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Alexander Fleming's discovery of penicillin in 1928 had little immediate impact on the world because it took over 15 years to crack the secret of how to mass-produce the it. Until that happened, penicillin existed more as an idea than as a medical intervention. The code to producing it in big batches was finally cracked in, of all places, Peoria, I…
 
Will the US mint a trillion-dollar coin? Probably not, but in 2001 the tiny island nation (I know, I know) of Vanuatu created $300 million overnight by quadrupling its sovereign debt using as its stated collateral a 182-pound ruby that may or may not actually have existed. I value your support on Patreon.…
 
In 1975 a right-wing loon purchased 300 acres of swampland outside Cape Canaveral with the dream of building a theme park recreating the experience of a US Special Forces barracks in a rural Vietnamese hamlet at the height of the war. Visitors could take turns firing a machine gun at real Vietnamese refugees play-acting as Viet Cong, while replica …
 
After a player died from being hit by a pitch in 1920, Major League Baseball banned the "spitball." But it allowed 17 players whose careers were determined to be dependent on it to continue throwing it. A century later, baseball is still dealing with what it now calls the "foreign substances" issue. The physics and history of baseball's dirtiest pi…
 
In the late Sixties through the Seventies, John Brisker was widely known as the meanest, toughest man in professional basketball. After winning ABA titles in Pittsburgh and punching his way through a few tumultuous seasons with the Supersonics of the NBA, John Brisker visited Africa, came back to the US, told his friends he was off to Africa again,…
 
Guest: Jen Howard (@JenHoward) author of Clutter: an Untidy History on Belt Publishing. Her book looks at the social, economic, and political causes of our addiction to Stuff, and our talk ranges from Marie Kondo to the Container Store to the Montgomery Ward Outlet. Why do we have all this crap and what is the right thing to do about it? It's not a…
 
What if I told you that right now you can get a new car very nearly for free? Sounds like a scam, right? Well thanks to Hydrogen Fuel Cells, the Technology of the Future of 2002, you can. With some caveats. Crazy, right? Now what if I also told you this isn't the first time Americans have had the opportunity to get a brand new car for free? That pa…
 
Agatha Christie's two most popular characters - Poirot and Marple - can only exist and make sense in a universe in which the police simply cannot solve crimes. If they could, why would they need a weird Belgian private detective or a random old lady to do it for them? To understand why this was so plausible to Christie and to her contemporary reade…
 
Guest: David Parsons (@davidlparsons) from the excellent history podcast Nostalgia Trap joins me to discuss Gerald Ford's disastrous rollout of a nationwide vaccination program in 1976 to combat a swine flu pandemic that didn't materialize. Vaccine recipients developed Guillain-Barre Syndrome, which is sometimes fatal, at a rate 8.8 times higher th…
 
In 1996 a loutish young Briton got drunk and, on a lark, asked a tiny island nation if he could be their poet laureate. Mind you, the nation has no poet laureate and doesn't really do European-style poetry at all. That's ok, he doesn't know how to write poetry anyway. So the government of Kiribati said yes, and then, his bluff called, the young man…
 
Guest: Mike Konczal (@rortybomb) returns with his new book, Freedom from the Market. We take a look at all the great things government used to (or could) do a pretty good job of providing for Americans but no longer does because we've turned them over to The Free Market, which isn't well-suited to provide them at all. It's a great blueprint for a b…
 
"A Visit from St. Nicholas" standardized many parts of the Santa Claus story, but one key element of the story bridged a gap between Protestants and Catholics - as well as opening the door for the cultural, secular embrace of Christmas in the U.S. I value your support on Patreon.Ed Burmila / Mass for Shut-ins による
 
I never promised you a Rose Garden, but I can give you a short primer on the how, what, and why of pardons before delving into the murky waters of what Trump does and does not have the power to do for himself and his felonious hangers-on. Can he pardon himself? Can he pardon people for crimes they haven't even been charged with yet? Why does the pa…
 
