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. 

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.

 

02
Dec

Intelligent Design's Inferiority Complex

Bad ideas never die. Not without a fight. Like a disease causing bacteria or virus, they are occasionally defeated by Herculean measures, sometimes requiring that the host suffer extensive (but hopefully not fatal) damage or pain in an effort to rid the body of the invader. Sadly, as anyone who has battled serious illness, such as a cancer, the disease does occasionally return to battle anew. Even when the enemy has been defeated, you can never take for granted that it has been permanently eradicated.

So it is with Intelligent Design, or ID. In case you've been away in some place far more enlightened than this little blue-green planet of ours, Intelligent Design is an attempt by the superstitious and fearful to make the creation myth sound more scientific, thereby giving the old fable a sheen of reason.

You have to feel a special kind of pity, or sadness, for the proponents of intelligent design. Somewhere deep inside, they understand that their creation myths are, in today's world, nothing more than childish stories meant for a less enlightened age. So they try to wrap their fables and fairy tales in the scientific equivalent of the Emperor's new clothes. Nothing to see from a scientific perspective but Intelligent Design certainly sounds better than trying to pretend that the universe was created in six days and that a talking snake got the first man and woman thrown out of their all expenses paid five star resort. 

Burdened as they are with a huge weight of low self-esteem, courtesy of their religion, they look for a way to make their faith appear somewhat more modern and relevant in a world where science boldly explores and uncovers age-old mysteries, shedding light into the dark corners of ignorance. Religion, the offspring of ignorance, recoils like a vampyre exposed to sunlight. Intelligent Design seeks to protect this mystic child by suggesting that its existence is entirely compatible with science. 

Intelligent Design says, "science doesn't have all the answers" which is absolutely true. They point to the gaps in our knowledge of life, the universe, and everything, then ask, "how does your science explain these gaps?" They, of course, have an answer, but they don't call him God. That would be playing their hand too early. Instead they propose an "intelligence" that, here and there, tweaked and directed the universe, setting about the engine of creation that gave rise to us. If they can convince you that this intelligence is likely, they might suggest that you give him a name. Like God. Just as a placeholder, mind you.

I'm going to go out on a limb here and suggest to you that the people advocating ID are probably less than honest, even with themselves. Some are, so they say, willing to talk about the Big Bang with the idea that God himself started the whole process, with the endgame being us, of course. What if he just started the universe knowing that someday, we would show up? That would be acceptable as well to a few in the ID crowd. But take note, it's always about them. About us.

Let's pretend for a moment that the universe was in fact created by some intelligence way back even before the Triassic was fashionable. Before the Earth and even our sun was a glimmer in the Milky Way's eye. This intelligence does its work and BANG, the universe is born. Fast forward 14 billion(ish) years and here we are. Do we then accept that this multi-billion year intelligence is somehow worthy of our worship?

Pretend again that this intelligence works for some other intelligence. Is this an acceptable stand-in for God? Do we worship him? Now pretend that this intelligence works for the equivalent of the Large Hadron Collider project and that, in the course of his work, creates a number of universes that blink into existence for a split second, tantalizingly close enough for this intelligence to measure. Then, through the strange nuances of the quantum, these universes retire to their own version of space time, beginning the cycle of creation, birth, death, and evolution, for billions of years until some other intelligence starts to wonder where they came from. Is this technician God? Do we worship him?

The short anwser is no. For a god to be worthy of worship, he has to care about you, and perhaps more importantly, you specifically. It's never about God. It's about the person who feels less than fulfilled if he or she can't imagine some universe and time-spanning being caring deeply about their lowly position in the vastness of space-time.

Belief in God or Intelligent Design, is a rather sad but socially acceptable and supported form of low self-esteem. It's a sanctioned inferiority complex.

Except that you shouldn't feel down. You and I are the products of billions of years of cosmic evolution. In a very real sense, it's even more miraculous to think that you and I are here to discuss these ideas without the need for some father figure in the sky who created us. We have our own mothers and fathers and they had theirs. Life, along with the power to question its origins, is glorious enough without making up stories about a non-existent creator.

And if there was some lab technician in some other universe many billions of years ago who was responsible for getting things going. I'm thankful for your crazy experiment.

But I won't worship you.

30
Nov

My Car Is Pure Concentrated Evil

Can a car be evil? Or posessed? Or just plain prone to bad luck? Because I own that car. It's not Christine-evil (as in the Stephen King story). More of a junior kindergarten Christine. A Chrissy perhaps.

I bought my 1997 Honda Accord used with amazingly low kilometers on the odometer and, for the price I paid, it seemed like an amazingly good deal at the time. It was a nice car and it drove well, but something dark lurked inside the engine. Or the side panels. Or in the transmission. I can't be sure of the exact location of this darkness, but it has to be there somewhere.

