Sunday, August 31, 2008

10 Great Things About Albany

People supposedly like top 10 lists, so here goes, in no particular order ...

10. Albany is a fairly short drive to several cool places. New York City is a bit more than 2 hours. Boston is 3 hours. Four hours to Montreal, and a bit more than that to Niagara Falls. These days you can skip right by Buffalo. Closer to home, we have the Adirondacks, the Catskills, the Berkshires, and the Green Mountains of Vermont, all of which have some pretty good skiing. Lake George and Saratoga are just north of here, with a bunch of fun stuff mainly in the warmer months.

9. The cost of houses in Albany is reasonable. You can buy a house for $100K or less if you're not too picky. Bigger suburban houses are in the $200-400K range and McMansions are not much more than $500K. With recent economic problems, you might be able to get one for less than that. There are places in the country that are cheaper, but compared to nearby Boston and New York City, it's dirt cheap here. We bought our house for under $200K back in 1999. It's a 2200 sq.ft. 4 bedroom Colonial on a half-acre cul-de-sac lot backed up to 12 acres of woods.

8. The Albany area has good restaurants. I write an amateur Albany restaurant review blog because I eat out so much. Due to its ethnic heritage, the Italian restaurants are particularly strong. Strangely this does not translate into Irish and Polish restaurants. Years ago we didn't have much in the way of Asian cuisine other than Chinese or Indian, but that has changed dramatically. Japanese and Thai restaurants are popping up all over. We even have a couple places serving Korean food, though they don't brag about it. And just within the last five years or so we started seeing some high-end restaurants with fancier menus, wine lists, and of course, prices.

7. We get four seasons of weather. For some this is not a plus, and I'm not as thrilled about winter as I used to be. Summers here do have some hot days, but it's usually not too hot and cools off some at night. We do get some very cold winter days but they're rare. Then there are the occasional 2-foot snowfalls. As a kid growing up here that meant a break from school, and I still love them. The snowblower helps. Spring is always welcome, and in the fall we get to see the leaves change colors. Then we get to rake them - or pay someone else to do it.

6. Albany has clean air. I've traveled to quite a few places and the only place I remember having fresher air is Alaska. New York City's air can get oppressive on a hot summer day. I remember London being dirty - but that was 20 years ago so maybe it's better. And don't get me started on LA. The winter air here in Albany is especially refreshing.

5. Great schools are all around us. While some criticize the city schools in Albany, Schenectady and Troy, they're not terrible. Plenty of kids come out of them and do well. The suburban school districts are very well regarded, especially Guilderland (my hometown - I have to brag), Bethlehem, North Colonie, and Niskayuna. We also have some strong private schools including Albany Academy and Emma Willard. Then you have the colleges and universities. U Albany is big and has a lot going for it. RPI is a strong engineering school. Union College is a well respected liberal arts school. And of course, both RPI and Union have other strengths. We also have Siena, St. Rose, Skidmore, and I'm probably forgetting a couple. The colleges bring a youthful atmosphere which has positives and perhaps some negatives as well. And there are also the professional schools - Albany Law School (my alma mater) which seems to account for half or more of the local lawyers, Albany Medical College, and the Albany College of Pharmacy - all at one intersection. RPI, U Albany and Union have MBA and other professional programs too.

4. Albany is the center of New York State government. Yes, this does make the local news more entertaining, but that's not the biggest benefit. It means a steady supply of relatively secure jobs. As a libertarian I should be upset about this, but it does seem to make for a pleasant community. The jobs also keep many of the young college grads here, supporting that youthfulness I mentioned above.

3. Everything is 20 minutes away. It seems like no matter where you live in the Albany area, you can get to almost anything else in twenty minutes or less. It's something about the road system. For some trips you go on local roads and it goes slower but you don't have to drive as far. For longer distances you get on a freeway and cover most of the distance at 55 mph (for those of you who don't speed). Traffic does slow up in some spots during the rush hours, but it doesn't compare to places like New York, Boston or LA.

