Strange Loop 2018

I attended my fifth annual Strange Loop earlier this year. I’ve written before about why it’s my favorite conference, and after taking 2017 off to use my annual conference benefit a bit differently at RWDevCon, I was excited to return to St. Louis.

In past years, the talks I usually enjoyed most were about people’s hobby projects, particularly games, music, and art. I always like hearing stories about how someone else completed a particular project, even if it has nothing to do with my own discipline. I don’t attend as many strictly-academic talks, but since that’s part of the appeal of Strange Loop, I try to make some time for that too.

I started my week at a pre-conference event called Software with a Mission. SWAM’s goal is to highlight people who work on “Software that makes the world a better place,” whatever that means to you. Several of the speakers came from some sort of civic tech organization, including From Coder to Bureaucrat: How We Implemented the First Open Data Law by Becky Sweger and Kaitlin Devine.

Sweger and Devine talked about the surprising opportunity available in publishing budget info: “My whole life, I assumed that the government is big and there are smart people working on it, so they must be keeping track of whether this data is right.” It turned out that this was not the case. At the Sunlight Foundation, they built a system that could track how each dollar was ultimately spent and created scorecards to rate the quality of data being published by each agency. Nobody wants to be known as the worst at something, and these scorecards were successful at pushing the agencies to improve their public data. In their talk, they also emphasized how accessible lobbying can actually be. When you’re an elected official with few staff and you have little expertise, and then people show up and tell you what you should do, you’re likely to try listening to them.

I can’t link to the SWAM talks because they weren’t recorded this year, but the event seemed well-attended, so hopefully it will return to Strange Loop in the future.

The main conference ran for the next two days, and I crammed in as many talks as I could watch in a row. Just about every talk was interdisciplinary in some way, and most of them were things I would only expect to encounter at Strange Loop. Here are just two of the many talks that stood out to me from this year’s batch:

Generating Music From Emotion (and other experiments) by Hannah Davis

Davis starts her talk with a series of little animations and accompanying melodies that show the stock prices of Lehman Brothers and Bank of America during the period leading up to the 2008 crash. Her first example of sonification (like visualization, but with sound instead of visuals) demonstrates that sound is good for streams of data, grabbing attention, humor, and conveying emotion. She walks the audience through includes lots of compelling examples, drawing on both literature (Heart of Darkness, Peter Pan, A Clockwork Orange) and politics (2016 debates).

“It’s Just Matrix Multiplication”: Notation for Weaving by Lea Albaugh

Albaugh does a remarkable job of entertaining while breaking down complex concepts that I would struggle to follow in a printed book. The foundational insight is to notice that warp vs weft notation (which is what I would’ve naively described as “horizontal threads” and “vertical threads”) is binary in nature. At every intersection, the warp yarn is either above the weft yarn or below it. which means that a weaving pattern can be represented as a rectangular grid of 0s and 1s. Albaugh builds on this, showing how a matrix (the grid of 0s and 1s) can be multiplied with another matrix in order to represent the pedals pushed on a loom, and compares every mathematical operation to its corresponding physical loom operation.

Strange Loop continues to be one of the best tech events I’ve attended. This year brought a truly overwhelming number of tracks—good luck with browsing the massive 2018 schedule to figure out which recordings you want to watch—but the conference still feels small enough that I can run into the same faces over and over and friendly enough that I look forward to each of those encounters. I’m grateful to all of the organizers, speakers, and attendees that make it such a rewarding place to visit.

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