Missing, yet still a presence

Times Staff Writer

The daylong event honoring the computer-science whiz who helped create automated teller machines will be part celebration, part science fair.

But don’t call it a memorial or funeral. That would be too final.

The commemoration of Jim Gray’s life on Saturday is billed as a “tribute,” as if the 6-foot-3 Microsoft Corp. researcher might stroll right into UC Berkeley’s Wheeler Hall for the kind of academic symposium he loved to attend, where experts come together to solve a problem.

In this case, though, the hundreds of technologists and Silicon Valley executives who are expected will have to confront the one puzzle they couldn’t crack: What happened to Jim Gray?


This is known: On Jan. 28, 2007, a clear, calm Sunday, the world-renowned scientist set out across the San Francisco Bay toward the Golden Gate Bridge on his 40-foot red sailboat named Tenacious to scatter his mother’s ashes. He never returned.

Since February 2007, when friends from across the high-tech field ended one of the most sophisticated amateur searches for a missing person in U.S. history, there has been no public remembrance for Gray. His friends and colleagues have slipped back to their own lives, privately grappling with their loss and their theories about what happened to him.

People go missing every day. How families, friends and co-workers face their inability to find a loved one and live with the mystery often depends on their culture and how they look at life’s challenges, said Pauline Boss, an expert on grief who is speaking at the event and has consulted with the family on how to commemorate Gray.

“If you think in absolutes, you either got the answer or you didn’t,” she said. “The challenge is, how can you move forward without feeling like you failed or feel good even though you did not find the answer? It requires binary thinking instead of absolute thinking -- he’s probably dead but maybe not.”


When Gray was first reported missing, some speculated that he had meant to disappear and was hiding somewhere. But Gray’s friends have calculated the odds that he’s still alive and know they’re slim. They now believe that the boat was struck by debris or another vessel and went down quickly, then was swept out to deep sea.

But these are captains of industry and technology, people who think there’s no problem that can’t be solved with money or Silicon Valley know-how. Although they concluded they had failed, some are dealing with their grief by trying to fix its cause. They believe their search for Gray pointed to new ways for technology to help future search-and-rescue efforts.

Many of these problem solvers have struggled, too, with the idiosyncratic nature of the particular grief that comes with a missing person whose death is unconfirmed. They have had to respect the wishes of the Gray family not to hold funerals or memorials, and, for a time, not to refer to him in the past tense.

“What the community hasn’t had, and only partially has now, is permission to mourn,” said Pat Helland, a software architect at Microsoft who knew Gray for more than 25 years. “Even though we’re all rational, it’s not appropriate to say, ‘Jim is dead.’ But we all understand we won’t see Jim again.”



In the lingo of database programs, which were Gray’s specialty, something must have happened that January day that overrode Gray’s intent.

He told his family he planned to sail near the Farallon Islands, a wildlife refuge 27 miles off the Northern California shoreline. He called his wife and daughter from the sailboat that day. When he didn’t return, his wife alerted the harbor master, who called the U.S. Coast Guard.

Gray’s disappearance shocked the high-tech community. He was a legend in the field for his nimble and wide-ranging mind and for applying his expertise in databases to help researchers in other fields, such as human genomics, astronomy and oceanography. He had worked at IBM Corp., Tandem Computers Inc. and Digital Equipment Corp. For more than 10 years, he oversaw Microsoft’s research lab in San Francisco. In 1998, he was awarded the computer industry’s highest honor, the A.M. Turing Award.


Some people are good at organizing closets and drawers. Jim Gray was a personal organizer of information, creating databases that would make information usable. He believed that if he could arrange information in an elegant way, he could accelerate the sciences.

As the Coast Guard searched 132,000 square miles by boat, helicopter and plane, Gray’s friends and colleagues from companies such as Inc., Oracle Corp., Google Inc. and Microsoft used their connections in industry and government to reposition satellites to take images of the California coastline.

They wrote software programs to analyze data and enlisted an army of 3,000 volunteers through an Amazon program called Mechanical Turk to sift through the pictures for white specks that might be Tenacious. The program was used again last fall -- also unsuccessfully -- to analyze satellite images when the adventurer Steve Fossett and his plane went missing over Nevada.

Gray’s searchers modeled currents and wind patterns to estimate where Tenacious might lie, then sent out planes and boats even after the Coast Guard had ended its search.


Although they were frequently competitors in the high-tech industry, the technologists and scientists pulled together to look for Gray. “It would have been harder for Jim to plan a better set of friends to help him when he went missing,” said former Oracle executive Mike Olson, who was the spokesman for the team of amateur searchers.

Weeks later, with no sign of Gray or Tenacious, friends told Gray’s wife, Donna Carnes, that it was time to hold a funeral. The community needed a forum to try to make sense of Gray’s disappearance.

