Turning Waste into Something New

This week I built an end grain cutting board out of white oak. Renee and I have wanted a cutting board like this for a long time, but could never justify the $150+ price tag for one. I like large wood cutting boards because they feel heavy duty, they don’t slide around when cutting or rolling dough on them, and the end grain allows knives to stay sharp because knives slide in between the end grain fibers instead of cutting across the wood. Plus, they usually look beautiful and can act as a serving platter as well.

Although these benefits make end grain cutting boards attractive, the best part about this board is that it was made from scrap wood waste from another project.

My in-laws live in a beautiful 100+ year old home and are replacing their 100+ year old hardwood stair balusters. Using manufactured wood replacement spindles from a big box store wouldn’t fit in with the rest of the their house, so they decided to get some custom made spindles. Fortunately, their neighbor has a wood lathe and can turn the custom spindles for them, but my in-laws would still need to provide him the wood to do so. Buying milled hardwood is extremely expensive though, so my father-in-law and I decided to mill the lumber ourselves.

We started with three 9 foot x 8 inch x 2 inch rough sawn white oak boards. After cutting, jointing, planning, and ripping, we were left with about 36 milled blanks, 1 3/8” square on all sides and about 32 inches in length that they could be used for turning. About 12 of these blanks had defects though (knots, bug and worm holes, cracks, etc…) and wouldn’t be suitable for turning. Originally we were going to throw these defective blanks into the kindling pile but this felt wasteful since it was still mostly good wood, it just wouldn’t be good for turning on a lathe.

Charcoal is carbonized wood that is produced by smoldering pieces of wood for a long time. Charcoal manufacturers can produce charcoal from large logs of wood but this is wasteful since large pieces of hardwood could be better utilized for the construction of furniture and homes. Instead, charcoal manufactures have developed methods of producing charcoal from wood waste products. One of the first companies to do so was Kingsford Charcoal co-founded by Henry Ford in the 1920s. Ford saw that his automobile manufacturing lines were producing a lot of wood scrap waste. Instead of throwing out the scrap wood, Ford capitalized on it and helped build Kingsford charcoal which transformed all of the waste wood into charcoal briquettes that could be sold to consumers.

Instead of letting that scrap wood go to waste, Ford found a way to make a new product from it.

We were left with about 25 feet of milled white oak that couldn’t be turned on a lathe. We decided that instead of burning this scrap, we could cut the blanks into little cubes and glue them into an end grain cutting board.

After I cut all of long blanks into cubes, Renee designed a nice pattern for the cutting board. I then glued all of the cubes together, jointed, planed, ripped, and sanded until I was left with the finished product, a 12 inch x 18 inch cutting board. Retail value, $200 William Sonoma.

It felt good to be able to make use of these beautiful wood scraps and turn them into something functional. And I’m happy to think that plenty of inviduals and businesses do the same thing: Ford used scrap wood to produce charcoal; breweries sell their spent grains to farmers as animal feed; bakeries use the heat from their ovens to warm up their building’s ambient temperature in the cooler months.

If there’s no way to reduce the waste occurring in your processes, is there some way you can reuse that waste to create something new?

How I Learned to Love the Long and Cold Cleveland Winters

It’s possible to have fun in the cold

Gray and Depressing

I used to hate Cleveland winters — unlike winters on the east coast where you would have snow and sunshine, Cleveland winters are cold, cloudy, and extremely windy. Every year I would feel sad about summer’s end while our region’s brief 3 week stint of fall weather quickly transitioned to winter. During my first few years in Cleveland winters seemed never ending. I could remember being one of those people that would count the days down until spring and then get severely disappointed when the first day of spring resulted in a blizzard. There were some things I liked about winter — having a reason to stay home and wear sweats all day, being in the mood to make and eat hot and hearty meals — but at the end of the season I was always longing for warmer weather. This is not the case anymore.

So what changed? I quickly realized that I was incapable of changing the weather, so the only thing I could do was change my attitude. Basically, I realized that if I was getting depressed by the winter weather, it was my own fault and not that of mother nature. I knew I had to learn to love the winter weather so much that I would be sad to see it go in the spring — and that’s exactly what I did.

