Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

The man who spoke to men who stared at goats

Wednesday, February 10th, 2010

The man who spoke to men who stared at goats
November 18, 2009
Flux, The College View
By Cian Ginty

A secret US Army unit was founded in 1979. It was named the First Earth Battalion and it specialised in paranormal techniques. Its members attempted to walk through walls, and attempted to us a death stare on goats.

The Men Who Stare at Goats – a satirical film now in cinemas – is quite light-hearted compared to Jon Ronson’s 2004 book and Channel Four documentary of the same name. In some ways the documentary felt crazier than the film. The fictional film seems more believable than the documentary.

While Ronson uncovered the US army’s First Earth Battalion, he was, however, never convinced that these paranormal attempts were successful.

He says: “It’s a true story, which is all described in the book, about the crack team of American soldiers who decided to harness the power of the paranormal. So, they decided to try and become invisible and kill things by just looking at them. And all these things you actually can’t do, so the film is very funny about all these people who are trying desperately hard to do something that is impossible.”

The film in any case is only loosely based on the true story of the book or documentary. Quite a few things have changed. Ronson is now a fictional US newspaper reporter, Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor).

“He’s his own man in the film,” Ronson says of Ewan McGregor. “He does not really play me. Some of the actors in the film, like Jeff Bridges, are really harnessing the people that they are playing, the real people. George Clooney’s character too is very much so based on real people”.

It’s another way the film seems kind of toned down. While Bob Wilton is a notable character, he’s not half as memorable as the real life journalist, writer and documentary maker.

“Well my character is a tiny, terrified, owl-like, tiny little Jewish man. I’m like Penfold from Danger Mouse. And, so, Ewan McGregor is definitely more sort of fabulous than I am. But he is still quite sort of nebbish, and neurotic, and sort of diminished in a sort of nice way – so there’s a bit of me in there”.

The Hollywood Reporter called the film one of the “hotter market projects in Cannes,” but at one stage the film looked like it would never get made. The Men Who Stare at Goats screen play was floating around Hollywood for four years. “It was on its way out,” Ronson says. “It was getting to the stage that it might have been going around for too long and never being made and then George Clooney came along.”

“Hollywood being difficult as it can be it was quite possible it was going to be one of the greatest screen plays which was never made, so I’m really grateful… I’m very genuinely, honestly grateful to him.”

He says he is happy with the adaption. “I really like it, it’s very sweet, and it’s warm. And George Clooney is really good in it, and Peter Straughan wrote an absolutely brilliant screen play. I really liked it. I think it is a really likeable, kind of batty, sweet, small, film. It’s different to the book; my book is kind of darker. It goes into torture and so on, which the film only brushes up against really.”

But nerdishly he has searched for reaction on Twitter, telling Flux: “From time to time when I know there has been a big screening, like at a film festival, I’ll go on Twitter and see what people are saying when they are coming out. Not everybody comes out of the film liking it, but a lot of people do, enough to make it a success”.

Asked about his Twitter profile (@jonronson), and how he calls himself a writer on it, Ronson give a very typical answer, as if he was striving for perfection but an interview don’t give him the time to ponder for a few days. He says “I suppose I’m a journalist, I was getting airs and graces when I was saying that, I was getting a bit hoity toity.”

Then within the same breath, nearly backtracking, but more likely striving in his own mind for the right answer, he continues: “Although I am writing screen plays, so I suppose that’s not journalism, and the books are sort of journalism and sort of not. I mean I’m writing a book at the moment which is a little bit different, it’s not straight journalism. But you know journalists can be writers, the two aren’t incompatible by any means.”

He says being a perfectionist led to hating his column in The Guardian magazine on Saturdays. “I’m very, very glad I don’t have to do it anymore. I hated it. I absolutely despised it. It was driving me insane.”

Did he always hate it? “No, I liked it for about the first year. Then the last two years, I really hated it. It was awful. Because I’m a perfectionist and perfectionists shouldn’t write weekly columns. Weekly columns for perfectionists, you know, are killers. Because you just spend the whole time worrying. I worried my life away.”

He says he quit the column before his son was old enough to be aware of it. “I was exhausted and a bit nervous breakdownie, getting sleepless nights. But also I was going a bit Julie Myerson; I was in danger of selling out my family for a deadline.”

“Anything’s easier than writing; being in hospital is easier than writing,” he says on writing in general.

