A-1: Why do you put out so many xmas/christmas lights?
A-1: (2005_12_25) That's a good question - I'm not sure myself! I will say that seeing the joy in people's faces (especially the younger kids and older generation) makes all the work worthwhile. I've also appreciated all the Emails from folks from around the world who have said I really made their day. So consider it my way of spreading the Holiday Cheer! ;-) It's also nice that I'm able to raise some awareness/donations for Celiac Disease and finally, the technological aspects of the "Internet'ization" is a challenge - kinda like a puzzle. In summary, it's just "fun!"
A-2: Is it xmas lights or christmas lights?
A-2: (2007_11_28) The later is probably more correct ... although the former is probably more (ugh!) politically correct, but I like to shorten things, so I often will use xmas interchangeably with christmas. Seinfeld fan DianaK suggested I should just say Festivus! ;-)
A-3: What does your wife/kids/neighbors/etc. think of all of this?
A-3: (2008_11_20) While my wife is not always thrilled ("what do you need MORE lights for?!?"), She's a pretty good sport ... and she's even Jewish! ;-) It's a lotta work doing the design, setup, and takedown, and she helps a bit there, although she's not too happy about the webcam and some of the "geek tricks" I do there. My kids are still a bit young to really help a lot (although they are good at stepping on the lights), and their attention span is limited ... but they especially like to watch/control the lights. Some folks do wonder about the "light show" when things are flickering pretty fast though (!) ... but surprisingly, my family seems to have gotten used to that ... as have the neighbors. Update: As my kids have gotten older, they have gotten more helpful ... both on the design and implementation - great Santa Helpers! They enjoy playing around with the X10 wireless remote and "giving demos" to people that stop by. The neighbors think the whole thing is a hoot (heck, one of the webcams is across the street) and the local kids love it, often asking their parents to drive past the "crazy" house. The kids have learned to ask to borrow the X10 remotes themselves and "battle" Internet surfers for control. It's become an annual tradition that is fun for the whole community with people stopping by in November to say "we are looking forward to another year of your display Alek"
A-4: Why LESS lights for 2003 and what's the story behind "Burnt Out!"
A-4: (2005_12_02) For 2000, I had 12,000 Xmas lights, 2001 was Xmas lights 16,000, and 2002 was 22,000 Xmas lights. It's a LOTTA work doing all of this, and my wife was not always "happy" about all this time spent doing Xmas lights ... so I said I would take a break for 2003 - so it's only 3,558 lights ... and my brother Kurt suggested the "Burnt Out!" theme could describe how one can feel about it sometime ... plus that's what happens to Xmas lights. In keeping with that theme, the large Red/Green letters in the front lawn spell "Burnt Out!" and instead of insuring that all of the lights continue to work and/or are straight/even/etc., I "let it go" a bit ... although my neighbors say I need to give it a little more of a disheveled look. But you'll be happy to know that I "rebounded" in 2004 with 17,000 lights ... and went all-out in 2005 with 26,000 ... finally more than Clark Griswold! ;-)
A-5: When are the Halloween and Christmas Displays up and online?
A-5: (2008_11_20) I try to have the Christmas display up and running by Thanksgiving and take it down after New Years. The Halloween display is up for the month of October.
A-6: What's new and different for this year?
A-6: (2011_07_22) Take a look at the halloween 2011 and christmas 2011 pages.
A-7: Can I link to your web site?
A-7: (2007_08_25) I appreciate any efforts to spread the word about the Controllable Holiday Lights for Celiac Disease - here is some sample linking code for Halloween and Christmas.
A-8: What's this I hear about your raising money for Celiac Disease Research?
A-8: (2013_02_24) My kids have Celiac Disease which is an intolerance to gluten - i.e. wheat, oats, barley, etc. So I'm working with the University of Maryland Center for Celiac Research to raise money for them with my Christmas lights - yea, go figure. Total raised as of February 24th, 2013 is $76,865 for a good cause - please consider donating now.
A-9: Do people think you have the "best" Christmas Display in the world?
A-9: (2008_12_22) There are many great looking Christmas displays out there, many more extravagant than mine ... and regardless, I don't feel there is a competition. However, in 2008, I won the Nationwide KFC Christmas Contest ... so I guess Colonel Sanders likes it. I got a free year of KFC (that's a lotta buckets of Extra Crispy - BBUURRPP!!!!) along with a $1,000 cash prize which I had them donate to Celiac Disease.
