Friday, December 26, 2008

This public service announcement has been brought to you by Atlas Quest

I was looking through some old photos, and couldn't help myself.... I added a few new PSA's to the lineup. =) Enjoy!

The person doing the hanging, in case you're wondering, is Chadams. Thanks for being a sport and modeling for me, Chadams!

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Start Your Logging!

Many moons ago, there was a person who could not afford a premium membership on Atlas Quest. It was pointed out that even those without premium memberships can often be valuable members of our little community, however, helping answer questions, listing boxes for others to find, and so forth.

So I started periodically setting up "Free Listing Day," where every member on Atlas Quest, regardless of their premium membership, can have a whole day to list their finds for boxes that are not listed on Atlas Quest. Essentially, a premium member perk for a day as a thank you for your contributions to Atlas Quest and the letterboxing community.

I mix up the dates a bit and don't give a lot of advanced warning for "Free Listing Days" since it's meant for people who use and contribute to Atlas Quest on a regular basis. The last couple of years, I used Boxing Day as a Free Listing Day, but this year decided it had to move so I wouldn't become TOO predictable. =)

I originally moved it to Thanksgiving, but I ended up out in the proverbial woods and didn't have a chance to post the announcement in time! So as far as I can tell, not one single person took advantage of Free Listing Day, because I was the only person who even knew about. =)

So I moved it to Christmas this year instead. If you want a complete logbook of all your finds online, start recording your finds! You'll first see a list of boxes listed on AQ that match the box name you're looking for. Don't bother to search based on the author--unlisted boxes have no author listed. Assuming the box you're looking for really isn't listed on Atlas Quest, scroll down past those entries until you get to the list of "unlisted boxes."

Other people have been listing unlisted boxes, and to save yourselves a few keystrokes, you can see if someone else may have already recorded a find on the same box and use their data about the box. Or just click the "Create" button and add a find directly. The list of 'unlisted boxes' is just a convenience--don't get too wrapped up in finding your box in that list. If you do see the box you found and you don't like how it was entered, make your own with that Create button.

You'll have all of Christmas Day to use this premium member perk. Atlas Quest runs on Pacific Time, and the party ends at midnight. =)

Oh, and Merry Christmas! Post a comment and let us know what your favorite gift this year was! =)

Sunday, December 21, 2008

You too, can become a Master Carver

Actually, my carvings I consider okay. There are those who truly are Master Carvers. I am a mere apprentice of these folks, but willing to do my part to help get new carvers started. =)

Way back when, I create a small little page with some carving tips I picked up along the way. When I slapped Atlas Quest together, I felt a more "professional-looking" tutorial was in order, and upgraded it. I included photos, expanded the prose, and added a whole new section for mounting the finished carving.

I've tweaked it a number of times since then. Added Mark's information about how he transfers images. Added Pungent Bob's tutorial about turning a photo into an image that can be carved. Fixed spelling and grammar errors.

Then, several months ago, someone told me that Speedy-Stamp no longer existed. It was renamed to Speedy-Carve. WHAT?! Another tweak was in order.... Updated the glossary, updated the Stampeaz page, and I would need to update the carving tutorial.

I headed out to Michaels to check out this "new" carving kit that's "ideal for letterboxing." They really did change the packaging! Look at that! =) I needed to update some of the photos in my tutorial, starting with the materials.

I went ahead and bought the kit (figured those pesky employees probably didn't want me taking pictures of it right there in their store). Anyhow, it would be nice to have carving tools at my mom's place here in SLO all the time. Then I wouldn't have to carry it from Seattle all the time.

And low and behold--even the directions for how to carve a stamp were updated. That acorn I used as a carving example was no longer there! The horror!

Well, heck, why not? I'd just redo all those pictures of my carving a stamp while I was at it. The existing photos were pretty lousy. Too small, and I squeezed the life out of them with the JPG compression. It needed to be updated.

So I chose to carve the ladybug from the directions. I needed a place for a photo shoot, however. I couldn't find anywhere in my mom's house that had a background I felt was satisfactory, so I started searching around the city for places. The catch is--most businesses really don't seem to like it when people go into their stores taking pictures. Even if it's just my hand carving a stamp. But there is one type of business that is unusually strange allowing me to do weird stuff and never saying boo about it: fast food. I can sit around for hours, and they just ignore me, even when I'm hunched over carving stamps.

I checked out the Carl's Jr, but their tables were white with black spots. Rather ugly. It wouldn't do for a background. The taco bell has these two-tone blues on their tables, and I didn't much care for a distracting multi-colored background. Jack in the Box, however.... A nice, solid, dark red color. Yes, I like that color. That will do for a background. *nodding*

I picked a seat by the window, with the sun low on the horizon making the table positively glow. Perfect.

Now, while the employees at these places will let me sit around for hours carving stamps, there is a catch. They kind of expect me to buy food. Go figure. *shrug* So I ordered a Sourdough Jack combo, filled up with soda, and ate a late lunch. Then I set the tray aside and prepared to carve.

I transferred the image to the carving block. It's not perfect--alas, my precious pencil sharpener is still in Seattle, so I made do with a much duller pencil than I would have preferred. But it'll get the job done.

Then I carved the stamp. It's kind of hard to take a picture with your left hand (I'm right-handed) while carving with your right hand at the same time. Actually, the pictures of my hand--I'm not even carving in those pictures. I'd stop carving, get the camera where I wanted it, pick up the carving tool and move it into a position that kind of looked like I was carving, and take the photo. Then I'd put down the camera, carve a bit more, and repeat.

I have little doubt the other customers and employees in the store thought I was crazy. =)

All-in-all, I really liked the results. The pictures are much bigger than before, and look a lot better. I went back home and started putting all the pictures together into a coherent tutorial. I updated the text, laid out the main steps in a table, and got something almost entirely new slapped together.

Since I was making all these changes anyhow, I figured I'd update the carving tutorial's navigation system. Before, you could only change from one page in the tutorial to another from links at the bottom of the page. I wanted links available at the top of the pages too.

Then I got to thinking.... Maybe I should try carving another stamp? Why limit the example to just one stamp? Or maybe that leaf would look better for the tutorial?

This time I decided to try the tables at Carl's Jr. I didn't much like the white tables with black spots--seems like they did that deliberately to hide dirt on their tables--but I'll give it a try. So the next day, off to Carl's Jr. I went, where I proceeded to carve the leaf.

The photos turned out, but I can't say I liked them much. As I expected, I hated the background. And the leaf seemed almost too easy to carve. I wanted something at least somewhat more intriguing than the leaf.

The sun design looked intriguing. Perhaps too sophisticated for someone's first carving, but it could be inspiration for people to challenge themselves too. But the background had to go. The back page of this weeks New Times (a free, local weekly paper) had a lot of clouds on the back which seemed like a nice, neutral background to use. Ideally, I'd have liked to go back to the Jack In the Box for their table, but I was itching to carve right then and there, so I figured I'd give the clouds a go.

And then there was sun.

I went back to my mom's house, and added both carvings to the bottom of the transferring and carving pages. No text--just more examples of carving stamps. I'm still half-tempted to take out the leaf since I don't think it really adds anything. It's even easier to carve than the ladybug was, and I hate the background on it. I liked the sun, though. The background still wasn't as nice as the tables at Jack's place, but it was a bit more complex to carve than the simple ladybug.

But what I wanted was a much more intricate carving. Something new carvers could really strive for, and I looked at the instructions that came with the kit again--and noticed that they had these wonderful line drawings explaining how to carve a stamp. They weren't meant to carve like the other images, but they were still perfect for tracing being bold, line drawings. I'd carve one of those!

The next day, I headed back to the Jack In the Box, ordered another Sourdough Jack combo meal (the things I do for you folks!), and carved another stamp--far more intricate than the previous stamps I had carved for the tutorial. I rather liked the final result--can't say I've ever seen anyone ever carve a stamp of someone putting a nib on a carving handle!

The tiny images I used for the leaf and sun wouldn't do for such an intricate image, so I made these a bit larger, and even added a small bit of commentary.

I still want to tweak the tutorials a bit more, but most of my letterboxing supplies are still up in Seattle so additional tweaks will have to wait. I want to use something other than black ink for stamping the ladybug and sun, but all I have with me is green and black. (Green = signature stamp, black = goes with everything!) And I also want to get a picture of the last stamp after coloring it with colored pencils. Throw a bit of color into the stamp, and a nice segway into the Art of Stamping tutorial. Details! Details!

Anyhow, the "minor" update of the tutorial has turned into quite the project for me! =) I've now carved four stamps for them, which I'm thinking about hiding as a series "How to carve a stamp in four easy steps?"--perhaps making that the basis of a Creating Great Letterboxes tutorial. (I bet most of you didn't even know about that page, did you? It's been there since the day AQ went up, but I've never publicized the link since I felt it needed photos and real-life examples which I never seemed to get around to doing.)

