Looking for Inspiration

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I suppose that everyone has seen the so-called “Inspirational Quotes“. If you haven’t, it is unlikely that you have been using the Internet a lot! Inspirational Quotes are short sentences, usually totally devoid of context that, supposedly, provide guidance or inspiration for those who need it. Usually the quotation is in large font applied over the top of a sunset, or a couple hand in hand, or a cute puppy or other animal.

Since the quotation is usually without context, the reader is free to apply it however he or she wants. You can apply it to your own situation, whatever that might be. A large portion of the quotes exhort the reader to just get up and do it, whatever it might be. The idea is that one should take one’s chance and go for it.

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This is all well and good if the advice is appropriate. The original writer has no way of knowing this. Someone might take the message as a sign to get out of a situation where they are safe and comfortable and to take risks. Unfortunately, if this turns out to be a mistake, there is usually no way back.

Many of the inspirational quotations have a religious slant to them.  Søren Kierkegaard reportedly said “Now, with God’s help, I shall become myself.” It’s easy to make fun of inspirational quotes, both religious and secular, such as the foregoing. After, if he wasn’t himself when he made the quotation, what was he? It is so devoid of context that one can’t help asking oneself what one is supposed to do to become oneself?

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Can the quotations be dangerous? I suppose that if one is depressed or suicidal it would be unfortunate to come across a quotation that said, basically, “just do it,” but it is unlikely that a simple quotation like that would actually incite suicide.

I suspect that most of the inspirational quotations are pretty benign. People look at them and are momentarily uplifted or cheered up by then, but then just carry on with their lives. The quotations may help them cope with a difficult situation or help them be happy in the situation that they find themselves in. I doubt that the motivation goes deep enough to completely change their lives, but I don’t know if anyone has ever checked or studied the phenomenon.

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After I started thinking about inspirational quotations, I wondered who it is who writes the things. Someone must spend a lot of time either extracting them from online books and pages and maybe they even type them up from paper books! In many cases they then paste the text onto pretty pictures of all sorts of things. Sunsets seem to be a favourite.

Then I discovered the on-line generators for these things. Some of them just allow you to type in whatever you like, but some of them will generate the whole thing for you. One that I’ve played with a bit is InspiroBot, which produces quotations using some sort of algorithm, and calls itself an Artificial Intelligence. It produces image/quote combinations which range from ones which seem sense free to those that seem like they mean something.

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I was wondering how the meme arose, then I though back to the times when computers were just entering the workplace. Way back when printers could only print letters and numbers people would draw something using just letters and numbers. If you went up close you could see the letters and numbers but from a distance the different densities of the letters looked like a image of something, so people covered whole walls with, say, a picture of an astronaut, or a pinup.

When printers could print images these were replaced with smaller pictures of astronauts or pinups or someone’s kids. Then someone somewhere decided to inspire their staff with a poster or picture with an inspiring caption. Naturally spoof and satires of these soon appeared, and also people started putting up quotations that had inspired them, and spoofs and satires of those also appeared.

Nowadays of course, the whole thing has moved to “social media”. People spot a quotation which appeals to them and post it on Facebook. This quite often means that you might see the same “inspirational posting” several times, as other people share it with their friends which might include you!

I’m intrigued by the programs that produce the quotations by algorithmic means. Since they produce only a short sentence, there’s more chance that you can see sense in the result, than there would be if the algorithm produced a whole article or something. I’ve found one site where an algorithm produces a small article on each refresh, and the results seem to me to be a bit odd when I try to make sense of them.

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It reminds me of a famous hoax perpetrated by Alan Sokal on the unwary editors of an academic journal. Sokal wrote an article which was composed of buzzwords and references to Post Modern writers, since he believed that all that was required of an article to get it published was the buzzwords and the gratuitous references to Post Modern writers.

He succeeded in getting it published, which ironically gives the article meaning of exactly the sort that he was ridiculing. While it had no meaning in the context of an academic article, it was an unfavourable commentary on the meanings and lack of rigour espoused by the Post Modern movement. If you are interested in producing your own Sokal-type article, there is a web site called “The Post Modern Essay generator, which will do it for you.

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So, are all, or the majority of inspirational quotations generated by an algorithm or do people create them and post them themselves? I think that most are created by people. At least the quotes are, but the actual postings may not be. The quotes seem to, in most cases, almost make sense, but they don’t always seem to match with the pictures. I’d guess that people are using a generator but posting their quotes, whether gleaned from elsewhere or created by themselves, and the picture is more or less random and may not match the quotation.

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