How Harry Potter fanfic made me change myself

There are two things you need to know when reading this post. Firstly, I’ve been nervous about posting it for weeks. And secondly,  sometimes it’s good to stretch your brain beyond its limits.

But let us begin at the beginning. In 2011, I discovered a fanfiction called Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, a behemoth of a story written by a scientist who wanted to tie up the plot of the entire Harry Potter series in Harry’s first year, and teach some people how to think about things rationally in the process. HPMOR, in which Harry is raised lovingly by Petunia and her husband Michael, a scientist, was finished earlier this year, and is now the most popular Harry Potter fanfiction on HPMOR is over 500, 000 words, and it is full of twists, turns, characterisation, drama, angst, comedy, worldbuilding, and mysteries that can be solved by the readers. Whoever said science was boring? Certainly not Eliezer Yudkowsky.

Anyway. All through the fic there have been minor (and not so minor) plot arcs, which are solvable by using rational thinking. Indeed, many readers have tried to guess at solutions to the cliffhanger of the month, rewarded with being right or almost right when the new chapter comes out. I never have. I’ve just kept reading, knowing that the story will continue to come out as it comes out, knowing that there are other people out there smarter than I who are trying to keep up with the author.

I mention all this because when the biggest cliffhanger of the story came, I was confronted with these words at the end of Chapter 113:

This is your final exam.

You have 60 hours.

Your solution must at least allow Harry to evade immediate death,
despite being naked, holding only his wand, facing [spoilers].

If a viable solution is posted before
*12:01AM Pacific Time* (8:01AM UTC) on Tuesday, March 3rd, 2015,
the story will continue to Ch. 121.

Otherwise you will get a shorter and sadder ending.

Keep in mind the following:

1. Harry must succeed via his own efforts. The cavalry is not coming.

2. Harry may only use capabilities the story has already shown him to have.

[3. to 6. contain spoilers]

Within these constraints,
Harry is allowed to attain his full potential as a rationalist,
now in this moment or never,
regardless of his previous flaws.

Of course ‘the rational solution’,
if you are using the word ‘rational’ correctly,
is just a needlessly fancy way of saying ‘the best solution’
or ‘the solution I like’ or ‘the solution I think we should use’,
and you should usually say one of the latter instead.
(We only need the word ‘rational’ to talk about ways of thinking,
considered apart from any particular solutions.)

And by Vinge’s Principle,
if you know exactly what a smart mind would do,
you must be at least that smart yourself.
Asking someone “What would an optimal player think is the best move?”
should produce answers no better than “What do you think is best?”

So what I mean in practice,
when I say Harry is allowed to attain his full potential as a rationalist,
is that Harry is allowed to solve this problem
the way YOU would solve it.
If you can tell me exactly how to do something,
Harry is allowed to think of it.

These words knocked me for a loop. I suddenly saw what could have been. I saw how I had wasted all my previous chances to grow my mind. I could have been engaging with the story all along. I could have been trying to come up with solutions to the cliffhangers in a story that was well-written, engaging, and made to test the brain. These chances had been wasted. This was the only one left.

It might sound a bit silly, considering the regard fanfiction is often held in, but it clicked with me. If I was ever going to grow in my ability to use my head, and to believe that I could, I had to do it now. No matter that my chances at trying to solve the big problem first without using the training wheel problems were extremely low. I was going to temporarily override that knowledge with the deliberate belief that I was smart enough to figure it out.

So despite the fact that it was early August and the story had been finished already (evidently somebody somewhere had come up with a viable solution), I decided to wait the sixty hours, to see if I could come up with one too. And here’s the kicker: I was actually going to try. Not think about trying, then discarding the idea immediately (as I normally do) but to actually sit down and try.

I immediately sat down and made a list of all possible aspects of the problem and things that could influence the solution (I came up with about 60 items). When I looked up it was 11pm.

It had been 8pm when I’d finished the chapter. I’d been thinking for three straight hours. I didn’t have much free time to keep solidly thinking for the next sixty hours but I decided to devote what time I could to it. And believe me, I thought. It was on my mind constantly. On public transport, eating lunch at uni, walking to classes–it was like an angel on my shoulder, drawing attention to itself all the time.

