Ordinary Bookclub: Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality (Chapters 65-77)

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Jaybird

Jaybird is Birdmojo on Xbox Live and Jaybirdmojo on Playstation's network. He's been playing consoles since the Atari 2600 and it was Zork that taught him how to touch-type. If you've got a song for Wednesday, a commercial for Saturday, a recommendation for Tuesday, an essay for Monday, or, heck, just a handful a questions, fire off an email to AskJaybird-at-gmail.com

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  1. Avatar James K
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    I think the discussions Harry has with Dumbledore outlines a major flaw in Harry’s approach to conflict. He has no conception of when to quit – in his mind every fight must be pursued to the capitulation of your enemy. This is the source of his “intent to kill” I think – he thinks of fighting only in terms of destroying his enemy.

    On the one hand determination is a virtue for a rationalist – you have no hope of solving problems unless you are willing to actually try. However this mindset is dangerous in a strategic context – Harry escalates every conflict to crisis point, and that means he will over exhaust himself in a protracted war.Report

  2. Avatar North
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    I really hated the S.P.H.E.W. chapters, probably because I generally couldn’t understand what was going on, who was doing what or what discourse was being had in the overarching narrative. On top of that it felt like the narrator was sweetly saying how twee and cute feminism is (though I may have been misreading that tone based on general frustration). So for me these were the weakest parts of the whole fan-fic and, frankly, I remain oblivious to whether they served much purpose at all in the overarching story.Report

    • Avatar bookdragon in reply to North
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      I had a bit of the same reaction. The way it was handled felt pretty ham handed.

      While I realize that there are strains of feminism that sound like much of what he was depicting, I kept wanting to jump in and point out that at its essence feminism is no more or less than the idea that women are people too. Hence, a woman shouldn’t have to prove she’s extraordinary to have same opportunities or get the same credit as any ordinary man. As a corollary (and I know some people identifying as feminists would disagree), the case for women having certain opportunities shouldn’t come from the argument that women are kinder/nobler/more peaceful/more virtuous/etc. (because we’re not). So the idea a woman’s motives, say, for being a hero, have to be different than a man’s is dumb.

      Which is to say that the go around when Hannah admitted she had signed on to impress a boy was a complete hash. Again, I know a lot of people actually hold the sort of views depicted there, but I really wanted someone to point out that if the point is to show that girls can be heroes just like boys, …well, do you know how boys have signed up for that sort of thing because they wanted to impress a girl?Report

      • Avatar James K in reply to bookdragon
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        I think this is not a comment about feminism in the real world. The wizarding world appears to have no history of sexism, which makes the concept of feminism confusing for wizards who weren’t muggle-raised.

        And I thought it was generally understood that a desire to impress women was a common cause of heroism in men.Report

        • Avatar bookdragon in reply to James K
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          “And I thought it was generally understood that a desire to impress women was a common cause of heroism in men.”

          That was kind of my point. My impression was that the story made it seem like Hannah should be ashamed of having the same sort of motive, as though girls should have loftier reasons than boys. Though looking back through it, it does seem some of witches recognized that that was stupid. The whole scene got very convoluted.Report

    • Avatar James K in reply to North
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      This section of the story is far too convoluted. It took me 3 or 4 reads to wrap my head around it.

      It does have meaning to the story as a whole, though it didn’t need to be so complicated.Report

      • Avatar North in reply to James K
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        I couldn’t bring myself to read that tripe multiple times. Can you summarize what the hell Snape was trying to accomplish? Or even generally how it was relevant, useful or even what rationalist theory it was dwelling on?Report

        • Avatar Jaybird in reply to North
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          Snape is still hung up on Lily. He’s trying to move from “of course I’d still be hung up on her!” to “you know what, maybe being hung up on her is less than good for anybody involved and I was the only person who didn’t see that”.

          (Snape is not particularly rationalist. He *IS* particularly Slytherin.)Report

          • Avatar North in reply to Jaybird
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            Yes…? But what the fish does that have to do with what he does in the S.P.H.E.W. chapters? Hell, I’m not even 100% sure what he does IN the S.P.H.E.W. chapters.
            I’ve zero problem with his characterization outside of that stretch of chapters. But, as with pretty much all the characters in the story, everything just goes bonkers in the S.P.H.E.W. chapters then the story sort of hiccups and moves forward as if trying to forget they ever happened.Report

            • Avatar Jaybird in reply to North
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              Assuming we can take Dumbledore at his word, Snape is Dumbledore’s guy. So Snape was trying to get information in order to help protect SPHEWers.

