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. 

06
Sep

Bill Clinton full DNC Speech 2012

I'm watching all this from Canada, up here in the Great White North. So technically I'm an outsider to the process but I'm still interested.

Wherever you may find yourself in the political spectrum, this speech by Bill Clinton is something to watch because it demonstrates public speaking at its best. Clinton knows how to work an audience; he loves the people in his audience and they love him right back. Not simply because he's preaching to the converted, but because he doesn't just read from a prepared speech. He ebbs and flows with the crowd, taking his cues from them as he delivers his message. Love him or hate him, you have to respect the man's skill. He's a rock star and one of the most on-demand public speakers in the world. And there's a damn good reason for it. The man is good. Really, really good.

Aspiring public speakers, watch and learn.

31
Aug

Why You Shouldn't Fear the Zombie Apocalypse

I've been thinking a lot about the coming Zombie Apocalypse. Not that I actually think one is coming mind you, but it's a rather popular topic of discussion with lots of people speculating on how one might survive such a cataclysmic event. And yes, I've seen "Shaun of the Dead", which was great fun to watch, and yes, I've seen other zombie movies and shows with variations on zombies like the Banelings on "Legend of the Seeker". Some of these stories, I will admit, have sent the occasional chill up my spine. Oh, and I did see Romero's "Night of the Living Dead" as well.

But I don't believe in Zombies. So why am I spending time thinking about the Zombie Apocalypse?

Zombies, in case you don't know, are a particular class of undead. Through some version of curses, voodoo rituals, magic spells, or radioactive fallout, these are essentially dead people come back to life. Not in a good way like, "hey, I get a second life because I got 500,000 points on level 1" but more like pieces of you have started to rot and fall off so you really look kind of gross walking around dragging your sorry ass around the streets (usually in gangs of other zombies) and making noises like "ehgh, awrh, uhh" which I know sounds like some people you know who are still alive but that's not the point.

Where was I? Oh yeah. Zombies also have a thing for brains. They eat brains, specifically the brains of the living which does have a yuck factor. 

The point is that zombies are fragile. With all those body parts barely hanging on and ready to fall off, a good whack with a cricket bat or a piece of pipe (both of these objects are always lying about during zombie apocalypses, by the way) is all it takes to knock some of those pieces off. Yeah, they sort of keep coming until you separate their heads from their bodies, or as with the aforementioned Banelings, burn them with wizard's fire. I know what you're thinking. "Dude, there are no wizards around to burn them." There are also no zombies but for the sake of argument, we're going to pretend we are in the middle of an all-out zombie infestation. 

Where was I? Oh yeah. Brains. So with all these fragile parts, how in Hell does a zombie even manage to bite into a human skull. Skulls are nature's crash helmet and they're made of material that pound for pound (or kilogram for kilogram) is stronger than concrete. And these guys are rotting and falling apart. Those teeth are no more stable than the rest of them. I've seen zombie teeth and you know what? They look awful.

When I was in my teens, I bit into an apple and one of my teeth snapped off right at the base. There isn't an apple out there that is anywhere near as tough as a skull and that apple managed to take out one of my teeth, and I am very much alive. And was then too. 

In short, zombies are way too fragile. The best they could hope for is to gnaw slowly at your head, or gum it, which while it would be kind of gross and disgusting, is something you'd easily survive. At worst, they would become an annoyance, sort of like giant june bugs. Big and creepy, but harmless.

So don't fret the zombie apocalypse, because even it does happen, you'll be fine. Just grossed out.

28
Aug

The Rape of Mary. Legitimate or not?

Image via WikipediaLast week was the week where the world was introduced to the concept of "legitimate rape". In case you missed it, Todd Akin, a US Senate hopeful for Missouri, suggested that in the case of 'legitimate rape', a woman rarely ever gets pregnant, because her body somehow knows this isn't the guy she wants to have babies with at which point it just fights off the invading sperm. Or something like that. Akin, a Republican, was trying to shore up his party's no-exception position on abortion by explaining that even in the case of rape, abortion isn't necessary because a woman wouldn't get pregnant. 

