The pale blue dot

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How stressed are you . . . REALLY?
Your wife has just left you.
A close friend dies.
A work colleague is saying nasty things behind your back.
Yes life sucks.
So much so sometimes that it’s seems hardly worth living . . . or does it?

Let me take you on a journey.

First, put on your earphones and listen to the amazing piece of music by Sigur Ros. Use it as a meditation as you look at the pictures. Take all the time you want. Let the images, the thoughts, the music work their wonder – you will find that your worries shrink as your imagination soars!

All you have to do now is climb with me on board our imaginary space craft. Or grow angel wings and fly beside me at the speed of light.

With the first beat of our wings we leave the confines of earth and find ourselves hovering above our planet.

Where do you live down there?

Where do you live down there?

Where do you live on this beautiful orb surrounded by water, trees and air?
What is your home like? Take a moment to look, to find the place were you spend every living moment.

Next with a beat of our wings we leap across space and find ourselves on the far side of our nearest neighbor – the moon.

Grey Moon - brilliant Earth

Grey Moon – brilliant Earth

It’s dusty and grey down there with no sign of life but we do see home.
Where do you live on this beautiful blue orb? What have been your fondest memories?
Take your time – let your mind wonder . . .

Time to head out now so turn your back on the moon and follow me as we pass Mars and Jupiter till we reach that most stunning of planets – Saturn. And here, looking back through the rings of ice you can just make out the planet Earth. It is a bright point at around 10 o’clock on the second outer ring.

Our planet is so small now as to be barely visible . . . and yet that is the place that harbours and holds us, feeds and waters us.

The earth is that tiny speck on the 2nd ring at around 10 o'clock

The earth is that tiny speck on the 2nd ring at around 10 o’clock

Now for the very last part of our journey. This time we head out of the solar system. But just before we leave we look back to see a Pale Blue Dot suspended in the darkness of space.
This famous photo was taken in 1990 by the Voyager 1 spacecraft from a record distance of about 6 billion kilometres. The Voyager 1 spacecraft, which was leaving the Solar System, was commanded by NASA to turn its camera around and to take a photograph of Earth at the request of the astronomer Carl Sagan.

The Pale Blue Dot

The Pale Blue Dot

Take a moment to look. To wonder.
This is where we live our lives. Your life.
This is where we are born, fall in love and die.
This is OUR tiny pale blue dot.
This is home.
How big are your worries from this distance?

Below is Carl Sagan’s mediation on The Pale Blue Dot.
Watch it! It will make your worries seem very small while your wonder at the universe will only grow!

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Everyday Miracles

An everyday miracle on Killiney Hill

An everyday miracle on Killiney Hill

Recently, as readers of this blog will have noticed, I have been letting life fill in the blanks. Last week it brought me into the company of the Taoiseach and Ireland’s leading poet as if by “chance”. But as Carl Jung said, there is no such thing as chance. Everything happens for a reason and I am learning one important lesson. In order for extraordinary things to happen you have to do two things: something and nothing.
The “something” is putting oneself out there.
The “Nothing” is waiting for it to happen.

Having said that I woke to a Sunday with no such thoughts in mind. I had my usual busy Sunday schedule. 12.30 ski lesson followed by a Muay Thai boxing session, followed by a swim. But before I could hit the alarm button my ski trainer had cancelled and my boxing instructor had absented himself. Suddenly I had nothing to do.
The afternoon dawns and I decide to go to Killiney, a half hours drive outside Dublin. It is a beautiful part of Dublin, home to rock stars like Bono and Enya. While motoring up the Vico Road something stops me. I pull in and park and get out of my car and look at the stunning view. It’s cold but clear and the sun is breaking free from the straggling clouds. I decide to stroll down the hill to the beach way, way below.

A deep descent to the beach

A deep descent to the beach

It is steep and I stop on the way to take photos. Finally I make it to bottom. Then my phone dies and my attention is no longer distracted allowing something more interesting to happen.
In front of me is the great sea. It fills the whole horizon and is wild and grey, driven by a great surge tide that makes waves crash on the rocky outcrop just in front of me. There are stairs cut into the rock and I think about climbing them; but as I approach the steps are submerged in a boiling carpet of foam.
I stand still and watch. Every sense in my body is saturated by sound and there is a strong salty tang in the air. The boom of the surf resonates in every cell. The buffeting wind sends chills up my spine while the sun catches the top of the waves, sparks explosions of diamond light. I am hit by a sudden sensory overload.

