Tag Archives: behind the scenes

Origin Stories: DNA Transposition

I find the entire concept of genetic code fascinating. I’ve taken a few biology classes over the years, and every time we discussed DNA, I marveled at how something could simultaneously be so simple yet so complex. Thus, I had wanted for a long time to make a puzzle that relied on DNA.  I knew the opportunity for that puzzle had arrived in the summer of 2010, when I learned of the topic for one of the Volume 18 issues of Imagine: Biotechnology. The second puzzle was subsequently created in 2013, for the Frontiers in Medicine issue.

In the earliest brainstorming phases of creating a brand new type of puzzle, I usually start by writing down all the ideas that I have. No matter if they become part of the puzzle or not, I just want to make note of everything in my head, so that later thoughts or avenues I pursue don’t cloud my original ideas. Sometimes, those original ideas are changed significantly by the time the final puzzle is produced. (Sometimes the original ideas don’t produce anything of value whatsoever!) Remarkably, for the DNA transposition puzzles, much of my original ideas appear unchanged in the final puzzle.


Notes from July 22, 2010:

Going back to mazes with structure and rules1, the puzzle contains a set of connected paths. What governs which paths you can take at any intersection is a token that changes. (Instead of keeping track of this in the physical space, like in the Cell Wall Transport System puzzles, this puzzle uses an external item, more like the subway token puzzles2.)

You have a bit of DNA. Some intersections do nothing, but some rearrange bits of the DNA according to order. For example,

rearrange

would move the first bit to between the third and fourth (making it the new third). So GATC would become ATGC.

Different paths have different restrictions. For example, a path could only let pass bits of DNA that have the sequence “GA”. The original piece of DNA could pass through this, but not the new rearranged piece (as it does not have “GA”).


The crucial idea of a “token” that you carried through the puzzle was essentially what made this puzzle different from my previous puzzles, and helped to clarify the instructions to others. The “intersections” became the bubbles in the final puzzle, while the “paths” became the connecting tubes. The diagram is meant to be an iconic representation of the prototypical chemistry lab apparatus.

dnat.Puzzle00

The instructions took several passes, with the assistance of a few biologists called in by myself or my editor, adjusting the vocabulary to best fit what was happening in the puzzle. For example, I initially used the word translocation, which I found out typically refers to moving whole parts of a chromosome. Transposition is more appropriate when moving a shorter sequence or, in this case, individual nucleotides. Also, using the term DNA isn’t appropriate here, since DNA refers to the entire molecule, not a short sequence of nucleotides. The instructions therefore use the term genetic material, even though DNA is retained in the name of the puzzle.

The design of the puzzle took a while to finalize.  I needed to visually communicate how each bubble transformed the genetic material.

bubbles

Early attempts directly translated what I had in my notes, using numbers to show the rearrangement of nucleotides. These needed to be large to clearly display the numbers, but were too large and too cluttered for the rest of the puzzle. Thankfully, I hit upon the idea of completely eliminating the numbers and letting greyscale boxes denote the positions of the nucleotides.

This type of puzzle necessitates charting all possible paths through the problem space in order to ensure the designated solution is the shortest. In other words, every pairing of position and genetic token that is possible by moving through the puzzle must be examined. Because of the cyclical nature of the puzzle (repetitively rearranging the nucleotides and moving back to the same physical position in the puzzle), loops are possible (moving around the puzzle and returning to the same location with the same order of nucleotides). This challenge of representing a problem space with these loops was resolved by using one-way arrows.

dnat.Solution00PS
Problem space for example DNA Transposition puzzle, shown above

Moving up each arrow loops back to a position that could have been achieved using fewer moves (sometimes utilizing a very different path through the puzzle), while the most direct solution is highlighted in blue.

