Madagascar’s Badass ‘Forest of Knives’ Awes From All Angles

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The world is a dynamic environment home to a trillion species. Full of beautiful landscapes pre-dating humans, impressive engineering feats that wouldn’t exist without us, and of course, the in-between. This is VK Nagrani’s Badass Places.

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Limestone sculptures sharp enough to slice through the most quality climbing gloves rise 300 feet while even the slimmest body shapes struggle to traverse the fissures deep below.

Welcome to Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park on Madagascar’s west coast, more aptly known as the “forest of knives.” Here’s why it’s truly unlike anything on our planet.

 

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1. Tsingy’s Origin and Geological Makeup

“Tsingy” refers to the karst limestone formations that make up the stone forests. Tsingy means “walking on tiptoes,” or “the place where one cannot walk” in Malagasy, and no report of a visit to the national park has come close to contradict that meaning.

Tsingy de Bemaraha owes its beauty to 200 million years of heavy tropical rainfall erosion. It’s believed that groundwater from these heavy rains entered the porous limestone to create caves and tunnels. When the roofs to these caves and tunnels eventually collapsed, the giant spires were left.

Tsingy National Park is comprised of two main formations: Little Tsingy and Great Tsingy, with both displaying karstic elevation characteristics true to their name. To the north, these formations border the Tsingy de Bemaraha Strict Nature Reserve, which is closed to the public. To the east, a condensed group of mountains sharply gives way to the Bemaraha Cliffs, which overlook the Manambolo River valley some 1,000 meters below. On the western end, the slopes are more gradual and form a plateau.

Example of a formation of karst topography.

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2. A Biodream

Despite the unlivable image that appears at the thought of really tall razor sharp “trees,” Tsingy de Bemaraha is one of the most biodiverse regions in the entire world.

The site was added to the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1990 and contains many ecosystems through gorges, mangroves, deciduous forests, tropical rainforests, lakes, rivers, rolling hills, waterfalls, sinkholes and an extensive underground cave system. The tsingy summit, slope and base make up three separate ecosystems alone.

Eighty-five percent of the park and reserve’s species are endemic, and an astonishing 47 percent are local endemic. Nearly a dozen rare or endangered lemur species frolic about the limestone needles while a hundred different bird species soar. Tens of endemic reptiles and amphibians roam around and even one species of rodent that’s local to the reserve.

The most fascinating thing about a place like Tsingy de Bemaraha is that it’s still relatively unknown. It’s not uncommon for new species to be found on biological explorations, but the park’s difficult accessibility in many areas limits research access.

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3. A Beacon of Sustainable Tourism Amidst Massive Deforestation in Madagascar

Given the task of traveling to Tsingy de Bemaraha and the hard-to-navigate geological state, the park was only accessible to experts until the 1990s. That’s when French explorer Jean-Claude Dobrilla, who had been consulting for Madagascar’s national parks to develop tourist circuits in inaccessible, rocky sites founded the Antsika Association, which aimed to help the Malagasy people preserve and profit from their natural resources.

With the help of locals and funding from the EU, the Antsika Association made the park what it is today, adding a connected climbing system via aerial suspension bridges, steel cables, pegs and ladders. In total, 8 circuits of varying difficulty were created over a nine-year period.

Today, the Antika Association helps maintain the park, and Dobrilla himself routinely tests and repairs the climbing circuits, especially the suspended walkways and bridges that allow visitors to stand directly above the tsingy sharp points.

Since the project’s completion, the park has grown in popularity as a “true adventure” tourist destination while staying mostly undisrupted as a biodiverse region. This is remarkable, but especially in contrast to the rest of Madagascar. The country has lost 80 percent of its forests (half since just the 1950s), jeopardizing the approximately 90 percent of species endemic to the country. Thankfully, the Tsingy de Bemaraha doesn’t face quite the same risk, as the park’s overall inaccessibility (especially in the Reserve) act as a strong deterrent to endangerment activities.

The strong impact on the local economy makes Tsingy de Bemaraha’s natural awe even better, as tour guides, 4×4 drivers, restaurant and hotel workers all make their livings off the park. In a world that typically puts profit at the expense of preservation, Tsingy is a shining example of how focused eco-tourism efforts can benefit local people and still protect natural wonders.

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4. It’s Not Easy to Reach

The best things in life are never easy, and getting to Tsingy de Bemaraha definitely upholds that sentiment. Transportation options include road or chartered plane to the nearest village (and then some driving). The most accessible route, driving from Morondava, is an innocent-sounding 150 kilometer journey—except that 150 kilometers is on rough, unpaved roads that require a 4×4 vehicle and eight to 10 hours of a tough gut. One TripAdvisor reviewer stated they’d rather take a 50-hour, triple layover flight than experience the off-road trek again.

Once in the park, an entire day hiking can yield a half mile in distance. And like another favorite natural wonder of ours — the Darvaza Gas Crater, Tsingy doesn’t have gift shops and other tourist facilities—just a toilet and a ticketbooth. Smooth.

Read about more badass men, women, places, and moments in time, all part of VK Nagrani’s Badass series.

