Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Big Stink in St. Louis

View Larger Map

A mysterious mega-stink showed up in the greater St. Louis area on Sunday morning.  St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter Carolyn Tuft attempted to track down the source of the foul odor.  She checked the with usual suspects, but both the gas company and a local sewage treatment plant said “it’s not us.”

Ms. Tuft followed up one rather unusual explanation: that the smell is from chemically treated road salt that’s been spread around recently.  That drew a denial from the Missouri Department of Transportation.

The online version of her story attracted nearly one hundred comments. Several people thought the smell resembled that of oil refineries in nearby Illinois.  Other suggested a more exotic source: sulphurous fumes seeping out of the ground as a result of recent seismic activity (the New Madrid fault, site of a devastating 19th century quake, runs close by.)

I emailed Ms. Tuft who continues to follow the story; she is looking into the seismic theory.

The online comments run from the usual jokes and posturings to local people simply adding their olfactory observations.  These latter are potentially valuable data points.  For example, Lulu C. says “I still smell it today everywhere from Sunset Hills to St. Ann.”

Being unfamiliar with the local geography, I decided to take all eighteen smelly locations specifically mentioned in the comments and map them.  The result is the Google map atop this post; it can also be found here.

To me, the odor locations form a remarkable pattern: they closely track the western bank of the Mississippi River.  Could the river be the odor source?

On reflection, there may be a better explanation.  Look at a large version of the Google map; imagine a line running through the map pins.  It runs from SW to NE—pointing directly at Roxana, Illinois, which commenters “nickylouse” and “wmh95970” said is the home of oil refineries.  I don’t know the area but the Google satellite view shows what look like oil storage facilities in Roxana.  The wind during the smell episode was from the northest.  Could the Roxana refineries be the source of the stink?

UPDATE January 28, 2009 With a Whimper Not a Bang . . .
Here, in its entirety, is the followup to the Big Stink in St. Louis, from today’s Post-Dispatch:
Foul Odor Fades Away, at Last

A St. Louis fire captain said that the foul odor that permeated the St. Louis area Sunday and Monday has gone away, but no one knows what caused it.

St. Louis Fire Capt. Robert Keuss said Tuesday evening that there have been no more reports of the rotten smelling air. Yet, no one—from gas companies to sewage treatment plant operators—know what caused it.

“It just remains one of those mysteries,” Keuss said.
Well, there you have it. Despite a string of odor “sightings” aimed directly at the refineries of Roxana, IL, Fire Capt. Keuss declares it “one of those mysteries.”

I wonder if that’s what he tells his family when he cuts the cheese. I guess it’s better than blaming it on the dog.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Home, Sweet Home

This is cool.
Prolitec, Inc. today unveiled the Air/Q(TM) Whole House Air Freshener(TM) (WHAF) -- the first fully adjustable, HVAC-integrated home air freshening system.
Reminds me of the holodeck-like nursery in the Happylife Home, from a story in The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury.
The nursery was silent. It was empty as a jungle glade at hot high noon. The walls were blank and two dimensional. Now, as George and Lydia Hadley stood in the center of the room, the walls began to purr and recede into crystalline distance, it seemed, and presently an African veldt appeared, in three dimensions; on all sides, in colors reproduced to the final pebble and bit of straw. The ceiling above them became a deep sky with a hot yellow sun.

George Hadley felt the perspiration start on his brow.

“Let’s get out of this sun,” he said. “This is a little too real. But I don’t see anything wrong.”

“Wait a moment, you’ll see,” said his wife.

Now the hidden odorophonics were beginning to blow a wind of odor at the two people in the middle of the baked veldtland. The hot straw smell of lion grass, the cool green smell of the hidden water hole, the great rusty smell of animals, the smell of dust like a red paprika in the hot air.
Kinda cool but kinda creepy.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Rudyard Kipling on Smell?

Rudyard Kipling wrote these well known olfactory lines:
Smells are surer than sounds or sights
To make your heart-strings crack—
They start those awful voices o’nights
That whisper, “Old man, come back!”
They are the opening stanza of the poem Lichtenberg. Set in South Africa during the Boer War, it’s about an Australian trooper who smells the blossoms of a tree called Golden Wattle and is reminded of his home in New South Wales.

