Sunday, July 28, 2013

Stoned History

During the cloud of dis-ease [sic] that was later called the bubonic plague, cloths would be soaked in cinnamon and other spices and placed in the room of the afflicted because of its antibacterial and antimicrobial properties.
Because, you know, people in the 14th Century were, like, totally into germ theory. Louis Pasteur just filled in the details.

This gem is one of many in “Bubonic Plague to Crown Chakra—Cinnamon as Medicine,” published in an online newspaper out of Las Vegas called the Guardian Express. The author, one Stasia Bliss, identifies herself as a Senior Editor there, as well as a “part-time yoga instructor & Master Alchemist.” [What’s part-time yoga?—Ed.] [Texting while in Downward Dog.]

This will come as a shock: Ms. Bliss lives in Portland, Oregon.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Tokyo Drift

There’s new olfactory art to check out if you are in Tokyo the next couple of weeks. Olfactory artist Maki Ueda has teamed up with architect Makoto Yokomizo to produce “Invisible White.”

The work invites viewers into and through a darkened space where they must rely sound, touch and smell. Ms. Ueda designed three smells to help them navigate their way. She describes her work and the technology behind it on her blog. (It’s in Japanese but there are lots of pictures.)

The show opened yesterday and runs through August 9, so don’t dawdle! It’s at the Okamura Garden Court Show Room, New Otani Garden Court 3F, Kioi-cho, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo.


Friday, July 19, 2013

Game Time

Simon Niedenthal is a guy with some interesting credentials: “BFA in photography, an MA in Medieval English literature, and a Ph.D. in interaction design.” He’s also an associate professor of interaction design at Malmö University in Sweden and has published a paper in the most recent issue of Eludamos - Journal for Computer Game Culture. His immediate topic is the use of scent in digital games but he goes much deeper than that.

Niedenthal is very good at putting game scent into the bigger picture:
Playfulness is one way in which we reclaim our humanity, and smell is one of our most basic channels for engaging the world.

Yet the history of designing mediated scent experiences is a litany of failure. Not only did media experiments such as AromaRama, Smell-O-Vision and the DigiScents iSmell computer peripheral sink without a trace, they have been mocked in retrospect, as if the effort to engage smell in media and computational forms was in itself laughable.
The mockery continues—Niedenthal pulls examples from deep in gamer online discussion groups—yet so does innovation in digitized scent technology. And the public remains curious. Will game designers ever get it right? Is it even possible?

Niedenthal’s historical review of the field is excellent. He covers everything from “Leather Goddesses of Phobos” to “Leisure Suit Larry,” and is up-to-date on scent technology. Perhaps because of his background in the fine arts and literature, he doesn’t climb onto the techie hobby horse of “immersion”:
A naïve understanding of immersion as sensory verisimilitude, however, offers one of the least promising avenues for the development of scent for games . . .
He offers a way forward, but only after acknowledging “some of the difficulties faced by the designer of scent games.” Experience shows that even simple games can become hard to play when they rely on olfactory ability. As for “Spice Chess” . . . well, forget about it.
One of the essential tasks of designing smell into games is to help players develop a basic smell connoisseurship adequate to the challenges of the game . . .
Niedenthal’s recommendation for game designers is straightforward:
The scent challenges in games should be kept simple. Rather than seeking to establish the “meaning” of a scent in relation to what is seen on screen (the pitfall of naïve immersion, complicated by the difficulty of synchronizing visual and olfactory stimuli), or seeking to draw upon the inherent “meaning” of scents (rendered nearly impossible by the great individual and cultural variability of scent associations), the designer ought to plan to establish scent associations within the game itself, and view the game, essentially, as a learning system.
Niedenthal offers a couple of examples where scent might be engagingly applied. One is called “Sillage” and involves a quest for characters who are never directly seen—the game relies on the inherently sad and nostalgic character of smell that is too often neglected. Another example is “Scratch Me, Sniff Me,” which plays on the possibilities of bodily intimacy that lurk in any scented game. Finally, he points game developers toward “abuse, power and transgression” as a promising area.

Hmmm, let’s see . . . Fartcheesi? Stinktionary? Trivial Purfume?

Wait, I’ve got it! How about Sniff My Butt,” a game of Russian roulette played with a squeezable, farting Cartman doll?

