Cautionary Tales with Tim Harford

Cautionary Tales with Tim Harford

We tell our children unsettling fairy tales to teach them valuable lessons, but these Cautionary Tales are for the education of the grown ups – and they are all true. Tim Harford (Financial Times, BBC, author of “The Data Detective”) brings you stories of awful human error, tragic catastrophes, and hilarious fiascos. They'll delight you, scare you, but also make you wiser. New episodes every other Friday.

Episodes

March 1, 2024 39 mins

As US troops approached a Nazi prison camp, they could hear agonized wailing. The stench of rotting flesh filled their nostrils. Moments later they discovered a pile of smoldering corpses, alongside emaciated survivors.

Next to the concentration camp they found something else: tunnels filled with tools — and partially assembled rockets. The soldiers had hit upon the evil heart of the V2 manufacturing program: enslaved laborers, im...

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In the 1920s, Germany’s Society for Spaceship Travel boasted some of the sharpest scientific minds – like the incandescently brilliant young Wernher von Braun. But it had very little money, and progress was slow.

Then, in 1932, the army made a proposal: it would fund more serious research if the enthusiasts at the Society would develop a rocket weapon.

Despite a string of failures to launch, von Braun was able to convince key pow...

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At the height of World War Two, British intelligence began receiving reports that the enemy was developing a rocket weapon. The idea seemed fantastical — resources in Nazi Germany were scarce and a rocket-building program defied economic logic.

But one intelligence chief took the reports of a rocket weapon seriously and he managed to convince Winston Churchill to heed the threat too. The British Prime Minister gave the order to bo...

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January 30, 2024 4 mins

Teaser: In 1977, two planes collided on the runway at Tenerife Airport. Why did the crash happen? And, given that it took place on the ground, why didn't more people escape?

In this new two-parter, Tim Harford explores the most deadly aviation accident in history. Both episodes are available now, ad-free, exclusively for subscribers to Pushkin+.

If you're not already a subscriber, you can sign up for Pushkin+ on our Apple podcast...

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One speechmaker inspired millions with his words, the other utterly destroyed his own multi-million-dollar business with just a few phrases.

Civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr (played by Jeffrey Wright of American FictionWestworld and The Hunger Games) and jewelry store owner Gerald Ratner offer a stark contrast on when you should stick to the script - and when you should take a risk.

We're taking a short rest on Cautionar...

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January 5, 2024 34 mins

Torrey Canyon was one of the biggest and best ships in the world - but its captain and crew still needlessly steered it towards a deadly reef known as the Seven Stones. This course seemed like madness, but the type of thinking that resulted in this risky maneuver is something we're all prone to...

We have a treasure chest of Cautionary Tales to bring you in 2024, but first we need to take a short rest. This week we're taking you a...

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What if you could never have the same day off as your family and friends? Would you quit your job? What if it was the murderous dictator Joseph Stalin giving you the order?

The Soviet Union wanted its factories to run every day, all year long. And so, in 1929, Stalin killed the weekend: workers were prevented from all taking the same day off at the same time.

In this crossover episode of Cautionary Tales and The Happiness Lab, Ti...

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December 8, 2023 40 mins

Cautionary Book Club: Mollie Maggia's dentist planned to remove a painful abscess from her mouth. But to his horror, her jawbone disintegrated at his touch, crumbling and splintering until it resembled ash. Like hundreds of her colleagues, Mollie had been slowly poisoned by her work with glowing radium dust. Eight months after her first toothache, she was dead.

In the previous episode, Cautionary Tales told the story of the "Radiu...

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In Goiânia, Brazil, a junk dealer acquires an old medical device from two scrap-metal scavengers. The device itself isn't useful, but it comes with precious lead which will fetch him good money. There's something else inside the device, too: a curious, crystal-like substance that glows bright blue in the dark.

At first, the dealer is mesmerized by it: he wants to turn it into jewelry for his wife. But, everyone who comes into cont...

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Cautionary Conversation: Just before Christmas 1799, President George Washington was riding around his country estate, Mount Vernon, when it began to snow. When he arrived home, guests were waiting for him. Known for his punctuality, he hurried to entertain them -  still clad in his damp clothes.

