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Brier Dudley's Blog

Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.

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May 31, 2008 1:53 PM

More Gray Tribute: Setting the benchmarks, and achieving immortality

Posted by Brier Dudley

BERKELEY, Calif. - The post-lunch session began with David DeWitt, a former University of Wisconsin professor who heads Microsoft's new Jim Gray Systems Lab in Madison that was announced last month.

DeWitt described how Gray developed the standard benchmarking approach for measuring the speed and economy of transaction processing systems.

DeWitt had actually developed a different benchmarking approach earlier, but Gray "told me I had it all wrong and did his own. This is how computer science works."

Gray's scheme appeared in an anonymous paper titled "A Measure of Transaction Processing Power" that was published in the Datamation trade magazine in 1985.

Gray's showed through: He worked hard to be sure it was published on April 1, and the last line was "There are lies, damn lies and then there are performance measures."

The beauty of Gray's approach was how simple it was, DeWitt explained: It basically mimics a banking transaction done by an ATM or a bank teller.

It launched the benchmarking race among computer system vendors (here's a 2002 story I wrote about TPC benchmarking and Microsoft's efforts) and established rules to avoid cheating, DeWitt said.

More importantly, the standardized measurements gave hardware and software companies more incentive to innovate and improve the performance of their systems.

"Transactions are cheap because Jim designed a benchmark that changed the industry,'' he said.

Next was Gray's friend and co-worker Gordon Bell, another San Francisco-based computing pioneer in Microsoft's research group.

Bell gave a funny and touching talk about ways that Gray could achieve immortality, through memorials, books, online avatars and by naming things such as new units of measurement after the man.

It's poignant because Gray already achieved a sort of immortality through his huge contributions to computer science and the generation of people he mentored.

"Then of course there's Gray matter - we've named a part of the brain after Jim,'' Bell said.

Gray's name could also be applied to algorithms, procedures, laws of computing or units of computing performance.

But the best may be a new paradigm for science that Gray was advocating late in his career, what Bell called the Gray paradigm for data exploration.

Science used to be empirical, describing natural phenomenon. Then in the last few hundred years it was theoretical, using models and generalization. In the last few decades computation has enabled scientists to simulate complex phenomena.

That's led to a new approach in recent years that further mixes computer science with other sciences, unifying theory, experiment and simulation. It involves huge amounts of data captured by instruments and simulation, software to process it and information or knowledge that's stored in computers.

In this new kind of science, "computer scientists really learn the scientists' science and become a co-partner or a twin working on science overall."

The next presentations were evidence of the success of this approach, with Gray at least: Cosmologist Alex Szalay related how they worked together to bring the Sloan Digital Sky Survey to the Web and Microsoft Research Curtis Wong demonstrated the Worldwide Telescope project that blends that sort of data to present a searchable, explorable 3D representation of space.

Then Ed Saade, who did sonar searches for Gray's boat, explained the approach and how the data collected was given to the state of California to help build its underwater maps that are being shared online with researchers and the public.

Finally Jim Bellingham from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, who was introduced to Gray by the UW's Ed Lazowska, showed how Gray helped the organization build tools to model, analyze and share its exploration of ocean data.

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May 31, 2008 1:16 PM

The Gray tribute shuttle

Posted by Brier Dudley

It's a good thing Alaska Air isn't charging for additional carryon brainpower.

The late Friday flight from Seattle to Oakland had its share of folks flying to the Jim Gray Tribute, including Microsoft's former SQL Server boss Paul Flessner and Technical Fellow Peter Spiro.

Fortunately there was a journalist onboard to keep the plane's IQ load in balance.

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May 31, 2008 1:02 PM

More Gray tribute: Background and links

Posted by Brier Dudley

A few links, if the Jim Gray tribute piqued your interest and you'd like to read more:

The Jim Gray tribute's Web site, with a link to webcasts of the presentations.

Microsoft Research has kept up Jim Gray's Web page listing his work, publications and other material.

A column I wrote shortly after he disappeared with some personal background.

Wired wrote a terrific story about the search last year.

On Friday the Los Angeles Times did a nice story advancing the tribute and focusing on his wife, Donna Carnes.

I did a shorter piece today on fundraising to honor Gray at Berkeley and the UW. Donations are also supporting the U.S. Coast Guard's San Francisco sector and the University of Minnesota's ambiguous loss program.

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May 31, 2008 12:16 PM

More Gray Tribute: Contributions to "life as we know it"

Posted by Brier Dudley

BERKELEY, Calif.: Technical sessions in the afternoon began with recollections by Gray's co-workers at IBM, where he worked from 1972 to 1980, and Tandem, a seminal Silicon Valley computer company.

Bruce Lindsay talked about working with Gray at IBM and Gray's monumental work on transaction processing.

"Online transactions today are key to life as we know it. If the online transactions systems stopped today you would be stuck in Berkeley until they started up again."

