Monday, January 30, 2017

Introducing... eclipse glasses and my newest book!

There are now two new items in the AQ Marketplace!

First up: eclipse glasses. For those of you keeping track of these things, the first total solar eclipse to hit the contiguous United States is scheduled to sweep through the country on August 21st. And when I say sweep through the country, I mean it--from Oregon to South Carolina! From sea to shining sea!

If you've never experienced a total solar eclipse, you've never witnessed the most spectacular natural event you'll likely ever see. I've had the privilege of seeing them twice and traveled to the Black Sea (1999) and Zimbabwe (2001) in order to see them. This time, it'll be in our own proverbial backyards! The path of totality is only about 70 miles wide so most of you might have to travel a bit to see it, but it's well worth the effort. Start planning today if you haven't already! If for some reason you can't get to the path of totality, the entire rest of the contiguous United States will see a substantial partial eclipse that covers over 50% of the sun's surface. But seriously, make the effort to get to the eclipse path. I can assure you, a 99% covered sun and 100% covered sun is as different as night and day. Don't think you get 99% of the magic with a 99% covered sun--it doesn't work like that!

However, as anyone with two brains cells can likely tell you, staring directly at the sun is very dangerous! You must either view the sun indirectly through something like a pinhole viewer, or through filters that take out about 99.999% of the visible light.

So I ordered a whole bunch of eclipse glasses so you can watch the eclipse safely. They come in sets of four, with each of the four being a different design. Share the extras with friends or family, or sell them at inflated prices on the day of the event to people who didn't order ahead of time. =) Supplies are limited--when I run out, I do not plan to order more. Although if I sell out really quickly--like in less than a week--I'll order more. But in any case, I wouldn't wait until the last minute to order. Supplies may be hard to come by as the event looms ever closer.

Also added to the AQ Marketplace.... a new book: Opowieść o dwóch szlakach. No, that's not a cat walking over my keyboard. That's the name of the book. It's a Polish translation of A Tale of Two Trails about my adventures on the West Coast Trail and Juan de Fuca Trail in Canada. Yes, that's right, the book sold so well, it's been translated into Polish!

Just kidding... it hasn't really sold that well. For anyone who reads my Another Long Walk blog, you're familiar with my Polish buddy, Karolina. Years ago she had told me that she was thinking about taking a course to become an English-to-Polish translator, and I somewhat jokingly said if she wanted to practice, she could translate my book into Polish.

She actually liked the idea and started work translating it. It took a few years before she emailed the final draft to me, and I packaged it up into a book form. So there you have it--my book translated into Polish.

I realize that there's probably not going to be a huge demand for Polish versions of my book, but if you have any friends or family who know Polish, it might make an interesting and unique gift for them. I'll autograph every copy sold! =)

In related news, I also made a few tweaks to the AQ Marketplace changing the prices so shipping is "free" in the United States. I put "free" in quotes because obviously, it's not free--it's just part of the price of the product now. I wanted the actual price for items displayed and not require people to add or subtract items to their shopping cart to figure out what shipping would be. I wanted to make the actual prices of ordering something more transparent.

It also now displays the 10% discount for premium members. If you live in the United States, the price you see is the price you pay! (Except if you live in Washington state, then I have to collect sales tax. Sorry! The sales tax is calculated based on your address, so it's not calculated until your zip code is entered.) Non-US shipping prices vary from $2 to $10 depending on what you order and where it's going.

If you're interested in either of the items, they're both available in the AQ Marketplace. And... that's it, I think. Happy trails! =)

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

AQ: Now featuring security! =)

Okay, the title is a misnomer.... AQ has always had some degree of security. The first line of defense is to just not have anything that a hacker would even want. No credit card numbers to be compromised. No social security numbers, bank accounts, etc. There's not really much of anything on AQ that a hacker or identify thief would want to steal, except perhaps passwords which people tend to reuse across multiple websites (a bad thing to do, but we all know it happens!)

So early on, I bought an SSL certificate to people could log into their accounts securely. Most pages were still on the old, insecure http:// connections, though. Theoretically, someone on the Internet could see what you were doing, or eavesdrop on your AQ mail, or see where you were running letterbox searches. Or they could see the cookies your browser is using and hijack your session. Nobody has ever done that (so far as I know), but the possibility exists.

Until now! Yesterday, I updated the website to use https:// everywhere, all the time. Whether you're reading AQ mail or recording a find, no random people on the Internet can spy on what you're doing anymore.

I've actually wanted to do this for awhile but have held off because I knew it would likely cause some minor technical issues, and it has. It broke the maps for a bit. Apps that used AQ stopped working. All known issues have been fixed, but there could still be some unknown issues that I haven't found or have been brought to my attention. If you see something, let me know.

