Saturday, December 15, 2007

End of year update

My last entry was October 2, slightly over two months back. Not too bad by my own standard :)

In between, we published three interviews by our members. I'm happy we did that, because not only are the interviews an excellent way of introducing some of our best members, they are also permanent records of the members and Rankk's journey. Five or 10 years down the road, I imagine it would be quite interesting to revisit the entries and make sense of the passing time.

The number of challenges now stands at 164, an addition of 46 more since my post "Half a year later..." in September, in which I wrote that we had increased the number of challenges from a mere 40 to 118. The number has somewhat stabilized, with a new challenge added every once in a while, when good ideas come by.

I remember we used to add at least a challenge every day, sometimes even two on the same day. It was crazy. There were days when I would eat, drink and sleep with challenge ideas haunting me, until I finally settled on a good one to start coding.

Over the last week, we introduced a profile feature to enable members to check each other's progress, besides finding out about his or her default profile information, such as date joined, blog or favourite site, country, etc.

It's a useful feature to have, all thanks to silverknight who gave us the timely nudge.

The right panel has also been given a little facelift. We moved some of the elements around and restyled a couple of them. The net effect is a more attractive right panel (to me at least). And unless you make the changes, you sometimes make the mistake of thinking that what you have is already good enough, when in fact it can be improved.

And while I am on the subject of changes, let me rant a little about what I think keeps a website going.

A website or blog is like a tree or pond that attracts different creatures to it. As long as the tree is alive and growing, it will attract visitors: insects, bees, birds, butterflies and what have you. And these visitors will bring their friends and relatives along, who in turn will bring other friends and relatives along. Sure, many of these new comers will be casual visitors. But while they are there, they help to make the soil fertile with their droppings and with the dispersal of seeds when they move on. And some of those who came will become permanent residents of the tree.

The opposite happens when the tree shows no sign of life. Its inhabitants will forsake it in search of greener pastures to look for food and a new home. The number of visitors will dwindle as there's nothing to look forward to. Very soon, the entire community will disappear, leaving behind a forlorn, lifeless tree.

A website exhibits that sort of phenomenon. Just like the tree, the more it can keep itself alive and vibrant, the more visitors it can attract. The more visitors it can attract, the more it can sustain itself.

We want Rankk to be a thriving tree. In its short existence of one year and two months, we've never stopped making changes and adding new stuff. As one member remarked: "you can rest assured that the changes made since I was active are adequate.. oh yeah most adequate ;-)".

We believe, and hope, these changes will help Rankk attract new members while allowing it to stay relevant to the mature members.

Have a blessed Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Interview with Sapr0

This is the final instalment of Rankk's interviews for 2007.

We thank Sapr0, who's rankked #2 at the point of writing, for taking part in this interview.

Sapr0 shared his thoughts and views freely. He even let on a little about what his girlfriend thinks about his online life.

Read on...

You've been playing this sort of games for quite a while...tell us about your experience.
Well I started with some random googling and found CyberArmy. I got all intrigued by the supposedly "hacking" things one would learn.
I thought I was "kool" when I solved the first JavaScript level. But I got stopped by eliza (a chat bot) and went on googling for other sites.

The second site I found was HackQuest where I managed to solve a couple more of JS challenges and Logic ones.

The third site was the Pyramid. It was all good and nice up till level 3, when I got stuck and went back to HQ. After a month of learning to solve challenges, I returned to the Pyramid and progressed to Geb rapidly with a bit of hints here and there along the way.

Eventually I started to solve tons of sites, including TBS, Slyfx, Arcanum and Xavier.

What is your programming language of choice and why do you choose it over others?
My first learned language was Pascal, then in high school I learned C++ while using a old compiler Borland C++ V3.1.

In my first year at the university, I started to learn PHP and MySQL to create my own site, and I got hooked on PHP. Simple syntax, tons of functions available and a 13-mb installer to use it on any comp.

When it comes to brute forcing or cracking hashes, I usually use specialized tools or resort to my C++ old compiler and write a quick program.

