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The Larabee Programming Language


The Larabee programming language, named after everybody's favourite assistant to the Chief of CONTROL, is not a happy-go-lucky language. Indeed no, it has plumbed the very depths of the bottomless pit of its own soul, only to have its true nature revealed to it too quickly, the utter shock of this denoument leaving it scarred and reeling.

You see, Larabee has borrowed the notion of branch prediction from the realm of computer processor architecture, and has chosen to abuse it in one simple but rather nasty way: the interpretation of each branch instruction is not just optimized by the history of branches previously taken, it is semantically determined in part by the history of branches previously taken. Each branch taken (or not taken) increments (or decrements) a value called the branch prediction register (or BPR.) The BPR begins the program at zero; when the BPR is positive, tests are interpreted in the usual way, but when the BPR is negative, the interpretation changes: the "then" and "else" branches are swapped.

What's more, to prevent (or rather, to stymie) working around this by, say, coding up a lot of branches dependent on constant data to "doctor" the BPR to some extremely (high or) low value, no constant data is allowed in a Larabee program. This has the effect of making programs highly dependent on their input.

But enough of this insipidly sentimental dada. We must move on to insipidly sentimental dada frought with errors and inconsistencies. Woe!


Larabee programs are notated as S-Expressions, familiar from LISP or Scheme. This is not solely because I am too lazy to write a parser. It is also very fitting for a language which has all of the abstraction and finesse of assembly code sans immediate mode.

Larabee forms are as follows:

  • (op op expr1 expr2)

    Evaluate expr1, then evaluate expr2, then perform the operation op on the results. Valid ops are +, -, *, and /, with their usual integer meanings, and >, <, and = with their usual comparison meanings, with a result of 0 on false and 1 on true. Division by zero is not defined.

  • (test cond-expr expr1 expr2)

    test evaluates the cond-expr to get either true (non-zero) or false (zero). What happens next depends on the value of the BPR.

    If the BPR is greater than or equal to 0:

    • If cond-expr evaluated to true, evaluate expr1 and decrement the BPR.
    • If cond-expr evaluated to false, evaluate expr2 and increment the BPR.

    On the other hand, if the BPR is less than 0:

    • If cond-expr evaluated to true, evaluate expr2 and increment the BPR.
    • If cond-expr evaluated to false, evaluate expr1 and decrement the BPR.

    test is the lynchpin upon which Larabee's entire notableness, if any, rests.

  • (input)

    Waits for an integer to arrive on the input channel, and evaluates to that integer.

  • (output expr)

    Evaluates expr to an integer value and produces that integer value on the output channel.

  • (store addr-expr value-expr next-expr)

    Evaluates addr-expr to obtain an address, and value-expr to obtain a value, then places that value in storage at that address, overwriting whatever happened to be stored at that address previously. After all that is said and done, evaluates to next-expr.

  • (fetch addr-expr)

    Evaluates addr-expr to obtain an address, then evaluates to whatever value is in storage at that address. Not defined when the currently running Larabee program has never previously stored any value at that address.

  • (label label expr)

    Indicates that this expr is labelled label. Serves only as a way to reference a program location from another location (with a goto;) when executed directly, has no effect over and above simply evaluating expr.

  • (goto label)

    Diverts control to the expression in the leftmost, outermost occurrence of a label named label.


Ah, the burning question: is Larabee Turing-complete? The burning answer is, I think, a technical and somewhat subtle "no".

But first we must address our subject's special way of dealing with the world. As you've no doubt noticed, Larabee has "issues" with input. (Somewhat interestingly, this emotional baggage was not a direct design goal; it was an unintended consequence of abusing branch prediction and trying to prevent it from going unabused.) These issues will, it turns out, haunt the language unceasingly, day in and day out, with despair and turmoil forever just around the corner.

A specific hullabaloo induced by Larabee's obdurately retrograde (not to mention completely stupid) input regime is that it's simply not possible to write a program in Larabee which is independent of its input. This alone may make it fail to be Turing-complete, for surely there are many Turing machine programs which are input-invariant, and these programs Larabee cannot legitimately aspire to one day become, or alas, even emulate.

For example, input invariance is the underlying idea used in converting the usual proof of the uniform halting problem into a (less obvious) proof of the standard halting problem — you say, for any given input, that we can find a machine that erases whatever input it was given, writes the desired input on its tape, and proceeds to perform a computation that we can't decide will halt or not.

The idea is also embodied in a traditional quine program, which produces a copy of itself on its output, while talking no input. That is, it doesn't matter what input is given to it (and this is often trivial to prove since the quine is generally witten in the subset of the language which does not contain any input instructions.)

But Larabee can't do either of these things. There is no Larabee program that can replace its arbitrary input with some fixed, constant choice of input. And while you can write a quine, it will require a certain input to produce itself — there will always be other inputs which make it produce something different.

"So what!" you say, being of bold philosophical bent, "it's mere mereology. Whether we consider the input to be part of the program or not is simply not relevant. Stop trying to confuse me with details and definitions when I already know perfectly well what you're talking about."

