Thursday, December 23, 2010

Gayil Nalls to Lead an Olfactory Meditation

We’ve interviewed Gayil Nalls and noted the first two installments of her Olfactory Inkblot series. Now there’s a third:
On Saturday, January 8th, 2011 at 4:00 pm an olfactory meditation on the World Olfactory Social Sculpture World Sensorium will be led by artist Gayil Nalls.
Sounds cool. Details here. The venue itself—the Main Hall of Staten Island’s historic Snug Harbor Cultural Center and Botanical Garden—is also a draw. Plus it’s free!

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Celebuscents: Is Paris Played Out?

In our look at Parlux Fragrances, Inc., we noted that the majority of its gross sales come from the company’s Paris Hilton brand perfumes. Thus its commercial fortunes are tied to her continued draw as a celebrity. The relevant question for investors becomes: How good are her prospects?

Lacking a crystal ball, we turned to Google Trends, a data source we’ve used before in analyzing public interest in fragrance over time

We entered “Paris Hilton” as our search term and Google produced a Search Volume Index—a weekly data series from January 4, 2004 to the present. The results are scaled by setting the January, 2004 level of search traffic to 1.0. Episodes of heavy search volume appear as peaks on the resulting graph. We collapsed the data to monthly intervals for easier viewing.

The high levels of interest (A) in early 2004 correspond to the launch of her TV series The Simple Life in December, 2003 and the release around that time of her sex video with Rick Salomon. The big spike (B) in February, 2005 matches her hosting of SNL and the hacking of her Sidekick. Her August, 2006 arrest for DUI (C) didn’t have much impact on her Google traffic, but her suspended license bust in January 2007 gave it a kick (D). The last big spike in interest (E) was June, 2007, when Hilton did jail time for violating her parole from the driving charges. The last episode of TSL aired in August, 2007 (F), and Google search interest in Paris Hilton has never been the same—it’s been downhill ever since. Her August, 2010 coke bust in Las Vegas (G) barely moved the needle.

The long term trend is clear: Paris Hilton’s Web celebrity is dwindling.

More alarming are the search volume results for “Paris Hilton + perfume”. We see the expected seasonality with huge peaks preceding each Christmas shopping period. However, Christmas search volume peaked in 2007 and has declined each year since. So Can Can (launched October, 2007) generated a lot of interest but Fairy Dust (October, 2008) didn't rise to that standard. Nor did the mid-year launches of Siren (July, 2009) and Tease (June, 2010) get the same attention during the crucial Christmas sales period.

The Google Trends for Paris Hilton don’t seem to be working in favor of Parlux Fragrances. The company has hitched its wagon to a fading star, and mid-year launches have not helped matters. Perhaps word of mouth and print advertising are keeping sales high, but based on these numbers the Paris Hilton perfume brand is looking played out.

Friday, December 17, 2010

NASA braggarts walk it back

No questions, please, we’re scientists.

Just two weeks after a news conference breathlessly announcing a new, arsenic-based bacterial life form, NASA scientists have begun backing down from their “extravagant, textbook-changing claims.” Color us not too damned surprised.

The Philadelphia Inquirer, perhaps feeling burned by having run with a New York Times hook-line-and-sinker story on NASA’s claim, has staff writer Faye Flam take a suitably squinty-eyed look at government-funded scientists Felisa Wolfe-Simon and Ronald Oremland.

When criticism of their work appeared shortly after their presser, neither author deigned to take questions from the press or public about obvious soft spots in their claim. Yesterday, however, Wolfe-Simon released a statement “making a more modest claim.” And speaking at a panel discussion at the American Geophysical Union, Oremland, doing his best Claude Rains imitation, pronounced himself shocked, shocked at the overheated press accounts of their work:
He [Oremland] was baffled when asked why so many reporters used the word thrived to describe the bacteria’s state in concentrated arsenic. 
However, as Faye Flam points out, 
The word can be traced back to Wolfe-Simon at the news conference. “Not only did these microbes cope, but they grew and thrived,” she said, “and that was amazing.”
Baffling indeed.

Faye Flam also did some, uh, actual reporting and came up with a couple of nuggets.
The fact that the microbes can survive in concentrated arsenic is nothing new. In 1997, scientists published a paper in Nature Biotechnology showing they could grow E. coli in even more concentrated arsenic than Wolfe-Simon used . . .
Uh oh . . .
[Other scientists] balked at NASA’s insinuation that until Wolfe- Simon set them straight, they were stuck on the assumption that life elsewhere must use the exact same biochemistry as life here. Not only do biologists assume different chemistries are possible, they’ve already created some alternative forms of DNA - molecules dubbed PNA and TNA for example - that can also carry a genetic code.
Hmmm . . . so what’s left of all the hoopla? Well, NASA isn’t talking.
Members of the team were not available for additional comment Thursday. A NASA spokesman said it wasn’t part of the agency’s mission to evaluate peer-reviewed findings. “We funded it and by our charter when we have news, we have to release it to the public,” said Dwayne Brown of NASA. “Our role was to tell the public about this finding, and that’s what we did in the news conference.”
Dwayne Brown is a public servant paid with our tax dollars. Feel free to put your questions and comments to him directly.

Finally, more attention should be paid to the quality control at Science magazine which served up this steaming pile of half-baked research. Bloggers (Carl Zimmer) and reporters (Faye Flam) quickly found skeptical researchers willing to critique the paper—how come the editors at Science could not? Or if they did, why didn’t they listen to them?

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Celebuscents: A peek behind the press release

We haven’t watched much TV at FirstNerve Manor since that meteorite took out the aerial on the north belfry back in ’02. So excuse us if we are not totally up to the minute on Jordin Sparks’ claim to celebrity status based on a show called American Idol. That’s why we just yawned when she announced the launch of her celebuscent in October.

What did grab our attention was last Thursday’s press release noting that her perfume, Because of You, had snared a 2010 WWD Beauty Biz Award for “Best Executed Launch Strategy.” The award-winning strategy was to go out at a $9.50 retail (2.5 oz.) exclusively at the Dots clothing chain through November, then rise to $14.95 while expanding to a broader distribution.

An award after two months on the market? That makes us want to know who’s behind Because of You. According to the press release it’s an outfit called Apra International LLC.
Apra is a leading fragrance company known for creating high-quality, affordably priced celebrity/designer fragrances. By introducing up and coming celebrity fragrances at affordable prices, Apra plans to carve out a piece of mass market fragrance sales by giving its consumer base something that the other leading market fragrance companies cannot offer due to their competitor’s inefficient cost structure.
A leading fragrance company? Uh . . . just one we’ve never heard of until now. Apra International LLC googles mostly to Jordin Sparks press releases.Then we figured this might be something to go on:
“We are honored to receive this award for the launch of our first celebrity fragrance endeavor and thank Jordin Sparks for making this amazing partnership possible”, says Ezriel Polatsek, CEO of Apra.
Unlike Apra International, Ezriel Polatsek googles quite well. In fact, he’s been in WWD before, on June 18, 2008:
Estée Lauder, Clinique File Suit Against Preferred Fragrance

The Estée Lauder Cos. Inc. and Clinique Laboratories Inc. have filed a lawsuit against Preferred Fragrance Inc. alleging trademark infringement in connection with alleged knockoffs of Lauder-branded fragrances.

The lawsuit, filed in Manhattan federal court on June 11, also alleges unfair competition, false advertising and dilution. Other named defendants include Preferred’s owner, Izriel Polatsek, also known as Ezriel Polatsek; CVS Inc.; CVS Pharmacy Inc. and CVS Caremark Corp.; Family Dollar Stores Inc., and John Does 1-10.

