Friday, December 28, 2012

Rewiring the Perfumer’s Brain

Acquired motor skills enlarge the brain areas that control them. For example, the motor regions that activate fine movements of the left hand are larger than average in violinists. But what about olfactory expertise? Do professional perfumers have more brain tissue devoted to smelling? A French research team believes the answer is yes.

Led by Chantal Delon-Martin, the team examined MRI scans taken during an earlier study of brain activity during olfactory mental imagery. The brains in question belonged to 14 professional perfumers, 13 perfumery trainees at ISIPCA, and 21 untrained folks (some young, some old) who served as controls.

Using the latest statistical and data processing techniques, Delon-Martin and colleagues found that perfumers and trainees have more gray matter in areas associated with odor perception, namely the gyrus rectus and the medial orbital gyrus (GR/MOG). (For all you neuroanatomy fans, the GR/MOG borders the olfactory sulcus and lies next to the putative secondary olfactory cortex. It is thought to be involved in higher-order cognitive processing of odors.) So it seems that exercising your sense of smell—at the intense professional level, at least—enlarges the relevant portions of your brain.

While it has been known for some time that loss of odor perception is associated with reduced olfactory processing areas in the brain, these new results are the first to appear on the positive side of the ledger.

The researchers also discovered that smelling for a living counteracts the age-related shrinkage normally seen in the GR/MOG brain areas. This is a neat instance of the “use it or lose it” phenomenon and helps explain why age doesn’t seem to slow down many perfumers.

The study discussed here is “Perfumers’ expertise induces structural reorganization in olfactory brain regions,” by Chantal Delon-Martin, Jane Plailly, Pierre Fonlupt, Alexandra Veyrac, and Jean-Pierre Royet, published in Neuroimage, 68:55-62, 2012.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Merry Christmas to All

And laying his finger aside of his nose
And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose.
He sprung to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew, like the down of a thistle:
But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight-
Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Disability or Hostile Workplace?

From TheSmokingGun:
A federal employee was formally reprimanded this month for excessive workplace flatulence, a sanction that was delivered to him in a five-page letter that actually included a log of representative dates and times when he was recorded “releasing the awful and unpleasant odor” in his Baltimore office [of the Social Security Administration]. 
According to the letter of reprimand—which is the least severe administrative sanction that can be levied against a federal worker—the man was first spoken to about his flatulence during a May 18 “performance discussion” with his supervisor. He was informed that fellow employees had complained about his flatulence, and that it was “the reason none of them were willing to assist you with your work.” 
After stating that, “It is my belief that you can control this condition,” the author of the reprimand letter then noted, “The following dates show the time of your flatulence.” What followed was a log listing 17 separate dates (and 60 specific times) on which the employee passed gas. For example, the man’s September 19 output included nine instances of flatulence, beginning at 9:45 AM and concluding at 4:30 PM.
Exit questions:

Does Obamacare pay for Beano® and Lactaid®?

Has HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius issued regulations on what constitutes excessive flatulence?

How soon before OSHA formalizes an indoor air quality standard for workplace flatulence?

UPDATE January 11, 2013
The guy gets a pass: reprimand withdrawn.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Biosolids in the Punch Bowl

Mullumbimby, NSW

There’s been a disgusting stink hovering over the delightfully named Australian town of Mullumbimby, south of Brisbane in New South Wales. After being swamped with complaints, the shire council investigated and finally got to the . . . uh . . . bottom of the problem.

Turns out it was man-made, in more than one sense of the word. The stench—variously described as pig manure, farm yard, or animal enclosure—was the result of biosolids from the sewage treatment plant being spread on local properties as fertilizer. [No shit?—Ed.]

But not to worry.
“The work has been since been stopped due to weather conditions,” [Byron Shire Council acting general manager Mr. Phil] Warner said.
The weather conditions—of course. That’s the only possible explanation why a county’s worth of processed poop would smell bad. When will greens own up to the fact that their shit does stink?

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Culture Clash: Sustainable Ambergris Substitute?

The headline from PR-centric ScienceDaily sounds oh-so-eco-friendly:
Sustainable Way to Make a Prized Fragrance Ingredient
But there’s less here than meets the nose. Sure, the prized fragrance ingredient is ambergris, which perfume houses won’t touch with a ten-foot harpoon, even when it’s scavenged on a beach. The substitute—an approximation, really—is Ambrox, originally synthesized by Firmenich from sclareol, a material found in tiny amounts in clary sage.

The news is that Firmenich researchers have found a way to produce sclareol in bigger quantities.

Sustainable, hooray!

They do it with some cool genetic engineering—inserting clary sage enzymes into E. coli bacteria, which then pump out the sclareol.

Genetic engineering, hooray!

Oh, wait . . . that means they’re using genetically modified organisms. Boo, hiss!

But Ambrox is saving the whales. Hooray!

But it’s a synthetic chemical. Hiss!

I just love it when eco doctrines collide. Good, clean entertainment. Pass the popcorn.

Who wants synthetic butter flavor on theirs?

The study discussed here is “ Toward a biosynthetic route to sclareol and amber odorants,” by Michel Schalk, Laurence Pastore, Marco A. Mirata, Samretthy Khim, Marina Schouwey, Fabienne Deguerry, Virginia Pineda, Letizia Rocci, and Laurent Daviet, published in Journal of the American Chemical Society, 134:18900-189003, 2012.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Science Friday and Shopping Saturday

I had a pleasant time last night at the holiday party thrown for NPR Science Friday guests by Ira Flatow and his staff. Lots of people there had been on the show to talk about their books, and it occurred to me that these would make great choices for any science and technology types on your holiday gift list.

My pal Stuart Firestein works on the molecular biology of olfaction at Columbia University, where he teaches a popular course on ignorance. It’s about what motivates scientists at a personal level—namely, curiosity about the unknown and striking out into uncharted waters. Now he’s written a short, very readable book called Ignorance: How It Drives Science. It’s the best account I’ve ever read of how science actually gets done—through hunches, false leads, serendipity, and following unexpected leads down an entirely different path. Stuart was on Science Friday back in June.

Diana Reiss teaches psychology at Hunter College. Her research into self-recognition in animals led to her work with bottle-nose dolphins. The Dolphin in the Mirror: Exploring Dolphin Minds and Saving Dolphin Lives is about her work with these remarkable animals. She also talked about it on Science Friday.

Christopher Bonanos writes at New York magazine. He showed up at the party with a vintage 1963 Polaroid camera around his neck. He’d been a guest on Science Friday earlier in the day to talk about Instant: The Story of Polaroid. It's about Edwin Land, the scientist and co-founder of Polaroid, and the rise and fall of his brilliant company. Land was truly an American original. Polaroid photography continues to have a cult following, especially among artistically inclined younger types.

Note that if you order at Amazon through the links on this page, you add a few pennies to the FirstNerve beer fund at no additional cost to you. Thanks and enjoy your shopping!