If you are thinking about using smell in games (electronic and otherwise), art installations, or any other interactive medium, you should do yourself a favor and read Niedenthal’s paper. For some reason, he chose to write it in clear, entertaining English, instead of Academic Gibberish. [You mean he doesn’t attempt to recontextualize the metaphrand and situate it within a hermeneutics of post-colonialism?—Ed.] [Exactly.]

The study discussed here is “Skin games: Fragrant play, scented media and the stench of digital games,” by Simon Niedenthal, published in Eludamos: Journal for Computer Game Culture 6:101-131, 2012.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

HuffPo’s Betsy Isaacson Plays Softball

How much effort does it take to be “a Technology writer” for the Huffington Post? Evidently not much. In a piece on Amy Radcliffe’s “smell camera,” Betsy Isaacson (a 2012 graduate of Harvard University) puts her by-line on a piece that quotes copiously from the Guardian and Wired.

Whatevs. But if you are going to re-package everyone else’s work, why not spice it up with a contrarian view (i.e., mine)? I wrinkled my nose at Radcliffe’s stunt ten days before Ms. Isaacson got around to posting on the HuffPo. She could have googled “Amy Radcliffe” and clicked to the second page. Too much effort, I guess.

Or is there some “Women + Technology” narrative that needs to be preserved here?

Exit question: when did skepticism cease to be a job requirement for journalists?

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Amazing Human Tricks: Dundowran Beach Edition

A woman named Sandy Fletcher loses her watch while taking her daily walk on Dundowran Beach, about 160 miles north of Brisbane, Australia. An 11-year-old kid finds it, and his 9-year-old dog sister recognizes the owner—by smell.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Double Plus Ungood

It has been a longstanding FN tradition to offer up, on the 13th of every month, a curated assemblage of incidents in which the question “What’s that smell?” is answered in the worst possible way. While the morbid punch line never varies, the setup differs in each instance. It is this variation upon a theme that presumably keeps hundreds of our readers hovering near their laptops, beginning at midnight, waiting for the new edition.

The clocklike regularity of ISDP has been a little sketchy lately, not least because there were no incidents to report in February and April. (ISDP is a temperature-dependent phenomenon.) Last month we were somewhere in the air over the South Pacific and missed the deadline (d’oh!). We make up for that here by serving up a double helping of ghoulishness.

We begin in Bessemer, Alabama, where construction workers “smelled a foul odor” which they eventually decided to investigate. They found a decomposed body.
The man was discovered in a fenced-in grassy area near an abandoned building. Authorities said the building is a popular place for homeless people.
Up in Yakima, Washington, a resident “investigating the source of a foul odor” discovered the body of a 28-year-old woman in an abandoned house on N. Fourth Avenue. She had been shot in the head.
According to [police spokesman Capt. Rod] Light, [the victim] had a history of run-ins with Yakima police in recent years and was known to belong to a group of squatters who take up residence in abandoned homes.
She was also the mother of two children.

The Bluegrass State achieves an ISDP hat trick. In Bellevue, Kentucky, the body of a 40-year-old man was found in a wooded area near the Party Source store “after police received a call regarding a foul odor in the area.” Over in Columbia, Kentucky, workers at Lindsey Wilson College “investigating complaints of a foul odor” found the body of a 24-year-old student in the back seat of his truck. An autopsy did not find evidence of foul play. And in Lexington, Kentucky, “an apartment manager went to investigate complaints of a foul odor near a dumpster” only to discover the body of a woman wrapped in plastic. It appears to be a homicide.

Police responding to a 911 call about “a foul odor” coming from an apartment in the Midwood area of Brooklyn found the weeks-old remains of a 57-year-old woman who had been beaten in the head and stabbed in the back. Her husband, who is in psychiatric care after being questioned by police, said “his wife had been casting evil spells on him.”

From the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn comes our first two-body incident, involving a couple in their mid-40s. They were speakers, therapists, and “life coaches” who hosted a WBAI radio show called “The Pursuit of Happiness.”
Neighbors recently began noticing a smell coming from their apartment, which was in an upscale neighborhood where they’d lived for 20 years. The super finally kicked the door in after they saw blood coming in through the floor.
The couple “reportedly committed suicide by placing plastic bags over their heads and inhaling helium.” More details at the New York Daily News, including this:
And while a sheet of plastic covered the door to their apartment, building workers were spraying air freshener through the halls.

