My job is to make you happy. About using Linux. UPDATED

I've convinced a few people to use Linux and most of them don't hate me, but most of them were masochistic geeks who were probably going to use Linux anyway. But there are three people who are pretty important to me who are now using Linux because of me, but who otherwise would not likely have ever used Linux, and who are not masochistic geeks. The whole idea of Linux being "grandmother ready" now takes on new meaning for me. I could be in serious trouble.

So, I've started a new project.


There are now three people in my life who hold the following things in common:

1) Regular computer user, doing word processing, work with spreadsheets, presentations, using a browser, email, all the usual stuff, and with a fair amount of experience and savvy in day to day end user type tasks and a few specialized applications.

2) Totally uninterested in messing with computers from the geek/hobbyist perspective, does not really care about operating systems per se.

3) Is a geek anyway, as evidenced by having fearlessly used the command line and having enjoyed the crisply, powerful results of so doing. I.e., not married to the mouse, and smart enough to know a good thing when she sees it.

4) For one reason or another, committed to using a Linux computer for the foreseeable future.

5) Holds me personally responsible for this travesty, and will blame whatever goes wrong on me.

For this reason I shall now endeavor to write a short series of blog posts that include the information one needs to be comfortable using the Linux operating system (in particular, a recent distribution of Ubuntu) for day to day use.

The first necessary task will be to define what should be covered, and the purpose of the present post is to lay that out and hopefully elicit some suggestions. So, without further ado, here is my very preliminary list of topics that a savvy non-techie yet still geekie desktop/laptop Linux user should know:

1) The file system, with a focus on home, but including useful information like dot-files.

2) Users, permissions, sudo.

3) Upgrading/updating.

4) How to install packages.

5) Linux/OSS equivalents to commonly used apps. (An overview only. I assume my 'clients' will figure out any given app as necessary.)

6) Three or four really cool command line procedures for doing cool stuff, probably including Imagemagick and at least one example of text processing.

7) Suggestions for OSS/Linux based alternatives to the usual Windozey/Macey ways of doing things. For instance, doing some/much of your text-based activities with a text editor rather than a full blow word processor.

8) Using emacs and compiling C++ programs.

I'm only kidding about item 8.

  • Introduction
  • OS, Distribution, Kernel, Windows Manager, Desktop
  • The file system, with a focus on home, but including useful information like dot-files.
  • The Gnome Desktop
  • What is on the hard drive?
  • Backing Up
  • Users, permissions, sudo.
  • Packages
  • Making WiFi work and the problems of freedom and drivers
  • Firefox, Flash, DVD's and ISOs
  • Upgrading/updating.
  • Linux/OSS equivalents to commonly used apps (OpenOffice, The Gimp, Xara Xtreme, and Gnumeric)
  • File based and command line processing of photos/graphics.
  • Old fashioned text processing: Gedit
  • Old fashioned text processing: Emacs outline mode, LaTeX, RegEx, and Sed

What am I missing? Is any of this dumb? Are there specific points that should not be missed? That should be avoided?

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Just my own current need here but -

Backups. Not the simple save-me-from-deleting-that-thing-I-want-later but full recovery of the whole enchilada. So I can fearlessly upgrade to Karmic, and recover if I wind with an unbootable mess. Or, more likely, so that I can put things back together after an upgrade of the Windows partition leaves everything a smoking, stinking blank screen.

I know Linux is more secure and more nerdy than Doze (and probably more crash proof). However, one of the tasks for my computer is entertainment. That includes the watching of movies on DVDs and (soon) Blue Ray discs. I've heard that because of licensing requirements these tasks are unsupported.

Does any Linux release support these tasks? If not, I'll stick with Doze (to hell with dual boot or win-in-ux).

Regarding backup, there are two concerns: a) Backing up all your personal or business data, which you would need to recover if your computer were stolen, for example. b) Restoring your system to a workable configuration, in case some upgrade completely fouls things up. While hardware failure requires restoration of both configuration and data, these are separate concerns, and it's important to think about them separately. It's much easier to manage data backup, if you do not try to include the entire system disk.

