Thursday, August 16, 2018

Hard Copies & Web Metrics

Our cannabis aroma paper in PLoS ONE has now been viewed over 4,000 times and downloaded more than 600 times since February. It’s gratifying to see so many people interested in a new research theme. And yet, because web-based metrics are automated, impersonal counters, I don’t have a clue who these people are. It hasn’t always been this way.

When I was in graduate school in the pre-internet age, the super-efficient way to scan the new scientific literature was to grab a physical copy of Current Contents, the weekly publication of the Institute for Scientific Information (ISI). It was a thick little booklet, printed on thin, bright white paper. At least it was bright white when it arrived in the mail and when your lab head got to leaf through it. By the time it reached the grad students’ offices, it was tattered, marked up, and usually stained with coffee, cheesesteak drippings, and rat urine.

Current Contents listed the contents of the life sciences journals published that week, along with author names and addresses. This enabled you to request a physical reprint of the paper by mailing a letter or postcard. Better funded departments had pre-printed postcards for this purpose. Really well-funded labs signed up for ISI’s pre-printed Request-A-Print® cards—they came with a peel-off return address sticker for the reprint sender’s convenience. But you still had to fill in by hand the citation and the author’s address.

Although it beat going to the library and physically browsing recent, unbound issues of your favorite journals, this process was labor intensive. As a result, it made you think twice about the article in question: was it truly worth the effort of requesting your own personal copy? How many of us today download papers on a whim, only to have them stack up, unread, in our “worth a look” folder?

On the flip side, receiving reprint requests in the mail was a rewarding experience, especially for a graduate student or newly minted faculty member. It meant someone had found your work sufficiently interesting to fill out the postcard. And you knew who they were! A reprint request from a Big Name in the Field was acknowledgment that you had arrived.

Reprint requests also brought a sense of connectedness with scientists around the world. The mail would bring postcards with bright stamps and formal, cursive handwriting. The ones from communist block countries like East Germany, Poland, and Czechoslovakia were sad: printed on pulpy, low quality paper that oxidized in the sunlight and had a bitter smell. I always enjoyed fulfilling these requests—it meant acknowledging these scientists, keeping them connected to the free world, and encouraging freedom of inquiry.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Cannabis in the U.S. Patent Office

Given my current interest in the olfactory properties of cannabis, I monitor the relevant scientific literature and every so often scan the U.S. patent application database. There are a ton of weed-related patents being filed. Some of the inventions are for practical devices, like this one for “Apparatus and related methods for trimming dried Cannabis flowers,” filed by Cullen Raichart of San Diego, California. Mr. Raichart aims to be the Eli Whitney of cannabis. The brief abstract and an illustration are all you need to understand his machine and what it does.

Then there’s “Apparatus and methods for biosynthetic production of cannabinoids,” by Robert Winnicki, et al. This group of inventors is looking beyond the agricultural horizon and proposing to create THC and related cannabinoids in a bioreactor. Neato!

As I browsed along, I found another application that sounded promising: “Method of producing cannabidiol derived products.” When I read the abstract I did a spit-take.
Methods are provided for producing cannabidiol (CBD)-based products in accordance with cycles of the moon and a plurality of biodynamic rituals. In some embodiments, the phase of the moon may be correlated with positions of the moon among the twelve zodiac signs, and the positions used to guide in the cultivation and harvest of cannabis plants. In some embodiments, the phase of the moon and the corresponding astrological phase that the moon is moving through may be used to determine when to plant seeds, when/how to water and fertilize, when to take cuttings, and the right time to harvest mature cannabis plants to produce optimal CBD-derived products. It is contemplated that farming cannabis with consideration of moon cycles may result in healthier plants, increased yields and superior products.
Yes, you read that correctly! Inventor Christine Meeusen of Merced, California, seeks to patent a method of using lunar cycle phase and the moon’s zodiacal position to optimize timing of seed planting, watering, and harvesting of Cannabis.

