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Brian O'Neill on Submergence
Editor's Note: I recently read and subsequently tweeted about Submergence, the new novel by J.M. Ledgard. Then I asked one of the smartest people I know - Brian O'Neill - if he would review the book for Waq al-waq. His review is below and it is my hope that he'll continue to review books for us in the future. Stay tuned.
Submergence: A Review - Brian O'Neill
Since his debut with Badlands, reclusive filmmaker Terrence Malick has created movies that are more and more abstract, less plot-centered, with flitting, almost formless dialogue and voiceovers.
His movies are a mediation of man’s role in life, of nature’s impact on man, of the search for the spiritual, for a sense of the eternal in our short and often painful and increasingly distant from natured lives. His films are less movies than a sensory immersion into a series of unanswerable questions.
Reading J.M. Ledgard’s new Submergence, published in America this month, I often got the feeling that one gets watching latter-day Malick. Submergence is an exploration of the present, past, and future, of how we live, and how life lives around us, unconcerned with our relatively new and parasitic species. It is a book that is of the immediate present, but one that illuminates the yawning past from which we’ve barely dragged ourselves and also shines a shaky light on a dim and unknowable future.
This seems like a massive undertaking, but the book clocks in at a scant 200 pages, broken into dozens and dozens of short sections set in areas as disparate as a snowed-in French hotel overlooking a December-chilled Atlantic, the cruel and barren wastes of a hunger-stalked Somalia, and the bottom of a soundless sea, teeming with unimaginable life.
The plot, such as it is, revolves around two characters. One is James More, a descendent of Thomas, a former British paratrooper and current spy, posing as a water expert in scorching Africa. The other is Danielle “Danny” Flinders, of no particularly noble descent, but a child of French, Australian and Martinique heritage, a brilliant scientist, sexual tigress, child of the world, and connoisseur of the finer things in life.
Submergence opens with More in a dark jihadi hole in Somalia, obsessing over light and dark and the bugs and stench of his hole and his own body, which is increasingly becoming a stranger. There is no indication of how long he has been in the fetid, boiling cell, only that it is several moon cycles, at least. His memory keeps going back to meeting Danny at that French hotel.
We see the meeting from both their points of view, interrupted as these flashbacks are to More’s horrid present. They fall in love, her effusive about her work, he quiet about his. They have to part soon, but not before realizing that they are in love, and always will be.
The action continues, as More’s captivity shifts to flight with the jihadis, over the baking wastes of Somalia. He converses with them, is often beaten, and wanders through a world of outlandish cruelty, both by nature and by man. I do not want to give away plot, though there is not much of it.
Danny, meanwhile, is on a scientific expedition to the deeps of the Atlantic, where she is studying the creatures of the far deep, the teeming microbial life that creates itself and gathers and dies around ancient chimneys, heating the water from the earth’s magma, life that until recently we thought was impossible. She, we are told, is going to make a discovery, publish papers, that will forever change our meager and photocentric view of life.
And that is it, and that is its subtle brilliance. Through these disparate elements, Ledgard gives us a view of the world in a way that we rarely see. He makes the tiny chemosynthetic creatures at the bottom of a poisonous sea as important as the jihadists who dominate our headlines. It is tricky to make the phrase or the idea “we’re all connected” not sound like “we’re all connected, man”, but Ledgard pulls it off.
Nature wins. This isn’t a spoiler, but nature is going to win. Everyone is aware of that. In their conversations and private thoughts, Danny and More talk about man as the great despoiler, but, more sobering, as a blip, and nuisance for the planet, which will keep spinning long after we are forgotten. This echoes the dreams of the Somali jihadis, who dream of conquering the globe, but can barely navigate their barren land, who can’t collect enough rain to keep themselves alive, and who are plagued by hunger and bugs and the sun and their own superstitions.
Superstition plays a large role. Our heroes, as rational as they are, are haunted by the echo of legends and ancient fear. The Orpheus myth is hinted at several times, with the ocean substituting for hell. The jihadis are terrified of jinns, shadows of a pre-hominid time, fallen angels or devilswho trap and trick man and have turned their back on Allah.
The jinn, the reader comes to realize, are not terribly different than Flinder’s submerged microbial life, which were here before us and will be here until the sun explodes, and who live with without sun, thriving on poison, in ways we thought impossible. In one gripping scene, More is taken into a cave by the one captor who talks with him, a dark cave where the other fighters refuse to enter.
