Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Quick Sniffs: Going Buggy in More Ways than One

While on the road earlier this month I missed this story about a workplace shooting rampage in Philadelphia. According to the Philadelphia Daily News, the female shooter was preoccupied with various olfactory complaints. Check out the whole weird story.

With the midterms looming on November 2 we’re deep into election season. So it’s a great time for stinky political stories. Gawker gives an apocalyptic Mars Invades spin to what’s become an annual Mid-Atlantic news item: Stink Bugs About to Overtake Washington, DC on ‘Biblical’ Level." Gawker commenter Don_Is provides the fragrance description:
Oh, and for those of you who haven’t had the pleasure: if you frighten, maim or kill them, they stink. They smell like a cross between cilantro, skunk, burning rubber, and a really peaty, lowland Scotch. Disgusting and pleasant at the same time.
Hey, Don! There’s a large daily in New York that needs an energetic new voice to replace their perfume critic who has apparently run out of review stars. Shoot ‘em a resume, dude.

[Hat tip to reader Barbara Herman, aka Perfumaniac.]

Meanwhile in New York, Carl Paladino, the rough-and-tumble multimillionaire real estate magnate from Buffalo, beat Rick Lazio, the blasé, entitled frontrunner in the Republican primary for governor. Now Paladino takes on entitled New York State Attorney General and all-around nasty piece of work Andrew Cuomo in the general election. It should be fun—Paladino has already hatched a brilliant piece of scent marketing—a garbage-scented campaign mailer headlined “Something STINKS in Albany”.

Some dweeb in the NYT said it smelled like “rotting vegetables”. FirstNerve requested a copy of the mailer from the Paladino campaign to judge the olfactory quality for ourselves. So far no response. Bummer.

Speaking of violent, delusional people with olfactory issues, let’s not forget Iranian dictator Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who wore the same shirt and jacket for six straight days while visiting the UN. Not to mention leaving six floors of the Hilton reeking of specially-delivered koobideh and lamb kebabs. (A tyrant can’t do room service when half his country wants him dead.)

Finally, a pitch-perfect send up by Martin Robbins of how news websites report on scientific papers. He nails it all—from the weaselly way reporters evade taking a point of view, to their lazy failure to link or even cite the location of the new paper.

Here’s an example of just the sort thing Robbins lampoons: a post-load of pabulum by The Washington Post’s Melissa Bell, ostensibly about a new smell study by Tim Jacob. Brief sound-bite by the scientist? Check. Self-justifying link to the BBC? Check. Failure to cite where the study is published or available? Check. Padded with inane facts gathered by Googling? Check. A picture, “because our search engine optimisation experts have determined that humans are incapable of reading more than 400 words without one”? Check.


If you like your smell science reportage with a little more bite and flavah (not to mention direct links to the original source whenever possible), grab yourself a FirstNerve RSS feed. It’s free!

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Smell Talk with Sarah and David

There may be smell scientists who fail to see the humor inherent in their chosen field but I’m not one of them. (Nor is my friend Stuart Firestein, a biology professor at Columbia University, who brags to this day that he was the first to publish the word “fart” in the august pages of Science—in the course of reviewing my book, I’m proud to add.)

I recently visited the very groovy headquarters of CollegeHumor.com and taped a gonzo interview with hosts David and Sarah. The result is Smell Talk, Part 1, which you can view here. Part 2 involved my friend the perfume advisor Laura Donna and is here.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Eddie Fisher: Sic transit gloria mundi

Normally FirstNerve wouldn’t draw attention to the death of a Fifties-era crooner and semi-celebrity, no matter how many times he made the Top Ten. But the passing of Eddie Fisher has special resonance for the nasally-minded student of pop culture: Fisher was present at the birth of Smell-O-Vision.

Fisher was tight pals with the older Mike Todd, the flamboyant producer of Broadway and Hollywood, whom he greatly admired. Todd and his son Mike, Jr. were backers of the Smell-O-Vision system developed by Swiss-American inventor Hans Laube, which used tubes running up seat backs throughout a movie theater to release scent timed to the on-screen action.

When Mike Todd died in a plane crash in 1958, less than a year and a half after marrying Elizabeth Taylor, his son took up the Smell-O-Vision banner and began production on the first movie to feature it: Scent of Mystery. Rival theater mogul Walter Reade, Jr. then launched a competing system called AromaRama, and thus began the great Battle of the Smellies which raged through the spring of 1960. It’s a story I tell in What the Nose Knows.

