Norman Britton

Norman Britton

My Grandfather went to the the hospital. I booked a flight to go see him, but he died before I arrived. My Dad phoned to tell me the news, and then he phoned back to ask if I’d do the eulogy. I said, Yes, of course, but I immediately felt overwhelmed by the idea. So I took my notebook and went seeking solace and inspiration in my Irish heritage. I got blind drunk. 

I met some Spanish gentlemen and took an education in sipping tequila. We talked of death, amongst other things. I awoke to find Juan’s phone number in my book, along with this scrawled epiphany, “Mexicans are very spiritual people”. Which might be true, but wasn’t much help in the eulogy.

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Star Crossed

We’ve taken our names off the adoption list. A decision we struggled with for months. It feels good to have it resolved, to reach closure.

baby11Have you ever taken a side trip, or an adventure everyone raves about, but it doesn’t live up to the hype? The good hotels are booked up, but you go anyway, with plans and expectations. But for you it’s just a series of misadventures punctuated by shitty weather and worse food. You know? We’re disappointed, but also, sort of over it.  Life is what happens while you’re making plans. I’ve always liked that saying.

We’ll have to combat our disappointment with early retirement and lazy Sundays enjoying each others company doing whatever it is we want. Then interrupt that difficult routine with lavish adventures bought with our imaginary kid’s college fund. I say this not to dismiss the feelings of loss associated with abandoning our arduous five year pursuit of a child, but to make the point that giving up on the baby idea is sad, no doubt, but it’s not tragic.  An entirely new set of possibilities is now open for the next twenty years.  That’s exciting.

The Frog Lake Monster

I’ve been coming to Frog Lake for ten years, since I was a kid. I’m a teenager now. Old enough to sit with the grown-ups, looking out over the beach as the sun fades, surveying the landscape, exchanging stories. That’s what we are doing when we see it.

The lake is big. The opposite shore is a hazy mirage created by the curvature of the earth. It’s that far. The water is shallow for ten steps then falls quickly to unseen depths. The icy currents lapping at my toes from below as I swim through the dark green water always give me shivers I can’t blame entirely on the cold.

“What is it?”, my Aunt asks. Ten minutes pass as the thing swims from right to left, just off shore. It’s not moving fast, just steady. It’s an animal of some sort, but there’s something foreign about it.

It’s not a Muskrat. Everyone agrees on that. It’s too big. “A beaver?” someone asks. “No, too much of it out of the water,” Grampa says. Dad agrees, “I don’t know what the hell that is.”

It’s been a chilly grey day. A breeze comes over my shoulder along with the last of the daylight. The creature swims to deeper water as twilight creeps in from the edges.

No one knows what we are looking at, and to our group, that is a puzzle worth investigating. My Dad and Uncle head to the boat. Myself and a couple younger cousins immediately sign on as crew. My Aunt comes reluctantly.

We are not going a large distance. In more fitting weather I might swim out to investigate the dark shape. As it is, we idle the engine of the boat into the shallow waters. Murky plants send up tendrils to explore the bottom of our boat. I crowd the edge with my cousins, trying to get the first look.

We half the distance to our mystery swimmer. It looks like a head, the swimming head of an animal. It’s big. That’s plain, the closer we get. It’s mouth is a gaping maw.

My aunt is prone to dramatics, and she’s concerned.  “You kids stand back from the edge.” I have all the confidence and bravado of a teenage boy, but I find myself unexpectedly siding with my Aunt. I don’t know what it is we’re sneaking up on and I’m not sure I like that. When my uncle leans into my Dad his voice sounds urgent, “What is that?” We are right on top of the thing when my Dad sees The Frog Lake Monster.

“It’s a garbage bag.”

A large green plastic garbage bag blew into the water. It filled slightly laying on its side, the breeze kept it inflated, fluttering, drifting across the lake. The air currents raising and lowering the bottom corner of the inflated bag, like the head and gaping mouth of a creature, swimming.

The illusion vanishes. The monster along with it. We fish the unremarkable bag from the lake and laugh at our foolish fears.

