Worst customer experience ever

The best notebook ever

I blogged about my attempts to buy a decent notebook here before. But let’s recap quickly. In the fall of 2013 I bought a Dell XPS13 Developer edition. When Dell shortly thereafter announced that they now accept BitCoin, I had the feeling I missed out on that opportunity. Nevertheless, it was the best computer I ever had. As it came with ubuntu preinstalled, there was no hassle with drivers. Everything just worked, it was lightning fast and gorgeous. But in February 2015 it was stolen.

Paying with BitCoin

I wanted to buy the same notebook again, but this time I wanted to pay with BitCoin. The option was not available for the Swiss market, but they expanded it to Canada and the UK. I really didn’t want to find out that it would be possible in Switzerland just after I ordered. Thus I decided to hold my breadth. The waiting became very long, as my ancient intermediary notebook was having thermal issues.

Purism

The selection of ultrabooks with linux pre-installed, that can be bought with BitCoin is not so large. If It has to have a backlit Swiss keyboard, it gets really difficult. But somehow I learned about purism. Their librem notebooks looked very good. As with most startups, the people were really approachable and helpful. I was ready to order their best machine, but they kept having delays. Delivery was always two months out. When it was pushed way back again, I decided I didn’t want to wait any longer, and re-targeted for the Dell.

UK

After a lot more than a year of waiting, and asking Dell to make the leap forward, I was ready to give up the Swiss keyboard. I was ready to order from the UK instead. I was ready to retrofit a Swiss keyboard myself, and pay double taxes. I found a service that would forward the parcel. But although BitCoin was listed as a payment option on the UK Dell website, the option was not available on the checkout screen. I reported this to Dell customer support and tried on a regular basis over the course of a month. Finally I gave up on the UK store.

US

The US store had a model with a 1TB SSD that was even better than the models offered in the European stores. So I went for that. All the mail forwarding services in the US either couldn’t process my card to cover their fees, or didn’t provide a phone number. But a domestic phone number was required for the order form at the Dell store. So I asked around if I could have my order delivered to somebody in the US, and he would forward it to me. A former co-worker who lives in California now agreed. I went ahead and placed the order to his address. Because I was really in need of the device, I chose the faster, more expensive delivery method. Shortly after I paid, I received an eMail stating that the formal order confirmation should follow in two days at the latest.

Black hole

That was the one and only, and the last communication I received from Dell. After a week I started to question why I didn’t receive the formal confirmation, and I found out that the order didn’t appear on the order status page. So I tried to contact Dell order support. In order to initiate a support session, one has to enter the order number. And because the order was not properly in the system, I couldn’t contact them. I tried different means to contact them almost on a daily basis. This week I could finally chat with a support representative. He couldn’t find my order in the system neither, and gave me an eMail address. So I wrote to what appears to be the main eMail address for customer support in the US. An automated response came immediately stating that a human would respond within 24 hours. Nobody ever did of course. I reached out to coinbase to ask about my transaction. They very quickly responded. They stated that on their side everything went through normally, and that Dell indeed received the money. Somebody on a forum suggested that the order might be canceled because of some obscure export regulations. But why a company would cancel an order on such a basis without ever notifying the customer is beyond me.
It has been almost a month now, that I have been desperately trying to find out, when I will receive the notebook that I really need. Dell didn’t even bother to tell me anything. How is that different from the worst scams and frauds out there on the internet? To me that was a lot of money that I sent. I thought of Dell as being trustworthy. No more…

Update September 8th 2016

Barton sent me a mail today stating that they found the problem. They made sure it doesn’t happen again. And the notebook should be delivered early next week. Looking forward…

Update September 22th 2016

The box with the precious new power machine was delivered to me today.
Hooray! Finally! Jay! So excited!
Now I know what I will do tonight… Setting it all up.

Why I still have no new notebook

It has been more than 14 months since my XPS 13DE notebook was stolen. Ever since, I was on the hunt for a replacement. I have just some simple requirements that seem so difficult to meet:

  • Linux pre-installed
  • Payment in BitCoin
  • Swiss German Keyboard with back light
  • Ultrabook (slim and powerful)

The natural choice would be to go with the successor of the model that I was so fond of. Dell does accept BitCoin, but only in the US, UK and Canada. Unfortunately they don’t sell Swiss keyboards in those markets, and I don’t know where to get a keyboard to retro fit.

