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How ATVs Are Reviving a Forgotten Region of Appalachia

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West Virginia has the highest average elevation of any state east of the Mississippi. That’s not due to the mountains—its tallest peak is still lower than Denver—but the hills that roll out like endless moguls.

More than a century ago, towns rose up in the valleys, built from coal fortunes. In the late 1800s, the city of Bramwell used to boast more millionaires per capita than any place in the country. Its bank was once so flush with cash that its janitor would transport bags of money down the street in a wheelbarrow. Nearby, the city of Bluefield was built next to the world’s richest coal deposit, which became a mini metropolis and earned it the nickname Little New York.

But things have changed. Most of those towns are empty and crumbling now. In Bluefield, the population has dropped by half, to under 10,000, and a quarter of its residents live in poverty. In Bramwell, a few rehabbed mansions share the streets with a largely barren business district and derelict homes that stand as a reminder of what was. In the 1980s, coal companies employed more than 40,000 West Virginians, a number that has since dropped to fewer than 14,000, despite promises from politicians to bring jobs back.

But for the first time in a generation, after many have accepted the fact that coal money isn’t going to come back, optimism has returned to these valley towns. Even with the nation’s economy imploding from the pandemic, some West Virginians finally see a way they could turn things around: ATV tourism.

It’s possible thanks to more than 700 miles of doubletrack trails cut through those endless hills. In the past 20 years, motorcycle and ATV riders have arrived in increasing numbers, and last year the state sold more than 56,000 permits for the Hatfield-McCoy Trails, a professionally managed network amid beautiful old-growth forests. This enterprise helped fuel a West Virginia tourism industry that has experienced a nearly 10 percent growth in two years. Today 45,000 West Virginians work in tourism-related jobs—more than the coal industry employed a generation ago.

It’s perhaps a bit ironic that the Hatfield-McCoy Trails got their start in large part from a man who had no interest in using them.

In 1989, John English didn’t ride ATVs, even though he was director of state government affairs for the national Motorcycle Industry Council. He met up for lunch one day with Leff Moore, now deceased, who was executive director of the West Virginia Recreational Vehicle Association. Moore started talking about the former coal-mine roads. English, now 75, recalled, “A little light came on, and we both started thinking, Gee, how could we maybe take advantage of that?”

A handful of corporations own a large chunk of West Virginia, especially in the southern part of the state, where as much as half of all land is possessed by a few companies. The two men realized that if they could convince the companies of those trails’ tourism potential, they could conceivably develop a network unlike any other in the world.

The companies had sliced trails through virgin hemlock forests more than a century ago to get workers to the mines, often using school buses with jacked-up suspensions and off-road tires. Dave Preston, 63, still recalls bouncing along on gravel roads on his way to work. He’s a third-generation coal miner from Matewan, the West Virginian town memorialized in the 1987 Chris Cooper movie by the same name that documented bloody conflicts between miners and the companies that mistreated them. In 1974, at just 18, Preston went to work in the mines.

“Well, you’re from coal country. It was in your blood. It’s dangerous work. It’s hard work. But it paid good,” Preston said. “The money in the mine was so good, you had school teachers quitting to go work in them.”

Miners would make upward of six figures a year, Preston remembered. But he was laid off in 1983, with the local coal mines nearly exhausted, and he picked up a job at an auto-rebuild shop. “It wasn’t a real good time,” he said. “Nobody likes being unemployed. I kept a job, but it was like a quarter of the money.”

While the pandemic has hit tourism hard, the West Virginia trails have seen a 25 percent increase in the number of people buying permits over last year.
While the pandemic has hit tourism hard, the West Virginia trails have seen a 25 percent increase in the number of people buying permits over last year. (Photo: Eric Barton)

In his downtime, Preston and other former miners began taking their ATVs out to explore the trails they used to ride to work. The affinity for the machines, he said, is something West Virginians have in their blood. You’ll often see people shuttling their kids to school or pulling up to a McDonald’s drive-through on one.

But the problem with the former coal roads becoming recreational trails, English realized back in 1989, was that none of them connected. Mostly, they ended at the mines and offered few scenic destinations.

So in the 1990s, English and the other trail founders set out to change things. They convinced the state legislature to allocate $1.5 million to create an authority that would oversee trail maintenance, sell permits, and take on liability in case anybody got injured. Then they brought in a team from the Bureau of Land Management to suss out how to connect everything into what would become a thousand contiguous miles of trails and draw up the first maps of the network.

Named after the families who once attracted international attention for a blood feud that started over a stolen hog, the Hatfield-McCoy Trails opened in 2000. Nobody had any idea what to expect next, said Jeffrey T. Lusk, executive director of the Hatfield-McCoy Regional Recreation Authority. “We were so concerned,” Lusk said. “We were thinking, Oh my goodness, when we turn this on, is anybody going to come use them?”

That first year, the state sold 5,000 permits (which cost $26.50 for residents and $50 for out-of-state visitors), far more than anyone expected. “In those first few months, we knew we had something. We had something people wanted to do,” Lusk said.

It wouldn’t take long for interest in the trails to turn into a business opportunity for a state that needed it badly.

Cameron Ellis grew up on top of a cleared hillside near the town of Gilbert, West Virginia. His father, grandfather, and great-grandfather had all mined coal in the hill. It dried up before Ellis came along. As a little kid, he knew the family’s land only for what it had once been.

Ellis, 29, was in elementary school when the trails opened, and his family was among the first to see the potential. They added ten primitive campsites to their property in 2002. With no facilities, the campers showered at the town’s community center.

