Total Computer Newbies Meet Debian: Part 2 – First Steps

In the previous article, our computer newbie family, Mike, Diane, Mary and Carla, had decided they wanted GNU/Linux installed on the new family/business computer. Debian, via Libranet 2.0, was installed on the system, with appropriate business/office software, as well as the Gnome desktop environment. The next steps involved getting the system configured for easy use and adding various minor tweaks. Mike, Diane and the kids were not involved during the configuration phase of the system.  

The kernel was rebuilt with a couple of patches, to provide a smoother and quicker desktop experience. Then the sound, printer, and Nvidia drivers were set up and installed. Additionally, the squid caching web proxy was installed and set up to block Internet ads. It seems that Mike and Diane were quite sick of the Internet ads which had appeared while they were surfing the Internet on the WebTV. Squid was installed to solve this problem. I then created three new user accounts, all with the same password, so that she could later change the passwords herself. I did minimal setup on these user accounts, hoping that she would opt to do them herself later, which would help familiarize her with how the Gnome desktop worked. The computer was now set up with a pre-loaded operating system, as far as Mike and Diane were concerned.

Mike had just returned home from work as the system configuration was completed. He had not seen the computer in operation yet and wished to see it. The Mozilla web browser was opened, and each of the ten links on the Mozilla toolbar was hit in quick succession. His jaw hit the floor as the pages appeared almost instantaneously, thanks to the squid proxy and the cable modem.

It was then that Mike asked me about an email problem he had previously, while using WebTV. Mike daily received large amounts of spam in his email, using WebTV. He wished to know if there was anything he could do to control it using Debian. I told him he could bounce (roughly translated as returning the spam to the sender with his address marked as non-existent) the spam, or he could filter it directly to the trash, depending on which email program he wished to use. (All mail servers had been removed from this system.) He seemed very interested in being able to bounce, or ‘return to sender address unknown,’ any spam he might receive. I did not explain to him what email headers were, but did tell him, bouncing email will not always work, if the spam is sent from a fake email address. He still wanted this ability. I knew then that Kmail would be installed on the system, along with KDE, since Kmail has had the ability to bounce email, at least since version 2.0. Mike was satisfied and went into the house as I returned home.

I met Diane after dinner that night, as we had previously planned. I brought up the QuickBooks topic, which she had mentioned again the previous evening. I reminded her of all the points we had gone over several times before:

1. Windows and Linux are two different systems.
2. Windows programs will not run on Linux in many, if not most, cases. (WINE excepted)
3. Windows software dominates in business in this country and some others.
4.You can walk into any store and buy a new program to run on Windows, but you can not do that for Linux yet.
5.Debian has thousands of programs available, all of which are free in both ways.

I reminded her that if she needed QuickBooks, she would need to install Windows first. I also reminded her that there was room on the hard drive for Microsoft Windows to be installed if she wanted.  I had noticed that the few times she had mentioned Quickbooks up to this point, she ALWAYS, in the same breath, mentioned check printing. I told there was a Linux program that would print checks, named MoneyDance, which could be purchased for $29.99. Diane had checked the price of QuickBooks, and as it turns out, MoneyDance was 85% cheaper to purchase, as compared to QuickBooks. I told her not to compare the two programs on price alone, as Quickbooks may well have more features to justify the higher price. She said she would rather stick with Linux. Of course, I had reiterated these facts to her again, more to satisfy my own worries, and was glad I did, as her answer settled my mind for the course she had chosen. I suggested that she decide up front which features she needed, then choose an application with the correct fit. She decided she would later look into MoneyDance.

With that behind us, she sat at the computer and logged into her account. I began showing her some of the basics. She learned where the menu was and that you could use it to launch programs. We covered the Metacity titlebar, as she learned how to close, maximize and minimize windows. She learned that in the Gnome environment, her home folder was actually a file manager named Nautilus. I repeated several times, and had her repeat back to me, ‘a folder is a directory and a directory is a folder’, while viewing the Nautilus file manager. I hoped this short game of word association might stick and come in handy later. At this point, perhaps out of utter boredom, she asked me,

‘Where is GnuCash?’

I asked her if she would first like to have a GnuCash icon on her desktop and she said yes. She learned how to click and hold the Gnome menu icon, then drag it to the desktop and have an icon. She then clicked the new icon and opened GnuCash. The GnuCash wizard appeared, offering to set up a default set of books for her. She read over the choices and selected the default set of business accounts. She did not know how to expand the Income or Expenses list. I guessed where to click and the full list of possible entries appeared.

She said, ‘Oh this is exactly like the books I have been keeping by hand, but then accounting is accounting.’

She asked how to make an entry. I told her I didn’t know as I had never used the program. I guessed if she either clicked or double-clicked on one of the account entries, she would probably be able to enter dollar amounts. She clicked and the fields appeared. She then wanted to know if there was a manual of instruction for GnuCash. (I kid you not. This newbie wanted to RTFM!) Now previous to this, roughly three days before, I had seen GnuCash documentation listed in Synaptic, one of the Debian package managers. I had installed GnuCash, along with the manual, on one of my own machines, running Unstable, to see what the documentation was like.  I already knew that at that time, in Unstable, if you clicked on the help file, GnuCash would promptly shutdown and close, without ever having shown the help files. I told Diane this and asked her if she remembered what I had told her about Unstable? Luckily she remembered.  I told her it was just a guess, but I bet she could instead find the manual somewhere on the Internet.
She said:

‘OK, I was going to ask you that anyway. How do I find things on the Internet?’