Thursday, December 13, 2012

ISDP: Presenting the Winner of the 2012 Norman Bates Award™

We have a lot of new readers lately, drawn by our high-falutin’ posts on olfactory art and scent marketing. After seeing this post pop up on their newsfeeds, they may be asking themselves, “Well, how did I get here?”

No worries! You are looking at the latest edition of FirstNerve’s most popular recurring feature bar none. Some readers like it because it appeals to their inner Uncle Fester, others because it proves their olfactological mettle, much like eating stinky tofu.

This month we have only a single incident to report, but it’s a doozy and it introduces our final Norman Bates Award™ nominee of 2012. After which, we review the entire roster and select this year’s winner.

November’s incident is from Oceanside, California, and involves 69-year-old Frederick Hengel and his wife who lived in a small home on North Ditmar Street.
Erick Chavez, 21, who lives next door, told the [San Diego Union-Tribune] newspaper he started smelling something rotten about a week and a half ago. He and other neighbors described the couple as hostile. 
“There’s no other word for it,” Chavez said. About six months ago, Chavez said the woman began wandering around the neighborhood with a butcher knife and exposing herself with her pants around her ankles. That went on for about a month, he said. The woman would preach, as well, he said, saying such things as, “God will smite you.” 
One neighbor said Hengel had worked at Home Depot, and he sold her a ceiling fan. She said Hengel would sometimes wear blouses and makeup, including hot pink lipstick, and she saw him dressed in women’s clothing at a grocery store. Justin Kaufman, 27, another neighbor, said he saw Hengel this past summer wearing a floor-length purple dress, pearl necklace with pearl earrings, and carrying a fancy purse.
Here’s a screen capture of Mr. Hengel dressed to impress.

The gruesome details of what the police found are here. Mr. Hengel has pleaded not guilty to murder charges.

The 2012 Norman Bates Award™

This prize is given to the person or persons who has shown exemplary, if bizarre, olfactory fortitude in living in close quarters with a dead body. This year’s nominees are:
Peter Coscia, of Seligman, Missouri, for continuing to live in his house after his 28-year-old daughter starved herself to death in her bedroom.

Christopher Aguilar, age 25, of Tucson, Arizona, for living with the decaying body of his 47-year-old mother, while telling the building manager the foul smell was coming from a nearby sewer.

Sixteen-year-old Kit Darrant of Miami, Florida, the youngest-ever nominee, for choking and stabbing his mother to death, living in the home for another eight days, and having friends over to party as her body decomposed in another room.

James M. O’Brien, age 68, of Knoxville, Tennessee, who lived for nearly a week in another man’s apartment after the occupant had died of natural causes.

The pair of adult, developmentally disabled sisters in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, who lived with their mother’s decomposing body for approximately two weeks until neighbors complained of a foul smell.

The elderly widow in the Rowland Heights area of Los Angeles, who left her husband’s body in the downstairs bathroom of their home for eight months until a visitor noticed the odor.

Linda Lou Chase, age 72, of Lansing, Michigan, who lived for over a year with the mummified remains of her boyfriend while collecting more than $28,000 in his pension and retirement checks.

Frederick Hengel, age 69, of Oceanside, California, for living for two weeks with the remains of his 74-year-old wife whom he is accused of murdering and eventually dismembering and boiling.

Christopher Aguilar

Kit Darrant

James O'Brien

Linda Lou Chase

Frederick Hengel

It is difficult to select a winner from such a highly competitive field. We begin by dismissing the Pittsburgh sisters and the Los Angeles widow on the grounds that they were mentally overwhelmed by circumstances. Mr. O’Brien, who is otherwise homeless, we dismiss because the foul smelling remains were those of a mere acquaintance. Mr. Coscia’s case, although it may involve some florid family psychopathology, did not involve deliberate criminality.

That leaves us with four candidates. Between Mr. Aguilar, whose mother died of natural causes, and Mr. Darrant, who allegedly killed his mother, we have to give the nod to Mr. Darrant. The potential criminality of Ms. Chase, who fraudulently cashed her deceased boyfriend’s pension checks as his remains sat upright in an easy chair in her parlor, pales beside that of Mr. Hengel, who allegedly murdered his wife and cooked her decomposing remains.

That narrows it down to Mr. Darrant and Mr. Hengel. The brazenness of Mr. Darrant’s behavior, along with the innovative touch of using deodorizers and scented laundry detergent to hide the scent of decomposition of his mother’s corpse, are strong arguments in his favor. On the other hand, Mr. Hengel before the demise of his wife and his attempted stovetop reduction of her remains, was a truly colorful character, parading around the neighborhood in full drag, apparently on days when his wife was not standing on the corner with a butcher knife, pants around her ankles, screaming about religious topics. Yet, colorful as it may be, the Hengels’ behavior was par for course in California—it wasn’t until a foul odor became noticeable in Mrs. Hengel’s prolonged absence that neighbors decided things were uncool.

And so, after due deliberation, we award the 2012 Norman Bates Award™ to Kit Darrant.


Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Exactly How Does Scent Encourage Shopping?

By now there are lots of credible studies showing that ambient scent alters behavior. There’s the original Cinnabon Effect study and its recent extension, and some nice work on perfume wearing and spontaneous helpfulness.

In the “Zombies at the Mall” chapter of What the Nose Knows, I took a look at the scientific literature on scent marketing. There too, credible research shows that scent can increase dollars spent as well as boost positive perception of the mall, the stores, and their products.

A common theme in these studies is that the effects on behavior in general, and consumer purchasing in particular, are driven by changes in mood. Thus, the sweet, warm, delicious smell of fresh-from-the-oven Cinnabon buns put people in a more positive mood and makes them more likely to respond to a request for assistance.

This is a plausible but rather limited explanation. Limited because it fails to explain the differential effectiveness of scents that are equally pleasant, and that should therefore produce equal improvements in mood. For example, business school professor Eric Spangenberg found that a masculine scent increased sales of men’s clothing, and decreased sales of women’s items. The reverse effect was found for a feminine scent.

Clearly, something more than emotion is involved. (This is an ongoing theme of WTNK: psychologists for years have overemphasized the role of emotion in odor perception. More and more research shows that people respond to smell cognitively—that is, they compare, contrast, evaluate, interpret and judge.)

The best alternative explanation involves “congruency.” The idea here is that a smell that “goes with” the merchandise on display will enhance consumer perceptions of the goods and increase sales, while a mismatched scent will have no effect, or even decrease sales. Congruency explains Spangenberg’s shopping results much more satisfactorily than does an appeal to mood.

Now the man himself—Spangenberg along with three colleagues—has found perhaps a better explanation. The new idea is “processing fluency,” technically defined as “the experienced ease of processing a stimulus.” Studies find that labels, logos and ads that are more easily processed, i.e., which are more “fluent,” have a bigger impact on consumer perception and sales. Spangenberg’s newly published study pushes the concept into the olfactory realm.

