Thursday, July 20, 2017

Firmenich and the Ecstasy of Saint Theresa



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Cracking the Black Box


Jul 2017, phys.org

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

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

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

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

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

Here is the link to their work.


Corpus of Hedonics



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

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

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

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

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

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

Post Script:

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

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

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Secrets of Flavor


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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

Image source: link 

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Code Smell


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

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

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

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

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


Friday, July 7, 2017

Poison Ivy Smells


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

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

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

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

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

And?

"chlorine, bleach, and hot plastic"

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


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


Notes

Urushiol on Toxnet, the US Hazardous Substance Database:
https://toxnet.nlm.nih.gov/cgi-bin/sis/search/a?dbs+hsdb:@term+@DOCNO+7485

ancillary sources:
http://www.poison-ivy.org/
http://students.umw.edu/healthcenter/files/2011/08/Poison-Ivy.pdf

Terminology

synthetic urushiol:
5-methyl-3-n-pentadecylcatechol
(commonly called catechols)

urushiol metabolite:
1,4-Benzoquinone
(commonly known as para-quinone,or simply quinone)

Post Script

Some good random facts from the internet:

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

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Pee-You


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

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

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

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Synthetic Tongue



Snakes, and many reptiles, have a split tongue because they smell with their tongue, and the two-tongues let them know which direction the smell is coming from. Humans, however, have split tongues because they want to. Tongue-splitting is a form of body modification.

In other news:

Jun 2017, phys.org

“These synthetic "tongues" can highlight similarities between whiskies, but they can't identify an unknown whisky from scratch, he says, "You start with a sample that you know is the real McCoy. Then you look at another sample, and you can say whether it's the same sample or it's not." In other words, these tongues would be great for spotting counterfeits of expensive luxury whiskies.”

Note that this synthetic tongue cannot taste like we do. Well, first of all, note that taste and smell are very similar; Humans don’t smell with our tongues like snakes do, but most of what we “taste” is actually perceived by our nose. Nonetheless, this synthetic whisky tongue still does not work the same way as our perceptive apparatus. This tongue can only identify pre-determined patterns. You give it one flavor profile to ‘sense,’ and ask whether a new sample matches that or not. You can’t give it any old thing and ask “what is this?”

Perhaps the most amazing thing about our olfactory sensory apparatus is that it begins as a blank slate, with no hardwiring for any smells whatsoever. Everything we smell, and everything we can identify, we learn. If we want this synthetic whisky tongue to be able to identify a whisky from scratch, we need it to grow up like a little human, learning every single smell from scratch, just like us.

This is the same old story with all of these reverse-engineered smell-and-taste organs. They cannot be used to sense the way we do, where they are able to identify any combination of hundreds of thousands chemicals. Instead, they are given one job, to smell one thing, and they either smell it or they don’t. It’s like making an eye that is only for seeing the color red. Red or no red. It doesn’t know the Pantone catalog, only that one red.  Instead of choosing from the infinite answers to the question “what do you smell,” these prostheses can only choose from two possible answers, yes and no.

To program a truly synthetic tongue, or better, a synthetic nose, is still very, very far beyond our capacity. In the meantime, things will progress as they do; one piece at a time, dividing the human capacity for information-gathering into myriad discrete operations, and recreating ourselves through the fractured image of technology.

Image source: link


Wednesday, June 28, 2017

The Brain That Wouldn't Die

Film still from "The Brain That Wouldn't Die", Sterling Productions 

The flatworm can regenerate its entire brain in only a few days, and so scientists decapitate them, but the worms retain memory of a previous experiment, despite having lost their head, and how this works is unexplained, although it implies that information is stored somewhere else besides the head.

Smells are encoded into memory via the limbic system, and this means recording body-states along with the smells. Our body remembers the way it felt the last time that smell was received. We know that a phantom limb remains in the brain, despite its having been amputated, but does a memory remain in the body despite having lost its head? It should be interesting to note here that odor receptors are all over the body, in organs and even in muscle tissue.

-source:
phys.org, August 2013

"An automated training paradigm reveals long-term memory in planaria and its persistence through head regeneration" Journal of Experimental Biology jeb.087809 First posted online July 2, 2013, DOI: 10.1242/jeb.087809

Friday, June 23, 2017

Hot Mosques

 aka Heat Activated Scented Architecture

This is a real photo by Mohammad Domiri

The mortar of mosques was mixed with musk and other aromatics so that during the hottest part of the day, when the entire building was warm to the touch, they would exude their hidden olfactory treasures upon the worshipers inside.

