Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Looking Forward....

What ideas are floating through my head regarding AQ next year? Actually, I don't really have many. Oh, there's a long list of things I want to do, but I don't really know which features I'll work on next usually until I actually decide to start working on them. The photo gallery really needs a complete re-do from the ground up. That would be a major undertaking, and I'd want to make sure I have at least several months available before I start to tackle that beast. There are some tutorials I'd like to create. I'm always creating new themes, but I couldn't tell you which ones I'm most likely to do. (Well, the state themes I've already committed to, but beyond that, I have ideas... but no idea which ones I'll actually use.)

I also want to start creating more LTCs. Those LTCs many of you send in for the Majorie's Potpourri are quite inspirational, and I want to do stuff like that! Maybe 2012 will be the year I get down and start being more creative. =)

I also have it in my head that I want to develop http://www.atlasquest.mobi into a mobile-specific website. I've played around with it a little on my develop machine already, but largely abandoned my efforts when Aiphid created Box Radar. Suddenly, I'm getting no requests at all for mobile apps anymore. =) But I find the idea an intellectual challenge and an intriguing one at that, so I find myself still wanting to pursue it. Additionally, I like the idea of limiting myself to the public AQ API that those Android and iPhone apps use. I kind of feel like I neglect that API too much because I don't actually use it myself. My motivation increases dramatically when I use a feature myself! =) It would be an excellent way to test my own API and get a user's point of view for it. So perhaps I'll run with that feature in 2012.

Or perhaps not? Like I said, I don't really know. I tend to work on whatever hits me as most interesting, or best use of my time, or whatever floats my boat. I'll finish a major upgrade, then I scroll through old, bookmarked posts with suggestions and work on those for awhile. They're usually relatively quick and easy changes--and after a couple of weeks of this, I'll settle on the next "big thing" I want to work on and start working.

And perhaps I'll wind up building a feature I haven't even thought of us. Or I'll finally figure out a solution to a problem that prevents me from implementing a feature I really want. (That whole custom location feature I've wanted for years but couldn't figure out how to pull off until this year!)

One thing I know will happen--the number of regression tests for Atlas Quest will increase substantially! But that's not something you'll see directly. =)

One other thing I know: I'll be in Northern California on May 20th, from 6:26 PM through 6:31 PM. Which is actually something of a surprise to me--when I woke up this morning, I assumed I'd be somewhere in Northern Spain during that time. =) Yep, for those five minutes, I'll do just about everything in my power to be there in Northern California.

In an annular eclipse, the moon doesn't quite cover the
entire surface of the sun so you wind up with a
"ring of fire."
I learned just this afternoon that there's an annular eclipse that runs directly through Northern California, which is a relatively easy place for me to travel to (as long as I'm not in Northern Spain!). Annular eclipses are pretty darned awesome and an extremely rare astronomical event, and they follow a very narrow path only a few hundred miles wide. Check out the entire eclipse path at http://eclipse.gsfc.nasa.gov/SEgoogle/SEgoogle2001/SE2012May20Agoogle.html. Most of you in Nevada will also be able to watch it, along with a large portion of Utah and New Mexico. I've already listed an event for anyone who wants to join me for this amazing astronomical spectacle. I'm still trying to work out an exact viewing location, but I'll likely be within an hour's drive of Redding, CA. =)

But what's an annular eclipse? It's a lot like a total solar eclipse.... except that the moon isn't quite big enough to completely cover the sun. Due to the slightly elliptical orbits of the moon around the earth and the earth around the sun, their apparent sizes change slightly. Sometimes the moon can completely cover the surface of the sun--a total solar eclipse--but when it doesn't, it's an annular eclipse and you'll see a ring of fire completely encircling the moon. Amanda and I saw one in Panama several years ago and it was absolutely spectacular! Well worth a view if you live anywhere near the eclipse path! *nodding* The next annular eclipse in the United States doesn't happen until 2023 so if you miss this one, you'll have quite a wait to see the next one. (Full disclosure: There actually is a total solar eclipse that cuts through the US from coast to coast in 2017, but your next opportunity to see a "ring of fire" around the moon won't be until 2023.)

If you want to watch a transit of Venus,
do it on June 5th. Your next opportunity to
measure the size of the solar system
doesn't come until 2117!
There's another rare astronomical event happening on June 5th--Venus transits across the sun for the last time in over a hundred years. If you miss this transit, you'll never see another one in your lifetime. The Venus transit across the sun actually has some historical significance--measuring the time it took Venus to cross the sun's surface was the first time scientists were able to calculate the size of our solar system. For many years they knew the relative ratios of the distance from the earth to each of the planets--but they didn't know the absolute distances. To be honest, I'm not exactly sure how measuring the time that Venus transits the sun can be used to calculate the size of the solar system, but I still think it's pretty darned cool! On a side note, if you want to tell your friends that you helped measure the size of the ENTIRE SOLAR SYSTEM, they're apparently making an app to do that. =)

So you can be pretty certain I'll be looking at the sun during this time, but where I view it from is a lot more flexible than the annular eclipse. In fact, I'll probably just walk out on our deck to watch it. =) To view the entire transit, though, I might make an effort to go up to Alaska. (It's either that or fly to China, Japan, Australia, or New Zealand, but those are more difficult and expensive for me to travel to!)

I want to see these two astronomical events so bad that I decided to postpone my Camino de Santiago thru-hike until the autumn instead of doing it in the spring like I originally intended. =) Neither of these events would be visible from Spain! I plan to take two or three months hiking through France, Spain, and (maybe) Portugal, undoubtedly an epic adventure that you'll be reading all about on Another Long Walk. =) Which really has absolutely nothing to due with Atlas Quest, but fortunately all of the lodging and churches along the way each of their own stamps so I'll still be doing plenty of stamping along the way. =) And probably plant a few boxes as well....

Speaking of the camino, a.k.a. The Way of St. James, there's a movie out in theaters now called The Way starring Martin Sheen and Emilio Estevez. Martin Sheen hikes the camino, carrying the ashes of his son (played by Emilio Estevez before he becomes ashes!). It was filmed on location on the very trail I intend to hike--and it's a very entertaining film to boot. I'm not saying that just because I intend to hike the trail! =) This film didn't give me the idea to hike the trail--I first got the idea to hike the trail from reading The Journey in Between by Keith Foskett, a hiker I met while thru-hiking the PCT. (I'm still waiting to get the PCT book he's in the process of writing!)

So those are some of the things I'm looking forward to in 2012. More features and improvements to AQ--even though I don't know which features I'll actually implement as of yet. And two rare astronomical events, and a thru-hike in Europe. Yep, 2012 is looking good!

