Welcome! You've arrived at award-winning author Marcel (Writer and Free Thinker at Large) Gagné's personal Website. I am the author of the "Moving to Linux" series of books, a regular columnist for LinuxPro Magazine, Ubuntu User, and others. I am a public speaker, radio and television personality, and a well known voice in the Linux and open source universe where 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 Top 40 disc jockey, and I fold a mean origami T-Rex. Coolest of all, I'm a seriously lucky husband to my wife, Sally, and a seriously lucky Dad to my boys, Sebastian and Tristan.

While this site has a lot of Linux and Open Source content (primarily my own writing), it is also home to my opinions, gripes, brags, and whatever else comes to mind when I have the time or the inclination to publish it. If you only want the Linux and Open Source stuff and you don't care for my opinion on other topics, please spend some time at my Cooking With Linux site. Be warned, however, that I do include the occasional wine suggestion and/or review there.

TSA gropes a 6 year old girl

This certainly isn't the first time that I direct your attention to the unreasonable searches performed by the TSA, but damn, at what point do we, as a society, tell these people that wht they are doing in the name of keeping us safe from terrorists, is just plain wrong? This kid did not need to be sexually molested by the TSA agent and she sure as heck doesn't look as though she's packing drugs or an exploding vest. Seriously, America . . . are you really all that scared of the world? 

Yes, saying "sexually molested" might be a little over the top, but think about this . . .  we raise our kids warning them about the same kind of touching, pointing out to them the dangers that come with the words the TSA agent uses. If you don't find this frightening, you should.

Seriously, it's not like this is a unique event. It happens all the time and people of supposedly moral family values just stand by and let this happen. You really have to ask yourself why?

“Those who desire to give up freedom in order to gain security will not have, nor do they deserve, either one.” -- Benjamin Franklin

Help! I've Been Seach Engine Optimized!

Riddle me this . . . why don't the SEO companies that promise to make you number one on Google show up in the number one position for SEO when you search for them on Google?

I begin this post with some trepidation. You see, after posting the above comment on Twitter, I received a deluge of emails from people offering to make my site "number one on Google and other search engines" (as though there are other search engines worth considering; I'm only partially joking). If a Twitter post got me this much automated response -- it's not like human beings are actually looking at your site or your posts -- imagine what a somewhat lengthy post on the subject of Search Engine Optimization (aka SEO) will deliver upon me. Yet I still wander into the churning waters of criticism.

I posted my opening question question on my various social feeds after getting a small deluge of people telling me that they could get my name, Marcel Gagné, to the number one site position on Google. Newsflash! A search on my name already serves up my Website as the number one result on Google. If an actual human being had checked on this, they would have noticed. But I digress . . .

Friends and colleagues had their own take. The first answer I receive to my question came from Aaron Seigo, who summed it up by saying, "same reason fortune tellers never know you're on your way to see them ;)" To which I added, "or win the lottery." Seriously, you never read about psychics winning the lottery; I wonder why.

When I'm not writing about free and open source software or Linux, I run a computer consulting company. In that role, I sometimes get customers calling me up for advice about SEO. When the question arises, a battle erupts in my subconsious, torn as I am between calmly explaining the concept, theory, and methodlogy behind SEO, and running away screaming.

Hiding out on the East Coast, Jon Watson said, "SEO is the 21st century's snake oil. It's an industry in conflict. It attempts to figure out search engine algorithms which is exactly what the search engines spend most of their time protecting and changing. Total waste of money paying someone for that IMHO."

Jonathan Blaine, a tad closer in Toronto, said "I find it interesting, when looking at logs, that these bozos say I'm not highly ranked when I can see the search parameters they used to send me their crap via the form on my website... and the Google or MSN search string they used shows that I am... (um, and why would they send it to a highly ranked marketing company website in the first place?)"

Sound familiar?

Another friend of mind, Al Katerinski, quipped "Oh no! I'm getting OPTIMIZED!!! (Yet no changes occur in my status or rankings whatsoever.)" And yes, Al's comment inspired the title of this post. Thanks, Al!