B-1: Where do you get all these xmas/christmas lights?
B-1: (2003_01_01) AFTER xmas - that's when they all go on sale! You typically see 50% off after xmas day, then 75% after New Years, followed by 90% off a week later ... but the selection is getting pretty sparse by then. I was successful in buying (a LOT of) boxes of 100 lights for 22 cents - can't get much cheaper than that!
B-2: Where do you store all these xmas lights?
B-2: (2005_12_02) For years, they were piled HIGH in corner of my unfinished basement. However, I finally finished my basement crawlspace which is perfect for 'em! ;-)
B-3: How come you don't use LED lights?
B-3: (2009_11_24) LED Christmas lights started to become available around 2002 and I've seen more and more of these in the last few years. This is definitely the future of lighting, as they generate little heat (almost all light) and therefore are much more energy efficient, plus safer. They also have much longer lifetimes, ability to stand up to abuse (no thin filament), and colors are better (although a pure white is challenging for 'em) since they are pure, rather than painted on, which fades with age on standard lights. However, they are currently darn pricey as I write this in late/2007 - here's an advertising circular showing 'em at 10X the price - ouch! A good deal on a box of 70 LED mini-lights is $13, whereas I picked up a boatload of 100 standard mini-lights for 22 cents (90% off!) after Christmas/2003. So do the economic math if it makes sense for me to upgrade to LED's - lets make the calculations easy and assume they use no electricity. For 2007, I had 17,000 lights ... so buying that many LED's would cost over $3,000. My display with (mostly) non-LED mini-lights draws 65 Amps of Power (7,500 Watts), and if you leave them on 5 hours/day for 40 days, that is a 1,500 KiloWatt-Hours of electricity consumed ... but remember that my lights are turned OFF a lot by Internet users, so lets assume 33% reduction. At 10 cents/KWH, the electricity cost is $100/year. So it would take several decades (even ignoring interest expense) before I broke even buying LED's. In 2009, the City of Denver switched their display to LED lights. Total cost was $325,000 which will result in annual savings of $147,000 in labor costs, $18,000 in maintenance costs, $12,000 in equipment costs, and $2,500 in electricity costs. While the "labor cost" seem a high to me (although LED's don't break as much) ... it doesn't make sense to switch solely because of the reduction in electricity cost. So while I'd love to switch, it's just not economically feasible yet. BTW, if you want to use LED technology, consider replacing something like your porch light which is on all year ... but hopefully is on a timer like mine are!
B-4: I've heard that LED lights can flicker
B-4: (2007_11_08) There's an issue with some older LED light sets in that they flicker at the frequency of the electricity (60 Hz in the US, typically 50 Hz elsewhere). Richard from the UK writes that one workaround for this is to open up the controller box and solder in a 4700 microfarad (or greater if it will fit) capacitor across the power supply - thanx for the tip!
C-1: How much electricity does it take to run all these lights?
C-1: (2008_11_05) The electric meter does spin a bit! ;-) I'd estimate that for 2002, it was about 2 MegaWatts-Hours of power. That was the peak year, when I had 22,000 Christmas Lights. Having said that, the actual dollar amount is a bit of a letdown for those people that think this is thousands of dollars. For instance, in 2004 (with 17,000 christmas lights), the incremental electric bill was not even $150 (my cost of electricity is about 10 cents/KW-H and I also pay another ~cent/KW-H for Wind Energy). i.e. less than $5/day to bring a lotta joy to a lotta people plus raise money for charity and awareness for Celiac Disease - worth it! And while I had 26,000 lights for christmas 2005, they actually blinked on and off for real ... so the 75 Amp draw wasn't continuous. Turns out my December/2004 usage for everything in the house was 2,290 KiloWatt-Hours and in December/2005 (with more lights) was 2,272 KiloWatt-Hours ... so you can save money on your christmas lights energy bill by letting Internet surfers turn them on and off! ;-) In 2006 (with 15,000 lights), 1,928 KiloWatt-Hours were used for everything in the house - in 2007 (17,000 lights), it was 1,990 KWH. Halloween has considerably less lights, so the amperage draw is much less - typically about a dollar/day. Here is detailed electrical info on the current displays for Christmas and Halloween which is measured using a hand-held Kill-a-Watt device ... you can also use this handy webpage to see how much power your Christmas Lights use. So the actual incremental cost of the Christmas Lights ends up being about $3/day - well worth it for all the Christmas Cheer they provide, plus raising money for charity and increasing awareness of Celiac Disease.
