Welcome to the HELP!! section. This is where you can find answers to many typical computer help questions or information about computers in general. I recently slimed this place down - I can talk entirely too much about technology. Phew!
This page last updated 02.05. Most information IS out of date.
Problems and Trouble-Shooting
Why doesn't my computer work?
This happens to be one of the most common questions I get. Unfortunately, it also happens to be one of the most vague and of little value, at least initially. Computers are very complex machines. You can't just ask why it doesn't work - you have to be more specific. If your car was broken, would you ask a mechanic vaguely why it doesn't work? There's probably some particular part or multiple parts of the car (or computer) that are not operating correctly. For instance, if you can't sign on to AIM - is it because it says your account or password is wrong, or because you don't have internet connection? Be specific! First you have to get an idea of what kind of problem you have on your hands.
Start with basic problem trouble shooting. What first? Restart your computer. For those of you with Windows (of any version) this means hitting the start bar, going to shutdown, and selecting the "restart the computer" option. This resets a number of operations in windows, and typical clears out or organizes memory thresholds to some extent. It's the magical fix-all tactic that even the most experienced tech professionals will tell you to do. Second, try other basics - make sure everything is plugged in all the way and in the right places. Once you've accomplished these two checks move on. Think of the last thing you did that may have caused your computer to experience troubles. If it's say, installing a program, you could try uninstalling it. There are all sorts of simple ways to trouble shoot that can avoid calls or emails to tech support. Give self help a try - it very well could be worth your time and you might learn something. Give a man a fish and he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish and he eats for many days. This is why I'd prefer that you help learn to fix or tackle your own computer problems. I know fishing or computers might be boring, but it's still worth it.
So say you can't easily figure out what's causing your computer trouble. Take notes of what's wrong. Don't just say, "My Internet Explorer doesn't work" - you've gotta have more than that to present. If IE (Internet Explorer) boots up and gives a fatal error message - write down the message, and note when you get it. I know it may look like gobly gup to you - and sometimes it does to me too - but it still can help determine what's wrong. So once you've got a few notes on when your problem occurs - what happens before, during, and after, then contact tech support, with a more specific question. Someone might go from asking "Why doesn't my computer work?" to "How come when I try to go any web site in Internet Explorer, I get a fatal error saying something about an invalid memory address?" See it may not seem like the second question is much better - but for me it's really leagues beyond the first one. It gives the technical person helping you a couple of vital peices of information: the program that's having trouble and a good hint as to what might be causing the trouble. I selected the above example because I've seen it a few times. Think outside the box too - if Internet Explorer continues to not work - download Netscape, Opera, or Mozilla - or some other different web browser program.
So I hope the above was a little enlightening. A quick summary:
1) Try basic trouble shooting (Restart the computer!)
2) Get a more specific idea of what the problem seems to be
3) Take some crucial notes
4) Contact tech support of some kind - and make sure to mention what you've done already to troubleshoot the problem
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What's the difference between PC's and Macs? Which is better?
There are many differences between PC's and Macintosh computers. Perhaps the key all-encompassing difference is the hardware architecture. The simplest explanation is that Apple computers have severally fundamentally unique types of hardware parts in them, and PC's tend to use modular parts of many types. What does this mean? You can find one PC with an Intel Pentium 4 processor, SamSung RD RAM, and 3 videocards one made by ATI, one by nVidia, and another by SIS. Then you might find another PC with a couple of AMD Opteron Processors and six hard drives - all of different sizes and types built by different companies. Point is PC's are mix and match. An Apple computer will be almost exclusively built by Apple. Nearly all of the parts will be manufactured and supported by Apple exclusively.
Another significant difference between PC's and Macs is which operating system they run. PC's typically run Windows. Macs run an operating system created by Apple - the newest is OSX. Currently OSX Panther is the latest and best Apple operating system - it carries many advantages, even over the newest Windows OS, Windows XP sp2. Another type of operating system, Linux, can be run on either type of computer - Apple or PC.