Carnes declined, saying it was too soon for remembrances. The family was still looking for Gray. Carnes had quietly commissioned a painstaking underwater search for any sign of Tenacious alongside the Golden Gate Bridge. Fugro Pelagos Inc., a San Diego firm, scoured the ocean floor using sonar and an underwater robot.

“I searched for what I dreaded to find,” Carnes said.


More than three months passed. Carnes halted the underwater hunt last May with no new information. Again, friends told her it was time for a service. Again, she declined. The family was exhausted, she told people. And besides, they weren’t ready to have a funeral when they still had no idea what happened to Gray.

“Memorials are for people who are dead,” Carnes said in an interview in her home atop Telegraph Hill in San Francisco. “You can’t bury an empty casket and be done with it, just as I can’t, as some people suggest meaning well, grab onto a fact and build a story around that as to what happened to Jim and believe it. I never believe my stories for more than a few hours.”


Over the summer, Carnes entered a period she calls “adrift” -- she couldn’t make many decisions. She imagined that when she looked out her window to the San Francisco Bay, she was looking at the very spot where Gray’s body and Tenacious lay. She returned to Wisconsin, where she grew up, and took classes in prehistoric-tool making and the ancient Mediterranean. She hiked in the high Sierra.


Helland, of Microsoft, considered Gray his mentor and worried that there wouldn’t be a public tribute to honor him properly. He told Carnes he wanted to celebrate Gray’s life at the October biennial meeting of the High Performance Transaction Systems workshop -- of which Gray was a founder.

Participants followed Carnes’ instructions that they not call the event a funeral and that they use the present tense, not the past, when talking about Gray. Helland showed a video interview of Gray for the first hour and people stood up to tell stories about their missing colleague. Carnes did not attend.

Her feeling about having a public event began to shift, she said, when she visited Jim Bellingham, the chief technology officer at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute. Bellingham spent three hours talking about the work he had been doing with her husband to analyze ocean data.

Carnes began to talk about holding an event that would focus on Gray’s work and not on his status. “We do know who he was when he was with us,” she said.


She picked May 31, which would mark a year since the family ended the underwater search. The family chose UC Berkeley because Gray completed his undergraduate and PhD studies there. With Carnes’ guidance, Microsoft held its own internal tribute to Gray in January.

Throughout the day, there will be talks on Gray’s contributions to technology, to his colleagues and to the physical sciences. One talk is billed “Scalability and Immortality.” Another is on “Building the World Wide Telescope,” a look at the role Gray played in building Microsoft’s recently launched software program that turns Windows computers into a virtual observatory of space.

Many of the projects Gray worked on continue, and some of the teams have struggled with his absence. “We keep asking, ‘How would Jim do this?’ ” said Alex Szalay, a professor in the department of physics and astronomy at Johns Hopkins University who worked with Gray on a database project called the SkyServer, part of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, which mapped the heavens using telescopes. Astronomers plan to name an asteroid after Gray.

Like the scientists they are, the participants plan to talk not only about what Gray taught them during his life but also what the search for him could teach others. Interspersed throughout the event will be talks about aspects of the search, including a detailed summary of the hunt along the ocean floor. The family has donated data from the underwater search, the first done of the region since 1989, to various governmental and nonprofit organizations, including the Monterey Bay Sanctuary Foundation.


Some scientists have told Carnes that as they prepared their presentations for the symposium, they wished they could have called Gray to check their facts. The proceedings will be published in a 88-page special issue of the SIGMOD Record, a publication about data management by the Assn. for Computing Machinery.

The following day, those who searched for Gray will hold a colloquium with the Coast Guard to discuss how technology could better help in search and rescue, and whether a dedicated nonprofit organization could help.

One idea is to create software and other technology so that family and friends can quickly assemble an amateur operation, including tools to help put together a quick chain of command and resources for analyzing data. Over the weekend, the Coast Guard will take some of the searchers out on cutters to show how it does its work.

“Jim was trying to make technology more accessible,” said Joseph Hellerstein, a UC Berkeley computer science professor. “He saw data access as a leveler. That’s the spirit of this meeting: How do we make this kind of search possible for people who don’t have access to the same resources?”


Carnes refers to herself now as “probably a widow in the making.” She has repainted some rooms in her home, taken down all but one of the 25 paintings of sailboats from the walls and hung one, of a winter landscape in Wisconsin, near her bed.

People seem less nervous talking to her about Gray in the past tense, she said. And she’s found some ease too. Now she marvels at how she is sometimes able to respond to inquiries by calmly saying, “My husband disappeared without a trace.”

As Carnes prepares for the gathering, Gray seems more present. “I dreamed he was at the tribute,” she said, “talking to me on his cellphone.”