Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Turgenev: The Scent Trails in “Smoke”


Turgenev, by Ilya Repin (1874)

Ivan Sergeyevich Turgenev did not make much use of olfactory imagery in his novels, at least judging by Fathers and Sons (1862) and Smoke (1867). For the most part, he set his scenes with spare yet effective visual references.

Yet there are a couple of notable exceptions in Smoke, which is the story of a man torn between his feelings for two very different women. One of them occurs when the protagonist Litvinov comes across a picnic party of young Russian officers and their ladies.
All these warriors were immaculately groomed, shaved and perfumed all over with a scent redolent of the nobility and the Guards, a mixture of the finest tobacco smoke and the most amazing patchouli.
There’s a rather hyper-particular smellscape from mid-nineteenth century Russia! And this one is even more so:
Irina [a femme fatale] was sitting on the sofa between Prince Koko and Madame Kh., once a famed beauty and pan-Russian bluestocking, who had long since mutated into a rotting toadstool, smelling of Lenten oil and stale poison.
In those days, the Eastern Orthodox Church proscribed olive oil during Lenten fasts; oil from other sources was allowed. The image of “stale poison”, on the other hand, is a product of Turgenev’s inventive genius.

There are a couple of other olfactory vignettes involving the intoxicating scent of a woman’s hair and neck. They serve their purpose well, but are less unique. A final instance involves an anonymously delivered bouquet of flowers, which figures later in the story.
A strong scent, very pleasant and familiar, caught his attention. He looked round and saw a large bouquet of fresh heliotropes in a glass of water on the window sill. In some surprise he bent down to the flowers, touched, them, sniffed them . . . It seems that something came back to him, something very distant, but what it was exactly he could not think.
Sacrebleu! Yet another example of “Proustian smell memory” that predates Proust by more than half a century. (In this case, it is Proustian in the actual sense of Marcel, namely an odor summoning up a vague, ungraspable feeling where an actual memory ought to be).

Ivan Sergeyevich Turgenev
Smoke (1867)

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

If Ever a Whizz of a Wiz There Was

Urinals banned from newly remodeled Portland Building,” reports KGW8-TV in Portland, Oregon. While graciously allowing “gender-specific (male and female) multi-stall restrooms” to remain, the City of Portland has decreed that the men’s rooms will no longer have urinals. Because shutup.

First, the eco-zealots pushed for waterless urinals, but the units were so badly designed (and smelly) that many of them were removed. Now the gender warriors are taking aim (so to speak) at urinals qua urinals.

Amid the madness, I offer this mini photo-essay on my favorite examples of the art form.

First, from the Shin-Marunouchi Building in Tokyo, a pair of tall urinals positioned in front of fifth-floor windows. At night, they provide a magnificent view of Tokyo Station as one recycles a couple of oversize bottles worth of Kirin Ichiban.



Next, from a recent visit to Manhattan, magnificent porcelain urinals with the craquelure of antiquity, found in McSorley’s Old Ale House just a couple of blocks from Cooper Union. Their massive, full-body design allows one, no matter how drunk or clumsy, to deliver the goods well inside the designated drainage area, and not on the shoes of adjacent guests. A design for the ages; sadly, we shall never see the likes of it again.

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Welcome to Berkeley’s Rebranded “Gourmet Safe Space”?


Image: Diablanco

Berkeley’s North Shattuck Association has voted to abandon the decades-old “Gourmet Ghetto” tag for its upscale foody neighborhood. The organization folded because the “co-founder” of a new coffee shop said his millennial-age employees found the name “upsetting and confusing.”

Next up: Peet’s Coffee on Vine and Walnut will be forced to abandon “Major Dickason’s Blend” because of its militaristic connotations.

[Hat tip to SFGate.com commenter LeonRussellFan for the safe space gag.]

P.S. One would think “Wrecking Ball Coffee” is a problematic name for a Bay Area business, given its triggering reference to gentrification, displacement of marginalized people, etc. And yet . . . that's the complainant's brand name.

Monday, July 22, 2019

Perfume and Big Data: Garbage In, Garbage Out



 A new “big data” study of perfume has been making a splash the past couple of weeks. Titled “Social success of perfumes,” it was published in PLoS ONE on July 4. It’s another in the recent genre of throwing abstruse mathematics at the sense of smell.

