Monday, February 25, 2013

The Letterboxing Police Are Out To Get You

There aren't a lot of rules on Atlas Quest, but there are a few of them. One, for instance, is that you are expected to follow any land manager policies when you plant a letterbox. It seems like a reasonable rule to follow. As letterboxers, I think we should project an image of responsibility and understanding to the rest of the world. We want land managers to support us, and respecting their rules and permit systems, annoying as they might be, is part of this.

For instance, the folks at Disney World have made it very clear that letterboxes are not allowed on their property. Don't complain to me that you don't like this rule--I didn't create this rule. But I will enforce it. I've posted here about that mis-adventure in the past, and I'll likely post about it again. The folks you need to talk to work at Disney. Get them to approve your box and you'll be able to list your boxes here. So hop to it. You probably won't succeed, but that's the only way I'll allow boxes to be listed at Disney World, period.

Another thing that's a big annoyance for people are boxes that are listed improperly--usually event boxes or personal travelers that get listed as traditional boxes, or multiple stamps in the same box being listed individually. These kinds of things clutter up search results and they will be fixed as they come to our attention.

Whine, cry, plead--it doesn't matter. The rules are quite clear--I write them directly into where boxes are added, and I'm not very sympathetic to those who can't or refuse to follow rules. If you don't like the rules, there's another letterboxing website you can use. However, they do have their own set of rules, so you'll need to be careful to follow their own rules.

As a whole, AQ is set up on the honor system. I happen to like the honor system. I'd like to keep the honor system. However, if this is too big of a burden to bear, there's another system that can be implemented. That's how the main geocaching website works: You need to get your boxes approved before they'll be added to AQ. This would help solve a lot of problems with incorrectly listed and deliberately disrespected land manager policies, but I will implement such a system if I feel it becomes necessary.

I don't care if you try to justify invalid listings by pointing to examples of incorrectly listed boxes. Being an honor system, there are people who will take advantage of that and plant boxes legally and incorrectly, and admins will "fix" these listings as they come to our attention. But just because some of them slip through does not make it okay or justified for you to do the same. It's a weak argument, and the kind of excuse a grade school student would give. "But Miss Marple, Jimmy beat up the kid yesterday, so why shouldn't I be allowed to do so today?" Sounds absurd, don't you think? It happens a lot when it comes to incorrectly listed boxes, though, and I'll say this right now: It's not an excuse that will work.

So let's review:

* If you want to plant a box somewhere, check the Land Manager's Policies on letterboxing. You are expected to follow them, and if you do not, your box may be deleted with little or no warning at any time if it comes to the attention of an administrator.
* A traditional letterbox is one that is hidden and requires clues for most people people to find. The clues do not have to be listed on AQ to count as clues, and statements such as "look on the table" and such do not count as clues since most people will likely find those boxes even without your half-hearted clues since the boxes aren't actually hidden.
* An event box is typically left out in the open--usually at events--that anyone who happens across is welcome to sign into and stamp. These may or may not have clues involved. Usually, if they have clues, it's because there's a lock or some sort of trick to access the stamp, but the box itself isn't actually hidden. (Hidden in "plain sight" does not count as "hidden.")
* A personal traveler is typically kept in your possession at all times and people who want it must find you in order to acquire the box. These often do have a clue--some sort of requirement before you can stamp in.
* Atlas Quest supports boxes, not stamps. From a practical standpoint, I don't bother wasting my time enforcing this rule for anything except traditional boxes, but technically speaking, an event box with multiple stamps should only be listed on AQ as one box. I know darned well that most people list every stamp in the box, and while I don't enforce this rule for event boxes (for now), I think it sets a bad example for traditional boxes (which I will enforce), and  if the day comes when I do decide to enforce this rule, as long as you're following the rules, it's not something you'll have to worry about in the future.
* Do not list boxes publicly that have not yet been planted. It clutters up the search results with boxes people can't find and such listing can and will be deleted as we come across them. There is a special type called reserved that you can use to "pre-list" boxes ahead of time. This keeps them out of the search results of other people until the box is ready to go live.
* If you create an event stamp that you later use as a traditional box or vice-versa, or a personal traveler that sometimes works as an event box, or whatever variation of the "it used to be X and now it's a Y" type of box, the proper way to list these types of situations is to list every type of box it was used as so people can record the type of box that they actually found. List it as both a traditional box and an event box (if that's what they were), so people who found it as a traditional box can record it as a traditional box and those who found it as an event box can record it as an event box. And retire the type that's its no longer being used as--obviously, both an event box and a traditional box can't be active at the same time, and they shouldn't be.

