Top 10 tech tricks we’re sick of seeing in movies

October 27, 2010

This is a pretty interesting article: detailing some of the wonderful moments in film history where some hacker/computer expert can get a computer system to do stuff it ain’t supposed to do, just by pressing a few keys and, no doubt, intimidating the the software with his superior skillz…

I remember some of the stuff on the list, but other details have been driven from my memory by thousands of years of substance abuse.  But never mind: there’s enough listed there to make any half-educated geek to kick his cat about.

One particular moments that’s always stayed with me is in Jurassic Park when the surviving humans need to “hack” (ugh!) the computerized security system to try and contain the rampaging dinosaurs.  The little girl (kids always know more than adults about computer-related stuff, even when the adult is a highly-trained, highly-experienced computer professional) takes one look at the monitors, says “I know this – it’s Unix”, and goes on to fix the electric fences or whatever.  It’s pretty unlikely that a Unix system would have the amazing 3D desktop interface we see on the screens… and it’s even more ridiculous to suggest she can do shit the pros found impossible after looking at the machines for 5 minutes or so.  Please not: I am not claiming that her skillz are impossible; but it’s still a huge heap of doggy doo-dah.

All this crap achieves is to reinforce the opinion that 1) little kids eat highly-trained adults for breakfast; and 2) give that kid a Commodore 64 and a modem and she’ll destroy the earth using the adults’ thermonuclear weapons against themselves.

I much prefer scenarios where AIs become self-aware and decide to wipe out the dangerous virus that is humankind.  Maybe kids can do that too… but chances are that the kid will probably be too busy tweeting about her despicable plan to notice the SWAT gunmen abseiling down to come shoot her in her bedroom.  Kids are too immature and too all over the place to actually do anything major.  Shit like Skynet is much more likely to succeed.  And we can’t threaten Skynet with being grounded and losing its allowance.  FFS.


How to search the internet 5: advanced operators

May 13, 2010

This is part 5 of my guide to searching the internet. Here are links to:

Part 1: History of internet search;
Part 2: How a modern web search site works;
Part 3: How to actually use a modern search engine
Part 4: How to understand the results you get from using a modern web search

I covered basic use of operators in part 3. But the proper use of operators is very important if you want to get the most from a search engine, especially if the search is at all complicated. So I’m going to go into more detail on the subject here. I got much of the info from other sites, especially www.GoogleGuide.com. But I (rather modestly) think that i present the info in a much more readable and usable form.

Okay, here we go. Operators are special uses of certain words or combination of words that mean more to the search engine than the plain use of words as simple search terms. Here’s a quick example, which you may find familiar if you’ve ever learned how to use Google to find mp3 files: Let’s imagine we want to find mp3 files of tracks by the excellent early British punk band The Clash. What we actually find are listings of the contents of directories that contain the mp3 music files. So, we could use Google search terms like this:

intitle:index.of mp3 “the clash” -.html -.htm

Let’s examine that bit by bit. It starts with intitle:index.of. The intitle part tells Google to look in the title of a page for a particular word or phrase. In this instance, the phrase to look for is index.of (which would, incidentally, look for titles that include the string “index.of” and “index of” (ie with a space rather than a period). That’s how Google and most (all?) other modern search engines work. The reason for looking for a page whose title includes the phrase “index of” is that a web page listing the contents of a directory will very likely have a title containing those words. It’s also looking for the word mp3 and the phrase “the clash”. You’ll notice we used quotation marks around “the clash”. This is my personal preference: the band was called The Clash, so I want results that contain that band name. Some people disagree, thinking that cuts out a lot of relevant results. And it’s true that some webmasters may have used the word “clash” in the page title. But I think using the word “clash” would pull up lots of irrelevant results like “Clash of the Titans” and “clash of two cultures”. So I stick with the phrase “the clash”. Whether you go with my suggestion or not is up to you.

The last 2 operators in this search are -html and -htm. You see, we’re looking for a page that lists the contents of a directory. This is not a page that is destined to be viewed by site users – it has more of a “housekeeping” function. And as it isn’t meant to be viewed by general users, it is very unlikely to contain mark-up. We’re not looking for marked-up pages; so we don’t want pages whose titles are suffixed .htm or .html. That operator means the same as the NOT operator.