Look, it's not that there's no truth behind SEO, but there's truth behind almost anything if you dig deeply enough. Frank L. Baum, in his famous "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" was truthful in saying that you should take cover when a tornado approaches or that having a house fall on someone is likely to result in that person's death. So it is with SEO. Sure, it's possible to do things with your site that will make it more likely to rank in Google's search algorithm, but by how much? And how much of your personal and business ethics are you willing to give up in order to secure that spot?

SEO is largely a thing of the past, at least in the sense of putting key words and search terms in the meta tags. Google scans things like Meta tags for what is sometimes referred to as 'keyword stuffing' and they will punish you for it, effectively pushing your result further down for 'trying to trick them'. In fact, Google recently added another twist to their algorithm to punish what it calls "low quality sites" that push out stale search engine grabbing content in cookie cutter fashion on site after site. Read Jon Watson's response again and tell me if this sounds familiar. It's sort of like virus writers and anti-virus companies or spammers and anti-spam tools . . . one is always trying to defeat the other.

Because of Google's success (and because webmasters tried to cheat them into providing higher rankings), most search engines use a Google-like algorithm for searching. What that means is that while sites are indeed indexed for words, every single word in a site to be precise, they are also indexed for relevance. Google defines relevance by a number of factors including the number of sites that point back to your site or the number of times your site is mentioned elsewhere. The more sites link to you, the higher your relevance and the more likely someone searching for 'Burlington' or 'Tourism' is likely to find you. You can add all the keywords you want in your meta tags; the best result is that nothing will change while the worst is that you'll get pushed down in relevance for keyword stuffing.

Perhaps SEO shouldn't be about trying to trick Google into giving you top spot. Perhaps rather than working against Google, you might want to try working with Google.

So, how do you optimize your site in the age of Google?  Basically, good SEO means good design and what I meantion is essentially distilled from Google.

- Use a relevant domain name. For instance, "A domain name like tourismburlington.com titled "Tourism Burlington" pretty much says that the site is about tourism in Burlington. You can't get much better than that.

- Include the keywords you want, not in the tags, but on the main page. If you want are in the business of hybrid flowers and you want to be indexed with further relevance, then mention hybrid and flowers and write something about hybrid flowers several times as part of the text of your page, not the header tags. Headings (like H1 tags) are given additional weight.

- Update regularly. Sites that never change are given lower priority.

- Do what you can to make sure your partners, customers, and so on, link back to you. You do that by having the links be part of text, rather than just http://yourcoolsite.dom. Think of it this way; a partner has text on their site that mentions "visiting the wonderful boardwalk" with that text linking to your site. Consider creating a product or company button that people can put on the site.

- Give others in your community reason to blog about you, talk about you, and then link back to you. Those back links are gold, which is why the tactic of some less than honest SEO companies is to use spambots to stuff comments into forums of sites they have no business visiting.

Finally, I'll repeat myself. Don't try to fool search engines into giving you higher priority. In this day and age, that technique can only end badly. If you want to know, in detail, how to rank higher on Google, why not visit Google and read what they have to say about it.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to prepare myself for an unusually large number of emails from SEO companies telling me how I can get this post to number one on Google.

The Writer's Disease. Searching For A Cure

I'd like to start by saying that I'm being serious here . . . Sometimes people think I can only make jokes and that somehow, I'm incapable of understanding real problems. That just isn't true, as this post will attest.

Over in Facebookland, one of my friends and colleagues, Kenneth Hess, announced proudly that he had just signed a new book contract. It will be a "For dummies" book and he's rather pumped about it. Which I totally understand. I did, of course, offer my congratulations. But as an author myself, I had to offer an observation.

You'd think after publishing a few books, articles, etc, that we'd learn. But no, we just keep on writing and looking for the next gig. I've seen happen time after heartbreaking time. Some of us even hire agents to help us sell our stuff while looking after our contracts. How sad is that? Just watch any writer when she or he gets a contract or sells a short story for a few dollars. They're ecstatic! They act as though the gods themselves have chosen them above all other mere mortals. It's beyond sad and I for one, can't keep standing on the sidelines watching my friends and colleagues do this to themselves.

