Saturday, September 11, 2021

Twenty Years Later

Today the flag I used to put up every September 11th in Montclair, New Jersey now hangs on my house in Colorado.

It’s there for the two guys on my old block who were murdered that day 20 years ago.

David Lee Pruim who worked for Aon in 2 World Trade Center.

Michael L. Collins who worked for Cantor Fitzgerald in 1 World Trade Center.

Many anniversaries have gone by. The fires are out, the wreckage cleared, new buildings built.

But the grief and anger smolder on.

I will never forget.

Tuesday, August 3, 2021

ISDP Redux

 

A little over five years ago we called a wrap on our wildly popular I Smell Dead People™ feature, along with the annual Norman Bates Award™ competition. It wasn’t for lack of compelling material. From a simple premise (a person follows a repulsive smell only to discover cadaverous remains) came stories that illuminated the human condition in all its highs and lows. However there were simply too many incidents to catalog and each one took some unraveling. Also, I needed to free up some time to write what would become the fictional adventures of Nick Zollicker.

This week the lurking thrall of ISDP finally broke through my studied indifference. The first item to grab me was a headline in the august Times of London: “Russian admiral’s wife and son found stabbed to death.” The bodies of Rear Admiral Leonid Lobanov’s elderly wife and middle-aged son were discovered in a St. Petersburg apartment after neighbors complained of a bad smell.

No big deal, right? Standard unnoticed deaths. Wrong: “The pair had been stabbed and slashed several times in the torso, neck and face. They were in a sitting position on a sofa.” And here’s the kicker: the bodies were discovered eight days after the Rear Admiral “died under the wheels of a suburban train near Ruchi station in the northeast of the city, two miles from the apartment where they all lived.”

That’s potentially the basis for a typically dark Russian tale of depravity and intrigue. The only question is whether it should be written in the style of Dostoyevsky or John le Carré.

The second item to leap out at me came from the execrable Star Tribune of Minneapolis. [Why so harsh?—Ed.] [It’s Minnesota’s answer to the Los Angeles Times.] [Oh.—Ed.] The headline wasn’t anything special: “Murder charge: St. Paul woman shot ex-husband, buried him in their back yard.” It was the subhead that raised the relevant possibility: “A neighbor told police about a bad smell coming from near Karina Her’s garden sometime shortly after July 5 and persisting for a week.”

So—do we credit the neighbor with an ISDP find?

Karina Her

Enthusiasts know that to qualify as an ISDP incident, the body in question must be discovered by someone smelling it. Suppose an out-of-state relative requests a welfare check on an elderly family member and the responding police officer detects the telltale scent wafting through an open window. Sorry—no dice. The ISDP Rules Committee sets and maintains very high standards.

From the Star Tribune story (along with this one from WCCOChannel 4) it is unclear whether the neighbor’s complaint led directly to the discovery of the husband’s body. After all, the victim’s stepdaughter apparently implicated her mother in a 911 call. The sequence of events is critical to determining whether this is a true IDSP event. (See how much work this takes?)

Finally, this item from the Overpromising and Underdelivering file: “L.A. Woman Says She Slept 3 Feet From Her Neighbor’s Corpse for Weeks.” At first glance it looks like Reagan Baylee deserves a Norman Bates Award nomination. But it turns out her neighbor’s corpse was in a different apartment.  

Ms. Baylee’s emotional and highly personal account, as befits the Age of Social Media, overshares to the point of TMI. (Check out her TikTok video for the full effect.) Still, she supplies some telling details and her story has an excellent plot twist. (Which neighboring apartment was the gruesome odor really coming from?)

Thursday, July 29, 2021

Commie Couture

 

Jing Daily, which alleges to be all about “the business of luxury in China,” has a recent piece on China’s “patriotic perfume boom.” The story condescendingly puts Western fragrance brands on notice while promoting the new hotness: Guochao, which means “Chinese heritage hip.”

Long gone are the days when established global brands could simply crack the Chinese market with a French label and a cliché image portraying an actress wearing the scent during a night walk in Paris. In a market that is increasingly being dominated by up-and-coming Chinese brands, Guochao-themed shopping festivals, and openly patriotic influencers, international perfume houses can no longer claim to be the authoritative gatekeepers of refined taste.

Uh oh. Sounds like trouble for Chanel and Estée Lauder and all the other mega-brands that want to slurp down that sweet, sweet ChiComm money.

Guochao brands are increasingly turning toward local lifestyles for inspiration.

Well, fair enough! Maybe we can help. We locked the FirstNerve marketing team into a windowless conference room and had them brainstorm new Guochao fragrance concepts. Here’s what they came up with:

Kowtow by Lebron James. A sports cologne from the hoops legend himself.

Slave to Love by the Uyghur Autonomy Region Committee. A people, a place, an attitude.

BSL No. 4 by Shi Zhengli. Die Fledermaus turned into a Chinese opera and captured in a bottle.

Lie Flat. The effortless fragrance for slackers.

Deep Cover by Tang Juan. Your scent, your secret.

Kowloon Memories. The scent of freedom fading in the wind.

1989 Chang’an Avenue. Feel the power, fight the force.

Honey Pot, the alluring new scent from Fang Fang.

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

We’re here! We’re here! Casa Bonita!

 

If this story from THR is correct, Denver’s pandemic-shuttered and bankrupt Casa Bonita restaurant may soon re-open under the ownership of Matt Stone and Trey Parker. The longtime sentimental favorite featured much entertainment but only so-so Mexican food. It shouldn’t be hard to improve the menu, but Parker also has other ideas:
“I was already thinking about how I was going to make Black Bart’s Cave a little bigger.”

As Eric Cartman once said, “I think we should go through Black Bart's Cave right away ‘cause, we’re gonna wanna do it seven or eight times.”

Sunday, July 18, 2021

Make Way for Dionne Warwick

Many in my generation vividly remember Dionne Warwick’s hit songs of the 60s: Walk On By (1964), I Say a Little Prayer (1967), and DoYou Know the Way to San Jose? (1968). The slickly orchestrated pop tunes (by Burt Bacharach and Hal David) were a perfect match to Warwick’s effortless high voice and precise delivery.

