Thursday, April 29, 2010

A Study in Contrasts

Last week I attended the Association for Chemoreception Sciences meeting in St. Petersburg, FL. Today I gave a talk to the American Rhinologic Society in Las Vegas. The difference is enough to make one’s head spin.

The biggest contrast is the dress code. AChemS, like most academic science meetings, is casual in the extreme. Graduate students (and post-docs who aren’t actively seeking faculty positions) wear cargo shorts with T-shirts or Gap-ish women’s wear. Atrocious sandals are popular (Birkenstocks signal that you’re a field person). Sandals can be worn with socks if you are from Europe or if you already have tenure. (Full disclosure: your humble Blog Proprietor has worn Sperry Top Siders since he was sixteen.) Casualness is not a function of the beach-side meeting site—trust me on this.

The ARS is a medical society; the crowd is almost exclusively rhinologists and otolaryngologists. The men wear suits and ties, the ladies dresses or tailored suits. No shorts. No sandals. No exceptions. And this is Las Vegas, where anything goes.

Score one for the medicos.

Another contrast is scientific style. The posters look pretty much like those in academic science, but the graphics are, well, really graphic: color photos of a neck reconstruction, a resection of an extracranial skull base tumor, and neck dissection for metastatic thyroid cancer. Attendees were strolling the poster aisle with plates from the lunch buffet. Not having gone to med school, I wasn’t up to nibbling on a pulled-pork sandwich while viewing this stuff. These guys are hard core.

Score another for the scalpel team.

The talks were short (six minutes) and emphasized summaries and conclusions over methods and statistical analysis. Reasonable for a crowd interesting in evaluating newer and better treatment techniques. Disappointingly, most of the presenters just read their Powerpoint slides. Yawn.


The exhibitor section was mind-blowing. Every manner of medical instrument for reaching up the human nose, including endoscopic probes that provide a video feed as the doctor clips off polyps or bores into sinuses remotely. Cool. I’ve haven’t seen this many plastic skulls and life-like rubber face models on the counter since the Halloween superstore closed for the season. (Cronenberg fans will recall Dead Ringers.)

Score one for hi-tech medical devices.

In the end the docs take it on points; but I still prefer the messy, contentious style of basic science. It’s a temperment thing; if I were a clinician I’d want to be up on the latest tools and techniques. But I never was a “hands” guy in the lab.

. . .

So I’m blogging from McCarran airport which has free WiFi. (Sweet!) However I’m more than ready to fly away. This is my first visit to Las Vegas and it hasn’t moved me. I feel like I’ve had a low-grade brain fever since I walked off the plane. Don’t get me wrong—the locals are pleasant, the staff at Bally’s were fine, but . . . the whole experience is a bit too virtual for my taste.

Some of it is real: the nostalgic smell of fresh, indoor cigarette smoke, the whiskey voices and nicotine laughs of the craps players. Western types with their hard R’s. But this is Disneyland for grownups with wagering. I’ll stick with the Dumbo ride in Anaheim.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Lieder Ohne Düfte

Felix Mendelssohn wrote Songs without Words. Now olfactory artist Sissel Tolaas has gone one better and written a magazine without words—but with scents. The publisher is the German art & culture periodical Mono.Kultur

According to M.K, Tolaas “curated” the dozen microencapsulated smells presented in the Spring 2010 issue. (That’s art-speak for “selected”.) They also tell us that
Tolaas has become an expert on everything related to scents, odours, smells.
She is a professor at Harvard University for invisible communication
Of course she is. And I’m the Jedi Master of Invisible Psychology and Totally Transparent Kung-fu.

Sissel Tolaas: too kühl 4 skool.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Point-and-Click Psychophysics

Poster sessions at scientific meetings are a strange ritual. The idea is simple enough: the presenter pins a poster describing his work to a big easel and stands there for a few hours talking about it to whomever stops by and displays (even an iota of) interest. The posters themselves look a lot better than they did when I was in grad school; they are laser printed in color on a single piece of glossy paper. Back in the day they were literally cut-and-paste jobs that required a lot of stick pins.

One thing that hasn’t changed is the social awkwardness of the poster session. Big name presenters are mobbed; the unknown post-doc with a hot result might get some attention; an incremental advance in a fringe area will attract maybe three people in an entire morning. Call it a sympathy viewing.

Negotiating the poster session floor is hazardous. Pause too long in front of one and you may trigger an unsolicited offer to “talk you through” the poster. A one-minute once-over is welcome; one can always ask for more information. But watch out for the obsessive (or novice) presenter for whom each detail is precious and for whom time has no meaning. It’s not easy to politely extract oneself from the minutiae geek. 

At the AChemS meeting I work the floor with a list of posters I want to see. New findings are the currency of the realm, but I’m also looking for new experimental techniques: ways of observing or quantifying perception that are easy to use and give robust results.

I found one at Barry Green’s poster “Measuring referral of retronasal odors: The effect of taste.” Barry was once a colleague of mine at the Monell Chemical Senses Center; he now works at the John B. Pierce Laboratory at Yale. He’s a hard-core psychophysicist devoted to measuring sensation and perception in various sensory modalities. His poster grabbed my attention because it involved the interaction of smell and taste. (Retronasal olfaction is odor perceived from food or drink in the mouth; things smelled from within rather than from without.)

In the study, each subject held 5 ml of liquid in his mouth for three seconds then spit it out. He spent the next five seconds paying attention to where in his mouth and/or nose he smelled an odor. (The solutions contained various combinations and concentrations of salt, sugar, citral and vanillin.) A computer screen displayed an anatomical cartoon of a human head with nose, mouth, tongue and palate. The volunteer’s task was to color in the location of the odor using a mouse and Microsoft Paint.

