Thursday, July 20, 2017

Firmenich and the Ecstasy of Saint Theresa

Secrecy. That’s a really important thing about the flavor and fragrance industry. Funny how New Jersey has to be the global capital of this industry, a state which is more commonly known as the dirty-money mafia capital where people get mysteriously buried in concrete. No relation though, just coincidence. In fact, I’m not sure how New Jersey came to be the flavor and fragrance capital of the world, but it is. More than half the world’s ingredients come from a small strip of this small state. At least one of those ingredients, Hedione, which we’ll describe in a moment, is produced exclusively here in NJ, and is part of 95% of all consumer products, globally, that have flavoring or fragrance added.

Hedione is produced by Firmenich, the biggest flavor and fragrance company there is. I went there today as part of an occupational health and safety class where we visit real sites and check out their digs. They brainwash us afterwards, like the men-in-black thing.

Firmenich, the facility that actually makes the ingredients, is in Newark. They have other locations. Our contact says “we also have R&D labs all over the place, but they’re very non-descript; you would never notice; nobody knows where they are; I don’t even know where they are.”  Again, that’s how fragrance works.*

They mostly make chemical ingredients, but they also do a little bit of research here, and these special folks are called Noses. If you work here, I don’t care if you’re a truck driver (I think they contract those guys out, actually) you can be a nose. Noses, from what I understand, are people who can smell pretty good. But they’re also people who can smell Hedione. Apparently, and I feel I should know more about this, but our contact tells us that only 2% of the population can really smell Hedione. Therefore, if you work for this facility, and you can smell it, your job is to, once in a while, sniff a batch and make sure it’s ok for use. Reminder – there is no electronic nose that can do this, only humans can tell if a smell is “good for use.”

If you’re a bit confused, you should be. I just said that Hedione is used in 95% of all products, but only 2% can smell it. ??? Well, after a bit of poking around, particularly my most favorite site for checking this kind of stuff, Perfume Shrine, I can say this – it seems like you can’t actually smell Hedione, but you can, at the same time. You can tell when it’s not there, and you can sense that a fragrance has something special in it when it’s present, but when isolated, you can’t smell anything.

Let’s just say that Hedione is absolutely critical for perfumery, and Firmenich has the market cornered. I thought about that as I sat in the presentation room, listening to our contact, smelling the warm, tangy, rough-spicy hint of my Italian Cypress creeping to my noseholes. Those molecules in my perfume came from this factory.

We leave the presentation room and begin our tour. We walk inside one of the reactor pads where they turn raw ingredient-chemicals into fragrance industry components. It’s a huge building, and the equipment rises far above our heads. It looks like what you would expect – a big, metal, cylindrical reactor vessel, braced on all sides like the Eiffel Tower, penetrated by myriad hoses and gauges and pressure relief valves. The floors dusty concrete with long drainage grates running along the length of them. It’s not so big in terms of its footprint, but it goes up, and so it’s ominous.

“This reactor is for Hedione. Strictly Hedione.” Other ones are used for different things, depending, but this one is dedicated. I smell something. If it’s not Hedione, well, I don’t know what the hell it is, because I may be smelling a thousand things right now. And speaking of now, this post isn’t about Hedione, or secrecy in the perfume industry; it’s about what happens next.
Ecstasy of St. Theresa, Bernini, 1650
We leave the Hedione reactor and go next door to another pad that processes a bunch of chemical ingredients all in the same building. Limonene, Citronellol, Geraniol, Linalool, keep going. Same ominous, towering vats, hoses and pressure valves, and metal and concrete and warning signs, and after about five seconds of standing there, I was overcome with what I can only call the scariest thing I have ever smelled.
Ecstasy of St. Theresa, Bernini, 1650, detail
Now, I’m not even sure what that means, because how can a smell be scary? I mean, I know we can “smell” fear, but that’s not what I’m talking about. You look at these pictures from the Renaissance, for example, religious pictures of people shielding their eyes from God – he’s so powerful they can’t even look at him. The eyes can’t see something that powerful.

