July 24th, 2015

David Stairs


Ankole cattle grazing on the outskirts of Kampala, Uganda

First of all, this story has nothing to do with cattle, but everything to do with wealth and its distribution.

In December 2012 I talked a group of students into helping me attempt to raise money online for an African NGO run by an amazing friend of mine. It wasn’t an easy sell. These were seniors, and they had their own idea about how to design their thesis exhibition. But I was tenacious, I kept coming back at them, and it didn’t hurt that the professionals they spoke with at a regional design studio told them they’d be foolish to pass up the opportunity.

Raising money at any time is a challenge. People are under siege from fundraisers 24/7. And, although I did not know it at the time, crowd sourcing money online without a gadget to shill is harder than selling ice in Michigan in the dead of winter. Kickstarter won’t even talk to charities, and at Indiegogo we found our pitch played primarily to our friends. But most of the students got enthusiastically behind it, worked real hard promoting the Fhope Community Resource Center, and mounted a very nice exhibition about their efforts. We only reached 25% of our $15,000 goal, but $3800 is nothing to sneer at.


Mr. James Lutwama, teacher, gardner, philanthropist par excellance

What happened next could not have been foreseen. In autumn of 2013 our African contact, the charity’s founder, had a serious accident. In most places a 52 year old man is not considered old but in Uganda, where the average life expectancy at birth is about 54, James Lutwama is called “Jjawwabaana,” which means grandfather in the Lugandan tongue. James needed surgery and, from what I knew about Ugandan healthcare, it seemed very possible that his organization might be left without its leader. One of the Board members of Designers Without Borders who knew James wanted to forward cash assistance for the surgery. Again, easier said than done. One failed bank transfer later, we finally got some money to him through an intermediary.

Happily, the surgery was a success. Once James was on the mend, our discussion turned to what we could feasibly do with the funds my students and I had raised. We could not move ahead with the original plan to build a community center; $3800 just wasn’t enough money. There was a possibility that we might purchase a small parcel of land along the one of the busy roads leading into Kampala where James could erect a stand to market the produce he grows to support Fhope. But we needed to act quickly. The Ugandan currency is in freefall. In the last eight years its value to the dollar has declined from 2000/1 to 3000/1, and foreign speculators were using this weakness to scoop up vast parcels of land.


Raising fruits and vegetables to support social causes

I went to the bank and withdrew the Indiegogo funds from the DWB account and took them to the nearest Western Union provider. This local branch had never tried to wire $3800 overseas before, so it took them a while to figure it all out. Eventually, a tentative transmission was sent, the final hurdle being a telephone interview I had to have with a WU official. Did I know the recipient, I was asked. “Yes.” Had I wired him money before? “Well, yes, in a manner.” How did I communicate with the recipient? “By email.” How long since I had seen the recipient in person? “Eight years.” That was a bridge too far. They cancelled the transaction. It was for my own protection, they said, due to the volume of internet fraud emanating from Uganda. That and the fact that James’ small local charity did not make it onto their international lists. I told James I would think about it a bit, see if I could come up with another plan. Time was passing where time was of the essence. It was already two years since the Indiegogo project wrapped, and I was still holding the money!


Cabbage crop at Arcadia Valley 2015

Eventually, I contacted the same friend who had helped me secure James’ surgery in 2014, and asked him if he would consider one more favor. I’d introduced him to James years before, and he was willing to assist me, so long as we did not run it through his business books. The folks at my credit union were helpful. What was the purpose of the transaction?— post 911 security regulations required them to ask— “A social improvement program,” I said. It would not take more than 14 days they replied. “Two weeks? Seriously? For an e-transfer of funds?” I told my friend not to hold his breath waiting for the money— I didn’t want to be responsible for his untimely death.

In Africa cattle have long been synonymous with wealth. Imagine my relief when I finally received my friend’s coded message about 10 days later: “I am richer by 3842 cows. Is this all the herd you had?” To which James responded, “I can find pasture for those cows, but better make sure there are a few bulls among them, or we won’t have any heifers.”

Ah, that Ugandan sense of humor in the face of almost inevitable failure. I sure do miss it.

Thanks again to everyone who made those 2013 donations. Sometimes it just takes awhile to float a herd across the Atlantic.

David Stairs is the founding editor of Design-Altruism-Project.

June 2nd, 2015

Philip Borkowski

Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of published Masters theses that started last year with Jesse McClain’s Actively. Many thanks to Wes Janz for making it possible.


image: Wes Janz

Never before has human creation effected the world as much as it does today. While living next to a large construction site, I started to observe the frequency with which a 40-yard dumpster was being filled with what many people may consider waste. Here in the United States, we live in a throw-away society, but it has not always been this way nor is it this way in many other societies. “Up until the nineteenth century, recycling architectural elements from old buildings was normal all over the world. In other places around the world it is an integral part of their society.” (Bahamón 84) Today, extreme recycling still takes place in developing countries, not as an environmentally conscious decision, but as a way of life. We can learn from these developing countries.

