i would like to help coordinate these downstream distros so they don't have
    to keep all repeating the same work.  basically:

Sounds sensible to me.

    * commits are on a volunteer/request basis -- there is no
      expectation that people working on master/whatever think about
      these older branches

I like that in particular :).

    * maybe we cut a new release once a year from those branches if any
      changes were actually made to them.  i would like this, but even
      if we do all the other things above and omit this, i'd still be happy.

Sounds reasonable, not that I'd be the one making such releases.
I'm guessing Jim would want to push making such "back releases" to you ...

    so since the last release is still 1.16.z, the newest such branch
    would be refs/heads/release/1.15 and it would start life at v1.15.1.

Fine by me. 

Jim, can you chime in? As you know, I have little clue about git
development conventions, so can't make any sensible comments at that

BTW, the next release will surely be 1.17. Some of the stuff I already
did in the 1.16.x releases really should have provoked 1.17, but I just
didn't adhere strictly to the rules (because I didn't know about
them). --thanks, karl.

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