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Most Popular Beginner Linux Questions Answered, Interview with Mark Rais --

Most Popular Beginner Linux Questions Answered
Interview with Mark Rais, Los Angeles June 2005, by Andrea W. Cordingly

Andrea: Mark, you've spent the last few years focused almost exclusively on helping new users move to Linux. You've also written some books on UNIX and Linux to help foster this migration. What are the most popular questions beginner Linux users ask?

Mark: I'd have to divide the questions into three categories.

  • First, many beginning Linux users want to understand how to move from Windows to Linux.
  • Second, beginning Linux users often ask questions regarding file management such as file handling, permissions, and application installation.
  • Third, beginner Linux users consistently ask me for help regarding installation and boot-up.

  • These are the key categories. I find that once someone has a handle on these three, they are empowered sufficiently to address almost all other concerns.

    Andrea: Let's start with Windows to Linux. I'm assuming they're looking for common ground between the two worlds?

    Mark: I wouldn't call it two worlds. The fact is that Xfce, Gnome, or KDE are unique, having many features and powerful functions. However, they are all reasonably similar to the interface experiences Windows users already have. So, my first tendency is to explain the obvious similarities, which in turn helps ease their minds and helps them acclimate quicker.

    Every GUI, whether X, OSX, Windows, KDE, etc. must convey a graphical form of the file hierarchy and allow file copying, deletion, and permissions settings. I usually provide an explanation how to get to the all important File Manager in Linux. If using the Gnome desktop for Linux you would look for an icon or label from your menu that states: Browse File System. Using the KDE you can often identify the file manager as a little "house" icon, or with the menu: Home.

    I also prefer to use this as an opportunity to explain how to get to a terminal/command prompt. In Gnome a shortcut for beginners is available by choosing Run Application from the main menu and typing commands. For KDE, you can find this under the System main menu labeled Terminal. Once you have access to type commands you can then get to your file manager and almost every other program or tool by typing the appropriate command. Most new users accept this since they quickly recognize the efficiency of this option.

    For Gnome File Manager, you would type: nautilus -browser

    For the KDE file manager (a part of the Konqueror browser) you type: konqueror --profile filemanagement

    Some Linux enthusiasts think the command prompt is not ever for Windows newbies. Unfortunately, many people forget that brand new Linux users typically do have a strong handle on technical things like typing commands or they've never had any experience with PCs such as those I help in Africa. So, the instructions I give are designed for helping BOTH audiences easily get acclimated.

    Most importantly, I never discount the cognitive capacity of my reader.

    Andrea: At this point, where does the beginning user go?

    Mark: The next thing to share with the beginning user is the very important aspect of file permissions. It's vital that new users understand that in the Windows world they usually do not encounter file permissions.

    In the Linux world this is never the case. Files always include various levels of permissions, which is a strength of the Linux OS. Essential files are not accessible for accidental deletion or use by unauthorized users. This saved my neck a good many times when I started with Linux ten years ago.

    So my advice is this: while the new user has the file manager open, choose the File Permissions by highlighting a file and pressing the right mouse button. Then by choosing Permissions they get a good look at all of the options.

    Files always have three levels of permissions for three corresponding users. First, the three user audiences in Linux are: you the individual user, a select group of users, and the whole world of users. This is referred to as User, Group, and Others.

    You can choose for each user audience a distinct level of file access. Three levels exist: Read, Write, and Execute.

    Obviously a forth exists which is no permission to read, write, or execute the file, which is rare. In most cases files are Read only, even to the user. If you want to modify the file, or delete the file, you need to change the permission for User to have Write access as well and so on.

    In any case I provide details regarding using a Graphical Interface to change permissions, and another article for using the command or terminal to change permissions (chmod).

    Andrea: Okay, so now someone knows the basics of how to run a command, use file manager and change permissions. Anything else every beginning Linux user wants to know when switching from Windows?

    Mark: Yes, they want to know how to get an application on to their desktop toolbar. For instance when I install SuSe the terminal tool is buried and I always prefer to add an icon to the bottom toolbar. The easiest way to do this is to use the file search tool, identify where the actual application resides, then use the right mouse button to add it to the desktop. Then it's a simple matter of dragging-and-dropping the new icon to the toolbar.

    In Gnome, you can search for particular files using the Gnome Search Tool, often simply labeled on the main menu as Search.

    In KDE, you can search for a file or application using the Kfind tool under the text Find Files under the main menu.

    Using these search tools you can look up an application. Once found, you then know the exact directory location and can easily add it to the desktop. For new users who want a fast way, I give them this command to use:
    find / -name yourfile -type d -xdev
    (replace the word 'yourfile' with the name of an actual file or application)

    In Gnome, add a file, once you know where it exists, to the desktop by pressing the right mouse button while the pointer is over the desktop, and selecting Create Launcher.

    In KDE, you can quickly add an application to the desktop by pressing the right mouse button while the pointer is set over the desktop, then choosing Create New, then File, then Link to Application.

    Obviously, in both cases you need to then browse for the application, identify its location and save the change. You can then drag the icon to the toolbar.

    Andrea: Well you covered a lot of the key beginner questions regarding moving to Linux. Are there any other vital commands beginning users always need to know?

    Mark: Absolutely. There are a whole slew of commands that new users tend to ask about. However the most essential ones always have to do with installing an application.

    Installing Linux applications today is far easier than most will admit. There are several ways to install a program, but the two most common ways include using an RPM (package manager) or using a TAR-GZ compressed file. For beginners, it's often easy for me to describe it this way:

    If you find an application you want to install and it's an RPM file, put it into its own directory on your Linux system. You can use the file manager to create a directory under your own user area. Copy the rpm file into the new directory, then using your file manager such as KDE you should usually be able to simply click on the icon for the .rpm file to start the package manager tool, which installs it for you.

