The Imaginary Realms of
Gilbert M. Stack





The Skeptics Guide to the Universe by Steven Novella

The first three-fifths or so of this book is a very interesting glossary of the various ways in which memory recalls things incorrectly and literally dozens of strategies that are commonly used to argue in favor of a position without supporting evidence. The point here is to empower the sceptic to understand ways in which misinformation can be promulgated and defended and of course, disproved. It’s quite simply great!

The rest of the book explores examples of how misinformation is promulgated and can be disproved. It also gives strategies both for getting along with people who believe things you know to be wrong and how to give them the tools over time to let them decide to change their opinions. (People do not like to be proved wrong and often resist direct evidence that their positions are false.) It is a fascinating book.

Declutter Your Home and Simplify Your Life by Sophie Largen

We’re not hoarders, but sometimes it feels like we’re moving in that direction. Stuff just accumulates and there is never time to really sit down and go through it in a systematic way. We make pushes that buy us some time and keep the “public” areas of the house looking okay, but the attic, the shed, the closets, etc. are all overloaded with stuff we’re not even sure we really need.

This book details a strategy to fix this problem in our lives. Overall, I felt it was completely unrealistic—laying out a six month plan in which every week involves tackling part of our clutter is just not going to happen. If we were the sort of people who had six months free to clean up our stuff, we would have never gotten over-cluttered in the first place. So—this book is not going to help most people fix their problem. It does, however, have a nice section on the mental changes you need to go through in order to handle your mess and it has a nice ending section on maintenance. (The author sees this as not letting yourself get re-cluttered, but it also applies to not making your mess worse so that you don’t lose ground when you start to gain it.)

It’s a very short book so I think it was definitely worth my time (and yours) but it’s not going to fix most peoples’ problems.

In Alpha Order by Author

How Science Shapes Science Fiction by Charles L. Adler

I really enjoy reading books that connect books, or movies, or shows I have seen with the science theories that underlie them. What’s especially nice about this one is that Adler takes the time to address a great number of series which not only offers him the chance to teach a little science, but also lets him introduce the reader to a number of very interesting sounding sf movies, books, and television shows. My favorite was about the ecology of Frank Herbert’s, Dune, but there are many, many more great chapters. Dr. Who, Ursula Le Guin, Star Wars, the Martian, all appear, and I’m just scratching the surface here. This book isn’t groundbreaking, but it is definitely interesting.

The Monsters Know What They’re Doing by Keith Ammann

This is a revolutionary book about the creatures encountered in the game Dungeons and Dragons and it will appeal to two kinds of people. The first—that includes myself—are people who have years of playing the game under their belt (for many of us mostly in the distant pass) and enjoy nostalgically wandering through key events (like the creatures of the game). For those people, the audiobook may be the ideal method of absorbing the information.

The other group are active Dungeon Masters trying to improve their games by making their monsters more interesting. They are going to want a paper or electronic copy as this volume will serve as a valuable resource to them in planning their next adventures.

What Ammann has done here is analyze key groups of monsters and created rational tactics for them given their strengths, weaknesses, and known proclivities. It makes for fascinating reading. I was shocked by how many times he suggests the creatures would break and flee after taking a certain amount of damage. When I was gaming, monsters rarely ran, which was convenient as they take their experience and treasure with them when they depart.

I thoroughly enjoyed getting into the mindset of creatures as disparate as a bugbear, a displacer beast, a dragon, and a common bandit. The book is conveniently organized by type of creature and just fascinating to read. D&D games are going to get a lot better if Dungeon Masters take advantage of this valuable resource.

It’s Elemental by Kate Biberdorf

I have mixed feelings regarding this book. On the one hand, it is a fascinating attempt to help the reader to see chemistry in every part of their daily life. On the other hand, despite a Herculean effort by the author, it’s still very dense reading. If you are interested in science and/or chemistry, this book is worth the effort. But be forewarned, it’s tough slogging.

