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Still Talking about Darwin?

I’m going around the world giving talks about Darwin, and usually what I’m talking about is Darwin’s strange inversion of reasoning.

Now that title, that phrase, comes from a critic, an early critic, and this is a passage that I just love, and would like to read for you.

Why are babies cute? Why is cake sweet?

Philosopher Dan Dennett has answers you wouldn’t expect, as he shares evolution’s counter-intuitive reasoning on cute, sweet and sexy things (plus a new theory from Matthew Hurley on why jokes are funny).

0:28 “In the theory with which we have to deal, Absolute Ignorance is the artificer; so that we may enunciate as the fundamental principle of the whole system, that, in order to make a perfect and beautiful machine, it is not requisite to know how to make it. This proposition will be found on careful examination to express, in condensed form, the essential purport of the Theory, and to express in a few words all Mr. Darwin’s meaning; who, by a strange inversion of reasoning, seems to think Absolute Ignorance fully qualified to take the place of Absolute Wisdom in the achievements of creative skill.”

1:09 Exactly. Exactly. And it is a strange inversion. A creationist pamphlet has this wonderful page in it: “Test Two: Do you know of any building that didn’t have a builder? Yes/No. Do you know of any painting that didn’t have a painter? Yes/No. Do you know of any car that didn’t have a maker? Yes/No. If you answered ‘Yes’ for any of the above, give details.”

1:38 A-ha! I mean, it really is a strange inversion of reasoning. You would have thought it stands to reason that design requires an intelligent designer. But Darwin shows that it’s just false.

1:54 Today, though, I’m going to talk about Darwin’s other strange inversion, which is equally puzzling at first, but in some ways just as important.

It stands to reason that we love chocolate cake because it is sweet. Guys go for girls like this because they are sexy. We adore babies because they’re so cute. And, of course, we are amused by jokes because they are funny.

2:31 This is all backwards. It is.

And Darwin shows us why. Let’s start with sweet. Our sweet tooth is basically an evolved sugar detector, because sugar is high energy, and it’s just been wired up to the preferer, to put it very crudely, and that’s why we like sugar.

Honey is sweet because we like it, not “we like it because honey is sweet.” There’s nothing intrinsically sweet about honey. If you looked at glucose molecules till you were blind, you wouldn’t see why they tasted sweet.

You have to look in our brains to understand why they’re sweet.

So if you think first there was sweetness, and then we evolved to like sweetness, you’ve got it backwards; that’s just wrong. It’s the other way round. Sweetness was born with the wiring which evolved.

3:32 And there’s nothing intrinsically sexy about these young ladies.

And it’s a good thing that there isn’t, because if there were, then Mother Nature would have a problem: How on earth do you get chimps to mate? Now you might think, ah, there’s a solution: hallucinations.

That would be one way of doing it, but there’s a quicker way. Just wire the chimps up to love that look, and apparently they do. That’s all there is to it. Over six million years, we and the chimps evolved our different ways. We became bald-bodied, oddly enough; for one reason or another, they didn’t. If we hadn’t, then probably this would be the height of sexiness.

4:38 Our sweet tooth is an evolved and instinctual preference for high-energy food. It wasn’t designed for chocolate cake. Chocolate cake is a super-normal stimulus.

The term is owed to Niko Tinbergen, who did his famous experiments with gulls, where he found that that orange spot on the gull’s beak — if he made a bigger, orange spot the gull chicks would peck at it even harder. It was a hyper-stimulus for them, and they loved it.

What we see with, say, chocolate cake is it’s a supernormal stimulus to tweak our design wiring. And there are lots of supernormal stimuli; chocolate cake is one. There’s lots of supernormal stimuli for sexiness.

5:19 And there’s even supernormal stimuli for cuteness. Here’ s a pretty good example. It’s important that we love babies, and that we not be put off by, say, messy diapers. So babies have to attract our affection and our nurturing, and they do. And, by the way, a recent study shows that mothers prefer the smell of the dirty diapers of their own baby.

So nature works on many levels here. But now, if babies didn’t look the way they do — if babies looked like this, that’s what we would find adorable, that’s what we would find — we would think, oh my goodness, do I ever want to hug that. This is the strange inversion.

6:03 Well now, finally what about funny. My answer is, it’s the same story, the same story. This is the hard one, the one that isn’t obvious. That’s why I leave it to the end. And I won’t be able to say too much about it. But you have to think evolutionarily, you have to think, what hard job that has to be done — it’s dirty work, somebody’s got to do it — is so important to give us such a powerful, inbuilt reward for it when we succeed.

