Friday, October 23, 2015

Departure to Tokyo: The Shores of the Past

The jet took off to the west out of Los Angeles but then turned and followed the coast northward. This was a mild surprise as I hadn't given much thought to the route; my last couple of flights to Tokyo were from JFK. Soon we were passing Santa Barbara, the recent scene of my older daughter's commencement from UCSB. In the clear sky of early afternoon the ridges of the parched coastal mountains were sharp, the ravines deep and in shadow.

As we continued along the coast our altitude was low enough for me to recognize landmark after landmark. Having driven it so many times, the Pacific Coast Highway is ribbon of memories. From the big window of the 787 I looked down into the forested hills of Big Sur and recalled the pre-dawn drive back from Esalen with a Chevy Impala full of friends reeking of sulfur after hours in the hot springs. Further on, the Monterey Peninsula and the guano-covered rocks off Point Pinos. A glorious summer spent at Stanford's Marine Biology Lab in Pacific Grove. As we float past, zeppelin-like, I see the fairways of the public golf course where your putt was likely to be disrupted by the blare of the fog horn.

The big, shallow curve of Monterey Bay was next. On the northern end I see the Santa Cruz pier near the amusement park: summer after summer with the kids, the vertigo inducing rides, the corn dogs, grabbing brass rings on the merry-go-round, and of course the bumper cars. I see Highway 17 winding up and over the hills and try, in vain, to spot P----'s old place on the summit, the one with the view of the entire bay.

By now, all of southern San Francisco Bay is laid out beneath me, the abstract red sections of the salt ponds and Mount Diablo in the distance. From up here the full extent of the sheltered bay is magnificent. I see why sailors loved it, despite the dry, austere hills around it that even the Indians found unforgiving. To me, this familiar grouping of hills and water, freeways and bridges, islands and vistas, is dense with memory and emotion. The great intellectual intensity of Berkeley that exists alongside its pretensions and idiocies. I still feel the pull but now it is my younger daughter's turn; she is making her own path through Cal.

From up here, the enormous green rectangle of Golden Gate Park dominates the tip of the San Francisco peninsula; grids of neighborhood streets to the north and south of it, clusters of silver/gray buildings on the hills to the east. How many hours spent wandering the hidden glens and meadows of the park. And still vivid, the awe-struck moment in April, 1971, when the anti-war parade turned into the Polo Fields, filled with more people than I've ever seen in one place. The loud irrelevance of Big Brother and the Holding Company without Janis. And now the regret that I, and so many others, were so wrong about so many things.

On to the Marin headlands and Mount Tamalpais. There is Stinson Beach and, a couple of minutes later, two bright, irregular lines of white surf along the ruler-straight line of coast running northeast from Point Reyes. We climb and bank west but I can make out the edge of Bodega Bay under a light mist. A fluffy cloud bank adheres to the ocean's edge near Jenner and the mouth of the Russian River. The coastline here is less familiar to me and becomes indistinct in the haze. The far northern reaches, home to cold rolling waves and great piles of driftwood, are the last thing I see as we arc out over the Pacific. To starboard we are edge-on to a thick slab of murky cloudbank. Beneath us the deep blue waters are spittle-flecked with icy white caps. Soon the high slab thickens and descends. A cloud carpet slides beneath us. We are nowhere and anywhere.

On to Japan.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Late Harvest: Pre-Halloween ISDP Edition

It’s been busy here in the drafty shack that serves as FirstNerve Manor on the high plains of Colorado. Mostly we’ve been sampling local IPAs and watching the sales figures surge for our I Smell Dead People T-shirt, which seems to have hit a nerve with Bride of Chucky fans. [And no, Brad Dourif, we’re not going to send you one gratis. Pony up, you cheap f**k! Jennifer Tilly we’ll comp, but that’s a different story.]

