Saturday, September 6, 2008

Who plays Rankk?

Rankk is approaching two years. With nearly 250 challenges, it's - I venture to say - one of the bigger challenge sites out there. In fact, Rankk has consistently received a high ranking at Wechall, a global challenger tracking site.

Not all the challenges were coded by us. About one fifths of that number were ideas or whole challenges contributed by our members.

Great thanks to them!

The next target is 300, another 50 challenges to go. After that, we'll aim for 500 challenges - a massive leap of 200 more challenges. A tall order but we'll make that the end point. Seriously, we don't think anyone - not even horst35, quangntenemy or mithmith, the current top three, can complete the entire journey. But that's the challenge for them :)

For us, the challenge is to continually keep the site relevant, not just by adding new challenges but also by adding new features and improving existing ones.

The membership now stands at 1477, averaging about two members per day. Passable, I guess, but nothing like what we were expecting.

But, while the numbers are important, they aren't necessarily a blessing. As one member pointed out, it's the quality of the members rather than the quantity. No point having a large membership but a low retention rate.

He's a point. A number of members have been with Rankk since it was started. And then there are those who return to the site intermittently with fresh ideas to solve a challenge or when there's time to spare.

Lately, the question of who Rankk attracts crossed my mind. With a variety of challenge types - mathematics, logic, puzzle, CGI security, programming, cryptography, steganography - there's surely something for anyone who has come to the site, whether by chance or through word of mouth.

The people who enjoy Rankk are people who have a knack for solving. These are people who probably see and write code every day. People steeped in mathematics tend to do well too, as logic, programming and cryptography are all related to the field of mathematics.

And related to the who is the why. Why do people play Rankk? Is it a site for the bored - so the objective is to pass time? Or is it a site to feel challenged - so the objective is to rise to the top?

It's probably to be a combination of factors. But one thing is for sure: Rankk is about challenging your brain.

A member has found it to be a "good method" to kill time.

Если кто еще не знает --- --- хороший способ поубивать время и поупражнять свой разум.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Rocky July

Two noteworthy episodes happened in the early part of July.

horst35 overtook quangntenemy to take the top spot. I had thought that was near impossible, but horst35 had done it, albeit briefly. quangntenemy reclaimed the title a couple of days later. And peace ensues :D

The other was a little hiccup in the short existence of Rankk. The server went down due to a faulty harddisk. It has occasionally gone down, so we thought nothing of it.

But the bad news came. Some data had been lost and could not be recovered completely.

It was not one or two days' worth of data, but four, which was pretty bad. Fortunately, there weren't a lot of activities during those four days, so the loss wasn't that damaging. But it was enough to drive a member away, because he had solved 18 challenges during that time and was unwilling to redo them.

We need knocks like that, don't we? That very day, we wrote a script to automatically backup the more time-sensitive parts of the database, such as points and hofs.

So that was rather happening...

Meanwhile, an interesting question was raised by shortbreak. He asked whether it was possible to enable SSL for Rankk's login. I had toyed with that possibility in the past but had never found out the cost and the how.

I was somewhat dismayed to learn that we would need an IP and an SSL certificate to have SSL enabled.

The IP costs S$10 per month and the SSL certificate costs US$140 per year, or about S$210. That's S$330 per year, which is a pretty hefty sum.

We would love to have it but at the moment it's beyond our means ;)

Does anybody know of a cheaper way to do it?

Monday, June 2, 2008

The Caesum interview

First of all, many thanks to Caesum for taking time to do the interview.

I knew Caesum from the Pyramid era.  I had written to him requesting for a link to be added to his site Electrica, which he kindly did. That link is now changed to Rankk.

Caesum is a familiar figure in the challenge community. In many challenge sites, you are likely to see him at or near the top of the ranking table.

Without much ado, let's begin the Caesum interview.

How would you describe your Rankk journey so far?
Well, I had a real burst of enthusiasm at the beginning, which is pretty much the same as anything I start. It's difficult to keep that enthusiasm going though without the feeling that solving levels is becoming a chore, a task, or simply another job. Sometimes you need to take a rest and walk away from the computer for a bit and come back at some later point.
I work with computer systems all day long, primarily writing SQL and building reports for people, so after a long day at work it's difficult to maintain any kind of enthusiasm to sit at a computer for even longer still. Some people seem to be able to solve problems from sites at work, unfortunately I do not have that opportunity although I can write the occasional short script in my lunchtime (although I can't run them....).

Anyway, I took my time with most of the Rankk levels, climbing slowly from one to the next, and savouring the climb, but also knowing that I'd pick up a bit of speed towards the end when only higher level ones were left. I then shot past a lot of people on the rankings because I was solving the easier high point levels.

