Thursday, January 25, 2007

A Sad Note: Obituary for Ron Ayres

I'm devastated. Ron is the guy who brought me from Caltech to ISI. He was the sweetest guy on the planet -- and one of the smartest.

Ron was Caltech's very first CS Ph.D. I think there were two the year he graduated, and he came earlier in the alphabet, so he was the first to receive his diploma.

Not mentioned in the obituary is that Ron was the pivotal technical figure in the early days of the MOSIS project (now MOSIS, many of you know, is the microchip prototyping service originally run by USC's Information Sciences Institute. When started in the early 1980s, the idea that you could email or FTP a VLSI chip design somewhere and receive several (hopefully) working pieces of silicon ten weeks later was extremely radical, and transformed VLSI research in the U.S. Ron and Danny Cohen were, if memory serves, the cofounders of the project.

Ron was an early proponent of silicon compilation, taking a text program description of desired functions and creating a chip layout to match. His Integrated Circuit Language (ICL), a strongly-typed, polymorphic, garbage-collected, interactively compiled system, was perfect for the task. Unfortunately, Ron wasn't interested in playing the academic publishing game, and his influence is smaller than I think it ought to be.

Ron was also very interested in computer graphics. His Ph.D. adviser was Ivan Sutherland, who essentially invented the field of computer graphics. In the early 1970s, Ron did some clever and beautiful wire-frame stereograms of mathematical functions (including a Klein bottle) and printed them on a large plotter. In Ron's story, Ivan was unimpressed, and he later discovered that Ivan lacked stereoscopic vision -- apparently a common trait.

Ron may not (or may) have been as smart as Feynman, but he shared an intellectual trait: he thought *differently* from other people. He arrived at questions and solutions in a different fashion.

He also had an impressive collection of Hawaiian shirts, and was a lousy but enthusiastic volleyball player, an incorrigible punster, and an unrepentant TECO user into at least the mid-1990s. One thing I remember is the clatter of his HP graphics terminal -- Ron could type at an incredible rate and attacked the keyboard ferociously.

Ron was my boss, and a good one: he knew how to get the most out of someone like me. He told me, "You will spend a third of your time working on the main project I'm hiring you for, a third of your time on other unrelated tasks I ask you to do, and a third of your time doing what you want. I know I'll get something good out of it." I believe he got that management style from Danny. What Ron got out of my "free" time was a rewritten garbage collector and variable-size memory management -- ICL up to that point used Lisp cons cell-like memory management. I also helped edit a book he wrote on language design which was never published. I think I still have my copy somewhere...

Ron worked very hard but also knew how to have some fun -- more than once he looked at me and said, "It's a beautiful day, let's go to the beach." And we knocked off work and went body-surfing.

Below is the obituary as it appeared in the L.A. Times:

AYRES , Dr. Ronald F.
(53); Child Cello Virtuoso, Computer Scientist
and Cal Tech Faculty Instructor.
Dr. Ron Ayres, former Computer Science Lecturer
at the California Institute and Technology,
Computer Scientist at the University of Southern
California/Information Sciences Institute and
holder of numerous software patents, passed away
from natural causes at his home in Marina District on January 9, 2007.
Ron was the son of J. Marx Ayres, Consulting
Mechanical Engineer and Anita Lauda, Concert
Pianist. They raised their three children:
Denise, Ron and Gary in the Carthay Circle
District at 611 San Vicente Blvd., Los Angeles.
They all became musicians, playing the violin,
cello and viola respectively. Ron studied with
Naum Bendinsky and was a child protege student
of cellist icon, Gregory Priatagorsky. Denise and
Ron became teenage concert musicians, winning
numerous competitions, scholarships and rewards.
They performed in youth symphony orchestras, as
soloists and in trios. They were members of the
University of Southern California Junior Symphony
Orchestra and the Young Musicians Foundation
Debut Orchestra under the direction of Michel Tilson Thomas.
Ron was a brilliant student, completing Los
Angeles High School in 11/2 years and entering
Cal Tech at age 17. He set the cello aside to
concentrate on math and physics as a student of
Nobel Laureate, Dr. Richard P. Feyman. Ron lived
in Blacker House at Cal Tech for his first two
years, 1971-1972. He received his Bachelors,
Masters and PhD degrees from Cal Tech. His 1979
PhD research in Integrated Circuit Language was
later used to define and implement languages.
Dr. Ayres's groundbreaking work was first
published in his 1983 book, "VLSL Silicon
Compilation and the Art of Automatic Microchip
Design". He has numerous additional publications
on the enhancements and applications of his work.
He became a Founder and Vice President of Silicon
Compilers, Inc. along with Dr. Carver Mead for
the period 1981-1983. When the firm was sold, he
joined USC/Information Sciences Institute for the
period 1984-1995. In the last decade, Dr. Ayres
provided expert consultation services to others
and greatly enhanced his patented software. His
latest development efforts resulted in a 2003
Java compiler written in ICL, and a 2004
Type-centric ICL with modular implementation.
Ron Ayres lived in Venice, California for 29
years. He wanted to be close to the ocean and he
loved the creative activities and spirit of the
Venice Community. He liked to be known as a
beach bum who deeply loved his cat Precious.
Ron was never married and is survived by his
sister Denise, brother Gary, and father, Marx.


At 4:28 PM, Blogger -rkb- said...

My (somewhat inarticulate) reaction to the announcement is at my blog, in a post titled My Favorite Professor.

At 9:09 AM, Blogger John Odden said...

Due to some time warp, I missed Ron's passing. He was certainly a friend and a shining soul when I was a wet-behind-the-ears Mole at Blacker House. Ron's ability to see forward "around the corner" and "through the maze of mortal confusion" should be legendary. But this world misses many Caltech and Mole miracles. If you look at the "state of computation today" Ron might score the leading Operating Systems as "D+" or Low Pass for tinkering with 64 bit while Ron was thinking about how to get past 1,024 bit and time synchrony when he and I were in Blacker.

If you'd visited his room above California Blvd and made your way past stacks of computer printout, ever taller with ever better approximations of Pi, then you knew the essential Mr. Ayres. If you ever drove past Caltech and unknowingly stopped outside of Blacker House due to aliens drawing moving figures on the hood of your car in "painted splashes of monochromatic light" then you might be able to guess Ron's favorite holiday gift.

When I was humbly garbage collecting a few mega-bytes, Ron was in anguish over links in data structures that would exceed what humankind has painted across the internet address space. Because he know there were problems computable of such likely complexity. And along the way he spawned gifts of beauty, simplicity and outrageous complexity. I miss Ron and join those who honor him.


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