Ordinary Bookclub: Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality (Chapters 26-35)



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41 Responses

  1. Avatar Jaybird says:

    Here’s a solution that would have bugged me less about chapter 28.

    I remember one of the Xanth novels where two characters traded magic abilities. The one guy ended up with the ability to shapeshift. The previous owner of the magic ability thought that he could only transform his whole body. Like, if he wanted to shift into a crab, he could, but he couldn’t just give himself a claw for a hand. He had to turn entirely into a crab or remain entirely human. Well, the guy with the new power wondered “could I transform my whole body into the body of a guy who has a claw for a hand?”

    And, wouldn’t you know it, he could.

    Anyway, Chapter 28 *STILL* bugs me. Jeez Louise, Yudkowsky.Report

    • Avatar dragonfrog says:

      I don’t know that what you describe would have been satisfying – the restriction on transfiguration gets to our own arbitrary mental boundaries as to what is part of a thing, and what is part of another adjacent thing. Solving it by letting Harry still transform whole things into hybrid things wouldn’t address that limit, and it would surely be something that other wizards, without any notion of particle theory, would have tried already. It would come back to “It’s not that Harry is really smart, it’s that no other wizards through history have been particularly bright at all.”

      I seem to recall the experimental design in Dumbledore’s office takes that into account – they give Harry the steel sphere and calculate, based on its mass and Harry’s skill at transfiguring, it would take him about half an hour to transfigure the whole steel sphere into a similar steel sphere with a little glass bit. When he transfigures a little bit of steel into glass in just a few minutes, they conclude he did transfigure part of a thing.

      So now if he again finds himself locked in a dungeon the way Draco did to him, he can transfigure just a little bit of the wall into loose sand, when before he couldn’t because it would have taken transfiguring the whole wall into a wall with a little hole full of sand in it.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird says:

        I’m not sure it’d have been satisfying either.

        That said, the whole “Oh, Harry is sooooooooooo insightful and he understands reality in a way that wizards never could because he’s read Hawking and Feynman!” that gets me to yell at the monitor.

        It’s a good thing the rest of the story is so good.Report

        • Avatar James K says:

          I agree with dragonfrog, the solution you proposed would imply wizards are much dumber than the one Yudkowsy comes up with. In any case, the hybrid transformation is something McGonagal mentions in that same chapter – that is a technique wizards already know about.

          The “timeless physics” is an indulgence on Yudkowsky’s part, but even if he had stopped at quantum physics, how many wizards would know about quantum physics in 1991? How many of them are expert enough to try experimenting with transfiguration – a dangerous form of magic?

          Harry has more insight than other wizards, in certain very limited ways. After all, shouldn’t knowing physics improve your ability to manipulate matter? Harry is right that there can’t be any way transfiguration is object based, because objects don’t really exist so someone would have had to give magic a complete list of all objects that could exist to allow it to figure out what an object is. The sheer versatility of transfiguration implies it works at a level below our conception of “objects”, but that requires knowing more about physics than the vast majority of people do, especially wizards who don’t typically receive a muggle education past the age of 11.Report

          • Avatar Jaybird says:

            I don’t mind wizards being dumb, necessarily. Hey. We’ve all been there.

            What I mind is Harry having a special insight into the Nature of Reality granted him by his Protagonist Powers that allows him to do stuff that Nobody Has Ever Done Before.

            I mean, Jeez Louise, even in the Canonical First Book, Harry wouldn’t have succeeded without his friends. Every single “friend” that MORHarry has is a dang foil. He doesn’t learn from them, he just teaches them or is disappointed by them. Even the adults are disappointments. Well, not Quirrell. He’s just a reactionary who fails to see how good Democracy is.