There are a few vendors selling devices that fulfill some of the requirements, but I found only one so far that can achieve them all.

The best choice at the moment seems to be a Librem13 or Librem15 from purism. The 13inch model has only an i5 processor, and no backlit keyboard. So I would opt for the 15inch model. They have difficulties getting the display panels. And lots of the devices they shipped internationally didn’t reach their destination. This an unfortunate situation, but they seem very friendly and responsive. From what I can observe, they give their best to resolve the situation as good as they can. At the moment It looks like I have to wait two more months to get a Librem15.

Here are some devices that I considered:

Model Linux BitCoin Keyboard Ultrabook Remarks
Dell XPS13 Developer Edition yes no yes yes Very nice device
Purism Librem15 yes yes yes yes Waiting for display, and shipping problems
Tuxedo yes unknown no yes Only German Keyboards
Why yes no yes yes Out of stock

If you know of a device that fulfills my requirements, and is not listed here, please tell me.

let's encrypt

I never bought a commercial grade SSL certificate for my private website, but I used free ones before. Usually from startssl. While it worked, the process was cumbersome. And then when I wanted to renew, my browser showed a warning that their own certificate was out of order.

When the letsencrypt initiative (supported by mozilla and the electronic frontier foundation) announced it’s goal to make website encryption easier available we all cheered. Last week I finally received an eMail stating my domain was readily white-listed in the beta program. So I took some time and followed their process. It was not always self explanatory, but the ncurses program offered some help. Within a couple of minutes, I had a certificate ready to use. The only thing I did not like, was that if the process transmitted my private key to the server, there was no way of noticing other than actually read the code. I don’t think it did, but I prefer to be certain about these things.

To have my website protected, all I had to do was adding the file location that the utility program provided to the apache site configuration.

Now the bigger work was moving everything to my new server and adapt all the URL’s. Moving the blog was already more work than I expected. It was not a simple export and import. First I had to get the wordpress importer plugin working. The media files are not included in the exported file, and have to be moved manually. Some older blog posts still referenced the old gallery which I wanted to replace with piwigo for a while. So in addition to moving the piwigo gallery, I also had to move lots of photos from the old gallery, and adjust the references in the blog.

Some web apps are not moved yet and will follow. Finally I plan to redirect all http addresses to https.

On the nice side, I could use the new certificate to secure my new email server. I can’t remember when was the first time, but about once every two years I attempted to set up my own email server in the past. Setting up a web server is much simpler. But with the mail servers there was always some problem left that left me not confident enough to really use it. But this time I found a good tutorial that actually worked. It’s geard towards a raspberrypi running raspbian, but worked just fine on my nuc running ubuntu.

Verifying downloads

Last week I stumbled across a post from last year, where somebody described how it was impossible to download an important infrastructure program securely on Windows. My first reaction was of course to pity the poor souls that are still stuck with Windows. How easy is it to just type apt-get install and have all the downloading and validation and installation conveniently handled for you.

Today I was going to set up my new server. First I downloaded the current iso file from ubuntu.com. Before installing it onto an USB stick, I thought about this blog post again. Actually I should validate this ISO! I knew before, but I usually didn’t bother. So I gave it a try. I had to search a bit for it on the download page. The easiest is if you manually pick a mirror. Then you will find the hash sum files in the index page. Some websites along the way were encrypted, others were not. The downloads themselves were not. But that didn’t matter since the hashes were GPG signed. I don’t have to do this all too often, so I  just followed the community howto. My downloaded iso file was valid, so I moved on installing it.

The hardware is actually from computer-discount.ch. For quite some time I was searching for ways to buy computer equipment with BitCoin. The American big name tech companies that accept BitCoin either do it only outside of central Europe, or don’t deliver here. So I was quite excited to find this company from Ticino. The experience so far is very good.

ubuntu phone will be great, but it is not yet

The BQ Aquaris ubuntu phone that I waited for so eagerly was delivered today. Full of anticipation I unpacked it and switched it on. After playing with it for a while the excitement turned into dissatisfaction. I hate to say it, but on a phone the solid base and polished user experience is not enough, some basic functionality is required as well. Rough edges are much harder to work around on a phone than on a computer with a regular keyboard. Let’s face it, most people who opt for ubuntu phone want to some degree escape the freedom hating ecosystems prevalent on the big platforms. Yet instead of welcoming users with freedom loving functionality, the phone is loaded with Google, Facebook and Twitter apps.
As long as you don’t expect anything from it, it’s a pleasant experience. Knowing that it’s based on debian packages gives me great comfort. The touch interface and the settings dialogs are very nice. Yet it is lacking basic PIM and email functionality.

