Welcome! You've arrived at award-winning author Marcel Gagné's personal Website. I am the author of the "Moving to Linux" series of books, a regular columnist for several tech magazines, a public speaker, radio and television personality, and a well known voice in the Linux and open source universe. I created the famous (perhaps infamous) Cooking With Linux which ran for ten years in the Linux Journal. I'm also a published science fiction author and editor, a onetime Editor in Chief, a pilot, a former Top 40 disc jockey, and I fold a mean origami T-Rex.  This site is home to my insights, opinions, gripes, brags, tech stuff, and whatever else comes to mind when I have the time or the inclination to publish it. 

28
Sep

The Past Is Fading Fast

This morning, I was reading a book with my kid. It's one of the Little Critter stories by Mercer Mayer, titled "When I get bigger".

I was struck by the sheer number of things that don't actually apply and will likely never apply to my kid. For instance . . .

  • a paper route (can't remember the last time I saw a kid delivering papers on his or her bike)
  • dialing a telephone
  • ordering from a paper catalogue, writing a letter to request your order, and having it come in the mail
  • wearing a watch (increasingly uncommon for kids)
  • roller skates (okay, there are roller blades)
  • a portable radio (we stream radio via the Internet to an amplifier dock)

All these things are in the story. You find yourself saying things like, "back in the old days, most people had newspapers delivered to their door" or "telephones used to have wheels that you turned to call somebody".

I realize that some people still have home delivery, but that's mostly a 'for now' thing and I doubt it can or will continue. In the case of watches, we still occasionally wear them, but it's often a fashion statement rather than as a useful object for telling the time.

The past is still with us, but it's fading, and it's strangely to explain to a little kid.

23
Sep

KDE Plasma Does Gestures Globally

This is going to be a surprise to a number of people out there, but not only does the KDE Plasma desktop environment have gestures built in, but it has had them since the 3.2 (roughly) release. Gestures in KDE Plasma aren't just tied to the browser (I covered Firefox mouse gestues here), but pretty much anything in the desktop environment. With a few flicks of the mouse, you can make magic happen across your entire desktop experience. It all sounds new and exciting, but the functionality has been there for years and few people seem to know about this excellent feature. Let me tell you how it works.

Note : In this article, I am running KDE Plasma 4.9.1 on Kubuntu precise.

To see existing mouse gestures that you can use, or create your own, fire up the KDE System Settings program. To do so, click the Application Launcher (the big K in the lower left, and select it from there; it's usually in the Favorites menu, or you can find it under the Computer section (or you can just type "system settings" in the search field of the launcher). When the System Settings window appears, click "Shortcuts and Gestures" which you'll find under the "Common Appearance and Behavior" section (see Figure 1).

Figure 1 : Mouse gesture configuration is found in KDE's System Settings.

First, make sure you enable gestures by clicking that text box in the top right section, then click apply (see close-up in Figure 2).

Figure 2 : Make sure you have enabled gestures as well. On a two-button wheel mouse, button 2 is the clickable wheel.

The Shortcuts and Gestures window has a sidebar to the left that offers three sets of shortcuts. These are custom shortcuts, standard application specific keyboard shortcuts, and global keyboard shortcuts. It doesn't specifically say "gestures" here because keyboard shortcuts are one type of shortcut while mouse gestures are another. Since the selection defaults to custom, and this is where we want to be, look at the middle section where you'll see "Input Actions settings" for a handful of applications, each label representing a group of applications with one of more shortcut (or gesture) defined below. To see the various predefined gestures, click the small arrow to the left of the label (see Figure 3).

Figure 3 : Every pre-defined gesture can be viewed, or changed.

Click on any action (e.g. Home under Konqueror Gestures) and a three-tabbed pane will appear to the left of the window. The tabs are labeled Comment, Trigger, and Action. The comment is exactly what it sounds like, a description of the shortcut with as little or as much information as you want. The trigger, in this case, is a mouse gesture. Using Home as our example, the gesture trigger is a stylized "h" that starts at the light green end of the line and ends at the dark blue. Click the Action tab and you'll see that it actually translates into the Konqueror "Ctrl+Home" keyboard shortcut which loads the home page.

21
Sep

Ban All Electronics!

I dropped my 5 year old off at daycare this morning. He brought a toy in with him called a 'Math Slam'. It quizzes you with basic addition and subtraction questions, shows four possible answers in circular display areas which you then 'slam' and answer as quickly as possible. One of the teachers asked me if this was an electronic toy, to which I answered a quizzical 'yes'. "But it's a math game?" she asked. I answered in the affirmative. "Well," she said, "maybe it will be alright."

