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19 Fantastic Podcasts for History Buffs

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When it comes to my podcast diet, I generally prefer shows that teach me something. By their nature, history-themed podcasts get the job done—and, hey, if they can entertain me as well, that’s icing on the danish.

Below are a few of my favorite history podcasts, from the intense to the whimsical to the quick ‘n’ tidy. For more recommendations—including roundups of my favorite TV, food, music, and comics podcasts—head to the archive.

JUST GETTING STARTED? SAMPLE THESE.

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Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History

Let’s start with a show many consider to be the history podcast, one that boasts some of the highest production values—and longest runtimes. Carlin’s epic explorations of world history are fascinating and impeccably researched. He approaches episodes as if they’re high-quality audiobooks, so there’s often a long wait for new ones, but the tales are so dense they may warrant repeat listens.

Stuff You Missed in History Class

In this popular show from HowStuffWorks.com, hosts Holly Frey and Tracy Wilson share their research and enthusiasm for all sorts of topics, from narcolepsy to carousels. The podcast is true to its name and a lively mixed bag of trivia you’ll want to share at the workplace.

BackStory

This radio program often uses current events as jumping-off points to delve into treasured stories from the past. Hosted by historians dubbed the “American History Guys,” I’m often impressed by their interviews and angles. (On a fun time-themed episode, for example, they explained the origins of basketball’s shot clock.)

The History Chicks

From Josephine Baker to Frida Kahlo to Queen Victoria, each episode of this podcast delves deeper into notable women’s lives than your high school history books ever did. Short on time? The Chicks also release “minicasts” that are just as jam-packed with info.

Footnoting History

This clever show has a revolving door of hosts, which lends itself to a variety of topics ranging from politics to popcorn.

POLITICS AND AMERICAN HISTORY

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Slate’s Whistlestop

At a time when 2016 presidential campaigns are starting to dominate the news, you may want to venture over to this podcast, which examines the history of presidential campaigning. You’ll hear about past candidates’ smartest and silliest moves and can judge for yourself how far campaigning has come (or not).

Revolutions

Hosted by history buff Mike Duncan, each ep takes a closer look at political revolutions. Mike likes to spend dozens of episodes per revolution. After tackling the American Revolution, he’s now elbows-deep in the French Revolution.

Ben Franklin’s World

If early American history is your wheelhouse (or you want it to be), sample this show, which features historians and experts on specific, thoughtful topics. While BFW does delve into politics, I like when it veers into more personal stories, like the history of stepfamilies or the story of two women who lived as an openly married couple in the early 19th century.

1001 Heroes, Legends, Histories & Mysteries

John Hagedorn is so psyched about history that this show feels more like a storytelling podcast. Episodes focus on notable and forgotten folks; highlights include his “Who killed Superman?” ep about actor George Reeves and the ongoing “America’s Best Twenty Years” series, in which Hagedorn reminisces about growing up in the ‘50s and ‘60s.

HISTORY WITH A TWIST

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The Bowery Boys

As a former New Yorker, I have particular interest in hearing Greg Young and Tom Meyers “romp down the back alleys of New York City.” But I think their approach would appeal to anyone, perhaps even prompting listeners to visit the Big Apple themselves. Recent shows have delved into Billie Holiday’s New York and the Rockettes, though they’re unafraid of more serious topics like the 1904 General Slocum disaster and the Civil War draft riots.

You Must Remember This

I love this podcast from Karina Longworth, in which she beautifully recounts tales of old Hollywood. I’ve enjoyed her episodes about Mia Farrow and the “many loves of Howard Hughes,” though her “Star Wars” series about celebrities’ experiences during wartime is particularly outstanding.

Lore

This relatively new podcast focuses on the history behind scary stories. A recent ep explored how insane asylums became such popular locations in fiction; don’t listen before bedtime!

The International Spy Museum SpyCast

This show about the history of espionage will help tide you over until the next season of The Americans. Episodes include interviews with intelligence experts, historians, authors, and others privy to little-known facts about spies.

History of English

Obsessed with etymology? This show reveals the history of the English language, a few words at a time. Eps blend facts with illuminating stories, like the one about the first known poet in the English language.

History of Pirates

This podcast is less than 10 episodes in, but that’s still a lot more than I expected to learn about pirates. Host “Captain Craigbuddy” offers a rather serious look at swashbucklers; what History of Pirates may lack in delivery it makes up for with information.

QUICK NUGGETS O' HISTORY

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15-Minute History

Produced by students and faculty at the University of Texas at Austin, this podcast offers insight into American and world history in a tidy span of time. If you hear about a topic you want to explore further, the website offers suggested readings, photos and more.

The Writer’s Almanac

If you can only spare five minutes, try Garrison Keillor’s daily public radio feature, in which he shares a classic poem and literary “day in history” events.

Radio Diaries

This show uses interviews and archival recordings to create vivid portraits of the past. Start with any ep, though I particularly enjoyed this piece about songwriter Rose Marie McCoy, a woman who penned hundreds of tunes for Elvis Presley, James Brown and others and never became a household name.

The Memory Palace

Producer Nate DiMeo puts his stamp on unique, oft-forgotten bits of American culture. This summer he plans to post a new episode each week, and I can’t wait—much like This American Life, I appreciate the tone as much as the tales.

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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Opening Ceremony
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These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:

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Opening Ceremony

To this:

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Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]

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