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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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