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Ubuntu Kung Fu 253

Lorin Ricker writes "Back in the dark ages of windows-based GUIs, corresponding to my own wandering VMS evangelical days, I became enamored of a series of books jauntily entitled Xxx Annoyances (from O'Reilly & Assocs.), where "Xxx" could be anything from "Windows 95", "Word", "Excel" or nearly piece of software which Microsoft produced. These were, if not the first, certainly among the most successful of the "tips & tricks" books that have become popular and useful to scads of hobbyists, ordinary users, hackers and, yes, even professionals in various IT pursuits. I was attracted, even a bit addicted, to these if only because they offered to try to make some useful sense out of the bewildering design choices, deficiencies and bugs that I'd find rampant in Windows and its application repertory. Then I found Keir Thomas, who has been writing about Linux for more than a decade. His new "tips" book entitled, Ubuntu Kung Fu — Tips & Tools for Exploring Using, and Tuning Linux, and published by Pragmatic Bookshelf, is wonderful. Having only recently wandered into the light of Linux, open source software, and Ubuntu in particular, this book comes as a welcome infusion to my addiction." Read below for the rest of Lorin's review.
Ubuntu Kung Fu
author Keir Thomas
pages 367
publisher Pragmatic Bookshelf
rating 9
reviewer Lorin Ricker
ISBN 1-934356-22-0
summary A very useful "tips and tricks" how-to book about Ubuntu Linux
As a relatively young Linux distro, Ubuntu already sports a wealth of introductory and how-to books vying for the enthusiast's money — and I've already purchased a significant sampling of these which informs my opinion about the book here under review. And even for Ubuntu, the "tips & tricks" section of my own Linux bookshelf contains volumes which run from the encyclopedic to the practical — I'd even collected O'Reilly's Ubuntu Hacks (Oxer, Rankin & Childers) well before encountering Ubuntu Kung Fu.

How well does Keir Thomas's new book fare in this crowded field? Does he provide actual unique value to the Ubuntu community, useful knowledge which is otherwise unavailable or hard to find? In a nutshell (oops, sorry... that's a book series for another time!): Yes, he does. In fact, he hits the target pretty squarely.

Ubuntu Kung Fu is organized as only three chapters (with no preface material at all): "1 Introduction," including obligatory "How to Read This Book," "Acknowledgments" and "Sharing" sections; "2 An Ubuntu Administration Crash Course"; and, the largest chapter by far, "3 The Tips" themselves.

Though it concentrates on rather basic material, the second chapter on Ubuntu administration is actually one of the best subject primers I've encountered so far, and is written directly and to-the-point. There's the right focus and enough detail to help those users making the initial transition from Windows to Linux/Ubuntu, including coaching on users and passwords, file system structure (see sidebar "Drive Letters and Ubuntu"), and guidance regarding "Command Line or GUI?".

For example, after weeks of my own stumbling about in the vast sea of information and opinion known as the Ubuntu Forums, searching in vain for a concise explanation on the distinction between a "virtual console" and a regular old "X-windows terminal" — as an old VMS hacker, I'd had experience with such things — I found exactly the explanation I needed, including Ctrl/Alt/F-key controls, in this chapter. The author manages to underline the relevance of this even to the novice Ubuntu user as it applies to "What do I do if things go wrong?", without getting mired in unneeded exotica.

This chapter continues with the necessary skills in software installation and management, including Synaptic and APT, packages and repositories, doing a good job of giving the novice his or her bearings to get started. It concludes with a decent orientation on config files and the gconf-editor, making and keeping backups, and what to do if it does all go wrong.

"The Tips," the third chapter, constitutes 315 separate items, covering over 300 pages, the big majority of the book. Each tip is clearly titled as to its purpose, and has a small check-box in the margin beside the title so that the reader has a place to mark the tip as to personal relevance and priority.

I suppose that the best way to give you a sense of the value of these tips is to provide a summary of my own "usage statistics", derived from my own check-box marks. When I first surveyed the book to get my own bearings, I used a yellow highlighter pen to color in the check-box for tips that caught my eye and that I especially wanted to get back to... Later, as I read through the entire "Tips" chapter, I made a check in the box for each tip I intended to return to for installation or implementation on my own Ubuntu box, and where appropriate, when I actually did install or implement the tip, I made an installation note as to time and details. A good many of the tips are for information or how-to skill only, with nothing to install or implement other than enhancing the reader's own understanding.

