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A large part of every Linux forum's work is dealing with enquiries by Linux novices. While it can be very enjoyable to help others, it can also be rather tiresome to try to help people who have shown no inclination towards helping themselves. However I believe that in many cases, this is not due to inherent laziness on the questioner's part. It is simply that novices have not been shown the first steps in Linux problem solving and do not realise how much they can do for themselves. It is hoped that this guide will be of use to anyone who is taking first steps in Linux.
I. Investigating problems yourself
1. Don't panic! Collect information. If a program crashes or doesn't do what it is supposed to, but your system is otherwise usable, set to work calmly to find out whatever you can about the situation. Open a new file in your favorite editor, write down what you were doing at the time and any error messages that you received. Be sure to get them down literally and exactly - use copy and paste if you can.
Open a terminal and type tail /var/log/messages. This will show you the last 10 lines of the main system log. If it contains any messages that are clearly relevant, put them in your file too. Errors from graphical programs go into a different file, usually a hidden file in your home directory called .Xsession-errors. Tail this one too and add to your report file if necessary.
If your system is shot (very unusual in Linux!) you will need an alternative way of getting in. If you are dual-booting with another Linux distro, use that. If not, you will need a "rescue disc", and it's a good idea to have one ready in advance. Many installation CDs can be run "live" to provide rescue facilities; if you haven't installed from such a disc, the first thing you should do after installation is get and burn a live distro such as Knoppix. Keep it for emergencies such as this. Once you are in, mount your usual root and any other partitions and look for information as above.
2. Is it reproducible? If you are in a position to try and reproduce the error, then do so. Obviously try to do it in a way that doesn't damage your data. For example, use a special test file with the program, not a real data file. Or use a copy of the file that you can discard later. Remember, reproducible errors are easier to troubleshoot.
3. Is it your hardware? Unreproducible problems are often hardware-related. If you suspect a hardware problem, it is worth looking in the boot log (usually /var/log/boot) to see if the kernel recognised the hardware. You can't use the tail command for this because the relevant information might be anywhere in the log; less /var/log/boot will allow you to page through it. Add any relevant messages to your report file.
4. Read the documentation for the program. This is particularly important if the program didn't actually crash but nevertheless behaved in a way you didn't expect. Look up the program's online help file if there is one. Also look at the man page (use man program_name in a terminal). The error may have been on your part.
5. Google the errors. Google is your friend! Copy the exact error message and paste it into a Google search, preferably with the name of the program as well. You will almost certainly find threads in forums and mailing lists from people who have had the same problem. Often following the thread will give you a solution.
6. Think logically. If by this point, you have an idea of what may have caused the problem, can you think of a way of testing your idea? Being able to use the command line is a boon at this point; there are many simple commands that can give you useful and relevant information about your system.
7. Now you can think about asking for help If you have drawn a blank so far, it is time to seek help via a user forum. But please do go through steps 1-6 first. Most experienced Linux users are happy to help those who have shown initiative in helping themselves, but many get seriously irritated by people who expect to be spoon-fed. Remember that the people who use forums are fellow-travellers on the Linux road, not support staff who are paid to answer your questions.
II. Getting help from other people
1. Look first. Start by searching your chosen forum. Someone may already have asked this question. If there is a FAQ, use it.
2. Don't post off-topic Find the right sub-forum for your post. If it's very basic and there is a "newbie" forum, you can post there. Be careful not to post in a forum that's labelled "not for support questions". And don't post in more than one section; most forums have rules against this.
3. Choose your post title carefully. Never use titles like "N00b needs help!" or "Somebody help me PLEEEEZE!!!". It really puts people off. Your title should indicate what your problem is. Then anyone who knows the answer will be encouraged to share it with you. Be as precise as you can. For example "Modem keeps hanging up during authentication" is much more useful than "Can't get on the Internet".
4. Be brief but informative. In the body of your post, give the name and version of your Linux distribution, the name and version of the program that is playing up, and any relevant hardware details. Also include the precise error messages - this is where your report file will come in useful! Indicate briefly what you have done to try to solve the problem. That way you will come over as an intelligent and competent person.
5. Don't use texting abbreviations. It's very annoying.
6. Do use the opportunity to learn. Don't follow advice blindly; you're here to learn something. If you are asked to use command line tools to gather information, use your man pages to find out what those tools actually do. Then you can use them with confidence if you run into similar problems in the future. If you are asked to post a file, find out what that file does within your system. Important system files often have their own man pages.
7. Say thank you. Linux is a community. Nobody's paying us to help you. We do it because we've all been helped in the past and we want to pass it on. As well as saying thanks for the specific help, you can learn to do your bit to help other novices on their way, people who perhaps know even less than you do. And then you will experience a sense of satisfaction that Windows cannot give.
