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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In the early 1800s, an escaped convict spent 32 years living among the aborigines of southeastern Australia

In 1835, settlers in Australia discovered a European man dressed in kangaroo skins -- a convict who had escaped an earlier settlement and spent 32 years living among the natives of southern Victoria. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll review the extraordinary life of William Buckley, the so-called "wild white man" of colonial Australia.

We'll also try to fend off scurvy and puzzle over some colorful letters.

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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.

Subscribe to the Cool Tools Show on iTunes | RSS | Transcript | Download MP3 | See all the Cool Tools Show posts on a single page

Show notes:

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.

Subscribe to the Cool Tools Show on iTunes | RSS | Transcript | Download MP3 | See all the Cool Tools Show posts on a single page

Show notes:

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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