An Ode To Belgrade

In two weeks the Hackaday Community is gathering in Belgrade for Europe’s greatest hardware con, The Hackaday Belgrade Conference — an event not to be missed — but of course the city itself is a spectacular place to visit and has the perfect feel for those who like to build electronics. Why not join us for your own geek world tour to Serbia? Here’s a few of the things you’ll want to see while in Belgrade.

Aeronautical Museum Belgrade

Aircraft, Inventor, Architecture

Belgrade is a tech center and a hidden jewel of Europe. Need proof? Fly into Belgrade, and you’ll land at Nikola Tesla Airport. Pick up a car at the airport and you’ll pass a great glass torus housing Serbia’s Museum of Aviation. Here, you’ll find aircraft from both sides of the cold war, Sabres and MiGs, Hurricanes and Messerschmitts, a quite rare Sud Caravelle, and the canopy of the only stealth bomber ever to be shot down. It’s an aviation geek’s paradise, and you haven’t even left the airport.

What else is in store for you when you visit Belgrade? For the Hackaday crowd, the most interesting bit will probably be the Nikola Tesla Museum. You might know of Nikola Tesla from a webcomic, but he’s actually the greatest inventor of all time, even more so than Elon Musk. Tesla invented radio, even though Marconi got the credit. Tesla invented radar and discovered x-rays. The only person they could find to portray a figure like Tesla in The Prestige was David Bowie. Nikola Tesla is the most iconic inventor to ever live (change my mind), and his museum is in Belgrade.

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Europe Loses Six Minutes Due To Sagging Frequency And International Politics

You might be reading this six minutes early. Assuming that the Hackaday editors have done their job, this article should have appeared in your feed right on the half-hour. We have a set schedule to keep you supplied with the tastiest of hardware hacks and news. For some of you though perhaps there has been a treat, you’ve seen it and all the other stories six minutes early.

Have you perfected time travel? Sadly not unless there’s something you’d like to send to our tips line last week, but the culprit is equally fascinating. A dispute between Serbia and Kosovo has caused the frequency of the interconnected continental European electricity grid to drift below its usual 50 Hz figure for a sustained period, and as a result all clocks that use the mains frequency as a time reference have been getting ever slower.

How Can a Continental Power Grid Dip?

Think for a minute of a modern car on a hot day. When you turn on the air conditioning you will hear a slight dip in the engine revs as it accommodates the extra load. So it is with an alternating current power grid; a simple example is a power station supplying a city. In periods such as cold nights when the demands of the city go up, the result would be that the power station needs to work harder to satisfy it, and until that happens there would be a slight dip in its line frequency. Power grids compensate for this by increasing and decreasing the available generating capacity in real time, maintaining a mean frequency such that the “grid time” of a clock controlled by it matches an atomic clock as closely as possible over time.

Screenshot of Swissgrid live frequency data

In the case of continental Europe, grids across multiple countries are connected (PDF), and the task of maintaining that mean frequency falls upon Swissgrid which currently shows a sagging 49.976 Hz frequency. The time deviation of -346 seconds puts this close to a six minute loss and clocks running on this frequency will make you late to your next appointment.

It is at this point we leave the realm of electrical engineering and enter that of international politics, normally something far removed from Hackaday’s remit. It is fair to say that the history between Serbia and Kosovo is extremely delicate, and to understand some of the context of this story you should read about the war at the end of the 1990s. After the conflict the Serbian-majority region of what is now Kosovo refused to pay the Kosovan utility for its electricity, eventually leading to the Kosovans refusing to pay for that region’s share of the power received by Kosovo from Serbia. The resulting imbalance between demand and supply was enough to drag the supply frequency down across the whole continent, and though a short-term agreement has been reached the problem still remains on the grid.