I first read this on Perfume Shrine, the most important perfume blog out there. I was a little upset, in fact, that I had never heard of this in all my years of formal study of architecture.

Cultural Perception of Musk


Wednesday, June 21, 2017

The Entymology of Butterfly Frass


I was enjoying a late morning break in the park on a beautiful day when an equally beautiful butterfly found a nice pollen depot nearby. I wasn't especially close to this butterfly, yet I swear I saw it drop some refuse from its body as it fluttered gracefully from flower to flower. Then I saw it again. Then I google it: "Do butterflies...(poop" is number three on the autofill, go figure).

I couldn't help but record here what I'll call the folk entymology -
As it turns out, yes, butterflies DO poop. The bowel movement of insects, including butterflies, is known as frass. I assume that's a made-up word that combines "fragrance " and "ass" into an optimistic euphemism for excrement.

And the correction -

The etymology of frass is the German "fressen", meaning "to devour".

Monday, June 19, 2017

Lingua Anosmia Meets Lingua Franca



Kate Apted. Australian Perfume Junkies, May 2017.

How mind-shattered was I when this luminescent article was presented to me – on autism and smelling. How could I have never come across this before, or never thought about it before? Autism is so much about sensory processing and emotions and language, particularly unspoken languages. If the perspective of smell that Hidden Scents tries to convey is centered on information processing, and that such processing is specific to each individual, how then could I never have thought to investigate the olfactory world of a person with autism?

Thanks, then, to Kate Apted and to the Australian Perfume Junkies for posting this thought-provoking article. The author talks about being blind to her own emotions, a typical feature of people with autism. She says that smells (perfumes in this case) allow her to “see” those emotions. She talks about being faceblind, and that the smell of a person helps her identify them. Yes! I hope everyone with this problem can try her solution because it is ingenious.

For someone who is not in touch with their own emotions, smell is the ideal way to connect. Smell is conversant in our most primitive self; it is the limbic language, perhaps the only language of our emotions. Everyone who is familiar with autism knows the emotional difficulties it presents. Imagine if there was a shortcut to that emotional-brain! There is; and she is vividly describing it in this post:

“It is my most fluid form of communication and a tool for me feel grounded in reality. It speaks for me in the way verbal, and often written communication, does not. I wish perfumes would become the Lingua Franca of the world.”

For me, having written a book that was originally titled Lingua Anosmia, (i.e. ‘the tongue that cannot speak’), one can imagine how this post has changed the way I think about the potential for smell to aid communication, as opposed to being a thing that does not communicate. It goes to show that we really need every person in this world to give their story and their point of view.

For her, smell is the Lingua Franca, go figure: For her, smell is the only way to get specific information about her emotions; it is distinct, discrete. This is in opposition to the way I describe smell in my book. For me, smell is ambiguous, yet for her it is precise. At the same time however, her view shares the same spirit as mine. For me, smell is a way for our logical brain, and by extension our technological interface, to connect with our emotions. If I were a computer, an artificially intelligent entity (intelligentity), how would I sense my own emotions (if I were to have any)? Well, I would do this using a part of my programmed mind that was based on a model olfactory system. I would use the model of olfaction, in interaction with the limbic system. And this is exactly the situation our author finds herself. She is no artificial entity, of course, but a regular human like me. But she cannot access her emotions the same way I can. She has them, as we all do, but she cannot know them. Smell is the translator of this knowledge. Let that be a lesson.

Image source: link

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Semantic Odor Wheel of Horribly Offensive Waste Stench


 
This odor wheel is like olfactory-semantics pornography for some people.*

The National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society is a lot of fun. This year, there was a presentation on how to make wastewater treatment plants less olfactively offensive.

The problem was described in this phys.org article as such:

"Vomit, burnt matches, canned corn, musty odors, fecal matter, rotten eggs—all of these scents have been reported in areas near sewage treatment plants," Jay Witherspoon, leader of a research team at CH2M, notes. Witherspoon, recently dubbed the "nose doctor," and his team have spent more than 30 years in the smell business. "Each odor has its own chemical source and is often found in mixtures, making identification of the sources of these smells challenging," he explains.
***
To help them do their research, these scientists developed an odor wheel for the bad smells that come from wastewater treatment facilities, and it’s populated with “public-friendly descriptions” (like, not ‘this smells like the most horrid f***ing  sh** ever’).

