The official blog of University of Missouri Skeptics, Atheists, Secular Humanists, & Agnostics

The Methods of Rationality…and Harry Potter

Hello all!

(And, if I may say, Happy Easter! :-))

As Dave mentioned, I’ll be writing on Sundays. In this first post, I’ll introduce myself, describe the sort of posts I expect to be making, and then send you off to read an absolutely marvelous piece of…Harry Potter fanfiction!

So, then, about me:  the two main things I do in this world are mathematics and music.  More concretely, I’m currently studying mathematical physics, and writing (among other things) a quartet for flute, clarinet, violin, and cello.

Originally, I had come to MU to study functional analysis (a childhood passion — seriously!) with Nigel Kalton, a leader in that subject. Unfortunately, last August, Nigel suffered a sudden, fatal stroke at age 64, depriving the university of one of its icons (at least from a mathematical point of view) and leaving me without an advisor.  The ensuing limbo led me to reevaluate the specifics of my mathematical ambitions, and I’m now heading in… one of several slightly different directions :-). I expect I’ll probably end up moving to another university after next year.

Let me now say a few words about what I plan to do here, at the MU SASHA blog.  I think I’d characterize it “taking the next step”. I have a strong interest in the subject of human rationality: how can we best ensure that our beliefs reflect reality, and how can we best achieve our goals? (In fact, what are our goals?) As great as it is to be “over” religion, that’s only the very beginning of the subject of rationality — because, let’s face it, religion is a pretty big rationality fail; getting over that is really only the first step on the path to sanity. There are all kinds of ways to go wrong, some more subtle than others, even if we’re not actually walking around praying to nonexistent deities.

You may have noticed a couple of links in the previous paragraph to the blog Less Wrong.  You should get used to that; I’ll be linking there a lot. I highly recommend checking it out. Its topic is precisely this higher art of rationality that I’m referring to, and that I’d like to do my part to import to our community here.

If you’d like to jump right in and start reading Less Wrong right way, the place to begin is here.

However — there’s no need to rush. (Well, actually, maybe there is, but I don’t want to be pushy. :-)) Today, I’d like to lure you in the fun way.

Ever read the Harry Potter series? (Actually, I never have!) Well, consider the following: suppose that, instead of being an ordinary boy raised by the obligatory evil stepparents, J.K. Rowling’s pre-adolescent protagonist had grown up as a precocious whiz-kid in the household of an Oxford science professor and his wife. Imagine that he had grown up learning about science, skepticism, rationality, and reading a healthy (or perhaps more-than-healthy) dose of science fiction in the process. And then imagine, one day, that that same mysterious magical letter arrives, and he winds up in…the wizarding world.

Oh, and also….imagine a story — a Harry Potter fanfiction story, mind you — which is intense,  hilarious, intelligent, and doesn’t suck.

Well, Eliezer Yudkowsky, the main editor of Less Wrong and a researcher at the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, has imagined just that. It’s called Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, and it’s got to be one of the greatest pieces of internet fiction ever…typed.

I assign a probability of 99%(*) to the hypothesis that you will love it. 🙂

(*)Okay, not really. But still, you should read it!


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This entry was posted on April 24, 2011 by in Author: James Cook, Book Reviews & Recommedations, Web Links & Videos.
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