Scott Francis

I have been in a Strange Loop

About three months ago while browsing Proggit, I came across a thread titled simply “This is an awesome conference”. Idly browsing the speaker list, I stopped dead at the first two.

I still haven’t gotten around to working through SICP, but I’ve wanted to hear Guy Steele talk ever since reading “Growing a Language”. The sheer amount and variety of the other speakers and subjects gave me pause–most software conferences that I knew of were either heavily buzzword-based(JavaOne), expensive(RailsConf), or both(again, JavaOne). Hitting up my boss for support was comically easy after showing him the registration fee and location.

Thunder Landing

Work covered the flight and registration fee, but it was up to me for everything else. I ended up staying in the Parkway, two light-rail stops after the Delmar Loop. This snarled a few after-conference plans, and next time I’d plan to stay directly at the Moonrise.

Right out of the airport, I started running into fellow attendees: I struck up a conversation with someone on the light-rail, just from seeing him browsing Hacker News on his phone.

Along those lines, the pre-conference mixer party was a wonderful idea. Most of the people I ran into during the next few days were met here. It didn’t hurt that there was plentiful beer to boot.

Among other people at the party, I also ended up running into Django devs from LJWorld. Contrary to popular opinion, there were no knife-fights, and the conversation was mostly about online publishing. It was pleasantly shocking to learn that they were running into the same design issues I’ve had, all relating to page-layout and organization.

Talks and Panels

Since my employer partially funded the trip, I had to attend some of the panels relating to their interests. This mostly consisted of the HTML5, Semantic Web, and jQuery talks. Getting up to speed on all three was actually quite fun, and I came away with some more project inspiration.

Someone noted that Scott Davis has a promising future in sermonizing if he leaves coding. Even though his talks didn’t cover much new ground for me, he brings a great amount of energy and joy to the table. I could listen to him just covering the K&R spec all day.

There was time for “hey, that sounds cool” talks as well: Elenor McHugh’s GoLightly panel was my personal favorite of the conference. She filled the talk with a nonstop stream of discussion about quirks in Google Go, hardware design, email wars with Rob Pike, and plugging her favorite computer literature. Unfortunately, her slides lose a bit without the presentation to back it up, and I don’t believe this talk was recorded. Still, watching her step through a software CPU design with raw performance metrics took me right back to an infamous CS101 college lecturer.

Talks I missed, and regretted later included Android Squared, Complexity Theory(later tweets trickling out described it as ‘awesome’), and Automate or Die (sorry cashion!)

Famous Programmers “G.S.” and “D.C.” are Approaching Fast

The main keynotes for me were of course Guy Steele’s “How to think about Parallel Programming” and Douglas Crockford’s “Heresy and Heretical Open Source”. Prior to these, there were also a few round-table talks that included them.

The earliest one I saw was the “Future of Programming Languages” talk that also included Bruce Tate, Alex Payne, and Josh Bloch. During the talk, someone from the crowd asked about Javascript becoming a layer to run more sane languages on. Doug’s reaction was priceless. I wished I’d been able to ask a followup about (http://github.com/richcollins/crux)[crux] to score Bruce’s reaction as well.

All of the language panelists were asked for a recommendation. Guy’s was ‘learn three languages: the thought process will do more for you than any single one’. However, he was pressed to give more of a soundbite answer and settled on Clojure, which violently murdered all other trending Twitter topics for the next hour.

During his keynote, Guy spent 20 minutes reverse-engineering an old formatting program from punchcard, stepping through memory tricks and IBM 1130 lore, before demonstrating algebraic operators in his Fortress research language. There’s been a lot of talk on what he said and did not say at his talk, but the core point seems to have shone through: don’t let the workarounds of the past drive the design of the future.

Douglas Crockford’s talk swerved madly between analyzing Google’s “don’t be evil” statement to the history of HTML syntax(stopping briefly at his Tilton macro processor. Of course, he got the most cheers from his “IE Must Die” slides.

Word on the Street

Honestly, the most unexpected and wonderful thing was the general atmosphere of the conference. The Moonlight/Pageant/RAC trio is an excellent venue, and both the venue and on the allowed a lot of hallway discussion. The staff further encouraged this with lightning talks at an official party but it almost wasn’t necessary. I ended up spending almost every night out drinking and conversing with many amazing people on almost every nerd topic under the sun. Even after the conference, I was able to find a lot of conversation as well.

Talking with another attendee who’d been to several other “grassroot conferences” suggested that most other conferences don’t have nearly the sheer amount of energy and passion that Strange Loop does. As their page states, “Innovation happens in the magical nexus "between” established areas". They simply bring a crowd of talented people together and let them go full-steam-ahead.

And as a tech-business owner noted the first evening, Strange Loop would be cheap at twice the price. Being in a central location of the US and attracting such big-name talent merely sweetened the pot.

I know that I already can’t wait until next year. If I only could attend one conference per year(and who am I kidding, this is the only conference I’ve attended in the past 7 years), Strange Loop would be it.