The lawsuit said that Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Preferred is a “known infringer that previously has copied — and previously has been sued for its copying of — famous perfume brands.” It said the Brooklyn firm appropriated Lauder’s marks for its own use for its line of knockoff products that it has begun selling or soon will sell for the holiday 2008 season in stores such as CVS and Family Dollar.
Previously sued for copyright infringement? That would seem to refer to Elizabeth Arden Inc v. Preferred Fragrance Inc, filed June 17, 2005 in the Southern District of Ohio.

In fact, suing Preferred Fragrance Inc. seems to be the in thing: Ed Hardy’s people filed a Federal complaint against them last February.

A rare non-press release Google hit for Apra International LLC provides an address in upstate New York. Google-map the address and it turns out to be the same as that of—wait for it—Preferred Fragrance Inc.

So let’s see if we have this straight: as owner of Preferred Fragrance Inc., Ezriel Polatsek has pissed off Estée Lauder, Elizabeth Arden and Ed Hardy; as CEO of Apra International LLC, he is given an award and PR bonanza by fashion industry journal WWD.

If you think this all smells a bit odd, we’re inclined to agree.

ISDP: Minimalist Edition

We’d like to think it has something to do with the spirit of the season, but more likely than not it’s temperature related. Here we are on the thirteenth of December and there’s only a single item to offer the morbid fan-base of ISDP. And even then, it’s really a borderline call—one of those instances where someone takes it upon himself to check on a person he hasn’t heard from in a while, only to discover the inevitable olfactory clue. Still, it’s all we’ve got: a 60-year old man found in his apartment on the 500 block of Royal Street in New Orleans:
a friend of the deceased stated that he had not seen him for several days and decided to go visit him. Upon arriving at his apartment he discovered his door closed, but with a foul smell emanating from the apartment. The police was then notified and Eighth District Officers responded to the scene and found the body of the deceased in a state of decomposition.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

For Sale: Lightly Used BurrOmeter

We spared no expense to quantify the rhetorical stylings of the New York Times Officially Designated Perfume Critic®. Alas, the guy who made Shyamala Maisondieu a household word is now, according to ABC News, “the former fragrance critic of The New York Times,” having just completed his metamorphosis into “the nation’s first curator of olfactory art.”

We hate to say so, but we saw it coming like a neon gourmand in the hands of a promotion lady at Bloomie’s. The reviews became shorter and less frequent, lost their star ratings, and eventually became terse bouillon cubes of condensed inanity, instead of florid frappés of nonsensical adjectives generously garnished with Francophonic name-droppings.

Our ongoing BurrOmeter feature tracked the TNYTODPC’s diminishment. In the comments we chronicled our technical staff’s valiant efforts to tweak the BurrOmeter’s ability to detect the fading signal.

March, 2010
The FirstNerve technical staff were pleased to fire up the BurrOmeter, but with the bite size reviews they couldn’t really redline it. Plus all the French name drops left a sticky coating on the sensor surfaces. It’ll take days to vacuum all the Polge particles out of the francophilia filters and swab the Ropion residue off the transthermal rhetorical coils.
April, 2010
Nothing to it, really. Just had the BurrOmeter technicians boost the gain on the metaphor diodes and use a high-pass filter on the name drop dosimeter.

With state-of-the-art automated rhetorical analytics, we should be able to get readings until the reviews drop below 20 words.
August, 2010
We went to great expense to recalibrate the BurrOmeter to measure the new, abbreviated, star-less reviews. But the sample size is getting tinier and tinier—it’s now down to 40.8 words per review. And since each perfume is now paired with another in the same brand, it’s effectively 20.4 words. Shave off a few more and we’ll have to buy an Ono-Sendai 750-nanometer haiku demodulator for the front end.
The FirstNerve technicians are triste, to say the least. In fact, they’re goddam désolé, having just been shown the door by HR. Well, all except Stan. We’re keeping him on to mothball the BurrOmeter for eventual sale. We’re looking for something just north of thirty large.

We hope to find a new owner who appreciates its historical role. Hey! Maybe the Museum of Arts and Design will buy it. Should look great in their new Center for Olfactory Art.


We’ve got an assload of Jean-Claude Ellena bobbleheads in the storage locker. Ten bucks each if you pay the shipping.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

NASA to Inquiring Minds: Go Fish

I could give a rat’s ass whether some bacterium in Mono Lake incorporates arsenic instead of phosphorus into its DNA. If true, it would be a cool discovery. So I noted the buzz about last week’s hugely hyped Science paper by NASA scientists and went on my merry way.

Then a microbiologist at UBC, writing in her lab blog, called bullshit on the finding and Slate science journalist Carl Zimmer asked the NASA authors to comment. 
I asked two of the authors of the study if they wanted to respond to the criticism of their paper. Both politely declined by email. 

“We cannot indiscriminately wade into a media forum for debate at this time,” declared senior author Ronald Oremland of the U.S. Geological Survey. “If we are wrong, then other scientists should be motivated to reproduce our findings. If we are right (and I am strongly convinced that we are) our competitors will agree and help to advance our understanding of this phenomenon. I am eager for them to do so.”

“Any discourse will have to be peer-reviewed in the same manner as our paper was, and go through a vetting process so that all discussion is properly moderated,” wrote Felisa Wolfe-Simon of the NASA Astrobiology Institute. “The items you are presenting do not represent the proper way to engage in a scientific discourse and we will not respond in this manner.”
“The proper way to engage in a scientific discourse”? This had me spluttering mad. If you hype your finding in the media, then have the stones to defend it in the media.

Ronald Oremland’s prim arrogance and the unmitigated gall of Felisa Wolfe-Simon’s stonewalling are the antithesis of the scientific spirit. They should be ashamed of themselves. They have flushed whatever respect NASA’s Astrobiology Institute might once have had.

Another of Zimmer’s sources, Jonathan Eisen of U.C. Davis, nails it:
“If they say they will not address the responses except in journals, that is absurd,” he said. “They carried out science by press release and press conference. Whether they were right or not in their claims, they are now hypocritical if they say that the only response should be in the scientific literature.”
Hypocrites and cowards.

Monday, December 6, 2010

The Wall Street Journal’s Take on Celebuscents

OK, so we had the crack FirstNerve forensic auditing team pore over SEC filings to bring you the business deals behind some of the biggest celebuscents on the market. If our staff can tackle SEC 10-Ks and 10-Qs and 13Ds, you’d figure the Wall Street Journal must be really deep into the financial underpinnings of the perfume industry.

You’d figure wrong.

Their latest take is “Scents and Salability: a Celebrity Sniff Test”, in which they have celebrities comment on celebrity fragrances. It’s so . . . comment dit-on en anglais . . . meta-ironical, non?

Priya Rao, the Journal’s “NY Heard & Scene” reporter, asks musician Pete Wentz to sniff and respond to Beyoncé Heat. Come on, Ms. Rao. He’s married to Jessica Simpson’s little sister. We’d love to know what he thinks of his sister-in-law’s perfumes.

Rao then asks Twilight actor Billy Burke to sniff Mary J. Blige My Life; why not have him sample Twilight, the perfume tie-in to his movies?

Lame. Or perhaps not. Pairing the names of semi-celebrities with product glamour shots sends a big wet kiss to potential perfume advertisers. 

Rupert, you sly dog you.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Celebuscents: The business end of the blotter

The torrent of celebrity fragrances spilling into the market shows no signs of slowing. Each season brings new perfumes by A-list divas, rappers and reality show cast members. Some of us question the quality of these offerings. We also wonder whether the sheer number of celebrity perfumes dilutes the market and confuses the consumer. Grousing about celebrity fragrances has become a numbing habit, like complaining about the weather.