If she does, she's probably lying.

Outside a deep-seated hatred of women, the reasoning behind Republican and right-wing Christian America comes from the Holy Bible. The Bible, being filled with sex and violence, plenty of rape, and some good old-fashioned incest, is an excellent source of mysogenistic writing and does tend to explain how the brains of guys like Akin work. Or don't work as the case may be. That old collection of stories is also where they learn about science and reproductive biology.

Thinking about the Bible's richness on the subject of rape and the general sanctity of life, I was drawn to thinking about the most famous case of rape in the Bible, the rape of Mary, mother of Jesus. Technically, she was just a girl, so in our modern Western world, forcing a 14 year old girl to give birth to  your baby is statutory rape. But these were dark times, well before satellite television or the Internet. There were lots of 14 year old mothers around. 

Still, Mary was bethrothed to Joseph when God came calling. Did Mary's body know it had been raped? You would think it didn't because her body still got pregnant & gave birth to Jesus. So, in the logic of Akin, it wasn't a legitimate rape. I'm saying it had to have been rape because Mary didn't have a choice in the matter. Did she really have the opportunity to refuse? Could she? Let's take a look in the Bible and see what it had to say on the matter.

Several news sources made a story out of this one, including CNN (click here to read that one) who trumpeted "Bill Nye slams creationism". 

And so he should. So should we all. Teaching kids that the literal story of creation (I'm going with the Christian version since that's usually the one people get all excited about) is fact is a good way to make sure they grow up ignorant, gullible, and an object of ridicule to educated people, much like those who push that story in the first place. 

16
Aug

The Future That Is Now

Image of Supercar, from the Wikipedia entry on the kids' show by that name.This is the future, and we're living it now. But . . . 

What you are about to read is a follow up to my earlier post surrounding Neil deGrass Tyson's "How much would you pay for the Universe?" video. Many of us really do live in what, as a child, I would have imagined as a pretty cool world, even if I didn't have a flying car. Speaking of flying cars, as a private pilot, I can honestly say that until self-driving cars (self-flying?) are mandated by law, I'm really kind of glad that flying cars aren't everywhere.

However, as cool as my world of computers and gadgets and Higgs bosons and deciphered genomes and etc, etc, etc is, I miss our collective thirst for adventure. We're more about gadgets than discovery. I had my first computer back in the late 70s and progressed through the school's IBM mainframe to my Commodore Pet, TRS-80, Vic20, Commodore 64, IBM PC, and PCs of many incarnations to my current collection of notebooks, tablets, ebook readers, and smartphones, scattered about my house and car so I can look something up from whatever room I happen to be in.

I love all that stuff. I have a Wii, a PS3, and I had an Atari 2600 as well as one of the original Pong consoles.

But it's all just faster, shinier, and (lucky for me) progressively cheaper tech incarnations of the same old ideas. We, as a species, seem to be pushing inwards and using up what we have here rather than reaching out. Space exploration takes a kind of wild thirst for adventure that we collectively seem to be missing. We're stagnant, waiting to see how much thinner or faster the next iWhatever will be.  And we're not just stagnant, we've become timid and insular as a species, looking to the next financial quarter rather than the next quarter century.

There's a very real anti-science movement out there, fueled by fundamentalists of all stripes. Stupidity and ignorance expressed in 15 second sound-bites is rewarded while scientists and secularists are viewed with disdain and distrust. You can say, "This [ insert project here ] is an affront to God. What we need is more people in pews and less wasted dollars on science." in 15 seconds. Explaining the benefits of space exploration takes a little more time.

I want to see us break through all that, forging ahead despite these negative pressures, but research and exploration on a grand scale requires a massive buy-in from the public. Sure, these may just be the "Dim Ages" (as opposed to the Dark Ages) and we may come out of this in another hundred or two-hundred years, but I don't want to wait that long. I want to know we can do it again (walk on other worlds) and I want my children to experience that sense of wonder and excitement, just as I did.