I like to tell The Frog Lake Monster story when someone has backed me into a corner in a conversation about UFO’s, paranormal activity, or God. When they ask me for comment on something their cousin’s hairdresser’s boyfriend, or even themselves personally, have experienced. It’s the point when I’m being asked to accept [UFO’s, paranormal activity, or God] or imply that they (or their cousin’s hairdresser’s boyfriend) is a fool or a liar.

The Frog Lake Monster is a story of what could have happened.  Had our approaching boat blocked the air currents inflating the bag, and the wake of our approach pushed the dark green plastic under the dark green water, we’d never have seen it. It would have looked like the creature we were chasing sinking beneath the water line at our approach, never to resurface. And my days of swimming in Frog Lake would have come to a close.

Here’s the thing. Your stories, they’re all bullshit. What we see, hear and experience isn’t really what happened. Sketches of imperfect memories, coloured by personal experience, fears, and wishes. You can have your beliefs and not be a fool or a liar.  Not having an explanation for something, doesn’t mean it’s unexplainable, or proof of the supernatural. That’s all I’m saying.


Robot Cars

Google recently got a licence to operate automated driverless vehicles on public roads. This begins the transition from manually controlled vehicles to automated robots. We will continue to share the road as we move toward automated traffic, but robots will quickly dominate.

Studies of flocks of Starlings show that each bird pays attention to the seven birds around them. The flock votes many times a second on direction of travel. The birds make simple decisions based on limited information, and complex patterns emerge. The birds are able to travel in tight coordinated formations. Schools of fish are the same idea. They travel, find food, and avoid predators in elegant unison, as a team, and none of the individuals make difficult decisions or perform complicated actions.

It’s called an Agent Based Model. Each individual in the system acts independently. They make decisions based on simple instructions and basic information. Complex patterns emerge and they can be the solution to cool puzzles. Vehicles capable of communicating with one another, gathering information about their environment, running simple algorithms every hundredth of a second, and performing the basic actions required of a steering wheel and two peddles, will revolutionize our ideas about personal transportation. Traffic is a cool puzzle, and it’s solvable.

The difference between computer drivers and human ones won’t be small. My drive to work is about 25 minutes. I reach speeds of 110 kph, but the average over the trip is only 50 kph, because I mostly wait at intersections, slow down, then speed up, and jostle along with other traffic on the various congested arteries of the transportation network. Stuck in a system of controls designed to allow people from ages 16 to 96, with wildly different training, skills, and physical abilities, to navigate a powerful machine amongst others, similarly equipped. It’s not ideal. We’re terrible drivers, you and I. Epic gains in efficiency and safety will be possible when people stop driving.

 Traffic V2

Vehicles know where they are, where they are heading, how large they are, and what actions they are capable of. They also know this information about other Vehicles, because the cars communicate with one another, and that information can be verified by Radar, Lidar, video recognition, accelerometers, sensors of various types, and a traffic system designed to help them. They share their intent with the Vehicles around them, and agree on a course of action based on a common set of rules. The group solves a complicated problem, and no one has to work that hard at it.

Vehicles have self knowledge:

  • Physical dimensions
  • Location (x, y coordinates)
  • Projected path of travel (array of x,y @ time)
  • Current Direction, Velocity, and Steering
  • Maximum acceleration and deceleration (varies with speed and steering)
  • Maximum steering angle (varies with speed)

Car A & B communicate. They navigate themselves via a series of Navigational Nodes, like those used by Google’s mapping and direction services. They exchange their intended paths of travel (along with data about their previous travels, which allows cars to propagate updated mapping information, and develop the most efficient routes of travel.) If A & B have paths that do not interfere , no further communication is necessary.

If their paths do interfere they must arrive at an agreement to alter their futures, either by changing direction of travel, or more likely by altering their speeds so as to pass through the collision zone at different times. The decision process need not be complex, just consistent, and the same for both parties. After safety (not running into one another), your goal would be the greatest efficiency for the group, measured as energy expended, or as time delay, compared to the fastest practical time / path through the intersection.

