[linuxinindia] FEATURE: Tips and tricks: Learn GNU/Linux through one-stanza trails

  • From: Frederick Noronha <fred@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: linuxinindia@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: Wed, 18 Sep 2002 07:26:01 +0530 (IST)


By Frederick Noronha

YOU NEED not get lost while finding your way through GNU/Linux, the
alternative computer operating system that started off with a rather geeky
air about it. Because of its rather-techie reputation, some still look at
this OS with trepidation. But that not be so, says a network started from
India and aptly called LOST.

LOST, short for Linux One Stanza Tip, tries to make it easier for newbies
and techies alike to find their way more easily through the maze of secrets
that this powerful -- but still little difficult-to-get-started-on --
operating system holds out. 

Explains one founder-member, Suresh Ramasubramanian: "It started when (one
of the key persons) U.S.M. Bish had this great idea. FAQs or
frequently-asked questions are asked and repeated so many times. Several
people anyway don't really bother to google (i.e. simply visit the
search-engine www.google.com), or go to a web-page-based FAQs. They expect
answers by e-mail."

This team of Indian geeks wanting to 'spread the word' and ensure a faster
learning-curve for GNU/Linux came up with an idea. Their solution was to
start slipping a FAQ into the e-mail signature -- randomized so that a new,
short GNU/Linux tip turns up each time. 

This, in short,  resulted in LOST, or Linux One Stanza Tip.

Says Bish, with a touch of irony, while explaining the origins: "This
herring got caught spontaneously, while we were fishing for trout!"

Thing began sometime in July 2001 on the Linux-India-Help mailing list. This
list is part of the Linux-India network, that was set up by volunteers
within India and abroad, and aims to help promote the 'free software'
GNU/Linux operating system within this part of South Asia. 

There was a long thread (or discussion, going by slang used on electronic
mailing-lists) on "finger-holding" for newbies. 

Egged on, a few LOST promoters decided to put some common queries that crop
up "time and time again" into small "HOWTO" documents. (HOWTOs explain just
what their name says, how-to do certain technical tasks with GNU/Linux.)

They then felt the need to make these available via some Internet server, so
that they could be pointed to a common resource.

To start, the team consisted of Suresh "SRS" Ramasubramanian
<mallet@xxxxxxx>, Rajesh Fowkar <rfowkar@xxxxxxxxxxxxxx>, Sriram Karra
<karra@xxxxxxxxxxx> and USM Bish <usmbish@xxxxxxxxxxxxxx>

Initially, they would simply 'copy' their e-mail to each other. But, as the
volume increased SRS setup a "howtos" mailing list up in August 2001.

"We were first writing documents, which could help newbies with their trials
and tribulations with Linux. We still are at the job, and we look at each
others contributions for refinements and additions ... more heads the
better. Soon other folk joined in. Howtos, though on a low key, is still
progressing. It is the trout that we are still fishing for," says Bish.

Writing long documents, which were put up on sites, didn't really help much.
Bish recalls reading that readership of email 'sigs' (the few lines tucked
at the end of every e-mail message) was about 80% whereas all other forms
put together inclusive of banner ads, site-info ... and spam accounted for
the rest.

So he floated this idea of using short info-containing 'sigs' of howtos to
disseminate Linux related knowledge.  "This in education parlance is called
passive dissemination of Info", says Bish.

Just for some background: GNU/Linux is a computer operating system that is
gaining growing acceptance in a country like India, which has considerable
software skills but ironically can't afford the comparatively unreal prices
of much of the proprietorial software put out in the global market.

After the operating system was put together in the 'early nineties, it first
trickled into this country. Then, in 1997, the Internet opened up to the
commonman, making it possible for collaboration across the country, and for
the speedier dissemination of information. 

In between, prominent mainstream Indian computer magazines like 'PC-Quest'
pushed GNU/Linux forward by circulating tens of thousands of copies of this
computer operating system via CDs. They continue putting out tens of
thousands of GNU/Linux copies into the hands of eager computer enthusiasts,
as do magazines like 'DeveloperIQ' and 'Digit' (formerly 'Chip'). 

Now, the circle seems to be getting complete: early adopters of GNU/Linux
are showing signs of passing on skills to new-users.

Bish says he would perhaps be amongst the first users of GNU/Linux (since
'95) in India, and had quite a few hints and tips collected over the years.

