Book Review: Thripz and Dust

Thripz (Author: Robert Farley)
Bug Rating:

Dust (Author: Charles Pellegrino)
Bug Rating:

It’s been a while since I’ve reviewed a book, and it seemed like these two go together.  They are both stories of tiny animals gone horribly wrong, but they are also quite different.

I’ll start with Thripz, which reads very much like a SyFy Movie of the Week Script:

Scientists deduce the creatures are thrips, a kind of common yard and garden pest. But these have been altered at the genetic level. Now they are able to metabolize pesticides and to reproduce at incredible rates, effectively being born pregnant.   Within twenty-four hours, more than a dozen deaths have been attributed to the abnormal pests.”

Yep, Genetically modified thrips that attack people and have a toxic bite. Created by a mad scientist in the pay of North Korea, hiding out on Hawaii.  Fortunately, a semi-psychic newspaper reporter has a (literally) tingling nose for news, and investigates.  Also, there are dueling agribusiness interests, a hot Denny’s waitress with GMO thrips “larvae” implanted in her abdomen, and shoot outs.  Oh, also pheromones, a 300lb Ukelele player, a corrupt graduate student, and incendiary ladybugs.

Yeah, it’s a bit over the top.

Which is a shame, because had it not had the entire kitchen sink of literary devices tossed into it, it could have developed into a good story.   If only tension had been developed by actual elements of the story, rather than a convenient psychic sense telling the reporter that something bad was going to happen.

Dust, on the other hand, also has a lot going on plot-wise, but holds together better.  It’s name comes from a plague of carnivorous dust mites that (again, literally) eat Long Island.  It has what may be one of my favorite dust cover blurbs:

“They’re dead, I tell you! All the fungus gnats are dead!” screams a famous entomologist just before his protective suit is ripped apart and he’s devoured by millions of vicious mites.”

How could I NOT read this book?  It’s built around a central theme–what would happen if all the insects on earth suddenly and mysteriously disappeared?  A whole bunch of scientific and economic concepts are woven together to make flesh-eating-mite mayhem.  There are some very recognizable characters as well–”Edwin Wilson” the “Ant Man” is clearly modeled on E.O. Wilson (and is the famous entomologist that is eaten alive in that blurb above.)

Unfortunately, this book too suffers from an excess of ideas, and the text often gets bogged down in explaining some of the details. There are a lot of details.   It’s not often that evolutionary biologists and ecologists get to be the stars of a disaster epic, though, so it was worth a read just for plain entertainment value.

I mean, vampire bats become vectors of mad cow disease, which somehow….eventually…. leads to a military captain breaking down in classic Dr. Strangelove style and shelling Hoboken with Thor nuclear missiles. Because he hates Sinatra.  (Best line? “You mutinous dog! You Sinatra-loving sack of shit!“)

Things devolve quickly into a post-apocalyptic world, with desperate attempts to clone pre-historic insects to bring the things back into ecological balance.  This book is alternately horrifying, silly, suspenseful, and turgid.  But if you enjoy trying to guess which of your real world colleagues are the ones being eaten alive by various tiny creatures run amok, you might have a good time with it.

Insects Totally Caused Ultimate Frisbee

So, I was going to write a really important post tonight.  It was going to deal with philosophy of science, and it was going to be a shoe-in for Open Lab 2011.  It was gonna make you question how you thought about Life, The Universe, And Everything.

And then Google Labs released a new tool.

And I was all, “WOO SHINY NEW TOY!”

And.

Yeah.

That was how I found out about ultimate frisbee and insects.

Google Correlate is an experimental new tool on Google Labs which enables you to find queries with a similar pattern to a target data series. The target can either be a real-world trend that you provide (e.g., a data set of event counts over time) or a query that you enter.”

Basically, Google takes a search term that you enter (“insects”) and examines search patterns for other search terms in its database to calculate a correlation coefficient (r).  It’s an extension of Google Trends; it’s looking to see which search terms trend together.

In case you barely remember that statistics class from your misspent youth, the correlation coefficient is a value between -1 and +1.  The closer to ±1 the r value is, the more closely correlated the patterns are.  The closer the value to zero, the less the two patterns are related.

Of course, we’ve all heard the “correlation is not causation” trope a million times. It’s especially true here; when you don’t even have a hypothesis about a relationship, the data points are just amusing.

So for your amusement and edification:

In addition to frisbee, “insects” is also strongly correlated with the search terms “snake photo” and “lizards”.

“Insect” (non-plural) is most strongly correlated with “aluminum siding,” “dunking booth,” and “frisbee” (non-ultimate).

“Ants” is most strongly correlated with “string trimmer.”
“Bees” is most strongly correlated with “Tool Rental.”  “Honey Bee” is correlated with “raptor cam“.
“Roaches” is most strongly correlated with “warts,” as well as “5 year anniversary.”

Lice” is strongly correlated with “dragon fruit“, but also “literacy stations” and “cheer routine.”  In fact, several cheerleading terms show up in the correlation list for “lice.”  “Head Lice” is strongly correlated with “tackle football“, and “Nits“are correlated with “cheerleading bows“, so perhaps football season mirrors lice season?

And, of course, you know I had to go there.

“Crab Lice” is most strongly correlated with….”Lighthouses“?

“Pubic Lice” is most strongly correlated with….a host of civil war search terms.

I am frankly rather baffled about why these search terms should be seasonally correlated, unless Civil War Re-enactors are taking things a little too seriously in their search for authenticity.

Give it a spin–what fun correlations can you discover?