              Remember the first book where Snape was helping Harry on the broomstick and everybody thought he was the guy trying to harm Harry?

              Like that? Maybe?Report

              • Avatar North in reply to Jaybird
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                Maybe I misread the chapters but wasn’t he also directing the bullies and causing the directions to the S.P.H.E.Wers to lead them into increasingly devastatingly outnumbered odds? And then he shows up and gets knocked out? Then somehow everyone forgot that part or glossed over it? Or maybe I just misread it since it’s written like a deranged narrative labyrinth covered in rainbow spackle.

                Ok gimmie this. If someone skipped from the beginning of the S.P.H.E.W. arc to the end of it; excised those chapters out entirely, is there anything of significant value to the Hpmor story that’s lost or anything later that doesn’t make sense?Report

              • Avatar Jaybird in reply to North
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                Tonks masquerading as Susan, for one.

                Well, the stuff that I liked from the SPHEW arc:

                I liked Hermione’s conversation with Quirrell. I liked her conversation with Dumbledore. I liked how we spent a lot of time with a lot of characters who we don’t really spend time with in the rest ofthe story. Daphne Greengrass and Tracey Davis, for example. We see Draco help Hermione because of the SPHEW thing. We establish that escalating violence leads to escalating violence. This gives us a setting in which Dumbledore can show Harry the room with all of the wands allowing Harry to be absolutely pigheaded in response.

                Most importantly, it sets up another scenario in which Harry and his ilk simply refuse to lose in which losing at the beginning would have been arguably less bad than winning at the end.

                And, yeah, I imagine that Yudkowsky has a lifetime of observing female feminists from afar and has some conclusions about the patterns he’s noticed and, heck, figured that he’d write them down in the most plausibly deniable way possible.Report

              • Avatar North in reply to Jaybird
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                Thanks, ok, so I’ll grant you on the losing thing. The Phoenix’s price thing was not bad also. I observe, here, that almost all the good stuff involved Harry reacting to the SPHEW stuff rather than the SPHEW stuff being of much use. I thought Daphne was ok, at best, and Tracey was an idiot.

                But anyhow, HPMOR over all was great so I shouldn’t begrudge Yudkowsky some shit chapters but man those chapters sank me out of the whole fic the first time and I only got through them this time by gritting my teeth and skimming through any parts that involved the girls which is pretty awful.Report

              • Avatar Vikram Bath in reply to North
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                I’m going to respond to everyone here including some stuff down thread. This is just my take rather than anything definitive, but I believe the following things.

                1. The criticism of the S.P.E.W. chapters has been shared by others. I liked them because I like spending time with these characters, but I think it’s fair to say that there isn’t a huge amount of plot movement that affects the main story arc.

                2. I read S.P.E.W. as something of a mea culpa on the part of Yudkowsky for making Harry the center. Of course, that’s really J.K. Rowling’s fault, but nevertheless we get some of the girl characters doing stuff and we get to see Tracy Davis and Daphne Greengrass elevated to speaking roles.

