Ordinary Bookclub: Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality (Chapters 114-122)



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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33 Responses

  1. Avatar Jaybird says:

    I really, really liked the story. It was a fun story and I learned a lot of things.

    My biggest takeaway was the “I notice that I am confused” formulation. When you notice that you notice that you’re confused, you can then start to work on unconfusion.

    Are there things that irritated the ever-living heck out of me? Yes, yes there were.

    Foremost was the “If Harry Potter were smart, he’d have been able to finish off Voldemort in the first book” assumption underlying everything. Heck, Harry Potter was not only able to finish off Voldemort in the first book, he did it in such a way that saved *EVERYBODY* on Team Good and the only people on Team Evil that died were Voldy and the Death Eaters who answered the call.

    In Rowling’s story, because Harry was only brave rather than smart: Lupin and Tonks died. Mad-Eye Moody died. Fred died. Snape died.

    If you’re actually smart, the only thing you have to worry about is being lost in time and, let me point this out now, this line happened in Chapter 110:

    Dumbledore says this: “I destroyed your body, your spirit would only wander back, like a dumb animal that cannot understand it is being sent away. So I am sending you outside Time, to a frozen instant from which neither I nor any other can return you. Perhaps Harry Potter will be able to retrieve you someday, if prophecy speaks true.”

    Woo! If you were worried about Dumbledore, don’t be. That line is in there for you.

    And it also implies that not even Dumbledore will have been lost at the end of the day.

    Voldemort didn’t kill anybody or take anybody off the table. Harry saved everybody without losing a single piece. (Well, one fell on the floor… but prophecy implies that he will have picked it back up before all is said/done.)

    Which, at the end of the day, strikes me as kinda facile.

    But no matter. It’s a fantasy. It’s fanfic.
    I had a delightful time reading it, I learned a lot, and I hope you guys liked it too. Thanks for reading along with us.Report

    • Avatar James K in reply to Jaybird says:

      The “If Harry Potter were smart, he’d have been able to finish off Voldemort in the first book” assumption underlying everything.

      I think this is an important part of what Yudkowsky was getting at here, although rather than smart, I would say rational. One of the themes of Yudkowsky’s non-fiction writing is that being rational should make you more effective. Rationality is the art of systematically making better decisions, and that should have a visible effect on your success in life, however you’re defining success.

      In HPMOR Harry is smart, but his successes stem from being rational, not smart exactly. His intelligence and knowledge are a boon to him, but its by thinking through his actions that he succeeds, and when he falls back into easy patterns of thought he fails, and when he fails his intelligence makes it worse. If it wasn’t for Deus Ex Dumbledore Harry’s smarts would have either led to Voldemort ruling the word, or the world being destroyed.

      My theory on Harry is that Yudkowsky wrote him to resemble a typical reader of Rationality blogs like Less Wrong or Slate Star Codex. Yudkowsky’s message to such a reader is: You may think you’re smart, you may even be smart but you are nowhere near rational enough to solve the problems humanity faces. You need to do better, we all need to do better, or we will fail.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to James K says:

        Slate Star Codex had a lovely little book review the other day. Here’s a fun excerpt from the review (not the book):

        Rationalists always wonder: how come people aren’t more rational? How come you can prove a thousand times, using Facts and Logic, that something is stupid, and yet people will still keep doing it?

        Henrich hints at an answer: for basically all of history, using reason would get you killed.

        (The book, if you’re wondering, is Joseph Henrich’s The Secret of Our Success: How Culture Is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter.)

        Much like Harry is smart enough to save the world, I guess… smart enough to defeat Voldemort, anyway, his inclination is to destroy it through the best of intentions. And, at the end of the day, it took magic to keep him from setting it on a path to destroy itself though he didn’t even know that it necessarily would (and, indeed, that he’d rationalize it away if allowed to do so).

        I’d be interested in knowing whether the very idea of “rational enough” isn’t magical thinking in its own right. It’s not obvious that it isn’t. Not without access to a function that can prevent things that we think are good even when they’re not.

