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?

We already have programs that, like Microsoft Outlook, supposedly anticipate our every move. Except Outlook merely stumbles, creates spacing errors and jettisons one onto other screens when it guesses wrong, which seems to be about 30% of the time. But don’t worry! AI is self-correcting! Which means that after it messes your work up for a couple years, maybe it will outsource your job.

The dumbing down of design has been underway for several years now. We first saw it with the introduction of CSS, which was supposed to streamline web design, and make sites more efficient. Publishers use CMS algorithms to “manage content.” Often this means bland, unreadable typesetting of 55 pica lines with uninspired titling and captioning, formatted to be quick and dirty. It is especially disheartening when design publishers, like Bloomsbury, resort to such methods.

The general use of AI, in government, business, or the military, is meant to crush reams of data to come up with optimized bureaucracy, purchasing, or logistics. The purpose when applied to design seems to be to improve the corporate bottom line by reducing the number of mistake-prone humans in the workplace. If you think a supercomputer or server bank sorting through the history of logos and marques to meet a quick deadline turnaround sounds like something out of Philip K. Dick, please note that machine-generated logo design is already here.

I’m not trying to romanticize creativity. The human potential movement has already accomplished that by telling every school kid that she/he is a winner. While I agree that most humans who are born healthy probably have the same quantum of inherent creativity, the long and winding road to realizing that potential is fraught with social roadblocks, economic setbacks, and character-building challenges that don’t have much to do with data sets— unless you define life experience as a data set.

A quick survey of internet sites relating to intelligent design and augmented reality yields a variety of material, from engineering white papers to sponsored sites. On one such site, the MIT Technological Review, Mike Haley of Autodesk argues for a “symbiotic relationship” between humans and computers in an effort to design more sustainable buildings. The MIT xPRO program in collaboration with Emeritus sells an 8-week course for tech professionals to “explore various design processes involved in AI-based products.” Both of these initiatives are examples of heavy academic/industry collaboration.

Lulu and other CMS publishing platforms, like Squarespace, Readymag, or The Grid offer templates, pattern libraries, and generators that will select the “best” layout. Some algorithms attempt “to observe how the great designers work.” Guardian Headliner will “highlight eyes in a photo to emphasize emotion” while Vincent “transforms rough sketches into a painting from Van Gogh.” There does not seem to be much concern about originality in any of this. In fact, the one complaint I read among several articles and sites was how the leveling power of AI simply made everything look the same.


Master of Space Gravity by David Stairs after an original idea by Chris Stairs

Looking the same may be the goal of autocrats and students. Hitler and Stalin come to mind in the autocrat category. Their method of brokering uniformity was to eliminate all rival ideas. As for students, many of mine are enamored of using design presentation templates to demonstrate finished concepts to clients. Their work definitely looks spiffy as a result, but also unnaturally polished in a way many of them would be otherwise incapable of, yet similar to everyone else utilizing such templates.

The examples of AI wins by AlphaGo over Lee Sedol in Go, or Watson over Ken Jennings in Jeopardy, are so much less impressive when one realizes that it required teams of programmers and enormous computing power enlisting the combined resources of all known variations and facts just to beat puny inefficient individual humans, a rather heavy-handed victory of metrics over intuition.

I’ve already complained about the tribulations of anticipatory design in Microsoft Outlook. The greater problem is that people are being handed another bait-and-switch— convenience for data. Anticipatory design requires personal information, reams of it. But is convenience valuable enough to cede irretrievable personal information to large corporations, especially in light of what we have seen from the likes of Facebook and Google?

Finally, there are many instances of what has come to be known as Machine Co-Creativity, and some of the algorithms being used to promote it. Microsoft has one called Animation Autocomplete, which completes illustrations. Another example available in more than one online presentation is the drone body designed by an intuitive generative algorithm. The specifications call for a drone frame structure light enough to carry a certain payload using four propellers and their battery pack. The program then filters through hundreds of forms, adding and stripping away material until it arrives at an optimal shape, which happens to look a lot like the skeleton of a flying squirrel.