"It was a matter of putting a few samples for perusal, then some
brain-storming on the "howtos", and to get the catch-word LOST
(Linux-One-Stanza-Tips). It also took a bit more effort to get the format
together. Then we were on the road. By the time LOST was put up for the
first time in September 2001, we were about a dozen folk (working on the)
howtos," he recalls.

The first LOST tips were put up on Bish's home page, along with the other
documents that he wrote (like the HDI -- How Do I -- series). This is at:

The first few were posted on LIH (the Linux-India Help mailing list),  and
it caught the attention of people on the list. Contributions started coming
in. "We did not publicize over other lists because there was much more work
to be done before we could actually call it a project to be proud of," says

The tips were getting ready -- or would accumulate gradually. But
implementation was a different ball game altogether. It was possible to use
random signature-generating software like 'fortune' or 'randsig' for LOST
sigs. But the team felt the need to develop something so that signature
placement would be by choice -- either a LOST tip or some other sig.

Bish started writing the script rotator, and then gen-sig. These are bash
scripts only, but did the job fine. 

Its fans say 'rotator' is arguably among the most versatile signature
rotation software on the Net. It caters for signatures from multiple sig
sets, PGP/gnupg and reserved signature placement. It also allows for sigs
from databases like LOST, that could be fixed or random.

There were other scripts needed too. This was needed for the manipulation of
LOST snippets to other formats. Binand wrote the script "lgrep" to search
for LOSTs by keywords, Sriram has been writing an elisp script for
interfacing with emacs. Sayamindu wrote a PHP script to place random LOSTs
on web pages, which is working on his home page.

Once set in motion, things continued.

It was at this stage in Oct-Nov 2001 that  LOSTs  started taking the shape
of a project. By December 2001, the project was accepted by Sourceforge. 

On New Year's Day 2002, Bish put up the first tarball on
lost.sourceforge.net, and by January 15, 2002, an announcement was made on
Linux-India-Help. Then, the number of snippets had swelled to 250, from the
original 50 that was first put up on the home page in September 2001.

Currently, the number of LOST tips has crossed 300. There are nine 'scripts'
up too. Over time, this number is expected to grow. Help is welcome from

"It is a good idea, sort of.  It can take contributions from almost anybody,
can be used by almost anybody.  It kind of gives people a short,
nice-to-know tip -- like the tips that pop up in KDE or other applications
on startup," says Suresh. This comes to you, of course, via email. You end
up feeling grateful, say, to Rajesh Fowkar of Goa, when an email sent on
some other subject also contains a useful tip sent out from one GNU/Linux
enthusiast to another.

How do LOSTs look like? Here, for instance, is one tip that comes from Rahul

####[ Linux One Stanza Tip (LOST) ]###########################

Sub : Command line shortcuts (clear)                 LOST #310

Tired of typing in "clear" every time you want the screen to
be cleared ? Press [Ctrl-L] ... This works for  most shells,
(except for ash, bsh and ksh)


Most of the participation in LOST currently comes from India. 

By some coincidence, and because it originated there, those pushing the list
forward are regulars from Linux India Help. "People like Bish, Rajesh
Fowkar, Binand Raj, Dileep Kumar (MDK), etc.  I haven't contributed more
than two or three LOSTs -- I just host the mailing list for LOST," says

He gives full credit to "Bish's fertile brain" for originating the idea.
Like many other 'free software' GNU/Linux projects, it grew through

Goa-based Rajesh Fowkar disagrees. Says he: "Suresh's contribution is next
best only to Bish's." Like in many volunteer-driven projects evolving in the
GNU/Linux spirit, the fight is not so much to gain credit at the individual
level, but to spread the benefits around generously and appreciate each
other's contribution.

Suresh suggests that a project like this has far greater potential than
currently met. His strategy: expand it as far as possible, submit it to
Freshmeat (the site freshmeat.net that announces new GNU/Linux projects) so
that more people get a look at it, and want to participate."

Just a few months old, there already are some memorable times of this
project which members remember. One moment was when some fine soul found a
LOST signature on a mailing list, about an onboard modem, and posted to the
list in Spanish.  Lucky his error messages were in English and some of the
volunteers were actually able to help him from distant India. (ENDS)

NOTE: To join the LOST mailing list, visit 

Frederick Noronha * Freelance Journalist * Goa * India 832.409490 / 409783
BYTESFORALL www.bytesforall.org  * GNU-LINUX http://linuxinindia.pitas.com
Email fred@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx * Mobile +9822 122436 (Goa) * Saligao Goa India
Writing with a difference... on what makes *the* difference

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