        We need access to whatever it is that the Vow is tapped into. If calling it “God” is too risible, I’m down for calling it whatever we can get the comment section to agree on calling it.

        And I’m not sure that it, whatever we end up calling it, operates at a level of rationality even theoretically available to us.

        Hey, maybe if we extend our lifespans and add computers with additional CPU and memory functions to our brains and set up some way to make backups of everybody…Report

        • Avatar greginak in reply to Jaybird says:

          Reason is one of our few competitive advantages over animals. Using reason saved our bacon. Well it allowed us to figure out how to make bacon. The fallacy of Reason, and logic and philosophy, is that we’ll all come to the same conclusion if we just use Reason and Logic.

          SSC can be great or a morass of over analysis of underwhelming things. He has been on a roll of the later recently, that review in particular.Report

        • Avatar James K in reply to Jaybird says:

          That’s a great review, I put that book on my to-read list after reading it. The thing is though is that “tradition is superior to reason” is not the lesson to draw here. For one thing, as greginak points out, reason is our killer app. For another, as a commenter on the SSC post said, our culture (let’s call it “Western Culture” for the lack of better alternatives) now has centuries of tradition of using reason and the scientific method to improve our society and our understanding of the world.

          While it can be dangerous to guess where Scott is going with something until he goes there, my guess is that he’s discussing the reasons why rationality is so rare – our minds are adapted for an environment where following the pack was smarter than taking initiative. But we don’t live in that world any more.Report

          • Avatar Jaybird in reply to James K says:

            A few years back, I read an article about how sickle-cell anemia can protect someone from malaria.

            The basic gist is this: if you’ve got no copies of the gene, malaria is going to mess you up.

            If you’ve got two copies of the gene, you’re going to get sickle-cell anemia and that’s going to mess you up.

            HOWEVER. If you have one copy of the gene, it’s good. You’re resistant to malaria.

            I think that there are a lot of things like this… including rationalism. No rationalism genes? Ooof, that’s bad. Two rationalism genes? Ooof. That’s bad. One rationalism gene? Hey, now we’re talking!

            (See also: Traditional religion, Social Justice, and so on.)Report

            • Avatar dragonfrog in reply to Jaybird says:

              That’s an interesting way of looking at it.

              The whole ‘technocratic wonks will save us with their sound policies’ thing is missing an important step – rationality can help us achieve our goals. It can’t help us figure out what goals to have.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird in reply to dragonfrog says:

                Now that I think about it, I’m sure I must have stolen that from SSC.

                Yeah, the problem is that we are smart enough to figure stuff out (we can make plastic!) but we’re not smart enough to figure out how to deal with the stuff we’re smart enough to do.

                And we don’t have an Unbreakable Vow.Report

            • Avatar James K in reply to Jaybird says:

              I know what people being too irrational looks like, what does too rational look like? Because the utopian sounds of the past weren’t being too rational, they were exhibiting a failure mode Adam Smith called The Man of System – they created a grand theory of humanity and could not bear to change it, even in the face of evidence it didn’t work.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird in reply to James K says:

                what does too rational look like?

                “I don’t have enough information. I need to read another book.”Report

              • Avatar James K in reply to Jaybird says:

                That’s a failure mode Yudkowsky explicit y warns against, it’s an example of insufficient rationality, not excessive rationality.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird in reply to James K says:

                So rationality is this weird thing where you can only be perfectly rational, never *TOO* rational?

                Nice trick. I am, however, reminded again of Pelagianism.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Jaybird says:

                I got an email that explained that “too rational” can look like *EXCEPTIONALLY* Utilitarian.

                So “Eugenics, Except Done Right This Time” could appear “too rational”.

                “7 Billion People is Too Many. For us to save the planet, we need to have around 2.5 Billion. Here’s a list of qualifications to be in the 2.5 Billion. (Try not to be too sentimental in your counter-arguments to this argument.)”Report

  2. Avatar Jaybird says:

    For some reason (the algorithm?), the Pelagian Heresy is showing up on my twitter timeline just as I was puttering around on the intertubes wrapping stuff up last night. I’ll share an excerpt from the wiki page:

    Pelagius taught human will, as created with its abilities by God, was sufficient to live a sinless life, although he believed God’s grace assisted every good work. Pelagianism has come to be identified with the view (whether taught by Pelagius or not) human beings can earn salvation by their own efforts.