The lines are often used to defend the notion that smell is a predominantly emotional sense. (A notion that has been tremendously overplayed in my view. In What the Nose Knows I point out the major role that cognition—thinking, remembering, comparing, evaluating—plays in the psychology of smell.) Reading beyond the first lines, however, it is clear that Kipling’s theme was that smell creates a sense of place and thus becomes a trigger for memory and home sickness.

Kipling traveled widely and wrote about many places and cultures. So we are not surprised when he is cited as the author of this popular quotation:
The first condition of understanding a foreign country is to smell it.
This aphorism is attributed to him in about a thousand places on the Web. Of course, repetition of a meme is no evidence of accurate citation. The fact that it shows up in carefully researched and edited books is more reassuring. The line is a popular epigraph to chapters in scholarly books. Tahir Shah uses it in Chapter 2 of In search of King Solomon’s mines (Arcade Publishing, 2003), as does James Mak in Chapter 6 of Tourism and the economy (University of Hawaii Press, 2004). Both authors cite Kipling as the source. Even more reassuring is Rosemarie Jarski, who attributes the line to Kipling in her reference compilation Words from the Wise: Over 6,000 of the Smartest Things Ever Said (Skyhorse Publishing, 2007, p. 447).

Yet something about this quote has always made the needle on my Bogosity Meter twitch a bit. It sounds too didactic and abstract for Kipling. Did he really write it? If so, where?

After a few hours of obsessive toil on the Internet, it becomes clear that no one quoting the line cites a specific poem, story, or novel by Kipling. The Bogosity Meter is showing levels not seen since the “happiness is a perfume” episode. I spend another hour in Google Books and then—paydirt! A lead worth tracking down in the real world.

Hunched over microfilm reader, deep in the bowels of the local campus library, I fast forward through a spool of Harper’s Magazine from 1942. I pause a moment to let the motion sickness pass, then advance slowly through the June issue to page 156. And there I find it, buried in a stuffy, convoluted, almost impenetrable essay titled “In praise of Kipling’s verse,” written by none other than T.S. Eliot.

For the masochists among you, here’s the line in context:
It should be said at this point, before passing on, that Kipling is not a doctrinaire or a man with a program. His opinions are not to be considered as the antithesis of those of Mr. H. G. Wells. Mr. Wells’s imagination is one thing and his political opinions another; the latter change but do not mature. But Kipling did not, in the sense in which that activity can be ascribed to Mr. Wells, think; his aim, and his gift, is to make people see (for the first condition of right thought is right sensation, the first condition of understanding a foreign country is to smell it, as you smell India in Kim.) If you have seen and felt truly, then if God has given you the power you may be able to think rightly.
So let’s see if I have this straight: Kipling’s gift is to make people see, which is why one must first smell a foreign country to understand it. Mixed metaphors, anyone? Is it just me, or is T.S. Eliot the most over-rated windbag of his time?

OK. Case closed. Time to put the Bogosity Meter back in its box and go have a brewsky.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Annals of Anosmia 3: The Slow Fade

The media’s enthusiasm for first-person essays on anosmia is driven by the drama of sudden-onset smell loss and the medical mystery of in-born absence of odor perception. What these stories overlook is a far more common experience: the age-related decline in smell ability known as presbyosmia.

The demographics are well-known—on average, smell sensitivity and odor-naming skill decline gradually with age; men are affected more heavily than women. Declines in performance can be detected as early as the fifth decade under laboratory conditions, but in everyday life a person might not notice anything until much later. I emphasize that these trends are group averages and that variation within an age group is large. A given 68-year old may be more sensitive than a given 28-year old. An element of use it or lose it may be in play; for example, many of the great perfumers work successfully into old age.

What causes presbyosmia? Scientific speculation points to cumulative wear and tear on the olfactory system: a lifetime of colds, flu, and sinus infections, along with the incremental impact of minor bumps on the head.

The slow fade of smell with age, although exceedingly common, has not inspired its own genre of first-person essays. This insight hit me the other day when I received an email from a reader. C. Rodney James wrote such a compelling account of his personal experience that I asked him to let me share it here on First Nerve.
Dear Mr. Gilbert:

Finished What The Nose Knows with great interest and more than a bit of sadness as it reminded me of what I have lost. As a teen I had a terrific sense of smell. At seventy it’s virtually gone. The fading, as I would describe it, began about ten years ago, perhaps a bit more. A few odors seem to come and go. I can (reliably) smell cat shit, hot paint when the furnace overheats as it did this A.M. and the odd whiff of the priming mixture used in English and some Mexican .22 rimfire ammunition. It has a distinctive tutti-frutti odor like old-time, public rest-room deodorant—unique in the olfactory arena of ammunition. Bad writers (who have never smelled it) include the odor of Cordite, which smells like many other types of nitrocellulose powders. Burning leaves, if the intensity is great enough is detectable, but little more. That’s about it . . .

