Wednesday, August 15, 2018

The Smell Memory Kit

Sissel Tolaas is a maniac. And if you don't know who she is, you should, because she's pushing the olfactory world to the brink of utopia.

Smell researcher extraordinaire, she does a lot of crazy things related to smells. She also has a knack for understanding and exploring the autobiographical aspects of smell.

In this project, the Smell Memory Kit, she hacks through the jungle of our olfactory system to deliver an idea, and a product, that is actually really useful.

This Kit uses "abstract smells" created in her lab - this simply means they are a smell (or combination of smell-molecules composed in a single gestalt smell) you've most likely never smelled before. And if you're having a special experience, and you want to remember it forever, you break open the abstract smell amulet, take a whiff, and bam - totally immersive physiodatamap.

This is very clever, because every smell you have ever smelled is already a part of your autobiographical memory, which is the part of your memory that encodes everything you've ever done and how it felt and who you were with etc. Smell memories are the most powerful kinds of memories. Because smell is the only sense to enter our brain backwards (it gets processed by the 'feeling' parts of us first, and then by the thinking parts) it records with it all of the physiological data in your body at that moment along with it. This is why smells can evoke such powerful memories.

And if you smell something for the first time (Toolas' Abstract Smells) then the thing you're experiencing at the moment will be linked with that smell. So it's a clever way to re-live that experience in its entirety.

Anyway, she does a better job of explaining it:

The Smell Memory Kit is a revolutionary tool to capture the most important moments of your life. 
THE STARTER PACK contains one abstract smell portioned into 3 AMPULES and a handmade metal AMULET to carry your smell ampule wherever you go. 
Abstract smells are smells that have NOT YET been connected with any memories so far 
Whenever you want to eternally record and memorize a moment, you just break open the SMELL KIT AMPULE, release the abstract smell molecules and take a deep breath. 
From now on this smell will bring back the memory and the emotion of this very moment each and every time you open your SMELL MEMORY AMULET.

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Wednesday, August 8, 2018

The Decanting Process


This isn’t about the decanting process; it’s about a fatal nerve agent disguised in a bottle of perfume.

Perhaps you heard about the assassination that became a public health emergency in England this year. A foreign military wanted to teach someone a lesson, so they put a deadly chemical in a bottle and sent it to England, where it poisoned a man and his daughter. It’s still not known how they came in contact with it, but trace of the chemical was discovered at the two restaurants they visited that day.

It became a public health emergency because they didn’t know where the substance came from or where it went, only that these people got dosed with enough of it to incapacitate them in a very short time. This meant that anyone in the community could face the same fate, and in fact, many people could have been affected, or will be affected. A police officer investigating the incident was poisoned, for example.

Not long after this incident, another couple is struck. A man finds a bottle of perfume lying around and he gives it to his girlfriend. She sprays it on her wrists, gets a headache in 15 minutes, passes out in 30, and dies a few days later. And this happened after a week-long cleanup operation.

I am not sure how big this perfume bottle is, but I will assume it’s like a sample bottle for promotional purposes. You can get somewhere between 10 and 100 sprays out of that. This woman died one week after spraying herself once.

Nerve agents get into your system however then can, even through the surface of your skin (which is not made of plastic as you may think, but is more like paper in that it absorbs liquids which can then migrate into your bloodstream). When these things are used for assassination purposes they are designed at such a high concentration that they kill the target on the spot, or at least within a few days.

The way they do this is by disrupting the dance between Acetylcholine and Acetylcholinesterase that makes your muscles twitch and then relax. Whenever you do something, your brain sends a nerve signal to your muscles, acetycholine acts, and a muscle twitches. And then acetylcholinesterase reacts, and the muscle relaxes. Nerve agents stop the second part from happening, you’re all twitch, no relax.

Uncontrolled release of all bodily fluids including excessive salivation, drooling, tearing, runny nose, dilated pupils, and seizures lead to all of your muscles being prevented from relaxing. That leads to paralysis, especially of the diaphragm muscle. Once the lungs stop working, they fill with all that excess fluid, with suffocation being the final effect.

Victims who recover can be left with all kinds of neurological damage, like not being able to sleep, walk, talk, or think, and that’s not even addressing its other toxic effects on organs like the liver, for example.

This is the thing – we're not talking about people, individuals, being harmed here. An entire bottle of this substance (a few cubic centimeters at most) is enough to poison dozens and potentially hundreds of people. All it has to do is get into the right place.

So until we can guarantee that military grade chemical weapons aren’t being carelessly thrown into a garbage can near you, let’s be more careful about what we find lying around.

Novichok Was in a Perfume Bottle, U.K. Victim Says
July 2018, NYTimes

Friday, August 3, 2018

On the Science of Vintage Thrift Store Smells

Jolie Kerr wrote a book about how to clean stuff real good. In fact, she’s a cleaning expert.
Her blog is about getting the drool crust off your kids’ stuffed animals and analyzing Karate Kid’s waxing technique.

Not sure if it has something to do with the preoccupation with smell, but I am also a bit crazy about cleaning things. Let’s continue.

