Nadia Berenstein

Is there any question in modern existence more fraught than “What should I eat?”

Our choices about food can feel insanely consequential. Inundated with contradictory advice, anxious regimens and alarming YouTube videos, it is hard know what to believe. Will coffee slowly kill you, or save you from depression and cancer? Should you avoid butter, or put it on everything?

From the start, George Zaidan’s Ingredients: The Strange Chemistry of What We Put in Us and on Us distinguishes itself from the typical “eat this, not that” manifesto. Diet-related media likes to promise answers, spouting forth inarguable truths: Keto will transform your body and your life! High fructose corn syrup causes obesity! In contrast, Ingredients is about raising questions. The book begins with a bit of common knowledge—eating processed food is bad—and subjects it to scrutiny. How bad is it, exactly? How much life does every additional Cheeto suck from your body?

Ingredients is about the complex process of figuring out how to answer this question. In other words, instead of offering up faddish nutritional spin, or dishing out sanctimonious vagaries like, “Eat real food,” Zaidan does something different—and much more worthwhile. He guides you through how scientists assess the risks and safety of chemicals: how they establish the links between health effects and their causes, and how they sometimes get it wrong.

The result is a romp through the scenic highways of the scientific method and the murky swamplands of scientific evidence. After reading this book, when you encounter headlines like “Blueberries Shown to Prevent Cancer” or “Processed Food Increases Risk of Death by 14%,” you’ll have a much better understanding of how seriously to take them.

You may recognize Zaidan from his stint co-hosting CNBC’s reality show “Make Me a Millionaire Inventor.” As a science communicator, his writing and videos have been featured in The New York Times, NPR and TED-Ed. Ingredients takes off from his current National Geographic webseries of the same name, where he zanily explores the science of everyday stuff, like “What’s in air freshener?” and “What makes gum chewy?”

Zaidan brings the same hyperkinetic, super-digressive, uber-nerd sensibility to his writing. After reading this book, I know more about aphid poop than I care to admit,  can tell you how cyanide kills and am aware that the distinctive, summertime aroma of swimming pools is not the smell of chlorine but of chlorine mixed with pee (ew).

For a title that gleefully veers into the technical aspects of statistics and organic chemistry, it’s a breezy read. Zaidan has a gift for punching up hard science with goofball details without sacrificing substance. Does the jocularity sometimes feel a little excessive? Sure. Personally, I could have done without a few of the (multiple!) references to spoof Harry Potter porno Hairy Smallballer and the Failure to Bone. But it’s a rare book that can compare achieving statistical significance in an experiment to reaching orgasm and still leave you feeling like you’ve learned something useful.

Ultimately, Ingredients teaches us how to be informed, skeptical consumers of scientific news—and how to appreciate the gradual, cumulative, collective effort of scientific research. “Science proceeds slowly and erratically,” Zaidan writes. “If you’re on the outside looking in, trying to figure out what’s true can be insanely frustrating. But once a super-solid Bridge of Truth is constructed, it’s a beautiful thing, just like the process that created it: science.”

Is there any question in modern existence more fraught than “What should I eat?” Our choices about food can feel insanely consequential. Inundated with contradictory advice, anxious regimens and alarming YouTube videos, it is hard know what to believe. Will coffee slowly kill you, or save you from depression and cancer? Should you avoid butter, or put it on […]

Chloé Hilliard is a rising star in comedy, a semifinalist on season 8 of NBC’s “Last Comic Standing” who has appeared on “The Tonight Show,” Comedy Central and on stages across the country. She often draws material from her life, playing up her Amazonian size—she’s six-one—and her roots in 1980s and ’90s Brooklyn. So I expected F*ck Your Diet: And Other Things My Thighs Tell Me, her new collection of personal essays, to be like an extended set: riffs on her childhood growing up black in a Hasidic neighborhood or on her on-again-off-again veganism.

What I didn’t know was that Hilliard has a degree in journalism from NYU and spent a decade working as a culture writer for publications like The Source, VIBE and The Village Voice. Her skills as a reporter are on fantastic display in this book. One early chapter describes the humiliations of the President’s Challenge fitness test in elementary school, before launching into a searing indictment of President Reagan—“the latest in a long line of fragile white men in the Oval Office who used propaganda to get Americans to accomplish the physical feats they themselves could not”—who promoted the ordeal while slicing funding for school meals and other services that could have actually improved children’s health. When she writes about an abusive relationship, a serious chapter that spares no hilarious detail of the dude’s unfathomable trashiness, she places her story in the larger context of intimate partner violence and its prevalence in communities of color. Her account of almost dying from a misdiagnosed MRSA infection delves into the history and ongoing legacy of scientific racism in medicine.

