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Penguin Time

Wil Wheaton

When I switched to Linux last month, I said I hoped to someday become the world’s number one Linux cheerleader. This was sort of misquoted, and I’ve read in numerous places that I proclaimed myself "The world’s number one Linux cheerleader," which has caused me a little bit of grief. I mean, I can’t consider myself the world’s number 6000 Linux cheerleader if I haven’t even recompiled a kernel yet, or built a LAN... but I’m working on it.

I entered a Brave New World with a little trepidation and a great sense of excitement as well. As I wrote back then, "The Open Source movement really appeals to my anarchistic and individualistic tendencies, and everyone I know who uses Linux tells me that I won’t miss Windows at all. I don’t really use any software that’s windows-specific, except Dreamweaver, and I’m told that I can run that under WINE, or find a comparable OS editor.”"

Since then, I’ve discovered Quanta and Screem which are fine replacements for Dreamweaver, and the only time I ever miss Windows is when I get the urge to play some games ... but a quick trip to the PS2 takes care of that until I can upgrade this machine with more RAM and a big old video card so I can run WineX 2.1.

Before I get to the details, I should address something that I think everyone who makes the switch feels: Fear.

We feel afraid because even though we’re pretty sure that everything is going to work out fine, we’ve existed on a steady diet of FUD for many years. Maybe we tried to install a distro a few years ago, when Linux wasn’t as newbie-friendly as it is now. Maybe we’re just a bunch of pussies.

I’ll admit it: I was nervous. Nervous that I was going to do this install, and my magical connection to the largest library of free porn on the planet would cease to exist. I was nervous that I wouldn’t be able to use a word processor that was as reliable as MS Word had always been.

I was nervous, but also excited. Excited that I was taking the first step towards joining a global movement based on ideals with which I strongly agreed. I was excited because if a lameass like me could make Linux work, that would dispel a great deal of FUD, and maybe empower some people who, like me, suspected that they could live MS-free, but weren’t sure if they could hack it. (“Hack it.” Har.) I was excited because I felt like I was taking a chance, accepting a risk, and anticipating great rewards.

And I had a hole card. If I managed to completely break everything, I knew that I would be able to format the drive, reinstall the old OS, and wait for a LUG install party.


The install was shockingly simple: Open the CD-ROM, shut down the machine, turn the machine back on, wait for the Mandrake screen to appear, hit return, watch the fun.

This nice, friendly, graphical install is perfect for newbies. Mandrake asked me if I wanted to use an existing partition, or wipe the whole drive. I opted to format the whole drive, let Mandrake build the partitions for me, and get on with the install. A few minutes later, I got a screen where I was asked what packages I wanted to install. I was presented with a very easy to understand screen, where I could select options like “Game Station,” “Server,” “Office,” and the like. It asked if I wanted to run services like FTP, SSH, and a firewall. Finally, I was given the opportunity to choose which desktop environment I wanted. I chose both KDE and Gnome, because I knew from previous experience that there were apps from both environments that I liked.

After selecting my packages, I swapped some CDs, added some users, set some passwords, and got to the part that really had me the most afraid: configuring the network so I could get online.

The last time I tried Linux, it was Red Hat 5.2 and I was on dial-up. Getting that bastard to connect was about as easy as getting laid in a convent. There were all these config files I had to edit, and all these strange text commands I had to type in, just to get the modem to turn on... getting it to connect was another problem entirely. For someone who was coming from Windows 95, this song-and-dance to get connected was simply unacceptable, and ultimately it was the main factor which drove me back to Windows.

Boy have we come a long way, baby! Mandrake did this super-cool auto-detection, where it found my NIC, used DHCP to get my IP address, and built my network connection for me. This entire process took about 3 minutes.

Somewhere in there Mandrake auto-detected my printer, too. The only thing I had to tell it on my own was that my mouse had a wheel!

Finally, I got to a screen where I was asked if I wanted to check for updates to the packages I’d installed. I said “yes,” and walked away to get a drink of water. When I came back a few minutes later, nothing had changed... so I sat down to play some GTA3 while it continued downloading. About 30 minutes later, nothing had changed, and my hard disk had spun down.

This wasn’t a good sign. All that excitement I’d been feeling was completely overwhelmed by the nervousness I’d had, and I felt some panic beginning to rise.

I cursed, kicked, gnashed and paced.

I decided to start over, and when I got to the “do you want to upgrade?” part, I said no. The install finished perfectly this time. I restarted the machine, and was logged into Gnome in about 2 minutes.

