Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Search & Rescue: Solving big problems to honor Jim Gray

The August issue of Wired magazine has a fascinating article on the sudden disappearance at sea and the extensive search for Techy hero Jim Gray (see Inside the High Tech Hunt for a Missing Silicon Valley Legend). The piece does a great job of revealing Gray's influence on multiple generations of Silicon Valley luminati, including key figures at Microsoft, Oracle and Google whom he mentored.

Largely because of those connections, as well as Gray's wide repute for selflessly opening the door to numerous Internet advances, an amazing array of technological and human resources were mobilized to determine if his sail boat Tenacious was still adrift in the Pacific ocean.

Here's a good summary of the social net cast out to try to pull Gray back into safety.

Gray's mysterious disappearance inspired one of the most ambitious search-and-rescue missions in history. First the Coast Guard scoured 132,000 square miles of ocean. Then a team of scientists and Silicon Valley power players turned the eyes of the global network onto the Pacific. They steered satellites and NASA planes over the Golden Gate and mobilized the search for Tenacious on blogs and on This group included some of the best minds in science and technology, among them chief technologist Werner Vogels and top executives at Microsoft and Oracle, including Bill Gates and Larry Ellison. Oceanographers and engineers from the US Navy, NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute joined the effort, as did astronomers from leading universities.
I really enjoyed author Steve Silberman's description of Gray's life and impact on the computer industry, but what I found particularly interesting was how these major corporate and governmental entities were able on short notice to shift their various activities to the single-minded purpose of locating a missing person.

The fact that an effort of this scale could be organized so quickly speaks to the tremendous capacity to problem solve that modern technology makes possible. If so much could be spent to locate one man, albeit a very influential one, what could we marshall to attack problems such as environmental degradation, intractable poverty, worldwide hunger and incurable disease? As a society, it all comes down to re-arranging our priorities.

Executives at some of the most influential businesses in the country temporarily set aside their usual all-consuming need to realize profit in order to help save their good friend Jim Gray. Isn't the pursuit of an end to the suffering of billions worthy of the same attention?

Comparable to the proverbial search for a needle in a haystack, sadly even the unprecedented rescue effort launched couldn't discover the whereabouts of Gray or his boat. That shouldn't diminish the significance of what was done, and it may even lead to more responsive and effective search-and-rescue in the future.

The article describes Gray as someone never daunted by large tasks, and the fact that this one didn't bear positive results doesn't mean it was a failed experiment. What better legacy could we leave to this man than to take inspiration from the efforts his disappearance prompted and dedicate ourselves to finding solutions to the social ills that have bedeviled us for centuries.

Photo: The Farrallon Islands where Jim Gray was headed when his boat disappeared.
Credit: Duncan Wright
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