Share your plans for 2012 in the comments! =)

Monday, December 26, 2011

Reflecting Back and Looking Ahead

While 2011 may not officially be done just yet, it's safe to say that the bulk of it is. =)  And it's that time of year to reflect back on the past year and start looking ahead to next year. I'm not one to make New Year's Resolutions (unless "surviving through the end of the year" counts as a resolution), but it doesn't mean I have no ideas about what I'll be doing in the upcoming year. =)

But first, looking back on AQ, I see three major accomplishments and improvements that I'm absolutely thrilled about. The first and most difficult was figuring out a solution to how people could list custom locations for letterboxes. In the end, I spent months developing that feature, and improved numerous additional features that the changes touched. The geocoders were upgraded and improved, trip planner searches, area searches, linear searches and rectangular searches were expanded to work with events, blogs, and and even virtuals. The trip planner was updated to support much more detailed route information--a significant improvement, albeit an incomplete one. Maps showing the coordinates used now showed up, and listing custom locations that geocoders can't find was significantly improved. And even after I got the custom locations feature up and running, I then had to go in and carefully remove all of the old code that AQ used to use.

But darn it, the update worked, and life was good. =)

I did run into numerous problems, and some of the updates broke stuff that--frankly--should never have broken. And they wouldn't have broken had I run regression tests on them. Without getting too technical, regression tests are simply a way to have a computer automatically run a bunch of tests on the website to check that everything still works as expected whenever I make a change. Many times, a tweak in one part of the code can break something in a completely different (and forgotten) section of code.

And that became my second great update for 2011: regression tests. I started with nothing, but built up a test scaffolding that could check AQ for thousands of different problems with the click of a button. After a a couple of months, I had several hundred tests up and working--and surprisingly, it even caught some bugs that had been on AQ since day one!

This was largely a silent update, though. None of you will ever see this code in action--it's strictly for myself. The benefit to you is two-fold, however. First, I'm less likely to break stuff when I upload changes. Secondly, I can spend less time debugging problems and more time working on new feature or improving existing ones. =)

As of today, there are nearly 2,000 regression tests that I can run with the click of a mouse button on my development machine. For a website as large and complicated as Atlas Quest, it's really nowhere near enough. I'd prefer to have over 10,000 regression tests. Perhaps 100,000 tests could really put AQ through its paces, but for now, there are nearly 2,000.

I don't sit down and develop regression tests anymore. Well, I do still create them, but I create new ones when I'm developing a new feature or editing an existing feature. Whenever a bug is reported and found, I create a regression test that can check for that problem in the future, fix the bug, and make sure the regression test passes. So the number of regression tests continue to grow quickly, but that's in conjunction with whatever feature I'm working on at the time. When I first started creating them, I sat down and merely started creating them to have a base to start with. As I develop and improve features, though, I flesh them out more.

And the last big project I tackled was a dramatic improvement of the Trip Planner. What is available today is something I've wanted to create for years, but the time and effort involved with such a massive update never seemed worth it. A little bit ironically, what made the effort worth it this time was due to my first big project of the year: custom locations.

When I developed custom locations, it completely and utterly broke the existing trip planner. And while the trip planner certainly had its flaws, it was also a very popular option for people. I considered chugging the trip planner completely rather than spend the effort to rewrite it to work with the new changes, but I knew that would put me in the doghouse with a lot of people. It might be a lot of work, but rewriting the trip planner to work with the new geocoders and custom locations was a must.

Knowing where I've always wanted to take the trip planner, however, I made sure to design it in such a way that eventually I could extend it to fill my original idea for the feature. So during the creation of custom locations, I laid the foundation for what would later become the trip planner of today.

Fast forward a few months and now I look at what it would take to create the trip planner of my dreams, and it no longer seemed so far out of reach anymore. There was still an enormous amount of work to do, but I already already laid down a solid foundation to build from. I wouldn't have to start from scratch like I would have had to do before the custom location feature. The awesomeness of the feature was now worth the effort required to create it.

And create it I did. Along with over 500 regression tests for the trip planner that I can use to make sure whenever I make a tweak, I don't break anything. Some bugs did slip through, but considering the thousands of lines of new code I created, it was one of the most successful updates ever with very little downtime or problems. Previous updates of this magnitude, I'd dedicate two or three days for nothing but fixing bugs. This time around, only five bugs were found during that timespan. Unprecedented!

There were hundreds of smaller updates throughout the year. I started the state themes, one new state theme each month. I fixed typos, updated the layouts of many pages, replaced the weather widget, upgraded the server software, improved slow queries to help keep the website running fast, and so forth. But when I look back, it's those "big three" features I'm most proud of. They weren't easy or quick--in fact, part of the reason I enjoyed working on them so much was because they were a challenge and made me think. =) Admittedly, a lot of the smaller and less technical changes I kind of find boring and monotonous. I really do thrive on building features that are an intellectual challenge for me!

And each of the new features, I feel, took AQ to a whole new level. More reliable, more stable, and easier than ever to sort through the tens of thousands of letterboxes listed on AQ for those handful that matter most to each individual.

I didn't mean for this post to get so long..... I'll save my "looking ahead" thoughts for tomorrow! =) Feel free to share your favorite updates from the year in the comments!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

'Twas the Week Before Christmas.....

I feel like posting. I don't really have anything to say, however, so if your time is limited, keep moving along. Don't read this post. =) Really, no joke--there's nothing important here. No new news, no exciting developments. Just some musings and stuff I've been working on lately, but it's stuff you really don't have to concern yourself about.

This morning I've spent tweaking the radius of several dozen locations on Atlas Quest. I got a report that a box listed in Sedona, Arizona, wasn't showing up as expected. Most of the time I get reports like this, I tend to roll my eyes. Nine times out of ten, it's because there's a problem with the search. The person is hiding their plants and finds, for instance. Or they had inadvertently clicked the "ignore" button on the box and didn't realize it. Or the box doesn't have a clue listed and most default searches won't display boxes without clues. Or something. There are a lot of reasons a box might not show up in a certain search, and most of the time I get reports like this, there's absolutely nothing wrong except the search that was run.

But.... one time out of ten, there's a bigger issue involved and does require my attention, so I have to investigate anyhow. And this was one of those one time out of ten. The Yahoo Geocoder, for some bizarre reason, listed the radius of Sedona as being a little over 100 miles! I've been to Sedona before, and it's certainly not that big!

The Google Geocoder returns a radius of just over 3 miles--certainly a lot more reasonable, and I changed the radius of Sedona accordingly. A box "somewhere" in a 100+ mile radius isn't going to show up in a search for boxes "within 30 miles" of Sedona, which was the problem in a nutshell. With the smaller radius, it will. Problem fixed....

Or is it? How many other towns on AQ have 100+ mile radiuses? Realistically, the answer should be ZERO. In fact, anything larger than about 30 miles is suspect. So I poked around and found several dozen of them. Most of them cities I'd never heard of before. Buffalo Grove, IL--32 miles in radius? Really? Strathpeffer, Germany was listed as 404 miles in radius!