Your girl friend...does she ever complain about your online life?
Sometimes...yes, but we already had a conversation about it when we first met.

I made her understand that the computer and the internet things I do (solving challenges, playing games) are like small habits of mine, though I think her impression was more like "vices" :)

When I'm really really close to solving a challenge, she usually let me finish it, and then we go cuddle. But if I'm far away...I usually drop it and prefer to stay with my "woman"...ya know ;)

Are you vying for the top spot at Rankk?
Yes, why not. Who would not want to be #1 :) Though beating quangntenemy is very hard, he got skills :)

If you were to rate Rankk on scale of 1-10, what would you give it?
Hmm, hard to say. Maybe a 8 or 9. Why not 10? You may ask. Well, I guess it's just missing the community of players. The IRC and the forum are mostly rather quiet. On IRC rarely a noob pops in and asks for a hint. It's usually just me, deo and quangntenemy who sometimes exchange a few words.

On the forum it's just Sphinx posting about a new challenge and a few replies with bugs or suggestions. I suppose the site is new and not well known, so I guess the rate will go up once the community gets more active.

What is your favorite food?
My parents taught me to eat everything :) And now since I'm also a student I truly eat anything that is on a plate. As for favorite food, any home cooked meal is a blessing. Otherwise, I just order a pizza along with some beer ;)

"Death comes to all!" That's your signature line. Care to tell us about it?
I don't really remember where I got that signature, probably from some movie or something. I just loved how it its states a truth, no one escapes death :)

What things would you change or improve if you were to take over Rankk?
Nothing really, the challenges are really nice. For a noob, you can learn a great deal by solving the lower level challenges.

That's the main goal for the site, I think, teaching you stuff. There's really no point in having insane challenges like some other sites that I play.

What is your favorite sport?
I used to do a lots of sports even though people might think I'm a computer geek (which i am :P).

In High School I did a lot of soccer, basketball and volleyball. At University I played volleyball mostly and even took part in some local competitions with my team.

Also, I stayed near the sea so during the summer there was a lot of swimming, beach volley, roller blading, etc.

Sadly, I have moved to the capital and working eight hours a day now, which leaves me with very little time for any sports. Though I bought this fancy American football thingy, so I'm just waiting for the spring to do some tackling with my friends ;)

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Interview with valsa

Thanks to valsa who kindly consented to this interview despite his busy schedule in real life.

valsa made the first Geb on 27 Aug 2007. The challenge was uploaded on 13 June 2007.It went through some changes to fine-tune Part 1, and was reloaded on 26 June 2007. Taking that as the starting point, it was cracked some two months later.

If you are curious about the first Geb, so am I. So let's hear it from valsa...

You have been around since the old Pyramid...what was your rank then?
I achieved the rank of Geb**** on 24 July 2003.

You made the first Geb on Rankk...tell us about that.

I've only been lucky that other high rank and smart players didn't accomplish it before me :-) Anyway, after climbing and reaching the apex, I was satisfied.

In your opinions, what makes a good challenge and what makes a crappy one?

Difficult to say. Mostly all the levels that are good are also the easy ones, because otherwise it would become like work and not like a game or something amusing anymore.

Additionally, a level which is easy for you could be difficult for me because maybe at that point in time I could not figure out what it was about.

The only thing I don't like is when it's not clear what to do and you really have lots of different things to try. I mean discovering is also nice, but then again, it must be a game.

Let me take the opportunity to once again say thanks to you for the nice site and for the challenges.

At what point do you say "Enough is enough. I'm not going to touch that challenge."?
I rarely say this because I do want to have a look at it again. Like some of the programming challenges which I haven't solved. I can imagine they are doable but in real life, I'm really busy and have no time to code. The consequence is that there are quite many challenges I haven't looked at for a long time.

Sometimes, I got through Part 1 (or 2) but got stuck in the next part and had no idea how to go on further or what the missing step is, despite trying a lot of times. Usually, I'll wait a couple of weeks before trying these challenges again.

