Evolution and Intelligence

Watching the History Channel this evening, looking at the evolution of teeth.

Molars, incisors, canines.

It is hard to believe that everyone died (naturally deselected) who did not have just the right teeth.

But intelligent selection (the mates attraction) could have been attracted to the right teeth before the "wrong teeth" became extinct.

It always bugged me how evolution makes complete sense, but that the absence of in-between species made little sense. Sure, the giraffe grew a long neck because the short neck giraffes couldn't reach... and the short neck giraffes starved...?

But antelopes with short necks lived?

But if you introduce intelligence, and I think other species have it, then you get a mate-influenced species evolution.

Intelligent design proponents could, perhaps, reason that God gave divine inspiration to the mates, and that is the combination necessary for intelligent design and evolution... Why would God leave creation to unpredictable evolution? The same as he/she leaves other wrong choices for us to make, I guess.

This could be an interesting way to leave "intelligent design" advocates a place in the science class. If God speaks to creatures and influences their choice in mates, that would be intelligent design (if the creatures listen). At least I haven't read it before. If a higher power influences the female's intelligent choice, then he/she is influencing evolution.

I've always believed God has an infinite timetable, and that time is relative. Earth history may be a split second on another relative timetable. Rocks may appear fluids on God's timetable. Our entire history of evolution may have taken place in a few seconds of God Time (or seven days).

It makes what we do seem less important in a way, but what we are preserving is our ability to make righteous choices. Preserving the planet for future children is a pretty good directive. If my mate finds that directive attractive, and my children inherit it... Whoops, time to go to work.

Bad Neighborhood: Guiyu

Several of my posts this year have defended small businesspeople in Asia, South America, and Africa, entrepreneurs who import used goods for repair and reuse, or who recycle things in respectable ways.

But to give BAN and Greenpeace their due, the best of intentions have potential for problems. The world is improving at a faster pace than it was before BAN raised money with pictures of children on scrap piles. Sure, even mothers milk can go sour, but that is a waste in more than one sense of the word, and as good as recycling is, we should be about wasting less and doing better. The current export debate is like a debate on distributing clean needles to addicts, or legalized prostitution, our differences are on the best way to reform ugly practices... If there were no "unfair" practices, the concept of "Fair Trade" of used electronics would make no sense. If we do too good a job defending clean needles, we can miss the fundamentals. Neither the Taliban or Mao tolerated clean needles, and their countries produced and consumed less heroin after a few well-timed beheadings.

If I am going to be a "crane amongst the chickens" (a Chinese expression for the white bird with the longest neck when the farmer comes with his axe), it better be a far, far better thing I do than I have ever done. The Dickensian parallels between the tales of Middlebury and Guiyu could fill a novel.

When I visited China for the first time in late 2002, I visited sites like the ones in this Toxic Villages video (just found it on "Current.com") , where I was repelled by the smell of burning wire, but focused on how much ingenuity went into the reuse (most of the economics), and was horrified by government efforts to arrest people for 'gray market' refurbishment. Since I also visited the "Big Secret Factories" which do fantastic jobs of recycling good monitors, I kind of saw these villages as a byproduct of legitimate recycling. And as a former Peace Corps teacher, I just liked the story of Chinese repairpeople becoming billionaires (two of the wealthiest Chinese are a former tractor refurbisher and bicycle repairman).

However, I also got an uneasy feeling... Even if MY container is mostly good stuff, how do I follow it through a place like this? Even if I saw wire stripped by hand, I could smell burned wire from somewhere over the fence. It was like ordering a 'virgin bloody mary' in a titty bar. If my wife came in I'd have an alibi but it would not look good. This led us to clean our loads up to go directly to factories, bypassing these middleman operations.

Chinese businesspeople I know have tried to scale up clean operations, some of which look cleaner than my operation in Vermont. It seems easier to make China factories clean than to make USA factories inexpensive and reuse-oriented.

But the problem, as seen in the video, is getting your stuff mixed up with a dirty economy. We send no CRTs to China at all any more, because the chain of custody is too blurry, even if the shipments to Malaysia are much more expensive. And we don't send CPUs or printed circuit boards there, which could wind up boiled in a nasty, polluting, aqua regia process.

