Friday, July 17, 2020

Joe Biden Gets Endorsed, But He Gives Bad Advice

Joe Biden's electoral chances got a little bit better today when he scored a big endorsement, this one from Angela Davis, who is no longer a fugitive from justice.

To be fair, it was a half-hearted endorsement at best:
So I think that we’re going to have to translate some of the passion that has characterized these demonstrations into work within the electoral arena, recognizing that the electoral arena is not the best place for the expression of radical politics. But if we want to continue this work, we certainly need a person in office who will be more amenable to our mass pressure. And to me, that is the only thing that someone like a Joe Biden represents. But we have to persuade people to go out and vote to guarantee that the current occupant of the White House is forever ousted.

But Joe will take it, I'm sure.

Anyway, he and Ms. Davis have at least one thing in common. They are both big fans of the sawed-off double-barrel shotgun. That's Ms. Davis' younger brother in the above photo, and he's got a shotgun which she purchased taped to the neck of Judge Harold J. Haley as he takes the judge hostage in the Marin County, California, Courthouse in August 1970.

Judge Haley was murdered shortly after the photo was taken. Ms. Davis went on trial for murder, kidnapping, and conspiracy for her role in helping plan the hostage-taking and purchasing the guns used in it, but she was acquitted in 1972 and went on to have a fulfilling career in politics and academia.

Joe's interest in double-barrel shotguns is well known, since he enthused about that to CBS News back in 2013. Joe recommends the double-barrel because you don't need to aim it, unlike the AR15 rifle, or anyhow so he said.

Personally, I prefer the handgun. But, whatever firearm you favor, please do aim it carefully, unlike what Joe advises. And also, please don't buy it for associates who will use it to commit murder. Not everyone who conspires to commit murder will be acquitted like Angela Davis.

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

If 1967 Was the Summer of Love, 1968 Was the Summer of Fire and Tear Gas

Federal troops in the Federal enclave of Washington DC, 1968

It was 52 years ago that federal troops, 11,000 of them, were used to restore order to Washington DC, after four days of rioting and arson had destroyed large parts of the city. They brought order with dispatch (note the - sheathed - bayonets on those rifles) and most of the public was glad to see it done. Most people in any kind of position of power back then, including those who ran the news media, were World War II veterans or at least were shaped by the experience of WWII, and had a whole different scale by which they measured harshness. Any crowd control measure short of shooting was easily accepted, and shooting was always an option.

I was a little kid at the time but I well remember the atmosphere. The first time I smelled tear gas was in the streets around National Airport, and I saw troops manning an M-60 machine gun at an intersection near the Capitol.

A dozen or so cities had riots that year that were at least as damaging as those in DC. One immediate political impact of that was to make some Police Chiefs run for office, such as those in Los Angeles and Philadelphia who became their city's next Mayor.

There's a lesson there. Keep your eye on the benevolent associations and collective bargaining structures of New York City's Police and Fire Departments, which could turn into very large and extremely effective political organizations overnight. Why should they not run someone against Mayor De Blasio?

One other lesson: the 1968 Democratic Party Convention turned into a shambles and its nominee, Vice President Humphrey, lost to a law'n'order Republican. Republicans went on to win four of the next five Presidential elections.

Who knows? Maybe the voters across America, and especially in the swing states, are taking the side of Antifa as they watch all the violence, but I kind of doubt it. We'll find out soon enough.

Sunday, April 5, 2020

Who Will Pay For This Screw-Up in Ashgabat? The 90 to 125 Million Dollar Question

Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, city of white marble and straight lines

This might be the most consequential screw-up in U.S. embassy construction since the Moscow debacle of the 1980s and 1990s. (For a summary of that long-drawn-out disaster, which nearly resulted in embassy construction responsibility being taken out of the hands of the State Department, see the embassy's website.) Anyway, that's the only other one I can recall in which we had to demolish a newly-built embassy.

If it weren’t for the COVID-19 emergency taking up all of Official Washington’s time and attention, we would surely see State getting thrashed by Congress and the White House over an OIG audit report for Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, that came out in February. No one seems to have noticed it yet, which is understandable given the pandemic health crisis. However, the report makes clear that there will be a follow-up, and quite possibly a formal notification to Congress of waste and mismanagement, so I don't see any way that my good friends in OBO will escape repercussions forever.

You can read all about it in Review of Delays Encountered Constructing the New Embassy Compound in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, a pedestrian title which gives no hint of the political dynamite inside the report.

