Philosophy

The meaning of facts

Someone shared this comic on facebook (from drawninpowerpoint):

I criticized the comic because, although the comic clearly portrays one character as the more ignorant, the two characters are really behaving similarly; their viewpoints are just based on articles from sources they trust. They are not doing the work of exploring or questioning the reasons they trust those sources in the first place, or the implications of accepting what those sources say. One character just takes for granted that her source is “objective” and “scientific”, as though the other character would just accept such an analysis at face value. Not only are they not questioning the foundations of their disagreement, they seem unaware that such foundations even exist; it’s just one source of information versus another.

This points to the larger issue that these characters (and many people in the real world) seem to take for granted: facts are never “just facts.” News, even if it is accurate and factual, is never “neutral.” The facts, the news stories, are embedded with meaning. Editors at a news outlet (or even a prestigious scientific journal for that matter) selected that article or that set of facts for a reason. You, as the reader, will interpret the meaning of those facts. How you interpret that meaning will be based on a lot of personal factors, but it won’t be objective. A fact, in and of itself, may be objective, but its meaning is never objective. The meaning of a fact must be formed through your understanding of the world, your interests and values, and even the choices you’ve made.

So arguing with someone that, “You just believe that because you watch too much Fox News!” or “You just believe that because that’s the consensus on Tumblr or Twitter!” is a useless argument, a sort of reverse appeal-to-authority fallacy. Perhaps it is true, but it takes for granted that there’s some other source more worthy of trust. That is, what news sources you trust is itself founded on something deeper, including the way you form meanings from facts.

This also goes for arguments of “this news is neutral, this is more biased, etc.” It’s all biased because it’s all filtered. And you get meaning from that filter whether you like it or not, so you might as well be conscious of it and think about it while you consume it. Why is this news outlet reporting this news story? The significance may or may not be political or controversial, but a reason exists, even if you do not have enough information to guess why.

And what about all the facts and the news you don’t know about because it never reaches you? You can’t use news that doesn’t reach you to form any meaning at all! But it still exists.

My point with all this is not to argue that news should be “more fair” or “more objective” or anything. My point is that news can never be “fair” or “objective” in the first place, so you, as a consumer of news, should be aware of the set of presuppositions with which you form meaning from the news, and you should think about what meaning the presenter of the news wants you to have, whether or not it’s controversial.

A digression, but this is the same sort of problem I’ve ranted about before in regards to our formal education system in the US, especially in the higher grades. Many parents, students, and teachers take a lot learning material for granted. So much of what is taught in high school and college is just useless information because the student is never going to use it. The facts lack meaning. Very few students are going to end up using chemistry and calculus, and certainly not to the extent that they need to memorize and regurgitate a bunch of facts about them this year or else. But then the student grows up and forces his child through the same wasteful system.

This whole topic is also interesting to me because it relates quite a bit to artificial intelligence. What does it mean for a set of facts to “mean” something at all? How could we program a computer to form “meaning” from a set of facts? It’s easy to understand how a human might do it, but when we try to define it formally, it’s like trying to catch a cloud. Get too close to a cloud and you lose the shape of it and you’re just lost in a fog. But I find it a fascinating question.

This also relates to how science is not nearly as “objective” as the usefulness of the scientific method may make it seem. Much of what we call “science” is in fact subjective interpretation, the forming of meaning from facts. The scientific method provides a useful way of honing in on the most practically useful sets of factual interpretations, but they remain just that: useful interpretations. Not immortal objective truths. This does not mean immortal objective truths about the material world don’t exist, only that science doesn’t tell us what they are; rather, science only provides us with a “most useful guess for a given set of purposes based on a given set of data.” (The scientific method should also not be confused with merely interpreting meaning from statistical data; collected data for which we could not control certain variables is much more tricky to interpret, despite our mind’s natural inclination to do so.)