Lindsay went on to explain how crucial the technology is to financial systems - "credit reports, identity theft - all these things made possible. Overbooking - couldn't do that without transactions. No-fly list, brought to you by Jim Gray."

More seriously, the technology is "critical today in the developed world and increasingly in the developed world."

Accounts receivable, inventory and fulfillment all involve transactions processing, and the technology reduces recordkeeping costs and delays, reducing the cost of doing a transaction.

"If that expense can be reduced both the customer and provider can benefit,'' he explained, noting for example that ATM transaction costs have fallen from $5 to less than a cent.

Gray "refined the transaction concept and explained to us what its basic properties are, then he went on to show us how to do it."

He was already a legend when Tandem began trying to recruit him.

One factor in the company's favor may have been that Gray was driving 75 miles each way to work at IBM's San Jose lab. Another was that Tandem was a sort of playground for Gray, a small company where he could get involved in everything from hardware to middleware at a company focused on transaction processing.

It was audacious to recruit Gray, a star at the overwhelmingly dominant tech company of the day, but Jerry Held started trying in 1976.

"In 1980 my phone rings and it's Jim. Jim says I've decided to come to work at Tandem ... I said would you like to hear the financial offer? He said no, you can tell me when I get there next week,'' Held said.

"Clearly he made a lot of money in his career, he did well financially, but it was never about the money. He worked at four companies but it was never about the company - it was about moving the industry forward, working with great people."

During a break before lunch, members of the audience shared anecdotes.

One remembered being at a paper's presentation when a sandal-wearing man with long, stringy hair marched up the aisle and loudly said "That research has already been done... who reviewed this paper?"

The man told the presenter that it wasn't his fault, his issue was with whoever should have screened the work.

She asked who that man was, and of course it was Jim Gray.

Another Bay Area colleague recalled early days working with Gray at IBM in New York, where he went after graduating from Berkeley.

Gray didn't like the winters and asked to transfer to IBM's research lab in his native California. The boss said no, so Gray quit and drove across the country in his Volkswagen. In California, he went to the IBM lab, asked for a job and was hired.

Later, the friend from New York received an unsigned postcard from Gray with a picture of a sailboat in front of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Another person, who studied with Gray and recently served with him on the ACM review board, recalled being in meetings where there would be long, rancorous debates. Gray would sit quietly at the end of the table then start talking, and everyone would quiet down to listen.

"He would summarize everything we’d been saying in about three sentences. We'd all go, that's pretty obvious."

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May 31, 2008 11:00 AM

The Jim Gray Tribute: Microsoft perspective, "smartest guy in the world"

Posted by Brier Dudley

BERKELEY, Calif.: From Microsoft Chief Technical Officer David Vaskevitch's speech on Jim Gray:

"Around 1990 when I started to think about the idea of Microsoft getting into the enterprise space and the database industry a lot of people thought that was a crazy idea both inside Microsoft and moreso outside Microsoft ... I started asking around and this name came up over and over, Jim Gray. The interesting thing was the initial context in which it came up was, he was the one person who, no matter who I asked, everybody thought he was smarter."

Extending this out, "you'd always get back to, the smartest person in the world must be Jim Gray."

"Microsoft is populated by a lot of very smart people. The smater they are, generally the more antihuman they are. Usually they fall into this kind of solipstic world where the only things that exist are the things they're thinking about ... Jim was in the opposite direction."

Vaskevitch listed three dimensions of Gray's contributions.

The first and most obvious: "a lot of the core concepts that we take for granted in the database industry and even more broadly in the computer industry are concepts that Jim helped to create."

The second contribution was even larger - the organization of the industry, through connections made by Gray.

When Vaskevitch was trying to convince people to come to the remote wilds of Redmond to help Microsoft build its enterprise business, Gray was always a few steps ahead.

"Inevitably, I would call the person up - sometimes they would tell me they wanted to talk to Jim Gray. Usualy they had talked to Jim about the phone call I was going to make before I was even going to make it."

In terms of Gray's most famous contribution to computing:

"You could think of him as transcation coordinator - with people moving around industry ... he made sure people never got left in midflight."

Gray's amazing mentoring and networking, regardless of employers, made him the equivalent of "the heart and sould of an entire industry."

Third was Gray's personal skills, the way he listened, supported and connected people.

"I believe that Jim's most important contribution was the way he connected with people,'' he said.

Getting people to change their code can be a challenge, but Gray could get people to think about ways to make their work better.

"Jim's ability to make you feel that he really cared about your life because he really did care about your life .... his ability to have those kinds of personal relationships with so many of us, that to me really defines Jim."

Rick Rashid, Microsoft research senior vice president, said Gray "is the kind of person you'd want your child to grow up to be like."

Among Rashid's recollections were seeing Gray poke his head through a gap in the great wall of China and riding a toboggan down a mountain from a Buddhist temple.

"The reason we had a research group in San Fransisco was because of Jim. If Jim wanted to move to Monaco, we;d have a research group in Monaco. That wasn't actually a joke."

