Sunday, July 31, 2016

A World Without Smells


We’re reading about Ed Yong’s new book, I Contain Multitudes. It’s about the microbiome and how it runs our bodies.

Wired writer Sarah Fallon interviews Yong, and one of the first thing she asks is this –
“What would happen if every germ on Earth suddenly vanished?”

To which Yong responds –
“All hell would break loose. Animals that eat grass (deer, cows, horses) would starve, since they need germs in their stomachs to digest cellulose. Coral would bleach out. “In the deep oceans, many worms, shellfish, and other animals rely on bacteria for all of their energy,” Yong writes. “Without microbes, they too would die, and the entire food webs of these dark abyssal worlds would collapse.” And don’t stand there all smug, vegetarians. Microbes make nitrogen, and plants need nitrogen, so there’s the rest of the food supply shot. Also, as Yong says, “microbes are lords of decay.” There would be shit (and rotting leaves and dead bodies) everywhere.”

Cool. Now, first thing I ask is – what does this smell like? But wait, does it smell at all? And then, wait, microbes do all the decomposing, all of it. So not only is there no rotting, there’s no decomposition of any kind, isn’t that right? Everything stays in a state of suspended bacterial animation. And now I’m thinking a bit far afield and off subject, but does that mean somehow ridding a planet of its microbes is a kind of instant fossilization?

Notes:
Sarah Fallon, 2016 July 28, Wired


Friday, July 29, 2016

Why Do I Smell Cat Piss

AKA The Full Cat Piss Moon

I know this might sound crazy, but cat butts is a thing.

I wrote Hidden Scents because I have this thing where I smell what others can’t. This is not to say that my nose is any better than anyone else’s, only that I must pay attention more.

For example, I've been catching cat piss like crazy lately. Maybe you will too, now that I'm mentioning it.

The other day I'm at my friend’s house. “Come out back, check out my new weathervane.” I go outside, and BOOM, it hits me in the face. At first I thought they bombed their yard with mosquito repellent. Nah, that's definitely cat piss. You see, in a situation like this, I have learned not to say anything. Chances are they won't smell it, and I'll seem insulting. I wait a minute, just to make sure. After all, she is female, and I do smell “cat piss” on women sometimes (and once in awhile on men too) but I won't get into that...except to suggest that since civetone is such a big molecule, and lasts so long as a fragrance ingredient, that I might just be getting very old whiffs of that.

Anyway, finally I'm sure it's cat piss, so I go for it, “You have stray cats around here?”

“Yeah, why?“ “You don’t smell it?” No. They never do.

Yesterday it happened again. We are outside looking through the telescope – a crescent moon and Saturn – a beautiful night. And there it is. Listen – I actually don't mind the smell – it's fragrant! It's no coincidence that civet (which smells a lot like cat piss because it basically is cat piss) has been a primary ingredient in perfume for centuries.

Back to the backyard. The friends I’m with now are both male, so I don't hesitate, “You got stray cats up in here?”

“All over…You smell it don't you??” He knows; he's the guy who helped me name my book so he's familiar with my nose-thing. I sniffed-out the mold in his house a few years ago. “It’s mating season, I hear ‘em at night going crazy.”

Later that night, and out of nowhere, he says, “Yeah, it's like a perfume, I can smell it now.” Finally. I'm not alone.

I urge anyone who knows more about this than I do to leave a comment, and I'll continue a bit about civet.

And is it really cat mating season?

*Let's get this out of the way real quick: there is an ingredient in perfume called blackcurrant bud that smells like cat piss, and it does grow around here, and it fruits in midsummer. My friends, however, do not have any blackcurrant bushes on their property. Thanks Perfume Shrine for this.

