Rdesktop at Work: More Windows Hate

18 September 2008

I’ve somehow ended up at another job that can’t get its Web Developers a working internet connection. Combine this fact with Remote Desktop, and the myriad problems with windows. This is what a typical 5-minutes looks like for me at work:

I’m working in remote desktop, about to type an important sentence…

Remote desktop freezes, the sentence I just typed never makes it

I sit and wait. A pop-up says remote desktop lost its connection and is reconnecting. I switch to another virtual desktop to do some work locally. I start to type an important sentence…

Remote desktop jumps onto the screen, stealing the focus and text I was typing into the other window. I just confirmed/canceled some unknown dialog??!!

I press WindowsKey+Down to sent Remote Desktop back to its own workspace, where it should have stayed in the first place. I log back into the remote desktop window now that the internet is working again. Finally, I type my important sentence…

Several windows pop up within remote desktop and then the window disappears entirely.

WTF??!! Ohhh yeah. Remote desktop has a major bug where it thinks the WindowsKey is being held down. It just executed several WindowsKey+X shortcut keys, culminating in WindowsKey+L, which logs off.

I go through the Start Menu->Accessories->Remote Desktop. Log in again.

To “fix” the WindowsKey bug I have to run the On-Screen Keyboard app. Back to Start->Accessories->Accessibility->On-Screen Keyboard. Click on the WindowsKey with the mouse, then unclick it. Close the Narrator, Magnifying Glass, and Explorer windows that opened by hitting U and E while trying to type.

After thinking for a moment, I remember the important sentence I’ve been trying to type for the past 5 minutes. I start typing…

Remote desktop freezes, sentence just typed never makes it. The internet is down again. D’oh!

Granted, the unstable internet connection is part of the problem. But this wouldn’t be nearly as frustrating if it weren’t for the Rdesktop WindowsKey bug, focus-stealing, and the lack of built-in virtual desktops. While none of these individually are “huge” issues, the lack of robustness in the interface results in some days feeling like an epic battle. The operating system should be the war hose I ride into battle, not the beast I do battle against.

Boom Blox Review

05 September 2008

I never saw anything regarding Boom Blox to peak my interest, until hearing about it in a Penny Arcade podcast. The game itself is little more than a physics simulator. On top of this game engine, they proceeded to splatter every game type they could think of, hoping a couple would stick. As could be expected, some game modes are pretty awful. Fortunately, a couple do stick, and make this game well worth picking up.

First, the bad modes:

* Jenga mode. In this mode you ‘pull’ blocks out of a jenga-like tower, trying not to knock it over. The controls and physics are nowhere near accurate enough for this to be fun. You can be slowly ‘pulling’ a block out, when it suddenly decides to gyrate wildly and fling the whole tower over. Overall the physics suffers from the “jiggly cascade” effect common to recent physics engine attempts. Chalk it up to a lack of processing power to handle real friction, combined with a relatively inaccurate controller.

* Shooter mode. This is a wiimote shooting game. Like Duck Hunt. I have no idea how this got in here, but it doesn’t fit in, and isn’t particularly fun. It’s not that it’s a bad shooting game – but it’s utterly indistinct, and fails to take advantage of any of the fun game pieces.

* Sneaky Thieves mode. You have a tower with gems on it, and bears and raccoons are coming to steal them. Throw bombs at them before they take your gems. By the way, the bombs have a big damage radius, and also hurt your tower. The bomb throwing is too imprecise and slow, making this mode frustrating. It’s basically unavoidable that you’ll blow up your own tower while trying to spam bombs at the incoming forest animals. An interesting idea, but didn’t quite work out. This mode may have been salvaged with slower pacing, more distance between spawns and the tower, and an option to switch to a more precise and faster weapon for picking off enemies near your tower.

Now for the great ball-throwing modes that make this game:

* Gem Killer mode. There’s a tower (or a few) with gems carefully placed on top. The tower is made up of various breakable blocks, including special blocks that explode or disappear when hit. The goal is to knock all the gems down in as few throws as possible. This is reminiscent of playing Portal’s challenge mode, and is every bit as fun. This is also the great multiplayer mode talked about in the Penny Arcade podcast. In multiplayer, instead of trying to knock down a tower in as few throws as possible, each player has a castle with gems on it, and are trying to destroy the other players’ castles. The multiplayer is unfortunately very slow-paced, but seems like a great candidate for tuning into a fun party game.