So, that was just a quick example of how operators are used to help construct a search term. Now let’s have a look at what operators are available to a search engine user:

city1 city2: this will look for info on flights from city 1 to city 2. We don’t use the actual names of the city though, we use the 3-letter airport codes. For instance, the search sfo bos will pull up times and info on flights from San Fransisco; whereas the search san fransisco boston pulls up some flight info but also a lot of unrelated results. You can find the 3-letter codes for airports worldwide here.

Here’s some more stuff about advanced Google search operators (with thanks to GoogleGuide.com):

allinanchor:
If you begin your query with allinanchor: Google restricts results to pages containing all query terms you specify in the anchor text on links to the page. Example: the query allinanchor: best museums birmingham will return only pages in which the anchor text on links to the pages contain the words best, museums and birmingham.

Anchor text is the text on a page that is linked to another web page or a different place on the current page. When you click on anchor text, you will be taken to the page or place on the page to which it is linked. When using allinanchor: in your query, do not include any other search operators. The functionality of allinanchor: is also available through the Advanced Web Search page, under Occurrences.

allintext:
If you start your query with allintext:
Google restricts results to those containing all the query terms you specify in the text of the page. For example, allintext: travel packing list will return only pages in which the words “travel”, “packing” and “list” appear in the test of the page. This functionality can also be obtained through the Advanced Web Search Page, under Occurrences.


How to search the internet 4: Understanding search engine results

May 12, 2010

This is the fourth part of my guide on how to search the internet. Part 1 is here, part 2 is here, and part 3 is here. Part 5, about using “advanced operators” is here.

So you’ve used Google or some other web search engine, following the tips I’ve given you in this little series, and you’ve been confronted with “results” that don’t actually seem to be any help whatsoever. And it’s true, often Google comes across as an incomprehensible joke designed to make you feel bad. But don’t fret: Google (and its kind) really don’t want you to run screaming; they want you to use the results to find what it is you’re looking for. Unfortunately, this may involve having to learn a thing or two about how Google works. It may be scary-looking at first glance, but really Google want you to find their results pages easily to comprehend. They want you to return to Google.com every time you want help in finding what you want. It can be a rather intimidating interface the first time you look at a results page: but it is all pretty simple really. You just need to know how to understanding the reams of info Google throws at you. Hopefully, this 4th part of my guide will make it all seem far easier.

First thing first: very often Google will offer you a list of sponsored results that may give you what you’re looking for; but if you click on a sponsored link you will be putting money in Mr Google’s pocket and chances are that link will be useless. Forget the sponsored links: go for the meat and potatoes in the list of real links.

Look at the search results; very often you will find other kinds of info alongside those results. Stuff like:

Suggested spelling corrections: Google may think you typed in your query incorrectly. If you’re no good at spelling, this can be a life-saver. But if you know damn well you typed your query correctly, forget this option;

Dictionary definitions: Are you actually searching for the word/s you mean to search for? Maybe you are, maybe you’re not. Think about it. Spelling can be a right tricky operation;

Cached pages: Google carries a huge number of pages that are not currently up to date. Maybe one of those cached pages may contain the info you need. Worth checking if regular searches are turning up sweet F-all;

Similar pages: Often Google won’t find a page that contains the precise info you want, but it has algorithms to turn up similar results. Have a look at them, you’ve nothing to lose really…;

News headlines: A webpage dealing with your query might be hard to find, but it’s often easier for Google to find news stories on related material. And these news stories may well include links to more relevant info. This can save you a bunch of time searching for that little nugget of info that will give you what you want. Remember: news stories are updated frequently, whereas a static page may never be more relevant. Use those options;

Product search: You want to know something about a particular project name. So search for that project name, add a bit of info on what the product can/is meant to do, and see what turns up. This approach works a lot more than you might think;

Translation: So what you want isn’t available in your mother tongue. But it may well be out there for speakers of other languages. Just think: if you are looking for info on a product released by a Portugese company, what makes you think that info will be in English? Search Portugese sites, using Google’s Translation feature or the other translators offered by search services. These translators are often pretty crap; but at least it’ll give you a good idea of what’s what;

Do book searches: Useful info may not yet be available in articles, but books often contain useful stuff. So it can often be a good idea to do a book search;

Cached pages: When a web page is undergoing a lot of changes, clicking on a Google link to a page might take you to the latest version of that page, which may be missing information that was presented some time before. Sometimes, these changes can happen frequently, so a Google link will not take you to the info that the search results first suggested.

