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