So... if you manage these separately, stepping back to a previous Ubuntu install is pretty easy: 1) Reinstall the previous version of Ubuntu, which formerly worked. 2) Restore your personal data. In other words, you can always treat your current hardware as if it were a new replacement for lost hardware. And you should always be ready to deal with hardware loss.

Just migrated my LMS site from Windows/IIS to LAMP, and man why I didn't start with LAMP I do not know. The windows setup (IIS, PHP, MySQL) took way too long and was fairly confusing (coming from a Windows Server/IIS guy) compared to the setup in LAMP. Seriously, plug in USB install media, install LAMP, import SQL table:
$sudo mysql -u root -p h localhost moodle

@MartinDH It's a while since I installed a new linux machine but as I remember none of them support DVD outof the box. With Ubuntu though it was as simple as installing an extra package with the software installer.

I'm a bit out of the loop these days but I think it's still something like this.

Sorry but I have to fix that typo, forgot this site see's < as tags.
Should be

$sudo mysql -u root -p -h localhost moodle < moodle.sql

@Doug (and indirectly @MartinDH as well)

The trouble with DVD support is that it's often not included for legal reasons. Frustratingly, the law is different in different countries, and in case of the United States, it's illegal to include it in a distribution. So, because of this, most distributions don't include it because they don't want to make their US "customers" (and in turn themselves) criminals.

There is one notable exception that I know of: Linux Mint ( does include DVD support out-of-the-box (and also has a version for US users who wish to stay within the bounds of the law with this support removed).

I'd recommend trying Linux Mint for this and another reason: it's almost identical to Ubuntu (therefore most Ubuntu technical support will still apply to you), but with a few smallish changes which in my view make the experience more pleasant. It's gradually gaining in popularity in its own right as well.

Excellent Comments! Keep 'em coming!

I can watch a DVD on my linux laptop (which has a current system) out of the box. I've not done it more than once (to test a DVD) and I'm not sure this is the best DVD software (might be, I just don't know).

Regarding backup, it seems to me that a full copy of home is the perfect backup which should also include relevant system settings and so on.

If you want to build a disk image that you can retemplate your computer back to working from bare metal via DVDs or a USB hard drive, look into Mondo Backup. This is good for backing up the entire OS, but ultimately kind of useless except to make sure all your programs are already installed from repositories instead of having to format, install Linux, mount your home drive then install the packages you're missing.

I always make a point of putting /home on a different drive if I can, a different partition if not. That way, any reformats do not wipe my user folder where all my stuff and program config is stored.

Timevault and Flyback both purport to make Time Machine like incremental backups using Rsync and the same symlink setup that Time Machine uses. They also include GUI interfaces for restoring your stuff. I haven't tried either, *yet*, though, so I can't recommend one over the other.

Biggest snag I have ran into on my Ubuntu netbook is flash support. How I do despise flash...

Ok, so I think I'm in a similar position. I've convinced a few dozen people to give linux an honest go, and even with the caveats that I regularly get riled for being to harsh on here, I think only one of them is still using Linux. While duel booting windows 7, and probably not really using linux that often.

The only people I have tried to convince to give it a shot are the sorts of people that:

1- I know have experience loading an operating system (and therefore dealing with driver issues)
2- Are not evangelical about their current OS
3- Are the sort of people who do not have a difficult time finding the answers to all their life's questions on google.
4- Do not have some specific need to which Linux is not (yet) well suited to (IE if you work in MasterCAM all day now, Synergy is going to feel like putting nails in with a plastic playschool hammer).

In other words, I'm trying hard to stack the odds in Linux's favor. It's likely I have no idea what all the things about linux that have turned people (seemingly well positioned) off ~92% of the time thus far, but I'll hit on a couple that I've heard.

1: misunderstandings about 'free' vs "not" drivers. Wireless networking is a big deal, and wireless networking cards are the pits when it comes to driver support. Even if your card is supported, you usually have to go in and check some boxes in your admin panels and whatnot to get it to find the driver automatically (assuming you can get some wired access).

2: anything command line. And since everything requires rights management, command line sudo will inevitably come up. But they hate it.

