Skip to main content

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.

1 comment

Most Popular on Agile Complexification Inverter

Where is Shakespeare When We Need Him?

We are desperately searching for a term for people that connotes the best of human kind.  The creative, sensing, combinatorial synergistic, empathic solutioning persons that have yet to been labeled with a role name that works.

Some of the old terms:
Staff, Workforce, Human Resource, My Team, Army, Company

Shakespeare created 1700 words in his time.  He mutated verbs to nouns, and vice-a-versa, transformed verbs into adjectives, and formed words from whole cloth never before heard.  This skill is rare, but there is a poet that can create the term we need in the twenty-first century.

What should this term define?

21st Century Human Resource; the generalizing specialist.

Yes, but what more?  What less?

Suggest your poetry in the comments, let us see if we cannot do 1/1700 as well as The Bard.

By-the-way; who create the phrase "coin a word"?

A TED Play List - How do you create new words
Erin McKeanGo ahead, make up new words! In this fun, short talk from TEDYouth, lexicographer Er…

Elements of an Effective Scrum Task Board

What are the individual elements that make a Scrum task board effective for the team and the leadership of the team?  There are a few basic elements that are quite obvious when you have seen a few good Scrum boards... but there are some other elements that appear to elude even the most servant of leaders of Scrum teams.

In general I'm referring to a physical Scrum board.  Although software applications will replicated may of the elements of a good Scrum board there will be affordances that are not easily replicated.  And software applications offer features not easily implemented in the physical domain also.

Scrum Info Radiator Checklist (PDF) Basic Elements
Board Framework - columns and rows laid out in bold colors (blue tape works well)
Attributes:  space for the total number of stickies that will need to belong in each cell of the matrix;  lines that are not easy eroded, but are also easy to replace;  see Orientation.

Columns (or Rows) - labeled
    To Do
    Work In P…

Situational Leadership II Model & Theory

Have you ever been in a situation where you thought the technique needed to move forward was one thing, yet the person leading (your leader) assumed something else was what was needed?  Did you feel misaligned, unheard, marginalized?  Would you believe that 54% of all leaders only use ONE style of leadership - regardless of the situation?  Does that one style of leading work well for the many levels of development we see on a team?

Perhaps your team should investigate one of the most widely used leadership models in the world ("used to train over 5 million managers in the world’s most respected organizations").  And it's not just for the leaders.  The training is most effective when everyone receives the training and uses the model.  The use of a ubiquitous language on your team is a collaboration accelerator.  When everyone is using the same mental model, speaking the same vernacular hours of frustration and discussion may be curtailed, and alignment achieved, outcomes …

One Dark and Stormy during a Hurricane

I'm from the Carolina's where legend has it that our family commonly just hunkered down in the home on the coast and waterways than to head for inland shelter. Now that's from the old school days of barely improved (read paved) roads. They counted a storms severity by how high on the back porch steps (about 15 - top to ground) the water reached.  I don't recommend this action in todays world of long range forecast and transportation options.

I do recommend a drink or two in a hotel bar, far far away.

This is the week that Harvey came ashore in Texas.  I live on a hill in the little old town of Grapevine outside Dallas and Fort Worth.  And thank you all for letting me know that a storm is coming... I didn't get out and walk Malibu before the rain hit, so I grabbed a hat and we went anyway.  Much nicer walk with the drizzle, I'd say.

I'll raise a glass to you - if you were not smart enough to do the responsible thing, at the last responsible moment.

I do re…

Software Development terms applied to Home Construction

Let's Invert the typically wrong headed view of Software Development project management as a construction project.  We can map it the other way just to see if it works... to have some fun, to explore the meaning of phrases we toss around quite frequently.

Normally Project Management terms come from a construction domain.  We are going to apply the lexicon of modern software to the construction of a home.  We will follow the construction project and meet some of the people doing the work.

This is a very small (8 homes from $600,000 skyward) program in my 30-40 year old neighborhood.

About 6 months ago I saw the programs landing page go up.  It gives casual observers and some of the stakeholders a general idea of the intent of the program.  And most importantly who to contact for additional information if you happen to be interested in their products.

The Refuge program has 8 product projects and has them running independently.  Yet much of their DevOps infrastructure has already b…