Wednesday, August 15, 2018

The Smell Memory Kit

Sissel Tolaas is a maniac. And if you don't know who she is, you should, because she's pushing the olfactory world to the brink of utopia.

Smell researcher extraordinaire, she does a lot of crazy things related to smells. She also has a knack for understanding and exploring the autobiographical aspects of smell.

In this project, the Smell Memory Kit, she hacks through the jungle of our olfactory system to deliver an idea, and a product, that is actually really useful.

This Kit uses "abstract smells" created in her lab - this simply means they are a smell (or combination of smell-molecules composed in a single gestalt smell) you've most likely never smelled before. And if you're having a special experience, and you want to remember it forver, you break open the abstract smell amulet, take a whiff, and bam - totally immersive physiodatamap.

This is very clever, because every smell you have ever smelled is already a part of your autobiographical memory, which is the part of your memory that encodes everything you've ever done and how it felt and who you were with etc. Smell memories are the most powerful kinds of memories. Because smell is the only sense to enter our brain backwards (it gets processed by the 'feeling' parts of us first, and then by the thinking parts) it records with it all of the physiological data in your body at that moment along with it. This is why smells can evoke such powerful memories.

And if you smell something for the first time (Toolas' Abstract Smells) then the thing you're experiencing at the moment will be linked with that smell. So it's a clever way to re-live that experience in its entirety.

Anyway, she does a better job of explaining it:

The Smell Memory Kit is a revolutionary tool to capture the most important moments of your life. 
THE STARTER PACK contains one abstract smell portioned into 3 AMPULES and a handmade metal AMULET to carry your smell ampule wherever you go. 
Abstract smells are smells that have NOT YET been connected with any memories so far 
Whenever you want to eternally record and memorize a moment, you just break open the SMELL KIT AMPULE, release the abstract smell molecules and take a deep breath. 
From now on this smell will bring back the memory and the emotion of this very moment each and every time you open your SMELL MEMORY AMULET.

image source:

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

The Decanting Process


This isn’t about the decanting process; it’s about a fatal nerve agent disguised in a bottle of perfume.

Perhaps you heard about the assassination that became a public health emergency in England this year. A foreign military wanted to teach someone a lesson, so they put a deadly chemical in a bottle and sent it to England, where it poisoned a man and his daughter. It’s still not known how they came in contact with it, but trace of the chemical was discovered at the two restaurants they visited that day.

It became a public health emergency because they didn’t know where the substance came from or where it went, only that these people got dosed with enough of it to incapacitate them in a very short time. This meant that anyone in the community could face the same fate, and in fact, many people could have been affected, or will be affected. A police officer investigating the incident was poisoned, for example.

Not long after this incident, another couple is struck. A man finds a bottle of perfume lying around and he gives it to his girlfriend. She sprays it on her wrists, gets a headache in 15 minutes, passes out in 30, and dies a few days later. And this happened after a week-long cleanup operation.

I am not sure how big this perfume bottle is, but I will assume it’s like a sample bottle for promotional purposes. You can get somewhere between 10 and 100 sprays out of that. This woman died one week after spraying herself once.

Nerve agents get into your system however then can, even through the surface of your skin (which is not made of plastic as you may think, but is more like paper in that it absorbs liquids which can then migrate into your bloodstream). When these things are used for assassination purposes they are designed at such a high concentration that they kill the target on the spot, or at least within a few days.

The way they do this is by disrupting the dance between Acetylcholine and Acetylcholinesterase that makes your muscles twitch and then relax. Whenever you do something, your brain sends a nerve signal to your muscles, acetycholine acts, and a muscle twitches. And then acetylcholinesterase reacts, and the muscle relaxes. Nerve agents stop the second part from happening, you’re all twitch, no relax.

Uncontrolled release of all bodily fluids including excessive salivation, drooling, tearing, runny nose, dilated pupils, and seizures lead to all of your muscles being prevented from relaxing. That leads to paralysis, especially of the diaphragm muscle. Once the lungs stop working, they fill with all that excess fluid, with suffocation being the final effect.

Victims who recover can be left with all kinds of neurological damage, like not being able to sleep, walk, talk, or think, and that’s not even addressing its other toxic effects on organs like the liver, for example.

This is the thing – we're not talking about people, individuals, being harmed here. An entire bottle of this substance (a few cubic centimeters at most) is enough to poison dozens and potentially hundreds of people. All it has to do is get into the right place.

So until we can guarantee that military grade chemical weapons aren’t being carelessly thrown into a garbage can near you, let’s be more careful about what we find lying around.

Novichok Was in a Perfume Bottle, U.K. Victim Says
July 2018, NYTimes

Friday, August 3, 2018

On the Science of Vintage Thrift Store Smells

Jolie Kerr wrote a book about how to clean stuff real good. In fact, she’s a cleaning expert.
Her blog is about getting the drool crust off your kids’ stuffed animals and analyzing Karate Kid’s waxing technique.

Not sure if it has something to do with the preoccupation with smell, but I am also a bit crazy about cleaning things. Let’s continue.

She knows some people in the cleaning industry, like Proctor & Gamble. They own all the cleaning products like Tide etc. She sent them some thrift store retro-wear to get a headspace analysis, which means they put your old clothes/my new clothes into a smelling machine to see what they’re made of, scent-wise. The results show that most of the odors come from us, as in our body oils. Not much of a surprise. Sorry if that's a let-down, but I'm not sure what you were expecting.

Here’s how they describe these anthropogenic aromas: Sweet, sour, oily, herbal, fatty, whiskey, nutty, cheesy, sweaty, stinky feet, fermented, bready.

More surprising is the environmental smells that came from gasoline, car exhaust, dry cleaning, solvents, perfume, etc.

