Monday, October 02, 2023

Last week for eclipse glasses!

This photos shows the last
annular eclipse in the
United States,
taken by Thunderbird in 2012.
If you plan to watch the solar eclipse on October 14th, this is your last week to order eclipse glasses on Atlas Quest! If you're anywhere near the centerline of the eclipse, it'll be pretty awesome. Even if you aren't especially close to the centerline, most of the contiguous United States will still see over 50% of the sun's surface covered by the moon. And everywhere within the contiguous United States will experience some sort of partial eclipse., but at no  point during the eclipse will it be safe to watch with unprotected eyes.

Be prepared! Order your eclipse glasses today from the AQ Marketplace! Additionally, it's a two for one deal for many of you because there will be a total solar eclipse running through the United States next April and you can reuse the eclipse glasses for that next exclipse as well. It'll be an experience of a lifetime!

As a side note, Amanda and I plan to watch this eclipse from somewhere in New Mexico, so if you're interested in joining us, keep your eyes posted. We haven't really nailed down exactly where we'll watch it from as of yet, but we thought it might be interesting to head down somewhere near Roswell. Maybe look for some extraterrestrials while watching an event from out of this world. =) And it might be that the weather dictates precisely where we end up, but if you're nearby and possibly want to drop in to visit your favorite turtle and Nancy Drew sleuth, be sure to sign up for Extraterrestrial Adventures.

Experience the magic and awe of an annual eclipse!
Photo provided by 2heartsare1 from our 2012 annular eclipse event.

Wednesday, September 20, 2023

Major Announcement! And totally not click-bait!

So.... since the Last Big Update, you might be wondering what I've been up to. Mostly still working on speeding up slow queries. That Last Big Update largely fixed the worst of the issues, but that didn't mean there wasn't still room for improvement and I've continued to improve.

I wish I could play the Jaws music here. The major announcement
is ominous, but good in the long run! Photo provided by
Silver Eagle while snorkeling with whale sharks in the Maldives.
(I am SO totally jealous too!)
The new and improved code I wrote for Atlas Quest has been simply awesome. I'm very, very happy with how it's been performing, and once AQ seemed to be running well, I copied it over to LbNA where I fixed up some other slow-ish queries. Those weren't as problematic since not as many people use that website and the queries are a lot simpler anyhow, but since all my websites run on the same server, keeping things running fast on other databases will also help the AQ database run faster and better as well.

Then I copied the new query code over to Walking 4 Fun and repeated the process, improving the slower queries that I identified. The busiest page on W4F, the "My Walk" page, I'm happy to report, used to take--on average--about 1 to 2 seconds to run all of the queries needed to generate that page, and it's now down to about 35 ms. I just opened the page for myself and all of the queries--combined--took precisely 38 ms to run. Or, in other words, 0.038 seconds. Massive improvements!

And like I said before, that does help the AQ database run better as well. If you happened to run a search just as someone else was trying to look up their daily steps on Walking 4 Fun, your query might have run a second or two slower if the database was bogged down handling these other queries. So fixing these types of things are really good for all the databases on the system.

And then I've been hopping on and off each of the three major websites that use the database each day, looking for additional other queries that can be optimized. Some of the optimizations might not even seem like they're worth the effort. One query I improved a couple of days ago on LbNA now runs ten times faster! Which sounds impressive, until you realize that it originally took 0.20 seconds to run and now it takes 0.02 seconds to run. It is ten times faster, but it was already pretty fast to begin with.

But still, I've been making these kinds of "modest" improvements for weeks--months even, if you include the tweaks I made before the Last Big Update, and collectively, it starts to add up. A query that runs 1/10th of a second faster 10,000 times per day means the database doesn't spend 1000 seconds (about 16 minutes) every day running that query anymore.

And occasionally, I still stumbled onto an elephant of an improvement. Someone runs a search with weird parameters that take 20 seconds to run and I can tweak the query to make it run in less than a second. For that person, they'll see a dramatic improvement if they ever run that search again, and for everyone else, their queries won't be hung for 20 seconds while dealing with that other one. I'm not finding many of these kinds of improvements anymore, but it's always satisfying when I do. =)

But the database is still suffering from one issue that all the speed improvements in the world won't fix which is... a lack of memory. The database runs on a server with a mere 10GB of memory and the databases it uses are quite a bit larger than that. There's sometimes trouble getting all of the indexes to fit into internal memory--which helps queries run fast--and there's not really any way for me to optimize that. Basically, it sometimes needs to look up an index from the disk, which is slow. It's kind of like the difference between looking up a term in an index of a book or having the index memorized and being able to skip the process of actually looking it up because it's already in your head. 

And the next big improvement for the database is.... a bigger server! Specifically, a server with more RAM. So I started looking into upgrading the server. Originally I thought I'd just upgrade to a bigger VPS which is relatively painless and easy, but it turns out if I upgrade to a dedicated server, I'd actually get even more RAM, more disk space and at a lower cost than keeping it as part of a VPS!

So.... within the next week or so, I plan to move AQ (and LbNA, and W4F, and all of my other websites) to a fancy, new dedicated server.

Unfortunately, this will require a relatively significant period of downtime. The IP address of the websites will be changing, so there's also the whole issue of IP address propagation as well. Even if the new server is up and running fine, you might have trouble accessing it until the new IP address gets to your computer. For most people, this usually updates within a few hours, but some people in the past have had systems that took a week or longer before picking up the new IP address. It's not something I have a lot of control over either.

Will it be worth it, asks Wise Wanderer? I think so. *nodding* =)

The support team where I host the server reports the migration will take "24 to 48 hours"--that's the period of time that AQ (and LbNA) will be off limits to everyone. Once the migration is complete, the websites should be available within a few hours after that. Technically, the old servers will keep running during the migration, but any new letterboxes that are listed, messages posted, AQ mail sent, etc. won't be copied to the new server. It'll just appear like they were deleted.

