Reporting Neither Policy

Why there should be no "recycling policy" and no "mining policy".   

There should only be a "raw material policy".  

In a recent essay, commenters bemoan the fact that national dialogue is increasingly polarized, and "lacks nuance".   I contributed the following in response to the essay, "Edward Snowden and the Death of Nuance" by Dennis Fisher.  (Snowden and NSA debate is to Slashdot what Michael Jackson was to National Enquirer, or Michael Jordan was to Sports Illustrated).
"I'm from 3 generations of journalists, and part of the problem is that news outlets need to a) attract readers (make it interesting and simple), and b) are trying to cover stories that are frankly out of the reporters depth and comfort zone. Reporters want to cover both sides of an issue, and the easiest way to do that is to find two sources who disagree strongly... Opposite + Opposite = "fair and balanced". When "long form journalism" is proposed as an antidote, we still suffer from weak audience attention spans and excuses for writing prose that lacks punch, or remains lazy-sourced.
"This, in turn, rewards "experts" who take a polarized view. If your expertise provides nuance, you have to compete for the reporter's attention. So much easier for reporters to submit black-and-white points of view. Often reporters tell me they are afraid NOT to interview loud and ignorant people out of fear of "not having covered their side".
"In my particular field (electronics scrap policy) I've tried to interest reporters in identifying victims of policies which lack nuance - a "derivative" of the story which fits the black-and-white reporting model. The "victimhood" of un-nuanced policy can sometimes trigger "blame" and "innocent or guilty" coverage paradigm. I realize too that it's not the reporters fault that readers/audience response to nuanced articles is "Whoosh". "Whoosh" doesn't sell papers and tv ads. I fear this is causing erosion of even stronger news sources (The Economist, WSJ, NYT, etc)."   Read the 180 comments
After I hit submit, I was bugged by my reference to "Electronic Scrap Policy".  It has become an "export vs. non-export" policy, largely, or a manual disassembly vs. shredder debate, or a repair vs. obsolescence debate.    Victimhood triggers the "nurture and underdog" responses among readers and reporters alike, and to make any of these points of view "newsworthy", we are all scavenging for victims.

Heroin Distribution and Procurement Corruption: The Vermont Experience

"Do you know the difference between education and experience? Education is when you read the fine print; experience is what you get when you don't."  Pete Seeger 1919-2014
This month, the Governor of Vermont, Peter Schumlin, made a very brave "State of the State" address, admitting Vermont has a problem - opiates, heroin and meth.

Admitting you have a problem is the first step in Vermont's program.    Thinking "it's a city problem" and we don't need treatment centers is a big mistake.

Another big mistake?  Unlike neighboring states, Vermont has no "procurement law".   It has a representative at BGS on National Association of State Purchasing Officials (   But when Vermont's administration of it's "E-waste" contract was questioned - not just by the lower and more qualified (per ANR, not in dispute) bidder (me), but by the Solid Waste Districts (customers), and Superior Court Justice (in an injunction) Vermont ANR's response was to quash the FOIA request, and use a "calendar tactic" (redirecting the injunction to Environmental Court, adding a 7 month delay).  (For a reporters coverage of curious contract language written outside of the RFP for CWST, see this article in Vermont Digger, complete with changed signature dates.  Also see Vermont's refusal of the Freedom of Information Act Request at bottom of this blog).

If Vermont thinks it doesn't need a procurement law, like Massachusetts Chapter 30B, it's travelling down the same path as the heroin denial of the past decade.

Yeah, I love my job, and I'm proud of my work, but I'll have other opportunities if ANR's staff's stated objective - to replace Good Point Recycling - is carried out.  And yes, ANR's program manager actually SAID that prior to the RFP being issued (which by itself should have warned the state it needs procurement training).  David Mears, her boss, actually referred to "procurement laws" in defending the state's contracting with Casella (strategically hostile to the Manufacturer Independent Plan, to the point of possible anti-trust and flow control).