Mike, Jr. brought all sorts of celebrity firepower to bear on Scent of Mystery. Eddie Fisher recorded the movie’s theme song and Elizabeth Taylor made a cameo appearance as the lady at the center of the mystery. (“Cameo role”, incidentally, was a term coined by the late Todd, Sr.)

At the time of Todd’s death, Fisher was married to America’s Sweetheart, Debbie Reynolds. They had two children, including the future Princess Leia

Thrown together in grief over Mike Sr.’s death, Fisher and Taylor began an affair. Debbie Reynolds took it hard when Eddie told her he wanted to leave her for Elizabeth. The moment was poignantly aromatic:

“I left her there, and walking downstairs and out of the house, I smelled the overpowering odor of lima beans, my favorite food. Debbie was trying to save our marriage with lima beans.”

[Eddie Fisher, Eddie: My Life, My Loves. Harper & Row, 1981.]

Taylor and Fisher married in 1959. In January, 1960, they attended the Chicago premiere of Scent of Mystery. I’ve held in my hand, courtesy of Carmen Laube, the daughter of Smell-O-Vision inventor Hans Laube, the printed invitation to that premiere: “Mrs. Eddie Fisher and Mr. Michael Todd, Jr. take pleasure in inviting you . . .”

Here they are pictured in the audience:

Elizabeth Taylor eventually began an affair with Richard Burton, whom she married after divorcing Fisher in 1964. Later, between her seventh and eighth marriages, Taylor created the best-selling perfumes Passion (1987) and White Diamonds (1991), thus earning herself a niche in America’s Olfactory Hall of Fame. Having outlived all the other major players, Taylor is now the last link to the glory that was Smell-O-Vision.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Lush Life

Just back from the press tour of the Lush “Gorilla Perfume” fragrance launch in SoHo. It was unusual in a number of ways. First, multiple scents were introduced in a single event. Second, each was showcased in its own ambient-scented, stage-set room. And finally, while there were placards and hand-scrawled descriptive text placed here and there among the props, each scent was entertainingly narrated and sampled by its own live tour guide.

Having returned only last week from a Southern California college tour with the eldest of the FirstNerve spawn, the experience had echoes of earnest undergraduate guides describing the charms of campus, and of the total-surround theatrics of a Disneyland ride. At Lush, one walked through a heavy black curtain to move from one scented scene to the next—very Pirates of the Caribbean.

The sociable and entertaining nature of the event was a good fit for the Lush Gorilla Perfume line, where perfumer Mark Constantine and his son Simon weave their personal stories into the stories of the perfumery raw materials. The result is product images with a remarkable depth and texture. While the company emphasizes natural ingredients, the common olfactory theme of the scents is easy accessibility, for example, the prominent dirty jasmine note in Lust. Constantine and son have a novel solution to the dilemma of Ingredient Voice versus Imagery Voice: let’s call it Engaging Entertainment Voice.

Adding to the amusement was the chance to meet the charming Lush perfumer-in-training Pia Long, aka FirstNerve commenter Nukapai. She is now the fourth blog-persona to step through the pixels and meet me in real life. Turns out people resemble their avatars. Or vice versa.

The gallery event at 54 Crosby Street is open to the public for the next three days. I believe the Sniffapaloozians are heading there tomorrow.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Going Totally Bat-shit

As the days grow shorter and gloomier, we here at FirstNerve Manor amuse ourselves as best we can. One of our favorite pastimes is called “When Worlds Collide.” The fun begins when you find a smelly news story involving a head-on collision between the forces of PC and NIMBY. Then you climb the creaky stairs up to the fourth floor of the northwest belfry, fire up the hibachi, and enjoy some Jiffy Pop while cackling over mankind’s follies .

This evening in the belfry, we’re enjoying the story of Maclean High School in New South Wales, Australia. Seems that 20,000 or so flying foxes—a species of large bat—have descended on the school and are using it as a roost. In doing so, they’re crapping all over the place and creating a vile, ammonia-like stench. They’re also noisy. Students and teachers are at wits end.

So why not chase them off the property? Ahh—they a protected species, you see. They’re endangered, all 20,000+ of them.
But attempts to move the bats have so far been unsuccessful.

The NSW Department of Education, which removed bats 10 years ago, needs a licence and federal government approval to remove them.

[NSW Teachers Federation representative] Ambrose said the federal government had since spent about $30,000 to form a committee to advise the school on how to approach the problem.

He said the initial recommendations, which are yet to be formally accepted, tell the school “to work around the bats”.

“They want us to timetable our classes differently, they don’t want us to do sporting events, they don’t want us to ring our bell, they want us to minimise our voices so we don’t disturb the bats,” he said.