Comments about this article
Great write up
writen by: rokytnji on 2009-12-01 02:09:59
Nice write up hazel. Coulda used this when I first started out,
RE: Great write up written by rokytnji:
RE: Great write up
writen by: geekwannaB on 2009-12-06 21:13:18
Great write up . . .agreed . . . thank you . . more like this would be useful
As a novice, I am discovering that a large portion of the Linux Community are Computer Science grads. Having never taken a computer course I find myself struggling to keep my head above water at times. Basically, if it isn't point and click, I'm lost. Slowly I have picked up a few basic CLI commands. Where I really fall on my face is when I'm told I need root privileges and it doesn't give me a pop up box for the root password. Like when I need too write to my xorg.config file. I have found an ugly work around using pcopy. Hey, it works and I didn't need to ask for help.
Is there an IDIOTS guide to LINUX type book?
Reply to geekwannaB:
Brilliant - saved to my Linux tips folder
writen by: firstname.lastname@example.org on 2009-12-01 03:14:53
This article should head up ALL the FAQ's.
I just wish I had had the benefit of such a clear and useful guide to solving Linux problems, and particularly the etiquette of asking for help when I made my first blundring steps with Linux. Even now, a few years down the line, this is still a useful reminder of what logical steps I should be considering and how to get the most targeted help when all else fails. Thanks.
RE: Brilliant - saved to my Linux tips folder written by email@example.com:
can we make this a sticky?
writen by: tpl on 2009-12-01 04:01:23
then we can refer the n00bs to it:-)
RE: can we make this a sticky? written by tpl:
Where to find an article for help with problems?
writen by: john klungle on 2009-12-01 08:47:14
Wouldn't say brilliant but very well written. Would like to see this on all LINUX distributors home page.
RE: Where to find an article for help with problems? written by john klungle:
A suggestion for the web site.
writen by: rhdinah on 2009-12-01 09:54:12
It would be nice to have a print feature to remove navigation links and advertisements from the content before printing out - much the same as some recipe sites have. Thanks!
RE: A suggestion for the web site. written by rhdinah:
Good Article and a suggestion to answer a suggesti
writen by: Duffy on 2009-12-01 10:54:37
As was mentioned, I wish I had read such an article withing the first six months of using Linux.
[Quote] A suggestion for the web site.
writen by: rhdinah on 2009-12-01 09:54:12
It would be nice to have a print feature to remove navigation links and advertisements from the content before printing out - much the same as some recipe sites have. Thanks! [end quote]
To accomplish what you have asked for:
1.. Copy the article you want to save
2. Open a new page in OpenOffice Writer
3. Paste the copied article into it
4. Clean up whatever you want to remove using the standard editing tools in OpenOffice Writer.
5. Retain the URL, the name of the source eg "Linux Forums" and the name of the author in your saved article. You may want to re-visit the original article to check for updates. And if you pass along the article to someone else it is courtesy and a legal requirement in some countries, to identify the source and author of published works.
RE: Good Article and a suggestion to answer a suggesti written by Duffy:
Please update the solution if you fine from other
writen by: anandkumargupta on 2009-12-02 02:41:11
If you find any solution from outside of the community and there is a unanswered topic related to your topic please update with your solution. This will increase the motivation of open source as well as those who is going to face the same problem will thank you from their heart.
Use google bookmark to track these topics while you are doing R
RE: Please update the solution if you fine from other written by anandkumargupta:
Very nice article
writen by: ArneBab on 2009-12-02 04:27:10
I really like the article. It gets to the point, shows the most basic self-help options, aids in finding the best way to get an answer and clearly shows where free software communities are different.
And it does it in a style which I can see newbies to actually read.
The few formatting errors ([b]) aren't bad enough to get me to give anything less than "excellent".
I think a note about "If you fixed it yourself, please write how you did it" (as anandkumargupta suggested) could improve the article a bit (and reduce the number of unanswered threads where the requester disappeared). MAybe you could also add a short explanation why abbreviations are annoying (many people not having english as first language and such).
RE: Very nice article written by ArneBab:
Balance is the key
writen by: SeanGee on 2009-12-02 04:42:31
Great article and loads of useful comments. It is important though that the Linux community is not seen as a bunch of geeks who are unwilling to help newbies or less technical minded. If that is the case it is Linux that is perceived to be difficult. If Windows users are to switch they must be able to do the things they want to easily - or find info easily, without necessarily understanding the underlying technology.
