Stuff you Missed in History Class – Because it’s wrong!

Or how to present a historic podcast without bothering to check your “facts”

Ever since I started listening to the Stuff you Missed in History Class it’s been something of a troubled relationship. But first, the background.

Stuff you Missed in History Class is a educational podcast covering historical events and people. Initially it centred around the parts of history that got little or no mention (in History Class), hence the title. But lately its focused on more popularist items. It is produced by the How Stuff Works website, which is part of the Discovery Network.

Previously it has covered in detail the Alamo, Spanish-American war, “Was Manhattan traded for nutmeg” and so on and so forth. However, in more recent months it’s two hosts Deblina Chakraborty and Sarah Dowdey (who only just seems to make it into her picture) have covered a number of subjects that I happen to know a bit about.

Which is where I get to the worrying bit. Because if their coverage of “Alan Turing” is anything to go by, I think the “facts” in other shows might be highly suspect.

Lets start with the basic facts of Alan Turing. According to HSW, he worked at “Bletchley Park, London.”. But just type “bletchley park” into Google and the top hit is this official website of the code breaking establishment, near MILTON KEYNES. Just how long would that have taken to look up? Or rather.. how did they get that wrong?

But I will continue. They mention that Turing’s design for the Automatic Computing Engine (ACE) had a memory capacity GREATER than the early/original Mac. The ACE had 25 kilobytes, or it would have, if it had been built. But even the development boards for the Macintosh had 64 kilobytes and the original system launched with 128 kilobytes.

Both facts, incidentally, that took me less than 5 seconds each to find to be totally incorrect. But they go on.

“The Turing test has never been passed, not even close.” – Now I found that very unlikely, especially given the number of chatterbots that are floating around, in chat rooms, on Twitter and all over the place. So I decided to look up the Turing test online.

In 1966 (yes, that far back) Joseph Weizenbaum created a little program he called ELIZA that went on the fool a bunch of people that it was human. Job done? Well, apparently not. Because despite a large number of people being fooled, the rules were changed and the goalposts moved. Same again for Kenneth Colby in 1972 with PARRY. It seems that every time somebody makes the achievement of fooling most of people some of the time and some of the people all of the time, they just make the task a little harder.

At present the rules are now revised to include a whole new bunch of precepts and concepts that were not required in the original task.

But that’s actually irrelevant. Because the statement that “nothing has passed, not even come close” and that’s totally false.

But my all time favourite statement in the whole program was when Deblina said “It got to the stage the Germans were changing the codes nearly every day”. What’s so funny is that the ENIGMA system entirely relied upon the fact that each and every day the rotors were changed and the plug board configured to a new pre-determined set of parameters. If they didn’t make the daily changes, they could not decode the messages!

I’m not sure I should keep count on the number of bogus facts they throw out. But if you consider that they can fail on the most basic facts of such a well documented and well known figure as Alan Turing… how well do they do on other subjects.

Oh, and I noticed they never mentioned the fact that Turing was totally fucked over by John von Neumann, who stole his design to create EDVAC.

So, listener discretion is advised.

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6 comments

  1. This is something that had bothered me about the howstuffworks podcasts as well. The more I know about a particular subject they cover, the more I notice a lot of incorrect facts or wonky editorializing that doesn’t reflect the subject well.

    I have kind of make peace with it. I like the format that they and Stuff You Should Know use as a nice overview on a variety of interesting subjects and realize that for a couple of non experts (on anything) to be able to crank out so many entertaining episodes, they are going to have an appreciable amount of errors.

    • I kind of agree with that to a certain extent. But unlike you or I who just spout stuff for free, this is THEIR JOB.

      They will be paid for output they produce. Given how easy it would have been to simply lookup the facts of this matter is what annoyed me the most. But as a whole, the podcast is interesting and educational.

    • You sound like a grade A jerk. If you are so smart then why aren’t you being paid for your knowledge like they are?

  2. I know this is old, but I found that these hosts (although less personally annoying to me than previous ones) have definitely had some questionable research skills. Specifically, I did my graduate thesis in dance using different versions of fairytales…and I cannot handle any of their fairytale related episodes. They’ll say “we can only imagine how the meetin between Andersen and the Grimms” went but I remember reading that it went awkwardly and the Grimms weren’t impressed. It’s like they run out of time to research something and just say things in a cute way, hoping no one will notice.

    I feel like the newer hosts (holly and Tracey) sound less shallow. They seem more academic (their episodes about famous dancers were pretty good, at least)

    I tend to prefer their nerd tendencies over the ditzy interludes from before. The worst was Candance and that guy she kept flirting with……as a woman it just grates to hear supposedly smart ladies talk in a strange baby tone.

    Thank you for letting me rant!

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