Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Quick Sniffs

Perfume continues to make the crime blotter.

Related: Are you sure that truffle is genuine?

White burgundy gone bad? Blame global warming!

The English are justifiably pissed off about public urination, but this idea smacks of desperation.  

Speaking of malodorous urine, I took a leak at Nordstrom in the Short Hills Mall this week. (In the men’s room, thank you very much.) The brand-new waterless urinals stank. This particular green inspiration leaves a lot to be desired. And it only impacts men: isn’t that sexual discrimination? Just askin’ . . .

Six million hits and climbing: signs of life in fragrance marketing?

Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Smelly Web Indexes: March 28, 2010

For the week ending March 28, 2010
The Solo Blog Index
Close: 82
Change: -3 
Big movers: JaimeLeParfum +17%,  AnyasGarden +13%, Vetivresse +13%, GlassPetalSmoke -27%, Olfactarama -22%, AyalaSmellyBlog -19%, BoisDeJasmin -10%, NathanBranch -10%

The Team Blog Index
Close: 110
Change: -7 
Big movers: PerfumeDaRosaNegra -12%, ISmellThereforeIAm -6%, PerfumeSmellingThings -5%

The Corporate & Community Site Index
Close: 30 
Change: +9 
Big movers: Sniffapalooza +18%, TheDryDown -10%

The Smelly Web Indexes are to Alexa web site rankings what the Dow Jones indexes are to stock prices: they measure the performance of a group of related webs sites based on weekly changes in the Alexa rankings of individual sites. When they were started on August 9, 2009, each Smelly Web Index was set to 100.

This week there were big ranking changes in both directions for sites in the Solo Blog Index, which continued a months-long decline by dropping three index points.  Leading the upward movers was JaimeLeParfum with a 17% boost in Alexa rank. AnyasGarden rose 13% as did Vetivresse which put an end to five consecutive down weeks. Large declines at other sites pulled the overall SBI lower. GlassPetalSmoke dropped 27%; the site has been silent since December 30. The top five solo blogs (with Alexa ranks above 1,000,000) were all down.

The Team Blog Index took a seven-point hit as all five component sites dropped in the Alexa rankings. The TBI has been relative stable the past few months.

The long-suffering Corporate & Community Site Index had a happy nine-point bounce, led by an 18% rise at Sniffapalooza. Newly redesigned OsMoz appears to have put the brakes on the big declines of recent weeks; it was off just 1%.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

That was Fast: Guilty Plea in Perfume Mega-Heist

Six weeks to the day after a million-dollar perfume robbery at a warehouse in the New Jersey Meadowlands, one of the suspects—a 24-year-old NYPD cop named Brian Checo—pleaded guilty today in federal court in Newark to conspiracy to commit armed robbery. He could get up to 20 years in prison and a fine of $250,000 when he is sentenced on June 28.

That’s a fast score for federal prosecutors, but then the defendants—a group of seven men that included another current and one former cop—didn’t hide their tracks too well. They rented the trucks used in the heist under their own names.
When told by the rental agent that the two couldn't leave their cars—a red Ford Mustang and silver BMW—at the rental lot due to company rules, two other suspects drove to the warehouse in the cars while [NYPD officers] LeBlanca and Checo each drove a truck, the rental agent told authorities. Later, an eyewitness described the silver BMW fleeing the scene.
Our highly-tuned forensic nostrils have detected a fishy note hovering over this caper since the beginning. Checo’s rapid admission of guilt smells like a plea bargain—what information might he have coughed up? Has he rolled over on his indicted co-conspirators Alan Bannout, Orlando Garcia, Gabriel Vargas, Luis Morales, and Anselmo Jimenes? We’ll know more on June 28.

Meanwhile, what’s become of the group of day laborers who were hired to hump the perfume boxes into the getaway trucks? Why haven’t they been charged?

Only two of the five trucks used in the robbery have been recovered. What happened to the other three?

And last but not least, what’s become of the hot perfume?

Monday, March 22, 2010

Global Wilting: Send Me Dead Flowers by the Mail

You’ve no doubt seen the link; it’s been on Drudge all day: “Flowers ‘losing scent’ due to global warming . . .” I’ve been skeptical about similar headlines, so I looked to see what’s behind this story.

The answer is nothing.

Not one freakin’ fact. No study. No data. No evidence at all.

The story, published without a by-line in the New Straits Times of Malaysia, quotes four people.

One is the mayor of Kuala Lumpur, who delivers a shaggy dog story about the city’s decorative flower beds and why he had to fire the landscape contractor last year. Global warming as CYA memo.

