Thursday, December 26, 2013

FirstNerve Review: The Neuropsychology of Smell and Taste by G. Neil Martin

A book titled The Neuropsychology of Smell and Taste is not what one normally grabs from the shelf for amusement during a long plane ride. But having agreed to review it, I took it along on a recent flight from Newark to San Francisco figuring that it would, at least, deter annoying attempts at conversation from fellow passengers. How wrong I was. An attractive woman saw it peeking out of my carry-on bag and began talking to me in the boarding line; she is a neuropsychologist in the Bay Area. Somewhere over Nebraska the guy next to me asks me what I do; he has a cousin in the fragrance business he had to tell me about. Then the weirdo who had been marking up a briefcase full of fashion magazines chimed in about perfume trends; he’s a department store merchandiser. The lesson, I suppose, is that if you want to meet people you could do worse than get yourself a copy of Neil Martin’s new book.

Martin, who teaches psychology at Middlesex University in England, is the author of several well-regarded textbooks, as well as original research papers on, among other things, odor perception. His latest opus, part of the Psychology Press Brain, Behaviour and Cognition Series, is a lucid summary of the field aimed at advanced undergraduates, grad students, clinicians, and those looking to do research in the area—in other words, anyone with more than a casual interest in the functioning of the nose, tongue and brain. Those working in commercial venues—aromatherapists, neuromarketers, food writers, flavorists, ENTs, etc.—will also find it useful.

I think it says something positive about the field that there is finally a book to fill the gap between the hyper-focused experimental reports in the scientific literature and the dense, scholarly compilations that weigh down the bookshelves of the few with grant money enough to afford them. The area is sufficiently mature and the audience sufficiently wide to warrant an accessible treatment.

Martin’s topical approach is straightforward. He begins with the psychology of chemosensation and how smell and taste perceptions are measured. Then he reviews the major factors underlying individual differences: age, sex, personality, and culture. Next, he describes the basics of anatomy, neuroanatomy, and neurophysiology, covering everything from receptors to cortex and including such mechanical phenomena as the nasal cycle and swallowing. (Actually, he misses a couple of key papers debunking the nasal cycle by some fat-faced four-eyes but that’s a mere quibble in a work of this scope.) From there, it’s on to psychophysiology and neuro-imaging: the full array of studies using EEG, fMRI and allied techniques. The penultimate chapter deals with disorders of perception, including full attention to smell impairment in neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. He concludes with the neuropsychology of flavor, taking a wide view that includes interactions between smell, taste and sight, and the mechanisms of hunger and satiety.

Booyah! Martin’s coverage is exhaustive but not exhausting. He has a deft touch in highlighting key findings, and he leavens the text with witticisms as dry as the sherry in the faculty lounge. His judgment is solid, making him a trustworthy guide for those venturing into the area for the first time.

I found the neuro-imaging chapter less satisfying that the others, but this is no fault of Martin’s. fMRI studies induce a sort of kaleidoscopic effect on the reader due to the fractal nature of the papers themselves. Each begins with an odor manipulation, then inventories activity in various brain regions of interest, compares this activity across the left and right hemispheres, and sometimes across ipsi- versus contra-lateral nostril odor delivery, and finally cross indexes these differences in men and women. The result is a patchwork quilt of neuroscience mini-effects: “Nosenpicker and McMucus found that unpleasant odors delivered to the left nostril evoke greater response in the left orbitofrontal cortex of men and a decrease in activity in the right insula in men and women, while a pleasant odor delivered to the right nostril tends to result in heightened response to the . . .” and so on. Martin tries manfully to extract general conclusions, but there is only so much one can do with brain science of the slice and dice variety. I believe imaging people have been shotgunning in all directions for too long; it is time they got their own house in order by tying specific hypotheses to specific brain areas.

The Neuropsychology of Smell and Taste is timely, up-to-date, and an excellent overview of the field. I expect it will become standard reading in sensory science.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Merry Christmas to All

And laying his finger aside of his nose
And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose.
He sprung to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew, like the down of a thistle:
But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight-
Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Awaken Your Unconscious Emotions . . . With a Nissan Air Freshener

And now for a light and effervescent video to ease you into the weekend. It comes courtesy of Nissan and it’s about a fragrance designed by George Dodd for the company’s electric vehicle, the Leaf. He may look like an overgrown hobbit, but Dr. Dodd has the Irishman’s gift of making any nonsense sound charming. My favorite scene is where the blond technician babe evaluates an air freshener in a wind tunnel. Let’s just say it opens up new realms of olfactory fantasy.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

ISDP: When the Snoring Stops

The alarm on our nifty Necronomichron™ travel clock just went off which means this is Friday the 13th and time for an especially auspicious edition of ISDP, FirstNerve’s wildly popular feature which premiered on Friday the 13th almost five years ago. Ahhh, good times. We warned you then, and we’ll warn you now:
The squeamish and the irony-impaired should immediately click away, preferably to some bright, safe, happy place where it always smells like sunshine and fresh laundry.
Everyone else saddle up and let’s ride in search of that telltale stench that means only one thing. Our first stop is Texas:
Investigators are trying to identify a woman found dead in a truck in southwest Houston overnight. 
A passer-by called police after noticing a foul odor in a Dodge Ram pickup parked on Pine Street near South Renwick.
We can’t find any further developments to this story. So we head to East Windsor, Connecticut, where the scene is equally mysterious and even more alarming:
The rotting corpse of a 57-year-old man was found inside his Connecticut home — which was filled with a cache of weapons and rigged with explosives, authorities said. 
Police found the body of Russell Bickford inside the Stoughton Road home in East Windsor, just north of Hartford, after a neighbor complained of a foul smell on the first floor Tuesday . . .
Bickford has apparently been dead for three weeks, although a cause of death was not immediately clear.