He is led to a deep, seemingly bottomless pit, which a terrified Saif explains is where the jinns live. More doesn’t believe in this, but, like all of us looking into an unknowable vastness, is equally scared. Saif, the fundamentalist, is scared by what he thinks he knows about the pit. More, the rationalist, by what he knows he doesn’t.
The unknown plays a part in one of the main themes, if man will keep existing or not. It is pretty goddamn certain that we have to change, or we will be just a moment. In one of my favorite passages, Danny reflects that “Homo Sapiens was either at the beginning of a very long journey, or close to the end of a short one. If it was to be an odyssey, the history that had passed since Sumer would come to seem priceless and savage. If it was to be a short venture, man’s mark would be the rubbish he had left in the ground.”
If the book has flaws, it is that you don’t get to really know the characters, which seems like a major flaw, but given the nature of the task, is not much of a problem. Danny, especially, seems a collection of successes, of enemies vanquished and challenges met. She comes off a little too perfect, as even her flaws- her lack of commitment and ability to dominate sexually- are admirable. If she weren’t a good and interesting person, she’d tilt into the kind of one-dimensional heroine that makes Ayn Rand novels so unreadable.
The other writer one is reminded of is Aldous Huxley, especially with Danny and More are in conversation- they are so eloquent and intelligent that they seem to be created and vessels for the writer to pour his philosophy. But when the philosophy is so rich and exciting, such complaints are little more than small beer.
Admitting bias, here- this book hits several sweet spots for me. Of course I have written a lot on Islamism and on jihad, and his description of the mental atmosphere rings true, if ungenerous (but that is also the POV of More, in death-haunted captivity). And I have always been deeply fascinated by the far deep, with its unholy creatures of bioluminescent wonders and terrors, of jagged-toothed angler-fish, of giant squid, and of creatures stranger than that, amorphous, unknown, impossible. Ledgard captures that in all its dark glory.
It is a strange book, both impossibly current and timeless. The death of bin Laden plays a background role, given his relationship to jihadists and his burial ground at the bottom of the sea (a convergence of themes which his publisher called “one of the great literary coincidences of recent times). There was a brief discussion, on Danny’s diving ship, of how a dead whale falls to fathomless depths and is devoured. One thinks of bin Laden, a man whose charisma and malevolence dominated the 21st century, drifting to the muck at the bottom, consumed by dumb starfish and hovering eels and trillions of microbes.
But, you know, we all will be, on sea or on land. We all submerge back into the earth, into the sea, recycling our atoms. Maybe there is reincarnation, maybe we’ll engineer our way into longer lives, maybe we can make permanent our consciousness, but in the end the body will die. It will turn to dust and ash and find its way into other creatures. If there is one theme that Ledgard hits, it is that we are not just on borrowed time, but we are atoms rented from the past and on loan from the future, with only a small sphere of nature-battered self-awareness to call our own. It makes me think of the last stanza in the madman poem of Humbert Humbert (a man who knew not a little about the agonies of time and flesh), in Lolita. This could be a fitting epigram for this small but important book.
And my car is limping, Dolores Haze
And this last long lap is the hardest
And I shall be dumped where the weeds decay
And the rest is rust, and stardust.
Northwell Health is using insights from website traffic to forecast COVID-19 hospitalizations two weeks in the future.
- The machine-learning algorithm works by analyzing the online behavior of visitors to the Northwell Health website and comparing that data to future COVID-19 hospitalizations.
- The tool, which uses anonymized data, has so far predicted hospitalizations with an accuracy rate of 80 percent.
- Machine-learning tools are helping health-care professionals worldwide better constrain and treat COVID-19.
The value of forecasting<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTA0Njk2OC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyMzM2NDQzOH0.rid9regiDaKczCCKBsu7wrHkNQ64Vz_XcOEZIzAhzgM/img.jpg?width=980" id="2bb93" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="31345afbdf2bd408fd3e9f31520c445a" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1546" data-height="1056" />
Northwell emergency departments use the dashboard to monitor in real time.
