Better web search?

Google’s search results just keep getting worse. These days, do a search through Google and you’re likely to wind up with tons of websites with content written by AI, websites designed to be the top search result on Google merely so it can sell you something. And that’s after you sort through dozens of ads, which are so cleverly concealed that sometimes you click on them even when you don’t mean to.

I now use DuckDuckGo as my primary search engine. DuckDuckGo is slightly better than Google. DuckDuckGo doesn’t steal my data, while Google rapaciously steals my data so they can monetize me. And DuckDuckGo makes it slightly easier to separate the ads from the actual search results.

But I keep wishing there were an alternative engine. And — now there is.

Kagi is a fairly new search engine company (founded 2018) that works on a subscription model. So right away, no more ads. And their privacy policy appears to be as good as that of DuckDuckGo. Those two things alone mean Kagi has a leg up compared to Google.

A review of Kagi on Stack Diary from last September reveals that Kagi is a modestly good search engine. According to the reviewer, Kagi’s image search works better than Google’s. Kagi seems to be slightly less likely to return websites that are pure click bait. On the other hand, Google crawls the web thousands of times a day, so Google still has an edge.

But — Kagi allows you to customize your search results. Let’s say you’re searching for reviews of a household appliance. You know that the Good Housekeeping website contains fake reviews and is not worth looking at. With Google, Good Housekeeping is always going to appear in your search results. Using Kagi, you can Block Good Housekeeping so that it never appears in your search results. Or you can Lower it in your search results, so it’s still there but buried further down in the results. Kagi has what its developers call Lenses that allow you to state which websites you trust or don’t trust. The power to customize your search results means you’re not at the mercy of a search algorithm that you can no longer trust.

I’m thinking about subscribing to Kagi. But before I do, I’m trying to find people who are already subscribers, to see what they think. I’m posting this on the off change that someone who reads this is using Kagi, and is willing to share their experience….

AI lies

Science fiction author Charles Stross took Google’s “Bard” for a test drive. Bard is what popular culture calls “Artifical Intelligence,” a.k.a., but which is more properly called a Large Language Model (LLM); or, to use Ted Chiang’s more general nomenclature, it’s merely Applied Statistics.

In any case, Stross asked Google Bard to provide five facts about Charles Stross. Because he has an unusual name, he was fairly certain there were no other Charles Strosses to confuse Google Bard. The results? “Bard initially offers up reality-adjacent tidbits, but once it runs out of information it has no brakes and no guardrails: it confabulates without warning and confidently asserts utter nonsense.”

Stross concludes his post with a warning: “LLMs don’t answer your questions accurately — rather, they deliver a lump of text in the shape of an answer.” However, a commenter adds nuance to Stross’s warning: “Bard is clearly showing signs of prompt exhaustion, and that should have triggered a ‘this answer is out of confidence’ error and terminated the output. In a well-designed system you would not have seen those answers.” But even admitting that Bard is a poorly-designed LLM, how would the average user know which LLM is well-designed and which is not?

LLMs deliver answer-shaped text — with no way of judging how accurate it is.

The unlamented decline of the platform formerly known as Twitter

According to the BBC, Elon Musk recently shared “an antisemitic conspiracy theory, calling it ‘actual truth’.” Of course, Musk has denied that he’s antisemitic. And no doubt he’ll insist that he’s just a free speech advocate. But his remarks are yet more evidence that platform decay has progressed quite far on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter. It’s no longer a social media space, it’s a cesspool.

I actually spent some time on Twitter, during the second year of its existence. I liked it at first because it allowed me to post to my blog using my phone (I couldn’t afford one of those fancy new smartphones). I soon discovered that Twitter’s biggest strength was in polemic and diatribe, with a subsidiary strength of news-without-nuance. Not my jam. But that mix attracted a lot of people, especially (from what I could see) people who were a generation younger than I: tail-end Gen Xers and older Millennials.

I get the impression that most of the people lamenting the ongoing demise of X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, are still from that age group. Without realizing it, they’ve gotten to the age where it’s hard to let go of the familiar, hard to adopt something new. It’s hard for them to watch X turn into a cesspool of hatred which is now led by an antisemitic conspiracy theorist. They lament the loss of what they once had.

Here’s some advice from someone who’s ten or twenty years older: Don’t go around lamenting the loss of something that no one else cares much about. If you do, you’ll sound like the Boomers lamenting the Sixties — which weren’t all that great to begin with, so that lamenting them just makes Boomers look faded and sad.

