of smell tests and sanity checks: a weekend wander

The last time I had a cup of coffee was sometime in 2007 or 2008. I was with Om Malik, in a coffee shop in Mission (somewhere near 16th and Guerrero) in San Francisco. The place didn’t serve anything except coffee and water. And I’d already drunk enough water that day, so I tried a decaf. It was wonderful.

But it made my head spin; I hadn’t had any coffee since sometime in 2006, and erred in thinking that I could get away with decaf.  I haven’t had a cup of coffee since. Despite years of having double-digit cups daily.

I still drink a lot of tea though, tempering my wish for black with green as well as white. I’m of South Indian origin and brought up in Calcutta: both tea as well as coffee are mother’s milk to people like me. Since I was 7, all of fifty years ago.

And so it came as a surprise to me just how finicky I had become about my tea and coffee. A cup had to be just so. White on the inside if it’s china. Shiny if it’s a stainless steel tumbler. Or matt earth brown if it was a matka.

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The colour of the inside mattered to me for a reason: it helped me figure out how much milk to add. I was always an add-milk-to-tea person, unable to understand the add-tea-to-milk brigade. Even though I stopped adding milk in 2006, my finickiness to do with the cup or mug remained.


The smell of tea mattered as well. If I wanted a dhaba chai, I would only go to the places where the tea (and milk) smelt right. My favourite used to be the taxi-driver dhaba near PG Hospital in Calcutta.

For much of what I enjoyed eating or drinking, texture mattered a lot. There were many foods I couldn’t countenance unless they were al-dente or cooked to a crisp. Especially anything to do with brinjal. Yet, thirty years later, I found myself adoring babaghanoush, which was anything but crisp or al-dente. I had similar reservations about black pudding: adorable when crisp, inedible when soft and crumbly.

The influence of presentation and colour and smell and texture in flavour and taste is not a new thing, mankind has known about it for centuries. Sensory-alteration experiments like eating in the dark have become commonplace since 1999; I suspect they’ve been going on for hundreds of years.

Nowadays, especially since the advent of the molecular gastronomist, we’re getting more and more used to the roles played by our senses in perceiving flavour.

Since about 2008, I’ve been coming across some studies on the role of sound in our perceptions of taste and flavour. In fact institutions like the Crossmodal Research Laboratory actually

“study the integration of information across the various sensory modalities (hearing, vision, touch, taste and smell)”

Now that fascinated me. Ever since I saw Short Circuit in 1986, and watched Number 5 in action, I’ve been intrigued by the idea of information-as-food. By the time I had absorbed the basics of Kleiber’s Law (on metabolic rate and its relation to mass), understood something of what people like Leslie Aiello meant by the Expensive Tissue Hypothesis and begun to appreciate what people like Richard Wrangham were saying, I was very taken with the information-as-food hypothesis.

Which is why I found myself giving this TED talk some years ago.

The idea that we experience information through all our senses, in an integrated way, is something that should not surprise any of us. Yet, given my peculiar biases, anchors and frames, I was spellbound. And have been spellbound since.

The first touch tablet I played with was not an iPad. It was something called a Tantus, if I remember right, and was used by bookmakers in the mid-80s. The firm I was working for wanted to know if we could convert them for the dealing room. But the touch technology wasn’t quite up to it.

As central marketplaces, many of them open outcry “pits”, disaggregated and morphed into trading/dealing rooms distributed across the participant base, it was not unusual for traders to lament the loss of the “buzz”, the sounds and smells and sense of crowdedness that permeated the pits. [When the markets went quiet after the crashes of 2001 and 2002, I remember discussing, mainly with Sean Park and Andrew Pisker, whether we should look at “piping in” the sound of busy markets on to the dealing floor].

With the slow demise of the keyboard, something magical is happening. We’re beginning to use all our senses to deal with information again, a significant renaissance. Touch and sound and gesture are all being brought more into play. Despite the withdrawal of Google Glass, the idea of wearables (and even embeddeds) isn’t a fad. We will engage with information in multifarious ways, in ways we cannot necessarily even imagine today. We’re so used to living in a world of text, that the mere possibility of its moving off centre stage as the primary way we engage with information, is not something we’re comfortable with.

Our very understanding of synaesthesia will change and grow, on the coattails of research in places like the Crossmodal Research Laboratory. The way we think of information will change as a result, how we engage with information, how we view information, how we respond to information, even how we create and store information.

Which is why I spend time looking a whole slew of things:  how plants talk and interact, how the information in DNA is decoded by transcription, how blockchains can help reduce transaction costs, particularly contracting costs.

Which is why I came across cymatics some years ago, and why, just a day or two ago, I spent time watching this New Zealand New Age musician:

A Change is Gonna Come. Which gives me a reason to end this post with Sam Cooke. 

2 thoughts on “of smell tests and sanity checks: a weekend wander”

  1. In our common interest of connecting dots, nodes and plain old things / ideas of interest, I want to point you and my fellow readers to a fascinating talk on The Humane Representation of Thought by Bret Victor, on Vimeo here:

    It follows your train of thought of weaning us off text and keyboards as much as possible, towards a dream of once again using our bodies to learn things.

    As for the sense of smell itself – it’s a fascinating and often undertrained world in itself, well worth developing in life!

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