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Poly Keyboard

Here is another project idea I never really started working on: A computer keyboard that has a small LCD in each key cap. I'm convinced that there are legitimate use cases. After all, the function of the keys changes according to context. Different applications have different shortcuts, when I press and hold the Ctrl or Super key, the whole layout practically changes. Most people don't remember useful keyboard shortcuts, if they try to memorise them in the first place (if the learn about them to begin with). It would be nice to have the markings on the keys reflect their role. In some special applications, like video editing, a completely custom keyboard layout would be useful (a cheap alternative to buing a custom video editing interface input device). In computer games, only the useful keys could light up, as well as display what they do (which depends not only on the game, your custom layout, the current situation in the game, as well as what happened earlier in the game, e.g. what items you have in your pockets). You might want to write in different languages and need different keyboard layouts at different times. You could have icons or descriptions of key functions be displayed whenever you hold a modifying key, to see which shortcuts are available. You could have a second keyboard with an additional layout to give you access to frequently used functions, and have the keys display the relative application icons or describe what they do. And it would just look cool.

The idea has been in my head for years. I even board the electronics to build a few keys to try it out. But I never build one because I think it would have been too much work on the side to get it done well, considered I come by very well without one. Now I learned that somebody else has built a keyboard very similar to what I had/have in mind. To be honest, I never really get very deep into the keyboard building community to know whether a keyboard like this already existed. I think when I had the idea I didn't even know how big the mechanical keyboard fan community is and that DIY builds are such a big thing.

The project I stumbled over is the Poly Keyboard by thpoll. Here is an article about it in the Keyboard Builder's Digest, here is the Github repo. Apparently (according too the article) it isn't the first of its kind. But it's the only one I've seen.

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Why is the Windows Subsystem for Linux called the Windows Subsystem for Linux when it is a Linux Subsystem for Windows?

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About entries about alternative desktop operating systems

When I decided to write about operating systems that not that many people know about, I did so after discovering a handful of small projects that I was unaware of up to that point. After starting to test and try them, I found more interesting projects. After I started to write about what I had already tries, I found even more projects that seemed worth mentioning, between a lot of projects that I thought I better not get into in order to not blow this up into an actual OS comparison project. I thought I had a rough overview over the hobby OS world and commercial desktop OSs. I split my entry about alternative desktop operating systems up into many because I took a lot of time between trying out the OSs and wanted to publish the information piece for piece.

But the longer I keep looking, the more interesting (both in number and in interestingness) projects I find. I now see that trying out most of the interesting desktop OSs would be a huge project. Even just shortly trying those that supply a bootable disk image would take much longer than I thought. So entries about OSs that I've tried will likely be a continuous thing that just at some point will stop without anybody noticing. I see now that it was wrong to assume that I could write a resume after a while.

With the number of projects worth trying and mentioning there also comes a variety that's far bigger than I expected. Just shortly mentioning an OS and my experince trying it out randomly doesn't do much good. A list with a one-sentence description would probably be more helpful to people looking to install and/or try an alternative OS. But a database that contains all the interesting information about every desktop OS out there, filterable and sortable, would again be a proper project that would require some dedication or a lot of time.

So, I just give up on generating interesting or even useful information about alternative operating systems and just continue writing short entries about them like I did so far.

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There is a scene in the show "Louie that possibly demonstrates very well part of the source with my frustration from communicating with other humans. (This Youtube video is not the entire scene, but may be enough.)

Apparently the scene is an example of good acting in the show. Louis sits in a cafe, his girlfriend joins him at his table. He eats ice cream and doesn't talk much. She seems to be in a more lively mood and talks more. She says that she believes that, by saying nothing, Louie wants to break up with her. He contradicts that claim by stating clearly that he does not want to break up with her. But she ignores that and criticises him for breaking up with her in such a cowardly manner. He is more lively as well now and repeats and assures her multiple times that he does not want to break up.

Clearly, he could not have done anything more to convince her that she is wrong in her assumtion, without escalating the situation, e.g. into a violent direction. A claim that appears to be founded on nothing but the fact that he seemed a bit down while eating ice cream in a cafe. When I watched that scene, I didn't think about it again. She was weird, apparently wanted to break up with him but give him the fault (or whatever her motivations were, idk) and did so in a convenient moment. It could hardly be more clear of a scene to me. We saw the entire thing, he clearly said how he felt, but she insisted that she knew better.

