‘The Mystery of Genius’ by Amanda Foreman – The Wall Street Journal

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

“Genius,” a new National Geographic miniseries on Albert Einstein starring Geoffrey Rush, tries to peel back the great physicist’s eccentric public persona and examine the human being underneath, warts and all. But even if we could discover everything about Einstein’s life and character, would that tell us anything about the nature of genius?

People have been puzzling over the concept for more than 2,000 years, as Darrin M. McMahon points out in his comprehensive history of genius, “Divine Fury.” In classical antiquity, genius wasn’t considered a talent or the result of effort but a divine spirit. The ancient Greeks believed that every individual was born with a daimon, an innate spiritual power bestowed by the gods that guided a person’s actions and ultimately decided his fate. The Romans shared this basic belief in a heavenly spirit that resides in us. Continue reading…

‘Gold That Glitters—and Kills’ – The Wall Street Journal

PHOTO: JANEK SKARZYNSKI/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

PHOTO: JANEK SKARZYNSKI/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Since ancient times, the desire for gold has had a way of turning human beings into monsters of greed. The Greek god Dionysus granted the mythical King Midas the golden touch, but only after the king had inadvertently turned his daughter into gold—and realized that he himself would starve to death—did he see his wish as a curse. The Roman poet Virgil wrote in “The Aeneid,” “Accursed thirst for gold! What dost thou not compel mortals to do?”

The alleged discovery last month in Poland of one of the lost Nazi “gold trains” is a case in point. Missing from the excitement over the train—supposedly dispatched at the end of the war (and buried since then), with millions of dollars worth of stolen loot, gold bars and armaments—is acknowledgment that this so-called treasure is the effluence of evil.

Prospectors have flooded the area where the train is said to be. Last week, regional authorities sought the help of the Polish army, as if to prove the famous line in John Huston’s 1948 film “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre”: “When the piles of gold begin to grow…that’s when the trouble starts.”

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‘Lifting the veil on our past’ – Daily Express

Here’s a snippet to make the jaw drop. The women of Ancient Greece (you know, the place that created democracy) were so restricted in what they could do that they were no better off than the poor women of Afghanistan under the Taliban.

Meanwhile just down the road in Ancient Egypt women were treated almost as equals of men, so much so there were six lady pharaohs… who would have thought it?  All this and more came to light during the brilliantly inter- THE ASCENT OF WOMAN (BBC2) which took as its eminently reasonable thesis the fact that although women have always comprised half the human race we don’t seem to have  featured very prevalently in the history of mankind.

The noted historian Amanda Foreman set out to find out why. Unfortunately, as scholarly and thought- provoking as this new four- part documentary series was, I’m not sure she ever really answered the question.  In the earliest known societies, as far as anyone can tell, men and women really did live equally, sharing all manner of But this all changed pretty sharpish when society became more prosperous, resources  were not shared equally and some people started to have greater status than others.

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‘A British Milestone in the Fight for Freedom’ – The Wall Street Journal

Photo: ERASMO VASQUEZ LENDECHY/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Photo: ERASMO VASQUEZ LENDECHY/WIKIMEDIA COMMON

The British officially abolished slavery throughout their empire on Aug. 1, 1834, freeing some 800,000 Africans from bondage. The date should be forever commemorated—but so should slavery’s own history of resistance and rebellion.

That slaves have always found ways to rebel is reflected in the earliest surviving legal texts. In the 21st century B.C., King Ur-Nammu of Ur, an ancient city in what is now Iraq, proclaimed that “if a slave escapes from the city limits and someone returns him, the owner shall pay two shekels to the one who returned him.”

As slavery became more deeply ingrained in society, so did the nature of the resistance. The Greeks were severe toward rebellious slaves. But no society was as cruel or inventive as Sparta. Having subjugated the neighboring Messenians into helotry in the seventh century B.C. (helots were the property of the state), the Spartans inflicted a reign of terror on them: During annual culls, young warriors were encouraged to hunt and kill the strongest helots.

