Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Pop Quiz: Psycho-Olfactive Sleuthing Contest

Via TheFashionisto

In his capacity as Special Correspondent for Allure’s Daily Beauty Reporter [Well, isn’t that special?—Ed.] Jeffrey Slonim attended last week’s Fragrance Foundation Awards at Lincoln Center. [Wait, they still have those?—Ed.] [Yes. They just don’t call them the FiFi’s any more.]

While covering the momentous event, Slonim asked various celebrities what scents “are most meaningful to them.” He published responses from

Linda Evangelista
Tommy Hilfiger
Alexandra Richards [Who?—Ed.] [Keith’s daughter. Try to keep up.]
Johnny Weir
Anja Rubik
Kiernan Shipka [C’mon, your killing me here.—Ed.] and
Victor Cruz.

Go take a quick look at the quotes. Then, using the clinical skillz you acquired at the Acme School of Olfactory Psychology, tell us in the comments which of the seven celebrities is really not that into smell. Be sure to explain your reasoning.


So which celeb did you pick?

On Twitter, perfumista Nick Gilbert (no relation) pointed to Tommy Hilfiger, citing his attitude in that BBC perfume documentary. I say interesting choice—weird that Hilfiger remembers the scent that he was wearing when he first made out, but not the girl’s scent. However, he is not my pick.

The correct answer is Kiernan Shipka, the kid who played the kid on Mad Men. Here’s her quote:
“I would say the scents of a couple of different places: My grandma’s house, nostalgic places that I've been to and visit. Certain stores. Or when you walk into a restaurant and recognize the smell. I like the familiarity of walking in and thinking, Oh, I’m here; I know I’m here.”
What’s striking about Shipka’s quote is what’s missing, namely any mention of a specific smell or specific place. Compared with those of the other celebs, her quote is bland and generic; it lacks any feel for fragrance. Of course, maybe she has a lousy publicist or just forgot the talking points supplied to her on the way to the red carpet. But based on the evidence in Allure, my bet is that Shipka is just not that into scent.

Monday, June 22, 2015

On the Radio

Welcome, CBC Radio listeners! Check out the topic tags and have a look around.

The Current host Piya Chattopadhyay and producer Acey Rowe put together a fine episode of their By Design series that turned attention to smell. It's called “Mapping urban smellscapes: Designing cities through scent”, and you can listen to it here.

Kate McLean and Daniele Quercia discuss their mapping of urban smellscapes, and Halifax Chief Planner Bob Bjerke talks about zoning stinky land use. Smell enthusiasts and lovers of liberty would do well to heed his warning about regulating urban smells: “Be careful what you wish for.” His town is notorious for its attempts to outlaw perfume.

Some other thoughts from listening to the broadcast:

Crowd-sourced smell maps with geo-tagged contributions are cool. But what about time-date tagging? How do the mappers distinguish static odors from transient, episodic ones? Is the smelly soul of a city in the occasional bursts or the steady background? Is San Francisco more typical at low tide or high?

Smell regulation is an open invitation to political abuse. Who could object to the smell of a bakery? Answer: activists who object to it using GMO wheat, that’s who.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

ISDP: All-New Western Edition

The thirteenth of June finds us in new, temporary quarters. Having abandoned the original FirstNerve Manor in New Jersey, we are forced to compile this month’s collection of grim but morbidly fascinating odor-based discoveries from within the rickety remains of a farm building on the eastern plains of Colorado. We re-wired the windmill so that instead of filling the horse trough it recharges our battered Toshiba clamshell. And we manage to get a satellite internet signal using a rusty piece of barbed wire as an antenna. That’s the frontier life for you.

It has been a bountiful year for nominees of our coveted Norman Bates Award™. The latest arrives from India, courtesy of the Bangalore Mirror: “Kolkata man’s Psycho act with sis’s body.” And by Psycho, they do mean the film. The man, Partha De, “kept the skeleton of his sister and two dogs in his apartment for the last six months and ‘fed’ them food believing them to be alive.” He also lit candles and played eerie background music, as well as recordings of his sister’s voice.

According to police, “Partha said that his sister loved the two [dogs] dearly. When the pets died in August/September 2014, she stopped eating and starved to death in December 2014.” That’s when Partha placed all three bodies on a bed.

And how was the Batesian circumstances discovered? Police stumbled on them while investigating the charred remains of Arabinda De, Partha’s father, which were found in a bathroom. Partha had left his job as a software engineer, and according to neighbors the entire family was reclusive. [I'm shocked. Shocked.—Ed.]