By S P Hannifin, ago
Fiction books

War and Peace vs Dune, and stuff

Reading

I finished reading Dune last week. I didn’t much like it. I thought it was boring. So if the soon-to-be-released new film adaptation isn’t great, a big reason is probably that the source material isn’t that great. I recently started reading Tolstoy’s War and Peace, and in doing so I realized one big reason I found Dune so boring: there’s no humor. Or at least there’s very little humor that I noticed. The book, and the characters in it, took themselves too seriously. Too me, lack of humor makes stories feel too fake. Not enough emotional contrast I guess.

War and Peace, on the other hand, has a good amount of humor sprinkled in, sometimes from characters, sometimes in just the way Tolstoy describes things. I’m only on page 250 of 1000+, but the reading itself is not very daunting. Tolstoy’s prose (at least the translated prose; I’m reading the Maude translation) is very dry. This happened, then this, and this. Straight to the point. No long flowery ambiguous descriptions. No Dickensian run-on sentences. (Though Dickens at least wasn’t too flowery either, for the most part. At least, as far as I remember; I haven’t read Dickens since high school, which was sixteen years ago.) So it’s very approachable, despite its age. It’s just really long. It feels very analagous to a modern TV show; it jumps around between a lot of different characters. It began as a serial back in the day, so I guess that makes sense.

One archaic phrase in this translation that annoys me though is when people “screw up their eyes.” I guess that means something like squinting or furrowing one’s brow? Definitely not something people say (or write) nowadays.

I’d like to finish the book by the end of the month, but I’m probably too slow of a reader.

TuneSage

Still working on TuneSage! I would definitely love to release the first version of it before the end of the year, even as soon as the end of September if I can. A lot of that will depend what “features” I include in the first version. It probably won’t be much at first, because I just want to get it out there. Anyway, I’m finally returning to work on the front end. There’s still a lot of stuff to do on the back end, but working on the front end will probably help me decide what features I want or don’t want for the initial release as I try to design a possible “workflow” for users.

Whatever else

I’ve uploaded more “thrift store finds” videos on my second YouTube channel; eBay flipping has been a fun side-hussle, easy and addicting. Just keep a social distance and wash your hands constantly. (And wear your mask, even though they fog up your glasses and then you have to take your glasses off and you can’t see anything.)

By S P Hannifin, ago
Random thoughts

Thoughts on Trovedex

It’s been about two months sinced I launched and starting using Trovedex, and so I’ve got some thoughts on some improvements I’d like to make at some point. As of this writing, the site only has 7 registered users. One of them is me, half of the remaining are also me testing from different email accounts, and the rest are others who just tested it. So I’m pretty much still the only “real” user. Which is fine, because it means if I make some drastic changes, nobody will care.

One of big things I’d like to do is organize notes into “Notebooks”, as other note-taking apps do, just so things are a little more sorted, and perhaps look a bit more wiki-ish. I’ll probably have the full-page view be the default. I’d like to see it perhaps look more like Observable‘s notebooks. It doesn’t need to be as complicated, although being able to insert interactive javascript code would be nice. (I actually wanted the released version of Trovedex to allow user-provided javascript, but it’s not a very trivial feature to add with Vue, so I moved it to the wishlist.)

Of course, even though I’m using Trovedex for some things, it still does not beat using pen and paper, mostly because they allows me to draw little diagrams and arrows and stuff, which isn’t so easy to create on the computer (possible, but not nearly as easy). Perhaps giving Trovedex an SVG overlay shape creator would help. This note-taker on YouTube seems to really like an iOS app called Notability:

It’s only available for iOS though, and I don’t want to shell out money for Apple’s overpriced hardware for the sake of one app. Also the guy’s handwriting is super sloppy, and I’m not sure if he’s just got naturally sloppy handwriting (he’s studying medicine after all, and doctors are required to have sloppy handwriting), or if a digital pen on a digital touchscreen is contributing to the sloppiness. I’m writing this post on an HP Spectre laptop, which has a touchscreen with pen-writing capabilities, but it’s not great for drawing, much less writing; the precision just isn’t good enough. Although perhaps I could try the paper-like screen protector he recommends.