So what brings her to mind? Why, a press release from Fragrance Creators Association:

Fragrance Creators Association has announced that DDD3 Inc., owned by entertainer, entrepreneur and philanth­ropist Dionne Warwick, has joined its membership of more than 60 large and small businesses spanning the fragrance supply chain.

My reactions were, in descending order:

“That’s nice, Dionne Warwick is still alive.” (She is 80 years old.)

“What on earth does she have to do with fragrance?”

It turns out she launched a single, self-named perfume back in 1986. Dionne must not have been too memorable—there is no mention of it on Fragrantica.com and only a placeholder on Basenotes. Good luck trying to find a collectible bottle on eBay.

According to the FCA blurb, she plans to relaunch Dionne “in response to popular demand.” Or perhaps to leverage attention from her recent nomination to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Or perhaps to climb out of her 2013 bankruptcy and deal with an epic $7 million owed to the IRS.

DDD3, Inc., the company named in the press release, is not a fragrance house. It appears to be the corporate entity that books her ongoing musical performances. Warwick’s contract rider can be found online. Alas, it contains nothing as outrageous as Van Halen’s no-brown-M&Ms clause. Sure, Ms. Warwick must be flown first class, but most of the rider concerns stage lighting, rehearsal timing, and orchestra staffing (“Three (3) trombones-two (2) tenor & one (1) bass”). Her dressing room requirements are not particularly diva-ish. She prefers Pepsi (“No Coca Cola or Diet Sodas”), Cristal (“Two (2) bottles of Cristal Champagne per concert (NO SUBSTITUTES)” and is very specific about the fruit plate:

Fresh fruit platter: sliced pineapples, green seedless grapes, sliced watermelon, sliced honeydew melon, sliced cantaloupe melon and bananas. If any of the above fresh fruit is not in season, contact road manager.

Ms Warwick is entitled to earn whatever the market will bear and she is certainly playing every card she can as she climbs out of a deep financial hole. What lingers in the mind, however, is why the Fragrance Creators Association sees fit to include her and her company in its membership on the basis of a one-off scent that vanished after launch 35 years ago.

Friday, July 2, 2021

More Baloney about AI

 

Some years ago, in What the Nose Knows, I wrote about e-noses and their value to us in the future. I thought it was a rather mixed bag: 

At some point in the development of these fusions of silicon and biology, the question becomes not whether the e-nose can replace the human nose, but whether we want it to. Would I let an e-nose sniff-scan me for lung cancer? Sure. Would I use a robotic odor sentinel? Maybe, especially if I had a B.O. problem. But do I really want my refrigerator to tell me, “I’m sorry, Avery, I can’t let you eat those cold cuts”?

(For full effect you have to imagine the fridge speaking in the voice of HAL, the computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey.)

I remain a fridge-primitivist: I recently bought one that not only isn’t “smart” but has no automatic ice-cube maker. Still, the dream lives on for some people including Ashok Prabhu Masilamani, founder of Canadian tech company Stratuscent which makes a chip that can detect various volatile molecules in the air. He’s quoted in today’s WSJ in an article by Benoit Morenne headlined “A new frontier of AI-enabled gadgets.”

E-noses could also be integrated in smart fridges to detect early signs of expiring food and guide users to items that will expire next, says Dr. Masilamani. Scientists at the Nanyang Technological University of Singapore have developed a colored bar code that reacts to gasses from decaying food and a bar code reader that uses AI models to predict food freshness, according to a study published in the Advanced Materials journal in October.

The dream never dies . . .

The WSJ piece also discusses AI-enabled toilets that can analyze your stool sample at the time of delivery. Again, imagine the AI toilet speaking with the voice of HAL:

“Avery, you need to cut back on the kimchi. I have made you an appointment with a gastroenterologist.”

On second thought it would be much better if the AI spoke with the accent of an 18th Century royal physician in England:

“Good news. A fetid and a stinking stool.”
[Assembled colleagues nod in agreement.]
“The colour good, well shaped, and a prodigious quantity.”

Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Play It Again

 

The Huntington Botanical Gardens in San Marino, California is hosting yet another blooming corpse flower. Can you say “overkill”? This is their twelfth one.

Naturally they are livestreaming the blessed event on their u-tube channel. When I last checked it had 59 viewers. They have not enabled comments which makes it even more joyless than usual.

It’s time for someone to create livestream corpse flower commentary, just like the gamers do. I think The Ocho’s Cotton McKnight and his sidekick Pepper Brooks could be the right team:

Cotton: Wow, that makes 3 millimeters in the last hour alone.

Pepper: That’s right Cotton. It’s a towering erection that just won’t stop.

Cotton: And we’re getting wind now of a smell . . . a distinctive odor that resembles day-old roadkill.

Pepper: That’s what the bloaty stage is all about, Cotton. Pretty soon we’ll need barf bags.

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Hot Topics for Current Chinese Science

I’m an independent researcher with no university affiliation. But because I regularly publish in peer-reviewed scientific journals I get daily spam from sketchy “journals” asking me to contribute a paper. The pitch is often agrammatical and weirdly formal (“Dear esteemed gracious professor”). They go right to the trash folder.

However, I got one a week ago that has me thinking seriously about a response.

Dear Dr. Gilbert,

An exciting mega Science journal, “Current Chinese Science” is launched this year by Bentham Science Publishers. The Nobel Laureate Prof. Ferid Murad and 43 Academicians of Chinese Academy of Sciences have already joined as Honorary Senior Advisors of this exciting new mega Science Journal. Prof. Atta-ur-Rahman FRS (UNESCO Science Laureate and Academician Chinese Academy of Sciences) is the Editor-in-Chief of this Journal

Current Chinese Science is not limited to a specific field but instead covers all major fields of science, technology, and medicine, through dedicated sections. The Journal is currently in the process of appointing Section Editors in various disciplines.  In this connection, we would like to invite you to join as section Editor in one of the following disciplines.  If you agree to this, please kindly send us your complete CV and a list of your recent publications along with the name of the discipline and sub-section, so that we can send your CV for Editor-in-Chief’s consideration.

    1. Aerospace Sciences

    2. Analytical Chemistry

    (. . . / . . .)

