In World War II, the U.S. Army experimented with firebombs carried by live bats

During World War II, the U.S. Army experimented with a bizarre plan: using live bats to firebomb Japanese cities. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll describe the crazy history of the bat bomb, the extraordinary brainchild of a Pennsylvania dentist.

We'll also consider the malleable nature of mental illness and puzzle over an expensive quiz question.

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Digg founder Kevin Rose talks about his favorite vegetable fermenter and cryptocurrency wallet

My guest on the Cool Tools podcast this week is Kevin Rose. Kevin is a serial entrepreneur and product builder, having founded the social news site Digg in 2004. Later Kevin pursued a career in venture investing, investing in companies like Medium, Ripple, and Blue Bottle Coffee while at Google Ventures and is now investing at True Ventures.

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Peloton Bike ($1,995)

“I had taken a couple stationary bike classes and the ones that you actually have to go in person, but then I had a buddy of mine, that was like you don’t understand, these classes are a lot of fun, they really motivate you, you can do it your house, and for me that just sounded like, okay, I’ll give it a shot, and I went and tried it at a friend’s house, and I got hooked, purchased one, and for a geek it's awesome because you get all the really detailed analytics on the screen there post workout, and then it's all live streaming classes, so like when you're in a class the instructors will call you out by name sometimes, and there's all different types of instructors depending on your music style and likes, so I've just found it to be a great way — if you have an extra half hour — to just jump on for 20 minutes and get a work out in." [Note: True Ventures, the venture capital firm Kevin Rose works for, is an investor in Peloton.]

Habitify: Habit Tracker

"I've been into habit tracking apps, but they always kind of fall off, but as a data junkie, and kind of a geek, I really like to see and be held to certain habits, so I like to see like completion rate, and progress indicators, and little charts and graphs. Read the rest

Boing Boing's former software engineer Dean Putney talks about some of his favorite tools

My guest this week on the Cool Tools podcast is Dean Putney. Dean is the founding software engineer at laser cutter startup Glowforge in Seattle. Previously he wrote software for organizations like Reddit, IDEO, Boing Boing and Cool Tools.

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Notational Velocity

"Notational Velocity is a basic text editor for Mac meant for taking quick notes. This answers the question of “where can I write this down?” for the computer. I use it to plan my day, write down quick information if I’m on the phone, and keep important snippets of text or code right at hand. nvALT is a fork of the original Notational Velocity that appears to be more frequently worked on. You can access it via a global keyboard shortcut. Its search is quick and accurate. It doesn’t do images or files. nvALT has become the go-to place for me to drop almost all my thoughts and insecure details. You can use SimpleNote to sync your notes to your phone or elsewhere.”

Dash

"Dash is a code reference tool. Its primary purpose is to search and read the manuals for different programming languages. This alone is extremely valuable, as reading the manuals online or in a PDF can be extremely tedious. But Dash also makes adding manuals easy, stores them offline, and is accessible in a global keyboard shortcut. Dash can also manage global snippets. Read the rest

In 1906, the Bronx Zoo exhibited a Congolese man in its primate house

The Bronx Zoo unveiled a controversial exhibit in 1906 -- a Congolese man in a cage in the primate house. The display attracted jeering crowds to the park, but for the man himself it was only the latest in a string of indignities. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll review the sad tale of Ota Benga and his life in early 20th-century America.

We'll also delve into fugue states and puzzle over a second interstate speeder.

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What scam artists can teach us about the human brain

For centuries, scam artists, con artists, and magicians were the world’s leading experts on biases, fallacies, heuristics and all the other quirks of human reasoning and perception.

On this episode, magician and scam expert Brian Brushwood explains why people fall for scams of all sizes, how to avoid them, and why most magicians can spot a fraudster a mile away.

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Brian Brushwood tours the world giving lectures that mix comedy with stage and close-up magic designed to deliver an overall message about how to better navigate a world filled with scams, frauds, pseudoscience, and paranormal beliefs. Read the rest

'The Children's Blizzard' of 1888 trapped children in schoolhouses across the American Midwest

In January 1888, after a disarming warm spell, a violent storm of blinding snow and bitter cold suddenly struck the American Midwest, trapping farmers in fields, travelers on roads, and hundreds of children in schoolhouses with limited fuel. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll describe the Children's Blizzard, one of the most harrowing winter storms in American history.

We'll also play 20 Questions with a computer and puzzle over some vanishing vultures.

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If Aubrey de Grey is right, you could live forever

I first met Aubrey de Grey over ten years ago, when he presented at a conference I attended. And his core message blew my mind. It was -- and remains -- that it should soon lie within technology’s reach to eliminate the scourge of human aging. Not merely to arrest it -- but even to reverse it. We discuss all of this and more right here:

People have been making these sorts of claims from time immemorial. But they usually have a service, some goop, or a religion to sell, and Aubrey’s peddling none of the above. The charlatans also typically lack Aubrey’s professional validation -- which include a Cambridge Ph.D, any number of academic publications, and dozens of scientists pursuing his agenda with full or partial funding from the organization that he founded and runs.

Aubrey is charmingly indignant about the lack of urgency most of humanity has about ending aging. He attributes this to a mindset he calls the “Pro-aging Trance,” which we discuss in detail at the start of our interview. Its roots include the instinctive conviction most of us have that death and mortality are immutable realities. To which Aubrey would reply that many instinctive convictions -- such as belief in an Earth-centered universe, or the impossibility of human flight -- have gone the way of the dodo bird. And he would of course add that there’s no reason for us to go that way ourselves.