I walked her through the Gnome menu as she guided the mouse to the Mozilla entry, and also pointed out the icon on her desktop. Before she would open Mozilla though, she made it a point to make sure the GnuCash window was closed, which I found rather odd. She then opened Mozilla and I explained what a search engine was. The bookmarks I had copied into all user accounts had Google on the toolbar, but she didn’t know what a toolbar was, much less that it could contain links.  She guided her mouse to the Google link on the toolbar with a little prompting and the search page opened. I told her she might want to search on ‘GnuCash home’ which she typed. I instructed her to press the enter key. The GnuCash home page appeared as the first search result, which she then clicked. She was promptly whisked to the GnuCash home page. On that page, in huge bold letters on the left hand side, was the word ‘Documentation.’ The second link under it was for the manual. She had found the fine manual!  Next, she wanted to know if she could save it for future reference. So her very first bookmark ended up being the GnuCash manual.

I wondered if now would be a good time for her to learn a new Linux trick and asked her if she wanted to see something else. She said yes. I told her where Gedit was on the Gnome menu and asked her to open it. She nervously went and opened it, then asked me,

‘Is it ok to have more than one window open at a time.?’
I said, ‘Huh?’
She asked again, ‘Is it ok to have more than one window open at a time? I have been trying not to have more than one window open at a time tonight.’
I said, ‘What are you talking about?’

She proceeded to spill the beans. It seems her neighbor, who lives on the other side of her house, also has a computer. It turns out, she has watched him use  his computer. He has always made it a point to keep no more than a few windows open at once. He closes one window before he will open another. He had actually told her,

“If you have too many windows open at once, bad things will begin to happen on your computer, so it is best not to have too many windows open at once.”

I busted out laughing thinking to myself, “Gee, I wonder what gave him that idea?” I didn’t even bother to ask the most obvious question here. It was one of those that was just too easy & the lack of challenge made it not worth pursuit. I instead told her she really wouldn’t need to worry about how many windows she would have open at any given time on her machine.

She now had Mozilla and Gedit open on the desktop. She had been introduced to click and drag, while making the GnuCash icon on her desktop. I told her she could do the same thing with text to highlight the text. So she highlighted a sentence and a half in Mozilla. (She never did manage to highlight a single sentence complete with a period, as using a mouse is neither intuitive, nor natural, but learned.)  I told her to now move the mouse to the Gedit window, and click the middle mouse key, which she did, and her highlighted text was dumped into the editor. She thought this was quite a neat trick and proceeded to highlight all the text in the page, then pasted it into Gedit. She then said,

‘That reminds me, I need a dictionary. Where on the Internet can I find a dictionary?’

Diane likes to have a dictionary handy no matter what she may be writing. I explained to her she already had one and walked her through the Gnome menu again, but this time to the Dictionary. She was pleasantly surprised to find what she needed within such easy reach.

After going through these steps, and a few others that night, she turned and said to me,

‘You know I will be calling you tomorrow, because I won’t remember any of this.’

I told her that was totally unnecessary, that she could just hit me up in chat. We just needed to configure Gaim. So off we went to the AIM website to create her new user name. We finally came up with a user name that was not taken. She learned how to open up the program, and I guided her through adding my user name to her buddy list. I walked her through creating a desktop icon for Gaim.  I told her, if I was at home in the evenings, I would usually have Gaim running. If there was something she could not figure out how to do, she could just message me through Gaim and I would walk her through it, and her husband Mike could message me for help as well. I then asked her if she would like to setup Gaim for her daughter, Mary, the 6 year old. All of a sudden, she became very hesitant. Apparently she had heard some stories about what goes on in AOL chat rooms. She absolutely did not want her daughter to be able to enter AOL chat rooms. I told her never fear. Her daughter could not enter the official AOL chat rooms using Gaim. Her daughter could use Gaim to keep up with family members, friends from school and others she may already know, but there is no way to access official AOL chat rooms from Gaim. This eased her mind greatly.

The funny thing is, in earlier days of Gaim history, you could access AOL chat rooms. That functionality was removed many versions back. Ever since then, I had thought of Gaim as a ‘less than’ Linux app, since that functionality had been removed so long ago. Never in a million years did I think, this ‘less-than’ functionality would be seen as a feature by someone else. I guess now, Gaim is the safe, ‘kid-friendly,’ way to message. I guess newbies can teach too.

With that, Diane and I wrapped up her first night in GNU/Linux. I was impressed with her ability to quickly grasp the things she learned. At times she could be quite thorough in the questions she asked. I had no doubts she would eventually end up a capable user. The only remaining question in my mind was, would she be able to handle the system administration?


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