POST SCRIPT
Civet is a kind of animal musk. In this case, it is a fragrant substance taken from a certain kind of wild cat by the same name, and usually specified as the African Civet. For centuries, these cats (it’s technically more like a mongoose) were hunted and trapped for their potent, musky pheromones, which are repeatedly scraped from their anal glands while in captivity. At smaller dilutions it becomes very pleasant – just like grapefruit oil, which at the right concentration can make you vomit uncontrollably. Civetone is the name given to the molecule that most represents the Civet smell, and it is very similar to Musk/Muscone, and has in it traces of Skatole (faeces). I’m not certain of this, but I think any synthetic alternative to getting Civetone is kept a secret. You can buy it, but you can’t make it yourself (without hella experimentin’ chemists).

POST POST SCRIPT
In order to attract jaguars, National Geographic-type people are known to use Calvin Klein’s Obsession for Men 1986.


So You Like Ambiguity



The duck-rabbit illusion is an oldie but goodie. This new square-cylinder illusion will make you second guess your visual cortex. It's a square, it's a circle, it's both, it's neither.


 gif:

Video:


Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Crossmodal Perception and Cultural Difference

Infrared Central Park by Paolo Pettigiani circa 2016, via wired

It is not often that we get to hear scientists talking about the language of smell, so let’s hear from Asifa Majid, a scientist who studies, among other things, the language of smell as she talks to cognitive scientist Jon Sutton about language and thought:

“For example, in English sweet (taste) can also be used to describe people; i.e. a ‘gentle, kind or friendly’ person. But in Hebrew when sweet is used metaphorically it refers to ‘inauthenticity’. A spicy person in English might be considered ‘full of spirit’, but a spicy person in Hebrew would be someone ‘intellectually competent’. If a young man in Guhu Samane (Papua New Guinea) described a group of girls as sweet, the man could relate to them as sisters, and approach them. But if the girls were described as bitter, that would be because they are potential wife material (because they come from the appropriate clan), and so the young man should be cautious and keep his distance. These are all examples of how taste vocabulary can be used for traits and characteristics of people. Metaphor is pervasive in language.”
- taken from The Content of Minds in The Psychologist, July 2016

The entire language of smell is a proxy for other senses. All smells are named for what they’re like, for the experiences they evoke. To name a smell, to verbally explore what a thing smells like, is to reveal something deep inside our minds and at the core of our culture.


Old Folks Jokes



It’s not news exactly, we’ve known this for some time. Your sense of smell can measure the health of your brain. It makes sense becaus smell is so deeply embedded in the most primitive parts of your mind, that for something to go wrong there, shows there is something wrong in those most basic parts, which especially includes the memory.

Whereas other senses do most of their activity in their respective cortices, or info-processing areas of the brain, like the visual cortex, smell has no cortex. It is “processed” by the limbic system itself, and the limbic system, named for its control of the limbs and thus motility, is really at the base of our neural schematic. You could lose your Broca or Wernicke areas of your brain, the parts that deal with speaking and decoding language, and your life would take a hit, sure – but if you lost a part of your limbic system, you probably wouldn’t have much of a life at all. (Although there are plenty of exceptions to this rule.)

My friend’s mom recently told me about how she’s getting phantom smells – smelling stuff when it’s not there. This could be caused by all kinds of things, really, but as she is approaching 70 years old, I told her to take that as a reminder to check her mental health. I think her olfactory phantoms (Ren and Stimpy called them “nose goblins,” just kidding) have since subsided, but it’s a story of caution to anyone getting to that age, or those with parents etc. who are.

Let’s make sure not to confuse this: people with anosmia, or the inability to smell, do not automatically have mental illness. It’s when people with functioning olfactory systems suddenly get changes to them that there should be concern (and especially when they’re 60 or older).

And finally, I always thought, what does this mean for me, a guy self-diagnosed with pseudo hyperosmia? I think I have a strong sense of smell, although it’s measurably the same as other people, I pay attention to it more, and it does weird things to my brain, not gonna lie. For example, freshly baked bread, spoiled mushrooms, and rotten fish are all related as smells, they really are, says science, but also my nose-brain told me. Problem is, sometimes I can’t tell if I’m really smelling something, or if I’m just going crazy (because I often smell things others can’t, which is sometimes called hallucinating, and which is a prime ingredient for feeling crazy). You better believe I’m getting one of these tests in 20 years.

