Thursday, April 30, 2009

Coty’s Bernd Beetz Sure Showers a Lot

We just got around to reading Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan’s alarming Wall Street Journal interview with Coty Inc. CEO Bernd Beetz. It appeared last week under the heading “Tricks of the Trade.” (Hmmm . . . ) We decided to present the FirstNerve annotated version as a public service so you won’t have to keep slapping yourself on the forehead.
Men’s fragrances come in the form of cologne, aftershave, eau de toilette, body spritzes, deodorants and more these days, so figuring out a scent-application strategy can be confusing. [OMG soooooo confusing! It’s even more confusing than EBITA or discounted future cash flow or the Black–Scholes formula for valuing my stock options.] Bernd Beetz, chief executive officer of fragrance company Coty Inc., says he tries to keep it simple.

Mr. Beetz, who says he has been using fragrance daily since he started wearing aftershaves and body sprays at about 14 [TMI, BB], begins his fragrance application in the morning by using a scented shower gel in the shower [The guy’s 58 years old Ms. Tan—thanks for that mental image], followed by a splash of aftershave on both cheeks [of his face or . . . ?]. He then puts on just one spritz of cologne—which he favors because it’s slightly less concentrated than eau de toilette—on his chest and then another on his neck. [What? Doesn’t he babypowder his balls like the rest of us?]

Even when he has a long day ahead, he is careful not to apply more than that. Anything more, he says, would be too overpowering and possibly a distraction in meetings [Fer sure, dude, all the creatives would be salivating during your Powerpoint, and the women too.] “I’d rather bring a small-sized bottle with me and refresh myself in the office, rather than go too strong in the morning by loading up and then hoping it lasts the day,” he says. [At FirstNerve headquarters we refresh ourselves with a small-sized bottle of Wild Turkey from the desk drawer.]

When it comes to the fragrance itself, he has specific types that he favors for three different occasions. When preparing for his workday, he likes scents with notes like peppermint and jasmine that are fresh and clean and conjure up thoughts of the ocean. [Ah, yes, the peppermint-scented breezes of the North Sea.] “It lifts the spirit—I think that’s very important,” he says.

Mr. Beetz, who works out by rowing, running or playing tennis four to five times a week, chooses a sportier scent that smells “lemony” when he’s applying fragrance after a post-workout shower. [The guy runs Coty and the best fragrance adjective he can summon is “lemony”? Dude, how about slinging a little bergamot or blood orange or even citrus for pity’s sake?]

For social occasions such as gala events and parties, he picks colognes that are deeper and muskier. “I like nutmeg and cedar scents—they’re very spicy and woody,” he says, noting that if he is going to an event after a work day, he tries to shower before heading out so as not to mix his heavy evening scent with his lighter day fragrance. [He showers before work, again after exercising, and yet again before going out. OCD much?]

He also applies more scent when going to social events, using two spritzes each on his chest and neck, instead of one. “I indulge myself a little more,” he says. [Oh go wild, you mad impetuous beast, use THREE squirts.]

Although Mr. Beetz has about 100 men’s fragrances (since he works for a company that has developed thousands for labels like Marc Jacobs), he is careful not to mix his scents. He always makes sure that the combination of aftershave, cologne and moisturizer he uses are of the same fragrance. [Odds are he also coordinates his wrinkle filler, lip gloss, and Car Freshner. At FirstNerve we set the bar lower—we try not to mix WD-40 and paint stripper.]

“Mixing scents is the most common mistake that men make,” he says, [Really? More common than dating the hot chick in accounting who has herpes?] noting that the jumble of different scents can sometimes produce a smell that’s less than desirable. [But at the annual FirstNerve dregs party the jumble is sometimes totally awesome.]

Another common mistake that he cautions men against: “Don’t use products (like shampoo, soap or shower gel) of your girlfriend or wife that are standing around the bathroom,” he says. [True that. We try not to use the bathroom when our girlfriend or wife is standing around, and we NEVER use her Summer’s Eve.] and “The scents are so different (from men’s scents), it just messes you up.” 

Mr. Beetz is careful to store his spritzers in his closet, away from damaging sunlight and heat, and he says that the fragrances should last for a couple of years if kept in this fashion. [We like to keep our fragrances in the ammo cabinet: it’s cool, dry and sparkproof.]

Finally, while the sheer number of scents that are available can be flummoxing, he urges men to think about their own identities when choosing a fragrance; they’re more likely to use it if they’re comfortable with it. “It should fit your personality: If you’re an outdoors man, try something woody, for example,” he says. [Bernd, if you’re an outdoors man you don’t spritz because the seven point bucks pick up the scent and avoid your platform.] “You should think about your attitude towards life—don’t be someone you’re not.” [Like an empty corporate suit mouthing banalities.]

UPDATE May 2, 2009

Hey, BB, here’s a way to be.

The Biochemistry of BO

In 1880, the French novelist J.K. Huysmans, still writing in his “Naturalist” style, published a volume of brief social observations called Croquis parisiens (Parisian Sketches). He devoted one chapter to the odors of the female armpit:

no aroma has more nuances, its range traverses the whole keyboard of the sense of smell . . .

He noted the “pungent scent of goat” that rises from the sleeves of a group of sweaty working class women in Paris. Then he described the “stronger and coarser” odor wafting from women spreading hay in the countryside in the middle of a hot day:
It was excessive, terrible; it stung your nostrils like a flask of ammonia, or rather it gripped you, irritating the mucus membranes with a musky, gamey smell, like wild duck cooked in olives and the sharp odeur of shallots.
Huysmans’s prose is vivid and dramatic yet also full of detail. Anyone who can detect a shallot note in the underarm odor of a French farm woman is either a brilliant olfactory observer or a bullshitter of the first order.

Since the pioneering work of the late Walter B. Shelley in the 1950s we have known that fresh axillary sweat is non-odorous. It is the action of naturally occurring skin bacteria, especially those in the genera Corynebacteria and Staphylococcus, that creates the smelly molecules of BO. Among the stinkers are the steroid-like compounds androstenone and androstenol, discovered in the 1970s, and 3-methyl-2-hexenoic acid (3M2H), isolated in 1991. The former smell musky or urine-like (although many people cannot detect them at all), while the latter has an acrid, pungent bite that pretty much defines ripe underarm odor.

