Thursday, May 28, 2009

Keeping a Lid on It in Ohio

Beacon Journal reporter Jim Carney has the story of a stink that had them perplexed in Summit County, Ohio this past week. The punch line: oil field compressor oil—14,000 gallons of it a 2.2 million gallon tank.

American Smellscapes: Baltimore Fish Kill

Fish in Baltimore harbor are going belly up and making a big stink. Reporter Liz Kay at the Baltimore Sun gets an explanation from the Maryland Department of the Environment. MDE spokeswoman Dawn Stoltzfus says an algae bloom lowered oxygen levels and killed 3,000 menhaden. (Why is it always the menhaden?)

Exit question: Wasn’t Dawn Stoltzfus a character in a John Waters movie?

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Eyes on the Prize

The Royal Society of London, founded in 1660, today announced the nominees for its 2009 Science Book Prize and What the Nose Knows made the list. To be plucked from the torrent of new books on popular science is a great honor.

The thirteen initial nominees will be whittled down to a short list of finalists on June 25. Short-listed authors receive £1,000, which, as we say here at First Nerve, is nothing to sniff at.

UPDATE May 26, 2009

New Scientist posts links to its reviews of the Royal Society Prize nominees.

Monday, May 25, 2009

The Fat Lady Warms Up

The Fat Lady has her finger on the pump spray, the claques are clearing their noses, and the hype begins to build for Christophe Laudamiel’s scent opera, Green Aria

New York Magazine’s Arthur Lubow has the skinny on the upcoming performance and the technology behind it. Lubow scores double big-head intellectual bonus points for using the phrase “Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk” in the same sentence as “Odorama.”

Most ausgezeichnet, Düde!

UPDATE May 28, 2009

More on the back story of Green Aria from Jocelyn Miller at New York Press. A couple of howlers from Laudamiel co-conspirator Stewart Matthew (e.g., “Smokers cant smell”--wrong!) but otherwise quite informative about how the creators view their performance piece.

Scent Bags and Stuffed Dumplings

The annual Dragon Boat Festival is about to begin in China and that means it’s time to eat zongzi—filled dumplings of sticky rice which are wrapped in bamboo leaves and steamed. It’s a tasty tradition, like hot cross buns at Easter.

The opening sentence of this culture piece from Xinhua, China’s state-run news agency, is a bit puzzling, however:
The Dragon Boat Festival is just around the corner and while the making of zongzi has been around for years, some mums still follow the custom of embroidering scent bags for their kids and other family members.
OK, so scent bags, like zongzi, are a traditional part of the Dragon Boat Festival. But what’s the connection? We never find out. Instead, Xinhua tells us about the historical origins of scent bags (Princess Tongchang of the Tang Dynasty), what they’re stuffed with (angelica and Ageratum), and why they are worn:
The belief is that these small bags stuffed with various herbs can ward off disease and evil. Their pleasant fragrance helps refresh the mind, prevent colds, and improves the appetite.
I wonder how seriously contemporary Chinese people take the medical claims for scent bags. According to Zhang Qian, whose earlier piece in the Shanghai Daily appears to be the basis of the Xinhua story,
Herbal aromas like mint, ageratum and flagleaf can help stimulate the nerves when they travel through the nose to the brain. Other herbs like cang shu and bai zhi can help dispel pathogenic dampness which usually burdens the digestive system and thus improve appetites.
“Stimulate the nerves”? Sounds like Princess Tongchang meets the Professeur de Parfums. “Dispel pathogenic dampness”? Hmmm . . .

In medieval England people wore scent-filled pomanders as a defense against the plague—the reasoning was that evil vapors cause the plague, so good ones will prevent it. Rosemary was thought to be particularly effective and there are historical accounts of herbal price-gouging during epidemics. The sachets in your grandmother’s linen closet are direct descendents of pomanders, but their popularity has more to do with aesthetics than medicine.

Zhang Qian notes that

As well as being worn on the body, scent bags can also be used as decorations in rooms or in cars.

