A Wikipedia Story

Wikipedia is a marvelous resource. This online encyclopedia contains vast amounts of information. It is free and it is available without leaving home. By comparison, the encyclopedias of my youth contained puny amounts of information. They were expensive, and therefore most people had access to an encyclopedia only if they traveled to a library. Wikipedia, which was created in January 2001, is expanding every day with information added by people throughout the world. Anyone can edit Wikipedia.

Following is a story about using Wikipedia.

Smugglers Notch is a charming mountain pass in my town of Cambridge, Vermont. It is fun to drive through the Notch on Vermont Route 108 in the summer (the road is closed in winter). But the road is too steep and the turns are too sharp and narrow for tractor-trailer trucks, which are prohibited. There are multiple signs on each side telling tractor-trailer trucks not to proceed. And yet, every year, tractor-trailer trucks get stuck. This spring two tractor-trailer trucks got stuck within 15 days of the road opening (news article).

In April 2017 I happened to read the Wikipedia entry for Smugglers Notch where I found this language:

Traffic patterns in the Notch have changed for 2017 as the state has modified the road to make it suitable for tractor-trailers, busses and large campers. Route 108 is now the preferred route for large trucks transiting Vermont.

This is nonsense!! In fact it is dangerous misinformation.

What to do? Wikipedia is an open collaboration platform, so I edited the article and deleted those two sentences. Easy peasy. I did not even need to create an account on Wikipedia.

I thought about this incident earlier this month when writing the previous post: Thinking About Libraries. In that post I pondered the reliability of digital information. There is a lot of talk about “fake news” these days, and most people now get most of their news online. How do we know that what we read online is true?

The short answer is that we don’t. One should always consider the source of the information that we consume. How trustworthy is the source? That is especially important to consider for news. Purveyors of news naturally wish to write articles and columns that people will find interesting enough to read. We, the people, are a main source of the problem with today’s “fake news.” We often prefer to read information that is “salacious but unverified” rather than verified, factual news. (Former FBI Director James Comey introduced us to the phrase “salacious and unverified.”) To a considerable extent, what we choose to read drives the “news” that other people will create for us.

Back to my Wikipedia story. There was a clue that the sentences about Smugglers Notch quoted above were fake: there was no footnote or reference for those sentences. One of Wikipedia’s core content policies is:

All material in Wikipedia must be attributable to a reliable, published source.

(source)

Wikipedia is an encyclopedia, which means that it is a collection of information that is already recognized and established. An encyclopedia is not where one publishes original research, or new information, or opinions. It is a good practice when using Wikipedia to consult the sources (i.e., the footnotes) and consider how trustworthy they are.

How does one edit Wikipedia? It’s easy. Click here for instructions. Anyone can edit unprotected pages; it is not necessary to create an account.

Changes made to Wikipedia articles are tracked. See the “View history” link at the top right of Wikipedia pages. Click here for the history page of the Smugglers Notch article. Below is a screenshot of this history page showing all changes in 2017:

The change on 12 April 2017 was me. I am identified only by my Internet Protocol (IP) address for that session: 72.71.203.136. Interestingly, the material that I deleted had been added less than 24 hours previously by an anonymous person at IP address 64.222.89.216. The timing was pure luck, but I wonder if the purveyor of that “fake news” was surprised by how quickly it was corrected.

I have written about Smugglers Notch on my other blog: The Switchel Traveler. See Smugglers Notch (2017) and LT Smugglers Notch to Johnson (2018). Follow the links for photos and video of a spring waterfall. Not fake news!

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Thinking About Libraries

Libraries are wonderful places. I enjoy spending time in libraries, and they are essential to a free people. Libraries contain our thoughts, our histories, our creative works of literature and often art as well, and our dreams.

Libraries are changing in today’s world, in ways that are both exciting and cautionary. What can go wrong with libraries?

Two recent events have prompted me to think about libraries: our recent vacation in Washington, DC and a new Vermont law.

In Washington we visited two world-class libraries: the Library of Congress and the Folger Shakespeare Library. The Library of Congress is particularly relevant to this discussion because it is the largest library in the world and it is the home of the United States Copyright Office.

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Thinking About Law

Over on my other blog, The Switchel Traveler, I wrote about our recent vacation in Washington, DC. As a result of that trip, I’ve been thinking about law.