Those first guests were all one demographic: young men traveling in groups. That changed, however, after a shift in the ATV industry that became a big reason for the success of the Hatfield-McCoy Trails. In the early 2000s, ATVs were essentially four-wheel motorcycles, with controls on the handlebars and an open cab. Then the industry switched to a vehicle known as a side-by-side; largely enclosed, it has a car-like steering wheel and pedals. The demographic of the people arriving to the Ellis’s campground soon included families, with dad and mom and the kids all piling into four-seat machines.

The family’s Twin Hollow Campground and Cabins now features 20 primitive tent sites, 43 full-hookup campsites, 11 mountaintop cabins with kitchens and baths, ATV rentals, and a barbecue restaurant. It has welcomed guests from every state in the nation and numerous foreign countries.

“It was nothing but primitive when we first started,” Ellis said, “and we’ve built up to everything we’ve had now. Even just ten years ago, you wouldn’t have thought it would grow into something so large. It’s a lifeline into southern West Virginia now.”

Today the trails are the number-one draw in Mercer County, said Jamie Null, executive director of the local tourism board. Her organization, Visit Mercer County, even bought its own ATV three years ago, outfitting it in green and white and emblazoning it with the county’s name across the door. Null grew up in Princeton, West Virginia, in a family that wasn’t very outdoorsy. But now she takes journalists and politicians on trips across the county in her Polaris General four-seater (and she bought one for her own family). She sees a lot of optimism in the ATV-rental businesses and in hotels like Buffalo Trail Cabins outside Bluefield, which promotes itself as “designed to meet the needs of ATV riders.” 

“As far as me having a crystal ball and saying this could save a town, who can do that?” Null says. “But we have to look at the bigger picture and look at how we can revitalize our towns.”

In the past five years, the trail system has added two new sections, increasing Hatfield-McCoy from 550 to 730 miles and connecting more towns that might benefit from that same kind of economic growth, said Lusk. Last year the trails saw a 12 percent uptick, with 56,258 permits sold, mostly to visitors from out of state.

“It’s a lifeline into southern West Virginia now,” said Cameron Ellis.

Like all tourism-focused industries nowadays, Lusk is undoubtedly concerned with how COVID-19 will affect things, especially considering a good deal of his business happens in early spring. On March 21, the West Virginia governor closed the trails, but that didn’t last long; two months later, the state reopened them, and since then, riders have returned in numbers surpassing 2019 figures. During the closure, the state initiated the Hatfield-McCoy Emergency Relief Lending Program, and Lusk says that, so far, no trail-related businesses have been forced to close.

The biggest challenge currently is a lack of supporting infrastructure. If the trails are to grow, the state needs more hotels, restaurants, and shops to cater to riders. “These towns have the opportunity to reinvent themselves,” Lusk said.

The trails have undoubtedly changed things for Dave Preston, the former coal miner. In 1991, he went back to work underground and continued in the mines until 2013, when they laid him off again. It was then that he heard about a job as an ATV guide. He grew up in a family that “knew how to eat off the land,” and taking tourists out into the woods now is something that makes him proud, able to show off the countryside where he was raised. “It’s my cup of tea,” he said. “I grew up in the outdoors.”

While some might look down on motor-powered ATV recreation on public lands, Preston explains that the vehicles are the only way to access terrain that few would otherwise see. The trails are officially multi-use, but they are far too muddy in the winter and spring and too dusty in the summer for other modes of transportation. Even fat-tire bikes would get bogged down in the ruts or struggle on the inclines, and all of it would be laborious for hikers or horses.

On a trip into the woods of Mercer County earlier this year, Preston bombed through mud pits and maneuvered knobby wheels through ruts running with mud. His machine seemed unstoppable, and it easily forged up steep inclines, charged over exposed rocks, and blasted down hillsides.

He took a couple zooms through a mud pit for photos. Then he made a precipitous descent, followed the trail on a 90-degree turn, and stopped next to a near vertical hillside. Tucked between the roots of trees, he pointed out a cave the size of a kitchen window. A century ago, miners had drilled there to reach a small cut of coal. Preston picked up a chunk of black rock they left behind; a streak of soot remained on his fingers after he tossed it back.

On the way out, the trail passed by a graveyard miles from anything, just perched atop a bald nob. Preston explained that his ancestors used to bury their dead out here in unofficial graves found along these trails, markers to a civilization that’s moved on.

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The 7 Best Practices of a Good Editorial Experience

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The success of a CMS project ultimately depends upon the content it contains. No matter how “on-time” or “under-budget” a project might be, editors have to be able to create and manage content, and they need to be able to do it without feeling the need to pull their own hair out.

If editors on your team do not like the editorial experience, disillusionment will begin to set in, and that disillusionment can cascade throughout your organization. Remember, your editors are likely the most prolific users of your website. If they don’t like it, your CMS implementation is headed for the scrapheap.

How do you balance ease-of-use with the constraints of your design system? Are there common things that can be done that ensure editors have a good experience? And how do we define “good?”

What is “good?”

For this article, we’ll use the following standard: A good editorial experience is one that allows an editor to add content in accordance with the organization’s goals with minimal frustration. If there are strict standards and safeguards in place, an editor still feels empowered and does not feel the desire to circumvent these safeguards.

We are not shooting for a perfect editorial experience. That will never exist. This is still software we are talking about. It has to conform to a lot of requirements, and many of those requirements will conflict. But we want to be careful to ensure that we don’t make the perfect the enemy of the good, and the standard above allows for some compromises and tradeoffs.

You will also notice that this standard means that what is “good” can differ from organization to organization. Content goals vary, the preferences of editorial teams vary, and so we need to allow for some subjectivity.

But there are still some baseline commonalities we can recognize.

We want to be careful to ensure that we don’t make the perfect the enemy of the good.