Commercial underarm products reduce BO by limiting sweat production and by killing bacteria directly. Relatively little research has gone into the deep biochemistry of BO formation. By the 1990s it was clear that 3M2H comes from a non-odorous molecule in fresh sweat that is chemically converted by the Corynebacteria. But it wasn’t until 2003 that the entire chain of events was uncovered. The scientists who did it were at Givaudan’s Swiss research center in Dübendorf. Led by Andreas Natsch, they identified an enzyme in Corynebacteria—a bacterial aminoacylase—that cleaves off a glutamine residue from an odorless precursor molecule, thereby creating stinky 3M2H as well as another BO molecule: the cheesy, rancid-smelling, 3-hydroxy-3-methylhexanoic acid (HMHA). The Givaudan team even managed to clone the gene that produces the enzyme. That’s some hot biochemistry.

Since then, the Givaudan team and others have identified another key BO component. Known as 3-methyl-3-sulfanylhexan-1-ol (MSH), this sulfur-containing molecule smells like tropical fruit and onions (scrummy!). MSH is released from an odorless precursor by an enzyme in Staphylococcus bacteria.

A study recently in the headlines looked at sex differences in concentrations of the odorless precursors to fruity-oniony MSH and cheesy-rancid HMHA. Researchers at Firmenich and the University of Geneva (what is it with Switzerland?) spent three winters collecting droplets of fresh sweat from volunteers in the sauna. It turns out that women have far higher amounts of the MSH precursor than do men, which means women (or rather the bacteria that love them) can liberate significantly more of the sulfur volatiles that smell like tropical fruit and onions. Male BO, in contrast, tends to smell cheesy and rancid.

Let’s allow that onions smell like shallots and score this round for J.K. Huysmans. No bullshitter he: in hindsight he was a discerning judge of the feminine armpit. 

In Parisian Sketches Huysmans also declared that the armpits of brunettes, redheads, and blondes have distinctive odors. The jury is still out on that one. But are you willing to bet against him?

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Crime Fail: Smelly Perp Launders Money Instead of Self

It must be a common problem: The successful indoor grower of pot and psychedelic mushrooms has tons of cash and needs to put it in the bank. Federal law requires financial institutions to report transactions of $10,000 or more. So the grower goes to bank after bank depositing lesser amounts at each.

The trouble is that grow houses reek of fertilizer: the smell clings to clothing, hair, and skin. With constant exposure to an odor the nose and brain adapt; eventually one no longer notices the smell.

Bank tellers do, however. And so do other customers. That’s what happened a year ago in Eugene, Oregon, according to reporter Karen McCowan of the Register-Guard
Michael James Walsh and two other Lane County residents face federal money laundering charges following a drug investigation that arose from a bank employee’s report to police that a man “with a very foul odor” made several large cash transactions a week. 

The stench “made one of their tellers vomit and also caused customers to complain,” according to court records in the case. The bank employee who contacted Eugene police on Jan. 30, 2008, described the odor as “a fertilizer smell.”

As we say here at FirstNerve, it’s not the crime but the smell that always gives you away.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Sleepless in Sarasota

Down in Sarasota, Florida, this week they’re holding the 31st annual meeting of the Association for Chemoreception Sciences. AChemS is the big science confab for the smell and taste crowd and it attracts a hodge-podge of biologists, physiologists, chemists, and assorted behavioral types: insect people, fish people and, of course, human people.

As scientific meetings go it’s small potatoes: about 800 attendees packed into a run-of-the-mill Hyatt on the wrong coast of Florida in the less expensive season (we’re talking tweedy academic researchers here, not corporate expense accounts). Nevertheless, the meeting is the heart and soul of sensory science: it’s where the field comes together to catch up, take stock, and constantly reinvent itself. 

I’ve been attending AChemS steadily since I was a post-doc and over the years parts of the experience have become a generic blur. I can close my eyes and count the exact number of strides from the airport escalator to the rental car counter. Exiting the terminal is a fixed sequence: the swish of the automatic glass doors, the sudden glare, the blast of heavy, wet heat. Then comes the Avis new-car smell—compact models the size and temperature of toaster ovens in the early years, later a string of hefty convertibles: a Mustang or Mitsubishi in I’m-a-tourist-come-ticket-me colors. A pause at the first traffic light—across from the Ringling Clown College—and then it’s time to punch up some classical tunes: Cosi fan tutte, Talking Heads, whatever’s at hand.

Some things change. Age and boredom (are they different?) gradually overtake one’s peers. The traditional ride up the highway to the Peek-A-Boo Lounge in Bradenton becomes less well-attended: topless bars are not the kind of thing one does when one is up for tenure. Even the dinner-hour outings in search of interesting food become less adventurous and then not outings at all—people start to settle for the hotel restaurant (not me, thank you).

AChemS has its own daily rhythm: early morning poster sessions full of freshly showered presenters eager to submerge you in a torrent of minutiae about the response time of trigeminal nerve fibers in the frog to stimulation with sub-nanomolar quantities of . . . hunh? You stare blankly and politely until the caffeine in the heavy hotel mug triggers a response in your own synapses. Slide sessions are the premiere presentation venue. With years of practice one can crack the door to the ballroom and know immediately whether the session is worthwhile: if the crowd is small and most people are seated at the back of the hall, one can safely skip it.

Sometimes the talks are compelling, the topics controversial, or the findings hot and newsworthy. If so, the conversations carry on after the last dutiful grad student has pulled the last pushpins from his frog poster at 11:00 p.m. and everyone migrates to the Boathouse, the Hyatt’s semi-detached restaurant and bar, perched on pilings in the dark green brackish water of the marina. Back in the day the air was thick with cigarette smoke and the exhaust fumes of power boats idling at the dock. Packed around the bar, presided over year after year by the goofy, ever-smiling, never-aging Bobby, extremely tan boat people would rub shoulders with science nerds. Tell a boat person that you study the sense of smell and he would often just laugh out loud—which, if you think about it, is probably the best possible response.

By legend, and in actual fact, some of the best science was transacted after midnight in the noisy confines of the Boathouse bar. Being a night owl, I always felt sorry for the young graduate students and newly married assistant professors who would retire early in order to be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed at the next morning’s poster session. Didn’t they get it? The minutiae of frog trigeminal nerve responses can wash over you just as well hung-over as sober.