That alone is so cool—an intuitive way for people to tell you where they are experiencing a retronasal smell. No vocabulary (soft palate, nasopharynx, etc.); no number scales; just “show me.” Easier than Etch A Sketch.

So what did Barry find? In a nutshell, odors presented in a water solution are localized equally often to the nose and mouth. When the solution is sweetened with sucrose, the odor is perceived closer to the tongue. Adding salt to the solution doesn’t produce this effect. This adds to our recently expanding knowledge of smell and taste interactions, but to my mind the innovation in measurement technique is the best part.

Monday, April 26, 2010

The Smelly Web Indexes: Full Flower

The Solo Blog Index

Close: 103
Change: +3
Big movers: JaimeLeParfum +13%, PinkManhattan +9%, GrainDeMusc +7%, BitterGraceNotes +7%, Ayalasmellyblog +6%, MaisQuePerfume -10%, SorceryOfScent -8%, FirstNerve -8%,  AnyasGarden -5%,

The Team Blog Index
Close: 112
Change: -1 
Big movers: none

The Corporate & Community Site Index
Close: 48
Change: +6 
Big movers: TheDryDown +6%

The Solo Blog Index continued to climb with a 3-point rise although declines outnumbered advances two to one.  FirstNerve snapped its totally awesome unprecedented streak of fifteen straight weekly gains with a drop. We blame the short-sellers and call for global controls on smelly web traffic.

The Team Blog Index was again off one point, but the Corporate & Community Site Index followed last weeks five point rise with a six point gain, with TheDryDown leading the way.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Live from AChemS – More on Sperm & Lily of the Valley

One of the advantages of a scientific conference is that you hear results straight from the horse’s mouth. Two weeks ago I wrote about the discovery of the first molecule to which men are more sensitive than women. It’s called bourgeonal and its odor character resembles lily of the valley. Two other remarkable facts about bourgeonal: it is extremely attractive to human sperm and it activates olfactory receptor OR1D2 which is expressed in sperm cells as well as the human nose.

In a comment, Carmencanada at GrainDeMusc said:
Lily of the valley is not a smell I would have associated with human reproduction. Does that mean Diorissimo and the like would attract the, hm, hm, little fellows?
I too was puzzled by why an intensely floral odor would have a role in mammalian reproduction.

At this evening’s poster session Matthias Laska, a co-author of the new paper, presented his study and I got a chance to ask him about bourgeonal. I learned a few new things.

According to Laska, bourgeonal does not occur in the female reproductive tract or anywhere else in nature for that matter. The German scientist Hanns Hatt discovered that bourgeonal activates testicular odor receptors; he and his team published the results in Science in 2003. They were using a cocktail of 100 natural and synthetic odorants to screen for receptor activation and bourgeonal was one of the hundred.

So, yes Carmencanada, your suspicions were correct. There’s no biological logic to bourgeonal’s potency as a sperm attractant. (In the original post I took the fact that it works in laboratory experiments to mean it is naturally released by the egg; sorry about that.) There may, in fact, be other odors even more effective at attracting sperm than bourgeonal—we just haven’t found them yet.

Laska also reminded me that Hatt had applied for a patent on the human odor receptor in question as well as molecules that stimulate or inhibit it. Claim 23 of the patent is for medical applications involving contraception or fertility enhancement. Lily of the valley—coming soon to a fertility clinic near you! 

Hatt has become something of an evangelist for the fundamental biological role of bourgeonal in human evolution. He recently published a book (available only in German) called The lily of the valley phenomenon: All about smell and how it affects our lives.

And that, boyz & girlz, is why it’s worth going to poster sessions.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Hiding under the Ozone Layer

Hmmm. This is not reassuring.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Live from AChemS – 3

On the program at this morning’s poster session: a presentation called “Bitter taste can induce nausea.” Who can resist a title like that?

A quick glance showed that this was serious multi-center study by investigators at the Monell Center, Wake Forest, and Penn State. They measured subjective queasiness using a modified version of the Muth Nausea Scale. (Excellent choice!) For objective data they employed electrogastrography which uses skin-surface electrodes to measure muscle tension over the abdomen. (Urp!)

All that was missing was a standardized means of inducing nausea to calibrate the measures. No problem: you paint the inside of a drum with alternating black and white stripes, place it over a person’s head, and rotate it at 10 rpm. The volunteer arrives in barf city in no time flat. (Neato.

Oh, and just holding a very bitter liquid in one’s mouth for three minutes induces nausea in about half the people who try it. Sounds like a great party trick.

Attention Shoppers!

Smelly shopper gets called on it and goes ballistic. Where’s Miss Manners when you need her?

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Live from AChemS – 2

According to my Australian sensory psychologist pal, there’s another reason why scientists don’t available themselves of Facebook and Twitter. He thinks what we do on a daily basis is simply too boring to be of interest.

He might have a point.
DrOlfacto I’m collating all the individual subject data files and checking for outliers.
about 6 hours ago

DrOlfacto I’ve run the initial group comparisons for demographics and found no differences—cool!
about 5 hours ago

DrOlfacto The multiple analysis of variance shows a significant Condition x Treatment x Practice effect. Yessss!
about 2 hours ago

DrOlfacto Post hoc pairwise comparisons with Bonferroni correction shows the CxTxP effect is limited to the extended practice group. Bummer.
about 1 hour ago

DrOlfacto Maybe I’ll try a nonparametric ANOVA model instead.
10 minutes ago

Zzzzzzzzz . . . 