She then goes on to explain how to clean these smells out of your clothes, because she’s a cleaning expert after all. I, on the other hand, came just for the smells.

Smell words related to thrift stores:
Grandma’s attic
Whiff of wool
Hint of cigarette smoke
A life well-lived
(the smell of old people – nonenal)

Post Script:
Check out this very informative post about the smells that come from your body, in case that’s something you’ve always wanted to know more about:

Jun 2018, The New York Times

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Fuel Fragrances by Manhattan Oil

For the fraghead who is also a gearhead, there’s a masking odor for your car exhaust. Suddenly I can’t even remember how I found this, but I’m still just as dumbfounded.

They look like a bottle of blowing bubbles (see the pic above) and they come in reefer madness flavor. You pour them into your gas tank or into your engine and it makes your car smell like bubblegum, grape, fruit punch, and they’re new baby powder scent. My head is spinning. There’s also Hot Rod Hippie Patchouli flavor, which I guess smells different from the Reefer Madness flavor? Jk.

For $14, a 4-oz bottle will treat 20 gallons of gasoline, and it’s a “proven crowd pleaser.” Anyone who uses this or can give me some insight into the subculture behind this I would greatly appreciate it.
-check it out here

Post Script
On Masking Odors: Sometimes there are odors created for the sole purpose of not smelling. They’re added to things that naturally smell bad so that they no longer smell like anything (I say naturally but what I mean is – as a result of their intended process of manufacture or fabrication). Many of the products that we use would smell kinda gross if we didn’t do this. Seatbelts for instance, which are pretty close to our face, have a special chemical recipe added to their manufacture so they don’t smell like whatever else goes into a seatbelt that happens to smell like crap. It’s ironic because it is treated just like any other fragrance – designed by fragrance specialists, created in fragrance labs, etc – and yet it doesn’t smell, and its sole purpose is to not smell. (In fact, well I’m not sure about this, but a masking fragrance might smell like something, but when added with its target product, the two negate and create a neutral non-smell.)

Diverting even further for the sake of a great example, the smell that we call Leather is not about the leather itself as it is about the fragrances that are added to leather to mask the nasty smells that come from the harsh treatments used to make leather in the first place. Historically, there’s a recipe that goes well with these bad smells to make everything into a good smell. Also, the smells of roses and shit are pretty similar on a molecular level, hence rose-scented air freshener. Enough of that.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Fraudulent Female Facemelter Fungus

You may have recently read this article about an ancient Hawaiian fungus that induces spontaneous orgasms in women, and yet makes men twist their heads in olfactory disgust.

I can say comfortably, that this is probably bullsh*.

The scientists in this study say there may be a similarity between the vapors of the fungus and neurotransmitters released during sex. This is their tentative explanation.

Firstly, the “neurotransmitters released during sex” are the same ones released when we eat a Big Mac, but this fungus isn’t giving people indigestion and feelings of inadequate body image, now is it?

Wait, first-first, anything described as “ancient” is probably bullsh*. Also – things originating from exotic places that you will never go and most people don’t know much about (like tropical islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, yes, probably bullsh*).

Secondly, and I am no expert, but I am pretty damn sure that there is absolutely no way that smells have anything to do with neurotransmitters. That’s like saying you can eat a Chevrolet because it can use a drive-thru. It’s wrong in more than one way.

But who cares what I say. Snopes has the best answer:
“It’s a single, (two-) decade-old study that was conducted with a very small sample group and published in a minor journal, one which has not since been replicated or vetted by other researchers in the scientific community.”

The mushroom in question also looks pretty phallic, just saying, doesn't hurt.

May 2018. The Independent

Saturday, June 30, 2018

Stand Corrected on Smelling Robots

It’s already happening, in Edinburgh: Robot noses are taking our jobs – doctor’s jobs, that is. We already know that dogs can tell when you’re sick just by the way you smell. And maybe less of us know that dogs can smell the place on your body where the sickness comes from, like if you have some kind of cancer hiding inside you. Alexendra Horowitz went into great detail about that kind of magic in her book on dogs’ smell.

It’s different now, however, because these aren’t dogs but computers. To get a bit more specific, it’s a gas-sniffing machine (called a GC-MS spectrophotometer, gulp, the de facto artificial smelling machine) combined with a special kind of ‘computer’ called a neural network.

If you’ve ever read my book or my blog or you’ve not been under a rock for the past 5 years, you’ve heard of neural nets. They are these magical new* ways of computing that created Google’s DeepDream and AlphaGo and every other headline where a computer did something we never thought a computer could do (like to dream and make art, yes). And now they smell.

But not really; we’ll get to that. First, it’s important to point out that this news comes from Nvidia, who makes GPU chips, which are not CPU chips. The computers we use, and have used forever, run on CPU chips – that’s the way it’s always been. Then the part of the computer that does the graphics, a GPU, started to do more and more of the computing (CPU).  We heard about GPUs first in regards to video games, but then because of Bitcoin because they use tons of interconnected GPUs to do their mining (and yes all those gamers got pissed because the price of GPUs exploded in tandem with the cryptocurrency bubble).

GPUs do more than provide smooth, clear graphics for your video games or authenticated cryptocurrency for your third world country blackmarket terrorist druglord network. They make a computer more like a brain, and hence the term artificial neural network.

Brains are all interconnected – neurons and axons, hub and spoke. Neural nets, with their GPU-neurons, approximate a brain better NOT because of a better algorithm software, but a better hardware. And with all this, we’re seeing artificial intelligence explode – I hate to say it – but it’s happening just like Ray Kurzweil said it would.

