Strange Loop 2018 Sticker

We’re back from St. Louis! It’s our third year attending Strange Loop and, as usual, it was awesome!

If you’re not familiar with Strange Loop, it’s a “multi-disciplinary conference that brings together the developers and thinkers building tomorrow’s technology in fields such as emerging languages, alternative databases, concurrency, distributed systems, security, and the web.” Speakers are free to talk about any topic they find interesting.

This year, fourteen of us attended as part of Yext’s Learning is Good program. Some of the themes this year included Elm, generating art, and ideas for improving the software developer community. Here were some of our favorite parts of the conference.1

Pre-Conference

Strange Loop starts off each year with, essentially, several mini-conferences. This year, there were four:

  • elm-conf, covering the Elm programming language
  • Papers We Love, which aims to share cool research papers that are of interest to both academia and the tech industry
  • Software With A Mission, showing ways that engineers can do good via non-profits, activist organizations, and government
  • Day of Datomic Cloud, focusing on how the Datomic Cloud transactional database allows you to focus on your application logic

Conveying the Power of Abstraction, Eugenia Cheng
This talk was actually a keynote for a separate conference, ICFP, that was co-located in Stifel Theatre (one of the conference buildings). Kelly and I wandered in by accident (we were lost), but the talk was pretty engaging. I showed up towards the end, but still got to hear a bit about Carlo M. Cipolla’s The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity.

From Coder to Bureaucrat: How We Implemented the First Open Data Law, Becky Sweger and Kaitlin Devine
This SWAM talk covered challenges and strategies for driving tech-backed changes in government, which can be especially challenging since policy makers don’t have the same understanding of tech as we do. There are a few keys: getting yourself involved, proving that things can actually be done, and focusing on what’s truly necessary for your project.

Including Equity in Tech Work, Ari Schlesinger
This PWL talk looks at how computers convey and encode our culture—including the ugly bits. Schlesinger gave an overview of several papers that correlate software to social inequalities. Notably, one of the papers discusses modularization to tie together the development of UNIX to the Civil Rights Movement. With computers, we find modularization extremely useful for isolating concerns and ensuring that unsavory parts of our code can’t spill out. But this was the same concept being used to isolate unwanted minority groups to different regions of neighborhoods.

City Museum Party

City Museum shaft

Every year, Strange Loop books out the nearby City Museum for their party. It’s a huge indoor/outdoor playground with tons of tunnels, slides, and areas to explore.

Main Conference

Here were some of our favorite talks.

Contracts For Getting More Programs Less Wrong, Rob Simmons
Let’s be honest—our traditional testing patterns don’t give very many guarantees about how correct our program is. We test a few cases, then magically conclude our program must be correct. Contracts allow us to be much more specific about what inputs and outputs our programs should have, as well as how our programs should function internally. With contracts, we can be much more precise about when our functions should (and shouldn’t) work and allow our computers to handle the checking for us.

The Hard Parts of Open Source, Evan Czaplicki
We want our open-source communities to be friendly, but that’s a hard problem! It’s really easy for people to be (or seem) mean and unhelpful. Czaplicki ties together several historical and psychological ideas to explain both what causes some of the undesired things that happen online and how we can use them to help people communicate better.

Making Games for 1920s Hardware, Mike Lazer-Walker
Lazer-Walker gives us an overview of his process after purchasing a vintage Western Electric telephone switchboard and programming a game into it. It was a fun talk due to the unexpected hurdles and resultant actions to handle the dated hardware and old standards of manufacturing. I really liked the blend of old and new technologies, as well as Mike’s choice to program a virtual model of the switchboard that was first used for playtesting, then used to debug the same machine it based off of.

Changing The World, Erica Joy Baker
In Thursday’s afternoon keynote, Baker takes a look at the awesome changes we’ve been able to make with software. They’re awesome in that we’ve changed the world, but frightening in that we didn’t pay attention to how we changed it. Baker calls out a lot of things that are wrong with things today, but also gives insights as to how we can be more purposeful and beneficial with the software we build.

Building Senior Engineers, Dalton Mitchell
Although it starts off a bit slow, Mitchell goes into how we can help people be stronger engineers. Surprisingly, this is done by looking for and growing non-technical traits, such as communication, curiosity, passion, and determination.

Categories for the Working Hacker, Philip Wadler
A highly entertaining talk where Wadler shows how some basic data types can be modelled with category theory.

  1. The videos for these talks haven’t been uploaded yet. We definitely recommend keeping an eye out for when they get posted on YouTube!