* Math mode. This is another ball-throwing mode, but this time instead of gems, you’re aiming to earn points by knocking over blocks with numbers on them, representing the points that block is worth. Later levels include multiplier walls, which let you earn huge points if you can knock a point block into that wall. There are also penalty blocks strategically placed to keep things challenging. This mode also works in multiplayer, making an effective selfish counterpart to the offensive gem castle mode, in case you’re sick of the politics of having to attack your friends.

The single player consists of a series of levels of each type, which you unlock in order by getting a decent score. My advice? Try the bad modes for a round or two, but don’t bother finishing them unless you’re truly bored. Skip to the good ones. Be warned that the co-op is a bit tacked-on. Some levels are copied straight from single player, and some modes make no sense for co-op (eg. throw as few balls as possible). The best co-op modes are ones that have players alternate in throwing balls or pulling blocks – but even these are little different than playing single player while handing the wiimote back and forth.

Despite having 2 fun modes and 3 bad ones, this still adds up to a game worth buying, even just for the 4-player party mode. With any luck this game will get a sequel focusing on improving the game modes that worked well.

10 Serious Vista Interface Gripes

03 September 2008

I’ve been using Vista at work for the past few months, and keep ramming my head into some flaws that I’m amazed could make it through QA. Not only through QA, but also through Service Pack 1! Here they are:

1) Saving List Mode Preference
Windows Explorer always goes back to the default large icons. I’ve tried checking and unchecking the ‘save folder preferences’ checkbox, as well as changing my preferences and clicking the ‘make all folders like this one’ button. Not that either of those options make a lot of sense in the first place. This is especially annoying in that it defaults to those huge icons in every save and open dialog, so I can see all of 2, maybe 3 folders. I would vastly prefer a default of “continue with the last-used setting” instead of their bizarre “custom settings for every folder on your hard drive” interface. Which apparently doesn’t work anyway.

2) Can’t Bring Explorer to Front
Clicking the bottom right of Explorer windows almost always fails to bring it to the front. Considering this is often the only visible part of a window, this is a royal pain in the ass. It seems like this must be intentional, considering I noticed it within the first week of using Vista at work. This one really baffles me.

Vista Explorer Corners

3) The File Menu is “Hidden”
Literally. Its there in every window, but you have to press “alt” on the keyboard to see it. This one took me a week to figure out as well. Substantial functionality is still hidden in these menus, yet there is no cue or clue that the menu is there. Even once you know about this, it forces you to use the keyboard to get to the file menu.

This may have, at some point in Vista’s history, been a legitimate attempt to simplify interfaces in the post-XP Windows world. Instead this is interface simplicity gone horribly wrong. Interfaces in Vista are more complex, with important buttons completely hidden from users.

MSN Hidden File MenuMSN Hidden File Menu Revealed

4) Virtual Desktops:
Seriously, what is this, 1998? VirtuaWin is the best substitute I’ve found so far. However it can be slow (this is on a Very fast computer) and many apps, including Microsoft’s own, don’t work very well.

5) Stuck Windows Key
This may not be Vista-specific, but I’ve been using Remote Desktop a lot to access other computers. There is a HUGE bug in Remote Desktop, possibly specific to the Vista client. The windows key gets ‘stuck’ down. This happens to me VERY reliably, as in a dozen or so times every day. As soon as I try to type in the remote desktop window, the shit hits the fan. Windows minimize, unminimize, apps I’ve never heard of start popping up all over the screen. Sometimes mashing the windows key will “fix” this, but often I have to run the On-Screen Keyboard accessibility app to “click” the windows key on and back off.

6) Graphical Glitches
Approximately bi-weekly basis I’ve been seeing graphics glitches of the sort I haven’t seen since the last time I had a graphics card overheat. Windows that won’t refresh, rainbow colors in the window decoration, and so on. I at first assumed this was specific to my computer, but my coworker has been getting it too. The only solution I’ve heard is “reboot more often”.