“I could smell it all day yesterday,” said Elizabeth Pongo, 39, a personal trainer who lives in the next door brownstone. “At first I thought it was a dead squirrel, but it was much stronger than that.”
FN’s unhealthy obsession with ISDP began when we checked into the notorious urban legend of the “Body Under the Bed” which, as we now know, is not only not an urban legend but something that happens on a regular basis. The latest example comes from Hickory, North Carolina, where on a Thursday in June a “guest at the motel described smelling a foul odor” Not until noon the next day did someone call 911. Police found the body of a local 48-year-old woman under a bed. A 40-year-old man, also from Hickory, has been charged with first-degree murder.

The circumstances of this Orlando, Florida, case are rather complicated. The landlord of a residence with an upstairs apartment says the apartment tenant had been complaining for several days “a foul odor and flies” in the downstairs residence. The landlord demands that the 24-year-old downstairs tenant let him inspect the place. When he finally gets in, he finds the decomposing body of a 56-year-old man. The tenant claims an acquaintance was responsible for killing the man, and that he hadn’t reported it because the acquaintance threatened him. The landlord has been arrested for accessory after the fact to first-degree murder and the tenant has eluded police.

Another case with real estate complications comes from Taylorsville, Utah.
A foul odor coming from one side of a duplex led to the discovery of the body of a man who police believe had been dead for several days.

About 2:40 a.m. Monday, the owner of a duplex near 4500 South and 2400 West could smell a bad odor coming from the other half of the duplex, said Unified Police Lt. Justin Hoyal. The duplex owner thought that no one was living there because the other owner was believed to have moved out about a year ago, he said.
It is not known how long the deceased 61-year-old man had been living in his half of the duplex, which had no power or water.

In Buffalo, New York, a “neighbor reporting a foul odor” resulted in the discovery of an 18-year-old homicide victim in the backyard of a house on Fisher Street.

In Warren, Ohio, neighbors reported “a foul odor coming from the small white house at 1003 Hemlock Ave. S.W.” Inside, police found the body of a 56-year-old man who appears to have been beaten to death.
“There’s been a bad smell coming from his house for about a week now, I’d say,” explained Nathan Cox, 21, who said he moved into the house next door about five months ago.

“It’d actually been about a week since we’d seen him.”
Dude, how long does it you take to put two and two together?

In Bakersfield, California:
Clara Rivas smelled a foul odor coming from her garage and decided to clean it with the help of her boyfriend.

They began moving items around and came to a large, rolled-up rug. Rivas asked her boyfriend, Alejandro Sanchez, to move it so they could continue searching for the source of the smell.

Sanchez tried to shift the rug but couldn’t budge it. He looked in the hole at one end of the rug and could make out a shoe inside.

Sanchez hugged Rivas and ushered her out of the garage while telling her they needed to call 911 because he’d found a body.
The body was that of an 18-year-old woman who had been stabbed multiple times. Ms. Rivas’s son Eddie has been charged in the murder.

From Lakewood, New Jersey comes our first nominee for the 2013 Norman Bates Award™, Brian Cassidy.
A man used an ax and carpet cutter knife to kill his 61-year-old mother after an argument last week in the adult community where they lived, according to court records released Wednesday.

Cassidy continued to live in the condo after his mother’s death, according to a knowledgeable source not authorized to speak on the record.
What’s somewhat unusual about this case is the mother’s death was not revealed by olfactory clues, but by a police welfare check requested by co-workers who were concerned when she failed to show up for work.

In Northhampton, Massachusetts, police responding to “a report of a foul odor” discovered the body of an unidentified male in a field in the village of Florence. The body was found under a makeshift tent.

Another double discovery: In Central Falls, Rhode Island, neighbors reported “a foul odor” coming from an apartment on Sylvian Street. Inside, police found the bodies of two men who appeared to be the victims of homicide.

After being missing for more than a week, the body was a 68-year-old Alzheimer’s patient in Schenectady, New York was discovered in a wooded lot after neighbors “reported a foul odor in the area.” Foul play is not suspected.

