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Futility Closet

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Location:

United States

Language:

English

Contact:

919-389-3086


Episodes

181-Operation Gunnerside

12/11/2017
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During World War II, the Allies feared that Germany was on the brink of creating an atomic bomb. To prevent this, they launched a dramatic midnight commando raid to destroy a key piece of equipment in the mountains of southern Norway. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll remember Operation Gunnerside, "one of the most daring and important undercover operations of World War II." We'll also learn what to say when you're invading Britain and puzzle over the life cycle...

Duration: 00:33:06


180-An Academic Impostor

12/4/2017
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Marvin Hewitt never finished high school, but he taught advanced physics, engineering, and mathematics under assumed names at seven different schools and universities between 1945 and 1953. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll trace the curious career of an academic impostor, whose story has been called "one of the strangest academic hoaxes in history." We'll also try on a flashproof scarf and puzzle over why a healthy man would check into a...

Duration: 00:33:17


179-Two Vanished Young Writers

11/27/2017
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Everett Ruess and Barbara Newhall Follett were both born in March 1914 at opposite ends of the U.S. Both followed distinctly unusual lives as they pursued a love of writing. And both disappeared in their 20s, leaving no trace of their whereabouts. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll describe the brief lives of two promising young authors and the mystery that lingers behind them. We'll also patrol 10 Downing Street and puzzle over when a pigeon isn't a...

Duration: 00:31:30


178-Lateral Thinking Puzzles

11/20/2017
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Here are six new lateral thinking puzzles to test your wits and stump your friends -- play along with us as we try to untangle some perplexing situations using yes-or-no questions. Here are the sources for this week's puzzles. 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 is adapted from the 2000 book Lateral Mindtrap Puzzles. Puzzle #2 was contributed by listener Dave...

Duration: 00:33:50


177-Averting a Catastrophe in Manhattan

11/13/2017
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New York's Citicorp Tower was an architectural sensation when it opened in 1977. But then engineer William Le Measure realized that its unique design left it dangerously vulnerable to high winds. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll describe the drama that followed as a small group of decision makers tried to ward off a catastrophe in midtown Manhattan. We'll also cringe at an apartment mixup and puzzle over a tolerant trooper. Intro: A surprising number of record...

Duration: 00:31:21


176-The Bear That Inspired Winnie-the-Pooh

11/6/2017
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In 1914, Canadian Army veterinarian Harry Colebourn was traveling to the Western Front when he met an orphaned bear cub in an Ontario railway station. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll follow the adventures of Winnie the bear, including her fateful meeting with A.A. Milne and his son, Christopher Robin. We'll also marvel at some impressive finger counting and puzzle over an impassable bridge. Intro: At least two British television series have included Morse...

Duration: 00:32:43


175-The Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island

10/30/2017
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In 1835, a Native American woman was somehow left behind when her dwindling island tribe was transferred to the California mainland. She would spend the next 18 years living alone in a world of 22 square miles. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll tell the poignant story of the lone woman of San Nicolas Island. We'll also learn about an inebriated elephant and puzzle over an unattainable test score. Intro: As construction began on Scotland’s Forth Bridge,...

Duration: 00:30:35


174-Cracking the Nazi Code

10/23/2017
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In 1940, Germany was sending vital telegrams through neutral Sweden using a sophisticated cipher, and it fell to mathematician Arne Beurling to make sense of the secret messages. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll describe the outcome, which has been called "one of the greatest accomplishments in the history of cryptography." We'll also learn about mudlarking and puzzle over a chicken-killing Dane. Intro: In 1836, three boys discovered 17 tiny coffins entombed...

Duration: 00:33:46


173-The Worst Journey in the World

10/16/2017
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In 1911, three British explorers made a perilous 70-mile journey in the dead of the Antarctic winter to gather eggs from a penguin rookery in McMurdo Sound. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll follow the three through perpetual darkness and bone-shattering cold on what one man called "the worst journey in the world." We'll also dazzle some computers and puzzle over some patriotic highways. Intro: In 2014, mathematician Kevin Ferland determined the largest number...

Duration: 00:30:17


172-An American in Feudal Japan

10/2/2017
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In 1848, five years before Japan opened its closed society to the West, a lone American in a whaleboat landed on the country's northern shore, drawn only by a sense of mystery and a love of adventure. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll follow Ranald MacDonald as he travels the length of Japan toward a destiny that will transform the country. We'll also remember a Soviet hero and puzzle over some security-conscious neighbors. Thanks for listening! Intro: In 1794,...

