a tale of clown, revenge, and patience

Many years ago, when I was an intern at an accelerator facility, the other interns and I all lived in a campus residence that was a bit like a dormitory, only with a higher average age. One evening, as all the interns were gathered in the common area after dinner and were drinking studiously discussing academic topics and exchanging tall tales, a friend recounted to me this story. Here, I reproduce it to the best of of my memory for you to enjoy.

A young boy and his father live in a small town in the Midwest. One brisk October day, while walking down the main street, they see a poster advertising a circus coming to town the following week. Prominently featured among the images of lion tamers and strongmen on the poster is the name and likeness of a clown.

“Come and laugh with Pagliacci, the famous Italian clown, funniest in all the world!”, the poster exclaimed.

The boy begs his father to take them both to see the circus, and especially to see Pagliacci, as the boy loves clowns. The father is not a rich man by any means, but he dotes on his son and has a little money saved, so he says yes. The whole week following, the boy can hardly sleep for his excitement; he cannot wait to see the circus, and most especially, his hero, Pagliacci.

Finally the day of the circus, a Saturday, comes around. Early in the morning, the boy leaps out of bed and runs to wake his father.

“Today is the day, today we see Pagliacci!” Exclaims the boy as he scarfs down his breakfast in record time. Soon enough the father is ready as well, and the pair set out to town. They arrive at the Big Top, and the father quickly buys two tickets from the man in the ticket booth. The man sees the boy’s excitement and is charmed, for he is a kindly chap. With a sly wink, slides over two tickets to the front row, ringside; far more expensive seats than the father had paid for.

The boy and his dad make their way to the ringside and find their seats right as the music comes up and the lights go down. First into the ring are a pair of amazing dancing ponies! They do their routine, prancing and jumping around the large ring, and the crowd goes wild. Next, the strongman struts out, climbing onto a pedestal. He waits for the crowd to quiet, before bending a huge iron bar all the way in half. The crowd goes crazy again – they love it! Lion tamers, trapeze artists, and magicians all come out to the center ring and perform for the crowd, each earning more applause than the last. Finally, the ringmaster calls for quiet, and a low drumroll begins.

“Ladies and gentlemen, the moment you’ve all been waiting for. I present to you, Pagliacci the clown!” Shouts the mustachioed ringmaster to thunderous applause. Pagliacci bounds out from behind the curtain, decked out in gaudy white silk and greasepaint, doing pratfalls and pulling scarves out of his sleeves all the way to the ring center, all to uproarious laughter. He reaches the center puts his hands up for silence, and as he does, his eye catches the little boy and his father. He bounces over to their seats on his oversized shoes and asks,

“Say little boy, Halloween is coming soon. Do you have a costume?”

The little boy is ecstatic, because he does have a costume, one and his father made together.

“Yes I do,” replies the little boy excitedly, “my father and I made a horse costume, and it needs two people! He’s taller than me, so he wears the front half of the costume…”

Before the boy finishes his response, Pagliacci interjects sharply.

“Does that make you a horse’s ass?” and honks his nose.

The crowd loses it, laughing and applauding harder than ever before. The boy, however, is mortified; he turns bright red and slumps down in his seat. He is so embarrassed that he can’t pay attention to the rest of the circus. Eventually it ends, and he heads home with his father.

The next day, the boy decides that he’ll never be embarrassed like that again, and heads to the library, where he finds a book on witty retorts and snappy comebacks. Over the next weeks and months he reads every humor book in his library and all the libraries in the county, studying the art of the snappy comeback.

Still feeling like this is not enough, he gets his father to drive him to the Big City, where he goes through all the humor and joke books in it’s massive library. This pattern continues in other cities as the boy grows up, and when he graduates highschool, he decides to attend a performing arts college. He focuses on comedy, specifically the art of snappy comebacks. He distinguishes himself during this time as the quickest wit ever to grace the stage at this college, and when he graduates, the faculty ask him to teach a class of his own, on the topic of witty retorts. However, the boy (now a man) feels he is still inadequate, so he heads to Las Vegas, where he works the nightclub circuit, becoming famous for his quick and biting comebacks to hecklers.