On July 20, 1969, when I was only nine years old, humans landed on the moon. Human beings boarded a rocket and flew more than 340,000 kilometers to another world! We were pushing the boundaries of our tiny planet and reaching out, however tentatively, to the stars. Right now, in 2012, my oldest son in 8 years old and NASA doesn't even have its own reusable spacecraft. The moon seems as far away as it ever did, and as excited as I am about Curiosity's landing on Mars, we haven't progressed beyond simple rovers. 

We used to be a people poised on the edge of space and now we're Earthbound, tied down by our petty wars and small imaginations. I want a world where my sons can share in the wonder of exploring worlds beyond this one, of reaching out into the universe . . . just a little father than the generation before mine did, more than 40 years ago. 
 
Back then, we stretched our wings and tugged at starlight. How did our dreams become so small?

I've never stopped dreaming.

13
Aug

Working on the Sabbath is a Deadly Mistake

When the weekend comes, I like to avoid work as much as possible. And that's probably a good thing because working on either Saturday or Sunday could get you killed by friends, neighbors, and possibly your loved ones, assuming they are devout Christians. Or Jews. You see, in the Bible, it specifically states that working on the Sabbath is a no-no punishable by death. Death by stoning no less. 

Harken to the word;

Numbers 15:32-35
King James Version (KJV)

32 And while the children of Israel were in the wilderness, they found a man that gathered sticks upon the sabbath day.

33 And they that found him gathering sticks brought him unto Moses and Aaron, and unto all the congregation.

34 And they put him in ward, because it was not declared what should be done to him.

35 And the Lord said unto Moses, The man shall be surely put to death: all the congregation shall stone him with stones without the camp.

36 And all the congregation brought him without the camp, and stoned him with stones, and he died; as the Lord commanded Moses.

According to the Bible, the perfect and unchanging word of God, it's okay to kill someone for working on the Sabbath because God says so.

Now I have to say that I find this just a wee bit harsh. The guy was collecting sticks. I grant you that not being a Christian, I may be a little more forgiving about these sorts of transgressions, but killing someone for gathering sticks on a Saturday just seems over the top and maybe even uncalled for. There could have plenty of good reasons for this guy to be collecting sticks. Maybe the meat had gone off and rather than throw it out, he wanted to cook it, perhaps to feed his wife and eight kids (who were then fatherless).

Of course, back then Saturday was the Sabbath.These days, if you're a Christian, you probably want to avoid any kind of labour on Sunday because that's what the Catholic church changed the Sabbath to; Sunday.  

If you're curious about this change, follow this link to the Catholic Mirror, "official organ of Cardinal Gibbons, Sept. 23, 1893".  Interestingly enough, most Protestant Christian groups just went along with the Catholic renaming of the Sabbath, or at least didn't kick up much of a fuss. Sunday as the Sabbath wasn't made official until January of 1910 when Pope Pius X gave it his 'apostolic blessing'.  About the only Protestants who really don't like this whole Sabbath on a Sunday thing are the Seventh Day Adventists. 

So whether you are looking to do a little work around the yard on Saturday or Sunday, just make sure you do it out of sight of your Christian (or Jewish) friends, family, or neighbours. In 2012, they probably won't stone you in the public square, but you sure as heck wouldn't want to be wrong on this one, even if they can no longer attend church because Jesus said it was a bad idea.

13
Aug

Spiritual Experience for the Non-Religious

As an atheist, I am occasionally presented with the question of spirituality. Many will point out that spirituality is the hallmark of the religious experience. It follows then, that if I can claim to have experienced what might be called a spiritual experience, then I must allow for religion. Conversely, if someone is a non-believer, the spiritual experience must be alien to them; something they can't possibly understand. 

Not so. The spiritual experience is part of being human and one can feel it without the slightest nod to a god or that god's peculiar collection of rules and rituals. Awe and wonder are not shut out to me because I choose to eat whatever the heck I damn well please on Friday. Transcendent joy isn't locked away where I can never feel it because I choose to play with my children on Sunday mornings rather than taking them to a shaman who will do his best to close off their minds and chain them with the fear of a non-existent deity. 

