Category Archives: Open Source Software

Green Computing

Energy Saving Tips related to your Computer (and how you can save the world with Open Source)

A house built in the 1960’s or 1970’s probably included a single electrical outlet on each of the four walls of a room though in many cased there were fewer. Architects and those who made the electrical code assumed that you might have a lamp or a radio or maybe even a TV set in a given room and that you would plug and unplug your other appliances like your vacuum cleaner as you used them. In 1970 when you turned off most devices you actually flipped a mechanical switch that disengaged all electrical power from the device. One exception may have been your television set. Many TV’s had special circuits in them called “keep alive” circuits that kept a small current flowing in the CRT’s filament and in other vacuum tubes. This current kept the tubes warm and meant that the TV could come on faster. This was the beginning of vampire power! (cue the ominous music and thunderclap here)

Today, 40 or 50 years later we have more electronic devices than ever could have been imagined in 1960. TV’s MP3 players, Computers, Printers, Multi-axis CNC laser cutters (if anyone would like to donate one to me), Cell Phones, VCR’s, DVD Players, Network Routers, Cable Modems, and the list goes on and on. I just counted and I have 21 things plugged into electrical outlets on my computer desk alone! All of these devices use electricity and many use it even when they are turned off (hence vampire power). This costs you money when you aren’t using these devices AND it uses up natural resources that are used to generate that electricity. In the rest of this article I am going to list some tricks and tips that I’ve used successfully that will help you reduce the amount of electricity (and energy and resources in general) that your computers and other high tech gadgets use. These tips can apply to your home, business, or school. Its not an exhaustive list, and I welcome comments and more suggestions.

Tip 1: Use Open Source Software!

Did you know that using Open Source software not only made you more attractive to the opposite sex, but also could save energy and save the planet! (cue the patriotic movie music). In all seriousness though Open Source can help save energy in a number of ways.

Open Source is developed by individuals working mostly from their homes, as such they don’t commute to a place of business (which requires its own lighting, heat/air, etc.) and thus saves energy. I’m also lead to believe many of them even toil away in dank dark basements and thus save some on their lighting bills in the process of coding.

Open Source is almost always available as a free download online. The impact in terms of energy use and pollution to the environment of downloading software is much less than when shipping packaged products to various stores and then having the end user throw away the packaging (many times plastic) to be dumped in a land fill.

For times when you do use proprietary or for-pay software try to download it from the internet instead of opting for buying at the store and getting physical packaging. In 1995 if you bought an office suite you got a cubic box about one foot to a side with lots of printed manuals that you didn’t read, sat on a shelf, and eventually were thrown away once version 47B was released a few years later. Today most software doesn’t come with printed manuals, instead the manual is online or help files or as a PDF on the CD-ROM. So if you think about it, there really isn’t an advantage in having a physical product vs. a download. Just make sure to keep track of serial numbers, product codes, pin numbers, installation passwords, or any other info that you may need to re-install a purchased software product later.

Tip 2: Monitor your Monitors

If you are lucky you’ve got a nice large widescreen monitor on your desk, or perhaps even multiple monitors to help increase your productivity. Even though today’s LCD monitors use much less electricity than older CRT monitors did, there are still ways to squeeze out some power savings from them.

In general monitors use electricity at four different levels… Standby-Off, Standby-On, Economy or Low Backlight mode, and Rival the Sun set it to 11 brightness mode! Standby-Off uses very little power. In this mode the back light and most of the electronics are turned off but there is some power being used just waiting for a button press. This is a tiny amount of power but physically unplugging your monitor at night and other long periods when it will not be in use can help save some vampire power. Standby-On is an energy saving mode where the monitor’s back lights are turned off but its other electronics are turned on. This mode is usually activated by a screen saver on your PC and has the monitor waiting for a signal to spring back to life. Low Brightness and High Brightness modes are just that, a preference by the user. It all depends on the lighting level at your computer and the tasks you are performing. You can save power by using lower brightness levels (and the side benefit is that you can also make your monitor last a little longer since you are driving the back lights at a lower level).

A very simple way to save some energy with your monitor is this… for longer periods of time when you will not be using your computer such as night time or even or an hour while you go to lunch simply unplug the monitor completely (or use a dedicated power strip or switched electrical outlet to turn off the supply electricity to make things more convenient.) If you are going to get up for 5 or 10 minutes and be away from your desk use the power button on the front of the monitor and turn it off (this uses slightly less power than even the screen saver’s power down mode) Overall try to use a lower brightness or economy setting if it gives you adequate contrast for your task and viewing environment.

