Sunday, March 22, 2009

Menubars, etc.

Some of you might have noticed a change in the menubars. Sorry for any trouble it caused. The broken links were just plain sloppy of me. One of those things that seemed so simple, I didn't even bother to check them all. *slapping self*

I also assumed that most people, when they woke up in the morning and logged in, their browser would actually pull up the latest changes to the CSS pages. Alas, it seems that many browsers continued to used cached versions. If the menubar at the bottoms of the pages looks incorrect, try clicking the refresh button on your browser a couple of times. That should fix it for most people.

I have tested the menu bars on IE6, IE7, IE8, Firefox, Opera, Chrome, and Safari browsers, so it should work on all of those unless, perhaps, you're using a really old version of one of those browser. If it breaks on cell phones, PDAs, and other handheld devices--in my defense, I've never officially supported those types of devices, and never claimed I would. If you are able to surf AQ on such devices, that's a nice bonus. I do try to keep the HTML and CSS relatively simple to improve the chances that AQ will continue to work on such devices, but I make no promises about how usable or not they are, and different handheld devices will have different capabilities. Some may work, some may not.

Please do not ask me to fix AQ if you use a browser I do not officially support. I have no way to test on such browsers. The ones listed above are the ones I have ready access to and are the ones that about 99% of members on Atlas Quest use. If there is a problem with an officially supported browser, please do let me know so I can investigate the matter.

If you do not like the expanded bottom menu, you can set your theme to to get rid of the submenus.

You'll also notice that I removed a few links from the menubar. Since I created Atlas Quest, the menu bars have been a one size fits all deal. I added links that really weren't critical because I thought a significant number of people might find them useful. As the number of members on Atlas Quest grows, however, the one size fits all style of handling things becomes increasingly less ideal.

So starting today, you can add your own menubar links. Create links to your Gmail account, or to LbNA. Create links for newly listed boxes or some of your favorite searches. Make links to anywhere that suits your needs. You won't be able to change or delete the default menu options, but you can add as many new menu items to any of the submenus of your choice.

If you want to recreate some of the default links I took out, the links are:

What's New?:;gTimespan=week;gStatus=0;gCountryId=0;gSort=2
My Tags:;gSort=1;gStatus=0;gTags=255
My Watches:;gSort=1;gStatus=512

I had taken the My Contacts link out, figuring to let those who make use of the feature regularly add it as a personal option, but decided to reconsider and added it back as a default. You won't need to add it yourself if you want that link after all. =)

I've never heard of a website that allows you to add your own menubar choices. Nobody ever asked me for such an option either. But the theory behind it is a lot like the new My Page improvements. It let's you customize your experience on Atlas Quest to a degree that I've never seen another website allow. (I'm not claiming that AQ actually is the first website to do this--just that it's the first one I know about to allow this.) So load up that menubar with all your favorite links, and I hope you enjoy the changes! =)

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Mission Statements

I've heard that every good business has a mission statement. I've never had an official mission statement for Atlas Quest, but I do have specific ideas about what Atlas Quest is about.

In my last blog entry, a couple of anonymous posters (chickens!) called me on my stand against supporting rock stashing on Atlas Quest while happily supporting other "non-traditional boxes" and off-topic subjects such as a television board. I did enjoy the pun about hitting "rock bottom," though. =)

But there's a certain logic in my mind that makes it sensible, though on the surface, I can understand how the distinctions are confusing.

To me, Atlas Quest is a website of letterboxers, for letterboxers. It is a letterboxing community. It didn't start that way (the motto at the top of every page used to say, "A Letterboxing Website," which I've since changed to, "A Letterboxing Community," to better reflect the fact.)

I think of it like a bar where 'everybody knows your name.' We're all letterboxers. That's what we all have in common. But it doesn't mean that's the only thing we have an interest in either. While hanging out the bar, we might talk about the weather, or make predictions about Lost, or talk about cheese, or discuss the merits of crunchy Cheetos vs. puffy Cheetos.

It's what communities do. We talk, we chat, we get to know each other better. Atlas Quest helps facilitate this sort of introduction. Often times, I feel like we're part of one large family, each with our little quirks. We have all sorts of characters from the stern and serious to the silly and absurd. It's a lounge, though. You can talk about almost anything you want openly and freely. Even if the topic of conversation isn't about letterboxing, it's still a conversation made up of JUST other letterboxers. It's the thread that ties us together.

