IoT Festivus Pole

The Internet of Things now includes Festivus poles! Festivus is a holiday celebrated on December 23rd, and its customary practices include a Festivus pole, Festivus dinner, airing of grievances, feats of strength, and Festivus miracles. The internet contains a few nods to the holiday, including what happens when you Google for the word Festivus (a Festivus pole is displayed at the bottom of the page). In 2015 I had the honor of gifting the world with the first Festivus pole video game, and today I am happy to unveil the world’s first internet-enabled Festivus pole. Every time somebody tweets #Festivus or #FestivusMiracle, the light at the top of the pole illuminates! All in the room then excitedly exclaim, “it’s a Festivus miracle!”

The IoT Festivus Pole is powered by a Raspberry Pi (a Pi 2 Model B, although any Pi would work) running a Python script which occasionally checks for tweets using the twitter API (via twython, a pure-python twitter API wrapper) and controls the GPIO pin 12 with RPi.GPIO (extra docs). After writing the Python script (which should work identically in Python 2 or Python 3), I got it to run automatically every time the system boots by adding a line to /etc/rc.local (surrounding it with parentheses and terminating the line with & to allow it to run without blocking the startup sequence). The LED was added to the end of a long wire (with a series 220-ohm resistor) and connected across the Raspberry Pi header pins 12 (PWM) and 14 (GND). I set PWM frequency to 100 Hz, but this is easily configurable in software.

To build the Festivus pole I got a piece of wood and a steel conduit pipe from Lowe’s (total <$5). Festivus purists will argue that Festivus poles should be made from aluminum (with its very high strength to weight ratio). I live in an apartment and don’t have a garage, so my tool selection is limited. I cut the wood a few times with a jigsaw and glued it together to make an impressive stand similar to those of traditional Festivus poles. I have a few hole saw drill bits, but none of them perfectly matched the size of the pipe. I traced the outline of the pipe on the wood and cut-out a circular piece with a Dremel drill press in combination with a side-cutting bit. The hole was slightly larger than required for the pipe, so I used a few layers of electrical tape on the bottom of the pipe to “seal” the base of the pipe into the hole, then poured acrylic epoxy into the empty space. Clamping it against a desk allowed the epoxy to set such that the pole was rigidly upright, and the result was a fantastic-looking Festivus pole! It’s a bit smaller in size than the famous one featured in Seinfeld, but I think it is appropriately sized for my apartment.

Adding the computer was easy! Internet capability was provided via a USB WiFi card. Code is at the bottom of this page. The LED was connected to Raspberry Pi header pins 12 and 14. The wiring was snaked through the conduit.

The code will work on Python 2 and Python 3.
Pip can be used to install RPi.GPIO and twython: pip install python-dev python-rpi.gpio twython

import RPi.GPIO as GPIO        
import time
from twython import Twython

APP_SECRET = 'getYourOwnApiKeyFromTwitterWebsite'
twitter = Twython(APP_KEY, APP_SECRET)
auth = twitter.get_authentication_tokens()

GPIO.setup(12, GPIO.OUT)
p = GPIO.PWM(12, 100)

if __name__=="__main__":
    while True:
        if (checkLast+5)<time.time():
            print("checking twitter...")
            if tweetLatest!=tweetLast:
                print("IT'S A FESTIVUS MIRACLE!")

        if duty>=0:

This Festivus pole has been up and running for the last few days and I’m excited to see how much joy it has brought into my household! Admittedly the Raspberry Pi seems to be overkill, but at the time I was considering having it also output audio every time a tweet is made but I never decided on the clip to use so I omitted the feature. An ESP8266 WiFi module interfaced with a microntroller can do the same job with more elegance and lower cost, so I may consider improving it next year. Until then, Happy Festivus!




