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The Straight Dope

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I was intrigued by a recent news report that members of a formerly men-only club were upset now that women were being admitted because they could no longer engage in nude swimming. Now, it's true I've led a sheltered life, having gone to school at the convent and all, but what exactly is the deal with nude swimming? Wouldn't this "style" affect performance due to an uncontrollable "rudder effect," so to speak? Should we consult a sailing expert to gain additional insight? What are the implications of this new rule? Will lap times improve? Help me sort out the meaning of this change. --All Wet in Wilmette

Don't worry about the rudder effect, A.W. With most of the guys at those clubs, the coefficient of drag is so small as to be statistically insignificant. Myself, I prefer to wear trunks.

I knew a woman who would walk through campus Hula Hooping, all the while reading a physics textbook. Ever since then I've been wondering: does that little ball inside the Hula Hoop do more than provide sound effects? Is it necessary to keep the Hula Hoop going? --Lisa Smith, Washington, D.C.

Really now, Lisa. We are entering the Hula Hoop's 30th year, and it seems to me you could come up with a question slightly more cosmic than what the damn little ball inside it is for. Aren't you curious about the Hula Hoop's influence on postwar American society? The Hula Hoop as Freudian symbol? No? Fine. Just see if I ever try and broaden your horizons again. Little ball it is.

We called up the Wham-O company, maker of the Hula Hoop (as well as the Frisbee and the Super Ball), hoping for a little technical insight. Everybody we talked to said the little ball--actually three or four steel BBs--was just for sound effects. We learned that the original Hula Hoop, which Cecil had known and loved as a child, was silent. But later generations, their senses dulled by constant TV viewing, required more sonic razzle-dazzle. The first noisy hoops, called Shoop Shoop Hula Hoops, had pieces of walnut shell sliding around inside. Later this gave way to the BBs now found in all hoops.

Swell, we said, but are you sure another reason you put in the BBs wasn't that you were down-sizing the plastic in order to goose the profit margin and you needed the extra weight to give the hoop some heft? Cross our hearts, they said, and we believed them. However, the most senior among them, the plant manager, had been with the firm only 20 years, whereas the Hula Hoop was 30 years old. Who knows what chicanery may have taken place in those early days?

So we decided to put the matter to the practical test. We went out to Toys "R" Us and bought a regulation Hula Hoop ($3.69 plus tax). We practiced diligently until we could keep the thing going for five minutes at a crack, no small task if you haven't done it for 25 years. (Cecil notes happily that he got the hang of it before Mrs. Adams, who normally delights in humiliating him in matters athletic.)

Then we took out the BBs and tried again. Result: no observable difference, except that we were now free of that godforsaken racket and could concentrate on the Zen of the Hula Hoop experience. My advice to you parents: deep-six the little noisemakers for good. (I mean the BBs, silly.) The kids want more stimulation, tell 'em to go see Robocop. The interval between the Terrible Twos and the onset of heavy metal is short enough as it is.

Why do we call polka dots "polka" dots when all they really are, are dots? --Curious, But Not Losing Too Much Sleep, aka Don Bogen, Dallas

Glad to see you're keeping a sense of perspective about this, Don. Polka dots are a by-product of the immense popularity of polka dancing in the 19th century. There were polka jackets, polka hats, even polka gauze. Whether you were originally supposed to use these while engaged in polka-ing is not clear; more probably it was like the "radio" in Radio Flyer wagons--the inventor just wanted to bask in the penumbra of with-itness the word suggested. "Polka dots" does have the advantage of suggesting a pattern of dots, which the word "dots" alone does not.

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

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