On to Florida, a leading source of ISDP incidents:
Three bodies found at an upscale, gated community in Florida had been there for weeks without anyone noticing, a medical examiner says. 
The bodies – which were not identified – were discovered on Saturday in Orlando after a property manager went to check on three residents that he had not heard from in a while. 
Upon arrival at the home, located in the golf course community of Eagle Creek, the manager smelled a foul odor and alerted authorities. . . . the bodies were those of a 34-year-old woman, a 50-year-old man and a child.
Sticklers that we are, however, this is not a true ISDP incident because the property manager was already acting on his suspicions when he encountered the Foul Odor.

On the other hand, we have a new nominee for the 2013 Norman Bates Award™. The item appeared in the Belgian newspaper La Derniere Heure [Quelle ironie!—Ed.] under the screaming headline “Elle dormait depuis un an avec son mari . . . momifié!”
A Brussels widow slept next to her mummified husband’s corpse for a year, her landlord said after making the macabre discovery during an eviction, a Belgian daily reported Tuesday.
Tests indicate her husband “died of natural causes a year go.”
. . . the widow had told locals her husband was away “receiving treatment.”
To close on a lofty literary note, we offer this fine mini-memoir by Garrett McGrath writing on Narratively. In “The Secret Life of a Manhattan Doorman” he recounts a summer job from long ago.
The smells are the thing I don’t forget. Harsh cleaners, dead bodies, the results of four a.m. bodega runs, cluttered apartments filled with rotting paper. I can recall each smell distinctively; they are unique to that time and place. It also works in reverse: if I stumble upon one of the smells, it takes me back to being a naïve seventeen-year-old, working in the hot New York City summer—the buzz of air conditioners working in the night, straining power grids. The city was asleep and I was awake. I was a doorman.
As the newbie, he is forced to check on the old lady whose relatives haven’t heard from her in a few days.
I pushed the key into the keyhole and wiggled it until it caught. All the lights were on. I scanned the living room. Then, I saw it. An arm, completely dark blue, limp over the side of the couch. She was facing the TV. The smell in the apartment was every cliché from every horrible television detective procedural. It was acrid; it smelled like rotting meat. I couldn’t take it and I ran outside. I desperately wanted to vomit but couldn’t show weakness in front of Manny. He would tell the others and I would be mocked for the entire summer. Manny and I went downstairs and he told Corey to call 911.
That’s it for this edition, folks. Be sure to tip your doorman for the holidays.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Bonfire of the Vanities

You want to give a guy credit for trying to do the right thing, but when the outcome is this stupendously bad you have to wonder.
A homeless man is in Northampton County Prison after he allegedly set a fire to mask a foul smell wafting from a restroom at a vacant restaurant in south Bethlehem.
The fire got out of control and the fellow is charged with arson.
Apparently, Burwell tried to create his own air freshener with wood chips and paper towels. He took wood chips that he found in the garage, placed paper towels underneath and then lit it up in the restroom sink.
Lighting a single match is the usual ritual atonement for fouling the air in a bathroom—what on earth did he do that required a bonfire?
Court documents were silent on what caused the stench in the nonfunctioning toilet.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Renifleur Alert

Elie Mystal at AboveTheLaw goes all foot stompy over a judge’s decision that aggressive sniffing does not constitute sexual harassment. His post is accompanied by a blank image space captioned “Getty only has images of women or children sniffing things . . . because men sniffing women is TOTALLY CREEPY.” And to prove his PC bona fides he throws in the phrase “a prick Texas judge.”

Feel the force of his intellect—unlike you, Elie Mystal has two Harvard degrees. [Does that make him a pecksniff?—Ed.]

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

By Way of Explanation

I’ve been away. I spent Thanksgiving in the San Francisco Bay Area. Here are some pictures. Can you smell the bay breeze?

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Now You Can Follow FirstNerve by Email

I’ve been doing some blog maintenance and just added a “Follow FirstNerve by Email” widget below my Blogger profile. This is for all you people out there who don’t read an RSS feed and/or would like to get an email notification of new posts. It’s an easy-peasy signup powered by FeedBurner.

And now back to your regular programming.

Friday, November 22, 2013

The Release from Suffering

The Dalai Lama makes a point about our shared humanity—with a story about getting gassy on an airplane.

P.S. At FirstNerve, we refer to the phenomenon by its technical name: “decompression syndrome.”

Hat tip: Instapundit

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Preferred Fragrance Inc.’s Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad October

FirstNerve has long followed the saga of Preferred Fragrance, the New York company that attracts trademark lawsuits like a discarded fish head attracts flies. On October 18, Prada S.A. filed a federal complaint charging that Preferred’s Party Candy perfume infringed on Prada Candy, a perfume launched in the U.S. back in August, 2011. Specifically, Prada charges Preferred with
trademark and trade dress infringement, unfair competition, deceptive trade practices, and trademark and trade dress dilution.
Prada claims that the similarity in name and packaging between Prada Candy and Party Candy
is calculated to confuse and mislead consumers, create a false impression as to the source and sponsorship of Party Candy, to divert business from [Prada], to pass off the Party Candy product as being authorized and endorsed by [Prada], or to otherwise falsely misrepresent the nature and quality of [Preferred’s] product and misappropriate the goodwill associated with the Prada Candy mark and trade dress.
For marketers of look-alike products, trademark infringement lawsuits might be seen as just a cost of doing business. Preferred Fragrance certainly has plenty of experience defending itself against such charges and may fight this one to a draw—i.e., a negotiated settlement that falls short of what Prada seeks, namely that Preferred stop manufacturing and marketing Party Candy and cough up all profits from the product along with treble damages.

