Thursday, December 24, 2009

Season’s Greetings!

[With apologies to Roger Angell.]

‘Tis the season to be jolly,
Indulge us in a little folly,
With Yuletide rhymes we mention here,
Our friendships in the Blogosphere.
To Mandy Aftel and Foster Curry,
Nuptial wishes but why the hurry?
If there’d been an invitation,
Our gift would’ve been a big sensation.
We wave goodbye to Walter Shelly,
Whose armpit studies were quite smelly,
Odor mappers show it true,
The best one yet is Esther Wu.
When days are dark and barely sunny,
We look for laughs and something funny,
Roja Dove has comic power,
Just like Bernd Beetz in the shower.
Let’s raise a toast to Neil Pendock,
Wine as perfume’s really no shock,
Then let’s share a big risotto,
With Della Chuang and her KyotEau.
Olfactory artists have decked the halls, 
Christophe Laudamiel and Gayil Nalls,
Eliza, Rita and Olfacta,
Comment here as a matter of facta,
Simone is +Q in Brazil,
Her every word gives us a thrill.
Scentimental Fool and Chicken Freak,
Occasionally find the time to speak,
And Nathan Branch the fashion maven,
Let’s us know how we’re behaving.
Maria Browning’s madly spritzing,
BitterGraceNotes intermixing;
Katie Puckrik makes cute videos,
And yours truly stars in one of those,
Of perfumistas girl and boy,
Anya’s Garden is the real McCoy.
S.F.’s Marc Schoenfeld and tipster M.T.,
Supply us much needed frivolity.
We make big fun of Jean-Claude Ellena,
Perfumer’s aren’t heroes, we just keep tellin’ ya.
So off to bed and wait for Santa,
It’s time to finish this last stanza.

Monday, December 21, 2009

The Pendock Paradox: Round 2

My previous post (“The Pendock Paradox”) drew a lot readers, including Neil Pendock himself, to whom I give a tip of the hat for passing along Turin’s acknowledgment that he doesn’t work blind.

It also drew some thoughtful comments from Rita who blogs at Left Coast Nose. Take a look now—they are definitely worth reading. My hunch is that she speaks for a lot of webby perfumistas. 

Rita raises a lot of good points. In response, here’s a few of mine in no particular order.

On subjectivity in sensory evaluation: Smell is experienced personally and subjectively but it can certainly be measured objectively. For example, which sample smells stronger? Which sample smells more citrus-like? Which wine is oakier? Which has a longer finish?

The appropriate level of oakiness in a chardonnay is a matter of aesthetic principles on which there is much debate. In contrast, there is very little debate over how much oak there ought to be in a dessert wine. How much oak you like in your chardonnay, and how much the Smiths across the street like in theirs, is a matter of personal preference. De gustibus and all that. However the oakiness of a chard or the citrus in a cologne are objective and measurable perceptual features.

On what we expect of a critic: He should be able to detect and report the chief perceptual features of the wine or perfume and be conversant in the aesthetic norms of composition. He should be able to tell us that Eau de X is a typical floral aldehydic, for example, or a typical floral aldehydic with some unusual features, ones that even “break the rules” in an aesthetically satisfying way.

On how we select our favorite critics: We calibrate our perceptions and preferences to theirs. You may find that Bob X prefers chardonnays you find over-oaked so you discount his opinion accordingly. If his tastes are totally uncorrelated with yours, you ignore him. As Rita points out, many people find Robert Parker not to be a useful guide to the Burgundies.

On the rhetoric of perfume reviews: Regardless of the justness of a critic’s verdict, his review can be written well or poorly. Here, perhaps, is where Rita and I part company. I find “a new fur coat that has been rubbed with a very creamy mint toothpaste” to be the pinnacle of idiocy. Sure, the writing is frolicsome and inventive; but it’s also self-consciously twee and Just. Too. Much. As sensory description it is worse than useless—it leaves the gullible reader thinking he knows what Diorella smells like. The bait in the rhetorical trap is obvious: what sophisticates we must be that we are able to discriminate “new” and old fur coats by nose, or to arrange the universe of mint toothpaste from “very creamy” to less so. I know, I know, some people can read 1,500 such bon mots and lust for more. Me, I’d try a handful then go stick a finger down my throat.

On what perfume bloggers should aspire to: By all means go ahead and write about perfume any which way you like. Snark it up, play it straight, I’m not going to cramp your style. The proof of the pudding is in your site meter. I would submit, however, that the bitch-niche is pretty much full, as is the twee imagery + name dropping niche. What’s open? Illuminating perfumes for the non-fanatic. Show them how a particular scent wears in real life, how it measures up in olfactive performance, what interpersonal impressions it creates, and how it compares to similar smelling fragrance at different price points. Which brings us to a related point:

On the importance of comparison: The flight-of-fancy review (with or without knowing allusions to particular French perfumers and esoteric molecules) makes comparison next to impossible. Toothpaste-on-new-fur-coat is single use imagery that can’t be extended to another perfume. The very idea is ludicrous: Please rate this fragrance “1” if it smells exactly like minty creamy toothpaste on new fur, “2” if it smells somewhat like minty creamy toothpaste on new fur . . .

Shared standards of evaluation make the larger conversation possible. Otherwise it’s Internet cacaphony: toothpaste and fur coats versus “caressing and slightly venomous” white notes, ad infinitum. Do we have to go all 11-point Likert Scale formalistic about this? Not at all. At Left Coast Nose, Rita herself provides a quirky metric that orients the new reader to her conceptual range and personal style at the same time:
LeftCoastNose Rating System

***** Transcendent; extraordinary; a revelation
**** Flawless at every stage; distinctive; an avatar
*** Yummy; the right scent for a certain mood
** Kinda good (or) "weird but worth it"
* Eh
0 (No Stars) Handle bottle with tongs
On the Value of Blind Evaluation: It keeps you honest. It produces unexpected contrasts. It focuses your attention on the juice. It’s fun.

How do you blind yourself? With post-it notes and a willing spouse, neighbor, drunken stranger, whomever. Do it at a perfume party. Like Neil Pendock says, Perfumes are for the People.


On the phenomenon of ‘Fume Porn: Nice one. I wish I had thought of that.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Pendock Paradox: What If Perfumes Were Wine?

I recently linked to a piece by South African wine commentator Neil Pendock about the cologne-wearing habits of his country’s vintners. In doing so I called him as “a bit of a perfume head,” a characterization he promptly accepted. He then revealed the true depths of his ‘fume headedness by posting his review of Perfumes: The Guide by Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez which had been submitted to, but never published by, the Sunday Times of London.

Pendock’s take on Perfumes is interesting for several reasons. First, it is written by a professional sensory expert rather than a novelist or amateur enthusiast. Second, it offers both positive and negative assessments. Third, it raises some questions that perfume bloggers would do well to ponder.

Here’s how Pendock begins:
The flyleaf blurb claims this “stylish book will do for scent what Robert Parker’s books have done for wine.” Let’s hope not! Perfume is far too serious to be hijacked by snobs, inside-traders, train-spotters and anoraks addressing their own insecurity issues by promoting scent as a pseudo-scientific pursuit with perfumes scored on a 100 point scale; under 90 and you can’t sell it, over 90 and it’s unaffordable. 