C-2: What is this about powering 'em with wind-energy?
C-2: (2008_11_05) Yep - that did happen in 2002 - wind powered Christmas Lights. Unfortunately, nobody volunteered to pay for it in 2003 or 2004 ... but I decided to ante up myself for 2005 and then subsequent years. If nothing else, the environmentally correct folks should appreciate that. And along those lines, I decided to take it to the next step and purchase a Carbon Offset for the electricity consumed (even though it already comes from a "clean" source). So while that 2 MegaWatt-Hours includes non-Christmas related stuff, I punched that number into the Carbon Counter and got 1.13 tons of CO2. And then I made a donation to CarbonFund.org (transaction #VSHJ0C6297A2-350607) to cover twice that. In 2008, it was transaction #56283 and they Email'ed me a spiffy thanks. And while bazillions of people around the world would like to see my lights ON, if you are environmentally inclined, you can help out by turning them OFF! ;-)
C-3: What type of wiring/fuses/etc. do you have for this?
C-3: (2006_08_03) You want to be safe doing this - wires can get warm/hot from having too much power going through 'em ... and my wife used to not be able to use the hair dryer when the lights were on. But I added some additional circuits in 2002, and this makes balancing the power much easier as I try to keep the load under 10 Amps/circuit. I have a standard 200 Amp main feed into the house - haven't blown that ... yet! ;-)
C-4: Do your lights dim when the lights go on and off?
C-4: (2006_01_04) Even during the simulation, the lights were on X10 control and I could toggle 'em via a remote ... but I rarely saw any flicking of the regular house lamps. Ditto from 2005 on when they actually did blink on & off like crazy! ;-)
C-5: Can you "hear" the lights when they go on and off?
C-5: (2005_11_27) Sounds like a dumb question, but you actually can! The X10 Appliance Modules which have a mechanical relay that opens/closes with a "Click" ... so when things are going crazy, you can definitely hear a "Click-Click-Click-Click" - listen to the Christmas music! ;-)
C-6: What is happening at the electrical substation when your lights are going nuts?!?
C-6: (2006_11_08) I can only imagine ... although someone sent me this nifty video (and a couple years later an explanation) of what happens when Arc Quenching Bottles Fail on a 500 Kilo-Volt Circuit Disconnect Switch and also a transformer explodes.
C-7: How does much X10 stuff do you have and how does it all work
C-7: (2009_10_26) When Internet surfers click ON/OFF on the web page, a command ends up being sent to a Linux Laptop in my house. It has an X10 CM19 USB interface (was a Firecracker Serial Interface) which then transmits the specific command which is picked up by several wireless receiver/transmitter devices that are plugged into outlets in my house. The signal is sent through the house wiring and the appropriate set of X10 devices respond. There are dozens of outlets (with X10 SR227 Super Sockets) and Appliance & Lamp Modules groups in (typically) six zones for Halloween and eight for Christmas. And yes, X10 isn't the most reliable protocol, but my guess is it works over 90% of the time, even in this extreme situation. Note that there also is a 1-2 second latency also. Needless to say, there is quite a bit of software behind all of this that "glues" it together and provides the "magic" - mostly written in Perl. BTW, from 2002-2004 when it was a simulation, I had an X10 sensors FAQ but just about all of that was simulated also! ;-) X10 is only used to turn stuff on & off.
C-8: What happens when you lose electricity
C-8: (2005_09_25) This actually happened late Halloween/2004 night when we had an ice storm. The webcam and PC are on UPS power (more for power protection rather than run-time), but they will actually continue to work for another 15 minutes or so. Needless to say, the holiday lights are NOT on UPS, so the resulting images aren't worth looking at. Since the UPS "signals" when power is lost, I'm thinking of catching the signal so I can flag a blackout to surfers ... and I may wire a lamp that goes on when this occurs. Interesting enough, no change/update required for this question & answer for 2005 when I did it for real! ;-)
C-9: How many extension cords do you use for all this?
