Marcel Gagne's blog

Well, some of us celebrate . . . Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his Conservative government chose to mark the 30th anniversary of the Patriation of the Canadian Constitution and the signing of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms with a press release. Meanwhile, folks on Twitter are hosting their own celebration of sorts. CBC's "The Current", with Anna Maria Tremonti, is spending an hour discussing it (I'll post a link to the podcast when it becomes available). Stories dissecting every angle can be found in the major newspapers, radio news programs, television, and so on. So why not our elected national government?

Harper's explanation for not wanting to bring attention to the Charter are interesting in that he calls it. "an interesting and important step, but I would point out that the charter remains inextricably linked to the patriation of the Constitution and the divisions around that matter, which as you know are still very real in some parts of the country," In other words, it's because it might upset Quebec that his government won't mark the anniversary.

The truth may have more to do with his government than with Quebec however. Witness this 2004 quote former Conservative MP Randy White; "If the Charter of Rights and Freedoms is going to be used as the crutch to carry forward all of the issues that social libertarians want, then there's got to be for us conservatives out there a way to put checks and balances in there." In other words, the Charter is a thorn in the Conservative government's side and an impediment to them getting everything they want.

So why is the Charter important? The following video with current Liberal leader Bob Rae provides an explanation.

To wrap up, take a few minutes to watch the following fascinating discussion with former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien as he reflects on the 30th anniversary of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the patriation of the Canadian Constitution, Harper's press release, and the need to unite the left in Canada. He also talks about the Night of the Long Knives and calls it a myth.

Happy Charter Day, Canada!


How Linux Is Built

You may not know it, but you use Linux every day. 

And so coffee has entered the gay rights debate.

Wait. There's a debate?

Apparently. And it seems that some people think the world will implode (and God will get irate) if gays and lesbians have the right to marry and it upsets them. It upsets them so much in fact, that they are going to go after anyone who supports gay marriage. For the record, we have gay marriage here in Canada and nothing terrible has happened. Nevertheless, some of these folk who fear gay marriage signals the apocalypse have put together a Website to raise money to fight Starbucks. 

Yes. Starbucks.

You see, Starbucks has come out (so to speak) as a company, and publicly stated that they support the rights of gays and lesbians to marry, saying that it 'is core to who we are and what we value as a company.' And so, they put up a Website and are asking you to get your hate on for Starbucks. Oh, and send money. I did mention the money part, right?

As you might expect, some people don't feel that hate-filled religious people should get down on Starbucks. Besides, there are other reasons to be upset at Starbucks -- blame the coffee company for having come up with devilishly clever ways of making you spend lots of money on fancy coffee drinks. Blame them for making you say "Venti" when you want a large. But for sticking their corporate necks out and saying that gays, lesbians, et al should have the same opportunity as heterosexual folk for married bliss (or not), they'll pay the tab for that lovely cafe mocha (with whipped cream please) and give their thanks online.  You can vist their Website here.

Interestingly enough, the people who just want to thank Starbucks for their support of homosexual marriage aren't asking for money. Interesting.

So, will you be dumping Starbucks or will you be drinking even more? 

Personally, I think I'm going to slip out and get myself a Tall vanilla latte. Hmm . . . 


Kids In Hoodies Are Asking to be Shot!

Over on FOX News, Geraldo Rivera was pontificating on the case of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed black teenager who was killed a couple of weeks back (February 26, 2012). Geraldo offered what he referred to as a "different take" on the story. Trayvon was gunned down by a neighborhood watch vigilante wackjob named George Zimmerman because he "looked suspicious."  Geraldo's take encroaches on the unbelievable, suggesting that the innocent teenager's clothes were as responsible for his senseless murder as was the murderer himself. Sort of like saying the girl deserved to be violently raped because her clothes were too sexy. Take a moment to watch and listen.

I've worn hoodies for years; still do. I have one with a Stanford logo on the front. That logo probably makes me particularly suspicious because, you see, I didn't go to Stanford. The shirt was a gift from my wife's cousin who did go to Stanford. I also have one with the word CANADA written across the back and a maple leaf on the front. Nothing says "I'm packing heat" like a Canadian hoodie from The Bay, I suppose. In Geraldo's world, that is.

He also mentions the pants around the ankles as suggestions of a violent lifestyle. Come on! Pants around the ankles do two things; they make you look stupid and they slow you down, making your getaway difficult should you decide to commit some hypothetical crime. Mostly they just make you look stupid.

But I digress . . . maybe we shouldn't be blaming the hoodie but the insanity of allowing some armed trigger happy madmen to patrol the streets looking for some action. Maybe we need to put the damn guns away. 

For the record, I have a 4 year old son and a 7 year old son, and I let them both wear hoodies. 


Today's 100% Guaranteed Horoscope; March 3, 2012

Like others born under your sign, you are largely a creature of habit. You live your life following some kind of routine and you're mostly comfortable with that routine. Today, however, the vagueries of random chance, coincidence, and other events over which you have no control will impact that routine. You may find yourself delayed by some amount of time as you move from one event to another. You could briefly forget what you were going to do, where you were going to go, or where you placed something. Most importantly, there's a high probability that you will see or meet someone you don't know, a person you've never seen before. They may even pass you on the street.

Remember, this horoscope is 100% guaranteed or your money back.

Let's start with a little history, shall we? From the Wikipedia entry on St. Valentine: "The feast of St. Valentine was first established in 496 by Pope Gelasius I, who included Valentine among those "... whose names are justly reverenced among men, but whose acts are known only to God." As Gelasius implied, nothing was known, even then, about the lives of any of these martyrs."

Okay, so the guy we call St. Valentine probably never existed; there's a lot of that going around [ insert appropriate smiley here ]. Don't let that get you down. Even if there wasn't really a St. Valentine, today is a good day to show, and tell, your special person how much you love them. You should probably do that every day, but today, they wait for those three lovely words, "I love you." Don't forget. 

Oh, come on . . . Even if you think it's all complete commercial hogwash and yet another excuse to pry you from your hard earned dollars, taking a day off from the cynicism to focus on the people or person you love is always a good idea. Combine it with a hugs and kisses, a great meal, a nice bottle of wine, and a little Belgian chocolate and hey, you've won me over!

So now it's my turn. Today, as with every day, I recognize the unbelievable good luck that brought me and my lovely lady, Sally Tomasevic, together. Sally . . . when you asked me out back in September 1989, you changed my life, transforming the loneliness of those days into a passionate friendship combined with a deep respect and an all-encompassing love I'd only imagined, but never truly believed was possible. So today, in this third decade of our life together, with two wonderful kids squeezing themselves in between the two of us, let me reaffirm that wonderful thing that is the original 'us', the couple that's still there at the heart of what is now our family.

I love you, Sally, always and forever. Happy Valentine's Day.


Whitney Houston - 1963-2012

Wow . . . Whitney Houston dies at 48 years of age.


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 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?



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