Sunday, January 31, 2021

Another “New York Death”?

Hey, I’m as big a fan of Febreze® as the next guy, but I think it’s a tall order for that product to handle the smell of human decomposition. This case reported by the New York Post will ring a bell with fans of FirstNerve’s long-standing “I Smell Dead People” feature which, if memory serves, recorded instances of people attempting to hide the smell of rotting corpses with scented candles and air fresheners.

Cops believe the actor who was found dead with his mom’s body in Chelsea lived with her decomposing corpse for several days before he also passed away — and that he used Febreze to mask the odor, law-enforcement sources said Sunday.

ISDP fans will note that this is not a bona fide case of “I Smell Dead People” because the remains of the unfortunate Mr. Wedell and his mother were not discovered by smell, but via a police wellness check requested by concerned relatives. 

Enjoy the screenshot of the Post story in case a copy editor wakes up and notices the product name was misspelled in the headline.

Friday, January 29, 2021

The Shape of Stinks to Come: The Green Revolution Devours Boulder County’s Open Space


I’ve written here several times about composting, the high-minded effort to turn waste into re-usable mulch. When it comes to setting up large-scale composting operations, these efforts tend to follow a familiar sad sequence. The initial proposal assures the public that the facility will be run according to the latest best practices and result in minimal odor, if any. Once the operation gets underway, nearby residents start to notice objectionable smells. The facility may deny being the source; there may be a back-and-forth as the town tries to document the stink and locate its origin. The facility may own up to being the source, and offer assurances that the smell is a mere hiccup that will disappear once the operation is fully optimized. When the smell and local objections continue, the town hires consultants who recommend installing some sort of odor remediation system. The result: the entire project comes in heavily over budget and leaves a lot of ill will in its wake. 

A common feature of these episodes is a failure to take potential odor issues seriously from the very start of the project. Why does this happen? I think it’s because proponents of large-scale composting don’t anticipate issues of scale. 

Home composting enthusiasts maintain little heaps of banana peels, apple cores, and lawn clippings in their backyards. These produce a small amount of innocuous odor. So what’s the problem in just adding everyone’s little heap to a town compost pile? 

The problem is that the amount of biomass in a commercial or municipal composting facility is exponentially larger than a backyard heap, and that the resulting odor production will also be exponentially larger. Massive odor generation is a certainty—it’s an operational issue that ought to be dealt with in detail at the preliminary engineering stage. It is not enough for planners and proponents to blithely claim that proper “turning over” and aeration of the pile will minimize odor. 

Now comes a story out of Longmont, Colorado, roughly 35 miles south of FirstNerve headquarters. Three residents have filed a lawsuit against a proposed composting facility—one that hasn’t even been built. Among other things, the lawsuit anticipates loss of property values should the facility-to-be emit “noxious odors.” Is this simply a case of NIMBYism or is there something more to it? 

What is at issue is a proposal by Boulder County to build the facility on ~40 acres of land that was purchased, with voter approval, as preserved open space with a perpetual conservation easement. By law, the county’s open space “can be used solely for passive recreation, agriculture or environmental preservation purposes.” But that’s no problem for the three county commissioners. By using an obscure real estate doctrine and a recent land purchase they claim to have extinguished the conservation easement, giving themselves the ability to build a compost facility on the land. The commissioners pushed their plan through with a minimum of public notice. 

The 235-page plan is a classic instance of blithe disregard for potential odor issues. It mentions odor only four times:

(1) In the architect’s narrative under “Buildings”, it states that waste will be delivered to a 17,590 square foot “tipping building”: “This building is a fully enclosed, fully contained component of the operation that will minimize odors, provide visual screening, and prevent any leaching of feedstock liquids into the surrounding soil.” 

(2) In the “Operations” section under “Odor control”: “The CASP [“covered aerated static pile”] bunkers have been shown to reduce odors by 90-95% over conventional open pile windrow systems.” 

(3) In the “Proposed Conditions” section under “landscaping: “Newly landscaped areas are strategically located for visual screening and to reduce sound and odor impacts of the facility.” 

(4) And on page 12: “The existing site border of trees creates a natural setback from the road and would provide visual and odor screening.” 