Perhaps more consequential than the Prada lawsuit is one filed a week earlier, also in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. The plaintiffs in this case are the private equity investors who bought Preferred Fragrances from Ezriel Polatsek and others in 2011, installed Glenn Palmer as the new CEO, and made Polatsek president and COO. Page two of the complaint makes this eye-popping statement:
Due to Polatsek’s illegal behavior, defalcations, multiple violations of Company policy, and overall abysmal employment performance, Plaintiffs terminated his employment, effective October 10, 2013.

The new owners are going after a slew of Polatseks, including former president Ezriel, his wife Sarah, and his father Harry, all of whom were or are employees of Preferred Fragrance, Inc. (Mentioned indirectly in the lawsuit are Ezriel’s brothers Abraham, another company employee, and Joel, who owns JP Filling, a company that does business with Preferred.) Four other defendants are former shareholders in the old Preferred Fragrance.

We learn from the court filing that Ezriel Polatsek was hired full time at a base salary of $236,000 (soon to be bumped to $300,000) along with automatic cost of living increases and bonus. So what did he allegedly do to warrant dismissal and a lawsuit charging fraud and breach of contract?

Uni-World claims that prior to completion of the sale, the Polatseks et al. materially changed the terms of arrangements Preferred had with some of its largest suppliers and customers, while failing to inform the new owners. The new terms would have reduced Preferred’s book value; the upshot is that the new owners feel they were deceived into overpaying and they want their money back. In addition, about 300 shipping containers from China were, according to Uni-World, inappropriately classified as non-hazardous material in order to save a couple of hundred bucks per container. The resulting overstatement of company earnings, multiplied by a standard factor in the purchase agreement, is claimed to have cost Uni-World a loss of $350,376. Uni-World also claims the previous owners provided “false and fraudulent” information regarding sales projections.

On a more personal note, Uni-World claims that Ezriel Polatsek on two occasions pocketed cash payments from customers ($11,000 in one instance, and about $14,000 in another). [Cash payments? What business pays another that sort of money in cash?—Ed.] The complaint says that Polatsek failed to show up to two of the company’s quarterly board meetings, and was a no-show at the all-important ASD trade show in Las Vegas last August (he previously attended every year). Other alleged misbehavior includes use of company funds for non-company-related travel; excessive charges for airfare, hotel and personal car service; mismanagement of customer relations resulting in monetary loss; and extending company credit without securing payment (an advance to a colleague’s brother that resulted in a $100,000 write-off).

According to the plaintiff’s timeline, they confronted Polatsek and the other defendants with these issues in April, 2013. Discussions led nowhere and on September 13, 2013 Ezriel Polatsek and the old company filed suit against the new owners in New York state court. They deny breaching the sales agreement, say they are not responsible for the losses claimed, and allege that Uni-World is suing in order to pin its own business failings on them. As a finishing touch, Polatsek wants the court to free him from his non-compete agreement with Preferred.

For its part, Uni-World wants $5.6 million from the defendants and a ruling that its for-cause firing of Ezriel Polatsek and the non-compete clause are valid and enforceable.

Will somebody please fire up the popcorn? This is going to be good.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Barbara Herman's Scent & Subversion

On Tuesday, Mindy Yang and Chad Murawczyk of MiN New York hosted a party for Barbara Herman to celebrate her new book Scent & subversion: Decoding a century of provocative perfume.

Herman blogs extensively on vintage fragrances at Yesterday’s Perfume and the smellerati were out in force at the party. I rubbed elbows with Lucy Raubertas (Indieperfumes), Gaia Fishler (TheNonBlonde), Douglas Bender (CharentonMacerations), Christophe Laudamiel (Dreamair) and a couple of the Goodsmellas.

Of course the star of the night was Barbara Herman who read some lovely passages from her book. Scent & Subversion begins by introducing us to her “chemical romance” with the great perfumes of the past, and then surveys the icons of the 20th century in chronological order. Her capsule appreciations cover everything from Fougère Royale (Houbigant, 1882) to Laundromat (Demeter, 2000). A third section profiles a few “scent visionaries” and gives useful advice to those who want to collect their own vintage samples.

Herman is a deft and inventive writer whose talent is to make the scents come alive in your mind’s nose. To a literary genre still hung-over after an early overindulgence in bitchy snarkitude, her approach is welcome as a fresh breeze. This splendid little volume (it fits easily in the hand) is beautifully produced and generously illustrated with original color advertisements.

P.S. Thinking of buying a copy? Click through the Amazon widgets on this page and you’ll kick a few pennies into the FirstNerve Beer Fund at no cost to yourself.

Friday, November 15, 2013

In Media Nez

Interesting smelly event coming up next week at Blast Theory in Portslade, Brighton, which is evidently somewhere in England. It’s a “scent-enhanced” session with panelists Kate McLean, Heather Kelley, Simon Niedenthal and Ju Row Farr. Niedenthal, pictured above (on the left) wrote an excellent paper on smell in games which I blogged about here. There’s also the debut of an “interactive scent work” by Ms. Kelly. Sounds like fun—and it’s free!

