Sunday, May 30, 2010

Green and Stinky: Large-Scale Composting Blights the American Smellscape


Towns all across American are tripping over themselves to be more green. Recycling of newspapers, glass and plastic is old hat—the next big push is to recycle biodegradable consumer waste: food scraps and other wet garbage, grass trimmings and leaves, and the . . . ahem . . . “solids” left behind after the treatment of sewage. The new environmental mantra is composting.

Like most green initiatives, composting sounds good in principle. Municipal or county projects are usually promoted as a way to reduce waste volume and simultaneously save—or even make—money. The idea appeals to our thrifty Yankee heritage; why let something go to waste if we can turn it into profit or at least into something useful? Not to mention, it will appease Gaia the great earth mother in the process.

Unfortunately, like other green initiatives, composting proves to be troublesome in practice. A compost pile—even a small, well-tended one—produces some odor as the materials decompose. When composting is done on a large scale with bulldozers and dump trunks the odor can be intense enough and unpleasant enough to impact the surrounding community. And in fact it does so on a regular basis. Let’s review a few examples culled from the news in just the past year or so. They illustrate some consistent patterns that will likely become more familiar as the composting juggernaut gains speed.

The delicately named Timpanogos Special Service District is a publicly owned sewage plant in Utah. Its compost operation has been stinking up the towns of Lindon, Pleasant Grove, and American Fork. In response to complaints, the facility is installing an automated system that regularly turns the compost heap and keeps it covered with an allegedly odor-suppressing tarp made of Gore-fabric. The cost of the system: $6 million. Watch the video clip from ABC-Channel 4 in Salt Lake City for lots of happy talk about saving the earth and an interview with the German engineer for the automated system. Yes, that’s right—the system comes from Germany. Apparently we Americans can’t handle our own shit anymore.

Even more unsettling is that the Timpanogos planners didn’t anticipate that a sludge-composting operation would create a big stink. This planning failure is a consistent theme. In Verona, Wisconsin, for example, Second Season Recycling is under fire from local residents. The Verona Press ran the story under the headline “Compost center pledges to turn over a new leaf; Neighbors upset over foul odors at Second Season.”
Complaints about the smells from Second Season had been mounting for several weeks, said Kristen Bergmann, property manager of the apartments, which are just across the Highway 18-151 underpass. Bergmann said she received about 30 complaints in 60 days, including several residents threatening to move.

Second Season staff turn the compost piles to help the material break down. But without proper timing, turning the piles leads to the bad smell nearby residents have been experiencing.

The crowd’s consensus was that despite whatever good Second Season might be doing by recycling and composting, it’s too close to residential areas. One man said his daughter can’t smell the compost odors without becoming nauseated. Others complained about not being able to open windows or take walks outside.

“The smell drifts across the road, and you just want to scream,” one woman said shortly before the meeting began.

(Second Season representative Jeanne) Whitish asked the crowd for patience and said that finding when to turn the compost piles will probably take some trial and error because it is not an “exact science.”

Not an exact science indeed. Translation: Second Season Recycling failed to plan for an obvious consequence of its operation. And Ms. Whitish wants the nosey neighbors in Verona to cool it while she and her colleagues tinker with the trash pile.

The town of Woodbridge, New Jersey has been tussling with a Boston-based food waste recycling operation called Converted Organics, Inc. The company converts “biodegradable food wastes into dry pellet and liquid concentrate organic fertilizers that help grow healthier food and improve environmental quality.” The problem is that the plant stinks so much workers at nearby companies have vomited. Converted Organics has racked up over $90,000 in fines from the county for its odor issues.
The company already has installed two odor-control devices and recently conducted various studies to find the source of the odor.

“We have done significant renovations and modifications to this date,” [a company official] said.
Significant renovations and modifications would not have been necessary if the company had planned for odor control in the first place. Are these folks stupid or do they take us for rubes? You decide: on the application to the town’s Planning Board, Converted Organics stated “that there was a 99.7 percent chance of no odor at all.”

When Flint, Michigan placed its new leaf and lawn waste composting operation right in the middle of town, residents began to complain of the “putrid smell”.
“At first we thought it was our garbage, but the smell is so bad, we realized quickly it was something bigger,” Eashoo said. “It makes people not want to go outside or eat outside.”
Steve Montle, Flint’s Director of Green Initiatives, has a whole sheaf of excuses at hand: (1) it’s still a brand-new operation, (2) they need to adjust the process as the temperature warms up, and (3) “it’s something to do with the amount and mix of materials we have coming onto the site.”

Why not tell the truth, Mr. Montle? Tell the citizens of Flint that composting generates smell and that’s the price they’ll have to pay for your Green Initiative?

BTW who is Steve Montle? An engineer? A horticulturalist? No, he’s a political hack:
Montle previously served as the executive director of the Genesee Conservation District. He also has served as the executive director of the Flint River Watershed Coalition and was a legislative staff coordinator for senator John Gleason, D-Flushing. He also was a high school teacher at Hamady High School for the Westwood Heights School District.
In Bloomingdale, New Jersey (“The Jewel of Passaic County”), residents have been complaining about the smell from the compost pile at the borough’s Department of Public Works Yard. Forty-one of them signed a petition objecting to the odor.

