- by Robin "Roblimo" Miller -
I've written this before, and I'm sure I'll write it again: The best place to get help installing and learning to use Linux is your local Linux Users Group, or LUG. Last week I received a detailed email from a NewsForge reader about his lack of success getting help through other channels, an email with a disclaimer as intimidating as a Microsoft EULA at its end, so I cannot quote it, but can only cover some of the points this reader made, which I shall in the following paragraphs.Mr. D (for disclaimer), as we will henceforth call our correspondent, bought a retail copy of Red Hat 6.2 about 1.5 years ago, and had trouble installing it. He mentioned hard drive partitioning as a major stumbling block, which is a valid complaint; few Windows users know anything -- or need to know anything -- about hard drive partitioning. The fact that both Mandrake and SuSE automate this process, and most hardware setup, so effectively is one of the big reasons I recommend these two commercial Linux distributions over all others for home or small office computer users trying Linux for the first time.
I, too, was bollixed by partitioning the first time I tried to install Linux, and I also had trouble with video card and monitor settings, and after I managed to overcome these problems I was still confronted with alien ways of installing new software and dealing with dependencies. Like Mr. D, I was frustrated with all of this. Like him, I found myself confronted with HOWTOs and docs that might have made sense to someone, but were incomprehensible to me. And, again like him, I turned for help to the famously-supportive Linux Community online, and was severely disappointed.
Finding Linux help online seems easy. Almost every IRC network has a #linux or #linuxhelp channel. But Mr. D and I have found these channels of little use. If you want to get an insulting "RTFM" or "You are a moron" response to a question, they are great, but when you are sitting there with something on your computer not working right, trying to get practical advice, they often come up a little short.
Mr. D and I have both had the experience of joining one mailing list, being told the questions we wanted to ask would be more appropriate somewhere else, and being sent onward from that one, too, either back to the original list or to yet another one.
Now we come to the method of getting help with Linux that I eventually discovered, and Mr. D apparently hasn't yet found: the local LUG. There are thousands of LUGs. I suspect that 95% of all Americans, at least, are within a reasonable drive of a LUG meeting. The best list of LUGs I have ever found is at www.linux.org/groups/index.html, and I strongly advise anyone thinking about moving to Linux to make this page his or her first stop. I have asked for help from LUGs in Nashville, Tenn.; Washington, D.C.; Baltimore, Md.; and Tampa, Fla. Not once have I ever had anyone sneer at me and say, "Read the bleeping manual, you moron." I have walked into a LUG meeting with a problem that had as much to do with setting up an Apple Airport base station as with Linux, and ended up with everything working -- and after the meeting, going out to eat with some outstandingly nice people.
I have watched LUG members spend hours patiently showing a new Linux user how to partition a hard drive and why, and now that I have at least a little Linux knowledge, I have become one of the helpers at least as often as I am a helpee. This is the way LUGs work: Today's clueless newbie becomes next year's experienced user, the one who carries a case full of installation CDs to every meeting and knows the quirks of some of the most popular distributions and can explain them to the next generation in language they can understand.
(Note that a "generation" in this context does not refer to calendar age. The person who really started me on the road to practical Linux use was 19 at the time, and I was well over 40.)
Face-to-face contact makes both teaching and learning easier. And once that contact is established, it is easier to get and give help through your LUG's email list or IRC channel, too. Suddenly, instead of "speaking" to a screen name, you are talking to a real person, and this makes a huge difference. We'll let the psychologists and sociologists figure out why this is so, but face the fact that it is, when looking for Linux help or doing almost anything else. Note that even though Linux itself was "developed on the Internet," there are many regular conferences where Linux developers sit down and talk to each other in person if only to put a face to names they have previously seen only in email and IRC conversations.
I had problems using Linux until I finally broke down, took my computer to a LUG meeting, and asked for help. Mr. D would be well-advised to do the same. And you should do it, too, if you're seriously interested in learning to use Linux -- but don't want to get frustrated every time you run into something you don't understand, but you know would be easy to do if only someone knowledgeable would take a minute or two and show you how to do it.