She knows some people in the cleaning industry, like Proctor & Gamble. They own all the cleaning products like Tide etc. She sent them some thrift store retro-wear to get a headspace analysis, which means they put your old clothes/my new clothes into a smelling machine to see what they’re made of, scent-wise. The results show that most of the odors come from us, as in our body oils. Not much of a surprise. Sorry if that's a let-down, but I'm not sure what you were expecting.

Here’s how they describe these anthropogenic aromas: Sweet, sour, oily, herbal, fatty, whiskey, nutty, cheesy, sweaty, stinky feet, fermented, bready.

More surprising is the environmental smells that came from gasoline, car exhaust, dry cleaning, solvents, perfume, etc.

She then goes on to explain how to clean these smells out of your clothes, because she’s a cleaning expert after all. I, on the other hand, came just for the smells.

Smell words related to thrift stores:
Grandma’s attic
Whiff of wool
Hint of cigarette smoke
A life well-lived
(the smell of old people – nonenal)

Post Script:
Check out this very informative post about the smells that come from your body, in case that’s something you’ve always wanted to know more about:

Jun 2018, The New York Times

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Fuel Fragrances by Manhattan Oil

For the fraghead who is also a gearhead, there’s a masking odor for your car exhaust. Suddenly I can’t even remember how I found this, but I’m still just as dumbfounded.

They look like a bottle of blowing bubbles (see the pic above) and they come in reefer madness flavor. You pour them into your gas tank or into your engine and it makes your car smell like bubblegum, grape, fruit punch, and they’re new baby powder scent. My head is spinning. There’s also Hot Rod Hippie Patchouli flavor, which I guess smells different from the Reefer Madness flavor? Jk.

For $14, a 4-oz bottle will treat 20 gallons of gasoline, and it’s a “proven crowd pleaser.” Anyone who uses this or can give me some insight into the subculture behind this I would greatly appreciate it.
-check it out here

Post Script
On Masking Odors: Sometimes there are odors created for the sole purpose of not smelling. They’re added to things that naturally smell bad so that they no longer smell like anything (I say naturally but what I mean is – as a result of their intended process of manufacture or fabrication). Many of the products that we use would smell kinda gross if we didn’t do this. Seatbelts for instance, which are pretty close to our face, have a special chemical recipe added to their manufacture so they don’t smell like whatever else goes into a seatbelt that happens to smell like crap. It’s ironic because it is treated just like any other fragrance – designed by fragrance specialists, created in fragrance labs, etc – and yet it doesn’t smell, and its sole purpose is to not smell. (In fact, well I’m not sure about this, but a masking fragrance might smell like something, but when added with its target product, the two negate and create a neutral non-smell.)

Diverting even further for the sake of a great example, the smell that we call Leather is not about the leather itself as it is about the fragrances that are added to leather to mask the nasty smells that come from the harsh treatments used to make leather in the first place. Historically, there’s a recipe that goes well with these bad smells to make everything into a good smell. Also, the smells of roses and shit are pretty similar on a molecular level, hence rose-scented air freshener. Enough of that.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Fraudulent Female Facemelter Fungus

You may have recently read this article about an ancient Hawaiian fungus that induces spontaneous orgasms in women, and yet makes men twist their heads in olfactory disgust.

I can say comfortably, that this is probably bullsh*.

The scientists in this study say there may be a similarity between the vapors of the fungus and neurotransmitters released during sex. This is their tentative explanation.

Firstly, the “neurotransmitters released during sex” are the same ones released when we eat a Big Mac, but this fungus isn’t giving people indigestion and feelings of inadequate body image, now is it?

Wait, first-first, anything described as “ancient” is probably bullsh*. Also – things originating from exotic places that you will never go and most people don’t know much about (like tropical islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, yes, probably bullsh*).

Secondly, and I am no expert, but I am pretty damn sure that there is absolutely no way that smells have anything to do with neurotransmitters. That’s like saying you can eat a Chevrolet because it can use a drive-thru. It’s wrong in more than one way.

But who cares what I say. Snopes has the best answer:
“It’s a single, (two-) decade-old study that was conducted with a very small sample group and published in a minor journal, one which has not since been replicated or vetted by other researchers in the scientific community.”

The mushroom in question also looks pretty phallic, just saying, doesn't hurt.

May 2018. The Independent

Saturday, June 30, 2018

Stand Corrected on Smelling Robots

It’s already happening, in Edinburgh: Robot noses are taking our jobs – doctor’s jobs, that is. We already know that dogs can tell when you’re sick just by the way you smell. And maybe less of us know that dogs can smell the place on your body where the sickness comes from, like if you have some kind of cancer hiding inside you. Alexendra Horowitz went into great detail about that kind of magic in her book on dogs’ smell.

It’s different now, however, because these aren’t dogs but computers. To get a bit more specific, it’s a gas-sniffing machine (called a GC-MS spectrophotometer, gulp, the de facto artificial smelling machine) combined with a special kind of ‘computer’ called a neural network.