Where’s grandpa?

Ninety-two-year-old Robert L. Sufana shared a house in Portage, Indiana with his grandson, the grandson’s wife, and the couple’s 7-year-old son. The grandson claims to have checked on the old man in his bedroom every other day, but that the last time he spoke to him was eight days before when he told the old man that dinner was ready and got no response. The grandson’s wife finally noticed a foul smell and asked her husband to check. He found his grandfather sitting in a resting position in his chair, dead. Police who responded to the scene could smell the stench from 50 feet outside the house. “Police interviews revealed that there was little interaction between Sufana and the family members with whom he shared the home.” [No shit.—Ed.]

This is a rather odd way to back into a nomination for the Norman Bates Award, but the grandson definitely gets one. [Anosmic or psycho?—Ed.] [Hard to say, maybe both.] We’ll ignore the seven-year-old who is currently in the care of Child Protective Services, but his mother gets a free ticket to the gala awards ceremony.

Southerly Breezes

An anonymous phone tip about a foul odor led police in Jacksonville, FL to a decomposing body in a house on Janette Street on the city’s north side.

In Velda City, Missouri, worried neighbors called police after not having seen an 82-year-old woman take her usual daily walk. Police checked; when the lady said she had the flu and didn’t wish to be disturbed, they left it at that. Some days later, police received new calls about an odor coming from the house.
“When we got there, we didn’t smell an odor,” said [Police Chief Daniel] Paulino. “It wasn’t until we opened up the mail slot that it was obvious that there was something bad inside.”
The something bad was the old lady’s decaying corpse.

Christopher B. Buchanan’s report for NBC-11 is a bit unclear, but evidently a foul odor led someone to a dead body in the bushes off Donald Lee Hollowell Parkway in northwest Atlanta.

In Odessa, Texas, police responded to call about water and a foul smell coming from a home. Inside they discovered the remains of an adult male and a running faucet. The man’s death does not appear to be suspicious.

In the vanguard

The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department got a call about foul odor emanating from a van parked by a TJ Maxx store in a shopping center in Norwalk. The caller noted the van had been parked there for several days. To the surprise of exactly zero fans of ISDP, a dead body was found in the back of the van.

Police in Hazelton, Pennsylvania, got a report of a foul odor near West Manhattan Court and Hemlock Street. [For realz?—Ed.] A caller claimed the smell was coming from a white van. However police found the badly decomposed remains of a man not in the vehicle, but wedged between two walls nearby. We note that localization by odor is a notoriously tricky thing, and given the number of van incidents that have appeared in ISDP over the years, we doubt the Hazelton caller deliberately misdirected the police.


Some four or five weeks ago, residents of Tinicum Township, Pennsylvania, noticed a suitcase tossed on the side of the road. Hey, no biggie, right? It’s Philly. Crap gets tossed on the road all the time. Finally a local man walking his dog noticed a “very foul odor” coming from the suitcase and notified police, who found inside it badly decomposed human remains. The victim had injuries to his head, neck and jaw. Police are treating the case as a homicide. [You can give ISDP cred to the dog walker, but dog probably deserves an assist.—Ed.]

The victim was later identified as 40-year-old Scott Stephen Bernheisel. About a week later a couple in their 20s was arrested in connection with Bernheisel’s murder.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Tobacco Smoke and Mirrors from the NIH: Does a High-minded Cause Justify Lying about Science?

A few weeks ago a tweet showed up in my Twitter stream: “Within a few days of quitting #smoking, your sense of smell gets better.

Despite being sent by the National Institutes of Health Office of Disease Prevention, this claim immediately set off the alarm on the FirstNerve Bogosity Meter. I’ve followed the scientific literature on smoking and olfaction for many years and could recall no such result.

Hoping for enlightenment, I followed the @NIHprevents link to a page at called “What Happens to Your Body After You Quit?” There I found this:
Within a few days you may notice other things.
Your senses of taste and smell are better.
Somehow I had expected more content from NIH. So I goosed them with my own tweet: “Really? Evidence would be nice. None cited at ur link.” Two days later I got a reply: “@theNCI [the National Cancer Institute] forwarded to us the following study to share with you

The NCI link was to a paper on PubMed that I know very well, a study published by Dick Doty and his colleagues in JAMA back in 1990. They gave the UPSIT smell test to 638 people with detailed smoking histories. They found reduced odor identification ability in long-term smokers, an effect that increased the more a person smoked. They also found that the effect was reversible.

