Tag Archives: Tips

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.


Information About Microscopes for Home Use

A friend who is a parent recently asked me for advice on how to pick a good microscope for use at home for his children. (I think some lucky kids might be getting an interesting Christmas present this year) 🙂 I thought I’d publish my thoughts here so that more parents might benefit. I’m not going to endorse any specific brand or reseller but instead will try to give you some information that will help you make informed choices if you are also in the market for an educational microscope.

First a disclaimer. I’m not a biologist or a biology teacher and so I don’t have years of experience first hand with microscopes. I have however had a few years of experience in the Educational supply industry and am aware of some of the issues you will run into when you are in the market for a microscope. Anyone with more experience should feel free to comment, make recommendations, or point out any issues I might have left out.

Buying a good microscope can be a dizzying proposition if you’d like to get it right. There are many manufacturers, resellers, types, and a huge price range from simple magnifiers all the way up to thousand dollar lab equipment. Microscopes and Magnifiers generally fall into price ranges including “Toy”, “Economy”, “Educational/School”, and “Industrial/Scientific”. In general you don’t want to waste your time or money on “Toy” Microscopes.

Types of Microscopes and their intended uses:


  • Purpose: Simple magnification
  • Great For: Young kids to explore more details of the world around them.
  • Neat things to look at: The back of a U.S. penny to see that Lincoln is sitting inside the Lincoln memorial, fabrics and threads, insects, textures on objects, wood grain.
  • Magnification 5-30X
  • Best Kind: Those mounted in frames used in the textiles industry for thread counting
  • Worst Kind: Cheap Dime Store/Toy/Kids magnifiers
  • Notes: Best to get some kind of frame and built-in light source (LED if possible). It is ok and even preferable to get a magnifying glass made out of acrylic plastic. If you can check the lens for distortions, light halos, or other aberrations.

Field/Pocket Microscopes

  • Purpose: Higher magnification than a simple magnifying glass sometimes with features of an actual microscope but intended to be portable.
  • Great For: Use outside or on a trip.
  • Neat things to look at: Grains of sand or soil, insects, parts of plants, the surface of rocks and minerals.
  • Magnification 5-150X (sometimes up to 300 in professional models)
  • Best Kind: Those with higher quality optics, focus adjustments, and built in light sources (single hand-held and sometimes with a clip-on-frame for holding actual slides)
  • Worst Kind: Units without a focus adjustment (toys or units that are really just magnifiers)
  • Notes: If you have a child between the ages of 5 and 10, and don’t care to focus on very small objects (like cells, protozoa, etc) then a good pocket scope is an excellent and inexpensive choice to get a young mind thinking about the structure of the world around them. Some models do even have enough magnification to view large cells and structures in plants. If you have an older child or want to focus on very small objects a more traditional bench microscope (digital or optical) is probably a better choice.

Optical Microscopes

  • Purpose: Viewing details of biological specimens, cells, and other very small objects.
  • Great For: Science Fair experiments in biology, observing different kinds of cells, learning about biological concepts.
  • Neat to look at: Prepared microscope slides, your own slides, cells.
  • Magnification: 30-300X
  • Best Kind: All metal construction with glass optics and built in light source (preferably LED since an LED doesn’t heat the sample as much as quartz or other high power white lights).
  • Worst Kind: Plastic construction with plastic optics or mirror light source. The higher the magnification being used the more problems you will have focusing on a sample if the focus mechanism, stage, or light source is not sturdy and adjustable.
  • Notes: Bench-top optical microscopes (just like the ones you used in Biology class in high school) are great for observing cells and other small objects. Keep in mind if you buy a microscope you’ll also want to have something to look at. The younger your child is the more important having a source of prepared slides can be. Many microscope kits include slides, slide preparation equipment, and pre-mounted slides of common biological specimens. Quality varies directly with price and if you go for a cheap scope you will also probably get cheap slide materials. Glass slides are better though might be dangerous for younger children. Never let your young child use this equipment without supervision. There are also great sources of prepared slides for use with any microscope. An excellent supplier is Carolina Biological Supply Company of Burlington NC.

Optical Stereo Microscopes

  • Purpose: Viewing details on larger objects, especially rocks and minerals.
  • Great For: More detailed viewing of rocks and minerals than can be achieved with a pocket or field scope, though not as good for tiny biological application due to the lower magnification involved.
  • Neat to look at: Rocks and Minerals, Insects, other larger small objects
  • Magnification: 10X to 100X
  • Best Kind: Same rules as an optical microscope, all metal construction, fine focus control, good light source.
  • Worst Kind: Plastic construction, plastic optics, indirect light sources.
  • Notes: If your child has more interest in geology than biology then a stereo microscope may be a better choice since they can focus more on rocks and minerals. Stereo means two eye-pieces and thus the ability to have some depth perception (distorted through magnification) and so is better for seeing structures in 3D.

Hand Held Digital Microscopes

  • Purpose: Viewing small details on objects like rocks and minerals, wood, circuit boards, etc. Similar to a field/pocket magnifier but tethered via USB cable to a computer and therefore able to view the image on a larger screen as well as to take digital images.
  • Great For: Seeing details on the surface of objects that are otherwise too big to bring to a standard microscope. For example you can view the hair on someone’s head or details of the skin on their arm.
  • Neat to look at: The surface of larger objects that can not be moved to the stage of a conventional microscope. Rocks, Minerals, Insects, Human Beings, Electronics, other small objects.
  • Magnification: 5-300X (though usually more like a field scope limited around 100X)
  • Best Kind: Units that have a stage as well as a portable capability.
  • Worst Kind: Models that aren’t much more than a low quality web camera with snap on optics. Always look for the highest resolution digital camera on board as possible.
  • Notes: A USB Digital microscope is probably the best compromise between all features of all the different kinds of microscopes. Since it is connected to a computer you have a large screen to view things on and share with the whole family as well as the ability to take digital pictures and use them in lab reports or science fair experiments. The best kind are those that have high magnification and also have a snap-on stage for use with slides as more of a conventional microscope. Something to consider when looking at digital microscopes is the quality and features of the software that is bundled with the hardware. Look for online reviews for the specific unit you are interested in and let that help you make your decisions.

Optical/Digital Microscopes

  • Purpose: The same as a conventional optical microscope only with a digital camera built in.
  • Great For: All of the same things as an optical microscope but with the added benefits of a digital microscope.
  • Neat to look at: Same as an optical microscope.
  • Magnification: Same as an optical microscope.
  • Best Kind: A quality optical microscope that has a digital camera replacement for the eye piece. Look for all metal construction, glass optics, LED light source.
  • Worst Kind: Plastic construction.
  • Notes: An Optical/Digital Microscope is best for a “lab” or “classroom” type environment with the added benefits of a digital camera and computer-screen display. It has the same limitations as a traditional optical microscope but is slightly better for use with slides and traditional biological applications (like viewing cells).

My personal recommendation is to pick between a hand-held digital microscope with good resolution and a high magnification rate and an optical/digital microscope. The key difference is general magnification vs. biological application though the hand-held unit that has a stage attachment can be used for biological applications too. Overall always look for quality construction, glass optics, metal stage, and direct LED lighting. Don’t forget that prepared slides (especially for biological application) can be an important add-on, as well as slide preparing tools. Generally glass slides are better though you won’t want to pick glass slides with younger experimenters. Always teach your children proper care, use, and safety when using any scientific or technical instrument and always supervise younger children.