Linux for Senior Citizens

Here's a very useful article I found today.

I've been a satisfied Linux user for the past couple of years, running my
system on a reconditioned IBM box that I bought for £120. The operating
system is free, state of the art and very well supported with free
technical advice should I need it.


Linux for Senior Citizens

Linux for senior citizens? Am I crazy? Surely everyone who has heard of
Linux knows that it is an operating system strictly for geeks, i.e. for
young men who are obsessed with computers and have nothing better to do
with their time than to write and share programs to exploit the more
obscure features of their hardware. And everyone knows that Linux is much
harder to learn and use than Windows, so why would I be recommending it
for little old ladies who are probably terrified of computers anyway?

Well, "what everyone knows" is more often false than true. And whether
something is difficult or not depends very much on where you are starting
from. I certainly am not recommending Linux for anyone who has never used
a computer before.

For such people, I believe, Windows really is a better option: it is very
easy to learn the basics, there are plenty of ABC-level books to help you,
and most Internet Service Providers assume that you are using it anyway.
But many people now in their 60s and 70s (especially women who worked
previously as clerks and secretaries) have used computers before.

They used them at work in a thousand company offices during the 1970s and
1980s, typing away at a command line on old-fashioned visual display units
or even more old-fashioned printing terminals. They never actually saw the
computer, which was locked away in a special computer room, tended by a
mystic priesthood of machine operators, but they often became highly
proficient at using the software.

Modern PCs, with their sophisticated graphical user interfaces, seem so
different from those old mainframe computers that many oldsters have never
considered the possibility of transferring the expertise which they
accumulated during their working lives. They understand roughly how
computers used to work: you gave a command, the computer obeyed it, then
printed out a prompt to show that the job was done and that it was ready
for another command.

It might seem tiresome but at least you were in control throughout; the
machine simply did as it was told. Now, with Windows, the system seems to
be in control and you have no idea how it all works, how that pretty
desktop is put together, what the icons and menus really are or how they
get the job done. You can quickly learn which sequence of mouse clicks
will file a document or connect you to the Internet but you don't know why
it works like that.

Nor, when you ask your children, can they tell you. Windows is a complex
mosaic of small but vital programs with obscure names, which start up
secretively behind a splash screen; if even one of those components goes
wrong, the computer may not start at all. It's not surprising that many
older people feel unsafe using it, even without all that they may have
heard about viruses and worms.

People of my generation were brought up to be wary of technology. Many of
us are still a bit paranoid about it; in order to feel safe, we need to
understand what we are doing, why it works, and how to fix things when it
doesn't work. We were taught always to read the manual before using any
machine, but there is no manual for Windows. There are loads of books and
magazine articles telling you how to do things in Windows but little or
nothing on how the system actually does what it does.

For most young people today, that doesn't seem to matter. They are content
to lie back and let themselves be carried along by a tide of technology
that they regard as fundamentally benign. But we need something different,
something that I believe Linux can supply better than any other operating

For a start, Linux is a very easy system to understand. If we stick to
text mode for a moment, there are really only four components.

1. The kernel manages all the hardware and also looks after all running
programs, seeing that they get their fair share of system resources.
The kernel is itself a program, one that is always running. Indeed,
strictly speaking, the kernel is Linux.

2. The shell provides the interface through which you, the user,
interact with the system. This is the program that prompts you for
commands and then executes them. You can also use the shell as a kind
of programming language; these stored "programs" are called shell
scripts and allow you to automate jobs that you do frequently. Linux
provides a choice of shells, each of which gives a slightly different
look and feel to the system, but most people use a shell called bash.
This is the shell that Linux will provide for you if you don't ask for
a different one. The shell is there for you as soon as you have logged
on, and exiting from it or interrupting it is equivalent to logging

3. User processes start their lives as commands that you give the
shell. Each command launches a separate process that runs a specific
program in your name. Some of these programs do a quick job like
listing the files in a directory and then terminate. These are often
called utilities because they help you to utilise the system in a
general way. Others are interactive programs like editors, which have
their own internal commands and continue to run until you exit them.
Others again are applications that allow you to use your computer to do
something specific like playing a CD. Only one process at a time can
access your 'terminal' (i.e. your keyboard and screen) but you can have
any number of processes running in the background.