Now, there’s an idea: Hang a pair of herb-stuffed fuzzy dice from your rearview mirror—they’ll make your car smell better and clear the pathogenic dampness from your digestive system at the same time. Booyah!

Monday, May 18, 2009

Yes, You Can Take It with You

Thanks to psychologists at the University of Pittsburgh we know that absence makes the nose grow fonder. It was only a matter of time before some enterprising outfit turned this to commercial advantage. Turns out it was, a UK-based hotel room reservation site.

As a special promotion, Laterooms is offering a “Home from Home” travel kit to a lucky few high-volume customers. The kits are intended to remind road warriors of the sensory pleasures of home, including a pillow case laundered in the traveler’s own brand of detergent, favorite biscuits and teas, etc. Topping it all off, according to a spokeswoman, is this:
We send an expert from aroma designer Dale Air round to their house who captures the different smells in their home then goes away copies it and puts it in a spray can to be used whenever the customer wants.
Cool idea, being able to carry the scent of home with you on the road. But the charm of returning home is that the various sensory pleasures of which you’ve been deprived hit you all at once. Will the Laterooms Travel Kit eliminate the homecoming effect?

Or, in the lyrics of the immortal Dan Hicks,
How can I miss you when you won’t go away?

[Hat tip to Mike T.]

The Bohemian Fruit Boat Strikes Again

I recently wrote about the case of Dr. Thomas and the Bohemian fruit boat—a pre-Proustian episode of smell-evoked memory. While walking over a bridge in Berlin each day, Thomas was puzzled to find himself thinking of a time years before when he had lived in a rural area of Germany. He finally realized that what’s triggering the memory is the smell of burning brown coal from a Bohemian fruit boat moored under the bridge.

Thomas published his olfactory observation in a scientific journal in 1896. Fast forward one hundred and thirteen years and here’s Catherine Bodry writing on the travel site about “A Scent of Place”:
For an entire year, every time I jogged past a nearby house I was smacked with memories of Ireland, where I lived for six months. Finally, after nearly making myself crazy trying to figure out what the smell was, I realized that they were burning coal. It was the scent of coal smoke that reminded me so much of Ireland, though I can't recall ever noticing it when I lived there.
Ms. Bodry seems to be highly attuned to scent:
And when I arrived in Bangkok for work last fall, I couldn’t stop smiling because all the smells I had forgotten about were slamming me. The city mixes a chunky scent stew of frying oil, curry, exhaust, urine, incense, and wet cement. I love it – it’s Thailand to me.
I haven’t been to Bangkok, but I’m already getting the picture . . .

Sunday, May 17, 2009

I’ll Have a Sketchpad with That Latte

An inspiring scent marketing story from Newark, New Jersey of all places. 

Saturday, May 16, 2009

American Smellscapes: Philadelphia

Darren Everson in the Wall Street Journal describes the shaky start of the new Yankee Stadium, and along the way remembers some other ballparks that were not popular with the fans.
Veterans Stadium, the former home of the Philadelphia Phillies and Eagles, was reviled not only for its ragged artificial turf—which contributed to numerous injuries—but for a pervasive smell that hinted at urine and spoiled meat. City officials told fans to stay home when it was imploded in 2004 but many showed up anyway, cheering when the blasting began.
Well, that’s one way to eliminate a bad smell. For my part, I don’t recall the Vet as smelling particularly bad—perhaps because in graduate school we bought the cheapest seats high in the upper deck. We’d sit among a collection of old-timers and oddballs, guys with transistor radios and little old ladies who kept score sheets. True connaisseurs.

Smelly or not, the Vet resembled an enormous toilet bowl. It was a barren and unfriendly place, especially when the Mets were in town and fist-fights would break out in the late innings, with beer cups flying and bodies tumbling down rows of seats.

