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Why dual screens are still fail in Linux

Dual screen support is made of fail on Linux. In this post, you will learn why. I reference Ubuntu 9.04, but it applies to other distributions also. It is my hope that by documenting some of the problems, I will add intangible weight to the issue and make whoever fixes it feel good about their work.

Let’s walk through setup, shall we? First, you are required to log out after initially adding a second monitor to the system. I understand why this is, but it’s lame. I hoped that Ubuntu 9.04 would have had some magic way of fixing this. Apparently not.

Now, suppose the user is actually using the secondary monitor which has a smaller vertical resolution . One very nice feature of many window managers is edge resistance — when a window is close to the edge of the screen, it will sort of cling to the edge a little. This is usually what the user wants. As it currently stands, this is broken. The screen is treated as a big rectangle with smaller rectangular views overlayed on top of it — the monitors. The edges windows resist are on the big rectangle, not the smaller ones. This means that an edge on the smaller secondary monitor will not have resistance. This is inconsistent with the larger monitor, which is bad.

Finally, let us think about laptops. A large number of dual screen users are also laptop users, because laptops don’t usually have very big screens, and because pretty much all laptops (even low end ones) support dual screens. Laptops, being as portable as they are, have a tendency to be used in multiple locations. Some of these locations might have dual screens; some might not. When you leave a location which has dual screens, your first inclination is to unplug the second screen. Unfortunately, any windows which were visible on the second screen are now not visible at all. They now exist in a magic imaginary space off to the side of your primary screen. If you put the laptop into a power-saving mode like sleep or hibernate before pulling the second monitor out, you will have the same problem. The only solution is to end your session by shutting down the computer or restarting X11.

Advanced users will overcome this quirk by either moving all their windows off the secondary screen before unplugging it, or holding down a meta key and making blind grabs into the void in hopes of fishing out a desired window. Meanwhile, Microsoft Windows handles this issue easily. It simply moves all the windows that were on the secondary screen onto the primary screen. Why can’t X, xrandr, or the window manager do that?

AbiWord netbook mockups

I’ve had a few ideas recently about improving the usability of AbiWord on netbooks. Abi is already fast and small (always a good thing on a low power machine), but my general impression of netbooks is that they usually have fairly small, low resolution screens and small, somewhat imprecise input devices.

To this end, I’ve started making mockups of various interface concepts and ideas. Here are two of them.

Maximize concept

Maximize concept

(I’ve used the Windows XP taskbar because it’s easier to work with than the transparent Windows 7 one. Please excuse typos. does not allow editing previously entered text. ;-) )

Are the tabs too much like Word 2007?

This mockup is unfinished. I "borrowed" the Adobe Reader sidebar. Without permission. Are the tabs too much like Word 2007?

On the one hand, I’m somewhat hesitant to break a lot of platform specific human interface guidelines. On the other hand, they probably weren’t written with netbooks in mind. The gray interface seems like it would provide better contrast between the interface and the text in a brightly lit environment than the default grayish color.

Note also that my tabs are clearly better than the ones in Microsoft Office 2007 because they can be accessed from the side of the screen (even if the mockup does a really poor job of showing the idea). I may be treading close to the MS patent here though; I’ll need to check out the exact details of what that covers.

I do not yet know if I’ll be applying for a summer job realizing a few of my concepts in Summer of Code 2009, but I thought they were interesting enough to toss up here.

Speaking of which, does anyone know of a crossplatform way to break HIG standards on all platforms? ;-) Most of the cross platform libraries I’ve seen seem to empahsize uniformity with the host operating system.

Exploration and Scene Based Gaming

Gamers can be classified into several categories. I happen to fall into the “Exploration gamer” stereotype, meaning that although I enjoy a challenge, I’d rather face an easy, interesting boss and stroll through lots of interesting locations than have to analyse the strategy of a ridiculously hard (yet dull) boss to proceed. There’s not necessarily anything wrong with this preference either; I just happen to really enjoy games like Seiklus and Knytt Stories more than others might. Even in World of WarCraft or the Elder Scrolls games, my default gameplay activity is to actively avoid combat and just wander around to see everything. (Why yes, I do enjoy playing as a rogue. Thank you for asking.)

The gaming habits of others may differ. (Yes, this post is in response to that one. Go read it.)

The problem with being an exploration gamer is that I’m quite likely to give up way too soon on a challenge and play something else or use cheat codes if I just can’t get past a certain point in the game. This tendency is exacerbated by my sudden decrease in time upon arriving at college. It doesn’t make me any less of a gamer, it just means I want something different out of a game than you do; “the scenery, the story, the poetry of movement”, if you will. I watch intro movies, for goodness sake. ;-)

This being said, while the Nintendo patent for scene based gaming mentions the “experience”, I don’t really think it’s aimed at exploration gamers.  No, the patent seems to be aimed at casual gamers who would be unable to complete the game otherwise. At certain points, Zelda really is just a lot of fun to watch. The puzzles can be/are frustrating for the casual market they’re trying to cater to, though. This video walkthrough system sounds very similar to what was implanted in the puzzle game Professor Fizzwizzle, which was loved by both casual gamers and hardcore puzzle solvers. Hopefully this is a sign that Nintendo is going ahead with what aging Zelda fans have wanted for a while: much harder puzzles.