2. Albany has a substantial history. For a lot of places in the US, and the rest of the world, the documented history doesn't go back all that far. California history is mostly within the past 100 years. Albany's European-derived story goes back, way back, to the very early 1600s. And the history and culture of those who were here before us is maintained. I remember being taught about the Mohawk Indians back in elementary school. The Hudson River made Albany a key location for military and commercial reasons. That geographic issue is less relevant today, but the Port of Albany is still used.

1. The Albany area has beautiful scenery. I'm not much on urban views, but I personally like the Empire State Plaza, especially as it comes into view from I-90 as you travel here from the east. There's also a lot of impressive "classic" architecture in the city, including the State Capitol and more. But the really great stuff is the natural scenery. My personal favorite is John Boyd Thacher State Park and walks on the Indian Ladder Trail there, with two substantial waterfalls. There are so many other beautiful spots, like Grafton Lakes State Park, Lake George, the Sacandaga Reservoir, great trails along the Mohawk and Hudson Rivers. A friend just took me and my daughters out on a boat ride on the Erie Canal this summer. It was gorgeous.

Okay, I've got one more ...

0. It's not crowded. Look, I grew up in the suburbs. When we moved to Guilderland the population was less than half of the present number. And still, in most places you go there aren't too many people. You have to look for places that are crowded. You can generally find parking in downtown Albany. You rarely have to wait for a table, except maybe on Friday nights. Local amusement parks like Hoffmans Playland and the Great Escape do not overwhelm you with the human hordes. That isn't so great for the businesses, I suppose, but for me it just makes things a little more pleasant in Albany.

There's more good things to say about Albany, but I think I've covered a lot.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Insanity in the Computer Age

There's a semi-famous quote about the definition of insanity: "doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." It's most often attributed to Albert Einstein, but I haven't found a reliable source for that. I've certainly heard the quote before.

Recent events in our office prompted me to ponder this quote. Within the same day two people working for me had problems that relate to this. One said the printer wasn't working. Okay. So I go and check out the printer situation and see something like the following:

I've seen this kind of issue with printers many times before. Someone tries to print something and nothing comes out of the printer. So they do exactly the same thing they did the first time. And strangely, nothing comes out of the printer. So they try exactly the same thing again. I created the above image by turning my printer off and sending the same print job six times. I think our recent incident had seven print jobs in the print queue. The point about this is that if the thing didn't print the first time, trying it again six more times won't make it print. Something is wrong, and you need to try something else to make it work.

Imagine if there was a brick wall in your way. You push it and it doesn't move. Would you push it seven more times, or would you look for a way around it?

There was another incident with the fax machine. There was a message on the small lcd screen about an error, and the user sent the same fax a few times because of the error message. The fax did apparently go through (and apparently did so three times). The solution to this particular problem was one that escapes most humans. I turned the fax machine off, waited about ten seconds, and turned it on again. The error message went away and did not come back.

I don't think this feature of human behavior really makes us insane. There's an interesting discussion of the insanity quote for those who want to read more. And there's also the common argument that it's not the computer user that's the problem ... it's the computer or the software not being user friendly.

But I do think this is a striking difference among humans. Some of us appear to be at a higher stage of evolution for this computer age. We find computers interesting and try to learn more about them. We actually play with them, which promotes the learning process. When something doesn't work on a computer, we try to figure out why it's not working. We look at the whole computer. We notice the bouncing icon on the bottom of the screen, click on it, and investigate. Then we try to find a different way of accomplishing whatever it was that we were trying to do.

Now, despite my evolution comment above, for most men this agility with computers does not make us more attractive to women and therefore does not actually promote whatever genes we have for the future of the human species. On the other hand, women who put such skills to use in the workplace find themselves surrounded by desperate men with similar traits and they sometimes choose to mate with one of these socially inept individuals, thus promising some hope for computer literacy sometime in the next century.

As for the rest of you unevolved creatures, here are some suggestions:

1. Try turning the machine off. Wait ten seconds or more. Then turn it on again. This simple technique solves a surprising number of problems.

2. Check to make sure all the plugs and cables are plugged in (don't just look at them - use your hands dammit) and that all the relevant devices are turned on. This also solves a surprising number of problems.

