Monday, February 23, 2015

Improving Searches

I know many of you are waiting with bated breath--what is Ryan going to do to ruin Atlas Quest next?! I've heard those complaints, and I've been listening! =)

My most recent changes are completely invisible. At least, on the surface, they're invisible. I've been working to made word-based searches.... better.

The thing to remember with almost all searches--be it for letterboxes with a specific name, message board posts that use a certain phrase or even the help pages, when you search for a string of words, AQ runs the search using an invisible "or" between each word unless you stated otherwise. So if you tried to run a search for the letterbox named "Deep Space Nine," the results would return all boxes with the words "deep", "space" OR "nine." The list could be a lot longer and unwieldy than you might have expected! In a worst case scenario, if more than 1,000 boxes returned with that name, you might not even see the specific box you were looking for because AQ stops looking after it finds 1,000 matches. If the box you were searching for wasn't within those first 1,000 matches, it won't show up in the search at all.

Ironically, you'd have gotten better results just by searching for a single word. "Deep" would have only returned boxes with the word "deep" in it. Boxes with "space" or "nine" but not with the word "deep" wouldn't have cluttered up the searches.

This system might seem convoluted, but it was rather handy when people tried to run a letterbox search for a box named "Forest Grove Cemetery" but misspell a word and searched for "Forest Grove Cematery" instead and had people puzzled why the box couldn't be found. With only a few thousand boxes on AQ, AQ could still find a match, sort it so boxes with the words "forest" and "grove" came before boxes with "forest" OR "grove" and everyone liked the results. The cemetery didn't match the misspelled "cematery" but it didn't matter. It was close enough!

Nowadays, with hundreds of thousands of boxes listed on AQ, a better method was needed. The easy solution was just to put your search in quotes. "Deep Space Nine" (with the quotes) would have found the exact title, but do you know how many people did that while running searches? Not many!

So to make a long story short, AQ does some fancy manipulation of your search terms automatically if you don't specify the manipulation yourself. The first two words of a search will always be required. If you misspell one of those first two words, AQ will not find the box you were looking for. So now a search for "Deep Space Nine" (without the quotes) will return all boxes with the words "deep" and "space".... and optionally, if it happens to find the word "nine" in the title, it'll be sorted before the others that don't have the word "nine."

As you add more and more words to the search, more and more of them will be required. Let's take an exaple for a search for "The Life and Times of Deep Space Nine."

First, stopwords aren't included. Words like "the", "and" and "of" are pretty useless for searches, so those get crossed out completely.

Now we're left with "Life Times Deep Space Nine." In this case, the first two words are required. ("Life" and "times".) Among the rest of the words, AQ requires the first half. If there's an odd number of words, it's rounded down to an even number. Here we have three words left, so we round it down to an even 2. The first "half" of those two words is "deep" so the word "deep" becomes required as well.

The words "space" and "nine" will both be optional, but if they're found in the results, they'll be sorted ahead of those without them.

Clear as mud, I know. It's confusing. The exact algorithm for which words are required isn't really that important. The important thing to remember is that, in general, the first half of the words in a search are required and the last half are not. A misspelling in the first half will cause your box NOT to show up in the results. A misspelling in the last half will be pretty forgiving.

I haven't rolled these changes out to all of AQ as of yet. I've been testing them and tweaking them for the best results. You will find them working if you run a letterbox search, however, which was the place where the most problems were being caused. I've also updated the code for message boards and the help pages to use the new algorithms as well. If you always found the help pages difficult to search, you might consider the searches dramatically improved now! I did a test this morning where the old algorithm returned about 20 results (the vast majority having nothing to do with what I was looking for) while the new one returned 2 results (both of which were immediately relevant to my search).

Eventually I'll be rolling it out to all of the other word-based searches. Searching for trackers by name, events by name, etc.