With last call, and then after Bobby’s for real I mean it last call, the hard core of the world’s sensory intelligensia would stagger forth into the balmy Gulf Coast air of two in the morning. With high enough animal spirits a group might head out past the ghostly, decaying tower of the Ringling Hotel to the nearby Denny’s for hash browns and omelettes.

Then, for me, came the most magical part of the meeting: walking into the deserted Hyatt parking lot at 3 a.m., powering down the convertible top, and sucking in the sweet, dense fragrance of night-blooming jessamine from nearby shrubs. Off into the empty streets, past automatic lawn sprinklers spewing musty water, past the cop hidden in the palmettos above St. Armand’s Circle, down along Lido beach and into my off-site motel, far from the eggheads and boat people, close enough to the breakers to be lulled to sleep by the sound of waves.

This may be the last hurrah in Sarasota: they demolished the Ringling Hotel, bulldozed the Denny’s, and shuttered the Boathouse. Next year AChemS moves to St. Petersburg. As for me, I’ll miss the 31st annual meeting—I’m in Los Angeles to meet my reading public at the Festival of Books.

With any luck I may fall asleep to the sounds of a different sea. I wonder if it will smell as sweet.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Mandy Aftel from Berkeley to Fifth Avenue

A spring storm blew through Manhattan yesterday afternoon and a million umbrellas blossomed on the rush hour sidewalks of Fifth Avenue. European tourists posed for each other’s cameras, oblivious to the fact that everyone else was trying to actually get somewhere. Stepping into the Henri Bendel store at 56th Street was a Star Gate experience: an instant transition from wet, blustery, darkness to a brightly lit world of linear white and chrome.

I was at Bendel’s for a reception celebrating the opening of Mandy Aftel’s new exhibit which runs from April 18 to May 11. The show, called Living Perfume: The Natural Alchemy of Mandy Aftel, is a sampling of her collection of perfume-related artifacts. There are rare books—an early edition of Eugene Rimmel’s The Book of Perfumes, for example—and momentos of New York’s early fragrance industry: a bottle of East Indian vetivert oil from Dodge & Olcott, and a bottle of tincture of ambergris from Fritzsche Brothers. An antique perfumer’s handwritten formula book offers a ghostly reminder of perfumes past.

Mandy is always about smelling, and the display “deconstructs” Parfum de Maroc into its constituent notes and accords—smellable in glass-stoppered bottles—and even into its raw materials—accessible to the touch in drawers below the display. Like everything she creates, the exhibit and its accompanying pamphlet are exquisitely designed and beautifully written.

Mandy is famous for her passionate advocacy of artisan natural perfumery. In her books Essence and Alchemy, Aroma, and Scents & Sensibilities, she eloquently promotes the aesthetics of natural materials—those “expensive, seasonal, and non-repeatable” essences whose tonalities are softer, more complex and changeable than those of synthetic materials.

My first visit to Mandy’s studio in Berkeley was during the dot com boom. I was working for DigiScents, the Oakland startup with a PC-driven scent-generating device. We were going to pitch it to Electronic Arts for use in video game systems, and as part of the presentation I commissioned Mandy to create a signature scent for Tomb Raider’s Laura Croft character. 

I drove to Mandy’s and handed her the briefing material: a personality profile of Laura Croft. She led me through her aromatic backyard garden plucking leaves which she brewed into a sweet herbal tea. A couple of weeks later, Mandy delivered two beautiful fragrances that were perfect for the brief—adventurous, sexy, and slightly androgynous. EA ultimately didn’t bite and DigiScents went the way of most dot coms. But Mandy became a colleague and a friend and that has proved to be far more valuable in the end.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

An Armpit Pioneer

Walter B. Shelly, MD, PhD, 1917 – 2009
A pioneer of body odor research.

I work out in a fitness club located in a strip mall between Dress Barn and Blockbuster. The equipment’s up-to-date and the atmosphere is egalitarian: a mix of off-duty firefighters, Jerseyoid housewives, middle-aged schlubs, the occasional exotic dancer, the young, the buff, and the heavily tattooed. The patrons are courteous to a fault, in contrast to the “F**k me? No, f**ck you!” ethos that prevails in this northeastern corner of the Garden State.

The gym is spotless and without any discernible background odor. The same goes for the membership. Which is why it was so remarkable the other day when a guy stepped onto the treadmill next to mine reeking of BO. The stink radiated from his armpits with megawatt intensity. I finished my warmup trying to breathe as little as possible and on the drive home I pondered the nature of underarm odor.

As even your gym teacher has told you, fresh axillary sweat is odorless. One has to be deliberately negligent to stink as loudly as the guy in my gym. 

This basic fact of modern hygiene was first documented scientifically in 1953 when Walter B. Shelley, a dermatology resident at the University of Pennsylvania, demonstrated that the acrid smell of BO emerges only after skin bacteria go to work on fresh secretions from the apocrine sweat glands. This process is expedited in hairy armpits, as he and his colleagues fearlessly proved by means of direct sniff tests.

Shelley’s intimate knowledge of sweat physiology came from his stint as an Army doctor in WW II at the Fort Knox Armored Medical Research Laboratory, where he ran a “hot room” to determine the limitations of sweating in tropical combat. Shelley was a prolific researcher who went on to become a world renowned expert on clinical dermatology. 

Dr. Shelley died on January 30 in Grand Rapids, Ohio, at the age of ninety-one. His quirky obituary in the Toledo Blade is worth reading for the sense it gives of the determination and relentless energy that powered him through a lifetime of scientific achievement.

Hats off to a true pioneer.

Calling All Scent Heads and Sons of Knute

I had a pleasant chat the other day with Kristin Tillotson of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune which is now published as a Q&A. We covered everything from lutefisk—the favorite food of Norwegian bachelor farmers—to her chicken pot pie phobia and my innermost feelings about horse manure.

All this in anticipation of my talk Saturday evening, April 18, at the Bell Museum of Natural History on the University of Minnesota campus (10 SE Church Street, Minneapolis). Wine and dessert afterwards! Tickets $35 ($30 in advance) at 612-624-9050.

I’ll be signing copies of What the Nose Knows, so come by and say hello.

