Artist feud over the right to use the world’s blackest black

d3b85deb-72aa-4e67-adb4-9996396b172cPlease enjoy this story of cartoonish villainy

So firstly: Vantablack. It’s the world’s blackest pigment, absorbing 99.96% of visible light, and turning any surface it’s painted on into a flat black hole. It’s pretty toxic and has to be grown in a special sealed chamber. It was created for military and aerospace uses, but obviously artists were pretty excited about its possibilities too.

But when they approached the manufacturers of Vantablack, they found they had already made an exclusivity deal with Anish Kapoor, the world’s 7th richest living artist (Damien Hirst is the richest).

PEOPLE WERE EXTREMELY UPSET. “He’s signed an exclusive agreement with the creators of Vantablack which blocks any other artist from using it. Nobody forced him or them to enter into an agreement like that. It’s a heinous ego-driven pact which stops every other artist after him from working with Vantablack on art projects.”

Kapoor refused to engage or explain. He says this wouldn’t happen with any other colour, people just get irrational and emotional about black.

Next: Artist and paintmaker Stuart Semple had a pink that was “particularly special. It just is like nothing else, it’s so vibrant. You can’t photograph it. It’s nuts. Like, the pinkest pink thing ever.”

“When everybody started complaining that Anish Kapoor wouldn’t share Vantablack, I thought it was a really bad thing for him to be doing, and I was upset by it as well.”

“And I thought, ‘Wait, hang on, if you’re upset about it, you’ve got all this awesome stuff that you’ve been making, all these colors, you should be sharing them. It’s wrong to be criticizing him and not sharing them.’”

So Semple released The World’s Pinkest Pink. But if you want to buy it, you have to agree that “by adding this product to your cart you confirm that you are not Anish Kapoor, you are in no way affiliated with Anish Kapoor, you are not purchasing this item on behalf of Anish Kapoor or an associate of Anish Kapoor.”

A few weeks later, Anish Kapoor posts a photo to instagram: his middle finger dipped in The World’s Pinkest Pink. Then Semple gets told through a third party that Kapoor is suing him. “I wrote to them and said, ‘Look, it’d be really nice if we could just be friends, and he could say sorry for taking the pink, and give me the £3.99 back that it costs. And then we can just call it quits and it’ll all be fine.’ But they just ignored it and said they were suing me.”

Realising they would probably never get access to Vantablack, Semple and friends developed the second blackest black in the world: an open source, cherry-scented pigment called Black 2.0 that’s thousands of times cheaper than the official stuff and much easier to work with. But will that dastardly Kapoor get his hands on Black 2.0 as well?

“I don’t want him to have it. I think the way he’s been acting is really dodgy. And all the time and effort that’s gone into Black 2.0, and how much everyone cares about it, it would just be a real downer if he got it. What I really like is the fact that loads of us can make really cool black things, and he’s stuck in his science lab, paying gazillions of pounds to get quite a similar thing. I think that’s so cool! Yeah, I don’t want him to have it. It would upset me if he got it.”

Full interview with Stuart Semple, including details on the suing aspect.

Update: Okay, someone’s written Semple/Kapoor slashfic now. (It’s SFW, but please don’t consider this mention to be an endorsement or recommendation.)

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You cannot trust your own perceptions

Last week I asked if anyone had any burning facts they wish they could magically teleport into everyone’s brains. One reader suggested this, and they’re absolutely right about it.

“The really hard-to-internalize knowledge I wish people had is just you cannot trust your own perception. Study after study have shown that no, your memory isn’t reliable. Your anecdotal evidence doesn’t hold up. A quick google search found this, which basically summarizes the whole concept: https://markmanson.net/trust

That Black Mirror episode where everything is recorded would, contrary to whatever point they were trying to make, vastly improve the world IMO. No longer would we have those “no I swear you had the keys last” arguments, and of course there are much broader contexts also.

The issue with this stance, of course, is that there’s a percentage of the population who don’t trust their own perspective enough, which opens up a path to abuse. Alas.”

