It began, as it often does, with a series of tweets:
@serial_consign: While I detest biomimicry, I have to say I am floored by representation of/thought behind “Growth Assembly” bit.ly/zmjLNU
@debcha: @serial_consign I don’t detest biomimcry. But I do hate any design fiction that is more or less completely uninformed by the science.
@serial_consign: @debcha I think taking cues from natural processes is interesting, but making objects/arch look like organic forms for sake of it is trite!
@debcha: @serial_consign Exactly. I despise ‘biomimicry as superficial aesthetic’ rather than ‘biomimicry as deep influence’.
At which point, I butted in with some questions, but I won’t repeat it all because I think we mostly got confused about terminology. However, @debcha did mention an important difference that I will repeat. She distinguishes “between ‘biomimicry’ and ‘bioinspired’ or ‘organic’ as an aesthetic description. [...] ‘biomimicry’ doesn’t mean it looks like something biological.”
And this is true. As Wikipedia will tell you (as it told me, because I know very little about the subject):
Biomimicry or biomimetics is the examination of nature, its models, systems, processes, and elements to emulate or take inspiration from in order to solve human problems.
In other words, biomimicry is all about the functional aspects replicating natural patterns, not about the aesthetics: the “looks like”.
Now, I may not know much about this, but I have been thinking about it. For whatever reason, the cross-overs between nature and technology have been running think and fast of late. I was just reading this article this morning, which I actually believe I stumbled across within the same Bruce Sterling blogpost in which @serial_consign discovered the image he originally tweeted. Bruce calls it a meme, and if I was going to trust anyone on this, it would be him.
My question, that I posed a number of ill-designed ways, is this: what are we doing, in the differentiation between “works like” nature, and “looks like” nature? This is a judgement call, but an important one, because it is so specifically apparent. It isn’t just @debcha and @serial_consign’s personal tastes that makes buildings that look like seeds (for example) seem to be overblown sci-fi. Buildings that grew from seeds: I think we’d all agree that is pretty excellent. But buildings that just look like seeds: meh. Contrived? Weak? A little too Futurama? There is a defined difference there, and it is something that is easy to see.
Of course, there is a long history of futuristic architecture out there, and futurist design of all kinds. Whether it’s Googie, Modernism, or Brutalism, all of these aesthetics are meant to invoke a particular generic idea of a positive, future program. Even if the form is derived from a functional theory of that object’s mechanics (like the aerodynamics of Googie, the ergonomics of Modernism, or the efficiency of Brutalism), that aesthetic ends up taking on its own life apart from the function. We know this, because something can “affect” like one of these aesthetics, without actually being one of these aesthetics.
And if the word Skeuomorph just came to the tip of your tongue, you are quite the atemporal aesthete, aren’t you? Because, therein, is exactly the phenomenon we are talking about. “Works like” can produce a certain “looks like”, but then, even after the “works like” evolves in another direction, we keep the “looks like” our of habit or custom.
Bio-inspired, therefore, is perhaps the atemporal reverse of a skeuomorph. Because the “works like” is not technologically feasible as yet, it settles for the “looks like”. This is Bruce Sterling’s famous “astronaut luggage” example. (Can’t remember the keynote exactly, but I believe it was the well-known “Atemporality for Creatives” talk.) It works like this: you want to be a recreational astronaut, but aren’t the head of a global corporation? Well, just design yourself some astronaut luggage, and start using it. Sure, you might look a little weird carrying astronaut luggage on a boring old jumbo jet. But really, how exactly to our design signifiers work? What other way is there to show people that you’ve been to space? Are you going to whip out a moon rock to show off to everyone you pass in the street? And really, how weird is it to carry astronaut luggage? Is it weirder than the fact that the CEO of Cirque de Soliel has been into space because he came up with way to take a date to a pole dancing event for $100 a ticket?
So we have “anachronic” skeuomorphs, and we have “neochronic” skeuomorphs. The former lingers, and the latter presages. Even though, neither really “does” anything: it just “looks like” it does something.
Or do they?