There was a post-doc from Texas in the Penn psych department named Dave, who was a bit of a bipolar case. At the beginning of his periodic upswings he was fantastic company, Mr. Sociable. You could walk into any bar or party with him and pretty soon everybody was your best buddy. Weeks later, at higher altitude, he’d start agitating for adventure. You’d be studying for an exam and a few minutes before the first pitch there would be Dave at the door: “C’mon, let’s go see the ball game. C’mon.” He’d snort a few lines, fire up the Camaro convertible, and off we’d go to the Vet with Dave holding a can of beer and doing 85 on the Schuylkill Expressway.

My smell memories of Philly fester to this day. The streets between my apartment and the psych lab were lined with gingko trees and their ripe fruit would fall on the sidewalk and rot, giving off the stench of butyric acid (think stinky feet to the fifth power). Then there was the smell that hung over the Tinicum marshes where the Schuylkill joins the Delaware River. It was the stagnant, retch-inducing stink of an outhouse. Embarrassed taxi drivers, on the way to or from the nearby airport, always made to sure to draw attention to the marshlands, lest their fares get the wrong idea about the source of the odor. This being Philly, the swamp smell was often mixed with something a little more sinister. Early one morning an ecology grad student in the bio department was knee deep in the Tinicum marsh recording bird vocalizations when he came across a decomposing corpse, evidently a casualty of the ongoing mob wars.

Dave used to wear a lot of cologne. Like the Vet, he eventually imploded. He hung himself from the staircase railings at a friend’s house. I think about him every once in a long while and I miss him. But I don’t miss Philly.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

American Smellscapes: Hollywood Edition

Caleb Daniloff, writing in BU Today, interviews filmmaker Steven Spielberg who will receive an honorary degree from Boston University this weekend. This part of the exchange grabbed our interest—it’s about an interior smellscape we’d never known existed.

Many movies are now edited on computers, but you still put your hands on the film during the editing process. Does that tactile experience inform your work or is it just what you’re used to?

I don’t think it informs my work. If it contributes anything to my work, it gives me some thinking time. When you’re working on the Avid and in the electronic medium, it’s an intuitive process because you’re working so quickly. And I use all my intuition when I’m directing. But when I’m editing, I like to spend time mulling things over. By the nature of the craft of splicing and taping soundtrack and picture, which takes a bit longer than clicking a mouse on a screen, it gives me time to be more thoughtful when I’m putting the picture together. I prefer how everything is really fast on the set during production, we’re all moving at light speed, and then all of a sudden it slows down. The postproduction process I just relish. Coming into work every day when I’m not running around the way I am on a film set gives me a chance to be more thoughtful. 

I also like the smell. When you walk into an editing room that has celluloid all over the place — in boxes, hanging from racks — the scent of the experience hangs in the air. Whereas when you walk into a room — and 99.9 percent of the people in the world cut on electronic editing bays — when you walk into those rooms, it just smells like a typical office. 

Can you describe that scent? 

It’s the scent of photo chemistry. The actual film gives off an odor.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

ISDP: The Merry Merry Month of May

The 13th of the month has rolled around once again and it’s time for the squeemish and easily offended to scroll for cover as FirstNerve presents the latest installment in Gothic Olfaction.

For sheer tabloid pathos, this Dallas Morning News headline was hard to beat:
Woman’s body found on Mother’s Day; son accused of murder
The story in a nutshell:
The family of Esther Hernandez, 43, reported her missing Friday after she had not been seen for several days. Her body was found Sunday in her home in the 6200 block of Wofford Drive after her husband smelled a foul odor.
The body of Mrs. Hernandez had apparently been concealed inside the house. An arrest warrant was issued for her son, who police believe has fled.

A day earlier in Pasadena, Texas, police officers discovered the body of a man in the trunk of his silver 2000 Volkswagen Jetta. Salvador Rojas had been missing since earlier in the week. Officers were called to the scene
after a resident in the apartment complex reported a foul smell coming from the car
Rojas’s hands were bound, and investigators say he
was allegedly involved in a financial scheme loaning money to Hispanic immigrants for outrageous fees and interests
 In Staten Island, New York on April 27 homicide detectives found a “mummified male body” in the basement of a boarded-up apartment unit. They figure it had been there for a year or more—long enough that the smell of decay had long since faded.

