Archive for Monday, November 26, 2001

Bright ideas take some effort

November 26, 2001


Harry Potter's got nothing on me.

Over the years, I've uncovered an arsenal of spells and incantations guaranteed to clear a room of teens. Utter them and WHOOSH, you're alone.

I accidentally stumbled across a new spell last week.

Three teens were watching "The Real World" in my kitchen. I turned my back to them to carry my dishes over to the sink and innocently said these words:

"Hey guys, let's go outside and put up the Christmas lights!"

Behind me, I heard what sounded like chairs being pushed back and a muffled rumbling that could have been six bare feet stampeding up carpeted stairs to the far reaches of the house.

All I know for sure is when I turned around again, the room was empty.

Lighting by computer

Before hunting through the basement and garage to find last year's lights, I decided to do some research.

I wondered how hard it would be to automate my lights through my computer.

After doing some Web research, I learned it's a lot more complicated than I thought. But the technology is coming along so that you don't need an engineering degree to figure it out.

If you're going to hook your lights up to your computer, you have four options: serial connection, parallel connection, a digital I/O board or X10 modules.

You can use one or all of the options to go from your computer to a control box, which then manipulates the displays.

If you use your computer's serial port, you'll need an adapter that converts it to a standard RJ45 ethernet connection. Then you can use standard ethernet cables to daisy-chain connect your control boxes.

If you go with a parallel setup, you use the printer port on the back of your computer to connect to a parallel control box.

A digital I/O hookup involves putting a card into your computer. A control cable comes out of your computer to each of the control boxes.

X10 technology

Another option uses X10 technology. An X10 module plugs into one of the computer's serial ports. It then wirelessly transmits to other X10 lamp or appliance modules and tells them what to do.

If you want to cut down on the extra wiring, you might check into some X10 modules, which are used extensively in home automation systems.

X10 is a powerline carrier format that uses the 110-volt lines in your house to send signals. Through those lines you can send directions from a remote or your computer to control any number of electrical appliances. Each appliance has an "address" and only reads the signal sent to it.

To get elaborate details about which computer connection to use, I suggest going to, which lists pros and cons of each type. And it provides some programs you can download to run the lights from Windows 9x/NT4 systems.

Go to

/aboutx10.html to find out more about X10 technology.

If you're really into this stuff, you might want to check out what Chuck Smith of Franklin, Tenn., has done.

For the past several years, Smith has set up a computer-controlled light display (see for more). Last year, he set one up in his yard that put on nightly shows at 10-minute intervals. And because the lights aren't all turned on at one time, his electricity costs stayed fairly low it cost him less than $50 last year to display 53,000 lights.

This year, he's shooting for 96,790 lights, 7.2 miles of wire and 425 computer-controlled circuits. He's thinking it will cost about $52 to run the light show 24 hours a day from Thanksgiving to Christmas.

Smith has even set up a low-power radio station to broadcast prerecorded music over a two-block area. That way, if you don't like the cold you can drive by in your car and turn the radio on the right frequency to catch the music that goes with his latest light show.

Lighting the way

After spending several hours poring through technical Web sites and learning about all the various connections, I found that there's not much out there available to run off my Macintosh G-4. Most of the software programs are built for Windows machines.

But that's OK.

When I finally located the box of Christmas lights from last year, I realized the job in front of me was going to be fairly complex and time-consuming anyway.

That's when I came up with another magical spell guaranteed to get some help:

"If you guys help me untangle the lights, I'll buy pizza!"

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