Phone

Nowadays one could consider the phone functionality not the most important part of a smartphone anymore. I first had to have my SIM card cut to the smaller form factor. Text messages seem to work nicely. Phone calls work fine. MMS messages were automatically configured to look up on a website by the carrier. I don’t know if the phone would support them propperly, but that’s a feature that I rarely use anyway.

Contacts

When opening the contacts app, I was greeted with the question if I wanted to sync with Google. Hell no! If I did, I would have stayed with Android. But that seems to be the only option other than having a standalone address book and typing in everything by hand. I could not find an option to sync my CardDAV address book. Lots of people complained badly about this, so it got medium priority. There is a complicated workaround using evolution sync. That way I got my address book synced from the commandline. An entry in crontab keeps it synced.

Calendar

Basically the same as contacts, except that the calendar app was not pre-installed and had to be fetched from the app store. I configured syncevolution from the commandline the same way as the address book, including crontab. But the calendar does not properly synchronize. It pushes appointments I create on the phone. But it doesn’t fetch them from the server. I will have to do some more debugging here.

Email

There doesn’t seem to be a standard email client. Instead it ships with a GMail app. People complained that there was no IMAP support whatsoever. At least I could find an email client in the app store called Dekko. The bad thing however is that instead of connecting to the email server it just hangs for an hour. When I try it without encryption, it appears to work. I can send mails, but it won’t fetch them. Another IMAP account works well, just not the one that is most important for me. Mails from my main account were fetched exactly once. Before and after that, all I get is the following error message: “Too many invalid IMAP commands”
Update: It took some manual editing of the config file to get it finally working.  Now I’m looking forward to support for notificatoin about new mails, but that is less important in comparison.

Bluetooth

Connecting to the Jabra headphones was simple as always, and the sound quality is good. But I didn’t manage to connect any of the four bluetooth keyboards I tried. Also the yubikey does not work as an external keyboard, so at first I thought it might be a general HID problem. But when I connect a USB keyboard, that works.

BitCoin

The BitCoin client from the app store is not usable for real life. It doesn’t work with qr codes, and has no key backup functionality. I can work around the missing key backup, by manually copying the file “/home/phablet/.local/share/org.sambull.bitcoin-app/ubc.wallet” to a safe place, but qr code reading is really a must. Even if there was a qr reader app, pasting in the bitcoin app is missing.  I might have to resort to a web wallet for some time.
There is a webapp for coinbase already in the store, so I tried this one first. I can scan the qr code from out of the browser by automatically launching the camera app. The picture is then uploaded to the server for the qr code reading. This seems to be common practice, but of course it is way inferior to having an app where you can move your camera until it successfully reads the qr code. But after I enter the amount and click “next”, I get a white screen, and the web app won’t respond any more. A coinbase support representative told me he had the same with safari mobile, and using the back button helped. There is no back button in the webapp, so I tried it in the browser. “Back” landed me on another white page, and “forward” led to an error message.
The next web wallet I tried was xapo. Since I use their debit card, it would be convenient. But their send page has no qr functionality.
So I moved on to greenaddress. I almost succeeded. If it wasn’t due to the defunct email. They sent me a 2FA code to my main email address, which unfortunately doesn’t work on the phone yet.

XBMC remote control

I was releaved to find more than one XBMC remote in the app store, and some are even better than what I had on Android.

News

The rss reader and the news scope make for a pleasant appearance. They find my preferred rss feeds without needing the exact URL For podcasts, I had to install PodBird. It works fine for audio podcasts. It also downloads video files, but won’t play them.

Apps

I seem to remember that they planned to be able to run android apps on ubuntu phone. But it appears those plans were abandoned a long time ago. Hence naturally for a new platform the selection of available apps is very sparse. Seems I will have to live without some apps I used frequently on Android such as SBB, 20min, MeteoSwiss… All this information and functionality is also available on the respective websites. The apps are just more convenient.