You also might get occasional security warnings depending on the content of the page. Some pages might point to a photo from another website (for instance) and the image isn't a secure link, and you'll get a warning that not everything on the page is secure. An image isn't really important in terms of security (unless it's an image of your bank account statement or something!), but the warnings can sometimes look scary. I fixed a few pages I found with that problem, but there could be others I've overlooked. Let me know if you see others and I'll see if I can fix it.

If you do include other content in your clues, or point a custom CSS to your own website, you could get warnings or outright errors unless it points to a secure resource. Ideally, if you can point to https://, do it! If you can't.... I wouldn't lose sleep over it, but the warnings might be annoying.

If you have a bookmark to Atlas Quest that appears not to be working, edit the link to https:// instead of http:// and it should work fine again. In theory, AQ should redirect it automatically, but there was a bug in some of the redirect code that handled URLs with lots of parameters. If you linked to a favorite search, for instance, that link might not appear to work anymore. I'm "permanently" redirecting links and if your browser has recorded the new (incorrect) URL, the only way to fix it is to edit the bookmark to point directly to https:// and not depend on the redirect. Most of you shouldn't have to edit any of your links since AQ will redirect automatically, but just in case you're one of those who have a problem, that's how to fix it.

For those of you with lots of watches on boxes, you might have gotten a lot of reports of "changed clues" last night. I automatically updated all clues that linked to AQ resources to use https:// -- so don't spend a lot of time trying to figure out how the clue was changed. It's just the link that was changed, and only to point to the secure version of the link.

 Hmm.... I think that's it! Sorry for any troubles this might cause, but it will be a better, more-secure website in the long run!

This message will self-destruct in 30 seconds....




Just kidding! =)

Friday, October 14, 2016

The End of an Era

Of all the paths you take in life, make sure a few of them are dirt.
                           -- John Muir
When I created the first letterboxing calendar, I had several hundred photos submitted by several dozen different people. Interesting in the calendars has been wanning in recent years, sales have dropped dramatically, but I've kept them going because I know some people still like them.

But this year, looking through the submissions, I have a problem. I like to narrow down my favorite submissions to the "top 100" photos--on my administrator page, it'll show up to 100 photos per page. So I'll whittle down the submissions until there are about 100 photos.

Then I start widdling down people. Some people submit a lot of really good photos, and while a "Yiker Calendar" (for instance) would be really awesome, it's not really a "letterboxing calendar." Ideally, I'd like to use a maximum of one photo per person, and one photo for a state. Spread out the love.

So I'll go through all of the photos and group them by photographer, then pick my favorite couple of photos by each photographer. Then group them by state and pick my favorite couple for each state. Then I'll go through and try to find thoughtful quotes to go with the various photos and group photos into what months they might be appropriate for. I'd usually wind up with a couple of photos for each month at that point, at which point the deciding factor might be which quote I like better for which photo.

In recent years, as interest in the calendars wane, I've started allowing myself to use up to two different photos by the same person, and two or three different photos taken in the same state. I had to to fill in all 12 months. It wasn't as diverse of a calendar as I would have preferred, but it was still a nice-looking calendar.

But this year.... A total of 75 photos were submitted. I can't even whittle down the number of photos to 100--I didn't get enough submissions! And I can (almost) count on my fingers the number of different people that submitted photos--which happens to be very close to the number of states represented in the photos.

Many of the photos, I'd like to add, are absolutely wonderful! They just don't have the diversity of people and places that I feel a letterboxing calendar should have. And given the severe drop in sales of the calendars in previous years, and find myself wondering if it's even worth it. And this year, the answer is no--I've decided not to create a letterboxing calendar for 2017. After an 11 year run, I'm pulling the plug on the AQ letterboxing calendar.

But thank you to those who've submitted photos--both past and present! I'm going to hang onto this year's submissions--for awhile, at least--to think about what else I might do with them.

If you have suggestions for other uses for these photos, let me know. I'm kind of toying with the idea of trying to turn some of them into "letterboxing bookmarks" or "letterboxing notebooks" or muggle cards or something. Maybe build some new themes around some of them. What would y'all like to see?

Monday, September 26, 2016

Post your calendar photos!

It's that time of year again when I create a letterboxing calendar! If you haven't done it already, be sure to post your submissions for photos for AQ's 2017 calendar! It'll be a bit late this year because of all my hiking, but I do still intend to create one, and even work on it while I'm hiking the Portuguese Camino.

So it's not too late to submit photos, but sooner rather than later would be a good idea. *nodding*

So submit your photos now!

-- Ryan

PS. The photo was from last year's cover, and it was taken from Waterrock Knob, North Carolina, by The Wolf Family.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Creating Great Passwords

It's common knowledge that using the same password across multiple websites is a security problem, but it's one that few people ever take seriously. When LbNA's database was breached, I knew the reused-password problem was so pervasive, that it meant thousands of accounts on Atlas Quest were compromised as well.