Notes:
CTV News, July 2016

Saturday, July 23, 2016

The Olfactory Narratives of Josh Meyers


One of Josh Meyers’ Imaginary Authors

I didn’t get into smells for the fragrance, but after discovering an artist like Josh Meyers, it makes me wonder what the hell I’ve been missing.

In his interview with fragrance blog Olfactif, Meyers recounts his high school self shunning perfume as too conformist. Like Josh, I have always been perfume-averse. Perfume was an adornment, like jewelry, which I do not wear, and furthermore like a form of branding. “You know, he’s one of those Drakkar Noir guys.” (In late adolescence I wore Drakkar and was obsessed, and then in high school my friend dropped a bottle of it outside his locker and we all reeked for days; I didn’t start buying perfume again until twenty years later.)


My pursuits in the osmic sensorium are slowly leading me back to perfume-obsessed, but I still have that anti-conformity, anti-branded-identity thing to overcome in the process. That’s why when I came across the work of Josh Meyers, I had to stop and really absorb what he was doing with his chemical poetry.

He’s composed a series of fragrances titled Imaginary Authors, where each fragrance represents a story about a fictional author’s biography and written works. In his bottle of Soft Lawn, we experience the world of Claude LeCoq (1893-1957) and his (doubly) fictional character Hampton Perry, a charmingly snotty tennis champ at a New England college. Leisure; clay court and tennis balls, that’s what it smells like. Something you wear when you go to Princeton, or to a country club. Imaginary Authors is described as wearable with a dose of weirdness, riding a fine line between art and commodity. Who doesn’t want to smell like The Weekend?

“Intellectually engaging” is another way his scents are described. He really puts the “cognitive” in fragrance, something usually taken as emotional. But at the base of it, and what I am so into, is the fact that he's taking full advantage of our surreal relationship with the language of smell. He describes his fragrances based on when you should wear it (weekends) and where (the country club), not by using typical olfactory descriptors like “citrus” or “sandalwood.” He gives you the backstory, the context.

In reality, smells are holistic and contextual more than they are a combination of aromatic units. It's the “whole” he's going for, and the whole he delivers. And for once I realize that you can’t do this with a painting, or with a good book. A book might smell good, but it won’t smell like the story you’re reading. When the story is crafted into the fragrance itself, we can let it interact with a deeper part of our imagination.

***

I can't talk about fragrance alone, because my first love is the mind. Place and context are essential to our understanding of sense, and it is to the benefit of all when used in describing olfactory experience, for the two cannot be separated in our minds.

Besides the amygdala, the emotional core of our brain, the second most popular part of our odor-ceptive system is the hippocampus. This is the area associated with spatial orientation and memory. Any talk on Memory touches on the ancient technique of creating a “palace of the mind” where memory objects are stored. One simply “walks through” this imaginary palace to remember everything. And speaking of quintessential examples, how does Proust finally discover the source of his most famous shudder of exquisite pleasure?

Excerpt from Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past:
And suddenly the memory revealed itself. The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before mass), when I went to say good morning to her in her bedroom, my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea or tisane.
-circa 1913

It happened when he went to her bedroom. On this, I rest the case. Smell needs context to be understood, and by that I emphasize the hard, physical space which our bodies inhabit and not the ephemeral lexicon of detached, abstract linguistic descriptors.


Josh Meyers certainly gets this, and we get to immerse ourselves in a narrative that goes way beyond its literary content. There is only one place where pieces of our brain extend beyond the envelope of the body to be directly exposed to the world outside, and that is in the holes of our nose. The words “upper-crust” don't jump the blood-brain barrier in quite the same way as Meyers’ “Soft Lawn”.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Disambiguator Supreme

 aka Common Misperceptions in the World of Smell


Polymathic artist/scientist Elena Vosnaki keeps a very different kind of perfume site. It focuses as much on the raw materials of fragrance and their omnicategorical contexts as much as the fragrances themselves.