Now, I think we’ve found the answer — I and a few of my colleagues. It’s a neural system that’s wired up to reward the brain for doing a grubby clerical job. Our bumper sticker for this view is that this is the joy of debugging.

Now I’m not going to have time to spell it all out, but I’ll just say that only some kinds of debugging get the reward. And what we’re doing is we’re using humor as a sort of neuroscientific probe by switching humor on and off, by turning the knob on a joke — now it’s not funny … oh, now it’s funnier … now we’ll turn a little bit more … now it’s not funny — in this way, we can actually learn something about the architecture of the brain, the functional architecture of the brain.

7:24 Matthew Hurley is the first author of this. We call it the Hurley Model. He’s a computer scientist, Reginald Adams a psychologist, and there I am, and we’re putting this together into a book. Thank you very much.

Philosopher, cognitive scientist
Dan Dennett argues that human consciousness and free will are the result of physical processes. His latest book is “Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking,” Full bio
This talk was presented at an official TED conference, and was featured by our editors on the home page.

Related talks

Manu Manjunath

The fact that we find puppies cute may be an artifact of wiring that has other purposes. We certainly don’t depend on chocolate cake for survival either. We are mistaken to think that all thought, feeling or action is *directly* related to survival. I’m not saying the following example is the explanation, but it illustrates the concept.

The video explains that babies are cute because we’re wired to find them cute, and offers a rationale. Perhaps as a result of this, we react to faces in the animal kingdom that resemble baby faces – round face, large eyes for example.

Even physiological mutation is not always subject to natural selection.

For example, fibrinopeptides are the fastest-evolving molecules – they evolve at the baseline mutation rate. Natural selection appears more tolerant of their variation – perhaps because the body has other ways of compensating. (note – other molecules may mutate at similar accelerated rates, but natural selection weeds the variations out so we do not see the variation in the gene pool: natural selection is not tolerant of their variation).

Big brains brought self-awareness and the ability for abstract thought; this opened the door to all kinds of complexities that may not be *directly* tied to survival.

I might appreciate a painting that you find hideous. I doubt that fact will determine which of us survives, but perhaps creativity will survive better in certain cultures, or perhaps some cultures will survive better with a certain mix of literal and creative minds. Natural selection has produced this mix.

I recommend Dawkins’ The Blind Watchmaker and The Selfish Gene. Fascinating and eminently readable – even for dummies like me.

Certain traits of babies, especially of mammals, repeat themselves: a big head, delicate body, big eyes etc. If you stop to think about it, kittens, puppies, human babies, and of primates in general, share these traits, which is why we find them cute.

This also explains, for example, why we don’t find bird babies or fish babies cute: they do not follow these standards. It’s not a question of evolving to find them cute, but evolving to find certain traits our own babies have cute, and extrapolating this response to other animals that have them too.

Víctor Chagas

I agree, there are similarities in features among ‘all’ kinds of infant mammals that would have evolved long before our species did. So what we find cute includes non-human mammals too, because we have evolved from previous ancestor species whose ‘cute babies survived better’. We (and dogs, cats, hamsters, horses, etc…) have all evolved from very cute rat-like things that outlived the last dinosaurs of the Jurassic.

Also, we’ve been domesticating dogs and cats for perhaps 10,000 years and there are many times throughout our species’ history where at least having close relationships with dogs may have been important for survival, so maybe we do a better job of finding puppies cute than say, baby rats.

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Working backward to solve problems?

Kind you solved it and trying to figure out how you did it?

Patsy Z and TEDxSKE shared a link.
Imagine where you want to be someday. Now, how did you get there? Retrograde analysis is a style of problem solving where you work backwards from the…
Share. ed.ted.com

What Is Natural Language Processing And What Is It Used For?

Terence Mills 

Terence Mills, CEO of AI.io and Moonshot is an AI pioneer and digital technology specialist. Connect with him about AI or mobile on LinkedIn

Artificial intelligence (AI) is changing the way we look at the world. AI “robots” are everywhere. (Mostly in Japan and China)

From our phones to devices like Amazon’s Alexa, we live in a world surrounded by machine learning.

Google, Netflix, data companies, video games and more, all use AI to comb through large amounts of data. The end result is insights and analysis that would otherwise either be impossible or take far too long.

It’s no surprise that businesses of all sizes are taking note of large companies’ success with AI and jumping on board. Not all AI is created equal in the business world, though. Some forms of artificial intelligence are more useful than others.