Of the 315 tips, I counted 108 (34%) that I marked with yellow highlight; 16 (5%) that I checked for implementation, but have not yet done so for one reason or another; and 19 (6%) that I've implemented on my system. Considering that any "tips & tricks" book ends up becoming a grab-bag of items with a hit-or-miss appeal to any particular person, this is a very good personal return-on-investment. Yet this breakdown is rather arbitrary, as many of the tips are techniques to know and use, rather than configurations to manage or applications to install. In other words, your mileage may vary.

Mr. Thomas's grab-bag is typical in its variety and scope — there's likely something for everyone, both Ubuntu novice and expert, in this book. And, true to style for such volumes, the author notes this about his "big book of tips": "...that you can jump in anywhere." This goes to the heart of my only notable criticism of the book, one of organization. Unlike many "tips" books, where there's usually some attempt to organize the presentation of topical items into a somewhat obvious order, the editorial decision for UKF was to explicitly order the tips randomly — this was no accident, as the author makes explicit in a couple of his remarks.

Indeed, reading through the "Tips" chapter in page-order is no different than embarking on a thorough reading in random order — there simply is no rhyme-or-reason to the presentation of items. This is particularly frustrating because there are numerous instances of tips which are closely related by subject or purpose, and for which the reader would be well served by having them grouped on successive pages for ease of reference and purpose.

That this was an editorial decision is made clear by the fact that the Table of Contents is itself 10 pages long, listing every single tip in the book, and is then followed by a secondary, equally lengthy "Contents by Topic" which attempts to group the tips by general category, "Application Enhancements", "Command Line Tricks", "General Productivity Tips", etc. Furthermore, the editorial effort was made to cross-reference related tips in the text, under Tip 39, we find "...see Tip 173, on page 204, and Tip 228, on page 260," and so on. For all this cross-referencing and contents by topic effort, wouldn't it have been more effective to simply organize the tips in a semblance of relationship, commonality and order? After all, having done a "Contents by Topic", why not just go ahead and organize the book accordingly?

For some readers, the random shuffling of tips may not matter much, as so much of the information will be newly encountered and of subjectively individual value. And value there is aplenty in this book! I'll close by noting four items which were of particular interest and value to me, things for which I'd been previously searching for without luck, or which I didn't even know existed in the open source world of resources:

First, on the ubiquitous implementation of yet another Trashcan for file deletion in a File Manager (the Gnome Nautilus app, which is prevalently used on Ubuntu): GUI designers just can't get over the fact that "mere mortals" might actually delete files and not really mean it... hence, the Trashcan mechanism to protect them from their own silly actions.

This is actually a two-edged sword, and I'd been caught in the quandary of having intended to really delete some application files, which happen to have been root-owned, only to have them get snagged in my file system's Trashcan. The real quandary commenced when, using sudo, I tried to figure out how to delete them from the command line — but where in the heck is "the Trashcan"? I could see the files in Nautilus (where I couldn't conveniently use sudo-power to delete them), but following my own hunches as to where-in-the-file-system the Trashcan was actually stored turned up empty-handed.

UKF to the rescue — see Tips 39, 228 and 309 for everything you'd need to know about handling the Trashcan from the command line.

Secondly, I'd become quite fond of enhanced cut-&-paste (multiple) clipboard capabilities under Windows. Again, UKF to the rescue: Tip 306 let me know of an open source (KDE) clipboard enhancement known as Klipper (it's in the Ubuntu Repositories), which scratches this itch most satisfactorily.

Third, although Ubuntu provides basic, rudimentary tools (Gnome and KDE) for capturing screen shots, until I got to Tip 313, I didn't know that the GIMP could be used to augment and sophisticate screen shot capturing! And, of course, you can refine, edit and save your shots in any GIMP-available format directly. A great enhancement, if only to my working GIMP knowledge!