Common best practices

What are some best practices that apply to any CMS and organization? These are good anchors to start with because, if you have these, it’s harder to get distracted by shiny new tools and approaches.

1. Consistency

Jumping from editing one content type to another should carry some familiarity. As much as possible should be the same from form to form, down to colors and font sizes. This gives editors less they have to think about, which results in less confusion.

Different fields and options might exist, but give editors some anchor points, so they don’t get lost. For example, have common fields, like Title and Author, appear in the same place on all forms that have them.

Do not have multiple ways to include images or videos. Do not have one text field that allows direct embedding of an img tag but another that only allows a special embed code. This is a recipe for frustration. Choose one way to do it, and stick with it, and if it needs to change, apply the change consistently.

2. Clear, relevant labeling

Fields should be labeled, and additional helper text should provide relevant context. This seems obvious, but sometimes it is so obvious that you can forget to pay attention to it. Often this text is written and placed by developers, and so they bring their own bias and context, and what they put in is, at best, unhelpful and sometimes downright confusing.

Helper text should make sense to editors and use the language they are familiar with. It should explain things in a way so they can predict the results of their actions.

Bad helper text: “This is an image field.”

Good helper text: “An image that will be displayed at the top of the article and be shown when the article is in a list. The minimum size is 1000x600.”

Bad helper text: “The categories this article belongs to.”

Good helper text: “Add links to one or more category pages. If you input 'apples, oranges,’ links to 'mysite/apples' and 'mysite/oranges' will automatically be displayed on the article, and this article will be included in the lists on those pages.

Keep things contextual, not just factual. Editors usually don’t care about technical details, but they do care about the hierarchy of the page and the effects on the site that they can see.

This is a place where usability tests can really help. Run them to find places where people are getting confused and craft text that addresses their questions and uncertainty. Make an intentional effort.

3. Make the right things easy and the wrong things hard

Your experience should be designed to encourage your editors to do the right things.

One common example: should all images embedded within content have “alt” text? (The answer to that is yes). Make “alt” text required for every image so the content cannot be saved unless it is filled in. For background images, they should have empty alt text so screen readers will skip over them, so just don’t show an alt text field for those and let your CMS handle putting in the empty attribute.

Should each update to content create a new revision so changes can be rolled back? If so, that should be easy to do. Make it hard for someone to mess this up: don’t even show them the option.

Don’t make onerous formatting requirements that editors have to ensure themselves. Make proper formatting easy.

Have you ever been frustrated by an online form that requires you to enter a phone number with exact spacing and parentheses and offers no help? It's like trying to put a puzzle together, but all the pieces are flipped to the side with no picture, and that’s an extra cognitive load your editors don’t need.

4. Clear, obvious error handling

If an editor does something wrong, don’t be coy. Don’t leave them guessing. State the error clearly and be specific, making the message hard to miss. Ideally, the error will show up next to the problem in question, though this isn’t always possible to do. Clarity is the most important.

Bad error message: “An error has occurred.”

Better error message: “The ‘summary’ field allows a maximum of 160 characters.”

Error messages should make it obvious that something went wrong, and some colors communicate “wrong” more than others. Therefore, don’t highlight errors in green. Also, take into consideration editors who might be color blind or have other visual impairments, so do not rely on color alone to signify an error.

5. Simplify to necessity

Plan and design for the 80%. Do not have lots of fields and options that most editors will never use. Do your best to slim down the experience to only what is necessary. Do not, in other words, present your editors with a form that includes everything, even the kitchen sink.

What about the other 20%?

Once you have figured out what that 20% actually is, a process driven by your business goals and not by what people think they want, accommodate the need.

For example, only a small number of your articles might have a Featured Video, so most editors will not use it. That field should not clutter their experience. But video is still important, so certain editors should be able to find it and use it with no trouble.

This can be accomplished via permission management. If only some editors need the field, you can hide the field from others by denying them access. 

If all editors need access, just sporadically, the Featured Video field could be moved under a tab labeled “Advanced” or to a sidebar labeled “Add Video.” The fields are there, but they do not distract from the main editorial path.

Long, confusing forms sometimes result from a single content type being responsible for lots of different contexts and page designs. An “article” might be used for a blog post, a news release, a video post with a transcript, and a podcast. This requires lots of fields to take into account the different uses. 

But this heightens the risk of confusion and burnout.

Sometimes, simplifying will mean revisiting your content model and having distinct content types for each audience and/or presentation. 

Having sensible defaults also helps simplify things. Default to what the 80% needs, but make it easy for the 20% to change that default.

6. Easy wayfinding

Good navigation and architecture aren’t helpful only for your site visitors. Your editors would also appreciate not feeling lost when they need to edit a specific page or content block.

Pay attention to the organization on the administration side. Are your editors forced to use your normal site search, the one for visitors, to find the content they need? Maybe that’s fine. If it isn’t, though, have you provided a good alternative?

Some of this depends on how big your editorial team is and how they work. If a team is responsible for a few categories, make it easy to filter by their categories. If you have a system of revision approval, make sure the process is clear and that the next steps are easy to figure out.

Inline editing can be helpful here, but it can also be overrated and difficult to integrate with certain workflows. As long as an editor has a clear path to get where they need to go, that is often enough.

7. Avoid busywork

Don’t enforce things “just because.” Don’t require editors to fill out fields that are not really required for any business logic.

For example, some systems have a revision log field that is required whenever content is updated. This can be helpful for large teams, but sometimes, the only person who ever reads those revision logs is the ghost who lives in the server. AKA “no one.” 

Don’t make your editors fill out stuff that nobody cares about. There might be legal requirements for you to store information, and in that case, someone obviously needs to care about it. The question then becomes: how do I make the process better?