Next up is Professor Abdul Latif Mohamad, an emeritus professor of science and technology at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia. (Don’t worry, I hadn’t heard of UKM either.) 
Latif said UKM might have offered plausible reasons as to why some pollinators were not spreading flower seeds, a pattern caused by the missing “scent trail” with scent tissues burning easily due to global warming.
Hooh boy! Where to begin? First off, pollinators don’t spread seeds—they spread pollen. (This guy’s a professor?) Next, did UKM offer plausible reasons or didn’t it? And forget plausible, how about proof? Evidence for missing scent trails? None. The earth warms—allegedly a couple of degrees on average—and scent tissues are burning

Who is this clown?
The aroma producing chemical compounds in flowers dry up faster now compared with before.
Before? Before when? Faster? How fast? No evidence, pure assertion.

But don’t let a lack of evidence get in the way of promoting a major policy recommendation:
The only way out, he said, was to genetically modify the flowers so that the effects would not be permanent and the future generation would not be robbed of nature’s beauty.
Prof. Mohamad then tells his own shaggy dog story about local farmers whose orchards weren’t bearing fruit. His research team looked into the matter and found it was because “dust from a hill blast” had covered the stigmas and prevented pollination.

And how exactly does that implicate global warming?

Batting third is the director-general of the Forest Research Institute of Malaysia, Dr. Abdul Latif Mahmod. (I know, this gets confusing. Dr Abdul Latif “The Flowers are Burning” Mohamad is this guy. The FRIM’s Dr. Abdul Latif Mahmod is this guy.)

Dr. Mahmod “said recently the extreme weather change might affect the life span of trees as a result of lighter or heavier rain.”

If trees are dying because of too little rain it’s due to global warming. But if they’re dying because of too much rain, then that’s also due to global warming.

Global warming: the all-purpose, non-falsifiable hypothesis.

The story’s final source is Malaysia’s Deputy Minister for Natural Resources and Environment. He says that “given the extreme climate changes, every country should work together and not in isolation.”

Translation: All your grant money are belong to us.

One would have thought a little humility was in order among the warmists; that they might be more, uh, temperate in their claims in view of the unfolding scandal of missing and massaged data that threatens their entire policy edifice. Instead, they’ve apparently decided to turn up the volume.

They will say anything to keep the stampede going.

They have no shame.

Exit question: How long before the enviros and legacy media include "loss of flower scent" in their litany of the impending eco-apocalypse?

And Now the Polish Edition

It’s the fifth foreign edition so far of What the Nose Knows, translated into Polish by Jacek Konieczny with an amusing cover design by Inka Gajewska.

Collect them all!

Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Smelly Web Indexes: March 21, 2010

For the week ending March 21, 2010
The Solo Blog Index
Close: 85
Change: unchanged
Big movers: AyalaSmellyBlog +13%, AnyasGarden +5%, FirstNerve +5%, BoisDeJasmin -7%

The Team Blog Index
Close: 117
Change: unchanged 
Big movers: none

The Corporate & Community Site Index
Close: 21
Change: -6
Big movers: Sniffapalooza -6%

The Team Blog Index was unchanged with little movement in its component sites. The Solo Blog Index was also unchanged even as AyalaSmellyBlog raised its Alexa ranking 13%. BoisDeJasmin was down for the fifth consecutive week. A nice gain at PerfumeShrine broke a six week losing streak; the stat monkeys have quieted down but not withdrawn their predictions.

The Corporate & Community Site Index continued to deflate, setting a record low for the fourth straight week. OsMoz was off again; too early for the rankings to reflect the site's new redesign which includes a perfume-blog aggregator and more videos.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Olfactory Genomics & Evolutionary Lifestyles

Two revolutions have transformed the science of smell from a sleepy backwater into a dynamic and fast-moving field of inquiry. The first took place in the 1970s when gas chromatography and mass spectrometry were linked together by computer and automated. You could put a smell sample into a vial, push a few buttons, and in minutes know its main components down to the molecule. GC/MS became X-ray specs for perfumers.

The second revolution began in April, 1991 when Linda Buck and Richard Axel published their discovery of 1,500 olfactory receptor genes. Each gene is the blueprint for a unique receptor, expressed on the surface of a sensory cell in the nose and activated by odor molecules of specific size, shape and electrical charge. This was the long sought after mechanism by which the nose transforms chemical signals (odor molecules) into electrical ones (nerve impulses). Immediately, new scientists jumped into the field bringing with them the techniques of molecular biology and genetics. We are now able to study the genetic architecture of odor perception in any species.

For some of us, “genetics” conjures the sickly sweet smell of ether wafting through the lab during a course unit on Mendelian inheritance in fruit flies. The scent takes me back to the old Life Sciences Building at Cal, where the windows could still be opened for fresh air on a warm afternoon. Needless to say, molecular biology was in its infancy and genomics was not yet born.