That is not to say that in this place it smelled bad, like the kind of smell that makes you twist your head backwards. It smelled scary. It smelled like omnipotence, and I was paralyzed.

I’m sure it was my brain doing this to me, at least a little. I knew that I was smelling a total m√©lange of the most complex proportions and in very stiff concentrations; I know that by the time you mix more than three or four chemicals together, the brain can no longer tell the difference between them. (So do I really know, from a sensory perspective, that this thing I smell is made of so many chemicals?)

Nonetheless, there I stood, for the first time noticing that this room is well over one hundred feet tall, such that I cannot see the top of the reactor. And the smell that is both accidentally and purposefully leaking out of it is the scariest thing I have ever smelled. Our contact is talking to us; I can’t hear a thing he says, and I can’t move.

I was stuck so still that I could feel my skull moving involuntarily inside the flesh of my face, and trying not to, and the space between my bones and my flesh tingled with fear and paralysis. This is, to my imagination, what it would be like to “see God.” I’m not so much a religious guy, so I don’t really know what I mean by this, I have heard people say things like this, at least when I studied art history and the Renaissance and philosophy and Aquinas etc.  I have heard people talk about seeing God and wondered what the hell they meant by that. I’m too visually jaded to imagine what that would mean, to “see God.”

I was an art teacher for 10 years and an art history major prior to that, so my visual cortex is a post-modern mess that has no place for God, that’s for sure. But that smell…It was so big, so complex, so beyond my capacity for perception, for understanding it, and it was like – although it was beyond my ability to perceive it, I could perceive that. I could comprehend it only so much as to know that it was beyond my comprehension.

There was a very sure, very palpable sense that there was something out there, something in that room, surrounding me, entering my body in fact, stimulating the neurons on the outside of my blood-brain barrier, something out there that I could not see. How do you know that you’re facing something that you can’t know?

Maybe it was the size of that reactor. I’ve seen stuff like this on tv, but this is the first time we’re visiting a ‘real factory’ and the first time I’ve been in front of something like this. And anywhere else, their massive reactor would smell too. But it wouldn’t smell like this. There was something tremendous about this, something totally incapacitating; it smelled like omniscience.

I’m still getting over it. I didn’t notice until I was driving home that I smelled like a thousand things. All by myself in my car, with every breath I took, I smelled something completely different, and in succession: a warm note, a spicy note, a grapefruit, powdery incense, bubblegum, cold metal, the smell of the ocean, flowers of a dozen different kinds, and it continued for the rest of the ride home, every breath, another facet of that thing I couldn't perceive in its totality, now came to me one piece at a time.

I write a bit about why the fragrance industry operates in airtight secrecy here, tdlr – it’s because copyright, that’s why, or rather lack of copyright for arts related to both fashion and fragrance.

There’s other reasons too, reasons which even I would rather not mention, but I will: the general public is a bit paranoid when it comes to “chemicals” (did you just get chills up your spine?) and so if I was the fragrance industry, I think I would do the same; just keep things as quiet as possible.

On a sort of side note (this is the post script already, after all) – notice how perfumes have a list of chemicals on them. There’s a governing body that requires them to do that. Every year, a bunch of chemicals are decided to be dangerous enough that they should be listed on the bottle. Others are decided so dangerous they can no longer be used at all, requiring constant reformulations of your favorite scents. The thing is, when you see this list of chemicals, you think, ‘this is what’s in this bottle, this is what makes this thing smell like it does,’ but there’s hundreds of chemicals in there, hundreds. And the ones listed are only the ones that have to be listed. If you really look, it’s like every perfume is made of the same chemicals. That’s because a lot of the same ones are used in everything, just in different amounts, and with little tweaks here and there.

See the International Fragrance Association; they make the safety standards and say which chemicals are safe or are no longer safe for use. They are hated by perfume enthusiasts because they forbid chemicals, requiring reformulations of favorite and legendary perfumes. They are fodder for chemophobes who think the world has organized a systematic slaughtering of the population via slow, chemical carcinogenesis.