According to a town council member, “There are days and evenings when the smell is unbearable. Someone thought it was a dead body.” [We know just what you mean—Ed.]

Bloomingdale pays a private company to manage its compost pile. The contractor’s spokesman was upfront about the issue:
When material, which is natural ground-up brush, is broken down, there is an odor, Flockhart explained. No dyes or toxins are being used, he said.
All natural—no artificial ingredients! Doesn’t that make you feel better?

Even the U.S. Army is going green. In May, 2009, the Los Alamitos Joint Forces Training Base in southern California
launched a 5-year pilot program to test transporting green waste for composting at the base in an effort to divert waste from landfills, help with agriculture, reduce pesticides and water usage.
What’s not to like? The smell, apparently. The neighboring towns of Cypress, Garden Grove, Los Alamitos and Seal Beach are unhappy enough about it to write the Secretary of the Army demanding that the project be stopped. The Secretary has refused to do so, but the composting is currently on hold.

In Hammond, Indiana, the Mayor and city council members threatened legal action against a composting company in the adjoining town of Gary, after complaining of a smell described as “the most unbearable smell anyone should have to put up with.”

Faced with complaints by residents, local jurisdictions have tried to regulate the troublesome operations out of existence. A company in Gainesville, Georgia, spray irrigates its farm fields with treated effluent from human and commercial waste. The county commissioners passed ordinances to stop the practice, but the company, LHR Farms, filed a federal lawsuit against them charging that the ordinances are pre-empted by state law. (LHR Farms is already regulated by Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division.)

In a number of cases, cities have decided that the ecological benefits of composting are simply not worth the grief caused by the smell.

Here’s a blunt New York-style headline: “City To End Contract with Smelly Bronx Sewage Plant.” The plant takes sludge from fourteen New York sewage treatment facilities and recycles it into organic fertilizer. It’s green and Gaia-friendly. But residents in the Hunts Point section of the borough can’t stand the stench.

But what about all the green jobs that will be lost?
New York’s environmental protection commissioner says the city could save $18 million a year by sending the sludge to landfills rather than having it recycled.

Wh-wh-what? Isnt recycling supposed to save money?

Another one bites the sludge: Seabrook, Massachusetts unplugs the green technology at its new treatment plant because it stinks.

What started out as a way to reduce the town’s sludge disposal costs while taking part in technology that could revolutionize treatment of waste solids on the municipal level has ended in acrimony and costly legal bills and settlement costs.

The town of Seabrook and the owners of PMC BioTec have negotiated a settlement that terminates the contract the Boston company had with the town to install a microbiotic sludge reduction system in its sewer plant.
The litany of olfactory complaints is a familiar one:
Foul odors permeated the treatment plant and the surrounding area. Neighbors came forward with complaints that they had to live with windows and doors shut — even in the summertime — due to the constant foul odor. Treatment plant employees also complained about illness.
The stinky composting issue came to head this March in Vacaville, California.
An allegedly eye-watering, throat-closing, mind-boggling stench was the focus Tuesday night of a community meeting in Elmira that turned contentious quickly, resulting in heated eruptions and the verbal roasting of a Solano County official.

About 30 residents gathered at the Elmira Fire Station to hound officials about the reportedly noxious odors wafting from the Jepson Prairie Organics compost facility on Hay Road, just east of Vacaville, at different times during the day and night.
Noxious odors? Impossible—the company has “organic” in its name.

Portland, Oregon is charging ahead with a plan to introduce curbside composting, to hosannas from environmentalists.But the view is different in North Plains, 20 miles northwest of Portland, where the actual compost pile is located.
But if not properly maintained, composting does omit [sic] an unpleasant stench – an odor that, according to North Plains City Manager Don Otterman, has been bothering the small city for the past 10 years. “While it’s a good idea to try to compost everything you can to keep it out of the landfill, nobody’s considering the impact that this could potentially have on [the city],” Otterman says.

“We still get complaints from residents. We get people driving down Highway 26 that have told us that they know when they get into North Plains because they smell it,” he explains. “And that’s having a pretty bad impact on the city’s reputation.”
The stinky compost problem is widespread: Utah, Wisconsin, New Jersey, Michigan, California, Indiana, New York, and Oregon at the very least. The social and political dynamics are similar: a “green” initiative is promoted on the implicit or explicit promise that it is an environmentally clean and thrifty way to deal with biodegradable consumer waste. Once operations are underway, stinky reality sets in: large-scale composting frequently generates enough stench to cause an uproar among people living within smelling distance. Then comes the inevitable dance of recrimination and remediation: unhappy city councilors and county commissioners on one side, composting/recycling company officials on the other. “It stinks,” say the town fathers. “It’s not an exact science,” say the company spokesmen, “we’re trying to engineer some solutions.”