The authors, Vaiva Vasiliauskaite and Tim S. Evans, are in the physics department at Imperial College London, more specifically the Theoretical Physics Group and Centre for Complexity Science. [Awesome nameage!—Ed.] Vasiliauskaite is a graduate student and apparently a talented nerd, having graduated from the University of Glasgow with a degree in Theoretical Physics. Evans is a Senior Lecturer.

Here’s the abstract of their paper:
We study data on perfumes and their odour descriptors—notes—to understand how note compositions, called accords, influence successful fragrance formulas. We obtain accords which tend to be present in perfumes that receive significantly more customer ratings. Our findings show that the most popular notes and the most over-represented accords are different to those that have the strongest effect to the perfume ratings. We also used network centrality to understand which notes have the highest potential to enhance note compositions. We find that large degree notes, such as musk and vanilla as well as generically-named notes, e.g. floral notes, are amongst the notes that enhance accords the most. This work presents a framework which would be a timely tool for perfumers to explore a multidimensional space of scent compositions.
Leaving aside the technical terms “network centrality” and “large degree notes,” the claims in the abstract seem clear: the authors have identified odor descriptors that drive the commercial success of specific perfume formulations. Sounds interesting and useful. One dives eagerly into the paper to find the details.

That’s where the problems start.

No actual perfumes were smelled in the making of this study. Nor were any actual perfume formulations examined. Instead, the authors apparently scraped perfume description and ranking data from a website, cleaned it up a bit, and then proceeded to slice, dice, and theorize.

I say “apparently” because nowhere in the paper do they describe where or how they obtained their data. I imagine my amateur readers stammering, “B-b-b-but, don’t scientists have to describe their data?” Yeah, well, uh, no, I guess not.

From clues in the text (e.g., perfumes rated on a five-point scale), Vasiliauskaite and Evans may have tapped Fragrantica.com as their source. In which case, they might have been courteous enough to give the site’s proprietors a shout-out. Or, better yet, have obtained permission to use the site’s data.

Of greater ethical concern is the absence of the source data in a supplemental file or online scientific archive. Making the data available is a requirement of publication in PLoS ONE.
PLOS journals require authors to make all data underlying the findings described in their manuscript fully available without restriction at the time of publication.
I don’t understand how this basic requirement could have been overlooked by the reviewers or the paper’s editor, Yongli Li of the Harbin Institute of Technology in China.

So, let’s look again at the abstract. By “successful fragrance formulas” the authors mean perfume brands with a large number of user reviews and high ratings on an undisclosed fragrance website. By “notes” and “odor descriptors” they mean descriptors provided by anonymous reviewers of undetermined skill level and/or marketing verbiage lifted from advertisements and promotional copy. On Fragrantia.com, gauzy words like “honey,” “amber” and “musk”—which refer to no one specific perfumery material—are given equal weight with clary sage, tonka bean, and oakmoss (see, for example, Paco Rabanne Pour Homme). By “accords” the authors appear to mean co-occurring “notes” on a webpage.

Other passages make one wonder if the authors know what they’re talking about. Take this paragraph, for example:
Information of the precise amounts of each ingredient in the formulation of a perfume is confidential, to prevent duplications of the formula. However, the list of ingredients, the list of notes, is often advertised in order to describe the scent of a perfume. Thus a perfume which smells of rose, vanilla and musk, is described using such notes. In this study we have analysed the notes which make up over ten thousand perfumes without knowing anything about their specific amounts in each perfume. We assume that a note is included in the perfume description as its presence enriches the composition and its smell is detectable.
This is paragraph is confused to the point of idiocy. A perfume’s list of ingredients is never revealed, much less advertised. What is publicly promoted by the brand is a short list of note names meant to imply romance, exotic origins, and high quality as much as what the perfume smells like. Even then, it’s unclear whether the “notes” used in this study were provided by the brand or plucked from the website’s crowd-sourced reviews. The authors “have analysed the notes which make up over ten thousand perfumes”? Fairer to say they’ve analyzed notes attributed to perfumes (by persons unknown) that may or may not include all the salient notes in a given perfume. The stated assumption that each note in a description is individually “detectable” is ridiculous. Do the authors believe that the grapefruit and Calabrian bergamot in Coco Noir are individually detectable? One wonders how much smelling they’ve ever done.

