Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Return of an Olfactory Memory

Raymond Leon Iddings died November 14, 2014 at the age of 93. He grew up on a small farm in Putnam County, Indiana, and, like so many Americans of his generation, joined the army and fought in World War II.

Here’s a passage from his obituary:
His combat experienced forever identified Raymond Iddings as a professional soldier, and left scarred stories that he never told. Daughter Cheryl was recently told a final story while helping him eat some chicken soup. A few weeks after crossing the Rhine, on April 4, 1945 the United States Army liberated the first concentration camp prisoners from Ohrdruf, Germany. The conditions were so appalling that words fail description; the smell of feces and rotting corpses overpowered the senses. General Eisenhower, Patton and Bradley were all sickened during their tour and Eisenhower actually vomited. In his memoirs, Raymond wrote of the “foul odor that blanketed the area,” but said he never entered the camp. While Cheryl recently helped father eat some soup he began to cry and apologized to her for never telling this story before: He then shared with her a memory from that camp . . . a day that he held a spoon of chicken broth for a severely starved prisoner at this camp; the starved man was too weak, the man took a deep breath and died. Raymond told Cheryl that for all these years he repressed this story as his most painful memory — a war memory he was never able to talk about.
Trauma and repression, war and compassion, the great events of history—all brought to the surface by the aroma of chicken soup fed to an elderly man by his loving daughter.

With Raymond Iddings goes a small but infinitely valuable piece of the American experience. We salute him.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Scent of Mystery Comes to Video

The New York Post’s Lou Lumenick has the story: “Elizabeth Taylor’s forgotten Smell-O-Vision adventure arrives on video.” He’s talking about Scent of Mystery, the first (and only) film to use the revolutionary Smell-O-Vision process promoted by Mike Todd, Jr. and his father. Elizabeth Taylor (then married to Todd, Sr.) was an investor in the technology and makes a cameo appearance in the movie. (Your Hollywood trivia of the day: Mike Todd, Sr. coined the word cameo.)

I researched the story of Smell-O-Vision—and its rival, AromaRama—for my book. Along the way I interviewed inventor Hans Laube’s wife and daughter, and saw a prototype of his scent-generating device, along with all the promotional material for the film’s premiere. It’s a great story in the history of technology.

Until now, Scent of Mystery was only available in a badly butchered VHS of a television mashup version. I’m looking forward to seeing the newly restored re-release. Sure, it was slightly corny even for 1960, and unspools at the leisurely pace of that time. But I look forward to viewing it end-to-end while imagining all the odors (there are lots of them).

Thursday, November 13, 2014

ISDP: Foul Odors from Foul Deeds

It's the thirteenth of the month and therefore time to offer up our periodic collection of macabre episodes triggered by the detection of the uniquely disturbing smell of bodily decay. We're typing as fast as we can; the wind is picking up ahead of another Polar Vortex that shortly will force its way through the poorly insulated windows of FirstNerve Manor and cause our gnarled fingers to stiffen in place on the keyboard.

An employee at a storage facility in Winnipeg, Manitoba, noticed a foul smell coming from inside one of the lockers. Investigation showed the source to be the bodies of four small infants.

Police in Brownsville, Texas, were asked to investigate the source of a foul odor. They discovered the bodies of a woman and her 4-year-old son in a pile of rubbish in the backyard of a home. The woman's husband has been arrested and charged with murder.

In the trial of Charles Hicks Jr. who is charged in Pennsylvania with the 2008 murder and dismemberment of Deanna Null, Hicks' former landlady testified that
she was cleaning the house in preparation [for his departure] when she noticed a foul odor in a bedroom closet area. She dismissed it at the time as maybe a mouse that died in the walls.
According to further testimony, the smell was likely from "severed hands, later identified as Null's, which had been wrapped in old newspaper inside baggies, and large socks containing detergent."

As we like to remind readers here at ISDP--Always Trust Your Nose!

A woman in East Memphis, Tennessee, would have saved herself a lot of grief had she sniffed around a bit before renting a house (she only looked in through the windows). Turns out it had been the scene of murder a couple of months earlier, in which a man had killed his roommate and butchered his body. Despite the blood stains and foul odor, the landlord was under no obligation to reveal the home's history as a crime scene. 


Rurik Jutting, a 29-year-old British investment banker in Hong Kong, has been arrested in connection with the murder of two women whose bodies were found in his apartment after a neighbor complained of a foul odor coming from the unit. One of the bodies was found stuffed inside a suitcase on the apartment balcony. 

