An entrepreneur or a car-dealer?

Everyone seems to try to unravel the mysteries of entrepreneurship and what it means to be an entrepreneur. Well, it is a good thing to be innovative and all that and ending up rich. Of course, I am no exception either. But after a while spent on reading articles written about entrepreneurship, or listening to people talking about what being an entrepreneur means, I had an epiphany. The concept that people have in mind when they talk about entrepreneurship, is not that different from what people had in their minds years ago when they talked about car dealers, or travelling sales persons, or even travelling snake oil vendors. The bottom line is that you don’t need to have or necessarily build a product as long as you can sell it, to hell with what you are selling.

I am not really in a position to try to change any of this, but to safe-guard my own sanity, I developed this test:

  1. Upon coming across an article or a talk on entrepreneurship, I replace all “entrepreneur"s with "car-dealer"s, and all ”entrepreneurship"s with “car-dealership”.
  2. If the article/talk still makes sense, it should be discarded as bullshit and the author/speaker should be flagged as suspect.
  3. Otherwise, the article/talk is worthy of attention.

The Dominance of alright/all right in the 30s and 40s

Recently, I have been reading books written in the 30’s and the 40’s and something that came to my attention was the frequency of “alright/all right” in them. So I did the next step to investigate my suspicion and used Ngram to see if by any chance my observation made any sense. Well this is what I got.

Obviously, it is not a definitive evidence, but it seems that “all right” was much more popular in the written English of the early 20th century.

Bullshit is Everywhere

Virtually nothing threatens the future of human kind more than the proliferation of bullshit. Admittedly, it sounds like a grand bullshit statement in itself. One could argue, why–half-truths, exaggerations, empty meaningless words–bullshit should be singled out, when there are more obvious and tangible threats. Climate change, possible nuclear confrontations, and a probable global financial collapse are rightly more suitable to bring the doom of our civilisation. I don’t disagree with that. But I argue that, we, humans, can deal with any of these hazards, if we manage to get ourselves out of the sea of bullshit, in which we are drowning. Harry Frankfurt, in his essay On Bullshit, argues that bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than are lies. A liar exhibits a twisted form of honesty. Liars know what the truth is, and try to cover up the truth. They are truthful in doing what they do and believe in a principle based on concealing the truth. Bullshitters on the other hand, do not adhere to any principle. They do not care if they are being inconsistent with their previous statements. Bullshitters’ statements might as well be true, or they might be false. The veracity of their statements is of no importance to them. They do what they do to gain an advantage, score a point, or appear knowledgable. We see them everywhere. In corporate meetings, in creative circles, in academia, everywhere. Their main goal is to use empty words to appear important and gain power. They want to “shift paradigms”. They are “entrepreneurs” with “business acumen”. They seek “leverage” to pick a “low-hanging-fruit”. They seek “synergy” in “hackathons”. They hack everything–life, work, everything– and keep hacking until nothing remains unhacked.

I don’t have any problem with ordinary people engaging in occasional bullshitting. Good stories always are fused with at least a bit of bullshit, and who does not like a good story? The problem is when bullshitting, an outright lack of respect towards and interest in the truth, becomes the modus operandi of people. That is when they become fully fledged bullshitters. The more successful bullshitters are, the more dangerous they become. Because, then they are in a position to influence a large number of people. We copy over role models. We start using their vocabulary. We adopt their views. Thus, if the role model is a master bullshitter, however, then inadvertently (or maybe deliberately, but let’s hope not), we help the bullshit to proliferate, via acting and talking like wannabe master-bullshitters. 

Take climate change for instance. Powerful figures in charge of big mining companies do not care if it is true or not. They just disagree with it because it is a threat to their personal gains. I do not think that they believe that climate change is a real existential threat, yet choose to lie about it. It would make them both evil and dumb, and they are neither. 

So, how we can fight bullshit then, you might ask. I do not have a definite answer to it. But I think the most important thing is to call a bullshit whenever we see one. Bullshitters should be confronted via logic and be relentlessly ridiculed. Preferably both simultaneously. 

I acknowledge, it might be hard to point out a bullshitter if at that time he is arguing for our cause. But after all which one is more important? The truth or just being popular and surrounded by people that agree with us for whatever reason. Well, the answer might as well be the latter.

PS. I was inspired by The Origins of Office Speak and the great commencement address by Jon Lovett at Pitzer College, and the daily onslaught of bullshit I witness in academia among other things.

Introduction to Optimisation Course Material

You can find the main slides for the course at Stephen Boyd’s page for his course. (Here)

You can find the extra slides that I have prepared here.

You can find Nesterov’s book here.

I will add more material (software packages and more notes) as we go forward and will keep updating.

You can find a set of good slides on SOS here, and a brief companion here.

On l1 methods the slides are here and here.

Quiz Dates:

Tue Aug 20
Tue Sep 3
Tue Sep 17
Tue Oct 8
Tue Oct 22