Month: September 2013

Thinking about Urbit

28th September 2013


Comments Off on Thinking about Urbit

OK, I’ve been driving myself nuts trying to work out how Urbit does I/O when it’s implemented using Nock and Nock doesn’t do I/O.

It’s now the middle of the night and I think I’ve got it.

Since it’s not in the Nock spec, and the Nock spec is defined in terms of nouns, it can only be hidden in the implementation of a noun.

A naive reading of the spec suggests there are two kinds of noun:

  1. a literal value (arbitrary-size integer)
  2. a pair of nouns

The only way it can work is if there are at least four kinds of noun

  1. a literal value
  2. a pair of nouns L and R
  3. the stream of input events
  4. a nock invocation on a pair of nouns A and F

Further, the “opcode 2” reduction in the Nock evaluator is not implemented by recursing the Nock evaluator, but by returning a type 4 noun.

A type 3 noun “counts” as a pair, where L is the next event in the input stream and R is another type 3 noun

The runtime creates a type 4 noun where A is a type 3 noun and F is the system-implemented-in-nock

It then calls a native function output(n) on the noun it created.

output(n) looks at the type of n. If it’s type 1, it treats it as an output event and “performs” it.

If it’s type 2, it calls output on L, then on R

If it’s type 4, it runs the Nock evaluator on it and calls output() on the result.

Can anyone who’s looked into the vere source tell if that is about right?

South Place Ethical Society

For another look at Victorian progressivism, let’s take the
South Place Ethical Society.
Like the
Boden Professorship,
it is something I tried to discuss on twitter as a demonstration of
the pre-Marxist flowering of harmful progressivism, but I was not able
to make my case clearly, and I also made a serious factual error,
which I will come to below.

In this instance my route to the subject is not a Featured Article,
but my own reminiscences: twenty years ago, I considered myself a
Secular Humanist, and went so far as to join SPES (as it then was).

The history of the Society is recorded on both its
own website and Wikipedia. It
started as a non-conformist church in 1787, became unitarian, and then
discarded any belief in a personal god, becoming an “Ethical Society”
in 1888.

Towards the end of the 19th Century, the society was associated with
campaigns for free education, abolitionism, and womens’ rights. The
central aim was to encourage the major churches to follow their
example, rejecting belief in the supernatural in favour of secular

If Max Müller was at the prestigious, respectable mainstream of
intellectual progressivism at this time, South Place was the slightly
iffy fringe. Think of it as Chomsky to Müller’s Krugman. You could
suggest that the members were perhaps taking things a bit too far,
without losing your own standing as a right-thinking person, but it
was still influential. From
its website:

‘The great and the good’!
It would take up too much space here to list all the famous people who have occupied the Society‘s platform and been reported in its journal during all these years, but here is a more-or-less random selection:
Felix Adler, Norman Angell, William Archer, A J Ayer, Annie Besant, C Delisle Burns, Herbert Burrows, W K Clifford, John Drinkwater, G W Foote, John A Hobson, Laurence Housman, Fred Hoyle, Julian Huxley, T H Huxley, Cyril Joad, Margaret Knight, Peter Kropotkin, Joseph McCabe, William Morris, Gilbert Murray, H W Nevinson, S K Ratcliffe, John M Robertson, Bertrand Russell, George Bernard Shaw, Leslie Stephen, Graham Wallas, Sidney Webb, Rebecca West and Israel Zangwill.

My original intent in bringing up the society on twitter was to make
two points — first, that today’s progressivism was approaching at a
rapid pace throughout the nineteenth century, and wasn’t something
triggered in the twentieth. I think that is well supported: the
destruction of the family, of the church, of the idea of hierarchy,
were all deliberate projects embarked on by influential people in the
Victorian era.

My second intended point was that the evolution of a protestant sect
into atheist leftists was something home-grown in Britain in the 19th
Century, and not a foreign import. That claim is not borne out by a
study of the society’s history. On the contrary, from 1864 to 1897,
which includes the period when it ceased to be a nominally Christian
church and became an explicitly non-religious society, it was run by
two American ex-Unitarians:
Moncure Conway,
after whom the society’s premises and now the organisation itself is
named, and Stanton Coit,
who organised the wider “Ethical” movement in Britain. Their
intellectual inheritance comes straight from Emerson’s
Transcendentalism, and their activist background was
abolitionism. Conway “was asked by American abolitionists to go to
London to convince the United Kingdom that the American Civil War was
a war of abolition”.

I never heard about the Society’s American roots during my membership,
but then US connections were not popular with British leftists during
the administration of the first Bush, so it is not that surprising
they preferred to emphasise Fabian connections — which were close:
this quote is from the
Ethical Movement

The short lived Fellowship of the New Life, established
in 1883, furnished the London Ethical Society with much of its
membership when it disbanded. Those who did not join the Ethical
Society made their way to the much more politically active Fabian
Society, which was itself a direct offshoot of the Fellowship.

Though I am backpedalling on my claims that Britain produced a form of
extreme leftism in isolation, the importance of the
Fabian Society
is hard to exaggerate.

Ultimately, the Ethical Movement slightly overreached — its aim of
explicitly converting churches to open atheism was not quite subtle
enough. That, perhaps, is the purpose of the “slightly iffy fringe”,
to make the progressive mainstream look moderate. But all its
practical goals were accomplished in the long run.