In terms of crucial operating system differences - Mac OSX tends to be more secure (for reasons I won't address here), and there are unfortunately fewer programs written for Macs. Windows based machines eat up a huge portion of the market - many software companies don't bother supplying very much to the Mac and Linux people, however there are some exceptions, like Adobe, or various music or video editing programs, that are designed specifically to utilize the features of a macintosh to the fullest. (What's Linux? See below) Mac OS also happens to be programmed only for Macintosh computers - it's very specific, and therefore can develop an incredibly efficient interface with the hardware. Windows is intended to work for many types of hardware, and designed to be a bit more broad and adaptable - but as a result is sometimes not as efficient.
Apple computers have the reputation of being the only type of computer for graphic designers. This has been the subject of much debate between some of my friends and I - which has spurred me to go investigate. The Macintosh processor architecture is better built for mass amounts of sheer mathematical operations. It's very good at handling large sums of data like the specifications for rendering and texturing a 3D object. Vector and floating point calculations are typically considerably faster when done on a Apple platform. The estimated equivalent Pentium processor speed of a Macintosh can be even as much as triple the base amount when doing graphics design where the Macintosh processor can use it's superior math and science related capabilities. This data, however, was based more on older reviews and benchmarking I've seen. It's largely due to the notion that some graphics design programs - and video editing tools - are built to be optimized for Macs rather than PC's. What does that mean? If a PC and a Mac were both running graphics design programs - (especially one custom tailored to run on Macs, like many are), the Mac might run faster. So a 800 mhz Mac might run like a 2400 mhz Pentium - roughly. Graphic designers also many times use Apple's computers just out of the reputation or tradition.
Long story short: Sometimes Macs are better for Graphic Design - it depends on the program, computer hardware in question, and most importantly, the preferences of the person using it.
My friend Karl pointed out to me recently that with the advent of 64 bit based server processors like the Intel Xeons (and soon the Athlon 64's will come into mainstream public use), and also sheer powerhouse processors like the Pentium 4, the rules have changed. Currently the G5's are the best on the market for the tasks Macs are the best platforms for. If you're interested, check this out for more information. Funny thing with the previous example, the 800 mhz Mac would probably still cost more than the 2400 mhz Pentium - which brings me to the next point - Macs could probably burn a whole in even Bill Gates' wallet.
Comparatively Macintosh computers are around double the cost of an equivalent PC. The problem is compounded, when you look at the pricing for the basic models for Macintosh. The base computers - like the G3 eMacs (and in previous years, the first iMacs) - really truly suck. They're not in any way expandable, are difficult to fix, and certainly not apt to being modified or upgraded. Their advantages are low noise, low heat, somewhat lower power usage, and simplicity of design. They give up one of Apple's biggest advantages - high quality and efficient parts. They really, truly cost too much for what you get. If you've got spare money and really like pretty things, they might be a good deal, otherwise, no way. However, if you can afford it, go for one of the Mac Notebooks or G4/G5 desktops (the big towers).
The good news is that Apple realized their budget line was a thucket head idea and now offer the Mac Mini - a reasonable platform that is both affordable and capable. Upgradability isn't an option, but then again most people who would buy one of these wouldn't bother upgrading anyway. You can also choose to use whatever monitor, keyboard, mouse, and speakers you like with it - for whatever price you like. Way to go Apple, you pulled your snobby head out of the clouds!
*Gasp* Word up is that next they might even start making over-priced two button mice...
I actually currently believe Apple makes the best notebooks out there (the titanium Powerbook series). I've come to this decision based on the fact that I've experienced many, many people having notebooks of various PC types break, but never have run into anyone with a new Apple Notebook with any problems. More important than my personal experience, however, would be the national experiences of the many owners of laptop computers. Consumer Reports found that Apple notebooks had the fewest problematic incidents (malfunction, breaking down, best technical support, etc...). Given that OSX is more stable and custom tailored for Apple hardware, this isn't surprising. Notebooks are complicated inside and meant for travel - better that you use Apple's concepts there (low power, low heat, low noise). The G4's are great - but start around 2000 dollars for the dual processor models that are worth buying. The G5's are actually some of the fastest machines out there - for anything but gaming. And even the cheapest Apple displays are 700 dollars. Now don't get me wrong - they're incredibly good, but you could buy an entire computer for that much money. So essentially the starting cost for a G4 that's worth buying is around 2700 dollars. I could build 3 really nice PC's for that. But hey, if you've got the money - they're really excellent - if not the best.
