Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Rate of Decay: The Case of Jonah Lehrer’s Twitter Account

Anyone active on Twitter experiences follower churn—the constant arrival of new followers and departure of existing ones. Some arrivals are follow-whores who will leave in short order if you fail to follow them back. Some are fake accounts attempting to build a legit patina. (Fake accounts are easy to spot and I delight in kicking them off my feed.) Then there are real-life porn actors and jihadists seeking to expand their reach. (Blocked and blocked.) Others follow you based on the odd single tweet and depart when they find your regular material is not to their taste. (de gustibus).

In general, one must tweet frequently to gain new followers. If you have a truly loyal set of followers they may stick around even if you tweet rarely.

But what happens at the limit, when an account ceases to tweet at all? In the absence of new material it is unlikely to attract new followers. Existing followers may eventually unfollow, or close their accounts, or be banned by Twitter. Thus we can expect an inactive account to shed followers gradually. But at what rate?

I have harvested data on a weekly basis from several Twitter accounts. One is that of Jonah Lehrer who enjoyed a brief vogue as a literary explainer of neuroscience. (I found him to be a superficial thinker and a lazy scholar; see the Proust chapter in What the Nose Knows.) After it became clear that Lehrer had recycled his own material and plagiarized the work of others he withdrew from the science journo-biz and, among other things, ceased tweeting.

The last regular tweet on @jonahlehrer was dated June 17, 2012. On February 13, 2013 he posted a link to the text of a speech he gave to the Knight Foundation in which he apologized for his behavior (and for which he was paid $20,000). After that, nada.

So how did Lehrer’s Twitter followers react after he went silent? Well, here’s the answer, based on weekly tallies from October 14, 2012 through December 31, 2016.

Over that period Lehrer lost 6,258 followers. Their number declined to 40,620 from 46,878. The steady decline was interrupted by three increases: a spike of 2,005 followers the week of October 28, 2012; a blip of 369 followers around May 2013, and another spike of 1,998 in the week of August 24, 2013. (Cynical readers might note that Twitter followers can be bought by the thousand online. Whether something like that happened here, I cannot say. The spikes remain a mystery.)

Aside from the anomalous spikes, the decline in followers shows a remarkably steady linear trend. I analyzed the 173 weeks following the second spike, during which the follower count dropped to 40,620 from 47,800 for a loss of 7,180. Over that interval, Lehrer lost on average -0.0935% of his followers each week. Based on this rate of decay, the half-life of his following is 741 weeks or about 14 years. In other words, he should be down to 20,000 followers in 2031. We can expect him to dip under 100 followers in the year 2140.

That’s one long, shallow glide path.

Is Lehrer’s case typical? Who knows. Maybe his followers are fanatically devoted and waiting, year after year, for him to return to Twitter. Or maybe they never noticed that he left in the first place. Having once clicked “follow” they remain fixed to his account like so many barnacles on the bottom of a boat.

Monday, November 28, 2016

It’s Cyber Monday and I’ve put the Kindle version of What the Nose Knows on sale at a deep discount: only $2.99. Why not grab a copy?

Do you have a friends or relatives who are into scent? You can buy them a Kindle copy! Just hit the “Give as Gift” button on Amazon. You can have it delivered to them instantly or you can schedule it to arrive on their device at any time and date you choose. Great idea for Christmas or Hanukkah.

Plus: plenty of time to order a paperback copy for old-school types. It’s already priced as low as it can go!

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Fifteen Years After 9/11

Fifteen years later and the emotions remain raw.

These are notes I made on the fifth anniversary of 9/11 when I still lived in Montclair, New Jersey.

September 11, 2006

Over morning coffee I read some blog essays remembering the attacks and where we stand five years later. S and I talked about our frustration with friends who don’t see the same threat we do; how we want to shake them by the shoulders and wake them up.

I couldn’t concentrate on my writing so I set off to do some mindless photocopying in town. Walking to the car I noticed the sky was a perfectly clear blue. Strange how the weather on the anniversary is almost always the same as the original.