C-9: (2006_01_04) For Christmas/2005, here's a picture of me with 60 extension cords that were a total of 1,008 feet.
C-10: What happens when your lights break and/or stop working?
C-10: (2006_04_07) I spend a lot of time trying to fix the christmas lights ... but if that doesn't succeed, they typically didn't cost much, so I eventually have to chuck 'em.
D-1: What is the christmas_webcam ... and halloween_webcam?
D-1: (2008_11_05) I guess there is a natural evolution in xmas lights. First, you put a bunch out and folks drive by to look at them. Then you put pictures on the Internet and people surf to look at static images. Then you add a webcam to provide a real-time view. And finally, you then integrate that with web_control to not only allow web surfers to pan/zoom the webcam, but also turn the lights on and off! Another nifty idea was allowing web surfers to type in a message that is then displayed on a laptop in the office cam for all to see. I'm always up for more fun zany ideas.
D-2: What a minute - people on the Internet can turn your lights on & off?!?
D-2: (2008_11_05) Since the lights are all controlled via X-10, it's not difficult to integrate a web interface that takes inputs from the user, sends X-10 commands to toggle the lights, and then the webcam shows the results. Click here to see some screen shots and at the appropriate times of the year, come by to see (and USE!) the halloween webcam and the christmas webcam. There is a rate-limiter at the web server that throttles the requests since X10 is capable of at most one update/second. I'd also add that the system is fully automatic and can (and has) started itself up and shut down by itself when I have been out of town.
D-3: But I read that it was all a big hoax?
D-3: (2006_10_01) The lights have always been real, but yes, from 2002-2004, I did a simulation of a webcam - the image quality and general technology of webcams just wasn't "there" yet. So after Christmas/2004, I out'ed myself by disclosing the hoax to the Wall Street Journal. Read my detailed writeup of the hoax and this generated quite a bit of press. Technology continues to improve, and from 2005 on, I did it for real ... or is that Memorex! ;-)
D-4: If I see something interesting, can I make the webcam follow it?
D-4: (2006_09_25) The webcam simulation introduced user driven Pan/Zoom capability for Halloween/2003, so while it theory you could follow something, in actual practice, it's hard to follow a dynamic object due to time delays, plus there was often dozens or hundreds of web surfers using the site, so you all have to "BATTLE" for control of the webcam. For that reason, I have not enabled PTZ capability for Internet users ... yet.
D-5: Where can I read more about how this works?
D-5: (2003_11_11) Here is the Halloween/Christmas webcam FAQ and there also is an X10 sensors FAQ.
D-6: What type of webcam are you using?
D-6: (2005_12_19) The answer to this question used to be - I can't answer that question due to non-disclosure, but lets just say I have a friend who works in the digital imaging business and I'm able to "test" some of the stuff they work on in their Labs. I've been asked this question several times since the image quality is quite a bit better than those $19.99 webcams ... so my friend said: 'You can say that the webcam takes a 640x480 pixel image using a 1/2.7" sensor - size matters when it comes to pixels!' For 2005 onward, I ante'd up the big bucks for several D-Link DCS-6620G wireless webcams (they are NOT cheap!) and while pretty decent, here are my D-Link Issues. I then built my own outdoor webcam housing for a whopping $27.34 ... a LOT cheaper than spending $500+ for the commercial enclosures.
D-7: Where is your webcam located?
D-7: (2005_11_21) Since it was a simulation, the webcam didn't really exist ... although since I had so much media attention, I cobbled something up and tossed what looked like a webcam in a tree across the street. The still pictures for the simulation were shot from almost the same spot incidentally. For 2005 on, ChristmasCam #1 is tucked away (and well anchored) across the street on my neighbor's property. BTW, he has a gun collection and a dog named Husker who doesn't like strangers - took a while to warm up even to me - it would NOT be a good idea to go over there. Along those lines, you are welcome to send me Emails, but don't knock on my door - my wife thinks it is kinda "spooky" (she's right) and has questioned even doing this whole project ... so don't ruin it for everyone. ChristmasCam #2 is inside my house looking down on the front yard, and ChristmasCam#3 is in my office - aka Santa's Workshop! ;-)
D-8: Can I come by and look at your lights?
