247: Approaching Learning and Content Creation with Sy Brand

August 25th, 2021 · 54 mins 23 secs

About this Episode

02:01 - Sy’s Superpower: Making Complex Topics Digestible

06:28 - Approaching Learning to Code: Do Something That Motivates You

11:25 - Computers Can Hurt Our Bodies!

13:57 - Motivation (Cont’d)

22:15 - Sy’s Content (Cont’d)

33:58 - Code As Art

41:34 - #include <C++>


Mandy: Digging into Sy’s videos.

Casey: Working within content creation constraints.

Sy: Make a video on register allocation.

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MANDY: Hello and welcome to Greater Than Code, Episode 247. My name is Mandy Moore and I'm here with my friend, Casey Watts.

CASEY: Hi, I'm Casey, and we're both here with our guest today, Sy Brand.

SY: Hey, everyone!

CASEY: Sy is Microsoft’s C++ Developer Advocate. Their background is in compilers and debuggers for embedded accelerators. They’re particularly interested in generic library design, making complex concepts understandable, and making our communities more welcoming and inclusive. They can usually be found on Twitter, playing with their three cats, writing, or watching experimental movies.

Hi, Sy! Good to have you.

SY: Hey, thanks for having me on.

CASEY: The first question we like to ask, I think you're prepared for it, is what is your superpower and how did you acquire it?

SY: Yeah, so very topically, I think one of my superpowers is forgetting what topics I want to talk about when recording podcasts and that, I acquired through having ADHD and forgetting to write things down. But I did write things down this time so maybe that won't be too much of a problem.

But I think one of my other ones is making complex topics digestible, trying to take computer science topics and distill them down into things which are understandable without necessarily having a lot of the background knowledge, the resources you’d expect. I gained that mostly through my background in computer science and then my interest in public speaking and communication and performance poetry, trying to blend those together to make things easier to understand, lower the barrier for entry.

CASEY: I love it. Making complex topics digestible. That's definitely a skill we need more of in the world.

MANDY: Absolutely. So Casey told me you are a bit of a teacher and you do a lot of teaching on, is it YouTube? So making things easier to digest. Like I said, during the preshow, I've been trying to learn to code on and off for 12 years, as long as I've had this career, and I've started and stopped, gotten frustrated and stopped, and I've tried different things. I've had mentors and I feel like I've let my mentors down and I've tried this and that. I've tried the code academy and I don't know. So how do you do it? Can you tell us a little bit about how you do that?

SY: Sure. So most of the topics that I am interested in teaching is, because I come from a background of compilers and debuggers and very low-level systems, those are the things that I want people to get excited about because I think people look at compilers, or C++, or low-level programming and think, “Oh, this is not very interesting,” or new, or it's too complex, or it requires too much of a degree, or whatever.

But none of that is true. You can write a compiler without having to have a lot of the background knowledge you might expect and you can learn C++ without having to – it can be a lot easier than people make art. So I want to make these concepts seem interesting and understandable because they're deeply interesting to me and they've been working on them for a large part of my life and I still love it and find them fascinating. So I want to share that with people.

CASEY: What's your motivation when you're working on these? Is it to understand things that are complex, or are you solving problems you have, or other people have, or maybe a blend, or other motivations? I'm wondering what gets you so pumped about it.

SY: Yeah, so I think it's a few different things. I make videos on Twitter, or YouTube, things like that of explaining concepts that I'm already familiar with and it's pretty much stuff that I could write an entire video off the top of my head without having to do any research.

So I've done videos on explaining what a compiler is and all the stages of compilation, or a video on higher cash performance works, or [in audible 05:48] cash configurancy, garbage collection. These are all things I could just sit down and write something on and don't have to do a lot of research.

Then there's the more exploratory stuff. I've been live streaming the development of a Ranges library for C++, which is being able to compose operations, building up a pipeline of operations for your data and then declarative manner so that you don't have to deal with a lot of memory allocations and moving data, or a range yourself. You just say, “Here's all the steps that I want to occur,” and then someone who has written all of these pipeline operations deals with how that actually happens. I've been developing that library live and trying to teach myself hired to do all of these things as while also teaching other people at the same time.

MANDY: So is it right to assume that maybe I've been going about learning to code in all the wrong ways and that I've just picked a language and tried to dive in, or did I miss some of the conceptual stuff? And if so, as I suspect, a lot of the conceptual stuff has gone over my head.

So where do you suggest, if you were giving me advice, which yes, you are giving me advice.


Where would you suggest, as a brand-new beginner coder, what kind of software concepts I need to research and understand before actually diving into an actual programming language?

SY: Honestly, I don't think that there's a single answer there and I don't think there's a lot of wrong answers there. From my perspective, the best way to learn how to code is doing something that motivates you and that gets you excited because coding is hard and when you hit those bumps and things are going wrong, if you don't have that motivation to keep going, then it's very easy to stop. I know I've done it in trying to learn certain concepts and things like that before, because I felt like, “Oh, I should learn this thing, but I wasn't really interested in it,” and then I find out it was hard and stopped.

