Originally Published: Friday, 19 October 2001 Author: Mark Miller
Published to: opinion_articles/opinion Page: 1/1 - [Printable]

The Thrill of Victory

Mark Miller writes "It dawned on me. Being a trainer and well versed in educational theory, I recognized that I had just performed one of Bloom's highest cognitive tasks. I had synthesized an answer from my own prior knowledge." In an eloquent piece of advocacy Miller provides a succinct and compelling description of the joys of learning and asks, "why can't more people discover that delight with Linux?"

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The Thrill of Victory

There are many who feel that Linux needs to become easier for people to use. They seem to think that it needs to hide the system from the naive user so they won't feel intimidated by it all. This scenario assumes that users cannot or will not learn.


For most of the last twenty or so years I've been involved with some of the most sophisticated electronics in the world. Radars that allow airplanes to fly at 50 feet over the ground at 500 knots in the mountains, navigation devices that can tell you precisely where you are and where the other guy is in relation to you with pin point accuracy, computers that perform signal processing with blinding speed. I am in fact, a technical kind of guy. I'm not however, a programmer. Oh, I can dabble in BASIC and I'm becoming dangerous in Perl but you can't remotely call me a programmer.


What do these two statements have in common? Let me explain. For me Linux is a learning experience. Most of it has been simple and works as advertised. Sometimes however it doesn't go smoothly. During my first install(s) I had a terrible time getting my CDROM to work. It took repeated tries to get it working. I was frustrated and I questioned my abilities to make it work. But I kept at it, learning all about how to set up a CDROM under Slackware. I read books and man pages and HOW-TOs. When it worked I was pleased with myself. I had accomplished my goal of having a working Linux system on my 60MHZ Pentium.

The Real Problem Is Me!

That was my first exposure to things that don't work in Linux. Since then I've hit many brick walls. Compiling the kernel, networking, setting up CPAN, printing. I STILL don't print from my Linux machine (yes I know all about CUPS and lprNG etc). That's not a problem because I really don't print much of anything on any machine under any operating system. My main interest is in having the knowledge and skills needed to make it work.

The thread that runs through all of my problems with Linux so far is me. No, not Windows ME, but my personal lack of knowledge. It seems that once I have found the one key bit of information that I lack I can make my problem go away.

Sweet Victory

As each difficulty fell before my relentless drive (or just plain luck depending on how you look at it) I experienced the sweet joy of victory. The YES! factor. Just the other day I was setting up a little database in MySQL. Nothing too fancy, just a single table to hold some information I would want to query later. After some learning fun about exactly how MySQL wants me to enter the data structure in a CREATE TABLE, I'm ready to enter data. I could probably whip this puppy out just using the mySQL client but that would be like pulling your own teeth without pain killers. What I needed was a quick Perl script to input and manipulate the data. Ok, I am getting dangerous with Perl so out come the reference materials and away I go.

I understand the (very) basics of DBI so I whip through setting up the connections and such. So far, so good. I also understand how to send a statement in SQL to the database. Except it isn't working. Turns out that all of my reference materials show how this is done but none of them show an example of passing multiple fields into the database using variables I have previously captured. Now, I know some of my limits, and the vagaries of Perl quoting is a place I get lost, so I immediately figure that this was where I was going awry. Many tries later I had my solution, I was passing my data in using an efficient and professional looking SQL statement. Yes! sweet victory. Then it dawned on me. Being a trainer and well versed in educational theory, I recognized that I had just performed one of Bloom's highest cognitive tasks, I had synthesized an answer from my own prior knowledge. I had finally grokked the problem.

Putting A Neat Ribbon Around It

The average user isn't stupid. After putting up with Microsoft's lame efforts to "protect" them from ever having to actually understand what they are doing they grow tired. They want the computer to do what THEY want. They don't want Windows to "help" them and trash the carefully crafted workarounds they have painstakingly developed. They are tired of things that don't work well together and not being able to get the information they need to fix them.

My wife is a quilter. She subscribes to a quilter's listserver. Most of the ladies (and a very few men) aren't very computer literate. In fact most have a computer only in order to run an application that -- for want of a better description -- is a specialized CAD system for designing quilts. These women can be as rabid about this application as Linux advocates can be about their OS. It runs only on Windows and the list is very resourceful about helping each other to effect those workarounds I mentioned above to get around conflicts in digital camera drivers, scanner issues, display issues, and hundreds more. They aggressively beta and gamma test the software and endlessly suggest improvements and desired features. Even though many of them aren't very computer savvy they overcome a great number of difficulties with only a little help from the help desk of the small company that makes their beloved application.

While I'm sure most would say they aren't smart enough to understand Linux, their behavior disputes that. These users can easily learn how to survive with Linux because they are a learning community. They shouldn't be deprived of the Yes! factor because marketing tells them they can't handle it.

Every day people get together to figure out how to make their system work. We all know office assistants who have some unique macros or Excel spreadsheet or Lotus Notes trick that allows them to do their work.

Linux Doesn't Need To "Dumb Down"

Linux doesn't need wizards, pretty pictures, or error messages that hide the real problems from mere users. Linux doesn't need to become Windows. Linux needs to educate. Linux needs to show all of those people out there who have been deprived of the Yes! factor in their computing lives that they can learn even the most difficult tasks if they choose to. Given a taste of victory their desire for more will grow. Creating thriving and diversified learning communities will allow "mere users" to empower themselves to bend the computer to their will. I have taught people who didn't even think they could handle Windows. These people had been told they were not capable of understanding how to use a computer in one way or another. Most had a tough time of things but came in looking to improve themselves. The incredible joy they discovered once they were shown that not only could they handle the computer but they did handle it was a wonder to behold. I'd love to see that for Linux.

If we can get users willing to try to rise out of the muck of Windows hand-holding, who wish to better themselves, create learning communities and show users what to do and then help them to do it on their own, create small victories, then Linux will rule the world. People will be empowered to think and do for themselves what once was the domain of the high priests. If you think about it, that is what the "personal computer" was all about in the first place.

Mark Miller is a staff writer at Linux.com, and has a keen interest in Linux and in educating adults. Soon he hopes to unveil a learning community of his own.

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