We do sell plastic and metal scrap, including keyboards and laser printers, on the open market, and I know from end-market follow-up that those go to China. I am trying to get those to factories I have photos of, but the economics of lower standards may cause me to give up on those after completing the current purchase order. We shipped the material to ElectroniCycle for years, and to Colt in 2007, but keyboards and printers don't shred well.

Here's a fair description (from Tarzan, a yahoo blog which also has a link to the Current.com video). He refers to municipal electronics recycling in China, but the same dynamic exists for commercial scale copper wire.

Efforts to recycle e-waste safely in China have struggled. Few people bring in waste, because the illegal operators pay more.

"We're not even breaking even," said Gao Jian, marketing director of New World Solid Waste in the northeastern city of Qingdao. "These guys pay more because they don't need expensive equipment, but their methods are really dangerous."

The city of Shanghai opened a dedicated e-waste handling center last year, but most residents and companies prefer the "guerrilla" junkers who ride through neighborhoods on flatbed tricycles ringing bells to attract customers, said Yu Jinbiao of the Shanghai Electronic Products Repair Service Association, a government-backed industry federation.

"Those guerrillas are convenient and offer a good price," Yu said, "so there is a big market for them."

On a commercial scale, if you send a containerload of wire to be dealt with at a fine factory, it's difficult not to imagine the broker in Hong Kong diverting it somewhere else, either for profit or because a customs official is having a bad day. The Jiangxi copper smelter is the most modern in the entire world. But the odds of my copper wire winding its way through the streets of Guiyu and coming out at the smelter are pretty low.

Here are some step-by-step instructions for the 'slippery slope' of Chinese scrap exports, based on personal experience:

The good factory I originally dealt with, and still deal with I think, refurbishes floppy disk drives (A: drives) and power supplies and ink cartridges in commercial quanties. A year ago, I got 35 cents each for the floppy drives, no Apple, no bent metal, etc., and they were picked up here by single palletloads for consolidation at the USA office. Power supplies needed to be ATX or ATX2, and we got 65 cents each. We scrapped the rest.

But that buyer found they could get these cheaper if they buy them from a Hong Kong scrap dealer, and started telling us they'd rather buy ALL the FDDs at 15 cents per pound, a huge savings. We still separated the good ones, and still sold the load a pallet or two at a time. Any while it still went through a 'bad neighborhood', we still showed pictures of the factory in Guangxi, even if the Guangxi factory is getting most of its FDDs and PS from a demanufacturer in China. The Good truth just got a little Ugly.

So we wound up shipping our demanufactured parts to or through a Chinese demanufacturing competitor. We take the PCs apart in Middlebury, but send the power supplies and Floppy Disk Drives on a container that now may follow on a trek through a village that is also dismantling a competitor's PCs. And USA export-based competitors can really blur the story, saying they send to the same end market we do.

The Chinese guy says they want more materials. Baled plastic. Baled Steel. So far, so good (if a bit ugly). Why not ship direct?

They ask for laser printers. Hmm. Well, they don't shred well. But we didn't send them, until our USA processor rejected them. Anyway, what's to worry about in a printer? Why bale printers if there are factories that take the cartridges and refurb them? The question became whether to bale them first. The buyer sent photos of a factory, which I verified was in Shenzhen, which resold printer parts and plastic, and the factory preferred they not be baled or shredded. So we started putting those printers on the sea container with the metal and plastic bales...

Now they really, really want copper wire. It's better than mining, right? And the photos I took of the women stripping the copper into huge rooms of bright and shiny metal, I liked those women. Well, I better still send the copper wire to our domestic recycler. But if there's a spot to fill on the container, with the power supplies and Floppy drives... tempting... Then the Chinese buyer hints he's getting it from the domestic recycler anyway. Is he bluffing?

And more and more of our clients are cutting the copper wire off, and throwing the VCRs and printers into scrap metal containers. Many insist they are doing us a favor if we take them for free. Truck fuel hits $5/gallon. A major Earth Day one-day recycling event has only paid half of the bill, the rest looking doubtful after 120 days payable. Staff are due a pay raise....

Ok, as a compromise, we don't believe there is a reuse market for VCRs, so we will sell them but will shred or bale them. But if you are out of baling wire...

