February 29, 2024

Government Inefficiency

As I wrote on February 8, I found my misplaced passport and immediately realized it had expired. The next day, I had a new passport photo taken and filled out an application on line for a renewal. The Web site for filing my application was well-designed, but it took me a couple of tries to enter all the information correctly. (I made the mistake of declaring that I was done, printed the application, and caught my errors when I looked it over. My fault!) When I finally had a proper application in hand, I mailed it, along with my old passport that afternoon, at 3:54 pm, February 9, to be exact. That was on a Friday. The Postal Service indicated that my envelope was delivered to the addressed post office box on Sunday. I didn’t expect to see a new passport anytime soon.

Imagine my surprise and delight when I received my new passport in this morning’s mail. The passport, with impressive new security features, is valid through February 25, 2034. The last time I renewed my passport, my old one was returned to me voided. Apparently, that practice has been discontinued.

Much has been said about government delay and inefficiency—don’t get me started about the Supreme Court—but both the Postal Service and State Department far exceeded my expectations. My application was turned around in just over two weeks. The horror stories I had been hearing about how long it takes to get a passport were apparently overblown. Now if only American justice could be as efficient!

February 21, 2024

Alabama and Frozen Embryo Personhood

The Alabama Supreme Court has ruled that an embryo created via in vitro fertilization (IVF) is a person, a child, and its destruction can result in a wrongful-death lawsuit under Alabama law. The court seems to have been either ignorant or indifferent to the consequences of this decision, which was clearly influenced by the “Christian” anti-abortion movement. Predictably, IVF in Alabama has come to an immediate standstill, as everyone is trying to figure out the implications of the Supreme Court decision.

IVF is most often used by couples who have had difficulty achieving a pregnancy in the usual fashion. IVF can be unpleasant, expensive, and frustrating. Those who embark on their IVF journey must be highly motivated to have a child. Using drugs and minor surgery, multiple eggs are typically harvested from the woman. They are then fertilized by sperm in the laboratory and are allowed to grow briefly into embryos. The embryos can be screened for genetic abnormalities at this point. An immediate attempt can be made to implant an embryo to produce a pregnancy, or embryos can be frozen for future use. Implantation is often unsuccessful, so having multiple embryos in reserve provides a necessary backup. It is not uncommon for several implantations to fail before a pregnancy is achieved. Unused embryos are either dedicated to research or discarded.

The Alabama case involved the accidental destruction of embryos. In a “normal” state—a state not controlled by far-right Republicans—a couple owning unused embryos destroyed by another party without permission would have a cause of action against that party, but not one involving wrongful death. Notice, however, since Alabama now views a frozen embryo as a person, the couple cannot be said to own it. Of greater concern, also growing out of the person status of the embryo, is the question of whether a prosecutor could indict the destroying party for murder. I see no reason why not! This is a serious concern for IVF providers who are repeatedly responsible for destroying embryos.

If a couple using IVF has no further use for their (see above) frozen embryos, it would seem that those embryos need to be preserved forever, since the state disapproves of killing children. This is, I suggest, insane. Can the embryos be taken out of state and disposed of? Who knows? The state of Alabama may assert that killing your children out of state is the same as killing them in Alabama.

Until these issues are clarified (or the state of Alabama comes to its senses), IVF in Alabama is pretty much impossible. Couples wanting to employ IVF may have to move to another state.

There may be other consequences of embryos becoming people. Will embryos result in tax deductions or gain other government benefits because of their personhood?

Anti-abortion militants have applauded the Alabama decision. There is at least some irony here. The militants pretend to want to protect children, yet the decision will prevent highly motivated couples from having children to begin with. Well, those couples can love their embryos, who neither requite their love nor ever develop into real human beings, only into a perpetual obligations.

February 13, 2024

Thoughts on Mardi Gras Parades

Today is Mardi Gras. Both Sunday and today (Tuesday, of course), I’ve watched New Orleans Mardi Gras parades on the Web. I have not been in New Orleans for Mardi Gras for a very long time, but, in many ways, parades have not changed all that much.

There certainly have been improvements over the years. There are more krewes (and correspondingly more parades), and membership in a krewe is no longer limited to the New Orleans elite. Night parades are lit by electric lights rather than by the slightly scary flambeaux. (A flambeau was once dropped on the ground in front of me. Fortunately, I was old enough that the incident didn’t leave me with a permanent emotional scar.) Throws have become more varied and interesting. In addition to the classic strings of beads, there are sunglasses, neck pillows, illuminated caps, socks unique to particular floats, and other imaginative trinkets.