The reason a doubt first entered my mind, and the reason I began asking such ill-designed questions of @debcha and @serial_consign, is that I’m not quite sure that “looks like” can ever really be apart from “works like”. And it’s not just an inspirational effect of the aesthetic. Sure, building a structure that looks like a seed might serve to somehow inspire a genetic engineer to figure out how to make a structure that grows from a seed, but the causality is specious at best. You would be much better off making sure children get a good math education if you would like to go to the moon, than simply building apartments that look like rocket ships.
And yet, everything must “look like” something, right? Just as much as it must “works like”. Think of an object: say, a lamp. Even if the lamp doesn’t look like a jellyfish, it has to look like something. Ought it to look like a platonic solid? A hat? A space ship? There is an aspect of aesthetic preference involved. If you really like icosahedrons, then you might make yourself a lamp that looks precisely like that. Or, if you really don’t care, you can just get the easiest lamp to find that seems to produce as much light as you want. Or if you don’t have much money, you might make do with a lamp you picked up on the street corner, which looks the best, because “free” is a pretty acceptable aesthetic decision maker.
And yet, the lamp will continue to look like something, even if you pick it out in the dark. You will be sitting in the room with that lamp, day in and day out, using it as a light source, and will be forced to look at it every time you turn it on our off. There is no such thing as “doesn’t look like”.
In which case, what is opposite of a bio-inspired lamp? A non-bio-inspired lamp? Okay. But it is still a lamp.
A lamp, as a light source, is always “inspired” by illumination. This is its “works like”. It’s function mimics incandescence, or florescence, by actually doing just that. It mimics the sun, and fire, and also the hearth. A lamp ought not to produce too much heat, or produce smoke (the benefit of electric over oil or gas), or be so bright that we can’t look anywhere near it, like the sun. In its functional design, it mimics certain functional characteristics which avoiding as many downsides as possible. And hence, every lamp will have a certain aesthetic. It will “look like” a lamp.
It may seem that I’m going around in circles, but I think that is the point. Even a modernist lamp, completely not bio-inspired, by being a physical object following physical laws in order to maintain its functional definition, will in a sense, be using biomimicry. “Works like” always informs a “looks like”. Aesthetics, then, are merely an effort to add additional “mimicry” inflections onto a functional element. A lamp will always function, to a certain extent, like a bioflorescent jellyfish. Whether, beyond this function, is further designed to look like a jellyfish even more than it already does, is beside the point.
Yes, I’m quibbling. Saying any lamp that illuminates automatically “looks like” a creature that fluoresces isn’t really accurate. Because a lamp could quite easily “look like” a rocket ship much more than a jellyfish, even if it “works like” a jelly fish much more. Unless we start using Titan rockets as mood lighting. (Aren’t philosophers a pain in the ass?) But figuring out what we actually mean by our genres identifications and functional chains of causality is all about quibbling. If we just go with our gut, we haven’t defined anything.
And yet, lamps still look like lamps, and lamps that look like sea creatures are still potentially cheesy. We define things as different, regardless of obscure similarities, because these noted aesthetic differences (also subjective differences, or semantic differences) in themselves become functional. Differentiating between a lamp that simply looks like a jelly fish, and a light source that actively bio-floresces is important, because one is a matter of style, and the other would be a scientific breakthrough. They are clearly not the same thing.
But here is the question I will end with: the distinction between biomimicry and bio-inspired aesthetics are easy to differentiate. But does the ease of distinction between form and function follow for other genres of design? For example: at what point is a Brutalist building not merely efficient, but simply Brutalist? At what point are aerodynamic fins not actually aerodynamic, but just look as if they were? Must we measure a building and complete engineering equations to decide if it is a skeuomorph or not? Must we use a wind tunnel to aesthetically judge cars?
Perhaps, it is not that bio-inspired design is cheesy. Perhaps we haven’t discovered what real bio-inspired design looks like yet. Because, once we do, perhaps only an expert could tell the difference.
Posted: January 4th, 2012
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I’ve been re-adjusting my life to unplugging from the network. This is not one of those techno-isolation trips, done in some latter-day Christian mystic Transcendentalist notion of re-establishing balance to one’s informational life by means of putting one’s devices in a plastic bag for a week and walking in the park. This is, instead, an unwanted divorce from the network for economic reasons. Having an iPhone has become too expensive for me, and so I have downgraded to a pay-per-month regular cell phone (it’s a RAZR, which is amusing for its last-generation cutting edgeness). With no internet at home (thanks, Century Link for having an unacceptable service level causing me to embargo your requests to pay the double-charged bill you will not adjust correctly), and temporarily being forestalled from getting a planned mobile broadband hotspot by T-Mobile’s insipid economic red-lining (i.e. a $400 deposit due to my credit), this means I only have a few hours a day online, when I’m at the coffee shop or other work space.
