Sunday, August 30, 2009

American Smellscapes: Raisins in the Sun

Farmer and author David Mas Masumoto describes a unique seasonal smellscape from California’s San Joaquin Valley.

Photo courtesy of Penny Newman Grain.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Vox Perfumisti

For some thoughts on the industry’s vexed attempts to talk to consumers about perfume and how the rise of fragrance bloggers is altering the scene, check out my piece in the current issue of Beauty Fashion. You can download it at my author site here.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Cinnamon Girl

I once knew a girl from Topanga Canyon who lived near Neil Young’s place. She said he used to beat his dogs.

A not so random recollection while mulling over the erotics of cinnamon.

Philip S., a reader of my book, sent me the text of Michael Ondaatje’s poem The Cinnamon Peeler because he thought it might appeal to me. He was right.

It begins:
If I were a cinnamon peeler
I would ride your bed
and leave the yellow bark dust
on your pillow.

Your breasts and shoulders would reek
you could never walk through markets
without the profession of my fingers
floating over you.

Reador listen to—the whole thing. It’s an amazing interplay of the senses: a blend of the tactile and the olfactory in the service of Eros.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

The Perfect Storm: A San Francisco Smellscape

Long-time FirstNerve reader and odor maven Marc Schoenfeld sent a link along with this on-the-scene report last Friday:

I thought the person I was with farted real bad while I was having a drink a couple of hours ago, but they are now vindicated.
It appears that a Mysterious Mega Smell rolled across San Francisco in the afternoon.

Various theories—red tide, sewer cleaning—but none confirmed.

Maybe it’s time to declare a smug alert?

UPDATE August 24, 2009

Andrew S. Ross at posts his experience of the big stink and gets lots of comments generating more . . . uh . . . heat than light. The locations mentioned cover an impressively wide area. Fascinating too is how people at first lay the blame on local sources before realizing it's a city-wide event. 

Friday, August 21, 2009

Della Chuang's KyotEau

Speaking of Kyoto, Japanese aesthetics, and scent, this book+perfume project by Della Chuang—with fragrance design by Christophe Laudamiel—looks intriguing. Nathan Branch has the skinny.

Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

Mariah Carey prepares to launch her third fragrance and the Kansas City Star’s Lisa Gutierrez has the temerity to say out loud what the rest of us were thinking.

Forever is described as an opulent floral scent with notes of lotus blossom, tuberose, gardenia, exotic woods and white musk. (What does a lotus blossom smell like? Anyone?)
Indeed. A nice illustration of the limits of Ingredient Voice—something I call attention to in the July issue of Beauty Fashion in a piece called “Who Speaks for Perfume?” (I’ll post a PDF of it at

FWIW I’ve seen much more flattering photos of Mariah Carey.

UPDATE August 25, 2009

OK, the PDF of my Beauty Fashion piece is finally up here.

Monday, August 17, 2009

NPR Discovers the Scent of Ponderosa Pine . . .

. . . by following his Oneness to the Grand Canyon.

The online story features a photo of a guy hugging a tree.


Arizona Public Radio reporter Daniel Kraker’s bio reads like a parody from The Onion.

Dan . . . heads up KNAU’s Indian Country News Bureau, which won a national UNITY award from the Radio and Television News Directors Association for coverage of diversity issues.
 Of course!
He’s also a National Murrow Award winner in radio documentary for his story on gay Native America for Outright Radio.
When he’s not exploring the canyons and mesas of the Four Corners . . . Dan can often be found on Flagstaff’s disc golf courses . . . 
Hey guys, let’s all go have a chai tea latte after disc golf!

