sxmo on pinephone

If you are looking for a new phone that either respects your privacy, leaves you in control, or just has a different form factor from the now ubiquitous 6″ slab, there are quite a few projects in various states of readiness


  • vollaphone
  • oneplus
  • pinephone
  • librem 5
  • fairphone

Different form factors:

Earlier this year I bought a pinephone, braveheart edition. I’ve tried several OSes on it. Just yesterday, I tried:

  • sailfish: looked great, but it would not recognize sim, and crashed when launching browser.
  • ubports (ubuntu touch): looked good, texting worked, but crashed when launching app store and would not ring on incoming calls.
  • mobian: nice set of default apps, but again would not ring on incoming calls.

So I’m back to running what I’ve had on it for a month or two – sxmo, the suckless mobile operating system. It’s an interesting, different take on> interacting with the phone, and I quite like it. More importantly, for now it’s the most reliable as a communication devvice. With it, I can

  • make and receive calls and texts.
  • send texts using vi :).
  • easily send/receive mail using mbsync, mutt, and msmtp.
  • easily customize using scripts – editing existing ones, and adding new ones to the menu system.
  • use a cozy, known setup (dwm, st, tmux, sshd)
  • change call and text ringtone based on the caller – few other phones I’ve had have done that, not one did it well.
  • have a good browsing experience.
  • use both wifi and 4G data. I’ve not hotspotted, but can see no reason why that will be a problem.

The most limiting thing about this phone is the battery. It drains very quickly, charges slowly, and if I leave the battery in while turned off, it continues to discharge until, after a day, it doesn’t want to turn back on. An external battery charger helps enormously with this. There is also an apparent hardware misfeature which will prevent the modem from waking the cpu during deep sleep – this will presumably be fixed in later hardware versions, remember mine is the braveheart .

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New library: libsubid

User namespaces were designed from the start to meet a requirement that unprivileged users be able to make use of them. Eric accomplished this by introducing subuid and subgid delegations through shadow. These are defined by the /etc/subuid and /etc/subgid files, which only root can write to. The setuid-root programs newuidmap and newgidmap, which ship with shadow, respect the subids delegated in those two files.

Until recently, programs which wanted to query available mappings, like lxc-usernsexec, have each parsed these two files. Now, shadow ships a new library, libsubid, to facilitate more programatic querying of subids. The API looks like this:

struct subordinate_range **get_subuid_ranges(const char *owner);
struct subordinate_range **get_subgid_ranges(const char *owner);
void subid_free_ranges(struct subordinate_range **ranges);

int get_subuid_owners(uid_t uid, uid_t **owner);
int get_subgid_owners(gid_t gid, uid_t **owner);

/* range should be pre-allocated with owner and count filled in, start is
 * ignored, can be 0 */
bool grant_subuid_range(struct subordinate_range *range, bool reuse);
bool grant_subgid_range(struct subordinate_range *range, bool reuse);

bool free_subuid_range(struct subordinate_range *range);
bool free_subgid_range(struct subordinate_range *range);

The next step, which I’ve not yet begun, will be to hook these general queries into NSS. You can follow the work in this github issue </p.

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Customizing ubuntu phone: terminal top keyboard row

This is one of those “for my own reference on my next (pine) phone” posts, but anyone using ubuntu phone ( may find it useful.

I use mutt (in a libertine ‘container’) on the ubuntu phone for sending email. The terminal keyboard is not bad, but one annoying thing I’ve found is that the auxilliary keyboard rows were not optimal for use in vi. The top row, for those who haven’t seen it, is a single row of extra buttons. There are several top rows to choose from, i.e. Fn keys, control keys, scroll keys, and there’s even one where buttons type out full commands like ‘clear’, ‘rm’ and ‘chmod’.

The main buttons I use are the up arrow, tab, and escape. But escape is in the ‘fn’ row, while tab and up arrow are in the scroll list. So I kept having to switch between different rows. To switch rows, you hold down a button until a popup appears allowing you to choose. This is suboptimal.

