Saturday, November 24, 2018

Baked Goods

NASA is worried that SpaceX execs are threatening their safety reputation by engaging in a culture of recreational drug use, meanwhile Ford scientists are the ones trying to turn your car into an autonomous easy bake oven.

In an effort to satisfy its Chinese customer base, Ford has presciently researched basic components of a car that can smell itself and bake its own VOCs right out of it, if you're into that sort of thing.

That is to say, if you're not into "new car smell." If you ever thought a deep whiff of evaporated plastic was gross, you're not alone. It's hurting sales in China, where many customers in China find it repulsive.

Before we get to the great idea that Ford came up with to get rid of new-car-smell (while they were apparently evaporating some VOCs of their own) we have to talk about this modern marvel for just a moment.

Smell of the New

The smell of new things is an interesting category in itself. What does a "new thing" smell like? Babies have a pretty strong reputation for smelling good, on their heads at least. When food comes out of the oven, is this a "new" smell? How about when you come out of the shower?

When your car comes off the factory line, it has "new" baked right into it. But your car didn't just come out of the oven, or out of the shower, so where does this smell come from? Let's pretend, for dialectical purposes, that the trifecta of new car smell is leather, fabric and plastic.

Leather - You may think that because leather is animal skin, that the smell we associate with this descriptor is from dried skin. Not even close. The smell of animal-anything in leather is long gone before we get our hands on it. In fact, the chemicals used to treat and preserve animal skin are themselves so offputting that leather is impregnated with extra fragrance to counteract it. This overall recipe is what we call Leather, and it's added to things that aren't even leather to make us think they are.

Fabric - I am willing to bet that the smell you call "fabric" has little to do with the fabric itself. If an olfactory image was imparted to your mind as you read "the smell of fabric," it was caused by laundry detergent, which probably smells like musk (because these molecules work well with both fabric and detergent)*. If we can get more specific and refer to your impression of the fabric in a new car, then I will predict that what you're imagining is actually adhesives. Adhesives are made with strong solvents that emit a pretty intense odor, but they are required to attach fabric interiors. In the same way that some people love the smell of gasoline, magic markers and spray paint, despite their deleterious health effects, it is entirely possible that consumers can come to love this "new" smell also.

Plastic - If I say to you "brand new plastic," you're limbic system may not perk up with anticipation and nostalgia. But if I say brand new cassette tape, or new CD, or new toy, this is a different story (depending on how old you are, of course). All of these things smell great, and different, and they're all designed around the smell of plastic that is central to the product, but impossible to remove. In the case of a cassette tape, there was no intent to augment that blast of plastic air that snaps into space as it opens for the first time.** It has now become commonplace however, that the inherent smell of plastic in our products are camouflaged by masking agents, creating something else entirely.

This leads to the core of the issue - the smell of newness in your car is not a natural by-product of the material istelf. It is designed, just like every other part of it. The new car, in its un-masked odor state, does not smell "good" or "new." It smells like hot plastic and glue.

China and Olfactory Identity

What's up China, you don't like hot plastic and glue? This comes as a surprise to many Americans who love this petrochemical harbinger of exclusivity and reward. Is it because the Chinese work in the factories that make these products, so the smell reminds them of work, not luxury? Or better yet, because they are so familiar with the base smells that they can still detect them under their olfactory camouflage? Probably not, as the folks buying new cars are not the same class of people making them. Not to mention, in America, the manufacturers and consumers were the same people, and they liked it.

Querying the olfactory preferences of a culture is not easy. The variables involved are myriad and dynamic, just as the flux of people that make it up. Here's a quick one that just came to mind - Coconut.

In America just about any personal hygiene product you can think of now comes in coconut flavor. Your shampoo, lotion, body scrub, conditioner, lip balm, lip gloss and nail polish remover jk. It's also in every food imaginable, including your gum, your cooking oil, granola bars, breakfast cereal, cookies, ice fact Coconut has dominated the American market so fully, there's probably coconut flavored pasta out there. You get the idea.

Right about the same time I was living with a sociopathic naturopath, hence my nose swimming in coconut flavored everything all day, La Croix jumped on the tropical jeepney, as it were. Now, St. Croix isn't known for it's delicious, mouth-watering flavors. It's perhaps better known for being good at negative flavor, that is, adding flavor to a thing to make it taste even less like nothing than it did before. Anyway, I tried this "flavor" around the same time my entire apartment was filled with volatile organic coconuts. It didn't taste like a drink to me; it tasted like body lotion. This is simple association, and the risk that any culture runs as they adopt a new olfactory identity.

McDonald's doesn't have the same menu or the same recipes in New York as it does in Beijing. The inside of the restuarant doesn't smell the same and that is by design not by accident. So why should cars smell the same?