All that said, I’m not sure when I’ll actually get around to updating Trovedex; my focus is back on TuneSage for now!

By S P Hannifin, ago
Purchases

Thrift store finds

I can’t remember if I’ve mentioned this here before or not, but for the past few years I’ve been making some money by selling stuff on eBay, usually flipping thrift store finds, which is fun and easy. Today I thought I’d start vlogging some of what I found.

Not sure if I’ll keep vlogging my finds or not, but it may actually be good speaking practice for me, which I think I need.

I was also thinking about filming something for YouTube’s upcoming Life in a Day project. I have no expectations that anything I film will be found interesting enough to highlight in their final product (just as TwoSetViolin ignored my beautiful violin composition), but it could be interesting to look back on in 2030.

By S P Hannifin, ago
Interesting things

I still want AI that can help me write a novel

Just last month, OpenAI1 released a paper about their results with GPT-3, an AI human language model system which can be trained on many mountains of text, and then generate its own text based on given prompts.

It looks quite impressive! Impressive too are some of GPT-3’s creative writing results from freelance writer Gwern Branwen. Still has plenty of weaknesses, in humor and logic for example, so it won’t be replacing novelists yet, but I’m particularly impressed with GPT-3’s continuation of a scene from a Harry Potter fanfiction. I wouldn’t copy and paste the results, but it looks like it would be great for generating story ideas, both in a novel’s overall plotting stage, and at the actual scene-writing stage. I find the scene-writing stage to be the most tedious and mentally demanding (hence why I’ve procrastinated on doing it for a few years now); I would love to have a program that continually generated ideas for directions a scene could go, either by having it generate a possible continuation or answering prompts with ideas, such as “How might this character respond to this situation?”.

Other possibilities with GPT-3 (or future models) are equally exciting. I’d love to see GPT-3 or something like it applied to things like:

  • Dialog for non-player characters in video games
  • Cohosting a podcast with me
  • Generating comments for this blog so it looks like I have more readers
  • Being an imaginary friend because I’m sad and lonely

One weakness of GPT-3 (and most neural-network based AI for that matter) is that we may not be able to see directly how it generated its answers to prompts. That is, how do we know it’s not plagiarizing or stealing too many ideas from its training data? It may become a thorny issue for some uses.

David Cope’s older algorithmic music generating system, for example, had similar problems. This is I believe 20-something years old, but here’s a computer-generated piece in the style of Mozart:

Sounds great, but if you’re familiar with Mozart, it’s actually not that impressive; there’s just too much Mozart that’s been too directly copied; it’s just not “creative” enough. A patron of Mozart would likely be dismayed, “this is just a rehash of this and that symphony; I want something in your style, but more fresh!”

I doubt GPT-3 always copies from its training data that overtly, but the possibility could still be a problem.

The other big problem, from my perspective at least, is cost. GPT-3 requires too much computer power that I can’t afford to pay for. OpenAI will probably target enterprise users for their first customers, not poor novelists.

There will probably be other options though. For example, there is the recently launched InferKit which I believe is based on GPT-2. Maybe I’ll experiment with that as the pricing seems fair enough, but my previous creative fiction results with GPT-2 weren’t great, especially when it would have characters from other copyrighted novels like Gandalf pop into scenes. I probably just have to hone in on some good methods for idea-prompting.

Anyway, the future of AI continues to fascinate and excite me!

By S P Hannifin, ago
Non-fiction books

The Coming Illumination of Conscience

I recently started reading a book called The Warning : Testimonies and Prophecies of the Illumination of Conscience by Christine Watkins.