THE FOAMING SEA

THE FOAMING SEA

I shift, burying my feet into the fine sand to steady myself. On my left a courting couple kiss and then move away from the rocks that tower behind us. I go to sit on an outcrop but my attention is caught instead by the intricate design in the strata of the rock and I gaze at it in wonder.

delicate filaments of rock

delicate filaments of rock

The colour is so delicate, the rock so very ancient formed as the molten lava cooled. I am looking at a sliver of my planet millions of years old. The layers are like the rings of a tree and I find myself in awe of this simple lump of rock.
I sit down and gaze out at the seething ocean. I breathe in and out . . . in and out as I watch the frothing waves crashing at my feet. Another image fills my mind. Comets of ice crashing into our young planet while it was still a smouldering rock. It is these comets scientists believe that brought the water to planet Earth. The water that became our oceans and seas. The water I am now looking at bubbling at my feet.
It is beyond my comprehension and I sit dumbfounded.
It is a while before I can drag myself away, up the hundreds of stairs that will take me back up to the coast road. It is here that I encounter the third part of my everyday miracle. I am wondering up the path and looking out over Killiney Hill when above me a cry echoes out. My head shots up and my eyes dart this way and that until I locate two birds swooping above me in the clear air.

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To my untrained eye they looked like birds of prey as they soar. They come together in an aerial embrace then sweep apart. I watched enthralled; my head swivelling like a camera trying to keep them in focus as they dive and soar, driven by the gusting wind. And as I look I can’t quite figure out if the birds are enemies or friends – are they fighting one another or weaving a lover’s dance?
They pass overhead and I circle trying to keep them in view. They are higher now, two small dots disappearing over the brow of Killiney Hill. My own movements stop and for a long moment I stand swaying in the wind, my eyes fixed on the heavens. The clouds have parted and above me the sky is blue and momentarily I am lost in strange bliss.

Lost in Bliss

Lost in Bliss


It is as if I am no longer on the ground but soaring.
I am unchained. Unworried.
I am free.
It is a dog barking that brings me back. I find myself blinking away the vision and standing again on my own two feet. The black Labrador bounds past and then it hits me. I have had an out-of-body experience. Is this what happens as death approaches? Can an experience on earth give us a glimpse of heaven?
A little bit of heaven on Killiney Hill?
Albert Einstein once said: “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”
On Killiney Hill last Sunday I experienced an everyday miracle. The extra-ordinary on an ordinary sunny day.

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Meeting one of the world’s greatest poets

Listening to a legend: the magical Brendan Kennelly

Listening to a legend: the magical Brendan Kennelly

Talk about meeting famous people randomly. It’s becoming a feature of my life. This morning I bumped into the famous Irish poet Brendan Kennelly walking through Trinity College on my way to work.
Kennelly hails from the small town of Ballylongford in County Kerry and still has that musical Kerry brogue. He is a poet of international renown – his poetry being summed up by the title of one of his epics: “Poetry my Arse”.
We sit in Carluccio’s and order a coffee. Brendan, though 77, flirts outrageously with our Lithuanian waitress. I am not sure she understands a word of what he says, nor do I think she would approve if she did. Brendan is profoundly politically incorrect. Out of the blue he asks if they sell underwear in the shop. She looks at him blankly and tells him that they sell latte or cappuccino. He laughs and chooses latte. She leaves confused while he chuckles away. He certainly seems to be enjoying himself.
I tell him that last night I had heard Luke Kelly on the radio sing Ragland Road – a sad and beautiful love song about longing and sexual obsession. The words are taken from Patrick Kavanagh’s poem. Kennelly tells me he knew Kavanagh personally and had also met the 22-year-old beauty who inspired the grand obsession: Hilda Moriarty.

Hilda Moriarrty

Hilda Moriarrty

‘Kavanagh could just not move on from Hilda,’ Kennelly said, ‘and seeing her you could see why. She had this amazing long raven black hair,’ he added, smoothing down imaginary locks, ‘women know how to use their hair far more than men. It can define them, their look, and their mystery. I walked down Raglan Road many a time,’ he continued, ‘There’s a laneway there: Raglan Lane, and I wrote a song about it that Mary Black once sang.’
And with that Brendan Kennelly began to sing his song out loud. At first I felt a stab of embarrassment as people glanced over but I swotted the feeling away. I know I am privileged to be sitting in the presence of this great poet who provides a living link to Patrick Kavanagh and his poem.