I drove past K’s house [the 9/11 widow up the block] and noticed several pickup trucks parked outside. Her fireman friends keeping her company, as they do every year on this day.

I saw [my neighbor] D jogging down the street and pulled over to say hello.

“This is such a sad day,” he said.

“I know. It still gets to me too,” I said. (I had to look away.)

Then he blurted out, “It’s the same sky.” Now he was sobbing. “I’ve been crying almost my whole run.”

He walked off and I drove to the copy shop where I had to keep my shades on.

Thought I was back on an even keel. Then at four in the afternoon a Montclair Fire Department ladder truck came up the street with lights flashing, flying the Stars and Stripes. They paused a while in front of K’s house, blew their horn, and drove on.

I was a mess.

It’s dark out now. They’ve lit the two blue lights at Ground Zero. I still think it’s the best memorial.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Avery and the Cannabis Factory

I recently had the opportunity to tour a licensed, commercial cannabis grow operation in Denver. It was a mind-blowing experience, but not for the obvious reason—I haven’t tried marijuana since an unfortunate episode in graduate school. [A story, like that of the giant rat of Sumatra, for which the world is not yet prepared.—Ed.]

The operation is located in a nondescript, unlabeled building in the semi-industrial outskirts south of town. One step inside and there is no doubt where you are—the scent of cannabis bud hits you full in the face. That’s because the drying room is next to the entrance. Newly harvested and trimmed buds are spread on wire mesh frames, which are slotted into wall racks. The drying room is kept dark and air conditioned, while fans circulate the chilly air. This struck me as a counterintuitive way to dry the product, but Gary, the slim, thirty-something Willy Wonka who runs the site, tells me the aim is to suppress mold growth.*

As I sign in and get my visitor’s badge, I notice the wall of the entryway—it’s covered with a dozen or more framed certificates from the army of agencies that regulate every aspect of commercial cannabis in the state of Colorado: health, revenue, environmental, etc.

A couple of doors down is a small break room. With a refrigerator and cute sign reminding people to clean up after themselves, it could be the lunch area of a muffler shop or book store—except for the three HD screens on one wall. Each screen displays multiple views from security cameras mounted everywhere in the building, inside and out. Security is a major concern and private patrols visit the facility throughout the night.

The actual process of cultivation begins with small, two- or three-branch cuttings from mature plants. Like straws in soda cup lid, they are stuck into fittings atop a plastic tub. Inside the tub an “aquaponics” system periodically sprays the bottom of the clippings; the water contains carefully calibrated amounts of nutrients to encourage root growth. Once the sproutlings have developed enough of a root system, they are transferred to quart-size plastic bags of potting soil. Then they are given a unique, bar-coded, plastic ID tag purchased from a state-authorized provider. Individual plants are tracked this way until harvest—part of the minute oversight of inventory required by Colorado authorities.

In their quart bags, the new plants resemble the immature tomato plants for sale at Safeway. Arranged in neat rows on white platforms, they begin to bask under a glaring array of artificial lights that keeps the room as warm as the greenhouse it is. The room air is humid but odorless.

After a week or two, the now established plants are transferred to three- or five-gallon bags and moved to a “vegetative room” where they get 18 hours of light daily from high output T5 fluorescent bulbs. They are watered via an automated drip tube system. The room air is kept moving by wall-mounted oscillating fans. Here, again, the room is relatively nonodorous.

Once they are mature, the plants are transferred to a “bloom room.” Individual stalks are woven through a loose rope grid that separates the tops and insures that each newly forming flower bud gets maximal exposure to light. Beside the usual automatic lighting and watering system (now delivering a nutrient mix optimized to encourage bud growth), the bloom room is supplied with extra carbon dioxide. It is delivered (during “daytime” only) via an automated system that monitors the ambient concentration and keeps it at a specific parts per million level. On the bloom room door is posted a sign: “You are entering a possibly oxygen deficient atmosphere.” Should the CO2 level exceed the safety threshold, a warning light flashes and an alarm sounds. It’s an expensive system, but it’s required by the state. “Seems reasonable,” I say to Gary, who shrugs his shoulders. He operates under an OSHA rule that specifies one permissible level for CO2 and under a Colorado marijuana-specific rule that specifies a different, lower level.