Vista Graphics Glitch

7) Hidden dialogs
I first noticed this with UAC when setting up my computer. I ran an installer, and waited. Figuring it was churning disk to unzip, I worked in another window for a bit. Checking back, it was still hanging. Well, it turns out the UAC dialog, among others, have a habit of popping up BEHIND other windows. How hard is it to tie a security dialog to the relevant window to keep it in front, so I don’t keep staring at this never-ending “wait” screen? The same thing has been happening in Windows Explorer when using it as an FTP client. A dialog pops up to say “Do you want to overwrite this file?”, then a split-second later, a dialog covers it saying “Calculating Time….”.

Hidden Dialog

8) Stuck Explorer Dialogs
I’ve had Windows Explorer freeze in a new and spectacular way. It pops up a dialog, and will even let me click “OK” or “Cancel” – it’s just that they don’t do anything. The dialog stays there. The explorer window itself is blocked due to the dialog. I can’t right-click the start bar to close it either. Maybe this is caused by one of the aforementioned hidden dialogs, but I couldn’t find one if so. Solution? Reboot!

9) Reboot
I mostly use my XP computer at home for video games, so this one surprised me, especially as part of the ‘new’ Windows: I have to reboot several times a week. This is due primarily to Windows Updates, and installing programs. Setting up this computer with software involved rebooting a dozen or more times a day for the first week. I had forgotten how bad this was with Windows. When I was using Linux at work, and my Mac laptop at home, I would go months without rebooting either one. Even when I would get frustrated by the frequency of Ubuntu updates (hint: I just set it to check less often than the default of ‘daily’) I could go a month after installing an update before rebooting. On Windows it makes damn sure you reboot, by pestering the crap out of you with a reboot dialog. I would go the Ubuntu route and do updates less frequently, but with the number and severity of windows flaws, I’m not too comfortable with that.

10) Surprise! Keyboard Stealing
Since the days of Windows 98 I’ve been frustrated by Windows stealing the focus from me while typing, injecting my keystrokes into whatever random window decided it deserved my attention. The most obvious example of this has been instant messaging, as evidenced by the bash.org quote. In the bash.org quote, a guy accidentally sends his grandma a message intended for his girlfriend that was…erm…”sexual” in nature. This problem expands far beyond simple “oops” moments. On one occasion I actually received my boss’ password in response the moment I sent him an IM. It’s also incredibly scary to be typing a sentence, and see a dialog window pop up and immediately disappear. What did I just hit “accept” (spacebar) to?

I’ve seen this handled in a couple creative ways. On the Mac, iChat will put new chat windows in the front, but force you to click “accept” (no spacebar) before it accepts keystrokes. In Firefox, the “Install Addon” prompt counts down from 5 before accepting keyboard input, presumably to prevent malicious sites from asking you to type in a text field, then quickly send an update request. One of my favorite parts of using Linux is the setting for “focus follows mouse”, which typically solves the Surprise! problem, while also adding some nice ‘features’ not possible on Windows or Mac. With all these solutions, you’d think Microsoft would be at least trying one of them.

I can understand why the masses are fleeing back to Windows XP. I was skeptical at first – if anything I thought Vista failed to bring any new features to the table, but that it couldn’t get any worse. After using it myself for two months, I was wrong. Vista breaks common interface conventions for no good reason, maintains major problems from XP, and introduces creative new problems. If this was at launch, I would be mildly annoyed, and expect the problem to be fixed soon. When I upgraded my laptop to the latest version of Mac OS X, their Spaces virtual desktop app had some issues. I was annoyed; They fixed it that week. Any guess when these major Vista flaws will be fixed?

Elementalist Mages in WotLK (finally!)

03 September 2008

In Wrath of the Lich King, the upcoming World of Warcraft expansion, Blizzard has made some major departures from tradition with the Mage talent trees. This has left some people confused, asking questions like “Why do I get free fireballs in the frost tree?” and “How come an arcane talent increases damage on my fire AOE?”.

Historically, the mage talent trees have been very strictly school-based, to the point of nearly being copy-pasta with a different crayon color for each tree. Each tree had a primary bolt (frostbolt, fireball, arcane missiles), with a ‘mandatory’ talent to improve it. Several more talents copied across the trees increased the range of that “color” of spells. Others had a flat crit or damage increase for that color of spell. All three trees have a talent that stops spell pushback.