I (McKinley) went to a super-interesting lecture on forensic psychology, which deals with some of this stuff – the unreliability of memory. At the beginning, they showed us some footage of a ‘suspect’, and at the end, we had to pick him up out of a line-up. I wasn’t totally sure, but I picked the guy I thought looked the most like my memory.

And that was exactly the problem. None of the men in the line-up were the one from the footage, but the one who looked most like him got accused. They don’t do line-ups like this anymore (or they shouldn’t). You see each candidate once, and once only, and you have to say Yes or No. You can’t say “hmmm, let me get another look at number 6”. Either you recognise the guy or you don’t. And you’re not told how many people will be in the line-up, so you don’t select the last guy out of desperation.

There’s other things like – no one in the room should know who the suspect is. Even if they’re not corrupt, they won’t be able to stop their body language very slightly indicating more anticipation or interest, and the witness won’t be able to help picking up on it. The worst bit is, neither party will realise there was any influence. The witness will just think “I had a sense about that one”.

(In some ways this is a tribute to how incredibly observant humans are – we can pick up on the tiniest cues and synthesise them into what we call intuition. That intuition is not magic, it comes from real, but very subtle observations. But yeah it’s a goddamn mess when it comes to forensics.)

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The ghost miners of South Africa

South Africa’s Mponeng mine produces about a billion dollars worth of gold a year. It’s one of the deepest mines in the world, basically an underground city, and the whole massive, byzantine structure exists to mine a seam of ore less than a metre thick. That’s how valuable gold is.

The temperature inside the mine is a loathsome 60° Celsius, so to cool it there’s an ice-making plant on the surface that produces 6,000 tonnes of ice a day. “They mix it with salt and it becomes this kind of slushy slurry, and they pump it down into these pipes into a deep reservoir that sits there. Giant fans blow air over it, and the cold air descends down these registers into the deepest mining levels and reduces the temperature to a bearable 30°C.”

Along with the official miners are so-called “ghost” miners – illegal miners who have broken in and been down there so long they’ve developed an ashy pallour from lack of sunlight. SInce the entrances are the focus of security, once they’re in there’s no easy way out.

“They steal ore from there; they refine it inside the tunnel, usually using very, very toxic methods, like mercury, which no doubt poison them. Security isn’t very keen to go looking for these people because, in a mine, you can hear someone coming a long way off, and these people are armed and they wouldn’t hesitate to shoot security and get into gunfights.”

The legal miners have no incentive to get rid of them because they run a black market trade in basic overworld items that the ghost miners can’t access. “A loaf of bread that costs less than $1 on the surface costs $12 underground. Making a couple of extra sandwiches and putting them in your lunch bucket, you can make some serious extra money.”

There are so many ways that people are living in this world that you would not know about, would never occur to you (even if it’s obvious someone must be in retrospect).

Interview with the author of Gold: The Race for the World’s Most Seductive Metal on NPR.

Addendum from Wikipedia: “Tunnel walls are secured by flexible shotcrete reinforced with steel fibers, which is further held in place by diamond-mesh netting.” Diamond-mesh netting! I bet it doesn’t look like I’m imagining.

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The curse of the Bahia Emerald, a giant green rock that ruins lives

“Right now, in a vault controlled by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, there sits a 752-pound emerald with no rightful owner. This gem is the size of a mini­fridge. It weighs as much as two sumo wrestlers. Estimates of its worth range from a hundred bucks to $925 million.

“Over the past 10 years, four lawsuits have been filed over the Bahia emerald. Fourteen individuals or entities, plus the nation of Brazil, have claimed the rock is theirs. A house burned down. Three people filed for bankruptcy. One man alleges having been kidnapped and held hostage. Many of the men involved say that the emerald is hellspawn but they also can’t let it go. As Brian Brazeal, an anthropologist at California State University Chico, wrote in a paper entitled The Fetish and the Stone: A Moral Economy of Charlatans and Thieves, “Emeralds can take over the lives of well-meaning devotees and lead them down the road to perdition.”

