Archive for July, 2011


Letter from DataPacRat

In response to Paul Bonneau, who wrote a letter in the previous issue

The core of our disagreement seems to be your view that “quantifying is what the state does”. While that may be so, that doesn’t mean that “quantifying”, in and of itself, is necessarily a bad thing, any more than “buying” or “shooting” are, in and of themselves, bad things. Numbers are the most powerful tool of instrumental rationality—which is, simply, the science of winning, of achieving the best possible result in any given situation. And, while numbers can, naturally, be used by a government to limit many peoples’ freedom, they can also be used by an individual to increase theirs.

I freely admit that “lifetime discretionary income” is probably not the best yardstick with which to measure someone’s freedom. That doesn’t mean that the entire approach is useless—only that better measuring standards would allow for better planning, so that you could tell whether your liberty is increasing, staying steady, or decreasing, and what actions have the greatest impact thereon.

If you have any suggestions about how to measure an individual’s liberty, I would love to hear them.

Thank you for your time,

lu .iacu’i ma krinu lo du’u .ei mi krici la’e di’u li’u traji lo ka vajni fo lo preti

And then Mr. DataPacRat replied to furthur communication he received from Mr. Bonneau:

On Sun, Jul 17, 2011 at 9:10 AM, Paul Bonneau wrote:

DataPacRat, our main point of contention is not that “quantifying is what the state does”, but that you are looking for the greatest good for the greatest number (and using a pretty strange definition of good in the process). You have a utilitarian conception of liberty, and I don’t believe liberty is a utilitarian thing even though it usually, as a side effect, increases utility. I would rather be more free even if it decreased my utility.

The very fact your method led to a nonsensical result—that reducing or eliminating taxes might harm what you call liberty—should tell you that you are on the wrong path. Science tells you now to reject your hypothesis.

One of the things I have studied, in my quest to learn what techniques are useful in differentiating truth from falsehood, is the ‘absurdity heuristic’: that things that are obvious nonsense tend to be false. While often very useful to weed out certain sorts of ideas, there are a number of situations where this heuristic is simply outright wrong. Throughout history, it has done worse than maximum entropy—it has ruled out the actual outcomes as being far too absurd to be considered. Thus, in order to find the truth, even what is obvious nonsense cannot necessarily be ruled out simply because it /is/ nonsense. Thus, even if what you are referring to as ‘Science’ may now tell me to reject my hypothesis, ‘truthseeking’ and ‘rationality’ don’t, at least not on that particular ground.

Other grounds are, of course, another matter. For example, we could go over whether finding areas where lots of people have greater freedoms necessarily has any correlation with the freedom of any given individual in that area. But since, as you point out, I’m a utilitarian (or at least something close to whatever is meant by that term), and you say that you’re not, then we’d probably have to find /some/ common ground before our discussion could get to where it produced useful new insights for either of us. For example, I could suggest that you have, in fact, implied that you have a ‘utility function’—that you want to be ‘more free’, even at the expense of decreasing your utility according to other measures. (Utilitarianism, at least the form I’m closest to, doesn’t necessarily imply that everyone has to use any particular objective standard of value, any more than everyone has to agree on whether something is beautiful, or offensive.) Which brings us back to my original point—how can you tell when you /are/ ‘more free’, compared to anyone else, or compared to yourself at different times?

PS: If you wish to continue this communication, please extend the courtesy of using your real name.

PS: I am the only person who uses the name ‘DataPacRat’, and don’t try to conceal its connection to my real name—I simply prefer to use the name I’ve chosen for myself, when online. If you wish to know my real name, a simple Google search would have revealed it on the first result page; among other places, at!/DataPacRat and

It would take an annoying amount of effort to reconfigure my mail system to add my real name to the From: header and then to change it back when emailing others, so since my real name is only a single click away, I trust that that will be sufficient for you.