If the abstract sounds nutty, the body of Ms. Meeusen’s application (which cites no other patents or prior art) is even nuttier. Here’s item 37 from the Detailed Description section:
In one embodiment, the CBD derived products are only manufactured from the new moon to the full moon. On the first day of the cycle, a biodynamic ritual may be held under the stars so as to bless a work environment, such as a table. The ritual may include appreciation with respect to a Creator God and Mother Goddess. Depending on the product, a bundle of sage may be lit, and swept over any plurality of bottles and ingredients that include a high-proof alcohol to dissolve the bud. A plurality of incantations may also be communicated. In one embodiment, the producers may utilize a bundle of sage so as to cleanse one another prior to production. In one embodiment, appropriate dosages of marijuana may be scooped into preparation jars.
Ooooookay, then. Meanwhile, the flowchart in Fig. 1 looks like a game plan drawn up by the Underpants Gnomes:

Fig. 3 achieves peak nuttiness:

So who is Ms. Meeusen? A quick google search reveals that she is also known as Sister Kate the “weed nun.” Like other members of her “order,” she dresses in full habit, coif and wimple while running a sizable marijuana grow in Merced. According to Reuters, she first took up the nun persona in 2011 as part of her involvement in Occupy Wall Street. [This is my shocked face.—Ed.]

Is this a practical joke? Unlikely, given the expense of filing a patent. Is it performance art? Maybe. In any case, pity the poor patent examiner.

The U.S. patent applications discussed here are 20180126578 (Raichart), 20180179564 (Winnicki et al.) and 20180169162 (Meeusen).

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Greener Grass Podcast: Where I Talk About the Smell of Cannabis

 A couple of weeks ago Lex Pelger, host of the Greener Grass podcast, dropped by my sensory lab in Fort Collins to tape an interview. His first questions were about my career in the science of smell and how smell works. Midway through (around the 16:45 mark) he turned to my latest research interest: creating quantitative aroma profile for cannabis strains. We discuss how this kind of sensory research can be put to use in the rapidly evolving cannabis industry. You can find the podcast here.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Round 2: Parlux Comes Out Swinging at Jay Z

Today, attorneys for plaintiffs Parlux Fragrances and Perfumania filed a blizzard of documents in their ongoing lawsuit against Jay Z. Why? Because at oral arguments on February 28, Jay Z’s side attempted to have key elements of the Parlux complaint tossed out, and Judge Ramos said no.

That opened the way for Parlux to fire the big guns today. They asked the court to compel Jay Z and his company, S. Carter Enterprises, LLC, to produce a ton of documents and to answer interrogatories, i.e., a laundry list of questions regarding the dispute. And they want things to happen quickly—they asked for a hearing on their motion to be held on June 14.

The attorneys are making liberal use of the protective order granted by Judge Ramos that allows them to redact sensitive information or file it under seal. Of the fifteen documents filed by Parlux today, six exhibits are under seal and two others are partially redacted. Still, FirstNerve can fill you in on the big picture.

Parlux claims Jay Z was contractually obligated to be available to market, develop and promote the Gold Jay Z fragrance; yet he nevertheless failed to fulfill these obligations. Therefore, Parlux is demanding relevant information as to why; in particular, they want details about  Jay Z’s schedule at the time and his obligations to other brands and business ventures. Parlux is also asking Jay Z’s side to put up or shut up regarding its counterclaim for damages owed to Jay Z; in other words, get real and tell us how you arrived at the dollar number you are demanding from Parlux.
Although Plaintiffs duly paid the royalties which ultimately inured to the benefit of Jay-Z, Defendants simply refused to uphold their end of the bargain. As Defendants’ counsel acknowledged at oral argument in open court in February 2018, Jay-Z did not show up to a single personal appearance over the entire life of the license.
The brief goes on to quote the same damning courtroom exchange that FirstNerve highlighted.

Parlux recounts how Jay Z bailed on planned November 2013 launch events at Macy’s and Sephora with only a couple of weeks notice, adding:
The November 2013 events are not the only time Parlux sought the required input and involvement from Defendants only to be rebuked and/or ignored. In fact, numerous documents produced in this case demonstrate that this was the modus operandi of the Defendants for the entirety of the contractual relationship. As early as April 30, 2013 – months before the scheduled launch of the initial fragrance – Defendant Jay-Z indicated his unwillingness to meet his contractual obligations.
According the brief, Parlux repeatedly tried to arrange meetings, only to be told by Jay Z’s team that the star was “unavailable.” The brief includes a redacted quote from an internal Jay Z email, after which the Parlux team states:
Apparently, taking the money and not doing the work is Jay-Z’s mantra.
The Parlux brief goes into great (often redacted) detail with respect to Jay Z’s repeated “non-collaborative attitude and stonewalling” which continued throughout 2013 and into 2014. The Parlux brief contains several redacted quotes from emails sent by Jay Z and Desiree Perez, the COO of S. Carter Enterprises (herself an interesting character). On what basis were these quotes kept from public view? [Foul language?—Ed.]

