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Ubuntu Kung Fu

Keir Thomas
Published by Pragmatic Bookshelf
ISBN: 978-1-934356-22-7
400 pages
£ 21.99
Published: 28th September 2008
reviewed by Andy Thomas
   in the June 2009 issue (pdf), (html)
bookcover  

Having been brought up on a diet of O'Reilly books, I found the house style of Ubuntu Kung Fu, published by Pragmatic Programmers, refreshingly different — and that's not just down to the quirky title. This is the first book I have read from this publishing house and has a lighter and more conversational feel to it; liberally illustrated with screenshots, large boxed headings in the tips section and wide page margins, it is written for 'ordinary users' and is about as different as you can get from tomes like O'Reilly's Sendmail book, for example.

Aimed at the growing army of users defecting from Windows to Ubuntu, the 'meat' of the book is sandwiched between a very extensive contents list at the front and a comprehensive index at the back. Finding a tip relevant to whatever you want to achieve with Ubuntu is easy as each one-line entry in the contents list is descriptive yet concise — this is something that sets this book apart from most Linux books written with a non-geek audience in mind and will appeal to many users.

The main part of the book is divided into just three chapters but do not be deceived — chapter 3 runs to 308 pages of this 367 page book and contains no fewer than 315 tips. 'Chapter 1' is a short introduction of less than 4 pages that would be called a preface in most other books but we finally get started with chapter 2 which covers basic Ubuntu system administration. Although no substitute for a dedicated book on this topic, this chapter does make a reasonably successful attempt at softening the transition from Windows to Linux and it is good to see the use of the command line explained in some detail as this is where the real power of Linux lies. The reviewer feels CLI usage should be encouraged more — although desktop environments such as KDE and gnome do a good job of blurring the distinctions between different Linux distributions, I often hear end users wail “… but I can't use this system as it's not Red Hat” or some such. Dropping down into the command line is a great leveller and if a user takes the trouble to learn how do things that way, they can pretty much admin any Linux, UNIX or Mac OS X system.

I did spot one or two technical errors in this chapter — for example, on page 20 it is claimed that the bash shell includes the handy command 'sort' for sorting a shopping list into alphabetical order but the following command line example then goes on to correctly illustrate the use of the (quite separate) sort utility. These small slips don't really affect the end result though.

A section devoted to software package administration then follows — Debian is known for its somewhat bewildering (at least compared with some other Linux distributions) array of package management methods and Ubuntu goes one step further by adding synaptic. Fortunately most of these tools are at least touched upon with the emphasis being on the GUI way of doing things but apt-get and even dpkg have not been forgotten.

But the real raison d'être for this book has to be chapter 3, the tips. Ranging from the really useful to the humorous and even trivial, readers of all skill levels will almost certainly find this section holds something of interest for them. Most of the tips concern desktop tricks and short-cuts and this reviewer, being mainly involved in Linux/UNIX infrastructure (servers, networks and the like with little exposure to gnome for instance) learnt quite a bit about Linux on the desktop and the Ubuntu way of doing things. The author's infectious enthusiasm for imparting these little nuggets of wisdom continually shines through in each tip and he is to be congratulated on his way of making Ubuntu complement, not fight, Microsoft Windows and its applications and this will make Windows users feel very much at home and 'wanted' within the Ubuntu community, unlike some books on Linux. The acid test was when I lent the book to my 14 year-old son who had abruptly switched from Windows to Ubuntu some months previously; although well up the Ubuntu learning ladder by this stage, he too found the book useful.

All in all, this will be a useful book for those making the big step from Windows to Linux — much of the information in chapter 2 and many of the tips apply equally to other Linux distributions so readers moving to OpenSUSE or Fedora instead of Ubuntu or its variants will find much relevant information about gnome, its configuration, applets and the various applications available to all Linux users. Sprinkled through the book are frequent references to Windows, Windows partitions, Windows files, etc — a clear reminder that the target readership is likely to be dual-booting between Windows and Linux, at least in the early days before they feel more confident with Linux. But this should not put off Linux-only readers and any book that encourages users — and in such a human and friendly way as this book does — to upgrade their computing experience from Windows to Linux deserves to be applauded.

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