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The Linux Cookbook: Michael Stutz On Using Linux For Everyday Activities

The Linux Cookbook: Michael Stutz On Using Linux For Everyday Activities

Michael Stutz, author of The Linux Cookbook, 2nd Edition: Tips and Techniques for Everyday Use, discusses what inspired him to write this book, when he first started using Linux, and other world views.

Who is this book written for - system administrators or people new to Linux?
Admins will find the organization of undocumented tips and tricks quite useful, but it's not a technicians-only kind of book. I wanted to write a book that would also be of great value to someone who was totally new to Linux, that would show you the whole Linux culture and Linux way of doing things from the ground up.

It's the kind of book that you could use in a hands-on Linux course, but that would actually be useful enough so that the students would keep it as a daily reference afterward, instead of selling it right back to the college bookstore when the class is over.

This isn't a Linux for Total Fools in Five Seconds type book; it's not cutesy or trendy, and the purpose is not to enable someone who couldn't care less about the subject to cheat his way through, but to elevate the user by showing him how to use Linux for real.

You don't need a book to tell you how to fake it with a GUI, anyway. The only way to really know Linux is to learn the language of the command line. You'll save a lot of time in life by knowing that, and that's what this book is for.

What kind of feedback have you been getting on the book?
It hasn't been out very long but happily people seem to love it!

That's been reassuring because a lot of time and effort went into making it. With all due respect to Krispy Kreme, computer books nowadays are plopped out quicker than hot glazed doughnuts, but the Linux Cookbook wasn't like that at all. It's not a series book and it wasn't written for hire; it was only written because I had grown utterly dejected at the thought of how everyday people were using their computers. It really made me sad to see this mass inefficiency. People had these horrible time-wasting methods pushed on them when I knew they would be so much better off running Linux.

What's your background?
Computers were always inherent - this is the Internet Age, after all - but I'm a programmer or technician only by amateur or theoretical inquiry, not by trade. My background is literature and philosophy, which has brought the advantage of perspective. The secret that most people don't seem to know, because of what our culture has become in recent decades, is the fundamental idea that computer software is not, strictly speaking, technology at all. A program is just a literary work; it's a kind of technical literature. I talk about this in the introduction.

Forty years ago the United States was the greatest producer society in the world. What happened in that interval and how does it relate to Linux? Part of that transformative shift was the adoption of the view that computer programs were objects that you bought at the store, that they were somehow new "technology" to bank on. This obscured what they really were - written works to be published and examined and read, as well as performed by the hardware. When you remove that from the culture and only sell it as a sealed object in the box, you have a fairy-tale economy and a culture that is sliding into irrelevance, decadence, and decay. Linux is a return to the old tradition, to the individual inventor-scientist and industrial entrepreneur as the productive member of an educated populace. That's what so exciting about it.

How did you come to learn about Linux?
I heard about it on the newsgroups back when it was being invented. At first I thought, "Hey, this will be great," but I knew it would be some time before it would actually be useful as an everyday OS. Those were the days when Linus said he wasn't going to support the SCSI bus. Then after a few years I came back to it when the first distributions had come out. I got a copy of Slackware Linux, where you had to make an install set of about 42 floppy disks. I've never run another OS since. It looks very different today, of course, but the core of it - what is taught in The Linux Cookbook - is the same.

What's your favorite Linux program?
That's like asking a poet what his favorite word is; it's all in how they go together.

Is there anything you need to run Windows for?
Yes, there is an area affecting business and home use where Linux is greatly deficient, and I see no solution coming at all. I refer to the area of e-mail viruses - they just don't make them for Linux like they do for Windows. Same with a lot of those crippling meltdowns and system errors. If you want a blue screen of death freeze-up, you pretty much have to run Windows to get it. You won't be able to run those trojan horses that steal all your passwords and copy your files out to the Internet, and you're out of luck with all those funny attachments that wreak havoc in the workplace - there isn't any Linux compatibility here at all.

Do you think that Linux has enough applications that people can completely leave Windows behind?
Absolutely. If you don't need the viruses and freeze-ups, by all means go with Linux. Linux is loaded with applications, everything you need. Some distributions give you hundreds and hundreds of programs. The quality is high, too; the best minds in software today are working with Linux and have been for years.

On a practical and theoretical level, there's really no need for running anything else, if maximum efficiency is desired. I haven't run a proprietary OS in over a decade. This is true for the workplace as well as the home. The smart business today is the one that uses Linux.

Speaking in general terms, if you need to use a computer to get something done fast, you're going to be a step ahead by using Linux. That's the fundamental idea behind The Linux Cookbook; it describes how to use the system for the everyday activities of the average user, and not just the technical operations.

What would your advice be to someone who is just learning Linux? What's the best way to learn it?
The way to learn anything on computers is to sit down and do it. That's the only way - trial and error.

Knowing that, I designed the Cookbook to work as a textbook that can guide you at the keys by telling you what to type and explaining why you type it, starting with the utter fundamentals such as logging in and turning the computer on and off, and building up to the most complex operations you'll probably ever come up with.