There are many problems in the world worthy of lamentation: antisemitism, racism, conspiracy theorists. The demise of Twitter is not one of them. It’s time to move on.


I get most of my online news from I’m also a regular online reader of Religion News Service, which covers the news beat I’m most interested in, the role of religion in culture.

But I’ve put off subscribing to other online news outlets. If I want local news, I’ll go out and buy a print copy of the Boston Globe and the Quincy Patriot Ledger. But an online subscription? No thanks. The Globe and Patriot-Ledger websites are ugly, riddled with ads that hold no interest for me, and the stories I actually want to read are too hard to find.

Then today, just by chance, I stumbled across the Christian Science Monitor website. The old days when the Monitor was a daily are long gone — it’s at best a weekly now — but I quickly discovered some great journalism on their website. The story that grabbed my attention, and made me want to subscribe, was titled “Americans have a right to guns. How about to public peace?” Rather than framing the story as a partisan issue of Democratic gun control advocates vs. Republican gun rights advocates, the Monitor frames this as a story about peace: how do we achieve peace in our neighborhoods? As a pacifist, I found this refreshing.

So I subscribed. And almost immediately found a long feature article from last June titled “When $1 billion isn’t enough. Why the Sioux won’t put a price on their land”, part of a series of articles, “Reparations debate: Mending the past, forging the future.” Here again, the Monitor combines a refreshingly different perspective with good solid journalism.

The Monitor isn’t going to appeal to everyone, but for someone like me, a subscription is definitely worth the money.

Google is even more evil than I knew

Cory Doctorow wrote a lengthy blog post on how evil Google has become. I already knew that Google search results have declined in quality over the past few years. But I didn’t realize how bad it’s gotten. Here’s how Doctorow describes it:

“When you send a query to Google, it expands that query with terms that are similar – for example, if you search on ‘Weds’ it might also search for ‘Wednesday.’ In the slides shown in the Google trial, we learned about another kind of semantic matching that Google performed, this one intended to turn your search results into ‘a twisted shopping mall you can’t escape.’

“Here’s how that worked: when you ran a query like ‘children’s clothing,’ Google secretly appended the brand name of a kids’ clothing manufacturer to the query. This, in turn, triggered a ton of ads — because rival brands will have bought ads against their competitors’ name (like Pepsi buying ads that are shown over queries for Coke). …

“As [Megan] Gray points out, this is an incredibly blunt enshittification technique: ‘it hadn’t even occurred to me that Google just flat out deletes queries and replaces them with ones that monetize better.‘ We don’t know how long Google did this for or how frequently this bait-and-switch was deployed.” [emphasis added]

In short, Google is far more evil than I expected. Once again, in bigger type:

Google just flat out deletes queries and replaces them with ones that monetize better. — Megan Gray

Next time you use Google to search, remember that. Google is going to replace your actual search query. You will not be searching for what you wanted to search for. You will be searching for something that will make Google more money.


Back in 2015, the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) developed a WordPress theme for congregational websites. It was one of the best things the UUA has done in the past 25 years, because the theme made it super easy to build an excellent website in just a few hours.

Unfortunately, the UUA WordPress theme hasn’t been updated in three years, with no indication that it will ever be updated again. The design is beginning to look outdated. The theme relies on plugins that are now outdated, making it difficult to use the latest improvement in WordPress such as the Gutenberg block editor. We’ve been using the UUA WordPress theme in Cohasset, but it’s getting to the point where we feel like we have to start looking for an alternative.

So I’ve been looking at congregational websites to see what others are doing. I looked at the website of Temple Beth Israel in Northfield, N.J., because an old friend is rabbi there — love the site, but they hired a web design firm to make a custom WordPress template for them, which we can’t afford. Ditto with Grace Cathedral in San Francisco — another great site, but again we can’t afford a custom WordPress template. For a minimalist look, Unity Temple in Oak Park, Ill., uses a customizd version of the Kale WordPress theme. The Kale theme is free, but I’m sure they paid for the customization, which we probably can’t afford. The UU Congregation of Atlanta, Georgia, uses the Divi theme, which costs $89 a year. We can probably afford that, but it looks like Divi is complicated enough that we’d have to hire a WordPress developer, which we probably can’t afford.

