Monday, April 22, 2024

Falco Riot and Octyl Fora Go Missing

Falco Riot, creator of Octyl Fora perfume, described the effect of his fragrant creation with a stale, twentieth century trope, “with Octyl Fora you're transformed into a living philter.” 

When questioned about the ingredients used in the AI-generated fragrance, Riot exhaled an aloof sigh, detaching himself from the question with another query in an attempt to appear avant-garde.

 “We're all made of memory and metaphor, wouldn't you say?” 

Eight months later, everyone who attended the Octyl Fora fragrance launch went missing, including Riot. Ten drums containing Octyl Fora concentrate, stored in an obscure warehouse district in the city, also disappeared. 

The team responsible for collecting evidence cracked the numeric code on the warehouse door. The numbers spelled “it smells" using an A1Z26 cipher. 9*20*19*13*5*12*12*19.

They should have known better. The code wasn’t a barrier; it was an invitation. 

Investigators examined surfaces in the empty, temperature-controlled room where drums of fragrance concentrate were stored. Handheld sensors analyzed walls, floors, cabinets and doors. 

Each device lost power after four attempts to read a surface. None of them detected an unusual compound before they stopped working. 

Clary Otafo, who'd worked with the team for 10 years, looked at his colleagues and rolled his eyes. 

“Emperor's new clothes, eh?” 

His eyes kept rolling. A low hiss escaped between his teeth. He fell to the floor and stopped breathing. A translucent vapor rose up from the floor and outlined his body like a chalk mark.

Ray Focolt, the youngest member of the team, closed the warehouse door as his colleagues fled ahead of him. The knob was ice-cold and stuck to his palm before the latch bolt released, and he could relax his grip. 

By the time he got into his car, Focolt barely remembered moving one foot in front of the other to get there. That’s when he noticed a strange feeling in his right hand, the same hand that closed the warehouse door. 

The skin of his palm was slightly raised in a quarter-shaped circle at the center. In the middle of the circle there was a line drawing of a nose. An angled slash ran through it. 

Focolt blinked a few times and looked at his palm in disbelief. 

The car seat next to him sank in the center. The impression was punctuated by the decompressing creak of leather as it slowly rose and returned to its original shape. 

He was too busy looking at his hand to notice.

The image on Focolt's palm was fading into itself. The gray amber pigment shimmered as it disappeared. 

He was about to start the car when he sensed someone breathing next to him.

“I know you can’t smell, Ray.” 

“What the hell?!” 

The radio turned on. Digital numbers veered left of the dial and stopped at the sound of John Lennon’s voice: 

We're playing those mind games together,
Pushing the barrier, planting seed. 
Playing the mind guerrilla,
Catching the mantra "peace on earth".
We all been playing those mind games forever, 
Some kind of Druid dude, lifting the veil. 
Doing the mind guerrilla, 
Some call it magic, the search for the grail. 
The radio went silent at “grail”. 

“Until we meet again, Ray. I have a little something to tell you.” 

Focolt shut the passenger door, turned on the ignition, and sped off. He never got ticketed for running four red lights in a row on his way home. He didn’t get much sleep that night either.

Notes & Curiosities:

Artificial intelligence and perfumery were explored in a 2014 post titled "The Unstoppered Bottle of Perfume". "Falco Riot and Octyl Fora Go Missing" is infused with a 2024 ethos and hints of science fiction. The story is an intentional fragment. I'm formulating a scent to go along it for a future Smell & Tell program at the Ann Arbor District Library. It will take place in the fall if the muses are kind.

There are non-fictive elements in "Falco Riot and Octyl Fora Go Missing," one of which is the use of handheld sensors. They exist in real life and are rapidly improving. Portable spectroscopy allows samples to be taken in the field versus the lab. Curious? Get all the nerdy details here.

Monday, April 1, 2024

Scent in Film: The Scent of Earth by Amit Dutta

Scene in an Indian perfume shop from The Scent of Earth, a short film 
by Amit Dutta (2021). The film captures the essence of episodic memory.

The Scent of Earth by Amit Dutta utilizes stop-motion animation to explore the smell of rain on parched earth at the start of India’s monsoon rain. The narrator in the film articulates encounters with the aroma in childhood memory vignettes that reawaken and crystalize when he discovers a flask of mitti attar ("earth perfume") at a bazaar by chance. The essence, a codistillation of earthen pottery and sandalwood, is imbued with the scent of the landscape and a history of encounter with a centuries-old style of perfumery.

Smells, as an experience, aren't permission based. They are perceived as the autonomic result of breathing. We neurologically detect smells before we can describe them and it happens in a flash. Molecules that comprise smells make physical contact with olfactory receptors, generating memories and emotions before they can be expressed as language. James McHugh captures the liminal quality of smell when he writes: "Smell has the strange, almost paradoxical, nature of being both a remote sense and a contact sense." 