I'm going to try seeing if I can just prevent people from logging in. If you can't log in, you can't really add any data to the database that won't get copied to the new server. This way, at least you can still run searches and look up publicly available boxes and message boards, even if you can't see the restricted ones that you would otherwise qualify for. I'm not actually sure how simple this will be since I never really designed AQ to keep running with the login options turned off. If it starts becoming too complicated, I might just choose to put up the "Under Construction" theme and make the entire website unavailable until the migration is complete.

But in any case, this will put both AQ and LbNA (and W4F for those of you who use it) out of commission for at least a day or two. Looking at the stats on AQ, mid-week (Tuesday through Thursday) is the least busy time for the website, so I'll probably try doing the update starting Tuesday of next week, and it should be available again by Thursday.

That's my tentative plan. It could change. When AQ and LbNA are down, I'll post updates to the AQ Facebook page at so make sure you're subscribed there if you want updates.

Even after the transfer is complete, there will likely be times when I need to restart the database server. With more memory, I'll have to update the database configuration options and I'll watch to see how it performs for a day or so, make some tweaks, restart the server, and repeat. So there will likely be some hiccups for the first week after the update as I fine-tune the configuration settings. Once it's all done, however, I hope AQ (and LbNA) run better than ever! =)

The new dedicated server I'm eying, btw, has 16GB of RAM--which almost doubles the available amount of memory for the database to use. It also comes with a lot more disk space as well, so I plan to stop AQ from deleting the high-resolution photos from the photo albums. At least until disk space becomes more problematic again. Do not expect that the high-resolution photos will always be stored forever, though. This new server has about 3-4 times more disk space available and I don't really have 3-4 times more data to store, so I'll just allow the high-resolution photos to linger longer than before.

And thanks to all of you premium members (and LbNA donors) who pay for all these expenses! I actually started the premium memberships when AQ was on a shared server, fearful that I'd have to move to a dedicated server and I didn't have the money to afford one. Turned out, I never did upgrade to a dedicated server once I learned about the existence of VPSes (Virtual Private Servers), which basically acts like a dedicated server but is actually hosted on a server that shares resources with other websites and accounts. (And theoretically, one of those running a particularly slow query could cause other sites like AQ to be more sluggish as well, but I have no idea what the other websites are or how well they run.) The extra money premium memberships generated beyond the cost of the VPS wound up being my income since a VPS was far cheaper to run than a dedicated server.

I've upgraded the VPS a number of times over the years, increasing the memory and disk space along the way, so it's not nearly as cheap as when I first moved to the VPS, but it feels like this website has really come full circle now that it's more economical to run on a dedicated server than a VPS! At long last, the original reason I started the premium membership--to pay for a dedicated server--is finally coming true. =)

In completely unrelated news.... you'll still find eclipse glasses in the AQ Marketplace. If you want to watch the eclipse on October 14th, be sure to order them while there's still time! At no point anywhere in will it be safe to directly view the eclipse without eye protection and everyone in the contiguous United States can see it (weather permitting). And every time there's an eclipse, there are always stories about price-gouging by desperate people in the days leading up to the eclipse. Be prepared! (I won't price-gouge you if you wait until the last minute--I just won't sell them at all because I can't be certain that they would arrive to you in time.)

Happy trails! And sorry in advance if the downtime next week causes you any inconvenience!

Make sure you have your eclipse glasses before October 14th!

Saturday, September 09, 2023

Please accept an invasion into your privacy....

Big brother is watching! Or is he...?
The title of this post is this very tongue-in-cheek. You might have noticed that AQ will now "sometimes" display a pop-up window like every single other website on the Internet about your privacy settings. For the most part, you can blame Europe for this since those are mostly about following European laws. As an American business primarily doing business with North American consumers, I've generally ignored it. I'm not even entirely sure if it applies to all websites or just for companies of a certain size. (Seems kind of like a waste to go after individuals who happen to be running a small, personal website.)

However.... I use Google AdSense to display Google ads (at least for you non-premium members out there!), and Google is going to require that websites have these pop-ups to comply with European laws or they'll stop serving ads completely. Thus.... I had them activated through my Google AdSense account.

You can actually deny consent--that just means Google can't serve ads that they believe are tailored specifically to you. The website will still work, however, even though AQ uses cookies to remember who you are. The consent form is more about "third-party cookies" (or even "second-party cookies"?). In any case, none of it applies to cookies that AQ uses just to remember who you are from page to page.

If you are a premium member and are set to auto-login whenever you visit the site, I don't think you'll see the consent form at all. It's tied to the Google Ads and premium members don't see Google Ads, so the AdSense code doesn't go into pages for premium members. And if you've clicked the button to auto-login, there won't be a chance for Google Ads to show up before you log into your account. So premium members set to auto-login may never see the consent form. It's new to me too, though, so maybe I'm wrong about that. Google Is Everywhere. They're probably watching you read this post right now. (They own Blogger, which is what this blog uses.) Maybe using a Chrome browser (brought to you by Google) will cause that consent form to pop up? I don't really know.

It might even be possible that the consent form pops up after already clicking through several pages on AQ since there are not Google Ads on every page. If you go to the main AQ home page at -- where there are no Google Ads -- you could run a search for letterboxes then get the pop-up consent because the search results have a Google Ad at the bottom of the page. It won't necessarily pop up on the first page you see on AQ because of that.