Which is a harsh adjustment, for a person who has already migrated to the cloud, and quite liked it. I’ve been using an iPhone for the past three and a half years. I use a Chromebook. The cloud made me portable, light-weight, and completely flexible. I was online near-constantly, writing, reporting, and managing various other Occupy Portland tasks, communicating with friends and colleagues all across the world in many time zones. This is the extent of the plug that has been pulled.
But I’m finding ways of adjusting. One does adapt to economic straits. The interesting thing is that it is doable. There are ways. Here’s how I’ve been doing it so far.
Apps that sync is the key. After ignoring ScratchPad, a little Chrome OS app that came with my ChromeBook, I’ve discovered that it now allows you to write a Google Doc fully offline, including a certain amount of formatting, and then sync this Doc when your computer re-connects to the internet.
Instapaper is, as always, truly one of the best iOS apps around. (I still have the iPhone, but no SIM card, so it is basically a fat iPod Touch.) When I am near a Wifi zone, I open up the app to let it sync its read/unread tallies and download fresh articles. Off network, it functions as normal.
Net News Wire does the same thing for my Google Reader feed. The trouble is being able to share articles back and forth between my RSS feed and Instapaper, and then from either of these to Twitter, all of which requires a live network connection. For these tasks, email is the key. Email–that most defunct of network activities! Emailing a link to my private Instapaper email address will sync that article as soon as I re-connect to the network, and my email Outbox sends all those messages that were composed while offline. I haven’t found a way to send an email that converts into a Tweet yet.
As far as email goes, handling it once a day is something that many efficiency tips recommend, and so far it is working for me. Email Time is the first 30 minutes after I re-connect with the network. Frankly, I’m kind of surprised I ever gave it much more time than that.
I do miss being able to be on Twitter at odd times of the night, when sitting at home with nothing to do. However, I’ve enabled the ability to send a message to Twitter via SMS, and so now I tweet blindly into the night, carefully tapping out 140 character messages on my RAZR. I don’t receive any tweets that way, as that would be disastrous for my SMS plan. It’s kind of fun this way, more like graffiti. I leave messages, and don’t get feedback until I re-connect to the network, sometimes twenty-four hours later. And if you want to talk about “Old Twitter”, well, this is how the service was originally designed to be used.
I’ve also hooked up Google Voice, though I’m not sure exactly how that benefits me off-network. There isn’t any way to receive chats or emails via SMS or phone yet. However, from a schematic point of view, it does serve to remind me that my regular old cell phone is a tiny funnel for communication when I am offline. When I’m back on the network, suddenly my phone becomes superfluous, as the computer is my phone; I call and text straight from the browser. The phone is merely a handset, and the network is the main channel of communication. I don’t know if, like the email efficiencies I’m forced to apply, this will end up being a benefit or not. But, at least it seems to be all part of the process, which I’m forced to accept whether I like it or not.
All of this seems to break down the networked communication I’ve come to expect into its basic components. I’ve been so used to App-For-That thinking, and user-friendly API integration, that I forgot what the basic components of networked communication is all about. It’s about the information: either short bits of communicative text, or a link that will take you to more information later. Emails and hyperlinks. I’m restoring the mental schematic of packets to my networked communication. Each email, link, and SMS is a packet. If I can work out how to make sure the packets arrive where they are supposed to, even if it is delayed, then the network continues to flow.
Posted: December 28th, 2011
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In a post on G+, Tim Carmody proposed the notion of a full disclosure for tech journalists including what particular devices/systems they owned and used. For example, if one was writing about Windows, and didn’t actually have a Windows machine, should that be acknowledged?
The brief consensus in the comments was that this information is certainly helpful. I noted that when on a tech forum discussing problems with one’s tech, the first thing you’re asked to do is state the system you’re using to set the context. So shouldn’t this be standard for tech praise or tech criticism as well as tech support?