APT

Part of the reason why I wanted a ubuntu phone is the underlying debian package system. I maintained an ubuntu chroot system image on my android phone so that I could perform some tasks on a full blown shell. But it always was quirky at some points and a second class citizen all along. So I wanted the ubuntu shell to be a first class citizen. Indeed you can start a terminal which behaves very well. The keyboard is missing tab and arrow keys though. You have access to apt, or so it seems at first. when you actually want to install something you see error messages about some lock files. To get around that, one needs to enable developer mode in the phone settings and remount the root file system as readwrite. But then came something disturbing:

$sudo mount -o remount,rw /
$sudo apt-get update
$sudo apt-get install git tig nmap htop pcsc-tools gpgsm gnupg-agent
Paketlisten werden gelesen... Fertig
Abhängigkeitsbaum wird aufgebaut.
Statusinformationen werden eingelesen.... Fertig
Package git is not available, but is referred to by another package.
This may mean that the package is missing, has been obsoleted, or
is only available from another source

E: Package 'git' has no installation candidate
E: Paket tig kann nicht gefunden werden.
E: Paket nmap kann nicht gefunden werden.
E: Paket htop kann nicht gefunden werden.
E: Paket pcsc-tools kann nicht gefunden werden.

WTF is going on here! A repository that is missing crucial packages? Mixing repositories with ubuntu propper is probably not a great idea. I don’t know yet what to do about that.
People on IRC confirmed that rather than changing the root filesystem, it’s better to have a chroot of ubuntu proper for the additional tools. This is what I had on android and hoped it would no longer be necessary on ubuntu phone.

GPG

gpg and gpg-agent were already installed. Udev is running as well. So after adding an udev rule and configuring the gpg-agent, I was able to use my YubiKey neo in OpenPGP mode for ssh authentication and similar tasks. This is great news, as it was one of the soar points with my old phone.

GPS

The phone comes with a mapping app pre installed. It looks decent, if finds the addresses, displays maps and calculates routes, everything online as it appears. What it does not however, is displaying the current position, which is crucial if you want to use it for navigation. On the internet I found people claiming that the GPS on the Aquarius doesn’t work at all, or very badly. There is some commandline program for analyzing GPS reception, which I plan to try.
Update: The utility confirmed that the GPS is not able to get a fix, not even on a mountain with clear sky.

SPOT Connect

The SPOT Connect is a satellite messenger that I use for cross country paragliding. In contrast to other live tracking systems it also works in areas without GSM reception, as it transmits the current location directly to the GlobalStar satellite network. They have an app to control it for Android and iOS, but not yet for ubuntu. I told them two years ago that it would be nice to be able to start tracking on the device itself without having to do it in the app. Now that I just lost that app support, I asked them again what options I have. But as with lots of big companies, I have the impression the support staff has a database with answers and no means to escalate feature requests or even bug reports from customers. Then I remembered a site that I found two years ago when I got the device, where a guy reverse engineered parts of the comms protocol. And sure enough I got the python utility running inside my chroot environment on the phone. That allows me to send custom ok messages, but I have yet to find out how to start tracking.

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.

wake up to a clean state

I used to have problems when my ultrabook woke up from sleeping mode. Nothing serious, but annoying. One thing was that the empathy messenger application fully occupied one CPU core, effectively transforming the power out of the battery into heat. I grew tired of manually terminate it every time. So I did some research, and put the following lines into  /etc/pm/sleep.d/20_empathy_cpu_hog :

case "${1}" in
    resume|thaw)
        killall empathy-gabble
        ;;
esac

The other problem was the ssh connection that I keep to my server. After waking up from sleep it took a while to time out. Now, I terminate it right after wakeup, so that it can be automatically re-established. To accomplish this , I wrote the following lines into /etc/pm/sleep.d/30_ssh_ulrichard :

#! /bin/bash
case "${1}" in
    resume|thaw)
        kill `ps aux | grep ssh | grep user@server.ch
                 | grep -v grep | awk '{print $2}'`
        ;;
esac

I love linux, where problems are rare, every problem can be solved, and the solution is just a few lines away…

an ultrabook for developers

My old netbook still runs, but it shows signs of senility. I have been thinking of a replacement for a while, but as it still worked, that was constantly postponed. When I first read about project sputnik, I thought this is great news and I want one. The device that followed looked very nice, but was a little bit over my budget. Only when the value of BitCoin rised to new hights, I ordered a Dell XPS13 developer edition. The dell representative told me that they don’t YET accept BitCoin for payment, but he was well aware of what it is. Apparently the device shipped from Asia. Since I didn’t know that, I waited eagerly and checked the status every day. After it was in delivery already three days after ordering, I didn’t understand why UPS didn’t even receive the box more than two weeks after that.

