Podcast

The Futility Closet podcast is a weekly show featuring forgotten stories from the pages of history. Join us each Monday for surprising and curious tales from the past and to challenge yourself with our lateral thinking puzzles.

You can listen using the streaming players below, or subscribe by RSS or by clicking one of these buttons:

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If you have any questions or comments, please write to us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!

Podcast Episode 6: Texas Camels, Zebra Stripes, and an Immortal Piano

The 1850s saw a strange experiment in the American West: The U.S. Army imported 70 camels for help in managing the country’s suddenly enormous hinterland. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll see how the animals acquitted themselves in an unfamiliar land under inexperienced human masters.

We’ll also learn a surprising theory regarding the origin of zebra stripes; follow the further adventures of self-mailing ex-slave Henry “Box” Brown; ask whether a well-wrought piano can survive duty as a beehive, chicken incubator, and meat safe; and present the next Futility Closet Challenge.

Our original post on the U.S. Camel Corps appeared on Jan. 2, 2006.

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Heap_-_Embarkation_of_Camels.png

Here’s an illustration of a disconsolate camel embarking for Texas, from Secretary of War Jefferson Davis’ 1857 report to Congress. After two months at sea, the animals were delighted to reach dry land: No sooner were they set ashore than they “became excited to an almost uncontrollable degree, rearing, kicking, crying out, breaking halters, tearing up pickets, and by other fantastic tricks demonstrating their enjoyment of ‘liberty of the soil.’ Some of the males, becoming even pugnacious in their excitement, were with difficulty restrained from attacking each other.”

A stunning example of the camels’ capability: In Indianola, to show the value of the animals, Maj. Henry Wayne ordered a camel to be loaded with 1,226 pounds (!) of hay. Wayne wrote, “When the camel arose, without a strain, and quietly walked away with his four bales, as one who felt himself master of the situation, there was a sudden change of public sentiment, most flattering to the outlandish brute and encouraging to his military sponsors.”

Further sources:

Odie B. Faulk, The U.S. Camel Corps: An Army Experiment, 1976.
Harlan D. Fowler, Camels to California: A Chapter in Western Transportation, 1950.
Lewis Burt Lesley, Uncle Sam’s Camels: The Journal of May Humphreys Stacey Supplemented by the Report of Edward Fitzgerald Beale, 1929.
“The Camels That Jefferson Davis Bought,” New York Times, Aug. 20, 1922.

A few articles on the conjectured origins of zebra stripes:

Christine Dell’Amore, “Why Do Zebras Have Stripes? New Study Offers Strong Evidence,” National Geographic, April 1, 2014.

Rachel Kaufman, “Zebra Stripes Evolved to Repel Bloodsuckers?”, National Geographic News, Feb. 9, 2012.

Jennifer Viegas, “Zebra Stripes Not for Camo, But They Do Something Else,” Discovery, April 1, 2014.

Here’s Charles Rosen playing Scarlatti’s Sonata in G major on the 1955 LP that introduced Avner Carmi’s restored “immortal piano” to the world:

My other sources for that segment:

Avner Carmi and Hannah Carmi, The Immortal Piano, 1961.
The Siena Pianoforte, Charles Rosen, pianist, Counterpoint LP, 1955.
Weldon Wallace, “Beehive, Booby Trap, Meat Locker,” Baltimore Sun, Oct. 30, 1955.
“The Harp of David,” Time, Aug. 29, 1955.
Weldon Wallace, “Siena Piano at Peabody,” Baltimore Sun, Nov. 2, 1955.
Claudia Cassidy, “Bechet’s Ballet, ‘Sunless Cycle,’ ‘Siena’ Story, Kodaly, Voodoo,” Chicago Daily Tribune, Sept. 4, 1955.
Ross Dunn, “Rommel Piano Up for Auction in Israel,” The Times, Sept. 7, 1996.

Thanks again to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, 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 follow the flight of L’Oiseau Blanc, a French biplane that crossed the Atlantic two weeks before Lindbergh — but disappeared en route. If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!

Podcast Episode 5: Mailing People, Alien Shorthand, and Benjamin Franklin

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.

The story about Dr. Seyers’ alien ball appeared in the Chicago Tribune in 1887 — here’s a reprint from the American Stationer.

Our posts on Henry Box Brown and May Pierstorff appeared on Feb. 2, 2006, and Dec. 31, 2008.

Here’s Samuel Rowse’s 1850 lithograph The Resurrection of Henry Box Brown at Philadelphia, depicting Brown’s climactic emergence from his box on March 24, 1849:

2014-04-14-podcast-episode-5-mailing-people-alien-shorthand-and-benjamin-franklin

And our post about Benjamin Franklin’s cipher appeared originally on July 23, 2008. Satoshi Tomokiyo’s description of the solution is here.

