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

Image source:

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
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

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.