This last example seems self-prophesying, sort of like saying Nature knows best, or slow and steady wins the race. Evolution has worked well on Earth for a few billion years using this very method, but there’s nothing slow or steady about an AI algorithm, which is the potential problem. For the better part of a century we have been worried about mechanical men coming to take away our freedom. And since movies like Colossus: The Forbin Project in 1970, followed by Skynet in the Terminator series, and The Matrix, it’s been programming that has given us the heebie-jeebies, as well it should.

In Against Creativity Oli Mould critiques efforts by corporations and municipalities to co-opt creativity for their own benefit. About AI he writes, “…rather than continuing to build complex autonomous systems that draw humans ever deeper into relationships with code, why not create systems with an ‘exit strategy’ in place? In other words, we need to make sure that these technological augmentations to our lives are easily removed. We need to make sure we can detach ourselves from them as easily as we can plug ourselves in.”

The acknowledged truth that ethics is simply too slow to keep up with technology does not leave us room for error. Given the many reasons to be wary, those rushing to jump on the design AI bandwagon are either being callow or incompletely honest when they say it is for the betterment of humanity, unless, of course one is talking about the millions of clones that can be cranked out by random face generators. I, for one, don’t consider deep fakes part of the human family.

We’ll have to leave that call up to The Master of Space Gravity.

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

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.

The Loose-Wiles Biscuit Company was founded in 1902 by Joseph Loose, who left the Board of Directors of Nabisco to start his own company in Kansas City along with his brother Jacob and John H. Wiles. They named their company Sunshine, and for nearly 90 years manufactured a number or original products, including Vienna Fingers and Hydrox, the original chocolate sandwich cream cookie.

Hydrox, a composite name of the elements hydrogen and oxygen meant to convey purity, was introduced in 1908, predating Oreos, which Nabisco launched in 1912. This copycatting cut both ways. Sunshine and Nabisco went head-to-head for many years. To counter Nabisco’s Uneeda biscuits, Sunshine made Takhoma. Where Sunshine made Animal Crackers, Nabisco produced Barnum’s Animals.

Nabisco began to pull ahead after Sunshine went through a series of takeovers beginning in 1966 and ending in 1996 when it finally merged with Keebler. Keebler itself was absorbed by Kellogg’s in 2001. Kellogg’s discontinued Hydrox in 2003 but, under intense pressure from Hydrox fans, reintroduced the cookie in 2008 for its 100th anniversary, only to drop the brand again soon after.

Over the years Oreos eventually surpassed Hydrox in popularity, largely due to marketing, despite being less chocolatey, less crispy in milk, and having a much blander cream filling. In 2014 Leaf Brands registered the abandoned Hydrox trademark and began manufacturing an updated recipe that does not include any trans fats or high fructose corn syrup. The original logo and familiar sunny cookie pattern are back and, in my opinion, even the biscuit design is superior to Oreo’s Nabisco logo, itself a derivation of Nicolas Jensen’s 16th century printers marque.

Oreo has been a brand of Mondelez International since 2012. For my money, all the extra “Double Stuff” in the world cannot make up for Hydrox’s superior crispness, sweetness, and flavor. If you grew up in a Hydrox-free world you might not believe me if you haven’t tried them, but friends, you have been living a deprived existence. (My young son reminds me that he grew up eating Newman-Os, the “all-for-charity” version of chocolate creme sandwich cookies. He gave Hydrox two thumbs up.)

Hydrox vs Oreos? No contest! Hydrox wins every time, hands down!

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

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?

When perusing design writing these days, it seems to me to fall into two main categories: grim, and grimmer. The first category is the commercial, or trade design press. This includes the big coffee table publishers, like Phaidon, Taschen, and Rizzoli, that like to sell 500-1000 versions books (you know, Chair: 500 Designs That Matter, or Patented: 1000 Design Patents, etc.), as well as mainstream design periodical and blog writers (FastCo, Wired, etc.). The second category is the academic design press, publishers like MIT, Bloomsbury, or Princeton Architectural, together with academic journals like Design Issues, or Dialectic. The former of these categories is out to make money plain and simple, so their titles tend toward the popular and the pretty. The latter, with fetching article titles like “Examining the Influence of Positionality on the Facilitation of Design Processes,” is full of articles with lots of footnotes and cross-disciplinary concepts, and caters to academics needing to publish for tenure hence, is a bit more turgid.