Granted, I realize that not everyone is a big fan of knitting, and therefore not everyone wants to read about letterboxers that knit. And that's fine--I've provided options to help those who are not interested in such chat to ignore those boards or threads that do not interest them.

But when it comes to supporting features, every feature I create needs to have some sort of tie in to letterboxing. To help improve communication between letterboxers, to help support their habits, and in a nutshell, to support letterboxers.

Which is why I do support LTCs, postals, cooties, and other non-traditional boxes. No, they aren't "real" letterboxes, and you'd be hard pressed to find anyone who thinks they are. But they're all things that have one thing in common: Only letterboxers do them. You don't find a lot of geocachers who join Atlas Quest just to use the postal feature for geocaches. While it may not be real letterboxing, it is still an activity that every single person who participates in is an actual letterboxer. I could off-load such things to another website. Take postals, for instance. I could set up a website that's dedicated to all things postal, but every one of the people who use the site would likely be letterboxes. So I keep the feature "in house." It's more efficient. It's more efficient for me to develop and maintain the website. It's more efficient and convenient for those letterboxers who want to participate in such offshoots.

And they all involve stamps. To me, a stamp is the heart of a letterbox. So while a postal box isn't a real letterbox, it still makes use of rubber stamps, and it's an activity that only letterboxers participate in.

Virtuals are an interesting case. If I were implementing Atlas Quest from scratch today, I likely would not include support for it. The reason they do exist is more historical than anything. At the time, all of those original virtuals had stamps and original pieces of artwork. It was an activity that only letterboxers participated in. It met my guidelines for supporting it--it used stamps, and it was an activity exclusively done by letterboxers.

Virtuals have largely been gutted of their original intent, using generic photos taken off the Internet. It's still an activity exclusively done by letterboxers, but that's only because it's on a letterboxing website. On a dedicated "" website, one could probably suck a lot of non-letterboxers into the activity. At this point, virtuals really don't fit the mission statement I have in my mind. They did when I originally added support for them, however, and that's why they're still here today. A historical footnote, essentially.

As for rock stashing--I won't support that type simply because it has nothing to do with letterboxing. There are no stamps involved. It's not the type of activity that only letterboxers would be interested in. It doesn't fit the mission statement. It's the type of activity that needs a dedicated website. One that's made of rock stashers for rock stashers.

Well, in my mind, the distinction makes sense to me. *shrug* =)

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Rock Stashing

I've been thinking about rock stashing a bit more, and it almost embarrasses me to admit it, but the idea is kind of growing on me. The thing I really like about it is the one thing I like least about letterboxes--the logbooks, stamps, and plastic containers that often times end up becoming litter. More than once I've picked up battered up boxes, shredded Zip-Locks and pieces of logbooks from a destroyed box for proper disposal. Glad that at least that box wouldn't become a permanent source of litter cluttering up the environment because of letterboxing.

And I have to admit to feeling a bit annoyed at the occasional but regular posts about 'rehiding boxes better than you found it,' ruined logbooks, Lock-n-Locks sealed with the lid upside-down, etc. There are (understandably) a lot of emotions tied up in a letterbox, but I've heard it so many times before, it gets old. Rock stashing eliminates all those problems right out of the starting gate! Granted, rocks could still be stolen or go missing, but litter and ruined logbooks or stamps being traded out by geocachers--so many regular ongoing issues. Gone. Sounds kind of dreamy to me.

This afternoon, I walked around Alki beach, picking up some trash along the way, thinking about all the litter. Found a few Zip-Locks. I have no reason to suspect that any of them came from letterboxes, but what if they did? I'm sure some of my boxes--many planted in far-away locations that I may never visit again--will eventually become nothing more than trash. I pick up far more trash than I've ever left as 'litterboxes,' so I still feel good about leaving this planet better off than how I came into it--but I still feel that nagging doubt that some of my boxes could become litter.

So the more I think about rock stashing, the more the idea appeals to me. It's an idea that should be supported and cultivated. Originally I poo-pooed the idea since I didn't want to implement it myself, but realistically, it seems doubtful that anyone else would create the site that rock stashing needs.