Pre-emptive note to stinky-food enthusiasts: yes, I do know the difference between stinky tofu (Chinese) and natto (Japanese). Sometimes the words they slip out of my mouth wrong.

UPDATE April 16, 2009
Kara Nesvig interviews me for the Minnesota Daily.

Monday, April 13, 2009

I Smell Dead People: Florida Noir

A while back I re-read Thieves Like Us, Edward Anderson’s classic 1937 crime novel. It’s the story of Bowie, Chicamaw, and T-Dub, three hapless criminals who shoot and blunder their way through a series of prison breaks and bank robberies. Bowie picks up Keechie, a sweet but disturbed country girl who becomes part of their downward spiral of misadventure. What makes these characters weirdly compelling is the way their plans—criminal and otherwise—are constantly undone by their old habits and impulses. They may talk about going straight after just one more heist, they may dream of getting married, but they always end up sabotaging themselves.

Anderson’s dark tale was on my mind the past two weeks as I followed the news from Cape Coral, Florida. The story emerged from excellent shoe-leather reporting by Connor Holmes of the Cape Coral Daily Breeze, and Denes Husty III of the Fort Myers News-Press. It began on March 31 with a story by Holmes:
A neighbor smelled the rotten scent and contacted police, who discovered a body inside an apartment at 4921 Coronado Parkway at about 7:56 a.m.
As with almost every item we post on ISDP, the key element is a neighbor calling police about a “foul odor.” In modern American journalism this phrase is reserved exclusively for cases of this kind. These stories are inherently sad—the deceased is so tenuously connected to the world that only the odor of decay brings their disappearance to someone’s attention. This case was no exception, but it unspooled in ever more noir-ish fashion.

The next day, Holmes reported that the body was that of Shannon Michelle Sweet, a 27-year-old who had been living in the apartment with her boyfriend, 29-year-old Matthew Franklin Gullett. Police issued a warrant for his arrest on charges of second-degree homicide.

The Daily Breeze of April 2 gave the Cape Coral PD’s physical description of the suspect—including the “White Pride” tattoo on his stomach—and their belief that he was now driving a stolen car: a 1995 Cadillac El Dorado with plates that read “RDSTWRT.” (White Power? Rod Stewart? This was getting strange even by Gulf Coast standards.)

In the April 2 News-Press Husty reported that Glenn Gullett, the suspect’s father, was “asking his son to turn himself in.” According to the father, “his son and Sweet had both been abusing drugs.” Husty reveals that Matthew Gullett had a lengthy rap sheet in Zanesville, Ohio that included burglary, grand theft auto, theft, receiving stolen property, and six counts of forgery.

The next day, Holmes reports that Gullet was arrested in Zanesville after being wounded in a shootout with police. Sheriff’s officers in Muskingum County, Ohio, had spotted the stolen El Dorado parked at a Best Value Inn.

On April 4, Holmes reports that two detectives from Cape Coral were on their way to Ohio to retrieve Gullett who, after his release from prison in 2005, had violated his probation by
testing positive for cocaine, associating with a sexually-oriented offender, violating curfew and failing to make regular reports to Probation Supervisor Wil Champlin.
The same day, News-Press reporter Brian Liberatore filled in details of Gullet’s apprehension: as sheriffs knocked on the front door of his hotel room, the suspect fled out the back through a sliding door and ran for his car. Gullet was shot as he struggled with deputies. Liberatore interviewed Steve Johnson, the owner of the stolen El Dorado, who had left the vehicle running as he popped into a Hess station convenience store on U.S. 41.
The car thief, Johnson said, had been waiting around the parking lot for hours. Patrons at the gas station tried to follow the fleeing driver, Johnson said, but “he was driving too crazy.
Finally, Liberatore sheds light on the relationship between suspect and victim:
Family members said drug abuse marred Gullett’s six-month relationship with Sweet. Gullett’s father, who lives in Fort Myers, said his son and Sweet were using crack cocaine and heroin. Gullett had kicked his son out of his house because of his continuing drug problem, and failed attempts at rehabilitation.
On April 5, Denes Husty has more from family members. Sweet’s mother, 47-year-old Vicki Shepard of Vermont, tells him, “I think he should get murder one and be executed.”

Husty also gets the scoop on the cause of death: police told the victim’s mother they believe Sweet was strangled.

Husty interviews Gullet’s 73-year-old father Glenn, who tells him “I don’t know how long it will be before I’ll be able to see my son. I don’t know if I can ever look at him again.”

On April 7, Connor Holmes gets the scoop on motive:
Gullett, 26, reportedly admitted to an individual, whose name was redacted from police documents, that he had strangled Sweet, 27, during an argument because she “just wouldn’t shut the (expletive) up.
Also, according to the Medical Examiner, Sweet’s death was caused by strangulation: she was found with pants and a belt wrapped around her neck.

On April 8, Holmes provides more crime scene details: Sweet’s body was found in a shower stall, underneath a blow-up mattress. According to the Lee County, Florida Sheriff’s Office, after the murder Gullett stole Sweet’s car and crashed it “in a DUI accident” and later “stole and wrecked a truck belonging to his father.”

We also learn why the person Gullett confessed to didn’t turn him in. The answer reads like something T-Dub might have said to Bowie:
The witness said he did not believe Gullett killed Sweet at the time because “Gullett had talked in the past about how Shannon drove him crazy and how he wanted to kill her, but (the witness) believed it was just the aggravation talking.”
Also on April 8, Denes Husty peels one more layer from the onion:
Matthew Gullett said his girlfriend, Shannon Sweet, wouldn’t stop complaining about him taking money from her purse she earned as an escort.
According to a detective, neighbors said Sweet “was an escort and Matt was her boyfriend and driver.”

Husty pieces together the couple’s last day:
On the night of March 23 and into the early morning hours of March 24 neighbors said “that they heard Matt and Shay arguing very loudly,” and heard her tell him to leave, [Detective] Ellis said.

A short time later, neighbors said that Sweet came out onto the lanai and she “said something to the effect that she was ‘over it’ and needed to ‘move on,’” Ellis said.

That was the last time neighbors saw her or her car.

Later that morning, Gullett was involved in a head-on crash on College Parkway while driving Sweet’s 2000 Honda. Later, he bolted from Lee Memorial Hospital’s emergency room, with an IV still in his left arm, before deputies could talk to him.

