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A Founder's Farewell (urbit.org)
89 points by exolymph on Jan 15, 2019 | hide | past | favorite | 82 comments

I read the entire thing (and watched the 2013 demo) and still have not the first clue what Urbit _is_. Too many neologisms, not enough ELI5.

Claiming that you don't use "the lambda calculus" to do dependency resolution, of all things, seems weird to me. Even from my 30k foot understanding, that seems like a non-sequitur at best.

It is an absolute non sequitur because there are plenty of languages that do not have the diamond dependency problem and are still based on the lambda calculus (and on symbol tables, which as it happens is pretty much not required by the lambda calculus at all, that's kind of the whole point of alpha-conversion and beta-reduction). Rust, for instance, will happily let you import two different versions of a library in your dependency tree, and just treat type definitions from each as different types. You get non-baffling and predictable (but still annoying) compile-time errors when library B and library C try to pass an object from library D between each other while requesting different versions. Rust also will happily let you define lambdas.

That's a misrepresentation. I took the trouble to find the offending paragraphs on my phone and paste them:



20th-century languages are all at least vaguely based on a formalism from the ‘30s called the “lambda calculus.” The fundamental operation in lambda calculus is variable reduction from name to value. So lambda languages all have a symbol table or environment which binds names to values.

Modern build systems assemble large programs out of small files by reusing this symbol table for global function names, a process called “linking.” Unfortunately, linking causes a problem known as “dependency hell,” involving baffling, unpredictable upgrade failures. The fundamental problem is the “diamond dependency” — when a build requires two different versions of one symbol.

‘From the 30’s’ sounds like it’s ancient technology. Most programming languages include arithmetic, a formalism from 3000 years ago.

He does make a number of references to "20th century's computer science" that imply he's got the new stuff. He also says "functional programming without abstract math", which reads a lot like "Austrian economics" (which Moldbug and Land swear for).

I'm saying this in a thread about his politics, but my basic evaluation holds: he's probably not discovered a new system of government and a new computer science. But he's careful and scholarly with his arguments, and worth knowing.

Lambda calculus was introduced in the 1930s, so Curtis’s statement is literally correct.

Many of these kind of personalities unthinkingly identify themselves on the "winning" side of an ideal corporate utopia. It seems that they do not envision the misery they will have to face when they are (likely) on the disenfranchised side. Human rights and democracy do have a reason for their existence.

(Of course, I've no idea what Urbit means. I've tried many times to get it, thought I was stupid, but it seems no one else really understands it either.)

I don't think there's anything "unthinking" about it, in this case.

What does this have to do with Urbit?

Yarvin's wikipedia page is worth a read: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Curtis_Yarvin

> In Yarvin's view, inefficient, wasteful democratic governments should be replaced by sovereign joint-stock corporations whose shareholders, all property owners, elect an executive with plenary authority. The executive, unencumbered by liberal-democratic procedures, can rule efficiently.


> He also disputes being an "outspoken advocate for slavery", but has argued that some races are more suited to slavery than others.

(I followed up on the source for that, to see if he was misrepresented, and found the direct quote "We thus observe slavery not as a perversion, but as a natural relationship, like marriage.")

> argued that some races are more suited to slavery than others

> see if he was misrepresented

Did you find out whether or not he was misrepresented?

You don't think I might have mentioned it if he was?

He says that people who are loyal, hardworking, and not too bright are best suited to being slaves, and it stands to reason that some races are more inclined towards those traits than others, and that probably includes Africans.

Of course, this is a nice way of saying that slavery doesn't make rational sense - that it's a case of pure "might makes right", exactly as common sense would suggest. Think about it - if your slaves are "loyal and hardworking", do you even need to enslave them by coercion? Of course not - they'll work for you voluntarily as long as you treat them in a way that they accept as fair! (And oftentimes - perhaps even most of the time - they turn out to be a lot brighter than you gave them credit for while treating them as mere slaves.) And if this is the best case, what about everyone else? No, what the slaveowner really dreams of is that he's going to control his slaves purely by their fear. And Moldbug is saying: "nah, that's not going to work. Deal with it."

Way to miss the actual argument he's making, dude. You were not even on the same wavelength.