Finally, one day after a particularly successful show, the boy (now man), feels that he is as good a comedian and retort artist as anyone alive, and that he is ready. He heads to the airport, and hops on a plane back to his boyhood home state. In the taxi, on the way back to his small town, he sees an advertisement for a circus, featuring the world-famous “Pagliacci the clown, funniest in the world, 50 years of comedy!” The boy (now man) smiles to himself as the taxi comes to a halt. That same evening, before even seeing his father, the boy (now man) heads to town and finds the circus. He buys a ringside ticket from the now grey-bearded lady, and makes his way to the seats.

He smiles and claps appropriately through the acrobats and strongman (now bending two iron bars), before the ringmaster comes out and bids the crowd be silent. After a short, pregnant moment, he calls out:

“Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Pagliacci!”

The now infamous clown bounds out to more thunderous applause takes a deep bow, which turns into a somersault. He pops back to his feet and scans the crowd. His eye once again catches on the boy (now man) and he struts over, oversized shoes honking the whole way.

“Excuse me sir,” Pagliacci addresses the boy (now man), “being that it is October, Halloween is just around the corner. Do you have a costume?”

The boy (now man) smiles at the clown and says:

“Why yes I do, it is a horse costume I made with my father, and it takes two people. Being older and less flexible than myself, my father usually wears the front half of the costume…”

Once again, just before he can finish his sentence, Pagliacci interjects:

“So does that make you a horse’s ass?”

The crowd goes nuts, everyone in the big top is laughing, Pagliacci is grinning ear to ear, but the boy (now man) is still only smiling calmly. Once the laughter dies a bit, the boy (now man) stands up, points at Pagliacci, and in a booming voice says:

“Fuck you, clown!”


Vincent, chapter 2

chapter 2.

It was midday on the shores of Lake Victoria, and a group of chickens on a nearby farm were lazily browsing in the dirt and lounging in the shade of the brush. Suddenly, and with an alertness that would be alarming to anyone watching, one chicken perked up and stared at the northwestern horizon. She stood for a long moment, as if straining to hear a distant voice before letting out a soft ‘cluck’.

“That is certainly odd,” she thought to herself.

Another moment went by as the chicken stared into the distance, deep in thought.

“Definitely out of place.” A subtle nod accompanied her confirmation. She cast a fowl eye about the farmyard, and seeing no sign of the elderly man who tended the small group of birds, stepped sideways. A chicken stepping sideways is a sight unto itself, but to make this instance even stranger, the bird seemed to vanish from sight as she did so, as if stepping between layers of the air itself.

A few thousand miles away, the sounds of early morning birds filled the still, warm air in the Nebraskan suburb of Wood Run. With the sun just barely peeking over the horizon, it might have escaped the casual observer when the air above the sidewalk outside number 33 Wood Grove Lane seemed to shiver ever so slightly. A moment later, however, it’s very possible that this observer might have perceived a chicken, stepping out from nowhere, to stand on the sidewalk. Furthermore, only the dullest, most braindead of lookers-on would not have noticed that the space that should have been occupied by the house at number 33 Wood Grove Lane, was actually a rather wide and shallow crater, as if an enormous stump had been wrenched free of the earth.

With a flutter, the chicken hopped from the sidewalk into the hole where Vincent’s house used to be.

“Most interesting,” she thought to herself as she looked around the neatly conical hole. She bent down as if to examine the ground. “This degree of localization is unprecedented. Somewhat instantaneous too, more likely than not.”

She strutted slowly about the perimeter of the crater, pausing occasionally to stretch her feathered head to the ground, as if listening to the dirt. She made a few laps before bobbing her way further into the depression and coming to a halt at the lowest point. She paced out a small circle before roosting down and closing her eyes. For several minutes, she was still to the point of resembling a particularly realistic garden sculpture. Suddenly, her eyes opened and quickly narrowed again, in a universal expression of consternation.

“Oh no.” she thought, silently.


Vincent awoke to a cool breeze and a blistering headache. He kept his eyes shut as he took stock of his body – he was laying supine on a warm, flat surface and everything seemed to be present and intact (minus the fresh hole in his ear). Slowly, he opened his eyes and through the throbbing behind his optic nerve he was able to see an enormous expanse of sky, streaked in the brilliant and vivid hues of a desert sunset, and not much else. He lay still, taking in the view as he waited for the pain in his head to subside, mentally scrolling through the last moments he remembered: his house spinning and buckling, the surprise ear piercing, the… wait.