Vosnaki authored one post in particular that is so informative to the curious nose that I wish I could add it as an appendix to my book. It is a breakdown of the "vocabulary of scent," a lexigraph connecting chemical names, perfume notes, and everyday descriptors for so many of the smells that surround us in our daily lives.

As I point out repeatedly in Hidden Scents, there is no such thing as a language of smell, and for such a variety of reasons as to require a book of explanation. From the way the smells enter our minds and the language parts of it, to the lack of general public discourse about olfactory experience, to the lack of intellectual property protections on fragrance, which severely limits public access to information about the ingredients of fragrances, for all of these reasons, it is so difficult to talk about smells and to think about them. Additionally, because this language is usurped by chemistry, which is too complex for the layperson to use, and by advertising, which relies on prestidigitation of experiential cues, any information we do get about smells is clouded by confusion, superstition and outright dirty data.

So what Perfume Shrine does here is great – she has generated her list in response to user comments by regular people, confused people, curious people. She takes that list and clarifies and disambiguates a few dozen terms, or odor entities as they might be called, from the smell of nail polish to play-doh to "barnyard." I wish that this list could be posted in every kindergarten room in the world; one generation may be all it takes to dispel from our society this Lingua Anosmia.

“In the end, getting to know the vocabulary of scent not only facilitates a common language reference among fellow fragrance enthusiasts, but also enriches the experience itself, much like getting to know the parameters of art critique enhances the appreciation of art itself.”

Please check this out, if you've ever wondered, "What is that smell?" or "Why does that girl smell like cat piss?" (hint: it's blackcurrant buds in her perfume, not her 15 cats and the piss-soaked apartment she lives in).

Without a doubt, and as with anything else, the more you know, the more you notice. Inform yourself with this little lexicon and watch as you slowly become a Sherlock Holmes of scent.

 What Smells like Nail Polish/ Metal/ Sweat/ Horses/ Hairspray/ Burnt Toast/ Baby Powder/Dirty Socks etc?
-Perfume Shrine, Feb 2011

On Our Way to the Organic Internet


Embodied cognition, image via Synthetic Zero

phys.org, July 2016

I don't know about you, but this sounds like a brain in a box if I ever heard of one. There is a world out there that can't be accessed via words. It's a world of feelings and memories and experiences, not of knowledge and raw data. We live in this world, but our technology does not. One day, perhaps, we will no longer be soggy meatbodies. Until then, it's nice to think how close we can get our technologies to this thing, the Organic Internet.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Why Do I Smell Cat Piss

 AKA The Full Cat Piss Moon

I know this might sound crazy, but cat butts is a thing.

I wrote Hidden Scents because I have this thing where I smell what others can’t. This is not to say that my nose is any better than anyone else’s, only that I must pay attention more.

For example, I've been catching cat piss like crazy lately. Maybe you will too, now that I'm mentioning it.

The other day I'm at my friend’s house. “Come out back, check out my new weathervane.” I go outside, and BOOM, it hits me in the face. At first I thought they bombed their yard with mosquito repellent. Nah, that's definitely cat piss. You see, in a situation like this, I have learned not to say anything. Chances are they won't smell it, and I'll seem insulting. I wait a minute, just to make sure. After all, she is female, and I do smell “cat piss” on women sometimes (and once in awhile on men too) but I won't get into that...except to suggest that since civetone is such a big molecule, and lasts so long as a fragrance ingredient, that I might just be getting very old whiffs of that.

Anyway, finally I'm sure it's cat piss, so I go for it, “You have stray cats around here?”

“Yeah, why?“ “You don’t smell it?” No. They never do.

Yesterday it happened again. We are outside looking through the telescope – a crescent moon and Saturn – a beautiful night. And there it is. Listen – I actually don't mind the smell – it's fragrant! It's no coincidence that civet (which smells a lot like cat piss because it basically is cat piss) has been a primary ingredient in perfume for centuries.