Likewise, do not make every piece of content go through a five-step approval process if only one person needs to give approval. Do what is necessary to ensure standards are met, but having faith and trust in your team is better than arbitrary safeguards.

Path through grass going around barrier

Drupal-specific tools to help

Drupal has a lot of functionality, out of the box, that will help you deliver a good editorial experience, like places for form element helper text, requiring alt text on images, good form validation, and the ability to set default values. 

Drupal core also gives you the ability to have different “form displays” for each content type, though taking advantage of them requires a bit more work.

Text formats and WYSIWYG

Drupal comes with a robust text format system, and editors can have access to different formats based on their permission level. Take advantage of these. Do not leave extra buttons on the WYSIWYG editor that no one uses. Keep it simple.

The Drupal text format settings toolbar

Contextual links

Drupal includes drop-down links for privileged users at various places on a site, allowing editors to easily jump to the edit form of a block or content type. Additional links can be defined with custom modules.

If you are creating listings with Views, Drupal provides a way to add contextual links to each result that is shown. This can be an easy win.

Drupal contextual links in action


Drupal comes with a shortcut menu that each editor can easily access. You can set up permissions in a way for editors to choose their own shortcut set, giving them some say in their own experience. Set up some sensible defaults for the most common tasks, and let them tweak. 

This is simple in concept but can go a long way in improving the overall experience.

Drupal shortcuts menu

Inline Form Errors

This module is included in Core but is disabled by default. When enabled, error messages are placed next to the relevant form elements themselves instead of just as a summary at the top of the form.

Contrib extras to help you craft a good editorial experience

There are other tools and groups of modules you should pay attention to when building an editorial experience in Drupal. Using them does not guarantee a good experience, but they can make it easier to achieve one.

  • Field Group - Perfect for simplifying your forms and hiding less-used fields. A great tool for catering toward the 80%. If you end up grouping fields according to a specific pattern(field type, whether a field is required, frequency of use,) stay consistent from content type to content type.
  • Field Permissions - Another way to limit and simplify your forms, but with more explicitness. Useful for larger teams with a hierarchy of editors where access to some fields need to be enforced beyond just moving them around visually.
  • Entity Browser - A widget for entity reference fields, this allows more user-friendly selection beyond simple autocomplete. If set up correctly, it also allows inline creation of other entities before they are referenced. This can drastically improve the usability for editors. However, it depends on good practices and discipline for field naming and descriptions, so you cannot ignore the basics.
  • Embed - You can also set up easy embedding for custom elements and structured data, tying them to a button on the WYSIWYG.
  • Entity Embed - Integrates with Embed to trigger Entity Browsers to enable embedding in text fields.  It’s easy to go overboard with this module and cause more confusion, so be intentional about what you use it for.
  • Inline Entity Form - Another widget for entity reference fields. Good for creating content to reference. If you don’t need to re-use content and don’t need to search for content to reference, this can work better than Entity Browser in some situations.
  • Allowed Formats - Drupal core allows you to limit text formats by user role, but Allowed Formats will enable you to do it per field. It is very common for a text field to allow only links, for example, enabling you to have the appropriate format selected and all others hidden. This is a great way to make the wrong things harder.
  • Entityqueue - Sometimes, editors need to be able to explicitly define the order of content on a page and not depend upon things like a published date or other metadata. This makes it easy for them to reference content and order it how they wish.
  • Automatic Entity Label - Used for content that is only referenced by other content, so editors do not have to worry about creating labels. This can help avoid some busywork.
  • Override Node Options - Limit access to default fields on nodes. This fills in some gaps from Field Permissions.
  • Chosen and Select2 - If you have long select lists, either of these can make them more usable.
  • Linkit - If your editors link to lots of internal content and files, this module makes it easier to perform those tasks.
  • Require on Publish - Sometimes there are fields that editors do not want to fill out until content is actually published, and they just want to save their work or view a preview. This has provided a huge boost in usability for some editorial teams.

When editors are happy…

There is no such thing as a perfect editorial experience, but you can provide a good one that will keep your editors happy and help them avoid frustration. Don’t ignore the most prolific users of your website.

If your editors are happy, it is much more likely that your business objectives will be met, there will be less turnover and burnout, and your CMS has a better chance of sticking around for a while.

At Lullabot, we have seen the good, the bad, and the ugly of CMS experiences. Part of our work in design and strategy is to figure out how to empower your editors and not leave them behind. And we would love to help you. Reach out if you have any questions


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14 days ago
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Long Links

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This is the fifth “Long Links” episode, a monthly curation of good long-form essays from around the Internet that nobody who (unlike me) has an actual job has time to read all of. A glance through this might turn up one or two pieces that would reward even a busy person’s time.

[Geeks only.] Microservices — architecture nihilism in minimalism’s clothes, by Vasco Figueira, comes with a provocative title and really a whole lot of different angles on the problem. I certainly don’t agree with all of his conclusions, but some of the angles are new to me and I suspect would be to others as well. At AWS it’s sort of written in the stars that all of the services have microservices inside: control plane vs data plane, stateless vs stateful, serverless vs serverful, etc. Good stuff.

The Niskanen Center presents itself as the natural home of that highly-endangered species, the American centrist. Faster Growth, Fairer Growth their manifesto and is really long, verging on book-length — no, even I haven’t read all of it. The parts I have read are sensible, logical, and sound to me like what rational Republicans would probably say (there aren’t any of those, current Republicans are just the embodiment of Trump, no more and no less). Obviously, I would come down considerably to the left of this viewpoint — for example, there’s nothing about applying criminal sanctions to business miscreants, nor about directly strengthening working-class power. On top of which, I don’t believe that GDP growth is the best, or even a very useful, measure of the goodness of an economy. But still, if the Republicans ever manage to get clear of the Trump toxins, these are the pathways they should be investigating.