Learning to love the winter outdoors

First thing I did was find some activities that I could enjoy doing year round. One such activity was star gazing. The initial excitement of taking my telescope out to some park on a cold and clear night is what got me through my first couple sessions. At that point I realized star gazing is still fun, regardless if there is snow on the ground or if it’s a warm summer night. In fact, I found that I liked star gazing in the winter even more than in the summer because of the objects visible in the northern hemisphere winter sky as well as having better star gazing weather (cold air typically means clearer viewing through a telescope). The first few times I took my telescope out though I learned that I could only last about 15–20 minutes standing still in the frigid winter air. I knew that if I was going to learn to love being outside in the winter I would need to learn to dress warmer.

Dressing warmly isn’t actually as difficult as it sounds. Our mothers used to help us with this when we were young — now I embarrassingly had to relearn how to do it myself. I quickly realized that dressing warmly doesn’t require going out and spending money on expensive mountain climbing jackets or special snow boots. Dressing warmly in the winter is all about non-water absorbing layers. Basically when I started, I just wore a couple polyester shirts, wool and fleece sweaters, and my regular jacket. Add a hat, scarf, gloves, and some hand warmers and I could happily and warmly stand out in the cold winter air for a couple of hours. Over the years I have bought some more specialty clothing to stay warm with less bulk, but you definitely don’t need that when starting out. In either case, moisture wicking layers are the key to staying warm in the cold.

After learning that I could stand still in the cold for hours at a time and feel comfortably warm, I started to investigate what other activities I could do in the winter. I started by thinking of what warm weather activities I liked doing and seeing how I could adapt them to the cold. I discovered that hiking and bird watching are excellent winter activities, so Renee and I started doing those in the winter too. To our great benefit, we discovered that hiking is a better workout when walking through powder and bird watching becomes much easier because there is no foliage in the trees. Two more great activities that we could now enjoy year round.

At this point, I felt like I had learned how to dress appropriately for the cold weather and decided to try even more activities out in the snow. I loved running outside in the summer time but absolutely hated running indoors on a treadmill during the winter. So I tried running outside. The first few times I went I overdressed (but thanks to layering my clothes I could easily shed items off when I got too warm) but I quickly adapted to how to run in cold weather. And I loved it! Running through the park on a snowy day is unbeatable. There are very few people outside, and the people who are generally look happy to be enjoying the cold with you. The air feels fresh and clean, the trees and ground are covered by beautiful snow, and really after the first 5 minutes of running you aren’t cold anymore. Awesome!

Eventually I got back into skiing and tried out some new winter sports too like cross country skiing, snow shoeing, and ice climbing. All of these activities are only available in the winter and now that I’ve tried them out, I look forward to doing them every year. Having to stop enjoying these activities once the warmer weather rolls in is what now makes me think that winter is always ending too soon.

Indoor winter activities become more meaningful

I don’t want to give the wrong impression that now that I’ve found outdoor winter activities that I love doing that I totally ignore what I used to love doing indoors during the colder months. It’s the opposite. I have more appreciation now for staying in at home sometimes, sitting next to the fire, reading books, programming code, and cooking hearty meals. I still enjoy doing all of these activities, but balancing them with outdoor activities makes me enjoy the indoor activities even more.

Spring and summer eventually come

Although many people still think winter has a strong hold, I can see it disappearing. Skiing opportunities are diminishing, there are more rainy/sleety days than snowy ones, and the birds and wildlife are starting to become more visible. Soon it will be time to put away the winter gear in storage, sharpen and wax the skis so they’re ready for next year, and start on spring cleaning. I never thought I would miss winter but now that I’ve found reasons to enjoy the cold I am sad to see the winter weather begin to disappear. And although there are plenty of summer activities that I love as well like camping, hiking, and kayaking, I’ll still be sad to put the skis away until next winter.

When Does Visiting a Website Become Illegal?

library” by Bethany Petrik is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about the gray area that exists with web scraping. Web scraping involves programmatically downloading a webpage and parsing the page’s content in order to extract information of interest.

For example, let’s say you are in the market to buy some new headphones and want to do some research. In order to compare the features of different headphones, you might go to Amazon.com and run a search for headphones. Let’s pretend you aren’t interested in filtering out the results by reviews or price — you are interested in purely comparing the features of all headphones so you can make a decision as to which pair you want to purchase.