But apparently I'm the only person who sees it that way. For everybody else it seems to be quite clear that she was right and he wasn't brave/manly/fair/whatever enough to admit that he wanted to break up with her. So he made her do it. I don't know how he supposedly made her break up with him, but according to everybody I ask, that's what he did by behaving like he did, by saying thing the way he said them, and also by not saying certain things. Can anybody explain to me what those things he didn't say were, or how he said things to mean the opposite of what the words he was saying mean? Can somebody explain to me what about his behaviour made him untrustworthy? So far nobody has.

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Alternative Operating System: Solar OS

This entry is referencing the entry 'Alternative Operating Systems'.

Solar OS

Solar OS is a one to few person project. An OS with a GUI with an early 90s feeling. Closed source, if I didn't miss something. There is an API reference, but not much help beyond that. I didn't see a software repository mentioned anywhere. I guess the most likely usage is with your own custom applications or ported software.

Solar OS's advantages are definitely its small size (< 1.44 MB) and how fast it runs (a 386 with at least 8 MB RAM should be enough). I booted it from a USB flash drive (using grub and Syslinux) on an Athlong 64 X2. It was as fast as it could be, of course. Although, movement of the mouse pointer is very laggy with screen resolutions higher than VGA. With HD resolutions it can't really be called usable with a mouse anymore. I don't know if that's a driver issue with my graphics hardware or what. This is not a problem with other systems that use a simple VESA driver.

But, there wasn't much to do to test how well, fast, comfortable, beautiful and error-free everything runs. There aren't many applications included. The things that are included do a good job of demonstrating the OS. There are things like a process manager, a picture viewer, a very simple text editor and other tiny demo and system applications. And there is a help decument, debugger, things like this. For a proper test, I'd wish for more applications to use for practical work. I don't know what exactly. It depends on what you need the os for. Maybe writing your own application would be best included in a test that aims to collect for experience about the OS.

It crashed after less than half an hour trying it out. Because it stopped responding before I made any screenshots and I didn't yet bother to boot it up again, see the screenshots page on the project web site. There are many screenshots that paint a good overall picture of the OS and its GUI.

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Alternative Operating System: Visopsys (VISual OPerating SYStem)

This entry is referencing the entry 'Alternative Operating Systems'.

Visopsys (VISual OPerating SYStem)

Visopsys is a real hobby OS created from the ground up. It's very likeable like this. It has a GUI that is kind of a mix of a MacOS-9-style and Windows-95-style desktop. There are a couple of accessories and a limited shell. A very promising OS from what I've seen and read. But also limited in its usability as of now, from my own experience.

I've tried Visopsys 0.91, the currently latest version on the download page. Running it in a virtual machine is recommended because of the limited hardware support. But I think that it is fair to hold an operating system to a standard that requires it to be able to run on real hardware, not on another operating system. I tried it on five computers before I got it to boot. I'm not going to list all the hardware components (I'd have to look up all the motherboards - meh), but the CPUs to get an idea for the age of the system components. First a Core2Duo. It printed bunch of error messages to the screen that I didn't further investigate. Initialisation failed and stopped. Then an AMD K6. I got a message informing me that Visopsys will boot in text mode because of a lack of SVGA support and then it rebooted. The used VGA card is a very old one. So that might be correct. Then I tried an Athlon 64 X2. It did something, the loading bar appeared, then it rebooted. I didn't get anything else out of it. Then I wanted to give The K6 a newer graphics card. But while digging for one, I found another PC with a Celeron E3200 and tried that first. And it worked. So I didn't bother checking the K6 again.

Boot time to live mode is about 3 seconds. Incidently, I also learned something about booting from CD. Booting from any ATAPI CD or DVD drive took many times longer than booting from the same CD in a SCSI CD drive. Like 10 times longer. That surprised me. I didn't think there would be such a big difference. Maybe my IDE cable has a problem or I did something wrong. Anyway, booting from USB or an IDE hard drive was quick enough to not bother to measure how quick exactly (about 3 seconds). Edit: A likely explanation for the load time difference between the SCSI and the ATAPI drives is that the ATAPI drives were all modern, fast-spinning drives that take a long time to spin up before any data is read, as apposed to the old, slow SCSI drives that I have, that allow reading from the disk much sooner.

