Total Computer Newbies Move On (Part III)

What ever happened to the total computer newbies who tried Debian (part I | part II)? Mike, Diane, Mary & Carla are still doing very well, although much has changed since the first articles were written. They no longer use Libranet. They no longer use Gnome & believe it or not, Windows has now been installed. Read along to find out what happened.

Within a few months of the original install, there was a recurring problem not easily resolved with Libranet, which had been upgraded to Debian Unstable. Updates were becoming a problem. There were points along the upgrade cycle of Debian Unstable, where apt didn’t work as planned. (I do not fault Debian for this. There is a reason that branch is called Unstable, so we had all been forewarned.) The readers among you who questioned the choice of Debian Unstable turned out to be right. At that point in time, my neighbors and my father (which is another article. Have you ever tried to teach a 66 year old, with NO previous computer experience, how to use a computer?) both had Debian Unstable installed. There came a point, when a new version of KDE had been released into Debian Unstable, but CUPS , the underlying printing system, had not yet been updated to work with the new version of KDE. Because of this, the desktop could not be updated and neither could CUPS. I know we could have waited a couple of days for Debian Unstable to work out the kinks and all would be well, but that wouldn’t work if printing was needed in that moment. We decided at that point it would be best to change the system to a distribution somewhat easier to update, rather than take Debian to Testing, which had somewhat older software.

Around this same time, Mike had called me. A co-worker had given him a few Windows games as birthday gifts. He wanted to know if they could be made to run under Linux. I reminded him of WINE, which allows Windows applications to run under Linux and we decided to give it a try. Anyone who has used WINE knows it is still very hit or miss. Certain applications run extremely well under WINE, while others can’t be made to run at all. WINE was installed into Debian Unstable, and not surprisingly, none of the Windows games would run.

In the meantime, I had gone back to Gentoo and was amazed at how much that distro had progressed. It was also during that time, that KDE 3.2 series had been released, which brought major speed improvements, along with usability improvements, to the KDE desktop. So the decision was made to repartition the hard drive, dual boot Windows & Gentoo, then setup all desktops to KDE. Mike’s business partner purchased a copy of Windows for the transition. A Knoppix CD was then booted and used to layout 5 partitions, one for Windows & four for Gentoo, being /boot, /, /home & swap. Knoppix was then shutdown and Windows was installed & updated. A free (as in beer, not speech) firewall was installed into Windows, then Internet Explorer and Outlook Express were disallowed access to the Internet via the firewall. The full Mozilla suite, including browser and email, were then installed into Windows. It seemed like the right thing to do given that IE hadn’t been updated for some time & didn’t include pop-up blocking or tabbed browsing. Mozilla is also more standards compliant than IE. Outlook Express was denied Internet access for security reasons as well.

Next, Knoppix was rebooted and a stage 1 Gentoo tarball was downloaded. From the Knoppix virtual terminal, the Linux partitions previously laid out were mounted and Gentoo was installed from a chroot environment. KDE was installed and the user environments were then setup, including email and chat accounts. was installed for spreadsheets. A Gentoo installation is always a nice test of the hardware. This particular Gentoo install, including Mozilla, XFree (at that time) and a complete KDE, took little over 18 hours to compile, with major portions of the install occurring overnight. Not once during this time did the machine miss a beat, with all software compiling without error or pause. The neighbors began dual booting both systems. I really didn’t know what would happen at this point. Would they end up going totally with Windows & forget Linux, or would they use Windows for games only?

Diane seemed a little confused over the change in desktops from Gnome to KDE, but given that she is such a quick study, she soon caught the similarities and had very little trouble making the switch to KDE overall. Her main concern, as it was from the beginning, was moving her hand written business ledgers over to spreadsheets. I had worked with her quite a bit showing her how to setup columns in She had actually gotten so familiar with that she was able to tell me where certain preferences could be found in the menus, which I didn’t know existed. The only problem she had with, was remembering how to insert functions to total, or sum, the columns. I only had to show her how to do this twice & she hasn’t ever had to ask again. Diane also wanted to know how to keep backup copies of the spreadsheet ledgers she had created. She learned how to back them up onto floppy disks, which were auto mounted via the supermount (at that time) kernel module.

But what about the accounting software? If you remember from the first articles in this series, Diane had asked her accountant what accounting software she might need. Her accountant had told her she didn’t have a preference and Diane could submit her numbers however she wanted. At that time, I had told her about GnuCash & mentioned to Diane I had never used it, which meant I couldn’t show her how to use it, but that I could point her to the documentation. She did refer to the GNUCash documentation, but was completely unable to figure out how to use the software.

It seems this would have a been a complete non-issue, given that her accountant didn’t care what she used. But, Mike’s business partner really wanted Diane to use QuickBooks, so he bought a copy for her to use in Windows. She then installed QuickBooks herself and proceeded to learn how to use it, or try to learn how to use it. The only problem was, after expensing the $240 to her husband’s business via the business partner, she couldn’t make any more sense out of using QuickBooks than she could with GNUcash.