Gullett then allegedly broke into his father’s house in south Lee County and stole his truck and a .38-caliber handgun. His father, who was out of town, reported the crimes after he returned March 30 and found his truck wrecked on the side of U.S. 41 near Six Mile Cypress Parkway.
Drugs, prostitution, car theft, burglary, murder, escape, car crashes, inter-state flight, a police shoot-out, and capture. The end of the road for Matthew Franklin Gullett and a lingering foul odor in Apartment 3, 4921 Coronado Parkway.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

The Nose Knows in Chinese

When I was a kid in Davis, California my parents would take us to a local Chinese restaurant called Honorable Gee’s. I learned to use chop sticks there but the food—egg rolls and chow mein—wasn’t memorable. 

Years later, on break from U.C. Berkeley, I happened to get a lift to the Bay Area from An Tzu (Andrew) Yang, an engineering professor and friend of my father’s on the Davis faculty. Also in the car was his wife, business woman Linda Tsao Yang, and one of their sons. As we drove down I-80 they decided to stop for lunch at a Chinese restaurant. Mrs. Yang had a certain command presence: she seized the waiter’s pen and began writing Chinese characters on a napkin. Off he went and soon the most amazing food began to arrive at our table. It was my first experience of spicy Schezuan cuisine and it was a revelation. I remember the smells and flavors of that meal to this day. Thank you, Mrs. Yang!

I recalled this while leafing through the beautifully produced Chinese translation of What the Nose Knows, just released by Yuan-Liou Publishing Co. Turns out that my name in characters is


which the Google language machine reads as Ivory Guibert. Neato!

Friday, April 10, 2009

The Smellebrity Archives: Britney & K-Fed

We almost felt sorry for Robert Pattinson last week. The poor guy is not fully on board with the daily shampooing and showering thing, being English and all. Then he plays a teen vampire and suddenly everyone’s texting about his ripe pits and he’s on thin ice with his hygiene-conscious pre-teen female fan base.

Buck up, Bobbie! Don’t let the wrinkled nostrils and catty comments get to you. Bigger stars than you have survived the public airing of their BO. According to First Nerve’s Smellebrity Archive, it was just four years ago that Britney Spears and Kevin Federline weathered a similar olfactory image crisis.

On December 10, 2004, The Sun’s showbiz reporter Martel Maxwell wrote:

Britney Spears caused a real stink when her smelly FEET gassed a plane full of people.

Britney, 23, caused a stir as she and hubby Kevin Federline, 26, flew from Los Angeles to New York. The singer, famed for hits like Toxic, blamed the whiff on her shoes.

One passenger fumed: “The smell was unbelievable. One woman had a word with the air hostess, then three or four others complained. She looked pretty embarrassed as she tapped Britney on the shoulder and asked her very politely to put her shoes back on.”

Three months later it was K-Fed’s turn as The Star revealed “Kevin’s Dirty Little Secret.” The tabloid quoted two former girlfriends who said he would often not shower for days at a time and that he didn’t use deodorant. They found someone who sat next to him on a 10-hour nonstop flight from Los Angeles to London who said he wore only a T-shirt and reeked. And he left a lasting impression on a lady at the craps table at Biloxi’s Beau Rivage Resort & Casino:

“He stinks,” says the woman who stood next to him. “His body odor was really terrible. He smelled like he hadn’t showered in a week!”
OK, so this stinky phase was followed by divorce, a custody battle, psychiatric hospitalization, DUI charges, head-shaving, and rehab. Our point, Bobbie, is that Brit’s back on the charts, K-Fed is a solid citizen, and no one’s talking BO anymore. It’s an inspiration to us all.

So how about it, dude: would it really kill you to use a little Old Spice?

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Aggravated Farting: Waco, Texas Edition

On Tuesday evening five men were sharing a motel room in Waco, Texas. One was in the shower and two others were outside talking on their cell phones. Jose Braule Ramirez, 33, and Juan Antonio Salano Castellano, 35, were eating dinner inside the room when Castellano passed gas. According to the police report, Ramirez took offense and threw a knife at him, cutting him on the leg. He then stabbed Castellano in the chest with it.

Waco police arrested Ramirez and charged him with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. He’s cooling his heels in the McLennan County Jail on $15,000 bail. However he won’t be released on bond until authorities determine whether he is in the U.S. legally.

Meanwhile, check out the headline on KXXV-TV News Channel 25 in Waco:
Man stabbed over social faux pas.
Hunh? That makes it sound like Ramirez stabbed him because Castellano was eating his salad with the wrong fork.

KXXV continues:
Castellano experienced flatulence which upset Ramirez to the point he picked up a large knife and threw it at Castellano striking him in his leg.
Note the passive voice: “Castellano experienced flatulence.” This implies that Castellano’s farting was beyond his control, a mere accident. It further implies that Ramirez’s response was unprovoked. Channel 25 apparently views Castellano as an innocent victim, but is he?

In Erving Goffman’s classic sociological account, farting is an accidental violation of social etiquette. Jose Braule Ramirez clearly doesn’t buy Goffman’s theory and neither do we here at First Nerve. Deliberate farting happens all the time and out in the real world it can be intended—and accurately perceived—as a provocation.

Does it justify assault with a deadly weapon? That’s for the jury to decide, not the sociology majors at KXXV-TV.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Doh! ‘Professeur de Parfums’ Beclowns Himself Again

Roja Dove—First Nerve’s favorite olfactory buffoon—has struck again, this time in the UK’s Daily Mirror

Reporter Emma Hill filed an innocuous piece on uplifting scents that can improve one’s mood. She notes that citrus scents are especially good for a zesty morning tonic with an anti-depressing effect. To learn why she turns to “renowned perfumier Roja Dove,” the self-proclaimed Professeur de Parfums. He tells her the secret is volatility:

“The greater the concentration of volatile ingredients, the more upliftingthe scent, with lemon being one of the most volatile,” he says.

“What you’re experiencing is the evaporation of the lemon molecules as they bombard the olfactory [smelling] nerves. You feel that movement, so it feels stimulating.”
Well, there you have it. Roja Dove believes lemon molecules feel invigorating because they pummel the olfactory nerves like so many tiny Swedish massage therapists. The man is either demented or a fool.

