On Becoming a Linux Geek

by Russel J.T. Dyer

Despite all the advantages and obstacles, there's one reason that draws many of us to Linux, a reason that we don't like to admit: a desire to be different. While most people want to be the same (Microsoft certainly counts on that attitude), some of us like being different. I like to think that I'm different by default because I don't necessarily gravitate towards popular choices. At times, being different can be both very satisfying and very frustrating.

While Linux's uniqueness may get you started, you'll eventually prefer it for legitimate reasons like stability, versatility and customizability. Besides, you'll learn a lot about computers in the process. Still, it's quite a struggle until you understand what you're doing--which may not happen for a couple years, incidentally. If you insist on getting started with Linux, though, I'd like to give you a few warnings and some advice.

First, plan on installing Linux an inordinate number of times in the beginning, so many times that you won't want to count. So many that you'll lie about having only reinstalled it a few dozen times just so you won't feel too much like an idiot. Be sure to stay clear of loved ones. In those first two weeks, you'll want to kill someone. You will not believe how much your mental health can be affected by your computer. What's funny is that you could just simply scrap the idea and put Windows back on your computer, but you won't be able to let go. As for hardware, don't use some old junk computer--bad equipment will wear you out. Also, don't try to set up Linux on a separate partition so that you can boot between Windows and Linux. You'll frustrate yourself trying to make it work, and you'll never learn Linux unless you fully commit to it.

Regarding Linux distributions, being different has its appeal, but being alone can be unnecessarily difficult. When starting off, go with Red Hat, Caldera or maybe Corel; unless you live in Europe, then go with SuSE. Basically, start with a distribution that has an easy installation program, that you can find books on and that yours friends might know. Later on, you can become a purist and go with something else.

As for books, I don't recommend starting with those fat ones that cover everything. They'll just overwhelm you. Also, skip the ones that cover only one aspect or one application. Find a book that will walk you through the installation and the basics (like O'Reilly's book, Running Linux by Matt Welsh). Also, get one of those "picture" books that highlights Linux and the popular applications. It'll help you get started using Linux, quickly. The best way to learn Linux is to use it. Another resource are the Howtos found on the Web. They can be a bore, but they're very useful when you're stuck. If you still need help, try the UseNet forums. Beware, though; the Internet can make bullies out of wimps. While most people are helpful, some can be real jerks when responding to postings. Just ignore them, and try to appreciate the many nice people in the Linux community.

My final bit of advice is to set priorities and stay focused. There's so much you can do with Linux, so many settings. Make a list of what's most important to you when getting started (i.e., starting X Windows or setting up the modem and the printer) and stick to it. If you get side-tracked by something like changing the login prompt, you'll quickly tire yourself and still won't have the basics working. At least if you can run KDE, send e-mail and print your documents, you can take pride in what you've achieved and fight off criticisms from skeptics.

Well, those are my warnings, and that's my advice on getting starting with Linux. If you survive the first couple months, you will have proven two things: first, you're smarter than the average bear and second, you're nuts! Good luck and welcome to the Linux community.

Russell Dyer (russell@dyerhouse.com) manages an IS department in New Orleans and has been using Linux at home and work for about four years. Occasionally, he actually deludes himself into thinking that he understands Linux, but another round of reinstalls usually brings him back to his senses.

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