> Of course, this is a nice way of saying that slavery doesn't make rational sense

Have you read the post we're discussing?

Of course I have - that's why I wrote the above. Moldbug may acknowledge that slavery seems to arise "naturally" in some circumstances, but he's not laboring under any delusion that what's "natural" - be it slavery or marriage - is per se good or desirable.


And yet here you are, voluntarily, in a thread about Curtis Yarvin. What exactly does that make you?

I'm not clear how "I wish this guy wasn't so influential" equates to "I should not talk about this guy." Ignoring problems does not make them go away.

> Urbit's distribution and sponsorship hierarchy of galaxies, stars and planets is not designed as a political structure, or even a social structure. The actual social layer is in userspace -- one layer up. Socially and politically, Urbit is a flat network of planets. Galaxies and stars are plumbing.

Here are some statements about how the plumbing is done, from Urbit's own website, that I suppose must be non-political:

"...most theories of property agree that anyone whoever creates or discovers new property starts out by owning it. Because galaxies are premined, Urbit starts as a centralized system. But it has two strong motivations to decentralize. One, the more decentralized Urbit is, the more Urbit is worth. Two, the only way for Urbit to fund its own development is to homestead its own real estate."

From a page on "Common objections to Urbit," under "Urbit doesn't have enough planets for every human being.": "A 32-bit planet is a tool, not a toy. Like a car, it's a device for a responsible and independent adult. There aren't 4 billion cars in the world, nor 4 billion independent adults. If you aren't an independent adult, and you don't need or even shouldn't have unconditional digital freedom (no one's 8-year-old daughter needs unconditional digital freedom), a moon from someone else's planet is fine."

(They redid their website apparently but the posts are archived at http://web.archive.org/web/20181214175456/https://urbit.org/... and http://web.archive.org/web/20181214190532/https://urbit.org/... respectively.)

Moldbug thinks he's being non-political. I don't think we should trust him to even know what that means. This might be a good chance to recover whatever interesting ideas are in Urbit (if there were any; it's not clear to me that there are any) for the common good, but there are almost certainly deep-seated assumptions that weren't even publicly stated in the FAQs about who gets to control what and who doesn't.

... edited to add:

> When you live in Manhattan, you simply don't worry about who owns it or why; and nor does it matter. Are they Jews? Muslims? Christians? Communists? Italians? You don't care and you don't have to.

That's hardly my experience, but, sure.

>This might be a good chance to recover whatever interesting ideas are in Urbit

I haven't really looked much into this space, but Tim Berners Lee's Solid tries to tackle essentially the same problem without all the reactionary politics, no?

Yarvin's controversial personality aside, I just don't see the use case for this. Handing everyone a server / pod/ starship and then trying to share this across machines with some common protocol reminds me of the semantic web which already attempted this a long time ago.

One key difference is that Urbit apps execute on your server but in Solid you have no control over the code, just the (canonical copy of the) data.

Solid is open source and you do have control over its code.

Solid is a protocol. If you use Solid to expose your data to, say, Facebook you have no control over Facebook's code.

> ... If you aren't an independent adult, and you don't need or even shouldn't have unconditional digital freedom (no one's 8-year-old daughter needs unconditional digital freedom), a moon from someone else's planet is fine."

What's wrong with this? A 32-bit namespace for full-blown "server-like" identities still beats today's world where everyone and their dog just crowds onto a single centralized service like Facebook, enjoying an equivalent "not an independent adult" status. Besides, the IPv4 address-space is 32-bit, and is nowhere near efficiently utilized - so Urbit's projected "neo-feudal dystopia" is already here even in the best possible case. (No, IPv6 rollout is not helping practically, at least not yet.)

Nothing's wrong with it per se, it's just 100% a political opinion encoded in the bit width of the protocol.

Isn't the exact same political opinion "encoded" in IPv4, and/or the continued use thereof? It seems weird to complain about Urbit specifically when it's just perpetuating such a long-standing practice, and even mitigating it (to the extent that its address space sees more efficient use than IPv4 itself).

I don't think the designers of IPv4 claimed to be non-political. They were working on a project to link the US military with major US universities. I agree that IPv4 is also a poor basis for systems that are generic to all possible politics - I just don't think the designers of IPv4 ever made such a claim.

