Electronic Design

Linux For Dummies, 8th Edition

When my $400 ultra-compact Eee PC arrived I wanted to harvest that bounty of freeware people say is out there. My prior experience with Unix was limited to ls, man, prn, an occasional telnet and ftp, and a lot of trn, of course. But all that is in the rear-mirror—about twenty years ago, maybe more. So I thought I really needed a dummies book if I was to go beyond the bundled software in the new machine.

With all due respect to the Free Software Foundation and GNU, Linux turns out to be a tower of Babel. It's all about distributions and repositories. The Dummies book comes with a disc containing its own Linux distribution, but the Eee PC is bundled with its own proprietary and much-hacked version of Xandos, which is derived from the Debian distribution, garnished with a dash of KDE. Neither Xandos nor Debian will accept any responsibility for what's on the Eee PC.

The Dummies book turned out to be useless unless I wanted to replace my native Linux with the one on the book's disc. That's what the power users do, of course. There is a wonderful forum for people who want to tweak their Eee PCs at forum.eeeuser.com, which includes a Wiki telling people how to replace the bundled OS and apps with stuff from other distributions. That sounds a little scary, but I guess it's okay if you have a lot of time, curiosity, and caffeine, because the worse that can happen is that you'll have to reinstall the native software from a hidden partition on the computer's solid-state hard drive.

Not that Asus, the big motherboard/laptop company that developed the Eee PC, encourages any of this. Their marketing pitch is that the Eee PC comes from the store fully loaded and ready to work or play—which it really does. Nice job, Asus. But I was hoping for some add-ons, like InCopy, for when I'm on the road and need to edit articles and KrossWordSolver for those Saturday New York Times puzzles. And the geeks and hackers on that forum, well, they're never going to be happy using the native software. What would be the point of that?

Dummies having failed me, I turned to smarties. My daughter and her boyfriend, both CS Ph.D. candidates and devotees of the Unbuntu Linux distribution, are home for the holidays from their respective schools, so I showed them the Eee PC and the site for KrossWordSolver (It has a link from KDE) and asked how I would go about installing it. Twelve hours later it was installed but broken, and my SS drive was cluttered with a few Megs of new stuff they'd loaded. I'm assuming they pinned my old stuff (I think I understand pinning.) I elected to thank them and do a restore.

Subsequently, using knowledge I picked up from the forum's Wiki, I used the Linux console to launch synaptics, the graphical front-end for apt-get, which is the utility you use for loading applications that are available for your distribution. But when I tried to reload the lists of apps from the repositories, the links were broken, or down, or otherwise inaccessible, so I'm still really at square one, which isn't so bad, given how well the native applications on the computer runs.

I didn't recapitulate all of these Jerry Pournelle-ish travails just to win your sympathy, though. This is really a screed about what's happening with portable tree-ware. Considering that I started with a limited knowledge of what one could do in Unix with a few basic commands in the Bourne shell, I learned a great deal (not that I was able to put any of it to use) in a few days. But I didn't get it from books. The Dummies book was distribution-specific (and frankly, that's okay, since they included the disc with the book), but it didn't address what to do about my situation—mash-ups of standard distributions. I am, of course, in awe of the O'Reilly books with the animal wood-cuts on the covers, but I digress.

What has been working for me is free stuff online. That, and hands-on. Afterall, if you’re like me, what you really discovered in college is that books are fine, but real learning starts in the lab.

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