Reporter Doug Auer of the Staten Island Advance described the late night crime scene investigation:
Meanwhile, residents and neighbors gathered on their stoops to observe the commotion. 

“It’s always smelled down there,” said Carol Robles, 34, a resident of 20 Cedar. “It would come up through the radiator, in the drains.”

Another resident claimed to have called 311 last summer to report a foul odor.
We’ll file this one under “always trust your nose.”

Monday, May 11, 2009

Rule, Britannia?

On the surface, this story by reporter Tanya O’Rourke of the UK’s Telegraph & Argus is a happy one: a case history of successful scent marketing or at least scent remediation. At another level, however, it’s rather disturbing.

It seems that people leaving their cars in a multistory parking garage in Bradford, England object to the smell of the facility’s stairwells. More specifically, they object to the smell created by other patrons peeing in the stairwells. A study by National Car Parks—the garage’s operator—found that no less than 35% of customers associate the stairways with the smell of urine.

NCP’s creative solution was to install battery-operated odorizers; the stairwells now smell of freshly laundered sheets. Nice.

But according to NCP area manager Ernie Bagshaw (what a perfect hobbit name!), the company 
will have to be careful with their choice of smells and the way they would be pumped into the car park because of people suffering from things like asthma and hay fever.
Right you are, Mr. Baggins. Focus on the possible adverse consequences of the pleasant fragrance, and not on the public health implications of rivulets of stale urine cascading down your stairs.

How about installing a public toilet?

How about telling people to shape the hell up?

A San Francisco vignette from a couple of summers ago: a well-groomed suburban lady is feeding a parking meter on Haight Street near Stanyan. She freezes and stares back in disbelief at the other end of her Chevy Suburban. I follow her gaze and find a wizened, leather-jacketed, Manson wannabe, fly unzipped, noisily hosing down her curbside rear wheel.

Little Charlie knew there was no chance of being told off by a cop, much less getting a summons. In 2003 the S.F. Board of Supervisors had debated mightily before declaring public urination a offense under municipal law. (Until then, you could be fined for failing to clean up after your dog, but not for defecating in public yourself.)

So what does a busted post-industrial town in West Yorkshire have in common with sophisticated San Francisco? A preference for politically correct cosmetic solutions.

Here’s a scent marketing tip: the best way to remove urine odor from parking garages is to exercise some common sense and moral indignation.

Dummy Water and the New Small

Nathan Branch had an interesting post recently about the current trend toward smaller perfume bottles. He attributes it to changes in the market: an overabundance of new fragrances, limited room on the dressing table, and the disinclination of users to limit themselves to a single, “signature” scent. The upshot is that brand-hopping consumers with a limited number of dollars prefer smaller units and retailers are obliging them.

What I find fascinating about this trend is that it runs counter to the prevailing gigantism of American commercial culture. Serving sizes have ballooned, for example. A Coke in the old 8-oz. glass bottle seems dainty in an age of 20-oz plastic guzzle-loaders. For grownups, it’s hard to find a martini glass that holds less than a mind-bending 10 oz. of alcohol.

Don’t get me wrong—I’m OK with large. In fact, I have a morbid fascination with the supersized figurines of roadside America. But that’s another story.

Nathan’s post got me thinking about dummy water. That’s our term of art for the liquid inside a factice—the enormous fake bottle of perfume used in marketing displays. Dummy water has to be colored to an exact match for the real juice. It also needs preservatives, otherwise that ginormous bottle of L’Air du Temps will turn slimy green with algae like a neglected fish bowl.

