Great art

For September’s Digital Design Weekend at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, artists Michiko Nitta and Michael Burton commissioned soprano Louise Ashcroft to sing, altering pitch and volume while wearing a face mask made of algae. According to the artists, since algae’s growth changes with the amount and quality of carbon dioxide it receives, Ashcroft’s voice, blowing CO2 against the algae, should vary the growth’s “taste” as to bitterness or sweetness. After the performance, the audience sampled the algae at various stages and apparently agreed. The artists said they were demonstrating how biotechnology could transform organisms. ¦

The entrepreneurial spirit

¦ Jordan and Bryan Silverman’s startup venture, Star Toilet Paper, distributes rolls to public restrooms in restaurants, stadiums and other locations absolutely free — because the brothers have sold ads on each sheet. (Company slogan: “Don’t rush. Look before you flush.”) Jordan, with 50 advertisers enlisted so far, told the Detroit Free Press in August that he came up with the idea, of course, while sitting on the can at the University of Michigan library.

¦ After an international trade association reported that women bought 548 million pairs of shoes in 2011 (not even counting those used exclusively for sports), the manufacturer Nine West has decided to start its own cable TV channel with programing on “various aspects of footwear,” according to an August New York Times report. Programs will feature celebrities rhapsodizing about their favorite pair, women who hoard shoes (purchasing many more than they know they’ll ever wear even one time), tips on developing one’s stiletto-walking skills and shoe closet designs. It’s about a “conversation,” said a Nine West executive, “not about a shoe.”

¦ Habersham Funding of Georgia and its competitors make their money by buying terminally ill clients’ life insurance policies for lump sums, then continuing to pay the policies’ premiums so that they collect as beneficiaries upon death. The companies’ business model therefore depends on those clients dying quickly; a client who outlives expectations turns the investment sour. Thus, according to an August report by the New York Times, the companies run extensive background checks on the illnesses and lifestyles of potential clients and employ sophisticated computer algorithms that predict, better than doctors can, how long a client will live. Supposedly, according to the report, the companies are nonchalant about erroneous predictions. No company, they claim, has an official policy of hoping for early death. ¦

Leading economic indicators

¦ Scorpion antivenom made in Mexico sells in Mexico for about $100 a dose, but for a while over the last year, the going rate in the emergency room of the Chandler (Ariz.) Regional Medical Center was $39,652 a dose, charged to Marcie Edmonds, who was stung while opening a box of air-conditioner filters in June. She received two doses by IV and was released after three hours, to later find a co-pay bill of $25,537 awaiting her (with her Humana plan picking up $57,509), according to the Arizona Republic newspaper. The Republic found that Arizona hospitals retailed it for between $7,900 and $12,467 per dose — except for Chandler. Following the newspaper’s report, Chandler decided to reprice the venom at $8,000 a dose, thus eating a $31,652 “loss.”

¦ Among the least-important effects of last summer’s drought in the Midwest: Officials overseeing the annual Wisconsin State Cow Chip Throw said there would be fewer high-quality cow patties. Said chairperson Ellen Paulson: “When it’s hot, the cows don’t eat as much. And what was produced, they just dried up too quick.” A few patties had been saved from the 2011 competition, but, she said, “It’s not like you can go out and buy them.” ¦

The animal kingdom

¦ The ongoing feud between two Warwick, R.I., households has intensified, according to an August complaint. Kathy Melker and Craig Fontaine charged that not only has neighbor Lynne Taylor been harassing them with verbal insults and threats, but that Ms. Taylor has now taught her cockatoo to call Melker, on sight, a nasty epithet.

¦ At least two teams of Swiss researchers are developing tools that can improve farmers’ efficiency and reduce the need for shepherds. The research group Kora has begun outfitting sheep with heart rate monitors that, when predators approach, register blood-pressure spikes that are texted to the shepherd, summoning him to the scene. Another inefficiency is cow farmers’ frequent needs to locate and examine cows that might be in heat, but professors at a Bern technical college are testing placing thermometers in cows’ genitals, with text messages alerting the farmer that a specific cow is ready for mating. (Since most insemination is done artificially, farmers can reduce the supply of bull semen they need to keep in inventory.)

¦ Researchers writing in the journal Animal Behaviour in July hypothesized why male pandas have sometimes been seen performing handstands near trees. They are urinating, the scientists observed, and doing handstands streams the urine higher on the tree, presumably signaling their mating superiority. A San Diego Zoo researcher involved in the study noted that an accompanying gland secretion gives off even more “personal” information to other pandas than the urine alone.

¦ Spending on health care for pets is rising, of course, as companion animals are given almost equal status as family members. In Australia, veterinarians who provide dental services told Queensland’s Sunday Mail in August that they have even begun to see clients demanding cosmetic dental work — including orthodontic braces and other mouth work to give dogs “kissable breath” and smiles improved by removing the gap-tooth look. ¦

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2012-10-18 digital edition

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