Friday, 9 December 2011

Mandalorians, Jedi & Sith! Oh My!

I was recently disappointed to have prematurely finished reading the Republic / Imperial Commando Series of Star Wars Novels by Karen Travis - disappointed because I was thoroughly enjoying delving deeper into Mandalorian Culture and premature because the series has abruptly ended because of a dispute between the author and her publishers over the official Star Wars canon. The dispute basically renders the chronology of the Commando Series impossible in favour of developments in the Clone Wars cartoon and leaves the main protagonists of the novel in limbo.

Whilst the expansion of Mandalorian psyche which has taken place under Travis has been generally met with approval amongst fans, her treatment of the Jedi has not. Some of the exchanges between reader and writer have reached levels of vitriol which are a testament to the emotional investment that Star Wars fans have placed in the world originally created by George Lucas. Lucas himself is often a target for some hardcore fans who don't think the legacy of the original three films can be left in the hands of a man who in their eyes botched the prequel movies, introducing the likes of Jar-Jar Binks, Medichlorians & an annoying Darth Vader Junior. Some go so far as claim to relieved Lucas of his responsibilities for the franchise through their championing of Fan Literature or alternative timelines.

I tend to side with those who condemn Travis' treatment of the Jedi and can see much in the argument that the author has taken far too much of her own political views into her story telling. If authentic, the crux of the issue can easily be identified in an interview Travis gave for Infinity Plus

"I see Vader as a tragic character who's been betrayed by everyone, and I can't help thinking of the Jedi as self-serving unelected elitist spoon-benders making whoopee on Republic taxpayers' credits. It's an iconoclastic journo world-view. Believe me, Order 66 was long overdue. I have a couple of Jedi that I don't want to shoot on sight, but they're my own creations, so I could make them a little humbler and more aware of the consequences they create for others"

How someone with such views actually got to write a Star Wars book is beyond me and it's a great shame because I genuinely like the Madalorian clan Travis has created. I enjoy the various explorations of the philosophy of the force that have been present in other novels. Is there really a Light Side and Dark Side of the force or is there One Force which can be used for Good or Evil? There is nothing wrong with exploring things from "a different point of view" and expanding on the background of the creation of the Clone Army, the inability of the Jedi to perceive the threat of Palpatine and the fate of the Clones but it shouldn't have been done at the very basic premise that Jedi are a force for good in the Star Wars universe. To my mind, Travis' depiction of the Jedi is as ignoble as the books which saw the Jedi embrace moral relativism as their guidance in the use of the Force.

With that said, I am still disappointed that there will be no follow up to 501st Legion - perhaps someone will eventually pick up Skirta and his lads where he left off, rescuing him and the Jedi from the abyss in which they have been left.

Friday, 2 December 2011

Gary Speed, Depression & Suicide

I am writing this post sitting up in bed drinking some effervescent vitamin C feeling rather drained.

Man Flu is a real issue and comes about because quite frankly, men are weaker than women.

It has been some time since I last blogged and I put that down to a) not having the time to comment on mundane things and b) not having a topic which enthused me enough to blog. As I now find myself drifting in and out of a Lemsip induced trance, I thought I might put virtual pen to virtual paper.

This week, I was shocked and saddened to hear of the tragic death of Gary Speed. It is always difficult to accept the death of someone before their time but it is even more so when that person takes their own life. In Gary Speed's case, we don't yet know the details which led him to his decision, but it is all the more poignant because every single friend who has spoken about him has been dumbstruck and unable to identity the source of his difficulties.

The Beatles suggested that "All you need is love" but this simply is not true. You also need Faith and Hope. People who do decide to take their own lives may no longer have Faith in other people or believe that no-one has Faith in them. They also do not hope for something better or beyond their suffering.

The very day that Gary Speed took his own life, his fellow former professional footballer Stan Collymore was in the midst of a depressive episode. In it, he wrote a poignant and informative description of what it was like.

The Catholic Church has not always had a complete understanding of suicide because the psychological impact of depression was not understood until relatively recently. It was therefore always analysed in purely spiritual terms.

Suicide is contrary to the Fifth Commandment and contrary to justice, hope, and charity.

