Friday, November 21, 2008

Profile: The Glory Hound

The following is another in my occasional Profiles in the Albany NY legal community. Keep in mind these are generally semi-fictional.

The Glory Hound is well known to most attorneys in the area. He is a vigorous promoter of both himself and a cause or two. He brims with self-confidence. Listening to him, he has inside knowledge about all the movers and shakers at the local, state and federal level. This one's a drunk but hides it well; that one's a drunk and doesn't hide it well; another one is having an affair and her spouse threw her out of the house; and so on. At times it seems hard to believe he can be so well-connected in so many places. And yet his comments sometimes turn out to be true. Maybe it's not just ego, or maybe he really is connected??

As the name suggests, the Glory Hound is obsessed with getting press and with people reading whatever is written about him. He expresses disappointment if you didn't read that article about him in today's paper - even if it's an obscure local paper that he shouldn't expect you to read. He craves controversy, perhaps because it gets him more attention from the media.

He is not an idiot. The Glory Hound is well versed in the law. When you discuss cases with him he has good suggestions and asks the right questions. He may not be the best lawyer in the world, but he's no slouch in a courtroom. At times he seems to have lost touch with the lives of regular people, but he still has a lot of friends who believe in him. He is also quite charming.

Hated by some, loved by others, and puzzling to many, the Glory Hound is hard to be sure about. Is he as rich as he claims he is? Does he really know all those people? What makes him tick? He should probably write an autobiography to answer these questions and many others. And given his need for attention, it's surprising he hasn't written it already.

This is not meant as an attack. When I see him, a smile comes to my face. I am drawn to him. He just has natural charisma. Maybe he's just more interesting than the average Joe, perhaps because he believes that himself so strongly.

And he probably wants me to put his name on this profile. :-)

Monday, November 17, 2008

Dewey Cheatham & Howe

Just came across this cool website - a play on the most famous fictional law firm, Dewey Cheatham & Howe. This is clearly the product of a demented mind. :-)

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Craig Watkins: A Great Prosecutor

Solid article in the Wall Street Journal today about a prosecutor in Dallas. Craig Watkins was elected DA there in 2006. He's made a name for himself by thoroughly reviewing dubious convictions and using DNA evidence for that purpose.

He actually created a unit within his office, the "Conviction Integrity Unit," to review cases. They've cleared six innocent men so far. Some of the article includes criticism of Watkins by other prosecutors.

I suppose this is no shock to anyone who reads my blog, but I think Craig Watkins is a model prosecutor. This is what every DA should do. I've seen plenty of cases where prosecutors won't back off of crappy cases. They ought to read what this guy is doing.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Costa Rica: Some Thoughts

Over the past few days I posted the details (and some photos) of our trip to Costa Rica. Now's the time for some reflection.

First, for those who want to read the posts in chronological order:
Day 0
Day 1
Day 2
Day 3

My first thought is that Costa Rica lived up to its billing. Great climate and lush greenery everywhere. The people really are friendly. The cost of living is very low, and I can see why so many Americans retire there. We talked to one couple who travel to Costa Rica because it's cheaper than Mexico. Fancy restaurants in Costa Rica cost less than everyday sitdown restaurants here in Albany, and the food is excellent.

The petty crime problem is a turn-off. In most of the US you can park your car and not worry about someone breaking into it. In CR it's apparently so common that you're an idiot if you leave anything in your car. This is a challenge for a country that is relatively poor (compared to us) and that has an admirable practice of avoiding too much incarceration.

Costa Rica seems to have everything going for it - a good education system, great climate, and so much more. But while their economy is fairly strong by Central American standards, they're still way behind us and well behind Mexico.

So what's different about Costa Rica that holds its economy back? The first thing that comes to my mind is infrastructure. It stands out most when it comes to the roads. Imagine driving on a major highway and having to stop for a one-lane bridge. They have a lot of these in Costa Rica. Nearly all their roads are one-lane each way.

