Eshet Chayil

March 1, 2008

Recently I had the unhappy duty of attending my brother-in-law Sean’s funeral.  His wasn’t an easy death, as he had been sick for much of the year.  His passing was widely noted in his hometown, where he had been a fixture – a hero to some – for many years.  He was a remarkable person, and bore his burden like one would expect a hero would.   But there were some other heroes behind the scenes though, namely his brother and especially his sisters.  The sisters – all of whom lived out of town – largely put their own lives on hold to be with Sean for much of the year.  They tended to Sean’s affairs, acted as his advocates with the hospital staff, brought in visitors, fed him, talked to him, and kept him company right up until the bitter end.  They did this without much fanfare or fuss, and largely without any angst on their part.

The word “hero” gets tossed around a lot these days, sometimes deservedly and other times less so.  But calling Sean’s sisters heroes (or heroines) doesn’t seem to be enough.  I do know of a Hebrew phrase though, that I read in Wouk’s War and Rememberance.  The phrase is Eshet Chayil, and it comes from Proverbs 31.  Like many Hebrew words, it doesn’t translate perfectly into English.  Wouk defines it as “woman of valor,” and that’s the definition I chose to use.  Women of valor don’t have to be found on a literal battlefield, because there are many different kinds of battlefields.  For my brother-in-law and his family, 2007 was definitely a war.  Ultimately Sean lost that war.  But he did have the good fortune to have his personal field of battle graced by his own Eshet Chayil.  Good night, sweet prince.  A flight of four women of valor sing you to your rest.

You’ve got to be taught
Before it’s too late
Before you are six
Or seven or eight
To hate all the people your relatives hate
You’ve got to be carefully taught

Recently and English friend of mine was relating his experiences while stationed in Wales.  He said that his wife, also English, could never hope to find a job in the town where they lived.  When I pressed for a reason – economics perhaps? – I was surprised to find that the answer was her English extraction.  Apparently it isn’t any different in Scotland.  Ireland I knew about, but Wales?  Scotland?  Those grievances truly fall into the category of ancient history, yet they are alive today.  What’s more, my friend related that when one asks a Welshman why he would support Germany over England in a sporting match, he would reply something along the lines of “the world war happened a long time ago.  Let bygones be bygones.”  But the statute of limitations hasn’t run out yet for England.

This paradox bothered me more than I let on at the time, because I did know that this sort of long-term enmity isn’t restricted to the United Kingdom.  It’s found all around the world; Kurds versus Turks, Basques versus Spanish, Arab versus Jew, Greek versus Turk, Serb versus Croat.  In these cases, the ancient hatreds are responsible for new bloodshed almost every day.  I couldn’t understand why these old local grudges seem to transcend more modern political and economic situations

Possibly the answer is that they are not in the same category.  It’s not an apples-to-apples comparison to put the Basque separatist movement next to one of the World Wars. One has its roots in political and economic issues; the other is woven into the culture of the groups.  Cultures around the world carefully nurture their sense of outrage for offenses committed long ago, and this outrage becomes a major part of what gives these groups their identity.  More subtle differences in ancestry, dialect or heritage take a back seat to a good old fashioned feud.  Without this unifying anger, or even hatred, these cultures lose a large part of their sense of identity and become just another group of people.

This nurtured resentment isn’t restricted to nations or races.  Vietnam veterans on motorcycles gather in Washington DC every Memorial Day weekend to remind everyone listening that they didn’t get their World War II-style welcome home when they came back from Vietnam.  They didn’t, it’s true, and no one will question that.  But the country has basically disowned or at least disavowed the anti-military sentiment that these veterans faced when they came home over thirty years ago.  You can’t find one person who will admit to hanging around airports in the late sixties or early seventies to harass returning servicemen.  The one recognizable anti-war figure from that time, Jane Fonda, has apologized for her actions, which were much less significant than Ezra Pound’s or Iva Toguri D’Aquino’s.  Yet the vets figuratively pick the scab every year, because this grudge is what gives them their identity as a unique culture.

What’s the significance of this cultural animosity, and especially the difference between it and political or economic conflicts?  The significance is in our failure to recognize the futility of trying to settle a long-term cultural score with a simple political or economic agreement.  These agreements are logically based on tangible grounds.  But cultural conflicts aren’t about politics or economics.  They are more like articles of faith.  Faith is the acceptance of a system of beliefs in the absence of scientific proof.  Faith is taught, ingrained by one’s culture. It becomes part of the individual and collective identity.  To turn your back on your culture is tantamount to disowning yourself.  Political agreements that address near term or recent issues such as trade, borders and access don’t address deep-seated cultural animosities.  They may cover them over for a short time, but they don’t “solve” them.  Cultural issues are largely beyond political solving.