The importer wants printed circuit boards and hard drives? ... BAD! NO! CRTs? Out of the question. But if one of our laser printers is caught on film in the same warehouse as someone else's CRTs, boards and hard drives, will people believe those are not our hard drives box right next to it?

And how do I keep our staff believing we are different than a mobster with 1/3 my payroll who puts everything, everything, straight on the boat? How does the mobster believe we are different? And a reputable, all domestic, Pledge Signing shredding company? How can he allow himself to feel the careful exporter is different from the mobster? Printer shredding... does the plastic and metal and little pieced of circuit board go to a different location in China?

Does the location for the shredded material hire happier, safer people than the ones interviewed in the Current.com video?

An independent analyst would probably say that the course most USA electronics recyclers choose to invest in has more to do with market demand and scale of operation than anything else. If we are going to operate in the green mountains of Vermont, we have to run an ecological shop (clients are not rich, but eco-proud). But we also have to collect old TVs to maintain volume, and if 50% of your material is TVs, a shredder doesn't help you much.

Facility space is cheap enough, and pay is low enough, we can take more time on a load than a company in Northern California. And I have Middlebury College grads and lots of travel interest, so I want to find the truth about where stuff goes.

And we would not have even made the trip or come to these conclusions without the attention BAN.org brought to the village of Guiyu in this current.com video. You know, the lady being interviewed in Guiyu, she's smiling. She doesn't take herself too seriously by any means, and she's got a pretty lousy job sorting out printer parts or stripping wire. The way the video ends with health research on the village is actually the best effort to move the story forward... the lead in blood levels are falling. Is that going to be info the mobster 100% exporter misuses to undercharge me? Or will the Shredding Investor tsk-tsk the data and imply it is deceptive.

The Lady or the Shredder...?

Oh what a tangled worldwide web we weave... if first we practice, then deceive. In fact, when two identical monitors have different ethical destinations (one can be repaired, the other screen burned), you have to describe a pretty tangled web. And the people who tell you a simple story, that both monitors are repaired, or both monitors should be shredded, isn't that more deceptive than the tangled up story?

You can see the temptation to just shred everything, or the temptation to just export everything. An untangled web in view can look pretty tangled at the other end, where people are stuck with either an unrepairable unit or little pieces of non-intact units that they have to quality sort. Recyclers don't intend to deceive, but we put the best possible light on the path we have chosen, and perhaps deceives nevertheless.

Truth is light, faith is gravity.

Fair Trade, Micro-Lending, & Digital Development

Good Point Recycling is a socially and environmentally responsible company bringing employment and revenue to Middlebury from out of country sales.

GPR repairs and resells affordable computer equipment to needy areas, offers extensive consumer recycling services in the Northeast, and sets the high environmental standards expected of Vermont companies.

The internet and access to translation in the Middlebury College area created 'Fair Trade' and 'green' opportunities in the global economy. Government officials rely on us as consultants in regulating e-scrap exports, as demand for technology is inelastic and many suppliers are unsophisticated.

Our Purchase Orders are akin to micro-lending, raising global standards. Rather than squeeze ever last penny from the export market, we offer discounts to overseas companies which raise their standards and allow transparent access to their practices. We document high recycling rates, and do not export 'toxics along for the ride'.

Our success brings:

- Affordable recycling
- Blue collar jobs (highest placement levels at local counseling services)
- International fair trade and micro-lending
- Reduced mining and forestry
- International development
- College grads work with with local trailer park residents, Africans, Latinos, and Asians.

"Something attempted, something done, has earned a night's repose"
- The Village Blacksmith (Longfellow)

This is Peace Corps 4.0

Computers and Press Releases are blunt instruments

(photos from MAILonline, cited under fair use policy)

That is basically the story at the UK MailOnline

"...The boy had grovelled in the dirt for mercy, whimpering as blood dripped from his cracked skull. With the computer monitor that had been broken over his head lying on the ground nearby, filthy children with glassy-eyed stares and twisted smirks had stood over him."

Just how bad is donating a used computer to Africa? According to the Mail, you have blood on your hands. Your monitor is being used as a club to beat small children.