When I asked what could possibly be wrong with the game, she told me that one of the parents complained about other kids bringing in electronics to the classroom. I poo-pooed the idea suggesting that if any child walks in with a hearing aid or a pacemaker (parents included), that they must be asked to turn them off before entering. Or if a child is wearing a digital watch . . . or anything else that might remotely be considered electronic. That birthday card that plays 'Happy Birthday'? Verbotten!

Okay, so I was being a little over the top. But before being accused of such, I admitted to being loudly opinionated, since I expressed my sarcasm loudly enough for other parents to hear.

You see, kids are allowed to bring in toys from home, but the line is drawn at anything that qualifies as electronic. Apparently, it's okay for a child to bring in the most elaborate, mindless toy imaginable, so long as it isn't electronic. 

For the record, this post (and my comments at the school) was meant to be humorous, despite everything happening as described. I do wonder, however, about the nature of the complaint that generated this 'ban'. I'm also concerned that it was enacted because ONE parent complained. Hence my sarcasm.

19
Sep

My eBook Store Is Now Open

As of today, I am officially opening my eBookstore, right here on the site. Click here to view and, oh please, buy a title.

I've had books for sale, short stories, magazines, etc for a long time in bricks and mortar stores, Amazon, Chapters-Indigo, and a bunch of places. I even have eBooks for sale for the Kindle at Amazon and Kobo readers at Kobo.com, but this is the first time I open my own bookstore. 

      

So, true believers, read on!

19
Sep

I Am A Pirate King

In honour of International Talk Like A Pirate Day, I present . . .

The Pirate Movie, from way back in 1982, starred Kristy McNichol, Christopher Atkins, and Ted Hamilton as the Pirate King. It's a campy, and yes, bad, homage to Gilbert and Sullivan's "Pirates of Penzance", one of my favorite operettas of all time (duking it out for first place with "The Mikado"). Anyhow, this movie, bad as it is, remains one of my guilty pleasures.

I don't know how long it will remain there, but if you feel inclined to watch the whole thing, it can also be found on YouTube right here.

Enyoy!

19
Sep

xkcd: A Bunch of Rocks

For some of the most brilliant observations on life, the universe, and everything, you need to spend some time with xkcd. It's the most insightful stuff you can get as presented by two-dimensional stick figures. Witness the cartoon below for an example. Click for a full sized version.

17
Sep

Islam's Anger Is Islam's Shame

When all Hell broke loose in Benghazi, Libya, last week, the first casulty was U.S. Ambassador, Christopher Stevens, who lost his life when protesters stormed the United States embassy. The violence has spread nearly two dozen countries. At least four people are dead, many more injured, as American embassies in Lybia, Egypt, with protesters chanting "Death to America". The reason for this spate of violence? A movie trailer on YouTube called, "Innocense of Muslims".

The first thing you notice about this film is that it's really, really bad, with production values that the average 8th grader could easily match. Anti-islam and anti-Mohammad message aside, the 14 miinute film looks like it's meant to be sort of like an Islamic "Life of Brian" spoof. Unfortunately, some members of the "Religion of Peace" apparently don't have a sense of humour.It's frankly incredible that a short film clip featuring Muhammad is cited as the spark that launched the latest wave of Islamic violence.  Think of it as the Mohammad Cartoon, version 2.0.

The link below contains the  clip which you can watch on YouTube. As I write this, the video (as seen on YouTube below) has 3.8 million views with 3/4 of the votes being 'dislikes.  Have I mentioned the production values are dreadful? Let's not mince words; this film, if you can call it that, is a piece of crap.

14
Sep

Linux Nonsense

Original image from http://openclipart.org/detail/99001/nonsense-circle-monster-by-10binaryIt's rather amazing just how serious nonsense can sound. Take for instance the following corporate mission statement.

It's our mission to execute a strategic plan to efficiently syndicate relationships and streamline schemas. Our obligation is to continue to conveniently transform our cyber-portals and generate our e-functionalities to enable us to produce more dividends for our serfs. We have committed to embrace technologies in order that we may produce earnings for our venture capitalists and get out of debt.

You have to admit that it does sound an awful lot like the mission statement of many a Fortune 500 company, but unlike some of those corporate mission statements, this one is pure nonsense. If you could write something like this, your friends will think you are either crazy or brilliant. Luckily, my friends don't have to ask that question. What they don't know is that I didn't actually write that. Instead, I generated it from a Linux bash prompt. How, you might ask, did I manage to create something so incredibly real sounding with nothing but a Linux system and a few keystrokes of the command line? How indeed.

