Monday, June 18, 2018

When Your Car Smells Like




If anyone has been to New York Penn Station in the past year, particularly the New Jersey Transit portion, you've smelled the overwhelming maple syrup streaming through the space.

That's a coolant problem. Coolant, or the sweet-smelling ethylene glycol, is getting out of the loop it's supposed to stay inside of, and because it's hot (made so as it tries to cool a hot motor) it evaporates and heads for your nose holes. And most people will just think, hmmm, what is that.

Now you know. And if your car smells like maple syrup, same thing. Get your radiator checked out. Don't forget, however, that Sotolon is the molecule that makes this smell, and it can also be found in Fenugreek, a spice often used in Indian food. It can also be found at the end of a packed bowl, also known as the smell of a "cashed bowl."

I took the picture above from an article on the Popular Mechanics site where they go on to list a few more odor-clues to car problems. I'm keeping this as reminder for myself, as I just had to deal with a bad radiator.

So they go on to metion the rest:
1. (Maple syrup - bad radiator)
2. Gym socks - too much condensation in the A/C vents grows mold in there
3. Sulfur - manual transmission gear lube leak
4. Gasoline - fuel system problem
5. Rotten eggs - bad catalytic converter
6. Burnt paper - clutch
7. Burning oil - leaky crankshaft
8. Burnt carpet - brakepads

Now since I'm not a mechanic, I'll let you go back to their site to see what to do about all this. In the meantime, don't forget to stop and smell the roses once in a while, it's a good way to catch problems before they get worse. (I have yet to mention the coolant problem to anyone at Penn Station.)

image source - Popular Mechanics

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Olfactory Comfort




Today I'm looking at a certification program for buildings, to ensure they have a nice vibe on the inside. It's called the WELL Certification.

And this isn't just about indoor air quality, but the quality of the overall environment in an indoor space. That includes lots of things, such as light levels, quality of light, daylight access, acoustics like whether sounds are sharp and bounce around or if they are dampened and absorbed by the space, and much more. What I found extra in this is the attention to odors in the environment

This WELL Certification regimen, which looks to ensure an overall healthy work environment, which I will assume to mean psychological health in addition to physical health, lists Olfactory Comfort as one of its standards.

According to their program, this can be achieved by reducing the transmission of strong smells and odors within the building - "source separation" they call it.
Keep the bathroom air or the cafeteria air separate from the rest of the air, that's what it means. You could install self-closing doors.

All restrooms, janitorial closets, kitchens, cafeterias and pantries should be designed in a way to prevent strong odors from migrating to workspaces. These are the techniques they list for separating spaces.

Negative pressurization
Use interstitial rooms and vestibules
Hallways
Self-closing doors


Word of the day - this is called pneumatic isolation, where the air in the rooms are isolated from each other. (pneumatic = Greek - "wind" or "breathing")


Indoor air quality in its essence is about keeping an adequate amount of fresh air inside (and keeping out, of course, toxic things like carbon monoxide or mold). One way to measure for fresh air is to look for carbon dioxide - we breathe carbon dioxide, and there is a lot if it in a room, that means the room hasn't been given enough fresh air to offset all the breathing humans in it.

And that means the indoor air quality will go down, as well as the overall indoor environmental quality. And one of the main reasons why we judge this as having less quality is just as much aesthetic as it is chemistry.

Carbon monoxide in the wrong amount can kill you, for sure, and we don't want any of that. Even low levels of mold and slightly elevated dust levels can be bothersome to people with weak respiratory systems.

But what sneaks under the radar are the little things that over time eat away at your productivity as a worker, and those can be simply aesthetic - bad lighting, bad acoustics, and the baddest, metabolic gases emitted by humans.*

Yup. We convert food to energy all day; we metabolize. And some of the by-products of that metabolism are not solids or liquids, but gases. And they smell, and there's something about smelling the intimate insides of a person who is not a part of your familial social circle. Something about that is bothersome, and it takes away tiny bits of our productivity over the days and years.


*Granted, some lighting can be so bad that it hurts your eyes, and some acoustics too, and some things that smell can be a sign that it's bad for you, but smells do not in themselves hurt you (and many gases that can hurt you do not smell at all).


Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Cloaca Maxima


Enjoy Cloaca, by Wim Delvoye

Inspired by a line in Charles Stross’ Singularity Sky, I thought we might want to bring back one of those great  words that gets lost in history.

“A cloacal smell plugged his nostrils, the distant olfactory echo of the corpses swinging from the lampposts in the courtyard.” p166

The cloaca is more than just an antiquated word that my spellcheck doesn’t recognize (funny I’m just now realizing that spellcheck is another word it doesn’t recognize.)

