GNU/Linux Training

I’ve been considering trying to offer a GNU/Linux course at a local Adult Education Center. The Boston Center for Adult Education, the Cambridge Center for Adult Education, and the Brookline Center for Adult Education all offer dozens of computer courses, but only for legacy operating systems and applications. Not a single course focusing on open source software.

I imagine a few obstacles. First, would any of these places even let me set up a Linux lab? I can’t imagine they’d be too willing to have all of their hard drives wiped (or repartitioned) and replaced with new, unfamiliar software. My experience is that Linux is more threatening to system administrators the less familiar they are with it. The class could probably be taught with a “live” CD distribution like Knoppix or Ubuntu Live, but this would mean I couldn’t demonstrate an actual, real live installation, which is often the part where people get stuck.

Second, who would take this course? This is one of those cases where you can’t even lead a horse to water (much less make him drink)! I would want to tailor the course to a target audience, but I have trouble guessing if the audience would be: (1) no one (2) curious home desktop Windows users (3) technical people with no familiarity with Linux, or (4) beginner Linux users who are looking to be able to solve problems on their own better… or maybe some other audience entirely? Of course, the way the course is advertised would to some extent determine the audience, but I’d like to find the most ripe target audience.

Third, how do you teach a computer course, anyway? I’ve never had a demonstration-based computer training that I found very useful. In my experience, I learn everything by doing—and by doing I don’t mean repeating the actions I see an instructor doing. (“Now click on ‘Gnome Control Coenter’…”) It seems to me that learning about software is such an individual experience—how do you effectively scale it up to 5-15 people so that no one is left behind, no one is bored, and everyone comes away feeling much empowered? And how do you model the critical “trial and error” stages that everyone must go through to really grasp something?

It occurs to me that maybe the best way to teach a software course might not involve much actual demonstration at all, instead the trick is to teach people a generalized method for approaching problems so that they have the tools they need to find answers when problems arise.

For example, on linux-disciples, a small community-of-interest mailing list I administer, someone recently asked “how to get online”. It wasn’t clear at all what layer was the problem; I responded:

The trick with this sort of problem—and really 99.9% of linux problems—is drilling down to the problem area. One of the problems I consistently see with newer users is that they feel helpless because they don’t know at which layer the problem is arising.

So there are a few questions:

(1) Does your computer see your network card?
(2) Does your network card see the wireless signal, and associate with the wireless router?
(3) Does your network card get an IP address from the wireless router?
(4) Does the wireless router see the “Ethernet modem” (I assume you mean cable modem)?
(5) Does the cable modem see the Internet?

And then continued to walk through each of these items with some suggestions for how to figure out if that was the problem. I think training people to (1) figure out what questions they need to ask, and (2) how to go through the questions one-by-one and get a definite answer as to whether the system works at that level, would be the best way to teach this kind of course.

Where Did “Open With” Go?

Living at the bleeding (well, leading) edge of open source development can be quite disconcerting as a desktop user. For example, in some recent nautilus upgrade, the “open with” option for folders just disappeared. I used this to queue up folders of music in xmms. Moreover, the “open with application…” option for files no longer gives a nice dialogue where you can define applications for file extensions (or specific files)—now it just prompts for a command to run. Where did it all go?

I think my blog has been too “consumer protection” focused lately—see my recent entries on WLI Reservation Rewards (now up to 25 comments!) and U-Haul for example. I’m afraid I’m becoming a one trick pony, so I’m going to limit my consumer complaints for a while, even though I’ve got a nice one stewing about Verizon. Steve says I’m actually a three trick pony: Linux, IP law, and consumer scams. Maybe he’s right.

Buffalo Technology Does Not Suck

Just got off the phone with Buffalo Technology tech support. They most definitely do not suck.

This morning, my house’s WiFi just stopped working entirely. I have a pretty new Buffalo Airstation WBR2-G54, which I bought because cnet seemed to like it, and because it comes with a repeater that extends the wireless range (and creates a new wired access point) simply by powering it up. I was sick of slow media transfer over 802.11b, since I use WiFi to play my music collection everywhere in the house. (I do have pangs of guilt at not buying a router with open source firmware, however, like the Linksys WRT54G).

After trying the standard tricks (resetting the router, different clients, etc.), I decided to call tech support. First plus: Buffalo has free 24/7 tech support for all customers.

The tech support guy I got was clearly clued in. He could tell right away that he didn’t need to ask me if the router was turned on. He also figured out pretty quickly that I run Debian, which is also the distribution that he was learning. I love the feeling of connecting with another Debian user, particularly a tech support person who you know must spend his entire day talking to clueless users—it’s like you have a secret handshake and you can skip all the bullshit.

Anyway, the problem turned out to be relatively simple: I just needed to change the wireless channel. It hadn’t occurred to me because nothing had changed recently in my home. According to the clued-in tech support guy, though, interference can come from quite far away sufficient to make a particular frequency totally unuseable. There is a large condo development going in across the street (probably about 300 feet from my router) and he said he had encountered problems with construction interfering with WiFi several times.

So I still think U-Haul Sucks, but I am firmly convinced that Buffalo does not.

(I’m also wondering if I should worry about interference that is so powerful as to knock out my whole wireless network coming from so far away).

MP4/AAC Tag Editor for Linux?

Is anyone aware of an MP4/AAC sound file ID tag editor for Linux? There doesn’t appear to be anything in Debian; a Google search doesn’t reveal any obvious candidates.

Generic Linux Wireless Card

Does anyone know whether common so-called “generic” PCI WiFi cards work under Linux? pricewatch, the Internet’s best competitive marketplace for technology (often beats eBay), lists 802.11b PCI cards as cheap as $16. I’ve tried contacting the vendors of these “generic” cards but haven’t been able to get anyone to tell me the chipset or whether or not the card will be useable under Linux. Can any of my readers give me a tip?