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United States

Language:

English

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919-389-3086


Episodes

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...

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...

Duration:00:33:51

233-Flight to Freedom

1/21/2019
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In 1978 two families hatched a daring plan to escape East Germany: They would build a hot-air balloon and sail it by night across the border. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll follow their struggles to evade the authorities and realize their dream of a new life in the West. We'll also shuffle some vehicles and puzzle over a perplexing worker. Intro: In 1993 Tom Peyer and Hart Seely found that Yankees announcer Phil Rizzuto's utterances can be cast as free...

Duration:00:34:37

232-The Indomitable Spirit of Douglas Bader

1/14/2019
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Douglas Bader was beginning a promising career as a British fighter pilot when he lost both legs in a crash. But that didn't stop him -- he learned to use artificial legs and went on to become a top flying ace in World War II. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll review Bader's inspiring story and the personal philosophy underlay it. We'll also revisit the year 536 and puzzle over the fate of a suitcase. Intro: In 1872 Celia Thaxter published an unsettling poem...

Duration:00:31:25

231-The Halifax Explosion

1/7/2019
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In 1917, a munitions ship exploded in Halifax, Nova Scotia, devastating the city and shattering the lives of its citizens. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll follow the events of the disaster, the largest man-made explosion before Hiroshima, and the grim and heroic stories of its victims. We'll also consider the dangers of cactus plugging and puzzle over why a man would agree to be assassinated. Intro: In 1989 an unmanned Soviet MiG-23 flew all the way from...

Duration:00:32:18

230-Lateral Thinking Puzzles

12/24/2018
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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 contributed by listener Phil Moore. Here are two corroborating links. Puzzle #2 is from Jed's List of Situation Puzzles. Puzzle #3 is adapted from...

Duration:00:29:53

229-The Stone of Destiny

12/17/2018
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In 1950, four patriotic Scots broke in to Westminster Abbey to steal the Stone of Scone, a symbol of Scottish independence that had lain there for 600 years. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll follow the memorable events of that evening and their meaning for the participants, their nation, and the United Kingdom. We'll also evade a death ray and puzzle over Santa's correspondence. Intro: In the 1920s Massachusetts mechanical engineer Elis Stenman fashioned a...

Duration:00:30:45

228-The Children's Champion

12/10/2018
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Polish educator Janusz Korczak set out to remake the world just as it was falling apart. In the 1930s his Warsaw orphanage was an enlightened society run by the children themselves, but he struggled to keep that ideal alive as Europe descended into darkness. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll tell the story of the children's champion and his sacrifices for the orphans he loved. We'll also visit an incoherent space station and puzzle over why one woman needs two...

Duration:00:33:28

227-The Christmas Tree Ship

12/3/2018
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In the late 1800s Chicago families bought their Christmas trees from the decks of schooners that had ferried them across Lake Michigan. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll meet Herman Schuenemann, known as "Captain Santa," who brought Christmas to the city for 30 years until a fateful storm overtook him. We'll also peruse some possums and puzzle over a darkening phone. Intro: In 1991 a Yale physician proposed naming toes. No one's quite sure how cats...

Duration:00:32:26

226-The Great Match Race

11/26/2018
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America's first national sports spectacle took place in 1823, when the North and South sent their best horses for a single dramatic race that came to symbolize the regional tensions of a changing nation. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll tell the story of the Great Match Race, which laid the foundations of modern American thoroughbred racing. We'll also ponder a parasite's contribution to culture and puzzle over a misinformed criminal. Intro: Quentin Tarantino's...

Duration:00:35:55

225-The Great Stork Derby

11/19/2018
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When Toronto attorney Charles Vance Millar died in 1926, he left behind a mischievous will that promised a fortune to the woman who gave birth to the most children in the next 10 years. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll follow the Great Stork Derby and the hope and controversy it brought to Toronto's largest families during the Great Depression. We'll also visit some Portuguese bats and puzzle over a suspicious work crew. Intro: The programming language...

Duration:00:31:54