Fortunately, Google will often cache an earlier version of the page. So, let’s say a particular page yesterday contained the info you want; but you go to today’s version of the page no longer holds that info. A problem? Not necessarily. Next to the Google link to the updated page will be a link to a [i]cached[/i] version of the page; basically, a version of the page that Google downloaded and cached before the important info was removed. So you click to navigate to the cached page, and you will find the info as it was before it got removed. Google’s system of caching certain pages helps ensure that the history of the web is respected to a certain extent.

If you want to download a version of a page that existed longer ago (several weeks, or months, maybe even years) you can go to [b]The Wayback Machine[/b] at archive.org. This is a project to archive internet sites the way they were in the past, so the current generation’s “now now now” attitude doesn’t drive the history of internet sites into oblivion. [b]The Wayback Machine[/b] doesn’t promise to archive the internet of the past forever; but it is a very useful project that has a multitude of potential uses. Archive.org, like most such projects, is run by volunteers and is always in need of financial support, as well as more practical support such as providing servers. I’d advise anyone who finds such projects very useful to contribute even just a few dollars.

There’s a lot of info on how to understand Google results, and how to configure the way Google works to it gives you the info you want and hopefully protects your privacy, here: http://www.googleguide.com/category/understanding-results/http://www.googleguide.com/category/understanding-results/. I really advise anyone who’s seriously into using Google as best they can to check out this info. Google really is one of the best resources available online… and it’s free! Let’s make the most of it while we can! Before the goddamn Man tries to take it away from us!

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How to search the internet 3: how to actually *use* a search engine

April 8, 2010

Okay, this is the 3rd part of my series on how to search the internet. Part 1 briefly covered the history of internet search; part 2 looked (again, very briefly) at how modern search engines like Google work; and now we come to the nitty-gritty: how we actually use a search engine to find the stuff we want. Part 4 will look at how to understand the results brought by the search engine.

The first method we’ll look at is the method most people think of using – the keyword search. This involves thinking about what it is you want to find, then choosing words that concisely describe the object of your search.

Imagine we want to find out about giraffes. We could type the word giraffe into Google (or whatever search site we’re using – I’m going to use Google as an example, but this should be relevant for other search engines too). So, we tell Google to search for giraffe: and Google turns up 8,550,000 possible results.

Now, that is an awful lot of web pages to trawl through to find whatever it is we want to know about giraffes. And a lot of them won’t be relevant at all. If you look at the result page for the search on giraffe you’ll see that the very first result is for Giraffe Restaurants – probably not what we want.

So we need to think about what we’re looking for. Let’s imagine we want to know about what giraffes eat. We could search for giraffe food – but then we run into that problem of sites for restaurants and other human food companies with the word “giraffe” in their names.

Giraffe feeding habits would be better – it garners us some 274,000 results – but also excludes pages where the word “habits” isn’t used, for instance where the phrase “feeding behaviour” is used instead. So what about using giraffe feeding? Google gives us 618,000 results for that, but maybe will include useful pages that we might otherwise miss.

And what about giraffe feed? That gives us a massive 1,300,000 results; but this more comprehensive search will give us “feeds” and “feeding”, and sentences like “how a mother giraffe feeds its young” and “what kind of feed for a giraffe in captivity”; and Google will also pick up on the word “fed”, which might be important. It all depends on what exactly we want to find.

But anyway, both 274,000 and 1,300,000 are a lot of results to trawl through. So some further refining of search terms may be order. What precisely do we want to know? Are we after info relating to giraffe feeding habits in captivity rather than in the wild? If so, we can search for giraffe feed captivity which gets us just 21,500 results! Yes, 21,500 links is still a lot to check, but it’s an awful lot better than the 2,160,000 pages we started with!

