July 26, 2002

GNUbies founder offers advice for LUGs focusing on new users

-By Grant Gross -

As the evangelism-focused Glen Burnie Linux Users Group takes its first steps, Lyn Ohira wants people in the New York area to know that a Linux/Free Software group for newbies is alive and doing well.
GNUbies, started by Ohira and a handful of others in late 1999, doesn't do a lot of outside evangelizing, like GBLUG organizer Jamie Harrison is trying to do, but the group continues to host meetings the second Wednesday of every month, with topics aimed at new users of Free Software -- and advanced users who want to ask questions.

Ohira says the GNUbies is looking at expanding its reach -- including hosting two meetings a month -- as she sees a need to raise the public's consciousness about issues relating to Linux and Free Software. GNUbies meetings draw up to 60 people each month. The group is also considering more evangelism-type events.

"We will be doing more in terms of spreading the word," she says. "I have many ideas for other things that need to be done now to embrace those who are beginning to question staying with Windows, and to help get enough of a critical mass of Free Software users to help prevent such things as laws crippling the ability to use Free Software, standards
cutting off free software (e.g. based on patents) etc. We need the public
to understand why we don't want patent-based Internet standards,
Palladium-like machines, laws like the CBDTPA, etc. We need systems that
are more secure in this age of terrorism, etc."

She adds: "It would be wonderful if people all around the country started to think of
what they could do to make it easier for people disillusioned with XP
activation and new licensing schemes from Microsoft to make the
transition. It is also important for ordinary people to be empowered in
using computers they can control rather than the other way around ..."

Bradley M. Kuhn, executive director of the Free Software Foundation, says GNUbies is an important group for a couple of reasons:

"(a) It is geared toward new users who are excited about the philosophy
of Free Software but don't have the technical skills to get up and
running.

" (b) It focuses as a group on the philosophical aspects of software
freedom. We at FSF believe that the most important reason to choose
Free Software is because of the freedom that it gives users. GNUbies
focuses too on this aspect, as FSF does."

On the GBLUG front, the next meeting is scheduled for July 31 the North County Library in Glen Burnie, Maryland. The group has gotten support from LinuxOrbit.com, which launched a LUG support program this month, and GBLUG founder Harrison has written a commentary there about the need for aggressive Linux advocacy.

GNUbies' Ohira has been a fan of Free Software for several years, after using Unix while working at Bell Labs in the 1980s. She remembers using an early version of Slackware, saved on 30-plus floppy disks, which took days to download.

"In the course of being really enthused, I started telling all my friends about it, not realizing that it wasn't so easy for them to get started," she says. "I already knew Unix when I started, and even for me, getting started was rather difficult, because there were a lot of gaps in my knowledge, and the books out there ... assumed you knew something.

"Then I started realizing there were all these places to ask questions, but you got the RTFM responses," she adds. "It was wonderful that you did get responses, but in the beginning it was quite difficult."

Ohira says she doesn't have a lot of advice for groups trying to go out into their communities and evangelize Linux, but she does have a few tips about running LUG meetings focused on new users:

"The bottom line is anyone who understands should be able to understand what's going on. Because of that, you can't do things truly cumulative."

Have a combination of technical and non-technical people organizing the meetings. "To have a combination of people is really helpful. To have somebody who's relatively new, the difficulties of getting started are fresh in their mind. To have somebody who's technical, they can see what can be handled easily, and they can answer questions that are missed by others."

She recommends having a general questions period at the start of every meeting, where everyone can feel free to ask any question they have. "The RTFM free zone is a lot of what it's about."

Expect that not just newbies will show up. GNUbies gets an "astonishing range" of people, from newbie computer users to Unix sysadmins who are new to Linux.

You don't have to limit your subjects to only certain subjects, like the desktop, for example, but speakers have to take their time when handling complex subjects.
"In general, the subject matter that can be handled is fairly broad provided that you make certain that everybody feels free to ask questions if they don't understand something, and all of the speakers understand that they really can't assume any knowledge in advance. Once you have that kind of environment it kind of attracts people who then also help out when they come. It actually turns out that it's really helpful for people who are not that advanced to explain things to other people who are beginners."

Meet new users halfway. Some people get introduced to Open Source/Free Software by running OpenOffice.org on Windows. Ohira says GNUbies meetings have featured several pieces of software that run on Windows as well as Linux, and members do talk about proprietary software for Linux that doesn't have a Free Software equivalent. "GNUbies has to be of value to the community that needs it. I personally feel very strongly that the GPL is the way to go, but I realize that people need more than just that, in the interim, although that's becoming less and less necessary. We certainly can accommodate people who now need Linux because of its stability and its security and its rapid patches, who really couldn't care less about the other things. From my personal point of view, you have to stress the importance of Free Software as well."

Have a back-up speaker or two who can fill in at the last minute. One of the GNUbies founders continues to volunteer when another speaker can't show. That availability "just psychologically makes the whole thing wonderful."

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