Aubrey maintains that while life itself is -- for now -- unfathomably complex, as are most disease states, virtually everything that causes us to age and die stems from seven discrete categories of damage, which steadily accrue throughout our lives. Read the rest

In 1703 a blond Frenchman convinced much of London that he was from Taiwan

In 1703, London had a strange visitor, a young man who ate raw meat and claimed that he came from an unknown country on the island of Taiwan. Though many doubted him, he was able to answer any question he was asked, and even wrote a best-selling book about his homeland. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll consider the curious question of the man from Formosa.

We'll also scrutinize a stamp forger and puzzle over an elastic Utah.

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Six lateral thinking puzzles

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.

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In 1924, two British mountaineers disappeared trying to conquer Mount Everest. No one knows if they succeeded.

In 1924 two British mountaineers set out to be the first to conquer Mount Everest. But they never returned to camp, and to this day no one knows whether they reached the top. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll review the case of George Mallory and Andrew Irvine, which has been called "one of the greatest unsolved adventure mysteries of the 20th century."

We'll also learn what to do if attacked by a bear and puzzle over the benefits of a water shortage.

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In the 1870s, a French laborer found himself making strange, compulsive journeys all over Europe

In the 1870s, French gas fitter Albert Dadas started making strange, compulsive trips to distant towns, with no planning or awareness of what he was doing. His bizarre affliction set off a 20-year epidemic of "mad travelers" in Europe, which evaporated as mysteriously as it had begun. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll consider the parable of pathological tourism and its meaning for psychiatry.

We'll also contemplate the importance of sick chickens and puzzle over a farmyard contraption.

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Cryptocurrency: From Basic Definitions to Expert Issues in One Interview

You’d have to be living in some kind of a news blackout not to have heard chatter about cryptocurrencies recently. The granddaddy of ‘em all – BitCoin – has appreciated roughly 2000% over the past twelve months. This puts the total value of all BitCoin close $300B, making it more valuable than roughly 490 of the companies in the Fortune 500 – and far more valuable than any of the banks that were deemed too big to fail during the financial crisis.

So what in the world is going on here? As with all large markets, nobody fully knows. But my interviewee in today’s podcast, Fred Ehrsam, knows this area better than almost anyone. In 2012, he co-founded Coinbase, which is by far the world’s largest consumer-friendly service for storing and trading cryptocurrencies (though its users include many large nonconsumers as well).

Although our interview is a spontaneous conversation, Fred and I both put methodical thought into sequencing our topics, as well as the level of depth that we treat each with. The result is a robust introduction for who know nothing about cryptocurrencies, which can also truly fire the neurons of experts in this field. Will AI’s start running on the block chain? Could a full-fledged Uber, Lyft, or AirBnB competitor exist as a cloud-based Smart Contract? And how might the emergence of Ethereum stand in certain a line of historic events that stretches back before the Bronze Age?

Those who don’t yet know what a blockchain or a smart contract are should be able to follow the entire conversation, clear through to its complex and rather mindbending conclusions, just by listening carefully (although probably not on 2x speed!). Read the rest

The story of a daring 1943 commando raid to stop Germany from getting an atomic bomb

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 of cicadas.

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Bogus professor Marvin Hewitt taught at seven different schools and universities

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 hospital.

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Cool Tools podcast guest: Jennifer Pahlka, founder of Code for America

My guest on the Cool Tools Show podcast this week is Jennifer Pahlka. Jennifer is the Founder of Code for America, a nonprofit dedicated to proving that government can work for all people in the digital age. She served as the U.S. Deputy Chief Technology Officer under President Obama, and founded the United States Digital Service dedicated to the same idea.

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Phaxio, a modern fax platform

“I will have to admit upfront, I'm not actually a coder, but I do work with our coding teams here at Code for America, and what I like about Phaxio is that it's sort of a hack, not just on sort of services, but on government. What we do here is we try to make services that work much better than the government services as it's offered. For instance, if you want to apply for food stamps in California and you want to do it online, you’ll go through an application form that’s over 50 screens long. … One of the things we started doing was just making a better online form and then having that form create a fax and then faxing it into the office. It turns out the place where faxes are still really, really useful is in government services, in government offices. I never would’ve said, 10 years ago, that fax was key, but it really is for the work that we do and it really helps us hack bureaucracies."

Selenium WebDriver

“I’d say [this is] like the next steps in making services that can sit on top of government services a lot easier to use. Read the rest

In the 1930s, two promising young American writers disappeared without a trace

Everett Ruess and Barbara Newhall Follett were 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 pigeon.

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The promise and peril of reading your genome in 2017 (or for that matter, 2018)

Imagine that a folded note before you reveals -- definitively -- whether an excruciating, protracted neurological death lies a decade into your future. Should you look?

Do so, and you could be rid of the grim uncertainty. Or, you could be fated to live and die with an awful truth. One which will haunt you, but also let you shape your remaining years with a foreknowledge most of us lack.

This is a terrible quandary no one should face. But one person in 10,000 carries a genetic vulnerability to a gruesome affliction called Huntington’s Disease. You almost certainly do not. But for those with a family history of Huntington’s, the odds can be as high as 50/50. And in certain genetic configurations, the disease has 100% “penetrance” - meaning that all who carry the mutation are doomed. This makes the results of a Huntington’s test as close to an iron-clad prediction as genetics ever gets.

Before the test was created, a remarkably high percentage of people with family histories said they’d take it if given the chance. But once the test was available, roughly 90% of those people changed their minds. This makes it nigh impossible to know what we ourselves would do if faced with that choice.

But all of us will face a version of that choice very soon - albeit a far less stark, and radically more ambiguous version. And roughly 0.000% of us are in a position to make that choice in an adequately-informed and emotionally-prepared manner. Read the rest

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