What shocks me is that the photos appear to be a ratio of about 20 good computers to one thing being burned on the ground for copper. The author is so over the top, it provides the best explanation for what Jim at BAN calls my "apologist" attitude for exporting. The kids at the landfill look sad, but I don't actually see many PCs there.

Ok, just to warm up for the E-Scrap 2008 conference, here's some push-back...

BAN and SVTC are promoting companies which have zero reuse policy, which destroy everything. They mean well. But by doing so, BAN and SVTC create a vacuum for our competitors to mix bad material into. We have met the enemy, and he is us. If they stand behind an article like this, they are hurting the people they claim to champion.

Another quote from the article

"Most of the hard drives were empty, but one contained medical records relating to patients based in Leeds. It came from a computer marked Northumbria Healthcare Trust, although the data found did not relate to its patients but to customers of a pharmacy that had used the computer after the trust had disposed of it."

Let me get this straight... the hospital the author is attacking... it wiped all of its hard drives. But one was re-used by a third party. So the author attacks the hospital...

Threatening to hurt and embarrass people who have sent wiped, working computers, is a bully tactic. As a former Peace Corps volunteer, as a man who housed African refugees, homeless people, impoverished women from a Mexican coop, international students, young Egyptian computer repairers, Peruvian small businesspeople, and others in my own home this year, I am so frustrated I could cry.

Companies with "no export" policies, and laws like California SB20 which REQUIRE destruction (obsolescence in hindsight) of working monitors, are morally wrong. While the Pledge is careful not to ban all reuse exports, the easiest way to join the Pledge is to end reuse, and that is what many "True Stewardship" companies have done. Put in a big shredder, and you are golden, even if it leaves a pile of toxic fluff (printers and CRTs do NOT shred well, people).

To quietly accept export of "tested working units" (even though that could include a 1988 286), does not go far enough. BAN needs to speak out against California's perverted SB20 "cancellation" rule.

The "tested working" rule is not even in the Basel Convention, which explicitly states in Annex 9 that exports of used CRTs for repair and reuse is completely legal. Critics of digital divide programs state that "someday the monitor will go bad", but that was true of MY first computer when I bought it in 1992 (and there was no CRT recycling infrastructure), and it is true of a brand new computer any African student might buy.

Many people in our industry say they agree with me, but that I am sticking my neck out. BAN has officially refused my company offer to sign the Pledge, over our interpretation of Annex IX, (and officially endorsed a company which exports more than twice the monitors I do). Well, this isn't really a promoted blog, it is intended only for people who understand the nuances of the export issue. So in the words of Huckleberry Finn (when he abandons his guilt over not turning Jim in as a "runaway nigger"), "All right, then, I'll go to hell". It's my favorite line in all of literature...

Companies like mine are not "wishful thinkers". We fly to see our partners, we ask for reports of our mistakes (if we are sending something they couldn't use, we need to know in order to correct it), we fly buyers here to pre-inspect our loads. We have had a lot of fun, made a lot of friends, and changed a lot of practices along the way.

Did you know a tested working Dell 17HS Trinitron monitor is 'waste' at the factory in Jakarta, and the non-working Dell E773 is good? I didn't until I visited the buyer of my tested working monitors in 2004. In Peru, the Dell 17HS Trin is fine, by the way.

We must not let the perfect become the enemy of the good. BAN should not take its toys and go home over the reuse repair "loophole". The only way the situation will get better is if companies like mine succeed in establishing a recycling infrastructure in the countries which REFUSE to stay barefoot and pregnant. If California breaks every monitor, they will buy the monitors from a mobster who sends them junk TVs mixed into the load. The war on drugs approach has had 6 years, and let's admit it now does more harm than good. Companies in WR3A are actively engaging wonderful people in Egypt, Senegal, Malaysia, Peru, Mexico, Singapore, Indonesia, and China, and doing the same kind of work that micro-lending organizations are doing.

If African doctors cannot get affordable working computers, children will die.

Slashdot is cool

This post got hacked. I deleted it 4/11/2011 It was bizarre. Now I need to read other older posts to see if they have gotten hacked as well.

