Friday, October 25, 2019

Ghost Food

This came out a while ago (2013), but I thought it would be a good time of year to remind everyone.

Imagine a future where the culinary pleasures of your youth no longer exist in their native form. We already hear talk of things like chocolate and even coffee being endangered by a combination of climate change and our consumer economy.

It's hard to imagine a future like this, because you know that we, the ingenious monkeys that we are, would never let it happen. A sensory art duo teamed up to start the process of solving this future problem.

The instigators here were Miriam Simun, who made ricotta cheese from human breastmilk, and Miriam Songster, an olfactory artist with an extensive body of work (and who also contributed to the book Designing with Smell AND worked on the smellscapes project started by the late Kate MacLean.)

Maybe you think people should have better things to do than to solve problems that don't really exist yet, but hey, that's what art is for; Not to create problems, but to help us to see better the world we're already in. And as the wise and every prescient David Byrne has said ~ "It's not that artists are ahead of their time, it's just the rest of us are behind."*

Escaping the inevitable with a Direct Olfactory Stimulation Device.

The technology developed here, and pictured above, is called a Direct Olfactory Stimulation Device, and it is supposed to provide a "simulated flavor experience" for foods that may one day be threatened by extinction.

Chocolate, peanut butter, and deep-fried Cod fish were the focus foods. If you think one of these is not like the others, you're right. This food truck was stationed in Newark, New Jersey (among other locations), and for the strong Portuguese population there, Cod is an important culinary component.

The "food" was built on a base of climate change-resilient ingredients, because the idea is that we're already in the future, and this is how we deal.

People lined up to get fitted with their sensory stimulator, and took time to give their impression. Here's one I thought was really good, "If it was an exact replica, there would be no moment of realization of potential loss, and the project a failure - "I guess climate change isn't so bad..." .  You can get more responses here.

Overall I see this as a great work of olfactory science fiction, a subgenre that is mostly vacant, yet fertile for exploration.

*This is heavily paraphrased, and also attributed to David Byrne although someone else before him should probably get credit.

What would you do in a world without cod, chocolate, or peanut butter?
By Adi Robertson, The Verge, 2013

2013, Edible Geography

Edited by Victoria Henshaw, Kate McLean, Dominic Medway, Chris Perkins, Gary Warnab
Taylor and Francis, 2018

Post Script:
I thought this was a really good idea - Ode is a product that distributes scents into a room before mealtime to stimulate appetites in older folks.

And I thought this was pretty ridiculous. Once in a while I try to search something that couldn't possibly be a thing, like "human chocolate" and then I get this:

Human Chocolate Fountain

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

The Stink Bug

Descriptively-named, yet elusive in the description of its most striking feature, the Stink Bug has been invading America for a few decades. In New Jersey specifically, it was a good summer for stink bugs (or a bad summer for humans).

The stink bug is like a skunk but in bug form. I guess a skunk would be called a "stink rat" if it was also an invasive species. The bugs are a bit less problematic; they can only squirt 3 inches not 3 feet. Thing is, skunks don't get into your house. The bugs do, especially as winter nears and cold weather sends them seeking shelter inside your walls etc. In Spring, they reappear, this time trying to get back outside.

They don't bite, but they smell. But they only smell if they're threatened. Or if you squish them, releasing their obnoxious defense secretion. And what does that secretion smell like?

I'm paranoid, but for smells. When it comes to my own house, my place of work, or anywhere I have to spend a lot of time, I am constantly, actively smelling my surroundings. Noticing, investigating, researching, remembering. It started with a moldly basement apartment, but now I am hyper-aware of the entirety of my osmic environment.

Hype-aware, that is, except for the things I can't smell. I'm anosmic to putrescene (can't smell semen). You're anosmic to something too, probably. It's common. I once did an "experiment" in my workplace where I had an old smelly tube of paint; it smelled like rotten fish. Some of my coworkers couldn't smell it, and I thought it was strange, so I passed it around to everyone, about thirty people. Three of those people, the ones who didn't jerk their head away after sniffing, they were anosmic to trimethylamine, the smell of rotten fish.

