Monday, November 20, 2006

Ubuntu Hacks

I have recently been reading a book called Ubuntu Hacks by Jonathan Oxer, Kyle Rankin & Bill Childers, published by O'Reilly and Associates. If you don't know by now, Ubuntu is my Linux distribution of choice, but I'm not completely up to speed on getting the most out of it. It's certainly much easier to use than Windows ever was for me, but that doesn't mean it's not without its faults and pitfalls. I didn't expect to become a Grand Ubuntu Master by reading a single book, but I was hoping to pick up a few tips and tricks. As much as I love O'Reilly, I felt that if I didn't provide a completely objective review, I would be performing a disservice to the publisher, the authors, and anyone that read my review.

For those not familiar with Hacks series by O'Reilly, let me get you a little up to speed. Each book is a collection of 100 tips and tricks pertaining to a particular subject. The subject is divided into categories, and each category is presented as a chapter. Ubuntu Hacks covers everything from getting started (the basics) to multimedia to security. It's designed to appeal to users of all skill levels, beginners and superusers alike. Much of the text in the book is actually user-submitted, from message forums, mailing lists and the like. This being the case, the writing style often changes mid-hack. It was a little disconcerting at first, but I got used to it.

It starts even before installation. I was already familiar with Ubuntu's Live CD, which allows you to test-drive the operating system without actually installing it. This practice started with distros such as Knoppix, and has recently gained popularity. What I didn't know was how Ubuntu managed to retain user settings without ever writing to the hard drive (Hack #3). The book moved onto creating your own Live CD (Hack #4), which was another area I was completely unaware of. Once you've decided to actually install Ubuntu, it walks you through installation in a very friendly manner. But it's not all sunshine and lollipops.

While some of the tips are very friendly and simple. By the time you get to Hack #4, you'd better be comfortable with the command line, or get ready to do so. I found myself going from basic skill level to advanced, friendly to intimidating, several times a chapter. By the time I hit the Mac hacks, I was tempted to skip entire pages that I just didn't want to deal with. Much of the time I read, I wasn't at my computer. After some time, I realized that I just wasn't going to understand what they were talking about with some of the hacks until I turned on my Ubuntu box and started following along with a few hacks.

I use my notebook both at home and at work. Each network has its own settings, and I've long-since given up trying to use Ubuntu's built-in network program to switch between the two. In fact, I've written a couple of scripts to switch between network configurations for me. So I got a little excited when I found hacks 42 and 43, which deal with this sort of thing. Sadly, there were problems with both. Hack #42 recommended I use apt-get to install network-manager-gnome, which ended up not existing. The correct package name was "network-manager". Once installed, it was supposed to add an icon, which I never found. But I did notice that the network icons that I already had next to my clock would show me as disconnecting for a few seconds and then reconnecting on a regular basis, until I finally removed network-manager. Hack #43 had me installing laptop-net, and then hacking scripts to make it work. I very quickly decided that it was less effort to just run my own scripts then to try and get either of these hacks working. I removed the packages, rebooted (why did I have to reboot in Linux? It was eerily reminiscent of Windows), and my system was happy again.

By the time I got half-way through the book, I had realized a few things about. First of all, as with any evolving environment, Ubuntu changes a lot. What may have been true when the book was written may not necessarily be true by the time you get to it, even if you're running the same version as the author. Also, as objective as the authors may try to be, I believe biases still exist, that may even be invisible to the authors themselves. What I'm getting at is, take everything with a grain of salt. Just because they give you a tip that they find to be extremely helpful for them, doesn't mean it's going to be worth as much to you, if anything.

If you're new to Linux, I would highly recommend checking out Ubuntu Linux. If you want to really get to know Ubuntu, then you should grab a copy of this book and follow the bouncing dot. Walking through several of the hacks in the book will teach you a great many things about the Linux operating system in general. Having read this book and followed some of the examples in it, you will easily be able to switch between flavors of Linux. Even Debian Linux will seem a lot easier to you than it might have beforehand. SuSE will be second nature to you. Red Hat will be a snap. It may be a while before you can handle Gentoo, but milk before meat, right?

I've read many an O'Reilly book in my time, and this one certainly didn't make it to the top ten. But it's far from being the worst one either. It's certainly better than one of those yellow and black books, that assumes you to be some sort of dummy merely by virtue of purchasing the book. It won't treat you like an idiot, but you may feel a little like one when you hit the heavy stuff. Don't worry, Kindergarten wasn't always a piece of cake either. But you survived that, and now just about everything you learned there you probably take for granted now. With the help of this book, you'll soon be taking much of Linux for granted too.

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