Origin Stories: Pathogen

The first Pathogen puzzle was created in November, 2008 for the public health issue (16.3 – Jan/Feb 2009) of Imagine, but for various reasons, never made it to the website around that time. When the magazine returned to the topic of public health (23.3 – Jan/Feb 2016), it not only made sense to design another Pathogen puzzle, but also to prepare both puzzles for the website.

pgn.Puzzle00b1
Pathogen example: two days to spread, one person vaccinated

While I’ve forgotten some of the details about how I first came up with the idea of a puzzle based on a disease, I do recall that this was a time when bird flu (H5N1) was in the news. I knew immediately that a puzzle about public health was going to focus on, in some form, the mathematics of disease transmission. It did take some creative effort, however, to take those ideas and form a puzzle with them.

If you think about it, the structure of the puzzle scenario does not make a whole lot of sense. If you know who is infected, the contact chart, and how many days the pathogen has had to spread, it really strains credibility that you wouldn’t already know who patient zero is or (in particular) who is vaccinated against the pathogen. The more realistic problem is: knowing who is infected and some idea of the contact chart, figuring out who else might be infected. But I couldn’t figure out how to make a puzzle from that situation which was still well-defined and not trivial. In other words, if the contact chart is completely defined, then determining who would be infected is easy. If the contact chart is not completely defined, then it’s impossible to completely determine who would be infected. This mirrors reality, but isn’t very compelling as a puzzle, since puzzles are supposed to have solutions.

The Pathogen puzzles as created aren’t that difficult, since you can figure them out through brute force if necessary: trying out every infected person as patient zero and seeing what happens. There are faster ways to solve the puzzle, of course, but even each detailed solution basically makes good guesses as to whom patient zero might be, then simply tries them all. I needed to explore the sensible possibilities to create and test out each puzzle, and while there is typically a different method used to create versus solve one of my puzzles, in this case I couldn’t think of an alternative.

pgn.Puzzle00b2ALT
Testing each infected person as patient zero (solution bottom right)

Finally, I’ve met experts in a wide variety of fields through my years as a student and now as a professor, and those connections definitely come in handy when writing a new puzzle in an area which I have no expertise. The instructions were vetted by people both on my end and at the magazine, and their most important suggestion was to use “vaccinate” instead of “inoculate”, as the latter can mean to deliberately introduce a pathogen but not necessarily to produce immunity (such as for a culture or as a treatment). Even though the scientific situation of the puzzle may not be realistic, I still want to get these educating details right.

Update: Pathogen

Even though this is the first time the Pathogen puzzles have appeared on the website, they still went through several design refinements. It took a while to get the right look for the contact chart and accompanying solution labels.

Pathogen
First row: initial attempt. Second row: larger circles, thinner connections. Third row: visual style used for first publication, medium connections between mid-sized circles, thicker boundary. Fourth row: final adjustments for second publication, thinner boundary, font and color changes.

Forming the seamless shape that encapsulates the contacts between circles/people was accomplished by merging shapes together (left column above), instead of trying to draw the shape from scratch. Unfortunately, there is a bug (I think) in the SVG rendering engine inside of Adobe Illustrator, as these complex shapes are not perfectly displayed on the website, regardless of browser. It’s a problem that I’m going to have to live with for the moment, as I can’t read the raw SVG code and mentally translate it into the visual shape to determine where the problem is.

Left: print. Right: website.

An additional complication was the fact that different sizes of graphics would be necessary for what appeared in print versus on the website. This is something I try to avoid, as it creates twice the number of images that need to be produced, but occasionally it makes sense. Here, the print images needed to be smaller to fit on the page, while larger web images were more legible on the screen. The print images are scaled by 150% with further adjustments to lighten the stroke weights.

Origin Stories: Greek Temple

The first Greek Temple puzzle coincided with the first time that I tried to align the content of my puzzle column to the content of the magazine. Prior to the fall of 2004, I basically just created whatever puzzles I wanted to. Starting with Issue 12 of Imagine, I began creating puzzles that matched the theme of each issue. With the first issue being Archaeology & Paleobiology, this provided an opportunity to publish a new type of puzzle I had been working on for a while.