Why does the book look different inside from most other computer books?
Since The Linux Cookbook is all about using Linux for everyday work, I thought, "What better way to demonstrate that than to use Linux to make the book?"

So through an arrangement with the publisher, I typeset the book using only free software on Linux. Everything you see in the book was done with the open source, free software that you get with Linux. How's that for a demonstration?

Because of computers, graphic design is no longer the domain of experts - anyone can use desktop publishing software to typeset something. But there's a paradox. If you look around, the result of this new capability is not so good; in fact, it's a nightmare. Perhaps I'm a little more sensitive to this than some, but everywhere I go I see poor typography and awful design. Who can peacefully dine in a supposedly fine restaurant when you see that the menu is slapped together with all the wrong fonts? How can you take a place seriously when you see the cheap sign out along the road? The same with books. When was the last time you flipped through a book and thought it looked absolutely great? I like the best of the books made on the Monotype and Linotype equipment of the precomputer days, and using Donald Knuth's TeX typesetting system I deliberately tried to achieve that caliber of greatness with The Linux Cookbook, to make a product that someone might actually be proud to own.

Do you think that Linux is just for home users?
No, not at all. Linux is not just an end-user system. While it's ideal for what's called "the desktop," either in the home or office - and that is the usage that I describe in The Linux Cookbook - it also excels in industrial applications. It's unparalleled there.

Many foreign governments are taking advantage of Linux for this reason, as well as foreign industries. We would do well to do the same here in the United States. The United States as a matter of policy has to get back to the kind of producer economy that we had 40 years ago, when computing was in its infancy. A tremendous shift in our culture occurred at that time, including the rejection of what we today call the open source method. We closed the factories, put the software in boxes, and called it a "post-industrial economy."

But it's no economy; that shift was a terrible mistake. Since then our production has plummeted and our culture has gone down with it. The United States is no longer a world leader in art and culture. The most popular word to describe its citizens today is "consumer." Our cities are decaying and dangerous. The implications for the younger generation are terrifying. But with Linux, we could turn all of that around!

Why is it a "cookbook"? Are there any recipes for food inside?
Doing something with a computer is a lot like making something in the kitchen, so the "recipe" metaphor lends itself to computer instruction. Don Lancaster wrote the first computer cook-books back in the early 1970s, I think, and before that in The Art of Computer Programming Knuth very clearly draws upon the metaphor. There are all kinds of computer "cookbooks" today because it's a natural way to look at the act of programming. While most computer cookbooks are for programmers and give "cookbook" snippets of program code, The Linux Cookbook uses that method for teaching the language of the command line, and I think it's very successful at that.

As for culinary recipes, there aren't any in the book. But it's not unheard of - Hemingway indulged in that, and in The Dharma Bums Kerouac tells you how trail mix is made. In Clifford Stoll's The Cuckoo's Egg, a book about computer hackers, there's a recipe for chocolate chip cookies.

What is your favorite cookbook in general?
I can talk all night on this subject! Generally the cookbooks I enjoy are the old ones. There was a time when America had many of the world's greatest chefs, and the greatest restaurants, and I look for that. For American cookbooks Master Chef Louis P. De Gouy set the standard, and if you can find a first edition of his Gold Cook Book it is worth it. Some say the cookbook put out by Vincent Price and his wife is one of the finest of the 20th century. Every well-appointed restaurant kitchen has Escoffier and a copy of the Larousse Gastronomique.

The Ford Motor Company used to publish excellent cookbooks featuring recipes from America's famous restaurants. When you bought a car they gave you one: "Here, go out on the road in your nice new Ford and have a look at this fine country!" Who in the world would do that today? What, to check out the Olive Gardens in Idaho? Of course it's nostalgic, since the entire nation has now been taken over by a giant franchise chain. I seek that forgotten history. Luchow's and Mama Leone's were New York institutions (with excellent cookbooks) the likes of which you cannot find in New York, or anywhere else today - Manhattan recently lost its last diner.

Even out in Columbus, Ohio, they had a gigantic world-class landmark, the Kahiki Polynesian Supper Club, worthy of a cookbook of its own. Its myriad features included an indoor tropical forest complete with thunder and rainstorm. The place was an astounding achievement, wonderfully preserved, and back in 2000 only weeks after it was voted best in the world by Food & Wine magazine, they demolished it for a Walgreen's. That's the future, for us and for all our children. Where is the outrage?

How about your favorite cartoon?
Zippy! I'll have to share my favorite Zippy strip, which relates to this discussion: zippythepinhead.com.

To conclude on a happy note, you should know that Linux has a way to display random Zippy quotes, and there's a recipe to show you how to do it in The Linux Cookbook.

About Michael Stutz
Michael Stutz has used Linux exclusively for over a decade. He was the first to apply the open source methodology of Linux to non-software works, and was one of the first reporters to cover Linux and the free software movement in the mainstream press. His "Living Linux" column runs on the O'Reilly Network.

More Stories By Kevin Bedell

Kevin Bedell, one of the founding editors of Linux.SYS-CON.com, writes and speaks frequently on Linux and open source. He is the director of consulting and training for Black Duck Software.

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