Although I have superficial experience with Ruby and Rails, I think my advice will still help. I first answer the questions in your second paragraph.
| Do I need to first take the time to learn ruby, before trying to apply it to the rails framework? |
Yes you do. Because of the documentation, the good framework, and the community, you can get started (with a struggle) and not have to really know anything about programming. However, you will very
rapidly approach a brick wall. A hard brick wall.
Rails is a web development framework for a programming language (Ruby). Ultimately, it is a tool for developers to use. A framework is prewritten code and tools to tackle a problem (in this case a web application). Obviously, any premade foundation helps any programmer, as they don't have to waste time redoing what the framework does, and they have a community to turn to for help. However, in the end, much of the rest of the work involves programming. You cannot avoid this.
| Or do I move forward with the rubyonrails web site and the dummies book that seems to have coupled them together as an animal that needs to be tackled together? |
You can try, but I think you'll find learning to be less enlightening and more a question of memorizing. Programming is about problem solving, but anytime you run into something a book hasn't covered (which would be pretty much all the time), you can't tackle the problem, and must instead turn to others for help.
It's not even about knowing Ruby. It's about the mentality of a programmer, the knowledge programmers acquire, and the sense of how to tackle programming problems. Which is what a web application involves. Some of it is solved by Ruby and Rails. But only some.
| I was doing a little research, and came across someone mentioning not only a hefty learning curve, but also that ruby on rails is a process hog or something like that. Any one able to comment on that for me? |
I have no first hand experience on this issue (suggested in my disclaimer above). However, from my research and knowledge, I'll say this. It's true that scalability issues have been raised about the Rails framework, and also about Ruby. That said, it's also in active usage in many heavily used websites. Twitter comes to mind. Although to note, a part of their web application is actually done in Scala because of the scalability and performance issues.
I largely avoid making comments like "yes, it's slow" or "no, it's just fine" because scalability isn't an issue that beginners can tackle. Picking a bunch of nice tools do not absolve you from scalability issues. If you do not have the knowledge base to evaluate or comprehend information on the scalability of frameworks or the technical facts about them, you aren't prepared to tackle an application of that scale anyway.
Consider that you have no programming experience. Ultimately, your limiting factor will be your lack of knowledge, your lack of programmer sense on how to tackle problems, and time.
Also, this isn't 2004 when Rails was just released. The ecosystem has changed rapidly. So here's what you do need to know. The main popular languages for web applications are PHP, Java, C#, Ruby, and Python. Let me condition that statement: for getting started, you'll find yourself practically one of these five programming languages. All of these languages have good solid web development frameworks. In general, they all have mature libraries (prewritten code) to use
You'll find that getting started with PHP, Ruby, and Python to be easier. I generally recommend starting with Python, but then again that's what I myself tend to program in. It won't matter in the long run, so just do your research and then pick one. You can see the beginner subforum on the Devshed forums for more discussion on picking a programming language.
EDIT: So if you are hyped about Ruby and Rails go ahead and use it. I do recommend spending time getting up to speed with Ruby first. There's plenty of documentation, so spend the time reading.