Back to the backyard. The friends I’m with now are both male, so I don't hesitate, “You got stray cats up in here?”

“All over…You smell it don't you??” He knows; he's the guy who helped me name my book so he's familiar with my nose-thing. I sniffed-out the mold in his house a few years ago. “It’s mating season, I hear ‘em at night going crazy.”

Later that night, and out of nowhere, he says, “Yeah, it's like a perfume, I can smell it now.” Finally. I'm not alone.

I urge anyone who knows more about this than I do to leave a comment, and I'll continue a bit about civet.

And is it really cat mating season?

POST SCRIPT
Thanks to Perfume Shrine for this one, such an indispensable source for odor disambiguation:
Blackcurrant buds smell like cat piss, which means I now have to figure out the overlap between blackcurrant bushes and the cat mating cycle.

And next: Civet. It's a kind of animal musk. In this case, it is a fragrant substance taken from a certain kind of wild cat by the same name, and usually specified as the African Civet. For centuries, these cats (it’s technically more like a mongoose) were hunted and trapped for their potent, musky pheromones, which are repeatedly scraped from their anal glands while in captivity. At smaller dilutions it becomes very pleasant – just like grapefruit oil, which at the right concentration can make you vomit uncontrollably. Civetone is the name given to the molecule that most represents the Civet smell, and it is very similar to Musk/Muscone, and has in it traces of Skatole (faeces). I’m not certain of this, but I think any synthetic alternative to getting Civetone is kept a secret. You can buy it, but you can’t make it yourself (without hella experimentin’ chemists).

POST POST SCRIPT
In order to attract jaguars, National Geographic-type people are known to use Calvin Klein’s Obsession for Men 1986.


Saturday, July 16, 2016

Hyperosmia

Smell – The Silent Sense

I’ve had a slight fascination with smell for some time now. More like a fixation. Maybe paranoia. It all started with a mildly traumatic mold episode in an old basement apartment. I went overseas for the summer, and came home to my apartment, a dripping mold-cave where every surface below the frost line was covered in whitish-green, primitive metabolism.

After a monumental cleaning effort, the apartment and my respiratory health fared well. I continued to live in that basement a few more years, on high alert for the first sign of a return of my mildly intoxicating, cohabitating saprophyte. I have since moved on, but my nose has never been the same.

I can smell mold spores floating outside, in certain kinds of weather. I don’t ask people anymore if they can smell it too; only rarely they can. Smell is like this – you may not notice it until someone draws-in your attention. And thereafter, even if you don’t continue to smell it, but you think it’s there, this is enough to make you physically sick (despite the fact that smells do not make us sick; it is their associations that make us sick). I have since learned to withhold my mold-detection abilities unless requested.

It turns out that most people who think they have a sensitive nose in fact do not: They only think they do. This doesn’t sound like what it means. People who think they have a strong sense of smell are simply more sensitive to the effect it creates within them. They do not smell better; they think about smelling more than others. Through some psychological alchemy, this translates into a mundane superpower, albeit one that anyone can give to themselves.


Friday, July 15, 2016

Everybody Wants Explosive Sniffing Robots

image source

BBC News, July 2016

On the heels of another mention in the news of remote control insectobots, we see a trend in artificial olfaction: explosives sniffing robots. If there's one thing a robo-nose is good for, it's detecting dangerous things in our environment. After all, this is a major purpose of olfaction. Actually, this time they aren’t robot noses, they’re regular animals, but they’ve been genetically engineered to have special olfactory appendages, or to be more specific, they’ve been engineered to smell one thing really well.

Furthermore, and a point made in the article, humans can become super sniffers for any smell as long as we’re trained to do it. I inadvertently made myself super sensitive to mold after living in a basement apartment for seven years, after said apartment was completely covered waist high in dripping penicillium colonies, and I can now smell it in amounts way below what normal people require.