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Up in Smoke: ISDP for November 2013

An icy wind is leaking through gaps in the shingles here at FirstNerve Manor, and leafless tree branches are making scratchy noises on the roof. At least we think it’s tree branches. The calendar from the defunct frozen yogurt place that’s now a nail salon indicates that it’s the 13th of the month and time to release our summary of I Smell Dead People incidents from around the country. So gather round, all you morbidly inclined aficionados of the ghastliest “foul smell.” Everyone else run for cover.

Last November we had a lot to report; this time not so much. Who knows, maybe it’s the lack of sunspots. For some strange reason we find ourselves a year later back in Harris County, Texas.

A 44-year-old woman near Houston, Texas goes missing on October 30. The next week police are searching her home for human remains. Neighbors remember foul-smelling smoke coming from the chimney the day she disappeared. Could it have been a clue? Neighbor Rosemary Wallace “says she talked with Harris County detectives and they said, “from my understanding [the woman’s boyfriend] actually chopped her up and then he put her in the fireplace.”

Two days ago, the victim’s 29-year-old boyfriend was charged with her murder. Always trust your nose!

Alert from the Department of Irony: The scene of the crime is on the 11000 block of Fleur Drive in the Bonaire subdivision. [Cute. BTW this case doesn’t really meet FN’s strict criteria for ISDP.—Ed.] [Yes, that’s correct, just work with me here, OK?]

And from the state that leads the nation in ISDP incidents: A resident of the Silver Lakes community in Pembroke Pines, Florida “noticed a foul odor coming from the water behind his home” and called 911. Police found a partially submerged body on the lake’s edge.

It’s not much folks, but it’s all we got.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Spritz, Boom, Bah!

Nothing says Texas A&M University like “refreshing top notes of Italian lemon, bergamot and iced pineapple.” Welcome to collegiate colognes, a rapidly growing niche in the fine fragrance business. Arian Campo-Flores and Meredith Rutland at the WSJ provide a decent rundown on the fad, and refrain from overdoing the cow shit jokes.

In actual fact, universities as “personalities” offer the perfumer as good a creative canvas as any—there are visuals, emotional associations and even the occasional bona fide scent marker. From a purely aesthetic point of view, there isn’t much to carp about. [Besides, we’ll have a ton of material once Parlux signs Miley Cyrus for Twerker.—Ed.]

The main danger for the collegiate cologne market is success—there are hundreds of universities and just not that many distinctive, high-quality fragrances to go around. By the time the trend hits Bergen Community College, we’ll be talking knock-offs and aftershave.

Friday, November 8, 2013


I received a letter this week from an organization that wants me to join. Read the opening paragraph and see if you can guess which group sent it.
Dear Avery Gilbert, 
As global citizens, the challenges we face have never seemed greater than they do today. Climate change, chronic and emerging diseases, rising food costs, population pressures, environmental degradation, and continued reliance on fossil fuels are just some of the issues we all face in one form or another.
So where do think it come from? Here are your choices:
Sierra Club
American Psychological Association
Environmental Defense Fund
American Association for the Advancement of Science
I’ll post the answer later.

UPDATE November 10, 2013

Here is the answer:

What is the difference between an organization that promotes scientific research and one that advocates specific positions on public policy?

If you can’t distinguish one from the other based on their own communications, then whose fault is it that science is losing credibility as an honest, skeptical and disinterested endeavor?

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Obama’s BRAIN: Making It Up as They Go Along

Today’s issue of Nature has an article by Helen Shen recounting the tempestuous and confused story of President Obama’s BRAIN initiative. Coming after the administration’s botched launch of, one is left in awe at the hubris of a government managed mega-research project that aims to simultaneously record all of the neural activity in the human brain, and that will involve scientific and budgetary coordination between the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, the Allen Institute for Brain Science, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Kavli Foundation, and the Salk Institute for Biological Studies.

As they say in the White House briefing room, expect a few glitches as things roll out.

Here’s a quick recap for those of you keeping score at home:

The White House, “on the lookout for a bold presidential initiative,” latched onto a blue-sky idea called the Brain Activity Map (BAM) which had been floated a few months earlier. The president mentioned it in his State of the Union speech on February 12, and the administration was soon talking about a ten-year, $3.8 billion plan. Many neuroscientists were “alarmed,” fearing that the money would be pulled from existing research programs, and that failure of such a titanic project might “undermine public trust in science.” One scientific critic called it “a very narrow agenda of a small group of people.”

The White House formally announced its plan on April 2, by which time BAM had been transformed by clever acronym into the BRAIN Initiative. Unlike BAM, Obama’s BRAIN had “no clearly defined goal” and many neuroscientists found it “puzzlingly vague” and yet “reassuring,” because details were to be left to DARPA, NIH, NSF and the four private foundations.

The hashing out of details took place at a meeting in Arlington, Virginia on May 6. Chen described that meeting as “a frenetic pitch-fest,” and a “cacophonous town hall meeting” filled with “restless attendees,” all lobbying for their particular scientific topics and techniques.
To the growing exasperation of audience members, however, there was no convergence towards a coherent agenda for the [BRAIN] initiative.
The boisterous open session was followed by a carefully stage-managed closed meeting at which the specially selected NIH advisory committee (a.k.a. “The Dream Team,” chaired by Rockefeller’s Cornelia Bargmann and Stanford’s William Newsome) heard privately from invited speakers. The Dream Team’s selection of speakers and topics drew fire from scientists who felt excluded.

