Saturday, July 30, 2011

Family Feud: Gilbert vs. Vosshall on Human Sex Pheromones

Here’s a video snippet of the World Science Festival smell panel in which Prof. Leslie Vosshall and I argue about human sex pheromones. I say the original concept has been stretched to fit so many variant results that it’s no longer useful. Leslie thinks otherwise.

P.S. Earlier in the program, Leslie mentioned this study showing that lap dancers make better tips during the ovulatory phase of their cycle. I agree this might be due to an airborne chemical signal but I don’t think it qualifies as a pheromone (unless tossing $5 bills at a naked girl is a behavior hardwired by evolution). Thus my otherwise baffling line: “I believe in strippers.”

P.P.S.Well, okay, maybe not that baffling.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Social Media Company Buys Itself a “Pheromone”

Somehow, I missed this press release back on May 17th:
CrowdGather Partners with Human Pheromone Sciences to Launch “Made for Social Media” Patent Pending Attraction Fragrance
CrowdGather, Inc. is a company attempting to create new value in the social media market by bundling together fan forums which, in the age of FaceBook, are considered a rather old-fashioned form of social media. Human Pheromone Sciences, Inc. has patented mood-enhancing compounds for use in perfumes and colognes, and licenses the molecules to companies such as Victoria’s Secret and Avon.

The headline was justified by this portion of the press release:
CrowdGather will partner with Human Pheromone Sciences to launch and distribute Erox®, a unisex fragrance, which has been proven to increase feelings of arousal, excitement, social warmth and friendliness in both female and male users. The fragrance will be launched, sold and marketed through the use of social media and forum communities. Erox® will be the first commercial product to contain Human Pheromone Sciences’ patent pending ER303 compound which has been shown to increase feelings of attraction and flirtiness in both males and females during a double blind placebo controlled study.
The idea of a conglomerate of online fan-sites (PaintBall Nation being one of the cooler ones; Pocketbike Planet not so much) merchandizing a flirtiness fragrance to its socially awkward base of geeks, nerds, losers, dweebs, and tech enthusiasts generated immediate mirth at Mediaite:
This Exists: ‘Social Media Fragrance’ Oddly Does Not Smell Of Cheeto Dust And Tears.
This weekend Ad Age blogger Bob Garfield joined the mockery, suggesting that one of the prime reasons for the project was “the crippling horniness of the 70% male CrowdGather crowd.”
Our network is a sausage fest,” [CrowdGather CEO Sanjay] Sabnani says. “There’s always conversations about picking up on the opposite sex.”
[Sausage fest?—Ed.]

Being keenly interested in the business end of the perfume blotter, and having met some of the principals of Human Pheromone Sciences, Inc. [HPSI] back in the last century when it was known as EROX Corporation, my eye was drawn to the second line of the press release:
CrowdGather (OTCBB:CRWG.ob - News) today announced that it has acquired brand assets from Human Pheromone Sciences, Inc.
Hold on! There’s a world of difference between partnering with a firm and acquiring its brand assets. Exactly what assets are we talking about?
As part of the agreement CrowdGather will acquire the domain name and trademarks from Human Pheromone Sciences, and make a strategic investment in the company via a private placement at the time a final product is accepted by CrowdGather. Human Pheromone Sciences will design and contract out the manufacture of the fragrance for CrowdGather and its distribution partners.
Hmmmm . . . With a little digging at the SEC website I found the specifics of the deal, which was consummated the day before the press release. It smells a lot more like a creeping takeover than a “partnering.” CrowdGather will provide HPSI the grand sum of $100,000. An initial $50,000 buys CrowdGather the Erox trademark and domain name, plus product development, manufacturing and fulfillment services for a CrowdGather flirtiness fragrance. Once the fragrance is launched, CrowdGather kicks in another $50,000 to acquire restricted common stock of HPSI. (This is the strategic investment or private placement part.)

