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. 


Canadian Anthem by NARIA

July 1st is Canada Day, our national holiday. In honour of this day, enjoy this rendition of the national anthem as presented by NARIA. The location for this video is atop the La Cloche canyon, in Killarney Provincial Park. NARIA (North Aria) is a Canadian ensemble made up of  opera singers Katya Tchoubar, Anna Bateman, and Michelle Danese, and pop sensation Annaliese Jelilian.

Happy Canada Day!


Bladerunner and What Has Come to Pass

One of the things I always fascinating about science fiction is that idea that it is somehow meant to be predictive or prescient in some way. While writers often start with 'if this goes on' as their launchpad, I don't really believe any of them (or many of them) actually sit down with the intention of predicting the future. That's what makes the kind of exploration from this BBC article ("Blade Runner: Which predictions have come true?") both interesting and annoying at the same time. It's cool to see what the writer "got right" but that's not the intent of science fiction. 

In a sense, the journalist is assuming that science fiction, by its nature or intent, is a form of soothsaying. If it is, then science fiction writers may enjoy a slightly higher return on their predictions than most precogs from the  supernatural camp only in that they studiously watch events and attempt to extrapolate a future based on varying degrees of likelihood and, naturally, fictional intent. 

Supernatural soothsayers, those oracles of the spirit world, employ a much more slipshod or prosaic approach. They predict what they believe their customers are willing to pay for, telling people what they want to hear. True soothsayers, if such things actually existed, are more likely to face Cassandra's fate (or Chicken Little's). And so they predict what the market will buy.

There are those who make it their business to predict trends and suggest likely future outcomes using science and statistics as their tools and they too are selling to those who will purchase these predictions. These people are sometimes called futurists. And while some futurists may be science fiction writers and vice versa, when the futurist is operating as a science fiction writer, the product is entertainment. The stories may be cautionary tales or invitations to wonder, but they are meant to entertain. Science fiction writers are, first and foremost, storytellers. But the history of science fiction, its sometimes futuristic visions of wonder, inspired by the boundless discoveries of science and technology, has raised the bar for this particular species of writer. In writing about the future, their tales are seen through the lens of the oracle, with their created futures examined for accuracy. 

Futurists, on the other hand, tend to fall into the same category as economists. Or weather forecasters.

So, read on, dear friends, to see what has come to pass in some of the most famous manufactured futures in science fiction. My good friend, Robert J. Sawyer, a masterful spinner of science fiction tales, is one of the people consulted to judge what came to pass if this went on.


Billboard on Bloor Street West in TorontoJune 30, 2012 is the date. Mark your calendars. Jesus said so.

This has been a busy couple of years for apocalypses. Last year, we had at least two that I wrote about and so far this year, I've written about another two. As I mentioned above, there's one coming up in another week or so and, if that doesn't work out, there's that old Mayan calendar end of the world to look forward to. Joss Whedon, in writing the Buffy and Angel series, probably thought he was packing a fair number of them into the two series, but these last couple of years have got him beat.

As you all know, the End Of The World (tm) has been coming  on and off for, oh, at least a couple of thousand years. Jesus himself said that some of his apostles would live to see the end of the world. "Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled." (Matthew 24:34) But what did Jesus know? It's not like the guy had the Bible to refer to. So let's cut old JC some slack, shall we?

Having the Bible to refer to does not guarantee success though. Harold Camping famously said that the world would end on May 21, 2011 and then, when it didn't happen, he updated his message and said that May 21 was just the beginning of the end of the world and that the real deal would take place around Halloween. 

Fast forward a few months and we've got Ronald Weinland who said the End of the World would take place May 27, 2012. That didn't happen either.

If you were pining for an Apocalypse, maybe June 30th will be your day. The Man Christ Jesus has said that it will happen. That man is Jose Luis de Jesus Miranda, the charismatic leader of "Growing in Grace International", a Christian sect that believes that divine power will execute all of us who aren't part of the group and, by extension, have not been saved.

