Those “Environmental Terrorists”


Stories like this one are circulating in the local news.

What we actually have here is the nexus of several factors:

  • A prosecutor trying to make those whom s/he is accusing look as bad as possible (as prosecutors always do),
  • A reporter ignorant of the basics of railroad signaling and railroad operations in general,
  • Broadly-worded post-9/11 anti-terrorism legislation, and
  • A couple of activists who badly neglected their homework.

What we do not have is a gang of hardened and depraved eco-terrorists willing to cause significant human and ecological damage in order to make their point.

First, we need to look into just what the “shunting” these two are accused of actually does. In order to do that, we must delve a bit into the basics of railroad signaling.

The Basics of Railroad Signaling

There is much talk these days about “smart” vehicles and “smart” highways, and how these offer the possibility of vastly safer road transport in the future. Well, railroads have been creatively using late nineteenth-century technology to minimize the likelihood of crashes basically ever since… the late nineteenth century! It’s one of the reasons rail is such a safe transport mode, compared to highways.

What they do is called automatic block signaling. The railroad track is divided up into a series of electrically-isolated blocks and small opposing electrical charges, typically around a volt or so total, are applied to the two rails in each block. Even though the rails are not very well-insulated from either the ground or each other, the small voltage means that very little current will flow between them.

That is, unless a train is present. Then, a current will flow up through one steel wheel, across the steel axle, and down through the other wheel, completing the circuit. This current will trigger a relay. The presence of a train has been detected.

It is then a simple enough matter to use electromechanical logic to cause signals to turn red, disallowing two trains from occupying the same block at the same time. If one successfully does that, crashes between trains become impossible.

The same principle can be used to activate signals at grade crossings. (Although, to be technical, what is now done at crossings is rather more sophisticated, allowing the distance and speed of the approaching train, as well as its mere presence, to be detected.)

These days, most signals have been upgraded to computerized and electronic controls more sophisticated than the old electromechanical ones, but the basic principles remain the same: voltage is applied to the rails, and when current can easily flow between the rails, it is interpreted as the presence of the train and signals are set accordingly.

If you wish to see a diagram of how this all works, go here.

The Basics of Shunting

Of course, if one were to connect a sufficiently thick wire between the two rails, and electrically bond the wire to the rails with low-resistance connections, one would create a short between the rails that mimics the presence of a train. This is all that shunting does, no more, no less.

Phantom Trains

Remember how I mentioned that the two rails are not well-insulated from each other? Well, it turns out that sometimes moisture or metallic debris can cause an accidental and unwanted electrical connection between the rails.

Either way, we now have a phantom train on the block. The signaling system thinks a train is present, even though none is. Railroad operations are being disrupted.

This happens frequently enough that railroads have a procedure for dealing with it. After the train stops, the dispatcher can tell the engineer to proceed through the red light. The catch is that the train has to proceed very slowly, slow enough so that, if there is something on the tracks, the train can be stopped before it hits it.

The real solution, of course, also involves dispatching a repair crew to locate and cure the root cause of the problem. Making trains stop, contact the dispatcher, and creep through a block needlessly slowly still costs time and money.

What Shunting Can, and Can Not, Do

Now that we know the basics of what the two have been accused of, and how railroads operate, we can delve into some of the supposed adverse consequences of the alleged crimes.

Shunting Will Interfere with Railroad Operations

How could it not? It causes signals to needlessly turn red and stop trains. That was, of course, the whole point.

Shunting Will Not Cause Crossing Gates to Fail to Drop

Shunting works by mimicking the presence of a train. In order to make crossing gates fail to drop, one must mimic the exact opposite: the absence of a train. Shunting will therefore cause lights and bells to activate, and gates to drop, if done on a block containing a grade crossing.

Suppose the railroad has some way to disable the crossing signals in such a situation, and chooses to do so. In this case, it is not the shunt that caused the signal to be disabled, it is the railroad. Moreover, there is still a phantom train on the block. In order to enter it, trains will have to stop, contact the dispatcher, and proceed through at a very slow speed.

If there is a way to disable the crossing signal, there will also be a way to re-enable it. Any failure to so re-enable the crossing signal after talking the train through the red light will thus be the fault of the railroad and not those placing the shunt.

Suppose that worst case happens anyhow. The train is only creeping through the crossing; it is not approaching at maximum speed. The train has a horn, and will still use it, so there will still be some indication of it.

The horror scenarios of trains sailing through crossings at full speed, with no advance warning whatsoever, as a result of shunts are therefore pure bullshit.

