Little Hollywood story No. 1
June 16th, 2012
Back in 1986 I was working at an animation facility in Burbank, California when we
got a job to design and shoot a bunch of writhing pink tunnels for the fantasy film
Howard the Duck.
I won’t mention names, but a certain concern far north of us in San Rafael had more
work than it could comfortably handle at that moment and so farmed this project out
to us through our art director on the condition that we keep the whole thing a
deep, dark secret and that we expect no screen credit. Plus there would be hell to
pay if they could see any “ridging” (superfine stripes caused by
equipment vibration or rattle) in the textures on the final product. The code name
they instructed us to use for the film was “Huey.”
It was an exasperating effort involving half a dozen of us but we eventually turned
out between 20 and 30 tunnel sequences and several of them wound up in the final
film. I had high hopes for “Huey” because I remembered the title
character as the wry, cigar-chomping, wisecracking waterfowl not entirely
dissimilar to Bobby London’s Dirty Duck who appeared regularly in the National
Lampoon’s funny pages during the 70s.
Shortly before Howard the Duck was released to the public we were welcomed to attend a
screening at the Alfred Hitchcock Theater at Universal City. The room was
packed and I was told Stephen Spielberg was in attendance.
Now being perfectly aware of how much blood and sweat go into making a movie — whether it
turns out good, bad, or indifferent — I always try to find something to like and
appreciate when I watch one. Howard the Duck certainly did
have its moments,
and I think so even more to this day. But you could hear a pin drop in there at
times when it was obvious we were all supposed to be laughing. As we filed out at
the end there was a lot of polite murmuring.
The next day at work we were saying things like, “That’s OK, the kids’ll like
it!” and “Boy, there was a lot happening in that picture, wasn’t
there?” As everyone knows, the film went down in history as a spectacular
failure. The trade magazines tried to outdo each other by brandishing headlines
like “HOWARD THE DUCK, A NEW BREED OF TURKEY,” “THE DUCK LAYS AN EGG,” and so
forth. Rumors even flew that Universal production heads Sid Sheinberg and Frank
Price literally got into fisticuffs over who had been more to blame for
greenlighting Howard in the first place.
But by far the most entertaining aspect of this, at least to me, was something Michelle Pfeiffer
said in a 1990 issue of People magazine: “You know, I look like a duck. I
just do. And I’m not the only person who thinks that. It’s the way my mouth sort of
curls up or my nose tilts up. I should have played Howard the Duck.”
Buckminsterfullerene, lab rats, and you
May 1st, 2012
Feeding laboratory rats purplish buckminsterfullerene-infused olive oil makes them live twice as long.
At least that’s the observation published by researchers recently at the University
of Paris-Sud. In their experiment one set of Wistar rats went olive oil-free, the second set
got the oil alone, while the third had their olive oil enriched with
Median lifespans came out to 22 months, 26 months, and 42 months
respectively. One lucky participant in the third group lived 66 months — pretty much a
Jeanne Calment-like record for any rat. For further details you can go
and for the complete technical
account by the authors, here.
Buckminsterfullerene, named after futurist and geodesic dome pioneer Buckminster
Fuller, is a form of carbon consisting of a spherical shell of 60 atoms. They’re arranged
into 20 hexagons and 12 pentagons identical to the pattern on a regulation soccer ball.
was first prepared in a laboratory at Rice University in 1985 but
since then it’s been found to occur naturally in small traces in soot and meteorites. It’s odorless
Over the intervening 25-plus years an entire technology has flourished around
fullerenes in general (buckyballs in sizes aside from just 60), graphene
(individual chicken wire sheets of carbon atoms) nanotubes (that same chicken
wire wrapped into cylinders), and other novel carbon-based geometries. These
substances are exhibiting some pretty unusual properties
, to put it
mildly, and they’ve been creeping into virtually every branch of science
Now that these lab-generated fullerenes and their kin threaten to take over the
world, the experimenters at Paris-Sud and others have rightly wondered if some or
all might be toxic in some way. Remember asbestos? Dioxins?
