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    Astra III-B
    From: Mal Misuraca
    Date: 1998 Jan 16, 6:31 AM

    The Astra III-B is certainly not the finest sextant made, and it does not
    pretend to be.  It would be valid to compare Japanese or Chinese sextants and
    their optics to C. Plath or Cassens & Plath only if their general price level
    were the same, which it is not, not by a factor of as much as six or seven.
    Instead, the Astra III-B, like the Freiberger when it was made in "East
    Germany," tells a somewhat different story.
    
    It is tempting to compare Chinese and Japanese production techniques, as we
    have now done in these pages, but there is always danger of mistakes in
    comparison through stereotyping.  Although we were witness, as some have
    commented in the last couple of days, to shoddy production from Japan in the
    years after WWII---witness the early Nikkor cameras, which only some years
    later gave way to the Nikon---Japanese marine optics had been a marvel during
    the war, in some ways surpassing  the utility of the radar that the USN could
    bring to bear in night engagemnts.  In early WWII,  first-rate Japanese
    binoculars more often than American radar distinguished not only the presence
    of another ship, but whose ship it was, enabling the Japanese to open fire
    while American captains fretted over "friendly fire."  Thus, the decline after
    the war in Japanese optical quality was not intrinsic to Japanese design or
    production philosophy, but to what they had at hand when the war was over, a
    point they later proved with a vengeance.
    
    The Japanese excelled before and during the war in other ways, as well.  Their
    Long Lance 24-inch torpedo was a killer from day one of the war, whereas it
    took us two years to overcome the quirks and failures of our first-line
    design.  Their aircraft were generally superior to ours at the beginning of
    the war, especially when you take into consideration their deliberate design
    decisions not to incorporate pilot armor or self-sealing gas tanks.  Their
    bomb sights were better for the first two years, witness the high-altitude
    aerial bombs that killed the USS Arizona and damaged other capital ships at
    Pearl Harbor, not the torpedo, as commonly believed.  It was only after one or
    two iterations, and into late 1942 and early 1943, that American design caught
    and then passed the Japanese in fighter aircraft, and by then grinding losses
    in seasoned pilots were a greater threat to the Japanese.  Their Zero could
    have gone on through the war quite well in the hands of pilots equal in
    training and total time to our own.
    
    National Geographic some years ago ran an article on Chinese rural
    industry---"rural" because much of it was not only outside urban areas, but
    literally scattered through villages and even farms, and I recall vividly that
    the Chinese were then, perhaps as late as 1985, still manufacturing steam
    locomotives.  There was a picture in the article of a brand new, hot-off-the-
    assembly-line steam engine, and it looked for all love like the ones produced
    in the late 1800s, ones I rode behind as a kid in the late 40's when they were
    already considered antiques or anachronisms.
    
    Why steam?  The reasons given were, first, an abundance of coal, second, a
    proven and simple design.  I think it ran deeper than that.  I believe that
    the underlying reasons were much more poignant than the ones that were given.
    The same reasons may help to explain how it is that we have all settled on the
    Astra III-B as "a Best Buy," a sextant so good that it tends to wash out
    debate even as against C. Plath.  These are reasons that explain why the Astra
    III-B will probably be in production long after C. Plath closes down the
    sextant line and sends all those craftsmen home for the last time.
    
    The Chinese have perhaps not yet reached a point we long since came to---the
    point of rooting out obsolescence not to implement genuine contributions to
    science or design, but of denigrating it for its own sake, for the sake of a
    fashion or philosophy that values iteration for its own sake, for things
    because they are new.
    
    We discard celestial navigation because GPS crowds it out, not because
    accuracy to yards or meters is in all but a very few cases important to us.
    We discard celestial without a backward glance and with no regard for its
    unpriced benefits---for the art or zen of celestial that forms so much the
    basis of why we all meet in these pages.  We discard it with no sense of loss
    for the communion with stars whose names spring from an old, often Arabic
    past, a time when the Irish and the people of the Middle East managed to keep
    the kernel of Western civilization aglow while Europe slept and waited for
    Copernicus and Galileo.  We are in the West long past the time when it was
    possible for an English carpenter from the sticks named Harrison to win the
    Board of Longitude's prize in the face of obstinate opposition from a Royal
    Astronomer.  How would an individual inventor, especially a self-conscious man
    like my dad, do these days competing for a prize for the next generation of
    satellite navigation equipment---even if he had the germ of the best idea in
    the world?  General Matthew Taylor used to say that the primary task of
    leadership was to clear plenty of room for the eccentric or the unorthodox.
    Who would say so today?
    
    My dad was an inventor of some genius, and I shudder to think how he would be
    ground down-and-out by the patent application process of today---much of at
    the instigation and at the hands of Japanese companies, by the way---in which
    there may be as many as 20 inventors listed on an application, which is filed
    by a Canon, an Epson, or a Sony.  The individual inventor competing at this
    level can spend a small lifetime protecting a patent, even if one is issued,
    and for every inventor who wins an infringement suit, there must be 100 who
    drop exhausted by the wayside.
    
    Even in my dad's time, the early 1960s, the bell had tolled for the little
    guy.  Why do I think that an individual inventor in China, even today, might
    have a better chance that my dad did in America a full generation ago?  I
    remember Kirk Douglas telling the story at the 1976 celebration of American
    freedom how he had taken his mother to see "Spartacus," by his production
    company, named after her, called "Dryna Productions."  She took one look at
    the marquee, looked at her immigrant son, and said "Only in America."  I hope
    it's still true, but I wonder.
    
    Perhaps the Chinese don't need to stop building steam engines---or Astra
    IIIB's--- simply because the rest of the world would say their age has past.
    Maybe they build them because they work, because they work within margins for
    which the Chinese conclude that their utility of simplicity causes no sense of
    falling behind, losing out, or losing face, no matter how many iterations on
    GPS's or bullet trains may have come along.
    
    It is said that 60-70 percent of all science has been done since WWII.  That
    leaves an important question:  What have we thrown out with the bath?  In the
    case of celestial, we have begun to breed navigators who will never know what
    we have known, or loved what we have loved, and the more's the pity for them,
    God knows.  May they be a long time in heaven before they discover what they
    missed.
    
    Mal Misuraca
    Passage East
    Sausalito
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