And now for something completely different: Grapefruit Is One of the Weirdest Fruits on the Planet. There’s lots to learn about the citrus-fruit family tree, where the name “grapefruit” came from, and the bizarre way this delicious package of flavor interacts with your digestive system and (potentially dangerously) with whatever prescription you might be on.

Yanis Varoufakis was a wildly controversial Greek Minister of Finance, when Greece started digging out from its entirely-insupportable public-debt load. He tried defying the European financial establishment and got squashed like a bug. He’s an interesting guy, and Capitalism isn’t working. Here’s an alternative is an interesting piece. Here are the first two paragraphs:

When Margaret Thatcher coined “Tina” – her 1980s dictum that “There is no alternative” – I was incensed because, deep down, I felt she had a point: the left had neither a credible nor a desirable alternative to capitalism.

Leftists excel at pinpointing what is wrong with capitalism. We wax lyrical about the possibility of some “other” world in which one contributes according to one’s capacities and obtains according to one’s needs. But, when pushed to describe a fully fledged alternative to contemporary capitalism, for many decades we have oscillated between the ugly (a Soviet-like barracks socialism) and the tired (a social democracy that financialised globalisation has rendered infeasible).

That certainly grabbed my attention. This piece doesn’t actually lay out his alternative, it lays out a few very interesting highlights, and plugs his book Another Now. Which worked; it’s now in my to-read queue.

Back in 2018, Benedict Evans asked Is Tesla disruptive?, a question which is increasingly material as Tesla’s valuation balloons to increasingly intergalactic levels. His answer is mostly in the negative. I find this easy to believe, because I drive a modern electric car (a Jaguar I-Pace) which shipped in late 2018 and which I wouldn’t trade for any currently-shipping Tesla. So maybe I’m prejudiced. But I sure wouldn’t be buying any Tesla shares right now.

You’ll be reading this right around the week of the 2020 American election. Suppose it pans out as the election modelers predict, with a well-deserved defeat for Trump specifically and Republicans in general. A question then arises, captured nicely in the title of Brian Beutler’s recent piece on Crooked (a site I haven’t previously encountered): What to Do About GOP Bad Faith After Trump. A large proportion of viewers of US politics have come to conclusion that American conservatism is without truth, without honor, and without decency, and if there is any concern for justice, must be made to pay a price. Beutler doesn’t offer a lot of what-to-do specifics, he simply makes the case that a possible future Democratic majority should stop treating Republicans as good-faith adversaries or decent people, because they are neither.

Just because you can’t pretend that 2020 Republicans as principled or intelligent conservatives doesn’t mean that such things can’t exist. Government Of, By, and For the Elite is a discussion between J.D. Vance and Chris Arnade, Arnade’s politics don’t fall into any neat bucket but Vance is definitely conservative, and while he does suck at the teat of the right-wing noise machine, is not self-evidently corrupt and malevolent. I’m not going to try to summarize their discussion but here’s a nice out-take from Vance, describing the whole US political establishment as “a uni-party that governs culturally a little bit to the left of the American people and economically very much to the right of the American people.”

Now let’s take a quick hop across the Pacific for Victor H. Mair’s How to Forget Your Mother Tongue and Remember Your National Language, which is mostly about the fact that Taiwanese, spoken at home by many in that nation, has no written form. While I’m not equipped to understand many of his points about Han ideographics, I am interested in the intersection between language and culture and I think this would be interesting to most who share those interests. Being Putonghua-literate would increase the chances of finding this fascinating.

As a long-time skeptic concerning Bitcoin in particular and blockchain in general, I always like a good anti-blockchain rant, because, to my amazement, there still seem to be people out there who see it as The Future Of Everything. Jesse Frederik’s Blockchain, the amazing solution for almost nothing is a useful refresher course on the claims of the blockchainers and why they’re almost certainly wrong. On top of which, it’s readable and entertaining.

Back to the Niskanen center, where we find Philip K. Verleger’s The Energy Transition: How Fast?, which dives deep on a single argument advanced by defenders of the high-carbon status quo in the energy economy: That the transition to renewables is going to be slow because of the heavy existing investments in fossil-fuel infrastructure. This argument is ridiculous (uh, “sunk costs”, anyone?) and Verleger dunks on it in elegant, evidence-based style.

One of the central problems of our era is the profusion of falsehood, with the Internet serving as a global-scale lie amplifier. I think anything that promises to mitigate this awfulness, even a little bit, deserves serious attention. Amy Yee’s To Recognize Misinformation in Media, Teach a Generation While It’s Young makes a strong case that spotting lies is a skill that can be taught to young people. Let’s do that! She links to Exploring Media Literacy Education as a Tool for Mitigating Truth Decay, a useful RAND report on the subject.

From back in July in New York magazine, David Shor’s Unified Theory of American Politics is a hell of a read. Mr Shor has a whole lot of smart things to say about how American voters vote and what, specifically, the Democratic party should be and do.

Wired addresses another subject close to my heart in Ad Tech Could Be the Next Internet Bubble. Subtitle: “The scariest thing about microtargeted ads is that they just don’t work.” If you care at all about the Internet economy, that should be enough to grab 100% of your attention. The article focuses on a book by Tim Hwang, Subprime Attention Crisis: Advertising and the Time Bomb at the Heart of the Internet (Amazon affiliate link, feel free to buy elsewhere). Think I’m gonna have to read that.

Let’s finish on an upbeat note. Stephen O’Grady is a really smart industry analyst, whose analysis work seems to have followed me around over the years, which is to say the stuff he’s mostly written about at any one time seemed to be the area I was working in. I’ve hoisted a few beers with him and enjoyed a lot of his writing. Much to everyone’s surprise, he has now published This is the Way, fifty pieces of advice on what a good life is and how to live it. It’s exquisite. Go read it.