So that's what this last update has been about. =)

Oh, and if you click the column name in search results, the results will be sorted by the information in that column. That's the tweak I did that would have broken lots of things. =) (It looks simple, I know, but that 'little' feature took me the better part of a week to get working!)

Oh, yes, and one other thing.... Last Thanksgiving was a Free Listing Day--you know, the day that everyone can list finds on unlisted boxes. I didn't get to a pay phone to post an announcement until about 3:00 that afternoon, however, at which point I figured it was too late. I had hoped to post an announcement the previous day, but a pay phone did not make itself available to me. So I never bothered to make an announcement, and I suspect nobody even realized that anyone and everyone was able to record unlisted finds that day.

So I'm rescheduling it for Christmas Day. Merry Christmas! =)

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Day 5: I Pull Ahead of the Pack

I last left you, camped in a bug-infested site just south of Indian Prairie Canal. By morning, the temperatures had dropped dramatically--a welcome relief from the bugs. I also woke particularly early since it wasn't more than 6:30 in the morning when the rest of the hikers marched past my camp. Previously I had hiked out three miles or so beyond the day's starting point so it would take them an hour just to catch up to me. With the nice backpacker campsite where it was, however, I stopped a mere 0.8 miles ahead of this day's starting point, so it didn't take them more than about ten minutes to catch up.

The last of the group passed me by before I even finished eating breakfast, but that's okay--I'd catch up. I knew I could. At least to the slower hikers, I would. =)

My tarp was absolutely sopping wet--you'd have thought it rained overnight by looking at it! Not a big deal, but wow, the condensation was astounding.

I packed up camp, then headed off to catch up with the rest, which took me about an hour to catch up to the slowest of the slow. I fell a bit behind again when the trail skirted around Harney Pond Canal--there was a convenience store there which I felt I must stop at and splurg. I bought a sandwich, donuts, and grape juice for lunch. Most others also stopped briefly at the store, but for me, it was civilization. Everyone else was just on a day hike. I lingered longer than the rest.

The one other noteworthy point of reference was the "hikers' graveyard"--an area covered with stones used to reinforce the dike, but they are set upright sticking out of the ground looking much like tombstones. I caught up with a few more hikers resting here--it's a nice "resting" spot. I also planted a letterbox here, but I haven't posted the clues yet. (I'm bad, I know!)

Then it was foward and onward, the last couple of miles to a boat launch where everyone else would end the day of the hiking. I however, wasn't anywhere near done.

There were two issues I had to deal with. The first was the fact that the next three miles of hiking was road walk--the one section around Lake Okeechobee not protected by a dike. Camping alongside this road I did not consider an option, and I definitely needed to get past it before setting up camp. Additionally, the three miles immediately after the road walk did take me back on the dike, but it was also immediately alongside Highway 78 and all of its traffic. I could have camped up there, but it wouldn't have been fun or nice.

Secondly, there was the official Thanksgiving dinner the next evening at the Clewiston Inn. The other hikers who'd done the hike in previous years raved about how wonderful it was, and I wanted to join the festivities. However, the hiking schedule would have taken me into Clewiston the day after Thanksgiving. I'd need to hike ahead and get there a day ahead of schedule or get a ride to Clewiston at the end of the day tomorrow.

You can probably guess what route I decided to take--I would hike in a day early. But to do that, I needed to get in as many miles as I could today, the day before Thanksgiving. Seeing as the next six miles of hiking would largely be terrible places to camp anyhow, I decided to push on to another backpacker campsite nearly six miles away.

The hike was uneventful. I walked the shoulder of the road as cars sped up and down the road. I was happy to leave the road and get on the dike, though I still had to listen to the traffic speeding up and down the road.

When I knew the backpacker campsite was coming up, I kept my eyes open for it--and it's a good thing I did because I nearly missed it entirely. All of the other backpacker campsites were immediately off on the side of the dike, clearly visible. This one was tucked a good ways off the dike, barely visible in the distance. The only reason I noticed it at all was because I saw what looked like someone tromping through the tall grass off the dike and I wondered where the heck they were trying to get to. Then I saw the small glint of the metal shelter tucked within a group of palm trees. Was that the campsite? I pulled out my monocular for a better view. Indeed, it appeared to be the campsite.

I tromped through the tall grass, already dreading having to come through it again in the morning. I knew it would be wet with condensation, and the grasses came up past my waist. I would be getting very wet in the morning.

As it turned out, the campsite was absolutely wonderful! I didn't even realized it existed on my thru-hike last January. I walked right past it never even seeing it--but being so far off the trail, I could see how I missed it. The camp was situated on the lake side, away from the traffic on the road, and even away from the people traffic on the dike, right alongside a canal at the lake's edge. Very scenic and tranquil!

I set up my tarp and started preparing dinner when I heard the sound of a tracker. It confused me at first, then I realized--they were cutting the tall grass on the dike! Yes! I hoped they would cut a path all the way to the campsite, and I could see the machine on the dike doing its thing.

Alas, the tractor stopped just before reaching the dike where I was at. It stopped at the edge of the canal where the dike passes over, but on the other side of the canal. Had they cut 50 feet beyond the canal, I could have walked back to the dike without getting so much as my ankles wet from consensation in the morning, but no..... they have to take the day off just before it would have done me any good. *sigh*

Of all the camps I stayed at, this one turned out to be the busiest. A few times during the afternoon and evening boats cruised by along the lake. And shortly before sunset, two men walked into camp with their fishing gear and started trying to catch some fish. They tried for about an hour or so while we chatted, but they didn't catch anything and eventually left back the way they came. They seemed startled when they found my campsite--I guess they fish there quite regularly but had never seen anyone actually camp at the site before.

The bugs, I was grateful, seemed to take the evening off. It was much cooler this evening than the previous one which might have been a contributing factor. All the local Floridians kept complaining about how cold the weather was, but I was grateful. I considered the weather absolutely ideal. The lows overnight typically matched the highs in Seattle during the day. Cold? I don't think so.... And cold enough to keep the bugs away? You bet! I'll take it in a heartbeat! =) I was in my element!

I'd now completed almost six miles of the official hiking schedule for the next day, six miles out of 9.4. The next day, I figured, I'd probably be on the trail hiking before even the quickest of hikers caught up with me again in the morning, and I'd hoof it in all the Clewiston one full day before the official schedule would have gotten me there.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Day 4: Out of Okeechobee!

As I swore to do the night before, I slept in until I felt good and ready to wake up in the morning. I woke up at about 7:00 in the morning, noting that the last people who needed shuttle rides back at the end of the day were expected to have gotten on the trail at least a half hour before. Rumor had it that some early birds started at 4:30 in the morning. Losers. =)

I flipped on the TV to the Weather Channel--some thru-hiking habits are hard to break!--then ate breakfast, packed up my gear, and hit the trail at about 7:45. The frame on my sunglasses, I was sad to note, had cracked at some point since I got into town and one of the lenses wanted to keep falling out. After an hour of hiking, I passed by one of our vans that were waiting to pick up some hikers part way, and borrowed a small piece of duct tape to hold my glasses together. At least long enough to finish the hike. Hiking in Florida without sunglasses would be suicidal!

Today's day of hiking was the longest--14.7 miles. That the official count, at least. Because of my camping on the levy, I didn't always do the same number of official miles each day as everyone else. For me, 14.7 miles was just the minimum distance to hike to keep up with the pack.

At this point, a growing number of hikers had been dropping off the trail or doing partial days of hiking due to blisters, sores, and pains. I had no blisters, and nothing more than the dullest of pains. Leaving Okeechobee, my pack was filled with extra food and water that I hadn't carried on my way in, but overall, I only expected it to take me three days to reach Moore Haven--the next good place to resupply--so my pack wasn't as heavy as it could have been.

After an hour or two of hiking, I caught with with the slowest of slow who left Okeechobee over an hour before I did, eventually passing eight of "our" hikers before reaching Indian Prairie Canal and the official end of the day's hike. I hiked in another 0.8 miles to a small backpacking campsite on the dike--the site of the infamous summer sausage caper. I was in familiar territory now. I had memories here--not always good ones, but they were mine. =)

I set up camp, cooked burritos for dinner, but at dusk, the bugs came out in force. My other two nights on the dike had a few bugs, but in limited numbers that quickly dropped off after the sun set and the temperatures started to cool. Not this night. The temperatures stayed miserably warm, but I wrapped myself in my sleeping bag to escape the onslaught anyhow. I tried to read my book with my headlamp inside the sleeping bag, but it was a mummy bag and not especially suited for reading in. (I brought a Carl Haasen book--Lucky You--a Florida author which seemed like the type of thing I should read while I was in Florida.)

I finally gave up trying to read, and just laid in the sleeping bag bored stiff and sweating bullets wishing the bugs would just go away. Well after midnight, the temperatures finally plunged and the bugs quit for the night. I put on additional layers of clothing for warmth, and finally got a good night's sleep. =)

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Day 3: Back to Civilization!