Included in today’s filings by Parlux are the interrogatories for Jay Z and S. Carter Enterprises (SCE) that were sent originally in May 2016. Interestingly, the questions extend to three other Jay Z enterprises: Artistic Brands Development LLC, Marcy Fragrance Trading Co. LLC, and Roc Nation Sports.

Among other things, Parlux wants to know the current disposition and/or ownership of 300,000 shares of Perfumania common stock and 800,000 Perfumania warrants that were given to Jay Z et al. as part of the perfume deal. Also, Parlux is still sore about that missing 18-carat gold dummy bottle of Gold Jay Z; thus they demand:
14. All documents concerning the location of the 18-carat gold GOLD JAY Z bottles designed by Jacob the Jeweler.
Given Jay Z’s many business deals, this demand is a doozy:
20. All documents concerning any effort that SCE or Carter undertook to promote, market and/or support any of the other brands and/or ventures that SCE or Carter own, or in which they otherwise have a financial interest.
In the February hearing, Judge Ramos expressed puzzlement as to why this case it taking so long. If the Parlux brief is to be believed, it is because Jay Z’s attorneys are deliberately dragging their feet. Expect that to continue, but also expect Judge Ramos to turn up the heat and get the case moving.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

The Postman Always Sniffs Twice

The U.S. Postal Service has finally waddled into the scented postage stamp game, announcing the release on June 20, 2018 of a set of “Frozen Treat” forever stamps. That’s right: America’s first scented stamps will celebrate . . . popsicles.

Could the USPS have picked a more innocuous (and boring!) scented theme?

Also hard to imagine: could they have launched the new issue with a more tepid press release?
The stamps feature illustrations of frosty, colorful, icy pops on a stick. Today, Americans love cool, refreshing ice pops on a hot summer day. The tasty, sweet confections come in a variety of shapes and flavors.

Weirdly, while it describes a bunch of popsicle flavors (watermelon, blueberry, orange, strawberry, chocolate, root beer, cola, and kiwi) [Kiwi? Really?—Ed.] the press release doesn’t explicitly say which of these scents will appear on the stamps.

The release also says “Some frozen treats even have two sticks, making them perfect for sharing,” although none of the stamps shows a twin-stick popsicle. Each stamp, however, displays two popsicles side by side. Is the Postal Service trying to tell us that each stamp will feature the two corresponding scents? If so, that would be a philatelic first—in research for my post about smelly stamps I didn’t notice any examples of doubly-scented stamps. You’d think that would be something worth bragging about.

At any rate, the USA has finally joined the smelly stamp club. Here’s hoping the USPS will branch out into more compelling scents and themes. I stand behind the suggestions I made a few years ago:
I think it’s time the U.S. Postal Service joined the party. How about a Boston Tea Party commemorative? Or one for the Washington, D.C. cherry blossom festival? A mint julep scent to celebrate the Kentucky Derby. Why not a series of classic hot rods with scents of burnt rubber, gasoline and asphalt? A firearm series of historic muskets and revolvers with a gunpowder scent would be cool too.

UPDATE May 23, 2018
According to MarketWatch, “Each of the stamps features an image of popsicles in various forms, ranging from fruity to chocolate. The exact scent will be the same for all stamps, and will be announced with the launch of the stamps on June 20.” This is even more confusing. Does it mean the scent will be the same for given sheet of stamps (with multiple scents across the issue) or that the entire issue will feature only a single scent?

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Jay Z’s Legal Team Takes It on the Chin

Fragrance industry lawsuits have great entertainment value. They give us a glimpse into the commercial wheeling and dealing that goes on behind the perfume world’s facade of glamor, romance, and sophistication. They expose the gritty, greedy, and unsentimental nature of the business, often along with juicy personal details about the players.

One such legal epic began in January, 2016 when Parlux Fragrances sued Shawn “Jay Z” Carter for $18 million. Parlux alleged that Jay Z had failed to promote the Gold Jay Z fragrance as he was specifically required by the license agreement. The following May, Jay Z denied the Parlux claims and filed a counterclaim of his own, asking for about $2.7 million from Parlux for, among other things, more than a million dollars in unpaid guaranteed minimum royalties.

I covered the initial legal skirmishes here, here, and here. Since then, lawyers for Parlux and Jay Z have battled about boring procedural matters. They also crafted an agreement designed to keep details of the Jay Z license agreement out of public view in court filings.

