2004 Blog

I have been keeping a “running log” of design ideas for the year’s display.  Here is the log for the 2004 display.  It was updated throughout the season, until the end of the 2004 lighting season.

1/7/04:  We’ve made pretty good progress in getting the 2003 display packed away.  But it’s been very cold, with temps below zero for most of the days since we stopped running the display on the 1st.  All of our yard displays, are stored, but most of the mini lights are still outdoors.  The good news is packing up our Mega-Tree went well.  One of my goals for that tree was to make it relatively easy to set up and take down, for the number of lights in the display (4500 + the topper and strobe).  The hardest part was going through all the strings, repairing a few bad sections, and replacing some burned out bulbs.

I was just looking at last year’s log, and grimaced to see I was still putting things away in late April.  I’m determined to not let that happen this year!  It’s supposed to be warmer this weekend and I hope to make major progress taking down and testing as many mini lights as possible.

Since this is the first entry of the year, I always try to ruminate a bit on what my goals are for the new season.  Last year was very exciting in that we finally got the computer control that we were hoping to add for several years now.  One of the logical goals for this year is to extend the number of channels of control, and enhance the animation.  One of the ways I’m planning on doing this is creating some chasing mini-trees.  The plan is to make these out of rope light and either small tomato cages or wreath easels.  They will be placed in some sort of a line and be synchronized to music, along with the other displays.  I’d also like to find a way to integrate our static displays, as well as our Merry Christmas sign, with the computer control.  Dan Baldwin, creator of Light-O-Rama(our computer control hardware and software) has let me know that the issue that kept me from using X-10 with that software will be resolved before next year, so that should allow me to come up with some creative ways to use X-10 for some control options, as well as new channels of LOR itself.

I’m not planning on adding a huge number of mini-lights for next year, but we did buy 1000-2500 of several different solid colors just to have as a “new project stash”.  I also bought several hundred feet of red and green rope-light which I’m planning on using for the mini-trees described above.

Finally, I’d really like to do more with strobe lights this year.  Our new Zap Strobe which was part of the Mega-Tree worked out very well and was a great effect, although I programmed it too sparingly.  I was a bit afraid of how obnoxious it would look, but after seeing it, I think I could have used it more without going overboard.  I’m also considering using some “curtain strobes” in some way yet to be determined.

That’s it for today, this is already a really huge entry!

1/11/04:  Just a quick tear-down status:  Things have warmed up a little bit so I’m working outside once again.  As of today, lights are removed from all large trees and most small trees and shrubs.  Here’s what’s remaining:  Icicle Lights, a couple smaller trees and shrubs, and the split-rail fence.  The lights on the latter will be replaced next year so that will go pretty quick (I may salvage some bulbs if they’re in OK shape, but most aren’t).   I’ve been bringing the lights inside, where I’ve been testing them, repairing as necessary, and packing for storage.  I currently have a backlog of about 4000 lights that are down but not tested and stored.  Fortunately I can nibble away at this little by little in the warm house.

My goal — and you can all hold me to this– is to have all of the lights down, tested, and stored by the end of January.  Last year the process drug on into April — I simply can’t have that again.  The wildcard will be the icicle lights, since I need to get up on the roof for them.  But even if I have everything but those lights done by the end of the month,  I’ll be quite happy.

1/17/04:  Here’s another tear-down status report:  We’ve done absolutely nothing outside since the last report (it’s still been pretty cold and windy, and it’s going to get colder in the next few days).  But we’ve made some good progress sorting through the lights, repairing them, and putting them away.  I’m trying to squeeze another year or two out of some of our multi lights, some which are 4-6 years old, so Cathy and I have been recoloring some of them which have faded to the point of almost being clear.  This is a little bit tedious but the strings look great afterward.  I’m basically trying to avoid having to replace 2000-3000 multi-colored strings this year.  As noted above, we will be replacing our fence lights, which are also multi-colored and some of our oldest lights still in use.