Luke Skywalker Can’t Read by Ryan Britt

This was an eclectic and somewhat random series of essays on scifi topics. The best and most memorable was the title essay in which Britt puts forth the premise that the citizens of the Star Wars universe are all functionally illiterate. The surprising thing is that I was convinced he was right by the end and that part of the dark side of the force is ignorance. If you’re looking for some light reading on a handful (Star Wars, Star Trek, Tolkien, Back to the Future) of sf series, this is a pretty good one.

The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs by Steve Brusatte

Who doesn’t love dinosaurs? I’ve been reading about them off and on for my entire life and so it was with quite a bit of anticipation that I started this audiobook. It did not disappoint! In addition to walking me through the current state of the field of dinosaur studies, Brusatte has packed this monograph full of engaging stories about the men and women—historical and current—who have figured out what life was like for these creatures some 60 million years ago. If you’ve any interest at all in the subject, this book is for you.

The 5 Love Languages by Gary Chapman

I’ve been picking up relationship guides for a few decades now, starting with the classic, Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. As a writer, I find it fascinating and instructive to gain understanding of how other people understand human interactions. The books, like The 5 Love Languages, tend to focus on romance and marriage, but the lessons they teach are just as important for understanding how other people relate to you.

5 Love Languages was more sophisticated than many of these books. It’s details five different ways of interpreting that people care about each other: Words of Affirmation, Quality Time, Receiving Gifts, Acts of Service and Physical Touch. It’s fascinating to find yourself and your spouse in these categories, but also interesting to identify other people you care about. Ultimately, this is a book about making people understand you truly care about them and everyone has something they can learn here.

Understanding Economics: Game Theory by Jay R. Corrigan

Game Theory is something I hear about a lot, but don’t really understand. This set of Great Courses lectures was a great introduction to the topic. The first lectures take you through different game scenarios and teach you about human behavior when humans understand the consequences of their choices. The easiest was the classic “prisoners’ dilemma” in which the police catch two alleged criminals, take them into separate rooms, and interrogate them. If neither talks, they both go free. But if one talks and the other doesn’t, the talker gets a light prison sentence and the one who stayed quiet goes away for a long time. Corrigan shows why it is always in the prisoner’s interest to make the deal and “confess” (even if he or she is innocent).

These sorts of thought problems are fascinating and as they get more and more complex, Corrigan begins to apply them to the real world showing how to use game theory to make decisions. It gets very complicated very fast. If there is one weakness in what he described, it would seem to be that all sides have to know what is best for them or their actions will not be correctly anticipated, but the theory probably provides for that as well.

The Anatomy of Motive by John Douglas

John Douglas was an FBI Profiler and in this interesting book he goes through a lot of cases of pretty terrible crimes helping the reader to understand what sorts of things motivate criminal behavior. What is perhaps most interesting aspect of the book is that you are likely to recognize many of the cases from the news, and it is fascinating to get into the “why” of the crime. It’s informative and entertaining at the same time.

Essentials of Social Psychology by Wind Goodfriend

Goodfriend provides a solid, easily followed, introduction to the field of social psychology. The best chapter was Lecture 7 on Conformity and Blind Obedience in which Goodfriend explores some well known experiments on people to see how far they would follow orders and what would happen when the “rules” were removed. It’s a disturbing lecture, but there was also some reassuring moments when she examines responses by people who bucked the majority and stood up for what they thought was right. The best single moment in the series is at the end of the final lecture when the author explores the very famous case of Kitty Genovese who was stabbed a very large number of times over a half an hour period while dozens of people—her neighbors—listened and did nothing. I’ve read about this case in textbooks and seen it pop up again and again in popular literature and shows. This was the first time, however, that I ever heard the counter story. Kitty was not ignored by everyone. One neighbor intervened shouting from his window until the assailant ran away. Another called the police (it was pre 911) only to be told the police already knew about the incident. And a third went out to hold her friend while she died waiting for medical help. Reporters apparently admitted to editing their stories to make the neighbors appear more callous and brutal so that they could sell more papers. This is a good set of lectures.

Ten Drugs by Thomas Hager

I enjoyed this book. It is essentially ten essays about drugs and vaccines that have changed the world. A lot of it was frankly depressing, although I think we’re supposed to be inspired by the possibilities. Overall, it was a nice glimpse into things I hear about in the news, but know next to nothing about.

