The Ordinary Bookclub makes its Triumphant Return with Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality
Jaybird here. Vikram Bath and I got into a discussion on the twitters and he mentioned that Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality was really good. I was skeptical… but, hey. I figured that I’d give it a shot. What follows is our email conversation after I finished it.
The short version is: I not only enjoyed it, I want other people to read it (and know this: it’s available for FREE online). I talked about the story with Vikram and he suggested that we bring back the Ordinary Bookclub for this. So. If you are curious and you don’t mind spoilers to some extent, you can read my conversation with Vikram below.
WARNING! We get into some minor spoilers in there. If you want to avoid spoilers ENTIRELY, just click on the link to Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality and start reading and get into the comments later on. If you aren’t sold yet (and who can blame you), you can read our conversation and let that sell you on whether you should read it. (As Vikram will point out, you don’t NEED to have read the original Harry Potter books to enjoy this story, so don’t let that by itself dissuade you.)
Our conversation follows. (I will be in Italics, Vikram will be in Bold.)
So before I get to the MoR, I want to give a little bit of background.
I got on the original Harry Potter train somewhere after Prisoner of Azkaban was released but before Goblet of Fire was released.
I know this because I was standing in line at midnight for the Goblet of Fire release party at Mediaplay (remember them?) and I know that I was not at the Prisoner of Azkaban release party. (Pretty sure I started reading the first one in an airport… I was driving Maribou nuts when she just wanted to sit and read and she thrust Philosopher’s Stone into my hands and told me to just read the first couple of chapters. It worked. We both sat and read quietly.)
After Goblet of Fire, I was at all of the midnight releases.
Man, I loved that series. I loved how the series grew and matured. The first book struck me as being like a particularly scary episode of Scooby Doo… and, before I knew it, I was reading treatises on Enlightenment Values and the nature of Good and Evil.
It’s like the series matured with the kids reading it.
When I closed the seventh one, I sighed deeply and sadly and was pleased to have been part of the cultural phenomenon.
I watched the first four movies and was delighted by the first three but the Goblet of Fire dampened all of my enthusiasm for the films and I fell fully into the “the book was better” camp and didn’t bother seeing the next four.
And then the phenomenon more or less faded for me.
Until the other day, when I saw your tweet telling someone else to read it and I thought “hell, I’ll just read the first couple of chapters…” and, once again, I was hooked.
I came to it very differently. Back before kids sledgehammered our lives, I was looking for something the wife and I could do together. At some point, I considered listening to the Harry Potter books, all of which had been published a number of years prior. We just listened to Stephen Fry narrate them slowly one by one. We thought the first was delightful. She does a great job of making it feel like you are watching a movie–describing the special effects in such a way that they map easily onto special effects you’ve seen before. The second book felt like a rip-off of the first. The Prisoner of Azkaban changed that. That was when it seemed clear that Rowling had an ambition for her series beyond it just being a series.
Goblet of Fire is everyone’s consensus pick for the weakest book. Rowling herself said that she had to spend a significant amount of time reworking it due to a hole that threatened all seven novels. By the time I finished The Deathly Hallows, I felt like this was a truly great gem, perfectly self-connected in a way that made it beautiful.
But that wasn’t the only way I came to Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality. Long ago, I used to love the blog Overcoming Bias written by Robin Hanson and Eliezer Yudkowsky. I particularly loved the writings of the latter. Eventually he left the blog, though, and I lost track of him. Years passed by and then somehow I came across a story that was written by Yudkowsky and it was about Harry Potter. I wasn’t familiar with the concept of fan fiction before, but you couldn’t have come up with something that would be more my jam. Even so, it seemed almost too perfect, and I was familiar with Yudkowsky as a nonfiction blogger. Surely it couldn’t translate to fiction? And surely not when trying to take on something I already thought was perfect in Harry Potter?
I went to my little local diner and was going to evangelize Methods of Rationality to the kids behind the counter, but the 22 year-old only read up through Prisoner of Azkaban and the 17 year-old hadn’t read any of them. “My God. It’s 1990 and I’m the Boomer telling the kid that he should listen to Jimi Hendrix.”
I bring this up to ask, “how do we want to handle spoilers for this?”
