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LINUX for Dummies 2nd Edition

Harvey Friedman

Issue #66, October 1999

Other than far too many typos, it appears to be a success.

  • Author: Jon “maddog” Hall

  • Publisher: IDG Books Worldwide, Inc.

  • E-mail: siteemail@idgbooks.com

  • URL: http://www.idgbooks.com/

  • Price: $24.99 US

  • ISBN: 0-7645-0421-5

  • Reviewer: Harvey Friedman

The 2nd edition of Linux for Dummies shares little more than a name with the 1st edition and is, I think, vastly improved. The apparent focus is an introduction to Linux for a user of Microsoft Windows, with explicit instructions and many screen snapshots. Other than far too many typos, it appears to be a success. The book contains a CD-ROM with Red Hat Linux 5.2 for an Intel X86 PC, and a tear-out “cheat sheet” containing names and brief descriptions of some useful commands. The UNIX novice will probably use it to look at the description, then read the man page for the command syntax.

The first 30 pages introduce Linux, give a brief history and describe some of what an experienced user can do with it—all designed to convince a possibly reluctant person to try it.

The next 90 pages are what the average reader would expect from a “... for Dummies” book—an MS Windows user is led step-by-step in installing Linux, after first determining whether the computer is comprised of hardware on which Linux can run. Assuming the user is naïve regarding computers, Hall describes how to use MS Windows, including screen dumps as illustrations, to determine what hardware is in the computer system. So, in many cases, the user learns more about how to use a familiar OS in his attempt to install Linux. This builds confidence and is a good instructional technique.

Next, writing boot and supplemental floppies from the included CD using rawrite.exe, defragmenting, repartitioning with FIPS and fdisk are covered. Naturally, Hall recommends using a separate disk for Linux so that repartitioning for Linux is not necessary. Many screen dumps are provided for the installation procedure, including both Disk Druid and fdisk. Configuring a mouse, the X Window System, networking, setting the system clock, setting boot services, choosing a root password, creating a boot floppy disk to boot the system one has just installed, and configuring the bootstrap loader, LILO, are described. Because the X Window System is so important to the rest of the development, a chapter is included on “Solving Problems with the X Window System Installation”. Adding a user through the control panel in X is shown, because that is the most likely method of choice for MS Windows users. Hall does include a page on adding users from the command line, and I have to admit I was surprised to see the command for that was not adduser but rather useradd. Then I realized this change parallels the terminology of the X Window User Configurator. Awkward, but it works!

The next 100 pages introduce files, commands, editors (mostly vi), shells, using X, calendar, calculator and configuring a sound card. As of this writing, I have not yet gotten my old MediaVision Deluxe JAZZ16 sound card to work. However, I must admit I've spent more time on this review than on such a frivolity.

Maintenance is the topic of the next 30 pages: managing the file system, including mounting and dismounting, adding more disk storage and using mtools to work with MS-DOS floppies (read, write, etc.). Using CD-ROMs in Linux is discussed in one chapter and tuning the system and building the kernel in another.

The next chapter illustrates how to set up a modem and a PPP connection to one's ISP via X. In particular, one need not worry about writing involved scripts for PPP as long as one knows the phone number, the IP address(es) of nameserver(s) and can respond to the dialog and screen dumps in the book. I tried only PPP, but the dialog box offers the choice of SLIP, PLIP, Token Ring and others as well.

Since one probably wants the PPP connection in order to surf the Web, the next chapter is all about setting up and using Netscape. This, too, works nicely using ifup in an xterm.

The obligatory (in every “...for Dummies” book) “Part of Tens” is next. One chapter presents ten sources of help, which should offer something for everyone; another, ten problem areas and solutions, usually referred to as FAQs.

Appendix A is a list of hardware compatible with Linux, B discusses man pages, and C is a brief description of the CD-ROM.

I think Hall did a tremendous job of completely rewriting the book, but wish he could have had better support, particularly a technical copy editor. There are just too many typos (or thinkos) in this book for the leery first-time user to feel totally confident. I have not had time to find all the problems, but two follow. One, on page 52, “formed” is used when referring to a 1.44 MB floppy disk; it is clear the word should have been “formatted”. Two, a more serious problem occurs on page 309 in the problem and solution chapter. When the ls command doesn't show files in color, a solution is offered that is correct in principle, but wrong in detail. Adding the line

alias ls ='ls - color=auto'

to the .bashrc file will not change ls to use color for the different file types. It is not clear the new user would know enough to type man ls to find the correct syntax to solve the problem.

alias ls ='ls --color=auto'
will work; in fact, leaving off =auto will also work for the included Red Hat 5.2 CD-ROM version.

I can recommend this book for the person who works with Microsoft products but wants to try Linux. Despite too many minor errors and inaccuracies, following the directions in the book will result in an installed Linux, X and Net connection, assuming one's hardware is supported (check the appendix) and one knows the phone number, name servers and gateway for the ISP.

Overall, while this is a usable book for installing Linux, the user should also have Linux for Dummies, Quick Reference, 2nd Edition by Phil Hughes, to learn the more common command-line interface instructions with examples.

I liked this book and hope the next edition will clean up all the typos and maybe even add a chapter on installing DOSEMU and Wine. Unlike the first edition, the second is a book that leads the reader in a step-by-step fashion toward success.

Harvey Friedman is a computer consultant at the University of Washington. He can be reached via e-mail at fnharvey@u.washington.edu.

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