NTSB Report on Big Dig Collapse

Last summer’s death of Milena del Valle under 26 tons of concrete that fell from the ceiling of a Big Dig tunnel raises a complex web of potential liability. I’ve posted about this over the past year as investigators pore through a mountain of evidence to fix the cause of the ceiling’s collapse. See Big Dig, Big Liability, Massachusetts Sues for Big Dig Negligence, and Big Dig Litigation Update. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recently identified use of the incorrect epoxy as the culprit. In the words of an NTSB member “[i]t’s kind of ironic in a $14 billion project . . . About $1.50 per anchor is what ended up bringing the ceiling down.”

According to the NTSB this is what happened. Bechtel/Parsons Brinkerhoff, which oversaw all Big Dig construction, reviewed the epoxy specifications prepared by Gannet Fleming, one of six subcontractors and suppliers who worked on the ceiling. The NTSB says that Bechtel/Parsons did not consider the fast-set epoxy’s long-term strength. The epoxy’s supplier, Powers Fasteners, stated in project documentation–“in the fine print”–that fast-set epoxy was not for long term use but apparently no one acted on this language. A Powers spokeswoman says that Powers supplied its standard-set epoxy, an order valued at $1,287, and assumed it was used. Big Dig contractors were aware that the bolts supporting the massive concrete ceiling panels were slipping and devised theories as to the cause, but the nature of the epoxy securing the bolts in their holes was not among them. Despite knowledge that these bolts were loosening the project’s overseers and the tunnel’s managers never instituted regular inspection of them. Reporting on the NTSB’s findings The Boston Globe stated “[t]here were no regular inspections in the more than three and a half years between the completion of the tunnel and the collapse . . . But after the disaster, investigators found that other ceiling panels were in imminent danger of falling.”

Expect more details over the coming months as other investigations continue, including one by Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley to determine whether to file criminal charges in connection with del Valle’s death.

E-Commerce Top Ten

The Software Information and Industry Association (SIIA) announced the Ten Most Significant eCommerce Developments of the Past Decade. They are:

  1. Google (Sept. 1998)
  2. Broadband Penetration of US Internet Users Reaches 50% (June 2004)
  3. eBay Auctions (Launched Sept. 1997)
  4. Amazon.com (IPO May 1997)
  5. Google Ad Words (2000)
  6. Open Standards (HTML 4.0 released – 1997)
  7. Wi-Fi (802.11 launched – 1997)
  8. User-Generated Content (YouTube 2005)
  9. iTunes (2001)
  10. BlackBerry (1999)

I’ve used, utilized, or relied on all in the past month, so I can’t argue much with the list. (At first glance I omitted Blackberry from this statement until I remembered that Randy did Google searches on his Blackberry to settle disputes during the bike trip.) What I’d like to see at #11: standardized spelling for eCommerce e-Commerce E-Commerce.

Mission Not Accomplished

The text of the National Intelligence Estimate on terrorism answers the question posed yesterday: what has five+ years of the “war on terror,” hundreds of thousands of lives, and hundreds of billions of dollars accomplished? Constraint. The Estimate (only the Key Judgments portion of which has been declassified) “assess[es] that greatly increased worldwide counterterrorism efforts over the past five years have constrained the ability of al-Qa’ida to attack the US Homeland again and have led terrorist groups to perceive the Homeland as a harder target to strike than on 9/11.” (emphasis supplied) Courtesy of the New Oxford Thesaurus of English, to constrain means to restrict, limit, curb, check, restrain, confine, impede, hamstring, frustrate, stifle . . . That’s it. Such feeble results should compel reassessment of our strategy and adaptation to the apparent constraints on our greater success. Instead, this is what we get: “White House officials said [the threat assessment] bolstered the Bush administration’s argument that Iraq was the “central front” in the war on terror, because that was where Qaeda operatives were directly attacking American forces.” White House officials did not address the next logical question: Since they did not have a viable Iraqi presence before 9/11, why are Qaeda operatives in Iraq? To paraphrase George Mallory’s explanation for why climbed Everest, “because we’re there.” We plowed the furrows, planted the seeds, and provided the environment for al-Qa’ida in Iraq to thrive and become an ongoing threat to U.S. security. The threat assessment “assess[es] that al-Qa’ida will probably seek to leverage the contacts and capabilities of al-Qa’ida in Iraq (AQI), its most visible and capable affiliate and the only one known to have expressed a desire to attack the Homeland. In addition, we assess that its association with AQI helps al-Qa’ida to energize the broader Sunni extremist community, raise resources, and to recruit and indoctrinate operatives, including for Homeland attacks.”

