Linux from the eyes of a newbie girl, part 2: Learning more

In an effort to help administrators and trainers understand the mindset and frustrations of a new user, Natalee McClure continues her series on learning Linux. This time, she tackles the KDE file manager and the <I>Kpanel</I>.

Well, here I am—back to tell you what I’ve learned about Linux. This time, however, I’ve learned some things that are useful to me: like how to make the desktop pretty and how to customize the panel. But first, I wanted to understand the KDE file manager (KFM). Although I derive some absurd satisfaction from the admiring looks that I get in University of Louisville computer labs when I use a console and manual commands, I can’t deny the convenience and ease of clicking my way through file management.

Where's Explorer?
Maybe I just overlooked it, but I couldn’t find anything like Windows Explorer, which displays an outline of the directory tree and allows you to click a directory or folder to see its contents. Instead, I discovered that KFM uses pop-up windows. I consulted the manual for further explanation but couldn’t find any—except for a description of the window (which, by the way, looked just like any other window to me). So, I did what any good student would do: I followed the manual's example.

The example in question involved accessing files on a floppy disk and/or CD-ROM. Once I inserted the floppy, I clicked the disk icon on the desktop, and the file manager window appeared. Inside this window, there were little icons that represented the files and directories on my floppy disk. Fortunately, the procedure for a CD-ROM was the same. But what about those directories that didn't have icons, like the root directory? The manual made no mention of them. While describing the manager window, however, it did point out the forward, up, and back arrows on the toolbar. My only solution was to use these arrows for navigation. For example, to access the root directory, I kept the floppy open and clicked the up arrow until I reached the top of the tree.

Give me some help here!
This solution was, indeed, a quick fix, but there had to be a less cumbersome method. Besides, I had been promised that KFM was as easy to use as Explorer. So, I gave it one more shot. I went to KDE help. (More specifically, I went to the online help browser, which already had an icon on the panel). It was useless. It contained nothing but a bunch of FAQs and suggestions that I couldn't understand (much less apply). I began to get frustrated, and I considered writing “I hate KFM.” But I went back to the manual to read about my next topic, customizing the desktop, and there it was: Modifying the Appearance of the KFM File Manager. All I had to do was click View in the manager window and select Show Tree. On the left-hand side of the window, the directory tree appeared; on the right-hand side were the contents of the highlighted branch. Just like Explorer! Hallelujah! I still didn't know how to display the tree without opening a window. (I couldn't access a directory automatically without an icon.) But at least I could view the tree's organization while I navigated and worked within it.

Once this task was accomplished, file manipulation became easy. I already had the contents of my floppy displayed. To open one of these files (holylamb.rtf), I clicked its icon. It opened automatically in a text-file program. Then, to copy it to another directory, I clicked my home directory icon, which opened a window and showed its contents. I decided to copy holylamb.rtf to the jlove directory in home, so I dragged the holylamb.rtf icon to the jlove/ icon. When I released the mouse, I chose Copy. (I could have moved the file by choosing Move.) It was that simple—just like Explorer.

Usually, KFM opened a file in the appropriate program. If it didn't know which program to open for some reason, all I had to do was right-click the file and choose Open With to browse the available programs. Right-clicking also allowed me to Delete, Move To Trash, or Copy a file. Again, it was just like Explorer.

The mount/unmount business
Since I'd already begun fooling around with the floppy disk, I decided to go ahead and find out what all of this mount/unmount business was all about. I knew that it had something to do with access, but I was confused because I had just accessed a disk's files without mounting or unmounting anything. So, I looked up mount in the index of the user manual. It turned out that it was a console command. Although the manual never explained exactly what mounting involves, I gathered that it’s necessary to mount floppies and CD-ROMs after you insert them but before you can access them. Likewise, you must unmount them before you eject them. Whatever. I just memorized the commands and left them alone. It’s not like I'm ever going to work from a console, anyway.

Kustomizing the Kpanel
When I first looked at the K desktop environment, I was scared. I had no idea what the panel was or why it was there. I think that I called it “a bunch of unfamiliar buttons at the bottom of the screen.” Well, I'm a week older and wiser now (and I've actually read some of the user's guide). I've come to realize that the panel is just like the desktop; it’s a shortcut for launching programs. The advantage is that you don't have to minimize the current window to click its icons.

The Kpanel had several icons already in place. To the far left were the main menu (which I couldn't find last week) and some system administration stuff. There was also a logout icon and a button that locked the screen. Then, in the center, there was a four-section Pager for multiple desktops. To the right of the Pager were the icons for commonly used programs and tools: the home directory, Netscape Communicator, KDE online help, a console, and a mail client. There was also a feature for playing CDs.

