Dreaming of Invernetics

I caught a head cold on a recent trip, and after a day immersed in reading about ancient Mesopotamia, I decided to take a restorative nap.

The ancients of course attributed all sorts of meaning to dreams. They considered many oneiric communications to be messages from the gods, or prophecies of future events, communications in short which appeared to hack time lines and causality.

One wonders whether the still obscure processes and purposes of dreaming might not have in fact inspired the religious impetus among humanity.

Anyhow, in my feverish dreamstate, I was having dinner with a friend, who in reality possesses an indomitable intellect, and who in this scenario was a world-renowned expert in the discipline of Invernetics.

A google search upon waking produced only a handful of results for the word, mostly typos of Internetics. My basic Latin education parses the term as the technology of winter, or the technology of inducing winter (perhaps a good technology to develop in an age of global warming?)

If the ancients considered such dreams as ontological intrusions into our reality, might we not do likewise, especially given the dearth of solid research into why we dream of what we do? Given the current popularity of multiverse theories, I am inclined to consider my fever dream as an intrusion from another timeline, wherein the science of Invernetics is a well-developed academic discipline.

Perhaps in that timeline, they likewise dream of us, and chuckle to themselves at the preposterousness of a Donald Trump presidency, Leicester City winning the EPL, or the strange prominence of pronouns?

Dreams may be brain froth, as most neuroscientists insist. But perhaps, like pronouns, they might carry more semantic weight than we acknowledge.

One looks forward to the day when the role of dreaming may be more accurately understood and developed. And one also now looks forward to the day when we develop Invernetic technologies to address the gradual heating of our planet.

And so, back to Mesopotamia.

What is the future of the Holy of Holies?

Last week I was fortunate enough to revisit Jerusalem. It was nearly two decades since my last visit and much has changed in the interim, though equally much has not.

Previously, security was tense in the holy city. It was not possible for me to visit the Temple Mount at that time. I’m not entirely sure if it was even possible for devout Muslims to do so. This time, during one of the designated hours for non-Muslims, and via the sole route permitted to non-Muslims, I was fortunate enough to visit what is probably the most sensitive and contested site on Earth.

Temple Mount

The site itself is a plaza constructed on the top of the ancient mount Moriah. It features the Al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock, the third most sacred site in Islam. It is equally the most sacred site in Judaism, having been the location of both King Solomon’s temple and the Second Temple, built by Herod and destroyed by the Romans in the first century CE.

Not to be left out, there is a Christian claim here too, somewhat less significant than those of their fellow monotheists, but real nonetheless. The Crusaders left their mark here, and while Christianity reveres the Church of the Holy Sepuchre nearby rather than Temple Mount itself, nevertheless the site retains importance for Christianity, in particular the Well of Souls, a cave located beneath the Rock, as well as the Muslim Al-Aqsa mosque, which was previously the site of a Templar church.

This one small location, approximately the size of 20 soccer pitches, is therefore highly significant to the more than half of the world’s population who adhere to one of the Abrahamic monotheisms.

One might ask, especially if one is not an adherent, why this is so? Taken in chronological order, the Jewish claim is the earliest. For Jews, it is the site where King Solomon built a temple for the Jews where they could gather regularly to be in the presence of God. For those of the Jewish faith, this site, and the subsequent second temple, was the sole location on Earth where God would descend to be present among his chosen people.

The exact site, or temenos, was known as the holy of holies, קֹדֶשׁ הַקֳּדָשִׁים in Hebrew, and access was limited to the high priest alone, on very limited occasions. This model was replicated in the second Herodian temple, which was built following the return of the Israelites to Jerusalem after their Babylonian exile. Notably, almost none of either temple remains today, and hence it is impossible to know the exact site of the holy of holies. For this reason, devout Jews refrain from setting foot on the mount, for fear of stepping inside God’s sacred space.

As if this were insufficient, the site is also traditionally believed to be the location of the binding of Isaac. Additionally, modern historians suspect that the site was chosen in part because it was likely already a sacred location for the Jebusites, whom King David displaced from Jerusalem.