So I find myself thinking about making a dedicated rock stashing website. Adding it as another 'type' of box on Atlas Quest would be far quicker and easier, but frankly, it urks my sense of order to add something completely unrelated to letterboxing to Atlas Quest. The concept is new and different enough to deserve a dedicated site of its own.

But that thought gives me a sense of dread. Running and maintaining two websites? Ugh! It wouldn't be so bad if I could reuse large amounts of code for both websites, so the message boards (for instance) would only need to be implemented once, and it would run message boards on both websites. I'd have to refactor a lot of existing code to make it work properly for multiple websites, but in theory, it could significantly reduce the duplicataion of effort between two such sites. And once the code is refactored to be reused across multiple websites, creating additional websites (if the time or inclination was there) would be significantly easier in the future.

So I find myself thinking about rock stashing. Thought I should at least find one, but I'm not actually sure there are any. I did a search for 'rock stashing' and the first link to come up was an article title Rock-stashing chimpanzee shows humanlike planning. Not really what I had in mind. Someone posted a message to the website at, but it seems to be focused on New England. (Those FAQs made me laugh, though.)

I've never painted a rock before, so I did some googling and found a plethora of information about painting rocks. Learn How to Paint Animals on Rocks has some amazing examples, but those looks rather intimidating. I'd probably want to start with something easier. =) I was pleased to see the comment about books containing "patterns that can be copied." I don't consider myself much of an artist, but I can copy and trace well enough.

But then I found these tutorials about rock painting:

Painting a Basket of Pansies
Written In Stone Project
Valentine Love Bugs Project
Stone Cactus Project

Those are pretty cool! And they actually look easy enough that I think I could do them. Ugh, I so did not need to learn about this hobby.....

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Crunchy Cheetos Are Better Than Puffy Cheetos

I'm on my way back from a whirlwind week in the Netherlands. I'll try to post a little about those adventures at some point, but I have a lot of e-mail and messages to catch up on. I tried to keep up since I did have regular Internet access, but it never seemed like it was enough time to catch up with everything.

I'm at the airport in Philly now, waiting for a flight to Seattle, catching up on message boards. Which seem to be focused on rock stashing, another LbNA vs. AQ debate (which I thank everyone for keeping civil, even if no new ground is being turned up), and wassa's surprise theme (he didn't even give ME any warning about that one!--I had to read the about page to figure out what was going on myself!)

But my favorite post so far is the Cheetos post--which is better, crunchy or puffy? Anyone with a sophisticated pallet such as myself knows that the crunchy Cheetos are better. I'll even stand on a trash can and say that if it helps me be heard better. Crunchy is best! =) Why would you just want to eat air?

Amanda will deny it--she's a puffy girl--but she also thinks Jack In the Box is "low class" which kind of ruins her credibility in my book. =)

As for rock stashing, I don't plan to support it. Granted, things like virtuals, postals, and such aren't real letterboxes, but at least they still have stamps involved. Frankly, it sounds like something wassamatta_u would have made up (never trust a man that wears giant boxers--that's what my mom always warned against!), except that I can see the IP addresses and they didn't match.

I planted three boxes while in the Netherlands. Hope some of you get a chance to find some of them! (Especially the Pancakes with Windmills box. That place is like walking through a living fairy tale!)

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Trials and Errors

Last night was a pretty rotten night. It all started with that "backup" problem I mentioned earlier. I won't get into the technical details (I promise!), but to make a long story short, I needed to update some of the software on the server to make the backups with the new hosting provider work properly.

It didn't go well.....

I hate updating this stuff. It's not really stuff I know much about. If I still worked at Intel, I'd have someone else install it for me who knows what they're doing. =) I can generally update MY code easily enough. I know how it works, what it needs, yadda, yadda, yadda. Updating stuff like the operating system, web server, database server.... The stuff nightmares are made from. Ask Amanda. Apparently, I was even talking in my sleep about it a couple of night ago, much to her annoyance. =)

It's been a couple of years since I've had to update some of the server's software. Things still aren't completely back up and running normally. (Try going to if you want proof of that.) So I'll be taking AQ down for probably several hours trying to pound out the rest of the issues this update has caused. Sorry for the inconvenience.

