From Houston with Love

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Somewhere, in a garbage dump in the bustling city of Lagos, Nigeria, sits a little bit of Houston.

It's a computer, once owned by the Houston city government, now helping to add to the pollution problem in Africa. That computer -- and countless others from the city bureaucracy -- are part of the 400,000 or so computers and monitors that end up each year in Nigeria, where the laws for getting rid of such things are looser than they are here in the United States.

The Basel Action Network recently released a report highlighting the problem: Computer monitors can leak deadly substances like mercury and lead, and burning the plastic of other parts is no walk in the clean-air park, either.


Hair Balls

Companies or agencies with obsolete computers often ship them to places like Nigeria under the guise of "bridging the digital divide" through putatively noble donations to the third world. The trouble is, the group says, three out of four computers reaching Nigeria are deemed to be junk by the local computer dealers' business association.

"Too often, justifications of 'building bridges over the digital divide' are used as excuses to obscure and ignore the fact that these bridges double as toxic-waste pipelines," according to Basel's report.

The group took a sampling of computers at the Lagos dump and found stuff from the Illinois State Police, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, and the cities of San Antonio and Houston.

Some of the hard drives found revealed such private information as case files on children under the care of the Wisconsin child welfare agency, says Robin Schneider of the Texas Campaign for the Environment.

Others, like computers from the World Bank's Washington, D.C., offices, had employees' e-mail: "Saw a goodish movie last night. It's called High Art and had Ally Sheedy and Rhada Mitchell in it. It's about dykes, drugs, photography and love and I enjoyed looking at Rhada Mitchell."

Another World Bank e-mail noted that "World Cup fever has taken over the Bank," which we can only hope didn't interrupt the agency's work of helping impoverished countries. Or sending old computers to them.

Frank Michel, spokesman for the City of Houston, traced the bar-code number provided by Basel and said the computer in question was sold at a government-surplus auction "five or six years" ago and had belonged to the Public Works Department. The city erases and reformats all its hard drives before getting rid of them.

Monitors are sent to reputable recycling companies, he says. Of the hard drives and keyboards that do end up overseas, "there's not much in them that's hazardous -- it's basically metal and plastic," he says.

Well, light those fires right up, we guess. That smell of burning plastic -- that's progress, Lagos. And a little bit of Houston is in it.

On Your To-Do List

Nothing thrills a seventh-grader more than a handout from a teacher during a class. Those things are usually read with all the care given to the fine print on an aspirin bottle.

Things were a little different in Pearland not long ago, though, when one class was in the midst of discussing the classic novel The Outsiders. The Pearland police officer assigned to the district came in to discuss gangs, and as part of his talk he handed out some information sheets.

One of which was a calendar outlining alleged satanic rituals. Including these can't-miss dates on the ol' Datebook of Evil:

July 1 -- Demon Revels. Sexual, druidic.

July 27 -- Grand Climax. Sex, human sacrifice. Female child or adult.

August 3 -- Satanic Revels. Oral, anal, vaginal sex with females, ages seven to seventeen.

September 7 -- Marriage to the Beast. Sex, sacrifice, dismemberment. Females, infant to twenty-one.

Shit -- we forgot to get a gift for the Marriage of the Beast. Where are they registered? We can't tell if it would be Dare Ware or the Carter's Country knife department.

Renea Ivy, spokeswoman for the Pearland school district, says the calendar was handed out by mistake. Or as part of a satanic plot by the Father of Lies, she wasn't sure. (Actually, she was pretty sure it was a mistake.)

After the incident -- which happened last December, but which we only heard about through a recent item in Harper's, of all places -- the district sent home a letter to parents saying schools would now review all handouts before class.

Not to worry, though -- there's still one item left on the calendar that was already distributed: "December 24 -- Demon Revels. High grand climax, animal and human sacrifice. Any age, sex."

Anyone want to carpool?

Fighting (For) the Man

These days it's not hard for college-age students to find something to protest against. You've got war, desecration of the environment, Halliburton -- there's a whole slew of things to get worked up about.

At the University of Houston, they chose to fight music piracy.

Giant corporations that have been making outrageous profits for years are now being slightly affected by kids downloading music! Man the barricades!

UH's November 2 STOMP Fest was the modern-day equivalent of Martin Luther King's March on Washington. STOMP stands for Students Together Opposing Music Piracy, which apparently is a better group name than Devotees Of Record Kompany Suits.

The STOMPers handed out free ice cream and Cokes to "the kidz" in an effort to teach them it's not "cool" to download. Footing the bill was the Recording Industry Association of America. "Not only are college students among the most avid music fans, they're also responsible for a significant share of illegal downloading," says the RIAA's Jenni Engebretsen. (In other news, they also occasionally drink beer.)

The whole thing is slightly less odd than it seems. The students behind STOMP Fest are advertising majors, and the effort was part of a class project requiring them to put together a campaign for RIAA. (Last year, the class put together one for the army.)

Privately, some of the STOMP folks admitted that -- in their darkest hours of temptation -- they have occasionally downloaded a song in ways RIAA wouldn't approve.

It's not entirely clear how effective the event was. Students showed up, ate the ice cream and listened to the speeches.

But, as law student Bob Davis put it, "Ice cream doesn't really enter into the equation when I'm looking for illegal music to download."

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