So after beating a human at Go, after successfully debating a human on the benefits to humanity of space travel, after creating its own language that humans can’t even understand, after detecting health abnormalities in patients’ xrays better than doctors, and after being able to play paper rock scissors so well that it can predict what we will throw before we throw it and hence beat us every single time – the damn thing now smells. (The paper rock scissors example is simply processing speed – the system sees our hands about to make a shape, and counters so fast that to us it seems like it happened ‘at the same time.’)

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. First thing to note is that this thing is not smelling. It’s been trained to recognize a very small subset of molecules related to cancer.  Whereas humans can detect any volatile organic molecule (rough definition), this thing can only detect what we’ve trained it to detect.**  And this is not the first time a system has been trained to smell – it happens a lot with bomb sniffing, for example, and artificially augmented bomb sniffing remote control cicadas are also real. Anyway, next is where I have to geek the F out: the part of us that smells IS a neural net.

Granted, our whole brain is like a neural net (yes, hence the use of the words ‘neural net’). But the part of our brain that specifically processes, or organizes the electrical signals from molecular contact and turns them into electrical signals for perception, is a pyramid-structure network (it’s called the piriform cortex for that reason, but it’s also known as the olfactory cortex) where hundreds of receptors are whittled down to a few signal fibers. And if you’ve ever seen a picture of a neural net, well, it’s the same thing.

This is one of the underlying themes in my book, and one of the reasons I was compelled to write it. Our sense of smell, the most under-studied of all the senses, is actually more like the most advanced technology there is right now, that being artificial intelligent brain-like systems. I like to call them intelligentities (which is gender neutral btw, and also neutral on some other thing we aren’t even upset about yet, where we make a biased distinction between humans and computers).

Although it seems like we’re making serious progress in this area, I still assert that studying olfaction is an ideal way to optimize these kinds of systems. Until then, you can rest assured that although these things can already do basically everything better than you, they still can’t smell.  (And many of us will have to wonder – is that a bad thing? I.e., will humans in the distant future, once we have the option, will they still want to smell?)

*Marvin Minsky et al were talking about neural nets in the early 80’s but the hardware wasn’t there yet to make them sing.

**Artificial Intelligence can only do what we train it to do. And this is a major part of the inherent biases that show up in these programs, and the reason we need to do a better job of choosing their training programs and then testing these programs to see if they discriminate and against who. Search up this phrase to find out more – ‘man is to computer programmer as woman is to homemaker.’

Image source: Olfactory Bulb (aka non-artificial neural network)

Article source:
June 2018,


Thursday, June 28, 2018

Memory Transplant You Say

Just when you thought old-age had you beat. Now you can remember where you put your keys forever. Turns out we have memory in our RNA and we can transplant that RNA somewhere else if we want. Like in your home-brain memory storage device of the 22nd century. Every day you update your device with actual molecules from your own body. You know, just in case you lose them, you’ll have a backup.

Really, we’re looking at snails, and a learned physiological response coded into their RNA. They get shocked and then the defense system in their bodies remembers that, and they tense up longer than if they hadn’t been shocked, and then that memory is literally transplanted in another snail, via RNA, and that other snail will react in the same way with a longer defensive contraction response. So it’s like you give the snails PTSD and then pass it on to whoever you want.

Maybe you’ll be able to buy that at the market one day; suffering for sale. I hear echoes of Slavoj Zizeck explaining to us that choosing Tom’s sneakers because they are good for the planet is our way of feeling better about participating in a system that oppresses lots of people in the process. So if you’d like to feel better about being a jerk, you can just upload the memory of being harassed and see what it’s like, become empathetic and be less of a jerk.

The real news is that we are making some progress in knowing how memory, such an ephemeral thing, comes from our physical bodies.

May 2018, BBC News

Image source:

Monday, June 18, 2018

When Your Car Smells Like

If anyone has been to New York Penn Station in the past year, particularly the New Jersey Transit portion, you've smelled the overwhelming maple syrup streaming through the space.

That's a coolant problem. Coolant, or the sweet-smelling ethylene glycol, is getting out of the loop it's supposed to stay inside of, and because it's hot (made so as it tries to cool a hot motor) it evaporates and heads for your nose holes. And most people will just think, hmmm, what is that.

Now you know. And if your car smells like maple syrup, same thing. Get your radiator checked out. Don't forget, however, that Sotolon is the molecule that makes this smell, and it can also be found in Fenugreek, a spice often used in Indian food. It can also be found at the end of a packed bowl, also known as the smell of a "cashed bowl."

I took the picture above from an article on the Popular Mechanics site where they go on to list a few more odor-clues to car problems. I'm keeping this as reminder for myself, as I just had to deal with a bad radiator.

So they go on to metion the rest:
1. (Maple syrup - bad radiator)
2. Gym socks - too much condensation in the A/C vents grows mold in there
3. Sulfur - manual transmission gear lube leak
4. Gasoline - fuel system problem
5. Rotten eggs - bad catalytic converter
6. Burnt paper - clutch
7. Burning oil - leaky crankshaft
8. Burnt carpet - brakepads

Now since I'm not a mechanic, I'll let you go back to their site to see what to do about all this. In the meantime, don't forget to stop and smell the roses once in a while, it's a good way to catch problems before they get worse. (I have yet to mention the coolant problem to anyone at Penn Station.)

image source - Popular Mechanics

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Olfactory Comfort

Today I'm looking at a certification program for buildings, to ensure they have a nice vibe on the inside. It's called the WELL Certification.

And this isn't just about indoor air quality, but the quality of the overall environment in an indoor space. That includes lots of things, such as light levels, quality of light, daylight access, acoustics like whether sounds are sharp and bounce around or if they are dampened and absorbed by the space, and much more. What I found extra in this is the attention to odors in the environment

This WELL Certification regimen, which looks to ensure an overall healthy work environment, which I will assume to mean psychological health in addition to physical health, lists Olfactory Comfort as one of its standards.