The researchers first came up with a pair of smells—orange, and basil-orange-green tea—that differed in complexity, but were alike in all other key respects. These two scents, along with a no-odor control condition, were diffused into a Swiss home goods store on different days. Random shoppers who had been in the store at least five minutes and who had bought something were given a brief questionnaire.

The bottom line: shoppers in the simple scent condition spent 10 Swiss francs (roughly $10) or more than did shoppers in the complex scent or no-odor conditions. This is a substantial effect and it happened largely without the shoppers being aware of the scent.

Back in the lab, Spangenberg’s group did several follow-up experiments to pin down the precise nature of the effects. The simple odor out-performed the complex and no-odor conditions when it came to a cognitive task involving anagrams. Simple odor results in more anagrams completed and at a faster rate. Finally, the results of the field study were confirmed in a simulated shopping experiment. The authors conclude:
Our results also show that, contrary to conclusions drawn by many retailers attempting to implement prior olfactory research findings, not just any pleasant scent will work to a firm’s benefit. The ambient scents used for this research were equally pleasant, but produced remarkably different outcomes based on scent complexity.
We seem at last to be getting away from the Land of Mood and into a zone where we can use sensory analysis to engineer more effective fragrances for scent marketing.

The study discussed here is “The power of simplicity: Processing fluency and the effects of olfactory cues on retail sales,” by Andreas Herrmann, Manja Zidanseka, David E. Sprotta, & Eric R. Spangenberg, published online in Journal of Retailing, September 17, 2012.

Friday, December 7, 2012

FirstNerve Review: The Art of Scent 1889 – 2012

The Scent Stripped Bare by Its Curator, Even.

The Art of Scent 1889 – 2012 occupies the fourth floor of the Museum of Arts & Design on Manhattan’s Columbus Circle. The main exhibit is a large room with a white wall. Along the wall are twelve smooth indentations that from a distance look as if a giant pressed his thumb into putty. On closer inspection each has a narrow cleft at the bottom. The overall effect is vaguely gynecological. Lean into the shallow, curved opening and you notice a hole in the bottom. A sly reference to Duchamp’s urinal? A hiss and a low rumble of plumbing announce a scented air stream rushing to meet your face. It’s MAD’s version of a swirlie.

An explanatory text appears now and then beside the opening, backlit in white letters. The text is reproduced in a pamphlet that observes all the proper forms of an art show catalog: artist’s name, the work’s title, its date and provenance, and a brief description of its significance. Except that the twelve art works in question are perfumes. And therein lies the central conceit of The Art of Scent: its whiny, foot-stomping, insistence that perfume is Art.

A side room offers the same dozen perfumes in a more traditional medium—alcoholic solution. They are arranged in clear covered platters on a clear Plexiglas table surrounded by clear plastic stools. Labeled blotters are provided for dipping and sampling. (Unusually shaped, these are the capellini of blotters; they bring to mind the phrase pencil-dick bug f***er.)

Along the wall of the side room are five stations that dispense scent-sample cards from biomorphic protrusions on the wall. (They are suggestively labial in a Videodrome sort of way.) The samples consist of four accords from, and the complete formula of, Lancôme’s Trésor. Here a visitor actually gets to look under the hood and see how perfumer Sophia Grojsman built the fragrance. The accords (incorrectly equated with “mods” in the accompanying text) by themselves are stark and seemingly unrelated; their integration in the finished fragrance is remarkable, and vividly illustrates the complicated, combinatorial magic of perfumery.

The liquid versions don’t always match those wafting out of the wall, which were adapted to suit the dry delivery system. In particular, the wall’s Drakkar Noir was coming apart—a grassy note stood out and the impression was not at all like the (very familiar) commercial product.

The final piece of the exhibit is an iPad app that lets visitors pair an abstract descriptor with a realistic one to describe each perfume, and then projects a word cloud representation of the current tally onto a screen at the end of the room. Pointless but harmless fun.

All this spritz and tell has one objective: to sell the notion that perfume is Art. In a world where a crucifix in jar of urine and a sliced-up sheep in formaldehyde are considered masterpieces, this would seem to be a fairly low bar to clear. Yet, the exhibit huffs and puffs to make its point.

For example, the words “perfume” and “perfumer” appear nowhere in the catalog. This ostentatious omission is part of curator Chandler Burr’s puerile attempt to win the argument by recasting its terms. He talks about olfactory art, not perfume. He talks about scent creators and scent artists, not perfumers. He talks about patrons, not perfume brands. He slings a lot of hash about “aesthetic visions,” “abstraction,” “ornamentation,” “minimalism,” “hyper-realism,” “diaphanous quality of light,” and “21st century sensibilities,” but nothing about top notes or fragrance families. The idea seems to be that if he can talk about perfume in purely artistic terms, it must be Art. But calling it so doesn’t make it so.

Beyond sheer assertion, Burr’s only specific claim is that olfactory Art only became possible with the invention of synthetic fragrance chemicals in the late 19th century:
By freeing olfactory artists from an exclusively natural palette, they [synesthetics] turned scent into an artistic medium.
So if you didn’t have coumarin or vanillin on the shelf, you weren’t doing Art. Tough beans for Giovanni Maria Farina, who created Eau de Cologne in 1708, or Jean-Louis Fargeon, perfumer to Marie-Antoinette. And whatever ancient Greek, Roman, and Egyptian perfumers were doing, it wasn’t Art.

The odd thing about Burr’s claim is that it ignores the difference between a flower and a perfume oil. A pile of rose petals on the floor of a barn in Bulgaria does not a natural palette make. Petals must be distilled, extracted, de-waxed, filtered, and blended before the perfumer can reach for a bottle of rose oil. The same goes for the bales of patchouli, the crates of oakmoss, and so on. Once processed, these materials have an amplified, focused smell that, while it may be reminiscent of the source, is entirely novel, man-made, and not found in nature.

What’s missing from The Art of Scent, with its clean white walls and transparent furniture, are the messy, colorful worlds of commerce and fashion—the reason these fragrances exist in the first place. Consumers don’t buy Drakkar Noir to hang on the wall or admire on the mantelpiece. Yet in Burr World, Pierre Wargnye is an artist who woke up one morning in the mood to “violate” the “strict line between ‘fine’ and ‘functional’ fragrances.” The Muse told him to start with a shitload of synthetic dihydromyrcenol and the result was Art. In real life, the Guy Laroche people circulated a fragrance brief and Pierre Wargnye worked on it because that’s what his employer, a large, publicly traded New York corporation, asked him to do. And it became the “most significant and influential scent” of the 1980s because a lot of guys bought it. To wear. On their skin. To attract chicks.

You can stick your head in the wall all day long, but you won’t learn that at MAD. The Art of Scent 1889 – 2012 smells okay, but it’s a history deprivation chamber.