Perfumes are for The People . . .
Right on, brother.

Pendock notes “the contradiction at the heart of this book.” Tania Sanchez says perfume is an art, not a science, but she then goes on
to rate 1500 fragrances from one star (translation: “awful”) to five (“masterpiece”). Cue gales of hilarity from artists, curators and collectors on the impudence of awarding artworks a star rating.
Pendock’s interest is not in chin-stroking ruminations about Art versus Science. Rather, as someone who makes rational, consistent, and defensible sensory evaluations on a daily basis, he has a practical bone to pick:
The problem comes with consistent aesthetic criteria. Take Amarige by Givenchy for example. Rated one star and immediately contradicted by the comment “we nearly gave it four stars: the soapy-green tobacco-tuberose accord… is unmissable, unmistakable, and unforgettable. However, it is also truly loathsome.” Are beauty and the beast really such near neighbours?
Lyrical perfume reviews may be fun to read, but the more flamboyant the description the less likely it is to be anchored to well-defined and consistently applied criteria.

Pendock is no dry pedant. He enjoys and quotes Turin’s “bitchy comments” and “vicious ad hominem” attacks—but finds Sanchez “less dazzling” and some of her insights “truly cringeworthy.” Does this matter? To some extent, yes:
Having two authors of different literary style on board highlights a grating unevenness in the text and presumably of assessment–a problem common in multi-author wine guides.
In a magnificently bitchy backhanded compliment of his own, Pendock calls Perfumes “a five star masterpiece of lifestyle literature.”

Pendock compares the reviews in Perfumes with those of wine writers. One thing they have in common is a love of hyperbole. A striking difference is that the wine fraternity plays “the ball rather than the man”, i.e., saves its commentary for the juice not the fellow who produced it. This is worth a moment’s reflection.

The Turin/Burr school of criticism revels in playing the man—calling out the perfumers, the corporations, and the celebrity names associated with the fragrance under consideration. The results are personal, sometimes viciously so, sometimes embarrassingly so—as in Burr’s loving tongue baths of Jean-Claude Ellena. Imagine reading a wine review that ricocheted so wildly from perception (“a brambly green note in the cabernet”) to personality (“Robert Mondavi’s impulsive and ego-inflamed attempt to replicate his Napa achievement in the Central Valley”). It’s a juice review folks, why not stick to the juice? You’ll drink the cabernet or wear the perfume—you’re not going to date the guy who made it.

In presenting his unpublished review, Pendock notes that
I also e-mailed Luca and Tania, asking them whether they rated perfumes blind or sighted. No response, either. The dome of silence descends.
This throwaway line stopped me dead in my tracks. I’ve done a lot of benchmark and comparison testing of perfume with consumers and almost all of it was conducted blind. That is, the consumer was not told the name of any of the fragrances. Why? Because knowing brand names introduces expectation unrelated to the sensory character of the perfumes. It needlessly biases the results away from the juice.

A wine taster gets around these issues by placing the bottles in numbered paper bags to disguise their identity. He may know that the latest Mondavi or Francis Ford Coppola cabernet are among them, but his tasting notes are based on the juice alone. This self-enforced objectivity is a powerful reason why we have confidence in a reviewer’s opinion.

How hard would it be for Turin/Sanchez to blind the samples for each other? Not very. Do they do it? As Pendock says about their non-response, “The dome of silence descends.” And after all if your schtick is bitchy, why go blind? Easier to find the jugular with eyes wide open.

If the sophisticated amateurs of the blogosphere want to take their reviews to the next level they’d be well advised to leave the bitchiness to Turin, invest in a few brown paper bags, and use a simple and reliable set of dimensions to rate their impressions. Readers appreciate reviews that are more about the juice and less about the reviewer’s narcissism.

Sarah Jessica Parker: B.O. in a Bottle

First this:

I love the smell of diapers; I even like when they’re wet and you smell them all warm like a baked good.
Now this:
The money quote:
I really like B.O. and I think it’s sexy.
It shouldn’t be too hard to find The Perfect Scent—just do some headspace sampling of Hugh Grant in order to capture the acrid, humiliating aroma of flop sweat.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Perfume Museum’s Hall of Olfactory Technology

In What the Nose Knows I described how our olfactory past is constantly evaporating, taking with it molecule by molecule our cultural heritage. The case is particularly acute for perfumes:

Brands don’t live forever. Commercial death occurs when the last bottle comes off the production line, and psychosensory rigor mortis sets in with the last spray from the last bottle. An extinct fragrance can trigger no memories for anyone. To preserve memory we must preserve the juice itself. How will we know what we’re missing when it’s not there to smell?
This inspired me to discuss Andy Warhol’s idea of a Perfume Museum, a concept with some merit but that poorly executed could prove to be a testosterone-draining experience for most men. To compensate I suggested the museum include a hormone-stabilizing Hall of Olfactory Technology, featuring the first atomizer—invented in 1859 for purposes other than perfume application—and how it inspired Wilhelm Maybach’s design of the carburetor and led to Robert Millikan’s Nobel Prize for Physics in 1923.

Now, thanks to Perfumaniac, the nom de web of a New Orleans-based blogger who writes at Yesterday’s Perfume, I’ve got another potential exhibit for the Hall of O.T.

Perfumaniac’s specialty is reviewing vintage scents from the deep past. Today she posted about an old-fashioned perfume vending machine that’s for sale on eBay. It’s a table-top model that offered four name-brand scents in “bottlettes”—crack-open reed tubes filled with a couple of drops of juice. You insert a quarter, rotate the dispenser to your scent of choice, and pull a lever to release the sample. Think of it as a scaled-up version of those toothpick dispensers you find in diners. (The device is truly meant for the table top: it has napkin holders on either side . . .)

Intrigued by Perfumaniac’s discovery I did a little research of my own and found this to be one in a long line of coin-operated perfume dispensers. Most of them actually spray the customer with scent. The most famous was probably the Perfumatic device: put in a dime, place your neck by the nozzle, and “press plunger firmly all the way in” (which coincidently happens to be our motto here at First Nerve.)

The Perfumatic was typically mounted on a restroom wall; it came in two- and four-column models. The company, based in Canada, had over four hundred units installed in the United States by 1952. The local distributor was Jo-Lo Perfumatic, based in Jersey City, New Jersey.

Further back we find the One Cent Bull Perfume Dispenser by the Continental Novelty Co. of Buffalo, New York. You insert your penny, pull down on the bull’s horns, and get a squirt of scent from his mouth. 

This device—“Whiffs of Fragrance”—allows you to “Perfume Your Handkerchief” after selecting one of the four bottles, inserting a coin, and pulling down on the lever.

The technology has come a long way in some respects (remember the Robo-Spritzer?) but the basic idea remains the same.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

South Philly Stinky

An actual Fox News headline from yesterday:

Strong Smell Reported In South Philly
Talk about your dog bites man story. What could it be? Cheese steak fumes on Two Street? Sewage in the Schuylkill? Another body in the Tinicum marshes?

