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On Adult Edutainment: A Retrospective Look at Beanformation Theory · 6:50pm Jul 18th, 2018

As a child, I used to love watching Bill Nye the Science Guy in science class. It's not hard to understand why; it was funny, had lots of cool visuals, and every minute watching the show was a minute that we didn't have to spend listening to the teacher lecture on the subject or working on exercises from the textbook.

Still, it was fun and I learned some science for it, and I generally consider it to be a positive in my life. It wasn't the only edutainment content I consumed in my life. I vaguely recall a picture book about ants and a picnic basket that taught me about powers of two. I played the hell out of math games where you solved problems to advance in the story. I think there was one about learning parts of speech too.

I've often credited my academic success to the fact that I found learning fun. When you do things others consider to be a chore for enjoyment, when you're willing to spend your free time honing academic skills because you want to, the benefits are obvious. Edutainment media facilitated this enjoyment, helped me to discover my love of math, science, and literature, and for that, I am eternally grateful.

As I grew older, the amount of material that sought to both educate and entertain grew sparser. Sometimes textbooks would have fun little stories to frame a chapter. I remember one about a murder mystery that was used to teach forensic science in elementary school. In high school, we still had the occasional government-made educational videos (and of course there were the straight-up movies we watched for… educational reasons). They were nice little touches to break up the monotony of the ordinary learning environment.

By the time college came around, edutainment was a thing of the past. There was no reason to produce edutaining content from increasingly technical and abstract curriculums for an audience that was already supposed to be interested in the topic. At least, that was my belief.

And then I took a course on linear algebra.

The professor for the course gave us a set of course notes to study. It's pretty standard for courses where there's no textbook that the professor likes for the course (or ones where they try to save students money by not making them buy several textbooks for a single course). The notes are essentially a mini-textbook that only covers the curriculum of the course and nothing else, making them much more concise than a textbook.

I was somewhat surprised when the course notes started out with a Prologue instead of a Preface. I was even more surprised when the Prologue turned out to be the story of a linear algebra professor being sent five hundred years into the past and dropped into the court of Lorenzo De' Medici.

And then I was hooked.

The course notes told the story of a professor teaching linear algebra to Lorenzo De' Medici while trying to figure out how to get home and debating the ethics of teaching advanced mathematics to the guy who was Machiavelli's patron. Every chapter of the course notes would start and end with some plot development, and the meat of the chapter would be a back-and-forth between the protagonist and Lorenzo as they discussed whatever topic the chapter was about.

I've never been one to read course notes or textbooks, because I'm a terrible role model, but I tore through those chapters like a rabid dog. And I realized then that edutainment was a powerful force that didn't have to be limited to children. Highly technical subjects could be conveyed with a compelling narrative, and those narratives could be used to enhance student interest in the subject.

That course was an eye-opening experience, but one I didn't think much about until I joined fimfiction a few years later, when I stumbled upon the author Pineta. Pineta proved that you could use ponies to teach science, and got me to actually learn optics for the first time (the subject had never interested me until Twilight and Rainbow started talking about it). I wanted to do what he did, to use something beloved to get people to fall in love with other subjects I was enamored with.

Fast forward to a couple months ago, when a bunch of us were daring each other to write Beanis fics in Discord. I recalled the Datanis, and jokingly threw out the idea of writing a fic exploring the technical aspects of an organic bean-based data-transmission system.

Then I remembered the professor in the court of the Medicis, and it wasn't a joke anymore.

As for my choice in subject matter, there were a number of different ideas I had for the fic. I could've explored the "uses neural nets to learn answers to homework questions" aspect of the Datanis discussed in its debut fic in order to teach a lesson on Machine Learning. I could've done something a bit more fundamental and talked about computational complexity, or Fourier analysis, two subjects very close to my heart.

In the end, I picked Information Theory because it's a field that's obscure enough that most people will never encounter it, but simple enough that a freshman level of math and computer science understanding would be sufficient to pick up the fundamental ideas. My own introduction to the field would never have happened if I hadn't made a mistake and stumbled into the wrong part of the Electrical Engineering department looking for a thesis supervisor, and I wanted to give people the same opportunity I was afforded to fall in love with the field.

Also, because the core idea of Info Theory — that information can be quantified and analyzed mathematically — is both intuitively easy to explain and really friggen' cool.

Of course, it's one thing to have a grand idea, and a desire to make the world a better place or whatever, and another to actually be able to act on that idea. As it turns out, trying to blend a compelling narrative into a lecture on the fundamentals of information entropy is a lot harder than it sounds, and I'm afraid I bit off far more than I could chew. The handicap of having to make the story educational proved a little too much for me, and the story suffered quite a lot as a result. I debated giving up on the whole endeavor and going back to writing shipfics, but in the end, this was something I truly believed in, and that gave me the resolve to carry the story through to the end.

And so, I present to you Beanformation Theory: The Weirdest Introduction to Information Theory You'll Ever See. I hope you can at least appreciate the sheer surrealism of its existence, and for those of you who check it out, I hope that you fall in love with this wonderful field of study just as I have. After all, misery loves company.

Osto Vinya nauva ustaina!

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Comments ( 12 )

Now I wish I had that professor, or someone else who put that much effort into making the curriculum truly fun. Could you write fan fiction for extra credit?

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I wonder if your math professor was an English major. (One of my CS professors was.)

Aerospace guy, with the usual engineering background. No English degrees AFAIK.

sounds like most of us, tbh.

I don't suppose you have a copy of those notes? Because linear algebra was the hardest and dullest math class I took, and the one that persuaded me not to be a math major, but I wish I'd internalized more of it. Still took some discrete math courses afterward, because combinatorics, graph theory, and logic are way more fun.

Anyway, it sounds like a great way to make it more interesting and accessible.

Unfortunately, I lost the files somewhere along the way. I've been asking the classmates I stayed in touch with on and off for the past few years, hoping someone has them on a disk somewhere, to no avail.

For reference, the course notes are "J.W. Lorimer & G.M.T. D’Eleuterio, An Algebra Professor in the House of the Medici: A First Course in Linear Algebra for Engineers, Scientists and the Renaissance Man or Woman, 2012" if you can somehow find a copy uploaded on some obscure academic sharing site.

Was J.W. Lorimer the author as well?

I believe they jointly taught the class at some point, though that was before my time.

Hm. Well, Google gives me the school and I have a couple of contacts in that general area, so I suppose it's worth the long shot of asking them if they know anything. I also know a few folks in mathematical academia I could ask, because you never know who might've known whom.



Finally found it! Or at least, most of it. https://sites.google.com/site/caudouze/enpublications has chapters 0-7 and chapter 10 under c0.pdf, c1.pdf, etc... Unfortunately, they seemed to have updated the course with new versions of chapters 8 and 9 which aren't from the original text. Course Hero appears to have Chapters 8 and 9 under https://www.coursehero.com/file/31106673/Chapter-9pdf/ and https://www.coursehero.com/file/31106652/Chapter-8pdf/, but I don't have a subscription to that site so I can't access them,

That's amazing, thanks!

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