A catastrophic earthquake in 464 B.C. prompted a short-lived rebellion, but the helots remained trapped in their wretched existence for another century. Finally, another opportunity to revolt came in 371 B.C. after the city-state of Thebes defeated Sparta at the Battle of Leuctra. Aided by the victorious Thebans, the Messenians rose up and drove the Spartans from their land.

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‘From Gladiators to Mickey Mouse: Disneyland Turns 60’ – The Wall Street Journal

PHOTO: GENE LESTER/GETTY IMAGES

PHOTO: GENE LESTER/GETTY IMAGES

Sixty years ago, on July 18, 1955, the “Happiest Place on Earth,” better known as Disneyland, opened to the public. But on that day, the former orange grove in Anaheim, Calif., was one of the most miserable places in America. A heat wave caused the park’s new asphalt to stick to people’s shoes. A gas leak forced parts of the site to close, a plumbers strike led to a water shortage, and lax security resulted in dangerous overcrowding.

Reviewing the $17.5 million theme park, a journalist wrote in a local newspaper, “Walt’s dream is a nightmare…a fiasco the like of which I cannot recall in 30 years of show life.”

Undeterred, Walt Disney added ever more attractions and innovations, transforming mass leisure from its violent origins in the ancient world to today’s amusement-park industry, with $12 billion of annual revenue in the U.S.

Though the ancient Greeks were among the first to build leisure spaces in the form of parks, gardens and gymnasiums, the Romans expanded the concept into a way of life. By the first century, most of Rome’s citizens were living in semi-idleness, while thousands of slaves and coloni—the equivalent of sharecroppers—toiled ceaselessly on their behalf.

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‘Why Walls Rarely Keep Enemies Out’ – The Wall Street Journal

Photo: DEAGOSTINI/GETTY IMAGES

Photo: DEAGOSTINI/GETTY IMAGES

News of the latest theft of sensitive American information— this time of some 4 million records from the federal government’s Office of Personnel Management, allegedly by Chinese hackers—highlights the unfortunate truth about defensive walls. They may offer great psychological  comfort, whether as firewalls in the online world or stone walls and natural barriers in the real one, but they rarely work.

In the Book of Joshua, the Israelites engineered a brilliant victory by stamping their feet for seven days and blasting the walls of Jericho with their trumpets. In “The Aeneid,” Virgil described how the Trojans brought about their own downfall by bringing the famous wooden horse inside their gates. In his monumental “The Histories,” Herodotuslauded the courageous but futile last stand of the Spartans at the Battle of Thermopylae (480 B.C.) after they were betrayed by Ephialtes of Malis, who showed the Persians a secret route through the mountains that led to the back of the Greek lines. But these striking failures didn’t deter subsequent generations from believing that walls could keep them safe.

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‘From Ancient Greece to the Oscars, Acting Prizes Have Always Meant Drama’ – The Wall Street Journal

Photo: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

Photo: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

Some kind of controversy always seems to surround the Oscars. If it isn’t outrage beforehand over who was snubbed, it is derision afterward about the embarrassing speeches or the taste-­‐challenged outfits that were paraded down the red carpet.

Yet the “Oscar effect” on nominated movies can be transformative. In 2004, a low-key film about a female boxer had earned just $8.5 million. But after being nominated for best picture, “Million Dollar Baby” enjoyed a spectacular resurgence and raked in additional $56.4 million, according to the website Box Office Mojo.

The enormous financial rewards that the Oscars can bring are a far cry from the more modest prizes given out by their spiritual ancestor, the ancient Greek festival of Dionysus. Most historians agree that the festival was responsible for awarding the first drama prizes in history. The original winner, in the sixth century B.C., is said to have been Thespis, from whom the word “thespian” came. Instead of a golden statuette, Thespis received a live goat.

