Friday, April 23, 2021

Fragrance Book of the Year 2021

The Essence: Discovering the World of Scent, Perfume & Fragrance

It's back -- the de facto fragrance compendium for the modern world has risen from beneath the pandemic infopocalypse to be nominated as Fragrance Book of the Year for 2021. 

Released in Europe in late 2019, then in the United States in early 2020, this book was immediately overshadowed by the pandemic, and has now come back to life. 

Nominated by the Perfumed Plume, it stands against the legendary author of culinary bible On Food and Cooking, Harold McGee, who just released his second major book in over 30 years. His new book is called Nose Dive: A Field Guide to the World of Smells. This is stiff competition for a book that could have been one of the earliest victims of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Perfumed Plume has been awarding fragrance journalism and fragrance books since 2016. They shine a spotlight on writing that both informs and entertains us, offering an engaging view into the oftentimes clandestine, esoteric world of fragrance and olfactory experience. 

They couldn't have picked a better book for that. Described by Fragrantica editor John Biebel as a "highly aesthetic experience," The Essence is a 288-page, full color, hardcover, stitch bound book full of essays, research, inforgraphics, interviews, histories and photographs. The book is a world unto itself. Without reading a single word, this is one of the most beautiful books you'll ever hold. (Bias alert: I did contribute two essays to this book.)

The publisher, Die Gestalten Verlag, is known for their 600 books on art, architecture, design, photography and typography, and is the only publisher where all the editors are designers. And it shows. You put this book on your coffeetable and you might never leave your apartment again. (Sarcasm alert: some of us are still on lockdown due to the pandemic and can't leave our apartments anyway.) 

It's a visually compelling time capsule of fragrance, art, and history rolled into one thick volume. ... Also featured are many revealing essays about culture and smell, such as "The Smell of Fear", "Gender and Identity", and "The Future of Scent". The editorial finesse in a project like "Essence" comes about through the keen balance of compelling graphics, thorough research, and a "something for everyone" approach to content.
The Essence: Discovering the World of Scent, Perfume & Fragrance, edited by Robert Klanten, founder and CEO of gestalten as well as Carla Seipp, fragrance writer, is the first publication by gestalten recognizing the world of scent and the figures who shape the field.

Written in the pre-covid era, February 2020

Thursday, April 22, 2021

Odor Investigations


I do indoor air quality work with schools. Lots of schools are old, and suffer from indoor air quality problems. Odors are a common complaint, but they're a great diagnostic for bad ventilation. Here's a typical situation -- there's a classroom, and across the hall, a bathroom. The bathroom is supposed to have an exhaust fan running all the time, because a bathroom is a potent source of indoor contaminants (and not just from the obvious, but also for the powerful cleaning products used there). If this exhaust fan isn't working,  because maybe the rubber belt connecting the motor to the fan has deteriorated over time, then the air from the bathroom can get sucked into the classroom across the hall. 

This is a problem, obviously. But sometimes it's hard to convince those in charge that it needs fixing. Sometimes nobody knows how to fix it. (Because sometimes, just because you have a job doesn't mean you're good at it.)

When things get real crazy, the workers can convince their employer to get an "air test" in their classroom. This is usually not a good idea, because they will usually not find anything, whether it's there or not, and your problems will thenceforth be dismissed, regardless of their validity. There's other ways of diagnosing indoor air quality problems.

But sometimes it does work. I'm talking about a gas canister sample, sometimes called a TO-15. An environmental specialist will bring a metal canister into your room, twist off the top, and let it suck in the air in your room for a couple minutes. Then they close the canister, bring it back to a lab, release all the air that was sucked in from your room, and analyze it. Then they spit back a long list of the VOC's found, usually scary-sounding chemicals that are actually just your deodorant, hair gel, perfume, etc. But every once in a while, I get a hit on 1,4-Dichlorobenzene, and that's when I can say aha. The air from the bathroom is getting into your classroom. 

The VOC 1,4-Dichlorobenzene is the smell of a urinal cake, also described as "mothball-like." I don't know why it was chosen as THE smell of urinal cakes, but it is, and it doesn't belong in your classroom. 

Had we just fixed the exhaust fan in the first place, we could have skipped all the steps in between. But sometimes things have to be difficult. 

Thursday, April 8, 2021

Neuromorphic Buzzwords

Recent advances give theoretical insight into why deep learning networks are successful
Aug 2020,

It's just like olfaction.

If you didn't know what a deep learning neural network was in 2015 when Hidden Scents came out, you do now. Face recognition? Deep learning. Speech recognition? Deep learning. Deep fakes?? You guessed it. 

But why would someone spend an entire chapter of a book on smell talking about brain-like computing systems? Because the little part of our brain that smells is about as close as you get to a deep learning neural network.

And the story goes like this -- Big data brings Dirty data, which then brings the curse of dimensionality. It's not like mammals->dogs->poodles. It's like "that dog that bit me one time" and "the kind of dog that likes kids" and "dogs that were selected to hunt rodents" and "coyotes" and "pet cemetary" and "totem poles." Imagine a spreadsheet that has just as many columns as it has rows. For every rule there's an exception. 

What you probably know as a "computer algorithm" is just a bunch of rules. But when every rule has an exception, algorithms don't work so good anymore. This is the curse of dimensionality. 

This is also the chemosphere being described. Chemicals are myriad and ever-changing. Any means of chemosensation will have to employ something closer to a deep learning network than to an old-fashioned computer algorithm of IF/THEN functions. And that's why our olfactory system could really be called the deep nose, and why olfaction will become the representative sense of the Age of Approximation born of the datapocalypse. 

This thought-provoking paper does a much better job describing these networks, and makes implications for their use in society:

Tomaso Poggio et al. Theoretical issues in deep networks, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2020). DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1907369117