Monday, February 28, 2011

What’s Green and Stinky? S.F.’s Low-Flow Toilets

San Francisco Chronicle columnists Phillip Matier and Andrew Ross rudely call attention to the aesthetic consequences of green narcissism:
San Francisco’s big push for low-flow toilets has turned into a multimillion-dollar plumbing stink.

Skimping on toilet water has resulted in more sludge backing up inside the sewer pipes, said Tyrone Jue, spokesman for the city Public Utilities Commission. That has created a rotten-egg stench near AT&T Park and elsewhere, especially during the dry summer months.
This isn’t news if you’ve been paying attention. A entire range of green gambits—from industrial-scale composting to biofuel plants to waterless urinals—generate offensive megasmells that make life unpleasant. Somehow this entirely predictable outcome catches the recycling advocates and Gaia-friendly plumbers by surprise. The usual result is a lot of money spent on odor remediation efforts. San Francisco is no different—but the sums involved are eye-opening:
The city has already spent $100 million over the past five years to upgrade its sewer system and sewage plants, in part to combat the odor problem.

Now officials are stocking up on a $14 million, three-year supply of highly concentrated sodium hypochlorite - better known as bleach - to act as an odor eater and to disinfect the city’s treated water before it’s dumped into the bay. It will also be used to sanitize drinking water.

That translates into 8.5 million pounds of bleach either being poured down city drains or into the drinking water supply every year.

Say, what?

Imagine the uproar if a private company proposed bleaching its effluent to the tune of 8.5 million pounds of sodium hypochlorite annually. The Board of Supervisors would demand a halt to this unconscionable pollution, and the San Francisco Mime Troupe would produce a three-part people’s opera about it.

But if the dumping is done by the environmentally righteous . . . well, then it’s merely $114 million well spent to de-stinkify the new Green Utopia.

Just for giggles—as of this post, here are the three most popular comments on the Matier & Ross column:
2:59 AM on February 28, 2011

Low flow toilets are wonderful. I now only flush 5 times to get that poop down. Then another 5 times to get the toilet paper down.
Thumbs up (374) Thumbs down (32)


1:22 AM on February 28, 2011

Maybe they should accept the reality that a certain amount of water is needed to properly flush toilets, and the sewer system.
Thumbs up (328) Thumbs down (18)


6:05 AM on February 28, 2011

Just take a dump on the sidewalk, the city seems cool with that, no water needed. If you dont think so just watch the homeless they use the sidewalks as toilets all the time and nothing happens to them. The city council seems to encourage it, so do your part for the environment and join in the no water movement.
Thumbs up (280) Thumbs down (34)

Friday, February 25, 2011

The Dog That Didn't Bark

Police and students were left baffled three days ago when the hallways of Harvey E. Keeney Quadrangle were eerily devoid of any scent of marijuana. “As soon as I walked in the door, I was like, woah, something’s up. Took me a while to figure out what it was,” said Gordon Stiltz ‘14, who lives in Jameson house. Indeed, nearly all Keeney residents noticed and commented on the lack of ganja odor in their dormitory last Tuesday.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Sir Elton’s Dirty Diaper Fantasy

A month ago I was contacted by Damian Whitworth, a feature writer at The Times of London. He had heard Elton John at a movie premiere say, “I love the smell of nappies.” For some reason, Mr. Whitworth felt his readers would value my opinion on the topic. Or perhaps he just couldn’t find any other PhDs willing to be quoted by name.

In any case, I obliged and promptly forgot about it. Today I finally got around to looking for the story on LexisNexis (Rupert Murdoch has The Times behind a paid-subscription firewall). It turned up on page 2 of the January 25 edition under the headline “Don’t go breaking a fart . . .” [Heh.]

For all you poopy-minded fans of syrupy pop ballad icons, here’s the relevant bit:
A new-born baby soils an average of 60 nappies a week. Some claim that they really don’t mind changing them but, says olfactory scientist Dr Avery Gilbert, it’s often those with a “less hands-on” approach to the nappy who “associate the iconic scent of baby powder with the entire experience”.

“New born baby poop doesn’t smell all that bad,” he says, “but once they start eating solid foods it’s a different story, but still less offensive than the adult variety. Sir Elton isn’t attracted to that, is he?”
Ooops. Did I just smear one of Britain’s favorite elderly “rock” stars? 

