents.

I have learned how to accommodate jet lag gracefully. I try to nap on the trip east. I try to arise a bit early on the day I fly east. When I follow this strategy, I usually do not notice the time change.

I am not bicoastal, but this flying to and from Denver is so routine now that it is almost second nature. It is almost a reflex.

Why am I flying here so much? Our training center is in Denver, and that helps a lot. In addition, Denver is a good deal. The agency I work for (The U.S. Geological Survey) is very spread out since we do our work in the field. This means that we must also come together regularly. Denver has some strategic advantages. It is big enough where even if you live in a small city you can usually get to it in no more than two hops. In addition, there are plenty of airlines that fly in and out of Denver. This means you are likely to get a decent airfare. The cost of living is modest, at least compared to Washington standards. It is also reasonably in the middle of the country, if you include Alaska and Hawaii. No one has to endure much in the way of jet lag in order to do business.

So Denver it is and Denver it will likely mostly be until I retire. There are times when I feel that maybe our agency should invest in some time-share condominiums out here. With all the traveling we do in and out of Denver, it must be cheaper to use leased condominiums than pay even modest hotel rates. Until that time, I have a feeling the Courtyard Inn and its next-door neighbor, the Residence Inn here in sunny Golden, Colorado will continue to feel more and more like my second home.

Random thoughts during another business trip

The Thinker by Rodin

I do not know how people endured business trips before laptop computers and high speed wired hotels became par for the course. Business travel is easier to endure if the destinations are exotic, your coworkers are fun to be with, and your work days are short.

Alas, such trips are the exception, not the rule. This one qualifies as somewhere in the middle. I am back in Denver on business this week. More specifically, I am in Lakewood. Denver is a big city, but as big cities go there is not too much to recommend it over any other big city. One thing I really notice being an East Coast dude: the air is so thin and dry out here. No wonder my skin is still so wrinkle free at age 49: it’s spent most of that time in a moisture bath. This dry Denver weather plays havoc with my hair. It makes me look like Albert Einstein. My sinus cavities soon feel like a desert. I feel the need to buy some saline solution for my nose but know the effect would be only momentary.

Work is more of the same too. I spend my days partly in meetings, partly chatting with my customers, but mostly doing exactly the same things that I would be doing back in the office. I simply unpack my laptop computer and plug it into the local area network, and it is as if I were back in Reston. All my files back at the office are available, and the latency in fetching them is hard to notice just because I am 1500 miles away. This still feels like wiz bang stuff to me.

There are usually evening activities with coworkers that I can elect to attend. But tonight I choose to catch up on my blogging. The alternative was bowling, which is not my cup of tea. The people I work with are very nice and I generally enjoy spending time with them off hours, but not necessarily every night. While I am not antisocial, neither am I a social butterfly. I can take or leave the social aspects of my job. I can entertain myself quite happily. So I give the social aspects of my job 50%. I usually attend the happy hour. Once or twice during the week I will partake in a social event. (A colleague who works out here throws a party once a year, so I will be there tomorrow night.) I am equally as happy on my own in my free hours. Tonight was my night to be antisocial.

So tonight I discreetly headed alone to the Colorado Mills Mall, which is across the highway from the hotel, to finally give it a once over. There I dined alone in a food court, and noshed on Chinese food from the Panda Express. I wandered the length of this very large mall and browsed a bookstore. It may be a big mall, but there was nothing that I particularly wanted to buy.

Now I am back to the sanctuary of my hotel room. Here though I am not really bounded by four walls. Thanks to my laptop and the high speed internet, cyberspace can be my playground. With this basic infrastructure, location no longer matters. Here I can read my favorite blogs, catch up on the day’s news, play with Google Earth and mostly just relax, just like I might to at home. The major difference is of course that my domestic companion, a.k.a. my wife, has not spent fifteen minutes debriefing me about her day. Nor will she be giving me the latest briefings from the world of slash that she inhabits in her off hours. While I miss my wife and daughter back in Northern Virginia, and would prefer to be home, a little time apart every few months is not a bad thing either. It makes me appreciate them more when I get home.

Off come my shoes and socks. My feet are liberated at last. This room would be a bit more comfortable for surfing the internet and writing if it had a desk. Perhaps because we negotiated such a discount rate, I got a “studio suite”. There is no desk in this room, but there is a couch. Time to put a pillow on the coffee table and prop up my aching feet.

My thoughts are pretty muddled. I am thinking about how early the day starts here in Denver in June. I went running yesterday morning before 6 a.m. and the sun was already well above the horizon. While I cursed the lack of sidewalks at least there were not many cars to harass me. It is no problem getting up at 5 a.m. Mountain Time when you are used to living on Eastern Time. When the sun is out, it is like you have a few hours to enjoy life before beginning the workday. The prairie dogs kept me company as I jogged by Red Rocks Community College. Sometimes their squeaky sounds remind me of a bird call. There are many rabbits out at that hour too, and they are not as afraid as I would have expected. I see them scurrying near the side of the road. A dog barks at me from the front lawn of a house a couple hundred feet away. Why is he alone and untethered? Fortunately, he doesn’t want to do more than let me know I am one of the few people awake at this hour.

