‘A Brief History of Sledding’ – The Wall Street Journal

The sled symbolizes the all-American way of life—with its freedom, simplicity and comfort—that Kane lost when he gained his riches. It should be no surprise that another quintessential American classic, Frank Capra’s 1946 “It’s a Wonderful Life,” also has an iconic scene of children sledding on a wintry day. Continue reading…

‘The More-Bitter-Than-Sweet History of Sugar – The Wall Street Journal

‘If sack [wine] and sugar be a fault, God help the wicked,” says the rollicking Sir John Falstaff in Shakespeare’s “Henry IV, Part 1.” That was a more innocent time. Nowadays, books such as Gary Taubes’s “The Case Against Sugar” have linked it to many of the world’s health crises, including diabetes, obesity and high blood pressure. Continue reading…

‘Pedaling Through the Bicycle’s 200 Years’ – The Wall Street Journal

A two-wheel device built by Baron Karl von Drais. PHOTO: DPA/ZUMA PRESS

Good things can have disastrous beginnings. The humble bicycle, which marks its 200th anniversary this year, owes its birth to the gigantic eruption of Indonesia’s Mount Tambora in 1815. The debris launched into the atmosphere briefly cooled the globe and ruined harvests around the world.

One result was a shortage of feed for horses in Germany, where they were slaughtered in large numbers. In desperation over the loss of the animals, Baron Karl von Drais, a German aristocrat, began experimenting with the idea of human propulsion. Two years later he devised the first two-wheeled vehicle.

The baron’s device was a sort of steerable hobbyhorse on wheels that a rider pushed along with his feet. Drais called it a running machine, but the French soon renamed it the velocipede, from the Latin words for “swift” and “foot.”

Velocipedes become an international phenomenon, like roller blades two centuries later, but fell out of fashion just as quickly. It wasn’t until 1870, when James Starley invented the Penny Farthing, with its one giant wheel and another much smaller one, that people began to see the potential in bicycles. Still, as Mark Twain discovered every time that he encountered a pebble or rut, the Penny Farthing was only for the very fit or the foolhardy. He fell off so often that he quipped, “Get a bicycle. You will not regret it, if you live.” Continue reading…

“Juries, From the Ancient Athenians to ‘12 Angry Men’” – The Wall Street Journal

A scene from the 1957 version of ‘12 Angry Men’: From left, John Fiedler, Lee J. Cobb, Henry Fonda, E.G. Marshall, Jack Klugman, Edward Binns and George Voskovec. PHOTO: EVERETT COLLECTION

On jury duty this month, I’ve had plenty of time to reflect on the meaning of the 1957 film “12 Angry Men.” Law schools still use the 60-year-old courtroom drama about a biased and easily swayed jury as a teaching tool. The question remains: Does the movie prove or disprove Mark Twain’s characterization of trial by jury as “the most ingenious and infallible agency for defeating justice that human wisdom could contrive”?

Jurors are all too human, something the ancient Greeks tried to mitigate by allowing some jury panels to have 1,000 or more citizens at a time. To prevent malicious plots and ensure a broad mix of people, every juror received half a drachma a day—enough to feed a poor man and his family. But such precautions failed to save Socrates from his enemies in 399 B.C. An Athenian jury, egged on by an anti-Socrates faction, convicted him of “impiety” and “moral corruption of the young” by a majority of 280-221. Continue reading…

‘A History of Dubious Hangover Cures’ – The Wall Street Journal

On Dec. 31, 1947, a celebrant at a New York nightclub overindulged. PHOTO: BETTMANN ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES

New Year’s Eve partygoers know three things: Somewhere fireworks are going off, somewhere a better party is going on, and somewhere there’s another serving of alcohol. After that, there’s the inevitable crashing headache in the morning. Dorothy Parker, one of the great tipplers of the 20th century, had it right: “A hangover is the wrath of grapes.”

The aforesaid grapes appear to have been in a nonstop rage from at least 7000 B.C., when the Chinese were crushing them in a recipe that included fermented rice and honey. Since then, the world’s greatest minds, sober and not, have been searching for a hangover cure, or at the very least a negotiated truce. Continue reading…

‘Beyond Frosty: A History of Famous Snowmen’ – The Wall Street Journal

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

Americans have their raucous Frosty; the British, their beloved children’s book about a flying snowman; and Disney, its goofy Olaf from “Frozen.”

Like Wonder Bread and Miracle Whip, these friendly mass-market snowmen only vaguely resemble their many more subtle predecessors. It’s lovely to bring winter cheer to children, of course, but snowmen have often served more serious aims.

Some of the world’s most famous people have built notable snowmen—from Prince Albert, who built a 12-foot snowman for his wife, Queen Victoria, to Michelangelo, who made one for the Medicis. In 1494, the artist’s patron was Piero di Lorenzo de’ Medici, known as Piero the Unfortunate. This Medici prince was a pale imitation of his famous father—weak where Lorenzo was strong, spoiled where he was generous. Having invited his father’s former protégé to live and work at the palace, Piero gave Michelangelo only one commission: to build a snowman in the courtyard. Continue reading…

‘Best reads of 2016: RN presenters share their picks’ – Radio Australia

'A World on Fire: Britain's Crucial Role in the American Civil War' by Amanda Foreman. Random House. 958 pp. $35. (Random House).

‘A World on Fire: Britain’s Crucial Role in the American Civil War’ by Amanda Foreman. Random House. 958 pp. $35. (Random House).

A World on Fire by American historian Amanda Foreman is a nice, big fat book for summer reading.

It’s a tale of affection, rivalry, suspicion, hostility and at times outright love set against the backdrop of the American Civil War, but really it’s about the relationship between Britain and the United States.

Foreman writes with authority, humour and a taste for detail, introducing us to the many Britons who gave their support, and sometimes their lives, to both North and South. Continue reading…

‘The Art of Partying, From Socrates to Capote’ – The Wall Street Journal

Frank Sinatra and his wife, actress Mia Farrow, as they arrive at Truman Capote's Black and White Ball.

Frank Sinatra and his wife, actress Mia Farrow, as they arrive at Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball.

Last week marked the 50th anniversary of the most famous (or infamous) Hollywood-arts-money-politics-celebrity mash-up of the 20th century. What made Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball at New York’s Plaza Hotel in 1966 so special was the way he managed to bring together power players from every section of American society, from McGeorge Bundy (who had recently left the post of White House national security adviser) to Frank Sinatra. Some say that the ball inaugurated the era of the celebrity A-list. Continue reading…

‘Much Ado About Stuffing: A History’ – The Wall Street Journal

For a festival that celebrates amity, thankfulness and American values, Thanksgiving generates a lot of arguments, perhaps none more contentious than the issue of stuffing.

The disputes begin with the name, because some people refer to stuffing as “dressing.” Also, some insist that stuffing is only stuffing if it’s from inside the bird, while others can only abide cooking it separately and serving it as a side dish. Continue reading…