Brilliance & Grit: Isaac Newton

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One of the most influential scientists in history, Isaac Newton was nothing short of a badass.

But while you might be familiar with the story of him getting cracked on the head with an apple and three of his laws, you might not have learned about some of his other achievements.

Besides being undeniably brilliant, Newton was a tireless worker who understood how to assemble elements of previous scientific giants that came before him.

Today we dive into Newton’s inability to half-ass anything, and the way that his grit and determination allowed him to impact the world in so many ways.

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1. He wrote a book that not only revolutionized physics and math, but changed the scientific method.

Newton’s magnum opus, “Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica” (often referred to as the “Principia”) is regarded as one of the most important scientific books ever written. Among other things, the three-book work stated Newton’s famous laws of motion and universal gravitation, laid the foundations of classical mechanics and used mathematical methods that would end up being the basis for calculus. However, Newton’s book did more than introduce world-changing laws; it created a new standard for the scientific method and changed the way future scientists would approach problems, build hypotheses and submit theories.

In “Principia,Newton said that every discrepancy between observation and theory—no matter how tiny—is telling us something important about the world. In his search to understand these discrepancies, Newton raised the bar for the scientific theory; while previous scientists generally only put one theory forward to account for an observation, Newton would lay out several and then give “them a full range of alternate possibilities, allowing the empirical world to select them.” Giving multiple theoretical possibilities versus only one was a massive improvement, building on work by Galileo and Christiaan Huygens.

Another gift to the scientific world within “Principia” would also be the most controversial. Newton’s method included withholding any thoughts on the reasoning for the phenomena he observed, giving only his dispassionate scientific calculations to explain it.

Instead of giving any personal thoughts on why gravity works the way it does, for instance, Newton said:

“I have not as yet been able to deduce from phenomena the reason for these properties of gravity, and I do not feign hypotheses. For whatever is not deduced from the phenomena must be called a hypothesis; and hypotheses, whether metaphysical or physical, or based on occult qualities, or mechanical, have no place in experimental philosophy. In this experimental philosophy, propositions are deduced from the phenomena and are made general by induction.”

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2. When the tools of the time wouldn’t suffice, Newton constructed his own

In Newton’s day, observers looking through telescopes would often see a fuzzy corona of light that made it difficult to observe celestial bodies in great detail. This distortion (chromatic aberration) was mainly due to the lenses in refracting telescopes. Newton had a theory that this distortion was caused by white light actually being composed of a spectrum of colors and that the lenses within these refracting telescopes were the cause. Wanting to prove his theory but finding himself without the necessary tools to do so, Newton decided that he’d just build his own damn telescope.

Using the ideas of Galileo and Giovanni Sagredo, Newton grounded his own lenses out of metal, polishing and perfecting the metal himself. Using this new telescope, he found that it worked without any of the distortion found on other telescopes, allowing him to view four of Jupiter’s moons as well as Venus.

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3. He got a cushy job and then took it super fucking seriously

When Newton was made Warden of the Mint in 1696 it was intended to be a quiet cushy job usually reserved for wealthy, lazy aristocrats. Newton, however, had no interest in sitting quietly.

At the time, counterfeiting in England was rampant, with around 10 percent of England’s coins being known fakes. Newton had no interest in letting these crimes go unpunished and sprang into action, immediately organizing what was then called the ‘Great Recoinage.’ This effort repossessed millions of pounds of coins and re-minted them at their correct values. The effort was so massive that it took a 500-man production line in the Tower of London over four years to complete.

But Newton was just getting started.

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Now that he’d made a serious dent in the number of fake coins on the streets, he needed to sniff out the leaders of these counterfeiting efforts and see that they were punished to the full extent of the law.

At the top of Newton’s shit list was a well-respected man named William Chaloner. Chaloner appeared to be on Newton’s side in the quest to sniff out counterfeiters, writing to the Lord’s Justices claiming to have hard evidence that men working in the mint had been selling off copies of casts. However, Newton had a hunch that Chaloner was actually the brains of the operation.

Newton presented a report to parliament detailing Chaloner’s involvement, but the case was dismissed and Chaloner again went back to pleading for a job at the mint. It was then that Newton applied his legendary energy, acquiring enough hard evidence to put Chaloner away.

