Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Smelly Eliot

I’ve never been a fan of T.S. Eliot. The other day, however, I was reading “Effects of Analogy,” an essay by my favorite poet, Wallace Stevens. In it, he quotes from Eliot’s Rhapsody on a Windy Night. It’s passage full of striking, if desiccated, olfactory imagery.

“. . . A washed-out smallpox cracks her face,
Her hand twists a paper rose,
That smells of dust and eau de Cologne,
She is alone
With all the old nocturnal smells
That cross and cross across her brain.”
The reminiscence comes
Of sunless dry geraniums
And dust in crevices,
Smells of chestnuts in the streets,
And female smells in shuttered rooms,
And cigarettes in corridors
And cocktail smells in bars.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Obama’s Brain Activity Map: Making the Connections

In his SOTU speech, President Obama issued a vague call for more investment (i.e., spending of taxpayer dollars) in “mapping the human brain.” Five days later, the New York Times supplied more details: the project, a comprehensive map of human brain activity, will be on the scale of the Human Genome Project which cost $3.8 billion dollars over thirteen years.

(The undertaking is already being referred to as “Obama’s Brain Project.” Funny isn’t it that we never talk about “George H.W. Bush’s Human Genome Project”?)

Science bloggers have been buzzing and tweeting about this for days. Some question the rationale: is the science ripe enough? are the objectives clear? Others question the priorities: should we place a massive bet on brain mapping when only a tiny fraction of individual neuroscience grant proposals are being funded by NIH?

Perhaps they all miss the point.

It took years of support from DOE and several major scientific confabs before the Human Genome Project was launched in 1990. In contrast, the idea of a brain activity map was first raised last June in a paper in Neuron and now it’s national priority. Extraordinary! Until you think about how things work in the Age of Obama. It’s all about who has the most juice.


Top contributors to Obama’s 2012 presidential campaign (source: Center for Responsive Politics):

Affiliations of the six authors of the Neuron paper:
University of California (Lawrence Berkeley National Lab):
University of California (UCSD)
University of California (Kavli Institute, UCSD)
Harvard Medical School
Columbia University
Cal Tech

And from the NYT:
A meeting held on Jan. 17 at the California Institute of Technology was attended by the three government agencies, as well as neuroscientists, nanoscientists and representatives from Google, Microsoft and Qualcomm. According to a summary of the meeting, it was held to determine whether computing facilities existed to capture and analyze the vast amounts of data that would come from the project.
So there you go! Obama’s Brain Activity Mapping Project is on a fast track—no peer review, only a single planning meeting held a month before the announcement—and key players include five of his eight biggest campaign donors. This is a top-down, big government initiative of the sort we have become very familiar with in the Age of Obama.

Exit question: Will Brain Activity Mapping be to Big Neuroscience what Solyndra was to Green Energy?

Friday, February 22, 2013

One Hundred Years of the Soggy Madeleine

V.L. Hendrickson in the WSJ reminds us that it was 100 years ago this month that Proust published the first volume of In Search of Lost Time.

If you start reading it now, you might finish all seven volumes by the time the sesquicentennial rolls around.

Timely reminder from the FN Reader Services Dept.: Proust was not a neuroscientist nor was he the first (by a long shot) to link smell and memory, despite what acknowledged plagiarist and disgraced “journalist” Jonah Lehrer maintained.

I see that the Knight Foundation just paid Lehrer $20,000 to give a talk on plagiarism to their media/journalism conference. Shameful behavior on their part. If they were intent on giving him a platform for a mea culpa come-back speech, airfare and a hotel room would have been a better match for his sackcloth and ashes.

I smell a new book from Lehrer. Something in the neuroscience cum confessional memoir genre, like “My Brain Made Me Do It: A Writers Quest to Conquer His Compulsions.”

Hot tip from the FN Self-Promotion Dept.: I will happily deliver a fascinating, well-researched speech on the American, English, and French sources that Proust drew on for the madeleine episode. And I’ll do it for a fraction of what the Knight Foundation paid Lehrer.

Call me.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Social Media as Performance Art

Erving Goffman is rightly famous for his analysis of social behavior as a species of performance. I wonder what he would have thought of today’s online social media, where the “self” being presented exists only in cyberspace.