No, something less definitive. Fox quotes a denizen of South Philly:
Every day down here, you smell all different types of odors in the air from the piers and whatnot, but this was a different type of stench . . .
That doesn’t narrow it down much. But then Philadelphia is a compendium of stench. We’ve covered this topic before.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Frauen riechen besser

Wenn Sie deutsch kann, können Sie mein Interview mit Stephan Hilpold von Der Standard im Österreich hier lesen.

UPDATE December 17, 2009: La fürze del destino

Hilpold asked me about the claim in my book that women’s farts smell worse than men’s. 

In Ihrem Buch schreiben Sie, dass Fürze von Frauen mehr stinken als jene von Männern.
His crude language drew a rebuke from Der Standard commenter “Werwolfi”:
und noch etwas: “Fürze” in einem standardartikel?! ich hätte doch eher mit “darmwind” oder “flatus” bzw.“flatulenz” gerechnet... ;oP

[and another thing: “Farts” in a Der Standard article? I would rather have expected “bowel wind” or “flatus” or “flatulence”... ; oP]

Werwolfi—keeping it classy in Vienna!

Exit question: Wasn’t Mozart famous for his fart jokes?

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The FirstNerve BurrOmeter: Pucci, Guerlain and Alford & Hoff

Name drops: 11

Michel Hy
Emilio Pucci
Laudomia Pucci 
Marie-Aude Couture
Nathalie Gracia-Cetto
Sylvaine Delacourte
Marie Salamagne
Barry Alford
Hefferson Hoffman
Dr. John Gross
Rodrigo Flores-Roux
Bonus points:
Perfumers: 5 
Moguls & “Creative Directors”: 8
Plastic Surgeons: 1
French: 4
Hyphenated-Perfumer Double Bonus Points: 6

European Aircraft: 1
Airbus 380
Pac 10 Conference Bonus Points: 2
Arizona State
Nonsensical fragrance descriptions: 2
clefted green aromatic
fructose-injected Mandarin orange

Repetitive redundancies: 1

conceptually idealized
Total BurrOmeter reading for Vivara, Aqua Allegoria and Alford & Hoff: 41 milliburrs

Outlook: Wonderfulness trumps gender.

ISDP: Bleak December Edition

It’s cold, wet and dreary outside, and also the thirteenth of the month so what better time for the latest installment of the dismal series we call ISDP?

In Houston, a couple was visiting their daughter and her three kids when “a foul smell led them to her bathroom.” Under the sink they found a blanket containing something smelly which they tossed in the dumpster. Their daughter then told them they had discarded the remains of her stillborn baby delivered two months previously. 

Residents of the Cambridge Hill gated community in Diamond Bar, California reported “a foul smell” coming from a house. Police found two bodies, in separate rooms, but no signs of forced entry or foul play. Authorities aren’t confirming that these are the deceased, but according to the San Gabriel Valley Tribune the house was occupied by a 47-year-old man and his 88-year-old mother.

A maintenance worker at Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston, Texas notified police of “a foul odor” on Level 5, Section F-6 of the Terminal D parking lot. They found a woman’s body in the back seat of a Ford Focus.

A local detective approached a house in Frazier Park near Bakersfield, California to interview the resident about a case. He “smelled a foul odor” and convinced the occupant’s relatives to open their door with their key. He discovered the body of a dead man. [According to our notoriously strict criteria, this barely qualifies as an ISDP incident because the detective had prior, non-olfactory, suspicions about the welfare of the deceased.] 

Marcia Pledger of The Plain Dealer follows up on Ray’s Sausage, the long-time, family-owned, business in Cleveland that found itself next door to the malodorous house of horrors where Anthony Sowell is alleged to have killed eleven women. Ray’s was wrongly accused by locals as well as government health inspectors of being the source of the foul odor and spent nearly $20,000 to replace plumbing in a fruitless attempt to correct it. The good news is that Renee Cash and her brother Raymond Cash, Jr. are determined to keep the business going and customers remain enthusiastically loyal to their product. Harder to overcome will be the economic decline and social decay that have overtaken the neighborhood. The family are good people and we wish them the best of luck.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

An Odorless Anti-Theft Smell?

The Daily Evergreen at Washington State University reports that Kappy Brun, the campus grounds supervisor, plans to deter tree thieves this Christmas season by spraying “a special skunk spray” on the school’s pine trees.

Fair enough—no one likes tree thieves. But when we read this quote from Mr. Brun, the alarm on the First Nerve Bogosity Meter nearly made us spill our spiked eggnog:
The smell is not noticeable outside but becomes stronger as the trees warm up inside . . .
Well then, how is a thief supposed to know that he’s cutting down a tainted tree?

Or is this just an olfactory bluff by Groundskeeper Kappy?

Friday, December 11, 2009

Beat the BurrOmeter: Play to Win!

Hey boys and girls, look who’s back. To celebrate we’re holding a contest. Guess the upcoming First Nerve BurrOmeter reading before it’s revealed and you can win a prize!

You know how the BurrOmeter works. Submit your guess (total for Pucci’s Vivara, Guerlain’s Aqua Allegoria and Alford & Hoff) in the comments section before the official measurement goes up at 12:01 a.m. on Monday, December 14. The person who comes closest wins a signed, custom-personalized, copy of my review of The Emperor of Scent. It’s a high-quality, glossy off-print from Nature Neuroscience—totally frameable!

Express your guess in milliburrs. And like your algebra teacher used to say, “Show your work.” (It counts in case of a tie.)

Good luck.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

It’s the Spritziest Time of the Year

Maria Browning, a perfume enthusiast who blogs at Bittergrace Notes, writes about her recurring impulse to indulge massively in scent:

The madness always comes upon me in the depths of winter, and I can feel it building already. I’ve dabbed or sprayed on at least five different perfumes today. I’ve got scented candles burning and I just spritzed my bedroom with Bal a Versailles. I’ll probably dose the blankets with something else before I go to bed tonight.
This isn’t about her natural curiosity for sampling and collecting scents. It is, she says, about “craving an olfactory smorgasbord.” Wondering whether these “benders” are the result of some weird brain chemistry, Browning searches the Internet (and FirstNerve!) for information but comes up empty.

Even in our drowsy state of pre-Solstice hibernation here at First Nerve Manor this sounded like a challenge. Has anyone examined the link between short day length and the urge to smell?

Some years back we met a interesting psychiatry professor named Teodor Postolache with an interest in Seasonal Affective Disorder and smell. He published a study that examined nostril-by-nostril odor identification ability in SAD patients and healthy controls. The two groups didn’t differ on this measure, but there were intriguing correlations between single nostril performance and measures of depression.

This led Postlache to a second study, in which odor sensitivity of SAD patients was measured once in winter (the depressive season) and again the following summer (the “up” season). Surprisingly there was no seasonal difference in olfactory sensitivity. However the SAD patients were significantly more sensitive than the normal controls.
In humans, marked seasonal behavioral rhythms with recurrent winter depression may be associated with a more acute sense of smell.

Hmmm. None of this is definitive but it does make one wonder: Is the perfume bender a form of self-induced mood modulation by the olfactively-inclined? And what does it mean that the holiday season is the biggest time of year for giving fragrance to other people?