P.S. As a gesture to loyal FN fans, we brought the BurrOMeter out of storage, fired it up, and aimed the sensors at the show catalog.

Name Drops: 17

Aimé Guerlain
Ernest Beaux
Francis Fabron
Bernard Chant
Carol Phillips
Pierre Wargnye
Olivier Cresp
Jacques Cavallier
Annie Buzantian
Alberto Morillas
Jean-Claude Ellena
Carlos Benaim
Max Gavarry
Clément Gavarry
Daniela Andrier
Issey Miyake
Miuccia Prada

Bonus Points:

Perfumers: 14
French: 10
Designers: 2
Moguls: 1

Jean-Claude Ellena Deluxe Triple Bonus Points®: 3

Autre Merde Française Bonus Points: 4

Eiffel Tower
traditional French floral
nineteenth-century Paris
nineteenth-century French scent making

Le Capitaine Louis Renault Bonus Points: 4

shocked by

Total BurrOmeter reading for The Art of Scent: 55 milliburrs

Outlook: Clear skies, clear furniture. Smooth sailing: no friction, no traction.

The Zen of Drudge

Nuancing the news.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Environmental Regulations Preserve Unbearable Stench in San Diego

The San Diego Union-Tribune editorializes:
The buildup of feces isn’t some saintly natural process that must be allowed to run its course lest there be some terrible consequence down the line. It happened because of a combination of circumstance, climate and official decisions. It’s not part of Mother Nature’s grand scheme for La Jolla Cove or the planet.
The most pungent phrase: California’s excessive regulatory culture “effectively sanctifies animal waste.”

A Gloomy American Smellscape

They pass the bad place as quickly as they can. Uncountable twolegs gather here every afternoon during the summer to yell in unison in some strange ritual, but it is deserted. It is deserted almost every autumn. The smell is the same: hopelessness, emotional decay. Yet the stench is somehow stronger. Every year, for more than a hundred years, the scent of despair grows more pronounced. It seeps into the ivy, joining the abandoned dreams of those who came before. There is something awful and unnatural here. Something wrong. This is a dying place.
Desolate, yet easily accessible from the Red Line.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

One Step Closer to a John Lennon Fragrance?

Dead celebrity menswear? Yes, if you’re Yoko Ono.
Ono’s sketches from 1969 are childlike in their simplicity and humorous in their matter-of-fact approach to how men should dress. 
Ono’s eccentricity and penchant for quirks are evident in the playful collection, which includes suit pants adorned with a hand cutout sewn over the crotch and a jersey pullover with eyelets cut out over the nipple region. A separate “lightbulb bra,” which is embedded with battery-operated light bulbs, can be worn underneath the pullover.
Riiiiiiight. [C’mon, it’s Art!—Ed.]
“So, I made this whole series with love for his hot bod and gave it to him as a wedding present. You can imagine how he went wild and fell in love with me even more.”
I can? OK, let me try. . . . Nope, nothing yet. . . . Wait, still trying . . . Let me get back to you later.

Between this and her making an appearance at Lady Gaga’s Fame launch, it sounds to me like Ms. Ono is limbering up for a dead celebrity fragrance. I’ve been predicting Lennon by Ono. But there might be issues with ownership of his name and image. So FN commenter Nathan Branch might have the right idea: Ono by Yoko. Because, really, it’s all about her.

But then consider this tidbit, from her interview with Miya Masaoka in the San Francisco Bay Guardian:
MM: What did he [Lennon] smell like?

YO: Very clean. Always showers, baths — he didn’t have a very strong odor, how some men have to use very strong cologne. Sometimes both of us liked the idea of having a beautiful scent, so we would both wear rose oil or something. He liked to use witch hazel.
Hmm . . . maybe it’s going to be Two of Us by Yoko.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Olfactory White: Whale or Minnow?

A new paper out of Noam Sobel’s lab at the Weizmann Institute has been getting a lot of media play. The piece by Stephanie Pappas at LiveScience (“Olfactory White: Newly Discovered Odor Is Blend Of Smelly Compounds”) is lame, and misleadingly titled. The one from Sid Perkins at ScienceNow is better and includes this fairly restrained quote:
“Olfactory white is a neat idea, and it draws interesting parallels to white light and white noise,” says Jay Gottfried, an olfactory neuroscientist at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, Illinois. The new study “definitely adds new information about how the brain interprets odors,” he notes.
Sobel’s team selected a bunch of smells that cover odor space (defined by sensory and physiochemical means) and diluted them to smell (roughly) equally intense. Then they randomly combined the odors into mixtures with varying numbers of components. By the time the mixtures reached around 30 components, they all began to smell about the same. To the extent this is remarkable it is because the 30-component mixtures had no components in common. (In contrast, a combo of 30 floral notes would be easily distinguishable from a combo of 30 resinous notes.)

Sobel et al. go to some lengths to experimentally demonstrate that these large mixtures, like large mixtures in tonal audition and color vision, converge on a perception that is, in technical psychophysical terms, “white.”


Well, the Weizmann Institute is trying to patent “a wide range of potential applications for olfactory white.” I have no doubt there are some clever applications, but my hunch is that each of them will prove to be quite narrowly focused.

Meanwhile, “olfactory white” may be rare or even nonexistent in the natural world, but I bet thousands of people smell it on a daily basis. Isn’t it the smell of any sizeable fragrance blending facility? I’ve been in a dozen of them and they all smell the same—it’s an unmistakable scent, yet not really of one thing or another. (Sure, some days a particular project will dominant the air. I’m talking about the ongoing background scent in the perfume labs and compounding rooms.)

Olfactory white: a “neat idea”? Yes. A “new smell”? Not so much.

The study discussed here is “Perceptual convergence of multi-component mixtures in olfaction implies an olfactory white,” by Tali Weissa, Kobi Snitza, Adi Yablonkaa, Rehan M. Khana, Danyel Gafsoub, Elad Schneidmana, & Noam Sobel, published online November 19, 2012 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Ka-Boom! Michael Jackson Perfume Project Self-Destructs

Just as I foretold, the posthumous Michael Jackson perfume project has self-destructed.

The long-running, on-again, off-again and ultimately zombified collaboration between Joe Jackson, the late star’s father, and Julian “Franck” Rouas, the colorful character from the Côte d’Azur, was detonated last Friday by Jackson.

Here’s the statement released on the website of “The Legendary Music Manager” and “Patriarch of the First Family of Music”:
Mr. Jackson confirmed today that after much due diligence and legal counsel he has effective today the 15th of November 2012 cancelled all collaboration with French designer Julian Rouas Paris, Inc as well as any affiliation with any of Mr Rouas’s companies.
To drive the point home, Mr. Jackson offered a pictographic version of his statement (shown above).

