Thursday, May 15, 2014

A License to Smell

Ian Fleming was a very smell-aware writer. His James Bond novels are shot through with olfactory observations. Here’s a passage in From Russia with Love:
Bond’s thoughts were interrupted by the stewardess. ‘Fasten your seat-belts, please.’ As she spoke the plane dropped sickeningly and soared up again with an ugly note of strain in the scream of the jets. The sky outside was suddenly black. Rain hammered on the windows. There came a blinding flash of blue and white light and a crash as if an anti-aircraft shell had hit them, and the plane heaved and bucketed in the belly of the electric storm that had ambushed them out of the mouth of the Adriatic.

Bond smelt the smell of danger. It is a real smell, something like the mixture of sweat and electricity you get in an amusement park arcade. Again the lightning flung its hand across the windows. Crash! It felt as if they were the centre of the thunder clap. Suddenly the plane seemed incredibly small and frail.
Fleming is especially keen on body odor. Here he uses it to tee up a wisecrack from Bond:
Bond washed and shaved under the amused eyes of Tatiana. She approved of the fact that he put no oil on his hair. ‘It is a dirty habit,’ she said. ‘I was told that many Europeans have it. We would not think of doing it in Russia. It dirties the pillows. But it is odd that you the West do not use perfume. All our men do.’

‘We wash,’ said Bond dryly.
And Fleming gives Bond some of his olfactory awareness. In the novel’s final scene, Bond enters a room at the Ritz Hotel in Paris expecting to find Colonel Rosa Klebb of the KGB. He is puzzled to find an old lady sitting and knitting. But something about her doesn’t add up.
Bond stared rudely into the woman’s face, examining it. It was an ugly face, toadlike, under the powder and under the tight cottage-loaf of white hair. The eyes were so light brown as to be almost yellow. The pale lips were wet and blubbery below the fringe of nicotine-stained moustache. Nicotine? Where were her cigarettes? The was no ashtray – no smell of smoke in the room.

Bond’s hand tightened again on his gun.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

ISDP: Springtime in Middle America

Here at FirstNerve Manor the fly-specked calendar nailed above the bread box indicates that it is the thirteenth of the month and time for a new installment of our insanely popular recurring feature, I Smell Dead People.

A gruesome episode in Knoxville, Tennessee last month provided a clinic in how to write headlines. Knoxville’s WBIR-TV went minimalist: “Body found under deck identified.”

The Johnson City Press’s just the facts approach was more descriptive: “Dead 2 weeks: Foul smell leads Knoxville homeowner to man’s body under deck.”

But KSNW-TV in Wichita, Kansas went all in with a Pulitzer-worthy “Easter egg hunt horror.”
The hunt for the source of a foul odor ended with the discovery of a decomposing body under the deck of a family’s home in west Knoxville.

The body was found by a mother who was having an Easter egg hunt for her four-year-old child in the back yard, according to Knoxville police. Officials said the body had been there for about two weeks.

The woman told police she had smelled a foul odor outside her home on Forest View Road for several days. She tried to find the source of the smell a couple of times during the week to no avail.

When someone cut the woman’s grass earlier this week, she asked the person mowing to search for whatever was creating the foul odor in the yard. The person cutting the grass also did not notice the corpse beneath the deck.

Wednesday night at 7:19 p.m., the mother noticed the smell again during the Easter egg hunt and was finally able to locate the body.
The body has been identified as that of a 29-year-old local homeless man.

Road Trip!

Bunch of guys from Winona, Minnesota pull the RV into the parking lot at Shopko.
The first hint of death came when one of the guys opened a front compartment on one side, then closed the door, Wanek said. That sent off the whoosh of an odd odor. When the door on the other side near the front was opened, that’s when the body was spotted, he said.
They were a bachelor party heading for the Kentucky Derby. The victim has been identified as a 22-year-old who had been missing for four months.

And in Another Parking Lot . . .

In Wichita, Kansas:
It began when Bryce and Rebecca Baker said they noticed a bad smell in their apartment complex parking lot in Maize.