“Incredibly hard, exhausting, I’m amazed at how kind of knackered I get, “he says. “I can do about four hours. I try to start really early, so I try starting at about seven in the morning, but by 11 in the morning I feel like I’ve run a marathon. I’m definitely not one of those people who can knock it out really easily, it’s like fucking ripping out a core, it’s not pleasant. But when you get a sentence of right, there’s no better feeling.”

What kind of writing does he find the hardest? “Well I really do only one sort of writing, well that’s not true since I’ve been writing screen plays as well lately. I think I find all writing equally as hard. I care about it too much, I take it too seriously, I really, really care. I sort of always have done. Yeah… like when I was writing screen plays I was like this is much harder than writing books, but now that I’m writing another book thinking this is much harder than screen plays.”

He asks me about writing and we both come to the conclusion that news writing is easer then feature writing. But how does he find the jump from documentaries to screen writing? “It was definitely harder. It took a lot of relearning. I was lucky one of the screen plays I co-wrote with Peter Straughan, who wrote The Men Who Stare at Goats screen play, and so he kind of taught me a lot how to do it. But it took a long time relearning all the rules… I mean with my first screen play, I reckon, I was just sitting there learning how to do it for six months before I wrote anything that was any good.”

Pessimistically, adding “None of them have been filmed yet, so I could have just wasted a couple years of my life, but I hope not. I think at least one is going to get made, possibly two.”

And, on the adaptation of his other bestselling book, Them: Adventures with Extremists, he says, “Well, Edgar Wright is supposed to be adapting my book, Them, but you know the months and years are passing and he has not done it yet. I fucking hope he does, because I am a great fan of Edgar’s.”

What the five most memorable things you’ve done or seen?

1. “Sneaking into Bohemian Grove and witnessing some world leaders having a weird ritual with a human effigy being thrown into the fiery belly of a 50 foot stone owl.”

2. “With the Men Who Stare at Goats, when I first started to learn about the goat staring programme, about Project Jedi and all these different kind of levels of madness, I really, really loved that”.

3. “David Icke and his giant lizards… Oh, god this is hard, because there’s been so many.”

4. “I was once ousted as a Jew at a Jihad training camp near Gatwick Airport, that was memorable.”

5. “Watching the video in the Men Who Stare at Goats [documentary] where the hamster gets stared to death. Although at the end of the video the hamster gets up and brushes its self down, so, it’s an inconclusive death stare, at best.”

The Men Who Stared at Goats is out now

Point and click

Wednesday, February 10th, 2010

Point and click
September 29, 2009
Flux, The College View
By Cian Ginty

So, you want to take the perfect photograph so you can be reminded of that great college night for years to come?

On photos from nights out, one of the main things that repeatedly goes wrong is what could be called ‘There’s nobody-taking-the-bloody-photo’ effect – in layman’s terms: the person in the photograph with their arm stretched out with their finger on the button but no clue of where exactly the camera is aiming.

Don’t get me wrong here, some women seem to be turning it into an art form, and there are some great shots produced by this unconventional method. The phenomenon has even created some experts. However cameras are not designed for it – most are designed to be used at a distance of about a metre from the subjects.

However, if you’re disinclined to annoy random passers-by by asking them to take your photos, there are some things you can do to take these shots better:

1. Try to keep everyone in the photo the same distance away from the camera.

2. Aim by pointing the camera lens at the person in the centre of the photograph, or if it’s just two people the middle of the two of you.

3. Try taking the photo on the automatic setting and on portrait setting, depending on your camera, one may be better then the other.

4. Remember it’s better to try to take the photo twice or three times, rather than having one friend blinking or with their eyes closed (because of the flash rather than drink consumption).

Generally, if you’re taking photographs with a compact point-and-click camera, just put it on the automatic or default setting, point and then click. These cameras are designed to take exactly what you see in the display screen. Just remember, everything on the screen will be on the photo, so zoom in or out where needed. But that’s about it for messing with setting.

If you’re taking photos with a SLR and don’t know how to use it fully, lessons can be well worth it.

As for your subjects, get everybody to look at the camera lens. Saying ‘cheese’ seems to have gone out of fashion, something more active sometimes works to get smiles out of people, but not too shocking or you’ll just get strange looks.

If you’re experiencing problems with everybody’s faces being too bright, it likely is related to the flash. You could be just holding the camera too close to the subjects, try moving back if you can. Or if you’re able to mess around with the settings, try lowering the brightness of the flash, just a slight bit.

When you see what looks like light specks on a photo it could mean there’s dirt or small bit of dust on your lens.

For a large lens you should go to a camera shop and buy lens cleaning, it’s inexpensive. But for most compact cameras you’ll have a small lens – lightly cleaning it with a cotton bud swab can work. You risk scraping your lens by using your jumper.