The Psychology of Online Behavior by Nicola Fox Hamilton

I wasn’t certain about this Great Courses text when I decided to read it. I spend a lot of time online and frankly, like most people, I figured I already knew most of what anyone could tell me about doing it. Nd that was true. Nothing in this book really surprised me. What Hamilton does is organize all of those things you and others do online and talk about the evidence for what is good and bad. Is it addictive? Are games bad for you? What about misinformation and disinformation? (That was especially interesting as one of her major examples of misinformation is now thought to be a credible theory, which also says something about online information dissemination.)

I thought the weakest part of the text was when Hamilton talked about the prevalence of conspiracy theories and seemed to indicate that this was a problem for the credulous, but the Great Courses has a text on conspiracies in which the author says that research shows that a huge proportion of the population (I think it was 90%) including every group in society) believe at least one conspiracy theory. Strangely for me, the best section was on online shopping—a chapter I almost skipped—where Hamilton detailed strategies to get people to rush their purchasing process and therefore buy things they might not really want. Overall, I am glad I read this one.

Into the Planet by Jill Heinerth

I have long been fascinated by caves and cave diving. As a boy scout, I had the opportunity to do a little caving and I treasure the memories. Ever since, I have enjoyed reading stories about people who go deep into caves or—even more amazing—go diving in them. Jill Heinerth is a world renown cave diver who has a gift for describing the beauty that she’s discovered over the course of her career. She also offers a lot of information on the personal price that cave divers play to pursue their passion—a price that too often includes the death of a friend.

Cave diving is a ridiculously dangerous activity. It is disorienting and the simplest of mistakes can lead to death—as this book points out again and again. Yet, it’s also amazing to discover another world submerged beneath the one that we know, and Heinerth is a superb guide to encountering it.

When Plants Attack by Rebecca E. Hirsch

Plants are supposed to be the passive, attractive, stationary life forms that make up your grass or offer you shade or decorate your yard. However, there are a few that reject that ornamental role and take a more aggressive view of life. Know this isn’t Day of the Triffids or some other scary sci fi or fantasy story. It’s a short overview of a handful of plants that either seek out their food or decide they’re just not going to wait and see what sun, wind, and rain bring to them. It’s absolutely fascinating. There are plants that trap their prey, plants that crawl about looking for a meal, and plants that have all sorts of ways of punishing animals that decide to eat them. This is a fun book for the not too squeamish.

The Sirens of Mars by Sarah Stewert Johnson

This sort of book tends to do three things—and Johnson does all of them extremely well. First, it gives a little bit of biographical information on the author, helping the reader to understand how she was inspired to become interested in her field. Second, it gives a historiography of the great scientists who came before her, showing how they helped to create the modern field of study. And finally, it shows how our understanding of the field has advanced, and in the case of Mars, Stewert spends a lot of time going through the many missions to the red planet that have expanded our knowledge.

Let me start by saying that there were a lot more missions than I understood there to have been, and since I have been interested in Mars since reading Edgar Rice Burroughs and Ray Bradbury, this came as a big surprise to me. I’m sure that most people have heard of Mariner, Viking, and Pathfinder. But did you know about Observer, Global Surveyor, Climate Orbiter, Polar Lander, the Rovers, Phoenix, and more?

It's an interesting book for anyone who is curious about how we know what we know about Mars.

The Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger

I read this book the first time shortly after it was published and thoroughly enjoyed it. A couple of decades later it was just as good. On the surface, this is a strange idea. It’s an attempt to describe a horrifically powerful storm that struck the Atlantic off the northeast coast and sank a fishing boat, killing its crew. In reality it’s a window into the highly dangerous world of deep-sea fishing with in-depth analysis of the dangers the men and women in the trade encounter. Along the way it throws in a history of the industry, descriptions of the lives of the fishers, and a lot of information on storms and the coast guard rescue operations. This is a very interesting book.