The problem with this design is that it tore down one of the most important strengths of the mage class: a vast array of spells across multiple magic schools. Because the talents vastly improve a single magic school, this effectively excludes a mage from using his other schools.

When a mage comes across an elemental immune to his primary magic school, he should laugh haughtily and destroy the enemy with his other spells. Instead, mages sorely lack damage and utility in their alternate schools. As a frost mage, a same-level water elemental can practically solo me. I can’t frost nova to root him in place. Not only are my fireballs and arcane missiles not pushback-resistant, but they take longer to cast, do less damage, AND cost more mana. Instead of devastating the water elemental with my alternate schools, I’m a punching bag with a cigarette lighter.

We feel it in PVP as well. Hypothetically a mage can switch out spells based on the enemy he’s fighting. Use fireballs on that rogue so he can’t stealth, use frostbolts on a paladin or warrior to stop him from reaching you with that big sword, or use a pushback resistant bolt when sticking at close range against a dual-wielding hunter and his pet. Again, this isn’t the reality of mage design in World of Warcraft. Other than a few powerful instant-cast spells with cooldowns (fireblast, cone of cold) mages stick to their primary school. The only example that comes to mind otherwise is using arcane missiles to avoid Line of Sight (LOS) issues. If the designers had foreseen this utility, we would most likely have it as a talent, only accessible to arcane mages.

A few token changes were made to improve this before the Burning Crusade expansion came out. Shatter was updated to allow non-frost spells to also crit, and Master of Elements was modified to refund mana on ALL spell crits, not just fire. Better design, certainly, but a small start. If anything Burning Crusade may have worsened this, by giving us a second primary-bolt-only talent, further entrenching that spell as the only one a mage can cast.

The main specs considered viable at the moment are 17/44/0 and 17/0/44, and sadly, 61 points in any tree. The first 17 in those frost and fire builds are in Arcane down to Imp. Counterspell. Mages say this spell is mandatory for PVP. For PVE you hear the same thing about Clearcasting and Arcane Meditation. The truth is, mages have always found an excuse to put points into arcane. Before Imp. Counterspell, it was “you NEED instant arcane explosion”. Really though – what’s the alternative to putting those 17 points in arcane? Who wants a faster fireball when you can cast a much more powerful frostbolt in that same time? Who wants extra frost crit damage when they’re chain-casting fire spells? No – arcane isn’t awesome, the other trees are just that bad.

The only ‘hybrid’ build is ’34/27/0′, which is really a fire build that takes only utility talents from the arcane tree. You won’t find this build casting Arcane Blast or Arcane Missiles in their rotations.

Call me crazy, but I’ve spent most of WOW as an elemental mage anyway. Have I been gimping myself by doing so? Probably a little. But I’ve always badly wanted that flexibility and utility that is the heart of mages.

Finally, here comes the WotLK expansion. Through some dramatic talent revamps and new spells, elemental builds will finally be viable.

First, you’re gonna be casting in red white AND purple, no matter what you spec. Specced deep frost? You get free fireballs. Have talents in frost AND fire? Now both will get some use, even if you still chain-cast frostbolt. Specced arcane? If you want a ranged AOE you’ve got extra damage on flamestrike too, not just arcane explosion.

Unfortunately, the fact remains that many talents still effect fire-only or frost-only spells. Hybrids will still have a weaker primary bolt when chaincasting than any other build, right? That’s where the new Frostfire Bolt comes in. Frostfire bolt receives bonuses from both frost and fire talents. Regardless of the lame name, this means that you can spec elemental and still put out sustained DPS in PVE, and have a hard-hitting bolt for shatter crits. Not only does this make elemental viable, but because frostbolt-specific and fireball-specific talents won’t impact it, your elemental build ALSO has an extra 10 points free from not speccing Imp. Frostbolt and Emp. Frostbolt, or Imp. Fireball and Emp. Fireball.

*However*, the fact remains that you have many talents in frost and fire that increase fire-only damage, or frost-only damage. That means if you spec elemental and go into a raid, you’re going to have weak fireballs AND weak frostbolts. So what do you chain-cast without feeling like you wasted all the points you put in one tree?

Say goodbye to 17 in arcane, and good riddance. Elemental here I come!