Let’s sum it up:

  • Pros
    • al-Qa’ida operations constrained
  • Cons
    • al-Qa’ida organization rejuvenated and thriving in Pakistan
    • al-Qa’ida in Iraq created, and its abilities strengthened through years of fighting U.S. forces
    • Lebanese Hizballah may be more likely to attack U.S. if it threatens Hizballah or Iran

More Cause for Hopelessness

U.S. military involvement in World War II began on December 7, 1941 and ended on August 14, 1945, a period of 1,347 days in which Allied forces defeated the Axis forces of Germany, Japan, and Italy. President Bush’s “war on terror” began on September 11, 2001 and continues today, 2,135 days later and counting. This war has cost hundreds of thousands of lives and somewhere between $400-$500 billion and has polarized this country in a way unmatched since the era of the Vietnam War. What has it accomplished? The prosaic title of the threat assessment prepared by the National Counterterrorism Center says it all: Al-Qaida Better Positioned to Strike the West. Al-Qaida is thriving in Pakistan and, despite the time, money, and human cost, it has improved its financial, training, and communication resources. Pakistan, remember, has received billions of dollars in U.S. aid. Not a great return on our investment. The billions spent on intelligence and security produced a “gut feeling” in Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff’s bowels that the United States faces an increased risk of terrorist attack this summer. This threat assessment does not even address how our disastrous Iraq venture has catalyzed creation of vehement anti-U.S. security threats.

Logorrhea Lowdown

You’ve probably heard the claim that women talk about three times more than men. The figures cited most often, that women speak about 20,000 words a day and men about 7,000 words a day, come from Dr. Louann Brizendine’s book The Female Brain. While it may be true in my house, Science magazine published a study debunking Brizendine’s findings in its July 6 issue. The study involved 396 university students between 1998 and 2004, 210 women and 186 men, who wore an electronically activated recorder (EAR) that sampled 30 seconds of ambient sound every 12.5 minutes. Participants were not aware when the EAR was recording and could not alter its contents. The researchers found that men spoke an average of 15,669 words a day, women an average of 16,215 words a day. The most common phrases for men? “In a minute, after this [inning/quarter/drive/period],” “Huh? Did you say something?”, and “Of course I’ll call you.” The most common phrases from women were “This room is freezing! Close that window!”, “Why don’t you stop and ask someone?”, and “No, it’s your turn.”

Just kidding about that last part! However, as reported in Scientific American the study did find that women tend to talk more about other people, while men talk more about concrete objects.

Praise for Salaried PDs

There are two types of defense attorney for indigent criminal defendants: salaried employees of state and federal court systems, and private attorneys appointed by courts from time to time to represent defendants at an hourly rate. My anecdotal experience is that full-time salaried public defenders tend to do a better job than court-appointed counsel. (Of course there are exceptions.) Many of the former choose the public defender’s office as a career and have years of experience with their courts and prosecutorial counterparts. On the other hand many court-appointed counsel are relatively inexperienced. Getting on the list for criminal appointments provides a source of revenue and trial experience for young attorneys who’ve recently hung their shingle. A recent study by Radha Iyengar titled An Analysis of the Performance of Federal Indigent Defense Counsel bears out my impressions. Published by the National Bureau of Economic Research the study measured the difference in performance by the two types of indigent counsel states its conclusion thus:

Exploiting the use of random case assignment between the two types of attorneys, an analysis of federal criminal case level data from 1997-2001 from 51 districts indicates that public defenders perform significantly better than CJA panel attorneys in terms of lower conviction rates and sentence lengths. An analysis of data from three districts linking attorney experience, wages, law school quality and average caseload suggests that these variables account for over half of the overall difference in performance. These systematic differences in performance disproportionately affect minority and immigrant communities and as such may constitute a civil rights violation under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. (Study Abstract)

As reported in an article in The New York Times, in addition to costing more, “lawyers paid by the hour are less qualified and let cases drag on and achieve worse results for their clients, including sentences that average eight months longer.” This disparity is “largely due to differences in attorney performance when negotiating a guilty plea and the selection of which cases to plead rather than to take to trial.” (Study, p. 3) The study looked only at federal criminal cases but there’s no reason to believe there would be a different result in states that provide both salaried and court-appointed counsel for indigent defendants.