So give it up, Jane.  Don’t try to apologize anymore.  It doesn’t matter that your actions were insignificant in the greater scheme of things in the war.  The vets are no sooner going to accept your apology than they are going to give up their leather jackets and Harleys.  Brits, don’t expect the Welsh or Scots to welcome you with open arms when you come to their country.  You yourself didn’t do anything wrong, it’s nothing personal.  President Bush, don’t think that the continued presence of US troops in Iraq will prevent further civil violence.  Shiites and Sunnis hated each other long before there was even a nation named the United States.  The only thing that kept a lid on that hatred was a brutal dictatorship.  It was the same in Yugoslavia before the death of Tito.  It’s naïve of us to think we can solve the world’s cultural differences by simple negotiations and a few peacekeeping troops.  This is not to say that we should stop trying, but it is to say that we shouldn’t be surprised when cultures we think we are helping resist us and go on with their hatred.  They are just doing what they were taught.

At the Finish Line

May 6, 2007

The Finish LineNow that the final seconds of HI697 are ticking away, I am supposed to do a self-assessment. This is a new one, since students usually write reviews on the instructor at the end of the semester. I’ve decided to put mine here in what will probably be the last blog entry for a while. I wrote in accordance with the format, so the following might seem a choppy. But hey, Ive been on the road for over a week, it’s after 10 and I’m tired.

I had to miss two classes due to business travel, but I compensated by contacting Paula ahead of time and making arrangements to have my project site ready to be reviewed. I would like to think that my class participation was good – I tried to speak up when I had a point, get to that point quickly and then get out of the way for the others. I wasn’t able to work face-to-face outside the class with other students, but I did communicate through blog comments and e-mail. We did some cross-talk before and after class as well, especially in the hall while waiting for the class door to open. My class preparation was not well balanced at first. My plan was to skim the readings for comprehension, and then go back and concentrate on parts that applied directly to the assignment I was working on at the time. I ended up focusing on the assignments; especially since I followed a couple of dead ends couldn’t get a domain established until Feb 22nd. Once I sorted that out, I was better able to balance my class preparation.
I wrote blog entries generally once a week. I think I wrote good, concise and readable entries and usually had a few comments. My work on the assigned reading is addressed above. My first assignments were effected by my troubles establishing a domain. Those of us who took Clio Wired last fall did not establish domains then, and we had to deal with that while learning CSS and Photoshop at the same time. I expended a lot of effort on my Image assignment, but by the time I decided that my original images weren’t the best ones to use as colorization and restoration subjects, it was too late to start over. In retrospect, I wish I could have done the whole assignment over again using different originals. I’ve stayed with the same theme for all my assignments since the CSS page, but I’ve added improvements and new material to each one.
Regarding improvements, I think I caught on to HTML coding quickly and feel very comfortable with writing and debugging. I would like to think that I had a good natural “eye” when it came to design, but the class material gave me more structure. I also think I gained some insights regarding methods and reasons for communicating history, which has been a recurring theme since I started this program.
The major technical problems I encountered are outlined above. These caused a lot of frustration during the first half of the semester, and there were times that I thought I would tank the whole class. Once I cleared these hurdles, I realized that I needed to worry less about grades and more about what I was supposed to learn. I don’t know if there was anything I could have done differently to avoid these false starts and frustrations – in fact, if I had sailed through the class I think it would have had less impact. I would give future 697 students the following advice: (a) don’t go into the class without already having a domain. Get one on the Mason cluster and download their FTP. (b) Don’t overdo the image assignment. Use separate images for each skill rather than trying to use all the skills on one image. Use portraits as opposed to landscapes – colorizing skin tones are hard, but not as hard as sky or foliage. (c) For the project, find an existing web site with a format and structure you like and model yours after it.
I don’t know exactly how I will directly apply what I’ve learned in this class in the near term, but I’ve already showed my wife and sister (both teachers) some of the sites we reviewed and we’ve had some great discussions as to how these could be used in their respective classes. The indirect applications are already apparent. I’ve been a digital data miner for a while now, and now I have some more things to consider when I’m looking for and at historical sites.

I’ve posted the home page and the second two pages of my Final project, and they are on the blogroll for review during Tuesday’s class. Unfortunately or perhaps fortunately, I won’t be in class on Tuesday as I am currently attending a work-related conference in Vancouver BC. My intentions are to add the final pages after I get the class comments and also add a communications link. The project is still the same Kam Zero subject, but the appearance and functionality of the site is miles better than it was during the first assignments. I removed the horizontal menu bar (which contained links to my other assignments) and put that in the Nav sidebar under the Topics links. I think that makes for a cleaner design, similar to what Bill Andrews did on his site. I kept the same header and footer throughout the pages (though these are different than the Design assignment images) and this isn’t so much of a cop-out as it is a device to save space. I think I’m pretty close to my limit for uploading material on the Mason cluster. I haven’t deleted anything from previous assignments since I wanted to show my progression, but the penalty is space limits. In any case, enjoy the site. I will try to update it once more before Tuesday but I will only change some details. I would like to add at least one more page as I already have the material, but I probably won’t.