It's not a great position to be in, waiving a bloody shirt, crying over a lost bid and hostile regulators.   Why did I do it?  I did it in response to the letter below, from the wife of a subcontractor.  The real loser is the working class.

Good Morning Robin,
I am Harry XXXXs wife, remember he works [nonprofit subcontractor]? I have taken this way out step to contact you because for 5 years now I have constantly had this thought that will not leave me alone that Harry should be working for you. As you probably know Harry at home created a program that can wipe and refurbish up to 50 computers at a time. Harry is also a Linux person, that is recognized around the world and becoming more popular every year. He installs Linux on PC'S that have a tag that is destroyed so Microsoft does not recognize it.
My thought Robin, if you and Harry could see a future in working together, Harry could refurbish your product here at our home. He would still work for XXXX, but in my heart I feel your business would be the best for Harry's
future. Harry is responsible, honest and quiet unless you get him going, then he can tell jokes like no one else, a team player.
I had hopes that you would have had more to do with [our nonprofit] I felt it would have been a good thing. Maybe you could stop in the store on XXX St. in XXX, Vermont, and just look around. No one knows I am writing you, XXX loves what he does and I have felt with your business mind, could be a winning partnership.
Thank you for your consideration on this matter.
Helen XXXX
9 South XXXX St.

Vermont's Heart

The Governor of Vermont, Peter Schumlin, wants environmental jobs, and wants R2 certification, and wants to wear a white hat.   But he knows he has a problem at the Agency of Natural Resources.   The Agency is protecting itself by using the very line of appeals to clog an Environmental Court docket, essentially shielding itself from bid challenges.

Interlude: Geography, DNA, and Functionality

Loving v. Virginia
We have so many unpublished blogs at Good Point Ideas Blog that I'm thinking of publishing in a parallel universe.

The Demanufacturing Chapter was well received, and I'm working on trucking, tech and sorting and admin.

Here's a quick fact, however.  I have successfully transplanted techs from other countries.  I have transplanted Peru techs to the USA, and I've transplanted Malaysia techs to Egypt, and I've transplanted USA techs to Mexico.  And you know what?

It's just like organ transplants.  DNA (race) does not matter.  Borders do not matter.  All that matters is functionality.  If you need a kidney, it doesn't matter if you find the donor ugly, and the citizenship papers don't matter to the doctor.

The circuitry repair works exactly the same.

Not With a Whimper

Chapter One:  The Deman Crew 

The light clink of a dropped drill bit onto a metal table, the slow whirring of an air machine winding down.  The sweep of a last dragged empty "gaylord" box on a dry concrete floor.  Swept four times that day, the floor seems dirty again, from the action of pounding square boxes of plastic, circuits, wires, and heavy glass bulbs called "cathode ray tubes".   Fourteen men's sweat scented the room that day.  Men from East Europe, from Mexico, from South America, and from Asia had worked in this room over the past decade.  Old men, who could remember the 1970's television sets were unaffordable, brand new.  Young men, seventeen, who had never held a pneumatic drill before.   It was a hard job, and not many people stayed in it.

"54-bit Driver Kit" IFIXIT
The first and most important lesson for the men at the demanufacturing tables, and the women in Sonora Mexico who copy them, is that you need your gloves.  They are irritating and clumsy, and when you must switch constantly between phillips screws, hex bits, metric and English, it's tempting to leave the gloves off, so you can keep up with the experienced demanufacturing workers.  It will save several seconds if you have bare fingers to pick out the next drill bit to match the new layer of screws beneath the brightly colored acrylic Imac case.   But the numbers will catch up with you.  You will eventually, after several dozen successful days of demanufacturing in naked efficiency, cut the hell out of your hand, and lose all the time you gained "working nekkid".  A safe workplace really is the most efficent workplace.

The second lesson is to take the gloves off at the end of the shift and to carefully examine the pile of screws swept at the bottom of the worktable.  The Hex 0.9 bit looks remarkably like scrap metal.  If you sweep up in a hurry, and it goes into the massive haystack of scrap screws, your time tomorrow will suffer.