Barring the details, a cloaca is the back door to our body. Including the details, humans don’t actually have a cloaca, and neither do most mammals. But before we came on the scene, the cloaca was an essential part of the metabolism of advanced living organisms.

Prior to mammals, everything that left the body used the same orifice – solids, liquids and babies all came from the same place. And on a side note, as we develop in gestation from a potent zygote-ball, this cloacal hole is the first thing to deform our perfect mass of cells, followed by the opposite hole that becomes our mouth, so that we are essentially a bulging donut, hollow in the middle.

The word itself means “to cleanse” and is used to name the first sewers. In fact, the Cloaca Maxima was Ancient Rome’s first major sewer (and is another word, or name, that inspired me to write about it, caught while watching a documentary about the history of sewers). It was built in 600 BCE and still works today. Maybe that’s because it is presided over by the goddess Cloacina the Cleanser

Cloacina the Cleanser

The region of the body that houses this feature goes by many names (urban dictionary might give you some good ones, but I won’t get into it here), and the oil secreting glands in said region are polysemous as well. The oils that come out of this part of the body differ among animals, and for different purposes as well. Some use it to keep others away, some to make others come near.

You already know about this, because the smell of “musk” comes from this part of a Musk deer, although today we get it from a laboratory (and put it on our clothes and bedsheets and bathtowels while we clean them, to make them smell like an animal’s ass, I mean,  to make them smell clean).

Finally, artist Wim Delvoye remembers the word cloaca, because he made such a machine the size of a room that does the same as our digestive system, although ours fits in our body. (See that picture on top, and get a new appreciation for your gut.)



Wim Delvoye’s Cloaca Machine circa 2007




Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Patent Lingo



Childhood fame, it’s official – Play-Doh is the smell of a generation.

Now that the kids who spent their childhood mushing pink putty in their hands have become old enough to run the world, they’re changing the rules of intellectual property to protect their olfactory legacy.

Actually, says here Play-Doh has been around since 1956. But I am curious as to how many 60-year-olds today reminisce about the smell of Play-Doh? Feel free to comment on this. I asked a gentleman of about 50 but he’s from Germany. They had their own Play-Doh he says, and he didn’t recall its smell in the same way.

In the US, Play-Doh was a cultural phenomenon; is that what you would call it? For anyone who did not experience something I will call a standard American childhood, the colored putty probably just smells like putty.

To a trained fragrance designer who also did not experience the standard American childhood, it probably smells like “sweet, slightly musky, vanilla fragrance, with slight overtones of cherry, combined with the smell of a salted, wheat-based dough.” Because that’s what the trademark now says.

To that generation of US kids who played with it, it smells like childhood and fun.

So this is now a trademark, which I should assume is something like being protected under intellectual property or copyright law. This is a big deal then, because we can’t copyright fragrance. Fragrance and Fashion are two art forms that cannot be protected under the same laws that sent Pharrell into the courtroom over Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines.

In fact, after a quick perusal, it looks like there’s only ten other scents in this category (and the UK only has two). The ironic loophole here for Play-Doh is that a product that serves only the purpose of its scent cannot be protected. Play-Doh is a toy, not a perfume or a candle or a cardboard cutout of an evergreen tree. (In the UK, it’s for rose-scented car tires.)

Verizon stores have their own scent trademarked. One that I really like is this company that makes engine lubricant, and it’s got three different aromas that make your car exhaust smell like a fruit basket (cherry, grape and strawberry to be specific). "Fuel Fragrances" by Manhattan Oil, check it out. I like this one because it leads me to my quick diversion – scented Crayola crayons. What the heck were they thinking? They should’ve taken a page out of Play-Doh’s book. The Doh smells good, but it’s not an edible scent. Sure, they say “cherry overtones” and vanilla, but everything smells like cherry and vanilla, right? It’s just not the same as labeling a brown crayon “Chocolate” and then making it smell like chocolate.

In conclusion, and despite the excitement of this news, I am compelled to express my regret on this one issue: Using words to talk about smells is a joke. I understand that laws are made of words, and so that’s all we have, but this – doesn’t mean much in the world of smells.

I would much rather see it as “the smell of childhood and fun.” But I guess that’s too vague. (“Sweet, slightly musky, vanilla fragrance, with slight overtones of cherry, combined with the smell of a salted, wheat-based dough.”)