[For the record, our scientific ruminations are just that. We do not presume to diagnose our fellow bloggers or even to imply that they require diagnosis. We think perfumes benders sound like a great topic for investigation for the light they might throw on olfactory psychology.]

Sunday, December 6, 2009

I Smell Dead People: The Interactive Map

View I Smell Dead People - The Interactive Map in a larger map

Billy Crystal’s character in When Harry Met Sally jokes to Meg Ryan about the “New York death”: a demise that goes unnoticed “for two weeks until the smell drifts into the hallway.”

(To which Meg Ryan responds, “Amanda mentioned you had a dark side.”)

The conventional view of the New York death is to bemoan the alienation and impersonality of life in the big city. A little research, however, shows this phenomenon happens everywhere including Mayberry-like small towns where everyone knows everyone else.

That’s what we’ve confirmed by creating an interactive map of all the items published in our monthly I Smell Dead People feature. We’ve placed the pins as precisely as possible, based on information in the news stories linked to the posts. Go ahead, play with it—you know you want to.

Exit question: Is peninsular Florida threatening New York’s right to the ISDP title?

Saturday, December 5, 2009

What to Wear When Crushing Grapes

Wine columnist Neil Pendock—who bills himself as South Africa’s leading independent drinks commentator—is big on olfaction. Smelling is key to his craft but Pendock is a bit of a perfume head as well.

He recently surveyed fourteen South African winemakers about their personal fragrance preference and reports the results in his latest, typically rambling and fascinating column. Half the vintners use a single brand, three of them (21%) use two or three scents, and another four (28%) wear nothing at all. The proportion of abstainers seems a bit higher than in the average consumer population. But when you’re sniffing and tasting all day long cologne can be a distraction—the same reason a lot of people in the fragrance business don’t wear scent to work. As for the preferred brands, they sound pretty mainstream.

Hmm . . . what happens when you cross the streams? Of perfume and wine, that is. A famous winemaker certainly has more sensory cred than your B-list celebrity. A Baron Philippe de Rothschild cologne might have been a classic. Or a Robert Mondavi aftershave. There must be a brand-worthy celebrity winemaker somewhere in the Napa Valley.

Monday, November 30, 2009

The Helen Keller Fallacy

A persistent misconception about smell is that blind people develop keener noses as compensation for their loss of vision. Because she is so often cited in this regard I think of it as the Helen Keller Fallacy. It’s an idea so deeply soaked into American culture that it appears in comic books: check out Daredevil sometime.

Helen Keller did indeed use her nose well—to recognize people and familiar places.
I used to be able to smell Duluth and St. Louis miles off by their breweries, and the fumes of the whiskey stills of Peoria, Illinois, used to wake me up at night if we passed within smelling distance of it.
That’s cool. But it’s something plenty of sighted people have experienced as well. Keller herself admitted this:
I have not, indeed, the all-knowing scent of the hound or the wild animal.
She also said “In my experience smell is most important . . .” This is understandable; deprived of sight and sound it’s only natural that her perception of the world became more olfactory.

In What the Nose Knows I summarized twenty years worth of scientific studies:
Without exception, they find that the blind are no more sensitive than the sighted—both groups detect odors at about the same concentration.
I found that in half the studies blind people were better at naming odors:
Even here, their success depended on cognitive factors such as memory rather than hyper-acute perception.
Having no access to visual cues, blind people become skilled at naming odors and may even do it better than sighted people. But this is a matter of the brain adapting, not of the nose becoming supersensitive.

Given my opinion, this paper in a recent issue of Neuropsychologia grabbed my attention:
“Odour discrimination and identification are improved in early blindness.”
It’s by a group of researchers in Belgium led by Isabel Cuevas, who works at the Catholic University of Louvain’s Neural Rehabilitation Engineering Laboratory. (Whoa.)

They compared the odor identification abilities of 13 blind men and 13 age-matched sighted men using a set of 30 everyday sort of smells: strawberry, rose, mint, etc. First, they presented a smell and asked the test subject to name it. Here the blind performed significantly better than sighted subjects. 

Next, they asked subjects to place the smell in a semantic category (fruit, flower, plant or other). Here again the blind did significantly better than sighted subjects but their advantage was less than in the free-identification test.

Finally, subjects were asked to identify the odor from a six-item multiple choice list. Here there was no difference in performance between the blind and sighted subjects.

As Cuevas et al. put it, these results indicate that the blind show “enhanced access to semantic information (including the name) from perceived odours” and that they are able to “access this information more efficiently from olfactory inputs.” Fair enough: this is a good example of cognitive compensation. But it is not evidence for compensation at a purely sensory level.

The Belgium team also found that blind subjects were better at discriminating odors, i.e., were better at making same/different judgments when presented with a pair of odors. Cuevas and colleagues argue that this is more of a perceptual skill than a cognitive one, but I’m not convinced. Same/different judgments involve attention and short term memory which are higher-order cognitive skills. 

Unfortunately, the subjects were not tested for olfactory sensitivity which is the purest expression of the compensation hypothesis (“blindness results in a super-sensitive nose”). Still, this is a well done study that explores several facets of olfactory talent. And it leaves me convinced that the Helen Keller Fallacy is just that.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Lightning Strikes: New Fragrance for a Cyber-Celebrity

I’ve always liked the idea of creating a fragrance based on a character in an electronic game. I wrote a Lara Croft brief based on Tomb Raider when I was working with DigiScents, Inc. back in the dot com days. The project—like DigiScents itself—ended up going nowhere, but it brought me the good fortune of meeting natural perfumer Mandy Aftel. 

Japanese software company Square Enix is about to roll out a new iteration of its fabulously successful role-playing game called Final Fantasy. FFXIII goes on sale next month in Japan and arrives in the United States in March. Square Enix has regularly cross-marketed its game into movies and merchandise; take a look at these videos for the new FFXIII Elixer softdrink.

Now comes word that the company is also launching a character fragrance, an EDT called Lightning, named after ”the most powerful woman in the entire [Final Fantasy] series.” The line is priced like real juice; 50 ml lists for $82 and retails for $66. This is no $4 Burger King promotional stunt.
So what does Lightning smell like? Well, here’s the fragrance description:


(Don’t worry: it’s written in Ingredient Voice, the universal language of perfume marketing.)

Here’s what it looks like:

Once again, Japan is leading the way in olfactory innovation.

Friday, November 27, 2009

The Magic Left in the Wake of a Scented Woman

Of all the styles of psychological experimentation, one of my favorites is the field study. Take a simple behavior, observe it under natural conditions, quantify it, and then carefully perturb it this way and that. Done well, a field study wipes away the detritus of conventional wisdom and reveals new dimensions to perception and behavior. Because field studies don’t usually address Big Questions and hypothetical constructs they tend to be looked down upon by grand theoreticians. But that’s just the reason I like them: direct observation gives you a firm place to plant your boots as you climb along the empirical path.
In the course of blowing a few raspberries at a recent example of poorly executed and over-hyped smell research, I browsed again through the literature on scent and behavior in natural settings. While I described some of it in What the Nose Knows it turns out I missed a fascinating study by a French social psychologist named Nicolas Guéguen.