So I spent a few hours fixing all of these locations. The vast majority of locations were within reasonable bounds, but those several dozen certainly needed some tweaks.

Now the problem is fixed.... right? Well, no, not completely. There's still the matter of making sure this issue doesn't come again in the future. There are hundreds of thousands of locations that AQ doesn't know about, that if someone runs a search or hides a letterbox, will require AQ to use the geocoders to look up the necessary information. The very same geocoders that generated the bad data in the first place. I need some sanity checks in the code. 

I happened to notice this photo in the AQ Photo Gallery.
Remember (especially you, One Particular Harbor!),
all extra cookies you have can be sent to me. =)
I dived into the code itself, specifically the part that looked up the radius of a location, and added a few lines of code that checked if the radius was larger than 30 miles for any given park, address, or town, and--if so--would verify the radius with a second geocoder. And if that second geocoder verified the unusually large size, to ignore the geocoders completely and set the radius to 25 miles.

That second part--ignoring the verified radius--I was torn about. Some locations larger than 30 miles are completely legit. One location was "Sequoia National Forest." Sequoia National Forest IS much larger than 30 miles in radius, so why would I falsely cut the radius to 25 miles? I did so so boxes listed in "Sequoia National Forest" would show up in default searches (which defaults to 30-mile searches). I figured the location was specific enough that it should show up in default searches, even if, technically speaking, such locations normally wouldn't or shouldn't. Kind of a gut feeling type of thing. Technically wrong, but it feels right. =)

And finally I was done. Well, actually, no, not quite. One more thing to do.... testing. I tweaked some code, and I should have my unit tests check that this new code actually works like it's supposed to. So I created a new unit test that checks for these specific conditions, made sure they passed muster, then finally uploaded the changes I made.

All because a letterbox in Sedona wasn't showing up in the search results as expected. =)

Nobody would likely even notice these changes--they're very subtle and affected such a tiny number of letterboxes, you'd have to have a sharp eye indeed to have noticed them. But it still makes AQ a tiny, little bit better. 

Yesterday I spent primarily working on themes. I finished up the Maine theme--which isn't scheduled to go live on AQ until next November if I counted correctly. I want a solid backlog of state themes so I can continue to release them once per month without fail, regardless of how hectic my life might be at any given time. =) Next year, I want to thru-hike El Camino de Santiago--a hike that will take two or three months. I certainly won't have time during the hike to create themes, so I need to create them well in advance. Hey, Mainers, I really like how your theme turned out! It's currently my default theme on my development machine! =) You're up next, Maryland! (My goal was to finish all of the state themes I'd use for next year by the end of this year.)

I also made a few tweaks to the Christmas theme. The Christmas theme really isn't one of my favorite themes. I like the animations, the colors are hard on my eyes. The yellow background for the submenus was bothering me, so I lightened those a bit. I also didn't like how a highlighted menubar option blended in with the red background behind it near the top, so I lightened the highlighted menubars as well. And the bell in the upper-left corner of the page was messing up the layout of the home page, so I got rid of that.

I tend to do this sort of thing quite frequently with old themes that bother me. A few tweaks here and there to make it a little more appealing.

About a month ago, I started looking up all of the 2012 holidays to update when each of the themes would show. Themes like Christmas always show at the same time year after year and don't require changes, but themes like Friday the 13th, total lunar eclipses, and Presidents Day do need adjusting each year. And what to do if a total lunar eclipse falls on a Friday the 13th on Presidents Day, no less?! (While that specific scenario has never happened, there are enough themes that every year involves at least a few conflicts of this sort.) It takes me several hours each year to update the theme schedule for the next year.

Yesterday, I also found myself with a 50% off one item coupon for Michaels, so I wandered down to the local store and purchased myself a large block of Speedy-Stamp. *rubbing hands gleefully* There's also a stamp I want to carve, but I'm not sure this particular block is large enough for my purposes.... So I'll probably carve a couple of stamps during the next few days. =) Not sure when or where I'll hide them as boxes, but at least the stamps will be done!

I might post a bit more later.... for now, though, I plan to get started on a Maryland theme. =) Hope you all are enjoying the holidays and getting to spend enough time with your families that you're ready to leave them! ;o)

Friday, December 16, 2011

The New and Improved Trip Planner!

Interstate 94
First, an update on my last post asking for volunteers to adopt a highway.... Wow! What an amazing group of people! In alphabetical order, the following people helped out with improving the existing routes: Aiphid, Amanda from Seattle, BanjoMan, BfloAnonChick, Bumble, Dizzy, Eidolon, PI Joe, speedsquare, Suduko Crazy, and Wronghat. They've been plotting and fixing and helped run through about 83,000 miles of roads, trails, and historic routes! If you've noticed that all of your trip searches seem generate more accurate results, you can thank these people for making it so. =)

For you Canadians out there, you'll find some support for the Trans-Canada Highway now, with much help from Bumble. =)

Not only that, but they've done a darned good job helping to find bugs and problems, so they've really gone above and beyond. Thanks to you all!

And now, to introduce the rest of you to the improvements. Under the 'Toolbox' menubar option, you'll see a link for Trip Planner. There, you'll find options to search what trips are available on Atlas Quest, along with a list of the newest trips that have been created. If you select a specific trip, it'll display some information about the trip, including a map of the route. Take the Pacific Crest Trail, for instance. It tells me the route is nearly 2,000 miles long, the accuracy is 2.7 segments per mile (larger is typically better, and 2.7 totally rocks!), and a list of towns that the trail passes through (or near) along the way.

If you're a premium member, though, you'll see a couple of more options--such as a button to create your own route. Now this is my favorite part. =) Let's say you're going on a road trip to visit Grandma for Christmas. (I plan to!) You can type in your starting location and destination, and AQ will map a route for you--turn by turn. Depending on how long and detailed your route is, it might take AQ a few minutes to crunch the numbers, but when it's done, you can then run a letterbox search along your route. (Or an event search, or virtual search--or any search that requires a location.) Your route will even show up as an option on the Trip Planner Search.

You can keep the route private. Right now, I'm not expecting any of you to travel with me from my mom's house to Grandma's house for Christmas. ;o) But if you create a route that you think others might find useful (perhaps California's well-known Highway 1?), you can make it available to other premium members.

And really, that's all there is to it. Creating and editing routes is strangely hypnotic--I hooked in Google Maps to help with that process and it's remarkably easy to create very detailed routes.

Happy travels! =)

Monday, November 28, 2011

Adopt a Highway!

Aiphid's US Route 1
A few weeks ago, Aiphid asked me how he could get US Route 1 added to the Trip Planner on Atlas Quest. So I explained to him the tedious process of plotting the entire route, from end to end, which is inputted into Atlas Quest. And usually, when someone asks me about a route, that's where it ends. The person walks away and says, "Yeah, that sucks."