I got lazy typing up my adventures hiking around the Big-O, mostly because all things considered, it wasn't actually that interesting. It was a nice little hike and all, but not the kind of thing I'd normally write home about.

So... day 3, I woke up early enough to see a line of dots in the distance marching towards me. They looked a good mile or so off, so I had plenty of time to eat breakfast, brush my teeth, and join the hikers closer to the beginning of the pack than the end of it like I did last time. Gave me lots of new people to chat with. =)

There was Mark, from Colorado. Apparently, his mom lives in Florida and he was in the area visiting already. There was Phyllis, who I nearly poked her eye out with my umbrella when a gust of wind came along. (I was using it as shade from the sun, but it was a bit windy to use an umbrella.)

The hike was short this day--only about 7 miles from where I started at--and I trudged into the city of Okeechobee and civilization. At this point, I was familiar with the area since I had hiked out to Okeechobee to pick up a maildrop during my thru-hike. I knew where the KOA was that most people were staying out. I knew where the Dairy Queen was, where I had ordered a large strawberry milkshake. I knew where the Wal-Mart was, where I had resupplied last time I was in town. I knew there was a water spigot next to the dike, where I had filled up with water while leaving town. I was in familiar area now! =)

I wondered over to the KOA to find out the setup there. Each day at 4:00, they held a "happy hour" for people to meet up and chat, drink, eat, and do whatever. And each day at 7:00, they had a "mandatory" meeting to discuss the next day of hiking. Mandatory, I guess, unless you sleep out on the dike like I'd been doing and could not attend. =) So I headed to the KOA to find out where all these events were to take place.

Then I headed off for lunch and resupplies. I walked north a few blocks, stopping at Taco Bell for lunch. I really craved that strawberry milkshake, but the DQ was further up the street and I didn't want to walk that far if I didn't have to--and I didn't have to. =) I'd settle for Taco Bell, though.

Then I crossed the street and resupplied at Publix. I didn't really have a preference for where I'd resupply--any large grocery story would have worked equally well--but Publix and Winn-Dixie were the most convenient being the closest (directly across the street from each other), and I went to Publix.

Then I walked back down towards the KOA, stopping at the Flamingo Motel to get myself a room. They had a computer in the lobby with Internet access that I could use, and camping on the hard-packed ground of the KOA (keep in mind, I don't carry a pad to sleep on) didn't seem too appealing.

I took a shower, changed into somewhat cleaner clothes, used the Internet (yes, wassa, I saw that theme you up!), repacked my supplies from Publix into ziplock bags, and shortly before 4:00, headed back out to the KOA for happy hour.

Where everyone brought out bags of chips, dips, and an assortment of drinks and everyone mingled. It was kind of amusing.... a couple of people I talked to didn't realize that I was sleeping on the dike, and when they found out, they'd say something like, "Hey, I saw someone camped out on the dike this morning!" And I'd laugh and say, "Yeah, that was me." =)

I was invited to join a few others for dinner, and we piled into a car and headed off to a pizza place. Alas, it was closed on Mondays. We then stopped at another restaurant--a bar--but changed our minds due to the smokers smelling up the place. Finally we settled on a Mexican restaurant next to the Publix. "You realize," I said, "I could have walked here faster than it took for us to drive here...." =)

The food was good, then we got ourselves back to the KOA just after 7:00 for the mandatory meeting--my first! =)

They discussed the shuttling. How many people needed to be shuttled, how many cars were necessary, when to get going in the morning, yadda, yadda, yadda. I didn't pay a great deal of attention--I planned to sleep in as late as I wanted then hike out of town and camp on the levy. I didn't need no stinking shuttle. =)

They also discussed what sorts of animals everyone saw on the hike that day, who was planning to attend the Thanksgiving dinner at the Clewiston Inn, and miscelleneous tasks like that.

Then the meeting broke up and everyone split. I headed back to my hotel room and watched TV for the rest of the night. =)

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Tweak! Tweak!

Yesterday afternoon, I was at the library, working on some last minute tweaks for an update I planned to do last night. I set it so AQ would take itself down at 10:00pm (Pacific time) because, while there's nothing earth shattering in the update, it would break lots of things while getting the updates uploaded.

The best laid plans.... almost didn't work out. =) I noticed it first while sitting in the library--getting unusually warm. Took off a jacket. Walking back to the apartment, I started feeling genuinely sick. By the time I arrived, I knew it was a problem. I was sick. Bleh. I laid down, feeling absolutely pitiful, and considered postponing the update.

Except for one thing--I'd already set AQ go automatically go down at 10:00pm. Unless I logged in and fixed that, nobody would be using Atlas Quest at all.

So 9:00 rolls around, and I'm still trying to decide what to do. No matter what, I needed to get online to let others onto the site after 10:00. I was spending all my effort just trying not to throw up. Bleh.

Finally, I made a decision. Remembering back to an experience at Disney World where I got motion sickness after riding one of the rides, I ended up feeling SOOOO much better when I finally upchucked. So I decided to stop trying to hold my cookies. Keep in mind, I wasn't trying to throw up my lunch--I just stopped trying NOT to. And weirdly enough, I actually did feel a heck of a lot better.

The update was on!

Oh, what a mistake that was..... *shaking head* I was about halfway through the update and darned near passed out sitting up like I was, crashing my forehead in the desk I was working on. I laid down a bit, only for a couple of minutes, until I felt like I wasn't going to pass out anymore, then got back on the computer to finish the update. Postponing it now was too late--it was already half done, and the site wouldn't work in the half-finished update.

I managed to finish the update, brought the site back up, and promptly went to sleep without even bothering to turn off the computer. You all, I decided, would have to wait until later to find out what this update includes.

I woke up again, somewhere around 2:00 in the morning, and felt good enough to check at no major errors occurred during the update (quite a shock, actually, for such a huge change to not cause any recorded errors!), and finally turned off the computer and lights around the apartment.

This morning, I'm feeling a heck of a lot better. Still not at 100%, but wow, so much better than last night, and now have time to tell you about the update. =)

Long story short:

  • Event stamps are now called event boxes. I think people felt dissuaded from using the "event stamp" moniker for their boxes unless it was THE official event stamp for the event. No more--if a box (or stamp) is specifically for an event, only the event, and nothing else, it can properly be called an event box. I don't care if it's hidden in the woods, sitting on the table tops, or it's the official event stamp. If it's only available at the event, it's an event box. (However, it IS okay to list boxes with clues as traditional boxes--just make sure you retire the box when the event is over and DON'T put anything in the clue if you aren't actually providing one. If it looks like an event box, acts like an event box, I might be inclined to change it to an event box.)
  • You can now specify specific carvers for individual boxes within a series. I tested out the feature myself with the Hog Heaven Theme Park. You can set the carvers for individual boxes within a series from the "Series Info" page while entering or editing boxes. (As a side note, I may retire the "contacts" list at some point, since it was basically a kludge to allow multiple carvers to get notifications of finds. Now that everyone can be listed as a carver, it doesn't seem quite so necessary. So be sure to update any series you own if each box has a stamp carved by a different person.)
  • There are now "traditional trackers." I don't really care what you use them for, but I have seen a couple of instances where y'all try to "force" other features to fit your needs, but essentially you wanted to keep track of a list of letterboxers and traditional boxes which is ideally suited to trackers. That's what they do--track people and/or boxes.
  • If you run a location-based search, such as this one for all boxes within 25 miles of Seattle, there's now an arrow next to the distance indicating what direction the box is in. It's kind of fun, but keep in mind that anything less than 2 miles is likely inaccurate since those boxes that don't have an address, park, street intersection, or something to indicate where in a city a box is, AQ don't really have any idea what the correct direction is. The more detailed location information a person provides with their box, the more accurate the direction arrow will point.
  • And a few minor tweaks and changes that probably aren't worth mentioning.
Woke up this morning to check for any additional errors recorded by Atlas Quest--and there were NONE! Woo-who! Which isn't to say there may not be bugs in these new features--undoubtedly, there are--but it means I'm going back to sleep now and if any problems show up, I'll fix it when I'm good and ready to. =)

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Day 2: The Hike Continues

The official hike ended at Port Mayaca the previous day, but I hiked a couple of miles further to set up camp away from the trailhead. Trailheads tend to be where undesireable weirdos hang out late into the night, and I'd just as soon be off by myself.

I set up camp on the lake side of the dike so the traffic noise on the other side was more muffled and so that people in the buildings there couldn't watch me pee when it was neccessary for me to do my thing. And anyhow, the lake was pretty.

I spent the night watching the stars. Absolutely beautiful. There were some lights visible on the horizon from towns along the lake like Clewiston and Okeechobee, but it was still plenty dark and the Milky Way wonderfully bright. Two bright planets--Venus and Jupiter, I assume, were up just over where the sun set.