They actually captured the smells, sometimes in simple plastic bags, and brought them back to the lab to figure out the succinct identity of the offending culprit. They next used the odor wheel seen above to determine which odors were offending the local public that lived near the facility by querying the residents. Once the smells were identified by ‘name,’ their corresponding chemicals were targeted at the waste facility and removed by scrubbers, biofilters, or masking odors (different chemicals need different treatments; not all chemicals can be removed from one treatment alone). Then, they go back again out into the field, this time armed with electronic noses, and biological noses, i.e., humans, to test whether they had been removed. Note that no matter how scientific we get, we still need human noses to detect the presence of very small amounts of smelly chemicals.  

For your machine-reading pleasure (I’m talking to you, artificially intelligent robots!), I’ve transcribed some of the odor wheel here:

rotten eggs - hydrogen sulfide
rotten vegetables - methyl mercaptan, dimethyl disulfide
rotten cabbage - dimethyl sulfoxide
canned corn smell - dimethyl sulfide
musty smells - 2-methyl isoborneol, 2-isopropyl-3-methoxypyrazine
fecal odor - skatole, indole
woody, green, grass, cardboard, hay - cis-3-hexen-1-ol
yeasty, sour milk, rancid, fatty, oily, sweaty, sour cheese, putrid, decayed - heptanal, pyridine
ammonia, cat urine, fishy - ammonia, trimethylamine, 2,4-decadienal, 2,4-heptadienal

Notes:
April 2017, phys.org

*Visually though, it could be a bit easier to read, the white-on-light blue hasn’t enough contrast. That’s my art teacher speaking. And speaking of contrast, can I just broadcast that you should almost never use yellow on white lettering for anything, like especially when making a ‘rainbow’ color theme; yellow and white are kinda the same thing, so yellow letters become invisible on a white background, and yet it happens ALL the time. Thanks.

Image credit: "bad smell" Jeremy Tarling © 2013 used under an Attribution 2.0 Generic license: 

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

The Persistence of Memory


There are many kinds of memory. Everyday memory is responsible for that ‘senior moment’. There’s body-memory, the reason your head jerks on sniffing straight tequila the morning after. And allergies in general. There’s the computer analog, source of perennial misnomer in its confusion between “storage” and “working memory”.

Then there’s cultural memory. As a group, in regards to politics at least, it seems like we have a bad memory, voting for people today who only last term were working against our interests. And what about the Dark Ages of Europe – collective memory dissolved into the ether.

Let’s take this Hurricane Patricia, “strongest Pacific Coast hurricane ever.” In this case, “ever” can be only one hundred years. Our contemporary meteorological memory isn’t much older than the ambergris floating up on our shores.

All this having been said, there is a group of Aboriginal folks in Australia who recollect the way their coastline looked 7,000 years ago, and as corroborated by geological records. This should come as somewhat of a surprise to the casual reader: “I can’t even remember where I put my keys;” how can a group of people relying solely on oral communication (and hence no means of information storage other than their own individual memories) remember such a thing? They don’t write things down, no libraries funded by nation-states, no institutions of knowledge. How does such a fickle system resist the onslaughts of entropy that time brings?

This kind of memory reveals the hidden power of collective thought, and the organized fortification of a group of people against that second law of thermodynamics.

With this in mind, that the cartographic memory of a coastline can remain intact for many thousands of years by oral transmission and wet-memory-storage alone, do we really find it so improbable that the cultural memory of pheromones can reinforce both our perception and our visceral reaction to an olfactant?

As an everyday person, virtually all of our knowledge about our olfactory environment is orally-communicated. It either by-passes or has never made it in the first place to textual transmutation. (It barely has a language, at that!)

We are no different today when it comes to Smell. The permanence and accessibility of the vast, content-addressable memory that is the Internet has nothing to do with the olfactory aspect of our cultural memory. In fact, because there are more words written about fragrances than everyday smells, and because the language used in the sales and reviews of those fragrances functions as poetry and not as consensually-recognized, objective descriptors (because it simply cannot be, by its nature) our Lingua Anosmia relies entirely on wet-memory-storage.