4. Some processes are launched by the system when it starts up (boots)
and run permanently in the background. They are called background
services or daemons, a Latin (originally Greek) word which means a
friendly spirit. Each daemon is there to provide a service which you
may use at any time. Think of Aladdin's genie! For example the at
daemon allows you to put on a delayed job to run "at" a specific time;
in this way you can schedule big jobs to run when the machine is less
busy. The cron daemon similarly handles jobs that should be run
regularly at particular times or on particular days or dates. The gpm
daemon lets you use your mouse for copying and pasting. And so on.
Unlike the background services in Windows, Linux daemons do not start
behind a splash screen; you can see them coming up one by one, note
their names if you're interested, and find out from the online manual
what they actually do.

Kernel, shell, user processes, background processes. That's it, folks! As
far as the kernel is concerned, all the others are just programs which it
runs. They mostly run independently of each other so that if, for example,
a particular background service fails to start properly, the rest of the
system will still come up and allow you to diagnose and fix the error. And
if there are services you never actually use, you can save on processor
time and memory by simply switching them off permanently. With Linux, you
are the one in charge.

What if you prefer a graphical user interface (GUI) like Windows? For
that, you merely need two more programs: the X server and a window
manager. The X server controls your video card, keyboard and mouse when
you are working in graphical mode; in text mode these are all controlled
by the kernel, like all the other hardware. The X server paints pictures
on the screen in response to instructions from its clients, the graphical
applications that you are running, and from the window manager. It also
harvests mouse clicks and keystrokes and passes them to its clients.

But the X server is fundamentally a dumb program and the applications
don't know anything about each other. So if application A tells the X
server to overpaint a part of the screen containing application B's
window, permanently hiding that window from the user, the X server will
cheerfully do it. That's why you need one other program, the window
manager, to keep order on the graphical desktop.

It is the window manager that puts frames around the windows and buttons
on the frames, and controls what happens when you click on those buttons.
It therefore determines the overall look and feel of the interface. The
window manager also keeps track of which application you are currently
using and instructs the X server to send the keystrokes that it harvests
to that program and not one of the others.

But, most importantly, it keeps a kind of internal database of the windows
and what they look like, and it is this that allows you to treat windows
as objects that you can move around the screen. For example, when you move
a window sideways by dragging it with your mouse, what actually happens is
that the window manager tells the X server to overpaint that part of the
screen with an image of what was there before and repaint the window in
its new location. Similarly when you pull a window up from the bottom of a
stack of windows, it is the window manager which tells the X server to
overpaint that part of the screen with its own memory of what that window
looked like when it was last visible.

So the simplest kind of graphical interface in Linux is just the X server
and a window manager, shepherding along a flock of applications, which
might include a word processor, a web browser, a spreadsheet, and so on.
In fact you can run just about any graphical application in this way.
There are many different window managers that you can use; you can
experiment and choose one whose look and feel you like.

Such a GUI runs fast even on old machines, which is a boon to those
retired people who may be on limited incomes. Besides, people of our
generation were brought up to be thrifty and resent having to throw away a
perfectly good computer and buy a new one just to accommodate the demands
of resource-hungry software. And, as the system is so simple, there is
very little that can go wrong with it. You can start your GUI from the
command line (particularly useful if you only want to use it
occasionally), or you can have it started for you by Linux every time the
computer boots up. In that case you will be presented with a graphical
login box to collect your name and password instead of a login prompt.

The cost of this simplicity is that you don't have all the facilities
which Windows provides. In particular, you can't configure your GUI just
by filling in a series of dialog boxes. If you don't like the default
appearance and behaviour of your window manager, you will have to
reconfigure it by editing its configuration file by hand. It's not
difficult to do; there is plenty of online documentation to guide you and
you only have to do it once anyway. But if you want a GUI that is more
like Windows, providing desktop icons, themes, etc., and allowing you to
configure it graphically, then you must use one of the modern Linux
desktop environments like GNOME or KDE.