    Those crazy forefathers.Report

  3. Avatar Ozzy! says:

    So I have always been confused by the presented solution.

    Not the carbon fiber partial transfig, that is fine, although the threading through air exactly where he wants it to go seems new-skill-esc, but not out of the realm of possible. However, the jerk to cut off 30 heads and 2 hands is not possible through a small, non noticable manual motion.

    I think the text says harry ‘reduced the size by XXX’ factor.

    If this is a carbon nanotube type structure, IE the smallest of possible structures, how can he reduce the size? How can he effect the change he wants magically since the physical motion of pulling on 30 necks (circum of 8 inches, times 30 equals way more length of carbon cord than he can swing to tighten the noose).

    Anyone have thoughts? Sorry this is some what scattered spelling wise, I am on a train.Report

    • Avatar James K in reply to Ozzy! says:

      The genius thing about the transfiguration-based solution is how well Yudkowsky established it. There are three separate transfigurations:

      1) Changing part of the wand into spiderweb. Growing the thread out gradually is the kind of shaping exercise that Harry was practising in Chapter 104.
      2) Transforming the web into a thread of nanotubes. This is a straightforward partial transfiguration.
      3) Transforming the nanothread into a shorter nanothread so it cuts off heads. Harry discovers that transfiguring a long diamond rod into a short one can lift an object in Chapter 28. This means that transfiguration can apply force, such as the force required to drive a very sharp and hard object through flesh and bone.Report

      • Avatar Ozzy! in reply to James K says:

        Hmm. I envisioned it to be a single strand of carbon nano tubes (my physical carbon knowledge is dangerously low, so it is very probable I am just thinking about this incorrectly).

        How do you shorten a single chain of atoms in a way that maintains a cohesive to the point of cutting ‘wire’?Report

        • Avatar James K in reply to Ozzy! says:

          Transfiguration doesn’t respect conservation of mass – He just transfigured away some of the atoms.Report

          • Avatar Ozzy! in reply to James K says:

            I get that tranfig ignores mass. I accept that – adding mass, reducing mass as elements are changed, etc.

            However, if you are talking about carbon nanotube wire, if you ‘transfigure some of the atoms’ the wire isnt in existence anymore! I mean, the carbon nanotubes are molecule to molecule level connections. If you ‘transfig’ away some of them, it’s not like other similar molecules (diamond scepter example) are around to magic hands it away.Report

    • Avatar dragonfrog in reply to Ozzy! says:

      I read that as he first made the thread in a sort of spiderweb / dreamcatcher type layout, the shortened all the cross strands.Report

      • Avatar Ozzy! in reply to dragonfrog says:

        That is super interesting! I pictured a single thread that wove itself around everything, like a fishing line but much smaller. I never considered a dreamcatcher layout, which would vastly reduce the physical motion needed to ‘off with their heads’.

        Were there multiple strings or just one? I remember the latter, but this makes sense.Report

        • Avatar dragonfrog in reply to Ozzy! says:

          I think it was just one. Again, I’m just going on my mental picture as I was reading that passage, haven’t gone back to the text.Report

          • Avatar Jaybird in reply to dragonfrog says:

            One question that I’m sure is answered in the affirmative:

            “Can you use transfiguration to fold a piece of paper into a paper airplane?”

            If you *CAN* (not that you *WOULD*), then it should be possible to see how it’d be possible to turn a circle with a radius of r into a circle with a radius of 1/3r. Just make little loops.Report

            • Avatar Ozzy! in reply to Jaybird says:

              I don’t follow. your example is non-lateral movement and the question is lateral movement of a line.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Ozzy! says:

                Okay. Let’s go to the text. (I’m going to cut out the stuff involving conversations.)