One thing you should always remember is some of your best photos won’t be technically great, but will be great because what they remind you of.

Have fun snapping.

Estates investigate bike damage claims

Wednesday, February 10th, 2010

Estates investigate bike damage claims
December 13, 2009
The College View
By Cian Ginty

DCU Estates Office has launched an internal investigation into allegations that one of its staff members was found tampering with students’ bicycles, the College View can reveal.

The incident was reported last month to the Estates Office, as well as to the Students’ Union, when this newspaper witnessed a staff member letting the air out of both tyres of a student’s bicycle.

The bicycle was locked to a pole outside the Henry Grattan Building but was not blocking the entrance.

When approached by the College View, the employee in question said his name was “not relevant” and that he was carrying out the action because “there are blind people on campus”.

In an email to the College View, director of the Estates Office, Mike Kelly stated: “Whilst we discourage locking of bicycles to lamp posts, handrails and the like because they can cause hazards to people with disabilities, letting air out of people’s tyres is not something that we do or encourage”.

“I have investigated the matter and it will be dealt with internally in the Estates Office. I apologise for any inconvenience that this has caused.”

The SU said it would bring the matter up with university authorities.

“I think it is a bit ridiculous that a staff member interferes with anything that students own. I have come across others who have had the same problem and it just doesn’t make sense,” according to SU president Alan Keegan.

Keegan added: “The SU will be treating this as an important issue, because if a student did this to a staff member’s bicycle they would be thrown straight in front of the disciplinary committee and be reported to the Gardai.

“Double standards shouldn’t exist in this university and we will work to make sure this isn’t the case.”

Meanwhile, the Dublin Cycling Campaign said letting air out of tires as a form of punishment is “highly inappropriate behaviour” and that putting a notice on the bike or a similar action would be much more appropriate.

“All universities should have very clear bike-parking policies and well designed and sited facilities for same. Areas not for bike parking should be marked out for good reason, not just the perceived tidiness of the landscaping, and clearly signposted as such.

“On the other hand, the visually impaired certainly have a strong right to have their pathways clear,” according to Will Andrews of the Dublin Cycling Campaign.

“To my mind, deflating tyres causing complete loss of use of the bike is serious damage,” he added

Campaign against city centre bus gate ranges from dishonest to ill-informed

Wednesday, February 10th, 2010

Campaign against city centre bus gate ranges from dishonest to ill-informed
October 28, 2009
The College View
By Cian Ginty

It’s just after 6pm on Grafton Street on Thursday night and the silence is deafening,” one Sunday Independent journalist wrote recently. He must have gotten lost because the silence is never “deafening” on Grafton Street at 6pm on a weekday. It’s not within the realm of truth and accuracy.

Recently, RTE reported that “13 businesses including Brown Thomas, Weirs, Louis Copeland as well as shopping centre and car park owners, will go to the High Court” to challenge the bus gate. Brown Thomas have a car park of the same name, and shopping centres own or have a stake in car parks. The main opposition to the bus gate does not seem to be retailers, but car park owners.

There are other businesses against the bus gate, but car parks are at the forefront. They are hardly going to agree with any restrictions on cars. In any cases, business associations involved have from the start talked up car restrictions up so much that they may have damaged them their own business. There was a lot exaggerated talk of a “city centre car ban.”

The reality is all car parks in the city centre remain open and accessible. The bus gate only covers a small area streets and is only in force in the morning and evening rush hours. Traffic is not banned from the city, and that was never the plan.

Slurs have come from groups against the bus gate. First, Conor Keoghan of Brown Thomas Car Park made out that the bus gate was some type of Green Party conspiracy, with Eamon Ryan and John Gormley putting pressure on Dublin Bus and the Department of Transport who then in turn put pressure on the city council. This is the stuff of conspiracy theories.

Then, the Dublin City Centre Business Association chief executive Tom Coffey was reported to have said the bus gate is an “irresponsible political action by loony Greens and loony Labour.” This is strange as there’s no Green Party presence on the council. Is he trying to use the Greens to slur Labour councillors? Just to be clear on this, the bus gate was voted on by the city councillors, any Green Party part in this is – again – conspiracy theory.

Business groups have also being talking on radio shows about numbers that back their claims. The first figures they started to talk about were transport usage numbers. These numbers showed just how important cars are to retailers. The problem? These Dublin city centre businesses were quoting national transport usage figures! While car usage in Dublin is high compared to other European capitals, quoting national figures is a distortion.