To fix this, I went into /opt/ and edited ScrollKeys.json. I removed the _key suffix for all the labels, which just take up space so that fewer buttons show up in one line. I copied the escape key entry from FunctionKeys.json as the first entry in ScrollKeys.json. Then I moved all other entries which preceded the tab key to the end of the file (adjusting the trailing ‘,’ as needed). Finally, I copied ScrollKeys.json to AScrollkeys.json, to make this the first keyboard row whenever I fire up the terminal. (The file ~/.config/ubuntu-terminal-app/ubuntu-terminal-app.conf supposedly orders these, but it is re-written every time the terminal starts!)

Perhaps I should add a row for ‘|’, ‘!’, and a few others which I’m always going to the second number screen for. But for now, this should speed things up.

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First experience with Ubuntu Touch

For the past few weeks I’ve been using a nexus 4 running ubuntu touch as, mostly, my daily driver. I’ve enjoyed it quite a bit. In part that’s just the awesome size of the nexus 4. In part, it’s the ubuntu touch interface itself. If you haven’t tried it, you really should. (Sailfish ambiances are so much prettier, but ubuntu touch is much nicer to use – the quick switch to switch between two apps, for instance. Would that I could have both.). And in part it’s just the fact that it really feels like – is – a regular ubuntu system.

There have been a few problems. The biggest has been to do with email. I need a phone to do only a few things well – texts, calls, and imap email. The only imap mailer available by default, dekko2, looks very nice and is promising, but was simply not yet reliable for me. It would simply stop getting updates for hours, with no warning, for instance. So I’ve taken to using an ubuntu-push notification system for email notifications, and mutt and offlineimap in a libertine container for reading and sending. The notification system is based on and the python mailbox library. It runs on my mail server, checks for new mail, and, if there is any, sends a push notification to my phone. The code I’m using is here on launchpad and here on github. It can certainly stand to be made a bit smarter (the seenmsgs list should be pruned, for instance, and maildir and mh folder support should be trivial to add for those cool cats who use those). Using this service instead of having the phone try to check for emails not only ends up being very reliable, but also saves a lot of battery life.

All in all this could definately work as my permanent new phone! Now if I could just get my hands on a pinephone or librem 5. The nexus 4 hardware is great, but it would be awesome being able to run an uptodate, upstream kernel. More than that – now that my experiment has succeeded, I probably need to stop, because running the ancient kernel simply is not as safe as I’d like. But I digress.

A huge thanks to Mark and the original touch team for creating it, and to the ubports team for keeping it going.

Nice job, everyone!

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Running your own mail server


Not too long ago there was some hubub around In brief, if you use google mail, it tracks your purchases through receipts received in email. Now, some people see this as no big deal or even a feature. Others see it as a privacy invasion, and are reminded that all their data can be mined by the email provider and possibly third parties. Of those, some advoate getting a paid email provider. Agreed, that provides less incentive to monetize your data… but only a bit. Eventually, any company, however good its initial intentions, goes through leadership changes, is bought out, or goes bankrupt. At that point, your data is one of the assets being bargained with.

The other alternative, of course, is to run your own mail server. I won’t lie – this is not for everyone. But it’s not as bad as some make out. I recently reinstalled mine, so I wrote down the steps I took, and will leave them here. I’ve been holding onto this for at least 6 months hoping to eventually run through them again to work out some of the finer details. That hasn’t happened yet, so I’ll just post what I have now as a start.

Running your own mail server is not free. In particular, you’ll need to pay for a domain name ($10-15/year), and some place to run the mail server. If you have an always-on machine at home, and stable IP address, then you can run it there. You can pay for a tiny cloud instance on amazon/rackspace/digitalocean/etc. There are cheaper options (including “one year free” amazon micro instances), but a small digitalocean instance will be $5/month. Personally, I keep a large server online for running many VMs and containers, and run the mail server there.

You will also need a certificate. That’s now easy and free with letsencrypt.

There are also some non-monetary costs. You may get a bit more spam. And once in awhile, you may run into a case where your mail server is being rejected by another.

On the other hand, the server is entirely yours. You can create as many accounts for individual purposes as you like. You can point multiple domain names at it, so that you don’t give away your primary one for every little purchase you make. Ten, twenty years from now, you can still have all your friends’ and family emails in the same place, in the same format. This last one is too often overlooked, yet one of the best advantages of open source for all applications.


