I read with increasing sadness and futility about the massive effort launched to find Jim Gray, world-renown computer scientist. He disappeared on January 28, 2007 while sailing out of San Francisco Bay. After 16 days of intense searching using remarkable technologies, the ad hoc search was disbanded. The conclusion was that he was lost at sea.
For those of you who may not be familiar with this icon in our industry, Jim Gray worked for all the major computer companies -- IBM, Digital Equipment, Tandem, and finally Microsoft -- once he left UC, Berkeley.
The article on the search for Jim Gray can be read by clicking here.
A worldwide network of friends, associates and fellow researchers used the latest technologies to search the ocean, collaborate, and analyze massive amounts of data including digital imagery, in the hopes of locating Jim's sailboat, Tenacious. These folks organized the search effort well beyond the Bay area. Here are just a few of those involved:
1. Werner Vogel -- CTO of Amazon.com and one of Jim Gray's former students.
2. Dozens of his co-workers at Microsoft were freed up to help with the search
3. Associates at Carnegie Mellon University helped out
4. Istvan Szapudi -- a physicist at Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest, with whom Jim Gray had worked
5. Antonio Baptista at Oregon Health and Science University and Yi Chao at NASA's Jet propulsion Lab, both ocean surface modelers, to predict where the sailboat might have drifted over several days
6. James Belllingham, chief technologies at Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, served as a spotter over and over in his plane as hopeful "blips" were detected.
7. Alex Szalay, astronomy professor at Johns Hopkins University, who had collaborated with Jim Gray on astronomy databases for a decade
Camera images from the U2 spy plane flown up and down the coast were collected and sent to Amazon's A9 product search site. The images were 8,000 by 8,000 pixels and were subsequently parsed into 400 by 400 "tiles" that were then enlarged for examination by the volunteers. Incredible! This produced 560,000 tiles each consisting of 160,000 pixels requiring 1.68 million viewings. Jim Gray's 40-foot boat would have appeared as only 6 to 8 pixels. A monumental and almost impossible task to review these images if not for the huge number of volunteers and Amazon's Mechanical Turk -- experimental software that lets many people work on a task simultaneously. Any promising "targets" were then scouted by civilian pilots and their spotters flying over them.
Alex Szalay, along with his son, wrote a Photoshop script that "stretched" satellite images data so that the human eye could discern a boat like Gray's. They then put 16 post-doctoral and grad students to work examining the satellite data. They too came up with hopeful possibilities but all were eventually ruled out.
Unfortunately the eventual result was that the Tenacious was never located and the search called off.
Jim would have been proud of this incredible collaboration of technology and people. It is a long-lasting and meaningful testament to this highly regarded technologist by his peers -- an honor bestowed on very few people. The techniques used in the effort to find him -- use of satellite imagery, ocean-current predictive modeling, Mechanical Turk, collaboration via the Web and other technologies -- can be used for future purposes, hopefully with much happier results. For someone who devoted his life to breakthrough technologies, this is the finest tribute.
Jim Gray's ideas and his ability to "strip away mystery by making things simple" (quote from Eric Allman, CTO of Sendmail) will truly be missed. Let us all lift a mouse in honor of this great man.
Yours in BI Success