Published in 2001 under the dry title “Effect of a perfume on prosocial behavior of pedestrians,” the experiment was quite simple. It took place outdoors on sunny days in early spring in a mid-sized French tourist town. Guéguen’s accomplices were four women around twenty years old, dressed in jeans and T-shirts. Each woman took turns standing in front of a phone booth pretending to rummage through her handbag but actually counting passersby. As the tenth random person (other than kids, old folks, and people in groups) approached, she would start walking about three meters ahead and then “accidentally” drop a glove or a packet of tissues. Two observers recorded whether the target person told the confederate that she had dropped something. Simple enough.

The experimental treatment was also simple: the young woman either wore perfume or not. If worn, the perfume was applied sufficiently that it could be detected by the person following three meters behind her. (The French term for one’s trailing personal scent plume is sillage, which literally means “wake.”)

When the young woman who dropped a glove was wearing perfume, the target person called it to her attention 95% of the time compared to only 70% of the time when she was wore no perfume. The difference—the perfume effect—was statistically significant. The comparable results were 20% and 7.5% for a dropped packet of Kleenex. (Guéguen thinks more people helped with the dropped glove because it has greater perceived value.) Whether the target person was male or female made no difference to the results.
The fact that people are more willing to help a young women when she is wearing perfume is intuitively reasonable. What’s neat is that perfume increased helping behavior even in the absence of a direct request. Guéguen doesn’t oversell his results: he found modest effects of perfume under realistic conditions. But in doing so he’s given us a new point of leverage for exploring how people respond to personal fragrance and, perhaps, even why they wear it. Did the perfume affect the target’s mood? Did it make the young lady seem more sympathetic or did it simply draw attention to her? As we answer these questions we’ll begin to write the natural history of perfume use.
*  *  *
I’ve recently criticized some smell studies: ones that promise more than they deliver or that needlessly perpetuate stale conventional wisdom. Part of being a scientist is to be skeptical—of your own results as well as those of others. Constant questioning and cross-checking keep the entire enterprise honest and on track (*cough* global warming *cough* *cough*). So despite the discomfort it might cause my colleagues, I call ‘em like I see ‘em and expect no less in return.

UPDATE November 28, 2009
I emailed Professor Guéguen and he was kind enough to tell me the perfume used in this study. It was Coco by Chanel.

UPDATE May 12, 2019
Questions have been raised about a number of studies published by Nicolas Guéguen, although not this one in particular. See my new post on the matter here.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

American Smellscapes: The Stink Tree from Hell

Being a former nature counselor, I was amused by this “can you identify the species?” piece about an invasive, alien tree that smells like rancid peanut butter. (It’s common along the Garden State Parkway in New Jersey.)

The setup to the puzzle is here and the answer is here.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Blood Feeding and BO

In our town this weekend young teens were lined up outside the movie theater waiting to see New Moon. This got us thinking about bloodsucking and romance and BO—and about whether Robert Pattinson’s poor press had impacted his social life.

It also got us thinking about these guys. (Go take a look and come right back; we’ll wait.)

With their complex eyes African jumping spiders look like something straight out of Galaxy of Terror. Their feeding habits are equally weird—they are indirect consumers of vertebrate blood. That is to say, their preferred prey is a female mosquito who has just completed a blood meal.

The jumping spider known as Evarcha culicivora can spot the difference between an edible (but less desireable) lake fly and a bloodcarrying mosquito by both sight and smell. Cool, eh?

It gets better. Spiders who have been on a diet of bloodfed female mosquitoes smell more attractive to spiders of the opposite sex; their BO doesn’t alter their attractiveness to same-sex spiders. 

The effect of the bloodfed mosquito diet is temporary; after being switched to a menu of boring lake flies, they quickly lose their mojo: their BO no longer piques the interest of the opposite sex.

Anyway, hope all you kids enjoyed the movie as much as we enjoyed this new paper. Here’s some free advice: go ahead and take the Mickey Mouse social justice courses for the easy “A” but you owe it to yourself to take a class in comparative zoology or animal behavior. Nature is far more bizarre than any horror movie and at least as entertaining.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

More Psychologists Wearing Proust Goggles

It’s a tradition in some scientific journals to publish a commentary piece that highlights a newsworthy article in the current issue. One journal that does this is the weekly Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA. The November 10 issue contained a paper by a team of Swiss neuroscientists about emotional memory and genetic variation in the α2b-adrenergic receptor. People with a particular variant form of this neurotransmitter receptor have enhanced emotional memory. The Swiss paper uses fMRI imaging to show that such people also have increased activity in the amygdala—an emotional processing area of the brain—when viewing pictures with negative emotional content.

A cool result: it could have bearing on individual susceptibility to flashbacks of emotional memory or to PTSD.

PNAS invited two psychologists from a University of Toronto research center to put the new results in context. Rebecca Todd and Adam Anderson wrote a commentary called “The neurogenetics of remembering emotions past.”

The Proustian allusion in the title caught my eye. No sooner had I downloaded the paper than the alarm on the First Nerve Bogosity Meter began screaming like an angry fishmonger in Marseille.

Here’s how the paper opens:
Even if you have not waded through all seven volumes of Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, you are probably familiar with its most famous scene where the narrator bites into a little cake called a madeleine, dipped in tea, and experiences a wash of vivid emotional memories. This literary moment has captured popular imagination (madeleines are now sold by Starbucks) because it so effectively captures the powerful and involuntary nature of emotional memory.
Oh, boy. Where to begin? Drs. Todd and Anderson completely misrepresent the madeleine scene. Proust’s narrator did not experience “a wash of vivid emotional memories” when slurping his tea-soaked Twinkie; he experienced a vague, nonspecific sense of familiarity, tried repeatedly to re-evoke it, and strained to recall the original memory. What Todd and Anderson call a “literary moment” drags on for page after page.

All of us are familiar with the sudden transports of emotional memory, especially when touched off by a stray smell. Other writers before and after Proust have captured this phenomenon more succinctly and poetically (see here and What the Nose Knows for examples). Proust’s madeleine episode is emphatically not a description of these vivid and effortlessly recalled flashes of memory. Their use of the oxymoronic phrase “Proustian vividness” suggests that that Todd and Anderson have not waded through even the first fifty pages of Swann’s Way.

This could all be forgiven if it were only an embarrassingly sophomoric attempt at literary garnish for a highly technical paper. Unfortunately, having donned their patented Proust Goggles, Todd and Anderson step deeper into the doodoo. They cite Proust as if he were presenting a biomedical hypothesis; by the end of the paper this is how they’re talking about him:
Proust conjectured that emotional memories are more akin to a bodily reflex than to the higher-level meaning-making systems that drive voluntary memory. The finding that genetic polymorphisms in adrenoceptors related to regulating blood pressure are further associated with individual differences in amygdala activation and emotion-enhanced memory is consistent with Proust’s view.
For Pete’s sake! It’s one thing to garble your literary allusions. It’s another to adopt a nearly unreadable proto-modern novelist as your scientific idol. I just don’t get it. What drives psychologists to prostrate themselves at the altar of Professor Proust?

In the psychology of smell memory, the Proust Boosters have come and gone. Despite scads of scientific papers with titles like “Proust nose best”, we now know that odor memory operates like all other forms of memory: it decays with time and can be altered by subsequent experience. Let’s hope that researchers working on adrenergic receptors and brain processing of emotion don’t make us suffer through more cutesy titles and mangled lit-crit.