Lastly, like most folks, I've got a dark side, secrets which must be kept — things like account numbers, passwords, and other personal arcana which cannot, or should not, be kept in unencrypted form. Again, under Windows, I'd found an encryption technology known as TrueCrypt which I'd employed (and paid for) on that platform for a couple of years prior — and with my transition to Linux, I had mistakenly assumed that I had to abandon TrueCrypt as a Windows-only app.

Imagine my surprise and delight when I encountered Tip 145, which informed me that TrueCrypt includes an open source licensed release for Linux, including exactly where to go to install it and how best to use it! Bravo, and thank you, Mr. Thomas, for helping me resurrect an old and trusted friend!

In summary, it should be apparent that, in spite of my grumblings about the random tip presentation, I think that Keir Thomas's Ubuntu Kung Fu is a wonderful book — address the organization issues in a second edition, and I think it'd become an exemplar of its type. I recommend it highly to anyone who has become, or is becoming, an Ubuntu Linux user and enthusiast. It usefully helps bridge the gap between the Microsoft Windows experience and the not-so-different world of the Linux desktop. It provides ample practical help and knowledge to advance your productive use of Ubuntu Linux. This book takes a pride-of-place position right beside my copy of Ubuntu Hacks, where I can refer to it whenever I've a hankering to implement "that new thing" I remember having read about.

You can purchase Ubuntu Kung Fu from amazon.com. Slashdot welcomes readers' book reviews -- to see your own review here, read the book review guidelines, then visit the submission page.


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Ubuntu Kung Fu

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  • So much for free! (Score:3, Insightful)

    by CannonballHead ( 842625 ) on Monday January 05, 2009 @03:28PM (#26333665)

    It seems silly to pay for a how-to book for a free operating system. I wonder if there's an online "Linux Documentation for the Masses" type of thing. Linux documentation online, at least from what I have seen, tends to be geared not so much for the same audience that books tend to be, unfortunately.

  • by Overzeetop ( 214511 ) on Monday January 05, 2009 @03:33PM (#26333725) Journal

    It sounds trite, but there's a dearth of documentation for those of us who know Windows (and, probably more specifically, *-DOS and other CLIs) who can get thoroughly lost in Linux GUIs simply because we lack the fundamentals taught in a 7th grade linux programming class (which probably doesn't exist like the ones we took back in the 70s, when GUIs effectively didn't exist for the home user). I'm convinced linux isn't hard, though I've tried and abandoned it two or three times now for failure to run "required" apps that are windows only, or because the care and feeding is beyond my ability. In that time, though, I've found an inverse bell curve of documentation. Exploring GUI widgets is commonplace in tutorials; discussing minutiae is easily found on forums. Getting a really good walk through of the basics (directory structure, startup options/scripts - where they are and how to use them, etc.) is hard to find.

    As for the cover...well, at least my 6 year old daughter would approve.

  • by TheModelEskimo ( 968202 ) on Monday January 05, 2009 @03:33PM (#26333735)
    I've been using Ubuntu since 4.??, pretty much day in and day out for work, and this book was worth the purchase. The other Ubuntu books at the bookstore seemed like conversions of normal Linux books, whereas this one was thick and specifically aimed at Ubuntu users. Hope to see more like this in the future, specifically books aimed at helping graphic design-types become more productive ;-)
  • by hey! ( 33014 ) on Monday January 05, 2009 @03:51PM (#26333975) Homepage Journal

    HAHAHA! Your regular expressions are very good. But can you handle my LALR(1) grammar!

  • by thatskinnyguy ( 1129515 ) on Monday January 05, 2009 @03:58PM (#26334089)

    Personally, my nomination would be still having to edit fstab as root to permanently mount a network share. Mapping a network drive is dead simple in Windows. It should be just as easy on Ubuntu.

    Interesting you bring that up. Every time I install Ubuntu or any other flavor of *nix, I look to see if someone made that procedure less torturous.

    As for my nomination: I think it would have to be the inability to "su" and run in root mode. I understand the reasoning behind it but stuff like this can get annoying pretty quick:
    @make me a sandwitch
    @only root can do that
    @sudo make me a sandwitch

  • by CannonballHead ( 842625 ) on Monday January 05, 2009 @04:26PM (#26334475)

    I knew about howtoforge, linuxmanpages, etc. Linux man pages are oh-so-user-friendly! Of course, I actually do use them and am not a blithering idiot when it comes to Linux. I guess my point was that if we want to get Linux into mainstream OS stuff, it will either have to "just work" (like Windows typically does) or the FREE documentation is going to have to be perhaps a bit more standardized, easier to find, easier to use, etc.

