Open Source

Linux from the eyes of a newbie girl, part 4: Going from newbie to Gnubie

Beginning users can relate to the fun and frustration that Natalee McClure describes in this installment of her Linux experience. Read on to find out how she customizes the GNOME desktop and installs Applixware.

One of my mom's favorite stories is the one about her first day at work after completing nursing school. She was in a hospital room alone with a patient when he suddenly went into cardiac arrest. Frantic, she ran into the hall screaming, "This man is dying! Somebody get a nurse!" Of course, she was met with incredulous stares and someone reminded her, "You are the nurse."

The point is, she didn't feel prepared to work unsupervised; she wanted some guidance. There was an entire ward of patients waiting for her, and she had no idea where to start. And that's where I stand today. My project is to do all the things I did (or tried to do) while using Caldera 2.4—only this time, using Red Hat 6.2. Then, I'm supposed to compare the two distributions. The problem is, I don't know where to begin. With each previous article, I had specific tasks to accomplish; now, I'm expected to take that alleged wealth of knowledge and apply it. And, I'm having a little trouble accessing Red Hat.

Oh, by the way, I don't have a Red Hat 6.2 manual. This should be fun.

A little more at ease with Linux
The first thing I did was log on (don't laugh—it could have taken me an hour just to do that). The login requests were specific, so there was no room for confusion... and believe me, I can make the simplest situation convoluted. Once I had logged on, I just stared at the screen. It was so tidy, so pretty with its blue background and perfectly positioned icons and panel that I was afraid to touch anything. On the left was a single row of icons relating to Red Hat and Linux, as well as one for the floppy and one for the home directory. The bottom right-hand corner housed the panel, which was similar to the one I had seen with Caldera. I hesitantly moved the mouse over the application icons in the panel and was pleased to find a description of each. Each, that is, except for the picture of a left foot.

Next to the foot I noticed an up arrow and remembered that when using Caldera's KDE, the main menu had been disguised as a K with the same arrow. I clicked it, and found that my assumption was correct. I was beginning to believe that my short stint with KDE had indeed helped me feel a little more at ease with the overall Linux desktop environment. Feeling more assured, I right-clicked a blank space in the panel and selected Add To Panel. Just as with KDE, the main menu popped up, meaning that I could add anything from it to the panel. I decided to add a log out button. With that added, I got all fancy and moved the icons on the panel around.

At this point, I decided to not push my luck any further and opened a book that I had been assured would help, Sams Teach Yourself GNOME in 24 Hours by Judith Samson. I had two hours and absolutely no idea what GNOME had to do with Red Hat, but as usual when working with Linux, I didn't even try to guess. I just read and prayed that it would all come together without too much pain.

Customizing the GNOME desktop: Beyond self-explanatory
Despite the frustrations, the book was incredibly informative. I quickly came to realize that GNOME is a desktop environment, and Red Hat is just one of the packaged Linux distributions that features it. Though created for several reasons, one of the main goals of GNOME is to provide an easy-to-use Linux desktop environment for users like me—seems like everyone has beginning users in mind these days. I wondered if Samson really had any idea what kinds of problems we beginning users are capable of creating. To find out, I tried customizing the desktop.

To decorate, I didn't even have to look at the book. The panel contained a GNOME configuration tool with all options openly displayed. It was beyond self-explanatory (I say that with such confidence; I probably unknowingly erased some critical file while making my screen pretty). However, I wanted to add an icon for my Web-based Chickmail to the desktop, something I never figured out while using KDE. I skimmed through the GNOME book and found loads of information about adding application icons to the main menu and the panel; surprisingly, it worked much like KDE. One extra feature was the option of creating drawers on the panel to organize similar tools and applications. Unfortunately, and much to my chagrin, I found only one paragraph describing the creation and removal of icons from the desktop. Just like the KDE manual, it advised dragging an item from the file manager to the desktop. Well, I didn't have this particular item in the file manager! And if I did, I didn't know how, why, or where. Why was this so hard? Was I just being unreasonable in my request?

I read a little further and found that there was also the option of making an entry in some directory (how I was supposed to do that, I don't know). There were also directions for changing the properties of existing icons (specifically, by right-clicking). I reasoned that if right-clicking an icon gave me the option to copy and/or delete it, then maybe right-clicking a blank space on the desktop would provide the same options. I held my breath and tried it. A menu appeared, with New at the top. I put my cursor over that and was so relieved to see URL Link as an option. I chose it, and then I typed in the Chickmail URL. Immediately an icon popped up on the screen with a caption that read “” Then, using all the skills I had gained with KDE, I edited the icon and its caption to my liking. Woo-hoo! One small step for me; one giant leap for my ego.