We do not smell molecules with names. We smell memories – autobiographical indices, physiological profiles, and spatiotemporal coordinates. These are not words, and that we still use them to generate information about our world puts us on par with our ancestral counterparts (and I might say worse-off in terms of indentifying discrete molecules by their odor.)

Perhaps I will be accused of picking the low hanging fruit here, but I would ask this – in light of a group of people who remember a geographical feature as it was 7,000 years ago, go ahead and ask someone today to describe the smell of Musk. Now compare it to one of times past. Today it is “clean”, and then it was “dirty”. What has our memory done? And how has our ‘advanced’ system of external memory storage (i.e. writing) helped?

Note – due to the ubiquity of synthetic musks in cleaning products, especially laundry detergents, a nose of Western-style influence would tend to describe musk as “clean”, whereas the origin of the eponymous aromatic substance itself is a secretion taken from the fecal-flaked, urine-cured underside of a wild animal.

Post-Script
taken from the following:

Professor Nunn said present sea levels in Australia were reached 7,000 years ago and as such any stories about the coastline stretching much further out to sea had to pre-date that time.

"These stories talk about a time when the sea started to come in and cover the land, and the changes this brought about to the way people lived – the changes in landscape, the ecosystem and the disruption this caused to their society," he said.

"It's important to note that it's not just one story that describes this process. There are many stories, all consistent in their narrative, across 21 diverse sites around Australia's coastline."


"Aboriginal Memories of Inundation of the Australian Coast Dating from More than 7000 Years Ago." Australian Geographer DOI: 10.1080/00049182.2015.1077539

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Report From the Olfactory Hallucinations Department



Albeit “to smell” is about the closest we get to hallucinating, it’s always interesting to experience a glitch in the wiring. Driving back from the store, listening to music, I bought a bottle of perfume, sprayed my wrist, and headed home. Smells like white flowers, cardamom, and wood. Now, when I smell perfume, I basically expect that everything smells like everything. Fragrance is different from everyday smells in that you can never know what to expect. It could be anything in there, in some small amount, but for some reason, a part of you can zero-in on that one thing.

It’s not really hallucinating, but it is a huge distortion in one’s olfactory perception: So I’m listening to the intro, the build-up. And then the bass drops, and the drums come crashing in. And in that brief moment, right when it first drops, and when the adrenaline bursts to a peak, my nose picked out the musk, or something animal, and only for that one second. Sure it was there the whole time, artfully crafted and camouflaged into the blanket of others. But for that one second, the part-of-me-that-smells had zoned-in on that one molecule, and then gone.

I couldn’t pick it out again. Sure it‘s there, but it’s back in the blanket. Maybe if I skip to the next track…


Thursday, June 1, 2017

Dog Talk



Alexandra Horowitz is a teacher of psychology, animal behavior, and canine cognition at Barnard College, Columbia University, in New York City. She is also author of Being a Dog: Following the Dog Into a World of Smell, and she knows what she’s talking about because she learned from the best, i.e., her dogs.

There aren’t too many books out there dealing with smell by itself – maybe as an overview of all the senses or as a guidebook to mixing perfumes, but not about the act of smelling. The few that are there remain important works of a rare subject, and this book is a sure addition. In Being a Dog, we get to be both a thinking human, and the nose-brain of a dog, discovering all the information around us that is invisible to the eye. 

I would like to use this space to archive my notes; she has some really good neologisms, and I’m into that as it is, but she also has some real sharp one-liners: “The nose is the stepchild of the face.” –p79

First, let me take the one part where she most elucidates the language of smell:

 “In English, most words for smells are words for their sources. To name it – to know it – we want to know where the smell comes from. If the smell and the source are not the same, our work is to resolve them satisfyingly.” And this is the only time we really begin to think about smell, is when we can’t find its source, or it does not match its source. If it “wanders off” before we figure it out, we’re frustrated. “If the smell is traced to its source and its name, it feels truly caught, captured, collected.” –p74



NOTES

“Fleshy tetrahedron” –p1

On information and the informant:
What the dog sees and knows through his nose is incredibly rich. “Every inhaled gulp of air is full of information.” –p2

On what urine can tell a dog:
Male or female, ready to mate, recently ill, having recently eaten, and even age: “They smell their age, age is but a metabolic process, chemistry. And chemistry smells.” –p13

While studying self-recognition of scent, she moves a dog’s pee to another location, to try and ‘trick’ the dog, and she calls this an “olfactory mirror.” –p24

Here is a reference I get via her mention on the smell of old books, p68:

Material Degradomics: On the Smell of Old Books. Strlič M, Thomas J, Trafela T, et. al. Analytic Chemistry, 2009, 81 (20), pp 8617–8622.