From so many trips here, Denver has become a lot less enchanting. My first business trip out here was in 1984. I thought it was really neat. The Rocky Mountains are still an impressive site, but the terrain, which once seemed exotic, now seems ordinary. At one time I wanted to live out here. Now, I can’t imagine it. I have grown accustomed to how lush everything is out East. Despite the humidity, despite the rain, despite a limited ski season, despite the population density, I would rather live on the east coast than here.

I will be glad to return to it on Friday.

My harried week out west

The Thinker by Rodin

Occam’s Razor fans will have to forgive my inability to post much lately. I have just finished a weeklong business trip in Denver. Between work and visiting family, I have been kept fully engaged. It is only now on a 777 moving across the country that I have something resembling sufficient personal time in which to order my thoughts.

My work took me to the Denver Federal Center in Lakewood, Colorado. This is my third trip out there for the agency I joined two years ago. The trips now have a certain familiarity to them, which will only increase when I return again the first week of June. So far, we have stayed in the same hotels: a pair of Marriott hotels in Golden, Colorado a couple miles away from the Federal Center. They are clean and comfortable and provide an excellent view of the Rocky Mountains. Like most hotels these days, they offer a decent complementary breakfast consisting mostly of foods most sedentary adults should avoid.

On Monday evening, I went to sleep in my room at the Residence Inn at Golden, only to awaken unexpectedly at 1 AM. A fire alarm was putting out a deafening ring. 1 AM must be the worst time for me to have to awaken unexpectedly. I knew where I was but mentally I was on some other planet. For the longest time I could simply not figure out what was happening. Once my foggy mind put the facts together, I was unable to figure out how to do the simplest thing like turn on the light. When after a minute or so I had finally mastered that act, I could not figure out what to do next. Should I dash outside in my underwear? Eventually I decided to throw on my bathrobe, slip my shoes into my sneakers, and grab my room key. I staggered out of my room into the hallway in a dazed state. Fortunately, I was only a dozen feet or so from an exit.

It may have been 1 AM, but one of my employees, Dave, was still awake and in his business attire. Apparently, he is a night owl. Some birdbrain a few floors above apparently hung something on a sprinkler head, causing it to rupture, so there was no actual fire. After a few minutes outside, we were allowed back into our rooms. I went back to sleep, wary of another fire alarm. I could hear the sound of water coming down between the walls and a wet/dry vacuum above me. Needless to say, the rest of my sleep that night was restless. The next day we were all a bit groggy.

Linda, a coworker from my office in Reston, had a rental car. I became both one of her passengers and one of her dinner mates. Fortunately, Linda is an adventurous person. Despite having been to Denver at least twice a year for a decade, she felt there was much more to see. On Tuesday night for example, she took us on I-70 over the continental divide. This was my first time crossing the continental divide by car. The drive fifty miles or so into the Rocky Mountains was quite awe inspiring. For this east coast person, the mountains on either side of us struck me as incredibly steep and high. We made it through the Eisenhower tunnel before turning around. We dined at Beau Jo’s in the small town of Idaho Springs. The restaurant offered something called “Colorado Pizza”. I later asked my brother Tom, a resident of Boulder, if there was such a thing. He had never heard of it. Colorado pizza apparently consists of very thick crusts around the rim of the pizza pan and thin crusts in the middle. Since there is plenty of crust remaining after consuming the pizza, you are supposed to spread honey on the remaining crusts and eat them for dessert. While the pizza itself was okay, by getting dessert “free” it made for an inexpensive meal. It was also the first pizza parlor that I have ever been in where you order pizza by the pound. A two-pound pizza can feed three normal people more than adequately.

There is hardly room for the town of Idaho Springs between the Rocky Mountains. Except for the restaurants, there was little in the “downtown” that remained open after 6 p.m. For someone looking for an authentic small town experience, it seems a great and inexpensive place to live. We passed a realtor’s office and learned we could rent a mobile home for only $250 a month. The town is not big enough to justify a Wal-Mart.

Thursday night Linda took us to Mataam Fez, a Moroccan restaurant in Denver. I had never eaten Moroccan food before. The entertainment was as much a part of the experience as the meal. If you have never eaten in a Moroccan restaurant, be prepared to remove your shoes and sit on cushions on the floor. Expect the table to be about two feet off the ground. We had a five-course meal and shared our food. The food was overall quite tasty (though expensive), but rather elemental too. My Shrimp Pel Pel, for example, came in the shells with the feet still attached. A partner’s salmon was quite good but still had the scales on it. Moroccans apparently dispense with silverware. We ate everything with our hands. Before eating we had to wash our hands at the table. The waiter had us place our hands above a pot while he poured lemon water on them from a pitcher. After trying to eat dishes like creamed spinach with our fingers, I realized why silverware was invented.

The entertainment came in two forms. First, there was the belly dancer, an achingly beautiful and buxom woman half my age who I suspect was a local American co-ed, rather than a Moroccan. No matter, she was excellent at being both alluring and doing impressive things with her abdominal muscles. For example, she was able to balance the edge of a sword on her tummy and work it down her abdomen. Many patrons stuffed dollar bills into her skirt. In addition, the waiters had a unique talent of pouring tea into cups from behind their backs. They also demonstrated they could pour it from a high height into three cups stacked on top of each other. As best I could tell, not a drop landed on the floor. The spiced tea was excellent.