What if you don't want AQ to automatically try to "improve" the search you're running? The easiest way to "opt out" is simply to include a special processing symbol of your own in the search. AQ won't manipulate the search if you're doing it yourself! If you want to search for all boxes with the words deep, space, and nine in them, you could run a search for "deep" space nine. The quotes, in this case, are essential so AQ sees them and knows to leave well enough alone, even though on the surface they don't really appear to actually do anything. (And under the old searching algorithm, they didn't do anything!) But really, I can't think of any reason not to let AQ automatically improve your searches.

At times, you might want to further refine the search beyond what AQ does automatically. (Perhaps you want your search to require the words deep, space, and nine, so you can still run +deep +space +nine. Now they'd all be required. Or you want to search for the exact phrase "deep space nine" (all in quotes) which requires all three of the words to be in consecutive order.

Or if you want deep and space to be optional, but nine to be required: deep space +nine.

So there you have it. =)

Happy trails!

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Facelifts and Tummy Tucks

Did you know that AQ turned 10 years old this year? TEN YEARS! Holy cow! Time flies when you're having fun! =)

In website years, that's incredibly old. Technology and all advances so quickly. When I first started AQ, the most popular browser in use was Internet Explorer 6. And I hated that browser for so many reasons, but one of the biggest reasons was its lack of support for alpha transparencies on PNG images. A lot of you probably don't know what that means and that's okay--you don't have to understand it. It didn't help much that none of my paint programs really supported it either. So AQ became littered with GIF images.

Even worse, when I started Atlas Quest, I had absolutely ZERO income. No job, no premium memberships, no nothing. My biggest financial windfall in 2004--the year I started Atlas Quest--was when I invested a few thousand dollars in Martha Stewart's company immediately after she was found guilty of insider trading. I bought some of her company then, and it went on to do very, very well over the next several months and I eventually sold it just before she got out of prison. As exciting as that was, however, it's not a windfall I could expect every year!

So my choice of images were largely what I could find online that were available for free. And you know what they say--you get what you paid for! I got what I paid for. *nodding*

Fast forward ten years later and things are different. Atlas Quest does earn its keep now, and investing in high-quality icons isn't out of the question anymore. I also have a couple of programs that can manipulate PNG images, and about one-half of one percent of the web-surfing public uses IE6. (Truth be told, it surprises me that anyone is still using it at this point, but I officially stopped worrying about that browser years ago.)

And I felt it was finally time for a major icon facelift! I've been using some of the same icons on AQ for over ten years now, and it needs a refresh! So that's what I'm in the process of doing now. There are some lovely icons too. High quality, top-notch icons. I have them in multiple sizes so I can use tiny little versions where needed, or huge icons that could be used as a menu button.

It's not a small task to update almost every icon on Atlas Quest--they now number into the hundreds. I'm getting there--hopefully in another week or two I'll be done. =)

In the meantime, though, I thought I'd share some of the new icons I plan to use. Give y'all a sneak peak at some of them.....

This is the bike-friendly icon. It will NOT be this big on the live website! But I'll have versions of all the icons up to this size so I won't be limited to a one-size-fits-all scenario.
By comparison, this is the smallest version of the bike icon I have available. I won't be using that either--not for the bike icon, at least. Some places were tags are used or the "close widget" icon might be this small, but not very many places will use this size. (Definitely not any box attributes!)
Shiny new blue diamonds! =)
Some icons will change completely. I'll be using this snorkel mask to represent "special equipment required" rather than the parachutist of before. The expensive new icon set I bought didn't include a parachutist, and I created the parachute icon when the attribute was originally called "extreme." It's not called "extreme" anymore (too vague a term for people to really understand, I guess) and changed it to "special equipment required." The icon never changed, though... until now! (I'd really love to find a few underwater boxes, BTW.)

Another icon that's completely changing.... the HIPS icon for event boxes. I kind of liked the mustache, but I've NEVER seen a box hidden in someone's mustache before. I have seen them disguised as soft drinks, however. ;o) (Not to mention that my icon set didn't include a mustache in it.)

