Happy Birthday, Uncle Jack!

We regret not being in Cleveland for your birthday, but we hope to see you all in the new year, and here are the cards the girls made for you.

JE_fromRachel JE_fromAllison_1 JE_fromAllison_2

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For Aunt Holly

Here are three pictures Allison and Rachel created to cheer up their Aunt Holly who is going through especially hard health times.

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Rachel’s Bunny Mug

This gallery contains 3 photos.

Rachel just showed me her art project, a bunny-covered mug.  She is definitely an artist.

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Christmas Lights 2012

It’s that time of year again and the best of intentions for more actively sharing life’s happenings has become a bit of an embarrassing failure. Nonetheless, as Christmas 2012 approached, we finally implemented the 2-year planning for a synchronized Christmas lights and music display.

The 48-channel DIY system was completed along with a fairly good light show, reinforced by a dozen songs. Below are some of the best vids of the light show, followed by a more detailed description of the setup and work involved as well as future plans.

We also did a light  sequence for Gangnam Style, but we’re having a tough time with the fair use exemption and Youtube so it’s only available here for now:

Christmas Lights 2012 – Gangnam Style

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The System

There is much of the light system’s history in an earlier post this year so this is more of an update along with adding details and links missed earlier.  So here are the links for the Lynx Express kits and USB DMX Dongle kit I finished soldering and testing in January/February 2012.  Unfortunately, I (Fred) had only done some basic prep work through November of this year and didn’t get it all together until the 2nd week of December.  Thankfully, there have been a dozen cars visiting the light display every night in the last few weeks to make it feel worthwhile.

I settled on using the freeware app called Vixen (version for sequencing the lights/music and running the light shows, and I’m using a standard Windows 7 PC with the sound connected to a CZH-05B radio transmitter for the radio station (I went to http://radio-locator.com to find a clear frequency, but I recommend you check a highly sensitive car stereo to confirm because three stations supposedly far out of range were reaching our house).

To proceed, I first needed to decide on the spatial arrangement for the light display and which channels would control which lights.  I took the photos from prior years’ displays and organized them into a rough arrangement that could be used for creating a digital model of the setup in Vixen software.  Here is the pseudo-photo:

rough scheme for visualizing the light display including the house and main front yard

To be extra-geeky, I took the above layout and super-imposed it onto a Google map of the yard so I could get a better sense of the distances involved and how best to group the features into the 16-channel clusters needed due to the boxes.  Although embarrassed to admit that I used PowerPoint for arranging the items in the above image, it made it quite easy for re-using them for the map layout (see image below).

the image shows satellite imagery of the yard along with superimposed images of the various light display features.

So in the image above, the locations of the DMX light control boxes are indicated with the numbers 1, 2, and 3, and all of the controlled features in those areas had to have power cords to reach the boxes.  Another factor was the CAT-5 cable that connected the boxes to each other and the controlling computer.

I then had enough information to create the ordered line-up of the channels.  Although this took much time and seemed over-geeky if not anal, I am glad I did because it is painful to re-order the lights in the Vixen software (even with an available re-ordering function).  I used a Google spreadsheet for the planning (see table below).

spreadsheet table of the order of lit features. Overall channel number, description of object, channel number relative to the placement in each DMX box, whether there also needs to be unswitched AC power (for inflatables), and relative distance of the feature to the DMX box) are included.

I then took the ordered list to create the “profile” in Vixen for the light display setup (see image below).

screen capture of profile in Vixen software, showing the same channels and order as created in the spreadsheet.

I was then able to use the profile and image above as a guide for creating the low-resolution model in Vixen that would simulate the real light show (see the screen capture below along with a sample video simulation).


Finally, I could then begin creating the light sequences (arrangements/choreographies) for the selected music.  In general, I began looking at a few sharing sites for sequences I could adapt.  In the cases of sequences for non-Vixen 2.1 sequences, there are a few apps for converting them to Vixen.  However, the most important factor in trying to re-use someone else’s sequence is whether one can easily purchase or rip the CD for the particular song since one singer’s rendition will have quite different timing than another’s (or even the same person’s performance from another album), i.e., they may not be close enough for the accuracy needed to have the light sequence look right.  Beyond that, one hopes that the available sequence(s) has the kind of features that can be adapted to those in one’s own light show.  In my case, I downloaded dozens of sequences, but in the end, most were tossed out because I could not open them in my installation of Vixen, they had very different light displays, or I did not care for their sequencing choices.  Even in the sequences I did keep, I altered them enough that I probably spent as much time as if I had started from scratch.  Even after spending 3-8 hours sequencing each of the above songs, I still find a fair number of places to improve upon the sequencing for next year.

