A Labor of Linux

The exquisite torture of installing Linux as a computer novice.

After you read this English major’s take on Linux, see the computer pro’s perspective in “

Geek Love


Linux may be impractical for the masses, but its rebel cachet–“The Man doesn’t have me under his thumb!”–appeals to the motorcyclist in me. Walking out of a bookstore with a Linux manual under your arm is like swaggering into a restaurant carrying a motorcycle helmet: You can feel the waves of envy.

Since my technical education ended with a seventh-grade “Computer Literacy” class in which we played “Lemonade Stand” on an Apple IIe for half an hour twice a week, my Linux goals for this article were modest:

  1. Prove that a computer ignoramus can install the operating system on a computer that was running Windows 98.
  2. Install a Linux-compatible Web browser and read Slate in it.
  3. Install a few other Linux applications.

Purchasing Linux in a book, I must admit, was a second resort. Originally, I intended to download the free version of the much-heralded operating system, but then I found out that it would take five hours and that the download doesn’t come with instructions. Chickening out, I visited the computer section of my local bookstore and grabbed a copy of the friendly yellow Linux for Dummies. But the cashier all but refused to sell it to me. “You can’t get that book,” he said, obviously speaking as one of the Linux initiate. On his advice I paid $34.63 plus tax for Mastering Linux, a phone-book-sized tome, which includes a copy of Red Hat Software’s 5.1 version of Linux on CD.

Cracking Mastering Linux open, I was struck by its similarity to motorcycle manuals. “Remove cylinder head,” says the average motorcycle manual, without explaining how you do that. “Create boot disk,” commands Mastering Linux. What’s a boot disk? I found myself turning to a dictionary of computer terminology on the Web to decipher every third acronym (BIOS? ATAPI? SCSI?) and figured out that in this case you create an installation boot disk by copying files from the CD to a floppy.

Making Room for Linux

After creating the boot disk, I was supposed to make a new partition on the hard disk of my computer, a Pentium 133 with 32 megs of memory. Partitioning a hard disk means corralling off some space, and that can be done in Windows with a program called “fips,” which I copied from the Linux CD onto a floppy in Windows. I then restarted Windows in DOS mode (one of the options when you shut down Windows 98) and ran “fips.exe” from the floppy. Although I had never used DOS before, I followed the straightforward directions and made room for Linux.

The next step was to run the Linux installation program from the boot disk. I shut the computer down and put the boot disk in the drive and turned the computer back on. Success! The boot disk asked me to check boxes for the language and the keyboard I’d be using, and the source from which I’d be installing Linux. I told it to go to my CD-ROM drive where the Linux CD resided–and promptly hit a brick wall. The program refused to recognize my CD-ROM drive, a fairly standard one, and rejected the 11 nonstandard options from the list. I studied Windows’ device manager for clues on my CD-ROM drive. Mastering Linux suggested that if the installation program fails to detect your drive, provide very specific directions for the “IO” and “IRQ.” I entered these new settings and still failed.

Everyone who talks up Linux mentions how “elegant” it is. As I tinkered, rebooted, and failed, and tinkered, rebooted, and failed over and over again to get it to recognize my CD-ROM drive, all I could think was: yeah, elegant like a Judas Cradle. And this was only the installation program.

So I telephoned the Microsoft Helpdesk. Even though Linux is supposed to demolish Microsoft, the Microsoft Helpdesk, which provides computer assistance to its employees, was surprisingly helpful. As I described my trouble, the Help guy replied, “You’re setting up Linux?” Pause. “Um, you know we don’t really support that?” Yeah, I know, but can you help me anyway? “Well, I don’t know much about Linux, but talk to Clarence (not his real name). He’ll help you.” In 15 or so calls to the Helpdesk, I encountered only one person who sounded annoyed rather than curious (and even, dare I say, gleeful) at the fact I was firing up Linux.

A Case of Mistaken Identity

The Linux that came with Mastering Linux was never going to communicate with my CD-ROM drive, and I began to lose all enthusiasm for the project. Just the sight of Mastering Linux induced the stomach-churning sense of dread that my sixth-grade math textbook once gave me: “I don’t get this. Other people get this. Why don’t I get this? I think I’ll go watch TV.”

Instead of watching TV, I made a fresh start by purchasing a newer version of Linux. The version of Linux that comes in Mastering Linux offers no technical assistance, but Red Hat’s version 5.2, which costs $39.99, promises one month of free e-mail support. (CORRECTION: After this article was posted, I learned that Macmillan Digital Publishing and not Red Hat Software provided the e-mail support for this version of Linux. That new information is now reflected in the remainder of the piece.)

