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Softpanorama Review:
A Practical Guide to Red Hat Linux 8

A Practical Guide to Red Hat Linux 8
  by Mark G. Sobell
This is a heavy book with its 1616 pages and two Red Hat 8 CDs included :-). And this is not "blind date" type of the book. On his website the author provides the text of four chapters (Ch 5: The Shell I, Ch 7: GNOME Desktop Manager, Ch 9: Networking and the Internet, Ch 12: The Shell II: The Bourne Again Shell). It's extremely rare and generous for such an author as Mark Sobell to provide three chapters online and I applaud his courageous decision (pages disappeared from the site in six month or so; open source mentality is not that easy to preserve for authors of open source books ;-)
Copyright Notice
Table of Contents
Chapter 5: The Shell I
Chapter 7: GNOME Desktop Manager
Chapter 9: Networking and the Internet
Chapter 12: The Shell II: The Bourne Again Shell

I browsed those chapters. Very few typos. Nice typesetting too. This is a Red Hat oriented update of his prev. book on Solaris  and it was a good book too. But what I really like about Mark Sobell's Unix books is that all of them contain two parts:

The book also has a usable index and five appendixes. Appendix A (regular expressions) actually deserves to be converted to a chapter instead of putting several shells into the intro book, which was a big mistake. 

This edition is a result of polishing the material from four previous editions and that shows. For example in the Chapter 2 (p.38) the author mentions the problem of using Ctrl-Z by the beginners who attempt to undo some command line changes. But this is not a Windows environment and that actually postpone the program -- a very puzzling situation for beginners for which very few Unix beginner books authors provide a helpful advice. Useful tips can be found in almost any chapter and it is this attention to details that really make this book an outstanding example of the introductory Unix textbook.

Another interesting feature of the book is it can be used to study the command line environment after GUI (KDE/Gnome) environment. The author introduced GUI environment quite early and explains it well. Such an approach is more modern than "command line first" approach and provides an opportunity for students immediately transfer their Windows-based skills to Linux and master command line after that, saving a lot of frustration (command line version of vi as the first Unix editor is a torture for Windows users, as a teacher I know that for sure :-), GUI version of  vim is a much better starting point for beginners and I highly recommend to start with it, not with the command line version).  In this case beginners can postpone struggling with vi until they get to speed with command line editing, classic Unix utilities and pipes. Actually this "reverse order" permits studying vi in more depth. We should not forget than most students now study Unix after they learn Windows and Sobell's book in one of the few that take into account this situation.

I used his previous Solaris-based book for several introductory Unix classes at the university and can attest that students grasp most material very easily. Exercises given after each chapter can serve as a basis of very useful homework assignments.

As for shortcomings there are very few of them and they generally does not diminish the high value of the book. For some reason gawk and sed are not covered in the main chapters, but only in the reference part. I would change this is a future edition(s).

Grep and find probably also can be covered a small separate chapter (or the author may wish to swap it with the chapter 14 --the second shell (c shell) might be an overkill for the introductory book (bash is now "good enough") and it's better to move it into supplement :-). I would also convert the supplement about regular expressions into a regular chapter and devote some space to Perl (Z-shell can go to the supplement too; I doubt about wisdom of covering three shells in an introductory book.)

It's really sad that Perl is not mentioned at all while the whole chapter is devoted to zsh: in reality Perl killed shell scripting in all but simple and special purpose (startup) cases. And although the decision whether to include Perl chapter or not should probably be better left to the author (it complicates the book and as such has some drawbacks too), I think that it makes sense at least to provide a supplement with the overview of Perl in future editions.

Another minor thing: using pine as a newsreader as in Chapter 9 is fine if you are limited to the command line. If not, than Netscape Communicator (in its Mozilla incarnation) is much more user friendly and easier to use program.

All-in-all I hope everybody who is trying to master Linux will appreciate the level of insight into this pretty complex environment that this book provides. It beats similar books not only by weight :-).



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