University education in the speech and hearing field taught me the dangers of exposure to loud and prolonged noise, and I had the wit to avoid exposure to same. As a result my hearing is still quite good. How unfortunate there seems nothing we can do to protect or conserve the sense of smell. There are no exercises or other regimens we could follow. If there are, or better yet some means of restoring this sense, I am ready to join the line. A similar loss happened to my mother so there is likely a genetic link of some sort.

At times I get what I think you described as a false-smell experience, as when I could clearly detect/re-experience the scent of fresh hay the other day—indoors in frigid weather. Very strange.

If anyone ever comes up with some genuine aroma therapy I hope you will get the word out.

C. Rodney James

Mr. James’s observations on the smell of primers and gunpowder are those of an expert. He has written about firearms and ammunition as well as motion pictures.

The evocative power of smell anchors us in time; the longer we live the more meaningful recalled smells become. Mr. James’ wistful note reminds us all of what we stand to lose as age takes its toll.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Scent & Separation

A question for the ladies: Have you ever sniffed your man’s shirt to remember him while he was away? And have you ever worn it to bed for the same reason?

If so, you are not alone. That’s according to a new study by University of Pittsburgh psychology professor Donald McBurney and his colleagues Melanie Shoup and Sybil Streeter. They found that 77.1% of women have deliberately smelled another’s clothing to remember or feel closer to that person. And 81.8% of the time that other person was her romantic partner (BF, fiancé, or husband).

Similarly, 52.5% of women have slept with (or worn to sleep) another’s unlaundered clothing, which 89.4% of the time belonged to the men in their lives.

I don’t think anyone is surprised that women indulge in scentimental sniffing. However, the Pittsburgh results show that 66.7% of men sniff to remember, a proportion not statistically different from the 77.1% of women.

MSNBC contributor Linda Carroll found this to be quite remarkable. In reporting the study she wrote:
Even more striking was the data on men: A full two-thirds
of men admitted to cuddling with clothing.
The MSNBC headline stressed the same thing:
Going out of town? Leave your shirt behind.
Study: Most men and women snuggle the clothes of
far-away loved ones.

I think these characterizations are simply wrong. Linda Carroll and MSNBC distort the study results to hype the counter-intuitive image of guys curled up with their girlfriends’ clothes. True, two-thirds of men “admitted” to sniffing—but sniffing is not cuddling. In this context, cuddling is sleeping with, or wearing to bed, someone else’s clothing. And here McBurney’s results are clear: men don’t do it. Only 13.3% of men took another’s clothes to bed, compared to 52.5% of women.

In other words, scentimental cuddling is a female behavior by a four-to-one margin. When it comes to sniffing to remember, both sexes do it but women more often than men. (In an earlier version of the study the Pittsburgh team found that the female bias was statistically significant;
in the replication it was not. The difference apparently depends on the wording of the question.)

The new study adds a twist to the story, namely the relationship distance between sniffer and sniffee. Smelling and sleeping with someone else’s clothing happens most often when the sniffee is a first degree relative; it happens progressively less often with second and third degree relatives:
people commonly smell not only the clothing of their
sexual partners, but also that of close relatives.
In their earlier paper, McBurney et al. found that
smelling an absent partner’s clothing made [men and
women] feel happy, comfortable, and secure.
They coined the phrase “olfactory comfort” to describe the phenomenon. It captures nicely the wide range of circumstances where it occurs: a young man smells his recently deceased grandfather’s jacket, for example, or a mother leaves one of her shirts to soothe her baby at daycare.

Come to think of it, olfactory comfort may be self-induced. Perhaps the charm of a child’s teddy bear or security blanket is that it smells like the owner.

UPDATE January 23, 2009
Here’s a clever practical application of the “olfactory comfort” phenomenon. In today’s Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Allison Heinrichs describes how babies in the neonatal intensive care unit are given dolls with their mothers’ scent. The dolls, called Snoedels (Dutch for “snuggle”), are made of wool and flannel. The mother keeps the doll on her person for a couple of days, then leaves it with her newborn in the Isolette. I like the concept: at best it calms the baby, at worst it humanizes the ICU basinette.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Robo Spritzer: The Full Facial

What could be creepier than the department store ladies who offer to spritz you with a cologne sample?

