Locklin on science

“Bit Player:” desecrating the memory of Claude Shannon

Posted in reviews by Scott Locklin on December 7, 2020

I used to submit a lot of reviews to Amazon. Because Amazon is now operated by pigfucking NPCs, they’ve basically taken down most of my interesting and all of my negative reviews. I’ll be reposting them all here in some fashion; in part because they make up my notes on some of these books and movies, but also to gather Amazon good boy points; they should be paying me for providing them cover for all the fake reviews and removed negative reviews on their website.

I recently watched something on Amazon prime called “Bit Player” about the life of Claude Shannon. It was a desecration, and I won’t make it easier for people to watch it by linking to it. Shannon is portrayed as a doddering old imbecile; something that was never true, despite his tragic late life Alzheimer’s disease. This is what Shannon was like when he was old and had Alzheimer’s disease:


This is what he was portrayed as:

This turd of a fauxumentary is a strange mixture of interviews with a few people who knew Shannon, some completely irrelevant people, and a bunch of boring and cringey interludes where Shannon is portrayed by actors for … “reenactments.” Most of the footage of fictional Claude Shannon shows him at home being interviewed by a stunning and brave diverse female actress of color, who gives a convincing portrayal of someone who doesn’t actually exist, which as far as I can tell is the truest portrayal in the thing. These fictionalized conversations were supposed to have taken place in interviews at Claude Shannon’s house in the 1980s. Was it done by a “hidden figure?” If so, maybe the film maker should identify them! I’m pretty sure it wasn’t though; just as I am pretty sure Shannon would have kicked anyone asking such dumb questions out of his house no matter how stunning and brave.

As I said, Shannon is portrayed as a doddering boob; a sort of stereotypical absent minded professor: Mr Wizard with a couple of screws loose. While the poor guy basically died of losing his mind: he never acted this way, and the portrayal of him as such is profoundly disrespectful of a great man. I can’t even imagine the level of disrespect required to portray the man this way: imagine if Erwin Schroedinger were portrayed as a self-regarding, coughing, mystical-bohemian pervert who was also a doddering imbecile: that would be more accurate and slightly more respectful of Herr Dr. Professor Schroedinger’s legacy. 

A bunch of random, inarticulate academic irrelevancies and random gasbags are interviewed; presumably because they knew the filmmaker. There’s also Jimmy Soni, who I suppose qualifies as “random gasbag” though he at least wrote a book about Shannon. He did this despite being completely unqualified to do so, and despite having the fine literary qualities of the former McKinsey associate and Puffington Host hack that he actually is. He’s also an inarticulate plank of wood on camera. Well played, sir. They  got Rob Goodman who coauthored that atrocity with Soni, who is of similar timber, but he had the good taste to not be on camera as much. FWIIW their book was so bad, I actually couldn’t finish it. I’ll probably go back and slog through it: these people had no business writing what they did. They’re about as qualified to do so as I am to write a biography of Kautilya, which is to say, I could probably pull it off and fool a lot of people, because, like, wikipedia and I read his book or whatever, but I would be completely unqualified to do so. If you actually want to read a biography of Shannon; go read his Wiki page -it’s better.

They did manage to get Shannon’s actual daughter on film; this is a bit (you see what I did there) of a treat, as she (obviously) actually knew Shannon and kind of resembles him physically; arguably in manner as well. Somehow they avoided getting his son, who seems like a more  interesting person, but I guess he’s too white, male and talented or something. Or maybe he just thought the producers were arseholes, an obvious truism in hindsight. They  managed to talk to Kleinrock who knew Shannon, though he might as well not have been in the thing for all they got out of him: his main comment seemed to be that Shannon wasn’t excellent at arithmetic. Same story with Robert Gallager whose career was deeply intertwined with Shannon’s work, but whose comments can be summarized as “well he wasn’t a businessman.” Instead they let this nameless professorial ninny babble on most of the time:

How to make Shannon more boring? I know, we’ll get this squinty weird lady to talk about him

I could grouse endlessly about the narrative in this thing, how nobody putting this thing together has the slightest clue about important results in information theory or the historical trajectory of Shannon’s work and life. There are tons of people still around who could have made interesting comments about the life of Claude Shannon. You could have let Kleinrock or Gallager talk, but you probably would have had to ask them intelligent questions. There is Ed Thorp  the guy who actually did the roulette thing with Shannon; he’s around and loves to talk. Or maybe the dude who invented smalltalk, who was a Shannon grad student; or his brother (same) who invented computer graphics. Heck Shannon’s wife must have been alive for at least the beginning of the production. Instead they got fucking Nima (for the love of God Nima, get a haircut; it’s not Rodericks Chamber days any more), who gabbles on uselessly about black holes which have absolutely nothing to do with anything Claude Shannon worked on or had anything to do with. Shannon was the anti-black hole scientist: despite the nonsense popular with cosmological and noodle theory dingbats, pretty much all of black hole physics is worthless quasi-theological gibberish. Information theory is both incredibly useful and true. Everything Shannon worked on had applications in the actual world: quite unlike black hole contemporary “physics” douchebags who will never be held to account for their numerous sins.