Credit: Northwell Health<p>One unique benefit of forecasting COVID-19 hospitalizations is that it allows health systems to better prepare, manage and allocate resources. For example, if the tool forecasted a surge in COVID-19 hospitalizations in two weeks, Northwell Health could begin:</p><ul><li>Making space for an influx of patients</li><li>Moving personal protective equipment to where it's most needed</li><li>Strategically allocating staff during the predicted surge</li><li>Increasing the number of tests offered to asymptomatic patients</li></ul><p>The health-care field is increasingly using machine learning. It's already helping doctors develop <a href="https://care.diabetesjournals.org/content/early/2020/06/09/dc19-1870" target="_blank">personalized care plans for diabetes patients</a>, improving cancer screening techniques, and enabling mental health professionals to better predict which patients are at <a href="https://healthitanalytics.com/news/ehr-data-fuels-accurate-predictive-analytics-for-suicide-risk" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elevated risk of suicide</a>, to name a few applications.</p><p>Health systems around the world have already begun exploring how <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7315944/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">machine learning can help battle the pandemic</a>, including better COVID-19 screening, diagnosis, contact tracing, and drug and vaccine development.</p><p>Cruzen said these kinds of tools represent a shift in how health systems can tackle a wide variety of problems.</p><p>"Health care has always used the past to predict the future, but not in this mathematical way," Cruzen said. "I think [Northwell Health's new predictive tool] really is a great first example of how we should be attacking a lot of things as we go forward."</p>
Making machine-learning tools openly accessible<p>Northwell Health has made its predictive tool <a href="https://github.com/northwell-health/covid-web-data-predictor" target="_blank">available for free</a> to any health system that wishes to utilize it.</p><p>"COVID is everybody's problem, and I think developing tools that can be used to help others is sort of why people go into health care," Dr. Cruzen said. "It was really consistent with our mission."</p><p>Open collaboration is something the world's governments and health systems should be striving for during the pandemic, said Michael Dowling, Northwell Health's president and CEO.</p><p>"Whenever you develop anything and somebody else gets it, they improve it and they continue to make it better," Dowling said. "As a country, we lack data. I believe very, very strongly that we should have been and should be now working with other countries, including China, including the European Union, including England and others to figure out how to develop a health surveillance system so you can anticipate way in advance when these things are going to occur."</p><p>In all, Northwell Health has treated more than 112,000 COVID patients. During the pandemic, Dowling said he's seen an outpouring of goodwill, collaboration, and sacrifice from the community and the tens of thousands of staff who work across Northwell.</p><p>"COVID has changed our perspective on everything—and not just those of us in health care, because it has disrupted everybody's life," Dowling said. "It has demonstrated the value of community, how we help one another."</p>
Scientists used CT scanning and 3D-printing technology to re-create the voice of Nesyamun, an ancient Egyptian priest.
- Scientists printed a 3D replica of the vocal tract of Nesyamun, an Egyptian priest whose mummified corpse has been on display in the UK for two centuries.
- With the help of an electronic device, the reproduced voice is able to "speak" a vowel noise.
- The team behind the "Voices of the Past" project suggest reproducing ancient voices could make museum experiences more dynamic.
Howard et al.<p style="margin-left: 20px;">"While this approach has wide implications for heritage management/museum display, its relevance conforms exactly to the ancient Egyptians' fundamental belief that 'to speak the name of the dead is to make them live again'," they wrote in a <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-019-56316-y#Fig3" target="_blank">paper</a> published in Nature Scientific Reports. "Given Nesyamun's stated desire to have his voice heard in the afterlife in order to live forever, the fulfilment of his beliefs through the synthesis of his vocal function allows us to make direct contact with ancient Egypt by listening to a sound from a vocal tract that has not been heard for over 3000 years, preserved through mummification and now restored through this new technique."</p>
Connecting modern people with history<p>It's not the first time scientists have "re-created" an ancient human's voice. In 2016, for example, Italian researchers used software to <a href="https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/hear-recreated-voice-otzi-iceman-180960570/" target="_blank">reconstruct the voice of Ötzi,</a> an iceman who was discovered in 1991 and is thought to have died more than 5,000 years ago. But the "Voices of the Past" project is different, the researchers note, because Nesyamun's mummified corpse is especially well preserved.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"It was particularly suited, given its age and preservation [of its soft tissues], which is unusual," Howard told <em><a href="https://www.livescience.com/amp/ancient-egypt-mummy-voice-reconstructed.html" target="_blank">Live Science</a>.</em></p><p>As to whether Nesyamun's reconstructed voice will ever be able to speak complete sentences, Howard told <em><a href="https://abcnews.go.com/Weird/wireStory/ancient-voice-scientists-recreate-sound-egyptian-mummy-68482015" target="_blank">The Associated Press</a>, </em>that it's "something that is being worked on, so it will be possible one day."</p><p>John Schofield, an archaeologist at the University of York, said that reproducing voices from history can make museum experiences "more multidimensional."</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"There is nothing more personal than someone's voice," he told <em>The Associated Press.</em> "So we think that hearing a voice from so long ago will be an unforgettable experience, making heritage places like Karnak, Nesyamun's temple, come alive."</p>
A new study proposes mysterious axions may be found in X-rays coming from a cluster of neutron stars.
