It’s time to strike down the red-light cameras

I saw some abuses of the red-light cameras on the news at noon. In one case, the car next to the one that ran the light got the ticket. In another, the owner wasn’t driving the car. The reporter asked the mayor of Florissant, Thomas Schneider, if that was fair.

“It’s safe,” he said. And he said the same thing to every other question the reporter asked.

That’s debatable. But guess what? Josef Stalin’s regime was very safe. Do what Stalin said, and you were safe. That doesn’t make Stalin fair, right, or ethical. It doesn’t make Schneider fair, right, or ethical either.

It’s not safe, either.

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It\’s that time of month again, time to Slashdot the Wikipedia

Slashdot published an interview today with Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales. I found it entertaining reading. Even though I’m a semi-regular contributor over at Wikipedia, I’ve never encountered its founder, possibly because I do my best these days to stay under the radar over there.The discussion on Slashdot was interesting. As always, someone questioned Wikipedia’s accuracy, wondering how anything but chaos can come from something that anyone can edit at any time. A few people read two articles and came back with the usual “99.9% of Wikipedia articles cite no sources and have inaccuracies in them.” Someone else came back and said he’d made a change to the M1A1 Abrams article and was corrected by an Army mechanic. I always like comments like that. It shows who actually has experience and who’s talking out his butt.

Wales was incredibly idealistic, with a vision of free textbooks educating the world and ridding the world of places where people have no sanitation. Free access to the sum of all human knowledge will solve all the world’s problems.

I wish I could be so idealistic.

Oh well, shoot for the stars and maybe you have a chance of hitting the moon, right?

I found the discussion on credibility more interesting. Someone asked how an encyclopedia produced by anarchy could have more credibility than the mighty Encyclopedia Britannica or even World Book. Linux Kernel hacker Alan Cox weighed in, pointing out that there’s plenty of bias in academia too, that academia is a tyranny of the day’s popular ideas and that generally ideas change by one generation dying out and a new generation with different ideas taking over. At least with Wikipedia, the divergent ideas get a chance to be heard. He had a point.

I disagree with Wales that his project will drive Britannica out of business, but I agree with Cox about credibility. I had an argument with a college professor over using the Internet as a primary source of information. This was in 1995 or 1996. I wrote a short paper on the Irish Republican Army, and I wanted to find out what people sympathetic to the IRA were saying. So I went to Alta Vista, did some searching, and cited what I found. I wanted to know what the people who made the bombs were thinking, and figured the people who made the bombs were more likely to have Web pages than they were to write books that would be in the University of Missouri library. But my professor wanted me to look for books. I decided he was a pompous, arrogant ass and maybe I didn’t want to minor in political science after all, especially if that meant I’d have to deal with him again.

I forgot what my point was. Oh yes. In journalism we have a sort of unwritten rule. You can cite as many sources as you want. In fact, the more sources the better. If a story doesn’t have three sources, it really ought not to be printed. That rule gets selectively enforced at times, but it’s there. Your sources can spout off all they want. That’s opinion. When three sources’ stories match independently, then it’s fact.

So what if Wikipedia is never the Britannica or even the World Book? It’s a source. It’s much more in touch with popular culture than either of those institutions ever will be. Most people will think you’re a bit odd if you sit down with a volume or two of the Britannica or World Book and read it like you would a novel. I know people who claim to have done it, but that doesn’t make the behavior unusual. Hitting random pages of Wikipedia can be entertaining reading, however. As long as you don’t get stuck in a rut of geography articles. But that’s become less and less likely.

So I don’t think it matters if the Wikipedia ever attains the status of the paper encyclopedias. You’ve got what the academics are saying. Wikipedia gives you the word on the street or in the coffee shop. Neither is necessarily a substitute for the other.

I’ve appealed to this before, but I’ll do it again. Visit Wikipedia. See what it has to say about your areas of interest. If it doesn’t say enough, take a few minutes to add to it. Resist the temptation to go to the articles on controversial people like Josef Stalin or Adolf Hitler. It’s a good way to get into an edit war and get frustrated. Find something obscure. I mostly write about old computers, old baseball players and old trains. Not too many Wikipedians are interested in those things. Especially the trains, so that’s what I write about most. (Other people seem to be; when I troll the ‘net for more information on those old companies, I frequently find copies of what I’ve already written and put in Wikipedia. It’s flattering.)

