Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Updated Tags

Red tag, blue tag, green tag... what do they mean? They basically represent anything you want them to represent, and I've probably heard a hundred different ways people have chosen to use their tags. The biggest problem in using them, however, is remember what one uses each tag color for!

Now, if you check out your Miscellaneous Preferences, you'll find an option to set the tag names to a more useful reminder than the color of the tag. You can label them north, south, east, or west. You can label them DNF, or with the name of the event you plan to find them at. Whatever reminds you of what the purpose of each color tag is.

Then, wherever the tag names are provided as options (such as on the Advanced Search page), you'll see the name you gave the tag rather than the color of the tag. Search results that show a box that has been tagged--you'll still see the same little stars as before, but if you hover your mouse cursor over the star, it'll show the name you gave it as a tooltip.

On a related note, back on that Advanced Search page, you'll find options to "and" or "or" tags. These only apply if you select more than one tag for your search. Let's say, for instance, you select the blue and red tag colors. You can have the search results return all boxes that have the blue and red tag, or all boxes that have the blue or red tag. It'll default to or, just as it's always been, but you do now have the option of an and search which didn't exist before.

Happy trails!

-- Ryan

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Reducing the Clutter

One of the most common, ongoing complaints I get about Atlas Quest is the cluttering of search results. Old, abandoned boxes that are out of date, boxes that are known (or at least strongly suspected) of being missing, but still showing up in search results. Over the years, I've made a few stabs at the problem such as fixing listings manually that come to my attention.

Then there was the period when I went through a whole series of methods of dealing with abandoned listings. First I had set up the site so others could automatically adopt them if the owner hadn't logged in for a year, but then I'd get irate e-mails from the occasional person who'd come back about their boxes being set out for adoption. Then I created an "abandoned" status so people could see at a glance that the box might have issues and the listing may not be up-to-date, but then I kept getting requests from folks asking to adopt them (which I had stopped allowing). Seems like no matter what I did with those abandoned listings (either because the owner no longer logs into Atlas Quest at all or because the owner just doesn't update the status of their boxes when they are known to go missing), someone would be up in arms about it. And yet, nobody likes those listings.

As Atlas Quest ages, it's a problem that continues to grow worse and worse.

So once again, I'm taking another stab at the problem. =) Now, if you head on over to the Advanced Search page, you'll find a few new options. Near the bottom of the page, just above the options to hide your plants, finds, and attempted boxes, there are three new options. Let me tell you about each of them....

Hide Abandoned Boxes
This option removes from the search results any box whose owner has not logged into Atlas Quest for at least six full months. The boxes may be perfectly viable, but if it isn't, there's probably nothing in the listings that would let you know. If you have trouble finding a box, sending an e-mail off to the owner probably won't get you any results. So a lot of people would just as soon not look for such boxes.

Technically, I should point out, it's actually only hiding abandoned listings on Atlas Quest--the owner may very well be maintaining their boxes and simply be regular members of (It happens quite often, in fact.) But as far as AQ can determine, the owner simply isn't around maintaining their listings on Atlas Quest. The fact that their boxes are also abandoned is just an assumption.

There are approximately 53,000 active boxes listed on Atlas Quest, and this search option would knock out about 4,000 of them from the search results. To insure your own boxes don't get "knocked out," just make sure you've logged into AQ at least once every six months. Additionally, I've decided to enable this option as a default for most traditional box searches.

Hide Strikeouts
You probably don't know what a 'strikeout' is, since I just made it up last night. =) It's what happens when you look for the box but then fail to find it. You've struck out! Some people will go so far as to record their attempt on Atlas Quest, and if you look at the history of attempts on the box, you might see a long list of failed attempts. (One particular box listing has 62 consecutive attempts on it!) Does it mean the box is missing? Not necessarily. It might mean that the box is really, really tough to find. But if there are several consecutive attempts on a box, more often than not, it's usually missing. And most people do not enjoy trying to find boxes that are likely missing.

So I took the baseball analogy here. Three strikes, and you're out! Checking this option will remove from the search results any box where the last three entries on the find report are all attempts. Setting your preferences to hide attempts does not make your boxes immune, either. If there are a lot of attempts on your box, you can't "trick" people into looking for a box that they don't want to find by hiding your attempts.

If you like a challenge, you'll want to keep those strikeouts in your search results. Since most people don't, I'm also making the default for most searches to not include strikeouts.

