CLOSE
Original image
iStock

19 Fantastic Podcasts for History Buffs

Original image
iStock

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.

iStock

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

iStock

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

iStock

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

iStock

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.

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
arrow
technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
Original image
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!

Original image
Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
arrow
science
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
Original image
Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]

SECTIONS
BIG QUESTIONS
arrow
BIG QUESTIONS
SECTIONS
WEATHER WATCH
BE THE CHANGE
JOB SECRETS
QUIZZES
WORLD WAR 1
SMART SHOPPING
STONES, BONES, & WRECKS
#TBT
THE PRESIDENTS
WORDS
RETROBITUARIES