In completely unrelated news, while waiting for the midnight hour last night to take AQ down, I played around with some stats just to see what I could do. Check out your My Statistics page, near the bottom. (This page is for premium members only.) Near the bottom, if you have at least five finds recorded on AQ, will be displayed the total number of miles you've traveled to get all your finds.

It's not a perfect number, and there is some "fudging" involved to account for finds of mystery boxes or finds of unlisted boxes, but it should be a relatively accurate (if not precise) account for the number of miles you had to travel to get all of the boxes you've found.

Me? Well, I've traveled about 292,070 miles to nab all my finds. Amanda, the flight attendent, has pulled in over 800,000 miles of traveling. It's rather database intensive to run the numbers for every single member on Atlas Quest, but I'd say there's a better than average chance that Amanda holds the record for most miles traveled. If you have more, I'd be very curious to know it. =)

I should also point out, my list of finds isn't actually complete. I never did get around to recording the boxes I found while thru-hiking last year. The miles traveled also doesn't account for the traveling you've done to plant boxes or attend events. (Perhaps future updates!)

But it's still a fun number to look at. =)

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Apparently, I've been a bad, bad boy....

Some of you might have heard me eluding to problems with What is, you ask? It's a domain name I own but generally haven't had much use for. I bought it with the theory that I'd rather own it and not need it, than to want it and later find out I couldn't have it.

If you do go to the website, you'll see that it is indeed a real, honest-to-goodness website. It's not very useful for anything, but it does serve one important use for me: backups. Each night, Atlas Quest dumps the database into files. Backups are extremely important for anything important because computers aren't perfect. Hard drives crash, things happen.

So I don't really want to store the backups ON the main Atlas Quest server. If something should happen to that server, not only would the website go down, but the backups for it would be lost as well! Definitely not a satisfactory solution.

So that's where came into play. I picked a cheap web hosting provider. To make things work, they kind of like to have a domain name to work with. So I "sacrificed" That account is hosted on a completely different server, in a completely different state, by a completely different company. And each night, after Atlas Quest backups up the database for the day, it FTPs everything that needs to be backed up to

This includes the nightly backups of the database, along with photos that were uploaded during the day--including calendar submissions which get their own special place.

I'm now storing about 6 gigs of data at that location. Which isn't really a whole lot. When I signed up, I was given a disk quota of 10 gigs. I knew I'd outgrow the space eventually, but I figured I still had at least another year or two before I had to worry about it.

Until last week, when the company hosting my account sent me an e-mail saying that it appeared I was using the account to backup data, and accounts were not allowed to be used for that purpose. Actually, they said I could not back up data that was "personal and non-web-related." It came as rather a surprise--I don't remember seeing that clause in the terms of serice when I signed up a couple of years back.

I don't really consider the data "personal" and it's very much "web-related," so I tried talking them into letting it slide. But alas, no, they have standards or something and the terms of service must be complied with. I have to get rid of the data from their servers. I've been a bad boy, and they no longer want me around. =(

So, I'm in the process of setting up a new system for backing up data. Turns out, there's this interesting concept called "cloud computing," and it'll actually cut my backup expenses by about 80%. And there's no limit to the amount of data I can back up, so that won't be a concern. (They will charge more as I use more space, however, but the rates are quite reasonable.)

The new backup location doesn't require me to "use up" a domain name, so will once again be free for me to use and abuse as I wish. I'll probably move it to the main AQ server and just have it redirect to At least until I find something better to do with the domain.....

You realize you folks have uploaded over 60,000 images to Atlas Quest? Some of them have been deleted over the years, of course, but there are a lot of images. Far more than I ever imagined I'd have to worry about less than five years after introducing Atlas Quest. Each image is stored three times--a thumbnail version, a "normal" version, and a "large" version. Most of the large versions I've been deleting from the main AQ server because of space concerns and because most of them are all that important, but the backups still had the original large versions. (For those clues that weren't properly marked as a "photo clue," that's how I was able to retrieve the large versions of the photo.) So with 60,000 images uploaded, times three for each of the three versions of it stored--that's 180,000 images.

I've at the library now (broadband connection--you don't deal with 180,000 images on a dial-up connection!)--and have been here for four hours. So far, I've retrieved 43,200 images. About 10,000 images per hour. At this rate, I'll need 18 hours here to get all of the images off of the backup site. But I'm still being productive. As I take data off the old backup site, I'm working on code to get Atlas Quest set up and working with the new backup location. FTP won't cut this time around. I'm learning how to get and set secure web pages and learning the API the new hosting provider has for storing and retieving files.