I utterly failed to find a solution.

It’s been several weeks since I failed the challenge, and I haven’t read further on yet. I don’t know what happens. I wanted to post about it before I started reading the rest of the story, and until now I just didn’t know how to admit that I wasn’t perfect to the internet.

So once this is posted, I’m going to go and read the ending. I’ve no doubt I’m going to feel incredibly silly, like the solution was obvious, as soon as I read it. Even worse, I might feel dumb, wondering how anyone could have seen that, yet knowing that at least one person did. If only I had taken notes on what I thought and what I read as I read HPMOR, if only I had actually tried to think, if only I had racked up some smaller victories along the way, maybe I’d be ready for this. As it is, I can’t avoid it.

Right now I have to content myself with the knowledge that feeling stupid is a gateway. It means I’ve actually begun to try. Those solutions I tried to make work were dumb, but it required actual thought to get to a place where I could even imagine them. It was a crazy stupid idea to think I could solve it, and I didn’t, but that wasn’t the point, and I knew that going in. When I started, I told myself, “this is where I begin to make an effort.”

The sheer act of thinking hard about something I knew I had a very low chance of solving, for at least a tenth of those sixty hours I was given, instead of just giving up or deciding not to, actually changed a whole lot about me. For starters I’m already a lot more willing to give hard tasks a go. My belief in myself is greater. My ability to concentrate has slightly improved. My confidence in myself and my abilities has gotten greater. It’s as though by doing this, by just telling myself I’m good enough to make an attempt, I’m opening the doorway to greater things.

I sincerely encourage anyone who hasn’t read Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality to do so–and to take notes as you do. Savour the 500, 000 word process. And learn from what I did. Believe in yourself earlier.

The Bridge of Language

Today in a university tutorial, I sat between a woman from Vietnam and a man from South Sudan, and I watched as they had a short conversation, intending to clarify some point about public policy that I can’t even remember now. It struck me that we were all able to understand each other despite our different accents, and all because of English, a language that neither of them spoke as a mother tongue.

They did clarify their point, as a matter of fact, and I was still sitting there amazed that they’d succeeded–not that I doubted their abilities, but because of the sheer complexity of the process: he had to think in his native tongue, translate it into English, and speak it aloud in an accent that would be a different one to the one she would have learnt. She then had to decode the accent, translate the English into Vietnamese, think about it and formulate a response in Vietnamese, then English, and the whole process started again. It took about a minute for them both to exchange words and concepts several times and to find a satisfactory answer; nothing appeared to have been lost in translation; and I just sat there and marvelled at the fact that I too was following it.

I’m just an ignorant Australian, English is the only language in which I know more than forty words, and yet these two humans in front of me were actively thinking and participating in a discussion at a university level in a language which neither of them had a cultural attachment to.It shouldn’t have been, but it felt almost unnatural, in a good way, to see such a bridge between two people.

The atheist and the disappointed individual

You know, I’m kind of tired of the skepticism and atheist movements.

When I first left the fold of Christianity and began to discover things for myself, two and a half years ago now, skepticism was about being open-minded. To imagine there might be another way, to actively stop taking the first thing you heard as gospel truth. I saw wonder in it. I saw possibility.

But for so many, it’s just a new way to be close-minded, embrace a herd mentality, and to look down on others who don’t believe what you believe.

Not everyone. But a lot of people. And a lot of those people seem to strive to be as rude as possible while they do so.

The conclusion I come to is either I’m too humanist and ‘live and let live’ to be a good skeptic, or I’m too tired of people pulling the same stupid stunts no matter their philosophy to be a good humanist.

I believe in most of (if not all) the messages the atheist movement espouses, I’m just sick of the attitude that comes with it.

Australia and Marriage #2 – Threatening to Divorce

Continuing my mini series of thoughts on marriage in Australia, Nick (and Sarah) Jensen, a Christian couple, recently made headlines by threatening to divorce if Australia gains same-sex marriage.

Some people are pretty on board with this…

I’m sure we’ve all heard about these two by now, as it was several weeks ago. But in the flood of internet responses (most of which were either ‘this is disgusting’ or a more satirical ‘gay people threaten not to care’), I saw one key point discussed, but not (to my knowledge) elaborated on.