And leaving the worst for last, we give you this report from Manchester Township, New Jersey, via the Asbury Park Press:
Rebecca Wilson’s lifeless body was decaying for weeks, surrounded by trash in a filthy Fox Street mobile home, before police came to investigate a report of a foul odor and flies on May 30.

“We know right away” what those phone calls mean, said Police Chief Brian Klimakowski, who said his officers regularly encounter the decomposing bodies of elderly residents that go undiscovered for periods of time.

But Rebecca Wilson’s case was different. The 32-year-old disabled woman depended on a wheelchair and the care of her mother, Janet Wilson, authorities said.

As Rebecca Wilson’s body rotted in the home she shared with her mother, police said Janet Wilson stayed with friends and at hotels in the area.
UPDATE July 13, 2013

Oops. Forget about this one left on my iPad during my Australia trip.

In Kirby, Texas, police responding to complaints of a foul odor coming from a unit in the Kirby Mobile Home Park found a dead body. They consider it a suspicious death.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Call Off the Dogs

The space between the lost clinical art of olfactory diagnosis and Dr. McCoy’s tricorder of the future is filled with canine scent detection studies. These prove, ad nauseum, that a disease may have a distinctive scent signature. But to put this principle to work in a way that doesn’t involve teams of trained dogs we need a precise, chemically defined profile of each disease’s scent. Some new studies suggest we’re finally getting some traction on the problem.

My former Monell Center colleague George Preti, along with others at Monell and UPenn, has found a small set of volatile molecules that distinguish melanoma cells from normal melanocytes. The usual cautions apply—e.g., the volatiles were collected over cell cultures and not over the skin of actual patients—but the work is a significant step toward a device that can “smell” skin cancer. Preti et al. used sophisticated scent capture (solid-phase micro-extraction for GC-MS) supplemented by nanotubes coated with single-stranded DNA. Strictly speaking this isn’t an e-nose but an e-nose with nanosensors. The team then did a lot of heavy lifting to screen out volatiles not endogenous to the melanoma cells. (Earlier studies picked up traces of antiseptics and anesthetics from the hospital environs.)

The result: key differentiating compounds included isovaleric acid, 2-methylbutyric acid, and isoamyl alcohol, plus the sulfur containing compounds dimethylsulfone, dimethyldi- and trisulfide. None are exotic but the pattern allows discrimination of healthy and cancerous cells. Heightened production of these molecules is presumably to metabolic differences between the two cell types.

Meanwhile, researchers in the UK reported pilot data on detection of bladder cancer using a GC-sensor device that samples urine headspace. Using statistical algorithms the device correctly separates urine from cancer patients and that of healthy matched controls. Nice.

A leading member of the team is Professor Norman Ratcliffe, pictured below.

With necktie and fresh, unwrinkled lab coat he’s quite well dressed for an engineering professor. [Especially a British one!—Ed.] He appears to be holding a urine sample. Honestly, dude, glove up!

Prof. Ratcliffe presumably knows better than to bare-hand biofluids. He and his colleagues have previously done a lot of shitty work [Phrasing!—Ed.] using fecal volatiles to diagnose diarrhea, cholera, necrotizing enterocolitis, and irritable bowel syndrome.

From the Competing Interests statement of the PLoS ONE paper, it appears that team Ratcliffe has been granted one patent and has applied for another. To my inexpert eye, the granted patent seems rather broad—it covers the idea of a headspace collector and analyzer that can diagnose disease via odors. I don’t see how it would hold up in litigation, but then I’m not a patent attorney. [Or a patent troll.—Ed.] By publishing in PLoS ONE they certainly achieved plenty of free publicity for their patented device.

While human cancer studies make the headlines, olfactory diagnosis is advancing down on the farm. In Germany, a group of veterinarians and vet students was matched against an e-nose. The task: sniff post-partum vaginal discharge from a cow and judge whether or not the animal suffers from acute puerperal metritis. The humans performed adequately but they were completely dusted by the DiagNose device. The researchers note, however, that the e-nose is yet suitable for use in the field, er, barn.

