<![CDATA[BRUCE BUTLER AUTHOR - Blog]]>Mon, 10 Dec 2018 05:00:45 -0800Weebly<![CDATA[Into the Labyrinth - A Future (and fictional) Epilogue]]>Sun, 18 Nov 2018 08:00:00 GMThttp://brucebutler.ca/blog/into-the-labyrinth-a-future-and-fictional-epilogueWhile working on the front and back matter for my just-published book Into the Labyrinth: The Making of a Modern-Day Theseus, I wrote the following epilogue. It takes place one hundred years after the voyage of the Theseus AUV so, while clearly fictional, is entirely plausible.

This one didn’t make it into the published version of the book, but it was a lot of fun to write. Let me know what you think of it!

A Future Epilogue
 
Northern coast of Ellesmere Island, Canada. April 2096
 
The ten-metre-long craft bobbed in the calm waters of Jolliffe Bay, the waves muted as they slapped against the carbon nanofibre hull. At the helm was Buddy Rankin, a native of Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia; near the stern was his son Jimmy, preparing their gear for the first time this season. The pair had come north to work as fishing guides, offering their services to tourists who wanted to catch fish “the old-fashioned way.”

The Arctic Ocean was now in its second decade of being free of ice year-round, and marine life previously found only in southern waters had moved north. Marine life that included the Atlantic cod, a fish that ten generations of Rankins had made their living from in the waters off Nova Scotia.

Their boat was floating just off the southeastern edge of Williams Reef, a rocky shoal that only ten years ago had been Williams Island. In the latter half of the 21st century, global warming had slowly raised the global sea level an average of two metres, turning islands into reefs and forcing millions to move to higher ground.

The multi-static sonar integral to the boat’s hull automatically imaged the waters below, the boat’s AI projecting a three-dimensional holographic display that hovered over the instrument panel. Jimmy noted the water depth then let his weighted lure sink until it touched the seafloor sixty metres below. He leaned back in his deck chair and got into the jerk-and-lower rhythm of “jigging the cod,” a technique his grandfather had taught him in the waters off Cape Breton Island.

A faint whine overhead signalled the arrival of a huge airship coming in to land at Alert International Airport, a few kilometres to the east.

‘Der’s our paycheque, Jimmy-boy,” said Buddy as the two-hundred-metre-long, hydrogen-filled behemoth briefly blocked out the sun. It was bringing tourists to Ellesmere Island, all of whom were eager to explore the most pristine and protected wilderness in the entire northern hemisphere and see one of the last remaining glaciers on the planet.

As Jimmy’s attention turned back to the ocean, he noticed that a man-made shape had appeared on the northern horizon — a massive robotic methane collector, creeping along as it mined frozen methane deposits from the seafloor in the deep waters out near the edge of the Continental Shelf. Movement to the east then caught Jimmy’s eye: a convoy of unmanned container ships rounding Cape Belknap. Having completed the transit up Nares Strait between Greenland and Canada, they were following the shortest route to New Moscow on the northeastern coast of Russia — over the ice-free North Pole. A flock of autonomous aerial vehicles lifted off from the nearby Canadian Coast Guard Station and headed straight for the convoy, taking station overhead to shepherd the vessels well clear of the lumbering methane collector.

Jimmy’s line suddenly went tight and his rod bent over, its tip touching the water. “I got one, Dad!” He pulled up sharply to set the hook and was rewarded not with the distinct vibration of a hooked codfish, but with a constant pull.

“Aw, it’s a snag.”

Jimmy considered cutting the line and losing his favourite lure, then decided to try reeling it in. After five minutes of constant effort his lure reached the surface. It had snagged a thin, yellow wire that was stretched tight as it disappeared into the sea; one end going south towards land, the other in the general direction of the North Pole.

Jimmy grabbed the wire with one hand and, with his fishing knife, deftly cut it on either side of his lure. The now-free ends vanished into the depths, leaving him with a piece a half-a-metre long. It was a couple of millimetres thick and made of faded yellow plastic, but was much stiffer than normal fishing line. He carefully carved away the coating, exposing a tiny metal tube wrapped in a thin layer of fibreglass.