PPS: It may amuse you to know that before I received your letter, I had already submitted an article proposal to The Libertarian Enterprise specifically about online pseudonyms. (I make no guarantees about whether it will be accepted, of course. [See “How to Live Free in an Unfree Internet” in this issue—Editor]) Thank you for your time,

lu .iacu’i ma krinu lo du’u .ei mi krici la’e di’u li’u traji lo ka vajni fo lo preti


How to Live Free in an Unfree Internet
by DataPacRat


Attribute to L. Neil Smith’s The Libertarian Enterprise

As the Americans learned so painfully in Earth’s final century, free flow of information is the only safeguard against tyranny. The once-chained people whose leaders at last lose their grip on information flow will soon burst with freedom and vitality, but the free nation gradually constricting its grip on public discourse has begun its rapid slide into despotism. Beware of he who would deny you access to information, for in his heart he dreams himself your master.
— Commissioner Pravin Lal, “U.N. Declaration of Rights”
Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri

Given the nature of most governments worldwide, the only way to say certain things without risk of being arrested (or worse) is to do so anonymously, in a way that cannot be traced to your physical self. However, in order to have what you say be paid attention to, you also need to be able to say more than one thing, and have those things tied to a single identity: a pseudonym. Almost everyone on the internet has some ‘handle’; the hard part is having a pseudonym that allows you to remain anonymous.

Here are a list of steps that will allow you to have a reasonably anonymous pseudonym, allowing you to fully exercise your right to free speech, and proof against anything short of investigation by a Three-Letter Agency… and, as long as you avoid doing anything in real-life to tie yourself to your pseudonym, which would give them some reason to consider you as potentially being linked to your pseudonym, providing reasonable protection even against that.

Step 1: Have a clean computer

The easiest way is to make sure your own computer is free of viruses, trojans, and other malware with a firewall, regular scans, and ad-blockers in your browser (for Firefox, these include Adblock Plus, NoScript, Flashblock, RequestPolicy, and GhostScript) to prevent drive-by infections. Another option is to use a LiveCD (such as TheAmnesic Incognito Live System), simply bypassing any infections on your computer by using a read-only OS.

Step 2: Truecrypt

This is a rather marvellous piece of software. Not only does it allow you to keep a collection of files encrypted, preventing people from casually reading your data, but its ‘hidden volume’ function means that a single file can contain two separate encrypted volumes — and if you don’t give away your password to the second volume, there is no way to prove whether or not a second volume exists at all. This means that even if somebody tries to use rubber-hose cryptanalysis on you, you can give the password to the first volume (in which you might have placed something somewhat embarrassing but not truly incriminating, such as some sort of exotic pornography). For added fun, you might have several different Truecrypt files, at least some of which do not have any second volumes at all. Truly dedicated freedom-lovers will investigate the latest neurology research on techniques for forgetting things, so that with a bit of time, you can forget any passwords for second volumes you had.

Some governments insist on copying the contents of whatever computers or physical media are in your possession when you cross their borders. One way to get around this is to place a TrueCrypt volume on an online filehosting service, similar to DropBox, and only carry an essentially blank computer around with you, downloading the TrueCrypt volume containing your private data when you need it.

Step 3: Tor

If someone has access to networking data, or one of the websites you visit, then it is possible to trace the connection back to your physical computer. Tor uses several clever techniques to create a network of computers bouncing packets between each other so that such traces will only reveal that someone using Tor connected to the site.

Step 4: GPG

This is what allows you to not just be anonymous, but pseudonymous. Through something called ‘public key cryptography’, by making a ‘public key’ available on a public keyserver, it is possible to use your ‘private key’ to digitally sign a message as provably being from a particular identity. GPG also allows you to encrypt outgoing email; this, combined with Tor to prevent being traced, allows you to use any free email provider, such as GMail, Yahoo, or Hotmail, as a secure communications channel. GPG becomes much more convenient to use when accessed through Thunderbird Portable with the Enigmail addon.

Step 5: Bitcoin

This is currently the most anonymous available online medium of monetary exchange. There are those who disparage various aspects of it, but if you’re not trying to ‘mine’ bitcoins or hoard them in hopes their value will increase, but simply use one of the available exchanges to buy and sell bitcoins as you need them, it is possible to engage in online commerce as your pseudonym without those transactions being traceable to your physical identity. (There are, of course, certain common-sense caveats; if your pseudonym is paid 742 Bitcoins, and then you immediately use an exchange to sell 742 Bitcoins for physical US Dollars, certain observers will probably notice the correlation.)