After the meeting in Alexandria, the government research agencies began playing “after you, Alphonse,” with NSF and DARPA ultimately declining to take the lead in BRAIN planning. So all eyes were on the NIH advisory committee, which on September 16 made public its interim report on the project’s scientific priorities. The result will not surprise anyone who has served on a committee.
Many had feared that it would fail to be sufficiently inclusive, but the document was instead so staggeringly broad that it seemed to encompass all of circuit-based neuroscience.
The NIH advisory committee has now kicked the can down the road to an open comment session at the massive Society for Neuroscience meeting on November 11 in San Diego.

Having squeezed its fifteen minutes of attention out of the president’s SOTU speech, the Obama White House has “so far indicated no intention to coordinate the [inter-agency planning] process more formally.” Whether that is a bug or a feature has yet to be determined.

Chen’s detailed account of the BRAIN Initiative is remarkable—it brims with fear, anxiety, chaos, distraction, mistrust and lack of coordination. Welcome to Big Science in the Age of Obama. When we load every dream and wish onto the agenda of the Federal government, can we be surprised that the behemoth staggers and fails us? Are we shocked to find the Federal money trough swarmed by a selfish, unruly throng, and the spigot controlled by a small coterie of insiders? If you are, you haven’t been paying attention for the past five years.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Jimmy Kimmel’s Olfactory Placebo Sketch Comedy

There’s been a recent flurry of PR around a scent-emitting device that attaches to your iPhone and puffs aroma every time you get a text message. Called Scentee, it appears to be a re-branding of the ChatPerf device I blogged about in May.

Now the inestimable Jimmy Kimmel tees it up for a man-on-the-street bit. Since the Scentee is only available in Japan, Kimmel uses a dummy device for his “Imaginary Smell Edition of Lie Witness News.” If you have ever doubted the power of the olfactory placebo effect, here’s your answer.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Sniffing It on Beverly Boulevard

A headline from The Hollywood Reporter will warm the hearts of olfactory enthusiasts everywhere:
‘Perfume: The Story of a Murderer’ to Reshow With Newly Created Scent Track 
The 2006 film from Tom Tykwer will play at special screenings Nov. 6 and 7, giving audiences a special scent track with which to follow along.

The event in L.A. is the brain child of Saskia Wilson-Brown at the ever-expanding Institute for Art and Olfaction who pulled together some corporate sponsorships to make it happen. Our pal and co-creator of the scent-track Christophe Laudamiel will be there in person. The fifteen custom scents will be delivered manually on blotters: low-tech but effective. The showings are free and limited to the first forty people which pretty much guarantees the place will be packed.

P.S. A Face Palme d’Or to The Hollywood Reporter’s Laurie Pike for mangling the history of scented movies:
Think of it as the sophisticated cousin of William Castle’s Smell-O-Vision and John Waters’ Odorama, the scratch-and sniff cinema gimmicks of 1960 and 1981, respectively.
Where to begin? Schlockmeister William Castle (of “Tingler” fame) did not invent Smell-O-Vision; Mike Todd, Jr. and Hans Laube did. They delivered scent through tubes to the theater seats, not via scratch-and-sniff (which hadn’t been invented yet). Smell-O-Vision’s actual cousin was Walter Reade’s AromaRama, which delivered scent via ventilation ducts. C’mon Ms. Pike, it’s not like someone didn’t already publish this piece of Hollywood history.*

*Which would make a great movie BTW.

Gotta go, Chili Palmer’s on line one.
“That was Rio Bravo. Robert Mitchum played the drunk in El Dorado. Dean Martin played the drunk in Rio Bravo. Basically the same part. John Wayne did the same on both. He played John Wayne.”

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

American Literary Smellscapes: Sheehan’s Pool Room

I’m beginning to think that H.P. Lovecraft was quite the olfactory-minded artist. He certainly was smell-aware, based on the first six stories in The Complete Works, which I’m reading front to back to work up a frisson of creepiness for Halloween.

Lovecraft’s story Old Bugs was written in 1919—at the dawn of Prohibition—but set in the future of 1950. Its combination of moodiness, detail, and a Big Reveal reads like an episode of The Twilight Zone. Here’s how it starts:
Sheehan’s Pool Room, which adorns one of the lesser alleys in the heart of Chicago’s stockyard district, is not a nice place. Its air, freighted with a thousand odours such as Coleridge may have found in Cologne, too seldom knows the purifying rays of the sun; but fights for space with the acrid fumes of unnumbered cheap cigars and cigarettes which dangle from the coarse lips of unnumbered human animals that haunt the place day and night. But the popularity of Sheehan’s remains unimpaired; and for this there is a reason—a reason obvious to anyone who will take the trouble to analyse the mixed stenches prevailing there. Over and above the fumes and sickening closeness rises an aroma once familiar throughout the land, but now happily banished to the back streets of life by the edict of a benevolent government—the aroma of strong, wicked whiskey—a precious kind of forbidden fruit indeed in this year of grace 1950.
H.P. Lovecraft
Old Bugs (1919)

Gwyneth Paltrow and the Scent of Fame

Gwyneth Paltrow’s movie career stalled for a while following her 1999 Oscar for Shakespeare in Love. Now she’s back in the money with a role in the Iron Man franchise. But all may not be well. Based on our careful monitoring of the smellebrity scene we predict major life changes in her future. Doubtful? Think back to when Britney and K-Fed made headlines with their noxious B.O.

Paltrow’s recent Vanity Fair kerfuffle has revived attention to some unkind olfactory observations about her personal hygiene habits. By some accounts she was a bit ripe in the armpits at this spring’s Met Gala, allegedly because she rejects AP/deo products that contain aluminum. One view is that the sniffy comments are payback for her undiplomatic remarks about the event. Whatevs. Here at FN we’re just happy to report on a good, old-fashioned case of smellebrity B.O.-mongering.