As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states in paragraph 2281, "Suicide contradicts the natural inclination of the human being to preserve and perpetuate his life. It is gravely contrary to the just love of self. It likewise offends love of neighbour because it unjustly breaks the ties of solidarity with family, nation, and other human societies to which we continue to have obligations. Suicide is contrary to love for the living God."

It was often believed to be the one sin for which one could not be forgiven because suicide was committed against Hope and the Holy Spirit - the giver of life (Mt 12: 31). For this reason, those who had committed suicide were often denied a Christian burial.

Particular condemnation is reserved for those who encourage it as a viable social norm:

"If suicide is committed with the intention of setting an example, especially to the young, it also takes on the gravity of scandal. Voluntary co-operation in suicide is contrary to the moral law." (CCC §2282)

Today, the Church understands that as a person needs to be in full control of their faculties to bear the full responsibility of a sin, the gravity of suicide can be mitigated by its circumstances:

"Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide." (CCC §2282)

It also actively encourages the faithful to pray for those who have died in such tragic circumstances:

"We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives. By ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance. The Church prays for persons who have taken their own lives." (CCC 2283)

I knew Gary Speed was a consummate professional and a proud Welshman but as the tributes continue to pour in, it is clear that he was a great friend to many people.

May choirs of angels come to greet him & speed him to paradise. May the Lord enfold him in His mercy. May he find eternal life.

PS: For the record, the Patron Saints for those suffering with depression and anxiety are St Jude and St Dymphna.

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Dad's Birthday Cake

An Orange chocolate Fudge Cake

Why the fuss? England and Wales

So, Wales are out of the world cup. Most of us will blame the referee, Alain Rolland, but the simple fact is that even with 14 men, Wales should have won. Warburton's tackle on Vincent Clerc was not malicious and may not even have been intended but it gave Rolland a choice to make and the choice he made was red.
Again, many will cry foul that a man with a French father was chosen to referee the game. You can't call Rolland's integrity into question but to prevent the issue even being raised, the sensible thing would have been to appoint a different referee.

After the loss, in addition to the exasperation being poured forth from Welsh hearts, Twitter was also awash with exchanges between Welsh and English Tweeters which included the gambit of genuine sympathy, friendly banter, condescension and outright glee.

I enjoy a good bit of banter with my English fans. I certainly don't hate the English any more than I hate any other nation. Each individual must be considered on their own merit. With that said, I do find it hard to give my unqualified support to England in sport. I am far more likely to support teams that are playing the game the way I like it to be played and more often than not, England fail to deliver.

The issue of the Welsh (Scots and Irish) supporting whoever was played was playing was raised by Stan Collymore (@StanCollymore),  instantly starting a firestorm. Stan then went on to say that he would never support a team whose followers booed his national anthem & a minority of whom burnt down cottages because of the owners nationality. Cue a barrage of vitriol against English atrocities at home and abroad. Stan has since deleted the Tweet.

Let's be clear - booing another nation's national anthem or showing it disrespect is poor. It shows a lack of class bordering on racism. In my experience, Wales is full of people who hate the English - Wales does have it's racists. These are the type of racists however who think it's fine to have an English friend because 'that's different'. Are they the worst kind I wonder? With that said, certain English attitudes don't contribute in a constructive to the problem. Nothing is more likely to enrage than indifference in superiority.

Stan's final comment on the matter was 'Why the fuss?'. Unfortunately, Stan's opinion is at the root of matter. England has never been subjugated to another nation where as Wales, Scotland and Ireland have been invaded and humbled by their English neighbours. The glories of the British Empire don't mean as much when you have no choice but to take part (I am reminded of a line from the film The Last of the Mohicans, "I thought British Policy was to make the World England, Sir").

The Celtic nations' subjugation occurred in the past but each has managed to maintain its own integrity. We cannot forget about that past however as it is part of our story. It's in our songs, our history and our culture. That is what I feel some English folk fail to understand.

I for one hope the banter continues - having bragging rights until the next match is worth going through the emotions of a big match.
Extra: I had a conversation with a Welsh friend who lives in England on Sunday and she brought to attention another facet of this dynamic, namely an inferiority complex. Some of those who feel threatened by what they perceive as actual or projected English superiority actually perpetuate Celtic 'inferiority' with their attitudes towards the English. It encourages those who look on the Celts with distain to maintain their position and locks further generations into the same dynamic.