In the six years I've owned this car, it has been in six accidents, none of which I've caused (amazingly). In 4 of the cases, I wasn't even there. The first was a demolished headlight and shattered bumper. Someone hit the car in a parking lot while Sally, who was driving it, was inside shopping. They drove away without advertising their guilt. 

Number two was a smashed front bumper, again in a parking lot, while someone pulled out of their space. I had leant the car to my son's sitter. Number three was a massive side scrape as someone in a hurry to exit the highway tried to pull a high-speed pass rather than merging carefully into traffic. Number four was another parking lot accident. Minor bumper damage. Number five was interesting because I was stopped at a red light. The person behind me decided to turn right, without stopping, apparently looked right and left, but never ahead. If he had looked directly ahead, he would have noticed either the stopped car or the red light.

Well, it has happened again (today being the sixth). Before I get into details, know that no one was hurt and my boys just looked a little confused. I think I did the palm to forehead thing (there's still a red mark there).

I had pulled in to the school parking lot, just in front of the 'handicapped' spot in front of my kid's day care. There was one car behind me and another in front, three rows up from the handicapped spot, pulling out. So I couldn't move and I wasn't moving. While I waited for this person to maneuver our of his/her spot, the black car in the handicapped spot pulled out, without looking back, and smashed into my front passenger side bumper.

My bumper is broken in a half dozen spots while his car suffers not even a scratch.

We exchange information, phone numbers, etc. I take pictures of his car and license and I get the kids to their respective classes.

Once again, not at all my fault. Add another accident to the demon car. My calendar says Wednesday but it feels very much like a Monday.

21
Nov

Creating an eBook : An Evolutionary Approach

For anyone interested in self-publishing on the various eBook platforms (e.g. Kindle, Kobo, Nook, etc), creating books e-Reader ready is a skill that is becoming as important as the writing itself. At YouWordMe, we have created tools that automatically create machine-ready eBook files in .epub and .mobi formats, perfect for the most popular eBook readers on the market. All you need to do is provide a properly formatted file usingLibreOffice/OpenOffice or Microsoft Word. This document will show you how to do this.

The subtitle, “An Evolutionary Approach”, was chosen because you will bee able to see, using screenshots of an Amazon Kindle, how the changes in document formatting translate into the finished product, namely the eBook itself. For this tutorial, I'm going to concentrate on creating an eBook that will be read on a Kindle. This isn't a slight on other eBook readers but rather a choice of convenience. Using the YouWordMe eBook converter, I can email the finished product directly to my Kindle as opposed dragging and dropping it using a USB cable. (Note: In order to use the free eBook converter, you will need to create an account and log in.)

If you're sitting comfortably, let's begin . . . Click here to read the story.

21
Nov

Who cares about your dang Desktop Environment?!

Well, actually . . . I do.

If you are into such things, and you place your faith on those distro popularity numbers over on DistroWatch, you'll see that Ubuntu has dropped from its number one position, a position now held by Linux Mint. Heavens, no! Surely the universe is about to implode! And isn't even 2012 yet! 

Sorry about that. The reason for Ubuntu's decline from that venerated number one position has been speculated on by tea leaf readers everywhere (i.e. my fellow tech journalists). Much has been made about the Canonical's embrace of Unity over traditional GNOME and I am among the guilty when it comes to that. I happen to dislike Unity but I do like GNOME 3. This, oddly enough, puts me at odds with the majority of people who runs GNOME in one way or another though more people seem to hate Unity than GNOME 3 --  I could be wrong. The question, however, is this . . .  

Has Canonical shot itself in the foot, giving up its number one position, by adopting and sticking by Unity? Does the choice of desktop environment matter that much? Are Linux users, who traditionally just install and run whatever they want, regardless of what it presented to them, really that irked about Unity that they are abandoning Ubuntu? Okay, that's at least three questions.

Which brings me to my Ubuntu and Linux Mint experience.

You could say I've had a love/hate relationship with Ubuntu going back a long ways. Ubuntu, or in my case, Kubuntu, and I have parted ways several times (see my "Crisis of Kubuntu Faith" video), only to get back together a few months later. I got to loving Ubuntu and Kubuntu so much that I became senior editor of Ubuntu User Magazine. But even in that role, I was regularly drawn to Linux Mint, an Ubuntu-based distribution that was particularly friendly to Windows-refugees, mostly due to the fact that it came with all those lovely proprietary codecs and plugins that you always have to load whenever you install a new distribution. Linux Mint was, as I called it a couple of years ago, Ubuntu done right.

So when I blew away Windows and loaded up my new notebook, I naturally went and downloaded the latest Linux Mint. I did that partly because I've gotten into the habit of recommending it to my non-Linux friends who are looking to improve their desktop experience. That's my snarky way of saying "leaving Windows". But I digress . . . 

