Know when to ask…

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 netmask’ 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.)

7 responses to “Know when to ask…”

  1. ROFL! ROFLMAO! I apologize in advance if this is off-topic. But I want to apologize to you for something I didn't say and didn't do.Ever since the John Kerry Scandal Leak with the Intern and the Hanoi Jane Fonda Photo with Kerry… It appears that 'someone' is out there machine gunning the democratic front runners.'right now' all of the blame is on Drudge Report and Republicans and Conservatives. A lot of finger pointing is heading 'OUR' way.This can't be further from the truth. The culprit is Chris Lehane who is appointed by Clinton. The culprit boils down to Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton. Chris Lehane ditched out of the Kerry Camp to try and Hype up Wesley Clark. That didn't work! Clark couldn't best Kerry with medals.General versus Vietnam hero. That scheme did not work. In the mean time Howard Dean is front runner and Clintons have no where to turn to in order to destroy Howard Dean. So they take things in their own hands and leak a whole bunch of stuff to smear Howard Dean with and make Dean look like an unelectable loser.Howard Dean falls down and Kerry is front runner. Clintons are back to square 1. Fix one problem and still have the other. Time for more machine gunning. Now we have leaks against Kerry! All of this boils down to Hillary Clinton wanting to get into office in 2004 or 2008. Hillary Clinton does not want any democrat to be president other than her sweet, innocent, pretty in pink self. And her scheming has paid off. Everyone.. All of the liberals are pointing their fingers at the Republican Party.Hillary Clinton has killed Howard Dean. I want to apologize for attacking Howard Dean as much as I have been on your web log. We all should have went after Hillary and Bill Clinton.

  2. Oh and (on-topic) and (still related to Howard Dean)…I keep feeling that people tend not to ask the 'right questions.' I don't care if it's Linux or Politics.Take your case with Linux for example; “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),”Actually no. You can't do that to veterans. And you can't go around in life thinking that way. It doesn't work.I know nothing about Linux. But I do know computer programming and other technical subjects. When I have questions about why something doesn't work… I always *expect* that I will need to be as upfront and specific about what version of software I am using, what code I have written above and beyond the problem in question, and so forth and so on.Don't get angry or upset over the Veteran who is upset over the lack of information provided to him. In the world of technology, no veteran wants to provide an answer without knowing the full facts.I once was a game reviewer off a website (deceased) known as 'gamewatch dog.' I was *not* allowed to review a game until I posted up every computer specification I had used to play the game. Crazy huh? But not crazy for the readers who want to know why I said the game was 'choppy' or 'slow.' Maybe it was just my computer was slow? So.. Chill. And like the recent Democratic Primary Season. Don't get overly upset and frustrated that Howard Dean didn't do what you wanted him to do. In my humble opinion.. The weren't enough questions asked.

  3. *************************************************************************************************************************************************************ATTENTION:Go visit Joe Trippi's new Blog and read his statements. It's at ChangeForAmerica.comThis is an excerpt:”I think it is great to think about running good people seeking change at the local level — but I also think once we find someone at the local level we want to put out a national alert to all who care about our cause and get that candidate the support they need to beat this system.”************************************************************************************************************************************************************************

  4. Despite what you hear, feel free to ask stupid questions. Without a doubt, Unix is one painful OS to learn, but is incredibly powerful once you get your bearings. Reading your tails reminds me how painful it is to learn. Grab some good books on Unix Admin, and Unix Power Tools as well.

  5. Well, I'm not sure where the politics (Kerry? Dean? Trippi? Just what do any of them have to do with Linux?) enters into all this, but I just wanted to give my 2 cents. Incidentally, the first point is not crucial, so if it bores you, just skip to point 2.1)The reason you have to type “./evolution” when you're in the directory that happens to contain evolution is that the directory isn't in your PATH. Your path is relevant in windows, too, it's just hidden from you by the fact that you never type things on the command-line (or anyway, most people don't). The problem here is that “.” (the current directory) is not in your path. If you want to add “.” to your path, and you have a “.bashrc” file in your home directory (type “ls ~/.bashrc”) then you'd add the line:export PATH=$ your .bashrc file. But honestly, I'm not entirely sure you want to do that at all. I personally don't mind the constant reminder that certain applications (like “ls” or “cp” or “mozilla”) are in my path and other applications (like “MozillaFirebird”) are not. It's a constant reminder to me that I'm using experimental software, and thus I should keep my eyes open for bugs and not get frustrated when things don't work.The solution which I find more satisfying are to put the evolution program's directory in your path. If you installed it from RPMs, I'd imagine it would do that automatically, but I've had to do that with java in the past, so I'm not super surprised if you have to do it here. So, to add any arbitrary directory (and all executable programs that happen to be in that directory) to your PATH, add a line like this to your “.bashrc” file:export PATH=$PATH:( means something like /usr/local/evolution-1.4). 2)Your problems with your printer and PATH sound related to which distribution you're using. I use Mandrake 9.2, and I haven't seen the difficulties you're experiencing. I especially haven't had any PATH difficulties, but I also haven't had any issues with network printing. Others might suggest that you reinstall to their own personal favorite variant of linux. I'm not going to recommend that. You've already devoted enough energy to SuSE that it would be foolish to give up on it. On the other hand, you have discovered some difficulties using SuSE 9.0, and if I were you, I'd send my complaints directly to SuSE, and maybe they'll make the experience better in the next release. They might not even realize your issues exist.

  6. Michael – Many thanks for the help. As to what any of this has to do with Dean/Kerry/Trippi – nothing. Jeff is certain that if he posts enough here, we will see the light and realize that supporting President Bush is the only way any of us will find meaning in life.Regarding Linux – the info you've provided makes sense, and certainly sheds a little light on some of what I've experienced. I'm quickly coming to the conclusion that Linux is indeed a more-than-capable desktop OS. But those who claim it's ready to replace Windows for the casual user are waaaaaaay optimistic.–Rick

  7. “Jeff is certain that if he posts enough here, we will see the light and realize that supporting President Bush is the only way any of us will find meaning in life.”Not true at all. I merely only care about the truth. If I am the only one who cares about the truth, then so be it. And the truth so far is that you are about to nominate someone who doesn't give a rats behind about Iraqi Freedom and the War on Terrorism.

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