                3. That said, there absolutely are things happening that you should notice that are important to the main story. (Repeat spoiler warning.)
                a. Among them is emphasizing that with respect to Snape, we are in uncharted territories. If you read the original Rowling series, you know Snape’s love for Lily is utterly binding. Faith in that love is sufficient to guarantee Snape’s completely loyalty to Dumbledore’s cause. We now find that this is not necessarily the case in HPMOR. Perhaps it was Harry’s conversation with Snape after the bullying of LeStrange, but Snape is now following his own agenda. And if you didn’t notice, he actually kissed Felthorne before memory charming her. It was his first kiss ever (76), which explains why in the original series he spent his entire lifetime hung up on Lily, and now we are left to wonder if now maybe that won’t be the case.
                b. Draco is trying to do things to make Slytherin look good with respect to the other houses. Not just trying to make himself look good with respect to Slytherin and his father. In fact, he is trading off his relationship with his father and Slytherin to accomplish the goal. This is a very different than what we’ve seen before.
                c. We get further hints at Harry’s weaknesses. Harry seems right, but there seems to be wisdom in Dumbledore’s words too when talking about violence and who wins. I should just leave it at that.
                d. Harry explains in 75 that McGonagall isn’t really responsible. This might not be plot relevant, but it’s something that stuck with me, so I’m including it.
                e. In 77, we have Snape’s conversation with Quirrell. I’m sure there are a bunch of significant hints there, but honestly I never really pieced all of them together. Maybe it doesn’t matter that much or they are too obscured to make out even after you know the ending.
                f. I think Jay soft-peddles the black mist encountering Hermione a bit. So, if you are paying a whole lot of attention, you should be able to do the following:
                – guess what the “(fleeting disorientation)” is caused by. What is happening to Hermione?
                – notice that the mist is doing a really bad job of convincing Hermione that it should be trusted. It seems genuinely perplexed, but it keeps trying and trying and trying and trying without success. OR DOES IT? If you had to convince Hermione of something how would you do it? You might not even need magic! Why is the mist so bad at this?
                – have a pretty good idea of who the mist is.
                Disclaimer: I was not able to figure out who the mist was when I first read the book or maybe not even the second, but maybe this will help you? If not, it’s OK, all will eventually be revealed!Report

              • Avatar dragonfrog in reply to Jaybird
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                Dumbledore seems to be honest, but he is apparently mistaken.

                In the next section, Qhzoyrqber fraqf Fancr gb erpbire gur abgrf Urezvbar jnf trggvat sebz gur zlfgrevbhf-abgr-haqre-gur-cvyybj-yrnire, Fancr tbrf gb ure qbez, svaqf gur abgrf, vapvarengrf gurz, naq ergheaf gb ercbeg ur qvqa’g svaq gurz.

                Also recall one of Lucius Malfoy’s early letters to Draco, where Lucius says something about Snape being one of the Malfoys’ guys.

                And then what was the scene in 77 where Quirrell challenges Snape on what his plot was, which he couldn’t do in Dumbledore’s presence because Snape presumably is plotting, if not against, then at least against the desires of, Dumbledore.

                Snape is seemingly not as much Dumbledore’s guy as Dumbledore gives out.Report

              • Avatar Vikram Bath in reply to dragonfrog
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                >Dumbledore seems to be honest, but he is apparently
                > mistaken.

                Sorry, do you mean to say “Dumbledore believes Snape to be honest, but…” The rot13 part doesn’t seem to say that Dumbledore himself is dishonestReport

              • Avatar dragonfrog in reply to Vikram Bath
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                That was unclear.

                I meant: Dumbledore seems to be honestly expressing his belief about Snape’s loyalty. Snape’s actions appear to diverge from what Dumbledore says about Snape, probably because Dumbledore is mistaken about Snape, not because Dumbledore is lying about Snape.Report

              • Avatar Vikram Bath in reply to dragonfrog
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                says:

                Ah, yes, you are correct.Report

            • Avatar dragonfrog in reply to North
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              says:

              As I understood it, Snape was setting up the ambushes, and upbraiding the bullies for losing their fights, because bullying is the Slytherin way and being publicly bested absolutely isn’t.

              But other stuff doesn’t line up – I have no idea what it was that Rianne did for his plot and then got obliviated of.Report

              • Avatar North in reply to dragonfrog
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                Thanks, that confused me too.Report

              • Avatar James K in reply to dragonfrog
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                Rianne was telling Millicent where bullies would be found, so she could tell SPHEW. Snape wasn’t hurting SPHEW, he was helping them. Quirrell was right, Snape is no longer acting purely as Dumbledore’s creature, but is instead acting on his own initiative, and he has a strong distaste for bullies.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird in reply to James K
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                Ooooh, that explains a lot.Report

              • Avatar dragonfrog in reply to James K
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                I’m still lost.

                Was Rianne sending Slytherin letters with Millicent as the entry node to the TOR network? Was Rianne openly telling Millicent who then wrote a TOR message via some other entry node? What about the abgrf haqre Urezvbar’f cvyybj (I can’t remember if that’s a spoiler or not, if you’re a couple chapters into this week’s reading you’ve already got that far anyway)

                Since these were ambushes targeting S.P.H.E.W., the person sending the notes must have been on the side of the ones lying in wait not the ones they were luring into the trap (remember the first bully they got? “I am a bully and you are my target. I am now going to assault you, because that is how bullying works” – telegraphing to us that the bully knew the tip-off had been sent, since he was in league with the sender) (and also that the S.P.H.E.W. girls aren’t very bright since they keep not realizing they’re walking into ambushes).