Three weeks pass and I start to get a little antsy. This Linux Mint is okay, but the KDE implementation, is way out of date. Mint has seemingly abandoned my favorite desktop interface. Seeing as I am particularly good at this Linux stuff, I figure it's no biggee. Besides, I like playing on the bleeding edge, despite having gotten bloodied more than once over the years, and so I add the apt repositories for Project Neon, the true bleeding edge of KDE.

Except that I do also like to have, at my disposal, the current stable version of my software, including my desktop environment. While there's some talk on the Linux Mint channels about a new KDE distribution coming some time soon(ish), I can no longer pretend. Linux Mint has let me down. Last night, I downloaded the latest Oneric-based Kubuntu and installed it on my computer. My OS is up to date and I've got a recent, and stable, KDE (and Project Neon too). 

The point of all this is that I have, more than once, abandoned a distribution for its desktop environment, or its support of a desktop environment. And, as I demonstrated last night, I'll do it again. And again. You can subtract one from those Linux Mint numbers and add one to Kubuntu because I'm back to Kubuntu, Baby!. You're dang right the desktop environment matters. It matters a lot. To me. And to others. Is this, however, what's hurting Ubuntu's numbers? Maybe not, but it's not that crazy an idea. 

So . . . are you a until recently happy Ubuntu user who has switched to Linux Mint? Was it Unity, or something else?

As for my opinion . . . I also loved Window Maker and used it for years. Read into that what you desire.

14
Nov

Has Linux dropped off the face of the Earth?

Over on my mailing list, the WFTL-LUG, a "whatever happened to" discussion has emerged in part because question traffic has gone down dramatically. Fewer people are coming out to LUG meetings. It's as if Linux is fading away.

"Has Linux dropped off the face of the Earth?" The answer is obviously no. Linux is still around, stronger than ever, but the desktop OS does seem to be disappearing. Of course this is true of Windows and Mac OS, at least from the average user's perspective. Desktop Linux is strong with those who use it; those who have been using it, but the buzz seems to be gone. 

None of this surprises me though. Sure, we may never see the Year of the Linux Desktop, but the nature of the desktop is changing. People are increasingly living their lives online. Yes folks, it's that cloud you keep hearing about and it's really out there. Google+ and Facebook and Twitter and online document management and email and just plain old Web surfing. For most, the network really is the computer and as time goes on, people care less and less what is running on their computers and more about what they can access once they get online.

For a while there, it looked like netbooks were going to be the big thing with Linux getting another shot at the elusive desktop. Now it's tablets and smartphones everywhere you turn. And what's emerging as the de facto operating system of the tablet and smartphone world? Something called Android. Those of us who have been doing this FOSS thing for a long time still see Linux back there somewhere. Android is the evolution of Linux for the mobile world.

And what of the old Linux? It's still out there, and it's bigger than ever before. It's everywhere. It's everything. It runs the infrastructure that makes the mobile world work. Mail servers and media servers and Web servers and application servers and every kind of server you can think of.

Want to know just how good Linux and free software is these days? Get this. Linux has become invisible. Maybe that's how you measure real success.

World domination? Been there. Done that.

11
Nov

Rememberance Day, 2011 - A Taste of Armageddon

Lest we forget . . .

Remembrance Day at the John McCrae House (birthplace, museum, & memorial) in Guelph, Ontario Canada. A detail shot of the "altar" of the memorial, with the complete poem "In Flander's Fields" & the line "LEST WE FORGET" inscribed on it. 2 Canadian remembrance day poppy pins & part of a wreath are visible. Image source: Wikipedia

I've published a variation of this post for the last few years. If it sounds familiar, you'll understand why. But remembering the past is what this post is about and on this November 11, 2011, I am once again finding myself thinking about wars past, wars present, and sadly, the wars to come. Over the years, I've come to believe that we need to reflect on the horrors of war because we need to understand that it is something dreadful; something to be avoided at all costs; something to be engaged in only as a last resort. And when all else fails, to engage in with the understanding that it is awful and horrible that we may find an end as quickly as possible.

I don't usually find myself thinking about Star Trek on this day, but there's an episode from the original series that fits well with war today. It's called "A Taste Of Armageddon". In that episode, Kirk and his team beam down to the planet Eminiar VII, a planet that is supposedly at war. Except that there are no bombs, no missiles, and no bullets. Computers fight the war and those people who have been killed in the conflict, willingly report to disintegration booths to be cleanly disposed of. This war has been going on for ages but because it is so clean and tidy, people have forgotten about the horrors of war, and so the war persists.

That's what the words "Lest We Forget" are all about. 

War in the 21st century, at least for those of us living in North America, has become far too sanitized. We watch remote controlled drones surgically neutralizing enemy targets from thousands of miles away. And while our men and women die in foreign conflicts few of us actually understand, our politicians want to isolate us from the horrors those men and women actually face. In 2006, Stephen Harper, Canada's Prime Minister, sought to ban the media from displaying images of flag-draped coffins as dead soldiers returned home.