            Or would have been, had Hillary won.Report

            • Avatar James K says:

              He has special insight into reality because he has read a lot of very advanced physics books that provided with that insight, that’s the opposite of Protagonist Powers.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                So what we, as a society, need is more 11 year-olds reading advanced, nay, *VERY* advanced physics books?Report

              • Avatar James K says:

                The muggle world has plenty of people who have an advanced understanding of physics. The wizarding world has one. That’s why one 11-year old boy with an unusually advanced physics education can make such a difference. The point isn’t that Harry Potter is very important, it’s that understanding how the world works is very important.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                And the ones who might have read the books are likely to be rule-followers?Report

              • Avatar James K says:

                Considering that:
                1) Quantum mechanics was only about 70 years old in 1991.
                2) It would have been accessible outside of academic literature for less time than that.
                3) Wizards aren’t educated in physics unless they were muggle-raised, and even then only to the age of 11.
                4) The entire population of magical Britain isn’t that large, in the order of tens of thousands.

                It is plausible that no one in magical Britain has had this level of physics knowledge before. In fact, I suspect Snape is one of the most scientifically-knowledgeable wizards because he knows what an orbital is.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                And no Wizard since the Interdict of Merlin has been able to feel what sub-molecules are like just by putting their mind down to that level and walking around? No one has had that level of intuition?

                It merely took someone really smart to do it rather than someone who had spent their life saying “I should be able to just turn this corner into something else…”?Report

              • Avatar dragonfrog says:

                I think we’ve established that magic on its own isn’t that good at discovering new knowledge.

                Saying the right words without knowing that the spell conjures flapping green bats doesn’t do anything.

                You can’t make a cure for Alzheimer’s without knowing its formula.

                You can’t apparate to the moon because you first have to gain knowledge of the place by conventional travel.

                You can magically use knowledge you have, but in broad strokes your magical abilities can’t outstrip what you already know.

                Which is handy, if as an author you want to juxtapose magic thinking that works against the scientific methodReport

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                I think we’ve established that magic on its own isn’t that good at discovering new knowledge.

                Look at the replication crisis happening in academia.

                I’m not sure that science is that good at discovering new knowledge*.

                *some notable exceptions exist, I’ll grant. Almost all of them are from previous generations.Report

              • Avatar Michael Cain says:

                I’m not sure that science is that good at discovering new knowledge…

                To pick one example, today there are dozens of drugs to control high blood pressure that didn’t exist 25 years ago. They work in different ways, have different side effects in different people, but the wide selection means that for almost everyone there’s at least one drug that works effectively and without problems.

                Science (and engineering) identified the mechanisms involved in high blood pressure. Some drugs were identified by trial-and-error, but now we’ve reached the point that some of the molecules were designed.

                I have no idea how magic would approach the problem of high blood pressure.Report

              • Avatar Michael Cain says:

                No, that’s how a barber deals with high blood pressure. How does magic address high blood pressure? Are there some pseudo-Latin words that, invoked over a mixture of herbs and newt eyes, produce an alpha blocker? How would you stumble across them without knowing the underlying mechanisms? Why pseudo-Latin instead of Old High German?Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                “These are *BLOOD* leeches. They magically drain excess blood from the body and have a magic saliva that makes blood magically less likely to clot.”Report

  2. Avatar dragonfrog says:

    I loved the whole three army sequence, read those chapters all in a go. Still not sure I entirely followed all the twists and turns of subterfuge. Which I guess is the point.

    Who Mr. Hat and Cloak is, I’ve got nothing. I’d guess it’s the same one who helped the Weasleys fake out Rita Skeeter. So, someone with a considerable budget. I notice Quirrell headed off in the same direction as Zabini before Zabini’s encounter with Hat & Cloak. So maybe it’s Voldemort in the back of Quirrell’s head. Or maybe Dumbledore…Report

    • Avatar dragonfrog says:

      Oh, so now, thinking about it, I’m working with: Hat and Cloak is the same person who
      – gave Harry the invisibility cloak with the note telling him he should deceive Dumbledore about it
      – made the trick on Rita Skeeter work and then obliviated the Weasleys
      – got Zabini to report to Quirrell on Dumbledore’s tactics in a way that will make Quirrell mistrust and dislike Dumbledore

      So, the overarching theme is that (assuming they’re the same person) Cloak and Hat is working to sow mistrust in institutions, particularly in Dumbledore (who concentrates on himself the symbolic trust in three separate powerful institutions).

      Going out on a limb, that same person might have subtly steered Quirrell to make the speech extolling benevolent totalitarianism, because that’s the way they’re trying to steer wizarding society.Report

    • Avatar Jaybird says:

      Yeah, the three army thing was a fun nod to the good parts of Ender’s Game.