To reassure those MJ fans still yearning for an olfactive tribute to their musical hero, Mr. Jackson promised to press ahead with a perfume to be adorned with a 3D holographic portrait of his son.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Rihanna PR Fail: Parlux Drools, Lets It All Hang Out

NEW YORK, Nov. 16, 2012 — In the news release, Chart-Topping Songstress, Rihanna, Takes It All Off With New Scent, issued 16-Nov-2012 by Parlux Ltd. over PR Newswire, we are advised by the company that the first paragraph, first sentence, should read “...Nude by Rihanna, on Black Friday at Macy’s” rather than “...Nude by Rihanna, this November 2012” as originally issued inadvertently.
Good. Glad we cleared that up.

Meanwhile, “chart-topping songstress”? I understand her ditties are the bee’s knees, penned by Tin Pan Alley’s finest. But is this 2012 or 1922?

Let’s join Beavis and Butthead and read some more of the press release:
Nude by Rihanna is sensual and provocative. It is an uninhibited scent [Nude, uninhibited, get it? Get it?] that captures a stripped down essence. [Hey Butthead, drop trou and show me your “stripped down essence.”] The fragrance allows her fans, to experience something very personal, [“I’m experiencing something very personal right now, Beavis. In my pants.”] a true embodiment of the singer. [Heh. Em-BODY-ment! Heh-heh.] Nude by Rihanna joins Reb’l Fleur and Rebelle, two dark [Rihanna, dark! Heh. Heh-heh. Heh-heh-heh!] and rebellious scents created by Rihanna in years past, in her uninhibited fragrance lineup.
Wait. Did they mention that Nude is uninhibited? [Yes, twice in the same paragraph.—Ed.]

We hear FN readers saying, “Alright, Mr. Critical. But sex sells, so Nude by Rihanna is genius PR.”

Really? Try googling “rihanna nude.” You have to go to the fourth screen to find a link to the perfume (it’s the 38th search item). The rest of the search items are about Rihanna being, uh . . . nude. She seems to be famous for taking off her clothes. Or as Fred Purches, chairman and CEO of Parlux Ltd., puts it, she “perfectly balances strength and femininity.”


Thursday, November 15, 2012

A Stimulating Look at Olfactory Hallucinations

Olfactory hallucinations tend to be unpleasant. This is true of the phantom smells associated with migraine headaches as well as epileptic seizures. The unpleasant odors are often vague but sometimes as specific as burning rubber. In his classic studies of sensations evoked by electrical stimulation of the brain, Wilder Penfield found that some patients reported brief odor perceptions—usually unpleasant— when he stimulated the olfactory bulb.

Recently a team of pediatric neurologists and neurosurgeons at Wayne State’s Detroit Medical Center took a closer look at what happens when you stimulate the brain’s olfactory areas. They examined a series of young (5 to 17 years old) epilepsy patients who had subdural electrodes implanted in order to record the source of their seizures. The electrodes were placed in various sites on the ventral surface of the frontal lobes.

The researchers used these electrodes to deliver electrical stimulation to one location at a time. They started with a low current and gradually increased it until the patient reported a sensation. Of the 16 kids tested, 11 reported a smell. Nine patients experienced an unpleasant smell (smoke, garbage, etc.) and two reported pleasant ones (strawberry, good food). This ratio is consistent with Penfield results from the 1950s, and with the broader literature on olfactory hallucinations.

Odor perceptions were triggered only by electrodes located near the midline of the brain, i.e., near the olfactory bulbs or tracts. More lateral locations produced no smells, even those these areas are known to be secondary olfactory cortex, i.e., higher-level odor processing areas.

So why do stinks outnumber nice smells in hallucinations? One thought is that the olfactory system has a built-in negative bias: it’s tuned to reject biologically hazardous smells. So when the system goes haywire (epilepsy) or is artificially stimulated, it defaults to the unpleasant side. Another possibility is that both of these abnormal situations activate an unorganized pattern of neural discharge from the otherwise finely tuned olfactory bulbs. It’s the equivalent of banging on piano keys with your fists—you’ll get a sound but usually an unpleasant one.

The study discussed here is “Olfactory hallucinations elicited by electrical stimulation via subdural electrodes: effects of direct stimulation of olfactory bulb and tract,” by Gogi Kumar, Csaba Juhász, Sandeep Sood, & Eishi Asano, published in Epilepsy & Behavior 24:264-268, 2012.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

ISDP: In the Bag

According to the fly-specked calendar from that Chinese take-out place in San Jose that hangs in the attic, it is once again the thirteenth of the month. We can feel it in our bones. It’s dead quiet up here in the north belfry. The hundreds of gas-powered generators that roared post-Sandy have gone silent. The Jamaican guy selling $10 bootleg gas has left town. A cold breeze pours through a hole in the window—the same hole that gives us a clean shot at the neighbor’s unsecured WiFi signal. Life is good.

Aficionados understand that Winter Is Coming and the pickings grow slim. Nevertheless, we have scraped together enough in the way of morbid olfactory reporting to deliver our loyal fans yet another edition of I Smell Dead People.

We begin with a headline from Houston, Texas, that is the epitome of newsroom directness: “Deputies find corpse in bag.” [The New York Times would have gone with “To law enforcement, finality lies within the mundane.”]
A foul odor led deputies to find the body of a person inside a bag in north Harris County. Deputies arrived Tuesday morning to Walters Road near Old Walters Road in response to a report around 10 a.m. of a bag with a foul stench. A deputy with the Harris County Sheriff’s Office confirmed that the body was of a human.
Is it just us, or are malodorous remains being found more and more often in cars?
St. Louis police identify man found dead in Cadillac trunk Police are investigating the gruesome discovery of a man's body inside the trunk of a Cadillac in the 9000 block of Edna Street. Police said they received a call at 8:30 p.m. Saturday about a foul odor coming from the vehicle. When they opened the trunk, they found the decomposing body of Deadrick Sawyer Jr., 27, of the 6900 block of Raymond Avenue.
And from Hayward, California:
The body of a decomposed man was found in an abandoned building in Hayward on Tuesday morning, a police lieutenant said. A construction worker detected a foul odor and followed the scent into the building that was formerly Perry & Key Body & Paint Shop at 28953 Mission Blvd. at about 9:30 a.m. Tuesday, Lt. Roger Keener said.
A week later, the body was identified but police had little else to go on:
Leads are scarce in the investigation into the death of a young man whose decomposed body was found in an abandoned building in Hayward last week, police said Monday. 
The body of 19-year-old Luis Calleros was found at about 9:30 a.m. Tuesday . . . Calleros, who had been reported missing by his father on Oct. 23, was identified on Friday through dental records.
Finally, an update to an item from the September edition:
SAN ANTONIO — A newly released autopsy report shows a construction worker who was found dead inside a smokestack at the Pearl Brewery was neither drunk nor under the influence of drugs when he died.
Well, that takes care of the easy theories. Wonder what really happened?

