How to help us help you

When you ask a question here, you need to keep in mind that people access the Net and read news using a mind-boggling variety of hardware and software. If you ask a question of the form "How do I ...?" and don't tell us what kind of a setup you have, you are almost guaranteed to get at least a half-dozen different answers, of which at most one (and very likely none!) is correct for you.

Here are some of the different ways that people access the Net, and what you may need to tell us in each case, to improve your chances of getting a useful answer:

1. You may be using a personal computer with proprietary software to connect via modem to a commercial online service such as Netcom Netcruiser, CompuServe, America Online or Prodigy. In this case you should *not* ask specific questions here about how to use your software. You are much more likely to get a useful answer in a "local" help area or newsgroup.

2. You may be using a personal computer which is directly connected to a company's or school's local network, in such a way that your computer is "on the Net" and has its own Internet address. You may have separate programs for e-mail, news, Gopher, WWW, etc., on your own computer's hard disk. In this case, you should tell us what kind of computer you have and the specific software (including version number) that you are trying to use. Example: "How do I add signatures to my posts, using Netscape 1.2 on a PowerMacintosh 6100?".

3. You may be using a "dumb," text-only terminal which is connected to a big multi-user computer system. After you "log in" and give a password, you run various network programs by typing commands at a prompt like "$" or "%" or ">". In this case you need to tell us what kind of a computer you're using, in particular what "operating system" it's running (UNIX? VMS? whatever?). You also need to tell us the name of the program you're trying to use, and its version number if possible. Example: "I'm trying to read news with trn 3.6 on a Data General UNIX box."

3a. If you're on a UNIX machine, you may win bonus points if you tell us which "shell" you're using. Usually a "$" prompt indicates the Bourne shell, and a "%" prompt the C shell.

4. You may be using a "dumb," text-only terminal connected to a big multi-user computer system (as in #3) which hides all the nasty UNIX or VMS (or whatever) stuff behind a bunch of nice "user-friendly" menus. You may be able to figure out that you're actually using "standard" programs in disguise, in which case you should tell us what they are. Otherwise, you'd better talk to your local computer support people, because such menu systems tend to vary wildly from one place to another. In fact, many menu systems are locally written, so the only people who really know anything about them are the people who run your computer system!

5. You may be using a personal computer, a modem, and generic communications software, to "dial up" a big, multi-user computer system, as described in #3 and #4, above. Once you've connected to the other computer, your own computer acts mostly like a "dumb" terminal, except that you can (in principle) transfer files back and forth between the two computers. In this case, if you think your problem is confined to the "other" computer, you need to tell us the same stuff that is appropriate to #3 or #4. If, however, you're having problems with the interaction between the two computers (for example, terminal emulation problems, or trying to transfer files), you need to tell us in addition, what kind of personal computer you have, which communications software you're using, and maybe even what kind of modem! (and maybe the phase of the moon, for good measure... :-))

6. A special case is the "Freenet" system, which is sort of a combination of #4 and #5. Users typically dial up from their personal computers, and interact with the system using a menu system. Only a person who knows something about Freenets can help another Freenet user with Freenet-specific questions, so you really should ask "locally." There should be a "help" menu right off the top-level menu.

7. You may be using a bulletin board system (BBS) which gives you access to e-mail and newsgroups, and possibly more. In this case, you'd probably better direct software-specific questions to your sysop or local help area. If you can't do that, tell us what kind of BBS you're using, and keep your fingers crossed.

8. There are probably other permutations of hardware and software, but I *think* these are the more common ones. If I've left out something, let me know!

Good luck...

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Last Updated: Monday, January 3, 2005

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