Live from AChemS

So I made it to St. Pete Beach, Florida for AChemS—the big smell & taste confab. The venue is the Tradewinds Island Grand which is a hellaciously expensive cab ride from the Tampa airport. The upside is that this sprawling property is right on the beach; the downside is that it’s sprawling. The 700 or so of us (minus about 100 Europeans stranded by volcano smoke) will be dispersed rather thinly through the various pools, bars and tiki lounges that dot the place. Critical mission: to find a between-sessions and after-hours spot for the tribal gatherings. At least this is the mission for the Smell People; the Tasties are on their own.

I see that Nathan Branch recently commented on my Fear of Facebook:

Avery, I’ve often wondered why you’re not on Facebook. I think it would be a great way for you to promote your book and your website (Twitter, too). Just get over your East Coast Cranky (tm) attitude about not wanting to be “friends” with everybody and set up an account already! ;)
Coincidently, the table conversation at this evening’s opening banquet turned to FB. Those with a page included the wife of one scientist, and a researcher from Fred Hutch Cancer Center. Those without: scientists from Brown, Syracuse/SUNY Med, Le Moyne, Harvard Med, another Fred Hutch guy, and an Aussie. The French neuroscientist has an account she set up as a gathering place for her extended family.

So from this non-random but representative sample, I’d say scientists have an aversion to FB. It’s not like they afraid of the web: it’s where they find papers, submit and review grant proposals and journal articles, and last but not least communicate with students and colleagues via email. Maybe it’s just too icky-personal? Or too blatantly self-promoting? I dunno.

FB—I don’t wanna get sucked in.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Fantasy Scent Marketing

We think that celebrity scents descended into self-parody a long time ago. That doesn’t stop Kelli Bender from milking it for giggles over at The Frisky.

But why stop at celebrities who’ve actually put their name to a product? Let’s play Fantasy Scent Marketing and find the celeb Least Likely to Succeed as the face of a fragrance.

I'll start the bidding with Lisa Lampanelli in the Women’s category and Moby for Men’s.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Smelly Web Indexes: The Sap Rises

The Solo Blog Index
Close: 100
Change: +11 
Big movers: Olfactarama +37%, Ayalasmellyblog +10%, NathanBranch +5%, IndiePerfumes -18%, Vetivresse -11%, AnyasGarden -8%, PinkManhattan -7%

The Team Blog Index
Close: 113
Change: -1 
Big movers: ISmellThereforeIAm +7%, PerfumeDaRosaNegra -8%

The Corporate & Community Site Index
Close: 42 
Change: +5 
Big movers: TheDryDown +5%

The Solo Blog Index built on last week’s big advance with an 11-point gain driven by Olfactarama which continued to roar back from recent downturns. IndiePerfumes skidded substantially while most other sites registered relatively small changes.

The Team Blog Index was off a point, but the Corporate & Community Site Index continued to spring back to life with a five point gain led by TheDryDown.

At the end of February, when things were looking bleak, commenter CarmenCanada—seconded by Nathan Branch—predicted a surge in the Smelly Web Indexes to coincide with the new fragrances launches in April. It’s looking like that was a good call. Hope you all made a killing in the SWI futures market!

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Thinking Out Loud

This coming Wednesday I fly to Florida for the annual meeting of the Association for Chemoreception Sciences. AChemS is the world’s biggest gathering of smell and taste scientists, but compared to the Society for Neuroscience (30,000 attendees) it’s a positively intimate gathering (only ~1,000 people).

I always look forward to going. I get to catch up with friends and colleagues and see what’s happening in all areas of the field, from the molecular to the behavioral. (Friends/colleagues, gossip/scientific updates: the categories blur. I wrote about the rhythms of the AChemS meeting here.)

The meeting runs through Sunday and I’ll be there for the whole thing. Given the data-packed days and long nights, this means blogging will be slow on First Nerve.

Unless . . . I blog about the meeting while I’m there.

I’m not sure how, or if, this could work. My usual M.O. is to fall into bed at 2 a.m., get up at 8, recaffeinate, and start all over again. Maybe I can blog from the bar. I dunno; guess I’ll give it a try.

FWIW you can download the meeting program here or flip through the abstracts here.Let me know if something strikes your fancy and I'll try to cover it.

Friday, April 16, 2010

When Iceland Dealt It

Here’s an epic smellscape you don’t encounter every day—or at least since about 1821: the odor plume of Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull volcano. It was noticed in the UK’s Shetland Islands a few hundred miles southeast of the eruption.

Shetland residents said the sulphuric smell of rotten eggs was strong by early yesterday morning.

“I noticed a smell in the house and wondered what it was,” said Joanne Jamieson, from Sandwick on the southern tip of Mainland, the biggest island in Shetland. “It was coming from the outside, so I opened the door. It was very strong, and I initially thought it was rotting seaweed. I looked down to the beach and actually looked up to see if the sky was falling in.”

Jane Matthews, her neighbour, said: “It smelt strongly like rotten eggs, but I didn’t put two and two together realising it was coming from Iceland. Initially, I thought maybe it’s something to do with my young daughter, or the animals in the field.”
It’s curious how often one’s immediate response to a rare event is to grope for context. One night in college I was sitting on the can in my Berkeley apartment when the whole place started shuddering. “What the hell,” I remember thinking, “did a bus just hit the building?” No, it was a 3.5 earthquake.

Lots of us flocked to People’s Park—the nearest open space—for safety. After all, it could have been a prelude to The Big One. Around midnight a wag in the high rise dorms put his speakers in the window and treated us to some Dead:
Shake it, shake it, Sugaree . . .

[Hat tip to reader Michael T.]