Thanks again to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, 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!

Podcast Episode 4: Mystery Airships, Marauding Lions, and Nancy Drew

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.

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mystery_airship_SFCall_Nov_19_1896.jpg

Our post about the California airships ran on March 27. Note the similarity between the newspaper illustration of the “great airship” (above) and Scientific American‘s illustration of Moses Cole’s “aerial vessel” (below), which was patented on Nov. 9, 1886.

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cole_Air_Vessel_1897.jpg

On Nov. 23, 1896, the Call published an interview (3.74 MB PDF) with San Francisco attorney George D. Collins, in which he described his wealthy client as “a resident of Oroville and a man of wealth, about 47 years of age, and a fine looking fellow. He does not talk for five minutes without convincing his hearer that he is a man of more than ordinary intelligence.”

The promised revelation never occurred, and Collins faded from the spotlight. The airship sensation spread east, sowing hoaxes as it went — here’s a photo of the 36-foot ship that “landed” in Waterloo, Iowa, in April 1897:

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Waterloo_Hoax_Airship_1897.jpg

Thanks to Susan Smith-Josephy for her update on disaffected pedestrian Lillian Alling, whose story we told on Feb. 25. If we learn anything more about Lillian’s fate we’ll share it on a future show.

As we mentioned, Dalhart, Texas, is closer to six other state capitals than to Texas’ own capital, Austin. That’s true, but according to Wolfram Alpha, Mountain City, Tenn., is closer to seven other state capitals than to its own state capital, Nashville. All are also shorter drives, except for Columbus:

Mountain City, TN to Nashville: 278.6 miles, 332.1 driving
Mountain City, TN to Charleston, WV: 130 miles, 198.4 driving
Mountain City, TN to Columbia, SC: 174.9 miles, 207.5 driving
Mountain City, TN to Raleigh, NC: 182.3 miles, 212.1 driving
Mountain City, TN to Frankfort, KY: 206.2 miles, 280 driving
Mountain City, TN to Atlanta, GA: 238.3 miles, 302 driving
Mountain City, TN to Richmond, VA: 250.4 miles, 321.9 driving
Mountain City, TN to Columbus, OH: 250.8 miles, 358.6 driving

And Ewing, Va., is closer to eight:

Ewing, VA to Richmond, VA: 334.6 miles, 406.1 driving
Ewing, VA to Frankfort, KY: 133.2 miles, 172.7 driving
Ewing, VA to Charleston, WV: 153.9 miles, 219.6 driving
Ewing, VA to Nashville, TN: 189.8 miles, 248.6 driving
Ewing, VA to Atlanta, GA: 206 miles, 282.5 driving
Ewing, VA to Columbia, SC: 226.5 miles, 299.5 driving
Ewing, VA to Columbus, OH: 232.1 miles, 331.8 driving
Ewing, VA to Indianapolis, IN: 262.2 miles, 331.7 driving
Ewing, VA to Raleigh, NC: 273.2 miles, 345 driving

The Cumberland Gap region of Virginia is also closer to Montgomery, Ala., raising its total to nine.

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:USS_West_Mahomet_%28ID-3681%29.jpg

Our post on the “dazzle camouflage” applied to merchant ships during World War I ran on April 1. Ron Hughes sent the following image of a car prototype bearing a vinyl “wrap” bearing a similar pattern:

car camouflage

And here are two more links describing the use of camouflage in attempts to thwart auto journalists from photographing prototype cars during road testing.

Our post regarding the lion that attacked the Salisbury mail coach in 1816 ran on Sept. 30, 2012. I’ve published F. Childs’ full poem about the episode in a separate post on this blog. If we learn anything more about “Nellie,” the Illinois lion rumored to be abroad on Robert Allerton’s estate in 1917, I’ll share it in a future podcast.

Futility Closet Challenge: For those looking for more examples of Tom Swifties, the canonical collection is here. Post your original entry below or mail it to podcast@futilitycloset.com by Friday, April 11. Our favorite entry will win a copy of our book, Futility Closet: An Idler’s Miscellany of Compendious Amusements.

Our post about Edward Stratemeyer and his novel-writing syndicate ran on Sept. 16, 2011. If you’d like to know more, the best source I know is Diedre Johnson’s Edward Stratemeyer and the Stratemeyer Syndicate (1993). An interesting side note from that book: In the early years librarians regarded Stratemeyer’s series with dismay and worried about their effect on children. In 1914 Franklin K. Mathiews, chief librarian for the Boy Scouts of America, began a campaign against them, writing:

One of the most valuable assets a boy has is his imagination. In proportion as this is nurtured a boy develops initiative and resourcefulness. … Story books … of the viler and cheaper sort, by over stimulation, debauch and vitiate. … As some boys read such books, their imaginations are literally ‘blown out,’ and they go into life as terribly crippled as though by some material explosion they had lost a hand or foot.