Easy: An in-store kiosk equipped with a real-time video-image analyzer that scans your face, sizes you up, and hits you with a gender appropriate scent. From the manufacturer’s press release:
VidiReports software . . . detects human faces in the vicinity of
the dispenser, estimates the corresponding gender of prospective
customers and sends that information to the Scentys4 dispenser,
which instantly selects the appropriate fragrance.

VidiReports can be easily configured to set the prefered detection
distance and the strategy to be employed when several faces are
Attention all Scentys4 units: Do not spritz until you see the whites of their eyes!

The TargetScent kiosk is the brainchild of Presensia, a French company that develops interactive scent dispensers, and Quividi, an outfit that creates audience measurement solutions.

Cool technology? Certainly. Innovative application? No doubt. Does it give you the heebie-jeebies? Well, check out this Swiss-French video and get back to me.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

American Smellscapes: Southeast Texas

In Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman sang of the varied splendors of the American smellscape. Not for him the “conceits of the poets” from other lands, nor “perfume of foreign court or indoor library.”
But an odor I’d bring as from forests of pine in Maine, or breath
     of an Illinois prairie,
With open airs of Virginia or Georgia or Tennessee, or from Texas
     uplands, or Florida’s glades . . .
Regional smellscapes—for better or worse—are part of our heritage. They ground us and give us a sense of place. I think we should pay more attention to them.

Sarah Moore, the science and environment reporter for the Beaumont Enterprise, tracks down the sulphurous smells that characterize Southeast Texas. Best guess: reduced sulfur compounds that arise from the refineries, petrochemical plants and paper mills in the region. On the bright side: an older resident confirms by nose that industry emissions are noticeably less than they used to be.

Friday, January 16, 2009

I Gave My Love a CD Mix That Had Rose Scent

Indian tech blogger Sudeep Naik takes a new product for a spin: scented CD-Rs.  The discs smell like rose—a scent that manufacturer Moser Baer claims will last for two to three months. Naik figures it’s the perfect medium for the mix tape he promised his girlfriend—and just in time for Valentine’s day.

This reminds some of us of the legendary Charles of the Ritz Aroma Disc Player from the 1980s.  Scent was released as the player heated a fragrance-impregnated disc.  The unit featured discs called Movie Time (popcorn) and Holding Hands (lilac musk) and was written up in The New Yorker’s Talk of the Town.

You might think twice about playing a scented CD if your laptop is the Asus F6 model that comes with the scented lid. Will Musky Black work well with rose?

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Justice is Blind, Not Anosmic

Over at Legal Blog Watch, Robert J. Ambrogi reports on the case of Massachusetts Superior Court Judge Nancy Staffier-Holtz, who had kicked a prospective juror off a jury panel for smelling bad.  The defendant, eventually convicted of second-degree murder, appealed claiming that the judge’s action prejudiced his right to a fair trial.  (The dismissed juror was of the same race as the defendant.)  This argument didn't fly with the state Appeals Court, which last week affirmed the conviction.

Contrast Judge Staffier-Holtz’s approach to smelly people with that of former U.S. District Court Judge H. Lee Sarokin.  Back in 1991, Sarokin ruled against the Morristown, N.J. public library which had kicked out a homeless man for, among other things, smelling so bad he distracted other patrons.  As Thomas Sowell wrote in National Review in 1995,
Declaring the library to be a “public forum,’’ defined as “an available public space where citizens communicate their ideas through the spoken word,’’ Judge Sarokin declared it covered by the First Amendment. Moreover, a hygiene test has “a disparate impact on the poor.’’ In short, the library rules “unreasonably frustrate, infringe, or obstruct the expressional and associational rights of individuals.” In a classic expression of the vision of the anointed, Judge Sarokin lectured the community on its attitude toward the homeless: “If we wish to shield our eyes and noses from the homeless, we should revoke their conditions, not their library cards.’’
Sarokin’s line about shielding our eyes and noses was too much for even the New York Times, which editorialized:
Yielding thus to the temptations of eloquence, he wandered from fairness and from society’s right to use library resources without harassment.
Judge Sarokin’s verdict was overturned by the Third Circuit court of appeals, but only after Morristown, under pressure from its insurance company, had surrended and paid the smelly plaintiff a settlement of $230,000.