According to their program, this can be achieved by reducing the transmission of strong smells and odors within the building - "source separation" they call it.
Keep the bathroom air or the cafeteria air separate from the rest of the air, that's what it means. You could install self-closing doors.

All restrooms, janitorial closets, kitchens, cafeterias and pantries should be designed in a way to prevent strong odors from migrating to workspaces. These are the techniques they list for separating spaces.

Negative pressurization
Use interstitial rooms and vestibules
Self-closing doors

Word of the day - this is called pneumatic isolation, where the air in the rooms are isolated from each other. (pneumatic = Greek - "wind" or "breathing")

Indoor air quality in its essence is about keeping an adequate amount of fresh air inside (and keeping out, of course, toxic things like carbon monoxide or mold). One way to measure for fresh air is to look for carbon dioxide - we breathe carbon dioxide, and there is a lot if it in a room, that means the room hasn't been given enough fresh air to offset all the breathing humans in it.

And that means the indoor air quality will go down, as well as the overall indoor environmental quality. And one of the main reasons why we judge this as having less quality is just as much aesthetic as it is chemistry.

Carbon monoxide in the wrong amount can kill you, for sure, and we don't want any of that. Even low levels of mold and slightly elevated dust levels can be bothersome to people with weak respiratory systems.

But what sneaks under the radar are the little things that over time eat away at your productivity as a worker, and those can be simply aesthetic - bad lighting, bad acoustics, and the baddest, metabolic gases emitted by humans.*

Yup. We convert food to energy all day; we metabolize. And some of the by-products of that metabolism are not solids or liquids, but gases. And they smell, and there's something about smelling the intimate insides of a person who is not a part of your familial social circle. Something about that is bothersome, and it takes away tiny bits of our productivity over the days and years.

*Granted, some lighting can be so bad that it hurts your eyes, and some acoustics too, and some things that smell can be a sign that it's bad for you, but smells do not in themselves hurt you (and many gases that can hurt you do not smell at all).

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Cloaca Maxima

Enjoy Cloaca, by Wim Delvoye

Inspired by a line in Charles Stross’ Singularity Sky, I thought we might want to bring back one of those great  words that gets lost in history.

“A cloacal smell plugged his nostrils, the distant olfactory echo of the corpses swinging from the lampposts in the courtyard.” p166

The cloaca is more than just an antiquated word that my spellcheck doesn’t recognize (funny I’m just now realizing that spellcheck is another word it doesn’t recognize.)

Barring the details, a cloaca is the back door to our body. Including the details, humans don’t actually have a cloaca, and neither do most mammals. But before we came on the scene, the cloaca was an essential part of the metabolism of advanced living organisms.

Prior to mammals, everything that left the body used the same orifice – solids, liquids and babies all came from the same place. And on a side note, as we develop in gestation from a potent zygote-ball, this cloacal hole is the first thing to deform our perfect mass of cells, followed by the opposite hole that becomes our mouth, so that we are essentially a bulging donut, hollow in the middle.

The word itself means “to cleanse” and is used to name the first sewers. In fact, the Cloaca Maxima was Ancient Rome’s first major sewer (and is another word, or name, that inspired me to write about it, caught while watching a documentary about the history of sewers). It was built in 600 BCE and still works today. Maybe that’s because it is presided over by the goddess Cloacina the Cleanser

Cloacina the Cleanser

The region of the body that houses this feature goes by many names (urban dictionary might give you some good ones, but I won’t get into it here), and the oil secreting glands in said region are polysemous as well. The oils that come out of this part of the body differ among animals, and for different purposes as well. Some use it to keep others away, some to make others come near.

You already know about this, because the smell of “musk” comes from this part of a Musk deer, although today we get it from a laboratory (and put it on our clothes and bedsheets and bathtowels while we clean them, to make them smell like an animal’s ass, I mean,  to make them smell clean).

Finally, artist Wim Delvoye remembers the word cloaca, because he made such a machine the size of a room that does the same as our digestive system, although ours fits in our body. (See that picture on top, and get a new appreciation for your gut.)

Wim Delvoye’s Cloaca Machine circa 2007

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Patent Lingo

Childhood fame, it’s official – Play-Doh is the smell of a generation.

Now that the kids who spent their childhood mushing pink putty in their hands have become old enough to run the world, they’re changing the rules of intellectual property to protect their olfactory legacy.

Actually, says here Play-Doh has been around since 1956. But I am curious as to how many 60-year-olds today reminisce about the smell of Play-Doh? Feel free to comment on this. I asked a gentleman of about 50 but he’s from Germany. They had their own Play-Doh he says, and he didn’t recall its smell in the same way.

In the US, Play-Doh was a cultural phenomenon; is that what you would call it? For anyone who did not experience something I will call a standard American childhood, the colored putty probably just smells like putty.

To a trained fragrance designer who also did not experience the standard American childhood, it probably smells like “sweet, slightly musky, vanilla fragrance, with slight overtones of cherry, combined with the smell of a salted, wheat-based dough.” Because that’s what the trademark now says.

To that generation of US kids who played with it, it smells like childhood and fun.

So this is now a trademark, which I should assume is something like being protected under intellectual property or copyright law. This is a big deal then, because we can’t copyright fragrance. Fragrance and Fashion are two art forms that cannot be protected under the same laws that sent Pharrell into the courtroom over Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines.

In fact, after a quick perusal, it looks like there’s only ten other scents in this category (and the UK only has two). The ironic loophole here for Play-Doh is that a product that serves only the purpose of its scent cannot be protected. Play-Doh is a toy, not a perfume or a candle or a cardboard cutout of an evergreen tree. (In the UK, it’s for rose-scented car tires.)

