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
Jun

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.

31
May

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?

28
May

The World Ended Yesterday. How Do You Feel?

In case you missed it, yesterday was the end of the world. Again.

According to Ronald Weinland, the author of "2008 - God's Final Witness", the countdown to the end of the world started December 14, 2008 when the "the First Trumpet of the Seventh Seal of the Book of Revelation sounded". Trumpets are always extremely popular harbingers of doom. If you hear a trumpet, duck. But I digress . . . Apparently, since December '08, things have been going seriously downhill and now Armageddon has (apparently) happened and we're all dead. Apparently. 

I, for one, am sincerely happy that I had a chance to catch the new Avengers movie before the whole planet went belly up. 

Mr. Weinland now joins notables like Harold Camping for failing to predict the Biblically prophesized end of time. Interestingly, like Mr. Camping, it seems Mr. Weinland also has a thing for May apocalypses. After all, nothing makes you pine for Armageddon like May flowers. 

For those who would like to see how it all ended yesterday, visit the-end.com.

Enjoy! Or don't. 

And if you're still around out there, and you know of other up-and-coming Apocalypses (apocalypsi?), please, leave me a comment and let me know. I do so love a good end of times prediction.

16
May

Christians on the Edge of Atheism

A great many Christians are sailing awfully close to the edge of atheism in trying to justify those things in the Bible that are distateful to them. Say what you want about the moral lessons therein and the Word of God, there's a lot of truly hateful things in the Bible as well. Anyone who truly believes that every word of that book is the absolute Truth, direct from God himself, is a potentially dangerous person and I sincerely hope somebody is keeping a close eye on their actions. The Bible, after all, condones slavery, rape, and murder in countless passages. Those who truly believe that when God says "kill", you shoudl kill, are dangerous people.

Most Christians I know, however, are basically hypocrites, something I'm deeply thankful for. They waffle on the whole Bible being a perfect thing, picking and choosing the bits they like as though they were at a Chinese buffet, unsure of what everything is but indulging in the things they're comfortable with, like the deep fried chicken balls and the egg rolls. They ignore the vast majority of the Bible and instead focus on Jesus, the God made man. He's the hero of the story, after all, and the other 85% or so of the Bible can pretty much be ignored if you just focus on Jesus. Right?

If God is indeed God and Jesus an incarnation thereof, then pretty much every shred of evidence of his existence comes from the Bible. If you do not choose to believe in what the Bible says, or you elect to pick and choose the bits that matter to you, then you might, deep down inside, really be an atheist or, minimally an agnostic. No Bible pretty much adds up to no Jesus.

One Christian friend of mine argued that Chist didn't actually die on the cross. He points to a book called, "How Jesus Became Christian". The book challenges the modern Christian church on its not being Christian at all but a church of the apostle Paul. It lays a lot of the problems with Cristianity at Paul's feet, blaming him for taking things literally or misinterpreting the text. "Get back to the teachings of Jesus and the church is better off," my friend argued. He told me that Chist did not die on the cross, but rather endured great pain and pulled through; after attending a seminar called "A Coroner at Calvary", where forensic evidence to that effect was presented.

All right, let's talk about that one, mostly because it's pretty important in the Christian canon. If Christ did not die on the cross, then there is no miracle of the resurrection and he wasn't God. If he was merely (and I mean no disrespect by the word 'merely' here) a great teacher and healer, then he was a man. He could be as great as you want him to be, but he is still a man and, therefore, not somebody you worship. 

And, to push this to the breaking point, if we accept the 'teachings of Jesus' as the basis for a religion, then we also accept the evil he did and the evil he condoned as somehow being good. If I accept that he lived as the Bible states, then Jesus was far from perfect. He may not have been a bad guy, all in all -- he may have been a great guy -- but he was just a guy.

