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.

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.

Minimising Facebook Part III: The Result

“Just making the decision to actually leave has made such a difference. My world feels smaller; more manageable.”

I wrote the above one day after deciding to half-quit Facebook. The feeling has become the new reality. There are so many things I don’t have to give a crap about anymore, and guess what? Apparently they didn’t really matter, because I don’t miss ’em.

Things that stood out:

I ruthlessly unliked page after page, and three weeks later, I could barely tell you the names of any of them. Bonus: those I can remember, I can just visit if I feel like it. No need to click that like button if the name of the page is stuck in my brainpan.

I do admit, I did join a couple of new groups–but they were about dancing and drawing in my local area, two active off-screen real-world pursuits. I confess I haven’t followed up on either of them yet, but I expect to. And if I don’t, I’ll eventually come to the conclusion that they must be deleted.

Unfriending brought a lot of new (old!) people to the fore, and allowed me to reconnect if I so chose.

To boost my feed of fewer pages and more people I haven’t talked to in a while, I installed Social Fixer several days ago, a free add-on for Mozilla Firefox that allows you to customise your facebook experience to a greater degree–and as a bonus, shows ‘recent posts’ rather than ‘top stories’. I now get even fewer page posts in my feed because Facebook can no longer push them to the top. It likes to do that.

I will definitely be donating to it, probably about $5 AUD (more than you’d pay for most apps!). Poor guy has a lot of work keeping up with all Facebook’s new screwups.

One thing I was surprised about was how many notifications I keep getting. Based on past experience, I was expecting it to slow to a trickle of 2-4 per first logon in 24 hours. But it hasn’t slowed. I’m getting about 16 notifications every time I log on. EVEN THOUGH I’M BARELY DOING ANYTHING ON FACEBOOK.

A closer look at just what I’m getting notified about, though, explains it. I’m receiving a notification every time a couple of pages are posting. I don’t want to unlike them–they’re small organisations such as an indie game developer I struck up a friendship with in class last year, and a free local park library. Not being able to figure out why these two are particularly favoured, I just put up with them, and pay attention to the 5-ish notifications that are actually about something.

These notifications would be fewer, only I still have that impulse to make witty remarks every so often…

Ultimately, even with all my new notifications, not a lot happened on Facebook–and keeps not happening. In a really really good way. Seriously, guys, it is so awesome.

I do still visit every couple of days, and if I’ve visited once that day it’s more likely I’ll visit again–but it’s no longer something I default to when I have nothing else to do. In fact, it was kind of scary how quickly I went to Facebook when I had nothing else to do. Close latest tab-I’m bored!-Oh no!-type Facebook into my browser and press enter. Within a couple of seconds. I don’t have that reflex action anymore, which I suppose is really what this whole thing was about.

So! I hereby pronounce this experiment… a success! And if there’s anything worth updating about this, I’ll post and let you know.