I also think the politics of the designers of IPv4 are closer to the politics of most people on this forum than the politics of the designer of Urbit. So even if there are political assumptions encoded in the use cases it was designed for, they probably do match your use cases.

Perhaps the difference is that IPv4 was an experimental protocol that was supposed to be replaced while Urbit seems to explicitly plan to remain 32-bit forever.

Everyone who makes this argument seems to be plainly ignoring a good half of the address spec, that Urbit's 32-bit namespace is part of a total 128-bit address space.

If I told you that IPv6 has 32 of its 128 address bits reserved as markers for making top-level subnets out of them (this is not true, but for argument's sake, pretend it was) would you say "Oh no, there's not enough IPv6 for everyone to have their own subnets" ?

Of course you wouldn't, because addresses are 128 bits long and there's enough address space for "EVERY ATOM ON THE SURFACE OF THE EARTH, and still have enough addresses left to do another 100+ earths." per the first StackOverflow post I could find on the subject.

Is there enough address space for every atom on the surface of the earth to be neatly organized into subnets according to ownership rights? Well that's debatable, and if you want to compare apples to apples, you should ask that question.

If Urbit runs out of planets, then it will have roundly surpassed the expectations of anyone who makes this argument. You don't solve these problems on Day 1, it's really enough to have a plan that would allow 20-50% of people on the planet to have a stake in ownership of Urbit at this stage. When it starts getting cramped, how about THEN we spend some time and tackle scaling past a usership base of 50% of the population of humans that are alive?

There was actually a point to the scarcity, it's meant to solve the spam problem. "Planet" identities are meant to be precious. If your identity was worth $10, you probably wouldn't use it to engage in spamming unless you were sure that you could get more than $10 from the campaign before landing your address on a blackhole list. (And if it was possible to reliably achieve a profit like this, it would undoubtedly drive the price of a planet up, as others figured out how to compete with you at doing that.)

And even that is a naive assessment of the scope of the idea and how it prevents spamming. The identities are provisioned in a hierarchical fashion, such that if you landed more than a couple of planets on such a spam list (none exists today, but...), you would probably find out pretty quickly that nobody with inventory is willing to sell you another one. (Lest they wind up getting their whole "star system" banned from polite society for association with spammers.)

I think it's 64 bits not a full 128, but still, you have a point. People have actually suggested that scrapping IPv6 and lightly extending IPv4 to 64 bits (creating a new "IPv5") in a very similar way to how Urbit works today would be the right thing to do. Unfortunately, I'm not sure that this is a realistic option by now. Switching to an entirely new, greenfield addressing layer like Urbit might be the best option!

Urbit moon addresses are 64 bits long, comets are 128 bits long.

You need a sponsor to get a moon, you only need a unix computer and a network connection to get a comet.

I'm pretty out of touch with Urbit lore, but I'm not aware of anything you can do with a moon that you can't do with a comet. The planet is worth more because it can parent moons and stuff.

Great minds and all that.

Exactly. Similar to the famously political choice to restrict the space of IPv4 to 4 billion addresses.

4 billion addresses being usable is a pretty recent development. The original design was classful addressing, with US universities, US military departments, and US corporations getting chunks of 1/256ths of the available space. So yes.

Right, we're already in the neo-feudal dystopia. Corporations like Facebook grant us land to create effectively all of the value, and then profit nearly exclusively from the 100% tax on our data they demand. Urbit at least in principle was an attempt to move in the right direction.

Was Tlon a real thing or just a way for his patrons to basically “launder” him money as a tax write-off?

Does money laundering require 20 employees?

I met this guy at a social event once, did not realize who he was and I just read his Wikipedia page. It makes a lot more sense now. He was extremely arrogant and rude. Basically a worse version of the /r/iamverysmart archetype. I sat next to him and he basically challenged me and another person for an hour on Andrew Jackson trivia and the exact wording of his biography. Then he ranted about democracy for a while so I left to go debate about 3D printed guns and play cards. Was an interesting event.

Think what you will of his politics, but his Moldbug blog displayed erudition, scholarship and analytical ability well beyond trivia -- unless of course Moldbug was a collective and not just Curtis Yarvin.