Step 6: Prepare for your mistakes

Once you have all of the above tools, and you use them right, then you will have the ability to do just about anything you wish online without those actions being traced back to your physical self.

You are not always going to use them right.

You might accidentally connect to your email account over a normal internet connection rather than Tor, or you might say something as your pseudonym which reveals an important detail about yourself. It takes practice before proper security habits can become ingrained enough to get reduce these risks — and since the only way to practice these techniques is to use them, then in order to get your mistakes out of the way in a harmless manner, you’ll want to set up a ‘practice pseudonym’. Use it to get the hang of these tools, but since you know in advance that you’re going to do things that will connect this identity to your physical self, don’t use it for anything which would get your local government annoyed with you.

After a few months of practice, during which you will have learned important details not covered in this summary (including keysizes, browser fingerprints, and scrubbing EXIF data), you will, finally, have the full power of anonymity and pseudonymity at your command, and will, finally, be able to fully exercise your right to freedom of expression.


Quantifying Liberty
by DataPacRat


Special to L. Neil Smith’s The Libertarian Enterprise

Heinlein wrote:

What are the facts? Again and again and again—what are the facts? Shun wishful thinking, ignore divine revelation, forget what “the stars foretell,” avoid opinion, care not what the neighbors think, never mind the unguessable “verdict of history”—what are the facts, and to how many decimal places? You pilot always into an unknown future; facts are your single clue. Get the facts!

Just as the basic scientific method is the bare minimum necessary to advance real knowledge, but there are specific methods within science (such as Bayesian reasoning) that come closer to the ideal of Solomonoff Induction and thus increase knowledge that much faster, it seems plausible that the Zero-Aggression Principle itself is merely the bare minimum necessary to support individuals’ freedoms, and that there could be some particular methods within the overall aegis of libertarianism that are better than others at that task.

But in order to find out what those methods are, we need some way to measure which methods do better—some way to quantify how much freedom an individual has. I don’t recall having read anything on the matter in libertarian circles—if work on this has already been done, then I’d be happy to hear about it. But until then, I’ll just have to try to muddle through on my own.

Yudkowsky wrote:

When there’s a confusing problem and you’re just starting out and you have a falsifiable hypothesis, go test it. Find some simple, easy way of doing a basic check and do it right away. Don’t worry about designing an elaborate course of experiments that would make a grant proposal look impressive to a funding agency. Just check as fast as possible whether your ideas are false before you start investing huge amounts of effort in them.

So—is there some reasonably simple way of measuring peoples’ freedom to do stuff? Some groups have released studies measuring quality of life in different countries, amalgamating various factors into a ‘happiness index’ or ‘quality of life’ measurement… and somewhere in there may be something useful.

But we might have a set of numbers that are easier to find than that. Looked at one way, the general method used these days to determine how to allocate resources is through ‘price’ and ‘money’; and the more money one has to distribute, the more freedom one has to distribute it to various things. So, in at least one sense, we could try comparing the ‘discretionary income’ of various groups, which is income minus the costs of the necessities of life (eg, food, shelter, health care, paying taxes to keep out of jail, etc). And, if possible, instead of the mean discretionary income, we’d be better served by the median, that of the average person in that society. For similar reasons, we’d also be better served by calculating the total discretionary income acquired throughout someone’s lifetime, than simply looking at the annual figure. If this idea works out, then those groups which tend to be qualitatively higher in respecting individual rights (such as one or more of the sortings listed at [this link]) should at least roughly correspond to having higher median discretionary income. And, if not, then this is yet another wrong idea to replace with a better one.

Unfortunately, just because a given metric is chosen doesn’t mean that the numbers can be immediately found through Google, in which case you just have to work with whatever closely-related numbers can be found. In this case, the closest I’ve been able to find so far is [here] , which lists about 30 countries by disposable income rather than discretionary. But since discretionary income is at least related to disposable income, we can try checking those 30 countries to their listing on freedom indices to see, as a minimal standard, if the top half of the list has more countries listed as ‘free’ than the bottom half.

(Note—at this point, I don’t know what the answer will be. I have a guess—but that guess could turn out to be wrong just as easily as it turns out to be right.)

