NYLXS - Do'ers
Wed Feb 19 02:49:18 2003 e.s.t.





New York Linux Scene Journal
Milestones in Linux - Tux and the Virgin

By Marcia A. Baczynski
I was a Linux Virgin! The Strange and Sordid Tale of an Innocent Who Was Led Astray... and Loved It!

Like most people in this day and age, I use computers. And like most people, I'm frustrated by them. The illogic of menus, "Help" that isn't, applications that don't work and won't tell you why. I long suspected my computer was a tool in some sort of experiment being conducted by aliens or Bill Gates and I was the unwitting subject. I couldn't figure out why someone who is perfectly capable of checking her car's oil or changing a tire couldn't understand her computer. For years I wondered, "Must it be this way?" And for years, the answer always appeared to be yes.

That is, until I found Linux. It started out innocently enough. A conversation in the school cafeteria with a boy. A conversation about Operating Systems. He was a Linux user. Had been since '95. "What's an operating system?" I asked naively."What's Linux?" As a PR major, I had no knowledge of such things. "Well," he said, putting his arm around me (and winking to his friends), "let me tell you all about it..."

Over the course of the next few months, he lured me in with nice words and big ideas, never for a moment suggesting that I should ever actually get involved.

"I bought this book today, 'Cathedral and the Bazaar,'" he'd say. "You might be interested." Links to Slashdot articles started showing up in my inbox. Invitations to campus discussions on the Microsoft anti-trust case became opportunities for him to ask me out.

Shamelessly preying on my innocent affections for the First Amendment, he'd spend hours explaining hackers' free speech/free beer arguments. Before long, he'd insinuated Linux into my every thought about computers (mostly occurring when AOL froze because I had too many windows open on my Windows 95 machine). But in the end, there was just one thing that was my undoing.

THAT PENGUIN!!! Yeah, so okay. I switched to Linux because of Tux. I wanted to be able to wear Tux t-shirts to work without feeling like a moron because I didn't know anything about Linux. I wanted to get a stuffed Tux without feeling too much like a wannabe poseur who's so lame I can't even pretend to be a l33t h4x0r. I realize that this information becoming common knowledge means I'll never be taken seriously as a Linux geek, but at least I didn't do it to impress some boy.

Ahem ... Back to the story. A few months later... My first try with Linux involved a dual boot Windows98 and RedHat7.2 with KDE on my brand spankin' new 1.1 gHz Athlon. I had built the computer myself in an effort to understand what various pieces of hardware did and how they worked. Fortunately for me, my roommate Patrick is a Linux system administrator, and he was willing to help me pick out hardware and do the installations for me. Not-so-fortunately, my first attempt at using Linux was not much of a success. Windows98 was my default OS and I really didn't know what I was doing, so I pretty much stayed in Windows all the time. This lasted a few months, and in October 2001, I decided to wipe the slate clean and reinstall both Linux and Windows fresh.

Once again, I had Patrick do the installation for me, and I watched as he muttered about how frustrating dealing with Windows was. Then he came to installing Mandrake 8.1. I had heard that Mandrake was a terrific distribution for newbies, and sure enough, I was able to follow what was going on throughout most of the install process. Realizing this gave me renewed confidence that I could handle this Linux thing, and when Patrick asked me what I wanted as my default OS, I said what the hell... make it Linux. This was October. It was December before I booted into Windows again.

In this time, I completely fell in love with Linux and my experiences using it radically changed my perceptions of how computers work. The things I didn't know shocked my Linux-using friends, but I was a Windows end-user in every sense of the word. Until this point, my computer was a black box which as far as I knew was controlled by demons. Little did I know I could control them!

Here are some other key things I learned:

There's always more than one way to do something, and there are often many different applications you can use to do any one thing.

What you see in the graphical user interface is not necessarily what is going on in the operating system or in the program. The GUI is separate from the operating system. Before I thought the GUI and the OS were one and the same.

Command lines aren't as hard as they look. Really. And you don?t *have* to learn them.

General "help" resources on computers don't have to be vague, uninformative and counterintuitive. Under Windows if I wanted to know how to do something, I was better off searching through menus than using the help. If I couldn't find it in the menus, I assumed it couldn't be done. "Help" rarely gave me enough information if my problem was at all complex.

Linux's help resources generally err on the side of too much information, and as they're often linked to active message boards, it's much easier to find an actual person who is willing to help you. It can be overwhelming, but after a short while, patterns start to appear and it's not that difficult to figure out what you need.

On a related note, I've discovered it's better to get an error message that gives you lots of information, rather than one that gives you very little information in order to avoid scaring you.

When a program crashes, it doesn't mean you have to reboot. Bugs and crashes aren't inherent and inevitable. (This doesn't mean that Linux programs are super-stable; they aren't. But they're not much different from Microsoft programs, and unlike with Windows, I've only once had Linux itself crash on me. When I ran Windows, it would crash on me about once per week, minimum.)

The most important change in my perception is that when something goes wrong with the computer, I believe there *is* a solution.

There are still some things that I miss from Windows. I've yet to find a word processor or spreadsheet program under Linux that I like as well as Word or Excel. As far as the Internet goes, there are still quite a few web designers that design for IE only, and Flash and Javascript are sometimes flaky under Konqueror. But I love the extra features Konqueror has.

I love the massive amount of configurability my desktop has. I love that I can just highlight something to copy it and paste with just a click of the mouse (a boon to someone who does loads of editing, like I do).

I like being able to try things on the command line and being able to choose from a plethora of programs. I like that there are programs like Evolution that mimic popular Microsoft applications, and that there are programs that are completely different.

I love that when something breaks, it's not just broken... that there are always a few more things I can try before giving up.

Perhaps most importantly, I love that when I need help, I'm not treated as if I'm a moron, and I'm learning that when it comes to computers, I'm really not the idiot I've been trained to think of myself as being.

Computers still frustrate me. There are days when I just want to beat my head against the wall because I can't figure out how to rip a CD or why my word processor isn't working the way I want it to be. But the frustration doesn't run as deep anymore. I no longer believe it's hopeless to try to fix a problem.

I no longer believe that people who know stuff about computers are actually part of some sort of secret cabal that is determined to destroy the world by employing these dread machines to make our lives difficult. There actually *is* a logic to it all, and it's not *that* hard to figure out. And if I, the AOL-and-Windows95-using public relations major can figure it out, anyone can.

Can I get my giant stuffed Tux now?