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Enough Keyword Searches. Just Answer My Question.

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SEARCH engines are so powerful. And they are so pathetically weak.

When it comes to digging up a specific name, date, phrase or price, search engines are unstoppable. The same is true for details from the previously concealed past. For better and worse, any information about any of us - true or false, flattering or compromising - that has ever appeared on a publicly available site is likely to be retrievable forever, or until we run out of electricity for the server farms. Carefree use of e-mail was once a sign of sophistication. Now to trust confidential information to e-mail is to be a rube. Despite the sneering term snail mail, plain old letters are the form of long-distance communication least likely to be intercepted, misdirected, forwarded, retrieved or otherwise inspected by someone you didn't have in mind.

Yet for anything but simple keyword queries, even the best search engines are surprisingly ineffective.

Recently, for example, I was trying to track the changes in California's spending on its schools. In the 1960's, when I was in public school there, the legend was that only Connecticut spent more per student than California did. Now, the legend is that only the likes of Louisiana and Mississippi spend less. Was either belief true? When I finally called an education expert on a Monday morning, she gave me the answer off the top of her head. (Answer: right in spirit, exaggerated in detail.) But that was only after I'd wasted what seemed like hours over the weekend with normal search tools. If it sounds easy, try using keyword searches to find consistent state-by-state data covering the last 40 years.

We live with these imperfections by trying to outguess the engines - what if I put "per capita spending by states" in quotation marks? - and by realizing that they're right for some jobs and wrong for others.

One branch of the federal government is desperate enough for a better search tool that its efforts could be a stimulus for fundamental long-term improvements. Last week, I spent a day at a workshop near Washington for the Aquaint project, whose work is unclassified but has gone virtually unnoticed in the news media. The name stands for "advanced question answering for intelligence," and it refers to a joint effort by the National Security Agency, the C.I.A. and other federal intelligence organizations. To computer scientists, "question answering," or Q.A., means a form of search that does not just match keywords but also scans, parses and "understands" vast quantities of information to respond to queries. An ideal Q.A. system would let me ask, "How has California's standing among states in per-student school funds changed since the 1960's?" - and it would draw from all relevant sources to find the right answer.

In the real Aquaint program, the questions are more likely to be, "Did any potential terrorist just buy an airplane ticket?" or "How strong is the new evidence of nuclear programs in Country X?" The presentations I saw, by scientists at universities and private companies, reported progress on seven approaches to the problem. (The new I.B.M. search technology discussed here last year is also part of the Aquaint project.)

There will be more to say later about this effort. On the bright side, apart from whatever the project does for national security, its innovations could eventually improve civilian search systems, much as the Pentagon's Arpanet eventually became the civilian Internet. Of course, the dark potential in ever more effective search-and-surveillance systems is also obvious.

For the moment, consider several here-and-now innovations that can improve on the standard Google-style list of search hits. Ask Jeeves, whose site is Ask.com, recently introduced two features that enhance its long-established question-and-answer format. One tries to recast search terms into a question that can be answered on the Web; the other offers suggestions to broaden or narrow the search. Answers.com, a free version of what was once called GuruNet, combines conventional search results with questions and answers.

Two related sites, Clusty.com and its parent, Vivisimo.com, categorize the hits from each search, producing a kind of table of contents of results. Another site, Grokker.com, does something similar in a visual form; it is free online or $49 for a desktop version. And the bizarrely named but extremely useful MrSapo.com has become my favorite search portal, because it allows quick, easy comparisons of the results of the same search on virtually any major engine.

By JAMES FALLOWS.

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Gibson and Associates Solicitors: 5 Reasons to Avoid a Payday Loan

Payday loans are incredibly easy to obtain, which in theory should ring alarm bells. However, due to unemployment levels and a poor economy, thousands of people turn to payday loans to try and clear their debts immediately. Ironically, payday loans often cause people's debt problems to escalate instead of acting as a quick solution.

People usually use payday loans as a short term solution to financial difficulty. These loans are typically advertised as ‘convenient' for those who are struggling to survive before their next pay slip.

Payday loans are increasingly becoming controversial and here are 5 reasons why:

They're Expensive

All loans are expensive to pay off. No matter how much money you borrow if you miss repayments or decide to extend the loan, what was a small loan can turn very expensive as interest and bank charges are applied.

High-Interest Rates

Interest rates for payday loans are huge. Some lenders charge interest rates of more than 4,000% and if this is rolled over, debts can quickly escalate.

Lenders are keen to describe the way an APR is calculated. APR is generally not designed for short-term lending, thus reducing the loan period means the interest rate goes up. As a result, consumers are unsure of how to compare the correct costs of the various loans available.

They Target the Vulnerable

Sceptics claim that lenders appear to target the most vulnerable borrowers, arguing that lenders are not completing proper affordability checks on debtor's before granting them the loans. In some cases, lenders have encouraged consumers to borrow more money than they need.

Most lenders will happily allow you to continue borrowing from one month to the next. People who cannot afford to pay off the loans by the agreed date will run serious risk of their debt spiralling out of control. Before they know it they will owe more money than they initially borrowed due to large interest rates alone.

Hidden Charges

When you sign up for a payday loan you will usually agree on a date to pay back the loan which typically falls on or after payday. During the agreement you will provide the loan company with your bank details. If you continue to miss payments, interest will continue to be taken out of your account each month which can easily escalate. You may also need to pay bank charges if you exceed your overdraft limit.

Fraud

Fraudsters are aware that people are desperate to find an immediate solution to their financial worries, providing them with the perfect opportunity to violate vulnerable people.

Taking out a payday loan requires you to disclose confidential information such as your bank details and address. You'll be surprised at how many illegimate payday loan sites are now on the internet asking for your most confidential details, when they do not even provide their own basic contact details - suspicious. However, when people are desperate and vulnerable they often see past these warning signs. Chances are these sites are fraudsters attempting to steal your personal details.

How Gibson & Associates Can Help You Write Off Your Debt

If you have a debt which you cannot repay, it is important that you speak to a solicitor so that they can explain the options available to you. At Gibson & Associates Solicitors, there are a number of ways we can help relieve you from your debt.

Legal experts at our firm are professional and sensitive and understand what a distressing time this must be for you. We will work with you to provide the best solution, easing the financial burden hanging over you.

Additional Services: Shannon & Associates Independent Accounting and Consulting Firms

While we're known for our expertise in the fields of accounting, auditing, taxes, employee benefits and accounting software, we offer a broad range of other services to complement your business's financial needs. That's because we function not only as your accounting firm but your management consultant as well. Our supplemental services include:

Business succession planning: We'll do your succession planning and transactions without the need for an outside appraiser.

Other accounting and financial services include:

• Estate tax compliance

• Mergers and acquisitions

• Fraud prevention and efficiency

• Employee recruitment

• Organizational structure analysis

• Strategic planning

• Cash flow projections

• Due diligence

• Financing options

• Management and CEO consulting

• Wealth management

• Cost segregation

For more information about any of these management consultant services, simply contact us.

Shannon & Associates is committed to your success.

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