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. 

08
Feb

Giving Your Computer The Finger

John Underkoffler explains the human-computer interface he first designed as part of the advisory work for the film Minority Report. The system, called "g-speak", is now real and working. Note the gloves Underkoffler is wearing. (Image from Wikipedia)For as long as we've had personal computers, we've been trying to decide how we interact with these things. The mouse and graphical display was a major improvement over text only input, though I know some of you out there will argue for the keyboard to this very day (you know who you are). Nevertheless, every time we come up with something we like in the way people and machine interact (what we call HMI or Human Machine Interface), we decide that while it's okay, it still isn't quite right. That's okay. As my wife likes to point out, if people like something, they've want to change it; it's when they don't use it that you know you've lost them.

So it is with the humble mouse and the graphical user interface (which came out of Xerox PARC back in the 70s. It seemed like an awfully good idea . . . and it still is. When Apple released its own version of the graphical desktop inspired by Xerox, personal computing changed forever. Point here, click there, and magical things happen. Right click and menus pop up into which we dig ever deeper to make other things happen. The advent of clicking and dragging brought a real-life cause and effect onto the desktop's two-dimensional space. Hold on to this virtual object and drag it to a new location, or deposit this virtual object into this virtual container, whether it be a trash can or a file folder. Introducing motion into an otherwise static environment enhanced human-machine interaction. 

In the movie adaptation of Phillip K. Dick's "Minority Report", Tom Cruise stands in front of a virtual screen, manipulating the computer system using hand gestures to manipulate visions of future crimes, pulling this image here, setting that one aside, zooming in, pushing that one back, and looking for information on the individuals concerned. For techie geeks like me, that user interface was the real star of the show and years later, what I remember most clearly about the film. However useful such a user interface might be, it was seriously cool.

The inspiration for that gesture-based interface was designed by John Underkoffler, an actual product called the "g-speak Spatial Operating Environment", developed by his company, "Oblong Industries". Underkoffler also did some work on other visualization and interface techniques including holography and animation while at MIT. For a really cool demonstration, and a fascinating talk by Underkoffler, visit ted.com and pop his name into the search field.

The idea of gesture-based systems is obviously an attractive one because we keep exploring it. If you're seen "Iron Man 2", Tony Stark interacts with his own supercomputer via gestures  without special gloves. In this natural environment, the idea behind the tech becomes downright sexy. But Stark doesn't just use gestures; he also talks to the system in an almost conversational way while issuing commands as thoughts pop into his head. The system reacts to his speech and actions in an almost organic way, as though the system is just an extension of himself, much like his iron man suit. Too fanciful for you? A German group of scientists at Fraunhofer FIT have developed what might be called the next generation of human gesture based systems. Unlike Oblong's system, this three-dimensional interface doesn't require any special gloves, just like Tony Stark's system.

Ever since computers started coming into the hands of everyday users, we have been trying to reinvent the way people interact with these things. From inputting code via jumpers and switches, to keyboards, to the graphical UI that made Apple a household word (the company, not the fruit), it seems we can't ever find an interface we like. At least not for long. All of us work happily (more or less) with a keyboard and mouse, but it is limiting, hence all these fascinating developments into human machine interface design (HMI). We want to touch, wave to, pinch, tap on, and talk to our machines. This is, I believe, part of the attraction to the latest computing marketplace increasingly dominated by ever-smarter smartphones, iPads, Android tablets, and the BlackBerry Playbook. What could be more direct than touching in order to make things happen? It's natural. Reach out and touch.

From the humble mouse to touch screens to science fiction ideas like artificial intelligences that respond naturally to our speech, to direct neural interfaces as seen in the nightmarish Matrix, we keep looking for other ways to interact with computers.

How about you, dear reader. Are you ready to just plug in? What's your favorite interface between human and machine?

03
Feb

A Sure Fire Cure For Breast Cancer!