Unfortunately, back then I didn’t consistently keep very good notes about creating puzzles, so I don’t know exactly when I created the first Greek Temple puzzle. I do know that, prior to the fall of 2004, I had made an entire set of smaller Greek Temple puzzles based on the idea of linking the four possible state changes for the gateways (open, close, change, same) to the four possible options of moving between two tiles (alpha to alpha, alpha to beta, beta to alpha, beta to beta). While the graphical style of the puzzle has remained remarkably consistent over the years, I don’t remember how I came up with that original idea. The set of smaller puzzles has never been published, as they really belong together as a complete set; instead, each time a history or archeology issue comes around, I’ve chosen to create a new Greek Temple puzzle.

I did create a backstory for the puzzles to help me with some of the design details: A couple of archeologists have recently unearthed these ancient yet pristinely preserved structures. They accidentally realize that, with the introduction of a source of water, stepping on certain tiles at the entryway opens each temple’s doors via some sort of hydraulic mechanism. Yet they do not know why these structures are here, what they are for, or why they are the first to discover them in regions that have been thoroughly explored before.

GT Published Keys

Finally, each puzzle thus far has used a different pairing of gateway state changes and tile jumping options (see above). There are only a finite number of these, so I’ll necessarily need to start repeating, but some of the possible combinations keep the gateways open more often and some keep them closed more often. I’ve tried to stick to combinations that strike a balance. Regardless, it has been an interesting aspect of the design challenge to see how these combinations affect movement within the puzzle space.

Update: Greek Temple

Note: this blog entry shows some parts of Greek Temple puzzle solutions. Go back and solve the puzzles first!

Before this update, I had only ever posted to the website the first two Greek Temple puzzles (12.1 from 2004 and 13.2 from 2005). Subsequent Greek Temple puzzles (18.2 from 2010 and 19.2 from 2011) published in the magazine fell at a time when website updates were sporadic at best. With the most recent puzzle, it was time for a major update.

Most of the graphics have remained the same since my initial conception of the Greek Temple puzzles. For this update, I did, however, adjust the positioning of the alpha and beta labels on each tile.

alpha
Old (red, top) vs. new (blue, bottom), magnified 8x

This realignment was necessary to accommodate the biggest part of the current update: new, detailed diagrams that indicate solution steps though open and filled circles on each tile. Solutions were originally posted (and will continue to be posted in the magazine for compactness) as text through cardinal  directions (N, S, E, W). This solution representation isn’t optimal, since it requires the reader to move through the solution one step at a time, going back and forth between the text of the solution and the puzzle diagram.

Thus, I’ve created these solution diagrams that show the path of the solution on the puzzle diagram itself, grouping several steps together at a time (using the same slideshow technique used with the Space Pod puzzles). It isn’t typically possible to show the entire solution at once, since this type of puzzle often relies on moving back and forth between tiles in order to change the state of the gateways.

gt.Solution01INa3
Greek Temple puzzle 1, solution step 3: you have to take a step backwards first in order to open the gateway and move to the altar

Working out how to represent the overlapping parts of the solution path was one of the hardest aspects of designing clear, useful solution diagrams. Another challenge was that the solution path needed to represent two simultaneous pieces of information: your physical position in the puzzle, as well as the orientation of the gateways. This was resolved with using the open and filled circles.

One benefit of these new diagrams is that it also allows me to point out important parts of the puzzle space, so that I can describe why the solution must go the way that it does. While it is possible to represent the problem space of each puzzle as a tree diagram, I think it is more useful (for similar reasons described above) to show the loops, dead ends, and traps in the actual puzzle space.

gt.Solution05OUTb
Greek Temple puzzle 5, traps and dead ends

One final conundrum involved describing these pathways through words as your orientation to the puzzle space changes as you move through it. I decided to give directions for turns (left and right) based on your current position, but to describe parts of the temple (front and back) with respect to facing the entrance. This seemed to be the least confusing out of many bad options.

Origin Stories: Gerrymandering

The idea of using gerrymandering as the basis for a puzzle was not originally mine. The credit goes to my Imagine editor at the time, Carol Blackburn, who suggested it while discussing over e-mail the topics for the twelfth volume of the magazine (2004-2005). As soon as I read her idea, it immediately struck me as a great idea for a puzzle, so much so that I checked around first to see if anyone else had made a puzzle based on gerrymandering. To my surprise, no one had1.