I've also enabled these consent forms for all my other websites that display Google Ads such as Walking 4 Fun and The Soda Can Stove . doesn't use Google Ads so it'll be spared the consent form annoyance for the time being. (I don't have any plans to add Google Ads to that website, but who knows how privacy laws in the future will develop and even though I don't plan to add Google Ads to, I'm not making any promises that it'll never happen. That website does need to at least pay for itself.)

But in any case, nothing on AQ has really changed because of the consent form. Nothing in the privacy policy has changed, I'm not out selling your email address, or sharing private information in your AQ account to Google or anything. It's all about just making sure the Google Ads will continue to work for non-premium members. Gotta keep the lights on somehow! I'd just as soon prefer premium memberships than messing with advertisements, but for those who can't afford a premium membership or prefer not to for some reason, Google ads are the alternative way to help support Atlas Quest financially.

One of the unsung perks of premium membership.... more privacy for you! =)

Friday, September 01, 2023

Click bait here! You won't believe what happens next!

Photo taken by Thunderbird for
the 2012 annular eclipse
As some of you might know, there is a looming crisis. An solar eclipse is headed to America. It's expected to hit the shores United States on October 14th, and nobody will be spared from its wrath. Well, perhaps those in Alaska or Hawaii... but for everyone else.... Millions of people around the country will start looking at the sky--even looking directly at the sun. Without proper eye protection, this can lead to permanent blindness and even death. Well, okay, maybe not death, but I said this was click-bait, so I have to exaggerate and make false claims. But permanent blindness is certainly possible. You may have noticed--the sun is pretty bright.

This is not just any average eclipse, either. No..... This will be an annular eclipse. The proverbial Ring of Fire. The moon, alas, will be too small to completely cover the moon so this isn't technically a total solar eclipse--however  the moon will cross directly over the middle of the sun so at its peak, you'll see a ring of fire completely surrounding the moon.

While the eclipse will be visible (weather permitting) to everyone in the contiguous United States, not everyone will be able to see the ring of fire. You'll need to be on a thin line, maybe a 100 miles wide, that slashes across the western United States in order to see that particular phenomena. It'll run through Oregon, touch the corners of California and Idaho, dive deep into Nevada and Utah, clip the corners of Arizona and Colorado before cutting through the heart of New Mexico and deep into Texas. It'll continue onward, running through Central and South America, but I'm assuming that there won't be many people from those areas reading this blog.

Outside of that thin line, every location within the contiguous United States will see some sort of partial eclipse. Most of the country can see at least 50% of the sun covered.

With these stylish shades, you can safely watch the solar eclipse happening on October 14th.

Do you want to watch this marvelous dance of celestial worlds? Then buy your eclipse shades from the AQ Marketplace now! With these fashionable eclipse glasses, you can safely watch the eclipse directly, perhaps while out letterboxing at the same time. They filter out 100% of the harmful ultraviolet, 100% of the harmful infrared, and 99.999% of intense visible light. They're sold in sets of 3--perfect to share with a friend or two. Or maybe your family. It's up to you! Or sell any extras for a fat profit to your enemies and/or co-workers. 

Come the day of the eclipse, there will probably be plenty of people desperate to acquire these glasses after procrastinating until it was too late and price-gouging is rampant. Don't let this happen to you! Another reason not to procrastinate.... they'll only be in the AQ marketplace while supplies last. Once we run out, that'll probably be the last of them since it's unlikely I could reorder another batch before the eclipse. (I'll also take them out of the AQ Marketplace about a week before the eclipse if any are left so nobody can order them at the last minute. The post office takes time!)

Want to learn more about the upcoming eclipse? Check out NASA's page about October 14, 2023, Solar Eclipse. Or check out this eclipse simulator.

Photo of previous satisfied customers from the 2012 annular eclipse--even if they aren't actually wearing their eclipse glasses in the photo! But they have them! Photo by Makita.

Thursday, August 31, 2023

More restrictions! MUHAHAHaHahahahaha!!!!!

Please confirm your identity....
For some of you using the website yesterday, you might have noticed a sudden surge of "unauthorized" boxes. That was a bug that I accidentally introduced while updating code for the real improvement.... which is a new type of restriction!

Because if there's one thing everyone wants, it's more restricted boxes. =)

Well, okay, that might not be exactly true.... however, planters tend to like more options for restricting boxes, and I've added a new one! The first new restriction that's been added in years!

It is now possible to restrict boxes to just those people who are signed up for a specific event! If you add or edit a box, in the restrictions section, you'll now see an option for a "parent event" restriction. If you set it, only people who are confirmed signups for the specified event will see your box in the search results. (Assuming of course, they meet any other restrictions you might have added to the box.)

This is a great option for those who are planting temporary boxes that are available just at the event. No reason to bother everyone else on the website with boxes they can't find. It's not required that you restrict temporary boxes for events, but it's an option.

But that's not all! Nooo.... I went crazy and added the same restriction option for events and trackers as well!

You might be thinking... why in the world would you want to restrict an event to people attending an event? That makes no sense at all, right? WRONG!

What if, for instance, there are sub-events for the main event? Or pre- or post- events before or after the main show? And maybe those sub-events are only for those who are signed up for the main event. Now you can restrict them to only those with confirmed signups for the main event!

AQ will even allow you to restrict an event to people signed up for that same event.... you might think there's a recursive problem here. How can people sign up for an event that they are restricted from because they aren't signed up for it? In that case, it might be that the owner of the event wants to add people manually after they've been approved. (Perhaps they paid whatever fee was involved, or it's a WOM event.) You can't add  yourself to the event, but as soon as an admin or the owner of the event does, you'll automatically be able to see the event listing.

And even trackers can be limited to those who are signed up for specific events. Honestly, I'm not really sure of a good  use case for this scenario, but it was relatively easy to add simply by reusing the code I wrote for boxes and events. Perhaps someone is going to create an LTC tracker for use at an event, though, and now they can limit access to the tracker to those who are signed up for said event.