The Boden Professor of Sanskrit election, 1860

It’s normal to label Wikipedia as part of the liberal propaganda
system, which of course it is, but its sheer breadth of scope makes it
impossible to turn it into a coherent lie, so a lot of information
comes through it that right-thinking people would prefer was kept
quiet. Further, I get the faint impression that someone in influence
is pushing in a faintly reactionary direction — something that comes
through most strongly in the choice of historical “featured articles”
that are selected daily.

I was particularly fascinated by the featured article of the 7th of
The Boden Professor of Sanskrit Election, 1860.
That drew comment in
some quarters
as an amazingly minor and trivial piece of history to be unexpectedly
well-documented, but to me, involved as I was in the long and
difficult debate within the reactionary movement about the origins of
cultural relativism, anti-racism and multiculturalism, it was a

That it is not a minor or trivial piece of history is clearly evident
from reading the Wikipedia article itself. The merits of the
candidates were hotly disputed, the campaigns carried on in national
newspapers, recognised on both sides as part of the “culture war” that
is today so often denied. When the forces of conservatism won, the law
was changed to prevent another such embarrassment occuring in future.

In this story,
Max Müller represents
the progressive establishment. He was a German Lutheran. His father
was a poet, his grandfather a prime minister of Anhalt-Dessau. He
wrote a dissertation on the Ethics of the Jewish philosopher

The Wikipedia story presents him as the downtrodden outsider, facing
the great entrenched power of tradition and conservatism with nothing
but his superior scholarship. The details make clear that everyone
important was on his side: senior academics, The Times, the East
India Company, and even senior Anglican clergymen, while his opponent
Monier Williams relied for his victory on the old rural landowning
class, out of power except in a few anachronistic areas such as the
Convocation of Oxford University, to which they had shown up as part of
the routine of their upbringing. They were due — overdue, in the view
of the powers of the time — to be disenfranchised, and in due course
were. As Müller himself wrote to his mother, “all the best people
voted for me, the Professors almost unanimously, but the vulgus
made the majority”.

The social basis of conservatism and progressivism was also
represented by the two men: Williams, son of an officer in the East
India Company’s army, Müller, grandson of a European Prime Minister.

What’s remarkable about the election is not simply that it was an
episode in the culture war between advancing universalism and retreating
traditionalism, but that it was openly so, and that it was debated in
terms of which side should win the culture war. It was universally
understood that the line taken by Oxford University in this matter was
of crucial importance for the future. There is no suggestion of
academia being remote or isolated from the key cultural and political

The Professorship is not for Oxford alone.
It is not for ‘The Continent and America’.
It is for India.
It is for Christianity.
Let us then Vote for the man who is well-known and loved in
India, and who, even by the voice of his opponents, is declared
to be a trustworthy depositary of the Christian interests
of a Christian Foundation.

Today, Müller’s Wikipedia article is three times the length of
Williams’, and includes this gem:

The designer Mary Fraser Tytler stated that Müller’s book
Chips from a German Workshop (a collection of his essays) was her
“Bible”, which helped her to create a multi-cultural sacred imagery.

Christopher Minkowski is the current Boden professor of Sanskrit
(under the 1882 rules that removed control of the chair from the
Convocation of Oxford graduates and brought it under the control of
the University authorities). In his inaugral lecture in 2006, he made
reference to the history of the professorship, contrasting the intent
behind its original endowment — promotion of missionary Christianity
in India — with the contrary attitude represented by Sir William
Jones, founder of the Asiatick Society in Calcutta in 1784. Minkowski
describes Jones as “the most prominent articulator in his day of a
universalizing Enlightenment ideal, believing that the study of the
cultural artefacts of ancient civilizations, and especially of India’s
ancient civilzation, could provide instruction and edification for
modern people. At the same time, he argued that it would be in the
interests of good government in India for British rulers to understand
the culture of those whom they ruled, and to govern as much as
possible through pre-existent cultural forms.”

As to what Wikipedia
says about Jones,
well, I have to stop somewhere, and he looks well worth an article in
his own right. Tutor to the future Earl Spencer (later Home
Secretary), friend of Benjamin Franklin and supporter of American
independence are minor asides in his biography

Back to Müller and Williams, I don’t want to oversimplify; a claim
that Williams represents tradition and Müller the nascent Cathedral is
more than supportable, but is subject to interesting
qualifications. The mid-nineteenth century in England was the period
where the progressive elite was privately shrugging off Christianity
as a source of truth for their own use, while not yet abandoning it as
the basis of the social order. Williams’ faction is therefore not
simply the Tory opposition to progressivism, but also elements of the
Whig side whose ideology still centred on the Christian religion
rather than the new progressive morality that was beginning to
separate itself from it. There was still a large overlap between
puritan morality and progressive ideology, but differences were
appearing, and the new multiculturalism was one of them. Thus, the
bishops were for Müller, while the missionaries were for Williams.

The contradiction survives today in the Church of England and other
protestant denominations — pockets of socially conservative Christians
sending missionaries to convert the heathens to the True Faith, in
spite of a hierarchy over them dedicated to
social justice,
respect for other religions,
the political debates of the day