Desktop environments provide a good stepping stone for Windows users who
are coming over to Linux, but inevitably they have many of the
disadvantages of Windows itself. They are big and complex. They need a
good modern computer with a fast processor and plenty of memory (at least
128 MB) if they are to run at a reasonable speed. And it is very difficult
to understand how they work. In short, they lack precisely that delightful
simplicity which can make Linux so attractive to us senior citizens. If
you want a system that you can completely understand and that is not fussy
about the kind of computer it runs on, then you do not want GNOME.

The point is that Linux gives you the choice in a way that Windows
doesn't. If you feel that you really need graphical configuration, themes,
desktop icons and so on, you can have them. If you have a greater need for
an interface whose workings you can understand, that will run graphical
applications reasonably fast on a computer which is not the latest model,
then you can have that instead. And you can "mix and match".

For example, I do not use GNOME — I prefer to use a small but powerful
window manager called fvwm directly with the X server — but I do use the
GNOME file manager nautilus because it has a nice user interface; it shows
graphical files as thumbnails, has built-in viewers for text and image
files, and allows me to put shortcuts on my desktop. It loads rather
slowly compared to simpler file managers, but nothing like as slowly as
the complete GNOME system would do. In this case, I am prepared to make a
trade-off on speed because I only have to load the file manager once in
each session.

You make a similar trade-off in practice when it comes to configuring your
window manager. Obviously it is easier to do this by choosing options from
a dialogue box, as GNOME and KDE allow you to do, than by editing a
text-based configuration file, but the difference is probably most
significant for teenage geeks who like to change the whole appearance of
their desktop every few weeks. If you are only going to do it once, making
the desktop look and behave the way you want and then sticking with the
result for perhaps the next five years, you might as well use a more
traditional setup and benefit from a system that is fast, simple and
robust at the cost of a little one-off editing job.

Linux also includes abundant documentation so that you can always "read
the manual" before doing anything you feel unsure about. As with Windows,
there are some manuals already on your computer. For example, the original
Unix Manual is accessible at any time through the man command; just type
man followed by the name of the command you want help on. Using info
rather than man provides a more user-friendly version, which often
includes additional material such as examples.

In addition, most Linux distributions include Windows-like Help Files or
User Guides which you can display when working graphically and navigate by
pointing and clicking with your mouse. Even more useful are the documents
available on the World Wide Web from sites like the Linux Documentation
Project. These include detailed HOW-TOs and user guides on a huge variety
of subjects so that you can find out exactly how any particular aspect of
Linux works. All this is provided free and gratis by enthusiastic

There are also many online forums where you can get help and advice about
many aspects of Linux. Older people are often shy of asking a question in
such a forum; we are worried that we will appear stupid and perhaps get
told off for "asking silly questions". Yet paradoxically we are more
likely to ask sensible questions that do not annoy people and to learn
from the answers we get than the average teenager who has been using
Windows for years. Linux forums are full of bleats and grumbles from young
people who have not really tried to understand what they are doing; they
just want a system that will do everything for them as Windows does but
without all the worms and viruses.

We older people are more likely to learn as we go along, starting with
simple tasks and going on to more complicated things as we gain in
confidence and understanding. We are more likely to study the man and info
pages too, especially when something unexpected happens. As a result, we
can often work out for ourselves where we have gone wrong by entering one
or two simple commands and carefully observing the output. And if this
does not work and we tentatively post a question in a Linux forum, we are
more likely to understand the answer because we have made a point of
trying to understand how Linux works. I have found the Linux community to
be a friendly place for those who genuinely want to learn.

One important caveat: you cannot run Windows programs directly under
Linux. There is a program called wine which provides a Windows-like
environment within Linux on which many Windows programs will run but this
is a clumsy solution to a problem that does not really exist. Every
Windows program that does anything really useful has at least one native
Linux equivalent — sometimes several — which do exactly the same thing
but often faster, more economically and/or more securely. Here are some
suggested equivalents; there are plenty of others.