Of course, the choice of location is a blend of both Bronze Age beliefs and canny realpolitik. King David’s unification of the twelve tribes of Judaism required a capital which would be acceptable to all the tribes, and not solely his own. Hence the choice of Jerusalem, an otherwise poor choice for a capital city, given its limited fresh water supply and low terrain which was difficult to defend.

We might say likewise about the Islamic claim to Temple Mount, which emerged early in the Islamic era and helped to inspire the Muslim conquest of Jerusalem. According to Islamic belief, Temple Mount designates the location from which the prophet Muhammed ascended into heaven to consult the prophets, having flown there from Arabia on a flying horse as part of his night journey.

Of course, by the time of the Islamic conquest, Mount Moriah had already served as a sacred location intermittently for over a millennium. Given Islam’s descendancy from Judaic faith as an Abrahamic monotheism, it was perhaps inevitable that a claim over Jerusalem and Temple Mount in particular would emerge. Notably, it is never stated in the al-Isra sura of the Quran that this was indeed the site of Muhammed’s ascendance into heaven. This is a result of interpretation and tradition, primarily in the Hadiths, and perhaps also some realpolitik.

The Crusaders came later, and built a Templar Church on the Mount, which after the retaking of Jerusalem by Muslim forces was transformed into the Al-Aqsa mosque. The Christian claim to Temple Mount is thus much less acute than those of Islam or Judaism, but the site’s proximity to the more revered Church of the Holy Sepulchre, as well as its domination of the Old Jerusalem skyline, no doubt made it a critical location for the Crusaders.

The current political situation on Temple Mount is therefore hugely complex and sensitive, as one might expect. Following the Israeli capture of Jerusalem during the 1967 war, the site is now administered by a Muslim religious council, but secular power rests with the Israeli defence forces. Though this is itself a somewhat tense arrangement, it seems to work adequately on the ground, as it were. Muslim religious police will confront visitors to insure they dress and act appropriately, and will request the intervention of the Israeli soldiers if they are not obeyed.

While I was there, pondering these centuries of worship, contestation and sensitivity, I began thinking about the future of the site, and the future of sacred spaces in general. Temple Mount has passed through the hands of many polities during its existence, and perhaps the sole continuity, as buildings rose, fell or were repurposed, has been its primary role as a sacred location, perhaps the most sacred location on the planet.

In short, what is the future of the Holy of Holies, the sanctum sanctorum, the al-Ḥaram al-Šarīf?

One could speculate about any number of potential futures, from the contentious building of a third Jewish Temple, to a restoration of Islamic rule over the territory. But primarily I’m wondering about issues which are more likely to develop, and indeed are already emerging.

Some five decades into the space age, technological development continues to issue complex challenges to Bronze Age beliefs. Careful consideration had to be made, for example, to define how devout Muslims in space might pray in the direction of Mecca. The further we progress from the period of religious emergence, the more difficult it becomes to translate their behavioural proscriptions or miracle-based narratives into contemporary human experience.

Closer to home than near Earth orbit, we have the rapid emergence of the internet’s evolution into a virtual reality environment, the metaverse. How will sacred spaces emerge in such a virtual state? In what manner will they be sanctified, and how will religious devotees prevent them from being hacked or erased? How will their emergence affect existing religious practices? Already it is possible for people to attend religious services online. Is it possible to envisage a digital hajj or other pilgrimages too?

And what of the metaphysical ramifications of the metaverse? Which pixels or bytes will be sanctified by God’s presence? Could a third Temple of the Jews be constructed in cyberspace? Would a digital Mecca offer password-protected access only to the world’s growing population of Muslims?

It’s not far-fetched to consider such possibilities, as we migrate further and further into an existence bifurcated into physical and online activities. And, in an optimistic vision of mankind colonising the solar system, such as we see in The Expanse and other SF depictions of the future, where would that leave physical temenoi such as Temple Mount?

For around three millennia, the site on top of Mount Moriah has served as a physical location of worship for the ancient Jebusites, for the Jews, and for Christians and Muslims alike. Perhaps technological development might finally sever the connection between place and belief, or perhaps it might merely serve to provide additional modes of religious contestation.