 

 

Charlie Chaplin, Virtuoso of Sorts

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Can you imagine trying to become a famous actor without your words? What about going from workhouse rags to the most recognizable face in the world? Charlie Chaplin captivated audiences worldwide over an 82-film, 75-year-career that single handedly elevated the medium for which motion pictures were judged.

Chaplin was a do-it-all artist with the most illustrative facial expressions the world had ever seen. He pioneered slapstick antics with emotional depth and created films rooted in social commentary.

He did this mostly through the everyman persona of his one true character—The Tramp. In roles spanning janitors, (ex-)convicts, factory workers, drunks, apprentice assistants and many others—Chaplin portrayed poverty through an uplifting, comedic lens — a style that would resonate with audiences for decades, even as cultural and film styles rapidly changed.

Charlie Chaplin’s legacy is ubiquitous enough for many to have seen his trademark mustache and know he was a silent film comedic actor, but let’s take a closer look at the life and work of cinema’s first true artist.

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1. Too Talented, Determined to Let Early Hardship Stop Him

Chaplin’s upbringing was anything but smooth. His parents’ relationship was unraveling around the time he was born, and they’d become estranged two years into his life. After the split, Charlie’s father was completely out of his life; no financial support or emotional relationship.

Without any assistance, Charlie’s mother supported Charlie and his half brother by making dresses at home and occasional nurse work, but they struggled to make consistent ends meet, which led Charlie to two stays at workhouses before age nine.

To make matters worse, Charlie’s mother, increasingly suffering from what was later thought to be syphilis, was committed to a mental asylum. This landed Charlie and his half brother with their father for the first time ever. Unfortunately for the two young boys, Chaplin Sr. was deep in the throes of alcoholism by that point, and as one would imagine, didn’t treat his sons very well. He would die from cirrhosis two years later at age 37.

Charlie was briefly homeless afterward, until his half-brother returned from the British Navy and took care of him. The tormented emotional cycle continued when his mother was released from the asylum after eight months, only to be institutionalized again in 1905—this time for life (though after making it big, Charlie brought her to California in 1921 to live with him). All the hardship wasn’t enough to stop a young, talented and determined Chaplin from succeeding; just a year later in 1906 he would join Fred Karno’s renowned comedy circuit, quickly becoming a standout performer.

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2. Passion Through a Vision

Chaplin wanted perfection. But instead of it hindering his artistic production, it only seemed to accelerate his output—and to several different roles in the film process: composer, director, screenwriter, producer and editor. This in large part was because of his confidence and vision; Chaplin couldn’t have achieved what he achieved without it.

For example, when Chaplin wanted to start directing films, he got his foot in the door by promising to pay Keystone Studio boss Mack Sennett $1,500 (Chaplin’s entire savings) if the films could not be released. Chaplin’s bravado resulted in him directing many of the Keystone films he appeared in (along with a $25 bonus).

Later in his directorial career, while filming 1931’s “City Lights,” Chaplin reportedly made actress Virginia Cherrill do 342 takes for one sequence. He also publicly berated Marlon Brando for keeping him waiting on set of 1967’s “A Countess in Hong Kong” to which Brando would later reference in his autobiography — describing the 77-year-old Chaplin as “probably the most sadistic man I’d ever met” and a “fearsomely cruel man.”

Chaplin may have been a fierce septuagenarian (or just in general), but that’s hardly surprising given his dedication and focus to his crafts throughout his life. Even after sound films emerged in the late ‘20s, Chaplin rebelled, stating his case in the New York Times in 1931:

“BECAUSE the silent or non-dialogue picture has been temporarily pushed aside in the hysteria attending the introduction of speech by no means indicates that it is extinct or that the motion picture screen has seen the last of it. “City Lights” is evidence of this.”

“City Lights” certainly achieved acclaim, but Chaplin couldn’t veil his own denial for long, later admitting, “although City Lights was a great triumph, I was obsessed by a depressing fear of being old-fashioned.”

Chaplin would eventually succumb to his contemporaries with his first talkie: 1940’s “The Great Dictator” — a political comedy-drama satirizing Adolf Hitler which ended up as one of Chaplin’s most commercially successful films. Today it’s preserved in the National Film Registry for its cultural and historical significance.

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3. Charlie’s Recipes

Food was a theme and interest throughout Chaplin’s career and personal life. Among many, the cafeteria scene in “Modern Times” comes to mind where he eats a ton of food without paying in a second attempt to be arrested and save the orphan girl.

Chaplin was asked to submit recipes to cookbooks throughout his life (mostly for charitable proceeds). Some of his favorites include:

  • Apple roll
  • Steak and kidney pie
  • Sour cream hot cakes
  • “The Gold Rush Shoestring Spaghetti Dinner” (spaghetti with clam sauce, filets de sole w/ grapes, asparagus salad, boiled new potatoes, creme brulee, and Parker House rolls)

Get the full recipes here.

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4. Uniquely Recognized

Being the unprecedented performer and individual he was, Chaplin garnered many triumphs throughout his career.

In 1925, he became the first actor to appear on the cover of Time Magazine, which probably would have been more exciting for him had he not released “The Gold Rush” a month earlier; a film that was a smashing success, grossing over $4.2 million (the fifth-highest-grossing silent film ever).

Chaplin was vocal in saying it was the film he wanted to be remembered by.