With the thirteenth of the month at hand, it’s time to uncork the latest batch of lugubrious ISDP incidents. You know what we’re talking about: those stories that begin with a foul odor and end at the same grim state of corporeal decay. [It never gets old!—Ed.] This pre-Halloween edition is chock-full as the lingering summer heat keeps the relevant bacteria working overtime.

Our first incident combines two great themes of I Smell Dead People. One is the legendary “Body Under the Bed” scenario that inspired our morbid fascination with the entire genre in the first place: in its purest form, a motel guest complains of a bad-smelling room, and the manager discovers a corpse stashed beneath the bed. The second theme is the focus of our insanely popular Norman Bates Award™, given to a person who lives in close quarters with a deceased person, even as said person exhibits the florid and putrescent signs of bodily decay.

So meet Alfred Guerrero, the latest Norman Bates Award™ Nominee and the man who personalized the body-in-the-motel-room routine. A “funky smell” emanating from a room at the Mission Motel in Ontario, California led someone to call the police to investigate. Officers detained long-term motel resident Alfred Guerrero after finding a decomposing body in his room. The remains appear to be those of an acquaintance of his. Guerrero was released without charges after being questioned.

Mixed Doubles

Whitney Gray
Brandon Griswold

A Nashville, Tennessee, couple bludgeons their roommates (another couple) to death, stuffs the bodies into a utility closet, and continues to live in the apartment. The mother of the male victim, who had reported him missing, went to the apartment in search of him. When she “smelled the odor of decomposition” leaking past the door, she called police who discovered the crime scene. Brandon Griswold (20) and his girlfriend Whitney Gray (21) confessed to the murders and were arrested. They are this year’s first dual nominees for the Norman Bates Award™.

Since we’re talking theme and variations, we venture abroad to include an unusual hybrid item from the town of Heerhugowaard in the Netherlands. A local woman let a homeless lady store some personal belongings in her shed. A year later, while rummaging in the shed, the owner notices a foul odor. Searching for the source, she discovered the body of a child, wrapped in plastic. While this qualifies as an ISDP incident, we also wonder whether it might not be something new, a case of Norman Bates by Proxy Syndrome.

Mary Kersting

Finally, 60-year-old Mary Kersting of Gloversville, New York, has pleaded guilty to grand larceny and improper disposal of a body. When her 93-year-old mother died in October, 2013, Kersting kept her body in the apartment below hers while she cashed the old lady’s benefits checks. A police welfare check in December, 2014, discovered the year-old body. Kersting faces six months in jail, but she is also in the running for the 2015 Norman Bates Award™. Congratulations!

Out West

In West Jordan, Utah, a couple of young skateboarders smelled “an extremely foul odor” and successfully followed their noses to the source. They found the badly decomposed body of a 28-year-old man in a utility area near the public library. Evidence suggests his death was the result of a drug overdose.

Someone walking past a camper parked between two abandoned houses in Texarkana, Texas, smelled a “foul odor” coming from it and called police, who found a decomposed male body inside. The body was later identified as that of a 47-year-old homeless man.

Rugged Individualism

A 64-year-old man in Humboldt County, California, is the victim of an attempted home invasion. He fights back with a Gurka knife and the wounded assailant flees with the help of another perp. Two weeks later someone calls the county sheriffs to report a foul odor and deputies discover the decomposed remains of a 32-year-old Sacramento man who may have been the wounded attacker.

It’s not quite “Headless Body in Topless Bar,” but “Texas Woman’s Body Found in Oklahoma Trunk” isn’t bad. A Oklahoma DPS trooper stopped to check out an abandoned car on I-44 near Randlett, in Cotton County. Smelling a foul odor, he opened the trunk where he discovered the body of a 61-year-old woman from Amarillo, Texas. Without impugning the trooper’s olfactory acuity in the least, we are not able to award this incident true ISDP status, as the search was initiated before the officer noticed the smell.

Southern California

Just off the 405 in the North Hills area of Los Angeles neighbors smell a foul odor coming from an apartment and call the police. LAPD finds the decomposing remains of a 23-year-old man who appears to have died from a gunshot to the head.

