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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The Madness to the Methods

I hate being right in ways that aren't demonstrable. See, after an event, I can claim the predictive power of a prophet if I so choose, and it's really impossible to prove me right or wrong.

Of course, you can safely bet on the latter option because of the idea of the Greater Miracle. Think about it like this:

  • Is it more miraculous that I broke the flow of time and predicted the future psychically
  • Or is it more miraculous that I lied, misremembered, or was tricked somehow into thinking I broke the flow of time

Option 2 doesn't seem that incredible, let alone miraculous.

Basically, when we put things in those terms we are evaluating what is the greater miracle, and then discarding that option as being much more unlikely.

This idea comes from philosopher Simon Blackburn in his excellent volume Think, and all credit for the very clever method of evaluation goes to him. It's an idea, however, that would certainly be at home with a certain fanfiction that I've mentioned on here before: Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality. For those not familiar with the story, the idea is that instead of being raised in the abusive conditions of the Dursley household, Harry was instead raised by his Aunt Petunia and Uncle Michael Verres, an Oxford scientist. Harry, when put in this environment, turns into a bit of a frightening genius, and a champion for rational, scientific analysis of the world.

And then he is told that he is a wizard.

Hilarity, naturally, ensues.

Interestingly, some of the early plot might be thought of as related to Blackburn's idea of the greater miracle, and, in some ways, a critique of that model's limitations. See, Blackburn's idea works for related accounts but weird stuff happens when you're directly confronted with evidence of a miracle. Then, you have to think:

  • Is it more miraculous that I have just witnessed something that overturns my understanding of the laws of physics?
  • Or is it more miraculous that I have been deceived?
  • Or there is a still physics-compatible mechanism at work that is invisible to me?

See, things start to get complex when you're the one standing there and watching the miraculous occurrence, and Harry James Potter-Evans-Verres decides to do what a good scientist should do when confronted with such extraordinary proof of an extraordinary claim.

He decides to study it further.

Now, as for me, I'm not actually claiming psychic prescience, I'm just claiming that I called out some of the problems with a certain text a few months ago, to myself and to some of my friends. I mean, you still have only my word that I predicted it, but it's not quite the miracle that a full on psychic vision would be. Still, I can't help but crow a bit now that I have seeming confirmation that my critiques were right, in the form of an author's revisions.

The text I critiqued is Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality.

Yes, there was, in fact, a point to all that blather at the beginning.

See, I wanted to give you a sense of how HPMOR works. It's actually very similar, in some ways, to how I try to write my blog articles: it serves as both an entertainment piece and a tool for teaching critical analysis. So, you can read one of my articles as just an analysis of a work, or you can read it as a description of a methodology that allows YOU to do similar sorts of analysis on other works.

Similarly, HPMOR can be read both as a critique of of the original series and its mechanisms and a vehicle for author LessWrong to pass on the methodology of his analysis--teaching by doing, and sometimes by just having his lead character come right out and explaining particular concepts. This story is, in fact, one of the inspirations for my claim that fanfiction and critical essays occupy overlapping space in discourse. It remains, along with a handful of other fics, remakes, spin offs, and deconstructions, a favorite example of this overlapping territory for me.

Yet, that territory comes with some problems, problems that stem from the sometimes contradictory pull between the story and the message.

See, Rational!Harry is not a perfect hero. However, he is often the vehicle through which the reader comes to understand rationalist ideas, so he's also our teacher. This sets up a bizarre narrative paradox: we need to think like a rationalist to judge Harry's actions and ideas, but we are in the process of learning to be a rationalist. We don't have the requisite expertise to judge Harry's own expertise. (Incidentally, this idea that novices are incapable of judging whether someone is an expert seems to be supported by recent studies, which is why I bring it up, but I'll be damned if I can find any actual journal articles to link to. If someone could link in the comments, I'd be much obliged.)