There's been a lot written these past few days about the Susan G. Komen Foundation pulling its support from Planned Parenthood and their cancer screeing program; they did this purportedly to appease sensitive right-wing religious fundamentalist Christians who think it's okay to kill people, just so long as it's not before the child is born. Every sperm is sacred and all that.

This whole thing has been a public relations nightmare for the Susan G. Komen Foundation who decided to try to deflect the volley of verbal ballistics by donning a PR flack jacket by teaming up with Discount Gun Sales to sell pink handguns.

Yeah, I though it was a joke too. But the brains at Susan G. Komen Foundation arranged to sell these oh-so-cute Walther P-22 Hope Edition handguns to raise money for Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Only $429.99 U.S.

Yep, nothing says "save lives" like a handgun.  I guess the suggestion is that shooting women with breast cancer is a sure fire cure!

Get it? Sure fire!

I know. I didn't laugh either.

19
Jan

Sanitized For Your Protection

Over the next few days, visitors will be treated to some changes. The first, and fairly obvious change, is that I've changed the look. In point of fact, I have completely reloaded the old "Marcel Gagné, Writer and Free Thinker at Large" site so that it's modern, up to date, and basically doesn't give me errors because I'm still paying for some experimental site work I did years ago that didn't quite work out. So the look will hopefully be something you enjoy as well. Then, there's content.

The first problem with content is that migrating comments was somewhat more difficult than migrating my blog and various articles from the site. Meaning that a lot of older comments may be gone forever (for this, I apologize but if you really need to check on what you said, I've kept a copy of the old site, locked in its last incarnation, at old.marcelgagne.com. Now, given that this is my personal Website, I feel that I can talk about whatever my little heart desires. And I do. A lot of the content has to do with Linux, Free and Open Source Software, a subject on which I am rather passionate, having written six books and several hundred articles for several different magazines.

But I also write about other things . . . 

These 'other things' include, but are not limited to, current events, science, politics, publishing, religion, atheism, and whatever else catches my attention including videos of little children facing off against Darth Vader. On some of these topics, most notably religion and politics, I may offend some of you. I consider this a good thing. Not because I like to offend people, but because it means I wrote about a subject that stirred something in you that you may not have wanted stirred, something that might be of value if you choose to explore the reasons why it offended you. This is all open to interpretation, much of it by you, the reader.  

All that said, I accept that you may not be coming to read my stuff because you want to hear me talk politics but because you want to learn or read about Linux and Free and Open Source software. To that end, I will from this moment on, post all Linux and FOSS stories to my Cooking With Linux site as well as here. If you just want the Linux/FOSS stuff without the extraneous attitude on other topics, stick with Cooking With Linux. Be warned, however, that I do occasionally include wine reviews on that site.

Hey, I'm only going to sanitize so much here.

17
Jan

ALICE and friends. Artificial Intelligence Reloaded

If you've been following my posts on artificial intelligence (or AI, if you prefer), you may have already spent some time playing with Eliza and consulting with the Emacs Doctor. I hope so because I'm going to take this one step further. Log in to your Linux system and let's get going . . . 

As much fun as the emacs doctor might be, you'll soon discover that it's not much different from our friend, Eliza. For a more credible machine intelligence, you'll soon run into something called AIML, or Artificial Intelligence Markup Language. Much of the energy that has gone into developing AI programs of late focuses on AIML interpreters and the A.L.I.C.E. system created by Dr. Richard Wallace (more on this shortly). Dr. Wallace won the 2000, 2001, and 2004 Loebner prize for the most 'human' program; that would be the bronze since no one has yet claimed the gold.

There are many AIML chatbots out there. Some masquerade as famous people like Captain Kirk, Elvis, or God. And yes, you can chat with them on their respective Websites. If, however, you'd like to get into the AIML action yourself, start with one of the projects built on this language. Like Howie.

16
Jan

Is Artificial Intelligence A Threat?