Friday, 14 October 2011

Library Camp 2011 - Having your cake and eating it

For further details and blog posts, see

On Saturday 8 October I was lucky enough to attend Library Camp in Birmingham, the first "unconference" I had ever attended. An "unconference", takes advantage of the phenomenon that often it’s in the informal sessions and chance conversations at traditional conferences that the best dialogue happens and the right people come together, in the right place at the right time. As such, people just turned up to Library Camp, the brave pitched their ideas at the beginning and a number of sessions were arranged during the day.

Before going into details, I have to say that Library Camp is the best conference I have ever attended. Looking back this was for two reasons. Firstly, the informal atmosphere encouraged everyone to socialise and this made everyone more likely to express their views in the various sessions and workshops. Secondly, as the itinerary was decided on the day taking ideas from the floor, "campers" (delegates is far too formal a word to describe attendees) were able to both hold and attend sessions on topics of most interest to them.

The social aspect of Library Camp was truly fantastic. For many, it was the first opportunity they had to meet some of the familiar (or not so familiar!) faces they had met through Twitter. "Twitter Bingo" was played by most campers as they attempted to match avatars with their real life counterparts. Most of the campers wore badges with their Twitter usernames to be extra helpful. The convivial atmosphere had been set in motion the night before as Librarians and Shambarians from across the country were invited to tour the currently under construction Birmingham Library, enjoy a few pints at the Old Joint Stock Exchange and finish the night with a Curry at Milan's. Campers from Wales would also have been buoyed by our epic victory against Ireland in the Rugby. A constant companion to the friendly atmosphere was cake and hot drinks on demand. Librarians and Shambrians may differ on the relative merits of Gin and Beer but on cake, they stand united and the Library Campers didn't disappoint. The bounty of cake and sweet produce on display was approaching levels of decadency and I wasn't the only camper who woke up the next day with a sugar hangover!

The actual sessions arranged at the beginning of the event were as diverse as the campers - academic and subject librarians, public librarians, special collection managers, museum librarians, archivists and shambrarians all pitched their ideas with complete equality. There was a rather disappointing turn out from heads of service and management level but those that did attend made a fantastic contribution to the various discussions and debates. 

I personally attended sessions on "The Library as Social Space", "Using Library Data", "Open Source in Libraries" and "Gaming in Libraries".

The Library as Social Space

This session explored the interesting dichotomy between the concept of the social network and libraries as a social space. As aspects of socialising increasing become virtual, how do libraries respond to changing trends particularly as visitor numbers are decreasing.

This session perhaps highlighted the greatest differences between academic and public institutions. Though both can be considered to be concerned with improving access to knowledge and learning, public libraries have to be increasingly concerned with "footfall" in order to "justify" their existence. An obsession with numbers and statistics can potentially lead to the ludicrous scenario where libraries are forced tailor their services in an attempt to match their "expected" statistics. I believe that public librarians have a much more difficult task in this respect as their "customers" are far more diverse than their academic counterparts who at least have one thing (i.e. association with the University) in common. 

What we need to stop doing and
 what we need to start doing
The less diverse profile of academic library users also makes it easier to design the space in the library according to their needs. It was agreed that diverse study "environments" were essential in University life - long gone are the days of homogeneous desks and ubiquitous silence in favour of individual cubicles, quiet study areas, study pods for small groups, free-for-all study halls and library cafes. Public libraries may be able to provide similar environments in their main libraries (in addition to child friendly areas) but it is rare that a local library can offer such luxuries. The onus therefore falls on the local librarian to be accommodating and welcoming to all sections of the community that they serve and represent.

At the close of the session, we finally concurred that the social network and the library as a social space need not be mutually exclusive - most library services have a Facebook page and many are beginning to use Twitter. Engaging with users in the virtual world is likely increase the likelihood they will engage with us in the physical world.   

Using Library Data

Owen Stephens (@ostephens) used this workshop to highlight how poor libraries are at using data which belongs to them and which they often have to collate and publish anyway. 