For some reason all this reminds me of Hell’s Half-Acre in Yellowstone National Park, which Rudyard Kipling (yes—the same fellow who wrote Smells are surer than sounds or sights / To make your heart-strings crack) described in American Notes, published in 1891.
ONCE upon a time there was a carter who brought his team and a friend into the Yellowstone Park without due thought. Presently they came upon a few of the natural beauties of the place, and that carter turned his team into his friend’s team, howling:--“Get out o’ this, Jim. All hell’s alight under our noses!”

And they called the place Hell’s Half-Acre to this day to witness if the carter lied.

We, too, the old lady from Chicago, her husband, Tom, and the good little mares, came to Hell’s Half-Acre, which is about sixty acres in extent, and when Tom said:—“Would you like to drive over it?”

We said:—“Certainly not, and if you do we shall report you to the park authorities.”

There was a plain, blistered, peeled, and abominable, and it was given over to the sportings and spoutings of devils who threw mud, and steam, and dirt at each other with whoops, and halloos, and bellowing curses.

The places smelled of the refuse of the pit, and that odor mixed with the clean, wholesome aroma of the pines in our nostrils throughout the day.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The FirstNerve BurrOmeter: Bite-Size Mini-Muffin Edition

Name drops: 5

Issey Miyake
Jacques Cavallier
Jean-Claude Ellena
David Apel
François Demachy
Bonus points:
Perfumers: 4
Designers: 1
French: 3
Jean-Claude Ellena Deluxe Triple Bonus Points®: 3

Writing-in-the-bathtub and/or need-to-pee points: 5
smelled of water
warm Turkish seawater
a cloud
a black-currant kir
the glassy water of an aquifer
If only the NYT Style Magazine still had a copy editor points: 1
the glassy water of an aquifer
Calibration factor for new micro-mini review format: 10-1

Total BurrOmeter reading for L’Eau d’Issey Fleur de Bois et alia: 2.2 milliburrs

Outlook: Diminished winds, high humidity. Becalmed.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

ISDP: Return of the Classics

It may be sunny springtime outdoors, but deep within the macabre and twisted souls of ISDP fans there’s always a strangely alluring dark place brimming over with . . . a foul odor. It’s the thirteenth of the month again. The kids are watching some sick crap on CSI: Miami, the spouse is reading The Lovely Bones, and you—you are about to partake in the guilty pleasure of another installment from the Dark Side of olfaction. 

It was the urban legend of “The Body in the Bed” that led to my first impromptu ISDP research for What the Nose Knows. I found, to my amazement, that dead bodies are routinely found (or hidden) in motel rooms. Although outnumbered here on ISDP by putrid remains discovered in apartment buildings, the motel room scenario remains a classic.

On March 15 in Memphis, Tennessee the body of a missing woman was
found underneath the bed in the motel she had been staying in. The body was discovered after motel guests complained of a bad smell in the room.
Sony Millbrook had been renting the room until she disappeared on January 27. Sometime later the motel management cleared her belongings from the room for lack of payment. Before her body was discovered there six and a half weeks later, the room had been rented five times. The motel refused to let her sister look there herself.

Nor did Memphis police look under the bed.
“In hindsight should an investigator have gone in there and torn the room up? Sure,” said Deputy Chief Joe Scott.
Or just sniffed around a bit, Chief . . .

The Volunteer state came close to racking up a second incident on April 12, when maintenance workers noticed “two unresponsive people and a foul odor in a rental cabin” in Sevier County. According to the demanding rules of ISDP the incident must have been discovered initially and primarily by smell. Unfortunately, peeking through a window at what turns out to have been a murder-suicide (woman and ex-boyfriend) doesn’t cut the mustard. Thanks for playing and better luck next time. 

We don’t usually track ISDP events outside of the United States, but we thought we’d toss a bone to our Canadian readers and share a January 9th story from Edmonton, Alberta where Walter Gladu-Chokopeu pleaded guilty to “unlawfully failing to notify authorities of a body or human remains,” namely those of his late wife. The headline in the Toronto Sun read:
Dead wife left to decompose; Husband was ‘terrified’ of calling police
However The Vancouver Sun captured the flavor better:
Two months living with dead wife’s body: Edmonton man faces court
It’s a long, sad story involving stroke, epilepsy, spousal abuse, medication and a total of 18 beers shared by a couple on the night of October 28, 2009. Gladu-Chokopeu left his wife’s remains in a bedroom for more than two months. According to court testimony, 
police were called after the apartment building caretaker had received complaints about the odour from other tenants and a plumber working there.

(When a plumber complains, you know it smells bad.)

Also in mid-March, police in Staten Island, New York found the body of a 33-year-old woman in her bed. Officers “were responding to a report of a foul odor coming from the residence.” According to the landlord, “he had not seen or heard from the woman in weeks and mail was piled up.”

On April 6th, cops on a call in St. Petersburg, Florida (site later this month of the Association for Chemoreception Sciences annual meeting!) “detected an odor coming from an abandoned home.” They found the decomposing body of a woman in an upstairs apartment. (This story strikes us as extremely suspicious; what cop in his right mind would voluntarily investigate a foul odor in an abandoned building, knowing the high likelihood of getting stuck with a DB for the rest of his shift?) 

Finally, in New Haven, Connecticut in early April a body rolled up in a carpet was found in a trash can behind a house. According to a police, “maintenance workers for the landlord were cleaning up the property and, when one went to the garbage can, noticed that it was extremely heavy and had a foul odor emanating from it.” The body may have been that of a recent resident of the building, which appears to have been run as a half-way house. 

Pssst . . . if the family’s still busy you can spend a few minutes browsing the Interactive ‘I Smell Dead People’ Map. Hundreds of others already have!

Until next time . . .