                If Rianne and Millicent and co. were really on S.P.H.E.W.’s side, they would have just not sent any notes at all and then the bullies would have wasted their afternoon lurking in a hallway nobody walks down, while S.P.H.E.W. had a chance of finding actual bullying going on.

                All this reads to me like Yudkowsky wrote the section once where S.P.H.E.W. were being baited into the ambushes by one plot, and then again where they were being baited into the ambushes by a different plot, but didn’t remove all the bits about the first plot.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird in reply to dragonfrog
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                If I recall correctly, this gets cleared up.

                If I recall correctly.Report

  3. Avatar bookdragon
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    Actually the arc with S.P.H.E.W. seemed to miss something else entirely, which is that ordinary people can be heroes. In some ways maybe the fact that most of the girls weren’t Hermione-level extraordinary shows that, but I really wanted someone to come out and say that – an explicit refutation of Quirrell’s increasingly unsettling ubermensch views.

    Seriously, has Harry in all his advanced reading never come across Nietzsche and the criticism, and historical consequences, of that philosophy? If he hasn’t, then he should still have some concept of it just from his extensive scifi/fantasy reading. It’s not as though the concept of how that can go very very wrong is foreign to Star Trek, Star Wars, etc.

    I haven’t read ahead so I dn’t know, but I hope at some point Harry looks at ‘I ask you to do X because you, unlike these others, are extraordinary’ and realizes that while he may be extraordinary, that line is bait for a trap.Report

    • Avatar Vikram Bath in reply to bookdragon
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      This is a good point. It sees while these chapters illustrate that (who is Hannah Abbott after all?) it doesn’t come out and say it directly. Or maybe Dumbledore did indirectly by telling Hermione that Harry was destined to be the hero and she was destined to only be the first named friend?Report

  4. Avatar dragonfrog
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    Point of order – are we reading 12 chapters to reach the end of 89 or 10 chapters to reach the end of 77?

    Anyway I understood a couple of things a little differently.

    In 76 I understood that Rianne was passing on the location of the next showdown / ambush to (who was it? Hannah?) at Snape’s instruction, because Snape wanted to make sure S.P.H.E.W. got their butts kicked

    In 74 I understood that it wasn’t Harry but Quirrel who glued everyone to the ceiling, letting Harry take the credit.

    Anyway, I agree that this section felt like a bit of a muddle. There were some bits that will surely figure in later, but the arc as a whole seemed a little out of nowhere – like Yudkowsky realised he was writing a sausage party, tried to fix it, and then wrote a bunch of chapters about how he failed to. Or something.Report

    • Avatar Jaybird in reply to dragonfrog
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      says:

      Ah, dang it. Let me check.

      10. We’re getting to the end of chapter 87.Report

    • Avatar Jaybird in reply to dragonfrog
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      says:

      I could totally have gotten those parts wrong. I thought that 76 was related to the (yet unrevealed) secret of divination. In 74, that could totally be the case. I completely missed that. I just figured that it was Harry’s doing (even if he used Quirrell to do it).

      I saw this section as Yudkowsky dealing with a couple of things, one of which was the sausage party. (I’m terrified to mention the other things I think he was dealing with.)Report

    • Avatar dragonfrog in reply to dragonfrog
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      Oh, wait, now it looks like maybe Hermione was getting the locations via notes-under-the-pillow from the mysterious notes-under-the-pillow-leaver, and that’s how she knew? But what about Hannah (or whoever) claiming to know because she’s a seer?

      I have no idea whatsoever what Rianne was up to.Report

  5. Avatar dragonfrog
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    It was a bit confusing. I still don’t quite know what Snape was up to, and definitely not why.Report

    • Avatar Vikram Bath in reply to dragonfrog
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      says:

      I think that’s basically OK at this point. You really just need to know Snape is behaving very differently than he was previously. Having any involvement in the bullying situation without being instructed by Dumbledore is new territory for him suggesting he has his own agenda. And even Quirrell hasn’t figured it out, so don’t be hard on yourself for not doing soReport

  6. Avatar Jaybird
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    Here’s part of what I think might be a problem with this particular fanfic as a whole…

    The way the prophecy was written in the canonical books, there were multiple people who could have fulfilled the various prophecies. Specifically: Neville. (There are a half dozen essays out there about this sort of thing.)