One time saving convenience if you have a guaranteed schedule is to use a lamp-timer to automatically disconnect power from your monitor during periods that you know you won’t be using your computer (like after hours for an office, or night time at home). Just make sure you have a surge protector in between your timer and your monitor, especially if you use an older mechanical timer to avoid power surges that might damage your monitor.

Tip 3: Turn stuff off when you aren’t using it using ZONES!

This is common sense, but how many of us leave all of our stuff plugged in at all times AND turned on and running at all times. Even when electronics aren’t in use, many do still use power. So get in the habit of turning things off. For example, at home I’m not constantly printing things to my printer. Its great that if it was always on I could just press print any time I wanted to, but by turning it off and/or unplugging it when not in use you can save a lot of power over time. Obviously this would be different in an office environment so use your best judgment. One way to make this easier is to use dedicated power zones.

Like I said, I counted 21 electrical devices on my computer desk. My PC and a few need-to have items are plugged into an uninteruptable power supply (a battery backup in case the power fails) this is mostly to protect the equipment and the data it contains. From there I use power strips and have created power zones I can turn on and off as I need them.

My Zones Are:

  • PC/Master Zone (contains the PC, a USB Hub, and external Hard Drives… on the UPS)
  • Monitors (stemmed from the UPS, contains the two monitors, turned off for breaks, night time)
  • Network (contains my cable modem, wireless router, VOIP, and Telephone base station, always on except on vacations)
  • Printers (contains three printers, turned off when not in use)
  • Speakers and Other PC Stuff (turned off when not in use)
  • Cell Phone and MP3 Chargers (turned off when not charging the phones)
  • Desktop Power (extra outlets, plus desk lamp and other desktop stuff)

Use a label maker and tag each power cord and each zone, that way its easy to identify equipment in a jumble of wires.

Tip 4: Use software to control your energy use

From the energy savings options built into your BIOS and your Operating System to software to throttle your processor power or automagically turn your PC on and off there are lots of ways to control your power use via software tools. Here are a few suggestions:

Granola for your PC (http://grano.la/ ) a tool that will not only throttle your modern processor power based on your usage needs but will also show you how much energy you’ve saved in terms of your carbon footprint.

Winoff (http://www.ampsoft.net/utilities/WinOFF.php ) a tool that will let you schedule and control windows shutdowns. Includes lots of options and features.

A built in GUI you didn’t know you had! (http://thefreewarejunkie.com/2008/04/did-you-know-windows-shutdownexe-has.html ) did you know that the shutdown program in windows also has its own GUI?

Tip 5: For laptop use at your desk

If you have a laptop that you use for work, chances are 90% of your laptop use is actually at your desk and you probably tend to keep it plugged in for all of this time. A laptop’s power saving software is a lot different from a desktop PC’s because its main function is to squeeze as much life out of a battery as possible by throttling back resources on the fly to reduce power consumption. Most batteries that exist today can’t last more than a very few hours if power savings aren’t turned on. This can be annoying so most users leave their laptops plugged in at their desks. They also tend to leave that power supply brick plugged in over night when they aren’t there. This of course uses extra power but it also can have the effect of reducing the life of your battery. Many batteries develop a memory and as such if left charging all the time will quickly loose their capacity to hold a charge and operate a laptop for very long. This equates to a need to recycle batteries more often that might be optimal and the cost of a new battery.

Most laptops have software to limit charge/recharge cycles for optimal battery life, but the settings can be tricky to balance useability vs. power savings. One manual way to fix this is to use a lamp timer to turn your power supply brick off and on during the day, and to totally turn it off at night (if your laptop goes home with you that is). By turning it on and off your laptop battery will go through a more normal charge/use/recharge cycle and will last longer. It also saves on a lot of unneeded vampire power. Again just make sure to use a surge protector between your timer switch and the electronics it is powering to prevent any damage by line surges. (especially true if you use an older mechanical timer).

I hope you found these tips interesting and that maybe you can save a little money, energy, and reduce your impact to the environment a little bit.

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Introduction to the “GIMP” for Educators

(some terms are defined at the bottom of this article)

The “Gimp” stands for GNU Image Manipulation Program. The Gimp is a free image editing program that has quite a bit of power. Chiefly it works with “raster” images (also known as bitmaps) and can handle many popular file formats including JPEG, GIF, and PNG. Its great for editing digital photographs and can be used as a drawing tool if you like to use raster editors to create images. The Gimp was not created specifically to be a competitor or replacement to Adobe Photoshop though it is often compared with Photoshop and in my personal opinion can easily handle 100% of the needs of a casual digital image editor, educator, or student.