    If you've instead found a .gz or .tar file that is a compressed version of your application, similar to using the ZIP/UNZIP tool for Windows, you need to place the file into a unique directory and then run this command:
    tar -xvzf *.gz

    This will uncompress the file into its own complete directory structure at which point you can find the main file and click on it from your file manager to activate the installation.

    The next question is where did the installation actually PUT THE APPLICATION! This varies but in many cases the application is now under your /usr/bin/ directory. For instance, install the Skype Linux gzip file and you end up with the application under /usr/bin/skype. You can then create a desktop icon for it by using the tips I said earlier.

    Just remember, most installed applications end up either under /usr/bin or under the specific directory under /home/username/directory (replace username with your username and directory for the directory you created). Sometimes, applications get a little unique such as installing OpenOffice, but in most cases things end up in either of these locations.

    Andrea: What about the third category of most popular beginner questions Mark? Do users get stuck trying to install Linux and where do they encounter boot-up problems.

    Mark: Yes, a few users unfortunately have installation problems. I say a few, since numerically almost everyone I meet installs their flavor without a hitch. However, in every two or three dozen new users there is always one person who gets stuck and stuck badly. In almost every single case the reason they get stuck has to do with incompatible hardware or problems with a driver.

    I know what it takes to write device drivers. It's tough work, and for every Linux developer who's written device drivers I have a great respect for what you do... in my eyes these are the men and women who actually enable Linux! However, there are so many unique hardware chipsets, so many constantly changing specifications that sometimes the hardware you're using takes a lot of work to enable on your Linux. Most of the newest Linux flavors include plenty of drivers and the optional generic drivers that allow a beginner to get going.

    Right now the biggest complaint regards wireless LAN cards. As more and more device drivers for these are included in the newest flavor releases of Linux this issue should die down. Right now a lot of new users end up having to go download the device driver and try to install it themselves. Then you get into a little mess with trying to explain the NDISWrapper, etc. which often throws off new users.

    My advice is to use the most current flavor of Linux you can (don't expect the free version that came in a magazine pouch to give you a great deal of options). Full flavored versions tend to address the driver issue better by including many more. For those that prefer to have their Linux pre-burned on to CDs instead of doing it themselves, Edmunds is one of several reasonable sources.

    Here is some information if you're trying to get an internal modem to work.

    Here is some basic information if you're fiddling with a wireless card that might help you along with this link.

    Andrea: Mark, what about boot-up issues?

    Mark: Oh, yes! Most of the time when someone approaches me with a "boot-up" problem it has to do with their desire to get a program automatically loaded on bootup instead of having to manually restart the process/program every time.

    This is easily resolved and the solution is almost always to go to the /etc/rc.d directory. Using this command: cd /etc/rc.d

    Then they should choose rc5.d which is your RUN LEVEL 5 boot parameter area. Again type: cd /rc5.d

    By the way, run level five is the standard run level when operating your Linux system. It's not important to get into the details of this, just to ensure beginners understand it exists. As they get more deeply into Linux it will become more important.

    Now, under /etc/rc.d/rc5.d you will find files with prefixes of the letters K or S. Seems strange to new users, but it's simple to understand if explained reasonably. The program you desire to load automatically on boot is most likely located in this directory and has a K prefix.

    The K means it does not automatically load on boot. Instead, you simply need to change the file to read prefix of S. You can use file manager to change the file name, or use a command/terminal to change directories and then type the command:

    cp Kfilename Sfilename

    Now, I always tell a beginning user to reboot the Linux system. It's a bit overkill since you can restart the processes and pickup the changes, but it's simple and straightforward to do a reboot. Once rebooted, the program should load automatically. This is distinctly different when dealing with tools like telnet or ftp. These are network related processes and are enable differently.

    I have lots more details and examples under this brief article regarding configuring Linux.

    Andrea: Are there any other major questions you keep getting regarding Linux use?

    Mark: Yes the final one is very common among brand new users but the answer is sometimes complex.

    People want to have access to their Windows files, often on another partition of their hard disk. This is enabled by mounting the Windows partition.

    Beginning users are often befuddled by this because they don't know to look for the word "mount" to enable their Windows access. In most Linux versions you can click on the desktop icon labeled "My Computer" or "System" where you see a list of all of the drives. You can then mount a drive by clicking the right mouse button over the appropriate drive letter. Most of the time Windows resides on Hda1. Hard disk partition a1. You can also try forcing mount for most drives by a series of basic steps:

    First check to see what is already mounted. Type the command: mount

    Second, if your Windows hard disk did not show up, you might try creating a windows mount. Type the command: mkdir /mnt/win

    Now use this command to mount your WindowsXP or NT: mount -t ntfs /dev/hda1 /mnt/win

    This process usually works for most shared disk scenerios.

    Andrea: What about beginners accessing their Windows programs?

    Mark: This is a lot more complex but there is certainly a volume of information on the Internet regarding running almost every Windows related program using the Wine tool. Wine allows most programs that run under Windows to also run under Linux. Obviously success is predicated upon many things, including a lot more user intervention.

    You can find some additional basic information regarding Wine on this page and on this website.

    Andrea: Mark, thank you very much for giving us this overview of the most popular beginner Linux questions!

    Andrea W. Cordingly often volunteers her time encouraging Linux use by writing short articles, conducting interviews, and regularly participates in the forums on websites including You can reach Andrea through the community boards.

    For personal help or answers to questions, please visit our message boards.

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