There’s money to be made converting the transportation industry as oil prices rise, private industry is all over this. I’m excited that technology companies like Google are trying to solve traffic, they have all the resources necessary to crush this problem. This is a transition that could occur rapidly.

Industry has had to create a machine that can operate in the most difficult of conditions. They have to operate surrounded by human drivers, who may do anything at any time, in a system with no controls or efficiencies designed for computer controlled vehicles. If automated vehicles can succeed in demonstrating their safety and value under these worst case conditions, the technology can ramp up quickly. As more vehicles convert to being predictable, highly accurate transportation robots, the entire network becomes more efficient, and the benefits of automatically controlled cars will be conspicuous and overwhelming.

Space dorks everywhere are excited about the Mars rover, whatever man. I’m not going to Mars, and neither are you, but I’m going to have a robot car in my lifetime. That’s awesome.

Prague – Part One

The Canadian Prairies are a neat grid of roadways. Numbered streets, avenues, and roads meet at ninety degrees. It’s the ideal system if you’re an Engineer, you’re living on graph paper.

Europe is more inventive. When I arrive in Prague, I get lost. Not surprising. I eventually find my way, and I’m releived to look up and see I’m on the right street. I can see my hostel just up ahead.

A quick movement flashes on my right and something hits the sidewalk a few feet in front of me with a wet thud. It’s a cat. A soft, well cared for, pretty looking, white and brown cat. It fell from the building and it’s tragically injured.  It doesn’t look bad, a little blood coming from it’s mouth, but there are clearly fatal wounds inside. The sound it made was enough for me to know, it won’t survive.

Anna Chromy’s ‘Il Commandatore’ Estates Theatre, Prague

The only other witnesses are an old homeless man, sitting against the building, and the muzzled dog at his feet. A younger homeless man approaches, they speak in Czech. The young guy picks up the cat, and I hope he’ll put it out of its misery. Instead he cradles it while it weakly writhes and reaches out to scratch him. He moves the cat from the middle of the sidewalk, gently lays it to the side, and says good-bye to the man and his dog. I watch the scene, I want to do something, but I don’t know what. Trying to euthanize a cat with my bare hands upon arriving in a foreign land is not appealing.

I walk into the hostel, and ask the desk clerk about the Czech version of Animal Control. The first thing the foreign tourists has to say is that he’s concerned for the health of a cat he found in the street. I can’t blame him for his ambivalence.

He tells me that they only take Czech money, not Euros, and the cash machine is just outside, beside the wounded cat. So, I walk back out to do my banking and check on the cat. The vision of it’s feeble struggle is still fresh, and I resolve not to let it go on if I find it in that state. It’s dead when I arrive, thankfully.

The old guy is still there, watching me as I stand over the animal, prodding it’s lifeless body. I shrug, and say to myself, “It’s dead.” He pets his dog, and it surprises me when he responds in a thick accent, “I’m sorry.” Ya, I say, “Me too.”

The Shoe Closet

If you were designing a computer program to organize something… No wait, don’t walk away! You asked me to explain why I kick my shoes into the closet. I’m trying to tell you.

His & Hers

Let’s say you have a large library to organize. You need a system to help you. You can’t have tens of thousands of books in random piles, it would take you days to find anything. So you categorize things, itemize them, sort into groups, bust out Dewey Decimal. You buy a good label gun and you get your shit together. This systematic organization takes time and effort, but it’s worth it, and you don’t have another practical choice.

However, if you only have a handful of books, simply stacking them in a pile is a great system. First, it takes no effort. You can quickly scan them to select what you want, and toss it back on top of the pile when you are done. Second, it’s self organizing. The books you refer to most often are more likely to be towards the top of the stack. For a small group, it’s an efficient system.

That, my love, is why I kick my shoes into the closet. What appears to be a random mess to the woman who sorts everything by colour and category, is actually the most effective way to organize and store a small set. Your system puts a priority on the aesthetic value of the result, mine maximizes efficiency. It makes perfect sense, just not to you.