The idea that a line of trees and other landscaping features will reduce and screen odors is laughable. The tipping building may indeed contain odors—as long as the doors are never opened. And once the dumped waste is moved out of the building for composting, the odor issue pops right back up. Finally, even assuming that the claim about CASP bunkers is correct, that residual 5 to 10% of odors may still reach obnoxious levels, especially since the county intends to process “125 million pounds of animal manure, sewage sludge and food waste per year.” 

Yes, that’s right: this is not just a food waste compost pile. It includes massive amounts of animal manure and sewage sludge (i.e., human manure). 

The city of Boulder gives Berkeley, California a run for its money when it comes to progressive politics. Boulder County has a “Zero Waste Action Plan” that aims for a goal of zero waste by 2025. The three county commissioners (all Democrats) seem hell-bent on getting there, even if it means overriding the declared intent of county residents. Will three residents be able to stop the onrushing tide of sludge? Stay tuned. You can track their battle here.

UPDATE March 22, 2021

The Boulder County commissioners caved and will no longer consider placing a composting facility on the open space in question. The county has filed motions to dismiss lawsuits by neighboring property owners. Story here.

Monday, January 25, 2021

Fragrance Creators Association Stands in Proud Solidarity with Glorious Dear Leader!


There are formal congratulations to a new administration and there are self-serving suck-ups. But the Fragrance Creators Association takes it to a whole new level: it’s full Juche Spirit. All that’s missing is the rhythmic clapping. 

Check it out:

WASHINGTON, DC—Fragrance Creators Association issued a statement today from President & CEO Farah K. Ahmed on the inauguration of President Joseph R. Biden and Vice President Kamala D. Harris:

“Fragrance Creators Association (Fragrance Creators) congratulates President Joseph R. Biden and Vice President Kamala D. Harris on this historic day of their inauguration. The association looks forward to working together to find solutions that empower the fragrance industry’s ability to advance key Administration priorities, including promoting sustainability, economic growth, and public health and wellness—especially during COVID-19—while also addressing important social causes of our time. 

Fragrance Creators applauds President Biden’s track record of reaching across the aisle to get things done for the American people. The association also recognizes the pressing need for our country and its leaders to come together in unity and shared values, and is committed to doing its part. We stand ready to leverage the bipartisan Congressional Fragrance Caucus, which was established in 2018 to bring together policymakers to develop policies that champion sound science and are good for people, perfume, and the planet. 

For our diverse, women-led team, today also marks a meaningful and historic milestone, as we welcome the first Black and Indian-American woman to serve as Vice President. We are inspired by Vice President Harris and the individuals who make up the most diverse Administration in our nation’s history. We relish the opportunity to build new relationships as we boldly break new ground to support our members’ ongoing leadership in responsible industry stewardship. 

For Fragrance Creators members, being good stewards means showing up and doing what’s right. The fragrance industry contributes over $22.4 billion to the U.S. economy, invests heavily in sustainable R&D and innovation, and is a strong driver of more than 200,000 well-paying jobs. The association’s diverse membership of 60 member companies reflects the dynamic fragrance value chain—from small, family-owned businesses to multinational corporations. On behalf of its member companies, Fragrance Creators remains committed to supporting President Biden and Vice President Harris and working with the 117th Congress to accelerate a brighter future for our country.” 


P.S. Dear Comrade Ahmed, never go full Juche.

P.P.S. The FCA sure is big on diversity: our diverse, women-led team, the most diverse Administration in our nation’s history, “the association’s diverse membership.So take a look at the organization's current board of directors, and . . . wallow in all the diversity.

Thursday, January 21, 2021

The Road to Recovery

I was interviewed last week by Robert Camuto, an editor at Wine Spectator who lost his sense of smell after a recent bout with COVID-19. I suggested that he try smell training to assist his recovery of function. You can read about his experience here in his new column.

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

A Note on Free Speech and Social Media


In addition to returning to FirstNerve, I’ve been re-evaluating my participation in social media. I’m a big believer in free speech and in freedom from being tracked and monetized by tech monopolies and their billionaire owners. So I’ve made a few changes in my life.

First off, I shut down my @scienceofscent and @scentofweed Twitter accounts. I will not be part of a platform where Jack Dorsey and his minions can arbitrarily shut down people, organizations, and viewpoints that they dislike. 