The third lesson?  Watch out.  There is theft in the workplace.  Some new person, working at the entry level computer take-apart table beside you might lose his Hex 0.9 bit.  The fact he was unemployed in a state with 5% unemployment might mean he's an honest, hard working bootstrapper like you.  Or it might mean he's recently out of treatment for heroin or meth addiction.  Good Point Recycling hires a lot of people looking for a second chance.   But statistically, if they are working nekkid-hands, they are likely to lose their drill bits, and if for some reason they are taking their lunch break a minute after the bell (rather than, as usually, 3 minutes before), then he might have lost some drill bits yesterday, and he might have his eyes on your table.

The experienced disassembly staffer has learned lessons that apply in an auto repair shop or an assembly line.

During the typical day at Good Point Recycling, about 38,000 lbs of electronics came through the door of the Deman Warehouse.   Deman - or "de-manufacturing", or "disassembly" - was the title of the job at the heavy end of the Paretto Principle.
The "80-20 Rule", as the Paretto Estimate is typically called, says that 20 percent of material is worth 80 percent of the money.  Twenty percent of the clients are worth eighty percent of the gross income.  The men who worked in this room, today, handled the other.  Eighty percent of the used electronics which Good Point Recycling collects are torn down the their raw material.   Steel from computer casings, printers whose software didn't survive an operating system upgrade, the ten inch motherboards from Pentium 4s deemed "too slow" for the market, and 150 pound CRT televisions.  Lots of televisions.

900 pound bales of black plastic from "Wi Screens" were pushed against the wall.  Weee Screens were the nickname for the large LCD televisions which had days before been in front of a kid with a Nintendo control gadget in hand, the wrist guard unattached.  A simulated bowling alley, a launched virtual 16 pound ball, transformed into a flying 5 ounce Wii-mote which with grim reality flew from the hand of a thirteen year old boy, into the bottom right corner of the OLED 3D Smart Plasma television, cracking the display panel and leaving a small dent behind.   Thousands and thousands of damaged LCDs, or forgotten 17 inch white CRT monitors, or wooden TV-stereo consoles, come into Good Point Recycling every year.  And in this room, the Deman Room, they would be returned to their maker.

In peak weeks, during the summer, the payroll at Good Point was about $26,000.   That's a small business, by any definition, but in a small town like Middlebury Vermont, it paid for a lot of apartment rentals, a lot of diapers, and a lot of pizza.   The payroll was important to the county.   It came from outside the state, most recently from wire transfers from major corporations like Dell, Acer, Samsung, and Vizio.  Under the Stewardship Laws, most Americans in the Northeast states no longer pay $20 to drop off their used computer or television, the way they must pay for a refrigerator or air conditioner.

During the peak summer months, most of that payroll was generated here in this Deman Room, where men frequently worked 12 hour days, anxious for the time and a half overtime pay.  Some worked 7 days per week if they could get away with it.   If the doors were left unlocked in the morning, some men would come in, turn on the lights, punch the clock, and sneak in an extra hour of work at 5 AM.

Not everyone wants to work that way, between whirring pneumatic drills, crushing balers, a droning air compressor and clunks of heavy TVS from disassembled palletloads.  It's physical work, and surprisingly dirty work, considering almost everything is an electronic device which served its whole life in a livingroom, bedroom, or office.   Twenty years of dust sediment may clot the fan of a power supply.

High school drop outs, some of them in their 50s, come and try to do the job.  Some, like Peter, excel at it.  A bulky man, half deaf in one ear and half blind in one eye, Peter was raised and taught to work by a German baker as a teenager.   He had to be at the bakery at 4 AM back then, and if he wasn't he heard about it in a way he'd never want to hear again.   He went on to work for 19 years at Standard Register, a paper forms company in Middlebury which closed in 2008, laying off hundreds of blue and white collar workers.