(E: I refuse to say "not that I agree with his politics". Whether I do or not should be immaterial here.)


> But believing that would make me feel uncomfortable and threatened, like maybe I don't understand the world as perfectly as I thought I did. Can't we find someone with high credentials to tell us that it's all bunk so that we don't have to actually read his ideas?

Do you really believe that no people exist who have read his ideas, thought deeply about it, and still rejected it?

I remember clearly thinking through his point about the American Revolution, thinking through things his way, realizing there were things I didn't know and that he knew, and considering the situation. I still came to the conclusion that he was wrong.

No, I think I did exactly the same thing you did. In fact, I went in eager to read what he had to say, and ended up tapping out after the prose became too insufferable. I'm just saying I wish more people would do what you did. Read it, or at least try to read it, or at the very least try to get a good faith understanding of the ideas _in terms the author would agree with_.

The default mode, and I think we are all guilty of this from time to time, is to hear somebody beating the war drum, and then go look for a snarky, middle-brow dismissal. It just bothers me that we all seem to be so profoundly uninterested in the actual ideas themselves. This disqualification by personality stuff is so exhausting, and it annoys me that we're all so sure we're right.

> Do you really believe that no people exist who have read his ideas, thought deeply about it, and still rejected it?

Yes, in that his writings are excessively verbose and a chore to slog through, artificially limiting the number of takers; not unlike Urbit.

Well, okay, but do you really believe that someone who writes so terribly is also writing with "erudition, scholarship and analytical ability"?

(I'm with you, to be clear; I didn't make it much farther than that because I figured that anyone who leads with such a poor argument, that can be debunked by thinking about it instead of getting drawn into the artificial mystique of how cool it is to read forbidden thoughts, can't possibly have very many more interesting thoughts deeper in.)

do you really believe that someone who writes so terribly is also writing with "erudition, scholarship and analytical ability"?

I recently reread his "Open Letter to Open-Minded Progressives"[1]. When it came out in 2008, I thought it was brilliant. Rereading it now, I find it both brilliant and prescient. Here for example he casually predicts the strategy used by our current president:

Fourth, there is another way to succeed in the Outer Party. This might be called the Huckabee Plan. On the Huckabee Plan, you succeed by being as stupid as possible. Not only does this attract a surprising number of voters, who may be just as stupid or even stupider—the Outer Party’s base is not exactly the cream of the crop—it also attracts the attention of the Cathedral, whose favorite sport is to promote the worst plausible Outer Party candidates. As usual with the Cathedral, this is a consequence of casual snobbery rather than malignant conspiracy, but it is effective nonetheless. It is always fun to write a human-interest story about a really wacky peasant, especially one who happens to be running for President.

Yes, his writing is verbose and pretentious. No, you probably shouldn't trust any of the conclusions he reaches. If you have any sense, you should publicly disclaim any familiarity with him or his works. But with all seriousness, I (having no such sense) would claim that he has written the most incisive political analysis published yet this century. Ignore him at your peril.

[1] https://www.unqualified-reservations.org/2008/04/open-letter...

> If you have any sense, you should publicly disclaim any familiarity with him or his works.

Why would broadcasting one’s ignorance of a topic be a good thing?

Are you familiar with the standard joke about the engineer and the guillotine? The basis is "if the guillotine fails, you go free". In the joke, several more practical people of other professions are put under the broken guillotine, nothing happens, and they are set free. The engineer is positioned underneath, sees the issue from his new vantage point, and can't help but crying out "Wait, wait, I think I see the problem!"

Look at the level of hatred directed against Curtis in just this thread. Then realize that HN is one of the more measured and rational parts of the internet. Realize that the mostly unspoken landscape of the blog post is that he's leaving the company of his dreams so it won't be doomed by his presence. Professionally, he and his ideas are simply too hazardous to touch. If you even come close, you will be treated as contaminated. Even disavowal will leave you suspect --- ignorance is a better strategy.

I exaggerate for effect, but only slightly. If you need deeper explanation, you could try Venkatesh Rao's series on the "Gervais Principle" for some parallel examples of the role of strategic ignorance in business communication: https://www.ribbonfarm.com/the-gervais-principle/.