So I'm going to start up a support group for writers where we can talk about this affliction and help each other out. We're going to try to get to the heart of this disease we suffer from. Because it is a disease. Perhaps it's pity we should receive rather than congratulations. Something is fundamentally wrong in the wiring that governs the writer's brain and believe that in addition to this support group, that we need funding . . . for a foundation. Lots and lots of funding (that I will happily administer) so that we can get to the heart of this debilitating problem. Donations aimed at getting this foundation going, or helping me buy a new BMW (whichever seems most pressing to me at the time), can be deposited to my PayPal account in the link below.

Of course the group may have to wait a few days because I need to finish a couple of articles and get them handed in (and at least one of them is late). The Beamer, on the other hand . . .

Microsoft Buys Open Source ReactOS For $12.3 Billion

They say that open source and closed source software companies make strange bedfellows. It's not uncommon for closed source companies like Microsoft or Apple to use open source software in their products, just as open source companies like Canonical or RedHat sometimes include or provide access to proprietary drivers. Such borrowing of technology is often seen more as forays into enemy territory rather than diplomatic efforts to integrate development ideologies. Lawsuits involving patents or violations of open source licenses like the GPL are common.

Legal sabre-rattling aside, there has been a great deal of movement between the open and closed source camps lately, so much so that most of us in the industry pay little attention. The partnership between Microsoft and Novell was controversial and raised many eyebrows when it happened, but it has been largely forgotten. Yet even the most jaded tech reporter was astounded when Microsoft announced that it would purchase open source ReactOS for an unprecedented $12.3 billion US making it the largest open source acquisition to date. ReactOS is a small software organization that has been working to produce an open source replacement for Microsoft Windows.

Unofficial sources inside Microsoft suggested that ReactOS was "just getting too close to producing a completely free and open source version of Windows" and was becoming a threat to the software giant. We spoke to Microsoft's Harold Linberry, marketing manager in charge of legacy software, who refused to comment on these allegations, saying instead that the move was meant to "protect Microsoft customers" who mistaking ReactOS for the real thing, might encounter problems. "We wanted to make sure that we could protect our customers' investment in their IT infrastructure. We wanted to make sure that if they installed ReactOS, they could count on the same level of quality and support that they currently enjoy with Microsoft Windows."

But not everyone is convinced. Open source advocates like Morris Vigor are quick to point out that the Downloads link on the ReactOS site has been deactivated, making it impossible for visitors to download their own copy of the software. "This is a clear violation of the GPL," Vigor stated. "Microsoft will be hearing from our lawyers."

Discussions of lawsuits aside, these are exciting times for ReactOS developer, Aleksey Bragin, who when asked to comment, would only say, "Honestly? I can't believe any of this is happening."

Creating A Kindle eBook

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A few weeks ago, my wife, Sally, went away for a couple of days with my sisters for a girls' weekend leaving me feeling a tad bored after the kids went to bed. You know the story about idle hands so jokes aside, I decided to do something completely crazy, just to see what it was like. I created my first Kindle ebook and, a couple of weeks later, when it seemed silly to have gone to the trouble and not published the thing, hit the magic button on the Kindle self-publishing site

Here's how it works, in the proverbial nutshell. First, write something. Write it well. Edit it. Polish it. Repeat until you've created the best book, novella, short story, or whatever that you can. Now, head over to the Kindle Direct Publishing site and create yourself an Amazon account, if you don't already have one (your regular Amazon account works).

Once logged in to KDP, you'll be in the Bookshelf. Click "Add new title" and follow the prompts. Upload your ebook in Word, HTML, or plain text. I tried PDF and it's a bad idea. Create and upload a nice cover to go with it, assign a price, then save and publish your work when ready. For serious information on formatting and other useful tips, click Community at the top and treat yourself to a little reading.

