Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Smell of Money

The U.S. dollar was once the soundest currency in the world despite (or, as I believe, because of) all denominations of its paper bills being the same size and color. In contrast, European currencies, before and after the Euro, came in an array of goofy colors and cartoonish designs. Beginning in the Clinton administration, U.S. bills gradually adopted washed out colors, transparent images, and all sorts of embedded strips, watermarks, sparkles and zany design elements. Is it any wonder the dollar has lost its undisputed claim as the world’s reserve currency?

A still unique, if less remarked upon, aspect of American paper money is its smell. It has a characteristically starchy scent, possibly due to the high cloth fiber content of the paper it is printed on. You won’t find a similar smell on Euro notes or British pound notes. And you sure as hell won’t find it on Canada’s new-fangled polymer bills, delusions of maple syrup smell notwithstanding.

Thus I was struck by a news report of counterfeit twenty-dollar bills being passed in Sonora, California, a town up in the Sierra Nevada foothills of Tuolumne County. The bills were spotted because they lacked watermarks and embedded security strips and all had an identical serial number. But they had another feature I’d never heard of:
“Some type of scent had been applied to the fake bills in an attempt to make them smell like real money,” police said in a news release.
A interesting touch. I wonder how realistic the scent was. Who created it? It would make for a good episode of Sherlock.

Annals of Anosmia 8: Mixed Signals from the BBC

In what’s becoming a journalistic Rite of Spring, BBC News health reporter Philippa Roxby cobbles together a story on anosmia. In “Learning to live without a sense of smell” she relates the story of Duncan Boake whose inability to smell is the result of a head injury suffered some years ago. Mr. Boake, very admirably, has set up the UK’s first charity to address issues faced by people with smell and taste disorders.

Roxby combines his story with that of a young girl born without a sense of smell. Congenital anosmia, besides having nothing to do scientifically with Mr. Boake’s condition, rather undercuts the “learning to live without” theme of the article. How can one miss what one has never experienced in the first place?

The BBC’s urban-elite bias is amusingly evident in the story: the young girl “never reacted or commented on bad smells, despite living in the country.” Oh, yes—those horrid farm smells! How far can a BBC reporter stray from England’s great tradition of sweet-smelling pastoral poetry? This far, apparently:
Hills, vales, woods, netted in a silver mist,
Farm, granges, doubled up among the hills,
And cattle grazing in the watered vales,
And cottage-chimneys smoking from the woods,
And cottage-gardens smelling everywhere,
Confused with smell of orchards.
—Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Trillions and Trillions

The ubiquitous and unanchored claim that humans can discriminate 10,000 different odors always bothered me. It bothered me so much that I spent days in the archives tracking down its source. The story of my quest, and the exposure of “10,000 odors” as a canard dating back to 1927, serve as the opening to What the Nose Knows.

My pals and scientific colleagues Andreas Keller and Leslie Vosshall were not satisfied with a dead duck: they wanted to find the real number. And so, along with Caroline Bushdid and Marcelo O. Magnasco, they came up with a novel way to quantify the discriminatory power of the human nose. The resulting experiment, published Thursday in Science, has received a lot of (well-deserved) attention. They estimate that there are at least 1.72 x 1012 discriminable smells.

That’s eight orders of magnitude bigger than the number proposed eighty-seven years ago by Ernest C. Crocker and Lloyd F. Henderson. To be fair, Crocker and Henderson were chemists trying to create a numerical classification of odors—a cool idea in itself. Estimating the number of discriminable odors wasn’t their main goal but such a number was necessarily implied by the limits of their rather arbitrary classification scheme.

The new number was arrived at by adopting the formula used to pack multidimensional spheres into an N-dimensional space. Check it out in the supplemental online material to Bushdid, et al. It’ll blow your mind.

