// Patrick Louis

Newcomers

New Unix Users

(Transcript of the podcast)

What would you say or give as advice to newly unix users. What is there first to dabble with.

Intro

Today we’re discussing advices and tips you’d like to tell newcomers. Remember the first time you laid your hands on a Unix box, most probably you were lost, just like most people. Now that you’ve got some experience with Unix in general what would you tell yourself from the past.

Guests: thlst, abhx/stark

Purpose

We dabbled with the topic of purpose. Is it important for newcomers to have a certain purpose to use Unix? Does it help? Is it a necessity? Would you really tell yourself that you needed a purpose to start learning new things?

venam: I think that’s an important point, the purpose behind why you want to learn. If you’re not attracted to this new topic, to this new environment, if you don’t like it, if you’re not enjoying it, then if you don’t have a purpose nor a goal, then you won’t be learning anything. You’d just be wandering around Unix but won’t have any clue what you want from it.

thlst: You don’t have to have a specific purpose, it can be anything you want to do with computers. If in any mean Unix systems are going to help you with that then that’s a good start.

abhx: You definitely have to have a genuine interest for the subject otherwise, like in most things, you won’t be able learn and you won’t enjoy it. The things you won’t enjoy you will end up quitting. So purpose is a great thing, another one is necessity. I started using GNU/Linux because I needed an OS that used low memory and pretty much it was a benefit of why I started. From there I started seeing what other people were doing and learn from them, learn from examples, searching under forums, and looking for issues that other people were having and trying to figure out the solution to them. That’s how I’m learning and still learning.

venam: It drives you through a path to learn but unconsciously because you just happened to need that system at that time. Necessity is an interesting point I didn’t think about directly, there are people who really need a system and that’s the only solution they have to learn. It might go along with the topic of purpose.

thlst: Not really because when you have an OS you don’t really need to have a central purpose to do some things and the OS is only going to help you with that thing. The OS is there to help you with any thing. A starting purpose is good to get you starting to learn the basic of the OS but as time goes on you don’t always need to stick with one purpose your entire life. The OS is there to help you with anything you want to do.

venam: I totally agree with this. An OS is suppose to answer any question, it’s a generic OS. It’s not like a media-only OS. But my point was that to learn new things you may need to have a new reason or some things that you need to uncover, hidden parts that you didn’t uncover before. That’s my point, and not that you may only have one single purpose and that it’s the only thing that makes you learn.

thlst: I totally see the point, it’s just that the listener/reader might get confused about having a purpose. When you say that they need a purpose to start they might think that they always need to have a purpose to do anything in Unix-like systems.

venam: …Because otherwise then you wouldn’t learn anything if you have no purpose. Yeah, that’s a fair argument.

Communities

Unix is driven by its communities. They are an inherent part of its being. What did we have to say to newcomers about communities.

venam: As with everyone, usually when we start we don’t have a community around us and then at the start of our journey we find about communities online. Then we want to learn new stuff and ask other people which is a great thing about Unix: It has a lot of communities for different distros, for different softwares, etc.. But around those communities there are different mindsets and ways of thinking that might be sometimes destructive. One of my advice for newcomers is to not be intimidated by the condescending people that think they are too something highly, which is fairly common.

abhx: Definitely avoid 4chan. “Install Gentoo”.

venam: Those condescending persons might sound elitist but it’s a sort of wall of entry which may appear intriguing to new ones. They might want to get behind the wall with the others, it’s tempting to become yourself a condescending guy/gal. It could be in itself a drive to learn but it’s wrong to add fuel to the fire.

abhx: Let’s discuss communities that we find helpful, for example the Crunchbang community. The people in the forums were providing helpful answers full of details and links. Everone has their own experiences, let’s share them.

venam: I would personally say that huge communities like StackOverflow/StackExchange or UNIX.com are way too overwhelming, way too big, it’s bewildering in the sense that they’ve become a simple help-desk. You post a question and get an answer. I wouldn’t really consider those “communities” in the sense that it’s a close group. I would advise to join smaller communities. From my own experience in small communities you still have those annoying condescending persons but you have to deal with it because it’s still better than in big communities where you don’t even get in touch with anyone at all.