This is a good opportunity to discuss puzzle suggestions and what I look for in a new puzzle concept. Carol’s idea for a gerrymandering puzzle was actually the first useful suggestion I’d ever received to make a new kind of puzzle. Over the years, I’ve received some feedback and a few fan letters from Knossos Games puzzle solvers. Suggestions for puzzles tend to go along the lines of, “Hey, you should do a puzzle about dinosaurs!” While I genuinely appreciate the feedback people give me, recommendations like these aren’t very helpful, since it’s not usually obvious to me what about (in this case) dinosaurs would make for a good puzzle. My response to these suggestions is always: “No, you should create a puzzle about dinosaurs, since you clearly have an idea of what a good puzzle about dinosaurs would look like.”

So what was different about Carol’s suggestion? To answer this question, I need to explain what I am looking for in a new puzzle concept. Puzzles are always based on rules.  The rules could be simple or complicated, few or many, obvious or obscure. Sometimes the stated rules for the puzzle conceal an entirely different set of rules that you can only discover by wading into the puzzle itself. Some of the hardest puzzles are those where solving the puzzle requires discerning the unstated rules by which the puzzle operates. Regardless, puzzles need rules, and coming up with new puzzles means coming up with new sets of rules. So I’m constantly on the lookout for real-world situations that contain some inherent rules or structure that I could build upon or transform into a puzzle.

This is what struck me about Carol’s suggestion of gerrymandering. All I knew about redistricting at the time was that it had to do with the process of forming political districts, and that it could be used nefariously2. But I immediately recognized that gerrymandering must have some underlying mathematical principles that could be utilized to make a puzzle. (In fact, actual gerrymandering could be considered a legitimate puzzle in and of itself. How no one else has thought to make a puzzle out of this is beyond me.)

The first step in exploring if my instinct was correct, that this would make for a good puzzle, was to learn more about gerrymandering. I found a lot of information concerning the history of gerrymandering, less on the mathematics of how it can be achieved. I’ve lost the reference where I first learned of the techniques of packing and diluting, perhaps it was this portion of the wikipedia entry. These mathematical techniques form the basis of how political redistricting can be used to affect election results, and as such they would need to form the basis of the puzzle.

The details surrounding the actual puzzles, like using square precincts (at first called “sub-districts”) in a square territory, and having yes and no votes (rather than democrat and republican, for example), were chosen to keep the rules simple, emphasize the mathematics of redistricting over the politics of it, and focus the difficulty of the puzzles on forming the districts themselves. I also recognized early on that the instructions would need to guide puzzle-solvers through the two main techniques they would be using to influence the vote, and thus example puzzles demonstrating those techniques would be necessary.

The final secret to these puzzles is that, once the gerrymandering cover story is wiped away, all that is left are pentomino tilling problems. The 5×5 grids can be divided up in many ways, and the precinct vote totals are what influences how one decides between multiple possibilities. So while I want solvers to learn about gerrymandering, on another level, there is something to be learned about tiling problems here as well.

Imagine has run two election issues, one in 2004 and another in 2008. When I made the first gerrymandering puzzle, I actually made several of them. Coming up with a cogent set of rules for myself as to how to design this type of gerrymandering puzzle, in which there is only a single solution, was very difficult. So in most cases, when I succeed in forming a new type of puzzle like this, I make more than one puzzle. I had hoped that Imagine would run another election issue in 2012 (and I’m lobbying for one in 2016), because I have several of these to share, in both the 5×5 size and a harder 7×7 size (where districts are septominos, containing seven precincts).

Update: Gerrymandering

Spoiler alert: a solution to one of the gerrymandering puzzles is shown at the end of this blog post. Go back to the puzzles if you haven’t finished solving them!

Even though a new gerrymandering puzzle hasn’t been published in the magazine since 2008 (that was the last time an issue was politically themed), that was right around the time the website had its last major update. Thus, there wasn’t a lot of work involved in updating the gerrymandering puzzles to the latest version of the website.