UPDATE April 14, 2010
In an incident that came to our attention after we posted, the bodies of a couple and their nineteen-year-old daughter were found in an abandoned home in Miami, Florida after neighbors “noticed a foul smell coming from the duplex in the Model City neighborhood.” The family appears to have been squatting in the residence and had not been seen for weeks.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Roger and Me: As the Sperm Turns

It’s not often that men take the prize from women in the arena of olfactory psychophysics. In fact, it’s more like never. Women are usually better at identifying odors and they have outperformed men in every published study of smell sensitivity—until now.

Peter Olsson and Matthias Laska at Linkőping University in Sweden have finally found a molecule that men detect at reliably lower concentrations than women. It’s an aromatic aldehyde called bourgeonal and as we shall see it’s an interesting molecule for other reasons.

Olsson and Laska conducted their battle of the sexes with 250 players on each squad. The test: sniff three squeeze bottles and pick the one that contains an odor. (The other two contain just the odorless solvent.) Easier said than done when the airborne concentration of bourgeonal is less than 20 parts per billion.

The experimenters used standard procedures for finding detection thresholds. Each test began with the lowest concentration and worked upwards until the sniffer could reliably pick the smelly bottle. Similar tests with two other odors—helional and n-pentyl acetate—served as controls. There was no sex difference in the lowest detectable concentration of either control odor.

So what’s special about bourgeonal? It activates the human olfactory receptor known as OR1D2 which, besides being found in the human nose, is also expressed in human sperm cells.

Yes, sperm cells.

Bourgeonal is a potent molecular signal that is critical to sperm chemotaxis, In other words, it’s what sperm use to find their way to the egg. So it makes more than a little evolutionary sense that bourgeonal detection is ramped up in men and their gametic representatives.

FirstNerve congratulates Olsson and Laska for shattering the glass ceiling that has held down male olfactory self-esteem for centuries. We look forward to newly empowered male undergraduates spraying themselves with low-concentration bourgeonal and marching through the Womyn’s Studies department in a defiant act of nasal solidarity.

UPDATE June 6, 2010
Добре дошли на читателите на Капитал!

Olfactory Edutainment

I spoke at Longwood Gardens last month. Their new olfactory exhibit has opened and it sounds like fun. If you’re in the vicinity of Kennett Square, PA, you might want to check it out.

UPDATE April 12, 2009
Vanity Fair has more on the exhbit.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Ex-NYT Reporter on Eating Garbage: Sniff It First

From Mark Fagin’s brief interview in the San Francisco Chronicle today with The Hate Man, one of those “colorful” street characters who populate Berkeley’s Telegraph Avenue:

Q: Why do you like to eat out of trash cans?

A: It’s free. It makes your immune system strong. It’s risky and offensive to some people, but I’m cautious. I sniff it and don’t just eat anything.
How droll.

Only someone who hasn’t owned a business on Telegraph or walked to campus along it can interview an elderly, homeless, cross-dressing, garbage eater about his bizarre habits then write a twee feature about it.

Fagin’s fluff piece is being picked up all over the web, presumably because The Hate Man (real name Mark Hawthorne) was once a reporter for the New York Times. I guess that makes him interesting.

Here at First Nerve Manor, all it does is set off the siren on the Bogosity Meter. So I did a little scouting around.

Mark Hawthorne’s entire by-lined output at the Times (from 1961 to 1969) amounts to twenty stories and a letter to the editor. I’m not sure what was required of a successful reporter in the Sixties, but twenty stories over eight years doesn’t exactly sound like a burn-out pace.

Hawthorne’s first story, written when he was about 25 years old, was published on January 7, 1962. It is one of those “charmingly observed” pieces about the minutiae of urban life so beloved of the Times. It’s about doodles left by contractors on unfinished walls in apartment buildings under construction in New York.

His last, a page one report on Mayor Lindsay’s imposition of rent control on recalcitrant landlords, appeared on September 8, 1969.

In between he covered union strikes and a shakeup at the Democratic National Committee following the party’s disastrous 1968 convention in Chicago. In April, 1966, in “Long Hair and Sex Freedom: A Social Critic’s Proposals for Youth,” he reported on a talk at the Hotel Astor by proto-feminist Marya Mannes.
Miss Mannes called long hair on boys “far more virile and decorative than the crewcut,” and long hair on girls “infinitely more alluring than the teased, dyed, spray-glazed” styles of a few years ago.
Two months later, he interviewed Dallas neighbors and acquaintances of Richard Speck who had killed eight nurses in Chicago a week earlier.

In October, 1968, he wrote about student protesters barricaded inside the NYU library. On March 10, 1969 he was on the front page with “100 Barnard Girls Move into Columbia Dormitories,” a protest meant “to dramatize demands of students at both colleges for coeducational dormitory arrangements beginning next fall.”

Mark Hawthorne was the Times’ man on the scene for every sort of social disruption of the 1960s. That was probably enough to test anyone’s sanity. But Hawthorne, the future philosopher-bum of Berkeley, was more than an observer—he became a participant.

According to the Village Voice of October 23, 1969 (“Keeping a Vigil with the New York Times”) a protest crowd of 150 NYT employees in Bryant Park, most wearing black armbands and moratorium buttons, was addressed by Mark Hawthorne, Co-Chairman of the New York Times Employee’s Vietnam Moratorium Committee. The Voice describes Hawthorne as “thin and lively,” with a “flagrant moustache that covers his face like a thick rust-red vine.”

It also mentions a sign hanging from the window of the Times composing room on the fourth floor that reads “Hanoi Loves You.”