    24. Pharmacology

    25. Structural Engineering

Your responsibilities, if you accept, would entail soliciting one thematic issue each year in a hot area of the journal.

We need the abstract of the thematic issue with a proposed list of authors within 4 months of the appointment of each Section Editor. Section Editors are also expected to occasionally solicit/contribute review articles. 

(…/…)

We look forward to hearing from you in this regard.

Sincerely,

Hasan Khan
Editorial Manager
Current Chinese Science

This sounds like too good a deal to pass up. Here’s the reply I drafted:

Dear Mr. Khan,

Thank you for your invitation to become a Section Editor for Current Chinese Science.

I have several exciting ideas for thematic issues in hot areas.

1. Research under constraints: Effects of criminal indictment on productivity of scientists associated with the Thousand Talents program.

    Proposed contributors: 

    Dr. Charles Lieber, Joshua and Beth Friedman University Professor and former chairman of the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology, Harvard University

    Dr. Qing Wang, formerly of the Cleveland Clinic Foundation

    Dr. Simon Saw-Teong Ang, a professor and researcher at the University of Arkansas-Fayetteville

    Dr. Xiao-Jiang Li, formerly of Emory University

    Dr. Anming Hu, formerly in the Department of Mechanical, Aerospace and Biomedical Engineering at the University of Tennessee

2. Organs from executed donors: Is the Chinese transplantation experience a useful model for the West?

3. The “Fee for Service” Solution to “Publish or Perish”

    Proposed contributors:

    Hoping to recruit numerous authors from The Jining First People’s Hospital in Shandong province or whichever paper mill churns out clinical papers for their staff.

Looking forward to your reply.

Sincerely,


UPDATE June 19, 2021

Well, here’s some good local news.

Sunday, June 13, 2021

A Skull Full of Mush

 

There’s an interesting paper to be presented later this month at an Association for Computing Machinery virtual conference on the theme of Interactive Media Experiences.

The paper, by three engineers and a psychologist from the University of Liverpool, is titled “Predicting the colour associated with odours using an electronic nose.” The cross-modal associations between scent and color have been of interest for ages; my colleagues and I helped put them on a quantitative basis with a couple of papers in the late 1990s. The Liverpool group’s new twist is getting an e-nose to predict the color associations.

That’s all fine. It’s of a piece with attempts to predict a molecule’s odor character from physical parameters such as molecular weight, shape, charge, etc. The authors of the new study claim to find a 70 to 81% “machine-human similarity rating.” Whatever. I’m not that interested in the details of their e-nose or experimental protocols, but I’m fascinated by their conceptual point of view as expressed in this sentence fragment in the conclusions section:

Thus, highlighting the possibility of using e-noses to predict human olfactory perception and implying that the colour associated with odours are partly written into the molecular properties of the stimulus [5].

Reference 5 is to the color-odor study—using human noses—that I published with Sarah E. Kemp. In it, we discussed the psychological associations that emerged between the test odors and measurable parameters of color. Nowhere in that paper did we attribute those association to the “molecular properties” of the odor stimuli. It is a mistake for the Liverpool researchers to cite that paper in support of their claim.

The bigger problem is with their philosophical view, namely that an odor’s color associations “are partly written into the molecular properties of the stimulus.” This is a dumb but persistent conceptualization that’s popped up before. Here’s what I said about it in 2009 while commenting on a study by Mandairon et al. called “Humans and mice express similar olfactory preferences.”

What I can’t understand is Mandairon’s endorsement of a mathematical model that predicts odor pleasantness. The idea is that odor pleasantness is “partially dependent on the odorants’ physicohemical properties.” Of course this has to be true at some level: different molecules produce different smells because they have different structures. But Mandairon et al. go beyond tautology; the shared response of mice and men suggests

that olfactory preferences are indeed partially engraved in the structure of the odorant molecule

and

there is an initial part of the [odor] percept which is innate and engraved in the odorant structure.

Perceptions engraved on the molecule? This is simply a bizarre way to think. What else is engraved on a molecule of phenylethanol: Visual associations to red roses? The name of my florist? An olfactory memory of my dead grandmother?

Perceptions happen in the central nervous system of an organism. To talk as if odor pleasantness resides in the structural features of a molecule is animistic thinking, pure and simple.

My objection to Mandairon, et al. applies equally to Ward, et al. No matter how cool the math and the engineering, the idea that odor-linked human perceptions are “written” or “engraved” in the structural features of a molecule is rubbish and unworthy of a place in scientific discourse.

The studies discussed here are “Predicting the colour of odours using an electronic nose,” by Ryan J. Ward, Shammi Rahman, Sophie Wuerger and Alan Marshall, published in SensoryX ‘21: Workshop on Multisensory Experiences, together with IMX 2021: ACM International Conference on Interactive Media Experiences, June 21-23, 2021, and “Humans and mice express similarolfactory preferences,” by Nathalie Mandairon, Johan Poncelet, Mousafa Bensafi and Anne Didier, published in PLoS One 4:e4209, 2009.

Friday, June 11, 2021

Farewell, My Lovely

 

Here’s a new twist on the stinky grotesquery known to fussy writers as the “corpse flower,” but whose formal botanical name—Amorphophallus titanum— suggests something more delightfully vulgar.

It seems an A. titanum blossomed “in the wild,” i.e., outside the premises of a botanical garden. The site—a public park in Singapore—is not that wild, but it is in the vicinity of the species’ natural range.

Someone mentioned the site on social media and faster than you can say “Sam Spade” the plant was dug up and stolen.

Damn. There goes another plot point I had planned for a NickZollicker novella tentatively titled The Maltese Penis.

Monday, June 7, 2021

The Memory Meme that Refuses to Die

 

A reader’s letter to the Financial Times relates a charming story about her son, who as a two-year-old blurted out that a lady in a store smelled like his godmother. Lo and behold, both women wore L’Heure Bleue by Guerlain.

Thirty-one years later, he pulls the same stunt at a restaurant: he correctly identifies his godmother’s signature scent on a lady sitting at the next table.

The letter writer thought she was illustrating a point made in a previous edition of the paper, namely “wouldn’t it be a fine thing if there was a good smell that reminded people of you?” In fact, she did so quite effectively. We can also applaud her son for having a good nose, a keen awareness of scent, and a long memory.

