10,000 Hours With Claude Shannon: How A Genius Thinks, Works, and Lives
Jimmy Soni
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It’s a real shame that an article on such an interesting and important story has such a patronising tone. Some of us have spent a lot more than 10,000 hours immersed in Claude Shannon’s bandwidth. I first met Shannon when doing an applied maths honours course at Wits University in Johannesburg in 1978. Wits was an interesting place in those days. We had the world’s fastest IBM360 compiler, tweaked by Derek Henderson, one of the first dozen PhDs in the world in computer science. The statistics department was run by Doug Hawkins, a world-famous academic. Applied maths was under Wits’s youngest professor, the prolific Tony Starfield, who pioneered the entire field of mathematical modelling. Starfield explicitly told us: you are being trained to be *specialist generalists*, you are something new. Any subject that has numbers, we can solve problems; any subject without numbers, we’ll find a way to put numbers to them. It was pretty inspiring, especially since we essentially had the world’s fastest supercomputer to play with (my fellow students were always trying too find ways to trick the compiler and make the machine crash, you could almost make the lights go dim if you knew how).

My obsession was wireless communication, and the reason I was doing applied maths was one single course, a legend in our circles: RQEMHD, or relativistic quantum electromagnetohydrodynamics, or plasma physics. I was interested in the ionosphere, radio propagation, and the South Atlantic Magnetic Anomaly, now better known as The Hole In The Ozone Layer (this was after the USA detonated three live atom bombs in the centre of this atmospheric anomaly, check out Project Prime Argus, called the biggest experiment ever carried out on planet Earth (at the time) and done in great secret.

Having signed up for app math specifically to do this course, having registered for this course and picked up the notes, I was then quite surprised to be called in by Tony Starfield and told abruptly that there was no way I could attend that course, I had been deregistered, and I must return the notes immediately. I was doing “too much physics”. I said: I’m doing two physics courses out of 19. They are general relativity and quantum theory. They are prerequisites for RQEMHD and you know the only reason I signed up for honours was to do this course. How can you possibly tell me this now?

And I was told flatly: You are NOT doing that course.

Can any of you guess why?

Oh, well. I had been in the physics department, and I knew full well that they were helping to make atom bombs — there was a real Nazi running nuclear physics, this was one reason I got out of physics — but it took me a few years to put two and two together. Those mysterious RQEMHD boys — I don’t recall ever seeing them again — were specially selected atom bomb scientists, my parents being ex-Communists in South Africa probably set off a few alarm bells when they saw I was being dropped in the middle of the atom bomb crew.

I took a good look at those notes before I handed them back, in 1978 I couldn’t afford to go and photocopy them, a real pity. It all started and ended with the Stokes equation, the basic equation of fluid flow, and a very familiar non-linear friend, just the sort of story that we were now tackling with computers. I thought: I’ll see you again one day, Dr Stokes.

BUT: and this is the real point (10,000 hours later…): they could *not* stop me from hitting Shannon and information entropy in our course. The moment I saw this, I knew, this was everything I was looking for, and was kind of destiny for me. To this day, I feel the only proper way anyone can understand the mystery of “time” is via Shannon: as time goes by, we get more information. You might call that more chaos, or heat death, but this is terribly judgmental. It’s just information.

In the Internet age, humanity has truly just become bandwidth. As an old radio ham, who spent his 10,000 hours talking in Morse Code to amateurs all over the world (I’ve adapted my current callsign, I’m now also @3DA0KM) I have literally lived in the bandwidth, acquired the instincts that you do when trained by the very best, the military operators of the Soviet Union, my biggest pals (you can see why they were nervous about me — most of this was being done on the Wits Radio Club callsign, ZS6WRC). I had QSL cards from hundreds and hundreds, if not thousands, of Soviet hams, lots of them in Siberia, long winter evenings, I used to tell them: FB WX HR 39C HI — fine business weather here, thirty-nine degrees, LOL (you laugh in Morse Code by saying HI).