Finally, I understood that the Kpanel is really there for the user—for me. It’s supposed to be convenient. Users should customize the panel and create shortcuts to their most frequently used and most important applications. In other words, I needed to reconfigure it. Feeling confident, I went straight to the manual's section on Kpanel configuration. I followed it step-by-step, and I played around with the appearance of the panel, moving it around the screen and changing its size. At first, I couldn't apply the changes. There was nothing on the screen to confirm them, and I couldn't scroll down to the bottom of the page to look for an OK button. Finally, I minimized the screen and found the OK option, which I found a bit tedious. (I had to do the same thing each time I made a change). I learned to alter the presentation of the panel, but its contents remained the same. I read and reread the panel configuration instructions. I searched the desktop for hints. I opened KDE online help. I couldn’t find anything. I cursed. I decided to go eat lunch.

The pizza factor
While munching on my pizza, I mulled over the possibilities. Directions for modifying the panel had to fall under customization. Upon returning to my desk, I flipped through the manual again, and there it was. Or so I thought. In the section entitled Customizing KDE—one page before the discussion of the panel—was a tiny paragraph about adding shortcuts to the desktop. That sounded exactly like what I wanted to do, right? Unfortunately, the answer was a resounding NO. The manual told me to drag the desired icon from a file manager window to a new location. The problem was that I had no desired program icons to drag! I had no interest in accessing directories or templates quickly, and those were the only things that were available in my file manager windows. (At least, they were all I could findŸand I even used the Find Files Utility that the book mentioned.) What I wanted were shortcuts to a word processing program and to my two Web-based e-mail accounts. I also wanted to get rid of the system administration icons and the shortcut to a console. After all, customizing meant making the desktop useful to me. Eventually, I decided to give up on the manual for this particular project, and I reverted to my Windows experience. I went to one of the icons that I wanted to delete, and I right-clicked it. Then, a menu with the Remove option appeared immediately. I shook my head in disgust at my ability to make anything difficult. Then, as I removed the other unwanted icons, I noticed that another option was Move. I used this to rearrange the remaining icons. The next thing I had to figure out was how to create some icons.

Still defeated
The index of the user guide described a KDE icon editor, but it didn't give any instructions for its usage. Since I knew that it existed, I opened the main menu and found it under Graphics. After a few minutes, I concluded that this program wasn’t what I wanted. It did indeed create icons, but it didn’t explain anything about URLs or which applications these icons would represent. At this point, suffice it to say that I was thoroughly confused. I really had no idea what to do next. I looked at every menu and submenu and managed to find Add Application (To Panel). When I chose it, I was able to add Klyx, the text processor. But why couldn't I find anything about Internet addresses? What was I doing wrong? What was I misunderstanding? Again, I read about the Kpanel. I dissected each sentence. What I surmised was this: The panel is designed for commonly used applications. Netscape is an application; Web sites are not. I could have an icon that represented Netscape. Within this program, I could create shortcuts to my Web-based e-mail accounts. I could even have Netscape open directly to one of my accounts. But I couldn't create a Chickmail icon in the desktop panel. I had no way of knowing if this hypothesis was correct. Frankly, I didn't care. I was flustered, frustrated, and downright annoyed.

Clean up and calm down
When I get upset or worried at home, I clean. I reorganize drawers and shelves, redecorate the bathroom, and even rearrange furniture. So, to ease my tension with the computer, I decided to decorate the desktop. It was a very simple task—given that I had practically memorized the main menu and all of its submenus while I was searching for a way to create icons. I changed Jack's background from green to pink. (He'll love that.) And I made all of the fonts “girlie.” I found a screensaver that didn't include blinking or bursting lights (so that I could sleep at night). And I checked some boxes that I didn’t understand (like Draw widgets in the style of Windows 95 and something about Magic Borders). Finally, I felt a little bit better, and I decided to quit while I was… maybe not ahead, but at least still in the game. We’ll see where I stand next time, when I have to deal with everyday applications that nobody can seem to do without. Word processors, spreadsheets, Web browsers—you name it; I’ll be exploring it!

Natalee McClure has been exposed to Linux (by association) for about a year. Currently, she lives in Louisville, where she is enrolled in the Brandeis School of Law. Eventually, she hopes to usurp Madeleine Albright as Secretary of State.

The authors and editors have taken care in preparation of the content contained herein, but make no expressed or implied warranty of any kind and assume no responsibility for errors or omissions. No liability is assumed for any damages. Always have a verified backup before making any changes.

Editor's Picks