The report is unclassified and uncontrolled, put out there on the internet for all the public and Congress to see. The OIG certainly isn't hiding it. They even put it in their Twitter feed on February 27. Hey, congressional oversight committees, you're missing a good one here.

The gist of the matter is that since 2016 OBO has been building a new U.S. embassy in Ashgabat, which is a city that imposes two absolute requirements on new buildings: they must have facades of white marble and they must be set back from the street a precise distance, which is referred to as "the red line." Well, we built the main embassy office in the wrong place. And now we will have to demolish it and build it again, this time in the place where the local authorities told us all along it had to go.

From the OIG Report:
[I]n July 2016, the Government of Turkmenistan halted construction of the NOB [New Office Building] because it was being constructed in a location that violated the city’s red line. This error occurred, in part, because OBO personnel failed to follow internal procedures that guide the planning of construction projects … Moreover, they did not require the Architectural and Engineering firm that prepared the project bridging design to deliver required planning documentation that would have alerted OBO about the proper placement of the NOB. In addition, the construction contractor, Caddell, failed to obtain required construction permits from the Turkmen Government prior to initiating construction. As a result, construction of the NOB was halted after approximately $26 million had been expended to construct the facility.

-- Snip --

The operational and financial implications from the improper placement of the NOB are profound. Specifically, because construction of the NOB has not been completed, embassy operations continue to be conducted from multiple locations. According to OBO’s FY 2014 Congressional Notification for constructing the NEC, this arrangement creates security and safety risks. In addition, OBO estimates that it will cost the Department between $90 million and $125 million to rebuild a new NOB in an approved location. This amount is approximately twice what was originally budgeted to construct the NOB.

So many fingers of blame to point at so many parties! And did they say we're going to pay twice the cost that was originally budgeted in order to get this project completed? Yes, well, that will happen when first you construct a building, then you have to tear it down and construct it a second time.

Keeping track, that’s $26 million in sunk costs – construction, design, contractor mobilization, project supervision – to build the wrongly-sited and unpermitted chancery office building, plus between 90 and 125 million in future costs to re-build the chancery on the correct side of the host government’s red line.

For some background on that red line, see The City of White Marble to appreciate how very, very, particular the host country’s government and its President - Protector of the Turkmen! - are about their architecturally eccentric capital city.

Ashgabat may be the strangest city anywhere outside of North Korea. Still, all they asked of us was a white marble chancery building that respected their setback distance from the street so as to keep our new embassy in geometric harmony with every other building in the neighborhood. That’s not so much to ask.

The dramatis personae in this story of – likely – waste and mismanagement include:
  • OBO’s first project manager, now retired, who failed to ensure that the local legal assessment report was properly filed away with OBO headquarters
  • The architectural firm OBO used to prepare the planning documents that guided the eventual design and construction, which failed to press with OBO the issue of the missing local legal assessment
  • The Office of Acquisitions Management and the Office of the Legal Advisor, who must now determine whether a screw-up by the first project manager relieved OBO's construction contractor from its contractual obligations, or whether that contractor is liable for damages
  • The construction contractor, Caddell, who failed to obtain a local building permit, or to verify that one had been obtained, before plunking that new chancery down right on top of the local red line; Caddell is now on the hot seat for paying big damages to OBO, or, just maybe, to boldly charge OBO even more money to compensate for the four years it has been required to suspend work on the chancery ('equitable adjustment for the cost and time impacts'), which I bet would be quite the bargaining chip in a possible settlement negotiation
  • The U.S. Congress, who will eventually wake up to this news, if not now, then in a few more months when they may well get official notice from the OIG that it has found a case of waste and mismanagement

There are also lesser players, like the OBO Director and his headquarters staff, and the Under Secretary for Management. I foresee a judge and jury getting involved, as well.

The current U.S. Ambassador and his predecessor come off pretty well, since the OIG makes clear that they both tried to talk sense to Washington while headquarters officials dithered in the four years since Turkmenistan authorities ordered a halt to construction, refusing to bite the bullet and just demolish that offending chancery.
“By January 2019, the U.S. Ambassador to Turkmenistan informed OBO that he saw no realistic chance the Turkmen Government would allow the building to be completed in its current location, and he advised OBO that the only path forward was to demolish the NOB and rebuild it in accordance with the Turkmen Government’s red line requirement. In June 2019, the newly appointed U.S. Ambassador met with the President of Turkmenistan and again attempted to find a solution other than demolishing and rebuilding the NOB. In response, the Turkmen President reiterated that the red line is Turkmen law and must be upheld.”