*In fact, I’ll say this here – mold is everywhere and I know because I smell it everywhere. Not the killer kind, just the regular everyday mold-on-your bread kind. We already know it’s everywhere, just like yeast is floating around us right now, no matter where we are. But it comes in all different kinds, old mold, new mold, wet mold, dry mold. Every building I go into I smell it somewhere, on certain days it’s growing on trees and floating past your face, on certain people it’s pumping out of the holes in their clothes, coming off of their hair or the dark parts of their bodies, or the crevices of their cottonsuits; it’s everywhere. In fact, last night I went to an outdoor bar/patio for drink;, it’s been raining on and off for the past few days, and I could not get away from it – the smell of mold, that is – I suspect it was coming from underneath the outdoor patio, which has a tendency to be wet and dark, but later that night after I got home I was bothered by a mold I don’t get every day – metal mold – not sure what this is but I know what it smells like; I must have had my hand resting on their (moldy metal) patio furniture all night I had to wash my hands a few times before going to sleep. Anyway, I'm for hire. Although, it seems like my job is being taken over by robots and genetically engineered animals

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

On Interdisciplinary Studies


 
To study the “language of smell” is to thread together the studies of many other fields. As a subject, the language of smell can spread into territories from proprioception to civil engineering. Regarding contemporary problems, the study of language and olfaction together can instigate new insight into fields like artificial intelligence, and even prompt questions about what it means to be human in the face of a technologically immersive world.

The olfactory bulb is a model neural network, and one that has scientists stumped still today. Despite having reverse-engineered vision, hearing, and even tactile sensation, nobody knows how to artificially code olfaction. After the brain tendrils in your nose are activated, the next stop at the olfactory bulb turns those signals into a buffet of information to be processed by the limbic system and rendered into an olfactory experience. That interchange at the olfactory bulb is still shrouded in mystery, but its neuronal architecture very closely resembles the layered networks used in artificial intelligence and machine learning today. (These are also called deep learning networks.)

As these forms of artificial intelligence become more pervasive, we are forced to reckon with what it means to be human vs machine. Already, with the need for non-gendered intelligentities (note Microsoft’s recent chatbot, which twitter turned into the dregs of society within 24 hours, was a “teenage girl,” not to say that it wouldn’t have been more successful if it was non-gendered, just that I was surprised when she was debuted that she was a definitive “she”), with advances in artificial reality simulation, in neural-interfaced prosthetic bodyparts and biocomputing insectobots, we are daily being asked which parts of “being alive” we want to keep, and which ones we want to offload to our [eventual overlords , jk].

To investigate both what it means to smell something, and how we communicate that experience, is to dive deep into the human, beyond the thinking parts and into the limbic, the emotional, animal parts.  These parts are so far inside our phylogenetic history that it’s hard to bring them to light in an age of so much knowingness and clarity. And to articulate these parts requires something less of a science and more of an art, which is exactly where the language of smell falls on the spectrum of functionality. (No wonder stuff like this gets no funding…see below.)

From a recent article on interdisciplinary research, an echo :

"One of the biggest advantages of interdisciplinary research is that it can generate new ways of looking at existing problems," said Professor Bromham, from the ANU Research School of Biology.

Notes:
phys.org, July 2016


Friday, July 8, 2016

What Exit - The Smells of the New Jersey Turnpike

Artwork by Joe Scordo, via IKEA - The view from here is breath-taking

I 3< NJ

"Eww...is that you?"
"That wasn't me, I swear."

Nestled only a few whiffs away from the "armpit" of New Jersey, we're driving along the Turnpike. Somewhere around exit 13A, the smell of farts that enters your car is so powerful, and so spot-on, that it absolutely must be established as to where the smell came from (or didn't come from).

The New Jersey Turnpike, and especially this portion from exits 13 to 14, is an impromptu olfactory museum venting the aromatic byproducts of civil engineering and urban systems. Petroleum refineries, natural gas electricity generation plants, waste treatment facilities, and plain old garbage dumps all process the resources and waste of one of the most densely populated places in America.