The next morning, the other Big-O hikers planned to wake up at an unholy hour to be at the trailhead by 6:30. Yes, in the morning! I know!

Fools. Not me. No, I figured if they started hiking at 6:30, the first hikers wouldn't reach my location until 7:00 or so, and that would be a much better time to hike.

I woke up, and checked my watch. It was 5:15. Those other fools were probably eating breakfast by then, but I would get to sleep for another hour or more. HA!

I woke up again, and a few hikers were going past. Holy cow! How did that happen? I checked my watch--that's odd, I thought. It was still 5:15. And getting remarkably light outside for such an early hour.

Drats, my watch stopped. I immediately got up, made some breakfast, brushed my teeth, and packed up camp--all while being observed by a parade of hikers who would wave down to me. =)

When I finished and was ready to hike, the last of the hikers had arrived, and I fell in with them.

The day was nice. Partly cloudy, windy at times, but nothing particularly noteworthy to report.

After 13 miles, the day's hike was over. Several people by now were suffering badly from blisters, and I encouraged people to name them but I don't think anyone did. My feet, I'm happy to report, are doing just fine, but flat hikes of 11 and 13 miles respectively are relatively easy for me.

At the parking lot, I filled up with clean water that other hikers had so I didn't have to drink the nasty surface water of Lake Okeechobee. I had my purifyer to drink the water if necessary, but I'd rather not if I didn't have to!

Another hiker, whose name I now forget, offered cold orange juice from the cooler in her car and a couple of small packs and M&Ms. Woo-who! Trail magic!

Then I walked a couple of more miles up the dike and set up camp again--another beautiful lakeside view!--near mile post 52.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Day 1: The Hike Begins

Amanda and I woke up early, ready to head off to the small town of Pahokee for the start of the annual Big-O hike around Lake Okeechobee, one of the largest lakes in the United States.

The hike started at 8:00 in the morning, and we followed a some hastily erected signs to the marina where dozens of people with Florida Trail gear were already milling around.

The two of us registered, myself for the entire hike, and Amanda for the 'wimp walk,' a three or four mile section that they would provide shuttles back to Pahokee.

At eight, not necessarily eight sharp since Paul (the guy who officially started the hike) asked me what time *I* had, and my watch was still on Pacific time from BEFORE the time change--the hike started. A mass of a hundred people or so started off.

Amanda and I headed back to the car so I could pick up my backpack. I planned to camp for free on the dike much of the time and needed backpacking gear.

The wimp walk went well enough. The temperature started off chilly--especially so with the wind chill--but not bad and it warmed up quickly as soon as we started hiking.

At the end of the wimp walk, Amanda had her photo taken with all the other wimp walkers--at least those who had made it that far so far--by a local reporter. Look for her in the paper soon! =)

Amanda got on the first shuttle back to Pahokee, and I continued my hike.

I can't say it was particularly thrilling or exciting. The walk was flat and easy. The weather windy, but sunny. I met several other hikers along the way who I chatted with.

The most noteworthy was Cliff, 91 years old and planning to hike completely around the lake. Born during the Woodrow Wilson administration. He doesn't remember Woodrow at all--he was too young for that--but he did tell me he remembers when Herbert Hoover was president.

This man has been around for a long time! He seemed remarkably spry for a 91 year old. Looking at him, I'd have guessed he was 20 years younger.

He served in the Navy during WWII--was even stationed at Pearl Harbor, but he was in California when that was bombed. His wife was there at the time, though. His war years were spent in the Pacific on submarines.

He already holds the record as being the oldest person to hike around Okeechobee--he did it last year at the young age of 90. He didn't walk fast, but he wasn't last either!

At the end of the day, everyone else took off. Some went to Pahokee to get their cars and go home. Others were shuttled to the KOA in the city of Okeechobee where most people who planned to do the whole hike were staying.

I, however, hiked out a couple of more miles and camped on the dike. It was free, and the views over the lake were wonderful! I made burritos for dinner, and watched the sun set as alligators swam around in the lake. Probably waiting for me to go to sleep, I thought.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Florida--the home away from home?

Somehow, I'm in Florida again. I'm not exactly sure how it happened, and you'd have thought I learned my lesson from my thru-hike earlier this year, but once again I'm in Florida, and I'll be hiking.

This particular hike is a mere 110-mile walk around Lake Okeechobee. I did the western half of it during my thru-hike earlier this year, but this time I'm sticking around to hike around the whole thing.

I expect to get online occasionally during this time--I pass through quite a number of trail towns along the way with libraries, for instance! I can check my AQ mail through my PocketMail device at any public pay phone I happen across. So I won't be completely out of touch--my my Internet access will be limited and if you need something or have a question, you may not get an answer from me until December.

I'll officially start the hike Saturday morning--I'm in the Tampa area right now, getting ready at the moment. Those important last minute details, like making a new stove because I forgot to back my old one, accidentally burning off Amanda's step-mom's cat's eyebrows, and the usual pre-hike antics. The hike officially ends on November 30th, though it might take a few days before I make it back to Seattle and any return to normalness.

Hope you all have a great Thanksgiving! And keep Wassa from getting into too much trouble. I'd still like to recognize the site when I come back. ;o)

Happy trails!

-- Ryan

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Tips for Listing Boxes

One thing I try to do for Atlas Quest is to keep box listings as up-to-date as possible. It's not as easy as you might think, and a large part of that is simply because the people who list them don't always seem to be sure what they're doing. Which could be partly my fault for not explaining things better, or maybe it's due to sheer laziness of the person listing the boxes, or maybe because the person listing the box is more interested in their own logbook than making things easy for people who want to find their boxes.

So I'm going to explain some of my thoughts on the subject. When Atlas Quest first went live, my big idea was to build a better search. I don't mean to knock LbNA about this--every website has its strengths and weaknesses, including Atlas Quest--and one of the more frustrating things for me on LbNA were searches. I had to search multiple regions across two different states to see all the boxes within a half-hour drive of where I lived. When I traveled to other locations, I rarely knew what county I was in. And even when I knew what region to look under, there would often be a list of lots of boxes, some of which I already found and had no interest in finding again, in no useful order. So one of my goals was a way to cut through the clutter and allow me to search for boxes that I actually want to find. Everything else was irrelevant.

I created all sorts of useful search options. Filter the results based on attributes, length of hikes, ordered based on how close a box was to the town where I was in. A way for people to mark boxes as retired or missing (why would I want to look for those?). A way to exclude boxes that I'd already found or planted.

It worked pretty well, too. As time goes on, however, and boxes are abandoned or listed improperly, the search results get progressively less useful. I hope the "abandoned" status I created earlier in the week helps out in that regard. A lot of boxes known or suspected of being gone were still listed as active, and they aren't anymore! Hurray! But the listings are still there and accessible for those who want to find them anyhow.

A surprising number of people fail to update the status of their boxes at all. I can't count the number of boxes where someone write in the clue that the box is "confirmed missing." Or they'll write that the box is missing in the title of the box. Or something they'll write in the first aid section that the box is missing or retired. The problem with any of those 'solutions' however, is that the box is still listed as active and shows up when people try to search for active boxes. I've changed the status of hundreds of boxes whenever I see something like this.

Please update the actual status of the box rather than find a box to write it in whenever the status changes. The status can be used for custom searches--writing it in the title, clue, or first aid box does not.

I made the status as easy to update as I could--whenever you view the box details page of one of your boxes, the status is a drop-down menu. Click on the status you want to change, then click on the value you want to change it to.

I've seriously considered setting things up to automatically set the status of any box with the words missing, retired, and MIA in the title of the box to retired because nine times out of ten, those words have absolutely nothing to do with the actual name of the box. It's the status, but the owner failed to update the actual status of the box. I might still do that at some point, but I haven't yet. The more such abuse takes place, however, the more likely I will implement such tweaks.

More recently, the Rise of the Event Boxes has been a growing problem. There are a lot of boxes out there that, when you open up the clue, say something like, "This box will only be available at the XYZ event." The problem, however, is that the event happened months before and the status is still listed as active, and based on the clue, it sounds more like an event stamp.

Honestly, I'd just as soon as these boxes never get listed on Atlas Quest, and if they do, to have them listed as event stamps. I don't care if they were actually planted in the wild and had "real" clues that were distributed at the event, and I'll tell you why. =) If the clues will only be available to people at the gathering, they don't need an online listing to tell them that there are clues there.

"But this way, people can record the find!" I've heard it before, and I don't put much stock in that excuse either. Those who are premium members would have been able to record the find anyhow, and those that aren't will always have logbooks that are less than accurate anyhow. But when the boxes get listed, two things invariably happen: The box seems to get into a permanent active state, even though the event happened months before, and it clutters up the search results when people try to search for boxes they actually want to find.