Newton went undercover and quietly gathered evidence, ultimately conducting over 100 cross-examinations of witnesses, suspects and informants which led to the successful prosecution of 28 forgers, including Chaloner. Thanks to the piles of evidence and witnesses, Newton finally had Chaloner cornered with no escape. The jury only needed a few minutes to reach the verdict of guilty. A fortnight later, Chaloner was hanged.

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Newton had been one of the most active Wardens of the Mint, made huge strides in reducing the counterfeiting and helped stabilize England’s currency — all from a position that basically required him to sit, collect revenue and do nothing.

While we might not be world-class geniuses like Newton, we can apply and learn from his methods. Newton made theories based on his observations, and didn’t let the limitations of what he felt was testable affect his pursuit of his truths. Newton threw himself fully into his work, regardless of its perceived importance. By attacking each problem with this attention, he quickly grew far beyond the bounds of his peer’s expectations. Instead of just surpassing standards, Isaac Newton redefined them.

 

Eleanor Roosevelt, The First, “First Lady of the World”

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Not too long ago, women were expected to stay in the background of their men. They had fewer rights, less practical input in their own homes and zero influence in the United States. Less than 100 years ago, women couldn’t even vote. One hundred years may seem like a long time to you and me, but it’s a blink of an eye in the development of our country. Eleanor Roosevelt was one of the first women to start the progression of the modern-day woman and no matter what time period you use to judge her, she was a total badass.

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Eleanor Roosevelt was married to arguably the greatest president that this country has ever seen, but instead of lurking in the shadows of FDR while he ran the country, she used her role as the First Lady to inspire change. President Harry Truman called Eleanor Roosevelt the “First Lady of the world” because of her human rights accomplishments. Like I said before, total badass.

This is a woman who had a position of influence and used it to her advantage. She was an incredibly outspoken woman for the time period, so naturally, she ruffled some feathers whenever she spoke for an agenda that was seen as taboo. The woman behind the most powerful man in the world at the time took her title of First Lady and parlayed that influence into changing the lives of both men and women in the present and future.

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1. The First First Lady to Hold a Press Conference

Hillary Clinton ran for president after an eight-year stint as the First Lady. Michelle Obama was very active and outspoken when her husband and former President Barack Obama was in the Oval Office. These women knew how to take advantage of the resources around them and that trend started with Eleanor Roosevelt.

As the Women’s Rights Movement was in full-swing, Eleanor Roosevelt hosted the first-ever press conference by a First Lady. As a form of solidarity to her female companions, this press conference was only for women in the media. This type of open forum gave her the platform to express her agenda without any type of censorship, encouraging more women to enter the press corps while also influencing female voters. Eleanor Roosevelt gave women across the country and around the world a voice.

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2. Eleanor Roosevelt Spoke for FDR

With her husband confined to a wheelchair, Eleanor Roosevelt took every opportunity to hit the road and speak for FDR. This was a time period where women didn’t have much of a say and yet there was the First Lady speaking publicly on behalf of the President of the United States. One specific area where Eleanor Roosevelt was incredibly vocal was about how to improve the economy through FDR’s New Deal policies.

She was also a symbol of the United States while the country was at war. As FDR had trouble traveling because of his debilitating disease, it was Eleanor Roosevelt who would travel around to greet service men and women. She was a big supporter of women’s roles in the war and the women who had to enter the job force because their husbands were in Europe or Asia fighting.

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3. Civil Rights Activist

Segregation was—and still is—a problem in our country but one of the most outspoken Civil Rights activists was none other than Eleanor. The beauty behind this is that while she was a staunch advocate for women’s rights, she cared about all people who were wronged, especially due to race or socioeconomic status.

The most incredible example of her Civil Rights actions came at the Southern Conference for Human Welfare in Birmingham in 1938. When she entered the room, she immediately sat next to an African American at the conference. She was told to sit in the “Whites Only” section by one of the conference organizers, at which point she asked for a ruler. People were confused but once Eleanor Roosevelt was given a ruler, she measured the distance between the white and black seating sections. Once the distance between the two seating sections was measured, she moved her chair to sit in the exact center until the meeting was over. At a time where she could have been arrested for a protest like that, she stared segregation laws directly in the eyes without blinking.