On the Odor of Old Books. Buchbauer G, Jirovetz L, Wasicky M, Nikiforov A. Journal of Pulp and Paper Science, 1995, 21, 398-400.


Metal does not smell, but there is a thing “smell of metal” and it’s caused by human sweat/bacteria on mental, p82:

The two odors of iron when touched or pickled: (Skin) carbonyl compounds and organophosphines. Glindemann D, Dietrich A, Staerk H-J, Kuschk P. Angewandte Chemie International Edition, 2006, 45, 7006-7009.


Astronauts can’t smell. Gravity doesn’t pull the mucus down from their sinus cavities, so they’re always congested. They can’t taste their food either so it has to be extra-flavored. –p86

Feynman smelling books (this is one that really bothered me, because how did I not come across this in my own research) –

A party trick of Richard Feynman was to ask three guests to each handle a book from his library, and then he would go back and present each book to the person. “You just smell the books.” –p104

Feynman RP. 1985. “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman” (pp105-106). New York: WW Norton and Co. Found via Gilbert 2008.


The editors of Grey’s Anatomy either removed or left-out 3 muscles of the nose from the 1989 edition. Article: “The lost muscles of the nose” in Aesthetic Plastic Surgery. –p110

The snarl. She goes like this:
40% of subjects over 70 can’t flare their nostrils. But when you try to flare your nostrils and you can’t, it looks like you’re making a snarl face. And so she says that this face could be communicating the inability to smell (like, for example, when something really foul is in your face and so you don’t want to flare your nostrils and let it all in). Now, the snarl becomes a message of disgust (remember the gustatory-taste origin of the word) by saying “you are so disgusting I refuse to even smell you!”–p111

“Nasal ranger” –p118

She is reliving the memory of an unmarked scent in a bottle, familiar, but forgotten. Immediately, as is always the case, she asks first, “Where am I,” (an old house), and then, “Is there anyone else here?” –p122

These two questions highlight the preferred channels by which smell interacts with our brain, and with our memory specifically. Place and smell are tied together, and once put together, can’t be separated easily. And maybe the only thing that can do this separating is an overwritten memory of a person. Because people are number two. It’s always – where was I, and who was I with. The hippocampus.

Olfactometry –p169

Osphresiology –p173

Emergency workers at Bellevue Hospital were trained on a “ten test tube sniffing bar” of common poisons in the 1970s. –p176

Kenny JC. The valuing, educational preparation and diagnostic use of the olfactory sense in nursing practice. Dissertation, Adelphi University. 1989.

Orient JM, ed. Sapira’s art and science of bedside diagnosis, 4th ed. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins. 2010.

Watson L. Jacob’s organ and the remarkable nature of smell. New York: WW Norton & Co. 2000.


Phenylhetonuria smells musty and murine (like mice urine) –p180



TEXT

Alexandra Horowitz. Simon and Schuster, 2016.


Wednesday, May 31, 2017

The Rich Odor Vocabulary of the Deer Hunter

Deer Lord


As I often do, I was scouting the interwebs for those who share with me the search-phrase “The Language of Smells”, when I came across this article on the many scents of the deer.

Hunters use the scent of their prey for a variety of effects. It may not come as a surprise that communication for animals is very reliant on Smell (you know, being that they can't talk and all), and that learning their language is of utmost importance to the serious hunter.

Deer in particular have five distinct aromatic compounds each secreting from specific places on their bodies. The tarsal glands are on the inner hind legs and communicate individual recognition as well as dominance and sexual maturity. The metatarsal gland is on the outer hind legs, and is used as an alarm pheromone for some deer, but not all. Interdigital glands are in-between the hooves and used to lay a scent trail making it easier for deer, particularly younger ones, to find each other. The pre-orbital gland is in the front corner of the eyes, and is left behind on branches when a deer has been feeding. Finally the forehead gland is used to rub on trees to communicate dominance and sexual maturity. Don't forget urine, which yields hormonal and dietary information.