On August 4, 1969, the Times published a letter to the editor from their own reporter:
Even when [the North Vietnamese] scale down the fighting, we do nothing but continue bombing, burning and defoliating. Can no one stop our generals?
One more by-line and Hawthorne left the paper. By his own accounts, he was about 32 years old—an old fart by Sixties standards. He had missed the wave while reporting on it. He hit the streets in 1986 at age forty-nine.

Hawthorne was among a bunch of Berkeley homeless interviewed by CBS News last summer.
Mark Hawthorne, on the streets more than 30 years, was once a reporter for The New York Times.

“I was normal for 35 years and then I got bored,” Hawthorne said.
Riiiight. He was a Sixties wanna-be then he became a Telegraph Avenue garbage connoisseur. Living the dream.

Forget Kevin Fagin’s anodyne Q&A. For a real taste of The Hate Man in action try Sarah Mourra’s 2002 interview with him for the Berkeley student paper, The Daily Californian.
Perhaps the weirdest moment occurred when he politely urinated in a jar while simultaneously giving me a quote (I turned around for that part).
Lovely. Who’s up for doing the Sixties all over again? See ya’ in Peoples Park in 2050. We’ll do garbage.

P.S. March 3, 2011
Welcome, MetaFilter readers. A hat tip to Zarq for the link. Seems the East Bay can't get enough of The Hate Man. Re-reading Chris King's comment, his reference to "the fountain years" suddenly clicked for me. Of course I remember the guy who would stand in Ludwig's fountain c. 1973-4 and screeched about hate. (He was just as scraggly then but less gray.) Not surprised to learn from the East Bay Express piece that he lived in Barrington Hall for a time--just like Pink Cloud . . .

The Smelly Web Indexes: Kip Drordy Edition

For the week ending April 11, 2010
The Solo Blog Index
Close: 89 
Change: +12 
Big movers: BitterGraceNotes +23%, JaimeLeParfum +17%,  Olfactarama +15%, NathanBranch +11%, GrainDeMusc -9%, PinkManhattan -6%

The Team Blog Index
Close: 114
Change: -4 
Big movers: ISmellThereforeIAm -7%, PerfumePosse -6%

The Corporate & Community Site Index
Close: 37 
Change: +23 
Big movers: Sniffapalooza +45%, TheDryDown -17%

The Solo Blog Index turned in its best performance in months with BitterGraceNotes and Olfactarama bouncing back from recent losses; Nathan Branch rising, and JaimeLeParfum continuing its rookie climb through the rankings. Gainers outnumbered losers two to one. Has the much-anticipated April boost arrived?

The Corporate & Community Site Index picked itself up off the canvas with an impressive 23 point gain, due entirely to a massive 45% surge at Sniffapalooza as the fume heads prepared for their annual springtime event in meatspace.

The Team Blog Index was off slightly. PerfumeSmellinThings posted its eighth consecutive weekly decline which has the stat monkeys in the FirstNerve data vault muttering to themselves.

Here’s the chart. Just remember: Kip Drordy wants to be your friend, but at FN the numbers do the talking.

Saturday, April 10, 2010


Two of our favorite topics at here at FirstNerve are mammaries and perfume technology. Barbara Herman at Yesterday’s Perfume spent some time in the New York Public Library recently and came up with an historical nugget that combines both enthusiasms. Check out the Bou-K-Bra from a 1948 issue of Vogue

Feeling inspired, we dug around a bit in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office databases. Back in 1922 the Kabo Corset Company of Chicago trademarked the name “Flatter-U” for corsets and brassieres. It doesn’t look like they tried to trademark Bou-K-Bra, and if they filed for a patent on the invention it wasn’t granted.

American Smellscapes: Springtime in the South

Danny Heitman, a columnist for the Baton Rouge Advocate, describes the seasonal change of smellscape down in Louisiana:

The fragrance of winter is mostly an indoor phenomenon — the scent of cinnamon and holly, Christmas trees and skin balm, gumbo and cough drops.
Then come the outdoor scents that bring “the promise of a greening landscape.”
Like the smell created by the curious mixture of newly mown grass and mower fumes.

Or the astringent odor of chlorinated swimming pools.

Or the banana scent of magnolia fuscata coming into bloom.

And what about the oddly synthetic odor of new beach balls?
[Indeed. That smell you get when you nose is pressed into a new floaty toy, and the way it changes when the sun heats it up; how many pools, lakes and beaches does that take you back to?]

Then there’s this one:
I’m talking about the smell of manure, an odor seldom celebrated by those who practice aromatherapy or make designer cologne.
[Heh. My grandfather’s favorite phrase when driving past a diary farm: “Breathe deep—it’s good for you.”]

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Color Vision Didn’t Kill Smell

The discovery of the olfactory receptor genes in 1991 was a scientific game changer. It made it possible (as I explained a while back) to study the genetic architecture of olfaction in any species.

Of the hundreds of different mammalian olfactory receptors (ORs), we have yet to match more than a handful to the odor molecules that activate them. That hasn’t stopped scientists from trying to draw inferences about smell function from patterns in the genetic databases.

Among the first to do so were Yoav Gilad and Doron Lancet. In 2004 they compared 100 randomly selected OR genes from 19 different primate species, including Old World monkeys (e.g., baboons and macaques), New World monkeys (e.g., marmosets and spider monkeys), and hominoids (humans and apes). They analyzed the proportion of OR pseudogenes, i.e., OR genes with mutations that prevent the formation of a functional odor receptor. 

