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1.9. Getting Help

You will undoubtedly require some degree of assistance during your adventures in the Linux world. Even the most wizardly of Unix wizards is occasionally stumped by some quirk or feature of Linux, and it's important to know how and where to find help when you need it.

The primary means of getting help in the Linux world are Internet mailing lists and Usenet newsgroups, as described earlier. A number of businesses also provide commercial support for Linux. A "subscription fee" allows you to call consultants for help with your Linux problems. Several Linux distribution vendors provide online and telephone-based technical support, which can often be very helpful. However, if you have access to Usenet and Internet mail, you may find the free support found there just as good.

Keeping the following suggestions in mind should improve your experiences with Linux and guarantee you more success in finding help to your problems:

  • Consult all available documentation first. The first thing to do when encountering a problem is consult the various sources of information listed in the previous section and Appendix A. These documents were laboriously written for people like you — people who need help with the Linux system. Even books written for Unix in general are applicable to Linux, and you should take advantage of them. Impossible as it might seem, more than likely you will find the answer to your problems somewhere in this documentation.

    If you have access to the Web, Usenet news, or any of the Linux-related mailing lists, be sure to actually read the information there before posting for help with your problem. Many times, solutions to common problems are not easy to find in documentation and are instead well-covered in the newsgroups and mailing lists devoted to Linux. If you only post to these groups and don't actually read them, you are asking for trouble.

  • Use the search engines! It's amazing how much Linux-specific information you can turn up simply by using popular web search engines. In fact, Google even has an entire search engine devoted just to Linux, at http://www.google.com/linux. The Google usenet newsgroup archive (http://groups.google.com/) is also a good place to start. Instead of hunting for information by surfing the many Linux web sites, HOWTO guides, and mailing list archives, a few pointed queries to your favorite search engine can usually turn up results much more quickly.

    Of course, you should learn how to use search engines effectively: a generic query like "Linux help" isn't likely to turn up exactly what you're looking for. On the other hand, "Linux Sony Vaio CD-ROM" is a much better way to go (assuming, of course, you're looking for help on your Vaio CD-ROM!).

  • Learn to appreciate self-maintenance. In most cases, it's preferable to do as much independent research and investigation into the problem as possible before seeking outside help. Remember that Linux is about hacking and fixing problems yourself. It's not a commercial operating system, nor does it try to look like one. Hacking won't kill you. In fact, it will teach you a great deal about the system to investigate and solve problems yourself — maybe even enough to one day call yourself a Linux guru. Learn to appreciate the value of hacking the system and fixing problems yourself. You can't expect to run a complete, home-brew Linux system without some degree of handiwork.

  • Remain calm. It's vital to refrain from getting frustrated with the system. Nothing is earned by taking an axe — or worse, a powerful electromagnet — to your Linux system in a fit of anger. The authors have found that a large punching bag or similar inanimate object is a wonderful way to relieve the occasional stress attack. As Linux matures and distributions become more reliable, we hope that this problem will go away. However, even commercial Unix implementations can be tricky at times. When all else fails, sit back, take a few deep breaths, and go after the problem again when you feel relaxed. Your mind will be clearer, and your system will thank you. Remember our Zen advice from the preface!

  • Refrain from posting spuriously. Many people make the mistake of posting to Usenet or mailing messages pleading for help prematurely. When encountering a problem, do not — we repeat, do not — rush immediately to your nearest terminal and post a message to one of the Linux Usenet newsgroups. Often, you will catch your own mistake five minutes later and find yourself in the curious situation of defending your own sanity in a public forum. Before posting anything to any of the Linux mailing lists or newsgroups, first attempt to resolve the problem yourself and be absolutely certain what the problem is. Does your system not respond when you turn it on? Perhaps the machine is unplugged.

  • If you do post for help, make it worthwhile. If all else fails, you may wish to post a message for help in any of the number of electronic forums dedicated to Linux, such as Usenet newsgroups and mailing lists. When posting, remember that the people reading your post are not there to help you. The network is not your personal consulting service. Therefore, it's important to remain as polite, terse, and informative as possible.

    How can one accomplish this? First, you should include as much (relevant) information about your system and your problem as possible. Posting the simple request "I can't seem to get email to work" will probably get you nowhere unless you include information on your system, what software you are using, what you have attempted to do so far, and what the results were. When including technical information, it's usually a good idea to include general information on the version(s) of your software (Linux kernel version, for example), as well as a brief summary of your hardware configuration. However, don't overdo it — including information on the brand and type of monitor that you have is probably irrelevant if you're trying to configure networking software.

    Second, remember that you need to make some attempt — however feeble — at solving your problem before you go to the Net. If you have never attempted to set up electronic mail, for instance, and first decide to ask folks on the Net how to go about doing it, you are making a big mistake. A number of documents are available (see the previous section Section 1.8) on how to get started with many common tasks under Linux. The idea is to get as far along as possible on your own and then ask for help if and when you get stuck.

    Also remember that the people reading your message, however helpful, may occasionally get frustrated by seeing the same problem over and over again. Be sure to actually read the Linux HOWTOs, FAQs, newsgroups, and mailing lists before posting your problems. Many times, the solution to your problem has been discussed repeatedly, and all that's required to find it is to browse the current messages.

    Third, when posting to electronic newsgroups and mailing lists, try to be as polite as possible. It's much more effective and worthwhile to be polite, direct, and informative — more people will be willing to help you if you master a humble tone. To be sure, the flame war is an art form across many forms of electronic communication, but don't allow that to preoccupy your and other people's time. The network is an excellent way to get help with your Linux problems — but it's important to know how to use the network effectively.

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