Cause for Hopelessness

I noticed the headline, Poor Kids Living in a War Zone, and clicked on the link. I thought it might be about the Taliban’s terror killings in Afghanistan. I was wrong. Bob Herbert’s column in yesterday’s New York Times discussed the 34 children killed in Chicago’s black and Latino neighborhoods since last September, 34 murders that occurred far below national media radar. The story of Seung-Hoi Cho’s murder of 32 people at Virgina Tech saturated the news; a Google search for <“Virgina Tech” shooting> just produced over 1.7 million hits. Until Bob Herbert’s column the story of these murdered Chicago school children had escaped my notice. Why? These murders occurred over ten months, not a few hours, but that alone does not explain our “passivity and a lack of public outrage” over the Chicago deaths. As Herbert says “most people know (and take for granted) that boys and girls growing up in America’s inner cities often have to deal with conditions that can fairly be compared to combat.” It’s disturbing that this statistic reinforces my own sense of hopelessness at changing the outcome. Herbert cites the litany of causes: too many handguns, sub-standard education, lack of positive after-school activities, lack of summer job programs, and abdication of parental–and particularly paternal–responsibility. I would put more emphasis on parental responsibility, yet while providing a tidy answer one cannot put sole blame on parents and community leaders. How do you learn social norms of responsibility in a vacuum? Irresponsibility breeds irresponsibility. I’m surprised that Herbert fails to cite the lack of economic opportunities. Creating jobs is related to improving the quality of education, but there is certainly a direct relationship between the two.

Democrat$ vs. Republican’ts

The New York Times reports today that Democratic presidential candidates raised $80 million in the quarter ended 6/30, while Republicans raised less than $50 million. It’s just three months in a long campaign but to someone accustomed to a large Republican advantage in fundraising for national campaigns in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s this is eye-opening. While the Democratic National Committee raised almost $389 million and the Republican National Committee raised about $385 million for the 2004 presidential election, “[i]n every previous election cycle since 1976, the year the [Federal Election Commission] first began issuing reports, the GOP has decisively trumped the Democrats. In 1999-2000, for example, the RNC raised $377 million, $116.4 million more than the $260.6 million collected by the DNC.” Thomas B. Edsall and Derek Willis, Fundraising Records Broken by Both Major Political Parties, The Washington Post, 3-Dec-04. Barack Obama led all candidates by raising $32.8 million in the quarter, followed by Hillary Clinton with $27 million. None of the other Democrats raised figures in the double-digits; John Edwards’s $8.9 million led the rest of the pack. Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney led the Republicans with $17.3 million and $13.7 million, respectively. It will be interesting to see whether the Democrats can maintain this advantage.

Do As I Say, Not As I Do

A person’s sexual proclivities are a private matter and rarely relevant to his or her professional abilities–unless that person pushes his values on others and doesn’t practice what he preaches. That’s the position of Republican Louisiana Senator David Vitter, just the latest “clean-as-a-whistle champion of family values” to get caught with his hand in the . . . (let me rephrase that) . . . to have his phone number found in the D.C. Madame’s little black book. Vitter, who who “opposes radically redefining marriage, the most important social institution in human history,” acknowledged his call-girl relations as a “very serious sin in [his] past.” This is bad news for Rudy Giuliani–another born-again moral hypocrite–because Vitter was liaison to the south.

Next stop, pastoral counseling and rehab* for sex addiction? That’s what the playbook calls for.

*Three seconds after I typed this word iTunes cranked out Amy Winehouse’s Rehab. Spooky.