And then there’s this little something, about New Jersey, one of my favorites:

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Cracking the Black Box

Jul 2017,

"Deep learning" and "neural networks" are terms that have become firmly planted in our popular lexicon. They all refer to the same thing, which is an artificial brain-like thing that teaches itself via feedback loops. I talked about this in Hidden Scents because the way our brain decodes olfactory information is a lot like the way these deep learning networks process their own big data.

This deep learning approach is way more effective than traditional computing for lots of problems like facial recognition or natural language translation. They're also really good at handling Big Data, you  know, like all that stuff cybercriminals keep stealing for ransom? Thing is, once these networks 'figure out' how to do whatever it is that they do, we have no idea how they did it.

Usually, with traditional programming, we write the code, so we know what it does and how. With this, the network essentially writes its own program, and since it seems to know what it's doing, we don't ask how. We just take the results.

Until now. This is one of the researchers, quoted in

"We catalogued 1,100 visual concepts—things like the color green, or a swirly texture, or wood material, or a human face, or a bicycle wheel, or a snowy mountaintop," says David Bau, an MIT graduate student in electrical engineering and computer science and one of the paper's two first authors. "We drew on several data sets that other people had developed, and merged them into a broadly and densely labeled data set of visual concepts. It's got many, many labels, and for each label we know which pixels in which image correspond to that label."

Here is the link to their work.

Corpus of Hedonics

Looking at this paper today:
The Emotional and Chromatic Layers of Urban Smells. Daniele Quercia, Luca Maria Aiello, Rossano Schifanella. 2016.

The chart above shows the relation between a smell-producing location, and the pleasantness of the words used on social media near that place. Most positive words are used near the Food category, and less near Waste. Nature has less happy words with it than Food, perhaps because of the happy activities people are doing in these areas, i.e., eating and being with friends. Regardless, this chart seems to make sense, and can serve as proof that this odor-hedonics data can be predictive of people's emotions.

Who cares? Someone like an urban planner can use this to get an idea of how to better arrange municipal facilities. Someone who wants to update local land use regulations could use this data to see which areas of town work and which ones don't. The study-authors mention the matching of this data to 'most optimal route' data to give the 'most pleasurable route' through a city.

They used a lot of semantic-hedonic smell knowledge from a previous study (Henshaw 2013) which organizes two lists of pleasant and unpleasant smells, and I'd like to just copy it here:

Pleasant smells
bread, baked, baked goods, coffee, coffees, aftershave, cut grass, grass, grassy, floral, flower, flowers, flowershop, flowery, lavender, lilies, lily, magnolia, rose, rosey, tulip, tulips, violet, violets, baby, babies, child, children, sea, seaside, countryside, cedar, cedarwood, conifer, dry grass, earth, earthy, eucalyptus, ground, leafy, leaves, old wood, pine, sandalwood, soil, tree, trees, wood, woodlands, woody, petrol, diesel, fuel, gasoline, soap powder, soap

Unpleasant smells
flatulence, fart, vomit, dog shit, dogshit, excrement, faeces, farts, feces, manure, shit, cigarette smoke, cigarette, cigarettes, cigar, cigars, smoker, tabacco, tobacco, pee, piss, ammonia, urine, public toilet, public toilets, toilet, toilets, urinal, urinals, gone-off milk, fish, rotten fish, rotten food, rotten, rotten fruit, rotten fruits, putrid, bus, buses, car, cars, exhaust, traffic, fume, fumes, body odour, body odor, sweat, sweaty, dirty clothes
  Henshaw, V. 2013. Urban Smellscapes: Understanding and Designing City Smell Environments. Routledge.