In almost every case the composters are taken by surprise. Maybe they all truly believe that their shit doesn’t stink, in which case they are deluded dreamers. Maybe they believe that the towns that hire them are populated by fools and chumps—in which case they are cynical bastards. Either way, surprise is no longer a credible response given how often stinky composting has been in the news recently. Any city attorney worth his salt should be writing nuisance odor penalties into composting contracts.

Is there a technical solution to this problem? The green lobby insists that properly managed compost produces little odor. Perhaps this is true on a small scale—your suburban backyard, for example, with its carefully tended little mound of leaves, banana peels and potato skins. But consider the analogy of pig manure. The smell of a couple of pigs in a pasture is noticeable but not objectionable. Put five thousands porkers in a feedlot and the odor problem is enormous. A similar scale-up of odor emissions is almost certain to occur in composting. The scandal isn’t that large-scale compost stinks—it’s that these operations are being set up without adequate controls in the first place.

The first step to getting clean is to admit that you have a problem. For us to make any progress on this issue, the advocates of clean composting need to come clean about the malodorous side of their business.

UPDATE May 31, 2010

In a remarkably disingenuous article on the front page of today’s San Francisco Chronicle, staff writer John Wildermuth airily waves off earlier concerns expressed about SF’s “aggressive ‘recycle or else’ law requiring homeowners, businesses and residents of apartment buildings to separate out food waste for composting.” (Aggressive as in $1,000 fines for noncompliance—the fines will kick a year from now; until then resisters get citations.)

Wildermuth quotes a spokesman for the city’s environmental department: “People are dealing with it just fine.” Well, the people in San Francisco maybe.

According to Wildermuth, about twenty trucks a day haul 24.5 tons each to the Jepson Prairie Organics composting site in . . . Vacaville.

That right, Vacaville—where the citizens are loudly objecting to noxious composting odors that waft from the Jepson Prairie Organics facility day and night (see above).

In other words, when it comes to composting progressive San Franciscans are “dealing with it just fine” because they don’t have to smell it. It’s the chumps up I-80 in Vacaville who get to do that.

How would San Francisco be “dealing with it” if the compost pile were in Golden Gate Park or the Presidio? And why shouldn’t it be; after all, it’s their garbage?

Environmental lobbyists and their apologists in the mainstream media should be called to accounts for their intellectual dishonesty.

Smelly Web Indexes: Raincheck

The Stat Monkeys in the data vault have harvested this week’s numbers but management is enjoying the holiday too much, so you’ll see the results next week.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

WSJ Profiles Christopher Brosius


The Wall Street Journal’s Paul Glader has an excellent short profile of Christopher Brosius, formerly of Demeter and now of CB: I Hate Perfume. The last line of the piece (“He’s also thinking of launching a clothing line.”) is a bit alarming. I met Brosius once at a Fragrance Foundation event in New York where he was wearing a cape and black leather pants with what appeared to be a silver-studded codpiece. 

Dude!

Then again, maybe he was just ahead of the curve.

Inside Baseball on Blogging

For those of you following the Smelly Web Indexes conversation on the pros and cons of solo versus group blogs, law blogger Professor Bainbridge has some interesting observations.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

American Smellscapes: Spring in the Pacific Northwest

It’s the time of year when the cottonwood trees in Washington State release tons of fluffy airborne seeds. As Seattle Times reporter Lynda V. Mapes describes the phenomenon she keeps her nose to the breeze:

That downy fluff is only one of the tree’s signatures. Come spring, just about anywhere there is fresh water in Puget Sound country, the sweet scent of cottonwood is in the air, the perfume that kicks off the out-of-doors season. The source of the scent is a flavonoid in the sticky sap within the tree’s buds that coats the leaves of cottonwood as they unfurl, protecting them against insects eager to attack the first fresh leaves of the year.
Meanwhile, a property owner in Harrah, Washington had some manure from a local feedlot spread on an acre or so of his fields. Nearby residents complained about the smell and since Harrah is on the Yakima Reservation, the U.S. EPA sent an Air Quality Monitor to sniff around for violations of federal regulations.

So let’s get this straight. Food scolds Alice Waters and Michael Pollan want us to eat locally grown fruits and vegetables and locally raised meat because it’s ecologically correct. But if local manure spread on a local field smells bad, that’s politically incorrect according to the environmental nannies.

I love green-on-green family feuds. Time to microwave some artificially flavored popcorn, sit back, and enjoy the show.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Portrait of the Artist as a Humbug: Sissel Tolaas Tells the Rubes How They Smell

I first encountered Sissel Tolaas in researching What the Nose Knows. After tweaking the “transgressive” pretensions of certain artistes, I wrote:

Sissel Tolaas, a Norwegian artist who lives in Berlin, gets closer to the mark. She collected underarm sweat from nine men who were in various states of fear and anxiety, chemically extracted their B.O., had it microencapsulated, and then spread it onto large colored sheets. She mounts these enormous scratch-and-sniff panels on art gallery walls for visitors to sample. The show is called “The Fear of Smell and the Smell of Fear.” It sounds creepy and probably smells worse. Sissel Tolaas could go far—she has a firm grasp of the transgressive.
Recently she popped up in the German periodical Mono.Kultur as the guest “curator” of twelve blank pages of scratch-and-sniff scents. (So . . . conceptual!) The magazine noted that Ms. Tolaas “is a professor at Harvard University for invisible communication.”