The next morning, Washington had a sore throat and a chesty cough. His family decided to take a fateful step: they summoned a doctor.

T...

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William the Conqueror undertook a remarkably modern project. In 1086, he began compiling and storing a detailed record of his realm: of where everyone lived, what they did and where they came from.

900 years later, the BBC began its own Domesday project, sending school children out to conduct a community survey and collect facts about Britain. This was a people’s database, two decades before Wikipedia. But just a few years later, ...

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November 6, 2023 45 mins

On The Dream, host Jane Marie gets to know the life coaches and gurus who claim they know the secret to living our best lives. Is it all in our mindset? Or our privilege? Or are we all under a spell?

Tim Harford is joined by Jane Marie to talk about who coaching works least well for. Turns out it’s the exact people who could benefit most from it, according to the industry. Dr. Sherman James and Dr. Arline Geronimus discuss the dow...

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Henry Roan has been shot through the back of his head. The local authorities have found his body slumped over the steering wheel of his car. There's no gun at the scene: this is no suicide - it's brutal murder. And the man who ordered Henry Roan's killing? He claims to be his best friend...

Former Principal Chief of the Osage Nation Jim Roan Gray joins Tim Harford to speak about his great-grandfather Henry Roan. They also discuss ...

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October 20, 2023 41 mins

Minnie Smith grew sick quite suddenly. She had been young, fit and healthy - and the doctors were baffled when she died. "A peculiar wasting illness," they called it. Then, her sister Anna went missing. Her rotting corpse was found a week later, a bullet hole through her skull. When a third sister, Rita, was blown up in her own bed, a grim pattern was clear: the family was being targeted.

Lawman Tom White strode into town to...

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This week, we've twice the storytelling fun for you: two Cautionary Tales shorts, previously only available to Pushkin+ subscribers.

A Monkey for Mayor: It was supposed to be a publicity stunt, but when the man who dressed as Hartlepool United’s monkey mascot stood in a mayoral election... he won. Actual politicians predicted disaster - since thousands of workers and millions of dollars were now in the hands of a complete novice.

...

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Why are board games so popular in Germany? What’s Tim Harford’s top tip for productivity? And where do all those sound effects come from?

Tim is joined by Cautionary Tales’ very own wizard of sound Pascal Wyse, to read your emails and answer your questions.

Do you have a question for Tim? Please email any queries you might have, however big or small, to tales@pushkin.fm.

Please note that some emails in this ep...

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The longest running television series of the 20th century was Gunsmoke, a western set in the notorious Dodge City, Kansas. Malcolm sweeps away mountains of legal scholarship to make a bold claim: The simplest explanation for the Supreme’s Court’s puzzling run of gun rights decisions may be that the justices watched too much Gunsmoke when they were growing up. Enjoy this episode from Revisionist History, another Pushkin Industries p...

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1957. Jørn Utzon receives a phone call: he's just won an international competition to design a brand new opera house for the Australian city of Sydney. Utzon is unknown in the field, so this is a triumph. The young architect couldn’t have imagined what a bitter victory it would turn out to be...

The Guggenheim in Bilbao; the Burj Khalifa in Dubai; the Shard in London. These days, everyone seems to want an iconic building. But Sydn...

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September 1, 2023 38 mins

Cautionary Book Club: When Morgan Stanley offered to lease Chicago's parking meters for the princely sum of $1 billion, the City Council were convinced that they had struck gold. They hastily signed the deal. But they soon learnt that they hadn't just traded away parking revenue - they had traded away the streets themselves...

In this hybrid episode of Cautionary Tales, Tim Harford first tells the story of the Chicago parking metr...

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August 18, 2023 36 mins

1812. A band of "Luddites" is laying siege to a textile mill in the North of England, under cover of night. They plan to destroy the machines that are replacing their jobs. But mill owner William Cartwright is prepared: he's fortified his factory with skilled marksmen, fearsome eighteen-inch metal spikes and barrels of sulphuric acid.

Today "Luddite" is a term of mockery — a description for someone who's scared of technology. But ...

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