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4. Other Interesting Tidbits About Eleanor Roosevelt

  • Amelia Earhart attended a dinner at the White House and hit it off with Eleanor Roosevelt. As the party became stagnant, the two snuck out to Earhart’s plane and took a quick ride around the skies.
  • Eleanor Roosevelt was an influential author. She wrote the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. She also produced a syndicated newspaper column that ran six days a week for 27 years. The column covered her day-to-day life as well as her political views.
  • Eleanor was actually her middle name. Her full name is Anna Eleanor Roosevelt, but she preferred her middle name to her first name. Her mother called her by the nickname “Granny” as a child because Eleanor acted in such a serious manner. Talk about foreshadowing…
  • Family ties: President Teddy Roosevelt was her uncle and her husband FDR was actually her fifth-cousin once removed.

According to Eleanor Roosevelt, the happiest day of her life was the day she made her field hockey team at her private school. She was 76-years-old when she made that statement, so the White House obviously wasn’t as fun as dominating field hockey.

 

The Perseverance and Legacy of the Golden Gate Bridge

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It’s hard to imagine anyone in the developed world and certainly the United States not immediately recognizing the international orange-colored steel spanning across the strait where the Pacific Ocean meets the San Francisco Bay, displaying sharp and bold through sunrise or sunset, midday haze or heavy fog; to think one of the most distinguished engineering projects in the world almost ended up looking like a giant hideous bumble bee.

A beacon of awe for locals and tourists around the world alike, let’s look at why the Golden Gate Bridge is simply magnificent.

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1. Natural Challenges

The idea of building a bridge at the strait of a busy bay and ocean entrance was ambitious to say the least. Many said it couldn’t be done and those who did say it could be done forecasted astronomical totals, like San Francisco City Engineer M.M. O’Shaughnessy, who estimated the bridge would cost $100 million. O’Shaughnessy, thankfully, wasn’t a stubborn prideful man, so he openly asked other engineers what the bridge could be built for, which connected him with Joseph Strauss.

There was a lot to consider, such as how to span nearly a mile gap of an extremely deep channel. There was rising tide to consider, busy ship traffic to account for, strong constantly swirling gusts of wind in the construction zone, and of course, the risk of earthquakes with the San Andreas Fault line located just 12 miles away.

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2. Construction Faced Countless Roadblocks

Despite the proposition for the bridge first being made in 1872, it began to build real momentum by the early 1920s. However, when an actual project proposal finally was made, it faced resistance from multiple angles.

A successful court ruling from the State legislature as well two favorable Federal hearings gave way for approval to be sought from the Department of War, which owned the land on both the San Francisco side and Marin side. However, they had reservations about the bridge interfering with ship traffic. The Navy was also against the bridge, fearing an event where a ship collision or damage to the bridge would block traffic to one of its biggest harbors. Then there was the business of the ferry being infringed upon. Before the Golden Gate Bridge, the only decent way to get across was by ferry, and the massive Southern Pacific Railroad owned 51 percent of the company solely responsible for doing so—the Golden Gate Ferry Company. Naturally, Southern Pacific filed a lawsuit, but interestingly enough, thousands of other lawsuits were filed against the project as well—2,300 in total! Many were from environmentalists, such as Ansel Adams, fearing the bridge would ruin the natural beauty of the strait. Even though all these folks turned out to be completely wrong, I guess we can try to understand when looking at one of Adams’ pre-Golden Gate Bridge photos in 1932.

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3. Inspired Future Engineering Safety Standards

As far as engineering projects go, particularly those in the first half of the 20th century before federal safety standards and during the Great Depression of all eras, the Golden Gate Bridge was a extraordinarily safe project. In total, only eleven men died during construction, and none during the project’s first three years. By contrast, bridge projects of that era were expected to suffer roughly one fatality per million dollars spent. The Golden Gate Bridge was roughly a $35 million project, making the eleven lives lost a breakthrough in construction safety.