Unlike the weather, however, celebrity perfumes are a human phenomenon. They keep coming to market because someone somewhere calculates that the financial rewards are worth the risk. I thought it would be enlightening and perhaps entertaining to shed some light on the business of celebrity scents. Who is giving the green light to all these perfume projects and supplying the risk capital for them? How good a job are they doing financially and creatively?

Our first target of interest is Parlux Fragrances, Inc., based in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. It’s a publicly held company that trades on the NASDAQ. The company produces high profile celebrity scents, including those by Paris Hilton, Jessica Simpson and Queen Latifah. Parlux did Marc Ecko’s Ecko, and Josie Natori’s Natori. They now have the rights to perfumes by Nicole Miller. A scent by shoe designer Vince Camuto is on the way this fall, and next year Parlux will launch a perfume by Rihanna. A Kanye West fragrance is planned for 2011 or early 2012.

Parlux sells about $150 million of perfume annually, mainly to department store retailers such as Bloomingdales, J.C. Penney, Macy’s, Saks, and Sears. It’s biggest customer is Macy’s which accounts for almost a quarter of its annual sales. Macy’s is such a large fraction of its business that Parlux is obliged under financial reporting rules to acknowledge that the loss of Macy’s as a customer would “have a material adverse effect on our total sales.”

An equally significant source of sales is specialty retailer Perfumania, a company with 370 stores located in outlet malls and regional malls in the U.S. Perfumania, like Macy’s, is a customer whose loss would seriously impact Parlux’s financials. There is another twist to this relationship: because the owners of Perfumania’s parent company (Perfumania Holdings, Inc.) also own a significant amount of stock in Parlux, perfume sales to Perfumania are reported as “related party sales,” about which we’ll have more to say.

So who does the actual work of creating the juice and the bottle and the packaging for all the Parlux perfumes? Here’s what the company says in its most recent annual report:
We design and create fragrances using our own staff and independent contractors. We supervise the design of our packaging by independent contractors to create products appealing to the intended customer base. The creation and marketing of each product line is closely linked with the applicable brand name, its positioning and market trends for the prestige fragrance industry. This development process usually takes twelve to eighteen months to complete.
Stars don’t just wander off the street and into the company’s offices. How does Parlux secure the rights to a celebrity’s scent? Their people talk to the celeb’s people, and ultimately a deal is struck between Parlux and the celebrity’s corporate entity. For example, Paris Hilton Entertainment Inc. grants Parlux an exclusive license to develop, manufacture, and distribute prestige fragrances under the Paris Hilton name. The original license deal ran from 2004 to 2009 and spawned Paris Hilton (2005), Paris Hilton for Man (2005), Just Me (2005), Heiress (2006), Heir (2006), Just Me for Man (2006), Can Can (2007), Fairy Dust (2008), and Siren (2009). The deal was renewed for another five years and runs through June 30, 2014.

Parlux also has licensing agreements with VCJS, LLC (Jessica Simpson), Queen Latifah Inc. (Queen Latifah), Ecko Complex LLC (Marc Ecko), J.N. Concepts, Inc. (Josie Natori), and Kobra International, Ltd. (Nicole Miller). A deal signed with tennis star Andy Roddick in 2004 resulted in a single fragrance in 2008; Parlux opted to let the deal expire in March, 2010. Not every celebuscent hits the jackpot.
As if often the case with Parlux, there are unusual twists to the standard business model. Take the Rihanna and Kanye West deals, for example. Both artists licensed their worldwide fragrance rights to a company called Artistic Brands Development, LLC—as did entertainment mogul Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter. Artistic Brands, in turn, sublicensed these fragrance rights to Parlux. Who is behind Artistic Brands? None other than Jay-Z himself. The other principal in the company is a fellow named Rene Garcia. And thereby hangs a tale.

Rene Garcia, owns approximately 9.1% of Perfumania Holdings, Inc., which in turns owns Perfumania, Inc., the chain of retail outlets. Along with various family trusts and investment vehicles identified in S.E.C. documents as The Garcia Group, Rene Garcia’s interests include about 14.7% of the outstanding shares of Parlux. In December, 2009, Parlux issued warrants to Artistic Brands Development for the purchase of up to 8 million Parlux shares at a $5 exercise price, in return for sublicenses to the Rihanna and Kanye West fragrances. (The stock has traded in the $1.50 to $2.50 range for the past year; it will require quite a rise in price for those warrants to be worth anything.) The Artistic Brands deal makes Jay-Z more than a rapper willing to lend his name to a cologne—it makes him a player in the world of fragrance licensing. This is the sharp business acumen that has made him worth an estimated $450 million, according to the Wall Street Journal.

But back to Rene Garcia. He gets some Parlux warrants as Jay-Z’s development partner in exchange for fragrance rights to Rihanna and Kanye. Parlux—in which Garcia is a major shareholder—will produce these perfumes and sell them in large part to Perfumania, a company in which Garcia is also a major shareholder. Mr. Garcia has an uncanny ability to manifest himself simultaneously on several levels of the Astral Plane. He’s involved in the brokerage of celebrity perfume rights, in the manufacture of the actual perfumes, and in the retail sale of same. All that’s missing is a stake in a bottle-making company.

How solid is Parlux’s celebrity fragrance business? We know its business depends heavily on sales to Macy’s and on related party sales to Perfumania. It also gets the majority of its gross sales from the Paris Hilton brand products.
If Paris Hilton’s appeal as a celebrity were to diminish it could result in a material reduction in our sales of licensed Paris Hilton brand products, adversely affecting our results of operations and operating cash flows.
Hmmm. Her summer drug busts in South Africa, France, and Las Vegas, and the resulting headlines (“Scandal-plagued socialite Paris Hilton has been voted the worst celebrity role model in a new online poll”) must be giving the Parlux folks some serious agita.

Celebrity fragrances are only as attractive as the persona they are built around. Kanye West continues to stir the pot following his infamous interruption of Taylor Swift at the 2009 VMAs, recently by trashing Lindsay Lohan’s fashion line. Is he out of control or cunningly good at keeping himself in the news? Either way, is this a persona that Parlux can build a franchise on?

Speaking of personalities, there’s a highly entertaining book to be written about the characters who hold the financial fortunes of Parlux in their hands. There is the cryptic and awesomely unGoogle-able Rene Garcia Group of south Florida. There is Frederick E. Purches, the founder and once-and-current CEO of Parlux. There is former CEO Ilea Lekach, dubbed “worst CEO of the year” in 2006 by MarketWatch. And best of all, there are brothers Glenn and Stephen Nussdorf who, along with their sister Arlene Nussdorf, control about 74% of Perfumania Holdings, Inc. They wrenched control of Parlux away from Lekach a few years ago in a proxy battle so overwrought it deserves to be told in the form of a graphic novel.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Out of the Shadows: I No Longer Believe in Human Pheromones

From my earliest fascination with animal behavior in college, through my pure sensory research phase at the Monell Center, and into my mercenary research phase in the fragrance industry, the question of human sex pheromones was never far from mind. Having studied sexual behavior and smell, I eagerly read the new studies and attended the promising talks hoping to see a definitive answer emerge. Curiously, as more research was done the case for human pheromones became more tentative. Researchers I knew and respected couldn’t even agree on basic physiological facts: do humans have a vomeronasal organ or not? If it exists is it functional? If it’s functional, does it deliver a behaviorally relevant message?

I grew increasingly impatient with this state of affairs. I wasn’t the only one seeking clarity: an endless parade of associate beauty editors, science reporters, and generally intelligent people asked me whether there was anything to the idea of human sex pheromones. The best I could offer them was the lame proposition that while the molecules and the means to perceive them might still exist, the effects of human sex pheromones were unlikely to be as dramatic as those in insects or rodents. This didn’t satisfy the associate beauty editors nor did it satisfy me. Reserving judgment in the face of conflicting data is a bedrock principle of science but it doesn’t make for good sound bites.

