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A practical guide to Ubuntu Linux

© January 2008 Anthony Lawrence

The arrival of Mark G. Sobell's "A practical guide to Ubuntu Linux" a few days ago prompted me to try living in Ubuntu for a day. I'm a Mac guy (or have been since OS X anyway), but that's because of Unix more than anything else, so I could just as easily use Linux as my daily OS.

The first challenge was installation. I have a spare box I could use for this, but I'm a fan of virtualization, so why not use it on the MacBook? Indeed, why not, but Parallels let me down: for the first time in all the Linux installs I have done, the latest Ubuntu could not initiate an X session to install from. That was surprising, because I've installed older versions of Ubuntu under Parallels - why is this different? I futzed with it a little, but got nowhere, so decided to try it under VMWare Fusion.. that went without a hitch and very soon I had a brand new 7.10 Gutsy Gibbon running under VMWare.

First things first: I needed to get a connection to this website. That would require getting the .ssh/id_dsa from the MacBook. I scp'ed it over and was able to login. Firefox of course was easy to get running, but then I hit my first usage glitch: on the Mac, I'm used to CMD-TAB moving me between running applications.. I'll need to retrain to use ALT-ESC to switch application windows (ALT-TAB is nice for quick switching between just two windows).

Boy, the temptation to abandon this and go back to what I'm familiar and comfortable with is hard to resist. Oops, there's something I do not like: the Update Manager just stole focus from me. Windows shouldn't steal focus. Not ever. There's no argument that will ever convince me that is civilized or acceptable. Leave me typing where I am typing, thank you very much! That seems so basic to me I'm doubting it really happened.. did it??

Mark's book is too big. At over 1,000 pages it is two inches thick - clumsy to handle. However, it definitely covers its subject matter and then some.. but who is its intended audience? If you know Linux, you don't need this level of handholding and will probably be annoyed and bored by the detailed attention to the basics. But if you need all that tutelage, how likely are you to be trying out Ubuntu anyway and if by chance you are, isn't this giant book going to scare you? I don't know..

Hmm.. no spring loaded folders in Gnome.. oh well, I can live with that..

I also wonder whether it's wise to include a DVD as this book does. Obviously it adds to the cost, and if someone doesn't have a good Internet connection to download a current .iso or dvd image, it's quite possible that they still have a CD reader rather than a DVD.. the old box I could have used instead of installing under virtualization only has a CD..

Because Mark covers so much, some of it gets pretty techy.. that worries me too because someone new to Linux that is not a geek type will pick this up in a bookstore and flip to the middle and surely freak out.. so again, the people who will appreciate the more technical stuff don't want the basics and vice versa.. I just think its a bad idea to try to do both, at least in one volume. Wouldn't it be better all around to split this into an "Introducing Ubuntu" and a companion "Getting the Most from Ubuntu" (just my idea of appropriate titles, of course).

There is a class of user this would be idea for: someone pursuing Ubuntu certification. That's when you want to cover everything under the sun, including the basics, just to be sure that you are ready for any sort of question on the exams. This book would be perfect for that.

I used Ubuntu the rest of the day.. if I didn't have a Mac, this would be fine. There's really nothing I do that I couldn't do just as well in Ubuntu. No great surprise for me there, but I suspect that your average Windows user would be surprised: I imagine they'd think that if they had to leave Windows, Mac would be a softer landing.. that might have been true once, but I don't think it is now.

Tony Lawrence 2008-01-29 Rating: 4.0

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Wed Jan 30 06:02:32 2008: 3550   JohnB

I think you're right that the user experience in Ubuntu is pretty good, and matches Mac in many ways. I think, though, that it falls short in some areas that would really confuse many people. One example is file system navigation. Looking at the top level of a Mac filesystem (to an new user) seems much less confusing than the array of options you get at the top level of Ubuntu (or Unix/Linux).

However, that might be the Mac user in me. I've always appreciated the relatively transparent quality of the Mac filesystem. In Ubuntu (and Windows), locating an application outside of the magic menu system and get it running is a difficult task for many. Ubuntu at least seems to prevent people from dragging their app out of the menu by accident (making many Windows users think the application is completely removed from the system).

(OK. So I argue that the Mac is superior because it hides certain directories, easing the user experience. Then I argue that the Mac is superior because it has a more transparent filesystem. It makes sense to me, because the Mac is more transparent with "Mac" files, but more opaque with "Unix" files. But I'm a Mac user, so maybe I like to have my cake and eat it, too.)

Wed Jan 30 07:50:33 2008: 3551   drag

Yep. In technical terms the Mac directory system is pretty funky. The current HFS+ file system is a decendent of the HFS+ Filesystem used in Mac OS 9 and friends. It's not terribly modern or efficient, but it does have the distinction of having resource forks for holding metadata and it is one of the first (if not _the_ first) to actually do that. The resource forks are essentially files inside of the file.

(Microsoft duplicated the idea in NTFS and called them 'alternative data streams', which I've mentioned previously. ;) This originally was for Mac compatability, or something like that. But it wasn't realy used by Microsoft (although it was used heavily by viruses and spyware folks) until years and years later for holding the 'Zone.Identifier' information introduced in XP SP2 for their security zone improvements. (ie. a file from the 'Internet security zone' won't get executed automaticly without a warning))

HFS+ isn't Posix compliant at all. It's case insentive, doesn't have the normal unix-y permissions, uses : instead of / for path seperation, uses volume names instead of a root-based directory system, etc etc. For people that needed 'purfect' Posix-compatability OS X has UFS support, but for most Unix stuff can work with the POSIX-compatability offered by the BSD-VFS support in the non-mach portion fo the XNU kernel. This layer of abstraction is what you see when you open up a terminal and get to the 'Unix' underpinnings of OS X. OS X also uses the BSD-VFS stuff to impliment other normally non-HFS+ features on HFS+, like journalling support.

This has lead to a sort of weirdness I had a hard time coming to grips with between the 'Mac OS' side of things, the GUI side of things using : for file divisions and volumes for dealing with files and with the Unix stuff I was more familar with being in a almost different world.

But it's not the complexity that matters.. is the usability. And Apple did a very good job making applications easy to deal with, in at least as much the end user is concerned.


On the Linux-side of things these problems (the application install/uninstall) are usually delt with with advanced package management systems. Tracking dependancies, tracking versioning numbers.. Making sure that X version and Y version and C version all match up and work together.

When it works it means that end users don't have to deal with /usr/lib and /opt/appname/sbin and things like that. They just get a GUI, pick a App, and that's that. When you upgrade or want to uninstall stuff you go to the same place.

Of course this plays hell with ISVs. With open source you just work on getting somebody to support your app in the distro itself, then users get access to it automaticly. With proprietary vendors all the mishmash of versions and patches and all that mess makes life very difficult. They are not going to let users compile a app and clear out bugs that may be introduced by supporting different versions of X or GTK or whatever... but they can't afford to do it themselves.

Oh well.

As a matter of course I never ever use the GUI file manager outside my home directory (nautilus being my favorite poison, although midnight commander has it's uses). It's worthless. Terminal only.. I think that most seasoned Linux users do the same thing. So it ends up being pretty similar to how OS X does things in terms of day to day use. Ironic, eh?

Wed Jan 30 12:17:18 2008: 3552   TonyLawrence

Mac's aren't case insensitive any more.. actually never were in the same sense that Windows is.

But if you have just gone along upgrading without starting fresh, yeah, you still have the older fs.


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