Stacks

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In grade school, research was the stuff you had to get through before you could start to write. Now it’s a part of the process I relish. I like discovering new ideas and learning new concepts. But the research process feeds the part of me that craves some instant gratification, and some of the physical markers of productivity that I miss when I spend hours tapping pixelated characters onto a glowing screen —and then deleting most of them a week or an hour or a minute later.

Perhaps because I value research as a tangible part of the writing process, I especially like spending an afternoon, or two, or four in the library, foraging for books. A couple of weeks ago I visited from just about every corner of the local library. I built a rainbow stack: illustrated encyclopedia of Chinese mythology from the children’s reference collection, a pocket-sized meteorological field guide, a handsome green hardcover on the philosophy of “cloudspotting,” textbooks on climate change, and a couple of glossy magazines. I thump those down on a nice bench by the windows, and then comes the best part —digging in.I love cracking the stiff spine of a shiny new hardcover, or fluttering the clothy corners of a well-used paperback under my thumb. Smooth-paged texts smell like glue, and heavy papery volumes give off a whiff of potatoes and dirt.

Rewarding and rich as the physical search is for me, I’ll admit this type of info-hunting has its limits. I’m lucky to live a short walk or ride from several well-shelved libraries, but even then my bookbag is only so big, and the roads turn to impassable slush every three to five days. So I’m luckier still that my access to information doesn’t stop on a snowy Sunday. I can lift the lid of my laptop and open a portal to a massive collection that never shuts down, without spending a cent or an ounce of effort.

Of course, that’s not a new development for technology and not even a new one to me. I cobbled together many undergrad papers with JStor (and diet cola), and I’ve spent more than a few afternoons dallied in citation hopping via Google Scholar. Just recently, however, I’ve started to appreciate the full range of tools and resources that are available.

Diversity and convenience are the chief virtues of the virtual, but those don’t satisfy everything I want in a research expedition. I’ve used online databases for a long time, and yet I still need the library to make reading feel real. As I branch out to new (to me) tools and resources, I’m finding that I can come closer to approximating that multi-sensory satisfaction of capturing a source and making it my own. Part of the experience of a treasure is making one’s mark, whether it’s a fingerprint on the dusty cover, a sticky flag or an exuberant scribble, so whoever decided that e-comments should look like PostIt squares and highlighters default to neon yellow had readers like me in mind. Now I’m starting to play with specialized search engines that let me make maps or collages of results or key words , note-taking software that lets me dog-ear and highlight my favorite webpages, and a growing “e-brary” that allows me to put a digital text on my own online shelf, flip through page by page, and mark up my favorite parts without leaving my desk. I’ll admit my old-fashioned heart fluttered when I saw the “Export Citation” button on a publications database, and then the drop-down menu let me choose APA or MLA.

An online research hunt can take me farther afield than my Bean boots will carry me and allows me to stack up more material than I could ever carry. With the time I save I suppose I should be able to read twice as much, or I maybe I should go outside and stretch my legs.

For meta-nerdery, research new digital research toys at: http://dirt.projectbamboo.org/

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Groundtruthing with a Raw Data Diet

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Pretty soon, you might find that your garden is gossiping about you, says PLEASED, an outfit that is advancing plant cyborg technology. Last week, you found some thoughts here about an e-tattoo that could read humans’ unspoken thoughts, via electric impulses picked up at your vocal cords. PLEASED is taking eavesdropping to a new kingdom, to translate electric impulses to find out what plants are “thinking.”

In some fields,* plants are the experts. They’ve developed sensitive sensors for light, moisture, acidity, and more. Electric signals are part of the response to stimuli. PLEASED—PLants Employed as Sensing Devices— is tapping into that information and creating a network that harvests data from many plants to create a profile of the environmental conditions in the area. They are starting now with just a few measurements, but they are creating an open dataset to build an inventory of electric responses to stimuli and tools for translating those signals into useful field information.

The system may sound elaborate considering that we have thermometers, and other instruments that help us assess the conditions around us. Plants have evolved to be really good at sizing up their environments because they have to; they live and die by those measurements. Humans have figured out some work-arounds, maybe the simplest of which is that we can move around, say in and out of the shade. Some conditions, however, aren’t easy for us to control or escape. Breaking news from the collective plant kingdom could be very useful in that case, not only for the breadth, depth and accuracy that PLEASED is expecting, but also because vegetable data is as raw as it gets. Some of the biggest ecological questions that humans face have become fraught with media spin, corporate interest, and political posturing. Google “climate change facts” and the words “skeptics,” “denial,” “attacks,” “dangers,” and “myths” pop up everywhere in the first wave of results. Instead of having to weed through the human intrigue and error, “the internet of plants” could be one way to get info from unbiased sources. All the plants know is what they need to know to survive. And that’s what we humans need, too. We might be wise to tune in.

* I planted too many puns in this piece. Forgive me. Bonus prize if you can count them all.