His house.

Vincent sat bolt upright and scrambled to get his knees under him. His house was nowhere to be seen. In fact, it appeared that Vincent himself was sitting on a large natural rock platform, suspended high above the desert. He dropped to all fours and inched sideways towards the edge to peek over.

“Oh wow.”

His heart leapt to his throat as he absorbed the situation. The large, stone platform was, in fact, the top of a very tall and skinny butte, rising more than a hundred meters above the desert floor. A large, sweeping crescent on the ground caught Vincent’s eye and he squinted to bring it into focus in the now rapidly diminishing daylight.

“Is that..?” he muttered to no one in particular as he recognized the remnants of his house and the path it had scraped out in the sand as it careened across the ground.

“Please be careful.”

Vincent whipped his head around at the gentle voice’s caution and froze in place upon seeing what was, undoubtedly, a chicken staring directly at him.

“Please be careful.” The voice repeated as the chicken cocked its head. “The rocks near the edge can be tremendously unstable.”

The uncomprehending Vincent’s mouth hung open as his still-throbbing brain tried to process this new development in what was, to be fair, a series of pretty difficult-to-process developments.

“Are you… talking to me?” Vincent directed his question at the bird.

“I am. I apologize that my appearance is somewhat startling; unfortunately, it is what I am stuck with at the moment.” The chicken spread her wings slightly and glanced downward, as if to indicate her own body. The gesture was alarmingly sapient.

“What… how…” Vincent struggled to shape a question as he pointed dumbly back and forth between the chicken and the wreckage of his house below. While he did this, the chicken appeared to look straight up into the sky and turned ninety degrees before turning back to face Vincent, who had settled on “How… why are we so high up?”

The chicken picked her way closer to the edge and to Vincent.

“Limnic eruption of sorts.” She said, as if that answered everything. Vincent’s face made it clear that this was an insufficient contribution, and upon seeing his expression, the chicken continued. “Some unstable geology under here released a big cloud of carbon dioxide, which bubbled up and displaced all the oxygen in and around your house. You might remember a burning sensation right before you passed out? Luckily for you, I arrived after only a couple seconds and brought you up here where the air is still good. Now, we have a problem, you-“

“Okay, hang on.” Vincent interrupted. As he spoke, he clambered away from the edge and sat down heavily. He eyed the chicken and the distant ground. “How did you get me up here, and for how long was I unconscious?”

The chicken blinked.

“That is not important. What is important is that you are not supposed to be here”, she continued.

“Uh, yeah, I would say so. And my house is definitely not supposed to be down there.” he pointed at the ruined structure. Vincent’s response was formed largely on autopilot and had passed his lips before he’d even considered his words. As such, his tone belied a more collected state of mind than that of which he was currently in possession. In retrospect, Vincent considered that was not necessarily a bad thing. “So what the hell happened?”

The chicken let out a very human sigh and said,

“I am afraid that there is a lot about the answer to that question that you will not understand. A very concise summary is that it appears that your house and you were mistakenly moved during a spatial processing event. It is still not clear to me why this has happened, however it is needless to articulate that it should not have been so. Therein lies the danger.”

Vincent felt dazed as he tried to process the words that swam past him when her final word stuck him like a pin in a pair of homemade underpants. His mind rapidly coalesced.

“Wait. What danger?”

“As I said, what has occurred to your house should not have been so. It is likely the persons in charge have been made aware and are taking steps. Come with me please.”

The chicken walked to the more-or-less center of the butte’s top and gestured impatiently at a still visibly confused Vincent. He was slowly getting to his feet when, for some reason, the tone with which the chicken next spoke shot a bolt of cold fear into him:

“Hurry please, it will not be good to be here when The Rectifier arrives.”


fear and loathing in non-measurable sets: an anecdote

Many years ago, when dinosaurs roamed and naked-mouthed humans could mingle with impunity, I was a wide-eyed student working on a bachelor’s degree in physics. Sometime during my final year, I had trouble sleeping. Now, there are many, curricular reasons that a physics student might have a bout of insomnia (many are practically tradition) but this was the only instance in my career (so far) where mathematics alone was responsible for it. This was the day I read about the so-called Banach-Tarski paradox.

