Where’s a Newbie to Turn for a Helping Hand?

One of the most important skills for any Linux newbie to develop is the ability to know when and where to look for help. While Linux is much easier to operate than it used to be, chances are that some day you're going to run into a situation where you will need advice from someone who has been there, done that, and received the proverbial T-shirt.

One of the most important skills for any Linux newbie to develop is the ability to know when and where to look for help. While Linux is much easier to operate than it used to be, chances are that some day you’re going to run into a situation where you will need advice from someone who has been there, done that, and received the proverbial T-shirt.

The best place to begin searching for Linux help is on the Internet. Unfortunately, if you’re having networking problems, you might find yourself in a catch-22. No need to despair; the answers you seek might already be available on your very own hard drive.

If the paper manual that came with your distribution doesn’t have what you’re looking for, you can always check the electronic manual that comes with Linux: the man pages.

Local Help: man

Newbies ManPage 1
Figure One: A typical man page.
Newbies Xman 2
Figure Two: Xman.

Linux has its roots in Unix, which was first created about 30 years ago, before the days of Windows, the mouse, and point-and-click. Many of the tools created in the original Unix exist in Linux today. Some of these have been updated, but many of those old, basic, well-tested tools are still around.

The man command is a perfect ex-ample of this. Open an X Term window so that you can get to the command line, and type man man. This should give you something like what we have in Figure One: a man page (no gender bias here, “man” is short for manual). man pages can be a bit dry and technical — they originated in the days when only engineers used Unix — but they are good if you need more specific information on a Linux command. If the page contains more than one screen of text, then press the space key to move to the next page, or type q to quit the man page. There is a man page for almost every command.

Using the manual pages is a little like using a dictionary. How do you look up a word if you don’t know how to spell it? You can type man-k keyword to see a list of possibly related man pages. There is also a Linux command called apropos that will give you a list of interesting commands to check out in the man pages. For example, you could type aproposcopy or man-k copy to see a list of Linux commands related to copying.

There are more modern versions of the man pages: xman andtkman. These are graphical interfaces built around the manual pages. They contain exactly the same information but may be easier to browse. Start xman with the command xman -bothshow -notopbox & (Figure Two). tkman is friendlier and has more features, but it isn’t distributed as widely as xman.

You can also access the manual page by using either the KDE Help or GNOME Help browsers that come with your desktop manager.

info is a much more powerful and modern text-based help system. To try it out, type info in your X Term. You then get basic instructions on navigating through info by typing h (Figure Three). To get out of info, press “ctrl-x ctrl-c.”

Document Formats

Document files you’ll find on your Linux system may be in a number of different formats. Generally you can tell the kind of file by the suffix or file extension (the characters after the . at the end of the file name).

The most common file types are:

ASCII: Regular text files. You can view them with a text reader or use the more command in an X terminal.

PostScript: These files usually have the suffix .ps. You can view them within X Windows with the gvfilename command.If your printer is configured, you should be able to print them within the gv application that this command launches.

Adobe Acrobat: These have the suffix .pdf. View these files with the programs xpdf, acroread, or gv.

HTML: Files with the suffix .htm or .html are meant to be viewed (and can be printed) by a Web browser.

Zipped Files: Sometimes you’ll find files with a .gz or .bz2 suffix. These are files that have been compressed to save room on your disk. Uncompress .gz files with the gunzipfilename.gz command. You can uncompress .bz2 files with thebunzip2filename.bz2 command.


Newbies Info 3
Figure Three: Info.
Newbies Red Help 4
Figure Four: Red Hat’s Help Index.

Linux distributions come with a lot of documentation. All of the distributions have some form of help, often readable with a browser. Red Hat provides a good launching point for all of the online help. You can stay with the “local” links if you’re having trouble getting connected. Open the page /usr/ doc/HTML/index.html (Figure Four) with your browser to start here.

The “HOWTOs” are particularly useful. In fact, there are HOWTOs and mini-HOWTOs on a wide variety of subjects. These are usually very simple instructions on how to do almost anything you would ever want to try. Make sure you check the date, though. Often they refer to very old versions of Linux and may or may not cover the release you are using. The most recent versions of the HOWTOs are available on the Internet from the Linux Documentation project. (See Linux Documentation Project sidebar above).

FAQs are answers to “Frequently Asked Questions.” These are not provided with most distributions, but you might check in your /usr/doc/FAQ directory to see if you have them. The FAQs are on the Internet and are usually updated frequently.