In any case, enjoy! I'm sure you'll think of all sorts of new ways to use the restrictions that I never even thought of! =)

Monday, June 12, 2023

Another database woes update....

Photo provided by Essex Explorers

Yes, I continue working on the problem. Yes, it still is a problem. Opening logbooks for premium members has definitely caused a lot of slow queries which I haven't been able to put in adequate hacks for, which is why logbooks are still closed to non-premium members. (I'm half tempted to close them again for premium members, but since it doesn't seem to actually be crashing the database, I'm leaving it open.)

Today, I reached another major milestone in my Next Big Update--which is primarily about making database queries faster and more efficient. I've updated the core subsystem that runs searches on my development machine, and it seems to work pretty well over all. Of course, just because it works well on my development machine doesn't guarantee the same on the live website. *knock on wood*

But this is a huge milestone, and completely rewrites how AQ queries the database when  you run a search. In some ways, the queries are simpler. In other ways, they're actually more complex. I use a lot more subqueries now, breaking big queries into smaller ones that are easier for the database to execute, but then the subqueries get merged together which adds complexity.

But most of you probably aren't interested in those sorts of nitty gritty details. Y'all want to know.... when will everything be back to normal?!

And... I'm still not sure. I just finished getting the core search queries done, but I still need to create unit tests and thoroughly kick the tires to make sure it all works as expected. And there are "mini-searches" scattered all over AQ that need to be updated all over the place. For example, a lot of the widgets on My Page are just the results of regular searches that can be performed manually, so all of those will need to be updated (and subsequently tested). Heck, even the logbooks are basically just specialized searches. All that code is connected.

So there's still a lot of work to be done... .but progress continues and at this point, I feel optimistic that I might be able to install a permanent fix and update AQ in... another month? Well, okay, a month might be optimistic, but theoretically possible. Two months might be more realistic.

Yeah, I know, like I said... there's still so much for me to test, fix, and make sure the update goes as smoothly as possible. I was reluctant to even give estimates before because I really couldn't even fathom how long this might take, but now that the core code has been updated and seems to work reasonably well, I feel like I have a much better insight into how long it'll take me to properly test and fix the new code and integrate it into the rest of AQ.

Saturday, June 03, 2023

Limited logbooks available!

Photo provided by Angel Winks

I've been adding hacks to get the queries running faster and faster and.... they seem to be doing pretty well. So I've opened logbooks up for premium members. I'm still a bit worried how logbooks will handle, so for the time being, I'm limiting them to premium members and see how it goes. I'll hack those queries as needed, and eventually open the logbooks up for everyone again.

My database work isn't done, however. These updates to keep things running are ugly hacks, and I'm still working on a more long-term solution for the complex queries. I'm ripping out thousands of lines of old code and replacing them with fresh code, and it just takes time. When this next update is ready, it'll likely have bugs and problems that will need some ironing out, and without the ugly hacks in place, some of the queries might turn out to be unacceptably slow and I'll have to do more tweaks to the code.

So I'm not done with this issue by a long shot, but I also didn't want to keep the logbooks down any longer than was absolutely necessary. Thus... the hacks. I'll keep monitoring for problem queries and adding additional hacks as needed until the permanent fix is in place, but now that logbooks are back up, I feel less up against wall trying to get this all sorted out. Maybe I'll take a day off and relax. This snafu has been... well, not pleasant.

Sorry again for all the recent issues. Slow-loading pages, logbooks inaccessible, etc. But progress continues to be made! In the long run, it's a much needed upgrade for AQ, but in the short-term, it's been painful, and I'm sorry about that.

If you're wondering about the photos on the blog, there's a photo album on AQ called Letterboxing Photos for AQ. I've been grabbing them from there. Feel free to submit your own photos and maybe someday they'll be featured on AQ (or the AQ blog).

Saturday, May 27, 2023

Database Updates

Are We There Yet
Photo provided by Baqash

As some of you might have noticed, I took AQ down for a bit today to do a massive update of the code. You won't see any changes--at least you shouldn't see any changes--because these were all "under the hood" updates. As I mentioned before, the database has been having trouble executing some of the queries efficiently, and the problem I've been having is that the piece of code I used for creating queries wasn't really designed for nitty-gritty details like telling the database precisely the order that tables should be joined or how best to execute certain queries. In the past, the database was generally pretty good at figuring out that stuff on its own without much help from me. Now.... it needs a little extra help, but the code hadn't been designed for that sort of thing.

So this update helps fix that problem. I completely replaced the code that put together queries, and it has a lot of options I can throw at it to suggest better ways of joining tables together. I can use subqueries, which I couldn't do before. I can change the type of join and force two specific tables to link together. I can throw parenthesis into the queries where needed. I can force the database to use certain indexes or ignore others as needed. (Well, technically, the old code could do that particular trick as well, but not as slickly or reliably as the updated code.)

All-in-all, it's a much more flexible piece of code that will allow me to fine-tune super complex queries like never before.

However, one thing it doesn't actually do is fix any slow queries. For a couple of reasons, really, but mainly because running a slow query from the live site doesn't necessarily show up when I run it on my development machine or vice-versa. The live site has traffic from lots of people at once which can cause locks and issues that won't show up on my development machine. Not to mention that hundreds of people using the live site will generate queries that cause problems that I could never hope to think of trying on my test machine.

So this update is just a stepping stone to faster, better queries. Now that it's running on the live site, I can monitor for problem queries and take the actual query and figure out where it's having trouble and figure out how I can modify it to work better--and the underlying code can be modified as needed to tweak the queries.