So my favorite solution is just not to list them at all. For those of you that are addicted to listing boxes, however, show some consideration for others on Atlas Quest. Mark the box as retired once the event is over. Don't even list the box until the last possible moment before the event begins. There are no bonus points for listing an event-only box months before the event takes place. Do NOT include a clue with the listing. No clue at all. Searches for traditional boxes, by default, will only include boxes that have clues. So by leaving a clue off for a box where clues are not publicly available, you help people avoid cluttering up their search results with boxes they can't find.

And finally, consider listing the box as an "event stamp"--even if it's not THE official event stamp, and even if the box has real clues. I've been thinking about renaming that category to "event BOX"--to include anything that's planted specifically for an event regardless of whether or not it has clues, is "hidden" on a table in plain view, or is out in the woods. If it's supposed to last just for the duration of an event, let people know it by marking it as an event box.

Premium members, if they really want to make sure their F-counts are correct, can still record the find as an unlisted box. Non-premium members--well, they're F-counts aren't going to be very accurate anyhow, so what does it matter? =)

But it can make an enormous difference in helping people with cleaner, more useful searches.

In any case, do be careful about how you choose to list "event boxes." If I see a clue that makes your box sound like an event stamp, I will change the type to an event stamp. If you must list such a box as a traditional box, wait until the last minute to list it, retire it as soon as the event is over, and don't put a clue at all--especially one that just says, "This box will only be available at such-and-such event" or that it will be available at said event and "replanted later." To my ears, that sounds like an event stamp and I'll change it to reflect the fact. If it's "replanted later" (often said more often than it's actually done), it sounds like an event stamp that was later turned into a traditional box, so there should be a listing for an event stamp (for those who found when it was an event stamp) and a traditional listing (for those who found it in that context).

So to make a long story short, when you list a box, consider how it'll affect other people's searches. A search that doesn't work well because it's full of incorrect or misleading information is in nobody's best interest.

Friday, November 14, 2008

The Talk of the Town

Wow, today was an exciting, fun-filled day to be in my little hometown of San Luis Obispo. =) I'm out here visiting my mom, and this morning we smelled smoke. It was probably a little before 8:30 this morning, and we walked into the backyard and it looked like the whole mountain ridge nearby was on fire!

So I did what everyone else in town did--I went out to watch.

I took this photo from the corner of Johnson Avenue and Laurel Lane. It seemed to be the closest place I could get to the fire, but it wasn't actually a good place to watch it because the smoke was blowing directly toward where I was standing obscuring things. I took this when a short gust blew most of the smoke away, but while waiting to see something, I did see countless police vehicles charging up the road and evacuating residents. Also saw two flatbed trailers with bulldozers being moved into position, an ambulance (just in case, I assume, since as far as I know, nobody was actually injured), a phone company truck, a cable company truck, and fire trucks from Atascadero, Arroyo Grande, and Pismo Beach. And another truck loaded with road blocks which they started erecting to block people from entering the streets. And finally, an airplane flying around in circles dropping fire retardant on the fire.

I have to say, I found it amazing how quickly all these resources came together. The fire had only been burning for all of about a half hour. Given the far more serious fires south in Santa Barabara last night, I wouldn't have been surprised if the planes and extra fire trucks from the area had already gone south to help out there. But I guess they still had plenty of resources for our own little fire.

But like I said, the close-up view I couldn't see much because there was just too much smoke around, so I changed tactics and backed off. I walked out to Terrace Hill for the "big picture." This photo was taken perhaps an hour or so after the fire had started. Maybe a little more.

This ridge, so far as I know, has no official name to it. I've never seen it named on any map, and nobody I've ever talked to in the last 30 years has ever known a name for it, so I've always called it Reservoir Ridge. The reason for this is because just behind the ridge is Reservoir Canyon, and so it seemed reasonable to call the ridge Reservoir Ridge--and it just flows off the tongue so easily. Perhaps if I tell enough people, it'll stick. Someday. =)

Now you're probably thinking, what the heck does any of this have to do with letterboxing? Well, I could have posted this on my Walking SLO blog, but not many people read that. But so this post isn't completely irrelevent, I'm going to point out a letterbox in this photo. See that red arrow? It's pointing to a tiny, almost invisible pile of rocks in this photos, which is the landmark for my Sacrifice at Reservoir Ridge letterbox. After I planted the box, I hiked down a road/trail along that line of trees to the left of the fire. I am also happy to report that the letterbox survived the fire unscathed if you choose to still look for it. =)

Now the absolute coolest thing to see was planes dropping the fire retardant on the fire. I've seen it on the news, I've seen it in pictures, but this was the first time I've actually witnessed it LIVE and IN PERSON! And it's really cool to watch!

I had my puny little digital camera with me, and the pictures aren't great, but there you go. I took this photo just a split second too soon--that red absolutely explodes into color, but my trigger finger was just too fast.

The other problem with my digital camera--it can't take two consecutive photos one right after the other very quickly. This is the same plane dropping the same load of fire retardant as the last photo, only a second or two later, but by then, it was already too late. The load has already been dropped and isn't very visible anymore. I saw several other drops but missed getting photos completely. In fact, they're hard to get photos of because they do several "fly-bys" before actually dropping the fire retardant, probably to make sure they're lined up correctly. Practice runs, if you will. So we'd watch another fly-by wondering, "Is this when he'll drop the fire retardant?" Sometimes yes, sometimes no. *shrug*

After dropping the fire retardant, the plane flew about 100 feet over Terrace Hill, and I took this photo. Notice the underside of the plane is red? I guess they have to wash the planes after each use. I can't imagine they leave the fire retardant just sticking to the plane like that once it's done for the day.

Small, orange dots on the ground then would move into the area where the fire retardant was dropped. They were firefighters, the infantry for the war against fire. The orange dots were all over the mountain, although they're way too small to see in any of the photos I took.

So that's what I did this morning. About two hours after the fire had started, it seemed pretty clear that the fire was getting under control. I walked back to my mom's house. The power had been restored. (The power was out when we woke up this morning--completely unrelated to the fire, I might add.) So I logged onto the local news website to see if I could get any additional details about the fire. It said 200 firefighters were sent in to fight the fire, which burned about 100 acres. No structures burned and no injuries reported.

By the time I went out for lunch, I could no longer see anything burning and no smoke was coming off the ridge, although the orange dots could be seen moving around all over the burned area. Strangely, although at this point the fire looked pretty contained to me, the news reporters said "full containment" wasn't expected until about 8:00 this evening (still an hour away!), and the fire wasn't expected to be "completely" out until 10:00 tomorrow night. (That doesn't surprise me--wildfires can burn and smolder for days--I learned that quickly while hiking through Florida!) They started letting people back in their homes hours ago.

And now, we have a black hill to look at for the next several years as a reminder of today. =)

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Ugly Side of Letterboxing

It's sad, but true. People stop letterboxing. I can't explain why, and I'm sure they'll have all sorts of reasons, but some people up and quit. Or at least stop using Atlas Quest. And that's a problem if they've left a bunch of letterboxing listings on the site. What to do with them? Leaving abandoned listings on a website is as much litter on the website as abandoned boxes in the woods.

So I worked up a solution where boxes that appear to be abandoned can be adopted. It's not a perfect solution, but it was better than nothing and seemed reasonably fair. Asking someone to log in once per year to keep their box listings up-to-date didn't seem like a particularly unreasonable request, and AQ would attempt to contact the person through their registered e-mail address to let them know what was about to happen and how to stop it, and gave them a system to take back control of their boxes at any time if they so chose.

The rest of you might not know it, but occasionally, I would get the irate e-mail from someone complaining about my putting up their boxes for adoption without permission, even chewing me out when they actually got my notifications in time to stop the whole adoption process. I tell you, I was half tempted not to even try notifying people about the adoption process if they're going to chew me out for notifying them what was about to happen and how to stop it if they so choose. *rolling eyes*

But all-in-all, the notifications weren't particularly effective anyhow, since most of the e-mails ended up bouncing leaving me with no other way to contact the owners and I suspect many of those that don't bounce end up in spam folders and never get read. There's probably a bunch of people who's boxes are up for adoption now that would be irate if they actually logged in and found out. Hey, I tried to tell them. *shrug*

Anyhow.... I got to thinking about the problem and hit on a completely different solution that in the long run, I think would be much more effective. As of this evening, the Letterboxing Orphanage is officially closed.

This is how abandoned listings are handled now:

First, if the registered owner has not logged in within the past year, Atlas Quest will attempt to change the ownership to the planter, author, carver, and lister--in that order--until it finds someone associated with the box who can own it and has logged in without the past year.

Then, if nobody associated with the box has logged in within the past year, Atlas Quest will change the status of the box to "abandoned" if the status was active or unknown. Boxes that are already marked as unavailable or retired will stay that way. Only the AQ system can change the status of a box to "abandoned," and it's done automatically each night.