Question Cathy joins me for the post-election tradition of an all-mailbag episode devoted to listener-submitted questions. A partial list of topics covered here: Electoral College reform, rogue state legislatures, the census / redistricting, Trumpian antics, and more. We also dress the dog, and accidentally do a Ritz Crackers product placement. Ple…
 
At the peak of the Great Depression, one nation sent its athletes to the 1932 Olympics on a coffee freighter with instructions to barter and beg their way to Los Angeles. Even though coffee was a worthless commodity in 1932. Fuel? Canal tolls? Immigration fees? Money for food and lodging? No, they didn't have any of that. What they did have was cof…
 
In 1973 a low-ranking US Air Force officer training to work in a Minuteman missile silo asks, "How do I know that the launch order I receive comes from a president who is sane?" Good question, Harold Hering! The Air Force had no good answer, and Hering's career came to a screeching halt. I take a deep dive into what exactly presidents can and can't…
 
As the GOP is set to lock in a conservative supermajority on the Supreme Court, court-packing is re-entering the political conversation. This is the story of the original "court packing scheme" attempted by FDR in 1937 after several key components of the New Deal had been struck down by the highest court. Believe it or not, it all began not with a …
 
Guest: Thomas Gokey of The Debt Collective (@StrikeDebt) joins me to talk about their new book Can't Pay Won't Pay, coming out in September from Haymarket Books. We talk about the ways that people can take on debt collectively to give themselves power - and choices - they don't have as individuals. And Thomas pulps a bunch of money and tries to sel…
 
Albania emerged from one-party rule under Enver Hoxha as the poorest and most backward Eastern European state. Hoxha bequeathed Albanians 700,000 concrete pillbox forts and a complete lack of familiarity with even the basics of a cash economy. Inexperienced in the ways of capitalism, Albanians didn't realize 100% monthly interest on a bank deposit …
 
Guest: Tom Sexton (@TomSexton) of The Trillbilly Workers Party (@thetrillbillies) joins me to talk about the Amy McGrath - Charles Booker primary race in Kentucky, the uncharismatic void that is Chuck Schumer, and the video Ted Turner made for the end of the world. The "cocktail" of the month returns with the gin radler, which is not really a cockt…
 
In 1918 Emmanuel Haldeman-Julius and his wife Marcet, editors of a moribund socialist newspaper, pursued their populist vision to bring education to the working classes in the form of cheap, widely available, high quality reading material. The result was the Little Blue Books that took the US by storm in the 1920s, a series of almost 2000 titles on…
 
Guest: Financial policy guru Mike Konczal (@rortybomb) explains what should be happening in response to the economic crisis, what is happening, and why those two are different. We cover unemployment, policy coming out of Congress, what decision-makers just aren't getting about this crisis, and how we both had childhood vacations in Florida that tur…
 
Between 1850 and 1900 it was all the rage for rich, roguish Americans to form private armies to invade and conquer countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. These men were called "Filibusteros" and the most prolific was William Walker, who led invasions of three different countries in an effort to add new slave-holding territories to the U.S. a…
 
A pair of artists use a large market research survey to find out what people say they like least in music and, with their neuroscientist friend, set out to create the worst possible song. Featuring an opera soprano rapping about Wittgenstein, and a chorus of children singing about Yom Kippur at Walmart. Did they succeed in making the worst song? Le…
 
In 1982 an eccentric, paranoid coal baron from Frog Level, VA wanted to buy a remote island to get away from Communists, taxes, and Freudian psychoanalysts. He chooses one of the Pitcairn Islands (of Mutiny on the Bounty fame) and proceeds to try to buy it from the UK, of which it is a colony. And here's the thing: they almost said yes. They wanted…
 
Story: Three Men in a Can - Voskhod 1. The USSR beats the USA to the feat of sending a three-person crew into space by pointing at its one-man spacecraft and telling three guys "Get in there." A story (with a happy ending!) about claustrophobia as we are all starting to feel a bit cooped up from sheltering in place. Guest: Dr. Samantha Montano, who…
 
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