Labour councillor Andrew Montague says council counts show a 34% increase in cyclists passing by the area since the interdiction of the bus gate. Business may try to claim that cyclists don’t have the spending power of car users, but studies contradict this. Another figure given is drop in car park use. But the council claims usage of their multi-storey car park near Grafton Street returned to normal just one week after the bus gate was introduced.

Traders says business is down on Grafton Street, but it was retailers who originally objected to Grafton Street being pedestrianised, which has been a massive success. Keoghan of Brown Thomas Car Park told the Sunday Independent that the bus gate “has killed late night shopping and restaurants and pubs.” Maybe Brown Thomas have still not heard of the economic downturn? People going up North or online to buy more likely pose more of a risk to shops like Brown Thomas.

Meanwhile, both Dublin City Council and Dublin Bus say the bus gate has been a success. It has done exactly what it set out to do – improve bus times in the area that had been identified repeatedly as a critically congested area.

But, yet, besides car parks, there are comments against the bus gate from strange quarters. “I cannot help wondering what exactly is the purpose of the new traffic management system on College Green,” DCU president Ferdinand von Prondzynski wrote on his blog. Adding “I don’t recall College Green itself being a public transport trouble spot.”

There’s quite simple answers to his questions: The area around College Green had been identified in independent reports as a heavy area of congestion. The purpose is quite clear – it is to give public transport priority over private cars (even a bus with hardly anybody on it is more productive than two cars which take up the same space on the road).

Von Prondzynski also points to increased traffic elsewhere in the city centre. This is bound to happen. There’s not enough space for large amounts of people to be driving in the city.

Dublin is full and it makes for an unproductive workforce, a city too full to do productive business in, a poor quality of life for residents, and a poor experience for visitors. The question is do you want to give priority to public transport and let the city breathe. The council has answered yes.

Obsession with property ownership which got us into this mess continues

Wednesday, February 10th, 2010

Obsession with property ownership which got us into this mess continues

October 14, 2009
The College View
By Cian Ginty

Nic Retsinas, a director at the Centre for Housing Studies at Harvard University, said recently that the Irish have a home-owning obsession which we need to lose. Comments along with a poll at IrishTimes.com prove Retsinas correct – we are still obsessed by property, or at least a large enough proportion of us are as to matter.

The poll asked, “Do Irish people have a home-owning ‘obsession’?” and while the majority agreed we had, 30% were in denial. Comments along with the poll were even more alarming.

“Renting is money down the drain with nothing to show for it at the end,” said one, adding: “Renting is only good if you want to live somewhere temporarily.”

Retsinas was quoted earlier that week by the same newspaper as saying: “Society almost demonised renting. You weren’t smart if you rented. But, as it turns out, those who rented could be said to be the smart ones now as property prices crash.”

While renters in general are now clearly better off than most who have bought property in recent years, it is probably unwise to think mindsets have changed so dramatically.

Another commenter said home-owning is not an obsession but comes from the “fundamental need for shelter.”

This commenter also described renting as “an insecure way to live,” with renters being at the “mercy of landlords.”

The bulk of comments left seemed to be against renting.

“Yes. It comes from memories of the mass-evictions and rack-rents during the Famine,” said another, with many others saying things in the same vein.

For an event – even on the scale of the Famine – to still have such a grip on our national mindset is telling.

Many others bizarrely asked what’s wrong with it if we do have an obsession. But an obsession by its nature is unhealthy. In the recent past, our obsession grew so out of control people were buying houses they could hardly afford.

This can’t really be disputed – the fact that banks were giving loans out to people far above what they could afford is now well established.

Obsession led to the irrational behaviour of buying property over an hour’s commute away from people’s workplaces, damaging family life and general quality of life for decades to come. This inflated property prices.

Because people were so obsessed with owning property we made things worse for ourselves and everybody else. This directly led to the mess we are currently in. But the renters are apparently still fools.

Of course, things are changing. Record levels of people who moved into Dublin city centre and the area between the canals confirms this shift.

The trend of renting accommodation, whether houses or apartments, in cities and close by suburbs is firmly established in other European countries, and Ireland is slowly coming to terms with it too. But the amount of anger expressed over the issue of home ownership obsession is akin to asking a alcoholic if they have an obsession with drink.

If it is not an obsession clouded with emotion then the reaction would not be so volatile.

It looks as if many have not learned any lessons from the property bust.

Even if the idea of renting is off-putting, it is far superior to getting a loan you can’t afford or living so far away that you’re commuting over an hour each way every day. Guidelines around building apartments have started to be strenghtened, while laws surrounding renting have been increased.