A central reason for this was chief engineer Joseph Strauss’s innovative safety net, installed around all work platforms for an extremely cost-effective $130,000. The safety nets saved 19 lives during construction, with survivors bonded together in a group called the Halfway to Hell Club. In addition to installing the safety net, Strauss introduced hard hats, safety lines, glare-free goggles, required workers to use hand and face cream to protect their skin from the aggressive winds and had no tolerance for workers messing around. He even reportedly had workers go on special diets to battle dizziness. Strauss’ methods were unprecedented and met with resistance by workers, but he stifled any opposition by firing them on the spot. Even the most talented of iron workers weren’t good enough to not follow the rules, as detailed in this video below:

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Strauss’ safety standards ultimately improved workers’ morale and sped the construction process up considerably.

As far as the eleven men that perished, one was killed by a crane, and then, during a regular workday morning, a dozen men fell 200 feet to the frigid waters after a 5-ton section of scaffolding failed and forced the safety net to give way. A handful of the men miraculously survived the fall, but only two would hold on to be saved by a crab fisherman that was in the area.

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4. What the Golden Gate Bridge Is Made Of

Though the original design penned by chief engineer Joseph Strauss included a cantilever design with steel-girder sections on both ends with a suspension span in the middle, advances in metallurgy would give way to a full suspension design.

The bridge’s load-bearing ability would hang from 250 pairs of vertical suspender ropes, attached to two main cables. These cables passed to the two main towers, each filled with over 22,000 tons of concrete. The main cables are comprised of 27,572 strands of wire, the total length of the galvanized steel estimated to be 80,000 miles long. And if you’ve ever walked across the Golden Gate Bridge, you’ve surely noticed the giant rivets throughout. There are approximately 1.2 million in the bridge.

So, how many hours do you think something like this took to construct? It wasn’t too laborious; just 25-million man hours. (Gorge on more numbers that make up the Golden Gate Bridge.)

Perhaps the coolest part of the bridge though, is its ability to fluctuate depending on wind, load and temperature.

For example, as part of the bridge’s 50th anniversary in 1987, 250,000 people filled the bridge to celebrate, putting the biggest load on the bridge to-date. And as Joseph Strauss predicted long before, the bridge held, flattening in its middle span to accommodate the extreme weight

The bridge also constantly goes through a process called thermal expansion that causes it to rise and fall by as much as 16 feet depending on the climate. Essentially, it works like this: sun hits the bridge and expands the metal, causing the bridge cables to stretch and the bridge to dip. When fog and its cooler temperatures roll in, the metal cools and cables contract, making the bridge rise again.

Here’s a video below describing the bridge thermometer that the Outdoor Exploratorium built a few miles away from the bridge in the Presidio to capture the bridge’s elevation per the current weather.

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5. The Dream Team

Amazing engineering projects—especially in the 1930s—usually aren’t built with maintenance in mind, and the Golden Gate is no exception. In fact, it takes a squad of a few dozen full-time painters to constantly upkeep and prevent rust on the 10-million square feet of steel. Rather than systematically going from one end to the other, the work is a never-ending series of touch-up jobs in surreal circumstances; from getting disoriented by the undulation of the water below and touching up hard-to-reach places in the bridge’s underbelly to being distracted by the abrupt sound of navy horns below and, of course, the many jumps toward death the bridge plays host to each year.

While it’s fallen victim to hundreds of millions of selfies from people around the world, the Golden Gate Bridge’s image exceeds well beyond. It overcame several natural and legal roadblocks during the worst economic era in America’s history to help usher new standards for construction safety, grow the San Francisco Bay Area into its present-day self and become one of man’s most impressive achievements the world over.

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6. Additional Tidbits

  • Oddly enough, the Golden Gate Bridge isn’t part of the interstate system, yet it carries both U.S route 101 and California State Route 1 through it.
  • The Golden Gate Bridge was named one of the Seven Wonders of the United States in 1994 by the American Society of Civil Engineers, joining the ranks of the Panama Canal, Hoover Dam, the Interstate System, Trans-Alaska Pipeline, World Trade Center and Kennedy Space Center.
  • Excitingly, the steel sections for the two towers were fabricated in Pennsylvania and sent by boat to San Francisco through… the Panama Canal.

Upon completion of the bridge in May 1937, chief engineer and poet Joseph Strauss penned “The Mighty Task is Done” — read the poem here.

 

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.

***

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.

***

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.

***

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.

***

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.

***

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.

***

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.”]

***

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.

***

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.