Shunting Does Not Typically Cause Emergency Stops

Railroads do not like emergency stops, because they often cause minor damage to the stopping train. The most common form of damage is flat spots on the wheels caused by them locking and skidding. (The affected wheels and axle must then be removed from the truck and turned back into round on a big lathe.) Sometimes the couplings between cars get damaged as well.

Since emergency stops are bad, railroad signals have indications in advance of occupied blocks, so that engineers will not encounter a red signal by surprise and instead be able to gradually bring the train to a routine stop. A shunt will cause these advance indications much the same as an actual train would.

The only way a shunt can cause an emergency stop is if one is placed on a block immediately in front of a running train, which will then see an unexpected red signal.

Emergency Stops Do Not Often Cause Derailments

The most frequent adverse consequences of them are, to reiterate, flat wheels and damaged couplings. Neither is a derailment. Neither endangers the public or the environment from errant rolling stock or spilled cargo.

Emergency stops are strongly correlated with derailments, but they do not typically cause them. Consider the following scenario: a rock slide blocks the tracks. The engineer rounds a bend and sees it, immediately putting his train into an emergency stop. It is hard to stop a train, so the train does not stop in time. It hits the slide and derails. There was both an emergency stop and a derailment, but the cause of the derailment was not the emergency stop.

Enter the PATRIOT Act

It is a huge piece of legislation hurriedly passed in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, containing enhanced penalties for just about anything that can conceivably be construed as terrorism. One of these things is tampering with railroad signaling systems. Installing an illegal shunt is a form of electrical tampering with a signaling system, therefore in the eyes of the law it is prosecutable as a terrorist act.

The main intent here was to prosecute other types of tampering, ones intended to produce false green signals that sent trains to their doom, but the way the law was written, any tampering is prosecutable.

Those Two Did Not Do Their Homework

But, fair or not, it doesn’t matter now. The law is the law, and it allows them to be aggressively prosecuted as terrorists for what they did.

If you are not willing to accept the consequences of something, you should not do it, whatever that something is. This is basic Direct Action 101 sort of stuff: always do your homework.

If you wish to make a point by stopping trains, there are ways to do it that, while still unlawful, do not entail the high legal risk that shunting does. It is not difficult to figure out some of these ways. Why needlessly expose oneself to legal risk? Why impose on one’s comrades the burden of defending against needlessly serious charges?

And that, not “terrorism,” is what those two saboteurs are really guilty of: failing to do their homework.

The Coming Failed Biden Presidency

Back during the GOP primary process for the 2016 elections, there was widespread speculation that, in the unlikely event that Trump ever won both the primary and the November election, he would get nowhere while in office. This is because so much of what he wanted flew in the face of the established positions of both parties at the time. Instead, the rest of the GOP fell in line, and surprisingly easily.

At that point, speculation (including on this site) was made of events that might prompt the GOP to abandon Trump in a tipping-point scenario. As time passed, various triggers for such a scenario were put forth. The tipping point never happened.

The current presumed tipping point involves growing acknowledgment of the fact that Trump lost the 2020 election. While there have been more defectors than usual in this iteration, the vast majority of the Fascist Party is still squarely behind Trump and his insistence that he has not lost the election (at least not yet).

Jennifer Rubin is correct: at this stage, the most plausible time line going forward involves the Fascists continuing to, by and large, line up squarely behind their führer. Given that, what is such a future likely to be like?

A brief digression: In general, runoffs in Georgia have been won by the candidate with a plurality. In both Senate runoffs, a Fascist has the plurality. Therefore the most likely outcome is that Fascists will win both seats. So Moscow Mitch will remain Senate majority leader.

What does this mean? Maximum obstruction. Biden will not be allowed to so much as choose non-Trumpist cabinet officials if he wants to get them through the Senate confirmation process. Also forget about passing any legislation that deviates much from Trumpist desires. His will be a do-nothing caretaker administration.

An effective campaigner might be able take two years of such unreasonable obstruction in the Senate and use the resulting negative partisanship to engineer a highly unusual midterm election that results in the party controlling the White House walking away with more power. There is nothing to suggest that this outcome is likely. All available evidence suggests that Biden is a doddering old fool who firmly believes that he can re-create a vanished era of bipartisanship by the sheer force of his own will. He will be unwilling to engage in the sort of bare-knuckled rhetoric needed to delegitimize the opposition’s tactics and motivate support in the midterms.

What Biden does will be accomplished via executive order. Much of what Trump did was accomplished via executive order, so Biden can (and will) take a chain saw to those Trump-era orders. However, keep in mind the previous paragraph: Biden won’t be allowed to appoint a cabinet of his choosing. Instead, he will be compelled to do what Trump did and appoint a series of acting officials. The absence of the ability to get any legislation of consequence through Congress will also compel Biden to innovate and push the envelope on the boundaries of executive power, much like Trump did.

