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Fantastic voyage, how a search for Ithaca can help business

MEDITERRANEAN SEA, c1200BC: Fresh from his exploits in Troy, Odysseus, the
hero of Homer’s Iliad, heads for home and to his kingdom on the Greek
island of Ithaca.

But Homer, the greatest story-teller of this particular millennium, has other
plans for him. Odysseus attacks and blinds a Cyclops and is taken prisoner by
the nymph Calypso who has fallen in love with him. His wife, Penelope, has
scores of suitors who want to marry her so they can become king of Ithaca. The
god Poseidon thwarts almost every effort by Odysseus to go home. It is ten years
before he finally returns to Ithaca, takes the long path from the
southeast-facing bay, past Eumaios’ pig farm and enters his palace.

But where, exactly, is Odysseus? He can’t be on modern-day Ithaca, a
small island off the west coast of Greece. The harbour faces the wrong
direction. The island is too mountainous and not, as Homer describes it, “low
lying”. And it certainly isn’t the “furthest west” of the group of islands of
which it is part. That honour falls to Cephalonia. The problem is, Cephalonia
simply doesn’t match Homer’s detailed description of the topography of Ithaca.
Nor does any other island in the Ionian Sea. Greek scholars have searched far
and wide for Odysseus’s kingdom. They haven’t found it.

Why would they expect to? The Odyssey is a tale of pure fiction. It
involves one-eyed monsters and gods and even flying islands. The events
described in Homer’s second epic poem were not even written down until around
500 years after they were first described; imagine if Shakespeare’s plays had
never actually been committed to print until some time after the Second World
War. Why should anyone expect an ancient Greek description of a small island to
be regarded as ‘accurate’ in the 21st century? Many believe that Homer was just

Robert Bittlestone disagrees. The founder and chairman of software and
consultancy group Metapraxis thinks that Homer’s description of Ithaca is so
precise that it must have been real, even if the events that took place were
fictional. That makes The Odyssey more like James Bond than Lord of
the Rings
, making Ithaca more akin to London, Russia or Jamaica than
Mordor. More to the point, Bittlestone also thinks he’s now found

The result is a 600-page book that sets out to prove his theory about the
modern whereabouts of ancient Ithaca. More importantly, the intellectual and
investigative process by which Bittlestone undertook this endeavour offers
unique insights into board level issues such as risk assessment, leadership and
even performance management. This makes Bittlestone’s journey into the past – a
journey that brought together ancient Greek scholars, modern geologists,
satellite technology and the zeal of a relentlessly inquisitive amateur – a
truly fantastic voyage of discovery.

It started during a holiday in Greece in 1998, while exploring some of the
area that was reputed to be associated with Odysseus. “I’d always thought
The Odyssey was just an imaginative poem,” Bittlestone explains. “And
so you start thinking, if it really was an imaginary location, why would a
Bronze Age composer of an extraordinarily long and detailed poem go into such
enormous detail on the actual locations, describing the topography and the
distances from A to B and where you go and what you pass when you go to
[Odysseus’] palace? Why would all that matter so much if it was a figment of the
imagination? And it started to occur to me that maybe that bit was real.”

Another Greek holiday in 2003, a family “Homer hunt” and a sudden
recollection of a conversation that had taken place five years earlier gave
Bittlestone the idea that perhaps the reason why no one had been able to find
Ithaca was because earthquakes or other geological activity had changed the sea
level over the past 3,000 years, altering the coastline and the appearance of
the Greek islands. Bittlestone developed the theory that modern Ithaca’s larger
neighbour, Cephalonia, was once two islands, that the modern-day
peninsula of Paliki was once cut off from the rest of Cephalonia and was, in
fact, ancient Ithaca.

The process by which ancient Ithaca came to be connected to Cephalonia
involved thousands of years of earthquake-induced rockfalls and landslips,
filling in the shallow sea channel between the two islands until, today, the
highest point of this in-filled terrain is 180 metres above sea level.

Bittlestone’s remarkable, beautifully-illustrated book, Odysseus Unbound:
The Search for Homer’s Ithaca
(Cambridge University Press), delves into
intricate detail about the work he undertook to see if his ideas could be right.

He came across the writings of a Christianera geographer, Strabo, that
appeared to confirm his theory. He discovered that salt water had been found
underground in a place that salt water probably had no business being, unless
his theory was right. He met an astronomer who confirmed that the ‘star’ by
which Odysseus’s boat was steering was almost certainly the planet Venus, lying
in a southeastwardly direction. He got lucky when, by chance, a land imaging
satellite zoomed over the precise area where Bittlestone was exploring,
providing him with detailed photographs and land analysis. He enlisted a Greek
scholar, James Diggle, who retranslated key parts of The Odyssey to
make sure they were using accurate literary clues. He worked with a geologist
from Edinburgh, John Underhill, who almost got the pair of them killed when he
gave Bittlestone the news that, in his view, the theory was geologically valid:
Bittlestone was driving on a treacherous road at the time and excitement almost
got the better of him.

So Bittlestone, an amateur in Greek classics, geology, astronomy and
satellite imaging technology, appears to have succeeded in finding ancient
Ithaca where generations of academics have singularly failed. The problem, quite
simply, is that Greek scholars know little about geology, while geologists tend
to care little for the Homeric poems. Bringing them together resulted in not
only new ideas and theories, but new scientific evidence about the geology of
the area.