    It is hard to "sell" (heh) something as free when you then have to ask them to get a $XX book because they are going to have on clue how to use it, it's not what they are used to, and it doesn't just work. :)

    For those of us that ARE comfortable looking at random pages in google to find out how to do some weird Linux stuff, that's cool. For those that are switching to Linux, for the first time, and want to know how to get their Canon MP210 printer to work... well, they've got issues at the moment.

  • by CannonballHead ( 842625 ) on Monday January 05, 2009 @04:32PM (#26334543)

    I've had great success as well. Usually one can find the problems. But the true novice (I was in a college course with them... I took it for an easy A and for some of the more advanced stuff, but it started with how to install Linux...) is going to be doing these weird random console commands and has NO clue what he's doing. And of course, it doesn't always work, there will be something slightly different that makes one of the commands not verbatim, user has no idea, it doesn't work, now what?

    My main point, as I just posted to the AC above, is this. In order for Linux to be actually "user friendly" and "replace Windows," most people aren't going to want to have to learn the inner workings of how Linux works so they are able to do a variety of commands in the console to, say, install a printer. In Windows, you plug it in, and it works. Or, you put in the CD, install the drivers, and it works. On Linux, sometimes you have to do some really weird things to get this or that printer to work. Even package management can be a real pain, with this or that dependency missing. What's a dependency? Why doesn't it install? Why is this so confusing, why can't they just make it so I download something and install it and it works, like on Windows?

    If you haven't heard those last few questions, then the novices you speak of aren't really "novices," at least in my terminology. :)

    Anyways. Point is that the documentation for those that know enough to use it (even if "documentation" equals "google") is pretty good. But having to BUY "documentation" (e.g., a book) because you have no clue about this whole Linux thing, you just got tired of having Windows crash with spyware, adware, and viruses... I don't know. IMO, that documentation is pretty bad if you don't know enough to barely know what to look for.. :)

    Then again, I guess paying $100-$150 for Windows to have it "just work" is basically paying for the documentation, just you don't have to read it ;)

  • by mhall119 ( 1035984 ) on Monday January 05, 2009 @04:42PM (#26334671) Homepage Journal

    It's not an inside joke if you explain it to everyone. Cool doesn't need +5 Funny.

  • by khasim ( 1285 ) <brandioch.conner@gmail.com> on Monday January 05, 2009 @05:01PM (#26334933)

    So manual transmission cars don't work if all you know is an automatic transmission?

    Motorcycles don't work if all you know is how to drive a car?

    18-wheelers ... don't even ask about 18-wheelers.

    The point being that many things DO work. And they work very well. And you probably depend upon them even if you are not aware of it.

    Your point is incorrectly stated. Rather than whether something "works" it should be whether YOU can handle it.

    And that is different for every person out there. Some people will not need a book like this. Some will. Others will need a human to teach them. Whatever the case, that does not change the fact that Linux is Free (like beer, like speech).

  • by Ironica ( 124657 ) <{pixel} {at} {boondock.org}> on Monday January 05, 2009 @05:05PM (#26334985) Journal

    Strangely, your post reads like an xkcd strip.

  • by Ironica ( 124657 ) <{pixel} {at} {boondock.org}> on Monday January 05, 2009 @05:41PM (#26335593) Journal

    In Windows, you plug it in, and it works. Or, you put in the CD, install the drivers, and it works. On Linux, sometimes you have to do some really weird things to get this or that printer to work. Even package management can be a real pain, with this or that dependency missing. What's a dependency? Why doesn't it install? Why is this so confusing, why can't they just make it so I download something and install it and it works, like on Windows?

    On *Windows* sometimes you have to do some really weird things to make things work. And sometimes it never does. When I was working in IT for a small business unit of Turner Broadcasting during the AOL/TW merger, we got the word we we had to install AOL on all of our computers. This was version 6, so it supported broadband, but just barely.

