It's really no big shock that J.K. Rowling went on to write crime fiction. Some people -- including me -- were a bit surprised at first with the route she took after finishing the Harry Potter series, but in hindsight it makes beautiful sense. Each and every Harry Potter book has a mystery at its core. Despite the fantasy backdrop and the themes of adventure and coming-of-age that run through the series, every individual story is packed with the elements you might normally find in a crime tale: there are red herrings, countless clues, detective work, and normally at least one major twist or revelation at the conclusion. SEE ALSO: The'Fantastic Beasts' sequel announcement just marked the end of endings With the exception of the Cursed Child play, it's been about 10 years since I read any Harry Potter books.
Not all magic is created equal. In the sprawling universe that is JK Rowling's Harry Potter series, there are countless spells for wizards and witches to master. In the books (which we'll be focusing on here) there are around 80 alone. These spells range from the spectacularly pointless (looking at you, Densaugeo) and the cruel (Crucio) to the quite literally life-saving (Anapneo, which gets barely any page-time but is basically the wizarding version of CPR). Anyway, we've had a go at ranking every Harry Potter series spell. The list below is a countdown, from the least useful spell in the magical world to the most useful. A couple of quick notes before we dive in, though -- first of all, this list is based on general, widespread usefulness in the magical world (not just how useful the spells were in the books); second, it's worth noting that some spells (hello, Prior Incantatem) were a little tricky to rank due to their relevance to one particular wizarding profession, but lack of relevance elsewhere -- we've done our best to slot them in where we can, but certain members of the magical community may well disagree. It's used to kill people, it's an Unforgivable Curse, and it was Voldemort's favourite, so it's going last.
Late one Friday night in early November, Jun Rekimoto, a distinguished professor of human-computer interaction at the University of Tokyo, was online preparing for a lecture when he began to notice some peculiar posts rolling in on social media. Apparently Google Translate, the company's popular machine-translation service, had suddenly and almost immeasurably improved. Rekimoto visited Translate himself and began to experiment with it. He had to go to sleep, but Translate refused to relax its grip on his imagination. Rekimoto wrote up his initial findings in a blog post. First, he compared a few sentences from two published versions of "The Great Gatsby," Takashi Nozaki's 1957 translation and Haruki Murakami's more recent iteration, with what this new Google Translate was able to produce. Murakami's translation is written "in very polished Japanese," Rekimoto explained to me later via email, but the prose is distinctively "Murakami-style."
Scott Aaronson has one of the highest intelligence/pretension ratios I've ever encountered. I wasn't really aware of him before last fall, when I attended a conference at New York University on an ambitious new theory of consciousness, integrated information theory. Most speakers touted IIT or tried to tease out its implications. The striking exception was Aaronson, a boyish (he turns 35 on May 21 but looks younger) computer scientist at MIT (soon leaving for the University of Texas--too bad, MIT!). Although at first he seemed nervous, even jittery, he proceeded to demolish IIT. He focused on a key IIT variable, phi, which denotes the inter-connectivity, or synergy, of the parts of a system. The more phi a system has, the more consciousness it has, supposedly. Aaronson argued--or showed, actually--that IIT's mathematical definition of phi implies that a simple information-storage device, like a compact disc, can be more conscious than a human being. Browsing Aaronson's blog, "Shtetl-Optimized," I discovered that he writes not only about quantum computation, his specialty, but also about artificial intelligence, mathematics, cosmology, particle physics, philosophy… Aaronson has things to say about almost everything. Even when he is at his most technical, he expresses himself in a down-to-earth, funny, self-deprecating and above all clear way. He exudes the spunky enthusiasm and curiosity of a 10-year-old kid, a kid who happens to have a firm grasp of mathematics and physics. He thinks I'm wrong about the end of science, and that's fine with me. Hell, he might be right! I won't say more about him here, because I don't want to embarrass him--or myself--more than I already have, and because he reveals so much of himself in what follows. Warning: this is an extra-long Q&A, but if you read it, I predict, you too will become an Aaronson fan. Come on, that's too high a bar! When I was a kid, I wanted to be the founder and ruler of a rationalist space colony, who also wrote video games and invented the first human-level AI and led a children's liberation movement and discovered the mathematical laws underlying society. On the other hand, as far as childhood dreams go, I have no right to complain. I have a wonderful wife and three-year-old daughter. I get paid to work on engrossing math problems and mentor students and write about topics that interest me, to do all the things I'd want to do even if I weren't getting paid. It's one of those things, like a joke, that dies a little when you have to explain it--but when I started my blog in 2005, it was about my limitations as a human being, and my struggle to carve out a niche in the world despite those limitations.