libreboot and trisquel

Last month I saw somebody on the fsfe mailing list talk about an OpenMoko phone. As I had one of those collecting dust in the drawer, I asked if anybody was interested. Promptly I got an offer to exchange it for a Lenovo X60 notebook with libreboot. I didn’t need another notebook, but libreboot seemed interesting enough, so I agreed. It came preinstalled with trisquel gnu linux, and with a docking station. I’m not sure if I heard about that distribution before. It is based on ubuntu, but includes only the free open libre stuff. The default desktop is gnome3. Since it’s a good fit with libreboot, I kept trisquel. The first impression was that it runs extremely well for such an old device. I was also amazed how rounded and complete a full on libre distro can be these days. Gone are the days where the compromises you had to make for freedom were hard to justify. The first thing, friends ask is about flash. But I don’t miss it at all, I mean html5 has been around for a while. At first, I started to install games for the kids. They run a lot better than on my old Atom netbook. As it’s my first device with a fingerprint reader, I had a little play installing this option for logging in, fully aware that it’s not that secure. The only two things that are not so optimal are sound and heat. Neither the speakers nor the headphones give any sign of live, event hough the operating system seems to have recognized the sound card. This is not such a big deal, as the bluetooth headphones still work perfectly. The other issue is that it heats up a lot under full load. And when the core temperature hits 100°C it just switches off. This happened a couple of times when the BitCoin BlockChain synchronized. And it still happens once every second day.

Then, my XPS13 was stolen, and I needed something to fill the gap until I have a proper replacement. I must say it does the job well. I miss the XPS13 a lot, but at least I have something I can work on. And who knows how long it takes before I have an XPS13 again. They recently announced a new version with tiny bezels around the screen, bigger SSD and newer processors. But the new developer edition is not available yet, and the old version is not available any more. When it becomes available, I want to pay it with BitCoin, which also is not available yet. Dell accepts BitCoin payments in the US, Canada and the UK. I hope they will soon roll out worldwide, or at least to the rest of Europe. Once I can order on my terms, I will still have to wait about a month for delivery.

xapo debit card backed by BitCoin

It will take a while until we can pay with BitCoin at most merchants. For the time being xapo introduced a visa debit card that credits your expenses directly from your BitCoin online wallet at xapo. Since it runs over the visa network, and since there are currency conversions involved, it can’t be as cheap and frictionless as BitCoin directly, but it is an interesting option nonetheless. Since I’m planning on cancelling my regular credit card, this could be an interesting intermediary solution. I found a couple of articles that more or less describe the card, but they all left some uncertainty. It appears that they only recently expanded their offer to Europe. But only cards with USD, EUR or GPB as nominal currency are available. That means for me that an additional conversion from CHF to EUR will be required, adding to the transaction costs.

So, first you create an account with xapo, which is as easy as with any other online service. Then you find an option to pre-order a debit card, which will require you to allow them to hijack your twitter and facebook accounts. I don’t have none of the two, so I was stuck for a moment. There is a support chat easily accessible, and they respond quickly. European customers just need to send some money from their regular bank account to the xapo wallet where it is converted to BitCoin. After that, you receive a debit card automatically.

I received mine last week. To enable it and get the pin code, I had to call a number in the UK with a fully automated computer system. On the web you will find different information about the card. The third party issuer seems to have prohibitive fees, which xapo promised to absorb. So, I’m a bit curious about the business model behind. but this post is about it’s usage. Since I planned it as a replacement for my regular Visa credit card, I tried it for online purchases first. I always thought Visa is Visa, after all Visa debit cards are uncommon around here. Turns out most online merchants only accept Visa credit cards, and wont go with debit cards. I have no idea why this is. Today it should be easy to verify a payment with a bank where the customer’s account is. That was not the case twenty years ago, but nowadays ….?

Then I used the card to buy some chewing gums and a train ticket. That worked like a charm. When I calculated the cost with the current CHF price that the android BitCoin wallet displayed, it was about CHF 5.99 which would be even less than the fees indicated. But as we all know BitCoin is very volatile, and so this calculation is difficult to carry out exactly. But I think it’s save to say that the fees with the two currency conversions are not as prohibitive as I feared. I don’t know if the merchants pay equally high fees as with credit cards, but I guess it’s for sure higher than with the Maestro debit cards that all local banks hand out to their customers.

To sum it up, it’s great that there is now a way to indirectly spend BitCoin for everyday purchases. Even if BitCoin is used in the background, this particular use case seems to add more friction than just using the Maestro card from my local bank. The minus that bugs me most, is that I can’t use it for online purchases.

Coop sbb xapo-card



After the card initially failed for most online purchases, I asked the xapo staff about it. They couldn’t find a good reason why the transaction failed, nor were there any logs indicating reasons for the declines. Hence I kept trying, and indeed the last few times I used the card for online purchases, it was always successful, even with merchants that failed previously.
The other issue I had a close eye on was the fees. The Amazon transactions were free, which was most welcome as stopped working with lately. All other card transactions carried a 3% fee, which is quite hefty. But compared to the CHF 120 I currently pay for my Visa credit card, that’s acceptable. So, the time to cancel the credit card has finally arrived.
I usually have the card charged with about CHF 100. After I used it to pay something, I can recharge it immediately with a simple BitCoin transaction.

missing or lost -> stolen

When we went to our ski holiday last week, we had a lot of luggage. So we had to hurry when leaving or switching the train. It always worked out well, even when we had to run, or walk a stairway twice. When we left the train on the way back in our home town, I grabbed the heavy stuff as usual, but somehow missed my messenger bag with the notebook. Just outside the train I realized that it was missing, and asked my wife if she had it. She usually checks the seats before leaving. But she didn’t have my bag. We assumed we just overlooked it on the seat. Immediately we called the train company, and had to pay CHF 50 for somebody in the train to go search my bag. Nothing was found, but they told me that sometimes lost items are brought to a train station the days after. I was full of hope to see my stuff again. A couple of days later, my optimism fades. Ever more so, after I read articles about how much stuff is stolen in Swiss trains. We both noticed two black guys walking suspiciously back and forth in the train. At first I couldn’t imagine that they could grab the bag without us realizing. But after reading those stories, and especially since we really habitually check the seats before we leave, I start to think they might have taken it.

It’s just material, but still the loss hurts. We like to believe that these things happen somewhere else, but not here. We like to tell the stories of our parents who didn’t lock the door, and left the keys in the car. That just makes it more bitter when reality hits us. There are a couple of things that are difficult or even impossible to replace. The bag itself was from the Paragliding World Cup in Korea. I worked hard in the competitions for almost five years to make it into the World Cup. And this bag was one of the souvenirs. The notebook was by far the best computer I ever had. It’s a Dell XPS13 developer edition with Ubuntu pre-loaded. I didn’t allow it to get a single scratch in the 15 months I had it. If I have to order a new one, given I manage to allocate the funds for such a great device, I have to wait at least a month for delivery. The Trezor was a “first edition” given out only to the backers of the crowd funding campaign. The Prada sunglasses were from the outlet store. Just to get there would cost more than I saved on the regular price.
So, If you see somebody by chance with a brand new looking Dell XPS13 ultrabook
that doesn’t seem to belong to him, or a FlyGin messenger bag that has a Paragliding World Cup print, or with a red-black Mammut GoreTex Paclite jacket, then please report.