I mentioned that I use a different password on every website, which is how I could immediately tell that the file of leaked passwords I stumbled across came from LbNA. It was the one website on the entire Internet that I ever used it--it HAD to have come from LbNA. Nor was it a simple, easy-to-guess password like "letterbox", "letterboxing" or "password" (which 181, 167 and 106 people used respectively on LbNA--please don't use passwords like this!) My password had lowercase letters, uppercase letters, symbols and numbers. All jumbled up into--at a glance--a random bunch of characters.

And a couple of people commented that they don't have my awesome powers of memorization, which is why they use the same password across a lot of websites. But here's the trick--I don't either! I don't memorize my passwords... I memorize patterns!

I use patterns on the keyboard based on the type of website, the name of the website, and password requirements for the website. For instance, on Atlas Quest, I could have a password of "sw2Q!@t5t". (This is NOT my password--this is for sample purposes only.) While my LbNA password could be ";p0NHY^&aq1q".

The passwords look very different--and they're both great passwords. They have lower and upper case letters, numbers and symbols. They aren't words found in a dictionary or names of relatives or friends. A stranger who stumbled onto this password... would be pretty well stuck with hacking into the one website it's good for.

But they're really easy passwords to "remember" as well. No written notes necessary!

They're patterns on the keyboard. Each of them can be broken down into three segments:
  • sw2   Q!@   t5t
  • ;p0   NHY^&   aq1q
It's kind of like.... a secret code that converts website names into passwords. In both cases, I start with the website name:
  • Atlas Quest
  • Letterboxing North America
In the first sequence of characters, I start with the first letter of the website name and find the key on the keyboard immediately to the right of it. Then I click that, followed by every key immediately above it until I reach a number. 
  • sw2 - "s" is just to the right of "A", then "w" is immediately above the "s", then the number "2" is immediately above the "s". s-w-2... Stop.
  • ;p0 - ";" is just to the right of "L", followed by "p" just above it, followed by "0" just above that.  ;-p-0... Stop.
The next sequence in the group works similarly--except this time I start with the first letter of the next word of the website name, and this time I hold the SHIFT key the entire time and, after clicking a symbol on the numbered keys, I follow it up with a second symbol just to the right of the first symbol.
  • Q!@ - "Q" for Quest, then "!" (immediately above the Q) and "@" (immediately to the right of "!").
  • NHY^& "N" for North, then "H" (immediately above the N), "Y" (immediately above the "H"), "^" (immediately above the "Y"), and "&" (immediately to the right of the "^").
The third group in the sequence likewise follows a similar pattern, but without the shift key and, after I hit a number, I back down one row and repeat the letter underneath it. But I've run out of words in "Atlas Quest"... so I just use the last letter of the last word as my starting point. ("t" in this instance.)
  • t5t - "t" for Quest, followed by "5" then bounce down a row back to "t".
  • aq1q - "a" for America, followed by "q" just above it, then "1" just above that, then back down a row to "q" again.
Put them all together, and you wind up with "sw2Q!@t5t" and ";p0NHY^&aq1q"--seemingly impossible to remember passwords that, at first glance, look completely random.

Here's another trick I've sometimes used for passwords... Pick a couple of words that are easy to remember, and instead of typing that exact word or phrase, click the key immediately to the right of the actual key. "letterbox" might be the most commonly used password on LbNA, but I can definitely tell you, nobody uses the password ";ryyrtnpc"! This is the word "letterbox"--but it's a very simple substitution code that replaces every letter with the one next to it on the keyboard. It can help if you're a touch-typist and don't need to look at the keyboard for this type of encoding. I just put my fingers on the keyboard where they usually go, shift my hands over one key, then type the word I'm thinking like normal. o vsm yu[r rmyotr drmyrmvrd ;olr yjod brtu wiovl;u@

You'll probably want to have a few different sequences that you use regularly. Some websites--annoyingly--don't allow symbols, so a sequence that includes symbols won't work on these websites. Other websites require a symbol in your password! So you might need to use two different types of sequences to fit both requirements, which might just be the same sequence except you use the numbers where the symbol you'd normally use would be.

Some websites might have passwords that require a minimum length and your sequence causes it to fall short--so have a plan for extending your sequence as needed, which might be nothing more than repeating the first sequence. In my sample above, I ran out of words in "Atlas Quest" to create three groupings, so my fallback was to use the last letter of the last word. (If the website name only had one word, my fall back might have been to use the last two letters of the name of the website. So my Facebook password might have been "gt5O()ki8i".