Sometimes users might want to use search terms in the form of a question – for example what should you feed a giraffe in captivity. This is generally considered to be a bad idea, because a question might contain words that wouldn’t actually appear in a web page you want to find. Google has a feature called stop words: this tells Google to not search specifically for certain commonly used words (like you, what, in… I’m sure you get the idea. But sometimes we might want Google to include stop words in its search. For instance, we might be searching for references to the movie “How The West Was Won”. To do this, we use quotation marks in the search terms; ie we tell Google to look for “how the west was won”. Then Google will look for pages that include the complete phrase.

Another poor use of search terms would be to tell the search engine to look for articles on feeding giraffes or documents about the care of giraffes in captivity. While those would be reasonable instructions to give to a human, they are not appropriate terms for a search engine. Remember, a search engine is a computer program, and computer programs are stupid. They’re good at doing exactly what we tell them to do; but the pages we’re looking for probably wouldn’t contain the words “articles on…” or “documents about…” so using those phrases will exclude many pages that we would actually want.

Another way to craft useful search terms is through the use of operators. Operators are query words that have a special meaning to search engines. You can find some excellent examples of operators and how to use them at Googleguide.com; but I’ve provided a few examples here so you can quickly get an idea of what this operator thing is all about:

If we wanted to find info about recycling steel or recycling iron, we would use the operator OR, like this: recycle steel OR iron. If we used the search terms recycle steel iron without that OR, the search engine would look for pages that included the words “steel” and “iron”; it wouldn’t bother showing us pages that included just one of the words without the other and we might miss very useful pages. Using the capitalization with OR helps the search engine to understand that it’s meant as an operator.

If we wanted to find pages that contained information about Steve Davies but which explicitly did not mention snooker, we could use the operator NOT or the symbol, like this: “steve davies” NOT snooker or “steve davies” -snooker. (Notice too that we’ve put the name Steve Davies in quotes, so the search engine knows we are specifically looking for the name Steve Davies and not looking for pages that mention, for example, Steve Jones and David Davies.)

We can use the + symbol to help focus on a particular search term and possibly weed out others. For example, if we are looking for references to King Louis I of France in particular and not any other French kings, we can search for Louis +I France.

We can use the define: operator to learn the definition of a particular word. For example, to find out what the word “cantata” means, we can search for define:cantata. This will give us a selection of definitions of “cantata” from various online dictionaries.

If you aren’t too confident about the correct usage of operators, you can use the advanced search option with some/many/most search engines. For example, with Google you can click on Advanced search and you will be presented with a form that has a number of search term entry fields. This gives you a simple way of setting a number of parameters to your search. But if you’re confident with using operators, you can construct pretty complex search parameters using just the standard entry field.

When you are crafting terms for a particular search, it comes down to common sense at the end of the day. Just plugging in in one or two search terms might be enough for a simple search; but if things aren’t really simple, you need to give some thought to what exactly it is that you’re looking for. If you want to know about how to use the knight in chess, a search for knight +chess will be much more useful than just typing in the word knight or the question how does the knight move in chess. A little forethought can save you a lot of time, by giving you a much shorter list of results to trawl through.

Well, I think that’ll do for this part of my guide to using search engines. I realize I haven’t provided a comprehensive list of all the operators available, or all the search strategies you can use – but it would have been pretty futile for me to even attempt that. There are a number of search engines, and they’re not all the same. I advise you have a look at www.googleguide.com to pick up some tips on using Google (the most popular search engine on the web), and The Spider’s Apprentice for some more general advice. But believe me: while both of those sites are very interesting, they’re certainly not essential. This blog post, with a dollop of common sense on the side, should get you plenty of useful results to any search queries you might make.

This isn’t the end though – oh no, not by a long chalk. I’ve told you how to get results – now you need to know how to use them. Which is what I’ll cover in Part 4 of my guide to internet search.

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How to search the internet 2: how a modern web search works

March 29, 2010

In the first instalment of this guide on how to search the internet, I gave a little history of the search engine: I covered Archie, Gopher, and site directories like the Open Directory Project. Those are the old technologies, all pretty much obsolete now. That brings us to the present day and the modern search engine.