For the hunter, scent can be passive or active. Using a “passive scent” of non-estrus doe is meant to relax the deer by saying that other deer are around. Using an active scent like a sexually active signal, at the wrong time of year, can alarm deer because it's ‘just not natural!’


Monday, May 29, 2017

Synopsis Extraordinaire



I have been immensely fortunate to have Mr. John Biebel review Hidden Scents on the Fragrantica website. Check it out here

Fragrantica is a unique site that hosts an encyclopedia of fragrance, in addition to being an international online magazine for perfume reviews and news in the world of fragrance.

John Biebel is an artist and writer and perfume aficionado. He has a visual arts background like myself, but more importantly, he has penetrated deeper into this book than anyone besides my editor, and has come back with a synopsis that is most articulate.

If you're thinking about reading the book, but you aren't sure what it's about or whether it's up your alley, read this review.

Not to mention, his writing on such a potentially confusing subject is so smooth it's practically machine-readable(!)


Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Pheromones Pheromones Pheromones


This ancient secret makes men irresistible to women.

Just kidding. Pheromones might smell good, but they ain’t mind control. Tell people you wrote a book about smells and they’re bound to ask if pheromones really work. The quick answer is “no”. But that isn’t the good answer.

There’s got to be a reason why men (and women) since time immemorial have spent their money on this “secret weapon” of scent. There’s more to this story; the answer isn’t a definitive “no”, but a “very nearly almost ‘no’”. Let’s probe the subject a bit.

Animals do use pheromones, and they do function as mind-control. If you’ve ever crossed the path of a buck in rut, you’ve seen pheromones at work. They aren’t thinking about a damn thing except ‘that a**’. The most popular of pheromones is androstenone. It’s produced by male boar, and it makes the females stand in a “mounting position”, literally controlling the bodies in its presence. There are other pheromones besides those for sex, such as "the smell of fear", an alarm pheromone. One thing to note straight away is that animals sense pheromones in a different way than humans, for they have an extra component in their olfactory system, called the vomeronasal organ. Humans have the physical organ, but it doesn’t seem to work for us as it does for them.

Pheromones will not force humans into a mating stance, but they can most certainly influence our bodies and our behavior with more potency than the smell of fresh bread or brewed coffee. In fact, the most potent smells in this regard are usually bad smells. When looking for physiological evidence of odor-effects, bad smells produce a stronger effect. They can raise the breath-rate, heart-rate, and skin conductance. Across a broad spectrum of subjects, “good” smells will produce neither the same effect nor the opposite. (Sorry, Aromatherapists.) This makes pheromones all the more interesting, because they vacillate between "good" and "bad", as determined by a variety of factors.

Next, pheromones do inform humans on compatibility. Doing the sweaty t-shirt experiment, women tend to have a preference for the smell of bodies with complementary immune systems. In this case, the “pheromone” is a combination of chemicals that, although very similar, is unique to every person. And it doesn’t make women fall on their knees, drooling a puddle of pure estrogen. It’s just a preference, kind of like a strong suggestion, but it’s not mind control.

Now for the nitty-gritty. Pheromones are s special class of smells called semiochemicals. They carry a very strong meaning with them, and for humans meaning is powerful. For humans, and this is primarily where we differ from animals, smell is a learned phenomenon. Nothing is hardwired into our olfactory system. There is no universal template. In theory, we could be taught to find fecal matter as sexually-stimulating as armpit sweat.* The thing is, we are constantly being “taught” about smells, and virtually 100% of the time this is happening unconsciously. (Especially in utero, or during the early years of life, when the majority of our odor education takes place.)

Like all learning, repetition reinforces associations and streamlines response. The more times a smell is sensed in a specific context, multiplied by the “limbic intensity” of that context, the more it appears hardwired.

Coffee in the morning. You aren’t born with that response; it’s reinforced over countless mornings, matched with that exhilaration triggered by the bodyclock upon awakening. Sex. Both males and females produce pheromones, and they are similar, at least in that they both produce androstenone. When you get sexually aroused, you smell yourself, unconsciously, of course. This trigger is reinforced every time you get aroused. This is a blatant example of the relentless lessons of olfaction, but there are other situations where the “smell of sex” is perceived within a sexually-aroused context, matching aroma chemicals with physiological body states. This is what makes a semiochemical. The message is loud and clear, it says “get ready for sex”. But it is not a command.

