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Podcast: Episode 5

Henry Brown found a unique way to escape slavery: He mailed himself to Pennsylvania. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll accompany Brown on his perilous 1849 journey from Richmond to Philadelphia, follow a 5-year-old Idaho girl who was mailed to her grandparents in 1914, and delve deeper into a mysterious lion sighting in Illinois in 1917.

We’ll also decode a 200-year-old message enciphered by Benjamin Franklin, examine an engraved ball reputed to have fallen out of the Georgia sky in 1887, and present the next Futility Closet Challenge.

You can listen using the player above, or subscribe on iTunes or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset. The show notes are on the blog, where you can also enter your submissions in this week’s Challenge. Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

Next week we plan to recount the story of the U.S. Camel Corps, an enterprising attempt to use camels as pack animals in the American West in the 1850s. If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!

Book Sale

book coverThis week our book, Futility Closet: An Idler’s Miscellany of Compendious Amusements, is on sale — the print book is $9.99, the ebook $4.99.

The book collects my favorite finds in nine years of dedicated curiosity-seeking: lawyers struck by lightning, wills in chili recipes, a lost manuscript by Jules Verne, dreams predicting horse race winners, softball at the North Pole, physicist pussycats, 5-year-olds in the mail, camels in Texas, balloons in the arctic, a lawsuit against Satan, starlings amok, backward shoes, revolving squirrels, Dutch Schultz’s last words, Alaskan mirages, armored baby carriages, pig trials, rivergoing pussycats, a scheme to steal the Mona Lisa, and hundreds more.

Plus a selection of the curious words, odd inventions, and quotations that are regular features on the site, as well as 24 favorite puzzles and a preface explaining how Futility Closet came to be and how I come up with this stuff.

The book is available now on Amazon and in the Apple iBookstore.

I can also send signed copies to recipients in the U.S. for $25 each, and to those elsewhere for a comparable price once we’ve worked out the shipping. If you’re interested, write to me at gregblog@gmail.com. Thanks for your support, and thanks, as always, for reading!

Podcast: Episode 4

In 1896 a strange wave of airship sightings swept Northern California; the reports of strange lights in the sky created a sensation that would briefly engulf the rest of the country. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll examine some of the highlights of this early “UFO” craze, including the mysterious role of a San Francisco attorney who claimed to have the answer to it all.

We’ll also examine the surprising role played by modern art in disguising World War I merchant ships and modern cars, discover unexpected lions in central Illinois and southern England, and present the next Futility Closet Challenge.

You can listen using the player above, or subscribe on iTunes or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset. The show notes are on the blog, where you can also enter your submissions in this week’s Challenge. Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

Next week we plan to recount the story of Henry “Box” Brown, a Virginia slave who mailed himself to freedom in 1849. If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!

Podcast: Episode 3

In 1926, a woman named Lillian Alling grew disenchanted with her life as a maid in New York City and resolved to return to her native Russia. She lacked the funds to sail east, so instead she walked west — trekking 6,000 miles alone across the breadth of Canada and into Alaska. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast, we’ll consider Alling’s lonely, determined journey, compare it to the efforts of other long-distance pedestrians, and suggest a tool to plot your own virtual journey across the United States.

We’ll also learn the truth about the balloon-borne messenger dogs of 1870 Paris, ponder the significance of October 4 to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and offer a chance to win a book in the next Futility Closet Challenge.

You can listen using the player above, or subscribe on iTunes or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset. The show notes are on the blog, where you can also enter your submissions in this week’s Challenge. Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

Next week we plan to discuss the strange wave of airship sightings that swept the western U.S. in 1896. If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!

Podcast: Episode 2

As skywatchers prepared for the return of Halley’s comet in 1910, they heard some alarming scientific predictions: Poisonous gases in the comet’s tail might “snuff out all life on the planet,” “leaving the burnt and drenched Earth no other atmosphere than the nitrogen now present in the air.” How should a responsible citizen evaluate a dire prediction by a minority of experts? In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast, we explore the Halley’s hysteria, remember the alarming predictions made for Y2K, and recall a forgotten novella in which Arthur Conan Doyle imagined a dead Earth fumigated by cosmic ether.