Amit Dutta brings a clear understanding of the embodied aspect of smell throughout The Scent of Earth. The voice and storytelling style of the narrator (it’s the filmmaker's) are gentle, relaxed and guileless. This makes the portrayal of smell relatable to anyone who’s ever experienced a meaningful scent in all its timeless profundity. Mitti attar is the catalyst for awakening memory and inspiring storytelling, which in turn touches on the art of perfume making in Kannauj. It’s a thoughtful admixture of scent, culture and film.

Mitti kulhad (earth cups) made from unfinished clay are fired in a kiln, broken into shards, and used to make mitti attar. Whole cups, which are designed for drinking tea, impart an earthy flavor. 

Viewers experience the transporting quality of smells through the speaker’s visual and articulated memories as they follow the narrative arc of the film. The script has a literary flavor when extracted from the film, which is just over two minutes long: 

"In my childhood, one smell that affected me the most was the scent of the earth when it rained for the first time after a hot summer. The smell was so subtle that sometimes I wondered if it existed at all. 

Everybody felt it, but no one ever expressed it. It was difficult to articulate that scent. I did not pay much attention to it and eventually forgot about it. 

Many years later, in a small bazaar, I saw a small bottle of perfume. The label was in Hindi and it said ‘Earth Perfume'. It made me curious when I smelled it; it was exactly the same smell that I experienced in my childhood. 

With it, memories of my childhood also came back, not as one particular incident, but as various assorted images. I saw myself going back to school in a horse-cart, my mother teaching at the same school, the school that was close to the border. 

There were a few destroyed tanks and bunkers, reminiscent of old wars. The broken tanks and bunkers had gathered dust, colorful flowers grew on them. Rain fell on those flowers and gave out the same scent. 

The shopkeeper told me that this scent was made in Kannauj, where they have been making it for centuries. What fascinated me was the scent, which I even failed to spell out, was experienced by someone in ancient India, who tried to capture it and succeeded! 

I bought that bottle, and with it my childhood—in a small bottle."

The duality of terrestrial experience (the smell of rain on parched earth) and the ability to distill the terrestrial (sandalwood and shards of fired earthen clay) bookend the narrator's sense of wonder at the close of the film. The Scent of Earth is a filmic ode to its namesake. What we are left with is proof that the extraordinary can be found in something as ordinary as dry earth that crumbles between the fingers like dust, and smells of the heavens in the rain.

Camel skin attar bottles from Kannauj are known as kuppi (aka khupi and kuppa). They're designed for aging attar. The skin breathes and allows water to evaporate. Mature attar is decanted and sold as perfume. 

Notes and Curiosities
The Scent of Earth is narrated and directed by Amit Dutta. Animation by Ayswayra S. Dutta. Sound by Sukanta Majumdar. English subtitles are available for the Hindi language film, which is 2:09 minutes long. The short film was uploaded to YouTube by Matra Publications on December 7, 2021, and is available for viewing at: 

Mitti attar is a codistillation of clay shards in sandalwood oil. The perfume resembles the smell of rain on parched earth, and possesses a distinctive touch of woody sweetness. Parched earth that accumulates moisture from rain smells more intense in nature than the aromatic outcome of a codistillation of clay shards in sandalwood. The profile of co-distilled "earth" in aged mitti attar smells earthy, dusty, and flinty. It's a softer aromatic expression of geosmin (aka petrichor) that emanates from freshly turned soil that’s familiar to gardeners and farmers. 

McHugh James. Sandalwood and Carrion : Smell in Indian Religion and Culture. Oxford University Press 2012. [A quote from page 25 is referenced in the second paragraph of this article.]

Shulman, David. “The Scent of Memory in Hindu South India.” RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics, no. 13 (1987): 122–33. [Read the section on vāsanā in the lower left-hand column, on page 123. It goes into beautiful detail with regard to the nature of smell memory from a Hindu perspective.]

Monday, March 25, 2024

Algorithm This: A Math of the Senses

Untitled (c.1980) ©Paulina Peavey Estate / Andrew Eldin Gallery, NYC

A Math of the Senses 
by Michelle Krell Kydd

"It’s through sound that we enter the works, and that we travel across time." —Pascale Bodet, critic and filmmaker, on The Seventh Walk (Saatvin Sair) a film by Amit Dutta (2013) 


Substitute another sense in place of “sound”. 



Consider the counterintuitive. 

For this is a math of the senses. 

Begin with the end in mind, the end of the quote. 

Traveling across time a is metaphor for recollecting.  

And smell is memory's sense.  

Ah, but who and what shapes memories?  

To answer this you become a fortune teller. 

A teller of tales. 

Are you ready?

Let's begin. 

Ask your family, your friends, the ancestors, the deity. 