The best way that I learn is finding something where I'm like, “Hey, I want to build this thing,” or “I want to understand this because I want to solve this problem,” or “because I want to dove on that knowledge with something else.” It's always the motivation, but then I'm coming from if you're someone with ADHD, or something like me, then it's pretty much impossible to do anything without [chuckles] having a strong motivation behind it. So that kind of comes into my way of learning as well.

MANDY: That's super interesting. Actually, the last episode we did was with Rudo Kemper and he did a project with Ruby for Good. I went to that and I actually got really excited, intrigued, and wanted to get involved and learn how to code because I was really interested and passionate about the project that he presented, which was Terrastories, which was handing down indigenous knowledge technologically so that stories aren't lost in just having oral traditions, that these stories are actually being recorded and are living somewhere on the internet. So that's really interesting. I went to that and then of course, pandemic happened. It didn't happen again last year, but I'm thinking about going back this year.

I'm hoping maybe I can be on a team with somebody that could just shadow and sit there and maybe Casey would let me be that person because rumor has it, Casey is going to be there. Ruby for Good on the East Coast in the fall.

CASEY: Yeah, I'll be there. I'd be happy to have you shadow me. Also, my role lately has been a higher level. Last time I was a product manager for the team not coding and this year I'm going to be helping the teams be happy and effective across the board because there's always a team, or two that need some alignment work so that they can be productive the whole weekend.

MANDY: That's interesting. Okay. Well, I'm sure I'll find somebody who wouldn't mind me doing a kind of shadow.

CASEY: For sure.

MANDY: Yeah, cool.

CASEY: That's the kind of environment it is.

MANDY: Absolutely.

CASEY: Yeah.

SY: That definitely sounds like the right kind of thing like something where you hear about something, or you look at this project and you think, “Hey, I want to get involved. I want to contribute to this.” That's what can drive a positive learning experience, I think it's that motivation and that motivation could just be, “Hey, I want to get into the tech industry because it pays well and we need money to live because capitalism.” That's like totally legit as well. Whatever you find motivates you to work.

MANDY: Yeah, that's why I'm here. I had to find a way for my daughter and I to live.

SY: Yeah.

MANDY: So I got into tech and podcasts and then I'm working for all these people who I always considered so much smarter than me. I was like, “I could never learn that. I'm not good enough.” But now since joining the podcast as a host and coming on here, I'm feeling more and more like I am smart enough, I could do the thing and so, I'm actually really getting into it more. But it's just that being on the computer for so many hours doing the work stuff makes it hard to also break into the wanting to do the learning outside of my work hours – [overtalk]

SY: Right, yeah.

MANDY: Because it's so much computering.

SY: Yeah, or just split the good screen from bad screen.

CASEY: I've been computering so much, I have a tendonitis in my right pinky now from using the arrow keys on the keyboard too much, I think and bad posture, which I've been working on for years. Computers can hurt our bodies.

SY: Yeah, definitely. I use the Logitech M570 mouse, which I switched to a number of years ago and was one of the best changes I ever made for using the computer and also, switching to Dvorak for keyboard layout.

CASEY: Okay. I use that, too.

SY: Nice!

CASEY: Dvorak. It's not better, but I learned it.


It might be more better for my health maybe, but I'm not faster. That's what people always ask.

SY: I'm definitely – [overtalk]

CASEY: Instead of ASDF, it's a AOEU under your fingers; the common letters right at your fingertips. You don't need the semicolon under your right pinky.


Why is that there?

SY: Yeah.

MANDY: Yeah. I was going to ask for us what you were even talking about there. So it's just basically reconfiguring your keyboard to not be QWERTY thing?

SY: Yeah, exactly.

MANDY: Okay.

SY: That means you have to completely relearn how to type, which can take a while. Like when I completely stopped using QWERTY at all and just switched to Dvorak, I didn't even buy a Dvorak keyboard, I just printed out the keyboard layout and stuck it to my monitor and just learned.

For the first while, it's excruciating because you're trying to type an email and you're typing 15 words per minute, or something. That's bad. I did definitely did get faster shifting to Dvorak. Before I think I used to type at like 70, 80; I type around a 100 words per minute so it changed my speed a bit. But to be fair, I don't think I typed properly on QWERTY. I switched 10 years ago, though so I can't even remember a whole lot. [chuckles]

MANDY: That's interesting, though. That gives me something I want to play around with right there and it's not even really coding.


It's just I’ll be just trying to teach myself to type in a different way. That's really interesting. Thank you.


CASEY: Yeah. It was fun for when I learned it, too. I think I learned in middle school and I was I practiced on AIM, AOL Instant Messenger, and RuneScape.