Patrick Kavanagh

Patrick Kavanagh

Kennelly finishes his exquisite song and sips his latte. He begins to recount more tales of Patrick Kavanagh: Kavanagh extracting free drinks from American admirers. Kavanagh’s way with words. To punctuate his stories Brendan breaks off and lets out the occasional “whoop” at a passing lady, causing her to jump and look at him as if he is mad.
I smile, dampening down the uncomfortable feeling that I will never be welcomed back into Carluccio’s again. So what, I chide, I am being treated to an impromptu performance by one of Ireland’s greatest poets while sipping creamy espresso on a grey Friday morning. Does it get any better?
We finish our coffees and I tell Kennelly that one of my literary regrets is that I have never been able to read James Joyce’s Ulysses.

A difficult read!

A difficult read!


‘You do not read Ulysses,’ Kennelly says, waving away my complaint, ‘try speaking it out loud instead.’
‘Form the start?’ I ask amazed. ‘It’s a very long book.’
‘No, with Ulysses you dip in and out.’
‘Really?’ I ask, as if contemplating literary sacrilege.
‘Yes – try the last 60 pages – they’re good!’
I promise I will just as Brendan says something very profound, (he alternates between grave profundity and outright irreverence).
‘A lot of people think they have to understand Ulysses,’ he says looking at me with bright eyes washed blue by the soft Kerry rain, ‘but you don’t have to understand it – you just have to listen to it.’
‘You don’t have to understand it . . .’ I repeat, knowing this statement is vitally important as I struggle to make sense of it.
Then the penny drops. I try – we all try – to understand everything with our heads; but sometimes that is impossible. Can you understand a sunset? Or falling in love? Or a sudden intuition? You experience these things; you don’t need to “understand” them even if you could.
I check my watch. It is time to go. As I get up to leave I realise that I have just been given a gift; as priceless as it was unexpected. Chance (if you can call it that) has put me in the path of a poet of the human soul; and this poet has just reached out and touched mine.

Below is the great Luke Kelly singing: On Raglan Road – it is a gift. Enjoy it!

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How to meet one of the most famous men in the world in your local coffee shop!

Kevin happens on the PM of Ireland in local coffee shop!

Kevin meets the Irish PM in his local Dublin coffee shop!

Yesterday was dank and cold in Dublin. Leaden grey skies, speckled rain and a chill wind blowing in from the Irish Sea. It is past noon and I make my way to press launch at a bistro on the far side of town. I am early so decide to indulge my addiction for coffee in a small deli I have never visited before. It has a bright awning which attracts my eye and the striking name: Lolly & Cooks.
I am very particular about my coffee. It has to have a thick crema floating on top, preferably the colour of bleached rust. A lot of Dublin espresso has a black, oily slick floating on the surface and is undrinkable, so I am taking a risk trying coffee in Lolly & Cooks.
As I am waiting to see what sort of brew I will be served I glanced around the shop. It was very small with barely enough space for four or five seats at the window. Suddenly I do a double-take. Standing at the end of the room is a face I immediately recognise. The only other time I saw this face was outside Trinity College where he was introducing the President of the USA Barack Obama to the Irish public.

Enda Kenny introducing Obama to the Irish public

Enda Kenny with a more famous guest

Yes, the face belongs to Ireland’s Prime Minister (or Taoiseach as he is called in Irish) Enda Kenny, having a coffee break.
In Ireland we have a way of dealing with celebs – we ignore them! Bono, the front man in the Irish U2 once said that the main reason he stayed in Ireland was the fact that he was routinely ignored. I would usually ignore any celebs I randomly bump into – I meet enough in my line of work anyway. But for some reason today I find myself drawn towards our leader, determined to have my photo taken with him.
In a flash I am at his side having crossed that invisible line that separates us all from one another. I have entered his personal space and there is that moment of truth: will he welcome me or turn his back on me?
‘Hi Taoiseach,’ I say, with as much confidence as I can muster, ‘would you mind if I had my photo taken with you?’
He turns and immediately smiles, extending his hand towards me.
‘Delighted – where are you from in England?’
He has bright, knowing eyes and is quick to spot my English accent.
I shake his hand.
‘I am from Wimbledon originally,’ I say glancing at his colleagues: two women and a man. They too are smiling even though I have gate-crashed their private conversation. I raise my iPhone and extend my arm to take a snap of the two of us.
‘No Grainne will take that for you,’ says the Taoiseach, arranging himself beside me for the shot. I hand over my phone to Grainne and we pose shaking hands. He has a firm grip but it is warm, friendly.
‘Were you over for the match?’ he asks, referring to the game between Ireland and England at the weekend.
‘No,’ I have actually been here for the last 30 years!’
‘I know Wimbledon,’ says the Taoiseach, ‘I once played the Royal golf course there some 20 years ago.’
‘Really,’ I say before doing something very Irish, ‘I am best friends with AK the physiotherapist – I think you know one another.’
‘Of course I do,’ beams the Taoiseach, ‘very fit man that,’ he edges in closer, ‘ask him if he can do anything for an old crock like me.’
I laugh and promise to convey the message, deciding now is the right time to take my leave. I pick up my espresso getting a few disapproving glances from the other punters. I have broken the cardinal Irish rule but I don’t care and as I exit the shop I turn and get a warm wave from the man who runs Ireland. It’s like we have known each other all our lives!
I wonder down the street feeling strangely warm. I know that the Taoiseach is a politician and well used to pressing the flesh but I actually felt a genuine interest was taken in me. What’s more there could be little political benefit in Enda being friendly for as far as he knows I am not even a voter.
I sip my coffee, (the crema is only so-and-so), reflecting on the bizareness of what just happened. The question arises in my head: where else in the world could this interaction happen? Where else could you casually bump into the current head of state, shake his hand, have your picture have a chat and a joke and get a farewell wave. Certainly if it had been Obama I would have been gunned down before I could get within touching distance.