The artists, plants, insects, animals. 

Sun, moon, stars, the planets. 

The movement of molecules and the diasporic. 

The inhalations and exhalations of everyday life.  

What is dream, what is truth? 


The eyes are open and shut for both. 

Smell, however, is always open.  

From the first breath to the last.  

Return to the original question. 

Sound closes shop at our ending.

Just before the breath stops.

A mortal proof. 

Derive conclusion accordingly.

Notes & Curiosities:

Poem to be read out loud while smelling a 3% dilution of mitti attar during the April 8, 2024 solar eclipse. Listen if you wish to see. Smell if you wish to remember.

Introductory quote at the start of "A Math of the Senses" is from an article titled "In the Ship of Amit Dutta" on The Seventh Art, a blog by film critic and translator Srikanth Srinivasan. 

Monday, March 18, 2024

The Scent of Morphia and Confabulation

Stripped Cat by Léonard Tsuguharu Foujita (1924)

Our story begins and nearly ends for a cat, introducing us to its peculiar owner and an unsavory trick he played on the feline with the express purpose of ending its life. Consider the following four points before engaging with the tale:

  • № 1: Cats. They’re an interesting subject because they’re cats. And they let you know it.
  • № 2: People. Always hiding behind the mask of personality. Some are more convincing than others. 
  • № 3: Writers. They’re observant and take notes. Make acquaintance with one and you may appear as a character in one of their stories.
  • № 4: Doctors. Most are guided by the Hippocratic Oath. Others are gilded by reputation, clever accountants and club memberships.
“The Sense of Smell in Cats” appeared in the science journal Nature a little over 90 years ago. The one-paragraph letter to the editor was written by F.W. Edridge-Green of 99 Walm Lane, Willesden Greene, London N. W. 2. It was dated September 13, 1932 and published in the October 1, 1932 edition of the publication. The tone is expert, detached and gothic. 
I HAD a favourite cat which was having fits and becoming dangerous, so, to destroy it as painlessly as possible, I inserted several grains of morphia in the centre of a piece of foie gras which was cut in two, great care being taken that no morphia was split on the outside. The cat on being shown the foie gras expressed in every way its eagerness for it, but when it got within three feet of the foie gras, turned round and looked at me with intense astonishment, and then after another sniff walked away, though previously it had always worried for a small piece. The special point is that the cat could detect something dangerous though the strong smell of the foie gras, though morphia, even in considerable quantities, has to most persons only a faint odour.  
Reading this leaves little doubt that the physician’s house became haunted when he and his cat were no longer there. Imagine the paws of generations of cats that resided in the house, sensitized to dormant energy emanating from the kitchen floor. When perceived, a sensation accompanied by the aroma of foie gras forebodes the appearance of a feline apparition hungry for a taste of its master’s liver. Cats sense the specter with their whiskers, their owners attuned to its icy plaintive yowls. Confabulation, I know, but it paints the picture best.

Frederick William Edridge-Green (1863-1953) was a physician and "expert" on color perception. The ophthalmologist, who grossly underestimated the olfactory perception of his cat (a species that is a natural-born hunter) wrote on the subject of sight, color blindness and memory. Books published in his area of specialty are available, in addition to a journal article in which the esteem with which he held himself and his work weren’t reciprocated (this was delivered with academic brevity and evisceration in the concluding sentence). 

Concluding paragraph in the British Journal of Ophthalmology by J. Herbert Parsons, August 1920. Ibse dixit refers to an unproven assertion.

After his death in 1953, Dr. Edridge-Green’s portrait was donated to the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons of England in London. The painting is currently available as ready-made wall art for anyone with a taste for it. Artist Frederic Dudley Walenn (1869-1933) painted Dr. Edridge-Green’s portrait. In it, the physician sports a lupine beard that completely obscures his mouth, jaw and neck. It would be uncouth to say it invokes an invitation to fleas, but that can’t be helped. 

Image of Dr. Edridge-Green via The Royal College Surgeons of England

Consider the confusion a master’s nearly unreadable face wrought upon his cat over the years. The portrait resembles a man about to go through “the change” and emerge as a werewolf. Wouldn't you, dear reader, at your most myopic, have fits and become dangerous if you had to live with the agony of looking at an obfuscated face by day, suffering the consequences in your sleep at night? A mouthless presence of a face in a sea of hair leaving only the eyes to speak? 

Walenn’s body of work is respected and pleasing. Perhaps the artist had a petulant sitter before him who was overly concerned with posterity, demanding unreasonable revisions to his portrait, the painter giving in and painting the doctor’s mouth shut with his paint brush. The portrait, whatever one thinks of it, was bequeathed to the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons in England by Edridge-Green. It is absent from their online collection.