I guess it’s not too surprising that “real” fictional characters like Austin Powers and Norman Bates have favorited and replied to tweets of mine. Who knows whether it’s a fanboy or a commercial enterprise behind the effort.

Today, however, things got weird:

What the hell? I’m getting yelled at because I tweeted a news story?

Not exactly. @SmellyOldGuy (tagline “Hey! Get out of my hair”) is a cranky cyber-persona created for the sole purpose of yelling at people who tweet about smelly old guys.

He may not be real, but I already kind of like him.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Simone and I Discuss the Smelly Blogosphere

Simone aka +Q Perfume

I recently posted Google Trends data showing that the volume of online searches for “perfume review” has surpassed that for “wine review.” This led Simone Shitrit (aka + Q Perfume blog from Brazil) to observe that fewer people are commenting on fragrance blogs. She thinks it may simply be there are too many blogs to keep up with. I speculated that more readers are using perfume blogs for pre-shopping opinions.

Commenting on a different post, Simone chided me for not paying attention to her Facebook page. In turn, I offered Gilbert’s Social Media Conjecture:
FB is feminine, Twitter is masculine. FB is about hugs, positivity, sharing feelings, and hot tea with lemon. Twitter is about cramming a quick 144 characters into a tweet, firing it off and moving along. FB is a support group; Twitter is the spittoon of the Internet.
Today, Simone posted another comment/mini-essay which deserves more attention. So I’ve reprinted it below along with my responses.

SIMONE: Ok, I will answer to those question according to my very own experience:

When I did not have my own blog, I used to make a round in the most popular ones, read the articles and leave comments - engage into some of the discussions there, ask questions, etc etc. When I started my own blog I still used the others as reference in the beginning, but stopped to comment. Today I have very little time to read these blogs - I do maybe once a month, or once every 2 months. Some of them I just don’t read anymore. I have no time for them.

ME: I also have less and less time to make the rounds of other blogs. If I had any icky emotions this would make me feel bad.

SIMONE: About facebook - To me it became a micro blog. I noticed that the day I began to link my articles to my facebook page, many of the people who used to comment in my blog just started to comment there, because it is easier and faster. Some just became lazy and just fire a thumb up (like it) and that is all.

So I got more public - a LOT more, but less comments - so I have no idea if this was a good idea in the first place.

ME: It wouldn’t surprise me that people treat posted material differently depending on where it appears. But since I won’t touch FB with a ten-foot pole (all those icky emotions) I’ll take your word for it.

Perhaps this trade-off is inevitable: a bigger stage means a less intimate audience. It’s no longer a conversation—you are speaking to the blackness beyond the floodlights. It reminds me of doing live TV interviews. You talk to millions of people by addressing a red light above a camera lens.

SIMONE: I do think that perfume blogs have different objectives - therefore different publics. The ones who became “elle, vogue, marie claire” kind of blogs, with posts of new launches and reviews and top 10 lists for every special date or season - like all women’s magazines - are the favorite of perfume shoppers. The are very popular, sponsored and I am not sure if the opinions are 100% honest and not bought by the ones sponsoring them. You know, if you criticize you don't get the samples or the perfume bottles to review next time... Brands don’t like to pay/invest to get bad reviews. So they are good for shoppers as long as they sample before buying.

ME: I deliberately do not review perfumes here at FN. Why not? Because my consulting business is based on being a trusted neutral party, and because I am more interested in the science and culture of smell than the perfume of the moment. I do cover the business side of the fragrance industry, but that doesn’t make me a perfume blogger.

SIMONE: The ones that are discussing more than just reviews are the favorite of people who study chemistry, are in the industry, or see perfumes in a different angle rather than a good purchase.

ME: Exactly. So here is the paradox: broader content results in a smaller audience.

SIMONE: Some blogs became perfume magazines - so people are also liking this format better.

Too many blogs certainly decrease one blog’s public, but increase in the general graph of perfume interest.

Also quality x quantity is an issue - because now a days everyone calls himself a perfume critic. I have also seen new blogs translating from other blogs and adding a shop cart... that is the risk we are taking...to get our content stolen...

