September 21st, 2022

David Stairs

Did you ever have to “brown bag” your lunch? If so, you know about the things that can go wrong, from torn bag to sogged out paper from a leaky drink container.

When I was a kid I attended parochial school. The parish had to make economic choices about the school, one of which was that a gym was more important than a cafeteria. Consequently, we ate lunch at our desks before heading outside for mid-day recess on the playground.

Some kids pounded down their PBJs before rushing out to play. Others, like Eddie Hoey, combined the best things from each day into a Friday feast, and ditched the rest. I remember my Mom packing a nutritious lunch that usually included a sandwich, some chips, fruit, and, if I was lucky, a sweet like a cookie or fruit pie.

The high point of the lunch experience arrived on the day I got my first lunch box. Now, some will think of domed worker lunch pails with a thermos in the lid, and these were universal. But the hallmark of collectible lunch boxes were the stamped metal models branded with cartoon and television characters.

Between 1950 and 1987 the dominant lunch pail manufacturer in America was Aladdin, located in Nashville. Starting in the ’50s Aladdin began marketing, first, boxes featuring popular characters from radio and early media, like Hop-a-long Cassidy and the Lone Ranger. But as the decade extended, television characters began to appear.

My first and only lunch box was the 1956 Aladdin model pictured above, known as the “Errol Flynn” Robin Hood box, largely because the illustrated figure looks to be based upon Flynn’s famous 1938 turn as the dashing antihero at an archery tournament. Additional illustrations picture Robin’s wrestling match with Friar Tuck, as well as numerous confrontations with the Sheriff of Nottingham’s henchmen, and a couple references to Maid Marion. Both the lunch box and its thermos were profusely green, just in case you didn’t know that these events transpired in Sherwood Forest. I didn’t use my lunchbox every day; some days I walked home for lunch. But when I did “carry” there were no more leaky paper bags.

In 1959 one of my early heroes made it onto an Aladdin lunchbox. That year, Dean Fredericks debuted on TV as Steve Canyon, the Milton Caniff character that had been running as a syndicated cartoon strip since 1947. Caniff invented Canyon as a replacement for his Terry and the Pirates strip that he had drawn from 1934 but left in 1946 to spend the remaining 40 years of his life working on Steve Canyon. Caniff’s research was so thorough that Steve Canyon became the US Air Force’s mascot. The Aladdin box documents all aspects of US air power, from the Strategic Air Command, with its nuclear armed B-52s on constant alert, to the Military Air Transport wing, which is used to project American military power around the globe. All the illustrations were by Caniff, and his signature appears on both sides of the box. As an added treat, the inside of the top lid has 16 illustrations of Air Force vehicles and ordnance, a real reward for Caniff afficianados.

As the 1960s wore on, more and more pop culture characters appeared on Aladdin lunch boxes. Everyone from the Beatles to the Munsters, Maxwell Smart to Bruce Lee in the Green Hornet. The cowboy craze of the ’50s spilled over into the ’60s, with characters from the Wild Wild West making an appearance. But these were just as often counterbalanced by the spy-craze characters from The Man From U.N.C.L.E. or Bill Cosby’s I Spy. Many of these Aladdin products had overall embossed surfaces, a simple yet compelling effect creating an illusion of depth.

One of my friends races motocross. He shared his special lunch box, a custom memento of the sport. I haven’t seen any others like this, but I can imagine all sorts of possibilities for personally branded metal lunchboxes.

For those thinking that this was strictly a “boy thing” there were plenty of gentler characters who made it onto lunch boxes, like Flipper, Lassie, ET, or the Flying Nun. The Waltons were there, as were the Monkees. And who could ever forget Batman? Where the ’60s starred Rocky and Bullwinkle, the ’70s saw the introduction of Scooby Doo. The sort of lunch pail you had had a lot to do with when you grew up. My Gen X friends all remember having had a Star Wars pail, introduced in 1977, which was a little too late for me.

It would take a volume to document all of the lunch pails that were produced before metal buckets gave way to todays’ plastic lunch boxes, and, as with most things, there is an active world of high-end collectors and speculators driving the price of these once inexpensive items into the stratosphere.