Are Axions Dark Matter?<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="5e35ce24a5b17102bfce5ae6aecc7c14"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/e7yXqF32Yvw?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
New research suggests you can't fake your emotional state to improve your work life — you have to feel it.
What is deep acting?<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTQ1NDk2OS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxNTY5MzA0Nn0._s7aP25Es1CInq51pbzGrUj3GtOIRWBHZxCBFnbyXY8/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=333%2C-1%2C333%2C-1&height=700" id="ddf09" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9dc42c4d6a8e372ad7b72907b46ecd3f" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1245" data-height="700" />
Arlie Russell Hochschild (pictured) laid out the concept of emotional labor in her 1983 book, "The Managed Heart."
Credit: Wikimedia Commons<p>Deep and surface acting are the principal components of emotional labor, a buzz phrase you have likely seen flitting about the Twittersphere. Today, "<a href="https://www.bbc.co.uk/bbcthree/article/5ea9f140-f722-4214-bb57-8b84f9418a7e" target="_blank">emotional labor</a>" has been adopted by groups as diverse as family counselors, academic feminists, and corporate CEOs, and each has redefined it with a patented spin. But while the phrase has splintered into a smorgasbord of pop-psychological arguments, its initial usage was more specific.</p><p>First coined by sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild in her 1983 book, "<a href="https://www.ucpress.edu/book/9780520272941/the-managed-heart" target="_blank">The Managed Heart</a>," emotional labor describes the work we do to regulate our emotions on the job. Hochschild's go-to example is the flight attendant, who is tasked with being "nicer than natural" to enhance the customer experience. While at work, flight attendants are expected to smile and be exceedingly helpful even if they are wrestling with personal issues, the passengers are rude, and that one kid just upchucked down the center aisle. Hochschild's counterpart to the flight attendant is the bill collector, who must instead be "nastier than natural."</p><p>Such personas may serve an organization's mission or commercial interests, but if they cause emotional dissonance, they can potentially lead to high emotional costs for the employee—bringing us back to deep and surface acting.</p><p>Deep acting is the process by which people modify their emotions to match their expected role. Deep actors still encounter the negative emotions, but they devise ways to <a href="http://www.selfinjury.bctr.cornell.edu/perch/resources/what-is-emotion-regulationsinfo-brief.pdf" target="_blank">regulate those emotions</a> and return to the desired state. Flight attendants may modify their internal state by talking through harsh emotions (say, with a coworker), focusing on life's benefits (next stop Paris!), physically expressing their desired emotion (smiling and deep breaths), or recontextualizing an inauspicious situation (not the kid's fault he got sick).</p><p>Conversely, surface acting occurs when employees display ersatz emotions to match those expected by their role. These actors are the waiters who smile despite being crushed by the stress of a dinner rush. They are the CEOs who wear a confident swagger despite feelings of inauthenticity. And they are the bouncers who must maintain a steely edge despite humming show tunes in their heart of hearts.</p><p>As we'll see in the research, surface acting can degrade our mental well-being. This deterioration can be especially true of people who must contend with negative emotions or situations inside while displaying an elated mood outside. Hochschild argues such emotional labor can lead to exhaustion and self-estrangement—that is, surface actors erect a bulwark against anger, fear, and stress, but that disconnect estranges them from the emotions that allow them to connect with others and live fulfilling lives.</p>
Don't fake it till you make it<p>Most studies on emotional labor have focused on customer service for the obvious reason that such jobs prescribe emotional states—service with a smile or, if you're in the bouncing business, a scowl. But <a href="https://eller.arizona.edu/people/allison-s-gabriel" target="_blank">Allison Gabriel</a>, associate professor of management and organizations at the University of Arizona's Eller College of Management, wanted to explore how employees used emotional labor strategies in their intra-office interactions and which strategies proved most beneficial.</p><p>"What we wanted to know is whether people choose to engage in emotion regulation when interacting with their co-workers, why they choose to regulate their emotions if there is no formal rule requiring them to do so, and what benefits, if any, they get out of this effort," Gabriel said in <a href="https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/01/200117162703.htm" target="_blank">a press release</a>.