There have been plenty of great men and women on par with, and surpassing, Jesus Christ. Some, I'm sure, have worshippers. They, however, don't get the credit, or the social acceptance, that the borderline believers of Christ do. In short, most people do not worship somebody for being 'just a guy', no matter how wonderful a guy (or gal) they were. So what about you, my nominally Christian friends. Do you? How much of your holy book, of your religion, are you willing to turn a blind eye to before you accept that maybe, just maybe, you might not be as much a Christian as you think?

14
May

Firefox Gestures

Firefox is default Web browser in many Linux distributions and one of the most popular browsers around. Firefox is an excellent browser on many counts, but one if its coolest features is its ability to add features and capabilities through a system of extensions. A good thing too, at least from the perspective of this discussion. You see, gestures aren't built in to Firefox, so we need to get them elsewhere and we do that by installing an extension. Extensions are program enhancements that can dramatically change how you work with your browser. This framework of extensions makes Firefox not just a great browser, but a superior browser; extension support is another idea that has legs. But I digress . . .

To experience Firefox gestures, we're going to find a suitable add-on (or extension) for gestures -- yes, there's more than just one. Click Tools on the menu bar and select Add-ons. A new tab will appear with a list of categories running down the left side from which you can manage your extensions, change the browser's appearance, and more. To see a list of the extensions already in your system, cilck Extensions. On a fresh install, there is usually only a handful of things here. To find ourselves an extension that does gestures, click on "Get Add-ons" then type the word "gestures" in the search bar. You'll see FireGestures listed there; to find out more about the extension, click the More link which is to the right of the Install button. You'll get a defailed description about the extension you're looking to install (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: The Firefox Add-on window lets also lets you search for extensions, like FireGestures.

Click "Install now" to finish the installation. And no, I won't repeat the joke about the user who is asked whether he read the End User License Agreement (his answer is, "Sure, it said click OK to continue") That's it. You must now restart Firefox to activate FireGestures; there's a link telling you to restart so go to it.

Using this extension, you can use your mouse to move forward or back in your history, open or close a new tab, and pretty much do anything you would with keystroke or by manually navigating the menu. There are many gestures pre-configured allowing you to work with FireGestures as is. Gestures are typically entered by clicking and holding the right mouse button and tracing out a path which is highlighted in green. The mouse trail color is of course configurable via the extensions preferences dialog which you can access with its own gesture (see Figure 2). Click and hold the right mouse button and trace left, then down, then right, then up, then left again (LDRUL) or click Tools, Add-ons, then select preferences from there.

Figure 2 : Open the FireGestures preferences with gestures; left, down, right, up, and left.

Once the preferences dialog appears, it provides you with three main sections via a top icon bar. These icons are labeled "Main", "Mapping", and "Advanced. (see Figure 3).

Figure 3 : FireGestures has a gesture activated preferences dialog.

Under the Main section, you may want to change the color of the mouse trails, change its size, or turn it off altogether. This is also where you can select the mouse button to use should you decide that the right mouse button doesn't work for you. One I find particularly useful is the gesture timeout. The idea here is that if you start a gesture and don't complete it in some defined period (a few seconds), the gesture is ignored.

To find out, change, or add to the list of gestures, click the Mapping button at the top. You'll see a huge list of common browser functions and the mouse movements needed to achieve them (see Figure 4). Each gesture is mapped using single letters to indicate direction. It's pretty easy to figure remember; up is "U" and down is "D", left is "L", and right is "R". Move forward with a right motion and back with left flick of your mouse. Zoom into the text by moving left, right, then up. Left, right, then down zooms out. It doesn't take long to get the hang of this and after a while, it all seems perfectly natural.

Figure 4 : Each gesture is mapped using single letters to indicate directions.

Down at the bottom of the mapping options, and on every tab, and on every tab actually, there's a blue link that says "Get Scripts". On the FireGestures site, there are a number of gesture sequences (or scripts) that do things not included in the extension's main package. Adding these scripts is pretty easy; make sure the mapping options are open, visit the site, then drag the script that interests you into the mapping window. It's that easy. If you'd rather create your own gesture, click the "Add Script" button.