Eventually you reach a point where there are still a few left to solve and you really slow down. I was left with about 30 at one point and then started a more thorough approach to the remaining ones, but I've not finished and there are one or two that I know how to solve but don't have the time at the moment.

So, in summary, I'd describe my journey like a rocket - starting out fast, suddenly shooting by and then coming to an abrupt halt!

A member is puzzled that you haven't beaten the Geb level. What do you say?
Naturally, the higher you get with any challenge site the more time you need to put in to solve the higher levels. The first part of the Geb challenge took about five minutes. The second part obviously needs some research but to be honest after a couple of hours of wandering the internet I became bored and let it be for a bit.

That about sums up many challenges for me, as soon as I become bored I start to lose interest. Take the proxy challenge, for example. It's easy to know what to do but it's so boring doing it and it can take so long that I quickly become bored and start to look around at other things.

If there's any feature that you would like to see added to Rankk, what would it be?
I've already made a few suggestions whilst chatting to Sphinx but if you want me to come up with something on the spot then I'll come up with the following: Many challenge sites in the past have purported to be about learning: "don't talk about the levels because you need to learn it." Cyberarmy was very much like this and yet most of these sites do not really have the resources for new people to learn anything. The result is that many newbies quickly get bored and leave and only a small core make progress and contribute to the community. So...... well, read the next section cos I'm using most of my new ideas there......

What are your plans for Electrica? 
Well, Electrica is currently undergoing a complete rewrite. Electrica had a few problems not least of which was an exploit released that pretty much made it all pointless. It had a couple of annoying bugs and it was really all down to the speed with which it was written in. The original Electrica took about two weeks to write, pretty much in full, and not much was added afterward for the next..... 5 years or so! ? I anticipate that the new site will be finished in September.

E2 will be based around sets of tutorials with accompanying levels, but don't expect it to be too easy. I've set out this time to make the new site far more secure. The database has been redesigned and I've already implemented a fair bit of it. The logging in and out system is written, the basic forums are written, some problems are done, some of the basic ranking work, etc. I still have an awful lot left to do though with some vast plans incorporating many things. Hopefully all of the features that I have planned will make it into the first release but pretty much everything is going to be different to the original. There are certainly more plans aimed at more of a community in the pipeline.

As to what will happen to the original, maybe something similar to the Rankk archive. It won't be possible to really port things over due to the extensive changes taking place. I had been feeling for a long time that it had become outdated and was in need of a major revamp, but due to real life problems of divorce and near bankruptcy, development came to a halt.

Anyway, the rewrite is also the main reason that I've pretty much stopped progress on Rankk for the moment.

Challenge sites tend to go through a path of Introduction, Growth, Maturity and Decline. What's your view on that?
You missed rebirth in your list. But, yes, I've seen many sites go this way. That's why I'm redesigning Electrica with hopefully more of a community focus, and why I'm also trying to make it more interesting for newbies to get into the challenge scene. Originally I wrote the challengers handbook with the soul aim of trying to get more people into the community as a whole, but this time I'm taking it one step further.

Do you consider yourself a hacker?
Well, let me tell you a little story. I went to University to do Pure Maths, and I was very good. I played about on Dec-PDP's and VAX systems and I started to get to know operating systems inside out. Then I got my girlfriend pregnant and found myself with no grant and had to leave. I had really good A-levels but I couldn't get a job anywhere, noone wanted to know because I hadn't finished my degree. Then I got a job in insurance and was made redundant two years later. (Shit, life had never been that easy for me - we lived on mostly potatoes for eight months but that's another story!).

Anyway, I got another job working in finance and they implemented this new system. To say the system was awful was an understatement and it was running on some mainframe and kept dropping you to an OS prompt, it was VMS at the time. Now I knew OS's inside out and sent someone a message on his terminal along the lines of 'this is crap, keeps dropping me out'. So he says 'how did you do that?' and I said 'oh just type.... and so on' and then people started saying 'what else can you do...'. I showed them how to play games on it, I showed them how to increase their privilege levels, I showed them how insecure the system was and I even put in a backdoor account with full privilege levels (like root).

So, everything was fine and then one day I was off and my boss walks into the office and says to my friend 'we're in deep trouble. Mrs x has forgotten her password and it'll take three weeks to reset if we phone the regional centre and we need to make some payments'. So he says 'I can do that.......' and so he did. The only problem was that Mrs x hadn't forgotten her password, she had forgotten her username and so my friend resets the password of Mrs x at some other office and then she makes millions of pounds of transfers from the wrong account.

