sea stories: Archimedes, a cargo of amphorae, and a computer to guide them

We may not give enough credit to sailors for the world we know today. Poets and military strategists view the sea differently, but it was seamen with a knowledge of tides, winds and ocean currents that gave rise to empires. Although the romance of “iron” men putting to sea in wooden ships have inspired the likes of Homer and Richard Henry Dana, seafarers had to understand navigation by the Sun, Moon and stars to return to port. In time, not just merchants and fishermen went to sea, but navies deployed to protect trade routes and ferry warriors to far-off colonies. History is filled with the rise and fall of empires, each with inventions and knowledge that seem to be lost and reinvented in time by successive civilizations. Some that have survived and pulled from the muck of millennia suggest we today aren’t the first to think of certain technologies but only ones who have managed to expand on them.

While sailors today use GPS, LORAN, and other navigational aids, it was invention of the sextant in the Seventeenth Century that helped explorers determine that they would get to their next port in reasonable time. Or were they just the latest civilization to rediscover what the Myceneans, Hellenes (Greeks), Romans, and Ottoman sailors had invented time and again? After all, a little more than two centuries before Isaac Newton, Europeans still believed the Earth was flat. Two thousand years earlier, Greek seafarers may have benefitted from wisdom about the movement of Earth and sky that Copernicus, Galileo, Magellan and others subsequently “discovered”. A prolific thinker and inventor more than two centuries BCE, Archimedes, may have contributed to ocean navigation as well as an irrigation device in use still today in Asia and Africa.

the Antikythera mechanism

For 2400 years, a certain Greek shipwreck has lain at the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea. Discovered in 1901, it was an object recovered from that wreck that technology, a century later, has revealed how wily the Greeks really were. The so-called Antikythera Mechanism is a mechanical computer that came with instructions, to accurately determine the position of celestial bodies at any given time. A BBC article and documentary provides a fascinating look at an object that decades ago was just an odd lump of corroded metal pulled from the Mediterranean. Now we understand that it was a sophisticated mechanism at a time when many still believed in temperamental gods and sea monsters. A thousand years before that ship put to sea, the Bronze Age eruption of Thera all but destroyed the Minoans maritime empire. Before the classical Greeks built towns on the coast of Spain, the Minoans traded with the Pharaohs. Romans who conquered the Greeks, navigated from Britain to Turkey and Egypt, built enduring roads and channeled water in aqueducts still being used today. Academics can only imagine the vast sum of knowledge in the ancient library at Alexandria destroyed by fire. We only have fragments referenced by other ancient writers.

Two thousand years from now, what will be rediscovered by sailors and explorers in the Forty-First Century? It may be some future sailor who dredges up a corroded iPhone from the flooded remains of a coastal city.

no Minion is an island

A four-hundred year old English poet understood how badly human beings need connection in their lives. I have been thinking of the movie “Castaway” (Tom Hanks), a scene in “Iron Man”, and a phrase John Donne penned centuries ago. As 2020 comes to an end, looking backward over the last twenty-something years, the world has had a difficult time finding things to be joyful. I do think mankind, in general, mean well of their fellow human beings. We were formed to be social creatures to associate and cooperate together. However, two thousand years after Jesus walked, and five thousand years since Mankind’s first civilizations started conquering neighbors, our social invention, Government, is forcing individuals back to isolation and competition.

No man is an island entire of itself, Every man is a piece of the continent, A part of the main.

Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions and Seuerall Steps in my Sicknes – Meditation XVII, 1624

Our little community in unincorporated El Cajon, California, like many communities across the world, has rallied to brightly decorate their neighborhoods in the holiday season. In the United States, preparations for Christmas begin right after the November Thanksgiving holiday. This year has been exceedingly draconian for everyone worldwide particularly children. As such, my wife encouraged us to start decorating early, putting up lights and inflatable yard decorations, and she decorated inside. Since then, as people drive through the holiday-decorated neighborhoods, or walk “socially distant”, I hope they get some extra cheer from one walking Minion, my spouse, chattering “Merry Christmas” and “Banana!”

If the squeals of delight from kids and adults, and their picture-taking are any indication, Mankind will survive and eventually, thrive again. Tune out Government and the media for a little while. Look at the stars. Think of others more than oneself. Share responsibly. Practice hospitality however that may be this year. Visit a neighborhood lit up for Christmas. And perhaps, take a picture with a dancing Minion.

John Donne’s poem continues:

 If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less,
As well as if a promontory were,
As well as any manor of thy friend's,
Or of thine own were.
Any man's death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.

Carrying water

def. Carry water for (someone) 1. To serve, assist, or perform menial or difficult tasks for some person, group, or organization.

Ten years ago, as a retired Navy Senior Chief, the first thing I had to adapt to was my immediate loss of seniority and status. The tradition and status acquired over twenty-five years meant little to the non- military working public. As in most professions, a job in the commercial technical sector is judged only on your performance. Meeting the required output of widgets particularly at the fiscal end of the Quarter when the resources, software, or parts needed to meet the quota finally become available. Packing up an expensive piece of equipment and hustling it to FEDEX, or renting a delivery truck and driving it a hundred miles to another facility, is somewhat like carrying water for my boss.

Unless you have been working in the manufacturing world for a number of years, as an older technician, it seems that adapting to rapid changes – in technology, in workforce culture, and in tasks each employee is asked to perform, is more difficult. In engineering, procedures often lag product development. Cross-training peers is often as much how much they observe as giving them polished instructions. For some, it is jarring to be hindered by processes or lack of information, or age, or when she has been willing to “come out of retirement”, but is feeling her contribution is wasted.

Additional study, asking specific questions, and bringing one’s strengths to the job is necessary. Willing to do whatever is required, despite not being in a “job description”, helps the overall mission of the company. Working with a curmudgeon is difficult.

I have found that courtesy, whether toward peers, couriers, janitors, IT support, or supply clerks is repaid in kind. With more than a quarter-century of military service, working initially with folks cleaning toilets, and later reporting to Admirals and senior Government executives, character and a dedication to excellence count toward career success.