Justin Pickard brought up the site UsesThis at which influential tech folks are interviewed about their setups for particular tasks. Certainly this counts as an endorsement of some sort. And yet, obviously the reader interested in a particular graphics engine box will be taking these personal choices with a grain of salt. People still have preferences, and no one person’s choice can be said to be the canonical best of all. Every choice has pros and cons, and that what a reviewer hopefully seeks to identify in reviewing a product–saying “this is not simply the best for me, but here are the sorts of tasks it does well or poorly, by which you might make your own decision.” The declaration of one’s own setup is quite subjective, while reviewing intends a sort of objectivity.
And yet, there is more to these alternate points of view. When hearing about someone else’s gear, one doesn’t just take it as a personal endorsement. There is something more dynamic than that. You aren’t just reading someone else’s shopping list, or their wish list in a catalog. You are hearing a narrative about how they’ve solved a particular problem. The choices they’ve made speak to their workflow, and their way of confronting a regular, complex task. It doesn’t represent the best way, or the cheapest way, or the newest way: it speaks to the actual way that something is done.
This is not a narrative of qualitative or quantitative indicators, it is a narrative of praxis. It’s like looking into your grandfather’s tool box, or watching a friend drive. By listing one’s central tools or gear, you are learning about the person as much as their objects, because you are learning about the network of the person, extending outward to their objects.
I’m not a tech reviewer, but I take my gear seriously, and while I don’t fetishize it I select it carefully. So I came up with my own toolbox list, which is now a standard page here on the website, which I’ll update as it changes.
I didn’t list everything I use or own for everything, but I listed the things for which I had a choice, and after some thinking, made that choice carefully. I’m a writer, and a part of my daily work is reading, so I’ve also listed some standard reading sources. This is a potential place for the list to turn into the fetish catalog–it would not be completely inaccurate to list every book I’ve read, or basically add a blog roll or even my Twitter follow list, as these all affect my daily work considerably. But this would be veering towards the Minimalist Lifestyle Design Fetish, which is to make everything one associates with a personal accessory and endorsement. Brand is not an element of praxis. Brand is the total picture–the holistic aesthetic that commodity merchants attempt to sell, because once the brand is sold, accessory products can be shilled with the ease of action-figure play sets. Brand washes over the actual praxis, erasing use-value and replacing it with aesthetic. Aesthetic can be part of praxis, but it is the use of each particular object that defines its part in the network, not the overall image, or the construction of a total lifestyle list. Think of it this way: it would make sense for tool box to contain screwdrivers. And, a person might choose a particular sort of screwdriver, with ratchet grip and selectable tips, if that provides them more utility from time to time. However, it does not make sense for every toolbox to have this particular screwdriver, simply because it is more functional. And furthermore, although one might be able to order this particular screwdriver in custom colors, that is not relevant at all. Praxis extends and networks a certain amount of usage and features in particular devices, in a contingent framework that is developed individually, and uniquely at each occurrence of use. On the other hand, attempting to bind every feature or object together as a single continuum is where the brand develops. The difference between a real life toolbox and the Sharper Image catalog is the difference of steel, grease, plastic, and scuff marks, versus glossy paper, photos, and artful descriptions. It’s the difference between the things you use, and the things someone thinks you should use.
And in the end, this comes back to Tim’s originally raised question. In listing the items in our toolbox, we aren’t only rattling off a list in the effort of full disclosure, description, or identification. We are picking up each of our items individually, and thinking about why and how we use them. Is this a “toolbox” item? How carefully did we consider this object when we brought it into our possession? Would we accept a different tool in its place, or is there something about it that is unique to our relationship with the objects around us? These are questions of praxis, whereas an itemized list is a catalog, or a collector’s checklist. Perhaps reviewing technology as products should be more personal, more practical. But certainly our relationship with our own tools should be.
Posted: August 2nd, 2011
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After a month of latency, I checked back into the CPSC announcement RSS, and was overwhelmed by the results. Firstly, there was the subject of today’s microfiction, which was perhaps the most quintessential ever, at least in relation to the reasons I started this. It was a second recall, because the first had not stopped the injury reports. It was a children’s toy that turned deadly. It was a product, unfortunately named the “bath bomb” that chemically became an actual bomb. Not only were there explosion and laceration hazards, there were also chemical irritation hazards. TO CHILDREN. With a product as ridiculous as a “child’s spa”, whatever the hell that is. The only thing that could have piled on additionally, would be if the product also violated lead paint standards.