Clocks and Mains Frequency

So if you are a continental European and you find yourself six minutes behind your British or American friends, don’t worry. We know that among our readers are people with significant experience in the power generation world, perhaps some of you would like to use your six minutes to give us a bit of insight in the comments. Meanwhile here at Hackaday we maintain an interest in the mechanics of power distribution even if some might say that it is Not A Hack. We’ve taken a look at utility poles, and examined how power grids are synchronised.

As for those slow clocks, the use of mains frequency to keep accurate time is quite brilliant and has been used reliably for decades. Tightly regulating grid frequency means that any clock plugged into an outlet can have the same dead-on accuracy for the cost of a few diodes. These clocks count the zero crossing of the alternating current. There may be moment to moment drifts but the power utility injects or removes cycles over the long term so the sum of crossings is dead on over the course of the day. It’s an interesting phenomenon to experiment with and that’s why we see it in microcontroller projects from time to time.

Belgrade Experience: MikroElektronika, Museums, And FPGA Computing

I recently had the chance to visit Belgrade and take part in the Hackaday | Belgrade conference. Whenever I travel, I like to make some extra field trips to explore the area. This Serbian trip included a tour of electronics manufacturing, some excellent museums, and a startup that is weaving FPGAs into servers and PCIe cards.

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The Long And Bumpy Road To Internet In Serbia

Internet is taken for granted. These days you assume there is Internet and only wonder if there is free WiFi to get onto it. But in the early days, connecting to a network could be tough and this was particularly true in Serbia. The country’s Internet revolution was complicated by both technology and politics, but the vibrance of the tech community always found a way.

The story is a fascinating one shared by Dejan Ristanovic at the Hackaday | Belgrade conference. He is now the Editor-in-Chief of PC Press computer magazine and played an integral part in providing global email access to Serbia. Enjoy the video of his talk below and join me after the break for a few highlights.

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Hackaday Belgrade Was Hardware Center Of Universe On Saturday

One of my favorite conversation from Saturday’s Hackaday | Belgrade conference was about border crossing. This guy was saying the border station coming into Serbia needed a separate lane with the Skull and Wrenches on the digital sign since it was obvious the two cars in front of them were also packed with people coming to the con (and all the custom hardware that travels with the Hackaday crowd). The thought of caravans full of hardware hackers were on their way to this epic gathering.

We packed the place, selling at least 50 tickets past our limit in the last few weeks to people who just wanted to get in and didn’t mind not being able to get their hands on one of the sweet badges. I recall meeting people who came from Romania, Bulgaria, Greece, Slovenia, Spain, Italy, Switzerland, USA, Germany, France, UK, and of course Serbia. If you were there and I missed your country let us know in the comments.

Mike Harrison talking about the Eidophor
Mike Harrison talking about the Eidophor

Obviously the main event is the incredible slate of talks that happen at our conferences. We had great presenters at last November’s SuperConference — our first every conference — so we’re delighted to say that our second was just as good. (We anticipate a third this fall.) Hackaday is so thankful for all of the speakers who donated their time and talent to share their knowledge and experience with our worldwide community.

Among my favorites were Seb Lee-Delisle’s talk on his many huge laser and projection mapping installations, Mike Harrison’s drilldown of the absolutely stunning engineering that went into Eidophor projector systems, Dejan Ristanovic’s fascinating talk about the on-again off-again history of Internet in Serbia, Sophi Kravitz’s collaborative work with polarizing materials, and Voja Antonic’s talk on the many trials of designing the conference badge which cleared out the world’s stock of more than one type of Kingbrite LED modules. If you missed the live stream of these talks don’t worry, we recorded all of them. It will take a bit of time to edit and post them so keep your eyes on the front page.

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Get Your Hackaday Belgrade Tickets Now

We have just opened up registration for Hackaday | Belgrade — a hardware conference on April 9th. Get your ticket now and make arrangements to visit Belgrade this Spring. Tickets are inexpensive, travel costs from other parts of Europe are very reasonable, the weather will be beautiful, and the all-day madness that we have planned will make you wish it were a week instead of just sixteen hours. These tickets will sell out so please share this post with your friends so they are not left ticketless.