Think about it. Miyamoto has said the franchise “does need some big new unique ideas.” With new ideas will hopefully come an increase in difficulty; an important factor which seems to have been declining in recent releases. Whether the reduced difficulty is perceived or actual is up for discussion (repeated use of common metaphors and concepts may make new titles seem easier to players who have been through several installments in the series already), but people who like a series are likely to play multiple installments of it.

But I digress. If scene based gaming means that Nintendo can make games significantly new, different, and harder without loosing the casual audiance they currently cater to or the old school gamers they attracted in the first place, so much the better.

So what if casual gamers want to watch Zelda like an overpriced DVD? As long as the core gameplay is intact for everyone else, I don’t really see the fuss about scene-based gaming as anything more as elitism.

Retro Remakes 2008 Competition

Every year, Retro Remakes runs a video game remake competition. There are typically about fifty completed entries or so, all in a handy list with download links. It’s like Christmas in July! I mean, December.

New this year there were two new categories which allowed for mashups of existing classics and “remakes” of games which didn’t actually exist. In my humble opinion, some of the best entries this year fell into those categories. Allow me to present three of my favorites.

Blast Passage


Very little to say about this one; it’s exactly what it looks like. It’s Gauntlet mixed with Bomber Man, complete with LAN play. Tell me that’s not an amazing concept. It’s Java and runs in a web browser, so it should be fairly cross platform.

Download: Page 4



Metroid meets Tetris. The heart of the game is classic Metroid, but all the powerups are now tetris pieces. You have to fit them into block segments which seal off new areas in order to advance. It’s rather clever; I especially like how some sections require the player to shoot the right piece into the wall to serve as a platform. The music is also brilliant.

Download: Page 4



This is an extremely interesting entry. It’s very simple; just a run and jump platformer with one enemy type and simple graphics. The genius is that each individual enemy unit is more powerful than the player, and it has an AI system. If the player opens fire, the enemy will either retreat and take cover, or jump and counter attack. If the player starts running away, enemies will emerge from cover on lower platforms and pursue their target like carnivorous rabbits. Yet, the AI is just unpredictable enough to keep things interesting. I love all the applications of game theory here.

Retroman is relatively difficult. An individual enemy, while comparatively easy to outwit, takes several hits to destroy and can kill the player in a single shot. I spent twenty minutes or so attempting to pass the first level; I’ve got no idea if there are any others.

Download: Page 5

Of course, your tastes will certainly differ from mine, and I haven’t had the time or inclination to play all of the entries. If you find something exceptional, feel free to call it out in the comments. :-)

Project Daydream

So, I’ve signed on as the third developer of Project Daydream.

Project Daydream will be an open source, cross-platform, networked physics simulation sandbox. We’ll be implementing the base layer and online support. Users will be able to script and extend the sim with LUA. The (extremely) longterm goal is to make it an MMO.

Since we’re all busy students, this obviously isn’t going to be complete anytime soon. But we’ll hopefully have something interesting to demonstrate sometime in the next few months.

GLDirect – OpenGL to DirectX Converter

Attention internet! If you have an ATi Xpress 200, Xpress 200m, Xpress 1100, or Xpress 1100m graphics card affected by the OpenGL firmware bug, this is for you. I stumbled across it randomly; it’s called GLDirect. It converts system calls to OpenGL into DirectX calls. So, if you can run DirectX games fine but you’ve been having trouble with horrible (read: completely unplayable) performance in Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Neverwinter Nights, Savage, or another OpenGL game, give it a whirl.

I’d love to test it, but I no longer have the time or the affected hardware in question. If you try it, let me know how it works for you in the comments. Thanks!

Why I hate online stores which are not Amazon

So, I’m trying to buy access to MyTechCommKit, an online service required for one of my classes this semester. The typical process for this sort of thing usually involves going to a secure web page (yay HTTPS), entering some payment and billing info, and checking email every ten seconds for a an automated confirmation.

Unfortunately, online stores hate me. The feeling is mural (although I make special exceptions for NewEgg and Amazon, for reasons which will become clear presently). When the time came for me to enter my credit card verification number, authentication failed. Which was OK; because my card was on the verge of expiring and I just got an updated card yesterday with a different security code. The system must not have updated for the new card. Merely trying the old code should work. Except that it doesn’t.

The priority of the issue suddenly jumped several levels on my internal bug tracker. This is An Issue.

I tried to contact support. For some reason, they decided that it was way too hard to maintain an 800 number, so they have live chat instead. Cheapskates. I spent several minutes figuring out how to classify my issue in their arbitrary category system, entered my name and contact info, double checked the hours of operation, and hit “Chat.” A window appeared, the chat interface popped up… and then it all closed again. A message informed me that my chat had been disconnected. Well, that’s just wonderful. I love you too, impersonal buggy javascript application.

Look, if you’re going to have a system which will randomly fail, either by your fault, your customer’s, or some random middle man, it’s good to have a backup. Like, a real person for your customer to sort things out with. Perhaps a phone number someplace? It really feels like you don’t want to talk to me and/or don’t care that I want to give you money. Work that out, ok?

