Saturday, March 27, 2010

The Virtual Demotion

I haven't been looking forward to this latest update because I know it's going to tick a lot of people off, so let me apologize in advance. Virtual 'boxes' have long since lost any connection to boxes as we know it, and I've finally reflected that fact in the database and the code base. In a nutshell, they've been demoted. They are no longer boxes, in name or function.

For a long time, I didn't care that virtuals (in my opinion, at least) were being run into the ground. I didn't do them, so I didn't really care. Whatever floats your boat. =) Eventually, however, their proliferation started causing a couple of technical problems that made me sit up and take notice. The two big issues:

* The enormous number of photos being uploaded into the system were taking up an incredibly large amount of limited disk space. I did a couple of delaying tactic, such as deleting decorative photos that were included with clues and limiting listings for virtuals to one person per day. Those were just stall tactics, though, not permanent solutions.
* Because it's actually quite easy to solve all (or nearly all) virtuals, it had some unique issues when it came to developing database queries. For those who had found more than about 50% of the virtuals listed on Atlas Quest, it caused an excessive number of slow database queries. Since the other types of boxes didn't have those kind of find rates (nor the sheer number of finds involved), the problem doesn't show up with other box types. It was a problem unique to virtuals, and I didn't have a good solution to it.

To be perfectly honest, I'd be just as happy to stop support for virtuals completely, but I know quite a few of you are big fans of them, so I haven't. I thought about moving them to a completely separate website, which is actually quite an appealing idea to me, but creating a new website from scratch would take a lot more work than I wanted to handle. So I went with the solution that I'd move virtuals into a category of their own, completely independent of boxes, trackers, events, and groups (which were the four official "categories" of "stuff" I supported before). Now there's an actual virtual category, rather than just a subtype of the box category.

This change has several important ramifications. I'm building this code from scratch, so it's rather primitive at the moment. A lot of features that were designed to work explicitly with boxes such as tags, ignored boxes, box comments, and so forth--they don't work on virtuals anymore. That's the bad news. Eventually, I'd like to implement some of those features, but it takes time, and it's not going to happen overnight.

Of course, to support virtuals at all, I really needed solutions to those two big elephants in the room, and a number of changes are directly related to fixing those problems. The first--images for solutions will no longer be hosted on Atlas Quest. Instead of uploading images, you'll just create links to images elsewhere on the web. (And no, uploading images to the Photo Gallery and linking to those will not work--AQ will reject those links.) Existing images can stay on Atlas Quest, but all new virtuals will require externally hosted images. This should help cut the number of images being uploaded dramatically.

The slow queries problem I've attempted to help solve by reducing the number of tables in the database that need to be joined. Most of you are probably rolling your eyes thinking, "What's that mean?" What this means is that series of virtuals will no longer be supported. (Existing series have been split up into individual listings.) Since almost all virtuals had clues and solutions hosted on Atlas Quest anyhow, I've gone ahead and made that an official rule. All virtuals listed on Atlas Quest must have a clue and solution listed. (Any existing boxes that did not have a clue or solution listed have had their status changed to unavailable.)

While I'm certain that a lot of these changes won't be popular, there are a couple of silver linings for you virtual aficionados. =) Since the original concept of solving passkeys one letter at a time has largely gone extinct, you can now just type the passkey rather than set it one letter at a time. (Which, truth be told, is actually easier for me to implement and maintain anyhow.)

Additionally, now that virtuals are in their own separate category, I got rid of stuff that wasn't particularly applicable to them. For instance, a planter, author, owner, and carver seemed a bit of overkill for a virtual box. Has there ever been a planter who wasn't the author? And the vast majority of virtuals were images stolen off the web so listing carvers doesn't seem particularly necessary. (And even if someone is using hand-carved stamps, would you actually be using someone else's hand-carved images? Probably not a good idea....) So there are only two names associated with virtuals--the person who first listed the box (the "creator") and the person who maintains the box (the "owner").

Likewise, the status options have been simplified as well to two different choices as well--active and unavailable. While technically, I suppose the "unknown" option could be used, it seems almost ridiculous to apply it to a virtual. And the distinction between an "unavailable" virtual and a "retired" virtual seemed like a line so thin, it hardly seems worth quibbling about. So the status options have been narrowed down to a format more suitable for virtuals. Plant dates are no longer used at all--it should always be the same as the list date--so it seemed like an unnecessary redundancy to support both a plant and list date. You don't even have the option of entering it anymore.