SY: Nice.

CASEY: I didn't dare practice while I had essays due and I had to write those up. That was too stressful.


CASEY: Summer was better for me.

SY: Yeah, I switched during a summer break at university.

CASEY: Low stakes. I needed the low stakes for that to succeed.

SY: [laughs] Yeah.

CASEY: We were talking about what motivates you to learn programming and I wrote up a story about that for me actually recently.

SY: Okay.

CASEY: At the highest level, my first programming class, we modeled buoys and boats and it was so boring. I don't know why we were doing it. It didn't have a purpose. There was no end goal, no user, nobody was ever going to use the code. It was fine for learning concepts, I guess, but it wasn't motivated and I hated it and I stopped doing CS for years until I had the opportunity to work on an app that I actually used every day. I was like, “Yeah, I want to edit that.” I just want to add this little checkbox there. Finally, I'll learn programming for that and relearn programming to do useful things for people. Motivation is key.

SY: Yeah. I think because I started doing programming when I was quite young, I knew it was definitely the classic video games, wanting to learn how to make video games and then by the time I actually got to university, then I was like, “Yeah, don't want go into the games industry.” So didn't end up doing that. But I still enjoy game jams and things like that. If you're not again.

CASEY: That's another thing you might like, Mandy. It's a weekend game jam.


CASEY: I don’t know how into gaming you are, but it's also fun, lower stakes. People are just partying. Not unlike Ruby for Good. They happen more often and I like how it feels at a game jam, a little better than a hackathon because you're building something fun and creative instead of using a company's API because they told you to.

SY: [laughs] Yeah.

MANDY: Yeah, I was honestly never exposed to video games as a child. They were a no-no in my household and that's one of the things that I always cursed my parents for is the fact that I am the worst gamer. [laughs] My daughter makes fun of me. I'll sit down and like try to – she's 12 and I'll try to do something. She'll be like, “Wow, this is hurting me to watch you, Mom,” [laughs] and I'm like – [overtalk]

CASEY: Ouch.

MANDY: No, she called me a try hard and I was like, “Yeah, I'm trying really hard to just go forward.” Like I'm trying really hard to just jump over this object, [chuckles] I was like, “If that makes me a try hard well, then yes, I'm trying very hard. Thank you.”

SY: Yeah. My 6-year-old has now got to the point where he can beat me at Super Smash Brothers so I'm not feeling too good about that. [laughs]

CASEY: Yeah. My 6-year-old nephew beat us all in Mario Kart a couple weeks.

SY: Yeah. [laughs] I can still beat in the Mario Kart. That, I could do. [laughs]

MANDY: Yeah. A lot of the games she does looks fun, though so it's something I would be interested in, it's just something that I haven't been exposed to. I'm really excited now that—I don't want to say the pandemic is nearing an end because it seems to be not happening, but I’m excited – [overtalk]

CASEY: True. Things are opening up.

MANDY: Right now. Until they start closing down again.

CASEY: Yeah.

MANDY: Because I'm so excited for things like Ruby for Good, driving down to D.C. and seeing some of my friends, and I would be interested in going to one of those game things, as long as people are just like, “Oh yeah, we can be patient with her because she's never done a game before.” [laughs]

CASEY: Yeah. My last game jam had eight people on the team and zero had ever done game development before. We figured something out.

SY: [chuckles] Yeah.

MANDY: Oh, that's fun.

SY: Like muddle along.

CASEY: Yeah. Somebody did like level design. They did a title map. Someone did sprites. They were like, “I'm going to do a sprite tutorial now.” Sprite is moving like a walking character. We had learned all the terms for it. We didn't know the terms either, but it was a good environment to learn.

MANDY: It seems it. It seems like if you have a happy, healthy environment. For me, it was just, I was becoming stressed out. I had a standing meeting once a week with a really, really awesome person and it felt like it was more of like, I was like, “Oh my gosh, I have to work this into my already busy workweek and if I don't, then I'm completely wasting their time,” and I started to feel guilty to the point it brought me down.

I was just like, “I don't think this is good for either one of us right now” because I’m feeling too much pressure, especially with the once-a-week thing and it's like to get through this chapter and then get through this chapter, and then I'd have a question and I'm not good at writing things down and then I'd forget. It seems like that might be more of a strategy to learn for me.

I think a lot of people, there's different strategies like you have your visual learners, or you have your audio learners and I think for me, it would be cool just like I said, shadowing somebody. Like, if I just like sat there and it wasn't weird for me just to watch it over somebody's shoulder while they're doing this thing, that would a more conducive environment to the way I learn.

CASEY: Yeah. I like the pattern, You do, We do, I do. Have you heard of that one?


CASEY: Or I do, We do, You do depending on the perspective. So it's like shadowing first and then doing it together where you're both involved and then you can do it on your own. It's a three-step process to make it a little bit easier to learn things from other people.