I reach the bistro and spend the first five minutes proudly showing off my photo of the Taoiseach and me to the other journalists. They are all hardened hacks but even they agree that Ireland is probably the only place where such chance encounters can still occur.
That is one of the many reasons I love Ireland. The skies are often grey and the weather damp but you get expressions of warmth that often take your breath away. It is definitely still the land of cead míle fáílte – the land of a hundred thousand welcomes.

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The future of gaming Part 2

Nathan Burba of Project Holodeck

Nathan Burba of Project Holodeck

The future of Gaming Part 2

In the book Age of Angels a computer game called Fallen Angel has become a global sensation. Everyone in the world is playing it. The trouble is that the game is secretly controlled by Lucifer, the Fallen Angel!
Recently I talked to two pioneers in virtual reality gaming: James Lliff and Nathan Burba who are creating a fully immersive game in their Project Holodeck at the University of Southern California. The game world they are creating is very similar to that found in Fallen Angel, so I asked them the burning question: could a computer game really take over the world?
‘I think this depends on what ‘take over’ means,’ said James, ‘since the Cold War era its been assumed that computers can not only become conscious, but eventually become almost a kind of omniscient superconscious being. In the deep future this may very well occur. As far as a computer game, the primary method of takeover to me would be an extreme form of gamification. Making life into a game, and keeping people addicted through the pleasure of challenge and reward.’
But are we not already being brainwashed by the game and social media makers? Are they not in control of our lives?
‘As long as free speech exists, I don’t think brainwashing of a society can occur in any form,’ continued James, ‘in fact I would argue that games and media provide even more outlets to express individuality.’
Surely this is crazy. Are you saying that Facebook is better than real Face-time? That virtual friendships top real ones?
‘That depends on who you’re talking to! Facebook can occasionally cause problems, because it removes many levels of communication provided by body language. It’s easier to misinterpret just like text messages. But most of the time is a fun way to talk to people!’

James Lliff of Project Holodeck

James Lliff of Project Holodeck

Hmmm, I’m not convinced. One look around the library in Trinity College soon shows you where people’s minds are focused – on their smart phones and social media connections!
I persist with the two gaming geniuses: surely the substitution of the virtual world for the real can’t be that good?
They don’t seem too perturbed.
‘I think you are right in one point,’ says James, ‘computers have become a bigger part of life now, and the virtual world is being substituted for the real world more and more. But I see this as a positive evolution. For example, we’re not going to evolve into a species that’s addicted to computer screens and buttons – that’s just what we’ve started with. It’s not the most natural thing but it is only getting better!’
So you think the matrix is already here?
They both smile: ‘Not quite, but were getting there!’

One of the Holodeck game world environments - Tezarian Alliance by Colas Gauthier

One of the Holodeck game world environments – Tezarian Alliance by Colas Gauthier

What are your thoughts on the role of gaming and social media in the contemporary world – is it a good thing?
Vote in our poll below.
And check out Nathan and James’ website: http://www.projectholodeck.com/

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The future of gaming

Kevin trying out the Holodeck headset

Kevin trying out the Holodeck headset

Sometimes life presents one with an opportunity you do not expect. Last December I was meeting for a pre-Christmas lunch with Ben Murnane, who edited my book Age of Angels.
Age of Angels is about a computer game called Fallen Angel which everyone in the world is playing. The trouble is that the game is secretly created by Lucifer, the Fallen Angel!

Fallen Angel, the computer game, is also fully immersive. Once you put on your headset you are 100% in the virtual reality of the game. I set it in the future as fully immersive gaming is still some way off being developed to a level where it is commercially viable.