I think that the easiest plan for the discussion would assuming that everybody who would be interested in Harry Potter has read the original series OR has seen the movies and so we shouldn’t be afraid to spoil Rowling’s original books… but we should do our best to avoid major spoilers for Methods of Rationality. And let’s define “major spoiler” as “plot stuff that happens after the first quarter of the story and Rationality stuff that happens after, oh, the first half.” (Though if you’d rather handle this differently, I’d be down with whatever you’d be most comfortable with.)
So for the readers reading this, if you want to avoid any spoilers at all for this (pretty amazing) story, just click here now.
The last non-spoiler thing I’ll say is that I treated this story the same way I treated the Harry Potter book when Maribou told me to read it. I figured “Oh, I’ll just read the first few chapters” and then, next thing you know, it’s time for bed and I’m saying “just one more chapter, just one more chapter just one more chapter.”
The Boomers were right about Hendrix, and we are right about HPMOR. HPMOR is fan fiction though. If you plan on reading the Harry Potter novels at some point in your life, go ahead and read them first. HPMOR makes reference to things that are revealed across all seven Harry Potter books.
However, you could also just read the first book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, to be introduced to the world. That will give you enough to understand the key differences in the HPMOR world. (Or, I suppose, you could just watch the movie. Eww.)
Or you could do what many have done and just start reading HPMOR. You don’t have to understand or care about the original novels to enjoy the book. In fact, the book is sufficiently critical and disrespectful of its source material that I could easily see someone who actively disliked the books loving HPMOR.
Still here? Okay. Spoilers will follow. Read at your own risk.
The original Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s/Sorcerer’s Stone opened up with a setting ripped from some old-schooly fables. Poor Harry, raised as an unwanted stepchild, sleeping in a room under the stairs, abused, neglected, etc. But then, whammo! “Yer a Wizard, Harry.”
Harry then gets swept up in a magical adventure where he meets his best friends, Ron and Hermione, they all get into Gryffindor, they have wonderful adventures over the next seven years, and eventually they defeat The Big Bad.
So Harry Potter and the Method of Rationality’s thing is that it says “come on, now. Let’s not treat this like a fable but as if there were some kind of rhyme or reason.”
In this one, Harry Potter is not raised by his aunt and uncle as if he were an unwanted stepchild, but by his aunt and a DIFFERENT uncle as if he were cherished. What if Harry Potter were raised in a house with a college professor whose household motto was “You can never have enough books”? What if he was raised in a home where his intellect was fed and cultivated and he was taken to museums and libraries and he had bedtime stories read to him?
Well… for one thing, you get a different set of experiences at the train station.
The first thing, for example, is Harry sits down with Ron and, instead of being pleased to meet someone his own age who is friendly and being excited to talk about a topic that Ron is excited to talk about with him, Harry starts pointing out that Quidditch is dumb. The Seeker is dumb. The Golden Snitch is dumb. The scoring is dumb. You know all of the problems that you, the reader, have with Quidditch? Well, this version of Harry sees them too. And he lets Ron know exactly what he thinks about Magical Sportsball.
As such, instead of this being a bonding experience for Ron and Harry, Ron wanders off.
Harry then meets up with Hermione and they hit it off over their love of books and love of intellectual discussion and love of studying and love of research. And it comes out that “Ravenclaw” is the House for the students who care about the life of the mind. They know that they’re not going to Gryffindor because that’s the dumb jocks. They know that they’re not going to Hufflepuff because that’s the one for people with social skills. They know they’re not going to Slytherin because that’s the one for people with connections.
And so Harry and Hermione are besties. Oh, and without Ron’s influence, Harry sees Draco as sheltered and backwards and in need of a friend like himself. So he establishes himself as being friends with Draco as well.
And that’s the foundation of the coming story.
Which, as I read it, I found absolutely DELIGHTFUL. Because, you know what? Quidditch IS dumb. And Hermione SHOULD have been sorted into Ravenclaw.
Fine. So Harry is smart. That’s important and good, but it’s really not enough. After all, Sherlock Holmes is supposedly smart, but Yudkowsky’s criticism of him is spot on:
when you look at what Sherlock Holmes does – you can’t go out and do it at home. Sherlock Holmes is not really operating by any sort of reproducible method. He is operating by magically finding the right clues and carrying out magically correct complicated chains of deduction. Maybe it’s just me, but it seems to me that reading Sherlock Holmes does not inspire you to go and do likewise. Holmes is a mutant superhero. And even if you did try to imitate him, it would never work in real life.