“Work around the bats.” That made the martini come out my nose. Pass the popcorn.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Beckham vs. Beckham: Scoreless Tie

The video for Intimately Yours, David and Victoria Beckham’s new his-and-hers fragrance set, is puzzling—and not very hot. It gets a cranky knee-jerk rejection from Aussie columnist Sarrah Le Marquand at The Daily Telegraph, while showbiz writers Sarah Bull and Rachel Quigley at the Daily Mail ask “Is this the most toe-curling Beckham advert yet?”

It also gets a cool reception from Marie-Hélène Wagner at MimiFrouFrou:
they reenact for us what might be a typical quickie-in-the-elevator for them, in-between two public commitments, the bane of a celebrity’s life.
The mechanics of the ad are odd: it gives us a glimpse into the torrid love life of a hot and famous married couple, but it’s unclear how the viewer is meant to enter the fantasy. 
“Uh, excuse me David, would you mind pressing “5” while I let your super-hot wife sniff me because I smell like you?”
Wait a sec. Maybe I’m supposed to be sniffing his wife because she smells hot. Or am I sniffing my GF because she smells like his wife? Or is my GF getting bent by Beckham because she smells like Posh? If my GF and I wear these fragrances into an elevator, will Beckham kick my ass and sniff my GF?

The hell with it . . . I’ll go with Big Pony 4 by Ralph Lauren. He’s short and I can sucker punch the bastard before we reach the lobby.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

“Shocked”: Institute of Physics President-Elect Threatens Blogger

We’ve got mail!

from  Marshall Stoneham <*********@tiscali.co.uk>
to   avery.gilbert@gmail.com
cc   Dr Jennifer Brookes <*********@mit.edu>
date   Fri, Sep 10, 2010 at 12:23 PM
subject   Science and integrity

Dear Dr Gilbert

I was shocked to see your comments on Dr Jennifer Brookes on your blog 

Dr Brookes is coauthor of refereed papers in very strongly refereed journals, and the winner of a prestigious personal Sir Henry Wellcome Fellowship, where the competition, like the scientific standards, is likewise exceptionally strong. Her first paper was published in the premier physics journal in the world, Physical Review Letters, and was singled out by the editors on publication as being of special interest. Her subsequent key papers are in journals of the Royal Society, which has been setting the very highest standards for 350 years

Turin’s seminal idea - right or wrong - takes an idea well known in physics, and asks whether it plays a role in olfaction. He posed that idea in a form that can be assessed by the standard scientific methods - objective ones, not the subjective “like or don’t like.” Jenny Brookes’s first paper explicitly asked whether there were physics-based objections to the Turin theory: the Abstract of her paper talks of testing “the physical viability of this mechanism” and even paragraph 1 makes it clear that the article’s aim was to see if “The proposed mechanism is viable (there are no physics-based objections and it is consistent with known features of olfaction) provided the receptor has certain general properties.” Whether it is the actual mechanism that nature uses is, of course, a matter for experiment.

Jenny’s second paper, in a major Royal Society journal, is not about the Turin theory at all (you should have realised this), though the topic - enantiomer pairs - is one that offers a key test of various ideas on olfaction. 

Your slurs on Dr Brooks — and on Dr Turin, but I will let him answer them if he deems it necessary— are unworthy of someone who calls himself a scientist. If you still wish to be regarded as a scientist of integrity, you really must withdraw your slurs on Dr Brookes by removing the offending comments from your blog, and desist from such unprofessional statements. You should clarify your position by saying explicitly that you accept Dr Brookes’s scientific integrity, whether or not you agree with the conclusions in her papers. 

Further, if you wish to regard yourself as a scientist of integrity, you surely must write an apology to Dr Brookes.

Marshall Stoneham

Professor Marshall Stoneham FRS
President Elect, Institute of Physics
Emeritus Massey Professor
London Centre for Nanotechnology and Department of Physics and Astronomy
University College London
Gower Street, London WC1E 6BT
Wow. Where to begin? 

After giving it some thoughtful consideration, here’s my formal response to Professor Stoneham:
Bite me.
FirstNerve readers may wonder what put Prof. Stoneham’s nose out of joint. It’s this—my response to commenter Nathan Branch, published over a year ago. (Does the Emeritus Massey Professor know how to carry a grudge or what?)
Nathan Branch said... 

Mr. Gilbert, I love dropping by and reading your blog because I get tidbits like this: “thanks to Chandler Burr’s lick-job of Luca Turin, people think the vibration theory of olfaction is taken seriously by scientists.”

