‘The Long, Long Fall of Monarchy’ by Amanda Foreman – The Wall Street Journal

A portrait of Czar Nicholas II, published in a French newspaper in 1896. PHOTO: LEEMAGE/UIG/GETTY IMAGES

A hundred years ago, on March 14, 1917, just before midnight, the ministers of Czar Nicholas II informed him that the army was on the verge of mutiny. “What do you want me to do?” the Russian emperor reportedly asked. “Abdicate,” they replied. After a few minutes’ silence he agreed to go, thus bringing down the curtain on three centuries of Romanov rule. Continue reading…

‘A Brief History of Sledding’ by Amanda Foreman – 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…

‘Barbie and Her Many Ancient Sisters’ – The Wall Street Journal

From left, Presidential Candidate Barbie (2004), Registered Nurse Barbie (1961) and Career Girl Barbie (1963).

From left, Presidential Candidate Barbie (2004), Registered Nurse Barbie (1961) and Career Girl Barbie (1963).

Since her arrival in 1959, Barbie has evolved into an international phenomenon with a grip on modern culture. Her success testifies to the genius of the doll’s creator, Ruth Handler—born 100 years ago this week.

Some social commentators call Barbie, with her strikingly varied career choices, an avatar for women’s liberation. Others call her a tool of patriarchal oppression, beginning with her anatomy—which, according to one scientific analysis, would force her to walk on all fours if she were alive, due to her tiny feet and top-heavy body. Continue reading…

‘HMS Terror—and the Moral Challenge of Exploration’ – The Wall Street Journal

Engraving showing the end of Sir John Franklin's ill-fated Arctic expedition of 1845 entitled 'They Forged the last link with their lives'. This engraving was taken from a painting by W. Thomas Smith exhibited in the Royal Academy in 1896. PHOTO: MARY EVANS/ILLUSTRATED LONDON NEWS LTDT/EVERETT COLLECTION

Engraving showing the end of Sir John Franklin’s ill-fated Arctic expedition of 1845 entitled ‘They Forged the last link with their lives’. This engraving was taken from a painting by W. Thomas Smith exhibited in the Royal Academy in 1896. PHOTO: MARY EVANS/ILLUSTRATED LONDON NEWS LTDT/EVERETT COLLECTION

Earlier this month, searchers found the HMS Terror beneath the Canadian Arctic ice, solving one of the most famous mysteries in maritime history. The ship was part of an expedition led by Sir John Franklin that vanished in the 1840s while trying to locate the Northwest Passage.

The disappearance inspired more than 50 search expeditions, as well as an outpouring of literature. Charles Dickens had a major hand in a stage production about the disaster, and an elegy by the poet Algernon Swinburne, “The Death of Sir John Franklin,” asked poignantly, “Is this the end?” Continue reading…

‘The Risks of Trading Abroad, From Mesopotamia to Apple’ – The Wall Street Journal

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

Doing business overseas has put many enterprises on the road to making big money—but it can also be a quick way to lose a lot. Apple is vigorously fighting a bill for $14.5 billion in back taxes that the European Union says it owes Ireland. The iPhone maker will survive whatever happens, but the dispute illustrates the risks that businesses face when dealing with foreign governments. It’s a challenge that has grown more serious in recent years with the rise of aggressive nationalism in many countries.

In much of the ancient world, the presence of foreign merchants was regarded as a boon. During the third millennium B.C., the Mesopotamian ruler Sargon the Great boasted of his modern port facilities and the international trade that they attracted. The ancient Greeks went further and built specially protected ports for trade. There, taxes were low and legal rights were guaranteed, and foreigners could enter into contracts with confidence. Such arrangements enabled the Greeks to profit from extensive long-distance trading networks and proved inspirational to the Romans. Continue reading…

‘Five Millennia of Swimming Pools’ – The Wall Street Journal

The swimming pool and centuries of tradition ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

The swimming pool and centuries of tradition ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

For many people, the perfect July Fourth weekend includes three All-American ingredients: fireworks, a barbecue and a pool party. We share the first two emblems of national identity with the Chinese and the Australians. Only the third, the backyard swimming pool—in John Cheever’s words, “that quasi-subterranean stream that curved across the county”—is indelibly American, a ubiquitous symbol of suburbia. Continue reading…