The studies discussed here are “Volatile biomarkers from human melanoma cells,” by Jae Kwak, Michelle Gallagher, Mehmet H. Ozdener, Charles J. Wysocki, Brett R. Goldsmith, Amaka Isamah, Adam Faranda, Steven S. Fakharzadeh, Meenhard Herlyn, A.T. Charlie Johnson, and George Preti, published in Journal of Chromatography B 15:90-6, 2013,

A pilot study combining a GC-sensor device with a statistical model for the identification of bladder cancer from urine headspace,” by Tanzeela Khalid, Paul White, Ben De Lacy Costello, Raj Persad, Richard Ewen, Emmanuel Johnson, Chris S. Probert, & Norman Ratcliffe, published in PLoS One, 8(7):e69602, 2013,

An investigation of fecal volatile organic metabolites in irritable bowel syndrome,” by Iftikhar Ahmed, Rosemary Greenwood, Ben De Lacy Costello, Norman M. Ratcliffe, & Chris S. Probert, published in PLoS One, 8(3):e58204, 2013, and

Evaluation of odor from vaginal discharge of cows in the first 10 days after calving by olfactory cognition and an electronic device,” by I. Sannmann, O. Burfeind, V. Suthar, A. Bos, M. Bruins, & W. Heuwieser, published online in Journal of Dairy Science, June 27, 2013.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Comings and Goings

Pat Barrow, a.k.a. Olfacta, has returned to blogging after a year-long sabbatical. You can find her as before at Olfactarama and also at BadPatti’s Art ‘n’ Everything Blog. Welcome back!

Meanwhile Octavian Coifan is wrapping it up after eight high-profile years at 1000 Fragrances blog. He is set to re-emerge in a fragrance-related context in the near future. Stay tuned.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Proustian Publicity: Amy Radcliffe or Much Ado About Headspace

Via Vimeo.

Being a fan of olfactory art, I enjoy finding projects that engage the experience of smell in new and thoughtful ways. But I have limited patience for the asinine conceits of “conceptual” art and “transgressive” art.

A story based on the olfactory work of British art student Amy Radcliffe has been making the rounds this week, and it appears to be a whole new species of asininity. Let’s call it “technological” art. Here’s how you do it: take an everyday laboratory technology, dress it up as a consumer device, make extravagant claims for it, and distribute a video to credulous “technology” bloggers, like Dave Parrack at Gizmag, Megan Wollerton at DVICE, Edwin Kee at Übergizmo, Amanda Kooser at CNET, and Evan Orensten at CoolHunting. [UPDATE July 7th: add James Trew at Engadget to the list.]

Amy Radcliffe’s “Madeleine” project is basically what a standard headspace collector (air pump + Tenax trap) would look like if sold at Target. She promotes it as the “post-visual past time” of Scentography.
If an analogue, amateur-friendly system of odour capture and synthesis could be developed, we could see a profound change in the way we regard the use and effect of smells in our daily lives.
No argument there. But what has she actually accomplished with her Madeleine? The device is a prettified headspace collector, something found in every analytical chemistry lab the world over. Yes, it captures smell, but does it preserve it, much less reproduce it?

The essence of photography is that it captures and preserves a visual image in a reproducible way, e.g., on film, glass plates, CCD or CMOS sensors. As for preserving smell, her fantasy video shows a bronze disk inscribed with a GC trace of the capture sample.
“From this formula you can artificially recreate the precise odour,” she said.
Sure. No sweat.
You mail the odor trap to a lab and a “bespoke smell memory capsule” will be sent back in return.
If only.

While useful in reconstituting the smell, the formula implied by a GC trace is only the first approximation of a captured scent. Alter one of those molecular peaks by a tiny amount and you might end up with a completely different smell. So Radcliffe’s device doesn’t solve the reproducibility problem, it just offloads it onto the nearest available fragrance chemist. [Hey, she’s an idea person.—Ed.] [Indeed. She should give a TED talk about it.]

Does this even qualify as conceptual art? It’s a more like a gesture in the direction of conceptual art, with some Appropriation thrown in—Radcliffe may do for Tenax traps what Andy Warhol did for Campbell’s soup. Weak as it is, her video was enough to get the gadgetsphere buzzing. Here’s Edwin Kee prattling on Übergizmo:
The thing is, there is no way one could “record” taste or smell, although it would be fantastic if this were the case.
Uh, cookbooks? Bartending guides?
Hopefully in the future, we no longer need to talk about how great grandma’s cooking was when she was still alive, but we can also share the smell of her best dishes with the next generation, too.
Or just ask her for the recipes, dude.

