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 “site:.sampledomain.com” I don’t want to see search results from other domains. And so on….

Let us name it … ASS

People talk about “artificial intelligence.” They get corrected by people who say, It’s not intelligence, it’s “machine learning.” But actually machines don’t learn either. All this false terminology isn’t serving us well. It obscures the fact that the humans who design the machines are the intelligences at work here, and by calling the machines “AI” they get to dodge any responsibility for what they produce.

In a recent interview, science fiction author Ted Chiang came up with a good name for what’s going on:

” ‘There was an exchange on Twitter a while back where someone said, “What is artificial intelligence?” And someone else said, “A poor choice of words in 1954”,’ [Chiang] says. ‘And, you know, they’re right. I think that if we [science fiction authors] had chosen a different phrase for it, back in the ’50s, we might have avoided a lot of the confusion that we’re having now.’ So if he had to invent a term, what would it be? His answer is instant: applied statistics.” [quoted by, originally in, emphasis mine]

Applied statistics is a much better term to help us understand what is really going on here. When a computer running some ChatBot application comes up with text that seems coherent, the computer is not being intelligent — rather, the computer programmers had assembled a huge dataset to which they apply certain algorithms, and those algorithms create text from the vast dataset that sounds vaguely meaningful. The only intelligence (or lack thereof) involved lies in the humans who programmed the computer.

Which brings me to a recent news article from Religion News Service, written by Kirsten Grieshaber: “Can a chatbot preach a good sermon?” Jonas Simmerlein, identified in the article as a Christian theologian and philosopher at the University of Vienna, decided to set up a Christian worship service using ChatGPT. Anna Puzio, who studies the ethics of technology at the University of Twente in The Netherlands, attended this worship service. She correctly identified how this was an instance of applied statistics when she said: “We don’t have only one Christian opinion, and that’s what AI [sic] has to represent as well.” In other words, applied statistics can act to average out meaningful and interesting differences of opinion. Puzio continued, “We have to be careful that it’s not misused for such purposes as to spread only one opinion…. We have to be careful that it’s not misused for such purposes as to spread only one opinion.”

That’s exactly what Simmerlein was doing here: averaging out differences to create a single bland consensus. I can understand how a bland consensus might feel very attractive in this era of deep social divisions. But as someone who like Simmerlein is trained in philosophy and theology, I’ll argue that we do not get closer to truth by averaging out interesting differences into bland conformity; we get closer to truth by seriously engaging with people of differing opinions. This is because all humans (and all human constructions) are finite, and therefore fallible. No single human, and no human construction, will ever be able to reach absolute truth.

Finally, to close this brief rant, I’m going to give you an appropriate acronym for the phrase “applied statistics.” Not “AS,” that’s too much like “AI.” No, the best acronym for “Applied StatisticS” is … ASS.

Not only is it a memorable acronym, it serves as a reminder of what you are if you believe too much in the truth value of applied statistics.

A new way to do social media?

A couple of weeks ago, The Verge published an article by David Pierce that asks the question, Can ActivityPub Save the Internet?

As David Pierce points out in his article, the ActivityPub protocol has the potential for making social media more like email (in a good way). Email is an open protocol. If social media ran like that, you could post on Facebook and your friends on Twitter, Youtube, Instagram, and TikTok could all see your posts; they could also react to your posts and respond to them.

This could change the way websites work, including this website/blog.

Especially now that WordPress is working on implementing the ActivityPub protocol. Since something like a third of all websites are based on WordPress, that’s a big portion of the web that could wind up being compatible with the ActivityPub protocol. WordPress is also looking at a few other, similar open protocols such as Nostr and the AT protocol, so it seems likely that they will implement some kind of open social media protocol.

This makes me think seriously about installing the ActivityPub plugin on this blog. If I do, you’ll be able to follow this blog from Mastodon, and also from Medium, Tumblr, and Flipboard, all of which are integrating with ActivityPub protocol in various ways.

