A non-technical Linux user’s tale

Photograph by Christine Surman

As I mentioned in many posts, my goal for this website is to bring the world of Linux closer to the ordinary computer user, who focuses on productive tasks, creative hobbies, administration or a study. I want to free Linux from the misconception of being too technical, too complicated, too user-unfriendly, and only for techies, system administrators and programmers, because that is an incorrect image that misrepresents what Linux really has to offer. I think together we can help others see that Linux is actually a great friendly platform by sharing our experiences from that real user point of view. So I am proud that today’s article is not from my hand, but splendidly written by Paul Surman, one of the readers of this website who is very enthusiastic about what Linux and open source has to offer. Paul takes us into his real user experiences with Linux from, among other things, his work as a poet. Paul takes us along on his personal journey through his Linux world, the rationale behind his choices and above all the pleasure Linux gives him on a daily basis. Enjoy his story.

I hope I’m a real Linux user, I am certainly a very ordinary one, and guess I am writing this to encourage people who might be thinking about trying Linux, or are very new to it. Although it might also appeal to someone who has got to grips with Linux, and is curious about someone else’s experience of the same process they went through. I’m not into playing games (unless the occasional game of solitaire counts), social media, or playing music. My computer is primarily a workhorse for me.

First thing to say—I am not fond of big digital corporations, I seem to be allergic to them. If large digital corporations were conscious entities, I’m inclined to think they would stay awake at night thinking paranoid lawyerly thoughts about patent infringements, and anxious ones about their coffers, not about software creativity. Probably I’m not a corporate kind of person, I think they have been allowed to become too powerful, and don’t face enough competition, leading to users not having a worthwhile choice of mainstream operating systems. This was what first attracted me to Linux as an alternative, with its many, some would say too many, distributions. In my working life I had to use what I was given, but I never enjoyed using Windows.

“I want it to be easy to use”

In my home computer use it seemed to me that I, the user, had been an afterthought in the minds of developers. This was exemplified by Windows 8, which quite clearly had nothing to do with its users needs, and everything to do with Microsoft’s hopes of creating an operating system that would be similar to their mobile phone version of Windows. It was for their convenience, not their users. We know how that worked out for them. I was especially unhappy with the way a new copy of Windows seemed quick at first, but soon slowed to a sullen, foot dragging crawl. I spent too much time waiting for it to open, close, or respond to commands. Also the overlarge updates used up time when I could have been working productively. My computer is a tool for me. I want it to be easy to use so that I can concentrate on my work.

I am not exactly computer illiterate, but neither am I a power user. As a poet, my chief use for my computer is as a word processor, producing documents that editors, who are not usually Linux users, must be able to access. My first experience of Linux came when the copy of Windows XP I had on the netbook I used when away from home, no longer received updates. I took it to a local computer shop who put Lubuntu on it. This worked well enough for me to want to find out more. After doing some research, I had Linux Mint Cinnamon edition installed on a new laptop that was intended to replace a desktop computer.

“In a few days, using Mint felt entirely natural”

I wondered whether I had done the right thing, but on getting my new computer home it was less than an hour before I had found my way around Linux Mint to the extent that I had already set about changing its look and feel to suit my requirements, something Windows never encouraged me to do. In a few days, using Mint felt entirely natural. But I had no idea that this was the beginning of an exploration of a universe of programs, tweaks, and enhancements.

I know that John, this websites owner, has moved on from Mint, and is now a Zorin fan, and I am sure it too is an excellent Linux Distribution, but rather conservatively I have stayed with Mint, for the simple reason that in the more than six or seven years I have been using it, it has behaved in an exemplary fashion, and provided me with computing I had previously only dreamt of. It is still as fast now as it was on the first day, I don’t get interrupted by massive updates, and it has been a joy to use. The thought of going back to Windows makes me shudder.

“I see it as a bonus”

I am still not a particularly technically minded user, but I now use the terminal quite often, something you don’t need to do in order to use Linux, but once you have done it a few times you lose the worst fears you might have had, and can see its usefulness. Mint is known as a very stable operating system, partly due to the fact that their software manager doesn’t usually include the latest cutting edge version of programs, only tried and tested ones. I remember one reviewer saying something along the lines of it being stable to the point of boring. That doesn’t bother me, I see it as a bonus. But I have installed PPA’s (Personal Package Archives) for programs where I needed a newer version, or a program wasn’t in the Mint Software Manager. Likewise I have installed DEB packages, and AppImages, and done all sorts of things I never expected to involve myself with. During all this Mint has remained remarkably uncomplaining and well behaved.