Genetics still involves the occasional fruit fly, but today it’s mostly driven by biotechnology and computers. On the one side are PCR machines, automated gene sequencers, heterologous expression systems, luciferase reporter assays, and plasmid vectors; on the other are brand new statistical methods that soak up lots of computing power.

The science is hard-core and pretty daunting. This may be why so few people are aware that olfactory genomics is rewriting the evolutionary history of the sense of smell. The work is exciting and is changing the status of smell in human biology. If you want to follow along, you need a little bit of background.

As genes go, the olfactory receptor (OR) genes are relatively simple: think of them as different colored beads (amino acids) on a string. These beaded strings are found on almost every mammalian chromosome, often in clusters. Sorting these genes and understanding their function is the task of genomics. The sorting work is done by computer, but the logic is the same as laying each string of beads next to one with the most similar color sequence.

Once the strings are all laid out, we can divide them into groups based on similarity of bead color pattern (amino acid sequence). Humans have about 800 bead strings (OR genes) and rats have about 1,800. More receptors means better smell, right? Not so fast.

The bead strings sort into about 17 family groups. The working assumption is that similar bead sequences create receptors that detect similar odors. Since rats and humans have receptors in each family group, it’s likely that we perceive the smelly world in roughly the same way, though with different degrees of resolution.

The genomics jockeys also analyzed OR pseudogenes—bead strings that are missing a bead or that contain a joker bead which renders the string (gene) useless as a receptor-building blueprint. In rats, about a quarter of the OR genes are pseudogenes; in humans about half of our OR genes are nonfunctional. If an odor receptor is important for survival natural selection will keep it free of disruptive mutations. So does the high proportion of OR pseudogenes in humans mean that smell is relatively unimportant to us? That’s what some have concluded. 

Pseudogenes are more frequent in primates with color vision than in species with monochromatic vision, an observation that also implies a decline in smell. (To oversimplify, the idea is that with color vision to tell you if a fruit is ripe, there is less need to sniff it.)

This demotion of the sense of smell fits with conventional wisdom from the ancient Greeks all the way to Sigmund Freud. It’s a slightly depressing thought, and one that’s hard to square with the intense interest our species shows for spices, flavors, and perfumes.

But there’s evidence that this downbeat interpretation is wrong. The OR subgenome turns out to be a hot spot of gene creation. Sure, there’s a lot of useless junk in our genetic attic, but new, fully functional receptor genes have been coming on line at quite a clip. Would we infer that cell phones are a dying technology because there are many more obsolete models than currently active ones?

The genomic analysis of olfaction has just taken a positive new turn. Instead of counting up the number of OR genes, or focusing on the proportion of dysfunctional ones, scientists at University College Dublin and Texas A&M took a new tack: classifying each species by its life history—terrestrial, aquatic, or flying. 

The team looked at about 50,000 OR genes from 50 species of mammals. Using a toolkit of statistical techniques, they sorted the genes into 13 OR families based on similarity. (Several of the traditional 17 families collapse to yield the new lower estimate.) The next step was to calculate how the OR genes of each species were distributed across these families. (For example, species A might be heavy on OR families 2 and 13; species B might be tilted towards families 4, 6, and 10.)

The researchers then sorted the species by OR family proportions. Lo and behold, this corresponded almost perfectly with ecological lifestyle. In other words, species grouped together because they has more receptors in OR families 2 and 13 all turned out to be aquatic mammals. Another bunch of species sorted together because they had lots of receptors in OR family groups 1-3-7 and 5-8-9; turns out they are all bats.
As it is possible to assign taxa to their correct ecogroup based on their functional OR gene repertoire rather than phylogenetic relatedness, these results suggest that natural selection occurring through environmental niche specialization plays a large role in molding the OR gene repertoire in mammals, rather than shared evolutionary history and chance.
This is cool stuff. Without knowing what odor molecules the receptors in families 2 and 13 detect, we can still infer that they are specialized for the perception of waterborne odors—all this from sorting through gene sequences.

The implications for evolutionary history are also big. The picture that emerges is of a dynamic sensory system that responds quickly to selective pressure. I see it as another blow against the depressing Greco-Freudian doctrine of nasal decline. In What the Nose Knows I speculated that the human sense of smell evolved in response to our habit of cooking and spicing food. I thought the idea was plausible but a little far out. Now I’m liking it more and more.