Will we make our goal of being done by the end of the month?  I haven’t ruled it out yet.  In any case, we’re way ahead of where we were last year, and I’m doing more work with each string than I did last year, too.

2/13/04:  Well, I didn’t make the goal, in fact, I don’t think I’ve done anything since the last report.  But I don’t feel bad– it’s been very cold, and we’ve started to tackle some major projects with our home.  Once the weather warms up just a tad, I can finish stashing everything away.

3/28/04:  Well, I suppose its time I report in.  We’ve had a lot of projects burning lately, but very little work has been done on the Christmas display for next year.  Of course, mentally we’re constantly brewing new ideas, and every once in awhile a new thing pops out as a potential candidate for next year.  Nothing much to report here, though.  I’m looking at sources for some easels or tomato cages for our new “mini trees” which will be one of the main additions for the coming year.  Also, I will likely buy a bunch of mini-strobes which will be used in the display, perhaps on the mini-trees themselves.

As for display tear-down, we did very good at the beginning, but then pretty much let the final stuff stay up forever.  However, I’m happy to report we had some nice weather last week and all the display is now down!  I still have to make my way through a few strings of icicle lights and replace the dead bulbs, and finish packing everything properly, but at least nothing remains in the yard now!

I’ve been spending a lot of my time gearing up for my new woodworking hobby.  To a pessimist, this is siphoning time and money away from my Christmas hobby, but instead, I look at this as a way to recharge my batteries, and make sure we don’t get burned out on Christmas displays.  Our 2003 budget for the display was much higher than any other year — I’d like to get things back into a more “normal” budget for 2004 — but that doesn’t mean that the display will suffer, it just means we have to keep the creative juices flowing!  I’ve always felt our best ideas were not born out of money, but out of creativity and using what we have available to us.

4/7/04:  The weather here has been beautiful!  I’m happy to report that as of last night we are pretty much finished putting all decorations away in their “permanent” storage places for the summer.  It’s kind of scary to think that we’ll probably be starting to bring it back out and set up in just six months or so!  We usually start setting up some of the less-visible lights in October.

As for Display 2004 progress, we have purchased a bunch of “mini strobes” that I may use for tree toppers for our planned “mini trees”.  I’m also looking into floral easels or tomato cages which willl be the “base” of these trees.  Other than that, not much more to report at this time…

5/10/04:  If you haven’t been to our personal site lately, we have a pretty major announcement:  we’re expecting our first child in late September!  We’ve been busily making preparations for this new addition to our family.  As I mentioned above, I’ve entered a new hobby:  woodworking.  My first “real” projects will be some baby furniture.

On the Christmas front, we were garage-saleing this past Saturday and found an excellent, large Santa-and-sleigh  wireframe for the low price of $4!  After a bit of repairs, it is now in perfect working order!  I’d like to place this on our roof this year if I rig up a way to attach it.  We’ve never done any displays on the roof before (other than icicle lights).

On the “mini trees” front, I’ve decided to go with tomato cages for the bases.  I think this will be the most economical, and best all-around choice.  Soon I’d like to run some tests with our existing tomato cages so I can buy dedicated ones of the proper size for these trees.

I’ve purchased some more zip cord and enclosures for the new Light-O-Rama controllers as well.  Some of the mini-trees will have strobes built in, and I need to figure out a way to attach them, and still allow the trees to nest for storage.  More on this to come…

5/23/04:  I have just finished a pretty major cosmetic overhaul on our personal site, which gives it a whole new look and feel from before.  I’m hoping to do something similar for this site in the next few months, but I can’t find a low-cost FrontPage theme or template set to match what I have in mind.   And I’m certainly not artistic enough to pull off my own theme.  So I hope to run across something…  If anyone knows of a good Christmas FrontPage theme/template, let me know.  I’m picturing something sleek-looking, with a Christmas-lighting motif.

