Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Moss Man and Stinkor - Aromatic Thermoplastics

I wonder how many other middle-aged men are selling their childhood toys on ebay right now. (Actually, I wrote this for my other blog, just about one year ago, and all my toys are now gone, and in their place I got enough money to buy a plane ticket to the Institute for Art and Olfaction in Los Angeles, California.) It certainly has been a trip down Memory Lane, but I find it somewhat embarrassing that I missed these two guys in the process.

Moss Man and Stinkor are action figures from Mattel’s He-Man and the Masters of the Universe line, circa 1985. They stand out because they came with their own smell - Pine-Sol and Patchouli, respectively. According to the interwebs, Mattel actually poured patchouli oil into Stinkor's mold, to hold that baked-in freshness for eternity (or Eternia, as it were).

This time capsule of the olfactory imagination is no match for Strawberry Shortcake, mind you, who's perfumed hair no longer smells like strawberries. (I'm going to speculate here that Moss Man's scent was also added to the furry moss on his body; not as permanent as Stinkor.)

So one would think that to open a box of thirty year-old He-Men I would be transported by this odormobile to a time long forgotten.

As it turns out, the overall nostalgia from all that visual and tactile stimulation overpowered the triggers of Stinkor's scent. I've already sold all my He-Men, and I don't remember smelling a thing.

But the real question, since when is patchouli a stand-in for skunk?

Or, maybe Mattel had some real jokesters on their team.

John Brownlee, FastCo Design, 2013 June 24

Go to the main He-Man website for more information

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

The Universal Language of Chemosignals

source: What Do Plants Talk About

Not only can plants “see” light and “hear” vibrations, they are now known to smell parasitic worms. These nematodes communicate with each other using pheromones (specifically ascarosides), which in turn regulate the worm’s development and behavior. We might think of it as wi-fi.

The chemical signal is excreted (or transmitted) from one worm, and received by another. Plants, using that natural tendency of all living things to be clever, hack into the nematode wi-fi network, and use that information to regulate their own behavior and development. When you watch roots grow in timelapse, you realize they're just like worms, wiggling through the ground, looking for nutrients. Only they're not looking, they're smelling.

This should be a reminder to us that the thing we call Smell is a primitive form of communication used by all living things. Plants don't have brains, so they don't smell like we do. But they do have memories, and even autobiographies. We would call this ontological history – these are interactions stored in the ever-changing DNA of the plant. Experience is passed on to subsequent generations.

The first organisms lived in a chemical world. And although they may have been sensitive to light particles and waves of vibration, they were also a receiver of chemical signals. And of the lot, the chemo-signals were the most complex and required the most sophisticated translation. Our brains – real human brains – grew through evolution out of the olfactory bulb. We may associate the advanced cortical functions of our mind with other, higher senses like vision and audition, but that whole thing is undergirded by the primitive nose- brain. “We think because we smell.” (Diane Ackerman, A Natural History of the Senses, 1990)

Our impossibly complex brains can't really fathom what it means for a plant to smell until we come to understand our own chemically-encrypted selves.

Chemo-signal pattern recognition has come a long way, and it’s a history worth looking into.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Froot Flavored

How Can Froot Loops Be Real If the Flavors Aren’t Real?

It’s true, Froot Loops are all the same flavor.

Back in the early days of the Internet, when people were still learning not to use made-up punctuation on message boards, there was a place where you could go to get information about all those random thoughts you have while lying in bed at night. No, it wasn’t called Google, but a predecessor of infinite internet wisdom – Straight Dope.

Although it was re-discovered in a 2014 Today I Learned thread on Reddit, the furthest back we can go is to the Straight Dope message boards of 1999. Surely, however, people have been getting into fistfights over this for many years prior.

The eye-opening part is that most cereals that come in different colors are probably the same in flavor (Ahem, Fruity Pebbles, yes).

Kellogg’s isn’t trying to be manipulative outright; they don’t even call it fruit (it’s Froot). They’re just playing a game that was started around the time of tri-color vision in primates, and one that we all take part in, and one that we actually choose to play. (If not up until now, then after knowing this, you will be forever complicit in the game. The yellow ones will still get left behind.)

Perception is multimodal, that is to say, we do not “see” or “hear” in isolation. We don’t sense anything as “raw information”; instead we perceive things, and this means that the original sensory stimulus has to be processed in its corresponding cortical areas of the brain. For Smell, the raw stimulus gets laced up into your virtual memory body, via the limbic system, before the cortical areas get a chance at it. Regardless, most sensory experience is a mixture of all the senses.

This makes sense, because it makes things more accurate. The brain likes to check with all available information, and that means all sensory information, before verifying what something is. Vision is usually the best verifier for us, so much that it cognitively overrides other senses like smell and taste. There is a reason why almost everything we eat (in America at least) is artificially-colored. *

Sometimes cognitive override yields false results, and this is especially the case with olfaction. There are tons of studies that support this. But if you ate Froot Loops as a kid, you don’t need science, because chances are you thought the yellow was lemon, the orange orange, and so on.

The flavor of Froot Loops is indeed a mixture of the “flavors” that can be derived from various fruits, just that they’re all mixed together. And what does Kellogg’s call this omni-flavored fruit? “Froot”, of course. Froot Loops are not Fruit flavored, but Froot flavored. **

*In the UK, Froot Loops only comes in three colors (purple, orange, green) because they can’t legally use artificial coloring.

**I only repeat this because I saw it in the reddit thread: The main flavoring is bergamot, which is also the flavor in Earl Gray tea.

And one more, because I thought this was just the best comment of all: You don’t eat froot loops one at a time, so how should you even know?

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The Smell Monster

 AKA Isonitriles
AKA The Godzilla of Smells

First, here’s some common bad smells, taken from an entry on Stink Bombs

Hydrogen sulfide, smelling of rotten eggs
Ammonium sulfide, rotten eggs
Propionic acid, sweat
Butyric acid, rancid dairy
Caproic acid, smelling of cheese
Ethylamine, fishy smell
Putrescine, rotten meat
Cadaverine, rotten meat
Skatole, smelling of feces

Smells can instigate a physical response like no other sense. The sight of a disinterred body might reflex your neck, but it’s the molecules that make you lose your lunch, not the photons. There is debate about what is the worst smelling thing, and it’s one that can never be resolved, because people simply don’t smell things the same.