At this point it’s clear that no matter how much “network” and “non-network” statistical analysis they apply to this slop bucket of data, the results will lack specificity and insight. For all of its nodes, edges, weighted network representations, permutation tests, d-scores, and one-mode projections, the study doesn’t make much contact with the commercial or sensory realities of perfumery. It could have been interesting as an analysis of brand attributes seen through social media. But even there it fails.

This paper isn’t worth the time it takes to download.

UPDATE September 19, 2019
Called it! The paper has now been retracted by PLoS ONE.

, The study discussed here is “Social success of perfumes,” by Vaiva Vasiliauskaite and Tim S. Evans, PLoS ONE 14(7): e0218664.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Did Nicolas Guéguen Really Replicate the Cinnabon Effect?



Some years ago I blogged about a couple of scent-related field studies conducted by French academic researcher Nicolas Guéguen. In 2009, I wrote about a paper of his I had just come across, published in Psychological Reports back in 2001. In “Effect of a perfume on prosocial behavior of pedestrians,” Guéguen found that people were more helpful to a young woman who “accidently” dropped an item when she was wearing perfume, compared to when she was not wearing scent. I thought the paper was worth mentioning because it described a theory-free, empirical approach that could shed light on the natural history of perfume use.

Three years later, in a post called “The Cinnabon Effect Confirmed,” I wrote about another of Guéguen’s studies. This one, published in the Journal of Social Psychology, was titled “The sweet smell of . . . implicit helping: effects of pleasant ambient fragrance on spontaneous help in shopping malls.” The original Cinnabon Effect study was discovered in 1997 by social psychologist Robert Baron who found that shoppers in a mall were more helpful to a stranger when approached next to a pleasant-smelling retail shop (e.g., Cinnabon) rather than an unscented one (e.g., Banana Republic). In his new paper, Guéguen found similar results in a French mall, and extended the paradigm to include male as well as female “strangers.” I wrote approvingly that “Guéguen has confirmed the Cinnabon Effect and extended it to spontaneous acts of kindness.”

I recently became aware that Guéguen’s “sweet smell of” study has been the object of some impressive data sleuthing by Nicholas Brown and James Heathers. A new post on the excellent Retraction Watch website updates the story. In a nutshell, the pair claims that a bunch of papers by Guéguen don’t pass the smell test. The reasons for their skepticism are procedural and statistical. Guéguen is a prolific author yet one with no collaborators, and he may, according to Brown and Heathers, have skirted ethical requirements. Disturbingly, statistical patterns in his underlying data seem consistently fishy. The original B&H posts can be found here and here.

It’s important to note that Brown and Heathers do not claim outright that Guéguen’s studies are fraudulent.
We have not made, and do not make, any specific allegations of fraud, nor are any implied. The initial document that we released is entitled “A commentary on some articles by Dr. Nicolas Guéguen” and details a long series of inconsistencies in research methods, procedures, and data. The words “fraud” and “misconduct” do not appear in this document, nor in any of our communications with the people who helped with the investigation. We restrict ourselves to pointing out that results are “implausible” (p. 2) or that scenarios are “unlikely [to] be enacted practice” (p. 31).
You can download their detailed fifty-two page critique here and judge it for yourself. If you’re less hardcore, this Ars Technica piece covers the story nicely.

I think the points raised by Brown and Heathers are compelling and cast serious doubt on some, if not all, of Guéguen’s work. Accordingly, I’m putting a metaphorical asterisk on the two studies I cited, and flagging this action on my previous blog posts. Data integrity and transparency are core to the scientific endeavor, and when serious doubts are raised they need to be acknowledged.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

FN Review of The Coffee Visionary: The Life & Legacy of Alfred Peet



On my desk as I write this is a mug of Peet’s Costa Rican coffee, ground in my kitchen, brewed strong, and drunk black. The beans arrive via UPS within days of roasting. Peet’s has been my house coffee since I was a Cal Berkeley undergrad. I remember seeing Alfred Peet wearing his shop coat behind the counter at the original store on Vine and Walnut. So, in the interests of full disclosure: yes, I’m a proud Peetnik. Peetniks are all about the coffee: the beans, the roast, the brewing. Like Alfred Peet himself, they disdain what they regard as the coffee-flavored milk drinks served by Starbucks.