Today, I’m touching on something called natural language processing (NLP).

It’s a form of artificial intelligence that focuses on analyzing the human language to draw insights, create advertisements, help you text (yes, really) and more. (And what of body language?)

But Why Natural Language Processing?

NLP is an emerging technology that drives many forms of AI you’re used to seeing.

The reason I’ve chosen to focus on this technology instead of say, AI for math-based analysis, is the increasingly large application for NLP.

Think about it this way.

Every day, humans say thousands of words that other humans interpret to do countless things. At its core, it’s simple communication, but we all know words run much deeper than that. (That’s the function of slang in community)

There’s a context that we derive from everything someone says. Whether they imply something with their body language or in how often they mention something.

While NLP doesn’t focus on voice inflection, it does draw on contextual patterns. (Meaning: currently it doesn’t care about the emotions?)

This is where it gains its value (As if in communication people lay out the context first?).

Let’s use an example to show just how powerful NLP is when used in a practical situation. When you’re typing on an iPhone, like many of us do every day, you’ll see word suggestions based on what you type and what you’re currently typing. That’s natural language processing in action.

It’s such a little thing that most of us take for granted, and have been taking for granted for years, but that’s why NLP becomes so important. Now let’s translate that to the business world.

Some company is trying to decide how best to advertise to their users. They can use Google to find common search terms that their users type when searching for their product. (In a nutshell, that’s the most urgent usage of NLP?)

NLP then allows for a quick compilation of the data into terms obviously related to their brand and those that they might not expect. Capitalizing on the uncommon terms could give the company the ability to advertise in new ways.

So How Does NLP Work?

As mentioned above, natural language processing is a form of artificial intelligence that analyzes the human language. It takes many forms, but at its core, the technology helps machine understand, and even communicate with, human speech.

But understanding NLP isn’t the easiest thing. It’s a very advanced form of AI that’s only recently become viable. That means that not only are we still learning about NLP but also that it’s difficult to grasp.

I’ve decided to break down NLP in layman’s term. I might not touch on every technical definition, but what follows is the easiest way to understand how natural language processing works.

The first step in NLP depends on the application of the system. Voice-based systems like Alexa or Google Assistant need to translate your words into text. That’s done (usually) using the Hidden Markov Models system (HMM).

The HMM uses math models to determine what you’ve said and translate that into text usable by the NLP system. Put in the simplest way, the HMM listens to 10- to 20-millisecond clips of your speech and looks for phonemes (the smallest unit of speech) to compare with pre-recorded speech.

Next is the actual understanding of the language and context. Each NLP system uses slightly different techniques, but on the whole, they’re fairly similar. The systems try to break each word down into its part of speech (noun, verb, etc.).

This happens through a series of coded grammar rules that rely on algorithms that incorporate statistical machine learning to help determine the context of what you said.

If we’re not talking about speech-to-text NLP, the system just skips the first step and moves directly into analyzing the words using the algorithms and grammar rules.

The end result is the ability to categorize what is said in many different ways. Depending on the underlying focus of the NLP software, the results get used in different ways.

For instance, an SEO application could use the decoded text to pull keywords associated with a certain product.

Semantic Analysis

When explaining NLP, it’s also important to break down semantic analysis. It’s closely related to NLP and one could even argue that semantic analysis helps form the backbone of natural language processing.

Semantic analysis is how NLP AI interprets human sentences logically. When the HMM method breaks sentences down into their basic structure, semantic analysis helps the process add content.

For instance, if an NLP program looks at the word “dummy” it needs context to determine if the text refers to calling someone a “dummy” or if it’s referring to something like a car crash “dummy.”

If the HMM method breaks down text and NLP allows for human-to-computer communication, then semantic analysis allows everything to make sense contextually.

Without semantic analysts, we wouldn’t have nearly the level of AI that we enjoy. As the process develops further, we can only expect NLP to benefit.

NLP And More

As NLP develops we can expect to see even better human to AI interaction. Devices like Google’s Assistant and Amazon’s Alexa, which are now making their way into our homes and even cars, are showing that AI is here to stay.

The next few years should see AI technology increase even more, with the global AI market expected to push $60 billion by 2025 (registration required). Needless to say, you should keep an eye on AI.

Hidden Health Dangers:

A Former Agbiotech Insider Wants His GMO Crops Pulled

by Caius Rommens. Oct. 17, 2018

Genetic engineering isn’t everyone’s childhood dream. I didn’t care for it when I started studying biology at the University of Amsterdam, but my professor explained it was an acquired taste and the best option for a good job.

