Where is Jim Gray?
July 22, 2007 10:37 PM   Subscribe

Wired presents an extraordinary look at "one of the most ambitious search-and-rescue missions in history," after one of Microsoft's researchers, Jim Gray, and his boat, the Tenacious, went missing in the Pacific Ocean outside San Francisco in January 2007. Cartography meets law meets 2.0 technology. "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." Eventually, Bill Gates, Larry Ellison, the US Navy, NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium jumped in – "as did astronomers from leading universities." To this day, Jim Gray has never been found, and his disappearance cannot be explained. Read Wired for more.
posted by BLDGBLOG (32 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Note: The Wired article, linked above, was written by MetaFilter's own Digaman...
posted by BLDGBLOG at 10:40 PM on July 22, 2007

Sometimes, when people go out to sea, they go to die.

Life is a funny thing, especially the search for meaning. I'm glad all these rich industrialists are still searching for something.
posted by kuatto at 10:41 PM on July 22, 2007

Thanks for the link, Geoff. It's a symphonically tragic story, particularly for Jim's wife and daughter.
posted by digaman at 10:45 PM on July 22, 2007

I don't know, for me personally seeing such effort expended to search for one person, just because he's rich and well connected when so many people die over bullshit seems a little unseemly.
posted by delmoi at 10:57 PM on July 22, 2007

(On the other hand, I can understand being extremely curious about the circumstances)
posted by delmoi at 11:00 PM on July 22, 2007

Huge fan of Digaman. Excellent story, as usual.

Perhaps Jim's boat ran into a rogue wave? Apparently, they are more frequent than previously thought.

Fascinating the Amazon Mechanical Turk group effort that helped do the research in looking for Jim. wow. Had no idea this existed. "Crowdsourcing". Amazing.

It's awesome that a search and rescue mission can now become a kind of global wiki with people volunteering to help in the process. That is good. It seems appropriate that Jim, who won the Turing Award for "seminal contributions to database and transaction processing research and technical leadership in system implementation." would stimulate, in his disappearance, the advancement of search and rescue operations, which may benefit others in the future.
posted by nickyskye at 11:04 PM on July 22, 2007

delmoi, Jim's friends were inventing the kind of networked search effort that could someday save thousands of lives. You act as if a lot of money changed hands or something -- most of the search-and-rescue work was done by volunteers. In fact, Jim Gray earned the respect of his peers by *not* being a corporate drone and IP hoarder, give away most of his knowledge as open-source papers, personal mentoring, and presentations, going back decades. Some stupid rich guy, Gray wasn't. And human-centered search is an inevitable experiment.
posted by digaman at 11:07 PM on July 22, 2007 [1 favorite]

And, if he has died, my condolences to his friends and family.
posted by nickyskye at 11:07 PM on July 22, 2007

So what are the leading theories? I know they were hinted at in the article but let's be explicit:

1. The boat sank very suddenly. Perhaps hit unexpectedly by a tanker with no trace left on the tanker itself.

2. He ran away, sailing far and fast. Perhaps he meant to return but now with all the publicity thinks this may be a good time as ever to just stay away.

It seems #1 is the leading option.
posted by vacapinta at 11:08 PM on July 22, 2007

Thanks for the data, nickyskye. I saw very unpredictable waves myself when I went out to the Farallones.
posted by digaman at 11:08 PM on July 22, 2007

I hadn't heard about this before; it was an interesting article and well-put together post about a tragic event and what could be the future of search and rescue ops.
posted by Staggering Jack at 11:21 PM on July 22, 2007

Oh and thanks for the article digaman, that was great! I liked the little tidbits such as Larry Ellison himself offering to scour the Pacific in his private plane. This was no more than a community banding together to find one of its own. In this case, though, an exceptionally powerful and savvy community.
posted by vacapinta at 11:30 PM on July 22, 2007

*waving to digaman* :) (a little mash note, I think you're awesome, love your articles, really enjoy your Walt Whitman mosaics too).

It seems the Farallon Islands are the site of many shipwrecks. "From 1945 to 1970, the sea around the Farallones was used as a nuclear dumping site for radioactive waste, despite nuclear dumping at sea being prohibited. An estimated count of 80,000 - 55 gallon barrels full of radioactive debris that carry a shelf life of 3 billion years, originating from nuclear research labs such as Lawrence Livermore, were dumped. The irradiated US Navy ship USS Independence, which was used as a target in the Bikini Atoll Nuclear Tests, was sunk near this site."