We also consider the odd legacy of an Australian prime minister who disappeared in 1967, investigate the role of balloon-borne sheepdogs during the Siege of Paris, learn why Mark Twain’s brother telegraphed the entire Nevada constitution to Washington D.C. in 1864, and offer a chance to win a book in the next Futility Closet Challenge.

You can listen using the player above, or subscribe on iTunes or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset. The show notes are on the blog, where you can also enter your submissions in this week’s Challenge. Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

Next week we plan to discuss the sad, enigmatic tale of Lillian Alling, an immigrant who grew disenchanted with New York and decided to walk home to Siberia; explore the curious significance of October 4 to Samuel Taylor Coleridge; and offer a new Futility Closet Challenge. If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!

Podcast

Today we’re launching a weekly podcast, on which we’ll answer listener questions, discuss recent popular posts on Futility Closet, share readers’ contributions on previous topics, present intriguing leads that we’ve encountered in our research, and offer a challenge in which listeners can match their wits.

Futility Closet podcast logo

Will New Year’s Day fall on a weekend in the year 2063? If calendar reformer Moses Cotsworth had succeeded, anyone in the world could have answered that question instantly — any of us could name the day of the week on which any future date would fall, no matter how distant. In this first episode we examine Cotsworth’s plan and similar efforts to improve our clocks and calendars.

We also look at how an antique dollhouse offers a surprising window into 17th-century Dutch history, explore a curious puzzle in an Alfred Hitchcock film, and invite you to participate in the first Futility Closet Challenge.

You can listen using the player above, or subscribe on iTunes or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset. The show notes are on the blog, where you can also enter your submissions in this week’s Challenge. Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

We plan to release a new episode each Monday. Next week we’ll discuss the hysteria that greeted the return of Halley’s comet in 1910; investigate the use of balloon-borne sheepdogs during the Siege of Paris; commemorate a misplaced Australian prime minister; and offer a new Futility Closet Challenge. If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!

NYT

Futility Closet is featured on the New York Times’ Numberplay blog this week, with a discussion of the necktie paradox.

Reminder

Two days remain in the book giveaway on Goodreads — enter to win one of three signed copies of the Futility Closet book. Winners will be announced on February 9.

Down

Sorry about that downtime — we hit some database trouble. Should be okay now …

Goodreads

FYI, I’ve set up a presence on Goodreads, for anyone who wants to follow me there. I’ve begun posting the reading I’m doing in research for this site, and I’d be happy to get recommendations from other readers, and to discuss books there generally.

I’m also running a book giveaway on Goodreads — you can enter to win one of three signed copies of the Futility Closet book. Winners will be announced on February 9.

And I’ll be hosting a Q&A session on Goodreads all day on January 31 — you can ask me anything about the site, the book, future plans, or anything else you like.

I spend so much time in libraries doing research for this site that I thought it might be interesting to discuss books with you. I’m thinking Goodreads might become a place where we can recommend books to each other and discuss reading in general. See you there!

iBook

The Futility Closet book is finally available in the Apple iBookstore. Sorry for the wait!

Signed Books

Since the Futility Closet book came out, a number of readers have asked whether I could provide signed copies. I think I’ve now worked out a way to do this for those who are interested. I can send signed copies to U.S. residents for $25 each, and to those elsewhere for a comparable price once we’ve worked out the shipping. If you’re interested, please write to me at gregblog@gmail.com. (And thanks for asking — I hadn’t expected this!)

FYI

I’m the guest on Boing Boing’s Incredibly Interesting Authors podcast this month, discussing the new book and the website — here’s a link.

Ebook

FC book thumbnail

The electronic version of the Futility Closet book is now available on Amazon, and will be forthcoming in the Apple bookstore — I’ll post updates on the book page.

Many thanks to those who are supporting the book — that’s a great help in keeping this whole enterprise going.

I’m planning another big miscellany for next year, but I thought it might also be fun to do a specialty book of some kind. What would you like to see? A collection of obscure words? Quotations? Puzzles? Odd inventions? Let me know on the blog.

