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Knowledge and Wisdom: Honoring Jim Gray

In my commentary Microsoft Research Labs Fuel Innovation, I wrote about the Microsoft Jim Gray Systems Lab and mentioned that Jim Gray had been lost while sailing outside of the San Francisco Bay in January 2007. Last Saturday, an event was held at the University of California, Berkeley to honor Jim, and I’ve seen several articles written about it so far. John Markoff, a blogger from The New York Times San Francisco office who knew Jim, wrote about the event at Also, the UC Berkeley campus newspaper, The Daily Californian, included an article on Monday morning titled Campus Tribute Honors Missing UC Berkeley Researcher.

When I first saw The New York Times post, it seemed that Markoff had hit on most of the key points that I might have mentioned about the event. However, he did neglect to mention that in addition to the fact that “The audience was a cross-section of the computer industry’s best and brightest,” it also included regular people, like me. I flew down to the Bay Area on Friday with my husband and spent the day on the UC Berkeley campus, where I had been a student for eight years and a lecturer for another four years. Although I wasn't there concurrently with Jim, we had many professors and colleagues in common.

It was awe-inspiring to realize how many people’s lives were affected in a very positive way professionally, personally, and even politically by Jim Gray. It was also amazing to see the breadth of contributions to the industry that he made. Although I was aware of most of his accomplishments, it was mindboggling to see them in a single list, as presented by Michael Stonebraker in his talk entitled “Why Did Jim Gray Win the Turing Award.” Jim was one of the primary people responsible for the following:

  • The development of a definable standard for measuring system performance and the formation of the Transaction Processing Council (TPC).
  • The incorporation of the Atomicity, Consistency, Isolation, and Durability (ACID) properties into any discussion of transaction management.
  • The addition of the CUBE operator in the SQL language.
  • The first online, publicly available database containing more than a terabyte of usable data (

Jim was also very interested in everything and wanted to share his ideas with anyone who could use them. He worked with astronomers to help set up the WorldWide Telescope and SkyServer ( He also worked with oceanographers and other scientists to start building a worldwide digital library that integrates all the world's scientific literature and data into one easily-accessible collection.

But beyond his research, books, and conferences, Jim was also a remarkable human being. The title of this commentary refers to a quote by Jimi Hendrix that was referenced by several speakers at the tribute on Saturday: “Knowledge speaks, but wisdom listens.” Jim wanted to listen and learn, probably even more than he wanted to speak, write, and share his knowledge.

Another speaker talked about immortality and the ways that people are remembered. He started with a tongue-in-cheek description of all the geographical locations already named after Jim such as Gray’s Park and the Gray River. (We can also include biological references honoring Jim such as the Gray wolf and the Gray whale.) Then the speaker went on in a more serious note and suggested other ways the Jim would be remembered, which included his many contributions to computer science (some of which I’ve listed above).

I suggest that we honor Jim and his work on transaction processing and the formation of the TPC by using Gray as a unit of measurement for benchmark results. I first thought of using the word "Gray" to refer to something that included the price per transaction per minute or the price per 1000 transactions per minute, but then I discovered at that the TPC doesn't compare results measured in different currencies. Yes, most of the results are in U.S. dollars, but not all. So I propose defining a “Gray” to be simply one million transactions per minute. If we start using this new unit of measurement, whenever transaction benchmarks are discussed, we will remember Jim Gray.

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