If Jim were in that neck of the woods, could the radioactivity have messed with navigational or communication tools if there were a rogue wave? Lots of ifs...
posted by nickyskye at 11:36 PM on July 22, 2007

1. the boat sank very suddenly...
2. he ran away, sailing far and fast...

3. pirates
4. cthulhu
5. ?
posted by bruce at 11:40 PM on July 22, 2007

digaman: I didn't say any money changed hands, except in the case of coast-guard expenses, from your own article
Then the Coast Guard did something unexpected — instead of calling off the search, Swatland redoubled the effort. He deployed two C-130 aircraft, three helicopters, three patrol boats, and four motor lifeboats to venture as far south as the Channel Islands off the coast of Santa Barbara, as far north as Oregon, and 300 miles offshore — an area the size of the Republic of the Congo. "I changed my mind because I didn't have a warm fuzzy feeling we'd done everything we could," he says. "And I'd be a liar if I said all the publicity didn't have something to do with it."
I don't want to bash the guy or his friends or anything, but it's not like any money needed to change hands, since everyone had access to all this hardware, airplanes satellites, distributed systems. If he had been a normal person, the coast guard would have called off the search after those first few days, and that would be the end of that. I'm not faulting the people who actually did the search as being myopic or anything.

Anyway, what does the 'highly probable' image look like?
posted by delmoi at 11:48 PM on July 22, 2007

I think he was just embarassed about Vista.
posted by blacklite at 12:37 AM on July 23, 2007

The sea is a vicious motherfucker. I know. I spent over 15 years professionally on small (under 50m) yachts. I've been in Pacific storms, Atlantic storms and Indian Ocean storms and run before the wind under bare poles with mooring lines slung astern to try and take way off. The yacht still moves at a couple of knots. It would be a small speck in a vast ocean and possibly 300 miles from the last suspected position with very small odds of being found. The yacht probably had a rotten or rotting hull due to earlier water damage. The number of logs in the area was frightening; many more than merchant vessels. An impact by a floating, submerged or semi submerged log would rip the hull wide open or take the keel off and the yacht would sink in a couple of minutes and the EPIRB was in a cabin locker. Even if it was serviceable it would not have been of much use there. I hope I'm wrong but I'm afraid its RIP Mr. Gray.
posted by adamvasco at 12:56 AM on July 23, 2007

He probably got sucked down a whirlpool and popped up in another whirlpool halfway across the world, maybe near Skara Brae.
posted by Justinian at 1:23 AM on July 23, 2007

The belief that an extraordinary event (a "rogue wave" or a "tanker accident") or a deliberate act (suicide) is behind such a death allows the average person to believe that it will never happen to them. It's the same mentality that can't believe a young person can die of cancer unless they did something to cause it. Nobody wants to believe that death, especially early death, is sometimes unavoidable, or that accidental death can occur from a simple cause.

Hundreds of people go missing at sea every year, some in yachts. It's usually a simple accident. As adamvasco says, the ocean is vicious.
posted by watsondog at 2:09 AM on July 23, 2007

delmoi: for those who take a utilitarian view, his contribution to society was greater than most people's. It would then seem to be yet more in society's interest to find and rescue him. So long as (a) normal people are given thorough assistance, and (b) no one else got shafted by this extra effort, I see no problem with an extra effort to find someone particularly valuable to society, especially if most of that effort is private.

And also:

posted by honest knave at 3:04 AM on July 23, 2007

posted by Poolio at 5:32 AM on July 23, 2007

Perhaps Jim's boat ran into a rogue wave?

White squalls (while rare) have sunk ships. A white squall allegedly sunk the schooner Albatross on May 2, 1961. Its sinking is portrayed in Ridley Scott's film White Squall.
posted by ericb at 8:21 AM on July 23, 2007

The sea is a vicious motherfucker.
Not so much vicious as it just doesn't care.
posted by Floydd at 8:56 AM on July 23, 2007

One really tragic thing about the article is that for such a smart guy, he did one really stupid thing: storing his EPIRB in a cabin locker. If he hadn't done that he would have been found within hours of any crash.
posted by afu at 9:57 AM on July 23, 2007 [1 favorite]

delmoi: what happened in the search for him is indicative of life itself. Some people have more wit than others, some people more money. Some people have more friends, some people are more loved than others. Some are lucky, some drown. This was a man who was greatly respected, had great friends with great influence and who was of great value to society. His friends no doubt pushed every button they could push to help locate him.