If you have multiple accounts on the same website, you might try incorporating your usename into the pattern so you can have a different password for each account on the same website.

A lot of corporate accounts often make you change your password every few weeks, which is annoying and probably causes a lot of people to write down passwords or increase the number at the end of it by 1, neither of which are particularly secure. But you might use the "pattern" trick by including the current month in your password pattern, so the last sequence of characters is the first three letters of the month name, shifted to the left on the keyboard. Or something to that effect....

You might also consider how you'll usually have to type in sequences. I will admit, the sequences I use are frustratingly annoying when I'm trying to type them into a smartphone without a proper keyboard. What symbol is above the 5? I wind up typing stuff like "#*#$&@!" which looks more like a bleeped out cuss word than my actual password, but by the time I get my password correct, I've been locked out and am cussing anyhow. =) So if it's a password you'll use a lot on a smartphone, you might design a pattern that fits your smartphone keyboard.

I also sometimes have trouble logging into my accounts when I travel internationally and am using a non-US keyboard so all of the keys are in different locations on the keyboard. I actually drew myself a "cheat-sheet" when I was hiking through France of a US keyboard layout to help me log into accounts!

I also have a couple of different sequences that I use depending on the "importance" of a website. I use a shorter, easier sequence for websites with nothing particularly valuable on it and more complex sequences for bank accounts and such.

The "pattern trick" works for stuff other than website passwords as well. I use a pattern for PINs on my credit and debit cards, so every card has a unique, random-looking PIN that I don't have to write down or memorize. If you ever find my wallet, I can assure you, "1111" or "1234" will not get any of my money out of an ATM. Nor will knowing my birthday, address, social security number, etc. You just have to start guessing, and if you do manage to get lucky and crack one of the PINs (out of 10,000 possibilities, it's actually quite possible to crack it with brute force given enough time), it won't get you into any other card.

That's the trick to creating solid, all-but-impossible-to-guess passwords that are unique to every website you use. Take a little effort to think of two or three different types of sequences you can use, and the security of your accounts increases enormously.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Password Security

Yesterday it was discovered that LbNA's database had been breached with a long list of everyone's trail names, email addresses and passwords floating around the Internet. If you haven't done so already, change your password on LbNA and--if you use that password anywhere else (including AQ!)--change the password on those other websites as well. I'm not sure if the LbNA vulnerability has been fixed yet or not, though, so don't use the same password there as you would on any other website. At least until the folks running it give us the all clear, although it's a good practice to use different passwords for every website.

Whenever there's been a security breach, it tends to make me think about security and what more I can do to secure Atlas Quest against hackers. So I spent much of the afternoon yesterday reading up about the best practices for storing passwords (along with what not to do) and realized that while AQ did a lot of things right (storing passwords using a one-way encryption algorithm--definitely good!), it.... had room for improvement as well.

I had learned that even encrypted passwords could easily be broken if the password is an easy one to begin with. People using the password "password" or "12345" is remarkably common. There are lists of the most commonly used passwords all over the Internet, and if your password is on it, you need a new password. But in any case, although AQ would encrypt a password such as "12345", if a hacker had somehow gotten a list of everyone's encrypted passwords, it would be easy to figure out which people were using common passwords because there would be a lot of users with the same encrypted password. If 50 people on AQ have the same encrypted password, it's going to be an easy one to crack!

So I changed the code to "salt" passwords. Now if 50 people use the same password, it'll come out with 50 different results in the database. A hacker won't have any idea which accounts might be easy to crack (or not). But still, if you use a bad password, the chances of being hacked go up enormously! All the encryption in the world can't fix a bad password.

There's also a technical issue for me.... since AQ stores passwords using a one-way encryption, I can't actually update the database to re-encrypt everyone's password. AQ needs to know the original password to do that! So I added a clever piece of code that intercepts a password when you log in and then re-encrypts it into the database to the more secure format. (Along with anyone else using the same password. Every person who logs in--you're helping AQ crack everyone else's password! I can't decrypt passwords, but I can check if other people are using the same password as you. Which, ironically, is the very weakness in the system I'm trying to fix. I'm using AQ's own weakness to make it stronger!)

I also got rid of the password "hint" on AQ. Some of you actually put your actual password in that (and the hint is NOT encrypted!), but while it might remind you what your password is, it can also help hackers crack into your account. So AQ no longer stores password hints. (If you tried to change your password this morning and got an error message, that's because I missed uploading a changed file that was trying to store a password hint even though the database no longer held that data. Sorry about that, but it is fixed now!)

So, that's what's up with password security on AQ. =)

Sunday, June 19, 2016

I Know What You Bought Last Summer....