D-8: (2005_09_25) Welllll ... we live on a public street, so I obviously can't say no ... but I discourage this for a few reasons. First, I live in a gated community and the gates (with security cameras) are closed in the evenings, so I don't want anyone getting into trouble. Related to that, there was a tons of pre-hoax publicity about my Christmas lights which generated a lot of drive-by's and the homeowner's association wasn't too happy about that. Finally, how would you feel about people standing on your sidewalk (or worst, knocking on your door) who came to your house because they "know" you on the Internet. Yea, I know that 99% of folks are "good" ... but there are a few creeps out there, and my wife (plus I have two kids) really don't need to be spooked; she has threatened to shut the whole thing down in the past because of this concern - again, don't ruin it for everybody.
D-9: Are there any privacy concerns?
D-9: (2005_09_25) When the webcam was a simulation, there really weren't any privacy concerns, since it was just a set of still pictures. The occasional car, person, and/or airplane that showed up were computer generated. But yea, when I did it for real from 2005 on, there are privacy concerns for me and our neighbors - also see D-7 ... and heck, look what Boulder Photo Radar did to me! ;-) The image quality is such that you would be hard pressed to identify anyone, so I consider that a reasonable compromise.
D-10: Instead of JPEG's, why don't you stream video?
D-10: (2006_10_16) The simulation would have been much harder to do with streaming video, so I showed JPEG snapshots. It would be nice to stream video when it was real from 2005 on, but this would require a huge amount of bandwidth ... plus the D-Link DCS-6620G doesn't seem to have an easy way to "rebroadcast" the MPEG4 stream. BTW, if you want movies, I've got a whole bunch of semi-funny Christmas video's including a live airborne report from Air Tracker 7 ... a rather unique view of the lights from 1,000 feet up!
D-11: What type of software runs all this and can I have a copy of it?
D-11: (2009_11_03) It's all pretty vanilla open source stuff - Linux, Apache, and Perl - the later is hand-written by me ... and sorry, even though I'm asked from time to time, it is NOT available for release. There's a serious amount of custom system integration required for a project like this, so people who ask "can I just have the source so I can do it" don't really understand what's required. Note that when the webcam was a simulation, a background daemon (communications via UNIX signals) was simply an image generator. BTW, for Christmas/2004, I got mod_perl working - huge performance improvement for the web server when under heavy load - some ApacheBench testing indicates that it can now handle 20 requests/second versus 4 - wow! Another big win was setting KeepAlive=NO in the Apache httpd.conf, since otherwise it keeps a persistent connection open, and I run outa slots. For 2006, I ante'd up the bucks to get some additional servers for load balancing purposes. There's only so much you can do for this real-time application, but each webcam image will be driven by a separate server. I've added some AJAX stuff for the light controls which reduces page reloads and makes the web site a bit easier to use.
D-12: Will you "wave" to me on the webcam?
D-12: (2006_10_07) While I don't mind suggestions for stuff to put out and/or things people want me to do for the webcam, I probably won't do much of it, although you never know unless you ask - try leaving a comment on the halloween blog or christmas blog. Remember that webcam picture quality leaves a bit to be desired - even with current state-of-the-art webcams. Also, timing stuff is really hard - when I'm walking down the driveway, waving to the webcam, etc. I have no idea what web surfers are doing to the webcam, although I can see house lights blinking on/off if they are controlling them. Finally, my wife isn't as "enthusiastic" about this whole thing - she says my forehead says D-O-R-K across the top of it! ;-)
D-13: But I really want to call you in the middle of the night and ask you
to walk outside in your PJ's and wave in front of the webcam?
D-13: (2004_12_13) What'ya think ... see also D-12 ... and if you really, really want to do it, then here is Alek waving to the camera.
D-14: I love your christmas lights webcam, but how can I make the music not auto-start?
D-14: (2012_11_11) You can disable auto-starting of the music entirely by using "?music=noautostart" to the URL - i.e. try this for Christmas and Halloween.
To insure the MIDI file is not even loaded by the browser, add a "?music=false" to the URL - i.e. try this for Christmas and Halloween.
D-15: How can I change the default size (or remove) the animated cursor?