Apparently that’s the German translation of “2009 Rouse Visiting Artist at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.”

Last Friday, Tolaas was profiled in the Kansas City Star by reporter Gina Kaufmann who accompanied her around town on a nasal investigation that is the first stage of a project she is doing with Grand Arts Gallery, “a non-profit art project space in downtown Kansas City.”

Tolaas is in town “for only a few days, collecting scents that represent the neighborhoods of Kansas City and sending them back to her lab in Berlin for analysis.” To what end? To “create a smell tour of our city.”

Simple minds might ask, can’t one create a smell tour just by walking around with a notebook? What does the “analysis” in her “lab” add?
When she arrived here, in early April, Tolaas would tell people what she was here to do, and they would all say the same thing: You have to go by the Folgers plant. “This is obvious,” she says, waving dismissively, clearly tired of the suggestion. “Everybody says this.”
How does being obvious make the Folgers plant smell nonrepresentive of Kansas City?

[Ignorant plebe! Do not disturb the Professor of Invisible Communication with your quibbling logic.]
Tolaas aspires to discover the hidden Kansas City and to present that back to the city. “This is my function,” she says. “To find the places that people here wouldn’t.”
But if local residents don’t know the smell, how representative of their town can it be?

[Do not arouse the wrath of the great and powerful Oz!]

So what part of Hidden Kansas City does Tolaas uncover?
At 24th Street and Belleview Avenue, she stops suddenly in her tracks. “What’s that?” she asks, before answering herself. “That’s yeast. The yeast is strong here.” Another pause. “Now I’m getting yeast and garlic.”

Of course, at 24th and Belleview, Tolaas is standing smack dab in the middle of a row of Mexican restaurants, accounting for the garlic, and just across the train tracks from Boulevard Brewing Co., accounting for the yeast. She has this strip pegged in a matter of minutes.
The deeply hidden smells of a brewery revealed by the “professional nose”—and she didn’t even have to wait for the lab results to come back from Berlin!
When the specimens arrive at her lab in Berlin, she has the molecular structure analyzed so that she can re-create the smells of the neighborhoods. Then she brings the smells back to the places where they originated.
So Tolaas is going to bring recreated yeast smell back to Boulevard Brewery? I’m sure they’ll be impressed. 

What a humbug.

If the Grand Arts Gallery will pop for a Greyhound ticket, we’ll be happy to ride out and demonstrate the FirstNerve method of capturing and recreating local smellscapes. We’ll start with some taquitos al pastor at La Fonda El Taquito and wash ‘em down with a Boulevard Pale Ale. Then burp in a curator’s face. We call it Transgressive Ecological Urbanism.

We await a call from Harvard regarding our visiting appointment at the Graduate School of Design.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

SWI: The CCSI Plunges


The Smelly Web Indexes for May 23, 2010

The Solo Blog Index
Close: 92
Change: none 
Big movers: OlfactaRama +25%, NathanBranch +6%, IndiePerfumes -28%, JaimeLeParfum -8% MaisQuePerfume -7%, PinkManhattan -6%

The Team Blog Index
Close: 131
Change: +8 
Big movers: ISmellThereforeIam +12%, PerfumeDaRosaNegra +11%, PerfumePosse +6%

The Corporate & Community Site Index
Close: -34 
Change: -42 
Big movers: OsMoz +6%, TheDryDown -30%

Summary
The Corporate & Community Site Index cratered this week, dropping an astounding 42 points as TheDryDown sank 30%. The CCSI is now in negative territory: a first for any Smelly Web Index. The Team Blog Index rose eight points as all five sites registered gains in ranking. The Solo Blog Index was unchanged with only two big movers offsetting each other: OlfactaRama continuing its climb back from the depths and IndiePerfumes sliding back into the ditch. Unlike recent weeks, most sites moved in a narrow range of less than ±5%.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Quick Sniffs:A Fragrant Folio

Down in Florida, Chaucer’s lyric has been updated: “Sumer is icumen in, lhude stinke algae.”

Meanwhile, further down the peninsula, a mystery smell (“pot or not?”) gets its own FB page.

Hunters are the most BO-phobic folks in America and they spend a lot of money to smell like . . . nothing. Until now.

Sure, this is edgy, provocative, yadda yadda, but personally I’m looking forward to the launch of Sphincter.

The cuisine rapide industry weighs in on the slider-scented candle campaign.