Once upon a time, I believed that someday soon, computers would be so complex, the programs so sophisticated, the interconnectedness of networks so all-encompassing, that is was only a matter of time before a true artificial intelligence emerged from this vast computational creation. I read everything I could on the subject, focusing much of my attention on the emerging field of neural networks. I lapped up science fiction stories about intelligent computers (in truth, I lapped up science fiction in general). I also developed a real fondness for any and all attempts at creating a machine that could pass the Turing test.

Alan Turing died in June 1954 less than three weeks before his 42nd birthday. Nevertheless, the computer you are using today, along with many of the programs you use on a day to day basis, owes a lot to Alan Turing, computer scientist, mathematician, and cryptographer extraordinaire. Thanks in large part to his work, the Allies were able to decode the German Enigma code in the Second World War, an important step toward defeating the Nazis. You could also call him the spiritual father of modern artificial intelligence research. Anyone working in the field of artificial intelligence knows about the Turing test.

For many in the field of artificial intelligence research, Turing's famous test proposes a means of determining whether a machine, or a program, could show intelligence -- whether it could think. Here's the short version of the Turing test which Turing himself actually called "The Imitation Game".  A human subject, who will act as judge, is placed in front of a keyboard in an isolated room. Somewhere else, another person in another location takes part in what we would today call an instant messaging conversation. There is a third participant, a computer program. The conversation begins with the computer program and the other person chatting with our judge. The human will obvioulsy converse as a human. The computer will imitate a human being engaged in conversation. If the judge cannot tell the human from the machine, the machine passes the test.

Turing's original "Imitation Game" involved a man and a woman hidden in isolation. The idea was to see whether the judge could tell the man from the woman, strictly from the typed conversation.

It is amazing really—more than sixty years have passed since Turing proposed his famous test, and we are still trying to create these wonderful thinking machines. There's even a formal competition with a $100,000 prize and an 18 carat solid gold medal for the first person to create a machine whose responses are indistinguishable from a human being. It's called The Loebner Prize for artificial intelligence and as yet, no one has claimed the grand prize. 

For the record, I don't believe that true AI, a sentient self-aware computer intelligence, is actually possible or will ever happen. I used to think it was inevitable. If you wish to argue with me on the subject, feel free to comment. I could be wrong (it wouldn't be the first time) and a real AI may yet emerge from the complexity that is the Internet. My friend, Rob Sawyer wrote a marvelous trilogy ("Wake", "Watch", and "Wonder") about that very idea. His AI emerges from the background noise of the Internet, so to speak. By the way, if you haven't read the series, or read Rob's work, you are truly missing out.

Let's pretend that an AI was possible and that such an intelligence will, some day soon, emerge. Since, having been wrong before, I could be wrong about this, should we fear this emerging intelligence? What should we do about this intelligence once we become aware of its existence? Will it be a force for good, or the ruin of the human race? Would an AI, gifted with limitless knowledge and access to the world's computer resources, behumanity's greatest foe? 

My gut instinct has always been to treat it as a foe, a sadly human response I admit, but given the price of error, a prudent one. I have said for some time, as many will attest, that if we ever create a real AI, our first priority is to kill it. Or words to that effect. We would still have to define whether the existence of intelligence qualifies as life, a different arument for a different day. Nevertheless, my feelings have been unwavering for years now. Pull the plug! Turn it off. I’ve recently softened that stance . . . a little.

I recently watched a documentary on Ray Kurtzweill, called Transcendent Man. I’ve also been reading 'The Moral Landscape", by Sam Harris. In a sense, both these works have given me a little new insight, feeding, as it were, from each other.

In “The Moral Landscape”, Harris argues that we define our moral relationship with other life forms based on our understanding of their capacity to experience pain and suffering, as well ecstasy and joy. We crush an insect without thought because we don’t believe that an insect is able to experience the depth of feeling that a mouse or a bird or a dog can, never mind a human. While we do occasionally sacrifice animals for research, or labour, or food, we do think twice about the treatment they receive while they live.