thlst: Some people in communities don’t really like to help but it’s just a minority and when they see beginners asking silly questions they will reply with things like “well you should have searched for that first and before you asked us anything”. That’s a bit annoying because beginners don’t really grasp this thing of searching and trying to get results by their self. So in communities, something I would give as an advice, don’t really ask about everything that you are not sure about. If you can you could do a little research before asking questions and if you don’t find anything relative to your questions you may end up asking anyway to the community. It’s just so you can improve your ability to take care of yourself. You don’t rely on people to answer your every question, you can pretty much answer your own questions by looking for answers.

venam: Sometimes it’s hard to figure things out because you have many sources and some of those sources are not always accurate, they only give a certain perspective of a subject that doesn’t apply on your specific thing. And then when you ask then people don’t reply or reply and you have to deal with this.

thlst: There is also, something that I like about a community, and this is a pattern I see. The more you learn about the system the more you want to teach other people what you’ve learned and that’s simply the most amazing thing I have ever seen in anything related to the computer area. It makes me happy to know that people are willing to teach stuffs like what makes a system a Unix like system, what are the tools you have to use in order to accomplish some tasks, or even teaching the philosophy of Unix in general. This is great because communities are built on top of this, it’s a bunch of people that are willing to help anyone with anything. And of course there are dudes that are going to tell you that you have to search things yourself but it’s really not part of it, it’s not what a community is built up on. This is the interesting pattern I see in Unix-like system communities, that’s how stuff works, and that’s how things are in general.

venam: It’s wonderful and I think it can drive newcomers in a new direction but it also has its drawbacks in relation with how people perceive themselves, with their status within that community, if they choose to adhere or join a community, in the sense that sometimes people learn stuffs and want to teach others or at least appear as if they know something. What I would say to newcomers is to not stop at one answer, wait for more than one because sometimes a single guy can be wrong on a certain topic and he won’t admit it, which is not very constructive. Sure you have many communities and it’s fun, join communities, that’s a good advice, and ask multiple persons and don’t stop after one answer because it might be misinformation.

thlst: Make your own knowledge based on what you’ve learned in the communities and by yourself.

venam: Right, and it might be frightening because it always seems like there’s someone smarter than you, and they’re condescending at the same time, and it seems as if they were looking at you as if you were a kid. Then you might get depressed about that topic while you just wanted to ask and no one was there to reply. Yeah, I can sympathize with that ‘cause it seems overwhelming, there’s just too much to learn, and then you do your own research and there are millions of pages coming up, millions of results, you’re lost. It’s an independence you have to take.

Learning By Yourself

Communities are a great way to learn but they’re not enough just like we’ve said. You have to take your own independence and so let’s discuss this.

abhx: What’s obvious to one is strange or really odd to a new user. Searching for error codes around the web or looking up for tools for a specific meaning or documentation is not so common since you’re just a newcomer. There’s also the issue about misinformation or misdirection that a lot of people who don’t have the full knowledge, and based on their partial knowledge, are making suggestions or just swing out a rant opinions. Or even they’re just googling out the problem and partially giving a solution that probably won’t match. So as a new user you’ll have to do your own research, look up what’s the actual issue. Only you can figure out what’s going on. Also laziness, both on he user part and who’s not helping. On the user part sometimes you’re lazy or short on time, and someone who is helping on the site can be like “It’s too much work for him” even though he knows that it would be easier for him to explain it instead of nagging. Not everyone use the step by step method to explain, it’s a lot of elitism everywhere, mostly it’s not really everywhere.

venam: Most people are starting to be lazy, looking for step by step guides, they’re just lost in this kind of cloud. They’re just looking for step by step guides and there’s this mentality today where people want the easy way. Unix is not the easy way. You have to tell that to newcomers: It’s not easy. We say it’s simple but it’s not easy.

abhx: Definitely, simplicity is not equal to easiness of the situation.

venam: On that specific topic, there’s a dude called Mike Lesk and his point was that usually users choose a system based on a 30s basis trial. They want something to use directly, the instantaneous, the fancy interface, all the “good stuff”. They do see it on the Unix side of things, they see those fancy stuffs but they want direct results. Which all goes along with laziness and asking questions, it won’t come directly, you have to go for it.