Ford on Drugs

This is where it gets crazy. In order to appease its vast customer base that detests the new smell of their cars, Ford has spent enough time on this to try and get a patent for it: on warm, sunny days, the car will drive itself to a safe location, roll down the windows and bake the shit out of itself. I will assume it does this repeatedly until it has no more "new" left. And only for customers who declare that they don't like new.

You may wonder why Ford doesn't try to get the hot plastic and glue out of the car in the first place. You may also wonder how an autonomous vehicle with a sub-directive to offgass itself didn't show up in any of the scifi you've been reading. Then again, it is understandable; why would they take all the "gas" out of their cars if not all of their customers want it out. Let the customer decide. And with autonomous cars a fertile crescent for innovation, there's probably way crazier ideas buzzing around their research department.

*It is true, the smell that we associate with fresh, clean linen is musk. It is so ubiquitous in laudry detergent, that it now has a stronger association with "fresh laundry" than it does to "musk," which is ironic because this smell comes from an animal's butt, and you wouldn't think that to carry a clean association.

**There is a pesticide used in my neighborhood that smells identical to a new cassette tape. I only notice it in the height of summer and don't know if it's really a pesticide, but that's my guess. Anyone having experience with this, please share.

Nov 2018, Ars Technica

Post Script:
Ozium is an odor neutralizing air spray popular with car interiors.

Secrets of That New-Car Smell: A rose by any other name would likely smell like, oh, gunmetal and maybe tennis balls.
Listen to this sommelier describe a bunch of different new cars’ smells.
Nov 2003, Sherri Daley for Car and Driver

"Boat shop; cavernous vintage boat hangar, mahogany or varnished rosewood, lovingly crafted, hand-rubbed. All natural, nothing artificial or manufactured" – 2003 Bentley Arnage

"Boom! Leather and beurre noisette. Rich without being overbearing" – 2001 Bentley Arnage

"Subtle, stiff smells of burnished metal and dry leather. A harder, more masculine smell, short bits of hide, gunmetal. This smell is straightforward, fast, and clean. The aroma is quickly perceived and erased" – 2003 Ferrari 360 Modena

"A mélange of basketball, football, and baseball leather. Bright, bold rubberized smells" – another 2003 Ferrari 360 Modena

“Like smelling the palm of a well-broken-in kidskin driving glove" – and another 2003 Ferrari 360 Modena, Spider

"Very unattractive smell of cleaner of some sort. No wood or leather" – a Lexus

"Very one-dimensional, nothing lying underneath. Clean, pleasant, sterile, a touch of plastic" – 2004 Acura TSX

"Very faint, almost an absence of aromas. No leather smell at all. Light plastic or cleaner."  – 2003 Acura 3.2TL

"Mixed aromas of leather, rubber mats, carpet, and plastic" – 2003 Ford Escape

all these descriptions come from the abovementioned Car and Driver article.

These retailers think “new car smell” is about having no smells at all, or rather not adding new smells to the original new car smell.(?!) They sell a product that neutralizes odors. 

I stand corrected; to them, new car smell is the smell of success:

“Enjoy the crisp scent of successful achievement with Chemical Guys New Car Smell Air Freshener & Odor Eliminator.”

Here's a few posts that may or may not be relevant.

On intellectual property and the smell of Play-Doh

On the smell of old people

Make yourself smell like Grandpa in 3 easy steps

Exactly what the title says it's about, but by Jolie Kerr the cleaning expert

WELL certification program for indoor environmental quality for buildings, for people who don't like that "new building" smell

Continue the digression on musk and clean laundry

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Mummy Meat

People used to eat mummies.

A while back I discovered that people with lots of money and imagination were eating preserved human bodies to get high, about 200 years ago.

I thank Annick Le Guérer for this tidbit, she wrote about it in her book Scent, the Mysterious and Essential Powers of Smell, written in 1988, and translated from French in 1994.

There was a time, we must remember, when mummies were a new thing, never before imagined by the Westerners excavating these immortalized bodies. It's hard to conjure the pretense of shock at something that has been around since long before you were born.

For a moment if you will, try to imagine what it would have been like to learn that deep within the awe-striking pyramidal limestone masses were 3,000-year old physically intact human bodies. This at a time before we had refrigerators! We couldn't even keep a bowl of potato salad from going bad in a couple days, and here's an entire human body with its skin still intact, and older than the entire city in which you live.*

That's magic to a person of the 19th century. Today, our tupperware will probably last longer than our species itself, nevermind the bodies we leave behind. We have plastic flowers for goodness sake. But if you can transport yourself back to a time where everything was ephemeral, you can begin to understand the fascination.