Moldbug is awfully self-important and seems to get a kick of being dramatic, but he spends much more time quoting from (numerous, in true scholarly manner) primary sources and setting up dry arguments than he does saying silly things like "the awful sodium core" of the "red pill".

(As an aside: I said "analytical ability well beyond trivia". It's not that high a bar.)

You can read a political author for what seems to be his overt case or for what are his underlying ideas.

There's an impressive (and really novel at the time) case in favor of capitalism hiding in plain sight in the first book of Marx's Communist manifesto. Those who deprive themselves of Marxist theory for the moral catastrophe of communism miss out on seeing from the shoulders of tall people. The case for Carlyle is structurally the same.

Just wondering, cause I've often wondered if there's some interesting argumentation trapped inside a 15,000 word <body> - is Carlyle the go-to source if I want to read about the ideas without the ... rest?

My take is: start with Burke, which is the first skeptical take on the French Revolution.

Interesting, thanks!

For others interested, I also found that Scott Alexander wrote a tremendous summary and then rebuttal of Neoreactionary theory. An excellent example of steel-manning an argument you disagree with, then taking it apart in ways that its adherents might actually find convincing. (Link: [https://slatestarcodex.com/2013/03/03/reactionary-philosophy...)

For those out of the loop as I am, what is Urbit?

> For those out of the loop as I am, what is Urbit?

A medium post that attempts to give a high-level overview (and will perhaps confuse you):

> https://medium.com/@mattcondon/hot-takes-in-which-i-try-to-e...

Another explanation attempt:

> https://www.popehat.com/2013/12/06/nock-hoon-etc-for-non-vul...

Urbit Primer (after which you will be confused even more) by the Urbit developers:

> https://urbit.org/primer/

If you become more and more confused: good. :-)

An AMA by the Urbit developers:

> https://www.reddit.com/r/urbit/comments/4okcm6/were_the_core...


If this all feels like reading scientology texts: you have just inhaled your first breath of Urbit - and it goes down into a deep rabbit hole. :-)

Urbit is sufficiently bizarre to constitute outsider art.

I attempted an explanation here: https://reddragdiva.tumblr.com/post/141832812938/argumate-al...

"I knew I recognized the name. It's like a giant model of a toothpick made out of toothpicks." - Peter da Silva

I would call it "TempleOS but on the blockchain", but that makes it sound more interesting and useful than it is.

here is their new primer: https://urbit.org/primer/

A serverless framework with very interesting theoretical properties and a wide variety of plausible applications. The urbit.org site has a nice primer and video introduction.

How is it a "serverless framework"? I understand that phrase to mean things like Amazon Lambda where a large company executes small processes for you and you don't have to manage servers. Isn't Urbit the opposite, that you have to manage a (quite involved) server, and that's a good thing?

the idea is that you eventually don't have to manage it once it's a mature system, but it's early days and currently a pretty involved process. serverless is also probably the wrong term since the usual description is 'personal server.'

Serverless is pretty overloaded at this point, there are serverless frameworks that require first you must get a cluster of Kubernetes nodes. They're still serverless, by plenty of definitions that I find credible. They don't require a persistent server process per application or per endpoint. I'm talking about Knative Serving namely, but really any framework that stands up infrastructure in front of you as you request it, and tears it down behind you as you've momentarily finished with using it, I would consider definitely meets the most common definition of serverless.

That being said, Urbit as a Serverless framework, I think is a pretty big stretch.

why is this being downvoted? i have no idea what urbit was and this was the only helpful, non-political comment in this thread.

These (handful of) Urbit threads are the only place I see this happen on HN. People here just hate him. The last time I was in one of these threads, it was "no platform for fascists."

Now that he's leaving, I wonder what the angle is supposed to be? And... it's flagged off the front page!

this is probably a major part of why he's leaving, so his presence can't be used as ammo by detractors. it always seemed like a major weak point for the project to me; you can tell they've been trying very hard to avoid any related subject in interviews etc

So, maybe a minor victory this was flagged? I don't think that, but it is what it is? (I think the post is great, I've only read 2/3 of it, but pretty on message. Feel like I only just got to the technical part...)

because it is factually incorrect?