At least in terms of C60
and as far as their rats are concerned, the
answer seems to be the exact opposite. Of course it’s possible
that what’s beneficial during the lifespan of a rat might be deleterious — or for all we know at the moment, even fatal — over
longer periods of time in humans.
So, where would you (hypothetically, of course — for your, uh, “rats”) get this
stuff? What does it cost? What different varieties are there, and what do they
look and act like?
All about buckyballs
Fullerenes appear whenever you vaporize carbon in an inert atmosphere. The team of
Sir Harry Kroto, Robert Curl, and Richard Smalley at Rice produced the
first samples of C60
in 1985 by firing a pulsed laser at a spinning
graphite disc under pressurized helium. They shared the Nobel
for chemistry for this work in 1996.
But the method of choice nowadays involves zapping an electrical arc between the
tips of two graphite rods, also surrounded by helium but under a partial vacuum. A
fullrene-rich soot builds up on the walls of the chamber which technicians then mix
with toluene, filter, and then process through a device called a chromatograph that
sorts the components according to their differing flow rates and colors (deep
purple for C60
, then gradations through red for C70
orange and gold beyond that).
Most of the output emerges as buckminsterfullerene, C60
, followed a
distant second by C70
. A tiny remainder yields other sizes in the 60s,
70s, 80s, and beyond. Both C60
form dark brown
crystalline solids. They don’t dissolve in water, but rather in oils and in organic
solvents like the toluene mentioned above and benzene and ethanol. A liter of
either olive oil or ethanol will dissolve about 8/10 of a gram.
In principle any pioneering chemicals like fullerenes are assumed toxic until
proven otherwise and so handled under strict protocols. As all these years have
worn on, though, technicians blessed with anything less than superhuman diligence
have undoubtedly ingested them. Had any dropped dead or even sickened noticeably
it’s certainly been kept a secret.
The cosmetics industry has been hawking products
containing fullerenes for some years now, though independent analyses have revealed
the actual content of some representative samples to be stingy if not downright
homeopathic — on the order of a microgram or less per gram
Safety testing with fullerenes for internal use has more work ahead of it, but at least
one early observation is encouraging. The buckminsterfullerene in the rats at
Paris-Sud passed completely through their systems and out within a couple of days. Whatever
free radical-scavenging and/or other effects it had, it did its thing and then
politely excused itself.
Choose your color
In an ideal world in which fullerenes of all sizes were available at reasonable
cost, you’d want to run a similar but far more exhaustive set of lab rat experiments
trying out each C-something separately to find the holiest grail.
Smaller than C60
they get increasingly unstable, though some parties claim
they can produce and store (how cold and for how long, I don’t know) fullerenes down
. In the other direction they grow in size by even numbers, well into
the hundreds and theoretically into the thousands.
Right now our world is less than ideal and realistically speaking you can get
, and C84
and little else unless you have influential friends in the nano business.
Prices vary according to your bulk discount and the degree of refinement you’d like, so for
comparison purposes let’s stick to 1-gram lots at 99% or so purity.
|Typical fullerene prices per gram|
|C60 ||$32 ||€26|
|C70 ||$345 ||€285|
|C76 ||$50,000 ||€41,300|
|C78 ||$50,000 ||€41,300|
|C84 ||$42,000 ||€34,650|
isn’t bad right now*, but C70
costs ten times as much
and the last three belong in a vault someplace. This appears to reflect the
proportions of each that you get through that catch-as-catch-can carbon arc
technique. But fortunately there are, or presently will be, a couple of loopholes
A less refined product called fullerene extract, consisting of a lot of
, a little C70
, and traces of the others goes for bargain
rates of around $13 per gram. This is what comes out of the chamber after
has had all its non-fullerene riffraff filtered out but before
its final separations.
