Monday, January 27, 2020

Annals of Hype: Yet Another Health Claim for CBD

The alarm on the FirstNerve Bogosity Meter™ has been blaring nonstop since New Year’s Day. It hasn’t recorded base levels this high since the Dot Com bubble at the turn of the century. Most of the triggering events are coming from the cannabis sector, and have to do with health claims for cannabis and its constituent cannabinoids and terpenes.

This morning’s alarm was set off by a tweet from a weed website called The Fresh Toast:

“Research suggests CBD could help manage varicose veins via influence on the cardiovascular system.”

Well, that sounds interesting. I wonder who did the research? After all, it’s notoriously difficult to use federal grant money to research weed or any of its components, especially using human subjects. (For the uninitiated, CBD is cannabidiol, a cannabinoid that occurs in marijuana and hemp. It has little or none of the psychoactive kick of its chemical relative THC, although it may interact with the human body’s endogenous cannabinoid receptors.)

The tweet links this article posted on The Fresh Toast, a website that bills itself as “the most trusted name in cannabis.” It was written by one Kate-Madonna Hindes. Her post is slugged “Here’s what we know about CBD’s effects on varicose veins.” Hindes sets things up with some general info about varicose veins before revealing her big piece of evidence:
A study published by the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology in 2013 showed promise for cannabidiol as therapy for the cardiovascular system. The study gave insight into CBD’s benefits and offered that in some cases, cannabidiol could cause a reduction in vascular tension or, “vasorelaxation.”
So the hook behind the tweet and post was not a new finding but a seven-year-old paper. Further, it was not a clinical study or even an experimental report; in fact, it contained no new data at all. It was a review paper that examined previously published work relevant to the question “Is the cardiovascular system a therapeutic target for cannabidiol?

Well, nuts. But the review might still discuss research on CBD and varicose veins, right? Wrong. Varicose veins are not mentioned in the review. The cardiovascular disorders is does consider are diabetes, myocardial infarction, stress, stroke, and encephalitis. And the CBD-relevant evidence on these conditions is drawn from studies on dissociated human cells, rats, mice, and Mongolian gerbils.

In summarizing these studies, the authors of the review paper conclude:
Together, these data suggest that the cardiovascular system is indeed a valid therapeutic target for CBD. However, the target sites of action for CBD remain to be established for most of these responses. Whether these responses to CBD will translate into the human cardiovascular system also remains to be established.
In other words, they are very cautious and make no claim for CBD as a potential treatment for any human vascular disorder whatsoever.

But what does Kate-Madonna Hindes conclude?
With the introduction of CBD into the market, professionals and patients are taking notice of CBD’s benefits for varicose veins, but does research support its use?

The short answer is: Maybe.
I’d say the short answer is: No.

Hindes does her readers no favor by giving them the impression that there is any evidence at all for CBD as a treatment for varicose veins. She merely adds to the tsunami of online stories that tout CBD’s potential as a treatment for everything that ails you.

No wonder the Bogosity Meter is working overtime.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Turgenev: The Scent Trails in “Smoke”

Turgenev, by Ilya Repin (1874)

Ivan Sergeyevich Turgenev did not make much use of olfactory imagery in his novels, at least judging by Fathers and Sons (1862) and Smoke (1867). For the most part, he set his scenes with spare yet effective visual references.

Yet there are a couple of notable exceptions in Smoke, which is the story of a man torn between his feelings for two very different women. One of them occurs when the protagonist Litvinov comes across a picnic party of young Russian officers and their ladies.
All these warriors were immaculately groomed, shaved and perfumed all over with a scent redolent of the nobility and the Guards, a mixture of the finest tobacco smoke and the most amazing patchouli.
There’s a rather hyper-particular smellscape from mid-nineteenth century Russia! And this one is even more so:
Irina [a femme fatale] was sitting on the sofa between Prince Koko and Madame Kh., once a famed beauty and pan-Russian bluestocking, who had long since mutated into a rotting toadstool, smelling of Lenten oil and stale poison.
In those days, the Eastern Orthodox Church proscribed olive oil during Lenten fasts; oil from other sources was allowed. The image of “stale poison”, on the other hand, is a product of Turgenev’s inventive genius.