What the hell’s going on in British public housing? First this, now this

Many moons ago I saw Donald Trump air kiss Estée Lauder at the Palm Court in the Plaza Hotel. Now he’s hosting this exchange. Sic transit gloria mundi.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

SWI: The Solo Blog Shuffle


The Smelly Web Indexes for May 16, 2010

The Solo Blog Index
Close: 92
Change: +1 
Big movers: IndiePerfumes +24%, GrainDeMusc +22%, AnyasGarden +8%, BitterGraceNotes +8%, 1000Fragrances +6%, JaimeLeParfum -19%, Vetivresse -14%, FirstNerve -11%, MaisQuePerfume -10%, PinkManhattan -9%, Ayalasmellyblog -5%

The Team Blog Index
Close: 123
Change: +7 
Big movers: PerfumeDaRosaNegra +12%, ISmellThereforeIam +6%

The Corporate & Community Site Index
Close: 8 
Change: -12 
Big movers: TheDryDown -11%, Sniffapalooza +6%

Summary
The Corporate & Community Site Index gave up another 12 points after plummeting 36 points last week; it’s now at an all-time low. As can be seen in the chart, the predicted April boost in traffic rankings came and went for this group of sites. That TheDryDown—an aggregator site and portal to all the Smelly Web—has declined in ten of the last twelve weeks is not good news for smelly sites in general.

With component sites showing big movement in both directions, the Solo Blog Index netted out a one point gain. GrainDeMusc gained big time for a second week, and IndiePerfumes recovered some of the ground lost in last week’s slide as Lucy Raubertas ended a lull in posting.

The Team Blog Index followed last week’s five point gain with another seven positive points. Again, it was PerfumeDaRosaNegra and ISmellThereforeIam leading the way.


The Big Picture
When the Smelly Web Indexes began last August, they were each pegged at 100. Despite all the ups and downs since then, the Solo Blog Index (currently at 92) and the Team Blog Index (currently at 123) have fared well. The underlying Alexa traffic rankings of solo and team sites are the same or better ten months later. The same cannot be said for the Corporate & Community Sites Index. Since last November it has been on a bumpy but steady decline. TheDryDown began with an Alexa ranking of 1.4 million; it is now at 6.3 million. OsMoz was at 170 thousand; it is now at 245 thousand. BaseNotes and Sniffapalooza are at roughly the same altitude they had when the CCSI began.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

ISDP: Better Late Than Never


Nooooooo!!!

The thirteenth of the month has come and gone with no I Smell Dead People update. The horror! Legions of ghoulish weirdos enthusiastic fans have been calling the ISDP help line wanting to know—why?

Why? Because we were busy with our collection of rodent skulls and time just got away from us, that’s why.

To make up for this unconscionable lapse we present an extra pungent round-up of the latest month and two days worth of macabre incidents in which a proverbial “foul odor” leads to the discovery of human remains. We’ve culled them from hometown newspapers, global wire services, and police blotters of the most obscure jurisdictions, and present them here for your disturbed delectation.

Our first item comes via Lance Griffin, a reporter for the Dothan Eagle. That would be Dothan as in Dothan, Alabama, the Peanut Capital of the World. (ISDP—bringing you information that helps you win bets in bars.) Seems a U.S. Census worker knocked on a door in Geneva County, just above the Florida state line. He got no response but did, however, detect “a foul odor.” He alerted neighbors and soon police discovered the body of the home’s resident, a 60 year-old man, who had been dead “for quite some time.” No word as to whether the deceased was White, Black/African American/Negro, American Indian, Alaska Native, Asian Indian, Japanese, Native Hawaiian, Chinese, Korean, Guamanian or Chamorro, Filipino, Vietnamese, Samoan, or Other Pacific Islander.

Three days earlier, near Westbury, Long Island, police were called to a steel supply company to investigate a plastic bag which “was emanating [sic] a foul odor.” The bag turned out to contain the remains of a Hicksville woman who had been missing since July. Her husband, who worked at the steel company, is also missing.

Last month a police officer in East St. Louis, Illinois, made a traffic stop. When the driver fled on foot the cop gave chase. He lost him, but “noticed a foul odor” which turned out to be that of a male corpse lying among some weeds.

Two weeks ago in San Marcos, California, “someone reported a foul odor” emanating from an SUV in the parking lot of a grocery store. Inside was a 28 year-old male who had been reported missing at least three days earlier.  

We now have an overseas nominee for this year’s Norman Bates Award™. Alan Derrick is in his seventies and lives in Bristol, England. He’s a retired “binman” who lived in a “council flat”. (That’s Britspeak for “garbage man” and “public housing”.) When his male roommate died in 1998, Mr. Derrick panicked; roommates were not allowed in the council flats. So he hid the guy’s body beneath an overturned sofa and ignored it . . . for the next ten years.

Alan Derrick is obv obliv to foul odors. He also has several screws loose. Remarkably, several public housing busybodies who visited Mr. Derrick over the course of the decade misinterpreted the scent and failed to find the DB.

[The English Norman Bates.]