But then I scanned down the rest of the list–an entire month of product recalls. Which, to give the true effect, I will re-create here for you now:
- Briggs & Stratton recall Riding Mowers due to injury Hazard from Projectiles
- The Hive announces recall to repair Revl Carbon Road Bicycle Brakes due to Fall Hazard
- Ryobi recalls Cordless Drills due to Fire Hazard
- Iron Lover’s Bench sold exclusively at Ross Stores recalled due to Fall Hazard
- Green Mountain Vista Inc. recalls Roman Shades due to Risk of Strangulation
- Bravo Sports recalls trampolines due to Fall Hazard
- Alexander Designs brand Drop-Side Cribs sold exclusively at JCPenny recalled for repair due to Entrapment, Suffocation
- Castalon Frying Pans recalled by Tabletops Unlimited due to Burn Hazard
- Valco Baby recalls Jogging Strollers due to Strangulation Hazard
- Tike Tech recalls Jogging Strollers due to Strangulation
- PBteen recalls to repair Sleep and Study Loft Beds due to Fall and Injury Hazard
- Fire Alarm Control Panels recalled by Fire-Lite Alarms due to Alert Failure
- Trisonic Compact Fluorescent Light Bulbs recalled due to Fire Hazard
- Home Improvement Books recalled by Oxmoor House due to Faulty Wiring Instructions
- Fisher-Price recalls Infant Toys with Inflatable Balls due to Choking Hazard
- Fisher-Price recalls Healthy Care, Easy Clean and Close to Me High Chairs due to Laceration Hazard
- Fisher-Price recalls Little People Wheelies Stand ‘n Play Rampway due to Choking Hazard
- Fisher-Price recalls Children’s Trikes Due to risk of Serious Injury
- Deaths prompt CPSC, FDA warning on Infant Sleep Positioners
- “S T U F F” and Paw Wall Hooks recalled by Midwest-CBK due to violation of lead paint standards
- Black & Decker recalls Cordless Electric Lawnmower due to Laceration Hazard
- Sunrise Medical recalls Quickie(r) Shark Bikes due to Footrest Failure
- Rugs recalled by Brumlow Mills due to Fire Hazard
- Molenaar LLC recalls Night Lights due to Fire and Shock Hazard
- Children’s Mood Rings and Necklaces recalled by D&D Distributing Wholesale due to risk of Lead Exposure
- Tea Sets recalled by The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf(r) due to Fire Hazard
- Children’s Hooded Jackets and Sweatshirts with Drawstrings recalled by Burlington Coat Factory due to Strangulation Hazard
My morbid interest, piqued by the first announcement, quickly diminished. I’m still oddly fascinated by these tales of anonymous suffering at the hands of our supposedly subservient consumer objects. But somehow, the thrill is gone. It is like watching a thriller film, and the killer just goes on killing and killing, nothing ever changing or being revealed.
These are companies you’ve heard of, companies you’ve never heard of, making objects you use, or maybe you would never touch in your life. All of them hurt people, or could, in a manner other than intentionally designed. With a fiendish, creativity intensity. And this will never stop. As long as we make things, these things will end up somehow releasing their stored energy against us. They cannot all be recalled, because we will continue to make more.
Strangulation by venetian blinds, and drawstring sweatshirts. Poisioning by paint, on beads and toys and clothing. Cribs that function as guillotines. Bicycles that work as human catapults. Wiring that melts, burns, and explodes. We used to worry about the plague. Witchcraft. Murderous barbarians building walls from our skulls. We don’t worry about these things anymore (mostly) but we worry about the places we make where we just might catch our necks. First world problems. Death by small parts.
In honor of celebrating this strange facet of the death drive we’ve created, I’m hereby closing the CPSC Microfiction series. This was always the way it was meant to be, and now that it is, I feel that it has fulfilled its function. I’ve reported, I’ve speculated, I’ve imagined, and I’ve fantasized. I might do it again if the moment and the product grabs me with that mortal consumer lust once again. But for now I think we’re complete.
So thanks for reading, and enjoy the last of the series: CPSC Microfiction #17.
Consume safely, America.
