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The Straight Dope 

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I have read your column ever since my then 13-year-old daughter pointed out your discussion on the subject of breaking the penis. The years of keeping track of you have been very entertaining and mildly informative. I feel I owe you one. Perhaps the following will satisfy that obligation.

You are undoubtedly aware that the Washington Post prints an extraordinarily poor imitation of your column called "Why Things Are" by Joel Achenbach. If you are the least bit human, you would welcome the opportunity to nail the bastard. Herewith, two possible approaches.

The first one is easy. Achenbach's explanation of why golf balls have dimples (enclosed) is so full of errors and so clearly down your street that you will have no trouble slaughtering the bum. The second is tougher but potentially more rewarding. We are, after all, dealing with a fellow who begins a paragraph, "Me, I don't read," and ends it claiming that The Brothers Karamazov is ". . . thematically the same story as Return of the Jedi." This angered me so much that I have been trying to write my own rebuttal for three weeks. The approach I was working on was based on Georges Polti's classic The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations. I had no trouble pointing out that the theme of The Brothers Karamazov is Polti's #3, Crime Pursued by Vengeance. Nor did I have trouble with Return of the Jedi, clearly Polti's #8, Revolt. But the job turns out to be harder than I had counted on, largely because the story line of Brothers is so complicated. Perhaps you might care to give it a shot and use it as an excuse for blasting the twit. --Bill Balderston, Washington, D.C.

Now, now. Joel is a good fellow, and he will surely get the hang of this know-it-all business eventually. I still recall with a shudder the time when as a young pup I blithely adverted to "talking books for the deaf." That said, Joel's explanation of golf ball dimples bites the bag. He writes, "Increased turbulence [due to dimpling] means less drag on the surface of the ball . . . . The backspin imparted by the club face is what gives a ball lift, but without dimples the air will 'cling' to the ball, and will flop to the ground."

Not to put too fine a point on it, this is completely scrambled. For the real answer we turn to the bookshelf. A few volumes to the left of Joel's two epics we find . . well, I guess Aquinas isn't the ideal source on this. Let's try Ira Flatow's Rainbows, Curve Balls & Other Mysteries of the Natural World Explained. Ira tells us (or rather tells you; me he merely reminds) that the purpose of dimples is not to reduce but to increase drag on the ball, up to a point. This enables the ball to grab the layer of air immediately adjacent. Because the ball has backspin, the air on top of the ball moves faster than the air below, and the ball develops lift. The Bernoulli principle in action, if you'll excuse a little name-dropping. Airplane wings work the same way.

As for Return of the Jedi and the The Brothers Karamazov, Joel's reference thereto gave me pause, too. However, rather than waste a lot of time trying to explain what The Brothers K was really about, which sounds perilously close to what I used to write in blue books in college, I called up Joel and asked what the hell he had in mind. Here's his explanation: he got through the first 60 or 70 pages of The Brothers K and noticed that the brothers seemed to have problems with their father. So, after a manner of speaking, did Luke Skywalker in Jedi. (His father, you'll recall, was Darth Vader. Many of us can relate.) Both works also had to do with good and evil and stuff like that. Ergo, they are thematically equivalent. OK, so it's not what you'd call a closely reasoned argument, but come on, says Joel, it was a joke, mostly. Joel, sez I, in this business you make jokes at risk of your life. This guy Balderston has been stewing about this for three weeks. Just be glad that downstairs the Post has guards.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

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