Of course, lunch pails serve a universal need. I’ve written here before about Indian-style tiffins, a stacked column of separate small containers that allow a person to carry a complex array of food items, and there is also the traditional Japanese bento.

My final example comes from Kenya. This lunch box is also made of metal, but in this case the metal is recycled crown caps. Many beverages in Africa are still bottled in refillables, a manufacturing tradition we abandoned fifty years ago in a misbegotten move toward one-way containers. Consequently, crown bottle caps litter the ground in Africa and can be a hazard. Here a craftsman has wired dozens together into a nifty reclosable carryall. It may not have a picture of your favorite TV character, but by using only Krest caps, its creator has branded it in a unique way.

Whether your lunchtime companions were Robin Hood and Steve Canyon, or the Smurfs, chances are you have fond memories of how much better lunch tastes when it is contained in a cool lunch box. How could it be any other way?

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

August 21st, 2022

David Stairs


Sigmund Freud in the parallel universe that is America (Photo credit: Library of Congress/Corbis Historical Collection)

Amid all the loose talk about lost American greatness, there seem to be many people worrying about just what has gone so terribly wrong, as if last year’s withdrawal from the quagmire of Afghanistan was evidence of American weakness, and we really ought to go back to war in Ukraine. I’d like to propose that things have not so much changed as that they have just become “more American.”

There has always been a streak of disagreeableness in America, evidenced by the colonists early and consistently ugly relations with Native Americans, let alone half of the republic being developed as a slave empire. When we talk about American exceptionalism, we should leave room for an addendum about the exceptionally bad behavior we have exhibited throughout our history.

Politically we have been arguing from the outset, and not just with a family of self-indulgent Hanoverian kings. Jefferson spent the 1790s working to undermine Washington, Hamilton, and Adams, eventually succeeding in demonizing the Federalist viewpoint until that party faded away. The notion that we’ve never been more divided than we were under Trump simply is not borne out by our history. Andrew Jackson was as divisive as Trump ever thought of being, and a slave owner to boot. Libertarian attitudes about preserving the freedom to do exactly as one pleases fit neatly into a narrative of states rights, a persistent drumbeat that atomization is better than cooperation, and Republicans are still arguing with federalism two centuries later.

American obsessiveness with “freedom” and gun ownership might have made sense in the 18th century when there was still a frontier and colonists felt oppressed by an uncaring monarchy. But to transfer these values to a continent-spanning 21st century post-industrial society only lends justification to those who would abuse such “rights,” racists and violent fascists— those we fought a terrible war to overcome.

In 1901 Sigmund Freud published The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, an examination of the psychological roots of error. Chapter 5 of this volume of Freud’s work gives us the famous explanation of misstatements, or “Freudian slips.” Writing as a Victorian, Freud considered that many common psychological pathologies stemmed from social repression, especially of a sexual nature. But the psychopathology of American life presents a more complex, and deep-rooted series of challenges.

Sex is not America’s original sin, nor is racism. Violence is. The American national bloodsport, football, would seem an obvious result of this perversion. But an American fascination with all things bent goes far beyond crack-back blocks. Criminals and sociopaths are the stock-in-trade of American entertainment, from the real-life examples of Billy the Kid and Whitey Bulger to serial killers like Ted Bundy and Charles Manson. From out of this deep well our literature is rife with similar characters: Hannibal Lecter, Baron Harkkonen, the antiheroes of Cormac McCarthy and Vince Gilligan. Popular TV series, like Yellowstone or Ozark, celebrate assassination and murder as an everyday commonplace at a level that makes “Who Shot JR?” seem positively tea time.

America has always had an affinity for warped celebrity, and throughout its history has used current technology to elevate the unusual. Mountebanks, like P.T. Barnum, raised media spin to a middlebrow art. Today, it is internet influencers who sling slop in the name of self- and product promotion. YouTube sleuthing the death of Gabby Petito feels less altruistic than capital-intensive when one drops ad revenue from followers onto the balance. Our widespread obsession with luxury, as depicted in much reality TV, employs collective voyeurism in pursuit of vicarious satisfaction. From the foibles of the Royal Family to the hissy fits of the Real Housewives, an average person can only peep with envy.