I picked up a new hosted server, and installed Ubuntu 18.04 on it. First thing I did was go to my dns provider and register a name for it, and set up the new mx record to point to it. The details of this vary a bit depending on your dns provider, so I won’t go into detail here (I’ll do a post if people ask for clarification). If you’re looking for a provider, I do recommend zoneedit.

I installed lxc and created a new container in which to run my mailserver:

apt-get -y install lxc1
lxc-create -t download -n mail -- -d ubuntu -r bionic -a amd64

I gave it a static ip address through dnsmasq:

echo "dhcp-host=mail," >> /etc/lxc/dnsmasq.conf
echo "LXC_DHCP_CONFILE=/etc/lxc/dnsmasq.conf" >> /etc/default/lxc-net
sudo systemctl stop lxc-net
sudo systemctl start lxc-net

The point of the static ip address is to facilitate forwarding mail related ports into the container. I did this with a script started at boot by systemd:

cat > /usr/bin/container-ports-fwd << EOF
iptables -t nat -A PREROUTING -p tcp -i ${nic} --dport 25 -j DNAT --to-destination
iptables -t nat -A PREROUTING -p tcp -i ${nic} --dport 465 -j DNAT --to-destination
iptables -t nat -A PREROUTING -p tcp -i ${nic} --dport 993 -j DNAT --to-destination
iptables -t nat -A PREROUTING -p tcp -i ${nic} --dport 587 -j DNAT --to-destination
chmod 755 /usr/bin/container-ports-fwd
cat > /etc/systemd/system/container-ports-forward.service << EOF
Description=Bring up port forwards for lxc



systemctl daemon-reload
systemctl enable container-ports-fwd
systemctl start container-ports-fwd

I also installed and ran letsencrypt on the host:

sudo apt -y install letsencrypt
letsencrypt -d -m me@my.mail certonly

Next I started up the container and installed the basic mail tools:

sudo lxc-start -n mail
sudo lxc-attach -n mail apt -y install dovecot-imapd postfix mutt

New since my last mail server install is the removal of dovecot-postfix in favor of the mail-stack-delivery package:

sudo lxc-attach -n mail apt -y install mail-stack-delivery

After this I copied the letsencrypt keys into the container

lxc-attach -n mail -- mkdir -p /etc/letsencrypt/live/
cp /etc/letsencrypt/live/* /var/lib/lxc/mail/rootfs//etc/letsencrypt/live/

and edited
/etc/postfix/ and /etc/dovecot/conf.d/10-ssl.conf to point to those using these lines:

smtpd_tls_cert_file = /etc/letsencrypt/live/
smtpd_tls_key_file = /etc/letsencrypt/live/

This is enough to be able to send and receive mail. Personally, I want to run this server in a uid-mapped container and from a luks-encrypted device. While you can setup the whole container that way from the start, for simplicity of examples, you could at this point copy over and uid-shift the container contents to a new device, and update the container configuration accordingly.

Some notes which I should elaborate on later:

    • SPF

    • postscreen setup
    • /etc/postfix/, i.e. uncomment smtps
    • /etc/dovecot/conf.d details
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    My phone’s not dumb, it just looks it.

    Well actually it is a little.

    For my money, the height of the smartphone age was 2009-2011. That brought us the Nokia n900 and Nokia n9. Both brilliant for their own reasons. There were devices before that which I’d be happy to have back. But nothing since then. Sure, the Ubuntu Edge or Neo900 would have been great. But they never came to be.

    So my current phone is chosen to match my lifestyle: A rugged Sonim XP5 . It runs Android. Without the full store, but you can sideload apps. It has no touchscreen, and only a numeric keypad. But it’s still pretty decent for one-handed operation. It does what I want out of a phone:

    • Calls
    • SMS
    • Email (with hacked K-9 Mail version)
    • Alarms and timer.
    • Flashlight, on/off with one button, no going through gui.
    • Browser. Just useful enough to look up a business, see its hours, and call.
    • Hotspot for laptop for anything more serious.
    • Waterproof (wash it under running water)
    • Rugged
    • 3 or more days battery life.
    • FM radio


    I wrote this some time ago but hadn’t posted it. Very lately I’ve actually been playing with sailfish. I really like the interface, but it’s not very reliable. I’m considering trying out ubuntu touch. I don’t really want to buy another phone (nexus 5), and ubuntu touch is known to not be working fully on my secondary phone, but I should be able to help with that, especially as there is mention of not attaching to LXC containers *duck*. Just have to decide I’m willing to remove sailfish.

