One catch: It was a hoax, one worthy of coal in the stocking.
This year, Alek says it's legitimate. While visions of IP routers danced in his head, he strung up three Web cams and other high-tech paraphernalia to produce the real thing.
But is it?
Two trips to his Lafayette home (one was a secret, nighttime stakeout of his house), one phone call and several e-mails tell the tale:
My mission, should I have chosen to accept it (and I did because the News paid me overtime), was to gather evidence that Alek's display could be manipulated on the Internet. Because every Top Secret Mission needs a sidekick, I employed the resources of Special Assistant Jayson Haberkorn, who accompanied me to the stakeout. Braving 100-mph wind gusts, we headed north to Lafayette. On the way, we hit three tumble weeds, saw dozens of non-Internet-controlled Christmas displays and passed eleven Starbucks.
19:17: Jayson and I attempt to gain access to the Blue Heron Estates via the front security gate. But the gate, itself decked out with red lights, won't rise — possibly because the lights are shorting out the gate. Jayson suggests it's ironic that Christmas lights are impeding our mission.
19:18: An unidentified male subject pulls up behind us in a pickup truck. Exiting my vehicle, I ask the man if he has the passcode. He says: "Um, well, no, I'm just here visiting a, uh, friend." Yeah, sure, buddy.
19:20: We shift into reverse and pull off to the side of the road to wait surreptitiously for another vehicle to pass through. Seeing our chance, we closely follow a car through the gate before it nearly smashes into my hood.
19:23: We arrive at the house. I try to call a co-worker, Gunner, to see if he can manipulate the lights from his newsroom computer, but I can't get a cell signal. My second option is to hack into a neighborhood wireless connection with my laptop. While successful, my signal is weak, but I'm still able to access the Web.
19:26: The first task is to check that the Web cams are working. This is easy. Jayson jogs into the driveway. A few seconds later, a camera snaps his image, and I save it to my desktop. (See Evidence Item 1)
19:29: I turn off all lights via the laptop. The lights are in seven different "zones," which control different sets of lights. The light zones indicate "OFF" but some lights are still on. I'm not sure if this is a delay or because the zone status is not an accurate reflection of the house's display. Still, this heightens my suspicions that this is still a hoax. (See Evidence Item 2)
19:32: Operation Deflate Frosty: I click "deflate," and after Frosty's internal light dims, he collapses much in the same manner as he melts on the children's holiday special.
19:34: I turn off all lights, and approximately 10 seconds later everything goes dark, except for one strand of lights that seems unaffected by the Website's controls.
19:36: I switch on Zone 1, and it turns on about five seconds later.
19:36: Gunner turns off all the lights via his newsroom Internet connection. About 10 seconds later they go off.
19:37: I attempt to deflate Frankenstein. He shrinks immediately.
19:38: Gunner informs me that Seattle is beating Philadelphia 14-0 on Monday Night Football.
19:39: Jayson says: "I think this guy is legit. And we saw me up on the Web cam, so we know that works as well. If he put up a display, you think it would look nicer. Of course, the wind may have (shifted) it a bit today."
19:40: I turn off all the lights. Some stay on. I shrug. I don't know for sure this isn't a hoax.
19:41: I call it a night.
Three days later, I played the Grinch. I called Alek, hoping I could either poke holes in his story or verify it wasn't a hoax. Most of the conversation was highly technical, but I was able to confirm one key element: The ON/OFF status column to the right of the ON/OFF controls is not a direct reflection of what's lit up or inflated. It only shows the last accepted command from a user. In other words, if you click OFF, it will say OFF, but that doesn't mean the lights are off on the house.
"It's really easy to verify that it's working," Alek tells me.
"It's not easy to prove that it's not working," I tell him.
Alek wants to turn me into a believer. He tries to nail me down on a percentage of my confidence. He says my sneaking around his neighborhood in the dark was the best method to verify his claims.
"I'm really giving you a compliment," Alek says. "I give you total geek points for bringing up a laptop."
I tell him I'm not sure that will win me points with girls.
During an e-mail exchange over the next couple hours, Alek assured me I could test his truthfulness. He suggested I visit him Friday, and he would set up the system on another Web page to which only I would have access.
A "pretty much a slam dunk demo/verification would be having you up here during the day and have me next to you in the driveway," he wrote.
And if that's not convincing enough, Alek tells me I can order him: "TAKE YOUR HANDS OFF THE KEYBOARD ALEK!"
I take the bait. At 9:30 a.m. Friday, Ivo Majetic — one of our hotshot techies — and I arrive at Alek's house.
It's below freezing outside, but Alek is, well, jolly. You can feel his excitement. He wants to prove himself. And he tells me his brain has a bionic implant that can read my thoughts. I'm not sure that he's joking. Seriously, you should see this guy's house. There is so much Internet in it you'd think Al Gore designed it.
Alek informs us that while the zones can be switched using the Internet, he also has a run-of-the-mill remote that can do the same — without the Internet. He hands the remote to Ivo. He tells me he wants me to throw him curveballs. He wants me to trick him.
I access his neighbor's wireless connection and go to work:
I pull up the version of the Web page meant only for my eyes.
Turn Zone 2 on. Turn Zone 2 off. Inflate Frosty. Deflate Frankenstein. It all seems to work. (See Evidence Item 3)
Next, Alek suggests we trace the lines of power from Frankenstein. A simple power line connects the giant inflatable monster to an X10 receiver that leads to an outlet. The X10 receiver is a small, white box that designates which zone a particular decoration is tuned to.
I use a flat-head screwdriver to switch Frankenstein to Zone 2. Alek shoots his hands in the air. "Look! Hands out of the pockets." I deflate Frankenstein by turning off Zone 2.
Next, without Alek's knowledge, I instant message the private URL to a co-worker in the newsroom. I give her specific commands. She tries to inflate Frosty. About 10 seconds later, he rises — a bit groggily.
"Good curveball," Alek says.
We head inside to his home office, where Alek explains in further detail how the system works. Ivo tagged along so he could fully vette the code that churns this project along. Ivo and Alek banter about computer stuff — Perl, cron, wget, IPs — that whole thing. I'm too busy manipulating a ladder-climbing Santa doll from my laptop to notice. (See screengrab from Alek's office)
Ivo and I are fairly confident it's not a hoax this time.
Alek asks me if I'm convinced: I give him politicians' answers. I evade. I hem and haw. Do I want to be duped? No. Am I 100 percent convinced? No. Do I want a giant, inflatable Frankenstein? Yes.
Tim Skillern is a multimedia producer and reporter for RockyMountainNews.com. He hasn't decorated his house for Christmas because he's too lazy to get the tree out of the basement.