Because they are so context-based, smells can change drastically from person to person. Perhaps the best example of this is isovaleric acid, which smells like both vomit and Parmesan cheese. Isovaleric acid is called delicious by half the people smelling it, and disgusting by the other half. (This depends on the study group; I believe this is an aged-cheese-eating, western-culture-biased pattern that would change for kimchee eating cultures, or sauerkraut, or Durian fruit.) But the point is that the response is fifty-fifty, and there’s no way of telling which will come up.

And just think of the obvious – people don’t mind their own body odors as much as they do those of others, even though they are, for the most part, made of the same molecules.

Speaking of non-lethal weapons, the military uses bad smells for things like riot control. You’ve got the U. S. Government Standard Bathroom Malodor bomb, which smells like a filthy outhouse, and the Who-Me, which you would think smells like farts, but is described as rotting flesh.

It’s important here to recognize that these are the best odor cocktails they could come up with, but they are not absolute; they will not work for everyone. If someone were to have a specific anosmia to the major constituent molecule of this military stink bomb, it would be powerless to them. (And half the population has odor-blindness to at least one of the sixty known anosmias, most of which are “bad” smells.)

This is where the isonitriles come in. I imagine they are not used in non-lethal weaponry because they are in fact toxic. And they have a reputation for being the worst smelling thing ever, but not exactly for the reasons you might expect. They mess with your mind just as much as your nose.

Let me first drop a description from a working chemist:
The smell is indescribable. Not that it is so ungodly beyond all expected levels of stink, which it approaches, but more it is like nothing you have ever experienced and your brain while certainly repulsed to the extreme, struggles to define it. A double assault at your senses. It has a persistent linger on everything that comes near it including your neurons. Much like a horrible picture you see that can’t be purged from your mind. Even after the scene changes you are left with a ghost difficult to eradicate. While HCL + alcohol cleans off hard surfaces well, it does nothing for your memory.

And a more full-bodied description:
Witnesses to the stench claim words cannot describe it. But after reading many firsthand accounts of their ordeals, one begins to piece together a dim picture of the odor as a sort of beast that takes the whole sensory apparatus hostage, leaving victims feeling abused and violated. Like a brutal tyrant, it seems, the smell makes itself felt even after one leaves its immediate presence.

I find it very interesting that this description relates so much to the White Smell discovery that won a nobel prize relatively recently. It is also a smell that cannot be described. It doesn’t smell like anything, yet you know it when you smell it. The way it works is you level all the intesities of the smells in the mixture until they just cancel each other out. Grapefruit is nice at low doses, but can make you gag in higher concentrations. You would adjust the concentration of it, and the others in the mixture, until all the smells are technically invisible.

I just can’t help but to add this descriptor from an article on Selenophenol, (not the same thing as an isonitrile, just another bad smell).

“Organoselenium smells like a robot farted.”

U. S. Government Standard Bathroom Malodor bomb:

62.82% Dipropylene glycol
21.18% Thioglycolic acid
6.00% Hexanoic acid
6.00% N-methyl morpholine
2.18% p-cresyl isovalerate
0.91% 2-naphthalenethiol
0.91% Skatole

D. Hank Ellison, CRC Press 2008, 2nd ed.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

At the Cutting Edge of Olfaction

This is a really cool book on the state of the art as well as the future of artificial olfaction.

Human Olfactory Displays and Interfaces: Odor Sensing and Presentation
Takamichi Nakamoto (Tokyo Institute of Technology, Japan). 2013. 555 pages. direct link

Although good devices exist for presenting visual and auditory sensations, there has yet to be a device for presenting olfactory stimulus. Nevertheless, the area for smell presentation continues to evolve and smell presentation in multimedia is not unlikely in the future.

Human Olfactory Displays and Interfaces: Odor Sensing and Presentation provides the opportunity to learn about olfactory displays and its odor reproduction. Covering the fundamental and latest research of sensors and sensing systems as well as presentation technique, this book is vital for researchers, students, and practitioners gaining knowledge in the fields of consumer electronics, communications, virtual realities, electronic instruments, and more.

[From the Foreword, by Jiri Janata]
Olfaction and taste are two truly chemical senses in which the interaction of the molecule and/or group of molecules with olfactory receptors triggers a chain of complex physiological events, which end in a cognitively interpreted “sensation.” In humans, such sensation can be articulated and can lead to various descriptions that can be anything from general, e.g. “pleasant/unpleasant,” to highly specific, such as chlorine, ammonia, or cinnamon. For most vertebrates, smell is existentially important because it predefines actions as diverse as “to run” or “to mate.” It could be argued that some animals are biological machines whose sole purpose in life is to reproduce and olfaction is one of the key enabling functions.

For many years, engineers and scientists have been fascinated with the idea of explaining olfaction and constructing artificial olfactory machines that do just that. Thus, biology has once more inspired creative activity that has resulted in hundreds of worthwhile and also some questionable publications. It has even received recognition at the Nobel Prize level. The present book belongs to this enormously fertile, but complex area of scientific endeavor.

[From the Preface, by Takamichi Nakamoto]
Although a human interface for vision and audio has been already been developed, an olfactory interface has not. However, people are becoming interested in olfaction as the next-generation human interface. A human interface for olfaction is composed of an olfactory display and an odor sensing system called an electronic nose. An olfactory display is an output of a machine, whereas the odor sensing system is its input. These are important to realize a human olfactory interface. Since an odor sensing system has been studied for last two decades, the researcher population is relatively large. An international conference of machine olfaction is held every two years. However, there are not many olfactory-display researchers, since the olfactory display only recently evolved in virtual reality. Although both fields have been studied separately, it is indispensable to see and understand both the olfactory display and the odor sensing system for developing human olfactory interfaces and their applications.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Post-Truth is the Word of the Year

Truthiness, etc. In other words, The Age of Approximation is upon us. Read about it in Hidden Scents: The Language of Smell in the Age of Approximation

Let’s hear about it, from the BBC article:
“It is defined as an adjective relating to circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than emotional appeals.