Read the rest of this entry »

May 2nd, 2015

David Stairs

The discussion in my Junior-year studio at this week’s critique swirled around the value of Pinterest, that irrepressible repository of everything how-to-do-it. Is it a valuable source of inspiration, or a struggling student’s crutch? Is it gender specific, a creative and social outlet for stay-at-home moms, or does it apply to the testosterone set as well? One young man in the class thought it was not strictly for women, but then quickly clarified that he does not use it himself. This disagreement between me and some of my students was good natured, but it masked a deeper division than the usual generational gap.


Graphic by Marcello Duhalde found on Google

Read the rest of this entry »

April 4th, 2015

David Stairs

There are two or three things graphic designers are especially keen about. They like to make logos: Researching, executing, and branding a marque will cause most self-respecting designer’s hearts to flutter. They like to talk about type: Obsessing about letterform and the way it looks on the page and interacts with images is second nature to them. And they like to illustrate data: In fact, they have an almost childish glee for finding ways to interpret statistics in a playful manner. But designers are not the only ones who represent data, and because it is not their exclusive domain they need to better understand why this is so.

A Punnett square, demonstrating heritability of dominant and recessive characteristics after Mendel.

Read the rest of this entry »

March 1st, 2015

Victor Margolin

Before I go any further, I must confess that I am a man d’un certain age. Therefore my responses to new technology are selective and generational. I still favor transactions with other human beings over those with machines. When I was a boy in the early 1950s, almost all transactions were between one human being and another. The one exception for me was the gumball machine at the candy store around the corner from my apartment building in Washington D.C. I didn’t mind the absence of a live vendor in order to make my purchase. In fact, it was something of a novelty to put a penny in the machine and get a large colored gumball in return.

Read the rest of this entry »

February 1st, 2015

David Stairs

I.

I once founded a town. It’s in the high desert about twenty miles outside of Bend, Oregon overlooking the magnificent Three Sisters Wilderness off in the distance to the west. I called the town Denial. At the time only two other people volunteered to live there, hence the sign. But many more would have qualified to be living in Denial.

Read the rest of this entry »

January 1st, 2015

David Stairs

Homo faber, humankind the maker, seems destined to design itself right out of a world.


MacGyver packin’

Unlike pharmacology, or agriculture, technology has a weak review process for testing its effects on the natural environment. We have user testing, of course, the way we discover what will make a product or service dangerous or addictive. And there are certainly safety regulations, but they often are 50 years out of date. Do you imagine Henry Ford thought much about crash-test dummies? Or John D. Rockefeller about climate change?

Read the rest of this entry »

November 30th, 2014

David Stairs

Ah, autumn.

A crispness is in the air. The delectable smell of woodsmoke, the warm sun burnishing a hundred shades of orange, the tang of fresh cider at the orchard, or a field full of pumpkins at sunset. Into this idyll clomp the Boys of Autumn toting the ultimate example of techno-idiocy: leaf blowers.


The Boys of Autumn

Read the rest of this entry »

October 31st, 2014

David Stairs

As a person who answers a lot of mail inquiring about socially responsible design internship options, a recent Skype conversation with some grad architecture students at Ball State University got me to dusting off some serious criticism of the “faux humanitarianism” of do-gooder design.

Read the rest of this entry »

September 23rd, 2014

David Stairs

I grew up in a subdivision of a crossroads-small town named Mattydale, N.Y. In the early 20th century the area had been comprised of dairy and vegetable farms that supplied the city of Syracuse. In the 1920s the farmers sold out, and from then through the 1950s suburbia sprouted where carrots and cabbages once had grown. The earlier developments were diverse, with homes of various ages occupying the same block. Across from my parent’s house, built in 1926, was a Cape Cod constructed in the ’50s, itself sitting on land that once was a chicken farm adjoining the farm house next door.

In my early college days I knew friends who had grown up in Levittown, N.Y. I didn’t think about it much at first, I mean, what’s in a name? Only later, when I came to know why Levittown existed did I begin to question its sanity. The late ’40’s were all about developing affordable living spaces for returning GIs and the families they would raise. John Entenza’s Case Study House project in California was one approach, small, select, specially designed. Levittown, the mass-produced racially discriminatory version, was another. Both projects were constructed upon a concrete slab using pre-fab materials, but there the similarities ended.


Rapid tear down of existing structure in early June…

Read the rest of this entry »

August 27th, 2014

Victor Margolin

I like to go to a café in the morning to read the paper before I start work. I also enjoy meeting friends and colleagues in cafes. For some time, the Starbucks in my Chicago neighborhood was my choice for reading the paper and a Caribou Coffee a few blocks north of my home was the place where I chose to meet colleagues and friends. The reason for the distinction is that the Starbucks is designated as a high volume take out store with minimal seating, while the Caribou Coffee, now closed and soon to reopen as Peet’s Coffee, had better seating options for meeting others.

