Interview with Scotty Allen, host of the Strange Parts Youtube channel

My Cool Tools podcast guest this week is Scotty Allen. Scotty is a nomadic engineer, entrepreneur, adventurer and storyteller who orbits around San Francisco and Shenzhen, China. He runs a YouTube channel Strange Parts, a travel adventure show for geeks where he goes on adventures ranging from building his own iPhone in China to trying to make a manhole cover in India.

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1080P HDMI digital camera video microscope ($299)

“So one of the things that I have gotten an outsized amount of value from over the past year has been this microscope that I bought here in the electronics markets in China. It's a no-brand-name microscope that I got from a little tiny microscope booth in the market, and it's really been this incredibly high-leverage tool for me, and I didn't realize how much I was missing out until I bought it. It's been really great for doing detail work. And I use it for really small soldering work on iPhones and related circuit boards … It's a binocular microscope. It's not super high magnification, but because it's binocular you get depth of field, and so you can really see well. So you can look through the microscope and work underneath it with tweezers or a soldering iron or other tools and in great depth see what you're doing."

Frame.io

"Frame.io is an online tool that I use for collaborating on the videos I'm making. Read the rest

The largest art theft in history remains unsolved

In 1990, two thieves dressed as policemen walked into Boston's Gardner museum and walked out with 13 artworks worth half a billion dollars. After 28 years the lost masterpieces have never been recovered. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll describe the largest art theft in history and the ongoing search for its solution.

We'll also discover the benefits of mustard gas and puzzle over a surprisingly effective fighter pilot.

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Rating stranger's attractiveness to their face

This might be the most awkward thing I've seen in a while.

It's a video by The Cut where people are rated how attractive they are on a scale from 1 to 10, by strangers, in person. Read the rest

Five lateral thinking puzzles

Here are five 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 1921 the schooner Carroll A. Deering was discovered aground off North Carolina. The crew had vanished.

In 1921 a schooner ran aground on the treacherous shoals off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. When rescuers climbed aboard, they found signs of a strange drama in the ship's last moments -- and no trace of the 11-man crew. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll examine the curious case of the Carroll A. Deering, which has been called "one of the enduring mysteries of maritime history."

We'll also experiment with yellow fever and puzzle over a disputed time of death.

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In 1932 four gangsters set out to kill their friend and failed five times in a row

In 1932 a quartet of Bronx gangsters set out to murder a friend of theirs in order to collect his life insurance. But Michael Malloy proved to be almost comically difficult to kill. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll review what one observer called "the most clumsily executed insurance scam in New York City history."

We'll also burrow into hoarding and puzzle over the value of silence.

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In 1975 a woman set out alone to lead four camels across the deserts of western Australia

In 1977, a young woman named Robyn Davidson set out to pursue what she called a "lunatic idea" -- to lead a group of camels 1,700 miles across western Australia, from the center of the continent to the Indian Ocean. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll follow Davidson's remarkable journey alone through the Outback and learn what it taught her.

We'll also dive into the La Brea Tar Pits and puzzle over some striking workers.

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After Pearl Harbor was attacked, one American seaplane had to circle the world to get home

When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, the crew of an American seaplane were caught off guard near New Zealand. Unable to return across the Pacific, they were forced to fly home "the long way" -- all the way around the world. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll follow the adventures of the Pacific Clipper on its 30,000-mile journey through a world engulfed in war.

We'll also delve into the drug industry and puzzle over a curious case of skin lesions.

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A surprising case of classical music plagiarism

When the English concert pianist Joyce Hatto died in 2006, she was remembered as a national treasure for the brilliant playing on her later recordings. But then doubts arose as to whether the performances were really hers. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll review a surprising case of musical plagiarism, which touched off a scandal in the polite world of classical music.

We'll also spot foxes in London and puzzle over a welcome illness.

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For 13 years white geologist Clarence King maintained a second identity as a black man in New York

American geologist Clarence King led a strange double life in the late 1800s: He invented a second identity as a black railroad porter so he could marry the woman he loved, and then spent 13 years living separate lives in both white and black America. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll consider the extraordinary lengths that King went to in order to be with the woman he loved.

We'll also contemplate the dangers of water and puzzle over a policeman's strange behavior.

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Rodney Brooks on the present and future of robotics & AI

Rodney Brooks is the father of the Roomba, the founder of iRobot, and the creator of both the Baxter and Sawyer product lines from Rethink Robotics. He’s arguably the world’s most accomplished roboticist. And if he’s not – and I personally can’t think of who could challenge him for that crown – he’s definitely the top roboticist to be profiled in an Errol Morris documentary (1997’s Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control).

When Rodney left Australia for the region that would later become known as Silicon Valley, there were quite literally 3 mobile robots of consequence on the entire planet. Years later, he founded a company which has since brought tens of millions of these critters into the world. His products have saved countless lives. They have also liberated thousands of acres of carpeting from dust crumbs, dog hair, and other detritus.

