Here's an absolutely true story: six or seven years ago, very late on a Saturday night, I was at my Linux computer. Had you been beside me that night, you would have seen on my monitor, inside the Fluxbox Window Manager, OpenOffice, Firefox (or maybe Mozilla) and, in a terminal window, the Mutt email client. I was writing on OpenOffice some complex article about Free Software, due on the following Monday, early morning, and I was running quite late.
At a certain point, while I was reading a mailing list in Mutt, my mouse died, leaving me with an article almost overdue, nowhere in a 20-mile radius where I could buy a new mouse before the deadline, stuck in an email client. I didn't remembered the Fluxbox keyboard shortcuts to move from window to window, and so I couldn't even move to the browser to find them online. Since I was in Mutt, I solved the situation by writing to that mailing list something like:
I know this is disgustingly off topic, but I have a close deadline and my mouse just died; please find and email me the Fluxbox and OpenOffice keyboard shortcuts so I can deliver my assignment!
Since miracles do happen, within 30 minutes several kind souls, some from halfway across the planet, had emailed me the shortcuts. I delivered my article on time.
Why certain cheat sheets are a necessityThis is why I wrote this post (and why, since that day, I always keep a spare mouse in my closet). Having a list of the right commands and keyboard shortcuts always available, possibly in a printed format, isn't just a great way to learn how to work faster and spare your wrists. It can actually save your day, in more than one scenario. After that experience of mine, I've come to think about certain cheat sheets as disaster recovery tools! It's okay if you only want to work in graphical interfaces, but how do you restore them if an update breaks your graphics drivers? How do you configure a live CD to boot with the right parameters when you must recover data from a broken system? If you prefer the mouse, it's okay, but not knowing how to do without it is just one more reason to have the right documentation always available.
There are already several lists of Linux cheat sheets online, but almost all the ones I have seen are just that: lists, and nothing more. None of those pages seems to care to explain to novices when and why you may want to have on your desk each one of those sheets. So here's my own list, compiled with the spirit I just described.1. General Unix Commands
In all those cases when, be it for a broken mouse or any other reason, you can't use file managers and similar applications, you must know what to type at the prompt to at least move, remove, and list files and folders. The cheat sheet of this type I like the best is the one at FossWire, which is available in several languages. There are also cheat sheets for command line installers like yum and apt-get, but since those tools have excellent man pages, I'd recommend to just use those resources.
This text mode file manager is probably the best alternative for Nautilus, Dolphin, and friends when your system GUI is broken and you must move or analyze many files in a hurry. Its cheat sheet is here.3. Knoppix
Knoppix remains the best general purpose Linux Live CD that you can use to rescue your desktop. Its hardware detection makes it work on almost every system... but only if you know what options, or cheat codes to pass to its kernel at boot time. Knoppix Cheat Codes are explained here, but to get the latest version, download knoppix-cheatcodes.txt from any official Knoppix mirror.4. Vi and Vim
Vi or its direct descendant Vim are the console text editors that you are sure to find on practically every Linux system. Once you have discovered with shell commands or Midnight Commander which configuration file is broken, fixing it with these editors will take much less time if you have one of these cheat sheets beside your keyboard:here, and then do the same thing for the most popular Linux GUIs. Of course, you can and should find the equivalent cheat sheet for any other Window Manager you may be using. 6. Gnome and KDE
The basic cheat sheet to survive without a mouse in the two most popular Free Desktop environments is in this page from Novell.7. Unity
The new Ubuntu default GUI has a great way to always remind its users how to drive it from the keyboard: the Unity keyboard shortcuts wallpaper by Octavian Damiean, also described here.8. Firefox and Chrome
Writing with a word processor is still one of the most common computing activities, so it's essential to make it as fast as possible even when there isn't some problem. With OpenOffice and LibreOffice, you can get there with the cheat sheets from LibreOffice or with this presentation on Scribd.
Did I forget some other cheat sheet useful for disaster recovery? Please let me know!
Marco Fioretti is a freelance writer and teacher whose work focuses on the impact of open digital technologies on education, ethics, civil rights, and environmental issues.