Turning to websites we could maybe afford, Second Unitarian in Chicago uses the Cream Magazine theme, giving their site a nice straightforward look. The theme is reasonably priced at $49.

Um. Yeah. That’s it.

That’s the only UU congregational website I’ve found so far that looks good, and seems affordable.

But if you know of a great congregational website using an inexpensive WordPress theme, please put the URL in the comments….

Email notifications

Every once in a while, someone asks me if they can get notified by email when I post something on this blog. There are several solid email notification solutions for WordPress that charge a fee — but I can’t justify spending any more than I already do on this website. And all the email notification solutions I’ve found take time to set up and maintain — but I’d rather spend the limited amount of time I have on writing blog posts rather than on maintaining an email list.

These days, most of the web is devoted to making money. Websites are either trying to promote a business or a nonprofit, or websites are trying to show you advertisements. Those people who make money from their websites — by showing you ads, or by promoting goods or services, or by soliciting donations for a nonprofit — are more likely to have a marketing budget and staff time they can devote to their website. But on this website, it’s just me, with no marketing budget.

I wish RSS were still a viable option for reading blogs, but it’s not. I guess your only option is to check this site regularly for new posts.

But even if there are no email notifications here, there are no ads, either. And no gobbling up your personal data and selling it….

Noted, with embarrassment

“I think…that one-sided views are the easiest to express pointedly and with rhetorical effectiveness and that a pervasive human temptation is to content oneself with striking half-truths rather than to seek the balanced whole truth with the persistence and energy needed for success.” — Charles Hartshorne, Insights and Oversights of Great Thinkers: An Evaluation of Western Philosophy (SUNY press, 1983), p. 80.

Hm… I think that describes much of what I read on the web, and almost all of social media. It certainly describes way too many posts on this blog….

The non-neutrality of “AI”

Whatever you call it — “artificial intelligence,” “machine learning,” or as author Ted Chiang has suggested, “applied statistics” — it’s in the news right now. Whatever you call it, it does not present a neutral point of view. Whoever designs the software necessarily injects a bias into their AI project.

This has become more clear with the emergence of a conservative Christian chatbot, designed to give appropriately conservative Christian answers to religious and moral questions. Dubbed by the software engineer who constructed it, it will give you guidance on divorce (don’t do it), LGBTQ+ sex (don’t do it), or whether to speak in tongues (it depends). N.B.: Progressive Christians will not find this to be a useful tool, but many conservative and evangelical Christians will.

I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Muslim software engineers are working on a Muslim chatbot, and Jewish software engineers are working on a Jewish chatbot. Then as long as we’re thinking about the inherent bias in chatbots, we might start thinking about how racism, sexism, ableism, ageism, etc., affect so-called AI. We might even start thinking about how the very structure of chatbots, and AI more generally, might replicate (say) patriarchy. Or whatever.

The creators of the big chatbots, like ChatGPT, are trying to pass them off as neutral. No, they’re not neutral. That’s why evangelical Christians feel compelled to build their own chatbots.

Mind you, this is not another woe-is-me essay saying that chatbots, “AI,” and other machine learning tools are going to bring about the end of the world. This is merely a reminder that all such tools are ultimately created by humans. And anything created by humans —including machines and software — will have the biases and weaknesses of its human creators.

With that in mind, here are some questions to consider: Whom would you trust to build the chatbot you use? Would you trust that chatbot built by an evangelical Christian? Would you trust a chatbot built by the Chinese Communist Party? How about the U.S. government? Would you trust a chatbot built by a 38-year-old college dropout and entrepreneur who helped start a cryptocurrency scheme that has been criticized for exploiting impoverished people? (That last describes ChatGPT.) Would you trust a “free” chatbot built by any Big Tech company that’s going to exploit your user data?

My point is pretty straightforward. It’s fine for us use chatbots and other “AI” tools. But like any new media, we need to maintain a pretty high level of skepticism about them — we need to use them, and not let them use us.

It’s not just me

Seen in the blogosphere: “…internet search is broken these days….”

I’m so glad others have noticed this.

Internet search is broken in many ways. Like this: Sometimes I don’t want searches that only apply to the U.S., or another smaller geographical region. And I don’t want any search to point me to websites obviously pirated from other sources and rewritten by crap “AI” tools. And if I put something in quote marks, I don’t want search results that don’t include that exact search string. And if I search for a given search string and add “” I don’t want to see search results from other domains. And so on….