If the Jensens are telling the truth when they say that they intend to divorce legally but stay married ‘religiously’, they have revealed that their definition of marriage might currently align with the legal definition, but it is not based on that legal definition. They have removed any integrity they had when speaking out on the subject of ‘protecting’ legally binding marriage.

The Jensens have said they will continue to live as husband and wife and have children. I don’t think they’re just referring to becoming housemates and going through with IVF. They’re going to continue to sleep together. Most of the authors of the Bible agree when it comes to extramarital sex–don’t have it. Mainstream Christianity follows this position. As a member of the ACL, Nick Jensen certainly agrees with this (I would assume Sarah does as well).

If they want to divorce but live as husband and wife, they believe they are truly still married, regardless of Australian law. This means they don’t believe that secular marriage law really ‘counts’. Nick is even quoted in this article, saying that he thinks marriage is not ‘a human invention’.

So why should he even care about secular marriage law? Given this inconsistency of definitions, why should anyone listen to what these two people have to say about secular marriage law?

I’m not even trying to ask this as a way to attack them personally–it’s just their rationality that bewilders me. Bearing this in mind, it is astonishing that more people aren’t encouraging them to go through with it. It really is. Especially since Nick Jensen is very active within the Australian Christian Lobby (a fact that somehow didn’t make it to the ears of NT News).

In an ideal Australia, Sarah and Nick would get legally divorced, begin to live together in a legal de facto relationship that had the religious definition of marriage, and would leave the discussion of legal marriage to the people who actually want it, most of whom believe it is a human institution. Everyone’s finally happy. Or, if not, at least we’ve moved closer to a rational discussion about it. In an ideal Australia, that is.

Here, nobody’s talking about this. But here’s the thing: it’s an incredibly good idea to separate legal concepts of marriage and religious concepts of marriage. They’ve been tangled up for years, and anyone with a stake in either definition is quite upset. We would all be a lot happier if this changed. Even if the Religious Right was still upset about LGBT rights*, they would still be able to express their views** and marry in the way that they want to, while people in same-sex relationships would be able to express their love in a way that they wanted to, with the same legal benefits and protections that those of us in straight relationships do.

* which they would be

** just because I believe they’re wrong doesn’t mean they should forfeit the right to free speech

Australia & Marriage #1 – the US Supreme Court Decision and YOU!

I don’t intend to make my blog all about marriage rights etc, but it’s an interesting topic and I have thoughts on it. Hence, there will be a couple of posts about it in the next few days. If you’re not reading for this kind of analysis, wait me out. I won’t take long 🙂

Nabbed from the New York Times. Photo by Doug Mills.

Nabbed from the New York Times. Photo by Doug Mills.

“Australians should be thankful that our High Court has not resorted to divisive undemocratic judicial activism on marriage.”
– Australian Christian Lobby Managing Director Lyle Shelton

Those Australians who argue against the US Supreme Court’s holding in Obergefell v Hodges on the basis that unelected judges are moving into making legislature should be very careful when making those arguments.

In America this is applicable, as it is a fine line between interpretation and creating new legislation. In rulings to come it could tip either way. As a non-American it’s okay to make these comments too–when it’s about America.

In Australia, the courts’ interpretations are a majority of what give us an implied right to, for example, free speech. We do not have a bill of rights, or much constitutional support to fall back on, as Americans do, and new legislature can override (and has) any implied right that it wishes to.

Whether it’s technically appropriate in a system that is based on separation of the judicial, executive, and legislative powers, “divisive undemocratic judicial activism” is probably the only thing we have going for us in the Australian system.

This stance can probably be partially explained by the fact that the above argument is one being made by the American Christian Right. The Christian Right in Australia takes many of its cues from the Christian Right in America (due to its higher population and larger output of speakers and video, audio and written material). Sometimes those cues lose their context.

What happened when I threw my books out

(If you haven’t already, read this post first.)

Welp, the book purging was a massive success. It took me most of a day, but I did it (and cleared out the rest of my room in about two days).