The device is really slick. I had no issues so far, not even with the graphics driver. That is also why I wanted this device that comes with ubuntu, and fully supports it. All the drivers are in the vanilla kernel. The graphics card drivers were always the culprit with my previous netbooks. They both had binary drivers when they came out, no 3D acceleration, and the situation degraded gradually. After the second OS upgrade I usually even lost 2D acceleration. Now that I have an ultrabook with a GPU that is apparently fully supported, I wanted to see how well the GPU performed. So I grabbed my very first OpenCL program to give it a try. I was glad to see, that the intel OpenCL driver was already packaged in the ubuntu repository, and that the 4400 GPU support was recently added. This situation is much better than when I started with OpenCL. But I soon realized that this GPU or it’s driver doesn’t support the kind of memory sharing that I used in the example. So, I had to slightly rewrite the host program, no big deal. On the other hand, it would support double precision floats which my geforce in the workstation doesn’t. But after that, I found out that this tiny ultrabook outperforms my five year old workstation by a big margin on CPU and GPU. And that is by using only a fraction of the power. Then I applied the same changes to my GPU accelerated ray tracer. The ultrabook ran the homework image in 15 minutes. So this one was a bit slower than the workstation.

In general, the experience with the XPS13DE is just great. Everything is so responsive, totally different than with the Atom based netbook. The only thing I would have ordered differently if I had a choice was a bigger SSD. Although I was lucky already, If I had ordered a month earlier, It would have come with 128 instead of the 256GB SSD.

The setup was about as follows:

  • OS install with smart card backed full disk encryption
  • setup smart card authentication for ssh
  • checkout of my git home repo.
  • software install with my setup script that adds ppa repositories and apt-get installs everything I need
  • Checking out all source repositores (git and hg) that I usually work with that are not already submodules of my home repo
  • integrate the plasma-desktop into unity so that I could still use the bitcoin plasmoids. But the experience with this integration was not so good, so I reverted that. I will look into writing a screenlet for gnome.
  • syncing the git repos for photos and music. They are why I would have wished for a bigger SSD.
  • syncing the BitCoin block chain

I’m grateful that the BitCoin price surge gave me the opportunity to “vote with my wallet“. Otherwise I would maybe ended up doing the same as last time: buying a cheaper model with a mediocre operating system that I don’t want. That would send the wrong signals, and reinforce the vicious circle. At least Dell has realized that people want good hardware with good linux support. Yes, people are willing to pay a premium for good hardware support for a free and open operating system.

locally encrypted remote storage

Unlike the ordinary users, tech savy people are well aware of what can happen to your data, if you store it on cloud services such as dropbox. There are services that promise to encrypt your data locally, so that they can’t access them, a prominent one being wuala. On one hand, I don’t know if their client is open source, thus if you can check that you are really the only one capable of decrypting your data. And on the other hand it’s a paid service.

Usually, you can do almost everything that commercial products or services offer, free of cost but with a little investigative and manual effort on linux. This one seemed harder than usual, though. Continue reading “locally encrypted remote storage”

switching the christmas tree online

The first time I got interested in home automation, was when browsing the arduino libraries. That was all about X10, which communicates over power lines. There are switches that can replace the regular light switches and are pretty cheap in the US. If you want such switches here in Switzerland, you’ll be surprised how expensive they are. And routers with X10 to make it accessible from your smart phone start at CHF 400. But what is easier to get here are the plugs with 433Mhz rf controllers. I got a set with one remote and three plugs for CHF 15 at hornbach. Then I ordered two different transmitters from China. One with the nRF905 chipset and an SPI interface. And one for sort of bit banging. I thought the one with SPI was going to be easier to use. I also found some code to interface it. But first I had to know what I need to send.

My first Idea was to use the DVB-T dongle with GnuRadio to sniff the rf protocol. Continue reading “switching the christmas tree online”