Post Script:

This is how they got to the bottom of their smellscape emotion chart:

"We set out to study the relationship between the smellscape and emotions on our data. To do so, we need to have a lexicon of emotion words. We use two of them: the “Linguistic Inquiry Word Count” (LIWC) (Pennebaker 2013), that classifies words into positive and negative emotions, and the “EmoLex” word-emotion lexicon (Mohammad and Turney 2013), that classifies words into eight primary emotions based on Plutchik’s psycho-evolutionary theory (Plutchik 1991) (i.e., anger, fear, anticipation, trust, surprise, sadness, joy, and disgust).
  Pennebaker, J. 2013. The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us. Bloomsbury.
  Plutchik, R. 1991. The emotions. University Press of America.
  Mohammad, S. M., and Turney, P. D. 2013. Crowdsourcing a word–emotion association lexicon. Computational Intelligence 29(3):436–465.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Secrets of Flavor

In Hidden Scents, I downplayed the clandestine nature of the flavor and fragrance industry, but it is a big part of the language of smell. This was actually one of the things that motivated me to write the book. Not only is smell (and flavor) inherently evasive to language, but the industries that work with these senses are required to keep their work under wraps.

Well, I guess they aren’t required to keep it secret, but they do, and because of the way this particular industry works. Food, as well as fashion, is not protected by copyright law. If you want to make a song, you can be sure that your hard work will pay off, because your song will be protected by copyright, which means that nobody else can say it’s theirs, and only you can reap the benefits. In flavor, fragrance, and fashion, that is not the case. You can’t copyright the Bernardo sandal (surely, they would have). So how else do you protect your hard work? You keep it a secret.

On a side note, I was in the Firmenich flavor plant in Newark, NJ, and our tour guide says that they have research facilities all over the place (primarily NJ, since this is the artificial flavor capital of the world), but that nobody knows where they are, and that you wouldn’t even notice if they were right next door, and in fact even he doesn’t know where they are.

So in short, these experts are expected to be secretive about their work; they have to. Still, it is one of the main obstacles in learning about the language we use to describe these flavors and fragrances – if we can’t even know what it is, how can we describe it? And as I’ve pointed out before, there are public arts funds for visual art and for music, but none for flavor/fragrance.* This guarantees that our public knowledge and public discourse about these topics are mediated by the commercial industry and not by our own personal, social experiences with them.

Flavorists, Experts in the Field of Natural and Artificial Flavoring, Work in Top Secret New Jersey Labs

“It’s a pretty secretive industry,” says Steve Ruocco, president of the Society of Flavor Chemists and a master flavorist at Maryland-based McCormick, the spice company. “You can’t disclose who your customers are,” because secret flavor formulas are often the bread and butter of the food and beverage manufacturers that hire flavor houses to innovate or improve their products. The formulas are what separate Hunt’s ketchup from Heinz and Skippy peanut butter from Jif.

*I would never neglect the only exception to this, the Institute for Art and Olfaction, based in Los Angeles. Started by the inimitable Saskia Wilson-Brown, the institute experiments and educates with scent to allow the public access to a world that is completely taken over by consumerism, and thus off-limits to those without the money to participate.

Can’t talk about this topic of artificial flavors without mentioning Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, 2001. Great way to get inside the hi-tech flavor game (I say hi-tech, knowing the book is almost 20 years old; I’m sure there’ve been lots of developments since).

The Bernardo sandal? Yes, this thing which I assume everyone takes for granted as having been a part of “fashion” for as long as people had two feet, is actually credited to Bernard Rudofsky and Berta Rudofsky. He was an architect and wrote the book, Are Clothes Modern, after curating a show at the MoMA by the same name. She was a teacher at the Black Mountain College, a school focused on the arts, and one known for producing influential people (Buckminster Fuller was a big name) in the art world and beyond, despite its short life. One summer they came up with this sandal, and it has completely taken over the world of open-toe footwear ever since. Perhaps, like Jonas Salk with his penicillin discovery, they may have given it away for free, as in, “how do you patent the sun?” But who knows. Bottom line, they couldn’t do it if they wanted, because you can’t copyright fashion.

Image source: link 

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Code Smell

There's the thing in computer programming called Code Smell, and it refers to the finding of a problem in the code, like a funny smell in the code that indicates where the bugs are coming from.

So it's like, Here I am, having written a book on the language of smell, read every book in the Library of Congress on the subject, hundreds and hundreds of scientific articles, and thousands of web documents, and would you look at that? Never heard of it.

It gets better because apparently “developing your code nose” is a worthy pursuit for any programmer.