To sound this clever yourself, check out the aptly named nonsense. In essence, nonsense is a clever generator of, well, nonsense. Just extract the archive bundle into a directory of your choosing and you are ready to go. No compiling and no nonsense (pardon the circular reference). Nonsense is a Perl script that works with a collection of templates. If you look in the directory you just created, you'll see an executable file called nonsense and a number of data files as well as a few HTML templates. 

Here's how it works. To create the amazing corporate statement above, I simply executed the following command.

     nonsense -f mission.data

Brilliant, isn't it? 

For nonsense, this is quite a wonderful and useful program. With command-line switches, you can make nonsense generate business plans, strange names for people, imaginary political organizations, and even an impressive geek resume (see the screenshot below).

Figure 1: Warning! This nonsense resume is not guaranteed to get you a job. (Click the image for a full sized view)

For this masterpiece of curriculum vitae, I executed the following command.

     ./nonsense -f resume.data -t resume.html.template > resume.html

But wait, that's not all. With a little nonsense,you can create bizarre laws (“It's a Class C felony in Yellow Walnut, Michigan, to hit a poison ivy plant with a cardboard box”), newspaper headlines (“Computer Possessed By Satanic Dæmon”) and even a pretty realistic Slashdot web page. Some of the output is in HTML format and is suitable for web pages—all silly, of course. The many other options and their results may well keep you busy for hours.

You might also want to take a moment to read the README file because that isn't nonsense. Although it is. Sort of.

You can read this and other Linux and Free Software articles over at CookingWithLinux.com .

Rationalists live under the impression that facts can sway people. They believe that myths, ignorance, lies, and other falsehoods, can be dispelled once proof of those falsehoods have been presented. This is the rationalist's view; their innate belief that people are somehoe, by and large, reasonable. Belief that reason can dispel myths may well be the rationalist's weakness. I sincerely hope not.

Many of you, my regular readers, are probably thinking I'm going off on another of my anti-religious rants. Sorry, that will have to wait for another day. Today, I'm talking about flu shots.

It all started when a friend on Facebok posted the following image.

There are many things wrong with this, not the least of which is that it's a myth, not to mention completely false. Most interesting is that the Alzheimer's Association is cited, at the very top of the graphic, since The Alzheimer's Association Website says this is a myth. I hope you'll go check it out but if you're in a hurry, here's what it says about the link between flu shots and Alzheimer's.

Myth 6: Flu shots increase risk of Alzheimer’s disease

Reality: A theory linking flu shots to a greatly increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease has been proposed by a U.S. doctor whose license was suspended by the South Carolina Board of Medical Examiners. Several mainstream studies link flu shots and other vaccinations to a reduced risk of Alzheimer's disease and overall better health.

  • A Nov. 27, 2001, Canadian Medical Journal report suggests older adults who were vaccinated against diphtheria or tetanus, polio, and influenza seemed to have a lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease than those not receiving these vaccinations. The full text of this report is posted on the journal’s Web site.  
     
  • A report in the Nov. 3, 2004, JAMA found that annual flu shots for older adults were associated with a reduced risk of death from all causes. The abstract of that report is posted on PubMed.

Unless I read English very differently than most people, it sounds like the Alzheimer's Association says that people receiving regular flu shots and other vaccines have a lower risk of developing Alzheimer's disease. That's a very different story than the graphic suggests.

When I pointed all this out, my friend suggested it was a matter of perspective. My problem, I guess, is that I don't consider facts to be a matter of perspective. 

Strange as it may seem, I would feel differently if the graphic had simply said, "Dr Whoever says the flu vaccine causes Alzheimer's" because then it is a matter of perspective or personal opinion. But it suggests the Alzheimer's Association backs those claims where they clearly do not. In short, the infographic is using their name to substantiate their claims and that's just plain wrong. 

Let me put it another way. The person, or persons, responsible for putting this graphic together, had so little faith in their facts that they chose to misrepresent an organization with which they disagreed, by claiming they supported their false claims. That sounds like a lie, but in legal circles, it's called fraud. 

In case you missed it, the whole mercury in vaccines scare and the theory that it caused autism, was concocted by the widely discredited Andrew Wakefield, whose discredited paper the British Medical Journal described as an elaborate fraud. Despite all the evidence against this charlatan, all the proof that he lied and fabricated evidence, and all the harm it has caused, people continue to believe and repeat these lies as facts. 

Let me leave you with a final, disturbing, and unpleasant thought. 

Research on Alzheimer's is increasingly pointing to a very different cause for the disease; what some call the 'American diet'. The weight of evidence is so great that many are starting to call Alzheimer's "Type 3 Diabetes".  It is our increasingly unhealty diets of high-fat and high-sugar that is taking us down this frightening road. 