What's more interesting is that one of those people was 50 years old, and he had no idea that he couldn't smell rotten fish. A whole life of smelling, and yet totally unaware of something like that. Around the same time I met a young man who was totally anosmic; he can't smell anything at all. He didn't realize it until he was ten years old, while playing a board game called P.U. The Guessing Game of Smells.

Back to stink bugs. I hear a lot about stink bugs, and being an odor aficionado, I find it hard to believe that I don't "know" what they smell like. (Granted I could settle this by ruthlessly smashing the next one I see, but I'm also so sensitive to smells that the thought of potentially dosing myself just sounds stupid.)

I ask people, lots of people, and you know what they say? They all say the exact same thing, "I don't just smells bad."

I do some superficial searches: For a bug called the Stink Bug, you think there would be more descriptions of its stench. I need to contact an exterminator and ask them. Meanwhile, the best and really the only description is this list of slightly-related descriptors:

Pungent onions
Skunk odor
Strong herbs and spices
Intense-smelling herbs and spices
Rotten cilantro and coriander
Smelly garbage
The odor from the stink bug is due to trans-2-decenal and trans-2-octenal. The smell has been characterized as a "pungent odor that smells like coriander."
-Henderson 2006 below

trans-2-decenal descriptions from The Good Scents Company:
waxy, fatty, earthy, coriander, green, mushroom, sweet aldehydic with a chicken and pork fat nuance, diffusive orange odor with floral, rosey topnotes, citrus peel, citrus flavors especially orange and grapefruit, fruit flavors especially tropical, fried taste somewhat citrusy in dilution

trans-2-octenal descriptions from The Good Scents Company:
fresh, pungent, cucumber, spicy cucumber, green, leafy, herbal, vegetable, banana, waxy, oily, fatty, brothy, sweet, citrus peel, citrus especially orange, fatty notes of nuts especially hazelnut

Image sources:
Stink Bug Side View (pinterest = no copyright protection, good thing for watermarks? PBS)

Brown Marmorated Stink Bug - Halyomorpha halys
Green Stink Bug - Acrosternum hilare

Oct 2019,

Detecting Stink Bugs/Damage in Cotton Utilizing a Portable Electronic Nose. Henderson, Will; Khalilian, Ahmad; Han, Young (July 9–12, 2006). Oregon Convention Center; Portland, Oregon: Clemson University. [PDF]

Post Script:
The stink bug is an invasive species in the United States. All the invasive species, plants or insects or whatever, seem to be from Asia. I think the real question here is this -- Do they have "invasive species" in Asia? Are our insects invasive to them? And how come I've never heard anyone ask this before?

Post Post Script:
By the way, the stink bug's natural predator? Samurai wasp.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

The Smell of Mother Earth to a Planetary Refugee

In order to survive in outer space, one needs to be protected, first and foremost, from the showers of radioactive particles that abound there. For this, the International Space Station in Neal Stephenson's novel bolts itself to an asteroid named Amalthea (seen here), to rest in its massive "cosmic shade."

This is a story about people who had to flee Earth, barely survived in a hastily-improvised expansion of the ISS, and thousands of years later, flourished long enough to terraform Earth back to its pre-catastrophe days. In a quick passage, he talks about the smell of the air. People have been living in space habitats for generations; they've never smelled air that wasn't recycled; they've never smelled air that wasn't on a planet. But now they're back on a newly terraformed Earth, doing some reconaissance...
"According to their measurements, the result was a nearly perfect reproduction of Old Earth's atmosphere. No one who breathed it after a lifetime spent in the habitats needed scientific data to back that up. Its smell penetrated to some ancient part of the brain, triggereing instincts that must go all the way back to hominid ancestors living on the shores of Africa millions of years ago. As she knew from traveling to Earth many times, it was a kind of intoxicant. It was the best drug in the universe. It made people want to be on Earth more than anyting. ..." (p656)
Post Script
I'm not trying to take away from the awesomeness of this idea, this passage or this story, but chances are that during this scene, the scent referred to is not one of Earth so much as the Ocean. (I think they're standing on the coast when this passage appears.) If that's the case, I should then direct the reader to another post about the smell of the ocean, the chemical Calone, and the Seinfeld episode that made it all memorable.

