Sunday, April 29, 2012

Ephemeral Swarms of Zooplankton

Precise description is a fundamental requirement for doing science. This can lead to mind-numbing noun phrases such as “7-transmembrane domain G-protein-coupled receptor,” but also to “quorum sensing bacteria” and “Pleistocene megafauna.” The former is intriguing, the latter is totally awesome. (Imagine a ground sloth the size of a rhino eating palm nuts like they were Pez.)

This week I came across another precise, yet evocative, bit of descriptive biology: ephemeral swarms of zooplankton. Think of an ocean acre teeming with plankton, surrounded by miles of empty water. Sounds like a tasty morsel if you’re a baleen whale. Pump the flukes a few times to achieve dining velocity, open the jaws, and swim right through dinner. (Sort of like spraying Reddi-Wip directly into your mouth . . . )

The problem is that these nutritious plankton Woodstocks are few and far between, and they materialize unpredictably. So what’s a hungry humpback to do?

Julie Hagelin has been giving the question some thought and that’s why she was conjuring up Ephemeral Swarms of Zooplankton this past Friday at the AChemS conference. She drew an analogy with tubenose seabirds such as storm petrels, which use the scent of dimethyl sulfide (DMS) to locate areas rich in the tiny planktonic crustaceans on which they prey. What if a baleen whale sampled the air when it breeched, and headed upwind if it smelled DMS?

Hagelin suggests that this is exactly what they do. She and her colleagues presented data showing that humpback whales orient into the wind, which leaves them “well positioned to perceive volatile chemical stimuli.” In addition, baleen whales that specialize on zooplankton “have more notable olfactory systems than toothed whales.”

Hagelin et al. plan experimental tests of DMS to confirm their hypothesis. Talk about eating habits of your megafauna. This could be interesting.

The abstract discussed here, “Baleen whales and tubenose seabirds—A colossal chemosensory convergence?” by Julie C. Hagelin, Janice M. Straley, Lindsey B. Nielson, and Andy Szabo, was presented at the Association for Chemoreception Sciences annual meeting in Huntington Beach, California on April 27, 2012. The abstract can be found here.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Short by a Neck

Indy Scent my ass. You never know what’s gonna happen on turf. Another ten bucks up in smoke.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

ISDP in the Cruelest Month

Whaa, whaa, whaa? It’s the thirteenth of the month again? And it’s Friday? That can only mean one thing: an extra special edition of ISDP, FirstNerve’s compilation of the latest in ghoulish malodor. Each story begins with a foul odor and arrives inevitably at the macabre discovery of a dead body. We suspect that some sort of universal cancellation principle is at work here: one ISDP episode for the launch of every new celebrity fragrance. Just a hunch.

We begin with a case that we somehow missed when it happened last year. It’s a two-fer: a classic “body under the motel bed” episode, and a Norman Bates Award™ nomination. In June, 2011, a 25-year-old Utah woman was murdered in a room at the Capitol Motel in Salt Lake City by 27-year-old Thomas Kumulac. Her body was found “after a guest who checked into the room complained of a foul odor.” After killing the woman, Kumulac “then slept in the same room with her body for several days before checking out of the motel.” He pleaded guilty to first degree murder and has been sentenced to life without parole.

Thomas Kumulac, Norman Bates Award™ Nominee

Florida continues to set the pace for ISDP. First this report near Pensacola, on March 14:
The body of Everett James Bass IV was found Saturday in a wooded area near railroad tracks at Airport Boulevard and Memory Lane. . . . Two people found Bass’ body after walking along a path and smelling a foul odor, [Sheriff’s Office spokesman Sgt. Mike] Ward said.
Really? Strolling down Memory Lane? How Proustian.

A few weeks later from Broward County, comes this report:
An unidentified body was found Friday in a rented room in Lauderhill, and the police are looking for the tenant.

After hearing complaints of a foul odor coming from a bedroom, officers found a corpse in “advanced stages of decomposition,” according to the Lauderhill Police Department.
The guy who had been renting the room, 36-year-old Marlon Woodstock, is being held for questioning.

Woman Pulls a Semi-Norman

We turn to Gray, Georgia, where the body of Doug Coker, age 67, was found. Murder charges have been brought against Pamela Moss, age 54.
Jones County sheriff’s deputies went to Moss’ home Sunday because Henry and Bill county authorities investigating Coker’s disappearance wanted to speak to her about their business relationship, Reece said. No one was home but a foul odor led them to discover Coker’s body under the porch, he said.
Ms. Moss previously spent eight years in prison after pleading guilty to involuntary manslaughter in the death of her mother.