Verizon stores have their own scent trademarked. One that I really like is this company that makes engine lubricant, and it’s got three different aromas that make your car exhaust smell like a fruit basket (cherry, grape and strawberry to be specific). "Fuel Fragrances" by Manhattan Oil, check it out. I like this one because it leads me to my quick diversion – scented Crayola crayons. What the heck were they thinking? They should’ve taken a page out of Play-Doh’s book. The Doh smells good, but it’s not an edible scent. Sure, they say “cherry overtones” and vanilla, but everything smells like cherry and vanilla, right? It’s just not the same as labeling a brown crayon “Chocolate” and then making it smell like chocolate.

In conclusion, and despite the excitement of this news, I am compelled to express my regret on this one issue: Using words to talk about smells is a joke. I understand that laws are made of words, and so that’s all we have, but this – doesn’t mean much in the world of smells.

I would much rather see it as “the smell of childhood and fun.” But I guess that’s too vague. (“Sweet, slightly musky, vanilla fragrance, with slight overtones of cherry, combined with the smell of a salted, wheat-based dough.”)

Hasbro trademarks Play-doh’s scent: Sweet, slightly musky
AP News, May. 18, 2018

The subject of intellectual property comes up a bit here, so I added some links for your interest:

Post Script
Play-Doh and used Play-Doh do not smell the same. Because it’s sticky, and kids can be gross, and together, that makes Play-Doh, potentially the grossest smelliest thing ever. Kids pat it down on peanut butter and paint-covered surfaces, then on the ground, then on their foreheads… Then they take that entire surface area and squish it upon itself, putting all those microbes that were on the outside, now on the inside, and making more, new outside that can now stick to new microbes, which will be squished back into itself again, and again. It might be the greatest recipe for a germ-bomb ever. Then again, according to this seemingly disruptive news about Leukemia and germs, that might not be a bad thing. Maybe Hasbro has another patent brewing as we speak.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Water Chemistry

Thought I could shed some light on a trendy topic here:  water chemistry and baking success.

Everyone knows Brooklyn pizza is the best pizza, and that there is only one place in the world that makes bagels, and it’s New York City. (If you’ve ever had a bagel in Florida, you know what I’m talking about; unless it was literally baked in NY and shipped to FL, which isn’t uncommon.)

We heard recently the claims of a well-meaning group of entrepreneurs that NYC’s water is now available to the rest of the world. The company's claim: They will analyze your local tap water to calibrate a device that will tweak it to be just like New York City’s water.

What does the water taste like and why? Well, it tastes good, according to taste tests. And the reason is because New York City's water comes from natural reservoirs, highly protected from contamination. This allows the water to pick up minerals in the ground that it passes as it makes its way through the water cycle. Also, the ground it passes is low in calcium, which makes things taste bitter (not better, bitter).

Chances are, however, that taste is not the reason why NYC gets so much props for its water. Chances are it's the chemistry of baking, which is a complicated thing, except to say that it's the chemicals, stupid.

The chemicals themselves are thrown into the Maillard arena to break down and transform.  Pyrrolines and pyridines are some of the bread-smelling chemicals created in this culinary laboratory – the “pyro-“ parts of their names indicate their origin in fire.

I just named two chemicals, but baked goods emanate hundreds of chemicals, all dependent not only on the original chemicals present, but on the nature and extent of the heating reactions. Just like the analogy of the butterfly effect, initial conditions can have a drastic effect on results. In a process as complex as the heated Maillard reaction, a slight change in the initial ingredients can have wide-ranging effects on the bun in the oven.

Taste/smell isn’t the only thing that is subject to change here – texture is a big factor as well, and is affected just as much based on initial ingredients.

Is it the case that the same chemicals that make your water taste good also make your bread taste good and also make you bread the perfect combination of fluffy-chewy-crunchy? Maybe not, but in the case of New York City’s water, some have it all.

Post Script
In case you thought NYC had it all, Paris just put bubbly water in it's water fountains. We call that carbonated water.

Rotten Egg Smell Orbits Uranus

BBC, so professional, didn't even crack a smile in this article. The atmosphere of Uranus has hydrogen sulfide in it. Not too much of a surprise, but we finally have evidence. And reason to write this in a headline.

Apr 2018, BBC

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Roses Really Do

OutKast – Roses – 2003

It’s true. Roses really do smell like the end product of our metabolism. Two major constituents of the smell of roses are Skatole and Indole, which are good olfactory representatives of excrement. They’re also used extensively in perfume.

This may or may not explain why many air fresheners (at least as far as I know since the dawn of aerosolized air fresheners) smell like roses. Regardless of whether shit and flowers go together like peanut butter and jelly, it was used a lot as an air freshener scent, at least as far as the early 90’s. (Anyone like to weigh-in here on the history of air fresheners?)

But this fact does explain why I, among others I’m sure, hallucinate excrement when smelling roses – you expect it to be there. This is called redintegration, a kind of hallucination, and it’s explained in this clip from Hidden Scents:

Part of a smell can carry with it the co-occurring odor molecules around them in the memory, and it will later be used to substitute for the whole. Strains of cannabis, aside from the strong skunk-like smell, can have significant amounts of limonene in them. Through redintegration, the potent smells of such cannabis become so tied together that upon smelling an orange (almost entirely limonene), a frequent user might hallucinate the other odors of cannabis along with the orange. This phenomenon represents an apparition superimposed in order to satisfy the nose-brains’ insistence on predicting an odor based on limited or partial information – a behavior that is not limited to olfactory perception.

Post Script

The scent of “musk” comes from the neither region of the musk deer. Just saying. Today you wouldn’t know that, because that scent of musk is now more associated with fresh laundry. Musk is a very big molecule, for a smell, and it sticks really well to your clothes even as they’re being washed, so it’s the main ingredient in laundry detergents.

