Thursday, December 24, 2009

Season’s Greetings!

[With apologies to Roger Angell.]

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

Monday, December 21, 2009

The Pendock Paradox: Round 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Pendock Paradox: What If Perfumes Were Wine?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sarah Jessica Parker: B.O. in a Bottle

First this:

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

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Perfume Museum’s Hall of Olfactory Technology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

South Philly Stinky

An actual Fox News headline from yesterday:

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

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

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Frauen riechen besser

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

UPDATE December 17, 2009: La fürze del destino

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

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

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

Werwolfi—keeping it classy in Vienna!

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

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The FirstNerve BurrOmeter: Pucci, Guerlain and Alford & Hoff

Name drops: 11

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

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

Repetitive redundancies: 1

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

Outlook: Wonderfulness trumps gender.

ISDP: Bleak December Edition

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 12, 2009

An Odorless Anti-Theft Smell?

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

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

Or is this just an olfactory bluff by Groundskeeper Kappy?

Friday, December 11, 2009

Beat the BurrOmeter: Play to Win!

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

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

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

Good luck.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

It’s the Spritziest Time of the Year

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 6, 2009

I Smell Dead People: The Interactive Map

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 5, 2009

What to Wear When Crushing Grapes

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

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

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