“Mr Grathwohl said: "Fuelled by the rise of social media as a news source and a growing distrust of facts offered up by the establishment, post-truth as a concept has been finding its linguistic footing for some time," he said.

“Its frequency of its usage increased by 2,000% in 2016 compared with last year.”

Friday, November 18, 2016

The Next Generation

The next generation of artificial intelligence is here; we’re teaching robots how to think like humans more and more each day. You might not call them robots, but instead artificial intelligence programs tasked with simple operations like visual recognition or speech recognition. They are different from conventional AI programs in that they learn how to do things instead of being told what to do. So, in short, these programs are a lot more like humans in that they have a new way of “learning,” and it happens to be a lot like the way our nose-brain makes sense of the world.

This new AI approach is called, in shorthand, ‘neural networks’ or ‘deep learning.’ Our sense of smell works a lot like a neural network, putting together various layers of recognition, until entire episodes of experience are encoded or released.

These neural networks have been coming up in the news quite often as of late, so I thought I’d re-post some of the good explanations and examples, all of which come by way of Google Labs and Wired magazine. If you’re interested in these things, check out some of Hidden Scents, as it comes around to the concept of neural networks quite often.

Wired writer Margaret Rhodes writes a piece for those wondering "what the f*@k neural networks are and how they work," but she also links us to Daniel Smilkov, a member of Google’s Big Picture Research Group, and Shan Carter, who creates interactive graphics for The New York Times, who both wanted to teach people what these things really are. Play with their amazing interactive here:

Later on, another article by the same Wired writer, Margaret Rhodes, shows us how Google’s deep learning AI plays such a mean game of Pictionary. And again, notice the trend towards managing ambiguity that these new methods are so good at.

“But the game’s accuracy, while impressive, isn’t what makes it a powerful learning tool. It’s how, by observing the way Google responds to your doodling... The lesson: To understand the whole, neural networks need pieces of data that not only connect but build on one another, piece by piece.”


WIRED, Apr 2016
WIRED, Nov 2016

Play with Neural Networks

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Nothing Rhymes with Orange

Eminem on Orange 

Excerpt from Hidden Scents, 1st edition - Chapter 5: The Language of Smell

What is “smell”? It is a process, a reaction, a verb. It is a phenomenon, an experience. And it is, of course, an odor molecule, an aroma compound; it is evaporated, a vaporous substance wafting through the air. Evaporation requires heat. There is garbage, and there is hot garbage. A chemically-mediated phenomenon, smell is inescapably associated with its source. It is because of this link that smell suffers from the name-thing problem. “Orange” is a rich example of this problem, because it establishes a name-thing relationship among multiple nodes of the lexicography.

Oranges, and all Citrus in general, were unknown to the Greco-Roman cultures, as they were isolated from China and its citrus-rich environs for the duration of their time. It is in resonance with this; one might recollect that the word orange did not enter the European languages (via Old French) until circa 1300 C.E., with the color coming still hundreds of years later.

The word “orange” is polysemous; it means a few different things. It is the name of a color, one of the gradations on the spectrum of visible light. It is the name of a place in France from whence the Anglicized color-name is often mistakenly derived. Orange is also the name of a fruit, derived from Romance-speaking traders who called it something similar. And finally, it is the name of a particular scent, one that comes from the aforementioned fruit tree. As with many smell names, the “smell of orange” is usually referred to as the orange fruit itself, which is made up of many molecules, some of which are perceived as odors, and which have their own names, such as Limonene, Myrcene, alpha-Pinene, etc., (note, orange-the-smell is not one particular molecule, but a combination). Technically, the problem is this – in referring to orange-the-smell, one is also referring to orange-the-fruit.* Gardenia is a flower and a smell, and so is Jasmine, and Rose. And some of the odor-molecules that make up an orange also make up a gardenia, and so on.

And yet, Orange might be referred to as Lemon, in that the two share the super-ordinate category of Citrus. From a subjective perspective, and because test subjects perform so poorly on smell-recognition tasks, there tends to be an indiscriminable difference between many of the Citrus smells, especially in regards to this Orange-Lemon relationship (Dubois 2007).

Herein, reference might be made to the orange fruit itself, or the orange smell emanating from that fruit, or the primary constituent molecule that distinguishes that scent;** and yet distinction may not be overtly articulated. For this reason, the context of the word-use is often critical. Smell offers such name-thing conflations, and disambiguation amongst them all is cumbersome, and makes for difficult reading, especially upon the subject of Language, and is thus rejected in favor of fluency.

*In total, the orange tree avails three different smell-names: the “Neroli” flower, the peel of the orange fruit, and the leaves, called Pettigrain.

** Although Limonene shows the highest concentration, as per gas chromatography analysis, this does not indicate the subjective perception of individual molecules according to their prothetic measurements, that is, their intensity. Though some other molecules besides Limonene occur at lower concentrations, their role in creating the scent’s orange-ness may be equally as important. Smell is a holistic perceptual phenomenon, after all.

Dubois D (2007). From Psychophysics to Semiophysics: Categories as Acts of Meaning, a Case Study from Olfaction and Audition, Back to Colors. In: Speaking of Colors and Odors, Converging Evidence in Language and Communication Research 8, ed. M Plumacher M & P Holz, pp. 168-184. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016


People used to eat mummies, back in the 1800’s. Image source: wikimedia

The mysterious always has a way of wiggling past our common sense. When mummies were first discovered by the West, they were the height of public wonder. To preserve a body forever, and in such a way, was a shock to the imagination. The powerful aromatics used in mummification enticed curious people with lots of money to buy the craziest thing out there – mummy meat.