Exit question:
If Bruce Jenner really is entertaining the idea of becoming a woman, as our reading in the supermarket check-out lane suggests, then shouldn’t there be some olfactory evidence? Perhaps a change in his cologne purchases? Inquiring nostrils want to know.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Haunted Literary Smellscapes of America

I shall never forget the afternoon when first I stumbled upon the half-hidden house of death. It was in mid-summer, when the alchemy of Nature transmutes the sylvan landscape to one vivid and almost homogeneous mass of green; when the senses are well-nigh intoxicated with the surging seas of moist verdure and the subtly indefinable odours of the soil and vegetation. In such surroundings the mind loses its perspective; time and space become trivial and unreal, and echoes of a forgotten prehistoric past beat insistently upon the enthralled consciousness.
H.P. Lovecraft
The Tomb (1917)

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Armpit Love

It’s been a while since our first tentative sniff at the case of famously stinky teen heartthrob Robert Pattinson. Now he’s back in the news with remarks to the Portuguese magazine Activa, translated here, regarding the olfactory nature of his attraction to women:
“It doesn’t necessarily have to be perfume. I like the smell of people. It is really strange and I’m sure it has to do with pheromones. We like people because subconsciously we like the way they smell. I always find this very interesting to observe.”
OK, that’s a pretty conventional view. But what struck us was this reference to an article in Vogue that we seem to have missed.
In 2012 [Pattinson’s girlfriend at the time] Kristen [Stewart] told Vogue magazine: “I’m so in love with my boyfriend [Robert Pattinson] I love the way he smells. And him me. 
“Like, he loves to lick under my armpits. I don’t get this obsession with washing the smell off. That smell of someone you love – don’t you think that’s the whole point?”
Pit sniffers of the world, unite!

When it comes to underarm odor, RB apparently works both sides of the street. Not that there is anything wrong with that. Unless you’re one of those prudes on a film crew who find him a little overripe. Or you’re some inhibited loser who doesn’t like having your unwashed armpits licked by a guy nominated for Best Actor in a Canadian Film by the Vancouver Film Critics Circle. Really, loosen up. Get a life.

Exit question: Is there a formal term for people who are pathologically attracted to armpit smell?

Bonus question: If not, what should we call them?

UPDATE October 18, 2013

FN Commenter Lindaloo offers “pitophilia.” Not bad: it is easily understood. Some googling around reveals “maschalagnia” as the appropriately arcane and unpronounceable designation for armpit fetish. But maschalagnia strikes me as one of those formalisms that shows up frequently in tedious academic tracts but is rarely used by clinicians or researchers. For example, it is mentioned in about eight volumes on Google Books (including such time-wasters as There’s a Word for It and Lecher’s Lexicon). Meanwhile on PubMed, the go-to source for working scientists, it doesn’t produce a single hit. QED

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Smell and the Occult Sciences

To help you gear up for the ghoulish festivities of Halloween, FirstNerve presents a few aromatic tidbits from the Encyclopedia of Superstitions, Folklore, and the Occult Sciences of the World, published in 1903 by J.H. Yewdale and Sons Co., of Chicago and Milwaukee.
He who smells the flowers or wreaths at a funeral, will lose his sense of smell. 
It is unlucky to put perfume on your clothes the first time you wear them. 
Happily, a frivolous and irreverent spirit can be changed into that of a profound and meditative thinker by the habitual use of bergamot. 
White rose begets a love of sloth and indolence, and the famed patchouli will, sooner or later, cause the moral downfall of its devotee. [Heh. God damn hippies.—Ed.]

Monday, October 14, 2013

Model, Stripper, Playboy Centerfold & Perfumer

I’m trying to think of any other perfumers I would like to see naked.

Still thinking.

Wait a sec, I have to turn my Jean-Claude Ellena bobblehead around. It’s making me self-conscious.

Still thinking.

OK, I’ve got one. Make that two. But obv I can’t tell you who they are.

Wow, that wasn’t easy. Fragrance evaluators is a different story. Several hot ones leap to mind. Why the difference?

Thought experiment for tomorrow: smell scientists I want to see naked.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

ISDP: The Chill of an Early Fall

Dry leaves are falling from the dark, twisted trees near FirstNerve Manor and the nights have turned chilly. Historically, the October 13th edition of ISDP is a sparse one, reflecting seasonal condition unconducive to decay and putrescence, and this is no exception. In fact, after reaching deep and scraping the bottom of the malodorous barrel there is only one case to report.

A body found near a homeless camp by a cemetery in Greensboro, North Carolina, was that of a 68-year-old man who appears to have died of natural causes. “Police were called to the area near a cemetery after someone reported a bad smell about 6:10 p.m.” on September 16th. There you have it.

Sorry Gator fans, but given our famously strict standards the demise of a University of Florida history professor doesn’t quality as an ISDP event. The department chairman alerted police when the faculty realized their colleague hadn’t been seen for a week, and his body was discovered by campus police who were making a wellness check. However, the episode may yield a nomination for the 2013 Norman Bates Award™. Officer Jessica Lynn Zarate noted in her report that after being admitted to the apartment by the deceased’s roommate, she “could smell a foul odor coming from upstairs.” Evidently the roommate hadn’t noticed it or didn’t think it was noteworthy.