Now I do have to say that this particular Apocalypse will be different than all the others. Not in the sense that anything will happen mind you, but the big thing about this particular Apocalypse is that the world won't be destroyed. That's right. The planet gets a pass and while most of us will be axed by God, members of Growing in Grace will get a special prize. Jose Luis, the Man God Jesus -- yes, Jose is the reincarnation of Jesus Christ -- says that members will be transformed. And they'll get superpowers!  They'll be able to fly, walk through walls, and they'll be immortal. How cool is that?

Like Harold Camping, this guy has a respectable following with members in 130 countries. He also has radio stations pumping out his message of transformation 24 hours a day and a TV network. And they have billboards in major cities across the US and Canada. There's even one in Toronto on Bloor Street West. The group's members can be identified, in many cases, by the number '666' tatooed on their bodies. While most people think of 666 as the number of the beast, the group suggests it is the number of wisdom, a symbol of the coming transformation. It's a complicated explanation of the Apostle Paul's depiction of Jesus Christ. 

You see, according to Luis (sorry, I mean, Jesus Christ), Antichrist, as explained by Paul, means "no longer following Jesus of Nazareth as he lived in the days of his flesh" so it's more like an Uber-Christ, or a Super-Christ. You see? So branding yourself with a '666' tattoo means you're following the evolution of Christ, so to speak. And so, on June 30, the group will take over the entire world. IN the words of Jesus, "A government where we will govern everything with a perfect order. This is my last farewell for you. The time is finished. We will see each other soon in Armageddon."

Before you run off to make your final preparations, again, check out the video below.  Enjoy. The end is nigh. Again.

You have to admit, it could have happened. 
What was better? The opium or the sex?

Copyright and your right to sell

I wanted to share an interesting article I ran across in that the implications cross over into many areas, some that have been heralded as the heart of the open source philosophy. Specifically, I'm talking about your right to copy, share, and resell what you own and, in some cases, what you think you own. For the background, start by reading this article over at The Atlantic.

In the world of Free Software, most of us understand that copyright isn't the same thing as ownership. Copyright is, in a sense, the right of the creator to define the terms under which his or her work is reproduced, shared, or sold. If you use software copyrighted and licensed under the GPL, the copyright holders allow you to modify, copy, and redistribute the work as you see fit under a share and share alike sort of agreement. In that way, we all 'own' the product or the software. If you improve the product, you must return those improvements to the community.You can also make copies and charge a reasonable fee to redistribute your copies. There's certainly no issue with you reselling your PC loaded with Fedora or Ubuntu.

Or so you might have thought.

In the case of the above article, your rights to resell even the hardware on which your free software resides are in question. By the simple act of branding, it may become a legal requirement that you obtain permission from every copyright or brand holder before you are allowed to resell your hardware. "Designed in the US by Apple and assembled in China by Quinhai Investments" with parts by another dozen companies might require that you obtain permission from every single one of the companies involved before you sell on Craiglist. In essense, you may not be able to legally resell pretty much anything.

Historically, the copyright holder has the right of controlling only the first sale. Once you bought the copyrighted work, you are free to resell it. You can't make copies and violate copyright in that way, but if you're done with that Stephen King bestseller, you can put it out at your garage sale, or give it away to a friend. They, in turn, can also try to make a few pennies off it at a later time. This rule applies to books, CDs, televisions, cars, planes, trains, you name it. Except that this rule is being challenged with companies arguing that the "made by" imprint or logo allows them to define what happens to that product and whether you, as the purchaser, can legally resell  that product.

The impact on computer recyclers who donate rebuilt and reconditioned PCs to charity could be devastating. The environmental and economic impact could also have reverberations you can monitor on the Richter Scale. If your only choice for an upgrade is to dispose of your earlier product, the landfills will grow at an alarming rate. If people must always spend more, with no hope of recouping any of their investment in a device, they face the choice of going further in debt, or simply choosing not to buy. Either of these last two scenarios carry large economic penalties.

