Sunday, July 18, 2021

Make Way for Dionne Warwick

Many in my generation vividly remember Dionne Warwick’s hit songs of the 60s: Walk On By (1964), I Say a Little Prayer (1967), and DoYou Know the Way to San Jose? (1968). The slickly orchestrated pop tunes (by Burt Bacharach and Hal David) were a perfect match to Warwick’s effortless high voice and precise delivery.

So what brings her to mind? Why, a press release from Fragrance Creators Association:

Fragrance Creators Association has announced that DDD3 Inc., owned by entertainer, entrepreneur and philanth­ropist Dionne Warwick, has joined its membership of more than 60 large and small businesses spanning the fragrance supply chain.

My reactions were, in descending order:

“That’s nice, Dionne Warwick is still alive.” (She is 80 years old.)

“What on earth does she have to do with fragrance?”

It turns out she launched a single, self-named perfume back in 1986. Dionne must not have been too memorable—there is no mention of it on and only a placeholder on Basenotes. Good luck trying to find a collectible bottle on eBay.

According to the FCA blurb, she plans to relaunch Dionne “in response to popular demand.” Or perhaps to leverage attention from her recent nomination to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Or perhaps to climb out of her 2013 bankruptcy and deal with an epic $7 million owed to the IRS.

DDD3, Inc., the company named in the press release, is not a fragrance house. It appears to be the corporate entity that books her ongoing musical performances. Warwick’s contract rider can be found online. Alas, it contains nothing as outrageous as Van Halen’s no-brown-M&Ms clause. Sure, Ms. Warwick must be flown first class, but most of the rider concerns stage lighting, rehearsal timing, and orchestra staffing (“Three (3) trombones-two (2) tenor & one (1) bass”). Her dressing room requirements are not particularly diva-ish. She prefers Pepsi (“No Coca Cola or Diet Sodas”), Cristal (“Two (2) bottles of Cristal Champagne per concert (NO SUBSTITUTES)” and is very specific about the fruit plate:

Fresh fruit platter: sliced pineapples, green seedless grapes, sliced watermelon, sliced honeydew melon, sliced cantaloupe melon and bananas. If any of the above fresh fruit is not in season, contact road manager.

Ms Warwick is entitled to earn whatever the market will bear and she is certainly playing every card she can as she climbs out of a deep financial hole. What lingers in the mind, however, is why the Fragrance Creators Association sees fit to include her and her company in its membership on the basis of a one-off scent that vanished after launch 35 years ago.

Friday, July 2, 2021

More Baloney about AI


Some years ago, in What the Nose Knows, I wrote about e-noses and their value to us in the future. I thought it was a rather mixed bag: 

At some point in the development of these fusions of silicon and biology, the question becomes not whether the e-nose can replace the human nose, but whether we want it to. Would I let an e-nose sniff-scan me for lung cancer? Sure. Would I use a robotic odor sentinel? Maybe, especially if I had a B.O. problem. But do I really want my refrigerator to tell me, “I’m sorry, Avery, I can’t let you eat those cold cuts”?

(For full effect you have to imagine the fridge speaking in the voice of HAL, the computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey.)

I remain a fridge-primitivist: I recently bought one that not only isn’t “smart” but has no automatic ice-cube maker. Still, the dream lives on for some people including Ashok Prabhu Masilamani, founder of Canadian tech company Stratuscent which makes a chip that can detect various volatile molecules in the air. He’s quoted in today’s WSJ in an article by Benoit Morenne headlined “A new frontier of AI-enabled gadgets.”

E-noses could also be integrated in smart fridges to detect early signs of expiring food and guide users to items that will expire next, says Dr. Masilamani. Scientists at the Nanyang Technological University of Singapore have developed a colored bar code that reacts to gasses from decaying food and a bar code reader that uses AI models to predict food freshness, according to a study published in the Advanced Materials journal in October.

The dream never dies . . .

The WSJ piece also discusses AI-enabled toilets that can analyze your stool sample at the time of delivery. Again, imagine the AI toilet speaking with the voice of HAL:

“Avery, you need to cut back on the kimchi. I have made you an appointment with a gastroenterologist.”

On second thought it would be much better if the AI spoke with the accent of an 18th Century royal physician in England:

“Good news. A fetid and a stinking stool.”
[Assembled colleagues nod in agreement.]
“The colour good, well shaped, and a prodigious quantity.”

Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Play It Again


The Huntington Botanical Gardens in San Marino, California is hosting yet another blooming corpse flower. Can you say “overkill”? This is their twelfth one.

Naturally they are livestreaming the blessed event on their u-tube channel. When I last checked it had 59 viewers. They have not enabled comments which makes it even more joyless than usual.

It’s time for someone to create livestream corpse flower commentary, just like the gamers do. I think The Ocho’s Cotton McKnight and his sidekick Pepper Brooks could be the right team:

Cotton: Wow, that makes 3 millimeters in the last hour alone.

Pepper: That’s right Cotton. It’s a towering erection that just won’t stop.

Cotton: And we’re getting wind now of a smell . . . a distinctive odor that resembles day-old roadkill.

Pepper: That’s what the bloaty stage is all about, Cotton. Pretty soon we’ll need barf bags.

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Hot Topics for Current Chinese Science

I’m an independent researcher with no university affiliation. But because I regularly publish in peer-reviewed scientific journals I get daily spam from sketchy “journals” asking me to contribute a paper. The pitch is often agrammatical and weirdly formal (“Dear esteemed gracious professor”). They go right to the trash folder.

However, I got one a week ago that has me thinking seriously about a response.