But why did the FT have to spoil it all by slugging the letter “The power of scent is like a Proustian madeleine”? There is nothing Proustian about this anecdote. The first incident shows a toddler with a precocious awareness of smell. The second shows that as an adult he retains his smell identification ability, along with a good memory.

In neither instance was he transported to a full-blown evocation of an earlier time and place—whether by the instantaneous, effortless process described by many pre-Proustian writers, or by the slow, labored process described by Proust in Swann’s Way.

My guess is that some junior editorial assistant probably read French Literature at Cambridge and simply couldn’t resist justifying all that tuition money by working in a Proust reference.

Basta. In the interest of accuracy and history, isn't it time we begin to forget Proust’s madeleine?

Friday, June 4, 2021

Perfume Platitudes: Paging Crash Davis

 





The first law of fragrance marketing requires that every smellebrity introducing a perfume attest to a personal role in its creation.

The legendary Dolly Parton, now launching her first scent—Dolly: Scent from Above—has complied with tradition and issued the correct formulaic statement:

“I felt like a mad scientist trying to find the right combination, but we did and it took us about two years.”

Regarding her decision to enter the beauty business, she is also quoted as saying:

“I’m going to start with perfume. Everybody has always told me how good I smell.”

Wut? That sounds like an enormous non sequitur. But then we note this on her website:

“The truth is, I have been blending my own scent for years. It’s a combination of bath oils, powders and perfumes that have become my “signature” and is known everywhere I go. It’s time for me to share this with you. I hope you enjoy!”

IFRA? I don’t need no stinkin’ IFRA!

FirstNerve is inclined to award Ms. Parton a honorary Mad Scientist degree for her fearless personal efforts at blending.

Meanwhile Iggy Azalea reaches back to her long-neglected Australian roots (she grew up in Mullumbimby, NSW) in making the de rigueur claim of personal involvement in the creation of her new fragrance: 

Iggy said she was inspired by Australian native flora when concocting the aroma.

Apparently Australian sandalwood is a top note in Devil’s Advocate. [Top note?—Ed.] [Whatev. Just go with the flow.]

Thursday, June 3, 2021

Trending on Twitter

 

Everyone loves ISDP humor.

Sunday, May 30, 2021

Things that “Everyone Knows”

 

Among the things that “everyone knows” because it is just so damned obvious is that smoking impairs your sense of smell. Yet when one tabulates the studies looking at tobacco use and odor perception, the conventional wisdom crumbles more easily than the ash on a Macanudo. 

I wrote about this in What the Nose Knows, and studies since then have confirmed my skepticism: some find a link, others don’t.

A newly published “scoping review” collated the results of over 700 studies, seeking statistical associations between “social determinants of health” and olfactory function. They found some significant links (e.g., exposure to environmental and occupational toxins), but “the associations between olfactory dysfunction and education level and lifestyle factors such as smoking and drinking seem to be much more elusive.” (Translation: “we know those factors matter, we just couldn’t find convincing evidence.”)

How much more elusive was smoking as a factor? This elusive:

Of the 28 studies that examined smoking, 12 demonstrated significant positive correlation between smoking status and [olfactory dysfunction].

In other words, the majority of studies (16/28) found no link. The conventional wisdom is still batting less than .500.

The study discussed here is “Association between social determinants of health and olfactory function: a scoping review,” by Joel James, Avraham M. Tsvik, Sei Y. Chung, John Usseglio, David A. Gudis, Jonathan B. Overdevest, published in International Forum of Allergy and Rhinology published online May 28, 2021.

Friday, May 21, 2021

Amorphophallus titanum: End of the Grift?

 

In Alameda, California a “local gardener” invited people to an abandoned gas station and let them smell and touch his giant misshapen penis . . . plant. Nothing sketchy about this at all.

Is it just me, or has the pace of stinky “corpse flower” blossomings slowed since the pandemic? We were usually good for several such exhibitions a year at botanical gardens around the county. All that was missing were the tour t-shirts.

Perhaps specimens of giant misshapen penis plant—the literal name according to its Latin binomial, not the consumer-friendly sanitized version—all just “happened” to cease sending up their grotesque, foul-smelling inflorescences at the same time. Or perhaps their owners adjusted lighting and feeding regimes to delay the blessed events until such time as paying throngs are once again able to attend in person. Just saying.

If this cynical conjecture is correct, we should witness an epic outbreak of penis plant erections later this year. (It’ll be the biggest interdimensional crossrip since the Tunguska blast of 1909!—Ed.)

Meanwhile, in a plot twist that sounds like it was ripped from the pages of an upcoming Nick Zollicker story, the Witte Museum in San Antonio plans to fake it till they make it. That is, the museum will present a life-size model of an A. titanum blossom and allow patrons to sample a recreation of its aroma from a “smell station.” Welcome to the Audio-Animatronics® version! It’s the Disneyfication of giant misshapen penis plants.

I expect the San Antonio folks will be getting an earful any day now from the  cartel of botanical garden directors.

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

A Gloomy Day on Social Media

 

It snowed a couple of inches yesterday across the Front Range of the Rockies and this morning the lilacs and the aspen saplings at FirstNerve Manor were bent under the icy weight. It’s been dark, overcast, and raining all day long. One stares out the window waiting for something better to happen. Then, just when one begins to reorganize the pencil drawer comes a flash of insight—what a perfect afternoon to weed out the LinkedIn connections!

Some calls are easy—those people you interacted with years ago but whose careers have gone off in entirely different directions from your own. It’s unlikely you will ever have a professional interest in common with them again. So—“Remove Connection.”

Then there are the connections that bring you up short—the old friend who died unexpectedly nearly a year ago. It seems callous to delete the link, but even a candle lit in his memory would eventually burn out. (“Remove Connection.”) Then the likeable guy you pitched some business with before he dropped dead after a squash game a decade ago. You went to his funeral and memorialized him here. Does a persistent online link express anything further? (“Remove Connection.”) Ditto the former client’s late husband who you liked and respected.

Even more depressing is to find the connections who, once in senior positions, are now retired. One thinks, uncharitably, that they are now just taking up virtual space in your LinkedIn connections. (“Remove Connection,” “Remove Connection,” etc.)