In other words, this book is more than just memoir. This is a personal story that illustrates how the most intimate aspects of existence—the way our bodies look, the way we feel about and feed them, the quality of our lives—are shaped by history and public policy, by capitalism and by the environments we live in. “What changed my life,” Hilliard writes with fierce dignity, “was the realization that my issue with weight wasn’t entirely my fault.”

But don’t worry. This book is still funny. In fact, it’s frequently hysterical. Hilliard is a sharp observer: media culture, office culture, the culture of improv comedy and the stand-up circuit all come under her lacerating gaze. (If you’ve ever worked in places that reward sycophantic drudgery over talent, skill and effort, you will appreciate her unforgettable takedown of the short-lived Lifetime magazine.)

In the end, what distinguishes Hilliard’s essays is her preference for messy honesty over neat conclusions. “This isn’t a self-help book,” she writes. “I don’t have any answers.” Instead, this is a record of a life in progress, of a woman who is still dealing with some shit. “I hope I’ve given you reason to reexamine the things you thought made you undesirable and unworthy,” she concludes. She’s done more than that—she’s given us a chance to laugh them off the stage.

Chloé Hilliard is a rising star in comedy, a semifinalist on season 8 of NBC’s “Last Comic Standing” who has appeared on “The Tonight Show,” Comedy Central and on stages across the country. She often draws material from her life, playing up her Amazonian size—she’s six-one—and her roots in 1980s and ’90s Brooklyn. So I expected F*ck […]

Artificial intelligence. Those words often conjure extreme visions: a shiny techno-future of self-driving cars and hyperefficient production, or a dystopian doomscape of mass unemployment and robot overlords.

In her first book, You Look Like a Thing and I Love You, Janelle Shane assures us that AI is more like a toaster than like Skynet from Terminator. It’s a tool—one that is really good at some things and really, really terrible at others. This accessible guide to AI and machine learning cuts through the techno-hype and shows how AI is making the world a stranger place.

You may know Shane from her humor blog, AI Weirdness, where she trains AI to perform all kinds of silly tricks, such as coming up with pick-up lines—the source of the book’s title. You Look Like a Thing follows in the blog’s footsteps, with plenty of hilarious AI fails, neural-net-generated recipes for “Basic Clam Frosting” and robots doing the can-can. But the humor isn’t just a gimmick. Shane, who holds advanced degrees in engineering and physics, unpacks the whack, using incidents of AI weirdness and abject failure to reveal the peculiar logics of machine learning. Why do image-identifying AI obsessively find giraffes everywhere? What made Google Translate interpret nonsense syllables as biblical verses? How could a self-driving car mistake a truck for a road sign? In unraveling all the ways AI can go wrong, Shane illuminates its inner workings.

Where Shane really excels is in spotlighting the social consequences of AI. She explains how an algorithm widely used to decide whether to release prisoners on parole systematically identifies black inmates as higher-risk for reoffending than comparable white inmates. In another example, a resume-screening bot routinely penalized women applicants. The data that AI are trained on are often more important than the design of the neural networks—and these datasets unintentionally reflect the explicit and implicit biases of the cultures that produced them. After reading this book, you’ll never again assume that an algorithm is neutral.

This is why You Look Like a Thing and I Love You should be essential reading, even if you never end up training your own pet neural-net. AI is already busy all around us—determining what we see (and don’t) on the internet, deciding whether we qualify for a loan, finishing our sentences. If AI unleash a dystopia, it won’t be because the algorithms have outwitted us but because they’ve been pigging out on our data, amplifying our worst tendencies and biases.

AI is a tool, not a slippery slope to the singularity. If we don’t understand how this tool works, what it excels at, how it fails, then we can’t use it to shape a better world.

Artificial intelligence. Those words often conjure extreme visions: a shiny techno-future of self-driving cars and hyperefficient production, or a dystopian doomscape of mass unemployment and robot overlords. In her first book, You Look Like a Thing and I Love You, Janelle Shane assures us that AI is more like a toaster than like Skynet from […]

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