””” The commercial world generally goes for the novice mode because (a) purchase decisions are often made on the basis of 30 seconds trial, and (b) it minimizes the demands on customer support to have only a dumbed-down GUI. I find many non-Unix systems very frustrating because, for example, they will provide no way to do something on a hundred or a thousand files; I want to write a script, and there’s no support for it. The basic problem is that they’ve assumed all users are novices all the time, and then they bash Unix because it doesn’t cater to that model. “””

thlst: About the system itself, you are never going to stop learning, it’s an evolutionary theme. By that I mean that you never end with this. After you’ve learned something and you know how to do X and Y but you’re not done here, no. There’s no ending. You’re always going to learn new stuffs you didn’t know about, some more complicated than other but that’s ok, it’s part of the constant experience. That’s good when you compare it to other systems where you don’t really learn the entire system. You just open up your games and start playing and that’s it. Which is a pleasant thing with Unix-like systems, and that’s just how life works.

venam: It’s a truth but sometimes it makes people sad to know that they’re never going to be the best, never going to know everything, but that’s how it is. Personally I find it exciting to know that there’s always something new.

thlst: That depends on the mindset. Some people just don’t see it that way, they see it as always an improvement and when they look back at their history they see that they didn’t know much and they still don’t know much either now but the path they took is so constructive. You’re never going to stop learning but that doesn’t mean you’ll never be marked enough, it’s just the opposite: The more you learn the more you’ll know. Of course, you may have that idea that the more you know the less you know but that’s ok. Life in general works like that.

venam: Yeah it’s about modesty.

abhx: Definitely.

Technical Tips

While you’re at it, and to keep up the good mood, you may want to keep a journal log of what you’ve learned so far. It’s a great way to take your independence and you can use it as an offline reference instead of looking up stuff online. Great thing to do. Now let’s move to the technical part, what are some technical tips to give to newcomers.

thlst: You shouldn’t be messing with your harddisk but if you do so, well, be sure that you’re gonna screw up a lot of things. The most common way people learn about Unix is by going through it by testing stuffs or by messing with stuffs…And sometimes you end up breaking something. That’s the way most people learn because we learn with errors. When you make some error you are kind of learning to do things the right way instead of making the error again in the future. It needs patience because you’re going to go through this in a gradual way.

venam: If I could tell myself of the past something “If you don’t have a second machine don’t break the system” “Don’t mess with the partitioning”, especially the partitioning. Yes, it can be frustrating when it breaks but as you said it’s a method of learning and a push forward because you have to get yourself out this situation… Especially if you don’t own a second machine or any backup.

thlst: You don’t really have to start that way but I see it like the most common thing people do when they start to learn about Unix-systems.

venam: Someone on IRC some days ago mentioned that wired connections are helpful when learning. The reason he said was that because there are a lot of issues with networking (maybe Wifi) because of the drivers. If you want to start with Unix make sure you have a good ethernet connection. Then I would add to that that you don’t really need to have a connection to start learning, don’t underestimate the power of manpages and internal documentation that comes with Unix. If you want to start with something fire up the manpage for intro which will give you an introduction to the basic commands.

thlst: There’s also info that comes with a lot more documentation. In my experience you can read manpages when you need some specific information for making something work quickly. So if you need some further explanation you may read the documentation from info which works like manpages but just a bit different.

venam: I think newcomers are not used to this because on other systems you don’t really need to click the help button and get the manual out and start reading. The ones who read those are truly determined to read it. Not everyone likes to read.

thlst: But you get used to it as you go. Another thing, please separate your home from your system, please do that and thank me later.

venam: For safety purpose?

thlst: If you don’t want to get into troubles trying to migrate or switch from system to system then yes, in general for safety purpose. You don’t want to loose your files… So important files…Like I did.

venam: Or you could tell them to use a virtual machine to test stuffs or maybe to doubleboot/dualboot.

thlst: What I mean is that when you have a system working you might want to have a partition for your home. Just to not have your personal files mixed up with your system. Having an isolated place for your personal files can save you a lot of time and trouble trying to switch distro.

venam: That might be too advanced for newcomers who don’t even realize what partitions are.

thlst: Ok, sorry.

abhx: Use the root account wisely! Don’t start actions like IRC or webbrowsing using the root account.

venam: I used to make the same mistake, using root a lot of things it’s not supposed to do.

abhx: Also set a strong password for the root account, don’t use a simple password. It can save you from torment and security issues. Are we going to discuss scripting and how to use the system?

venam: Well, obviously newcomers have to use their systems.

Conclusion

So that’s about it.

We discussed 4 main topics:

  • The purpose, your goal
  • Communities, the environment that helps you learn
  • Independence, taking care of yourself
  • Technical stuffs that are not so difficult for newcomers.



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