I look at it as a way of giving back. It’s relaxing to me. But there’s a community who’s written a ton of software, including an operating system, a web server, and a blogging system, and they’ve given it to me and never asked for a dime in return. I can’t program so I can’t give anything back in that way. But I have interests and I have knowledge in my head that doesn’t seem to be out there on the ‘net, and I have the ability to communicate it. So I give back that way.

It won’t change the world. Maybe all it’ll accomplish is me seeing fewer “Mar” trains on eBay and more Marx trains. But isn’t that something?

More Wikipedia adventures

I’ve been writing for the Wikipedia a fair bit lately. I was adapting some out-of-copyright articles about Civil War generals when the Columbia disaster happened, and I was shocked to see the Wikipedia’s information was as up to date as anyone else’s.
I’ve noticed that trend. Wikipedia authors keep up on their current events. People and events that will be forgotten in a couple of years have extensive entries. But the current events knowledge recorded there doesn’t run very deep yet; I found on the “requested articles” page a request for a biography of Newt Gingrich. I know he’s been laying low for the past five years or so, but is Newt Gingrich really a figure in history yet?

I took the Gingrich biography off a Congressional Web page (U.S. Government works are public domain) and spent half an hour fleshing it out.

Then I noticed another name I recognized on the requests page: G. Gordon Liddy. I’d seen his mug in conservative rags and I knew he did prison time in connection with Watergate and had a controversial radio program. But I didn’t know anything else about him. After an hour or so of digging, the most enlightening thing I learned about him was that he was a b-grade actor in the 1980s and early 1990s. I wrote up a sorry excuse for an entry, but a detail of his Watergate exploits, mention of his status as a radio talk show host and a list of movies and TV shows he appeared in is more useful than nothing. Even if I couldn’t hunt down minor details like his date or place of birth.

Then I closed out my Controversial Conservatives series with Whittaker Chambers, who was also on the requests page. Chambers was the accuser in the Alger Hiss trial that made Richard Nixon (in)famous. (Before Watergate made him even more (in)famous.) I remember hearing rude and nasty things about Chambers in history classes in college, but I didn’t know any specifics about the man. It’s a shame because he’s really pretty interesting. (I can tell the story a lot better here than I did at the Wikipedia. Writing really is better when it can have a little opinion in it.)

Chambers had dysfunctional parents before having dysfunctional parents was cool. He was a loser who struggled to finish high school and couldn’t hold down a job. So he went to college, where he got kicked out because he wouldn’t go to class. He became a communist. He was a good writer–possibly even a great writer–so he started writing for a couple of commie rags and eventually rose to the level of editor at both of them. Somewhere along the way someone asked him if he’d do some espionage work. He did. But Josef Stalin made him really nervous and eventually Stalin’s Hitleresque acts drove Chambers to not want to be a communist anymore. He left the party and his politics turned hard right.

FDR’s assistant Secretary of State was a friend of a friend. In the summer of 1939, Chambers crashed a party one night and spent three hours with him out on the front lawn telling him everyone he knew who’d ever had connections with the American Communist Party. The friend of a friend told FDR. FDR laughed, said it was impossible, and besides, he needed to concentrate on Hitler.

Chambers took a job at Time, captivating readers with his writing and pissing off writers with his editing. Chambers didn’t want anything he printed to be mistaken for being pro-Communist. In case you haven’t figured it out yet, Chambers was Red Scare before Red Scare was cool too. Eventually Chambers became senior editor of Time Magazine and made a cushy $30,000 a year.

Then, in 1948, Dick Nixon came knocking. History tends to treat Chambers as an opportunist trying to gain fame by taking down the goliath Alger Hiss (Hiss, after all, was at the time a candidate to become Secretary-General of the United Nations). And while one could made a reasonably strong claim for opportunism in 1939 when he was a college dropout who couldn’t hold down a job, in 1948 that doesn’t really seem to be the case. Chambers was making 30 grand a year working for one of the biggest magazines in the free world, in an era before television had gotten a chance to take off, so writing for one of the biggest magazines in the free world was a bigger deal than it would be today. And 30 grand was a lot of money at the time. Some accounts say he was a reluctant witness. I know I would have been if I were him. Remember, the commie had by then had nine years to go capitalist.

