Author Archives: David Pierce

Mathematician & logician; amateur of philosophy; relation of journalists; alumnus of St John’s College (USA); living in Ankara & Istanbul since 2000

Sacrifice and Simulation

Executive summary. An experiment has been performed to detect whether we are living in a simulation. The experiment is to tell Abraham to sacrifice his son. Whatever he does, he breaks a law. Thus there is more to the world than can be understood by natural science.

Beach, sparkling sea, mountains, clouds, sky
Altınova, Ayvalık, Balıkesir, Türkiye
Looking towards Lesbos, Greece
September 20, 2022

C.S. Lewis makes that last point, although not with reference to Abraham. By the Quranic account, Abraham is told in a dream to sacrifice his son. As Mustafa Akyol observes, this leaves to Abraham the decision of whether the dream is from God. It cannot be, since murder is “objectively bad,” and therefore God does not command it.

If the Hebrew version of the story were a Greek tragedy, Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his second son could show his regret for banishing his first son and the son’s mother to please his wife.

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Ways of Thinking

This is a report from five years ago on an art exhibit in Istanbul called “Doublethink.” I had an amusing encounter with one of the artists, and I had a conversation with the curator, who like George Orwell had attended Eton College. I wrote my report in three emails, given here with their timestamps. Because I mention some sculptures at the Nesin Mathematics Village, I have added the best photographs that I could find of them among the pictures that I have taken at the Village. Unfortunately I don’t seem to have documented the sculptures as such.

January 21, 2016
See “Nesin Matematik Köyü, Ocak (January) 2016

If he or she really wanted to praise doublethink, somebody with a classical education might mention Book VI of Homer’s Iliad, where Hector

  • asserts, “the day will surely come when mighty Ilius shall be destroyed with Priam and Priam’s people”;
  • prays to God, as if it were possible, “grant that this my child may be even as myself, chief among the Trojans.”

I wrote about Book VI, later in 2017, where I am now, in Altınova, Ayvalık, Balıkesir, Turkey, on the beach opposite the island of Lesbos. Last year here, I brought up the Book in writing about the Law of Contradiction as discussed in Plato’s Republic. Hector’s meeting with Andromache and their son is a standard example with me.

I recently joined a new discussion of the Republic. It had begun in May and is set to last a year (so the readings are short). Another participant shared with me a petition or “open letter” about an attempt to turn his American university’s mission into health and anti-racism, rather than research and education. Perhaps the art show that I discuss below represents a similar trend. The move at UMass Boston is criticized in the Boston Globe, as I learn from a newsletter that came up (along with the petition itself) in a DuckDuckGo search.

Tue, Jun 6, 2017 at 8:13 AM

Through August 6, Pera Museum in Istanbul has an exhibition called “Doublethink: Double Vision.” I saw it recently and shall probably see it again. However, the promotional text criticizes “linear Platonic thinking”:

Thinking has changed radically, but many people don’t appear to have noticed. Our institutions have been stuck on linear Neo-Platonic tracks for 24 centuries. These antiquated processes of deduction have lost their authority. Just like art it has fallen off its pedestal. Legal, educational and constitutional systems rigidly subscribe to these; they are 100% text based.

‘You probably think of Doublethink as a negative concept. We in Russia think of it as just the beginning,’ says Russian artist, Pavel Pepperstein …

I’m not sure this can be taken any more seriously than words from President Trump’s mouth (or tweets from his fingers)—except that to inhibit thinking is very serious indeed. In the catalogue, the curator says more:

In 1984 the State used Doublethink to ignore anything but its own ‘correct’ thinking. Today Doublethink is our only hope, and artists from around the world are showing how to develop not just doublethink, but polythink, thinking along multiple parallel or tangential lines at the same time.

… [Orwell] was a great radical socialist thinker, but still he could not shake all his shackles to his gender, class, and all-boy classical education. He thought linearly. The line was heading in the wrong direction. His book was a warning of the crash ahead, a crash he wanted the world to avoid. Pepperstein’s point is that Orwell’s end of the world was actually the beginning of a new world, and it should have happened earlier.

The line of thinking, passed from Socrates to Plato and then down through the main western school room of neo-platonic thought for twenty four centuries, should have hit the buffers at the end of the nineteenth century if the early Modernists had done their job…

This is rich, coming from Alistair Hicks, who

was educated at Eton College, and subsequently at the University of St Andrews, Scotland, graduating in 1978 with an Art History MA. Hicks then continued to study at Emory University, Georgia, USA to read Art and Business.