The same goes for academics who have levitated themselves into “emeritus” status. (“Remove Connection.”) And then, a long-ignored discontent bubbles up—why link to any academics at all? Professors are easily found via their campus web pages. Basta. (Three more “Remove Connections.”)

The late afternoon sun has broken through and the birds are singing once again. The virtual thicket has been thinned out and is ready to welcome new tendrils of professional linkage. Time for a drink.

Saturday, May 8, 2021

Yeah, About That TPS Report Cover Sheet . . .

 

Unlike ex-Initech employee Peter Gibbons, I’m a fan of TPS reports. That is to say, studies of terpene synthases (TPS) in cannabis. These are the plant enzymes that turn precursor molecules into the various fragrant terpenes behind each strain’s aroma profile. Some TPS enzymes convert geranyl diphosphate into a slew of monoterpenes, while others convert farnesyl diphosphate to a bunch of sesquiterpenes.

Identification of cannabis terpene synthases and the genes that produce them is a relatively new field. Canadian researchers led by Judith K. Booth at UBC in Vancouver were early leaders in this effort and last fall they published another study. This one, in Plant Physiology, was the subject of a “news and views” piece in the same issue, written by Marc-Sven Roell at the Heinrich-Heine University in Düsseldorf.

Like Bill Lumbergh, I have some issues with Roell’s TPS report cover sheet. Specifically, with his claims about what is required for future cannabis breeding efforts aimed at fragrance and flavor.

To predict and design cannabis smell and taste to meet consumer demands, two milestones have to be reached. First, a comprehensive understanding of terpene composition is required, which can be achieved by using quantitative terpene profiling in existing cultivars. Second the underlying molecular and biochemical mechanisms leading to these distinct profiles need to be understood.

Roell insists that we must first know everything about terpenes in all cultivars—their complete chemical composition plus their physiological means of production—before we can get around to breeding hybrids with specific consumer appeal.

Notice anything missing? How about sensory evaluation of the smell and taste of the existing cultivars? And how about relating perceived aroma to differences in terpene composition?

Roell no doubt expects to find cultivar to cultivar differences in terpene composition, which he assumes will equate to differences in aroma and flavor. But differences in chemical composition don’t necessarily translate into perceptible differences in aroma, much less differences that are meaningful to cannabis consumers. So his strategy of starting with comprehensive knowledge of terpene composition will be enormously inefficient.

This objection also cuts in the opposite direction. As a plant physiologist, Roell ought to know that even within genetically identical clones, terpene composition can vary with growing conditions. Thus, it is possible that within-clone variation could result in perceptible aroma differences.

So either way you look at it, Roell’s insistence that baseline chemical data is an absolute prerequisite for breeding better smelling cannabis is pretty weak, especially when he totally neglects sensory measurement.

In fact, I’d argue that the best way to assist breeding efforts is begin with quantitative sensory evaluation of a range of existing cultivars. Next, cross-tabulate aroma profiles with sales and consumer preference data to obtain a ranking of most-valued sensory traits. Go back to your list of cultivars and start hybridizing for likely winners. It’s the purely phenotypic selection method that worked very well for Luther Burbank in the days before gene sequencing and gas chromatography. This approach would get the program going a lot faster than Roell’s “study the hell out of everything before making a move” strategy. I think he has it totally backwards—sensory analysis should precede chemical analysis.

“Hello Marc-Sven, what’s happening?

We have sort of a problem here. Yeah, you apparently didn’t include sensory analysis in your new cover sheet on the TPS report.

Did you see the memo about this?

Yeah, if you could just go ahead and make sure you do that from now on that would be great. 

And I’ll go ahead and make sure you get another copy of that memo.”

The study discussed here is “Terpenes in Cannabis: Solving the puzzle of how to predict taste and smell,” by Marc-Sven Roell, published in Plant Physiology 184:8-9, 2020.

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Smells from Beyond

 

In a series of pre-Halloween posts a decade ago, I examined ghostly smell stories and poems including examples from the Victorian English novelist Wilkie Collins, the 19th century American writer Bret Harte, the Irish poet W.B. Yeats, and an English novel (“The Uninvited”) that was made into a movie starring Ray Milland.

I was reminded of them this week when I came across a new study: “Perceptual phenomena associated with spontaneous experiences of after-death communication: Analysis of visual, tactile, auditory and olfactory sensations.”

Have I started dabbling in occultism? Not exactly. The paper appears in Explore: The Journal of Science & Healing, published by Elsevier, which claims to address “the scientific principles behind, and applications of, evidence-based healing practices from a wide variety of sources, including conventional, alternative, and cross-cultural medicine.” Further, “It is an interdisciplinary journal that explores the healing arts, consciousness, spirituality, eco-environmental issues, and basic science as all these fields relate to health.”

OK, then!

So who conducted the study? Here’s the batting order:

Marjorie Woollacott, an emeritus professor of physiology whose focus is motor control.

Chris A. Roe, a professor of psychology at the University of Northampton in the UK who is President of the Society for Psychical Research and whose most recent publication is a chapter titled “Clinical parapsychology: The interface between anomalous experiences and psychological wellbeing.”

Callum E. Cooper, a senior lecturer in psychology at Northampton, who holds two doctorates and whose most recent publication is the entry on “Anal Intercourse” for the Encyclopedia of Sex and Sexuality.

David Lorimer, Programme Director of something called the Scientific and Medical Network, and an editor and author of many books including Survival? Death as a Transition; he is interviewed in a recent youtube video.

Evelyn Elsaesser, an independent researcher in Switzerland and author of, among other books, On the other side of life: Exploring the phenomenon of the near-death experience.

So what have they delivered?

The study itself consists of a lengthy 194-item online questionnaire that was filled out by 991 people, mostly women (85%) with a median age of 51 years. The olfactory data appear in Table 6. In response to the question “Did you smell a fragrance characteristic of the deceased which made you think he/she was present?” 28% of respondents said yes. Of these, 60% also said yes to the next question: “Did you feel that the deceased was conveying a message to you by way of this fragrance?”

The authors give us an idea of what smells were reported:

“The fragrances typically included aftershave lotion, a typical body scent, perfume or soap, but many odors were noted in the descriptions, including tobacco, food and flowers.”