Neighbors called police about a foul smell coming from parked car in a residential area of San Bernardino, California. Police found a decomposing body in the trunk. The body was later identified as that of the 28-year-old owner of the car, who had been reported missing a few days earlier.

A body discovered in the Angeles National Forest, just north of Glendora, may be that of a man who was digging for gold when torrential rains caused mud slides and fallen trees. He had been missing for about a week, and acquaintances who were searching for him were tracking a “foul odor” when they discovered the remains.

Always Trust Your Nose™

Tenants at a business complex in Santa Fe, New Mexico had been complaining for weeks about a “rancid odor.” One of the properties owners (in what we presume was a search for the source of the stink) lifted the lid on a cistern and discovered a body that police say had been in the water for about two weeks. A lock on the cistern lid appears to have been broken but it is not yet known how the person died.

Last month we referred an incident to the Rules Committee for clarification. In Queens, New York, the body of a 28-year-old woman with stab wounds was found in the trunk of her father’s Nissan. Her boyfriend is still being sought by police in connection with her murder. From accounts at press time, it wasn’t clear whether the car was reported because of a smell, or because police were searching for it. Now we have an answer:
The driver of an NYPD tow truck discovered the Nissan during a rotation tow operation on September 10, police sources said. The victim’s family listed the car as missing when they filed a Missing Persons Report on September 9. A license plate reader in the tow truck spotted the car and the driver alerted the NYPD Missing Persons Unit. Investigators who arrived at the scene were overcome by a foul odor coming from the trunk of the car, police said.
Well, that settles it. Discovery preceded odor, therefore no ISDP.

Breaking News from the World of Science

We’re not sure whether to file this under “No shit, Sherlock” or under “Good to know, Ken.”
The smell of death: evidence that putrescine elicits threat management mechanisms.
Judging from our years of reporting on the topic, we think that the “implicit cognition” mechanisms triggered by the smell of putrescine can be easily overridden by contextual cues (“A dead body? Really? I thought someone was cooking cabbage.”)

Case in point: a woman in Naples, Florida, thought the foul odor in her ceiling might be a dead mouse. She spent $800 on cleaning supplies in an unsuccessful effort to get rid of the smell. Then her apartment manager informed her that her upstairs neighbor had died “quite some time ago.”

Department of Updates

One year ago we reported on an instance of ISDP in Brownsville, Texas, in which a woman and child were found dead. Last month Donald Edward Pierce pleaded guilty to murdering his wife and son and was sentenced to life without parole.

Also last month we posted an ISDP incident in Calaveras County, California, in which a motorist driving through a sparsely populated area noticed a foul odor and called the sheriffs who found a man’s body lying off the road. Soon after, a 71-year-old local woman was arrested in connection with the case and charged with suspicion of murder. [You mean 17-year-old local woman?—Ed.] [No: seventy-one.] Another body was found in the area earlier this year. Stay tuned.

We close with resolution to an ISDP Cold Case File. An 18-year-old man from Woodland Park, Colorado went missing seven years ago. His remains were found two months ago when a local cabin was demolished: he evidently had attempted to enter the cabin via the chimney, gotten stuck, and died. The cabin’s owner told a newspaper that he seldom used the cabin because of its “foul odor.”

A sad story, but a surprisingly common one, as long-time ISDP readers know. For hours of entertainment just type “chimney” into the search box at the top of the page.

Thursday, October 8, 2015


Took my new I Smell Dead People T-shirt on tour yesterday in Fort Collins. The cashier at Whole Foods took one look and knew her nose-ring was suddenly yesterday’s style.