If more protection for renters is needed it should be put in place rather then dismissing renting or talking about demon landlords.

As Retsinas said: “People should not be obsessed with owning a property. Maybe the issue should not be about home ownership but about something such as making sure people live in decent homes.”

Parking at DCU: Why are so many students driving in the first place?

Wednesday, February 10th, 2010

Parking at DCU: Why are so many students driving in the first place?

December 2009
The College View
By Cian Ginty

The vast majority of third level students in Dublin travel by public transport. Car users are a minority. But even with the downturn, large amounts of students are still driving and in the process many are annoying local residents by filling roads around DCU with parked cars.

Anecdotal stories about students driving short distances to DCU, even as close as across the Ballymun Road behind the Slipper, are confirmed by Census data. The stats show that 20 students over 19 years old in Ireland drive less than a kilometre to college. More strikingly 1,415 students in the same group travel by car up to 1km and 6,285 travel 2-4km. If you’ve ever walked up and down Grafton Street, that’s 1km.

Over 1,400 students in Ireland said they drive or get driven this distance daily. Corresponding to this, 100,000 people are driving less than 4km to work in Dublin alone. And people wonder why the roads are clogged up?

Many people live too far away or too far from good bus routes to make other means viable, so driving in those cases is fair enough. But these people alone cannot account for the high numbers using cars.

You’d think with all the hype about climate change that people would drive less. But a recent Eurobarometer survey on attitudes towards climate change showed that 56% respondents in Ireland viewed climate change as a “very serious problem”. While the vast majority of other EU countries view the problem more seriously.

So, if Irish people think climate change isn’t that serious, it’s easy to think we, collectively, are doing enough. With this kind of attitude, driving when there’s no need to is no harm at all.

A large percentage of Irish people say they have taken action to help fight climate change. But just a dismal 24% (EU average 28%, dismal itself) say they have taken an environmentally friendly form of transport. And only 15% say they have reduced their car usage (EU average 24%).

So, back to DCU. Why would the university provide extra parking spaces when it’s Government and Dublin City Council policy to promote greener transport? It would also be a massive waste of money spent on a minority of students when funding is short. Also, promoting car usage in the run up to Metro North construction is the last thing that’s needed. By promoting more sustainable transport modes traffic will suffer less, leaving roads free for those that actually need to use them.

Not providing extra parking at DCU will likely continue to annoy residents, but there’s an easy solution here. Residents can request the city council to mark the area as residential and paid parking only. If there are areas unsuitable for parking they should be marked as such.

There’s also a clear case for cars parked illegally or dangerously to be reported to the clampers or the Gardai. Otherwise everybody has the same right to park on streets, and residents will have to get used to this.

Want to take a picture? You’ll need a permit

Tuesday, November 17th, 2009

Want to take a picture? You’ll need a permit
Wednesday, September 30, 2009
The Irish Times
Cian Ginty

Start taking pictures at the IFSC and security staff on Segways might intervene – and it isn’t the only location where photographers need permission

THE UK has seen a surge of reports of photographers being stopped from photographing, largely down to anti-terrorism laws or over-zealous police officers and security guards. In April, two Austrian tourists were told by London police that photographing public transport was “strictly forbidden”. The officers demanded that the pictures be deleted. Amateur photographers and train-spotters, as well as photojournalists, have all told similar stories, and Ireland does not seem to be immune.

In the last year or more, the subject has become a recurring topic on the photography section of the Irish internet discussion site, boards.ie. If you visit Dublin’s IFSC area with a camera, for instance, be ready to be approached by a security guard on a two-wheeled Segway vehicle. “I was just wandering around during my lunch break taking a few photos when I was approached by the guy on the Segway,” says Brian O’Reilly, an amateur photographer.

“I was very surprised to be approached. . . I think the ban is a bit ridiculous. What harm can come from taking photos there?”

The Dublin Docklands Development Authority (DDDA) says that within the IFSC area of the Docklands, the management company have guidelines in place “mainly for promotions and filming in the area”.

However, the management company, HSG Zander, says that all types of photography require a permit from them in advance.

“As the IFSC is private property we are governed by the tenants to implement a strict security regime. A full application process must be addressed prior to approval, which entails completion of a general application form and insurance forms. There is also a permit charge associated with each application granted. These costs can only be determined once the application forms are received,” says Alison O’Neill, facilities manager and health and safety officer at HSG Zander Ireland. “Failure to produce a valid permit will result in security requesting you to leave the centre.”