The abandoned status is a lot like the "unknown" status--the box might be there, it might not. It's hard to tell since everyone associated with the box hasn't logged into their account for over one year and therefore aren't keeping their listings current. If you like a challenge, an abandoned box might be just the thing you want to hunt for. =) And, if fact, if you check the Advanced Search page, you'll see that you can now include (or exclude) boxes that are marked as abandoned.

And that's it in a nutshell. If the owner of the box does later log into Atlas Quest, they can update the status to the appropriate value.

Besides the fact that (I hope) I get fewer pieces of hate mail for daring to consider allowing someone else to adopt their box, I'm also hoping to discourage people from keeping old boxes alive past their prime. It seems that a lot of letterboxers have a strong tendency to never let a box die. I know the feeling, I felt that way in my early years of letterboxing too. It's a wonderful box, you want it to last forever, you feel like the person who planted it would want to thank you for your help. There still are a couple of boxes that I think are historical enough to keep alive--the first box in each state, for instance--but letterboxes are not meant to last forever.

The whole adoption process actually encouraged people to make letterboxes last forever, but in hindsight, I think that's a mistake. As boxes go missing, let them die. Retire them. Open up space for new boxes, new people, and new ideas. You can only find a box once, and if everyone in an area has already found it, it's not doing anyone any good. When it goes missing or is destroyed, replace it with something completely new and give those same people a new reason to visit the area. Give yourself the opportunity to create something even bigger and better. Use your time to create something new for everyone instead of maintaining something old for no one.

So there you have it. The Letterboxing Adoption Agency has closed its doors. And hopefully, this new system will still help insure that the search results aren't cluttered up with abandoned (but often missing) boxes. Not unless you want it to, that is. =)

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Another Trail Idea Comes to Life

One of the ideas I had while on my thru-hike earlier this year consisted of an dramatically expanded roll for what I've called "user groups." They've existed on Atlas Quest from the very beginning--there have always been a few special groups such as administrators and moderators. That's how AQ is able to figure out which parts of the site you should be able to access and which parts you shouldn't. Later, I added a premium member group, which was the first group anyone could get into--if they chose to. There's also been a special group I've called the "Everybody" group that all members are always in. It made some of the database queries easier to work with when I could use a regular join on two tables instead of a left join. Basically, it was a group of convenience, but was a group that every member on Atlas Quest could be in and never leave.

Over the years, I've created a handful of other special groups for various purposes. Some are known, some are up to devious things and are (or used to be) a secret. Admins had the power to create groups and add or remove people from specific groups.

But while hiking the trail, it occurred to me--wouldn't it be nice if anyone could create their own special little groups for whatever devious reasons they may have? There's not any particular reason the functionality needs to be limited to just admins. There would be a lot of stuff that needs to be automated, so it wasn't particularly high on my list of priorities, but it did go on my to-do list. As a first step to a more dramatic role for user groups, I added the ability to restrict boxes to specific groups one of those nights when Amanda was around on the trail with the laptop.

That was just the first indication of a much bigger role for groups, though, and I've finally got the vision I had in mind implemented. I updated it tonight, and my gut instinct is that most people will likely hate it. At least at first. =)

It's different. All boards, for instance, are now part of specific groups. Those "categories" that they used to be divided in are completely gone. They're assigned to specific groups instead, and unless you're a member of the group, it's as if those boards don't even exist.

Not going to South America? Never plan to go to South America? You could care less about anything that has to do with South America? Not a problem--just don't join the South America group and you won't see any boards or posts about South America.

Chat rooms are also associated with specific groups. You can't use a chat room unless you're a member of the group it's a part of. Most groups won't have them--chat rooms can be particularly hard on the server to allowing dedicated chat rooms for each group isn't practical at the moment.

You can find groups using the Manage Groups link, which is at the bottom of the "People" menu in the menu bar.

I've tried to add groups as appropriate, mostly based on the favorite boards you've selected. If you have a board marked as a favorite, I made sure you were automatically in the particular group required to keep seeing those boards. For most people, this includes the Hobby Box, the United States Letterboxing, Yakking It Up, and the Non-Traditional Boxes groups.

There are several different types of groups with various characteristics. The public groups are open for anyone to join or leave at whim. Protected and private groups require an invite to join, and you'll only see those in your groups if you're actually a member. The main difference between those two is that with a protected group, anyone already in the group is allowed to invite other in, while with a private group, only the group admins are allowed to invite others into the group.

There are two other group types that are mainly for AQ's purposes. There's a "system" group, which typically include groups that AQ itself pulls people into or out of as necessary. This would include the "everybody" group (which everyone is automatically in, whether you like it or not!) and the "premium members" group (which AQ will automatically put you in when you sign up for premium membership, and automatically take you out of when membership expires).

There's also a "hidden" group, which AQ uses to keep track of some of your settings. You won't see these. Each type of non-traditional box, for instance, is a hidden group, and you can join or leave the group through your Misceallenous Preferences. For all practical purposes, however, it's like those groups don't even exist. They're mostly for "accounting" purposes rather than being used directly.

The main types you need to be aware of are the public, protected, and private groups, because those are the ones that you and any member on Atlas Quest is able to create for yourself. If you love Harry Potter and want a special group just for other Harry Potter groups, you can create one, then create a board for it, then let the world in on your humble little group.

If you want to plot a surprise birthday party, you can create a private group and invite your co-conspirators to plot their attack on you private board. You can even list boxes that only your other co-conspirators can access.

Only protected and private groups can be used as restrictions for boxes. It didn't make much sense to me to restrict boxes to a public group that anyone who wanted to could join anyhow. So in these example, you couldn't restrict a box to just other Harry Potter fans--unless you restricted the entire group by turning it private or protected.

If this all sounds confusing, it's because it is. Honestly, I expect most people to hate the changes at first, so I'll apologize for that in advance. Specific boards might be hard to find at first. You'll probably want to tweak your membership in various groups to better suit your needs.

Here's one search you might want to save as a favorite. This search displays all groups that you can access--which is basically a group that's public or one that you're a member of. You can save it as a favorite search just like you would with regular box searches, then you can get notifications of when new (public) groups are created.

If you have an interest or wanted a board that I wasn't willing to create in the past, it's wide open now!

This is a pretty extensive update. I probably broke a few things (in fact, it's taken me what seems like forever to write this because I keep stopping to fix a new bug that pops up), and I'll fix them when I wake up in the morning. =)

Friday, October 24, 2008

Help Your Fellow Letterboxers!

Curse my absent-minded ways! I should have posted this long ago and I totally spaced it. *slap self* Wasn't until I started catching up on old e-mails I noticed this poor note with the time ticking away.

So here's the story, in case you missed it. The LUNA Crew has fallen into some tough times. Emotional, economical, you name it, they've suffered. Brandy posted details about their hardships and about a fundraising party to help out. Brandy's offered to carve pumpkins to help out, although I'm afraid I might be posting this a bit too late at this point. If you're interested, though, please contact her ASAP!

If there's anything you can do to help out, let Brandy know. She'll vouch for me--I'm a terrible messenger. You definitely don't want to give messages to me! =)

To borrow and twist a phrase from Mark, get out and save a letterboxer!

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Calendars and Eggnog

Walking home this evening, I stopped at the grocery store to pick up some milk. I got milk, but they also had eggnog, so I picked that up too. I know, it's ethically questionable--eggnog before Halloween?! Aren't there laws against that? None that I'm aware of, and I decided to take advantage of the situation.

Upon returning home, there was a BIG box of calendars waiting for me. Alas, it appears to be only one of at least two boxes, since I ordered many more calendars than were in this particular box.

But that's no reason for me to sit on them and do nothing! So I printed out all the orders, slapped on addresses, and filled out as many of the orders as I could--twenty of them, to be exact. The first 20 folks who ordered and paid for their calendars--your order is ready to drop in the mail tomorrow (Thursday). How do you know if your order is one of the lucky ones? You can see the order status of your order. If it's listed as "shipped," your order will be in the mail in a few more hours. (If your order says "Payment Due," get your payments in! I won't mail your calendar if I haven't received payment!)

Seeing as one box of calendars have arrived, a sister box or two should show up soon and I'll fill the rest of the orders (the paid ones, at least!) then.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Wanna Chat?

Chat rooms have invaded Atlas Quest! Addicting, so terribly, terribly addicting. For the past week or so, premium members have been chatting it up in the new chat rooms I've been developing, testing the system, tweaking, testing some more, tweaking some more.... And I've finally opened it for the world at large. Or rather, any registered Atlas Quest member. If you aren't a member, you'll have to use chat rooms somewhere else. Or just create an account--you'll be glad you did! I hope you will be glad, at least. =)

You can find a link to the chat rooms under the 'Toolbox' menubar option.

There are some important caveats you should know about. First, if you're using IE6--and I checked a couple of days ago, and about 15% of you out there are still using IE6--you *can* use the chat rooms, but it's ugly, hard to use, and not recommended. I'd suggest either upgrading to IE7 or start using the Firebox browser (my personal favorite!)