Clarke’s Rule of Academic Emails

Any academic working in the past half century or so has come to understand that their research lives or dies, not by its quality, but by its ‘impact’.

This has a particular meaning in academic circles. It means how many citations your work has received, how widely it’s been read, how many times it got tweeted about, and so on. It’s a vain attempt by bean counters in academic administration to implement yet another performance metric and apply it to researchers.

A similar term is ‘outreach’, which is again a vain attempt to quantify and measure (and set targets about) the extent to which an academic’s research gains traction beyond academic circles. This is of course easier to achieve in some disciplines than others. If you’re researching cures for cancer or some sexy aspect of history, there’s always an outside chance a newspaper might pick up your work and mention it. If you work in politics or social policy, you might even get mentioned in a government report.

All academics are now under pressure to achieve impact and outreach with their research. Sometimes their jobs depend on hitting targets over which they have no control. Little wonder, then, that people have seen a financial opportunity in this.

Last month, I received an email from “Julian” at an entity called ‘Research Outreach’. They offered to do all sorts of sexy things with my work on Buddhism and Pulp Fiction, creating ‘resources’ which I could use to publicise my work and achieve higher impact and outreach.

Sounds good, right? But I’m the suspicious type, so I googled them. In my response I then clarified that I didn’t have hundreds of pounds to spend, that I am myself a trained journalist who produces online content, and that I didn’t want to speak to them by phone (where I feared I’d be inflicted with a hardsell). And so they went silent.

Then today I get another email, this time from “James” at “Science Animated”. The wording of the email was almost identical, except they offer a slightly different package, involving making little videos which can be disseminated on YouTube about my work. I noticed that James and Julian had the exact same telephone number. So again I googled.

Lo and behold, it turns out that there are quite a few such entities based in the same Gloucestershire office, all dedicated to providing promotion “services” to fraught academics, promising impact and outreach. I kept googling.

Now, some of you may recall how I turned the tables on a predatory publisher and got them to publish my ridiculous article on mermaids in their journal previously. I’m somewhat more pressed for time now, and I wasn’t entirely sure how the Gloucestershire Impact Mob functioned, so I decided not to engage. I sent James the same email I sent Julian and suggested that they might want to convene with one another before contacting me again.

Then I checked the following ResearchGate post, in which a valiant academic has attempted to restore and update the lost list of predatory publishers once maintained (until threatened with legal action) by Jeffrey Beall. And therein, about a year ago, is a message from an American academic discussing this outfit. Which led me in turn to this post, in which 300 or more academics discuss them.

As far as I can tell, their business model seems to run like this: they have multiple similar or identical operations all running out of the same office, which is red flag number one. Number two is that they spam academics from all disciplines with the exact same email. There is mention of a “cost” and a request to speak to them for five minutes by phone. Many of their staff appear to be sales operatives, and few to none seem to be academic experts in any particular discipline, so we can surmise how that phone call goes.

According to some people on the ResearchGate post, they seek hundreds of pounds (the figure of £890 was mentioned) to produce promotional and PR material in relation to your work. This seems to then get disseminated solely in their own publications (which of course are not peer-reviewed, though at least they don’t claim they are.) I have no idea who is reading these publications. Possibly no one. And their fees for making an animation are notably higher again.

This was the LOWEST quotation on offer!

James later got back to me to clarify that, yes, there’s a whole bunch of similar companies with shared ownership operating from their office, and that they “aim” to provide 80,000 “impressions” during a four week campaign. An aim is not a promise or a contractual agreement needless to say, nor does an internet page impression equal engagement (try arguing that one with your academic administrator!) Furthermore, there’s no way of knowing how many of those impressions are generated by bots.

This business model isn’t illegal, but to my mind it’s not ethically much of an improvement on predatory publishers. They too are attempting to leverage large sums of cash out of the desperation of gullible academics panicked by target-hitting in the ‘publish, promote or perish’ arena of contemporary academic research.

