You can locate and trust those frequently answered questions

In spite of considerable difference of opinion about the quality of Internet
information, I find little to fault in most technical FAQs--as opposed to FAQs about, say,
Monty Python or Star Trek.


Some people consider all FAQs unreliable because they are unregulated and free. But
remember that dozens of people contribute to a technical FAQ, and the information gets
scrutinized by hundreds or thousands of other people as soon as it becomes the official
FAQ of a technical discussion group.


As an author, I probably shouldn't point this out, but hard-copy trade paperbacks
generally represent only the expertise of one researcher, or at most a few collaborators,
so the average $50 technical paperback is no more reliable than a good FAQ and often
several years out of date to boot.


FAQs bundle together useful information for novice users. They have contact addresses
for contributors and a guide to other resources. These are safe havens for searching in
contrast to Internet news groups, which tend to break into flame wars, follow esoteric
discussion threads for days at a time, and let junk e-mailers capture your address.


Though newsgroups are a poor source of introductory information, they can be terrific
for pursuing advanced topics or specifics not covered in the FAQs.


You can find FAQs in several ways. When you join a particular newsgroup, you'll see
periodic postings of that group's FAQ. Or you can join one of the FAQ-only news groups
such as alt.news.answers, which publishes FAQs from other newsgroups.


Either of these methods forces you to wait until a desired FAQ appears. Another route
is to search one of the repositories that maintain catalogs of current FAQs.


It takes time to sort through everything, but the mother of all FAQ repositories
appears at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's World Wide Web site at http://www.rtfm.mit.edu/pub/usenet.


In your newsgroup searches, you may run across the acronym RTFM, which stands for
"Read the [expletive] manual."


This rude term expresses the frustration of experts at being interrupted by what they
consider stupid questions. The stupidity lies not so much in the questions but in the fact
they've already been answered by user manuals or the newsgroup's FAQ.


A FAQ repository that's easier to navigate if you aren't familiar with newsgroup names
and topics appears at http://ps.superb.net/FAQ.
This site has a search feature and a form to link you directly to a FAQ repository at Ohio
State University. Don't go to OSU first http://www.cis.ohio-state.edu/hypertext/faq/usenet
has no search engine, just a long list of FAQs.


My search on ps.superb.net/FAQ for
references to "2600," a famous hacker's journal, found only one of the three or
four relevant FAQs and couldn't link directly. But it brought up a page that let me search
on the OSU server, where I found all the relevant FAQs with hot links to text.


Users of Netscape Communications Corp. browsers know by now that in mid-June, a Dutch
consultant found a security flaw in Versions 2.0 through 4.0 of the browsers. Netscape's
Web site describes this as "the privacy bug," a benign-sounding description of a
serious hole that lets Web site operators download files from computers linked to their
sites.


Netscape has posted a fix for older browsers, but it might be simpler just to upgrade
to Communicator 4.0, available at http://home.netscape.com.
Some users will want to buy it on disk because the downloadable version for Microsoft
Windows 95 and NT is 8.3M compressed or 16M expanded. It takes about an hour to download
at 28.8 kilobits/sec.


Microsoft Internet Explorer has had its share of bugs, too. Just because a program has
been around a long time doesn't mean it's bug-free. This privacy bug existed back to
Navigator 2.0 and across all platforms, yet it was announced only recently. How long ago
do you think hackers found it?


Evidently the bug lets Web site operators capture only known files, but that's little
comfort because many financial systems, for example, have widely known or easily guessed
filenames.


Even if the Dutch researcher was the first to know of this bug, you can bet hackers are
busy working out ways to exploit it. Netscape users shouldn't fail to get their fix at http://home.netscape.com.


John McCormick, a free-lance writer and computer consultant, has been working with
computers since the early 1960s. E-mail him at powerusr@penn.com.


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