    As awesome as Neville is in this fanfic… he’s not the one prophesied.Report

  7. Avatar Eliezer Yudkowsky
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    So, I no longer believe that people can decode deep literary meanings and hidden symbolism in work unless the original author comes right out and says so, but I *used* to believe that. The reason I stopped believing it is that, even though some people managed to pick up on infinitesimally tiny but real and deliberate hints in HPMOR, like the reason why Ch. 29 seems to randomly throw in a mention of Metamorphmagi, nobody managed to decode what I thought were pretty blatant literary meanings and symbolism. This is not meant to be blaming the readers, it is just the illusion of transparency on my end, but I do suspect the lesson generalizes and now I don’t believe in other supposedly hidden deep literary symbolism either, unless the author spelled out what it was.

    HPMOR was meant as commentary, not so much on the original universe of Harry Potter, as the much larger universe of Harry Potter fanfiction. For example, the fact that Bill Weasley had a psychotic break and called in Dumbledore and others to reveal that the Weasley pet family rat was secretly Peter Pettigrew… reflects the existence of literally hundreds of Peggy Sue HP fanfictions where that exact scene plays out, and never once had any story depicted what the outcome would be in real life. That is, a lot of events in HPMOR are different takes on scenes that play out repeatedly in HP fanfiction.

    Although Hermione has many literary meanings, the foremost of which would be spoilers to reveal at this point in your reading, one of those meanings is as a commentary on the Plight of the Secondary Character in Fanfiction. Male or female, this Secondary Character often ends up as the subject of the Main Character’s choice of mate, and possibly in a one-sided harem: “She’d been in a shower stall that morning and just about to turn on the water, when she’d heard giggles coming from outside. And she’d heard Morag talking about how that Muggleborn girl probably wouldn’t fight hard enough to win against Ginevra Weasley, and Padma speculating that Harry Potter might decide he wanted both.” Again, to be clear, this is also liable to happen to male characters in a work with female protagonist, or to male characters in a work with a gay male protagonist, etcetera. This is what much of the rest of Hogwarts thinks Hermione is supposed to be; but Hermione doesn’t agree with that, and Harry is trying to back her up on it. I suppose in retrospect it is inevitable that this attempt at literary criticism of fanfiction would be confused as having something to do with feminism, especially since Hermione herself thinks that way in the fashion of many who came of age in the 1990s (though it is said and shown that the wizarding world is not in the same place culturally at all). But the author’s intention was not to say anything new about feminism there; the author’s intention was to symbolize something about the way that fanfiction treats its characters who are not Designated Protagonists, and to ask if the characters themselves might perhaps not like it.Report

    • Avatar James K in reply to Eliezer Yudkowsky
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      Thanks for contributing some context Eliezer.

      I think an occupational hazard of writing the most popular Harry Potter fanfiction on the internet is that your audience will consist of an unusually large number of people who have no experience with fanfiction. I’ve read HPMOR several times, but I haven’t read much other fanfiction (and I don’t think I’ve read anything involving harems) and I suspect that’s true of a lot of us here, which may help explain why so many of us didn’t get it.Report

    • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Eliezer Yudkowsky
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      Holy crap. That’s Eliezer Yudkowsky.

      Anyway, yeah, this Harry Potter fanfic is the first one that I’ve ever read.

      (As a meta-commentary on other Harry Potter stories, all that stuff is lost on me.)Report

    • Avatar dragonfrog in reply to Eliezer Yudkowsky
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      Thanks for contributing to our read of your book!

      I also have never read any other Harry Potter fan fiction – I don’t really know if I’ve read anything before that would exactly count as fan fiction (revisionist or parallel fiction like The Last Ringbearer, various of Gregory Maguire’s books, The Mists of Avalon, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Eutopia etc. – they’re probably at least fan fiction adjacent) so it never even occurred to me that references to HP fan fiction tropes, or fan fiction tropes in general, would be a thing I might look for, or what it would look like if I were to see it.Report

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