Originally Published: Friday, 18 February 2000 Author: Rob Bos
Published to: featured_articles/Featured Articles Page: 1/1 - [Printable]

Stupid Linux Tricks

"First, you get their attention." In exploring Linux, it's easy to run into things that are not only extremely useful, but impress the heck out of people -- and even scare them with the utter impossibility of what you are in fact doing. To someone who's been using other, more limited computing environments, it's simply mind-blowing exactly what you can do with Linux.

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"First, you get their attention." In exploring Linux, it's easy to run into things that are not only extremely useful, but impress the heck out of people -- and even scare them with the utter impossibility of what you are in fact doing. To someone who's been using other, more limited computing environments, it's simply mind-blowing exactly what you can do with Linux. Even people who've been using it for years are often surprised around every turn at some nifty new feature that they didn't know exist but which simplifies their life dramatically in some small respect.

Some people make a hobby of converting new Linux users. It's an interesting challenge to turn someone around to a new viewpoint, and finding a nifty way to win a new convert can be an interesting hack in itself -- and it's never the same for each person. Follows is a list of "Stuff You Can Do To Blow Someone's Mind With Linux" -- effectively getting their attention.

1. Remote X sessions. If you have access to a high-bandwidth Linux machine, running a remote X session full-screen (MI/X for Macintoshes and Xwin32 for Windows PCs are good X servers and can both run in fullscreen) is quite an effective way to grab attention and quickly. Windowmaker. Blackbox. Eterm with transparency enabled. Even Netscape, if you have the bandwidth for it, or a few dockapps. Napster. Any one of a thousand nifty little Linux applications. This is particularly effective in a computer lab, or an office where you have people constantly looking over your shoulder. So much the better if you aren't permitted to change any configurations on the computer that you're using. People are in my experience too polite to do more than just look astonished over your shoulder as you get work done -- but it's definitely a satisfying feeling. Tell me this screenshot wouldn't impress someone who's never seen X.

2. GNU screen, a program that creates several "virtual" consoles that you can switch back and forth in a single terminal window. Several open shells can be combined in to a single terminal window with the ability to switch between them -- but this isn't the nifty part. You can "detach" a screen, and have the virtual ttys still accepting outputs from running applications. This gives you the ability to run, say, IRC continuously, without interruption while you move from computer to computer. Detach your console at your home computer, take the bus up to campus, ssh in to your home machine, and reattach the console, no interruption at all. Network hiccup? screen just detaches automatically, letting you resume where you left off. This impresses a lot of people -- being able to carry your workspace around with you with minimal hassle is a very good thing.

3. VNC. Virtual Network Computing allows you to run a remote desktop in a window on a local machine - note that this works in almost any environment. You can run the VNC server on your home machine and resume control of your desktop from any location with Internet access, using a client that fits in under 150k of code. Bring a floppy with you that has MacOS, Windows NT, and Linux versions of the client, and you immediately have the ability to bring up an uninterrupted workspace from your home machine. It can also be used for remote administration and such, but that's more impress-the-boss material.

4. Linux running on non-Intel-compatible hardware. Most people are simply not aware that Linux can in fact run on a Macintosh machine. The sight of a command line on an iMac tends to evoke reactions from people; whether it's simple amazement, profound silence, or a desire to try it out, you'll get a reaction. It does in fact work, and that scares people. This makes me happy.

5. Debian has a number of features that can scare people quite effectively. Something as simple as the "apt" system for updating, installing, and removing packages on your system is something that almost any tech will appreciate. Being able to scan every package on your system, compare it with those at a central source, and update automatically is something that network administrators have been dreaming about in other operating environments for well over a decade now. In fact, the very concept of "packages" is something wonderful and alien to people not familiar with Linux. Instead of having one massive, concrete CHUNK of an operating system, Linux is composed of many thousands of tiny, discrete packages designed to interlock gracefully (for the most part) and based on open standards of file placement, library availability, and so on. Explaining this modularity to someone, getting them to see how Linux can be assembled or broken down to run machines from handheld to Beowulf cluster, is often a very quick way of impressing them.

6. Mounting a filesystem. Yes. Seriously. This impresses people. The Unix architecture doesn't make use of the arcane system of "drive letters" or "volume labels" or the kludgey mess that seems to be so common in certain operating environments. Each device, each partition has a logical and effective device label, and those disks can be grafted on to the root filesystem, leading to an arrangement of incredible flexibility when compared to the kludges and twisted hacks found elsewhere. Filesystems can be mounted over a network, from a disk image, or even (shock!) from an actual physical disk volume! Virtual filesystems, raw filesystems, all sorts of nifty little things exist in Linux for the new user to discover -- and simply pointing this out is often enough to score big points in Linux's favour.

7. Enlightenment. WINElib. Eye Candy. Themes. Multiple Window Managers. Themeable interfaces. 'Nuff said.

8. Finally, /etc (slash et-see) is for many people a profound revelation. "Kind of like the Windows registry, but you can edit it with a regular text editor, each program has its own configuration file with detailed documentation, it isn't specific to a particular computer, you can update the information over the network, and oh yeah, there's no `hidden' information. Obfuscated, maybe, but never hidden." This is something that many Windows users dream about - a registry in plain text? No more random corruptions? Forget Linux' legendary stability, this is enough to make prospective users think and think hard all by itself.

This list could go on, and on, and on. Around every corner, Linux has these nifty little tools, interesting little concepts, incredibly neat little things that make it a pleasure to work with in the long run. Learning all these to begin with can be a pain, but I think anyone who's made the effort will agree that it has paid off a hundred times over. People who have been using Unix systems for years tend to get a permanent smirk affixed to their faces. Why? Unix offers power at the fingertips of a user who's willing to delve deeply and explore their computer - and Linux doesn't make you delve any deeper than you have to. It can be as easy or as difficult to use as you like.

Rob Bos (rbos@linux.com, http://tunafish.sandwich.net) is a student and computer lab technician at Simon Fraser University and an incorrigible twit who needs to stop writing articles and papers at two o'clock in the morning. He also would like lots of money to be sent to his Swiss bank account, but we can't all have what we want.

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