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‘Anthems Sung in a Patriotic Key’ – The Wall Street Journal

Photo: HULTON ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES

Photo: HULTON ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES

The burning of the White House on Aug. 24, 1814, by British troops under the command of Maj. Gen. Robert Ross isn’t an obvious candidate for national celebration. But the event, distressing as it was at the time, did have one silver lining. The amateur poet Francis Scott Key was so relieved that Baltimore’s Fort McHenry escaped a similar fate a few days later that he wrote a poem about it, entitled “The Defense of Fort McHenry.” In 1931, 117 years after the streaming red glare had revealed that the U.S. flag was still there, Key’s poem—renamed “The Star-Spangled Banner”—was officially designated the U.S. national anthem.

Admittedly, the anthem is a challenge to sing. Moreover, practically everyone outside the U.S. mistakenly assumes that the song refers to a battle during the War of Independence, not during the War of 1812. The long version also has an embarrassing tirade against the British (“Their blood has wash’d out their foul footstep’s pollution”), but apart from these hiccups, “The Star-Spangled Banner” stands head and shoulders above most of the other 200 or so national anthems in existence today. For one thing, it is jolly and optimistic—sentiments often in short supply among the rest.

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‘The Amazon Women: Is There Any Truth Behind the Myth?’ – Smithsonian Magazine

Photo: David Finch/DC Comics

Photo: David Finch/DC Comics

I loved watching the “Wonder Woman” TV series when I was a girl. I never wanted to dress like her—the idea of wearing a gold lamé bustier and star-spangled blue underwear all day seemed problematic—but the Amazonian princess was strong and resourceful, with a rope trick for every problem. She seemed to be speaking directly to me, urging, “Go find your own inner Amazonian.” When I read the news that Wonder Woman was going to be resurrected for a blockbuster movie in 2016, Batman vs. Superman, it made me excited—and anxious. Would the producers give her a role as fierce as her origins—and maybe some shoulder straps—or would she just be cartoon eye candy?

The fact that she isn’t even getting billing in the title makes me suspicious. It wouldn’t have pleased Wonder Woman’s creator either. “Wonder Woman is psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who should, I believe, rule the world,” declared the psychologist and comic book writer William Moulton Marston, offering a proto-feminist vision that undoubtedly sounded quite radical in 1943. “Not even girls want to be girls so long as our feminine archetype lacks force, strength and power. Not wanting to be girls, they don’t want to be tender, submissive, peace-loving as good women are.”

Over the years, the writers at DC Comics softened Wonder Woman’s powers in ways that would have infuriated Marston. During the 1960s, she was hardly wondrous at all, less a heroic warrior than the tomboyish girl next-door. It was no longer clear whether she was meant to empower the girls or captivate the boys. But the core brand was still strong enough for Gloria Steinem to put her on the cover of the first newsstand issue of Ms. magazine in 1972—with the slogan “Wonder Woman for President.”

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‘Beware of Astrologers on the March’ – The Wall Street Journal

Photo: THOMAS FUCHS

Photo: THOMAS FUCHS

According to the Roman historian Suetonius, an unnamed soothsayer repeatedly tried to warn Julius Caesar that calamity awaited him, famously saying, “Beware the Ides of March.” But March 15 arrived without anything untoward taking place, and Caesar bumped into the soothsayer as he made his way to the Curia Pompeii. “See,” chided Caesar, “the day has come.” “Yes,” came the reply. “But it has not yet gone.”

If the story is true, the soothsayer is one of the few astrologers in history to make a completely clear and unambiguously accurate prediction. But the abysmal record of astrology and its intellectual cohorts doesn’t seem to have dented their popularity. Looking to the stars for guidance is as ancient as the Babylonians, who used astrological charts to help predict the recurrence of the seasons. Every ancient civilization from the Egyptians to the Persians studied the stars, seeing astronomy and astrology as variations of the same pursuit.

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