The cover I created is so-so; I made a paper dinosaur, and played with the photo using the GIMP. The story, however, is excellent, even if I do say so myself. I may go so far as to say "brilliant! It has been bought and published at least six times since its initial appearance in the Winter 1994 issue of On Spec, including a contract run of 250,000 reprints over 10 years by the Educational Testing Service (ETS), out of Princeton, NJ. Other markets have included "READ" magazine, and What if . . . ?  Amazing Stories selected by Monica Hughes., among others. Oh, and this is kind of cool, "Paper" was included in the Grade 7 language arts reader from Oxford University Press (Language 7), published in 2008; I like that one because it means kids are reading the story in school.

Now, I'm putting this amazing short story up for sale in the Amazon Kindle marketplace. If you've got a spare 99 cents, send it my way and be part of my experiment. In return, you'll get an absolutely fantastic story, written and published by me, Marcel Gagné.

How To Tell Newspapers Apart

Call this an experiment in identifying real newspapers vs . . . ahem, well, publications that aspire to the title of newspaper

Yesterday, as I was walking by the newspaper stand, I saw the four big newspapers side by side, each with its headline of the day doing its best to capture your attention. One day before, I saw headlines covering essentially the same topic but for one paper whose mega-point headline screamed "BUDS ON BLOCKS". Imagine my lack of surprise when I walked in Monday evening to see more or less the same focus on the day's major stories as seen by the same publications.

Note that the Toronto Star was sold out today, but I checked the four that were there and took pictures (click on the small image to the right to see a close-up of each cover).

The Globe and Mail headline sat above a picture of the devestation in Japan; "Aftershocks In Japan". 

The National Post, meanwhile, had "Death Toll Surges Amid Japan's Ruins"

The Kitchener-Waterloo Record (the local paper) led with "Death toll surpasses 10,000".

Finally, last, and certainly least, the Toronto SUN had a big Toronto Maple Leafs logo with the mega-point headline screaming out, "BIDDING WAR LOOMS", a story about a potential selloff of Toronto Maple Leafs holdings by the teachers' Union. It's important to understand that Toronto SUN headlines are always in mega-point font and always scream out from the front page.

Our lesson for today ends here. Your job is to identify which paper in this list is the pretender to the title of "Newspaper".

Until next time . . . 

Valentine's Day 2011

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 ]. But 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.

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.

Hearing, Seeing, Feeling, and Missing 99% Of It

This is one of those philosophical moments so consider yourself warned . . . I was on my way home from running a few errands, switching from one radio station to another; when it happened. I'm usually listening to CBC Radio One, but I couldn't get into the discussion, so I clicked through my other presets until I heard a song I liked. And this is when it happened. I've heard this song a thousand times but today I actually heard it, actually understood the words, and suddenly I thought, "Wow! So that's what this song is really about," and suddenly I was overtaken with emotion, actually sniffling and wiping away a few tears as I drove. In however many times I'd heard this song and sung along with it, I'd never actually really understood what it was saying. But just like that, it went from pleasant to powerful.

Which made me wonder . . .

How many other times in our lives do we hear the same words over and over, see the same sights, walk the same road, never fully aware of what we hear, see, or touch? How often do we blindly participate in the comings and goings of life, blind to the insights that are just beneath the surface? What else to we miss a thousand times a day?

In our brains, there's a mechanism that filters out countless tiny details so that we aren't living in a perpetually overwhelmed and overstimulated state and that's probably a good thing; if we tried to process every bit of information that entered via our senses, our sanity would hand us its resignation letter and run for the nearest exit. But as Adrian Monk, the detective played by Tony Shalhoub, would say, "It's a blessing. And a curse". Sanity is lovely, but it's also a bitch to miss so much.

Words, words, bloody offensive words . . .

On Thursday, January 13, 2011, the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council (also known as the CBSC) declared that the song "Money for Nothing", recorded and sung by the group "Dire Straits" should be banned from Canadian airwaves. Their ruling stated that the song contravenes the human rights clauses of the Canadian Association of Broadcasters’ Code of Ethics and Equitable Portrayal Code. This ruling was brought down in response to a complaint brought forward by a listener to radio station CHOZ-FM in St. John's. His complaint was that the song includes the word “faggot” in its lyrics, a term that is discriminatory to gays. For those of you who might not remember, Money for Nothing was a huge hit when it came out some 26 years ago. As a result, they're in trouble and so, apparently, am I.