Read the rest of this entry »

July 22nd, 2014

The following is excerpted from Jesse McClain’s 2014 Master’s thesis—Ed.

Jesse McClain

Figure 1: Images from top to bottom: Top two images – Anawalt strip mining site in Southern West Virginia. Bottom image: Town of Keystone, West Virginia, near the city of Welch, WV. Photos: Jesse McClain.

SITE CONTEXT AND DOCUMENTATION

Southern West Virginia and Western North Dakota were both visited as part of the research process. These sites were chosen due to their similar connections with the energy industry and also their polar opposites in terms of economic prosperity. Welch, West Virginia is a small town which used to be called “Little New York” in the early 1900s. It was the city at the hub of the world’s first “billion dollar coalfield” and provided many of the area’s residents with a healthy and even prosperous income. Now it is deteriorating as the powerful strip-mining companies replace humans with machines and blow the tops off nearby mountains. Long-time Welch resident, Hilda Mitros, details accounts of personal and environmental violence experienced under the influence of the coal companies. She talks about gas and water explosions in and near her home as the earth becomes unstable with directional drilling and diverted water flow. Floods and sinkholes are commonplace in an area which is sacrificed for it’s fossil fuels. Hilda also reports that the decline in the economic and environmental health of the region has been accompanied by an influx of drugs and political buy-offs. She offers stories of attempts by community members to stand against the development of a major dumping site for disposal of out of state waste. The community was initially able to rally and protest this intervention but eventually, leaders were swayed through high pressure negotiation and shadowy bribery tactics. Hilda used to run a kitchen and bar and she remembers when the times were good and people prospered in a healthy community. I asked her if anything good was occuring in Welch and she said, “no, there is nothing good happening here.” A place that was once full of vitality and optimism is struggling to see a future that holds a promise of anything other than more destruction and abuse.

Read the rest of this entry »

June 30th, 2014

David Stairs

There is a concept in science, known as publication bias, that suggests editors of scientific journals prefer to publish positive test results over the results of failed, or negative tests. It’s human nature, one supposes, to prefer good news to no news, and it certainly is better for circulation. The only problem is, it makes for bad science. When a profession, take medicine for instance, is denied the knowledge that certain drugs did not perform the way their manufacturers claimed they would, doctors are less able to act in the best interests of their patients.

Read the rest of this entry »

June 10th, 2014

Victor Margolin

If you are a white-collar worker making a decent salary, chances are that your paycheck will go directly to your bank so you can access it with a check or a withdrawal slip or draw on it with a credit card or mobile phone payment. There are banks that charge for such accounts, but only usually if the customer’s balance drops below a given amount. In many banks you will get the checking account free, while in some you will even earn a modicum of interest on it.

Read the rest of this entry »

May 10th, 2014

Daniel Drennan


“Believe in stone and survive.”

Framework

From the Declaration of the Palestinian People during the first intifada in 1987:

We will no longer be a subject people. If you order us to our camps, we will roam the countryside. Dig up our soil and bury us alive in it if you will. If you direct us to work in your factories, we will confine ourselves to our homes. Herd us into concentration camps if you will. If you instruct us to buy your produce and your products, we will grow and make our own.

Read the rest of this entry »

April 19th, 2014

David Stairs

At 10:02am on Saturday, February 23, 2014 I officially became old.


X-ray of surgical plate to correct a comminuted fracture of my right distal radius

As I left my house to take my dog Asali for a walk I noted that the front steps were blocked by snow. I’d been working hard throughout an unusually harsh winter to keep them clear, but a recent thaw— it had been 48°F the previous day— had caused snow to slide off the porch roof and pile on the steps.

Read the rest of this entry »

March 28th, 2014

Victor Margolin

I once thought that the greatest obstacle to reflective thought was the endless haptic texting that occupies the mental space of so many people but now I have a new culprit, data. Devices that have dissected our bodily functions into tiny shards flood the market, enabling us to either confirm the smooth functioning of our multiple organs, energy flows, and synapse synergies or else to detect glitches that merit our attention. Never have people had such an opportunity to be so aware of their bodies and take control of even the most minute irregularities in their physical performance.

Read the rest of this entry »

March 7th, 2014

David Stairs

Looking for love? It doesn’t matter if you have specialized tastes. Not only the “fetish-friendly” or the “transgerdered” are searching, but single moms, cancer sufferers, BBWs, middle-age widowers, cheating wives, and sugar daddies, too. The internet caters for all races, ages, and economic levels, no sexual preference too kinky or niche group too small.

Read the rest of this entry »