The book talks about a sort of yet-to-be-fulfilled prophecy in which the sky will grow dark and Jesus will appear for all on earth to see. As the back of the book quotes: “With His divine love, He will open the doors of hearts and illuminate all consciences. Every person will see himself in the burning fire of divine truth. It will be like a judgment in miniature.” (Our Lady to Fr. Stefano Gobbi of the Marian Movement of Priests)

There’s a common phenomena among people who have “near death experiences” (which is perhaps a misnomer because they are sometimes just death experiences) of receiving a “life review“. In this review they are shown their past actions through the eyes of God; they see how their actions affected all those around them (being able to experience their actions from other people’s point of view), how their actions rippled into the world and into their own future, and how pleasing or displeasing it was to God.

Of course people interpret and describe these experiences differently, but I think it’s fascinating just how common it is, and experiencing such a “review” certainly fits with Christian theology.

So the “prophecy” seems to be that all humans on earth will experience such a review while still alive and in the flesh!

So… will this prophecy come true? Do believe in it? I don’t know, perhaps lacking direct evidence I’m more agnostic towards it. But does it matter? Though believing it may serve as encouragement, it really doesn’t change what any good Christian should be doing anyway in terms of repenting of sins, praying, growing in faith, etc., regardless of whether you’ll experience such a “life review” or “illumination of conscience” in this life or the next. We should be “getting our house in order” either way.

Do I want this prophecy to be fulfilled while I am living? That’s a tough one, because we don’t know what will happen immediately after.

On the one hand, I would love to experience such a review myself while alive for my own spiritual growth. I also think it would be nice if we humans were closer to each other in terms of spiritual beliefs, especially with contentious issues that cause disunity and emotional distress like abortion and sexual morality, and perhaps even identity politics. Our modern lives have become very secular and Jesus can easily seem like more of a mere historical figure or a strictly personal friend with whom we share a strictly private relationship.

On the other hand, the books warns that upon receiving this illumination of conscience, some people will literally die of horror, and others will “deny the Warning and attribute it to new technologies. … Some of my children will deny that the Warning came from My Kingdom and will rebel against Me, uniting with evil” (pages 42-43). I’m guessing that those who unite with evil may double-down on persecuting believers and we will see a far worse spiritual-turned-physical battle than any social unrest we’re witnessing now. There may be a great deal of suffering. Perhaps I would not like to experience such a world-wide miracle in my lifetime.

So… I don’t know.

Fortunately it’s not up to me!

Anyway, I still find it to be a fascinating book. I had never heard of this “Warning” before, so it’s very interesting to read various testimonies from different times and places that seem to agree with each other on this prophecy (though the interpretation of vagueness may account for some of that).

I’ll also mention that it’s written from the point of view of a Catholic and I think most or all the testimonies shared are from Catholics as well, so as far as I can tell there’s nothing in the book that is directly incompatible with Church teaching. That said, it’s not necessarily Church approved either. But, as mentioned before, the “Warning” doesn’t obligate a Christian to do anything more than he should be doing anyway, so I’m not sure belief, uncertainty, or rejection regarding such a future event matters too much.

By S P Hannifin, ago
Music composition

Short Violin Duet

I composed a very short and simple violin duet this past Sunday. I wrote it for the YouTuber violinists known as TwoSetViolin. They are training to be violin pros, but their videos are hilarious and accessible to everyone, so if you haven’t heard of them, check them out!

They had posted a submission form for composers to submit their short violin duets for possible use in some upcoming video. I only discovered the request shortly before the deadline, so my duet was composed in about an hour, hence it’s very simple nature. (Granted, most of my music is pretty simple anyway, even when I have plenty of time.)

The violinists have almost 2.5 million subscribers on YouTube, so I’m sure they got a ton of submissions and I won’t be surprised if my humble attempt does not make the cut or goes unnoticed. Still, it was a fun little exercise!

Here’s the piece:

And here’s a PDF of the score.

By S P Hannifin, ago
Philosophy

The Evil System

Someone on social media posted that they received a message saying something similar to:

What happened to George Floyd is a metaphor for how the system holds black folks down; people don’t care.

