This is part of The Blogging Gauntlet of May 2016, where I try to write 500 words every day. See the May 1st post for full details.

Two months ago, I was at a dinner where we started talking about character alignments. To explain why lawful-vs-chaotic was a different axis from good-vs-evil, we said “Umbridge is an example of Lawful Evil, and The Joker is an example of Chaotic Evil.”

Harry Potter Alignments

There’s nothing a good character alignment chart can’t add to.

A month after that, I was relaying a story about bigoted geniuses. A graduate student wrote a compiler which automatically inserted anti-Semitic messages into any code it compiled. This behavior was then hidden under several layers of code generation, making it especially difficult to remove the anti-Semitic messages while keeping the rest of the compiling ability intact.

In response, my friend quoted Ollivander.

He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named did great things - terrible, yes, but great.

(Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. But you knew that already, didn’t you?)

I replied with this.


In my generation, it’s assumed everyone has read the Harry Potter books. They’re just that popular. Importantly, it goes further than that. The knowledge that Harry Potter is well known is itself well known. Almost everyone knows Harry Potter, and everyone knows almost everyone knows Harry Potter.

Thus, Harry Potter can be used as a compression algorithm for conversation. If you want to explain something that’s similar to something from Harry Potter, you can cite the relevant scenario/character, and people will usually follow you. And usually, this is much shorter than explaining it for yourself. The D&D Player Handbook spends two paragraphs explaining Lawful Evil, but in that dinner we explained it in a single sentence.


You can apply a similar argument to anything that’s common knowledge. Memes, movie quotes, and world history are all fair game, assuming they are well known, and it is well known that they are well known.

What makes Harry Potter special is its perfect storm of length and popularity. Because it’s so long and has such a huge fandom, Harry Potter is an especially large source of concepts. If I wanted to explain test anxiety, I could quote how Hermione acts during final exams. If I wanted to explain the trope of the Enigmatic Old Wizard, I could use Dumbledore’s actions.

One of my classes this semester talked about impact evaluation. Paraphrased, the TA said, “In the ideal scenario, we would perform a study, measure results, use a Time-Turner, then don’t do the study and measure the difference between the two worlds.” This made me really happy, not just because it fit, but also because it validated my thoughts on Harry Potter compression.

(Although for the record, it doesn’t fit perfectly. Time-Turners only allow for stable time loops in canon. You wouldn’t be able to apply the study to the same group of people, because there is always only one timeline. Time-Turners would still eliminate a lot of confounding variables though.)

Now that I’ve thought about it, it seems obvious. Yes, this is how discourse works. People will use analogies to previous well known ideas to explain their points. I mean, no shit Sherlock.

Even when an idea is simple in retrospect, I still find it rewarding to think it through out loud. It elevates the idea from latent knowledge to common knowledge, and helps me identify it in other contexts. I just used a meme based off Sherlock Holmes, and I didn’t realize how much meaning I could pack into those three words until now.

(I have a lot more to write about this than I thought, so I’m stopping here. I may pick it up tomorrow, or I’ll save it from a longer post after the gauntlet is over.)