* * *

The new study is by Sara Hayden, Michaël Bekaert, Tess A. Crider, Stefano Mariani, William J. Murphy and Emma C. Teeling. It appeared in Genome Research. The image above is from their article; one of many dazzling graphics.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Live! From Kennett Square

This coming Sunday at 2:00 p.m. I’ll be speaking at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania. My talk is a lead-in to a major new exhibition called Making Scents: The Art and Passion of Fragrance, which looks very interesting.

Maybe I’ll see you there—but only if you’ve already bought a ticket; it’s sold out.

There are other talks in April and May. I’d especially recommend the one by Roman Kaiser the fragrance chemist and orchid expert and my former colleague at Givaudan-Roure whom I wrote about in What the Nose Knows.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Smelly Web Indexes: March 14, 2010

For the week ending March 14, 2010
The Solo Blog Index
Close: 85
Change: -6
Big movers: FirstNerve +13%, 1000Fragrances +7%, BitterGraceNotes +7%, GlassPetalSmoke -65%, AyalaSmellyBlog -7%, BoisDeJasmin -6%

The Team Blog Index
Close: 117
Change: -2 
Big movers: PerfumeSmellinThings -9%

The Corporate & Community Site Index
Close: 27 
Change: -3 
Big movers: TheDryDown -10%, OsMoz -5%

Another down week on all three indexes, with the Solo Blog Index leading the retreat on a six-point drop. In one of its periodic rerankings, Alexa knocked GlassPetalSmoke down 65%; blog owner Michelle Krell Kydd hasn’t posted to the site since December 30. There were smaller declines at KatiePuckrikSmells and BoisDeJasmin. The SBI has not seen levels this low since August 2009.

Performance on the Team Blog Index was mixed; PerfumeSmellinThings was the only large mover. By holding steady over the past couple of months the TBI has outperformed the other indexes. 

The Corporate & Community Site Index plumbed new depths for a third straight week. TheDryDown was down 10% and OsMoz lost 5% for its tenth declining week in a row.

A host of new launches in April might turn things around. However, the stat monkeys in the windowless data vault beneath FirstNerve Manor are jumping up and down and pointing to alarming trends at PerfumeShrine and OsMoz. That usually means they expect an Alexa reranking or an earthquake. Hard to tell.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Quick Sniffs

Perfume: the perfect gangsta gift for Mother’s Day.

Budget crisis? What budget crisis? They’ve found a $1.1 million cure for the Gnarley Fart Bomb of Orange County. And up in Tulare they’ve installed 26 foggers to spray odor-neutralizer over an outdoor wastewater plant.

A USAToday piece on haunted hotels quotes a guest at the Crescent Hotel in Eureka Springs, Arkansas who was alternately suffocated and pulled about one night by a evil-smelling phantasm. The olfactively paranormal holds some interest for us, but this could become a convenient excuse for front desk clerks all across the country. “A bad smell in 207? Lucky you! That was our famous ghost.”

On the other hand, there’s this police blotter item from the Nevada County, California sheriff’s office:
6:04 p.m. — A woman from the 10000 block of School Street reported hearing 14 instances of knocking under the floorboards of her mobile home. This had been going on for months and sometimes she knocks and yells back. She also believes someone is getting in her home when she's not there and is using her soap and towels. She wears headphones to block out the noise and keeps a loaded gun in the house. She also sometimes smells a foul odor coming from under the floorboards and requested documentation.

New Jersey, the Moron State:
Ten search warrants were executed over a five-day period in Middlesex, Monmouth and Ocean counties, leading to the arrests and the seizure of an array of indoor cultivation equipment, 3,370 marijuana plants, 115 pounds of harvested marijuana and $65,000 in cash, according to a press release from the New Jersey State Police.
What gave it away? The smell of burning marijuana.
Officers discovered the smoke seeping from the chimney at 558 Spotswood-Englishtown Road. After knocking on the door, they were faced with what police describe as “overpowering evidence” that renter Thu N. Nguyen, 44, a Vietnamese national with Canadian citizenship, had been burning the unusable parts of marijuana plants in the home’s fireplace, according to the press release.
Burning? What was he thinking? He probably didn’t buy any carbon offsets, either.
Exit question: How many environmentalists does it take to compost 3,370 pot plants?

I Smell Dead People: The Feel-Good Edition

The thirteenth has rolled around again, and it’s time to open this month’s collection of musty press clippings that take us to the not-for-the-squeamish realms of putrefaction. [Spoiled alert!] First up is an item that reminds us how discovery by smell is not something that happens only to the elderly and isolated.

Employees of an apartment complex near the University of Southern Mississippi campus in Hattiesburg “had been trying to locate the cause of a foul odor and thought it may have been a sewage problem.” When they entered one apartment they found the body of a 29-year-old USM student.