So, I suppressed my doubts and learned to extract DNA from plants, recombine the DNA in test tubes, reinsert the fusions into plant cells, and use hormones to regenerate new plants.

People say that love is blind, but I started loving what I did blindly. Or, perhaps, what started as an acquired taste soon became a dangerous addiction. Genetic engineering became part of me.

After I received my PhD, I went to the University of California in Berkeley to help develop a new branch of genetic engineering. I isolated several disease resistance genes from wild plants, and demonstrated, for the first time, that these genes could confer resistance to domesticated plants. Monsanto liked my work and invited me to lead its new disease control program in St. Louis in 1995.

I should not have accepted the invitation. I knew, even then, that pathogens cannot be controlled by single genes: They evolve too quickly around any barrier to infection.

It takes about two to three decades for insects and plants to overcome a resistance gene, but it takes only a few years, at most, for pathogens to do the same.

I did accept the invitation, though, and the next six years became a true boot camp in genetic engineering. I learned to apply many tricks about how to change the character of plants and I learned to stop worrying about the consequences of such changes.

In 2000, I left Monsanto and started an independent biotech program at J.R. Simplot Company in Boise, Idaho.

Simplot is one of the largest potato processors in the world. It was my goal to develop GMO potatoes that would be admired by farmers, processors, and consumers.

Genetic engineering had become an obsession by then, and I created at least 5,000 different GMO versions each year—more than any other genetic engineer. All these potential varieties were propagated, grown in greenhouses or the field, and evaluated for agronomic, biochemical, and molecular characteristics.

The almost daily experience I suppressed was that none of my modifications improved potato’s vigor or yield potential. In contrast, most GMO varieties were stunted, chlorotic, mutated, or sterile, and many of them died quickly, like prematurely-born babies.

Despite all my quiet disappointments, I eventually combined three new traits into potatoes: disease resistance (for farmers), no tuber discoloration (for processors), and reduced food-carcinogenicity (for consumers).

It was as hard for me to consider that my GMO varieties might be corrupted as it is for parents to doubt the perfection of their children. Our assumption was that GMOs are safe. But my pro-biotech filter eventually wore thin and finally shattered entirely.

I identified some minor mistakes and had my first doubts about the products of my work. I wanted to re-evaluate our program and slow it down, but it was too little too late. Business leaders were involved now. They saw dollar signs. They wanted to expand and speed-up the program, not slow it down.

I decided to quit in 2013. It was painful to leave behind the major part of my adult life.

The true scope of my errors became obvious to me only after I had relocated to a small farm in the mountains of the Pacific Northwest.

By this time Simplot had announced the regulatory approval of my GMO varieties. As the company began to plan for quiet introductions in American and Asian markets, I was breeding plants and animals independently, using conventional methods.

And since I still felt uncomfortable about my corporate past, I also re-evaluated the about two hundred patents and articles that I had published in the past, as well as the various petitions for deregulation.

Not so much biased anymore, I easily identified major mistakes.

“With the mistake your life goes in reverse.
Now you can see exactly what you did
Wrong yesterday and wrong the day before
And each mistake leads back to something worse.
(James Fenton)

For instance, we had silenced three of potato’s most conserved genes, assuming that the three genetic changes would each have one effect only. It was a ludicrous assumption because all gene functions are interconnected.

Each change had indeed caused a ripple effect. It should have been clear to me that silencing the ‘melanin gene’ PPO would have numerous effects, including an impairment of potatoes’ natural stress-tolerance response.

Similarly, asparagine and glucose are among the most basic compounds of a plant, so why did I believe I could silence the ASN and INV genes involved in the formation of these compounds? And why did nobody question me?

Another strange assumption was that I had felt able to predict the absence of unintentional long-term effects on the basis of short-term experiments. It was the same assumption that chemists had used when they commercialized DDT, Agent Orange, PCBs, rGBH, and so on.

The GMO varieties I created are currently released under innocuous names, such as InnateHibernate, and White Russet. They are described as better and easier-to-use than normal potatoes and to contain fewer bruises, but the reality is different.

The GMO potatoes are likely to accumulate at least two toxins that are absent in normal potatoes, and newer versions (Innate 2.0) additionally lost their sensory qualities when fried. Furthermore, the GMO potatoes contain at least as many bruises as normal potatoes, but these undesirable bruises are now concealed.

