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Exploring Linux - Part 4

by Alan German

As you will have noted from the earlier articles in this series, I haven’t learned that much yet about actually using Linux, but I have gained considerable experience with boot disks and partition managers! However, following some further exploration of the vagaries of the Linux installation process, I found that it is actually quite easy to install a new version over the top of an existing version. The simplest method seems to be to run the Linux installation CD-ROM, and select the manual partitioning method when it comes to preparing the hard disk. Any previous Linux partitions can then be deleted, which normally produces a block of unallocated space that can, in turn, be used for the new installation. Of course, this blows away any data on the pre-existing partitions, but since we are in trial mode, rather than using a production system, this really doesn't matter.

Recently, I have used this method very successfully to install both Version 5.10 and Version 6.06 of Ubuntu. The latter release installs somewhat differently than previous versions, giving an initial option to “Start or install Ubuntu”. This effectively loads the Live-CD version of the operating system, with a resulting desktop that includes an icon to complete the installation process. Installation then consists of a very simple, six-step wizard, requiring the usual answers on language; city (time zone); keyboard; user name, userid and password; disk preparation (partitioning); and, finally, a review of the selections for all of the above - prior to commencing the installation routine – which then runs on autopilot. In fact the installation process is now so smooth that it's time to stop installing and start using!

My basic yardstick for computer use is that I have to be able to write documents, run spreadsheets, print the resulting files, access the Internet, and send and receive electronic mail. In all of these respects, Ubuntu Linux is more than ready for prime time. The installation process is simple, the user interface is largely straightforward, and the bundled applications programs are highly usable.

In particular, one of the reasons for upgrading to a newer version of Ubuntu was that it includes 2.0, giving access to this powerful suite of office applications. In addition, Ubuntu also provides the Firefox web browser, and an E-mail client named Evolution. So, let’s see how these all work and what roadblocks, if any, Linux throws in our way.

With OpenOffice, we have a word processor (Writer) and a spreadsheet (Calc), as well as other program modules such as a presentation manager (Impress). What we need now are some data files to work with. In addition, we Windows' hold-outs, who opted for a dual-boot installation, need a way to transfer working files between the two operating systems. Perhaps the simplest way to achieve this is to use removable media, either a floppy disk or – more likely – a USB memory stick.

Inserting a memory stick into a USB port produces a “usbdisk” icon on the desktop, with a Nautilus (Windows Explorer-type file browser) window showing the files and directories present on the device. In the bad old days, Linux insisted on users typing DOS-like commands to mount and unmount such removable devices. This results from the fact that, under Linux, mounting the removable device makes it an integral part of the user’s file system. Essentially, the device appears to be a directory, located at a specific mount point, on the tree structure of the file system. Mercifully, Ubuntu has a built-in auto-mount feature that makes the files on a USB memory stick immediately available. The only thing to remember is that to safely remove the stick one has to right-click on the usbdisk icon on the desktop, and select the “Eject” option, which effectively writes any pending data to the device, and unmounts it from the file system. When the desktop icon disappears, it's safe to remove the USB memory stick.

Under Linux, the Writer and Calc modules of OpenOffice both function in precisely the same manner as their Windows-specific cousins (see Another Day at the Office - Files can be readily opened from the memory stick, modified, and saved back to the memory stick or, if we so choose, saved to a directory on the Linux disk partition for subsequent processing directly from the local hard drive. To be able to print a document, it’s necessary to configure the system printer before using Writer or Calc. This is achieved in a manner similar to that used in Windows. The menu sequence – System – Administration – Printing – Printer – Add Printer – produces a wizard to help set up the printer. The process is as simple as selecting a local or a network printer; then, either a specific printer that is automatically detected or a printer port, manufacturer and model; and, finally, giving the printer a name. The print command then routes material to the selected printer. Thus, our first hurdle is easily overcome. We can definitely undertake word processing and spreadsheet tasks on the Linux platform.

As noted earlier, one of the good things about Ubuntu is that it includes the Firefox web browser. For me, the really great thing about Ubuntu is that running Firefox allows establishing a connection to my ISP through my modem/router, and the instant ability to browse all my favourite web sites. I find it hard to believe that one can install a brand new operating system and have instant access to the Internet, but Ubuntu Linux really does make this happen. Although I am only a casual Firefox user under Windows, it seems to me that the Linux version works in much the same way as its Windows’ equivalent. In particular, the menu bar, command icons, tabbed browsing and Google search box are the same in both versions. One minor difference that I did note is that in Linux one accesses the browser's settings through Edit – Preferences, while under Windows the equivalent menu item is Tools-Options.