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Here’s the opening scene to the 1925 film:

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But that’s small potatoes compared to Chaplin’s three Oscars. While the only competitive win came for his composition work in “Limelight,” widely thought to be his last great motion picture and a project inspired by his novella entitled “Footlights” — his other two Oscars are as unique as they get.

Chaplin was recognized at the very first Academy Awards for his versatility and genius in acting, writing, directing and producing 1929’s “The Circus.”

Chaplin’s second honorary Oscar came in an even bigger way: in 1972, 20 years after being exiled from the U.S. for being labeled a communist sympathizer (a whole other article in itself) Chaplin was back on U.S. soil, receiving a 12-minute standing ovation for the “incalculable effect he has had in making motion pictures the art form of this century.” This is still the longest standing ovation in Oscar history!

Watch his acceptance speech below:

Chaplin gave the world never-before-seen entertainment but did so through a social commentary that resonated beyond laughs. Chaplin was about the whole process; the music, the laughs, the message, the story and the shot all stood on equal ground. Chaplin — like many of the people we feature at VK Nagrani — lived his life with purpose and tenacity, something we can all use a bit more of from time to time.

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5. Other interesting tidbits

  • It was no secret that Chaplin liked younger women, but in 1943 it backfired into an ugly paternity suit. Read how Chaplin’s case helped redefine paternity laws in the U.S.
  • Chaplin received widespread criticism for not fighting in WWI as a British soldier, but played a role anyway when cutouts of his Tramp character were propped up in British trenches “so the Germans would die laughing.” His films were also projected on the ceilings of military hospitals.
  • His look was so famous and recognized that he couldn’t even win a Charlie Chaplin lookalike contest, instead placing third. Actually, just kidding.
  • His first Oscar, valued at over $1 million, was stolen from Paris offices in 2015, but it’s the memories that count, right?
  • Graverobbers excavated Chaplin’s dead body in hopes for a $600,000 ransom. Instead, they were caught, wrote apology letters to Charlie’s wife and were given minimal sentences.

 

Badass Gal: Nellie Bly

Journalism’s First Original Gonzo-Immersionist

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Best known for her record-breaking globe-trotting journey and ten undercover days spent in a madhouse, Nellie Bly, born Elizabeth Cochrane, lived with a tenaciousness most could only dream of possessing.

Her life should serve as one vivid example on how to take control of life and spend our days exactly as we’d like.

Learn more about the queen of investigative journalism and lifelong badass, Nellie Bly, below.

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1. Operated on a No-Bullshit Policy

It’s staggering the amount of people waiting for someone else to take control of their lives. For anyone struggling with personal empowerment, Bly is the poster child of motivation.

She first received attention as a teenager after writing a passionate response to the editor of the “Pittsburgh Gazette” due to a column it ran titled, “What Girls Are Good For,” which based its central thesis arguing that girls are strictly good for birthing and housekeeping. Bly’s heated prose resonated so well that the Gazette’s editor published an ad calling on the writer to identify themselves. When Bly did, she was offered an assignment with the paper.

Later at the Gazette, when she was confined to women-centric topics commonly known in journalism as “pink topics,” she didn’t bite her lip and play it professional. Instead, she quit and went to Mexico, spending half a year as a foreign correspondent reporting on the lives and customs of Mexicans. Her Mexico experiences were chronicled in a collection called “Six Months in Mexico.” Bly was only 21 years old at the time.

While in Mexico, Bly protested the imprisonment of a local Mexican journalist, ultimately landing her on the radar of Mexican officials. Under threat of arrest, Bly fled to the U.S., but didn’t stop criticizing then-dictator Porfririo Diaz about suppressing the Mexican people and controlling the press.

Bly would end up leaving the Gazette a second time after Mexico due to more soft assignments and because, as we know by now, she operated on a no-bullshit policy.

When the male senior staff at the “New York World” first learned of her around-the-world proposal, they wanted to send a man. Bly said she’d work for another paper and beat whatever man they’d send. Bly got her way with the senior staff, and a year later she stood at Hoboken Pier in New Jersey waiting to depart.

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2. An Unprecedented Investigative Journalist

Bly’s first assignment at the Dispatch was titled “The Girl Puzzle,” a piece advocating for divorce reform. It impressed the editor enough for him to offer Bly a full-time job. She got started with an investigative series covering the conditions of women working in factories.

She later found herself in Joseph Pulitzer’s “New York World” offices, ultimately taking an assignment to act insane as part of an expose into the neglect and harsh treatment at the Women’s Lunatic Asylum. Bly was reportedly so convincing in feigning insanity that a roommate of hers at a boarding house (prior to the asylum) refused to sleep in the same room as her. Bly passed the demented test with flying colors and transferred to Blackwell Island and its 1,600 women patients.

While at Blackwell, Bly experienced cruel treatment in the form of ice cold baths, minimally supplied clothing, and sparse meals. Her investigative work, aptly titled, “10 Days in a Madhouse,” led to massive system reform, including cleaner facilities, more funding, and better treatment of patients. It also paved the way for a new kind of journalism that others would (less successfully) mirror.