So… when I can find the time… I’ll install ActivityPub on this blog and see how it goes….

Scraped

The Washington Post investigated which websites got scraped to build up the database for Google’s chatbot. The Post has an online tool where you can check to see if your website was one of the ones that got scraped. And this online tool shows that danielharper.org was one of the websites that got scraped.

Screenshot showing the Washington Post online tool.

True, there were 233,931 websites that contributed more content than this one did. Nevertheless, I’m sure that Google will compensate me for the use of my copyright-protected material. So what if they used my material without my permission. Soon, a rep from Google will reach out to me, explaining why their scraping of my website is unlike those sleazy fly-by-night operations that steal copyright-protected material from the web to profit themselves without offering the least bit of compensation to the author. Not only will they pay me for the use of my material — they will also issue a written apology, and additional compensation because they forgot to ask permission before stealing, I mean using, my written work.

I heart Big Tech. They’re just so honest and ethical.

Email: curse / blessing?

I’m involved in an email thread at the moment. Everyone is very polite. I like everyone on the email thread. The thread has gotten pretty long. New people have been looped in. People in this email thread are carrying on email conversations on the same topic outside the thread. Result: lots of confusion. A couple of people are valiantly trying to straighten things out.

Email is a blessing, because you can carry out asynchronous conversations and include new people as needed.

Email is a curse, because you can carry out asynchronous conversations and include new people as needed.

Worshipping online

At First Parish in Cohasset, where I serve as minister, 10-15% of our Sunday congregation each week attends online. This percentage is probably typical of most Unitarian Universalist congregations.

A recent study shows that in Black churches, the percentage is much higher. As reported by Religion News Service (RNS): “According to the Pew Research Center, Black Protestants outrank all other U.S. religious groups in choosing to worship outside of brick-and-mortar locations, with 54% saying they took part in services online or on TV in the previous month.”

African Americans were hit hard by the COVID pandemic, and many remain wary of in-person worship services. Although J. Drew Sheard, a bishop with the Church of God in Christ who was interviewed by RNS, points out, “That fear does not seem to prevail when they go to sports activities or the mall…. But they have been invoked with fear that you can catch COVID at church.” I can relate. I still have many COVID-related fears, and I’m still wearing my mask in church; the fear is still there. I completely understand why some Black churchgoers don’t want to show up for in-person services

Besides, I really do like online services. I like being able to attend Sunday services while sitting on a couch in my jammies drinking tea. That’s about as good as it gets. On the other hand, my favorite part of Sunday morning is social hour, and I don’t care for online social hours. So personally, I like having both options available: both online and in-person services.

I’m betting that online access to worship services is here to stay. W. Franklyn Richardson, pastor of Grace Baptist Church in New York, puts it this way: “The impact [of the pandemic] is not over yet but we see signs of church being normal…. [But] normal is a fluid word. Normal is change. Change is normal.”

The fate of social media

I realized that I have pretty much abandoned Mastodon. That’s the non-commercial social media site that has been touted as a replacement for Twitter, after Elon Musk took over Twitter and turned it into a cesspool of hate speech. Not that I adopted Mastodon as a replacement for Twitter. I just wanted to find a social media site where I could meet some new people, and have some two-way (or n-way) online conversations.

I abandoned Mastodon because it wasn’t fun any more. It was flooded by self-proclaimed Twitter refugees, whose main goal in life seemed to be to have as many followers as possible — either that, or the goal was to follow those with thousands of followers. Mastodon was becoming dominated people who specialized in polemics, or in responses to polemics.

To put it another way: Mastodon was turning into Twitter — or turning into Facebook. Lots of rage porn and anger memes. Lots of chastising others for their inadequacies. Mind you, these sites can work fairly well if you want to communicate with people you already know, or if you want to plug into an already existing community, or if you want to be a simple consumer of what other people say.