Eventually, with the initial mother lode of mummies exhausted, and the market still demanding more, opportunists arrived – entrepreneurs, perhaps. They impregnated recent cadavers with aromatic substances, wrapped them up, and aged them until the time was right, when they would be passed-off as authentic Egyptian mummy meat. People devoured its wonderment all the same. It was claimed to have special effects on those who ate it. But what was more intoxicating, the meat, or its mystery?

One thing is for sure – the smell of spice, incense, the eternal, and the foreign gave tangible credibility to such claims.

This story is taken from Annick Le Guérer’s Scent, the Mysterious and Essential Powers of Smell, written in 1988, translated from French in 1994.

Excerpt from Hidden Scents:
Odors only stimulate memory; they do not cause any other reactions by themselves. When one feels sick in the presence of an odor, it is not because of the odor itself but because of its association with previous sickness. Automobile exhaust smells and is deadly, but it is not deadly because it smells. The odor sensorium has no capacity for discriminating toxic from nontoxic substances. Odors are epiphenomenal, without any direct biological effect other than that on the olfactory system. Still, the powerful illusion that they cause pleasure and pain persists. Even when one knows that it was drinking too much whiskey that made one sick, the smell of it remains aversive as though it were the cause.* Because smell-response is learned, it only makes sense that upon repeated exposure to a smell, noxious or not, its alarming effect would wear off over time. Why else would you still be in its presence – “it mustn’t be dangerous” – and is therefore turned off, like a smoke alarm, disabled upon accidentally burning breakfast. Cognition is practically defined by its ability to move beyond this reliance on false alarms – it generates methods of identification completely unattainable in the detail and at the distance (both spatial and temporal) than that which is offered by olfaction.

*This is not to be confused with a “smell” that is trigeminally noxious. Mustard gas stimulates trigeminal nerves, not olfactory nerves. In fact, a good way to disambiguate smell from trigeminality is to determine whether it physically hurts. Smells do not hurt, they remind us of pain, but they do not physically cause pain.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Smell is a Sense More Suited to a Fluid Medium

Image source: The Human Brain, Rita Carter, 2009

Smelling started in fish. But that’s not exactly true, because responding to chemical signals is something that has been happening since life’s very beginning. Smelling with a brain...that starts with fish.

Neil Shubin, and ichtyopaleontologist (fish fossil finder), believes that the best roadmaps to our own bodies can be found in other creatures, as they carry the story of our development in their bones as well as their DNA. According to Subin's 2008 book Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body, there are two kinds of smelling genes in animals. One is for chemo-signaling in the air and one is for water. But certain surf and turf animals, the jawless fish (lampreys and hagfish), have both types, suggesting they arose before smelling genes split in two.

These jawless fish also have fewer odor genes. Over evolutionary time they increase – humans have hundreds. Many of our genes are non-functioning (and many are still in the process of evolving even today). Nonetheless, these junk genes remain in our DNA as a silent record of our evolution.

Geneticist Yoav Gilad found that primates who develop color vision tend to have more junk odor genes. Vision as an information tool de-emphasizes smell, thus turning more and more odor genes into junk. The (simple) advent of bipedalism takes us further from the data-rich olfactory carpet, while at the same time reinforcing the benefits of being so high up – we can see so much more this way!

It is no coincidence also, that the higher processing areas of our brain developed in tandem with the visual areas. Vision lends itself to cognition, whereas smell is limited to our emotions.

In the silent record of our evolution, manifest in our neuro-anatomy, is this separation between thoughtful human and primitive animal, the reflective and the automatic. To see is to understand. But to smell is to remember what it was like for the first organism to brainitself out of timespace, to be a jawless fish, a nematode worm, a plant whose roots wiggle through the earth, or the eukaryote "mindlessly" following the chemical gradient. There is no soil, no air, only fluid chemical signatures to activate and inhibit, and to be stored in memory forever.

Then again, they say fish only remember 7 seconds.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

The Power of Analogy and Artificial Intelligence

A “parquet deformation,” from Douglas Hofstadter’s Metamagical Themas, 1985

A la Douglas Hofstadter, the metamathematical wizard, the “man who will break your spell check,” the power of analogy gives artificial intelligence the edge it needs to squeeze us out of the equation. A new artificial cognition design technique known as ---  “structure-mapping engine (SME), the new model is capable of analogical problem solving, including capturing the way humans spontaneously use analogies between situations to solve moral dilemmas.” ( 2016)

Fluidity, intuition, morality – these are things that are hard to come by in computers these days. But one of the things that allows us think in this way is the power of analogy.

And not only is the “language of smell” an entirely metaphorical concept – both in the way it uses other senses to generate its descriptions (sweet, sharp), and in the way the smells are described (orange is like lemon, but not like butter; peach is somewhere between fruity and butter) – but more importantly, this phenomenon, the language of smell, is a powerful analogy for the primitive mind. Teach a robot to smell, and we’re out of here.

Notes:, June 2016

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

The Ever Impending Electronic Nose

CMOS Sensor, image source

The electronic nose has been coming forever. We already have artificial noses in the form of mass spectrometers. The new kind use integrated circuits, the same CMOS chips that are in cellphones. They aren’t tied to a thinking, feeling human, but at least the initial step of identification is happening.

This article in particular is touting the use of an artificial nose to analyze breath samples, citing that “breaths contain gases from the stomach and that come out of blood when it comes into contact with air in the lungs. The breath test is a blood test without taking blood samples. Breath contains information about practically every part of a human body.”

This is good stuff, and explains why your breath starts to smell funny when you’re hungry, or why diabetic-breath smells like acetone, but I must keep going and repeat the sales pitch of this scientist:

"If you think about the industry around sensors that emulate our senses, it's huge," said Dr. O, also a professor in the Erik Jonsson School of Engineering and Computer Science and holder of the Texas Instruments Distinguished University Chair. "Imaging applications, hearing devices, touch sensors—what we are talking about here is developing a device that imitates another one of our sensing modalities and making it affordable and widely available. The possible use of the electronic nose is almost limitless. Think about how we use smell in our daily lives."