Perhaps an AI, with its vast intelligence, would examine us through a similar moral lens, understanding that we humans, with our strange and sometimes extreme passions, and our capacity for experiencing everything from great joy to the deepest sadness, aren't merely annoyances that must be done away with. Maybe the very nature of intelligence demands that we examine everything through the prism of morality, seeking first to understand rather than destroy. In assuming that an AI must naturally be humanity's enemy, might we not be closing the door on our greatest friend?

Kurtzeill sees AI an inevitable, the natural extension of our own intelligence and the next step in human evolution. AI is part of the Singularity he sees as emerging in his own lifetime. Not the end of the human race, but the next step in our evolution. In his view, artificial intelligence isn't what kills us all, but what allows us all to live forever.

While I may still harbor doubts about the possibility of artificial intellligence, I view the old question differently. Friend or Foe? I still don't know, but I'm not as convinced as I once was that the prudent response to the emergence of AI is its destruction. 

And so I turn to you . . . assuming that an AI did come into being, what would you do about it?

11
Jan

Look Out Of Your Window, Dudes!

Do you ever find yourself wishing weather forecasters and reporters would just take a moment to look out of their window? Or that weather organizations would employ some kind of 'dummy check' to make sure they aren't totally out to lunch when telling you about outside conditions?  

This morning, Accuweather (seen here on my BlackBerry Playbook) claims that Waterloo is under heavy snow at this moment. It is, in fact, very foggy but that's a far cry from heavy snow.

Sheesh . . .  Just look out the danged window!

20
Dec

Meet The Emacs Doctor

In my last article on the subject of artificial intelligence (or AI, if you prefer), I introduced you to Eliza, a computerized psychiatrist. Eliza may be simple, but she is patient and she's happy to let you talk.

Speaking of therapy, and at the risk of opening up old wounds and old battles, specifically the "vi vs emacs" conflict (the answer is vi, or vim), let's consider another form of AI therapy.

The original Eliza program was written using an early version of Lisp. It is not surprising then that one of the most famous examples of Lisp development included with your Linux system, the Emacs editor, should pay homage to the good doctor. When talking about Emacs, it becomes almost difficult to classify it as strictly an editor. The brainchild of Richard M. Stallman (founder of the Free Software Foundation), GNU Emacs is more than just a nice, powerful, if somewhat complex, editor. It's a mail reader, news reader, web browser, program development environment, Lisp interpreter and psychotherapist. No, really! I kid you not.

Try this. Start Emacs by typing emacs. You do not have to specify a filename for this. Now, press Esc-X, then type doctor and press Enter. The doctor is in. More so, the doctor lives! Note my conversation with the Emacs doctor in Figure 1.

Figure 1: The Emacs doctor IS in!

As much fun as the emacs doctor might be, you'll soon discover that it's not much different from our friend, Eliza. The advantage here is that, the doctor is always in, assuming, of course, that you have emacs installed. So next time you find yourself contemplating the meaning of life while you are in the middle of some stubborn Python code, save your work and just call up the doctor. It's free software so you can keep the 5 cents.

16
Dec

On Disagreement

People often say, "while I disagreed with you on this topic or that", as a prelude to explaining why they find themselves in agreement or in support of another's point of view. You'll see plenty of it today as people mark the death of Christopher Hitchens.

In truth, we all do this and it's a rather bizarre thing to do. As though we need to justify our shared belief in the topic at hand. 

I find that I disagree with pretty much everyone at some time or another. I rather suspect this is true of every human being on the planet. The question isn't whether we disagree on this point or that, but in whether we find common ground more often than not. Perhaps more importantly, do we find common ground on the things that are truly important, the things that really matter to all of us?

In the end, maybe what matters most is that we are communicating and engaging in the flow of ideas. 

14
Dec

Need A Psychiatrist? Meet Eliza

For some of us, our original exposure to AI, or artificial intelligence, goes back to an old program called Eliza. Eliza was a kind of computerized psychiatrist written in the 1960s by Professor Joseph Weizenbaum at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Eliza (named after the character in George Bernard Shaw's "Pygmalion") was an exercise in human response and natural language communication with so-called machine intelligence. The version I played with all those years ago was a DOS program running on a TRS-80. Ah, nostalgia. Eliza may not have been a great doctor, but it was a fun and fascinating program, a kind of whimsical promise of the future of AI.