Dear Dr. Gilbert,

An exciting mega Science journal, “Current Chinese Science” is launched this year by Bentham Science Publishers. The Nobel Laureate Prof. Ferid Murad and 43 Academicians of Chinese Academy of Sciences have already joined as Honorary Senior Advisors of this exciting new mega Science Journal. Prof. Atta-ur-Rahman FRS (UNESCO Science Laureate and Academician Chinese Academy of Sciences) is the Editor-in-Chief of this Journal

Current Chinese Science is not limited to a specific field but instead covers all major fields of science, technology, and medicine, through dedicated sections. The Journal is currently in the process of appointing Section Editors in various disciplines.  In this connection, we would like to invite you to join as section Editor in one of the following disciplines.  If you agree to this, please kindly send us your complete CV and a list of your recent publications along with the name of the discipline and sub-section, so that we can send your CV for Editor-in-Chief’s consideration.

    1. Aerospace Sciences

    2. Analytical Chemistry

    (. . . / . . .)

    24. Pharmacology

    25. Structural Engineering

Your responsibilities, if you accept, would entail soliciting one thematic issue each year in a hot area of the journal.

We need the abstract of the thematic issue with a proposed list of authors within 4 months of the appointment of each Section Editor. Section Editors are also expected to occasionally solicit/contribute review articles. 


We look forward to hearing from you in this regard.


Hasan Khan
Editorial Manager
Current Chinese Science

This sounds like too good a deal to pass up. Here’s the reply I drafted:

Dear Mr. Khan,

Thank you for your invitation to become a Section Editor for Current Chinese Science.

I have several exciting ideas for thematic issues in hot areas.

1. Research under constraints: Effects of criminal indictment on productivity of scientists associated with the Thousand Talents program.

    Proposed contributors: 

    Dr. Charles Lieber, Joshua and Beth Friedman University Professor and former chairman of the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology, Harvard University

    Dr. Qing Wang, formerly of the Cleveland Clinic Foundation

    Dr. Simon Saw-Teong Ang, a professor and researcher at the University of Arkansas-Fayetteville

    Dr. Xiao-Jiang Li, formerly of Emory University

    Dr. Anming Hu, formerly in the Department of Mechanical, Aerospace and Biomedical Engineering at the University of Tennessee

2. Organs from executed donors: Is the Chinese transplantation experience a useful model for the West?

3. The “Fee for Service” Solution to “Publish or Perish”

    Proposed contributors:

    Hoping to recruit numerous authors from The Jining First People’s Hospital in Shandong province or whichever paper mill churns out clinical papers for their staff.

Looking forward to your reply.


UPDATE June 19, 2021

Well, here’s some good local news.

Sunday, June 13, 2021

A Skull Full of Mush


There’s an interesting paper to be presented later this month at an Association for Computing Machinery virtual conference on the theme of Interactive Media Experiences.

The paper, by three engineers and a psychologist from the University of Liverpool, is titled “Predicting the colour associated with odours using an electronic nose.” The cross-modal associations between scent and color have been of interest for ages; my colleagues and I helped put them on a quantitative basis with a couple of papers in the late 1990s. The Liverpool group’s new twist is getting an e-nose to predict the color associations.

That’s all fine. It’s of a piece with attempts to predict a molecule’s odor character from physical parameters such as molecular weight, shape, charge, etc. The authors of the new study claim to find a 70 to 81% “machine-human similarity rating.” Whatever. I’m not that interested in the details of their e-nose or experimental protocols, but I’m fascinated by their conceptual point of view as expressed in this sentence fragment in the conclusions section:

Thus, highlighting the possibility of using e-noses to predict human olfactory perception and implying that the colour associated with odours are partly written into the molecular properties of the stimulus [5].

Reference 5 is to the color-odor study—using human noses—that I published with Sarah E. Kemp. In it, we discussed the psychological associations that emerged between the test odors and measurable parameters of color. Nowhere in that paper did we attribute those association to the “molecular properties” of the odor stimuli. It is a mistake for the Liverpool researchers to cite that paper in support of their claim.

The bigger problem is with their philosophical view, namely that an odor’s color associations “are partly written into the molecular properties of the stimulus.” This is a dumb but persistent conceptualization that’s popped up before. Here’s what I said about it in 2009 while commenting on a study by Mandairon et al. called “Humans and mice express similar olfactory preferences.”

What I can’t understand is Mandairon’s endorsement of a mathematical model that predicts odor pleasantness. The idea is that odor pleasantness is “partially dependent on the odorants’ physicohemical properties.” Of course this has to be true at some level: different molecules produce different smells because they have different structures. But Mandairon et al. go beyond tautology; the shared response of mice and men suggests

that olfactory preferences are indeed partially engraved in the structure of the odorant molecule


there is an initial part of the [odor] percept which is innate and engraved in the odorant structure.

Perceptions engraved on the molecule? This is simply a bizarre way to think. What else is engraved on a molecule of phenylethanol: Visual associations to red roses? The name of my florist? An olfactory memory of my dead grandmother?

Perceptions happen in the central nervous system of an organism. To talk as if odor pleasantness resides in the structural features of a molecule is animistic thinking, pure and simple.

My objection to Mandairon, et al. applies equally to Ward, et al. No matter how cool the math and the engineering, the idea that odor-linked human perceptions are “written” or “engraved” in the structural features of a molecule is rubbish and unworthy of a place in scientific discourse.

The studies discussed here are “Predicting the colour of odours using an electronic nose,” by Ryan J. Ward, Shammi Rahman, Sophie Wuerger and Alan Marshall, published in SensoryX ‘21: Workshop on Multisensory Experiences, together with IMX 2021: ACM International Conference on Interactive Media Experiences, June 21-23, 2021, and “Humans and mice express similarolfactory preferences,” by Nathalie Mandairon, Johan Poncelet, Mousafa Bensafi and Anne Didier, published in PLoS One 4:e4209, 2009.