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.

Fake News

News
News

All news is fake to some extent. When a reporter watches some event unfold he or she will have their own in-built and acquired biases, no matter how hard they try to keep them under control. Those who watch or read the news report will also have their own leanings and belief systems. In addition they will tend to view only those sources which fit with their world view.

Although I attempt to show that “news” as such is a severely distorted view of events, and that everyone has their own viewpoint on news events depending on their innate beliefs and acquired biases, this phenomenon is not restricted to news and the events that get reported by the news media. We filter all that we see through the sieve of these beliefs and therefore what we see conforms to our world view and naturally this acts to confirm these beliefs in our minds.

Beliefs Knowledge and Truth
Beliefs Knowledge and Truth

Back in 1991 Jean Baudrillard said that “The Gulf War did not happen“. Of course, he did not mean that the events referred to as “The Gulf War” or “The Liberation of Kuwait” did not happen, but that the events as reported by the US authorities and others were highly edited and presented in a way that but the US and its allies in the best possible light. Baudrillard also contended that the so-called war was not a war in the usual sense as the American troops did not directly engage in conflict with the opposing forces.

I am not arguing on the rights or wrongs of the Gulf War, as that is not the main purpose of my posting here, but that what was reported by the Western media was a distorted view of the events that happened during that war. As I live in a “Western” nation, the view that I and billions of others had was highly tilted in the direction of the United States. If I had been able to see the reporting of the Iraqi media, I am sure that I would have a very different view of the events. Similarly it too would also be highly distorted.

Destroyed tank
Destroyed tank in Gulf War

Neither viewpoint could be considered “right” or “wrong”, as such. Neither is intended to be an accurate record of what actually happened, while the events as reported happened, the interpretation of the events may omit or emphasise some aspect over others. One report may record that several “insurgents” or “terrorists” were killed, while another report of the same event will record that some “freedom fighters” were killed. One report may leave out the fact that “non-combatants” were killed while the other may call them civilians and children.

In recent times though, so-called “fake news” has had some attention in the media itself. Kellyanne Conway used the phrase “alternative facts” to explain the claim that President Trump’s inauguration had the “largest audience to ever witness an inauguration – period – both in person and around the globe”, when less partial estimates put the crowd at a much lower level than it was at the previous three inaugurations. She was widely ridiculed for this, though, to be fair, she maybe meant to say “alternative information” or “incomplete information”, as she has claimed.

Presidential inauguration
Presidential inauguration

Unfortunately for that interpretation, she later referred to something that did not happen. This may again have been a slip of the tongue or incorrect remembrance of the event referred to, but two such slips probably indicates that she should not be doing the job and should let other handle the interaction between the White House and the media. However while the media is focusing on her missteps they are not focusing on the President, and that may be the whole point.

Of course, “alternative facts” or alternative interpretations are not found just in politics, but in many walks of life. How many people have watched a sports match and have been surprised by the interpretation of the way that the match went that appears in the media. One group of supporters may think that the referee was biased in favour of the other team, while the opposition’s supporter might believe that the referee made the right calls. Of course it may depend a great deal on whether or not your team won!

Referee (Massimo Busacca)
Referee (Massimo Busacca)

However, in spite of all that I have said above, there has been a rise in recent time of true “Fake News” sites. These sites publish news items which are simply not true and the intent of these sites is to deliberately confuse and deceive those who read it. One interesting consequence is that China supported Americans who accused Facebook of spreading false news.

The most controlled regime outside of North Korea pointed out that in the free for all of democratic and liberal societies anyone could set up a web site and promulgate false news and views. In China however any site which published fake news would be hit by the full weight of the state. Of course the issue with this is that any site publishing views opposed by the state would be shut down immediately whether or not the news was actually fake.

The article on Chinese support for the opponents of fake news on Facebook come from the Huffington Post, and as such contains its own biases of course. Therefore the amount of credence that you put on the above article will depend on your political stance. However, it is likely that while the Huff may post satirical articles, it is unlikely, in my opinion, to post out and out fake news. Just use your brains when you read it, and be aware of your own and the site’s political biases.

The same goes for sites which promote miracle cures, or medicines which are outside of the mainstream medical province. Sites which promote anti-abortion, anti-vaccination, anti-fluoride, anti-folic acid, and other fringe beliefs really annoy me because they either ignore medical evidence or call into question by invoking conspiracy theories (“Big Pharma” anyone?) Beliefs like homeopathy and many other alternative medical beliefs belong with beliefs in psychic powers – in the rubbish bin of history.

Rubbish bin
Rubbish bin