Not that I made a conscious decision to abandon Mastodon. One day, I just didn’t use the site. It felt good to not use the site. So I didn’t use the site the next day. Or the next day, or any succeeding day. I feel a bit sad, because I think Mastodon has been designed well. But perhaps that is now the fate of all social media: to descend into a toxic mix of rage porn, anger memes, and chastising others for their inadequacies.

Another who’s leaving social media

Science fiction author (and former librarian) Karl Drinkwater is leaving social media:

“…I’m going to close my social media accounts. They tie you in by becoming a habit. They tie you in by making you think you need continuous reinforcement. They tie you in with follower counts, and the implicit threat that if you walk away you’ll lose thousands of followers gathered over a decade. The last one isn’t true. As in, you don’t lose anything….” Plus, he adds, commercial social media sites like Twitter and Facebook spy on you, make money from your content, own your content, don’t actually show your followers your content, and do many other evil things.

Drinkwater is no Luddite. He details how he’s been an early adopter many times in the past. And maybe he’s being an early adopter now — we’re seeing the beginnings of a trend of tech-savvy people realizing the full horrors of commercial social media, and getting rid of it. Realizing the full horrors of Amazon, and withdrawing all support from it. Realizing the full horrors of Microsoft and Apple, of any smartphone made, and finding alternatives.

He’s fortunate that he can withdraw from all those things. I pretty much have to have a smartphone for my job. Given the press of demands from my job, I don’t have the time to make the switch to LibreOffice. Similarly, I don’t have time to switch to Linux — a switch that would entail too many hours of learning Linux, finding replacement software, learning how to use it.

On the other hand, Drinkwater says he’s done this as a gradual changeover. You don’t have to do it overnight. I’ve already pretty much stopped using social media. My laptop has about two more years of life left in it; maybe I should think about buying a new laptop now, one that I can install Linux on. Maybe it’s time to start researching dumb phones, ones without GPS or other spying capabilities built into them.

But I will definitely remain here at this blog. This blog is what social media used to look like. I use open source software to power this blog, and host it with an ISP that uses renewable energy. No one steals your data. No one owns my content (except me). This is what the web could be….

Online tools for finding religious diversity

Yelp.com used to be my go-to online source for finding religious communities in a given area. In the San Francisco Bay area, I could type in my location, plus the search term “Religious organizations,” and I’d get a fairly complete list of religious communities, including communities that had no other web presence.

But here in southeastern Massachusetts, Yelp has been failing me. A Yelp search for “Religious organizations” seems to miss a good many religious communities, and has incorrect or outdated information for quite a few others. I won’t say it’s useless, but it’s almost not worth looking at. YP.com, the “real Yellow Pages,” turns out to be somewhat better than Yelp, though you have to use search terms for specific religious groups.

Not sure what the significance of this is. It may simply be that Yelp’s user community in this area simply doesn’t pay much attention to religion. But I also think Yelp pays little attention to religious organizations these days. I claimed the Yelp page for First Parish in Cohasset, and have tried a number of times to get Yelp to change the name of our congregation from “Unitarian Church” to “First Parish in Cohasset,” but they just ignore me. I’m guessing Yelp gets no revenue from hosting religious organizations, so they just ignore us.

Bring back blogging

Twitter is in meltdown. Ash and Ryan want to bring back blogging. So they created a site called Bring Back Blogging. They have a simple idea:

  • Create some longer-form content
  • Serve it up through an RSS feed (blog, Tumblr, Substack, whatever)
  • Commit to three posts inJanuary
  • Submit your blog to their site, and they put it in their directory.
  • Follow other people’s RSS feeds.

I’d add:

  • Comment on, or blog about, someone else’s blog. (In fact, you don’t have to have your own blog, you can comment on other people’s blogs)

Ash and Ryan aimed their pitch at artists, writers, etc., so I didn’t submit my blog to their directory. But the rest of us can do this, too. And if you start blogging (again), post a comment here.

(Thanks to Scott for this link.)