Smells were the least common sensory impression (28%) reported by people who experienced ADC. The most frequent were tactile (48%), visual (46%), and auditory (44%). While noting that there is considerable variability in the representation of the individual senses in previous studies of ADC, the authors don’t have much to say about the proportions they found.

For what it’s worth, I would point out that the substantially lower incidence of smells compared to sights and sounds is consistent with what’s been reported for sensory impressions in dreams and hallucinations.

The paper is mildly interesting for the cross-sensory tabulations insofar as they relate to smells in phantosmia, dreams, and hallucinations. Whether there is anything else worth pursuing on the topic of after-death communication is, in my opinion, dubious. Interestingly, the funders of the study are publicity-shy:

Funding: This work was supported by a foundation that wishes to remain anonymous. The funding organization had no influence on the final research design, data collection, analysis, interpretation of data, the writing of the report or the decision to submit the article for publication.

UPDATE May 7, 2021

And right on cuespooky new Netflix movie Things Heard & Seen features among other things a smelly ghost.

The study discussed here is “Perceptual phenomena associatedwith spontaneous experiences of after-death communication: Analysis of visual,tactile, auditory and olfactory sensations,” by Marjorie Woollacott, Chris A. Roe, Callum E. Cooper, David Lorimer, and Evelyn Elsaesser, published online in EXPLORE, February 23, 2021.

Thursday, April 22, 2021

Keeping Up with the News

I’ve tracked new scientific findings about the human sense of smell for a long time. Rather than just file them away for my own interest, I posted one-sentence summaries of clinically relevant findings to the Disorders of Odor Perception website at hyposmia.com. I was doing so on a more or less weekly basis until about a year ago when covid hit the fan and disrupted my routine along with everyone else’s.

Over the course of the year, “regular” publications on smell science were overwhelmed by a flood of papers on covid-related smell loss. I tried to keep up with these for while, but it was simply too much to handle and eventually I stopped updating the site.

Recently, when I decided to resume posting new material to Disorders of Odor Perception, it occurred to me that the web design was hopelessly out of date: the site looked OK on laptops, but was barely legible on phone or tablet. So I redesigned the site to make it “responsive”, i.e., it adapts to the device you view it on and is (hopefully!) much easier to read on mobile devices.

As before, new content appears in three categories: Smell Loss (hyposmia and anosmia); Smell Distortion (parosmia, phantosmia, etc.); and News & Reviews.

I also updated the format of the “new content” emails. They now contain direct links to the original source items—no need to go back to website to find them. This ought to make the emails much more user friendly.

If you are a clinician or patient or just interested in the topic of smell disorders, I encourage you to sign up for the email alerts. It’s a painless way to keep up with new work in the field.

Sunday, April 18, 2021

Pardon Me, Do You Have Any Mouse Poupon?

Here’s a tasty new offering from researchers at the Centre des Sciences du Goût et de L’Alimentation in Dijon, France: “Male mice and cows perceive human emotional chemosignals: a preliminary study.”

How do you know if a mouse is perceiving chemosignals of human fear? It poops out more fecal pellets.

How do you know if a cow prefers chemosignals from nonstressed humans? It spends more time smelling the bucket that contains them.

How do you obtain these wondrous human chemosignals? The old cotton pads in the underarms gambit. You get some engineering students to abstain from stinky food and perfume for a few days (major sacrifice—this is France, after all) and wear the pads during a regular class (non-stress) and during an exam (stress).

What can I say? I admire the weirdness of the experimental design. I wonder if members of the ethics panel of the French Ministry of Higher Education and Research managed to keep a straight face during the review meeting.

Sidebar: The title of the paper mentions “male mice” and “cows,” when in fact the animals used were male mice and nulliparous female bovines. Shit-kicking American readers would expect “male mice and heifers,” but evidently the heifer vs cow distinction isn’t recognized in the editorial offices of Animal Cognition.

And finally, with apologies to the man from Nantucket:

There once was a heifer from Dijon,
Whose nostrils scientists seized on,
She found it a balm,
When the students smelled calm,
And the researchers gained a citation.

The study discussed here is “Male mice and cows perceive human emotional chemosignals: a preliminary study,” by Alexandra Destrez, Morgane Costes‑Thiré, Anne‑Sophie Viart, Floriane Prost, Bruno Patris and Benoist Schaal, published online in Animal Cognition, April 11, 2021.

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Blame it on the Whales

It’s not often that our Google Alert for “higher than normal volumes of mullet breeding” returns a news item, but when it does it’s a doozy. Today’s story is from Cape Town, South Africa or more specifically Cape Town’s V&A Waterfront, billed as “a place where crowds gather to eat, drink, shop, socialize, and admire breathtaking views of Table Mountain.” Apparently a new breathtaking feature is the stench of rotting fish. These have accumulated in the harbor due to HTNVOMB along with a pair of humpback whales who chased a school of mackerel to an oxygen-starved demise in the shallow waters.

Thursday, March 18, 2021

Genius!

 

This guy in Brooklyn has jumped onto the non-fungible token craze by selling digital recordings of his own farts.

This is brilliant on so many levels.

While giving Alex Ramírez-Mallis all due credit as a (f)art world innovator, I do have some reservations. Having listened to a few of his audibles, he seems to be—if not a true squeaker—a short-burst specialist. The type Dr. Raymond Stantz might classify as “a focused, non-terminal, repeating phantasm or a class-five full-roaming vapor. A real nasty one, too.”

You can spend your crypto-currency on ARM’s staccato output, or you could wait for someone in the basso profundo category with a more sostenuto style of delivery. It’s all a matter of taste.

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

You Better Listen to the Radio

 

I’ve known Saskia Wilson-Brown since she first began organizing the Institute for Art and Olfaction in Los Angeles almost eight years ago. The IAO is now a thriving center for perfumery training, workshops, seminars, and scent-related events. Saskia’s latest innovation is Perfume on the Radio, a twice-monthly broadcast that is also available in podcast here and from the usual sources (Spotify, iHeartRadio, etc.).

