One man's visit to Japan's closed society changed the country's destiny

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.

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"Emperor" Joshua Norton reigned over San Francisco for 21 years

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 temperatures.

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Did an 18th-century engineer manage to build a chess-playing automaton?

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.

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The man who solved the problem of longitude

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.

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In 1913 T.J. Cobden-Sanderson threw the most beautiful type in the world into the river Thames

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.

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In 1920, whist expert Joseph Elwell was found shot to death alone in his locked Manhattan brownstone

In May 1920, wealthy womanizer Joseph 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 quite pin the crime on any of them. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll review the sensational 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 vandal.

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During WW II two Americans escaped the Japanese by sailing 3,000 miles in a wooden fishing boat

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.

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The mistaken identity of Adolf Beck, "one of the strangest true stories in British legal history"

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.

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Augustine Courtauld was marooned at a remote weather station in Greenland in 1930

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.

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Twelve Americans were enslaved in Africa after an 1815 shipwreck

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.

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John Muir's 'adventure with a dog and a glacier'

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.

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High school student Juliane Koepcke survived a two-mile fall into the Peruvian rain forest

In 1971 high school student Juliane Koepcke fell two miles into the Peruvian rain forest when her airliner broke up in a thunderstorm. Miraculously, she survived the fall, but her ordeal was just beginning. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll describe Juliane's arduous trek through the jungle in search of civilization and help.

We'll also consider whether goats are unlucky and puzzle over the shape of doorknobs.

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In 1889 an African lion escaped into the sewers of Birmingham, England

Birmingham, England, faced a surprising crisis in 1889: A lion escaped a traveling menagerie and took up residence in the city's sewers, terrifying the local population. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll descend into the tunnels with Frank Bostock, the 21-year-old manager who set out to capture the desperate beast.

We'll also revisit a cosmic mystery and puzzle over an incomprehensible language.

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The rootless, fruitful life of mathematician Paul Erdős

Mathematician Paul Erdős had no home, no job, and no hobbies. Instead, for 60 years he wandered the world, staying with each of hundreds of collaborators just long enough to finish a project, and then moving on. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll meet the "Mozart of mathematics," whose restless brilliance made him the most prolific mathematician of the 20th century.

We'll also ponder Japanese cannibalism in World War II and puzzle over a senseless stabbing.

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Belle Gunness lured lonely men to her Indiana farm to rob and kill them

Belle Gunness was one of America's most prolific female serial killers, luring lonely men to her Indiana farm with promises of marriage, only to rob and kill them. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll tell the story of The LaPorte Black Widow and learn about some of her unfortunate victims.

We'll also break back into Buckingham Palace and puzzle over a bet with the devil.

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In 1629, Dutch castaways on a tiny island faced a desperately murderous leader

In 1629, a Dutch trading vessel struck a reef off the coast of Australia, marooning 180 people on a tiny island. As they struggled to stay alive, their leader descended into barbarity, gathering a band of cutthroats and killing scores of terrified castaways. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll document the brutal history of Batavia's graveyard, the site of Australia's most infamous shipwreck.

We'll also lose money in India and puzzle over some invisible Frenchmen.

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In the Philippines, one Japanese holdout fought World War II until 1974

When American forces overran the Philippine island of Lubang in 1945, Japanese intelligence officer Hiroo Onoda withdrew into the mountains to wait for reinforcements. He was still waiting 29 years later. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll meet the dedicated soldier who fought World War II until 1974.

We'll also dig up a murderer and puzzle over an offensive compliment.

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