Here’s what Gilad et al. concluded:
We find that apes, Old World monkeys and one New World monkey, the howler monkey, have a significantly higher proportion of OR pseudogenes than do other New World monkeys or the lemur (a prosimian). Strikingly, the howler monkey is also the only New World monkey to possess full trichromatic vision, along with Old World monkeys and apes. Our findings suggest that the deterioration of the olfactory repertoire occurred concomitant with the acquisition of full trichromatic color vision in primates.
The idea that the ancient sense of smell deteriorates following the evolutionary emergence of color vision has come to be known as the “color vision priority hypothesis.” At core it’s a restatement in genetic terms of the dismal Greco-Freudian view that for modern man smell is a degraded and unimportant sense.

Science marches on, however, and higher resolution gene sequences are now available for many primate species. Recently genome researcher Yoshihito Niimura at Tokyo University, along with colleagues Atsushi Matsui and Yasuhiro Go at Kyoto University, revisited the relationship of the OR genome to color vision using more complete gene sequence data. They examined five primate species, including humans, chimpanzees, orangutans, macaques and marmosets. The results, according to Niimura et al.,
show that the color vision priority hypothesis is not supported.

Specifically, the five species have similar numbers of functional OR genes (320 to 400) but vary widely in the proportion of pseudogenes. By mathematically reconstructing the evolutionary lineages of these primates, Niimura et al. show that loss of OR genes is a gradual process that does not correspond to the predicted gap between hominoids/Old World Monkeys and the New World Monkeys.

[From Degeneration of olfactory gene repertoire in primates: No direct link to full chromatic vision, by Matsui, Go & Niimura, 2010; follow link for figure caption.]

In other words, there is no simple inverse relationship between color vision and smell. Based on their analysis of the new OR gene sequence data, the authors conclude:

Our sense of smell may not be inferior to other primate species.
I prefer this more upbeat view for two reasons. First, it takes account of both functional and nonfunctional OR genes. Second, it’s supported by behavioral data from smell experiments, which show that human olfactory detection ability is on a par with that of various monkeys. It had a good six-year run, but the color vision priority hypothesis has begun to show signs of, shall we say, deterioration.

[Hat tip to commenter Kaylin.}

Sunday, April 4, 2010

An East Coast Smellscape at Easter

A thirty-minute stroll around the neighborhood late on a balmy Easter afternoon. A rare day of quiet and color; flowering trees at their peak. The lightest of breezes sliding scented blocks of air across yards and streets.

I walk through a tasty plume—the chef up the block is cooking lamb on a charcoal grill in his backyard. I envy his guests: they laugh as they enjoy his wine and anticipate the main course.

The sidewalk follows a pruned wall of mountain andromeda; clusters of tiny white bells give off a sweet scent mixed with something lower and heavier that always puzzles me. Today I figure it for a mix of pyrazines—almost the character of roasted corn kernels.

Down a side street and I’m submerged in fabric softener fragrance venting from someone’s dryer.

A cottontail freezes on a shady lawn.

Around another corner and through a curtain of light sweetness from the pinkish white saucers on a magnolia, overlapping the fresh waxiness of yellow daffodils massed in a flower bed.

The promise of renewal fulfilled.

The Smelly Web Indexes: April 4, 2010

For the week ending April 4, 2010
The Solo Blog Index
Close: 77 
Change: -5 
Big movers: 1000Fragrances +6%, Vetivresse +5%, GlassPetalSmoke -131% [*delisted], Olfactarama -65%, BitterGraceNotes -45%, BoisDeJasmin -9%

The Team Blog Index
Close: 118
Change: +8 
Big movers: PerfumeDaRosaNegra +12%, ISmellThereforeIAm +9%,

The Corporate & Community Site Index
Close: 14 
Change: -16 
Big movers: Sniffapalooza -11%, TheDryDown -7%, OsMoz -6%

Big downdrafts at Olfactarama and BitterGraceNotes contributed to a five point drop in the Solo Blog Index. This week also brought a shakeup to the SBI roster. GlassPetalSmoke plummeted to an Alexa ranking of 28.1 million, down from the 3.9 million it held when site owner Michelle Krell Kydd last posted on December 30, 2009. Blogs have rebounded from such low rankings before, but only when actively maintained. The point of the SBI is to measure ongoing interest in our smelly corner of the blogosphere and including an abandoned site only clouds the picture. Accordingly, I've decided to delist GlassPetalSmoke; I wish Michelle the best in her other endeavours. Replacing GlassPetalSmoke on the SBI is SorceryOfScent, run by fragrance blogger Dimitri.

The Corporate & Community Site Index resumed its steep descent with a sixteen-point drop; all four sites lost altitude.

The Team Blog Index provided the only positive news of the week with an eight-point bump.

The LongView: A glance at the performance of the Smelly Web Indexes since their inception (below) reveals two trends. The SBI and the CCSI have been on prolonged and alarmingly steep descents while the TBI has maintained a steady altitude. This raises some questions: What, if anything, do large, high-resource corporate and community sites have in common with those run by solo practioners? And what is it about team blogs that pulls consistently steady rankings? Is it topic matter, posting frequency, multiple voices?

Saturday, April 3, 2010

FN Retrospective: Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins

When I speak to an audience about olfactory genius in the literary world, someone invariably asks about Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins. Don’t I agree that it’s a great novel about the sense of smell?

My response is polite but deliberately vague. I read it when it first came out—back in 1984. What I remember is an overly-long and overly-zany comic tale featuring characters with names like Bingo Pajama and Dr. Wiggs Dannyboy. While Robbins dropped a detail here and there to prove he’d done some research on the perfume business, it was clear that he was also peddling a lot of hokum.

So I tell people yes I remember it but I’d have to read it again before opining on the quality of Tom Robbins’ olfactory genius.