Or perhaps he’s just tweaking a gullible reporter who needs to fill some column inches. In that case, First Nerve offers Ms. Hill these original quotes free of charge:

Lavender is soothing because the molecules gently pluck the olfactory nerves like angels playing heavenly harps.

Pepper is irritating because the molecules stab tiny daggers into the olfactory nerve.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Is Fragrance Preference Written in Your DNA?

The Complete DNA Sequence of Human Olfactory Receptor OR10Z1 

How is it that the same odor molecule smells strong to one person and not at all to another? Or that some find an odor disagreeable while others judge it mildly pleasant?

Extreme person-to-person variation is the hallmark of odor perception. It intrigues and frustrates sensory scientists—not to mention fragrance designers and chefs. But a scientific account of these differences has been elusive. Some psychologists believe personal experience determines odor preference but they offer little more than hand waving to support the idea. In any case, personal experience is unlikely to explain a person’s inability to smell a particular molecule, or to explain why entire segments of the population disagree about an odor’s basic olfactory character (e.g., is it like musk, urine, or sandalwood?).

The answer to the riddle of smell variation may lie in biology. Humans have about 450 different olfactory receptors (ORs), each one coded for by a specific gene. A sensory cell in the nose randomly expresses one of these 450 receptors. Every cell with a given receptor sends a signal to a specific location in the olfactory bulb. An odor molecule activates a particular combination of receptors and olfactory bulb locations. This is the neural pattern that the brain eventually interprets as a smell.

As molecular biologists explore the human genome with ever greater resolution they are finding a rich tapestry of OR gene variation—variation they hope will map onto differences in sensory perception. It’s possible that much of what we regard as personal preference and aesthetics will boil down to biology.

Doron Lancet and his colleagues at the Weizmann Institute of Science summarize the latest findings from several labs in a new paper. They explain that the human OR genes are “organized in several dozen genomic clusters distributed on most chromosomes.” OR genes are “highly conserved,” which means that the human versions are very similar to those of other mammals. However, as species we have a relatively high levels of “pseudogenes”; these are OR genes that have been rendered functionless by a disruptive mutation. Pseudogenes play no role in odor perception—they are just so much junk in the genetic attic.

Lancet et al. describe two main types of genomic variation. The first consists of “segregating pseudogenes.” These are OR genes that have been disabled by mutation in some individuals but that remain functional in others. Theoretically, this could account for why Dick (who has the pseudogene) can’t smell molecule X, but why Jane (who has the working version) can.

A second source of variability is copy number variation. This means that one or sometimes a set of neighboring OR genes has been duplicated in evolution. Some people have only the original copy while others have multiple copies. The duplication process is not perfect and small differences in the copied gene may alter the odor specificity of its receptor. Depending on the genetic lottery, a person’s nose might express zero, one, two, or even three versions of an OR, each of which might respond differently to a given molecule.

To date, variations in the perception of androstenone and isovaleric acid have been traced to genetic variations. But these are merely the first results. The new genomics of olfaction promises many more. Faster and cheaper DNA sequencing technologies are coming on line and soon we will know the complete extent of human OR variation. The fun begins when we cross-reference the genetic data to variations in odor perception.

Imagine a personal genetics of perfume preference. A quick spit sample, a few minutes on the sequencing machine, and bingo!—a printout lists the top twenty perfumes preferred by people with a genotype like yours. It might not be romantic but wouldn’t it be an easier way to start shopping for scent?

Monday, April 6, 2009

The Playing Fields of Eton: Calling a Foul

A English soccer player gets a yellow card for “unsporting behaviour” because he released an audible just as the other team took a penalty kick.

Why stop there?  I predict that within a year a player will hold his nose and roll around on the ground in an attempt to draw an olfactory penalty on the other team.

American Smellscapes: New Jersey

Some thoughts on the Garden State’s fragrant reputation in the April issue of New Jersey Monthly. Steven Mintz interviews me about the smellscape of the local perfume-industrial complex. Bonus feature: a really weird photo portrait of yours truly.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Portrait of the Artist: Gayil Nalls

In New York recently I met Gayil Nalls, a multimedia artist who works with smell. She has a doctorate in the art and science of olfaction from the University of East London and more than two dozen solo exhibits to her credit. In World Sensorium, she asked every country in the world to identify its characteristic natural scent. She combined these into a fragrance in which each country’s scent is proportional to its fraction of the world’s population.

FN: How do you see yourself as an artist and how does smell fit into that picture?

Nalls: My artistic practice engages conceptual questions around the human body and the attributes of crowds, our evolving understanding of the senses, and our relationship to disappearing ecologies. Materials and their symbolism are also very important to my work, as are their alchemic potential. By the mid-eighties I wanted to reimagine and authentically represent the world in a distinct way. For this, one sense was more valuable than the others - the sense of smell. 

FN: Your major foray into smell is World Sensorium, a work that you refer to as a “social olfactory sculpture.” What I find especially appealing is how the concept connects people with place—the actual scents of real places. Tell us about this project.

Nalls: It wasn’t until December 28th, 1989, when I was filming at the Berlin Wall, that the inspiration for the sculptural structure to create the world scent became vivid, fully formed in my mind. There were probably a million people on both sides of the Wall when the guards finally dropped their guns and freedom just flowed like an undammed river. In an unprecedented expansion of consciousness and human mass, one person after the other was pulled onto the top of the wall. Messages passed through the nerves of hands and my body and brain simultaneously understood that the formula would be based on population because everyone counts in this world. We are creating the form. By the next morning I knew that I would engage the world in dialog.

World Sensorium is about natural scents that work as olfactory imprints and memory triggers for large numbers of people of cultures in every region of the world. The components come together in a world formula based on country population percentages to the global whole. It took ten years to complete the work.

The work premiered as a public art in Times Square 2000: The Global Celebration at the Crossroads of the World and was endorsed to the event by UNESCO. It rained down in microencapsulated paperworks with the confetti at midnight. 

FN: What makes it a “world olfactory social sculpture”? 

Nalls: Several things. Foremost, it’s the information system that defines the world scent’s formula - where everyone is counted, and then it is world participation in the dialogue conducted over five years that helped establish the constituent ingredients. 