SY: Yeah, that makes sense.

MANDY: Yeah, that sounds like how kids learn. It’s how we teach our children like I do, now we're going to do it together, now you do it. Yeah, I definitely have used that with my kid.


CASEY: And it's just completely reasonable to do that as adults. That's how human brains work.

MANDY: Yeah. No, I don't feel – that's the thing I would have to not almost get over, but just be like, “Oh my gosh, I'm 2 years old. I'm learning like I'm a toddler and that's so embarrassing.” But I think that that is a great way to learn and a great way to approach learning in general.

I just started a book on learning more about crystals and it's the beginner's guide and she said, “You read this book and then you can move on to reading this other 700-page book that I've authored, but you should probably read this concise guide first.” I think a lot of people feel the pressure to dive into the super smart, or what they perceive as being the super smart way of diving in like, picking up the Ruby book, or the books that everyone talks about when there's so many other great resources exist that break it into smaller, bite-sized, digestible chunks. I think there's no shame in learning like that and I think a lot of people think that they just need to dive right in and be like, “Oh, this is the hard book, I'm going to go for the hard book first.” Like no, start with the easiest, start small.

SY: Yeah. I think as you say, it definitely depends on how you learn what kind of resources you find interesting and engaging.

CASEY: I've heard a similar story from a lot of friends, Mandy, where they really want to learn something, maybe programming in general, or a language, and then they psych themselves out, or they don't have the bandwidth in the first place, but they don't realize it and they struggle through that and the guilt because they want to, but they don't have time, or energy, which you also need. It's really common.

A lot of people that I know are really motivated to do a lot of stuff; they want to do everything. I know some people who are fine not doing everything and that's great because they're probably more grounded. [chuckles]


But a lot of people I know really want to learn at all and it's a tension; you don't have infinite time and energy.

SY: Yeah. I definitely fall into wanting to learn absolutely everything and right now.

MANDY: So what kind of things are you teaching right now, Sy? What kind of content are you putting out there?

SY: Yeah. So like I said, a lot of it's to do with low-level programming, like how memory actually works on a computer and how it affects how we program things. Because for a lot of people, if you come from a higher-level programming background, you're used to memory being abstracted away from what you do. You deal with variables, you deal with objects, and the implementation of the programming language deals with how that actually maps onto the underlying hardware. But if you really need to get the most performance you possibly can out of your system and you're using a little bit lower-level language like C, or C++, or Rust, or Swift, or something, then you need to understand how your processor is actually handling the instructions and that is actually handling your memory accesses in order for your performance to actually be good.

Some of it is not obvious as well and does not match with how you might think memory works because the processors which we're using today are based in so much history and legacy. A lot of the time, they're essentially trying to mimic behavior of older processors in order to give us a programming model, which we can understand and work with, but then that means that they have to work in certain ways in order to actually get performance for the high-performance modern systems we need.

So having an understanding of how our caches work, how instruction pipelines work, and things like that can actually make a really big difference down with the low-level programming.

MANDY: Okay. So I'm looking at your Twitter and then looking at your pinned tweet, it says, “I made a YouTube channel for my ‘Computer Science Explained with my Cats’ videos.” How do you explain computer science with your cats? Because that's something I could probably get into.

SY: Yeah. So I have three cats and – [overtalk]

MANDY: I've got you beat by one.

SY: Nice. What were your cats called?

MANDY: I have four. I have Nicks after Stevie Nicks. I have Sphinx because he looks so regal and I have Chessy and I have Jolie.

SY: Cool. Mine are Milkshake, Marshmallow, and Lexical Analysis cat.

MANDY: [laughs] Cool.

SY: [chuckles] Yeah. So the things explained with my cats, it's mostly I wanted to explain things with my cats and random things, which I find around my house. So I remember I have a Discord server, which I help to moderate called #include , which is a welcoming inclusive organization for the C++ community. We were talking about hash maps and how hash maps are actually implemented, and I realized that there's a lot of different design areas in hash maps, which can be difficult to understand.

I wanted to try and explain it using boxes and teddies and my cats so I set up a bunch of boxes. These are all of the buckets, which your items could go into it and then there's some way to map a given teddy to a given box. Let's say, it could be how cute it is. So if it's super cute and it goes in the west most box, and if it's kind of cute, then it goes into the box after that and so on and so forth. That's kind of how hash maps work. They have a bunch of memory, which is allocated somewhere, a bunch of boxes, and they have some way of mapping given items to a given box, which is called a hash function.

In this case, it was how cute they are and then you have some way of what happens if two teddies happened to be as cute as each other, how do you deal with that? There's a bunch of different ways that you could handle that and that's called hash collision. Like, what do you do with collisions? Do you stick them in the same box and have a way of dealing with that, or do you just put them in the next box up, or a few boxes up, or something like that? There's whole decades worth of research and designing, which go into these things, but the concepts map quite nicely onto boxes and teddies and how cute they are. [chuckles]

MANDY: I love that.