In 2020, I had the honor to be included in the Bloomsbury anthology, Ethics in Design and Communication, edited by Laura Sherling and Andrew De Rosa. My point of view on the environment has only darkened with the passage of years. Using the writings of anarcho-environmentalist philosopher John Zerzan as a jumping off point, “Designing Ourselves to Death” is my dystopic analysis of where we now find ourselves, and how design helped get us here.

I’m primarily skeptical of the way the design establishment, and design writing in particular, has been willing to give design and technology a pass when it comes to environmental degradation. We talk about design’s role in technological innovation, but the cupidity of the profession when it comes to admitting the limits of AI, or design’s complicity in advancing civilization through techno-capitalism has always struck me as hypocritical, if not suicidal.

The reasons why design, which could be convention-breaking, instead breaks conservative are obvious, if not frequently discussed: design’s complicity with capital. Enter Ruben Pater, self-styled designer-journalist. Since 2016 Pater has made a mini-career writing about design’s absorption by capitalism, first in The Politics of Design, and more recently in CAPS LOCK. In the latter Pater begins his discussion with an examination of the origins of our market system, and how artists have been involved in it, whether it be in the sculpting of coinage, or the design of currency and stock certificates.

He then launches a 500-page assault on capitalism, the economic movement outlined by Adam Smith, Malthus’s 18th century contemporary, amply illustrating it with stock imagery and familiar examples. The books’ arrival has caused a mild tsunami among designers. This would be less funny if we we’re talking about anything other than a profession that has studiously avoided a substantive critique of capitalism until now, thereby rewarding Pater’s efforts with bloated praise.

CAPS LOCK has been assiduously researched, with over 150 entries in its biblio, and one wishes it had been as ably proofread. Editing complaints aside, it rises to its best level in its discussion of precarity as it relates to the information economy, providing six examples of design practitioners attempting to shift the paradigm. This may seem a bit much for a book that purports to abridge not only the history of capitalism, but the history of advertising and of work in general. And yet, not achieving all one’s goals when one aims high is not the worst failing. Pater is attempting to find alternatives to commercialization and finds them in the community engagement of studios like Brave New Alps.

CAPS LOCK is a bit of a slog, but not nearly as dreary as Alistair Faud-Luke’s design activism, which is too bad for a much needed look at sustainability. Although Faud-Luke provides three dozen sample activist organizations in his appendices, half of them are no longer in existence. This may be because the book was published in 2009, not 2021 like Pater’s, and things tend to change rather quickly in the world of social design. design activism is competently designed however, which is not always a major consideration of such works, although Faud-Luke’s tendency to load it up with design diagrams is far from an aid to smooth reading. One is almost forced to “regard” it rather than read it.

design activism, like CAPS LOCK, is hampered by its earnestness, a quality which infects much design writing today. The trouble, of course, is that nothing is more tedious than proseyltism, unless it is the tiresome kludge of trying to balance keeping up with today’s trends against nostalgia-farming the past, as AIGA’s Eye on Design is fond of doing. I mean, capitalism is the refuge of dictators and crooks: Extraction obsessed creeps like Jair Bolsonaro or stock buy-back corporate raiders like Jack Welch. What’s so hard to just straight-on critique it?

Which returns me to my original hypothesis on design writing: careful, industry and tenure groping, compiling research from other disciplines, for the most part boring as hell. Design publishing: unoriginal, wary of change, and inclined toward prettifying convention, no matter how much they allude to “new tech.” So that even those writers who are attempting to rock the boat, like Pater and Faud-Luke, over-anthologize without overachieving. It’s a sad state for a profession that considers itself both “visionary” and “creative.”

But then, self-congratulation is a common bias among professionals, one they’d be better off leaving at the backdoor with their wet soggy galoshes, and other intellectual pretensions.

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

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.)