We’ve run the occasional story of about a suspicious foul odor that had everyone expecting the worse and which turned out to be a false alarm. This week James Hart posted on a Kansas City crime blog what appears to be another example (“Was it murder? Or pork chops?”). An amusing case of mistaken ISDP—or is it something more sinister? Remember that Cincinnati serial killer suspect Anthony Sowell successfully convinced people the smell of his decomposing victims was really an odor coming from the Ray’s Sausage company next door. Either way, be sure to check out the great story by commenter cripjak, the mortician’s nephew.

[Tip of the hat and a free night at the Bates Motel to reader Mike Tordoff.]

UPDATE May 18, 2010

The Westbury, Long Island incident just took a darker turn: “The Long Island man whose wife disappeared and was found dead in a bag last week had a girlfriend who is also missing,” says 1010WINS. The guy in question, 29-year-old Riza Cosa, has apparently fled to Turkey.

UPDATE May 29, 2010

On May 20, Turkish police reported that the suspect, Riza Cosa, killed himself by jumping off a building there.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The FirstNerve BurrOmeter: Barely a Pulse

Name drops: 1

Andy Warhol
Bonus points:
Perfumers: 0 
French: 0
French Product Names: 4 

Helpful translations of French product names: 4

Nonsensical fragrance descriptions: 2

distilling the scent of the ocean’s salty green brine

[Distilled ocean water smells like . . . distilled water.—FN ]

scent of palm trees

Department of Redundancy Department Bonus Points: 2
most visceral, and wonderful
It is viscerally evocative

Un Jardin en Mediterranee
the scent of figs and palm trees in a Mediterranean garden

Recycled Copy Bonus Points: 1
aquifer water

Calibration factor for new micro-mini review format: 10-1

Total BurrOmeter reading for Ocean Currents: 1.4 milliburrs

Outlook: Stagnant air stalled over New York.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

SWI: Wilting of the April Bloom?



The Solo Blog Index
Close: 91
Change: -5 
Big movers:  GrainDeMusc +31%, Vetivresse +24%,  Ayalasmellyblog +5%, 1000Fragrances +8%, MaisQuePerfume +5%, IndiePerfumes -44%, PinkManhattan -20%,  AnyasGarden -15%,  BitterGraceNotes -11%,    SorceryOfScent -5%

The Team Blog Index
Close: 116
Change: +5 
Big movers: PerfumeDaRosaNegra +9%, ISmellThereforeIam +5%, PerfumePosse -5%

The Corporate & Community Site Index
Close: 20 
Change: -36 
Big movers: TheDryDown -34%, Sniffapalooza -7%

Summary
The Corporate & Community Site Index plunged 36 points to its second lowest all-time level, led by a precipitous drop at TheDryDown. Sniffapalooza gave back some of last week’s big gain. Is it over-reading the tea leaves to note that the CCSI’s rise and fall coincides with the launch-happy, Spring Fling month of April?

The Solo Blog Index slid another five points after dropping seven last week. Vetivresse was up big time for no discernible reason; no new content since January 20. A month-long posting gap in March/April may be behind the continuing slide at IndiePerfumes.  BoisDeJasmin, KatiePuckrikSmells and FirstNerve all registered double-digit declines.

The Team Blog Index continued its long-term steady-as-she-goes trend with a five point gain that took back three weeks of tiny declines.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Face to Face with Perfume: Dr. Theresa L. White


Theresa White is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, New York. One of her research interests is sensory psychology. At the recent AChemS smell and taste conference in St. Petersburg, Florida, she gave a poster called “Perfume Masculinity/Femininity Affects Face Gender Judgments.” We caught up with her afterwards and talked to her about the study.

FN: Tell us about this work.

White: We thought that in a social situation where many cues were ambiguous, people would be apt to use olfactory information to disambiguate the situation. So we ran a number of pilot studies. The first one we ran was to see if we could find odors that were marketed as masculine or feminine perfumes and that people did, in fact, perceive as masculine or feminine. We found two: one was Caesars Man and the other was Shania by Stetson.

The other thing we did was to go through a lot of pictures of faces that had been cropped so you couldn’t see the hair, you couldn’t see the mouth, and that were emotionally neutral. We used ones Steven Nosek published in a paper[*] in 2002.

FN: So these were a previously used set of faces?

White: Yes. He sent us twelve: three African American females, three African-American males, three Caucasian females, three Caucasian males. We tested people with that set and found the pictures they were most reliably able to say were male or female. We picked one from each category so that we had four.

Then we took all twelve photos and morphed across sex but not across race. So, one African-American male was morphed with three African-American females, so that every possible combination was morphed. 

I don’t know how much you know about morphing but you can go to a wide number of steps. We went to 100 steps, took the middle 40 to 60, and had people look at those and say whether they were male or female. Then, from the most ambiguous ones, we selected two African-American and two Caucasian. So altogether we had four ambiguous and four distinctive faces.

