Book Review: Brilliant Green: The Surprising History and Science of Plant Intelligence #Plants @IslandPress

Mancuso, Stefano and Alessandra Viola. Brilliant Green: The Surprising History and Science of Plant Intelligence. Translated by Joan Benham. Island Press, 2015.

This small book by an Italian scientist and science journalist makes the case that plants have been underestimated and that they have a kind of “intelligence.” They convinced me — but only for some definitions of intelligence.

The book begins with a survey of ideas about plants in the past. The three major monotheistic religions mostly ignore plants, though Mancuso and Viola point out that Judaism forbids the gratuitous destruction of trees and has a holiday to celebrate their new year. Most philosophers and scientists before the 20th century didn’t think much of plants either, but Democritus, Linnaeus, and Darwin suspected there was more in them than met the eye.

The authors soon build a dichotomy: are plants “social organisms, sophisticated and highly evolved like us” (p. 36)? Or are they “closer to the mineral world than to animal life” (p. 37-8)? Surely those are not the only choices. I didn’t believe either of these possibilities before reading the book, and I didn’t believe either of them when I finished the book.

Elsewhere in the book, however, Mancuso and Viola use a more reasonable formulation: “Intelligence is the ability to solve problems” (p. 126). They note the most obvious difference between plants and animals, that plants are stationary (at least for most of their lives). They are therefore subject to predation by herbivores and therefore cannot have centralized, specialized organs that an animal could eat and kill the plant. So, just as plants have a decentralized circulatory system without a central “heart” to pump fluids throughout their bodies, they also have a decentralized nervous system without having a central “brain.”

The middle of the book, which is the most informative, describes how plants solve problems in their lives, often by means analogous to what animals do. Mancuso and Viola demonstrate that plants have:

  • a sense of sight
  • a sense of smell
  • a sense of taste
  • a sense of touch
  • a sense of hearing
  • 15 other senses, including a sense of moisture and a sense of gravity

Plants also communicate. One part of a plant can communicate with another, such as when the roots tell the leaf openings (stomata) whether to open or not. Plants communicate with other plants, such as telling each other when an herbivore is near. Plants communicate with animals, such as when they provide incentives for their moving friends to pollenate them or spread their seeds.

Plants even sleep, a fact Linnaeus was one of the first to notice, but still not much is known about why they do so.

The book has a few egregious errors of science, which make it difficult to trust the authors when they make bold claims.

We know that the first single-celled organisms that appeared on the planet were algae — that is, the plant kind of living things. Through photosynthesis, they created the oxygen that enabled life to spread over the earth. This included the emergence of eukaryotes, or animal cells. (p. 29)

No, both plants and animals are eukaryotes. (The term refers to organisms with cells having a nucleus and organelles, not to the cells themselves.) Organisms with simpler cells, such as bacteria, are called prokaryotes.

It’s like saying that if 100 is the total weight of everything alive, according to various estimates, between 99.5 and 99.9 percent is composed of plants. Or to put it another way all living animals — humans included — represent only a trace (a scant 0.1 to 0.5 percent). (p. 40)

This seems to be saying that all living things are either plants or animals. What about fungi, protista, bacteria?

… [T]he vectors are bats (cheiropteroi in Greek), which are used to carry pollen from many American desert cacti, such as the Joshua Tree. (p. 109)

The Joshua tree is a yucca, not a cactus.

Despite some overblown claims for plant intelligence and a few errors, this book is worth reading for some solid information about plant capabilities, some of which have only recently been discovered.

Disclaimer: Island Press sent me a free copy of this book as part of their “blind date with a book” promotion.

Is Technology Changing Your Brain? (Josh Hanagarne) #internetlibrarian #il2014

Josh Hanagarne, the “world’s strongest librarian

Had a dream about a highly anticipated speaker, who turned out to have a fish head. He starts his speech with, “Call me Fishmael.”

Hasn’t been a manager except a short stint as a branch manager. Killed it with the mending cart, though!

His Tourette’s means that he has had to learn to pay attention.

Library school recruiters told him he would be the “steward of democracy.”

After an intense year of library school (including a lot of time online), went back to reading for pleasure. Used to read 200-300 pages a day (doesn’t get much sleep because of Tourette’s). Could not read in the same way.

He pays close attention to his brain, so he knew something had changed.

He spent time doing breathing exercises and had a year without Tourette’s. An MRI shoed that his brain had actually changed during that time. (It’s gotten worse since then.)

Like HAL from “2001”: “Dave, I can feel it, my mind, it’s going.”

When reading, would get antsy three paragraphs in.

(Reference to “The Shallows” by Nicholas Carr, which says the Internet is changing us. Not paranoid like “The Net Delusion.”)

Will never stop being a heavy Internet user and wouldn’t want to reverse progress. But assuming the Internet is changing our brains, we should think about that.

T. S. Eliot felt that his sentences got shorter and he lost subtlety when he started writing on a typewriter.

According to a biographer, Nietzsche’s writing changed to aphorisms and puns when he started using a kind of typewriter (“under the sway of the machine”).