More Cake
Owen began his pitch by outlining how he had built an application which told him how much money his family had saved by getting books out of his local library rather than buying them from Amazon. If it were universally available, using data like this would be an incredibly powerful tool for libraries and librarians. Amazon performs witchcraft with its purchasing data as it suggests things you might also like or e-mails you regarding special offers of interest. Imagine how efficient purchasing departments could become if were able to make use of circulation statistics or how intuitive reading lists could be if loan data was collated?

The final part of the session was dedicated to exploring some of the obstacles to such data utopia. The opening up of connectors and APIs is hot potato at the moment as are issues surrounding data protection. Owen expressed his exasperation with the fact that though many LMS companies suggest they operate "Open Interfaces", they're only open if you subscribe to or buy their products. This makes development of a pan-LMS solution almost impossible and his job as an independent consultant far more difficult. The emergence of standard for sharing circulation data is therefore desirable - perhaps this is an area where the Open Source LMS community could make a telling contribution.

I would love to be involved further in this discussion - whether or not I'll have the time is another matter altogether!

Open Source in Libraries

I went to this session to support Mark Hughes (@Mark_H_Swansea) and Meg Jones (@barbaragorden) who used the opportunity to field questions on the benefits and pitfalls of Open Source technology.

Whenever I have been part of this type of discussion, I always like to point out that using Open Source is never about saving money - it's about re-assigning resources - financial and personal. I've yet to come across an Open Source Library project which was primarily established to save money - their raison d'etre lies more often that not with the dissatisfaction they encounter with the proprietary products and services that they were originally forced to use. In this sense, they act as a real stimulus and competitor to the design processes of their proprietary counterparts.

Open All Hours
With Open Source, you invest locally (or perhaps with a supportive third party), develop your own team of professionals and set your own expectations. With a proprietary vendor, you invest in a company and expect them to deliver a service which matches your expectations. To my mind, investing locally is more desirable as you develop a physical infrastructure and staffing resource which you can continue to take advantage of in more diverse scenarios. Unfortunately, not all institutions have the financial resources to make this a reality. Sometimes you also have to admit that nothing in the Open Source world comes close to some proprietary products and services.

Gaming in Libraries

The final session of the day I attended was on the contested topic of "Gaming in Libraries". I have to admit, though I thoroughly enjoy gaming, I was a little sceptical of turning libraries into gaming hubs. With that said, thanks to Dave Patterson (@daveyp) and the enthusiasm of Richard Veevers (@richardveevers) and John Kirriemuir (@WordShore) I am now a convert.

First to be dispelled was the myth that gaming is "childish" - John has done a lot of research on the topic and the average age of a gamer in the USA is 34! We then discussed issues surrounding gaming violence and certification where one astute individual observed that by the time libraries had debating similar issues, the rest of society had moved on and accepted them.  

Richard's enthusiasm  for gaming was palpable and he was quick to demonstrate that libraries not only have an impressive suite of massively under used PCs (with regards to processing power), they also have ideal networking infrastructure. I suspect that public librarians may have one eye on their "footfall" figures when they consider gaming in their libraries too.

The final part of the session was reserved for exploring the value of gaming. As a popular recreation activity, many were prepared to accept gaming for its intrinsic value. For those who required greater justification for their inclusion into libraries, many were able to highlight the potential gaming held for education and service development. For example, Huddersfield University are about to launch Lemon Tree which turns a user's use of the library catalogue into a game which is hoped will encourage them to engage with their resources more fully. There was also talk of how games have been used to solve complex mathematical problems, help children with dyspraxia and dyslexia, rehabilitate patients recovering from serious accidents and augment creativity and the traditional curriculum.

Final Thoughts

Last Meal (No Cake)
Library Camp had enough intrinsic value for it to be considered a great success without looking into its potential fruits. The importance of the social aspect and the opportunity for like minded people to share their ideas, hope and fears cannot be overstated, particular in the current environment. With that said, there is a danger that Library Camp might not produce a legacy when it is essential that it does. It would be bordering on the criminal for so many talented people to gather and not begin to practice what they preached. I sincerely hope therefore that the enthusiasm is maintained and concrete progress is made in the form of new services, software and practices.

I came away from library camp full of ideas, new acquaintances and cake. I am already looking forward to next year but hope it's not so long before I meet some of the fantastic people I had the pleasure to encounter there.