Guy Pulls a Semi-Norman

The Big Apple’s tabloids retain their flair for brisk headlines: “Killer hacked up friend with hand saw: cops”. New York Daily News reporter Philip Caulfield has the gist of the story:
A 27-year-old Washington man strangled his drug buddy and then cut up his corpse with a hand saw before getting caught by his mother, authorities said.

John Jones Jr. was caught with the mutilated remains of Wayne Williams, 54, on March 21 after his mom noticed a foul smell coming from the bedroom of his Tacoma home.
The Olympian has the gruesome details. Here’s a photo of the suspect, courtesy of KIRO-TV.

Say, what ever happened to Morris Day? We always liked him in that Prince movie.

Sixteen-year-old Kit Darrant of Miami, Florida, becomes the youngest-ever Norman Bates Award™ nominee.
Darrant faces a second-degree murder charge. Miami-Dade police said Darrant told them he choked his mother unconscious, stabbed her in the back of the neck, turned her over and stabbed her in the torso and arms several times.

Then, police said, Darrant lived in the home with his 3-year-old brother for eight days while his mother’s body decomposed.
Marie Altidor, the dead woman’s sister-in-law, became suspicious and broke down the bedroom door.
“I already smelled it,” she said. “I knew there was a dead body in there. . . . (It was) covered up with some sheets and smelled really bad, like dead rats,” Altidor said.
Our young nominee was particularly brazen:
Miami-Dade police said Darrant tried to cover up the smell with laundry detergent and deodorant so he could invite friends over for a party.
More depraved details here.

Kit Darrant, Norman Bates Award™ Nominee

Always Trust Your Nose.

It was one of those awkward ISDP times: neighbors in a public housing project argued about whether or not the bad smell was coming from the utility sink. One resident insisted it was a dead body.
“People kept saying it was the slop sink where they wash the mops out. I kept saying, ‘No, that’s a dead body.’ Then they wanted to say it was the sewer and it was making me nauseous every day,” said one building resident.
Well, he was right. A one-legged man in a wheelchair had been stabbed to death in his apartment in the Mott Haven section of the Bronx.

Always Trust Your Nose, part deux.
“In the summer it always stunk really bad in that house. You would tell the landlord but he didn’t live around here,” Maier said. “You would get the smell really bad in the bathroom. We thought it was something to do with the plumbing.”
Turns out the former owner of the house in question had left the remains of his 23-year-old daughter in the crawlspace of the Keansburg, New Jersey residence back in 2008. A week ago a cleaning service called to the now-foreclosed property discovered the remains of Kimberly Adler.
Dennis L. Adler has been charged with second-degree disturbing of human remains for allegedly moving her remains on multiple occasions beginning in August 2008. He is being held in Monmouth County Correctional Institution on $100,000 bail.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Composting: Green and Flammable

From NY1’s reporter in Staten Island:
The city fire department says about 200 firefighters were dispatched to fight a wind-fueled compost fire that started on a compost pile at the former Fresh Kills landfill and delayed traffic in the borough for hours Monday.
This isn’t your local food collective’s compost heap of organic radish tops and kale stalks.
Fresh Kills is roughly three times the size of Central Park and surrounded by many local roadways, including Richmond Avenue.

At one point, the West Shore Expressway was closed in both directions and smoke could be seen for miles.
Check out the video to get the flavah and to hear some classic outer borough accents.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Steer Clear of the Chickenshit Jurisdiction of Collinsville, Illinois

In WTNK, I questioned whether the olfactory abilities of police officers live up to the deference shown them by courts in search-and-seizure drug cases. Empirical work by Richard Doty and others casts serious doubt on one typically extravagant claim: that unburned marijuana is detectable by nose when wrapped and stashed in a car trunk.

Nevertheless, the “in plain smell” doctrine is now law in many states: the odor of pot, as perceived by a police officer, is sufficient to establish probable cause for a warrantless search of a vehicle. Thanks to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling, an “alert” behavior by a trained drug detection dog also suffices.

Bringing dogs into the equation doesn’t help matters. A recent study suggests that dogs respond to subtle, unintended cues from their handlers that can result in “false alarm” alerts.

