Video: What is Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality

by Eneasz11 min read30th Sep 20138 comments


Personal Blog

So a friend of mine took over running MALcon in Denver this year. She asked me to do a presentation on Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality. I said ok and put together the following little talk. It's about 25 minutes. I tried to cover what rationality is, why it makes fiction cool, and what HPMoR is. For the non-initiated. It was my first time doing public speaking, and I was nervous and, ok, borderline terrified. I hope I didn't screw anything up too badly. I recorded the presentation and I'm putting it up for critique. There's several chunks that, in retrospect, I think should have been placed differently in the talk, they didn't flow well. I need more eye-contact, less notes, and overall just a LOT more practice doing public speaking. Any suggestions are welcome.

Video on YouTube


The text I was reading from is below, although I deviated from it a bit, of course.
(bolding was to draw my eye, not for emphasis)


Hello. You’re all here for the Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality thing? OK. This is my first time doing public speaking so please make allowances for my noob mistakes. Also, for the same reason, please hold your questions until the end. You may wish to write down any that come to you so you don’t forget.

To start - I’m going to assume everyone here knows what fanfic is. Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality is fanfic written by decision theorist Eliezer Yudkowsky and it’s one of the most popular Harry Potter fanfics online. It’s the most reviewed and followed HP work on and it’s received praise by award-winning authors. I don’t really have much to do with it, I’m mainly  just a fan. I am big enough of a fan that I record and produce the audio-book version of it though, so I was asked to do this presentation. Plus I live a few blocks away. So that’s why I’m here.

You’re here because you all want to know what the big deal is.

Part of the big deal is that it’s a really good story, but there’s lots of good fanfic and generally they don’t have their own panel to discuss them. The thing about Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality – which I’ll just be calling Methods for short – is that it captures the heart of the rationality movement. Maybe you’ve heard of this “rationality” thing, maybe not, but it’s a growing movement among certain types of geeks. And when a geek subculture latches on to some fictional work and says “OMG, this is US!” it’s usually pretty damn good in it’s own right. My Little Pony wouldn’t have the fandom it does if the show itself wasn’t great. So the Rationality part of Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality is pretty important to the whole.

Therefore before we get into the fic itself I’ll briefly touch on – what is Rationality, and why does it make a cool story?

Rationality is the study of general methods for good decision-making, especially when the decision is hard to get right. Of knowing what errors in thinking are common so we can avoid them. Of realizing when we are confused, or when we’re motivated by bad instincts. If you want to make good decisions you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.

This makes a story interesting because watching someone put in high-stress situations where making a good decision is the difference between life and death, when a good decision is hard to find, and seeing them frantically navigate through that mess is pretty exciting.

Now, to make good decisions we also need true beliefs about the world around us. Rationalists assume that we can know true things about the real world. (I know that seems like really obvious assumption, but you’d be surprised). However our beliefs about reality are imperfect. The model we have of reality in here doesn’t exactly match up with what’s really out there. The map of the world we have in our brain isn’t entirely accurate. In some places it’s completely wrong. What we need is a way to verify what we think we know and discover true things about the real world… a way of separating fact from delusion. If only someone would come up with a way to do that...

Waitaminnit, you’re saying to me - they did, it’s called the scientific method! I’m pretty sure I don’t have to tell you all how awesome science is - We all love science yeah? GO SCIENCE! So naturally Rationality incorporates the scientific method. The truth about how reality works has to be part of any effective decision-making process. And anyone who’s read good science fiction knows how great a story that struggle to find the truth can be. The search to find out what’s going on, and why. The discovery of an underlying principle of how the universe works, and the power that comes from harnessing that knowledge.

Harry Potter may be set in a typical fantasy setting, but The Methods of Rationality is a Science Fiction story.

Now, sometimes discovering a truth is not enough. Sometimes it doesn’t match with what you knew before, with assumptions and habits that guided your actions. We don’t think through every little thing we do in our day-to-day lives, we rely mainly on our reflexive biases and habits. You couldn’t cross a room if you had to think through and plan each step. So rationality isn’t just about finding out what is true about the world - if that’s all you wanted, you have the Scientific Method. Rationality is also about updating your implicit beliefs to more accurately match what you’ve discovered is true.

And it turns out that’s not so easy. It’s especially hard when what we discover conflicts with our hard-wired instincts. Our bodies and our instincts have evolved to grab all the calories and resources we can find, pass on our genes, and die. And so while we may consciously know that that bag of potato chips is bad for us, we still eat it, cuz it tastes good. We may consciously understand that the roller coaster is completely safe, engineered so that you’d have to really work hard at getting hurt, we are still terrified when we go over that initial drop. If you really want to effect a change in your behavior it isn’t enough to simply “know” something. You have to feel it. And to do that you usually have to play dirty. There’s an old Keanu Reeves movie where he plays a hacker, and at the climax he’s told he needs info that’s hidden in his own brain. He has to HACK HIS OWN BRAIN. DUN DUN DUN! We have to do the same thing, a lot. Rationality gives you the tools to hack yourself.