There are many more issues, and some of them could have been identified earlier if they had not been covered-up by misleading statistics in the petitions for deregulation.

How could I have missed the issues? How could I have trusted the statisticians? How could the USDA have trusted them? My re-evaluation of the data clearly shows that the GMO varieties are seriously compromised in their yield potential and in their ability to produce normal tubers.

Unfortunately, most GMO potatoes end-up as unlabeled foods that are indistinguishable from normal foods. Consumer groups would have to carry out PCR tests to determine if certain products, including fries and chips, contain or lack the GMO material.

Given the nature of the potato industry, the most common potato varieties, such as Russet Burbank and Ranger Russet, will soon be contaminated with GMO stock.

I have now summarized the new conclusions of this past work (without disclosing company secrets—I am bound by confidentiality agreements) in a book, entitled ‘Pandora’s Potatoes.

This book, which is now available on Amazon, explains why I renounce my work at Simplot and why the GMO varieties should be withdrawn from the market. It is a warning and a call for action: a hope that others will step forward with additional evidence, so that the public, with its limited financial means, has a chance to counter the narrow-mindedness of the biotech industry.

My book describes the many hidden issues of GMO potatoes, but GMO potatoes are not the exception: They are the rule.

I could just as well have written (and may write) about the experimental GMO varieties we developed at Monsanto, which contains an anti-fungal protein that I now recognize as allergenic, about the disease resistance that caused insect sensitivity, or about anything else in genetic engineering.

On May 3rd 2018 the columnist Michael Gerson wrote in the Washington Post: “Anti-GMO is anti-science.” His statement was echoed by Mitch Daniels, his colleague, who added, “[It] isn’t just anti-science. It’s immoral.

But these two columnists are not scientists. They don’t understand the level of bias and self-deception that exists among genetic engineers. Indeed, anyone who is pro-science should understand that science is meant to study nature, not to modify it—and certainly not to predict, in the face of strong evidence, the absence of unintended effects.

The real anti-science movement is not on the streets. It is, as I discovered, in the laboratories of corporate America.

Posted with permission from Independent Science News.

You have got to Ask for feedback: Feedback don’t come easily and without much specific prompting…

There was a time when the term feedback was associated with some kinds of “production process“.

Coming from an engineering background, particularly industrial and human factors engineering, feedback meant receiving the reactions of clients and customers in the usage of products, such as safe usage, easy manipulation, health consequences, quality of product, of processes…

Feedback has acquired a life of its own and expanded to mean “How do you perceive my behavior, and how do think people are judging me…?”

Thus, feedback in the workplace on how I control, manage, and connect with people, employees, clients…

When was the last time you received useful feedback?

When it was not too late to nurture and mentor this “good person” who is trying hard to communicate with you?

An angry person will vent his feelings, turn and bang the door…How much of a feedback you think you received?

Do you think receiving feedback from someone who is Not an expert in the field or didn’t work on the field can give use any useful feedback?

“How am I doing?” is not a great beginning: It doesn’t sound serious or honest.

Everyone who really craves excellence craves feedback.

You need to know how you’re doing and how to improve.

Honest feedback is rare. And you don’t receive feedback because you don’t ask.

The primary problem in feedback is the level of Honesty:

The higher your level in the hierarchy, the more likely people say what they’re expected to say, not what they believe. Honest feedback is rare.

Try full sentences for a change, like: (extracted from a short list by Dan Rockwell)

  1. What do you think I was trying to accomplish by the way I______? (Fill in the blank with an outcome, “Led the meeting,” Leader, manager, coach, spouse, etc.)
  2. What did I do that made you think I was ______? (Fill in the blank with their response to #1.)
  3. How could I improve what you think I’m trying to accomplish
  4. “How/where do you fit into what I’m trying to accomplish?” (Nathan, Thanks for giving me this powerful question.)
  5. How can I help you better fit in?

The feedback question that changes everything uses behaviors to identify what’s really going on.

It doesn’t begin with a list of job responsibilities.

How can leaders invite feedback?

What questions invite useful feedback?

Your sense of smell controls what you spend and who you love

By Georgia Frances King 

Smell is the ugly stepchild of the sense family.

Sight gives us sunsets and Georgia O’Keefe. Sound gives us Brahms and Aretha Franklin. Touch gives us silk and hugs. Taste gives us butter and ripe tomatoes.