SY: They are also explaining how caching works with chocolate, like the intuition with memory access is you ask for some chunk of memory and you get that chunks. You ask for a single chunk of chocolate and you get that chunk of chocolate, but in reality, that's not what happens in most cases. In most cases, you're actually going to get back a whole row of chocolate because it's most likely that if you're going to get a bit of chocolate, you're probably going to be accessing the bits which are right next to it. Like, if you have an array and you're processing all of the elements in that array, then you're just going to be stepping along all of those elements. So it's much faster to bring all of those elements would be right into memory at once.

That's what happens in modern processors. Without you having to ask for it, they just bring in that whole row of chocolate. So I tried to – [overtalk]

CASEY: That’s so polite. [laughs] When your friend asks for a single chip, or a single piece of chocolate, you know what they want more.

SY: [laughs] Yeah.

CASEY: How generous of you to give them the whole bag. [laughs] Whether they want it, or not though.

SY: Yeah.

MANDY: So are these videos relatively short, or are they more long-form videos?

SY: Yeah, they are 2 minutes long.

MANDY: Oh, cool.

SY: I try and keep them within the video limit for Twitter videos, which is 2 minutes, 20 seconds.

MANDY: Okay, cool. See, that's something I could probably commit to is watching one of those videos not even maybe once a day because sometimes that's a little bit, much pressure every day. So maybe I try to work out three to four times a week. So saying I'm going to do this three to four times a week and I'm going to not stress on I'm going to do this every Monday. Generally three to four times a week, I think that's something I could, could commit to.

SY: Yeah. Trying to get them within 2 minutes, 20 seconds can be really tough sometimes. Like it's quite – [overtalk]

MANDY: Do you do a lot of editing?

SY: Yeah. I would sit down and I'll write the whole episode, or video, or whatever and just get in all of the content that I want, just put it onto a text document and then I'll start filming it in whatever order I want, and then I start editing and then quite often, I realized that I've got 2 minutes, 40 seconds worth of content, or something and I can't quite cut it down and I have to reshoot something and then reedit it.

I try to get it all done within a single day because if I don't get it done in a single day, then it ends up taking even longer because I get distracted and things like that. I need to focus just getting this one thing done.

MANDY: So you're doing these within hours?

SY: Yeah.

MANDY: From start to finish, how many hours would you say you invest in these videos?

SY: Start to finish, about 5, 6 hours, something like that. Like I said, I don't really have to do a lot of research for them because they're things I know very well, so I can pretty much sit down and just write something and then most of the time is spent in editing and then captioning as well.

MANDY: Very cool.

CASEY: I've been doing a bit of video editing lately and it takes so long.

SY: Yeah, it really does.

CASEY: I'm not surprised it takes 5, or 6 hours.


MANDY: No, I'm not either. I do all the podcasts editing. For those of you listening, who do not know, I edit all these podcasts and it takes roughly even 5 to 6 hours for audio, because I also put other work into that, like doing the show notes and getting the transcripts. Now I have those outsourced because I don't have enough hours in the day, but there's a lot of different parts to editing, podcasting, screen casting, and stuff that I don't think a lot of people know that these 2-minute videos that you do really do take 5 to 6 hours and you're putting these out there for free?

SY: Yeah.

MANDY: Wow. That's amazing. I assume you have a full-time job on top of that.

SY: Yeah. Because my position is a developer advocate, I can count that as is doing work so I don't have to do that in my own time.

MANDY: Very cool. Yeah, that's cool. I love DevRel so working in DevRel, I do that, too. I'm a Renaissance woman, basically. Podcast editing, DevRel conference organizing, it's a lot.

SY: Yeah.

MANDY: So I give you mad props for putting stuff out there and just giving a shout out to people who might not be aware that content creation is not easy and it does take time. So thank you. Thank you for that. Because this seems like the kind of stuff I would be able to ingest.

SY: Yeah, thanks.

MANDY: And that's cool.

CASEY: I'm especially impressed, Sy that you have these interests that are complex would expand and you can explain the well and you find the overlap with what people want to know about.


I think maybe in part from the Discord, you hear people asking questions. Can you tell us a little bit about what that's like? How do you decide what's interesting?

SY: Yeah. I ask people on Twitter what they would find it interesting, but I also, because right now I'm not really going to conferences, but previously I’d go to a lot of conferences and people would come up to me and if I give a talk on compilers, for example, come and say like, “Oh hey, I never knew how register allocation worked. It was super interesting to know.” So I don't think I've done a video on register allocation yet actually. I should do one of those.

MANDY: Write that down.