This is from Wikipedia [last accessed, August 20, 2022], where the info is unsourced; but the person who wrote it last August 7 [2017] called herself jessicatamman, and there is apparently a Jessica Tamman at the Tate in London. Probably the info is correct.

Does Hicks then think that he himself has shaken the shackles of his own all-boy classical education? Again from the appropriate Wikipedia articles [as accessed in 2017]:

Following the public school tradition, Eton is a full boarding school, which means all pupils live at the school, and it is one of four such remaining single-sex boys’ public schools in the United Kingdom … to continue this practice.

[St Andrews] is the oldest of the four ancient universities of Scotland and the third oldest university in the English-speaking world (following Oxford and Cambridge).

St Andrews did start admitting women at the end of the nineteenth century. Hicks also “was Senior Curator at Deutsche Bank for 20 years.” Deutsche Bank lent hundreds of million dollars to Trump and is now being asked by Democrats in Congress whether those loans were backed by Russia.

Why is everything coming back to Russia now?

Apparently Hicks will be speaking at the Pera Museum tomorrow evening with one of the artists, Marko Mäetamm, whose work called “Alphabet of Lies” I quite enjoyed. Maybe I shall be able to go listen.

stone apple
January 21, 2016
See “Nesin Matematik Köyü, Ocak (January) 2016

Wed, Jun 7, 2017 at 6:23 PM

I was just able to chat with the curator, Alistair Hicks. By linear thinking he seems to mean progress towards a unique ideal. He cheerfully admits to not having cast off the shackles of his Eton education.

Sat, Jun 10, 2017 at 5:54 AM

I have since found websites describing a distinction between linear and non-linear thinking. The distinction being described may be real, but I don’t know how well the terminology fits.

When Alistair Hicks criticizes what he calls linear thought, I suppose he is taking a standard postmodernist line—indeed, a line!—whereby there is no “grand narrative.” In his chat with me, he did not mention a narrative, but he did deny the idea of progress.

I agreed with him to the extent of allowing that progress was not inevitable. It was something that must be worked for. I tried to say that, through curating the “Doublethink: Double Vision” exhibit, Hicks had tried to achieve some kind of progress. He accepted the appointment as curator, and presumably he tried to do a good job at at, according to his own standards of goodness.

I don’t think he quite saw my point. He just talked about what he had in fact tried to do with his show: give the artists a voice, or something like that. The emphasis was on the artists, rather than himself.

Our conversation occurred on the ground floor of the Pera Museum, while the Estonian artist Marko Mäetamm was writing on the wall of the nearby men’s room about how he had become an artist.

I had used that men’s room on arrival at the museum at 3:55 PM. At 4 o’clock, Mäetamm was supposed to be

live drawing on Pera Museum’s elevator and restroom walls openly in public. Mäetamm will re-create his work “How I Became an Artist” and following this, he and curator Alistair Hicks will be discussing his works.

As I bought my ticket, I learned that this “live drawing” would begin right there on the ground floor, then continue on the fourth floor. I didn’t feel like standing around on the ground floor, where there were no exhibits; so I went upstairs. The “Doublethink: Double Vision” show was on the fourth and fifth floors. Soon I heard people saying that Mäetamm’s performance had begun on the ground floor. I followed them down and found a crowd around the men’s room where I had relieved myself. There was a queue of people filing in to see what Mäetamm was doing.

Meanwhile, I saw a fellow milling about who must be the curator. My impulse was to berate him for his hypocritical condemnation of Orwell. Again, Hicks had written of Orwell, “he could not shake all his shackles to his gender, class, and all-boy classical education. He thought linearly. The line was heading in the wrong direction.”

I did recognize that a condemnatory tone on my own part would not do. When Hicks was not chatting with somebody else, I introduced myself and asked if he could help me understand what he had written in the exhibition catalogue. He undertook to fulfill my request. He was pleasant, perhaps a bit didactic, but not peremptory.

We didn’t get too far though. Looking for some common ground, I asked if Hicks knew Collingwood’s Principles of Art. He hadn’t heard of Collingwood.

Book in front of stone apple
Nesin Matematik Köyü, May 18 2017
See “The Private, Unskilled One

It does seem to me a tragedy that an art professional has not read Collingwood. The book is 80 years old now, and art has changed; but the book is still in print, and has there been any other comparable attempt to say what art is? Or is the whole problem that Collingwood was writing for Modernists, and now we are supposed to be Postmodernists, but nobody can say what this means?