Peter lifts the big plastic backs from the TVs, or the jellybean colored Imac acrylic pieces, over his shoulders, dropping them into a downstroke baler.  When he can no longer fit more pieces into the mouth of the baler, Peter closes the steel mesh door, and hits the large red power button.   Tons of force ram down slowly onto the material, creating a loud crushing and popping and bending of plastic.


Like competitors to a very big neighbor.

Ducking the Dunning–Kruger Effect (Part 2)

"The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which unskilled individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly rating their ability much higher than is accurate. This bias is attributed to a metacognitive inability of the unskilled to recognize their ineptitude.[1] Actual competence may weaken self-confidence, as competent individuals may falsely assume that others have an equivalent understanding." - wikipedia (see date of blog post)

From EWaste Whiplash II:  calculator ju-ju
Does this mean that any observation of poor performance is mistaken, or incompetent?  Of course not.  If I'm truly an expert in the geography of central Cameroon, I may well know more about it than the average Mbawa tribesman who has not gone to school.  If you are the most knowledgeable mechanic in your town, you will recognize a "hack".

It just means hacks are bad judges. (you can quote me).

The USITC / MIT study on "ewaste" used surveys to leverage estimates, as predictors.  Respondents were asked to respond to questions with estimates on KNOWN statistics, and the higher the score of the respondent to the undisputed questions, the more weight their estimates of unknown statistics was given.  The best and highest scorer on the MIT survey, of the X00 respondents, based on answers to the known questions, was given an Amazon gift card.  (Ahem, cough-cough, I used it to buy a new camera for Eric Prempeh, our head technician, born in Accra).  The Dunning Kruger effect does not state that opinionated people tend to be ignorant.  Rather, it states that ignorant people tend to be opinionated.

Ducking the Dunning–Kruger Effect (Part 1)

Dunning-Kruger Effect describes a lot of activists on the right and left. The only cures are hindsight, skepticism, humility, and listening. Duck.

We slowly learn that "e-waste dynasty" is really not that special.   It has been a good ride. It brought something new for career recyclers like myself to get excited about, after the goals of universal curbside recycling, recycled content, household hazardous waste collections, and landfill capping and closure became yawn-ho-hum.

And it is indeed important not to squander the carbon embedded in the manufacture of gadgets.  Vital to respect the enormous burden of mining on Earth's habitats. Our demand for copper, silver, gold, zinc, palladium, rhodium, tantalum, and other minerals and metals to make our chips, capacitors and circuits is crushingly important.  

But the "impact" of discarded electronics on landfills and foreign beaches has been overplayed.   The associated toxics are far less newsworthy than "a-waste" (automobiles), original mining of the metals, original manufacture, or even the use and disuse of the electronics during its life.

What "the great e-waste crisis" offered was illusory superiority.  In a vacuum of data and definition, we became our own titles.  We announced ourselves as "non-exporters", or "professionals", or "stewards", or "certified".   We became "Good guys".  Our companies were "Creative", and "Synergistic" and "International" and "Solutions", all competing (for attention and investment) in "solving the e-waste problem".

A new cause is an opportunity to claim expertise as the journalists come looking.  But what were we "experts" in, really, except the "topic" of a new category of scrap?

What do you know, really, about the oldest Texas Instruments calculator in your house?   You've owned it 30 years.  Are you an expert about its end-of-life?  Does the fact that you own it, and the prospective buyer (in China) does not (yet), make you the expert on e-waste?
"The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which unskilled individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly rating their ability much higher than is accurate. This bias is attributed to a metacognitive inability of the unskilled to recognize their ineptitude.[1] Actual competence may weaken self-confidence, as competent individuals may falsely assume that others have an equivalent understanding."
"Where Unskilled individuals suffer from illusory superiority..."  How well does the Dunning-Kruger effect describe rallies to the cause of electronics recycling?