Cormac McCarthy, “Blood Meridian”: “A man’s at odds to know his mind” (because you have to use your brain to know your own brain).

A brain is a lump of pink and gray goo. How does it do what we do? We get up, recognize things and people, agree on our observations of reality. We know we are ourselves, because we have a mental record of our past.

Is your memory decreasing apart from age? Carr uses a metaphor of sticky notes as short-term memory and a filing cabinet as long-term memory. Memory depends on getting those sticky notes into the filing cabinet.

Believes Internet addiction is real and that he has it.

How many of you have already logged into Facebook this morning? (Maybe a quarter of hands went up.)

His definition of addiction: something makes you feel way better than it should and you have an unwillingness to become uncomfortable.

Loneliness and jealousy: Facebook can make you feel worse afterward. (Sherry Turkle, “Alone Together”)

Does it change our habits and manners? How many have answered a text message while talking to somebody else?

Does it change the way we think? He is addicted to one-star reviews on Amazon.

Does it change the way we think about ourselves? People at the library ask for help getting a Facebook account. They have to answer all kinds of questions about what they like.

“You as dropdown menu.” You have to choose from a finite list of options. What if they don’t have your option? We are defined by software somebody wrote. Book: “You are not a Gadget.”

Does it change the nature of experience? It used to be you could eat celery or go on a hike without sharing a picture.

Pictures of celebrities now often have the person taking the selfie in the foreground.

Do you get excited about doing something or sharing that thing on social media?

Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” Hanagarne (and I) say, it’s only nine pages, read it.

When a subject is drained of its images, it loses emotional power. So we have euphemisms like “ethnic cleansing” rather than what it really is.

If all writing is meant to be skimmed, we lose the power of writing to convey what’s really going on.

What if we could agree on what feminism is and how we could achieve its aims, but only if we all read a 50-page complex document sentence by sentence?

How does it work? Any problem you want to solve, you have to ask this question. Kids were shown a drinking bird toy and wouldn’t even guess how it works, because they could look it up on their phone.

What does it mean to know something? Knowing where an answer is can feel like knowing an answer.

What might this mean for libraries?

Books: wants people to be able to take a big, complicated book off the shelf and get something from it.

What are libraries for? Libraries are a place to dream with your eyes open (Stephen Abram). Not much time to dream in between tweets.

Freedom is at stake. A library makes people freer than they otherwise would be. You are not free to ask a question that would not occur to you. Everyone has manacles on their minds; they are the questions we don’t ask. The library gives you more questions to ask.

There is no off switch to adaptation. You will get better at whatever you do. If reading seems to be harder, it’s because it is getting harder.

Our mission is to keep as many minds in play and playful. We need to fight for literacy and openness. This is part of that.

The only ones we’ll be able to trust are those who are still trying to think, who still know that words means something.

Questions and answers:

Working on a YA novel, another memoir on faith.

He’s working on expanding his limits. Read until it gets hard, but keep expanding that time. Didn’t want to associate reading with a freaked-out state.

One questioner says she can read the way she used to at a cabin with no phone and no Internet access.

Hanagarne’s great reading list from this talk has been compiled at www.libconf.com/2014/10/29/wednesdays-keynote-reading-list/#.VFGbPEBCEYo.twitter/

Edited to add: a few things including the link above.

The Librarian’s Skillbook: a short review @debhunt6

When I wrote about picking up a copy of the Librarian’s Skillbook: 51 Essential Career Skills for Information Professionals by Deborah Hunt and David Grossman, I promised I’d give it a fuller treatment after I finished reading it. I finished it a while ago, but I am just getting around to writing this review.

The Librarian’s Skillbook is a very practical work for beginning librarians, unemployed/underemployed librarians, or mid-career librarians who feel the need to brush up their skills, either to look for other jobs or to improve their status at their current workplaces.

The skills are a mix of technical skills (such as digital archiving and enterprise content management), traditional library skills made more relevant for the 21st century (such as strategic knowledge and providing “value add” solutions), business skills (such as project management and not giving away the store), and interpersonal skills (such as networking and being proactive). (They acknowledge that librarians tend to be quiet, unassuming types, but encourage readers to learn new skills and let people know that they have those skills.)

For each of the 51 skills in the book, Hunt and Grossman describe the skill, give some tips to acquire the skill, and list a few web and print references to read. The tips often encourage the reader to practice the skill at their current workplace or, if that’s not possible, to do some kind of internship or volunteer work to learn the skill. They won’t take no for an answer; they believe you can do this!

Most of the skills include a section called “this skill in action,” in which Hunt and Grossman give an anecdote from their own careers or those of other librarians they know. Hunt and Grossman have both had varied careers. She has worked at the Exploratorium (a science museum in San Francisco), as a consultant, and now at the Mechanics’ Institute. He has worked as a journalist, a builder of online databases, and now in the local history room of Mill Valley Public Library (Calif.). So, the stories from their careers add some real-world details to their advice.

