Category Archives: Free Software

Firefox on iOS approximately a month in (in which Matt casually returns to blogging)

I never thought I’d have an iPhone.

I never thought I’d like using one.

I have to say I do and I mostly do. So here we are, a little over a year after my Google Pixel went into a reboot loop just after charging it and promptly went into a drawer. Out came the iPhone SE I had got when I exchanged an Apple TV I’d won at OSCON. I used that for several months before dropping it one too many times on the cold night of celebrating the 21st anniversary of the NeXT/Apple merger. Oops. I blame the Dr. Gil Amelio impressions.

Briefly I used an iPhone 6 Plus before being given a new iPhone 8 as part of my job. Courageously I struggle every day with its proprietary headphone jack (I carry two sets of earbuds everywhere — one for my laptop and one for my phone — and as much as I begrudge the proprietary connector they are very nice and comfortable when you’re on a lot of meeting calls) and long for the day where I can consider retrofitting one. But yes, even dyed in the wool free software folk use smartphones and I’m not patient enough to do the Replicant route these days after many an attempt over the years from both versions of the OpenMoko, to various HTC Dream phones in various states of liberation. Heck, I even bought an iPad recently when I found out the occasional travel tablet I had from Google wasn’t supported anymore but I will admit it doesn’t get used very much at all but it is quite nice to use on a train. I am still very much committed to using free software on my actual laptop as the pile of assorted machines on the floor of my messy apartment will confirm with my day to day machine remaining the Dell XPS I spoke about last year.

Back to the iPhone. When I first switched I figured I’d hate it and so I didn’t make much effort to integrate things. Instead I just downloaded the various Google apps to the iPhone and carried on my the same account I’d used on my Pixel phone and the half dozen or so Android phones I’d used prior to that. But recently I was at XOXOFEST in Portland and hanging out with various IndieWeb people including Tantek (who has an interesting no-phone setup that involves a Me-Fi device and a couple of iPod Touch devices, with Firefox as their browser) — it got me thinking about using Firefox as my main browser for the phone.

State of the Union

Apple still doesn’t let alternate browser engines to run on iOS for some reason, and as a result Safari, Chrome, Firefox, Firefox Focus and even Microsoft’s Edge browser all use WebKit and all use the same version of WebKit as each other. If only we could have had Microsoft adopt WebKit for Edge for Windows, there would be one less engine to worry about although I’ve never encountered Edge in the wild actually being used by anyone as I suspect everyone on Windows gets pushed to install Chrome pretty quickly these days but I’m happy to be wrong on this point. Hopefully everyone installs Firefox instead after reading this.

(To me, the whole iOS browser saga is a bit like making your own “browser” on Windows in Visual Basic by adding the Browser object to a form and slapping a couple of buttons on it, but I suspect Apple wouldn’t approve such an app which dashes my hopes of becoming an instant browser vendor I suppose.)

Despite the one and only engine rule, all of these browsers do things a little differently:

  • Safari who likes to take over occasionally and frustrate me no end.
  • Firefox Focus which is a great browser (often coupled with a VPN) for looking at sites with tons of ads and pop ups and other nasties. Clears itself on exit. Handy for looking up flight prices and searching things outside of your browsers fingerprint of your habits too.
  • Chrome on iOS neatly integrates with Google’s various sites and offers its own take on private browsing via incognito mode but does not seem to offer anything by way of blocking ads, which is a little frustrating.
  • And then there’s Firefox, which seems to do a great job of blocking things even if the user interface is a little cluttered in places I am enjoying using it a lot more than I thought. In particular, it has a dedicated reading mode feature (Safari has this too and it was one of the few things I’d occasionally use it for) and seems to have an actual proper download feature. It also lets me copy virtually any image to the clipboard which Chrome does not.

So for now I’m going to keep using my iPhone. I have my eye on Purism and their phone project but I suspect it’ll be a while before it’ll be usable to the level where I don’t feel like I have to sysadmin my phone. Until then I’m probably going to keep using the iPhone.

Gil Amelio joke by Stevie DuBois

Custom laptops are now a reality…

This has been the case for some time, it seems. I was blissfully unaware of it.

The last three laptops I’ve used for any sustained period of time have been:

  • Apple PowerBook G4 (2005-2007)
  • ThinkPad X60s (2007-present)
  • ThinkPad X201 (2011-present)

My ThinkPad X60s, photographed in 2007 — yes, I am a super hacker..

Of those two, the most annoying was by far the most recent ThinkPad. For years considered the best machine for desktop GNU/Linux, ThinkPads are actually getting pretty bad. Its now hard to find a ThinkPad with an Atheros wireless card and Intel graphics, its even harder if you want a machine you can change the battery on.