The study discussed here is “Humans can discriminate more than 1 trillion olfactory stimuli,” by Caroline Bushdid, Marcelo O. Magnasco, Leslie B. Vosshall & Andreas Keller, published in Science 343:1370-1372, 2014.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

ISDP: Tweets from Beyond

Here in our gloomy garret atop FirstNerve Manor we are thankful for technology: for the electric space heater, the mercury-filled environmental light bulb, and the electronic whisper of our neighbor’s WiFi. With the latter we roam the world as a spectral presence, collecting the sad, often bizarre, incidents that fill our monthly offering of I Smell Dead People. Other people, we are told, use consumer electronics to stay in constant touch with their friends via something called Social Media. (Not us. Our friends prefer to leave messages wrapped in dry leaves tied with twine to the broken fence post.)

If it is true that the younger set maintain nonstop contact with acquaintances all over the globe, then we are unable to explain how a junior at the University of Chicago became the subject of this headline:
Foul smell leads to discovery of body in dorm room
How is that possible in the age of Facebook and Twitter?
No one noticed that 20-year-old Nicholas Barnes hadn’t been out of his room or at class for quite a while. But when others in his dorm began to smell something foul they alerted school officials who found Barnes face down on the floor of his room.
“Quite a while,” it turns out, was something on the order of eight days.

There’s been a lot of buzz recently about scent attachments for the iPhone. We think there’s a need for an I Smell Dead People app that emits a foul odor whenever one of your tweeps hasn’t tweeted you in . . . quite a while.

The only other item to report on this freezing March evening comes from Decatur, Alabama. It is a rather singular instance: it does not qualify as ISDP (since odor was not a factor in the discovery of the deceased) and yet it does qualify for the Norman Bates Award™.
Police: 78-Year-Old Woman Found Living At Home With Dead Husband For A Month
The body of Jesse Kirby, 76, was discovered Friday afternoon in his bed when police went to the home to check on the couple, said Morgan County Coroner Jeff Chunn. Living inside the house was his wife, Doris Kirby, 78, who was hospitalized after the discovery.
It appears that Mr. Kirby died of natural causes, while his wife suffers from Alzheimer’s disease. Which, we note, is often associated with an impaired sense of smell.

See you next month. Don’t forget.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Moral Anosmia: San Francisco Edition

Recent notable incidents include a man urinating on books and another breaking a computer with a hammer.
And where might these incidents have occurred?

(A) In a state mental hospital? No—those no longer exist in our more enlightened society.

(B) In a piece of NEA-funded performance art? No—but an excellent guess.

(C) In the main branch of the San Francisco Public Library? Why, yes!

That the SF Library has become a place where people bathe in the restroom sinks, deal drugs and commit indecent exposure is not remarkable; what is remarkable is that Mayor Ed Lee has prodded the Library Commission to take action against such unpleasant and uncivil behavior. Action, that is, beyond mere verbal warning.

Among the behaviors already prohibited are bringing shopping carts into the library, sleeping on the furniture, and giving off a “strong, pervasive odor.” That last item has drawn fire from one Jennifer Friedenbach, director of the Coalition on Homelessness.
“You’d have to ask the library how that would work,” she said. “Is there a senior sniffer, a supervisory sniffer, and are they the ultimate judge of what is a bad body odor? I know what I smell like when I don’t put deodorant on, and it’s not pretty.”
Ms. Friedenbach’s response is revealing on several levels. There is brazen denial; the hear-no-evil, see-no-evil, smell-no-evil attitude toward BO powerful enough to clear a reading room. There is the false equivalency—the idea that a week’s worth of non-bathing and unlaundered clothes is the same thing as forgetting to put on some deodorant in the rush to get to work. There is rejection of authority: who are you to judge me or anyone else? There is the roadblock masquerading as concern for due process: she jests about supervisory sniffers, but the inevitable lawsuit against the city on behalf of the homeless will no doubt include a demand for formal appeal from unfavorable BO judgments.

In San Francisco, people can detect in their organic yogurt the residue of an altered gene in corn fed to the cow. They can get a headache from a perfumed lady in the concert hall. But somehow they cannot detect body odor strong enough to be a public nuisance. This seems to be willful blindness in the service of ideology. Perhaps we should call it moral anosmia.