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December 19, 2019

Karen Green's Forgiveness Machine

Green, the widow of David Foster Wallace, created it as one of a number of her responses to his death in 2008 at the age of 46.

In an extraordinarily evocative interview with Tim Adams published April 10, 2011 in The Guardian, Green let down her guard about the very painful two and a half years since and what she envisions as her future.

Though sad to read, it gives you a sense of just how difficult life was for Wallace amidst his sense of being overwhelmed by his inability to express just how complex and alive the world felt to him. It's almost as if Wallace's demise resulted from a kind of flood of incoming that simply overpowered his formidable ability to convey it in terms he could live with.

Excerpts from the Guardian piece follow.

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The first piece of art that Karen Green made after her husband, David Foster Wallace, took his own life on 12 September 2008, was a forgiveness machine. She is standing in the neat, white studio at her house at Petaluma, north of San Francisco, explaining to me how the machine worked and how it didn't.

"Before David died," she says, "I had been working on some machines with a five-year old, the son of a friend who had a gallery down the road from mine." There had been a recreating-a-pig-from-bacon machine, and a prototype for a machine that cleverly pitted dates. The day that her husband hanged himself she had been working on a political machine that involved a bright-coloured circus tent, elephants and donkeys. For a long while after that, she says, she couldn't make any art at all, wondered if she ever would again, but eventually, tentatively, she developed the idea for her conciliatory Heath-Robinson. "The forgiveness machine was seven-feet long," she says, "with lots of weird plastic bits and pieces. Heavy as hell." The idea was that you wrote down the thing that you wanted to forgive, or to be forgiven for, and a vacuum sucked your piece of paper in one end. At the other it was shredded, and hey presto.

Green put the machine on display at a gallery in Pasadena near the Los Angeles suburb, Claremont, where she and Wallace had lived in the four years they had been married. She was fascinated by the effect that it had on people who used it. "It was strange," she suggests, "it all looked like fun, but then when the moment came for people to put their message actually in it, they became anxious. It was like: what if it works and I really have to forgive my terrible parent or whoever."

In the end, Green didn't use the machine herself, except to put a few tester messages through. "I couldn't give it my full attention," she explains. "I was worried it wouldn't even work for the full four hours of the show's opening. I was also kind of a mess about surviving the opening itself. Seeing people, chatting. Not 'kind of a mess' — a mess. I couldn't imagine doing it." She thought she would come back to visit the machine after the opening but instead she drove to her new home, not far from where she grew up, and stayed there. The machine was overwhelmed, too; it couldn't process all the requests and was eventually dismantled. "Forgiving is never as easy as we would like," she says. "Apparently quite a lot of people cried."

In her studio, now, Green smiles at that idea, with all the weariness of someone who has lately done far too much crying for one lifetime. She is full of spirited life, continually doing her utmost to laugh, even to attempt bad jokes when she talks about the last two and a half years, in an effort to deflect herself from the alternative. Her eyes tell different stories. "I don't know if David's parents have anger at him," she says. "Maybe because they were dealing with his illness, his depression, for such a very long time. But I have heard from other people who have lost spouses in this way, and fathers and mothers, and anger is perfectly appropriate. You can choose to be angry at the illness rather than the person, of course, but fury is completely appropriate: thus the forgiveness machine."

If the contraption didn't get the chance to work its home-made magic for Green herself, at least it had the effect of getting her back into her studio, where she has been trying to confront, or shore herself up against, what has become the fact of her life, the role she has found herself assigned by the ardent, obsessive readers of her late husband's books. "I think I'm supposed to buck up and be the professional widow," she says, with another quick laugh, "and I have found that very hard. Very hard. I mean one day you are a couple living in a little house and watching The Wire box-set for the third time, and letting the dogs do their antic stuff, and then suddenly you are supposed to be functioning as the great writer's widow. That wasn't how we lived when David was alive. I felt about him like I would if I had been married to a sweet school teacher. So I ignored everything for a long time. Until now, really."