But instead of accepting that Turkmen reality, OBO tried to wriggle off the hook. It proposed adding a massive fig leaf – an earthen berm – to make the chancery’s red line intrusion harder for passersby to see, but the locals authorities didn’t go for that. It explored a partial demolition of the unfinished chancery, but that was not a viable option. It even asked the locals if they would be open to a cost-sharing arrangement to pay for the full demolition and reconstruction of the chancery, but no such luck.

To me, that dithering and wishful thinking is the greatest fault in this sad story. It should not have taken four years to face the facts and understand there is no way out of this dilemma other than knocking down that partially-finished chancery. The sooner you do it, the faster this will be over and the fewest dollars will have been wasted.

Now, having dragged the problem out for four years, not only does OBO still have to rebuild the chancery, but State has a major legal problem and financial exposure on its hands if it tries to fix responsibility on its construction contractor, Caddell. After all, it was Caddell that failed to obtain a construction permit for the new embassy, which is a huge oversight, to say the least. So doesn't Caddell own this 90 to 125 million dollar problem? Maybe. But what equitable adjustment does OBO owe Caddell for the four years since it ordered Caddell to stop work on the biggest part of its Ashgabat contract? The answers will depend on how a judge sees contractual orders of precedence and other matters of procurement law.

Finally, let’s not forget the staff of the U.S. Mission in Turkmenistan, who will continue to have their operations split between multiple locations, some of them highly deficient in both security and safety (in particular, seismic safety) for years to come.

More to come on this, for sure.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Most Head Shakingly Bad Thing of the Week

Police warn about fake ‘coronavirus inspector’ - (Maryland) Capital Gazette

“Residents should not open their homes to anyone claiming to be checking for the COVID-19 virus or offering to clean their home,” [Bowie MD Police Chief] Nesky’s department warned in a statement released on the scam.

Socially Isolated, But Ready to Roll

As if working from a cubicle in an office annex in Rosslyn VA wasn't already isolated enough, now I'm teleworking from home half the time.

On my in-office days, the benefits are clear: near-empty streets and a record short door-to-door commute, my local Starbucks bravely hanging in there with mobile orders and pick-up service (unlike Peets), and - best of all - being allowed to park in the office building garage. What a perk!!! Now I know how the One Percent live.

On my at-home days, telework connectivity-wise, GO has been just okay but Microsoft 365 has been great. My biggest problem on home-bound work days has been the temptation to do on-line shopping.

With time on my hands, I've started to do long put-off chores. For one, I finally disassembled the slide on my old Glock so as to clean the striker channel and firing pin assembly. A bit embarrassed to admit I'd never done that before. I've never had any kind of function glitch with that highly reliable pistol, but now it'll be just that much nearer to perfection. I'll never have to hear Michael Caine say "you failed to maintain your weapon, son."

As the weather turns warmer, I expect to do more outside chores that I've been putting off forever. With no time or daylight lost to commuting now, I can afford to spend a couple hours a day on my lawn. Hey, I might really grow some grass this year!

Saturday, March 14, 2020

U.S. Hospitals Pretty Well-Resourced Against COVID-19

Image from NPR

NPR had an alarming story today revolving around an interview about the current limits of intensive care resources for treating COVID-19 patients, in particular whether there will be enough ventilators for the most severely afflicted. But by far the most interesting info was buried when NPR linked to but otherwise ignored a research report by a society of intensive care professionals on just that very topic.

Why so little interest in that report, especially when it answered some of the questions raised in the main body of the story?

Here's the story: As The Pandemic Spreads, Will There Be Enough Ventilators?

First the gloomy main body:
Ventilators are generally a temporary bridge to recovery — many patients in critical care who need them do get better. These machines can be crucial to sustaining life in certain emergency situations. And if there is a surge in seriously ill patients, as COVID-19 spreads, ventilators could be in short supply, from hospital to hospital or nationally.

And if there's an increase in very sick patients on a scale like what happened in China, Dr. Eric Toner says, the U.S. is not prepared. Toner studies hospital preparedness for pandemics at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.

"We are not prepared, nor is any place prepared for a Wuhan-like outbreak," Toner tells NPR, "and we would see the same sort of bad outcomes that they saw in Wuhan — with a very high case fatality rate, due largely to people not being able to access the needed intensive care."