Enleverez les lunettes de Proust!

[More Proust Goggles here.]

Saturday, November 21, 2009

C-list Celebrity Stamps Feet, Demands Own Fragrance

Nothing like whining to get your way if you’re a four-year-old—or a C-list celebrity with an overweening sense of entitlement.Take the case of Gerard Butler.

Who’s that, you say? You know—the guy in Nim’s Island.

No, not Fantasy Island. Gerard Butler! He was huge in P.S. I Love You

Didn’t see it? Well, he was Yasha in The Cherry Orchard.

Hey, stay awake, I’m talking to you. He was King Leonidas in 300. OK. Yeah, great movie. The guy has awesome pecs and looks excellent in half-animation.

Okay, so Gerard Butler wants his own fragrance so badly he’s bitching about it on BBC radio.
“I need a perfume. I need to tell my publicist to get on that. He’s not got me any worthwhile branding. Clive Owen has his aftershave, Ewan McGregor has cologne. What do I have? Nothing. I don’t know what it would be like, but I need one.”
Waaaaaaaaah! I want my fragrance and I want it NOW.

Exit question: Does Mr. Butler belong in the Pantheon of Pop Perfume alongside the likes of Messrs. Owen and McGregor? Talk to me people.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Going Rogue, Smelling Great

Heh. The new Sarah Palin fragrance

Talk about your “polarizing” perfumes. Although when you think about it, this one would sell like a monster.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

American Smellscapes: New Orleans through Olfacta's Nostrils

My only visit to New Orleans was as a greenhorn graduate student. I gave my first scientific talk at the Eastern Conference on Reproductive Behavior (a.k.a. The Sex Conference) which was held at Tulane University. New Orleans was intoxicating. I remember the music, the bars, the strip clubs, and of course the food: gumbo, jambalaya, platters piled high with spicy crawfish, Bananas Foster at Brennan’s, and the best piece of pecan pie I’ve ever had, served at 2:30 in morning with chicory flavored coffee at a diner whose location it pains me to be unable to recall.

Mmmmm . . . pecan pie.

This reverie was stirred up by blogger Olfacta’s vividly described smellscape of New Orleans
Truth be told, many of the smells of New Orleans aren’t nice.

Old cities, old sewers; it hangs in the air, sweetish and sour, the odor of humanity. It’s always there. You smell it as soon as you get out of the car. There’s garbage, too; piles of it, waiting for the plow, and manure from the horses that pull buggies filled with tourists around the Vieux Carre.
But it’s the food the aromas of cooking that make it all worthwhile.
. . .the steamy smell of seafood boil—spices, like white pepper, cayenne and thyme, added to cooking water—and crabs simmering in it. That scent poured out of the restaurants and stands as the city got ready for its (long) lunch break. I could smell shrimp and oysters frying, too. That seafood smell mixes with the swamp and river and the sewers and the garbage, and it is that which is, for me, the quintessential smell of the old Quarter.
Olfacta’s keen perceptions of New Orleans are a link in a fine, filigreed chain that reaches back into the 19th century, anchored by that remarkable journalist, gourmand, and man of the world Lafcadio Hearn. An acquaintance recalled that Hearn's “olfactory sense was abnormally keen.”
Even the construction of his nose would seem to indicate great abilities in this direction. It was aquiline and quite large, with finely cut, sensitive nostrils that had a queer trick of quivering when he became excited or deeply interested, just as do a horse’s nostrils when he is turned out in a strange pasture.
Hearn wrote a lot about smells. Between 1877 and 1887 he was a reporter for the local dailies. In one memorable editorial in the New Orleans Item he railed about the disgusting, bat-infested conditions of the Parish Prison.
Any wayfarer who lingers in the neighborhood of Congo Square about sundown, may behold the weird prison, a vast flock of winged demons hovering above it, preparing to hold their ghastly revels under a gibbous moon. He may also smell the ghoulish odor outshaken from the wings of the innumerable host of imps. The odor is never to be forgotten. It contains suggestions of many odors—decaying shoe leather, miscarried eggs and dead cats—and yet it is unlike any of these. It is an original and astonishing odor which inspires fantastic dreams of death and dissolution,—Better we think, that the wicked be favored by a speedy death than that they be slowly driven out of the world by the most indescribable of stinks.
New Orleans, like Venice, has always had an olfactory dark side. It’s the ability of the good smells to rise above it that gives the city its piquant charm. Laissez les bon temps roules.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Paging Yoko Ono: Here Come the Dead Celebrity Fragrances

Two weeks ago while sniffing at the fragrance being launched by Roy Orbison’s widow (Pretty Woman, get it? Do ya? Hunh? Do ya?) we took a swipe at John Lennon’s widow.

Okay, this is just plain sad.
Although I’m surprised Yoko Ono didn’t think of it first . . .
Commenter Nathan Branch said he liked the idea of Yoko by Yoko (“There would have to be a very high, piercing introduction note . . .”). But we kept pressing the idea of necrophilic commercial exploitation:
How about Grunge Widow by Courtney Love?
Sonic for Men by Patti Smith?
Well, here’s today’s story from the New York Daily News:
Perfume’s heaven scent: New ‘Antiquity’ fragrances based on DNA of dead celebs

New releases include Elvis and Michael Jackson. The hook: DNA provided by a “renowned celebrity hair collector.”

What fun is blogging when the fragrance industry parodies itself?

UPDATE November 17, 2009

Who’s behind the fragrances based on dead celebrity DNA? The Rev. Dr. Diva Verdun of Beverly Hills, California.

Hey, I didn’t crop it to make her look like Vampira. Took it straight from her page on, which includes these biographical tidbits:

Dr. Diva Verdun, PhD - Entrepreneur, Empowerment (Motivational) Speaker and Executive Producer

Dr. Diva has been a guest speaker at various career trade shows and speaks to diverse groups challenging them to take charge of their own lives. Diva holds a PhD in Metaphysical Pastoral Counseling and is an ordained Minister. Dr. Rev. Diva has established ‘Empowering Word of Truth Ministries’ to empower people to overcome poverty for wealth, failure for success, and dependence for independence so they can live the lives Spirit created them to live. She is the CEO & Executive Producer of Diva Universal Entertainment, and uses her unique empowerment techniques in non-traditional arenas such as modeling and entertainment. Other projects include Diva Style, Diva University of Models, Black’s M.E.N. the Organization/Movement, The Ramesses Man Project, LLC, C’ de Azz Jeans, Connection Films, LLC, Film Festival Academy, News Watchdog Service, Connection Holdings and the 1st and only One-of-a-Kind Perfume made from your DNA genetic code - My DNA Fragrance and the new Barack Obama fragrance POTUS 1600.
Whoooooie! Comedy gold. Res ipsa loquitur.