I have had, and continue to have, real and powerful spiritual experiences. These include, in no particular order, and at various times in my life :

  • holding my wife in my arms
  • seeing my children being born
  • hearing my oldest son (who has autism) say something new, without prompting
  • figuring out a complex problem I have been working on
  • reading a really great book
  • looking out into a clear, starlit night
  • sex (one of the most powerful spiritual experiences a human being can have)
  • having someone do something kind for me, without my asking
  • standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon
  • seeing protozoa through my microscope
  • seeing the Rocky Mountains looming high above me as we drive ever closer
  • my first solo flight in an airplane
  • a loving kiss
  • seeing the impact marks from comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 in my backyard telescope
  • coming to grasp with some new learning (science books do this for me)
  • standing in front of the large tank at Marineland and watching the Orca swim by, inches away
  • catching the wispy ring of the Crab Nebula in my telescope
  • holding a copy of my first book, fresh from the box
  • getting hugs from my kids with an "I love you" thrown in for good measure

Without reservation or exaggeration, I can honestly say that some of these moments are spiritual, even transcendent.

All those things . . . love, friendship, the appreciation of nature, the feeling of being carried away by music, the exploration of the self . . . none of these things require religion. Nor do they require a holy book of any kind. The Bible, the Qur'an, or the Talmud are no better moral guides, nor divinely inspired, than "Horton Hears A Who" or "Harold and the Purple Crayon". And in terms of enriching the human experience, I'd go with Horton and Harold.

Religion and its associated holy books are the trappings. If anything, they take away from the spiritual experience by providing you with a ready-made set of guidelines and rules that you must follow. They chain your mind and restrict your spiritual growth by teaching that the only path to true spirituality is through its complex maze of justification and fear. 

I'll close this post by suggesting that the path to spritituality and personal growth actually opens up when you reject God.

Incidentally, in a recent post I responded to a related argument where a couple of friends argued that since I believed in love, I must (obviously) believe in God. You can read my reply to that by clicking here.

12
Aug

What "Our Menu Options Have Changed" Really Means

It seems that every time I call a company these days, the first thing I hear when the line is picked up are the following words.

"Thank you for calling Our Big Megacorporation. Please listen carefully as our menu options have changed."

Feel free to substitute "Our Big Megacorporation" for any business name you please. For the sake of this discussion, it's pretty much all the same.

I don't know about you, but I find it hard to believe that the menu options on the automated phone trees of every company on this planet has recently changed. In all likelihood, some companies are using the same menu they've been using for quite a while with few, if any, changes. This must be true unless, of course, there is only one automated response company in the world and they supply only one message for every company on the planet. Again, that seems unlikely. So why then, if it's impossible for every automated answering system's menu to have recently changed are we being told this over and over again. After a great deal of thought, maybe as much as five minutes, I think I've nailed it.

What the message actually means is, "Listen you stupid caller. We know that you think you're clever and that you remember every damned company's phone tree. You hitting the wrong number means that you're going to disturb one or our people with requests to be transferred to somebody who doesn't even work here and frankly, we'd rather than them not be disturbed by losers like you." That's one version. 

Here's the second. "Dear halfwit caller. We don't enjoy being bothered by people like you so we've created this complex menuing system which, while it hasn't been updated in years, claims it does because we're on the other end placing bets as to how long you're willing to continue pushing buttons before hanging up in frustration." And we hate your little dog, too.

A third scenario. "Hey moronic caller, don't you dare push zero to reach an operator.  Besides, the operator does pretty much all the work at this company, including answering the phone and we need her to fetch coffee right about now. If you listen to the menu, there's a 50/50 chance you can reach the answering machine of somebody who doesn't work nearly as hard as the receptionist."

And this forth, also highly plausible,scenerio. "Dear caller. We spent so much money on this phone system that we never bothered changing the default message that says our menu options may have changed. Since we don't know how, claiming that our menu options have changed makes us sound important and very much the company on the move while making sure we never have to learn this damned menu system."

There may be other meanings associated with the "our menu options have changed" message, but I think I've pretty much got it. 

What do you think?

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