SY: [laughs] Yeah. That's the kind of thing. Just because I spent a lot of time in communities, conferences, Discords, on Twitter, you get a feel for the kind of topics which people find interesting and maybe want to know how they work under the covers and just haven't found a good topic. Even function calls like, how does a function call work in C at the hardware level? If you call a function, what's actually happening? I did a video on that because it feels like such a fundamental thing, calling a function, but there's a lot of magic which goes into it, or it can seem like a lot of magic. It's actually, I want to say very well-defined, sometimes less so, but [laughs] they are real so there is random reason.

MANDY: Very cool. I want to talk about the other content creation that you do. So code art journal and trashheap zine, do you want to talk about those a minute?

SY: Sure. So code art was an idea that I had. It's a journal of code as art. I'd hear a lot of people saying, “Oh, coding is an art form.” I'd be like, “Okay. Yes. Sometimes, maybe. When is it an art form? When is it not? What's the difference between these?” Like, I spent a lot of time thinking about art because I'm a poet and I spend most of my free time researching and watching movies.

Code as art is something which really interested me so I made this journal, which is a collection of things which people send in of code which they think is art and sometimes, it's something you might immediately see and look at it and think, “Okay, right, this is code and it's fulfilling some functional purpose,” and maybe that functional purpose gives it some artistic qualities just by how it achieved something, or if it does something in a very performant manner, or a very interesting manner.

Other times, you might look at it and say, “Okay, well, this is code, but it's more aesthetic than functional.” And sometimes it's things which you might look at and think, “Okay, is this even code?” Like there was someone sent in a program written in a language called Folders, which is a esoteric programming language entirely programmed using empty folders on your hard drive, which I absolutely love. I'm super into esoteric programming languages so I absolutely loved that one. [chuckles] But yeah, so the – [overtalk]

CASEY: That sounds so cool. Where can people find it? Is it online also?

SY: Yes, it’s in print and there's also, you can get the issues online for free in PDF form. There is a third issue, which is pretty much fully put together on my machine, I just haven't done the finishing touches and it's been one of those things that's just sat, not doing anything for months and I need to get finished. [chuckles]

And then trashheap zine is another thing that I co-edit, which is just utter trash, because as much as I love more explicitly artistic films and writing and things like that, I also have a deep love of utter, utter trash. So this is the trashiest stuff that we could possibly find, even the submission guidelines that I wrote for that is essentially a trash pond, but random submission guidelines. So if you have trash, please send our way.

MANDY: Yeah. I was going to say, what you consider trash? What trashiest [laughs] enough to be in these zines?

SY: I can read out, where's my submission guidelines? The URL for the zine is trashyheap.party, which I was very, very pleased with and the website looks awful. I spent a lot of time making it as awful as I possibly could. Things like any kind of – [overtalk]

CASEY: I love the sparkles.

SY: Yes!

CASEY: When the mouse moves, it sparkles.

SY: Isn’t it the best, seriously? Yeah.

CASEY: Every website should have that.

SY: Yeah, totally. Like texts you sent your crush at 4:00 AM while drunk where you misspelled their name and they never spoke to you again, or draft tweets which you thought better of sending, purely Photoshop pictures of our website.


A medically inaccurate explanation of the digestive system of raccoon dogs. All good stuff.

MANDY: That's amazing.

CASEY: I know a lot of people who would be cracking up reading this together.


CASEY: That sounds great. There's so much treasure in this trash heap.

MANDY: Yeah. Don’t worry, folks, we'll put links in the show notes.

CASEY: Oh, yeah.

SY: Yeah. One of my favorite things with it was when we'd get all of the submissions, we would get together and just project them up on a wall and read them together and so much so bad, it's hilarious in the most wonderful way.

CASEY: That sounds like a party itself.

SY: It is, yes.

CASEY: The be trashheap party.

SY: Absolutely.

CASEY: It's kind of taking me back to early pre-YouTube internet when we watch flash cartoons all the time and a lot of those were terrible, but we loved them.

SY: Yes. I made some as well, they were so bad.


I remember getting a very non legal version of flash and making the worst stick flash renovations I possibly could.

CASEY: Oh, speaking of content creation, I've been learning some animation and 3D modeling animation lately. I had my first ever viral TikTok; it had over 9,000 views.

SY: Wow! Nice.

CASEY: And so when I look at my phone, if it's not the notifications muted, it's annoying. I have to turn it off.


SY: Yeah – [overtalk]

MANDY: Congratulations! [laughs]

CASEY: Thank you. So the video is a USB thumb drive that won't insert, even though you flip it over. That's been done before, but what I added was misheard lyrics by the band Maroon 5. Sugar! USB! That's what I hear every time.

Mandy, have you done any art?

MANDY: Have I done any art?

CASEY: Lately?

MANDY: Oh. Yeah. Well, actually – [overtalk]

CASEY: You've been doing some home stuff, I know.