In California back in late February,
Colusa County Police were called to an area between the Sacramento River and Butte Slough Road just after 1 p.m. after receiving a call from a woman who was walking the levee and smelled a foul odor from an irrigation pipe.
The police recovered the body of a 50-year-old man who had been missing since December.

The president of a homeowner’s association in south Fort Myers, Florida noticed a foul odor coming from a lake in the development. Divers from the sheriff’s deputies later recovered an unidentified body from the water.

Up on W. 165th Street in Manhattan, a foul odor and a missing overnight guest led the staff at an SRO-style supportive housing project into the apartment of 59-year-old Miguel Ramirez where they discovered the body of his 35-year-old girlfriend. She had been stabbed to death with a butcher knife. Ramirez, an ex-con, has been arrested.

We save the worst for last: Forty-seven-year-old Phoenix, Arizona resident Leonard Orta, Jr. was the legal guardian of a five-year-old girl with Rett Syndrome. Her biological parents live in Hawaii and she was in Phoenix for medical treatment. The girl’s grandfather (Orta, Jr.’s father) who hadn’t seen her in about a month, noticed a foul odor in Orta’s apartment on February 17. He contacted police who discovered the youngster’s body. It is believed she had been dead for several days. Orta, Jr. “told authorities he withheld the child’s medication and proper nutrition for an unknown amount of time.” He has been charged with first-degree murder.

Puzzlingly, the grandfather lives in the same apartment as his son. A police spokesman “said he did not know why it took so long for the grandfather to act.”

Reporter Rosemarie Bernardo of the Honolulu Star Bulletin gets to the bottom of the story:
A stroke had left Orta Sr. with limited movement on the left side of his body. He also works the graveyard shift.
And Jr. lied to him about having admitted the girl to a local hospital; he also never let his father into her room.

Finally, this month we have some rare ISDP feel-good stories. From Florida, Naples News reporter Ryan Mills does a nice profile of Collier County Medical Examiner Dr. Marta Coburn, complete with olfactory details:
Though it’s not a job for the squeamish, the sights and smells of the operating room become just part of the average day for medical examiners. Most decomposed bodies smell pretty much alike, Coburn said.

“It’s never pleasant. It just isn’t,” she said. “It’s malodorous, but you get used to it.”

And the smell stays with them.

“Even when you don’t even realize it, it’s with you,” Coburn said. “It gets in your hair. It gets in your clothes.”

Coburn said she’s even had cases that made her stop eating particular foods. For instance, while still in Miami, Coburn had to perform an autopsy on a man who died after choking on peanut butter and then having a seizure, she said. She had to take photographs that showed the peanut butter extended all the way from the back of his throat into the lungs.

“I didn’t eat peanut butter for a long time, not for a couple of years,” Coburn said.
Under the excellent headline “Sniffing out the dead: Trainer teaches dogs to find human remains,” reporter Katya Cengel at The Courier-Journal tells the heart-warming story of Jefferson County, Indiana coroner Barbara Weakley-Jones and her cadaver-sniffing dogs. (Cutesy alert: one dog is named Abracadaver. Better is the cat named Tardieu. After Tardieu’s spots, get it? C’mon, do we have to explain everything?)

And finally, let’s give a round of morbidly subdued golf applause to staff writer Lisa Singleton-Rickman at Alabama’s TimesDaily for her great human interest piece headlined “Carcass control can be a tricky, smelly business.” Singleton-Rickman gives us the subtle texture of jurisdictional differences in carcass control practices in the northern section of her state. Along the way she provides some odoriferous details:
Koonce said his crews have disposed of myriad dead animals from groundhogs to foxes and coyotes to stranger finds such as an emu. Breeding seasons bring on even more animals. January and February, for example, are very much “skunk months.”

One memorable find he recounted was in a north Florence alley. Neighbors had been complaining about a foul odor. Finally, sanitation workers found a cooler in the alley. Inside the cooler were fish.

“That one took about four guys before we got that thing to the landfill,” he said. “The first two went in and couldn’t do it so we sent two more.”
Then there’s this from Robert Bevis, director of the Lauderdale County Solid Waste Authority:
“The public doesn’t understand the difference in stinking junk and household garbage,” he said. “A dead skunk is hard on these guys. Adult diapers are terrible, too, and they need to go elsewhere.”
Amen, brother.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Gorilla BO and the Human Nose

I began my scientific life in animal behavior and was already a post-doctoral fellow when I carried out my first-ever experiment on human smell ability. Even then, it involved animals—specifically, the ability of people to detect odor differences between inbred strains of mice. The mice themselves could smell a difference and preferred to mate with individuals of the other strain. Humans, I discovered, can smell this difference as well, whether the odor source is live mice, mouse urine, or a tiny test tube full of mouse turds.