The system is not "serverless", it is just the opposite -- it is a "personal server", an application you have to run. To quote the primer,

> Most people park their ship in the cloud. If you prefer to host yourself, your ship can live on a laptop, a phone, even a USB stick.

(yes, "park your ship" means "store and run your file" in urbit)

What bothered me about the urbit system was that updates were "evergreen" and distributed top down from the heiarchy of galaxies and stars. Any person in the chain could make modifications and you were at the mercy of the parent not to send a malicious update to your planet. Also, orthogonal persistance meant data was never really deleted. This didn't seem to me like a personal server much less something I'd want to store my entire digital life on.

'Dependencies' section sounds a lot like what https://github.com/unisonweb/unison is doing

In general, Urbit is the neoreactionary's Unison.

He's just saying that he left to avoid attacks from the press when they launch.

Who? Leaves where? Making what?

Trust me, you're much better off not knowing.

This is the end of Urbit.

Good riddance.

I've known you (from your posts at comp.lang.lisp) to be eager to present the facts as you see them and thorough in your argumentation. What is it about Urbit/Yarvin that merits this sort of post?

Have you ever looked at the Urbit code?

[EDIT] BTW, that was not a rhetorical question. I need to know so I can frame my answer. And BTW2, thanks for the kind words.

I've spent enough time (not much) with urbit to write a Nock interpreter/compiler. There are aspects of it that rub me the wrong way such as the needless custom terminology and general esoteric nature that sometimes reads like an occult grimoire but I also think that a lot of the criticism aimed at them, especially the politics, is misguided. Having watched Yarvin present on urbit a couple of times, I would say he is mostly driven by the intellectual atmosphere of the early Internet, before the masses moved in, thus his attempts to not "cast pearls before swine" by making things too accessible so to speak. I do not agree with this stance but I can certainly understand it without having to resort to conspiracies. Other than that, he most definitely reinvented Lisp, badly, but I am willing to give him a pass there too. There is nothing at all that attempts to make real the vision behind urbit around today and I do think it is an interesting vision. Finally, Alan Kay likes it.

OK, well, that's pretty much how I see it, except for one thing: I am vehemently opposed to making things unnecessarily complicated in order to keep out the riff-raff, and I don't think one needs to resort to any conspiracy theories in order to take that position. (If anything, there seems to be a fundamental contradiction between Urbit's stated goal of (re-)democratizing the internet and Curtis's approach. That and the fact that they sold address space for cash. But at this point that is neither here nor there.)

Ironically, I agree with Urbit's stated goal of making it easier to run your own server. The reason I say "good riddance" that I was pretty sure that Curtis's approach would fail, and Urbit would implode sooner or later. But as long as it was alive (and funded by Peter Thiel) it was sucking all the oxygen out of the room.

Urbit sounds cool. Lets make sure no-one has access to it. great plan

Make sure no-one has access to it?

I've not looked deeply into it to the point of setting it up myself, but as far as I know anyone can self-host a 'comet' (an identifier type with 128-bit address depth). If you wanted to interact with people through the system, you don't have to own a planet, or even get a moon (subset of a planet) as far as I know. Comet users would probably be second-class citizens when it comes to spam filters and the like, though.

I'm interested to see where this whole thing goes, if it goes anywhere. There's something appealing about insane, deliberately esoteric-seeming systems.

Did this guy spend 17 years building a decentralized platform, then launch it on Ethereum (which is centralized), and quit?

The identity system is now on Ethereum. It has always been the least innovative or sophisticated part of the project, but the one requiring the most trust, so parking its root on Ethereum (at least for now) is a pragmatic choice without many drawbacks.

As far as I understand (not too far), individual Urbit nodes can still function independent of the Ethereum blockchain. Their parents can feed them the subset of the Ethereum/Urbit PKI graph that they need to validate any signature. The blockchain is only required if the node wants to personally verify that an asset hasn't been double-transfered to multiple parties in different forks, and don't trust their parents to have ensure that. This is a strict improvement over the older Urbit model, where you had to rely on your parents to relay that information.

The actual network and computing layers are still distinct from Ethereum, and have no knowledge of it outside of the identity system.

It's a neat project. I'm glad I won't need to make disclaimers about Curtis the next time I introduce it to someone.

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