And there's one other relatively minor change which, I suspect, might possibly anger people most of all--you will not find your virtual plant or find counts anywhere on Atlas Quest. I suspect that part of the reason that virtuals have gone downhill over the years is that it was easy to list and find virtuals faster and faster and people could rack up large numbers very quickly. Had more effort been put into quality rather than quantity, I might never have needed to demote the virtual. If you want to keep score for yourself, that's fine, but you won't find a virtual Hall of Fame anymore, and your virtual counts will not be displayed in your profile. We've always said it shouldn't be about the numbers, and now it's not--in both words and actions. (I will admit, part of the reason for this change is that it takes the database a really long time to count up the tens of thousands of finds some of you folks have picked up. But I like the principle behind the change as well.)

For the most part, virtuals are completely hidden unless someone explicitly chooses to participate in them by joining the Virtuals group. I've already added anyone who has solved or listed virtuals in the past, so most of you shouldn't need to worry about this. (I've also included it as a Miscellaneous Preference.) The virtuals board has also been moved into this group as well. If you are a member of this group, you'll see a "Virtuals" link under the "My Page" menubar option, and that's your link to all things virtual.

And, all of the code related to virtuals is completely new. I've done quite a bit of testing on it, but there is a LOT of new code being used, and it's almost certainly going to have a lot of bugs in it. Please be patient with me--I'll fix them as quick as I can.

I think that covers most of the issues regarding virtuals. If you have any questions or comments, please post them to the Virtuals board. If you just want to chew me out for these changes, I'd rather you not--it's unlikely to do any good--but I suppose you can do that too.


Caitlin T. said...

A+ approval. ;)

Seems to me like you made the best of things. You still let those who enjoy Virtuals still be able to make/post/find them, and allow those of us who don't enjoy Virtuals to not have the site bogged down by them. :D

OhanaTribe said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ryan said...

Ignore that part about not being able to sort logbook entries. I've just finished implementing that. =) Still lots of old box functionality that has not yet been recreated, though....

Anonymous said...

So, delete the support for virtuals and then scoot off to hike the PCT where nobody can bother you! Sounds like a plan!

-- Kirbert

Lone R said...

I agree with Caitlin.

The time has come for a change. I'm especially happy that the numbers are gone. No more solving and creating puzzles just to wrack up numbers. As a hider of virtuals, that I spent days creating, with stamp images that I carved, I was disheartened when it felt like my virtuals were mostly solved to add another notch to the belt.

I haven't had a close look at the changes, so I'll head over and see what's up.

Thanks for the detailed information on the reasons for the change.

Laughing Orca Ranch said...

Last year while recuuperating from ACL surgery and having to be off my legs for several months after I subsequentially broke my same knee, doing virtuals were a life saver for me.
They were fun to solve and keep my brain active and it was also fun to keep track of how many I found or placed.
This past winter has been an awful one for us up here in the mountains. We've been snowbound more days than not.
My kids and I have spent hours curled up together solving the virtual clues and it was a great way to wile away the hours when we weren't able to be outside letterboxing.

I'm one who will miss the Virtual Letterbox, but totally understand where you're coming from, too.

Sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do.


Anonymous said...

Virtuals are one aspect I haven't gotten into much. Being a person who is easily hooked into the internet and technology, letterboxing is a way for me to get outside and do things there. I prefer traveling somewhere and finding things in cemeteries, parks, woods and seeing a hand carved stamp or a store bought stamp. With that said now, I'll probably get hooked on them now. When I first noticed virtuals, I thought, "Oooooh! You can letterbox through Active Worlds, Second Life, or some other virtual place like that?" Then I found out what it was. If you could do virtual letterboxing that way, now that's something I might enjoy doing on days I cannot go letterboxing or at 2am in the morning...

Does anyone know of anything like that on those virtual worlds?

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

So today as I type this we have 10 quisps filling up space.

Anonymous said...

Do what you gotta do, man!

Anonymous said...

It's your website, so I guess you can do what you want with it.

Letterboxing the hobby is bigger than any one person, and I wonder why virtuals have to meet *your* definition of "letterboxing" in order to stay on the site.

GreyCrazy said...

Well, 'Anonymous', you said's Ryan's website and he can make whatever decisions he feels are best. Frankly, the VAST majority of boxers that I know support this change whole-heartedly and I'm glad to see it happen.

I really don't have a problem with virtuals when they're done at least in part like a real box. I did a few when they were new. If we're all honest about it, virtuals now are really just puzzles, not kin to anything that stands under the rules as a letterbox. There's nothing wrong in that, for those that want to do them, but when it starts bogging down everything for everyone else...well, Ryan just has to take care of business.

You can still do the virtuals-- go forth and solve! And for the rest of you that post without your names, well, my name is on this post. LOL

Thanks Ryan, for creating such a great place for us to hang out. ;-)