* Internet Explorer — Mozilla Firefox, Opera
* Outlook, Outlook Express — Thunderbird
* Paintshop, Photoshop — The Gimp
* MS Office — OpenOffice
* Notepad — gedit, kate, vim
* Word — AbiWord, OpenWrite
* Excel — gnumeric, OpenCalc
* Powerpoint — Impress
* Media Player — xmms
* Nero — KOnCD, gtoaster

What about using Linux to connect to the Internet? After all, that's what
most people use computers for these days (and for playing games of course
but we senior citizens surely have better things than that to do with our
time). Here there is both good and bad news. The good news is that with
Linux you don't have to worry about all the bad things and the bad guys
that are out there. No-one seems to write viruses to run on Linux so you
don't need an antivirus program.

There are some Linux worms (which, unlike viruses, do not infect existing
programs but run independently and spread from computer to computer by
email), but a worm can't do much damage unless you are logged on as root
— which you certainly should not be when you're opening email! That is
one of the most important differences between Linux and Windows: in Linux
only programs run by the root user have privileged access to the system
whereas in Windows every program has it. Linux also has a built-in
firewall to keep out malevolent people who try to hack into your computer.
If you use Windows, you have to obtain a separate firewall package.

The bad news is that not all the devices used to connect to the Internet
are compatible with Linux. This is not the fault of Linux; it simply
reflects the fact that every piece of hardware needs a program called a
driver to operate it, and some hardware manufacturers will neither provide
drivers for use with Linux nor reveal enough about how their products are
constructed to allow anyone else to do so. They are too much afraid of
giving away their trade secrets. In principle, Linux can handle any
hardware: it is the antisocial behaviour of these businessmen that gets in
the way.

If your computer connects to the Internet via a modem card or network card
that is not yet Linux-compatible, you have two choices: spend a few pounds
or dollars on a better card and (if necessary) get someone to install it
for you or keep a skeleton Windows system running alongside Linux just for
Internet access, at least for a while. Most modern hard drives are big
enough to contain two operating systems but of course you will then need
an antivirus program and a firewall for your online Windows work and you
miss out on one of the major benefits of using Linux.

Getting Linux-compatible hardware is definitely the better option; it does
not cost much and you only have to do it once. With Windows, you are
likely to find yourself having to upgrade your whole computer every few
years just to keep up with developments in the software (and don't think
you can avoid that by simply sticking to an old version of Windows;
Microsoft eventually withdraw all support from old versions and, when they
do so, the makers of anti-virus and firewall software do likewise so that
people are forced to buy the new ones).

All right, so how do you get hold of Linux, once you've decided to take
the plunge? Well, you don't actually have to buy it. If you, or perhaps a
friend, have broadband Internet access via Windows, Linux can be
downloaded for free from a distribution site such as Ubuntu or Fedora.
Burn it onto a bootable CDROM and you can install it from there.

If you don't have even indirect access to broadband or don't know how to
make your own CDROM, you can order one to be sent to you by post. The
Ubuntu site will send you a free one. Most other sites provide lists of
vendors, many of whom will sell you the CDROMs for a few pounds each
(little more than the cost of the disc itself plus post and packaging).
They can afford to do this because they don't have to pay for the software
themselves. They get it by downloading it.

Another very convenient way is to borrow a "Linux Bible" from the
computing section of your local public library (they tend to have silly
names like Fedora Linux for Dummies or Ubuntu Linux Unleashed). There will
be installation CDROMs in the back, ready for you to use. Of course you
will eventually have to give them back with the book but you can make your
own copies first. Copying Linux is perfectly legal and not piracy because
Linux is free software.

If you have a friend who already uses Linux, matters are even simpler;
he/she can quite legally copy the installation discs and pass the copies
on to you.

Some Linux distributions can be run entirely off a CDROM without changing
anything on your computer (so-called live distributions) and they are an
excellent way of trying Linux out. Knoppix is probably the best known of
these; this site also has a list of vendors. Quite a few other
distributions such as Ubuntu, Fedora and Mepis can be run in this way
initially and then, if you wish, installed permanently on your hard drive
from the same CDROM.

Linux is the world's best kept secret so if you decide that you like it,
please don't keep it to yourself. Tell your friends and contemporaries
about it. Lend it to them to try out; remember, it is perfectly legal to
copy your installation discs for them. If you are a member of U3A, you
could try giving a talk on it. This simple, logical, undemanding operating
system, which never crashes or freezes and is immune to most malicious
software, could be just what most senior citizens would have secretly
preferred their computers to run but didn't know existed.