 Anyhow.... long story short.... progress is being made, but I'm not done yet. 

This, however, was a massive update that changed the very fundamental process of creating database queries, and it undoubtedly could have broken stuff. Please be patient--I'll try to fix any problems that crop up as quickly as possible. 

Thanks for being so patient!

Monday, May 22, 2023

Inaccessible logbooks

Photo provided by Thunderbird.
Yes, I know logbooks are still inaccessible. Yes, I'm still working on it. This issue with the slow queries has been an enormous headache for me. I lose sleep over it. I've been making progress, but it's been far slower than I had ever imagined. Basically, AQ broke the database. The size and complicity has overwhelmed the database.

But I keep getting emails and seeing posts about people thinking there's stuff in their logbook that they absolutely must get to and believe that there is no other way of doing it. For the most part, almost everything in your logbook can be accessed by doing an Advanced Search. From plants, to finds to unpublished plants, adoptions, and event signups.

Most of the logbook pages can be generated by searching for yourself as the planter, finder, attempter, carver, etc. Some pages, like donations, are a combination of those. (Search for boxes that you carved but are not the planter for.)

To see your unpublished boxes, just be sure to click the box for "Show unpublished boxes" under the "Other options" section. You don't even need to add planter information--AQ will only show you your own unpublished boxes anyhow. 

Admins can actually search everyone's unpublished boxes in this manner, however, so we have to include ourselves as the planter if we want to see our own unpublished boxes. But AQ knows that non-admins aren't supposed to see other people's non-published boxes and therefore will only show you the accessible ones--which are just your own. (Sometimes people report a problem with the location or are having trouble listing a box, so this gives admins a way to access the listing and see what's going on.)

If you need to see a list of your unlisted finds and/or attempts as well as your exchanges, you can find a link to those at the bottom of your profile. There a number of links there to download some of your data: finds, plants, trackers, exchanges, etc. They're in a CSV format so you should be able to import those files into a spreadsheet program and enjoy to your heart's content.

Anyhow, until logbooks are up and working again, be sure to check the Advanced Search page. It probably has a lot of options that you didn't even realize existed if you haven't used the page much before. It really is the ultimate search tool for letterboxes. *nodding* =)

And for the few things that aren't available from the Advanced Search page, there are still other places where the data can be accessed.

Anyhow... back to working on AQ again. Sorry again for the inconvenience! I'm really not asleep at the wheel, though! =)

Saturday, April 01, 2023

AQ Completes Friendly Takeover of LbNA!

As most of you guessed, April 1st meant gags and jokes, and that hostile takeover of LbNA and blatant discrimination against LbNA members is... not true. In fact, it wasn't even the first time there was an alleged merger of AQ and LbNA

Unlike last time, however, this time around--the "merger" part is actually true. Kind of. The sites aren't merging--they'll continue to operate as two distinctly separate websites--but since Choi decided to retire from his day-to-day running of LbNA and nobody else had necessary skills and interest to take over, I've officially taken over that task.

It was last November or December or so when Choi first informed me that nobody had stepped up to take over, and it was then when he gave me the passwords for the server to download all the code and start going through it. There was a lot I needed to do before moving the site to the AQ server, and a few concerns I needed to deal with before I would move LbNA to share a server with AQ.

  • The old server ran remarkably old versions of the database and scripting language. So old, in fact, that not even security updates were being provided anymore. So I needed to update LbNA to make sure it could run on the most modern versions of the software. In the case of the database in particular, I couldn't run two separate databases on the same server, and I definitely wasn't going to downgrade AQ's database just to be compatible to LbNA. Nope, LbNA's code had to be upgraded to work properly with the same software that AQ was running on.
  • LbNA had a bad habit of generating those "too many connections" errors on the database. I needed to get to the bottom of that and make sure it got fixed. Not just because I wanted the site to run reliably, but also to insure it wouldn't take down AQ! (As well as other databases that run on the same server such as for Walking 4 Fun.) 
  • I wanted a way to monitor for issues or problems. Over the years, I've developed a multitude of tools to help do this. The code will record errors, warnings and even particularly slow queries that might need my attention. I can easily check how long database queries take to run or the page takes to generate. And I wanted to include those same tools on LbNA.
  • I wanted the site to be relatively quick and easy for me to update as needed. Maintainability is important. Every programmer has their own preferred styles and patterns that they use, and I wanted the code for LbNA to better fit my own mental model of how things should work. The more similar--internally, at least--the code worked like AQ, the easier and faster it would be for me to update later.
  • And.... I just needed to understand how LbNA worked. I hadn't really used the site in years and there were numerous features and options that I didn't even realize existed much less how they all worked together. Doing a deep dive through the code would enlighten me.

Anyhow.... I spent a couple of months working on the site. The site turned out to be quite a bit bigger and more complicated than I had first imagined! A couple of problems I discovered I felt were so serious, I changed it on the live website immediately. Mainly a couple of exceptionally slow queries that could easily crash the database. (Or rather, cause a "too many connections" error because they took so long to process.) The website seemed to run a lot more reliably after that, but I know it still went down at least once after my tweaks. There were other slow queries that I didn't bother to fix because they seemed less critical and I didn't really want to spend a great deal of time fixing up a site that I was almost immediately going to replace with my own code anyhow.

Although I almost completely replaced the code on the backend of things, I tried to leave the front-facing user interface and functionality as unchanged as possible. There was some tweaking that happened. I re-created all the forms to fit the same patterns that I used on AQ--which also happens to be more "accessible" than the old layout used. (I use the term "accessible" in a technical sense--I'm referring to making websites accessible to those with disabilities.) Although I'm not aware of any blind people, for instance, using screen readers on LbNA, there's little reason not to support better access for them. (Accessibility doesn't just refer to blind people, though--it's a catchall term for all sorts of possible disabilities.) The site would still fail any serious accessibility testing that was done to it, but it's vastly improved over previous iterations.

