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By | Verity Stob 14th April 2008 09:02

The missing five-minute Linux manual for morons

Resista the Vista

Stob It is time to wake up and smell the elephant in the room. Vista is struggling to achieve escape velocity. Microsoft finds itself the butt of an international joke, but does not seem able to get a grip. The issue of choice of platform is once more up for grabs.

Of course there is an alternative; a popular computing platform whose design attracts universal admiration. But although we all look forward to literally punching in the numbers, the Wii does not yet quite hack it (use of a dread phrase coming up) 'in the enterprise'.

So, for the time being, I'm afraid we are all back on re-evaluation-of-Linux duty. Never mind. I've already done the spadework. Let me lead you through a few simple steps to a full-on Open Source experience.

Blog

At any given time, in various places and languages around the world, there are simultaneously 14 blog entries being written by Linux neophytes, documenting their first faltering steps.

This rate is well down from the 2002 peak of 37 such articles generated per hour, but is still impressive, especially when you remember that back in the old days most blog software defaulted to subject line 'I try Linux!!!' .

(Although I believe Google, showing the clever innovation for which that company is justly famous, indulged in word play with their default of 'Bye bye Windblows!!'.)

Anyway, I say the best thing is to get the blog over and done with before going near the software. After all, the text itself rarely varies: it nearly always reports the difficulties the writer had configuring a driver for his sound card. Here is a perfect example to get you started. Off you go.

Choosing your distro

There are many hundreds of Linux distributions, each of which has its own plus and minus points. It can be very confusing.

The conscientious would-be Linux user should take time to mull over the pros and cons of the Red Hat versus SUSE, and Debian versus Gentoo. He will want to evaluate the various package installation schemes - comparing .deb with .rpm - and will spend many hours on the web absorbing great quantities of freely offered advice over whether to go for Gnome or risk post-Trolltech takeover KDE, or just run the whole thing in text mode, like a Real Beard.

After he has done all this, he will install Ubuntu, because that's what everybody does.

'Ubuntu', by the way, is an African word 'too beautiful to translate into English'. The term was first popularised by Alexander McCall Smith in his The No.1 Ladies' Detective Agency series of books, in the following, typically action-packed, scene:

'Mma Ramotswe?'

'Yes, Mma Makutsi? Would you like to boil the kettle to make some more bush tea?'

'No, Mma Ramotswe. I was going to say: there are unpleasant brown stains all over the floor, and also a smell. I wondered if you perhaps had trod in some ubuntu? The Tlokweng Road is covered in it today.'

'No, Mma. I do not have any ubuntu on my shoes. I am very careful. Perhaps you have some ubuntu on your shoes.'

'No, Mma Ramotswe. I do not have any ubuntu on my shoes either. It is a mystery.'

'Perhaps Charlie, Mr J. L. B. Matekoni's unsatisfactory senior apprentice, brought it in on his shoes.'

'Ah yes, Charlie. I am quite sure that this is the correct explanation.'

Precious Ramotswe allowed her traditional build to lean back in her chair and relaxed. Later on, she would go out in her tiny white van and investigate something. Later, but not just yet. The wall lizards basked in the morning sunshine, and flies buzzed laconically around the light fitting.

'Mma Ramotswe?'

'Yes Mma Makutsi, what is it now?'

'Shall I fetch the mop?'

Although modern Ubuntu has come on a long way in the last few years, its default desktop theme is still shaded the same brown colour, as a reminder of its inspiration.

Incidentally, Ubuntu also famously gives its releases hippy alliterative names: 'Feisty Fawn', 'Hoary Hedgehog' and so on. These names are created using the same algorithm that fellow wrinklies will remember as the old CompuServe password generator. This knowledge enables me to predict with confidence that when the current 'Gutsy Gibbon' release is retired, the next four will be called Weedy Willie, Sexy Sadie, Lorelei Lee and Moon Unit Zappa.

Selecting your database

When choosing which of the Big Two to install, one issue dominates. Never mind such concerns as scalability, performance, fitness for purpose or licensing. The fact is that while MySQL has a fairly awful name, reeking of turn-of-the-millennium marketing, PostgreSQL has a really appalling name, which nobody at all knows how to pronounce. This simple error means that PostgresS PostGRE Pogres that database is inevitably doomed, even if the software were ten times better than anything else. Sorry, guys.

While we are doing databases, a quick mention for SQLite. This is an excellent cross-platform C library, which lets one do proper SQL without needing to supply a separate SQL engine. SQLite is public domain, and instead of the usual copyright threats, the source code contains a blessing:

  • May you do good and not evil
  • May you find forgiveness for yourself and forgive others
  • May you share freely, never taking more than you give
  • May you never find ubuntu on your shoe

Actually, I suspect my copy of SQLite somehow got corrupted during the download. Must remember to check those MD5s.