But not Aiphid. Oh, no.... he actually went in and started plotting the US Route 1 from somewhere in Maine to Key West, Florida. In all, there were about 1,400 plotted points--which is pretty remarkable. By comparison, when I did Interstate 95, I plotted a measly 159 points to mark the route. To be fair, there were reasons why the route was so poorly plotted out, but it was a remarkable amount of work.

And then I did absolutely nothing with it. The problem for me, you see, is that when I did the great Geocoder Update, I made some significant upgrades to how the trip planner worked. It allowed for much more accurate and precise information than ever before. One thing I did not upgrade, however, was my code to upload a new route. I no longer had any working code to upload the wonderfully detailed route Aiphid had created!

So my latest project has been to recreate this ability. Not only that, but to allow anyone to upload their own routes. Not only that, but to make it easier and faster than ever before. It's still a tedious, mind-numbing process to plot out thousands of points for a route--I've found no way around that--but the process of doing it could be made much easier. =)

And last night, I updated AQ with my updates. I'm still working on some stuff so I'm going to share all of the new features just yet... with a few exceptions.

  • I used Aiphid's route to test the new code. Works great! =) Which also means you'll now see "US Route 1" as the last option in the Trip Planner. Enjoy! And thank Aiphid for the new route if you ever find yourself using it. =)
  • Like the map image at the beginning of this post? AQ generated it for me. Well, technically, Google generated the map, but based on the information from AQ. =) Soon, you'll be able to see such images for all routes. You'll even be able to zoom in and see exactly what AQ is using to calculate distances from the route. And if you've ever wondered why the distances sometimes seem so screwed up, this will show the reason!
  • I used Aiphid's route to test the creation of a new route. I also wanted to test the editing of an existing route and spent four hours this morning re-mapping 2,932 vertices that make up Interstate 5. So if you do any searches along I-5, you'll find that the distances are very accurate now along the entire route. (On a side note, AQ is still processing the data for I-5 which should take a few hours. So technically, you might get "unusual" results during that timespan. When it's done, though....) The limiting factor with precision is no longer the route, but the precision of the location for each letterbox.
  • When you manually write out a Trip Planner search from the Advanced Search page, you'll usually type something like "along I-5 FROM San Diego, CA to Los Angeles, CA." Now, you can also call other commonly known names such as the "along the San Diego Freeway from San Diego to Los Angeles" and it'll work too. AQ, however, isn't particularly smart about where that particular name starts or ends along the route--as far as it knows, all of I-5 is called the San Diego Freeway. Other names that will work in place of I-5 include Pacific Highway, Cascade Wonderland Highway, West Side Freeway, Grand Army of the Republic Highway, Santa Ana Freeway, and Golden State Freeway.
And finally--what the title of this post is about: Adopting a highway! It took me about four hours to plot I-5 accurately, and there are currently 74 routes supported on AQ. At this rate, it would take me nearly 300 hours to re-plot all of the routes. (Okay, maybe a little less--I-5 is one of the longest routes supported. Most routes are shorter!) And frankly, if you had to wait for me to fix all of the routes, you'll likely be waiting for years.

But another new feature I've added is the ability to transfer ownership of routes to other members, and I'm looking to adopt all of these routes out. =) Aiphid gets Route 1, and I've already done I-5, but all other routes are up for grabs. If you've ever wanted to fix problems with a route you travel frequently, now's your chance! And, as a special incentive, anyone who adopts and fixs up a route also get first access to a number of new features including making your own personal routes. =) One catch, though--you do have to be a premium member in order to volunteer. Personal routes are going to be a premium-member perk.

I'm also interested in adding new routes for Canada and Europe. If you are interested in creating such routes, let me know. =)

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Quick Links!

My fancy icons just got fancier!
You can't see any difference with the icons by people's names, but its there. Now, those big icons sometimes actually link to useful information--much more than the help pages it used to link to!

For instance, take that trophy. We all know it represents the number of letterboxes that person has planted. Clicking on it used to take you to a page that told you this. But wouldn't it be more useful to have it link to my logbook's plant page? So now it does!

The ribbons link to my logbook's finds page. Well, technically, my preferences are set to hide finds, so it'll go to option number two which is to display my plants page. However--assuming one's preferences aren't set to hide your finds--clicking it will take you that person's finds.

And clicking the stars? That'll take you to that person's most recent posts.

And the premium member hat? That'll take you to the premium membership page.

The updated profile icon--that egg with sunglasses--that one now takes you to that person's profile.

And--hopefully, you'll never see this icon by your own name--but the R.I.P. icon links to that person's tribute page.

The rest of the icons didn't seem to have a natural "landing" page like these did, so they continue to link to the icon help in the help pages.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011


Wassa Jr's first Halloween. Wassa seemed more
interested in the food than the costumes, though!
Are you a blogger? Do you think http://blogname.blogspot.com is the lamest URL ever? Starting today, you can upgrade to an atlasquest.com domain name! Which is perfect for any letterboxing blog you might be running. (You can use them for non-letterboxing blogs as well, but those readers may not appreciate how cool it is to attach your blog to the atlasquest.com domain!)

What's a subdomain?

A subdomain is the part that comes before the domain name in a URL. For instance, the domain name for Atlas Quest is AtlasQuest.com. The subdomain, for most pages on Atlas Quest is www. This blog, however, uses another subdomain: blog. As in, http://blog.atlasquest.com--a very different website! That's the power of a subdomain.

So what subdomains are available?

I suspect that most people would prefer to have their trailname as a subdomain, but you can choose anything you want. If you aren't sure your choice is available, try typing it in—you'll get a 'server not found' error for unused subdomains. Subdomains made up of inappropriate words or language will not be released, nor can you acquire anyone else's trail name. We don't want you impersonating other innocent members, after all! Only letters and numbers are allowed as part of a subdomain.

How long do I get the subdomains?

For all practical purposes—forever! So long as Atlas Quest stays in business—and we plan to be around for decades to come!—we'll keep your subdomains working. However, any content you post to the subdomains are expected to comply with the Terms of Service and you subdomain can be revoked if we find you posting material inappropriate for Atlas Quest. We won't actively monitor your blogs or content, but if abusive or inappropriate material is brought to our attention, the subdomain may be revoked with no notice or compensation.

Are other domain names available?

We can hook you up with any domain name we own including AtlasQuest.net, AtlasQuest.org, AtlasQuest.co, AtlasQuest.info, and several other variations. While all of these are technically available, we don't really expect anyone to be interested in them. Everyone is most familiar with AtlasQuest.com, after all.

Where can I host my blog or other content?

Wassa Jr has time to think about what he did wrong....
Purchasing a subdomain does not include any hosting services—just the URL name. Hosting content must be done through another source. For Bloggers (a.k.a. Blogspot) out there, this is incredibly easy to set and and entirely free. Blogger will host your photos, posts, and other content for absolutely free, and this is what the official Atlas Quest Blog uses. The URLs for your post will use the subdomain you purchased, but all of the content and tools to manage your blog all come through Blogger's servers through a feature they call 'custom domains.'