Meanwhile, commenters on the NPR site take issue with Kraker’s characterization of Ponderosa pine aroma. Terrell Overman says 

The tree that smells like vanilla is not the Ponderosa Pine- it is the Jeffrey Pine. The address below is to a fact sheet on the Jeffrey Pine from the USDA website. Come on NPR! What happened to fact checking?
Cyril Owens adds his two cents:
Sorry but it’s Jeffrey Pines that have the smell of vanilla or butterscotch. They look very similar to a Ponderosa Pine. Jeffrey’s are only found above 5,000 feet. I live at 2,600 feet and have lots of Ponderosa Pines which only smell like plain old pine.
 This is NPR--National Public Radio.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Nosing Around Japan

Years back the Takasago Corporation invited me to speak at a sensory symposium in Japan. Through the kindness of Dr. Kunio Yamazaki, my postdoctoral mentor at the Monell Chemical Senses Center, and his wife Tomoko, I had already acquired some basic familiarity with Japanese culture—including sushi. I’d met quite a few visiting scientists from Kirin, Ajinomoto, Takasago, Shisheido, Shimizu and other big companies there. So I bought myself a Japanese phrase book, had bilingual business cards printed up, and climbed on a plane.

It was one of the best trips of my life.

I gave my speech in Tokyo, visited with the Takasago’s perfumers and scientists, and wandered around the city at all hours. I loved it—the food (tiny salted fish on rice for breakfast—yeah!), the department store greeters, the elevator ladies with white gloves, the soft drinks with names like “Pocari Sweat.” Everything seemed familiar but just slightly off-kilter in a wacky way. Pachinko parlors, for example, feel like amusement arcades but the players have the deadly serious air of slot machine addicts. Nothing was weirder than Japanese television—I’d stay up for hours watching it in the hotel, especially the bizarre commercials featuring a young guy in a suit and wrap-around shades who was pitching some kind of tonic drink.

The best thing I did was secretly cash in my bus tour reservation (graciously provided by my hosts who assumed I would want to be with other tourists, no?) and board a bullet train for Kyoto, that city of unbelievably beautiful temples and gardens. A businessman on the train insisted on buying me a beer and recommended that I stay in a ryokan—a traditional inn. Good call.

Anyway, these pleasant memories—and associated smells: there’s a fermented soy note that lingers in small back streets everywhere—came rushing back when I opened a copy of the brand new Japanese edition of What the Nose Knows—translated by Mayumi Teshigawara.

First Nerve readers know that Japan is a world leader in technolfactory innovation. I hope WTNK will resonate there.

Speed Smells: CSI Molecular Edition

From a late February edition of the Evansville Courier & Press:

Chemical smell leads deputies to meth lab.

Two Mount Vernon, Ind. residents are facing numerous charges after police traced a chemical smell to a meth lab in their yard barn . . .
Last week the action moved to Mississippi:
Authorities say a foul smell on Lovers Lane in Vicksburg led police to a methamphetamine lab.
As we’ve pointed out more than once, no matter how well-disguised the lab it’s always the smell that gives away the location.

But what exactly does a meth lab smell like? Local press accounts are maddeningly vague when it comes to describing the telltale aroma. It’s clearly unpleasant, but in what sort of way: Skunky? Barfy? Smoky?

Driven by a intellectual need to pin culturally important odors to specific molecules—plus an annoying bloated feeling from watching too many CSI reruns recently—First Nerve did a little googelizing and discovered “The Meth Lab Menace: What responders should know about these dangerous environments.” Written by Doug Hanson, PhD, this harrowing account originally appeared in EMS Magazine and is more compelling than any TV cop show.

Among other things, Hanson lays out the classes of chemicals likely to be found in a makeshift meth lab—the ingredients vary by recipe and by whether the final product is powder, rock or crystal. Common to all variations of the procedure, however, are powerful solvents and acids, gases, metallic salts, and a handful of other inorganic compounds.

From an olfactory POV the solvents are major contributors. According to Hanson these might include:
acetone, methanol, isopropanol, benzene, toluene, Freon and ether. These can come from common sources like nail polish remover (acetone), fuel additives like HEET (methanol), rubbing alcohol (isopropanol), scientific supply houses (benzene, toluene, diethyl ether) and old air conditioners (Freon). Other solvents that might be present include kerosene, petroleum ether and chloroform.
This covers a fat slice of the olfactory spectrum: from the sweetness of ether and benzene, to the harsher impact of isopropanol and methanol, to the engine room ambience of kerosene.

