December 21, 2006

Linux powers controllable Christmas lights for charity

Author: Joe 'Zonker' Brockmeier

Alek Komarnitsky's controllable Christmas lights started out as a hoax, but now Komarnitsky is using Linux to power the controllable Christmas lights for real in order to bring attention to celiac disease.

Since Komarnitsky is based in Lafayette, Colo., just an hour or so away from my home in Denver, I decided to drive up and see the lights for myself. I toured Komarnitsky's home and looked over his controllable Christmas light setup, and talked to him about the history of the project.

The great Christmas hoax

Through 2004, Komarnitsky's "controllable Christmas lights" were, indeed, controllable -- just not by any of the people visiting his Web site. Komarnitsky says he had simply rigged the site up with eight pictures of his house, one for each possible combination of Christmas lights turned on and off. Komarnitsky had also thrown in a few pictures of cars passing the house, and he also set it up to show the garage door open or closed from time to time to help make it look like things were actually changing.

After receiving tons of media attention in 2004, Komarnitsky finally decided to come clean to the Wall Street Journal's Charles Forelle. After the resulting article appeared, Komarnitsky experienced a bit of a backlash from the media outlets that had been taken in by the hoax. Komarnitsky objects to calling it a "scam" because he was not trying to profit from the page -- though he did bring in some money from Google ads on other parts of his site.

Komarnitsky says he's "a bit skeptical" about "how little fact-checking is done" for news stories. He says that few reporters were interested in how the site worked and how the lights were actually controlled, taking Komarnitsky's word that people were controlling the lights over the Internet. Komarnitsky also says he was usually careful to describe what was happening accurately -- instead of saying that people were "controlling the lights" he'd say that they were changing the image on the page, which is true -- if still misleading.

However, Komarnitsky admits he did slip up occasionally and say that people were actually controlling the lights. He also enlisted the help of his neighbors to help perpetuate the gag by putting a fake Webcam in their tree, so his hoax did not rely entirely on light fact-checking. Reporters didn't necessarily ask the right questions, but who expects to need Woodward and Bernstein to cover a light Christmas story?

Alek Komarnitsky posing in front of the Controllable Christmas Lights - click to view

Needless to say, after hearing from Komarnitsky how he'd strung the media along, I asked him to demonstrate how the system works.

How the system works now

Some have suggested that it was more work for Komarnitsky to fake the site than it is for him to provide real webcam feeds with controllable lights. Actually, the setup requires more effort (and money) than just setting up a page with graphics that users can change.

For one thing, the bandwidth required for the webcams is substantial, compared to the static images Komarnitsky was using prior to 2005. During the holiday season, Komarnitsky says that he runs four Linux servers to keep up with the load -- one for each webcam, and one that serves up the pages to the public. Komarnitsky says that the entire system is run by Linux, with the exception of the laptop that displays messages typed in by users.

Komarnitsky uses three D-Link DCS-6620G webcams, one of which was donated by D-Link.

One might think that the biggest cost for Komarnitsky's project would be the electricity, but Komarnitsky says that the additional cost of electricity only amounts to about three dollars per day. The cost of the webcams, hosting, and replacing burnt-out equipment is more expensive than the electricity consumed by the system.

Komarnitsky also had to rig a system to allow users to provide input to the X10 controllers directly. Even now, users may not be able to actually control the lights at times -- not because the system is a hoax, but because the traffic to the site far exceeds the capacity of the X10 controllers to turn the lights on and off.

Alek Komarnitsky talks about the controllable lights in 2005 - click to view video

Users are issuing commands to the lights several times per second, but the lag time for the X10 devices is two to three seconds per command, so many of the commands are simply dropped. The heavy usage takes a toll on the X10 switches as well. Komarnitsky says he replaces several of the units every year, and showed me one of the units on the side of his house that had succumbed to overuse.

One area where Komarnitsky is clearly not spending a lot of time is on Web design. The page design is garish enough to make Jakob Nielsen weep. Still, Komarnitsky says that the only thing on the page that doesn't validate to HTML 4.01 is the marquee tag.

Unfortunately, like anything else online, Komarnitsky's site attracts trolls by the drove. As I was talking to Komarnitsky in his office, I could see some of the messages being sent in by users for display on his Christmas Messages webcam. About 90% of the messages sent in by users were the usual harmless fluff: "hi," "love the site," "happy holidays," and "wave to the Internet people, please." However, many messages ranged from mildly rude to racist rants. Komarnitsky says he's "amazed" by how vulgar people can be.

To counter the obvious attempts at passing vulgarity onto the site, Komarnitsky says he's put in filters to scrub the usual seven dirty words and variations. Even that, however, isn't enough to catch all of the possible permutations. Komarnitsky says he also looks through the logs and has a system in place to ban abusers.

Celiac disease

Komarnitsky is clearly out to get as much attention as possible, and he obviously revels in having the media spotlight once a year. Komarnitsky spends a fair amount of time and money maintaining the lights and is active in trying to bring traffic to the site as well. However, some of the attention goes to a good cause.

In addition to spreading Christmas cheer, Komarnitsky says he wants to use the site to bring attention to celiac disease, and to encourage users to donate to the University of Maryland Center for Celiac Research.

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder that affects the intestine, and is triggered by gluten, which is found in all forms of wheat and related grains such as rye and barley. Foods that contain gluten, such as bread, cake, pasta, beer, and many other foods, will cause damage to the villi in the small intestine, which in turn prevents the villi from absorbing nutrients from food. This results in a number of symptoms including abdominal cramping, anemia, and fatigue. Celiac disease has no cure, but sufferers can avoid symptoms by avoiding foods containing gluten.

Why celiac disease? Komarnitsky's sons, Dirk and Kyle, have been diagnosed with celiac disease, though the diagnosis was not made quickly. As Komarnitsky writes on his Web site, celiac is often misdiagnosed because the condition is not well-known.

Pam King, director of operations for the Center for Celiac Research, says that the center is "very pleased" to be working with Komarnitsky this year. "Controllable Christmas lights for celiac disease is a great way to spread holiday cheer and increase the awareness of celiac disease and raise funds for celiac disease research."

According to the Center for Celiac Research, the Controllable Christmas Lights page brought in $6,174 as of December 20. No doubt that sum will increase before the holiday season is done.

Komarnitsky says that he hopes that, someday, a cure will be found, so that when his kids are old enough, he can take them out for pizza and a beer. Until then, Komarnitsky will have to settle for raising money for research and providing a little Christmas fun for his neighbors and viewers around the world.

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