But yes, let’s think for a minute about how we use smell in our daily lives. Smell is so below the radar that we don’t consciously register most of its ongoings. So when we take this CMOS sensor to a brain, what exactly would we like it to do? Of course we can’t engineer the olfactory bulb itself, or the subsequent limbic system (in concert with our memory) that ultimately creates our experience of smell. But if we were to isolate it, and use it for specific things, like breath analysis, then what else would it do?

Gas leaks, obviously. Maybe it could alert my roommate to change the litter box? Or tell a parent that their teenager was drinking last night (that’s a simple breathalyzer built into the air system of the house; watch out kids). You would think we’d already have one to smell the maple syrup smell coming from the burning transmission fluid in your engine. And what else? Can I smell the presidential candidates with my CMOS supernose? Who knows. Smell a house on Zillow? Let’s bring it to Japan and see what they do with it.

Post Script:
On thinking about this further, I must stress the difference between what I’ll call active smelling and passive smelling. What we do as humans is passive smelling. For the most part, we are not actively looking for a particular smell. (And, in fact, this is no way to smell, unless you’re a fragrance artist.) It’s more like the Tao of Perception – you must have a “soft awareness” where you are ready for any smell, but you’re not actively smelling for anything in particular. That’s just the way smell works. So this is passive smelling.

Active smelling would be a sensor fitted for one particular odor compound. Acetone, for diabetic-breath, for example. Or it may be fit for a bunch of things on top of that. But you could never fit the sensor for all potential smells. That’s not how the human epithelium works. We would need an artificial olfactory bulb for that, because the bulb turns our 450 receptors into the trillion potential smells available. And further, to attach that to meaning, we would need, again as mentioned above, an entire body, and more than that, a body that has lived from birth. A Frankenstein created at 20 years old would not be able to smell. This must be a baby Frankenstein we’re talking about here, zygote even.

In closing, we can’t have an electronic nose that is “open ended.” It can look for particular things on Zillow – mold? Wet paint? (who cares) Frito Feet? (that’s the smell of dog feet, which could indicate a pet lived in the house?). Thanks for listening.

Notes:, June 2016

Friday, October 14, 2016

The Pumpkin Conundrum

aka What Do Pumpkins Actually Taste Like?

It has come to the attention of the cultivorous behemoth that is Consumerism that using pumpkins in autumn is a really good idea. It’s in your cookies, your coffee, and for god’s sake it’s in your condoms. And in all its prestigitory splendor, the big C has even managed to remove the actual pumpkin from the formula, giving us a great example of the Lingua Anosmia at work: There is no pumpkin in pumpkin flavor.

It doesn’t take long for a hyper-mediated society to figure this stuff out, and so Starbucks has committed to using real pumpkins in their recipe. The change came about more as a response to the Natural Food movement than a recognition of the irony in this bogus beta-carotene bonanza.

So what’s the deal; where does this celebrity squash come from? It starts with pumpkin pie, which via whipped cream goes awesome with coffee. You might just like the taste, or you might like the taste because you like Thanksgiving in general. One thing is for sure, you don’t like it for the pumpkin. Anyway, coffeeshops are as much about their product as they are their placeness. The experience has to be as good as the coffee, and what better way to make people comfortable than to remind them of Thanksgiving. And so it begins, the pumpkin-flavored coffee. But as a flavor, what exactly is it?

The flavor that has revolutionized autumn’s bottom line is Pumpkin Spice, and not Pumpkin proper. This refers to the ingredients most often used to flavor pumpkin pie, and they are cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and clove. Chances are, when you hear “pumpkin flavor”, you can expect these four ingredients. As my friend the chef pointed out, apple pie and pumpkin pie both use the same four spices, only in different ratios. So not only is Pumpkin Flavor not Pumpkin, it could almost be Apple.

But what about the pumpkin sans spice? Let’s combine a couple sources, The Good Scents Company and Sigma Aldrich. (I thought it noteworthy that in their circa 2012 catalog, Sigma Aldrich doesn’t index pumpkin as an organoleptic descriptor for any of their chemicals.)

Looks like there are only two chemicals in relation to pumpkin. The first is sorbyl acetate, its more formal name is trans,trans-2,4-Hexadienyl acetate. Good Scents describes its properties as fresh green, oily, herbal, pumpkin, fresh parsley, soapy, metallicSigma Aldrich describes it as pineapple, sweet, and wine-like. If it all makes sense to you, please leave your input in the comments section below(!). All I can add is that Pineapple and Sweet are quite the ubiquitous organoleptics in the SA catalog.

Next is (E,E)-2,4-decadienal, which Good Scents describes as oily, cucumber, melon, citrus, nut, meat, fatty, chicken, aldehydic, green, fried, and potato. Sigma Aldrich indexes the chemical as one of the "other" aromas in the following categories: Meaty, Citrus, and Fatty. Many, if not all of their categories have a sublisting “other”.

This is where we find Pumpkin, in the Other category. After all, “other” is the most favored of the Lingua Anosmia.

Pumpkin pie filling tends not to be made of the quintessential pumpkin, but a similar variety like butternut squash., Sep 2015

On Orange Juice and Rancid Butter and the Volatility of Aroma Compounds

Snippets from Hidden Scents – this one is about the volatility of aroma compounds:
Were they to be artificially isolated, or even left on their own, their state might be subject to change depending on the conditions. Normal amounts of oxygen in the air are enough to change a sensitive odor molecule into something very different; such reactions are a major consideration in food design and artificial flavoring. Terpenes, which comprise an important element of citrus-smell, oxidize over time, changing the relative proportion of the overall mixture, and moving from “citrus” to “turpentine.” Moving in the opposite direction, butyric acid, which smells like the rancid butter from which its name is rendered, can react with ethanol to become ethyl butyrate, which smells of pineapple. Ethyl butyrate is then used as a primary ingredient in artificial orange juice flavor. Only with careful consideration can an odor be named with any degree of accuracy. The name type is just as important: Is this a reference to a specific chemical within the orange profile, or to the entire smell-of-orange as it occurs in the pureness of its essential oil?