When I write “modern search engine”, I mean web search sites like Google and Bing. Because they all work in pretty much the same way – the only difference seems to be in the algorithms each service uses.

Now I could tell you all about spiders crawling the web and stuff, but I think most of you would just tune out after a couple of lines. So I will give you 2 lovely Youtube videos to watch instead:

The 3 Minute Guide to How Search Works:

A slightly longer video that looks at the subject from the perspective of a webmaster who wants to increase traffic to his site:

Watched them? Good. So now you have the basic idea: little programs called “bots”, “crawlers” or “spiders” are sent out to crawl over the world wide web, following links, and compiling lists of URLs that they consider to contain good information. And how do these mindless software automatons decide that the info is “good”? It all comes down to the algorithms.

It’s Google’s algorithms – the “secret ingredient” – that has made Google the world’s favourite search engine and kept them at the top for so many years. Any coder of sufficient proficiency can create bots to crawl the web; but it’s the secret algorithms that turn a regular bot into a googlebot. And there just hasn’t been another bot that can compete.

At least that’s how it has seemed for some time. Yahoo has a hard core of admirers; Altavista.com has had success mostly due to its “Babel Fish” translation service blowing its rivals out of the water; but it’s only recently that a true contender for the title of Number One Search Engine to step up and challenge Google. That challenger’s name: Bing.

Microsoft has been trying for years to break into the search engine market, with a plethora of products: Live Search, Windows Live Search, MSN Search – they even tried to buy, then made a deal with Yahoo to get that Microsoft name up there with the giants – but nothing was able to make much impact on Google. Then in 2008 Microsoft (following the tried and tested strategy of “embrace, extend, extinguish”) bought a tech company called Powerset and, importantly, its “semantic technology”. Microsoft claim that their improved technology cuts down on the risk of “search overload”, when a user is inundated with millions of barely relevant results – something that can happen when using Google. And Microsoft has used the near-ubiquity of its web browser, by incorporating Bing into Internet Explorer 8. Google is still number one search engine, but Microsoft has certainly made its mark on the territory.

So who’s going to win this battle of the search engines? I think it could still go either way. Google has years of good form and a hell of an online presence; but Microsoft still owns the desktop and the browser. And anyway, someone else might come from the left field and clinch it in the final seconds – Ixquick is a potential outside bet with their whole “ethical privacy” trip; Google’s got the “Don’t be evil” motto but it’s Ixquick who are out there actually being “not evil” (and if privacy is a major concern, don’t forget Scroogle). One thing we should have learnt from IT history is that nothing is set in stone.

I’ll bet you’re thinking “Oh well done Google and Microsoft, give yourselves a pat on the back… but what in hell has any of this got to do with how to use a goddamn search engine?!! I figured it would be useful to cover all this history and present situation stuff. Well, maybe interesting rather than useful… I certainly find this kinda crap fascinating. But you’re right, it doesn’t tell us a great deal about how to use a search engine. So I promise: the next instalment of this howto will actually cover some proper howto material. So keep ’em peeled… you definitely don’t want to miss this!!

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How to search the internet 1: the history of search

March 29, 2010

This is the first part of my guide to web search; the second part is here; part 3 is here. Part 4 is here.

The first search engine is widely considered to be Archie: a tool for indexing FTP archives which enabled users to locate resources. Its first implementation was written in 1990 by Alan Emtage, Bill Heelan, and J. Peter Deutsch, then students at McGill University in Montreal. It started off as basic lists of files that were accessed using the Unix command grep. Later, more efficient front- and back-ends were developed, and the system spread from a local tool, to a network-wide resource, to a popular service available from multiple sites around the Internet. The archie servers could be accessed in various ways: by use of a local client; by telnet; by email; and later through the World Wide Web. As the web became more widespread, its simpler interface made archie obselete, and now there are very few archie servers to be found on the internet. Wikipedia mentions an archie gateway still up in Poland; maybe that’s the last one?

