Pure Danger Tech


Inside the Strange Loop

01 Nov 2009

Now that a week has passed, I’ve had some time to collect a few thoughts about the Strange Loop conference last week. I got the idea for Strange Loop back in January and I’ve been planning it since March so for me it’s been my baby for a long time.

The Tivoli marquee
Photographer: Anna Aquino
The marquee at night
Photographer: Anna Aquino

It was a lot of work but I enjoyed it tremendously and found the conference very satisfying. Below I’ll try to summarize both feedback I got and my own personal opinions on some of it. Strange Loop came into my mind originally as something in the wonderful St. Louis fall, in the Loop, at the Tivoli. A conference for developers that could bring together the local community and also be high quality enough to pull in external speakers and attendees. To a high degree, the conference as it occurred matched the original conception (except for the unrelenting rain!).

Tivoli / The Loop – In general, I had tremendous positive feedback about the Tivoli. It’s a beautiful theater with wonderful digital projectors and sound, comfy seats, and wonderful character. I’ve been going to the Tivoli to see movies for 15 years and it fit the bill as I knew it would.

Coming with that wonderful character are a number of constraints. I have expected and mentally compromised with those constraints over a long time period but I did certainly hear them on feedback sheets: small lobby, not enough bathrooms, proximity of loud lobby with the left and right theaters, etc.

I have absolutely no regrets on the venue though. The Tivoli is a wonderful place. I think it’s charms far exceeded it’s flaws. The price was right and Dale at the Tivoli was amazing to work with given that they had never put on an event of this scope before.

Audio / video – the most important thing from an event perspective is having good audio / video such that you can actually see the presentations. Every other item can fail and you still have a conference – the A/V cannot. This is the only issue that kept me up night after night.

The Tivoli (being a movie theater), has amazing digital projectors (especially in the main theater) and excellent movie-quality sound systems. However, being a movie theater, the projectors are in the projection booth and are 75 feet (in the small theaters) and 150 feet (in the main theater) from the front of the auditorium where presenters expect to speak. Given that VGA cables aren’t much use over 25 feet, this created some unique challenges.

The two solutions I seriously looked at were doing VGA -> Component cables and doing VGA over Cat 5. Component cables are high quality and can handily do long-haul 100+ ft cables. The pins on VGA are too close to build a high-quality breakout into component signal, but you can buy short breakout component cables that can then be connected to long-haul bundled cables. From all reports, this is a high-quality solution, but it’s also very expensive. The breakout cables are not cheap (~$25) and the long cables are very expensive – probably in the $500-1000 range for the longest one alone.

Based on another tip, I started looking at VGA “Balun” boxes. These take VGA in, and Cat-5 RJ-45 connector out, then the reverse on the other end, allowing you to basically connect VGA over CAT-5 at long distances. The Balun connectors are expensive (the cheapest I found were about $130 / pair) but conversely the network cables are cheap and ubiquitous. In the case of an emergency, you could buy 100 ft Cat-5 and extenders at any Best Buy or Radio Shack. I did actually buy an extra cable it was so cheap.

These video connections basically worked. In general, I found that with short cables they worked perfectly and with long cables, it depended on the projector and the cable. For the 150 ft cable I paid more to get a shielded (STP) CAT-5; at 75 ft, the unshielded (UTP) seemed perfect. CAT-6 might have been better but the only issues that I think were attributable to the cable were some ghosting I saw at certain resolutions.

In the heat of the conference, I did have a number of problems. The left theater was rock solid and almost everyone “just worked” in there except for one case where we just got no signal at all from a Linux laptop. The main theater was the one I worried about the most. The projector there is awesome but relies on a separate video-conversion box that we had a lot of trouble with in prep sessions. However, it too mostly “just worked” except for a few cases where we had to go to a backup laptop. The right theater projector though was just a bear. It sucked all the way through and I could get ONLY my laptop to work with it on most of Friday. I only realized after the conference that the right projector was using a different kind of Baluns than the other two (and apparently that pair was not as good).

Certainly, the most heroic presentation was given by Hudson Akridge, which I wrote about already. My hats are off to him for staying calm in very challenging circumstances.

From an audio perspective, we did have some issues with mics, and I’ll take the full blame on that one. I had just hand-held mics up for people most of the conference and there were a few coding-heavy talks (like Hamlet’s in particular) where having a lapel mic would have been infinitely better. I was able to bum lapel mics from our videographers for most of the theaters on Friday but I still feel bad at making speakers suffer through it before that. I just plain missed this as an obviously needed requirement for talks. Duh. Lesson learned.

Wi-fi – as I suspected, the wifi sucked pretty hard. I did definitely get comments about this, but fewer than I expected actually. The unfortunate reality is that providing excellent wifi in a venue that has no existing support is at the very least challenging and at most quite expensive. Ultimately, I decided I would rather pay for speakers, food, or lots of other things beside wifi.

I used a company called 3GStore (through it’s EVDO Info site), which rents out EVDO wifi cards and routers. They send you a box with the cards and routers, preconfigured with the desired network names and passwords, and you simply plug them in. Then you ship them back after the event. These worked great – I just needed 10 more of them. :)

By the way, the cost for renting two card/router setups for two days was about $315. I would have rented more if they had more available. Assuming there was actually sufficient 3G coverage in the area to rent 10 more of these and set them up, it would have cost me close to $2000 to do so.