When you smell “clean laundry,” you don’t think you’re smelling musk, but you are. Funny how today we associate clean with a thing that ultimately comes from an animal’s butt. (Please note that today, most if not all musk comes from a laboratory and not an animal.)

Thursday, May 3, 2018

The Rumpelstiltskin Principle

As the 4,000 year old tale tells, once you have a name for something, you have power over it.

This is a generally recognized principle in psychology, and has some implication for our relationship with smell, a sense for which the stimulus we often fail to call by name.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Organic Molecules in Space

Jan 2018,

New data from the National Science Foundation's Green Bank Telescope (GBT) show, for the first time, the convincing radio fingerprints of a close cousin and chemical precursor to PAHs, the molecule benzonitrile (C6H5CN). This detection may finally provide the "smoking gun" that PAHs are indeed spread throughout interstellar space and account for the mysterious infrared light astronomers had been observing.

Limbic Signal is not exactly the venue for space talk, but when the talk is about things aromatic, it comes up on our radar. Just taking a moment here to clarify the semantics.

"Aromatic" doesn't necessarily refer to aroma, but an entire group of chemicals that form a ring of interconnected carbon atoms studded with hydrogen atoms on the outside. The first of these carbon ring molecules to be discovered was very distinctively pleasant-smelling, and so the following discoveries made of similarly formed molecules were also called aromatic molecules.

The interesting part of the story is that these are organic molecules, containing so much of the carbon that is an integral part of organic life. Therefore there is a equanimity between the words aromatic and organic, as far as chemistry is concerned... The ultimate implication here is that outer space has within its cold, lifeless vacuum a very regular dispersion of very complex molecules that make up the building blocks of life. In other words, as we learn more and more about the world outside of our planet, the more we realize it is not as lifeless as we thought.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

All Mixed Up

Aug 2017,

First of all - odor-color synaesthesia.

Maybe you've heard of people who hear colors, or see letters as being colored, or some other mismatched combination of the senses. That's synaesthesia. But seeing odors as colors (or more generally, as "visual experiences") is definitely a rare kind.

This special neural tweak, however, makes people better at naming odors - something humans are plain bad at. (There's stories of people who eat peanut butter sandwiches every day of their life being given peanut butter in a smell test, and they can't identify it.)

Synaesthetes were tested by olfactory language expert Asifa Majid and colleague Laura Speed to see if they were better at odor recognition, and it turns out they were. 

Post Script

Hidden Scents was in fact supposed to be named Hidden Sense, but alas, I didn't want to get things confused with this interesting work:

The Hidden Sense: Synaesthasia in Art and Science, by Cretian van Campen, MIT Press 2007.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Gut Buster

Reading Two Books, by William Wegman, 1971

The Limits of Explainability - Why Artificial Intelligence Needs To Learn How To Follow Its Gut
Mar 2018, Joi Ito for WIRED

Researchers at MIT led by Josh Tenenbaum hypothesize that our brains have what you might call an intuitive physics engine, a noisy Newtonian system. And that system will need to be better understood if we are to make the robots more like us. (Is that the point? I think sometimes it is, yes.)


After reading this article, I'm not really sure what's meant by "giving AI its gut" (maybe it's because I've been listening to so much panel discussions on AI from people who are really specific about these things?).

I will assume that to give AI its gut means to give it the ability to solve problems intuitively. The same argument I would use here to express the difficulty in achieving this is the one used to show that we can never create a robot that can smell.

To smell, by the full definition of what it means to smell something as a human, requires a lifetime of experience (at least a childhood's worth). We do not "know" that shit smells bad; we are taught, either actively or passively. And every smell we recognize is done so against a massive memoryplex accumulated and constructed over our lifetime.

We also do not understand the way our olfactory circuitry works, not well enough to reverse engineer it into a robot. For each person, the circuits work differently, or at least differently enough that we have no model for it.

Intuition is difficult to put into an algorithm for similar reasons. It is distilled from experience, and the rich, multi-sensory, emotionally-laden, and socially-mediated experience that comes from human existence. To write a line of code for every 'experience' is ridiculous. But how do you get intuition without the experience? That's going to be a hard problem to solve, and there are many other problems that will need to be addressed before we get there.

The hardwiring problem is similar between olfaction and intuition in that we don't know how intuition works in the brain. We don't know 'where' consciousness is in the brain. We don't get the models so how could we design such a system?

I'm not saying this is the solution, just that it seems to be the obvious extension of the endeavor - to get robots that do all the things that we do, we need those robots to first be born and to live. In a simulated world? Sure, maybe, if that comes first.

Post Script

On the topic of Artificial Intelligence, check out a couple of these recent discussions:

Parliamentary Debate on the Future of Artificial Intelligence
Hosted by Steven Pinker, 2017

2018 Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate - Artificial Intelligence
Hosted by Neil DeGrasse Tyson, 2018

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Genes, Skin Creams and You

Jan 2018, Wired

In short - BabyGlimpse is a $259 test using parents' DNA to predict not only physical features such as hair and eye color, but also taste preferences. (It's true, there's genes that make sugar "taste" better to some, broccoli taste worse, and cilantro taste like soap.) This is called direct-to-consumer genetic testing, and it's a budding industry.

It's supposed to be for fun, but public health experts aren't laughing.

At least that's the angle of the WIRED article I'm looking at here. They also bring up the problem with labeling people. For example, there's a gene that codes for your ability to recognize noise patterns, and could make you a musician, or not.