Hurricane Hack – DIY LED Candle

Florida is about to get hit by a massive hurricane, and my home town is in the direct path! I am well prepared with lots of food, water, and communications equipment. While the storm itself is dangerous, part of getting ready for it means preparing for the potential to be out of power for weeks. A staple go-to for light when the power is out is candles. Instinctively people tend to reach for candles and kerosene lamps (in Florida they’re called hurricane lanterns). However, these sources of light can be extremely dangerous! With the storm one day away, my roommates and I began pooling our emergency supplies in the living room and I grew uneasy about how many matches and candles were accumulating. With severe weather, wind, falling trees, tornadoes, and projectiles blowing around there is an appreciable risk of knocking-over a flame and starting a fire. This risk multiplies when you consider that people often fall asleep with flames running, perhaps even in another room! I thought how great it would be to have a bunch of LED candles, but there is absolutely no way I can buy one now. Although I could just leave a flashlight on shining at the ceiling, it would produce too much light and the batteries would die before long. With the storm one day away, every store in this town is out of water, most groceries are out of canned foods, and most of the gas stations are out of gas and have locked up. Flashlights, radios, and LED candles are surely gone from all the stores as well. I decided to hack-together several LED candles to use around the house over the next several days, and the result came out great!

I taped together 2 AA batteries and soldered a resistor and a white LED in series with jumper to serve as an on/off switch. It’s not yellow and doesn’t flicker like fancy LED candles, but who cares? This is perfectly functional, and for lighting a room I would say it’s a superior alternative to fire-based candles when the power is out for long periods of time. The batteries will last much longer than they would if we just turned on a flashlight and aimed it at the ceiling too. My white LEDs (generic low current clear 5mm LEDs) have about a 20º light emission angle. To improve its function as a room light I taped a sheet of paper around a glass cup and set it over the top to act as a light diffuser. This couldn’t be simpler! It’s hard to capture on camera, but if the light diffuser is removed this thing works pretty well as a flashlight. I practiced walking around a dark closet and pointing it around and was impressed at how much it is able to illuminate a relatively narrow area. This is a good time to add a basic warning reminding people that soldering directly to batteries is potentially dangerous for the person (and may be destructive to the battery) and it should be avoided. Battery holders are superior, and batteries with solder tabs already on them are a superior alternative to generic batteries.

3xAAA Version

I found a box of battery holders and decided to make a second version of this device. I felt better about this one since I didn’t need to solder directly to any batteries. A dot of super glue is all it took to secure the LED to the enclosure, and it even stands upright!

How long will it last?

I’ll use some scratch match to predict how long this device will stay lit. I’ll run the math first for the 2xAA version. Placing an ammeter in the circuit while the LED was on revealed it consumes 1.8 mA of current. PowerStream has a great website showing battery discharge curves for various consumer grade batteries. Eyeballing the graph it looks like most batteries doesn’t start to drop voltage significantly until near the end of their life. To make calculations simple, let’s just use the mAH (milliamp hour) rating that the manufacturer provides… except I can’t find where Amazon specs their “Amazon basics” battery. A consumer review indicates 997 mAh at 100 mA discharge rate. I’m sure our duration would be far beyond this since we are drawing less than 1/50 of that much current, but let’s just say 1000 mAh to be conservative. We can double that since we are using two AA batteries in this circuit, so 2000 mAh / 1.8 mA = 46 days. Interestingly, the 3xAAA battery presents a larger voltage to the led/resistor so it draws more current (6.3 mA) and 3000 mAh / 6.3 mA it is expected to last only about 19 days. I could increase the value of the resistor to compensate, but it’s already built and it’s fine enough for my needs.

When the storm has passed and things return to normal, I’ll consider making a few different designs and testing how long they actually last. Many battery tests use relatively high current challenges so their discharge finishes in days rather than weeks or months… but with a sensitive voltmeter circuit attached to a logging raspberry pi or something, I’d be interested to see the battery discharge curve of a DIY LED candle on a weeks/months timescale! For now I feel prepared for the upcoming storm, and with several DIY LED candles to light my home instead of actual candles, I’ll feel safer as well.


Two months later (Nov 11, 2017) this thing is still going strong! I’ve left it on continuously since it was built, and I’m truly surprised by how long this has lasted… I’m going it continue leaving it running to see how much longer it goes. For future builds I will add more LEDs and not be so concerned about longevity. It may be work noting that a build like this would have been great for residents of Puerto Rico, because much of that island is still without power.

This is a photograph in a dimly-lit room after more than 2 months continuous use.