HPSI stock is currently selling over-the-counter at about 11¢ per share. At that price, Crowdgather will pick up around 454,545 shares. As of its 2010 annual report, HPSI had about 4,151,954 shares of common stock outstanding. If all goes as planned, CrowdGather will own roughly 10.9% of PHS, making it the company’s second largest shareholder after HPSI director Carson Tang and the shares he owns personally and beneficially through Renovation Global Funds, L.P. (32.8% in total).

In its annual report released in March, PHS acknowledged that it “has not had sustained profitable operations,” that it “is dependent on a few major customers,” and that “it requires additional funding to continue operations.” The situation is dire: “management believes that the Company’s existing cash resources and cash forecasted by management to be generated by operations will not be sufficient to meet working capital and capital requirements through the current year,” i.e., through 2011.

So, thanks for the additional funding and welcome aboard, Mr. Sanjay Sabnani! What sort of top note did you have in mind for Eau de Geek?

Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Commerce of Fragrance: Politics Obtrudes

The current congress has re-introduced a thoroughly bad bill that seeks to over-regulate and impede the ability of American companies and individual citizens to make and sell their own perfume creations. Not surprisingly, H.R. 2359, the Safe Cosmetics Act of 2011, has caused an uproar in the smelly blogosphere. Anya McCoy of the Natural Perfumers Guild has been sounding the alarm, as has Robert Tisserand, who says the bill “is over-reaching, unworkable and unnecessary.” In a post at PersonalCareTruth he gives ten cogent reasons why you should not support it.

I applaud those who are standing up to this Nanny State effort to regulate to death perfumes and cosmetics. Here at FirstNerve, I have not been shy in calling out those who want to control what you eat, where you can smoke, what you can drive, what fragrance you wear, and what you must strap onto your head when you ride a bicycle. No doubt I strike some readers as a bit cranky, but a little bit of cranky—along with eternal vigilance—is the price of freedom.

In the spirit of calling out the nannies, I took a closer look at the members of congress behind the Safe Cosmetics Act of 2011. The bill was introduced by Rep. Janice Schakowsky and has twelve co-sponsors, listed below. I also provide their 2010 voting ratings as compiled by the liberal group Americans for Democratic Action. The ADA rates each member of congress from 0 to 100% based on 20 key votes. A 100% rating makes the legislator an “ADA Hero” and proudly identifies them as among the most liberal members of congress.
H.R. 2359, The Safe Cosmetics Act of 2011


Rep. Janice Schakowsky [D, IL-9] 95%

Rep. Tammy Baldwin [D, WI-2] 100%
Rep. Shelley Berkley [D, NV-1] 85%
Rep. Earl Blumenauer [D, OR-3] 100 %
Rep. Judy Chu [D, CA-32] 100%
Rep. Diana DeGette [D, CO-1] 95%
Rep. Barney Frank [D, MA-4] 100%
Rep. Luis Gutiérrez [D, IL-4] 90%
Rep. Barbara Lee [D, CA-9] 95%
Rep. Edward Markey [D, MA-7] 100%
Rep. James Moran [D, VA-8] 100%
Rep. D. Wasserman Schultz [D, FL-20] 90%
Rep. Lynn Woolsey [D, CA-6] 100%
So who are the nannies in this case? They are all Democrats. They are also among the most liberal or, if you prefer, the most progressive members of the House: seven of them are “ADA Heroes.”

Nannyism has a face, and it’s not the face of mean, old conservatives who want to starve poor children and de-fund cowboy poetry festivals. The face of Nannyism is the condescending smile of people who are smarter than you, who know better than you how your business should run and whether, indeed, your business deserves to keep running. The sponsors of H.R. 2359 are not just misinformed about the facts of cosmetic and fragrance safety; they are philosophically at odds with the practical concerns of small business owners, and they have an expansive view of the federal government’s role in our daily lives.

They need to be set straight.