She had her accountant pay a visit, in late January of 2004 to show her how to use QuickBooks. She and the accountant sat down at the computer, booted into Windows and proceeded to enter checkbook entries into QuickBooks. I don’t know exactly how many checkbook entries were made, all I know is at some point, either QuickBooks or Windows or both froze. When Windows was rebooted, all of the checkbook entries she had just made were gone. While this was occurring, Mike’s business partner made arrangements for Diane to attend QuickBook classes to learn how to use the software. Diane completed the classes, but told me, she still hasn’t been able to locate the checkbook entries that were lost when the system froze & still was unable to use QuickBooks to keep her books. Since she could not have help from her accountant for a second time until after April 15, 2004, it left her four months behind. She even asked me at one point if she could sell her QuickBooks on Ebay. I told her I didn’t know if Ebay would allow it since it is copyrighted material, but I think she asked this more from frustration, than anything else. To this day, she keeps her ledgers in and uses neither GNUCash nor Quickbooks, although she has recently been toying with KMyMoney2.

Given the problems we previously had updating Debian Unstable, some might wonder how well updating has worked on Gentoo. From the day I installed Gentoo on the neighbors machine, I had setup sshd to execute at boot. For the first year and a half, all updates were handled remotely by me from my own Gentoo/Arch/Ark/DistroDuJour box at home. However, I switched careers in September 2004 and began to plan a change of residence. It was in that month that I began teaching Diane to administer Gentoo herself. She learned how to update the machine. She learned to “emerge world” overnight, since larger packages such as KDE or Xorg require so much time to compile. A list of config files which should NEVER be overwritten, such as fstab & xorg.conf, for example, was left in her /home/diane/Help folder for reference. She learned the ins and outs of etc-update. At first, she insisted that I sit with her, as she was so afraid of “messing up.” As time went on, she began to realize my assistance wasn’t necessary. It is only rarely that she runs into trouble now. An example would be the profile update to 2005.0. Although portage provides instructions for updating to a new profile, she insisted I be there when she do it, in order to insure she didn’t make a mistake. This reflects her entire process of learning to work with Gentoo. If she hasn’t seen something before, she fears making a mistake. Once learned, she doesn’t fear making a mistake, so I never have to sit with her to face the same issue twice, outside of the previously mentioned spreadsheet totals.

Now dear readers, I am sure there are those among you thinking “yada, yada, yada, has she, or any of the neighbors, built the kernel yet? Isn’t the acid test of one’s competence at Linux the building of the kernel?’ The answer to the first question is yes, numerous times. The answer to the second is a resounding “it depends.” A few months back, Diane had called me regarding some problem she was having. I can’t even remember what the problem was. All I remember was a kernel upgrade would most likely resolve it. So, by phone with only verbal, not written instructions, Diane rebuilt the kernel from the command line, rebooted the machine, rebuilt the Nvidia drivers and voila’, she was back in business. Since that time, a complete list of instructions for rebuilding the kernel have been left in her /home/diane/Help folder. All she has to do now is open the instructions, then copy and paste them into a terminal. Has she ever configured her own kernel? No. Can she rebuild her own kernel? Yes. She simply copies the kernel configuration file and gets to work. Does this demonstrate competence? Not really. She simply middle-clicks to copy and paste the instructions. It works nonetheless, without me.

In the time since the system has been running, Diane says 98% of the time she always boots into KDE. The only time she boots into Windows is to tinker with Quickbooks, which still makes little sense to her, in spite of the classes. Mike has booted into Windows only once, in order to play games. The rest of the time he boots into KDE to check stock prices, email & surf the net. The kids aren’t on the computer that often, but when they are, Mary, now 8 years old, enjoys Khangman (she is quite the verbally gifted child), while Carrie, now 4, only wants to play Ktuberling, opening and playing the game completely by herself, requiring help from no one.

My neighbor’s original computer is now dead and gone. We don’t know exactly what happened. The techs said the power supply failed and killed the motherboard. When it came time to get another tower, my neighbors decided to ditch Windows completely and use Linux exclusively. The hard drive from the old computer was fine, so we simply copied the entire system to the new drive, then edited a few files so they could run Gentoo with the exact same data and home accounts as they had from the beginning. The data from the old hard drive was copied into this Linux only system at Thanksgiving 2005.

My neighbors have been using Linux in one form or another, for two and a half years now. Is Linux perfect? Like anything else on the market, it most definitely is not. Rare though it may be, my neighbors still require help at times, like when they purchased a new HP printer/scanner combination or purchased a digital camera. At those times, I check a couple of boxes in the kernel config file and off they go. Even last night, Diane contacted me regarding a question she had about kernel configuration. My neighbors have had the choice to boot Windows whenever they want, yet decided in the end to use Linux exclusively, well KDE really, on a daily basis. It turns out pointing and clicking on icons in a Linux GUI really isn’t that difficult.

Note: Without mentioning names, I think it only fair I mention the well-known, well-published troll who emailed me numerous times about this system when it was originally setup. I know the income from his books and websites depend wholly on Microsoft products. Diane saw everyone of his extremely rude emails. She refused in no uncertain terms to have any contact with him, regardless of how badly he wanted this. In spite of his accusations regarding lack of “ease of use,” daring to use my neighbors in such an “experiment,” and claims my neighbors would be extremely angry at me once they discovered the joys of Windows, all of his rantings came to nothing.

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