D-15: (2012_10_11) You can add a "?cursor=OPTION" to the URL to set the cursor to the "tiny", "small", "normal" , "big", "supersize", or "remove" - thanks Nate for the good idea and coding suggestion.
E-1: How do you take the pictures of the lights?
E-1: (2009_10_26) I've used a variety of digital cameras over the years - click here to read and see more from 2003 and before. I used a Sony F828 and (borrowed) Canon DSLR (10D and 5D) in 2004 and 2005. For 2006, it was a Canon Rebel XTi with 17-85IS lens and 2007 was a Canon 40D with the 17-85IS, 10-22, and 50/1.4 lens. For 2008, it was a Canon 50D and in 2009, a Canon 7D using the 10-22 and a 17-55/2.8 lens. I just put the camera on top of a ladder across the street at dusk, use about 1/4 second exposure at around F5.0 with ISO 400. There's about a 5-10 minute window when the light is "just right" ... also helpful is if there is some clouds that evening.
E-2: Your xmas webcam must take thousands of pictures - ever had any "interesting" ones?
E-2: (2003_01_01) Yep - there's quite a few cool christmas pictures taken over the years ... and Halloween ones!
E-3: Have you been in the news about this?
E-3: (2004_12_31) Yep - just a wheeee bit (!) - there's a whole news page about this.
E-4: How many people look at (and control) your lights over the Internet?
E-4: (2005_11_27) Bazillions! ;-)
E-5: Do other people do funky stuff like this?
E-5: (2006_11_24) Yep - here are some examples. Another example of christmas lights technology is what Carson Williams from Mason Ohio did with 88 Light-O-Rama channels. A picture is worth a thousand words ... and his awesome video set to music is worth at least a million - WOW! X10 technology (which I have used for years) is cheap and simple, but doesn't have the speed and reliability necessary for this. It would be a blast to upgrade to this type of powerline control, but it is beyond my time/budget for now. Great job - and for 2006, Carson Williams did a show at a Denver Shopping Mall.
E-6: What types of computers/network is handling the bazillions of surfers that you get?
E-6: (2010_01_26) There is a single image data stream (actually one from each ChristmasCam) from my residential Comcast cable connection to the web server in Dallas Texas and from there, all data is served to the bazillions of web surfers on 100 Mbps connections. The main komar.org computer is a dual 3.2 GHz Xeon with 4 GBytes of RAM running Redhat Enterprise Server 5.0. The webcam images are served up by two (and one year three) similar machines. So a total of 4 machines all with 100 Mbps connections - that's almost half a Gigabit of bandwidth! ;-) And lets not forget ONE New Years Eve Kiss from my wonderful wife! ;-)
E-7: Can I Email Santa for more info and will he respond?
E-7: (2006_09_25) The best place to comment is on the halloween blog and/or the christmas blog - plus you can see what others have asked/said. You can also send a note to Santa and view the various Santa Emails and responses here - some are kinda funny!
E-8: Is Santa (and HULK) a blogger?
E-8: (2005_11_27) New for 2005 is the Halloween Blog and the Christmas Blog. See what others have said and chime in yourself.
E-9: Do Santa (and HULK) use Instant Messaging?
E-9: (2006_10_23) New for 2006 is the ability to send "Instant Messages via Webcam." Web Surfers can type in some text, and the message pops up on a laptop visible in the Haunted Office or Santa's Workshop. A log is kept, so check out all the halloween messages and christmas messages. And yes, I had to add a profanity filter for people that abuse it - Santa will send them coal for Christmas!
E-10: Where do the web surfers come from to see/control your lights/decorations?
E-10: (2007_01_12) New for 2006 is a Google Maps implementation which graphically shows web surfers coming from everywhere - 157 countries and all 7 continents - yea, even Antarctica! The guys at Bernado O'Higgins base sent me an Email - check out their penguin cam ... and I even had some fun with my own growing penguin cam. See more at the halloween maps and christmas maps.
E-11: What's it like letting people around the world control your house?
E-11: (2011_10_22) While it may sound scary/weird, it just seems normal to me (I don't get quite as excited as these guys! ;-) and I'm glad it provides an entertaining experience for people around the world.
Main pages for the Christmas lights and the Halloween Decorations.