According to the definitions first developed in the early 1960s, a sex pheromone should trigger an invariant, reflex-like behavior in most people who smell it, and it should consist chemically of (ideally) one to (at most) a small handful of specific molecules. In theory, uncorking a sample tube of male pheromone ought to make women go gaga, while a nose full of female pheromone should make men go stiff, something along the lines of the wickedly clever story by Roald Dahl called Bitch.

So, thousands of studies and millions of research dollars later, where are we?

Richard Doty, a smell researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, has now supplied the book-length answer. In The great pheromone myth, Doty provides an exhaustive—and sometimes exhausting—account of the science behind mammalian pheromones. But this is much more than a summary of 50 years worth of research—it is a thorough and relentless examination of the evolving scientific claims made for the pheromone concept itself. And it is here that Doty has provided a major contribution: nothing less than an complete take-down of human pheromones.

The great pheromone myth is an argumentative tour de force. Like a skilled prosecutor cross-examining witnesses, Doty sets the trap by quoting researchers themselves as he reviews the definition of pheromones. From one scientist to the next we find inconsistencies, contradictions, and special pleading. The cumulative effect is devastating: it demonstrates the intellectual incoherence surrounding the term. A pheromone is a simple chemical—except when it’s a blend of chemicals. A pheromone has an innate releaser effect on other animals—except when learning or context is involved. Doty also quotes those who along the way cautioned about extending the pheromone concept from insects to mammals. Like a good courtroom lawyer, he plants seeds of doubt in the minds of jurors.

Doty spells out the technical shortcomings of animal and human experiments, but he always returns to his theme: that the results rarely meet the criteria for a pheromone, even as the criteria become ever more expansive and flexible. 

As Doty dismantles one pheromone claim after another, he also builds a powerful case for the behavioral and physiological effects mediated by body odors. Mothers recognize infants, infants recognize mothers, lover recognize each other—all through natural body scent. Many of these effects involve learning and the evaluation of context, even in rats. For example, “male rats exhibit an increase in testosterone and luteinizing hormone following exposure to the wintergreen-smelling odorant, methyl salicylate, when the odor had been paired with previous copulation.” Mice raised until weaning with artificially perfumed parents later prefer to mate with similarly scented mice; mice raised unscented prefer unscented partners. These results show the importance of smell in sexual behavior and speak to learning and adaptability; but they are hard to square with the idea that mammals respond only to pheromones composed of highly specific natural body scents.

To all of which one might reply, so what? So what if there is no solid evidence in mammals that meets the narrow technical definition of pheromones? What’s wrong with calling all these various effects pheromonal?

The problem is that the pheromone concept does no intellectual work. It provides no leverage for discovering new facts or phenomena. Pheromones are the intellectual version of elastic-waisted fat pants—the concept expands to accommodate each and every claim made for it. Once upon a time instinct theory was equally in vogue and used to “explain” all sorts of behavior. Today it’s rarely invoked. By specifying the roles of context and learning, behavioral science simply outgrew the need to appeal to instinct.

Today we are seeing a new wave of research by scientists such as Denise Chen, Bettina Pause, Johan Lundström, and others showing that body odors can transmit emotional state from one person to another, and can alter brain processing and hormonal levels. It’s clear that we are much more affected by the scent of other people than previously thought. The effects are many and varied; more will doubtless be revealed. But what is gained by shoving them all under the umbrella of “pheromones”? Very little, I believe. Like Doty, I’m pessimistic the public will ever give up its fascination with pheromones, but it’s time for scientists to file them away—right next to phlogiston—in the drawer labeled “formerly useful concepts”.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Pass the Potatoes, Please

When I looked to the future in the final chapter of What the Nose Knows, one of the things I liked was the possibility of restoring or improving the aroma of fruits and vegetables. The idea of genetically engineered food gives some people a case of metaphysical indigestion, but I see it as a faster and more precise version of what we’ve been doing for 15,000 years: improving on nature by changing genes.

One thing I did not anticipate was the use of biotechnology to prevent the off-odors that occur in damaged produce. Consider the oxidized potato: a bruised or cut tuber turns brown and acquires an unpleasant aroma. This results when phenolic compounds released from the damaged plant tissue interact with an enzyme called potato polyphenol oxidase or PPO.

Some enterprising Argentine scientists, led by Briardo Llorente at the National Research Council of Argentina, genetically engineered potato varieties that silenced the PPO gene. The result: nonbrowning potatoes. Neato! But what everyone wants to know is, how do they taste?

In a new paper, Llorente’s team reports reactions from two sources: lab mice and humans. The aroma preferences of the mice were calculated by how much they spent exploring two food cups in an open field test chamber. When the potato samples were freshly sliced (with no time to turn brown) the mice showed no preference between regular and modified (–PPO) tubers. But when the samples were aged for 24 hours, allowing time for oxidation, the mice showed a big preference for the aroma of new fangled –PPO spuds. This fits with an earlier finding that they ate more –PPO potatoes in feeding trials.

Sniff tests with human panelists gave a similar result. In a so-called triangle test, blind-folded subjects smelled three samples (two regular, one modified, or vice versa) and tried to pick the oddball. Although the panel did somewhat better than chance with fresh samples, it was a snap when the samples were aged. With oxidized samples the panel correctly picked the oddball 86% of the time. Other feedback showed that while humans find the regular and nonbrowning potato to smell equally pleasant, the modified potato smelled stronger and more familiar. More potato-y goodness.

This is the second study to look at mouse and human olfactory judgments in tandem. Llorente’s team took a cue from a French paper, which we blogged about here, that found wide-ranging agreement in the odor preferences of mice and men. Looks like we can extend that result to potatoes.

Just tell Mickey to keep his mitts off my fries.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The New Haiku: Perfume Reviews in 140 Characters

Perfume reviews by The New York Times Officially Designated Perfume Critic® have become less frequent and ever briefer. So brief we had to boost the gain control on the FirstNerve BurrOmeter to even get a reading. TNYTODPC’s most recent effort didn’t even crack 1 milliburr. (We could say it hit 900 microburrs, but that would only impress the gullible.)

Now a new Twitter feed transforms brevity from a bug to a feature. @fragrantreviews offers perfume reviews of up to 140 characters, including a maximum of five rating stars. (Perhaps due to budget cutbacks at the Gray Lady, TNYTODPC’s reviews no longer feature stars.)

@fragrantreviews, with 315 followers, is the brainchild of England’s Nick Gilbert. (No relation—our branch of the family bailed from the old country a few hundred years ago.) His first tweet went out on July 29, 2010.
Gorilla Perfume Tuca Tuca/Dusty warm sandalwood & benzoin, violet drydown with hint of vanilla, jasmine & ylang ylang. Bright & radiant/****
Pretty pithy.

A couple of weeks later, our enhanced BurrOmeter detected the last known signals from TNYTODPC. How do they stack up against @fragrantreviews? See for yourself.
[TNYTODPC] Infusion d’Iris EDT, by Prada Whereas Chanel No. 19 maximizes the deep, voluminous luxury of iris root, Infusion presents it in minimalist form, the scent’s depth derived from its purity.

[@FR] Prada Infusion d’Iris EdT Slightly bitter galbanum with powdery violet. Soft, clear. Similar feel to the EdP but different entirely ***

[TNYTODPC] Essence, by Narciso Rodriguez. For Her smelled like a sweet midnight in summer. Essence is still summer — warm dry skin, talcum powder and irises. But here we are drenched in bright day.