Stratemeyer kept right on going. When his books were banned from the Newark Public Library, he wrote, “Personally it does not matter much to me. … Taking them out of the Library has more than tripled the sales in Newark.”

Thanks again to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, 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: Extreme Pedestrians, Kangaroo Stew, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge

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.

Our main feature this week concerns “mystery woman” Lillian Alling, who left New York City in 1926 in a single-minded quest to walk to Siberia. Our original post about Lillian ran on Feb. 25; the single best resource about her life (what little is known of it) is Susan Smith-Josephy’s Lillian Alling: The Journey Home. We also discuss the backing, fiddling, crawling, and wheelbarrow-pushing exploits of Plennie Wingo, Otto Funk, Hans Mullikin, and Jack Krohn.

TransAmerica, the free online tool to plot your own virtual course across the United States, includes a feature that lets you connect with friends. If enough of us are interested, perhaps a pack of us could swarm virtually across the U.S. this spring. [05/08/2015 UPDATE: Alas, the site was discontinued on May 6, 2015. Thanks, Mike.]

Here’s the menu of one Paris restaurant from Christmas 1870, about 99 days into the Prussian siege:

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Menu-siegedeparis.jpg

Daily News correspondent Henry Labouchère’s Diary of the Besieged Resident in Paris lists his culinary impressions of horse, cat, donkey, kitten, rat, and spaniel.

If you’d like to learn more about the pigeon post and the use of balloons during the Siege of Paris, the best resource I’ve been able to find is John Fisher’s 1965 book Airlift 1870; Frederic Luther’s 1959 book Microfilm: A History contains detailed records of all 65 manned balloons that left Paris during the siege. They were strikingly helpless to the whims of the winds: Number 31 went up at 11:40 p.m. Nov. 24 and came down at 2:25 p.m. the following day in Oslo, of all places, having covered a thousand miles in 15 hours. By contrast, “one drifted for an entire night, first north, then west, then south, to land within the Prussian lines almost at the gates of Paris.”

I have no resources (yet) to suggest regarding Coleridge and October 4; on a trip to UNC this week I hope to consult Stephen Weissman’s promisingly titled His Brother’s Keeper: A Psycho-Biography of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, which at least speculates about the date’s significance to the poet.

This week’s Futility Closet Challenge is inspired by another reader competition from New York magazine in the 1970s. These are collected in two books with the magnificent titles Thank You for the Giant Sea Tortoise and Maybe He’s Dead, both by Mary Ann Madden. A few further “near misses” from those collections:

  • Tarzan of the Larger Primates
  • One if by land, and two if not
  • The Sun Comes Up, Too
  • Mrs. Butterfly
  • Here Comes the Iceman
  • Nebraska!
  • “In the Foyer of the Mountain King”

Post your own entry below or mail it to podcast@futilitycloset.com by Friday, April 4. Our favorite entry will win a copy of our book, Futility Closet: An Idler’s Miscellany of Compendious Amusements.

Thanks again to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, 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: Mass Hysteria, Airborne Sheepdogs and Mark Twain’s Brother

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.

Our main feature this week concerns the hysteria that greeted the return of Halley’s comet in 1910, based on ill-founded fears that compounds in the comet’s tail would poison the atmosphere.

This seems to have inspired to Arthur Conan Doyle to write The Poison Belt, a 1913 novella in which “our planet has swum into the poison belt of ether, and is now flying deeper into it at the rate of some millions of miles a minute.” (Thanks to Jason Holt for this tip.)

We mentioned also that Australian prime minister Harold Holt disappeared while in office in 1967 — he’d gone swimming near Portsea in an area known for its strong rip tides and was never seen again.

The Harold Holt Memorial Swimming Centre, in Melbourne, was under construction at the time and was named in his memory — a swimming pool named for a man who probably drowned:

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Harold_Holt_Memorial_Swimming_Centre_1.jpg
Image: Wikimedia Commons

On March 17 we’d noted that the Nevada Territory had sent its entire constitution to Washington D.C. by telegraph in 1864, in order to join the Union before Election Day. The last leaf of the 175-page transcription, below, shows the word count and cost; Jim Russell, Michael Kindell, and Bruce Barnfield all wrote in to note that it also bears the signature of Orion Clemens, who was secretary of the territory — and Mark Twain’s brother.

