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Frank Thoughts
Dr. Jim Gray Missing - You Can Help Find Him
by Frank Sommers
February 3, 2007
Dr. Jim Gray, a father of the relational database, transaction processing, data mining, and a long list of other inventions we use every day, went on a short solo boat trip last Sunday and have not yet returned. With just a few minutes of your time, you can help find him.


I normally reserve this blog to issues of interest to enterprise developers. While this post is going to somewhat deviate from that pattern, if you develop enterprise software, it still relates to your work.Dr. Jim Gray's name may or may not need any introduction. When you use things like a two-phase commit transaction, distributed databases, data replication and, indeed, a relational database, the fact that these products and tools even exist has a lot to do with Jim Gray's work. His classic on Transaction Processing, for instance, has been a bible of the field since it's publication.

But this post is not about Gray's work, but about the fact that he is missing, and that you can, with a few minutes of your effort, help find him. He went on a solo boat trip last Sunday to scatter his recently passed-away mother's ashes near the Farralon Islands in northern California, and has since vanished. You can read more about it here.

This is the most unusual disappearance, because not a trace of Gray's 40-foot boat has been found. While it's possible to speculate about what may have happened, Gray's colleagues are trying to use some technology to figure out where Gray's boat may have drifted, and whether he may still be alive. A good summary of the search effort is available here and here.

And here's where you can help. The folks at Amazon, NASA, Google, Microsoft, and a host of other places, put online a vast amount of image tiles from satellite data that was transmitted Thursday and Friday. The problem is that some of the data is hard to analyze via computer software—which is something people are already working on. It may be that humans looking at the image tiles have a better chance of spotting Gray's boat. Werner Vogel, Amazon's CTO, described this in his blog post.

If you're willing take a few minutes of your time, you can look at a few images online, an indicate whether you might be able to spot something that resembles Gray's boat. This can be done via Amazon's Mechanical Turk service which can be accessed here. To be sure, it's a pretty daunting task and the chances of success may not be very high. But it is worth it, given that the task can be distributed among many people on the Web.In closing, I want to note that Gray has been an a strong advocate of putting the entire computer science research literature online to make it accessible to anyone, anywhere for free. So as a bonus, you may want to check out the Computer Online Research Archive, of which Gray has been a champion, in addition to his classic papers, such as the following (which is a random list—there are many more gems on his Web site):

But before doing that, please help find him first—go to the Amazon site and look at a few images now.

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About the Blogger

Frank Sommers is a Senior Editor with Artima Developer. Prior to joining Artima, Frank wrote the Jiniology and Web services columns for JavaWorld. Frank also serves as chief editor of the Web zine, the IEEE Technical Committee on Scalable Computing's newsletter. Prior to that, he edited the Newsletter of the IEEE Task Force on Cluster Computing. Frank is also founder and president of Autospaces, a company dedicated to bringing service-oriented computing to the automotive software market.

Prior to Autospaces, Frank was vice president of technology and chief software architect at a Los Angeles system integration firm. In that capacity, he designed and developed that company's two main products: A financial underwriting system, and an insurance claims management expert system. Before assuming that position, he was a research fellow at the Center for Multiethnic and Transnational Studies at the University of Southern California, where he participated in a geographic information systems (GIS) project mapping the ethnic populations of the world and the diverse demography of southern California. Frank's interests include parallel and distributed computing, data management, programming languages, cluster and grid computing, and the theoretic foundations of computation. He is a member of the ACM and IEEE, and the American Musicological Society.

This weblog entry is Copyright © 2007 Frank Sommers. All rights reserved.

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