Posted: October 15th, 2010
, CPSC Micro-fiction
Tags: death drive
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CPSC Notices 6/24/10 (Stitched together from all seven notices pertaining to the companies)
Seven Manufacturers Announce Recalls to Repair Cribs to Address Entrapment, Suffocation and Fall Hazards – The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), with the cooperation of seven firms, is announcing voluntary recalls of more than two million cribs to address drop-side hazards and other hazards that affect the safety of young children. The recalling firms are providing consumers with free repair kits to immobilize the drop sides or other remedies. Do not attempt to fix these cribs with homemade remedies.
The cribs’ drop sides can malfunction, detach or otherwise fail, causing part of the drop side to fall out of position, creating a space into which an infant or toddler can roll and become wedged or entrapped, which can lead to strangulation or suffocation. A child can also fall out of the crib. Drop-side incidents can also occur due to incorrect assembly and with age-related wear and tear.
Simmons Juvenile Products – CPSC has received 30 reports of drop sides that have malfunctioned or detached. Two children became entrapped between the drop side and the crib mattress but were freed without injury. Two other children fell out of their cribs when the drop side malfunctioned and one child sustained scratches due to the fall.
Million Dollar Baby – CPSC and Million Dollar Baby have received 43 reports of drop side failures. There were eight reports of children being entrapped between the mattress and drop side resulting in three reports of bruises to the head or upper body. Additionally, three children fell out of the crib when the drop side failed but they were not injured.
LaJobi – CPSC and LaJobi have received 40 reports of drop sides that detached or malfunctioned. In one incident, a child fell out of the crib when the drop side detached and sustained a bruise.
Jardine – CPSC and Jardine have received 47 reports of drop sides that detached or malfunctioned. In one of these incidents, a child was found unconscious after becoming entrapped and was hospitalized. Nine other reports involving entrapments or fallouts resulted in scratches and bruises, including one child who sustained a broken collarbone.
Evenflo – CPSC and Evenflo have received 31 reports of drop sides that malfunctioned or detached. One involved the entrapment of a seven month old boy between the drop side and the crib mattress. He sustained bumps and bruises to his head. Nine children fell out of the crib when the drop side detached, unlocked or fell off. Seven of those children sustained minor injuries, including bumps, bruises and cuts. Fourteen other incidents involved no injuries. In addition, CPSC has received two reports of children who became entrapped when the mattress support detached in one corner of cribs manufactured between 2000 and 2004.
Delta – CPSC and Delta have received 57 reports involving drop sides that have malfunctioned or detached, resulting in three entrapments, including two reports of bruises and one child who fell out of the crib. Additionally, CPSC is aware of 19 reports in which stabilizer bars were installed upside-down, resulting in 10 mattress platform collapses. Two children were entrapped but freed without injury and one child sustained scratches.
Childcraft – CPSC has received seven reports of the drop side failing. In one of those reports, the child became entrapped in the gap created by the drop-side failure. In another incident, a child fell out of the crib and suffered bruises to his head when the drop side disengaged.
I put up another gate. It held, and I turned to the left, and then it fell, clattering down to the floor, bouncing back and forth on its corners. I put down the next one, and picked up what had fallen. I drove the anchors deeper, choosing fresh spots. It held. I waited a moment. Yes. I picked up, now, the next, and began to work. The corner came loose, and swung down, banging into my knee. Shock of pain vibrated and, I grabbed my kneecap, cursing, to make sure it was intact. I got the bolts in place. Turned left again, and picked up the next. On a hard spot, and I couldn’t get the anchors deep. I struggled, pushing my weight against the bolt, driving it deeper, swore, flailed, screamed with exertion. As I spasmed against wood and metal, I felt it slip into place, and I released my grasp. Too soon. I pressed on the far edge, and it pivoted toward the wall, ripping out the far anchor. It levered outward, my weight transformed into acceleration, and it slammed across the narrow space into the opposite gate, swinging, loose and dropped, which swung down and back to the last gate to the left of it, also knocking it loose. In frustration, Hanging loose on a single anchor, the last droppe to the ground, clattering on the rest.
I was a child. I couldn’t do this. I was no better than a helpless infant.
For information about this series, please see the introductory post.
Posted: June 24th, 2010
, CPSC Micro-fiction
Tags: death drive
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