A seemingly endless monolog from the site kreator

Welcome to www.kountdown.co.uk, a site dedicated to the honing of its visitor's already sharp vocabularic and arithmetic skills.

The games available on it, you may notice, bear a striking resemblance to those on a similarly named television programme. This, of course, is pure coincidence. And if the producers of "Countdown" start bringing up 9 letter words like "copyright", "solicitor" and "messingwiththebigboys", then I'll meekly change whatever they want, m'lud.

Why does the site look so boring?

Have you actually watched "Countdown"? It's supposed to be boring.

<soapbox>I also feel that web sites should try to cater for the widest variety of visitors. In particular, I intend for kountdown.co.uk to be usable by visually impaired web surfers. From the research I've done, a reasonable starting point is making it usable by text-only browsers. To this end, I've kept clear of graphics, client-side scripting and frames. </soapbox> I don't have the software for testing with commercially available audio browsers - so any feedback would be appreciated.

The site uses css to separate presentation from content, in an attempt to improve clarity and usability.

Once I've implemented all the features I want in the site, I may build a more song and dancy version - I've got a static prototype version which uses frames, and passes a lot of the user functionality onto client-side script. The only advantages I can see are easier navigation and fewer web-server calls.

Koming soon...

I've got several improvements I intend to make to the site in the future:

  • I'm getting rid of a good percentage the dodgy words in the wordlist. This will take a while, but the changes should eventually filter through.
  • Next I'll give you the option to play a whole show, with the games in order. Your only opponent will be the computer, which as it is the referee, tends to give itself maximum available points.
  • Then there's a numbers game checker, which will dole out the correct number of points. I've already written one using client-side scripting, when I was doing my "son et lumiere" prototype.
  • Another thing is an optional graphics skin, using css to control all that stuff. I put together a experimental version, but I couldn't get the letter blocks to size properly.
  • The final thing I may do is put some kind of revenue generating feature in to help cover webserver costs. I've a couple of ideas, but will listen to suggestions.

WARNING! WARNING! Irrelevant techy stuff! Irrelevant techy stuff!

Why do I get all these weird words coming up?

I got my grubby fingers on a wordlist, vastly bigger than my old one, but sadly large numbers of large words seem to have just been made up. The list is the full version of Alan Beale's ABLE (Alternate British LExicon) http://personal.riverusers.com/~thegrendel/software.html. It's a third bigger than the "Official Countdown Dictionary", and there are plenty of words which would be rejected by the real dictionary corner. Neither does it necessarily tie up with the Merriam-Webster dictionary site, which this site has hyperlinks to.

As I said earlier I'm getting rid of the worst offenders over the coming weeks.

Numbers solver blues

The numbers solver has an optimisation (which speeds processing up by about 6 times) which means that there are a few combinations of numbers and targets for which a solution exists, but is not given. From what I can see, the famous robovord has the same issue. I found an example and wrote it down - but chucked out the bit of paper when I was tidying up. If you can find one, let me know.

Kountdown to Kountdown

I suppose this site started off in about 1994, when I wrote a word game solver using MS Wordbasic (which has a handy deanagramiser, so I didn't have to do the hard bit). Given the hardware at the time, it could just about give you all the anagrams in a 9 letter sequence in 50 seconds. I've probably got it lurking about on a disk somewhere, so I'll stick a Word 2000 version of it on the site if I run into it. Hmm, thinking about it, the code was decidedly "experimental", so I'd better write a tidier version from stratch if I want to hold my head up.

In 2001 I wrote a numbers solver in Javascript which took about 50 seconds to solve combinations of 5 Numbers, rather than the proper 6. Before I had a chance to optimise the program, my hard disk decided to commit sideyways. The program would never have got very fast anyway, given the limitations of Javascript.

In the middle of 2002, after doing my sums and looking at a lot of web service providers, I realised that this site was economically feasible for me to put on-line. Using php was a fairly early decision, mostly because I think linux and unix are better operating systems for servers than windows is. It's more of a gut feeling than anything I've measured, to be honest. I've done plenty of VB and some VBScript in the past, so php was a bit more challenge as I hadn't used it before. I've really enjoyed getting to know it. I wasted a load of time setting up an old PC as a linux server, but I never got it talking to my Windows machine (turned out I had a dodgy network card on the windows pc), so I gave up and wrote the site using the Windows version of php. I eventually decided on a provider (firenet), because they could provide what I needed (disk space) for the lowest price. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), the firenet unix boxes don't have mysql installed (why?) so I was forced to redesign the word game solver engine. It now uses a home built bitmap index system, which was fun to think up and execute. I prefer my flatfile version - it's designed from the base up to decrease server workload, while the SQL solution was really a bit of a hack. An anagram solver is not a typical database application.

www.kountdown.co.uk was launched on an unsuspecting public in February 2003

In August 2003, I found a new wordlist for the dictionary, so I spent spent some time automating the dictionary file creation process (done using MS Access), and tweaked the php to make the whole "new wordlist" process easier. There shouldn't be much of a difference, apart from an improvement in the quality of the words suggested.

Then at the end of 2003, having looked at sites like csszengarden, I converted the site to work with css instead of using FONT and TABLE tags. As I said above, I think it should improve usability all round.

At the beginning of August 2004, Mike Brown kindly put a link from www.thecountdownpage.com. Since then the number of visitors has dramatically increased, and I feel a bit guilty for not moving the site forward over the last - err - year or so.

Most recently, as well as actually doing something about those duff words, I've changed the letter selector algorithm. Previously the letter chooser used the correct letters frequency used on the TV programme, but only over 1 game. Now, it only starts a new deck once you run out of vowels or consonants.

If you've any comments, suggestions or better ideas please kontact me!