‘How Earthquakes Have Changed History’ – The Wall Street Journal

A 6.0-magnitute earthquake in Napa, Calif., on August 24, 2014, damaged buildings and caused injuries. PHOTO: RICK LOOMIS/LOS ANGELES TIMES/GETTY IMAGES

A 6.0-magnitute earthquake in Napa, Calif., on August 24, 2014, damaged buildings and caused injuries. PHOTO: RICK LOOMIS/LOS ANGELES TIMES/GETTY IMAGES

The Big One is looking a little more likely these days. Since the California earthquake of 1857, tectonic plates along the San Andreas Fault are thought to have shifted by as much as 26 feet. Only last year, scientists raised the chances of a quake in California of magnitude 8.0 or greater in the next 30 years to 7% from 4.7%. Unfortunately, for all the sophisticated science behind this prediction, nobody knows whether this means devastation tomorrow or many decades from now. Continue reading…

‘Four Millennia of the Hotel Industry’ – The Wall Street Journal

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

May is a merry month, not least because it heralds the start of tourist season. That’s good news for a visitor-friendly country like the U.S., where tourism has generated nearly $1.6 trillion of annual economic output in recent years.

Orlando, Fla., and New York are the two most popular destinations, though New York claims to have the better-quality hotels. Whether or not that’s true, it’s a sales pitch that has been used for at least 4,000 years. Tourism and its adjunct, the hotel industry, are as old as civilization. When the Sumerian King Shulgi of Ur (circa 2094-2047 B.C.) wanted to boast about his achievements, the list of accomplishments included having improved the roads in and out of Ur and “built there lodging houses…and installed in those places experienced men. Whichever direction one comes from…the traveler who reaches nightfall on the road can seek haven there as in a well-built city.” Continue reading…

‘As You Dislike It: The Anti-Shakespeare Club’ – The Wall Street Journal

Why people still brush up on their Shakespeare. PHOTO: HULTON ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES

Why people still brush up on their Shakespeare. PHOTO: HULTON ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES

In David Lodge’s 1975 novel “Changing Places,” a group of university professors play a party game called Humiliation, competing to see who has read the fewest great works of literature. A professor of English literature is in the lead, having declared his ignorance of Longfellow’s “Song of Hiawatha,” when Harold Ringbaum, a man with “a pathological urge to succeed,” declares that he’s never read “Hamlet.” The more he insists, the more the others scoff—until Ringbaum angrily swears a solemn oath to the fact, by which time everyone is stone cold sober with embarrassment.

Ringbaum’s faux pas neatly sums up Shakespeare’s towering presence in modern culture—underlined by the tempest of celebrations marking the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death, which falls on Saturday. His reputation exists on a plane separate from other writers. With apologies to a speech from “Richard II,” Shakespeare himself has become a precious stone set in a silver sea of words.

Yet over the centuries, a surprising roster of famous writers and celebrated personages has picked quarrels with the Man from Stratford. Though complaints about the Bard have run the gamut from the moral to the artistic, one type is almost unique to him. I call it WAMS, or the What-About-Me Syndrome.

Among the first to suffer its ravages was Shakespeare’s friend, fellow dramatist and eventual British poet laureate Continue reading…

‘The Second Life of Troubled Inventions’ – The Wall Street Journal

Thomas Edison, circa 1870s, with his phonograph PHOTO: EVERETT COLLECTION

Thomas Edison, circa 1870s, with his phonograph PHOTO: EVERETT COLLECTION

It’s been a difficult time for the high-profile medical startup Theranos. For months, controversies have shadowed the linchpin Edison blood-testing device that the Palo Alto, Calif., company​ has developed. The method uses a few drops of blood, obtained by a finger-stick, instead of the usual multiple vials.

The fate of the Edison device, named after the inventor, remains unclear. But the story of Thomas Edison himself offers some hope. Not all troubled products remain troubled.

In 1875, the 28-year-old Edison had already obtained almost 100 patents without having invented something truly new. He thought he had the answer in the electric pen. Edison wanted to take the tedium out of copy-making by designing a motorized stylus that would act like a kind of stencil, able to punch words through a stack of papers up to 100 pages thick. Continue reading…