I work at and and try very hard to be the most fair-minded, ethical, and open-minded person I know how to be. I stand up for, and take a lot of shit for defending what I believe is right, even when it isn't popular at the time (often, that's all the time). Consequently, I seem to be in trouble with one person or another about what I say on a fairly regular basis. When I 'took sides' and defended gay rights nearly 30 years ago, it wasn't a particularly popular thing to do, but I still did it. There was nothing wrong with being homosexual then and there isn't anything wrong with it today. When the CBSC banned "Money for Nothing", I dared suggest that it was wrong and just short of insane, to have banned the song. Somehow, with that suggestion, I offended people I care about deeply and found myself being accused of insensitivity (and possibly hostility) toward the gay community.

A little time has passed and I've mended my bridges, but I still feel the need to get this off my chest publicly, especially since my initial pronouncement was also public.

If we agree that it's right to ban 'Money for Nothing', why aren't we all up in arms asking to ban the Bible (or your favorite holy book). God, according to the Bible, hates gays, non-Jews, women on their periods (well, women in general), and so on. Sure, I'm an atheist and yet I would fight to protect and preserve the Bible because it is important in its historical and social context. The Bible, the Qu'ran, the Talmud, etc, are all extremely important in understanding who, what, where, and why we are in the 21st century. It's not just important to be here; it's also important to understand how we got here or we will never learn a thing, doomed forever to make the same mistakes over and over again.

Context, by the way, is exactly why "Money for Nothing" isn't derogatory. It's about a couple of apes doing deliveries for a furniture store; oh no, I just called the movers in the song "apes". They rail against faggots, chicks, musicians who get everything for nothing (incidentaly, most musicians I know work their asses off), guys 'playing the bongos like a chimpanzee' . . .

The words in the song, the rest of the words as opposed to just the word 'faggot', are meant to show what asses the guys in the story are. If the song said, "faggots are scum and we should all hate them", then I'd understand the point. However, the song doesn't do that . . . it says, "guys like this are jerks."

Words are not offensive in and of themselves, nor should they ever be. Everything is context and since the meaning of words changes over time, all words, including those that offend, must be taken in historical context. Banning books, music, et al, does nothing to help the cause that wants them banned in the first place. If anything, it draws attention to the people asking for the thing to be banned and makes them look like whiners. Banning works is also the thin edge of a very dangerous slope, a slope that really a giant sword.

Blasphemy laws in Pakistan are responsible for the publicly accepted assassination of a politician who fought against those oppressive laws and the death sentence of a Christian woman who was accused, presumably of being blasphemous, whatever that might mean. Blasphemy, my friends, is one of those victimless crimes no one should ever have to pay for. Now I am not saying that banning 'Money for Nothing' is equivalent to what's happening in Pakistan, but it does show how far something like this can go if we allow it and why, at its core, demanding that we ban fictional or artistic works is dangerous and wrong.

Should we start looking for and banning all books, music, works of art, that have any kind of derogatory term in them? If we do, we will be a much poorer society. I could list dozens (hundreds) of popular songs right off the top that use derogatory terms when referring to women. Where's your outrage at every use of the term 'chick' or 'bitch'? The first word is derogatory and the second offensive. Why stop at women? What about other races or other cultures? Should we ban every work that offends a Christian or a Muslim or a Jew or a Buddhist? There won't be anything left to read, view, or listen to.

I'll start. Let me add another song to report to the CBSC, The Pogues' Christmas classic "Fairytale of New York".

Give me time and I'll come up with countless examples. Perhaps you'd like to help out. What are your suggestions for songs we should ban?
 

200 Countries, 200 Years, 4 minutes

Who but Hans Rosling could come up with such a cool way to present statistics. From the BBC program, The Joy of Stats, this clip takes you on a high-speed trip through 200 years of numbers relating to health and wealth. Whether or not you agree with the way Roslin connects the dots or the conclusions he makes, there's no denying that the man knows how to take something as dry as stats and turn it into something both seriously cool and mind-expanding

So hold on to your seat and prepare to traverse across 200 years of time in just over four minutes.

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