So why is Claude Shannon the great mind you’ve never heard of? This is the real question, hidden in the secrets of cryptography and the military, and totally obscured by the gee-whiz nature of this article. This brilliant knowledge is all swallowed up by the military-industrial-academic complex, the University. Once you’ve really seen behind the scenes of the M-I-A complex, as I did at Wits in the late 1970s, well, you have few illusions. And you wonder when the truth will come out. Not through articles or books like this, for sure.

You know, there was a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. You could confess all your sins, and as long as you had murdered and butchered in the name of a legitimate political party, and you told all your sins, you could be absolved. This forever sealed my definition of political parties: legalised thugs and murderers.

The media bosses made confessions and wrung their hands, the clergy and all sorts of other people did the same. Now, during apartheid, all we ever heard on the left in SA was Gramsci and Ideological State Apparatuses and education as the Dominant ISA in South Africa. We all knew what a DISA was, believe me, I was in the education union, and if there was article in our newsletter that didn’t talk about DISAs it was an event. (I’m exaggerating just a little, mostly in that we did not put out a lot of newsletters).

So: do you think there was any inquiry into the great DISA, the biggest apparatus that spawned and maintained apartheid? In the iconic TRC process of South Africa, so inspiring to the world? Was there, hell. I made a very brief submission (I had left the education system and worked as a temp secretary for five years, so my resources were a little low). To the very best of my knowledge, I was the only person who made one peep about education at the TRC. Interesting, yes? The TRC compiler to whom I personally handed my submission, made a point (at the hearing on the media) on sitting closely with and chatting in the most friendly way with the one single person I had fingered in my whole submission. My submission was naturally buried without trace.

Now, that is the real story of why you’ve never heard of Claude Shannon: the system is busy using this information to kill people, especially non-Americans, and it knows just how valuable a real pragmatic genius like Shannon can be. And you’re fighting Nazism, you’re fighting Communism, you’re on the good guys’ side. And anything that might challenge the hegemony of The Professors is buried without trace.

I wrote a master’s dissertation at Wits University, you’ll struggle to find it, I withdrew it in toto, because I realised it was much more dangerous to my skin under the ANC than it ever was under apartheid, even though I went gung ho for Black Consciousness as the best thing I’d ever see happen to education in Soweto. I was very critical even then (1987) of the ANC, and I got enough death threats from the ANC later on over my intentions to write about their education disaster, that I just quit education altogether and went into journalism (via temping), I figured the real war was in the media, academia was a total waste of time, and I’ve only become more convinced of this as the years have gone by.

So in this black hole dissertation of mine, I said: the Long March through the institutions must begin and end at the university. I’ve said this ever since. The modern-day university is truly the contemporary Temple of Satan. I meet bright young people who want to be doctors. I tell them: you want to heal people? Go play music, real music. You want power and money and status and to stick needles in people and hurt them? And get your hands on all the good drugs? Go be a doctor.

This may all seem a very strange reaction to an interesting and important story. I have very successfully taught Claude Shannon’s information theory to kindergarten children, without telling them what it was. It’s part of our basic cultural heritage. But because it can be used to kill and kill and kill lots of human beings, it gets appropriated by the politicians, the gangsters. And one thing I can tell you for sure, of my experience in South Africa. Of all the gangs, the most vicious in SA are those of the Cape, fair Cape Town, with a far worse murder and drug rate than Johannesburg or anywhere else. And of all these gangs, the most ferocious are the “so-called Coloureds”, I still have the scars from one mugging in the middle of the city at night. I worked at UWC, the so-called-so-called Coloured university there, aka “Bush”, and there I encountered The Professors, and I can truly say, of all the gangsters in the world, The Professors really are the worst. So, enjoy the story above, and if it’s all new to you, welcome to the wacky world of bandwidth and the wonks who inhabit it. And if you’re not careful, next time, I’ll tell you what happened to Catastrophe theory and Chaos theory at Wits, I went through both of those, protesting all the way: it’s not chaos. It’s not catastrophe. It’s just information. Ask Claude.

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