This was certainly an odd study, but one with an important lesson: namely, we shouldn’t underestimate the human sense of smell. People can read at least some of the body odor signals that are such a rich source of information to other species. 

In What the Nose Knows, I relate how
Deborah Wells and Peter Hepper discovered an even more impressive man-smells-dog story. They had dog owners sniff two identical blankets, of which one had been slept on by their pet and the other by an unfamiliar dog. The owners correctly identified their dog 89% of the time. The strength or pleasantness of the smell was not a factor, nor were non-doggy household odors.
This experiment makes the point more effectively than mine, because we are quick to attribute amazing smell ability to dogs while denigrating our own powers.

Now Hepper and Wells—psychologists at Queen’s University Belfast—have upped the ante once again. In a paper soon to be published in Chemical Senses, they repeat the logic of their dog experiment, this time with . . . Western lowland gorillas. Their title says it all:
Individually Identifiable Body Odors Are Produced by the Gorilla and Discriminated by Humans
The odor donors were six gorillas (male and female) living at the Belfast zoo and ranging from four to thirty-six years of age. Each animal was given a clean towel which it kept overnight; most animals slept on it or wrapped it around themselves. Each gorilla had its own sleeping quarters, so mixing of BO was not an issue.

The human sniffers were 100 college students (who else?). They smelled cut-up pieces of gorilla towel from plastic cups. They were given a target sample and a minute later two more samples, one from the same animal, the other from a different animal. Their task to was to determine which of these two scents matched the first.

Under these conditions, every gorilla’s BO was correctly matched by the human panelists. The scent of the silverback male was the easiest to identify, while that of two younger animals was harder to discriminate. To be sure of their finding, Hepper and Wells made the test more difficult. In a second experiment, sniffers had to pick the BO of a target gorilla from samples of all six animals. Under this tougher standard the human panelists were still successful at identifying individual gorillas by scent alone.

Time once again to give the human nose more credit. And, as Hepper and Wells point out, it may be time to take a closer look at the role of olfaction in the social life of the great apes.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

New Olfactory Art from Gayil Nalls

Last year we interviewed New York-based artist Gayil Nalls about her “olfactory sculpture” called World Sensorium, a statistically-based composition of essential oils from around the globe. Nalls recently made another foray into scented art with the Olfactory Inkblot Series.

Inkblot_1, which debuted last December, “comprises limited production, interactive works that encourage the user to explore olfactory perception and his or her psychophysical response to natural smells.” According to the artist, the series “draws attention to user’s unique response to scent perception and memory.” The interactive aspect is provided by an online survey in which respondents describe sensations and emotions evoked by the scents.

Inkblot_2, dubbed an Aromatic Experiential Edible, opened March 3 in the exhibition Scents & Medical Sensibilities at the Smith Farm Center for Healing and the Arts in Washington, DC, where it runs until May 1, 2010. 
The candy-like amuse-bouche of inkblot_2 are made of multiple botanical plant essences, each having its own distinguishing physical and chemical qualities that define its character and promote healing. These entities also have the potential to unlock scent memories, offering a highly-textured and uniquely personal experience.

The artwork is completed when participants share their personal experiences and responses, transferring the personal perception of mouth and nose to a subjectively charged public space.
You can watch a YouTube of Gayil and the folks who helped her make the candy-scent here.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Smelly Web Indexes: March 7, 2010

For the week ending March 7, 2010
The Solo Blog Index
Close: 91
Change: -8
Big movers: FirstNerve +9%, PinkManhattan +7%, AnyasGarden +6%, Vetivresse -27%, JaimeleParfum -23%, MaisQuePerfume -21%, 1000Fragrances - 11%

The Team Blog Index
Close: 119
Change: -1 
Big movers: ISmellThereforeIam +6%, ParfumeDaRosaNegra -8%, PerfumeSmellinThings -6%

The Corporate & Community Site Index
Close: 30
Change: -1 
Big movers: OsMoz -8%

Another down week on all three indicators, led again by an 8 point drop in the Solo Blog Index. Pulling the SBI down were declines at Vetivresse, JaimeleParfum and MaisQuePerfume. The five top-rated solo blogs (Alexa rankings above 1,000,000) sank, with the exception of NathanBranch which rose 2%. Four of the five sites on the Team Blog Index declined this week, but the gain by ISmellThereforeIam held the TBI drop to a single point.

The Corporate & Community Site Index hit a record low for the second straight week with a startling 8% decline at OsMoz. Showing a ninth drop in a row, OsMoz slipped below an Alexa rank of 200,000 for the first time. 