So the end result was that everyone was in deep shit, and especially me. My boss took early retirement due to ill health. Everyone at work was interrogated. My friend and me were suspended for three months (nice holiday) and then summoned for the results. I was found guilty of running 23 privileged commands (I don't think the logs were that good as it was probably much more). Luckily my union rep saved the day and we both got permanent written warnings (the first in history!). My friend was at his terminal about a month later and nothing was working. He types a stupid message on the screen like 'i'm bored this isn't working' (bearing in mind this is a dumb terminal and connected to nothing) and the next thing he knows someone sees it over his shoulder, he's marched from the building and sacked on the spot.

After this I was real careful with computers at work, I've seen many people get away with far more than my friend was sacked for, and these days the whole scene has changed a lot.

I can tell you this though, if it wasn't for my own stupidity I'd probably have a damn better job now. It took me years to regain any kind of respectability and I'd made a major enemy of the HR person involved. There was no way of getting a good reference and she wanted me out of the organisation. I stuck my head down and worked hard for years gaining the respect of the finance and HR and several other directors. At one point I applied for a promotion and the original HR person tried to stop it. This ended up in a stand up argument with the finance director and guess what? She ended up taking an early retirement. Eventually the finance director tore up the bit of paper with my permanent written warning on it.

So, am I a hacker? Not anymore, in the sense of the word that most people understand but to me a hacker is someone that will solve one of your level5 programming levels in under half an hour through knowledge, rewriting and hacking together pieces of code with anything from asm to PHP, from C to Java, from Forth to Perl. A hacker can learn a new language whilst writing a program, and yeah that would still be me!

How is a typical day like for you in Nottingham?
A typical day? Depressing. I hate my job, it's boring, I need change to motivate me and keep me interested in what I do, I need to be continually learning. And at the moment I'm not doing that so work, travel, it's all tedious and boring. The only thing it does at the moment is pay the bills, and even this doesn't seem as important anymore after going through the events of the last couple of years.

One day you think you're doing alright and everything seems to be fine and you're going to live a good life, and drift into old age. The next you're bankrupt, no longer own a house and can no longer afford to buy one because prices have risen so much. The person that you trusted has seriously let you down and you'll probably never be back to where you once were. It makes you rethink about life and what it's all about.

So at the moment, I'm busy, busy rewriting my site, rethinking my life, and looking for an opportunity to do something better. I spend as much time as I can on my own computer doing exactly what I want to do, and at work I work whilst other people play on the internet.

Is there anything that you particularly like or dislike?

I like creativity, I like to see original things and originality, whether that's a new and original challenge level or whether it's an interesting piece of art. My favourite artists - Giger and Dali for example are both incredibly original and different. I like people that have had the guts and beliefs to do something different with their lives and not waste their time in a dead end job in a rat race.

What do I dislike? My job for one thing. To me it's always been a bit of a secondary thing anyway. For those who know me, and probably noone reading this will, I've always been a bit different. Long hair, biker, heavy rock. I listen to Slayer and ride an 1100cc bike. Perhaps not your picture of who I am!

What's your favourite sport?

Actually I hate sport. A better question would be 'what is my most disliked sport?' to which the answer would be football (soccer to you Americans....). I really do not see why so many people get so worked up about sport, it holds no interest for me whatsoever. I like to see a good competition between good players but I can as happily watch the WWE wrestlers which is 95% fake (not so different to some of the football players rolling about on the pitch crying like babies, i.e. fake).

Thanks to quangntenemy for helping with some of the interview questions.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Is Rankk profitable?

Recently, the subject of "profitability" came up over a chat between mithmith and me. mithmith thought that Rankk was profitable to the tune of USD 100 Adsense revenue per month and therefore quite "rewarding".

Wow, if only that were true!

First, let me stress that the idea of "making money" wasn't our motivation for Rankk right from the start. We were looking for a bit of fun, excitement and learning. So far, those elements are there and therefore we're quite happy and motivated to keep it going.

Having said that, we would of course be happier and more excited if Rankk were able to generate some form of revenue.

To date, we have spent a total of S$520 for Rankk's hosting and domain name. The current hosting plan and domain name will run till 16 April 2010, which means from now till then, we don't expect to be spending any more money on the site.

And as far as "revenues" go, we've collected a total of S$194 from the donations and Google ads:

Donations: USD 97.09 (S$132.311)
Google ads: approx S$62

So Rankk isn't profitable, in case you're curious :P In fact, we're incurring a deficit of S$328.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Will Rankk explode?

Recently, ozehka asked about what we plan to do so that Rankk will not "explode" because of too many challenges.