The different piece of software that we yet have to explore is the Evolution mail client. Clicking on the icon on the Linux task bar launches a configuration wizard which leads us gently by the hand through the various steps to set up access to the account on our ISP's mail server. As with many such programs, a set of dialogue boxes requests information such as E-mail address, the type of mail server (e.g. POP), the server's address, username and password, the frequency of checking for new mail, the server type for sending mail (e.g. SMTP) and its address, and finally the time zone. In addition, data can be entered into various optional fields and check boxes, such as a descriptive name for the account being set up, and whether messages should be left on the server. Once this basic setup process was complete, using Evolution was a piece of cake, since its look-and-feel is very similar to many other mailers. So, I was easily able to send and receive test messages to and from my ISP and OPCUG mail accounts.

So, Ubuntu more than meets the gold standard for my computing world. Put a CD-ROM into the disk drive, answer a few simple questions, wait a few minutes for the installation program to do its job, and then instantly run office applications, access the web, send and receive E-mail. Magic!

So far, everything has been rosy. But, there has to be a glitch somewhere- right? Well, shutting down and rebooting the system does provide us with a slight change of pace.

Both Windows and Linux believe that they are the “chosen” operating system. Windows won’t even recognize the existence of Linux partitions and, although Linux will include a bootable Windows' partition in the grub boot loader menu, it selects the Linux partition as the default system for boot-up from the latter. This “feature” is a bit of an inconvenience for those of us who are familiar with Windows, but want to try Linux in a dual-boot configuration. Sure, we have a ten-second window to select the operating system of choice, but we probably want to use this time to think about whether to boot into Linux and, under normal circumstances, have our familiar Windows' system load by default. But, we don't know anything about grub, so how do we change the situation? It's time to dig a little deeper into some of the idiosyncrasies of Linux and, in particular, find some useful reference material to guide us through the haze.

A Google search for grub +default +Ubuntu produces a number hits, one of which is the very promising “Unofficial Ubuntu Starter Guide” ( Sure enough, digging through the links on this site locates ”How to change default Operating System boot-up for GRUB menu” which, in rather terse text, provides the requisite information. We need to issue the command sudo gedit /boot/grub/menu.lst and change default 0 to default X_sequence. But what does this actually mean?

The Linux equivalent of Windows’ Notepad is a program named gedit (Gnome's official text editor). It's simple enough to open the file \boot\grub\menu.lst and view its contents using gedit. We can even edit the text – but – we can't save the changes, because menu.lst has opened as a read-only file. Here is a Linux roadblock (for the uninitiated Windows user).

The problem is that menu.lst is a system file that belongs to “root”, the Linux superuser. Root has given mortal users permission to read the file, but not to write to it (i.e. save a changed version). Clearly we need to become root in order to edit the file and change the default boot option. Now for a second roadblock.

Root is so powerful (some would say omnipotent) that Ubuntu disables both root's password and root's ability to access the system from the main logon screen. (And, they call this an operating system for a “personal” computer!) Instead, and what to me amounts to the same thing, Ubuntu provides the sudo (superuser do) command to allow the user created at the time of installation to issue Linux commands as though they were root. Normally, commands are issued in a terminal window (a command shell session) through the menu sequence – Applications – Accessories – Terminal. Thus, we need to open a terminal window and issue the command sudo gedit /boot/grub/menu.lst. This pops-up a dialogue box that requires us to enter our logon password in order to run gedit on the menu.lst file with root's file permissions. Now we will be able to modify the file's contents and save the changes.

The file menu.lst contains pure text. Many of the lines are comments that describe what the various command lines do. In particular, one such comment indicates that the line “default num” causes the num'th grub menu entry to be the default selection at boot-up. Armed with this information, and from a review of the command lines in the file, it is easy to see that that “default 0” is causing Linux to be the default selection for the operating system, and that changing this to “default 4” will make Windows our default menu selection.

So, all that to say that we need to edit /boot/grub/menu.lst as root to change the line default 0 to read default 4 and forever after have ten seconds to select Linux or else have good-old (?) Windows boot by default. Now, that was easy, wasn't it? So, what's so hard about using Linux?!

The above narrative should have provided two basic pieces of information. Firstly, installing Ubuntu Linux is so simple that anyone can do it; the user interface is relatively clean but very intuitive; and the system provides an exceedingly useful set of software applications. Secondly, some of the details of Linux are fairly complex and will need a little, or perhaps a lot of research, if you want a certain element to function in a specific way. To some extent, the latter situation reminds me of the (good) old DOS days where just about anything was possible – if you knew how. Fortunately, there are lots of reference books available on Linux, and vast amounts of information posted to the web, so there should be an answer to every question – somewhere.

So, you can take your pick. Install it and forget it. Just use the system as-is, which should be a very acceptable proposition for most users. Alternatively, the inquisitive amongst us will want to delve further into the mysteries of Linux and figure out precisely how to make it do what we want it to do. Either way, Ubuntu Linux is a really neat system, and well worth a try. And – hey – who couldn’t love a piece of computer software named Dapper Drake?

Bottom Line:

Ubuntu 6.06 LTS (Open Source)

Documentation for Ubuntu 6.06 LTS (Dapper Drake)

Unofficial Ubuntu 6.06 (Dapper Drake) Starter Guide

Originally published: November, 2006

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