MANDY: Yeah. I've been doing plant stuff, gardening, but this weekend, I actually took my daughter to a workshop. It was called working with resin—epoxy.

SY: Oh, cool.

MANDY: And we got to make coasters. The teacher brought stickers, feathers, and crystals and it was like a 3-hour workshop and I think my daughter had extra resin. Her birthday is on Thursday this week and I noticed she was making kind of the same ones and I said, “What are you doing?” And she said, “I'm making gifts for my friends that come to my birthday party.” I just thought it was so sweet that I was like – [overtalk]

SY: Oh, so sweet.

MANDY: Usually birthday parties, you receive gifts, or whatever and she's like, “No, I would like to give them gifts for my birthday,” and I was like, “Oh, that's adorable.” So I've been trying to do more things with my hands and get off the screens more, which has been the major thing keeping me back from being on code.

I've made a strict weekend policy where I do not touch my computer from Friday evening to Monday morning, unless it's an absolute dumpster fire, I need to do something, or if a takeout menu looks better on my computer than it does on my phone.


Then I'll pop it open, but I won't read the email, or do the Slack. And then this Saturday I'm taking a course in astrology. It's all-day workshop so I'm excited to kind of dive into that stuff a little bit more.

CASEY: So cool. It's hard to believe we can do these in person again. I'm not over it.

MANDY: I know. I'm so afraid to get excited over it and then have it be taken away again.

CASEY: Yeah. Sy, tell us a little more about #includes . I've actually heard of it. It's a little bit famous online. It's an inclusive community, I know from the name.

SY: Yes.

CASEY: Tell us more about it.

SY: So it actually started off on Twitter as a half joke; Guy Davidson tweeted being like, “Hey, so why isn't there a diversity and inclusion organization for C++ called #include?” Because #include is it's like a language concept in C and C++ and people were like, “Hahaha yeah, you're right,” and then Kate Gregory was like, “You're right. We should make one.” So we did [chuckles] and we started off with like six of us in a Slack channel and then ended up moving to Discord and starting our own server there and now we are a few thousand members. Back when we had in-person conferences, we would have a booth at pretty much every major C++ conference, we had scholarships, which we would send people on, we got conferences to improve by having live captioning and wheelchair accessible stages and gender-neutral bathrooms instituting and upholding code of conduct, things like that.

We started off thinking, “Hey, if we could get some conferences to have a code of conduct or something that would be great,” and then it ended up being way, way, way bigger than any of us thought it would become, which is amazing to see.

CASEY: That's so cool. What a success story.

SY: Yeah.

CASEY: How long has it been going on now?

SY: I guess about 3, or 4 years. Yeah, probably closer to 4 years. My sense of time is not good the best of times, but something around 4 years.

CASEY: I'm curious if another language community wanted to do something similar if they're inspired. Is there a writeup about what y'all have done?

SY: I've given talks.

CASEY: That we can point people to. We can put that in the show notes.

SY: Yeah. I've given a couple of talks, as I said.

CASEY: Talks, that would be good.

SY: Other people have given talks as well. I gave a slightly longer form talk DevRelCon, London in 2019, I think, which was on the lessons which we learned through trying to build a welcoming and inclusive community. Community which has already been around for decades because C++ was first standardized in 1998 so it's been around for quite a long time and has a lot of history.

CASEY: That sounds great. I can't wait to watch it.

SY: Yeah. I know that there's other languages. You have JavaScript, QueerJS, which is a really cool community and I'm sure there are other languages which have similar things going as well.

CASEY: I had never heard of QueerJS. I'm queer and JS.

SY: Yeah.

CASEY: I'm glad I had this moment just now.

SY: It’s cool. They have a Discord and I can't remember how active the Discord is, but they would have meetups across the world, they have one in London and in Berlin and bunch of other places, and talks and community. It seems really cool.

CASEY: That's awesome.

SY: I wanted to give a talk about C++ and JavaScript because you could link target JavaScript with C++ these days, which is kind of cool.

CASEY: I’ve used Emscripten before.

SY: Yeah.

CASEY: I didn't use it directly, other people did. It turned Graphviz into a JavaScript. A program that runs in JavaScript instead of normally, it's just CSS. So I could draw circles pointing to other circles in the browser, which is what I always wanted to do. Graphviz.it, that “it” is my favorite Graphviz editor. It's online.

SY: Cool. I like Graphviz a lot. Emscripten is really cool, though. Basically a way of compiling C++ plus to JavaScript and then having the interoperation with the browser and the ecosystem that you might want to be able to call JS functions from C++, or other way around, and do things which seem operating systems E, but have to be mapped inside the browser environment.

CASEY: That's powerful. I'm also glad I've never had to use it directly. Other people made libraries doing it what I needed. Thank goodness.