Our system of government is based on the rule of law: all people are “equally subject to publicly disclosed legal codes and processes.” All are bound by rules that are fixed and announced beforehand. The rule of law is a constraint on individual behavior, but more importantly it is a constraint on the coercive power of government. Government is intended to be predictable and limited, not arbitrary and boundless. John Adams famously wrote into the Massachusetts Constitution the phrase: “a government of laws and not of men.” (Part the First, Article XXX)

The Massachusetts Constitution was adopted in 1780 and it influenced the drafting of the United States Constitution in 1787. Both constitutions sought to create a government based on the rule of law by creating three separate branches of government, with different functions relative to law:

  • Legislative branch – writes laws
  • Executive branch – prosecutes lawbreakers
  • Judicial branch – decides if alleged lawbreakers are guilty (if they claim innocence)

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The Lease Lands of Cambridge

Suppose you are researching the chain of title for land you own in my town of Cambridge, Vermont, and you find this language in an old deed:

“All of the above described and herein conveyed land is lease-land, subject to an annual rental to the Town of Cambridge.”

What does it mean? Should you care?

Yes, you should care. A title insurance company may consider this language to be a title defect, and as a result you may not be able to sell your property or borrow money using the property as collateral.

Lease lands are an “unusual Vermont institution” (quoting the Vermont Supreme Court). They were created when towns were chartered in the 1700s. Lease lands were public lands that were leased out for private use. The lease was perpetual. The lease could be traded, but the lessee did not own the land. The lessee paid an annual rent that was earmarked for public uses related to church and school. The purpose of lease lands was to create self-sustaining towns with support for church and school. Approximately 5% of the area of most Vermont towns was designated as lease land.

Lease land is sometimes called glebe land, but the two terms are not strictly synonymous. Glebe land is one category of lease land.

Over time people forgot about lease lands, in part because the annual rents were never increased and they became a pittance in today’s dollars. But the topic is relevant today because of the concerns of title insurance companies and banks mentioned above, and also because of a new (2018) state law discussed below.

How did lease lands come to my attention? The Town of Cambridge, where I am on the selectboard, was recently asked to quitclaim its interest in a parcel of lease land where the chain of title included old deeds with the language quoted above. Like most people, I had never heard of lease land. So I started researching it, together with Joel Page, president of the Cambridge Historical Society.

This is a fascinating subject! Joel and I are indebted to many people for helping with our research, and we did a presentation about what we learned:

The Lease Lands of Cambridge (PDF, 7 MB)

In our research, we learned about a recent (2018) state law that directly affects lease lands. Act 152 says that towns may take affirmative action to retain their ownership interest in lease lands, but if they do not do so prior to January 1, 2020, then fee simple title to the land will vest in the current lessee. What should the town of Cambridge do about its lease lands before the end of 2019? That question is considered in our presentation.

Vermont lease lands originated with Benning Wentworth (pictured), the colonial governor of New Hampshire for 25 years from 1741 to 1766. That is, before the American Revolution and prior to Vermont becoming an independent state. The presentation at the link above explains further.

Image credit: Wikipedia, public domain.

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Statutory Boards in Cambridge

This post is part of a series of posts on “Learning about town government” in my town of Cambridge, Vermont. Please see the link for context, a disclaimer, and a list of posts in this series.

The 2018 annual report for the Town of Cambridge lists three “statutory boards” (page 18): Board of Civil Authority, Board of Abatement, and Board of Health. What are these boards?

Each of these boards consists of individuals who are elected or appointed to other positions, and who are combined into a particular board by statute. Justices of the peace, for example, are automatically members of the Board of Civil Authority and the Board of Abatement. Members of the selectboard are on each of the boards described in this post.

This post provides an overview of these three statutory boards, with links to detailed information for those who want to know more.

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Voting Methods at Town Meeting

This post is part of a series of posts on “Learning about town government” in my town of Cambridge, Vermont. Please see the link for context, a disclaimer, and a list of posts in this series.

This post is about voting methods at town meeting.

See the earlier post About Town Meeting for an introduction to this topic.

To review and summarize that earlier post:

  • There are two methods of voting at town meeting: floor vote and Australian ballot.
  • There are three categories of issues decided at town meeting: officers, budgets, and public questions.
  • The general rule in Vermont is that most issues are decided by floor vote. But a town can vote to change to the Australian ballot for some or all issues. And a town can vote to change back to a floor vote.

Questions discussed in this post: What are the pros and cons of voting by Australian ballot vs. floor vote? What should citizens think about when deciding how to vote? How does a town change its voting method?

