Strange Loop 2016

Two weeks ago, I visited St. Louis for my third year at Strange Loop, a tech conference focusing on — amongst other things — distributed systems, programming languages, and novel applications of computer science.

There were a ton of talks, not all of which I was able to attend. However, here are three of my favorites, along with why I enjoyed them!

“A Frontend Server, Front to Back” by Zach Tellman

The night of the Strange Loop preconf, I ended up staying up chatting in the hotel lobby until 3am — an annual tradition! This made Zach’s talk my first this year, and it was one of my favorites!

Zach’s now an engineer at FitBit, where he primarily works in Java. Previously, though, he worked full-time as a Clojure developer and has given a lot of great talks on concepts lispers enjoy, like applications of queuing theory in Clojure systems and library composability.

One of Zach’s conference-talk strengths is that he’s able to make theoretical topics more approachable. However, his talk at Strange Loop this year was more immediately practical, by comparison! He discusses a number of topics around frontend servers, including GC tuning, establishing metrics, and Netty. However, my favorite section of the talk was on queueing theory!

I really enjoy reading about queueing theory, and though I think it’s inherently interesting, I’ve found that queueing tends to be discussed either very abstractly, using mathematics, or very practically, referencing specific applications of Kafka or RabbitMQ.

Accordingly, I appreciated the section on queueing theory about 22 minutes in, using a pumpkin carver at the state fair as a metaphor. I frequently help out junior developers with web developer backgrounds who are hoping to dive deeper into backend systems development, and explaining the importance of things like load balancers is difficult if they’ve never experienced significant traffic in production before.

I feel like this section of Zach’s talk is one that I will send to folks on a pretty regular basis!

“Systems Programming as a Swiss Army Knife” by Julia Evans

A few weeks ago, Julia Evans ran a campaign to fund a new programming-related zine on Linux debugging tools! So, this year at Strange Loop, she also gave a talk on some of the tools described in the zine. She also described how you can use them as a developer to debug programs, even if you don’t know the programming languages those programs are written in!

My favorite thing about Julia’s talk is that it made Linux debugging tools more approachable and practical for application developers. When I’m working, I often feel like I could solve problems faster, if only I better understood how my computer worked. However, trying to learn more about Linux-y things tends to lead towards kernel development — which, while interesting, isn’t necessarily a thing I’m interested in learning about right now.

Julia’s talk wasn’t necessarily in-depth, but I feel like it set a great tone for learning more about systems programming without becoming a systems programmer.

Also, Julia’s talks are always super-entertaining and enthusiastic, and what I appreciated most about her talk this year was that it happened on the main Strange Loop stage! This made the talk even better; Julia has a delightfully big personality, and I loved getting to see it fill a big stage.

“Languages for 3D Industrial Knitting” by Lea Albaugh

One talk that was a standout favorite for many this year was by Lea Albaugh, who builds things and does research in the Textiles Lab of Disney Research in Pittsburgh, PA.

Lea gave an overview of knitspeak and hand-knitting charts for non-knitters, then described how machines typically accept directions using specialized programming languages like KnitPaint to interpret knitting directions into machine operations. Unfortunately, these specialized languages are unideal to work with, as evidenced by this example program Lea provided in KnitPaint:

…it turns out this is a basic tube.

Lea then described a project she’s been working on at Disney Research: a compiler for 3D machine knitting, which was published in ACM SIGGRAPH earlier this summer.

I found this talk super-interesting and timely, having read Kiran Bhattaram's blog post “A History of Storage Media: Punch Cards” a couple months ago, which mentioned that the Jacqard loom was the first machine to use punch cards as an automated instruction sequence! and though I don’t see myself doing much with this information in the new future, it does make me want to find a makerspace in the Pacific Northwest with an industrial knitter or loom!

Some Things I’ve Left Out!

The day before Strange Loop, I attended the Ally Skills Workshop with Valerie Aurora!

I’d never attended a diversity-focused workshop as part of a conference before, and I was interested to see how it played out. I’d love to discuss the things I learned as an attendee, but I feel like that deserves its own blog post, entirely!

There were also a few other talks that I enjoyed a ton, most notably “Tulip: A Language for Humans” by Sig Cox and Jeanine Adkisson, as well as “Fold, paper, scissors: an exploration of origami’s fold and cut problem” by Amy Wibowo — the author of Bubble Sort Zines.

I really loved all of these talks, but in the interest of saving space, I have left them out.

If you had any favorite Strange Loop talks you’d like to discuss, please reach out to me on Twitter! And, if you’re interested in attending Strange Loop in future years, but you’re not sure whether it’s a conference for you, I’d be glad to convince you to attend. 💞