You can probably use a similar feature for places like WordPress or personal websites, and we'll be happy to try to work with you to see if that's possible, but Blogger's custom domain feature is the only one we're familiar with and can guarantee will work properly. (If you want to try another option, do let me know and we can try to figure out if we can make it work for you. If it doesn't work, I'll refund your money.)

What if I already have a blog on Blogger?

Not a problem! Once the custom domain feature is set up and working, all of your old content, photos, and links to http://blogname.blogspot.com will redirect to http://trailname.atlasquest.com automatically. You'll see this happen with the official AQ blog by trying to go to the original URL for the blog: http://atlasquest.blogspot.com. Notice the link automatically redirects to the blog.atlasquest.com subdomain on Atlas Quest.

What if I don't already have a blog on Blogger?

Creating one is free! Go for it! =) Just go to http://www.blogger.com to get started. You don't even need a subdomain on Atlas Quest to get it started.

How much does this cost?

For premium members, a lifetime subdomain is just $59. For non premium members, the lifetime subdomain is $99. There are no annual prices available for subdomains—it's a lifetime gig only.

What if I need to change my subdomain?

If you want to change any information about your subdomain—either the subdomain you use (perhaps you changed your trailname?) or change your hosting provider (from Blogger to WordPress, for instance?)—it will cost $20.

What if I change my mind?

We have a 30 day money back guarantee. If, within 30 days, you aren't satisfied with your subdomain, we'll refund 100% of your money!


Where do I sign up?!

Send an AQ mail to Green Tortuga to get started.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Chance of Rain Today, and Rain Tomorrow

A view of the new WeatherBug widget.
Fluffy Cow has this announcement to make about the new and improved weather widget:

Ryan was messing with stuff again, and he has reinvented the weather widget wheel. Or so he says. At least this time it didn't require kicking everyone off of AQ, so I for one, am happy. SO for everyone who can't look out a window to see if it is raining or not... here is what the new and improved weather widget will do for you:

The weather widget will now accurately predict your forecast for 7 days after you enter a valid credit card number. You can also see a bunch of silly statistical things that pretty much only men will care about like rain totals and wind speeds... Because we all know how much men care about breaking wind.... speeds. (To be read in "what about Bob voice") I'M BLOGGING!!! I'M BLOOOOGING!!!! I blogged! I blog!!! Ha ha. Okay. Back to work.... um....

So really the best thing I see about this whole widget that Ryan invested his blood, sweat and tears into (ok maybe more like 15 minutes and a hangnail) is that you can get the weather report for an AQ event, which would be really great for when the NC people decide to have an event and it ends up being like 12 degrees and Mama Wolf chickens out and doesn't come, so everyone enjoy the fruits of Ryan's labor and be sure to play with his widget!!! Often.
As Trekkie Gal then replied, "Oh my."


A couple of follow up points I'd like to make, however. First, the WeatherBug widget will be for premium members only. There's a quota on the number of times I can access their data feed, and if everyone used it, I'd easily go way over the quota. So for now, at least, this version will only be available for premium members.

Lots of new information with this weather feed! Rain totals, wind gusts, and more!
This weather widget is smarter than the previous one, so if you've listed a home location in your preferences or a location in your profile, the widget will automatically default to your listed location. If you haven't set those, it'll default to AQ Headquarters. (Seattle, in case you're wondering.) Also--you are no longer limited to zip codes. Locations from around the world are now supported.

I've also added a weather button to events, which is new. And, if the event is coming up soon, it'll display the forecast for the day(s) of the event right there with all of the other event information. Very cool! =)

So there you have it. =) And straight from the cow's mouth.....

Monday, September 26, 2011

2012 Letterboxing Calendars Have Arrived!

Location: Alki, Seattle, WA
Thanks to everyone who submitted photos for the 2012 calendar--you guys really did an amazing job out there!

Order yours today!

If I used one of your photos, you'll have a free calendar coming your way. And if you'd like to score a free 2013 calendar next year, start submitting your photos for the next calendar! =)


Location: Seward SeaLife Center, Seward, AK
Photo by: Mark and Sue Pepe


Location: Palm Springs Mountains, CA
Photo by: Clarinet 226


Location: Newport, OR
Photo by: Yiker


Location: El Santuario de Chimayo, NM
Photo by: Twinville Trekkers


Location: Burke County, NC
Photo by: The Wolf Family


Location: Twin Falls, ID
Photo by: FrogiNater


Location: Damascus, MD
Photo by: yachtygirl


Location: Watkins Glenn, NY
Photo by: The JaJa's


Location: Weiser River, ID
Photo by: Yak King blues


Location: Ha Ha Tonka State Park, MO
Photo by: Hart x6


Location: Chuckanut Mountain, WA
Photo by: Mariner Fan


Location: Washington, IA
Photo by: Maude

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

All Aboaaarrrddd!

Viaduct Park, while hunting down some letterboxes. =)
I'm finally doing it--posting about an event I attended. It's like this--I find the going-ons about far-flung events interesting, and I've always liked the idea of posting about the ones I attend for everyone to enjoy. Not unlike my Great Adventures, really, except these aren't quite so ambitious in nature. Not for me, at least! =)

But then I never seem to get around to posting about them. Oh, there are features on AQ I can work on instead. There's always the catching up on e-mail and posts that seems like a never-ending battle.

But today.... TODAY! I will post about All Aboaaarrrddd! The Letterboxing Express!

It started like this.... many moons ago, I saw the word "train" and I thought, "Yeah, I have to do that." You see, I love trains. =) So I immediately signed up for the event in Ohio. I signed up under an alias because, why not? What if I couldn't make it after all? What if flights were full? What if, what if, what if...? Nobody really had to know we planned to attend.

Amanda and I left Seattle Thursday night, arriving in Cleveland the next morning. We couldn't check into our motel until 3:00, so we spent the morning and early afternoon letterboxing.

Butterfly in Viaduct Park
That evening, we headed to the Spaghetti Warehouse for the Evening Before the All Aboard Event--an event I managed to overlook but fortunately Amanda caught. =) Safari Man organized this particular gathering at the last minute.

We ate, we laughed, and ate some more, then laughed a little more--not necessarily in that order. =) We got exchanges "out of the way"--saying that like it was a chore, but it really wasn't. Tomorrow there would be a lot more people, almost none of which I've ever met, and I knew I'd be plenty busy exchanging. Knocking some of that out early seemed like the prudent thing to do. Our secret arrival was no longer a secret--so I thought. The Big Event wasn't until the next morning and I figured someone would have posted about our attendance on the Ohio message board, but surprisingly, nobody did. I wasn't even trying to keep the secret anymore, but the Ohio board was suspiciously quiet. (Lesson #1: Never trust a suspiciously quiet board--especially if it already has about 25,000 posts!)