Eventually, she decided to follow in the fictional footsteps of Jules Verne’s Phileas Fogg and go around the world in 80 days. By herself. She ended up only taking a record-breaking 72 days to do it. Afterwards, and as a bona fide celebrity drawing high acclaim for all over, Bly would continue covering social justice pieces, including the orphan market in New York, a look into zoo cruelty, and a piece on the homeless. At the end of her career, Bly covered WWI and women’s suffrage.

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3. Fashion Sense

Not much is spoke of regarding Bly’s fashion sense, but she displayed it on her jaunt around the world. Bly traveled by herself, and with her main concern being speed, didn’t bring much. In fact, Bly’s luggage would make today’s backpackers look like hoarders. Photos of her from the trip show her holding a bag only sixteen inches wide by seven inches high packed with only the essentials:

  • spare underwear
  • toiletries
  • writing instruments
  • tennis blazer
  • dressing gown
  • a cup
  • two caps
  • three veils
  • pair of slippers
  • needles and thread
  • handkerchiefs

Oh, and the most important items, one jar of cold cream and a flask.

As if these life accomplishments weren’t enough, Bly held many patents, including for a 55-gallon oil drum, stackable garbage pail, and an improved version of the milk jar. She also briefly owned a company after her late husband past away and gave her control. A woman in 1907 as president of a company was unprecedented. It’s still uncommon these days.

Though Bly would succumb to pneumonia at age 57, she lived a full life full of assertiveness and excitement. Her story should inspire anyone with passion, but particularly those who don’t know how to channel and direct it into greater life gains.

Be like Nellie Bly: don’t take no for an answer and be fucking fearless!

Keep visiting the VK Nagrani blog for more accounts of truly badass people throughout history.

 

Building the Panama Canal wasn’t for the Faint of Heart

What do you get when you combine 60 million pounds of dynamite, 5,000 cubic yards of concrete, over 5,600 worker fatalities, 375 million dollars, and a decade of earnest, heroic toil?

The second attempt at building a 50-mile passageway connecting two of the five great oceans on our planet.

If only that were all this unprecedented passageway took to come to fruition, however.

Let’s take a closer look at why the Panama Canal remains one of man’s signature engineering achievements to this day

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1. Initial Attempts Failed

Colonists as far back as the early 1500s envisioned the potential for a passageway to connect the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, but because ideas are vastly different than execution, it took another 368 years for the French to break ground.

Ferdinand de Lesseps — already with the successful Suez Canal (which bridged the Mediterranean and Red Sea) under his belt — took the first crack. Though his efforts did not last long, nor were they harmless.

De Lesseps’ planned to duplicate the sea-level design used for the Suez Canal. Unfortunately for De Lesseps’ and tens of thousands of workers, that plan wasn’t found to be inadequate until excavation efforts had long been underway. Turns out mountainous terrain and rock-filled dirt don’t dig quite like flat ole sand.

At the height of De Lesseps’ out-of-control project, 200 workers were dying each month. The combined onslaught of malaria, yellow fever and other tropical maladies made it difficult to retain a trained and experienced workforce, and it’s hard to imagine it did much in the way of morale for the workers lucky enough to still be standing.

So did De Lesseps throw up his hands and admit failure? Of course not!

Now mostly convinced that a sea-level design was rubbish and a locks system was needed, De Lesseps sought an actual engineer to design them. His name was Gustave Eiffel. You might be familiar with a project of his.

That dream limped on for another year before The Panama Canal Company went bankrupt. The next year De Lesseps, De Lesseps’ son, several members of management, and scapegoat engineer Eiffel were all charged in the bribery scandal.

The French spent roughly $287 million over 13 years on what was essentially some excavation, crumbling buildings and poorly maintained equipment. They also lost around 22,000 lives to diseases and work accidents (though the real number is likely much higher; only hospital deaths were recorded during the project), in addition to 800,00 French people losing their investments. Yikes.

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2. Panama wouldn’t be a Sovereign Country without the Panama Canal

OK, maybe it would have happened at some point—that’s pretty impossible to say. But what we do know is that when the United States bought off French assets in 1902 so they could take on the project, Colombia—then in control of Panama—refused. But thankfully for Panama, ‘Big Stick’ President Theodore Roosevelt got involved, and let’s say, influenced the Panamanian rebels to revolt, suggesting that the U.S. Navy would have their back if they did.

And so they revolted, successfully. By late 1903, a sovereign Panama and the United States signed the Hay-Bunau Treaty. This gave the U.S. control of a 10-mile wide strip of the isthmus to construct the canal in exchange for a one-time $10 million payment.

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3. Impressive and World-Changing

Unless we’re talking about the ancient pyramids or the Great Wall of China, few engineering projects can compete with the magnitude of the Panama Canal. And unlike these two other impressive feats, the Panama Canal changed world commerce, allowing ships to cut 8,000 nautical miles off their journey, not to mention a much more dangerous bypass around Cape Horn.

It’s one of the seven wonders of the modern world, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers. It cost $375 million (over $600 million when you factor in the French inefficiency) to complete.

No concrete project of that magnitude had been attempted until the Hoover Dam came along in the 1930s. Ships of epic proportions raised 85 feet in a matter of 8 minutes, requiring 26.7 million gallons of water, and then eventually lowered again to come out? Insane. A series of 12 locks and a relatively quick 8-10 hour process is all the original canal took for ships to get to a new ocean.