What if one of your boxes has three (or more) attempts but it really is active and still can be found? That's part of what maintaining your listings is about. If the box is still there, you can record a "find" on your own box and reset the strikeout counter back to zero. Everyone has the power to reset the counter to zero, and if the attempts are bogus, part of maintaining your listing is to let everyone know it.

Only 865 of the 53,000 active boxes on Atlas Quest have "struck out" as of today. (I haven't run the numbers because the database query starts getting a heck of a lot more complicated, but I suspect the great majority of these would also be from abandoned listings.)

Hide Old Finds
Many folks want some reassurance that a box is still there by checking the last found date of the box. If the box was found within the past week, the theory goes, it's much more likely to still be there than a box that was last found a year ago.

Of all the theories of reducing cluttered search results, this is the most dubious one, in my humble opinion. I know a lot of people out there subscribe to the theory, and I'm willing to help you out by giving you an option to remove from the search results any box that hasn't been found within the last six months (that's what this option does), but it is not enabled by default.

I have a lot of boxes I've planted on long hikes, and they often times don't get any finders for years at a time. I've planted boxes in Africa and Central America which rarely get any visitors, even though--so far as I know--the boxes are still alive and well. And I've planted boxes that have such cryptic and difficult clues, that few people have ever solved them. There are many legitimate reasons a box may not have any recent finds on it, so I while I'll give you the power to remove such boxes from the search results, I won't make it a default.

For those of you who do have such boxes and are worried someone might skip over it due to it having no recent finders, you can "push up" the last found date by recording a find on the box yourself. Since this option isn't a default, however, I don't think it's really worth the effort. I don't intend to record finds on all of my rarely found boxes just to update the last found date.

For a box that has no finders (yet!), the plant date is assumed to be the "last found" date. It's the last date that AQ knows somebody was at the box and can verify its existence on that date.

A whopping 31,492 boxes of the 53,000 active listings would be cut out of one's search results if you used this option. Which, IMHO, just goes to show how incredibly unreliable using the last found date is in determining if a box is still viable. But it's an option for those who want to make use of it.

Out of curiosity, I tried extending the cutoff for "recently found boxes" to one year, and that would have cut out 25,606 boxes. Extending it to two years would have cut out 12,995 boxes. It doesn't really seem to matter what the cut-off time is.... relying on the last found date would cut out a LOT of viable boxes from your search results.

So there you have it! Hope you enjoy the new options, and I hope it unclutters your search results a bit. =)

Friday, September 24, 2010

The First "Big" Update....

Maybe it's because I'm officially a dork (or geek? I'm not really sure what the difference is?), but in the last five months, I've really missed coding. The stuff that requires me to open the hood on Atlas Quest, replace parts, shake up the database, and makes me think--how can I get the system to do something it may not want to do. An idea is great, but figuring out how to make them work can be a lot of fun.

The very first changes I made to AQ since getting back were largely cosmetic in nature. Fast and easy to implement. But I really wanted to get into the guts, and now I've done so. =)

The changes aren't obvious, and most of you probably won't even care about them, but they were things that bothered me for a long time. If you go to the Advanced Search page, that's where you'll see the results of my mucking around. In particular, the stamp types and the hike types sections.

They used to be radio buttons. Now they are checkboxes. Before, you could only search one category at a time: For instance, if you wanted a list of all boxes that required a hike of three miles or more, you had to either accept "all" lengths, or you had to run two searches--one for "treks" and one for "expeditions." Now you can specifically pick both types at once. You could even throw in the boxes of "unknown lengths" in case some of those might be longer hikes as well--or not, if you think that would likely include too many false positives.

I usually skip looking for any box marked as a store-bought stamp, but I don't mind looking for the occasional custom-made stamp along with the hand-carved stamps I usually find, and now I can run a search that lets me hide those store-boughts that I'm not interested in while keeping all of the other boxes in my search results. Awesome! =)

I've also turned a couple of  "admin only" features into features that everyone can now use. Once again, you can see that on the Advanced Search page--it's now possible to search for boxes that have blue diamonds and/or planter's choice icons on them. I originally used them to help test me test various algorithms. I'd tweak an algorithm, run it, then see what sorts of boxes were being assigned the blue diamonds by running a "blue diamond search." I've actually had that as an option available for admins since those features were created, but admittedly kept them "admin only" options thinking they'd likely be too controversial. They probably still are, but I don't really care anymore either. =)

When you're wandering through the woods wondering where your next good water source is and if you have enough food to get to the next trail town, you start thinking about the problems in the "real world" and start thinking, "Who the hell cares one way or another about blue diamonds? There are far more important things for me to worry about. If someone doesn't like those being options, they can jump in a frozen lake. It'll give them something else to worry about--problems that really matter."