On the mini-trees front, I successfully did an early prototype on a tomato cage.  I think they’re going to look great!  Menards has the cages on sale through the end of this week, so I’m going to buy them and then start working on them.  I found the tips can be soldered together using a torch and electrical solder (I tried plumbing solder earlier with poor results).  Just a note — if you attempt this, wear gloves.  I didn’t, and I have a large burn on my hand from dripping solder.  It still hurts, and it’s about a week later.  Ouch.  We also picked up a couple dozen 6′ extension cords which will be cannibalized to create  controllers and some of the mini-trees.

6/9/04:  A couple of days ago I finished soldering the tops of all 24 mini trees.  We also created two prototypes, one in red rope and one in green rope.  12 feet of rope light gives us the desired effect — sort of an abstract “spiral tree”.  Half of the 24 trees will be red and half will be green.  Since the rope we have is in 18′ and 30′ lengths, I’ll be doing a bunch of cutting and splicing to get the proper lengths.  More to come on this…

One thing I never mentioned yet above — we were to be attending the second annual PLUS conference, which was to be held in Las Vegas in July.  I was going to be teaching a course again, and we hoped to see the folks we communicate with online all year, as well as many we met last year.  But unfortunately the event was cancelled.  On the positive, this frees up a bit of money to put into the display <grin>  but the negative is that it was so much fun, and so educational, to meet everyone last year…

6/27/04:  I’ve been doing some more thinking about how many new channels to add this year, and how to allocate them.  We will definitely be adding 32 new channels:  24 for the new rope light trees, one for the new mini-strobes which will be attached to these trees, and 7 additional to be determined.

One thing I was pondering today when I should have been thinking about other things, is our Mega Tree.  When we created the tree last year, I made the design decision to use 10 vertical slices for the tree.  The main reason for this was cost control — the LORboards  come in 8 channel increments, and this way I could dedicate 32 to the Mega tree:  30 for the vertical slices (3 per slice) and 2 for the star and strobe channels.  However, once I started programming the show, I realized this was a mistake.  Music tends to be made up of groups of fours, threes, and eights:  typically 3 or 4 beats per measure, typically 8 bar phrases, etc.  None of these numbers work well with the 10 slices we have in the Mega tree.  This made programming take a lot longer than it should have, since if I wanted the tree to chase to the beat, I couldn’t simply cut and paste.  Today I realized that if I were to add 2 more vertical slices, this would solve a lot of problems:  12 slices would divide very nicely by 3 and 4, and even 8 works fairly well.  Adding 2 slices would mean I’d have to create two new super strings, and dedicate 6 more channels to the mega tree.  But it would fill in the tree slightly better (10 slices was really pushing it for fullness) and push up the light total from  4600 to 5500 (including topper).  I’d also have to reconfigure the base (it’s premarked for 10 channels) and possibly the topper, which is a slotted disk with 20 slots to accommodate the 10 channels, although I could probably “fake it”.  We’ll have to see what comes of this idea.

I need to map out our display as we had it laid out last year, add in the new features to be added for 2004, and figure out what to do with new channels, and if I should budget more dollars for more channels.

8/17/04:  We’ve been busily preparing for the arrival of our first child, so Christmas planning has kind of taken a back seat.  One of the things I’ve been doing is building a changing table/dresser for the baby’s room.  Since the baby is coming in just over a month — that’s been my priority #1!

However, I’ve still been thinking about Christmas, and doing some work and planning, especially the past few days.  We ordered a cool elf teeter-totter yard decoration yesterday, and I’m excited about it.  We’ve also been working on the new rope light trees.  Last year we bought red and green rope in 30 and 18′ lengths on clearance from several sources.  I need 12′ of rope for each tree, so this means cutting the rope, adding new electrical connections, and sometimes splicing two pieces together.  Since most of the rope wasn’t marked for cutting, and rope light can only be cut in specific places, I had to develop the “knack” for figuring out where to cut.  Anyway, as of tonight, we have 100% of the ropes prepped into 12′ lengths.  We only have two trees completed, our original prototypes, so the next step is to put the rope on all of the trees.