Rebecca Baker said she detected the odor a couple of weeks ago but thought it must be a dead animal, possibly in a sewer drain, at the Fieldstone Apartments, 5050 N. Maize Road. Bryce Baker said he mentioned the smell to property management staff and they said they would check into it.
Pity the poor maintenance staff. But did they follow up? Noooooo.
In the same parking lot, Bryce Baker, 19, also noticed a white car, parked in the same spot for about a month. Thinking back Monday, he remembered seeing – through the car’s tinted windows – a long-handle shovel leaning against the front passenger seat.

He didn’t peer into the back seat. If he had, he might have a seen a body.

That’s what Maize police found after Bryce Baker called 911 on Monday morning after noticing a really bad odor and flies swarming around the white car.
Always Trust Your Nose.
“You just don’t think this would happen,” Bryce Baker said.
Well, that’s not what an ISDP fan would think . . .

The deceased was a 54-year-old man who owned a sports bar in nearby McPherson.

The Wheels of Justice

Finally, a followup to a story we covered two years ago. Thirty-year-old John Ben Jones, Jr. of Tacoma, Washington has been sentenced to 17 years in prison.
Prosecutors say the case began when Jones’ mother noticed a foul smell coming from her sons’ [sic] bedroom. The smell came from the decomposing and partially dismembered body of Williams, who had been strangled the night before.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Carping about Texas

No reason to be coy. I kinda liked Dallas. Although technically these babies were in Fort Worth’s Botanic Garden.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Dots on Steroids

I tweeted a couple of times about an olfactory study published today by Wen Zhou et al., in Current Biology. I think it’s pretty weak. Subjects watched a dot-animation of a walking figure and guessed from its gait whether it was male or female. The clips were morphed so that some were obv one sex or the other while others were ambiguous. Subjects inhaled either androstadienone (AND) or estratetraenol (EST) while guessing. With AND, straight women judged the ambiguous samples slightly more masculine; with EST, straight men saw them as slightly more feminine. Homosexual men responded more like straight women, with bi- and homosexual women intermediate.

The effects were tiny and emerged only after some pretty strenuous statistical manipulations. The only control odor was isovaleric acid which the authors mistakenly believe to be a major component of male body odor. Completely lacking were any gender-associated, non-body odor controls, such as floral/rose for feminine. Thus Zhou, et al.’s conclusion that the effects were not due to associative learning is unsupported. As is their claim that the results “provide strong behavioral evidence” that AND and EST communicate gender; unless you think dancing dots are behavior.

Wen Zhou, et al., fail to state an experimental hypothesis and fail to discuss the alleged biological role of AND and EST real life. Is the idea that women need an AND-sensitive olfactory channel to help them sort out ambiguous gender situations? That is, when looking, asking, or groping aren’t possible? And how often does this happen? Frequently enough for there to be selective value in such a response? There is simply no coherent hypothesis here.

However there was enough for the science media to run with. AAAS Science Now headlined its story “Is That a Man or a Woman? Trust Your Nose.” The Daily Mail ran with “You can smell a person’s GENDER: Humans subconsciously identify sex using the subtle odour of pheromones.” Daisy Yuhas at Scientific American went right on over the top: “Human Sexual Responses Boosted by Bodily Scents; Two human steroidal compounds may help scientists make sense of how bodily scents affect sexual arousal.”

Sexual arousal? What paper was Ms. Yuhas reading?

UPDATE May 4, 2014
Rhonda J. Miller, at some site called International Science Times, sees Yuhas and raises her with the ludicrous headline “How A Person's Scent Can Trigger A Powerful Sexual Response, And Say Something About Gender.” As a description of the study this is patently false. What’s going on here? When did science headlines go all Upworthy? I think it’s time to start awarding something like Rotten Tomatoes or The Razzies for contemptible science “journalism.”

The study discussed here is “Chemosensory communication of gender through two human steroids in a sexually dimorphic manner,” by Wen Zhou, Xiaoying Yang, Kepu Chen, Peng Cai, Sheng He, and Yi Jiang, published online in Current Biology, May 1, 2014.