One aspect of Macs that I have people bring up more often than not is that they're "Cuter" or more stylish looking. This is very true for most people - Apple computers are designed for aesthetic appeal and to be environmentally sound. But the beauty, often times, only resides on the outside - at least for the lower end models. On the contrary, the G5's are nearly works of art on the inside...
Macs aren't really made for gaming. While this doesn't matter to many people - I find that most college kids love to play games on their computer. Pity, too, because they'd make such good LAN boxes. Anyway, if you're looking to play games, don't go with Apple.
So did I answer the question of which computer type is better, Apple, or PC? No you say? Right - see it's not that simple. The best computer for you is the one that gets the job done that you prefer. Apple, PC, Comodore64, inanimate rock with keyboard, whatever.
Special thanks to Karl Weintraub for helping me edit this one - he surely knows far more than I do about the subject of Apple's computers...and Jesse Farrell helped to flex his geek-ego thing to thwart me a couple of times too.
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What is Spy-ware? How can I get rid of it?
Spy-ware, add-ware, and advertising software, are all related names for basically the same concept. Essentially spyware, or adware, is a program that runs on your computer (either alone or through the use of another program) that either advertises or spies on you in some way. Some programs merely furnish pop-up adds when you go online, where as others might catch your Email and send you advertisements, and still others leave advertisements on your desktop. All in all - no one likes them. They're a lot like the 'courtesy' callers you get right when you sit down on the toilet or to dinner.
Why get rid of spyware and adware?
1) They usually bother you with advertisements of some sort, sometimes making computer use unbearable
2) They lead the way for other adware and spyware programs to get onto your computer
3) They suck up RAM and processor attention, and many times the users who have these programs on their computer have a store-bought computer with insufficient RAM or a dead-beat old Celeron processor
4) They often clog up startup and greatly increase the amount of time it takes for your computer to boot up windows
5) Often times they medle with settings related to how your computer browses the internet, adding browser helper objects - typically in internet explorer. This can lead to situations that cause internet explorer to cease operating properly or actually criple your computer's web browsing capability completely
It's important to note that a single Spy-ware program won't be too harmful or bothersome. But like many parasites, they don't travel alone. You'll usually download packs of them with file sharing programs. Combine 4 or 5 spy-ware programs together with Kazaa and you get a combination that can actually really tax your computer, and in the case of Kazaa, totally abuse your available bandwidth. I've seen lists of literally thousands of entries from Adaware scans, and hundreds on spy-bot scans.
So what can you do about them? First, don't use shareware programs had have build in add software. This includes almost every file sharing program out there. If you must use shareware, try to find versions without add-ware, like Kazaa Lite, or ones like WinMX, which you can install without add-ware. But how do you know you have them on your computer? Download and update both Ad-aware SE and Spy-bot Search and Destroy 1.3 from www.Download.com and run them to clean your computer of about 95% of all spy-ware and add software emplacements.
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My Computer's running really slow, what do I do?
There are any number of reasons your computer might be running slow - and some simple steps you can take to help remedy the situation.
First and foremost, reboot it. This will turn off a lot of programs you might have running (and may not know about), and clean up temporary memory thresholds.
Second, take a look in the lower right hand corner. If you're like many users who aren't really sure why their computer's running slow, you'll have a TON of little tray icons. Each one of these corresponds to a different program that is likely running and taking up RAM (computer ability). Close and remove as many of them as possible - use only the tray icons you really need or want, like Anti-virus or AIM.
Once this is done, you can go to start-control panel-add/remove programs. There you'll find a list of all the programs on your computer. Uninstall all the ones you don't use, simple as that. This will free up space on your hard drive, and cut down on programs running in the background that you may not know about. Make sure to keep important things like anti-virus or MS Office. Make sure you have ONLY ONE updated Anti-virus program. If you have more than one they often times fight each other for resources and try to protect the same files. The end result is a nearly unusable computer.