3. Do not send people images in Word documents. Images should generally be saved in .jpg format. It's the universal standard, mainly because it works a lot better. PDFs are okay if you have to, but jpegs are still better.

4. Stop forwarding jokes. We already heard that one from the last 17 people who forwarded it to us. The same goes for chain e-mails. Forwarding it will not bring you luck.

5. If you are actually so intrepid as to use a scanner, learn how to adjust the settings. Printed black and white documents do not need to be e-mailed as 600 dpi full-color scans in pdf format. These take 10 megabytes and are awful slow to download for people who don't have high-speed connections. 150 dpi grayscale works fine for most things, and that'll only be about 300K in pdf, and if you use jpg it'll be down to 100K or less. The extra bytes probably contribute to global warming or something, so you're doing your part for the environment, if that motivates you.

6. In a general sense, try playing with your computer. There's a menu bar at the top of the screen. These are options. Explore them. Look around the screen and see what else is there. See if you can figure out what string of actions will make the computer crash. This is not bad. This is great! Now you've learned something you shouldn't do in the future. But first, see #1, above.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Albany Lawn Care and Snow Plowing

My buddy Mark Malone started up a business, Malone and Sons, doing lawn care and snow plowing. They've been mowing our lawn in Guilderland and do a consistently solid job. It's been a tough year with all the rain, but they find a way.

We normally don't need plowing, as we have a snow blower. But we were away for a week and there were two storms. Mark plowed for us and that was a big help when we came back.

So if you need lawn mowing in the Albany area or snow plowing, I'd encourage you to call Mark.

Check out their website and see how they can help.

Yes, I am shamelessly promoting a buddy of mine, but he really does good work and really is a good guy.

Website Economics

The web has certainly changed my world. Our websites, including our law firm site and our traffic court site, are the main drivers for our business.

There are a bunch of websites out there that seem more successful, yet apparently struggle. I just got an e-mail from one where I'm a "member." The site gets over a million page views a month, and is in the ballpark of 500K unique visitors a month. That's about five times our traffic court directory site. It's within the top 50,000 websites on, which impresses me anyway.

So this e-mail surprised me a bit:
We're still in the same month when we faced, at it's beginning, running out of funds to pay the bills. We are always close to the edge. I'm hoping you'll look at this news and seriously consider just how well we're doing our job -- all of us -- our 40 editors, our 15,000 members. And I'm hoping you'll send in a contribution to support [us], or, even better, sign up for a monthly automatic contribution subscription (cancellable at any time.)

It's amazing that a site could be that successful and still struggle economically. As a guess, let's say they make $0.10 per thousand pageviews (an industry standard measure is "cpm", or cost per thousand). I've read the average is a little higher, but 10 cents is easier to work with. So a million pageviews a month adds up to only $100 per month in revenue. Even at a cpm of $1, that'd be only $1000/month.

The secret to success on the web is not just pageviews, but the relevance of the pageviews to a topic and the value of that topic. So, which has less than 200K pageviews a month, generates more revenue. And, which gets less than 20K pageviews a month, generates even more revenue.

Apply this logic to a celebrity fan site, like I chose this one over sites for Britney and Paris because this one has a higher Alexa ranking, at around 72,000. Here's the economics question -- What advertiser would benefit from ads on this site?

For a law-related site, you can see that lawyers would be interested in advertising. For, someone who searched for information about a court might be interested in hiring a lawyer. Similarly, a car-related site like (one of my favorites) probably does well because the advertising proposition is clearer. Someone looking at that site is probably interested in buying a car, so car companies advertise to people viewing those pages.

But what does a Miley Cyrus fan want to buy? I see ads for Sears (specifically referencing "back to school" which makes sense for this audience at this time of year), some kind of Hannah Montana quiz (that can't make much money) and some diet nonsense.

There's some webonomics for ya!

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Frustrated Lawyers

I've been a little grumpy lately. Usually I'm happy, dopey, and a bit sneezy. Never bashful. But lately, grumpy. I think I'm frustrated with being a lawyer and with running an office.