Asked if this applies to all types of photography, including amateur photography and whether it covers public events held in the IFSC area, O’Neill says, “This system applies to everything. However, exclusive permission must be sought also from the Docklands for events such as the Urban Beach.”

Of the rest of the Docklands, Aileen Cummins at the DDDA says that, “In relation to guidelines for photographing in the Docklands area – excluding the IFSC and privately owned buildings – there are none currently in place. We allow all types of photography but we would like to be informed when and where someone will be photographing.”

Photographers have also complained about being stopped by security on the Dart and Luas in Dublin. One student claims that when they had been out on a photographic assignment taking long exposure shots of trams from a Luas stop it was “implied” their cameras would be taken from them if they did not move on quickly.

On boards.ie others have complained that security guards working for Luas said the operator owned the “copyright” for the tram, but a representative from the company corrected this by saying that simply taking photographs on Luas property was not allowed.

The Railway Procurement Agency (RPA) confirmed that Veolia Transport, the private company that operates Dublin’s Luas lines on behalf of the State, takes a strict reading of the by-laws covering tramways.

The by-laws say that without permission of the operator, a person should not use any camera or video recorder as to “interfere” with any other person. Veolia takes this to mean that photography is not allowed without permission. The RPA says: “Veolia Transport Dublin Light Rail Ltd, the current Luas operator, require any individual wishing to photograph a light rail vehicle or the light railway to obtain a permit in advance of so doing.”

Irish Rail takes a very different view even though its by-laws are written similarly. “We are very open in relation to photography for personal use. Obviously with the rail enthusiast community, it’s something we’re quite used to,” says Irish Rail spokesman Barry Kenny. “There is no issue with hand-held cameras. If there is use of a tripod involved, we will generally get the photographer to sign an indemnity form.”

He adds that photography is only permitted in public areas and photographers should not get in the way of customers or staff.

Digital Rights Ireland have a guide to photographers’ rights online which says that: “In general, you are entitled to take pictures of anything you wish, when in a public place. You may take pictures of private property, people, or anything else you fancy.”

With regard to private property, the guide says: “On private property, you are also generally allowed to take photographs, provided you have permission to be on the property. However, the owner can impose conditions on your entry to the property, which may include a complete ban on photography, a ban on photography of certain things, or a ban on certain types of photography, (for example, flash photography, video or photography).”

It goes on to say that, “Even where permission is not explicitly needed to enter the property, the owner is entitled to demand that you cease taking photographs, or that you leave the property. If you are asked to leave a property, you should not be threatened or attacked.

“Reasonable force may be used to remove you if necessary. In general, you are better off leaving when asked – the fact that you should not be threatened, does not mean you won’t be. The owner has no right to confiscate or damage any of your equipment.”

Alan Murphy, a photographer who runs irishphotographers.ie, believes the issue has potentialy serious consequences. “Has anyone stopped to ask why people can’t actually take photographs as they wish – what is the big concern? I see no real justification to stop people taking photographs in the general run of everyday life – as we move through the century we will have no iconic images of children playing, people going about their daily life, lovers kissing in the streets – the images that help us recollect our yesteryear. To be honest it depresses me.”

–ENDS–

Havok overview feature for PC Live

Wednesday, August 12th, 2009

Havok overview feature
PC Live magizine
As sent, not as published
October 2008
By Cian Ginty

Gaming friends can be bitterly divided over which games console is the best — is it the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, or the Wii? And what about the handhelds consoles? An Irish company called Havok plays with them all.

Havok don’t make games. But the Dublin-based company makes software tools, called middleware, which allows game developers to focus on making better games. The ‘Havok Physics’ software is what Havok is best known for. Without it each game developer would have to rewrite the book each time.

The tools Havok makes allow games to simulate real-world physics inside virtual worlds. If an enemy henchman is shot down, he’ll fall in a realistic way. Or the game designers want, it can help create wacky physics reaction in real looking worlds. In Havok’s own words, its business is to turn its “customers’ creative aspirations into technical realities”.

It all started ten years ago when Steve Collins and Hugh Reynolds founded Telekinesys Research out of Trinity College Dublin. Both founders have since left; Collins is now back at Trinity heading up a computer games course (see panel), and Reynolds has been advising other companies.

In 2002 they secured funding from state agency Enterprise Ireland and venture capitalists, but it was over the next two years that Havok started to attract the public’s attention.