And that’s another great aspect of Rationality stories. Many great stories are about man vs man or man vs nature, some of the best stories are about man vs himself, man vs his own flaws. Thing is most people don’t have the weapons to wrestle with themselves effectively, most authors don’t even know those weapons exist. So the traditional “wrestle with oneself” is a grunting bare-nuckled back-alley fight. Which is fun, like that great brawl in They Live. But a story that incorporates rationality, upgrades this to a duel between cyber-ninjas with laser swords. It’s freakin’ cool and you don’t get to see that in most books, so it’s a hell of a show!

So, that’s rationality, and that’s how it makes stories awesome and unusual. But - why Harry Potter? After all, it was probably that name recognition that brought you here, and not the term “Methods of Rationality”.

To start with, the Potterverse is very fertile soil for fanfiction. There’s a reason some settings have only a trickle of fanfic, while others explode with it. Some settings really lend themselves to further exploration by fans. These settings provide a rich history in a living world that goes beyond just the characters in the story. There are allusions to events that have happened before or are happening outside the scope of the book - the rise of Grindelwald, the first wizarding war against Voldemort, the whole first generation backstory. And since in Harry Potter the action takes place in the modern day in and around our muggle world, there are a lot of practical implications that can provide speculation and plot-hooks for days on end. The more rich and complex the setting is, the greater the potential it has for fanfiction to explore and grow from it, and Harry Potter has a very rich world.

Of course there are many worlds ripe for fanfiction - why Harry Potter specifically? MLP, Twilight, and Star Trek all have thriving fanfic scenes. Probably the biggest reason can be summed up in the title of the second chapter - Everything I Believe Is False.

I mentioned at the start that Yudkowsky is a decision theorist. A lot of sci-fi writers have a background in the sciences, and they explore “what-if” scenarios from their field in their fiction. Lets say you want to write a sci-fi piece that revolves around decision theory. To make it really captivating you want a character who already knows how to use these skills. Training is ok, and the many years of training that a ninja or a demon-slayer goes through can be interesting, but the real action is when they are near the peak of their mastery and they have to face down the Big Bad villain in a fight to the death. Most of the time the training is alluded to in flashbacks, or covered in a montage. It’s just not that fun.

To facilitate this, there is one major change between this fanfic and canon. In Methods of Rationality Petunia marries a kind University Professor instead of an ignorant jerk, and he teaches Harry about the Scientific Method and gives him the full set of Enlightenment skills and ideals so the story can just right into the action.

Now to really test a character’s skills and resolve you thrust them into a completely novel situation, one in which they didn’t prepare for and never dreamed they’d be tested, but which still relies on those skills. Which in the case of decision theory would mean revealing to the character that everything they thought they knew was false. They have been lied to all their lives, and the world doesn’t really work the way they thought it did. Now they have to re-examine everything they thought they knew, test every assumption they had. Is this thing I believe a true fact about reality, or was it part of the conspiracy to keep me ignorant? What beliefs can I keep and what must I change? Of those, which beliefs do I have to dump entirely, and which can I simply modify a bit? How do I internalize this new knowledge so that I act unconsciously on what I’ve discovered, rather than defaulting to old habits?

If you ask people to name settings in pop culture where there is such a radical revelation, where the protagonist learns that the world is mostly a lie, the two most common answers you get are “Harry Potter” and “The Matrix”. The Matrix is really cool, but the characters aren’t as interesting - they don’t have parents or relatives or backstory. Neo, as his name alludes, is New and completely disconnected from the surrounding world, which works for the story they’re telling of the isolated loner, but that doesn’t make for very fertile fanfic soil. Also - the Matrix world doesn’t have magic. No one there is forced to say “I just saw a human turn into a cat, but she kept thinking using her human brain. What does this mean for what I thought I knew about brains?”

Plus Yudkowsky was a reader of Harry Potter fanfic, not Matrix fanfic, so it was natural to write in the same world he enjoyed reading.

I should probably get into the meat of the story itself.

Methods of Rationality takes place during Harry’s first year at Hogwarts. It starts with Harry getting his letter and initially follows the structure of the first book, with a trip to Daigon Alley, Platform 9 and ¾, the sorting, the conflict with Snape, even the Troll. But it does it all with a rationalist slant, which makes it a unique sort of story, and the differences between it and the original are really cool to watch. This slant results in some parodies of the original, like when it sorts Hermione into Ravenclaw because - as Harry comments - if Hermione Granger doesn’t qualify as Ravenclaw, there’s no reason for Ravenclaw House to exist. But the parodies aren’t mean-spirited - the author really likes the Potterverse. They’re just fun.