It is horrible, appaling, tragic, and frustrating to learn how Floyd lost his life. However, I don’t understand the quoted response that sees the incident as a metaphor for a greater, more heinous, yet more vague and nebulous evil. What specifically is the “system”, how specifically is it keeping you down, and how specifically can it be fixed?

As with the notion of privelege, people tend to point to statistical disparities as evidence of racism. But statistics in and of themselves never explain causes; one can always interpret the numbers to imply victimhood. Nor do they determine probability; each point of data is the sum of a vast number of unique variables. That is, your chances of being murdered by police, for example, cannot be calculated with statistics. It makes no sense as a foundation of fear.

Nor will the “system” ever be perfect. Another incident is bound to happen. We humans are stupid, sinful, and imperfect. That doesn’t justify the next incident or morally excuse those involved. But the quoted mindset preconditions one’s response to be that much more torment, as the incident will once again provide metaphorical evidence for the evil of the “system”. (Should supposed evidence to the contrary, such as police brutality against non-black folks or the success of other black folks, be ignored?)

That is, if what you require to be unafraid is a world without incident, you will be afraid forever.

(On a side note, there was once this guy who told his followers that they’d be unjustly hated and persecuted, and yet he encouraged them to not worry and to be at peace. Wow, that’s a tall order! Who was that?)

So what’s a person to do? Well, there are a few ways to help. You can post a black square or something on social media to show you care. You can donate some money to some organization that will hopefully do something. You can vote for the socially approved candidates. If you’re white, you can be racist against yourself to help equalize things. And of course there’s always protesting. If you feel that none of these seem to help much because the problem is too vague… (answer to be inserted here)

my virtue

By S P Hannifin, ago
Programming

Note-taking app launched at Trovedex.com!

I spent Friday and Saturday launching the first version of the note-taking app I’ve been working on, live now at trovedex.com. Woohoo! I’m glad I was able to get it up just before the end of May.

As stated before, there are still quite a few features I’d like to add. But even before I go about adding new features, there are a number of glitches that need fixing. It’s really annoying how some things that work fine in production (when running on my computer) suddenly stop working or glitch out when live on a server.

Deploying the Vue app wasn’t too difficult in and of itself, though I will need to develop a more efficient deployment strategy than just uploading files. The trickiest part for me was getting the API back-end server, which manages requests from the app to the database, to use the more secure “https” protocol. The front end, built with Vue, was easy; you can just set a variable in its config file and *poof* it works. The back-end API, however, needed info about a valid SSL certificate to be recognized as secure. Googling around, just about all the info I could find involved creating a self-signed certificate, which most browsers won’t trust, so that didn’t help me much. I finally figured out how to get the “key” and “cert” files from my server’s certificate. A simple solution, but difficult to find. Also, if you know how to look at your browser’s javascript console, you’ll see that my implementation of firebase, which I’m using for user authentication (hence why you can log in with Google or Facebook without having to create a new account), outputs a warning about my code using a “development build” of the SDK. I couldn’t figure out how to get rid of that. It probably also has a simple solution I just haven’t found yet.

At the moment, I know this note-taking app is nothing amazingly innovative, but it’s been great for learning “the stack” (the layers of tools used to build a web app) and I think continuing work with it (and on it) will be fun. Now that this is up, I’m going to switch my focus back to TuneSage, my in-development music-writing app. I’ll still work on Trovedex to fix the current glitches, add features, and make improvements, but I’d like to launch TuneSage before Christmas and there is a ton of work to do on that.

Happy note-taking!

By S P Hannifin, ago
Interesting finds

Monk in Quarantine

Read an article somewhere that said Tony Shalhoub was recovering from COVID and couldn’t help being shocked, shocked! that Mr. Monk would allow such a thing to happen. But I thought this little skit featuring Monk was funny.

They really need to do a TV special or something.

By S P Hannifin, ago