Installing Applixware—no big deal?
The powers that be weren't content to let me gloat. I'd been writing in gnotepad, you see, avoiding anything more complicated. Alas, my scheme was discovered, and I was forced to install Applixware. Mercifully, there were just four steps—four easy steps. So much easier than all that .rpm and source stuff I tried with KDE.

No big deal, I thought, and installed it. At least I thought I did. I ran through the steps, which were:
  • Insert the CD.
  • Mount the CD-ROM drive.
  • Run the command ./setup.
  • Follow the on-screen instructions.

The installation seemed to work perfectly, but once it was finished, I couldn't find it. I shook my head at the irony! I had thought that maybe GNOME and I were on same wavelength and that everything was going perfectly. I was only slightly wrong.

Since I couldn't find the program on the menu, I would have to learn to use the file manager to search for it. What a real-world, hands-on learning experience. Jeez.

I clicked on the default home directory icon. The window that opened was nearly exactly like a KDE file manager window. The main difference that I noted was that the directory tree was automatically displayed on the left, whereas with KDE, it took me half an hour to find show tree on the menu. Clicking a directory or subdirectory made its contents appear on the right, and the little arrows indicating my location (as well as the actual pathname) were at the top of the window. Also, as with KDE, I could open, copy, delete, and move files with a couple of clicks. Easy, easy, easy. But what about finding files?

I once again consulted the GNOME book. Samson explained two tools, one for searching within a particular directory, the other for finding a file anywhere in the filename (whatever that means). I chose the latter. I followed her instructions, but somehow what showed up on my screen was nothing like the example picture she had given. I clicked around for a bit and found myself getting deeper and deeper into file manager madness; in other words, I ended up completely lost. So lost that I couldn't even find my way back to the menu.

You can imagine the string of lady-like words I muttered as I slammed the laptop shut and stomped around the room. I'm sure you can also imagine how the problem was solved: I asked for help from the guy who loves Linux so much that he has Red Hat coasters and penguin bubble bath. (Rather, he found me pouting and asked what was wrong. When I glared at him and growled he quickly surmised the situation.)

He immediately searched the menu for an Applixware entry; all the while, I was crying I DID THAT! Anyway, to make a long story short, I hadn't installed it at all. It wasn't my fault, though... not really. Because I was working on a laptop, the size of the screen was too small, (stupid laptops) and I had been unable to see the OK buttons confirming the application steps. Once that was settled, the installation was simple. I double-checked the main menu to be sure, though—if nothing else, this little learning experience has taught me to be skeptical. It was there, in all its glory—the Applixware submenu. Yay.

Using Applixware—easier on the eye
Now, as for using Applixware: I guess I don't know what to say. I have no reason to go creating office presentations or anything like that, so I can't critique the majority of its uses. I've been writing the latter part of this article in Applix Words (the Applixware word processor), and with little difficulty. It's certainly preferable to gnotepad, easier on the eye than WordPerfect, and doesn't seem to crash like Microsoft Word. (I'm sure Jack will be happy to hear that tidbit.)

I do hate the fact that there is no word count. I often like to know how far I've gone, and how far I have to go. With Applix Words that's just not possible. Grrrrr! There are, however, some other helpful tools, like Alternatives for Word and Best Guess for Word, under Spelling. I guess the true test of its efficiency will come when I'm spending hours upon hours writing my first case brief without struggling through Microsoft Word, while the rest of the class is cursing and screaming as Word crashes, causing them to lose all their hard work!

As this portion of the series comes to a close I have to stop and think to myself, “What can I honestly say about Linux?” The answer comes much more quickly than my understanding of res judicata. Linux is really no more difficult to learn than any other OS I've ever had to try. Sure there are some strange ways of doing things and some aspects are difficult for some people, but then how many people do you know who don't even know how to right-click a mouse button? I know plenty! I think it's pretty safe to say that I like Linux. It's fun. It has an attitude and, unlike what everyone seems to think, it's pretty easy to figure out.

Where will I be going next? I hope to venture into the depths of law school, all the while trying to use Linux instead of Windows. I hope my documentation of this journey will help you to understand the ups and downs of learning and using Linux. Keep looking for this Gnubie girl, and hopefully I'll someday be able to shed that title like a worn pair of pantyhose.

Natalee McClure has been exposed to Linux (by association) for about a year. Currently, she lives in Louisville, KY 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.

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