In terms of genre It’s hard to classify Methods of Rationality into any one category, but large parts of it are comedy. If you watch anime and enjoy that sort of over-the-top, falling-on-your-face, winking-at-the-audience style of humor, you will love Methods of Rationality. It has TONS of that. It has Boy-Who-Lived Fangirls trying to get Harry Potter to fall in love with them. It has someone trying to summon Harry with an epic straight-out-of-Lovecraft Elder God summoning ritual which goes… not quite how they expected.

But it isn’t all comedy. Harry is attacked by a Dementor and re-lives seeing his parents murdered. He goes to Azkaban and meets a tortured Bellatrix Black. Like, literally being tortured. There’s blood debts and ransoms, and all the while Voldemort’s minions are trying to destroy him and kill his friends. So there’s drama and action and pathos as well as comedy. And it flows very nicely, Yudkowsky handles mood-switches extremely well, moving from comedy to drama to action and back to comedy with a skill that rivals professional authors.

Even though the story takes place only in Harry’s first year, it does draw in elements from the entire Potter timeline. There’s a time-turner. Remus Lupin, Rita Skeeter, and Mad-Eye Moody all make appearances. The three Deathly Hallows and the Peveral Brothers are a major plot point. Luna Lovegood doesn’t show up, since she’s too young to be at Hogwarts in the first year, but she is mentioned and several issues of The Quibbler show up.

I did mention the major change from canon - In canon Harry’s step-parents are evil and keep him locked up. That wouldn’t really work for this story, because Harry can’t be locked away from the muggle world, he has to have the knowledge and expectations about it in order for them all to be shattered. So But since almost all the action takes place at Hogwarts, the content of the story isn’t drastically altered by that. It’s mainly altered by the application of rationality.

The question sometimes comes up - what if I haven’t read the original Harry Potter books, or seen the movies? There are people who’ve heard the story is great and want to read it, but don’t have much desire to read the Potter books. I ain’t gonna lie - you won’t enjoy it quite as much. There are a lot of in-jokes that will go right over your head if you haven’t at least seen the movies. For example, the references to the Weasley pet rat will probably be confusing. But it’s not as bad as you might think, because there are A LOT of references in Methods of Rationality to tons of things outside the Potterverse. There’s references to anime, old sci-fi books, internet memes… there’s shout-outs to Star Wars and even to Gargoyles. So everyone will miss something. The in-jokes are great when you get them, and no big deal when you don’t, and if the in-jokes you don’t get happen to be Harry Potter in-jokes, that’s not a tragedy. To be honest, I hadn’t read the last two potter books when I started on Methods of Rationality myself. And I loved it.

In the end, you don’t actually need to have read the Potter books to enjoy Methods of Rationality. Characters are still introduced in a coherent way, the plot is internally consistent, and the knowledge you need to understand and enjoy the story is presented in the text. So if you’re on the fence, go ahead and give it a try. You really don’t have to plow through seven books you aren’t excited about. But if you can find the time to watch at least the first movie, it does make it more enjoyable.

Some of you may have realized that there is a problem with giving Harry a major rationality upgrade. For a story to be exciting there must be a real conflict, not a one-sided beatdown. There’s a law of good fanfic that says “If you give Frodo a lightsaber, you must give Sauron the Death Star.” Fortunately this IS a good fanfic, and Voldemort gets a huge upgrade in intelligence and rationality. The way he wraps the entire Wizard World into knots, even seducing Harry, is epic. And Draco Malfoy gets an upgrade as well, and turns from an egotistical bully to a shrewd plotter. This makes for really good reading for those of us more interested in power grabs and back-stabbing than broomstick-based sports. Not that there’s anything wrong with that...

Personally, the plotting really is phenomenal. There is foreshadowing everywhere, things you’ll read that seem like throw-away jokes when you first encounter them, but that are clearly signs saying “This is what is going to happen next!” that blow you away when you read through a second time. There are chekov’s guns that are laid out early on that aren’t fired until 50 chapters later (chapters aren’t that long). The way little plot points and comments are woven in and out, tieing early tiny actions back to huge events much later is stunning.

Obviously I’m a big fan.

There is one other thing about Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality that makes it unusual. It’s not just a novel. It’s also a deliberate instructional mechanism. Humans learn things by story-telling. Imagining something is mentally analogous to remembering something that didn’t actually happen. Yudkowsky uses this intentionally to direct his audience into developing stronger rationality skills. Almost every chapter, or group of chapters, is specifically designed to teach a technique or skill of rationality. The technique to be taught is right there in the chapter title. Chapter 26: Noticing Confusion. Most of the time a character, often Harry, will at some point explicitly explain what the technique is or how it is to be used. The chapter will also contain at least one example of someone succeeding or failing in the use of the technique. Sometimes multiple examples. Sometimes multiple examples of both.