My disenchantment with Twitter had been growing for years. That’s why in August 2016 joined GAB as @Avery. Although I found a few people to follow, it wasn’t easy to get much traction there in the early days. Few of the big-name bloggers and pundits had joined, and those who had didn’t post much. This has changed dramatically in the past few months. There is a steady stream of big-name refugees from twitter and a ton of new subscribers. GAB has increased its server capacity big time and the user experience and speed are now excellent. I encourage you to join. 

Of course, I also had an account at Parler before it was thrown off the internet by Amazon Web Services. (“If you don’t like Twitter, go make your own version.” OK, they did. “If we won’t host you on our servers, go make your own.” OK, they’re trying to do that.) 

What about the journalists, pundits, and commentators I used to follow on Twitter? Simple: I subscribe to their email notifications directly or I sign up to follow them on Substack. Substack is an interesting model—it’s a free blogging platform that also allows you to monetize some or all of your content. In other words, you can offer some content for free and reserve other content for subscribers who pay a monthly subscription to get it. This might be a way to restore the independent blogging voices that were so great in the early years of this century. Stay tuned. 

I’ve also grown weary of Google. (Yes, I know it owns Blogger and therefore enables FirstNerve.) Over the past year or so the results returned by its search engine have become . . . less useful. The first page or two of results are from a limited group of news providers and websites. Image searches are biased to stock photo companies. (Do they pay for placement?) This is not the freewheeling Google search of old—it feels rigged. Plus, Google tracks and monetizes the search histories of everyone who uses the service. Who wants that? My solution is to use DuckDuckGo for searches: it works well and it doesn’t track you.  

Then there’s the matter of Gmail. I’ve had a “throw away” account there for years. That means Google bots finger through my correspondence looking for trends the company can monetize (never mind sorting my mail into categories whether I want it to or not). When the auto dealership reminds me it’s time for an oil change, Google knows my identity, the dealer’s identity, and the make and model of my car. The hell with that. I’ve now switched all those threads to my privately hosted email. 

Google also owns YouTube where it has been behaving badly—demonetizing and banning people, organizations, and views that it would rather not hear from. The good news is that there is now an alternative: It is clean, easy to use, and easy to monetize (if that’s your thing). I’m signed up as AveryGilbert, and am already seeing the service being populated by journalists and videographers with large following. Have a look and join in! 

Then there’s the other distasteful Silicon Valley tech oligarchy—Apple. The Messages on my iPhone are encrypted only went sent to other iPhone users; those exchanged with non-iPhones (the texts in the green bubbles) are not. So for peace of mind I’ve signed up with Signal, a service that provides end-to-end encryption of all your texts, voice calls, and video chats. It’s super-intuitive and fast. What’s not to like? Go get it. 

Bottom line: I sense a coming re-alignment in social media. The dominance of today’s tech oligarchy is beginning to slip. They could become tomorrow’s dinosaurs. It’s happened before (MySpace, anyone?). And high-tech is all about being “disruptive”, is it not?

Saturday, January 9, 2021

Goodbye to All That

Well . . . I’m back.

Yesterday I ended my eight-year dalliance with Twitter @scienceofscent. The precipitating reason was Twitter’s political censorship: it had reached such an intolerable level I could no longer associate myself with it.

I rarely posted about partisan politics. I figured my 1,440 followers wanted my take on sensory issues in science and culture, not my political views. The closest I came to expressing them was in posts about free speech and academic/scientific/commercial integrity. Spoiler alert: I believe in free speech and scientific integrity.

Few of the scientists I followed share my scruples. They salt their threads with political tweets and casually assume everyone agrees with their POV. (They are academics, so when on campus they assume correctly.) Especially grating are the Europeans who freely opine on American politics and society; personally, I wouldn’t presume to lecture Brits on Brexit, or Germans on the EU.

Another reason for leaving is that Twitter is now less engaging. There’s a big, interesting world out there and just not enough time to read the daily stream of humble brags (“so proud of my team’s newly published paper”) or flame wars on the biological basis of consciousness fought in 280-character salvos. The guarded, deliberately evasive language of some tweets isn’t worth the time it takes to puzzle them out. Finally, it’s my impression that comments in replies and retweets—the “social” part of social media—have become less frequent and less interesting.

To be fair, commenting on FirstNerve (and blogs in general) had declined as well, as people were drawn to the rapid fire adrenaline hits of likes and retweets. But I’m back here now hoping to rekindle the discussion by providing longer form coverage of all matters sensory.

I welcome your comments. You can sign up (on the right) to receive email notification of my new posts.