Fine, let's say that. The customer is always right, after all...

The problem, Wendy, is that Larabee is still not Turing-complete. But there are subtler reasons for this. Needle-fine, almost gossamer reasons. Ephemeral reasons with a substantial bouquet; fruity, with notes of chocolate and creosote. I doubt that I can do them justice in prose. However, it still strikes me as a more promising medium than modern dance, I mean at least nominally anyway.

The reason is basically that you need to know a lower bound on how many tests and variable accesses a Larabee program will make in advance of running it, so you can supply that many values in the input to ensure that the tests in the program go where you want them to go.

(It should be noted that it was rougly at this point that Pressey reached one of the peaks of his so-called "referential" period, in which he was apt to provide "commentary" on his own work, in the form of interjections or asides, as if from the perspective of a historian from a much later era. Such pretentious interruptions were generally not well received, except perhaps by the occasional loser such as yourself.)

To illustrate, let's try walking through an attempt to have Larabee make a computation. Factorial, say. In pseudocode, it might look like

a := input
b := 1
while a > 0 {
  b := b * a
  a := a - 1
print b

Translating this one step toward Larabee, we find the following misty wreck on our doorstep:

  (store a (input))
  (store b 1)
  (label loop
      (store b (op * b a))
      (store a (op - a 1))
      (if (op > a 0)
        (goto loop) (nop))))
  (print b))

Now, we can't use names, so we say that a lives at location 1 and b lives at location 2 and we have

  (store 1 (input))
  (store 2 1)
  (label loop
      (store 2 (op * (fetch 2) (fetch 1)))
      (store 1 (op - (fetch 1) 1))
      (if (op > (fetch 1) 0)
        (goto loop) (nop))))
  (print (fetch 2)))

Now, we can't have constants either, so we hold our breath and grope around in the dark to obtain

  (store (input) (input))
  (store (input) (input))
  (label loop
      (store (input) (op * (fetch (input)) (fetch (input))))
      (store (input) (op - (fetch (input)) (input)))
      (if (op > (fetch (input)) (input))
        (goto loop) (nop))))
  (print (fetch (input))))

...with the understanding that the appropriate inputs for this program are ones that have 0, 1, and 2 in the right places. Naturally, sadly, magnificently, other kinds of inputs will produce other, most likely non-factorial programs.

Lastly, we have to give up hope of ever seeing the familiar shores of our homeland again, bite the bullet and kick the if habit:

  (store (input) (input))
  (store (input) (input))
  (label loop
      (store (input) (op * (fetch (input)) (fetch (input))))
      (store (input) (op - (fetch (input)) (input)))
      (test (op > (fetch (input)) (input))
        (goto loop) (nop))))
  (print (fetch (input))))

And, oh, actually, we don't have begin — nor nop, neither. Hooray!

(store (input) (input)
  (store (input) (input)
    (label loop
      (store (input) (op * (fetch (input)) (fetch (input)))
        (store (input) (op - (fetch (input)) (input))
          (test (op > (fetch (input)) (input))
            (goto loop) (print (fetch (input)))))))))

Now, if you've been following that, and if you can imagine in the slightest how the input will need to look for any given integer, to produce the correct factorial result on the output — even assuming you added a bunch of tests somewhere in the program and fed them all the right numbers so that the important test turned out the way you wanted — then I needn't go to the extra trouble of a rigourous proof to convince you that Larabee is not Turing-complete.

If, on the other hand, you decide to be stubborn and you say well that might be a very involved encoding you're forcing on the input but it's just an encoding and every language is going to force some encoding on the input so duh you haven't shown me anything really, I'd have to pull out the dreaded ARGUMENT BY ACKERMANN'S FUNCTION. However, I'd really rather not, as it's late, and I'm tired. Maybe later.

(later) OK, it goes something like this. Ackermann's function — which we know we need at least something that can do better than primitive-recursive, to compute — has a lower-bound complexity on the order of, well, Ackermann's function. (This in itself seems to be one of those mathematical oddities that seems wiggy when you first hear about it, then self-evident after you've thought about it for a few months... and, if you are lucky, no less wiggy.) So anyway, what does that imply about how many items would need to be input to a Larabee program that computes Ackermann's function? And what does that imply about what you'd need to obtain that input in the first place? Hmm? Hmm?


There is an implementation of Larabee written in a relatively pure subset of Scheme. I hesitate to call it a reference implementation, but it seems I have no choice in these matters.


It has come time to say goodbye to our subject, our illustrious monstrosity, our glorious bottom-feeder, our feel-good cripple of the year. With such a distressing burden to bear, what's a programming language to do? Who could begrudge it seeking comfort in the arms of an understanding mistress, a bottle of bourbon, the Cone of Silence? But even so, saving such wretched constructions from their own self-annihilation, so we may all learn from its example — this is one of the very reasons we run this Home for Wayward Calculi, is it not?


This is the place where ordinarily where I would wish you a happy something or other. But I shall graciously decline this time; it is all too clear that there is simply no happiness left.

-Chris Pressey
January 10, 2008
Chicago, Illinois