BECAUSE I SAID SO!: The Truth Behind the Myths, Tales, and Warnings Every Generation Passes Down to Its Kids
By Ken Jennings
Scribner, 237 pp., $19.99
Does swallowed gum linger in your stomach for seven years? Can you get lead poisoning from chewing on a pencil? Is it really a waste of energy and money to turn lights off and on? No, no, and yes, according to Jennings, who has parlayed fame as a game-show champion into a comfortable role writing bright, friendly books about trivia and minutiae. In his latest, Jennings examines dozens of parental warnings, scoring their veracity against the most up-to-date scientific knowledge he can find. The result is highly engaging, occasionally surprising, and even somewhat useful.
While he confirms that “lots of parental wisdom is pretty nuts,” he also discovers surprising wisdom in some old wives’ tales: Chicken soup can help greatly with the common cold; it really is bad to lean your head back when you have a bloody nose; and yes, your mother is right when she tells not to pop a blister! Despite Jennings’s air of friendly certainty, will your mother-in-law stop believing that Halloween candy should be checked for razor blades? No, but if this book keeps one kid from having to wait an hour between eating and swimming, it will have done its job.
HOW TO CREATE A MIND: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed
By Ray Kurzweil
Viking, 336 pp., illustrated, $27.95
If you met a non-biological intelligent entity, one that demonstrated convincingly human-like emotional responses (it could laugh and cry, tell a joke, and argue), would you accept it as a conscious being, more or less equivalent to a person? Ray Kurzweil says he would, and much of his latest book focuses on trying to persuade readers to abandon long-held beliefs about the unique value of the human mind (or soul, though that doesn’t come up much). “Biological substrates are wonderful — they have gotten us very far,” Kurzweil writes, “but we are creating a more capable and durable substrate for very good reasons.” There are good reasons to create tools that expand our capacity to solve problems, but anyone concerned about the potential social, political, and philosophical problems raised by artificial intelligence will feel less than reassured by this book.
This is not to say it isn’t entertaining; Kurzweil writes boldly and with a showman’s flair, expertly guiding the lay reader into deep thickets of neuroscience (“reverse-engineering the human brain” being one of the foundational goals here). Still, one wonders what end, specifically, this engineering would serve. Watson, the artificial intelligence entity created in part by Kurzweil, is mentioned frequently, but so far Watson’s signature contribution to humankind has been to embarrass its biological-substrate-based opponents on TV’s “Jeopardy!’’ (plans to use Watson’s skills in medical diagnoses sound intriguing, but haven’t yet been realized). Speculating about the future is fun, even when we know how silly past versions of futurology have been — Kurzweil isn’t above referring to robot maids, a la “The Jetsons” — but there’s a challenging tone here, too. Kurzweil devotes a final chapter to answering critics of his previous work, reminding us that only humans (so far) can be thin-skinned.
THE LIGHT OF AMSTERDAM
By David Park
Bloomsbury, 371 pp., $26
Travel dislocates us, challenging our perceptions and even allowing us to glimpse new possible identities. In David Park’s quietly moving new novel, a weekend flight to Amsterdam from Belfast brings together Alan, a recently divorced art professor who feels as if he’s going through “a phase that seemed to have no ending”; Karen, a beleaguered single mother; and Marion, a dissatisfied upper-middle-class wife. Each embarks with a mixture of fear and hope, and as they traverse the city’s parks, museums, and bars, the characters’ paths cross and sometimes intersect — a tentative friendship between Alan and Karen, unspooling in the pair’s very different voices, is one of the book’s delights.
Park uncovers an essential sadness in each of these lost souls — a failure of courage or imagination that’s all the sadder for being fully recognized and regretted — yet the book is surprisingly funny, too. Alan thinks about how if he were an American he’d probably talk to a psychiatrist about his problems, but being Irish he’s stuck “taking up a socially approved therapy such as drinking too much.” On the relationships between parents and nearly grown children he’s both funny and heartbreaking; anyone raising a teenager will recognize the “seemingly bottomless well of selfishness” Alan’s son represents. Park’s Belfast natives, and many readers, will return from Amsterdam subtly changed.