Some of our celebrities take the form of outrageous scammers like Bernie Madoff, or Elizabeth Holmes. Others are more extreme products of the entertainment industrial complex, people like Carol Baskin and Joe Exotic, or the self-styled German heiress Anna Sorokin. Given their national soapbox, these saponaceous shills sell plenty of suds, washing or brewed. The partnership between shamelessness and hucksterism is deep-rooted in the American character, and has evolved from the evangelical pulpit and patent medicine of yesteryear to today’s style-over-substance Superbowl commercials.

Long before Hollywood was founded, Americans traded in cult of personality fables. An early practitioner was David Crockett, the frontiersman and former congressman who threw in his lot with the rabble who holed up in the Alamo wanting to defend the formation of a slave republic. The silver screen, and later the tube merely extended the typology, our obsession with coonskin caps. We are ever quick to idolize such people, and woefully slow to write the truth about our history.

Americans are also inveterate risk-takers. From oil wildcatting to nationwide casino gambling, subprime borrowing to cryptocurrency farming, as a people Americans have always ached for get-rich-quick schemes. Our captains of industry, the Rockefellers and Carnegies, from Mellon to Musk, have been obsessed with extraction and consolidation, both of natural resources and information. Our inability to collaborate in a coherent way on socially important issues, like climate change or gun violence or Covid, is a symptom of this misguided individualism.

Materialism is bred in American bones. Land speculation is what fueled settlement, as well as fomented conflict with native peoples. The “Great American Pipedream,” whether a log cabin in the forest, or an antebellum plantation manor in the Old South predates and underpins both the 1940s Levittowns and today’s MacMansion gated communities.

Speed and convenience replaced simple satisfaction in the mid-19th century. Time management in our industry paralleled an obsession with timeliness in everyday life brought on by the regulation of the railroads. From a chicken in every pot through to Henry Ford’s dream of putting a Model T in every driveway, so long as it was black, we swallowed the dream of universal affluence, especially for those who could steal it. Vehicle ownership today is not so heavy a burden as home ownership, and device possession is even less onerous. So we arrive at the present state of collective psychosis, where young Americans are glued to their gadgets 24/7, suffering from FOMO, an addiction Freud would have had a field day with.

Our corporations grow feeble on stock buy-backs as CEOs obsess over increasing share price because their bloated bonuses depend upon such malfeasance. The accrual of extreme wealth widens income disparity even as our tendency to greenwash the environmental crisis sets the stage for precarities soon to come. A politicized Supreme Court enables Big Coal to castrate regulation of emissions even before such regulations are in place. What once passed for American Optimism can now only be labeled “American Obliviousness.”

That we will be able to come to our senses and join in a collective effort to reverse the looming disaster seems foredoomed. American Exceptionalism argues against responsibility. The clouds forming on the horizon are an accumulation of current and past sins— violence to our lifeworld. They are the looming compilation of 500ppm of atmospheric CO2— a future 5°F temperature increase— and the inevitable endgame of a people’s blind belief in progress at all costs, our collective in-born slip-of-the-tongue-of-the-mind.

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

July 19th, 2022

David Stairs

Title wall of the exhibition 5°F

Gordon Lightfoot had a song on Summer Side of Life entitled “10 Degrees and Getting Colder.” That record is now over 50 years old, and things have changed dramatically since it was released. Primarily, everything on Earth is getting much warmer, even winter.

In April 2022 my students held an exhibition of work that reflected the current status of our climate. Entitled 5°F, it was meant to remind viewers of the potential worst-case scenario of our current climate trajectory. Bill McKibben founded 350.org in 2008 in hopes we might be able to arrest or return to a lower state of atmospheric CO2. We blew through 400ppm in 2013 and by 2020 were at 412ppm.