What is your favourite OS?
I do not have a preferred one, and unfortunately there is no perfect OS actually. Depending on what I've to do, I use Microsoft OS'es (Win XP and sometimes Win 98), Linux (Suse and sometimes Red hat) or Solaris.

You know the Geb secret. Do you care to protect it?
I think that Sphinx, Bio and others spent a lot of time in giving people the opportunity to play these challenges, so I see no reason why I should damage the spirit of the Pyramid. I don't see any reason to share this secret.

Where do you see Rankk five years down the road? Would it become a popular challenge site or would it fade away slowly?
 I hope it will not disappear or fade way. Now some clever people who used to play on other popular challenge sites are arriving and are climbing the Pyramid.

And most of the high rank old pyramid members are returning, so it would be nice to see the site still up and running in 5 years!

Do you have a pet? Tell us more about it.
Yes, a bird. When there were two they made a lot of noise, especially when I was watching TV. Now only one is left and he's very quiet. But to be honest, I do not dedicate much time to him.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Interview with quangntenemy

First of all, we would like to thank quangntenemy for taking the time to participate in this interview.

If you're a Rankk member, quangntenemy needs no introduction. He's the top rankked member, with 153 challenges solved at the time of this interview. Not only has he contributed challenges, he has also been helping with providing feedback and fixing bugs.

Speaking for myself, I'm always curious about the person behind the username, and so this interview was conceived. quangntenemy gave very frank and interesting answers to our questions. I enjoyed reading his responses and I'm sure you too will be delighted to hear his story.

How did you discover Rankk?
One nice Friday evening, I felt a little bored. Had a nice chat on #tbs at and ch0wch0w and Sapr0 referred me to the site. It looked interesting and very unique. And so the journey began :D

So you're a Java hacker...could you tell us more about yourself?
I'm 23 years old, working for a bank in Vietnam. Solving computer-based challenges is my passion. I've been solving challenges on various challenge sites since 2003 and I have lots of experience :) Java is my favourite language.

Is there a particular challenge you enjoyed and one that you hated a lot?
Among those I have solved blackjack and python 103 were the most interesting. And of course I hate the challenges I haven't solved :P

How did it begin for you? What was your first challenge site?
Well it all began in 2003 when someone gave me the link to an academy challenge site. It was called StarFleet Academy I think. There were a total of 10 levels and I solved them all in just one night.

As I really enjoyed the challenges, I continued searching for challenge sites and finally found All the good challenge sites are listed there. I fought my way through various challenge sites, notably arcanum, slyfx, ma's reversing, modx, theblacksheep, hackquest, netforce. theblacksheep was the most enjoyable. I even contributed many challenges there.I really can't imagine how I missed good challenge sites like cyberarmy and the old pyramid. But I'm glad now that I'm here on the new one :)

Do you ever give up on a challenge? How much time are you willing to spend on a challenge before you surrender?
Yes, when I have been working on a challenge for a long time without making any progress. But that's only temporarily. I'll come back once I'm in a good mood to start working on it again or when a new brilliant idea pops out of my mind.

I solve challenges mostly for fun, so the more interesting the challenge looks like, the more time I spend on it.

You are rankked #1 at Rankk...what do you think of that? Do you think you'll be bypassed? If so, who's this person likely to be?
To be honest, it's the first time I can reach the first place at a challenge site, so I consider it my own accomplishment. But I am well aware that some day someone better than me might come and take over the place. It could be an old member like valsa or coobb, or maybe a new guy. Whoever that is, he's gonna have a tough battle. I'm not giving it up easily :)

You haven't solved the Geb challenge - the one that will get you to heavens. Do you have a time frame for it?
No plan yet. I'm currently stuck on the second part although I have been trying it for so long. Maybe one nice day the right idea will pop out and you'll see my name written in blue ;)

If you were to set up a challenge site, how would you do it?
An interesting question. As Java is my favourite language the site would probably be a collection of Java-based challenges. Maybe it'd be divided into different sections for different groups: beginners, intermediate and advanced. And of course it would be Java powered :)

What is your favourite food?
Sheep barbecue, of course. Maybe that'll help you in some challenges ;)

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

The beginning

Cyberarmy's Zebulun ( must have been the mother of all challenge sites. It was started around the year 2000 by Overlord (a.k.a pengo) and had a following of 50000 members. It enjoyed such a phenomenal success that it even got into the news CyberArmy declares war.