I decided I needed to ease myself into the Marie Kondo method of only keeping things you love, so I just started by eliminating what I positively knew I didn’t love. I took the books off the shelves one by one. Any book I felt the least bit obligated to keep and didn’t think I was ever going to read/read again, I put aside. The pile of books to donate rapidly increased. I mean, RAPIDLY.

THIS rapidly.

THIS rapidly.


The above photo also shows the books from my boxes of books for future children in the family that I decided not to keep. You’ll notice a fair amount of Saddle Club and Enid Blyton books. I highly doubt they’ll be out of print in the next ten to fifteen years, and this also helped me to let go. I did keep a few of each, the ones I thought I might read again if I wanted to go down memory lane. But most are now gone.

All in all, 110 books previously in my possession were taken to the Salvos or donated to my sisters (the picture shows about 104 of them, but I added a few in the following days). I purged so many I decided I didn’t need to do anything more radical. Maybe next time.

Family ties

My sisters wanted to comb through them, and I said yes—but with the provision that they could only have 10 books each.

They thought it was a little arbitrary.

I told them it was because otherwise they’d never leave the house and I wanted to get rid of most of them, and surely they had a heap of books they were meaning to read anyway, and they’d have to be content with that.

But it was also quite handy when they showed what they’d gotten from me to our mother, and she said with a knowing laugh, “oh, so most of your books aren’t actually leaving for good, you’re just redistributing them.” I may have been guilty of this in the past, but this time I was able to come back with, “Oh no, I’m still sending 80-something to the op shop. They had a ten-book limit.”

She was pretty proud of me after that. My ability to hoard books and other paraphernalia has been built up to an overly mythical status among my family, long after I stopped. I’m pretty sure they think I was hiding a rhinoceros in there somewhere.

How I feel now

And excitingly, my collection of books is down to a hundred and sixty two, all of which I love, and can now fit on four long-ish shelves, including my old kids’ books! I’m very excited. Unfortunately, I forgot to take a photo of them before I left, so I can’t share one here.

162 is a lot for some people, and not quite enough for others. For me, I think it’s just right, and I look forward to adding to and taking away from the collection in the years to come. I haven’t had such a low amount of books in at least a decade.

It is a seriously great feeling. Not only do I have less anxiety about trying to move all my things inter-city someday soon, but it truly is less space being taken up in the back of my mind. One less thing to do, and a hundred and eight fewer books taking up space in my family’s house. Not exactly fair to them, and I wish I’d been more considerate, sooner.

Being recognised

Hilariously, when I took my books to the Salvation Army, the lady working there recognised me purely because of the massive load of books I’d brought in a few years ago. I told her this time wasn’t going to be any different—perhaps even bigger. It took me three or four trips to bring them all in to the building, and, polite and hardy New Zealander that she was, she kept thanking me for the books and telling me to have a nice day, and I had to keep telling her I hadn’t finished bringing them in yet. In the hands of the right person, it’d make a really good farce.

Once I’d dumped them all at her feet, she said, “Having a cleanout?”

I nodded, and said proudly, “Yep, I’ve only got a hundred and sixty two now!” I kind of wanted to see her reaction to me calling that number ‘only’.

She goes, completely seriously, “Well, you’ll have to start stocking up again!”

After all the effort I’d made, and the amount of time it had taken to work myself up to a serious cull… well, the only appropriate response I could find to that was something like, “Not on your life!”

I hadn’t even read a quarter of them. Twenty-five of the 106 were unperused. Since I buy mostly from second-hand shops, I wasn’t too out of pocket on them, but it was still pretty serious to stand there and realise I was probably looking at $200-350 worth of books, many of which I’d never gotten my money’s worth out of. It’s definitely a contraceptive against buying too many more books when I know my track record is not so great.

In contrast, I’d read all but sixteen of the books I kept, which is about ten percent.

People who just don’t get it

My grandmother called a day after I’d dropped all my books off at the op shop (US translation: thrift/charity store). She said, “How are you?”

“Well, pretty good! I just donated a hundred-ish books!”

She sounded faintly disapproving and judgemental when she said, “Well, I like my bookshelves, that’s what makes me feel good.”

My immediate reaction was to think, “So these people DO exist! I wasn’t just imagining it!”