This icon is for the "compass required" attribute, but I kind of feel myself wanting it throw it all over Atlas Quest just because it's a compass! And it's cool! And it's pointing (mostly) north! =)

AQ-hosted clues used to be represented by the AQ logo, but I never much liked that because it wound up looking like a link to AQ rather than an AQ-hosted clue. But my icon set did include this old, crinkly paper--a blank sheet of it! So the sheet of paper represents a clue, and the icon inside represents where the clue is hosted. =)

The box tags are all stars but different colors. I did that since I only needed to find one star then change the colors of it for all of the other tags. It was fast and easy! But it always bothered me a little because I felt it had to be a terrible system for people who are colorblind. I'm not colorblind and sometimes have trouble distinguishing between a tiny yellow star and a tiny orange star! So now those icons will all be different shapes. (The colors are still the same, though.)

I kind of like the "freshly hatched egg" to represent a new member, but my icon set didn't include any eggs. (Not even sunny side up eggs! *gasp*) But it did have this pacifier. I'm not actually sure how I feel about using a pacifier to represent a newbie, but it seemed like the best choice of the options available. 
These particular icons.... *shaking head* I've spent the last three days JUST working on these icons. These are the "trophy awards" for the number of plants you have. The icon set came with three trophies--bronze, silver and gold--but they were otherwise all the same. Somehow having only 3 different levels of P-ness didn't seem sufficient. I wanted them to have numbers like the existing ones did! But if I just wrote a number with any old font, it'll look like the old icons--a number written on top of the icon. These icons were classy! A big black number on top of them--not classy! So I wanted to make it look like the numbers were etched into the trophies. (Engraved? What's the difference between an etching and an engraving anyhow? How about carved into the trophies?!)

But I digress.... When I started working with these icons, I had no idea how to "engrave" the trophies and I spent three full days learning all sorts of new tricks with my photo-editing software to create these effects! And I decided that I also wanted to spell out the entire number--just just the first digit like the existing icons do. But the thin little trophies provided just didn't have enough space for up to three numbers at the same time, so then I had to digitally manipulate the silver trophy to be just a bit wider than the bronze one, and change the gold trophy to be wider still. More for me to figure out and learn! Which actually worked out pretty nicely because the trophies don't just change color as you level up, but they get BIGGER too! But in reality, the main reason I made them bigger was to fit the larger numbers on them.

And then! Even after I finally figured all that out, the numbers still didn't quite look right because they were flat. They clearly weren't following the curvature of the trophies. So then I had to learn more Photoshop tricks to figure out how to make the text wrap around the trophies. (Technically, I used GIMP, but I figured most of you probably never heard of GIMP. But it's like Photoshop. Except it's free.)

And unlike all of those other icons where I just needed one icon, I had to create 27 different icons for this because it's part of a set--one for each number I needed. (i.e. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 20, 30, 40, 50, 60, 70, 80, 90, 100, 200, 300, 400, 500, 600, 700, 800 and 900). So I had to apply the text affects, and curve the text around the trophies for nearly THIRTY different icons!

Oh, then and create them for all of the various sizes. Turns out, when you take a 512x512 pixel tall icon and shrink it to 16x16 pixels, it doesn't look so good. Even shrinking it to 64x64--it didn't look so good. So I created a 512x512 and a 64x64 version for every one of them. The rest of the sizes I created with the necessary shrinking. And the 16x16 and 24x24 icons I said screw it--I just wouldn't use those anywhere. =)

Anyhow.... three long days later, and I finally have the new trophy icons completed. Those were hard. Those were a lot of work. I hope you enjoy them! =)

I've still got some more icons to work on.... especially the ribbons for finds and stars for message boards. They're both relatively large sets and will likely take a few days each as well, but those are the only other icons I have to do before I make these changes live. =)

Premium member hat icons.... My icon set doesn't really have much in the way of hats so those are pretty much the only icons that won't be changing. For now. Eventually I'd like to upgrade those as well, but there are just so many of them! And I'd need to find a new icon set with all sorts of hat options available. Someday....