I am one of the guests on Episode 5, dubbed “The Vice Show.” Saskia and I talk about the aromas of cannabis, how strain names get in the way of consumer experience, and the developing parallels between weed and aromatherapy. My segment begins at around minute 16. It’s free and it’s about 10 minutes long.

Friday, March 12, 2021

Coming Soon: A Live Virtual Appearance

 

The Cannabis Chemistry Subdivision of the American Chemical Society has been incredibly active in organizing symposia and publications on key topics in the cannabis sector. One of their ongoing events is a monthly “journal club” held as a live webinar.

I’ve been invited to give this month’s presentation on March 25 at 11:00 a.m. Pacific Standard Time. My topic is: Cannabis terpenes: Cultivar markers, aroma sources, or active ingredients?

(Yes, I’ll push all three hot buttons in one talk.)

There’s a Q&A session following my presentation, to be moderated by Nigam Arora, PhD. The webinar is free and open to the public. To register for it go to this link.

Hope to see your there!

Sunday, March 7, 2021

Sommeliers Take It on the Nose

 

Robert Camuto, the Wine Spectator editor who interviewed me about his COVID-19-related smell loss, has a new piece up at the magazine. He surveys the experiences of sommeliers who have had the illness and how the olfactory disturbances have impacted their professional lives.

I thought of Camuto a few days ago when I found a paper in The Laryngoscope by a multi-European group of clinicians including Thomas Hummel and Carl Philpott. The study examined recovery from post-infectious olfactory dysfunction (PIOD) among patients who undertook olfactory training—a regimen formulated by Hummel and others which has shown promise in speeding the return of smell. The new paper, based retrospectively on 153 PIOD patients, finds that the presence of parosmia—altered smell impressions—at the initial visit is, somewhat paradoxically, a marker of better eventual recovery in odor identification and discrimination.

The study discussed here is “Parosmia is associated withrelevant olfactory recovery after olfactory training,” by David T. Liu, Maha Sabha, Michael Damm, Carl Philpott, Anna Oleszkiewicz, Antje Hähner, and Thomas Hummel, published in The Laryngoscope 131:618, 2021. The paper is available for free download at the link.

Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Blurbalicious


 










My exploration of the interplay between scent and the other senses began when I ran a sensory psychology research group for Givaudan-Roure fragrances. The company’s perfumers and fragrance evaluators talked about notes and accords using remarkably precise and vivid language. After taking part in smell training sessions, and meetings where we discussed potential fragrance submissions to clients, I began to think that these multisensory metaphors might have a measurable empirical basis. That was the hunch that sparked a research program that established the links between scent and the domains of color and auditory pitch.

I used those results to create practical commercial applications for the company, and later used similar techniques to help my own clients incorporate multisensory alignment in their product development work.

Over the years, cross-modal perception has really taken off as a research topic. The studies have come thick and fast: Does the color of the plate influence your liking of the food? Does the weight of a glass impact the flavor impression of your drink?

While these studies have been done by dozens of labs around the world, by far the most prolific and influential researcher is Charles Spence, a professor in the Department of Experimental Psychology at the University of Oxford. Spence has created a Crossmodal Research Laboratory and spawned a number of very successful students. He has also been generous in citing my earlier work in his papers.

So I was pleasantly surprised to receive an advance copy of his latest book along with an inquiry from his publisher asking me to blurb it. In Sensehacking: How to Use the Power of Your Senses for Happier, Healthier Living, Spence applies the principles of multisensory perception to everyday life—he wants to help people declutter their sensorium in a practical way.

I liked the book well enough to offer a blurb. Lo and behold, not only did the publisher use it, but it made the front cover, beating out blurbs by five other Big Names who were relegated to the back of the dust jacket. </gloat>

“Spence does for the senses what Marie Kondo does for homes.”

Put that in your blurb bong and smoke it.

Sensehacking goes on sale in the USA on March 5. May he sell a million copies.

Saturday, February 27, 2021

Culling the Herd












I have far more books than shelf space. I could buy more bookshelves but then the living room would start to look like the library of an English country house and I’m just not in the mood for Victorian clocks and Wedgewood vases.

Unlike the previous FirstNerve Manor, the current house has no attic where I can stow boxes of books. And when it comes to limited basement storage space, wine takes priority.

So today I hauled out box B219: my collection of books by Stephen Jay Gould. Back in the last century I subscribed to Natural History magazine where Gould had a monthly column. These used to appeal to me as a graduate student and post-doc heavily into natural history and evolutionary theory—and the history of science concerning both. It was easier to buy the book (e.g., The Panda’s Thumb) than keep a stack of old magazines around for reference. With his enormous popularity—every collection of essays received a major review in the NYT—I figured the first editions would hold value.

Gould was something of an academic celebrity back then, despite (or perhaps because of) his thinly veiled Marxism and trendy political views. Even as I kept buying his books, I grew weary of his moralizing and his prose, especially the faux folksiness (his whole “just another nerdy baseball fan” persona really grated). I find it puzzling today that I bought so many of his books, especially as I disliked the leading role he and the odious Richard Lewontin played in the disgraceful attacks on Edward O. Wilson and sociobiology. What was I thinking? [Completionism is a frequent co-morbidity to bibliophilia—Ed.]

So this afternoon I cast a gimlet eye over a stack of 15 volumes by Gould. I’d already determined that there is no market for them (mint condition first edition or not). I decided to keep Ontogeny and Phylogeny (1977) because it is a serious treatment of a major topic in evolutionary theory (no baseball references). Ditto The Structure of Evolutionary Theory (2002), even though I’ve never cracked it open. [Has anyone?—Ed.] Finally, I held on to The Mismeasure of Man (1981) because that book got Gould hoist on his own petard.

All the rest? They’re in the trash can and headed for the Larimer County landfill on Tuesday afternoon.

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

I'll Get Right on It












Step away from social media for a few weeks and your life becomes less cluttered.

But social media is relentless, like a leaky pipe slowly filling your basement with water.

At this point I don’t want to sign back into LinkedIn unless I’m wearing my hip waders because I’ll be ass deep in “Congratulate Cindy Sue on her work anniversary!” and “Bob Schmo has reposted inspirational thoughts on how to be a team leader” and other flotsam.

Meh.

Maybe later.