Brian Donahue, a reporter with the Star Ledger, investigates further in a video titled"What's That Smell?"

He visits the 5th largest sewer plant in the country, the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission. They process 250 dry tons of thickened sludge per day. (Smells like baby diapers.)

Not far away he stops at the rendering facility where meat waste from slaughterhouses, grocery stores, etc. is boiled down and turned into animal feed, fertilizer, soap, and so on. (The smell of rotten animal carcass.)

We can safely guess that "the smell of 13A" is actually a mix of natural gas facilities and garbage dumps. Odorless natural gas has smelly skunk mercaptans mixed into it so we can smell a gas leak, and garbage dumps - just like our own bodies - decompose food into hydrogen sulfide (rotten eggs).

In the finest of irony, The NJTP also runs through the heart of the flavor industry - IFF, Givaudan, and many more. It is literally called The Flavor Corridor, as it produces more than half the flavor chemicals in the United States (Schlosser 2001).

There really should be an audio tour available like they do at museums. Thinking about putting the NJTP logo under copyright protection to generate revenue?

An audio tour might be less contentious.

Here's the program for your visit, please enjoy!

"The entire area from Exit 9 to Exit 18 is either in the midst of or at the edge of an estuarine environment rife with salt marsh, standing water, and untold tons of rotting plant and animal matter.

Even with no industry and no turnpike, this would stink on a hot day. I don't know how much water and ground pollution adds to its foulness, but all that industry sure does leave a lot of both behind.

Add one part each, mix well in heat and humidity, and take a deep breath." -Pete from Boston

Exit 14. Dead animals, or in the parlance of the aroma industry, "the sickly-sweet smell of rotting flesh."

Exit 13A. Rotten egg flatulence.

Exit 13. Baby diapers.

Exit 10-9. Oregano. Can someone explain this please. ... Well, according to our njtp experts in the comments section (thank you Mike), this would be The Spice Chain Co. right off the turnpike, which is also adjacent to the Stroehmann's bakery.

Exit 8. "Smells like a Flintstones vitamin factory exploded nearby." @markremo

POST SCRIPT
Smellscapes
Kate McLean, olfactory experience designer focusing on human perception of the urban smellscape. she has created smell maps of different cities.

New Jersey Turnpike during a rainstorm
Urban Olfactory: What does history smell like?
At SPUR - San Francisco - 2014
The scent of the Turnpike “combines the smell of ozone, concrete, petrichor and geosmin to collapse a rainstorm into a single moment, bring country to city & join pavement with sky,” according to the label on the jar.

"NJ Turnpike Tour"
in New Jersey: A Guide to the State, Barbara Westergard says the primary culprits are mercaptans that are by-products of refining (they are also the stuff added to natural gas so you can smell it).
Pete from Boston, AA Roads Forum. July 2014.

The Flavor Corridor
taken from Eric Schlosser, Fast Food Nation, 2001:
“The New Jersey Turnpike runs through the heart of the flavor industry, an industrial corridor dotted with refineries and chemical plants. International Flavors & Fragrances (IFF), the world's largest flavor company, has a manufacturing facility off Exit 8A in Dayton, New Jersey; Givaudan, the world's second-largest flavor company, has a plant in East Hanover. Haarmann & Reimer, the largest German flavor company, has a plant in Teterboro, as does Takasago, the largest Japanese flavor company. Flavor Dynamics has a plant in South Plainfield; Frutarom is in North Bergen; Elan Chemical is in Newark. Dozens of companies manufacture flavors in the corridor between Teaneck and South Brunswick. Altogether the area produces about two thirds of the flavor additives sold in the United States.”


Thursday, July 7, 2016

Insectobots

Where taxidermy meets cybernetics meets aeronautics meets morality: The Copter Cat

Locusts are now being put to use as remote control bomb sniffers. First though, let us not forget that it was only a year ago that the commercial market saw its first real moral problem with the intersection between living creatures and automation: cockroaches were sold with little backpacks that were meant to be wired directly into their motor cortex and steered around by little biohacking boys and girls. And don’t forget this guy who turned his dead cat into a remote control helicopter.

