Vista : Astronomer fails to get rich

Some cynical readers may feel that the above blog-post title falls into the “dog bites man” category, rather than the much more gripping “man bites dog” type of headline which those hungry for novelty always seek. But behind these words is a human drama of burning passion, lost opportunity, and secret cannibalism. Well, except that last bit. The recent news splash over the release of Microsoft Vista made me ponder on why Bill is rich and Andy is not.

Back in year 2000, I was one of a bunch of UK astronomers burning with desire to build a new large telescope dedicated to optical and infra-red surveys, and to get the taxpayer to cough up for it. Well, it worked, and the “Joint Infrastructure Fund” duly coughed up on Joe Public’s behalf. We debated long into the night on what to call this beast, spewing up many dull or clumsy acronyms until Mark Casali came up with the wonderfully evocative name of VISTA. (The Visible and Infrared Survey Telescope for Astronomy … of course the visible wavelength camera got cancelled due to funding problems, but we couldn’t call it ISTA because that would sound like we were fond of Egyptian mythology but dyslexic.) So … did Jim Emerson, Will Sutherland, Mark, myself, or any of the rest of the merry crew rush out and snaffle up all the domain name variants along the lines of blah.vista.foo etc ? Nope. (With the feeble exception of http://www.vista.ac.uk) A few years later, did the most powerful corporation on the planet announce that its new operating system had the same evocative name ? Yup.

On to the year 2001. With a different (slightly overlapping) set of chums, I launched the AstroGrid project, the UK’s take on the whole Virtual Observatory game. Very early on we realised that we needed a distributed but transparent virtual storage system. In AstroGrid, we use this partly as a staging post for asynchronous services, workflows etc, but we also saw it as a shared user facility, building towards that Virtual Community thing, and our Project Scientist (Nic Walton) suggested we call it MySpace. (“Hi John, I re-ran that query with the parameters changed like you suggested – the results are in MySpace, take a look”). The name MySpace is kinda tacky, but it stuck, and several hundred astronomers in the UK are now using it. So.. did Nic Walton, Tony Linde, myself or any of the rest of the gang rush out and etc etc ? Nope. Did a vastly succesful new social networking business called MySpace get going shortly thereafter ? Yup.

Sigh. So if only we had etc etc the above mentioned corporate giants would have swamped us with dosh, desperate for those domain names. Ahh.. now hang on .. I have this itchy feeling there is a flaw in that logic somewhere. Maybe they would have come up with different but equally good names … Hmmm. Hummph. Outfoxed by Gates again.

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