In the end, I'm still a rationalist, which means I live with the belief that presenting you with these facts will show you that vaccines don't cause autism, or Alzheimer's. What vaccines do is save lives.

Please share this post and help dispel the myths.

11
Sep

Mark Twain's Rules of Writing

Way back in 1895, Mark Twain, the greatest writer who ever lived (we'll argue about it later) wrote a piece titled, "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses". This was a critique, of sorts, of his contemporary, Fenimore Cooper's novel, "The Deerslayer". Armed with his considerable wit, Mark Twain slays the Cooper dragon and his work in that essay.

The most famous and oft-quoted portion of that 1895 piece has often been redistributed as "Mark Twain's Rules of Writing" which I will now present with but a small introduction from the master himself.

It seems to me that it was far from right for the Professor of English Literature at Yale, the Professor of English Literature in Columbia, and Wilkie Collins to deliver opinions on Cooper's literature without having read some of it. It would have been much more decorous to keep silent and let persons talk who have read Cooper.

 

Cooper's art has some defects. In one place in "Deerslayer," and in the restricted space of two-thirds of a page, Cooper has scored 114 offenses against literary art out of a possible 115. It breaks the record.

 

There are nineteen rules governing literary art in domain of romantic fiction -- some say twenty-two. In "Deerslayer," Cooper violated eighteen of them. These eighteen require:

 

1. That a tale shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere. But the "Deerslayer" tale accomplishes nothing and arrives in air.

 

2. They require that the episodes in a tale shall be necessary parts of the tale, and shall help to develop it. But as the "Deerslayer" tale is not a tale, and accomplishes nothing and arrives nowhere, the episodes have no rightful place in the work, since there was nothing for them to develop.

 

3. They require that the personages in a tale shall be alive, except in the case of corpses, and that always the reader shall be able to tell the corpses from the others. But this detail has often been overlooked in the "Deerslayer" tale.

 

4. They require that the personages in a tale, both dead and alive, shall exhibit a sufficient excuse for being there. But this detail also has been overlooked in the "Deerslayer" tale.

 

5. The require that when the personages of a tale deal in conversation, the talk shall sound like human talk, and be talk such as human beings would be likely to talk in the given circumstances, and have a discoverable meaning, also a discoverable purpose, and a show of relevancy, and remain in the neighborhood of the subject at hand, and be interesting to the reader, and help out the tale, and stop when the people cannot think of anything more to say. But this requirement has been ignored from the beginning of the "Deerslayer" tale to the end of it.

 

6. They require that when the author describes the character of a personage in the tale, the conduct and conversation of that personage shall justify said description. But this law gets little or no attention in the "Deerslayer" tale, as Natty Bumppo's case will amply prove.

 

7. They require that when a personage talks like an illustrated, gilt-edged, tree-calf, hand-tooled, seven- dollar Friendship's Offering in the beginning of a paragraph, he shall not talk like a negro minstrel in the end of it. But this rule is flung down and danced upon in the "Deerslayer" tale.

 

8. They require that crass stupidities shall not be played upon the reader as "the craft of the woodsman, the delicate art of the forest," by either the author or the people in the tale. But this rule is persistently violated in the "Deerslayer" tale.

 

9. They require that the personages of a tale shall confine themselves to possibilities and let miracles alone; or, if they venture a miracle, the author must so plausibly set it forth as to make it look possible and reasonable. But these rules are not respected in the "Deerslayer" tale.

 

10. They require that the author shall make the reader feel a deep interest in the personages of his tale and in their fate; and that he shall make the reader love the good people in the tale and hate the bad ones. But the reader of the "Deerslayer" tale dislikes the good people in it, is indifferent to the others, and wishes they would all get drowned together.

 

11. They require that the characters in a tale shall be so clearly defined that the reader can tell beforehand what each will do in a given emergency. But in the "Deerslayer" tale, this rule is vacated.

In addition to these large rules, there are some little ones. These require that the author shall:

 

12. Say what he is proposing to say, not merely come near it.

 

13. Use the right word, not its second cousin.

 

14. Eschew surplusage.

 

15. Not omit necessary details.

 

16. Avoid slovenliness of form.

 

17. Use good grammar.

 

18. Employ a simple and straightforward style.

 

Even these seven are coldly and persistently violated in the "Deerslayer" tale.

 

There you have it, my friends. Should you be interested in reading the whole piece, may I direct you to Project Gutenberg where you will find a copy of the complete essay in several different formats.

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