Beverage service and lunch – given the movie theater setup, instead of having cans of soda available at pre-set times during the conference, I was able to negotiate an open beverage service at the concession stand. In general, I got many many positive comments on this and I personally thought it was excellent. It fell down a couple times with long lines but generally I thought it worked very well.

In retrospect, I probably should have provided lunch on Thursday and let people go out to the Loop on Friday but that was kind of a consequence of the way the conference grew from one to two days. Quizno’s for lunch was ok. I had comments all over the map about it. Some people liked it, some didn’t, some thought it was understandable given the conference price point, etc. Yes, the long line for getting food sucked. Sorry about that. The Tivoli setup was just going to make this hard regardless. The food didn’t all arrive quite as I expected so there was a bit of improvisation going on.

Going forward, I’ll probably make some different choices about whether and how to put lunch together. At the low price point I’m shooting for, the choices are somewhat limited as food is just expensive (think $8-15 / person).

Blueberry Hill – once registrations and sponsorships picked up, I decided that I would have enough money to put this idea into action of having a party where people weren’t rushing between sessions at the conference and could relax, hang out, and talk with speakers and attendees. I was able to offer an open bar with Blueberry Hill’s excellent beer selection and had many, many positive comments about the party. I had a great time too.

Blueberry Hill Duck Room filled with geeks

Photographer: Anna Aquino

We also did the first round of Strange Passion talks at Blueberry Hill. I had this crazy idea that it would be fun to have short non-technical talks by conference attendees. I ran an open call on the web site and attendees voted to choose their favorite-sounding talks. Many thanks to OCI and Announce Media who both provided projectors for these talks. We had talks at the party in the domains of astronomy, neuroscience, child development, and options trading. I had a great time and was happy to give away a genuine Klein bottle to Jeff Schmitz for his astronomy talk.

Jeff Schmitz talks astronomy

Photographer: Anna Aquino

We did the second round of passion talks on Friday during the conference, and I think the environment there was not as conducive from my point of view. Those talks on a technique for tech interview, an intro to hacking tools, and building houses in Mexico were all just as good but people didn’t like to have to choose between those talks and other sessions. In the future, I think we’ll keep the passion talks to venues where everyone can attend.

Keynotes – Crazy Bob Lee did a talk on the Future of Java [slides] on Thursday and Alex Payne did a talk on Minimalism in Software [slides] on Friday.

Bob’s talk was very technical, focusing on JDK 7 and lots of people gave me positive feedback on this insight from someone with his hands in a lot of those efforts.

Bob Lee and Alex Miller

Photographer: Scott Bale

Alex’s talk was very big picture with lots of interesting things to think about. The number one comment I saw over and over in feedback forms was “thought-provoking”. For me, that’s exactly what I want out of a keynote, so I was completely happy. I look forward to seeing the feedback on the net when the video is available (hopefully not too far off).

Alex Payne from Twitter

Photographer: Anna Aquino

Talks – I was very happy with the technical content of the conference. I thought it was a great mix of technologies and speakers. If there were two themes I’d have to say that they were around the explosion of languages (aka polyglot programming) and alternative database technologies (aka NoSQL) occurring right now. These will continue to be leading topics at Strange Loop next year, I have no doubt.

Dean Wampler drops some knowledge

Photographer: Anna Aquino

Most of the talks were recorded on video and will be made available on DZone after they have been edited together with the slides. Many thanks to DZone for making that possible.

Volunteers – I had a great group of volunteers that came together out of nowhere and wildly surpassed every hope I had. I was busy fighting fires through most of the conference and these folks just solved problems in my absence without me even hearing about it till later. My hat is off to them – many things simply wouldn’t have happened at all without their assistance. Thank you to: Darrell Gammill, Sarah Burcham, Danielle Jaegers, Mike Menne, Brad Hogenmiller, Robert Levitt, Lee Lammert, and Jackie Steege. Also, many thanks to my parents who stopped by to add some extra hands even though I managed to have a fender-bender with their car Thursday morning. :)

Sponsors – I must also thank my sponsors without whom the conference would have been impossible: Google, Red Hat, Woot.com, Terracotta, Microsoft, The Corporate Electric, OCI / Advantage, Lisa Rokusek (AgentHR), Technology Partners, Contegix, Announce Media, Objistics, Slice Host, Harpoon Technologies, and Appistry.

T-shirts - get one now!

T-shirts – I still have a slew of XL of these t-shirts left that I would be glad to get rid of. For just $20, one can be yours! Email me and I can get one to you.

OR, you can check out even more designs, styles, colors, mouse pads, etc at the Strange Loop Store.

Future – I’m already working on Strange Loop 2010 and I have lots of crazy ideas. I suspect it will probably be about the same time of year and probably in the Loop, but not at the Tivoli. I’d like to do a few different kinds of things and the Tivoli just doesn’t have the room. But have no fear, I am on the hunt for different funky venues and I have some strong candidates already in the running.

The soul of Strange Loop is:

  • Cheap enough that you can pay it out of pocket if your company won’t pay it. (~$100)
  • Developer-focused (no marketing, sales, or other crap). No talk bought by sponsors.
  • Focused primarily on emerging technologies, particularly those in the database and programming language arena
  • Fun and different – unique venue, unique kinds of talks, etc.

and I plan to keep it that way.