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    Unprivileged container builds using stacker

    One of the primary goals of user namespaces was to provide the ability for unprivileged users to have their own range of uids over which they would have privilege, with minimal need for setuid programs and no risk (barring bugs in the OS) of their privilege having effect on uids which are not “their own”.

    We’ve had user namespaces for awhile now. While there are some actions which cannot be done in a user namespace, such as mounting a loopback filesystem, there are many things, such as setting up a build environment with custom package installs, which used to be a challenge without privilege but are now simple.

    My friend Tycho wrote stacker stacker as a tool for building OCI images. A few of its features include:

    • Creates OCI images.
    • Can also be used for general software building.
    • Supports layer re-use between build stages to minimize redundant I/O and time.
    • Supports unprivileged use!

    To show how to use stacker for unprivileged builds, I created a little demo readme. You can see it in the at my stacker-demo github repo.

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    Outdoors laptop (part 2)

    Some time ago I posted about wanting an outdoor laptop. The first option I listed was a panasonic toughbook. Recently (a year and a half later) I finally ordered one. I ordered from, because the people there are a class act who’ve been calmly answering my questions for a long time.

    Some highlights:

    * It has a transflective display. This means that it is emissive, but also uses reflected sunlight to boost brightness, up to 6000 nits. In comparison, my previous thinkpad was 350 nit (unusable sometimes even in shade), and my macbook was 500nit. With this laptop, I can leave the display on 25% brightness and move from a dark basement to hurt-my-skin bright sunlight.

    * It’s ‘fully rugged’, so using it in rain or dust storms should not be an issue. (I lost 4G ram in my thinkpad to dust).

    * It has a shoulder strap ($20 extra) screwed on solidly.

    * It has a touchscreen with stylus. (To use this under ubuntu 18.04 I had to install xserver-xorg-input-evdev and remove xserver-xorg-input-libinput. Note just installing evdev was not enough) I may look like a dweeb, but I prefer this to smudging my screen.

    The laptop I got is a CF-19 MK6. This is several years old and refurbished. The reason I went with this instead of a new toughbook (besides price) is because, as far as I can tell, only the CF-19 MK5 through MK8 have the transflective display. The replacement for the CF-19 (the CF-20) may have a better screen (i’ve not seen it), but it is not transflective and comes in at “only” 1000nit. Same with the slightly larger nonconvertable laptops.

    Mind you, there is (I trust) a reason these screens did not take off – the colors are kind of washed out, and it’s low resolution. But for reading kernel code by the pool without draining the battery in 1 hr, the only thing I can imagine being better is an eink screen.

    The CF-19 is compact: it’s a 10″ (convertible) netbook. This keyboard is more cramped than on my old s100 netbook. I do actually kind of like the keys – they have a good travel depth and a nice click. But it’s weird going back to a full-size keyboard.

    The first time I measured the battery life, it shut down when battery listed 36% remaining, after a mere got 3 hours. Panasonic had advertised 10 hours for this laptop. 3 was unacceptable, and I was about ready to send it back. But, reading the powertop output, I noticed that the sound card was listed as taking tons of battery power. So for my next run I did a powertop –auto-tune, and got over 4 hours battery life. Then I noticed bluetooth radio doing the same, so I did rmmod btusb. These are now all done on startup by systemd. The battery still stops at 35%, which takes getting used to, but it’s acceptable.

    4.5 hours is still limiting, so I picked up a second battery and an external charger. I can charge one battery while using the other, or take both batteries along for a longer trip.

    In summary – i may have found my outdoors laptop. I’d still prefer it be thinner, with a slightly larger and mechanical keyboard, and have 12 hour battery life, delivered on a unicorn…

    (Here is an attempt to show the screen in very bright sunlight. It’s hard to get a good photo, since the camera wants to play its own games) :

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    TPM 2.0 in qemu

    If you want to test software which exploits TPM 2.0 functionality inside the qemu-kvm emulator, this can be challenging because the software stack is still quite new. Here is how I did it.

