Banff 2003 vs 2019

I will admit that I lived here in I think 2003, maybe 2002? It was right after undergrad, and I had reached a point where I needed to leave my roommate situation, and was also really burnt out. I came to Banff for six months, and it was pretty hard. My grandfather was dying at the time, and I had to make some emergency trips back, it was a difficult time for me mentally and personally. Plus there’s a big difference between going somewhere for a residency, vs living there. I also wasn’t living on campus at the time. I was curious to see how things had changed, and how they haven’t. I was also interested to see how I would feel being back. Its interesting for me because I’ve already done a lot of the hikes / outdoor stuff / etc. to be done here, so I wondered how it would be different for me coming back.

looking over the campus JPL on the left, Kinner on the right.

For starters, the Centre is a lot less wild feeling than it used to be. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing, but its certainly gathered itself up over the last decade and a half and it took me a bit by surprise. There are definitely some stronger rules afoot, and as far as I can tell BNMI got rolled into the rest of the centre and things have gone through a massive rebranding. The campus too, has more facilities, and its pretty nice inside and out. That said I sure do miss the crusty bar I used to drink at on campus, The lack of one is a bit annoying, tho I’m sure in summer there’s still a lot of “I see you took X and wandered into the hills”. JPL is pretty much the same, the Kinner centre is super new, and it seems like a chunk of rooms got an upgrade, tho the chalets I assume, are still the same inside.

Lloyd Hall got a serious reno in the past few years.

It feels weird being in a place with such amazing facilities, but not really needing to use them. I admit that my needs are very self contained. i mostly just need internet and a computer, and a calm environment to plot and program and read. But sometimes the point isn’t facilities, sometimes its just taking yourself out of your routine and putting yourself into a new one.

JPL still feels the same, right down to the sketch elevator in Glyde Hall

I think what’s different this time around is that I feel immediately part of something right off the bat. I’ve gotten to know my cohort pretty quickly because we’re always around one another, that’s not a thing I got when working here. It took more time, and I had to commute up and down the hill every day. But I admit I’m also in a better place with myself, and I have a reason to be here, and something to study and produce. Which is very different. I’m also not burnt out. I spent my time right after my graduate degree applying for things and not making work for a bit. I just couldn’t, it was too much of an ask after spending a year writing 100 pages and producing a body of thesis prototypes. I showed stuff, and did panels, and talks. And now I’m in a good spot to start making things again.

The boat in the woods

Banff itself as a town, hasn’t changed that much. There’s still a lot of turn over in the population from season to season, and let’s face it, there’s like 4 liquor stores in town. So y’know that’s still a thing here, which I do enjoy. Its like every bar just becomes a watering hole after 10pm, and I’m partial to dives. That said its still weird, and interesting, and has some of the classic tourist town dichotomies going on. I thought it would be much colder here in winter, but its apparently been pretty mild this year. The elk also aren’t as aggressive in winter which I will admit is nice.

Making a Spoons Engine

When I was working on my thesis last year, one of the thing that really stuck out for me was Norm White talking about his project The Helpless Robot. I remember reading a text in which he stated that when you’re creating a personality, you’re just never really finished, and that really stuck home with me when I started working with personal assistants. They exist in a current state of constant flux. Never really done, growing, but incomplete. And their personalities, well, they leave a lot to be desired. So rather than focusing on trying to GIVE an Alexa a personality, so to speak, I decided to try and focus on moods. Lots of things can have moods. Moods are, to a degree, attainable, at least from a systems approach. There can be many things that affect a base mood.

Before leaving, my lab head Alexis Morris gave me two articles to consider. the first was Depression as a systemic syndrome: mapping the feedback loops of major depressive disorder and the second was an older article of his called A System Dynamics View of Stress. Both dealt with the concepts of stress and depression, but from a systems dynamics approach. It was interesting seeing a system dynamics map, and without even really knowing HOW it was put together having it click. I decided I would give this a shot in making the depressed alexa while at Banff.

I started off with just whiteboarding some ideas, and trying my hand at some loops. That was alright, though I do admit, I’ve never been a great planner. I tend to sort of do a little planning and then when I feel I have enough to start, I start, letting things kind of develop from there. But here were some of the thoughts I had going into this.

Starting to think about loops
Thinking about flow or how to start
Thoughts around influences

Eventually I settled on some basic buckets like Stress, Perception (negative, positive, or neutral outlook), Physical State (things like illness, and sleep), Mood (good / bad etc), which would all contribute to the overall idea of Spoons. Or basically how resilient the device will be during the day. Spoon Theory comes from a 2003 article written by Christine Miserandino as a way to describe Lupus to someone who doesn’t have it. Its since been used to describe the struggles involved with many kinds of invisible illnesses.

The basic idea around spoons is: You only have so many spoons to spend in a day. So things like waking up, brushing your teeth, going to work etc, all cost spoons. Once you’re out of spoons, you’re pretty much done. Some days you might have a lot of spoons, other days, not so much.

Taking this idea, I decided spoons would be an interesting way to influence what my depressed alexa would be able to handle during the course of 24 hours. So I set about in the second week of Banff to make a spoons engine.

Start of the spoons engine

Arrival and Week One

After a long day of flight delays I finally arrived at the Banff Centre to do a 5 week residency called Digital Promises.  The first week was mostly meet and greet, getting to know my cohort, and getting setup in my studio. Which I have to admit is pretty amazing. I’ve never had a space like this in my life, not even in grad school. It was weird deciding what kind of kit to bring with me. But I decided in the end to bring some specific IoT items I use a lot.

The project I’m working on here is building a depressed alexa, and I’ll talk more about that in future posts. But its basically a second iteration of one of my thesis prototypes called SAD Blender. Its nice coming to a residency with something I’ve already started, because it gives me some wiggle room to read, and document, and focus on where this might go, versus just always producing.

The other nice thing is that we share the floors with the BAIR artists who are here doing self directed work. Its a good cross section of people.


Panoramic of studio at Banff
The View

Anyways. Its pretty amazing. We didn’t really get into working mode until Friday, but that’s fine. Its good to get an info dump / people time off the bat now and then.

The Point

So, this is the start of a new blog. I’m going to be using this to record my thoughts, ideas, and projects around technology. I’ve been tooling with tech for a long time, but it hasn’t been really until the past two years I’ve considered what I do to be research.

Eventually I’m going to gather my posts from my 2018 Thesis (Working With Useless Machines), and my independent study, and merge them into here, as well as making new posts about what I’m currently doing.

As for the current title, a friend mentioned it in a comment thread about various kinds of craft beer. Then noted it was from an Edsger W.Dijkstra article, and it kinda stuck with me.

I love technology, but also consistently note that its made of gum and strings. But that’s one reason I do enjoy it. You sorta know that whatever you’re doing, no matter how well planned, will generally become “well it seemed like a good idea at the time”.

And maybe that’s the point.