Physics was a limited factor in games; at least gamers or the gaming press didn’t mention it. The release of Max Payne 2 in 2003 and Half-Life 2 a year later started to change things. The award-winning games were some of the first titles to feature what was advance “rag doll” physics at the time, making virtual bodies act like real bodies. Both games could have been seen as a type of showcase for physics in games. For Half-Life 2, game studio Valve communicated with programmers at Havok to developed what was described as a “heavily modified” version of then current Havok tool set.

Another boost came before the launch of the PlayStation 3 when Havok done a deal with the console manufacture Sony to have their basic package to be bundled with the software development kits for the system. A development kit is used by game developers to program games for the PS3 console.

At the start of last month, Havok signed another deal with rival console maker Microsoft. The US software giant has been licensing Havok’s physics products since 2001, and they expanded on this to include the use of the newer tools for Microsoft’s internal Xbox 360 and PC studios and development partners around the world.

Today the Irish connection can be found in hundreds of games for the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Wii, the PC, and older consoles. Some of the big names include Halo 3, Spore, Assassin’s Creed, Guitar Hero III, BioShock, Heavenly Sword, MotorStorm, FEAR, Second Life, and Star Wars: The Force Unleased. It is expected Havok code will be used in even more titles which are due to be released by the end of the year and beyond, such as Alan Wake, Indiana Jones and the Staff of Kings, Fable 2,  Halo Wars, and Banjo Kazooie: Nuts and Bolts.

And the Dublin company’s package of offerings were updated and expanded in September. This included: ‘Havok Behavior’ to set different behaviours to characters; ‘Havok Animation’ to aid game animators; ‘Havok Cloth’ to control the way flexible surfaces like curtains, vegetation, hair, and garments move; and ‘Havok Destruction’ which simulates destruction.

In plain English, the new tools are aimed at allowing game developers to do more with less work. Havok says “Destruction gives the game artist total control over the simulation, drastically reducing the production time and cost of creating large numbers of realistic destructible game objects.”

Launching Havok 6.0 with the new elements last month, managing director, David O’Meara said the move “underlines Havok’s commitment to focus on building modular software solutions that address the key challenges facing games developers, without pushing a hardware agenda or demanding adoption of a monolithic system. Our philosophy is to empower the entire development team so every person involved in the process can work more effectively to create the most visually stunning entertainment possible.”

Hollywood also uses Havok software to make films more realistic, although the company says this is a small part of the business that it has not promoted. Most of the handful of film studios they have worked with have come to them. The films include: The Matrix, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, X-Men: The Last Stand, Poseidon, Troy, Kingdom of Heaven, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and 10,000 BC.

For the Titanic-like disaster film Poseidon, the Motion Picture Company were nominated for an Oscar for visual effects and Havok were accredited with helping gain the nomination. Havok’s sole efforts were awarded recognition in January when the US Academy of Television Arts and Sciences awarded them an Emmy for “pioneering new levels of realism and interactivity in movies and games.” The company also holds two Develop Industry Excellence Award and a raft of other awards.

Success attracts attention. Rival middleware provider, RenderWare, have stopped signing new licensing deals since they were bought up by published Electronic Arts (EA). A win-win for Havok as EA are still using its products too. EA seamed to have been more focused on buying up RenderWare’s owner, the Burnout 3 developer Criterion than buying middleware section of the company.

A number times in the past Havok’s David O’Meara said they were ‘‘not interested’’ in being acquired by a larger firm. He told the Sunday Business Post: “If people ever hint that they are interested in acquiring Havok, our answer is that we are doing too well and are not interested. Even if someone approached us, I can’t see that happening.”

Havok wanted to remain independent.

And they did so until late last year when chip manufacture Intel approached them with a takeover worth $110 million which would still offer an acceptable level of independents. “We really wanted to get as close as possible to a non-partisan player” said O’Meara, to the Irish Times. “Intel’s scale of technology investment and customer reach enable Havok with opportunities to grow more quickly into new market segments with new products than we could have done organically.”

Havok made it clear in statements about the Intel deal that it will “continue to operate as an independent business.” O’Meara told industry magazine Develop: “At the time of Criterion’s acquisition, people would say what would happen to us – could EA step in, buy Havok too, and leave them with a problem? I had given them assurances both verbally and sometimes in writing to publishers that we would never go down that road. I have always wanted to make sure that we put that first.”

He added Intel would bring unseen advantages beyond its size: “We have been very hesitant about selling in China because of protection of intellectual property [IP]. Intel has Fab plants under construction there so it is a major player in the Chinese market. We feel, rightly or wrongly, that Intel has more clout with our IP than we would have alone.”