AQ Mail widget icon

There is one place on AQ where you can see some of the new icons RIGHT NOW! If you check out the Add Widgets page for My Page, each widget gets its own icon. Since that's database driven and doesn't involve any code changes, I updated those several days ago. But unless you're adding a widget, you'll never see those icons. They were mostly changed just because it was as good as time as any to do so. *shrug*

Location-based search widget icon

Billboard widget icon (a premium member only widget)
Treasure hiker widget icon

But those are some of the icons you'll have to look forward to in the near future. Hope you like them! =)

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

2015 Letterboxing Calendars are HERE!

The calendars took a bit longer to arrive than I expected, but at long last, they have arrived!!!! 

Yep, admire the calming scenery taken by Yak King blues, Crafty Lobster, frankie and benjy, Keepupwjoneses, Yiker, The Wolf Family, 55 Steps, LaBef2010, Nature Hikers and myself.

Ponder the thoughtful quotes.

Know that you'll never forget Wassa's birthday ever again.

Because this calendar has it all! =)

Check it out and order yours today!

Monday, September 01, 2014

Hike a Thoning!

Imagine your favorite hiking trail. It probably leads to a scenic viewpoint or gorgeous waterfall, right? But one thing you probably don't think about is the work that goes into maintaining them. You'll notice it when it's not maintained--the mud, those thorny bushes reaching out to scratch you, or climbing over and under logs that have fallen across the trail. You'll notice when you lose the trail completely because it's unmarked or overgrown or the bridge crossing that raging river has washed away.

And the Washington Trails Association (WTA) helps make sure you don't notice the trail so you can admire those great views and raging waterfalls. A good trail is a lot of work. It's also hard on tools, like this shovel I recently broke while trying to pry a rock out of the trail. Well, that rock is still in the trail--it never did come out--but shovels don't grow on trees. If they did, the WTA wouldn't need money to buy and fix shovels--after all, they spend a lot of time around trees and could just grow them instead.

But shovels don't grow on trees. Neither do Pulaskis. Nor cross-cut saws. Nor axes or grub-hoes--none of these essential tools for trail maintenance grows on trees. The good thing, though--these tools aren't especially expensive either. Just $10 might be enough to fix or replace an essential tool. It might not seem like much, but a tool here and a tool there--it adds up!

As I do every August, I participate in the Washington Trail Association's (WTA) Hike-a-Thon! I have to admit, this August, I was pretty pathetic. The last week of July, I did some trail work with the WTA and I intended to blog about it during August and I started the blog entry, but alas, I never finished. Seemed like more pressing matters kept getting in my way.
Now it's September and the Hike-a-Thon is "officially" over and I never once even blogged about it this year! So thanks to those who donated to the cause without any prompting AT ALL from myself! (Alisa, Steven, Barbara, Erica, and Jeffrey!) Although I suspect Amanda might have encouraged more than one of them....

However, it's not too late to donate. They're still collecting money for another week or two--those personal checks, I guess, take time to work their way through the mail system to their offices.

I use a small saw to cut out this log that's fallen across the trail.
 So, here's my offer. In less than 24 hours, I'll be heading off to the land of kilts (Scotland) to do some sightseeing and hiking, and for anyone who donates $5 or more under MY account will get a postcard from me from Scotland! And maybe I'll even email you a photo of me wearing a kilt. Maybe.... no promises on that. ;o)

So help buy a tool. Just sponsor me to make a donation, and thank you for your generosity! To make sure you get the postcard okay, it might be a good idea to email me your current address. The WTA won't provide me with it, and while I might have many of your addresses if you've ordered something from Atlas Quest over the years, I can't know if the address is out of date or not. So to make sure you get your postcard sooner rather than later, contact me directly and let me know!

Also, at this point.... please NO personal checks anymore. Amanda and I won't be home to process them until it's too late to count towards Hike-a-Thon, so at this point, all donations must be online.

After our work was done for the day, I went for a paddle around
Snoqualmie Lake in this little raft. I sooo want to buy one of these things!
(Completely off topic, though...)

Monday, August 11, 2014

It's that time of year again!