I had come here to California to meet Green after corresponding for a little while by email. We had written mainly about her art, which seemed to me a profound and raw expression of the extremes of grief and loss. Not surprisingly, for a woman who was married to a man widely considered to be the most gifted novelist of his generation — described by Jonathan Franzen as "our strongest rhetorical writer" and by Zadie Smith as having no "equal among living writers. He was an actual genius" — Green has been much concerned with language, and the point where it gives up its ghosts of meaning. "When the person you love kills himself time stops," she says at one point. "It just stops at that moment. Life becomes another code, a language that you don't understand."

She resists the idea that suicide is in any sense a meaningful act, still less one understandable in terms of art — the myth of the romantic depressive — as many of the multitude of commentators on Wallace's death, grouping him with Kurt Cobain, have sometimes wanted to see it.

"It was a day in his life," she says, "and it was a day in mine. Problematic for me is that there is a post-traumatic stress that comes from finding someone you love like that, as I did. It's a real thing. A real change to your brain, on a cellular level, apparently."

She's talking to me now, she says, in part because she feels something of a duty to support the publication of "The Pale King," and in part because she has a sense that talking about her experience might be of help to other people who have been left behind to live with the knock-kneed fact of suicide.

Green had only read the book, as I had, the week before we met. She had tried before but only got to page two, and had found it so unnerving that she had been unable to leave the house for three days. This time around she went through it in a couple of days almost without a pause. "It was actually fun to feel him around the place again, in my head. And of course it was sad because I wondered where it would have gone."

When I ask Green if she felt the best of him always made its way into his writing, she thinks for a moment. She is sitting cross-legged in a favourite chair, cradling a mug of herbal tea.

"I guess it depends how you define best," she says eventually. "But in my opinion, no. The writer's voice took on a life of its own, which I think he found very constraining. I think part of what he was struggling with was how to change that voice. Cleverness, particularly for someone as clever as David, is the hardest thing to give up. It's like being naked, or getting married as opposed to having one-night stands. People don't want to be thought of as sentimental. Writers don't anyway."

By 2007 he had been on the same medication, Nardil, for 20 years. He believed the pills were starting to have bad side-effects; he was finding it hard to eat, but also he believed that the drug might be getting in the way of his writing. On the advice of a doctor, he stopped taking Nardil.

Looking back now, she says, she can line up all the mistakes of that period, but at the time every decision that was made was an effort to get Wallace well. Different drugs did not work. Nardil, when he returned to it, seemed to have lost its effect.

Green was with him all the time through the months of treatment, on one occasion not leaving the house for nine days. "It was terrible," she recalls. "I think he was so panicked that it was not working that it was self-defeating in a way."

One of the bleaker ironies, she suggests, is that she now knows exactly how that panic feels. "I have these visual cues where it all comes back to me, and if there is any way you can make that stop then you will do. If it means bashing your head against the wall, or whatever. The fear that you won't get out of it is worse than the thing itself. I think that is where he was that afternoon. He couldn't see a way to be."

"People don't understand how ill he was. It was a monster that just ate him up. And at that point everything was secondary to the illness. Not just writing. Everything else: food, love, shelter....

The following day I email Green a couple of questions to clarify some things she had said. She emails back quickly, from her studio, where she is back at work on her intricate paintings, and with what I imagine she would like to believe was her last word on the subject: "David's work is extraordinary and cause for celebration, but not from me. Does his death make it more poignant? Yes. Do I think, if he had lived, he could have made it as poignant as he saw fit? I do. Which is why I can't 'celebrate' it."

December 19, 2019 at 04:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Life in Miniature

From Kottke:

Delph Miniatures is a small company that makes what they call “modern miniatures”, 1/12th scale miniatures of everyday things like washing machines, ironing boards, and mobility scooters.

Ellen Evans' short documentary about the miniatures and the mother/daughter team who make them is completely delightful; I love everything about these women and their work.