Well, who cares. I like him even less than Sir Paul McCartney.

Ooops. I did it again.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Annals of Anosmia 6: The Literary Nasal Cycle

It looks like we may be in for another flurry of first-person anosmic essays in the legacy media. The last burst of activity ran from 2003 to 2008; the new cycle began in mid-2010 and continued its upswing this week.

On Monday, using Valentine’s Day as a story hook, thirty-five-year-old Stephen Adams took to the pages of the UK’s Telegraph to describe the anosmia which began after he suffered a head cold.
Eighteen months ago, my sense of smell largely deserted me. With it went some of my sense of taste, leaving me with a much reduced palate and a narrow range of alien flavours.
As per the rules of the genre, Adams offers a list of experts consulted; in his case they are Prof. Tim Jacobs at Cardiff University in Wales, and an ENT specialist. The ENT orders nasal endoscopy to look for polyps and a CT brain scan to look for a tumor. Both results are negative.

Adams, like Lowndes, fails to mention the 2004 Nobel Prize for the discovery of olfactory receptors. Perhaps this is merely old-fashioned Anglo anti-American snobbery or perhaps the Nobel is no longer a key feature of the genre.

Meanwhile, the jury is still out on my two key literary predictions: no sign yet of I-am-a –celebrity-anosmic essays, nor of soul-searching reflections by researchers seeking more grant money. But the cycle is young and time will tell.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Rochelle, Rochelle: The Farce

During her eight years at the helm of The Fragrance Foundation, Rochelle Bloom has developed a peculiar talent for talking down the industry that pays her salary. This was on display when she launched One Mighty Drop—the lamest cooperative ad campaign evah. 

Then, in a December, 2010 Wall Street Journal puff piece on MAD’s new Center for Olfactory Design, Bloom managed two unforced errors: badmouthing her industry and its retail customers all in the same breath.
But there aren’t a lot of ways to learn about [perfumers] or the making of perfume without feeling like you have to buy something. Even Ms. Bloom puts that down to a shortcoming of the industry. 

“The industry has been so ambitious in bringing out new fragrances that they have walked away from the magic and stories,” she said. “The consumer has also walked away.”
This week Marylynn Uricchio of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette featured Bloom’s latest verbal stumblings in an article on celebrity fragrances.
Ms. Bloom estimates there are between 100 to 200 celebrity fragrances, though the international Fragrance Foundation doesn’t really keep track.
They don’t? Then what the hell do they do? In her article, Ms. Uricchio names 30 smellebrities who have launched at least 81 fragrances between them. You’d think with a little effort The Fragrance Foundation could come up with a comprehensive count. As a constantly updated factoid, it would be a tempting story hook for journalists, no?

Instead, Bloom seems overwhelmed by the whole phenomenon.
[Celebrity fragrances are] like the Energizer bunny. They just keep coming . . .”
Well, Ms. Bloom, thanks for finally promoting a product . . . even if it is in a different industry.

Uricchio notes that the most popular celebrity scent in the world is Elizabeth Taylor’s White Diamonds. Bloom’s response?
“If you ask a young person who Elizabeth Taylor is, I bet you about 90 percent won’t know who she is. They love the fragrance. That is a good fragrance that outlasts the celebrity.”
Wait! You mean Elizabeth Taylor’s dead? Or that she’s just a has-been?

Exit question: Can media training even help at this point?

Saturday, February 12, 2011

ISDP: Total Freeze Out

It takes a lot to shock us here at ISDP but shocked we are. For an unprecedented second straight month there are no new “foul odor”-based discoveries of the recently departed. This makes us angry at Al Gore and the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. By now, increasing global temperatures should have caused an abundance of ISDP incidents. Instead, North Americans are shivering through one of the coldest winters in decades.

No doubt some residents of the Buckeye State will claim that the 54-year old man discovered in a Dayton housing project earns them a pin on the I Smell Dead People Interactive Map. Indeed, the case involves a “maintenance supervisor [who] opened the apartment and was met with a foul odor.” But the super entered the apartment because the resident was two months behind in his rent and hadn’t been seen for nearly as long.

Local police were trying hard to put the deceased’s neighbors in a positive light:
Dayton Sgt. Dan Mauch of the homicide unit said the odor outside the apartment had not reached the level where neighbors might have noticed.