Installing to a hard drive is straight forward: Optionally choose a language other than English (this also changes the keyboard layout), coose a partition, click a few next buttons, enter a password for the default user account and reboot. There is also a partitioning tool available from the installer. But I didn't find a way go get back to the installer without rebooting. After booting the installed Visopsys and logging in, or after booting in live mode, you get a simple desktop with a few icons and a task bar at the top.

There isn't much to do. As far as I know the included programmes are pretty much all that are available for Visopsys. (Please do correct me if I'm wrong!) There are system settings, a very limited shell with a limited number of commands with very limited options, a few casual games, an image viewer and a few other simple tools. The most useful things included apart from the file browser are probably the text editor, the calculator and the telnet client. There is no web browser and no multimedia applications.

During the time I used Visopsys, nothing crashed or went fundamentally wrong. But I noticed a couple of small things that would need to be sorted out to create a comfortable user experience. The most obvious one is that while dragging, the dragged objects sometimes were lost and dropped too soon. Especially dragging windows vertically has to be done very, very, very, very slowly. It's as if the mouse button had a loose contact otherwise. Another thing I noticed when choosing a new desktop wallpaper. Once the directory in which to look for image files to be used as wallpaper has been chosen, the file names seem to be cached. Image files that I've copied into that directory after that were not listed before rebooting. Little things like this add up to create a bit of an annoying experience.

But I don't want to talk down the state in which the project is in. Many things are working slawlessly and depending on what you need your computer to be able to do, it might even fulfill many of the needs. A web browser is not one of them, though.

I've attached some screenshots that I took. The one where the Snake icon is selected. should have a window with the Snake game in it as well. I don't know why it isn't invisible.

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Blog Updates

A year ago today, the idea to create this multi-author blog was put into practice by the second author creating their first entry. Since then I've been asking myself why I let myself be talked into starting yet another multi-author blog. (Admittedly I was half of the people taking myself into it.) After the last attempt didn't take off as I imagined for myself, I didn't think I'd make the same mistake again and start such a similar project. With the same people at that. The last time at least people posted some things in the first few months. That feels like a success now compared to draft0.de. But I'll probably pay for the domain name and server a bit longer. I don't know why. But that's how I tend to do it with ended projects. Anyway, my blog at log.steeph.de will continue to be my place in the web ifwhen (or is it whenif?) this site won't be available any more.

Over a year after starting my blog and the script that generates it I've finally set up scheduled automatic updates of the blog. That means every other night the script is run and (re-)generates the web site unsupervised from whatever files anybody has left in the input directory. I do not apologise for any weird, unintended results in the HTML output of the script or other mistakes. This web site comes as is. If you can't read it, you can't read it.

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Alternative Operating Systems

There are too many Linux distributions to list and too many Linux-based systems to try all of them out just for fun. There also wouldn't be much of a point to doing this. And there's nothing to say about Windows or MacOS in this entry. But I'd like to write a bit about operating systems not very many people have heard of. Specifically, I took a look at several lesser known desktop operating systems. This entry is like a forword to my coming entries about those alternative PC operating systems.

The less big OSs

There are a few other operating systems that aren't used on as many computers, aren't as well-known as the big three (Windows, Linux, Mac OS) and their derivatives, but are still important for their use case or niche. There's the extended family BSD, MINIX, the PlayStation system and many other Unix-like systems, there's Illumos and other actual UNIXs, a variety of DOSs and many even less widely used OSs for small niches. Those all deserve an article. But this is not one about any of those.

The discontinued ones

There are many UNIXs and Unix-like operating systems that aren't actively developed or not even officially supported anymore but still in use in various industries. (Never touch a running system!) There are many old systems that are still sometimes used by retro computing fans, users with nostalgia attacks and people who just never updated their machines since the 80s or 90s. I'd like to write an entry about those systems. But not right now.