Call the bill’s sponsors—phone numbers are at this link. Members of Congress no longer have direct email addresses; if you live in the district of one of the bill’s sponsors, send a message via the web form at this link.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Smellscapes of India: Alstonia scholaris

I’d never heard of this tree and its amazing fragrance until a stray encounter on the web the other day. It blossoms in the autumn and is powerfully evocative to people all over India. Here’s a blogger from New Delhi, describing Alstonia scholaris,
the tree that sends out spoils of memory, all beginning October end. Its overwhelming hold on all things childhood, love, adolescence, longing, hide and seek, Diwali before it’s lit, endless drives and old monk, as well as full-sleeve shirts, the ‘winter smell’ needed me find it a name, this ball of small white flowers which crumbled in my hand when I plucked it off a tree in Lutyen’s because I’d tugged at it too hard, in excitement.
Here’s blogger Thangjam, who apparently lives near Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi:
I've grown up married and settled down with a loving son. Few days back I was walking down the lanes inside the JNU campus. We're in the final stage of autumn and to me the stinging fragrance of the flowers of Alstonia scholaris (commonly known as Indian Devil tree or Pala tree or Milky pine) reminded me that winter is not far away. Humid days shall be over and colourful Christmas shall embrace us soon. Thick mysterious fog will envelope as if challenging us mortals to unravel the secret of life and how warm relationships can thaw away the cold of the winter. These thoughts and the fragrance of Alstonia scholaris took me back to my childhood days. How we used to smell the inaphis and grandma’s connection of a particular smell to Christmas. The smell lingers just as we fondly remember the odors of our loved ones.
Here’s biologist Parag Rangnekar writing from Goa:
Travelling back home after work these days has become much more pleasant. The lime like heady scent of the Saton (Alstonia scholaris) fills the air at dusk. The flowers bloom at dusk in bunches and one can see carpets of flowers on beaten tracks and tar roads wherever the tree flowers. Flowering in sync almost throughout the state, one can virtually count the number of trees from the fragrance that fills the air, if one is on a long distance drive. The flowering of the tree also heralds the arrival of the winter. It flowers twice during this time.
As WTNK readers are aware, not everyone pays attention to smell, or is curious about what they smell. New Delhi blogger Krishna Pokharel sketches a couple of such characters in “Wake Up and Smell the Saptaparni.”

C.S. Anitha provides some useful background about this tree:
The generic name ‘Alstonia’ is attributed to the distinguished botanist Prof. C. Alston of Edinburgh and species name ‘scholaris’ is derived from fact that its wood was used for making wooden slates for school children.

The tree grows to an average height of 20 metres and the branches tend to spread out like an umbrella. The leaves come out in whorls of seven, hence the name ezhilam pala in Malayalam and ‘Sapthaparni’ in Sanskrit. The scented small tubular sessile greenish white flowers bloom in dense terminal clusters.

The fruit of the tree reminds one of a drumstick. Long and narrow, it hangs down in pairs.

During summer as the tree bears fruit, the tree resembles a woman with her tress hanging loose. According to folklore, the tree is believed to be an abode for evil spirits due to its scented night blooms. However, the scent is to attract night pollinators and has nothing to do with guarding evil spirits.

The elegant umbrella-like spreading tree is a popular ornamental avenue tree as it provides shade. The tree is said to have medicinal values.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

A Busy Season for the Scented Muse

David Zampatti, theater critic for The Western Australian, reports on a new production in Perth called Scent Tales. He says it was “the best-smelling night at the theatre I can ever remember.”

The Edmonton Journal’s Liz Nicholls reviews The Scent of Compulsion, a farce set in 1970, about an American scientist who “creates a fragrance that is literally irresistible.”

The movie Spy Kids 3: Game Over featured 3-D. I took the FirstNerve spawn to see that one in 2003. As far as kids movies go it could have been worse, and the 3-D effects were fun. For the next sequel, director Robert Rodriguez has gone a step further and added smell. Spy Kids: All the Time in the World in 4-D, which opens Augusts 19, features Aromascope: eight smells on a “touch and sniff” card.