The Gimp is available for multiple platforms (Windows, UNIX, OS X, and others) and is licensed under the GNU public license including totally open source code. It is one of the most popular and well known pieces of open source software. It is supported by a large community of users and a responsive community of developers that maintain, improve, and add to the program on a regular basis. There are also forums and on line documentation to help users learn how to use the Gimp’s many tools and features. One criticism of the Gimp has been that its user interface has been a bit clunky and hard to learn or use. I agree that there is room for improvement but having used the Gimp from its early days through its current incarnation I do think that they have improved the UI quite a bit over time and I have read about plans to further improve it as time goes on. There is even a fork in the Gimp code base that arranges the user interface, buttons, and control-key sequences to be much more like photoshop for those who are expert users of that software.

Some of the common tasks that I use the Gimp for include cropping photographs, changing the size/resolution of a photograph, taking the backgrounds out of images, compositing two or more images together, and adding text annotations to images. It supports concepts similar to photoshop including layers, channels, paths, brushes and plugins. It also has some useful tools for web developers including a button generator, logo generator, and image map generator.

Educators can make use of the Gimp in three main areas:

1) A free and relatively easy to use tool to edit images that you may use when building presentations, handouts, worksheets, tests, web content, or any other digital or print media. Since it runs on all platforms and is free, you can use it at home as well as at school. So even if your school has Apple and you have a PC at home (or vice versa) you can still get work done on your own terms.

2) A free tool that will work on any platform including older machines that you can use to teach students concepts of digital photography, image editing, or as a tool for students to edit images used in their own reports and presentations. As we move more and more into the age of WEB 2.0 students are going to be asked to create presentations, web pages, social media and report and publish their projects for others to see and use. A tool like the Gimp gives them a tool that will let them get this job done AND can teach them concepts they may one day need in their careers as they are called upon to create reports, publish content to a web page, or do more complex tasks.

3) A tool for scientific analysis of digital images taken for scientific purposes. It is possible to strip out certain color bands, adjust brightness and contrast, take measurements, and form conclusions based upon image data. Color analysis of pH indicators or from some other chemical reaction comes to mind. Spectral analysis may be another possibility.

Here are some resources for Educators, or anyone else interested in learning more about the Gimp:

The Gimp’s main website, from here you can download the program or its source code:
http://www.gimp.org/

Wikipedia’s entry about the Gimp. This page contains a number of useful links to Gimp and Digital Image related topics:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/GIMP

The Gimp Manual: This site is an online user manual for the Gimp:
http://manual.gimp.org/

Groking the Gimp: This site is an online version of the book “Groking the Gimp” and acts as a user manual along with some examples and tips:
http://gimp-savvy.com/BOOK/

Meet the Gimp: This site contains video tutorials, podcasts, and other articles that show tricks and tips of digital image editing. It is a wonderful resource!:
http://meetthegimp.org/

The GNU foundation: The Free Software Foundation
http://www.gnu.org/

Terms used in this article:

FORK: A term that comes from UNIX. To fork means to take one input and split it into two (or more) outputs. Those outputs may then be processed differently to produce two different versions of the same basic input. In open source software, the design of a software package often forks into two different pieces of software based upon a specific user communities needs or desires. The Gimp has a few forks including Cinepaint used in Hollywood to process film, and a version that mimics Photoshop’s user interface.

FOSS: Free Open Source Software. Free as in no cost to purchase or use, also free as in freely available, and freely distributable under public license. Open Source, as in the code used to create the software is open for all to view and modify under a public license.

GIF Image: An older image format for raster images. GIF is a proprietary format but is supported by many software tools. GIF images are limited in the number of colors they may contain but do support transparency. GIF images also support simple frame based animation and can contain multiple frames.

GNU (pronounced G-NOO with no vowel sound between the G and NOO) stands for GNU’s Not Unix and is a kind of Free Software Foundation. GNU created the GNU Public License under which many open source and freeware applications are licensed. GNU is also a big part of the operating system Linux.

JPEG Image: A common digital image format. JPEG images are raster images but do not support transparency. JPEG is a very common image format on the web and almost any software that can work with images supports this format. JPEG images support compression, which means trading file size for image clarity. Smaller file sizes means shorter download times which is why JPEG has become such a popular web image format. Most digital cameras create JPEG images. (file extension .jpg or .jpeg)

Raster Image: A bitmap image made up of pixels on a grid. Each pixel has a coordinate (x,y) and a color value. Some raster images also support transparency, in which case a pixel can also be transparent. Digital photographs are Raster Images. Raster images have a fixed resolution and if scaled image data can be lost or distorted. This is in contrast with Vector images which are more of a mathematical model of an image and are thus able to be scaled dynamically without data loss or distortion. Raster images tend to be less data intensive than Vector images which is why they are more commonly used for photographs.

PNG Image: Stands for Portable Network Graphics. This is another image format that is gaining popularity on the web. PNG images support transparency and layers and can also be compressed to save file size.