Looking at the data gives us:

1st column: Freedom House 2011
2nd column: Economic Freedom 2011
3rd column: Press Freedom 2010
4th column: Democracy Index 2010
Good to bad: blue, green, yellow, orange, red

US: blue, green, green, blue
Switzerland: blue, blue, blue, blue
Germany: blue, green, blue, blue
UK: blue, green, green, blue
Austria: blue, green, blue, blue
France: blue, yellow, green, green
Netherlands: blue, green, blue, blue
Australia: blue, blue, green, blue
Taiwan: blue, green, green, green
Sweden: blue, green, blue, blue
New Zealand: blue, blue, blue, blue
Japan: blue, green, green, blue
Spain: blue, green, green, blue
Korea: blue, yellow, green, blue
Hong Kong: yellow, blue, green, orange

Singapore: yellow, blue, orange, orange
Israel: blue, yellow, yellow, green
Russia: red, orange, orange, orange
Czech Republic: blue, green, green, blue
Latvia: blue, yellow, green, green
Slovakia: blue, orange, green, green
Brazil: blue, orange, yellow, green
Lithuania: blue, green, blue, green
Poland: blue, yellow, green, green
Thailand: yellow, yellow, orange, green
Mexico: yellow, yellow, orange, green
China: red, orange, orange, red
Romania: blue, yellow, yellow, green
Philippines: yellow, orange, orange, green

And counting up the columns:

1st half: Column 1: 14 blue, 1 yellow, 0 red.
2nd half: Column 1: 8 blue, 4 yellow, 2 red

1st half: Column 2: 4 blue, 9 green, 2 yellow, 0 orange
2nd half: Column 2: 1 blue, 2 green, 7 yellow, 4 orange

1st half: Column 3: 6 blue, 9 green, 0 yellow, 0 orange
2nd half: Column 3: 1 blue, 4 green, 3 yellow, 6 orange

1st half: Column 4: 12 blue, 2 green, 1 orange, 0 red
2nd half: Column 4: 1 blue, 10 green, 2 orange, 1 red

… so by all four measures, the countries with lower disposable incomes tend to be less free. This means that this idea doesn’t immediately fail the sniff test… and so it just might be worth following up on, to see if this continues to be a useful quantification, and if so, what predictions can be made from it that can help guide us as we make plans to increase our freedom. Or perhaps some other measurement will be discovered to be more useful in helping us make such predictions—in which case it would be worthwhile to find it.

So, what useful ideas can the simple existence of “lifetime median discretionary income” as a metric give us?

The most obvious is that it when we’re faced with a question of what we can do to increase liberty, we know that there are particular actions we can take which will have the greatest benefit, and we can concentrate on identifying them.

We can also get at least a rough feel of what some of those actions may involve, which we might not have otherwise thought of.

For an obvious example: When someone dies, they no longer receive any income at all; thus, working to prevent deaths, and generally extend lives, helps to increase the total discretionary income those people can accumulate over their lives, and is thus an action promoted by use of this metric—which meshes very well with the standard libertarian view of the Right to Life being rather important. So far, so good.

For a counterintuitive example: To calculate discretionary income, both taxes and health care are subtracted from gross income. Reducing taxes means less is taken out of gross, and so is one of the most obvious ways to increase discretionary income. However, if reducing taxes increases the cost of health care by more than the taxes are reduced, then discretionary income will go down—which the use of this metric advises against. What it does advise is to use whatever system results in the minimum cost for health care, whether that cost is paid directly or via taxes (along with some further suggestions about maximizing the benefit-to-cost ratio for health care practices). This perspective goes against the usual grain of libertarian thought, in which taxes are generally viewed as an unalloyed evil… but it may be worth considering what your true goal actually is: increasing liberty even if doing so requires the use of government, or getting rid of government even if doing so reduces individuals’ liberty.

Perhaps this counterintuitive piece of advice means you think that the metric being used is utterly useless. You are entirely free to think that, and say so however you wish. I am also entirely free to ignore what you say if you simply disparage one metric without suggesting a better one. After all, as Heinlein wrote:

If it can’t be expressed in figures, it is not science; it is opinion.