Wheels of Justice Update: “San Diego man accused of killing wife, cooking her body dies of cancer while awaiting trial.” That would be Frederick Hengl of Oceanside, who was “arrested last November after neighbors complained of a foul odor coming from his home.” Mr. Hengl was nominated for the 2012 Norman Bates Award™.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Richard Branson’s Potty Problem

I didn’t post this earlier because I thought it might be some kind of spoof. (Virgin Trains? Really?) Apparently it’s not.
Virgin Trains set for £3.5m refurbishment – to remove smell from corridors 
Richard Branson’s rail franchise set to work with the Government to finally deal with problem of unexplained spreading toilet odour
In fairness, smell is one of those things designers and engineers often fail to take into account. (Yes, I’m talking to all you fans of municipal composting.) Malodor can be hard to diagnose and even harder to eliminate. [Esp. when the malodor is caused by elimination!—Ed.]

Sunday, October 6, 2013

. . . But You Can’t Pick Your Chimp’s Nose

A feel-good, gross-out, nasal science story:
US biologist discovers new species up his nose after research trip to Africa 
Nasal surprise led to discovery of new method of spreading disease from chimps to humans.
“It’s not really practical or safe to pick ticks out of chimps’ noses,” said [University of Wisconsin veterinary pathobiologist Tony] Goldberg.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

The Pewey Decimal System

From the women’s bathroom on the first floor of the San Francisco Public Library’s main branch came that ripe, familiar tang. 
On this day, the stench came from one of the disabled-access stalls, where, through the cracks in the door, a cart heaped with belongings was visible. 
Informed of the situation, custodian Richard Mathews asked, “Was she naked?”
In college, the textbook for my Abnormal Psychology class pushed the Next Big Thing: storefront community mental health clinics to provide easy, non-threatening care and meds so that the severely mentally ill could be de-institutionalized. It struck me then as a fantasy. Decades later, the reality hasnt worked out too well either.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013


Berkeley, California. In the air: brewing beer.

Saturday, September 28, 2013


It was at that time, that the silence was largest
And longest, the night was roundest,
The fragrance of the autumn warmest,
Closest and strongest.

Wallace Stevens
On the Road Home, 1942

Thursday, September 26, 2013


We didn’t have the money to go to concerts, but before Robert left the Fillmore he got me a pass to see the Doors. Janet and I had devoured their first album and I felt almost guilty seeing them without her. But I had a strange reaction watching Jim Morrison. Everyone around me seemed transfixed, but I observed his every move in a state of cold hyperawareness. I remember this feeling much more clearly than the concert. I felt, watching Jim Morrison, that I could do that. I can’t say why I thought this. I had nothing in my experience to make me think that would be possible, yet I harbored that conceit. I felt both kinship and contempt for him. I could feel his self-consciousness as well as his supreme confidence. He exuded a mixture of beauty and self-loathing, and mystic pain, like a West Coast Saint Sebastian. When anyone asked how the Doors were, I just said they were great. I was somewhat ashamed of how I had responded to their concert.
Patti Smith, recalling 1968 in Just Kids.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Your Cheating Scent

Tempo, an online news site in the Philippines, features advice columnist Manay Gina. Here’s a letter she posted yesterday:
Dear Manay Gina,

One day, while I was putting our clothes away for laundry, I found a shirt my husband had worn to work. Surprisingly, it was scented—a really strong one. I know that my husband does not go to work with cologne on. When I inquired about his change of habit, he got very defensive and asked if I was accusing him of something.

Do you think I should be suspicious?

Manay Gina takes a wait-and-see attitude. Here at FirstNerve we’re more like “duh.” [Yeah, but is he seeing a woman or a man?—Ed.]

Sunday, September 15, 2013

“A Riff on Coq au Vin”

People complain that I don’t provide enough lifestyle advice here on FirstNerve. Allow me to remedy that.
“I love the sweet aroma of squirrel, and I’m surprised at most folks’ inexperience with serving the little guys,” says chef Levon Wallace, who heads up the kitchen at Proof on Main in Louisville, Ky. Wallace developed this recipe after bagging a few grays on a recent outing.
Pretty much everything tastes better with Pinot Noir and bacon.

One of my favorite courses as an undergraduate at Cal was comparative anatomy, taught by an Englishwoman named Thelma Rowell. In the notes for each lab assignment she would include a recipe for the species involved. There was Skate in Black Butter Sauce, and a Cordon Bleu recipe for rat that dated back to the siege of Paris. After we dissected pigeons, the grad students came by each bench and collected the breast meat for a cookout.

Good times.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

American Smellscapes: The Carter Years

Vermin problems in the Obama White House spur National Journal reporter George E. Condon Jr. to recall Jimmy Carter’s olfactory travails at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. They were caused by an infestation of mice.
To make matters worse, GSA and Interior refused to use traps, claiming humane groups had protested that in the past. But when mice started scampering across his office in daylight and when his meeting with the Italian prime minister was conducted amid the distinct smell of a dead mouse, Carter erupted. 
His fury was captured in his diary entry for Sept. 9, 1977. Carter that day summoned top officials from the White House, the Department of Interior and the GSA to the Oval Office to unload on them about the mice overrunning the executive offices – including the dead ones rotting away inside the walls of the Oval Office and giving his office a very unpleasant odor.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Motels & Wooded Areas: ISDP September, 2013

It was on a Friday the 13th some years back that we were inspired to post the first ISDP. And here we are again, providing an olfactory momento mori in the form of a curated set of stories from the dark side of the local news. It was the supposed urban legend of The Body Under the Motel Bed that first brought the world of ISDP to our attention. Fittingly, an incident in Royal Oak, Michigan, takes us back to that theme.
Oakland County Sheriff’s deputies were called to Royal Inn Motel about 6:45 p.m. Sunday because of a foul odor coming from one of the rooms, according to a news release. 
Deputies contacted the motel manager who let them inside of the unit. They found the body of a 61-year-old man on the floor outside of the bathroom.
Foul play does not appear to be a factor.