There are affiliate links on pretty much all of my websites. The "big three" are Atlas Quest, Walking 4 Fun, and The Soda Can Stove--those are the websites that get the most traffic and therefore the most clicks. What happens when you click on a link is that puts a cookie on your computer to track where you clicked from, then if you buy anything from the website for the next day or so, they send me a tiny fraction of the sale price. It doesn't really add up to much, although I'm not actually sure if their terms of service allows me to post precise numbers so I'm not going to. (Sometimes companies are a bit protective in this manner. I know Google AdSense doesn't allow me to post that sort of information.)

Anyhow.... my Amazon affiliate account will also tell me what people bought. So I can see what sells well, or doesn't sell well, or whatever. I don't know who is buying this stuff, but I do know what you're buying!

And I thought it would be fun to share some of the more interesting items that people are buying.... So here's information about what people have bought in the past 30 days.

A lot of the items are stuff that you'd expect from a letterboxing website:

There are other inkpads, linoleum cutters, and obvious letterboxing paraphernalia, but a complete list isn't very interesting.

Some items that appear letterboxing related (or at least craft-oriented, which might be used for creating LTCs, logbooks, etc.) but you might not have guessed:
Most items, you can probably guess what website the link came from.... There's a certain amount of overlap for some, though, such as books about trails. They could have come from The Soda Can Stove website if they were looking to make their own soda can stoves, but they might have come from Walking 4 Fun if they were virtually walking the trail and wanted to learn more about it. Actual guidebooks about a trail, however, I suspect more likely come from The Soda Can Stove. You don't need a guidebook to virtually walk a trail--you need it to actually walk it! But stories about a trail... many people might be interested about those whether they do the trail for real or virtually.

So some people bought books about the Camino de Santiago--both the French and Spanish sections. The same person, I assume, also bought a Michelin map of France. Another person bought a Lake Tahoe and Tahoe Rim Trails book. Another person bought a map and guidebook of Vermont's Long Trail. Another person picked up the fascinating story of the Florida Keys Overseas Railway. (I'm getting tired of adding links to each of the products, so I'm skipping them here!)

A lot of backpacking gear tends to show up in the list as well, which I assume most of those links come from The Soda Can Stove:
  • 3M High Temperature Flue Tape (used to make soda can stoves)
  • Coghlan's Backpackers Trowel -- A whopping eight of those were sold! Must be a boy-scout troop heading out into the woods!
  • Klean-Strip GSL26 Denatured Alcohol (1-gallon) -- Denatured alcohol is used for fuel in soda can stoves, but even I was surprised that someone would buy a gallon of it. That's a lot of fuel. I could probably hike the entire Appalachian Trail with that much fuel! Two other people were more moderate in their purchases buying the quart-sized option.
  • Sawyer Squeezable Pouches -- Used with the Sawyer water treatment filter. I love my Sawyer Squeeze. Although I don't treat water on most of my hikes, I used this on the Arizona Trail extensively and never got sick. And trust me, that water was nasty! The squeezable part eventually failed and started leaking, though. I suspect whoever bought this had the same problem! The filter might last all-but-forever, but the container for water doesn't!
  • Solo Stove with Backup Alcohol Burner -- Obviously purchased by someone who decided that buying one for NINETY DOLLARS (!?!?!?!?) was better making one themselves for almost nothing. Heck, I'd have been willing to make him one myself for half that price!
 Then there's a random assortment of stuff which could have come from anywhere, really.....
Anyhow.... so that's some (most) of the stuff y'all bought in the past 30 days. About 60% of the purchases come through Atlas Quest. The Soda Can Stove brings in about 25% of the total, while Walking 4 Fun brings in the remaining 15%.

In all seriousness, thanks for supporting Atlas Quest!

Sunday, June 05, 2016

The Latest Last Big Update

Mobile-friendly searches!
How's that for a title? Those of you who read the message boards know I thought long and hard about what to call this update.... ;o)

ANYHOW! So this morning, I took AQ down to do a massive, enormous update! There were thousands and thousands of new, modified and even deleted code. And the end result is.... well, mostly cosmetic from your point of view.

This update was initially supposed to be a long-needed update of the message boards. That--did not happen. I started with modifying the code that moderators use to move threads then got sidetracked with a nagging smartphone display issue on that page--a page that only moderators would see!--which veered me off course into a massive update the AQ search engines.

But still, that hit upon 3 of the top 20 visited pages on AQ--which I "mobilized" to work better on smartphone. Better, as in no need to zoom in or out to navigate and read text, and no horizontal scrolling to read anything. There's always room for improvement, but it's vastly better now.