Once I had each sequence working with the music, I tested the radio station being able to output the music to my car radio without any noticeable lag time.  I then used Vixen to create a program (ordered set of songs).  Finally, Vixen has a scheduler to set the date and time ranges for the light show to run (one need to make sure the computer and Vixen are running as the show needs to begin each night).

Additionally, I wrote a welcome message that included greetings from my family, light show schedule, and a safety and courtesy message.  I added some background music as well as a light sequence so the message would not seem odd in the lineup.  I also made a version of the announcement that ran every few minutes during the day for people who happened to tune into my radio station by way of the yard sign.

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Christmas 2011

Our Advent and Christmas seasons have been very busy, and a soon return to work and school is exciting.  Nonetheless, here are the events and people who filled our time.

We began with a significant Christmas light display that is ever growing.  Fred has yet to put up more than 3/4 of our lights yet he is now vowing to have a full display for Christmas 2012 with a Halloween preview with synchronized music and lights.

Christmas ligths including Frosty, 12-foot Santa, penguins on snowmobile inflatables, 2 lighted mega trees, and Santa and Mrs. Claus on a swing with their cottage

2011 lights display

We visited Williamsburg VA for a couple days, going to both Busch Gardens Christmas Town and Colonial Williamsburg.  Unfortunately, it rained most of the day we were at Christmas Town, but the low crowds made it much more comfortable than our first visit on the day after Thanksgiving (which turned out to be a mess, but thanks go to Busch Gardens for giving us the 2nd visit free).  Colonial Williamsburg was fun and educational even though we previous had visited often when we had an annual membership.

We spent Christmas Eve through the 27th with Sara’s mom and stepfather in Arlington VA, before coming back to Richmond.

The rest of our Christmas was filming all of these music videos (we’re thinking of forming a dance and singing troupe).


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Synchronized Christmas Lights

Okay, this is a long one…

In early Fall 2009, I developed the desire to set up Christmas lights like the various music and light synchronized houses do that are popular around the Web.  At that time, Light-O-Rama was charging about $50 per channel (think of a channel as being able to uniquely turn on and off any particular set of lights in your display – and most synchronized displays have 32-128 channels).  I figured I would want about 48 channels which would be $2400!  I found a really informative site called DIY Light Animation where the founder(?), RJ, has been developing various systems that are acquired through collective purchasing by the community members which gets the price down to around $5 per channel – which would mean more like $240 for what I wanted to do.  This was much more reasonable.

I put an order in at DIYLightAnimation and the electronics supply they use (Mouser).  For me to get started, I needed a USB DMX Dongle (the part that interfaces with the computer), 3 Lynx Express (LE) kits (these units provide switched power to the individual light channels), a bunch of Ethernet cable (I have tons), some weather-tight enclosures for the Lynx Express kits (had to order these separately and never got around to it until Fall 2011 but luckily got a compatible box), a spool of 2-conductor electric cord wire with plugs, and lots of time.  Unfortunately, some of the electronic parts were backordered and it took several months to fix my order.

I never got around to beginning to set up the kit for Christmas 2010, and I got busy with a 3D printer project at work through Thanksgiving 2011.  Around Christmas time, I finally began putting everything together.  The dongle went together pretty well with about 100 soldering points I had to make.  I then took two nights to do about 1000 soldering points along with a few hundred components for the LE boards.  Then, I ran into a problem with the fact that some of the parts that were shipped 2 years previously were incorrectly sized and two of the components were shipped in quantities for only one LE board.  The parts are now hopefully on their way so I can do the last ~400 solder points and begin testing the light display system.

Good or bad, I’ve now noticed that the price has now come down for these kits from Light-O-Rama such that a starter kit of 16 channels is about $300 which extrapolates to a real start up cost of approximately $20 per channel.  On the good side, I still saved a lot of money; however, the systems are getting within reach of a lot of people now such that I would not be surprised if many have these things next year.


Pic of Three Lynx Express Boards Being Assembled

Three Lynx Express Boards Being Assembled (there is a missing socket at the end of each board towards the top of the photo)

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Halloween Party

We’ll be hosting a Halloween party this month.  We sent this invite to friends and family.

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