Second, these chat rooms can easily overload the server if too many people start using them at once, so there are limits to how many people are allowed to use it at once: 15 people per room or 50 people in all rooms. Not to mention that you can only use one chat room at a time yourself. The limits may be extended in the future, but it is entirely possible when there's a lot of chatting going on, you may have to wait your turn to get into a room. The current limits should be sufficient for everyone most of the time, but during really busy times--you could hit against them. Just try again later.

The chat rooms are wonderful, though. There's instant gratification like you'll find nowhere else on Atlas Quest. Meet with friends, troubleshoot problems, have a sing-along, or discuss issues in a much more intimate setting than the message boards. You're still expected to conduct yourself properly (the terms of service still apply even in the chat rooms), but nobody outside a given room will be able to read your chat logs later. Well, admins can if a problem is brought to their attention, but we really don't want to.

So when you get a chance, drop by a chat room and meet your fellow letterboxers. You might have fun! =)

Main Chat Room Page
Chat Room FAQs

Friday, October 03, 2008

Last Call For Calendars!

Today's the last day to order your official 2009 letterboxing calendar! I'll be taking down the AQ Marketplace tomorrow (Saturday) morning when I wake up, so if you want your calendars at the cheapest prices available, no more dawdling. Get your orders in today! If you want to pay with a personal check--that's fine--the check can arrive next week, but the order must be in the system now.

Additionally, I got an e-mail from yesterday saying they will be raising their prices later this month due to the higher cost of materials for printing. The e-mail focused on the price of self-published books so I'm not sure what the impact to calendars will be, but there almost certainly will be one. The point being, the longer you wait to order, the more it will cost. Order now and save! =)

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Get Your Calendars!

Version 2.0 of the 2009 letterboxing calendar arrived this afternoon, and it is good! =) The colors looked good, the credits are legible, and the calendar is READY to order in mass quantities!

I'll continue taking orders for them through Friday then put in the bulk order for them all. So if you want the lowest prices possible on the calendar, put your order in by Friday. After that, calendars will still be available for purchase, but only through the website which will cost more than if you order it through me.

I've even ordered new address labels that will go with the calendars I'll ship this year. Okay, not particularly exciting, I'm sure, but hey--I can stop writing the return address by hand so I'm excited about it. =)

Happy trails!

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Letterboxing Calendars!

I hold in my hands, or rather, I was holding in my hands (I'm typing now), a copy of the Official Atlas Quest 2009 Letterboxing Calendar. It's a beautiful thing, but as always, there's room for improvement. It was hard to read where the photo was taken and who took it on two of the months, so I tweaked that a bit. And I didn't like how the background color in one of the months turned out on paper, so I tweaked that too.

But despite those minor irritations, I like the calendar. =)

I've put in an order for another copy of the calendar--just one--to make sure the changes look good on the final product. I doubt I'll have any issue with it, so I'm going to open up the AQ Marketplace and officially put the calendars up for sale. I still need to tweak and test a couple of things and make sure nothing has broken since last year, but it should be ready by morning tomorrow when most of you read this message. =)

You can also order the 2009 Thru-Hiking Calendar. All photos taken while on my thru-hike from Key West to Springer Mountain. I don't actually expect to sell enough of these to get a bulk discount, but I don't have to pay for and give out 13 calendars for free either so it kind of evens out. =)

You can also order AQ patches at the same time you order calendars, but please note that I do not intend to ship the patches until the calendars that go with them arrive. (If you order just patches, I'll ship those immediately since I have those right now, but in that case, you're better off using the patch page to order them. Shipping is cheaper there since the shopping cart assumes I'll have to ship a calendar which would be more expensive.)

A couple of things to note: The calendars won't be in your hands until mid-October at best. Hopefully by the end of the October at worst. Seems like every year people put in orders and a couple of people later contact me asking what happened to them. I collect the orders up front ahead of time so I can buy them all in bulk. The calendars must then be printed and shipped to me--a process that typically takes two or three weeks. Once I get the calendars in my own hands, I mail them out as quickly as possible to you. The advantage for you--by buying the calendars in bulk, it's cheaper than being able to buy it directly off of (which is where I have them printed). And it's good for me since I have to give away 13 calendars for free, I end up saving money myself since those free calendars are included in the order and also get the bulk discount. (To be perfectly honest, that's the main reason I even handle the calendars myself--it ultimately saves me money in the long run too!)

So when you put in your order, keep in mind that the calendars likely won't reach you until mid to late October. And that's just an estimate--if the calendars take unusually long to reach me, it could even be later.

For those of you who had a photo used in the calendar--JBBK, Funhog, Music Woman, Ukusa, Benetti's Defense, firefighterfamily, Sandibox, Eye Wanitt, TulsaGal, Cabin Clan, ArtGekko, roseislandfans, and yachtygirl--congrats! =) The photos are beautiful! If you want more than the free calendar you'll be receiving, go ahead and put in an order just like anyone else. Do NOT include your free calendar in that order, however. AQ isn't smart enough to know who is getting a free calendar and will charge you for anything you run through the ordering process. I'll handle the free calendars separately.

And.... if you missed out on submitting photos for this year, I'm already accepting submissions for the 2010 letterboxing calendar. Keep your camera and your eyes ready!

For all things about the calendar, check out the Project X link under the Toolbox menubar option.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

FullText Searches

Good news, folks! But before I get to that.... you're probably wondering, "What the heck is a full text search?" Good question!

It involves a special type of index in the database that will take a long string of text, figure out each and every word that's used it in, then create a massive index so when you try to do a search for all posts with the words "deep dark secrets," the database can look up each of those words in the index and figure out--practically instantly--exactly which posts match the search. There's a lot of sophisticated stuff going on there.

And that's where the good news comes in--I finally broke down and figured out how to personalize the index specifically to Atlas Quest. You see, all this time, I've just been using the defaults. Those defaults include the minimum length a word must be in order to be indexed (four) and the list of stopwords (common words that aren't worth indexing at all such as "which" or "that").

I hadn't been messing around with the defaults since I thought it would require tweaking the code for the database itself and recompile--something I so did not want to do and could seriously screw things up in a very big way.

Turns out, that's not the case. (Well, actually, certain settings do require this, but the minimum word length, maximum word length, and stopword list does not.) So this evening, I changed the minimum word length to 3 and the maximum word length to 10. I took the already existing stopword list and added a few commonly searched for terms that don't seem to be particularly useful but can bog the database down with especially common words.

Then I rebuilt the indexes and presto! Most three letter words are now searchable. You can search for them in the message boards, in clues, and wherever word-based searches are allowed. Very nice. I still need to tweak some of the code on Atlas Quest before the change is complete, but already the searches should be much more useful and powerful. You can complete full searches on three letter words such as pie, box (though I might add that one to the stoplist), toe, etc. Very nice. *nodding*

In other news.... just before I started doing these tweaks, I happened to noticed that the database grew to 1001.3 megabytes. The big One Gig! Must have happened some time this afternoon.

After I changed the full text index settings and rebuilt the indexes, the database size dropped to 986.76 megabytes. Hmm.... I actually expected it to grow even larger since I'm allowing three letter words to be indexed which wasn't happening before, but I guess the words longer than 10 letters that are not being indexed anymore more than compensated for the difference. *shrug* Plus a handful of words in the stopword list that are no longer being indexed.

In any case, it looks like I shrank the database by several megabytes with my change, so it's under the 1G size now. Give it a week, though, and I bet it'll be above one gigabyte again. The database certainly grows fast enough! I still thought it rather exciting to see the database being over 1G. I've never worked with a 1G database before. =)

So anyhow.... That's the update for tonight. Hope you like it! =)

-- Ryan

Saturday, September 13, 2008

More Message Boards!

For some time now, I've been meaning to add more regional divisions for the message boards. The folks in the southwest requested one almost immediately as soon as the message boards were added and it thrived briefly, but largely lays forgotten for the most part nowadays. But at long last, I've added a bunch of new regions.

There are a couple of reasons for this. First, to help cut down on having people cross-post to multiple states that they're traveling through or all of the neighboring states that an event is being held in. Especially with those little states in the northeast. It allows one to better target the specific audience they want to see their post without having to cross-post.

Second, for some time now, I've been wondering when creating "city-based" boards might be useful. Or at least regions that are smaller than individual states. So there's a place where one can discuss boxes or happenings in Seattle, or Los Angeles, or other large metro areas without having to annoy folks who might live in the state but nowhere near the area being discussed. (A potential issue for folks who live in large states such as California or Texas that span the better part of a thousand miles.)