As an example I recently set up an OS solution. Its forum was populated by just such a bunch of geeks. (I am technical and very comfortable with most distros from the command line). As a bonus the forum in question had a really poor search facility. Most hits tended to give really useful results such as "this is documented elsewhere" or "google is your friend". These comments were usually accompanied by diatribes that took far longer to compose than simply providing the answer. I spent several days wading through my issues (using google and not the forum) before I decided that this was too much effort and built my own solution using Ubuntu.
So in addition to your guide and many of the comments I try to remember the following
1. Not everybody has the same level of knowledge or experience as me. The may not even want it and that's ok.
2. If a solution is easy it costs nothing to provide it. If I am seen as a "good community member" others are more likely to make the effort when I need help.
3. You never know who is lurking - it may be your next employer or contract provider (yes this has happened to me more than once)
4. Its a community and not a showcase for individual brilliance
RE: Balance is the key written by SeanGee:
writen by: rhdinah on 2009-12-02 15:43:32
Thanks, but that's a darn bit intricate for users of this website who would like to print just the relevant information, don't you think?
RE: @Duffy written by rhdinah:
writen by: Duffy on 2009-12-04 09:42:00
Sorry rhdinal. I thought it might be helpful to you or anyone else who has ever wanted to save PART of a web page. I am not aware of any forum (Windows or Linux) or help pages that have a simple "print page" whereby you can just select only what you want to print. That would work with a recipe (as you suggested) because you want only the entire recipe and nothing else. Yes you can suggest it as you did but until such a thing becomes available, if it ever does, my suggestion is the easiest way I know to accomplish what it is that I think you want to do.
I am fully aware of the problems faced by people new to linux. I was (still am) one of those and I try not to be "techie" if I respond. However I do not want to post long involved responses if the user just needs to be pointed in the right direction. Yes, I notice now that I used the term "URL" where I should have said to copy the "Uniform Resource Locater" but my experience is that anyone who does not know the meaning of "URL" probably does not know the meaning of "Uniform Resource Locater" either.
People who ask for help, as Hazel, the originator of this thread suggests, have SOME responsibility to work with those from whom they expect to get help. If you felt my answer was too technical, you could have asked for more help and I would have sent you step by step instructions to accomplish you task. Nobody, could ask for more. With respect, as it was, I think what you were asking for (a print button that would give you selected parts of a forum thread) was an impossible demand at the moment in either Windows or Linux. If I am wrong, somebody please correct me.
And to close I think this exchange illustrates very well the problems faced, not only by those seeking help, but by those who try to provide such help.
Reply to Duffy:
writen by: arunb on 2009-12-03 22:37:27
Inspite of the fact that Linux is an open-source software, it is still meant for geeks. Unlike windows which caters to a large audience comprising of geeks, newbies and generally non-technical people.
The only way linux can get popular is by addressing this large community of non-technical people.
As an example I installed Ubuntu 7.10 few months back on my PC, it took a long time for me to get the wireless card working.I now find that I am unable to play DVDs on the PC. Unfortunately its problems like this that deter people from using linux.
Technical jargon make sense to geeks, ordinary people are not interested in learning the nuts bolts of an operating system. I think that's why Windows will remain a big success for a long time to come.
RE: Too complicated written by arunb:
RE: Too complicated
writen by: grepo on 2009-12-17 23:13:29
i/ve just installed ubuntu9.10
Reply to grepo:
Not too complicated
writen by: SeanGee on 2009-12-04 05:20:36
Afraid I have to disagree. Ubuntu 7 is pretty old now and many Linux distros are ready for prime time. I have 3 Linux desktop systems at home (all running Ubuntu 9.10). In all cases setup involved a straight froward install of the live CD (or usb key) and firing up Synaptic to select which additional packages I wanted to install.
The first is an old (7years) laptop. I could not use Vista on this because there was no support for the wireless card. Installed Ubuntu and everything just worked. Gave it to my 17 year old daughter as her first PC and she loves it - and I didn't have to spend any time teaching her how to use it. My wife (who is completely non technical uses this by choice when my daughter is not around because she found switching to Ubuntu easier than the switch to Vista / Office 2007. (Her XP / Office 2003 laptop died about a year ago and she still has not come to terms with the replacement).
My own netbook - again everything just worked.
My own desktop - where I am now. Everything just works. I make my living out of developing Microsoft software and have a Windows 7 machine running Visual studio. Its headless!! (No keyboard monitor or mouse). I access it from this machine using terminal services. This is not because I'm a geek - its because I prefer it - and the freedom of being able to go into Synaptic and installing any software I need without having to pay for it.
And that is why I advocate balance. Many Linux users try to perpetuate the myth that they are somehow better and more technical minded than Windows users. While this attitude remains Linux will continue to be seen as an OS for Geeks. So as far as I am concerned it is ready for the main stream for home users. The reason corporate users will lag is to do with support and the skill set of current system administrators.