In the bloom room, I notice for the first time a distinct background odor—it smells like ripe, even overripe, cantaloupe melon. Nothing at all like the funky herbal smell of dry bud. Yet in order to minimize the risk of complaints from neighbors, Gary has installed large, cylindrical carbon filter units in each bloom room. Harvest day, he says, produces the greatest amount of smell, presumably from the volatile and odorous terpenes that are released as the plants are cut.

The previous tenant of this building was a light-industrial operation. When the marijuana company took over the building it completely renovated the interior. The array of active technologies—lights, fans, watering systems, CO2 delivery, air filtration, HVAC—requires an enormous amount of power. Multiple electrical conduits and air conditioning ducts course along the ceiling and curve down to individual grow rooms—it’s like being inside a gigantic pipe organ. Gary is on personal terms with his Carrier air conditioner rep who makes weekly visits to keep the system tuned up.

Gary keeps 70 different cannabis strains in rotation. From a manufacturing and logistics point of view this is an insane number. But the dispensaries he supplies—and their retail customers—demand it. If he delivers only 10 varieties they complain. What drives this demand? Besides sheer THC potency there are real and/or perceived psychotropic differences between sativa and indica strains, as well as differences in bud aroma and smoke flavor. And thus separate calls for OG Kush, Girl Scout Cookies, Strawberry Cough, Alaskan Thunder Fuck, and all the rest.

Having lived for a year now in Colorado, I’m beginning to see the connection with another artisanal, sensory- and botanical-based industry: beer. There are a ton of microbreweries in the state, and each one produces a range from stouts to IPAs. A microbrewery that produced only two or three beers would soon fail. People revel in sensory choice. And if they are accustomed to getting it in one area, they expect it in others.

This leads me to propose Gilbert’s First Conjecture of Sensory Marketing:
For a given zip code, the number of microbrews on tap is positively correlated with the number of cannabis strains available in dispensaries.
Besides the usual burdens of running a business—hiring, scheduling, payroll, accounting—Gary has the responsibilities of a vintner. He decides when the plants are ready to harvest: too soon and they lack potency, too late and they become stale with oxidized THC. He has to plan the rotations of each strain, and stagger their growing cycles so he can harvest one of his eight bloom rooms each week. Then there is the matter of drying and curing. Gary does this the old school way, in two steps. From the racks in the drying room the buds go into large glass jars, equipped with humidity sensors, where they stay for another week or so, until they reach their optimum in terms of aroma and smokability. I suspect cigar makers and aficionados would agree. I sniff from several jars to get an idea of the range of strain-specific aromas. Some are not very smelly; in others I detect mint, a conifer note, and the vegetal scent of cooked artichoke. Elsewhere I’ve smelled buds that reeked of orange peel. There’s a lot of opportunity here for systematic olfactory evaluation.

With demand far outstripping supply, commercial cannabis growers are under enormous pressure to deliver mass quantities. To speed things up, some growers claim to use techniques that telescope drying and curing into a single step. Not Gary. However, he does make some concessions to efficiency. Instead of having employees trim buds by hand, he puts the buds into a tumbler-like device, an automated Edward Scissorhands. The broken leaf residue or “trim” doesn’t go to waste. (It can’t—the state requires that he account for every gram of it.) Gary’s operation, like others, sells the trim to extractors who transform it into oil, shatter, and the multitude of derivative products that are sold directly to consumers or that go into products such as edibles.

