Saturday, June 28, 2008

Travel Notes: Suggestion for the Airlines

The first stage of our trip to Italy took us to the Boston airport, along with two of our checked bags. The third bag, for no reason I could discover, came on a later flight.

It would be helpful if, in such situations, the airline would announce the point at which all of the baggage from a particular flight had been put on the carousel. That way I would know my bag was missing and could take action accordingly, instead of waiting around for another twenty or thirty minutes in case it was still coming. So far as I can recall, I have never observed an airline doing so.

Travel notes: My Toys

I like gadgets; two of them have been quite useful on this trip. The first is the baby laptop I am writing this on, an Asus eee 900 by the name of Eeep. It weighs two pounds, measures about 9”x7”, runs Linux (one can also get it with Windows XP) and does pretty nearly everything one would expect of a computer. The one significant exception so far is running World of Warcraft; I gather people have gotten it to run on a Linux eee, but my attempts so far have been unsuccessful. Even if I succeeded I don't expect Eeep would run WoW very well, given the machine's constraints.

No doubt my MacBook, deliberately left at home, would do everything somewhat better. But it also weights more than twice as much and is considerably less convenient to carry around or use in the cramped space of an airline tray. Eeep has only 20 gigabytes of flash memory to substitute for a hard drive (how long has it been since “only 20 gigabytes” would have sounded like a joke?). But to supplement that I have an 8 gigabyte Secure Digital card and a tiny 120 gig USB hard drive, for anything I want with me that actually takes up enough space to be a problem. It's also true that the keyboard takes some getting used to—I find myself hitting caps lock instead of shift from time to time—but I expect that problem to get less serious with practice.

My other gadget is my current camera, a Panasonic Lumic DMC-TZ5. Like my previous, and even smaller, Lumix, it is a well designed and well constructed pocket camera.

I got it because it had more megapixels than its predecessor and, more important, a much longer zoom (10x) and a widescreen video mode. The zoom has indeed proved useful, but the camera's real talent is one I hadn't even considered. One of its settings is designed for taking notes—recording information on the camera's built-in memory. I use it to photograph a map of a city. When viewing the photo on the camera's screen I can zoom in and scroll around, making the map very nearly as useful as—in some ways perhaps even more useful than—the paper original. Since I am a tourist I always have my camera with me, which means I always have my map with me.

As long as I remember to keep the camera's battery charged.

Travel Notes: Florence x 3

I have been traveling in Italy with family and friends, which is one reason I haven't been posting here. The travel, however, itself provides some interesting things to post about.

One is the tripartite nature of the cities we have been visiting. A place like Florence is really three cities in one. There is the historic city—what is left of the Florence of the Renaissance, some of it interesting and impressive. There is the tourist city which feeds off the historic city and consists of a changing population of thousands of visitors, Italian and foreign, plus the locals who make their living selling things to tourists, feeding tourists, guiding tourists.

And then there is the modern city—I am told the population is 400,000 within the city boundaries, a million and a half if you include the surrounding communities. That may be the most interesting of the three, since it represents its own solution to the constraints and opportunities provided by the modern world, similar in some ways to, different in others from, the version I live with at home. It would be still more interesting if I were in India, China, or Iran, observing a modern society built on an ancient culture radically different from my own. That, I suspect, is going to be one of the exciting features of the 21st century, as more of the ancient non-European cultures create their own version of a modern society.

This third Florence is the one tourists see the least of. That is one disadvantage of visiting a foreign country as a tourist looking at history rather than as someone with something ordinary to do there—teach, buy, sell, study.

While on the subject of Florence—tomorrow we leave for Bologna, then Venice and home—a few comments for travelers who share my tastes, which do not include a taste for paintings. The most interesting places so far were:

  1. The museo pietre dura (sp?), a museum of masaic work, filled with exquisite art done in perfectly pieced together bits of polished stone, much of it semi-precious, plus what remains of the workshop and tools where the work was done. To see how that art got used, visit the Medici chapel.

  1. The Palazzo Davanzati, a largely restored medieval house scaled for a large and wealthy family. Unlike palaces, such as the Strozi or the vast Pitti, it feels like a home, not a public building.

  2. The Mercato Centrale, an enormous covered market providing the Italian equivalent of a giant supermarket--not a single store with a single management but a building full of tiny stores. It reminds me of the discussion in Oliver Williamson's Market and Hierarchy of the tradeoffs between hierarchical control and the decentralized alternative. For a more recent version, in the context of computer programming, see The Cathedral and the Bazaar by my friend Eric Raymond.

The favorite sight of one of the friends we are travelling with was the scene in a narrow street filled with street vendors when a police car was seen approaching and all of the vendors instantly rolled up their blankets with their goods inside and vanished out the other end of the street.

Unfortunately I have so far missed that one.

My one complaint about Florence so far is that almost all of the interesting museums ban the use of cameras, the one exception being the museum associated with the Duomo. The motive seems to be to prevent competition with the museum's authorized publications. I would happily have spent more for the right to take pictures than I have spent on all the museum books bought so far, and it wouldn't have cost the museum a cent. As an economist, I wonder if the museums are making the right choice and why none of them seem to allow cameras but charge extra for them.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

The FLDS Case: Further Legal Issues

A recent CNN story discussing the cost of the case so far to the state noted with a tone of regret that it would be difficult to force the parents to pay the cost since the state Supreme Court had found that the seizure of their children was without legal justification. Readers of this blog will not be surprised that I have been thinking about such issues from the other side. Are the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services or some of its employees liable, civilly or criminally, for actions they have taken? This reduces, I think, to three different questions, each of which raises legal issues that I cannot confidently judge as well as factual issues that would require a trial to resolve.

1. The initial seizure of the children:

According to unanimous votes of both a three judge appeals panel and the state Supreme Court, the seizure was legally unjustified (three justices, as I understand the result, held that it would have been justified if limited to female teens, six that the seizure of any of the children was unjustified). The seizure imposed substantial costs, monetary and others, on the parents and very large non-monetary costs on their children. Is the Department liable for damages? My guess is that it is not, that in this case as in many others government actors are not liable for their mistakes, but I might be wrong.

2. Classifying adults as minors:

For reasons I have discussed in earlier posts, I suspect that the Department, after discovering that only five of the minors they seized were either mothers or pregnant, decided to improve the evidence by reclassifying about 26 adult mothers as minors, thus letting it announce that 31 out of 53 girls aged 14-17 were pregnant or mothers. Suppose it is possible to prove in court that the "mistake" was deliberate. Restraining adults under color of law by pretending they are minors looks to me as though it ought to be both tortious and criminal.

3. The religious question:

At the time of the original seizure, the authorities' evidence of child abuse consisted of some bogus phone calls from a nonexistent 16 year old girl, information provided by an unidentified confidential informant, and the observation that there were pregnant women at the ranch who looked like teenagers. On that evidence more than four hundred children were seized and separated from their parents for about two months.

So far as we know, the informant had never been in the ranch. She appears to have been providing information not about those parents and their children but about their religious beliefs and how other members of their religion in other times and places were said to have acted; the obvious guess is that she is a past defector from the FLDS. One department spokeswoman explained the seizure of male children on the theory that they were being brought up to be abusers—which is to say, brought up in their parents' religion.

The obvious interpretation is that members of the FLDS were being persecuted for their religion. If so, is that a violation of federal law?

I would be especially interested in comments from readers familiar with the relevant law.