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.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Anecdotal Warming

One season (or half a season) doesn't make much of a trend, but the Daily Yomiuri today has an article on how warm things are in parts of Japan that are normally covered by snow this time of year. In Niigata, it's raining. In Gunma, ice fishing hasn't started yet because the lake hasn't frozen over. In parts of Niigata, they're golfing instead of skiing. In Aomori, they've had to postpone a series of ski competitions because there's no snow (and it's too warm to make any).

Most of those parts of Japan are generally just below freezing in the winter, getting lots of snow but not really being bitterly cold. The paper says temperatures are 0.8 to 1.0C higher than average, but that sounds like an underestimate to me; 2-3C is what I would expect it to take to completely kill snow in those parts, but maybe it's more marginal than I think.

And on the news last night, they said that Moscow is 10C warmer than typical this time of year.

The article attributes the warming to El Nino. Make of it what you will...

Monday, January 15, 2007

Communication Links for Distributed Quantum Computation

R. Van Meter, K. Nemoto, W.J. Munro, "Communication Links for Distributed Quantum Computation," is now available as quant-ph/0701043.

Combined with papers such as "Arithmetic on a Distributed-Memory Quantum Multicomputer" (which is an extended version of our ISCA paper available on my publications page), we are gradually building a complete picture of a machine that will run quantum programs effectively in a distributed fashion.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Caltech, the Basketball Powerhouse

After last week's by the men's team over Bard College -- the first NCAA win in eleven years -- the women topped it with their first NCAA win ever, beating Pomona Saturday night. Go Beavers!

Rick Greenwald has made a documentary called Quantum Hoops about the Caltech basketball team, which will premiere at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival in a few weeks. Good timing, Rick! It's too far a commute from Tokyo, but I certainly hope to see the film.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Winny Defense Breaches

Winny, the popular Japanese file sharing program, has been linked to at least 27 cases of data exposure from the GSDF (Ground Self-Defense Forces) since 2002. According to sources, no classified data has been compromised.

Last February a big incident was discovered, which led the Defense Agency (as of yesterday, upgraded to the Defense Ministry, giving it a cabinet position for the first time since the war) to procure 56,0000 PCs to be used by SDF personnel. Why? Because they were using their home PCs for SDF-related work, due to lack of access to computers at work. Presumably it will be easier for them to prevent the installation of software such as Winny on ministry-owned computers, though repeated security breaches elsewhere via company-owned computers shows it to be no panacea.

This is the same Winny whose author was recently convicted of knowingly supporting piracy of music and movies, but as far as I know, these kinds of data leaks are unintentional. I haven't followed the details of these breaches, but I suspect it's mis-setting of the controls resulting in accidental sharing, though it's also possible that there are security holes in Winny itself.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

New Beginnings

Mount Fuji at dawn on New Year's Day, taken near the border between Yamanashi and Nagano prefectures. Not a bad photo for a little cell phone camera.

I'll be taking up a position as Assistant Professor of Environmental Information at Keio University's Shonan Fujisawa Campus. I plan to focus my research broadly on post-Moore's Law computer technologies, with emphasis on quantum computing, and on large-scale distributed storage systems.