Sarokin eventually retired from the bench and began blogging a couple of years ago. In a early post, he defended his decision that homeless people have a right to stink up libraries.  But legal blogger Ted Frank at Overlawyered.com wasn’t buying it; he called Sarokin’s self-justification “a dodge.”

UPDATE January 17, 2009
Commenter +Q Perfume, who is a lawyer, says that “sometimes the entire system stinks.”  This reminds me of Mark Twain’s account of an incredibly smelly San Francisco courtroom in 1865. Hat tip to What the Nose Knows reader Marc Schoenfeld for sending me the link.

Speed Smells: Sikeston, MO edition

Police officers “investigating a foul odor” last Saturday in Sikeston, Missouri tracked it to a trailer home.  They knocked on the door and when a man opened it they could see behind him “a plume of white smoke” rising from a meth-cooking setup.

So busted.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Scents of Place: Brooklyn

This is quite a day for smellscapes.  Niche fragrance house Bond No. 9, which specializes in perfumes themed after specific New York 
neighborhoods (Riverside Drive, for example, or Broadway Nite)
put out a press release promoting its latest offering: Brooklyn.

It features the usual marketing rhetoric, with a mix of Imagery Voice
a unisex scent with a desirably masculine attitude
and Ingredient Voice
notes of cardamum, geranium leaves, and cedarwood.
Gawker contributor Hamilton Nolan teed it up for ridicule
My Brooklyn cologne would feature essences of kielbasa,
Newports, and BQE exhaust fumes.
The ensuing snarkfest in the comments produced a few smellscape gems. My favorites:
Pabst Blue Ribbon, cheap cigar guts, subway urine,
and Peaches Geldof’s armpits

Three day old PBR cans, krylon, crack smoke, and
old bong with a topnote of BO.

Guys, we should buy this now. It’ll be twenty times
the price in two years thanks to scentrification.

Silly marketers . . . what about the sea of skinny
man-legs in tight jeans made you think
“desirably masculine attitude,” pray tell?

The First Rule of Smell Club is . . .

I’m a fan of smell maps.  In What the Nose Knows, I described Gawker.com’s reader-generated interactive smell map of the New York City subway system. When you moused over a specific malodor icon at a given station, a pop-up window displayed the verbatim entries (“old outhouse poop” or “stinks like puke” at 34th Street and Eighth Avenue, for example).

Today, various media sites have picked up an AP story about a Smell Club in Japan.  The club has a website--Nioibu.com--where its two hundred or so members can register a smell and place it on a world map. Roll over the locator pin and the popup balloon displays the member’s entry.

In the screen shot above, I rolled over a yellow locator placed on the West Coast by a someone named “Yaya” and got this
By yaya
which Google-translates to
By yaya
Fresh hot sandwiches
Source: Kitchen
Zoom in and it appears that Yaya was sniffing about on the corner of Folsom and 3rd, across from the Moscone Center in San Francisco.

Pretty cool.

Any Japanese readers?  I’d like to know the meaning of the different colors of locator pins.

UPDATE January 14, 2009
Chicago Tribune reporter Monica Eng catches up with the story and asks
What does Chicago smell like?” Her commenters mention the Blommer’s Chocolate Co. factory, which gets some pretty good aromatic reviews on Yelp.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Hushing the Smell of Hush Puppies

The smellscape is dotted with commercial beacons. Bakeries, pulp mills, sugar refineries, and candy companies become olfactory landmarks as generation after generation grows up around them. But times change and the scent departs. As it does, a little bit of our shared history evaporates forever.

The latest smellscape to be erased is in Rockford, Michigan, a town just northeast of Grand Rapids. One hundred and one years ago, G.A. Krause built a tannery there on the banks of the Rogue River. In an unavoidably stinky operation, it turned pigskins into the suede leather that became famous as the Hush Puppies shoe brand. The Wolverine World Wide company—also the maker of Merrells—has now decided to close the Rockford tannery and warehouse as part of a major corporate restructuring.