Furthermore, there may also be legal requirements that you can only purchase product sold in approved countries. By purchasing that Samsung tablet from another country while Apple has an injunction in your country, you may be committing a crime. Costco was sued for selling Omega watches it purchased abroad in their North American stores. The reason? The price they were able to charge was too low for what Omega demanded of North American consumers.

And we aren't just talking about electronics here . . . your car or your house are also up for grabs. Is there a Honeywell thermostat on the wall inside? Maybe Honeywell doesn't want you to sell to someone who might replace that thermostat with another brand. Did the builder advertise the inside paint as Benjamin Moore? You may need to contact them before you resell since you may need an assurance from the buyer that they won't tamper with that company's product. That Italian tile in the kitchen may look dated but removing it to sell the house may be out of the question.

The implications of this case, currently before the Supreme Court, are mind-boggling. Free Software may be the only refuge, assuming you can get some Free Hardware to go with it.

Edited: Today, October 29, 2012, the case is expected to be decided. Ars Technica has a story to catch you up on everthing that is happening or has happened.


Minds Writing Minds

A Tiny Short Story by Marcel Gagné

Mervin was depressed. The down to the wire existence of his work life, the floundering bank account, and his disastrous love life had all but pushed him over the edge. Though he hadn't gone to the doctor, Mervin strongly suspected that his cough might be a sign of consumption.

His dream of being a famous writer had left him like a scorned lover two years before when everything in his life was going extremely well. The president of his company, then delightfully impressed with Mervin's work, increased his salary to a comfortable seventy-five thousand per year. Catherina, his lovely and devoted wife, was lovely and devoted. With all this cash coming in and life being so amazingly marvellous, Mervin put aside the pen, er, word processor.

Then came the layoffs and the cutbacks. Mervin, now far too at ease in his position, layed off, and consequently was layed off. He took another job with their competitor for less than half of his accustomed salary. He became miserable and drank a lot. Catherina left him because he was a constant downer. For her, it wasn't the money. It was Mervin's attitude.

Mervin retreated further into himself. Friends stopped seeing him--not that he had any more. Convinced that things could not get any worse, Mervin went home to discover that the bank was giving him two weeks to make a payment before they foreclosed.

One day, when all seemed lost, and Mervin was ready to jump off the Second Street bridge into the icy cold Fast River, he was seized with the desire to pour it all out, to scream out to the world, "I have suffered. My trials have been hard and this is where they have taken me!" Struck thus, he climbed back over the railing and headed for home where the nearly violent desire to forever ensnare the words that were his pain could be satiated.

As he walked, words flowed like a raging emotional river. Their raw, naked power filled him. From the depths of his torment, a fervent excitement began to take shape. Excitement. Purpose.

This was the heart of art, he knew. Pain. Sorrow. Depression.

By the time Mervin arrived home, he felt so good that his muse left him for someone more distraught.

The End

Note: This 'piece' is the result of a quick response to yet another incarnation of the 'all writers are basically demented, emotionally scarred, verging on insanity recluses' discussion. A group of netizens were arguing that these failings were somehow necessary to feed the muse and allow True Art(tm) to flow from the obviously tormented psyche. Now, I am a generally happy person. My life has its ups and downs but that's part of life. According to the discussion in progress, it was clear that I should give up writing now because I was far too well-adjusted to ever pen anything worthwhile. While "Minds Writing Minds" may not be worthwhile, it was however my response to this discussion. Strangely enough, the discussion came to an end almost immediately afterward. Hmmm..... Incidentally, this discussion, and me writing this story, happened many years ago.


Why Proofreaders and Editors Still Matter

In the world of eBooks, it seems that the traditional publishing models are gone. We're told that it's a whole new world and that the traditional rules no longer apply. What a load of horse pucky!

Take a close look at the screenshot below; if you need to, click on the image and you'll get the full sized original. 