But what about smell? It doesn’t exist only to make us gag over subway scents or tempt us into a warm-breaded stupor. Flowers emit it to make them more attractive to pollinators. Rotting food might reek of it so we don’t eat it. And although scientists haven’t yet pinned down a human sex pheromone, many studies suggest smell influences who we want to climb in bed with.

Olivia Jezler studies the science and psychology that underpins our olfactory system.

For the past decade, she has worked with master perfumers, developed fragrances for luxury brands, researched olfactory experience at the SCHI lab at University of Sussex, and now is the CEO of Future of Smell, which works with brands and new technologies to design smellable concepts that bridge science and art.

In this interview, Jezler reveals the secret life of smell. Some topics covered include:

  • how marketers use our noses to sell to us
  • why “new car smell” is so pervasive
  • how indoor air is often more polluted than outdoor air
  • the reason why luxury perfume is so expensive
  • why babies smell so damn good
  • how Plato and Aristotle poo-pooed our sense of smell

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Quartz: On a scientific level, why is smell such an evocative sense?

Olivia Jezler: Our sense of smell is rooted in the most primal part of our brain for survival. It’s not linked through the thalamus, which is where all other sensory information is integrated: It’s directly and immediately relayed to another area, the amygdala.

None of our other senses have this direct and intimate connection to the areas of the brain that process emotion, associative learning, and memory. (That why we don’t dream “smell”)

Why? Because the structure of this part of the brain—the limbic system—grew out of tissue that was first dedicated to processing the sense of smell. Our chemical senses were the first that emerged when we were single-cell organisms, because they would help us understand our surroundings, find food, and reproduce.

Still today, emotionally driven responses through our senses of taste and smell make an organism react appropriately to its environment, maximizing its chances for basic survival and reproduction.

Beauty products like lotions and perfumes obviously have their own smells. But what unexpected businesses use scent in their branding?

It’s common for airlines to have scents developed for them. Air travel is interesting because, as it’s high stress, you want to make people feel connected to your brand in a positive way.

For example, British Airways has diffusers in the bathrooms and a smell for their towels. That way you walk in and you can smell the “British Airways smell.”

It’s also very common in food. You can design food so that the smell evaporates in different ways. Nespresso capsules, for instance, are designed to create a lot of odor when you’re using one, so that you feel like you’re in a coffee shop.

I’m sure a lot of those make-at-home frozen pizza brands are designed to let out certain smells while they’re in the oven to feel more authentic, too.

That’s an example of the “enhancement of authenticity.” Another example might be when fake leather is made to smell like real leather instead of plastic.

So we got used to the smell of natural things, but then as production became industrialized, we now have to fabricate the illusion of naturalness back into the chemical and unnatural things?

Yes, that’s it. People will feel more comfortable and they’ll pay more for products that smell the way we imagine them to smell.

For example: “new car smell.” When Rolls Royce became more technologically advanced, they started using plastic instead of wood for some parts of the car—and for some reason, sales started going down. They asked people what was wrong, and they said it was because the car didn’t smell the same. It repelled people from the brand. So then they had to design that smell back into the car.

New car smell is therefore a thing, but not in the way we think. It is a mix of smells that emanate from the plastics and interiors of a car.

The cheaper the car, the stronger and more artificial it smells. German automakers have entire olfactory teams that sniff every single component that goes into the interior of the car with their nose and with machines.

The problem then is if one of these suppliers changes any element of their product composition without telling the automaker, it throws off the entire indoor odor of the car, which was carefully designed for safety, quality, and branding—just another added complexity to the myriad of challenges facing automotive supply chains!

Are these artificial smells bad for us?

Designed smells are not when they fulfill all regulatory requirements. This question touches on a key concern of mine: indoor air. Everybody talks about pollution. Like in San Francisco, a company called Aclima works with Google to map pollution levels block by block at different times of the day—but what about our workplaces? Our homes? People are much less aware of this.

We are all buying inexpensive furniture and carpets and things that are filled with chemicals, and we’re putting them in a closed environment with often no air filtration.

Then there are the old paints and varnishes that cover all the surfaces! Combine that with filters in old buildings that are rarely or never changed, and it gets awful.

When people use cleaning products in their home, it’s also putting a lot more chemicals into the house than before. (You should open your windows after you clean.)

In cities like New York, the indoor air is three times worse than outdoors.

We’re therefore inhaling all these fumes in our closed spaces. In cities like New York, we spend 90% of our time indoors and the air is three times worse than outdoors.

