Saturday, January 15, 2011

Fail-Successfully:: What was Columbus' Problem?

Columbus Coat of Arms
Christopher Columbus' purpose was to find a faster, safer route to the silk, spices, and opiates of Asia (a total system rewrite for the failing legacy system - Silk Road).

"Columbus map", drawn ca. 1490 in the Lisbon workshop of Bartolomeo and Christopher Columbus[1]
Was his problem that he didn't know his location and the location of his destination?  No.  Those were knowns to him.  He had maps of these locations.

Was his problem that he didn't know how to navigate?  No.  He was an accomplished ship's captain and in those days you had to navigate via dead reconing and he was adopting the new technology of celestial navigation.  I'm practicing a bit of historical speculation but in his day, figuring out Latitude was hard but a known problem with lots of calculations requiring a computer (person good with figures & lookup tables).  Guessing at Longitude was an unknown problem. It would be centuries before this problem is solved by John Harrison (1693 – 1776) a clockmaker that invented the marine chronometer, capable of sufficient fidelity to be useful in determining longitude after a long period of time away from the known location.

Toscanelli's notions of the geography of the Atlantic Ocean, which directly influenced Columbus plans
Was his problem that he didn't know the earth was round?  No.  In his day many educated people knew the earth was a sphere.  He didn't discover this fact.  It was well known by Ptolemy, and expanded by Aristotle, who lived in the 4th century BC.

Human Scale Bias

I believe his problem was that he had a problem of scale.  He could not image the true scale of the earth. As experienced as he was and he was an expert (10,000 hours of study).  He had a human scale bias to his mental model of the earth and the location of the continents.

"Where Columbus did differ from the view accepted by scholars in his day was in his estimate of the westward distance from Europe to Asia. Columbus's ideas in this regard were based on three factors: his low estimate of the size of the Earth, his high estimate of the size of the Eurasian landmass, and his belief that Japan and other inhabited islands lay far to the east of the coast of China. In all three of these issues Columbus was both wrong and at odds with the scholarly consensus of his day." -- Wikipedia

"True and Accurate" map of Christopher Columbus's voyages
In the abstract, he had a poor fidelity mental model.   Which resulted in misnaming of the native American population "Indians".  Hey, in an operation (space-ship earth) this big, mistakes are bound to happen.  It's not about blaming the brave soul that made the mistake, it's about learning, and doing better next time.  Good job Chris!  Next time Trust - but Verify.

With what I now know about the wonderful Indian (India) population and their many languages.  I can understand Chris' jump to the conclusion that just because these people on the coast didn't speak any of the languages that he and his ship mate's knew of Asian languages didn't mean he wasn't in India.  Ouch - wrong again.

His problem was just a problem of poor modeling.  He failed to write an Acceptance Test for his purpose.  His replacement for Silk-Road, also failed.  But he learned a lot in his failures, therefore we consider him a success.  A little phenomena I call "fail-successfully."


Ref: [1] "Marco Polo et le Livre des Merveilles", ISBN 978-2-35404-007-9 p.37
Wikipedia - contrary to my academic "professors" I think Wikipedia a cite-able creditable source I believe given another 400 years they will evolve to use the new technology of hyper-text, rather than the antiquated citation.

Did Columbus know the world was a sphere?  Yes, here's why.

Was Columbus the first to the new world?  No.

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