“I wonder what it is. Some old fishing gear, maybe?” He handed it to his dad.

Buddy examined it for a minute before responding. “Look, there’s something inside the tube,” he said, carefully pulling out what looked like a strand of human hair. He thought for a moment.

“You know, this looks like the old fibre-optic cable I saw in the Halifax Tech Museum. They used this stuff until the 2040s, when hyper-band satellite technology made transmitting data over cables obsolete.” He twirled it between his fingers as he looked southeast towards Alert.

“You know,” he said, “I recall reading that the Coast Guard station there used to be a military base, back in the days after World War II. I think it was still in use in the early part of this century.”

Jimmy’s eyes widened. “You mean before The Big Warming?”

Buddy nodded. “Maybe this was part of some military project. I wonder if the Net has something on it?”

“Good idea, dad.”

Jimmy twitched his left cheek, activating his neural implant to WorldNet. When it responded, he ‘thought’ a request for a search bot, then paused as he considered which keywords to give it. Let’s try: yellow cable, Alert, Arctic, Ellesmere Island, underwater, fibre optic cable, seafloor, Canadian military history.

The bot was gone for almost a minute, long enough for Jimmy to wonder if it had gotten lost in the WorldNet (something that rarely happened).

“Wow, that took a long time. And only one match!” Jimmy said, his eyes closed so he could better concentrate on the images the implant was placing in his mind.

“It’s a history book, Dad. A real book. Almost a hundred years old! From back when they made books out of paper.” He gave his implant the command to download the book. “I’ll read it tonight.”

The pair spent the rest of the day scouting for good fishing spots. That night, with the boat at the dock and Jimmy comfortable in his bunk, he closed his eyes and commanded his implant to give him a summary of the book: The Cold War. Soviet submarines. Project Spinnaker. Theseus. Underwater listening posts. Canadian robotics.

“Cool!” he said, mentally opening the book to the first page.
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<![CDATA[The Watering Down of Ironman - A Rant]]>Tue, 24 Apr 2018 02:24:26 GMThttp://brucebutler.ca/blog/the-watering-down-of-ironman-a-rant
I was completing the online registration for Ironman Canada 2016 when I was presented with two checkboxes I’d never seen in previous years:

I understand that I will get the full 2 hours and 20 minutes to complete the 2.4 mile swim regardless of what time I enter the water…

I understand that if I finish before the midnight cut-off but have a finishing time or more than 17 hours, I will be considered a DNF…

Huh?

Upon further investigation, I learned that as of 2016, Ironman Canada, in Whistler, BC, was going to have a “self-seeding rolling swim start.” Athletes will line up on shore then enter the water in a continuous stream, passing over a timing mat to signal their individual start time.

WTF?

This change was part of Ironman’s “SwimSmart initiative,” with the goal of “improving athlete satisfaction and reducing anxiety during the swim portion of the race.” As part of this initiative, floats are also available so swimmers can stop and take a breather if needed.

Seriously?

Before I continue this rant, I should mention my previous Ironman experience. Prior to IMC 2016, I’ve finished three Ironman triathlons, all with mass, in-water swim starts. Ironman Canada 2010 was my first and was relatively stress-free. After the cannon went off, the large crowd was witness to the spectacle of close to 3000 pairs of arms suddenly thrashing in the water. I started at the back of the pack, floated in the shallows for thirty seconds and waiting for the crowd to thin out a bit. I knew I was losing time, but that was my choice.

The swim start at Ironman Cozumel in 2012 was, by comparison, a fiasco. The race organizers miscalculated the start time for the pros, and there wasn’t enough time for all us age-groupers to get from the beach onto the pier then into the water to the start line before the cannon went off.  Most of us were still on the pier at 0700, and we jumped off like lemmings, trying not to land on each other, then swimming over/under each other to get clear, just to reach the start line. The ocean currents were so strong that day that some of the buoys marking the course got dragged. At the turn onto the final five-hundred-metre leg, the current was so strong we bunched up just trying to make headway, forcing us to dig deep and pull harder. The DNF rate was higher than average that year, and those of us lucky enough to make the swim cut-off had significantly longer swim times.