3: inability to understand OS versioning. Mac guys know exactly which kitten they have for an OS, and windows people know exactly which numbers/letters go on the end. A newbie to ubuntu has no idea what hardy, intrepid, jaunty, or karmic are all about, never mind the ability to recognize that they're copying and pasting the wrong command line in to the terminal. A new version is out more than once a year sometimes too. Which leads me to...

4: error messages when things go wrong. Missing dependencies and whatnot seem to be pretty pervasive, and people don't seem to know how to find the packages they need.

So maybe there's some stuff in there you'd be so kind as to hit on. I look forward to your articles.

Interestingly, I have been using Linux now for a few years as my only OS and I've run into a missing dependency problem very close to zero times. I can't think of any times but it must have happened once or twice. But maybe not.

I don't quite get the versioning issue. They are numbers, and they go up!

The wireless thing and the drivers thing are probably worthy of major treatment.

*Dual booting. I don't mean to imply they are attempting to shoot each other. Even if that may be the case. But we'll pretend it's a friendly situation for now.

Just thought I'd mention that I use TextEdit on the Mac all the time. Much like Notepad for Windows (which blows) it's a lightweight GUI text editor.

Ben: Actually the transition from some OS to Linux is probably very different from Windows to Mac. I was ambiguous in my statement because one person is going from XP to Linux and never used a Mac, one is going from Windows and Mac OS X to Linux, and likes/prefers Macs, and one is going from a Mac she never liked and mostly experience with Windows which she likes less to Linux.

@Spiv - Versioning shouldn't be much of an issue, as Greg mentioned, they go in numerical order, like any other program, and if we're talking naming conventions, I think it's easier than OS X - they go in alphabetical order!

As for dependencies, I ran into that once, on my first ever install, never saw it again.

Wireless drives is a real concern, on my netbook neither my wireless or wired connections worked out of the box. Luckily for me I just had to get the newest headers to get them working, but most info on the net is in regards to using the terminal to d/l. It was a pain to find the URL's to the files to be downloaded on another pc and placed on a USB stick.

Dependency problems I've run in to usually while setting up a new machine and trying to put some piece of software on there (last case I can recall was part of making a USB bootable device, which of course karmic has pre-installed anyway). I also ran in to this over and over when using a netbook that had a lousy version that I presume dell hacked up to be missing all sorts of things. Either way, I've had questions about it several times, and I'm sure some caused people to be frustrated with the OS.

Versioning comes in to relevance when they are copying a line off the internet that is version specific (sudo apt-get install sflme sldkjf-sdfoin-sdf-intrepid). They don't catch that that's not for 9.10 karmic, or whatever they're using. Maybe show people a way to identify the version number and the full name of that version? Not sure. But it's something I've heard complaints about. I guess with windows the moment you click on the start menu it spells it out for you, so I can always point someone to that easily even if they're being very computer-illiterate with their issues.

Another possible thing to mention is how to turn startup programs off, inevitably now I always have to answer the "why does everything come up full screen every time?" question now that maximus is in the UNR boot. I think most people would just google it in the end, but some don't seem to realize what's going on at all.

My sister's laptop started frying hard drives recently. Seriously, just plugging a drive in would reduce it to ticking and whirring. So, I set up Ubuntu 9.10 on a flash drive, and it repeatedly crashed the kernel trying to load the Broadcom drivers from the Proprietary Hardware Drivers wizard for the built-in Wireless N card. This was a Dell Inspiron 1520 so it's not a super-new laptop but it was having a hairy conniption every time I'd load the proprietary junk.

I dropped back to 9.04 and it automatically installed the proprietary drivers from there, and it worked without a hitch. Something about the drivers in the 9.10 repository is crap, obviously. But the fact that proprietary drivers are needed for a Broadcom chipset (FFS, that and Intel are like the only two vendors around nowadays!!! And they're pretty much all alike!) is pretty irritating.

I've converted my sister, my fiancee, and her best friend's sister, all to Linux in the past year. None of them have gone back.

I think you'd want to forewarn your linux newbies about itunes. I know that there are other programs that manage and play music, but only itunes lets you buy music from apple.

