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Futility Closet

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United States

Language:

English

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919-389-3086


Episodes

253-The Dame of Sark

6/17/2019
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In June 1940, German forces took the Channel Islands, a small British dependency off the coast of France. They expected the occupation to go easily, but they hadn't reckoned on the island of Sark, ruled by an iron-willed noblewoman with a disdain for Nazis. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll tell the story of Sibyl Hathaway and her indomitable stand against the Germans. We'll also overtake an earthquake and puzzle over an inscrutable water pipe. Intro: Raymond...

Duration:00:31:52

252-The Wild Boy of Aveyron

6/10/2019
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In 1800 a 12-year-old boy emerged from a forest in southern France, where he had apparently lived alone for seven years. His case was taken up by a young Paris doctor who set out to see if the boy could be civilized. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll explore the strange, sad story of Victor of Aveyron and the mysteries of child development. We'll also consider the nature of art and puzzle over the relationship between salmon and trees. Intro: Reading Luc...

Duration:00:33:39

251-Joseph Palmer's Beard

6/3/2019
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In 1830 Joseph Palmer created an odd controversy in Fitchburg, Massachusetts: He wore a beard when beards were out of fashion. For this social sin he was shunned, attacked, and ultimately jailed. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll tell the story of a bizarre battle against irrational prejudice. We'll also see whether a computer can understand knitting and puzzle over an unrewarded long jump. Intro: Prospector William Schmidt dug through California's Copper...

Duration:00:31:15

250-The General Slocum

5/27/2019
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In 1904 a Manhattan church outing descended into horror when a passenger steamboat caught fire on the East River. More than a thousand people struggled to survive as the captain raced to reach land. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll describe the burning of the General Slocum, the worst maritime disaster in the history of New York City. We'll also chase some marathon cheaters and puzzle over a confusing speeding ticket. Intro: In 1959 a Norwegian insulation...

Duration:00:33:54

249-The Robbers Cave Experiment

5/20/2019
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In 1954 a social psychologist started a war between two teams of fifth graders at an Oklahoma summer camp. He wanted to investigate the sources of human conflict and how people might overcome them. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll review the Robbers Cave Experiment and examine its evolving reputation. We'll also dredge up a Dalek and puzzle over a hazardous job. Intro: Butler University mathematician Jerry Farrell can control coin flips. Nashville attorney...

Duration:00:31:12

248-Smoky the War Dog

5/13/2019
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In 1944, an American soldier discovered a Yorkshire terrier in an abandoned foxhole in New Guinea. Adopted by an Army photographer, she embarked on a series of colorful adventures that won the hearts of the humans around her. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll tell the story of Smoky the dog, one of the most endearing characters of World War II. We'll also contemplate chicken spectacles and puzzle over a gratified diner. Intro: In 1955 a Wisconsin supermarket...

Duration:00:33:45

247-Lateral Thinking Puzzles

5/6/2019
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Here are six new lateral thinking puzzles -- play along with us as we try to untangle some perplexing situations using yes-or-no questions. The sources for this week's puzzles are below. In a few places we've included links to further information -- these contain spoilers, so don't click until you've listened to the episode: Puzzle #1 was suggested by an item on the podcast No Such Thing as a Fish. Here are two corroborating links. Puzzle #2 is by Greg. Here's a link. Puzzle #3 was...

Duration:00:32:24

246-Gene Tierney's Secret Heartbreak

4/29/2019
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At the height of her fame in 1943, movie star Gene Tierney contracted German measles during pregnancy and bore a daughter with severe birth defects. The strain ended her marriage to Oleg Cassini and sent her into a breakdown that lasted years. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll describe Tierney's years of heartbreak and the revelation that compounded them. We'll also visit some Japanese cats and puzzle over a disarranged corpse. Intro: The indexes of two...

Duration:00:33:07

245-Jeanne Baret

4/22/2019
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The first woman to circumnavigate the world did so dressed as a man. In 1766, 26-year-old Jeanne Baret joined a French expedition hoping to conceal her identity for three years. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll tell the story of her historic journey around the globe. We'll also hear Mark Twain's shark story and puzzle over a foiled con artist. Intro: In 1856 Samuel Hoshour wrote an imaginary correspondence full of polysyllabic words. In 1974 Dennis Upper...

Duration:00:32:04

244-The Women's Protest

4/15/2019
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In February 1943, hundreds of German women joined in a spontaneous protest in central Berlin. They were objecting to the roundup of some of the city's last Jews -- their husbands. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll describe the Rosenstrasse protest, a remarkable example of civil disobedience. We'll also ponder whether a computer can make art and puzzle over some unusual phone calls. Intro: Between 1946 and 1953, British wordplay maven Leigh Mercer published 100...