I’m not always good on the spot in the face of judgement, but I had a fit of inspiration and came out with exactly the right thing to say. “Well, I thought that was what made me feel good for quite a while too, but then I realised that it wasn’t. And now I feel great!”

I wonder if she felt a little threatened by my actions with my collection. I wonder if other people would react the same way. I think it’s likely, but I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s the same as when you and your friend are both equally chubby, and then one of you starts to lose weight. Maybe it’s a change in values that the other person has always thought were iron-clad. Maybe they feel destabilised.

Either way, if you do this and tell people about it, many people, like my grandmother and, to an extent, my sisters, probably won’t understand. Other people, like my mother, will be extremely proud of you. (These people may also be under the impression that you had a problem.)

But I can promise that if you do do it, you will feel good.

Final thoughts

In the interests of full disclosure, I did have one moment of panic when I thought I’d given away my Anne of Green Gables book set. Turned out I hadn’t, so crisis averted. To be honest, if I had, I probably would have gotten over it. It’s a public domain series online for free, after all.

But for the most part, I don’t miss any of these books that I gave away. I can barely remember any of them, except that some were Saddle Club books and some were by Enid Blyton. The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge. Wally, by Judy Somebody. Saving Francesca by Melina Marchetta. A couple of classics. About ten Christian books. And… I seriously don’t know what else. That leaves about fifty books that I gave away, unaccounted for and unremembered. Incredible.

I think the only way to end this post appropriately is to tell you that that…

…was all she read.

How to downsize your massive collection of books and not feel shitty about it

(With a bit of help from Goodreads and Marie Kondo)

I thought I had to keep all the books I’ve ever read as a status symbol.

Because so many intelligent people say ‘oh, we love books, books are piled everywhere, we’ve cut corners but one thing we must allow ourselves to spend money on is books.’

So to prove I’m a well-rounded, voracious reader etc, it follows that I must keep all my books.

To prove I’m an educated, intelligent person, I have to follow the stereotype.

Not only that, but for a long time I have felt that I need to buy books I read once and enjoyed, to sort of ‘honour’ the author. Even if I’m never going to read them again.

The books that held me back

I’ve always been typified by my parents as a hoarder, but I’ve gotten rid of an incredible amount of things at least once a year, every year, since I’ve been 14. The only thing that has stayed, and has made switching rooms with my siblings difficult, is my massive, MASSIVE, collection of books, spanning everything from Enid Blyton to China Mieville.

Around age seventeen, I was very interested in the idea of minimalism, but always thought it wasn’t for me purely because of my books. Everyone else can do it, but I can’t because I have to keep all these books. I couldn’t get rid of them; this was something I desired but was off-limits to me. Still, the idea lay dormant.

I’m now in my twenties, and for about three months now, the idea of a minimalist, optimised, non-extravagant life has returned from the back burner. It’s something I’ve wanted to actively pursue. I’ve got the non-extravagant part down (I’m a student!!), and I’m working on the optimisation, but the minimalist part has eluded me. For a long time I felt quite hopeless because no matter how much I researched this issue, there didn’t seem to be an answer. Just people who had no trouble ditching all their books and people who seemed to be able to store books. Neither category fit me.

Sup, Marie?

Enter the latest craze, Marie Kondo and her book, The Lifechanging Magic of Tidying Up. That book is freaking everywhere at the moment, but having read it, I can tell you it’s everywhere for a damn good reason.

Kondo has a heavy emphasis on discarding your shit, choosing to keep only the things you love, and making a place for everything you own. And the book made me definitively acknowledge that I don’t like having a lot of stuff.

I don’t like my tiny crowded bedroom when I go home to my parents’. I don’t like having so many things that need to move whenever I move–from rural Western Australia to Perth and back. These same things are those that I trip over in the meantime, and agonise over storing in JUST THE RIGHT WAY. This goes beyond books, but a hell of a lot of the problem is my book collection.

Nobody I know in real life has as many books as I do. Nobody. At my peak I believe I had about 300. Then I realised I had 70 books in the to-read piles stacked in front of my overflowing bookshelf, and had to get rid of at least some. They were covered in dust.