In 2013 at Ironman Canada, I was feeling strong that morning and decided to start the swim just behind the top age groupers, and positioning myself in the lake accordingly. What a slugfest that was. Two minutes in, I got clocked in the head so hard by a fellow competitor’s arm or leg that I couldn’t hear out of my right ear for several hours into the bike ride.

Back to Whistler 2016…

The time allotted for the swim warm-up was short, and because it was an on-shore rolling swim start, we had to get out of the lake before the pros started. There we all stood, lined up on the grass for about ten minutes, cooling off, our wetsuits quickly draining. When the cannon went off, the spectators and participants were not witness to the spectacle of several thousand pairs of arms suddenly thrashing in the water, just an orderly procession of wetsuit-clad people calmly walking into the lake. It was… boring.

I know that in triathlons, the swim is the event that raises the anxiety level in most participants and even prevents some would-be participants from entering. I get that. My anecdotes are probably typical examples of why Ironman feels justified in introducing the SwimSmart initiative. But I think the SwimStart is a terrible idea and is more about money than anything else — the less stressful the swim start is advertised to be, the more people will want to pay their money and enter.

Here’s another problem with the SwimStart initiative: not only is the spectacle of a mass swim start gone, but nearly every participant will also have a different start time. The thrill of the midnight countdown is diminished — can that guy struggling to cross the finish line one minute before midnight call himself an Ironman, or is he a DNF because he entered the water at 0658? Those two top age-groupers sprinting to the finish line and fighting for a Kona slot might not even have the same start time, so their battle may already have been decided. With the SwimSmart initiative in place, a participant having a really long day can now cross the finish line just before midnight, get her finisher’s medal and shirt/hat and still be a DNF once the timing results are recorded.

The mystique and challenge of the Ironman race is, in my opinion, being diminished — watered down — by these and other changes. In Cozumel 2012, the swim times were much higher and the DNF rate slightly higher than average. In 2013, due to high winds, they changed the swim course the day before the race from the previously-used 3.8-kilometre box pattern to a 3.1-kilometre swim with the current. Seriously?  What’s next?

And here’s another thing that grinds my gears: the line between a full Ironman and a 70.3 has been blurred. Some 70.3 finishers feel justified in celebrating their accomplishment with an M-dot tattoo.  That’s not really surprising since, in some 70.3 events, finishers are greeted with “Jane Smith – YOU ARE AN IRONMAN!” Um, no, you’re not. You’re a Half Ironman. And a full Ironman is way more than twice as hard as a 70.3. You don’t get to call yourself a Marathoner if you’ve only run a half marathon, do you? The Facebook page “You know you’re an Ironman when…” has over 16,000 followers; many of its regular posters have only done 70.3 events. Maybe there should be a separate page called “You know you’re a half Ironman when…”?

I’m just an average age-grouper (around 14 hours), and I don’t do Ironman because it is easy. I do it because it is hard. A real challenge. A test. I enter each race knowing there’s a chance I won’t even finish, not only due to insufficient physical and mental conditioning on my part, but to circumstances beyond my control such as weather, injury or a mechanical problem.

I’m glad I was able to get three Ironman races done before the SwimStart initiative was brought in and the race watered down. I doubt I’ll ever do another Ironman unless it has a mass in-water swim start.

I wonder if, years from now, I’ll be one of those old guys with a faded M-dot tat on my calf, grousing, “Yah, but I did Ironman back in the olden days, when there were mass swim starts, 20% DNFs, it was uphill both ways...”

End of rant.
 
Bruce Butler is a four-time Ironman finisher, Professional Engineer and budding author. He has published the e-book “Letters to a Driving Nation: Exploring the Conflict between Drivers and Cyclists” and is now working on two more novels: a non-fiction account of a Cold War project he worked on in the 1980s, and a really cool science fiction book.
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<![CDATA[The Blame Game]]>Sun, 11 Mar 2018 19:31:21 GMThttp://brucebutler.ca/blog/the-blame-game

Misbehaving and incompetent drivers get off too easy in the media. How many times have you seen news headlines like these?

