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Futility Closet

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United States

Language:

English

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919-389-3086


Episodes

268-The Great Impostor

10/14/2019
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Ferdinand Demara earned his reputation as the Great Impostor: For over 22 years he criss-crossed the country, posing as everything from an auditor to a zoologist and stealing a succession of identities to fool his employers. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll review Demara's motivation, morality, and techniques -- and the charismatic spell he seemed to cast over others. We'll also make Big Ben strike 13 and puzzle over a movie watcher's cat. Intro: In 1825, Thomas...

Duration:00:32:34

267-The Murchison Murders

10/7/2019
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In 1929, detective novelist Arthur Upfield wanted to devise the perfect murder, so he started a discussion among his friends in Western Australia. He was pleased with their solution -- until local workers began disappearing, as if the book were coming true. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll describe the Murchison murders, a disturbing case of life imitating art. We'll also incite a revolution and puzzle over a perplexing purchase. Intro: Jacques Jouet wrote a...

Duration:00:32:10

266-Lateral Thinking Puzzles

9/30/2019
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Here are seven new lateral thinking puzzles -- play along with us as we try to untangle some perplexing situations using yes-or-no questions. Intro: The Rotator typeface presents the digits 0-9 even when turned upside down. In 1897 The Strand designed a complete alphabet using three human acrobats. 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...

Duration:00:32:48

265-The Great Hedge of India

9/16/2019
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In the 19th century, an enormous hedge ran for more than a thousand miles across India, installed by the British to enforce a tax on salt. Though it took a Herculean effort to build, today it's been almost completely forgotten. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll describe this strange project and reflect on its disappearance from history. We'll also exonerate a rooster and puzzle over a racing murderer. Intro: A group of plasterers working in London’s Tate Britain...

Duration:00:34:06

264-Jack Renton and the Saltwater People

9/9/2019
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In 1868, Scottish sailor Jack Renton found himself the captive of a native people in the Solomon Islands, but through luck and skill he rose to become a respected warrior among them. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll tell the story of Renton's life among the saltwater people and his return to the Western world. We'll also catch some more speeders and puzzle over a regrettable book. Intro: Thanks to one representative's 1904 demand, the U.S. House dining room...

Duration:00:33:09

263-Memories of Proust

9/2/2019
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Confined in a Soviet prison camp in 1941, Polish painter Józef Czapski chose a unique way to cope: He lectured to the other prisoners on Marcel Proust's novel In Search of Lost Time. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll describe Czapski's ambitious project and the surprising importance of literature to the prisoners of oppressive regimes. We'll also race some lemons and puzzle over a woman's birthdays. Intro: A piano keyboard can be used as a calendar...

Duration:00:33:35

262-A Modern-Day Thoreau

8/26/2019
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In 1968, Richard Proenneke left his career as a heavy equipment operator and took up an entirely new existence. He flew to a remote Alaskan lake, built a log cabin by hand, and began a life of quiet self-reliance. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll hear Proenneke's reflections on a simple life lived in harmony with nature. We'll also put a rooster on trial and puzzle over a curious purchase. Intro: Joshua Steele preserved David Garrick's line readings in a...

Duration:00:33:02

261-The Murder of Lord William Russell

8/19/2019
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In May 1840 London was scandalized by the murder of Lord William Russell, who'd been found in his bed with his throat cut. The evidence seemed to point to an intruder, but suspicion soon fell on Russell's valet. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll follow the investigation and trial, and the late revelation that decided the case. We'll also marvel at Ireland's greenery and puzzle over a foiled kidnapping. Intro: Marshal Ney directed his own execution. Lewis...

Duration:00:33:12

260-The Rugged Road

8/12/2019
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In 1934, two Englishwomen set out to do what no one had ever done before: travel the length of Africa on a motorcycle. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll follow Theresa Wallach and Florence Blenkiron from Algiers to Cape Town on a 14,000-mile adventure that many had told them was impossible. We'll also anticipate some earthquakes and puzzle over a daughter's age. Intro: Among the survivors of the Titanic were two boys who were unclaimed by any adult. In 1638,...

Duration:00:32:55

259-The Astor Place Riot

8/5/2019
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The second-bloodiest riot in the history of New York was touched off by a dispute between two Shakespearean actors. Their supporters started a brawl that killed as many as 30 people and changed the institution of theater in American society. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll tell the story of the Astor Place riot, "one of the strangest episodes in dramatic history." We'll also fertilize a forest and puzzle over some left-handed light bulbs. Intro: In 1968,...

Duration:00:34:59

258-The First Great Train Robbery

7/29/2019
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In 1855 a band of London thieves set their sights on a new target: the South Eastern Railway, which carried gold bullion to the English coast. The payoff could be enormous, but the heist would require meticulous planning. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll tell the story of the first great train robbery, one of the most audacious crimes of the 19th century. We'll also jump into the record books and puzzle over a changing citizen. Intro: British birdwatcher Chris...

Duration:00:33:54

257-The Sledge Patrol

7/15/2019
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In 1943 an isolated sledge patrol came upon a secret German weather station in northeastern Greenland. The discovery set off a series of dramatic incidents that unfolded across 400 miles of desolate coast. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll follow this arctic struggle, an often overlooked drama of World War II. We'll also catch some speeders and puzzle over a disastrous remedy. Intro: In 1970 the Journal of Organic Chemistry published a paper in blank verse. In...

Duration:00:32:55

256-Lasseter's Reef

7/8/2019
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In 1930 Harold Lasseter claimed he'd discovered an enormous deposit of gold in the remote interior of Australia, and a small group of men set off into the punishing desert in search of a fortune estimated at 66 million pounds. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll tell the story of Lasseter's reef, one of the most enduring legends of the Australian outback. We'll also reconsider the mortality rates of presidents and puzzle over an unlocked door. Intro: Where is...

Duration:00:31:35

255-Death on the Ice

7/1/2019
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In 1914, 132 sealers found themselves stranded on a North Atlantic icefield as a bitter blizzard approached. Thinly dressed and with little food, they faced a harrowing night on the ice. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll tell the story of the Newfoundland sealing disaster, one of the most dramatic chapters in Canadian maritime history. We'll also meet another battlefield dog and puzzle over a rejected necklace. Intro: England has seen some curious cricket...

Duration:00:34:06

254-The Porthole Murder

6/24/2019
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In 1947 actress Gay Gibson disappeared from her cabin on an ocean liner off the coast of West Africa. The deck steward, James Camb, admitted to pushing her body out a porthole, but insisted she had died of natural causes and not in a sexual assault. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll review the curious case of the porthole murder, which is still raising doubts today. We'll also explore another fraudulent utopia and puzzle over a pedestrian's...

Duration:00:32:24

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