It’s a strange hybrid of vanity publishing and excessively expensive DTP services. I’d hesitate to even call it PR. It’s not like they’re going to press release your work to the BBC, after all. Again, it’s an issue of caveat emptor. Buyer beware, just as with the predatory publishers.

Foolish academics will part with their cash (or with some of their hard-achieved funding) in the desperate hope that paying these people will lead to more citations, more people reading their work, more “outreach” and “impact”. It most likely won’t twitch the needle much if even at all.

Is there an alternative? Sure, I can think of a couple of good ones, neither of which cost a penny, and both of which are much more likely to be impactful and outreachful (yes, it is a word now!)

You could touch base with your Research Office and/or Public Relations Office in your own institution and work with them. It’s literally their job to do this kind of thing. Alternatively, you could pitch an article on your work to The Conversation, which publishes articles by academics worldwide, and then offers them for syndication to the world’s media. I’ve had colleagues reprinted in the British broadsheet press, and online in places like Yahoo News.

In summary, let me formulate Clarke’s Rule of Academic Emails: If someone sends you an unsolicited email asking you for money in return for promising to assist your academic career, what they’re offering is unlikely to assist your academic career and may actually hinder it.

I appreciate there may be exceptions to this rule, but thus far I haven’t come across one.

We don’t know them so well

I was somewhat surprised to learn this morning that one of the earliest chess world champions was a chap from Belfast called Alexander McDonnell, whose day job was lobbying in parliament on behalf of the slave owners of Guyana.

This job paid £1200 per year, the equivalent of £150,000 today, and allowed him plenty of time to practice chess when parliament wasn’t sitting. He held ownership of plantations himself, and was the author of such dubious tomes as “Considerations on Negro Slavery.”

Not a lot is known about McDonnell. There appears to be a few errors on the brief wiki page dedicated to him, including the name of his father. He was renowned as a surly and taciturn man who took up to 90 minutes per turn at the chess table, and would often later spend his evenings pacing up and down in his room replaying the games in his mind.

His opponent in his most famous match, a Frenchman called Labourdonnais, by contrast had lost all of his money in property speculation and was forced to make his living from chess. While McDonnell paced his room, the Frenchman would continue playing all-comers for a sixpence a game late into the evening, all the while fuelled by endless pints of brown ale.

Louis-Charles Mahé de La Bourdonnais - Wikipedia
Labourdonnais, no doubt looking forward to a few beers. No image of McDonnell exists.

The match was abandoned with Labourdonnais leading, when the Frenchman had to urgently return to Paris to deal with his creditors. Alas, it never resumed, because McDonnell suffered from acute kidney disease and died soon afterwards. In fact, both men died young, and are buried in graves, now lost, in Kensal Green cemetery in London. ABBA should do a musical on that match.

How Utopia may grow from Coal Black Suburbia

The best band of the Britpop era was not Blur or Oasis, nor even Pulp, but Suede.

(Shout outs to Ash, Echobelly, Sleeper and Gene too.)

So it’s been interesting reading Brett Anderson’s brief memoir, Coal Black Mornings, of the period up to the point where he became famous and his story devolves into, as he put it, “the usual ‘coke and gold discs’ memoir”.

Coal Black Mornings (English Edition) eBook : Anderson, Brett: Amazon.it:  Kindle Store

Comparing it to David Mitchell’s novel Utopia Avenue, which features a fictional band from the Sixties, it’s interesting to see the many overlaps. The early sections of Utopia Avenue are easily the most interesting.

Both are tales of three-bar fires, poky terrace houses, distant parents, and the edgy tedium of suburbia, all opening up into a London which is equated to liberty, albeit a grimy, pot-infused, impoverished kind of freedom.

The conclusion of Mitchell’s novel, bar one not-especially-shocking twist, devolves to the same hotel rooms, drugs and hangers-on narrative one can find in any rock or pop memoir. One suspects Mitchell had nowhere else to go.

One also wonders whence he derived where the novel came from. Anderson’s origins are far from unique (mine shares many of the same attributes, albeit with the added frisson of a low-level civil war going on at the edge of the stage). But I wonder whether Mitchell read Anderson’s book before completing his own?