I won’t explain the whole thing here for two reasons – it’s already been done well in the Wikipedia page linked above and I still don’t understand enough of the underlying mathematics to do it justice. That said, the crux of the “paradox” is the following: one can take a mathematical object (frequently a sphere) which can be disassembled into parts that make up the whole. These parts can then be rotated and translated in such a way that, when reassembled, they yield two identical copies of the original object. The way this is achieved has to do with certain quirks of set theory and concepts of whether something can be measured.

As far as paradoxes go, it’s not particularly exciting (technically, it’s actually not even a paradox, check out the article). However, as a blossoming physics student, the concepts of conservation of mass and energy had been hammered into my brain, and this paradox had lodged in my brain like a piece of popcorn in the teeth. I actually lost sleep over it; in my view, mathematics was self-inconsistent and broken. How could we rely on mathematics for logical exactness when there was clear proof that it was broken? If math is inconsistent, how can it reliably describe the universe? I now can say that my understanding was incomplete, but at the time I was pretty distraught.

I eventually wound up in my advisor’s office, telling him of my concerns: that it wasn’t worth it to study physics if the descriptions we use are internally flawed, that the logic on which I built all my understanding was flawed. After thinking for a moment, he leaned back in his chair and allayed my fears as only a physicist could. As he put it, while mathematics can deal with infinity, physics takes place within a universe that we know to be granular with objects that are necessarily finite, which we extend to get our concepts of conservation of matter and energy. While I was not completely satisfied that mathematics wasn’t broken, my fears about physics collapsing about our ears had been sufficiently put to rest.

Now, years later, I have come to a slightly more complete understanding of the problem. The so-called paradox is not indicative of a fundamental flaw of mathematics, but rather an interesting quirk that arises from the application of the axiom of choice. Again, I won’t go into the details here (since I don’t understand them well enough to explain them simply), suffice it to say that the axiom of choice is used to cast the mathematical problem of disassembling and reassembling a ball in such a way that uses non-measurable sets. This is significant because it allows the pieces of the ball to be described without volume, and as soon as we abandon the constraint of volume, we get the “paradox”.

The thing that intrigues me most is that the simple choice of how to describe the problem can create or resolve such a glaring paradox. It is a stark reminder that, for all it’s elegance, mathematics is still a human construction that we use to try to understand the universe, and far from perfect or complete. To view it in this way really begs the question of whether something like mathematics can really achieve a truthful description of the universe, but that is a discussion for another post. In my opinion, this sentiment applies to all branches of science and is a beautiful explanation to why we will always need to keep learning and researching.


making ramen

one of the things I love most in the world is food, and one of the things I love about food is the process of making it, and one of my favorite foods to make and to eat is ramen! So today’s post is a very special audio-visual presentation by yours truly, showing you how to make delicious, homemade ramen (complete with marinated eggs!) using a recipe I was making up as I went along. Without further ado, here is ‘making ramen’.

if any of you make this yourselves, let me know how you like it.


more horoscopes!

I once saw the Mystic Ivan survive among a pack of hyenas for three days armed with nothing but a tattered loincloth and a sharp stick. While the staff of the Roger Williams Zoo had no appreciation for this feat, I have been in awe of the man ever since. Below, I pass his wisdom, once again, on to you.

by The Mystic Ivan – “Guaranteed accurate on Tuesday for a hamburger today.”

Ride the ups and downs of your mood like a wave. Ignore the thrashing of those who get caught in your riptide.

Remember to express outwards as much as you withdraw inwards, except when sharing political opinions online.

All the negative media coverage of current events may have you feeling sad. Now is the time to try drawing funny little mustaches on all the photos in the Sunday paper.

Someone in your life is hiding chocolate from you.

Sometimes getting some physical distance from your problems puts things in perspective. Unfortunately, you will not pass your driving exam.

Don’t let your indecisiveness get in the way of your dreams of being an air traffic controller.

Don’t try to plan any big lunches for just you and your cat; a lot of the food will go to waste.

Everyone either wants to be you or be with you. Remember that your cat would eat you if given the opportunity.

You may feel lonely in the coming months but resist the urge to construct a significant other out of a mop and office supplies.

Consider being more attentive to the problems of those around you by offering fashion advice to fellow commuters on the bus.

You work too much! Try to incorporate playfulness into your routine by shredding random papers you find lying around at work.

Your view of yourself as a natural empath will be tested when you start your retail job this week.