But partly as a result of its huge success, it was beset with "troubles" leading to its subsequent demise. The site later became known as, headed by a team that didn't include the founder Overlord.

Alas, the new site doesn't quite have the lure and mystery of the original Zebulun.

I was a Lt Kernel and was trying for the Kernel challenge before the fun ended...

The first challenge was a Javascript challenge. You had to guess a number combination. I didn't know what I was in for, so I happily clicked away. One try, two try, three try, four try, five try and without a warning...the blue screen! I was shocked and angry. Was it a virus or what? I rebooted but was haunted by that blue screen experience to return to the challenge...

A few months passed and I found myself playing with my new toy Redhat Linux (Version 5++). I also had more free time to kill so I decided to revisit that devil...

But this time round, I was very careful. I started with reading the source ;) Then it made sense. I passed that challenge in a couple of minutes...

The next one was a bot challenge - eliza. It was obvious that you had to "chat" with her, so I did just that for an hour or two. It was quite frustrating at some point, if you know what I mean. But I finally got an idea of what the objective was, and began changing my approach. I remember I solved it after some 3 hours and I was really elated. It was totally worth it, despite the "agony" of talking to the "bitch", as it was called by some of the whinners.

And that was how the journey began for me ;)

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Half a year later...

At the point of writing, Rankk's membership just hit 700! When this blog was created, I remember we had about 40 challenges. That number has nearly trebled to 118, with two challenges created by our members, valsa and quangntenemy.

During the last six months, several transitional changes were made. At first, you were able to progress one challenge at a time in a strictly linear fashion i.e. challenge 1 to challenge 2, challenge 3 to challenge 4. That was reformed to make it into a hybrid of linear and scatter structure so you could attempt any challenge on the same level. So if you were on Level 4, you could solve any one of the six available challenges in any order. That was less restrictive than the strictly linear structure but it still had problems.

Around that time, we were appproaching the maximum of 45 challenges. A member, i_need_help, started a thread to enquire about what happens after that. He suggested a second face of the Pyramid. That got us thinking about what to do after we completed all the 45 challenges. But that was all - we didn't have a solution.

And then we hit 45 challenges - a dead end.

So we brainstormed for solutions and came up with a points system. Essentially, we needed to move away from linking the number of challenges to the shape of the Pyramid.

So we overhauled the challenge rendering engine which took us about a week or two. At the end of it, a points system was introduced and the new ranking formula uses points rather than the number of challenges solved.

For sure, we didn't come up with all the ideas for the changes. A good number of members provided very useful feedback and we acted on it. Their suggestions and helpful advice can be read on Rankk's forum.

One of the nicest additions must have been the Private Message. There were a number of requests for it on the forum and we eventually got one out. Hopefully it will encourage greater interaction amongst the members, and not be abused for "trading hints" ;)

We see about 2-3 new players per day now which is quite encouraging. A few of our members have also blogged about Rankk: Everlasting Wanderer, No sleep for you and Delphi Area.

Oh, the "hardest" challenge (9/1) was first solved by valsa on 2007-08-22 22:04:35.

That's all for this update. Hope the next one won't be six months later!

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

The Rankk journey

Rankk is about solving challenges, discovering and learning new knowledge. It's a journey, a sacred, personal experience.
The site is a reincarnation of The Pyramid, an earlier attempt at assembling a set of challenges for those who enjoy solving problems.
The challenges are based on topics ranging from Mathematics to Logic to Puzzle to Programming to Cryptography to Internet Security. They are designed from easy to difficult to impossibly hard.
The first few are challenging enough for anyone with a decent sense of numbers and logical thinking.
Solving a challenge moves you up the Pyramid. The journey to the top is an arduous yet rewarding one. Only a few are expected to reach the apex and meet the Great Sphinx.
Membership to Rankk is free. Your journey begins NOW!