Peace breaks out in Vienna-on-Sea

May 22, 2008

This week your roving reporter is in Trieste. Its in Italy, but it looks like Austria. Until 1918 it was in Austria, and its full of beautiful neo-classical buildings, including a huge impressive square facing straight out to the ocean. They call it Vienna-on-Sea. Eating here is weird. Like anywhere in Italy you can get spaghetti vongole or grappa, but you also get Leberkase, Schweinhaxe, and Weissbier. (The latter two known locally as Stinco and Weizen.)

The excuse for being in Trieste is the twice yearly “interoperability workshop” of the International Virtual Observatory Alliance (IVOA). Arriving at this meeting an air of gloom hung like a fog, as there seemed to be two irreconcilably different approaches to specifying how you access database tables (TAP/QL and TAP/PARAM if you want to know) and it seemed that for the first time in its history the IVOA process might not converge, and two VOs might emerge, one either side of the Atlantic. However …. while email debates turn so easily into flame wars, once you are drinking beer together, you can’t keep up the hostilities. It wasn’t easy… but its look like we have converged on an awkward but workable compromise.

But it gets better. If QL and PARAM look like warring camps, just try Google and Microsoft. In one session we had talks about Google Sky (Ryan Scranton) and World Wide Telescope (Jonathan Fay). They are both fantastic pieces of software. Primarily they are for education and outreach rather than pro work, but it won’t stay that way – WWT is already built on VO protocols (you can do a USNO-B cone search at the position you have panned to…) and they are hooking up with the Harvard IIC folk to build a “WWT-pro” version. Meanwhile as I mentioned some months back, VO hackers have already been building VO plugins for Google Sky using the Google Keyhole Markup Language (KML). Now here is the stunner .. the guy from Microsoft said that WWT would support KML. Wow ! Peace and harmony.

But wait. It gets better. One of the longest standing wars is of course PC vs Mac. Well… when the Microsoft guy arrived at the podium, he had his talk on a Macbook. Sure, it was a Mac running VISTA using Bootcamp… but still. Microsoft guy. On a Mac. I hear the angels singing.