By my last year in highschool I had about 250, and it stayed that way until I did a purge last year. I donated a lot of books that I was only keeping out of obligation to myself to read them because they were ‘classic’, ‘good’, ‘interesting’ or ‘educational’.

All my books in piles

After that cleanup I have–well, as many books as are in the photo above. With reference books and a box of books I’ve grown out of, that weren’t in the photo, I think I currently have about 150.

As soon as I read Kondo’s section on how to discard books, I saw that many of the books I still own have been in the back of my mind and weighing it down for years–even when I’m not there.

My purge was on the right track, but I didn’t go far enough. I’ve been carrying this load of unread information and constant obligation for so long, and it’s time to get rid of it and make some space.

Screw obligation.

As Marie Kondo says, discard anything that doesn’t spark joy in you. So many books that I keep because I place the obligation of re-reading them on myself, an obligation I will never fulfil.

So I’m going to get all those books down off that massive, imposing bookcase; take them in my hand, one at a time; and ask of each, am I happy when I hold this? Will it make me happy to keep it?

Kondo is right when she says that the only real measure of something worth having, that you don’t absolutely need, is whether it makes you happy or not.

This whole time, I’ve been trying to impress people I don’t know and live up to the standards that I imagined they were trying to set.

Seriously, screw obligation. And by that I mean perceived and self-imposed obligations that aren’t necessary and are really quite stupid when you look at them with fresh eyes. These books don’t really represent anything when I look more closely at them. Why?

Well, I don’t need to prove I’m smart or educated. I’ll have a Bachelor’s degree soon. I’ll let my language and my actions and my opinions speak for that, not my book collection.

I don’t need to prove I’m a good reader by collecting books. In 2014 I read quite a lot. I don’t need to keep all my books to track what I’ve read for past or future reference. Instead, I’ve reactivated my Goodreads account, which will save much more space. If I want to re-read something, that is what libraries are for (and as a last resort, the pirate bay).

What’s more, I would no longer consider myself a voracious reader. I love reading, I love books, and I still read–but it’s no longer my first activity of choice as it was when I was younger. I don’t need to hold on to a big shelf of books as a reminder of who I used to be. I have my memories for that.

Most importantly, I didn’t end up improving myself significantly through reading more than ten of these books. But going outside and living and making mistakes and thinking a lot about it all has done a hell of a lot for me.

The reasons I’ve held on to these books for dear life? None of them make any sense to me now.

What I’m sending off

So. I’m going to say goodbye to the books that I bought to pay honour/duty to the author or the book itself, but am honestly never going to read again. Their job, of sending money to the author or of being displayed on my bookcase, is done, now that I’m no longer living with most of them. I find I prefer to read a lot of fiction on a tablet or my phone anyway.

I’m going to say goodbye to the books I’ve kept for years because I wanted to read them but didn’t. They can go on my to-read list on Goodreads.

I’m even going to say goodbye to the books that I’ve kept because they are associated so strongly with memories, but that I don’t wish to read again. That said, I’m allowing myself to keep one smallish, easy-to-lift box of books I really enjoyed and have had good memories of, but whose life with me has most likely come to an end. Just in case I spawn a litter in the future and want to, you know, share my love of reading with them. I can always discard later if having this small collection no longer gives me joy.

As Marie Kondo would put it, my books have been sitting by themselves, alone and practically invisible, for ages. I’m going to give them a new lease of life by giving them away where they can find people who will treasure them, instead of tolerate their presence as an obligation.

This is pretty animistic, but it certainly does provide a high level of closure.

Speaking of closure, I’m going to do a gasp-worthy thing. I’m going to burn some of the books I don’t like but have kept because there is overly personal writing in them. I’m moving on from a lot of parts of my past I didn’t like.

I’m excited to start this project, and I estimate I’ll be reducing my dormant book collection by quite a lot when I go home in six days.

If this even interests you, dear reader, find a copy of Kondo’s book, or at least the section on choosing to keep only books you love. She goes into more detail about actually discarding; this post is mostly my reaction to her words.

I’ve been sitting here writing this for about an hour and a half. I can’t help it–I’m just so excited! This has been in the back of my mind for years and I didn’t even realise until now. For the first time in my life, I’ve seen a way to be free.