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]”

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.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Case Closed

image source

It doesn’t matter, when people want to believe something is true, it’s true. So you can keep buying mind-controlling perfumes all you want. Maybe it gives you confidence. And confidence is sexy, right? Right??

I can’t help but recall an article sent to me by a friend, it was from Cosmopolitan magazine, about a girl who made a perfume out of her vaginal secretions and then “experimented” with its effects, concluding that it may or may not have worked (science, in the world of Cosmo).

Anyway, something to know when considering pheromones. Humans and animals differ in the way the smell because we do not have a functioning vomeronasal organ. This is the "other" nose-brain. Pheromones, which are mind-controlling chemosignals, will make, uncontrollably, a female pig assume a mounting position in waiting for a male pig (because in the presence of this particular pig sex pheromone, she assumes she is also in the presence of a sex-minded male pig). She can't control her reaction; it's hardwired, and hard-wired means vomeronasal smelling. We don't smell that way.

In fact, one of the things that makes smell so interesting, for humans at least, is that there is no hardwiring, for anything. Kids need to be told that bad smells are bad (m'kay?). As well, adults need to learn that good smells are good. This doesn't mean that some smells can seem to take over your mind and body.

For me, the smell of spraypaint (and thus my younger years as a graffiti writer) makes me crazy, literally sparking a rush of adrenaline through my body that simulates the 'running from the cops' body-state normally associated with that smell. For you, the smell of your early-twenties sex partner (the one associated with daily, consistent, persistent, uncontrollable animal sex) might make you feel some kind of way. Unfortunately (or fortunately) you can't buy that smell in the paint aisle at Home Depot). Bottom line is, you also can't buy that smell on a website that promises eternal sex magnet status.

Mar 2017,

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Subjective Cartography

Where you at? I’m at 5-spice, north of Orange Peel.

Mar 2017, BBC

The image I have above is from NYC 2011, but Kate McLean nonetheless. And now she’s going even further with her work. Artist and designer Kate McLean from Canterbury Christ Church University is now using her smellmaps to indicate pollution emissions. At the nexus, however, is language – that is, the words used to describe these places. I cut a piece here from the BBC article because it emphasizes this is the most interesting part, for me. For the project as well, it’s a serious point to consider.

“Clicking on a street on the London map allows you to zoom in and see how people have described the area, using terms related to emissions, nature, food, animals or waste.

“So where people have tagged pictures with words including "cars" or "petrol" or "exhaust", these would be classified as emissions-related in the system and the map would show more red.

“But can something built on people's subjective impressions of what they're smelling bear any relationship to objective data on air quality?

"Some people might say you're using social media, it's biased so you're just capturing most of the hipsters in East London," said Daniele Quercia, the computer scientist from Bell Labs who led the study.

So, for example, what happens if a bunch of Londoners come to New York and do this? What does the '5-spice' neighborhood of NYC smell like to a Londoner? And can we compare those maps? Now we’re talking.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Odor Camouflage

random perusals of the internet reveal:
Stench can also be used by the military as a decoy. For example, during America’s Civil War the union army used the odor of burning wood and the sound of banging in wooden barrels on the banks of the Tennessee River to convince the Confederate army that boat building was going on. So the Confederate army turned its attention to that area of the river, and the Union army crossed at another.

in other news:
Iran has developed a “Deceit Perfume” that masks the odor of gunpowder with weather-related scents.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Waiting for Both

How is this meme both ‘why not both’ and ‘aliens’ at the same time? Because both.

Mar 2017, BBC

“IBM has made its quantum computing system commercially available to businesses and beefed up an existing system used by the research community. … The firm is hoping to boost the numbers of people able to use such computers.”

The thing that makes quantum computers special is superpositioning, which is when a bit is both one and zero at the same time (and these bits are called qubits). Kind of like the smell of isovaleric acid, which is considered both good and bad ‘at the same time,’ or in other words, when one hundred people are asked what is smells like, half say really good and half say really bad, and this is more than uncommon in the world of smells that people – or a population rather – would be so split on such extreme responses

Anyway, imagine a day when every person has their very own personal quantum computer in their homes. When superpositioning becomes a household concept, the language of smell will be considered in more depth.