Humans are cognition wizards. We are so good at using our mental powers, that we can override even the most irresistible physical instincts. We can even change our own genetics. Over generations, some groups of people transformed a gene that allowed them to digest milk into adulthood. Over generations, people differed in the gene that codes the receptor for androstenone (the most popular of pheromones) so that some sense it as sweaty and urinous, some as sweet and floral, and some as nothing at all.

We are in constant co-evolution with our environment, but in ways that go beyond physical interactions. Because our culture can evolve at a rate less constrained by physical limits, the messages it brings can rearrange our instinctual responses. We are not slaves to our bodies. As individuals and especially as groups, we can rearrange the “meaning” of physical information as it is understood by the body (or at least the olfactory system). If you don’t want to smell sex with your pheromones, you can turn it off.**

If you feel like you’ve been looking for love in all the wrong places, you’re better off putting your paychecks somewhere else (like towards a good fragrance, which, by the way, also use pheromones).

On a final note then, there is something to be said for the person wearing the contested mind-control scent. Placebo effect. The very act of wearing a scent, any scent, can raise the confidence of the wearer. And chances are confidence will smell better than synthetic sweat..

*This is not a stretch, when considering male homosexuality, for example.
** Perhaps something can be said here of the lack of body odor secretions from certain Asian populations.


Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Organic Chemistry Bites its Own Tongue


nanouflage and the Uroboros as Aromatic carbon ring

The passage into the world of odorant information, upon treading only a short distance, one is soon met with the gauntlet of lexico-mania that is Organic Chemistry. To this day, any attempt to organize smell is incomplete at best.

Of all the chemicals there are to know about, the only ones we can smell also happen to be the most complex. The sub-discipline of organic chemistry was not initiated until well-after the groundwork was down for chemistry proper. The study of organic molecules therein falls so far out of the range of inorganic chemistry and yet still far enough away from biology, it finds itself in need of its own category.

Chemistry, as science-sounding as it seems – is the logical progression of Alchemy, which is more like a hybrid of religion and science. In this way, the history and the vocabulary that make up organic chemistry are filled with mythologies and half-truths. The very advent of the double-carbon bond was revealed to chemist August Kekulé in a vision of a Uroboros. Nostradamus is credited with the first method for making Benzoic Acid, precursor to Kekulé‘s Benzene-ring, or Aromatic ring, and itself a concept which characterizes the entirety of organic molecules.

If it is clarification one seeks through the lens of chemistry, then perhaps one should reconsider. Aroma compounds are volatile, they change into other compounds under certain conditions, some as simple as oxidation. When isolated and stabilized these compounds can be identified by certain properties and hence can be given a name. But this is where the problems really begin. Of the infinite number of organic molecules, each one can have almost one dozen names.

Let us view one as an example: Sotolone, the smell of burnt sugar, maple syrup, curry or fenugreek, and a component of coffee aroma and roasted tobacco. It is officially known as 4,5-Dimethyl-3-hydroxy-2,5-dihydrofuran-2-one, but more informally called Caramel furanone, Sugar lactone, or Fenugreek lactone. It has a “formula name” of C6H8O3, which refers to the molecules that make it. There are even “names” that take the form of 3-D structures, required by the massive complexity of these molecules. One can only imagine the margin of error in some publicly-available repository of odorant-information.


Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Tasting Rainbows




We typically think of the senses as being pretty discrete. Sure you can ‘feel a bright color,’ or ‘see a loud necktie,’ but we mostly consider the senses to be separate (unless we’re on acid, or sleep-deprived, or Salvadore Dali). Here’s an example to the contrary, where a photoreceptor gene was found hanging out with a bunch of taste genes. News like this makes us reconsider what it means to see, to hear, and to sense the world in general.


Tasting light: New type of photoreceptor is 50 times more efficient than the human eye

“The new receptor protein, LITE-1, was found among a family of taste receptors in invertebrates [i.e. insects]”

POST SCRIPT
Don’t forget the guy who can see with his tongue. Taste the rainbow!

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Investigating the Artificial Unconscious in Reverse

aka Inceptionism vs. Trypophobia

this is what happens when a computer is asked to dream about the above images...