Finally there is the title. “Bit player?” Shannon is the most important applied mathematician and inventor of the late 20th and early 21st century. Nobody else comes close. What would they call a documentary on Maxwell? “Waves haggis-man?” What would their clever title for Newton be? “Calculus apple-noggin sperdo?” Napoleon’s documentary is “big hat frog midget.”  How about calling your documentary of Freud “Pervert Schlomo” while you’re at it. What fucking pinhead planet are you from calling a documentary of Shannon “Bit player?” Die in a fire, you fucking philistines!

What I imagine happened here: the creators of this atrocity probably started out with good intentions. They knew a biography of this important and popularly underappreciated man was on the way, and so putting together an actual documentary would be a logical thing to do. They probably got the sparse interviews from the appropriate people credulous enough to speak with them (daughter, last grad student, ex-wife from the early 40s, etc), rather than showing them the business end of a boot, which was what the filmmakers deserved. But at the end of it, since they didn’t know what kind of useful questions to ask, they only had 10 minutes worth of interviews. So, they interview some academic irrelevancies they know or can get on film on the topic, let them carry it. Still only 30 minutes of footage (by this point, mostly irrelevant babbling by dimwits). Rent checks are coming due. Your friends are asking you when the Shannon bio will be out. So you hire a couple of actors to portray Shannon to fill in the blanks. Maybe a dimwitted cousin animator to knit it together.Then you call back some gaseous professor to speak more words because none of it makes any sense.

I mean, I get it; people have kids to feed, ex-wives to pay off. Mistakes were made. I can forgive a man for making a shitty documentary -most of them are. I can even forgive him for un-personing all the painfully white and male characters in Shannon’s painfully white and male  life. If you’re a white and male filmmaker in NYC, your friends might call you a racist for including too many white and male  …. and even protestant …. people in a documentary on an almost preternaturally white and male genius. That’s just how the world works these days of the decaying empire. Got to shove in as many diverse stunning and brave females as you possibly can, and point out that Shannon’s wife was better at math (well arithmetic anyway) than Shannon was. However, I can’t forgive his nastiness in his portrayal of Shannon, nor his desecration of Shannon’s memory.  Rather than a doddering old fool in the mould of Mr Wizard he was portrayed as, he was a literal wizard in human flesh. He was a powerful intellect and a no-nonsense man; a playful but fierce Merlin. Look at his  eyes man: he could probably light fires with the power of his mind.

Professor Shannon disapproves of this from beyond the grave

This film is nothing more than a desecration; worse than knocking over statues of great men or spray painting a religious edifice. The men who are responsible for this atrocity should never work in this domain again. Really, they should be tarred and feathered; shunned by all right-thinking people. 


Here, have you some actual Claude Elwood Shannon:


21 Responses

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  1. glaucous noise said, on December 7, 2020 at 8:42 pm

    Well, this still sounds more respectful than the degenerates who conflate Boltzmann and Shannon entropy and then engage in furious academic mental mathturbation about black holes or biophysics.

    What a golden age to be alive.

  2. […] “Bit Player:” desecrating the memory of Claude Shannon […]

  3. Walt said, on December 7, 2020 at 9:46 pm

    The trend in documentaries lately is to deify fools and imbeciles like RBG and revile heroes like Shannon and heroines like Phyllis Schlafly.

    Men need to redirect their wits and energies out of fields such as tech that give depraved elite ingrates more power to propagate their lies.

    The sooner this dyscivilization is reduced to rubble, the better.

  4. chiral3 said, on December 7, 2020 at 10:07 pm

    Sounds like a predictable dish, served dumb. There’s always been a deadspace betwixt buff movies (or books) and hardcore science that was never filled and for which there’s an audience. If it’s an english speaking film (or book) it’s a tacit admission of the lack of education, or at least the grit to try and understand something that’s a bit out of the comfort zone. They’ll make a Feynman movie about the dead wife and the bomb, but they’ll never make a movie out of “The Beat of a Different Drum” (great book). Turing? Gay and the apple. Nash? Crazy (oh, and engaged in some same sex). Given the road we’ve gone down as an anti-intellectual mob more interested in music that has the same exact chord progressions in different keys I’d say it would be impossible to make a good documentary about a scientist or mathematician today. In fact, music is scored against metric that include things like immediate appeal per unit of fatigue: buy it fast today and forget about it tomorrow. Science as a discipline is dying anyway. A movie about McCandless, aka Alexander Supertramp, will be made instead of a movie about Anne LaBastille (a woman!) or Edward Abbey or Richard Proenneke – all more interesting people than some self-absorbed asshole that should have been free to commit suicide quietly and without remembrance.

