Book Review: Methods of Rationality

It’s high time I did a real review of my favorite book in the universe. I read it for the first time at the age of 13, and it triggered an utter obsession with cognitive science, rationality, and artificial intelligence that has not disappeared to this day. (It has, however, become more mature: I no longer write shitty romantic poetry about cognitive science.)

I will attempt to describe this masterpiece of literature; more than once since I will absolutely fail several times.

Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality is a 122-chapter parallel-universe Harry Potter fanfic in which Lily Evans married an Oxford professor, Michael Verres, and Harry was adopted and raised in a loving home filled to the brim with books. It is written by one Eliezer Yudkowsky, co-founder of the Machine Intelligence Research Institute, who writes frequently for the blog Less Wrong, which I’ve cited here before, and is best known for popularizing the idea of Friendly AI.

Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality is a book about an eleven-year-old who knows both magic and calculus and wants to take over the world using Science so he can get more books.

Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality is a book that successfully taught a 13-year-old girl—who wasn’t and still isn’t a genius—the underlying fundamentals of cognitive psychology, quantum physics, artificial intelligence, and Bayesian probability theory. If you read it, you will also learn these things, without ever realizing you have learned them. It will simply make sense, in a way that makes you wonder how you ever didn’t understand it.

While reading Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, you will frequently have absolutely no idea whether Harry is the villain or the hero. You will frequently have absolutely no idea whether Draco Malfoy is the villain or the hero, either. This goes for most of the characters, with the exception of Hermione and McGonagall. It does not exclude Voldemort.

This book will make you laugh, cry, learn, and question human existence. It will make you very aware of the sound of snapping fingers, and the shape of the night sky. It will show you the best and worst of humanity, and make both understandable. If you let it, it will teach you some of the most valuable life lessons you might ever learn.

Find the completed book at hpmor.com. You can read it in however much time you like, but given the length, it takes a fast reader about three or four days to binge straight through, so you probably can’t read it any faster than that. In any case, when you do finish it, please leave a comment telling me what you thought! And of course, give the author some feedback and leave reviews on however many chapters you like.

As an end note, in case you might not have believed me, here is only one of the shitty romantic poems I wrote about rationality. Please be nice to the author, she was a little girl who fell in love with science, not a poet, and she was doing her best.

Be skeptical, not cynical;
be open, but not gullible.
Be curious, not clever;
no rationalization, ever.

Accept the truth for what it is;
and look for contradictions
in all arguments, yours included;
you’re more confused by fiction.

A word is just a label
before you know the referent;
a lie gets told a long time,
if someone’s to protect it.

Certain kinds of people
truth they wrongly construe,
but they’ll do it in the name of
who they think is watching you.

Humans tend to think
they could predict things in advance
but that’s some hindsight bias
when really there’s low chance.

Don’t explain all this all at once,
mind inferential distance,
plus the illusion of transparency,
and all peoples’ heuristics.

People don’t like weird ideas,
or saying they don’t know;
but even with our biases,
There’s a long way we shall go.

The War of Art: Review, Notes, and Doodles

Recently, my pals at Praxis sent me a book called The War of Art, by Steven Pressfield. I read it through in an afternoon, because I have exactly zero impulse control when it comes to good books.

It was both brilliant and stupid. There were several pages in a row during which I chanted “yes yes yes yes” aloud. There were also several pages that left me thinking “is that really necessary?” And then there were the rest of the pages, which all pretty much left me going “yeah, alright, that makes a lot of sense.” Overall, it’s a good book.

One of the biggest reasons that I think it’s a good book is because the things I liked and didn’t like have much more to do with me than with the book. My general life philosophy is heavily based on two things: the WYSIWYG rationality Eliezer Yudkowsky lays out on his blog Less Wrong and in his book Rationality: From AI to Zombies; and the cheerful, playful discovery one understands immediately upon reading anything written by Richard Feynman.

Given that, you can pretty much predict the parts of this book that I especially like: they’re the ones about the difference between humanism and fundamentalism (found on pages 34-37 of the print copy). For example: “[The artist’s] faith is that humankind is advancing, however haltingly and imperfectly, toward a better world. The fundamentalist entertains no such notion. … The truth is not out there awaiting revelation; it has already been revealed. The word of God has been spoken and recorded by His prophet, be he Jesus, Muhammad, or Karl Marx.”

You can also predict the parts I kind of dislike: mainly, the assumption in the third section that all things that happen subconsciously are due to some outside force, higher plane, etc. For example: “What Blake means by ‘eternity’ [when he wrote that ‘Eternity is in love with the creations of time’], I think, is the sphere higher than this one, a plane of reality superior to the material dimension in which we dwell. In ‘eternity’, there is no such thing as time (or Blake’s syntax wouldn’t distinguish it from ‘eternity’) and probably no space either. This plane may be inhabited by higher creatures. Or it may be pure consciousness or spirit. But whatever it is, according to Blake, it’s capable of being ‘in love’.”

But the thing is, if you’re a different kind of person than me, you’ll prefer different parts of this book. That’s what marks it as good. Every person can get value from it.

That said, here’s what this book does.

It shatters you into a million pieces, names the pieces, and teaches you how to interact with each one for optimal creative productivity. One piece, the author calls Resistance. Another, the Ego. Still others, the Self, the Unconscious, angels, muses. It’s an extremely intuitive explanation, and when interacting with your own brain, objectivity is less important than subjectivity. Regardless of whether or not you are a mere conduit for creative forces which mostly exist outside of you, thinking that way will help you both be more humble about and distance your ego from your craft.

This book doesn’t tell you what’s true. But it does tell you how to think about yourself and your work. That’s just as valuable.

In case you’re still not convinced to pick this up and read it, here are the opening words of the book, where he describes the primary enemy, not just of artists and creatives, but of people everywhere: Resistance.

“Most of us have two lives. The life we live, and the unlived life within us. Between the two stands Resistance.

“Have you ever brought home a treadmill and let it gather dust in the attic? Ever quit a diet, a course of yoga, a meditation practice? … Are you a writer who doesn’t write, a painter who doesn’t paint, an entrepreneur who never starts a venture? Then you know what Resistance is.”

Now that (I hope) I’ve convinced you to go read this, let me share one more thing with you before I leave off for today.

Some time ago, I read an article about why you should write in books. I can’t find the article, which leads me to believe that I probably read it for the SAT and that’s why it’s so damn obscure, but regardless, I read that article and now I always read with a pencil in hand.

Because I’m an artist, I don’t just write in margins, I draw. If I’ve got a verbal thought, I put a note down; if I’ve got a visual thought, I put a drawing down. Some books don’t have enough white space for my margin doodles to be any good, but the structure of this book means it has a lot of white space, and as such, a lot of margin doodle room!

Alright, that’s it for today. Till tomorrow, ciao!