“Another two or three more days though and they’d be going into the apartment,” Mauch said.
Given that the “decomposed and desiccated corpse” had been there six to eight weeks, according to other officers, we’d say the neighbor-noticeable level was reached about five to seven weeks ago.

Close, but no cigar.

We know how much our morbidly obsessed readers look forward to the thirteenth of the month, and we hate to come up empty handed. So we looked abroad for something—anything—to fill the void. Here’s what we found:
Pet parrot found pecking dead man’s head

Police officers were met with a gruesome and bizarre sight when they discovered a parrot pecking at the head of dead man Brian Wright at a house in Birmingham.
And yes, there is a genuine ISDP element to the story:
Neighbours of the late Mr Wright raised the alarm when they became aware of a bad smell coming from his house.
Finally, longtime readers will remember the dead cult leader in Penampang, Malaysia, whose followers kept him wrapped in plastic for 13 months while they prayed for his resurrection. (It was their incessant late-night chanting, rather than any foul odor, that caused neighbors to call the police.)

Well, it’s happened again, this time in the Solomon Islands. The remains of religious cult leader Manubu, who died on November 20, 2010, were left unburied for at least two months. According to a local resident,
there was no foul smell during the decomposition period because cultural methods used before were applied on the body to prevent it from rotting.

“What they did was burn a special tree leave under the body,” he said.

A new comeback for an old joke: “What are you guys smoking?” “Manubu.”

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Women’s Tears: The New Anti-sexy

Tears are drops of liquid produced by the lacrimal, accessory lacrimal, and Meibomian glands, that contain proteins, enzymes, lipids, metabolites, electrolytes and traces of drugs.
Well, that’s one way of putting it. 

We also know that the chemical composition of tears differs depending on what caused them to spill: crying versus chopping an onion, for example. Is it possible that tears shed during crying contain chemical signals that have an effect on other people?

A group of researchers in Israel recently came up with multiple lines of evidence suggesting that women’s tears have a fairly specific effect on men; and it isn’t a pretty one.

To do research on human tears, you first need to collect some. Shani Gelstein and her colleagues did this the obvious way—by showing chick flicks to women and collecting the weepy output in small tubes. (This technique clearly wouldn’t work with guys; you’d have to show them the grenade scene from The Dirty Dozen.) Gelstein’s team created control “tears” by dribbling saline solution down the cheeks of each sob sister, thus giving the fake tears whatever odors might come from contact with the skin.

Despite the presumed difference in chemical makeup between cried tears and pseudo-tears, a couple of dozen young men who sniffed them could not tell them apart. Nor did another group of men find any difference in the intensity, familiarity, or pleasantness of the odor of cried tears versus saline. But then each men rated emotionally ambiguous pictures of women’s faces for sadness and sexual attraction, while wearing a tear- or saline-soaked blotter on his upper lip.

The upshot? When a guy was smelling emotional tears, the women’s faces didn’t look sadder—they looked less sexually attractive. 
You’re gonna cry, cry, cry, cry
Ninety-six tears
Gelstein et al. reasoned that a tears-causing-sadness link might emerge in a sad context. So they had another group of guys watch a sad movie while wired for physiological responses (heart rate, skin temperature, etc.) and while providing saliva samples to be assayed for testosterone. In one session they watched a film after sniffing cried tears; in another they watched after sniffing fake saline tears.

By itself, watching the sad film put the guys into a significantly more negative mood; it was an effective downer. Real tears had no effect on self-rated mood, but did reduce self-reported sexual arousal and the amount of testosterone found in the men’s saliva.

Finally, Gelstein’s team put guys in an MRI magnate and showed them dirty movies, in order to localize the arousal-related areas of each fellow’s brain. The men then watched sad, happy and neutral movies after sniffing tears or saline. Activity in the sexual arousal brain areas was significantly lower for the sad movie watched after smelling real tears.
Subjective ratings of attributed sexual appeal, together with objective measures of psychophysiological arousal, testosterone expression, and brain activity, jointly suggest that women’s emotional tears contain a chemosignal that reduces sexual arousal in men.
Hmm . . . that rings a bell.
Everytime we say good night
As I go to hold her tight
Never get to kiss her ‘cause she cries

Oh baby don’t (baby don’t cry)
Oh baby don’t (baby don’t cry)
Human tears contain a chemosignal, by S. Gelstein, Y. Yeshurun, L. Rozenkrantz, S. Shushan, I. Frumin, Y. Roth, and N. Sobel, was published January 14, 2011 in Science. 331:226-230.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Celebuscents: Going Through the Motions

Because you can never have enough fragrances from sports stars & their spouses. NowSmellThis has the story plus the new Khloe Kardashian + Lamar Odom fragrance video.