Add to these the gases such anhydrous ammonia and methylamine, and acids such as sulfuric acid and hydrochloric acid, and you have an olfactory hammer waiting to drop on the unwary intruder. No wonder the neighbors notice. And no wonder local reporters have a hard time describing it.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

ISDP: “Smell, What Smell?” Edition

Some people think First Nerve has an unhealthy, even morbid, preoccupation with the stench of decay. Nonsense! We think these stories usefully the break through the taboos that wall off the dark side of smell. If you’re so inclined, join us for another month’s roundup of ISDP.

On July 14, WMBD/WYZZ-TV reported:

A body is discovered at a Bloomington mobile home Tuesday afternoon after a neighbors noticed a foul smell.
Another account says “A foul smell led a maintenance man to the discovery.” 

Either way, here’s the alarming part: 
Several neighbors said people may have dismissed the smell initially, thinking it came from the nearby sewage treatment plant.

In Massachusetts, a man sought in the death of a young woman shot himself to death after a standoff with police in Westminster on August 1. The woman’s body was found the previous day in an apartment building in Fitchburg. She was 29 years old. 

The woman’s across-the-hall neighbor said he “did not realize anything was amiss in the building until state police knocked on his door about 10:30 p.m. Friday,” although “he had noticed a foul odor in the hallway outside his apartment for several days.” 

Next time he’ll probably put 2 and 2 together a little faster.

Also on the oblivious end of the spectrum are the folks who live on Indian School Road and 105th Avenue in Avondale, Arizona. The body of a 28-year-old male homicide victim was found in a nearby vacant home on July 22 by an employee of a property management company.
Neighbors said they could smell the stench for days before police arrived.

“It was almost like a dead animal kind of smell,” said Donna Bekstrom, who lives around the corner. “I’ve never smelled anything like that. I’m in the medical field, I never smelt anything like that. It was a bad smell.”

But not bad enough to do anything about . . .

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

According to KVIA-TV in El Paso, Texas, on July 15:
The foul odor emanating from the trunk of a red Ford Focus led police to a gruesome discovery . . . The badly decomposed body of a man was found inside the trunk of the vehicle . . . the victim’s head was covered with medical bandages and his hands were tied behind his back . . .
In Boston on August 7:
A foul smell caused residents at the Clare Gardens Condo Complex in Hyde Park to call police.
Officers found the bodies of two men in a rental car, dead of trauma. One of the men had been reported missing days earlier.

The Great Outdoors

A “partially decapitated” body wrapped in plastic was found near a gravel road in Gwinnett County, Georgia, on July 15. It “was discovered by a resident who was investigating a foul smell in the area.”

A dead body was found in Shabakunk Creek in Lawrence Township, New Jersey on the evening of July 16. According to
the body was discovered just after 9 p.m. by a hot dog stand owner nearby who smelled a foul odor.
In Florence, South Carolina on July 20:
Someone called Central Dispatch about 11:30 a.m. because of a bad smell coming from a grassy area behind the Bi-Lo store off Freedom Boulevard and the railroad tracks, Florence Police Maj. Carlos Raines said.
The deceased was a 50-year-old transient from out of state.

On August 4, lawn workers in Seminole County, Florida, “noticed a foul smell coming from the woods across from the post office on Montgomery Road.” They found a body hanging from a tree—an apparent suicide.

And Finally

This case just missed our IDSP “Couples’ Edition” in July. Boston Globe reporters John R. Ellement and Jazmine Ulloa have the strange story of 51-year-old twin brothers found dead in separate rooms of their Fenway-area apartment. Police “were called to the Norway Street building by residents reporting a foul odor.”

And from Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, comes this odd, heartrending story about a dead body whose relatives insist it does not smell.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Let It Be

Headline from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:
Workers race to clear Piedmont Park lake before McCartney concert
The story in a nutshell:
Cleanup of Piedmont Park’s Lake Clara Meer continued Tuesday as workers scooped up thousands of dead fish in August’s brutal heat.
Authorities say the cleanup “should be completed in time for this Saturday’s Paul McCartney concert.”

