Thursday, January 06, 2011

Sub-Accounts Have Arrived!

I think I got the first request for a "sub-account" about two days after Atlas Quest went live. Okay, maybe it was three. It seemed like so long ago now. =) The main motivation, in particular, was the desire for a 'family' account--a way to identify oneself individually and as part of a family.

And I've never really been sure how to implement something like that. There's a lot of stuff to think about, and the logistics just thinking about it would give me a headache, so I put it off. And put it off. And put it off.

And while hiking the PCT, I thought about it some more and decided that if this feature would ever happen, I needed to actually DO something and play around with it. So shortly after I finished the trail, I followed through with the first step: Adding a column to the database that would do nothing more than point to a "parent" account. The master account. The family account. The primary account. Whatever you call it. It didn't actually DO anything, but it gave Atlas Quest a way to identify a simple relationship between to accounts.

And over the last couple of months, I've added a piece here and there--real functionality. First the ability to log into a sub-account using the password from the primary account. Then the ability for the master account to edit boxes and trackers if it was owned by the sub-account. Then the ability to read mail from sub-accounts through the primary account. And so on. A lot of little incremental improvements that, today, is quite a substantial feature in it's own right.

So now, you'll see a new link under the 'My Page' menubar option called 'My Accounts.' This is where you can control all of your accounts from one convenient location. =)

There are three distinctly different types of sub-accounts:

  • Aliases: Your alter egos, if you have any. Something like the Mystery Mailer would be an alias for a real person. Registering an alias with your primary account will allow you to post messages and send AQ mail from your aliases without having to log into your alias accounts.
  • Child: Child accounts are for the children in your family--typically those who aren't old enough to have their own accounts. Child accounts have additional restrictions that will not permit them to post to the message boards, send AQ mail, or drop into the chat rooms. Child accounts are generally only meant to record finds that your children have found--they don't really need all those other features. When recording finds, you'll be able to record finds on child accounts at the same time.
  • Adult: These are like the child accounts, but without the restrictions.
Each of the categories do have slightly different characteristics, so it does make a difference which you choose for each sub-account. The list above focuses on what makes the types different, but they also have a lot in common.

While logged into the sub-account, everything works like it always has. You won't see any changes. The real power lies in the primary account. The password for the primary account can log you into any of the sub-accounts. You can also reset the passwords for the sub-accounts from the primary account. And like I said before, you can edit the boxes, trackers, events, etc. of sub-accounts directly from the primary account. The primary account is also capable of reading the AQ mail of any attached sub-accounts.

There's also a new widget for My Page for sub-accounts. If you plan to make use of this feature, you'll probably want to add the Sub-Accounts widget.

Happy trails!

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Flying around Google Earth

Letterboxes from coast to coast!
Of all the major changes I listed yesterday, I overlooked one: maps. Most notably, KML files that work with Google Earth. The best way to see this in action is to try it for yourself. You'll need to download and install Google Earth if it's not already installed on your system to follow along with me.

Now, when a premium member runs a search for letterboxes, they'll see links for "KML" and "Network KML." KML is a specific file format and Google Earth is probably the best known program that supports it. Super cool stuff. *nodding* The original KML link has been there for years and still works the same as always. It returns a file with the first 100 boxes that your search matches, and you can zoom around Google Earth to see it. It's a static file, though, and never changes. It's still pretty cool, but has a couple of limitations--the fact that it never updates, and the fact that it will only show the first 100 boxes in your search.

The "Network KML" link gets around these limitations by specifying a special URL on Atlas Quest that Google Earth can contact to get the information it needs to display through a feature called "network links." When you click on the link and open it in Google Earth, it doesn't actually contain any information about letterboxes--just where on the Internet to get information about letterboxes.

After Google Earth loads the file, it connects to Atlas Quest and says something like, "The view of Earth is currently showing the entire United States. What boxes are there that are within this area?" And Atlas Quest will reply with the first 100 boxes that it finds in the database within the designated area.

Zooming into the San Francisco Bay area.
If, in Google Earth, you then zoom into California, Google Earth will contact Atlas Quest again and say, "Hey, my owner moved the map, and now it's only showing the area in California. What boxes should I display?" And Atlas Quest will again search through its database and reply with the first 100 boxes that it finds in California. The maximum number of boxes shown in a view is still 100--but it throws out the boxes that are no longer within that view and replaces them with new boxes that are still within the view.

If you then zoom in further, such as into the San Francisco Bay area, Google Earth will contact Atlas Quest again. "Hey, AQ, my owner just moved the view again. What boxes do you have that cover the SF area?" And Atlas Quest will give it another list of up to 100 boxes that are within that view.

You get the point. So while you'll never see more than 100 boxes listed in any given view, if you zoom around enough, you could--in theory--spot every single letterbox listed on Atlas Quest. And if you save that file and come back to it a year later, it again contacts Atlas Quest for the current boxes that match the search. If a box was deleted during that timespan, it'll stop showing up on Google Earth. Or if the box was moved, it'll move on Google Earth. Or if your search was original set to show only active boxes and a box had been retired, Google Earth will stop showing that box. The results are dynamic and always up-to-date.