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The Caine Mutiny

The Caine Mutiny is a novel of historical fiction about World War II by Herman Wouk. It was published, and won the Pulitzer Prize, in 1951.

The Caine Mutiny follows the life of Willie Keith from December 1942, one year after Pearl Harbor, to October 1945, shortly after the end of the war. Keith spent most of that time aboard the USS Caine, a World War I destroyer converted to minesweeping duty in the South Pacific.

I read this book in high school, and I just re-read it. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book again, after so many years. It holds many more meanings for me now.

This book is about leadership. I now have more perspective about leadership than I did as a teenager. In the course of the novel, the USS Caine has six captains. Each has a different style. Many lines in the book resonate with me as I reflect on the bosses I’ve had, and on the kind of boss that I was. There are leadership lessons in this book that are applicable to our current era of political polarization. No, I’m not suggesting mutiny. Read the book.

This book is about love. I now have more perspective about love than I did as a teenager. There are many different kinds of love: in courtship; in marriage (not the same as courtship); within families, especially the bond between parent and child; and between people working together in a common enterprise. This book covers them all. Once I attended a leadership seminar where the speaker said that leadership is love. The speaker was ex-military.

This book is about death and chance, both of which I now have more perspective about than I did as a teenager.

This book is about growing up. Like the topics listed above, the depths of this topic will never be exhaustively plumbed by anyone, but now that I am in my 60s, a parent with grown children, I have more perspective about it than I did as a teenager. The USS Caine saw mostly minor combat action, but it did survive two kamikaze attacks. The second attack, some six months after the “mutiny,” nearly sank the ship. When the danger had passed, Keith lay alone on his bunk and smoked a cigar while he thought about things:

A half hour of such racking meditation can change the ways of a lifetime. Willie Keith crushing the stub in the ashtray was not the Willie who had lit the cigar. That boy was gone for good.

The Caine Mutiny is about “The Greatest Generation.” That phrase had not been coined when the book was published in 1951, nor when I first read the book in the early 1970s. The Greatest Generation was the generation of my parents. I had two aunts whose beaus (and future husbands) served on ships in the South Pacific. I had an aunt who lost a beau in the Battle of the Bulge. (My parents had only sisters, no brothers.) One aunt joined the Navy herself. Those who stayed home, both men and women, also served their country. The government asked my father to work on the farm and produce food. They asked his best friend to fly gliders across the English Channel into occupied Europe; after the war he was the best man at my parents’ wedding and he ran a gas station and car repair shop in Cambridge, perhaps like the one that Carl Hess ran in Arlington. What made them The Greatest Generation? The accident of growing up during The Greatest War in history.

The Caine Mutiny is about Big History, as seen through the eyes of a junior naval officer. This book may not resonate with many modern readers, who seem uninterested in history. Social media fuels interest in the gossip of today. But if we fail to learn any lessons from history, we risk repeating its failures – not in exactly the same way, of course; advances in technology will see to that.

If, however, you should be interested in Big History, I also recommend Herman Wouk’s later novels which cover the full sweep of World War II: The Winds of War and War and Remembrance. They are magisterial, and like The Caine Mutiny, riveting good reads.

There is a passage in The Caine Mutiny that made me smile when I read it a few days ago, as I made the connection with things I learned on our most recent travel adventure last fall (see my other blog The Switchel Traveler).

The “mutiny” on the USS Caine occurred in December 1944 during a typhoon when the executive officer believed the ship was in danger of sinking because of the captain’s orders. The executive officer relieved the captain of command. The ship survived, and two months later there was a court-martial. The executive officer was not charged with mutiny, but with “conduct to the prejudice of good order and discipline,” a serious charge carrying a 15 year prison term. After an emotional and dramatic 3-day trial, encapsulated by the image on the book cover above, the executive officer was acquitted.

This greatly pleased the rest of the officers on the Caine, who disliked the captain. Indeed, they had nicknamed the captain “Old Yellowstain” because of his cowardice in battle. One of the other officers, a novelist in civilian life, threw a dinner party to celebrate:

“Nothing but champagne will be served,” yelled the novelist. “Champagne to toast the Fifth Freedom. Freedom from Old Yellowstain!”

In high school I’m sure I had no idea what “the Fifth Freedom” meant. Now I know.

Do not conclude, however, from this little snippet that either the executive officer or the novelist was necessarily a hero. People are complicated. Read the book.

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