October 31, 2000

Astronomy lessons from Marcel Gagne

Author: JT Smith

By Julie Bresnick
NewsForge Columnist
Open Source people

I asked him if, given the projects on his plate and the velocity
with which
he motored, he ever slept. He laughed and borrowed these words from
one of his
favorite science fiction writers, Spider
Robinson
.

"I'm going to live forever or die trying."

I had been speaking with, or, more appropriately, listening to, Marcel Gagne (gone-yay) for
almost an
hour before he mentioned the Robinson quote, but as a culmination it
seemed
rather apt.

I was first introduced to Marcel's whimsical parlez while reading
his Cooking
With
Linux
column published monthly in Linux Journal. It didn't
matter
whether or not I really understood the Linux tricks he prescribed and
projects
he described. I still liked to read it, and outloud nonetheless,
because he
wrote it with a French accent. In Cooking with Linux, Marcel is a
French
waiter who invites readers into his restaurant to enjoy his wine and
share in
his Linux musings. In characteristic, English-as-a-second-language
fashion,
Marcel, the steward, ends statements with a question mark and often talks
about
himself in the third person (one of my favorite habits).

Gagne himself is, in fact, French Canadian, raised in a French-only
community in Quebec until his father, in response to an increasingly
depressed
economy, moved him, his mother and four siblings to an English one on
Southern
Ontario. Other than the few weeks worth of afternoons his father spent
listening to English language albums and eavesdropping on conversations
over
the shortwave radio, nobody in Marcel's family spoke any English. At
least not
until Marcel approached the hot dog stand near the hotel in which they
stayed
while their father hunted for their new home. Carefully instructed in
the
proper vocabulary, 9-year-old Marcel held out his bills in
trepidation,
looked up at the vendor and said in slow and staccato English, "Can I
please
have a hot dog with everything on it?"

They are simple words, but density is not a requirement for
soliciting
Marcel's appreciation, for he is enthusiasm incarnate. He's like a
40-year-old puppy dog with a bottomless brain. His interests are boundless and
the way
he talks it always sounds like he's on the edge of his chair.

The French accent he puts on when I tell him I'm disappointed he
doesn't
have one, catches me off guard and I am momentarily silent, trying to
figure
out if it is French at all until I realize that the operative word is
Canadian.
Juxtaposed
with a
European French accent, the rough edges around the Canadian one remind
me more
of a docile Eliza Dolittle than a guy who predicted man's first step on
the
moon at age 5.

So what if he was off by a year? The reality remains that at 5
years old
he was cognizant and aspiring enough to turn to his father and predict
that
within five years people would land on the moon. His dad told his
imaginative
little son, maybe someday, when you have children. Astronauts planted
the
American flag there four years later. He brushes it off as a fluke, but
I am
still amazed, spooked almost. Eek, it still gives me goosebumps.

He remembers being drawn to the Gemini flights, which were presented
on
television. He built an Apollo spacecraft with tinker toys and
mirrored the
countdown and the launch with his own. As a teenager he had a full
chemistry
set in his family's basement: microscope, telescope, lab equipment.
His mother
used to timidly peek in the door and beg for reassurance that
he
wasn't going to blow up the house. He gave formal astronomy lessons in
the
family's backyard to his three younger sisters.

Strangely enough, this budding young Einstein wanted to be a
disc
jockey. At 19, he walked into a local radio station, conversed
with the
station manager for an hour or two and walked out with a job on air.
He was a
DJ there for a little over a year.

From there he decided he wanted to be a pilot and earned his pilot's
license. His original intent was to get a commercial license but he
never did,
eventually going to college and earning a degree in computer
programming and
systems analysis.

The result, according to Gagne himself, is not a programmer, though
he
admires his wife, Sally, immensely for being one. He's an operating system guy. He
likes to
"put the tools together to make wonderful and cool things."

That's how he got into writing "Cooking with Linux." Linux Journal listed upcoming
themes for
their publication and the one scheduled for September of 1999 was
"Cooking With
Linux," but as the hour approached the idea for what that edition would
actually look like had not really solidified, so Marcel offered his own
suggestion, a mix of both the way he likes to live and the way he likes
to
compute, a la carte. The wine, he loves, but if there was a schtik that
went
well with single malt scotch he could have just as easily gone with
that, too.

He and Sally have their own consulting company called Salmar. The "Sal" is for Sally, and
the "Mar"
is for Marcel, just like Debian which is named after its creator, Ian
Murdock
and his wife, Deb. (Eck, on top of all the candy corn all this
sweetness is
starting to make me a little sick.) In the interest of serving Salmar's
customers
better by staying on top of the industry, Gagne, upon realizing there
was a
Corel representative in his neighborhood, sought him out regarding the
Netwinder.

Interested in learning more, he realized nobody had reviewed it, so he
called
Linux Journal to discuss it. They were amazed; nobody seemed to be
able to get
their hands on a copy. His review elicited significant response, and
the
relationship was born. Now Gagne writes two regular columns for LinuxJournal, one for SysAdmins Magazine, and
individual
articles here and there on Linux and on system administration.

His columns are useful because he never writes about something he
hasn't
done or tried. He makes the mistakes and hands a map to his readers.
But
beware, he seems pretty game to try anything. For instance, he's
poised and
ready to make reservations at Hilton's first space resort.

He's been enthralled with space ever since he can remember. He's a
regular
participant in seti@home and
has been a
member of the planetary society
for the
last 15 years.

And whatever's not feasible or clearly impending he simply tries in
his head
or on paper. Some of his science
fiction
has
been published. But even that's not far enough for him. That common
saying
"space, the final frontier"? It doesn't work for him, he's not so
sure
about its accuracy. As one of the possible substitutes for space, he
suggests,
in an excited and anticipatory tone, the mapping of the human genome,
or how we
know so little about what really goes on with our own brains.

On his own site and in email communications he gives himself a
middle name,
Marcel (Free Thinker at Large) Gagne. Certainly, he is aware of the
significance of his own mentality, both literally and figuratively.

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