World Sensorium is a social sculpture because it engages the world in a conversation about the sense of smell and about the concept of place and culture. The communication process is part of the form. The artwork links cultures in a unique and little understood way and makes the geographical experience of scent visible. 

The term “social sculpture” was coined by the German artist Joseph Beuys who I met during his exhibition at the Guggenheim in 1979, and whose Socratic conversation I attended at Cooper Union. For Beuys, social sculpture was part of an interdependent democratic and ecological process. 

Image on a microencapsulated sample of  World Sensorium fragrance.  © G. Nalls 2009

FN: Why the emphasis on natural smells?

Nalls: Our brains evolve in direct relationship to the molecules released in our environment. The botanical components of World Sensorium are from the most important plants, trees, flowers, herbs and grasses that co-evolved with the human brain. Over centuries these became highly integrated into cultural practices because the physiological and behavioral responses were beneficial and desirable. Their volatile odorates are encoded.

World Sensorium is about the interrelated nature of the human brain, odor, memory, the natural environment, culture and the perception of beauty. 

FN: Smell memory is a theme for many artists—how do you approach it?

Nalls: World Sensorium is about memory and how it equates to individual personality, societal culture and national identity. Without memory and this relationship to nature of place, we lose who we are. An early relationship with nature of place is a very real chemical relationship and without it we feel emptiness at the absence of something. It is felt in both the body and the mind: people have described it to me as a pervasive loneliness. 

Many people cried with a thankful joy when they experienced World Sensorium. They told me this was because the experience gave something back to them that they likened to the sense of well being they had when they were in their place of origin. They discovered that they had been mourning the loss of a chemical relationship.

FN: Why do you think World Sensorium had such a dramatic effect on some people?

Nalls: Olfactory perception is complex and not completely understood yet, however, it is understood that smell mediates emotional behavior. In my judgment, World Sensorium’s effect on people is due to the unique interactions of the olfactory brain’s neural circuitry that determine the affectiveness of an olfactory artwork and the level of significance that the aesthetic experience takes on.

In Olfactory Art, somatosensation equates to the perception of an aesthetic experience, which starts at the receptor level. Each odorant equates to an electrochemical signal felt or experienced. (This is where the perception of “the actual scents of real places” gets to the edge of science.) World Sensorium, like all smells, is consciously perceived in the orbitofrontal cortex area of the brain, which is connected to the cortex, the reasoning area; the amygdala where the emotional connection is made and the behavioral response is activated; and the limbic system, also called the reptilian or primal brain, which is the area of automatic unconscious response. 

Because of the sense of smell’s direct and nearly simultaneous neural connections, humans experience more powerful emotions from the sense of smell than our other senses. Science currently attributes emotional responses to associative psychology, but from what I have observed, it may also be possible that humans are hardwired to smell odors that are important to our survival. People with particularly important natural scent stimuli in their environment or heritage environment appear to be encoded to perceive them. A surprise for me was that people from different parts of the world feel both that they are responding to and can recognize specific odorants in the World Sensorium composition comprised of well over one hundred phytogenic materials. This may be important to the hypothesis that humanity’s sense of smell is made up of groups of people sharing different receptor families.

Portrait of Gayil Nalls by Joyce Tenneson

FN: Have you always been interested in smell or was this a creative singularity? 

Nalls: I have always been interested in scent and the shades of it that we perceive or don’t perceive and what that means. As a child I was very aware of how atmospheric conditions affected my ability to perceive nature through my sense of smell, especially when heat and evaporating water were involved. Following scent trails was a big part of my play. Early on, I remember being very aware of how smells make me feel.

Smell has been critical to my artistic practice for the last twenty years. In addition to World Sensorium, which is a work that will always be in progress, I have created other olfactory artworks, experiences, and olfactory sculptures based on information systems I create that reveal a truth or meaning. It’s about asking the right questions.

FN: What other olfactory artworks have you done? 

Nalls: In 1998, I created the installation One Billion, Four Hundred Ninety-Five Million, Eight Hundred Fifty-Two Thousand, Twenty-Four (1,495,852,024) at Steffany Martz Gallery in Chelsea. The number represents the total population in the year 2000 of China, Pakistan, Algeria, Kenya, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Paraguay, Macau, and Djibouti, the countries for which jasmine is their most culturally significant scent. In the installation, the jasmine composition (formulated on the population percentages of the countries) of different species of jasmine was disseminated into the gallery space. 

Also filling the space was my sound art piece of breathing in a 7:1 pattern, entitled Breath, Essence, and (After)image, at a barely perceptible level. The auditory pattern enhanced the sensory awareness, serving as a cue to convey the message of experiencing an artwork through inhaling: that is, indexing the scent through the sound of breathing.

FN: Have you pursued the links between smell and the other senses?

Nalls: In the exhibition Synaesthesia at Siggraph Gallery held in Los Angeles in 2004, I was told I had created the Gallery’s first olfactory experience. I was working with a group called Plays Well With Others and we all created works for the OmniGlobe, a spherical projection system. In my work, a film projection titled Hemispheres, I created an olfactory immersion environment around the globe. It was a eureka moment for me because I was able to successfully bring together film, sculpture and scent. 

I think everyone has synaesthesia and like the acuity of sight, hearing, smell or intelligence, it varies with each person. Humans are hard-wired to continually obtain multiple sense impressions of the world. Without this, I couldn’t be making multi- and inter-disciplinary art. I just think that for most people, the cross communication between the senses is unconscious and for others nearly so, or greater. It’s all about the wiring. Just like you can have a supertaster or a nose, you can have a synesthete.

Based on art history and creators I have known, I think artists cultivate and refine a process, which for some, could be defined as a type of synaesthesia.

FN: Does technology ever play a role in your work? 

Nalls: At Siggraph in 2004 I exhibited The Element Olfactory Works: Fire, Air, Earth & Water. The works were featured with the Morie Blue Tooth Scent Collar, a device originally created for virtual reality. The scents were released individually by remote signal as the model who wore it walked and posed on the runway during the Third Annual Cyber Fashion Show.

FN: Olfactory artwork is still relatively rare and unusual. What kind of response did World Sensorium bring you?