More memoirists should consider Anderson’s approach rather than speeding through their childhoods to get to the fame bits. Fame is boring and monotonous, and judging by the opinions of the occasional famous person I’ve met, somewhat of a trap and a burden. We are made by our youth and it is there where we may be found.

Thanks to the success of this first volume, Anderson wrote a follow-up about his fame years. It gets pretty good reviews, but as with the latter portion of Mitchell’s novel, I suspect it might disappoint, so I intend to leave his story hanging, perpetually suspended on the brink of success.

Ninety-Nine More Novels

Last week, I was asked to produce my own list of Ninety Nine Novels that I might recommend to others. The criteria were that the books must have been published in the past 38 years and be available to read in English. It’s an odd request, but didn’t sound odd to me. Allow me to contextualise.

In the early 1980s, Anthony Burgess was commissioned to write a book of book recommendations. He was well placed to do it, as a prominent international author himself, as well as a prolific reviewer of fiction since the 1960s. Lore tells us that he wrote the book in a mere three weeks. By contrast it has taken me three days just to produce my own list which takes us from where Burgess left off – that resonant year 1984 – to the present.

Ninety-nine Novels: The Best in English Since 1939 - A Personal Choice -  Burgess, Anthony - Libri - Amazon.it
A Personal Choice.

Burgess’s list covered 45 years, whereas mine covers a little less, of necessity. I can’t predict the future of the next seven years of publishing. Also, where Burgess appended excellent mini-essays on each text, I have spared you the tedium of my pontifications, though I am happy to elaborate briefly on my choices if there are any queries.

Burgess’s book, a compendium of these mini-essays, is therefore a deft and succinct potted history of Anglophone literature’s greatest hits from the war and post-war period of the 20th century, as he saw it. Ninety Nine Novels is a fascinating list in itself, and I don’t intend to comment on or critique it at all.

It’s certainly open to critique and has inspired much comment over the years. You should read it. Alternatively, you should consult the International Anthony Burgess Foundation’s website, where they are celebrating this book with a series of podcasts. If you’re REALLY stuck for time, Adam Roberts has an excellent summary of the book’s merits (and faults) here.

What were Burgess’s criteria? That they be a) novels, b) published between 1939 and 1983, and c) concerned with what he called ‘human character’. It is, as he wrote in the introduction to Ninety Nine Novels, “the Godlike task of the novelist to create human beings whom we accept as living creatures filled with complexities and armed with free will.” I have ignored his proscription against ‘comic strips’, which he himself in agreement with the critic Leslie Fiedler, felt was already an outdated exclusion in the Eighties.

Finally, he argues that novels should “leave in the reader’s mind a sort of philosophical residue.” Whether he intended that to be as didactic as it sounds is unclear, but it has been the guiding principle in selecting these books. They are therefore novels which I have read, which feature superbly drawn characters, and which have haunted my thoughts afterwards.

Hence, they’re subject to the whims and prejudices of someone of my age, gender, class and race, raised in the place I grew up and educated in the way I was, and circumscribed by which books were available for me to encounter. There’s probably a lot of Irish fiction here. I’m Irish. There’s probably quite a lot of science fiction too. Well, I study it for a living. If there’s an especial density of texts from the late 90s, that’s probably because I was having to read umpteen novels a week as the Books Correspondent for Dublin’s Sunday Independent at the time.

You will likely disagree, and have your own list. And so you should. There are many astonishing books missing from this list, I agree. There are some choices you might find baffling. I can only reiterate how Burgess concluded his introduction to Ninety Nine Novels: “If you disagree violently with some of my choices I shall be pleased. We arrive at values only through dialectic.”