The alternative, which is becoming much better by the day is amazon's online store. They even have a native linux mp3 downloader.

itunes lets you buy music from apple

Close, but not actually true (although to a newb it's pretty much correct). iTunes does offer purchasing DRM-free MP3's. I haven't used iTunes in ages, but I assume not all music can be purchased this way, and that they may charge more for them.

Now, iTunes isn't available on linux, so you won't be accessing their store from that computer (Virtual box?). I made the switch from iTunes/iPod about 3 years ago (switched over to Zune, haven't looked back) and 99% of my library was in iTunes DRM'd format, so I had to break the DRM and convert all my music to DRM-Free MP3's, took about 3 days of batch sampling the files.

I'm highly entertained that comment 15 gave me enough (additional) information to identify the three people making the switch.

I generally need to know where all my input/output controls reside so I can tweak them.

#8: since the Linux way of installing usually includes recompiling, not so far off the mark. Only the editor bit may be. HOWEVER use of some kind of editor is always what gets me out of a problem with config files, such as turning on modules for Apache (is there a good manager GUI for this? Does all the esoteric stuff? Manages ./other and ./extra?). Emacs is way to much overkill for this, so is vi, but pico (or nano) is bog simple and has the key map permanently displayed at the bottom of the screen, no hidden commands. Note: you'll have to sudo pico for editing anything in /etc, and do that only iff you really know what you are doing.

There is no such thing as a binary install, not really, in Linux.

Dependencies: It may have been because of the evolution from 2.4 to 2.6 and I had a Debian stuck in the middle, but I did run into a circular dependency failure via apt-get where I could have my image-magic or I could have my videos, but not both. However, generally speaking, the installer manager does a pretty good job of backtracking to satisfy dependencies if the packages properly define them.

More subtle dependencies: do NOT move runtimes around on the disk. Not all, but some, get hard coded paths built into them when they are built that the library loaders make use of if present. Of particular note in this way is the perl runtime library (perl, the command, is just a wrapper for, the actual engine and a library).

Backups: keeping /home does not necessarily keep all configurations. You'll want to keep /etc/* also. And, depending on your configuration and use, if like me you keep your local apache2 running and use it for a personal wiki, you may also need /var/www/* for your local web site. Also the home dir for root my not be in /home/root, it may be just /root.

Restoring: I always run foul of permissions and ownerships here, especially ownerships. If you rebuild or migrate to a virgin system there is no guarantee the owner and group IDs will be the same, and the file system you backed up only keeps the ids. It is possible to manage this, so long as you always create the same owners in the same order each time so the ids match up. And migrate to the same distribution. What name apache runs under, for example, can mess you up.

Last, if you are unsure about using Linux, I encourage you to try it in a sandbox first. There are two main ways - bootable CD/DVD (ignore flash for now) drives, or virtualization technologies. Ubuntu is available as a CD or DVD. For virtualization I am looking into trying out Virtual Box from Sun, since it also runs under Linux (Parallels only runs under OS X, VmWare under OS X and Windows (this may be out of date by now), and both are commercial only products) and the full version is free for personal or evaluation use. The OSS version is, well, OSS, but has two drawbacks: no installer (build it yourself), and no USB support. If you want instead just to play with LAMP but do not want to go the full hog of building a Linux system, but have problems navigating exactly how to get all the bits in position, I encourage you to try MAMP (for OS SX) or WAMP (for Windows), which gives you a self-contained LAMP system in foreign territory.

By Gray Gaffer (not verified) on 16 Dec 2009 #permalink

Stephanie, it is Amanda, Julia, and "Lizzie"

Since Amanda is on leave, they take away her computer, so she's using my old laptop. Julia bought a used laptop a few weeks ago and since I'm maintaining it ... it has to be Linux. Lizzie's Mac died (as you know) a few weeks ago, and we finally got around to putting the necessary parts in it to make it go, and when I asked her if she wanted her old OS or Linux, she opted for Linux.

I should mention, now that the names are linked to the event, that my comment about "blame" was very tongue in cheek! It's not like that.

I have had no problems with any of the three HP printers ... no, wait, four HP printers .... in the house. You need to install the HP printer driver for Linux.