Saturday, February 13, 2021

The Tao of Terpenes

 

When I moved to Colorado a few years ago I got interested in the aroma of marijuana. I founded a start-up called Headspace Sensory LLC and began a series of consumer research sniff studies. Three of these have been published so far, and they constitute the nucleus of the brand new field of cannabis psychophysics. You can find them here, here, and here

Along the way I’ve met many people and read a lot about the subject. My impression of the scientific and commercial “cannabis space” is that it is a mixed bag. There are some very talented, very focused people doing excellent work in areas like chemical analysis, plant genetics, and product development. On the other hand, there are lots of people whose hot air to solid content ratio tilts rather heavily toward HA. 

One thing that gets the alarm on the FirstNerve bogosity meter bleeping the loudest is the topic of terpenes. Terpenes are a chemical class of volatile molecules and they are responsible in large part for making weed smelly weedy. That much is true. But one doesn’t have to follow the online terpene trail very far to find perfumey punditry of the most egregious kind. [Take pity and refrain from naming names.—Ed.] [Okay, if you insist.]

So I was pleased when the editor of Terpenes and Testing magazine invited me to write a short article on the chemistry and perception of cannabis terpenes. It gave me the chance to describe some fundamental principles of odor perception and how they apply to the bouquet of terpenes found in cannabis flower. One important lesson: the sheer abundance of a given terpene doesn’t tell us much about its contribution to a flower’s overall aroma. 

In the article I also describe my dream of creating a cannabis aroma map on which individual cultivars are arranged according to smell similarity, and my belief that sensory evaluation—sniff testing—has a major role to play in segmenting the cannabis consumer market. 

If you would like to read it, you can download at this link.

Tuesday, February 9, 2021

Noted in Passing







FirstNerve’s wildly popular but now dormant “I Smell Dead People” feature began with an observation in my book. I noted that stories about the “Body in the Bed”—motel guests complaining of a foul odor in their room which the manager later discovers is due to a corpse hidden beneath the bed—were not urban legends but in fact quite common occurrences. 

Way back in 2009, ISDP covered the case of Anthony Sowell, a Cleveland man accused of killing as many as 11 women and stashing their bodies in the house where he lived. One reason he was able to get away with these crimes was that people who smelled the putrefaction often assumed the smell was coming from a sausage factory next door. You can find all the gory details here.

So why bring up Anthony Sowell now? Because the bastard has just died peacefully (unlike his victims) in an Ohio prison hospital. 

He will not be missed.

Sunday, February 7, 2021

#5 Combination Plate



 






There’s a entertaining piece by Chris Vanjonack in Westword about Denver’s legendary Casa Bonita restaurant. Yes, the place featured in the classic South Park episode is, in fact, an actual and much-loved kitsch-classic Mexican restaurant. It’s been around since 1974 and has outlived its sibling locations in Tulsa, Fort Worth, Little Rock, and Oklahoma City. Eric Cartman wasn’t the first kid to become delirious with joy at the prospect of attending a friend’s birthday party at Casa Bonita—it’s been a dining destination for generations of Colorado kids. The 2003 South Park episode brought a surge of renewed traffic to the place, but like so many other restaurants in the state, it may have fallen victim to government-inflicted economic destruction of COVID-19 lockdowns. 

While we’re on the subject of Mexican food [Awk segue—Ed.] there’s something that’s been bothering me—and I wonder whether I’m alone on this. The last can of refried beans I warmed up was . . . disappointing. Instead of melting into a nice, bubbling, spoonable consistency in the pan, they remained a semi-solid mass of spackle-like stiffness. Naturally I figured I’d bought the vegetarian version by mistake. But no—it was Rosarita brand Traditional Refried Beans. And I recalled a similar experience with the last couple of cans of my usual brand: Old El Paso Traditional Refried Beans. A little research shows I’m not the only one noticing a difference. 

Check out the current consumer ratings on the brand’s home page: 

Twenty-nine of thirty reviewers give Old El Paso’s TRB a one-star rating. And the comments are merciless. There appears to have been a recent change in the recipe. 

Hmmm. I wonder if Old El Paso decided to reduce the amount of lard? Lard is probably the ingredient that gives refried beans their melty quality, and produces the tasty puddle next to the rice on your restaurant combo platter. It’s out of fashion now among the high-minded nutrition nannies. Did the company cave? Inquiring minds want to know.

Saturday, February 6, 2021

Platitudes R Us









When I was razzing IFF’s Mr. Big Andreas Fibig for his empty platitudes, I said they sounded like “the output of a Random Mission Statement Generator.” Well guess what I discovered today? An online service called Name My Think Tank that not only generates a name for your think tank, it creates a logo and a mission statement. Give it a try!

With a little tweaking to the code, someone ought to be able to come up with Rebrand My Flavor & Fragrance Company. It could save the industry a ton in consultant’s fees.

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Starting the Transformative Journey

 

Take a moment to savor a heaping spoonful of non-nutritive verbiage served up yesterday by the Chairman and CEO of a major company: 

“Today we start a transformative journey together to become a center of innovation for our customers. Our leadership team believes passionately in the importance and benefit of being a purpose-driven enterprise. We will lead not simply by relying on an unmatched portfolio and flawless execution, but by quickly unlocking new innovations as we tap into our shared passion for pairing science and creativity to deliver for our customers. We are creating an agile, empowered and innovative business that provides exceptional service and delivers on our commitment to be an essential partner for our customers.”

Like that? There’s more. 

“Critical to our success is our ability to foster an execution culture and embed values that support our promises to our people, customers, consumers and our communities. To that end, we have updated our cultural principles to ensure we have the foundation in place to empower our people to deliver on our commitments.” 

Is this heap of platitudinous horseshit the output of a Random Mission Statement Generator? Nuh-uh. It was delivered by Andreas Fibig, the Chairman and CEO of International Flavors & Fragrances. That’s right—this guy runs one of the world’s largest players in the refined, romantic, glamorous world of perfumery and he makes his company sound . . . bland and colorless. Gavin Belson he’s not. 

Exit question: What is an “execution culture”? Is that like Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge? North Korea today? Or is it the new B-school buzz phrase for “we get the job done”?

UPDATE February 3, 2021

Seriously?

“BRAWNDO® – It’s got what plants crave!”