July 31, 2006

Linux Phrasebook: Lifesaver in the murky waters of CLI

Author: Tina Gasperson

The Linux Phrasebook, written by Scott Granneman, is one Linux book that will stay within easy reach of my desktop. If you're fond of Linux, and you're not a programmer or network administrator, chances are you'll like this book. It can help you gain control over the appearance and performance of your Linux workstation without spending hours looking for answers online.

Nowadays, we're a society of point and click addicts. Since the advent of Windows and Macintosh GUIs, the command-line interface seems to have fallen by the wayside. But you and I use Linux, which means, at least for now, that we have a greater appreciation for the intricacies and power of the computer. We're adventurous and more curious than our Windows-entrenched counterparts. We like point and click, but we're not averse to digging deeper when the situation warrants it. And with Linux on our desktop, we find that the situation warrants it more than just occasionally, not because the system doesn't work, but because we want it to do more. So we embrace the command line because we understand it has potential, even if we don't fully understand the scope of that potential.

Still, if you're like me, a regular person with a limited amount of spare time each day, some of your ideas about tweaking your desktop have been put aside. I call it the rabbit trail effect. You see what you need to do and you go about exploring to find out the best way to do it. Sometimes you get lucky and find exactly what you need, and it works. Many times, however, you apply a solution and it only serves to uncover a problem that requires another solution, which takes time to find, and when applied it uncovers another issue, and so forth. Have you ever been so deep in a rabbit trail that you look up for a moment and realize you have almost forgotten the impetus for your journey?

The Linux Phrasebook may be just what you need. It consists of more than 100 commands organized by purpose, each accompanied by a straightforward explanation of how to use it. The language is simple, clear, and direct, so you don't feel the need to consult your thesaurus to make sense of it. Everything you need to know is here: commands for installing software packages for RPM- and Debian-based distributions, commands for finding files and for compressing them; and commands for administering your network. There are even some things that you probably wouldn't think to ask: commands for learning about commands, rules for commands, commands for managing files, and commands for changing group ownership and file permissions -- all things that every geek should know.

I appreciated Granneman's attention to his audience. It showed in the care he took with beginning with the first chapter, "Things to Know About Your Command Line," where he explains that on Linux, everything is a file; that there are maximum filename lengths, and those names are case-sensitive. These are things that expert Linux users already know, but Granneman assumes we are just beginning and writes directly to us without a condescending tone. Throughout the book, his instruction goes a little deeper, like explaining that "cat" is short for "concatenate," "which means to 'join together,'" in order to provide the reader with more understanding and confidence when applying newfound knowledge.

I've read many books about Linux, and most of them left me a bit foggier than when I started. The Linux Phrasebook feels more like hands-on help -- an engaging read in bite-sized bits that come in handy on a daily basis.

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