Here in the US (and in Europe and Japan as well) infrastructure makes all of us more productive. It is far easier to get to Boston from Albany (170 miles) than it is to get from San Jose to Jaco (73 miles). All the time that Ticos (the nickname for Costa Ricans) spend in cars is time they could spend being productive.

You see infrastructure take different forms in different places. Here in the US a lot of it is roads. In Japan and Europe you see extensive train networks. And that's just the transportation infrastructure. I've read about significant power outages in CR (though we didn't see any). Power outages are pretty rare in the US, and I don't remember any when I lived in Japan. That's an infrastructure issue.

When I complain about government wasting our money on this blog, I usually don't complain about infrastructure projects. There was the infamous bridge to nowhere in Alaska. But it's important to realize that infrastructure investment has strong benefits. It doesn't have to be built by the government. In fact, they are building a new road in CR to the Jaco area, and it's being done by a private consortium who will get their money back by charging a toll. This might be a better way. But even if it's built by the government, it's better than blowing that money on misguided wars or other boondoggles.

I also get the sense that the "rule of law" is not followed as tightly as it generally is here in the US. I used to work for the Honorable Robert P. Best, a Justice of the Supreme Court in Fulton County. On Law Day (May 1st) he would talk about the importance of the rule of law. As I grow older and learn more in life, Judge Best just keeps getting smarter.

Having sensible laws that are enforced in a consistent manner is a very important trait of a civilized society. When people are subject to arbitrary government, they are less willing to invest and make plans for the future.

Back to Costa Rica, I really wanted to go to the northwestern part of the country, to visit the Guanacaste coast (near the Papagayo Peninsula) and also to the Arenal area (a nice lake and an active volcano). But that would have been difficult for a short trip starting from San Jose. There is a closer international airport in Liberia, but it's not easy to get to that airport from Albany. If and when we go again, we will fly into Liberia and see that part of the country.

Some other thoughts:

- I was a bit surprised about how pedestrians walk so close to traffic. Seems very unsafe. We would see someone walking with a very small child, perhaps 2 or 3 years old, and the kid would be walking right on the edge of a narrow road. I think there are a lot of car-pedestrian accidents and those are the most deadly. Not sure how easy it would be, but I suspect CR would be better off if they improved pedestrian safety, both through education and widening roads.

- We saw a lot of dogs, especially small dogs. Not sure why, but I'm guessing they provide some degree of security, barking in case someone tries to break into your house.

- I read an article in the November 7 Tico Times called "Disarming Young Ticos". If I remember correctly, there are less than 50 juveniles incarcerated in this country of 5 million people. That's amazing in contrast to the US, where we probably have more than that in Albany County (population less than 500,000). The US grossly overuses incarceration as a policy tool. Will we ever find our way out of this trap?

Do you have any thoughts about Costa Rica? Please post your comments.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Costa Rica Day 3: Better Driving and More Xandari

On the morning of Day 3 we enjoyed one final breakfast at Gaia. Another nice meal, including fresh local fruit. I thought the croissant french toast was better the day before, but it was still good.

Before breakfast we checked out Gaia's nature trail. We only got a little way in and decided it was too challenging. It did look quite beautiful though.

After breakfast we set out for the drive back to Alajuela and Xandari. This points to one downside of Costa Rica. There's a park on the way but we decided not to stop there. We had our luggage in the SUV, and the advice is not to leave anything in your car when you park somewhere. If we go to CR in the future, we will rent a sedan so any luggage will be hidden in the trunk.

The drive went well this time. It was a Monday, so the weekend beach traffic wasn't there. We did get lost again in Alajuela, due to the lack of road signage. Thanks to another gas station attendant, we did find our way back to Xandari. The resort has some things to do. First, there's a great trail. It's challenging, but at the bottom you get to see some nice waterfalls. Picture of the biggest one below:

It's a lot of steps going down, plus a lot of downhill terrain with no steps and mushy ground. Some spots are not good for those with a fear of heights. But we made down and back up.

Xandari also has two pools, one with a jacuzzi. It wasn't nearly as warm as Gaia (still pleasant) so we did the jacuzzi instead of the pool. My pool pictures didn't come out that good, but they were nice, though not elaborate like the one at Gaia.