I have toured essential oil extraction operations in Grasse, fragrance compounding factories in New Jersey, a Budweiser brewery in Colorado, and numerous wineries and champagne makers in California. They all manage to bring industrial scale to what is, at its core, a process of subjective, sensory-based, aesthetic design. The Denver grow house, with its blend of technology, agronomy, and logistics, tells me that cannabis is on the road to similar scale.

*If Gary is the Willy Wonka, the Oompa-Loompas of the factory bear an uncanny resemblance (minus tattoos and piercings) to certain of my Berkeley Coop housemates of the 1970s.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Parlux vs. Jay Z: Why does a celebrity stop promoting his own fragrance?

 In January, Parlux Fragrances filed an $18 million lawsuit against Shawn “Jay Z” Carter and his company for allegedly failing to promote the Gold Jay Z fragrance as explicitly set out in the contract. Parlux also claims Carter refused to participate in the development and launch of flanker products, and that as a result sales of the stand-alone fragrance withered. The Parlux complaint asked for Carter to return 300,000 shares of Perfumania stock (Perfumania is the parent company of Parlux) and 800,000 Perfumania stock warrants that he received as part of the licensing agreement. Parlux also demanded $18 million for compensatory and punitive damages as well as legal fees.

Via my reporting on Twitter @scienceofscent, you can see the legal jousting took a while to get going.

Well, Jaz Z’s legal team made good on the extended deadline and filed an “Answer and Counterclaim” on May 6th. That same day I kicked off a long visit to California and a short one to Texas. Only now have I managed to wade through all twenty-two pages of Jay Z’s response.

Here’s the bottom line:

Jay Z denies most of the allegations in the Parlux complaint. In his own defense, he accuses Parlux of unreasonable delay in bringing its claims, of acting unethically or in bad faith, and contends that Parlux has not, in fact, suffered actual (as opposed to speculative) damages.

Besides denying the Parlux charges, Team Jay Z makes several counter-claims of its own, namely that Parlux: failed to make royalty payments to Jay Z as specified by the licensing agreement, failed to pay for advertising and promotion of the Gold Jay Z brand as specified by the licensing agreement, and failed to provide accounting reports as specified by the licensing agreement. Jay Z also has some demands for Parlux:
An award of damages to [Shawn Carter Enterprises] and Shawn Carter [personally] in an amount to be determined at trial, presently including past due royalty payments of at least $1,187,500, past due advertising shortfall of at least $1,528,425, and other damages including, but not limited to, future lost profits, lost goodwill, and lost business opportunities.
So basically, Jay Z is telling Parlux “no I didn’t” and “in fact, you owe ME $2.7 million.”

I think I detect, under this mass of tangled cross-dealings, what may have motivated Jay Z to cease promoting his celebrity fragrance.

Recall that Jay Z originally licensed the commercial use of his name to Shawn Carter Enterprises (SCE) which he owns 100%. SCE then licensed the perfume rights to Artistic Brands Development (ABD) on April 18, 2012 in return for stock, upfront payments, guaranteed future royalties, and guaranteed spend on brand advertising. That same day ABD sub-licensed the perfume rights to Jay Z’s name to Parlux, which assumed all the rights and obligations of ABD under the license agreement. This is the basis on which Jay Z now counterclaims payment from Parlux.

Here’s the weird wrinkle: 40% of ABD was owned by Marcy Fragrance Trading Co. LLC, a company 100% owned by none other than . . . Shawn Carter. So it looks to me like Carter wrote a nice, plump deal with himself, and convinced Parlux to agree to pay for it. Which they apparently did, to their eventual regret. If, as he now claims, Parlux failed to deliver on the minimum guaranteed quarterly royalties that Jay Z had negotiated with himself, the lack of an ongoing income stream could explain why he lost interest in making any active contributions to the promotion and brand extension of Gold Jay Z.

It’s hard to feel much sympathy for either side in this dispute.

The lawsuit discussed here is Parlux Fragrances, LLC et al. - v. - S. Carter Enterprises, LLC et al., Case 650403/2016 - New York County Supreme Court.