    First, you need a new enough qemu. The version on Ubuntu xenial does not suffice. The 2.11 version in Ubuntu bionic does. I believe the 2.10 version in artful is also too old, but might be mis-remembering haven’t tested that lately.

    The two pieces of software I needed were libtpms and swtpm. For libtpms I used the tpm2-preview.rev146.v2 branch, and for swtpm I used the tpm2-preview.v2 branch.

    apt -y install libtool autoconf tpm-tools expect socat libssl-dev
    git clone
    ( cd libtpms &&
      git checkout tpm2-preview.rev146.v2 &&
      ./ &&
      ./configure --prefix=/usr --with-openssl --with-tpm2 &&
      make && make install)
    git clone
    (cd swtpm &&
      git checkout tpm2-preview.v2 &&
      ./ &&
      configure --prefix=/usr --with-openssl --with-tpm2 &&
      make &&
      make install)

    For each qemu instance, I create a tpm device. The relevant part of the script I used looks like this:

    while [ -d /tmp/mytpm$i ]; do
    let i=i+1
    mkdir $tpm
    echo "Starting $tpm"
    sudo swtpm socket --tpmstate dir=$tpm --tpm2 \
                 --ctrl type=unixio,path=/$tpm/swtpm-sock &
    sleep 2 # this should be changed to a netstat query
    next_vnc() {
        while nc -z $port; do
            port=$((port + 1))
            vncport=$((vncport + 1))
        echo $vncport
    sudo kvm -drive file=${disk},format=raw,if=virtio,cache=none -chardev socket,id=chrtpm,path=/$tpm/swtpm-sock -tpmdev emulator,id=tpm0,chardev=chrtpm -device tpm-tis,tpmdev=tpm0 -vnc :$nextvnc -m 2048
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    Tagged window manager views

    I find myself talking about these pretty frequently, and it seems many people have never actually heard about them, so a blog post seems appropriate.

    Window managers traditionally present (for “advanced” users) “virtual” desktops and/or “multiple” desktops. Different window managers will have slightly different implementations and terminology, but typically I think of virtual desktops as being an MxN matrix of screen-sized desktops, and multiple desktops as being some number of disjoint MxN matrices. (In some cases there are only multiple 1×1 desktops) If you’re a MacOS user, I believe you’re limited to a linear array (say, 5 desktops), but even tvtwm back in the early 90s did matrices. In the late 90s Enlightenment offered a cool way of combining virtual and multiple desktops: As usual, you could go left/right/up/down to switch between virtual desktops, but in addition you had a bar across one edge of the screen which you could use to drag the current desktop so as to reveal the underlying desktop. Then you could do it again to see the next underlying one, etc. So you could peek and move windows between the multiple desktops.

    Now, if you are using a tiling window manager like dwm, wmii, or awesome, you may think you have the same kinds of virtual desktops. But in fact what you have is a clever ‘tagged view’ implementation. This lets you pretend that you have virtual desktops, but tagged views are far more powerful.

    In a tagged view, you define ‘tags’ (like desktop names), and assign one or more tags to each window. Your current screen is a view of one or more tags. In this way you can dynamically switch the set of windows displayed.

    For instance, you could assign tag ‘1’ or ‘mail’ to your mail window; ‘2’ or ‘web’ to your browser; ‘3’ or ‘work’ as well as ‘1’ to one terminal, and ‘4’ or ‘notes’ to another terminal. Now if you view tag ‘1’, you will see the mail and first terminal; if you view 1+2, you will see those plus your browser. If you view 2+3, you will see the browser and first terminal but not the mail window.

    As you can see, if you don’t know about this, you can continue to use tagged views as though they were simply multiple desktops. But you can’t get this flexibility with regular multiple or virtual desktops.

    (This may be a case where a video would be worth more than a bunch of text.)

    So in conclusion – when I complain about the primitive window manager on MacOS, I’m not just name-calling. A four-finger gesture to expose the 1xN virtual desktops just isn’t nearly as useful as being able to precisely control which windows I see together on the desktop.

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