Back to the locusts. I don’t know about you, but I thought locusts looked like grasshoppers, and at about the same size. But in the picture used for the leading article here at the BBC, this thing is as big as my forearm. So maybe these are giant locusts. (The name locust is derived from the word for lobster.)

Their wings will have a biocompatible plasmonic tattoo imprinted on them which will heat up by remote control to manipulate the locust’s wings to fly one way or another in order for them to be guided into dangerous or remote areas. A tiny chip interfacing with the locust-olfactory-brain will then detect explosives chemicals. A single sensor can only detect a single chemical, but a locust’s nose-brain is so much more effective than any computer we know. Not only does it have more sensors, but they combine together to be able to recognize thousands of chemicals in their environment, and they can do this despite there being so many chemicals around us in the first place. The locust is much more accurate than anything we can make.

Baranidharan Raman, associate professor of biomedical engineering in the School of Engineering and Applied Science Washington University and (locust olfaction expert) explains in the BBC article: "Even the state-of-the-art miniaturised chemical-sensing devices have a handful of sensors. On the other hand, if you look at the insect antennae, where their chemical sensors are located, there are several hundreds of thousands of sensors and of a variety of types." The robo-locosts – both the insect and their fitted chip – will be trained to sniff out specific smells – not specific molecules, mind you, but “smells,” as in the holistic olfactory identity of a thing, which is more complex than a single molecule.


Instead of making a fully artificial drone-nose, it makes more sense to mix a bit of both. We know how to make things fly like an insect already so that isn’t the bonus; but the nose, or the insect olfactory system to be specific (they don’t have nostrils but antennae) cannot yet be replicated. In fact, we’re nowhere near it. As the venture to create the first high fidelity electronic nose ramps up and up, it looks like we might have to change course a bit and take a page out of Mary Shelley’s book. Frankensteins for life. 

Notes:
BBC News, July 2016


Wednesday, July 6, 2016

On Common Sense



Google’s new artificial intelligence team, based in Europe, will focus on the following areas: machine learning, natural language understanding and computer perception. In other words, they will be teaching computers common sense. And in other other words, they will be teaching computers to be four-year-olds.

Team leader, Emmanuel Mogenet, says in the BBC article that we are on the brink of a new era in computing. But what he says next I find particularly interesting - "A four-year-old child learns about the world through their senses so they know that cows don't fly without being told this. Computers need to understand some obvious things about the world so we want to build a common-sense database."

The sensory system of a child. That’s what we’re going for here. We need to make robots from scratch. That means making a machine intelligence that ‘grows up’ from a baby to a toddler to a child etc. This intelligentity would start with the neurogenesis of the human organism, and develop accordingly. It would have a sensory system akin to ours, and the capacity for ‘emotion’ in the form of a limbic system that would then drive its most basic decision-making practices. It would have an entire body and all of its parts, and they would grow with the life of the thing, this artificial human. Eventually, perhaps this creature will pass along parts of itself, to enter not only the timeframe of ontological development, but phylogenetic as well.

Number two, what does all this have to do with olfaction, if at all? I’m not sure exactly, but I’ll bet that revealing some of the mysteries of the olfactory system would be in concert with this enterprise.

The olfactory system is the limbic system, it is one and the same as the most basic computation undertaken by our non-artificial intelligence (what are we calling this now, human intelligence, natural intelligence, organic, wet, soft intelligence?). Perhaps there is a shortcut to this common sense thing that travels right through olfaction. Because I’ll tell you what, if a robot can smell – and I mean to really smell – then it can think like a human. And then we can sit back and watch as our whole civilization becomes that guy from Dune who floats around all day on anti-gravity sensors because he’s so fat.

Notes:

BBC News, June 2016

Feb 2016, phys.org