After the pool we had a nice dinner, goofed around on my laptop on the lobby Wi-Fi, and had a nice dinner. Note that the TruPhone app on my iPhone no longer worked on the Wi-Fi at Xandari. Not sure what the problem was. I just tested it now at home and it works here. Heather's iPhone e-mail app did work on the Wi-Fi too.

After our experiences getting lost in Alajuela, we had Dollar come pick up our car and Xandari drove us to the airport the next morning. Had a very nice conversation about the local economy, mostly in Spanish, with our driver. It was a good trip.

In the next couple days I'll post some final thoughts about our Costa Rica trip. It sure was an adventure, and I'm glad we went. It was also nice to come home. I'd like to say our kids missed us as much as we missed them, but they had a great time with their wonderful grandparents.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Costa Rica Day 2: Manuel Antonio and the Americana Fea

After a good night of sleep, we had a nice breakfast at Gaia's restaurant. This resort really pampers the guests. Lots of staff available at all times to help with whatever you need or want. The restaurant has a fantastic view of the ocean and many miles of coastline. My skills at photography were not up to the task, but here's the best shot I took:

After breakfast we went on a tour of Manuel Antonio National Park. The resort provided a guide, William. He was born in Nicaragua, moved to CR at age 9, and it seems like he works a lot. He also knows a tremendous amount about the flora and fauna of Manuel Antonio, and he has remarkable eyesight. He could spot small camouflaged animals (including bugs) from substantial distances. Thanks to William, we saw a wide variety of animals. We also got to see three different kinds of monkeys - Howler, Whiteface, and Squirrel Monkeys. Pictures below (click on any photo to enlarge):

Howler Monkey:

Leaf Cutter Ant:

Capuchin (or Whiteface) Monkey:

Bats (look closely on the tree trunk):

Squirrel Monkey:

When we saw the Squirrel Monkeys, there was a large group of fairly young Americans nearby. They got very close to the monkeys and one woman actually picked up a stick and tried to poke a monkey. A guy in the group was telling her to stop and she kept doing it. A new take on the ugly American - La Americana Fea.

There was a tremendous variety of trees, other plants and animals. We saw "land crabs." We didn't know there was such a thing before. Lots of color, though of course, mostly a lush green. The trail leads to beaches that are stunning. It was a weekend day, and many people who seemed native to the country walked right through the trail to get to the beach.

On the way there and back, we noticed a beach area outside the park that had some street vendors, along with regular shops and restaurants. So we had a nice lunch at the resort (the food there is excellent) and then they drove us back to that area. We bought a few touristy things from the street vendors. I'm sure they were ripping us off on the prices, but it was much cheaper than anything that you'd see in a US tourist trap, and haggling worked too. We sat on the beach for a while. This was another nice spot. Very pleasant.

Once we got back we spent about 20 minutes in Gaia's pool. This was another spectacular feature of the resort. The pool has multiple levels. A couple of them are "infinity" pools where the water level is just a touch higher than the wall on one side, so it looks like the pool doesn't end - and the view in that direction is the ocean. The water goes over the edge and forms a 15-20 foot waterfall to the lower pool, which has another one that drops off just a few feet. It was quite humid and the water felt great. Below are a couple shots of the pool (it was so humid the lens fogged on the second shot):

Before dinner we treated ourselves to a "couples massage". We both got a massage in the same room. We enjoyed that. Dinner was good too. I don't remember the details as I write. After dinner we enjoyed a quiet evening in our room and got to sleep fairly early.

A couple things about our room. I particularly liked the combination jacuzzi tub/shower. The jacuzzi jets were weak, but it was still a nice feature. The shower head was great - excellent pressure, and an interesting shape. It was cylindrical and the jets were in a line. Also, there's a window on one side. When you open it you can see out onto the terrace and beyond into the flora and even the ocean. The other thing is that our suite had a rooftop terrace. You go out of your room and go up a flight of stairs, and there is a terrace where you have an even better view, similar to the view from the restaurant. There's a table and chairs, a couple of lounge chairs (with wet cushions from the rain the previous night - they don't dry out because of the humidity), and a reflecting pool (which was empty - one minor failing in an otherwise fine stay).