Then there was Gopher – a protocol for distributing, searching, and retrieving documents over the Internet, dating from about 1991 and used throughout the 1990s. It was a predecessor of, then for a while an alternative to the World Wide Web. Wikipedia describes it as:

a TCP/IP Application layer protocol designed for distributing, searching, and retrieving documents over the Internet, and was a predecessor, and later, an alternative to the World Wide Web. The protocol offers some features not natively supported by the Web and imposes a much stronger hierarchy on information stored on it. Its text menu interface is well-suited to computing environments that rely heavily on remote computer terminals, common in universities at the time of its creation in 1991 until 1993.

Gopher was called Gopher for 3 reasons:

1. Users instruct it to “go for” information;
2. It does so through a web of menu items allegedly analogous to gopher holes;
3. It was developed at the University of Minnesota, whose sports teams are the “Golden Gophers”.

Its user interface (text, based on menus) suited the computer environment of the 1990s – mostly command-line interface on remote terminals. But by the late 90s, as graphical interfaces to the internet became more common (thanks to web browsers like Mosaic, whose integration of text and images was much more user-friendly than Gopher’s text-menu approach) Gopher was in decline. Although it still exists on the internet, it is used mostly for nostalgic reasons.

As the web became ubiquitous, and huge numbers of websites were created, organisations began to collate lists of these sites into directories. Yahoo, Lycos and the Open Directory are examples. These directories listed sites in categories by content: for instance, if you were looking for a particular site about photography, you would look through Yahoo’s list of photographic sites.

But as the web grew ever bigger, it seemed to many people that directories became too unwieldy: if you’re looking for a site about a particular photographer and you’re confronted with a list of 50,000 sites, you’ll probably give up in despair. This is where the modern search engine comes in – the likes of Google and Bing. We’ll get into all that in the next instalment of this little guide to internet search.

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Ixquick.com: the internet search engine that respects your privacy

December 30, 2009

Most search engines, like Google and Yahoo, earn their keep by selling targeted advertising. The way in which they decide what adverts should be targeted at you varies from search engine to search engine. Some simply display adverts that seem appropriate to the search items you just used. But there are other, possibly more sinister methods. Google, for instance, uses cookies and browser interaction to build up a detailed record of the websites you’ve been to. Although Google say they store this info just for ad targeting and related uses, there’s always the possibility that these incredibly detailed logs could be used for evil. Let’s say that Barack Obama suddenly became a Fascist dictator and ordered Google to hand over all its records so he could use them to help choose victims to persecute. Google is a law-abiding corporation, so they’d give up the info in a heartbeat (and don’t try to kid yourself otherwise – they don’t mind helping out the Chinese government, so what makes you think they wouldn’t obey US authorities?).

Unsurprisingly, some people don’t like the idea of their info being collated. And there are various ways to avoid Google’s lists. For instance there’s Scroogle.org – an independent search site that actually uses Google to locate pages for you but removes all identifying data from the search so Google doesn’t know who initiated the search. If you use Firefox, there’s an add-on called CustomizeGoogle that can anonymize your Google userid as well as tweaking your search preferences in various ways.

But both of those solutions involve using Google. Many people are happy with that as they think Google’s the best search engine out there. But if you object to the way Google collects personal data on its users, perhaps you should boycott Google altogether. So is it possible to reject Google completely and still use a search engine that is good but doesn’t compile lists on you?

Well I think that’s perfectly possible – by using Ixquick.com. Ixquick says it’s the only search engine that does not collect users’ IP addresses. And it isn’t all just hype – On July 14th, 2008 Ixquick was awarded the first European Privacy Seal.
This means that Ixquick is the only EU-approved search engine. Pretty damn impressive.

But all of that means nothing if Ixquick searches are crap. So how does Ixquick measure up to Google? Not too shabby, I think. I’ve been comparing the two search engines side by side for a couple of weeks, and on the whole Ixquick has performed very well. But don’t take my word for it – check it out for yourself. Believe me, if you are at all concerned about your privacy, it’s definitely worthwhile for you to at least take a look at Ixquick. Maybe you’ll decide that Google is just too good to abandon. But at least take a look at Ixquick. Your privacy is valuable, so don’t give it up too cheaply.

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