1984 – Neuromancer – William Gibson

The Unbearable Lightness of Being – Milan Kundera

Empire of the Sun – JG Ballard

1985 – Love in the Time of Cholera – Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Oranges are Not the Only Fruit – Jeanette Winterson

Perfume – Patrick Suskind

The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Attwood

1986 – Watchmen – Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

The Old Devils – Kingsley Amis

The Light Fantastic – Terry Pratchett

1987 – Norwegian Wood – Haruki Murakami

Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency – Douglas Adams

The Bonfire of the Vanities – Tom Wolfe

Beloved – Toni Morrison

1988 – Foucault’s Pendulum – Umberto Eco

The Satanic Verses – Salman Rushdie

Dictionary of the Khazars: A Lexicon Novel – Milorad Pavić

1989 – Ripley Bogle – Robert McLiam Wilson

London Fields – Martin Amis

Billy Bathgate – E.L. Doctorow

And the Ass Saw the Angel – Nick Cave

1990 – Amongst Women – John McGahern

Vineland – Thomas Pynchon

Use of Weapons – Iain M. Banks

LA Confidential – James Ellroy

The Buddha of Suburbia – Hanif Kureishi

1991 – American Psycho – Bret Easton Ellis

The Famished Road – Ben Okri

Maus – Art Spiegelman

1992 – Snow Crash – Neal Stephenson

Red Mars – Kim Stanley Robinson

Fatherland – Robert Harris

1993 – The Shipping News – Annie Proulx

A Dead Man in Deptford – Anthony Burgess

Trainspotting – Irvine Welsh

1994 – How Late It Was, How Late – James Kelman

Dead Lagoon – Michael Dibdin

1995 – Independence Day – Richard Ford

1996 – Fight Club – Chuck Pahlaniuk

Infinite Jest – David Foster Wallace

The Tailor of Panama – John Le Carre

Bridget Jones’s Diary – Helen Fielding

1997 – The God of Small Things – Arundhati Roy

Mason & Dixon – Thomas Pynchon

Enduring Love – Ian McEwan

Quarantine – Jim Crace

Underworld – Don DeLillo

1998 – My Name is Red – Orhan Pamuk

The Catastrophist – Ronan Bennett

1999 – Q – Luther Blissett

Ghostwritten – David Mitchell

Motherless Brooklyn – Jonathan Lethem

2000 – Atomised – Michel Houellebecq

White Teeth – Zadie Smith

Persepolis – Marjane Satrapi

Perdido Street Station – China Mieville

2001 – The Eyre Affair – Jasper Fforde

The Constant Gardener – John Le Carre

The Other Wind – Ursula K. Le Guin

2002 – Any Human Heart – William Boyd

Everything is Illuminated – Jonathan Safran Foer

2003 – Millennium People – JG Ballard

Brick Lane – Monica Ali

2004 – River of Gods – Ian McDonald

Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell – Susanna Clarke

2005 – Never Let Me Go – Kazuo Ishiguro

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – Stieg Larsson

2006 – The Road – Cormac McCarthy

The Book of Dave – Will Self

2007 – On Chesil Beach – Ian McEwan

The Yiddish Policeman’s Union – Michael Chabon

2008 – Bad Day in Blackrock – Kevin Power

Bog Child – Siobhan Dowd

2009 – 1Q84 – Haruki Murakami

Wolf Hall – Hilary Mantel

2010 – Room – Emma Donohue

Suicide – Édouard Levé

2011 – 11/22/63 – Stephen King

My Brilliant Friend – Elena Ferrante

2012 – Capital – John Lanchester

2013 – Journalists – Sergei Aman

City of Bohane – Kevin Barry

2014 – Annihilation – Jeff VanderMeer

The Bone Clocks – David Mitchell

The Three-Body Problem – Cixin Liu

2015 – Seveneves – Neal Stephenson

2016 – The Underground Railroad – Colson Whitehead

The Association of Small Bombs – Karan Mahajan

Central Station – Lavie Tidhar

2017 – Lincoln in the Bardo – George Saunders

2084: The End of the World – Boualem Sansai

2018 – Circe – Madeleine Miller

Milkman – Anna Burns

The Black Prince – Adam Roberts

2019 – This is How You Lose the Time War – Amal El-Mohtar

2020 – The Sunken Land Begins To Rise Again – M. John Harrison

Utopia Avenue – David Mitchell

2021 – Klara and the Sun – Kazuo Ishiguro