Some changes would be welcome. Parade units—floats, bands, mounted riders, etc.—tend to become separated from one another, often producing long delays between the arrival of units at a given location. In an era of easy wireless communication, there is no excuse for all units not halting or moving in unison.

The other aspect of parades that has remained unchanged for as long as I can remember is having floats pulled by tractors. Floats in the Rose Parade are self-propelled, a more complex but more visually attractive technology. A positive innovation is the arrival of tandem floats, essentially trains of two or more wagons pulled by a single tractor.

I got to see the Zulu parade for the first time today. Zulu has an all-black krewe. Whereas riders on the floats of most parades are masked, most riders in Zulu appear in blackface. Zulu has always been known for its unique throws—hand-painted small coconuts. 

I also saw members of the Half-Fast Walking Club, a group founded by the late clarinetist Pete Fountain. The walkers are part of no parade.

As a former Army bandsman, I pay particular attention to bands in the parades. High school, college, and military bands march during the Mardi Gras season. Even without identifying banners, the three types of bands are easily distinguished. Military bands, for example, march in perfectly straight ranks and are led by drum majors who know how to use a mace to telegraph smartly everything the band needs to know.

Near all high school bands do a poor job of keeping their lines straight. They often have multiple drum majors, none of whom seem to understand what can be done with a mace other than dance around with it. I suspect that high school band directors are reluctant to designate a single drum major and teach him—it always seems to be a him—how to do his job in high style. Drummers, who used to provide a straightforward cadence for marching, now seem to have become bands of their own, often providing more interesting music than the full band. On the other hand, I would not like to march to them. Oh, and band members need to know that marching is not just walking.

College bands, the largest groups, tend to be more disciplined than high school bands but less regimented than military bands. Among college bands, I saw coördinated movements of band members—I’m tempted to call them dance movements—that were not my cup of tea, but which were well-executed.

Finally, I have to say that I would have liked to see more military bands. And I would have liked to have heard more classic military marches (by Sousa, Alford, Fillmore, etc.) played by any of the bands.

Happy Mardi Gras

February 8, 2024

Who Owns the Train?

I have recently heard several radio stories relating to rail safety. The stories were mostly occasioned by the anniversary of the Norfolk Southern freight train derailment at East Palestine, Ohio, on February 3, 2023. More often than not, these stories identify the train involved in the accident as being owned by Norfolk Southern.

Seldom is any train owned by a single railroad in the sense that the locomotive(s) and all the railcars of the train belong to the same railroad, and the train is operated by employees of that railroad. More commonly, a train is operated and dispatched by employees of a given railroad. The locomotives may be owned by that railroad and may be running on that railroad’s tracks, but the railcars making up the train are generally owned by a variety of railroads and other entities, shippers and car lessors. There are many variations on this arrangement—motive power may be supplied by locomotives from multiple railroads, for example—but one railroad is responsible for operating the train, and the cars behind the locomotives have a variety of owners.

The train involved in the East Palestine accident was a Norfolk Southern train, but the train was not owned by Norfolk Southern. Alternatively, it can be said that it was Norfolk Southern’s train or was a train operated by Norfolk Southern. Journalists, take note.

Moving Woes

All kinds of things can go wrong when moving to a new home. Belongings can get lost, broken, or misplaced. You can also move things you wish you had left behind or fail to move things you want to use. In many ways, my move from Indiana, Pa., to Clifton Springs, N.Y., went smoothly. Since I was moving to a one-bedroom apartment, many of my belongings, particularly furniture, could not come along with me. I was fortunate in having an auctioneer (Mike Charnego) who would sell off manny of those left-behind objects for me. This didn’t earn me a boatload of money, but it simplified my move and helped me avoid extra work and anxiety.

My movers (McNaughton Moving and Storage, agent for Allied Van Lines) did a fine job. I did some packing but left the hard packing to them. (I didn’t touch the kitchen, for example.) The movers had to make three stops in Indiana, one in Geneva, N.Y., and one in Clifton Springs. Everything happened on schedule and without loss or damage.

It wasn’t long after my move that I realized that I was missing the pendulum of my Howard-Miller wall clock. The clock, weights, and pendulum had been packed separately when the clock was stored. Not only had Howard-Miller been unhelpful in my attempt to replace the pendulum, but it even denied any knowledge of my clock’s model. Howard-Miller did, however, give me the name of a clockmaker (No-Time Clock Service) in nearby Penn-Yan. No-Time assured me that the pendulum could be replaced and put me on a waiting list for complete clock service. Eventually, I was contacted by Mr. Charnego, who questioned why he was in possession of a clock pendulum. This solved the mystery of the missing component, and he agreed to send the pendulum to me.