The World Health Organization says it’s one of the world’s greatest environmental health risks. There are a few start-ups working on consumer home appliances that help you monitor your indoor air, but I am still waiting to see the one that can integrate air monitoring with filtering and scenting.

Manufacturing smell seems to fall into two camps. The first is fabricating a smell when you’ve taken the authenticity out of the product. But then other brands simply enhance an existing smell. That’s not fake, but it still doesn’t seem honest.

Well, to me they seem like the same thing: Because they are both designed to enhance authenticity.

There’s an interesting Starbucks case related to smell experiences and profits.

In 2008 they introduced their breakfast menu, which included sandwiches that needed to be reheated. The smell of the sandwiches interfered with the coffee aroma so much that it completely altered the customer experience in store: It smelled of food rather than of coffee.

During that time, repeat customer visits declined as core coffee customers went elsewhere, and therefore sales at their stores also declined, and this impacted their stock. The sandwiches have since been redesigned to smell less when being reheated.

This is starting to feel a bit like propaganda or false advertising. Are there laws around this?

No, there aren’t laws for enhancing authenticity through smell. Maybe once people become more aware of these things, there will be. I think it’s hard at this point to quantify what is considered false advertising.

There aren’t even laws for copyrighting perfumes! This is a reason why everything on the market usually kind of smells the same: Basically you can just take a perfume that’s on the market and analyze it in a machine that can tell you its composition. It’s easily recreated, and there’s no law to protect the original creation. Music has copyright laws, fragrance does not.

That’s crazy. That’s intellectual property.

It is. As soon as there’s a blockbuster, every brand just goes, “We want one like that!” Let’s make a fragrance that smells exactly like that, then lets put it in the shampoo. Put it in the deodorant. Put it in this. Put it in that.

Well if the perfume smells the same and is made with the same ingredients, why do we pay so much more for designer perfumes?

High fashion isn’t going to make [luxury brands] money—it’s the perfumes and accessories.

What differs is the full complexity of the fragrance and how long it lasts. As for pricing, It’s very much the brand. Perfume is sold at premium for what it is—but what isn’t? Your Starbucks coffee, Nike shoes, designer handbags… There can be a difference in the quality of the ingredients, yeah, but if it’s owned by a luxury brand and you’re paying $350, then you’re paying for the brand. The margins are also really high: That’s why all fashion brands have a perfume as a way of making money. High fashion isn’t going to make them money—it’s the perfumes and accessories. They play a huge, huge role in the bottom line.

How do smell associations differ from culture to culture?

Because of what was culturally available—local ingredients, trade routes et cetera—countries had access to very specific ingredients that they then decided to use for specific purposes. Because life was lived very locally, these smells and their associations remained generation after generation. Now if we wanted to change them, it would not happen overnight; people are not being inundated with different smell associations the way they are with fashion and music. Once a scent is developed for a product in a certain market, the cultural associations of the scent of “beauty,” “well-being,” or “clean” stick around. The fact that smells can’t yet transmit through the internet means that scent associations also keep pretty local.

For example, multinational companies want to develop specific fragrances and storylines for the Brazilian market. Brazilian people shower 3.5 times a day. If somebody showers that much, then scent becomes really important. When they get out of the shower, especially in the northeast of Brazil, they splash on a scented water—it’s often lavender water, which is also part of a holy ritual to clean a famous church, so it has positive cultural connotations. Companies want to understand what role each ingredient already plays in that person’s life so that they can use it with a “caring” or “refreshing” claim, like the lavender water.

Lavender is an interesting one. In the US, lavender is more of a floral composition versus true lavender. People like the “relaxing lavender” claim, but Americans don’t actually like the smell of real lavender. On the other hand, in Europe and Brazil, when it says “lavender” on the packaging, it will smell like the true lavender from the fields; in Brazil, lavender isn’t relaxing—it’s invigorating!

In the UK, florals are mostly used in perfumes, especially rose, which is tied to tradition. Yet in the US, a rose perfume is considered quite old-fashioned—you rarely smell it on the subway, whereas the London Tube smells like a rose garden. In Brazil, however, florals are used for floor and toilet cleaners; the smell of white flowers like jasmine, gardenia, and tuberose are considered extremely old-fashioned and unrelatable. However, in Europe and North America, these very expensive ingredients are a sign of femininity and luxury.

Traditional Chinese medicine influences the market in China: Their smells are a bit more herbal or medicinal because those ingredients are associated with health and well-being. You see that in India with Ayurvedic medicine as well. By comparison, in the US, the smell of health and cleanliness is the smell of Tide detergent.