It appears that shortly before she was killed, the second woman
had texted a friend to raise concerns over her visit, saying: 'Something smells really bad – I want to get out of here'.
The smell was evidently from the body in the suitcase; that victim had been murdered five days earlier.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Twin Paradox: The Olfacto-mathematical Delusions of the Varshney Brothers

Like movie stars wearing prop glasses to make themselves look smart, pop media outlets this week splashed themselves in eau de science, trying to out-cool each other with superficial coverage of a new paper in olfactory signal theory. [That’s a thing?—Ed.] [It is now!]

What had the click-bait crowd all aquiver was an abstruse theoretical paper by a pair of electrical engineers who happen to be twin brothers. Kush and Lav Varshney both received undergraduate degrees from Cornell in 2004 and doctoral degrees from MIT in 2010. They’re obv very smart and good at math. (They are also the third generation of their family to become electrical engineers.) Kush is now at IBM’s Watson Research Center in New York, while Lav is at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

Their new brainstorm-in-common has the dry title “Olfactory signals and systems.” As befits a theoretical engineering paper, it contains a lot of equations; like Einstein, they leave the actual data-gathering and experimental validation to others. That’s cool—everyone enjoys a good theory, especially if it makes outrageous claims. And there’s been a market opportunity since September when Luca “Vibes” Turin got peevish and flounced off the Twitter stage.

The claims made by the Varshney bros are indeed click-worthy. They claim to set out the theoretical basis for “odor cancellation” technology as well as “food steganography.” [Stega-whaa?—Ed.] [Go look it up yourself.]

While mere mortals have struggled for centuries to characterize and quantify smells, and to analyze their chemical basis, the V twins achieve their theoretical breakthrough in three deft strokes of matrix algebra. First, assume an array consisting of all the physiochemical properties of every odor molecule (molecular weight, functional groups, yadda). Next, assume an array consisting of all the perceptual vectors in odor descriptor space (ratings of strength, pleasantness, green, floral, yadda). [One is inevitably reminded of the old punch line about spherical cows in a vacuum.] Finally, produce a matrix that maps molecules from the chemical to the perceptual space. Now all you have to do is solve for

and, voilà! You can now predict the smell of any molecule from its physical properties or vice versa.

The V bros helpfully point out that the problem “is convex and can be solved by interior point methods and a variant of Nesterov’s smooth method.” [Of course. Why didn’t I think of that?—Ed.]

Lest it be said that electrical engineers lack a sense of humor, note that the physicochemical array is denoted Rk and the perceptual array is Rl. Get it? Those guys are a laff riot.

The first big claim made by the Varshneyii concerns “active odor cancellation,” an awesome outcome in which their system identifies a small number of unobjectionable compounds that will negate a particular nuisance odor or stink—knock it right out of your nose! At least that’s what normal people would think, given the analogy with active noise control. Noise cancellation systems deploy a sound wave with an inverted phase to that of the noise wave; the perceptual result is no sound at all.

Unfortunately, that’s not exactly what Tweedle-Kush and Tweedle-Lav are selling. Instead, their matrix solution spits out a set of odors that, combined with the stink at issue, produces a standard jumble smell known as “olfactory white.” True, olfactory white may be less obnoxious than the malodor in question, but it is still a smell, not the absence of smell. This is not the equivalent of active noise cancellation. When I use noise cancellation headphones on an airplane, the steady roar of the engines disappears. It is not drowned out by the addition of white noise.

Oh, well. On to the second claim: food steganography. In this application, the matrix solution provides a set of other odors that effectively masks the objectionable aroma of a particular food item. The Varsity Varshney say “nuclear norm-regularized multivariate linear regression.” I say, think bacon-wrapped chicken livers.

I’m not sure exactly what it is about olfaction as a scientific field that attracts charlatans, nitwits, poseurs, and grandiose humbugs. But I’m sure someone will come up with an equation for it.