Then, the next morning, was the Big Event. Amanda and I pulled up to the train station early and was impressed with the steam engine chugging along the tracks. A steam engine! I didn't realize we'd be riding in a steam engine! Way cool! Then the train left without us and a regular train arrived. Nope, the steam engine wasn't our train. That's okay, though. From inside the train, you can't even see the engine anyhow. Really, to appreciate the beauty of a steam engine, you have to be outside of it. =)

The Spaghetti Warehouse gathering
The hosts, Anne Bonny and Paisley Pineapple, were as surprised at our sudden appearance as the other attendees. Paisley Pineapple wasn't surprised this morning since I had seen her the night before at the Spaghetti Warehouse, but apparently she kept my arrival a secret from her co-host, tormenting her with rumors about a "you'll never believe who's here!" but not elaborating further

I have to admit, I enjoyed surprising Anne Bonny. I've seen her in the AQ chat rooms countless times over a period of the months--the last time was just a few days before--and she was going on about the event and all of the time and effort she put into planning it, and how excited she was about it. And the whole time, I quietly listened, never hinting that I had signed up for the event and would be meeting her face-to-face in just a few days. And more than once, I caught her looking at me, shaking her head in wonder. Or maybe dismay. It's hard to tell sometimes. =)
This is the steam train we thought we'd be getting on.....
This is the train we actually got on....

Then it was time to board the train where the stamping frenzy continued.

The Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad would run right through the heart of Cuyahoga Valley National Park, following along the Cuyahoga River which is most famous for catching on fire in 1969. It also caught fire in 1868, 1883, 1887, 1912, 1922, 1936, 1941, 1948, and 1952--but it was the fire on June 22, 1969 that grabbed the nation's attention. Time magazine wrote that August about the Cuyahoga River:

The Cuyahoga River... on fire!
Some River! Chocolate-brown, oily, bubbling with subsurface gases, it oozes rather than flows. "Anyone who falls into the Cuyahoga does not drown," Cleveland's citizens joke grimly. "He decays". . . The Federal Water Pollution Control Administration dryly notes: "The lower Cuyahoga has no visible signs of life, not even low forms such as leeches and sludge worms that usually thrive on wastes." It is also -- literally -- a fire hazard.
The river today is quite scenic and while I may not be willing to drink out of it without treating the water, at least it looks good! It's hard to imagine how bad the river had become and the transformation it's undergone over the years.

But when you see what happens when you
dip your hand into the river, it's not really all
that surprising that it can catch on fire.
The train stopped in the town of Peninsula, a cute little town bursting with letterboxes. I completely forgot to bring any rain gear at all, and it was raining enthusiastically when we first arrived, so Amanda and I wandered around a bit looking for somewhere to buy ponchos or cheap umbrellas. We found ponchos in a small store and Paisley Pineapple loaned us her umbrella, so we were set. Amanda immediately went in search of all of the bookstores in the area. =)

We ended up only finding one letterbox--mostly because we found a "suspicious pile of people" at one business and joined in on the stamping frenzy--on our way to the bookstore.

Afterwards, we stopped at the Winking Lizard for lunch, dining with 2-2 wheelers. Then it was back to the train for the rest of our ride. =)

Anne Bonny and Paisley Pineapple check in
jeeves for the event.
The cooties came out in force by now, and even the train conductor was not spared. Who got pictures of that? I know some people claimed to have photos of that, but I didn't get one. I did, however, cootie a baby, and it was so easy and fun, I did it a second time. Not long thereafter, the phrase "as easy as cootieing a baby" came into being. =)

The most fun of the whole trip, however, wasn't cootieing a baby. Nope, it was watching Amanda plant a series of virtual cooties on letterboxers passing through the train. She'd lightly tug the back of their shirts and jackets so the person would assume they had been cootied. They'd feel all over their back for the imaginary cootie, try to pull their shirt around to see it, and in one case, flip the bottom of their jacket over their head in an attempt to get rid of the imaginary cootie. They'd wonder around the train asking other letterboxers to please remove the cootie from their back, and would grow increasingly frustrated when they were told that there was none. I don't think our laughing helped--that seemed to make them certain that there was really a cootie involved (why else would we be laughing?) and the search for the elusive cootie would continue. Perhaps it's not funny if this sort of thing happens to you, but wow, it was hilarious to watch. (And as a side note, I do not ever recommend turning your backs on Mn8X either.... They seemed rather inspired by this idea.)
When I boarded the train, I turned around
and took this photo of everyone
behind me. Quite the crowd!

As all good things must come to an end, so did our train ride. Amanda and I headed off to find some more letterboxes before retiring for the evening.

The next day was for ourselves. We letterboxed, we went to visit the home of President James A. Garfield, during which a Civil War encampment was taking place, then moseyed closer to Cleveland to visit his grave. Garfield is Amanda's new favorite president because he once gave a commencement speech on the wonders of leisure and preferred to read books rather than attend meetings and other important things presidents are supposed to do. =)

Then it was back to the airport, where we took a dizzying series of flights from Cleveland to Charlotte to Philly and finally back to Seattle to take a vacation from our vacation. Well, I did. Amanda almost immediately had to fly back to Philly again to work.

Never a day's rest in this household. =)

Thanks to all of you who made us feel so welcome, and special thanks to Anne Bonny and Paisley Pineapple for creating this event!

The Cuyahoga River today looks a bit muddy, but I don't think it'll catch on fire anymore!
Scenes from a passing train....

We didn't get off at this stop, but the train did stop for some
people to get on and off the train.
It's as easy as cootieing a baby....
Union soldiers drill for battle at Garfield's home.

The home of President James A. Garfield. He ran using the "front porch campaign" by
giving his speeches from his front porch--the first president to do so.

Garfield's mausoleum is about as big as his house! Unfortunately,
it was actually closed when we arrived, so we weren't able to go in. =(

John D. Rockefeller is also buried in the same cemetery.

There are over 104,000 graves at this cemetery, and would you believe it--
someone had to go to the exact grave by which we were
looking for a letterbox. Come on--the guy died in 1905! "Quick, Amanda,
take some pictures!" (We came back later and couldn't find it--we
suspect it's probably missing.)

Friday, September 02, 2011

Calendar Photos. ASAP!

Yiker intends to put up some stiff resistance to
reclaim Miss May this year too! There are also
a few sunflower pictures already submitted, and
she's right--they DO make me smile! =)
Schools are starting. The temperature is getting a bit chillier out there. Summer is coming to an end, and that means.... yes, another letterboxing calendar is in the works!

There are a lot of great submissions so far this year--we've got starfish and snowmen, swamps and sunsets, bears and berries, fungus and flowers, ducks and daisy..... Pictures from Alaska (and lordy, there are a lot of those this year!) to Australia. Even without any new photo submissions, I think we've got the makings for a great letterboxing calendar. But if you've been procrastinating with your submissions, time is running short! Get your photos in soon!