One option you have is to go through Amazon’s search results for headphones, open up each resulting link, and copy and paste the name, description, and price of each headphone into a spreadsheet. Since Amazon organizes the name, description, and price information in a standard way on their pages, you get pretty fast at copying this information from your browser to the spreadsheet, maybe 10 seconds per page. Eventually you copy enough information from Amazon, do your comparison, and purchase the headphones that best suit your needs.

Nothing wrong with performing those navigate, copy, and paste actions for personal use right? I mean, sure it’s an inefficient way of doing research to determine which pair of headphones to buy, but there’s nothing illegal about it.

But manually scraping all of this information takes a lot of time. However, you and your four coworkers are all interested in buying some headphones so you decide that you can split up the manual scraping work. Assuming all of your coworkers are just as fast as you at copying and pasting information from Amazon into a spreadsheet, you can accomplish the same amount of scraping in 20% of the time. Personally I still think this is clearly on the side of legal.

What happens if you have 1000 friends though? Let’s say you are active on an internet forum for audiophiles and all of the forums users are interested in comparing and finding the best pair of headphones on Amazon. If you split up the work among 1000 friends, you’ll get the scraping task done 1000 times faster than if you were doing it yourself — leaving you with more time to listen and enjoy the headphones instead of doing research. Is this legal to do? I think this is where we start to enter a gray area. After all, you are still performing the same action — navigate, copy, and paste — but now you are coordinating it en masse so it might disrupt the website’s performance.

Okay, let’s say you don’t have a thousand friends and you don’t want to manually scrape all of those headphone pages on Amazon. You are a computer programmer however and realize that you can write a scraping script that does the same thing — downloads the name, description, and price information of each headphone in the search results on Amazon and saves it into a spreadsheet. You write your program so it basically mimics your on screen movement so it still takes 10 seconds to scrape each page, but at least now you can have your program run 24 hours day. You don’t get your final spreadsheet of results any faster since your requests are still taking 10 seconds each, but is this legal? Assuming the site’s terms of service don’t specify anything about scrapers, and you’ve dutifully checked the robots.txt file to see if scraping is allowed, I think you’re ok. Basically you’re doing the same thing as the first scenario, but you are now just automating the task.

A computer is a powerful machine though, and it can run more than one program at a time. In fact, you could probably run 1000 instances of your program with little difficulty, especially if you divide up the work across multiple computers (everyone has multiple personal computers at home, right?). Is this ok to do?

What if you find a better way to write your program so that it just takes 1 second to scrape each headphone page — after all computers should be able to do this type of work faster than humans. Is that ok? What if you take that 1 second/page scraping program and run a thousand instances of it? Is that ok?

What if you write a program that scrapes a page in .1 second, and you run thousands of instances of it, and you accidently degrade service to Amazon’s other customers with your scraping program. Essentially what you’ve accomplished to do with your scraping program is a denial of service (DoS) attack. If you were running multiple instances of your app on all of your personal computers (or even better, on a cloud computing platform where you can get hundreds or thousands of virtual machines to run your code for pennies) and you manage to take down Amazon, you essentially performed a distributed denial of service attack (DDos). In these instances, what you are doing is clearly illegal — you have wrote a script that, although its primary goal is to scrape headphone information, has accidently taken down Amazon. Time to get a lawyer because you are probably going to be sued.

So obviously that last example is extreme and most everyone would agree is illegal for good reasons — you are negatively affecting Amazon’s ability to do business with other customers. What about all of the other scenarios though? Where is the line drawn if you want to collect all of this information legally? Does scraping, either manual or programmed, only become a problem when you start degrading the website’s service to other users? Or is there some other way to identify what is and isn’t an acceptable way to scrape?

I don’t know the answers to these questions. Vendors of screen scraping services try to anonymize their scraping attempts as if they are doing something bad — and obviously they are doing something bad if they are taking down servers with their high volume of requests. What makes writing a program to replace what you can legally do via a manual copy and paste process wrong?

It feels like web scraping, along with other technologies that don’t have clear legal precedents defined yet, includes a lot of gray area that programmers have to consider and operate in.