One choice that may disappoint puzzle solvers out there: I took down a few gerrymandering puzzles that I had posted to the website that were never published in the magazine. I’m trying to reorganize the puzzles I have (not just the gerrymandering puzzles) in order to plan for the future of Knossos Games, and in this case that meant removing a few puzzles. I’m lobbying for a politically-themed issue of Imagine to appear soon, so that the magazine can publish another gerrymandering puzzle (or two).

As for specific changes to the puzzles and instructions in this update, there were only two major ones. First, a colleague of mine suggested that I replace “sub-district” with “precinct”, since that’s what we (in the United States) call the territories that collectively make up political districts. As soon as he suggested it, it seemed so incredibly obvious. This rewording appears in the main instructions page (and corresponding PDF for printed instructions), instruction reminders for each puzzle, and the detailed solutions.

Second, I also updated how the solution is shown. The solution to each of these puzzles needs to communicate two pieces of information: how the grid of precincts is physically divided into districts, and how this dividing up of the vote count results in more no voting districts than yes voting districts. Before, I showed these two pieces of information separately by displaying a full sized grid with the districts outlined and, off to the side, a separate list of the no and yes voting districts. I always thought this was a little clumsy, since you need to scan back and forth between these two pieces of information to make sense of the solution. I can’t believe I hadn’t thought of this before, but coloring the districts and linking their (also colored) vote totals brings these two pieces of information into one graphic. I think it’s much more clear now, even before getting to the detailed solution, how each solution works.

gm.Solution05OLD
original solution graphic
gm.Solution05NEW
new solution graphic

Update: Logic problems, Part 2

I knew that updating the logic problems for the new website would be a big task. Several logic problems were never posted to the last version of the website, and those that were still needed updated graphics and, in some cases, updated detailed solutions. I decided to break the logic problem update into pieces, so that I could better manage the work and post updates more frequently. The first update was back in March, 2015. Here’s what’s new in the second update:

Logic problem #6 – Marbles
All the changes here were to the detailed solution explanation. Some of the language was clarified. A mathematical error found in one of the explanation’s graphics was corrected. The biggest change was replacing an argument concerning the divisibility of the number of Andrew’s marbles with a more direct fractional explanation. This not only made the explanation more straightforward (with new equation graphics), but also enabled me to provide an explanation of (commonly misunderstood) fraction multiplication in the solution.

Logic problem #7 – Corn Maze
From the second update group, this problem needed the most work. Since I wanted this particular puzzle to appear in the fall in order to introduce a recurring blog feature on corn mazes, it also set a timeframe for when the entire update should be posted.

Undertaking a major update to the website presents opportunities to make significant changes, as well as fixing minor yet thorny problems. The graphic for the corn maze was the latter. At the time this puzzle was originally made (Fall 2006), my unsophisticated knowledge of Adobe Illustrator meant that I wasn’t capable of designing an acceptable corn maze graphic, one that would look like an actual corn maze from above. My aunt, who is a writer and artist, graciously stepped in to help. I sent her the outline of the maze and she sent back an illustration in the style that she uses for her books.

corn-maze-150
Corn Maze for Logic problem 7, version 1

This is what was published in the magazine and what I posted on the website until now. Although I am grateful to my aunt for her assistance, I was never completely satisfied with the result. (One thing I absolutely love, however, is that bridge.) It just didn’t look like a corn maze to me, although it took me a long time to figure out why I felt that way.

The main issue, I realized, was that the path size to corn size ratio was incorrect. A corn maze has thin paths compared to the patches of corn separated by those paths1. The outline of the maze I originally designed had a path size to corn size ratio of 1:1, that’s what my aunt used as a template for the above illustration, and that didn’t look right. With thinner paths, the corn maze would feel appropriately bigger.

logic.Puzzle07
Corn Maze for Logic problem 7, version 2

Even after I had identified this problem, fixing it was still a challenge. I first attempted to draw the new, skinnier paths on a green background representing the corn, but could not get the path corners to appear correctly rounded, as they would in an actual corn maze. After exhausting much time and effort on that method, I then decided to try a different approach, using expanded versions of the patches of corn on a background of brown dirt. The gaps in the patches of corn would thus result in the paths. Rounding the corners of the corn patches that do not have straight edges was still a challenge, since this is not natively supported in Adobe Illustrator 6 and earlier. After exploring my options, I ultimately chose to use the Round Any Corner script, which has mysteriously disappeared in the past few days.