                The last Death Eater was looped. The pattern of spider-silk was complete. The web had been drawn with loops around all the Death Eater’s necks. The ends of those loops had been anchored to a central circle; and that central circle in turn had three threads stretching across its center. The entire pattern still touching the anchor-line stretching out of Harry’s wand.

                Over the next seconds, those near-invisible threads of reflected moonlight turned black.

                Filaments narrower, stronger, and sharper than steel wire; braided carbon nanotubes, each individual tube all a single molecule.

                The last two threads stretched out from the dark pattern, black theads already in the form of nanotubes. They moved lightly through the air toward the Dark Lord himself, toward the sleeve just above Voldemort’s left hand that held the gun, toward the sleeve above the right hand that held the yew wand, threads placed high at first to give them time to drift slowly downward through the air. The threads looped around, went over themselves, tied slippable knots. Began to tighten, coming closer to the sleeve, as Harry Transfigured them shorter –

                And Harry Transfigured the black threads stretching across the black pattern’s center to a quarter their previous size, shrinking the circle, yanking hard on everything attached, tightening loops.

                Is slipknots and loops tightening a sufficient answer?Report

              • Avatar Ozzy! in reply to Jaybird says:

                Yes, except for the required length of a pull to go from looped to straight. A line that has loops is much longer than I think you are giving credit for. Harry would have to pull in 30+ feet of line to go from looped around 30 necks with a circumference of 15 inches each to a loop of 0 inches each.

                I guess we can say that’s just how transfiguring to a shorter line works, but that’s not how it would work if you had a single line and pulled. You would need to pull in 30 feet of line to get the last head off.

                I picture Harry just spinning around 10 times, it’s not just a quick jerk.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Ozzy! says:

                I don’t mean a loop like making a flat circle turn into a smaller circle that isn’t flat but the nanotube now looks like an old-school cord that connected the handset to the base of a phone. A coil, I guess it’s called.

                I’m talking about a loop like, imagine a shoelace. Pull it taut and then lay it on a table. Now make a single loop in it. A loop big enough to, oh, put a grapefruit in.

                Now pull on the shoelace. How much do you have to pull on that shoelace to make the loop only large enough to hold a nectarine?Report

              • Avatar North in reply to Ozzy! says:

                My own humble take is that by shortening the center lines Harry didn’t so much constrict the loops around the death eaters necks, so much as move them. Picture a circle around a neck with a line connecting to the center. To constrict the circle to nothing would require a lot of shortening as you correctly note. But to simply pull the circles inward- without changing their size- would require much less constriction. These were nano-filament circles. They would simply go through any flesh in their way when they were pulled inwards by the center pattern being constricted by the shortening core lines. I believe the circles about the death eaters necks didn’t change size significantly, they just moved inward by about a foot or two- severing the death eaters necks like a horizontal guillotine blade.

                It does, however, seem to read that Harry looped and constricted the lines around Voldemort’s wrists.Report

  4. Avatar George Turner says:

    I haven’t popped into a Harry Potter thread because although I’ve enjoyed some of the books, I don’t want to wade in too deeply.

    However, there’s a Michigan Law Review paper on Harry Potter and bureaucracy that might be of interest. It posits that the unaccountable bureaucracy in the books might have created a new generation of libertarians.Report

    • Avatar Jaybird in reply to George Turner says:

      Order of the Phoenix is one of the most Libertarian books I’ve ever read.

      I mean, it’s Atlas Shrugged except it’s readable and it’s good.

      Here’s the crazy part: It’s a book that pretty much everybody Of A Certain Age has read (or, at least, seen the movie of).Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to Jaybird says:

        I mean, it’s Atlas Shrugged except it’s readable and it’s good.

        By comparison, anyway. It’s the longest of them and doesn’t have nearly enough story to justify that. But I’ll agree that Dolores Umbridge is a great character. She reminds me of the Sprint bureaucrat that wanted to charge us a $500 penalty for cancelling a cell phone contract one day early.Report

      • Avatar Chip Daniels in reply to Jaybird says:

        “Order of the Phoenix is one of the most Libertarian books I’ve ever read.”

        The other, of course, involves orcs.Report