Once everything seemed in order, I copied a test version of the site to the AQ server for a couple of months of testing.

Given the tens of thousands of lines of code I added, changed and deleted--I knew there would be a bunch of bugs and there were. I really hadn't had a chance to thoroughly test the code as much as I had wanted to, but Choi wanted to turn the lights off on the old server before it was due to renew for another year so I had somewhat of a deadline to get this done by. Technically, it wouldn't have been the end of the world if I hadn't finished before the deadline. At worst, LbNA would just be "offline" until it was ready to run again. But ideally, it would be better to keep the site running with no downtime, so that's what I was shooting for.

Testers were essential!

Special thanks to MichKathy and TrailMark for their testing. I gave them early access to the test site so they could update Clue Tracker to work with the updated site seemlessly, and they found a lot of the bugs that I really should have caught sooner!

By mid-February, I was largely ready to officially take the reigns of LbNA. Except.... I had plans to fly off to Africa to climb Kilimanjaro. It seemed like a bad idea to do a major move of the website then immediately fly off where I likely wouldn't be able to get online for two solid weeks. I should wait until after I got back.

And that's what I did. The day after returning to the United States, I immediately launched the Big Update--for Atlas Quest. That was also ready and waiting until I'd be around for an extended period of time to fix any bugs that certainly would pop up. Two days later, when the Big AQ Update seemed to be doing fairly well and seemed under control, I flipped the proverbial switch (specifically, the nameservers) for LbNA to point to the new server--the AQ server. (If you check, you'll find that LbNA and AQ now share the same IP address.) 

This was a massive update--even bigger than the "Big" AQ Update from two days earlier. But this one.... I had to do in secret because I wanted the "big announcement" to intersect with April Fools Day. So two days after a big update, I was doing another Big Update.

And the next several days was fixing bugs and issues and stuff, occasionally swinging back to the big AQ update to deal with something there. I'd often spend the morning fixing and tweaking the AQ update, then spend the afternoon and evening fixing and tweaking the LbNA update. It was a remarkably busy and exhausting week for me!

I also found myself extremely frustrated when I tried to use some administrative functions on my smartphone to check for bugs and delete spammer accounts on LbNA--which was never designed to work well with smartphones. I found myself so annoyed with that, I wound up spending most of a day updating LbNA to make it more mobile-friendly. Like with the accessibility thing, the update doesn't fix all the issues to make the website fully mobile-friendly, but it's a vast improvement over what was available before. Even Google thinks it's a huge improvement. I added as a website to monitor for issues in their Google Search Console and on March 19th, Google reported just one page that was "mobile friendly"--zero percent of the pages after rounding off to the nearest two decimals. As of March 31st (the last day I currently have statistics for), Google reports almost 6000 mobile-friendly pages and just 92 still listed as "not usable." That not-usable number is going down, however, as Google re-checks previously-checked pages. I expect the number of "not usable" pages will continue to go down--although probably not down to zero. There are still usability issues to deal with--I only attacked the easier, low-hanging fruit in that regard. 

Then, once both websites were more-or-less running well and fixing problems wasn't occupying all my time, I started working on the April Fools announcement. Which meant a few gags and jokes for both websites. And... well, y'all saw how that went. I was working on that right up until I launched it less than an hour before midnight (Pacific time). 

Obviously, most of those announcements were jokes. The new crown and dagger icons will be retired, there will be no loyalty oaths to be taken, and pay-per-clue isn't on the table. The LbNA staff hasn't been fired--but there really wasn't any staff to begin with. I even left Choi as an official webmaster on LbNA so he can update passwords, delete spammers, etc. So he's still watching you. ;o)

So now that you're caught up to the present day, you might be asking yourself exactly what I plan to do with LbNA.

Crystal ball,
tell me the future of LbNA

And... for the most part, not much. Any big (perhaps controversial) ideas I come up with--I'd put on AQ. I don't really see any reason for me to recreate the wheel on LbNA every time I add a feature to AQ.

And, in fact, I think one of the core strengths of LbNA--where AQ can't even begin to compete against LbNA--is it's sheer simplicity. LbNA is perfect for people who just don't want a lot of bells and whistles. There aren't rabbit holes to confuse people like postals and LTCs, there aren't "trackers" or message boards to navigate. No marketplaces or online logbooks, no exchanges to track or dozens of icons to understand.

For many of you, you might consider the lack of those features as blasphemy, but I truly believe that letterboxing should be available to everyone--including those who prefer a more "old-tyme" letterboxing experience. After they develop their proverbial sea legs and dig into the hobby more, Atlas Quest might become more their style. Or perhaps they'll be perfectly happy to stick to the basics and stay away from the complexities of AQ--or maybe find a middle-ground between the two. A website like AQ can scare away the sorts of people who just want a simple, fun little hobby to participate in, and I'm grateful that there's a "safe space" for letterboxers who prefer the simple life.

So I have no ill-well toward LbNA or its members. Heck, that's where I "grew up" in my own letterboxing journey. Personally, I feel like I outgrew it, but bless all of you who haven't. =)

No blue diamonds for LbNA!
As a result, I have no plans to add features or functionality to LbNA. If anything, I'm more inclined to lean harder into its simplicity and remove features that I feel aren't essential or don't get used much. For instance, I removed the rating system already. It was interesting for me to look through the code and see how it worked, but it felt to me like it was added to "keep up with" Atlas Quest. And considering that LbNA doesn't get nearly as many visitors as AQ, I don't think it generated particularly good results anyhow. Ratings work best when a box can get a lot of ratings, but LbNA didn't really have the critical mass for that.