Or did I misunderstand your comment?

I know, Greg. It was just very, very funny that I knew their computing histories (except for Amanda, whom I knew you were switching over) well enough to pinpoint them. It's a strange way to identify people. :)

Actually, I think I reversed "discuss" from your meaning of "consider" to the snarky parental "We need to 'discuss' your decision, young lady" or whatever.

I don't think I have any experience with non-HP printers on Linux.

This never fails me, any time I upgrade to new version of UBUNTU I have problem with wireless network.

Is it me, or everybody else have the same problem?

By hadi moussavi (not verified) on 16 Dec 2009 #permalink

Aren't there already a thousand projects like that?
Searching for "windows to linux migration" gives too many hits.

By MadScientist (not verified) on 16 Dec 2009 #permalink

Mad Scientist: None of what I've seen on the internet is for the people I've characterized in the post above, actually.

Hadi, my experience with wireless is that the drivers are "non free" and in a fit of philosophical purity that not even Linus Torvelds agrees with, apparently, distros like Ubuntu require end users to figure out that they must go through an extra, unnecessary step that is rather esoteric to turn on a repository they can use to get the needed driver. So yes, that problem is very real, but does not have to exist!

I actually migrated to Ubuntu earlier this year but ended up going back for one reason - EndNote. I write papers and grants and need a really good bibliography program that can import from EndNote. I couldn't find one. If you know how I can get this one thing done, I'd go back in a heartbeat.

Pretend you've bought a Kodak printer (the ones that have low running costs through affordable consumables) and then tried linux, and are now searching online for the solution - see what you come up with. You could also try the same with a modern Lexmark such as the Z-1420 currently wifi'd in to this Mac.

I actually migrated to Ubuntu earlier this year but ended up going back for one reason - EndNote. I write papers and grants and need a really good bibliography program that can import from EndNote. I couldn't find one. If you know how I can get this one thing done, I'd go back in a heartbeat.

@jj: That's not a fair comparison if you're using a tailored distribution disk; that's a bit like getting someone who's done the setup a few hundred times to come in and do it for you for free. In the MS world you need to pay a 3rd party "Microsoft Partner" to do what others have provided for free on a tailored distribution. Would you have as easy a job of it if you had installed Fedora and had to install and set up everything yourself?

By MadScientist (not verified) on 16 Dec 2009 #permalink

Hadi, I'm with you on the wireless problem. My issue has not been with getting drivers per se, but with various other things.

I was all ready to ditch my windows partition, but then I discovered that Netflix streaming is not available for linux, short of using a virtual machine.

For backup I make copies of /etc, /home, and /srv (which has CVS stuff). Since I use Debian, I also keep an updated list of installed software via "dpkg --get-selections". I have restored an entire system in under 2 hours - that's not even enough time to install Winduhs.

@Ian Tindale: Better still, shop around for good quality printers with affordable consumables and which you know will work with Linux. Unfortunately a lot of hardware manufacturers still have a bass-ackwards attitude to the creation of hardware drivers. It really is a WTF??? moment - you'd think their business is to sell the hardware, and yet they don't cooperate to make the hardware more accessible to the end-user. As long as you continue to support manufacturers who don't give a damn about the suckers (end users), they will continue with their crappy attitudes. I'm always amazed that those expensive Harvard business graduates they employ don't seem to realize that there is an opportunity for their market to grow a bit - or at least actually compete.

By MadScientist (not verified) on 16 Dec 2009 #permalink

About a year ago I bought a cheap laptop and installed Ubuntu.

Everything worked fine and over the year I came to use the laptop more than my desktop (Vista) computer. I was seriously thinking that when I come to replace my desktop I would go completely to Linux.

Then a few weeks ago the update manager told me there was an upgrade. I clicked on upgrade, and the next day was unable to browse the web or read email. Ping and traceroute show no problems. I spent about 3 hours trying to get it to work, and then turned off the laptop. I haven't used it since.

perhaps over Christmas I'll have time to try to get the laptop working, but my next desktop computer will be Windows. I can't afford to be without working internet.

Tim, I love your story and you did exactly the right thing, giving up on a system that utterly failed you during an upgrade and that you could not get working again.