I shouldn't feel that way. Life is good and so is business. Things are a lot tougher for a lot of other lawyers, and for a lot of other people. We're doing quite well. I had part of this conversation with a cop in a local court. An inmate was sitting in earshot. Hey, I'm not wearing a yellow jail jumpsuit.

But my current mood is helpful in understanding why so many lawyers are unhappy.

A couple of things touched this off for me. First, I had lunch with some lawyer friends and we talked about fees a little bit. It's something that makes many of us uncomfortable. Am I charging too much? Too little? There's always the story of the lawyer who handled this case for $25,000 or that case for $75,000, and you scratch your head wondering why you don't get cases like that.

Second, I read this article about "law practice management" and it had a great quote:
Some lawyers understand instinctively that those who can get and keep a clientele can write their ticket; some lawyers never get it and never figure out why they are working for the lawyers who do.

That's a reference to the importance of who brings in the business. I remember when I worked at Allstate that the agents were very important because they were the ones bringing in the revenue. It doesn't matter how good you are at the work if there's no work to do.

I think a lot of lawyers are frustrated because it's difficult work, and there are plenty of lawyers out there who don't make a lot of money. Young lawyers are drowning in their student loan debt. More experienced lawyers are wondering how they're going to pay for college for their kids. Some attorneys lose their jobs mid-career and struggle to get by at all.

There are so many different sources of frustration. A case doesn't go well. A judge makes a decision against you and it doesn't make sense. Too many deadlines. Every court seems to have a different set of rules. Clients unhappy with the results (fortunately we don't get a lot of that). Or just clients who keep calling when we have no news for them. You have a good case going and then the defendant goes into bankruptcy, or even worse, the insurance company does.

A big one for a lot of law firms is clients who don't pay their bills. We either get paid up front or work on contingency, so this is not a problem for us. But we get solicited by firms who help lawyers collect their receivables. They seem astonished when I tell them that no one owes us money.

Then there's the hassle of running an office. Hiring, firing, managing. I used to think firing people would be difficult. Well it is sometimes, but hiring is even harder. How the hell am I supposed to know if this person will be any good? You read three pieces of paper and talk to someone for an hour, call a couple of references, and then you're good? It's easier to hire someone and then make a decision after a couple weeks of actually watching them work.

I hate it when there are problems with the copier or fax machine. Why can't they make those things so they don't break down?

There are times when I just want to hang it up, and I hear that from others. A doctor friend is looking at declining reimbursement rates (the amounts insurance pays for visits and procedures) and increasing costs, and he's always talking about doing something else.

I think I'm a pretty good lawyer, but there are plenty of others just as good and some better at any particular area of law. I feel like I'm stronger in other areas, like building websites. Wouldn't I be happier if I just spent all day working on my websites? I could sit on a beach somewhere with a laptop. I'd never have to wear a suit again. Wouldn't care if the copier stopped working. Wouldn't have to hire, manage and fire employees.

Sometimes the other side of the fence looks pretty good.

So if that's how I feel, imagine how other lawyers are feeling. I'm doing better than most. I've got the clientele. Other lawyers work for me. I'm writing my own ticket. Right?

To anticipate some comments, yes, I do know how good I have it. I know I'm a big whiner and the smallest violin in the world is playing for me. I'm not asking for anyone's pity. This isn't really about me. It's a lament for the lawyers who really are struggling. And recognition that even for them life is a lot better than for a lot of others.

Monday, August 11, 2008

El Dorado Superior Court

As our traffic court website continues to grow, we're nearly done with California. We just finished adding El Dorado Superior Court. The county includes a few courts, including South Lake Tahoe Superior Court. I've been to South Lake Tahoe. There's some gambling resorts on the Nevada side of the border, but the thing I remember most is the Heavenly Valley ski resort. Huge, straddling the state borderline, with lots of great skiing. Not far away, and possibly more famous, is Squaw Valley, which had the skiing for the 1960 Olympics.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Albany Websites

As someone who is seen by Albany media as a prospective advertiser, I sometimes get interesting information.