[@FR] Narcisso Rodriguez Essence Powdery, lightly floral & intensely musky in the same way that washing powder is. Hot, white, metallic, painful *

[TNYTODPC] Womanity, by Thierry Mugler. Like Angel, Womanity surprises no one in its defiance. Its power is clear; its character — opium smoke, heated granite, crushed flowers, the ozone before a storm — is not.

[@FR] Thierry Mugler Womanity Bright citrus leads to milky fig and brine, the use of caviar is subtle and dry down is nondescript woods. ****

[TNYTODPC] Beauty, by Calvin Klein. Obsession was a woman wearing her strength on the outside; cK One startled with its crystal-clear ambiguity. Beauty is Calvin’s velvet revolution, a feminine feminine: unblended flowers, soft curves and a straightforward golden glow.

[@FR] Calvin Klein Beauty 
A pretty lily note, with light jasmine and sweet musky synthetic cedar drydown. “Beauty” is an overstatement though ***

There’s a consistent difference here—the @fragrantreviews entries are stripped down and punchier, more informative. This makes them more haiku-like. Why? Because 
haiku should use objective sensory images, and avoid subjective commentary.

Or, as we’ve said before, a reviewer ought to say what the fragrance smells like. Nick Gilbert shows that it can be done in a high-tech haiku.

In his honor we titled this post using 17 syllables and fewer than 140 characters. Domo arigato!

Monday, November 22, 2010

Scratch and Sniff Television?

Scratch-n-Sniff at Maker Faire from Alex K. on Vimeo.

No sooner had I posted about a DIY olfactometer than I came across Alex Kauffmann’s DIY scratch and sniff television. Talk about awesome. You scratch a sliced grapefruit image on the touch screen, put your nose close, and bingo, you smell grapefruit. (Back in 1959, NBC news anchor Chet Huntley sliced an orange in half on the big screen to demonstrate the cinematic wonder of AromaRama. Is the grapefruit an homage or a citrus coincidence?)

Smelly TV inventor Kauffmann describes himself as an insight-based innovation consultant with a diploma in Interactive Telecommunications. You could also call him a high-tech tinkerer with a creative flair. He says that producing the videolfactory effect “required some clever sleight of nose.”
First of all, I gave people clear visual cues. When you scratch a picture of chocolate, you’re much more likely to interpret the resulting smell as chocolate. I also made the screen respond to being scratched by fading, just as scratch-n-sniff stickers do after vigorous scratching.
So how does he do it? Remember S.C. Johnson’s Glade Wisp, the little home scenting unit that automatically puffed out fragrance every few minutes? It was also billed as the Flameless Candle. Kauffmann’s cannibalized a few Wisp units, hooked them up to a touch screen through a breadboard-for-artists called Arduino, and used software to program the interactivity (screen fade on scratch). Plus he used a lot of electrical tape. High-concept, yet with an appealing Mad Max style of execution.

Kauffmann tells me he’s writing a magazine article about his Smelly Telly project and plans to show the setup in New York in the next few months. We’ll keep our nostrils open.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

ISDP: Dumpsters, Cisterns, and Norman Bates

The Halloween jack-o-lanterns guarding the front door of FirstNerve manor have succumbed to dehydration and bacteria: their faces are caving in and they look like toothless old folks at a casting call for Grapes of Wrath: The Musical. No worries. Soon they’ll be hurled from the belfry in the annual smashing of pumpkins ritual.

Speaking of rituals, it’s the 13th of the month, time to pull back the dusty black velvet drapes in the third floor alcove and open the olfactory version of the Necronomicon. We turn to the chapter titled “Foul Odor”, the incantatory phrase used by the Ancient Scribes for only one dark purpose: to summon news stories of the not-so-recently deceased, whose mortal remains have been discovered by, and inhaled through, the sensitive nostrils of passersby.

We begin by announcing two entrants for the 2010 Norman Bates Award. The first nominee’s story made Drudge on October 22: “Woman drove for months with dead body in passenger seat . . .” It’s not what you think; it’s a pathos-filled story set in Southern California. Really.

A 57-year old woman from Corona del Mar (tony!), a former real estate agent, is down on her luck and living with friends. She meets a homeless woman in a park in Fountain Valley and out of kindness agrees to let the woman sleep in a 1997 Mercury Grand Marquis registered to her father. There’s enough room; after all it’s a big-ass car. Last December, however, the homeless woman expires in the vehicle and the Good Samaritan is too scared to call the authorities. Instead, she covers the body with a blanket and leaves an opened box of baking soda with it.

That might have been the end of it, but the Norman Bates-ish Good Samaritan then commits the ultimate LA offense: she leaves the car parked partially blocking a residential driveway in Costa Mesa. A no doubt outraged homeowner called the police, police “smelled a foul odor coming from the car” and soon enough discovered the DB. The deceased was eventually identified as a 59-year old with two master’s degrees and a teaching credential who had been bankrupt and itinerant for over a decade. No charges appear to have filed against the Good Samaritan.

Our second Norman Bates Award nominee made the news about the same time in October. Tenants in an apartment cluster in the Montrose area of Houston had been complaining to the property manager about a “foul odor”. 

The manager tracked the smell to apartment #2, but the tenant claimed it must be coming from a dead animal under the unit. He wouldn’t allow the manager in because, he said, “his mother was sleeping and he didn’t want to disturb her.” The next day another tenant finally called police, who got the same story from the 31-year old tenant. They persuaded him to let them inspect the apartment, where they discovered the body of the man’s 66-year-old mother in “an advanced state of decomposition.”

The property manager, on the job only since August, said he hadn’t interacted much with the young man. 
“I always thought he was just a little weird, but I never thought it would turn into something like this.”
And now for the more conventional ISDP incidents. Here’s one that just missed our October deadline: A guy walking his dog in Phoenix, Arizona notices a “foul smell” coming from an unfamiliar large trash container. He lifts the lid and finds the body of a dead woman. 
 A few days later in Indianapolis, Indiana, a tip phoned into Crime Stoppers led police to a house on the east side of town. Police officers noticed a “foul odor” and sent for the homicide squad, a cadaver dog, and a search warrant. As they waited, neighbors pointed officers to a fly-covered dumpster nearby where they found the body of a woman. They arrested a 28-year-old guy who had been sitting on the porch watching the show unfold. He later confessed and has been charged with the woman’s murder. 

Meanwhile, out in Tubac, Arizona, south of Tucson, a rancher noticed a “foul odor” and discovered a body buried in a shallow grave. According to the Santa Cruz County sheriff, the deceased was a 6-foot tall man in his 30s who had been shot multiple times.

Finally, in Lakeland, Florida, reports of a “foul odor” led police to a search “a wooded area behind Snavely Forest Products.” [Snavely?] They found a body in an advanced state of decomposition. The remains were later identified as those of an adult woman.
And finally, a false alarm in Springfield, Illinois.
Springfield police detectives and a city public works crew on Wednesday found nothing after excavating an old cistern at 1846 S. Wirt Ave. to try to pinpoint the source of a foul odor.
The smell was released when a crew demolishing a tornado-damaged house dislodged the cistern’s lid. But why the interest in an old stinky cistern?
A man who lived in the house previously has an extensive criminal record, including arrests for domestic battery and unlawful restraint in 2001, battery, driving under the influence, marijuana possession, unlawful use of a weapon, violating orders of protection and animal cruelty. Police did not say he was a suspect in anything associated with the stench at the house.
Well, better to error on the side of caution. If they’d found a body this would have been a CSI episode within weeks. The detectives and city work crew of Springfield deserve a salute for their dedication.

So cheers! Until next time.

Abbott & Costello Launch a Fragrance

Did you hear about the new designer fragrance? A limited edition of 400 bottles at $695 each.

Yadda yadda.

But it’s from Reed Krakoff.