Calendar Menu
Submit Photos
View Your Submissions

Get your submissions in by the end of day on Monday, September 5th, to make it into the 7th annual letterboxing calendar! A free calendar for everyone whose photos I use!

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Showing Your Support

The Html Validator extension in action!
I upgraded Firefox this evening to version 6.0. Why, oh, why is there another version of Firefox? But I digress... this isn't a post about Firefox, but rather a Firefox extension that I use: Html Validator. I like my web pages to validate--I can't count the number of bugs that extension has found for me. Most of them probably aren't a big deal since browsers are designed specifically to "fix" bad HTML and CSS as best they can. Forget a closing tag? No problem--the browser will put it in for you. And most of the time, it does a pretty good job of it, which is why you might not even notice the problem.

But still, it's a problem, because the browser might not get things right. Or maybe most browsers get it right, but that one browser, in one particular version, with a certain setting could crash and burn. So I like my code to validate--both the HTML and CSS files, and the Html Validator is wonderful because it automatically validates all of the HTML and CSS for every single webpage I view. Most websites fail miserably, but AQ pages usually pass with flying colors. =) You'll find some pages that don't validate properly--often times because I'm importing code from other places like the Google AdSense ads found on the tutorial pages. My code validates, but Google's code doesn't. *shrug* Presumably, Google spends a great deal of effort making sure their pages look exactly like they want on every browser known to man, so I generally don't worry about it. I just worry about my own code. =)

With the Firefox upgrade, I also got a message that I needed to upgrade the Html Validator extension, which I did, and when Firefox started up, it loaded Html Validator for Firefox and Mozilla.

I've seen this page before--often times, when I upgrade Firefox, I'll wind up with half a dozen "this extension has been installed!" type of pages opening up, and I usually close them all without reading them.

For whatever reason, though, I read some of it this time wondering if there was anything interesting in it and saw this line: Do you like this extension?

Well, yes, I do. It's helped me find hundreds of bugs on AQ over the years. I can't imagine developing a website without it in the background, constantly validating the code I write.

Then he wrote: I wrote this extension during my very limited freetime, which conflicts with my family life. If you would like to donate to encourage my continuing maintenance and improvement of the extension, you can do it using the Paypal. If you can't, I really appreciate bug fixes, bug reports, translations and improvement suggestions and requests :-)

And I felt sympathetic. Why does he continue to develop and maintain this extension? For the joy of it? The satisfaction of making the world just a little bit better for people like me?

I have no idea who this Marc fellow is. I don't know where he lives, or how big his family is. I don't know how much time or effort he really requires to develop this extension. But I suddenly felt like I could relate to this person. Atlas Quest is largely a free product and my livelihood is dependent on people who enjoy my little creation and support my efforts to maintain and improve it. While it's true that there are some perks for being a premium member, there's absolutely nothing tangible that goes with it, and it's quite easy to have a long and fruitful letterboxing career without ever becoming one.

In a sense, though, this guy has it even harder than I do. He doesn't even pretend to offer any perks for donations. If this fellow started charging people to use his product, though, I'd buy it. I wouldn't spend a lot for it, but I'd probably be willing to spend up to $10 or $15 before I'd start looking around for other options. Which isn't much, but according to the add-on page, he has 145,672 people who've installed his extension. Several of them are me--I have it installed on my home computer, my laptop, and three separate times on my little portable drive for each version of Firefox I have installed on it. Not to mention that I've also installed it on my mom's computer for when I'm working there. =)

BUT STILL..... 145,672 is a lot of people. More than use AQ, that's for sure. If every one of them was willing to pay him $10, he'd probably be quite comfortable financially speaking. Since the product is absolutely free, I'd be surprised if more than 1% of those people actually gave him anything, though.

Anyhow, I love this extension and decided that it was time for me to donate a few bucks to perhaps make it worthwhile for him to continue developing and maintaining the extension. I followed the PayPal link with the intention of donating $10. Not much in the grand scheme of things--I won't miss $10--but I hope it helps him. =)

Wassa Jr. is Canadian. A real international community
here on Atlas Quest! =)
Before I even typed in that amount, however, I had a hunch that Marc was not from the United States. In fact, I immediately wondered if English was even his first language, because the default amount listed was "0,00". I don't know about you, but I've always used periods to separate the dollars from the cents, not a comma. I'm not sure which countries use commas, but I do know that's how they write numbers in Spanish--where we use commas, they use periods, and where we use periods, they use commas. It's kind of annoying for me. I never got used to seeing numbers like that when I lived in Central America.

So then I started wondering what denomination this currency was expected. Hmm.... If I had to make a wild guess--which I was, because I saw nothing about what currency was expected--I'd figure it was somewhere in Europe and that the euro would be a good choice. How much would $10 be in euros? Not sure... five, maybe? Well, let's try 5 and see what happens....

The confirmation page said that would send five euros (woo-who! I guessed right!), and would deduct $7.45 from my account. Yeah, sure, go for it. Maybe I can't take him out for lunch, but at least I can buy him one. =) And maybe I'll send him another 5 euros next year--after the value of the euro crashes because Greece defaults on their debt, so the cost to buy another 5 euros will be less. =)

On the "pay with a credit card" page, the default country listed is Belgium, which makes me think Marc lives in Belgium.

And how cool is that? Here I am, sitting at home in Seattle, a huge fan of a product created by a guy in Belgium in his spare time, building a website that's used by folks from around the world (hello, New Zealanders!) supporting his efforts through PayPal which can automatically convert my dollars into his euros in our interconnected global marketplace practically instantly (presumably after it was converted from New Zealand dollars or Canadian dollars or any other number of currencies before it was sent to me). It's really quite amazing, isn't it?

Anyhow, it got me thinking about a lot of the products I use without giving much thought to the people who created them. I don't know if Marc makes much money doing this, but I hope it's enough to make it worth his while. It's important to support those products you like and use--it doesn't take much to make a difference.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Adding and Editing Locations

Exhibit A: When you first go to add a location to a box,
you'll see a page like this one.
I've been meaning to post about this ever since that Big Update, but I kept making tweaks and changes and didn't want to post a long explanation then have the information change a few days later. It seems stable enough now, however, and I don't expect any significant changes in the near future anymore. So, at long last, here's a little information about adding and editing locations.

First, I'd like to note that these instructions apply anywhere you can add or edit locations, whether it's letterbox locations, event locations, virtual locations. Whether it's a custom location for yourself that can override the owner's listed location or whether you're listing the locations that others will see--all of this revolves around the same core piece of code, so they all work identically. Since the vast majority of locations are associated with letterboxes, however, I'll refer to those. Just know that this information applies to events and virtuals as well.