Toner says all hospitals have some lifesaving ventilators, but that number is proportional to the number of hospital beds in the institution. An average-sized hospital with 150 beds, for example, might have 20 ventilators. If more were needed, hospitals that need them could rent them, he says — at least for now. But if there's a surge of need in a particular community — patients with serious pneumonia from COVID-19 or pneumonia related to flu, for example — all hospitals in the area would be competing to rent from the same place. "So that's a very finite resource" he says.

The latest study available estimates there are about 62,000 ventilators in hospitals nationwide. That figure is seven years old — so the actual number could be higher.

There are also some machines in federally stockpiled emergency supplies, though the exact number isn't public.

"There is a strategic national stockpile of ventilators, but the numbers are classified," says Toner. It's been "publicly stated," he says, that there are about 10,000 ventilators in the national stockpile. "That number might be a bit outdated, but it's probably about right," he says. Other estimates range from 4,000 to somewhat less than 10,000.

At that point NPR linked to this highly pertinent and current - it's dated yesterday - report by the Society of Critical Care Medicine, U.S. ICU Resource Availability for COVID-19, which paints a much less dark picture.

First, look at Figure 1, the comparison of U.S. critical care beds to other countries. The United States has 34.7 ICU beds per 100,000 inhabitants, significantly more per capita than anywhere else except Germany, which was second with 29.2. After that, the numbers drop off sharply. If you're in the UK or China - 6.6 and 3.6 per capita respectively - just hope you won't need a critical care bed.

The report gives comprehensive numbers for ventilators on hand and details of all aspects of employing them during an emergency, including the limits on our ability to absorb surge supplies due to the need for spare parts, disruptions in international supply lines, and the need for trained personnel to safely use ventilators.
Supply of mechanical ventilators in U.S. acute care hospitals: Based on a 2009 survey of AHA hospitals, U.S. acute care hospitals are estimated to own approximately 62,000 full-featured mechanical ventilators. Approximately 46% of these can be used to ventilate pediatric and neonatal patients. Additionally, some hospitals keep older models for emergency purposes. Older models, which are not full featured but may provide basic functions, add an additional 98,738 ventilators to the U.S. supply. The older devices include 22,976 noninvasive ventilators, 32,668 automatic resuscitators, and 8,567 continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) units.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Strategic National Stockpile (SNS) and other ventilator sources: The SNS has an estimated 8,900 ventilators for emergency deployment. These devices are not full featured but offer basic ventilatory modes. Accessing the SNS requires hospital administrators to request that state health officials ask for access to this equipment. SNS can deliver ventilators within 24-36 hours of the federal decision to deploy them. States may have their own ventilator stockpiles as well. Respiratory therapy departments also rent ventilators from local companies, further expanding the supply. Additionally, many modern anesthesia machines are capable of ventilating patients and can be used to increase hospitals’ surge capacity.

The addition of older hospital ventilators, SNS ventilators, and anesthesia machines increases the absolute number of ventilators to possibly above 200,000 units.

I'll note that the absolute number of ventilators does not include U.S. military resources which may also be available, and which probably exceed the medical capabilities of most countries.

All in all, I was quite reassured to read that linked report.

As of today, the U.S. has had only 1,629 COVID-19 cases and 41 deaths (about half of which occurred at the same Kirkland, Washington, nursing home). That's only 5 cases per million of population. There were a little over 100,000 cases worldwide, most of them in only five countries, when WHO declared it a pandemic.

Of course, we and the rest of the world will have many more cases before the pandemic subsides. But let's not ignore the realities that the U.S. has had remarkably few cases in comparison to nearly every other country, that we are far better resourced than others to handle the most severely afflicted patients, and that our population is spread out over a large landmass that will make it feasible to surge more resources to the locations in greatest need as events dictate.

So get a grip. Stay away from large crowds, wash your hands often, and let's all hope that Tom Hanks recovers quickly.

Saturday, February 29, 2020

Most Headshakingly Bad Thing of the Week

"Warning: If you have recently purchased Meth, it may be contaminated with the Corona Virus." - Merrill, Wisconsin, Police Department

"Please take it to the Merrill Police Department and we will test it for free. If you're not comfortable going into an office setting, please request any officer and they'll test your Meth in the privacy of your home. Please spread the word! We are here for you!”