I’ve been doing more thinking about how to allocate channels for this year’s display.  I’m pretty much planning on upgrading the Mega Tree to 12 3-channel slices as mentioned above.  I’m also thinking about purchasing an additional 8 channels of Light-O-Rama control (I’ve already purchased 32 new) for a total of 40 new channels and grand total of 80 channels for this year’s display.  Doubling the number of channels will really help take our display to the next level of computer control — last year we pretty much had the Mega Tree, and 8 misc channels.  This year should be much more spectacular.

9/4/04:  I still have been working more on “baby stuff” than “Christmas stuff” but that will need to change very quickly if we’re going to make the “lights on” deadline with what I have planned!  One project I worked on is converting a Noma brand Digital Instant Light Show box so I can use it with LOR.  The idea is to have a small grove of tiny trees I bought at Home Depot after season last year on the six channels of this box, and then have the box itself plugged into one LOR channel which can then control the entire “grove”.  The DLS box resets itself when it loses power, so I had to rewire it so it has two power cords– one to control the DLS circuitry, and a second which will power the lights (and hook into the LOR box).

Speaking of LOR, I placed the order today for one more 8-channel board, and 5 heat sinks, which will cover all 5 new boards we’re bought this year (40 new channels).  Once the boards and heat sinks come, I can build the 5 new enclosures.

Other short-term priorities include:

  • Finish the 24 mini-trees — 22 to go! (although as noted above, the rope light has been prepped for all of them, and that’s the hard part).
  • Build some wiring harnesses to support some of the new LOR channels
  • Build the 5 new LOR boxes
  • Start working on sequencing!  In addition to converting all of last year’s sequences to use the 40 new channels, I need to sequence some new stuff.  I was planning on doubling the play list of the show, but we’ll see how much time I have.
  • Build 3 more “super strings” for the Mega-Tree, as noted above.

9/10/04:  I’ve started work on converting last year’s sequences to the new display with 80 channels.  This is going to take longer than I thought!  (I will not panic, I will not panic…)  According to UPS my new LOR stuff arrived at work today, but I wasn’t there to pick them up.  The doctor sent us to the hospital because he felt Cathy should be induced as the baby was ready.  This was a big surprise, it was supposed to be a routine exam and we were to be induced on Tuesday.  Well, after about 3 hours at the hospital, the doctor there disagreed and sent us back home.  We’re still on for Tuesday, if the baby doesn’t come sooner…

Anyway, baby-permitting, I will probably pick up my LOR stuff this weekend from work and start building the boxes.  I need to get crazy busy on sequencing, I had hoped to double the play list to 14 songs this year.  I don’t see that happening anymore, but I’d still like to add a few.  Seven songs was too short of a play list last year, if nothing else I got sick of hearing them! <grin>.

9/12/04:  I’ve basically been sprinting, doing as much display work as possible before the baby gets here.  Yesterday I built 3 new LOR boxes (I still need to add data jacks on them though) and started 2 others, but ran out of extension cords to use for cord ends.  I also worked on some wiring harnesses, looked at channel allocation for the display, and lots of little stuff.  Today I worked on constructing the rig which will allow us to put the new Santa’s Sleigh and Reindeer display on the garage roof.  The theory seems like it will work well, without putting holes in the roof.  I also completed 2 more mini-trees in about 15 minutes — those should go pretty quickly once I start them (4 down, 20 to go…)  I also figured out the placement of the trees in the yard (we set up 12 of the cages to ensure it would look good, not sure what the neighbors thought!).  We also had the Santa Sleigh and Reindeer actually up on the roof for a short time!  Don’t worry, it’s all put away now, I would never set anything up for real this early.

9/22/04:  What a week!  First of all, our son William was born on September 14, so today is his first-week birthday!  This has obviously cut into my display creation time, but I’ve still gotten quite a bit done, since I’m off of work until next Tuesday, and only working 1/2 time for 4 weeks after that.  In the past week, I’ve finished all of the mini-trees, created some wiring harnesses, finished the remaining two LOR boxes (although I still need to purchase and add the data jacks to them and test them), and worked on some sequencing.  One sequence is finished, but still lots of work to go in that area.  I’m just glad we’re making progress.