Herein lies the first lesson from this tale – that the outsider, who adopts a
broad-based, multidisciplinary approach, can achieve things that experts cannot.
“That’s what executive committees are all about,” Bittlestone says. “You’ve
always got your different disciplines around the table and you know your job as
CEO is to weld these together into a team with synergy, so the whole is greater
than the sum of the parts.”

Bittlestone also likens his achievement to the role of finance directors,
whose function is very much a cross-disciplinary one, too. “For me, this has
been all about trying to tell a story by analysing a lot of very complex data
that one didn’t necessarily understand in detail oneself,” he says. “It is just
extraordinary how much information [we found], how much time you need to spend
with that and show it to experts.” He adds that, like FDs, he had to be sure he
had accurate, up-to-date data, though he confesses that it’s funny to think of
‘up-to-date data’ when dealing with things that happened up to 3,200 years ago.

But more important than the leadership role that Bittlestone took in this
voyage of discovery was the intellectual approach that he took. It was a
combination of imagining the impossible, and endlessly asking ‘why’ or ‘why
not’. “I think it was easier for me that I was a trespasser in those areas,” he
says. “People have been wonderful all round the world, but I didn’t ring them up
and say, ‘Look, I think I’ve got a theory of Homer’ – because then they’d think
you came from the funny farm. But I did say ‘I’m very interested in how the
landscape in this part of the world may have changed’. As a businessman, I was
permitted to ask stupid questions and people patiently explained to me, ‘No,
it’s not like that’. And I could say, ‘But why?’ People were very patie
nt with me.

“But sometimes when even very distinguished academics explained something to
me, you just occasionally can hear a little bit of a chink in their argument.
You can just sometimes detect what you might call inherited wisdom. It’s a bit
like a risk analysis, trying to find out what were the areas of professional
knowledge that one was listening to that might have just not been 100%
understood, what’s known, what’s conjecture, what are strongly-held beliefs?”

This determination to press on, to challenge ‘inherited wisdom’, to almost
play the fool to get people to explain things that they, themselves, had perhaps
never properly scrutinised, stood him in good stead. After all, he was trying to
find out if it was possible that a land mass, 180 metres high at its peak, could
be created in the incredibly short geological time frame of 3,000 years.

Technology played a huge part in helping Bittlestone unravel the mystery,
particularly imaging and data visualisation technology. This is very much in
Bittlestone’s camp: his company, Metapraxis, is involved in developing data
visualisation software that helps corporate clients such as Tomkins and Unilever
look at their financial performance data in ways that are more intuitive than
trying to spot problem areas by ploughing through reams of spreadsheet

A great number of software tools were used and satellites played a leading
role in this journey. The Digital Globe Quickbird satellite produced images with
a resolution of 70cm from an orbit 450km high. Landsat photography from Nasa
added to the array of imagery. But as impressive as satellite photographs are,
they’re flat, like maps. Bittlestone combined that imagery with altitude data to
produce ‘digital elevation models’ (DEMs) that make it easier to see and
understand the topography and to understand how it has changed over time. Nasa’s
new World Wind visualisation tool entered the armoury late in the project, and
made the use of DEMs ‘instantaneous, ubiquitous and free’, as Bittlestone puts

But it’s not what the technology can do, but what you can do with the
technology. It is now possible to almost literally ‘fly’ around the Greek
islands – or almost anywhere else – to see, explore, examine and basically look
at the world from whichever angle helps most. You can look straight down, you
can feel as though you’re flying in a helicopter, you can almost touch the
ground and ‘see’ the view from an ancient path as it rounds the corner of a
mountainside. This proved immensely useful, obviously.

But having taken advantage of his knowledge of the usefulness of data
visualisation techniques, Bittlestone is now feeding back into his own business
the things he has learned from flying – virtually – around Ithaca.

Imagine, he says, flying around your business as though it were a video game.
“We think it is now possible to devise a way of organising information so that
you can construct a virtual reality environment for multinational management,”
he explains. “Instead of management information being some boring set of
numbers, you can say, here’s the UK, you’re flying over England, they give you a
joy stick, you’re going over Bristol and you start to see little flashing lights
where your stores are. We want the Clifton branch of Sainsbury’s, or whatever,
to be flashing red, saying it’s below target. You zoom down to Clifton and in
front of the front door at Clifton. I want to go seamlessly into that
store and see the racks. There are all these things up on the racks – the Daz,
whatever – but you’ve got the wrong colour on it because we’re either out of
stock or the margin you’re making is below target and something needs to be done
on the renegotiation of the buying.”

We’re getting closer to this virtual reality every month, of course. There
are already websites, such as Google that carry aerial photography tied in with
local data such as schools and shops. But what Bittlestone is talking about
isn’t just XBox for corporates. It could, in fact, be the most fundamental
impact of all – a change in the way businesses look at themselves, the way FDs
and CEOs manage.

“Let me put it this way: when you use modern geo-spatial visualisation
techniques, particularly the three-dimensional capabilities, you don’t have to
decide up-front what you want to look at – you just go exploring. You fly, you
zoom in, you zoom out, you tilt, you rotate, you pan, you look at things that
catch your eye. And then as you zoom in on those interesting things you start to
learn more about the detail and you think. And when you’ve thought that through
you zoom back out again and you get the big picture again.”

So if, some day, FDs can set out truly exploring their businesses
and not being presented with someone else’s preformatted view of reality, then
that, thanks to one man’s enthusiasm to solve an ancient Greek mystery, could be
the most fantastic voyage of all.

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