In May, 2017, Jay Z’s lawyers filed a motion for partial summary judgment. They claimed that by continuing to sell Gold Jay Z, Parlux is making “substantial revenues” and yet has failed to pay Jay Z the guaranteed minimum royalties specified in the license agreement. They asked the judge to find Parlux in breach of contract and to declare that Parlux is liable for the ever-growing pile of guaranteed minimum royalty payments. The Parlux lawyers maintain the company doesn’t owe Jay Z a cent, because the contract became a dead letter when Jay Z himself breached it in the first place by failing to promote Gold Jay Z.

Finally, on February 28, 2018, oral arguments took place at the courthouse at 60 Centre Street in lower Manhattan. Things got off to a crackling start and did not go well for Jay Z’s attorney, Gianni Servodidio. The transcripts, sections of which I provide here, make for great reading. They’re better than any courtroom TV drama.
THE COURT OFFICER: All rise. Part 53, New York County Supreme Court is now in session, the Honorable Charles E. Ramos presiding. Be seated and come to order, please. Turn off all cell phones. There is absolutely no talking in the courtroom while the Judge is on the bench.

THE COURT: Good morning.

MR. SERVODIDIO: Good morning, Your Honor.

[Parlux attorney]: Good morning.

[Jay Z attorney]: Good morning.

THE COURT: All fit and ready to proceed with the motion?

MR. SERVODIDIO: Thank you, Your Honor. Good morning, Your Honor. I am Gianni Servodidio, representing the defendants and the counterclaimants S. Carter Enterprises and Shawn Carter. We’re here on a narrow claim today for partial summary judgment for unpaid royalties due under the parties’ license agreement. This motion can be decided based on the very straightforward and simple contractual principle. Under the —

THE COURT: If it was that simple, you wouldn’t be here. You know that and I know that.

MR. SERVODIDIO: Under the election of —

THE COURT: Let me ask you a question: Look —

MR. SERVODIDIO: Yes, Your Honor.

THE COURT: The plaintiff’s position is that they’re not taking advantage of Jay-Z’s license. They’re just selling the inventory that they have in order to mitigate damages. I’m not sure if it’s in the papers or not; I read most of the file. Have you conducted discovery here to the point that — do we know if they’re still manufacturing and bottling under license or is this, in fact, just inventory that they’re getting rid of?

MR. SERVODIDIO: Your Honor, it’s undisputed that they’re continuing to sell licensed products and have done so —

THE COURT: That is not the question I’m asking. Are they still bottling this stuff?

MR. SERVODIDIO: Your Honor, that’s not relevant to the motion that is before the Court.

THE COURT: You know, when I ask you a question, I expect a direct answer.

MR. SERVODIDIO: Yes, Your Honor.

THE COURT: If you’re not going to answer my questions, you can leave.

MR. SERVODIDIO: No. I’m sorry, Your Honor, there is no discovery that’s been conducted on that issue. And, with respect, that it is not germane to this narrow motion. The issue is whether they terminated the contract. And it’s really simple, Your Honor. They never exercised the termination of the contact. It’s simple how to do it. You have to send a notice of breach, which they did. And then you have to follow up with a second thing, which was an actual notice of termination required under the contract. They never did that. Instead what they did was continued 
— it’s undisputed that they continued to sell licensed product. We’re going on our third year anniversary of sales of licensed products amounting to millions of dollars. They’ve sent us an affidavit from their president —
There follows a lot of give and take about terms of the contract and relevant court decisions in other cases. Judge Ramos was not in a particularly forgiving mood that day. By the time things wrap up, we can imagine the flop sweat glistening on Mr. Servodidio’s forehead.
MR. SERVODIDIO: . . . And what these cases say clearly is that the mere assertion of a [rescission] claim isn’t enough.

THE COURT: On the other hand, here I have an apparently admittedly breaching party saying this is a slam dunk, please pay me.

MR. SERVODIDIO: Your Honor —

THE COURT: At the very least, at the very least don’t I have to consider that this was a mitigation of damages, the selling off of the inventory, number one; and number two, that your client breached?

MR. SERVODIDIO: Your Honor —

THE COURT: I can’t ignore that.

MR. SERVODIDIO: In every single case that we cite today, Your Honor, there is an allegation that the licensor breached. And in some cases —

THE COURT: Is there a denial here that Mr. Jay-Z didn’t show up?

MR. SERVODIDIO: Absolutely. The claim for breach is absolutely disputed and is the subject of hotly contested discovery right now.

THE COURT: Let me ask a very specific question; if you can’t answer it, don’t answer it, because I know you weren’t there. Did Jay-Z appear in New York as required under the contract?