At the end of the book, Hunt and Grossman encourage readers to sit down and plan how and when they will acquire some of the 51 skills. Again, they urge you to just do it!

Note: Nothing in this review, pro or con, has been influenced by the fact that my picture shows up on the web site for the book.

Hunt, Deborah and David Grossman. The Librarian’s Skillbook: 51 Essential Career Skills for Information Professionals. 2013. LibrarianSkillbook.com

The Librarian’s Skillbook #sla2013 @debhunt6

I’m currently reading The Librarian’s Skillbook: 51 Essential Career Skills for Information Professionals by Deborah Hunt and David Grossman. I picked it up at the Special Libraries Association conference in San Diego last week. It’s got a nice mix of hard, tech skills and soft, people skills. They point out that “no one expects you to be an expert in all of the skills in this book,” but of course, the more you can acquire, the better off you will be — either in your current job or your next one.

I plan to write more when I have finished it.

Some links:

Statistical Abstract to continue in private hands

Information Today is reporting that the Statistical Abstract is being “rescued” by major database publisher ProQuest. (Full disclosure: I, like many other librarians, am a customer of ProQuest in my day job.)

The good news:

  • Someone will continue to compile the most important statistics from the federal government and other organizations in one convenient place
  • There will be a print version available from Bernan Press, but we don’t know yet how much it will cost. (The 2012 edition costs $40 in paperback from the Government Printing Office, $44 in hardback.) This is important for smaller libraries, as I will explain below.
  • The new electronic version will be more interactive than the current flat PDF and updated more frequently (monthly vs. annually). Current web site (Census Bureau)

The bad news:

  • The electronic version will not be free. Right now, anyone can get access to the web version and find statistics collected by the federal government. In other words, we (as U.S. taxpayers) paid for this data to be collected. Why should we have to pay again to get access to it? After the changeover, ProQuest says, it will sell Statistical Abstract as a stand-alone subscription and as part of a larger statistical database. Maybe Stat Abs will be cheap enough that every public library in the country can subscribe. But maybe it won’t. Maybe you will only have electronic access to it if you are affiliated with one of the academic or public libraries that are able to afford it. Otherwise, you will have to go to your library and use the print edition (assuming that’s still reasonably priced). Or you can buy your own copy of the print edition. These were our choices in the pre-Internet days.

It’s better than seeing Stat Abs go away, but there are some real potential down sides here.

Update, April 16: I’ve been thinking about this some more since yesterday. Yes, the federal government collected these statistics with our tax dollars. (And you could probably find them for free on several hundred different dot-gov web sites.) But that’s not what’s so valuable about Statistical Abstract. The valuable thing is that it compiles these statistics in one place and tells you where to get more information. To the extent that ProQuest and Bernan are taking over that function, they deserve to be paid for their work. However, I still worry that we could be getting a pricey database, available in relatively few libraries, in place of the free web site we have now.

National Academies make reports available in PDF

The National Academies (of Sciences, of Engineering) are the government’s science advisors. Whenever there’s a tough issue of science or technology, it gets thrown to them to figure out.

More than 4,000 National Academies Press PDFs now available to download for free:

The National Academies—National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, and National Research Council—are committed to distributing their reports to as wide an audience as possible. Since 1994 we have offered “Read for Free” options for almost all our titles. [But you had to read them one page at a time. — WL] In addition, we have been offering free downloads of most of our titles to everyone and of all titles to readers in the developing world. We are now going one step further. Effective June 2nd, PDFs of reports that are currently for sale on the National Academies Press (NAP) Website and PDFs associated with future reports* will be offered free of charge to all Web visitors.

More water literature

California water resources and Internet Archive

I have a lot of bulletins from the California Dept. of Water Resources (DWR) in my library. And like any forward thinking librarian, I want to provide my users with links in the catalog to electronic versions of the reports whenever possible. But why scan something when somebody else has done it first?

I knew that UC Davis’ library was adding e-copies of DWR reports to the Internet Archive, so I checked to see if they had done the ones I had. When I got to the California Water Resources collection there, I discovered a nice surprise: they have an RSS feed. So now I don’t have to keep checking back all the time; I can just follow the RSS feed. (It looks as if they do more scanning in the summer, naturally.)

OK, you’re thinking, that’s great if I’m interested in California water. Get this: the Internet Archive has almost three million texts. There’s a good chance there’s a collection that will interest you and that you’ll want to follow what they post.

Southern Africa

The British Geological Survey has posted an archive of grey literature on Southern African groundwater. Grey literature (or gray literature) is documents other than books or journal articles. It includes conference papers, pamphlets, unpublished reports, theses and dissertations, etc. It doesn’t always end up in libraries (or on the Internet), and even if it does, it doesn’t always get cataloged properly. In other words, it’s lost for all intents and purposes. I think this archive will be a real service to the people and nations of Southern Africa, who might not otherwise find this information about their own region.

(H/T Aquadoc at WaterWired)