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4. You Get What You Pay For

After a century of successfully passing more than a million ships through its locks, modern ships required bigger locks. In 2011 construction began to widen the canal to fit these new ship styles called “Neo Panamax” vessels. Construction wrapped up in 2016 (initially planned for 2014), costing a total of 5.25 billion (initial bid 3.1 billion), but many are speculative that the renovation won’t stand the test of time because Sacyr, the Spanish company that won the project, quickly showed they underestimated what the project would actually entail in their bid and naiveté about how much concrete they needed. Fears were momentarily confirmed when leaks were observed in concrete walls in different parts of the canal.

Those problems are now shored up, and on the morning of June 9th the first New Panamax Ship, the Baroque Valleta, entered the first of three locks. Though, it obviously remains to be seen if this new renovation stands the test of time.

Overall the initial Panama Canal project debacle and eventual achievement demonstrates the full scope of what can go wrong and right when it comes to engineering projects of absurd sizes.

Check out a time lapse of the renovation project, leaks or no leaks, it also isn’t for the faint of heart:

 

Badass Guys: Why Fred Hampton’s Story and Self Should Never Be Forgotten

Recent history has given us the likes of Mahatma Ghandi, Mikhail Gorbachev, Nelson Mandela, Betty Williams, and Martin Luther King Jr., among countless others. These people led their lives by shunning hate and embracing love.

Fred Hampton is a less known, but more than worthy companion to this group. He had the tools to effect change; the ability to communicate and the passion to execute. Here’s why Fred Hampton’s story and self should never be forgotten.

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1. A Life Dedicated to Nonviolent Social Change

Hampton wasn’t interested in gathering arms and waging a revolution for change rooted through violence. He knew it’d be a vicious cycle that would never get anywhere. Instead, Hampton focused on improving and empowering the lives of those in communities he knew and loved.

He advocated to local gangs about reducing crime in favor of more productive social wars, eventually getting Chicago’s biggest gangs to agree to a non-aggression peace pact. Even when J. Edgar Hoover and COINTELPRO tried to pit Chicago’s Blackstone Rangers against the Black Panther Party (BPP), Fred won the gang’s approval.

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2. He United Through Speech and Action

It’s rare for public speakers to match their words with action; it’s something we typically don’t count on.

Hampton united people with his words, then showed them the way through action. Unsurprisingly, he rose quickly in the BPP; by age 20 he had become chairman of the Illinois Chapter, and deputy chairman of the national party.

He first demonstrated his knack for community leadership as NAACP youth organizer in his hometown of Maywood, Illinois. Hampton recruited a group of over 500 from 27,000 community members with the goal of improving recreational facilities and access to more educational resources.

Hampton would later initiate social assistance programs that the Black Panthers were known for overall, such as serving 3,500 kids a week through the free breakfast program, helping to create a free medical center, starting door-to-door health services to test people for sickle cell anemia, and launching a police surveillance program. He even taught political daily 6 a.m. education classes.

He also co-founded the Rainbow Coalition during this time, a multiracial alliance group of prominent organizations like the Young Patriots, Young Lords, and later, Students for Democratic Society, Brown Berets, and the Red Guard Party.

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3. Education, Not Emotion, Prior to Action

How many leaders of yesterday and today use nationalism to acquire members and rally their groups? The thing with nationalism, though, is that it appeals to the emotions. It runs the risk of being tainted with people acting for reasons they don’t fully understand. Hampton and the Panthers put education before everything. Here’s Fred Hampton speaking on the importance of education before action:

(In the clip) Hampton on the dangers of appealing to emotion over education:

[“You might get caught up in the emotion of this movement. You understand me? You might be able to get them caught up because they’re poor and they want something. And then, if they’re not educated, they’ll want more, and before you know it, they’ll be capitalists, and before you know it, we’ll have Negro imperialists.”]

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4. An Unjust Killing

Fred’s fiancé, Deborah Johnson, was eight-and-a-half months pregnant when she couldn’t wake Fred up in the early morning hours of Dec 4th, 1969, even after the sound of gunfire had erupted at their west-side apartment.

An informant named William O’Neill was to blame. In addition to giving police detailed layouts of Hampton’s apartment, including where Fred and Deborah slept, he slipped a barbiturate in Hampton’s drink a few hours before the raid.

Yet after seven minutes of gunfire from 14 officers, Fred Hampton wasn’t dead. According to Deborah Johnson, when police came into the room where Fred was lying an officer said, “looks like he’ll make it,” before another officer fired two shots into Hamptons’ head followed by the words, “he’s dead now.”

Fellow Illinois Panther Mark Clark also died in the raid. Early reports claimed the Panthers started the gunfire, like this statement that was released the day of the shooting by Illinois State Attorney, Edward Hanrahan’s office:

The immediate, violent and criminal reaction of the occupants in shooting at announced police officers emphasizes the extreme viciousness of the Black Panther Party. So does their refusal to cease firing at police officers when urged to do so several times.

A federal investigation months later showed that a maximum of one shot was fired by the Panthers (which was likely a reactionary wound shot after Mark Clark took a bullet to the heart) to police’s 83–99 shots.

