Care and Feeding of Baby Linux Users

Posted by tuxchick on Mar 15, 2008 3:21 PM EDT
LXer Feature; By Carla Schroder
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LXer Feature: 15-Mar-2008

This brand-new Linux user, this refugee from the Redmond wastelands, was stretching her wings and trying to fly. She edited xorg.conf all by herself, though not quite the right way. She exposed a bug in Ken's customer support (don't use writable CDs for recovery disks). Now how many new Linux users can even find xorg.conf, let alone have the boldness to muck with it? Or even experienced users? The Ubuntu forums are cram-full of command-line fear and loathing; the very sight of a text file drives them into seizures. I think Paula's eagerness to explore and try new things should be rewarded.

One of my very favorite ink slingers is Ken Starks, immortalized as Helios, slayer of dragons large and small, and tilter-at-windmills extraordinaire. Ken wrote recently, in his usual entertaining style, of his misadventures with a shiny new Linux user, You only know good when you've seen bad.... This shiny new user, Paula, was driving Ken to contemplate some heavy-duty substance abuse (sure, Ken, like we haven't heard that excuse before), but actually the whole scenario sounded more encouraging than dire to me. This brand-new Linux user, this refugee from the Redmond wasteland, was stretching her wings and trying to fly. She edited xorg.conf all by herself, though not quite the right way. She exposed a bug in Ken's customer support (don't use writable CDs for recovery disks). Now how many new Linux users can even find xorg.conf, let alone have the boldness to muck with it? Or even experienced users? The Ubuntu forums are cram-full of command-line fear and loathing; the very sight of a text file drives them into seizures. I think Paula's eagerness to explore and try new things should be rewarded.

Of course that's easy for me to say, because I don't have to support this customer. I phased out most of my onsite jobs because I don't have the patience for customer support anymore. I used to love it. I taught classes, I did one-on-one coaching, and I enjoyed it. But that was then. Now I'm old and grumpy and don't want to be bothered. But still I know the right thing to do, and the right thing is cherish and nurture customers who are eager to learn and unafraid to explore. They're a whole lot more rewarding and fun than the ones who freak at the notion of anything that is even a tiny bit different, and who would rather fall down a flight of stairs than allow a new thought into their brains.

Refugees From the Windows Wasteland

Maybe some of us wizened old Linux geeks have forgotten what it's like in Windowsland. It's ugly. It's smelly. Exploring your system does not reward you with a deeper understanding of how it works, first of all because "works" is only superficially accurate- it limps along, barely. Exploring your system only reveals more and weirder hazards the deeper you go.

Let's compare configuring video. Windows wins for its graphical configurator. It works, and it's comprehensive. It's nothing like the poor crippled graphical Linux configurators that don't do a darned thing. You can sort of fiddle with a good configuration, but you can't fix a bad one. You still have to dig into xorg.conf for that. But I can envision Paula laughing for joy when she learns that Linux offers many good ways to do things- OK, the graphical thingy doesn't work, so dig under the hood, and here's this nice plain text file you can edit, and even if you mess it up it won't blow up the whole system. Contrast that with getting under the hood of poor fragile Windows, which means the Registry, which means sneezing at the wrong moment means you are so hosed. You risk having to reinstall the whole bloomin' system, which means also reinstalling all of your service packs in the exactly correct order, and then all of your applications, and how many smudged ambiguous CD keys will you be forced to re-type, and how many phone-homes to the mother ship to activate your software all over again?

Paula's other mistake, overwriting her rescue CD, was simply typical geek creative thinking. She needed a writable CD, and there it was. (I won't belabor the obvious flaw in using a CDRW for a rescue CD.) Actually her first mistake was having a boyfriend who was so cheap he poached her music, and then wouldn't even give her a blank CD. Run, do not walk, away from this freeloading luser!

Computers Are Senseless and Stupid

When little baby birds spread their wings and fly, they crash a lot. And thus it is with new Linux users. The good news is the consequences of mistakes are rarely catastrophic, and when they are, disaster recovery is pretty easy. It's a lot easier than on any other operating system. Supporting new users takes more than just a lesson or two; it's an ongoing process, especially if you want them to be successful and productive. Computers are complex, senseless beasts with no real order or coherency.

Here is one example: my awesome girlfriend Terry (who could really do much better than me, but she doesn't need to know that) is going to college online. She submits papers by uploading them to the school Website. This morning she wanted to retrieve one she had already submitted and make some changes. So she logged in to the school Website, clicked on her paper, and it opened in Open Office Writer. She made her edits and saved them. So far so good. But then she clicked on the icon on the school Website to double-check, and whaddaya know- no changes.

Now misfit geeks with no lives like you and me know that the edited document was saved locally in a temp file. But Terry didn't know that, and it certainly isn't obvious. The OO devs lost their minds a few releases ago and took away the 'display the full filename and path in the title bar, and yes dammit include the file extension' feature. So there is no obvious clue where the file really is; you have to go to File -> Properties. Hey, how intuitive is that! And so convenient too. (This feature will come back, or so I have read.)

Fortunately I was there to walk her through saving it to her local School folder, and then uploading the changed document. I'm proud she understood the various concepts involved- it's all abstract, overly-complex, and ridiculous. I mean come on- it's RIGHT THERE. You can see it, you can change it, you can print. But- where is "there"?

Yes Ken, You Are Right

So my dear wonderful friend Ken, who I hope to meet in person someday and crack your ribs with a mighty hug, I still believe there are some folks who should never be allowed near computers. But anyone who shows a bit of willingness to try, and who really wants to learn, is someone worth investing time and energy into helping. Baby steps, my friend- we do not become ace computer gurus overnight.

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Subject Topic Starter Replies Views Last Post
Almost been there, almost done that. kozmcrae 3 1,430 Mar 17, 2008 10:21 AM
new users GnuGuy 15 1,436 Mar 17, 2008 10:00 AM
Good article pat 3 1,305 Mar 17, 2008 12:04 AM
Awwwwwwwww thenixedreport 0 1,052 Mar 15, 2008 5:21 PM

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