Monday, November 12, 2012

Annals of BO: The Librarian’s Nightmare

Hey, campers! It’s the new fad. Build up some BO, get bounced from a public facility, and sue their asses off.

Beats working.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

The Cinnabon Effect Confirmed

In 1997, social psychologist Robert Baron published a modest field study about the behavioral effects of ambient odor. The experiment was simplicity itself. Baron stationed a person in a large shopping mall near Albany, New York, and had him ask the occasional passerby to make change for a dollar. A nearby confederate recorded whether or not the passerby helped out. The olfactory angle was manipulated by having the accomplice stand in front of a pleasantly scented shop—Cinnabon, or The Coffee Beanery, for example—or in front of a nonscented shop, such as Banana Republic or Nine West.

Previous laboratory experiments suggested that pleasant odors improve mood and make a person more likely to volunteer for a boring task. Baron upped the ante by asking whether such an effect could be observed in real life. It turns out it could. People were much more likely to help, when prompted, in the presence of a pleasant background scent. Thus was born the Cinnabon Effect.

I’ve always been a fan of field studies. In my view, psychological effects squeezed out of undergraduates in the artificial conditions of a campus lab building generalize to other students in similar scenarios on other campuses—and no farther. Any behavioral finding worth its salt should be observable in the real world.

That’s why I reported favorably about a French field study on perfume wearing. It was conducted by another social psychologist, Nicolas Guéguen. He had young women walk a few yards ahead of a random person and “accidently on purpose” drop a glove or a packet of tissues. A confederate recorded whether the person intervened—by calling out to the young woman or by retrieving the object. The scent angle here was whether or not the woman wore perfume. Sure enough, people were more likely to offer unprompted assistance when Guéguen’s actress was wearing perfume.

Score another win for pleasant scent making people more helpful. Yet Professor Guéguen was not entirely satisfied. Men were more responsive to the scented lady than were women. Therefore a sexual interest could have been at play, above and beyond the simple pleasantness of the scent.

Guéguen has now repeated his study in an indoor shopping mall, using both male and female confederates. This time the glove was “accidently” dropped in front of either a scented establishment (bakery or pastry shop) or an unscented one (e.g., a clothing store). The effect was clear as a bell: help was offered about half the time in front of the clothing store, and about three-quarters of the time in front of the bakery. Men were more likely to help than women, but the confederate’s sex has no bearing on the outcome.

Guéguen has confirmed the Cinnabon Effect and extended it to spontaneous acts of kindness. But what about the underlying psychology? Baron thought yummy smells improved mood which led to helpfulness. Guéguen didn’t assess mood in his new study. I wonder whether another factor might be involved. Perhaps food aroma signals resource abundance—it implies that there is plenty to eat for everyone. That fact alone would incline people to be more generous.

This suggests another experiment, a twist on Guéguen’s original.This time the young lady doesn’t wear Coco by Chanel—instead, she carries a fragrant slice of pepperoni pizza.

UPDATE May 12, 2019 

Questions have been raised about a number of studies published by Nicolas Guéguen, including this one in particular. See my new post on the matter here.

The study discussed here is “The sweet smell of . . . implicit helping: effects of pleasant ambient fragrance on spontaneous help in shopping malls,” by Nicolas Guéguen, published in The Journal of Social Psychology 152:397-400, 2012.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Annals of BO: The Landlord’s Nightmare


Gendy Alimurung at LAWeekly has the long, sad story of William Nowell, a street person who sued the Los Angeles MTA for $200,000 and won. Then he moved into a deluxe apartment and somehow never got around to buying new clothes, or wearing shoes, or . . . bathing regularly. When neighbors complained that his overpowering BO was stinking up the building, the landlord successfully sued to have him evicted.

Amid the squalid physical descriptions in Alimurung’s piece is this gem:
Nowell eats only organic food and washes — when he washes — with artisanal, handmade soap from Soaptopia.
Then there’s this:
Diagnosed with a chronic illness that he declines to name, he wound up on the streets, where he remained for the next 20 years. He begged and borrowed. He sold T-shirts slamming George W. Bush, printed with a photo of flag-draped coffins and the sentence, “My kid went to Iraq and all I got was this lousy letter.” Somewhere in there, Nowell stopped bathing. He stopped wearing shoes. He stopped changing his clothes altogether.
Clearly, Nowell’s biggest mistake was renting in LA. He should head up the coast to Berkeley, where he’d fit right in.

Alternatively, he could head to Morristown, New Jersey, which paid off another stinky guy who made a career of suing places that kicked him out—in that case, from the public library.

The Tension Between Men and Women

In a brief interview with Krista Bennett DeMaio in the November issue of Women’s Health, sensory psychologist Margaret Spencer Avery Gilbert talks about women, sex, and manly notes in perfume.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Celebuscent Awesomeness

From the Dudley News:
FANS flocked to Dudley’s Tesco Extra on Saturday to meet reality TV star, Amy Childs. The former The Only Way is Essex star was at the Burnt Tree supermarket as part of a promotional tour of the UK to plug her debut perfume called ‘Amy Childs’.
OK, I take back all those mean things I said about Amy Childs. I too would flock to Dudley to experience the perfectly developed, fully rounded top notes.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Hunkered Down


The lawn furniture is stowed in the garage and the pantry is full of canned beans. There are still a few windows left to tape but otherwise FirstNerve Manor is about as prepared as it’s gonna get.

Let 'er blow!

UPDATE October 31, 2012
Roof on, basement dry. Power on (most of town not so lucky). Internet down (borrowing neighbor's cellular WiFi).

UPDATE November 5, 2012
Power on, power off. Internet spotty. Five hour wait for gas. Know the chief of police? Then zip right to the front of the line. (It's a Jersey thing.) Six days after the hurricane the cavalry arrives in the form of two dozen Entergy utility trucks from Arkansas. Good old boys with accents thick enough to cut with a knife. Within minutes they're up in buckets fixing lines. No power? No problem. Arkansas is on the job.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

When Scent Trumps Color

From Matthew Appleby in The Guardian:
Sweet peas are prized both for their exquisite scent and their colour. Dave Matthewman of Matthewman’s Sweetpeas says it’s scent rather than colour that customers ask about first when he launches a new variety: “If you say the scent is mediocre, they lose interest. Blues and lavenders are highly scented, but cream-pinks and orange-pinks often don’t have much.”
If only the fresh-cut flower industry would notice that people prefer scented flowers. (In WTNK I describe how breeders in that business select for showy blossoms at the expense of scent.)

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Our Green Future: Compost-Fueled Cars

Heh. Someone finally pantsed the TED people.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Big BO in Bollywood B.O.?