So does this support the NIH claim that a smoker’s sense of smell will improve “within a few days” of quitting? Hardly.

The paper quantified smoking history in pack-years, calculated as the number of packs smoked per day multiplied by the number of years of smoking. The results of smoking and quitting are discussed exclusively in terms of pack-years, not days or even weeks. So NIH and NCI seem to have pulled the “after a few days” claim out of thin air.

More troubling is what the JAMA authors say about the effects of quitting:
While improvement in smell function appears to occur following cessation of smoking, such improvement is not rapid (eg, for a two-pack-per-day smoker, restoration of smell function to a level observed in non-smokers requires approximately the same number of years as the number of years smoked. [Emphasis mine.]
Contrary to claims by the anti-smoking activists at NCI and the NIH Office of Disease Prevention, there is no evidence in this paper that smell function improves “within a few days” of quitting. In fact, that claim is at odds with the JAMA authors’ own conclusion.

I tweeted the relevant passage to @NCI and @NIHprevents with a comment: “Did you not read the paper? Or are you lying in the service of a higher cause?

I also wrote: “No improved smell ‘within a few days’ of quitting. Suggest you retract misleading claim.”

I have yet to get a response.

This episode illustrates a disturbing trend—the bending of science in the promotion of public policy objectives. While encouraging people to quit smoking may be a noble and high-minded policy goal, it does not justify mischaracterizing the scientific literature. And twisting science is the last thing that the National Institutes of Health should be doing. The increasing brazen and emotional-laden ad campaigns by anti-smoking zealots seem to have infected the NIH and NCI with an attitude of “anything goes.” They can play that way if they choose, but only at the cost of their institutional credibility.

P.S. As I point out in my book, the effects of smoking on smell function are not as clear-cut as most people assume. For perspective, consider this statement by the JAMA authors: “It should be noted that the magnitude of the adverse effects of smoking on olfactory function is not large compared with the effects of such variables as age and sex.”

The study discussed here is “Dose-related effects of cigarette smoking on olfactory function,” by Richard E. Frye, Brian S. Schwartz & Richard L. Doty. JAMA 263:1233-1236, 1990.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

ISDP: Rules Committee Edition

Under normal conditions, the 13th of the month finds us pounding out a new edition of I Small Dead People in the decrepit garret atop FirstNerve Manor. Things are different today. FirstNerve Manor has been sold and we have vacated the premises. This edition is being posted from a motel room in Barkeyville, Pennsylvania, which, we note, smells faintly of urine.

An item from the police log in the Fremont, Ohio, News-Messenger:
3:46 p.m., a caller reported a foul smell, 1100 block of Stillwell Avenue. The odor was coming from dead fish wrapped in a tarp.
One of those pesky false alarms.

Another close call: In the Ivory Coast, a stowaway hides on a cargo ship amid bags of cocoa beans. Nearly three weeks later the ship docks in Philadelphia.
Dockworker Kareem Dye said he noticed a foul odor, then heard a fellow worker call, “It’s a dead body!” Dye thought the man was joking until he walked over and looked.
According to the Rules Committee, this is a tie and therefore not a qualifying ISDP event.

A strange house call in Lakeside, California:
Brooke’s body was found on March 3 when two sheriff’s court services deputies went to a Woodside Avenue apartment to serve an eviction notice on her mother, Bonnie MacBeth. She had lived there four or five years.

Bonnie answered the door and stated, “Come in, I got something to show you.” Deputies noticed a foul odor inside. One deputy asked what she was going to show them.

She replied, “My daughter is dead in the bedroom.” One deputy checked the cluttered bedroom, but found no one, so he asked where the deceased person was. Bonnie said, “In a suitcase.”
The location of the corpse was being revealed at the same time the deputies noticed a stench. Another tie. Close but no cigar.

It has been an unstated assumption here at FirstNerve that the nose discovering the foul odor of decomposition must be human. But when a mountain biker in Ogden, Utah found a woman’s body in the brush, it was because his dog had followed the scent. Throughout human-canine coevolution, the dog’s nose has been a proxy for our own. The Rules Committee has judged this to be a bona fido ISDP incident.

From Flagler County, Florida:
The body of the 25-year-old man was found after a resident in a nearby house called 911 to report a foul odor and buzzards circling about the neighboring lot. An incident report indicated that the 59-year-old neighbor himself had actually located the body.
And in San Antonio, Texas, the body of a dead woman was discovered in a vacant lot “after the owner of property next door smelled a foul odor.”

See you next time, from wherever we may be.