If you’ve ever read my book or my blog or you’ve not been under a rock for the past 5 years, you’ve heard of neural nets. They are these magical new* ways of computing that created Google’s DeepDream and AlphaGo and every other headline where a computer did something we never thought a computer could do (like to dream and make art, yes). And now they smell.

But not really; we’ll get to that. First, it’s important to point out that this news comes from Nvidia, who makes GPU chips, which are not CPU chips. The computers we use, and have used forever, run on CPU chips – that’s the way it’s always been. Then the part of the computer that does the graphics, a GPU, started to do more and more of the computing (CPU).  We heard about GPUs first in regards to video games, but then because of Bitcoin because they use tons of interconnected GPUs to do their mining (and yes all those gamers got pissed because the price of GPUs exploded in tandem with the cryptocurrency bubble).

GPUs do more than provide smooth, clear graphics for your video games or authenticated cryptocurrency for your third world country blackmarket terrorist druglord network. They make a computer more like a brain, and hence the term artificial neural network.

Brains are all interconnected – neurons and axons, hub and spoke. Neural nets, with their GPU-neurons, approximate a brain better NOT because of a better algorithm software, but a better hardware. And with all this, we’re seeing artificial intelligence explode – I hate to say it – but it’s happening just like Ray Kurzweil said it would.

So after beating a human at Go, after successfully debating a human on the benefits to humanity of space travel, after creating its own language that humans can’t even understand, after detecting health abnormalities in patients’ xrays better than doctors, and after being able to play paper rock scissors so well that it can predict what we will throw before we throw it and hence beat us every single time – the damn thing now smells. (The paper rock scissors example is simply processing speed – the system sees our hands about to make a shape, and counters so fast that to us it seems like it happened ‘at the same time.’)

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. First thing to note is that this thing is not smelling. It’s been trained to recognize a very small subset of molecules related to cancer.  Whereas humans can detect any volatile organic molecule (rough definition), this thing can only detect what we’ve trained it to detect.**  And this is not the first time a system has been trained to smell – it happens a lot with bomb sniffing, for example, and artificially augmented bomb sniffing remote control cicadas are also real. Anyway, next is where I have to geek the F out: the part of us that smells IS a neural net.

Granted, our whole brain is like a neural net (yes, hence the use of the words ‘neural net’). But the part of our brain that specifically processes, or organizes the electrical signals from molecular contact and turns them into electrical signals for perception, is a pyramid-structure network (it’s called the piriform cortex for that reason, but it’s also known as the olfactory cortex) where hundreds of receptors are whittled down to a few signal fibers. And if you’ve ever seen a picture of a neural net, well, it’s the same thing.

This is one of the underlying themes in my book, and one of the reasons I was compelled to write it. Our sense of smell, the most under-studied of all the senses, is actually more like the most advanced technology there is right now, that being artificial intelligent brain-like systems. I like to call them intelligentities (which is gender neutral btw, and also neutral on some other thing we aren’t even upset about yet, where we make a biased distinction between humans and computers).

Although it seems like we’re making serious progress in this area, I still assert that studying olfaction is an ideal way to optimize these kinds of systems. Until then, you can rest assured that although these things can already do basically everything better than you, they still can’t smell.  (And many of us will have to wonder – is that a bad thing? I.e., will humans in the distant future, once we have the option, will they still want to smell?)

*Marvin Minsky et al were talking about neural nets in the early 80’s but the hardware wasn’t there yet to make them sing.

**Artificial Intelligence can only do what we train it to do. And this is a major part of the inherent biases that show up in these programs, and the reason we need to do a better job of choosing their training programs and then testing these programs to see if they discriminate and against who. Search up this phrase to find out more – ‘man is to computer programmer as woman is to homemaker.’

Image source: Olfactory Bulb (aka non-artificial neural network)

Article source:
June 2018,


Thursday, June 28, 2018

Memory Transplant You Say

Just when you thought old-age had you beat. Now you can remember where you put your keys forever. Turns out we have memory in our RNA and we can transplant that RNA somewhere else if we want. Like in your home-brain memory storage device of the 22nd century. Every day you update your device with actual molecules from your own body. You know, just in case you lose them, you’ll have a backup.

Really, we’re looking at snails, and a learned physiological response coded into their RNA. They get shocked and then the defense system in their bodies remembers that, and they tense up longer than if they hadn’t been shocked, and then that memory is literally transplanted in another snail, via RNA, and that other snail will react in the same way with a longer defensive contraction response. So it’s like you give the snails PTSD and then pass it on to whoever you want.

Maybe you’ll be able to buy that at the market one day; suffering for sale. I hear echoes of Slavoj Zizeck explaining to us that choosing Tom’s sneakers because they are good for the planet is our way of feeling better about participating in a system that oppresses lots of people in the process. So if you’d like to feel better about being a jerk, you can just upload the memory of being harassed and see what it’s like, become empathetic and be less of a jerk.

The real news is that we are making some progress in knowing how memory, such an ephemeral thing, comes from our physical bodies.

May 2018, BBC News

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