    Even though all our machines were running the same OS (Windows 2000), all standard Dell hardware, etc., there were a few that just didn't want to run AOL. We had one laptop where AOL would only work if you uninstalled the network card driver, and the network card driver would only install if you uninstalled AOL. After two HOURS of troubleshooting this with the special internal Help Desk AOL set up just for this rollout, the tech on the other end said, "Well, it should work." That sentence became an inside joke.

    Practically every time I set up a Windows machine, I have to Google for how to get this or that to work right. Because there's a larger install base, there's also more people who have run up against the same problem, and it's easier to find. That doesn't mean that Windows "just works" though.

    But having to BUY "documentation" (e.g., a book) because you have no clue about this whole Linux thing, you just got tired of having Windows crash with spyware, adware, and viruses... I don't know.

    Hmmmm... I wonder if any of the 432 books Amazon sells about Windows XP (yes, just XP) tell you how to get rid of spyware, adware, and viruses under Windows?

    I'm a Linux novice. Yes, I'm pretty tech-savvy, but I don't use the terminal without my husband telling me exactly what to type. ;-) Ubuntu "just worked" for me, pretty much like Windows. Installing was easy. My printer was EASIER to install (in Windows, I have to do a whole dance with inserting the CD and running the application that installs a bunch of crap I don't want along with the driver and *then* connect the printer to the computer yadda yadda). Yes, there's stuff that works better in Windows than in Linux, but Ubuntu is pretty darned close to "just working".

    I see nothing weird about having books that tell you how to get more out of a piece of software. Heck, there's a book about how to do more stuff with my Kindle, and for things that "just work" I really can't think of a better example than that little white slab. I think your criticism is misapplied.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday January 05, 2009 @06:51PM (#26336537)

    Why ? The system may be free, but it take time and money to make a book; and some people prefer to get a well-done book instead of sorting a lot of (sometime) messy google results.
    Some people even pay just for linux technical support.

  • by Belial6 ( 794905 ) on Monday January 05, 2009 @08:30PM (#26337561)
    Well, since you can buy books on millions of free things ranging from American Freedom [borders.com] to Zen [borders.com]. Why not have books on a fee operating system.
  • by dangitman ( 862676 ) on Tuesday January 06, 2009 @12:04AM (#26339131)

    In Windows, you plug it in, and it works. Or, you put in the CD, install the drivers, and it works.

    Are you sure it was Windows you were using? That doesn't sound like a typical experience.

  • by tobiasly ( 524456 ) on Tuesday January 06, 2009 @12:07AM (#26339151) Homepage

    I've run gentoo, suse, mandrake, redhat, centos, federoa, ubuntu, and I'm sure a few others over the years and none of them have even come CLOSE to the usability of windows.

    I have a feeling that I'm not the minority here, either. I runx Xming on my desktop at work and use putty's X11 forwarding to view things like etherape (wish they would write a client for windwos..that is a really neat piece of software) when I need X, and use putty for everything else.

    I won't get into the usability of Windows vs. Ubuntu or others; I find Ubuntu much more usable than Windows but I guess it comes down to personal preference (plus a lot of people falsely equate "usability" with "what I'm used to"). But it's kinda ironic that you then immediately bemoan the lack of one of a Windows version of one of your favorite open source tools.

    One of the reasons I prefer Linux for the desktop is precisely that: Windows will never have the quantity and quality of open source software available for it that Linux does. Sure, there are some great open source tools for Windows (like TortoiseSVN) but writing FOSS for a proprietary platform just feels wrong to a lot of open source developers/contributors (myself included).

    Oh, and you really should Pascal-case "EtherApe". When I first read that I figured etherape was some type of add-on to BackOrifice. Kinda like what happened to ExpertsExchange.com when people didn't capitalize it correctly (and thus later became experts-exchange.com)

  • by Risen888 ( 306092 ) on Tuesday January 06, 2009 @02:49PM (#26346099)

    What horseshit. You learn something about Linux, and that knowledge is universally useful for the rest of your life. You "learn" something about the buttons to push in Windows, and that is wasted time. You actually come out dumber.

    Windows: It's not free even if your time is worthless.

Things equal to nothing else are equal to each other.