Back to Home Page

Show current »

Birthday today  
Born today in 1896: General James Doolittle


Mouse-over for titles.

Four articles shown »


Odd, entirely unrelated facts II

John B. “Jack” Kelly, Sr, perhaps best remembered nowadays as the father of actress and later Monaco princess Grace Kelly, won three Olympic gold medals for rowing during the 1920s. As a brickwork contractor, he ensured payment by secretly installing a sheet of glass inside his clients’ chimneys to block the draft. When the check cleared he’d have an employee drop a brick down the chimney from the top.

Ja Da
The title song from Arlo Guthrie’s 1967 album (and later 1969 film) “Alice’s Restaurant” exactly parallels, in its phrasing and 8-measure structure, the 1918 song “Ja-Da” by Bob Carleton. If you play them together they harmonize and counterpoint precisely.

Actor Eddie Albert first appeared on television on 6 November 1936 for a live presentation of his 40-minute play “The Love Nest.” The show, also featuring the Ink Spots and comedian Ed Wynn, emanated from Radio City in New York at 346 lines of resolution. (“Green Acres” premiered almost 29 years later on 15 September 1965.)

History’s first charge card transaction took place on 8 February 1950 at Major’s Cabin Grill adjacent to the Empire State Building in New York City. The party consisted of attorney Frank McNamara, loan company executive Ralph Schneider, and press agent Matty Simmons who later founded The National Lampoon. The card was Diner’s Club (#1000).

Author, commentator, spy novelist, and National Review founder William F. Buckley, Jr’s first language as a child was Spanish. His second was French.

Incandescent light bulbs convert only a small fraction of their energy input to light, but that extra energy isn’t necessarily wasted. If the bulbs are indoors and the weather is cool enough for the furnace to run, they simply share some of that burden. Modern LEDs generate virtually no heat, but that can actually be a problem for such applications as traffic lights since during the winter the snow and ice won’t melt off.

Israeli military leader Moshe Dayan was such an enthusiastic archaeology buff he rarely hesitated to help himself to any little treasures he’d come across. Throughout his lifetime he amassed a spectacular collection this way. Shortly after the Six-Day War of 1967 Dayan sneaked alone into a dig near Holon, south of Tel Aviv, to try his luck. The dirt caved in on him, leaving only one hand visible. Children happened onto the hand sometime later and directed rescuers to dig him out.

Little Hollywood story No. 1

Cigar smoker, though not a duck
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

Buckminsterfullerene equals longevity?
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 buckminsterfullerene.

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 here, here, here, here, 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. C60 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 and flavorless.

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 and engineering.

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

A philosopher’s stone, that fullerene?
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 prize 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 and 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 and C70 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.

Bucky rat
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 of lotion.

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

Buckyballs, yum, yum, yum.
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 to C36. 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 C60, C70, C76, C78, 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

So C60 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 around this.

A less refined product called fullerene extract, consisting of a lot of C60, 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 it has had all its non-fullerene riffraff filtered out but before it undergoes 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 C60H30 against a platinum plate. The chemical C60H30 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 C60 molecule.

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, of course.)


A denier for a denier denier

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 be luxuriant.

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.

From whence

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 provide closure.

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.

Humanely euthanized

(As opposed to cruelly, right?)