9/22/04:  Progress continues on sequencing, as well as replacing the backdrop of our Peanuts Nativity Pageant with a more permanent one (our original version created for the 2002 season used a hastily-constructed ‘temporary’ one of plastic, which after two seasons of use, is past due for upgrading).  Yesterday I also did my first real “outside” work, as I replaced the nails in our long split-rail fence with new ones (the fence had some sections replaced last spring, and the older nails didn’t work out well).

10/6/04:  We finished the new backdrop for the nativity scene yesterday — it’s going to look nice and should last a good long time.  I have 2 of my 5 new LOR boxes completely wired and tested… 3 more to go and I should finish that tonight.  Hopefully I’ll get some sequencing done tonight as well — I’ve been putting that off.

10/11/04:  Sequencing is taking a LONG time.  Just upgrading last year’s sequences for the new channels takes hours per sequence.  I had dreams (earlier this year) of doubling the play list this year, but that’s not gonna happen.  I do have one new sequence done though, and hope to get one or two more…  We’ll see how it goes.  It actually took me less time to do the new sequence than to convert the old one, but it was a slower song so that’s probably why.    

All LOR boxes are completed and tested.  I upgraded my homebuilt strobe controller to handle the new strobe (it needed a reversed pulse from last year’s strobe, so now the box can put out both types).  I’m about halfway done with a huge new sign promoting our radio frequency.  The leaves are falling fast, and we’ll be able to actually start putting stuff up very soon!

10/25/04:  The display has started going up!  We’ve had some beautiful weather the last few days, and we took advantage of it yesterday and put up some lights.  The icicle lights are fully up (including the huge wiring harness that makes them chase) and several small trees.  The weather is supposed to remain mild the next week or so, I hope I can take advantage of it.

I’ve gotten a lot further on sequencing.  I have 2 more sequences to convert from last year, and several more ‘promos’.  If there is additional time, I might sequence a few new songs.   We have purchased several new store-bought displays recently which have all nicely themed into a kids/toyland area.  How appropriate, since we now have a kid!  (this really didn’t factor into why we’re doing it, but it’s a nice tie-in).  My large new sign promoting the FM soundtrack is now complete, and I also converted the base of the mega-tree to support the extra two “slices”.  Lots of other little projects have been going on.

Last weekend was the first Minnesota Mini-PLUS, and it was a great success!  This event brought together a small group of lighting fanatics from the Twin Cities and 2 from the Chicago area.  All of us are members of the PlanetChristmas chat forums so we already “knew” each other, but it was great to get together.  We hung out from about 8AM until 10PM, including a field trip to Menards and a nightcap at Applebee’s.  William can someday say this was his first lighting conference <grin>.

11/13/04:  Display setup is going very well.  We have virtually all the lights up in trees, and have started on some of the displays.  Today was a beautiful day for a November in Minnesota, and tomorrow promises to be nice as well.  

One new addition I cooked up in the last couple weeks is a rear-projection screen for our “Linus Shares the Gospel display.  This is a vast improvement over our old screen (which was plastic-covered paneling) and will allow us to hide our projector behind the screen, have greater visual clarity, and look better during the day.  We also purchased a new wide-angle lens for the projector to facilitate this.

11/20/04:  The blitz is on!  We spent most of today out in the yard.  Most major displays are up, but almost nothing is hooked up yet, and there’s still lots to do.  Hopefully tomorrow we’ll have good weather and I can get most things wired up, and most of the remainder of the displays up.  Getting very excited about the display, but so much to do… 

11/23/04:  The end is in sight!  We did a live test with the computer-controlled displays tonight — all worked well.  There are a few minor displays left to put up, but the display is about 99% complete now.  We’re just as excited to see it as anyone else — we haven’t seen the entire display lit up yet ourselves (we do this intentionally so we can enjoy its debut as well!)  This has been a ton of work, but the result will be well worth it.

11/27/04:  Tonight we did our first “live run” with the lights.  We identified a few small glitches that we can work out over the next day or so.  We also have a couple of minor things to put out yet, but for all practical purposes we are “live”!  