If anyone reading this is interested in using numbers to figure out the winningest strategies for maximizing liberty, please email me at


Politics is the mind-killer; but rationality is the science of /winning/, even when dealing with political issues.

I’ve been trying to apply LessWrong and Bayesian methods to the premises and favored issues of a particular political group. (Their most basic premise is roughly equivalent to declaring that Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma programs should be ‘nice’.) But, given how quickly my previous thread trying to explore this issue was downvoted into disappearing, and many of the comments I’ve received on similar threads, I may have a rather large blind spot preventing me from being able /to/ properly apply LW methods in this area.

So I’ll try a different approach – instead of giving it a go myself again, I’ll simply ask, what do /you/ think a good LW post about liberty, freedom, and fundamental human rights would look like?

Original, Original, Original, Original

… once you’ve grabbed yourself a kleenex, and you’re somewhere nobody can see you listening to it it.


A webcomic about it:

Authour’s notes:

… Holy hannah, it’s been over 20 years. And this is still one of the most bittersweet things I’ve ever heard. I just listened to it a bunch of times in a row to pick the best video link – and even though I’d just heard it, each time caught me the same as the first one.


At present, if one person chooses to, they can kill a few dozen to a few hundred people. As we discover new technologies, that number is, most likely, only going to go up – to the point where any given individual has the power to kill millions. (And this isn’t a very distant future, either; it’s entirely possible to put together a basement biology lab of sufficient quality to create smallpox for just a few thousand dollars.)

If we want to avoid human extinction, I can think of two general approaches. One starts by assume that humans are generally untrustworthy, and involves trying to keep any such technology out of peoples’ hands, no matter what other possible benefits such knowledge may offer. This method has a number of flaws, the most obvious being the difficulty in keeping such secrets contained, another being the classic “who watches the watchers?” problem.

The other doesn’t start with that assumption – and, instead, is to try to figure out what it takes to keep people from /wanting/ to kill large numbers of other people… a sort of “Friendly Human Problem”. For example, we might start with a set of societies in which every individual has the power to kill any other at any moment, seeing what particular social norms allow people to at least generally get along with each other, and then encouraging those norms as the basis for when those people gain increasingly potentially-lethal knowledge.

Most likely, there will be (or already are) some people who try the first approach, and some who try the second – which seems very likely to cause friction when they rub against each other.

In the medium-to-long term, if we do establish viable off-Earth colonies, an important factor to consider is that once you’re in Earth orbit, you’re halfway to anywhere in the solar system; including to asteroids which can be nudged into Earth orbit to mine… or nudged to crash into Earth itself. Any individual who has the power to move around the solar system, such as to create a new self-sufficient colony somewhere (which, I’ve previously established to my own satisfaction, is the only way for humanity to survive a variety of extinction-level events), will have the power to kill billions. If sapience is to survive, we will /have/ to deal with people having lethal power undreamt of by today’s worst tyrannical regimes – which would seem to make the first approach /entirely/ unviable.


Once people have such lethal power, I’ve been able to think of two stable end-points. The obvious one is that everyone ends up dead – a rather suboptimal result. The other… is if everyone who has such power is very careful to never be the /first/ one to use force against anyone else, thus avoiding escalation. In game theory terms, this means all the remaining strategies have to be ‘nice’; in political terms, this is summed up as the libertarian “Non-Aggression Principle”.

I think I need to think a bit more about some of the other lessons of game theory’s Tit-for-Tat, such as the qualities of being retaliating, forgiving, and non-envious, and whether variations of the basic Tit-for-Tat, such as “Tit for two Tats” or “Tit for Tat with Forgiveness” would be better models. For example, the level of forgiveness that serves best might depend on the number of people who are still willing to initiate force compared to the number of people who try not to but occasionally make mistakes.

I’m also rather suspicious that my thinking on this particular issue leads me to a political conclusion that’s reasonably close to (though not precisely) my existing beliefs; I know that I don’t have enough practice with true rationality to be able to figure out whether this means that I’ve come to a correct result from different directions, or that my thoughts are biased to come to that conclusion whatever the input. I’d appreciate any suggestions on techniques for differentiating between the two.