I'll let you explore the advanced tab which gets into things like mapping the buttons, and using features like mouse wheels with left/right rocker buttons and so on. But for now, that's it. That is how you enable gestures in Firefox.

04
May

May the 4th be with you!

On this, Star Wars day (May the 4th, in case you need an explanation), take a moment to enjoy this great parady video called the Stormtrooper Shuffle. It's a video project created by students from the University of Lethbridge, in Alberta.

03
May

Lying to Yourself is a Lie

For reasons I can't quite explain, I found myself obsessing over the concept of "lying to yourself" a few days ago. It's a common enough phrase, an expression that says you aren't being honest with yourself on some level. What started to drive me crazy about the phrase, as I rolled it over and over in my head, was a growing conviction that it was impossible to lie to yourself. 

It is, however, possible to be deluded, to find yourself in a state of questionable sanity. Human beings are subject to all sorts of mental failings and we are easily tricked by little things like disease, a clever salesperson, the right words spoken in the right tone of voice, or a virus that drives our body temperature into the realms of fever. The neurophysical machinery, despite many safeguards to protect the brain, doesn't even get first dibs when other parts of the body are in danger. We're also prone to hallucination, courtesy of any or all of the above villains. 

Somehow we're offended by the concept of delusion. We don't want to admit that we've been duped or that we've fallen for some nonsense or that we just imagined whatever it was we so firmly bought into. Delusion just sounds bad. 

"You, sir, are deluded."  Or, "you are living a delusion."

Now let's try the lie instead. "I don't think you're being completely honest with yourself." Or "you're lying to yourself."

Neither of the last two sounds as bad as being deluded or living in a delusion. 

And yet, if you truly believe something that isn't true, you aren't lying to yourself, you're deluded. You've bought into fantasy or accepted the hallucination as fact. In which case, you're mentally ill.  Perhaps not seriously ill; you may have the equivalent of a mental cold. But you're still sick. In the head.

Lying to yourself is a way of holding on to your sanity while admitting to some minor transgression. Except that it's impossible.  If you're managed to convince yourself that a lie you've told yourself is the truth, you're sick.  You're deluded.  Or you're a psychopath with no understanding or concept of truth vs falsehood.

By reaching for the "lying to yourself" card, what you're doing is lying to others. You're telling the people around you about an impossible accident in that brain of yours and that's the real lie. You're not lying to yourself, but to the people in your life; your friends, family, or co-workers

And what about me? Since I'm suggesting that at least some of you may be suffering some form of mental illeness (or worse), I suppose I need to come clean. So here it is. I've been deluded and I've lived a delusion more than once in my life, some were minor delusions and a few were biggies, but I'm pretty sure I've never successfully lied to myself. And yes, I have to admit that I've told a few lies as well. Just not to myself.

How about you? Am I missing something here? If you disagree, take a moment to explain why you feel I am mistaken.

"Faith is believing something you know ain't true." - Mark Twain
01
May

Beautiful Beltaine!

Beautiful Beltaine, everyone! 'Tis the (ancient) traditional beginning of the summer season, of flowers popping up, and that whole fertility thing. Put up the Maypole and let's do a little dance. And, in honour of Beltaine, I bring you Men Without Hats and "Safety Dance"!

19
Apr

CTA-102 - Getting The Science Wrong Musically

Is anybody out there?

That's a question, I wager, that humans have been asking (in some form) for as long as they've looked up into the night sky.

In 1963, a Soviet astrophysicist by the name of Nikolai Semenovich Kardashev, then the deputy director of the Russian Space Research Institute was doing research as part of the Soviet's first ever search for extraterrestrial intelligence. He directed the search in a part of the sky where his team picked up what a signal from a strong radio source in the heavens. They named it CTA-102. Kardashev was convinced they had discovered transmissions from an incredibly advanced extraterrestrial civilization. He was so convinced, in fact, that he called a press conference to let the world know about his findings.