This sounds interesting.
Aiyyaa, set in south India, revolves around Meenaxi, a middle-class Indian girl torn between fantasy and reality. When Meenaxi finds her Prince Charming, a rumored drug addict, she isn’t attracted to him for his looks or intellect but for his lingering scent. 
The romantic comedy, which marks the Bollywood debut of Marathi filmmaker Sachin Khudalkar, was widely touted to be Rani Mukherjee’s comeback movie.

ISDP October 2012: The Golden Years

With the end of summer comes the usual drop in the number of number of people unfortunate enough to inhale that particular malodor associated with the discovery of a dead body nearby. Two incidents didn’t meet our famously strict criteria: one involved a search already underway for a missing person, and the other the simultaneous discovery of a visual clue. That leaves three and the third is a doozy.

We begin in Fairburn, Georgia:
A body found behind a motel in south Fulton County has prompted a homicide investigation. 
A spokesperson for the Fairburn Police Department tells FOX 5 News that the body was discovered around 11 a.m. Sunday in the 600 block of Senoia Road. 
Police say someone came across the body after noticing a strong, foul odor.
An arrest has been made in the case. The second case took place a day earlier in California:
A decomposing body wrapped in cloth was found Sunday in a parked car in East Oakland, police said. 
The body was reported on the 2400 block of Ritchie Street in a blue Chevrolet Malibu at 5:07 p.m., police said. Witnesses reported that the car had been parked on the street near Arroyo Viejo Park for at least two weeks and that a strong odor was coming from the vehicle, authorities said.
SFGate peanut gallery member “organ_donor” cracks wise in the comments: “Is this going to show up on the Carfax?” but ISDP fans know that non-disclosure in a similar case lead to a lawsuit in Michigan.

Our third report is perhaps the first ever with a happy ending.
Walter Samasko Jr., Nevada Recluse, Found Dead With $7 Million In Gold Bars, Coins In Garage
Officials responding to reports of a foul odor at the home of a Nevada recluse may have been surprised [We doubt it.--Ed.] to find the man’s lifeless body -- he’d been dead for about a month -- but it was the contents of Walter Samasko Jr.’s garage that were truly unexpected.
The Carson City resident who had been living alone at the time of his death had gold bars and coins stored in boxes around the property, according to the Las Vegas Sun. 
According to the Associated Press, Samasko, 69, died of heart problems, leaving no will. The businessman, who died with $200 dollars in his bank account, but millions in the garage, hadn’t worked in more than 40 years.
According to later reports, there were no gold bars, only masses of coins wrapped in aluminum foil. Many of them were collectible which means that the initial $7 million estimate—based only on the trove’s total weight—is probably low.

It seems to us that the way Mr. Samasko went out was completely consistent with the way he lived his life. He wanted to be left alone and he was. Bravo.

And is it just us, or does his driver’s license photo bear just the slightest resemblance to the most famous gold bug of all time?

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Does Lady Gaga Puke 3.0 Times More Often Than Justin Bieber?

Gaga v. Bieber might become a recurring feature.

Is this what Coty Beauty SVP Global Marketing Steve Mormoris meant by “random propulsion”?

Speaking of feeling a bit queasy, focaccia “with the texture of kitchen sponges” was among the kinder comments in the New York Daily News review of Joanne Trattoria, the restaurant opened by Momma and Poppa Gaga. Dinner won’t sit any better after you read The Smoking Gun on the restaurant’s potentially fatal “C” rating from the Department of Health.

Meanwhile, I wonder how Team Coty is feeling about those $100 million sales projections after Gaga blows off hundreds of fans at the London debut of Fame at Harrods?
Lady Gaga booed at perfume launch
Angry fans booed Lady Gaga last night after she arrived over an hour late for a public appearance and then dashed indoors before many had even caught a glimpse of her.
Some people strive to become celebutards, others are just born that way.

And now we know why the Gagster invited aging has-been and publicity addict Yoko Ono to Fame’s New York launch party last month. G gives O some lens time and O returns the favor with an OdorOno LennonOno Peace Prize.

Am I being to cynical? Consider this: “The size of the award has never been disclosed.”

If it was big money it would be part of the PR campaign. This argues for it being a simple quid pro quo. One good photo opp deserves another.

Almost three years ago I had a feeling we’d see a Dead Celebrity Fragrance from Yoko Ono. Early FirstNerve commenter Nathan Branch liked the idea of Yoko by Yoko. But I’m thinking Lennon by Ono can’t be too far in the future.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Another Fart-Related Homicide

Headline: “Teasing over flatulence leads to deadly fight.”

WOIO Channel 19 Action News in Cleveland, Ohio has the story:
Police say a 16-year-old girl is dead and another 16-year-old girl is in police custody. Officials say the girls were fighting around 8 p.m. Wednesday at 4769 Walford Road in Warrensville Heights. 
According to witnesses the victim was teasing the suspect because she passed gas. One thing led to another and fisticuffs began flying. Witnesses also tell 19 Action News that several adults stood around and watched the whole thing go down, including the victim’s stepfather. But by the time he intervened, it was too late.
Good grief.

And yet not unprecedented.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Rude Fungi

A bunch of these have been popping up in what’s left of the garden at FirstNerve Manor. (The entire North Forty is slowing reverting to a state of nature . . .)

The specimen in the photo appears to be a stinkhorn fungus, possibly Mutinus elegans. [It appears to be a dog dick.—Ed.] [Ahem!] More precisely, it’s the mature fruiting body of the fungus. The gelatinous black portion at the tip contains spores and supposedly gives off a fetid odor. It didn’t smell like much to me yet for some reason I couldn’t bring myself to grab one and stick it up close to my nose. There were lots of houseflies on it, however, and they seemed to like it just fine.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

A Workshop on the Art & Science of Synesthesia

My interest in olfactory synesthesia began when I banged my head against a wall—metaphorically. As a newly hired sensory scientist at Roure one of my tasks was to find better ways to understand how consumers respond to scent. I wasn’t getting anywhere with verbal description: people are generally crummy at describing smells, and as for the professionals—well, there were impressive arguments between the French and American perfumers over the company’s “official” vocabulary (“It’s green!” “Non, c’est agrestic!”).

I turned instead to nonverbal ways of describing odor, by reference to color, musical pitch, and so on. There was lots of research on synesthesia—the crossing over between the senses—but almost none of it involved the sense of smell. The field was wide open and I plunged in.

Today, thanks in part to research I published with Sarah Kemp, Robyn Martin, and Kira Belkin, olfactory synesthesia is a lively scientific topic. It has also become a key element of product design and scent marketing. These scientific applications throw a new light on the centuries old artistic use of synesthesia in music, painting, poetry and literature.

If this intrigues you, consider joining one of my upcoming interactive workshops on The Art & Science of Synesthesia. We will sniff blotters and learn how to represent smells in color and shape. The workshops are being hosted by Chad Murawczyk and Mindy Yang at MiN New York, their fragrance clubhouse/atelier in SoHo. The events run from 7:00 p.m. to 9 p.m. There are three dates: October 10, October 17, and November 20. Tickets are available online.