We divided people into two groups—nine in each group—and they either smelled the masculine perfume or they smelled the feminine perfume while they looked at the faces. They saw each face twice in a random order and their job was simply to say if it was male or female. We anticipated that ambiguous faces would be more likely to be seen as male or female depending on the perfume the person was smelling 

FN: So the perfume would put a spin on their interpretation of an ambiguous face?

White: That’s exactly what we were hoping to see. . . . We didn’t see it. [laughs] 

FN: That’s weird.

White: What we did see was that if you wanted to call that ambiguous face something that was not the perfume that you were smelling it took you longer. So if you were to label a face with a gender that was inconsistent with the perfume you were smelling, it would be slower for you. 

Dr. Theresa L. White

FN: So I’m looking at this ambiguous face and I’m going to say it’s female, but if I’m smelling a masculine fragrance it takes me longer to say so.

White: You got it.

FN: The incongruence between the gender of the fragrance and my bet about the gender of the face slows me down.

White: Right. What we think is going on is some sort of priming effect from the odor. There are a couple of things that could improve this study. We let people look at the face as long as they wanted; they could take their time, “it might be male, it might be female, I’m not really sure”. That’s kind of a problem. I’d like to push people so they have a shorter amount of time to see the face and make their decision.

FN: So flash it at them and then force them to make a call.

White: Right. And another thing: with the distinctive stimuli people were very good; there were almost no mistakes. The mistakes they were made were in the direction of the perfume that they were smelling. So if you were smelling a female perfume and looking at a male face, you’d error by calling it a woman. There were hardly any mistakes at all with distinctive faces, but the ones there we found were in the right direction. So that gives me a hint that if I speed things up, I could induce more errors on the distinctive faces and on the ambiguous faces to the point were I’d get more of an effect.

The other thing I’d really like to do is run the study as a within-subjects experiment because the “good subject tendency” could be at work. In other words, if people know they’re smelling a masculine perfume, they may answer “male” to those stimuli that they’re not sure about because they can guess that’s what the experimenter wants them to do. 

FN: So the way you actually ran it, a person only smelled one perfume but looked at many faces?

White: Right.

FN: And you’d like to run each fragrance against every type of face, all scrambled.

White: That would be my ideal way to do it.

FN: So when you had people rate the gender of the perfumes . . .

White: We did that afterwards.

FN: . . . that was done by the people in the experiment but afterwards. And were those pretty clear results?

White: It was clear that the perfumes we thought were masculine they thought were masculine; the ones we thought were feminine, they thought were feminine.

FN: So you basically asked people “how masculine is this perfume” or “how feminine is this perfume”, using rating scales?

White: You got it.

FN: And people can do that with no problem?

White: No problem.


FN: Some people claim that the gender of perfume is all a function of marketing.

White: Well, there may be an element of that, an element of learning what constitutes male scent and what constitutes female scent within a specific culture. People carry around culture-specific schema if you will, ideas of what a man smells like, what a woman smells like. And so these perfumes fit this ideal schema better for our culture. 

FN: Do you think these cultural schema are purely arbitrary? Could there be a culture where light florals are masculine and heavy woody notes are feminine?

White: I suppose it’s possible. I don’t know of any. [laughs] 

FN: Are there any biological boundaries to what’s possible in the olfactory assignment of gender?

White: You know, that’s outside the realm of any data.

FN: Can you speculate?

White: Like I said, I don’t know of any culture where light florals are masculine.

FN: Come back to the facial stimuli. What is it that makes a face masculine and easy to identify? Are there facial features that people use?

White: Yes, there are definitely features that make a face look more masculine or feminine: brow size, nose size, eye orientation, and puffiness of cheeks, for example.

FN: There are guys who look very feminine and women who look very masculine and yet we don’t deny that are males and females.

White: No. But there are times when you’re in a social situation where you just don’t know. So you look for additional information such as what this person is wearing. If fragrance is something they’re wearing, it’s something you can use to disambiguate an unusual situation.

FN: Let’s talk about possible applications of your work. What if a woman has a very feminine look, roundy eyes and everything you associate with feminine appearance; would it be a good idea or a bad idea for her to wear a gender-ambiguous scent?

White: I think odors help to disambiguate a situation where our more “reliable” sense—vision—is not reliable. At the sensory integration seminar here at AChemS, there was a fellow talking about how we weight sensory information: we weight highly reliable senses more heavily than the more variable senses, and olfaction is an incredibly variable sense. So I really believe we give a lot more credence to what our eyes say than what our nose says most of the time. But in situation where the eyes aren’t doing it for you, you’re going to make use of any other information to help clear things up. 

FN: So a smell could put you over the edge in an ambiguous situation?

White: Yes.

FN: Has anybody done anything with ambiguous voices?

White: Nope.

FN: That would be cool, wouldn’t it?

White: Yup. That would be way cool.

FN: Who was looking at the pictures in your study? Men and women?

White: Only men.

FN: Why only men?

White: Because preferences for masculinity of faces varies with the menstrual cycle and I wanted a less noisy data set. I would have felt obligated to control for phase of menstrual cycle and other factors if I’d used women, and that would have complicated the study considerably.