MR. SERVODIDIO: There’s — there was no personal appearance, Your Honor, and that is the — we have defenses for that under the contract.

THE COURT: Motion denied. Thank you very much.

MR. VIOLA: Thank you, Your Honor.

MR. SERVODIDIO: Thank you, Your Honor.
Ouch. That’s gotta hurt.

Having failed in their pre-emptive counterattack, it looks like Jay Z’s team will now have to deal with the non-performance claims brought against their client by Parlux.

Exit question: Which TV actor should play Gianni Servodidio on the inevitable Netflix docudrama?

Monday, February 5, 2018

Frontier Psychophysics: The Prequel

Image ©Avery Gilbert

 When I moved to Colorado in mid-2015, it occurred to me that there were two local olfactory opportunities that might be commercialized. One was cow manure, the other was pot.

When the wind is right, the unmistakable scent of manure wafts over Fort Collins from large-scale cattle feedlots many miles to the east and south of town. Having grown up in California’s Central Valley, the smell of manure is, to me, familiar and not particularly disagreeable. But immediately downwind of feedlots it can be pretty intense, and the cattle industry is interested in cost-effective ways to reduce it. I did a literature search and concluded that the problem has not been adequately attacked from my point of view, i.e., as a the fragrance industry would tackle a new malodor issue. I think a combined chemical and psychophysical approach could yield commercial innovations.

But the more alluring opportunity proved to be pot, newly legal in Colorado for recreational use and an industry that is growing at an exponential rate. I sniffed my way through the wares of local dispensaries and was amazed at the enormous olfactory range on display. Some strains reeked of grapefruit, others were dense and funky. Some were almost cheesy, others mildly hay-like or even piney. From a fragrance standpoint, there is at least as much going on in weed as there is in wine, beer, coffee, or tea.

But there’s a big difference. Those other agricultural products have a long history of aesthetic appreciation. They have fully developed olfactory lexicons (think, for example, of the U.C. Davis Wine Aroma Wheel). And they have chemical standards and training programs.

Cannabis, on the other hand, maintains an outdated, underground feel. Sure, there are aficionados who can be eloquent in describing the aroma of a given strain. But there is no organized, empirically-based, agreed-upon basis for describing the scent of weed. For example, in the various “Cannabis Cup” competitions, smell is one of many dimensions on which a strain is judged, but as far as I can tell there are no specific criteria for evaluating a sample’s smell. If sheep or chickens were judged that subjectively at the county fair, there would be a riot in the livestock pavilion.

I made some inquiries at the local campus, Colorado State University. I had excellent discussions about possible collaborations with faculty in the psychology and chemistry departments. The conclusion was always the same: cannabis research was impossible. Or to be more precise, a university that takes even one dollar of federal funding is obliged to play by federal rules. That means that in order to do cannabis research, one needs a DEA license to hold and handle the drug. One can use only federal money (NIH, NSF, etc.) to carry out the research—no private or corporate funding. And finally, and most disheartening, one can only use cannabis grown at the officially approved federal plantation in Mississippi. (This product is frequently lampooned as being a throwback to 1970s era weed—the low potency, twiggy, seedy, stuff that one “cleaned” on an LP cover before rolling into a doobie.)

By this point I had landed on a simple idea—to treat locally available cannabis strains as a just another consumer product. I would do routine sensory research to characterize the relevant odor descriptors, and see whether consumers could tell one strain from another based on smell.

That was my original idea. To make it happen, I had to blaze my own trail. I found an angel investor and created a new company: Headspace Sensory LLC. I wrote an entire research plan and got it approved by an independent institutional review board. I found an excellent collaborator in Joseph DiVerdi, a Colorado State chemistry professor with an interest in cannabis and his own private lab. With his help I found a genial landlord willing to rent me a couple of rooms perfect for sniff testing.

All the elements were in place. But I still needed to find volunteer sniffers. That would prove harder than I had imagined.

“A Very Distinct Smell”

“Marijawana’s bad, and it also has a very distinct smell, okay? I’m gonna pass around just a little tiny bit. Now, I want you all to take a smell, so you know when someone is smoking marijawana near you.”
Mr. Mackey
South Park S2E3

I published a new smell study today in the scientific journal PLOS ONE: Consumer perceptions of strain differences in Cannabis aroma. You can download a free copy here. Sure, there’s some statistics and chemistry, but anyone interested in smell—or weed—can read it and understand the results.

In the spirit of Hollywood prequels, I will describe in a subsequent post how the study came about.