I hope to see you there!

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

I’m Totally Ready to Sniff Martynka Wawrzyniak’s B.O.

Via Huffington Post.

Even if it means going all the way to the Lower East Side.

From Priscilla Frank in the Huffington Post:
Wawrzyniak spent a year working with Hunter College chemistry students to explore her personal brand of perfume. Acting as both the artist and subject, Wawrzyniak used experimental technologies to extract the essence of her signature scent from sweat, hair and tears. 
The artist then collaborated with a professional perfumer and scent director to create a synthetic replication of her organic odor, which will in turn be released inside a specially designed scent chamber. The lucky viewers (or, smellers in this case,) will experience the scent chamber individually, getting a solitary experience with l’eau d’Martynka.
Solitary experience chambers? Hopefully not like the old ones in Times Square that used to take quarters.

From Wawrzyniak’s page at envoy enterprises (the gallery):
[T]he artist underwent multiple experiments to collect aromatic elements from her body.
The fart balloon—a great idea that didn’t work out as planned.
She was subject to rigorous sessions to extract the concentrated essence of her sweat, tears and hair . . .
Fifty Shades of Gray rigorous? Or James Bond at Shrublands rigorous?
“The piece represents the true essence of a woman – free of visual prejudice.”
No problem—I only read Playboy for the articles. BTW what’s the olfactory equivalent of ogle–sniffle? Snoffle? Snogle?

Martynka Wawrzyniak’s exhibit “Smell Me” runs from October 20 through November 18 at envoy enterprises, 87 Rivington Street, in New York (between Orchard and Ludlow). See you there.

Monday, October 1, 2012

My Scent Dinner with Andre

For each dinner, he works with a noted chef to develop a menu that can be dissected down to the bare essences of a known gourmand perfume, like Hermès’s Un Jardin sur le Nil, which unbeknownst to many has a culinary alter ego that tastes like marinated shrimp with a mango gelatin, puréed carrots, and tuna with peach carpaccio. 
[Barbie Latza Nadeau writing in Newsweek, October 1, 2012]
I first met Andre on the Hoboken platform of the PATH train. Our unlikely acquaintance began with a simple question: “Man, what stinks in here?” Fifteen minutes later, as we left the train in New Jersey, I was in thrall to a remarkable individual, a sensory guide to a world I hadn’t known existed. Andre Blur opened my mind to the intimate connection of scent and food.

The revelations began on the PATH platform. Andre described how its fermented urine smell was produced by bacteria that also create the superb retronasal nuances of Epoisses, the fromage magnifique de France. As this stunning juxtaposition of science and cuisine began to sink in, Andre told me the same aroma had inspired Sueur de mes Couilles, the audacious new perfume by Jean-Claude Ellena.

In Andre’s company, every aromatic moment in the Garden State became a learning experience. As we stood side by side in the station’s restroom, he drew my attention to a cloying note wafting up from the swirling yellow maelstrom of the urinal.

“What does it remind you of?”, he asked.

“It’s sweet, a bit fruity maybe,” I said.

“Think harder—be specific,” he urged, while zipping up his fly.

“Well, it reminds me of a cherry-flavored Jolly Rancher,” I replied.

“Exactly!” He was almost shouting with excitement. “It’s benzaldehyde, a gourmand note. It’s the same molecule in the flambéed black cherry compote that Jean-Georges Vongerichten dabs on top of his ginger-infused limpet puree appetizer.”

I was speechless. Partly because of this amazing link between a Swisher urinal screen and a $43 appetizer, but also because Andre in his excitement had dribbled urine down his entire pants leg.

“Are you hungry?” he asked. “Maybe you’d like to buy me dinner.”

I jumped at the opportunity. I’d had a taste of sensory enlightenment and I wanted more.

*    *    *

Andre Blur will host his next Scent Dinner at Rutt’s Hut in Clifton, New Jersey. Among the food and fragrance pairings will be Rippers with isobornyl cyclohexanol and Guerlain’s Samsara; and Hamburger (with gravy), tonka bean, and Datura Noir by Serge Lutens. Be sure to reserve your place early as parking’s a bitch after the Jets game.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Wandering Nostril: African Funerals and the Late Jiminy Cricket

Michael M. Liswaniso, a columnist for Namibia’s New Era newspaper, asks a startling question: “Why the Air Fresheners At Funerals?
I have attended numerous funerals in this country but I have never seen anybody who stands next to the coffin and sprays it with some fragrances in the name of ‘Airoma strawberry’ or any other just to wind down the so-called ‘filthy smell’ emanating from the deceased inside the coffin. 
That was until I attended the funeral of one of my close family members. I did not appreciate what I saw. The same thing happened at least at five different funerals in my mother’s town.
Are mortuary practices that abysmal in Namibia? Not according to Liswaniso.
In all the funerals or burial services I attended in Caprivi and other parts of the country, there was no reek of any kind from the coffins. Yet, people continue to spray the coffins even during the funeral service in the church.
During the service?
The practice distracts the mourners from paying attention to the service, disrupting the entire funeral service.
Yikes. This sounds undignified and unnecessary. On the other hand, rituals evolve over time. Maybe we should update the Book of Common Prayer:
Forasmuch as it hath pleased Almighty God of his great mercy to take unto himself the soul of our dear brother here departed, we therefore commit his pleasantly scented body to the ground . . .
Cindy V. Culp at the Waco Tribune reports on a bizarre story: “Cricket infestations a stinky problem at Waco businesses.”
As branch manager of Synergy Bank in Waco, Jani Rodriquez is used to handling all manner of situations. But for the past few months, Rodriquez has been stumped by a problem that has plagued several local businesses — a foul odor caused by decaying cricket carcasses.
Cricket outbreaks are evidently an annual event in Central Texas, but a wet winter led to an unusually early and vigorous population explosion this year.
Some of the invading crickets apparently have been trapped inside the walls of the building where the bank is located, the Triangle Tower at 510 N. Valley Mills Drive. The result is an unpleasant smell that emanates throughout much of the first floor. It waxes and wanes with the cricket population, which is buoyed by rain. 
“It’s outside, it’s inside,” Rodriquez said. “You kind of get used to it when you’re here. But when you walk out and come back in, it’s really bad.”
A perfect example of olfactory adaptation and disadaptation. Meanwhile, why do dead crickets get so stinky?
Dead crickets don’t always cause a stench. Most of the time, a carcass simply dries up and dissipates, [entomologist Fred] Huffman said. When things get stinky is when the carcass is exposed to moisture. That causes a different type of decay, often with a foul smell, he said.
The infestation in Waco has some unexpected consequences:
[Drug Emporium manager Scott] Halvorson said, he must remove ceiling domes that house the store’s security cameras to empty out dead crickets every few days. So far, that has kept an odor from being present in the store. “But it’s a stench when you pull them down,” he said.