Imagine my surprise then, when we visited the Science Gallery after Christmas lunch to find that people were wondering around in headsets playing a fully submersive game! We discovered that we had walked right into the Holodeck Project, put together by a visiting team from the University of Southern California, one of the world’s leading private research universities, and located in the heart of Los Angeles.
Soon Ben and I had donned our headsets and were tottering about with our virtual light sabres, trying to inflict as much damage as possible on one another. As I suffer from mild vertigo and was soon trying to stop myself falling over; but as I was in a virtual world there was nothing “real” to hang onto! I had to just tough it out.

Kevin & Ben make it up after their "virtual" battle

Kevin & Ben make it up after their “virtual” battle

After the game I mopped my brow and had a word with two of the guiding lights behind the Holodeck Project: James Lliff and Nathan Burba. I asked James what the fully immersive experience had over computer games played on the conventional flat screen.

‘The major plus of a fully immersive virtual experience is often referred to as “sense of presence” – that’s how we feel completely embodied within a virtual environment, and completely removed from our natural environment.’

James believes a computer monitor can be compared to looking through a “window” into virtual reality – whereas a head-mounted display with motion tracking is like being inside the virtual reality itself.

‘Technically speaking, a screen generally offers you between 25° to 40° field-of-view (FOV),’ he said, ‘whereas a head-mounted display can offer 110°+ FOV, giving you peripheral vision.’

Apparently the human eyeball sees in 180° generally, so the closer you get to that with optics the more immersive the experience.

But how away far are we from buying these headsets on the high street? James is optimistic,

‘The Oculus RIft developer kits are shipping in March 2013, with a consumer version hitting the market later that year. So that’s pretty soon! As far as fully embodied VR with motion tracking, in addition to the head-mounted display, I would guess 2014 to early 2015.’

Below is an interview about the Holodeck Project shot at the University of Southern California. Check it out – you will see just how cool this game and these dudes really are!

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Do miracles exist?

 

The grotto where Mary appeared and a spring suddenly gushed

The grotto where Mary appeared and a spring suddenly gushed

Do miracles exist? I certainly felt in need of one this Christmas.
It had been a long, hard year. I was exhausted. There was no more in the tank.
Then on the day after Christmas as I flew to France for my sister’s wedding the flu struck. I spent 13 hours in airports and on planes. It was a nightmare. I needed to unplug. A week later I had recovered enough to visit Lourdes in search of that much-needed miracle.

Lourdes is the home of miracles. A spiritual powerhouse.
It all started on 11 February 1858 when a 14-year-old local girl, Bernadette Soubirous, claimed a beautiful lady appeared to her in the remote Grotto of Massabielle.

Mary appeared to Bernadette Soubirous

Mary appeared to Bernadette Soubirous

The lady later identified herself as “the Immaculate Conception” and the faithful believe her to be the Blessed Virgin Mary. A spring appeared at her feet and many sick people who bathed in the water were miraculously cured. So if a miracle was going to happen it was going to be here.

I arrived with my sister in Lourdes at midday on New Year’s Day 2013. It was cold, wet and windy and almost deserted.
I filled my little vial glass with Lourdes water from the spring at Mary’s feet.

Lourde's water

Lourde’s water

Then I entered the grotto. There is a small box where pilgrims place their personal petitions.
I wrote mine on a small scrap of paper and placed the petition in the box and walked around to the spot where Mary had stood; running my fingers across the cold, wet rock as I went. I stopped under the statue and made my final petition.

We then left the grotto and walked around the grounds, taking photos and watching the other pilgrims come and go.
Finally as the afternoon wore on we returned to the car and drove home. I felt lighter.
As we approached my sister’s house near Auch the heavy rain stopped and the sun shone low in the late afternoon sky, creating a rainbow that stretched across the road The rainbow stayed with us for a full 15 minutes till we stopped the car and got out to admire it.

Somewhere over the rainbow

Somewhere over the rainbow

By now it was a full double rainbow and it glowed with a clarity and power I had never seen before as we stood in childlike wonder. Then making a wish, we returned to the car feeling a rush of excitement. I slept well that night, a sound, deep sleep. Since I returned to Ireland the feeling has remained with me – as has the energy that stirred inside me that day.
Do miracles exist?
I guess so.
Lourdes is famous for the “throw away your crutches” spectacular miracles. But I believe they may appear in a more subtle form. It is a kind of internal miracle where the crushed spirit is uplifted and the broken heart healed.
Below writer Laurence O’Bryan interviews me about my visit to Lourdes.

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