There are a couple of other olfactory vignettes involving the intoxicating scent of a woman’s hair and neck. They serve their purpose well, but are less unique. A final instance involves an anonymously delivered bouquet of flowers, which figures later in the story.
A strong scent, very pleasant and familiar, caught his attention. He looked round and saw a large bouquet of fresh heliotropes in a glass of water on the window sill. In some surprise he bent down to the flowers, touched, them, sniffed them . . . It seems that something came back to him, something very distant, but what it was exactly he could not think.
Sacrebleu! Yet another example of “Proustian smell memory” that predates Proust by more than half a century. (In this case, it is Proustian in the actual sense of Marcel, namely an odor summoning up a vague, ungraspable feeling where an actual memory ought to be).

Ivan Sergeyevich Turgenev
Smoke (1867)

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

If Ever a Whizz of a Wiz There Was

Urinals banned from newly remodeled Portland Building,” reports KGW8-TV in Portland, Oregon. While graciously allowing “gender-specific (male and female) multi-stall restrooms” to remain, the City of Portland has decreed that the men’s rooms will no longer have urinals. Because shutup.

First, the eco-zealots pushed for waterless urinals, but the units were so badly designed (and smelly) that many of them were removed. Now the gender warriors are taking aim (so to speak) at urinals qua urinals.

Amid the madness, I offer this mini photo-essay on my favorite examples of the art form.

First, from the Shin-Marunouchi Building in Tokyo, a pair of tall urinals positioned in front of fifth-floor windows. At night, they provide a magnificent view of Tokyo Station as one recycles a couple of oversize bottles worth of Kirin Ichiban.

Next, from a recent visit to Manhattan, magnificent porcelain urinals with the craquelure of antiquity, found in McSorley’s Old Ale House just a couple of blocks from Cooper Union. Their massive, full-body design allows one, no matter how drunk or clumsy, to deliver the goods well inside the designated drainage area, and not on the shoes of adjacent guests. A design for the ages; sadly, we shall never see the likes of it again.

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Welcome to Berkeley’s Rebranded “Gourmet Safe Space”?

Image: Diablanco

Berkeley’s North Shattuck Association has voted to abandon the decades-old “Gourmet Ghetto” tag for its upscale foody neighborhood. The organization folded because the “co-founder” of a new coffee shop said his millennial-age employees found the name “upsetting and confusing.”

Next up: Peet’s Coffee on Vine and Walnut will be forced to abandon “Major Dickason’s Blend” because of its militaristic connotations.

[Hat tip to commenter LeonRussellFan for the safe space gag.]

P.S. One would think “Wrecking Ball Coffee” is a problematic name for a Bay Area business, given its triggering reference to gentrification, displacement of marginalized people, etc. And yet . . . that's the complainant's brand name.

Monday, July 22, 2019

Perfume and Big Data: Garbage In, Garbage Out

 A new “big data” study of perfume has been making a splash the past couple of weeks. Titled “Social success of perfumes,” it was published in PLoS ONE on July 4. It’s another in the recent genre of throwing abstruse mathematics at the sense of smell.

The authors, Vaiva Vasiliauskaite and Tim S. Evans, are in the physics department at Imperial College London, more specifically the Theoretical Physics Group and Centre for Complexity Science. [Awesome nameage!—Ed.] Vasiliauskaite is a graduate student and apparently a talented nerd, having graduated from the University of Glasgow with a degree in Theoretical Physics. Evans is a Senior Lecturer.

Here’s the abstract of their paper:
We study data on perfumes and their odour descriptors—notes—to understand how note compositions, called accords, influence successful fragrance formulas. We obtain accords which tend to be present in perfumes that receive significantly more customer ratings. Our findings show that the most popular notes and the most over-represented accords are different to those that have the strongest effect to the perfume ratings. We also used network centrality to understand which notes have the highest potential to enhance note compositions. We find that large degree notes, such as musk and vanilla as well as generically-named notes, e.g. floral notes, are amongst the notes that enhance accords the most. This work presents a framework which would be a timely tool for perfumers to explore a multidimensional space of scent compositions.
Leaving aside the technical terms “network centrality” and “large degree notes,” the claims in the abstract seem clear: the authors have identified odor descriptors that drive the commercial success of specific perfume formulations. Sounds interesting and useful. One dives eagerly into the paper to find the details.