The raid was a coordinated effort of the FBI, the office of State Attorney Edward Hanrahan, the Chicago Police Department, and informant William O’Neill. Only O’Neill—who would later kill himself—seemed to feel any remorse at the thought of contributing to the cold-blooded murder of an exceptional man. Thankfully, Hanrahan’s involvement in the matter effectively ended his promising political career, though he unfortunately still lived a long false 88 years, dying peacefully at home.

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5. Edgar Hoover Was a Pile of Trash

Hoover saw the civil rights and anti-war movement as a threat to American liberties. Under his direction, the FBI ran COINTELPRO for 15 years, but it would’ve been longer had an FBI office not been burglarized in 1971 and the program exposed.

Hoover bugged Martin Luther King Jr.’s rooms. He put Fred Hampton on the Key Agitator Index. He saw them both as messiahs who could start the revolution. Hoover has blood and constitutional violations on his hands, yet his name remains on the FBI building in D.C. The last attempt to strip his name off the building came in 2015, when Democratic Rep Steven Cohen introduced a bill arguing that, among other things, the rights Americans enjoy today are in spite of Hoover and not because of him.

We can only imagine what we’d be saying about Hampton if he was with us today. His murder is a tragic case of evil overtaking good, a despicable overreach by our government. But it’s also the wake-up call that nobody is going to be the next Fred Hampton until someone is. And that true leaders embody big-picture ideas that follow through on them through community-improving actions.

Read about more inspiring men, women, places, and moments in time, all a part of VK Nagrani’s Badass series.

 

Ellen DeGeneres, Never More Than Purely Herself

She’s won 30 Emmys, 20 People’s Choice Awards, and a treasure trove of others for charitable efforts. She was featured on Forbes’ list of top celebrity annual earners, raking in 77 million last year alone. But how did Ellen DeGeneres achieve such iconic status?

Through a unique blend of wit, quirk, kindness and a fearlessness to be herself. Let’s take a closer look at why Ellen DeGeneres is truly larger than life.

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1. No Last Name Needed

Ellen’s hosted the Grammy’s, Emmy’s, and Academy Awards. Twice. She’s also a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom Award. And arguably most reflective of her icon status—she’s on a very short list of people worldwide (think: Oprah, Bono, Beyonce, Madonna) who doesn’t need a last name for everyone to know the person being talked about. That speaks volumes in itself.

Ellen receiving Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama

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It’s also refreshing that she’s the sixth most-followed person on the planet on Twitter. Not because social media followership means a damn thing but because there’s one less person famous for nothing who doesn’t have the world’s eyeballs on command. Like it or not, social media influences the masses, and more Ellens under a spotlight in this world would be pretty fucking all right.

2. “Yep, I’m Gay”

 

After nearly four seasons being the cute, sweet, girl-next-door bookstore owner Ellen Morgan on the sitcom “Ellen” — DeGeneres’ character came out on “The Puppy Episode” to a live studio audience and estimated 44 million viewers. Of course, viewership was way up because two weeks prior, a Time Magazine cover featured DeGeneres alongside the quotes, “Yep, I’m Gay.” DeGeneres had also publicly come out on Oprah’s show, which aired just hours before “The Puppy Episode.”

It’s easy to remember the good parts of the coming out, live cheers from the studio audience every time a joke or reference was made leading up to the end of the episode, even guest appearances by Oprah and Laura Dern because they wanted to be a part of the moment. However, there was plenty of backlash too, with people claiming she was trying to force her sexual orientation on people. “Ellen” lasted just one more season. Oprah received hate mail, death threats and racial slurs. Dern didn’t work for a year following her appearance as Ellen’s love interest in the episode.

DeGeneres wasn’t the first TV character to be depicted as gay, but she was the first to come out on live TV. Her character wasn’t invisible or negatively portrayed as those in the past. She helped usher in a new, more open era of LGBQT characters on television.

It was a turbulent time to come out. These days we live in a much different era of transparency, but it was Ellen who gave that movement considerable momentum.

3. A Sense of Humor We Can All Learn From

 

With all that she’s faced and accomplished, it’s easy to forget that Ellen is hilarious, and in a sweet, endearing type of way that’s atypical for famous comedians. When she tore a ligament in her back in 2007, instead of putting her on hold, a decision that would have been completely understandable, she decided to host it from her bed, with guests sitting in the bed next to her.

She opened a televised version of the Emmys following the 9/11 attacks with this apt joke:

“We’re told to go on living our lives as usual, because to do otherwise is to let the terrorists win, and really, what would upset the Taliban more than a gay woman wearing a suit in front of a room full of Jews?”

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Some other quotes that perfectly illustrate her witty humor:

“My grandmother started walking five miles a day when she was sixty. She’s ninety-seven now, and we don’t know where the hell she is.”

“I’m a godmother, that’s a great thing to be, a godmother. She calls me god for short, that’s cute, I taught her that.”

“One time I actually cleaned out my closet so good I ended up on the cover of Time Magazine.”

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A true reflection of her character:

“Contribute to the world. Help people. Help one person. Help someone cross the street today. Help someone with directions unless you have a terrible sense of direction. Help someone who is trying to help you. Just help. Make an impact. Show someone you care. Say yes instead of no. Say something nice. Smile. Make eye contact. Hug. Kiss. Get naked.”