Oh, and I didn't find a working WiFi signal in the room, but there were multiple ethernet jacks and they worked well. I did not check the rest of the resort for WiFi, so I don't know about that.

Stay tuned for Day 3. :-)

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Costa Rica Day 1: Poas Volcano, Uglier Driving and Gorgeous Gaia

On our first full day in Costa Rica (for Day Zero, see Costa Rica: Ugly Driving) we woke up a little late. The previous day was a long one, and we both had trouble sleeping.

When we did get up, we had a pleasant breakfast at our resort, Xandari Alajuela. There is a complimentary breakfast. It's like a Continental breakfast, but with a few more items than you get at most places, and it was all delicious. There was some kind of Costa Rican muffin/quiche thing that was extra good. We also got fried bananas (or was it plantains?) and they were excellent. One of the nice things about Xandari, by the way. Menu prices were very reasonable. The plantains were $2. One small-world moment. Started chatting with a woman at breakfast. She grew up in Glens Falls, and her husband in Corinth.

After breakfast we drove up to the Poas Volcano National Park. It was a reasonably short drive from Xandari, but driving in Costa Rica seems to take longer than it should. This opened up a new problem. You're going along and there's a sign: "Parque Nacional Volcan Poas - 27 km". For the non-metric inclined, 1 mile is 1.6 km, so 30 km is a bit less than 20 miles. Okay, so we're doing pretty good. Next sign says 25 km. Then the next sign says 30 km. Um ... shouldn't we be getting closer? I'll mention a couple more like this later, but in short, no one in Costa Rica seems to know how far away anything is. If you ask them, they'll guess, but they'll almost surely be wrong. If the guys putting the signs up on the highways can't get it right, why should anyone else?

So, driving up and down and all around, narrow roads, people walking extremely close to the roadway, odd traffic behavior, etc. We did eventually get to the park. It was quite nice. Here's where I should start to mention how beautiful Costa Rica is. If you read about Costa Rica, it's one of the first things you'll see. And it's pretty much true. Populated areas are generally less attractive as there are many unsightly structures and objects, but outside those areas there is an awful lot of green.

Driving and walking up to the volcano, we saw lush vegetation all over. The country is really just one big garden. What little we've seen so far anyway. After parking, we walked up a paved (and wheelchair accessible) path to see the crater. Very interesting. The bottom of the crater is filled with water. Apparently the water is hot, highly acidic, and you can see a plume of steam coming off of it. See the following picture:

We were lucky that we had good views while there. Not the best though. On a really good day you can see the Caribbean from there, which is a rather long distance. We could only see the crater and not much beyond it. We also walked up to the Laguna, which is another crater also filled with water.

The Laguna hike is tougher, with steeper hills and steps in a number of places. We walked about 2 miles in total, a workout. We appreciated the downhill return.

We drove back down to Xandari for lunch. I got us mostly lost on the way down, but fortunately found our way back. Xandari has done a good job of posting signs for itself in a number of places. And their distance markings are the most accurate we've seen here.

After lunch we headed out on the most adventurous part of the trip so far. We drove to Quepos on the Pacific coast. I got lost again trying to get us on our way to Quepos, but we eventually got on the right track. I kept stopping and asking people for directions. This is a key point. I speak Spanish fairly well. If you don't speak Spanish, getting directions will be a lot more difficult. Many Ticos (Costa Ricans) speak English, but they're better at Spanish and some struggle with English. Anyway, the best directions came from a gas station attendant. Then I had a sense that I was about at the turn and ran into a restaurant to ask a waiter. He gave me the clearest directions - he pointed to the road I thought we were supposed to turn onto and said to follow it all the way. I had guessed correctly, but you'd think they'd put a sign??