            “Greyhound bus caught going twice the speed limit
            “Six killed when train hits SUV
            “Pickup truck backs up over mother, 2 children in tent
            “Car drives into Queens Quay streetcar tunnel

When was the last time you said, or heard someone say, something like, “That pickup truck cut me off!” or, “Look at the way that car is driving!

We’ve built up an entire lexicon around not blaming drivers for their bad behaviour or lack of ability – semantic gymnastics that support the default position that drivers somehow aren’t responsible for what their vehicles do. When someone gets hurt in a collision involving a motor vehicle, it is reasonable to assume that — except in rare cases involving mechanical or medical problems — a person was, or was supposed to be, in control of the vehicle. You might argue that this style is an attempt to keep headlines brief or avoid a libel lawsuit, but I think it exposes a more important issue.

In linguistics, the issue here is “agency.” An ‘agent’ is defined as an entity that is capable of action. It is an axiom that only an agent can be responsible.

In the above headlines, the Greyhound bus driver either chose to exceed the speed limit or didn’t realize he was speeding. That train didn’t leap off its tracks and chase down the SUV; a train is limited to travel in one dimension and due to its large mass it takes a very long time to slow down. If there’s a collision involving a vehicle and a train, it’s almost a sure bet that the driver is responsible for placing his vehicle in the train’s path. That pickup driver wasn’t thinking clearly because she’d just had a fight with her boyfriend. The 'tunnel driver' either ignored or didn't see the many warning signs posted.

Let’s re-write these headlines to reflect what really happened:

            “Greyhound bus driver caught going twice the speed limit
             “Driver steers SUV in front of moving train
            “Angry driver backs up over mother, 2 children
            “Driver misses warning signs, drives into Queens Quay streetcar tunnel
 
Aren’t these a more accurate depiction of the events?

While we’re on the subject of word misuse, here’s another type of headline you’ll often see:

            “Speed, alcohol to blame for multi-car accident”
 
According to Wikipedia, ‘blame’ is “the act of censuring, holding responsible, making negative statements about an individual or group that their action or actions are socially or morally irresponsible.” In other words, blame can only be assigned to an agent.

A car is not responsible if it is operated in a reckless manner, but the person driving it is. A six-pack of beer cannot be held accountable for a collision, but the person who consumed it can be. So the above headline should at the very least read “Speeding, drinking to blame…” so it is clear there’s an agent involved. Better yet, “Impaired, speeding driver causes multi-car accident.”

The next time you’re reading the news and come across a story about a motor vehicle collision, try this: change the word “car” or “truck” to “driver”.  It’s amazing how quickly that changes the tone, calling it more like it is. You don’t get hit by a car, you get hit by someone driving a car.

To paraphrase the National Rifle Association’s motto, “Cars don’t kill people, drivers do.”
 
The above is an excerpt from my book “Letters to a Driving Nation: Exploring the Conflict between Drivers and Cyclists.”

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<![CDATA[January 29th, 2018]]>Mon, 29 Jan 2018 16:51:40 GMThttp://brucebutler.ca/blog/january-29th-2018Driving: Compete or Cooperate?
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I’ve spent most of my 40+ years of driving in Metro Vancouver, but have also had the opportunity to drive in major cities in England, Greece, Egypt, and France. When I return from these trips, I’m always amazed at the level of hostility on our local roads. With the traffic density in these foreign cities much higher than in most North American cities, I expected to see a lot more hostility amongst drivers. What I’ve found, though, is the opposite. Here’s an example…

I recently returned from three weeks working in Egypt, spending at least 4 hours each day travelling to and from a work site, a passenger in a car operated by my friend/colleague Ahmed, a young Egyptian engineer. We were staying in a hotel near the northern end of Cairo, but our work site was one hundred kilometres to the south, in the desert a few kilometres east of the Nile River. Each day we encountered traffic conditions varying from city gridlock to high-speed highway travel to village roads used to move livestock.

As someone with more than just a passing interest in driving behaviour, I saw these long, tiring trips as an opportunity to observe how people from another culture – one that is very different from ours – behave behind the wheel. I wanted to see if I could learn something. For three weeks, I took notes, recorded video clips, and peppered Ahmed about what I saw.