What you are looking at is a copy of Matt Ridley's "The Rational Optimist" and yes, I am enjoying the book. But I could be enjoying it a lot more. Have another look at the page and you'll see a problem that persists throughout the book. Words are broken in up in strange places that don't make any sense. For instance, "genet ically" and "exacer bated". This book was published by HarperCollins who, apparently, saw no benefit to having someone proofread the electronic copy before they put it up for sale at $12.99 on the Kobo eBook store. 

Now I happen to know a little about eBook conversions and as such, have a pretty good idea about what happened here. Working from the PDF version of the book, they ran the file through a simple conversion in order to generate the ePub file. The problem here is two-fold. First, PDF is a lousy format to convert from , mostly due to the fact that PDF is not a text format per se. It's more like a giant multi-page graphic image. When you try to convert that directly to ePub, you are in essence doing a kind of OCR. The result isn't a conversion so much as an interpretation of the original text. Much better to start from HTML or DOC or ODT format files. Those are actually text.

The second problem is that HarperCollins didn't see any value in paying someone to proof this shiny new eBook before making it available for sale. If they had read even a few pages, they would have noticed how many of these errors there are.

The net result is that they make themselves look bad, they make Kobo (and Amazon and everyone else who sells the same book) look bad, and they make Matt Ridley, who is an excellent writer, look bad as well.

To be fair, I seriously doubt that HarperCollins is the only publisher guilty of this crime. Everyone is trying to make more with less, but some rules still apply. Yes, folks, even in the highly competitive, rapidly evolving, field of electronic publishing, there is still room for proofreaders and editors. 


Will our kids be a different species?

This is an utterly fascinating discussion of human evolution, past, present, and future. In this case, the future is pretty much here and Juan Enriquez asks some important questions about what it means to be human and what that might mean in that immediate future. As the father of an autistic son, I find the notion that, for better or worse, we may be seeing the effects of a rapid state of human evolution. I use the words "for better or worse" because evolution doesn't necessarily mean a net positive change; only time, and continued evolution, will decide. Nevertheless, it's something we need to pay attention to now.


Attacking Your Religion : An Open Letter

I write about a great many things, from Linux and open source software, to technology in general, to science fiction, to current events, to religion, and anything else that takes my fancy. Some of what I post is educational and some of it is fluff. For the most part, people seem to like what I write and given that it's hard to get really riled about a tutorial on a Linux appliation, I get very few angry or negative comments. Unless I talk about religion. Suddenly the landscape changes and I get accused of all sorts of strange things. The most common question is something along the lines of "Why are you doing this? Why are you attacking people's faith?" Recently, I received this message from a friend on Facebook.

I find it interesting that you feel you need to put so much energy into insulting Christians and the bible. I wonder why you think it is ok to do so? I guess it would be okay to publicly insult various races, homosexuals, anyone who doesn't think like you. It makes me sad.

The email was private and, as such, I am not disclosing who wrote it, but since the question comes up often enough, this post is an attempt to answer that question without going over the same ground time and again with every person who asks me the same question. Read on and feel free to comment.

I wouldn't ordinarily open a private conversation on this topic since I make my views public and, as such, stand behind them. I'm not looking to offend you specifically, even if I am critical of things you personally believe in. I take no offense if people challenge the things I believe in and I readily welcome and accept that I am wrong when new facts present themselves. That’s not saying that I might not be sad or temporarily upset to discover I was wrong, but I’d rather have the facts than continue working under false assumptions.

Under no circumstances would I attack a person on the basis of race, gender, or sexual orientation. If you follow what I write, you’ll discover that I am a vocal advocate of gay and lesbian rights as well as a staunch defender of gender equality. I routinely champion these causes and I challenge and confront those who would take these rights away or marginalize them. In suggesting that I might “think it is okay to do so”, you’re either reacting emotionally or you don’t know me at all, nor do you take the time to read what I write. In short you are being unfair. As for people who don't think like me, I welcome them and their ideas; I love a good discussion and having everyone agree with everything I think and say would be tiresome to say the least. 