Who? The venture capitalist?

No, that’s Roger Krakoff

So you’re talking about the guy who runs Lazer and designs hi-tech gaming mice?

No, that’s Robert Krakoff

Oh. You mean that white-collar litigator in D.C. came out with a perfume? 

No, knucklehead, that’s David Krakoff

Okay, I know who mean—that hot looking law professor at U. Colorado.

No, you pig. That’s Sarah Krakoff. The one with the perfume is at Coach.

Why didn’t you say so? She’s that online web marketing coach.

Imbecile! That Patsi Krakoff, Psy.D. I’m talking about Krakoff the designer.

Stop yelling, I’m not deaf. I know exactly who you mean—Delphine Krakoff, the interior designer.

No, not her.

But she’s married to Reed Krakoff.

That’s who I’m talking about.

Delphine has a $695 perfume?

No, her husband, Reed.

Who the hell is Reed Krakoff?

Thursday, November 11, 2010

DIY Psychophysics

I used to love building models when I was a kid: fighter planes, space capsules, cars of all sorts. My better projects, like the Saturn launch vehicle with a collapsible gantry, stayed on the shelf in my bedroom. The rest—like the crappy Avanti Sports Coupe and a Mustang fastback—were blown up with firecrackers in carefully orchestrated backyard demolitions (timer fuse is a great thing). Model cement used to give me nosebleeds, but that was just an annoyance. 

Later, in junior high, I made large balsa wood gliders from kits. They rarely flew more than a few seconds before crashing, but I loved the building process—hours of cutting out pieces, assembling wing sections, and doping the rice paper that covered the whole plane. The sweet smell of that amber doping compound comes back to me as I think about it. Is that stuff even sold any more?

For some reason, my juvenile hobbies didn’t translate into grownup scientific skills: I was never a “hands” guy in the lab. I envied pals who built their own neurophysiology rigs and customized signal processing electronics. Instead of computer-controlled, constant airflow olfactometers tweaked out with mass flow controllers and pressure-compensated scent injection lines, I made do with squeeze bottles and sniff jars. In the corporate world I watched as big-time R&D money was poured into elaborate olfactometers of dubious practical use. I soured on the Big Metal approach and became an advocate of low tech psychophysics.

Still, there are some applications that demand precisely timed delivery of odor at controlled concentrations—fMRI brain imaging research on smell, for example, or experiments that match smells to sounds and visual images. A big barrier to entry is the pain-in-the-ass factor of designing and building a scent delivery device or olfactometer. This has kept a lot of otherwise smart and creative people from getting involved in smell research.

Well, that may change thanks to the altruistic work of Johan Lundström and his colleagues at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. They’ve published a design for a practical, computer-controlled, general-purpose, and—most importantly—inexpensive olfactometer. It’s a dream come true for the scientific DIY crowd, complete with parts list, prices, and a how-to assemble guide with photos.

An olfactometer basically consists of an air compressor, tubing, valves, and odor reservoirs. It injects short bursts of odor into an airstream delivered to the individual nostrils via plastic nose pieces, or via a nose mask. The Monell device is compact—it fits in a 25-inch tall cabinet with a 20 x 20 inch footprint. The cabinet, which can be purchased, is the most expensive item on the parts list at $1,000. A custom three-way valve manifold also costs $1,000. The are twelve other parts, some required in multiples. Total cost of the unit: $5,284. Which is a bargain, I might add.

Are your DIY skills up to the task? Lundström et al. think so:
. . . we argue that an adult with enough technical knowledge to put up a shelf using both screws and plugs is capable of building the olfactometer described here.
They compare the technical challenge to assembling a piece of IKEA furniture. (Attention, academic nerd-balls, you’ve been called out!) Accordingly, I think Monell’s DIY olfactometer should be christened “The Lundström”. It’ll look great in your lab along with the Ikvar toiletries cabinet, Skrogval audio rack, and Smölstad futon.

Now get to work!

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Coco in Hoboken

This looks interesting: The secret of Chanel No. 5: The intimate history of the world’s most famous perfume. The author is wine writer/historian Tilar Mazzeo. The New York Post is all over it because of the perfume’s little-known New Jersey connection.

The Smelly Blogosphere: Traffic Rankings Plunge

We put the weekly Smelly Web Index report on hold July 18, with a promise to post if something noteworthy happened. Well, it has. After fifteen weeks of relatively smooth sailing, all three of the Indexes took a big nose dive this week.

On the Solo Blog Index, which tracks 18 single-author scent blogs, there were 3 gainers and 15 losers. The SBI sank 15 points.

The Team Blog Index, which follows 5 multi-author blogs, was down 8 points, with 1 gainer to 4 losers.

The Corporate & Community Index, which tracks 4 big fragrance sites, dropped 21 points, with gainers and losers evenly split.

Here’s a summary of this week’s action:

The Smelly Web Indexes for November 7, 2010

The Solo Blog Index

Close: 98
Change: -15
Big movers: Vetivresse -53%, BitterGraceNotes -43%, OlfactaRama -31%, FirstNerve -27%, IndiePerfumes -22%, MaisQuePerfume +1% 

The Team Blog Index
Close: 117
Change: -8 
Big movers: PerfumeDaRosaNegra -18%, ISmellThereforeIam -4%, NowSmellThis +1% 

The Corporate & Community Site Index
Close: 10
Change: -21
Big movers: TheDryDown -14%, Sniffapalooza -12%, OsMoz +2%

The same picture for all three Indexes: losers lost big while gainers barely managed to eek out an advance. Wipeouts like this happen periodically on the Alexa traffic rankings, and when they do it’s the lower-traffic sites (rankings <>Even among the steadily higher-ranked sites, however, there are some long-term trends. For example, number one-ranked solo site MimiFrouFrou had only 3 gains in the past 16 weeks. The site’s traffic has slowly drifted from 79,460 to 106,776. Why is the air coming out of the Mimi balloon?

After gains in August and early September, the Corporate & Community Index began sliding in mid-September. It was down to 4 points on October 17, and had a brief two-week rally before this week’s debacle. The CCI has underperformed the Solo and Team Blog indexes since the beginning (all Web Indexes began life pegged at 100, back in August 2009).

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Deo or No Deo?

When it comes to spotting social trends the New York Times is the working definition of Type I error. So I was inclined to ignore this Fashion & Style section story on deo-abstainers as just another false positive.

But two days later the Guardian reports that in Britain “a growing number of people are cutting down on daily showering and hair-washing.” (Funny, I thought they’d done that years ago . . .)

Maybe there is something going on here. Or not. Looks like overpaid and underviewed CBS News anchor Katie Couric got the ball rolling a few days earlier in a fluffy interview with Howard Kurtz:
That’s why Couric has spent recent weeks in Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston and New Brunswick, New Jersey. She is touring what she calls “this great unwashed middle of the country” in an effort to divine the mood of the midterms.
(Philly, Boston and New Brunswick are the middle of the country? Talk about a provincial Manhatta-centric worldview.)

Here’s a FirstNerve trend projection: the anti-fragrance forces can’t win with a purely negative story. What we are seeing here is the birth of the required complementary story: the positive spin that BO is beautiful. (Have fewer kids. Drive less. Eat less. Flush less. Shower less. Use less deodorant.)

Expect to see more such stories. Expect Bono to lead by example. Expect a movie.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

World Series “High” Lights

When my somewhat tightly wrapped acquaintance Brian B. announced he was going to visit San Francisco, and reeled off the list of tourist sites he intended to visit, I encouraged him to spend a few hours just hanging out in Golden Gate Park. It would, I thought, help him unwind from his usual state of Red Bull- and nicotine-induced tenseness.