Columnist Tom Rademacher of the Grand Rapids Press interviewed locals about the tannery and memorialized its equivocal olfactory legacy in yesterday’s paper. Nobody liked the smell, some hated it, but it was undeniably the “smell of money” for the charming little town of Rockford.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Annals of Anosmia 2: The Congenial Congenitals

A newly popular genre of newspaper features is the “how I lost my sense of smell” essay, or the first-person anosmic as we like to call it here in the olfactory blogosphere. I described its key elements in a previous post: list of doctors seen, mention of the 2004 Nobel prize, etc. 

It turns out there’s a parallel universe of essays written by congenital anosmics—people born without a sense of smell. In July, 2004, for example, Lucy Mangan published a piece in the Guardian about her lifelong inability to smell. Her anosmia doesn’t seem to weigh very heavily upon her—like many people who have never smelled anything, she finds it hard to understand what all the fuss is about. Her pioneering account gives the new subgenre its definitive element: how perplexing life is for a child who doesn’t get the whole odor thing.

In October, 2005, Jason Feifer published a piece in the Washington Post about his congenital anosmia. Like Mangan, he is nonchalant about what he has never experienced. This doesn’t stop him from deploying the succession-of-doctors theme. He describes several visits to a taste and smell research center where, after a battery of tests confirms the obvious, they advise him to buy a gas detector.

Suzy Banks arrived in print two months later, in the January, 2006, issue of Texas Monthly. Like Mangan and Feifer, Banks makes light of her in-born deficit. She boasts that she has turned it “into my greatest parlor trick.” She doesn’t stress the succession of doctors theme (her parents take her to only one neurologist) but she does mention Buck and Axel’s 2004 Nobel Prize.

Finally, Karen Ravn staggers across the finish line with a first-person congenital essay in an August, 2007 edition of the Los Angeles Times. She displays the blasé attitude often found in those who have never smelled, but is chagrined when the vet scolds her for not taking better care of her dogs’ teeth (“Didn’t you smell their breath?”). Her main concern is with food: nearly all of it feels disgusting in her mouth. Genre points: doctors, two; Nobel Prize, zero.

I’ve spoken with congential anosmics now and then and found they shared a puzzled curiousity about their condition.  They do get the occasional nasal sensation when they sniff ammonia or rubbing alcohol, for example. But those tinglings and stingings come courtesy of the trigeminal nerve fibers; true smell sensations are carried by the olfactory nerves. And while these folks presumably have been at increased risk all their lives of eating spoiled food or incinerating themselves in a gas explosion, they are noticeably less anxious about it than the adult-onset anosmia crowd.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

A Mysterious Sweet Smell over Manhattan: Nothing to Worry About

Late last night in Manhattan people began noticing a sweet smell in the air. The mystery scent lasted into the early hours of this morning. About thirty-five people called the city’s 311information hotline.

This isn’t the first time it’s happened. Beginning Thursday night, October 27, 2005, a sweet, maple syrup-like smell was noticeable in northern New Jersey, all over Manhattan, and into Brooklyn and parts of Staten Island. Lots of people blogged about it as it happened. I got a good snort of it the next morning here in Montclair, NJ.

The headline writers at Breitbart.com played it straight: “Strong, Sweet Smell Reported in Manhattan.”  The New York Times, however, went cutesy tongue-in-cheek ironic: “Good Smell Perplexes New Yorkers.”

In a followup story, “Good Smell Vanishes, But It Leaves Air of Mystery,” the Times quoted the police commissioner and the mayor as saying the smell was not dangerous; it then spent eight hundred words on inane man-on-the-street interviews with a labor organizer, a Canadian diplomat, a chocolate shop owner, and a free-lance camera man.

The mysterious sweet smell returned to New Jersey on consecutive Thursdays in December: the 8th and 15th. On January 5, 2006, the Times waddled in with a rambling, inconclusive report which opened with cracks about smelly New Jersey and ended with a gnomic, postmodern twitting of rubes who think the war on terror is real:
Ms. Collins, the paralegal, said she had thought she might be going crazy when she first smelled the odor in October, but realized other people outside her building were talking about it. “I thought: ‘This is it. The terrorists are going to get us with the maple syrup smell.’”

A year later, on January 8, 2007, New York City was blanketed by a stinky, sulphur-like odor reminiscent of the warning agent in natural gas. The FDNY got about 400 phone calls, Con Ed around 700. The Mayor said the smell was not harmful; others helpfully pointed fingers at New Jersey. The headline in the next day’s Post: “N.J.’s P.U. Ripens Apple; Belching Bog Blamed For Citywide Gas Stink.”