And the exoticism. The preserving substances used on mummies were much less known to Europeans hundreds of years ago. Today we can fly from London to Cairo in four hours. Then, it could have taken up to a month. Today we can have in our pantry any spice produced in any place in the world, within a few days. Things were different then. Egypt in itself was pretty exotic, and mummies, forgetaboutit.

So if you can now picture yourself at an all-nighter in a regal estate, well after midnight, deep into the spirits, when your host spreads on the table these tiny morsels of dry-aged royalty from another era, and who might as well be from another planet, and tells you to dig in – you will be intoxicated. The meat doesn’t make you intoxicated, of course; the idea is enough to placebo the heck out of your dopamine receptors.

I get into the details of how smells are so good at tricking us in this older post. But if you're interested in throwing your own mummy-party, these folks from the University of York have decoded the ancient recipe:

-a plant oil –  possibly sesame oil;
-a "balsam-type" plant or root extract that may have come from bullrushes;
-a plant-based gum - a natural sugar that may have been extracted from acacia;
-crucially, a conifer tree resin, which was probably pine resin

*Note that this isn't entirely true, for we have known for a long time about preserving things. Many of the same substances used to preserve mummies also preserve our food. Also note, however, that roughly speaking the practice of using spices to preserve food decreases as you move from the equator, with those places tending to use fermentation as a means of preservation instead, which is the opposite of using spices – one keeps microbial activity at bay, and the other uses it on purpose to regulate the rate of decay. Fermenting mummies would not have worked as well. But that’s pretty tangential, and a transparent excuse to say fermented mummies.

** Know that Europeans are not entirely unfamiliar with mummies; they’re called relics, and they’re not nearly as old.
***Finally, preserving the dead is not the most uncommon thing ever; Japan has a long history of it.

Post Script:
Embalming was just one aspect of preservation. Other steps included:
-Removal of the brain - possibly using a "whisking" process to cause the brain to liquefy
-Removal of the internal organs
-Putting the body into a natural salt to dry it out
-Coating the body in the embalming recipe , to kill bacteria and to seal it
-Wrapping the body in linen

Aug 2018, BBC

Nov 2016, Limbic Signal

Feb 2016, Network Address

Apr 2017, Network Address

Japanese Mummies

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Peer Pressure is the Market's Best Friend

AKA Febreeze is now teaching us about more than just noseblindness

Many years ago, an odor neutralization product was released on the market, directed at homeowners, or anything-owners who wanted to get rid of bad smells without actually getting rid of the source. (When the source of your bad smell is a teenager, for example, it's harder to just get rid of it, you know?)

Anyway, it didn't work too well. When they tried to do field research to explain why their product was failing, they discovered something that they probably should've already known, having been in the odor industry - people develop noseblindness to the bad smells of their own homes.

As the researchers knocked on door after door to figure out why their product wasn't working, they discovered that lots of people lived in smelly homes. But when you live there, day in day out, you develop a kind of resistance to your olfactory environment. This is the same reason you tend not to notice the buzzing of a fridge. It's called attenuation, and it's a way for your perceptual system to conserve resources. If something is lurking in my immediate vicinity, but it's been there for weeks already, I'm simply not going to notice it, because it's not a threat. If it was a threat (or an opportunity), I would have noticed it already.

People didn't realize they needed this odor-cancelling product, and that was a problem, obviously. So they did a pretty smart marketing about-face. They taught people to use their product after already cleaning something, to make it smell even better. This is basically an air freshener, except that instead of using it after making a room smell really bad, you use it after making a room smell good, by cleaning it. Pretty genius, I must say. Unless it didn't work, of course, in which case it would be the dumbest idea ever.

It wasn't a dumb idea, because Febreeze was a pretty successful product. Things must have changed, because it looks like Febreeze is changing their strategy. Now they're using what they 'learned' about noseblindness to pit us against each other.

If you take a look at this commercial (or not, since I'll describe it right now), you'll see how one person has developed a noseblindness to their own bad smell, and hence are made fun of by another person who lives with them, and who astutely solves the problem with Febreeze.

If you can't tell that you live in filth because your brain has tuned it out, your housemate will remind you. And if you're watching this commercial at the same time you're thinking how come nobody ever comes over to visit, maybe you can conjure an imaginary housemate to convince you to use an odor-cancelling product. Or you could also just clean your apartment, because that might have the same effect.

And if you’re an entrepreneur trying to sell a product, don’t just focus on your target audience, but the person right next to them. Lucky Charms knows something about this, you know what I’m saying? Happy Meals? Nothing convinces people like the people around them. In fact, anyone abusing social media to interfere with the political zeitgeist knows this very well.

Image source: Rocky III, the movie