The business part of my trip was intense and exhausting. There were about fifty of us. Most participants were users who were rigorously testing changes to a system we manage. A typical day consisted of three or four formal meetings where they gave reports on the problems they were uncovering. Since these meetings have a critical mass of important users from across the country, it is hard not to have many other ad-hoc meetings too. I was sucked into many of these, and some of these meetings were intense.

While the testing part went quite well for my team (no underpowered web servers crashed this year), discussions with customers about delays in projects closing up and underway were less successful. I am under a lot of pressure to complete a current project, which, by some measures, is a year late. There are good reasons why it is a year late. Inadequate planning was certainly part of it, but it was also late because we spent much of the latter half of last year scrambling to install new web servers to keep up with demand from the public. (Demand is increasing by about a third a year.) However, our customers are wholly inured to operational issues. (They would have cared had the system come to a screeching halt last year, which it did not. Naturally, my team gets no credit for preventing this from happening.) Missing deadlines are perceived as bad management on my part. I am confident that over the next couple of years that most of these problems will be ironed out. Putting in place predictable processes and teaching excellent scientists the discipline of software engineering takes time.

As I told my boss, things will and in fact are already improving. However, given flat funding and a staff that is constant, changes occur in an evolutionary manner only. There is no magic wand to wave that can make long-term problems disappear overnight. Instead, solutions require much up front thought, planning, careful execution, rigorous monitoring, and integrating the many concerns. Bill Gates said managing programmers is like herding cats, and the same is true with my developers. Change is effected by getting their buy in and earning their respect. Over time, new and better practices will become institutionalized, and then plans will more accurately reflect reality.

While struggling with this I had to drop a bombshell on another set of customers. A key contract employee may have to leave us. The new contractor may not pick him up. In the federal government, contracting works in mysterious and often counterproductive ways. Against my wishes, the contracting officer selected another contractor because it bid lower. That makes a certain amount of financial sense if you assume two contractors can provide precisely the same service. Real life, of course, does not work that way, no matter how carefully you write the statement of work. That something like this would result in a six month or more delay in this project was irrelevant to the contracting officer. She had to follow the contracting laws. Apparently, I did not sufficiently plan for this specific contingency, and for that, I came up lacking. At the time, I was busy doing other things that seemed a whole lot more important, like instituting better ways of doing requirements management and system design. I occasionally get miffed by the pointless and counterproductive pressure, but I usually succeed in not taking it personally. I know that my strategy is sound and will prove itself in time.

Therefore, Friday found me glad to put the week behind me. My brother Tom lives in Boulder. The transit strike in Denver made it hard for me to get to Boulder from Lakewood via established means. Fortunately, Kip, a coworker who lives near Denver, drove me up to Boulder. We went along U.S. 93, a lovely road through the eastern foothills of the Rocky Mountains. Tom and some of his friends from NOAA do a regular Friday night dinner in a restaurant on the Pearl Street Mall in Boulder. I was glad to enjoy their company. The Indian food at the Himalayan Restaurant was quite good too.

Saturday, Tom took me biking. My feet are a bit challenged at the moment, due to a recent toe injury, but I was able to enjoy a bike ride of about twenty miles with him by peddling with care. Boulder is a very bike-friendly city, with numerous wide and well-maintained biking trails. Most roads have extra space for bike lanes. I am impressed by how its residents take exercise and proper eating so seriously. A car is not an absolute necessity in Boulder if you are adventurous and an outdoor type. The prevalent obesity I see in the East is largely missing in Boulder. The cultural values are to be trim, eat organic foods and stay in shape. Boulder is really a model of how a city should be laid out and managed. It also demonstrates a pragmatic way for modern Americans to live healthy and engaged lives. It should be proud of its sensible land use planning and a pedestrian friendly infrastructure. As the age of oil ends, cities like Boulder will prosper while others that depend on hydrocarbons for transportation are likely to whither.

Tom’s girlfriend Beth invited me to spend last night at her house with Tom. Her townhouse was more home-like than Tom’s rather small condominium. It was good to meet Beth again, who I met for the first time in January. She is a skinny, intelligent, attractive, athletic and caring woman, which means she is a good match for my brother. Beth has a 9-year-old daughter named Erica who was fun to get to know. She reminded me of my daughter at that age. Beth must be a better parent than I am though, because Erica seems to be about as well adjusted as a nine year old can be. Beth also has two cats, one of whom is a lap kitty and deigned to sit on my lap for a while and be worshipped. While certainly not as affectionate as my recently departed feline Sprite, it was nonetheless comforting to be in a house with felines again.

In my absence, my wife has had about a dozen friends over for a party. She has also purchased a fish to replace Fred the Ferocious Fish. The fish is another betta and I understand she has named him Sid Vicious.

Tomorrow it is back to the salt mines. Those pressing problems I put on hold Friday afternoon will be back to challenge me again.