They make contemporary miniatures because they want to represent our culture as it is right now and not as it was back in Victorian or Elizabethan times.

Just look at this meticulous work by Kath Holden and Margaret Shaw — the attention to detail is inspiring:

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December 19, 2019 at 02:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

World's Top 100 Worst Passwords

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How many do you use?

Above, the top 20.

All 100 here.

December 19, 2019 at 12:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

3D print a piece of Mars for the holidays

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From Phys.org:

There's a galaxy of gifts out there for space nerds.

Researchers at The University of Texas at Austin may have just the thing to set your present apart: a model of Jezero Crater, the landing site of NASA's upcoming Mars 2020 Rover mission, that you can 3D print yourself.

The file is free and available for anyone to download here.

The replica (above) shows in miniature the amazing landscape that awaits the NASA rover.

It includes the sharp-peaked mountains that form the crater's rim, a valley carved by an ancient river, and the river delta's fan of sediments — which the Mars 2020 Rover will sample in search of potential microfossils that would show that the Red Planet was home to life billions of years ago.

"The delta is the main feature of interest, and getting a sense of how it's spread across the landscape is really, really interesting," said Tim Goudge, an assistant professor at the UT Jackson School of Geosciences and the lead advocate for Jezero as the Mars 2020 landing site.

The model can be scaled up or down, but the standard size is about 8" by 7.5", about 100,000 times smaller than the area it represents on Mars.

The details of the landforms correspond to those on Mars, but the researchers increased their scaled-down height by five times so their details would be easier to see and feel.

Jackson School exhibit designer John Maisano painted the model pictured above to highlight the different landforms.

UT alumnus Michael Christofferson created the file and took on the project as an undergraduate at the Jackson School.

Working with Goudge and UT anthropology and geology professor John Kappelman, Christofferson developed free software that takes digital elevation data collected by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, a satellite, and converts it into STL files that can be read by a 3D printer.

Goudge said feeling the model's landscape has given him a new appreciation for the subtleties of the crater's topography.

Even after he spent the past five years poring over images of Jezero (below),

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the model allowed for new insights, such as a realization that a broad depression spreads across the floor of the crater.

"I've learned new things from it," he said. "All the subtle topography that you can feel with your hand, it shows up in the data, but it's never emphasized. Our tactile sense of learning is very different."

When lab manager Adrienne Witzel washed the Jezero model to remove scaffolding left over from the printing process, she said that seeing the water flow through the river valleys really brought home how the ancient crater was an active watershed billions of years ago.

"It works exactly how you would expect it to work," Witzel said, describing how the water flowed through the valley and spread through the delta networks. "[The model] allows you to visualize data in such a way that you can participate in some really amazing stuff."

The model's size means it's right at home on a desk or bookshelf (which is where Goudge keeps his copy). But Goudge said that he envisions the replica, first and foremost, as a teaching tool.

He imagines geology students using the model to better interpret Martian topography in images sent back by the Mars 2020 Rover.

And in a world where space news is dominated by pictures, he said that the model could help people with visual impairments engage with Mars exploration.

"That's another avenue where there's huge learning possibilities," Goudge said. "Everybody can get something out of this, and it makes it more accessible to everyone."

December 19, 2019 at 10:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Electric Paint

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From the website:

Get ready for a revolutionary new approach to design and electronics.

Use this electrically conductive paint to design circuits and sensors or alternatively, use it as a conductive adhesive on anything from conventional electronics to paper, plastic, or even textiles.

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Whether you're a beginner or an experienced engineer, the possibilities are endless.

Electric Paint is like regular paint, except that it conducts electricity.

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It is carbon-based, non-toxic, and water soluble.

Works with other electrical components, prototyping materials, PCBs, microcontrollers, Arduino, Raspberry Pi, MaKey MaKey, and e-textiles.

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10ml: £9.99.

December 19, 2019 at 08:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (1)

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