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Gnarly Fart Bomb of Orange County

In the inland reaches of Southern California’s Orange County, east of the 5 freeway, up where the foothills begin, lies the Upper Oso Reservoir. It’s no big deal. But a couple of weeks ago it started to stink like rotten eggs. The smell of hydrogen sulfide was the result of an algae bloom following a weather-related inversion in the water layers of the reservoir. So now it is a big deal—annoying the usually mellow residents of nearby Mission Viejo and Rancho Santa Margarita. According to the chief engineer of the Santa Margarita Water District, a 24-year veteran, the stink is “probably the worst one in recent memory.”

Reporter Rashi Kesarwani of The Orange County Register has been all over the story like a bad rash, documenting steps taken by the water district to re-oxygenate the water and encourage the disappearance of the algae. She’s also tracked the response of the local citizenry. 
Fifteen-year-old Trabuco Hills High School student Natalie Caporuscio, a resident of Melinda Heights in Rancho Santa Margarita, described the stench as a “gnarly fart bomb.”
 Not content to vent to the OCR’s man on the scene, residents took to their blogs as well.
Mission Viejo, CA stinks. I mean, it reeks to high heaven. There is a sulphurous odor so malignant and intrusive, it has enveloped the neighborhood and penetrated the walls of my house for nearly 48 hours.
High school student Chase Miller took the next logical step and set up a Facebook group called Oso Reservoir Smells Like Rotten Eggs. It now has 207 members.

This strikes me as an historical moment in the annals of malodor. Instead of quietly seething or complaining to one another in the checkout line at Vons, people suffering through a big stink can assemble in cyberspace and do something useful. They can log time and place and intensity of stink. They can report on remediation efforts. They can know they’re not crazy and not alone. And they can get something done. The online agitation may have helped incite a protest at City Hall in Mission Viejo.

This being California, the city has taken to its blog (yes, the city of Mission Viejo has an official blog) to update residents on its efforts to smother the gnarly fart bomb. No doubt this beats the way local authorities would handle a similar problem in Chicago or Philadelphia. But the old lyrics still haunt: 
Zen fascists will control you
100% natural
You will jog for the master race
And always wear the happy face
Jerry Brown is on the move again Chase Miller. Keep an eye peeled for the suede/denim secret police.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Cook The Ape His Fire & Our Nose: Richard Wrangham & Smell

Smell and taste are intimately related, so much so that we casually speak of flavor as a unitary perception even though it’s a fusion of sensory information from different receptors and nerves. Taste being limited to the perception of sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami, most of what we regard as flavor is really contributed by smell. The proof is simple: just pinch closed your nose the next time you try a fine wine or a piece of pizza. Minus the nose food and drink are reduced to texture and the most basic of tastes.

The olfactory contribution to flavor is delivered by a reversal of the usual process of smelling. Instead of sniffing at food through our nostrils, we get its aromatic impression via the nasopharynx—the back of the throat. The act of swallowing sends food aroma from the mouth to the nose by the back door. The 19th century American philosopher, critic and food writer Henry Theophilus Finck described this as “the second way of smelling.” Psychologists today prefer the technical term retronasal olfaction, but I like Finck’s version just fine.

In What the Nose Knows, I point out that the second way of smelling is a special feature of human physiology. Few other species savor their food as we do in the act of eating. Predators rip and gulp, herbivores grind away, humans luxuriate. Retronasal olfaction has unique psychological characteristics as well, many discovered only recently by sensory researchers. What this adds up to, in my view, is that the human nose evolved to serve the human mouth. Our hunting dogs may be better adapted to scenting distant prey on the wind, but we are unsurpassed at drawing the nuances of a flavored venison stew.

All of which brings us to the use of spices and the behavior of cooking. Spice use is universal and varies reliably with ecological factors across cultures. Even more fundamental is the use of fire to cook food. And here is where Richard Wrangham and his new book enter the picture. Wrangham is a Harvard University anthropologist; his book is Catching fire: How cooking made us human. Here’s the thrust of it in a nutshell:
I believe the transformative moment that gave rise to the genus Homo, one of the great transitions in the history of life, stemmed from the control of fire and the advent of cooked meals. Cooking increased the value of our food. It changed our bodies, our brains, our use of time, and our social lives. It made us into consumers of external energy and thereby created an organism with a new relationship to nature, dependent on fuel.
Wrangham’s thesis is elegantly laid out in Catching Fire and I won’t attempt to trace all the threads he has woven into it. Simply put, he looks at two important transitions in the evolution of modern humans. The first occurred 2.5 million years ago when the habiline lineage emerged from the chimp-like australopithecines that preceded them. Habilines were larger and bigger-brained and used primitive stone tools, all the better to skin big game. The second transition took place 1.8 million years ago with the appearance of Homo erectus, a proto-human that walked like us and even looked like us, with a small mouth, smaller jaw, and smaller teeth.

Until now, anthropologists had settled on the Man-the-Hunter hypothesis to explain the emergence of both habilines and Homo erectus. Bigger brains made for more clever hunters and weapon makers, bigger bodies for better long distance travel and rapid pursuit, and the whole mix encouraged more cooperative social behavior. Everyone agrees that consistent meat eating made a big difference in human evolution. But a closer look at Man-the-Hunter shows that the hypothesis doesn’t square with what we know of the dietary economics of hunter-gatherer societies.

Wrangham’s contribution is to view these transitions as driven by the higher food value and time savings obtained by cooking meat and gathered foods such as tubers. In other words, the evolution of modern humans was driven by the control and use of fire. (Again, read his book for the fascinating array of evidence—it includes calorie availability, relative gut length, sexual division of labor, and an analysis of how long it takes to chew raw monkey meat off the bone.)

Wrangham’s a audacious idea relies on a detailed reading of the fossil record—the dating of campfire sites, refuse middens, and pollen grains. Suffice it to say that new evidence keeps pushing back the date for the first use of fire by proto-humans. Wrangham’s hypothesis is more than plausible.

Catching Fire was published after my book, so I relied on Wrangham’s earlier scientific papers to describe his ideas. In my chapter “A Nose for the Mouth” I take the ball and run with it, pointing out that cooking produces novel smells (carmelized and roasted notes); that the domestication of livestock produced new food smells (milk, yogurt, and cheese); that the domestication of grains produced new smells (gruel, bread, and toasted notes); and last, but not least, that fermented alcoholic beverages produce even more.

Add to this the new studies showing that olfactory receptor genes evolve rapidly, especially in the past 20,000 years during which domestication of animals and crops took place. The resulting picture, I argue, is one in which human olfactory abilities are fine-tuned by evolution to create higher-resolution flavor perception. In effect, our nose evolved to serve our mouth.

I just got around to Catching Fire and enjoyed it. It’s a captivating story, well-told: science in a conversational tone. Given my obsessive focus, I looked eagerly for what Wrangham had to say about smell. Surprisingly little it turns out. In one passage he describes how modern non-human primates prefer sweet and cooked food, just as we do, and how these preferences may be hardwired in our brain. In another, he vividly describes the taste of various fruits in the chimpanzee diet. Wrangham is my kind of scientist: a field guy who just rolls up his sleeves and tries a mouthful of Pseudospondias microcarpa fruits. Verdict: inedibly bitter due to high tannin content. Conclusion?
The shifts in food preference between chimpanzees and humans suggest that our species has a reduced physiological tolerance for foods high in toxins or tannins. Since cooking predictably destroys many toxins, we may have evolved a relatively sensitive palate.
I agree. I also think there’s a lot more good science to be done in the paleo-anthropology of olfaction. Let’s get out there and do it.