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On forging your own path:

“Never follow anyone else’s path, unless you’re in the woods and you’re lost and you see a path. Then by all means follow that path.”

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And finally, one final observation on the irony of real life:

“Normal is getting dressed in clothes that you buy for work and driving through traffic in a car that you are still paying for – in order to get to the job you need to pay for the clothes and the car, and the house you leave vacant all day so you can afford to live in it.

Read about other inspiring men, women, places, and moments in time, all part of VK Nagrani’s Badass series.

 

Why The Darvaza Gas Crater Is Beyond Badass

The world is a dynamic environment home to a trillion species. Full of beautiful landscapes pre-dating humans, impressive engineering feats that wouldn’t exist without us, and of course, the in-between. This is VK Nagranis Badass Places.

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Close your eyes and imagine what the door to Hell would actually look like.

Do you see a vast barren desert, in the middle of it all a large crater raging with fire and boiling mud?

If not, you may need to work on your imagination, because that’s precisely what the Darvaza Gas Crater in Turkmenistan’s Karakum Desert — also known as the “Door to Hell” — looks like.

It’s one of a three-crater man-made cluster, but it’s the only one on fire. In fact, it’s still burning as I write this, after 40-plus years.

How did this happen, and why is this place so damn awesome?

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1. Nobody really knows how it was created

The narrative most often pedaled is that the crater was the result of a Soviet gas exploration gone wrong in the 70s. The Soviets thought they had found a rich oil reserve and began drilling, only to instead discover a substantial natural gas pocket. This quickly took their pride and equipment in one fell swoop, causing the crater.

They then set it ablaze, hoping the exposed methane would burn off over a couple weeks and the problem would be solved. Simple, right? Only one issue proved that decision wrong: Turkmenistan has the 6th largest natural gas reserves in the world.

But was it really the Soviets?

According to a National Geographic piece from 2014, explorer George Kourounis said Turkmen geologists he spoke to say the collapse could have taken place in the ‘60s, and gone as long as the ‘80s before being set on fire. With no records to verify what the hell happened, the mystery continues, but as far as I’m concerned, the Soviet story is more plausible, so let’s keep blaming them.

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2. Its provided some interesting scientific insights

Speaking of that NatGeo piece, George Kourounis is quite the badass himself. Such a badass that he’s the first person to actually jump into the crater, albeit, with a fireproof suit and Kevlar harness.

Kourounis’ expedition wasn’t all balls and glory, though—it was also to collect soil samples inside the crater to determine whether life could survive in similar environments across the universe. Some microbial life forms were found in the crater, but more importantly, these same life forms were not found outside the crater, meaning any methane-rich environment in space could host life.

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3. Its Not a Commercial Tourism Nightmare

It’s a sad but accepted reality that anything collectively agreed upon as interesting on this planet will soon enough become a nightmare tourist attraction filled with overpriced souvenirs, shitty food, concrete, minimal parking, and an overall cattle-herding experience.

The Darvaza Gas Crater, while certainly a tourist attraction, doesn’t have an overpriced souvenir shop, over-zealous parking attendants, or cookie-cutter restaurant. It doesn’t even have a parking lot. To get there you need a devoted set of legs or a 4×4 vehicle to get through the sand. However, guided tours are the bulk mode of visitation for many tourists.

In case you can’t immediately make the trek to Darvaza Gas Crater, you can vicariously live through this quick clip below of the crater at night.

Read about more badass men, women, places, and moments in time, all a part of VK Nagrani’s Badass series.

VKN Badass Gals: Marilyn Monroe

Throughout history there have been exceptional women who’ve inspired us by the way they lead their lives and accomplish success. This is VK Nagrani’s Badass Gals.

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Born Norma Jean Mortenson, baptized Norma Jean Baker, one of Hollywood’s most beloved icons ever considered Mona Monroe and Jean Adair as potential stage names before deciding on a winner in 1946: Marilyn Monroe.

As synonymous with sex as black lace, Monroe appeared in 30 films in her 15-year career, which grossed 200 million, but most in the public eye never saw her as more than a blonde bombshell stumbling her way through fame and fortune.

How wrong they were. Here’s why Marilyn was a badass.

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1. She overcame a bleak upbringing

USC Professor Lois Banner wrote in her book “Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox,” that Monroe was a national institution as well-known as hot dogs, apple pie, or baseball.

Another major reason she was the perfect American icon is that she represented the classic rags-to-riches story that brought so many people to America in the first place.

Marilyn’s mother was institutionalized with paranoid schizophrenia when Marilyn was a child, and with no father in the picture, became an orphan. Like many orphans, she bounced around the system on and off for much of her childhood. She experienced instances of sexual assault and was raped at age 11. This tumultuous early life needed an escape, so she married her neighbor at the age of 16.

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2. She was anything but a dumb blonde

Monroe’s film roles rarely strayed from the dumb blonde persona, and her audience loved it. They loved it so much in fact, that they never realized Marilyn Monroe the actress—the hourglass figure and platinum curls, was different than Marilyn Monroe the person—full of wit and a keen sense of humor.

Consider her line as Lorelei Lee in 1953’s “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes:”

I can be smart when its important, but most men dont like it.