To promote PC gaming, a PC version of Havok Complete was made available as a free download for non-commercial users and to Intel-approved commercial users. Intel’s Renee J James said at the time it “Aligns well with our ongoing strategy of putting the best software tools in the hands of PC games developers.”

Another show of strength since the Intel buyout is Havok recently launching a prize fund of €40,000 to support math and physics education. The Havok Physics Innovation Contest fund, which includes a dedicated section for third level students in Ireland, aims to find “the next big thing in game developing.”

“We want to play our part in encouraging the use of math and physics in a demanding but fun way and show how cool math and physics can be. We have a host of fantastic prizes on offer to reward the most imaginative projects and are delighted to offer a special prize to the best PC game demo from an Irish third level student,” said David O’Meara. “Havok is always on the lookout for emerging talent and anticipate that the competition will generate innovative entries from the amateur game developer community.”

Havok now has around 100 staff. Most of its programming staff are employed at the Digital Hub in Dublin, while it also has offices in San Francisco, San Antonio, Kolkata (Calcutta), Munich, and Tokyo.

SIDE PANEL: MSc in Computer Science (Interactive Entertainment Technology)

Directed by Steven Collins, a co-founder of Havok, the MSc in Computer Science (Interactive Entertainment Technology) is entering its second academic year this month at the School of Computer Science & Statistics in Trinity College Dublin.

Besides the deceptive name, it is a computer games course. It aims to equip students with a theoretical and practical knowledge in the design and development of the technology behind video games. It is focused on the technical side rather than designing games.

“The course is very technology focussed, will require a degree in computing (or related subject) and is aimed at educating students about the core technologies driving primarily the game industry but these technologies are also hugely relevant in other industries including the wider entertainment space, media, simulation and communications,” said Steven Collins, on his blog when the course launched last year.

Collins has also said the focus is on “the international industry,” not the small Irish industry along.

For the masters, a Microsoft sponsored ‘XNA Gamelab’ is kitted out with Microsoft Xbox 360 consoles and PCs. Each student has access to Xbox 360s and PCs with Microsoft DirectX 10 GPUs and student are also promised to have the latest hardware and software as well as classes by leading researchers in related fields.

The design of the one-year masters computer games course was set up in collaboration with Microsoft, Irish middleware firm Demonware, and games developer Radical Entertainment. There has also been a seminar series involving Irish games companies such as Dark Water, BitRabbit, and Frantic Games.

Modules include Vision Systems and Augmented Reality, Graphics Hardware and Real time Rendering, Real time Animation & Physics, Data Communications & Networks, Artificial Intelligence & Autonomous Agents, Software Engineering for Concurrent and Distributed Systems, and Numerical Methods & Advanced Mathematical Modeling.

It’s a mix of assigned coursework, written examination, a group project and a research dissertation.

Places are limited to 25 each year due to laboratory space. Graduates should have a second-class honours degree, or better, in computing, information technology, engineering, mathematics, statistics, or physics. Fees for EU students last year were €1,600.

For more information see the course website at http://isg.cs.tcd.ie/IET/.

— ends —

EDITORIAL: What’ next? blocking Google?

Friday, July 31st, 2009

What’ next? blocking Google?
April 25, 2008

With Ballyfermot college’s internet censorship expanded once again – even if access to Yahoo was only restricted  for around a week – we find our selves saying again:

The blocks have no place in a modern third level education establishment, and such is even more so the case for a media focused college.

Blocking websites could be appropriated for secondary schools, but treating third level students like this amounts to counterproductive censorship. It is on par with China’s censorship of its people, not because the intent is there, but due to the results.

The college is at fault creating a weakness in knowledge, and experience for its students. It is putting students of a small college in a disadvantage in an area that it is completely unnecessary.

Darklight festival calls for student work

Friday, July 31st, 2009

Darklight festival calls for student work
January 24, 2008

Darklight_logo_07The organisers of the Darklight art, film and technology festival have requested  submissions for their 2008 programme, including student work.

Darklight 2008, described as the premier festival for digital filmmakers, animators and artists, will take place from June 26 to 29.

With no restrictions on genre, length or number of submitted works, the event welcomes a wide range of content including feature films, experimental video works, CG animation, games sequences, and music videos.

“We really, really want to see your work… Darklight explores the convergence of art, film, and technology and focuses on work that challenges concepts, visual aesthetic, narrative, access, methods of production, and dialogue, through contemporary film-making techniques,” said the organisers in their latest newsletter.

“We support and encourage work that pushes technological boundaries and displays creative excellence. Our mission is to nurture new talent and to create bold new possibilities for the imagination”. People interisted are asked to visit darklight.ie.