The Red Hat manual offered clearer directions, and the new version automatically partitioned my hard drive. But it still snubbed my CD-ROM drive. I e-mailed Macmillan with my problem and the company e-mailed back a one-line response: “Set your BIOS to boot off of the CD.” I wrote back: “How do I do that?” Macmillan’s e-mail answer was another one-liner, a URL. I clicked the link, which led to a page of more links to lots of information on BIOS, but a half-hour search yielded no information on booting from the CD-ROM drive. I e-mailed back asking for a more specific URL, and they wrote back, “Look around there. … You also may want to check the site of whoever manufactured the motherboard.” Thanks a bunch.

With Microsoft Helpdesk assistance I figured out that my CD-ROM drive was probably connected to my sound card and not to the IDE port, and thus was foiling Linux. I reluctantly returned to Mastering Linux and found an alternative method for installing the operating system for people who don’t have CD-ROM drives: install from the hard disk. For this you create a “supplementary disk” from the CD-ROM and use it after booting from the installation disk. The supplementary disk loaded an unfamiliar blue “Welcome to Red Hat Linux” page, but after 10 minutes of nothing happening, I figured I had worn out my welcome. I turned off the computer and went home.

My next move was to hornswoggle a friend, a tech guy at the New York Times Web site, into helping me. I informed him of my CD-ROM/sound card suspicions, and he pried open my computer’s metal box and started gabbing about 40-pin connections. My troubles were over. Here was someone who knew the acronyms, someone who could shine a light into the cave I was blindly fumbling in. So with the CD-ROM drive securely connected to the correct IDE port in my motherboard, we booted up again. Again, no dice. It was a new low in my Linux morale.

Any IDE Port in a Storm

After some chin scratching my friend suggested we look into my BIOS setting. There he discovered my IDE port was disabled. He enabled it. We booted up and victory! The CD-ROM drive started purring, and from there the installation was cake. The hard disk whirred away, occasionally asking for information. I typed it in, it whirred some more, and within an hour installation was complete.

I then logged on as “root”–the master user–and loaded X Windows, Linux’s graphical user interface. It looked like a pale and wan version of Microsoft Windows–with tiny, little crude buttons–even though it predates Windows. But it worked. I loaded the Netscape browser and tried to call up Slate, but Slate did not appear. Instead I got two error messages, one telling me to adjust my SOCKS environment, and another saying there was something wrong with my DNS server.

So I was on the phone with the Helpdesk again, learning about my SOCKS and my DNS server. My officemate suggested that maybe all I needed to do was adjust my proxy settings in Netscape and not my SOCKS. He was right, and victory was mine.

I Suffer a Core Dump!

Next I wanted a word processing program. I downloaded WordPerfect 8 for Linux from Corel’s Web site. I unzipped and “untarred” (de-archived) the program. I installed it. And it didn’t run. I bribed my tech guy friend to come and help me again. He went back to the original download and started over, but he couldn’t get it to run either. So he fiddled around with my PATH and a few other things beyond my comprehension, when a “core dump” occurred. This is some type of serious error, although I’m still not sure exactly what it is. So we started over and downloaded again. After reinstalling and receiving increasingly mournful error messages (“Unable to go on,” “Floating point exception”) and another core dump, we called it quits. Three and a half hours of help from a guy who makes his living working with computers and no WordPerfect to show for it.

Why would a person like me want to use Linux? The first reason is price. Linux is free if you download it off the Web. With a manual and a CD it’s about $40. Compare that with Windows 98: $199 for a full setup, $89 for an upgrade, or bundled for “free” as part of nearly every non-Macintosh computer. I didn’t investigate running Windows software under a Linux Windows-emulator, mostly because I already have Windows on my system to run Windows software. I also didn’t attach my Linux machine to the company network–because I couldn’t find easy instructions in my books, and further consultations with the Helpdesk would have been cheating. I’m fairly certain that setting up a printer is easy, but I’m taking the word of Linux experts on this.

Either I’m not ready for Linux, or Linux isn’t ready for me. Or both. I feel guilty about having used not one but two manuals to install Linux, and worse still that I couldn’t make WordPerfect work. I feel malignantly guilty about having paid cash money for a free operating system and for enlisting both the Helpdesk and a friend in my endeavor. Yes, I finished the marathon, but I did it by putting on roller skates and grabbing the suspenders of those who knew what they were doing.