Nalls: Experiencers of World Sensorium celebrate what they harvest in relation to their ability to bring sustained attention to it. The longer people stay with World Sensorium the more they sense its wide-ranging aesthetic experience and true character. It’s a great olfactory ride. For people who have a sustained experience of it, their response is frequently a Gestalt-like one: the experience culminates in a perception of the artwork as unified and harmonic. But ultimately there is no language for the expressive nature and power of the work, nor the knowledge it imparts about our connection with the world.

FN: Are people ready for scented art? Is the art world ready for it? What directions do you see as most promising and least promising?

Nalls: I believe that people want to experience art that makes them feel, think, see and smell, differently. If they understand what it means to smell differently, they’ll think differently. Of course there is still a lot of denial and dismissiveness regarding the sense of smell by people in general, including artists. I have spoken with artists whose artworks were unintentionally very odorous and the odor helped shape the perception of the work, but because it was unintentional, they did not see it as part of the aesthetic of the work. Other artists have used scent to great advantage to convey very important and little understood truths about the human condition. When you ask if the art world is ready for it, I would say yes, but like any new genre, it will take some time before critics and curators have the ability to critique such works in a meaningful way.
A number of artists are working with natural smells of the human body and I find the work very insightful in the way it has challenged certain current cultural practices at the urging of commerce. These artists are pulling back the synthetic veil, pulling off the layers of olfactory artifice, to find the smells that allow for the deepest of human connections and delivering them back to us as art. 

The advances in Olfactory Art provide new ideas and expanded understandings of the phenomena of smell beyond the creed of commerce and the limitations of science. 

FN: You’ve told me that the average person is alienated from the sense of smell. What do you mean by that?

Nalls: People, especially urbanites, now navigate their day through a maze of unnatural, artificial and synthetic aroma chemicals, polluting their bodies and coloring their perception of the world. We are on our way to even greater olfactory pretenses that will further undermine and manipulate the human condition. 

Friday, April 3, 2009

Smellr: It’s like Flickr, but for your nose

Smellr is a highly-scalable, open-architecture, social-media environment that was designed from the ground up to maximize the leverage of user-generated content and empower user-content syndication. Metrics-friendly and multimedia feed-enabled to extend and enhance conversations at all levels across all popular socnet communities, it’s core functionality is object-based, mashable, and fully API-enabled. So, whether you’re a developer or a user, a tagger, a microblogger, a fan of folksonomy, or just a person who’s into smells, we think you’ll find this nimble, Cloud-based, SaaS startup to be a breath of fresh air for social networking.

An April Fools site that has Web 2.0 in stitches. Guess you really have to know the players . . .

Thursday, April 2, 2009

An Aerosol Enhancer for e-books

Does your Kindle leave you feeling like there’s something
missing from your reading experience?

Our Classic Musty Scent solves that problem . . . now your
e-books can smell like vintage classics. Classic Musty Scent
is like having the collected works of Shakespeare in a can.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Logoscents: Smells as Trademarks

In the age of multisensory marketing it’s no longer adequate to rely on a word or phrase to identify a branded product. A logo, color scheme, or container shape can speak just as powerfully as a trade name. If so, the manufacturer would be wise to protect these features as part of its intellectual property. Trademark law in the United States allows all sorts of ways to identify and distinguish commercial goods. For example, the tone sequence of NBC’s corporate chimes, the pink color of Owens-Corning fiberglass, and the shape of the Coca-Cola bottle are all registered trademarks under the doctrine of “trade dress.”

It was only natural that someone would register a scent as a trademark. The first to do so was Celia Clarke of Goleta, California who sold yarn and embroidery thread infused with the scent of plumeria blossoms. (Plumeria is the botanical name for frangipani, the fragrant tropical flower from which Hawaiian leis are made.) Clarke’s 1988 application for a scent trademark was denied by the examining attorney at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, but she appealed and won. She registered trademark number 1639128 on March 26, 1991 with this description: “The mark is a high impact, fresh, floral fragrance reminiscent of plumeria blossoms.”

Evidently Clarke’s line of scented goods, sold under the brand name Clarke’s Osewez (oh-so-easy, get it?) wasn’t a success. She cancelled the trademark in 1997.

Following in her footsteps, a company in Pompano Beach, Florida filed an intent-to-use trademark application in 1996 for a lemon fragrance to be used in laserjet printer toner. They abandoned the mark two years later.

The first commercially successful product with a trademarked scent is the Fuel Fragrances line produced by the Manhattan Oil company of Redondo Beach, California. These fuel additives give the exhaust of your lawn mower or nitro funny car a distinctive bouquet. The company sells nineteen varieties including Burn Out Blueberry, Peel Out Pina Colada, and Turbo Tangerine. Three of them—the cherry, strawberry, and grape scents—were trademarked back in 1995 and 1997. (Bonus link! The company’s spokesmodel page is SFW, at least if you work in an auto body shop.)

Meanwhile, Amyris Biotechnologies of Emeryville, California recently applied for a trademark on a citrus scent for its synthetic biodiesel fuel made from sugarcane (Serial Number 76693238). Smart marketing move—biodiesel exhaust usually smells like french fries and the production plants can stink. What’s wrong with a little refreshing citrus in the Age of the Goracle?

In 2005, the Minnesota paper goods manufacturer Smead registered six scent trademarks—apple cider, peppermint, vanilla, peach, lavender and grapefruit—for use in file folders, expanding files, and the like. Yummy. Should be a hit in the medical records department.

(Pop quiz on intellectual property law: Is it a problem that Manhattan Oil has trademarked Victory Vanilla scent for a fuel additive and Smead has taken vanilla for file folders? Correct answer is no: they are in different classes of trade and unlikely to be confused by the typical consumer.)

The office will soon smell even better when Japan’s Pentel company follows through on its June, 2008 application for a trademark on a white rose and lily of the valley combination (Serial Number 77511730). There are already scented pens and markers on the market, but Pentel may intend to use a single corporate logoscent for all its stationary, pens, pencils, and markers.
While trademark law is getting a lot more fragrant in the U.S., companies in the European Union will have trouble joining the fun. According to a review in the Journal of Intellectual Property Rights, European trademark registrars have take a “regressive line” that “makes it very difficult, if not impossible, to register a smell as a mark.” Apparently providing a chemical formula and verbal description of the scent is not legally sufficient. Scent trademarks will not be permitted in the absence of a “thorough smell classification system.”
Good luck with that, my friends!