If at some point this extract could be left with its C-number imperfections
but otherwise cleaned up to pharmaceutical standards, it should still come in
at a very reasonable price. (At worst the C70
-plus that’s still in there
would just be deadwood. Or better, maybe it will turn out that those varieties
are just as effective as C60
or even more so.)
The second thing to consider is that the buckyball industry is getting more crowded and
competitive by the week. Other production methods waiting in the wings should prove
vastly more economical and it’s just a matter of time before market pressures force
one or more of those to come on line.
One stellar candidate involves firing a near-ultraviolet laser at
against a platinum plate. The chemical
is basically an unwrapped buckyball with hydrogens
lining the edges, called a polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon or PAH, and relatively
easy to prepare. The combination of the laser and the platinum catalyst makes the
hydrogens pop off and the remaining carbon cage snap itself closed into a
Moreover it’s expected that different varieties of these
PAHs will sire different-sized, made-to-order fullerenes. Then we could get going
on that multicolored olive oil trial described above.
Averaged over the 17-month experimental treatment period, the Paris-Sud lab rats
effectively partook of 1.3 milligrams of C60 per kilogram of body weight
per month. Assuming a typical adult human weighs about 75 kilograms, an equivalent
monthly dose at this unit price would come out to around $3.10.
(Bukminsterfullerene certifiable for internal consumption would cost considerably more,
A denier for a denier denier
December 23rd, 2011
Here are some words and expressions that drive me nuts, whether they’re popularly acceptable or not.
Herbivore vs. vegetarian
Sorry, folks. Animals can be herbivores (by natural design) but as far as I know only people can be
vegetarians (by choice).
Career vs. careen
A car can career (travel quickly and recklessly) through an outdoor market but should only
careen (tilt) when it goes too fast around corners. This was one of newscaster
Edwin Newman’s favorite beefs.
Luxurious vs. luxuriant
Houses, vacations, and yachts can be luxurious. But unless you plan to use
them to stuff cushions or something, hair and foliage can only
Break your fall
You may well break through an awning while you’re at it, but having something
“brake” your fall would make much more sense in my book. This sort of reminds me of
“buck naked” vs. “butt naked” (always
“buck,” but I have no idea why, unless it declares you can’t afford even a dollar
to dress yourself).
To move the meeting back vs. up
For some reason this one has always given me brain freeze. Whenever someone has
told me a certain stress-inducing event has been moved either back or up, I’ve had to ask
immediately “To when?” before I’ve been able to relax or panic.
I first encountered this word when I was a kid reading an entry in the Guinness
Book of World Records describing the thread size of the sheerest women’s hosiery
ever sold. In that case, it’s pronounced DEN-ee-ay. Only much, much later than I
should have did I learn of “denier” (dee-NIE-er) as one who denies.
History buffs might also add “denier” (back to DEN-ee-ay) for the
currency instituted by Charlemagne.
Redundant, since “whence” already means “from where.” But now that I see that
the use of “from whence” goes back at least as far as the King James Bible
(1611) I guess I don’t have a leg to stand on. Still hate it, though.
I can’t say that New York crime boss John Gotti and I would have had much in
common, but one thing that we did was his abhorrence of people talking about having
“closure.” This disease of a word seems to have cropped up only
within the last 25 years or so by way of TV crime commentaries. For me only
things like zippers, Velcro strips, and buttons
To pay one’s respects
Much too bloodless and pro forma-sounding, as if you were a US vice president
taking in the funeral of a minor dignitary you’ve scarcely heard of. The
expression also presupposes that you harbored some respect for (if not fear of)
the person who has died. You may or may not have, but there are still quite
likely enough other reasons to sympathize and commiserate.
I’m originally from...
The bane of game show emcees, job interviewers, and blind dates. It sounds like
you were birthed from a steel drawer and warns your listener further dry
details may follow. “I’m from...” is sufficient; the geography you
choose to cite can vary depending on the listener and the context.