One of the other issues I had with the original illustration was the stroke weight of the details representing the corn. I think my aunt’s intent was to represent the leafy texture of the corn plant, but photos of corn mazes show a more grainy texture where those details of the individual plants all blend together. Thus, I wanted to make my corn maze illustration have this sort of texture as well. While I was satisfied with the textures I could apply in Illustrator, I have not figured out how to successfully export these to an SVG file (so that the texture will still appear sharp on high-resolution displays). Thus, I dropped the textures altogether, as you can see above.

Finally, neither a graphical illustration of the correct solution nor a detailed solution for the problem were ever posted on the website. I had never actually thought through a detailed solution at the time I created the puzzle, so all of that needed to be worked out as well. It was tricky to figure out how to represent the path segments graphically in a way that didn’t need a lot of explanation. I also wanted a way to show the choices you needed to consider in picking which path segment to use next. The solution path shown is made up of several pieces, layered below the corn patches and above the brown dirt background. The toughest part here was getting the correct path thickness at splits and intersections. There is an intersection that is visited twice, and in order to clearly communicate which way you turn the solution path shouldn’t intersect or overlap itself there.

Logic problem #8 – Flight Plans
The solution graphics were slightly modified to better support non-high resolution displays. This problem was one of the first to be written after the sixth version of the website debuted, and as such required few updates.

Logic problem #9 – Writer’s Group
Increased the size of the graphics representing the circular table at which the authors meet, mostly to support a larger, more legible font. Also brought the table to the foreground to make the author positions (circles) look more like chairs, and to better highlight the two important author positions (poetry, screenplay) that are rotated midway through the solution to find non-problematic overlapping positions of clues.

Logic problem #10 – Castaway, Part 2
To better match the overall aesthetic of the website, reduced the stroke weight for the stick-figure graphics representing the rules on how the castaways lie to each other. I fixed the gradient backgrounds representing in-progress groupings in the detailed solution (or rather, I learned how to create them properly). The solution graphic font was changed to be more legible. Name cards, matching those from the updated first Castaway logic puzzle, were added to the solution graphic. Finally, a minor error in the detailed solution (switched a name) was corrected.


The third, final, and largest update to the logic problems is still to come. There is a lot of work that needs to be done in order to bring that group of logic problems to the website for the very first time, so it will take quite a while to complete. In the meantime, enjoy these problems and others on the site!

Ads, privacy, and javascript

Part 1: Ads (or lack thereof)

Ever since the features of Apple’s iOS 9 were announced, there has been much discussion surrounding the software’s ability to block ads. Now seems to be a good time to discuss several interconnected issues related to my website, starting with how I monetize the traffic flow and page views.

Simply put, I don’t. The business model for Knossos Games is that there is no business model. Knossos Games has always been presented free of advertisements. I intend to keep it that way. Ads on the web (and generally in life) have gotten way out of control, to the detriment of the entire experience. When you come to the Knossos Games website looking for quality puzzles, that’s what I want you to find. Nothing more, nothing less.

So how can I afford to do this? CTY and Imagine pay me for each submission to the magazine as a regular contributor, and they graciously let me retain the copyright for my work. Even so, the puzzles and the website are a hobby and not my main occupation, and as such I don’t rely on them for my main source of income. As an educator, I believe that knowledge wants to be free (in every sense of the word), and I want my work to be as accessible as possible. A long time ago I decided, in exchange for their payment, the magazine and its readers would get an exclusive window of opportunity to see my work before it is posted to the website. If you really enjoy Knossos Games and have a little money to spare, please consider buying a subscription to the magazine.

There are two things on the website, however, that some people might consider advertising. First, there are frequent links back to CTY and Imagine. I am grateful to them for giving me a nationally-published puzzle column in their magazine that I retain the rights to, so can you blame me? That being said, I get no direct income from those links and honestly have no idea if they have any impact whatsoever on web traffic to their site, interest in their programs, or increased readership of the magazine.

