Alek has managed to stay on good terms with his neighbors, despite the car and foot traffic that his display has drawn, and kept himself from serious harm despite a complex of minor, overlapping risks including ladders, squirrels, a fair amount of electricity and (the most dangerous, he says) wind. The lights are what the world sees, but the video capture and distribution to the vast online audience is an equal part of the work. Alek has learned a lot along the way about automation, logistics, wireless networking, and the importance of load balancing. It's always possible the lights will return in some form, or that someone will take up the mantle as Blinkenlights master, but this tail end of 2014 (and the first day of 2015) is your last good chance to tune in and help toggle some of those lights. (The display operates from 1700-2200 Mountain time.) Alternate Video Link Update: 12/22 22:50 GMT by T : Note: Alek talks about the last year here.
Alek Komarnitsky: Hello, I am Alek Komarnitsky. I run a website, www.komar.org, that has controllable Christmas lights. People from around the world on the Internet can not only view my display but turn things on and off with a click of a mouse. And I am here with Tim Lord from Slashdot to talk about it. Ho, ho, ho.
Tim Lord: Now Alek, you have been doing this for a decade now. Can you remind us, we have talked before, so you don’t have to explain everything but how did this come to be?
Alek Komarnitsky: Well, the story is actually pretty long, we could talk for quite a while about it, Tim. It really started back in 2002 when I had this idea that, hey, it'd be kind of cool to not only put out Christmas lights, but have people view them on the Internet and control those. The technology wasn’t quite there and so what I did was actually simulation, I used a combination of some GD libraries and cURL magic and then also a set of still images, so after taking a set of pictures of my display what I could do is when people came to my website and they thought they were turning lights on and off, all they were doing is switching the images back and forth. And that went on for about three years, it was kind of a fun little prank, a little bit of a technical challenge, and in 2004, it got out of hand. The media got wind of it, the Channel 7 guys, ABC took me up in their news helicopter to see these lights that were turning on and off, incidentally that was the only time they really turned on and off, my wife had a X10 remote in the bedroom while I was overhead with the copter. And so at the end of the holiday season in 2004 I outed myself, it was out of control. I said, hey it wasn’t real, a simulation, it was a fun little Christmas hoax. But that just kind of motivated me in 2005 to do it for real. And from 2005 onwards, it’s been 100% real. There are three live webcams, one across the street, one in Santa’s workshop which you see behind me, and one looking at my front yard. And with those three webcams, people around the world can not only view the display, but using X10 technology when they click on the mouse to turn it on and off, the lights really do go on and off.
Tim Lord: You know I was a little bit peevedwhen I found out that it was a hoax, was anyone else upset by that?
Alek Komarnitsky: Oh, you know – well, we could talk about that one for a while too. I would say probably Tim 90% to 95% of people thought it was funnier than you know what, people I think realized that the media, especially mainstream media perhaps is not as diligent of reporting as some are, and really it was kind of April Fools come early. But certainly Tim, there were a couple of people that, Oh My Gosh! What are you going to do, the next thing you are going to tell me that Santa Claus isn’t real or something like that.
Tim Lord: At least we got the Easter Bunny.
Alek Komarnitsky: That’s right, we got the Easter Bunny.
Tim Lord: Now the technology you are using to do this, talk a little bit about that. I know you mentioned X10 and that’s been true since you've first been automating, is that true?
Alek Komarnitsky: That’s correct.
Tim Lord: Has anything changed about it? Have you had to upgrade your system, anything that’s been considerably different from 2013?
Alek Komarnitsky: I actually got a few props down here, so the X10 just briefly, this is an X10 appliance module, X10 super socket right here. So you are right Tim, those have always been used by the power line controls. And those have been in from Day 1, those are kind of nice because it turns my lights on and off automatically. So the way that works is, I have a Linux laptop, which is running back here, that’s got some X10 USB connected transmitters, I think you can see that in the screen. And then what happens is people on the public Internet hit a button, that hits a website that’s running Linux Apache using mod cURL and then that mouse click then is – goes through some parsing, is then transmitted down to this laptop right here, this laptop then takes a command, sends out a wireless X10 Zone 7 on. And then voila, things all work.
I could simulate that right now using the X10 remote and my background is a stepping Santa and I just hit Zone 7, so now stepping Santa is going up and down. So in essence that’s kind of the power line controls and then the webcams are pretty straightforward. I have got one here in Santa’s workshop, I have got one like I said looking at the front yard, and then one at the neighbor’s house across the street. The one across the street was actually a real problem, getting a reliable wireless signal somewhat of a challenge. And so thanks to Slashdot, I used the Pringle's can, to extend your wireless signal, and then over there I have got a router that’s running a DD-WRT, that has a few issues, but if I just reboot it every day, every couple of days, everything works great and the images all are displayed to the Internet.
Tim Lord: Well speaking of technical problems you’ve had, when it comes to hosting, has hosting gotten easier over the years, is it easier to put up a site that’s not going to crash?