Our research project started with a visit to a site on the west edge of campus in September 2021. There is a sign there commemorating the planting of trees in honor of Earth Day 1990. Afterward I asked a biology colleague to speak to my students about pending environmental disaster, which was when they collectively first realized the extent of the threat. They’d heard about tropical storms and wildfires, but acidification of the oceans? Yikes! Loss of the planetary wheat and rice crops? Holy shit Batman! So they commenced a semester long research of everything they could find (there is a lot) and, in January started to design an exhibition.


A fisher, a weasel-like species now extinct in Michigan’s Lower Peninsula

Naming and branding is always a challenge when developing a complex project with a group of twenty students, and this year was no different than previous years. It took nearly three weeks to brainstorm a name but, once decided, smaller groups began to bang out visualizations. Taylor Diamond decided to make a “melting machine” to demonstrate how melting ice affects sea levels. A 4-gallon bucket of ice drained as it melted into a series of vertical tubes that cascaded into one another, metaphorically demonstrating oceanic rise based upon water changing phase.


A Melting machine demonstrated the cascading effect of global warming

An adjacent project, this one by by Talon McGraw, carried facts about wildfires burned into tree sections mounted on the wall, especially pertinent given what’s happening in the world, while a third installation by Bihui Nong was a demonstration of the adverse health effects of urban smog.


A reminder that temperature change effects forests

One group decided to focus on waste. Lindsey Steffey assembled a cow’s head from throw away fast food packaging. Another project took second hand Tees and published facts about the damaging effects of fast fashion on them.


Cow head made from fast food packaging

Rebecca Mueller and Lindsey Steffey captured visitor’s imaginations with an interactive wall of hinged panels representing 21 corporations. Viewers could flip the panels open to see whether the companies were green, or just “greenwashing.”


Corporate greenwashing needs to be called out

As viewers snaked through the maze-like exhibition, they passed taxidermied samples from the Central Michigan University Natural History Museum of extinct or endangered Michigan species, eventually arriving at a space called “No Place Like Home.” Here viewers could sit surrounded by small trees and a plant wall, hear bird sounds, and watch a soothing video mix of young children and outdoor scenes. This calming effect was appreciated by all, but did not prepare them for what was to come.


Abby Pappas and Anna Bredin created a plant wall in the calming No Place Like Home area of the show.

The exhibition’s culmination was a space called the Doom Room. This area was littered with trash, its walls covered with spray-painted pollution statistics. One side of the room carried a projection of a Doomsday Clock counting down on a 30-minute loop, while the opposite wall was a mirror-covered reflection of the viewer surrounded by the chaotic hell of a dystopic future. Some children visiting the show were heard to ask to return to No Place Like Home because the Doom Room was “too scary.”


Every 30 minutes the DoomsDay clock counted down to disaster

One of the things I tasked students with was to try and see if they could create a carbon offset for their activity, in other words, to promote planting. Rachael Goniea supplied viewers with a small cup, seeds, and potting soil.


Visitors were encouraged to take a small biodegradable cup with some seeds and soil to make their own start.

Symantha Taylor was working at Tractor Supply Co. and she first got a couple trees donated from each of the four TSC stores in a 50-mile radius. Then she tapped TSC corporate for a $500 grant. Finally, she purchased everything, over $900 of nursery stock in the form of 30 trees, with her employee discount. We had been working with University landscaping staff to accept a donation of these trees, all on their approved list of best acclimated species for our latitude.

On Earth Day, April 22, 2022, we gathered in a nursery field tilled by the university in preparation and planted our small “forest.” As the trees mature, they will be transplanted to various locations around campus.


Stephanie Chipman and Jeremy Steele in the Doom Room. 9&10 News’ Michigan This Morning crew interviewed eleven students throughout the morning of April 5th, 2022

As with previous research capstones, the main deliverable was the exhibition at the Central Michigan University Art Gallery, supplemented by live television broadcasts from the site of the show. But this year there is not only the annual Process Book documenting the project, but a field full of small trees serving as a living reminder that design can be so much more than mere images in an online portfolio.

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

June 21st, 2022

David Stairs


The only guns this cowboy ever owned

What could be more dimwitted, un-insightful, or self-serving than a strict interpretation of the Second Amendment?