Now, if everyone who had Windows do that to them switched to Mac or Linux, Windows would have half it's current market share.

But for some reason that does not happen. I wonder why.

I have had no problems with any of the three HP printers ... no, wait, four HP printers .... in the house.

And that's just the HP's!

Am reminded of the instrument calibration tech we once had; an older gentleman, modest, quiet, very knowledgeable, exceptionally capable and well liked but having only once real friend, another gentleman of similar age. Myself having been invited to his home - itself the most rare of privileges I'm told - to view his personal collection of electronica, was found mouth agape at the three stories plus basement of a very large house - not just rack after rack of meticulously restored transmitters, receivers, transceivers, antennas et al; complete collections of every stripe well into the (then) modern era (including satellite) but also batteries, battery banks, generators, test equipment, schematics, spare parts for each and every item, work benches on every floor complete with oscilloscopes, spectrum analyzers, frequency generators and so on. Everything. Not just one but many of each, all pristine, much still new in the box. Beyond comprehension. Still, difficult to describe with any degree of completeness after all these years.

I remember remarking that he had enough equipment to outfit an entire city with emergency command and control communications while remaining in touch with the world. He smiled slightly and replied in the affirmative. It was only the beginning. Stationary, portable, mobile, long wave to UHF, perhaps beyond, half the upper floor dedicated to optics. Everything tagged, inventoried, logged, recorded. We had yet to make way to the garage.

By Bill James (not verified) on 16 Dec 2009 #permalink

I made some live-boot CDs to try linux (PuppyLinux, Ubuntu, and Quantian). I've been meaning to get serious and really try these out. Then, my Windows XP decided not to boot (black-screen-&-mouse-cursor syndrome). Fortunately, I was able to copy the contents of my hard drive using linux. Now I may decide to do without Windows (if I can do without my old applications).

HP and Brother both offer excellent support for Linux drivers. Canon, Lexmark, and Kodak don't care at all about Linux, thus I will never, ever buy anything they offer for sale, printer or not.

For backups, remastersys is my choice. It lets you make a complete backup of your entire system, or whatever parts of it you want, and stores the result as a .iso image, which you can restore to a HDD and have everything just like it was when you made the backup.

One of the baffling aspects of Linux that hits noobs is the BSD directory structure. What's in /usr, /etc, /var, and /bin? Where does all that stuff get installed when I do apt-get or yum? I think taking the mystery out of the BSD directory structure is one of the keys to Linux conversion. Unlike Windows, and its idiotic registry, Linux doesn't hide anything from the user. On the other hand, you do have to have a map of the territory to understand what happens when you apt-get.

Personally, I've washed my hands of Ubuntu. It's gotten as bad is Windows or Mac in bloat. Arch Linux's pacman and AUR has the bleeding edge of everything I need, and more importantly, nothing I don't. If you do focus on Ubuntu, which is understandable, at least point out how other distros may differ.

Conspicuously absent in the above list.

No mention of vi,


These are NORMAL PEOPLE I'm talking about here!

Hey, I've got sed on there. Isn't that enough?

Does vi have a good outliner?

Gnome is just one of the desktops used with Linux; perhaps you should include a word on KDE as well. It is only a matter of preference which you use, it's mostly the same under the hood.

Linux is most preferred operating system for business.By using this operating system there is no fear of virus attack .So your job is become happy by this.

Joe: I'm going to mention the diversity of desktops in that early section on "distros". The "gnome" section is just gnome because I've set these computers up with gnome, so I'll just have a few pointers for how to use it and very basic configuration. One of my three clients (my daughter) has already figured out the desktop, and has used KDE and actually might prefer KDE, but she can tell me a lot more than I can tell her about that

I don't want to muck out the stables, I want to ride the horsies!

I've used Linux for several years, even have an article in Linux World about it, got Slashdotted, wrote another article, it got Slashdotted, and I survived.

I write, I use the internet, I edit photos ... I have zero interest in grepping, groping or grokking the innards ofan OS. The less I have to or need to know about it to do what is really interesting to me, the happier I am.