The three pages are:
  1. The Advance Search page.
  2. The search results page. (For instance, Seattle, WA.)
  3. The logbook pages
From a technical standpoint, each of them are actually multiple different pages internally. Each search type has different search options and information to display. When I updated the Advanced Search page, it has to handle all of these types of searches: All box types, traditional boxes, hitchhikers, travelers, postals, LTCs, event boxes, "other" boxes, all trackers, traditional trackers, postal trackers, LTC trackers and "other" trackers, events, groups, themes, blogs and last (but probably not least!)... trips. Of course, there is some amount of overlap between all of them, but there's a lot of stuff happening in just one page!

The code running all this stuff was old and decrepit and needed a through reboot. It's much easier to maintain, edit and update. I created over a thousand new unit tests to check the new code for issues and problems. It's a lot of good stuff... but none of it is really visible.

But you probably don't care about the technical stuff.... you probably want to know--what is new?! And the answer is... not much, really.

There are some minor modifications. The Advanced Search page no longer sets any defaults. That seemed to confuse people when someone would search for a box but it didn't show in the results because the option to hide un-clued boxes was automatically set. Now, if you want to use a setting, you have to explicitly select it. (Defaults still apply to simple searches, though.)

New premium member search option!
It also wasn't clear which options were for premium members or not, so I added some information about that. (Non-premium members, obviously, won't see this change since there are no premium member options you can use, but premium members can now see exactly which options they have access to and might reduce confusion when a non-premium member can't find the option you told them about.) Premium members have a few new search options they didn't have before like excluding boxes with the fee-area icon or compass.

I turned the blue diamond and Box of the Week search options into premium member perks. I resisted the blue diamond search option for a couple of years when I first introduced blue diamonds because they were already controversial to begin with, but eventually caved a couple of years later at repeated requests for them. But here's the thing.... I never really liked those search options either. I don't mind people taking a closer look at blue diamond boxes when selecting what boxes to hunt for, but I never really liked the idea of not even looking at boxes without blue diamonds. So I liked the idea of ditching those searches completely, but decided just to restrict the feature instead.

Note to premium members: I left some posts on the Premium Member Only board about some other hidden search options as well. ;o)

The search results page largely dumped the table layout it has always used since large tables don't fit well on smartphone at all. Now the rows "collapse" to fit the width of whatever device you are using. On a wide desktop page, it look fairly similar  to before, but I stuffed more information into it such as the last found date and the owner of the box. (Okay, the owner used to be there, but only if you hovered your mouse cursor over the box name. Now no hovering is required!)

I made the links that used to hide out in the upper-left corner of the page more prominent since it seemed like people were always overlooking them.

And the editing of current search is now at the bottom of the results rather than the top. I have to admit, I was a little torn about which way to go with it. I didn't usually edit my searches, but it's handy at the top when I did want to edit it. Fill up space with options I rarely used, or make it easily accessible for those times I did? I'm still not sure which way is best, but if you have a strong preference, do let me know. I could be convinced to change it.

That "quick edit" option is much more powerful than before as well. It'll let you remove or edit pretty much every search option that's being used! Typed the name of the box you were searching for incorrectly? You can change it from right there. You can change tags, attributes, statuses... pretty much everything! So it didn't become a giant advanced search page in itself, however, it mostly just shows options that were enabled so you can edit or remove them. If you want to enable an option that you hadn't initially used, you'll have to edit your search. (There's a button for that at both the top and bottom of the results!)

And the last major page I updated was the logbook pages. To be honest, I did a pretty lame job of it. I had to mess with it because my changes to the searches broke the logbook (which uses the search features of the Advanced Search page--almost all searches on AQ are attached to it!). The logbook pages really needed a major update as well, but mostly I just wanted to fix it just well enough to get them working again. The code there still sucks, but is at least a bit cleaner. =) Someday, I'll need to sit down and do a serious update of that section. I did tweak the layout to have the "collapsible" rows (like the search results page) so it works better on smartphones.

It does, however, include more information such as last find dates for plants which numerous people have asked for over the years. And, like the search results, will show the owner of the box without requiring one to hover their mouse cursor over the box name. (You won't see the owner name on someone's plants list, though, unless it's different than the person who planted it.)

What else... what else? Hmmm... *thinking*

Since I have pretty much re-written the entire search engine subsystem from scratch, it affects a lot of other places on AQ. Widgets on My Page use the search engine, apps use it--even registering a new account uses it! (AQ automatically creates a few favorite searches based on the person's location.) The changes broke code all over the website! I spend solid weeks testing and re-testing changes with thousands of tests, but there are undoubtedly bugs that slipped through. Several have already been found, reported and fixed throughout the day, and I doubt that's the last of them.

I checked out the changes on Firefix, Chorme, Internet Explorer, Opera, Microsoft Edge and Safari and as far as I can tell, it all seems to work well with those major browsers. I've tried them with my desktop and my smartphone, and it seems to work well. But there are so many devices and sizes and such out there, I can hardly claim it's comprehensive. If you see a page that doesn't appear to format correctly, let me know. (Be sure to include what kind of device you are using and the browser!)