In a nod to the classics, "a tutorial given by Ricky Gervais, who speaks for the movie’s robotic dog, will play before the story begins." In 1959, newscaster Chet Huntley demonstrated AromaRama in Behind the Great Wall, and Scent of Mystery audiences were introduced to Smell-O-Vision by a cartoon short. For Polyester, John Waters had “Dr. Arnold Quackenshaw” explicate “the wondrous screen gimmick Odorama” in a prologue.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

ISDP: Big River Edition

It’s the thirteenth of the month, and once again all the usual caveats apply: delicate nostrils and wispy sensibilities should click away, click away, click away all!

A family picnic on the banks of the Columbia River near Portland, Oregon, turned somber when Chris Houle noticed “a foul smell.”
“It was just a dirty rotten, musty smell,” Houle said. “It first I thought it was a fish.”

Houle said when he looked into the river he saw the unidentified man’s body.

“I was joking about it – maybe there’s just a corpse around here,” Houle said. “And there it was.”
The headline (if you pardon the expression) says it all: “Headless body found in Crum Creek.” Not far from idyllic Swarthmore College in suburban Philadelphia. The body in question was spotted by a woman taking a walk with her young child. Only afterwards did neighbors connect the dots:
Several condominium residents said they had smelled a foul odor coming from the area of the creek since Friday.

One man said he noticed a fertilizer-like smell coming from the area of the creek over the past few days.

“I take a daily walk around (the parking lot) and I detected an odor, a strong odor that smelled like fertilizer, real strong,” said Vince Caton.

Carol Coppola said she noticed an unusual odor coming from the creek last Friday.

“I smelled it Friday night,” Coppola said. “My friend said it must be the creek, but I’ve lived her for five years and I’ve never smelled the creek like that.”
The body was later identified as that of a missing 45-year old personal trainer. His death has been ruled a suicide.

Another near miss.
Utility workers found a badly decomposed body in a ravine Friday morning near Millington [Tennessee].

Shelby County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Chip Washington said an AT&T crew working along Walsh Road, near Highway 51 and Fite, discovered the body after first noticing a foul odor.

“When he looked over, he saw a body wrapped in what appeared to be a blanket,” said Washington.
Here’s the kicker:
“I’m told nearby neighbors actually noticed the odor in the last few days but didn’t think to report it.”
Have you considered an exciting career in apartment management?

Residents in Detroit, Michigan, complain to apartment manager about "a foul odor." He opens up the unit in question and finds the body of a man in his 40’s who had been dead a couple of days. There were signs of a struggle and Macomb County Sheriffs are treating the case as a homicide.

An apartment house manager in Utica, Michigan, goes to an apartment to investigate reports of “a foul odor” and finds the body of a 48-year-old man who had been stabbed to death.

He gets an “A” for effort, but sometimes you’re better off just calling the manager:
Police [in Atlanta, Georgia] told Channel 2 Action News that a tenant at a halfway house on Dill Avenue smelled a bad odor from the room next to his, so the man crawled through a window into the room where he discovered the body.
Better safe than sorry
Police in Macon, Georgia, investigating a missing persons report found a dismembered body near the person’s apartment. Two days later, on July 2,
someone reported a “foul odor” in a wooded area adjacent to the apartments. Workers, particularly employees of the city’s Public Works Department and the Macon-Bibb County Fire Department, spent several hours cutting back overgrown brush—bamboo, privet hedge and the like—beside the rear apartment building. The odor was coming from a dead animal, [police spokeswoman] Gaudet said.
A false alarm, but hats off nevertheless to the Macon PWD and the County firemen. What a tough way to spend the holiday weekend.

If at first you don’t succeed . . .

According to KTTS-FM in Springfield, Missouri, police were asked on July 11 to check on a man and woman who lived in a duplex on the west side of town. When no one answered the door, officers left. At 1:30 in the morning, police got a 911 call about “a bad smell” at the same address.
In an interview with reporters, [[Captain Matt]] Brown said police noticed the smell, too, and decided to enter the home. They found the man and woman dead in an upstairs bedroom.
It appears to be a murder-suicide.