Back in May I attended an event in Colonie where one local media outlet (you can guess who) was bragging about its website. The sheet they handed out on this provided some numbers for April traffic; I'm adding current Alexa rank:

Media Company  Unique Visitors  Alexa Rank
Times Union218,50015,715

Not included in the list, has an Alexa rank of 81,075, higher than the competition. Meanwhile, is at 333,424.

Our traffic court website has an Alexa rank (today) of 309,504. We're actually ahead of the website for the local station of a network affiliate. As far as unique visitors go, we're just behind WTEN and WNYT. We are growing fast and have passed 75,000/month. At this rate there's a good chance we'll pass them by the end of the year. We will probably pass the Times Union sometime next year. Keep in mind that our site has a national appeal - we cover 13 states and will eventually cover the whole US and maybe Canada. The local media appeals mainly to locals.

Our Alexa rank is further behind. Many of our visitors look at only one page of our site. We hope to soon add content that gets them to stay a little, but that's not really what the site is for. People want the phone number of the court, or directions perhaps. They usually get that on the first or second page, and then don't need us any more.

Among leading alternative media sites, The Albany Project is back at Alexa rank of 778,303, and alt print media The Metroland is at 444,285.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

2008 Honda Accord

I've been shopping cars for a while now, and finally made a decision. I've been looking at $50K cars like the Audi A6 and the Infiniti M35x. And I've been all over the map, thinking about an Acura MDX and even the upcoming 2009 Porsche 911 Carrera 4. At $80K, the Porsche was getting a little silly. But I've wanted one since I was about 14 years old. Maybe the next car.

Well, I went and drove the 2008 Audi A6 on Thursday, then drove the 2008 Honda Accord on Friday. I couldn't figure out why I should pay more than double the payment to get a car that really seems about the same as the Honda.

I ended up with the 4-cylinder Accord EX-L. It's about as loaded as you can get it, except I didn't get the Navigation system. I'm a man. I know where I'm going. :-) Okay, seriously, my iPhone has Google Maps built in with fake GPS (which works pretty good), and I'll soon have the new iPhone with real GPS. I don't need Navigation.

So I was comparing my new car with my old car, a 2002 Audi A4 Avant (wagon). My old car listed around $30K and I got it for $27.5K. I got my new Honda for a price around $25K (leasing makes that complicated, but that's a good ballpark). So 6 years later and I still paid less. So much for inflation, as you'll see in my comparison.

My Audi is rated for 170 horsepower. The Honda is rated for 190 hp. The Audi has a manual transmission. Automatic would have added another $1200. The Accord came with a 5-speed automatic. I tried the stick but didn't like it as much. The stick is much better in the Audi. I can't see why anyone would need the V6 in either one.

Audi was rated for 21 mpg city, 29 highway. The EPA standards are tougher now, so it would be a little worse. Honda is rated 21/31.

My A4 came with pleather - a fake leather that is one of the best fake leathers I've ever seen or felt. Everyone thinks it's real leather. The Honda has real leather.

Both have 6-disc in-dash CD changers. Honda came with XM satellite radio included, with three free months. I like that. Both have power windows, locks, seats, and heated seats and a moonroof. I think the Honda has a better quality stereo too.

There are really two big differences. First, the Audi has all-wheel-drive - excellent in the winter. The Honda is only Front drive. The other big difference is size. The Honda has a huge interior. It's bigger outside too, but there's just so much more room in the back seat. It's not even close. The Honda has a big trunk, though as a wagon my A4 Avant definitely holds more in the back. The small back seat in my Audi was the big motivator. With the car seat in place, there's just not enough room for our 3-year-old. Tight for our older daughter too.

On the whole, I am paying less money for more car. So much for inflation. I'm really impressed by what Honda has put together. We'll see how I feel over time.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Local and Unique

There's something unique in the works at SpinJ Corporation. We're working on a new website. It's top secret. So secret that if I told you what it was, I'd have to ... well ... not kill you ... maybe tickle you until you promise not to say anything. That's all I can really do.

Okay, I'll drop a small hint. The site's name means something. It stands for Local and Unique.

Coming soon ...

A New Spin from SpinJ.

What do you think of the tagline? Is that lame?