Why bother? Paul McCartney and dead fish—perfect together.

As a kid, the first album I ever traded back to a record store on Telegraph Avenue was Let it Be. It stank. And I stopped listening to McCartney then and there.

Phewey. Lake Clara Meer?  Let it be.

UPDATE August 14, 2009

A possible new concert venue for Sir Paul: Carlsbad, New Mexico. Ebony and ivory and golden algae.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Ride the Wind

Another fine example of Japanese technolfactory innovation. I missed it originally because I was flying down the endless highways of the Inter-Mountain West in a rental with the cruise control at 80.

I’m especially keen on the “Odor/Exhaust Sensors.”
In addition to a conventional exhaust sensor, the system includes the world’s first sensor system for detecting various other odors, such as from animals, from outside the vehicle – opening or closing the intake vents as needed without constant driver input. The system also utilizes an inside sensor, located at knee level, to detect cigarette odors and other unpleasant interior smells and increase airflow if necessary.

In less polite—less Japanese—terms, it’s a fart-detector!

No more blame and denial. No more “I never should have let you order that bean burrito.” The system pulls down the windows and an 80 m.p.h. cross-draft purges the passenger compartment in seconds.


UPDATE November 1, 2009

Motor Trend reports that the 2011 Inifiniti M will use the Forest Air system.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

When Worlds Collide, Pt. 2

Another mega-smell causing havoc, this time in England.

Tourists are abandoning their summer holidays on the Isle of Sheppey after being put off by a foul smell sweeping the island.
It sounds bad:
Brenda Hardman, chairman of the island’s Leysdown Parish Council, said: “It’s been awful, it’s the worst smell. People have been physically sick, it’s dreadful.”
What evil corporate industrial polluter is responsible for this outrage?

Well, uh, that would be the Thames Water utility which is distributing “lime-stabilised sewage sludge” to farmers in an effort to “reduce reliance on chemical fertilisers and waste disposal through landfill.”

Ooof!  NIMBYs 1, PC Bio-Solids 0.

Hey, can someone pass me more popcorn?

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The FirstNerve BurrOmeter: La Nuit de L'Homme by YSL

Name Drops: 7
Anne Flipo
Dominique Ropion
Pierre Wargnye
Olivier Martinez
Christian Bale
George Clooney
Vincent Cassel
Bonus Points: 
Perfumers: 3
Actors: 4
French: 4
Consecutive appearances: Dominique Ropion 2
Movie allusions: 2
Spiderman 2

Nonsensical fragrance description: 
definitive masculine gourmand: 1
Bonus points:
consecutive “gourmands”: 1
Total BurrOmeter reading for La Nuit de L’Homme: 24 milliburrs

Outlook: A manly masculine for men who are male.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

OMG They've Merged!

Meet Chandler Turin:

“Bunk,” according to Luca Turin, the New York Times perfume critic and author of Perfumes: The Guide, which reviews and rates 1,500 perfumes.

When Worlds Collide

I love it when PC meets NIMBY in a head-on collision. “Green” recycled sludge or olfactory nuisance? SuperFund remediation or intolerable stink?

Heh. Pass the popcorn.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Back in Business

Nine days, two thousand nine hundred and sixty-five miles. 

Denver, Kremmling, Grand Junction, Moab, Cortez, Mexican Water, Tuba City, Kanab, Flagstaff, Twin Arrows, Sante Fe and points between.

The fire. The odor of burning juniper is the sweetest fragrance on the face of the earth, in my honest judgment; I doubt if all the smoking censers of Dante’s paradise could equal it. One breath of juniper smoke, like the perfume of sagebrush after rain, evokes in magical catalysis, like certain music, the space and light and clarity and piercing strangeness of the American West. Long may it burn.
Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire.

I also liked the smell of wet clay after a cloudburst on a trail among the hoodoos in Bryce Canyon.