A little ways further we saw a sign saying that we had 155 km to go to Quepos. The longest 155 km I've ever driven, and not just because I've never thought about a trip in km before. Just now I checked a Costa Rica driving distance calculator and it says 175 km, so that explains a little of it (assuming the calculator is right).

The first part of the drive from Alajuela was unpleasant. The roads were narrow, winding, and crowded. We kept seeing signs to Jaco (on the way to Quepos) and to Quepos as well. The distances continued to vary. We also saw plenty of billboards in English about buying condos or other property. I suspect that business is slow these days. At a certain point as we were getting closer to Jaco, we took a ramp around onto a new road, and all of a sudden it was fairly straight and flat and empty. We were able to go 80 km/hr (50 mph) for some consistent stretches.

We had been driving for a while and passed through Jaco. We were looking for a couple of places to stop and take a break. We were cruising along and then traffic stopped ahead. There was a minor landslide and we could see some boulders in the road. A guy in uniform (probably a police officer) and some young men cleared things up, all while keeping watch to make sure nothing fell on them.

We drove on. Finally we saw Xandari Pacific. This is by the same people who run our first hotel. It was very beautiful, and the beach is right there. It seemed like there was no one staying there. They probably do better in high season. We had a drink and enjoyed the view, and then headed back out on the road. I asked the waiter how far to Quepos, and he said 30 km. As we were driving out to turn back onto the main road, a sign said 45 km. They're consistent though.

Traffic came to a stop at Parrita (very close to Quepos). They are apparently building a new bridge, and traffic was routed over a narrow one-lane bridge in place of whatever the old one was. Once we got past that it was smooth driving again. Then it got dark and started to rain. And rain. And then it started to pour. Finally, after what seemed like many hours (but was really less than four hours including our stop at Xandari Pacific), we arrived in Quepos and found our hotel, Gaia Hotel and Reserve.

Gaia seems to be built on a hill. The main facility and the rooms are on top. You park and they drive you up in the hill in golf carts. We got a quick tour, took a short break in our room, and then had a very nice dinner from the hotel's restaurant, but we got room service because of the downpour. The food was excellent. We also had our first good night of sleep.

More about Gaia in the next post, about Day 2.

Costa Rica: Ugly Driving and Beautiful Xandari

I've been thinking about Costa Rica for years. Driving my wife crazy. Well, I was goofing around with my Northwest Airlines frequent flyer miles on their website and (with spousal approval) booked a short trip to Costa Rica. And now we're here.

We arrived after a fairly long flight - a bit longer because the plane had to fly around Hurricane Paloma. Then we had a minor adventure getting our rental SUV (4wd suggested due to rough roads). On that point, I have to say that Dollar Rent-A-Car's idea of a luxury SUV is not the same as mine. We got a large Mitsubishi that is competent on the road, but it's not luxurious by any stretch of the imagination. But what should I expect for $40/day?

Going to our hotel at night, we got our first experience driving in Costa Rica. It ain't easy. The directions were reasonably clear, but the streets do not appear to have names. For that matter, one-way streets are not clearly marked. As we discovered when a motorcycle cop advised me that I was going "contravia" (wrong way). Fortunately he was a nice guy or had more important things to do, so he gave me directions and went on his way.

After that slight detour we found our resort. We spent the first night at Xandari in Alajuela. The resort is gorgeous and so was our room. Very spacious with a large terrace and expansive views of the Central Valley.

Customer service at Xandari was outstanding. Our plans had us arriving fairly late. So they e-mailed me a few days to let me know their kitchen would be closed and asking if we'd like anything in our room waiting for us. We ordered a few dishes and they were all very good. We stopped back for lunch the next day after a morning trip and that was great too. We'll be back there in a couple nights so maybe I'll post something more about that in my restaurant review blog later on. Below is a photo of the view from our terrace the next morning:

For the digerati, Xandari has wifi in the lobby area. I used it to check e-mails and then used TruPhone on my iPhone to make a few calls. TruPhone costs 3 cents a minute. My cell phone roaming in CR is $2.29 a minute, so that was a nice trick, though TruPhone was a bit erratic on one of the calls.

That was the beginning. More to come.