An operating system has to fit in with the needs of my poetry writing day job, certain programs are deemed essential. My working dictionary is the Oxford Concise dictionary and thesaurus, which only has Windows and Mac versions, but I managed to install it using WINE, and it now runs faster than it ever did, and everything works, including the useful audio pronunciation examples. I also use Artha, a Linux offline dictionary and thesaurus based on definitions from the Princeton WordNet project. I use the latter a lot now, because, not only are the definitions good, but the GUI is excellent. I could easily rely on Artha alone. If there is a single ideal use for a computer it has to be as a thesaurus. It is quick, and you don’t get sidetracked into looking at words you never intended to look for.

“Linux programs often concentrate on ease of use”

Needless to say, LibreOffice Writer is my word processor, which is not only adequate, but for my purposes, equal to Microsoft Word, and is still getting better. I suppose there is only so far you can go with the development of a word processor before it gets too bloated. I’ve noted that Linux programs often concentrate on ease of use rather than providing the endless features that commercial products offer to give an impression of being feature packed, but few people use. I have used it to create the manuscripts of two books of poetry, and the output I have sent for the two different publishers to use in their publishing software has caused no problems whatsoever. I am now about to send another manuscript out, and do so without the faintest anxiety that it will cause difficulties should the book be accepted for publication.

Maybe it is because my needs are fairly straightforward, but I have yet to find anything that I haven’t been able to do with my computer because I am a Linux User. I use Dropbox as an extra backup for my work, and when the Covid pandemic started, the group of poets I belong to looked for a safer way to have their regular meetings, and I heard Zoom mentioned for the first time. I wondered whether I would be be able to join Zoom meetings from Linux, but Zoom was in the Mint Software Manager, so I installed it, and have both been engaged in, and have started my own meetings, for a couple of years now. Also I have met up with friends and family in France, the Netherlands and Brazil using Skype.

“And another experience clocked up”

There have, of course, been glitches on the way, but I can honestly say, very few of them, and it has always been possible to find a Linux website or video somewhere that has helped me out. Quite recently an over confident adventurous moment caused me to be locked out of my system, but a little thought enabled me to get to the Linux equivalent of the C:- prompt, and from there to my Timeshift backups that soon had me rejoicing in the Cinnamon start up sound again, with an enormous sense of relief, and another experience clocked up that could be useful in the future.

If there is anything unexpected that has come from using Linux, for me it has to be the tweaking and tinkering, something I had never spent any time doing before. If there is the tiniest tinkering gene in your make-up, Linux finds it. I’ve made use of various of the many applets, desklets, and extensions available to Mint users. I’ve downloaded different icon sets until I settled on the one I use now, the Cinnamon flavour of the Breeze Extended Icon set. The only thing I haven’t changed are the basic Mint themes. Although I have tried others, the native themes, restrained but modern, are very good, and suit me well. If anything, the range of choices that a Linux user has to face is overwhelming, from different styles and purposes of operating system, to programs, and ways of altering your systems appearance, it can at first be bewildering. And there is no shortage of support or advice, from forums and websites, to videos that hold your hand through using unfamiliar programs or procedures, you are spoilt for choice.

“Purely out of curiosity”

I have installed and uninstalled, and used and not used, numerous programs. Often installing them purely out of curiosity, and have now reached the stage where I have everything fine-tuned to perfection. Until something else catches my eye, that is. Or a site like Real Linux User makes me aware of some useful program I was unaware of.

There is something else that has happened to me in the time I have been using Linux, I now feel as if I am supporting a community of people with a particular outlook on life. They make things for the love of it, but don’t need to claim absolute ownership or control over what they make, and prefer to cooperate to build a better world of computing, something that should spill over into other things in life. Perhaps they are leading the way to a different, and far better way of doing things. Which, if you think about it, in the current state of the world, is not the worst idea anyone has ever had. I am so glad that I took that first step into the unknown, and away from the mainstream, I have never regretted it. Thank you Linux and open-source, you’ve made a difference for the user.


About Paul

Paul Surman was born in 1947 in Oxford, and still lives in a nearby village. He is a member of Back Room Poets, a group of poets who organise readings and workshops in Oxford. He is currently working on a third collection to be called The Ghostly Effect. Paul’s work has been widely published, in magazines and anthologies.

Visit Paul’s website at https://paulsurman.weebly.com/ to learn more about his work as a poet.


Note: If, like Paul, you would also like to share your Linux story on www.reallinuxuser.com, please contact me via the contact page and let me know what you have in mind.