Now if you're still having trouble, and are using Windows XP, there are a couple of things you can do. First - avoid merely switching users if you have multiple users for your computer. Every time you switch instead of log off you leave the other person logged on. All the programs they were using, as well as windows, continues running for them as well as you. With one or two people this may be no big deal, but with a family of three or more, it can be seriously detrimental. Just log off the other users - it will turn off all their stuff automatically.
If you're still feeling up to it - and own a computer with Windows XP, there's more you can do. Go to start-control panel-system. Then go to the tab labeled performance. Here you can adjust many of the fancy graphical things windows XP does, and get rid of some if necessary. Furthermore, you can adjust your virtual memory. If you know how much RAM your computer has - you should have 2 to 2.5 times your RAM in virtual memory (as directed by the experts at SiSandra). Most computers have only the windows allocated amount - 384, with a max of 768. For people with 192 MB of RAM, this is fine... but those with more will want this number expanded. Laptops may have even less virtual memory initially allocated. You can also google Windows Update and make sure most of your devices as well as windows itself are updated with the newest drivers and files.
The above are things you can do without buying new hardware or software. However, this isn't always enough. Many store-bought computers come with far too little RAM. The minimum amount that you should have to run Windows XP is 256 MB of RAM. Some store-bought computers come with only 128. You can check how much RAM you have by going to start-control panel-system. RAM doesn't cost a whole lot. You can order it from your computer supplier, or if you figure out the right type, get it from best buy or online. Sometimes other things cause a computer to be slow - for instance, if you use AOL, your modem and service is likely more responsible for your slow internet connection speed than your computer. See my post below on AOL as to how you might fix this problem. If you are having trouble playing games, it's possible your video card that's causing difficulty. Ensure you have the latest videocard drivers. You can purchase new videocards for anywhere from 30$ to 600$ If you're still having trouble, and have satisfied all of the above possibilities - you may have to reinstall windows - it may not be properly configured for your current device set up.
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How do I know I have a virus? I think I have a virus, what should I do?
It's not always easy to figure out if you have a virus. Computer viruses come in all sorts of shapes and forms, and infest and harm computers in many different ways. Check out the latest virus and hoax outbreaks. Some common possible signs of infection:
- Large numbers of Emails that you did not write showing up on your desktop and other places
- Your printer might start spewing random gibberish instead of printing
- Your CD-ROM drive might even open without you asking it to or it may seem like someone else is controlling your computer
- Very slow internet performance
- Inability to open critical windows programs and components
- The computer brings up a 60 second shut-down prompt shortly after being turned on
These are all possible effects from viruses and similar exploits. First and foremost, no matter the type of computer you have, no matter how new or old it is, you should have anti-virus software. The only exceptions to this might be computers that don't connect to the internet or machines running linux. There are a number of different anti-virus software companies out there - such as Virex for macs, or Norton and McAfee for Windows. The latter two are the largest home user suppliers, and thus are the most common at U of I... though you'll also find cases of PC-chillin and other utilities.
If you suspect you have a virus, there are a few things you can do.
First, disconnect yourself from the internet when you're trying to delete it. Many viruses will re-download themselves from servers and spawn themselves in other places, even after deletion.
Second, you should find yourself an anti-virus program. Most Universities provide them for free - U of I provides McAffee - the entire full version, for free to all students. I believe you can download a free trial to Norton Anti-virus, for use in case you really need to get your system clean, but cannot afford any sort of software.
It's imperative that you keep your entire system constantly updated - this means not only updating your anti-virus programs, but also updating windows as well. Many exploits, like the infamous MS Blaster, work through holes in windows, and can remain undetected by Anti-virus.
Once you've securely installed and updated an anti-virus program, and updated your windows, you can proceed to check for infections. Remember, disconnect your computer from the internet. Start with a full system scan for a couple hours when your computer's not doing anything. If your scan results find any viruses, your anti-virus utility will attempt to fix, quarantine, or delete them.