A Bit Peckish

Some people get terribly bothered when the word ‘literally’ is misused. If you know enough to know the difference, then you know what they intended to say, stop feeling so intellectually superior. Me, I get twitchy when well fed people refer to themselves as, ‘starving’.

I dislike hyperbole as the norm. It distorts perspective. Which generates entitlement.

If you become Mrs/Ms/Mr Grumpy Pants when your blood sugar falls a little, take responsibility for yourself, carry a granola bar, like an adult. Ten pounds overweight, and you skipped lunch, that’s a poor excuse for being a jerk. You’re not starving, you’re hungry, and that’s not a life threatening condition, behave accordingly.

Design Matters

I’m not worried about the environment. It’s going to be fine. Whether we are around to see it be fine, is the question. Although, I’m not worried about that either. I won’t see it, so fuck it.

It doesn’t matter if you share my cavalier attitude. Environmentalism isn’t required to believe in changing the way we live. Why not strive for improvement, support change. I want a more efficient car and home, clean air, and a well designed world for selfish reasons. We should build a better world because we can. It’s reason enough.

Soft Hands Sought

Massage is technical skill and physical art. I remember past masseuses better than I do old girlfriends. And honestly, miss them more.

One woman, was text book dyslexic, literally. She took part in several university studies because she had such typical symtoms. She described one experiment in which she was performing better in the math component than expected. Her interviewer asked her how she was scoring so much higher than her math skills warranted. She didn’t want to say.

“I’m getting the right answers. If I know the right answer, why does it matter how I know it?”

Stubborn, but you can see her point. She eventually explained that the man conducting the study was sitting across from her, reading the multiple choice questions, and then the four possible answers. When he read the correct answer, his pupils dilated, so she picked that one. The interviewer turned his chair around so she couldn’t watch him read, but she still got them all correct. She could hear his voice change when he read the right answer.

Such an interesting woman, so intuitive, and she noticed everything. As she dug her elbow into the soft tissue of my shoulder she taught me how to be a good subject, “You’re holding your breath. You have to breath through it.” I miss her.

These relationships don’t last. You move cities, or they quit, or begin working at a high priced salon who’s prices I can’t justify. That’s what happened to the last one.

Breaking up is hard. I’m stressed out. Which is the last thing you need when your masseuse has dumped you.

Now I have to go back to the horrible experience of masseuse dating. The first person I tried was terrible. I’ve had puppies kiss me harder than that.

Then my wife booked a guy. I enjoy massage too much for it to be a guy, plus men think they are tough, so they massage by digging in their fingers. Women work with their smaller stature and go straight to the elbows. Women give harder massages.

Anyway, this guy was a train wreck. He would just stop moving, and for an uncomfortable length of time, stand there with his hands resting on my back. All I could hear was the bullshit new age lute music and his deep breathing. What the fuck is he doing up there? Is he trying to send energy into me? A good massage should not feel too long, or creepy, and this was both.

Deep tissue massage enthusiast seeks partner. I’m punctual and a good tipper. You’re an interesting woman with soft hands and stern elbows, who has no interest in mystisim. We both appreciate a good silence and a stretched ligament. Waiting for your call!

Science vs Jenny McCarthy

Recently, on television, a sitcom star from the eighties debated an expert in cancer research on the merits of modern medicine’s approach to fighting cancer. The star was Suzanne Somers, who played the ditzy blonde third of “Three’s Company”, a half hour comedy that ended in 1984. Somers has since penned a number of self help books, acted as the spokeswoman for “The Thighmaster”, and currently advocates medical treatments criticized by numerous credible sources, including the American Cancer Society.

This isn’t intellectual snobbery. You don’t have to have an advanced degree to appreciate that you should be listening to the American Cancer Society, over Suzanne Somers. Right?

People do listen to Suzanne Somers’ advice on their health. Why is that? Everyone has an opinion, but not all are equal weight. I’m with Science on this. I’m always with Science.