The unnoticed ones

There's also a huge landscape of operating systems on embedded systems that are not primarily seen as computers, such as DVRs, cars, household appliances, toys, parking meters and many many industrial tools and machines. An article about how this landscape of proprietary in-house systems turned into a stable of Linux systems would also be worth writing. Or one that takes a look at some sleek systems, from tiny, incredibly efficient environments for 90s microcontrollers to larger systems like Palm OS. But my motivation for this entry right here is about something else.

The interesting ones

And there are operating systems that don't fit any of the beforementioned categories, but still have a reason to exist or at least had a reason to be made at some point. Independently developed OSs for personal computers that emerged from a single person or a small group of computer enthusiasts as learning projects, to prove a point, or as a recreational coding project. Those are the OSs that I'm interested in this entry.

For a long time I thought that such operating systems don't exist, don't reach a state in which they are worth checking out or aren't shared publicly. I did wonder why nobody seems to write alternative OSs just for the sake of it. Maybe the landscape of existing OSs and the tiny adoption of any OS that isn't one of the big three (or four, or five, depending on where you make the cut) takes away any motivation to start yet another small OS from people who would otherwise pursue such an idea, I thought. But it turns out that I didn't look closely enough to find them. There totally are working alternative operating systems that were made for the sake of it, despite Linux satisfying all requirements of the project's initiators in most cases. Many of them may have 0 to 1 users and some of them may have never and may never be used as anybody's main OS. But some of them are very interesting systems. I'd like to point out a few of those.

My initial intention with this entry was to write a paragraph or two about one or two handful of OSs. But I found that there is more to write and more projects to share about this topic for several different reasons. I will write separate entries about a dozen alternative operating systems when I find the time to check them out myself. I'll use the category Operating Systems for these entries. Since I found more than I thought I'll restrict myself to testing only systems that check the following boxes:

  • is actively developed/has received patches in the last 12 or 24 months or is in a state that seems satisfactory for daily use as a desktop operating system at least for some use cases
  • has a working installation or live image for x86 or x86_64 CPUs available
  • is not a distribution or variant of another system
  • can be considered or used as a stand-alone desktop operating system (no alternative UIs for other OSs or cloud based systems that need a modern browser on the local machine to be used)
  • is freely (at least as in beer) available in full (not just as a demo for a commercial OS)
  • boots on my test system (If I can't make it work, I probably won't mention it.)
  • Those are critera that I thought of and wrote down after searching and finding most of the projects I'll write about and after deciding which ones I find interesting. And I might ignore or change those criteria further when I feel like it. They are here just to give an idea on what sort of projects I'll pick out and write about.

    My impressions/conclusion so far

    There are more alternative desktop operating systems than I expected. I thought after the 90s the landscape has become very flat. But development of a number of commercial and non-commercial operating systems went on for much longer. There have been many large projects I had never heard about. Some of those have been officially ended over the years (like eComStation and Syllable Desktop), others are still worked on (like Redox, MenuetOS and MorphOS). I stumbled over so many names of OSs that are in a state in which they're not really usable as a daily desktop OS, that had been published on some now offline website or that have been discontinued years ago. I thought I'd try out most of what I can find and write an overview of the alternative desktop OS landscape. But that would be a project in it's own that would be huge and take far more time than I want to invest in it. Many names worth mentioning have not been mentioned here and many cool projects also won't be mentioned in any of the articles to come. For example I ignored commercial OSs, like ArcaOS. I just don't want to pay 129 $ just to test a system that I'm likely not going to use.

    I can already, after having only briefly tested a few systems, say that there are usable, stable systems that hardly anybody has heard of that are as good as any commercial OS from the 90s. That's good enough for most desktop users. Each with their own set of features and unique selling points, there are real decisions to be made when selecting an alternative operating system that go beyond the questions one asks when selecting the next Linux distribution during distro hopping. I am happy that there are more than one or two systems in a usable state that focus on supporting old hardware and/or using less hardware resources than we got used to with Windows, Linux and MacOS. Whether you're looking for something to run comfortably on an 80286 or something that runs ridiculessly fast on a modern 64 bit system. There are systems to choose from.

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