Justice delayed

Remember that funeral director in Graham, North Carolina, who left a woman’s body in a hearse in the back yard until someone noticed the bad smell? (Ironically, her death had been discovered originally by a foul odor . . .) His disciplinary hearing has been delayed.

Justice denied

In the wake of Casey Anthony’s acquittal, it looks like Greta Van Susteren was correct about prosecutors overplaying the I Smell Dead People evidence.

Olfactory Presentiments: Something Evil This Way Comes

In Cleveland, Ohio, the trial of accused serial killer Anthony Sowell is underway. ISDP previously covered the macabre olfactory aspects of the case in House of a Dozen Corpses.
The prosecution continued calling witnesses in the Cleveland Strangler trial Wednesday morning.

First on the stand, Brandon Pompey, a former tenant of Anthony Sowell’s Imperial Avenue home. He and his wife lived on the home’s second floor.

Pompey says a foul odor and rats appeared not long after Sowell moved in. He testified the smell was so bad that he and his family moved out and left much furniture behind because of the fear the smell would follow.

“We speculated that maybe there was some maybe a dead animal or something of that effect that maybe had crawled under the house,” Pompey said.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

A Dog’s Life: Canine Olfaction Put to the Test

In What the Nose Knows, as well as here on FirstNerve, I’ve questioned the conventional wisdom about the dog’s sense of smell, namely that it is amazingly better than our own. Recent evidence suggests that the human nose, in terms of its sensitivity as an odor detector, is quite competitive with the canine nose. The dog’s ease in odor tracking may have more to do with differences in sniffing behavior, nostril design and the amount of brain devoted to analyzing olfactory information.

Still, the conventional narrative gets a boost with every report of dogs smelling termites, bedbugs, abnormal glucose levels in diabetics, bowel cancer, ovarian cancer, and so on. Just because a trained scent dog is handy in a pilot study (“does disease X have a smell?”) doesn’t prove that dogs alone are able to make this discrimination. And unless tight controls are built into the experimental design, we still have to rule out that subtle, unintended cues from the dog’s handler are giving us a false result.

This was brought home by a new study that examined the role of human handlers in the response of working scent dogs. Conducted by Lisa Lit and her colleagues at the University of California at Davis, the experiment looked at canine scent-tracking behavior without using any scent at all. It’s a trans-species examination of what social psychologists call “demand characteristics”, i.e., cues that study participants use to glean the aim of an experiment and behave accordingly.

In this case, 18 dog-plus-handler teams—all trained, certified, and experienced in the detection of drugs or explosives—search four rooms in a church for contraband. In view of the teams, an experimenter set down a metal box of gunpowder or marijuana samples. The samples, however, were never opened; this was a ruse to make the room searches believable.

Each dog/handler team searched the four rooms twice. An observer noted when and where the dog signaled an “alert.” Of course the correct response in every trial was “no alert,” as there were not drugs or explosives present. What were present, on some trials, were decoys: a red sheet of paper (for the handlers to notice) or a new tennis ball and a couple of Slim Jims (for the dog to notice), or both. Lit and her team were interested in how alerts by the scent dog (i.e., false alarms) were distributed across the experimental conditions.

The great majority of false alarms happened in rooms with a red sheet of paper; this included trials with and without a scent decoy. To Lit and her team,
this suggests that human influence on handler beliefs affects alerts to a greater degree than dog influence on handler beliefs.
Lit et al., consider and dismiss the possibility that handlers were calling alerts in the absence of corresponding behavior from the dog. Instead, they suspect that the dogs were responding to subtle cues from the handler, who in turn was influenced by the apparent location cue of the red paper. This would be an instance of the Clever Hans Effect. (Dig up your Psych 1 notes, people.)