Apologies to the geeks.
RE: Not too complicated written by SeanGee:
RE: Not too complicated
writen by: czarcasm on 2010-01-12 06:39:06
I just installed 9.10 and i still agree with arunb.Its nice that you set up the laptop for your daughter,can you set up mine so 'it just works' for me? I'd like it if mine 'just works' without me having to learn a new language.I like the idea of Ubuntu being more secure but I never have problems with my Windows box and right now Im questioning if the switch is worth it as Ive spent 6 days trying to get my VPN to work. In Windows it took me all of 1/2 hr- thats just one issue of many and Im not getting anywhere with any of them.And Ive spent many hours scouring forums only to come to a dead end when-in certain steps- Im sposed to know how to do shit I have no idea how to do.
No disrespect Im just a bit disappointed in this. I thought it would 'just work'.
Im about ready to ring the bell on this and wipe it from my partition and just use Vista.
Linux is for supergeeks.
Again no disrespect Im just a little more than frustrated with Ubuntu 9.10
Reply to czarcasm:
writen by: cris_heb on 2009-12-05 18:20:50
Hi, I really think this is a must for all newbies (like myself). It is logical, thought of, concise, to the point, and it really points to what an open source software community should be based upon.
RE: Very educative written by cris_heb:
writen by: clickit on 2009-12-06 07:24:13
a) Novices do not know the terms used in *nix. This further complicates their perception of any problem.
b) Differing distos have slight variations and this can confuse one even further if they google for an answer.
c) Distros often appear with new features only casually mentioned in the change sheets.
d) Distros often put helpful info about features buried in the features directories so until one stumbles upon it it hods back progress.
e) Those new to Linux/BSD/*nix mostly come from the other O$. There what they don't know is never told to them nor for the most part could they do anything about if if they knew. Over here we can do somethings for ourselves, well after a fashion at least.
f) Neophytes usually are not yet familiar enough with commands let alone which commands might help them solve part of their problem.
g) When you are installing a distro the first time, every problem requires accessing the Internet running a search, returning
and checking if the info is valid--ugh! Done it myself. When one is still learning the vocabulary this can really create personal term moil.
o What is needed is for distros to provide mini how to's on new / exotic features in one place with each revision release and each new kernel. Not just buried with the directories to which they are related. At least a pointer to it.
o It would be great if someone would set down a list of commands which relate to specific hardware and/or hardware problem areas that a first timer should use to help themselves dig out of their conundrum.
o Put your suggestions in a sticky area.
RE: Minor addendum written by clickit:
writen by: cj_cheema on 2009-12-07 01:20:49
Thanks for posting this helpful artical in this forum. This will help me more in troubleshooting linux. Thanks once again for this useful tips...
Charanjit Singh Cheema
RE: Good Artical written by cj_cheema:
writen by: linuxd on 2009-12-07 21:59:16
This article is very informative and easy to understand.
I think every novice should read it.
RE: Best Article written by linuxd:
writen by: lambrusco on 2010-01-05 16:47:38
even if it did not help solving my present bug the protocol is well written and clear and i shall follow it every time the necessity
arises. thank you
RE: good idea written by lambrusco:
Very good stuff
writen by: nigelc on 2010-01-08 00:36:48
A lot of windoze users brains have been poisoned that OS. They expect everything to be the same as in windows.
I don't know about any version of Linux being to complicated. In windows one has to run anti virus, defrag the disk, spyware etc all the windows updates. All this is not normal for an OS
When the windows computer's registry get so clogged up, then they will have to buy a new computer.
RE: Very good stuff written by nigelc:
writen by: arinlares on 2010-01-31 06:21:31
I'll have to read this a few more times to memorize it. Especiall I.4. I've never done that when I was trying to fix something (wake up and smell the man-pages).
RE: Great read! written by arinlares:
GOOD WRITE UP AND INFORMATIVE
writen by: Rajeevrvis on 2010-02-08 08:16:40
This article was very useful to a newbie to like me. I found it to be informative and easy to understand . It was pleasure experience filled with joy while reading this article . Hope more informative articles bestow their knowledge on us . Hoping so in the future ........
And the most important part is Thank you for such a great job .
RE: GOOD WRITE UP AND INFORMATIVE written by Rajeevrvis:
writen by: rhyous on 2010-02-16 14:31:26
Also, I like to view /var/log/messages this way:
Open two shells.
In one do this:
# tail -f -n50 /var/log/messages
In the other duplicate the issue.
RE: /var/log/messages written by rhyous:
Comment title: * please do not put your response text here