Day 176: Brian Eno

I am not at all comfortable with how right this is. Brian Eno, from about five years ago:

Most of the smart people I know want nothing to do with politics. We avoid it like the plague… Is this because we feel that politics isn’t where anything significant happens? Or because we’re too taken up with what we’re doing, be it Quantum Physics or Statistical Ge-nomics or Generative Music? Or because we’re too polite to get into arguments with people? Or because we just think that things will work out fine if we let them be—that The Invisible Hand or The Technosphere will mysteriously sort them out?

Whatever the reasons for our quiescence, politics is still being done—just not by us. It’s politics that gave us Iraq and Afghanistan and a few hundred thousand casualties. It’s politics that’s bleeding the poorer nations for the debts of their former dictators. It’s politics that allows special interests to run the country. It’s politics that helped the banks wreck the economy. It’s politics that prohibits gay marriage and stem cell research but nurtures Gaza and Guantanamo.

But we don’t do politics. We expect other people to do it for us, and grumble when they get it wrong. We feel that our responsibility stops at the ballot box, if we even get that far. After that we’re as laissez-faire as we can get away with.

What worries me is that while we’re laissez-ing, someone else is faire-ing.

Day 175: "You've never received an icy glare…"

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Celebrating 175 straight days of blogging with another glance at The Man Who Signed the City: an excerpt of the chapter on Drew Daniel, English professor, half of the electronic band Matmos, veteran of world tours with Bjork. (And yes, that's a new cover mockup, ovr there on the right.)

Of the 1,000 copies of Quasi-Objects, they consigned five to a record shop in London called Rough Trade. Rough Trade’s customers included, on at least one occasion, Bjork, and she bought Quasi-Objects. She liked it so much she gave Daniel and Schmidt a call from Iceland. Would they like to remix a song of hers titled “Alarm Call”? “At first we thought it was a prank or something, one of our friends winding us up,” Daniel remembers. “It was a shock. Then, when she started thinking about making her album Vespertine, she approached us to make some rhythms for one song. Then we made a few more, and it started to snowball.” She came to San Francisco to work on the album with them at their house. The first day, Daniel’s computer crashed and he had to call a friend to fix it. “That was pretty embarrassing, but she proved patient with the way we operate.”

Then came the real stunner. “I was working at the Huntington Library in Los Angeles on my dissertation, in the archives looking for visual representations of melancholy, and I got a phone call from Bjork.” She was standing on a cliff in Iceland where, Daniel says, she goes to make big decisions, and she was inviting Matmos to join the backing musicians for her upcoming tour. The tour would be huge, traversing Europe, the United States, and Japan, and it would take a commitment of up to two years. Daniel was in the middle of his dissertation, and had to approach his adviser, Richard Halpern (now one of his colleagues in the Johns Hopkins English Department), and announce that he would be taking a few years off to go on the road. Halpern agreed to let him take a break. “He didn’t have to do that,” Daniel says. “Most people would have been, like, ‘Later, loser,’ but Richard knew I was serious.”

Daniel and Schmidt had to learn Bjork’s full tour repertory and figure out how to perform everything live. One song, “Aurora,” included the sound of Bjork walking through snow. “We couldn’t do snow on stage, though we looked into it,” Daniel recalls. “Martin had this idea to walk on rock salt on a contact-mic platform. So the rhythm of the song was Martin walking. It’s actually a challenge to walk at the right pace for a whole band.” They spent six months in rehearsal and preparation. Says Daniel, “I was scared at the idea that we were really going to do this. But Bjork said, ‘Don’t worry, we’ve got a lot of people to work with you and make this bullet proof.”

The touring ensemble included a 13-piece orchestra, a choir, a harpist, and Matmos. The first performance was in Paris. “We couldn’t believe what the audience for a pop star sounds like on stage,” Daniel says. “You know, we get good applause when we finish a show, but as soon as she walked onstage, the roar of the French fans was really frightening.” His parents were backstage. So was Catherine Deneuve. “We actually met her at the Dancer in the Dark premiere”—Deneuve and Bjork both had roles in the Lars von Trier film—“and Martin tried to bum a cigarette from her. You’ve never received an icy glare until you’ve tried to bum a cigarette from Catherine Deneuve.”

Day 173: The Language Forest

My favorite image for language itself is a great forest: it’s a living thing, and it’s bigger than we are, and we’re born into the middle of it and we gradually get to know more and more about it as we grow ourselves. It provides us with shelter and food and pleasure. (The forest is the phase space of all we can possibly say.) But parts of it are being burned down, and other parts are struggling to find light and nourishment, and the terrible thing is now we’re conscious, the nature of the forest itself has changed. … We can’t pretend to be innocent in the face of language, any more than in the face of knowledge of any sort: we are conscious, and so we are responsible. Whether we like it or not, the forest of language is not wild virgin forest any more; it’s being managed, and some of it is being managed badly. And we’re responsible, we the story people, the poetry people, the book people. In our parts of the forest, we are in charge.

Philip Pullman, Dæmon Voices

Day 171: Preview of Coming Attractions

The opener for what is, at the moment, the second chapter of The Man Who Signed the City. The subject, biophysicist and cancer researcher Denis Wirts.

Galen of Pergamos was a physician with a practice in second-century Rome. Among his clientele was the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius. Galen was also a prolific scribbler, so we know a lot about his ideas on disease, including his theory of cancer. Cancer, he wrote, was caused by “black bile” that flowed through the body. Anywhere it became trapped, it formed a malignant tumor.

He was wrong about black bile, though it is one hell of a good metaphor. But he was strikingly close to the mark with his flow theory. There are cancers, such as glioblastomas in the brain, in which the primary tumor can be deadly. But for most people, the original tumor does not pose the mortal threat. In more than 90 percent of cancers, what kills is metastasis. Cancer cells have a terrifying ability to move through the body and form new tumors in the bones, in the lymph nodes, in the lungs, in the liver and other internal organs. If a physician finds your tumor before the cancer has spread, you may survive. If the tumor has metastasized, cancer will kill you. Medicine has few weapons to counter the flow of black bile.

What if that is, in part, because a large portion of cancer cell biology and cancer drug testing has been reliant on a ubiquitous piece of lab equipment? The wrong piece of lab equipment? German bacteriologist Julius Richard Petri invented the Petri dish in 1887. Unless it was invented two years before that by a Slovene, Emanuel Klein, or by a pair of Romanian microbiologists, André Cornil and Victor Babes. Unless it was invented a year before that—we are back to 1884 now—by English researcher Percy Faraday Frankland. Whatever its provenance, the two-piece flat cylindrical glassware (now frequently polystyreneware) has been used by scientists for decades to culture and study cells of all kinds, including cancer cells.

Denis Wirtz is a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at Johns Hopkins University. He has dedicated the past few years to developing methods of studying cancer cells in three-dimensional environments. In a Petri dish, cells are cultured on a substrate so thin as to be effectively two-dimensional. Wirtz believes that this 2-D microworld-in-a-dish so distorts the cells and their behavior as to cast doubt on a significant part of critical cancer biology. He and his research team have been growing and observing cancer cells in 3-D matrices that are much more like human tissue. The difference has been so dramatic that when Wirtz talks about it, he becomes an evangelist for cell biology in three dimensions. To figure out metastasis, he says, scientists must work in 3-D. And it would be a good idea to take hundreds of drugs, deemed failures after testing them on cells in a dish, and test them again in 3-D matrices. Wirtz thinks pharmaceutical companies may have missed medicines that will work because of their reliance on Herr Petri's invention.