      (I spent a lot of time wondering if Mr. Hat and Cloak was Sirius Black.)Report

  3. Avatar James K says:

    I’ve read chapter 35 a few times now, and I’ve been developing an idea of why democracy seems to work much better for us than it seems to for the wizards, because while I think Quirrell is wrong about democracy being as arbitrary as Quidditch (it is impossible to overlook that modern governments function a lot better than Feudal Europe or even classical Rome did), he is also right that the magical government of Britain appears to be prone to instability.

    What makes a wizard powerful? We know it’s not genetics, the answer appears to be intelligence and studiousness. For wizards, knowledge is literally power, which is why Hermione is such an accomplished witch already. By contrast, knowledge really doesn’t translate into power for us muggles. The closest thing we have to Dark Rituals is the knowledge needed to construct nuclear weapons but it takes thousands of people to construct a nuclear weapons, and very few of them need to understand their construction. This is true of technical innovations in general, modern technology generally requires large numbers of people working together to work.

    That means that what makes a muggle powerful is the ability to mobilise large numbers of people and persuade them to cooperate with you. Since elections campaigns are competitions in persuading people, electoral politics is a better fit for stable societies for us than it is for wizards.Report

  4. Avatar Jaybird says:

    Okay. Trying again: If there had been a handful of wizards in the past who figured it out, maybe it’d bug me less.

    A Hufflepuff from the 17th Century, a fine healer, was the first documented to prove he could transfigure a corner of a cube from glass to steel spoke about there being “marrow in the bones of the world”. A great Gryffondor in the 18th Century spoke of the leaves on the trees in the forest of the world.

    You know the guy who explained the internet to Ted Stevens? Have him come up with an explanation for Quantum Physics that Ted Stevens could go on to quote in a speech. Then put those words into the mouth of a Ravenclaw from the 19th century who also pulled it off before being taken to St. Mungo’s.

    We don’t have to change the physics, necessarily.

    We need to change “Harry Potter is spectacularly special”.

    Nyfb, vs V erpnyy pbeerpgyl, guvf qvfpbirel bs Uneel’f vfa’g rira hfrq gb erfbyir n cybg cbvag va gur shgher. (Vf vg?) Vs vg’f abg, naq V’z guvaxvat vg’f abg, gura vg’f whfg gur nhgube qbvat qbahgf va gur cnexvat ybg.Report

    • Avatar James K says:

      Bu, Vg vf, vg irel zhpu vf.

      How would a wizard have worked this out? It took muggles until the 20th Century, there are a lot more muggles than wizards and wizards don’t practice science. Only a quantum physicist, or someone who had read a lot of quantum physics could have done what Harry did, and wizards don’t read quantum physics.

      Seriously, this is in no way a case of Harry having Protagonist Powers. Yudkowksy goes to considerable lengths to explain why Harry was the one who made this discovery, unless your thesis is that Harry should be utterly unremarkable in every way, I really can’t understand what your problem is here.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird says:

        Gur pneoba anabghor jnfa’g n arj guvat gung unq arire orra qbar orsber, gubhtu.

        How would a wizard have worked this out?


        I really can’t understand what your problem is here.

        “An 11 year old kid changes everything.”Report

        • Avatar James K says:

          Gur pneoba anabghor jnfa’g n arj guvat gung unq arire orra qbar orsber, gubhtu.

          That’s not what I’m talking about. Cnegvny Genafsvthengvba cynlf n znffvir ebyr va UCZBE.

          I think the trouble you are having here is that you either don’t get what Yudkowsky is doing, or you do get it, but don’t like it. Harry Potter is not the hero of HPMOR, but the Methods of Rationality are. One of HPMOR’s central theses is that your ability to achieve things depends on knowledge, and the ability to think rationally about the problems before you. Harry achieves things in proportion to his knowledge and his rationality. He makes mistakes (often terrible ones) in proportion to his ignorance and his irrationality. And it’s not unique to Harry, multiple other characters show this same dynamic over the course of the story.