Despite my lifelong commitment to the brand, it turns out there was a lot I didn’t know about Alfred Peet. That’s been remedied by Jasper Houtman’s excellent new biography, which covers Peet’s personal life as well as the history of the company. Houtman bases his account on published and unpublished interviews with Peet, as well as first-hand interviews with many people who knew the man personally.

Born in Holland in 1920, Peet was raised by a stiff, demanding father with whom he never established a warm relationship. Years later, when he traveled and lived around the world, he wrote only to his mother, never to his father. This alienation wasn’t entirely his father’s fault. Young Alfred was a rebellious child: he didn’t do well at school because he felt pressured to perform, and he chafed at the tight confines of bourgeois Dutch culture.

Peet’s father and various in-laws were in the coffee business in Holland. Alfred had a natural flair for tasting coffee and tea, but rather than join his father’s company, he left Holland as soon as he could. After WWII went to London to work in tea for the Lipton company. Soon he left for the Dutch East Indies (today’s Indonesia), and after that for New Zealand. Seeking a still bigger horizon, he came to the United States in 1955, landing in San Francisco. A series of short-term jobs—including door-to-door salesman—followed, which the shy Peet found excruciating. But he was determined to make his way.

At the time, most coffee came pre-ground in cans from the grocery store. But having discovered the Italian espresso culture of North Beach, Peet realized there was an opportunity in America for better coffee. He was determined to make it happen. Unlike the Bay Area innovators of recent years, Peet was no young upstart. He didn’t open his first store until 1966, when he was forty-six years old. His timing and choice of location couldn’t have been better: the store on the corner of Vine and Walnut became a founding feature of Berkeley’s Gourmet Ghetto. The area’s reputation was cemented when Alice Waters opened Chez Panisse around the block in 1971.

From the beginning, Peet’s mission was to teach people about coffee. In doing so he didn’t pull any punches. He railed against customers who brewed his coffee in percolators. He fired employees who didn’t follow his strict procedures. And yet he freely shared his knowledge with people who wanted to learn about coffee. He trained many coffee roasters who went on to build their own businesses (such as Starbucks). Despite his Dutch directness—which Americans often read as rudeness—and his inflexibility about the correct ways to do coffee, many of those he trained came to fondly regard him as a mentor.

Like most entrepreneurs, Peet assumed total control of all details of the operation. Part of this was intellectual—the man was a perfectionist who insisted on doing it the best way, or not at all. Another part of it was characterological: scattered throughout Houtman’s book are examples of obsessive-compulsive behavior, as well as a compromised approach to interpersonal relationships. These traits enabled him to create a brand known for its commitment to quality, but also limited its potential to expand. Peet was entirely comfortable with this outcome: he had a small but profitable company that met his personal standards. Later in life, he acknowledged some downsides: he had missed out on some trends and opportunities, and suffered from the stress that went with total control.

Alfred Peet’s emphasis was on practical hands-on training. He felt cupping and roasting can be learned, but not from textbooks. Remarkably, he did not consider coffee to be the ultimate sensory challenge. For him, that was tea.
“In essence, tea is a more interesting product than coffee,” Alfred said. “Tea you can truly compare to wine, there are as many teas as there are wines, with as many different flavors, colors, and bouquets. (. . .) In contrast with tea, coffee is a rather coarse product; the subtle differences that you see in tea, you can’t find in coffee.”
Peet had little use for pompous, wine-like descriptions of coffee. He encouraged people to use simple, even personal terms to describe coffee flavor. His emphasis, especially when teaching someone how to roast beans, was on direct experience, on doing rather than knowing. This could lead to some unusual, almost Zen-like, directives.
How do you determine the moment when you have to take the beans out of the roaster? “The coffee will speak to you and will let you know when she’s ready,” Alfred told his students. For outsiders this sounds mystifying, but those who wanted to learn the profession from him developed an ear for it as well.
Peet didn’t invent a technology. He didn’t build a commercial empire or create a new way of doing business. Instead, he was a sensory entrepreneur: a blender of beans and an evangelist for flavor.

Alfred Peet has become known as the father of the American coffee renaissance. The impact of his life and work are evident wherever one goes. Today, there is quality coffee and espresso in crossroad burgs and small towns throughout the country’s vast interior.

For that, Mr. Peet, we thank you.