Religion, on the other hand, is fair game. It is no different than politics and has no right to special treatment, especially since more harm is ever done in the name of religion than good.

When I write about religion, I don’t do it to be mean-spirited. You’re a believer. I get that. I also understand that you hold those beliefs dear. You probably believe that your religion and its teachings make the world a better place; that it makes your own life richer. I get that too.

Unlike you however, I believe religion (and superstition in all its guises) is dangerous to our world and everyone in it. If the god you believe in serves you, then so be it. But that won't change the fact that I see religion not as a force for good, but a tool for evil and history, both long past and recent, proves me right time and again. There is precious little evidence for a god and even if there is (a huge if), it's obvious he/she/it doesn't care about us. We are children of the universe. Why do we need to worship something? Why not simply do our best to be excellent to each other.

Religion poisons everything,” Christopher Hitchens wrote. “As well as a menace to civilization, it has become a threat to human survival.

That’s why I speak out about religion and the evils done in its name, in its god’s name. Because people should speak out when they see injustice being committed; when they see their fellow human beings being harmed, or lied to, or enslaved, or tortured, or any of the countless evil thing done in the name of god. Good people have to stand up to and fight against evil. And that’s what I am doing. If you actually read what I write, or the stories I post, it’s almost always in reaction to someone having done something evil in the name of god. Like that minister who suggest we put gays and lesbians inside electrical fences until ‘their kind’ dies out. Or the pastor who sermon asked that the government hunt down and kill homosexuals because the bible says we should do that in Leviticus. What is wrong with exposing these people? Should we ignore them and let them have their way only because they’re Christians? Is it okay to hate if you hate in the name of god? Should we let these people do and say as they please, growing their flocks and poisoning their minds? Or do you look the other way and remain silent because you fear it will make you or your religion look bad? Are you willing to overlook all of the evil things in the bible because it's scripture?

Is that really what you believe?

If you see evil being committed in the name of religion, don't you, as a believer, have a responsibility (as I feel I do) to speak out against those injustices?

Reality, reason, and science, all trump faith. While I won't deny that faith can help the occasional individual (in ways I don't feel), faith does nothing for the world at large. People are important. Life is important. This world is important. Arguing over what Jesus or Mohammed or Buddha really meant is an exercise in futility. If this holy book or that holy book isn't 100% right, then all of it is up for grabs. It either is the inspired word of god, or it isn't. If you aren't comfortable with that logic, I'm sorry.

The Bible, the Quran, the Talmud, and a host of other holy books are responsible for more pain and horror than any human being should ever be able to defend. People who continue to hold up these tomes as guides for living or for supporting a specific ideology are not helping to further our species. Just as you feel the need to defend your faith, I feel the need to defend human life. The very idea that some father figure in the sky will reward us when we die is anathema to our future. Live this life as though it is precious, as though it's the only life you, your family, or your friends will ever have. Because I'm probably right. As the old saying goes, "life is not a dress rehearsal".

I trust in my feeling that you are a good person. In that respect, you could say I have faith. Nevertheless, if you are the good person I believe you to be, it's not because of your faith. It's because of who you are. And good people will continue to be good people regardless of what their religions or faiths teach them. Faith just gets in the way.

Anyhow, I could go on but I'll leave further comments for future posts. I speak out against religion because I believe it must be done. It was never about you.


How Fast Do You Read?

Here's a fun way to spend 2 minutes and discover how fast you read, your level of comprehension, and how you compare to the national average. You also get to discover how many books you can read on various eBook readers and how long it would take you to read War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. Assuming you wanted to do that. If you're curious, click on the eBook reader image below to launch the test.

ereader test

For the record, I read 469 words per minute and I got all three comprehension questions right. Supposedly, this makes me a better reader than a 5 year old or 88% faster than the national average.

How did you do?


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