Thursday, October 26, 2017

The Norman Bates Profile: A Halloween Meta-Analysis

In the deepening gloom of the post-equinoctial season, we are cheered to find the spirit of I Smell Dead People taking hold of a new generation of decay-obsessed social media types. There is, for example, the elegantly produced Death/Scent blog (“Exploring the weird & wonderful world of fragrance & funerals”) and its associated twitter account @DeathandScent.

Here at FirstNerve Manor, we admit to being sadly negligent in the I Smell Dead People department. It takes quite an effort to track down and validate (according to our strict rules) every incident of a deceased person being discovered through the scent of corporeal decay. FirstNerve simply doesn’t have the resources to pay all the little Festers who serve as our ISDP scribes and scorekeepers. We tried to code a proprietary algorithm to handle the task, but it kept choking on news items about blooming Corpse Flowers.

Nevertheless, we still monitor the police blotters and were inspired to tweet a couple of potential 2017 Norman Bates Award™ nominees this month. [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.—Ed.] One nominee was a guy in Georgia who lived with the body of his deceased aunt; the other was a Minnesotan who cohabited with the bodies of his mother and twin brother.

Both cases were somewhat anomalous. We don’t recall a nominee’s aunt figuring in any previous incident, but we’ve seen twins before. Brothers Edwin Larry Berndt and Edward Christian Berndt, of Houston, Texas, won the 2011 Norman Bates Award for living three months with the corpse of their 89-year-old mother.

This got us thinking about family relationships. The “actual” Norman Bates lived with the remains of his mother, and our impression has been that mothers are over-represented as co-habitees. But is this true? We decided to gather some data and analyze it.

Our source was the Norman Bates Award™ archives. The prize was given for six years running (2010 to 2015); our total database consists of 45 nominees and 47 bodies. Here’s how it breaks down:

Number of nominees who lived with body of
mother 14
father 4
husband 4
wife 1
brother 3
sister 1
son 2
daughter 2
uncle 1
girlfriend 3
boyfriend 2
roommate/housemate 5
landlord 1
unknown 4
So there you have it: the Norman Bates profile is real. An NBA nominee is far more likely to live with the remains of his mother than any other category of deceased person. (It’s not all guys btw—the list includes a few Norma Bates’s.)

More generally, parents (18) outnumber spouses (5), siblings (4), children (4) and BF/GFs (5).

In 9 cases (20% of the total) the deceased was murdered by the NBA nominee. This was true for 2 of 14 mothers, 1 of 4 fathers, 1 of 2 daughters, 1 of 2 BFs, 2 of 3 GFs, 1 of 5 roommates/housemates, and the landlord.

What drives people to cohabit with the deceased? Our guess is mental incompetence and/or panic, with anosmia as a possible contributing factor. But there is often a venal motivation for concealing the death—in 6 cases the NBA nominee cashed the dead person’s Social Security or pension checks, or otherwise made use of their bank account.

That’s it for now. We have to go to Big Bob’s Work Wear and buy bib overalls for our Chucky costume. See ya next time!

Monday, October 23, 2017

Spinning One's Wheels

Given my recent work on cannabis aroma for Headspace Sensory, LLC, I’ve been thinking a lot about sensory description. A short post at the Scent Culture Institute on “smell wheels” caught my eye. In it, Claus Noppeny (and/or one or more of his sidekicks at the SCI) looks at visual representations of smell, such as Michael Edwards’ Fragrance Wheel and Mandy Aftel’s Natural Perfume Wheel. (Both of these, I should note, were preceded by Ann Noble’s 1987 Wine Aroma Wheel, which really launched the modern enthusiasm for wheels.)

SCI asserts that the wheel format for displaying fragrance families (or aromatic notes in wine) has limitations, the primary one being that the circle implies completeness while allowing for no further additions (e.g., new fragrance notes). SCI immediately undercuts its latter charge by noting that Mandy is currently revising her wheel. However, the observation that wheels project an all-you-need-to-know—nothing else matters!—completeness is, I think, correct. Self-enclosed circles are a poor way to encourage new ways of thinking and perceiving.

But epistemological isolation is the least of the aroma wheel’s problems. For me, more serious problems arise from the format’s practical implications. Let’s consider three such problems.

Problem 1: Size of Slice

In a typical wheel layout, one moves radially outward from categories (“fruity”) through subcategories (“citrus”) to specifics (“grapefruit”). This creates a pizza-slice shape for each category. Some slices are a lot wider than others. Why? Because they have a lot of specifics (the Wine Aroma Wheel “fruity” category has 19), while others have a few (“woody” has just 7). Assigning a large fraction of the wheel to “fruity” implies that it is a dominant odor category, and that “woody” is relatively subordinate.

But from a sensory evaluation perspective, this is not necessarily true: a given wine may display several fruity notes, but it’s extremely unlikely that any wine will display all 19 fruity notes. Furthermore, even when several fruity notes are present, it doesn’t mean that they dominant that wine’s aroma. A Chardonnay’s fruit notes may be overpowered by oakiness.

Problem 2: Arrangement of Slices

My impression is that categories on most, if not all, aroma wheels are arranged based on intuition. That is to say, their ordering around the wheel is not based on data regarding relative similarity. More likely, it is based on the subjective impression that floral and fruity are more closely related smellwise than floral and woody.

Problem 3: Making Ends Meet

Even if there are data confirming the similarity sequence floral : fruity : woody, what justifies us linking floral to woody in order to make a circle? Would it not be more honest to portray the relationship as a linear smell spectrum? Or maybe a triangle? (But it wouldn’t look as cool.—Ed.)

These intellectual objections cannot offset the appealing simplicity and visual allure of the wheel format. But in an age of innovative data visualization, there are surely better ways to display sensory descriptors and their interrelationships.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

The Undead: A Disinterred Collection of Smelly Ghost Posts

The leaves are falling, the temperature is dropping, and the days grow shorter. Piles of bagged candy bars clog the supermarket aisles. Halloween in nearly upon us.

Some years ago I dug up as many ghostly or paranormal smell stories as I could find. There was an underwhelming Victorian novel by Wilkie Collins, and a sad, graceful tale in the form of a poem by the American writer Bret Harte. (Of special interest to South Park fans, the latter post includes some background on the Comte de Rochambeau.)

The Uninvited, a novel set in 1930s England, featured supernatural disturbances, including the scent of Parfum Mimosa. The book was later made into a movie starring Ray Milland in which the song Stella by Starlight—now a jazz standard—made its first appearance.

Finally, I took a look at the spirit smells reported by the Irish poet W.B. Yeats during a preoccupation with the occult.

Some links to check out late at night over a glass of port while the wind rattles the windows.