So keep your eyes open! If there's something that looks like a problem, let me know! =)

I probably forgot something important, but that's all I can think of for now. Happy trails!

-- Ryan

Monday, April 25, 2016

All About Density Maps

Want to know what a density map looks like before AQ makes
it all nice and pretty for you? This is it! =) Each state (and DC) has a different
palette index so AQ only needs to change one color for each state 
rather than dealing with the complex boundaries of the state. (I gave each
state a different color to make it easier for ME to see the boundaries,
but all of the colors are replace dynamically while generating the map
so it doesn't matter what the colors are at this point. Canada, Mexico,
Caribbean islands and the ocean are the only colors that don't get changed..
Then an outline of the states with the AQ logo is applied on top
to give it a polished look. Then AQ prints what map you're viewing--
who the map is for and the "action" (see below) at the top.
And presto! This ugly thing turns into a beautiful density map! =)
I teased in my last post that I had a lot more to write about those new density maps on the profile page, and here's my follow-up! For those who've been sleeping the last few days, I added a new premium member perk which allows premium members to see density maps of their plants and finds (in the United States) on their profile page. Very cool stuff! =)

But it's so much more! You can actually include them pretty much on any website you want. It's just an image, after all. You can post them to Facebook, or blogs, or... well, anywhere you can normally upload images. The URL, at it's most basic, is:

This displays a density map of all boxes listed in the United States on Atlas Quest. You can customize the map with a few parameters. It helps if you have at least a little technical background because to change it requires some URL manipulations. There's no page to set the parameters automatically. (Perhaps someday, but it's not a high priority for me.) But URL manipulation is easy and opens up a whole lot of new options...
  • memberId: Specifies the member ID of the person whose plants and finds you want to create a density map for. You can find your member ID at the top-right corner of your profile page. And since this is a premium member only perk, it only works for members who are premium members. (You'll just see an error message saying that density maps are a premium member perk if you try to point to a non-premium member.)
  • color: A 6-digit hexadecimal number for the color to use on the map in the form rrggbb. All of the shades of color are based off this color and become progressively darker the larger percentage of plants/finds are in the state. Generally speaking, using bright, light colors works best since shades only get darker. If you use a dark color (like black), you just get... black. For everything. 50 Shades of Black. (Ha!) =)
  • action: Can be set to plants, finds, attempts, owns or carves. If none is specified, it default to plants. So yes, this means you can display density maps of your attempts, boxes where you're the officially listed owner, or boxes with stamps that you've carved. I don't display them on the profile page because I don't think they're as interesting and I don't think most of you are as interested in them, but the option is available!
  • width: The maximum width (in pixels) that the map should be. It defaults to 600 when none is provided.
  • height: The maximum height (in pixels) that the map should be. It defaults to 600 when none is provided.
So! Here are a few more examples of maps that you can generate with a little URL manipulation:

My carves, with a reddish color (ff8888), set to a width of 300 pixels.;color=ff8888;action=carves;width=300


My attempts, with a purplish color (ff88ff), set to a width of 400 pixels.;color=ff88ff;action=attempts;width=400

Boxes I own, with a greenish color (ff88ff), set to a width of 500 pixels.;color=88ff88;action=owns;width=500

BUT! That's not all.... Those are all parameters this feature was specifically designed to handle. These parameters are unique to this feature and this URL. There's a heck of a lot more parameters it supports, however, because these maps are really just an advanced search that spits out its output in a very unique manner. Almost all of the parameters you can use for advanced searches also applies to these maps as well! You can create maps of your active plants. Or all of your finds that you've tagged yellow. Or all boxes you've found that have the word "flower" in it. Or all boxes you've found that are a mental puzzle. Or whatever!

Like I said... these maps.... they're nothing more than an advanced search with a very special output!  (However, the mapping code isn't smart enough to label your map with all of your search options--just who the map is for and what action is being used.)

So, let's take a look at a map of my active plants still in existence:

To display only my active plants, I add status=1 to the URL;status=1;color=88ff88;action=plants

This map is a more interesting one.... compared to the map of all of my plants, this one has a lot more holes in it. Particularly in those states where I only had one or two plants to my name to start with. Those go missing, and poof--I lose the state!

Or maybe look at my plants that have the mental puzzle icon involved. Which means setting the attribs tag to 128. (You'll probably want to run an advances search and just use the same parameters it sends you to. That's how I got these numbers!);attribs=128;color=ffff88;action=plants

So there you go.... all sorts of map options you probably didn't even realize you had! The only advanced search options that don't work is the location (it'll ignore whatever you specify and change the location to "all boxes in the United States") and anything in the "participants" section (the owner, carver, finders, etc.) which is overwritten by the memberId and action parameters. All other advanced search options work! =)

And you might be thinking... but Ryan! I want to add a map of my active plants to my profile too! How do I do that?!