Many times, Holmes’s deductions come from things like noticing the amount of wear on a person’s jacket or a speck of some special fabric on some surface. These seem more like guesses than deductions, and if a real person were to try them, they’d be wrong at least half the time. Holmes appears intelligent because Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is there spotting him every step along the way to make sure he never has to face being wrong.
Yudkowsky is not there to bail out Harry. Harry is limited to the tools he has. Harry can be wrong–sometimes tragically wrong. Additionally, Harry’s enemies are perhaps smarter than him. However much Yudkowsky has strengthened Harry, Harry’s task is that much harder, and he certainly isn’t going to defeat Voldemort with a willingness to die and his mother’s love. We only see earned wins.
Furthermore, you get to play too! The problems Harry faces are meant to be solvable. While you can read HPMOR chapter by chapter, you can also put it down and think about what is happening and figure out who is doing what and with what motivations. While a traditional mystery novel casts suspicion in random directions to preserve the mystery, all of HPMOR’s clues are meaningful, even if their surface-level directionality is misleading. It’s a puzzle you are supposed to be able to get.
You say that “Harry can be wrong–sometimes tragically wrong” and, without getting into explicit major spoilers, there’s the very, very, very big thing that he’s wrong about… but my take on the first half of the book is how irritatingly common his being right about everything friggin’ is.
I know that the best satires can be read perfectly straight and I’m stuck here reading the multiple chapters where Harry is Always Friggin’ Right. Even when he’s wrong, he’s right to be wrong. (And the people who are right are wrong to have been right.)
Now, I don’t know if he’s deliberately setting Harry up to be Always Friggin’ Right or if he’s making fun of rationalists for engaging in motivated reasoning and missing forests for the trees and then giving perfectly reasonable reasons for why trees are more important than forests. Heck, maybe he’s doing both at the same time. But I found myself frustrated at the story for being an obvious self-insert fanfic as often as I found myself being delighted by what he was doing and the games he was playing.
For example, when Harry is in one of his “I AM MORALLY IN THE RIGHT!” dudgeons (and there are several), he is, at worst, portrayed as being a jerk (but still being right). It’s never that he’s too young to understand how the world works; it’s that too many grownups have made too many compromises with people who are morally in the wrong. Or adults fail him by being too fallible (or withholding information).
Don’t get me wrong: I LOVED the story. I just alternated between being enchanted and saying “ugh, he’s doing THIS crap again…”
This is a fair criticism. I vaguely remember reading Yudkowsky address this. He asserted it was not a self-insert fanfic, but I don’t really believe him. Additionally, I think some of what you are referring to is why I don’t consider myself part of “the rationalist community” (to the point that I even need to use scare quotes around the term).
Offering a bit of a defense, being enjoyable fiction is not HPMOR’s primary goal. Its primary reason for being is to introduce a lay audience to what Yudkowsky considers the principles of rationality, and hopefully be taken in and go read the stronger, more direct material on lesswrong.com. Given that it is supposed to be educational, it’s frankly miraculous that it ends up being entertaining at all.
I think you correctly identify that one of the ways that the educational goals leak through is that we get descriptions of Harry’s thought process, and since that is supposed to be a good thought process, he is usually rewarded for following it.
In the book’s defense, this doesn’t always work out for Harry. While the stakes of the original series are high in that the fate of the world rests on Harry’s soldiers, the stakes in HPMOR, if anything, feel higher still. Thinking back on the original series, it’s hard for me to think of when Harry’s actions had the type of negative consequences on people he knows that are comparable to HPMOR? We got tragedy at the end of the Goblet of Fire, but that wasn’t Harry’s fault.
HPMOR’s Harry is indeed too adult (though that is eventually explained, using in-universe information that you could deduce yourself if you pay close attention to the hints). I think if someone doesn’t like HPMOR, it is likely going to be because they can’t quite bring themselves to like Harry, this boy who just a bit too smart and a bit too self-assured to be relatable.
Right there you said “Given that it is supposed to be educational, it’s frankly miraculous that it ends up being entertaining at all.” And you know what? Now that I look at it that way, I agree with you 100%.
There are a number of very important concepts talked about in the story. We’ve got (deep breath)
Too many fallacies to list but the big ones being motivated reasoning, fundamental attribution error, and positive bias.