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A Local's Guide to Maine's Katahdin Region

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Even if you’ve never set foot in New England, you probably know Katahdin by its reputation: Maine’s highest peak, the storied terminus of the Appalachian Trail, the spot where Thoreau had his melodramatic wilderness epiphany. You might not know that a hiker can’t simply show up at a trailhead there and start hoofing it up the mountain. Or that Katahdin isn’t found, as some reasonably assume, at Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, designated amid some controversy in 2016. (It’s next door.) You almost certainly wouldn’t recognize the names of the other neighboring parks and preserves—each administered by a different outfit and governed by different rules—that together make the Katahdin region arguably the East Coast’s finest wilderness-recreation bloc.

And so, a primer. The patchwork management of Maine’s wild and woolly north woods can be confusing for a first-time visitor. Here’s what a would-be Thoreau needs to know.

Baxter State Park

(Photo: Cody Barry)

What’s there: Mile-high Katahdin, for one. More than a half-dozen intersecting trails reach its summit, Baxter Peak, with most of them falling in the alpine zone for miles and requiring some scrambling or climbing on iron rungs. AT thru-hikers start or finish their trek on the mountain’s western slope, but the showstopper is the eastern approach called the Knife Edge, a boulder-strewn ridge walk of just over a mile where the mountain’s spine is sometimes all of three feet wide with a 2,000-foot drop on either side. Less exhilarating but equally sublime is Chimney Pond, tucked into a cirque on the mountain’s north side, near a cluster of coveted backcountry lean-tos

But there’s more to Baxter than Katahdin. The 330-square-mile wilderness park encompasses more than 40 mountain peaks, backcountry ponds full of native brook trout, and a handful of idyllic cabins and campgrounds—all accessed by one gravel road and some 220 miles of trail. One of Maine’s most underrated hikes is the Traveler Mountain Loop, near the park’s north entrance, which stays above treeline for more than half of its 11 miles. The trail ends at Traveler’s 3,551-foot summit, and it has much of Katahdin’s grandeur and a fraction of its foot traffic.

Who runs it: The state, with limitations. Maine’s governor in the early twenties, Percival Baxter, wanted the state to acquire and protect Katahdin and its surroundings. His initiative failed, but after leaving office he spent 30 years buying the land and deeding it to the people of Maine. So while Baxter is a state park in name, it exists outside of Maine’s park system, legally bound by deeds forbidding anything that might intrude on its unique character.

Getting in: Entrance is free if you’re in a car with Maine plates; otherwise it’s $15. Things get tricky if you want to hike Katahdin. Unless you’re waking up inside the park (campsites and cabins book up months in advance), you’ll need a day-use parking reservation—a DUPR, or “dooper,” in Baxter parlance—to claim a space at a Katahdin trailhead. Non-residents can get a DUPR online for $5 starting two weeks before a planned trip. On the morning of your DUPR, you must be at the park’s south entrance by 7 A.M.—at 7:01, your space goes up for grabs to the DUPR-less hopefuls who often hover outside the gate. Once the park admits enough cars to fill the trailhead lots, Katahdin has reached capacity and you’re looking for an alternate hike.

Know before you go: Baxter has no cell service and no facilities with Wi-Fi. (Or electricity, for that matter.) The entrance gates are within a few miles of campgrounds with stores, but you’ll find nothing for sale inside the park, so come prepared. Pets are forbidden, and kids under six can’t go above treeline—rangers will enforce both rules. Some trails have rather conservative cutoff times, and rangers may turn you around if you’re caught hitting the trail too late in the day. Baxter is a bit of a rule-happy park, and so it pays to read up before heading in. 

What’s nearby: The recovering mill town of Millinocket, an AT trail town where you can gear up at Ole Man’s Gear Shop and eat amazing donuts at the Appalachian Trail Café while admiring thru-hikers’ signatures on the ceiling panels. Lodging in town is mostly budget motels, with a few campgrounds and lodges clustered outside the park entrance, including the sprawling New England Outdoor Center

Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument

Maine North Woods
(Photo: zrfphoto/iStock)

What’s there: Katahdin’s forested foothills, several of them bald-topped, their summits accessed along 30 miles of the International Appalachian Trail. Mountain bikers come for a few dozen miles of old forest roads, and paddlers watch for moose along the East Branch of the Penobscot. The monument also has some of the planet’s best stargazing, as recently certified by the International Dark-Sky Association

Who runs it: The National Park Service, after President Obama’s Interior Department accepted a gift of 87,500 acres from Roxanne Quimby, the Mainer cofounder of Burt’s Bees. 

Getting in: As of yet, the monument has no entrance stations, so there’s no fee. Camping is free, too, available on a first-come, first-serve basis in a handful of primitive sites and lean-tos scattered throughout the park. Katahdin Woods and Waters abuts Baxter to the east, but it’s a wilderness border—you can't enter one park from the other by car. 

Know before you go: As a new NPS unit, the monument is still light on frontcountry attractions, other than a 17-mile scenic driving loop with overlooks and interpretive displays that will tax any lower-clearance vehicle. (As will all the monument’s roads.) There’s no road connecting the monument’s north entrance to its south entrance, and it’s a 90-minute drive between the two on roads outside the park, so seeing the whole place requires some trip planning. There is next to no ranger presence, and, as in Baxter, cell service is nil. Leashed dogs are welcome.

What’s nearby: A rural stretch of Maine, without much for amenities. You can get surprisingly good barbecue at Flatlanders in Patten, then check out a replica 19th-century logging camp at the Patten Lumbermen’s Museum. Near the monument’s north entrance, Mount Chase Lodge is a mellow old sporting camp that serves incredible family-style meals (currently available for takeout only).