I found a few companies who sell machines preloaded with GNU/Linux, and sadly many of those machines don’t have this problem fixed either. I was delighted to discover that you can actually configure and build your own laptop online — there are a few companies that offer this, I went with AVA Direct because they offered the most choice of configurations, offered to install Debian on the laptop.

I’m very interested to see what my new laptop is like.

The juicy specs are: 3.1Ghz Intel Core i5, Intel HD video, 16GB RAM, 240GB SSD and a floppy drive.

  1. COMPAL QAL50 (QAL5010011) Core™ i5 Notebook Barebone, Socket G2, Intel® HM76, 15.6″ HD LED Glossy, Intel® GMA HD Graphics
  2. INTEL Core™ i5-3210M Dual-Core 2.5 – 3.1GHz TB, HD Graphics 4000, 3MB L3 Cache, 22nm, 35W, EM64T EIST HT VT-d VT-x XD, OEM
  3. CRUCIAL 16GB (2 x 8GB) PC3-12800 DDR3 1600MHz SDRAM SODIMM, CL11, 1.35V, Non-ECC
  4. INTEL 240GB 520 Series SSD, MLC SandForce SF-2281, 550/520 MB/s, 2.5-Inch w/ 3.5-Inch Bracket, SATA 6 Gb/s, Retail
  5. COMPAL Super-Multi Dual-Layer DVD±RW Optical Drive for Compal QAL50 / QAL51 Series Notebooks
  6. BYTECC External Black 1.44MB 3.5″ Floppy Drive, USB
  7. NOTEBOOK ACCESSORY Built-in 3-in-1 MMC/SD/MS Media Card Reader (Included)
  8. VISIONTEK Killer™ Wireless-N 1202 Wireless Card, IEEE 802.11a/b/g/n, 11/54/300 Mbps, Internal PCIe Half Mini Card
  9. ASUS USB-BT211 Bluetooth 2.1 Adapter, 3.0Mbps, USB 2.0
  10. NOTEBOOK ACCESSORY Extra 120W AC Adapter for all VBI / CBB Notebooks
  11. NONE No Operating System (Choose OS or subject to Limited Support)
  12. WARRANTY Assembled and Tested (1 Year Limited Parts, Lifetime Labor Warranty)

Here’s hoping I get something totally cool…

What I hope my new laptop will look like


rtl-sdr is a project to enable DVB-T sticks based on the Realtek RTL2832U to be used as a cheap Software Defined Radio (SDR), since the chip allows transferring the raw I/Q samples to the host, which is officially used for DAB/DAB+/FM demodulation.

I picked up a couple of Unikoo UK001T cards, based on reddit’s guide to functional chipsets.

Unikoo UK001T

rtl-sdr is a command line tool that can initialize the RTL2832, tune to a given frequency, and record the I/Q-samples to a file.

The code can be checked out with:

git clone git://

Additionally, a source block for GNU Radio is being worked on.

North East GNU/Linux Fest

This weekend I went to the North East GNU/Linux Fest in Worcester, MA. Along with Jon ‘maddog’ Hall, this will be my second time speaking at the conference — feels nice to be a veteran of something.

Joining me was John Sullivan and Donald Robertson. I had a go at shooting a video of John’s talk on my Kodak handheld camera.


Now I begin the most stressful week of my year.

Beets and An Unwavering Band of Light

Yesterday, I asked people to send me free software I’d not heard of. The first suggestion was a program called beets, which bills itself as “the media library management system for obsessive-compulsive music geeks.” — sounds good to me.

Today, I got an email with a download code for the new Jenny Owen Youngs album, An Unwavering Band of Light — one of the good things coming as a result of the Kickstarter from last year.

A perfect opportunity to test beets and ensure all my scrobbles to of the new record are spiffy and correct…

First, install beets.

Installing beets is as simple as typing “pip install beets” — but installing pip itself might be harder. I was able to type apt-get install python-pip — but if you’re on Windows or a Mac, you might have a harder time. Installation instructions for pip might help you out.

Next, download your new music.

Buy your copy of An Unwavering Band of Light — I opted for the FLAC version, but the procedure is the same for virtually any format. When it arrives, unzip it into a folder, doesn’t really matter which.

My unzipped album, in all its machine-generated filename glory.

Stand back, here’s the magic.

I have all my music in a folder called “Music” — you probably do as well. I fired up a terminal, typed ‘beet -d Music imp’ and then dragged the unzipped folder into the Terminal.

This is UNIX, I know this.

Ta-da, magic. Now I had to agree to the changes beet was going to make — renaming a few of the files slightly — I just hit Enter to accept all the changes.

Reasonable looking changes.

That’s it. The music is now in my Music player.

Not only are the filenames fixed, the metadata is fixed too.

Now to listen to the album. Go buy it 🙂

I'm onto Track 6 by the time I got this posted. It's all very good.