I’ve uploaded my final version of the Design Assignment, and it can be accessed via the blogroll at right. I made a rather lengthy post about it two entries ago (April 6 entry) and all of the material about color, repetition etc is still the same. At Paula’s suggestion I did make some changes between then and now, and they are as follows:

I re-validated my HTML and CSS files and though they are now both valid I have still been unable to delete the text decoration on the HI697 assignment nav bar. Paula suggested that I start a new CSS file from scratch, but I first tried to clean up my original CSS file through the validation process. There were a lot of errors and the cleanup was a good idea but there are still some style mysteries.

I put a nice new footer at the bottom, in fact it’s probably big enough to be the masthead. I also adjusted the text in the masthead to reclaim some dead space between text lines.

I added links to the W3C validation sites, though I’ll have to say that the CSS validation procedure is a lot less obvious than the HTML.

So that’s it for my explanations. Now it’s up to the assignment to speak for itself.

Epiphanies in the Myst

April 12, 2007

MystifiedTuesday’s class was probably one of the more stimulating I’ve had since I’ve been involved with GMU, but not because I felt like I did well. After more than half a semester of HI 697 I still feel like I’m a half-step behind the rest of the class, and tonight was no exception. I spent the majority of the preceding week working on my Design assignment, and wrote a lengthy blog entry about what I did and why. As it turned out, the discussion topic was Myst. I didn’t think we would really get to that for another two weeks (at least that’s what the syllabus says). However, I had loaded the game and spent enough time playing it to get the gist of what the discussion was about. In fact, about 30 minutes into the class, I had an honest-to goodness epiphany. Someone made the observation that the game is like a primary document. You spend a lot of time on things that may not be important, and sometimes you miss what’s right in front of you. Other times, the game mechanics can aid or even distract you from the game context. But when you immerse yourself in a game with an unfamiliar context, it’s like you are suddenly dropped into a research project on a subject you know nothing about. You have no prior experience or preconceptions – all you have are your basic, generic research skills. We aren’t reviewing games themselves as potential teaching tools, we are looking inside them to find out what makes them so compelling and trying to see if we can harness whatever attributes those are and use them to communicate history. In other words, it’s not about the game. It seems we could have been told that up before we started beating our heads against the wall playing Myst, but I guess the epiphany wouldn’t have had as much impact if it had been fed to us.

I stand by my earlier opinion that HI 697 is the hardest class I’ve had since I started at GMU. We’ve had to learn computer coding, graphical design and information architecture in one semester, and any one of these subjects is complicated enough to justify its own class. I came in without some crucial foundational elements and have been playing catch-up ever since. My self-esteem takes a beating just about every week, but I will say this – I’ve learned more “new stuff” in 697 and been challenged more than in any class since I left the Navy. This class demands full-time student attention and a lot of communal work with fellow students, neither of which I’m in a position to do. But on the other hand, I can’t deny that I’ve learned something. The difference between my first CSS assignment and my Design assignment is considerable. It’s been painful and I’m not going to lead the class in grades, but I guess a painfully learned lesson stays with you longer. Like the epiphany about Myst, I guess it’s not about the grade.

Dealing with Design II

April 6, 2007

I’ve posted my first draft of my Design project, and it can be accessed through the blogroll. It would make a really good CSS, Type or Image assignment but those are water over the dam. I have the same basic alignment that I started with, but I’ve tried to make the following adjustments:

Color: I modeled my scheme after a sight I found called Eyewitness to History that featured a scheme with a wrapper color similar to the Kam Zero’s color, with other colors muted enough to be easy on the eyes while still giving a 40′s impression. I’ve been going through my CSS file trying to purge it of unnecessary colors and coding.

Repetition: I used the 1942 Report font in my headers (it’s what’s in the title), which requires the use of images as opposed to typing. I did use bold, but the font has some stylistic noise to it which also bolds so there isn’t much difference in clarity between regular and bold. I would like to use a letter at the start of each paragraph, but I find this clashes with the pictures I usually have leading off. I’ve also used the same gold color for both my portfolio links and my nav blocks.

Alignment: I used a basic two-column arrangement, which was modeled after the Macfly fluid example.  The alignment of the header edges with the nav and maincontent is intentional – in fact it took quite a bit of experimentation to get it to line up that way. I wanted to have a newspaper-ish look to the page, but it’s more a suggestion than a real style.

Proximity: I’ve placed my images left, right and center depending on which way the picture subject “faces,” so that they point toward the center of the page as opposed to away. I thought I would place them depending on whether they are contemporary, modern or landscape respectively in each paragraph where they are discussed, but that is too subtle a scheme and would probably run contrary to more basic conventions. Once I get the navigation sidebar under control, I would like to have it stay in place while the reader navigates down the page.

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