Jimmy Kimmel provides the antidote.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

They Stink Among Us: Another Classic from the First Nerve Library

FirstNerve commenter EdC has a knack for delivering book recommendations during the lull before the Super Bowl. Responding to last week’s item on Malawi’s proposal to outlaw public farting, Ed suggested I look at John Scalzi’s Agent to the Stars because “the extraterrestrials communicate by smell.”

Well, that sounded like just the ticket for a slow Friday night. Especially after a miserable week of navigating around potholes, through slushy intersections, and around mounded ice-banks, all freshly glazed with that depressing combination of snow, sleet and freezing rain known as “wintry mix.” Thirty seconds after seeing Ed’s comment, Agent to the Stars was on my Kindle and I was horizontal on the couch with a brewsky.

What a great book to kick back with. It’s a light but clever story about space aliens who discover Earth after picking up our television transmissions. They watch enough sitcoms to learn English and acquire a flawless ability for wise-cracking. Sensing from broadcast entertainment that Earthlings are ambivalent about aliens (Predator versus E.T., for example), they realize their introduction to humanity must be managed very carefully. So they decide to hire a top Hollywood talent agency to handle it. The job goes to Tom Stein, the story’s narrator, an up-and-coming agent whose sharp verbal sparring reminds one of Ari Gold in Entourage.

Scalzi has fun with Hollywood’s cut-throat, self-absorbed ways. The assortment of characters is satisfying: the ultra-bitchy actress, the beautiful but vacant one, the sleazy, client-poaching junior agent, and the creepy, stalkerish reporter for the universally despised industry tabloid. The collisions between Hollywood and the outsiders resembles those in Elmore Leonard’s Get Shorty, except that it’s aliens instead of mobsters who mix things up.

The aliens in question are five-gallon blobs of protoplasm who, in their natural state, communicate with one another using smell. (Each “speaker” accompanies his olfactory message with a unique molecule that identifies him personally.) There are some good scenes where Joshua, the lead alien, hangs out with the neighbor’s golden retriever—they get along famously.

Soon after meeting Joshua, Tom Stein asks him what his species calls themselves. They are the Yherajk.
“It’s not our real name,” Joshua said, “but you couldn’t pronounce what we’re actually called.”

“Why not?” I asked.

“Well, for one thing, it’s a smell,” Joshua said. “Would you like to smell it?”

I glanced at Carl. He shrugged. “Sure,” I said.

The room filled with a stench that resembled the offspring of a rotted sneaker and Velveeta. I gagged involuntarily.

“God, that’s horrible,” I said, and immediately regretted it. “I’m very sorry,” I said. “That was probably the first-ever insult to an extraterrestrial. I apologize.”

“No offense taken,” Joshua said, mildly. “You should come to a Yherajk get-together. It’s like a convention of farts.”
The Yherajk have an olfactory art form they call tivis, which loosely translates to “smell painting.” It consists of bits of crusty stuff in a shallow bowl equipped with wires as heating elements. (These shapeless aliens aren’t big on visual aesthetics.) The smells in a tivis are designed to evoke specific sets of major and minor emotions. Tom Stein experiences one for himself:
I smelled something acrid, but I was also immediately overwhelmed by a sense of wistfulness, with overtones of happiness but the slightest bit of regret. It was the feeling you get when you see an old girlfriend, realize that she’s a wonderful person, and that you were kind of an idiot to let her go, even is you’re happily married now.”
The host alien is dismissive of this particular example of olfactory art.
“This one is actually fairly crude—it’s just one primary emotion with only a couple of emotional harmonics. Any of us could have made it, actually. It’s the tivis equivalent of paint-by-numbers. Some of our tivis masters can create works of incredible emotional depth, layering emotion on emotion in unexpected combinations. You can get really worked up over a good tivis.”
Agent to the Stars may qualify as science fiction, but I’d call it a comic novel that happens to include space aliens. The dialog is snappy and the olfactory speculations are sprightly. Very entertaining.