The guilty weight of these accumulated semi-promises caught up with me this past Thanksgiving as I was looking for something to read between dinner and falling asleep on the couch. So I pulled Jitterbug Perfume off the shelf and hit the sofa.

It took me fifteen minutes to get past the first page:
The beet is what happens when the cherry finishes with the carrot. The beet is the ancient ancestor of the autumn moon, bearded, buried, all but fossilized; the dark green sails of the grounded moon-boat stitched with veins of primordial plasma; the kite string that once connected the moon to the Earth now a muddy whisker drilling desperately for rubies. 

Slavic people get their physical characteristics from potatoes, their smoldering inquietude from radishes, their seriousness from beets.
I felt like I’d arrived late to a dorm party where everyone is already high and giggling nonstop over a silly in-joke.

Not being in the mood, I traded the book for the TV remote and started looking for a football game—any football game. In this on-again, off-again way it took me several unpleasant weeks to finish the novel. 

Jitterbug Perfume is one of Robbins’ patented elbow-in-the-ribs, yuck-it-up phantasmagorias, overstuffed with trippy analogies, shaped by goofy plot twists, and studded with stoned philosophical interludes about history, religion and sex, along with pointless mini-disquisitions such as the one on the specific sequence in which waitresses order drinks from the bartender. The story takes place in present-day Seattle, New Orleans and Paris, but also follows the adventures of Alobar, a fourth- or fifth-century Bohemian tribal king, as he defies death and aging and wanders the globe in search of the secret of eternal life which involves creating the perfect perfume. Alobar is followed on travels by Pan, the invisible, goaty-smelling and ever more enfeebled Greek deity. In a nutshell, Robbins’ theme is that life is extended by laughter and a light heart, and that perfume is a bridge to the infinite. 

There are only two options: You will find this outlandishly entertaining or else quickly decide that it’s not your cup of psylocybin. 

Still not sure? Here’s Robbins describing the nose of perfumer Marcel LeFever: 
It functioned as a catalytic laser, oxidizing the passion that slept in a violet, releasing the trade winds bottled up in orange peel; identifying by name and number the butterflies dissolved in chips of sandalwood and marrying them off, one by one, to the wealthy sons of musk.
Rhapsodic poesy or claptrap? It depends on whether or not you like your imagery supersized:
the frosted cobblestone streets resembled marshmallow plantations at harvest time

Kundra, Alobar’s consort, is “thick-thighed, broad-hipped, and heavy-breasted, but so slender of waist that a snail with a limp could circle her beltline in two minutes flat . . .” At one point Kundra becomes sexually aroused: “She realized with a shock that she was so wet that children could have sailed toy boats in her underpants.” Her nipple “stiffened with pleasure, much as an aged veteran will sometimes stiffen with patriotism.”

Robbins is an inexhaustible fire hose of overdrawn imagery. 
“The Middle Ages hangs over history’s belt like a beer belly. It is too late now for aerobic dancing or cottage cheese lunches to reduce the Middle Ages. History will have to wear size 48 shorts forever.
He can’t help himself; the similes pour forth:
Every toilet bowl gurgled like an Italian tenor with a mouthful of Lavoris . . .

the king set upon his harem like a starving rat let loose in a peach barrel.

The shaman grinned like a weasel running errands for the moon.
After a pondside orgy of Pan’s, “dried semen frosted the thighs of napping nymphs, clots of it floated in the shadowy waters like weavings wrenched loose from the looms of the trout.” 

[Wow, this is some great shit. Pass the lighter.]

Robbins even descends to bad puns. Paris in the 17th Century is “a city that was primed for the Age of Reason, a populace that was beginning to put Descartes before des horse.”  “As to the quality of the [17th Century] beer we cannot testify—perhaps a taste of it today would leave us sadder Budweiser.”

And on and on. And on.

Gradually, as the weeks passed and I made my way page by page through this sticky sweet mass of metaphor, I began to get a strange sensation. Although I hadn’t opened Jitterbug Perfume in twenty-five years, I felt as though I’d read this stuff quite recently. The feeling was especially strong in this passage about beet pollen, the missing ingredient of Alobar’s perfect perfume. It is 
honey squared, royal jelly cubed, nectar raised to the nth power; the intensified secretions of the Earth’s apiarian gland, reeking of ancient bridal chambers and intimacies half as old as time.

However, on Nature’s cluttered dressing table, there is no scent to truly match it, not hashish, not ambergris, not decaying honey itself. Beet pollen, in its fascinating ambivalence, is the aroma of paradox, of yang and yin commingled, of life and death combined in vegetable absolute.
The florid tone and the overwrought imagery seems so familiar, so current:
It comes out of the bottle speaking French, loudly, and with a grave formality. They were still using overt animalics in those days — the smell of beaver armpit — which were considered feminine.
Where could I have read it?
an astonishingly perfect piece of scent work, an equilibrium of palely spiced fresh air moving through a dusky orange grove. . . . It is less watercolor, more oil painting, peaceful as a Buddha, elegant as linen, fresh as grass cooling in the evening.
Wait, it’s coming back to me:
reminiscent of a teenage girl in a summer halter top strolling on a Jersey Shore boardwalk that bathes her in its smells: hot cotton candy, sticky saltwater taffy and a whiff of Mega Hold hair gel heating in the sun.
I think I’ve almost got it:
What comes through, however, is a noirish, Raymond Chandler-meets-Russell Simmons masculine, dark-spicy-clean, asphalt and Pirelli tire on a black Lamborghini. Sensual street. Its strategy was sheer force, like slamming you with the velvet rope guarding a hot nightclub.
Yes, of course! Tim Robbins has been reincarnated as the perfume critic of the New York Times. That explains everything

[Pass the doobie, bro.]