I haven't created any city-based boards (not yet, at least), but I renamed the existing boards to specify what sort of area the individual boards cover: regional or states. (Or provinces, in the case of Canada.) So later, if or when city-based boards would be useful, I can call the boards "City: Seattle" (or whatever the case may be). It's rather useful to prepend the area being described with what type of area it is since the boards are sorted alphabetically. It lumps all of the regional boards together, and all of the state boards together, and (in the future) all of the city boards together so there isn't a big mash-up of regions, states, and cities randomly thrown together.

So anyhow.... to make a long story short, you'll likely want to check your board settings to make sure you've marked your region as a favorite or ignore those boards that have no interest to you. There are several new regions for the United States, mostly following the lead of the existing regional Yahoo Groups list since that's what everyone's used to already. I also added a few regions in the World Letterboxing category to cover Africa, Central America, South America, Western Europe, and Eastern Europe.

Happy trails!

Friday, September 05, 2008

That was Fast, Part Duo

Now that the message boards are running so incredibly fast, I've started taking a look at some other regularly recorded slow queries and putting some effort into fixing those up. The speed improvements can be just as dramatic, but you won't notice them nearly as much since they tend to be on rarely visited pages or when you run a rarely used command. (Relatively speaking, of course.)

Out of curiosity, I pulled up the stats from last month. In August, the message.html page (used to read or scan multiple messages at a time) was hit 379,824 times while the message.html page (used to read messages one at a time) registered one at a time got 282,833 hits for a total of 662,657 hits.

Almost every one of these page hits would have required at least 1,000 milliseconds to run at any given time, sometimes considerably longer during heavy loads, but lets assume 1,000 milliseconds is a good average. That's one full second.

Which means for the database to generate 662,657 message board pages, it would have required 662,657 seconds to do so. Seeing as there are 60 seconds in a minute, that's equivalent to 11044 minutes. And since there are 60 minutes in an hour, that would be equivalent to 184 hours. And since everyone knows there are 24 hours in a day, that amounts to 7.7 days.

So last month, if the sever on Atlas Quest did nothing but generate those 662,657 pages one at a time, non-stop, it would have taken 7.7 days. There were only 31 days last month. That's a heck of a lot of server time going to the message boards when you consider AQ also needed to serve up clues, profiles, AQ mail, yadda, yadda, yadda. Not surprising really that things were starting to come to a boiling point.

Now the message board pages are disgustingly fast. They seem to be averaging about 10 milliseconds per page, or about 1/100th of a second. So to process 662,657 message board pages would now require about 1.8 hours of processing time.

From 7.7 days to 1.8 hours. Yeah, I'd say that's an improvement. =)

And I should apologize.... That stolen one or two seconds every time you tried to load a new message board page added up to a wasted 7.7 days for you guys. Sitting there waiting for the database to do its thing and figure out which message you were trying to view. So collectively, you all now have an extra 7.6 or so days to FIND MORE LETTERBOXES this month! =) And every month from here on out. You're welcome. ;o)

Yowzers, that's fast!

Those folks with webmaster accounts on Atlas Quest get quite a bit of technical information included with every page they view on the site. It tells us if AQ detected any errors, any cookies that were sent, POST and GET data, the headers from each page, session variables, and--relevant to today's post--a record of all queries that AQ runs on the database that take more than five seconds to run. There's nothing special about five seconds. Originally I started it at ten seconds, then waited around for a bunch of slow queries to be recorded, then started figuring out ways to make them run faster. They were the worst of the lot and slowing down Atlas Quest.

Eventually, a day came along, and Atlas Quest did not record a single slow query. So then I cut the definition of a "slow" query to five seconds, and started fixing those up. And eventually, I knocked all of those out too.

I never cut the definition of a slow query after that--Atlas Quest was running fast and smooth and there seemed little reason for it. Five seconds is actually very slow, but an occasional slow query wasn't an issue and to be expected. During the nightly updates, for instance, certain chores such as backing up the database would cause queries to stop for the better part of a minute, but backups are very important and necessary and I wasn't going to stop doing them so queries at 3:00 in the morning ran quickly. So five seconds seemed like a reasonable limit--cutting out most of the temporary slow queries but still catching most of the problem queries.

A few weeks ago, I noticed that one particular query which runs on My Page was getting pegged as slow more and more often. My Page is one of the most commonly hit pages on Atlas Quest, and it has a slow query to boot? Not a good combination....

So I took a look at the queries on that page. Atlas Quest will display for webmasters every query that is run to generate a page along with how many milliseconds the query took to run. The vast majority of queries will run in less than 5 milliseconds. A few of the more complex queries may take as long as 10 or 20 milliseconds. And a small handful, under the right conditions, may take as long as 100 milliseconds. That's still 1/10th of a second, however, and pretty darned fast.

And on My Page, Atlas Quest typically runs about 10 queries to generate all the data you see on that page. And one of the queries--the query that kept getting tagged as slow--took longer to run than all the other queries combined! Most of the time I looked, it required about 200 to 300 milliseconds to run, but when the server had a particularly heavy load, that time would often extend beyond 5,000 milliseconds (that's five full seconds!) and AQ would record the slow query for my examination. For one of the most commonly viewed pages on Atlas Quest, that query was becoming a major problem, and a problem that continued to grow worse as the number of members on Atlas Quest and the number of messages to the message boards grew.

What did this query do? It's the one that calculated how many new posts were on your favorite boards. Somehow, I didn't think most of you would like it if I just took out that feature. I needed to think of a way to make that query faster.

And for weeks now, I pondered ways about doing that. I delved into the database documention, tried to implement a couple of solutions, but kept hitting a block wall. That query was a darn good query already--it had to be to have kept running so well for so long--and further optimizations were growing a lot harder to find. There were other problem queries on Atlas Quest, but I considered the one on My Page my number one priority since it was one of the most commonly viewed pages on Atlas Quest.

I don't know exactly how many hours I worked on figuring out a solution to this problem query. Probably at least 50 hours. Probably not more than 100, but I don't have a timesheet I check in with, so I don't really know, but it was long enough that I was getting very frustrated. After weeks of effort and dozens of hours of research and tests, and I was getting absolutely nowhere.

And the problem query just kept becoming a bigger and bigger problem, getting tagged as slow more and more often. Would the madness ever end?

Finally, more-or-less out of desperation, I had one last idea that required me to duplicate some data in the database in two different places. Actually, technically speaking, the data was duplicated--on average--about 7 times. I only duplicated one column, but for those of you wise in database design, duplication of data is best avoided. But I thought one particular index might help, and to create it, I needed to duplicate some data from one table in the database to another, then create an index on it. An index is just what it sounds like--something like out of a technical book you might read. It allows finding specific data in a table very fast.

So I copied over this data, created an index on it, and what an improvement! That problem query on My Page went from 200-300 milliseconds (most of the time) down to 20-30 milliseconds (most of the time). It's a huge improvement, running 10 times faster than before. The last time I viewed My Page, the queries it ran took the follow milliseconds to run: 1, 19, 6, 2, 6, 5, 0, and 3 for a total of 42 millseconds. That's pretty normal, and is a huge improvement over the 300+ milliseconds the page used to take to run. So if My Page seems like it's running faster today, it's because it is. AQ is generating it nearly 10 times faster than it was just yesterday.

Turns out, however, that was just the beginning. There was another problem query I was running into when someone viewed a page of message board posts. Each time you view a post, Atlas Quest needs to calculate where the previous and next buttons should point to. I put in a couple of ugly hacks many moons ago to help keep the message boards running fast, but they were starting to filter. The calculation for the previous message in particular was often the slowest of all, rarely finishing in less than 1000 milliseconds (one full second). And that's a pretty busy page to have a query that takes at least one full second to generate.

With this duplicated data now in the database, on a hunch, I added another index and checked out the results. The previous message query took 1 millisecond to run. One. That friggin' query took 1/1000th of a second to run--a thousand times faster than before. HOLY COW! I was floored. I clicked more messages to see if it was a fluke, and the query consistently came back within one or two milliseconds. It also make the query for calcuation the next post equally fast (improving from about 100-200 milliseconds to 1 or 2 milliseconds), and the query for the messages that were being viewed also improved from about 100-200 milliseconds to 1 or 2 milliseconds. With queries running that fast, I no longer needed a couple of the hacks I put in the code to improve the query speeds, so I took them out which saved another few hundred milliseconds off the overhead to generate a page.

All told, viewing a page of 30 posts was taking nearly 2000 milliseconds to create on average. Even during the lightest of server loads, the page was taking at least 1000 milliseconds to generate. During heavy server loads, it might take 10,000 milliseconds. (Ten full seconds!)

The last page of messages I just looked at included the following query times (in milliseconds): 1, 2, 0, 0, 1, 1, 0, and 1 for a total of 6 milliseconds--an improvement over one hundred times faster than before. Another page of messages took the database 15 milliseconds to generate--and that was one of the slower ones!

So to make a long story short.... if the message boards seem zippier today than they have in a long time, there's a good reason for that. They're running over 100 times faster today than they were yesterday. =)