Personality Tests and What They Can Tell Us by Jamie Kurtz

Everyone knows that there are personality tests out there. Many of us have taken them on the internet or had them handed out in school. (We took one in high school that told everyone in my class of more than 400 that we should be farmers.) But when push came to shove, I realize I knew very little about them, so I read this very short Great Courses book. I enjoyed learning a little about the history and exploring the types of tests out there, but I didn’t come away thinking that these tests actually help very much to learn about peoples’ personalities.

The Hunt for Vulcan by Thomas Levenson

This is an interesting book, telling a story about astronomy that I had never heard before. It starts with Isaac Newton’s Theory of Gravity and goes on to show how it led to the discovery of Uranus. When Uranus’ orbit didn’t perfectly accord with the expectations Newton’s theory led scientists to predict, that led to the discovery of Neptune. When a similar orbital irregularity was discovered in Mercury, it led to the hypothesis that another planet—called Vulcan—was circling the sun even closer than Mercury was. But no one could find it and eventually Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity explained the irregularity of the orbit without the need for another planet.

I didn’t try and follow all the heavy science. I was just interested in the outlines of the hunt. But one thing that did surprise me was how incredibly petty some of these great scientists proved to be. Great men can be very small.

The Science of SciFi by Erin Macdonald

I enjoyed this Great Courses book which focuses on how many popular sf programs try to utilize our ever-growing understanding of the universe to craft better shows. It’s a nice light way to get introduced or reintroduced to everything from Newtonian physics, to relativity, to string theory. It’s also quite short, which actually aids understanding because there is not time to go into any great depth on the individual topics.

Emperors of the Deep by William McKeever

If everything you know about sharks comes from reading (or watching) Jaws, then you should treat yourself to this very different perspective on the apex predators of the oceans. It was a fascinating and educational read. I certainly won’t look at sharks the same way again, but that doesn’t mean I’m ready to go swimming with them either.

Fine Gorilla Person by Lauren Ober

This is the story of Koko, the gorilla that learned sign language and touched the hearts of people across the world. Unlike the story you think you know, it’s a tale of abuse and isolation and an appalling lack of science. Reading it depressed me. We may never know what was really going on in Koko’s head, but the author, Lauren Ober, appears certain that her owner and caretakers were looking out for their best interests, not hers.

Oceanology by DK Publishing

This book feels like it was designed to be an oversized coffee table book with beautiful glossy photographs dominating each page. As an audiobook, it doesn’t quite work, covering at lightning speed a dizzying array of sea creatures and natural formations. It’s still interesting, but...dizzying as the narrator flies through micro chapter after micro chapter.

Why Economies Rise or Fall by Peter Rodriguez

Peter Rodriguez manages to talk about global economies without getting bogged down in all the “isms” like capitalism and socialism. He looks at the major economic events of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries and explores both success (the Japanese Miracle, the Asian Tigers, China, India, etc.) and failures (Japan, China, Latin America, etc.) (And yes, I realize some of those nations are in both lists.) It’s a fascinating exploration of various successful roads to the top and why the same models didn’t work for everyone else. There’s also some warning about how economies can take a tumble.

Searching for Extraterrestrial Life by Sarah Rugheimer

I got this Great Courses book solely because of the title and imagined reading about Area 51 and other popular stories about secret contact. What I got was much better. Sarah Rugheimer walks us through what we know about the possibilities of life in the universe and how our scientists are trying to discover if it actually exists. I was absolutely fascinated. It’s never bad for a fan of science fiction to indulge in a little genuine science—especially when it’s conveyed by someone as capable as Dr. Rugheimer.

The Boiling River by Andre Ruzo

At its heart, this is a story about a scientist’s efforts to discover if a legend his father told him as a young boy about a boiling river in the Amazon could possibly be true. It’s also a tale of the mysteries still waiting to be discovered in our world, the beauty of the Amazon rain forest, and the great peril that that that forest faces. This is a very quick read and well worth your time.

Capitalism vs Socialism by Edward F. Stuart

This was not the rather polemic diatribe in favor of Capitalism or Socialism that I feared it could devolve into. Instead, Edward Stuart provides a nuanced, thoughtful, exploration of the choices that modern economies have made in choosing how to handle many problems related to the economy and the physical welfare of their citizens. In doing so, he explores with great even handedness the origins of capitalist and socialist theories and how those theories have been applied in a remarkable number of countries around the world, using issues like health care to show the different approaches countries have tried and laying out the benefits and problems that resulted in each of the cases. Capitalism and Socialism are terms that get thrown around a lot. You’ll have a much finer understanding of how they actually play into modern economic and political debates after reading this book.