Everyone in the developed world, and billions of people in the emerging world, have something electronic which was worth a lot of money once and now isn't.  It's the "wealth" of "e-waste" haves.  You are a "have",  I'm a "have".  Six billion out of seven billion - the "non-OECD" - have been defined as the "have-nots".   Yet 80% of them are actually "haves" as well.  But if you are looking for a 30 year old "waste" item, like a TI calculator, you better look first among the "haves" of Christmas Past.

We have evolved to save things which we procured at cost.  Our ancestors survived on the reuse of spear-heads, and scavenging biproduct bones.  We are programmed to get value back out of things we have invested in.   But if there's nothing economic to do with it, it just manifests itself as guilt.

Sincerest Form of Blog Hijack? Damageethical Zelig (Poonam Verma)

Sincerest Form of Blog Hijack?  Damageethical Zelig (Not_by Poonam Verma)
Mirror Effect Photo Screenshot
Well... my search box widget in Blogspot keeps breaking down (known issue at google forums) and I have been using Google Search to find references to old blogs.

How's this for a doppleganger?   Damageethical Blog, "by Poonam Verma".  He may be from India, or from Sri Lanka, I see 22 pages accessed from Sri Lanka this morning.

It's registered as (notice the letter "a" affixed to retroworks).  And it's a complete reposting of my work in this blog.

Except every post has a crap link advertisement in front.  I haven't found any malware.

Not that Indian
So... since I'm a mission oriented dude, do I see this as "getting the word out?"   Or should I be outraged at the paid ads for water removal, sewage, etc. he's selling?  It's like running into a cyber-Leonard Zelig from India.

"The question of whether Zelig was a psychotic or merely extremely neurotic was a question that was endlessly discussed among his doctors. ... his feelings were really not all that different from the normal, what one would call the well-adjusted, normal person, only carried to an extreme degree, to an extreme extent. I myself felt that one could really think of him as the ultimate conformist." - character Bruno Bettelheim, Zelig (1983, Woody Allen film)

The ultimate conformist copies a blogger who has been labelled, by many in the "E-Waste" industry, as a non-conformist. It's copycatting of a defender of tinkerers, knock-offs, shanzai, good-enough markets...  He's probably making a lot more money on the blog than I am.

Monkey Zoo Math: Reprint of Basel Action Network Fingerprints

In July of 2010, I wrote the post with the most reads to date.  Some have suggested that it was too long and buried the lead, but the people I met after writing it encouraged me to write more, and not to be afraid to write longer.

Below (more:) is the bottom third of the blog "Monkeys Running the Environmental Zoo".  The math has now been corroborated by USITC, by MIT, by World Bank, by the ASU Williams/Kahhat study, the Nigeria and Ghana E-Waste Assessment (studies of 279 actual containers, seized at ports in Lagos, based on reporter Cahal Milmo's and Greenpeace's "investigation" of naughty, naughty African television repairmen).

I will re-link all of those studies this week.   But as a reminder, Basel Action Network knew this in 2006, when they provided guidance to Kenyan researchers Kiaka and Kamande.
PRELIMINARY STUDY ON THE IMPORTED SECOND HAND COMPUTERS IN KENYA - THE CASE OF NAIROBI by Richard Kiaka and Rachel Kamande (2007) "with guidance from Puckett James, Basel Action Network"
The 2010 math has been completely borne out.  All you had to do was listen to the African, Latin American, and Taiwanese refurbishers, and take a pen and the back of an envelope.  It has always been obvious. Toxics are a problem, pollution is serious business... but Racial profiling doesn't look good dressed in green.   There are real victims of Environmental Malpractice, and the time has come to clean our "stewardship" programs of the vestiges of accidental racism and poverty porn.

Whose fingerprints are on the "e-waste" monitors at Agbogbloshie?   African cities.  The "80% export" figure was not just a mistake... it was mathematically impossible, and disproven by BAN's own 2007 study.  

From 2010 Blog:

Q:  How do bad monitors get overseas?