This, I suspect, is the reason behind LessWrong's recent decision to revise Harry's win rate in the early chapters--the revision I mentioned earlier. Check out his author notes:

...I figure I’d better get around sooner rather than later to some intended revisions to the earlier chapters…

No!  Don’t panic!  This isn’t a rewrite, just a few revisions. ...  6, 7, and 9 are the main chapters that might require larger revisions, and I expect there to be some controversy.

Today I got to Ch. 5 (again minor alterations only) and am, at this instant, almost done with Ch. 6, which was the first chapter to require major repair.  One section of the chapter had Mood Whiplash – tension rising too quickly, with insufficient warning – which I think I’ve now repaired mostly.  The deeper problem in Ch. 6 is that Harry’s conflict with Professor McGonagall looks too much like a victory – it is a major flaw of Methods that Harry doesn’t lose hard until Ch. 10, so he must at least not win too much before then.  That’s the part I’m working on at this very instant.

Now, what could be so fundamentally flawed about this current structure? Well, without knowing exactly what LessWrong is thinking, might I offer the suggestion that it's creating a situation where Harry is infallible. He's a total ubermensch of a character, in a lot of situations, to the point where it becomes almost more miraculous that Harry should be wrong than the alternative.

If you look at Chapter Six, for example, what you'll find is that Harry behaves, frankly, like a little prick much of the way through. He's rude, domineering, unconscientious, and only briefly shows actual remorse rather than self-rightiousness. Oh, it makes for high drama, to be sure, and is a major step on the way towards Harry's character development, but there's one big problem here:

Harry can perfectly justify everything he does.

In fact, read the conversation with McGonagall after Harry accidentally causes a shop keeper to remember what are implied to be rather traumatic memories. Note the way the conversation transforms into a lecture on pessimism and accurate predictions of the future. It's fascinating stuff, to be sure, but narratively it means that even though we are told that Harry feels bad, his behavior is reinforced because A. he's temporarily transformed into the mouthpiece of rationality and B. he still gets what he bloody well wants in the end!

Harry needs to lose here--he needs to be wrong here--because these early chapters grant him too much infallibility. He wins so often that we assume that he is always right. This actually works in direct opposition to the skills that the story is teaching us--after all, as long as we can comfortably rely upon Harry as a guide, we don't have to analyze his actions from a standpoint of rational skepticism.

It's a problem that, in fact, crops up repeatedly throughout the story. I think the repairs to this chapter will go a long way to alleviate that, but it's something that comes up again and again, in his arguments with Dumbledore, in his victories during the bloated Stanford Prison Experiment arc, and so on. I would not hesitate to describe it as the greatest fundamental structural fault of the text.

Now, that's not to say the fault can't be repaired, as LessWrong is doing with the early chapters. I have never bought into the idea that audiences simply want the hero to win, and the text could be refined significantly by letting Harry lose a little more frequently. Such a change allows the teaching side of the text to function while actually aiding rather than damaging the narrative. After all, a flawless hero, or an invincible hero, is kind of a dull one. And, in Harry's case, kind of an insufferable one. It's rather difficult to persuade yourself of particular ideas when they come from the mouth of someone who is well and truly insufferable, after all, and I think LessWrong is aware of that, based upon his interest in the idea of Harry's friendships and how his choices affect whether or not he is alone.

I think, if nothing else, this demonstrates the fact that the narrative and the themes or purposes of a work have to be carefully set into balance, and it's very easy for one to get in the way of the other if they are not carefully arranged. It also shows that the transmission of ideas cannot rely upon an understanding of the ideas themselves alone. Communication is, by its nature, interdisciplinary, and understanding narrative from a liberal arts perspective can help even a staunchly scientific piece of writing.

Alternately, we could just go with the idea that I'm always right and brilliant and you should just listen to whatever I say, but, you know, that would be quite a miracle.

Incidentally, if you want to bask in my miraculous intellect, you can follow me on Google+ at or on Twitter @SamFateKeeper. As always, you can e-mail me at If you liked this piece please share it on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, Reddit, Equestria Daily, Xanga, MySpace, or whathaveyou, and leave some thoughts in the comments below.

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