I did not want to bore Mr Hicks, though he did not seem to be trying to get rid of me. In fact he asked me whether I was an artist. Not exactly, I said; I was a mathematician. He seemed to find this interesting, and he observed that the work of Keith Tyson used mathematics, and one of Tyson’s works was in the exhibit. He described this work as “the pyramid,” but this description was not enough to remind me of what it was.

At some point I let Hicks go. Since Mäetamm was apparently still surrounded by a crowd in the men’s room, I went upstairs. On the first floor was a permanent exhibit of Turkish coffee cups. Out of one of the secret doors used by guards, a fellow emerged wearing a dinosaur costume.

He went looking for something he couldn’t find. I proposed to him that he was the artist, and he agreed. I pointed out another secret door. It was what he wanted. He went in and came out in a Bugs Bunny costume.

I found Mäetamm again on the fourth floor, writing on the elevator door in Turkish. He was copying from the translation that somebody had supplied him. Folks were gathered around him, taking snapshots of an artist at work.

I looked through the “Doublethink” show again. I also looked again at the show on the third floor, called “Erotic Nature,” consisting of works by Costa Rican sculptor José Sancho. The works were gorgeous, and as a text somewhere said, they were reminiscent of Brancusi; but perhaps because of this, I wondered if Sancho’s works were really art as opposed to mere decoration.

coiling snake, in stone
Sculpture by José Sancho
From “Erotic Nature
Pera Museum, Tepebaşı, Beyoğlu, Istanbul
May 25 – August 6, 2017

I did want Ali Nesin to see the show. A few years ago, the Nesin Mathematics Village hosted a sculpture school. Great blocks of marble were brought in, carved, and left behind. Unfortunately they still look like that: great blocks of marble that somebody has carved. For example, one block was carved into the form of a stack of folded blankets. It is still a block of stone. When José Sancho carves a block into a human torso or a coiled snake, it doesn’t look like a block of stone any more.

I didn’t think I needed to stick around to hear Alistair Hicks talk to Marko Mäetamm on a stage. I did have another look at the men’s room I had used. It was empty now. Mäetamm’s text on the wall above the urinal described a childhood of weekly visits to the public baths with his mother, while his father was off on a fishing boat. Young Marko was fascinated by the naked bodies of the women in the sauna. He started drawing them, along with other things.

I went outside. I walked back over to İstiklâl Avenue. In the Arter exhibition space there, I looked at the show, “Ways of Seeing,” curated by Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrath, “internationally recognized independent curators and academics, and the co-founders of Art Reoriented, a multidisciplinary curatorial platform based in Munich and New York”; but I shall not now try to say anything about this. [The original link does not work, but the Internet Archive confirms the quote; the duo’s current About page, as of August, 2022, has activities since the Arter exhibit.]


This is inspired by Charlotte Brontë’s Villette. After reading this 1853 novel a second time in the summer of 2018, I put some passages I liked into a LaTeX file. I added some commentary and came up with a document more than 90 A5 pages long. I recently reread it and was reminded how much I had enjoyed the novel. I thought some of my commentary could be adapted to stand alone as a blog post—this one.

Man in a field, sack over left shoulder, casts seeds with his right hand
The Sower,” 1850
Jean-François Millet (French, 1814–1875)
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

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Charles Bell’s Axiomatic Drama

Here is an annotated transcription of a 1981 manuscript by Charles Greenleaf Bell (1916–2010) called “The Axiomatic Drama of Classical Physics.” A theme is what Heraclitus observed, as in fragment B49a of Diels, LXXXI of Bywater, and D65a of Laks and Most:

We step and we do not step into the same rivers, we are and we are not.
ποταμοῖς τοῖς αὐτοῖς ἐμβαίνομέν τε καὶ οὐκ ἐμβαίνομεν, εἶμέν τε καὶ οὐκ εἶμεν.

Bell reviews the mathematics, and the thought behind it, of

  1. free fall,
  2. the pendulum,
  3. the Carnot heat engine.

In a postlude called “The Uses of Paradox,” Bell notes:

Forty-five years ago I decided that when reason drives a sheer impasse into an activity which in fact goes on, we have to think of the polar cleavage as both real and unreal.

I like that reference to “an activity which in fact goes on.” In youth it may be hard to recognize that there are activities that do go on. We do things then, but that they will get anywhere may be no more than a dream. In any case, Bell himself goes on:

… that is a job as huge and demanding as Aristotle’s, and for me at 70, just begun.

“Look,” my friends say, “Bell’s been doing the same thing since he was 25. About that time he had a vision of Paradox as paradise, and he’s been stuck there ever since.”