    Shannon occupied that rarefied space in that he was a first rate mind, working on hard problems, AND he was a tinkerer. I’ve talked about the death of the tinkerer a million times, probably here. A survey of his various inventions and tinkering is probably worth a movie. I think I recall footage of what might have been his garage, I can’t remember if it was in Michigan or Massachusetts, and it was filled with his projects. Today you’d probably get raided by the feds (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steve_Kurtz#Arrest)

    • Scott Locklin said, on December 8, 2020 at 12:19 am

      Some of the cringey fictional Shannon scenes appeared to be filmed in Shannon’s actual house with some of the objects he built. Maybe the daughter kept the place up. Again it couldn’t have been filmed too long after Mrs. Shannon checked out. It wasn’t that it was simply bad; I’m used to that, it was just a desecration. “You have meddled with the primal forces of nature, Mr. Beale, and I won’t have it!” The book was terrible too; people can do better. Thorp and Simons were both better treated; don’t think the Simons biographer was at all qualified, but he did a creditable job anyway. The creeps who wrote the Shannon bio were just awful.

      You must have read “the Tinkerings of Robert Noyce” by now if you like tinkerers. Go read it if you haven’t yet. https://web.stanford.edu/class/e145/2007_fall/materials/noyce.html

      I’ve been shopping for machine tools myself; probably shouldn’t, as I have too many other things to do, but I miss fiddling with matter.

      • chiral3 said, on December 8, 2020 at 1:27 pm

        Bob Noyce! Great time to be alive.

        Re tools: it’s worth a modest investment. I have a shop. Lathes, saws, routers, jigs, etc. While great for repairing things, it’s incredibly therapeutic making things in the shop. Stupid, little things. Like I have these beautiful natural edge bowls made from a black walnut that came down in my back yard. Our salt and pepper mills came off the lathe too. There’s a few guitars made in that shop, many based on the plantilla of a 1943 Hermann Hauser. If you don’t make room for a shop you could always get ultra precise saws and lathes to make ultra precise small things.

        I couldn’t sleep last night and soldiered through 20 minutes of bit player. It was infantilizing: of both him and the viewer.

        • Scott Locklin said, on December 8, 2020 at 3:53 pm

          Yeah I have a unimat and some tools in storage. Clockmaking oriented stuff. Would probably need a bunch more tooling and supplementary stuff (bench grinder, drill bit sharpener, jacot tool, dividing head, etc etc) for a useful workshop. The problem is always time; learning a new language, painting, social life: adding “mill a cutter for a 36 tooth, 4cm cycloidal gear for your bar stock grasshopper escapement clock” to the list probably means either giving up one of the other interests or getting very little done. I’ve thought about doing stuff like building a nitrogen laser or whatever in my garage; fairly labor intensive but straight forward to do. Over all, buying an old sports car would probably scratch the same itch and be more sociable than fiddling with machine tools.

      • Walt said, on December 8, 2020 at 3:44 pm

        Other great opportunities for tinkering include agronomy and animal husbandry. I foresee great opportunities in ag in the coming years as most farmers retire.

        We build the elites’ tech, including their weapons, and this is the thanks we get – the “Claude Shannon” treatment. No more.

  5. Paul in Ireland said, on December 7, 2020 at 11:43 pm

    “I’ll be reposting them all here in some fashion; in part because they make up my notes on some of these books and movies…”

    Excellent. Good, honest, intelligent, zero BS book and film reviews are rare as hen’s teeth these days.

  6. William O. B'Livion said, on December 8, 2020 at 1:07 am

    When asked about my religion I will often tell people that I’m a Shannonist. I mean I don’t know much about him other than in invented Information Theory and a few other moderately important things, but it’s more useful than being a Catholic.

    I also venerate Murphy as a God, but I don’t pray to him. You don’t want to catch his attention too often.

    I’ll not watch the documentary, but I’ll take note of the participants.

  7. mikeinwatertown said, on December 8, 2020 at 3:15 am

    I had that documentary on my to-watch list based solely on its subject matter. Thanks for saving me the time and aggravation.

    Someone oughta make “Pervert Schlomo”, though. Hopefully they can play on the word “Fraud” in a subtitle.

  8. Karl Narveson said, on December 9, 2020 at 2:45 pm

    It would be a good thing if this review could actually be posted on Amazon and be seen by a few of the people who could benefit most, namely those who were thinking of watching this documentary. As an engineer and a troubleshooter, I must ask if you have tried the simple step of resubmitting the review after globally deleting the “fuck”s.