Now, let's take a look at Exhibit A. That's the kind of page you'll see when you first have to enter a location. Ours is empty since we have yet to add any location information, but we'll fix that. The important thing to remember about this page is that it's the geocoder page. A geocoder, to refresh your memory, is a system that converts an address or other human-readable location into latitude and longitude coordinates. Anything you type in here will be run through one or more geocoders in an attempt to figure out precisely where your location is.
Exhibit B: Let the geocoder chew on Seattle, WA.

Also note the small question mark in the blue circle next to the word 'Location.' Whenever you see that icon, clicking on it will take you a relevant entry in the help pages of Atlas Quest. If you're not sure about something, that's always a good thing to check.

So let's type in a location. Because I live in Seattle, we'll use that, and I type in "seattle, wa" because I'm too lazy to capitalize properly. =)

When I click 'Store', the text is sent to one or more geocoders, and it returns the following results:

Exhibit C: The geocoder results.

Now this is pretty darned cool! (At least I think so!) The geocoder found one result that it believes matches your location--a town called Seattle, located in King County, in Washington state, which is located in the United States, and even plots a map marking the location so you can verify it's latitude and longitude coordinates.

This is the best case scenario. It's exactly what we wanted, and we can click the 'Next Page' button and continue adding details about our box.

Unfortunately, the results aren't always this clean. Sometimes, the geocoders might find more than one location that appears to match your location. For instance, if we try searching for the location named "Portland", we'll get these results:

Exhibit D: Wow, there certainly are a lot of Portlands out there!
The geocoder returned seven possible matches! This isn't even the complete list of Portlands--these are just the ones that the geocoder thinks are the most likely ones that you are referring to, sorted roughly in order of size from largest to smallest under the assumption that you probably are referring to one of the largest Portlands.

In this case, Portland, Oregon, gets first billing, and Portland, Maine, gets the second billing. Those two are also the two that most people can name right off the top of their heads, so it's nice to see that the geocoder gave those two the two top slots.

The numbers in the list correspond with the numbered markers on the map, so we can easily see their relative locations. Assuming we wanted to use the Portland in Maine, we can get there either by adding Maine to the text box to narrow down the result, or by clicking the second item in the list. I click the second item on the list then "Store," and wind up with this view:

Exhibit E: Portland, Maine--there you are!
This is great--we're right where we want to be and it's time to move on to the next page of listing our letterboxing.

That was mostly a contrived example--I knew that there were a lot of Portlands and could force that "error" to happen. Here's a real example that I fell into purely by accident:

Exhibit F: A real-life scenario of multiple matches when I tried entering a location for "cerro san luis, san luis obispo, ca."
When I tried this search, the geocoders came back with three possible matches, all of which are located in the city of San Luis Obispo. Looking at the map, I can clearly tell that the one I was looking for--a prominent and popular mountain in town to hike up--is the #2 option. My search was for "Cerro San Luis," but the official name of the mountain is Cerro San Luis Obispo. My bad--I typed it in wrong. We do that a lot around here--shorten San Luis Obispo to San Luis. The geocoder also found an apartment complex on the Cal Poly campus named Cerro San Luis, though, as well as a street in town named San Luis Drive. I wanted the mountain, however, so clicked on the second option and continued with the listing. All is well! =)

When Geocoders Fail
The worst situation is when the geocoders can't figure out your location at all. Take a look below at Exhibit G.

Exhibit G: The geocoder failed to find our location
In this case, I tried entering a location for "madonna mountain, san luis obispo, ca." The geocoder, however, was unable to find this. There's a good reason that the geocoder can't find this location--officially, it doesn't exist. Madonna Mountain is a name that many locals use to refer to Cerro San Luis Obispo. In fact, most people call it Madonna Mountain. There's a giant M on the mountain (which many people assume is for Madonna, but it's actually short for Mission), and the mountain has been owned by the Madonna family for decades and decades. (No relation to the pop singer.) SLO is famous for the world-famous Madonna Inn, along Madonna Road, right next to the Madonna Inn, and with a giant M on the mountain, it's understandable that people would tend to call it Madonna Mountain. BUT--officially--that's not the name. (After the owner, Alex Madonna, died a few years ago, there was talk about making that name official, but so far, nothing has come from it.)

The only time you usually see Cerro San Luis Obispo (or Cerro San Luis) used is in newspapers and other media that like to be officially correct in such matters.

But long story short, the geocoders were unable to figure out where Madonna Mountain was located because it officially doesn't exist. AQ was able to match the city where you said the mountain was located, and it gives you that as an option, but if you want to pin-point the location better than that, you have two choices:

  1. Use the official name of Cerro San Luis Obispo (assuming you knew that to begin with, though, why didn't you just use that as the location?)
  2. Create a custom location
We already reviewed how to add Cerro San Luis Obispo as a location, so let's add Madonna Mountain as a custom location this time. =)

Adding Custom Locations
To get out from under the geocoders, which clearly have no idea what Madonna Mountain is, click that "Edit Custom Location" link at the bottom of the list. That's your 'escape hatch' from the geocoders. I click it, which takes us to Exhibit H:

Exhibit H: We've escaped the geocoders into the Custom Location page
The custom location has already been pre-filled with information from Exhibit G. In this case, it's information about the city of San Luis Obispo. A lot of the information will be the same for Madonna Mountain because it's in the city, but we do have to tweak this information specifically for Madonna Mountain.

Most of this page is self-explanatory. The name of the location we want to add is "Madonna Mountain," so we enter that as the "Park Name, Business Name, Etc." section. I don't have an address for that mountain, so I'll leave that blank. (If you know the address for the trailhead, however, it might be a good thing to include.) The city, county, state, and country area already correct, so I'll leave them be.

The coordinates are pretty straight-forward. The peak of Madonna Mountain, which I can look up from Google Maps, is at 35.282741024156, -120.68038151502. (If you have a GPS, you could also have recorded this information when you planted the letterbox.)

Then there's the radius. This is entirely new since the update. AQ now tracks the relative sizes of a given location. A park is usually much smaller than a city, and a city is usually much smaller than a state, and a state is usually much smaller than a country, and now AQ knows this! Which is very useful information for providing accurate search results.

There's a lot of information about the radius if you click the 'help' link for radius, but in a nutshell, it's the distance from the center point of your location to the outer edge of your location, as the crow flies. Assuming your preferences are set to use miles, the distance is in miles. (If your preferences are set for kilometers, you'll have to enter kilometers instead.) The only way to figure this out is to pull out a map--real or online--and measure the distance. For Madonna Mountain, the radius is 0.681 miles.

Exhibit I: Adding a custom location

When I'm done, I click 'Store', and AQ takes me back to the geocoder page, displaying my custom location:

Exhibit J: Madonna Mountain, our custom location, now supported by the geocoders.

And we're on our merry way again.

Adding a custom location can be a bit of a pain--figuring out the coordinates and radius and all that--and if you can make a location work without it, it'll save you a lot of extra effort.

And that's it for now. There's a lot more I want to talk about on that custom location page, but I'll save that for another day.....