Second, when I mention on this blog a relevant puzzle book that I think you might like to read, I insert an Amazon Affiliate link. I do not intend to ever clutter up the main website with these links, or host the barrage of Amazon advertisements included in their program on the website or the blog. (Notice that I’m not even linking to Amazon within this post.) Each blog post link is clearly identified as such with a rollover. I can report that, in the first ten months of using Amazon Affiliate links, I’ve posted a grand total of two of them, and made zero dollars from them. Do yourself a favor and buy the books from your local bookstore after using Amazon to see the details.


Part 2: Traffic Analysis and Privacy

Your privacy is important. I want to be completely transparent as to what information I collect about those who read Knossos Games. I’m not a lawyer, but I wanted a privacy policy for the site, so here it is.

As I alluded to above, I have no information about subscribers to the magazine. I wouldn’t want it if it was offered to me. My editor has told me that Knossos Games has a small but loyal fan base, and this seems to be good enough to keep Knossos Games in print. If you are a long-time reader of the puzzle column, thank you!

I use three methods to collect anonymous information about visitors to the website. The first, which I’ve used for many years, is JavaScript code at the end of each puzzle website page (but not the blog) that sends information to StatCounter. The other two, which I started using in July 2015, are server-side tracking features for the puzzle website and the blog: Webalizer and AWStats. Both of these provide slightly different analytics from each other, and different from StatCounter. Together, these three services provide me with basic information about visitors to the website, such as: how you navigated to my website, what pages you visited, how long you browsed the website, and information about your location and device (screen size, operating system, and browser). If you are interested, all three services provide a complete listing of the data they collect at their respective websites.  I do not get any information that would identify you personally, nor would I ever want to seek out that information.

Why do I want this basic information? Part of my motivation is simply curiosity. After years of having this website, it’s still thrilling for me to see that someone visited from very far away. Another part is to ensure that your experience on the site is a good one. Is the site coded and formatted in such a way so that your device can load it properly? Page views specifically help me determine what puzzles are popular and how people navigate the site. For example, featuring puzzles on the homepage unsurprisingly results in far more visitors to those puzzles. Knowing how people navigated to the site helps me understand how people find out about Knossos Games. Most traffic used to come in via links from CTY and Imagine, along with a few third-party blog posts that were highly ranked in Google searches for triangular or isometric graph paper. Now, almost all traffic is from the organization Hoagies’ Gifted, which links to Knossos Games under brain teasers and puzzles. (Much of this shift in traffic is due to broken links to the old website, unfortunately.)

What do I do with this basic information? I use it to make the site better. I only check it occasionally, most often when I need to make design decisions about the site. I would never use this information to advertise (see part 1), nor would I ever sell this information to others for them to advertise to you. If you are concerned about your information being collected through these means, from my website and others, I would encourage you to use internet anonymization tools.


Part 3: Is JavaScript necessary?

With so much obtrusive advertising and traffic analysis on the web, JavaScript ad blockers and people turning off JavaScript altogether are becoming more prevalent. This has been possible from the desktop and Android for some time, but Apple’s iOS 9 has raised the collective consciousness surrounding ad blocking. Regardless of whether this is good or bad, or the effects it will ultimately have, I’m trying to move away from relying on JavaScript wherever I can. I want to provide a baseline, excellent experience on my website using HTML5 and CSS3, only adding JavaScript to further enhance that experience.

This is why I chose a few months ago to add Webalizer and AWStats analytics in addition to the free StatCounter service I had been using for years. These two new services get their data directly from the server and do not rely on JavaScript whatsoever. Another example: in recently tinkering with the splash page, I embedded a link to the homepage within the graphic, in case the automatic JavaScript forwarding fails. Yet another example: I found a clever CSS technique to create step-by-step slideshows for the Space Pods solutions that completely avoids JavaScript.

It is unclear to me how this situation with JavaScript and ad blocking will shake out in the months and years ahead. But I will continue to look for ways to create a complete experience solely through HTML5 and CSS3, only then adding JavaScript for additional features.