Sunday, September 22, 2013

Strange Loop: Go beyond your day-to-day

When I first heard of the Strange Loop conference, my immediate reaction was, "that is not a conference for me". I was under the impression that it was for language designers to discuss DSLs, type systems, variable binding etc, and not application developers like me.

I was not planning to attend the conference, let alone submit a talk proposal, until I saw an email on the DevChix mailing list. It was an invitation to join a Google Hangout with the Strange Loop organizer to learn more about the conference. Curious, I went and asked questions about the kind of talks they were looking for, and decided to submit a proposal after all. Two, in fact, a deep-dive talk and a overview talk, since I was still not sure what works best for this conference. A few weeks later, I got an email from Strange Loop, telling me they'd like to hear me Bust the Android Fragmentation Myth.

When I boarded the plane for St Louis, I was still not sure if Strange Loop is for me. It seems so far away from what I do. But coming back, I realized that being far away from what I do turns out to be a good thing. It gives me a chance to sample various exciting developments in my field, and it was a lot of fun to step back the day-to-day tasks and look at the big picture.

Opening keynote

Strange Loop opened with a keynote by Jenny Finkel from Prismatic.

Before I get into the talk, please take a moment to admire the venue. Yup, it was an opera house! Such a beautiful place.

The keynote was wonderful, with enough technical details to let us peek behind the curtains of the Prismatic recommendation engine, but not too much to be dry. I enjoyed it a lot.

That was a perfect opening to the rest of the conference. Over the two days I went to many different talks, and listened to great variety of topics. Here are some of them.

Visualization Driven Development

It is common to visualize data after we deployed our software. But in the Visualization Driven Development talk, the speaker argued that we should use visualization during development as well, as a tool like printing log statements and examining state via the debugger. Relying solely on text during development is like picking music by reading its score. (Edit: the example was picking wedding music for an engaged couple, not professional musicians)

Learnfun and Playfun

How do you teach the computer to play video game? Tom 7 went for a pretty simple metric: bits should go up! It was a really light-hearted talk, with lots of cool demos. Check out the videos on his web site.

Natural Language Processing

I studied NLP in grad school, but haven't used it for a long long while. The NLP talk was a nice trip down the memory lane, but also showed me the power of open source. There are so many tools for text processing now! I am especially impressed by nltk, a python library. Reminds me of import antigravity from xkcd.

Bust the Android Fragmentation Myth

My talk was in the late afternoon on the first day.

This is the second time I gave this talk, the first time being OSCON. As usual, I polled my audience before starting, and the Strange Loop crowd had a lot more mobile developers. As a result I sped past the hello world fairly quickly, and spent more time on resource folders.

Afternoon keynote

In the afternoon keynote, Jen Myers gave a passionate speech on making software accessible to everyone. She viewed the current status as a legacy system, and showed us how to improve it by small focused refactoring. She shared stories from Girl Develop It, of empowerment through inclusion. She also emphasized the importance of role models, with wonderful examples such as Sally Ride, Neil deGrasse Tyson and Nichelle Nichols.

The Birth and Depth of Javascript

Strange Loop offers an opportunity to look into the future, and in this talk, the speaker took it quite literally: it was given from the perspective of 2035! In this future, Javascript, together with asm.js, would allow any language to be compiled to run in the browser. Not only the talk itself was entertaining, but the audience also asked questions in the same spirit, one even asked the speaker to predict the future, seeing that this was a "historical" talk.

Java Puzzlers

I have seen the Java Puzzlers talk a few years ago at Google, and totally loved it. It was given in the style of Click and Clack from CarTalk, complete with overalls for the speakers. The puzzles exposed some unexpected behaviors of the Java language, and offers suggestions to avoid the pitfalls. This talk has a completely new set of puzzles, and is as delightful as always.

City Museum

On top of all these wonderful talks, Strange Loop has another cool offering: the conference party at the City Museum. Instead of a museum, it is better to think of it as a giant playground, with lots of secret passageways, multi-storey slides, cages and spirals, and suspended vehicles like a school bus and a plane.

I was having fun exploring the different nooks and crannies on the first three floors, and then heard someone talking about the roof top garden. What, there is more? I found the elevator up, and was treated to a nice cityscape. Plus lots of slides, including one that went all the way down to the third floor. As looked around, I realized that there were more playground outside the building, with a big ball pit, an airplane, and lots of caged passageways.

Given the size of some of the openings this is clearly designed for children, but that did not stop the hundreds of geeks from exploring the place, including yours truly. I had so much fun!


  1. The music analogy is actually kind of off. Master musicians can get a really good feel for music from the score alone. In fact, there's a famous review by ETA Hoffman of Beethoven's 5th that he wrote entirely based off the score:

    1. Sorry, didn't give enough context. The speaker gave an example of an engaged couple picking wedding music, not professional musicians. I've edited the post to clarify.

  2. Strange Loop is a fascinating conference, probably one of the most interesting out there. I haven't been yet, but maybe one of these years…

  3. I'm glad you decided to submit a talk - I enjoyed it, even tho' I'm not a mobile developer (but we're starting down that path at my company), and thank you for answering my question (about combining resource flags and the ordering of suffixes).

    I've attended in 2011 and 2013 and think it's one of the best events on the calendar so I plan to attend in future years. Hope you do too!