[I make no apologies for reposting this year-old stuff from my previous blog; this is still the coolest thing to happen to the art world since Malevich’s Black Square.]

Investigating the artificial unconscious is a primary objective for Hidden Scents, and was instigated by the popularization (or neuro-popping) of deep learning neural networks. This “newfound” form of computation is contributing loads of media-worthy content to the datasphere, but it’s also starting to make an impact on the culture-at-large in a more visceral way, via the activation of Google’s Deep Dream and its subsequent geek porn for art nuts – Inceptionism.

Let’s begin with a description from the Google engineers themselves:

“Each layer of the network deals with features at a different level of abstraction, so the complexity of features we generate depends on which layer we choose to enhance. For example, lower layers tend to produce strokes or simple ornament-like patterns, because those layers are sensitive to basic features such as edges and their orientations.”

"...overinterpret [...] oversaturated with snippets of other images."

And a deeper analysis by the masters of MindHacks:

“…by using the neural networks “in reverse” they could elicit visualisations of the representations that the networks had developed over training.

…pictures are freaky because they look sort of like the things the network had been trained to classify, but without the coherence of real-world scenes.

The obvious parallel is to images from dreams or other altered states – situations where ‘low level’ constraints in our vision are obviously still operating, but the high-level constraints – the kind of thing that tries to impose an abstract and unitary coherence on what we see – is loosened. In these situations we get to observe something that reflects our own processes as much as what is out there in the world.”

***
Deep learning neural networks are a kind of reverse algorithm. Using a very broad definition, an algorithm is a set of instructions written by a programmer. The program, or algorithm, instructs the computer in the solving of a problem. As it relates to artificial intelligence and visual object recognition, a plain-old algorithm starts with a database of objects and features. Red things, round things, fuzzy things, and flat things. Higher features, like “automobile” or “person” won’t be recognized until after the lower features. How does the system decided whether the automobile is a firetruck or an ambulance? More features in the database means more specific recognition. This mass of features is thus organized in a hierarchy, as determined by the algorithm.

In a “neural net”, this (relatively) new kind of algorithm, it’s like the hierarchy is not yet organized; the organization of the feature-layers is done during the act of recognition. Because it is not written in advance, in the way of a typical algorithm, and because it actually works backwards relative to the typical mode of operation, neural nets are seen as a very novel, and potentially disruptive approach to artificial intelligence. In the midst of the stern warnings from on-high against total AI takeover, a sensory recognition system that teaches itself sounds especially portentous.

(Let the reader note that 1. Neural nets have been around since the beginning of AI research, and 2. They do still require training b humans in order to work; they need to be encoded with their own database of pictures and descriptions, on e of the most widely used being AI Sentibank.)

This deep learning approach, as artificial as it is, is more akin to the process of our unconscious mind, as opposed to the more rational, conscious mind. We cannot tell our unconscious mind what to do, it works the other away around. This is what makes such a fitting subject in a discussion about olfaction. To smell is the closest thing we have to glimpsing the unconscious mind at work, and brings us to the next subject of interest, that of hallucinations.

***
Inceptionism is a hallucinating computer. It uses the 'reverse' algorithm' approach of deep learning, and turns it back on itself, favoring pure visual sensation over a “unitary coherence”. Without the organizing principles of abstract, conceptual models, the world is a phantasmagoria, a synesthetic mess of confusion.

Oliver Sacks does a wonderful job at describing this world in his 2012 Hallucinations. In his pages, we see in working detail how the brain makes sense of the world, and how that process can go awry. He even has a chapter on the osmic family – anosmia, dysosmia, phantosmia, etc.

In closing, deep learning neural networks are a lot like the olfactory-perception system. And olfaction is unavoidably hallucinatory. Far afield, when a computer can dream about smells and not just visual imagery, I doubt it will be as interesting as this here Inceptionism. To smell is already a kaleidoscope of sensation, undulating, refracting, and redintegrating*. We experience Olfactive Inceptionism on a daily basis.

*Redintegration is the restoration of the whole of something from a part of it. If you typically associate citrus scents with cannabis, you may eventually smell (hallucinate) cannabis when only citrus is present.

Post Script:

Post Post Script:

Speaking of dreams, smell tends not to make an impact in that arena.