Poly-path algorithm

One of my Ph.D. students told me today that he is happy so many students are showing up to volunteer to work with us on our research. This allows us to ask each student to try an alternate way of doing things. If one approach doesn’t work out, then another one will.

I responded by telling him that once, when I was a child, our parents took us to the Hayden Planetarium, to see a show about how ancient peoples used the stars to navigate. In one part of the show that has stayed with me, I learned that the ancient Polynesians were able to travel by boat between islands that were separated by hundreds of miles. This is a very impressive feat, when you consider that even the slightest error in heading would lead to death at sea.

They did it like this: Any young man on an island could volunteer to pick a night of the year, and a star to follow. If, following that star, the intrepid youth made it safely to another island, then he could use the same star at the right time of year to find his way back. Most of these brave young men died at sea. But the few who had chosen the right path, and thereby returned safely, were highly celebrated, and assured of wealth, high status, and their choice of mate. Basically, they were set for life.

Over the course of hundreds of years, we were told, a huge number of routes were mapped out in this way.

That, I told my Ph.D. student, is what we’re doing by setting each student volunteer to trying an alternate approach. Although, I added, we are not actually killing any of them.

“Is there a name for this technique?” the Ph.D. student asked.

I had to think about that a moment. “I guess,” I said, thinking of the Polynesians, “we could call it the Poly-path algorithm.”

2 Responses to “Poly-path algorithm”

  1. sharon says:

    Well not literally killing them anyway 😉

    Love the name – poly-path!

  2. sally says:

    Ha! We talked about that phenomenon in our paper on PolySocial Reality last year:

    “Pervasive Computing in Time and Space: the Culture and Context of Place Integration”


    “We use the term “Geolocomotion” to describe the way that people navigate through space using using the capabilities of geospatial technologies to monitor and control movement in context. Geolocomotion is based on contextually relevant in- structions, that are sequentially delivered by a combination of the network and specific geospatial applications. Geolocomo- tion has a particular unique characteristic in human navigation in that it utilizes a Polynesian, or radial type of navigation model. In this model, one turns/moves only as things come up in context. A Polynesian sailor navigates by turning the Vaka (a Polynesian voyaging canoe) when the stars orient across the bow in the right way to reach an intended destination. The Vaka may be turned again as another star orientation appears. Most targets for the Polynesian sailor (islands) have a low horizon, which makes it difficult for them to steer towards an island as a fixed target because the variability of wave height can impede their vision. Stars are higher than waves, and in a fixed location that has a predictable rotation. The Polynesians developed a system of navigation for the Polynesian sailors by which they turn the Vaka as the stars align for their particular intended direction. In this way the world appears to come to them. The usual combination that humans use of both rectan- gular navigation and radial navigation is compromised.”

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