Genes are complicated (I believe the correct phrasing is "genomics are complicated"). Environment and epigenetics change the way your genes are expressed. Whether or not you eat your vegetables, whether you're skin is one color vs another in a country that was built on such a distinction, those are "environment". Whether your mom was pregnant during the Great Potato Famine, and whether, again, your mom grew up subject to the stresses of racism, those are epigenetics.

You can't predict how those things will affect your genes, and so to label someone good or bad at something at birth could effect their outcome in life. A scientist consulted for the article calls these results the genetic equivalent of skin cream for wrinkles (which is a pretty good dis if you ask me.)

All we really care about here at Limbic Signal though, are the hard stuff - the genes that make your hair brown or your eyes blue, or your armpits smell or not.

Anosmia, or smell-blindness, is caused by a defective, or inactive gene. We have lots and lots of genes for smell, more than any other gene family, in fact. And we are still evolving in regards to smell. And look at how dolphins, who I guess used to be land-dwelling mammals, have had most (all?) of their smelling genes turned off now that they live in the water, and (I guess again) they will have to continue to live in the water for a very long time until they develop again, if they ever do.

We humans are still in the process of selecting which things we should be able to smell and which things to not waste our time on. And in the meantime, we differ greatly in the genes which have been turned off. Some folks can't smell semen, some can't smell rotten fish, some can't smell farts. For the most part, these folks won't be at a disadvantage as a result of their smell-blindness (unless, of course, in the case of not being able to smell a natural gas leak, but that's a big exception.)

Nonetheless, if you find exciting the prospect of knowing in advance if your child will have a specific anosmia, then this "wrinkle cream" is for you.

Post Script

Some other cultural evolution things, from sister blog Network Address:

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Domestic Chemical Signature

1950 Commercial for Lysol

Feb 2018,

It comes as a surprise to me sometimes when I read that “no one really knows” about the most basic things. For example, I see a headline that says – Science Finally Understands Why Ribbons Curl (you know when you the back of a pair of scissors on decorative packaging ribbon and it curls?). How do we have a roaming robot on Mars and not know about things like this?

In the article above, science wonders what kind of chemical reactions are going on inside our homes.
The stuff we use to clean our homes, our clothes, and ourselves, as well as the stuff that gets in the air when we cook, as well as the general environmental pollutants around us, these are all chemicals that interact with each other, and we don’t know the full extent of these reactions.

Cigarette smoke reacts with gaseous nitrous acid in our homes (a waste product from cooking and heating, and a general environmental pollutant from car exhaust etc. ) which is then absorbed by wood furniture and the like. So yes, there is a particular smell for a house that’s been smoked in for twenty years vs. smoke itself.

Here’s another one – chlorine bleach, as a gas in the air, oxidizes stuff, which in combination with UV light forms radical molecules.

You don’t have to be a chemist to know that everyone’s home smells different. And that difference is made by all the chemicals we use in our daily lives. The thing is, if you were to try and pinpoint the source of that smell – the chemicals – you would fail. Chemistry is a thing in flux, it is always changing, and even Plato recognized it as such when he described odors in his Timaeus as “emanating from a body undergoing change.”  Therefore, the odor fingerprint of your home comes not only from the myriad substances you use in your house, but from the reactions of those things with each other.

And if Science doesn’t even know how all that stuff works, then how are you supposed to know?

On a side note:

Cleaning products as bad for lungs as smoking 20 cigarettes a day:
Scientists advise that harmful sprays could be replaced with simple microfibre cloths and water
Feb 2018, The Independent

And on that note:

This one is about cleanliness and the illusion of cleanliness. Lived in a basement apartment for awhile and decided to pay a friend of my landlord to do a “deep clean”. She brings her own cleaning products (because I use mostly microfiber and water, and lots of people either don’t know how to use that or don’t believe that it works.)

So this lady comes in and cleans up my place. Hella Lysol. My landlord comes down to visit that day, to see what she did, and boy is she delighted. “It’s so clean in here, wow you really needed it!”

First of all, my apartment is not dirty. I was a custodian at almost every job I had, not to mention keeping a high school art classroom in pristine condition for ten years, not to mention that this very apartment had been hit by a massive mold attack one summer, and I’ve been hypervigilant/paranoid about its return ever since. And, not only am I the guy that cleans for the maid, but this time at least, I had to clean again after the maid left.

My landlord, however, is suffering from olfactory insinuation. She smells Lysol and thinks it’s clean, like, cleaner than it was before. Funny, because as soon as I walked into my apartment, you know what I smelled? “Dirty mop” that’s what I call it.

“Dirty mop” is when you don’t clean the mop itself after mopping, and you also don’t let it dry, and you also keep it in a dark place until the next time you use it. And when you do use it next, you, instead of cleaning, spread that dirty plethora of microbes all over your floor.

So I smiled, paid the woman, and got to work cleaning my apartment, and wondering how long it would take for this Lysol smell to dissipate.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Primitive Mentality

Conservative caveman. Just kidding, he isn’t actually disgusted, because his lip doesn’t curl back to resist the (simulation of) bad food that would be approaching his mouth.

Mar 2018,

“People who are easily disgusted by body odours are also drawn to authoritarian political leaders.”

That’s what the article says. Well, that’s what the scientist hypothesizes. And his explanation is pretty convincing – if you’re extra sensitive to the smells of sweat or urine, you may be more supportive of the dictator type of political leader who “puts people in their places,” because that type of leader reduces contact between different groups of people (i.e., divides people) which decreases anyone’s chance of becoming ill.

Say that again? The further around you turn your head when you smell [other people’s smells] the more you appreciate a political leader that makes sure you don’t have to smell “other” people.

Usually, I take smell-in-the-news with a grain of salt. Reason being, smell is too misunderstood of a sense to make groundbreaking discoveries in psychology by way of its perceptual channel. Usually also, I take behavioral /social psychology in the news with another grain of salt. The reason for that is the replication crisis in psychology (particularly social psychology, similar to behavioral psychology).