Which is all "back of the house" stuff that none of you will even notice. =) That's okay--I don't expect anyone to notice. In this case, if I do my job RIGHT, it means you WON'T notice. The one thing some observant members might notice is that will no longer be an official stand-alone site like it is now. But it's not a site you'd normally visit anyhow.

But I do find the sheer number of photos I'm having to deal with somewhat astounding. It used to be I could copy them all to my personal computer in mere minutes. When I first started backing up images and the database, it filled perhaps 100M of space. Atlas Quest has come a long way since those humble orgins, and just another example of the tweaks and modifications necessary to keep AQ running smoothly despite the increase in size and usage. =)

Oh, Canada! Oh, Canada!

Do you realize how many hours I spent making maps for the United States? At one point, I could close my eyes and still see the latent images flashing across my brain. I had nightmares. And I'm man enough to admit it--I cried. Okay, maybe I didn't cry, but at times, I wanted to. What did I get myself into?

I started working on a Canadian version of the map, but gave up in disgust. Not to mention that I didn't have any decent Canadian maps to work off of. I did throw in a map for Mexico--but only because I didn't break the country down into its individual administrative areas. One map! Which is relatively quick and easy, all things considered.

But Canada had all those provinces... Thirteen of them. Not as bad as the United States, but about thirteen more than I wanted to do. So I set the maps aside for another day.

Along came a day, about a month ago, and I picked up the map project once again. Tonight (this morning--it's 3:10am now here in Seattle as I type this), I finally finished Canada. I'm pretty sick of maps once again. =) Not so bad that I'm having nightmares and still seeing maps when I close my eyes, but ugh, map-making isn't the simple project you might think it is. And boy howdy, I tell you, I have a new-found respect for the work Der Mad Stamper put into the LbNA website! I bet the jerk had an easy to do it, though. Can't imagine he wasted as much time on the project as I did. ;o)

I still harbor dreams of supporting the entire world with maps, one country at a time. Perhaps I'll even finish before kick that great bucket in the sky. =) Yeah, not likely, but what can I say? I like to dream big!

Anyhow, for your mapping pleasure, enjoy Canada!

-- Ryan

PS. There are only six boxes of mini pencils left. If you're interested, it's still not to late! But I doubt they'll last much longer. Now or never! =)

Monday, March 02, 2009

Pencils, pencils, who wants some pencils?

It's been awhile since I ordered the popular AQ mini pencils. Honestly, I haven't had much incentive--I've always given them away for free or sold them at a loss. (And that's when they aren't stolen when they're delivered to the front door, but strangely, those thieves opened the box first and only took half of the 1440 pencils that were in it. I'm still curious what they needed the 720 pencils they did take for...) The more I sold, the more I lost. It's not a very good business to get into.

But for a limited time, I have some pencils for sale once again. Since I'm keeping one box for myself, that leaves a total of 39 boxes (144 pencils per box) available for those who want to order one. When they're gone, I do not plan to reorder anymore (at least not anytime in the immediate future), so if you want them, now's the time to order!

Each pencil says, "Get your next clue at" Boring, yes. Informative--some people might say so. =) The idea being, of course, that they would go within a letterbox so people would see the message when they found the box. Probably intended for people such as geocachers or other would-be mugglers who may not have ever heard of letterboxing. On a practical note, it's not adviseable to put these pencils inside ZipLock bags since it could punch a hole in them. And come on, they're pencils. They don't need to stay dry anyhow.

If you're interested, though, get into the AQ Marketplace and put your order in. They're $10/box (premium members get 10% off--just $9/box), and shipping is $2/box. Now that I'm an officially registered business with the state of Washington, I'll also be collecting sales tax for any orders shipped to any destination within Washington. Sorry about that. (Now don't you guys wish I moved to some other state?)

Speaking of sales tax--I had to update a lot of code to support annoying little state taxes such as sales tax, and there could very well be bugs in the system. Wassa kindly tested out a California shipping address so non-Washington destinations seems to be working well at this point. I'm not sure if the sales tax code could break, though. If it does, don't worry--I'll get it fixed. =)

Happy trails!