</p><p>Across three studies, she and her colleagues surveyed more than 2,500 full-time employees on their emotional regulation with coworkers. The survey asked participants to agree or disagree with statements such as "I try to experience the emotions that I show to my coworkers" or "I fake a good mood when interacting with my coworkers." Other statements gauged the outcomes of such strategies—for example, "I feel emotionally drained at work." Participants were drawn from industries as varied as education, engineering, and financial services.</p><p>The results, <a href="https://psycnet.apa.org/doiLanding?doi=10.1037%2Fapl0000473" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">published in the Journal of Applied Psychology</a>, revealed four different emotional strategies. "Deep actors" engaged in high levels of deep acting; "low actors" leaned more heavily on surface acting. Meanwhile, "non-actors" engaged in negligible amounts of emotional labor, while "regulators" switched between both. The survey also revealed two drivers for such strategies: prosocial and impression management motives. The former aimed to cultivate positive relationships, the latter to present a positive front.</p><p>The researchers found deep actors were driven by prosocial motives and enjoyed advantages from their strategy of choice. These actors reported lower levels of fatigue, fewer feelings of inauthenticity, improved coworker trust, and advanced progress toward career goals. </p><p>As Gabriel told <a href="https://www.psypost.org/2021/01/new-psychology-research-suggests-deep-acting-can-reduce-fatigue-and-improve-your-work-life-59081" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">PsyPost in an interview</a>: "So, it's a win-win-win in terms of feeling good, performing well, and having positive coworker interactions."</p><p>Non-actors did not report the emotional exhaustion of their low-actor peers, but they also didn't enjoy the social gains of the deep actors. Finally, the regulators showed that the flip-flopping between surface and deep acting drained emotional reserves and strained office relationships.</p><p>"I think the 'fake it until you make it' idea suggests a survival tactic at work," Gabriel noted. "Maybe plastering on a smile to simply get out of an interaction is easier in the short run, but long term, it will undermine efforts to improve your health and the relationships you have at work. </p><p>"It all boils down to, 'Let's be nice to each other.' Not only will people feel better, but people's performance and social relationships can also improve."</p>
You'll be glad ya' decided to smile<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="88a0a6a8d1c1abfcf7b1aca8e71247c6"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/QOSgpq9EGSw?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>But as with any research that relies on self-reported data, there are confounders here to untangle. Even during anonymous studies, participants may select socially acceptable answers over honest ones. They may further interpret their goal progress and coworker interactions more favorably than is accurate. And certain work conditions may not produce the same effects, such as toxic work environments or those that require employees to project negative emotions.</p><p>There also remains the question of the causal mechanism. If surface acting—or switching between surface and deep acting—is more mentally taxing than genuinely feeling an emotion, then what physiological process causes this fatigue? <a href="https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnhum.2019.00151/full" target="_blank">One study published in the <em>Frontiers in Human Neuroscience</em></a><em> </em>measured hemoglobin density in participants' brains using an fNIRS while they expressed emotions facially. The researchers found no significant difference in energy consumed in the prefrontal cortex by those asked to deep act or surface act (though, this study too is limited by a lack of real-life task).<br></p><p>With that said, Gabriel's studies reinforce much of the current research on emotional labor. <a href="https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/2041386611417746" target="_blank">A 2011 meta-analysis</a> found that "discordant emotional labor states" (read: surface acting) were associated with harmful effects on well-being and performance. The analysis found no such consequences for deep acting. <a href="https://doi.apa.org/doiLanding?doi=10.1037%2Fa0022876" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Another meta-analysis</a> found an association between surface acting and impaired well-being, job attitudes, and performance outcomes. Conversely, deep acting was associated with improved emotional performance.</p><p>So, although there's still much to learn on the emotional labor front, it seems Van Dyke's advice to a Leigh was half correct. We should put on a happy face, but it will <a href="https://bigthink.com/design-for-good/everything-you-should-know-about-happiness-in-one-infographic" target="_self">only help if we can feel it</a>.</p>
Archaeologists discover a cave painting of a wild pig that is now the world's oldest dated work of representational art.