The most important thing we need to do in the post-Trump era is to scale back the power of the imperial presidency. Instead, we are going to get the Trumpist notion of an increasingly powerful imperial presidency cemented into place by bipartisan precedent.

Such executive power won’t be enough to save the Biden Administration. The Fascist party, unlike the Democrats, believes strongly in its principles (primarily führerprinzip, the alleged virtue of following a strong leader of their own), and are willing to fight hard for what they believe in. Instead of only timidly and reluctantly opposing the chief executive, the GOP-led Senate will vigorously oppose him. This opposition will work, and Biden will be a failed president.

The most likely outcome in 2024 will therefore be a victory for the Fascist Party, inheriting a stronger imperial presidency than ever. Even if the Fascist victory does not come in 2024, it will come no later than 2032. No party has held the White House for longer than twelve years in the post-World War II era.

Be afraid, be very afraid.

The Defense Department Firings Are Frightening

This is because the sacked individuals are traditionalists who despise the notion that the military has an active role to play in domestic politics. The recently fired Mark Esper took offense when Trump ordered the military to repress protesters.

I was going to say that Trump is planning ahead, sees unrest growing as he presses onward to remain in power despite losing the election, and is attempting to create a more compliant military in advance. However, that is giving Trump way too much credit: he is a childish sociopath who cannot plan ahead.

Instead, he has probably already asked the military to do something grossly inappropriate in the past few days, and received a firm “no” in response. That’s right: Trump has already attempted to literally stage a coup d’etat. It failed, of course, because such a thing runs counter to both the law and to over two centuries of military culture. Any reasonably intelligent person could have foreseen that, but Trump is too consumed by his elephantine ego to act reasonably or intelligently. So here we are.

The sackings of top officials in the Department of Defense won’t accomplish what Trump desires, either. He may end up with compliant appointees on top, but the generals below them will still balk.

The result won’t be as bad as a full-blown fascist coup d’etat, but it will be bad enough. The result will basically be chaos: some more pro-fascist generals will comply, but most generals will be traditionalists and resist. The pro-fascist media will then portray the resisting generals as rebelling against Trump and attempting a pro-Biden coup d’etat. Then when Biden takes office as a result of winning the election it will be portrayed as Biden being installed by a leftist coup.

The result will be a country more bitterly divided than ever, with the fascist side more certain than ever that tactics like military coups d’etat are legitimate.

Will the Fascists Get Their Coup?

I am of course using “coup” very loosely here; they are not planning to have the military impose its will by force. Most of the top brass is highly averse to the idea and moreover harbors personal animosity towards Donald Trump. When personal desire aligns with institutional policy against an idea, that idea has no chance whatsoever.

So this leaves a metaphorical coup and not a literal one. Interestingly, Hitler did not take power via a literal coup, either. He was voted into the chancellorship by the proper constitutional process, then used existing provisions for declaring a state of emergency to make himself dictator. Likewise, a legal coup is the most likely route here.

A coup via the courts is unlikely to succeed, for reasons already elaborated on.

That leaves a coup via the state legislatures, which per the Constitution have the power to appoint electors. In all states, they have chosen to use this power to pass legislation requiring electors to be chosen by popular vote. So changing this will require the Fascist Party (a more accurate name than Republican Party, so I will use it for the remainder of this article) to pass legislation repealing or nullifying the existing provision for choosing electors.

This will require a Fascist majority in both houses of the state legislature, and a Fascist governor. The only states Biden won that satisfy this requirement are Georgia and Arizona. If both of them successfully appoint slates of Fascist electors, Biden’s electoral vote total drops from 306 to 279. He still has enough votes to become president.

At that point, the Fascist-controlled legislature in Pennsylvania might by vote proclaim 20 Fascists to be Pennsylvania’s electors. Note I said “proclaim” and not “pass a bill.” The governor of Pennsylvania is a Democrat, so any such bill that ends up on his desk will get vetoed. Instead, both houses of the legislature must pass proclamation, then the Fascists will go to the Federal courts and argue that their electors are the real ones, because they were chosen by the legislature, as the Constitution literally says.

To which I say: good luck with that. Again, the courts are unlikely to rule the way the Fascists want. There is extensive precedent, going up to the Supreme Court, backing up the legislation that states have passed requiring their electors to vote the way popular majority in their state (or, in the case of two states, their Congressional district) voted. This is how electors have been chosen since the turn of the nineteenth century, i.e. for over 200 years. Its legality is a settled matter.