This is very cool stuff. *nodding*

I zoom in even further, this time to San Jose.
Wait a minute, is that Wassa I see? Hmm... I think
I've been hacked!
And, it's mostly a premium member only feature. But if you aren't a premium member, don't feel too left out--I added a new Google Earth search to the Letterboxes menu. This link will show all active letterboxes around the entire world, and you do not need to be a premium member to use it. If you want to be able to hide plants and finds from those results, or only include boxes with a specific tag, or any number of other variations of the search, you'll need to be a premium member. But for most people, this particular link will be all you'll ever want. =)

So, that network link thing is new and pretty darned cool. And I totally forgot to mention it in my post yesterday. Too many changes in that update for me to keep track of! =)

While developing the network link feature, I discovered that Google also updated their maps API, so I upgraded the code to using their latest and greatest Google Maps API. As a result, you might notice some minor changes when you click on the "Map Results" link, but they're generally so minor you might not notice any changes. But if you think it just "looks" different but can't figure out why, you aren't going crazy. It too has been updated. =)

Saturday, January 01, 2011

Starting 2011 With a Bang!

Fireworks at the Space Needle--
that's what I watched to ring in 2011! =)
The long awaited Next Big Update (NBU) has come to pass, and it's packed full of stuff. Given the enormous amounts of new code in this update, I fully expect a lot of bugs to crop up. In fact, I already found and fixed five of them, and the update hasn't even been in place for a half hour yet. Make that six now. (I keep checking for errors AQ detects at the end of every sentence I type.) In any case, please be patient. If something isn't working correctly, I'll fix it.

Now--what all is new in this feature-packed update? Undoubtedly, there's something for everyone to love, and something for everyone to hate. =) (But I hope the former outnumbers the latter.) I won't get into details here (too many bugs to fix!), but I will run down some of the major additions and changes and let you guys poke around and figure out how it all works. I'll be updating the help pages the next few days to answer questions and add additional details to get the most out of the features.

So, without further ado.... some of the major things to look for:

  • Removed maintenance comments. After spending the better part of an afternoon removing maintenance "requests" such as "box is missing" and "watch out for mosquitoes!" I decided it was easier just to get rid of them. The icon can still be applied to a box--but no note can be attached to it. Any previously existing notes were added to the top of the clue page. (At least if it was an AQ hosted clue.)
  • There is no limit to the number of planters that can be added to a box. This probably won't matter to most of you, but if there's a box that was jointly planted by three or more people, you can now all get credit for the plant.
  • Carvers will no longer be notified of finds or attempts on their boxes. Before you start freaking out, please keep in mind that almost nobody will even notice this change. Anyone who was a carver on a box I've added as a contact--so you'll still be contacted for that reason. And when a box is first added, the carver will automatically be added to the list of contacts. For all intents and purposes, all carvers will still be notified of finds and attempts. The difference now is that they can drop themselves as a contact if they no longer wish to receive those notifications--an option that was not allowed before.
  • There's now a "Trackers in the Night" in profiles you view. It's like the "Ships in the Night," except this one shows the most recent trackers that you and the person who's profile you are viewing have both signed up for and has already launched. (Unlaunched trackers are not included in the list.)
  • There are new preferences now available. The Letterbox Preferences page (new!) is the key one to check out. You can now set it up to identify your search preferences. Do you want your plants and hides automatically hidden when you run a Simple Search? Now you can! You can also specify if you want attempts, strikeouts, abandoned boxes, and old last finds hidden (or not) by default.

  • On the Advanced Search page, you'll find three more search options available. You can now search for Box of the Week boxes, historic boxes, and rarely found boxes. Since this is automated, "historic" is purely a matter of numbers: Any box that was planted more than ten years ago and has been listed on Atlas Quest for at least five years is considered historic. I know a lot of you like to find those hard-to-find or unique boxes that few other people have, and that's what the "rare find" option does--it returns any box that has a last find date that's more than a year old. While the search page has icons associated with these options, these icons do not show on the box listings.
  • At the end of the Miscellaneous Preferences page, there's now an option for "App Password." Our resident app developers wanted to be able to create apps that allowed people to log in so searches could do cool stuff like hide your plants and finds or run searches based on the tags you've selected. You can increase the security of your account by creating an app password. When using the app, it'll ask for your trail name and password. They aren't supposed to store your password or later use it to log into your account, but I don't really have any way of making sure app developers are good and honest. By logging in with your app password, you can keep your real AQ password secret. If you do not select an app password, your real AQ password will still work with apps. But if you do have an app password, only that password will work--your real AQ password will not.
  • And finally, themes.  You'll find that the themes page has been completely rewritten from the ground up. Anyone can now list a theme on Atlas Quest, just like listing a letterbox or tracker. The themes are searchable, and you can even be notified of new themes matching your favorite searches. Right now, the only themes listed are those created by Wassa and myself. The "theme details" page includes any relevant information about the theme (it's creation date, last modified date, the CSS used for the theme, etc.), but it also applies that theme TO the page so you can see it in action. And when you've selected a theme, there's a new "about theme" link (under the original link, if there is one) that will link to the theme's details page. There aren't any new themes added with this update--but how themes work has radically changed with this update.
And that, I believe, are the major changes you'll see. You might also notice any number of smaller and generally not-very-noteworthy changes as well, but the big ones are covered. =)

Happy New Year!