Via the National Institute of Health, National Library of Medicine

An interesting black and white photograph of the ophthalmologist paints a different picture in shadow and light. His bearded face is less consumed by facial hair, ruling out hypertrichosis as a diagnosis inspired by Walenn's oil portrait. The contrasting accent of dyed black hair behind a flourish of gray paints a different picture, a hat on his knee taking prominence at the forefront of the composition. The doctor is older here and appears comfortable with himself. A kitten would fit quite nicely in this picture, but that would be softening the rough edges of Edridge-Green's character to a fault.

Consider the possibility that Edridge-Green’s cat no longer served as an emotional surrogate, becoming “the other” in the eyes of its owner due to bad behavior or illness (a mean disposition or epilepsy). The doctor's story as reported in Nature seems more like confabulation than truth, a weak attempt at erudition (acknowledging his cat's better-than-expected sense of smell). Fact: the doctor failed to entice his beloved cat to its death with morphine-laced foie gras. This is not material for compassion or bragging rights. It smacks of pathology, narcissism and a faltering G-d complex.

The Latest Application in Scientific Principals by Louis Wain

In closing, the following was filed under the category "Rubbish Colleagues, 1900 RR/15/38" on the Royal Society's website. The facts and categorization reveal much about Edridge-Green’s character: 
Among the treasure trove of referee reports is one by physicist Shelford Bidwell (inventor of a precursor to the fax machine) about a paper on 'The evolution of the colour sense' by Frederick William Edridge-Green in 1900. Bidwell describes the author as ‘a crank’, and the paper as not only plagiarized but also ‘rubbish of so rank a character that no competent person could possibly take any other view of it’: 

"Having long ago recognised in him all the well-known characteristics of a 'crank', I have carefully avoided entering into any discussion with him or expressing any opinion as to his views." 
He then goes on to suggest that if the Society takes issue with ‘this admission of bias’ they should refer the paper to someone else. Edridge-Green’s tests for colour blindness were nonetheless adopted by the Royal Navy. 

The report by referee Shelford Bidwell, including the summary, reveal a lack of professionalism and ethics on the part of Dr. Edridge-Green. It was issued 32 years before the doctor wrote to Nature about the alleged cat episode. F.W. Edridge-Green died on April 17, 1953. His obituary in the British Journal of Ophthalmology refers to the doctor as “a controversialist” whose conclusions sometimes lacked the basis of fact. There is no mention of family left behind in Edridge-Green’s obituary. Not even a cat.

Notes, Curiosities & Thanks:

Morphia is an archaic term for morphine. It's also the first name of the historical queen consort of the Crusader kingdom of Jerusalem, Morphia of Melitene, who was of Armenian descent. 

Cats are better smellers than humans. This was true in Dr. Edridge-Green’s time, when science knew less about feline and human olfaction. Cats have larger olfactory epithelium (membranous tissue located in the nasal cavity that is the peripheral organ for the sense of smell) and more olfactory receptors (transmitters of smells) than humans. Cats also possess a vomeronasal organ (aka Jacobsen’s organ) that affects sexual, feeding and social behaviors. The role of the vomeronasal organ in humans is unknown and considered vestigial (translation: under-researched).

The Royal Society was formerly known as The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge. It's the United Kingdom's version of The National Academies of Sciences in the United States. 

Maréchal Niel Roses by Henri Fantin Latour(1883)
The flowers have a strong raspberry, tea and violet scent.

Dr. F.W. Edridge-Green married Minnie Hicks on April 28, 1893. An excerpt from the wedding announcement in the Middlesex Courier says: " is evident that Dr. Edridge-Green is a gentleman of considerable attainments. The bride, Miss Minnie Hicks, second daughter of Dr. F.R. Hicks, of Hendon Grove, is as distinguished socially and for her personal charms as Dr. Edridge-Green is for his scientific attainments...Inside the church looked very pretty, the altar being decorated with white flowers and the pews themselves gay with posies and the delicate scent of the Maréchal Niel rose being most notable." 

The Edridge-Green family included two sons. Their first son, Henry Allen Edridge-Green, was born on July 9, 1894. Henry died of wounds acquired at the age of 24 on November 7, 1918, while serving as a Lieutenant in the Royal Air Force during WWI. Frederick Nigel Edridge-Green, the couple's second son, was born on June 23, 1897. He died on May 25, 1898, when he was less than a year old. Minnie Edridge-Green died on February 14, 1901, after seven years of marriage and the loss of her youngest child. She was 30 years old when she died on Valentine's Day.

Thanks go out to Wendy Warner, who provided assistance with ancestry research related to Dr. F. W. Edridge-Greene. 

This post is dedicated to Judith Emlyn Johnson, Professor Emerita of English Literature and Women's Studies at the University at Albany in New York State. Her "Gothic Horror and Fiction" class was one of my favorites. Johnson is a fiction writer, poet, and spoken word artist.