The Fascists’ hand is not strong enough — yet — to force a coup. Their goal is not to stage a coup now, but to pave the way for the next Fascist president (and there will be one, in 4 to 12 years) to stage a coup later. It is to delegitimize elections in the eyes of their base. And it is working.

The Fascists will eventually get their coup, and those of us who oppose fascism need to use the intervening years until they get it to plan how to resist it. But they will not get their coup this time.

Looking Rather Better, but Not Really

It’s clear that Biden has won, and it’s probably not going to be a squeaker in the electoral college, either. In fact, many pundits are speculating that it already would have been called, were it not for the particular circumstances of this election.

At any rate, it’s simply a matter of time, and it is certain to get called sooner than the 2000 presidential election was. That was the famous Bush/Gore tie, which was not called until mid-December.

Unfortunately, the rest of what I wrote remains. Trumpist fascism has not been repudiated, but has instead proven itself to be an astoundingly popular and successful ideology. While it is a minority opinion, it is the opinion of a large minority, one that is exploiting faults in our antiquated constitution to give it disproportionate power. The majority is, by and large, too weak and timid to challenge this state of affairs; American liberalism is approximately as rotten an institution as the overall society it resides in.

The American empire seems well into the process that caused the Roman one to decay, and because the pace of history moves faster these days, our decay will transpire in a matter of decades rather than centuries.

It REALLY Does Not Look Good

At this stage, odds probably favor Trump winning a second term.

They are just odds, and not certain, however. Biden should definitely not concede! There are lots of mail-in votes to be counted. Long odds are not zero odds.

The trouble is, even if Biden wins, America very much still loses. A Trumpism that almost wins despite a badly mismanaged pandemic is an amazingly successful and resilient platform. It is a very different thing from a Trumpism that loses resoundingly, which would have prompted a recalculation.

What was the most likely problem? I think it was the tactic of making this a referendum on Trump. The opposition in Italy tried to make elections a referendum on Berlusconi. They failed. The opposition in Venezuela tried to make elections a referendum on Chávez. They failed. I was worried about this tactic early on, then let those worries go, prompted by the siren song of negative partisanship (which always made a great deal of sense to me).

It turns out that lessons learned from bitter experience with actual campaigns against actual authoritarian populists were more relevant than academic theories.

So, No Biden Landslide

If there were going to be a Biden landslide, he would be handily winning all swing states. Instead, he’s just about lost Florida (and probably will).

Overall, I do not have a very good feeling about this. Things are starting to feel eerily similar to 2016.

One note of hope is that Biden seems to be doing much better than expected in Ohio, to the point that he might actually win it. It would be bizarre to have Trump win Florida but lose Ohio, but sometimes bizarre things do happen. It would mean that the white working class is probably not the lost cause for the Democrats that many pundits seem to think it is.

Note that if Biden wins Ohio, it is probably game over for Trump. It, like Florida, is one of many states that Biden (but not Trump) can afford to lose. The path is simply much narrower for Trump; it is why he was given a 10% chance and Biden a 90% chance.

Moreover, Ohio has cultural similarities to other Rust Belt states that also broke for Trump last time. If Ohio, statistically one of the reddest Rust Belt states, goes to Biden, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin also probably go to Biden. The blue wall returns, and Biden wins.

It might just be a problem particular to assessing the Latino vote in Florida (and Florida Latinos are quite different from Latinos in other states). Let’s hope so.

New Honeywell Round Thermostats Suck: Do Not Buy

I ordered one to use as a mechanical, low-voltage thermostat for my electric heating after I converted it to low-voltage control. It came up on my Amazon product search, and had what seemed to be a decent rating of 4.2 out of five stars. That, plus the appearance of familiarity with the product (I have lived in homes with older versions of them before) prompted me to choose it.

Big mistake! Turns out it’s not a mechanical thermostat at all; it’s an “intelligent” (I use the term very loosely here) electronic one, complete with a printed-circuit board hidden inside. It’s just disguised to look like a traditional mechanical thermostat.

If Honeywell had properly engineered such a design, there would be no problem. But they did not. Look at the actual written reviews for it on Amazon’s product page and you will see something unsettling: a large number of one-star reviews, with those bad reviews rated as being the most helpful.

For further amusement, go to the HVAC-TALK site, feed “Honeywell CT87” into the search box, and you will be rewarded with some archived discussions of this model by HVAC professionals. The general consensus is that they are junk and should not be installed.