First Time

I was immediately impressed with the spiffy desktop. It was enough like Windows to give a sense of familiarity without making me feel like I was running some oddball derivative of W2K. I poked around the menus for a little bit, and was drawn to a menu which said, “What to do?”
What a great question! This was exactly what I was wondering, and here was a friendly menu to help me out. It contained sub-menus like, “Enjoy Music and Video,” and “Use Office Tools.” There was also “Use the Internet,” and “Administer Your System.”

I thought, “Hmmm ... ‘Administer Your System,’ eh? Okay, I’ll take a look.”

Sitting in that menu were options like “Add or remove programs, Configure Gnome,” and “Download and install Mandrake security updates.”

Ah-hah! I clicked on “Download Mandrake security updates,” and followed the prompts. This started a really cool “Mandrake Update” utility, which is sort of like a non-intrusive version of Windows Update. I was presented with three options: bug fixes, normal updates, and security updates. I selected all three, and clicked “install,” eager to watch.. .the damn thing spin.

I realized that the reason the install had hung the first time was related to this spinning... the default update site wasn’t responding. I guess there was no timeout set for the normal Mandrake install, which is why it hung before. Far be it from me to tell Mandrake how to do things, but this seems pretty silly to me. A simple “Site isn’t available now, but here’s your system anyway, Jerky.” message would have been nice. Fortunately this time I was able to just cancel the connection, define a different source, and about 20 minutes later my system was up to date.

I spent the rest of the next hour or so exploring the system.

Getting Comfortable

I was eager to make the switch to Linux because mostly I use my computer for 3 things:

• Internet
• Email
• Word Processing

I had done lots of research about Linux, and the impression I had gotten was that if your primary computer use was for these three things, the only thing you’d miss about Windows was the daily reboot. Let’s take a look.


The browser that ships with Gnome 1.4 is called “Galeon.” It’s based on Gecko, from Mozilla, and it’s really, really cool. I’m using the latest Mozilla build more and more, but as soon as Galeon catches up with Moz, I’ll probably be back with Galeon, for the bookmark editing alone! Although many people’s experiences with Linux will surely vary, I can say without a doubt that once you use Galeon or Mozilla, you’ll be stunned that you ever liked IE. The KDE desktop has it’s own browser also, called Konqueror, but I really don’t like it as much as I like Galeon or Mozilla...but anything is better than IE, and you can quote me on that.


Back when I was new to the Internet, and I was getting dial-up shell access from Netcom, there wasn’t such a thing as the World Wide Web, unless you were on a connection fast enough to use NCSA Mosaic. Since the ‘net was just text back then, I used it for MUDding (just say no, people!), IRCing (mmm...floodbots) and email. The email client I used was called Pine, and it still ships with Linux. I really liked Pine. It was easy to understand and use, even if you were a lamer like me, and I still use it from time to time today.

However, since the Internet is bigger and badder these days, people want bigger and badder email clients, and Linux is happy to oblige. When I was running Windows, I used Eudora, because I hated Outlook’s interface and I’ve always felt that Outlook’s handling of email is secondary to its primary purpose: spreading worms and virii. Now look, I’m not cracking on Outlook users, okay? As a matter of fact, I wrote a great new game just for Outlook users! It is my first try. I wish you would like it.

Seriously, if you like Outlook, you can use a Linux client called “Evolution” from Ximian. It has all of the things you like about Outlook, a better summary screen, and a really cool calendar. It will interface with your Pilot, and it won’t spread worms and virii like Outlook. You can even set up the summary page to load headlines from WWDN, and see if I’ve gotten off my lazy ass to update the site recently. Personally, I use KMail, which is part of the KDE desktop. Although I am primarily a Gnome user, KDE has numerous features I like, including the calendar, the tea-timer (a silly little applet that sits in your panel, which is the Linux equivalent of the taskbar,) and KMail. KMail is a mail client which is much lighter than Evolution. KMail looks and feels a lot like Eudora to me, handles filters the same way, and deals with different accounts and protocols nicely. Both solutions are very, very easy to install and configure, and if you know things like your POP server, SMTP server and stuff, it’s certainly no more difficult than the other clients available for Windows or Mac.

Mozilla also has it’s own email client, but I haven’t used it. I’m sure that, just like everything else Mozilla does, it’s really cool.

Word Processing

This is a place where the FUD really has a firm hold. They’d have you believe that things you author on Linux won’t be readable by Word, with the converse also being true.