But Chambers testified. And Hiss was just one of many names he dropped a dime on. But the House Un-American Activities Committee zeroed in on Hiss.

Hiss initially said he didn’t know the guy and had never even heard of him. Then Nixon arranged a meeting in person. Hiss said he knew a guy named George who used to run errands for him who kind of looked like him. After spending a little time with him, he acknowledged that maybe this Whittaker Chambers guy was the George he used to know.

Whittaker Chambers said Hiss used to be a commie and a spy and might still be. Hiss dared him to say it outside of a courtroom, where he wouldn’t be protected by immunity. Chambers went on Meet the Press and said it again. Hiss sued him for $75,000. Now back when Whittaker Chambers was finding himself, Hiss was doing things like getting a law degree from a prestigious school and working for famous people. And now he was getting pretty famous himself. Chambers was a schmuck who wrote for Time and it was the only steady job he’d ever been able to hold down. People wanted to believe Alger Hiss. Chambers made Kato Kaelin look legit. And Time was getting impatient with its loose-cannon editor.

Then Chambers produced the goods. Back when he decided not to be a communist anymore, Chambers got into mutually assured destruction before mutually assured destruction was cool. He stashed some spy stuff. Now was the time to use it. He whipped out some typewritten papers. They were copies of classified documents he said Hiss had given him to deliver. I heard Chambers couldn’t keep his story straight about whether Hiss typed them or his wife. Some Hiss apologists say Hiss didn’t know how to type. And maybe Chambers was too dumb to know that just because he knew how to type didn’t mean most men did at the time. But the documents were traced to a typewriter that had once been owned by the Hiss family. Hiss said they gave the typewriter away in the late 1930s. But he couldn’t say when.

Then Chambers took two HUAC goons out to a pumpkin patch in Maryland. Chambers located a hollowed-out pumpkin, opened it up, and produced four rolls of microfilm. If you’ve seen a picture of Richard Nixon holding a magnifying glass up to a piece of microfilm, the microfilm came from that pumpkin.

The Hiss trial ended in a hung jury. The retrial ended with Hiss being sentenced to five years in the slammer. He served 3 years and 8 months.

Richard Nixon rode high. He was a senator by 1950 and vice president by 1952, and a presidential candidate in 1960.

Chambers lost his job at Time. At one point he tried unsuccessfully to gas himself to death. He wandered around. Became a Quaker. Wrote an autobiography. Hooked up with a young William F. Buckley Jr. and worked as an editor for National Review for a while. His health left him. He wrote a couple more books. And he died in 1961 without much money, still convinced of the communist threat but also predicting what would ultimately bring it down.

Hiss was ruined. He was disbarred and maintained his innocence for the rest of his life. In 1975, he was reinstated into the Massachusetts bar. He died Nov. 15, 1996, still asserting his innocence.

Although U.S. conservatives and liberals will probably argue until the end of time whether it was Hiss or Chambers who was lying, the inescapable truth is that the trial ruined both men. Chambers had everything to lose and little to gain. While his stories sometimes changed and didn’t always mesh completely with other peoples’ recollections, when you piece a story together from multiple sources you find that’s usually the case. Perspectives differ and memories fade.

There’s a Web site at NYU that asserts Hiss’ innocence. It’s the only compelling case for Hiss’ innocence I was able to find. Most pro-Hiss writing I found read like ultra-right-wing conspiracy theory. The site at NYU does a good job, but I was severely disappointed in the lack of mention of the 1978 book Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case, by Allen Weinstein. Weinstein had intended to write a pro-Hiss book but the evidence he found, a decade and a half prior to the declassification of documents in communist countries, suggested Hiss was guilty.

Like I said, it’s a compelling case, and it definitely proves that the Alger Hiss trial wasn’t a black and white issue. Was Richard Nixon out to get someone? Absolutely. Was the U.S. Government eager to make someone take a fall? No doubt. Gotta teach those commies a lesson. Was Alger Hiss a man of great accomplishments? Certainly. Was Whittaker Chambers a screw-up? Absolutely. Was Whittaker Chambers wrong about some details? Certainly. But if I was called to give details about someone I knew 10 years ago today, I’d get some stuff wrong too. We all would. Was Whittaker Chambers guilty of embellishing some of his details? Possibly. A lot of people do that.

But does it prove his innocence? No. I can make a compelling case that the sky is pink if I ignore every photograph that shows a blue sky.