StrangeLoop 2019

This past weekend was my third year attending StrangeLoop located in St. Louis, Missouri. Each year has been uniquely amazing and full of learning. My hope for you reading this is to feel convinced that you MUST attend next year in 2020!

No personal discussion of StrangeLoop would be complete without mentioning the wonderful organization that got me there! Project Alloy provides scholarships for people who are marginalized in technology and early in their career. We have a handful of Project Alloy only events such as mixers and lunches with sponsoring companies. This helps for us to form a community and connect with others in additional ways.

Naming StrangeLoop alone is not entirely fair. Prior to the two-day conference there’s a wide variety of pre-conference options to attend. This year there was Papers We Love, elm-conf, TLA+ Conf, along with 12 workshops available.

I attended Papers We Love (PWL), which holds the goal of providing interaction between the technical academic world with those who work actively in the technology industry. It was a pretty heady conference, but many of the speakers kept it funny and engaging. It’s also the kind of occasion one goes to and thinks, “Gee, I should get a PhD in computer science!” 

Shriram Krishnamurthi “On the Expressive Power of Programming Languages”
There’s a lot of knowledge of what can and cannot be done with computations. When designing programming languages, how can we make meaningful distinctions through expressions?

Star Simpson “Building Personable Machines”
What should be the characteristics of a machine when a human is in a particular emotional state? How does the anthropomorphization of robots affect our attachment to them? Star covers a couple of different examples, including robots she’s built, as well as research published about in-car voice and a driver’s emotional state.

The night before StrangeLoop kicks off, each year there is a conference party at the St. Louis City Museum. It’s hard to describe it in words, but imagine a giant building where everything is game for climbing and swinging on. The roof top is a real treat, there’s a school bus hanging off the corner of the building (and you can walk in it!), there’s a 10 story slide, and a ferris wheel. Every year I have explored unique areas of City Museum, there’s so much to discover! 

The StrangeLoop conference proper was a jam packed event. Thankfully all of the talks are recorded, so there’s no FOMO or a need to over exert yourself. I thought a lot about this idea for the conference and I set myself a max of attending four talks a day. This gave me a chance to recharge as needed. 

Em Lazer-Walker “A Robot Poet goes for a Walk In the Park”
Em discusses an interactive app she created called “Computational Flâneur” which is a site-specific generative poetry tour. She details the projects that were an inspiration for her own, as well as the tech stack used to create it.

Africa Perianez “From Video games to Fashion”
Bridging the use of big data sets across multiple industries, Africa discusses applied models to scale data sets to accurately create customized events and personalized predictions.

Eileen McFarland’s talk “Watch the Watcher: Facial Recognition & Police Oversight”
Eileen discusses the issues with facial recognition technology and its concerning use within public surveillance, especially with the police force. She outlines her open-source project, OpenOversight which promotes police accountability through open data. Mentions of Taylor Swift, and surprises!

The keynote speakers were all amazing. Each one could be an individual write up of a blog post on my thoughts (let me know if that’s something you want to see!). Keynote topics touched on education pedagogy with teaching how to program, human bias with artificial intelligence,   and the intersection between technology and space, and similar intersections with technology and music. All are very much worth a watch!

Mobility wise the conference is admittedly arduous. The conference has been set between two locations each year, and there are shuttle buses that cycle between them and the hotels. Both are older buildings, so elevators are kind of out of the way, or potentially inaccessible. I think the conference strives for the best situation out of a less-than-accessible space. But the first year I attended, my knee injury made it really difficult to enjoy the conference fully. I’ve modified how I interact with the conference now, and I bring all the necessaries to help manage my pain. 

I love how there’s live captioning at multiple talks. This year, I only attended one that wasn’t live captioned (but since they are uploaded to YouTube there’s automated captioning). 

People were given pronoun pins and firmly encouraged to wear them which helps to normalize such activities for being respectful of people’s pronouns. Project Alloy also provided pronoun pins, which continued the emphasis of how we should be explicit of these characteristics and also not to misgender folks! 

By the end of Saturday, folks appear visibly fatigued and all lacking spoons. After the conference ended with a fantastic closing keynote by Imogen Heap, I went out later in the evening with a group of conference attendees to sing karaoke which was a blast. I really loved seeing how much people self-organized to do other adventures outside of what the conference provided. 

Overall, my third year at StrangeLoop was a very positive one. I left feeling very inspired to create and put my ideas into the world. With the creation of I hope to make this happen! 

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