This is a long read but I can only beg you to please still read it. The story is like a Coen Brothers movie, and the writer had had the decency to tell it like one. Bookmark or something for when you have time.

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Keys, umbrellas, fingerprints

This morning I rode past a hand-written sign saying “Lost your keys? Message me which Disney character is on the keyring and I’ll get em back to you.” They wanted to make sure the keys went back to their rightful owner, not just any sneak who called up and claimed them.

Which makes sense with wallets and jewellery and handsome tartan umbrellas, but if you don’t know what Disney character’s on the keys, how do you know which lock they fit?

I realised that you could stumble across the keys to the national mint, the Louvre, to every door in Berrimah jail, and they would be utterly worthless if you didn’t know what they were for. Keys are a treasure that depend on a very specific piece of information.

It was known in the early 1800s that people had unique fingerprints, and that these could be lifted from crime scenes, but it was only really useful if you already had a suspect. Otherwise, what – are you gonna compare the one from the crime scene to every single fingerprint you have on file, one by one, by hand and eye?  It wasn’t until a system of categorisation was developed (by length, width, type and direction of whorl, etc) that fingerprints became look-uppable, and about a billion times more useful.

You see what I’m getting at. Context and connections are what makes something valuable.

Assuming that somehow having the keys to the mint also gave you the legal and moral right to take everything you found there, money only has value because people agree that it does (if it was from the mint, it would have sequential serial numbers, and it could be declared worthless. Then you’d have to see how many people you could convince it was still money before you got caught). Art is a bit more objectively valuable, because you have an emotional reaction to it that has intrinsic worth, but financially it’s bizarre. The Mona Lisa is valued at US$790 million but it’s also worth US$0 because you couldn’t sell it.

In conclusion, go for the handsome tartan umbrella every time.

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“What’s your favourite historical crime?”

Reader question from someone who doesn’t realise I’ve already got a fair bit of crime in this issue. (Oh my god, CRIME starts with C.)

Look there’s so many good ones, but: Jenny Diver was probably the most skilled pickpocket (‘diver’) of the 18th Century. Among a million other tricks, she would put pillows under her dress so she looked pregnant, and she had a pair of waxwork arms made that rested on the faux-pregnant belly. She had relatively upper-class looks so she could go to church services in rich areas of London and pick the pockets of anyone sitting next to her without being suspected.

She lived extremely well, had a gang of about eight others, and when she was finally convicted she was so famous, she was allowed to travel to her execution in a mourning carriage, wearing a black dress and a veil.

“If any Woman hath more Art than another, to be sure, ’tis Jenny Diver. Though her Fellow be never so agreeable, she can pick his Pocket as coolly, as if money were her only Pleasure. Now that is a Command of the Passions in a Woman!” — John Gay, 1738

Ask me a question on literally any topic (doesn’t have to be about criming) by commenting or emailing thewhippet(at)mckinleyvalentine.com  make sure to include how/if you want to be named/linked.

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The stupidest successful prison escape

In 1995, two murderers (sorry) escaped a Darwin, Australia, prison by making a copy of the prison master key, which could open every lock in Berrimah jail. In 2013, a former prison officer revealed how:

“The prisoners’ information handbook had a pair of crossed keys on the front of it. Those keys were a dead-set copy of the keys that we had.”

“Heiss was in a cell where he could reach his arm through the window and reach the lock,” the prison officer said. “Baker [a jeweller who had jewellery-making equipment in his cell] was in a cell where he couldn’t reach the lock.He used to give the key to Heiss and he would put it in the lock, then give it back and say ‘I think it needs a bit more off here or there’.”

The officer said Heiss’s escape caused a huge amount of embarrassment for the authorities. “The handbooks were taken off the prisoners straightaway and the contractors were called in to change all the locks,” he said.

(Full article is a Murdoch paper so no link)

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The 23 types of vagabond

Each one was a separate chapter in Thomas Harman’s A Caveat or Warning for Common Cursitors, vulgarly called vagabonds(published 1566).