Don't inhale

'Running Linux with one foot on the bottom' refers to the practice of running Linux under a VMware virtual machine, so if that if things all go wrong, one can beat a cowardly retreat to the safety of the familiar. Also, it avoids the somewhat scary business of scraping Windows off your hard disk.

Microsoft can take heart that timid persons (like me) lack the confidence to commit fully to Linux in this way.

On the other hand, we are experimenting with Linux instead of getting familiar with Vista, so maybe they should not take too much heart.

Missing

Even if they don't use Firefox already, modern IE has pretty much the same user interface, so Windows users should feel completely comfortable in their web browsing after crossing the great divide. Similarly the OOo's offerings, despite coming from an outfit whose abbreviation looks like a deflating balloon, are much closer in use to 'proper' Word and Excel than Office 2007.

But I must be up front about this. You will find that there are core Windows features that are missing from Linux:

  • That silly animation that runs while Windows is copying a file, together with its wild estimations of time to complete: 30 seconds remaining, 2 minutes, 9 minutes, 25 minutes, 37 minutes, 30 seconds.
  • The registry
  • Virus checking software
  • The window that comes up when a program crashes and sends the crash dump to Redmond, to give them a much needed laugh. Linux programs instead lay a small binary turd file in situ. After a while you end up with quite a large collection of these, decorating your directories.
  • Automatic updates fixing vulnerabilities in Outlook Express. Who uses Outlook Express these days? Why?
  • Windows genuine disadvantage
  • The Windows pause, by which I mean that increasingly prevalent nothing-happening-for-no-reason delay that intrudes between the user poking and the software flinching.

I'd like to expand on that last point. For example, if you delete a file from your hard disk - not on the network, not locked - by pressing the Delete key in Explorer, on some machines that I know the sequence is 1) the screen freezes and nothing at all happens, 2) after two seconds the cursor turns to an hourglass, 3) after a further 20 seconds, Explorer's window goes blank and is repainted, 4) the deleted file is missing from the repainted list.

In Nautilus, the Gnome equivalent of Explorer, the file simply disappears and reappears in its 'wastebasket'. As you'd expect.

Where I work, we have an expression to cover this kind of behaviour. We say: Windows is helping you.

Invective

Time for some balance. The most amusing piece of Linux-related invective on the Internet is Netscape/emacs legend Jamie Zawinski's famous rant about Linux video players. Never mind that it is wildly out of date - if you haven't read it and you enjoy swearing, you are in for an audio cock-shaped treat. NSFW.

Still hard work

You may have heard it said that modern Linux is as easy to set up as Windows, requiring three or four clicks to install a file server as secure as a laptop containing a sensitive government database left overnight on the front seat of a civil servant's Renault Nicole.

For the most part I would say this is true, but there are several places where it is not, and Samba is definitely one of them. Your correspondent recently set up a Samba system on a Windows 2003 domain (the full whack, with proper security and everything, not just hardwired in with root privileges everywhere). Getting it going was her greatest intellectual triumph since passing Latin O-level.

Editors

By decree of the state of California, there must be at least 17 text editors installed into each copy of Linux. Some are GUI based, but most run in consoles. Some support UTF-8, some include spell checkers or LISP implementations. All have mutually incompatible keystrokes.

Legendary line-oriented relic ed is by no means the most difficult to use. If you think you are hard, try joe, which emulates the dreaded Wordstar, the Wordprocessor that Time Joined the Foreign Legion to Forget.

Ubuntu installs a gnomic thing called gedit, and sets it, Notepad-style, as the default opener of all text files. In this case, the gnomes have taken Notepadness rather too far for my liking. Try opening a 4MB database dump - surely not such a huge thing these days - and watch gedit die on its backside.

Magic LAMP

To be briefly serious, one of the best things to do with a Linux box is run a few LAMP applications for your intranet. There is something exquisitely satisfactory about this. It's like buying one of those plants that look like a tangle of dead roots, and adding water to see it spring to life in a blur of green shoots.

One excellent LAMP application to try is MediaWiki, the Wikipedia software. It will take you an hour or so to set up, but once it is done it will not only serve as an excellent way of creating an ad hoc documentation system across the department, it will also give the children something to do on rainy afternoons in the school holidays, as evidenced by Enid Blyton's masterpiece Five set up a database of erotic classics.

With MediaWiki, the only limit is your imagination. For example, I am using it to organise my collection of notable corporate letterheads. There is a little overkill here, as it is a collection currently comprising just one item, but you must admit it is a good one:

Logo for Heathrow Terminal 5 development with slogan 'The world's most successful airport development'

Or, there again...

Or, there again, you could just forget all the work, and drop 1200 sods you can't really afford on a MacBook Air, and ponce around being the envy of your workplace.

Hmmm... ®

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