That’s where the problems start.

No actual perfumes were smelled in the making of this study. Nor were any actual perfume formulations examined. Instead, the authors apparently scraped perfume description and ranking data from a website, cleaned it up a bit, and then proceeded to slice, dice, and theorize.

I say “apparently” because nowhere in the paper do they describe where or how they obtained their data. I imagine my amateur readers stammering, “B-b-b-but, don’t scientists have to describe their data?” Yeah, well, uh, no, I guess not.

From clues in the text (e.g., perfumes rated on a five-point scale), Vasiliauskaite and Evans may have tapped as their source. In which case, they might have been courteous enough to give the site’s proprietors a shout-out. Or, better yet, have obtained permission to use the site’s data.

Of greater ethical concern is the absence of the source data in a supplemental file or online scientific archive. Making the data available is a requirement of publication in PLoS ONE.
PLOS journals require authors to make all data underlying the findings described in their manuscript fully available without restriction at the time of publication.
I don’t understand how this basic requirement could have been overlooked by the reviewers or the paper’s editor, Yongli Li of the Harbin Institute of Technology in China.

So, let’s look again at the abstract. By “successful fragrance formulas” the authors mean perfume brands with a large number of user reviews and high ratings on an undisclosed fragrance website. By “notes” and “odor descriptors” they mean descriptors provided by anonymous reviewers of undetermined skill level and/or marketing verbiage lifted from advertisements and promotional copy. On, gauzy words like “honey,” “amber” and “musk”—which refer to no one specific perfumery material—are given equal weight with clary sage, tonka bean, and oakmoss (see, for example, Paco Rabanne Pour Homme). By “accords” the authors appear to mean co-occurring “notes” on a webpage.

Other passages make one wonder if the authors know what they’re talking about. Take this paragraph, for example:
Information of the precise amounts of each ingredient in the formulation of a perfume is confidential, to prevent duplications of the formula. However, the list of ingredients, the list of notes, is often advertised in order to describe the scent of a perfume. Thus a perfume which smells of rose, vanilla and musk, is described using such notes. In this study we have analysed the notes which make up over ten thousand perfumes without knowing anything about their specific amounts in each perfume. We assume that a note is included in the perfume description as its presence enriches the composition and its smell is detectable.
This is paragraph is confused to the point of idiocy. A perfume’s list of ingredients is never revealed, much less advertised. What is publicly promoted by the brand is a short list of note names meant to imply romance, exotic origins, and high quality as much as what the perfume smells like. Even then, it’s unclear whether the “notes” used in this study were provided by the brand or plucked from the website’s crowd-sourced reviews. The authors “have analysed the notes which make up over ten thousand perfumes”? Fairer to say they’ve analyzed notes attributed to perfumes (by persons unknown) that may or may not include all the salient notes in a given perfume. The stated assumption that each note in a description is individually “detectable” is ridiculous. Do the authors believe that the grapefruit and Calabrian bergamot in Coco Noir are individually detectable? One wonders how much smelling they’ve ever done.

At this point it’s clear that no matter how much “network” and “non-network” statistical analysis they apply to this slop bucket of data, the results will lack specificity and insight. For all of its nodes, edges, weighted network representations, permutation tests, d-scores, and one-mode projections, the study doesn’t make much contact with the commercial or sensory realities of perfumery. It could have been interesting as an analysis of brand attributes seen through social media. But even there it fails.

This paper isn’t worth the time it takes to download.

UPDATE September 19, 2019
Called it! The paper has now been retracted by PLoS ONE.

, The study discussed here is “Social success of perfumes,” by Vaiva Vasiliauskaite and Tim S. Evans, PLoS ONE 14(7): e0218664.