Alek Komarnitsky: Sure, it’s a lot easier, the so called Slashdot effect, which I have had a few experiences with and that certainly gives my patchy web servers a good workout. In terms of scalability, I think back in 2005 I switched to mod-PERL; mod-PERL was a big bonus in terms of being able to handle the bazillions of connections out there. But certainly Tim, you’re right. The cloud computing stuff like that is easier. I’m kind of a dinosaur, the system has always been the way it has, in terms of the images there is a single stream that goes out to a public web server that’s on a GB server that’s hosted down at Dallas, Texas, with [Soft Layer] and then those images are then rebroadcast out to the Internet masses. As you can imagine, my Comcast residential connection would not handle everyone in the world hitting me and looking at my web cam.
Tim Lord: I wonder do you know anybody else doing anything similar right now. Has anyone been interested here, have you been able to find a backup?
Alek Komarnitsky: Yeah, I don’t know if anyone is doing it to this scale Tim, there is a guy who has been doing for years that drive me insane that's had actually a place where he has got a variety of things controlled with X10 and he is got a neat little setup, there is a controllable Christmas tree which is just one or two zones but I don’t know and in there is actually a cool website called Tele Toyland where a guy has some things where you can control skeletons and stuff like that, that’s all setup in his garage. I think his name is Carl, great guy.
Tim Lord: Yeah, skeletons sounds more like Halloween to me?
Alek Komarnitsky: Yeah that’s right. You know, actually by the way Tim, I do it at Halloween, that’s my warm up to kind of get all the rust off the software code, the hardware and stuff like that. But back to your question, doing it at the scale that I do which is 25,000 lights this year, probably about two dozen inflatables, having it all outdoors in Colorado weather where we have snow, where we have winds, winds by the way is the greatest enemy of Christmas lights. We have squirrels that sometimes eat through my wires. That presents a lot of real world technical challenges.
Tim Lord: You must have to not only start building early but budgeting early to figure out what things are going to be eaten by squirrels or blown off the roof.
Alek Komarnitsky: Well, fortunately very few things have been eaten by squirrels, and that’s typically the wires and I don’t know if OSHA approved but you know all I do is I take out my wire strippers and you know I join the wires back up and stuff like that. And the squirrels don’t eat too much. In terms of the wind, I have had a few things damaged over the years but fortunately not too much. And like the inflatables, you just take some clear packing tape, put that over the inflatables and hopefully, they still pack up. In terms of budgeting, Tim, I buy all my stuff at the post-holiday sales, 50% to 75% off, Goodwill and garage sales, great source of things, in fact Santa’s Workshop back here was a goodwill purchase, when I saw that sign like two years ago, I was like yes, that’s been plenty and oh, I got to show this Tim. This is a garage sale, plasma ball, I don’t know if that comes up in the webcam?
Tim Lord: We can see it. I don’t know how well they’ll translate, but we can see it right now.
Alek Komarnitsky: So that’s where all the stuff comes from.
Tim Lord: So how about all the logistical problems, your neighbors, your township, anything that comes up that limits you quite how you can get your roof quite so colorful for so long?
Alek Komarnitsky: Well, that’s a good question. So first of all, the biggest complaint I have from the neighbors is when they drive into the neighborhood, all the kids say, hey, we have to go right, and we have to go by the Komar house and so, bottom-line is I live in a family neighborhood, Tim, the neighbors love it. In fact there is kind of an outpouring of people who have come by and say, hey you can’t do this, you know for the last year and we’ll probably talk about that again later on. But no, it’s been real popular, kids come by and if I happen to see them out there, you know, I’ll pull out the remote, I say hey, go ahead inflate Elmo, Sponge Bob, Homer Simpson, you know, the three wise men. And then they fight the Internet for control. So in terms of neighborhood, it’s been a big hit. Family life, it’s a little bit of challenge because sometimes my wife is like, ah ding, you know the Stepping Santa back here makes a lot of noise. Another logistical challenge you haven’t asked about is electricity, but about 10 years ago I put in a sub-panel with four dedicated circuits. So I got 60-Amps on the outside directly wired for nothing but Christmas lights so that’s all pretty much taken care off.
Tim Lord: Alright. The other thing that you know, I know that you haven’t mentioned this yet, but you have sort of an ulterior motive for putting up lights which is to do with raising money. Can you talk about the charitable purpose?
Alek Komarnitsky: Sure. So a number of years ago my kids were diagnosed with something called celiac disease, it turns out about a year ago we found out it was a false positive diagnosis and that’s kind of a sidebar conversation if you want to have it, but over the years what I have done is I have raised money for celiac disease, it’s called the Controllable Christmas Lights for Celiac Disease. People can go to the website, it’s totally free, you can inflate, deflate Homer Simpson as many times as you want, it won't cost anything, but there is a little thing at the top that says, hey if you want to, you can donate to the Center for Celiac Research and over 10 years, the amount raised, says over $80,000, I think the total is just under $83,000, I checked a couple of days ago, so that’s been cool, there are people around the world say, hey, it’s a cool display and we want to give back, we want to donate to charity. So certainly that’s a cool part of it, Tim, but if the truth be known it’s just kind of fun to do.