There was speculation in the comments to last week’s report that fragrance sites are in a seasonal lull and that readership will pick up with the start of the Spring perfume launches.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

The Noir Side of Perfume

People love perfume for many reasons; thieves love it for three: it’s small, valuable, and untraceable.

Perfume attracts all manner of criminals. There are low level grab-and-go types, like the trio who snatched some testers from a fragrance counter in Moultrie, Georgia and fled, dropping a couple of bottles on the way. When caught, they turned out to be armed and convicted felons.

In some cases there’s a whiff of desperation. According to the local crime blotter in Brookfield, Wisconsin, a
51-year-old Milwaukee man was arrested for theft after he took perfume from Boston Store, 15875 W. Bluemound Road, at 10:57 a.m. Dec. 7. He also was arrested for possession of drug paraphernalia after police found a metal pipe and steel wool during a search.
Who knows what spurred a 34-year veteran of the New Orleans Police Department to pocket a bottle of fragrance in the J.C. Penney store at the Metairie Mall last November? Or why the couple in Cape Coral, Florida decided they needed perfume so badly that the guy stuffed a $40 bottle into his pants in a WalMart while his lady friend played lookout?

And what can you say about the women in Beaverton, Oregon who had three children stand lookout in a department store while they lifted mascara and some Paris Hilton fragrances?

’Fume-lifting can get violent. When a security guard at a Sears store near Harrisburg, PA tried to stop a woman from stealing some perfume, she bit him and fled. Over near Pittsburgh a guy shoplifted $1,100 worth of fragrance at a mall and hopped into a getaway car driven by his girlfriend and her 17-year-old son. Police gave chase and the outlaws crashed. (Perfume theft seems to be endemic in Pennsylvania. This month $676 worth was lifted from the Berkshire Mall in Wyomissing.)

Scent-snatching gets to be a habit for some people. One guy is targeting a Walgreens in the Chicago suburb of Arlington Heights. The first time he made off with $2,000 worth of product; the second time he snared only $200 worth.

Then there’s the six foot tall, bearded and bespectacled guy in Windsor, Ontario who helped himself to four bottles each of Chanel 5 and Coco and got away clean. When he returned two days later he was recognized as he put two more bottles in his shopping cart. He fled but was tracked down and arrested by Ontario Provincial Police.

The next step up on the criminal food chain are the professional shoplifters like the pair of New York women who traveled repeatedly to Kittery, Maine where they were accused of stealing $17,000 worth of product from the Swarovski Crystal store and multiple bottles of cologne from the Cosmetics Company. They were seen tossing a bottle from their car and police found metal-lined “thermal bags”—used to defeat a store’s anti-theft devices—in their car.

Professional perfume thieves often work in teams. Last July, in Galway District Court in Ireland, a 38-year-old woman pleaded guilty to theft. Here’s Martina Nee’s account from the Galway Advertiser:
Inspector Mick Coppinger told the court that the defendant entered [high end department store] Brown Thomas with three other females which included her 12-year-old daughter and 19-year-old daughter-in-law. He said that together they set up what is known as a “distraction type situation” and that the defendant had acted as a “look out”. They made off with 15 bottles of perfume which had a total value of €970.

When the Romanian national was arrested and questioned she recovered two bottles of perfume but the other items had been sold on.
In one case, ’fume-lifting literally became a team sport when a bunch of professional soccer players were snared at a Ben-Gurion Airport duty free store.

The airplane get-away makes duty free shops a tempting target. In December, an Australian tourist couple was busted for lifting three bottles of perfume from the duty free in the departure lounge at Phuket airport in Thailand. The guy was released on bail but his “fiancée” was held in juvenile custody because she’s only 16 . . .

(The chain of Thai duty free shops in question is rumored to be running an interesting counter-scam in which they falsely accuse customers of shoplifting and then settle for a cash payment to not press charges.)

Still further up the food chain are thieves who brazenly make off with piles of merchandise. Last September, in broad daylight, somebody took two dozen bottles of Emporio Armani from Boots the Chemist in Cockermouth, England.

In Southern California this January, thieves hit Victoria’s Secret in the Brea Mall (on 90 just off the 57). They took 200 pairs ($3,200 worth) of an item called the Lacy Panty. (Ummm, lacy panties . . .) Four days later someone swiped 39 bottles of perfume and lotion (worth $1,931) from the same store. In each case the thieves just cleared off an entire display table.