They aren't bugs per se, but more like a weakness in the code that increases the risk of a bug. Duplicated code, for example, gives off a code smell.

Further, there is a distinction made between Code Smell and Language Smell. One is for the way the code works and the other is for that actual language used in the code. In this case it’s called language smell, not code smell.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Poison Ivy Smells

It's poison ivy season. I have it right now, just a little bit. When I get a lot, I can smell it, not the plant, but I smell it coming out of my skin, usually a day or so after I've been dosed, but before the itching starts to come out. At times, it's the smell that alerts me, and that I should stop itching; itching always seems to make it worse.

I should probably know this already, but I decided today to look it up - what does poison ivy metabolize to while in the body? In other words, what am I smelling.

First, poison ivy has within it a thing called urushiol. It's a sap running through the veins of the plant, and anything that disturbs the plant will release this stuff as microdroplets onto whatever surface it touches. A walking animal, a biting insect, a gust of wind, your dog, a soccer ball rolling on the ground, your lawn mower, or my favorite, a chainsaw ripping through a down sycamore with a hidden 3 inch vine of poison ivy growing on it, in October, can send the stuff wafting in the air as you ride your bike past its cloud of crystalized urushiol that then gets unwittingly lodged in your beard. (By the time I discovered what happened, days later, it was way too late to shave.) That's an extreme event; it usually happens in summer, unless you're doing some thorough spring cleaning, and it usually doesn't 'waft through the air,' unless it's been projected by a chainsaw.

So urushiol gets on your skin, then it gets absorbed into the outer layer of your skin, as all oils do. But then, something else happens to the oil. It enters the blood, and your body breaks it down into some other chemical that is seen as an invader, and your body starts to fight it, leaving you with the collateral damage, that being your red, itchy, peeling, maybe scabbing skin.*

But this is the part where it smells. The body breaks down urushiol into quinones, and the quinone chemicals give you the reaction. The quinones also give you that smell. I look for urushiol metabolites, find quinone, or 1,4-Benzoquinone to be specific, and look for odor properties.


"chlorine, bleach, and hot plastic"

Wow, that's it. That's what poison ivy smells like when it comes out of your body. See if you can pick it out this season, a day or so after that camping trip, but before the histamine hijacking begins.

*The poison ivy reaction will only appear where the oil originally touched you. Even though it has to get into your blood to become active, the activated metabolites do not travel around the body and show up in other places at random. Instead, they stay where they contacted you initially. This process, where the urushiol is converted into reactive quinone, happens at different rates on different parts of the body, because the thickness of our skin varies. The palms of your hands will never get poison ivy because they're too thick. The skin on your face, however, is very sensitive, and if your whole body got covered in one day, your face would probably get it first, and your forearms would get it maybe two days later, making it seem like it's spreading around in your blood, but it's not.


Urushiol on Toxnet, the US Hazardous Substance Database:

ancillary sources:


synthetic urushiol:
(commonly called catechols)

urushiol metabolite:
(commonly known as para-quinone,or simply quinone)

Post Script

Some good random facts from the internet:

  • Only 1 nanogram (billionth of a gram) is needed to cause a rash.
  • The average exposure for most people is 100 nanograms.
  • 1/4 oz. of urushiol is all that is needed to cause a rash in every person on earth.
  • 500 people could itch from the amount covering the head of a pin.
  • Specimens of urushiol several centuries old have been found to cause dermatitis
  • in sensitive people.
  • 1 to 5 years is normal for urushiol oil to stay active on any surface including
  • dead plants.
  • The name is derived from urushi, the Japanese name for lacquer

Wednesday, July 5, 2017


Question: What does "P.U." stand for?

Answer: It's a shortened term for puteo [also think of the word putrid], which is Latin for "to stink, be redolent, or smell bad." I actually called a professor of Latin at the University of Florida to verify this one.

It's actually spelled "piu," but is often pronounced as "pee-yew". It's root is the Indo-European word "pu," meaning to rot or decay. A lot of other languages use this root word and have the same general meaning.