So off he went. He had a great time but there was one small fly in the ointment. While relaxing in Golden Gate Park, he was issued a summons for smoking . . . a cigarette.

This is the same park where, a hundred yards from the Children’s Playground, assorted vagrants and slackers lounge about openly smoking reefer on a slope called Hippie Hill. The odds of them being issued a summons: small to nil.

Ah, the contradictions of life in America’s most “progressive” city.

Last week during Game 1 of the World Series against the Giants, Texas Rangers center fielder Josh Hamilton caught the smell of pot drifting out of the bleachers in San Francisco’s AT&T Park. In town the day before, he and his wife had seen people smoking it within sniffing distance of police officers. Touchingly, he found this remarkable.

Hamilton’s naivety was nothing compared to the spontaneous amazement of Dallas TV sports anchor Newy Scruggs, who got a nose full during a live standup before the game. In a later segment Scruggs pinpoints the smoke source—and seems genuinely puzzled that the police aren’t doing anything about it. Meanwhile, the crowd in the ball park is dotted with fans wearing “Let Timmy Smoke” T-shirts, and ones declaring “Yes, We Cannabis.”

Spark up a doobie and everyone’s cool with it. Bring your Zippo near a Marlboro and the suede/denim secret police will tackle you like the fascist bastard you are.

Ah, San Francisco.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Annals of Anosmia 5: Paradise Lost, Book Contract Gained

There was a time earlier in the decade when features editors couldn’t commission enough “how I lost my sense of smell” pieces. From 2003 to 2008, eight such essays appeared in major publications around the world. (This doesn’t count another four written by congenital anosmics—people who never had a sense of smell in the first place.)

Analysis of the “first person anosmic” genre reveals two key narrative elements: a recitation of doctors consulted, and a reference to the 2004 Nobel Prize in medicine.

The Australian newspaper The Age just published another example of the art form, an essay by Peter Lowndes called “Losing my senses.” Lowndes was an enthusiastic epicure before contracting a heavy cold six years ago at the age of thirty-five. Afterwards he was left unable to smell and barely able to taste his food. Lowndes makes the expected bow to the rules of the genre:
In search of a remedy during those initial years I saw several allergists and an ear, nose and throat specialist, and dabbled with acupuncture, nasal sprays, changing my diet and several other suggested remedies. None of that helped.
He name checks “Dr. William Smith, a senior consultant at the clinical immunology and allergy department at Royal Adelaide Hospital,” but for some unfathomable reason fails to reference the 2004 Nobel Prize. Despite failing to score the maximum number of genre points, his description of tantalizing near-recoveries and ultimate surrender to a one-dimensional olfactory life is well written.

Today’s San Francisco Chronicle carries a story by Carolyn Jung about an anosmic local chef: “Carlo Middione can’t taste but still loves to cook.” Middione, now in his mid-seventies, was for many years the owner of Vivande Porta Via on Fillmore Street. Three years ago he lost his sense of smell in a car accident and eventually gave up his restaurant in frustration. (A pity—he’s clearly talented.)

Middione experienced disturbing episodes of parosmia in which formerly pleasurable smells became obnoxious. While he still enjoys the physical process of cooking and preparing food, he seems resigned to his shrunken sensory world. 

According to Jung, Middione is not the only chef to lose it:
Middione has some company in the professional chef world. Most notably, chef Grant Achatz of Alinea in Chicago lost his sense of taste after undergoing chemotherapy for tongue cancer. And Kirk Webber, chef-owner of Cafe Kati in San Francisco, lost his sense of taste after suffering two concussions in a mugging in 2003.

These chefs eventually regained their ability to taste, although they are considerably younger than Middione, who’s in his mid-70s.
Jung also reports that food industry executive Barb Stuckey is writing a book about smell loss that features Middione. Ms. Stuckey enters a crowded marketplace. Bonnie Blodgett’s memoir of smell loss and recovery was published a few months ago. And next year cooking school student, accident victim, and NYT anosmia essayist Molly Birnbaum will publish a book recounting her recovery from anosmia. Looks like smell loss may soon get a shelf of its own in the self-help section.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

All Psychology is Political: A Fisking of Peter Liberman and David Pizarro

Saturday’s piece by Peter Liberman and David Pizarro is everything readers expect from the op-ed page of the New York Times on the eve of an election that threatens scores of liberal Democratic incumbents. It implies that the New York Republican candidate for governor is using a devious campaign tactic with “hidden effects” that “can elicit a surprisingly intense reaction” from voters. The tactic plays to the deepest instinctual urges of certain voters and is associated with harsh moral judgments, racism, xenophobia, and homophobia. Nothing we haven’t heard a million times from Maureen Dowd, Frank Rich, and the fabulously incoherent editorial writers of the Times.

But Liberman and Pizarro’s conclusion breaks new ground:
election officials should keep the psychology of disgust in mind — and be wary of Purell dispensers or awful odors mysteriously appearing at polling places this Nov. 2.
Hunh? You read it right: the alarming tactic in question is an odorized mailer sent out by the Paladino campaign. And the hodge-podge of inference and innuendo in “All Politics is Olfactory” is presented by two professors who base their case, such as it is, on psychological research.

How do Liberman, a professor of political science at Queens College and CUNY Graduate Center, and Pizarro, an assistant professor of psychology at Cornell, arrive at this lurid warning?

Disgust, they say, is an emotion produced by natural selection that protects humans from contamination by harmful pathogens associated with feces, pus and related substances. They cite a psychology study showing that sitting in a malodorous or dirty room makes people judge hypothetical immoral actions (e.g., lying on a resume) more harshly. Thus dirtiness leads to sterner moral evaluations.

On the other hand, so does cleanliness—or even a mere symbol of cleanliness. (What a conveniently nonfalsifiable theory!) According to Liberman and Pizarro, “merely standing near a hand-sanitizing dispenser led people to report more conservative political beliefs.” You’ll have to take their word for this result because the study is not published. Here they’ve gone beyond science by press release all the way to science by op-ed.

Moving right along, Liberman and Pizarro note that filling out a questionnaire in the presence of a foul odor leads to more negative attitudes toward gay men. Geez—a stinky odor would probably lead to more negative attitudes toward Santa Claus. Did this study rate anyone besides gay men? Were the results cherry-picked for this op-ed? Ooops—can’t say! It’s another unpublished study.

Next, Liberman and Pizarro extract a single result from a six-experiment study of Canadian college students and use it to link people who are easily disgusted with xenophobia and racism.

But that was just a warm-up. Finally, our authors get down to the nitty-gritty:
Recent data collected by one of us (Dr. Pizarro) has also shown that political conservatives on average report being more easily disgusted than liberals.
“Recent data” is academic code meaning “these are unpublished results”.  

And what do these recent data show?
Even when controlling for income, depth of religious belief and a host of other factors, conservatives tended to score higher in disgust sensitivity than liberals.
“Tended” is a code word for results that are in the right direction but not statistically significant. In other words, Dr. Pizarro’s key point—that conservatives are more easily disgusted than liberals—should be taken with a large grain of salt.

So where does all this hot-from-the-lab and yet-to-be-published research lead?
Taken together, researchers’ findings suggest that the foul smell of Mr. Paladino’s mailer may have done more than just lend it novelty. It also probably made voters more judgmental of New York’s “career politicians” and more receptive to the mailer’s message that the next governor needed to “cut taxes” and “ferret out corruption.” And these impressions may have endured long after the odor and feelings of disgust had dissipated.
Or, to put it another way, Paladino’s mailer was an effective form of political speech and that’s why Liberman and Pizarro are mounting an op-ed campaign of innuendo against it.
Obviously, the malodorous mailer alone can’t explain how Carl Paladino steamrolled Rick Lazio in the primary, 62 percent to 38 percent. Nonetheless, election officials should keep the psychology of disgust in mind — and be wary of Purell dispensers or awful odors mysteriously appearing at polling places this Nov. 2.
Paladino’s campaign gimmick is a scented nightmare for today’s progressives: it’s the Manchurian air freshener. Plant a subliminal olfactory notion in the irrational mind of a Republican, then activate it with a smell in the voting booth. 