Ms. Chasinghorse, the first Indigenous woman to walk for Chanel, was a multi-tatooed sensation in Paris as much for her progressive politics as her natural beauty. Along with her Mother, Jody Potts-Joseph, Chasinghorse works as a land protector for the Arctic National wildlife Refuge in Alaska. Her advocacy work for indigenous land reclamation and preservation makes her seem like a warrior while working for Chloé, Savage x Fenty, Gabriela Hearst, and Prabal Gurung during Fashion Week. (Blazer, $3,445, bustier, $1,195, Dolce & Gabbana. Tiara, earrings, necklace, Dolce & Gabbana Alta Gioielleria.)

Concurrently, in her 2021 collection of essays entitled My Body, Emily Ratajkowski outlines the reality of young girls being groomed for the fashion industrial complex in no uncertain terms. Ratajkowski signed her first contract with the Ford Agency at thirteen, the gruelling routine, constant travel, and rampant sexism she encountered seemingly offset by the easy money she was making. This eventually led her to drop out of college and commit to full-time modelling.

Ratajkowski’s rise to fame after her appearance in Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines music video in 2012 would seem to be the stuff dreams are made of were it not for Emily’s repeated experience of rape, molestation, and exploitation at the hands of the men she posed for and worked with. In fact, the recounting of her ten year plunge into the hedonism swirling around top models reads more like a horror story than a dream come true. That she finally found love leading to motherhood with her husband, producer Sebastian Bear-McClard, seems like divine justice at the end of far too many traumas.

Quannah Chasinghorse, like Ratajkowski, is a middle-class woman committed as much to her advocacy as to modelling. She came to social consciousness a little earlier maybe, but we won’t quibble about degrees of seriousness. The trouble lies less with the individual than with the fashion industry. As a current modelling sensation, a native American woman gives legitimacy to a system that exploits people, specifically young women, to sell expensive stuff to those who have more money than sense. Using beautiful young women of color to hawk couture in a world crying out for environmental and social justice is offensive. The cruel hypocrisy of the photo captions hovering beneath photos of a First Nations model, here reproduced verbatim in bold, is a clear indication of how low the industry is willing to go to shill high end baubles. (Shirt, $970, jeans, $1,378, Alexandre Vauthier. Earrings, necklace, Harry Winston. Rings, from $8,340, Messika Paris.)

Female bodies are not the only ones chewed up by our systems of entertainment. Young male athletes suffer in their own way for being admitted to the fraternity of professional sports. But so long as people justify the influence of fashion through the captivity of young female bodies, we won’t need to cite Jeffrey Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell as the only perpetrators of exploitation. Emily Ratajkowski understood that her body gave her a certain power over men until she finally realized that those profiting from using her body, primarily men, were laughing all the way to the bank. One can only hope Quannah Chasinghorse will soon cross this threshold of recognition.

The fashion industry is really just another sad example of a serious power imbalance, readily available in the pages of both My Body and Elle online. You can afford to skip the latter, but get your hands on a copy of the former and prepare to be shocked. Then do everything in your power to resist being part of the scam.

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

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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July 3rd, 2020

David Stairs

America has finally caught mask fever, fifteen years later than Asian people. There are still many who refuse to “suit up” including Covid deniers, those suffering from claustrophobia, and some who claim medical excuses. But the possible reasons for not wearing a mask are narrowing, with major airlines rejecting travelers who renege.

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June 13th, 2020

David Stairs

I thought I was speaking truth, but now I’m not sure that it wasn’t simply “my truth” rather than something absolute. Maybe absolute truth doesn’t exist, no matter how much we’d like to believe in it. But, if this is the case, then we’re really doomed.

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May 14th, 2020

David Stairs

Courtesy Wikipedia

America’s got troubles. I don’t mean the song lyric kind, but, you know, serious troubles. And they’re not the soft purring type you might find on a now infamous classic sci-fi show. Those are tribbles, the sort that pundits and wags like to compare to Donald Trump’s hair.

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April 19th, 2020

David Stairs

Are you just about sick and tired of seeing pictures of viruses?


Courtesy NIH

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March 31st, 2020

David Stairs


A sign of our times

There are interesting new ways to mark the passage of time. I generally take account each week when I venture out of my home to grocery shop.

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