Not surprisingly, factice bottles are collectibles and can run from hundreds of dollars to more than a thousand. Based on the scalar properties of advertising physics, I predict that as real bottles shrink, the size and price of factice bottles will get even larger. Big and fake go so well together.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Kathy Sperberg’s New Film About Smell Memory

A few years back I was interviewed on camera by Canadian filmmaker Kathy Sperberg for a documentary about smell memory. As I understood it, the film was to be a personal memoir blended with interviews and voice-overs by a variety of olfactory experts. I stayed in touch with Kathy as she assembled her footage and applied for grants to complete her artistic vision. She kept at it and now, at last, the film is ready for its first screening at the NFB Montreal Cinérobothèque in Montreal on May 22.
miscellaneous symptoms: sweet basements & gasoline

a film by kathy sperberg

A film about the potency of Smell Memory and its arresting grip on our emotions, language – or the absence thereof – and the space it inhabits. Featuring the scent industry’s top Noses, cultural theorists, sensory psychologists, urbanists, and through personal narrative, the film situates why its imprint matters in the new philosophy of Smell.
With its mix of the subjective and objective, Miscellaneous Symptoms promises to be an unusual and creative take on a topic that, to my knowledge, has never been explored on film. I’m eagerly awaiting a chance to see it.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

It’s Not Over Till the Fat Lady Spritzes

Hey boys and girls, ever wonder why the Boston Globe’s weekday circulation is down 13.6% from a year ago? Or why the paper is expected to lose $85 million this year? Hmmm . . . perhaps it has something to do with the quality of the product.

Check out this remarkably ignorant post by Christopher Muther who writes for the Globe’s Style section. In highlighting an upcoming talk by perfumer Christophe Laudamiel at the French Library Alliance Française of Boston, Muther writes:
This spring he’s staging the world’s first scent opera in NYC.
Readers of What the Nose Knows will recall a section titled “A Night at the Opera,” where I tell the story of a scent opera called Blind Trust, produced by Roland Tec back in 1993. Somewhat embarrassingly for Christopher “World’s First” Muther, it was performed at the Boston Science Museum. Oh, and it was reviewed in his own newspaper

None of this, of course, reflects on Christophe Laudamiel or his collaboration with composers Nico Muhly and Valgeir Sigurdsson, which will be performed (perfumed?) at the Guggenheim Museum in New York on May 31 and June 1.

Laudamiel is a trip: an intensely creative individual and a provocative perfumer—also one of the few I’ve heard who can speak about his craft with genuine insight. His Scent Opera arrives almost 50 years after people packed movie theaters on the other side of Manhattan to experience Mike Todd Jr.’s Smell-O-Vision and Walter Reade Jr.’s AromaRama. The excitement is palpable: I hear that both of Laudamiel’s shows are sold out and a third has been added.

I’ll definitely be there.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

American Smellscapes: Game Time at Fenway

Linda Bassett, writing in the Norwich Bulletin, gives an excellent play-by-play account of the aromas that fans encounter on their way to Fenway Park for a Red Sox game.
To get the real fan experience, you first need to take in the musty stench of the Kenmore T stop and the fumes that rise from cars and trucks trolling the Massachusetts Turnpike . . .
you inhale the first heady scent of Italian sausage, peppers and onions sizzling on the Sausage King’s grill. There are others; oh, yes, the area outside Yawkey Way is riddled with sausage stands vying for customers. Walking along, the smoke from steaks charbroiling at Burton’s Grill adds to the perfume.
Closer to the park Ms. Bassett (was there ever a better name for such a scent-minded writer?) picks up roasted peanuts, tangy mustard from the Monster Dogs, spilled beer, and mid-game the sugary smell of cotton candy.

Ms. Bassett is an olfactory traditionalist: 
Meanwhile, the latest, a cacophony of grease mixed with jalapenos and burnt garlic, doesn’t mesh with tradition. Give me my hawked peanuts, popcorn and Cracker Jacks I remember from childhood games. But chicken fingers, clam chowder and Dunkin’ Donuts coffee are a distraction in the stands. Keep them imprisoned in the insulated boxes above or the concourse below where the game flickers impersonally on overhead screens.
Right on. 

And while we’re on the subject, how about showing some sock, Sox?