Packed with Amazing People

mike
If you don’t recognize the name you will almost certainly recognize his internet persona: Mike’s Electric Stuff. He’s been regularly featured on the front page of Hackaday as he churns out a unique body of work like tearing down Flir’s low-end gear to discover it’s identical to their high-end offerings.

Hackaday is a global community and that is what makes Hackaday | Belgrade spectacular. We are still accepting proposals for talks through February 15th but haven’t yet made all of the decisions regarding presenters — you should submit a proposal! We’ll publish an article about all of the presenters once we have wrapped up the call for proposals. Expect to hear back about this around February 22nd.

One thing I am very excited about is that Mike Harrison will be at the conference. His talk will cover his exploration of an absurdly expensive and complicated relic which was used in the 1950’s for large-format video projection. Mike’s ability to unlock understanding of complex (and awesome) electronics is quite amazing; this talk is not to be missed. But Mike is just one of a dozen presenters from all over Europe. Several members of the Hackaday crew will be on hand and the venue will be packed with hundreds of fellow hardware hackers. You won’t want to miss this.

You Will Hack This Badge

hackaday-belgrade-badge-prototypeThis is the first Hackaday event where we have an active electronic badge. Voja Antonic has been hard at work with the design and just published the first details a few days ago.

The central feature of the badge is an 8×16 LED matrix driven by a PIC microcontroller. It’s running a USB bootloader which will let you flash your own custom code without needing a programmer. We were speaking with some of our friends over at Microchip regarding the bootloader and they offered to supply all the microcontrollers for the badge, an offer we were happy to accept.

Voja has already programmed the first demo application seen here, it’s Tetris written in assembly language. Impressive!

We were overwhelmed by the popularity of badge hacking at the Hackaday SuperConference last November. You can bet that badge hacking will be one of the most popular activities at Hackaday Belgrade. I have written a hardware emulator to work on some animations. It uses the SDL2 library to display the LED matrix and take three button inputs (the final badge design will have four buttons arranged in up/down/left/right configuration). Our hope is to host a demoscene competition that is open to anyone, whether you can attend the conference or not. More on that later.

Live Music and Hacking

As the evening sets in and the talks wind down, we have lined up bands and DJs to take the stage and carry us well into night. You won’t have to stop the badge hacking or anything else that you’re into, but you won’t have to solder in silence either.

As you can tell, this conference goes way beyond talks. This is hardware culture and you’ve just got to be there. Running from 10am until 2am, there’s more than enough to keep you occupied for one day. But make sure to hang out on the event page to get inside information on other non-formalized social events that will happen the night before and the day after. See you in Belgrade!

Hackaday Europe: Call For Proposals

Hackaday is coming to Europe in April. The world’s most superb conference on hardware creation starts with you. Please submit your proposal to present a talk or workshop at 2016 Hackaday | Belgrade, Hackaday’s first-ever European conference.

Put it on your calendar: Saturday, April 9th in Belgrade, Serbia. We have a lineup spanning from 10am to 2am, and we’re building on the best of the inaugural SuperConference we held last November: a single track of hardware talks which will run concurrently with a set of hands-on workshops. The surprise hit from that conference was badge hacking, which will be expanded and extended into the wee hours of the morning. While that is in progress, a party with two stages will spin up with performances by Infinite Jest, Grupa TI, and DJ sets.

Tickets go on sale the first week of February. Voja Antonic, who does amazing work with PCBs and badge designs, is building the conference badge. The cost of the admission will be just enough to cover the cost of the badge. We’re keeping the admission cost so low to help offset your travel costs. Belgrade is gorgeous in April, and getting there from other parts of Europe is very affordable. This event will sell out so get organized and make sure you and your fellow hardware hackers get tickets early.

Many of the Hackaday crew will be on hand. We’re likely to have a less-formal meetup (hangover brunch?) on Sunday. Check out the Hackaday | Belgrade planning page to discuss this and learn more about the conference as it comes together. See you in Belgrade!