Well, it’s simply not true. At G4, everything is written using Word. I do most of my writing from home because it’s easier to concentrate in my quiet home office, and I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to send files to work if I authored them under Linux. Well, I haven’t had a single problem. I have written 6 episodes since making the switch, and turned in countless rewrites, and the conversion from OpenOffice to Word is seamless.

Mandrake ships with StarOffice, which is put out by Sun Microsystems. It’s a very nice alternative to Word. Each time I looked, StarOffice had the familiar Word command, or it’s equivalent. The only thing I had trouble with was tables. It was grumpy about having a table wrap to the next page, a problem I also encountered in OpenOffice. A few tweaks in the preferences solved this mildly annoying problem.

Having said all that about StarOffice, I don’t use it. I prefer OpenOffice, from In my experience, it loads faster than StarOffice, and I just like the interface better. It doesn’t come standard with Mandrake 8.2, but it’s easily downloaded and installed, and can be set as a default word processing application with minimal effort.

Freedom of Choice

These three examples bring up a very important distinction which sets Linux apart from Windows: You are not limited to one word processor, or one desktop environment, or a small set of applications. Linux is all about choice, and putting the power to make decisions about the computing experience into the hands of the users. If you’re anything like me, you’ll leave all the defaults for about 2 weeks... and then the tweaking of things will begin: adding and removing things from the panel... moving the panel... downloading things from freshmeat and sourceforge... and inevitably breaking something. Here is the only real “advice” I’m going to give the reader: If you like to mess with the nuts and bolts of your computer, and you like to try out all kinds of new programs and toys which are still technically “beta,” do yourself a favor and set up a “development” box. This means investing 50 bucks or so in another drive, and putting Linux on it, and doing all of your fixing and breaking in it, while keeping your main install safe and reliable.

Day to day use

Some people will suggest new users do what’s called a “dual boot” system, where you keep your Windows environment on one partition, and run your Linux partition on another. The advantage of this is that if you mess something up in Linux, you can use your Windows install to get online and get help. It also means that you can access some Windows features through Linux, which is important for some people. The disadvantage of this is that having the “crutch” of Windows will prevent many users from fully enjoying everything Linux has to offer.

When I switched, I did it 100 percent and I haven’t looked back since. I am really glad that I did it this way, because I’ve learned something new each day, and grown more secure in my abilities to administer my system. I’d suggest that, unless you’re a hardcore gamer, you do the same.

Which Distro Is Best?

There are numerous holy wars about Gnome v. KDE, Mandrake v. Red Hat, Red Hat v. Debian, Debian v. Slackware... it goes on and on, and I won’t take a side in these wars. Instead, I will say what I always say about computers: The operating system for you is the one that works best for you. If that’s Windows, or Mac, or even an Atari 800, go nuts. I think that this holds true for Linux, as well. The distro which is “best” is the one that works best for you. Over time, what is “best” for you will probably change, and maybe you’ll want to change your distro.

Right now, I’m using Mandrake 8.2, and I’m excitedly looking forward to 9.0, which should be out very soon. Maybe someday I’ll switch to something else...but that’s the beauty of Linux... you get to choose for yourself what you want to use, instead of having The Borg choose for you.

Okay! I’ll switch! Get off my back! Now what?

Well, for the Newbies, I suggest something with a very easy install, and good community support. I have found this in both Red Hat and Mandrake, which is not to say that it doesn’t exist elsewhere. I just know about the support for Mandrake and Red Hat first hand.

Once you’re up and running, join a Linux User Group, where you can get help with problems, answers to questions, and a warm fuzzy feeling that comes from being around people who are nerdier than you are. You will also learn very quickly to love the O’Reilly publishing company. Their Linux books are nothing less than required reading for getting the most out of your system.


There is a lot of specific information I’ve left out here... I didn’t talk about games because I don’t play games on this box. I didn’t talk about Spreadsheets because I don’t use them, either. But I know that you can do both under Linux. Try Google for some examples. There is also a really cool desktop environment which Ximian makes, built on top of Gnome. I’ve used it, and found it to be really, really cool. I have had a few problems, which I try to view as challenges. Most notably, I couldn’t get audio to work on this machine... but a quick call for help online yielded the answer to the challenge in about 15 minutes. I currently can’t get this box to see my router, but I’m closing in on a solution to that problem daily.

One Of Us

I will close with what I think is the best benefit from running Linux: when you run Linux, you join a community which is global, and ever-growing. This community is self-sustaining, nurturing, and always welcoming in new members. How much you get out of this community depends on how much you put into it, and it is very rewarding, indeed.

Come on in... there’s always room for one more.

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