In practical terms, when your OJ goes bad, it’s not your imagination, it really does smell like turpentine. And when you ask for pineapple juice at the bar, and they pull it out in that big metal can that was opened yesterday, and you all of the sudden smell rancid butter, it’s not the bartender. And to use molecules as a basis for organizing smells is not as useful as it seems.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

On Sweetness and Flowers

"French scientists identified a gene that's far more active in a heavily scented kind of rose than in a type with little odor. This gene, which produces an enzyme, revealed the odor-producing process."

Roses have not been designed over centuries of human endeavor to smell good, but to look good. Roses may have been initially valued for their heavenly scent, but over time, they have been selected for reasons of visual beauty.

A selection from Hidden Scents:
Crossing as often as it does with the Food Industry, Fragrance is often interpreted to the mind as taste. “Sweet” is frequently used as an olfactory descriptor. However, calling caramel-smell Sweet is not a chemical consequence of the molecule, but an effect of memory. If sucrose is paired with an odor, any odor, it will eventually “smell sweet”. The potential effect on odor perception that is cued by such multi-sensory information is thought to be the minimization of “perceptual dissonance between the dominant sense (vision) and the minor sense” (Wilson & Stevenson 2006).

Smells are not just Sweet; Castoreum is Umami, and Body Odor, Sour. Yet something about the word, the taste, and the smell of “Sweet” is linked together, and can be evidenced in the fact that the word “sweet” is the most commonly used sub-category heading in the Aldrich catalog (2013), which is a chemical clearinghouse for Flavor and Fragrance scientists. The biases and idiosyncrasies inherent in the Aldrich Catalog as a universal aroma reference are immediate and comprehensive. The catalog is a flavor tool, first of all, and as a commercially-driven pursuit flavor reigns supreme over fragrance alone. The fact that “Sweet” as a sub-category has the most centrality (it falls under Balsamic, Woody, Fruity and Minty) could relate to a confluence of the pervasive availability of sweet aromas, or the sweet-tooth of a certain society, or that there really is something sensually similar about the relative phenomena. Unresolved in that matter, we can scrape-together at least that the description of a smell will tend to be communicated via other, more intentionally-simulable channels of association – anything but the olfactory-specific semantic network of experience, because of course, such a thing is so halting and reluctant in its cooperation, if at all.

In parallel to this gustatory congruency of Sweetness, it is a curious thing to consider: are Florals such an extensive part of the perfumer’s repertoire because of their associated visual aesthetic beauty? David Howes responds in telling of his work with the Papa New Guinean Kwoma people (Howes 2002:76). He presents plastic cards impregnated with scent, and painted with a corresponding color (cinnamon is brown, coconut is white, etc.). When surveyed on the most-liked odor, respondents voted Rose in the vast majority. After having hidden the red-colored Rose scent in an envelope, however, the overwhelming preference disappeared (along with Howes’ search for a universal aroma preference, à la Berlin and Kay, 1969).

Berlin B & Kay P (1969). Basic Color Terms: Their Universality and Evolution. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Howes D (2002). Nose-wise: Olfactory Metaphors in Mind. In: Olfaction, Taste, and Cognition, ed. C Rouby, B Schaal, D Dubois, R Gervais, & A Holley, pp. 67-81. Cambridge, U.K: Cambridge University Press.
Sigma-Aldrich (2013). Aldrich Chemistry 2012-2014: Handbook of Fine Chemicals. Sigma-Aldrich.
Wilson D A, Stevenson R J (2006). Learning to Smell: Olfactory Perception from Neurobiology to Behavior. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Friday, October 7, 2016

The Flesh of the Anthroposphere


The title here is in reference to the human flesh search engine, and only in theory, not in practice. The ‘flesh engine’ is used for public humiliation, but the idea of it is simply the use of a distributed process using humans as opposed to computers – not artificial intelligence exactly, but an artificially-mediated human intelligence. Nonetheless, this organizing agent, the whole of a particular population, produces a unique database of smell-descriptions that defies our contemporary notions of a “searchable database” to create the dirtiest of dirty data. 

Snippets from Hidden Scents; this one is in relation to the way People organize the names of smells, as compared to the science of chemistry or the fragrance industry:

In this compartment of olfactory classification, smell is organized by the human organism at large, the flesh of the anthroposphere, if you will. Whereas scientific taxonomies and fragrance industry inventories are themselves products of human endeavor – created for humans by humans – the (unconscious) categorization of odors by the general population is a separate system altogether.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

I Could Have Been a Fragrance Millionaire Jerry

AKA Calvin Kleinfleld

Smell my arm!

Actually, he didn’t have a chance. By the time Kramer came up with his idea, it had already been in the works for a few years – in real life, that is. Calone’s patent protection ended in 1989, and by 1990 the first Oceanic scent was on the market.

Some folks might be familiar with the 1992 episode of Seinfeld – The Pick – where Kramer’s fragrance epiphany gets swiped by a Calvin Klein marketing executive.

Kramer originally has the idea for a cologne that makes you smell like “the beach” in a previous episode – The Pez Dispenser – upon returning from a midwinter’s Polar Bear plunge. He calls it The Beach and pitches it to a CK exec who dismisses Kramer for a nutjob.

“Do you think people are going to pay eighty dollars to smell like dead fish and seaweed? That’s why people take showers when they come home from the beach.”

Next episode, it turns out they stole Kramer’s idea. He whiffs it on a supermodel. “You smell like the beach. What's the name of that perfume you're wearing?”

“The Ocean, by Calvin Klein”

That’s what it’s called – The Ocean. In the episode, that is. In real life however, the scent Kramer is looking for is called Calone (not a misspelling). It is one of the most important aroma compounds ever discovered, and represents not only an entire decade of men’s fragrance, but the advent of the “unisex” perfume market.