    • Scott Locklin said, on December 9, 2020 at 7:04 pm

      There weren’t any “fucks” given, or anything even remotely flaggable. And yes, I tried a couple of times. That was where I noticed …. almost all my negative reviews were gone.
      Feel free to excerpt me and try it for yourself.

      • Karl Narveson said, on December 9, 2020 at 11:01 pm

        Thanks for the clarification. So your blog readers have no way to tell exactly what text you submitted to Amazon.

  9. Ogopogo said, on December 10, 2020 at 10:58 am

    One of my professors was in this movie or involved in its creation and he passed out coupons to everyone in class to see it. I’m glad I never went. That prof also has a very high opinion of himself and he’s one of the people I’ve had the most trouble working with at my school.

    I’m sure you can guess what the guy researches.

    The closest thing I’ve seen to this was the NYT’s obit of John Conway. I don’t get the Times but my grandparents gave me the article. It turned my stomach reading what they had to say: they infantilized the memory of the still-warm Conway as a toys-and-games Santa Claus. Did Conway engage in recreational math? Yes. Did he have a sense of humor? Yes. Should adult men with college educations need to be shoveled heaps of treacly “math is fun” pablum in order to tolerate memorializing the life of a great thinker? Apparently, also yes.

    • chiral3 said, on December 10, 2020 at 3:12 pm

      This stuff has always been around; I don’t want to pretend it hasn’t, or that it’s localized to math or physics, but this is the double-edged sword of catering to buffs. Go to Quanta or any well-known blog and watch buffs debate AdS/CFT or Majoranna neutrinos or dark matter. These buffs are the consumer. Hard to pinpoint exactly where / when this started, but I blame knuckleheads like Michio Kaku and Brian Green. “Imagine a string as a noodle, a noodle that lives in many dimensions…” Of course all this is easily blamed on Hawking (Brief History of Time). Democratization via internet and all that just levered this up 10^6x. If, say, Wilson’s 1979 Scientific American article on renormalization is the best we can do bridging the two worlds I’d say Quanta at least comes close. There’s nothing in visual media that I can think of, ex youtube, etc., only considering movies, that comes close. I can only assume that people play it safe when there’s a budget that you’re trying to recoup through distribution.

    • Scott Locklin said, on December 10, 2020 at 4:28 pm

      I didn’t think the Conway obit was so bad. I don’t know much about him, other than Berlekamp (who is a vastly more impressive and unsung individual) used to get annoyed at him for being unprofessional.

      I assume your professor researches noodle theory or quantum computers. FWIIW I used to know Nima if it’s him. He was an OK dude when he was in his 20s. I was told his phenomenology stuff was kind of cheating, but it was a noodle theory guy who said so.

  10. anonymous said, on December 10, 2020 at 6:56 pm

    This is perhaps the seminal reason why I began to avoid any product of Hollywood or modern popular culture: The *disrespect*! I try to stick to old biographies, or, when I can get them, autobiographies. The autobiographies are valuable windows into how these people saw the world, how they approached things, what their world was like.
    (Recently read the autobiography of Simon Lake, inventor of the buoyancy controlled submarine. Apparently there never was a time when US defense acquisitions wasn’t corrupt and stupid! Also adventure!)

  11. George W. said, on December 12, 2020 at 1:35 am

    Amazon is a monopoly disguised as a public utility. Everyone uses it. They are a textbook-economy of scale. And nobody will take their place because prime members don’t want to lose their streaming services. This is a classic marketing trick. This presents another barrier to entry for potential competitors because people experience losses more intensely than profit. Censorship or not, who trusts the government to regulate them in a sensible manner.

    The “scientist” profession, and its history, has always been mocked somewhat I believe. Nowadays, we’ve switched away from that and now accept their democratic knowledge as impenetrable dogma (enforced by the holy p-value [the paper was]… part of an ongoing movement to *decenter* White masculinity

    Our intellectual resources haven’t vanished, but they have left universities and the research labs to make money and stop spending all day masturbating higher-ups and BIPOC. China and Russia don’t wank like we do here.

    • George W. said, on December 12, 2020 at 1:37 am

      The middle half of that comment was deleted. Yikes!

  12. Muhammad said, on December 16, 2020 at 11:41 pm

    I searched for the reviews that are hidden from your profile, and damn there’s a lot of great stuff there. My copies of “Mastering The Grain Markets” and “Merchants of Grain” just arrived yesterday, and so far they’re as good as you say.

    That being said, I still couldn’t find many negative book reviews from you. I’m looking forward to reading them, they’re a very interesting extension of your blog.

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