Even without formal training, dogs respond to human cues such as pointing, nodding, head turning and gazing. The mental pull of these cues is powerful, to the point that a companion dog looking for food will ignore a bowl full of food and head to an empty bowl if directed there by his owner. Highly trained scent-detection dogs don’t fall for obvious distractions; clearly, however, they are not immune from subtle, even unintended, influence from their handlers.

Scent-tracking dogs have proven useful in search and rescue missions, detection of contraband, and tracking of criminal suspects. Whether the results of so-called scent lineups conducted by police dogs should be admitted as courtroom evidence is another question altogether. Radley Balko wrote about a recent case in Texas that brought these issues to the forefront.

Research on the olfactory ability of dogs are becoming increasingly sophisticated. While some results, like Lit’s, raise important cautions, another new study adds to the positive side of the ledger. It involved a rigorous and well-designed assessment of the dog’s ability to distinguish identical human twins (aka monozyogtic or MZ twins) by smell. Previous studies (in 1955, 1988, 1990 and 2006) have been a mixed bag. It has been claimed that MZ twins can be distinguished, cannot be distinguished, cannot be distinguished when they share a similar diet, and can be distinguished by some dogs but only if the twins don’t live together.

The new study, by researchers in the Czech Republic, starts on a strong note by using a single breed of dog with similar levels of training, namely ten German Shepherds, each a trained and proven scent-detection animal employed by the Czech Republic Police. The key body scents were provided by pairs of kids living together: two sets of MZ twins and two sets of DZ twins. Their MZ/DZ status was confirmed by DNA testing. BO was collected according to Czech Police forensic protocols (cotton pads in glass jars) and presented to the dogs in a seven-jar “lineup.” The dog signaled a scent match by lying down next to the jar that smelled like the target his handler gave him at the start of each trial. Various combinations of target and lineup scents were used; on trials when the target scent was not in the lineup, the correct response for the dog was to not lie down.

Remarkably, every dog made the correct judgment in every trial (10 dogs, 60 trials each). It seems the mixed results of earlier studies were due to variable skill levels among the dogs tested. Still, not one single incorrect response in 600 trials? (Experimental data with zero statistical variance is, uh, a little unusual.) On the other hand, if it’s this easy for dogs, I bet that humans are able to smell the difference between MZ twins living together.

The studies discussed here are “Handler beliefs affect scent detection dog outcomes.” by Lisa Lit, Julie B. Schweitzer, & Anita M. Oberbauer, published in Animal Cognition 14:387-394, 2011, and “Dogs discriminate identical twins,” by Ludvik Pinc, Luděk Bartoš, Alice Reslová, & Radim Kotrba, published in PLoS One, 6(6):e20704, 2011.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Reader Contest: Test Your Gag Reflex

Okay, campers, here’s how it works. Read this product description from Amazon books and note the point at which you begin to feel queasy. Report back in the comments. If anyone makes it all the way through with appetite intact, I’ll reveal the name of the author whose work is described.

P.S. On the other hand, let me know if this sounds like something you would buy. If the market wants syrupy “meditations” on the senses I’ll change course immediately.
This title contains inspiring meditations through the author’s rich store of memories. In these elegant, short essays, revered nature writer [Name Withheld], attempts to marry a Romantic’s view of the natural world with that of the meticulous observations of the scientist. By Romanticism he refers to the view that nature isn’t a machine to be dissected, but a community of which we, the observers, are inextricably part. And that our feelings about that community are a perfectly proper subject for reflection, because they shape our relationship with it. Scientists eshew [sic] such a subjective response, wanting to witness the natural world exactly, whatever feelings subsequently follow. Our feelings are an extension of our senses - sight, taste, smell, touch and sound - and here, in a sextet of inspiring meditations, [Name Withheld] explores each sensory response in what it means to interact with nature. From birdsong to poetry, from Petri-dish to microscope, this is a joyful union of meandering thoughts and intimate memories.

P.P.S. See comments for the results.