Make sure to write down the FULL name (like all of that w32 gibberish) of the virus. Sometimes viruses cannot be deleted or fixed, and you'll have to download specific tools or killers. In this case, you should download the appropriate virus killer program, if possible, on another computer. Most killers are small enough to fit on a floppy or flash (key chain) drive. I know Symantec - the makers of Norton - provides killers or removers for nearly all types of seriously infectious viruses. Just go to their site and do a search for the virus that you of course WROTE DOWN. Then run the program on your computer - and make sure you're disconnected from the internet. Sometimes computer viruses will be more difficult to remove than this - in these cases you may want to contact a technical professional, or even reinstall windows (without connection to the internet during the install). There are plenty of guides online as to how you can remove viruses, I'd suggest going to take a look at McAfee or Symantec's site if you find time. Other than that, good luck and happy hunting.
Once again - a quick summary about how to avoid and if needed, remove viruses:
To Stay Protected:
1) Make sure you have anti-virus
2) Make sure you have the most up-to-date virus definitions and anti-virus utilities
3) Make sure you always update windows - go google Windows Update and hit "I'm feeling lucky"
4) Run full system scans once in a while - suggested to be done at least every 2 weeks
5) If you visit pornography or warez sites commonly the above is imperative. These sites house the largest concentration of material dangerous to your computer. It's suggested that you run scans at least weekly if you visit these types of web sites.
If you find a virus:
1) Let your anti-virus program take care of it - if it cannot, move to step 2
2) Write down the FULL EXACT NAME of the virus
3) Turn off your computer, disconnect it from the internet
4) Borrow someone else's computer or use another of yours to download a virus remover from Symantec.com (use the search function at the site)
5) Put this remover on a USB drive, floppy, CD or ZIP, etc...
6) Turn on your infected computer, but make sure it's disconnected from the internet
7) Run the virus remover program from disk
8) Scan your computer one last time to make sure everything's clear and clean
9) Feel free to use your computer freely... and stay protected!
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What's wrong with store-bought computers?
This is a tough question, because it's rather broad. Still, some basic observations can be made.
In general, it costs more to buy a computer from say, Dell, or Best Buy than it does to build your own, or even have one built. Many times the prices listed and deceiving - always take into account shipping costs - they tend to be extremely expensive, especially for monitors. Furthermore, in general, store-bought computers are build using parts from the lowest bidder. Often times this means the cheapest RAM available, the worst motherboards, and otherwise low-quality equipment. This can sometimes be advantageous - for instance Dell is probably able to produce 15" monitors at a cost of 20$ each, where as you can buy them for only about as low as 80$. Now of course this isn't always the case - if you buy a high-end server system, or an Apple G5 you'll get some of the best hardware out there.
Store-bought computers are also made to sell to the general consumer. The general consumer is assumed to know very little about computers, save for some very basic things, like that higher megahertz processors tend to be faster (this isn't completely true, however). As a result, the general trend with store-bought computers is that they are imbalanced. Most are under powered - and have minimum wattage power supplies - so if you plan to add on extra devices, like say a new hard drive or new video card, you might cause system instability (lock ups, crashes, hardware based freezes).
Most store-bought computers have bad motherboards. This means little room for expansion - the big crime I see violated most often is a distinct lack of AGP slots. Many store-bought motherboards are mini-boards, which typically feature worse speed chipsets and expansion. Few of them come with good on-board video... which leads to the next point - store-bought computers tend to have terrible graphics cards. This may not matter for a user who won't ever be playing games - but soon will. The next generation Windows Operating system will have 3D rendering for the GUI (graphical user interface) - and as such will require 3D graphics. This means those with slouchy store-bought computers with bad onboard graphics will be in trouble. Longhorn (the next Windows OS) won't be available until early 2007, however, so if you plan to upgrade before then, it may not be an issue.
Another common violation I see (more commonly found with HP/Compaq than anyone else) is too little RAM. Windows XP technically requires only 64 MB of RAM. However, this technical requirement is far below what you should have to actually operate the system. The real minimum for decent operation and multitasking is probably more like 256 MB. Store-bought computers often times are only equipped with 128. The worst case I've seen was a Compaq Presario Laptop that my friend purchased about 4 months ago. The machine came with a very fast desktop based 2 ghz processor- which is quite nice. But the machine only had 128 MB of RAM. He could hardly run Microsoft Word and Winamp (a music player) at the same time, it was despicable!
This is becoming less of a problem these days as the minimum RAM standard has basically risen to 256 mb, but even as it goes, my little laptop that I'm currently designing on is using around 100 mb or RAM with just dreamweaver, wireless, anti-virus, and mozilla going.