As it is a slow holiday weekend, I decided to create an art project involving do-it-yourself personal human cloning. It’s called CC: Me. I’ve glued sparkles on a syringe and a phlebotomy tube. All you have to do to clone yourself is take a blood sample, send it to a DNA sequencing lab, and email the results to a black market Korean fertility lab. Easy peasy.

Am I famous yet?

UPDATE July 8, 2013

Ms. Radcliffe walks back her claims a bit in this piece in The Daily Mail.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Independence Day

“For ourselves, let the annual return of this day forever refresh our recollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them.”

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

An Afternoon on the Mall

I happened to be in Washington, D.C. on Saturday afternoon with nothing much to do, so I strolled the Mall from the Lafayette Square to Capitol Hill. The place has looked better: the Washington Monument is shrouded in netting as they repair earthquake cracks, the Ellipse is fenced off for re-sodding, and some misbegotten folk festival filled the eastern end of the Mall with tents and portable toilets. As I hadn’t been there since 9/11, I found the thousands of security bollards ringing every site to be distracting and depressing. Not to mention E Street and Pennsylvania Avenue being closed to traffic near the White House. Such are the times we live in.

I visited the Library of Congress because (a) it is magnificently ornate and (b) my grandfather worked there his entire life. Seeing Thomas Jefferson’s personal library—which became the core of the new collection after the British burned the original in the War of 1812—was pretty cool.

Afterwards I headed to the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum. That’s when things got weird. When I walked up to Friendship 7, the Project Mercury space capsule in which John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth, my first reaction was intellectual: it looked crude and small, a tin can made of bolted plates, barely big enough to hold a man. And then the emotion hit me. Not sentimentality or nostalgia—I watched a lot of launches on live TV as a little boy but this wasn’t about early childhood memories. No, what I felt was a grown man’s awe at the risk Glenn was willing to take. To suit up, climb into this thing and be blasted into outer space atop a rocket required a confidence in the project engineers and technicians, and above all, a personal fearlessness, that is difficult to fathom.

That’s when the emotional punch hit me. This wasn’t about technology it was about the human spirit. About men willing to do what it takes. About dedication, trust and belief.

Surprised at the feelings stirred up by this primitive relic, I quickly moved on to other parts of the museum. I admired the ingenuity of the Wright brothers’ plane, the stylishness of the Lockheed 5B Vega (the model Amelia Earhart flew), and the hard, futuristic lines of the X-15. I appreciated them all as historical objects, but wasn’t moved by them.

Eventually I found myself leaning on a balcony railing looking down at the ungainly Apollo Lunar Module. A woman next to me looked at it for a few moments and then said to me, “My father worked on that.” I turned to her, politely, and said “Really?”

She said, “He worked on that part there,” indicating the dish antenna that carried communications from the lander. “Did he work in Houston or California?” I asked.

“California. He was the chief project engineer for the antenna system.”

I nodded.

“We buried him two days ago in Arlington. I’m so proud of him.”

I nearly lost it. I think I managed to stammer out, “And so you should be.”

“Thanks for listening,” she said, and walked away.

It took me a while to pull it together.

We were great once and we can be again. If we find the spirit.

Shorter, Sharper and More Pungent Than Ever

I follow the scientific literature on olfaction pretty closely because . . . that’s what I do. I enjoy writing about new findings but (a) it’s time consuming, (b) there is just too much to cover, and (c) I still have to earn a living.

So here’s my solution: I’ll tweet about new papers that are worth a comment but not an entire blog post, using the hashtag #AverySez on my Twitter account @scienceofscent. Each tweet contains a link to the original paper. [Something you don’t always get on the Big Time Science Websites.—Ed.] [Effin’ A, Bubba.]

If you don’t follow me on Twitter @scienceofscent you should get off your duff and DO IT NOW. It takes two minutes to start a Twitter account and if you already have one it takes about 250 milliseconds to follow me.

Do I make myself clear?

OK, then.