The paper discussed here is “Olfactory signals and systems,” by Kush R. Varshney and Lav R. Varshney, published online October 17, 2014. It can be downloaded here.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

FN Review: Mandy Aftel, Drunk with Scent

 Mandy Aftel has hit another one out of the park. After scoring with Essence and Alchemy, she drills one into the upper decks with Fragrant: The secret life of scent. Her new book is built around five raw materials of natural perfumery: cinnamon, mint, frankincense, ambergis, and jasmine. Chapter by chapter she shares her working knowledge of the individual materials and places each one in historical and cultural context. We learn how to use them (guided practical formulations are provided) but we also learn about Mandy: her approach to life, meaning, and creativity. We discover her amazingly vibrant aesthetic, and how it grew naturally (so to speak) from her Berkeley environs. It is artisanal and whimsical. It takes pleasure in the simple deeply observed. It focuses on the quality of raw materials and the authenticity with which they are experienced. Think Bernard Maybeck and Alice Waters.

In each chapter, Mandy effortlessly transitions from an emotional and intellectual immersion in scent to the practical means of buying, sampling, and blending essential oils. Her personal fragrance fantasy land is a Peaceable Kingdom—in one category of scent after another she steers away from the sharp and overpowering and favors materials with softer impressions that lend themselves to blending.

Mandy imbibes the cultural and historical emanations of scent as enthusiastically as she inhales the essential oils themselves. She seeks out exotic materials and rare perfumery books with the same thirst for experience. As a scent scientist and fellow bibliophile, I appreciate this and applaud it, even as my personal interest in the intellectual history of smell leans more to philosophical treatises and natural history than to the formula books and practical guides that Mandy favors. But this is a matter of taste.

The real difference between Mandy and me is one of temperament. For her, enthusiasm and passion drive creativity. For me, the search for pattern and motive compels description, quantification, and analysis. My joy comes from tracing a new regularity of behavior or revealing an unsuspected piece of natural history. Hers comes from arranging a beautiful experience for others to share.

Does the way of the scientist not involve creativity and inspiration? Of course it does. Does the way of the perfumer not involve measurement and precision? Of course. But where Mandy revels in mystery, historical echoes and parallels, I thrill to clarifying the underlying psychobiology of sensory experience.

Throughout human experience, the allure of ephemeral smells and flavors was potent enough to change the course of history. Mandy vividly describes how the discovery of scents and spices drove early Europeans to take great risks in exploration, trade, and warfare. Not that she would put it this way, but the history of spice and perfume is inseparable from the development of capitalism. To celebrate one is to celebrate the other. No wonder the social frivolity of scent and perfumery’s exploitation of natural resources have been favorite targets for leftists and greens. Mandy’s Berkeley-based aesthetic sits uneasily on this cultural fault-line.

Mandy is an exponent of “authentic luxury” which she defines as psychological engagement with the honest immediacy of sensory experience. In this, she aligns herself with locavorism and Alice Waters’ Slow Food movement. I, too, encourage people to expand their sensory horizons, to stop and savor the world around them. But mindful cultivation of one’s sensory experience is a stone’s throw from fatuity. Those who can afford it thrill to the localness of their salad greens and grilled lamb. Those in a lower tax bracket can be seen across the street from Chez Panisse, waiting in line for pizza at The Cheese Board Collective. For them, the forty-minute wait isn’t a hindrance (few people in Berkeley are deadline-driven); rather, it serves to authenticate the sensory superiority of their pizza experience. Here is the Cheese Board’s pizza offering for tomorrow (the day of Fragrant’s publication): Crimini mushrooms, onion, mozzarella and Campo de Montalban cheese, arugula (Heirloom Organic Garden of Hollister) in a lemon dressing. Mr. Dino, my local purveyor of finest quality pizza back in New Jersey, would consider a forty-minute wait a failure of customer service, as would his deadline driven customers. Heirloom organic arugula would elicit from Mr. Dino a blank stare.

Throughout Fragrant, Mandy celebrates the act of discrimination, the exercise of a knowledgeable palate upon selected raw materials of experience. Training one’s nose (and brain) to find the nuanced differences in a series of ambergris samples can be revelatory; learning how to blend ambergris with other materials can, as Mandy illustrates, be a creative project akin to learning how to paint in water colors. Yet I can’t help but wonder whether for every talented Mandy Aftel there are ten Randy Marshes finishing every dish “with a little crème fraîche.”

Mandy’s facility in reading character is the talent of the clinical psychologist, one she re-deploys with respect to scent: she listens to how an oil presents itself and how it reacts with others. In her fascination with the symbology of scent, the meanings of its folklore and myths, Mandy takes as her aesthetic scope the entire scented world and our experience of it—human involvement with fragrance from prehistory onward. Her aesthetic compromises, in Wallace Stevens’ phrase, “the whole of harmonium.” She is the world’s first Jungian Perfumer.