And... well, you'll have to fall back on the old hack of including the URL in the free-flowing thoughts section of your profile. I've gone ahead and done that to my profile so you can see an example of it in action. It's separated from the other maps, which isn't ideal, but I didn't have the time or inclination to set up a whole range of all possible map options that I figured most people wouldn't be interested in. I picked the two that I felt most people would be interested in and everything is an advanced feature. =)

Technical note: It's entirely okay to use & between parameters rather than the semicolon that I used in my examples. Semicolons cause me less trouble than the special character & (where I often need to convert it into "&" in HTML), so I generally make a habit of using semicolons on AQ even though it's not normal on other websites and, in fact, wouldn't work at all on most other websites. =)

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Major Profile Update!

Density map of my finds.
So... any of you trying to get onto AQ this evening might have seen it was down for maintenance for about a half hour. As per usual, there were a number of minor tweaks here and there, but the main thrust of this particular update and where you'll see the most changes was the profile page. It's the 13th most-visited page on AQ, you know, and hasn't really undergone any major renovations since Atlas Quest launched in 2004!

The primary reason for the renovation was to make it smartphone friendly. If you check out that page on your smartphone, it's a heck of an improvement! Much neater and requires no zooming in and out to navigate.

I remembered more than once people wanting to know how to update the profile of a sub-account. The answer previously had been: Log into the account! There was no way to edit the profile of a sub-account from your primary account, and creating such a feature was never a high priority for me because it was so easy just to log into the sub-account directly. I didn't add the feature when I first created profiles because sub-accounts didn't even exist, and adding such a feature retroactively would have taken quite a bit of time and effort, and I judged it to be not worth the effort for the few people who, on rare occasions, might use the feature.

But this time, I was already neck-deep in pretty much rewriting all of the code running this subsystem from scratch, and adding the feature at the same time was relatively quick and easy. So presto! You can now edit sub-accounts directly from the primary account! (As an extra perk for admins--we also have the power to edit anyone's profile without having to log into their accounts. It doesn't happen often, but it has happened when people have posted inappropriate material in it.)

Anyhow, for those of you who use sub-accounts a lot, you're gonna love that change! =)

And for premium members... there's an entirely new section on your profile for density maps of your plants and finds. This feature was actually a lot of fun for me to build because I found it rather challenging and pushing my abilities. =) It also took me more time to build that new feature than the complete rewrite of the rest of the profile subsystem!

A density map of my plants over the years! Just 11 more states to go!
People have been adding maps to the free-flowing thoughts section of their profile for years of a picture of the United States with the states filled in for places they've boxed. I figured a "native" map linked directly to the AQ database would be quite a bit simpler to use and maintain. AQ could even go one better than just filling in states where you've boxed, but even use different shades of a color to show how many letterboxes you've planted/found in a given state. The darker the color, the more boxes you've found and planted.

I will point out a couple of caveats to be aware of, however. First, AQ only knows the located of listed finds--and even then only if it's not a mystery box. If your only finds in a state are of the unlisted variety, it's going to show as empty. Likewise, the density maps are only the densities based on your finds of listed boxes.

Second, it's not unusual for boxes planted at an event to later move out of state for replanting. Ideally, people would just retire the original listing and relist it fresh, but that doesn't always happen so you may end up with states that you've "letterboxed" in but have never actually been to. It is possible to fix this discrepancy by adding a custom location to the boxes of where you originally found the boxes. AQ counts states based on your custom locations first, then falls back to the location "officially" listed on the box.

On a related note, it's also possible to get mystery boxes you've found counted towards the correct state by adding a custom location for where you found the box.

And, not really a feature per se, but I also added a Google/Amazon ad at the bottom of the profile for non-premium members. I know nobody likes ads, but I did add them to the bottom of the page where I hope they won't be too obtrusive. It's not like you wouldn't notice it on your own and it doesn't really need any explanation--I just wanted to acknowledge it was there. Whether you can't afford a premium membership or just don't want one, I figure anyone using AQ regularly probably wants to support the website in some manner, and that's another way of doing so.

Which pretty much sums up the major changes to the profile page. There are a few minor things as well (you can rotate your signature stamp image if your smartphone uploads it in an incorrect orientation!), some minor formatting changes (which you might not see until your browser re-caches the CSS file), and such.

I'll post more about the density maps later, though, because there's a lot more to write about those outside of the profile page. But I'll save that for another day....

Completely off topic... there's also a new event icon to represent events at "places of learning" (schools, libraries, museums, etc.)