Adolf Hitler in 1899

This woodcut is of the vagabond Nicholas Jennings, and appeared in a pamphlet titled Gentleman and Beggar. Jennings was executed in 1566. He was caught with a bag of blood used to paint fake injuries on his head.

The several disorders and degrees amongst our idle vagabonds:

1. Rufflers (thieving beggars, former soldiers, apprentice uprightment)
2. Uprightmen (leaders of robber bands)
3. Hookers or anglers (thieves who steal through windows with hooks)
4. Rogues (rank-and-file vagabonds)
5. Wild rogues (those born of rogues)
6. Priggers of prancers (stealers of horses)
7. Palliards (male and female beggars, traveling in pairs)
8. Fraters (sham proctors, pretending to beg for hospitals, etc.)
9. Abraham-men (feigned lunatics)
10. Fresh-water mariners or whipjacks (beggars pretending to have been shipwrecked)
11. Dummerers (sham deaf-mutes)
12. Drunken tinkers (thieves using the trade as a cover)
13. Swadders or peddlers (thieves pretending to be peddlers)
14. Jarkmen (forgers of licenses) or patricoes (hedge priests)

Of Womenkind:

1. Demanders for glimmer or fire (female beggars pretending to have suffered loss by fire)
2. Bawdy baskets (female peddlars)
3. Morts (prostitutes and thieves)
4. Autem morts (married harlots)
5. Walking morts (unmarried harlots)
6. Doxies (prostitutes who begin with uprightmen)
7. Dells (young girls, incipient doxies)
8. Kinchin morts (female beggar children)
9. Kinchin coves (male beggar children)

More details on A Caveat and the types of vagabonds here.

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Interviews with female bodyguards


“I’m nearly 50 and I am shocked that I’m still alive. I was shocked at 30 and I was shocked at 40. I keep saying it’s time to wind down, but I miss doing my job too much. I need the adrenaline.”

“It’s the same thing every year: you have to be vetted by a guy from the Saudi embassy saying, ‘Oh, my God, you are a woman!’ At which point you have to throw one of his blokes on the floor and stamp on his windpipe to prove you can do the job.”

“It’s very frustrating working with people who have no understanding of the value of money, who think they can buy anything. There was one 10-year-old Middle Eastern princess I had to take round London. She asked: ‘Can you go and get me a kitten, a puppy, and a baby to play with?’ I said I couldn’t get a baby and all hell broke loose.”

I was also so interested in how they said most of the work was done beforehand, on the computer – researching the situation in a country, where the risks are, safe routes, etc etc.
Full article

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The super-recognisers of Scotland Yard

How an elite police unit is catching some of London’s most prolific criminals.

“I hate using the words ‘talented’ or ‘good’ for a criminal, when they could be so many better things, like a street magician or a dextrous watchmaker,” said Porritt. “But when we watched him, it was like: ‘That’s good.’”
Extremely well-written long read

I’m anti-crime, but I’m pro-heist

(This is a cool story / I know crime is bad)

Image result for grimoire

“Antiquarian books worth more than £2m have been stolen by a gang who avoided a security system by abseiling into a west London warehouse.

The gang are reported to have climbed on to the building’s roof and bored holes through the reinforced glass-fibre skylights before rappelling down 40ft of rope while avoiding motion-sensor alarms.

The most valuable item in the stolen haul was a 1566 copy of Nicolaus Copernicus’s De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium, worth about £215,000.

Among the other books stolen were early works by Galileo, Isaac Newton, Leonardo da Vinci and a 1569 edition of Dante’s Divine Comedy.

One source familiar with the case said: “They would be impossible to sell to any reputable dealer or auction house. We’re not talking Picassos or Rembrandts or even gold bars – these books would be impossible to fence. It must be for some one specialist. There must be a collector behind it. The books belong to three different dealers working at the very top of the market and altogether they form a fantastic collection.” Full article (but honestly that’s the gist of it)