Here's a photo I took on the Long Trail last autumn that I'm thinking
about using in the calendar. But I'm willing to reconsider....
If you got some great shots, let me see them! =)
No, this isn't a back-to-school ad. It's not a summer doldrums reminder. Nope, it's that time of year when I sit down and create next year's letterboxing calendar!

If you have some photos that you think would look great in a calendar, upload them now! I'll probably sit down and create the calendar in another week or so.

Happy trails!

Sunday, June 22, 2014

F-summaries have arrived!

It occurred to me one day that sometimes, seeing the list of finds and attempts on a letterbox is just too much information. I don't really care who the last 10 finders were or when the box was last found. But there are patterns in the finds and attempts on a box that can be useful to see. If the last 5 people who looked for a box succeeded in finding it, there's probably a strong probability that the box is still there. And likewise, if the last 5 people who looked for it couldn't find the box, there's a good chance that the letterbox really is missing.

A hard to find letterbox might have a lot of attempts interspersed with the finds, and a box that has been replaced after it went missing might have a long series of attempts followed by a long series of finds.

There's a lot of information you can glean from patterns, but the finds page is overloaded with too much information! Wouldn't it be nice just to see the pattern of finds and attempts? So that's what the F-summary does. The finds page is still there if you'd like to take a closer look at the who and when of the finds and attempts, but just by looking at the pattern, you might decide you don't even need that information. Or maybe you'll see something in the pattern that makes you want to check out the finds and attempts in more detail.

An example of F-summaries on my Los Osos Oaks series.
Now, a little about how the F-summary works.... Most of the time, you'll see a series of characters such as FFFFFFFFxxxFFxx. The green F's, not surprisingly, represent finds. The red x's represent attempts. (Using capital A's seemed like it blended in too much with the F's, so I went with lowercase x's.) It will only display the last 15 attempts and finds--patterns before then probably don't mean much. They're read from left to right, so the oldest find and attempts will be on the left and the most recent activity will be on the right. The last successful find will have a small circle around it--the last find date will be pointing to that. (I couldn't make the circle in this blog so just imagine that last F has one!)

F-summaries when attempts on the box are hidden show a hit-ratio instead.

For those of you who've hidden attempts on your boxes, AQ will still respect that and not display the list of finds and attempts. Instead, it'll display a less useful summary and include a hit-ratio instead--the number of successful finds compared to the total number of attempts and finds. So if our previous example had finds hidden, you wouldn't see all of those F's and x's. You'd see "10/15 (67%)" instead. Ten out of the last fifteen people, about 67%, were successful in finding the box. All else being equal, the higher the success ratio, the better chances you'll have of finding a box.

When both finds and attempts are hidden, no F-summaries are displayed.

And for those who have chosen to hide both finds and attempts on a box... no F-summary will be displayed at all.

Saturday, April 05, 2014

More Server Downtime....

As many of you have noticed, AQ has been running poorly ever since the server migration and I'm still working on getting things fixed up and running normally again. As a result, I expect to take AQ down for several hours Sunday morning/afternoon. If things go really well, it could be down for less than an hour, but I expect it'll take several hours. If things go really bad, it could be down all day. But I'm shooting for just a few hours.

I really am sorry for the inconvenience! If it's any consolation at all, though, it's probably an even bigger inconvenience for me than it is for you! =)

You might think I'm just saying that, but I was supposed to be starting my Arizona Trail thru-hike today after already postponing it nearly two weeks, but--for the second time--I'm delaying the start of my hike for this stupid server migration problem!

I'd rather be hiking right now.... but AQ needs me. *nodding*

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

April Fools!

Yeah, so the upside down themes of yesterday were the 2014 April Fools Day prank for Atlas Quest. All the other problems the site has been having--the downtime, broken features, and so on--were not. I know more than one of you thought the whole server migration was a joke, but it was very much real and truly dreadful timing.