So... I decided to remove it. And now recording a find is one checkbox shorter and faster. There's one less "thumbs up" icon that people don't have to figure out or understand what its purpose is. Not mention there's the added benefit (for me) that there's less code to maintain and upgrade in the future.

At some point, I feel like I should really go through the entire website and figure out which features should be discontinued. Does the added complexity for the user make it worth the effort or distract from the more important details? I think back in my early days of letterboxing and what I wished LbNA could do: Run a simple search for boxes near my home that automatically removed all the boxes that I had planted or already found or attempted (and was certain were likely missing). That was all I really wanted the website to do. All the other search options--hike lengths, icons, etc. were fine, but I almost never used them and I certainly didn't need them. I kind of dream of taking LbNA back to its glory days where it might have been simple, but it was easier to understand and figure out how everything worked. I'd like for LbNA to distinguish itself from AQ--not try to copy it.

An obvious question many of you might have will be if I plan to merge the two websites--or at least merge the two databases that run it so one account can be used on both websites. Recording a find on one account will also record it on the other account automatically. It's tempting, but for now.... no. That would take a horrific amount of time and effort that I'm not ready to commit to, so they'll continue to stay as two completely independent websites. Maybe someday I might add some options to "link" accounts so recording a find or attempt on one site will automatically post it to the other, or recording a plant on one site will automatically post it to the other, etc. But even then, I still imagine it running as two completely separate, independent websites. Just two websites that happen to talk to each other occasionally and share information. I have no plans to rush out to get this sort of thing done immediately, however.

One feature I might implement sooner rather than later, however, is the ability to hide plants that are hosted on the other website. I actually wanted to create this on AQ since the day I started AQ--a way to not display LbNA boxes in the search results. Not as an "anti-LbNA" option, however, but as a way to make it easier for people to run searches that don't show the same plants on both websites. But I felt certain if I ever tried to implement such a search option, I'd be accused of being "anti-LbNA." Logically, I felt LbNA should have a similar "hide AQ boxes" options for the same reason. And then those who use both websites regularly to search for boxes can get all of the LbNA and AQ boxes with no overlap between the two sites. And it would be trivially easy to implement such a feature since the two websites don't even have to talk to each other to make it work. AQ already knows which clues are hosted on LbNA and LbNA already knows which clues are hosted on AQ.

Now that I'm running both websites, it seems ridiculous to make such an accusation. And since I'm running LbNA, I can easily make sure a "hide AQ-hosted clues" option is available on LbNA to balance things out. So this feature is one of the most-likely ones to come out of my running LbNA since it seems very useful and helpful--at least for those who use both websites. (Although if absolutely nobody likes the idea or wants it, I certainly wouldn't put any effort into it!)

The Tanzanian flag--just because
I have the license to use it and
I spent two weeks there recently. =)

You'll likely see me continuing to update some of the icons to use the same ones as AQ. There are three reasons for this: 

  1. I already paid and purchased a license to legally use those icons, and the license allows me to use them on any and all websites I run so there's no problem with me using them on both sites. 
  2. I'm not entirely sure of where the already-existing icons on LbNA came from or whether they're actually legal (or not) to use. It would really suck if someone came after me because one of their icons was being used without the proper rights. 
  3. And finally, using the same icons on both sites can make it easier and faster for people to figure out how the "other" website works when they are already familiar with some of the icons.

Anyhow, that's how I imagine the future of LbNA, but I'd be curious to hear what all of you think or how you would re-imagine LbNA. But regardless of how much our opinions intersect (or not), I will do my best to run LbNA like it was my own creation--to care for it, keep it running, and do what I feel is best for LbNA--even if we might not always agree about precisely what that is.

But in broad, general strokes, I don't really plan to change much of anything. So far, my focus was mostly on the security, reliability and maintainability of LbNA.

Now that the two websites run on the same server, there will be rare times when both websites go down or become inaccessible if there's an issue with the server, so in that sense, reliability overall will go down. However, when I take down a website for a Big Update--those will be planned ahead of time and will never be happening at the same on both sites. I'd like to make sure at least one of the websites is always running at all times. If that's not the case, there's likely something out of my control going on. For the record, this doesn't necessarily mean there's something bad happening. Sometimes my hosting provider is doing updates on their own equipment and things may be temporarily unavailable--but the server is just fine. Sometimes I'll update software and it requires the entire server to be restarted--and that will make both websites temporarily inaccessible. I'll try to limit those times as much as possible but they are, overall, fairly rare.

So that's my own vision for LbNA. Feel free to contact me through AQ or LbNA if you wish to express your own thoughts on the topic. 

Magic 8-Ball, inquiring minds want to know:
Will LbNA continue to thrive for years to come?

"Without a doubt"

Friday, March 31, 2023

AQ Completes Hostile Takeover of LbNA!

Your AQ-loyalty will be
marked with a crown!

Yes, it's finally true. I've taken over LbNA. Some of you have noticed the subtle changes happening over on that other site. Suspicious icons that looked awfully similar to those used on AQ. Weird bugs suddenly showing up. There are, in any major coup, kinks to be worked out, and that's been keeping me pretty busy.

I've also been making some tweaks to AQ as a result of the takeover, which I've posted about in more detail there. The main changes you'll see are the new crown and dagger icons by member trailnames to mark AQ-loyalists (the crown) and LbNA loyalists (the dagger). More tweaks will be forthcoming, but that's the main one you'll see for now.

Suggestions and comments are welcome! And if you don't like any of my changes, I'd normally tell you to just use LbNA instead, but I guess that won't work anymore. So just start geocaching instead!

Happy trails!