Follow these rules. If you see friends who aren't following these rules, encourage them to do so. If these became a big enough issue, I will implement options so all new listings will require moderators to approve all new box listings--and I don't think anyone wants to see that happening.

Saturday, February 09, 2013

Photo Quality

As most of you have probably noticed, I've been working on a new website, Creating this website from scratch went a heck of a lot quicker than creating AQ from scratch, and one of the reasons is because I use a lot of the same code on both websites. In fact, all of the core, generic code is the same for all of my websites--which includes and a new website I've been developing for a pizza place. (That one isn't up, however, so I'm not posting a link to it.)

Code reuse is a wonderful thing because it makes development go faster. And if I find and fix an error in one location, the fix magically works for all of the other locations as well. Or if I add a new feature or improvement to this core code, all of the other websites can also benefit from it.

Consequently, you mind notice some "cross-pollination" between websites. Work on one invariable causes improvements in the others.

And today's (admittedly small) improvement on AQ comes from Walking 4 Fun. For those of you who haven't heard about it, it's a site that allows you to virtually hike the Pacific Crest Trail and Camino de Santiago. You track how much you walk each day--around town, around the office, and wherever your feet should carry you--then enter it into the website at the end of the day. It'll show where you would be on one of these famous trails had you done your steps on there, along with photos of all of the places you would have passed that day. It's not easy to see how far a mile of walking here and there can really add up, but you'll see it on this website.

So I wanted to create a promotional kind of link that would display one image among the thousands that are on this website--along with what trail it came from and where on the trail it was taken. (This is working now--that's what you see at the top of the right-hand column of this blog post!)

Not a big deal--just a bit of graphic manipulation.

During the process, I needed the photo shrunk down from what was on the website, and I had conveniently already created a function in the core code that could do this. I pass in the photo, the maximum width or height I want it to be, and it returns the properly resized image.

The first issue was that I found a bug. The returned image was smaller, but it wasn't the correct size. I found the error and fixed it, and the fix went up on AQ as well. It was a relatively minor bug, though. Not something most people would notice. (Heck, *I* didn't even notice it until now, and I've been using this code for years!)

The other thing that bothered me was that the code depended on a function call for the actual process of resizing the photo that wasn't very good. If you good a super high resolution photo and shrunk it down a lot, it looked pixelated and ugly. I didn't really know of a good way around this problem, though, and just lived with it.

Well, in the process of working on this feature for Walking 4 Fun, I was scrolling through a list of functions available to manipulate images and discovered that there was a different option available to resize photos--and this one smoothly interpolates pixel values which is what I've always wanted the resize to do! It just looks better!

So I updated the code to use this new option instead and tried a few test images on my development machine--some uploaded with the old function and some uploaded with the new function. And without a doubt, the new stuff looks so much better!

So I've worked the update into Walking 4 Fun, AQ, and the pizza website. (It also works on the soda can stove website, but there aren't any images that I manipulate programmatically there--not at the moment, at least!)

What's this mean for you? Well, not much for the most part. Images uploaded as clues, signature stamps, or event photos will generally look better now. Old images still look blocky and pixelated, though. If you have some older images that have this problem, try uploading new images to replace them with.

In the past, I've always recommended that you "pre-shrink" your photos down to at most 1,000 pixels to a side to help reduce that pixelated look, but with this update, that no longer applies. The maximum file sizes haven't changed so if you take some really high-resolution photos, you could still hit that limit and might need to shrink down the photo to a smaller size anyhow. But that's just a file size limit--not a quality control issue which was where my recommendation originally came from! =)

There are some more tricks and techniques I learned while working on Walking 4 Fun, but those haven't made their way onto AQ as of yet. They will, though... There's definitely more coming down the pipeline! But I'm pretty excited about the dramatic improvements in photo quality. =)

The photos at the top of the blog post are of me with Nancy, MaryK, and Jeannie at the train station in Santiago that I did some of my tests with. The original file was 4000 pixels across and 3000 pixels tall, and I wanted to see how it would look of AQ shrunk it down to a "standard" image size that had a width of 300 pixels--over 90% smaller than the original file. The first photo was how the old code shrunk the file, while the second photo is the newly updated version of the code. You might have to get your face really close to the monitor to really see how bad that first photo is and how much better that second one is, but the difference is remarkable!

AQ would also create thumbnail images for every uploaded file and those were a maximum of 100 pixels to a side--a whopping 98% reduction in size! The difference in quality is even more stunning!