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Christmas Cheer Technology

Alek Komarnitsky's Huge Christmas Light Display Still Going Strong (Video) 29

Posted by timothy
from the imagine-a-world-with-sentient-holiday-light-displays dept.
Alek Komarnitsky isn't the only one obsessed with Christmas lights. He's quick to point out that the display he assembles and improves each year at his Colorado home (in a "never-ending cycle") isn't the most elaborate in the country by a long shot, even among householders. But most of those other displays, no matter how complex, don't have the feature that's made Alek's an internet draw for many years running: visitors to the site not only get to see a live web-cam view of the system, but can flip the lights on and off themselves, making it a globally accessible interactive system. It's all based on home-grown scripts running on Linux (Alek says it's about as elegant as "duct tape and wire"), running old-school X10 controllers, and — surprisingly to me — the lights are mostly still conventional incandescents, rather than LED. This year, I finally caught up with Alek before Christmas; watch the video below to see our conversation. And even though Alek neither solicits nor wants money from people who like his Christmas display for himself, he does it partly as a benefit for Celiac Disease Research, and anything you give to this worthy cause is appreciated. Update: 12/23 21:21 GMT by T : NOTE: tune in starting around 4 PM Mountain time, and you'll get to see the system lit up.

Tim:Alek, we’re talking about your Christmas lights. That’s the reason that we’re in conversation right now. It’s almost Christmas of 2013 and this is how many years is it now that you’ve been doing an elaborate Christmas display in your house?

Alek:Well, Tim I started in 1999 and you know I just put out a few lights for the neighbors but it’s kind of a long story. In 2002, being a techno-geek I said, hey, let’s take Christmas lights to the next level and let people around the world not only see them but also control them. But technology wasn’t quite there at 2002 and so I had simulated. So I took up a series of still images with different conditions, all that with lights on, lights off and then used some Perl code and Perl magic routines and then basically through a set of still images made it appear that the lights were going on and off.

Well, I did this for a couple of years to kind of add fun, it was a good little joke and the next year got a hold of it, 2004, it was going bonkers. It was kind of crazy. It was really eye opening. And the next thing I knew, I was all over the news for my lights that were turned on and off. My neighbors were like, “Hey Alek, they are not turning on and off.”

Well, long story short, and this is a long answer to your short question Tim, is I actually outed myself, ended up talking to Wall Street Journal and said, “Hey, this thing got out of control.” It’s just strange and so that was 2004. Now in 2005, the challenge had been thrown, so it was time to raise the bar. So I actually went out and got a real webcam, I’ve always used something called X10 technology, but I wired that to a Linux laptop using a USB controller, actually back then it was this RS232 serial controller. And starting in 2005 it was real. The webcams are real, the images are real and you really could turn the lights on and off.

Now, needless to say the press was a little more skeptical that year and they actually came out of the house and checked it out. And after a little more investigative research, they said, hey, this guy is real McCoy. So since 2005, Tim, the lights have been – the lights always have been real but since 2005, people on the Internet from around the world, so over 100 countries every year turned my, this year, 22,000 lights on and off all day, every day through the month of December.

Tim:Now when you have more than 20,000 lights going at once, your electric bill must be off the charts? Are these all LEDs now, did they start out LED, what’s the configuration you got that way?

Alek:That’s a clever question Tim, I like that.It’s like National Lampoon’s Christmas vacation. The nuclear power plant, all of a sudden has to go to maxed power. Actually the total on the webpage, the total current draw is about 70 amps this year, about 22,000 lights. But there is actually very few LEDs just because I am a guy that always buys stuff at garage sales or 50% to 75% off. And over the years I have accumulated so many lights, it’s kind of hard to make a capital investment to buy more lights especially if my wife finds out I am doing it.

So while LED lights are pretty cool, really LED lights aren’t as energy economical to use only for the month of December, they are much more economical to use year around. And I actually did recently switch to some outdoor lights for LEDs. They are just fantastic. But, again, long answer to your short question, only a few LED lights, mostly the old in-conducive, many lights and then a whole bunch of inflatables.

Tim:And you plateaued somewhat in the actual buying of lights each year?

Alek:Well, every year I’m always on a look out for more stuff. I will say Tim I used to years ago hit the post-Christmas sales at like Target, Walmart, Home Depot and Lowe’s pretty hard, but yes, that is definitely plateaued, but I’m always on a look out for like Goodwill, it’s a great place, or garage sales, if I see something interesting and I’m trying to remember; this year, I think I added snoopy, an inflatable snoopy on a doghouse and that’s down there by the sidewalks of kidswalk____5:21.

Tim:Besides the lights, you mentioned that you are using Linux computers to control the entire apparatus. Tell us a little bit about that infrastructure, what does it take, what sort of software you are using to?

Alek:Well, you know, being an old software guy, it’s a lot of duct-tape and baling wire to tie it all together. It’s kind of amazing how it works. The code is involved over the years. Let’s say on the public side I’ve got a couple of dedicated servers, it’s soft layer, those are running Linux RedHat, basically a bunch of Perl code provides a web frontend and then there is a CGI there that when people press the ON button, of course it’s an AJAX call and then that message is sent back to my home to a Linux IBM ThinkPad, old classic machine.