Amazingly, Rodney’s tenure and credentials are every bit as significant in a second high tech field: artificial intelligence. He founded the leading developer of AI coding tools throughout the 80s and early 90s. And somehow he squeezed his robotics and AI entrepreneurship in while building a storied academic career – largely at MIT, where he spent a decade running one of the two largest and most prominent AI centers in the world.

Rodney is my guest in this week's edition of the After on Podcast. You can listen to our interview by searching “After On” in your favorite podcast app, or by clicking right here:

As you’ll hear, Rodney diverges from fashionable narratives on several tech-related topics. Read the rest

Brothers Homer and Langley Collyer filled their Harlem townhouse with 140 tons of junk

In the 1930s, brothers Homer and Langley Collyer withdrew from society and began to fill their Manhattan brownstone with newspapers, furniture, musical instruments, and assorted junk. By 1947, when Homer died, the house was crammed with 140 tons of rubbish, and Langley had gone missing. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll tell the strange, sad story of the Hermits of Harlem.

We'll also buy a bit of Finland and puzzle over a banker's misfortune.

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Diver William Walker spent five years under Winchester Cathedral to restore the building's foundations

In 1905 Winchester Cathedral was in danger of collapsing as its eastern end sank into marshy ground. The surprising solution was to hire a diver, who worked underwater for five years to build a firmer foundation for the medieval structure. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll tell the story of William Walker and his curious contribution to saving a British landmark.

We'll also contemplate a misplaced fire captain and puzzle over a shackled woman.

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In 1958, two pilots managed to stay aloft in a small plane for two months straight

The world's longest airplane flight took place in 1958, when two aircraft mechanics spent 64 days above the southwestern U.S. in a tiny Cessna with no amenities. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll follow the aerial adventures of Bob Timm and John Cook as they set a record that still stands today.

We'll also consider a derelict kitty and puzzle over a movie set's fashion dictates.

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I interviewed science fiction author Madeline Ashby about her favorite tools

The guest this week on my Cool Tools show is Madeline Ashby. Madeline is a science fiction writer and futurist living in Toronto. Her most recent novel, Company Town, was a finalist for the 2017 CBC Books Canada Reads prize. She has also developed science fiction prototypes for the Institute for the Future, SciFutures, Data & Society, Nesta, the Atlantic Council, NASA, and others. (We have hired professional editors to help create our weekly podcasts and video reviews. So far, Cool Tools listeners have pledged $365 a month. Please consider supporting us on Patreon. We have great rewards for people who contribute!)

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Show notes:

Clarisonic Mia ($169)

"The Clarisonic is a device that uses the same technology as something like a Sonicare toothbrush … and other sort of ultra sonic cleaning devices to wash your face. It's a device that has a brush on one end of it and basically vibrates across your face at a certain frequency and vibrates the bristles on a brush head to exfoliate your face, and it works like a dream. And I've owned one for about four years now, and it has yet to die, which I suppose I'm jinxing myself. But all of those four years have been wonderful. ... I bought it when I turned 30 as a gift to myself because I wanted to actually start taking my skin seriously, for once. Read the rest

On tumors, MRIs and telepathy: Mary Lou Jepsen on the future of devices that could read images from our brains

Mary Lou Jepsen was finishing her PhD work in holography at Brown University when she started getting sick. Really sick. After a year of steady decline, she was living in a wheel chair and covered in sores. When she could no longer do simple subtraction in her head, she called it quits. She basically went home to die.

That was when a generous professor sprung for an MRI. It revealed a brain tumor – one which had probably afflicted her more subtly since childhood. Shortly after a successful operation, she was firing on all cylinders. Within six months, she completed her Ph.D. and cofounded her first startup. She has since started two more companies; worked in the top engineering echelons of Intel, Google, and Facebook; served briefly as a professor at MIT; and cofounded the One Laptop Per Child initiative.

Impelled by her searing personal experience, Mary Lou is now honing a technology which, she believes, will revolutionize high-end medical imaging. Accessing this is problematic enough in the US, with its 50 MRI machines per million people. But there are just two machines per million Mexicans, and poorer countries may have just one system in the capital city – if that. And with scans averaging about $2,700, even lavishly-insured Americans might be inadequately monitored. MRIs are more effective than mammograms at detecting certain types of breast cancer, for instance. But expense precludes their use as frontline diagnostics.

Mary Lou believes her technology will be 99.9% cheaper than MRIs (that’s an actual estimate, not a euphemism); radically smaller (the size of a ski cap, not a bedroom); and that its resolution will exceed that of MRIs by a factor of a billion. Read the rest

In 1856, 19-year-old Mary Patten commanded a clipper ship around Cape Horn

In 1856, an American clipper ship was approaching Cape Horn when its captain collapsed, leaving his 19-year-old wife to navigate the vessel through one of the deadliest sea passages in the world. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll tell the story of Mary Patten and the harrowing voyage of the Neptune's Car.

We'll also consider some improbable recipes and puzzle over a worker's demise.

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