Two weeks later, the Times ran an idiotic opinion piece by Luca Turin, “What You Can’t Smell Will Kill You.” Taking his lead from the paper’s dismissive news coverage, Turin opened cutesy:
Now that the mystery smells of Manhattan have abated, are you still wondering whether the Grim Reaper’s cologne will smell like maple syrup or rotten eggs when he comes for you?

Don’t worry, because here’s the thing: the more powerful the stench, the less likely it is to do harm.
“Don’t worry” is easy advice to New Yorkers when your dateline is London, England. But the nine hundred words of Turin’s gaseous essay aren’t reassuring. In classic Timesian fashion, he stokes reader’s anxiety about things they have no control over and which they can’t even detect—odorless carbon monoxide and the odorless poison sarin.

He ends on a note of faux reassurance:
So relax if you can, and remember that a widespread stench with no obvious source means a powerfully smelly molecule is in the air. If so, a little goes a long way, and a little can do no harm.

Unh hunh.

No one would be interested in wind patterns that might diffuse an airborne chemical or biological agent over Manhattan. And no one would devise a fiendishly simple test of same by releasing a innocent-smelling compound and timing its olfactory arrival at various points throughout the city. That’s as silly as thinking “the terrorists are going to get us with the maple syrup smell.”

Another year goes by, and on January 6, 2008, a pungent chemical- or petroleum-like odor covers Ocean, Gloucester and Salem Counties in southern New Jersey. As people phone in reports of the odor, it becomes clear that it moved in from the west in a plume-like fashion. Yet there is no final determination of the nature or source of the smell.

Exactly one year later we arrive at last night’s recurrence of the sweet smell. The Times plays the headline straight—“Mysterious Sweet Smell From 2005 Returns to Manhattan”—but reporter Trymaine Lee is dismissive of any terrorism angle.
Some have theorized that the smell came from New Jersey. Others theorized that it was generated by a candy factory in Manhattan. There were also fears that the odor was linked to an act of terrorism.

So according to the Times, “it came from New Jersey” and “it came from a Manhattan candy factory” are theories, but links to terrorism are merely “fears.”

Perhaps there is nothing to worry about—just some nutty Willy Wonka in a Manhattan candy factory that ace journalist Trymaine Lee is too lazy to locate. Or something over there in Jersey (not our problem!). Then again, malicious intent can arrive under fragrant cover. Maybe it’s time to wake up and smell the maple syrup.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Perfume Videoblogging

In the two decades I’ve been in the business, the fragrance industry has evolved in remarkable ways. First, to the astonishment of traditionalists, perfumers stepped out from behind the curtain. It used to be unthinkable that a fragrance house—a Givaudan or a Firmenich—would even admit to creating a perfume, much less give credit to an specific perfumer. Only industry insiders knew who did what. Times change and now civilian enthusiasts talk about perfumers the way opera fans argue about sopranos. When I spoke at a Sniffapalooza luncheon in New York in December, I mentioned a few of the perfumers I’d worked with and was amazed when some of the names drew knowing applause from the crowd.

What used to be the ultimate inside-baseball knowledge has become part of a cultural phenomenon on the Internet. Perfume blogs (see my links list), discussion groups like Basenotes, and hybrid virtual- and real-world organizations like Sniffapalooza are giving people a voice. It’s no longer just the industry talking to—or more often, past—consumers with Ingredient Voice or Imagery Voice. (Puzzled? See Chapter 1 in my book.)

And now comes the next step in the Webification of perfume: videoblogging. In a (very polite!) comment spam to my last post, one Katie Puckrik drew attention to a YouTube video in which she gives a lively review of the actual smell of Burger King’s Flame. Turns out she has an entire channel of perfume mini-reviews, in which she covers everything from White Patchouli by Tom Ford to Bulgari Black.

So who is Katie Puckrik? In one sense it doesn’t matter: as a perfume review populist I believe anyone with a flair for smell and the ability to talk about it can play. No need to kowtow before noseurs like Luca Turin and Chandler Burr. Katie Puckrik describes herself as “a fragrance thrillseeker whose love of perfume borders on the unseemly.” Sounds like a player to me. Plus, she's a natural on camera. With a little Googling, one finds she’s been a dancer (Pet Shop Boys!), standup comic, writer, and TV host (BBC and Oxygen). Is she any good as a perfume reviewer? Go see for yourself and let me know what you think.