Saturday, November 27, 2010

Pass the Potatoes, Please

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just tell Mickey to keep his mitts off my fries.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The New Haiku: Perfume Reviews in 140 Characters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 22, 2010

Scratch and Sniff Television?

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 13, 2010

ISDP: Dumpsters, Cisterns, and Norman Bates

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So cheers! Until next time.

Abbott & Costello Launch a Fragrance

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

Yadda yadda.

But it’s from Reed Krakoff.

Who? The venture capitalist?

No, that’s Roger Krakoff

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

No, that’s Robert Krakoff

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

No, knucklehead, that’s David Krakoff

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

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

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

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

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

No, not her.

But she’s married to Reed Krakoff.

That’s who I’m talking about.

Delphine has a $695 perfume?

No, her husband, Reed.

Who the hell is Reed Krakoff?

Thursday, November 11, 2010

DIY Psychophysics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now get to work!

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Coco in Hoboken

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

The Smelly Blogosphere: Traffic Rankings Plunge

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

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

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

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

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

The Smelly Web Indexes for November 7, 2010

The Solo Blog Index

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Deo or No Deo?

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

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

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

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

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