Modern Economics by Robert Whaples

These lectures were published 15 years ago, but the topics are all still relevant today. Whaples walks the listener through the basics of national economics before branching off to discuss a large number of the economic issues of the day. Things like minimum wage, climate change, gambling, professional sports, energy, inflation, inequality, unemployment, international trade, social security, health care, unions, terrorism, and even the postal service. It’s an excellent way to introduce yourself to the many of the major economic issues in the news.

How Great Science Fiction Works by Gary K. Wolfe

Despite the title, this Great Courses work was really an entertaining and informative history of science fiction starting with its debatable origins (Wolfe convinced me that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein deserves the designation of first science fiction novel), then walking us through the many of the great early writers (Wells, Verne and Poe) before spending the rest of the lectures discussing icons of the genre (the spaceship, the planet, the robot, etc.) or movements within the field (the Golden Age, Cyberpunk, etc.), and later influential editors and authors (Campbell, Heinlein, Asimov, Butler, etc.). Overall I consider it to be a great overview of the field and I very much enjoyed listening to it.

I do have a couple of—“complaints” seems too strong a word so perhaps we should call them constructive suggestions. I recognize that some works have had tremendous influence, but part of why I listen to a series of lectures like this is to be introduced to as large a variety of great texts as possible. Therefore, I would have preferred that Wolfe minimize the number of times he referred to the same book across lectures. I also wish someone would fix the table of contents in the audible version as many chapter titles are connected to the wrong lectures (i.e. lecture 10 actually links to lecture 21) which makes it hard to review a lecture after you have passed it.

I’d like to end on a more positive note. One of the great delights of listening to a series like this is hearing about books and authors I know and have read. So I appreciated greatly the many times that Wolfe would say things like, “Of course there are many more feminist science fiction writers than I have time to explore here. Authors like…” and he would rattle off ten names. I enjoyed seeing where authors whose works I love fit into the larger schema of science fiction. And that, in summation, is really what this lecture series is about—showing how the authors in the field have influenced each other and caused science fiction to grow and diversify into the genre it is today.

Earth’s Changing Climate by Richard Wolfson

Most of my life I’ve been hearing about changes in the earth’s climate. It started out with fears of a new ice age which transformed into global warming which transformed to climate change. When I started studying history—especially the ancient and medieval worlds—I learned that the earth’s climate has been changing quite regularly for all of its history. There are a lot of cycles interacting with each other creating the Little Ice Age and the Roman Warming Period and many, many, others. As reports about modern changes to the climate became more prevalent in the press I would look for any recognition that this happens as part of nature and looked for reports that help to identify what parts of what is happening are caused by human activity. Such assistance was rare.

Richard Wolfson’s course finally answered those questions for me in a way that felt grounded in reason and science and not in a new—take it on faith—religion. If you’re a skeptic, this will give you some reasons to credit the global warming narrative. If you’re a true believer, this will help you to understand some of those handy phrases that activists throw around. I strongly recommend it for anyone striving to understand why warming trends are troubling and how we know that these trends are different than those that have gone before. I wish I had discovered this book much earlier.

How the Earth Works by Michael Wysession

I liked Earth Science when I studied it in elementary school and I enjoyed it again when my son studied it, so I approached this Great Courses book with great enthusiasm and I wasn’t disappointed. Wysession provides 48 very clear lectures walking the listener through the creation of the planet and the various geological “life cycles”. There were times when the book slowed down (for example endlessly discussing the different kinds of erosion) but over all it kept my attention and truly captivated me when discussing the various kinds of climate change the planet is experiencing and has experienced since creation. This was Wysession at his best—optimistic, noticing where the challenges are, but also noting the progress that we’ve made as we mature as a species and as different countries. If you are interested in Earth Science this is a great introduction to the topic.