Calone is a tradename for a chemical that smells like the ocean. It was discovered by a pharmaceutical company researching benzodiazepine derivatives for anti-depression meds. When the researchers took notice of the chemical’s aromatic quality, they handed it over to a fragrance company to refine, and to name, and thus we have Calone – its chemical recipe hidden from the public due to intellectual property rights.*

Calone can be found in nature; it is a secondary metabolite of seaweed pheromone. However, it exists in the world of fragrance only as a synthetic compound made in a lab. Calone stands out, in fact, because it is the first synthetic chemical to be used in its synthetic form before its natural form (and to this day, nobody is trying to extract seaweed sweat in lieu of chemical synthesis).

Again, this is not to say that Calone doesn’t exist in nature, only that the fragrance industry in all its history has never used it that way. In fact squared, Calone was so new, and so unique, and so groundbreaking of a discovery, that it was given its own category amongst only four others in the total of all fragrance families. This, the Oceanic/Ozonic/Marine class of fragrance aromas, appeared circa 1990, and is known for its use in the new style of androgynous, “watery” scents of that time. (Calvin Klein’s Eternity and Davidoff’s Cool Water, both 1988, are prime examples, as is Giorgio Armani’s Acqua Di Gio 1996. And now, I can’t resist mentioning the original Wu-Tang fragrance of 1998 was described as simply a "Cool Water scent.")

Synthetic aromatic molecules are jackpot for the company who discovers them, but also for those down-the-line who can take advantage. It means they can make the same scent for a fraction of the price of the natural equivalent. In this case, the synthetic discovery had no natural equivalent – it was an entirely new smell. Heads went Calone-crazy and flooded the market. A tsunami, if you will. Calone is such a distinct olfactory representation of an era that its scent can reliably be referred to as “almost any man's fragrance since 1995 that comes in a blue bottle.”

And so with that, we should find it ironic (how appropriately Seinfeldian) that Kramer’s million dollar idea was about to become the scent of the decade.

Post Script:
I’d like to list some of the terms used to describe Calone, beginning with what Kramer would have called it:

The Beach
The Ocean
Sea Breeze
Marine-like sea spray
Ozonic (though ozone is odorless)
Dead Fish (but only Seinfeldian Calvin Klein executives call it that)
“generic guy smell” (later 1990’s)
“that androgynous smell” (earlier 1990’s)
CAS No 28940-11-6
Watermelon Ketone
(it doesn’t sound right, but Calone is related to a chemical found in melons)

*Discovered in 1966 by chemists from the pharmaceutical company Pfizer, who passed on their discovery to the perfumers of Camilli Albert Laloue in Grasse - here the substance got its name - and yet it should again take 20 years (1989 ended the patent protection) for calone could begin its triumphal procession. With New West by Yves Tanguy the fragrance became famous. [source translated from German] Anyone who knows where to find the formal documentation of this, feel free to make contact.

As told by one perfume blogger via a lecture at the Osmotheque by Yves Tanguy (the perfumer, not the Surrealist), the first use of Calone was in New West for Aramis 1990, which was simply Cristalle de Chanel 1974 plus Calone. That’s it.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Bionic Nose Implant World First

Just kidding. But there is this announcement of the first bionic eye implant. This can also be called a retinal prosthesis. There's also cochlear prosthetics, for the hearing impaired. And there's even people who can see with their tongues. (And don't forget the hand that feels.)

They all work by turning sensory stimulus, either photons or sound waves, into electrical signals for the brain to understand, and using whatever nerve fibers are available. These artificial sense organs are examples of reverse-engineering - to know how something works so well that you can detail its operations from beginning to end and everything in between.

It is generally understood that Science does not know enough about olfactory perception to reverse-engineer it, and will not know for a long time. The way aromatic molecules stimulate olfactory nerve receptors is still under debate (shape vs. vibration), and what happens after that is even less understood (although the popularity of deep learning neural nets might change that, as they have a lot in common with the olfactory bulb). Smell continues to be the most mysterious of our senses.

Not to mention, smell is (I think) the only sense where we can see evidence of evolution-in-action - people differ in the way they can smell things down to the individual genetic profile, depending on genes that are still in the process of change today. If you're reading this, you have a 2% chance of one of your 'smelling genes' being junk. So you can't smell asparagus-piss, or skunks, or semen, or sixty other possible candidates. Therefore, to create an artificial 'olfactory prosthesis' is to undoubtedly intervene in the trajectory of human evolution, in real-time.

read about our individual "smell fingerprints"

Wednesday, September 21, 2016


 AKA The Food Network

Bacon Flavor (2-Methoxy-4-methylphenol), surrounded by all the other flavors that use that same chemical-flavor; note that it's slightly modified for ease of viewing. 
There is only one chemical used to make the flavor of bacon.

To put it another way, the chemical that is used to make 'bacon flavor' is also used to make 'vanilla', 'jasmine', and 'clove', among others (including whiskey, which for the reason of lexical discrepancies does not show up on the graph).

Take a minute to play with this network graph - a compendium of flavors and fragrances and the relationships between them, using Aldrich's catalog of over 1000 chemicals.
(check out a youtube tutorial on how to use the network graphs)

 Not only does this seaweed taste like bacon, it looks like fine-sliced proscuitto.

Culinologist Jason Ball from Oregon State University’s Food Innovation Center (via University of Copenhagen’s Nordic Food Lab) and aquaculture researcher Chris Langdon from OSU Marine Science Center, July 2015

Friday, September 16, 2016

Microbial Turing Test

aka Do Eukaryotes Think?

I mean, what does it really mean to think? Don’t we associate thinking with active, purposeful, agency? I think; thinking isn’t something that happens to me. Or is it? Sometimes I wonder if anything we do has intent, if anything we do is of our own volition. When we move through a room, are we moving, or is the room moving us?

Do we wear earrings, or are the earrings wearing us (à la Kevin Kelly’s What Technology Wants, he asks if the earrings are actually using us to spread the wearing of earrings by others; I wear them, you think I look cool, and then you go ahead and wear them too, and so on, and so on).