Over forty years have passed since Eliza made her debut in 1966. You can still find incarnations of her everywhere on the Internet. Eliza's ghost is represented in many of the bots and chatterbots you'll find on IRC channels and MUDs. In fact, you can download Eliza as a Perl module and experiment with the creation of your own bots using your own Linux system. The code is available at the CPAN repository or the Comprehensive Perl Archive Network. You can find the latest incarnation at http://search.cpan.org/dist/Chatbot-Eliza/ .

The file is called Chatbot-Eliza. When I picked up my copy, it was version 1.04 and I installed it in the following way.

tar -xzvf Chatbot-Eliza-1.04.tar.gz
cd Chatbot-Eliza-1.04
perl Makefile.PL
make
sudo make install

In the installation directory, you'll notice a file called simple. You can use this as the basis for creating your own AI, or you can simply execute the script by typing ./simple as I did in the following example:

$ ./simple
Welcome to your therapy session.
Your therapist's name is Liz.

Liz:    Is something troubling you?
you:    I'm concerned about artificial intelligence.
Liz:    Do you know anyone else who is concerned about artificial intelligence?
you:    Several people I know have different concerns regarding the subject.
Liz:    What differences do you see?
you:    Some are excited about computer intelligence and others are frightened.
Liz:    Do computers worry you?
you:    Not particularly.
Liz:    Tell me more about that.
you:    I've always had a fondness for computers, real or fictional.
Liz:    What about machines worries you?
you:    That they might actually understand what i am talking about.
Liz:    Are such questions much on your mind?
you:    Are they on yours?
Liz:    Possibly they are they on mine.
you:    Do you have anything else to offer?
Liz:    We were discussing you -- not me.
you:    I see. I should probably go.
Liz:    That's quite interesting.
you:    Goodbye.
Liz:    Goodbye.  It was nice talking to you.

The script that calls the chatbot can be extremely simple, hence its name. If you don't like the name Liz or the introductory text, edit the file and change it here.

use Chatbot::Eliza;
$chatbot = new Chatbot::Eliza 'Sigmund';
$chatbot->command_interface();

Make the script executable and run it. In this case, I have renamed my chatbot Sigmund. The default name is actually Liz. In the distribution directory, you will also find a file called doctor.txt that can be used as the basis for your own bot. I created one called mywords.txt from the doctor.txt file and modified my startup script slightly:

#!/usr/bin/perl -w
use Chatbot::Eliza;
$chatbot = new Chatbot::Eliza {
        name => 'Turing',
        scriptfile => 'mywords.txt',
        };
$chatbot->command_interface();

Now I start my script with the command ./myai, and this is the result:

$ ./my-ai

Turing: Well, well. Another person trying to see if machines can think.
you: There's no doubt that I am curious.

Particularly interesting in this distribution is an included script called twobots that lets two Eliza bots talk to each other. The resulting discussions can be quite interesting. You'll also find a script called simple.cgi so that you may add your own Eliza chatbot to your web site and share your therapist, or whatever you want Eliza to be, with the world. 

Artificial? Definitely. Intelligence? Depends on who you ask, I suppose.

Have fun!

Right-wing socio-political pundit Ann Coulter apparently went on television claiming that former U.S. President Bill Clinton is gay. Clinton's purported response is in the video clip below and yes, it's okay to laugh. I'm slowly coming to the conclusion that ridicule is the only way to deal with ridiculous people and ridiculous ideas. While I still lean more to the 'getting angry' response, I'm starting to think we take these people and skewer them with sarcasm and ridicule. Pull down their figurative pants and let the world laugh at them. I certainly don't want to legislate people like Ann Coulter into silence because that's just plain wrong. But I don't want to give them any credibility by engaging them in, if you'll pardon the impossible imagery, intelligent debate.

 

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