Elderly Ubuntu User Says Books Far Better than Forums

Tuesday May 12th 2009 by Emery Fletcher

If you need Ubuntu help, pick up a “how to” book instead of surfing a forum, says a 75-year-old first time Ubuntu user.

[Editor’s note: in a recent article about Ubuntu, Linux guru Carla Schroder -- author of the Linux Cookbook -- noted that she had never met anyone who bought a “how to” book for their PC – though she recommended it. A Datamation reader wrote to respond.]

Dear Ms. Schroder,

In your article Linux for Newbies, you wondered who actually buys and uses computer books. Well, I do, and I’d be in bad shape without them! I don’t fit the profile of Incipient Geek. I'm 75 years old, and the last time I had more to do with a computer than emailing and surfing was in 1960, when I had to write some Fortran programs as a grad student.

About a year ago I read something about Linux by an author who had a fine and sophisticated sense of humor, and it occurred to me that if someone like that was a proponent of Linux, there must be something interesting about it that I might like.

I started – as any former academic would – with books: Ubuntu For Dummies (Paul Sery), Introducing Ubuntu (Brian Proffitt), Beginning Ubuntu Linux (Keir Thomas). I ran a couple of the live CD’s, which showed me an interesting new desktop, but of course they ran VERY slowly on my little old Compaq.

I also looked into some of the Help forums, but the endless accounts of unexpected crash and burn from people who seemed to know computers far better than I totally discouraged any notion I might have had of dual booting Linux with Windows on my only computer. You see, the forums are to offer help, so they are all about problems that can occur.

A few weeks ago a relative offered me an old eMachines with no operating system on it (she had had it professionally “wiped,” she said). I had no idea how – or even whether – a computer in such a condition could be reanimated, but I cheerfully accepted the gift. I figured that even the dumbest things I did on that box could leave me no worse off than when I started.

First I armed myself with what looked to me like the most authoritative book on the subject: A Practical Guide to Ubuntu Linux, by Mark Sobell. I was blissfully unaware it was intended for folks setting up and administrating servers, but it certainly went right to the nitty-gritty of Ubuntu for somewhat over 1,000 pages.

I was pleased to see that the machine woke up and ran a live CD of Ubuntu 8.10, so I tried the installation. It went smoothly for a while, but suddenly the screen went blank. I didn’t know that was just because the disk wasn’t saying anything to the monitor at the time, so I panicked and did a hard stop. (Shows you how clueless I am about this stuff!)

I was about to conclude the whole thing was far beyond my abilities, but since the machine had cost me nothing, I decided to try again.

It worked! Eventually (the box has only 384MB available memory) I had an operating system up and running! I played with it for a while, trying to decide on a type font that was small enough to get decent word count per page yet was easy on my elderly eyes. I tried to reset the screen resolution and – pow – diagonal lines, no response from mouse or keyboard, another hard stop.

I figured I must have created some problem when I aborted the first installation. On the second install, the ubiquity partitioner had indicated there was a 5.4GB partition already on the drive and it put the new version in the remaining space.

Could that have created problems? I decided to take my life in my hands and do a text mode install (me, the ultimate non-geek!), setting up my own idea of what partitions should look like.

I read Mr. Sobell’s instructions for doing that (read them at least 8 or 9 times!), took a deep breath, and went at it. WOW! In a lot less time than the other attempts had taken, I had a solid Ubuntu 8.10 desktop up and running with two primary partitions (/ and /home) and a great big extended partition where swap and /usr now live and there’s room for lots more company.

My point is this: a book is a more reliable source of answers than a forum or a Help icon – a book doesn’t go black unexpectedly, it doesn’t time-out a session, it doesn’t flame you as a clueless newbie when you ask a dumb question, and above all, the best of them give you a ”why” to do something as well as a “what”. An old gaffer like me wouldn’t stand a chance of gaining any geek creds without BOOKS!


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