Hasbro trademarks Play-doh’s scent: Sweet, slightly musky
AP News, May. 18, 2018

Notes
The subject of intellectual property comes up a bit here, so I added some links for your interest:

Post Script
Play-Doh and used Play-Doh do not smell the same. Because it’s sticky, and kids can be gross, and together, that makes Play-Doh, potentially the grossest smelliest thing ever. Kids pat it down on peanut butter and paint-covered surfaces, then on the ground, then on their foreheads… Then they take that entire surface area and squish it upon itself, putting all those microbes that were on the outside, now on the inside, and making more, new outside that can now stick to new microbes, which will be squished back into itself again, and again. It might be the greatest recipe for a germ-bomb ever. Then again, according to this seemingly disruptive news about Leukemia and germs, that might not be a bad thing. Maybe Hasbro has another patent brewing as we speak.


Saturday, May 19, 2018

Water Chemistry



Thought I could shed some light on a trendy topic here:  water chemistry and baking success.

Everyone knows Brooklyn pizza is the best pizza, and that there is only one place in the world that makes bagels, and it’s New York City. (If you’ve ever had a bagel in Florida, you know what I’m talking about; unless it was literally baked in NY and shipped to FL, which isn’t uncommon.)

We heard recently the claims of a well-meaning group of entrepreneurs that NYC’s water is now available to the rest of the world. The company's claim: They will analyze your local tap water to calibrate a device that will tweak it to be just like New York City’s water.

What does the water taste like and why? Well, it tastes good, according to taste tests. And the reason is because New York City's water comes from natural reservoirs, highly protected from contamination. This allows the water to pick up minerals in the ground that it passes as it makes its way through the water cycle. Also, the ground it passes is low in calcium, which makes things taste bitter (not better, bitter).

Chances are, however, that taste is not the reason why NYC gets so much props for its water. Chances are it's the chemistry of baking, which is a complicated thing, except to say that it's the chemicals, stupid.

The chemicals themselves are thrown into the Maillard arena to break down and transform.  Pyrrolines and pyridines are some of the bread-smelling chemicals created in this culinary laboratory – the “pyro-“ parts of their names indicate their origin in fire.

I just named two chemicals, but baked goods emanate hundreds of chemicals, all dependent not only on the original chemicals present, but on the nature and extent of the heating reactions. Just like the analogy of the butterfly effect, initial conditions can have a drastic effect on results. In a process as complex as the heated Maillard reaction, a slight change in the initial ingredients can have wide-ranging effects on the bun in the oven.

Taste/smell isn’t the only thing that is subject to change here – texture is a big factor as well, and is affected just as much based on initial ingredients.

Is it the case that the same chemicals that make your water taste good also make your bread taste good and also make you bread the perfect combination of fluffy-chewy-crunchy? Maybe not, but in the case of New York City’s water, some have it all.

Post Script
In case you thought NYC had it all, Paris just put bubbly water in it's water fountains. We call that carbonated water.

Rotten Egg Smell Orbits Uranus




BBC, so professional, didn't even crack a smile in this article. The atmosphere of Uranus has hydrogen sulfide in it. Not too much of a surprise, but we finally have evidence. And reason to write this in a headline.

Apr 2018, BBC


Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Roses Really Do



OutKast – Roses – 2003

It’s true. Roses really do smell like the end product of our metabolism. Two major constituents of the smell of roses are Skatole and Indole, which are good olfactory representatives of excrement. They’re also used extensively in perfume.

This may or may not explain why many air fresheners (at least as far as I know since the dawn of aerosolized air fresheners) smell like roses. Regardless of whether shit and flowers go together like peanut butter and jelly, it was used a lot as an air freshener scent, at least as far as the early 90’s. (Anyone like to weigh-in here on the history of air fresheners?)

But this fact does explain why I, among others I’m sure, hallucinate excrement when smelling roses – you expect it to be there. This is called redintegration, a kind of hallucination, and it’s explained in this clip from Hidden Scents:

Part of a smell can carry with it the co-occurring odor molecules around them in the memory, and it will later be used to substitute for the whole. Strains of cannabis, aside from the strong skunk-like smell, can have significant amounts of limonene in them. Through redintegration, the potent smells of such cannabis become so tied together that upon smelling an orange (almost entirely limonene), a frequent user might hallucinate the other odors of cannabis along with the orange. This phenomenon represents an apparition superimposed in order to satisfy the nose-brains’ insistence on predicting an odor based on limited or partial information – a behavior that is not limited to olfactory perception.


Post Script

The scent of “musk” comes from the neither region of the musk deer. Just saying. Today you wouldn’t know that, because that scent of musk is now more associated with fresh laundry. Musk is a very big molecule, for a smell, and it sticks really well to your clothes even as they’re being washed, so it’s the main ingredient in laundry detergents.

When you smell “clean laundry,” you don’t think you’re smelling musk, but you are. Funny how today we associate clean with a thing that ultimately comes from an animal’s butt. (Please note that today, most if not all musk comes from a laboratory and not an animal.)