And if after that you still haven't had enough, check out this earlier post about the smell of rain, which is really the smell of earth (like dirt, not the entire planet).

Seveneves, Neal Stephenson, 2015

Friday, September 20, 2019

Olfactory Clues To Disease Discovery

Smells can be a great sign of danger, even when it comes from our own bodies. We've got here a story about a woman who smelled Parkinson's on her husband a good ten years before he was diagnosed. This spurred research into the subject, and we now have an idea of what the smell is and how it fits into the effects of the disease.

Tldr, it comes from the production of excess sebum, which contains chemicals known to be related to altered neurobiology associated with Parkinson's. The scent-sensitive woman who noticed it on her husband described it as earthy and musky.

Then there's the nick-of-time test for Maple Syrup Urine Disease. Although the disease can be verified with a blood test, symptoms could get so bad so fast that the time required for this testing becomes prohibitive. Luckily, it can also be identified by sweet-smelling urine, sweat and earwax.

Maple Syrup Urine Disease is a condition where the body can't break things down properly. If our body's natural defense system is inhibited so much that it can't break down the maple-syrup-molecule, for example, then we've got serious problems.

I am not a doctor so I don't know if this is the same smell/molecule, but Sotolon is the "maple syrup molecule." Other things could be exuding from the body, but this is a potent aroma compound, so it's easy to detect.

As a general rule, if you notice that you smell funny, it's something that should be checked out immediately. For example, fishy odor in the urine could be a sign of a urinary tract infection, and the smell comes from the bacteria living there (as opposed to the improper biotransformation of ingested molecules).

Post Script:
Then there's the cancer-smelling dogs, surely we've all heard of that. And for the record, if we interfaced with the world the way dogs do, with smell being way more important, and if we spent lots of time smelling all the things around us, including our own bodies, or those of our loved ones, we might notice these things too. But dogs get the credit, because honestly when was the last time you gave your partner a full body sniff-check?

Mar 2019, Inverse

Mar 2019, The Sun

Study about the smell of Parkinson's:

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Mind Control

It should come as no surprise that we look to others to help us make decisions, whether they're life-changing or everyday decisions. In a new study, we see that when mice choose what to eat, they utilize "taster mice" in their group that are the first to eat from a new food source.

I'm not sure what makes one a taster-mouse in the first place, but they do exist. In order for mice to decide at the colony level whether they should be eating from a certain food source, they don't ask their friends, and they don't check their newsfeed. Instead they use the smell of taster-mice whiskers.

In reality, mice don't do anything. Their brains are programmed by the smell of the taster-mice to steer them towards some food sources and away from others. Their repeated olfactory interactions with the taster mice and the social network they subsequently inform will rewire the neural network in their prefrontal cortex – the place where decisions are made. This alteration links the olfactory cue from the taster-mice to the reward center in the brain, which then motivates the mice to find that smell again.

We can think of all preference as following a similar pattern of social interaction and propagation. Taster-mice function as hubs of their social network. The difference is that humans are a bit more sophisticated. Instead of just transmitting the smell of safe, available food, the hubs of human networks spread styles, preferences, ideas, and information in general.

The interesting corollary is that in mice, the olfactory cues are literally re-wiring the pleasure-seeking centers of their brains, whereas in humans, all kinds of cues can redirect our behaviors. Olfaction is already known to be so tightly integrated with our decision-making and reward centers, but when the actual process by which this takes place is extrapolated to other senses, it suggests that we are way less in control of our own thoughts, desires and behaviors than we may think.

June 2019,

Post Script
By the way, casually mentioned in the article that presented this study, was the practice of "erasing memories" in the mice in the study. It's a technique used in optogenetics where a single neuron is zapped. I'm pretty sure it was only a few years ago that we first heard of this technique, and now it's just thrown in there like de rigueur. Eternal Sunshine here we come!

Post Post Script
On Mimetic Desire:
"All desire is a desire to be [someone else]"
-Rene Girard, Quand ces choses commenceront ... Entretiens avec Michel Treguer. Paris: arléa. ISBN 2-86959-300-7. p28. 1994.