My clock was on the waiting list for service for about a year, but I took it to Penn-Yan a couple of weeks ago. I’m waiting to hear when servicing the clock will have been completed. The clock problem, in principle, is on the way to being solved.

I have an extensive library, but I was to have limited shelf space in the new apartment. I discarded many books, particularly computer science textbooks. My railroading and church-related books were slated to come to Clifton Springs, along with a miscellaneous collection of books on other topics. The remaining books went to my son’s garage in Geneva. (The house contains many bookshelves, all of which are pretty much filled.) Every so often I find that I want to see one of the books in the garage, but, to date, I have not begun to examine those books systematically.

I have experienced a good deal of anxiety about not having found my passport. I used to keep it in the top drawer of a chest of drawers. My long-expired passport is there, but my most recent one is not. I have looked all over for the passport to no avail. I simply could not think where it might be. I was sure that it had arrived in Clifton Springs, as I had taken it to the Department of Motor Vehicles in Canandaigua when I registered my car and applied for my New York driver’s license shortly after my move. I’m not planning to do a lot of foreign travel, but I am now close to Canada and may again want to visit some Ontario wineries, a trip that will require a passport.

Last night, either asleep or awake, I remembered that had taken both my Honda file folder and my Army records file folder to the DMV. I had already looked in the Honda folder without finding the passport. This morning, however, I found the passport in the Army records folder. Apparently, I brought the folder home with the passport inside and put the folder into my file cabinet without removing the passport.

The good news is that my passport has at last been found. The bad news is that it expired last month. Now I have to renew it. 

The Passport
The Passport

February 3, 2024

Trump and the Border

House Republicans have successfully engineered a legislative crisis by refusing to authorize aid for Israel and Ukraine without also including what some would consider draconian changes to how we deal with migrants on our southern border. Pressed for action by big-city Democratic mayors dealing with busloads of migrants, the Biden administration has acknowledged that the crisis on our border is real and has indicated its willingness to employ tools devised by Congress to address it. Senate Democrats and Republicans are putting final touches on legislation that would provide aid for Israel and Ukraine combined with immigration reforms.

Just when the legislative logjam seemed about to be resolved, GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump has declared that Republicans should not sign on to the Senate bill. Apparently, Trump wants to ensure that he can use the border crisis as a campaign issue in the coming 2024 presential race. House Speaker Mike Johnson seems willing to do Trump’s bidding by not allowing the House to take up the Senate bill. Of course, at this point, no one, presumably including Trump himself, knows what is in that bill, which is still being written.

Trump is making a big mistake. That is understandable, since we know that Trump is not a deep thinker about policy issues. If he prevents legislation from being passed on foreign aid and border reform, his argument that only he can solve border problems will be countered by the Democratic argument that Trump is the person who torpedoed effective immigration reform that Congress has been unable to pass for decades. He will also be blamed for failing to support Israel and, heaven forbid, allowing Russia to defeat Ukraine. One can imagine major elements of the electorate that will resonate to the Democratic anti-Trump argument.

Trump is actually taking a page from the Richard Nixon playbook. Candidate Nixon worked to head off a resolution of the Vietnam war, so that he could preserve it as a campaign issue. The difference between Nixon and Trump, however, is that Nixon pursued his nefarious scheme in secret, whereas Trump’s self-serving machinations are being exposed for all the world to see. Trump has missed the subtlety here.

What should Trump do? How can he salvage a situation threatening to turn what he thinks will be a powerful campaign issue into an even more powerful campaign issue for Biden, Harris, and other Democratic candidates? Trump should emphasize the seriousness of the border crisis. He should assert that he dealt with it better when he was in office and that his focus on the border has been responsible for finally motivating both the current administration and Congress to act. He can, though probably won’t, portray himself as a powerful, positive force in governance rather than a negative one derailing reforms he ostensively supports.

The best outcome, of course, would be if Johnson is pressured to bring the Senate bill to the floor and passage resolves the current impasse. House Republicans are in a bind, however, as long as Trump persists in his opposition. Defying Trump’s wishes will clearly be a blow to the Trump campaign and likely one to the campaigns of Republican House candidates as well. Failure to pass a bill may be equally damaging.