(As opposed to cruelly, right?)
The four thousand of us are dying
September 30th, 2011
What’s happening to all of our celebrities? Sometimes it seems like anyone
owning either a pair of shoes or a bottle of scotch that predate Justin Bieber is either
outta here or at least teetering on the brink. Boy, the world was once so darned
But take heart. Who expected Conrad Bain to survive both Dana Plato and
Gary Coleman? (Well, OK, but still.) Or Abe Vigoda to outlive spurious news of his demise by
twenty-going-on-thirty years? Way to go, you two.
Here’s a list of people who are — in many cases
quite enrichingly — still with us as of this writing.
They range in age from 43 to 107. Some of these are obvious; others, pleasantly surprising.
Richard Anderson (Oscar in Six Million Dollar Man
William Asher (Bewitched
Mrs Beal, my first grade teacher
James Best (Twilight Zone
, Dukes of Hazard
Frank Cady (Green Acres
, Petticoat Junction
Elliott Carter (composer, b. 1908)
Jimmy Carter (second longest ex-presidency so far)
Charo (cuchi-cuchi flamenco guitarist)
Ramsey Clark (US Attorney General under Lyndon Johnson)
Rose Cliver (1906 San Francisco earthquake survivor)
Mike Connors (Mannix
“Professor” Irwin Corey
Louise Currie (Citizen Kane
Bill Daily (Roger Healey on I Dream of Jeannie
William Daniels (The Graduate
, peevish voice of Knight Rider
Olivia de Havilland
Chad Everett (Medical Center
Lawrence Ferlinghetti (“Johnny Nolan has a patch on his ass...”)
Zsa Zsa Gabor (Queen of Outer Space
John Gilchrist (“Mikey” for Quaker Life, didn’t die from Pop Rocks)
Florence Green (World War I veteran)
Monty Hall (Door number one, number 2, or number 3?)
Ray Harryhausen (stop-motion animator)
Johannes Heesters (film and TV actor, b. 1903)
Gloria Henry (Alice in original Dennis the Menace
Mrs Huyler, my second grade teacher
Al Jaffee (Mad cartoonist)
Wojciech Jaruzelski (shade-wearing Polish president ousted by Solidarity)
George Clayton Johnson (original Twilight Zone
Dean Jones (frequent Disney actor)
Mikhail Kalashnikov (rifle inventor)
Nicholas Katzenbach (succeeded Robert Kennedy as US Attorney General)
Bil Keane (Family Circus
Margaret Keane (Wide Eyed Moppets)
Don Keefer (got turned into a jack-in-the-box in Twilight Zone
Barbara Kent (silent movie actress, b. 1906)
Tommy Kirk (The Shaggy Dog
Madeleine LeBeau (last surviving Casablanca
cast member, b. 1923)
Carla Laemmle (silent movie actress, b. 1909)
Norman Lloyd (fell off Statue of Liberty in Hitchcock’s Saboteur
George Maharis (Route 66
Jerry Maren (Lollipop Guild munchkin in The Wizard of Oz
Peter Marshall (Hollywood Squares
Martin Milner (Route 66
, Sex Kittens Go To College
Sir Patrick Moore (seemingly immortal astronomy popularizer)
Robert Morse (How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying
Frederik Pohl (Golden Era science fiction author/editor)
Douglas Rain (voice of HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey
Rex Reason (This Island Earth
Prince Norodom Sihanouk
Paolo Soleri (utopic architect and bell maker)
Rip Taylor (confetti thrower)
Mamie Van Doren (High School Confidential
Mort Walker (Beetle Bailey
Eli Wallach (Baby Doll
Cal Worthington (used car tycoon)
Alan Young (The Time Machine, Mister Ed
Title refers to the old Twilight Zone episode “The Four of Us Are Dying” about a face-changing con artist, played by four different actors. Who dies.