A lot of men still don’t like it, so you can imagine how 1950’s L.A. felt about it. But Monroe wasn’t content being Hollywood’s bubbly bimbo. She was always interested in improving her craft, and ultimately, wanted to be taken seriously as a dramatic actress. She did the former in 1955 when she joined Lee Strasberg’s Actor’s Studio and took classes on method acting. The investment in her craft later materialized with a Golden Globe win for Best Actress in 1956’s “Bus Stop.”

Monroe was also an avid reader, with a 430-book library when she died. She even took a literature extension at UCLA. If you thought she was an idiot prior to reading this piece, do the honorable thing and check how much of her book collection you’ve read.

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3. One of first women to start own production company

Monroe battled the Hollywood image that made her a star her entire career, which finally culminated in 1954 when she co-founded Marilyn Monroe Productions (MMP) with photographer Milton Greene. On its own, the move demands respect, but it was actually influenced by some contractual issues she was having with Fox not agreeing to change her contract. Way to stick it to the man, Marilyn.

Unfortunately, MMP independently produced only one film, 1957’s “The Prince and the Showgirl,” while also sponsoring “Bus Stop,” which was produced by Fox. Monroe’s decision did pay off though; her and Fox came to a new seven-year contract, which allowed her to choose her own projects, directors, and cinematographers.

Marilyn never fulfilled that contract though, as a barbiturate overdose in 1962 ended her life at age 36.

To this day her legacy remains as firm as ever. So firm that a dress she wore in “The Seven Year Itch” sold for 4.6 million in 2011. Then that price was topped by the famous limestone encrusted dress she serenaded JFK in, which sold for 4.8 million in 2016.

Let’s revisit that moment, shall we?

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Read about other inspiring men, women, places, and moments in time, all a part of VK Nagrani’s Badass series.

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In memory of Marilyn Monroe:

The Women’s March may be over but the fight for equality isn’t. This coming Women’s Day, let us keep supporting women who inspire us to be better. At VK Nagrani, we are proudly supporting a small local woman-owned business called Tatas & Vag NYC.

Feel free to visit our store at 87H or at tatasnvagnyc.com to check out their tote bags!

Have All The Real Men Actually Settled On Mars?

Vivek Nagrani – My Two Bits

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A young Marlon Brando.

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I have been wondering why Sir Richard Branson, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos are so fascinated with colonizing Mars. It finally struck me, real men seem to have already commenced the colonization of Mars. The aforementioned pioneers are simply setting up shop so eventually women can move there and the human population can be saved.

Maybe I am out on my own here, but I just do not see any great male role models. Be it sports, music, fashion, or film, I am lost when someone asks me who I see as a great role model. I have had to revert to the fictional character Bruce Wayne to serve as my muse for what I think a man should be.

I get it, times change and that forces change across the board. However, there are basic elements that have defined masculinity since the dawn of time and will continue for our existence – which may not be that long if Trump gets high on a super size value meal and decides to press the big button on his desk. Thank God he does not realize its just a buzzer that is connected to his favorite fast food joint.

Steve McQueen in cru tee, jeans, and sneakers.

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What the hell has really happened? When I look back in time, men learned from their father’s who learned from their fathers. But today’s times are different and today’s youth are on their own. My dad sure as hell never used Tinder or eHarmony to meet women. This leaves a vacant space that where the rules have yet to be established. There are no social norms yet, no rules, no benchmarks for what is considered the right way.

In addition, society has just become accustomed to mediocrity. From product to talent, we live in a world where being average is acceptable. Kids win trophies for “participating” rather than actually winning by excelling. Innovation seems to be limited to the Billionaire Boys Club and the rest find solace in just re-making low hanging fruits. Today anyone willing to video themselves doing stupid shit can become a celebrity. Get a YouTube channel and you are a television star.  No one bothers to actually read these days either. What happened to actual talent? Just listen to today’s music. I do not want to sound like a crazy old guy but seriously, WTF is going on?

What really makes me nervous is the future of my eight year old daughter. Not so much for her but more for me. What kind of son in law am I going to be stuck with? So what is it to be a gentleman in today’s time? I sat down and had drinks with a cross section of women to find out what it is that makes a man today. Remember, times have changed and it is important that we are always evolving, but ironically, a lot of the basic traits that defined masculinity in the past seem to be exactly what has been forgotten today.

Circa 1940: American actor Humphrey Bogart (1899 – 1957) sitting on a fence smoking a pipe. (Photo by John Kobal Foundation/Getty Images)

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New/old rules that every man should follow in today’s uncharted times:

1.  A man should always open the door for a lady, the elderly and the less capable.

2.  A man should actually call when he is seeking the the audience of a woman.

3.  A man should take pride in not just what he wears but how he wears it.

4.  A man should always be gracious and polite to others… until deemed unworthy.

5.  A man should know his limits when it comes to drinking or other recreational drugs.

6.  A man should be physically fit or at least make an attempt to stay in shape.

7.  A man should be well-groomed. Never over-groomed or under-groomed, just groomed.

8.  A man should read at least two books a year (at this point, just reading is sufficient).

9.  A man should know how to cook three basic meals and do his own laundry if need be.

10.  A man should be able to keep a clean and tidy residence.