I know I would do the same for my family/friends, and I hope you would, too. We do it for stranded people in the mountains, in blizzards, in the forest. It's not just about money.

The Armed Forces has a mantra that no man should be left behind on the battlefield. They believe every solider to be worthy of proper burial and respect, and to that end the Armed Forces expends a great deal of (literal) blood, sweat and tears to retrieve every body they possibly can.
posted by tgrundke at 10:41 AM on July 23, 2007

One really tragic thing about the article is that for such a smart guy, he did one really stupid thing: storing his EPIRB in a cabin locker. If he hadn't done that he would have been found within hours of any crash.

Exactly. That was one of the first things that caught my eye -- the system that's set up for events such as these, was useless.

Anyone have any idea why he'd store it there? To keep it from accidentally falling overboard?

(And not a dot, but...*sails and yards askew*.)
posted by kalimac at 3:47 PM on July 23, 2007

If the boat sank, and he was wearing his harness, was he most likely eaten by sharks?
posted by snoktruix at 4:58 PM on July 23, 2007

b1tr0t -- thanks for the explanation. I had looked EPIRBs up but missed that even the Category II ones are generally manual deployment.
posted by kalimac at 8:07 PM on July 23, 2007

> Why do you think his boat had a rotten hull?

I say in the article:

"In fact, Tenacious might have been even more vulnerable to hull damage than the average C&C 40. Ten years ago, a saltwater intake hose on the boat frayed against the engine. By the time Gray discovered the leak, the water was waist-high in the cabin. If the boat had never completely dried out, the balsa-wood core of its fiberglass hull could have slowly rotted from within."

So, no one knows, but it's a factor.

A couple of days ago, Donna Carnes wrote this to me in email:

"Short version: the EPIRB was always stored 'as is' in an easy-to-access open-top teak shelf, located behind the companionway stairs (about half way up), which lead directly up to the cockpit. (note: this still doesn't undermine your argument: if the boat had rapidly sunk stern first, any device stored in this location could have gone down with the boat, instead of floating up to the surface.)"

Another factor to consider, which is not in the article, is that the batteries in the EPIRB were old. It is not know if they were still functional.
posted by digaman at 9:06 PM on July 23, 2007

posted by digaman at 9:06 PM on July 23, 2007

It's true.

He turned a dorky Windows NT marketing concept ("Scalability Day") into an excuse to build TerraServer, which brought satellite imagery — previously the exclusive domain of intelligence agencies and weather forecasters — to the masses. Then Gray teamed up with astronomer Alex Szalay at Johns Hopkins University to port a massive star-mapping project — the Sloan Digital Sky Survey — to the Web, making the data accessible to professional astronomers, backyard stargazers, and students. Since its debut in 2001, SkyServer has become the most widely used astronomical resource in the world, sparking discoveries about dwarf galaxies, dark matter, and sonic waves triggered by the big bang.

To Gray, both sites were teasers for the coming era of data-centric science made possible by the proliferation of cheap sensing devices, very large data bases, and online interfaces. For life-science researchers, he was like an ambassador from the future who spoke their language. The morning he set sail for the Farallon Islands, he had collaborations under way with oceanographers, soil ecologists, and public health officials.

And he was at least as interested in the scientists themselves as in the petabytes of data they produced. "We connected so deeply," Szalay says. "Sometimes you make these kinds of connections very early in life or in graduate school. But by the time you get to 50, it's rare to meet someone who is so much on the same wavelength. We talked this way, usually several times a day, for eight years."

posted by digaman at 11:06 PM on July 23, 2007 [1 favorite]

I don't know, for me personally seeing such effort expended to search for one person, just because he's rich and well connected when so many people die over bullshit seems a little unseemly.

If your friend was in danger, you would probably put more effort into his rescue than someone who was not his friend would.
posted by Shakeer at 11:18 AM on July 24, 2007

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