Get yours in time for the office Halloween party.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

The Alleged Limitations of Olfactory Language

That smells can be difficult to name is a commonplace observation. Almost as commonplace as the observation that there exist many specialized vocabularies for smell, such as those used by perfumers, wine tasters, brewers, coffee roasters, tobacconists, potheads, etc., etc. In this battle of off-setting banalities, those who downplay our ability to verbalize odors are often ceded the victory, in keeping with the pessimistic Greco-Freudian view that the human sense of smell is a poor thing, rendered vestigial from lack of use, and substantially inferior to that of other animals.

A more optimistic view is that humans are quite competitive in terms of odor sensitivity (often exceeding that paragon of scent detection, the dog) and that a remarkable amount of information regarding other people (emotional, physiological, and health status, for example) is received and processed via the nose. This positive outlook has been gaining support steadily in recent years but science journalists and assistant beauty editors have been slow to recognize the trend. This is not surprising; they are, after all, science journalists and assistant beauty editors. What is surprising is that a pair of credible scientists have now thrown in with the nasal nay-sayers and offered a theoretical account of why humans must necessarily suck at naming smells.

That might seem a rather rude way to characterize a paper decorously titled “The muted sense: neurocognitive limitations of olfactory language,” but I think it captures the essence of what Jonas Olofsson and Jay Gottfried are attempting to do.

Olofsson and Gottfried begin with three papers from the 1970s that find when you bring people into a psychology lab and have them sniff odors absent any contextual information (visual, auditory, or otherwise), they have a hard time coming up with the correct name. Provide them multiple-choice odor names and they generally choose the correct one. For good measure, Olofsson and Gottfried also reference studies showing that under similar laboratory conditions people suck at picking out individual components from a bouquet of scents.

Atop these rudimentary observations, O&G construct a “biologically informed framework for olfactory lexical processing.” Being neuro-imaging specialists, they sketch connections between piriform cortex, orbitofrontal cortex, and all the other neuroanatomical waystations on the route from nostril to naming. You will enjoy the discussion if this sort of thing appeals to you:
Importantly, odors are already integrated with lexical representations at the third synapse from receptor neuron input. This could put olfaction at a disadvantage compared with the visual system, where multiple subcortical and cortical sites create object representations before lexical–semantic integration by integrating features at different spatial scales.
My concern here is not with O&G’s theoretical edifice, but with their presumption that the difficulty in generating a verbal tag for a context-free odor is somehow fundamental to our understanding of human olfaction, and with their view that this phenomenon benefits from a convoluted account drawing upon “recent behavioral and neuroimaging data.”

Take the laboratory task upon which their entire argument is based: could there be anything more remote from the universal, everyday experience of smell than being confronted with a sniff-bottle and asked to name its contents by smell alone? What real world setting does this resemble? The answer is none.

Smells always occur in a context, and it is only within this context that we try to make sense of them. At the fish market, for example, we sniff to see whether the fish is fresh. Whether we can summon up the name “trimethylamine” is irrelevant. Smells may confirm our visual expectations (“it seems to have rained here recently”) or draw our attention to something that warrants exploration (“what’s burning?”) all without resort to specific lexical representations.

Tagging a smell with a specific lexical term requires high-level abstraction. In contrast, odor identification and description are broader abilities that are exercised more often and with greater functional impact. When olfactory naming happens in real life it also happens in a natural context and the language processing is tuned to an appropriate (and useful) level of generalization. Here’s a non-laboratory example of olfactory language in action:
“Umm. Is someone grilling dinner?”
“Yeah, it smells like hamburgers.”
To me, that is an example of rapid, precise, and biologically useful neurocognitive olfactory processing. But in Olofsson and Gottfried’s model it simply doesn’t exist.

In my view, the O&G model is an elaborate neurocognitive account of a laboratory artifact. It has little bearing on the broader role of olfaction in human behavior and communication. Does this sound extreme? Then ask yourself: does the near-universal inability to name the musical key of a song imply that “people are poor at describing sounds?”

The study discussed here is “The muted sense: neurocognitive limitations of olfactory language,” by Jonas K. Olofsson & Jay A. Gottfried, published in Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 19:314-321, 2015.