Introducing the smell-camera

And other recent highlights from the Ideas blog

tep 1: A glass dome is placed over an object and the smell is extracted with a pump.
Amy Radcliffe
Step 1: A glass dome is placed over an object and the smell is extracted with a pump.

Among the five senses, scent is arguably the most transporting and the most elusive. A single whiff of a tree in bloom can bring your childhood flooding back more powerfully than an archive of photographs. Unlike with images, though, there’s no reliable way to preserve scents for posterity.

Amy Radcliffe
Step 2: The smell is re-created in a lab and shipped back to the user.

Designer Amy Radcliffe wants us to think about what life would be like if we could. As a student at Central Saint Martins College of Arts & Design in London, Radcliffe constructed an art project she calls “The Madeleine”—a machine that “records the molecular information of a smell.” The device looks like an elaborate science experiment: A glass dome is placed over the object whose scent is to be captured, and the dome is connected by clear tubes to a wooden box containing a switch and an air pump to extract the aroma. A “how to” video envisions the extracted smell being captured in a glass vial and sent off for processing in a lab, like camera film, returning the user a “bespoke smell memory capsule” created with the same techniques that fragrance makers use to create perfumes. (This is all hypothetical, of course: Though smell-capture technology does exist, Radcliffe explained in an e-mail, it would be “time consuming and very costly” to actually execute the whole process.)

Radcliffe has dubbed this technique “scent-ography,” and hopes one day it could be used to “[manipulate] our emotional wellbeing through prescribed nostalgia.” “The Madeleine” also raises obvious questions about the feasibility of reducing a real sensory moment to a chemical profile. It would be nice to think that you could store the great scents of your life on your bookshelf. It’s also possible that the best scent reproductions would end up seeming roughly equivalent to banana flavor in candy—a slightly lurid, very inexact gesture toward the real thing.

Knit one, kern two


Writing is such second nature for most of us that we no longer have to think about the systematic way in which we form letters. For people who knit, however, “writing” remains an open problem: How exactly do you translate one medium smoothly to the other? A new book called “Knitted Letters,” by Catherine Hirst and Erssie Major, aims to solve that by providing “intarsia charts for 10 key font families,” allowing knitters to add some snappy sans-serif or Old West-style lettering to their projects. Even if knitting isn’t your thing, the book still provides a cool way to think about both typography and knitting. The intarsia charts break each letter down to the equivalent of a pixel on the computer, a blunt version of the careful process that creates the smooth type on the screens we see each day.

Philosophers against TMI

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When it comes to revealing details from your private life over social media, you might think that oversharing is just a breach of taste. But in a paper published earlier this year in the Alabama Law Review, Anita Allen, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, argues that it might just be a failure of ethics as well.

The reason goes back to the philosopher Immanuel Kant, who argued that we are obligated to respect ourselves and take care of ourselves so that we remain free, rational people. In this view, it’s not just inadvisable to be drunk, but also unethical: You have damaged your ability to pursue your own rational interests when you’re inebriated.

Allen uses the example of former New York congressman Anthony Weiner, who felt forced to resign his office following revelations that he’d sent lewd pictures of himself to young women over Twitter. “Oversharing” cost him his dignity and self-respect, and changed the way other people acted towards him. After his misstep, he was less able to function as a free person. Allen says similar, if lesser, versions of this harm can occur when your co-workers know too much about, say, your romantic woes: They might take you less seriously as a person, which makes it harder for you to pursue your goals in the workplace.

Allen acknowledges that her argument is controversial, not least because “many prominent philosophers flatly reject the notion that anyone has a duty to himself or to herself.” But even if you don’t fully agree with Allen, her argument is still useful as a way to pinpoint exactly what problems it may cause when other people know a lot—or maybe too much—about you.

Kevin Hartnett is a writer who lives in Ann Arbor, Mich. He can be reached at