That being said, Jonas Olofsson of Stockholm University has an interesting idea. Disgust is a powerful emotion, and one that can, or should, be easily tested via smell. A little etymology digression – disgust comes from gustation which is about taste and eating and satiation, and to figure out what’s good to eat is one of the few main reasons why we smell, or so it seems. That natural behavior of determining what’s good to eat extrapolates into all kinds of other behaviors, one of them possibly being who to vote for.

Psychological theories about disgust and (American) conservativism have been around for quite some time, but this is a different approach. Check it out for yourself and see what you think.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Hunting, Gathering and Gene-making

The Visionary Origin of Language, by Alex Grey
Jan 2018,

In Asifa Majid news:

There is only one name you hear on the subject of the language of smell while reading your weekend science news, and that's Asifa Majid.

She studies the indigenous people of the Malay Peninsula of Southeast Asia, a people who she has shown to have a remarkable smell-vocabulary. They call this skill "olfactory naming".

In this particular article, Majid speculates as to whether this special vocabulary is natural to hunter-gatherers, or just the particular people who she studies. Turns out that horticulturalist-people who live right among the hunter-gatherers, and who even speak a very similar languages, do not have the same a proficiency for labeling odors.

The hunter-gatherers out-performed their horticultural counterparts. (They are better at naming colors too by the way.) Because everything else is the same between these two groups of people, the findings suggest that culture, rather than hard neuroarchitecture, is responsible for the difference.

Following this line of reasoning, anyone can be "taught" by their culture to be good at naming odors; it's not beyond our abilities as humans; it's not something that has been evolved out of us.

Read her paper here:
Current Biology, Majid and Kruspe: "Hunter-Gatherer Olfaction Is Special"

Admittedly reaching far beyond the scope of this paper, I'll also mention that human evolution as a hard, genetic phenomenon, has been usurped by cultural evolution. A great inflection point is the adaptation of some humans to produce the enzyme lactase into adulthood. This gives them the ability to digest milk as adults, a feature present in no other mammal.

It may be possible that the genetically determined shape of our skulls and jaws, a shape that separates us from our primate ancestors, is also a result of "culture" but we can't prove that, and it's unlikely that the timelines would match up - a culture that would last long enough to change the physical structure of the body.

Milk digestion is most certainly a result of some cultures practicing dairying for centuries (maybe millennia). And so, in effect, this is the first, or most salient, example of culture changing the human genome.

Digesting milk and naming odors are not the same thing, because one is a hardwiring issue, and one is softwiring. This was in part the point of Majid's paper to ascertain.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Cardboard and Coffee

Again, can't stop looking at the World Coffee Research Sensory Lexicon, a universal language of coffee’s sensory qualities. Why? Because they have a category for Stale/Papery. And you might ask, why would I want my coffee to taste like an old paper cup? Well, I'm not sure if it's supposed to be an aroma in the coffee, or a thing to avoid, to look for in an effort to make better coffee, or to make for a more discriminating palate.

But that's not it. World Coffee Research also gives a real world example of the aromas listed in their lexicon. Open a can of Bush's Pinto beans and smell it, microwave a frozen banana and mash it up and put it in a glass dish. Or, in this case of conveying the sensation of Stale, i.e, "the aroma characterized by a lack of freshness," they suggest Mama Mary’s Gourmet Original Pizza Crust. That's right, cut a 2-inch square of crust and serve in a medium snifter. Poor Mama Mary.

Just for context, "Papery," as in paper cups, is best represented by Pure Brew coffee filters, where you submerge a stack of coffee filters boiling water overnight. Better yet? Cardboard. Best represented by - cardboard. Put it in some water and sniff it up.

source document:
World Coffee Research Sensory Lexicon, 2016
World Coffee Research
5728 John Kimbrough Blvd., Suite 201
College Station, TX 77843-2477

Post Script:
Gotta have some Limbic Signal links to the old folks posts (because yes we all smell like old cardboard eventually)

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Hack My Sweat I Doubt It

Security and identity have become hyperfocused issues in the tech world, and for good reason. In a world where all data is available and right now, the data that’s not available becomes very valuable. That missing data is your data, and lots of people want it. Then again, lots of people just want to prove their ability to one-up technology, to prove that humans are still in charge.

Anyway, a week after the iPhone’s new face recognition screen lock feature was released, it was proven to be beneath the powers of human-powered ingenuity. We now have to think twice about face rec security.

On those heels, we have another idea that might be even better – using your sweat. This isn’t your thumbprint, but your sweatprint, your amino acid profile.

Each one of us has a distinct signature of chemicals in our sweat, just like how we have a distinct set of ratios that underlie our facial features.

Nov 2017,

Some intricacies about this I thought were interesting:
To build a profile, the device would first have a "monitoring period" in which it would continuously measure its owner's sweat levels at various times of the day. For example, those who work overnight shifts would have a vastly different profile at 2 a.m. than those who work day shifts. Other factors, including age, biological sex, race and physiological state of the individual would also play a role.

Image source: link

On a very tangential note, I heard the other day someone trying to distinguish between monkeys and humans, and saying that they have no sense of what's going on in other places. If they don't see it, it doesn't happen. And how some birds will hook up with one mate for domestic-resources, but find another to secretly copulate with (it all depends on availability, she wants better genes for her kids, but those mates are already taken, so they just do it in secret). And the original mate has no idea. Just like monkeys have no idea what's going on behind their backs. But do they? They can't smell that stuff? Maybe that's understood, and I'm just jumping the gun. The point I'm trying to make here is that smell as a biographical marker has a lot of information with it.