Penobscot River Trails

(Photo: Courtesy Penobscot River Trails)

What’s there: Some 16 miles of crushed-stone bike paths (that serve as ski trails in the winter) along the East Branch of the Penobscot River, just south of the national monument. The private park opened just last year, and it’s maybe the most manicured trail system in New England, where bikers still have to watch out for ambling moose and black bears. 

Who runs it: The Butler Conservation Fund, a philanthropic foundation set up by retired finance titan Gilbert Butler, who bought the former timberland and funded construction of the trails and a pair of warming huts that look like small national-park lodges.

Getting in: Park in a lot right off the paved state highway, sign in at a visitor center that may or may not be staffed, and hit the trail. There is no fee. 

Know before you go: Ordinarily, Penobscot River Trails has a fleet of mountain bikes and kayaks (and in the winter, skis and snowshoes) to rent by donation, although the rental program is on hold during the pandemic. No dogs, ebikes, or camping allowed. 

What’s nearby: Not much! Medway, the next town south, has camping, a tackle store, and the rare lobster roll 100 miles inland at Noah’s Ark Food and Ice Cream Cart

Debsconeag Lakes Wilderness Area

(Photo: Ian Patterson)

What’s there: Some 46,000 nearly roadless acres of lakes and ponds, most of them connected by well-maintained portage trails and dotted with lakefront campsites. Also 15 miles of the Appalachian Trail, some stands of old-growth forest, backcountry ice caves, and so, so many loons.

Who runs it: The Nature Conservancy, which acquired the property in 2002 from Great Northern Paper Company, once Maine’s largest landowner.

Getting in: In contrast to Baxter, Debsconeag is sparsely regulated, with no permits, reservations, or fees. (No dogs are allowed, though.) Campsites are first come, first served and accessible via a handful of trailheads and three carry-in boat launches at the edges of the preserve.

Know before you go: As elsewhere, don’t count on cell service. Mountain bikes are verboten. You’ll want a vehicle with decent clearance to access the boat launches.

What’s nearby: The AT leaves the northeast corner of the Deb right next to the Abol Bridge Campground and Store, a clutch outpost for last-minute tent stakes, fishing flies, and beer, as well as a staging area for northbound thru-hikers about to launch their final push towards Katahdin. It’s also a base camp for whitewater rafting trips on the West Branch of the Penobscot, which separates Debsconeag from neighboring Baxter. 

Beyond the Katahdin Region: the North Maine Woods

Maine North Woods
(Photo: zrfphoto/iStock)

Wait, isn’t it all the north Maine woods? Well yes, but head north or west along the rutted logging roads that spider out from the Katahdin region and sooner or later you’ll reach a gated checkpoint. This is run by North Maine Woods, Inc., which administers recreational access to some 3.5 million acres of forests, mountains, lakes, and streams in the state’s undeveloped northeast corner. Most of the land is owned by commercial timber interests, but there are hundreds of remote campsites, plus a few sporting lodges and housekeeping cabins catering to anglers, hunters, and paddlers. Among other things, North Maine Woods regulates access to the 92-mile Allagash Wilderness Waterway, one of New England’s all-time classic river trips. The Allagash has its own fee structure, but out-of-state visitors elsewhere in the North Maine Woods can expect to pay a $16 entrance fee plus another $15 for each night of camping.

This story was produced in partnership with Down East magazine.

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160 days ago
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Using Drupal Permissions to Manage Access in Central Organizations with Subsidiary Groups

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Drupal's versatile permission system, applied at scale, makes Drupal an excellent platform for managing large organizations with multiple subsidiary groups, each of which has particular needs and requires a unique web presence. For example, large enterprise companies, such as IBM, have many business units. In higher education, universities like New York University have many departments. And, umbrella government organizations encompass many related but independent programs and agencies, as is the case with Digital Services Georgia. Independent groups coordinated around a central structure may find a good fit with Drupal's access management system.

This article focuses on a specific example—a nationwide parent organization with many local, regional chapters—to illustrate how this works. 

The example: National HQ with regional chapters

A typical scenario in Washington DC is one where a central organization serves as a "National Headquarters" or "Global HQ;" however, branches at the state-wide, regional, local, or neighborhood level may have their own operations and leadership, yet act as "chapters" for implementing the central program. Note that this concept applies across many different organizational models, but we're using this one to illustrate some of the details.

We'll call our organization "International Guild for Drupal Project Managers," which we will say is a dues-paying member organization with offices on K Street right near the White House.

Working with different levels of users

Users may log in and register to a centralized instance of Drupal, e.g., the main office. However, local branches may also spin up subsites to allow for different levels of users to access only the content that is relevant to them. Doing this simplifies the implementation of editorial controls or permission management details.

For example, a Dues Manager role may be assigned to a user who only reviews new orders and existing orders around dues-paying individual members. The Dues Manager requirements and access may differ from the Sponsor Manager role, which allows that designated user to review new and existing sponsorships. Both of those managers may report to a Treasurer role, a person who prepares monthly reports on income, new and existing members, or new and current sponsorships.

Roles and Permissions Chart

At International Guild for Drupal Project Managers, a verified member gets the opportunity, upon payment, to input their contact information into a directory of all dues-paying members. In this case, it's a sortable list with filters by region and by specialty. 

In this model, you can set up Drupal to allow any new user to create and edit their listing in the directory once payment is received. You can also designate a Directory Manager role to handle any concerns or edits to the business details of a directory listing and keep the directory-related needs separate from the payment concerns.

