A 'Friend of the Family' Joins the Fold

By Tiffany Fox

San Diego, Calif., Feb. 26, 2015 — Spend even an hour or two around Atkinson Hall – the headquarters of the University of California, San Diego, Qualcomm Institute – and you’re likely to see a tall fellow with a gray ponytail, neck-deep in some kind of high-tech contraption.

John Graham
John Graham with the JVC 4K Tangible Earth projector hemisphere.

John Graham, a self-described, long-time “friend of the family” at QI, has accepted a position as senior development engineer – something that might come as a surprise to those who assumed this familiar face was already an employee.

Graham first turned up at QI in 2005 during Hurricane Katrina, when he and his colleagues at his then-home institution, San Diego State University, were looking for increased bandwidth to run their servers. A charter member of the Open Source Geospatial Foundation, Graham and his colleague, Brian Case, were beginning to build an “Open GeoData Pipeline” for disaster response-related satellite data and aerial photography coming from the U.S. Navy and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

QI – the UC San Diego division of the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology (Calit2) – had what Graham needed, bandwidth-wise, so he set up shop with the Calit2 Terascale Data Center, a group of servers donated by Intel that store about 200 terabytes of data and still run the processing pipeline today. 

“We were running out of bandwidth, brought our equipment across town and it’s been growing ever since,” says Graham. “Now we run a XenServer stack so we can have virtualization of systems and spin up machines if we need to in case of disaster.”

Since then Graham has bounced around from running SAGE2 (a framework for Calit2’s high-resolution tiled display walls), to displaying live climate/weather data on the first 8K projector in the U.S. (8K UHDTV is 16 times the resolution of HDTV). He’s also known around the building for his work on the JVC Tangible Earth – a new 4K projector hemisphere that looks like a giant crystal ball and can be hooked up to any computer to display any kind of data.

“(Calit2 Research Scientist) Jürgen Schulze will be writing code that gets rid of curvature and distortion and allows objects to float in 3D,” says Graham. “We put Google Earth onto Tangible Earth as first crack, but it’s really good for looking at molecules and other round things. One of the researchers in (UC San Diego biologist) Rob Knight’s lab was here in a tour and he immediately put molecular models up on the display. They really zoned in on it.” 

One could say Graham has always had a knack for getting information up on screens, be it geospatial data or – in the case of the dot-com boom – Hollywood movie premiere after-parties. Essentially a self-taught scientist, Graham got a two-year Associates degree in electronics technology, repairing color TVs for extra credit at school. At one point early in his career he created a batch of his own high-temperature superconductor in a friend’s machine shop after reading an article about them in Scientific American. 

“It seemed cool and they had published the recipe, so I gave it a try,” he says with characteristic nonchalance. “I had to use pretty toxic chemicals, create fume hoods and use scrubbers, but it was just cooking to me.”

‘A cook’ is what Graham considers himself, above all (and he doesn't just mean that figuratively – ask him what he’s having for dinner and it’s “chipotle chicken soup with avocado”). He’s spent his career cooking up new projects or serving as ‘sous chef’ on others, from building scanning tunneling microscopes (which provide atomic-level resolution) to starting a distance-learning and video-streaming service at the begening of the dot.com boom in 1995. That’s where the celebrity parties come in.

“Back then streaming video was new and fun and everyone wanted it at their party,” he explains.  

And then there was the time he spent working for the Defense System Division of Goodyear Aerospace “doing military bench testing of things that blow up.” Or the work he did with NASA through the University of Akron on superconductor particle-sized characterization studies. Or the years he spent as a lab manager at Arizona State University building the first industrial associates program for scanning probe microscopy.

If it sounds like his career has been all over the place, Graham will be the first to agree. “I have never understood me,” he says with a laugh and a shrug.

Still, there are some threads that weave their way through his work life. Data visualization has long been at the heart of what he does, and even – it could be said – where he lives. Graham makes his home during the weekends on the Santa Margarita Ecological Reserve, which is also connected by the Calit2-affiliated HPWREN project. HPWREN (High-Performance Wireless and Research Education Network)  supports a wireless data network in San Diego, Riverside and Imperial counties that includes backbone sites, typically on mountain tops, to connect often hard-to-reach areas in remote environments. Graham is helping to monitor and improve the network.

In a second, unrelated project Graham is building perfSONAR FIONAs. These FIONAS (or Flash I/O Network Appliances) are low-cost, flash-memory-based data server appliances that will have dual 40-gigabit interfaces for testing the new 100-gigabit CENIC backbone. The Corporation for Education Network Initiatives in California, a nonprofit corporation, enables California’s higher education and research communities to leverage their networking resources under one umbrella, in order to obtain cost-effective, high-bandwidth networking to support their missions and answer the needs of their faculty, staff, and students.

So what does he do in his (ahem) free time? More work, of course. Graham tends to an organic garden in his off-hours, and also spends time in New Mexico, where he's building a second home from a 20-foot shipping container next to property owned by a neighbor building his own observatory. This neighbor has, of course, enlisted Graham's help. 

Media Contacts

Tiffany Fox, (858) 246-0353, tfox@ucsd.edu

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