          If you dislike the idea that knowledge and rationality can overcome age and magic, then this story is going to be a parade of frustration for you.Report

          • Avatar Jaybird says:

            One criticism of MOR I saw was that it was r/IAmVerySmart the fanfic.

            That is, indeed, how it comes across at a lot of points. There’s some awesome stuff in there. I learned a lot and was even able to add an important tool to my toolkit.

            But, damn. Harry grates.Report

        • Avatar dragonfrog says:

          “An 11 year old kid changes everything.”

          Do you like the original Harry Potter series? Because that was kind of my beef with it too…Report

          • Avatar Jaybird says:

            The original Harry Potter series has the benefit of ramping up. What does he do in the first book? He goes down the forbidden hallway with the help of his friends Ron and Hermione, thwarts (not defeats) Voldemort, and wins a game of Quidditch.

            Over the course of seven books, he becomes an 18-year old who manages to defeat Voldemort.

            While he was the Hero Protagonist, he didn’t start changing everything until, oh, the Goblet of Fire or so. And he leans ever so heavily on his friends in every single book (and they do an *AWESOME* job of leaning on him).Report

            • Avatar dragonfrog says:

              It’s true, they do a pretty darn good job of having them work well as a crew most of the time – whether they’re well or ill advised in their particular tactics, they stick together.

              But this is a story about a Harry Potter who’s socially clueless and really annoying to deal with, so he doesn’t really get a crew.Report

  5. Avatar North says:

    I have been reading ahead and hit the “self actualization” chapters. I think I had read this so long ago that I forgot why I stopped reading it and the self actualization chapters were it- not the battles (though I found the battles somewhat tedious). I’m struggling to force my way through them and it looks like they go from insipid boring and annoying to ridiculously escalating the plot and stakes. Ugh, I’m gonna have to force my way through this too. Please tell me the clusterfish of the self actualization chapters sorts itself out?

    Regarding these chapters; yeah Harry Potter’s character really grates a lot. I did enjoy the portrayal of Snape. As they story has proceeded it’s definitely keeping me guessing about Snape which is quite well done considering that the original story has spoiled me and I should be anticipating how it turns out.Report

    • Avatar James K says:

      Without offering spoilers, I will say that the self-actualisation arc has more to do with the point of HPMOR than it appears to when you’re reading it.Report

      • Avatar North says:

        Ugh… it just goes on and on… chapter and chapter of it… yes bullies are bad… how fast can I skim this… oh god(ess?) they’re still at it… okay you’re writing all twee and silly. Still at it… skim faster.. wait I wonder if this is some kind of jab at feminism… try reading more and then OMG they’re at Wizard parliament and she’s about to get sent to hell-jail?!?!? WTF!!?
        I think I need to read further or stop reading but the section I’m at is just awful.Report

    • Avatar Jaybird says:

      Huh. I thought the self-actualization part was pretty good.

      (My first thought was that “oh, North is complaining about the Dementor thing. I AGREE WITH HIM!” but you’re further along than that.)Report

      • Avatar North says:

        The Dementor thing is very… uh…. Gary Sue ish, yes… but… But!… BUT…. it’s very much the kind of core message of the whole fan fic. So if you aren’t on board with the Dementor thing (even if you roll your eyes hard) I wonder if you can really buy into the core premise of the entire fic.Report

        • Avatar Jaybird says:

          I see the methods of rationality (as opposed to the Harry Potter And The version of them) as similar to Communism or Neoreaction.

          There are some fabulously awesome critical tools to be found in there. There are some amazing perspectives that can help you understand the world, understand yourself, and understand history.

          It’s when the stuff turns into “therefore you must have the following opinions and believe in the following solutions to the various problems we’ve outlined” that I hold my hands up and say “Audi 5000.”Report

  6. Avatar Jaybird says:

    Okay, we can talk about this now. In chapter 26, the Rita Skeeter story gets resolved.

    Vg trgf erfbyirq jura Dhveeryy xvyyf Evgn Fxrrgre, jura fur’f va navznthf sbez naq gelvat gb eha bhg bs Znel’f cynpr nf snfg nf fur cbffvoyl pna nsgre urnevat Uneel ercrng jung Dhveeryy unf uvz ercrng.

    I didn’t catch that *AT ALL* on my first read-through.Report