Bell’s picture next to Aristotle’s Physics
The back of Bell’s Five Chambered Heart with
the front of the OCT of Aristotle’s Physics

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Index to this series

In the Platonic dialogues, Socrates frequently mentions τέχνη (technê), which is art in the archaic sense: skill or craft. The concern of this post is how one develops a skill, and what it means to have one in the first place.

Books quoted or mentioned in the text, by Midgley, Weil, Thoreau, Tolstoy, Byrne, Wittgenstein, Arendt, and Alexander

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On Playing Zpordle

After Wordle appeared, a number of variants came out. One of the least popular may be Zpordle, or ℤp-ordle. I imagine it could be more popular, if people knew it did not require advanced mathematics. It still involves numbers, to which some people declare an allergy. Nonetheless, I think Zpordle can be explained in elementary-school terms, and that is what I shall try to do here.

Zpordle screenshot
Screenshot of the Zpordle game won on May 27, 2022

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Cumberland Tour 1994

Cumberland Tour

Consider this a meditation on being from Generation X and growing up before the internet. Having watched a number of video accounts of bicycle trips along the Potomac River, I decided to dig up my own account; it is from twenty-eight years ago and is entirely verbal. I originally wrote it day by day with ballpoint pen in a composition book.

Composition books dated 1994–96

I had no plans for what I wrote, beyond informing myself for future trips. Nonetheless, my Uncle Bill used to talk about his friend Barry, whose failure to keep a diary may have kept him from writing a good book, at least in Bill’s judgment. The topic would have been the Presidential campaigns that Barry had covered for CBS News. They had all been losing.

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On The Human Condition of Hannah Arendt 10

Index to this series

CHAPTER V Action [3]

We come to the end of Arendt’s chapter on action. Action has two components:

  1. Getting it started (ἄρχειν).
  2. Keeping it going (πράττειν).

Anybody can do the first, but then the second is out of his (or her) exclusive control. This is a problem. You can try to avoid the problem, either by making other people your slaves, or by being a Stoic. You can also just recognize that the problem can be mitigated by the actions of promising and forgiving.

Picnic table among trees
Yıldız Parkı, April 16, 2022
Where I did some of the next reading

Before passing to a longer summary, then to Arendt’s text itself with my annotations, I am going to say more about how I see the problem, or at least an aspect of the problem.

Many people are afraid of mathematics, or disconcerted by it: the mathematician hears or infers this from time to time. People can also be afraid of another thing done in school, namely expressing themselves artistically—or just expressing themselves, Continue reading

On The Human Condition of Hannah Arendt 9

Index to this series

CHAPTER V Action [2]

It can be a challenge to read Hannah Arendt. At the end of the first paragraph of the present reading, she says,

Power is actualized only where word and deed have not parted company, where words are not empty and deeds not brutal, where words are not used to veil intentions but to disclose reali­ties, and deeds are not used to violate and destroy but to establish relations and create new realities.

If these words are themselves not empty, what are they full of? “To establish relations and create new realities” would seem to be just what George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin have tried to do in Iraq and Ukraine, even as their words are empty and deeds brutal.

I do grant, having done the next reading too, that the end of this chapter on action is very interesting.

Picnic table under the sun in the midst of of flowering groundcover and budding trees
Yıldız Parkı, April 9, 2022
Where I did some of the next reading

In the present reading, I detect the continuation of themes from last time:

  • theoreticians make things up to explain away what they do not want to recognize;
  • what they do not want to recognize is that we are capable of action.

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On The Human Condition of Hannah Arendt 8

Index to this series

CHAPTER V Action [1]

We shall have three readings of the chapter on action.

All sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story or tell a story about them.

Isak Dinesen

A theme of this reading is that our life is a story, but we are not the author.

Nam in omni actione principaliter intenditur ab agente, sive necessitate naturae sive voluntarie agat, propriam similitudinem explicare; unde fit quod omne agens, in quantum huiusmodi, delectatur, quia, cum omme quod est appetat suum esse, ac in agendo agentis esse modammodo amplietur, sequitur de neces­sitate delectatio. … Nihil igitur agit nisi tale existens quale patiens fieri debet.

(For in every action what is primarily intended by the doer, whether he acts from natural necessity or out of free will, is the disclosure of his own image. Hence it comes about that every doer, in so far as he does, takes delight in doing; since everything that is desires its own being, and since in action the being of the doer is somehow intensified, delight necessarily follows. … Thus, nothing acts unless [by acting] it makes patent its latent self.)


Arendt will reiterate what Dante says.

Two figures walk between buildings towards a hillside of graves, with skyscapers beyond
Zincirlikuyu Mezarlığı
March 26, 2022

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