By Tsu Dho Nimh (not verified) on 17 Dec 2009 #permalink

One thing that is possible, but way too geeky for most parents, is setting up parental controls on their kids' systems.

If you could explain how to restrict Internet usage to certain hours, control disk space usage, use the various site filters, you could helpaparent out.

By Tsu Dho Nimh (not verified) on 17 Dec 2009 #permalink

"One thing that is possible, but way too geeky for most parents, is setting up parental controls on their kids' systems.If you could explain how to restrict Internet usage..."

My simple solution to that was (and is)... put the computer in the kitchen. Or alternately the living room but kitchen preferred.

By Bill James (not verified) on 17 Dec 2009 #permalink

A key point for Linux newbies:

Install only the software provided by your Linux distro. The Linux distro does all the systemâs integration for you, making sure every installed program works with every other installed program no matter whatâs installed. Violate this rule if youâre an expert, but otherwise youâll eventually experience Microsoft-like version incompatibilities and breakages, especially at upgrade time.

One of LInuxâs best features is that it just keeps working, even as you continually stay up to date with the latest software. The distros work hard to make this happen, if you get in the way be careful not to get run over.

Further, if you stick with FOSS drivers, as opposed to proprietary ones, you'll get perpetual support. The people writing proprietary drivers want to sell you new hardware, so will stop supporting your old hardware after a while. You can use proprietary drivers supplied by your distro but be aware that the distro is dependent upon the proprietary manufacturer and someday the drivers may, or rather will, not be available for newer releases.

Emacs?! Emacs?! Blasphemer! Heretic! Apostate!

Does vi have a good outliner?

Oh, you got me there.

<emily-latella-voice>Never mind.&lt/emily-latella-voice>

By Shawn Smith (not verified) on 17 Dec 2009 #permalink

@Tsu Dho Nimh

For web content filtering and such check out dansguardian. ( (However Bill James is right, the only sure way is to place the computer next to the parents.)

I would say that what is on the hard drive (see the fhs at is irrelevant. Better to learn how to ask the package manager to tell you what's on the hard drive and why. ('dpkg -S' and 'dpkg -L' on apt based systems.) New Linux users should only put things in their home directory.

Todd @ #43:

One of the baffling aspects of Linux that hits noobs is the BSD directory structure. What's in /usr, /etc, /var, and /bin? Where does all that stuff get installed when I do apt-get or yum? I think taking the mystery out of the BSD directory structure is one of the keys to Linux conversion. [...]

Actually, I'd have to disagree with you, there. I don't believe that new users need to know anything about /usr, /var, /etc, /bin to be able to run Linux. Windows users don't know anything about what happens under C:\WINDOWS, and they are able to use the GUI just fine.

It's time we stopped trying to teach the command line to newbies. The GUI is there for a reason - because the command line can be a scary place if you're not used to typing commands all the time.

My wife is a completely non-geek, but she has been happily running Linux in our house since about 2000. She doesn't know anything about the command line. Even when the Linux GUI wasn't yet mature (for example, dialing a modem for your ISP used to be a pain in GNOME) I would set up little scripts that could be launched from a GNOME desktop icon. Then, my wife was happy to double-click the "modem" icon to dial into "The Internet". Now, she is thrilled that she can click a drop-down list to choose the wireless access point, and [assuming that wireless network is open] everything "just works" for her.

Years ago, I also convinced my mom to try Linux when she decided to get off Windows 95 (this was around 1998.) Again, I hid anything that had to do with the command line. She was a happy Linux user - until the day that she bought an iPod, and wasn't able to use the iTunes store using GTKpod. (No one really had an MP3 music store at the time.) Alas, she moved back to Windows a year later. But I could never have gotten her to even look at Linux if it involved the command line, or knowing anything about /bin, /etc/, /usr.

I'll just add to my own comment (#59):

It's time we stopped trying to teach the command line to newbies. The GUI is there for a reason - because the command line can be a scary place if you're not used to typing commands all the time.

Remember, our generation (assuming you're about my age, mid-30's to mid-40's) grew up using DOS, and the Apple ][e. Our first exposure to computers was typing commands everywhere, that makes a kind of sense to us. We can relate "opening a folder" in the GUI to doing a "CD" to a directory.