SY: Yeah. I've not used a whole lot, but I did find it fairly nice to work with when I did. I made a silly esoteric programming language called Enjamb, which is a language where the programs are cones and it runs on a stack-based abstract machine and the interpreter for it is written in C++. I wrote a command line driver for it and also, a version which runs in the browser and that compiles using Emscripten.

It was really cool and I picked it all up with CMake, which is the main C++ build systems that you could just say, “Hey, I want to build the combine line version for my platform” like Windows, or Mac, or Linux, or whatever, or “Hey, I want to build it for the web,” and it would build the JavaScript version in HTML page and things like that. It's pretty cool.

I recently made another esoteric programming language, which you program using MS Paint. You literally make shapes with MS Paint and you give the compiler an image file, and then it uses OCR and computer vision in order to parse your code and then generate C from that. [laughs] It's pretty ridiculous, but I had so much fun with it.

CASEY: OCR is Optical Character Recognition?

SY: Yes, exactly.

CASEY: So I'm picturing if I wrote a program on a napkin and a computer could maybe OCR that into software.

SY: Yeah. So it uses OCR for things like function names because it supports function calls and then uses shapes for most things. It has things like a plus sign, which means increment what it's currently being pointed to, or right, or left, or up, or down arrow is for moving things around. You would actually make an image file with those symbols and then I used OpenCV for working out what the shapes were.

It was the first time I've ever done any kind of image recognition stuff. It was a lot easier than I expected it to be; I thought we'd have to write a lot of code in order to get things up and running and to do image detection. But most of the simple things like recognizing hey, this is a triangle, or this is a plus sign, or this is a square, and things like that were pretty, you don't need a lot of code in order to do them. That was mostly when you had to say like, “Okay, this is a triangle, but which direction is it pointing in?” It got a little bit more complicated; I had to do some maths and things like that and I'm terrible at maths. [chuckles] So that was a little bit more difficult, but it was a lot fun to get started with and I had a much lower barrier to entry than I expected.

CASEY: Now I want to play with OCR and image recognition. I haven't done that for 10 years. It was not easy when I tried it last time with whatever tool that was.

SY: [chuckles] Yeah, I did it – [overtalk]

CASEY: For the future!

SY: [laughs] Definitely. Yeah. I did it with Python and Python has fairly nice OpenCV bindings and there's a ton of resources out there for predicting most of the basic stuff that you would expect. So there's a lot of learning resources and decent library solutions out there now.

CASEY: Cool.

All right. We're getting near the end of time. At the end, we like to go through reflections, which is what's something interesting that stood out to you, something you'll take with you going forward from our conversations today.

MANDY: I really am excited to dig into Sy’s videos. They seem, like I said earlier in the show, something I could commit to a few times a week to watching these videos especially when they are concepts that seem so much fun, like cats, teddy bears, cuteness levels, and things like that. I think that would be a great start for me just to in the morning while I'm still drinking tea just before I even dive into my email, check out one of those videos. So I think I'll do that.

SY: Thanks.

CASEY: Sy, I liked hearing about your process side with your constraints like 2 minutes, 20 seconds on Twitter, that's such a helpful constraint to make sure it's really polished and dense. It takes you 5 to 6 hours and you make things that people ask about, that they're interested in. That whole process is fascinating to me as I try to make more viral TikToks.


Or whatever I'm making at the time.

SY: Yeah.

CASEY: I always wondered how you made such good stuff that got retweeted so often. Cool things of insight.

SY: Yeah. Mostly just time. [laughs] I guess, it makes me remember that I definitely want to make a video on register allocation because I love register allocation. It's such a cool thing. For those who don't know, it's like if you have a compiler which takes your code and maps it onto the hardware, your hardware only has a certain number of resources so how do you work out how to use those resources in the best manner? It maps onto some quite nice computer science algorithms like graph coloring, which means it maps quite nicely visually, I could probably make a pretty cool graph coloring visualization with some random things I have strewn around my room.

CASEY: I can't imagine this yet, but I will understand that clearly soon I bet.

MANDY: That's awesome. Well, I just want to wrap up by saying thank you so much for joining us today, Sy. This has been a really awesome conversation.

And to folks who have been listening, thank a content creator. It takes time. It takes energy. It's a lot of work that I don't think a lot of people, unless you've done it, really understand how long and in-depth of a process it is. So thank one of us content creators, especially when we're putting this content out for you for free.

To do that for us Greater Than Code, we do a Patreon page and we will invite Sy to join us and we would like you to join us as well. If you are able to donate on a monthly basis, it's awesome. It's patreon.com/greaterthancode. All episodes have show notes and transcripts, and we do a lot of audio editing. So join us if you're able. If you are still a person who is greater than code and cannot afford a monthly commitment, you are still welcome to join us in our Slack community. Simply send a DM to one of the panelists and we will let you in for free. So with that, thank you so much, Casey. Thank you again, Sy. And we'll see you all next week.

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