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Nevada_constitution_%281864%29_signature_page.jpg

Here are three references that mention that balloon-borne sheepdogs were used to carry dispatches during the Siege of Paris:

  • Robert Lowry Sibbet’s The Siege of Paris (1892) notes that “the Général Faidherbe sailed on the 13th inst. [1870] and landed a few miles from Bordeaux. M. Hurel took out five bulldogs which, he believes, will return to Paris with dispatches in their collars. The owners of the dogs are to receive two hundred francs for every dispatch they bring back.”
  • Alistair Horne’s The Fall of Paris: The Siege and the Commune 1870-71 (2007) notes that altogether some 65 manned balloons left Paris during the siege, carrying “164 passengers, 381 pigeons, 5 dogs, and nearly 11 tons of official dispatches.”
  • Michael Howard’s The Franco-Prussian War, published last year, confirms that five dogs were sent, but gives no further details.

I’ve just acquired John Fisher’s 1965 book Airlift 1870, a thorough account of the balloon and pigeon post during the siege, which seems to confirm the dog story — I’ll discuss that in an upcoming episode.

This week’s Futility Closet Challenge is inspired by Douglas Adams and John Lloyd’s 1983 book The Meaning of Liff, which they describe as a “dictionary of things that there aren’t any words for yet.” Take any place name and invent a useful new definition for it. Examples from their book:

  • clun: “A leg which has gone to sleep and has to be hauled around after you.”
  • hoggeston: “The action of overshaking a pair of dice in a cup in the mistaken belief that this will affect the eventual outcome in your favour and not irritate everyone else.”
  • moffat: “That part of your coat which is designed to be sat on by the person next to you on the bus.”

We propose that sheboygan should mean “to recognize an actor in a movie but not be able to place him.” A secondary definition is “to mistake the downbeat of a song during an instrumental introduction, leaving you helpless to reorient yourself until the melody starts” (I’m always confused by “All Along the Watchtower”).

Post your own entry below or mail it to podcast@futilitycloset.com by Friday, March 28. Our favorite entry will win a copy of our book, Futility Closet: An Idler’s Miscellany of Compendious Amusements.

Thanks again to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, 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 Episode 1: Calendar Reform, Doll Mansions, and Hitchcock’s Vertigo

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.

In discussing where I find story ideas, I describe the origins of The Skeleton in the Bale, a March 9, 2014, post recounting the gruesome doings at an Alabama plantation during the Civil War.

Our main feature this week relates to Moses Cotsworth’s campaign to reform the calendar — see our February 2014 post for a look at the pleasingly uniform monthly calendar we’d all be using if he’d succeeded.

And here’s the World Calendar Association, which is still championing the reforms proposed by Elisabeth Achelis.

Our March 4 post on Elaine Diehl’s 600-pound dollhouse brought this comment from Daniël Hoek:

During their Golden Age, the Dutch were very fond of this stuff, expending enormous sums of money on elaborate doll houses:

http://www.rijksmuseum.nl/en/explore-the-collection/works-of-art/dolls-houses/objects#/BK-NM-1010,0

In the one linked to, every effort was made to make every trinket out of the same materials as its macroscopic equivalent. The plates are real porcelain imported from China, the paintings were commissioned from famous artists, the bookcase (the closed cupboard in the lower right) was filled with miniature books containing miniature stories, etc., etc. The cost of producing the thing vastly outstripped the cost of buying a real mansion in central Amsterdam.

He’s right — Jacob Appel painted Petronella Oortman’s elaborate dollhouse in 1710:

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dollhouse_of_Petronella_Ortman_by_Jacob_Appel.jpg

And here’s a recent photograph:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/archeon/128526732/
Image: Flickr

A similarly elaborate dollhouse, completed in 1924 for Queen Mary, wife of George V, contains a tiny volume written by Arthur Conan Doyle, with the shortest Sherlock Holmes story ever written.

This week’s Futility Closet Challenge invites you to take a well-known phrase and change or remove one letter to make a memorable new phrase. Here are some more entries from the New York magazine competition that inspired it:

  • Love’s Labours Cost
  • Little Miss Muffet sat on a tuffet, eating her curds — and why?
  • What is so rare as a May in June?
  • Black as the pit from pole to pole / I thank whatever God may be / For my unconquerable soup.

Post your own entry below and we’re read our favorites on next week’s show.

Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode. You can subscribe to the Futility Closet podcast now on iTunes; the direct feed is here:

http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset

Next week we plan to discuss the hysteria that greeted the return of Halley’s comet in 1910; explore the fate of balloon-borne sheepdogs during the siege of Paris; and offer a new Futility Closet Challenge.

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, 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!

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