So I've made those options available to all now. Yes, if you run searches that return only blue diamond boxes, you'll certainly miss some great boxes that don't have them. Yes, if you run searches that return only planter choice boxes, you'll also miss some great boxes that don't have them. But really, is there any method that can guarantee you'll get a list of every great box in an area without actually finding every box in the area yourself? Recommendations from friends are incomplete unless they've found every box in an area. And they might skew their results based on their own personal preferences. Yadda, yadda, yadda.

So I'll say it now--yes, you will miss some awesome boxes if you just look for boxes that have blue diamonds. But I'll say two things about that: One, who cares? I don't. That's your loss. And two, it's not possible to create a definitive list of "must find" boxes with any method. The only way to guarantee you'll find every fantastic box in an area is to actually go out and find every box in the area. And when we're traveling, that's rarely a realistic option. A blue diamond list may not be perfect, but neither is any other list. At least it gives you a starting point, though.

And finally one other tweak--many moons ago, when I was testing code that was specific to where clues were hosted, I'd find it useful to search based on where clues were hosted as test cases. So I made an admin-only option that let me search based on if a clue were hosted on Atlas Quest, LbNA, or some other remote website. It would even show an icon in the list of attributes to let me know where the clue came from. (Those icons would always show up in my printouts of clues, and I always wondered if anyone noticed the "extra" icons that would show up in my printouts, but if anyone did, they never said anything about it.) It was mostly a feature I used for testing. The only practical use I could think of that you all might use it for would be to run a search that suppressed LbNA-hosted clues if you were planning to check for clues on that website anyway. It would reduce the redundancy of seeing those particular boxes on both sites. But it would likely "look bad" to provide an option that would let people suppress LbNA-hosted clues on searches here, even if the point was to encourage people to get a full list of LbNA-hosted clues at LbNA.

I've also found that I rarely ended up using that search option--if I needed to find a box with clues hosted on LbNA, for instance, I'd just run a simple search then scroll down the attribute list looking for one marked appropriately. Seemed a bit laborious to actually run an advanced search.

So I took that option out from the search options--makes the code shorter and easier--but I left the icons intact and they're now available for everyone to see. If you run a search, it'll show an icon indicating where the clue is hosted--Atlas Quest, LbNA, or "some other remotely hosted clue"--before you click or even hover your mouse cursor over the link. Then I added additional ones for kicks--there are now icons for clues hosted on the website and for those hosted on Blogger. Again, the ability to search based on where a clue is hosted is not an option, but you can see at a glance where the clue is hosted.

Which can be useful for a couple of reasons. You might see that a clue is hosted on and might naturally think it's a hybrid box--and perhaps not one you'd like to get.

Another possible use: AQ often uses cached clues for some features like the ability to print several clues at once--but this often doesn't work well with Blogger-hosted clues (which are often photo clues, and photos aren't cached) or other remotely-hosted clues. If you see one of those in your list, it might be a good idea to take a special look at the clue before printing a cached version of it. (I knowingly walked passed one letterbox on the PCT when the clue stated to find the location where the photo was taken... but my clue didn't have the photo attached! Argh!)

And, just because I could, I added one special icon for any clue that I've hosted on my Ryan's a Total Goober website. Which right now, amounts to just one clue. I usually host my clues on AQ, but one particular clue I needed to do some advanced HTML that wasn't permitted on AQ. It's not really useful in this particular case, but it's one of the perks of running your own website. =)

If you run a search for New York, NY, for instance (at least with my search results), you'll see icons representing AQ-hosted clues, LbNA-hosted clues, two Blogger-hosted clues, and four "other remote clues." Just click on the icon to open up the clue page.

So there you have it.... some of the updates I just installed about an hour ago. Enjoy! =) I mucked with the code. I mucked with the database. I probably broke some stuff and don't even know it yet. If you see any problems, do let me know!

And aren't you'll glad I'm back? =)

-- Ryan

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

It's that time of year again....

What time of year is that, you ask? Calendars! Actually, I'm a little late this year. I've been... preoccupied with other issues. ;o) But now that that little project is over and I'm back online, it's time to make the 2011 letterboxing calendar. It's not too late to submit your photos for selection! Get your photos submitted ASAP, however. I plan to select the final winners within the next few days and start putting the calendar together! I don't have a specific cut-off date or time in mind, but it'll be soon.

Project X: Letterboxing Calendar
Sample the 2010 Calendars
Upload Your Submissions