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Milestones on the web

Our websites hit some new milestones. First, The Redlich Law Firm site had over 10,000 visits in July. We came close to that in both January and March, but this is the first time we went over. It wasn't that long ago we had only 6000 visits a month, so this is good for business.

Next, our Traffic Court site has a few highlights. We had over 80,000 visits in July, with over 70,000 unique users. And the site has now topped two million pageviews since October 1, 2005. One of the biggest areas of growth right now is in California. We've covered most of the state now, including the major population centers. The various pages of traffic courts in California had over 10,000 pageviews in July, up from a bit over 1000 in March and less than 7000 in June.

That's some growth! California is now the third busiest state on our site, and I suspect it will pass NJ (28K pageviews in July and growing) by December. Not sure if it will ever catch NY (83K - still have a few dozen courts to add to complete NY too).

Florida and Texas are also growing rapidly and we are adding courts in both. CT is still growing, while MA and RI seem to have leveled off. VA and OH are growing (and we are almost done adding courts to both), as is VT (but Vermont will never be huge).

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Tax Benefits of Leasing a Car - IRS Depreciation Limits

I've been thinking about leasing a car (see my previous post about leasing certified pre-owned cars). My accountant told me to lease. But I like buying. I know there's a tax benefit to leasing, but I don't really understand it.

If I was smart I would have asked my accountant to explain it to me. But I figured it should be simple to find out why by looking on the internet. It was more of a struggle than I wanted, but I think I figured it out now.

The reason leasing is better in my case is the way the IRS limits depreciation of a car as a business expense. There's a chart on that web page, several screens down from where the link takes you.

Basically, you can depreciate up to around $3000/year. The schedule on the above page says $3060 in the first year, $4900 in the second year, $2850 in the third year, and then $1775 each year afterward. This is for cars placed in service in 2007. For three years the total limit is $10810. So if you buy a $30K car. You actually lose about $15K in real-world depreciation, but you can only expense about $11K of that. And it'll take over 10 more years to depreciate the rest of the car.

If you lease a car for business alone, you can expense the entire lease payment. If you use it 85% for business, then you can expense 85% of it. (*Please note I am not a tax lawyer or accountant. I'm just going on my gut here.*)

The logic is more compelling on more expensive cars. If you buy a $50K car, you lose maybe $25K in actual depreciation but you can still only expense $11K of that. And it'll take 22 more years to fully expense the car.

Here's a more specific example - I've been thinking about a 2008 Acura MDX. There is a current offer to lease for 3 years, $499/month, with under $1000 down payment (with another $1000 in up-front expenses), and I think it's a 12,000 mile per year lease.
---- More after this ad ----
Don't Get Taken Every Time: The Ultimate Guide to Buying or Leasing a Car, in the Showroom or on the Internet

So if you lease, you expense $499/month, or $6000/year. Over three years you expense $18,000. If you are in a 50% tax bracket (including FICA, state taxes, etc), then the expensing saves you $9000 (if I have this concept right). In net this cost you $9000 over three years, and you now own nothing.

If you buy now, you'd probably pay somewhere between $35K and $40K for that model - call it $36K. And there's a deal for 1.9% APR for 36 months, or 3.9% APR up to 60 months. At 36 months and zero interest (I'm tweaking the numbers to make buying better), you'd pay $1000 per month (Ouch!). In three years you'd own the car - a nice plus. But you would have expensed only $11K, and you would have saved $5500 in taxes instead of saving $9K on the lease. So you spent $36K on the car. You saved $5500 through depreciation, so net you spent $30K. You now own a car worth $20K. Sell the car and you spent $10K and now you own nothing. Leasing saved you $1000.

I tweaked my numbers pretty heavily in favor of buying there, and leasing still came out ahead.

This seems really dependent on how the car's value actually holds up. In one of my current fantasies I get a $80K Porsche (2009 911 Carrera 4 with the DSG). If the car loses half its value in 3 years, but Porsche's seem to hold their value better. Shopping for used ones, it looks like a $75K car is still worth close to $60K three years later. But Porsche leases seem to be priced as if they lose half their value in three years. That makes buying seem more attractive.

Comments appreciated, especially from anyone who really understands how this stuff works.