What exactly are they insinuating in their caution to election officials? That Paladino should not be allowed to use smells as part of attempts to persuade voters? That disgusting smells and Purell dispensers ought to be banned because they favor one party over another? Will poll watchers have to remove anyone who coughs or blows his nose? Anyone who looks unkempt or too recently bathed?

Studies purporting to define the cognitive traits of conservatives are all the rage in psychology journals these days. Painting conservatives as easily disgusted, judgmental, racist, xenophobic, homophobic and vulnerable to subliminal emotional manipulation is par for the course. It’s as if academic psychology were set on pathologizing conservative attitudes and behavior.

Remarkably, it’s also a theme we hear frequently from Democratic politicians. Last month Senator John Kerry was talking about attention deficits: 
“We have an electorate that doesn’t always pay that much attention to what’s going on, so people are influenced by a simple slogan rather than the facts or the truth.’’
(There’s a ton of research on that . . . )

And we hear about it a lot from our Therapist in Chief:
At a Democratic fundraiser in Newton this month, offering what he called “a little bit of perspective from the Oval Office,’’ President Obama gave this diagnosis of the American political scene:

“Part of the reason that our politics seems so tough right now, and facts and science and argument does not seem to be winning the day all the time, is because we’re hard-wired not to always think clearly when we’re scared. And the country is scared.’’
Fear, like disgust, is a survival mechanism that can be exploited by the party of the knuckle-draggers. And don’t forget bitterness—it can lead to xenophobia:
It was at a San Francisco fundraiser in 2008 that Obama described hard-pressed citizens in the small towns of Pennsylvania as “bitter’’ people who “cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them . . . as a way to explain their frustrations.’’

What Liberman and Pizarro have done in the New York Times is provide high-toned academic cover for the condescending attitudes of liberals and progressives. Putting psychological science to such blatantly partisan purposes is, dare I say it, rather disgusting.

UPDATE November 7, 2010

David Pizarro tells me that his paper on conservatives being more easily disgusted than liberals was, in fact, published. I regret the error. The paper can be found here. You decide whether or not it should be taken with a grain of salt.

I took the opportunity to ask Dr. Pizarro three questions. Should he care to reply, I’ll post his answers here.

Your 2008 paper in Cognition & Emotion reporting that conservatives are more easily disgusted than liberals did not involve smells. Has anyone directly shown that conservatives are more disgusted by smells than are liberals, or is the link purely a conjecture at this point?

What specific measures do you and Dr. Liberman believe ought to be taken regarding the use of scented speech during elections?

Do you or Dr. Liberman have any evidence that Carl Paladino’s campaign used, or intended to use, odors in polling places during either the primary or general election?

Monday, October 25, 2010

Quick Sniffs: Oudh, Odd & Ozoned

Uh oh. Oudh’s disappearing.
§ § §
A high school junior? Yikes! First there was CK’s “junkie chic”, then this, then this. Is the fashion business just sick in the head or what? (I know, I know, it’s provocative, daringly transgressive, yadda yadda.)
§ § §
“I’m certainly aware that there are a lot of people who don’t like the smell of marijuana and I’m sorry for the folks that have to put up with a smell that they don’t like. However, calling the cops to try and prosecute a bad smell is a poor use of law enforcement resources,” Webb said.
That is former Cannabis Information Resource Director Martin Webb. He’s in for a rude awakening if California’s Prop. 19 passes next Tuesday. The legal assault by the anti-freedom smell-o-phobes and Nasal NIMBYs will be fast and furious.

On the bright side, it should make for a fun round of “When Worlds Collide.” Join the party in the northwest belfry and don’t forget the Jiffy Pop.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Nasal NIMBY Graham Webb-Lee Plays the Islam Card

It’s come to this. A guy in the Stockport suburb of Manchester, England, lives for years next door to a take-out sandwich shop. New owners take over the business three years ago and replace the exhaust fan over their grill. Now the neighbor decides he doesn’t like the smell. He complains to the town’s environmental services department which makes repeated visits and finds no violation. 

But Mr. Graham Webb-Lee is not to be deterred. He complains to the town council that the new owners failed to get a planning permit when they replaced the exhaust fan. The council tells the shop owners that since an objection has been raised they must apply for a retroactive planning permit. The item is placed on the agenda for the October 14 meeting:
A retrospective Planning application (DC044716) for the retention of extraction vent to front of shop at 159 Adswood Road, Cale Green - recommendation grant.
Uh-oh! It looks like the council is set to approve the shop’s retroactive permit. So what does Webb-Lee do? He shows up at the meeting with a litany of complaints: the shop’s odor makes his clothes smell bad, his daughter has an eating disorder [?!], and 
“The vent is 12 inches from my front door. Every morning the smell of bacon comes through and makes me physically sick.”
Perhaps feeling that he isn’t making sufficient headway with the council members, he decides to play his ace:
“I have a lot of Muslim friends. They refuse to visit me anymore because they can’t stand the smell of bacon.”
That’s all the politically correct members of the Central Stockport Area Council Committee need to hear. Offend Muslim olfactory sensibilities? No way. They vote to force the cafe owner to remove the exhaust fan.

The owner is outraged—and baffled. She and her husband are Turkish; her husband is Muslim. The presence of cooking bacon doesn’t seem to be a problem for their Muslim friends who visit the shop all the time and even eat there.

This is a truly remarkable case of Nasal NIMBYism: it takes self-centered whining about food smells to a whole new level. Graham Webb-Lee actually plays the Islamic intolerance card against a pair of tolerant Muslims and wins. Beverley Akciecek and her husband Cetin support their seven kids by working in a sandwich shop 50 hours a week. They do so in part by cooking bacon for bacon-eaters. Now their livelihood is threatened by a smell-o-phobic douchebag and his cringing enablers on the town council.

Take a few minutes and browse the Stockport town website. It’s like Berkeley on the moors. Be sure to check out the 2009 annual Diversity and Equality Report. You’ll find that 40% of Council employees “have attended bespoke Diversity Awareness or Managing Inclusion training,” and that the town celebrates diversity, holds anti-bullying conferences, and observes Black History Month, Gypsy Roma Traveller History Month, and Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Month.

That leaves a lot of space on the official Stockport calendar. How about designating Support for Immigrant Entrepreneurs Month? Or Defending Western Liberal Traditions Against Creeping Dhimmitude Month?

That might be too much to ask from this crowd.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Live from Brooklyn this Saturday Night

The Public School New York is “a school with no curriculum,” a “self-organizing educational program for which the curriculum is proposed by the general public.” In other words,
it is a framework that supports autodidactic activities, operating under the assumption that everything is in everything.
OK then!

Starting from these freewheeling propositions, and having successfully navigated a self-organizing process that looks like this

some folks have put together a class called “The Space Life of Smell” and invited me to lead a session.

So this Saturday, October 23rd, I’ll be discussing “Smellscapes: Real & Imagined” at 177 Livingston Street, Brooklyn, New York. It begins at 7:00 pm. It’s free and open to anyone who’s interested. To attend you can RSVP here (scroll down).

See you there.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

It’s a Jersey Thing

“On a cold October night, a small town in Colorado stood up to New Jersey and finally said “Go away!”. Our fortitude was the inspiration for others, and now New Jersey is slowly receding back to the desolate land from which it came.”

It’s funnier when you don’t have to live it on a daily basis.