ME: There are certainly more voices and more noise. But the established blogs (like Scented Salamander, Bois de Jasmin, Perfume Shrine, 1000 Fragrances) remain high in the traffic statistics.

SIMONE: In general, I think people today are migrating to perfume groups in facebook, and leaving the blogs just as reference to purchase, which to me it is a pity indeed. I would get very bored just to review fragrances for shoppers. I need to write about fragrances in general - trends, advertising, a bit of chemistry, a bit of perfume bottle design, the sense of smell, and reviews...

ME: Me too! Variety is the spice of life. For a long time I tried to get smell scientists to do interviews for publication on FN. I figured it would be a way for them to tell the public about their work—a better way than university press releases and tiny quotes in magazines. Instead, I encountered extreme resistance—very few scientists are willing to discuss their research online. (I offer unedited, full posts of their email responses.) I’m disappointed and still don’t understand this.

SIMONE: I also notice that perfume blogging became a huge competition of egos - who gets more launches, who gets to go to the big events, who gets to have others writing in the blog for free (get a team of writers), who gets more sponsorships etc etc... since I am in the other side of the Equator, I live all that far from me. I am not competing with anyone. I find that ridiculous. But it does exist!

But this is IMO!

ME: Maybe I’ve been in the business too long, but gift bags are no longer a motivator—they are a pain in the ass. A dram sample to smell later is quite enough, thank you.

SIMONE: How to quantify? Well, you are the professor of database here, not me...I am the caipirinha and barbecue expert dear...we can have drinks and eat a good steak that I will prepare, while you do the math!

ME: That’s what I’m talking about. I’ll bring fresh data, you do the food. We’ll have a data party.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Clinical Medicine Goes to the Dogs: Poop of Principle

Cliff, the Clostridium Sniffing Beagle

In WTNK, I was skeptical that trained dogs would be of much practical use in sniffing out disease. Since then, a steady trickle of studies has claimed that dogs can smell cancer of the lung, colon, ovary and prostate. This doesn’t strike me as far fetched. However, the elaborate training and housing of cancer dogs along with laborious preparation of test samples make it an expensive and cumbersome proposition. A recent review of the scientific literature found additional reasons why cancer dogs might not yet be ready for grand rounds.

Now, using a male beagle named Cliff, a Dutch research team has staked out new territory in canine diagnostics. They trained Cliff to recognize the smell of Clostridium difficile, a nasty intestinal bacterium that can cause life-threatening diarrhea, especially in hospital settings.

Cliff’s training took a relatively quick two months, after which he displayed near perfect performance judging a series of positive and negative stool samples. (Cliff responds to the C. difficile scent by sitting or lying down.) For the crucial clinical tests he was walked on a leash past an actual patient in a hospital bed—no stool sample, no prep, no contact, just an open-air sniff.

Cliff alerted to 25 out of 30 C. difficile patients, and correctly rejected 265 out of 270 control cases. That’s some pretty good sniffing. There are, however, some caveats. His trainer did not know the patients’ status but he knew there would be only one positive case out of the ten presented that day, i.e., enough information to possibly communicate an unconscious bias to Cliff. The authors also note Cliff had a harder time making the right call when they had him sniff residents in a nursing home lounge, i.e., away from their (smelly?) beds.

I’m willing to give Cliff the benefit of the doubt. But that still leaves me with a question I’ve asked before: why not run a straight-up sniff test with human odor judges? After all, C. difficile is said to smell like horse manure and it should not be difficult for most people to detect.

In fact, a 2002 study examined the various clinical features nurses use to recognize C. difficile infections in their patients. Along with fever and recent use of antibiotics, “characteristic odor” was a statistically significant predictor of the infection. In a 2007 study, nurses without any odor-training recognized the odor of C. difficile in 55% of cases, and correctly ruled it out in 83% of controls.

This suggests to me that with a few training sessions any nurse or doctor should be able to make a highly reliable olfactory diagnosis of C. difficile infection. They could begin treatment before the confirming lab results—a real benefit for the patient.

I’m all for bringing smell back to the practice of medicine. Let’s start with our own noses.