The timing of the question could not have been more apt, because I have been thinking about that too.

First of all, we need to answer the questions whether we plan to keep on adding new challenges and whether there's a maximum number we're targetting at.

I haven't discussed these with Bio so the views expressed here are my own.

Yes, we plan to keep on adding new challenges. We have not set a maximum number of challenges and we don't intend to do so.

So it's quite conceivable that in time, Rankk will grow quite monstrous with very many challenges. Will it crumple under its very own weight?

Here are some potential problems:

1) New comers may get discouraged or overwhelmed by the sheer size, even before they start.

2) With no end-point in sight, players may lose the momentum eventually, no matter how determined they were at the beginning.

3) It becomes harder to keep track of challenges so some ideas may inevitably be duplicated.

So what are our plans to ensure that the size won't become a burden to Rankk?

Firstly, we'll be careful not to pursue a numbers' game. This means we'll need to be selective about new challenge ideas that are proposed, and only add those that are good and relevant to the site.

Secondly, we may need to modify the challenge listing to display only a default number of challenges so as not to "frighten off" new comers. Or we may introduce categories to the challenges and let players select what categories of challenges to display.

Thirdly, at some point in time we'll need to audit the challenges and get rid of those that are "insane" or grossly unpopular.

Finally, we will need to constantly make improvements and introduce new features to keep the site relevant.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Focus on aesthetics

In the last couple of weeks, we busied ourselves with small improvements here and there. In the early stages, the more urgent task was to create new challenges. But after we crossed the 150 level, the pace of adding new challenges slowed somewhat, not because we grew tired of adding new ones, but because good ideas were drying up. Consequently, we have had more time to focus on Rankk's other aspects.

1) Ranking page

This has been improved to highlight the particular member's row when he or she is viewing the page and to indicate with up an arrow members who have solved a challenge in the last 5 days.

2) HOFs

Upgraded to include pagination. Previously, only the latest 200 solvers where listed. You had no way of locating the older solvers, which is really uncool.

3) Incoming messages

An earlier attempt at using an applet from the old Cyberarmy to "type" out the news didn't work well, because some members experienced page loading problem. So we did away with this feature until recently, when we found a cool way of doing it with Javascript.

So now every level has a specific incoming message to provide a context to the sacred journey, as well as to give a little expectation of what is to come in the next level.

4) Look and feel

The most noticeable is the masthead. For a long time, the Rankk logo was a tiny little image positioned on the left of the top panel, which is about 800 x 30. The new logo is many times bigger and, imho, nicer. Hopefully that will do a little magic to attract more new members.

And after all the hard work, we were pleasantly surprised with two donation emails . Hurray! Thanks to the kind souls out there!

Thursday, February 28, 2008

PageRank of 4!

Yay! Rankk made it to a PageRank of 4 :)

It's definitely a pat on the back for us, in addition to the increasing membership and the kind donations we've received.

In case you're wondering what this PR thing is, it's Google’s system for ranking web pages. A page with a higher PR is deemed more important and is more likely to be listed in Google's search results above a page with a lower PR.

The PR value is viewable from Google's Toolbar, if you've one installed. Otherwise, there are many sites that let you calculate a site's PR value. Here's one: Rankwhere.

So what does a PR of 4 really mean?

Dharmesh Shah of HubSpot wrote an interesting guide about the importance of PR. He gave an idea of what PR values mean by dividing them into these broad categories:

0-3: New sites or sites with very minimal links.
4-5: Popular sites with a fair amount of inbound links.
6: Very popular sites that have hundreds of links, many of them quality links.
7-10: Usually media brands (, big companies or A-list bloggers.

Wow, Rankk is a popular site :)

Monday, February 18, 2008

Our wishlist for 2008

I should have written this at the start of the new year, but I was bitten by a rare procrastination bug that was hard to fix :P

Fortunately, the Rat came and ate the bug alive. And so here I am, with a renewed motivation and energy to write about what we wish for in 2008:
  1. An average of 5 new members per day. Currently, the average is about 2 per day based on a total of 1035 members and a span of 485 days.
  2. 200 challenges. Rankk now has 171 challenges, so that's another 29 to be coded, or contributed.
  3. A Google Pagerank of 4. We achieved a pagerank of 3/10 within a year and we're quite happy with that. 4 should be achievable but 5 is even better :)
  4. More people blogging about Rankk or linking to Rankk.
  5. More Google ad clicks and more donations :) So far, we have collected about 295 clicks totalling $52.36 and two Paypal donations .
  6. More "missing" members returning. Two members came to mind: Intelos and Spoodle58. They reappeared after a long absence.
Wish us success!