Away

I’m away till Saturday. Many thanks to everyone who has bought the book — if you enjoy it, please consider recommending it to others. Thanks for your support, and happy Thanksgiving!

Book!

book cover

At last, here’s a book! Futility Closet: An Idler’s Miscellany of Compendious Amusements collects my favorite finds in nine years of dedicated curiosity-seeking: lawyers struck by lightning, wills in chili recipes, a lost manuscript by Jules Verne, dreams predicting horse race winners, softball at the North Pole, physicist pussycats, 5-year-olds in the mail, camels in Texas, balloons in the arctic, a lawsuit against Satan, starlings amok, backward shoes, revolving squirrels, Dutch Schultz’s last words, Alaskan mirages, armored baby carriages, pig trials, rivergoing pussycats, a scheme to steal the Mona Lisa, and hundreds more, plus a selection of the curious words, odd inventions, and quotations that are regular features on the site, as well as 24 favorite puzzles and a preface explaining how Futility Closet came to be and how I come up with this stuff. A million thanks to Greg Mortimer for making it look so good.

The paperback is available on Amazon and Amazon Europe now, and at other online retailers imminently. An ebook is also forthcoming, which I’ll announce here as soon as it’s ready. Thanks for your support, and thanks, as always, for reading!

Thanks

Many thanks to everyone who took the survey about the first Futility Closet book. Most people seem to prefer a paperback, so I’ll work on that first, and I’ll also pursue an ebook. I haven’t yet found an efficient way to produce and distribute a hardcover book at a reasonable price, but I’ll keep looking.

I’ll organize the book as a miscellany, but I plan to include an index to help you find particular items. I’ll fill it with a representative sampling of the site’s best content, and I’ll include all the recurring features except probably for chess puzzles, which probably belong in a separate book — I’m hoping to produce specialized collections of unusual words, odd inventions, etc., in addition to broad miscellanies.

I think I may need some help with the ebook — if you have experience designing illustrated nonfiction ebooks in multiple formats, or can recommend someone who does, please contact me at gregblog@gmail.com. Thanks.

Designers Wanted

I’m looking for a logo designer and a WordPress theme designer for this site — I want to replace the (rather generic) Helvetica nameplate at the top, and I have a small list of tweaks to make to the body. Ideally I’d like to work with experienced designers who read the site and know the tone of the content, but I’ll value all recommendations. You can reach me at gregblog@gmail.com. Thanks.

05/26/2013 UPDATE: Many thanks to everyone who’s responded — there are too many to thank individually, but I value all the advice and recommendations that I’ve received and will review them all carefully. Thanks again!

Future Plans

Futility Closet has been growing fast — there are now more than 7,000 posts in the archive, and subscriptions are setting new records every week now. But the functionality hasn’t changed since I launched the site in 2005. I want to devote this year to catching up and helping the site realize its full potential. I could use your help in doing this, as you know best what’s lacking. What new features would you like to see? What new media and formats should I publish in? Should I get involved in social media? Would you be interested in a Futility Closet book? Should we start a forum so that readers can interact? In general, how can I make the site more useful to you?

In the coming days I’m going to be starting a series of discussions on the blog to discuss these questions — see the link to “Blog” in the sidebar under Info. I’d really value your help and advice. Thanks in advance for your suggestions, and thanks, as always, for reading.

Redesign

Okay, here’s a new look, at last. The features and content are the same, but we’ve updated the theme. Two main things to note:

1. I’ve added a blog, linked in the sidebar, with comments enabled. There we can discuss the new look as well as some additional developments that I’m beginning to consider, including establishing a community here, offering merchandise, and publishing a series of books.

2. If you’re on a mobile device, you’re now viewing the main site directly. Previously you were getting a mobile version served by the WPtouch plugin, which omitted some features. I need your feedback: Is this better? Do you want to go back to WPtouch? Would you rather have a dedicated mobile theme, and if so what features should that include? (UPDATE: I’ll address the font readability, and I’ve reverted to WPtouch while I investigate getting a dedicated mobile theme. Other comments are still welcome.)

We can discuss all this on the blog; my aim is to do most of the backstage discussion there and save the front page for actual content. You can also write to me directly at gregblog@gmail.com. Thanks for reading!