Asch’s conformity experiment
Stanford Prison experiment
Robbers Cave experiment
Milgram’s Obedience experiment
And that’s just scratching the surface. One little tool that I only kinda sideways knew about is the little trick of being able to say out loud:
“I notice that I am confused.”
One of the issues that I’ve come up with over and over and over again is the difference between the person who just does something by rote and checks off the boxes on the checklist and the person who knows why they’re doing what they’re doing and can reach the final step and look at their result and say “that can’t be right”.
Just the ability to say “that can’t be right” and do it again and test it again and figure out the step where things went wrong is a HUGE skill. We have testers who can only say “that didn’t work”. The testers who can say “this didn’t work because I think it failed at step 7 but it gave us a superficially useful output anyway” are the GOOD testers.
The ability to tell that you’re getting a superficially useful result that, on closer examination, is faulty is one of the most useful skills I’ve seen. It’s useful for jobs, it’s useful for relationships, it’s useful for trying to fix the toilet. Yudkowsky took the long process involved in building up to saying, “that can’t be right” and compressed that information down into “I notice that I am confused”. That is an AMAZING gift that I got from reading this story.
That ALONE makes it a story worth reading. The fact that it has so much other important information and useful cognitive tools in there for the reader is absolutely amazing to me.
I took this opportunity to go ahead and re-read the last dozen or so chapters. Among the lessons conveyed in the last few chapters after the main conflicts have resolved is that Harry’s method of operating continues to make mistakes, including some that would be really bad but for certain restrictions the reader will find out about. Harry learns that there is a really big important difference between the sort of clever tricks that show everyone how smart you are that make up the vast majority of the book and the kind of disciplined smartness that needs to be judiciously applied and only reluctantly acted upon. Does this make up for the Gary Stu moments earlier? For me, it does. It helps to know that the author isn’t taken in. But it takes a reader a long, long time to get there. And even afterward, the great moments that one remembers are when Harry cleverly tricks authority. When you make something look cool, even if you later critique it, it’s the coolness that people remember.
Yeah, there’s a heartfelt apology from Harry towards the end where he admits that he made a mistake. To some extent, that apology DOES make up for all of the moments where he was in the process of making the mistake and, not only that, in a high moral dudgeon knowing that anyone/everyone who disagreed with him was the one making the mistake…
But I admit that I’d like to see a chapter devoted to how Harry at age, oh, 25 would deal with a copy of Harry at 11 (and especially when Harry at 11 was in high moral dudgeon).
But, at the end of the day, one of the indicators (but by no means the only indicator) of a really good story is the whole wanting to go back to it, and seeing how this plot point created tension and that plot point resolved it… and discovering little hidden things like “what happened to this storyline?” and finding out “OH MY GOSH THEY RESOLVED IT WITHOUT ME NOTICING!” (I’m thinking the Rita Skeeter storyline, for the record) and, yes, wanting to do stuff like “get in arguments over the story with the explicit purpose of getting other people to read it.”
Oh, and one point that I don’t know whether to bring up because it’s a spoiler or not (but if it’s a spoiler it’s either the most freakin’ obvious spoiler in the world or the one that makes it so that people who care about spoilers in the first place yell something like “NOW I DON’T HAVE TO READ IT!” as if it’s my fault that they’re still reading… so I’ll rot13 it and say that if you decode it you decode it at your own risk…):
Vs Uneel jrer fznegre, ur pbhyq unir qrsrngrq Ibyqrzbeg va uvf svefg lrne, jvgu srjre pnfhnygvrf guna jrer sbhaq va gur bevtvany frevrf.
Which strikes me as another vaguely irritating thing.
Would you like to write something to wrap all this up and I can format it and make it look nice?
What we’re saying is you should read this story. It perhaps is not for everyone. The author himself offers the following guidance so you can dip your toes in and bail if it doesn’t click with you:
This fic is widely considered to have really hit its stride starting at around Chapter 5. If you still don’t like it after Chapter 10, give up.
That is good advice. It will not click with everyone, but it’s worth spending a chapter or two on a book that is free on the internet to try.
Then, as he and I were discussing how to wrap up the conversation with a big finish, I suggested that we put the big finish in the comments and he suggested that we bring back the bookclub.
Which is what we did.
We both enjoyed it so much that we’d be pleased if you’d also check it out. Read up through chapter 5 and if you’re hooked, you’ll know it.
(Featured image is Foucault’s Pendulum by Sylvar. Used under a creative commons license.)