Duration: 00:33:34


171-The Emperor of the United States

9/25/2017
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In the 1860s, San Francisco's most popular tourist attraction was not a place but a person: Joshua Norton, an eccentric resident who had declared himself emperor of the United States. Rather than shun him, the city took him to its heart, affectionately indulging his foibles for 21 years. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll consider the reign of Norton I and the meaning of madness. We'll also keep time with the Romans and puzzle over some rising...

Duration: 00:32:54


170-The Mechanical Turk

9/18/2017
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In 1770, Hungarian engineer Wolfgang von Kempelen unveiled a miracle: a mechanical man who could play chess against human challengers. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll meet Kempelen's Mechanical Turk, which mystified audiences in Europe and the United States for more than 60 years. We'll also sit down with Paul Erdős and puzzle over a useful amateur. Intro: Lewis Carroll sent a birthday wish list to child friend Jessie Sinclair in 1878. An octopus named Paul...

Duration: 00:32:20


169-John Harrison and the Problem of Longitude

9/11/2017
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Ships need a reliable way to know their exact location at sea -- and for centuries, the lack of a dependable method caused shipwrecks and economic havoc for every seafaring nation. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll meet John Harrison, the self-taught English clockmaker who dedicated his life to crafting a reliable solution to this crucial problem. We'll also admire a dentist and puzzle over a magic bus stop. Intro: Working in an Antarctic tent in 1908, Douglas...

Duration: 00:33:01


168-The Destruction of the Doves Type

9/4/2017
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In March 1913, Thomas James Cobden-Sanderson threw the most beautiful typeface in the world off of London's Hammersmith Bridge to keep it out of the hands of his estranged printing partner. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll explore what would lead a man to destroy the culmination of his life's work -- and what led one modern admirer to try to revive it. We'll also scrutinize a housekeeper and puzzle over a slumped child. Intro: Gustav Mahler rejected the Berlin...

Duration: 00:33:29


167-A Manhattan Murder Mystery

8/28/2017
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In May 1920, whist expert Joseph Bowne Elwell was found shot to death alone in his locked house in upper Manhattan. The police identified hundreds of people who might have wanted Elwell dead, but they couldn't pin the crime on any of them. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll review a locked-room murder that the Chicago Tribune called "one of the toughest mysteries of all times." We'll also learn a new use for scuba gear and puzzle over a sympathetic...

Duration: 00:32:09


166-A Dangerous Voyage

8/21/2017
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After Japan invaded the Philippines in 1941 two American servicemen hatched a desperate plan to sail 3,000 miles to Allied Australia in a 20-foot wooden fishing boat. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll join Rocky Gause and William Osborne as they struggle to avoid the Japanese and reach safety. We'll also tell time in Casablanca and puzzle over a towing fatality. Intro: H.M. Small patented a hammock for railway passenger cars in 1889. The clock face on the...

Duration: 00:33:19


165-A Case of Mistaken Identity

8/14/2017
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In 1896, Adolf Beck found himself caught up in a senseless legal nightmare: Twelve women from around London insisted that he'd deceived them and stolen their cash and jewelry. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll follow Beck's incredible ordeal, which ignited a scandal and inspired historic reforms in the English justice system. We'll also covet some noble socks and puzzle over a numerical sacking. Intro: A 1631 edition of the Bible omitted not in "Thou shalt not...

Duration: 00:31:16


164-Vigil on the Ice

8/7/2017
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In 1930, British explorer Augustine Courtauld volunteered to spend the winter alone on the Greenland ice cap, manning a remote weather station. As the snow gradually buried his hut and his supplies steadily dwindled, his relief party failed to arrive. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll follow Courtauld's increasingly desperate vigil on the ice. We'll also retreat toward George III and puzzle over some unexpected evidence. Intro: Rudyard Kipling hid messages in...

Duration: 00:33:00


163-Enslaved in the Sahara

7/31/2017
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In 1815 an American ship ran aground in northwestern Africa, and its crew were enslaved by merciless nomads. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll follow the desperate efforts of Captain James Riley to find a way to cross the Sahara and beg for help from Western officials in Morocco. We'll also wade through more molasses and puzzle over a prospective guitar thief. Intro: In 1972 archaeologists in northwestern Iran found evidence of one couple's tender final...

Duration: 00:31:55


162-John Muir and Stickeen

7/17/2017
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One stormy morning in 1880, naturalist John Muir set out to explore a glacier in Alaska's Taylor Bay, accompanied by an adventurous little dog that had joined his expedition. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll describe the harrowing predicament that the two faced on the ice, which became the basis of one of Muir's most beloved stories. We'll also marvel at some phonetic actors and puzzle over a season for vasectomies. Intro: In 1904 a 12-year-old J.R.R. Tolkien...

Duration: 00:32:29

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