Further afield, if we do not think the way we think we think (pardon me), then can we say the reverse – that other things thought not to-think are in fact thinking? What does a very simple multicellular organism do? Does it run decision making algorithms? Here’s a piece from the end of Hidden Scents in the chapter called “Olfactory Space and n-Dimensionality” where we’re talking about what space is, what dimensionality is, and what it means for us to be in it and moving through it. The thing is, our olfactory sense is more tied up with our sense of space than any other. In some ways, it is the thing that moves us, it is the same part of our brain that activates motion, or motility, as it is called in simpler organisms. Little cellular buggers do something called chemotaxis, where they follow a chemical gradient in their environment. As those critters evolve, they become more and more liberated from their chemical environment; they can decide whether they want to follow the gradient or not. This transition from reaction to decision, from being a slave to one’s environment, to somewhat of a master, is the story of the development of our own mind. And our sense of smell is a vestige of this ancient part of us. (And to call back to the original question here, once this organism is ‘liberated’ from its environment by its ability to decide, then does the decision-making system now control it? Does the decision-making system have its own rules and limitations which influence the liberated organism in way the physical environment used to?)

Snippets from Hidden Scents
The eukaryote reacts to the chemical information it encounters in at least two ways – positive or negative. Humans are no different, swimming in a soup of information. Cognition aside (or does the eukaryote think?), we navigate even the complexities of our world in this most primary way. Every piece of information we receive is placed on this hedonic gradient and weighed in light of all the rest until the moment we initiate an action. The eukaryote does not move of its own accord but, instead, in response to the things outside it. It needs these things in order to move. Ultimately, it does not move itself; they move it. For the chemosensing organism, space is not a void to be traversed. Space is a distribution of the potentiality for movement. The distance between things is not important: There is no distance, only contact.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Some Flowers Smell Bad

I often associate the smell of a rose with that of solid human waste, by way of restroom air fresheners; incidentally, the reason floral smells are so good in air fresheners, is that they share similar aroma compounds, like indole and skatole. image: Glorious Garden

Simon Cotton, The Conversation, via, July 9, 2015
[note this post is a bit outdated]

Most people already know about the world's smelliest flower. Here I'd like just take note of its associated lexicon, taken from the above article.

First let's hear about this "master of disguise":
"Its smell is designed to attract insects such as flies and carrion beetles, which normally feed on decaying flesh, which will help pollinate it. The spathe is green on the outside but the flower head is red, so it looks like meat. This plant is really cunning – as it blooms it gives out quite a lot of heat, up to 36°C, which encourages the molecules to spread out by helping them vapourise, and also confirms the impression of "warm meat". The insects crawl over the spathe to leave their eggs in what they believe to be rotten meat, in the process transferring pollen – and this pollinates the plant."

-Amorphophallus titanum
-corpse flower
-carrion plant
-hot, rotten flesh
-dimethyl disulphide (DMDS)
-dimethyl trisulphide (DMTS)
-'off-flavor' in beer (result of the fermentation process)
-"sweaty skin" acids
-human faeces
-"dead-horse arum"
-dimethyl sulfide (DMS)
-"smell of the seaside"
-black truffles underground in some parts of France.
(DMDS and DMTS are associated with the smell of Italian white truffles.)

*This list contains terms associated with plants of similar genus, and terms for molecules that may only contribute to, but do not wholly represent, their reference-term (indole is a component of human feces, but not the only one).

Friday, September 9, 2016

Revealing Salient Features of the Smell Network

aka On Sweetness and Flowers

pdf screenshot: Aldrich's Flavors and Fragrances Catalog, 2013. "Organoleptic properties index", pp145-169. 
If you work in the Flavor and Fragrance Industry, chances are you use the Sigma Aldrich catalog to reference the chemicals, the raw materials, of your craft. Sigma Aldrich produces and procures about 1,000 ‘smellable’ chemicals for distribution among the Industry.

It is the nature of volatile organic compounds (‘smellable’ molecules) that the same units can be used to make a variety of aromas. Although there are only 1,000 chemicals, they are indexed by over 3,000 descriptors, such as smoky, anise, spicy, or rose. One does not search for the chemical Geraniol, but instead looks up “Rose”, under the super-category Floral, and there will be Geraniol, along with all other chemicals used to intimate the aromatic impression of a rose. Further collapsing these roughly 3,000 descriptors into more general categories, again there is redundancy. The aromatic descriptor “Lemon” is categorized under the Citrus as well as the Woody groups.

Of all these descriptors, “Sweet” is the most redundant; it is repeated in four different groups, more than any other descriptor. In network science parlance, this is called centrality, or betweenness. Thus, Sweet has a higher centrality value than any other descriptor. It is a kind of glue, a hub, which holds the network together. (This is a flavor and fragrance catalog, after all.)

Using Sweet as a locus, a modified aroma network can be configured. Within this “Sweet network”, every super-category that contains Sweet as a descriptor is present. (Note that the chemical indexed by “Sweet” in one grouping, such as Fruity, does not necessarily refer to the same chemical as the “Sweet” in the Balsamic group.) The related super-categories that share Sweet as one of their descriptors, they happen to be the most ‘copiously described’ groups. Fruity has 850 descriptors, the most of any group. Balsamic has 540.

This revelation is becoming somewhat anti-climatic, as it would be expected that the more descriptors a group has, the more likely it would share one of those descriptors with another group. But what is this? If we look down, at the third-most populated grouping – Floral, at 296 – we see that it is absent from the Sweet network. If groupings with many descriptors tend to contain Sweet, and Floral has many descriptors, then it should also contain Sweet. It does not.

In the first place, Sweet is not a smell, it is a taste. But this is a flavor and fragrance catalog, you retort. But what then about sour, salty, bitter, and savory? They do not exhibit the same centrality as sweetness. Next, we do not eat flowers. In fact, a major part of the profile of a “floral” note is the smell of shit – not the most gustatorily satisfying of aromas.

The corpus of the Sigma Aldrich smell network is highly complex in its structure and associations, with stable patterns found few and far between. No matter the corpus, throughout history such has been the same for smells. At least for one of its infinite configurations, it can be observed that Sweetness and Flowers are very distinct entities in the aromasphere: We do not eat Flowers, and we do not smell Sweet.