Kubuntu w/ KDE 4.1 stream of consciousness

I took a brief break from coding to try out KDE 4.1 in Ubuntu 8.04. I used the procedure to install outlined on the Kubuntu page. This release was billed long ago as the one which would be ready for users. Observe my amazing stream of cosciousness, typed in real time as I explored the basic KDE 4.1 desktop.

All the hotkeys on my laptop’s keyboard have been disabled. I can’t adjust the screen brightness, which defaults to “solar flare.”

Ripping off the Vista search-as-you-type style menu is only a good thing.

No Tango in the icon switcher? I thought one of the big deals about Tango was that it was one of the first complete icon themes to use the new-two-years-ago icon naming system?

The plasmoid whatever it is method of resizing the taskbar confused me for a while. Also, am I missing something? I messed around with these wierd tabstops and justification buttons that pop up when you want to resize the toolbar, but nothing happened. Don’t know what they’re supposed to control, but the UI metaphor isn’t working for me.

No obvious way to turn off text labels on toolbars

The menu that pops up when a flash drive is inserted is extremely nicely done. There is a my-computer style device icon persistent on the taskbar, and the popup dialog is attached to this icon. I don’t know. It takes up valuable space on the taskbar, but I like it. It would be nice if my home folder was in there, maybe with a separator to distinguish it from the devices or something.

Window compositing!
Alt-tab highly meh.
Can be replaced with Aero win-tab rip off or what looks like an itunes coverflow clone.
No compelling reason to use KWM with composite over compiz. Or even over KWM with no composite. Aside from shadows and the window becoming a little transparent when you move it, I’m not seeing a big difference.

The mouse pointer theme is under Keyboard & Mouse, not appearance. Which makes sense I guess, except that that icon is under the Computer Administration category. Even though every option in the mouse section easily falls under Look & Feel.

I don’t like single clicking to open folders. I don’t care if it’s more efficient, I want my double click back. Where is the option? It was around in previous iterations of KDE, but I can’t find it now.

If there are enough items for the scrollbar to kick in on the k-menu, the last one will be halfway off the screen.

Does this have integrated desktop search? Deskbar in Gnome hooks into tracker. The k-menu search should do something similar.

What is the deal with Lost & Found? Why did it just dump everything from my neatly organized Wine folder on the Gnome menu in there?

Why does the “Desktop theme” affect the taskbar, not the desktop? I went looking for the taskbar theme by right clicking on the taskbar first.

I installed some desktop theme using the “New Theme…” button and nothing happened. I thought I’d misclicked because the progress bar went by, but nothing happened.

Oh, you have to install it, then back out and select it on the list. I’d like to at least preview it though. The screenshots are too small, and going back and forth is annoying.

I *think* I installed the Haron theme using the interface, but it’s not in the list for some reason. Hey, it didn’t work twice in a row.

How can I get rid of that annoying button on the end of the taskbar? Oh, I can hide it by locking stuff.

Why is there an annoying button in the top right corner? Can I get rid of it? What the heck? Why would anyone want to zoom out their desktop like this? Is this for if you’ve got like 20 virtual desktops and they all need different widgets or something? Weird.

Gah. I’m going back to Gnome. My eyes can’t stand the glare anymore.

Ok, why are there choices for log out/standby/shutdown/restart on the menu, if they’re just going to pop up again as a seprate dialog when I click one of them?

Verdict: Kubuntu 8.04 with KDE 4.1 feels funky and unpolished. This isn’t nearly as usable as I expected. I’ll check back around 4.2.

Please don’t flame me. Gnome is good, Windows Vista is good UI-wise (until you need to configure something), but KDE feels pretty meh.

About the Facebook redesign

Dearest Facebook,

You have no Linux users in your UI testing groups. Either that, or you ignore them. Or they don’t actually test. It’s one of those. I state this merely because Firefox 3 on Linux is not compatible with your new design. This has been tested in Arch Linux and the version of Ubuntu that came out back in April.

So anyway. The links on the main page don’t work. You must click a link, then refresh the page to be taken to your destination.

On a completely different note, it’s somewhat disappointing to see that you switched from one fixed-width style to another. I used to be able to have a web browser on the left sode of my desktop and IM windows on the right side. Now my browser needs to be about 170 pixels wider, so it overlaps. The worst part is how much seems to be dedicated to ads (a large number of which are either completely irrelavent to me or offensive. I shamelessly block them) and whitespace. Yeah, the new layout seems a lot cleaner, but a lot of that is because you bought the whitespace by making the user resize the window larger. And what’s up with 1/3 of the viewable area not being used while looking at wall-to-wall conversations? It would have been a lot more nifty if the layout flowed depending on how wide the window was.

Just some thoughts.


P.S. Oh, just remembered. That you know that guy Joe Minifeed? Why are you calling him “Mr. Wall” now?

P.P.S. Try loading the main page with the window not full length. Scroll to the right. Note the fun redraw issues. I’ll bet we see Firefox 3.0.2, “Facebook Edition” pretty soon.

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