Another downside to store-bought computers: no operating system disks. At best they usually provide customers with disks that reformat the machine back to the factory conditions. Store-bought computers also come with a host of preloaded software. Sometimes this can be helpful, like say MS Word, but other times it's annoying programs like Real Player (the most add infested RAM hogging POS media player in existence). Many times all of these programs run at the same time automatically, and tax the system's already limited RAM. What's more is that often times the windows installs on store-bought computers aren't standard - they're customized for a company's quick-restore methods. This means with the wrong windows patch or anti-virus you can encounter serious problems and system failures.
The above are merely general observations about store-bought computers. They're not necessarily always true. Obviously the store-bought option is pretty much the only real option for laptops. There are many alternatives to buying a computer in a store - even if you don't want to purchase from me. There are hoards of online sites and guides as to how you should put a computer together, as well as sites dedicated to building machines for all sorts of users. Apple and Alienware both make incredibly good machines that don't have most of the limitations mentioned above, but as such, cost upwards of two grand. Spend your money wisely.
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Which Computer Company is the Best?
Again this is a bit of a difficult question. My answer will be, of course, purely my opinion, based on experience, and changes with time. Over the years I've seen computers of many types, with many brands, and with many problems. At U of I I've serviced litterally hundreds of machines in the dorms. It's sometimes difficult to choose - because I might see a low end machine from one company, and a high end machine from another. I've had the greatest spectrum of experience with Dell and HP. Our family throughout its time has owned a HP's, Compaq's, Sony Vaio's, and IBM Thinkpads.
Okay, on to the reasoning. The below rankings are take into account the number of problems I've seen with various company's designs, as well as advantages. They also reflect things like price and technical support. It's also based on how many times they've developed problems that I've encountered. Note that this suggestion list is for home users, not business professionals. I also recently referenced Consumer Reports and found that we agree on our rating systems, coincidentally.
1) Apple G5 Desktops (yes, very expensive)
3) Apple G4 Desktops and the Mac Mini
7) eMachines/other budget
8) The New iMacs
9 ) G3 eMacs and iMacs, low-end Apple machines
1) Apple Notebooks
2) Asus and Alienware
3) IBM (Thinkpad)
4) Sony (Vaio)
5) Dell and Toshiba
6) HP/Compaq (yes, I realize how controversial this ranking is)
8) Others like Desknotes or Acer
Once again, these rankings and ratings are of course subject to change and reflect only my personal encounters.
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How do I make a website?
Well - depending on who you speak to, the basics can be rather extensive. In its simplest form web design merely consists of writing HTML code. HTML, or Hyper-text-markup-language (impress your family and friends with that one!) is just a way to tell other computers what you want to display. When a computer accesses a web page, it reads the HTML code, and then lays the page out, places graphics, and sets up everything based off what the simple code tells it to do. Don't think that HTML is actual program code, however. It's really just an incredibly high level language - meaning most of the grunt work like sizing windows, filling in areas with colors, whatever else is done by unseen programs. HTML seems to be more comparable to just decorating text, or writing with certain protocol. Much like you might have to write certain symbols before and between numbers or letters (variables) in math, you have to write things around words in HTML.
<a href="http://www.jag85.com"> Go here! </a>
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What's the difference between AMD and Intel? ATi and nVidia?
AMD and Intel are processor companies. There are many different models fielded by each. I could explain more in depth about the history of each company and what processor types, functions, and interfaces are out there, but likely you don't need to hear about all of that. Just don't buy the old Intel Celerons (the Celeron D chips are okay). The old Celerons make baby kittens cry.
ATi and nVidia are different Graphics Chipset Companies, though each of them extends their market into other fields. They're both incredibly good companies that I have a lot of respect for. I really coundn't tell you which company is better overall, but I have used and experienced both about equally. If you're in the market for a new graphics card - I'd suggest reading up in the Graphics Card Guide.
If you can, avoid buying graphics cards in stores - they cost far too much there. Check out my business links sections for where you can get inexpensive, yet adequet, cards.
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More FAQ's coming... as I think of/receive them. Feedback is always welcome.