The lick-job was entertaining, and it made for a page-turning story of scientific intrigue. I didn’t realize that it was considered so totally bunk-worthy as you imply. 

Is there nothing about vibrational theory that’s worth continuing to explore? I ran across a notice that a Fellowship grant was offered to a post-graduate student researching vibrational theory:

July 20, 2009 8:05 PM 

Avery Gilbert said... 


Here’s the deal—if you’re going to promote a theory in neuroscience you need to make specific predictions and back them up with experimental data, like electrophysiological recordings from a rat nose, or sniff tests with humans. Turin can’t be bothered to gather such data; and the people who have gathered it find scant evidence, if any, to support vibration theory. In graduate school after the third pitcher of beer on a Friday evening we’ve all come up with an amazing theory that is fucking brilliant and explains everything. The next morning we take an aspirin and head back to the lab to work on a reality-based project. Well, most of us do.

As for the Wellcome fellow, Dr. Jennifer Brookes, she appears to be a serial apologist for Turin--having co-authored two physics papers that basically say, “No, wait! Vibration theory is theoretically possible.” Great—more theory to prove a theory. How about demonstrating the location and physical operation of this amazing vibration detector? If it’s real, an experimentalist should be able to play it like a fiddle—make you smell different things by modulating a tuning fork. Alas, Brookes intends to explore Turin’s theory using an artificial MIT biosensor instead of an actual biological nose.

I think it’s time for vibrationists to pick a real nose. 

July 21, 2009 12:11 AM
Prof. Stoneham is upset that I called his former doctoral student Jennifer Brookes a serial apologist for Luca Turin. He notes that only one of her two papers is directly about vibration theory, by which he seems to imply that she is a simple apologist rather than a serial one. However, as Dr. Brookes is now studying VT at M.I.T. (Turin’s current institution), I think she fairly qualifies for my original adjective and I stand by it.

Note the way that Stoneham, a Fellow of the Royal Society, responds to scientific criticism. He doesn’t post a public comment to air his point of view. Just the opposite—he sends a thuggish private email demanding that I remove my comments because he dislikes them. And for good measure he implicitly threatens to smear my scientific reputation. What the hell happened to disagreement and debate? Did Prof. Stoneham take a correspondence course in Scholarly Intimidation and Message Control from the Phil Jones Climategate Academy of East Anglia?

Stoneham never challenges my central (if mocking) point: it’s one thing to claim, like Dr. Brookes, that vibration theory is a theoretical possibility; it’s another to provide biological or sensory evidence that it’s the chief mechanism of odor perception. Instead, he bloviates about “Jenny’s” “prestigious” Wellcome Fellowship and how his co-authored paper with her appeared in the “premier physics journal in the world.”

[OMG I criticized someone published in Physics Review Letters—what was I thinking?]

As for Prof. Stoneham’s demands for clarification, censorship, and apology, I have a demand of my own. I am shocked that a prestigious organization like the Institute of Physics has elected as its president someone with such utter disregard for the scientific principle of free and open debate and who uses his position to suppress the views of those with whom he disagrees. I therefore demand that Marshall Stoneham immediately resign his IOP presidency.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Summer in the Central Valley

It’s the thirteenth of the month and the hottest time of the year, so we expected the large-nostrilled wraiths in the FirstNerve newsroom to deliver a bumper crop of ISDP material. We were not disappointed.

The lead story, so lurid it made Drudge, carried the succinct yet gruesome headline “Calif. Doctor Gets Stuck in Boyfriend's Chimney, Dies”. That’s right. A female physician in Bakersfield, apparently stalking her ex, attempted to enter his house via the chimney. Unlike jolly old St. Nicholas, who “down the chimney . . . came with a bound,” 49-year-old Dr. Jacquelyn Kotarac got hung up after she “removed the chimney cap and slid feet first down the flue.” She got stuck on a Wednesday but her body was not discovered until three days later when a house-sitter “noticed a stench and fluids coming from the fireplace.”

From the extensive comments on Bakersfield.com, it appears that Dr. Kotarac was well-liked in the community and by her patients. A local reporter found that she was in debt and had substantial state and IRS tax liens; her home had been foreclosed on. Could it have been suicide? Unlikely—physicians have knowledge of and access to more effective methods. A strange episode, but not unique. In February 2009, ISDP brought you the case of a homeless guy who got stuck and died in the chimney of a home in Fontana, California.

It was an active ISDP month elsewhere in the Central Valley. A couple of hours up Highway 99 in Merced, police found the body of a 63-year old woman in an apartment on August 14 after neighbors called them to report a foul odor. She had been dead several days; foul play is suspected.