11/29/04:  Still working out a few minor glitches.  One bank of our mini-strobes, which top some of our new mini-trees, is not controlling properly.  I need to spend some time debugging this.  There’s also a minor issue with the display startup which I’m working with the software vendor to help figure out.  Otherwise, things are going well!  Can’t wait to get some pictures up here on the site.

12/9/04:  The display has been working out very well!  There’s the usual maintenance issue (tonight I brought a mini-strobe in for repair, and fixed a few sections of lights that had gone out), but all has been working well (save the one candy cane that someone felt necessary to steal).  

The biggest problem is my schedule, and the weather, are not cooperating to get pictures up on this website!  So far there are no 2004 pics up yet.  Hopefully early next week…

12/15/04:  Perhaps I spoke too soon in the entry above!  We suffered some problems with the computer control network on Saturday the 11th, which brought down a large part of the display.  Then, still not recovered from that, we woke up to extremely high winds on the 12th.  Several of our displays were flattened, some damaged, and a few destroyed (including the Santa and Snowman that used to flank our Merry Christmas sign).  Fortunately, the major displays, like the Mega-Tree, survived intact, although we were pretty nervous.

The wind issues have been repaired (other than the destroyed items), and the lighting network is now running smoothly again.  Lets hope it stays that way!

The best news is that I finally have some updated 2004 pictures on this site!

12/30/04:  This has been a very bizarre year for the display.  On almost all counts, the display has been very successful, in that many people have told us how much they have appreciated it.  We were fortunate to win the Channel 12 holiday lighting contest this year as well– not that we do it for contests or “wins”, but it’s nice to be appreciated.  

On a negative note, the weather this year has been downright weird.  As I write this, I just had to shut down the display, as it has been pouring rain all day, and several of our GFCI circuits will not stay reset.  We really don’t build the display to handle this kind of wet weather — here in Minnesota we’re supposed to get SNOW not RAIN in December!  Oh well, I’ve learned some things and will take better action next year.  

The display itself has run itself very well up until tonight’s wet conditions.  I’m very happy with our Light O Rama hardware and software.

1/1/04:  Happy New Year All!  What a year!  We usually run through New Year’s day, but with the prospect of two full weekend days to start tearing down the display and packing it up, I just couldn’t pass it up.  As is usual, I will try to have everything down, packed, and stored, by the end of January.  Haven’t ever hit that date yet, but there’s always the first time!  

Our last glimpse of the display was earlier this evening while off to some festivities, which is also unusual.  Usually Cathy and I come outside, walk around and enjoy it for one last time, then shut it down.  This year the display shut itself down as scheduled and we came home to a dark yard.  Guess we better get used to it.

In past years, I use this last entry to wax nostalgic about the display, what went well, and what I want to do in the following year.  As I mentioned in the above entry, this has been a truly bizarre year in many ways.  We’ve received so many wonderful comments from people and I have to say they are cherished as we put a lot of work into this display and it’s our gift to the community.  

Our doubling of the computer control capability really  made the display sparkle this year.  the Mega Tree was at it’s best, and our new rope light trees really added more than I expected them to (and I expected quite a bit from them).  Most people seem to be finding the radio station this year (thanks in part to some press coverage, and a large sign that read “Lights Dance to Music on FM 103.3” which stretched at the rear of the display).  I still would like to replace or supplement our two current smaller radio signs with a more visible, and nicer one that’s toward the center of the display for 2005.  

My other goal for 2005 is to add some sort of mechanical animation.  We had some store-bought animations in our new Toyland display, but I want to create something special, something unique, and something home-built.  The specifics have to wait for more inspiration.

Anyway, 2004 has been a great year 99% of the time.  The weather drove us crazy, and a few other things that I won’t get into here drove us crazy, but all and all we’re very happy with how this season turned out.  With the end of 2004’s display marks the start of 2005’s display planning — not sure what it will end up looking like but we’ll see you there!

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