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Smelling a Rat: John Mack’s Alien Abductees

Whitley Strieber, in his best-selling book Communion: A true story, used the supposedly unimpeachable evidence of smell memory to support his account of abduction by aliens, even as he systematically altered the recalled smells to fit his narrative. This sleazy maneuver is certainly one of the more creative uses of the myth of immutable Proustian odor memory. But Strieber wasn’t the only one to invoke smell in support of UFOs.

John E. Mack was a Harvard University psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who spent years taking alien abductees seriously. He was impressed by “the extreme consistency of the stories from person after person.” He argued that this consistency was so strong that any theory of abduction narratives—debunking or affirming—had to account for it. Such consistency ruled out medical disorders; it was something “you would not get simply by stimulating the temporal lobes. You would get very variable idiosyncratic responses that would differ a great deal from person to person.”

According to Mack, smells were invariably part of the ambience aboard alien spacecraft. In his 1994 book Abduction: Human encounters with aliens, he summarized the experience of typical abductees:
Once inside they may at first find that they are in a small dark room, a sort of vestibule. But soon they are taken into one or more larger rooms where the various procedures will occur. These rooms are brightly lit, with a hazy luminosity from indirect light sources in the walls. The atmosphere may be dank, cool, and occasionally even foul-smelling.
Later in the book he says: 
Once inside the craft the abductees see varying numbers of alien beings [ . . . ] who are engaged in a rather businesslike way in preparing to administer various procedures. The inside of the craft is generally rather cold, emotionally and physically, sometimes with a musty smell, with computer-like consoles along the walls. The walls tend to be white and curved, although black floors are sometimes described.
Perhaps it’s to be expected that alien spacecraft are consistently dank, musty, and foul-smelling, what with all the anal probing, sperm sampling, and embryo extracting going on. There’s only one problem: the case histories in Mack’s own book contradict his generalizations.

Mack devotes a chapter to each of thirteen individual case histories. Only three abductees mention smell at all. At 23% of the total that’s hardly an impressive rate of person-to-person consistency. Mack clearly overstates the true frequency of smell reports.

Another problem emerges from the detailed accounts. Here’s the woman named Jerry:
In one of the three episodes in 1991, Jerry recalls being taken by taller, more human-looking, fair-skinned, blond beings to what seemed like the top of a very large building with illuminated equipment in it. She had the sense that she was at a beach or a seashore, as she heard the wind and the water breaking, felt a breeze, and smelled the sea.
A woman named Catharine relates her abduction experience while under hypnosis. On board the alien ship she is confused by the apparently illusory size of its rooms; she finds herself in a forest and realizes this doesn’t make sense.
After the regression she reflected that she ‘looked way off in the distance’ and ‘could see walls, but it didn’t make much sense in context.’ She said that the forest even smelled like one and contained pine trees. She estimated it was ‘high school gym size.’
Finally, there’s the man named Dave:
His fear mounted in the session [of hypnosis] as he told of being forced onto a table on his back in a round, gray room in which there is an ‘earthylike’ smell. Several beings gathered around ‘to do something to me.’
Soon enough Dave gets anally probed. 

In sum, we have sea breeze, pine forest, and earthy-like smells. Of these, only the last might qualify as dank or musty but it’s certainly not foul-smelling. So at best only 8% of Mack’s subjects report the supposedly consistent smell phenomenon.

Early in the book Mack says
Particular sounds, smells, images, or activities that are disturbing for no apparent reason may later prove to be connected with the abduction experience.
As I described in What the Nose Knows, PTSD can be triggered by smells. The trouble with Mack’s claim that disturbing real-world smells are linked to abduction experiences is that he provides no examples at all.

So what to make of all this? Based on a narrow, nostril-centric view of his accounts, John Mack was an inaccurate summarizer of his own data. Perhaps this was due to sloppiness. Perhaps it was deliberate misrepresentation. Or perhaps, as his own interviewees may have done, Mack absorbed and retold an idealized account of alien abduction that simply doesn’t square with the details of a particular case. In any case, the whole exercise stinks.