Unfortunately, CTA-102 was not a signal from an advanced civilization but the electromagnetic signature of what we now call a quasar, a so-called quasi-stellar object. CTA-102 was the first quasar ever discovered. Sure, it wasn't an alien radio signal, but it was extremely cool nonetheless, one of the wondrous discoveries awaiting us in the far reaches of space.

Meanwhile, back on Earth, while the excitement of this discovery was yet to be dampened, The American rock band known as The Byrds recorded a song calling to the non-existent civilization purportedly transmitting from CTA-102. Enjoy!

18
Apr

We want to talk to you about God

A few minutes ago (it's just after 11:00 am on this Wednesday morning, April 18, 2012), I had two very nice ladies come to the door to talk to me about god, the bible, and our place in the universe. They asked me how I was marking this time after the celebration of the lord's resurrection. I explained that I was an atheist and we proceeded to chat for about 10 minutes as they tried to convince me that the universe must have a designer, etc. They asked me how long I had been an atheist and what caused me to abandon my belief in god and his son. I assured them that I simply did not believe that there is such a being as god, or gods for that matter, and that religion was a colossal waste of time.

How then did all this come about, they asked, gesturing to the world around us. I gave a two minute history of the creation of the universe at the time of the Big Bang, the subsequent creation of heavier elements in the death of stars billions of years ago, the eventual collapse of particles into our planet, and the slow, four and a half billion year evolutionary road to us having this discussion.

The older woman, a well spoken elderly lady, had all the classic creationist arguments to science down pat; all wrong, but consistent on message. She tried her best to insert god into the 'gaps' of our scientific knowledge; always a bad idea since the gaps are always getting filled as we know more and more about our world and the laws that govern our universe.

"Don't you feel that there has to be a designer?"

No, I don't. Evolution is a fact.

"So you believe that we came from monkeys."

No, of course not. Monkeys and humans are descended from a common ancestor.

"But evolution says that things get better."

It doesn't necessarily get better. Not all evolutionary changes are good. Good or bad doesn't enter into it and no designer is required for the process to take place.

"You accept that a car is created." Of course. "But if you just leave a car alone, it doesn't evolve. It just decays and rusts and that isn't good."

It isn't bad either. When that tree over there dies, it decays, goes back into the soil and provides nutrients for the life that grows from it.

"So you don't believe in good or evil then?" she asked.

I have no trouble with the concept of good and evil, I explained.

"Then how do you explain the good that people do if it's isn't inspired by god?"

People will be good with or without god. People will be bad in the same way, but they can do terrible things in the name of a god in which they truly believe. Religion, in that way, is responsible for more death, destruction, and horror, than any other force or concept in human history.

At this point, the younger of the two, a middle aged woman who is probably close to my own age, starts flipping through the bible she is holding. The answers aren't there, I assured her. And yes, I had read it. All of it.

"Then you missed a lot of it," she said. "How do you explain the wisdom of the words."

She tried to explain that the answers were in that book she was holding, as 'directed' by god. I explained the fallacy of that belief. It's just a book, I told her, cobbled together over centuries by a variety of people and from a number of different faiths. It only looks like a single volume in that it's pressed between two covers. Much of it is fiction and the parts that aren't are innacurate at best. It's worthless as a guide for life in today's world.  I think I hurt her feelings. She said that I was insulting her. I assured her that no insult was intended, that it was just a book, and that she was free to make fun of or insult any of the hundreds of books in my house. 

We ended with the younger woman asking if there was some reason, some badness in my childhood, that made me 'hate god'. I explained that time, education, and experience had all gone to assure me there simply was no reason for believing in such a being. 

The younger explained that they were here trying to make the world a better place, and here was I was attacking their belief, angry at their being here. "If you don't want to talk to us," she began. If I hadn't wanted to talk to you, I would have sent you on your way as soon as I had noticed the book you were holding. They were very nice, I assured them, and I enjoyed the discussion.

The elderly woman, however, was unflappable, and did her best to address and counter all my arguments as I offered them. It didn't work. In the end, we wished each other a lovely day and they went on their ways.

Times like this, I wish I could hear the discussion that followed our parting.

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