However, our parents' generation did not grow up with computers. Watching my parents use a computer can be an "interesting" experience. They suffered through DOS, and are really happy to just point-and-click their way to do stuff.

And while Gen-Y grew up with computers, it's always been a GUI. The Mac was invented in 1984. Win95 was released in [obviously] 1995. Gen-Y never knew a computer that didn't have a GUI. Even many CS majors in college today prefer a GUI, not the command line.

So teaching the command line really is something of the past. Yes, you can do all kinds of cool stuff at the command line. The command line can be way more powerful than using a GUI tool, especially if you want to do any kind of "batch" operations (ImageMagick v. the GIMP.) But the command line is often viewed as a "last resort" by anyone not in our generation. That's why I advocate for not introducing "newbies" to Linux by teaching them the command line, or teaching them the Unix filesystem standard. Newbies [as a whole] just don't care that much about it.

Most people get their printer first, then try linux. Many of those are astounded to discover from talking to linux experts that their idea of 'help' in this matter is to merely throw away that now-useless printer they've recently bought and get a slightly different one, probably made by HP.


The trouble with the GUI is that it constantly changes, so you constantly have to re-learn what to click on. Every new OS release confuses the GUI users and re-learning is required. The Unix command line on the other hand, and configuration files, have remained reasonably consistent since the early 1970s. If you plan on knowing how your computer operates learning the command line is a much better investment.

Having said that, computers should "just work". Neither GUI nor command line should be necessary when, for example, installing new hardware. Sadly this is not the case, although the Mac is painless if you buy Apple hardware and Linux is as well so long as you get hardware with in-stock-kernel support. The Linux GUIs do all that's needed -- people who want to interface their Linux computer with some random piece of hardware should expect to either have to learn something or to call in an expert -- computers are simply not universally compatible with everything, even if the salesman says so.

The advantage of the GUI is that all the controls are visible so it's easier to bumble around poking at things. Nothing wrong with that approach but it's best suited for exploring application features. Making changes willy-nilly to system configuration is not often a good idea. Textual configuration files also have a big advantage in that they are easy to backup and make it easy to record _why_ a particular change was made, which in turn makes long-term system administration more reliable. And of course the command line allowed system administration to be scripted and automated.

In summary, the GUI's great for applications but serious system administrators find big advantages in the command line. Not everyone wants or needs to be a serious sysadm and those who are not should call for help as they do with any other serviceable machine.

The basic end user GUI for Gnome has not changed enough to be a problem in a long time . The places administrative stuff is kept and how that is organized seems like a bold new experiment with every iteration. I'm not quite sure why it has to be that way.

I said:
It's time we stopped trying to teach the command line to newbies. The GUI is there for a reason - because the command line can be a scary place if you're not used to typing commands all the time.
That's why I advocate for not introducing "newbies" to Linux by teaching them the command line, or teaching them the Unix filesystem standard. Newbies [as a whole] just don't care that much about it.

Karl said:
In summary, the GUI's great for applications but serious system administrators find big advantages in the command line. Not everyone wants or needs to be a serious sysadm and those who are not should call for help as they do with any other serviceable machine.

Yup, I think we agree.

FWIW, I used to be a systems administrator (Windows, Unix, Linux ... even Apollo/DOMAIN.) The serious sysadmin who wants to make his/her life much easier should learn the command line. But if you're a general user, I don't think it's necessary in 2009/2010.

And certainly I don't think it's necessary to teach the Unix filesystem layout to newbies is one of the keys to Linux conversion [as Todd suggested in #43.]

I think the file system is important to the extent that a person learns what "home" is and where/what "Desktop" is, as well as what dot files are.

As for the rest of the file system while I think it is interesting one does not need to know what it is, but the fact that it exists and that a) it can be ignored and b) you should not put your files there or try to change anything in it unless specifically told to do so by someone is important, but that's not a large learning burden.

And when I say "file system" I mean directory system. The only thing they need to know about the file system is that they can't/shoudn't/don't need to defrag it because the Linux file system is not designed to slowly break and become unusable as it is used over time.