We haven’t done a count recently, but Florida is historically a leader in ISDP incidents. The latest comes from the town of Kissimmee:
Authorities are investigating after a partially decomposing body was found in a wooded area in central Florida. 
Osceola County Sheriff’s detectives were called to the scene Saturday after the caretaker of a property in Kissimmee complained of a foul smell while he was mowing the lawn. The caretaker went searching for the source of the odor and stumbled upon the body.
Finally, a team effort from Staten Island, New York. Three women smelled a foul odor in Willowbrook Park but were unable to locate it, despite having a pit bull with them and spending an hour searching the woods. After they finally called 911 police arrived in force and soon discovered the remains of a woman in her twenties. According to one of the women who noticed it, “It’s not an everyday smell, it’s a really bad smell—and one I will never forget.”

Mud Wrestling in Federal Court

I was excited when this story broke a couple of weeks back:
Snooki slaps perfume company Excell Brands LLC with $6M-plus lawsuit for using her name without her permission 
The ‘Jersey Shore’ star is raising a stink after the company allegedly sold a scent bearing her name and signature, exactly as they appear on her authentic ‘Snooki’ and ‘Snooki’ Couture products. The perfume, according to the suit, also ‘features a distinctive black-and-white animal print on the box.’
It has all the finest elements of a mudwrestling contest: New Joisey culcha, celebuscents, fragrance knockoffs and a Federal lawsuit. Perfect material for FN’s Business End of the Blotter. So why, you might ask, have I taken so long to serve up the inside scoop? Well, it’s not for lack of trying. Here’s what I found so far:

Excell Brands LLC is a New Jersey corporation founded in 2010 and located in South Plainfield. According to its profile page on, the company has seven employees and annual revenue estimated at $750,000. The business directory locates the company in Princeton and estimates it as having one to five employees, and annual sales of less than $500,000. So we are not talking about a large enterprise. But they have lots of perfumes listed on, the somewhat skeevy e-commerce site in communist China.

And then consider this item for sale on “Women’s “MY BUTTERFLY PINK” Perfume by Diamond Collection.”

Take a close look at the label; it reads“Our version of Mariah Carey’s Luscious Pink.”

Here’s the Amazon page for Mariah Carey’s Luscious Pink.

And here’s a close-up of the Luscious Pink label.

The use of a logo signature on an “our version of” product is exactly what Ms. Polizzi is objecting to in her lawsuit against Excell Brands. [OK, Sherlock, but My Pink Butterfly is produced by Diamond Collection, not Excell Brands—Ed.] [Keep your pants on.]

The name Diamond Collection was filed as a perfume trademark in April, 2011, by none other than . . . Excell Brands LLC of Princeton, New Jersey. The trademark application was abandoned about a year later. In the meantime, however, Excell Brands registered the perfume names “Ruby Collection,” “Emerald Collection,” and “Diamond Collection Luxurious Fragrance.”

Check Emerald Collection on Amazon and you will find
Golden Rush Perfume an Impression our Version of Gucci Rush by Gucci
Ferrera Perfume For Women, Version Of Carolina Herrera
Very Sensual Perfume, an Impression our Version of Victoria's Secret Very Sexy for Women
Change Blue Cologne/Perfume Impression. A Version of French cologne Bleu de Chanel
and so on and so on. Meanwhile, Ruby Collection features "Our version of Paris Hilton For Women," etc.

The brain trust behind Excell Brands must feel pretty confident that it is not infringing trademarks when it uses a competitor’s name and incorporates similar design features in its packaging. Ms. Polizzi’s claim is that the use of the exact design of her name logo on the Excell Brands product is an infringement, and she may be correct. Whether she can squeeze $6 million out of these down-market knock-off artists is another question.

Here’s where I would usually offer some choice bits from the court filings. But the complaint filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York has taken a long time to get posted online. And what has been posted is not promising.

D’oh! Spelling matters, people! [Nah, it’s a Jersey thing.—Ed.]

Exit question:Can a corporation refuse service of a lawsuit if the company name is misspelled?

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Twelve Years Later

Image via UCSBRepublicans

Twelve years after 9/11 there is a “memorial” at Ground Zero. It is not a monument or a statue. There is no human form, no representation of the event, its consequences, or our resolve in the face of it. There are two holes in the ground. Water runs into them like storm drains. The names of the dead are inscribed on panels surrounding the . . . drains.

Was this the best we could do?

Yet to open on the site, twelve years after 9/11, is a memorial museum with a “projected $60 million operating budget.”

$60 million a year.

The museum hopes it “can cover 60% of its operating budget with earned revenue, including admissions, gift-shop sales and concessions.”

A 9/11 gift shop.

“The museum plans to charge roughly $20 for adult admission.”


The museum’s “creative director” originally considered Tom Franklin’s iconic photograph of firefighters raising the flag amid the rubble too kitschy and “rah-rah American” to include in the exhibit.


Twelve years later, the new One World Trade Center Building (formerly the “Freedom Tower”) is still not complete. Its office space is only half leased.


Twelve years later, I see 9/11 remembered better elsewhere. Today on West Beach in Santa Barbara, California, the UCSB College Republicans will set out 2,977 flags, one for each person who perished that day. They do it as volunteers so that their generation will never forget.

And on a shady residential street in Montclair, New Jersey can be found, as on every day of the year, a plaque remembering a friend and neighbor. Today the flowers are fresh. And so is the pain of loss.