The really crazy thing is, you generally don’t notice. The writing is strong and the story really pulls you in, so it’s integrated seamlessly into the plot progression. It isn’t until I go back and read a chapter a second time, referring back to the chapter title and really keeping my eyes open for all examples of it, that I realize just how central that particular idea is in that chapter. It makes me wish all books were written like that.

And as a final bonus for anyone who likes to really dig deep into their novels, Yudkowsky’s stated that Methods is a puzzle that’s meant to be solvable. That all the clues are laid out within it, and a reader who really wants to can work it out before it’s revealed at the end. Toward that end there are a number of places online where people discuss Methods of Rationality and what they think is happening. There’s a thread on TVTropes, and an HPMoR sub-reddit, as well as just people blogging about it now and then. So if you’re into that sort of puzzle-solving, this is right up your alley. The final arc will be released later this year, so there’s still time to get in on the action.

OK, all that being said, this fanfic isn’t for everyone. There are some people who dislike how Harry talks to adults. Most of these people are parents. /shrug I’m not a parent, I don’t know. Some people just never get into the story, which is fine. The humor doesn’t appeal to everyone, and some of the dark parts are pretty dark. And I really wouldn’t recommend this to anyone who isn’t at least in their teens yet. The terminology and some of the more complex ideas are probably too daunting for younger readers. Also the story does touch on more adult subject matter a few times.

I’ll wrap up with some final info on where you can find this. The official home is at FanFiction.Net. You can go there and search for Harry Potter And The Methods of Rationality. Or just google Harry Potter And The Methods of Rationality. The cleanest site, with a table of contents and resource links and everything, is HPMOR.COM. That’s the site I use when I read it. There’s also the audio-book version, which is at I run that one. And of course all of it is free.



Alright, that’s my presentation, and I hope you’ve learned whatever you wanted to learn. Give it a shot and maybe you’ll love it as much as I do. I’ll now open the floor to questions.


8 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 1:27 PM
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This is my first time doing public speaking so please make allowances for my noob mistakes.

Saying something like this will set your audience's expectations low, which is in general a bad thing.

For my first, possibly-terrible public talk, I'm ok with lowering expectations. :) That whole first intro paragraph ended up being more of a dialog with the audience (which is why it's cut from the video) and it went pretty well.

[-][anonymous]7y 8

It takes a lot of nerve to get up and talk to the public, and also takes nerve to open yourself up for critique. The good things: it is well structured and covers the content well (at least from my perspective as not very interested in HPMoR), and you present the material with a lot of enthusiasm.

Areas for improvement: you have already identified the main things, eye contact and flow. I think this is all about your preparation approach, and it's all related to using a detailed script. This interferes with your flow just about every time you have to look at the script and find your place. It also interferes with your eye contact, for the same reason. And also, quite a few places it feels like you are presenting in more of a written tone than an oral tone (although, not nearly as badly as most people who write out such specific scripts - you have mostly done a good job of presenting in a conversational tone).

So one question I suggest you face head-on: think about whether you could totally strip down your notes to a bare minimum, using them instead as landmarks to remind you of important structures and transitions in your talk, rather than as literal reminders of the precise words to be used to make a point. I commented before that such a change helped me to solve some troubling problems in my own public speaking. Although it's very frightening at first not to have the safety net of a complete script.

Perhaps you could get the best of both worlds by making both a complete script and a minimalist set of landmarks, and only using the latter unless you get badly lost. Then you know that the worst case is that you have to pause for a moment, find your place in the complete script, and switch to that. In practice you will just use the minimalist landmarks, but having the script available may reduce the stress level.

(I haven't tried this. On occasions when I've had to speak in public I have generally prepared a complete script and then felt free to ignore it.)

The final arc will be released later this year.

Now you've done it. Release date: Jan 1, 2014 :D

In the spoken presentation I did amend that to "or early next year" :)

I am surprised by the fact that you were frightened by public speaking. I would not have expected that from someone who runs a podcast.

I am not frightened by public speaking, so I don't really know, but this defies my anticipation. I need a better model.

I don't think I was frightened in the same way that other people say they are - I certainly wouldn't rate this worse than death. It was more of that fear of doing something in public for the first time where you know you could screw it up badly and there's no way to undo the mistake.

A podcast is a very different animal. You're in a private room, there's no one there watching you as you do it, you have all the time you need to correct mistakes and edit them out later. It's nothing like public speaking. :)