Radley Balko now examines some data from the Illinois State Police K-9 Unit and comes to a disturbing conclusion.
Even giving this dog credit for the cases in which the officer found only [drug] residue, over this 11-month period, the dog had about a 28 percent failure rate. Which means that nearly three of the 10 times the dogs alerted provided probable cause for a warrantless search of a motorist’s car without a warrant, the motorist was completely innocent.
What’s that, Lassie? It gets worse?
Include the “residue” stops, which didn’t produce a large enough quantity of illicit drugs to be measured, and the dog’s error rate climbs to 74 percent. And these are all cases in which the dog’s handler presumably was suspicious enough to conduct a sniff search in the first place.
Bad girl!

Before you smack Lassie on the snout with a rolled-up newspaper, consider the tactics employed by officer Michael Reichert of the Collinsville (Illinois) Police Department, and his canine sidekick. Radley Balko has the story here, but you really should watch the nifty little video by Terrance Huff that accompanies the story. It gives you the full gamey flavor of what happens when questionable legal doctrine combines with questionable use of scent dogs and questionable policing in a chickenshit town like Collinsville, Illinois.

[Via Instapundit.]

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Worst Smelling Person in the World?

Not sure how much to credit this story, but . . . eight different car services in less than a year?

That’s diva territory.

[Via Drudge.]

The Smelly Web: Zombies Walk Among Us

In creating the Smelly Web Indexes, my idea was to track the traffic rankings of fragrance blogs using objective data. The very idea irritated some people, because it violated the basic ethos of perfume blogging. You know, the “everybody’s opinion is equally valuable,” “say only nice things,” “you go girl” school of universal warmth and empathy.

To which I say, back off man, I’m a scientist. I don’t do unconditional positive regard.

I want to learn what works and what doesn’t work in attracting and holding a web audience. Here’s what I said at the beginning:
The sheer number of these new [blog] voices is staggering. So is their stylistic diversity—ranging from well-informed and well-written to the olfactory equivalent of cat-blogging by shut-ins. The fragrance blogosphere is still in its formative years and a Darwinian competition for page views is underway that will determine which voices readers are paying attention to and which ones they are ignoring.
The Darwinian nature of the smelly blogosphere soon became evident. Like the Dow Jones Industrial Average, the Smelly Web Indexes are updated now and then. For example, GlassPetalSmoke was dropped when it wandered from perfume into cooking and recipes. Les Tuileries stopped blogging regularly in August 2009, became invisible on Alexa, and was dropped from the Solo Blog Index in February, 2010. In December, 2010 Vetivresse and BitterGraceNotes were dropped; the former had ceased posting, the later had lost it focus on fragrance. They were replaced with BonkersAboutPerfume and FragranceBouquet.

Although my last update on the Smelly Web Indexes was posted nine months ago, the data monkeys in FN’s subterranean computing center continue to collect information. (They have to or they don’t get fed.) Last month’s kerfuffle at Olfactarama about “are there too many perfume blogs?” inspired me to look at the stats again.

I was shocked to find that Divina at Fragrancebouquet stopped posting on Sept. 24, 2010. I didn’t see it in the numbers because, remarkably, her Alexa rank since then has been between 1.3 and 3.7 million [Better than yours!—Ed.], falling below 4 million only in the past two weeks.

Similarly, Dimitri over at SorceryOfScent called it quits on Nov 27, 2011, while ranked at 2.6 million. This morning the site is down just a bit at 2.8 million. [Way better than yours!—Ed.] Dimitri’s zombie blog gets more traffic than PinkManhattan and IndiePerfumes, whose proprietors are still living, breathing, and hitting the keyboards regularly.

What gives? How can a zombie blog stay afloat so long with no posting? When I take a few days off, FirstNerve’s ratings plunge. Over at PerfumeDaRosaNegra, which posted nothing from mid-Oct to mid-Dec 2011, the site rapidly slid off the Alexa charts and is still unrated, despite a recent burst of posting. Don’t they have zombies in Brazil?

Or look at TheDrydown, which in December 2011 has a script glitch that caused its page loading to choke. The site’s Alexa raking dropped from ~6 million to ~17 million by the time the code was fixed two months later. Its rankings have since recovered.

I don’t get it. Some of us turn away from the laptop for a moment and traffic plummets. Others unplug for good but still get hordes of visitors. WTF.

It’s time to roll up my sleeves and reconfigure the Smelly Web Indexes. Time to flush the unrated blogs. Time to kill the zombies. Even though I envy them in a sick way.