28 September 2013

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?

06 September 2013

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 ethics.

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 article:

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.

05 September 2013

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 August, 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 bombshell.

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 Spinoza.

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 profanum 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 battlefields:

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, and the political debates of the day