08
Nov

Asimo Gets An Upgrade

As I write these words, I am also vacuuming the floor. In a manner of speaking. My Roomba, a robotic vacuum cleaner is actually doing the work. In that sense, in a few minutes, I will be washing my kitchen floor. Well, my Scooba floor washing robot will be doing the job but I still have to put in the cleaning solution and press the button.

I love robots. If I could get a lawn mowing robot or a snow removal robot (albeit one that I could afford), I would be in line for one right now. 

Meanwhile, in another part of the robosphere, Honda has upgraded Asimo, its amazing humanoid robot. You may have noticed that while many people (such as myself) have adopted robots and invited them into our homes, humanoid robots are still pretty rare.

I believe the reason, cost aside, is that we want our robots to do things for us, like vacuum the carpet and wash the floor. Honda groks this now, as the following video demonstrates. They have upgraded Asimo to perform the task . . . THE TASK . . . for which we have all been waiting. Asimo now has the ability to pour and serve alcoholic drinks. Hey Honda, how much for that humanoid robot in the window?

Enjoy! And cheers!

04
Nov

God's Will, Cruelty, and Murdering Children

Back a few months ago, Karen and Elizabeth Shatz were found guilty of their child's murder (they pleaded guilty). The adopted child was beaten to death by following the instructions in a fundamentalist Christian child-rearing book. Another mother, Lynn Paddock, was found guilty of first-degree murder for killing her 4 year old son, Sean, because he wouldn't stay in bed. Well, it has happened again.

Larry and Carri Williams are charged with homocide resulting from torturing, beating, and starving their child, then leaving her outside to die of exposure (and, presumably, her various wounds).

The parents, in both cases, essentially (over time) beat their child to death by following the teachings of a book called "To Train Up A Child" by Tennesse pastor Michael Pearl and his wife, Debi Pearl. It's a good Christian's guide to abusing your children in order to bring them up right. The authors advocate corporeal punishment for children from infants on up, with appropriate Bible citations and instructions as well as the sorts of implements you'll be needing to do the job. You can buy this torturer's guidebook on Amazon where it's a best seller. Yes, it's a best seller . . . meaning there are plenty of good Christian parents who adhere to this method of child-rearing.

Before I continue with my part of the story, take a moment to watch the video below. If you can.

When I posted this video to Google+ a few days ago, someone replied with a quote from Matthew, suggesting that the parents "will get theirs" for disobeying the word.

Matthew 25, 40 "And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me."

If only it were so simple. To begin with, it should be noted that Christ was not talking about children in that quote. As to the Christian-ness of the parents, one could argue that the parents were, in fact, the very best of Christians and true believers to boot. The girl, by all accounts, was misbehaving. So harken unto the word:

Deuteronomy 21, 18-21 "If a man have a stubborn and rebellious son, which will not obey the voice of his father, or the voice of his mother, and that, when they have chastened him, will not hearken unto them: Then shall his father and his mother lay hold on him, and bring him out unto the elders of his city, and unto the gate of his place; And they shall say unto the elders of his city, This our son is stubborn and rebellious, he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton, and a drunkard. And all the men of his city shall stone him with stones, that he die:"

I don't know about you, but having my son argue with me after a night of drinking won't be enough for me to take him to the village elders and have him stoned to death. 

Should the parents have punished the girl? Let's see . . .

Proverbs 23, 13-14 "Withhold not correction from the child: for if thou beatest him with the rod, he shall not die. Thou shalt beat him with the rod, and shalt deliver his soul from hell."

Maybe they just wanted to beat her long enough to deliver her soul from hell and got carried away. How much beating is okay? If you beat her until she is nearly dead but recovers, is it okay?

The Bible (or pick your favorite holy book) is filled with contradiction. As such, you can pick and choose what you want to support your point of view, but in quoting the Bible to say this kind of cruelty is wrong (as with the quote from Matthew), you must allow the counter argument (that it's okay to beat your children) or the Bible must be dismissed as a source of truth or justice. Either it's okay to beat your children to death or it isn't. Either the Bible is the complete and eternal word of God or it isn't. And if one part of the Bible is wrong, then other parts are as well. And if other parts are wrong, then there's no way to tell the good from the bad and it must be abandoned as a source of moral teaching.

You may call yourself a fundamentalist Christian. I'm betting you're a lot less fundamentalist than you think. Or at least, I hope you are. I'd hate to think you beat your kids and leave them out in the cold to die.

In closing, the title of the Pearls' book, "To Train Up A Child", comes from the Bible. 

Proverbs 22:6 "Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it."

Pages

Subscribe to Marcel Gagné RSS