PS - To my disappointment, there was no actual camping at library camp. Hopefully this can be rectified for next year!

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

On using the gym...

I have been a member of the Swansea University gym ever since I first came to work here. Up until that point, I had never really used one.

In school, I was always very sporty. Despite being told to take a "proper" subject by some, I took GCSE  and A-level PE largely because I enjoyed every aspect of it. The A-level course was excellent as it involved modules on the history of sport and sports science and biology. I loved playing football and rugby and, thanks to my pace, I was not too bad at both. When I was 18 however, I started to get problems with my knees and noticed that my 100 metre times were taking a dive.

As a consequence of my dodgy knees (and because I often didn't get up at a good hour!), I limited my sporting activity in University to playing for CathSoc. After the end of my first year in University though, I gone from an 8 Stone flying winger to a 14 stone Jan Molby. I wasn't fit at any point during my time there.

When I left University, I eventually ended up playing some 5-aside and 11-aside football and that helped me lose a little weight but not enough for me to consider myself fit. Eventually, my weekend was largely planned around our weekly Wednesday evening 5-aside matches at the Cefn Hengoed arena - it really was great fun and I was slowly starting to get fit.

At this point, I joined Swansea University and as the gym was a reasonable £17 a month, I decided to join that to - initially to supplement the exercise I got at football in order to prolong my "career". I quickly found out that like school, running long distances didn't come naturally - it was something I was going to have to work on. I therefore started using the treadmills and found the challenge to be quite addictive. Quite a fellow members of staff were taking part in the Swansea 10k that year so I decided that I would aim to try and get my time down on the treadmill to 50 minutes before having a go myself the year after. That was 4 years ago!

Achieving 50 minutes for a 10k run on the treadmill is definitely not beyond me - however, every time I get near the time - I get an injury! First, my knees refused to play along so I had to wear supports and follow a good stretching regime. Then I pulled my right hamstring. Next I managed to slip a disk whilst coughing. The most recent injuries include a dislocated right ankle picked up playing football and the excruciatingly painful Plantar Fasciitis in my left foot. At present, I can't really run for more than 30 minutes which means running 10k is not really an option - I also have to take it easy after 30 minutes or so of football.

On account of these recent running woes, I have found myself increasingly using the weights facilities. Lifting weights has never really appealed to me as I've never actually been involved at sport "professionally" enough for strength to matter. I'm also not a big fan of the whole gym culture and ridiculous posing that can sometimes go on with hulking types. When I was younger and did things like gymnastic, I was always light enough to have excellent control over my body. Having piled on the pounds during University though, I have increasingly found that is not the case anymore! I have therefore decided to use weights to try and get to a point where I feel I have better weight-strength control.

When I started doing weights, the initial results were quite pleasing - largely because I was so weak that gains in strength were quite noticeable. I have therefore gone from not being able to do any press-ups to being able to do 15. I was enjoying the trips to the gym so much that I even went as far to buy and try some Maximuscle Cyclone which was on offer at Tesco. When strength gains began to plateau out, I quickly became frustrated but eventually recognised that was always going to be part of the process.

Perhaps the most important thing I have discovered about using the gym are its psychological benefits. Not only does exercise release endorphins, it also helps to blow of steam. Concentrating on what you're doing in the gym can also help to take your mind of things though that is some times impaired by the rubbish the gym plays over its speakers and displays on its TVs - I'll have a good rant about that in another post though!

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Shambrarian Knights?

After several false starts I've finally decided to create a blog which I intend "regularly" update. In the past, I've set up but never used separate ones for work, life and play but though it is possible to separate work from play in the context of switching off from one or the other, I don't think arranging thoughts around those distinctions comes natural to me.

I will probably use this blog as an opportunity to vent, inform and comment on issues which particularly interest me and as an Aide-memoire. It will therefore contain posts on history, libraries and geek culture (with particular reference to Star Wars no doubt).

Why Shambrarian Knights? As Shambrarian International suggests, a Shambrarian is someone who works in the library or information management sector and couldn't be bothered to get a qualification. I intended the Knights part as a reference to my love of history and the Papal Knights. If you read it again, you may also spot a witty use of the word "Knights" in place of the word "Nights". See what I did there?