LbNA-loyalists will be marked with a backstabbing knife



Tuesday, March 14, 2023

The Next Big Update Has Arrived!

T-Bone and Tic Tac of Happy Hyper Hikers

Nearly a year in the making, it's finally arrived! I'm not going to list every tiny thing that this update includes, but rather just a broad overview.

Before I start, however, just a reminder: If there's a page that looks a bit wonky, try clicking Ctrl-F5 (or equivalent) to refresh the page and see if that fixes it. There are changes to the CSS and if your browser is using a cached page, it might not look quite right.

The biggest part of the update are event listings. I've pretty much completely rewrote the entire event sub-section. I scoured the message boards and my archived mail looking back over a decade's worth of comments and suggestions dealing with event listings and incorporating as many of them into the update as possible.

Some of the most noticeable improvements with regards to events include:

  • Attendees can now list multiple items for the potluck--so if you're bringing multiple items, you can list them all in the proper categories.
  • Event admins can now request specific potluck items.
  • Attendees who live near an event can list if they have space available to host out-of-area attendees, or those who rent a hotel room or campsite can request "roommates" to help split the costs.
  • Timezones are better tracked, so virtual events should list the start and end times for your local time zones automatically. *knock on wood*
  • Each event can now be posted to, so if you have a question or comment about the event, you can post it directly to the event page.
  • Waitlists have been greatly improved. Once an event is full and people start adding themselves to the waitlist, event organizers can manually promote waitlisted members to a signup status (or demote them if necessary). In fact, you can create an event with just yourself as the only signup and a limit of 1, then everyone who signs up is automatically waitlisted. Which can be useful for events that cost a fee. As fees are paid, you can promote the waitlisted member into a signup. So it is possible to have more people signed up for an event than there is "space" for. Also, once a waitlist is created, people won't automatically be moved into the signup position if space becomes available. Event organizers decide who and when people are moved between the signup list and waitlist.
  • You can signup (or waitlist) sub-accounts at the same time as yourself.
  • There are now options to "watch" and "ignore" events.
  • All types of boxes can now be listed as "boxes at an event" (not to be confused with "event boxes" which is a specific type of box). So event organizers, for instance, can specifically list each traditional box planted at the park--even those that were never planted specifically for the event. Personal travelers, hitchhikers, etc. Anything you bring to the event can be listed as a "box at the event" to make it easier for people to record the finds later.
  • You can add events to your calendars. (Google and Apple calendar types, at least.)

I think that covers most of the changes regarding events. There's a lot of stuff that changed there, however, and this is certainly not a completely list. 

There's another feature somewhat related to events which involves the massive number of notifications people receive for large events. A hundred people finding a hundred boxes and leaving a comment on every one of them would generate ten thousand AQ mail messages. So event and box notifications now are collected for a period of time. Notifications of finds and attempts on boxes, for instance, now go into a waiting queue and everybody who found a specific box/series will have their reports merged into a single AQ mail message. So if you have 100 plants at an event and 100 people recording finding each of them, you'll no longer get 10,000 AQ mail messages--you'll only get 100 at most. (The number of boxes planted rather than the number of boxes planted multiplied by the number of finders.)

Similarly, the same thing happens with event notifications. Signups, dropoffs, new posts, potluck item changes, etc.... All of the notifications for a specific event will be merged periodically into a single message instead of dozens (or hundreds) of them.

The primary reason for this change is to make one's AQ mail more manageable, but it also helps ease the database load on AQ as well. The downside, however, is that you will no longer get immediate notifications whenever someone records a find or attempt or there's an update to an event. There's a time delay. The default delay is 12 hours, so if someone records a find on your box at 9:00am, AQ will wait until 9:00pm, check all of the pending notifications to you about that box that have occurred between 9:00am and 9:00pm and send them all as one AQ mail.

Premium members can shorten this frequency to as little as 5 minutes--still not immediate, but relatively close to it. If you have a lot of boxes or have planted for a large event with hundreds of people, you can increase the length to as long as a month, if I remember correctly. For those hosting large events, it might be worth lengthening the time to reduce the number of AQ mail messages you get--at least during the height of the event--then return it to whatever value you prefer a few days after the event has ended and most people have logged their finds.

You can adjust this setting in the Email & Notification Preferences settings, in the "Notification Timings" section. I suspect many of you aren't going to like this change (I figure it'll likely be the most controversial of the changes), but for those who host especially large events, you'll find it very convenient. If you have a question about finding a box and need an immediate answer, it'll be best to contact the owner directly rather than by recording a find/attempt since direct messages won't be delayed.

Now off to a completely different sub-system....

For those who use the weather widget, you'll find it too has been completely rewritten. The only reason for this update was that the API I used was set to expire at the end of this month and it was going to stop working. I thought about retiring it completely, but eventually decided to use the National Weather Service API (which is free and doesn't have ridiculously small quotas). The downside, however, is that it only works for the United States, but since most of those who use it live in the United States, hopefully that's not a problem. =) 

Especially with regards to the event and weather sub-systems, a Ctrl-F5 to refresh the CSS might help. Your browser will eventually pick up the new CSS on its own, but forcing a refresh like that will just speed things up.

All the other changes are relatively minor things. Those are the two sub-systems that I basically rewrote from scratch. Off the top of my head, I don't really remember what else I changed, but you're bound to find some minor tweaks here and there if you look closely.

If I said anything about a tweak or change being in the "Next Big Update", this was it. It's live now.

This is an absolutely massive update, and while I have run thousands of tests, there are still likely to be a few bugs that slipped through the cracks. Please be patient as I fix those.

Thanks again for putting up with me! If you have any questions, comments or suggestions, you know where to find me. =)

Burning Feet (and Sadie)