Duration:00:34:45

243-The Peshtigo Fire

4/8/2019
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In 1871, while the Great Chicago Fire was riveting the nation's attention, a blaze six times as deadly was ravaging a desperate town in northeastern Wisconsin. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll tell the story of the Peshtigo fire, the deadliest wildfire in American history. We'll also watch an automated western and puzzle over some discounted food. Intro: Harry Mathews composed a poem in which every syllable is doubled. In 1766, French draughtsman...

Duration:00:31:51

242-The Cardiff Giant

3/25/2019
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In 1869, two well diggers in Cardiff, N.Y., unearthed an enormous figure made of stone. More than 600,000 people flocked to see the mysterious giant, but even as its fame grew, its real origins were coming to light. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll tell the story of the Cardiff giant, one of the greatest hoaxes of the 19th century. We'll also ponder the effects of pink and puzzle over a potentially painful treatment. Intro: Edgar Rice Burroughs invented a...

Duration:00:34:54

241-A Case of Scientific Self-Deception

3/18/2019
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In 1903, French physicist Prosper-René Blondlot decided he had discovered a new form of radiation. But the mysterious rays had some exceedingly odd properties, and scientists in other countries had trouble seeing them at all. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll tell the story of N-rays, a cautionary tale of self-deception. We'll also recount another appalling marathon and puzzle over a worthless package. Intro: In the 1960s, two dolphins at Hawaii's Sea Life Park...

Duration:00:32:44

240-The Shark Papers

3/11/2019
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In 1799 two Royal Navy ships met on the Caribbean Sea, and their captains discovered they were parties to a mind-boggling coincidence that would expose a crime and make headlines around the world. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll tell the story of the shark papers, one of the strangest coincidences in maritime history. We'll also meet some Victorian kangaroos and puzzle over an expedient fire. Intro: Hungarian composer György Ligeti wrote a symphonic poem for...

Duration:00:34:29

239-The Man-Eaters of Tsavo

3/4/2019
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In 1898, two lions descended on a company of railway workers in British East Africa. For nine months they terrorized the camp, carrying off a new victim every few days, as engineer John Patterson struggled to stop them. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll track the "man-eaters of Tsavo" and learn what modern science has discovered about their motivations. We'll also consider more uses for two cars and puzzle over some prolific penguins. Intro: MIT drops a piano...

Duration:00:34:13

238-The Plight of Mary Ellen Wilson

2/25/2019
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In 1873 a Methodist missionary in New York City heard rumors of a little girl who was kept locked in a tenement and regularly whipped. She uncovered a shocking case of neglect and abuse that made headlines around the world. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll tell how one girl's ordeal led to a new era in child welfare. We'll also outsource Harry Potter and puzzle over Wayne Gretzky's accomplishments. Intro: By a 1976 resolution, George Washington forever...

Duration:00:33:44

237-The Baseball Spy

2/18/2019
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Moe Berg earned his reputation as the brainiest man in baseball -- he had two Ivy League degrees and studied at the Sorbonne. But when World War II broke out he found an unlikely second career, as a spy trying to prevent the Nazis from getting an atomic bomb. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll follow Berg's enigmatic life and its strange conclusion. We'll also consider the value of stripes and puzzle over a fateful accident. Intro: Johann David Steingruber devised...

Duration:00:32:59

236-The Last Lap

2/11/2019
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In 1908 a 22-year-old Italian baker's assistant arrived in London to take part in the Olympic marathon. He had no coach, he spoke no English, and he was not expected to challenge the elite runners at the top of the field. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll follow Dorando Pietri on the most celebrated race in Olympic history. We'll also ponder the Great Mull Air Mystery and puzzle over a welcome murder. Intro: In July 1968 ethologist John B. Calhoun built a...

Duration:00:33:54

235-Leon Festinger and the Alien Apocalypse

2/4/2019
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In 1955, aliens from the planet Clarion contacted a Chicago housewife to warn her that the end of the world was imminent. Psychologist Leon Festinger saw this as a unique opportunity to test a new theory about human cognition. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll follow him inside a UFO religion as it approaches the apocalypse. We'll also try to determine when exactly LBJ became president and puzzle over some wet streets. Intro: There's a hexagon of cloud at...

Duration:00:32:17

234-The Dig Tree

1/28/2019
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In 1860 a party of explorers set out to traverse the Australian continent, but bad management and a series of misfortunes sent it spiraling toward tragedy. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll tell the story of the Victorian Exploring Expedition and its dramatic climax at Cooper's Creek. We'll also try to validate Archimedes and puzzle over an unlucky thief. Intro: In 1990 Jon Perez Laraudogoitia wrote a philosophy article that compelled its own acceptance. In 1976...

Duration:00:33:51