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May 25th, 2022

David Stairs


Load your Potato Guns boys ’n girls!

Yogi Berra once said, “It’s like déjà vu all over again.”

Back in the days when Trump was the undisputed Twitter Queen, I never thought we’d be free of his unhinged rantings. It was a surprising relief when he was finally dethroned. But, as in a beehive, when one queen dies another arises in her place, and it didn’t take long for a replacement to come along. Elon Musk was determined to out do Trump. He would not only take over as Queen of Tweets, he would also take financial control of the platform.

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April 20th, 2022

David Stairs


Courtesy of Lucien Stairs

You don’t have to look very far these days to see designers talking about the brave new world of Design AI. Helen Armstrong is out stumping her AI monograph, Big Data, Big Design. Mariana Amatullo is referencing it in the summer 2019 issue of Dialectic. And designers everywhere have become addicted to the Cloud, those banks of energy gulping servers housed in over-cooled desert complexes by Alphabet and Amazon. But what does AI really mean to the future of design?

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March 22nd, 2022

David Stairs

There are two treats I remember from childhood, and they were both manufactured by Sunshine Bakers: Cheez-Its, and Hydrox. Cheez-Its are still around in many updated variations, now a Kellogg’s brand. Hydrox dropped from sight for awhile, the result of several changes of ownership, only to reemerge in 2015.

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February 21st, 2022

David Stairs

Thomas Carlyle called economics the “dismal science” in response to Malthus’s writings about exponential population growth. Carlyle was a Victorian and did not live in an era dominated by design. It would’ve been interesting to see what he would have made of our times. Frantic? Overwrought? Or maybe just predictable?

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January 21st, 2022

David Stairs


Quannah Chasinghorse by Nathaniel Goldberg; Emily Ratajkowski from Instagram

A recent article in Elle Magazine online by Terese Marie Mailhot (Photographed by Nathaniel Goldberg and Styled By Alex White) introduces us to Quannah Chasinghorse, a nineteen-year-old native American runway model of Hän Gwich’in and Sicangu Oglala Lakota descent. (Corset, $1,295, pants, $2,295, Christopher John Rogers. Earrings, necklace, bracelets, 2021 Tiffany Blue Book Collection.)

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December 20th, 2021

David Stairs


The only good use I’ve ever found for disposable diapers, a 1976 poster. (Note the pins I added. Talk about double-entendre!)

I know I’m supposed to say that prize-winning financially successful ideas are examples of great design, and I wish it was always true but……. let’s get real. In the commercial world we’ve created, there are too many cases that contradict optimism. Take diapers, for instance.

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November 20th, 2021

David Stairs


Dick Clark at the Moulin Rouge by David Stairs

In a land governed by capital, it comes as no surprise that so much value is attached to celebrity. One of the first great modern personalities, Oscar Wilde, said, “Ambition is the last refuge of the failure.” Thus, it would seem the cult of celebrity sets us all up to fail, encouraging us to emulate the false god popularity.

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October 20th, 2021

David Stairs

Every three years I am tasked with guiding a group of senior design students through their capstone year. Once upon a time it was enough to mount a student’s portfolio for public exhibition, and this process can still be seen at end-of-year design exhibitions across the country. Design being a supposedly “problem solving” discipline, students are often coached to take on a design problem to research and develop or expand upon. Such projects address topics large and small, ranging from homeless shelters to user experience apps, and everything in between.

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September 18th, 2021

David Stairs

As the AIGA gears up for its annual conference, I find myself pondering. In a year of magical thinking, like everyone else the AIGA has reinvented its conference schedule for online delivery. If this is just a matter of the new normal, obviously this cannot be an issue. What, then, makes the organization so damned annoying? Actually, I’ve been struggling to figure this out for years.

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August 21st, 2021

David Stairs

There are a lot of people criticizing techno-capitalism these days, those so-called social pariahs demonstrating for economic “justice” and “equity.” But surely, these things are not givens in a free enterprise economy. They have generally needed the assistance of government regulation. In a system influenced by corporate lobbyists and deluded by the notion of limitless growth, even environmental degradation is not enough to staunch the lust for short-term gain. In fact, it may even accelerate it.

