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.comment: Your Friendly Neighborhood Linux Salesman - page 3

Preaching to the Choir

  • September 5, 2001
  • By Dennis E. Powell

I have a Linux guru. His name is Bob Bernstein and no, you may not have his email address. When first I used Linux, coming from OS/2 -- we met on an OS/2 list, and though we're best of friends, we have never actually met in person -- he knew I was making the switch. When I had not appeared online for an entire day, he went to the trouble of chasing down my phone number and asking whether I'd hit any bumps, which I had. He talked me through them. Even now, though from time to time I can point him toward something he finds interesting or useful, when I get into a really thorny mess I email him about it; if I've really screwed it all up, I'll phone him. (We do talk, now, about other things; Linux can lead to great friendships, so it's not entirely a parasitic association.) I have no idea why he has put up all these years with what must seem to be a distinct unwillingness to learn anything. But he does.

As you must, if you're going to lead a friend down the path of righteousness that is Linux computing.

(And, okay, as I've learned things, I've helped out others on the multitude of mailing lists to which I subscribe. There comes a time when anyone who is active on the lists is answering more questions than he or she is asking.)

One thing that is highly useful to do is introduce your friend to the mailing list of the distribution he or she is using, plus any associated alternative lists (there is a good Caldera refugees list, now that Caldera is not chasing the desktop user, and a wonderful less formal SuSE list; I suspect that other distros have laid-back counterparts as well, and if they don't, they should). By "introduce," I mean that you should post a note to the appropriate lists -- to which you're already subscribed, right? -- introducing your friend and expressing your hope that he or she will be welcomed to the community. General Linux flame wars notwithstanding, Linux mailing lists are tremendously friendly places.

At the same time show your friend -- your friend, not you, at the keyboard -- how to subscribe. And explain that even when they are extremely frustrated they probably will not accomplish much by saying "Linux sucks" to the list, when saying, "I'm accustomed to doing X in Windows, but I can't figure it out in Linux; here's what I've tried . . ." will bring help. Good mailing lists will help make you a very good guru with no effort on your part.

You will, of course, need to be available to help from time to time. (I think that install fests would generally be more successful if there were a competent follow-up person assigned to every wide-eyed-and-willing newbie.) It's important not to become impatient, even if you rattled off the RPM command prompt options during install, or if you've already been over ./configure, make, su root, make install.

As is always the case with these little weekly ramblings, there was a catalyst that triggered this column. My younger nephew, a brilliant lad named Michael, last week started high school. Among his electives is computer programming. Once I got over the fact that my little sister's younger son is already in high school, I made inquiries. This semester he'll be taught Visual Basic. But next semester he'll have C++, and the projects will all be independent study. My sister and Michael will be here in December, and I'll introduce him to Linux. It will need to be a crash course -- they won't be here all that long.

Once they're back home, I'll do my best to introduce him to people in the KDE community. If there's a better assemblage of C++ geniuses, I do not know where it is. I hope that he'll be welcomed, and am confident that he will be. No, KDE's organization is not there to tutor new programmers. But yes, that organization is made up of people who remember when they didn't know much, either.

If his next course of study were C, I'd inquire among my friends -- surprise! I have some -- in the Gnome community, of whom everything I've said about KDE can be said.

But before any of that, I need to get him comfortable with Linux.

And I'll get entirely welcome support calls.

There's an entirely different reason I mention this. It's not easy to be a Linux guru to a family member, and if there's a way to pass it off to someone else, you probably should. Michael is physically distant, and we have great mutual respect. People at arm's reach tend to listen better than people you're around all the time. My wife is generally brilliant, a great lawyer from an Ivy League school, and but for her having married me a person of unblemished reputation. But because we are involved in oh-so-many decisions having to do with the operation of our little horse farm, the color of the curtains in the living room, and what to eat for supper tonight, it's impossible to step back, put everything else aside, and deal solely with computing. She runs Linux out of loyalty to me, but I'm her system administrator, not her guru. Someone else would better explain Linux to her.

As it happens, her father, who knows so much about computing that it would knock your socks off -- he was programming space probes for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory when the first task was writing the operating system, and when 16k of memory was luxurious -- is contemplating playing around with Linux. I hope he does, because Linux has a way of re-igniting excitement about computing. And if he were to become truly excited about Linux, the community would benefit, because he's somebody who knows a lot. But in any case, he would be a much better guru for Susan than I am. He could better deal with what she wants a computer to do.

But as sometimes happens, I digress. We can sit around and post little messages here and there about how Linux ought to be more prominent in the computing world, or we can actually bring someone into the fold. The latter is highly satisfying for all involved.

Let's do it.

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