DNA, the very building block of life. One of the many things not discovered by a TV personality.

If I push you over, your ass will hit the ground. How long that takes, and how hard you land, is predictable, measurable, and consistent. Age, race, language, spirituality, political views, language, ideology, your entire belief system, is irrelevant. If I push you over, your ass will accelerate towards the ground at exactly the same speed regardless of what you believe. It works the same for every person and thing, in every place. Gravity doesn’t care what you believe. That’s a reality we all share. That’s Science.

Human life expectancy has more than doubled in the last hundred years. Science did that. Not ancient wisdom, not good parenting, not herbal remedies, not belief or religion, it was Science and modern medicine that doubled the amount of time people get to listen to fools on television.

Jenny McCarthy was Playboy Playmate™ of the year in 1993. That’s how she became well known. She went on to host a dating game show on MTV, then acting roles, and wrote several books. She’s beautiful and funny, no doubt. She also has opinions that contradict Science.

Jenny McCarthy says there is a link between vaccinations and Autism. She claims the vaccination for measles, mumps, and rubella, which has prevented the deaths of an estimated 1.4 Million people ((, causes Autism. She knows this because of her experience as a mother, as proof she cites studies which the Scientific community have thoroughly discredited.

“There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.” – Isaac Asimov

My nephew has Autism. Great kid. You don’t have to spend much time with him before you understand there’s lots more of him locked inside. You get this because his disorder ebbs and flows. It’s like a thing that fights him.

My sister and her husband are intelligent people, educated intelligent people who have an autistic son. I can’t imagine how frustrating it is to hear advise from well meaning people prefaced with, “I saw Jenny McCarthy on Oprah, and she says, …”. I’d find it difficult to be patient.

No one knows what causes Autism, it’s likely not one thing. It’s a multi layered problem that requires expertise ranging from Nutritionists to Neuroscientists. Research is going on all over the world, but there are still more questions than answers. Science doesn’t have the answer to Autism, but I can assure you, neither does Jenny McCarthy.

It’s going to take many people, so much smarter than you or I, working hard in universities, laboratories, and hospitals, to find the keys needed to loosen the grip of my nephew’s disorder. People doing that work aren’t getting famous or rich, and they may or may not be pretty. There are not many Scientist working on treatments for Autism, or Cancer, or Alzheimer’s, or any disease, that would qualify to pose for Playboy magazine, or host a dating game show on MTV. But luckily, those aren’t relevant qualifications for doing advanced medical research.

Value the opinion of talk show hosts and models at your peril. At all our peril, really, because ignorance has an impact. Childhood diseases we thought we eradicated are making a come back, and becoming immune to the few antibiotics we have to treat them, because people are choosing not to vaccinate their kids based on fear and the opinion of someone who’s qualifications end at being lovely.

There are answers to Autism. People practicing good Science, will find them. The problems we face are complex, and the scope of human knowledge is vast. Solutions can not be found if we abandon facts, evidence, and rational thought as crucial to their discovery, or put our faith in people who should be eliminated from the discussion through the application of common sense. I suggest, as a good solid guideline for adult life, that you do not take medical advise from a Playmate™.


Autism – Centers For Disease Control And Prevention

The danger of Science denial – Michael Specter (TED Video)

MEASLES, MUMPS, AND RUBELLA VACCINATION AND AUTISM – New England Journal of Medicine – evidence points to no link

Immunization Safety Review: Vaccines and Autism – Institute of Medicine: No connection between MMR vacines or thimerosal and autism

NY TImes – Three separate trials determine that thimerosal, a preservative containing mercury, does not cause autism.

Responding to a fourth trial judgment that dismisses a connection between vaccinations and autism, advocacy group Autism Speaks, who has previously supported the idea of a connection, released a statement: “While we have great empathy for all parents of children with autism, it is important to keep in mind that, given the present state of the science, the proven benefits of vaccinating a child to protect them against serious diseases far outweigh the hypothesized risk that vaccinations might cause autism,”


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