Are there smells we can all agree on biologically, no matter where we’re from, that smell either good or bad?

Yes: Body fluids, disease, and rotten foods are biological no-nos. Also, natural gas, which you can smell in your kitchen if you leave the gas on by mistake, is in reality odorless: A harmless chemical is added to give gas a distinctive malodor that is often describes as rotten eggs—and therefore act as a warning!

The smell of babies, on the other hand? Everybody loves the smell of babies: It’s the next generation.

Do you wear perfume yourself?

I wear tons of perfume. However, if I’m working in a fragrance house or a place where I smell fragrances all the time, I don’t wear perfume, because it then becomes difficult to smell what is being created around me. There is also a necessity for “clean skin” to test fragrances on—one without any scented lotions or fragrances.

Why does perfume smell different on different people? Is it because it reacts differently with our skin, or is it because of the lotions and fabric softeners or whatever other smells we douse ourselves in?

Cancers and diabetes can be identified through body odor.

Generally, it’s our DNA. But there are different layers to how we smell. Of course, the first layer is based on the smells we put on: soaps and deodorants and whatever we use. Then there’s our diet, hydration level, and general health. An exciting development in the medical world is in diagnostics: Depending upon if we’re sick or not, we smell different.

Cancers and diabetes can be identified through body odor, for instance. Then on the most basic level, our body odor is linked to the “major histocompatability complex” (MHC), which is a part of the genome linked to our immune system. It is extremely unique and a better identifier than a retinal scan because it is virtually impossible to replicate.

Why don’t we care more about smell?

The position that our sense of smell holds is rooted in the foundation of Western thought, which stems from the ancient Greeks. Plato assigned the sense of sight as the foundation for philosophy, and Aristotle provided a clear hierarchy where he considered sight and hearing nobler in comparison to touch, taste, and smell.

Both philosophers placed the sense of smell at the bottom of their hierarchy; logic and reason could be seen and heard, but not smelt. The Enlightenment philosophers and the Industrial Revolution did not help, either, as the stenches that emerged at that time due to terrible living conditions without sewage systems reminded us of where we came from, not where we were headed. Smell was not considered something of beauty nor a discipline worth studying.

It’s also a bit too real and too closely tied to our evolutionary past. We are disconnected from this part of ourselves, so of course we don’t feel like it is something worth talking about. As society becomes more emotionally aware, I do think smell will gain a new role in our daily lives.

This article is part of Quartz Ideas, our home for bold arguments and big thinkers.

Who to blame? This trend of quick short attention span, serving silver bullet solutions that cure diseases

Mirvat El-Sibai posted on FB. August 28, 2016 at 12:27 PM · Beirut

When i was doing my PhD i used to start my day in lab around 10 a.m. and on many days stay till 3 or 4 in the morning with a couple of hours break during the day..

i routinely sat on the microscope 8 hours straight throughout the night till i developed a permanent slouch.. and still couldn’t wait to go home to analyze the data..

If i came home early it was to catch up on some papers or to prepare a presentation write a paper or my thesis etc..

We used to work weekend, holidays, and we were always in the business of learning and never questioned our advisors and were happy to pay our dues..

Our students today ask for more grades even if they don’t deserve it and i find that lack of self worth very troubling..

it is a sweep under the rug mentality that aims for cheap lazy results…

Students today learn a technique and produce a figure and start asking about publications..

They teach a lab and start asking about a permanent position.. they read a paper and start questioning models..

Ambition is great but humility and patience are paramount to actual learning, particularly in science..

I don’t blame it all on our students though..

It is the culture that pushes for readily packaged success stories and quick short attention span, serving silver bullet solutions that cure diseases..

It is also social media…

Note 1: For reasons, Not all of them fully justifiable, the medical students undergo harsh schedule and procedure that punish the students more than other fields of study. For example, focusing on a microscope for hours on would turn me blind. And this habit of waking up earlier than birds.

Note 2: I suffered immensely during my PhD program, particularly how to pay the tuition and trying to circumvent a few rules by auditing courses. You may read my uneasiness in my Autobiography category. In my teaching experience in Lebanon I was very disappointed: I had to invent and change my teaching methods, even, during a semester, to excite and give intensive for university students to study, read and do meaningful research. You may discover my methods in my Human Factors in Engineering category on wordpress.com

Note 3: Social platforms may contribute to laziness in students Not motivated in the first place. But these platforms are wonderful resources for reflective minds.


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adonis49

adonis49

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