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July 25th, 2021

David Stairs

While China installs a nationwide video surveillance system, people in the West fret about the potential damage to their privacy by CTV cameras. But, apart from high profile failures, like Toronto’s “smart city” project, we’ve actually been normalizing surveillance for decades. Just consider reality television.

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June 25th, 2021

David Stairs

UPDATE:

As of July 23rd, 2021, following Anthony Fauci’s recent congressional testimony, this story is now being reported by the BBC.


A double arginine codon inserted at the S1/S2 furan cleavage site of the SARS CoV-2 virus’s genome

It was once the best of times……. except now we are coming to know the truth about how it became the worst of times……. and it begins with human folly compounded by deceit that results in a catastrophe.

Donald Trump was widely panned for claiming that Covid 19 was a Chinese invention, the “Kung Flu” as he often referred to it. The liberal press painted this as the worst sort of conspiracy theory, the China-bashing an embattled candidate for reelection might peddle to convince his base he was tough on foreign affairs. Only it turns out he was right, even if for the wrong reasons.

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May 26th, 2021

David Stairs

When Thomas McNeill was made pastor of St. Margaret’s parish in 1948, he inherited little more than a twenty-year-old mission church in a growing suburb north of Syracuse, New York. McNeill had been a Navy chaplain in the Pacific during the war, but his dream was to expand Catholic education, and he would devote the best years of his life to the work.

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April 24th, 2021

David Stairs

Another day, another mass shooting. We’re led to believe by television that Mayhem is a guy in a suit, played by actor Dean Winters, who causes mass upheaval wherever he goes. If only it were that simple.


Glock semi-automatic pistol designed by Gaston Glock

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March 15th, 2021

David Stairs


Tom Tierney’s Rita Hayworth paper doll published by Dover

As I sit by my Thermopane picture window reflecting on the wintry scene outdoors, I am distracted by the arrival of a mated pair of songbirds. A male cardinal hops onto my bird-feeder while his subtle mate shelters in a nearby bush.

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February 11th, 2021

David Stairs


Deep fake of the Queen’s Christmas address; courtesy Channel 4

A man walks into a pizza parlor in Washington, D.C. armed with an automatic rifle determined to free children he believes are victims of a peadophilic sex trafficking “deep state.” People interviewed at a Stop the Steal rally in Atlanta tell interviewers a commission is needed to investigate the Democrat’s efforts to corrupt a widely certified election. A man in Nashville (not Robert Altman’s version) destroys a city block blowing himself up at the same time in protest of AT&T’s roll out of 5G wifi service. In another era one might be tempted to agree that “the time is out of joint,” except this bizarro world is our everyday reality.

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January 9th, 2021

David Stairs

Steve Zdep is dead, that much is certain. He passed away on November 6th, 2020 from causes not revealed in his obituary.


The author in more innocent times

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December 9th, 2020

David Stairs

With states reporting record numbers of infections, there is no doubt that this Christmas season will be one many will find hard to forget. The malls and retail centers we so precipitously abandoned way back in March do not have the same attraction of earlier years. Since Covid is THE story of 2020, even overshadowing the presidential election, we’ve scrounged up a few holiday suggestions for that extra special Christmas 2020 memento of the years’ most familiar meme.


A “Clovid” orange

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November 2nd, 2020

October 26th, 2020

David Stairs

Max is over, thank God.

And by Max I mean Adobe Max, that brightshiny overripe bells-and-whistles software tradeshow masquerading as an allconsuming excuse to be pretentiously jejeune.

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August 21st, 2020

David Stairs


A wild back yard

Except for a couple of thunderstorms, it hasn’t rained much in central Michigan this summer. It has been quite hot, and as usual, very humid. After aggressively mowing the grass in late May and June, it’s growth abates and it mostly browns off. The only way to keep grass green is by watering it, and in a world of diminishing clean fresh water, there has to be a better use for it than golf green lawn grass.

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