The study discussed here is “Using a dog’s superior olfactory sensitivity to identify Clostridium difficile in stools and patients: proof of principle study,” by Marije K. Bomers, Michiel A. van Agtmael, Hotsche Luik, Merk C. van Veen, Vandenbroucke-Christina M.J.E. Vandenbroucke-Grauls, and Yvo M. Smulders, published in BMJ 345:7396, 2012.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

ISDP: D'oh!

I was tweeting like a madman yesterday and the fact that it was the 13th of the month completely escaped me. But it doesn’t matter. I got nothin’, peeps. Nada. Apparently no one’s malodorous remains were discovered by apartment managers, police officers, or nosey neighbors. See ya next month.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Annals of Anosmia 7: Cameo Appearances

In today’s Wall Street Journal, Ellen Byron covers a lot of familiar factoid territory on the sense of smell, some of it dubious, e.g., the previously debunked coffee bean meme. She quotes a couple of my scientific colleagues, Alan Hirsch and Richard Doty, and my former perfumery colleague Ron Winnegrad. She also briefly cites the cases of two anosmics. Not much new here but there’s lots of pictures.

Visions Did Appear

The Winsome Katie Puckrik™ videoblogs a promotional fragrance from Pizza Hut. And I watched it from start to finish. Yes, she’s that good.

When is she going to get her own TV show?

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Perfume by the Numbers: Growing Influence of Fragrance Bloggers

Here at FirstNerve we love data. In the past, we’ve data-mined Google Trends to explore various aspects of perfume. When she signed a new multi-year fragrance deal in 2010, we asked “Is Paris Hilton played out?” The answer, based on the volume of web searches for “Paris Hilton + perfume,” was yes.

Google web search data also revealed precise seasonal peaks in perfume interest. There is a huge spike just before Christmas, followed by a tiny but reliable peak before Valentine’s Day. And there is another peak for Mother’s Day, the exact date of which varies from country to country.

We’ve mused before about the health of the smelly blogosphere and it occurred to us that it was time to take another look at the numbers. So we fired up Google Trends and looked at search volume for “perfume.” Here are the U.S. data from 2004 to present:

The nine big spikes correspond to Christmas-time searches from 2004 through 2012. There are two little blips after each Christmas spike: the first is Valentine’s Day and the second is Mother’s Day. After recession-related decreases in 2009 and 2010, Christmas-time volume picked up noticeably in the past two years.

How does interest in perfume contrast with other luxury good searches? The chart below adds “wine” and “jewelry” to the mix. Wine has the biggest volume and also shows the post-recession dip and recent recovery at Christmas-time. There is a similar pattern for jewelry. (Note the pronounced Valentine’s Day peak.)

Now let’s turn to the blogosphere. This chart shows search volume for “perfume review,” a concept of recent vintage.

The big peaks once again correspond to high Christmas-time search volume. “Perfume review” search volume began rising dramatically in 2009 and shows no sign of slowing down. With rising search volume, Valentine’s and Mother’s Day blips are now clearly visible.

What does this mean? It means that more and more people are turning to online fragrance reviews as they do their seasonal perfume shopping. That’s testimony to the growing influence of fragrance bloggers.

UPDATE February 12, 2013

Commenter Persolaise asks for more data. (Our kind of nerd!) We’re happy to oblige. Here’s how “perfume review” stacks up against “wine review” and “jewelry review”.


Perfume review searches on Google have been climbing steadily and in 2012 caught up and passed wine review searches. Take that, wine snobs!

Mea Culpa, Tweeps

Yes, it’s been a slow blogging week. I’ve been busy with clients—you know, earning a living.

But I tweet frequently, so watch the Twitter box in the right panel or get yourself a damned account already and follow me.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Scent and Mirrors: A Shakespearean Maze

It’s a “mirror maze” in which you follow an aphrodisiac scent to the goal. Can this really work? I don’t know, but I wish I could try. It sounds cool. Designed by Bompas & Parr and on display at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon.

On a somewhat related note, I’ve been watching Slings & Arrows on the Roku box—smart and funny. Recommended by my pal Stuart Firestein who knows a thing or two about theater. (Before becoming an Ivy League professor of molecular biology he stage managed a production of Let My People Come . . .)