Linux: Not just for coders, you know

Although I was a bit late in getting it, I really enjoyed reading Ryan Cartwright’s
10 things for non-coders to do with free software over Christmas yesterday. The piece reminds us that

Some of us will find some kind of alleged spare time on our hands over the next few weeks. Certainly, there’s often some kind of break from “work” over the festive season. Traditionally free software developers have used such times for long coding sessions, get-togethers and “hack-fests”. Of course we’re not all hard-core (or even soft-core) hackers so here’s a few suggestions for the rest of us who might want to try something new over Christmas.

As it happens, I’ve been trying some of these suggestions even before I read them, so for inspiration here’s a report of how one non-coder broke his routine.

  • Run an application you’ve not tried before: As part of the writing process for openSUSE Unleashed, I have to experiment with all sorts of different applications. One thing I’m working on is improving my project management skills. So I’ve been playing with TaskJuggler, OpenProj, and GNOME Planner of late. I’ll try to report on this exploration soon.
  • Resolve that ongoing issue: As you may know, Adobe recently released an AIR client for Linux. The Adobe Integrated Runtime is Flash-based, and several cross-platform Twitter clients are built on it. Development on Linux was relatively rapid, if well behind the Windows and Mac. Problem was, it stopped working altogether with my final-release copy. One morning I finally resolved to see if this was fixable. It didn’t take much Googling to learn that the pre-release versions had to come out first. While I wish the installer would have done that itself, I am glad that the solution was posted on the Adobe website. Now if only TweetDeck wouldn’t completely disappear every time I switch desktops. <sigh>
  • File a bug report: Actually, I’ve done two of these lately. One a regular bug, the other a wish list item. The bug was a big deal. When I upgraded my desktop to openSUSE 11.1, YaST became incapable of updating packages. While the install went beautifully, every time I tried to add the Community Repositories, or just do an online update, I’d get a series of ‘Couldn’t resolve host’ messages because Zypper couldn’t find any repositories. But the network was fine. Making a long story short, after posting a note to the openSUSE mailing list, and seeing some postings on the openSUSE forums, I decided to investigate if there was an issue with IPv6. To my surprise, unchecking the IPv6 support box in YaST’s Network Settings and rebooting did the trick. I posted this in the openSUSE Bugzilla. Haven’t gotten a response yet, but I hope this will be fixed.

    The wishlist item was for KMail, and could also apply to the Resolving an Ongoing Issue task. Back in the day, I used the Eudora email client in Windows 3.x and beyond. I still fondly remember many of the things it did that I just don’t see anymore. One simple thing it did that I wish other clients did was tell you when it was next going to check the POP server for new mail. This time would appear next to the Check Mail menu item. I asked for this at the KDE bug site. Again, maybe it will happen, maybe not. But if developers don’t know what you’re thinking, they can’t add that tiny little feature that makes some people happier.

  • Read a book: While I certainly hope that you’ll pick up openSUSE Linux Unleashed for edification from time to time, I do try to read books too. Right now, I’m trying to learn PHP and Drupal, perhaps so I don’t spend my entire life as a non-coder. I’ve been pulling older things from my bookshelf: Julie Meloni’s Teach Yourself PHP, MySQL and Apache, and David Mercer’s Drupal: Creating Blogs, Forums, Portals and Community Websites. I know Mercer has a new edition of the latter, but I’m finding this one still useful as a start.
  • Play a game: This is part work, part play. Considering all the time I spend in front of a PC monitor, you’d think that there would be some associated recreational activity. Tragically, nearly all the fun I have with my computer is cracking wise on Twitter and Identi.ca. But I put an entire chapter about gaming in the new book, so I’m playing actual games. While I’m not much into role-playing or shooting things up, I’m starting to spend time with FreeCiv and LinCity-NG. It would be nice if there was a baseball simulation I could play, but maybe I wouldn’t have time for it anyway.

In addition to the stuff I’ve tried recently, these are great ideas that you should try to do sometime:

  • Try a new distribution: Once I went to a Linux User Group meeting and told someone that I write books about SUSE Linux. “That’s kinda sad,” he said. “You’re pretty much stuck with using one distro.” That’s not entirely true, even if it is close. I do get to play with my Kubuntu Dell laptop from time to time. Fortunately, you aren’t under the same harness. So yes, try other distributions. There are hundreds of them listed at DistroWatch. If you’re running Fedora, openSUSE or some other distro with RPM-based package management, you should certainly try one with apt, or vice versa. Get a virtual machine going with VirtualBox or Xen, and change the distro in the VM every other week. There is much fun to be had!
  • Write a Tutorial: Well, this is what I do pretty much every day. But as Cartwright notes, “You might think you’re not a writer; well so did I, and I’m willing to state that you can explain how to do a mail-merge in OpenOffice.org, touch up a photograph in GIMP or manage a play-list in Amarok. Yes, much of this stuff is in manuals and other documentation but you know what? Sometimes people don’t want to wade through that; they want a quick guide instead.” Like this Adobe Flashplayer HOWTO someone posted to openSUSE.org just this weekend:
  • Contribute to a wiki: Wikis are collaborative websites. They don’t work unless people like you contribute. So sure, fix typos and add resource links on Wikipedia articles. Do the same on opensuse.org. But that’s not all. When I’m poking around for more information about a piece of software that I’m just getting started with, or investigating, too often I see nearly barren wikis. The team has the right philosophy (let everyone contribute), but the community isn’t participating. You can do your small part to fix it.
  • Help a Sourceforge project: Every time someone asks me how to become a technical writer, I tell them to find some open source project that needs some user documentation and offer to provide it. You get practice asking questions of developers, work on your writing style, and have something for your portfolio at the end (thus solving the classic “But how do I get experience” dilemma). As Cartwright notes, there are lots of non-coding ways to help at the Sourceforge Help Wanted page. So check in every now and then.
  • Switch off your computer: Isn’t there something out in the real world that can relax or inspire you? Isn’t there a Linux User Group nearby that meets every month? Sign up at Meetup too. Do try to get out once in awhile, OK?

Trying something new makes you smarter, improves your memory, and may even stave off Alzheimer’s disease. The FLOSS community depends on all of its members–yes, that means even you–to participate. Don’t make it a New Year’s resolution if you don’t want to, but just do it, OK? Thanks!

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2 thoughts on “Linux: Not just for coders, you know

  1. I am installing Ubuntu today, i am well pleased with its simplicity. I also help on a few source forge projects i love to help where i can, on one i redesigned there web site all for free. I like to give back to the open source community..

    have a good one

    Mark
    The Miscellanea

  2. Pingback: Making Better Software by Building Stronger Communities | Michael McCallister: Notes from the Metaverse

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