As I’ve tried to get my bearings with Linux (my first extended foray with Linux in over 5 years), I’ve run into countless situations where I was clueless not only to the fix to the problem, but to what exactly the problem itself was.
For instance: I’m using KDE as my Linux desktop (tip #1 for Windows users who have never used Linux: Linux on its own is a command line interface operating system, and Linux has at least two different graphical user interfaces — KDE and Gnome). I’m using Ximian Evolution as my e-mail client, which on the whole is a very capable Outlook clone that (sometimes) even syncs with my Treo but relies on some files from Gnome, not KDE (don’t ask).
In any event, periodically when I click on the Evolution icon on my desktop, nothing happens. My default response in these circumstances is to go to Google and do my best Sling Blade impression: “ximian evolution click nothing” (uh huh, uh huh) to see if someone else phrased their question in sort of the same way. (Here’s a hint in Linux: if you’re having problems with a program, try launching it from the command line. Launch your terminal program — also referred to as a console — and type in the program name at the cursor. Of course, sometimes this won’t work, so sometimes you have to navigate to the directory where the program is located. And sometimes typing in the filename there won’t work either — you have to then type ./filename for it to work. I’m not sure why.)
At this point, you descend into any number of Linux user groups, where I’m fairly certain many of them are in English but most of them start out with “simple” answers to these questions by suggesting: “just add path to your /lib/conf/blah_blah_blah and then remove the whatchamacallit in gconfd”. (It’s even better if you can imagine all of this being spoken by Nick Burns.)
Which is what made my smile when I read this over at Adina Levin’s weblog today:
Therefore, if you have a question, you must read the man pages, scour google for diagnostic phrases, spelunk through code, and test your hypothesis. If you still haven’t found the answer to your question after two hours, three hours, eight hours… then you may ask the wizard who may know the answer off the top of his head.
Otherwise, you risk scathing criticism, and a permanent deduction of 20 points from your interlocutor’s estimate of your IQ.
I ran into this when I was having problems getting Linux to communicate with my print server (we use an HP all-in-one printer/fax/scanner/copier that talks to our network via ethernet). Nothing I could find on the net could explain getting it to work. I installed software from HP that supposedly would fix the problem — not only didn’t that work, but now it won’t start (which it cheerfully tells me every time I boot up) and I can’t uninstall it. And no Google query could explain to me why my wife’s WinXP computer could easily send print jobs to the printer while my Linux box couldn’t do squat.
Until I happened to gripe about this in an IM session with Gabe, who instantly responded: “Oh, that’s easy. Just type ‘ifconfig eth0:0 169.254.99.99 netmask 255.255.0.0’ at the command line while logged in as root.” (Fortunately, Gabe qualifies as one of the “wizards” Adina mentioned who just knew the answer off the top of his head.) For the rest of us mortals, you can stare at that answer as long as you want. It makes no sense. Seriously.
I ran into it again on a mailing list I subscribed to to try and help troubleshoot some problems I was having with Ximian. A newbie (not me, really) asked a question about URLs not working in e-mails. To which the first reply was: “What version of the Linux kernel are you using? Did you install from the RPMs? What Linux distribution do you have? Which version? What’s your desktop?” This was followed by a rather curt suggestion that next time the questioner remember to provide all this detail up front.
Now those are all valid questions. But the dismissive tone of the response, coupled with the lack of interest in providing an answer (which, two e-mails later, he revealed and could have easily done on the first go-around), combine to massively discourage newbies from asking about things they don’t already know. (Which is, of course, a tad circular.)
The vast universe of things I don’t already know is really rather overwhelming. But in general I’m eager to learn, and in many cases, actually can figure a thing out once in a while. When the privilege of asking the question carries such a tremendous burden of prior effort, well, it makes you wonder whether that effort is really worth it. Because you’re still going to come up well short in the total hours invested category next to some of the real vets.
So, I’m with Adina. Let us ask our damn questions. Let us learn. Try not to hassle us when we ask something that might already have been answered somewhere else. Especially as concerns Linux, chances are we already know a thing or two to get to the point that we’ve got a functional desktop.
Having said all of this (and yes, I do feel a bit better now that I’ve vented, thank you for asking) — Adina pointed to Eric Raymond’s How to ask smart questions — which is definitely worth a read (and even a bit funny).
(And yes, I’m positive I’ll get any number of comments from Linux pros telling me where I’ve gone wrong. Believe me when I tell you, I welcome the instruction. Really. Just want to know how to make this thing work.)