At the pinnacle of the perfume theft food chain are gangs who target wholesale warehouses. Although last month’s million dollar heist in the New Jersey Meadowlands town of Carlstadt was large, it’s by no means the largest. 
One of the biggest perfume busts in New Jersey history was in 1996, after nearly 50,000 bottles of Drakkar Noir perfume valued at $2.2 million were taken from a Jersey City cargo terminal.
In the past ten years similar robberies have taken place in South Hackensack ($500,000), Newark ($750,000) and Edison ($1,000,000). 

What the hell’s going on? Back in 2002, reporter Peter Pochna laid it all out in an excellent story in the Baltimore Sun:
Criminals like perfume because investigators have difficulty tracking it down. Unlike other popular black market items, such as watches and VCRs, perfume bottles bear no markings that authorities can trace.

Stolen perfume frequently surfaces among street vendors in Manhattan and in discount shops along Bergenline Avenue in West New York, N.J., and Union City, N.J., and along St. Nicholas Avenue in upper Manhattan.

Yet while investigators may know that a certain wholesaler or retailer is dealing stolen perfume, they often can’t prove the perfume is hot, said Michael Palermo, a detective with the FBI’s Interstate Theft Task force in Newark.

“It’s very difficult for us to make a prosecution,” he said.”
Joan Goodchild, Senior Editor at CSO magazine, reports on a worldwide survey of retailers that found shrink (i.e., stock that is lost, damaged or stolen) increased in 2009:
The increase in shrink was felt all over. All except three countries experienced an increase in shrinkage. Average shrinkage rates increased most in North America (+8.1 percent) and in Middle East/Africa (+7.5 percent) and were strongly influenced by a large increase in shoplifting, the report said. 

CRR said significant increases in shrink rates occurred in the U.S. (where shrink rose by +8.8% to reach 1.61% of retail sales). However, the highest increases in shrink rates were experienced in Slovakia (+9.8%) and South Africa (8.2%). 

Various types of retail business were impacted by shrink in 2009. The highest shrink rates were in apparel, clothing and fashion and accessories and the auto parts, hardware and building materials industry. Cosmetics, perfume, beauty supply and pharmacy-related business were third on the list. The lowest rates were in liquor, wine, beer/off-license retail establishments.

What can be done? Retailers are turning to counter-surveillance methods, such as devices that scan for the metal-lined “booster bags” used by thieves to avoid theft-detectors. Others have tried GPS locators placed in random cartons of perfume. Someone patented an anti-theft device for perfume testers. While this may deter the impulse shoplifter, it won’t have much impact on smarter thieves who are after product still in its original packaging.

The creation and marketing of fine fragrance is the apex of glamour but theft and diversion of product creates an astoundingly large and seedy underworld.

[Thanks to commenter and fragrance blogger BitterGrace for posing the question that inspired this post.]

Friday, March 5, 2010

The Great Perfume Robbery: A Million Dollar Drydown

[Original photo by Leif Knutsen]

Something didn’t smell right about this case from the beginning: a heist during working hours; multiple trucks to carry off looted perfume; day laborers brought along as muscle; and fifteen of them left at the scene locked in one of the trucks.

Now it turns out the trucks were rented in Jersey City under the true names of the perps—among them two NYPD cops and a former cop. Not only that, they allegedly
burst into the warehouse and yelled, “NYPD! Hands up!” while waving guns and displaying badges. Other co-conspirators allegedly helped them tie up about 11 warehouse employees while a group of day laborers who had been recruited by the robbers began to load the trucks.

One of the robbers allegedly told the employees that they were performing a routine inspection of the storage facility on behalf of the NYPD.
Hand over the Dolce & Gabbana and no one gets hurt!

The three cops and two other men were indicted in federal court in Newark, New Jersey today on charges of conspiracy to commit armed robbery. At the time of the robbery police estimated the value of the stolen perfume at $50,000.

Prosecutors now put the figure at $1,000,000.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The FirstNerve BurrOmeter: Spring has Almost Sprung

*Name Drops: 13

Calice Becker
Yann Vasnier
Shyamala Maisondieu
Jacques Cavallier
Daniela Andrier
Jacques Polge
Carlos Benaim
Dominique Ropion
Olivier Polge
Tom Ford
Miuccia Prada
Jean Paul Gaultier
Marc Jacobs
Bonus points:
Perfumers: 9
Designers: 4
French: 9
Multiple Appearance Hat trick: Dominique Ropion 3
Nonsensical fragrance description:
neon fruit: 1
Total BurrOmeter reading for Spring has Almost Sprung: 39 milliburrs

*Names are 11.6% of the entire word count. New record.
Outlook: Approaching the dew point; name drop condensation makes for slippery reading.

Monday, March 1, 2010

California Über Alles

Take a look at your future: it’s wearing the smiley face of Green facism.

Jello saw it coming back in ’79.