With these URLs and a bit of patience, you should be able to find most of the answers to your Linux questions.

Asking for Help

The worst has happened. You’re absolutely stuck. You’ve looked at the HOWTOs and FAQs and you don’t see your particular question or can’t make sense out of what you do find. You’ve checked the LDP, and you’ve searched all the support sites.

First step: don’t panic. Sometimes trying to find solutions to a particular Linux problem can be hair-pullingly frustrating. We’ve all been there. Since we’ve all been there, however, you’ll find that the Linux community is generally a pretty friendly and helpful bunch — assuming you’ve done your homework, that is. If you really have tried to find the solution in the documentation and Web sites that are available, you should try asking for help in one of the many Linux discussion groups.


In order to use Usenet News, you have to be connected to the Internet, and you have to have a news reader installed and properly configured. Netscape comes with a decent newsreader. You need to give Netscape the name of your ISP’s news server (usually something like news.yourisp.com) in the “Preferences -> Mail & Newsgroups -> Newsgroup Servers” box. Once you get your newsreader up and running, try subscribing to some of the following newsgroups:

  • alt.os.linux
  • comp.os.linux
  • alt.linux
  • comp.os.linux.misc
  • comp.os.linux.setup

If you don’t have a newsreader set up, you can still access these newsgroups through the DejaNews Web site (http://www.deja.com), which archives almost every newsgroup.

There’s a great deal of help available for Linux — so much, in fact, that patience and perseverance are your best companions.

Remember always to check the most obvious places first. Most commands and programs have an associated manual page, and you should always check for it first. If the man page isn’t much help, then search through some of the documentation that was installed with Linux (usually in the /usr/doc directory). Still stumped? Check the Web, online HOWTOs and FAQs, archived mailing lists, and newsgroups. Finally, if you’re still stuck, ask for help in one of the many Linux community groups, including (but certainly not limited to) Usenet News, mailing lists, and IRC. Of course you can always mail our Top Tech Support Questions columnist (pg. 72).

Someone, somewhere, will have the answer you need. It’s just a matter of knowing where to look and whom to ask — skills that every Linux user needs, be they Newbies or Gurus.

The Linux Documentation Project

You know that Linux is a collaboration of thousands of programmers and is freely available on the Internet. It is distributed with a license that specifically prevents any company from taking ownership or restricting distribution.

As Linux has grown, people have realized that a complete and consistent set of documentation is needed. The Linux Documentation Project (LDP) has grown from this. Like Linux, the LDP is the product of the efforts of many people all contributing to make the system as complete and fully featured as possible. They contribute for the good of the project, with the understanding that no particular company will own the result. At the LDP Web site you’ll find many of the current HOWTOs, FAQs, and man pages. Many of the LDP documents have been collected and published as books by O’Reilly and other publishing companies.

You can find the Linux Documentation Project mirrored on many Web sites. Its URL is http://www.linuxdoc.org.

Help on the Web

There are more Linux sites than you can shake a stick at these days, and they vary widely in quality and usefulness. If you’re looking for help, some of the best places to go are:


Red Hat’s home site. The search engine there does a great job of helping find the FAQ or HOWTO that you need to solve most problems. There are downloads of applications and bug fixes, as well.


The Linux Documentation Project. This is the definitive source of the latest HOWTOs and FAQs. You can also find manuals and other documentation in downloadable form. This is a great place to start.


This site is set up very much like Yahoo, with categories you can browse and a search box you can use to query. A great site if you’re looking for more than FAQs. You’ll find pointers to packages, patches, and all sorts of downloads in addition to documentation.


CNET’s search site. You can find pointers to docs and downloads as with the other sites. There are also Q&As, as well as Linux news. It’s a cross between Linuxstart and the software download site, Freshmeat.


A nice reference site for all things Linux.


A nice gentle introduction to Linux help. More useful for help on general topics rather than specific problems.


There are some articles here that are useful, and the site has some interesting support forums, Linux documentation, and product comparisons, but it seems most useful for Linuxcare’s paying customers.


VA Linux’s portal for the Linux community. It has news, help with specific problems, and lots of product and book reviews.

Motivated users often put together their own Web sites. These users recount their own problems and the solutions they’ve found, sometimes becoming quite detailed and useful. Two cool personal sites I like are http://jgo.local.net/LinuxGuide and http://www.netspace.net.au/~gcross/intro.html.

Hal Moroff has been developing Unix systems and applications for more than 20 years. He can be reached at halm @ieee.org.

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