Golf Ball Autopsy


Not everyone knows what’s inside a golf ball. I do. Or I thought I did.

When I was a kid a friend of mine taught me how to open golf balls. You need a hacksaw (Sw. bÃ¥gfil) and preferably a vise (Sw. skruvstycke). It’s impossible to open them with a knife or wire cutters – you’re guaranteed to stab yourself if you try. After removing the dimpled hard white shell, we found a layer of soft black rubber, then tens of meters of tightly rolled-up thin brown rubber band, and at the ball’s centre a small limp ampoule of soft black rubber that felt like it contained oil. I don’t recall opening that. In essence, the balls I opened in the 80s were like balls of string, only consisting of rubber band.

Over the last year I have collected two messed-up golf balls from the ground in order to pass the lore on to my kids. One, a Callaway HX Hot 3, looked like it had been gnawed by a large sharp-toothed dog. The other, a Spaulding Top-Flite 6, had been set on fire and then put out before the whole shell caught flames.

Opening the two balls with my kids last night, I found to my surprise that neither contained any rubber bands. Both instead consisted of a solid ball of very hard rubber, orange in the Callaway and blue in the Spaulding. The Callaway also had a layer of hard clear plastic inside the shell.

So now I wonder, like archaeologists often do when faced with a small sample of finds, if the difference I have documented is due to change over time or if I am dealing with two separate functional or symbolic categories of golf ball that have co-existed for decades.

Disclaimer: I would be embarrassed if anyone imagined that I play golf. I just live next to a golf course where I occasionally go skiing in the winters.

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Reading in French

I hardly ever read books in French and I hardly ever read books by Nobel laureates. In the first case, my grasp of the language is shaky and I have no good entry point into French literature: I don’t know what to try. I think the last French-language book I tried reading was Les Trois Mousquetaires, and I dropped it halfway through because it’s silly and romantic. In the second case, I have no respect whatsoever for the collective taste (or “artistic authority”!) of the Swedish Academy, and it is my firm opinion that the only reason that anybody cares about the Nobel prize for literature is the size of the cheque.

The book I just finished reading is thus of an entirely unheard-of kind for me: a French-language work by a Nobel laureate. I quite enjoyed J.M.G. Le Clézio’s little 2004 book L’Africain.

Now, why this sudden uncharacteristic choice of reading matter? It’s a little complicated, but bear with me.

  1. I like Lovecraft, Poe and Baudelaire.
  2. Lovecraft mentions Huysmans, who also liked Poe and Baudelaire.
  3. I avoid reading translations from the languages I know.
  4. Checking out Huysmans’ À rébours from the library, I realised that this was a book I could have read in the original.
  5. To compensate for this misstep, I decided to get another book in French.
  6. When Le Clézio got the prize he was described in the media as an unusually accessible Nobel author.
  7. L’Africain is only 125 pages and has an interesting summary on the back cover.

Simple as that. The book is an evocative treatment of the author’s father’s youthful work as a rural doctor in sub-Saharan Africa, and of some childhood years the author spent there. It is also a regretful meditation on why the father had such a bad relationship with his children. Although a white man raised in Mauritius speaking both French and English, the father is the African of the book’s title.

As for Huysmans, I must say that though À rébours is highly original and full of lovely details, I found the neurotic main character to be quite a silly figure. Rather than the “Bible of the Decadents”, the book must at least in part have been written as a caricature of wealthy decadence. There’s a hilarious scene where Des Esseintes pays a female ventriloquist to become his mistress and she gets really bored by having to make weird voices appear to come from without all the time when the two get between the sheets.

Now, Dear Reader, tell me what I should read in French and why!

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i-5829652f66bd6fa183ab85e0f11b4a54-rutabaga.jpgEverybody knows that English has borrowed the words ombudsman and smorgasbord from Swedish. But did you know that rutabaga is another Swedish loan? And that it was borrowed from a rural Swedish dialect, not standard Swedish?

“Rutabaga” is an American word for the kind of turnip known to Englishmen and Australians as swede. Indeed, the plant hybrid probably once arose in Sweden. In standard Swedish, though, it’s called kÃ¥lrot, “cabbage root” — which is botanically speaking exactly what it is. “Rut-” in “rutabaga” is simply rot, “root”. Bagge (“-baga”) means “ram”, and my speculation is that the big mean turnip was compared affectionately to the bigger meaner kind of sheep. But standard Swedish wouldn’t put that extra -a- between rot and bagge. Unsourced statements around the web suggest that the word rotabagge originated in Västergötland province.

I rarely eat rutabaga. When I do, it’s diced with other veggies in broth soup, or mashed with potatoes to produce the wonderfully sweet and orange rotmos. Or rutamus, as I guess Americans would call it.

I was inspired to write about this by Norm Sherman’s sobering and chilling gangster lyric for his song “Rutabaga“. Their words were all splurred when they sloke!

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Mars Rovers Still Working After Six Years


Dear Reader, remember the remote-controlled Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity? How long is it since the last time you thought of them? Spirit landed on Mars six Earth calendar years ago today, Opportunity on 25 January — and both still work fine! Sadly, though, Spirit has been stuck on the edge of a small dust-filled crater since May last year, one set of wheels inside and one outside the crater. Its future looks dim as the Martian winter approaches and it is in a poor position for continued solar power. But Oppy trundles on toward Endeavour crater, taking pictures and analysing rocks. In July it found a huge iron-nickel meteorite sitting on the Martian ground surface. Check out the project’s web site for news!

Update 5 January: Check out this excellent overview from the Planetary Society of currently active missions in the solar system and launches planned for 2010.

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