FN: So what’s the next step in this project?

White: I’m going to do it again as a within-subjects experiment with time limited exposure to the faces. But I have a number of different faces and I’ve morphed across emotions and that’s another direction I’m hoping to go with this. 

I bought Paul Ekman’s set of facial expressions and the ones I was trying to use were pleasantness and disgust because I though disgust was the most olfaction-related expression of emotion.

FN: I once got Paul Ekman to try to flare only one of his nostrils at a time. It drove him nuts for twenty minutes at a psychology faculty party.

White: [laughs]

FN: Thank you very much.

White: Thank you.

[*Nosek, B.A., Banaji, M.R., & Greenwald, A.G. (2002). Harvesting group attitudes and stereotypes from a demonstration website. Group Dynamics 6(1):101-115.]

Friday, May 7, 2010

Bottle Design Meets Olfactory Genius


The creepy perfume bottle prototypes pictured here are from the Scent Stories project by AhandOh design studio in Poland.  [Via package design website TheDieLine.]

Perfume packaging design and the concept of the perfume were always our dream project. So we took men’s fragrance as our challenge.

We found inspiration in the great, dark literature and distinctive, strong characters. We tried to describe the dark sides of men’s nature with line of scents named after famous writers.
At last! A shop that can handle the bottle design for our I Smell Dead People EDT.

We especially like Ahandoh’s choice of George Orwell. His novel 1984 is suffused with odor. There’s the dank and dreary background scent of life in the dystopian, totalitarian future of England:
. . . on the table there was a litter of dirty dishes and dog-eared exercise-books. On the walls were scarlet banners of the Youth League and the Spies, and a full-sized poster of Big Brother. There was the usual boiled-cabbage smell, common to the whole building, but it was shot through by a sharper reek of sweat, which-one knew this at the first sniff, though it was hard to say how was the sweat of some person not present at the moment.
But there is also the nostalgic and liberating scent of genuine goods filched from privileged Party members: 
‘Half a second,’ she said. ‘Just let me show you what I’ve brought. Did you bring some of that filthy Victory Coffee? I thought you would. You can chuck it away again, because we shan’t be needing it. Look here.’ 

She fell on her knees, threw open the bag, and tumbled out some spanners and a screwdriver that filled the top part of it. Underneath were a number of neat paper packets. The first packet that she passed to Winston had a strange and yet vaguely familiar feeling. It was filled with some kind of heavy, sand-like stuff which yielded wherever you touched it. 

‘It isn’t sugar?’ he said. 

‘Real sugar. Not saccharine, sugar. And here’s a loaf of bread proper white bread, not our bloody stuff — and a little pot of jam. And here’s a tin of milk — but look! This is the one I’m really proud of. I had to wrap a bit of sacking round it, because -’ 

But she did not need to tell him why she had wrapped it up. The smell was already filling the room, a rich hot smell which seemed like an emanation from his early childhood, but which one did occasionally meet with even now, blowing down a passage-way before a door slammed, or diffusing itself mysteriously in a crowded street, sniffed for an instant and then lost again. 

‘It’s coffee,’ he murmured, ‘real coffee.’ 

‘It’s Inner Party coffee. There’s a whole kilo here,’ she said.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Dude!



We’re gonna get us some White Castle!

This, not so much.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Where We've Been


Yes, posting’s been light the last few days. First Nerve has been on the road: a scientific meeting in Florida, a medical conference in Las Vegas, and a grueling Bay Area Culinary & Automotive Touring Course for senior management. Grilled double cheeseburger with everything at Oscar’s, brunch with Mandy Aftel at Guerilla Cafe, some Morbier on a baguette at Jack London S.H.P.,  an Oakville District Cabernet at the Mondavi winery, and a yellow curry at Bua Luang in Albany.

[Burp!]

We’ll resume regular blogging as soon as our head re-enters the time zone and the road-laundry gets washed & stowed.

Monday, May 3, 2010

The Smelly Web Indexes: Rollercoaster!


The Solo Blog Index
Close: 96 
Change: -7 
Big movers: Ayalasmellyblog +10%, 1000Fragrances +8%, MaisQuePerfume +5%, IndiePerfumes -44%, PinkManhattan -20%,  AnyasGarden -15%,  BitterGraceNotes -11%, GrainDeMusc -7%, Vetivresse -5%,  SorceryOfScent -5%

The Team Blog Index
Close: 111
Change: -1
Big movers: PerfumePosse +6%, PerfumeSmellinThings -6%

The Corporate & Community Site Index
Close: 56 
Change: +8 
Big movers: Sniffapalooza +18%

Summary
The Solo Blog Index reversed course after three straight weekly gains and dropped 7 points as declines outnumbered advances two to one.  A big downdraft at IndiePerfumes helped pull the Index lower.

The Team Blog Index notched a one point decline for the third week in a row. The Corporate & Community Site Index continued to rise driven entirely by a strong showing at Sniffapalooza.