Friday, November 13, 2009

ISDP: House of a Dozen Corpses

This is the third ISDP to fall on Friday the 13th—the day that inspired us to premiere this monthly assemblage of the olfactory macabre. If perfumes are the Walt Disney version of smell then the rank stench of decomposition is the Rob Zombie version. The faint of heart should turn away immediately—don’t take that unpaved road toward the abandoned farm house, don’t go into that dark cellar without a flashlight. The rest of you—well, just follow Captain Spalding into the Museum of Monsters & Madmen. And be sure to try the fried chicken!

The case of the Cleveland serial killer has creeping up everyone’s nostrils the past couple of weeks. Anthony Sowell, now 50, plead guilty to attempted rape in 1989 and spent 15 years in prison. On his release in 2005 he moved into a house owned by his stepmother. In 2007 she tried to get him evicted for failure to pay rent but was later hospitalized, leaving him alone in the house. In June of that year a resident across the street called City Hall to complain about “a foul odor” in the neighborhood.

This would seem to be the first indication that Sowell was up to no good—inviting women into his house where they would be raped and strangled and their bodies stashed. Police have now discovered and identified the remains of eleven women.

Local politicians are exercising 20-20 hindsight and playing to the grandstands:
Local councilman Zack Reed said he would push for an independent investigation into why complaints about the smell did not lead to an earlier discovery.

‘‘Residents are mad and they have every right to be mad,’’ he said.

Mr Reed said his office called the public health department about 2½ years ago after a neighbor reported the smell.

‘‘I know darned well that our health department should have been able to tell the difference between the smell of a dead body and the smell of dead meat,’’ he said.
Really? Councilman Reed thinks it ought to have been a clear call but the fact is that people close to the scene misinterpreted the smell for years.
CLEVELAND — For the past few years, neighbors assumed the foul smell enveloping their street corner had been coming from a brick building where workers churned out sausage and head cheese.

It got so bad that the owners of Ray’s Sausage replaced their sewer line and grease traps. Now they know the odor was coming from a three-story house next door where the decomposing bodies of six women were found.

“We hope they don’t find anymore,” said Renee Cash, whose family has operated the sausage company for 57 years.

About four years ago, she and other workers started noticing a smell that was so bad on some days that it forced them to leave their office.

“In the summertime, it was gross,” Cash said. “You could always smell it. It smelled like something rotten.”
Ray’s Sausage is next door to Sowell’s house. Ms. Cash has learned the hard way that the public reaction to a mega-stink is to point the finger at the nearest corporation. Never mind that a sausage factory should never smell like rotting meat; Ms. Cash ended up wasting her company’s money in a fruitless attempt to prove she was a solid citizen.

Another person suffering from olfactory misdirection was Lori Frazier, who lived in the house with Sowell from 2005 to 2007. 
Asked whether she had noticed a foul odor, Frazier told WOIO, “Yeah, I smelled stuff, but he always told me that -- at first he said it was his stepmother downstairs. And then I guess after she left, he told me that it was Ray’s Sausage.”
Lori Frazier is the nice of Cleveland mayor Frank Jackson. Hey, Councilman Reed, you don’t suppose that’s a reason why local authorities were less than eager to investigate? Just saying.

Once the other shoe drops, everyone has 20/20 hindsight.
Storeowner Says Sowell Put Foul-Smelling Bags In Dumpster

CLEVELAND -- The former owner of a convenience store across the street from Anthony Sowell’s house told NewsChannel5 he believes Sowell may have dumped some of his victims in a garbage bin outside the store.

Sowell was seen at the Imperial Grocery almost every day, but former owner Assad Tayeh says it’s what he thinks Sowell put in the Dumpster that is raising new questions.

“A bag, a big bag stuffed and wrapped with duct tape and there was a very bad smell coming out of it,” said Tayeh.

“God knows how many bodies he put in those Dumpsters.”

Indeed. And right under your nose.

*  *  *

According to one report, police in Sacramento, California found themselves investigating an apparent double homicide “after neighbors reported a foul odor.” One body was found stuffed in a garbage can inside a house; the other was in a open lot nearby. Residents and relatives believe the victims to be a 23-year old woman and her 24-year old boyfriend. The woman had been reported missing ten days earlier. The Sacramento County Coroner’s Office says the victims were shot to death. Douglas Keith Elmore, 24, was arrested two days later and charged with two counts of murder. 

However, a story filed by Hudson Sangree of the Sacramento Bee paints a more complex picture of the crime scene smellscape, including bureaucratic run-arounds, a cursory initial police investigation that found nothing, and finally a neighbor taking matters into his own hands and moving the garbage, only to find the first body.

In a similar case in Sanford, Florida, concerned citizens on the track of a bad smell found a dead body in nearby woods on Halloween morning.

Officials said the body was found Saturday morning at 11 a.m. but residents in the area said they had noticed a foul smell in the area for several days.

“It smelled like a dead animal,” said one local.

Residents said they conducted their own investigation into the source of the smell and that’s when they stumbled on the body in a thick brush.
First Nerve salutes the self-reliant citizens of Sanford.

On November 5 in Redwood City, California, maintenance workers responding to complaints from neighbors of “a foul smell” discovered the body of a 21-year man decomposing in a covered public swimming pool in Hoover Park. 
A notice on the city’s Parks, Recreation and Community Services Web site said the pool was not open for the 2009 season. Agency officials declined to say why the pool had been closed.
Things are really bad in the Golden State.

According to Redwood City police, the deceased “suffered from mental health issues” but “it is impossible to determine whether the death was a suicide.” Family accounts paint an upbeat picture of the deceased.

On Election Day in Whitman, Massachusetts:
Whitman Police and Fire discovered the corpse of a male Tuesday in a trailer on Cherry Street.

A neighbor called to report a foul odor coming from the camper located at 96 Cherry St. . . . 

The owner of the property told investigators a 66-year-old male had been living in the trailer for approximately a year.
A contractor hired to winterize a home in Snohomish County, Washington, found the place “had been barricaded from inside and sheets covered all the windows.” He also noticed “a foul smell” and called police. They found a dead body in the bathroom next to a rifle. They believe the deceased is the home’s 50-year owner.

Finally, we have this month’s nominee for the Norman Bates Award via this headline from the Tyler Morning Telegraph:
Woman Found Living With Week-Old Corpse
The incident occurred October 9 in the Texas town of Big Sandy
Big Sandy police Lt. Van Burr said a man flagged down officer Wes Walters about 11:30 a.m. Friday and told him he smelled a foul odor coming from his sister’s Hillcrest Manor apartment.

The brother visited the apartment earlier, but his sister did not let him in, he said.

Once police went into the house, they found William Drake, 50, dead on a couch.

Drake appears to have died of natural causes. The 45-year-old woman has been committed for mental evaluation.

UPDATE December 13, 2009

Here’s one we missed. On Halloween in Phoenix, Arizona, a resident tossing some trash into a dumpster behind a vacant business noticed “a bad odor.” Police found the dismembered body of a 42-year-old local man scattered among several containers.