Roles and activities chart

With the ability to manage the roles and the permissions available to users, it becomes easier to control the flow of information by allowing only managers with the "need-to-know" access the details relevant to them. For example, it may not be necessary for the Treasurer to handle individual directory listings. Likewise, it may not be required for the Directory Manager to process payment-related requests. The specificity of the roles, and the permissions associated with those roles, make it easier for the organization to divide up functional requirements. Drupal handles the assignment of user roles and permissions very straightforwardly, in a large "grid" of user permissions similar to the above.

Customizing pages

In a national organization, as with our example, that has local, neighborhood, or state entities, you can enable a dues-paying member to join a specific region. For example, a new member joins the National Organization, and is assigned to the programs that take place closest to their area, e.g., a "State Chapter" or even a "City Chapter." So if a new member joins, they can have access privileges to their local area leadership, where they can manage their local business sponsors, news, events, or advertising.

In this case, the same Drupal setup could include additional roles, such as Regional Managers or Local Managers who can add, edit, and delete content specific to their region - or, depending on their business model, business units, departments, or agencies. This way, a local news story, member highlight, event, or advertisement, might be targeted to a local region, rather than being pushed out at the national level. Similarly, nationally-organized negotiations could trickle down to the local chapter.

Sample Content for National and Local Chapters


With customized versions of content relevant to the geographic focus of the organization, the news may remain fresh and valid to the needs of local members while retaining the ability to highlight news from the national or international main office or parent organization, all the way down to the city or regional level.

Typical content types

When determining what works for membership-based organizations, an assessment with our strategy and design teams helps encapsulate the content types that work best to fit the needs of current and future users.

For example, the individual member browsing the chapter website in Southern California may only want to view local events in San Diego and Los Angeles. However, the regional corporate sponsor based in the Midwest region may wish to view business members in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, and Missouri. Furthermore, the national corporate sponsor may request the total number of paid members available through all 50 states and the District of Columbia. 

Drupal can help manage the needs of the organization to "think globally, act locally" by splitting content into relevant categories based on local programs.

Typical content types in this scenario might include: localized landing pages, events, directory listings, advertising, blog posts or articles, meeting agendas and minutes, videos, and more. An organization-wide announcement might be required, such as an "alert message" that is relevant at all levels, on all pages.

Based on the requirements, this organization might choose to implement a standard type of content so that, at the local level, participants and leaders may access their local content. Meanwhile, the main administrator in the national office can pull up standardized reports across the country by region, state, or other designated filters.

Understanding the needs of users and the specific customizations they need will help the organization generate an approach to content that serves requirements across the spectrum.

Examples of common tasks

Local Level

Local chapter managers may periodically need to do the following: 

  • Pull up lists of local members
  • Create meeting agendas and minutes
  • Determine the event calendar
  • Manage the local directory
  • Post blogs and articles relevant to the chapter
  • Designate local chapter sponsors
  • Pull together financial reports to send to the national office

State and regional levels

Regional managers may need to fulfill all the needs at the local chapter level, but may also need to:

  • Generate reports within their state or region
  • Convene state or regional gatherings
  • Determine policies at the state or regional level
  • Respond to sponsor inquiries and financial or legal requests across multiple chapters

National level

National managers need to fulfill all requests from the chapter and state/regional level, but most likely also need to address the following across the entire organization:

  • Reporting
  • Federal compliance
  • Tax considerations
  • Auditing
  • National or international news
  • Policy-setting
  • Member-wide events
  • Sponsorships that affect the membership body as a whole

Paying Dues

Paying individual or corporate dues might be centralized at the national level and allocated down to the regions and chapters in a disbursed manner based on revenue. With a standardized system that automatically assigns an individual or corporate user to their appropriate role, the burden is removed from smaller or less active chapters to come up with a payment and reporting system. Likewise, having a standard offering enables determining the language related to membership benefits on a more holistic, global level. In contrast, add-ons such as local sponsorships could support specific chapters directly.

Some examples of products to be sold within this organization's Drupal e-commerce setup might include:

  • Annual Individual Membership 
  • Annual Individual Membership with Directory Listing
  • Annual Corporate Membership (i.e., based on # of employees)
  • Regional Advertising - Ad Banner to display on content pages within the region
  • National Advertising - Ad Banner to display on content pages nationally
  • Event Listing
  • Enhanced Directory Listing (e.g., with added photos, offers, or other premium information)
  • Certification Fees online
  • New Chapter Charters (for newly formed chapters)

With a standardized process in place, payments are handled and paid in a transparent and timely manner. At the same time, users such as Treasurers, Chapter Financial Managers, and Regional Financial Managers can access relevant reports.


If your organization struggles with the push and pull inherent in the relationship between subsidiary units and the umbrella organization, Drupal might be an excellent technical solution to provide transparency, accountability, and ease of use when implementing processes that impact all members at all levels. 

For next steps when planning a new website implementation:

  • Consider and document the types of content that the parent organization wants to centralize as opposed to content that the subsidiary groups might claim ownership over. 
  • Determine required functionality, e.g., dues payment, article publication, event management, etc.
  • Consider which types of special needs to address. In our example, shipping costs on membership materials might need an automatic increase of 20% for Hawaii and Alaska residents. 
  • Determine the priority of desired functionality and the overall estimated budget the organization can spend.
  • Establish the desired timeline. There may be drivers that impact your organization's deployment of the website, such as a milestone anniversary or extensive marketing campaign.

With the broad strokes of these requirements in place, it's possible to coalesce the universe of available options into a manageable, extensible tool that gives the organization more power and flexibility by centralizing options and offering content to repurpose across multiple instances. Governments, higher education institutions, membership associations, trade networks, chapter-based groups, professional networks, and dues-paying organizations all benefit from this centralized planning process.


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The Cost of Javascript Frameworks

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