On September 3 in Fresno, about halfway between Bakersfield and Merced, police responding to a call about “a foul odor” found “a decomposing body in a pick-up truck” parked at a Motel 6.

This was a big month for DBs in motor vehicles. Here’s one from Baton Rouge, Louisiana:
Officers were called out to Jefferson Heights Apartments just before 11 p.m. on reports of a foul odor.

Soon after arriving on the scene, investigators discovered the smell was coming from a parked car.

A dead body was found inside.
The car belongs to 55-year-old woman who had been reported missing.

And in Hillsboro, Texas, a Wal-Mart shopper called police after noticing “a foul odor” from a car in the SuperCenter parking lot. Police found a dead body in the back seat. The deceased may be a local woman recently reported missing.

And then there’s this incident from back in July that found it’s way to us only this month:
Body found in car trunk at impound lot

D.C. police say a body was discovered in the trunk of a red vintage convertible that had been towed twice
[!] by District officials.

The body was discovered Thursday after a worker at the police impound lot smelled a foul odor coming from the trunk. Police opened the trunk and found the body.

I’ll go out on a limb and guess ’67 Mustang.

According to Jen Chung at Gothamist, the bodies of an elderly couple were found in an apartment on New York’s Upper East Side. It appears to have been a double suicide—and a tidy one at that; they are thought to have overdosed on Ambien after blocking the crack beneath the door with towels in an effort to deter ISDP discovery. It worked—they were dead more than a month before a neighbor “reported a foul odor.” 

Gothamist commentor CR questions the logic:
What exactly was the point of sealing up the doors? By the time they started smelling they’d be long dead... Did they think they'd *never* be found if no one smelled the bodies?
Good question . . .

In Columbus, Ohio, the badly decomposed body of a 51-year-old man was found in the second-floor bedroom of his home on the South Side after neighbors noticed “a bad smell” and mail piling up at the residence.

In Scottsdale, Arizona, a man “said he noticed a foul odor coming from the wash behind his house, and while investigating the cause discovered [a] body under a tree, police said.”

In Linden Township, North Carolina, deputies found the badly decomposed body of a man near Billy Joe Drive (!) after residents complained about “a foul odor” coming from the woods.

And a wooded area in Jacksonville, Florida was the setting for another outdoors ISDP incident. Someone called police after noticing “a bad smell” wafting from the woods; officers found a badly decomposed body. 

In the discussion at News4Jax.com, commenter sh2008 provides a vivid first-hand account of what it’s like to experience the scent of decomposition:
Its a smell that words can’t even describe. The first time I smelled a decomposed body was 15 years ago when I was living in a apartment. My neighbor had passed away in her apartment. It was during the summer and the smell engulfed the hallway....it was especially bad whenever we walked by her door. Let me tell you...when the property manager opened her apartment the stench made us both violently ill. It was that dang strong. I’d rather smell a dead dog in 100 degree heat than smell a dead body. The smell tends to linger in your nasal passages so it seems like its following you everywhere.

Thanks for sharing!

A hot summer ISDP just wouldn’t be complete without a incident in New Jersey. This time it was Jersey City, where on August 21 a worker at an auto wrecking yard found a decapitated male body near the Conrail tracks.

A worker at the auto wreckers told police he noticed a foul odor in the area where the body was found as early as March.
We’ll cut the wrecker dude some slack here: it takes a while for the ripeness of bodily decomposition to rise above background odor levels in the Garden State . . .

Finally, there was an extremely rare one-body, two-ISDP event in Graham, North Carolina. On August 11 the body of a 37-year-old woman was discovered by smell; she had been dead five to seven days. Her remains were then left by the funeral home in a parked hearse, where the odor led to a second discovery on August 20. The funeral home is under investigation in connection with the incident.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

September 11, 2010

This is the first anniversary of 9/11 that I haven't been in New Jersey. I thought it might be for the good since it's never an easy day.

I was driving up the 405 near Long Beach this morning when I noticed a Prius with a Support the Troops ribbon flying an American flag on a bracket. That's different, I thought.

Then I noticed the car in front of it had two flags flying. Were they going to some sports event?

Then I saw the next car also had flags; painted on the window "9/11 We will never forget."

It was a mile-long caravan in the right lane, led by a truck decked out in the Stars & Stripes.

It's still an emotional day.

I will never forget.

Friday, September 10, 2010

On the road again

Light posting this week while I'm flying the freeways of Southern California.

Ahh, freeways.