The main problem is apparently how the firmware emulates a traditional mechanical thermostat’s anticipator (a tiny electric heater inside a thermostat that “anticipates” the tendency for heating systems to overshoot past the set temperature). It assumes a fixed and unrealistically rapid rate of temperature increase when the heat comes on. It works OK if it’s barely cold enough to need to run the heat, but as the outside temperature drops, it gets less and less accurate; you have to set the thermostat ever higher to get the same inside temperature. This has apparently even caused frozen and burst pipes for some homeowners!

To make a shitty product even worse:

  • They have an internal, undocumented lithium battery that will die within a decade, degrading performance further.
  • They have an undocumented power-stealing design that is incompatible with some systems.
  • The case design, in contrast to the traditional Round case, has poor air circulation which makes for poor sensitivity.
  • The temperature-sensing thermistor is mounted directly on the circuit board, making its sensitivity to air temperature worse yet.
  • Their circuitry is unreliable and prone to failing entirely within a year or two.

Honeywell Round thermostats didn’t used to suck; in fact, they used to be the most popular thermostat out there, and would last decades. That was when they were mechanical. But that design used mercury switches and ended up getting banned*. Instead of choosing to go with a mechanical magnetic snap design, Honeywell chose the electronic route, and badly botched it.

* For good reason. Mercury is toxic, so old mercury thermostats should be recycled. Instead, they generally end up in the trash, causing toxic waste problems.

What’s infuriating is that this has been a problem for most of a decade, and Honeywell is still selling these defective-by-design pieces of junk, apparently because I am not the only one suckered by their retro appearance into believing they are simple, mechanical, and reliable.

Caveat emptor!

Victory in Bolivia, but Will it Hold?

So, the coup that the Right used to seize power in the wake of the popular rebellion against a caudillo-in-the-making has failed. As expected, once the right-wing caretaker government was compelled to hold a free and fair election, MAS-IPSP won it handily.

This is really about the most optimistic thing that could have happened: popular rebellions against first a left-wing leader who got addicted to power, then against the right-wing usurper who tried to take advantage of the first rebellion.

Now we shall see if the new order holds. I have long had a measure of optimism about the revolutionary process in Bolivia that is rare for me, and that Bolivia just managed the rare feat of repudiating left-wing authoritarianism without reverting to right-wing rule shows this optimism is not entirely misplaced.

The biggest peril now is what happens when Morales returns to Bolivia, as he almost certainly will. Will he settle into a role as an elder statesman, or will he try and continue to conflate the social revolution there with his person, and attempt to regain personal political power?

What Biden Should Say about Court-Packing

I am not going to go through the effort of drafting a speech in full, but what he says should mention the following points:

  • During the Obama Administration, the GOP acted to frustrate not just his Supreme Court appointments, but his judicial appointments in general.
  • As soon as Trump took office, the Senate eagerly enabled his administration’s filling of the resulting backlog of empty seats.
  • The Trump regime has aggressively screened its nominees for ideological correctness, and much more so than any previous administration.
  • Add that to the judges appointed during the George W. Bush administration, which also lost the popular vote, and a huge chunk of Federal judges, at all levels, have been appointed by administrations without popular consent.
  • Therefore, court-packing is not something the Democrats wish to do; court-packing merely represents an undesirable status quo.
  • All of this has been done legally; no laws were broken in doing it.
  • Likewise, the law (specifically the Constitution) gives the President and Congress the right to set the size of the Supreme Court. That there be nine justices is mentioned no place in the Constitution. The size of the Court has been changed before, and it can be changed again.
  • That said, changing this number is a drastic step, and doing so might well be expected to increase the already dangerous level of polarization in this country.
  • Given that downside, it is therefore not a step to be taken lightly, and hopefully a step that can be avoided.
  • Whether or not it can be avoided depends on the conduct of this administration, the Senate, and the Courts.
  • However, if a Court, the majority of the justices which were appointed by administrations operating without the consent of the governed, legislates from the bench to further thwart the will of the governed, my hand may be forced.
  • For example, I am not willing to see health care taken from millions of citizens with pre-existing conditions, and will do everything legally within my ability to prevent this. I consider this to be the only decent and moral stance I can have on this issue.
  • To reiterate, I hope it doesn’t come to this.
  • But, over 250 years ago, our founding fathers wrote: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. —That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, —That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it…”
  • While I hope I will not be compelled to change the size of the Court to preserve the principle of consent of the governed, my dedication to this principle means that I cannot unilaterally relinquish all possibility of using that tool, either.
  • If Republicans are concerned about packing the courts, the single most important thing they should do right now is to put Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination on hold, and not let it advance unless the winner of the coming election approves of it. No other step could do more to preserve the integrity of our courts.