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Ubuntu Hacks (Book Review)

by Alan German

The sub-title of this book is “Tips & Tools for Exploring, Using, and Tuning Linux” which turns out to be appropriate on a number of fronts. Some of the initial “hacks”, notably Hack #1 – Test-Drive Ubuntu and Hack #5 – Install Ubuntu, aren’t hacks at all, but rather are straightforward instructions on getting started with (i.e. exploring and using) Ubuntu Linux. But, despite that minor quibble, the book does contain lots of good information and advice for Ubuntu users, and really does have some interesting hacks.

As with all the books in the “Hacks” series from O’Reilly, there are just too many individual items between the end covers – 100 hacks in all – to be able to do justice to them in a short review article. Consequently, I will have to settle for providing an outline of the available material, and reserve my detailed comments for a few favourite tips and techniques.

The book consists of ten chapters, commencing, as noted above, with tips on getting started with Ubuntu; moving rapidly to tweaking the desktop, using multi-media applications, configuring laptops and input/output devices; through package management, security issues and administrative functions; to the intricacies of running virtual machines and configuring a variety of Linux-based servers.

Even users with some prior familiarity with Ubuntu shouldn’t discount the initial series of hacks for “getting started”. These include instructions on how to customize the Ubuntu Live CD (Hack #4), moving Windows data and settings to Ubuntu (Hack #7), and installing Ubuntu on an external USB drive (Hack #10).

Hack #19 – Search Your Computer looks interesting as it describes the use of a utility program called Beagle to index and search ( la Google Desktop) for files, E-mail messages, etc. The program is said to be a huge improvement on the Find File command in the Nautilus file manager and so should be a worthwhile addition to the base Ubuntu system. Similarly, the CUPS-PDF utility (Hack #26) provides the very useful feature of being able to create a PDF file from any application with a print command.

Should you need to rip tracks from an audio CD, you might find Grip (Hack #32) to be a useful tool. Did you know that you can burn CD’s and DVD’s using Nautilus? If not, check out Hack #33. Need to extend the time that you can run your laptop on battery power? Hack #40 will tell you how to throttle back the speed of your CPU, dim your display, and slow down your hard drive’s rotation speed, all to save power. There are also lots of tips on wireless networking, keyboards, mice and touchpads, and even how to hook up multiple displays.

Chapter 6 covers the gamut of software installation using package managers and should be extremely useful for new Ubuntu users. If, like me, your modus operandi is to read instructions, help files, and manuals as a last resort, it may take a while before you discover the extensive world of applications software outside of the Ubuntu CD. So, take my advice – do yourself a favour – sit down and read this section of the book. All of the neat applications described so far, and a whole raft of other software products, are available through the judicious use of a package manager. You will learn how to use apt-get on the command line or, more likely, how to download and install applications through the use of the Synaptic (under Gnome) or Adept (under KDE) graphical package managers. Another useful tip (Hack #60) shows how to add software repositories, such as universe, to the list accessed by your preferred package manager.

One remarkable (to me) tip is buried as part of Hack #54 – Manage packages from the command line. While I am content to use the graphical interface provided by Synaptic for package management, the subject tip involves creating shortcuts for Linux commands by adding lines (i.e. individual commands) to ~/.bashrc. Now, the latter is not described any further, but the form of the commands listed (alias agi=‘sudo apt-get install’) suggests that this is a means of storing a short text string that will be interpreted as the specified command. So, now all I need is a long command string that I will use frequently in a Terminal window.

Information on a number of security issues is available, including the use of sudo to run commands as root, modifying user permissions, the use of Firewall Builder to define firewall functionality, file encryption utilities to keep data secure, and ClamAV to fight viruses (in files shared with Windows of course!) Some useful administrative functions covered by the book include editing configuration files, mounting filesystems (e.g. disk partitions), and synchronizing files between two folders and/or devices using the Unison utility program.

My favourite technique in the whole book is Hack #45 – Make videos of your tech-support questions. This involves the use of a utility called Istanbul to record a series of actions, and their results, as a video file. The suggestion is that a new user (your “Uncle Gussy”) could send such a video to a more experienced Ubuntu user (his nephew!) who would then troubleshoot a problem remotely and provide the correct operating procedure.

The final two chapters of the book, on using emulators and setting up servers, are perhaps the most esoteric. Chapter 9 – Visualization and Emulation – provides tips on running Windows’ applications under WINE. I wasn’t sure why anyone would want to do this. It seems to me that there is an equivalent, more than adequate, open-source program for just about any Windows’ software one cares to name. However, the book’s author suggests that the main use may be to run Windows-based games on Linux boxes, which I suppose makes sense.

Actually, there is one tip that makes the whole book really worthwhile to me personally. Hack #88 – Play Windows Games includes a section titled “Run Blasts from the Past” and details how to run DOS programs using the DOSBox utility. I happen to have a custom database program that runs under DOS, an application that I use frequently, and find that it works flawlessly under DOSBox’s shell.

The visualization section of the book will also help you to run Ubuntu inside Windows (hard to believe one can do so!) and to setup virtual machines. The final chapter – Small Office/Home Office Server – provides lots of advice on setting up Ubuntu-based file servers, web servers, mail servers, proxy servers, DHCP servers, and domain name servers – some of which I never knew existed!

So, don’t get put off by the seemingly simplistic nature of the first few “hacks” on getting started with Ubuntu. The book has great tips and techniques that should appeal to just about every Ubuntu Linux user, whatever their level of knowledge and expertise with this operating system and its applications.

Bottom Line:

Ubuntu Hacks - Tips & Tools for Exploring, Using, and Tuning Linux
US $29.99
Jonathan Oxer, Kyle Rankin and Bill Childers
First Edition June 2006
ISBN-10 0-596-52720-9

Originally published: June, 2007

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