I'm still having some minor problems with the new server which I'm working out. Queries are running slower than they should be. I'll have to restart the server occasionally and unexpectedly, although at this point, I don't expect anymore prolonged downtimes. *knock on wood*

If you missed the upside-down and skewed themes or want to revisit them again, they are available as AQ themes. You probably won't want to leave him enabled for very long, though! =)

My favorite of the bunch is the heavily skewed ones, like the Skew Left theme. They don't even look like real websites! Looks like something digitally manipulated in PhotoShop or something

If you want to thank the person who thought of the upside-down theme, that would be our very own Amanda from Seattle. =) She suggested it as an idea years ago, but at the time, I didn't have a clue how to make it work. There were some very new CSS3 properties that could do the trick, but no browsers supported them at the time.

I revisited the idea this year, though, when I learned that all major browsers now support the necessary properties in some form or another. The most common browser that doesn't support the properties are old versions of Internet Explorer--usually a handicap, although the irony in this case is that the people using them were probably left scratching their heads wondering what the heck everyone else was talking about. =)

So I created the original April Fools Flip theme, which took all of about 10 minutes to do. I used this theme for about 5 seconds before I realized that the site was all but impossible to use. I couldn't leave it like that for an entire day! Which is when I started playing with other variations.

Like, what if everything was upside-down, except the main content window that is the most important part of the page? So I flipped the headers, footers and menubars, which is still awkward to use, but at least it was easy to read the content. The menubars were awkward, but because those are always the same and most people are pretty familiar with them, I could get by with them. Annoying, but not a deal breaker.....

The code to do these upside-down themes basically just say, "turn a specific element 180 degrees" to flip a page, but I can turn it any number of degrees. Why just use 180? Why not 90 degrees? Or 45 degrees?

So I tried those, but they didn't work out so well. The pages turned, but if it was a long page, it would go off on the right side of the page and there wouldn't even be a scroll bar to see what was missing. I wound up tilting the page 1 degree and most of the page stayed within the side bounds of the browser window, so I kept that variation. Almost like a drunken theme....

I also realized that I could rotate elements that had already been rotated! That's how the disorder theme was created. I rotated the entire page 180 degrees, then rotated just the header, content, menubars and footer in place 180 degrees, so the entire page actually ends rightside-up... but each of the elements are completely in the wrong order. Which I actually found surprisingly disorienting even though I could still work through it. That was a keeper.

And then I wanted to create a theme that was wrong, but at first glace, it seemed okay. Which is when I created the menubar flip. Only the menubars were upside-down and at a glance, that's not at all obvious. Not until you try to hover a mouse cursor over it and the dropdown menu goes up. I probably clicked the "Home" button more often using that theme than any other day in the history of AQ thinking it was the "My Page" button. =)

Anyhow, I hope you all enjoyed the shenanigans! And if you didn't.... well, blame Amanda. ;o)

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Smartphone-friendly changes!

As many of you know, I've working to update AQ to be more smart-phone friendly, and I recently uploaded some CSS changes to help in that direction.

Obviously, mobile devices can be turned in all sorts of directions--up, down, sideways--and it's even possible that different people can look at the same device from different directions, so I added some code that automatically detects from which direction people are viewing the page and orients that page to face them.

Apparently, there have a been a few glitches, which I think I've straightened out now, but due to caching issues, you might have to "refresh" your page a couple of times to get them to take effect.

Sorry about that!

Friday, March 28, 2014

AQ downtime starting Sunday!

Just a heads up here! On Sunday, March 30th, I intend to move Atlas Quest from a server in California to a server in Virginia. This will require some downtown for the website. If all goes well, it won't be down for more than a few hours.

HOWEVER--this change means that Atlas Quest will get a new IP address and bad things can happen when I change IP addresses. It converts the domain name into a numeric address that your browser can find, and your browser won't be able to find the new server until the IP address is updated. In theory, though shouldn't take more than a couple of hours. In practice, some people have reported having to wait days or even a WEEK before the address updates when I've changed IP addresses in the past.

Consequently, if you plan to do any letterboxing in the next week or so, I'd start hustling to download and saving clues that you'll need right now. Hopefully it will all just be an unnecessary precaution, but starting Sunday morning/afternoon, AQ may appear to be down for a considerable period of time for some people.