UW Professor Ed Lazowska said he thought he had a special relationship with Gray because he was constantly talking with him about all sorts of topics.

It turns out Lazowska wasn't alone.

"I thought I had a special relationship with Jim. What's astonishing is I didn't. What's special is Jim (who) had relationships like this with hundreds of people."

Other tidbits: Gray had different styles of mentoring - "he knew when to nurture and when to get out the hammer."

He took "enormous professional risks - he was a managers worst nightmare." Gray wanted to work on what he wanted to work on, and he was ready to quit the next day if he couldn't.

Microsoft Architect Pat Helland said he came to idolize Gray when he was 22 at a database startup in the late 1970s. Boning up on how to build a database management system, he came across Gray's literature.

"You were just enthralled to understand what he was saying and how clearly and crisply he was making you understand the things he knew."

A few years later Helland left to work at Tandem with Gray, who became his mentor.

"Jim always listened - listened and looked and pulled out of me what was in my life and my career and what were my dilemnas both personal and professional. As I would talk out my problems and he would gently say things ... I'd go forward full of energy and knowing how to do things."

Helland also shared Gray's rules for authoring papers:

1. The guy who types puts his name first.
2. It's easier to add a name (sharing authorship) than to deal with hurt feelings.

"That made a dynamic where there was only upside working with Jim ... I co-authored a paper with Jim and I wasn't even looking."

Helland closed with a quote:

"Jimi Hendrix once said knowledge speaks but wisdom listens. Jim Gray wrote and spoke an astonishing amount ... but even more so he listened more than he wrote and that fulfulled so much."

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May 31, 2008 9:11 AM

From the Jim Gray tribute: Searching the sea, coping with ambiguity and the Microsoft discount

Posted by Brier Dudley

BERKELEY, Calif: Several hundred friends and colleagues came for the first session of the Jim Gray tribute, a series of personal presentations by friends and colleagues, including top Microsoft architects Pat Helland and David Vaskevitch, UW Professor Ed Lazowska and Microsoft research boss, Rick Rashid.

Here are some excerpts:

Joe Hellerstein, UC Berkeley professor, recounted how he was finishing his PhD at Wisconsin and thinking about going to Berkeley. But he was intimidated about working in the shadows of "the two towering figures in the field, Jim Gray and Mike Stonebraker," who were both there at the time.

Gray, the first recipient of a Berkeley PhD in computer science, told him not to worry about being overshadowed. His advice:

"It's cooler in the shade."

Pauline Boss, a professor emeritus at the University of Minnesota, talked about "ambiguous loss" and how to accept and cope with his mysterious disappearance.

"It's because of the mystery that we honor rather than memorialize Jim Gray today,'' she said.

"The goal is not closure but rather moving forward despite unanswered questions - not an easy task in a culture of science and technology."

She referred to a 2005 paper co-authored by Gray that talked about the greatest research challenges involving approximate or probabilistic answers.

"There will always be a few problems that resist an absolute answer and the loss of Jim Gray appears to be one of them.

"The loss is so bizarre that the traditional grief and coping strategies simply don't work ... moving forward depends on developing more comfort with ambiguity ... the goal therefore is not closure but rather increased tolerance for ambiguity."

Mike Olson, Oracle vice president, described the search for Gray after he went missing in January 2007.

For five days, the Coast Guard sailed and flew over 132,000 square miles of ocean using airplanes, boats and helicopters. Volunteers spent three weeks, using satellite imagery that was much harder to use than you'd think if you're used to services like Google Earth.

The satellites returned spectral images. This led to images with a two-meter resolution; at that scale Gray's boat would be about two pixels long.

The primary lesson the amateurs learned: "If you are lost at sea, you really want the pros looking for you."

They also used low-tech methods, including flyers posted at marinas, asking people to be on the lookout for the 40-foot sailboat "Tenacious" and a 6 foot four inch, 63 year old gray haired man with a white beard, brown eyes and thick eyebrows.

They never found any wreckage and the search ended Feb. 16.

"Those three weeks were among the most intense and meaningful of my personal and professional life. I didn't like it but I wouldn’t have missed it for the world."

Next came Michael Harrison, professor at Berkeley, who knew Gray since they were students together at the school. He told several stories, including one about how Gray wanted to set up a chairmanship at Berkeley in Harrison's name.

Harrison, who was on the board of the San Francisco Opera, asked him to help that organization instead. In particular, the "software they were using for ticketing was absolutely impossible."

"So Jim actually solved the problem and here's how he did it: he and a friend who was also at Microsoft used their privileges as Microsoft employees to buy stuff at a discount. The opera ended up with $1 million worth of equipment to solve all their problems which actually cost the donors a lot less."

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Gadgets and games | Fun stuff I've written about lately includes Apple's iPhone, Hewlett-Packard's HDX laptop and Microsoft's Halo3. Also on the radar are new digital video boxes such as the Tivo HD and the Vudu.