And then that ThinkPad, which again is running Linux, has a USB X10 controller attached to it that’s a transmitter. That transmitter goes to an X10 receiver, which is plugged into a nearby extension cord and then that receiver transmits the X10 signals throughout the house wiring. That’s how X10 works. It’s kind of an old standard. It’s not always reliable, but it doesn’t have to be in this case and then Voilà, I’ve got a bunch of super sockets, appliance modules, lamp modules all over the place. I get these on eBay. I have to buy a few every year because they blow out. And then all the various circuits are turned on and off basically with the click of the mouse, but that’s all the magic behind the scenes.

Tim:Do your neighbors have any either objections or praise for your system?

Alek:Well, the neighbors say, the biggest issue they have is when they drive in the neighborhood, I have a family in neighborhood, is their kids always insist they have to turn to the right because my house is on the right. So, no, my neighbors have been great. They think the whole thing is pretty hilarious. They think it adds a lot of Christmas spirit. It’s kind of zany and it’s been a lot of fun.

Tim:Now, you do have a serious purpose though in actually putting this entire system on your house. Can you talk about that a little bit? What’s your motivation?

Alek:Well, my real motivation quite frankly, Tim, is kind of fun and it brings a lot of smiles to people’s faces, but I think what you are referring to is my kids were diagnosed with something called celiac disease and it’s a long story, but that was many years ago. And so, I partnered at the time with the University of Maryland Center for Celiac Research. They moved last year to Massachusetts General; they are affiliate of Harvard now.

And so, the website is totally free. You can push lights on and off as much as you want, don’t pay a penny. But it’s gotten a little blurb there that says, “Hey man, if you feel like in a holiday spirit, if you want to donate, here is a web address for the Center for Celiac Research and if you want to chip in a few bucks, that would be wonderful.” And over the years, I mean, this is going to sound some kind of strange, but over the years, over $80,000 has been raised to help find a cure for celiac disease from people that like to come by and look at my Christmas lights. It’s – who would have figured?

Tim:That’s quite a number. I learned this year from you over an email correspondence that it’s not only Christmas that you do these for, you have them up at other holidays, at Halloween?

Alek:Oh, that’s right, yeah. Well, Halloween is a warm-up. So, as with any infrastructure system, you need to exercise it because what happens is, as you may have heard software rusts; of course, we all know 0s and 1s don’t really rust, but code kind of falls apart. And so even though, it’s the same code with a few minor tweaks every year is, I fire things up at Halloween, and it’s the same basic set-up; it’s just a few less lights, a few less inflatables. And that of course accumulates on Halloween night, which of course as you can imagine, my house is pretty popular at that night.

Tim:Do you publish the code that you have written for this?

Alek:I actually have never published the code. I mean, it’s ugly to look at. I mean, I wrote most of this code a decade ago. And now, like I said, there is a baling wire and duct-tape tying this whole thing together. So even I, I’ll sometimes go look into it, I’m like “god, who the heck wrote this crap?” And I’m like, “Oh, yeah, I guess, it was me.”

Tim:Well, I hope the electrical system at your house is never run into any big problems because of so many things plugged in at once.

Alek:Well, there have been a few issues, but not too many. Fortunately I have a 200 amp main feed and so again, the total draw is 70 amps. The key there, Tim, is to make sure you’re balancing the load and I have one of those little hand-held kilowatt things that measures the amps load and so, I try and never to run more than 10 amps per circuit, but certainly if my wife plugs into the same circuit I have on my lights, then it all goes on with a hair-dryer; occasionally, something will pop.

Tim:Alek, let me ask you one more question. Do you have advice either let’s say social, cultural, or technical for somebody who wants to do this kind of vibrant display on their house and their neighborhood. What would you like to do differently if you had to do it over?

Alek:I don’t know if I would do it differently. Tim, there is some displays out there that are just absolutely fantastic. You may have seen some, they have like one band lights, they are set to music, they are animated, they have a low-power FM broadcasting and so, they attract a huge number of people, which quite frankly will be awful at this neighborhood. Again, I have great neighbors and especially Christmas Eve, cars will drive by all the time, but there is a display locally that blows mine away and it’s like quarter-mile on cars to get in there. And so, the nice thing about the internet is anybody can come by and I don’t care about the traffic. So in terms of, I don’t know if I would do anything differently. It’s just kind of been one little niche; again, there are displays out there that are much better than mine, but I really don’t know any out there that are the size of mine, have been doing it for six years and has kind of unique thing that allows people to turn stuff on and off.

Tim:Well, Alek, I hope the next couple of days is all smooth-sailing for you in your house.

Alek:Well, it’s always fun to show up on Slashdot. My servers enjoy the thrashing they get every year from you guys. It’s fun to watch the load factor get a little crazy.

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Alek Komarnitsky's Huge Christmas Light Display Still Going Strong (Video)

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