Being a driver (or passenger) in Egypt is not for the faint of heart. Speed limits don’t really apply there, other than the 120 km/h highway limit that pretty much everyone adheres to. Speed in populated areas is controlled using speed bumps, speed humps, and dips, and they work very well (especially the dips).
Lane markings are merely a suggestion; the actual number of traffic lanes at any given time or place is determined by the number of vehicles that can fit side-by-side. What we call a three-lane marked road here can, in Egypt, accommodate four or five lines of traffic; more if the cars are small, less if there are big trucks present. And this number changes continually depending on traffic flow. [This brings up an interesting observation on efficiency for our traffic engineers to consider.] Drivers weave back and forth, jockeying for position, at times mere inches from other each other.

I watched in awe as pedestrians, young and old, able and infirm, crossed several lanes of fast-moving traffic without any semblance of fear.

After being immersed in the Egyptian driving experience for a while, I began to wonder why I didn’t see more fender-benders, crashes and general carnage. Even with the high traffic volumes and congestion, I didn’t see road rage or anger.

Then it dawned on me: Egyptian drivers don’t compete, they cooperate. They’ve figured out that it’s better to work together than to work against each other. They’ve realized that they have to share the road with each other.

This driving… paradigm, if you will, whether planned or emergent, has produced some interesting effects. The thousands of Egyptian drivers I saw have reaction times and situational awareness that would make a race car driver jealous and put the average North American driver to shame. The average Egyptian driver can navigate in a tight pack, mere inches from others at speeds that made me cringe. And, a good percentage of them do it with one hand on the wheel and the other holding a cell phone to their ear. Their ability to spot speed bumps in the dark, at a considerable distance, is downright amazing.

The degree of communication between Egyptian drivers is orders of magnitude higher than in North America. Drivers there communicate and indicate their intentions using a variety of methods: horn, headlights, high beams, turn signals, hazard lights, and hand signals. There is a constant flow of information between drivers; by comparison, the communication network here is virtually silent, punctuated only by the occasional blaring horn, withering stare, or raised finger when a wrong is perceived and outrage expressed.

The ‘Egyptian driving method’ can, somewhat simplistically, be reduced to the following rules:
·        Drive as fast as you’re comfortable with
·        Don’t hit anyone
·        Don’t get mad

It all comes down to attitude. Sure, I saw many minor conflicts over a patch of road but, as Ahmed pointed out, “It’s a lot easier to say I’m sorry.” A hand raised, palm facing forward, means just that. Conflict resolved. When I described the relatively common North American practice of purposely blocking another driver who’s trying to merge into your lane, Ahmed shook his head in disbelief, abhorrent at the concept. The North American driver’s default attitude of “Me first”, “Every man for himself”, and “I’m gonna teach that guy a lesson” appears downright sociopathic by comparison.

Arriving home from my last trip and having to suffer the drive from YVR out to the ‘burbs, I was immediately reminded of how different driving is here. Drivers expected everyone but themselves to obey the rules of the road. Traffic roundabouts, a relatively new form of traffic control in BC, provide a good example of where we are on the cooperation-conflict spectrum.

The rules for entering a roundabout are simple: you slow down on approach and yield to traffic already in the circle. If drivers using a roundabout cooperate, traffic flows more efficiently than if the intersection were controlled by stop lights or stop signs. However, when drivers compete, as many here do, the game changes: the goal is to beat other drivers and get into the roundabout as quickly as possible, to stake one’s claim. Me first. Conflict is frequent and expected.

I’m not suggesting we all throw out the rules and drive like Egyptians (although that would make for an interesting experiment) – according to the World Health Organization (WHO), Egypt’s traffic death rate is twice that of Canada’s. (It should be noted, however, that 80% of Egypt’s traffic deaths are caused by heavy truck drivers.) But that doesn’t mean there aren’t lessons to be learned.

Maybe, just maybe, if more drivers here tried to cooperate more and compete less, who knows what that might lead to… A less stressful drive? Lower collision rates? Cheaper insurance? Fewer injuries and deaths? That’s something we each should think about when we get behind the wheel.


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