Good Point Ideas Blog: More about SKD (reusing monitors as TVs) Market

Good Point Ideas Blog: More about SKD (reusing monitors as TVs) Market

This was a good paper on the reuse market for used computer monitors.

This is a difficult business to be in. There is no financial incentive to 'clean up' the load before shipping to an SKD factory (semi knock down, see wikipedia), so the free market allows a lot of crap to get sent overseas to these markets. The good stuff flies away, off to store shelves to live on as a useful product, the bad stuff accumulates. Someone who only visits the country once every few years might see the accumulation of 10%, 20%, 30% crap on the ground (depending on how hard the used goods supplier is working to remove bad stuff) and think it represents 80% of the exports to that country. They don't see the good stuff, it's not on the ground.

But like a bullethole, you know there was a bullet. You know because the economics of shipping junk across the world and dropping loads of 80% junk on the ground could not pay the freight.

More and more USA companies are giving into the temptation to buy shredders to just grind all the computers up, recovering the metals.


It's being sold as "best practices". Sure, we will leave Africa barefoot and pregnant (they cannot afford new computers), we will tell the Pacific Rim to mine more lead from the Papua New Guinea rain forests to make new CRTs, we'll charge USA generators extra fees to grind up good stuff.

Then we will call ourselves "true recyclers" and give ourselves awards.

Look at the pile on the ground at the end of the video.

"No export of whole units" is a bad policy. It won't stop demand in lesser developed countries for working used equipment (NAICS 92). It divides the market into pure exporters and pure shredders.

And now they are trying to legislate it. As a former Peace Corps volunteer, I am alarmed. I don't like junk on the ground in Africa, and we export fewer than 1% of the TVs we take in, making it almost not worth it. We have stopped exporting anything lower than Pentium 4. It would be tempting to replace staff who wipe the hard drives and remove unrepairable equipment, replace them with a big shredding machine.

That's what recyclers do who don't like having employees. Creating jobs is a bitch. Let's tell the Egyptians to go buy new stuff and pass a law to keep a Vermont company from sorting the good from the bad. Let's call them names and imply they are bad people. And leave piles of lead dust all over the ground.

I guess I see myself almost being driven to defend the bad exporters. I almost think the pendulum has wobbled so far to the left that "Planned Obsolescence" or Obsolescence in Hindsight is going to win at all costs.

Of course I know the bad exporters are the ones who left the big bulletholes all over this market, which discredited exporting and reuse. Who cause really fine people (like many at BAN.org and Greenpeace.org) to react and promote policies out of sheer frustration.

BAN knows perfectly well that the Basel Convention Annex IX explicitly and succinctly allows exports of electronics for refurbishment and repair. EXPLICITLY states this!!!!~!! But they are so frustrated by the piles of messes, the accumulated scrap that was not good, that they see it as a loophole.

One told me he hopes the poor will "leapfrog" the USA and get newer and better computers than we got. Hey fellow Peace Corps volunteers, hear that? (No bread on the shelves? LET THEM EAT CAKE.)

I think the only hope is to set up proper recycling overseas for the leftovers. Trying to police the exports to limit "Toxics Along for the Ride" may be too difficult, and our Fair Trade model is woefully underfunded and undersupported. What Africa and Asia are going to do is LEAPFROG the USA's woeful repair and recycling practices. They are going to do with smart people what the shredders can never do - separate out a 1 gig stick of RAM worth $10 from a 32meg stick of RAM worth metal.

Pete Seeger, we need a new "John Henry" song for the repair and reuse people, running ahead of the shredding machine. "John Henry was a RAM sorting Man"... But John Henry will probably be named Essam or Hamdy or Souley or Antonio.

A compliment

I got a couple of compliments about some of the blogs I've written.

I wish I had more time. Right now, I am busy raising $1.5M to drastically expand Good Point Recycling businesses in Arizona, Mexico and Vermont.

This summer, we have added textile baling, added fluorescent lamp collection, gone to 100% demanufacturing of PCs, cardboard baling, stretch plastic collections, etc. We have enlarged our job training program, and are trying to rent office space in our new building.

When my family returns to Vermont in three weeks, I will have to readjust from this year of surfing my idle time and mania to exponentially expand the business. It will succeed, rather than fall apart, to the degree we recruit and keep quality people.