Sunday, August 24, 2008

 

Those Other Astro Rags

I received quite a bit of comment about and even took a wee bit of heat over a blog entry I did recently, “The Trouble with the Magazines,” Sky and Telescope and Astronomy by name. Ground Truth on this end? Even given their faults and the concerns I expressed, I still enjoy reading them every month. I thought the September 2008 Astronomy was a good effort, and that the corresponding issue of Sky and Telescope was even better. I won’t lie to you-all though: yeah, I still look forward to ‘em every month, but not with the Charlie Brown-waiting-for-Valentines fervor of old. The emails and comments I received on this subject—surely a record number—give me to understand a few of y’all are feeling the same way too. You are either tired of the majors or are looking for a little fresh air to supplement them. You’re a lucky duck. At the moment, even given the supposedly depressed state of the amateur astronomy economy, there are plenty of other astro-mags for you to try-on for size.

Caveat, y’all: I couldn’t cover every astronomy magazine in the world in one blog entry, dadgummit. Believe it or not, there are too many of ‘em. And that’s not all… Some I don’t know about; some, like Tenmon Guide, I can’t read; and others, like Australian Sky and Space and Australian Sky and Telescope, I don’t know how to get.
Amateur Astronomy Magazine

I’ve had a soft spot for this one in my jaded little heart since it hit the streets near about fifteen years ago. I’m a little prejudiced, perhaps, since it was founded by and published for most of its run by my good friend and Dobsonian guru, Tom Clark, and his wife, observer extraordinaire, Jeannie. Tom and Jeannie managed to put out nearly fifty issues without missing a beat, all consistently good. Recently, Tom, deciding he should finally get to really retire, passed AA to new hands, those of Charlie Warren, who, as you know if you read the blog about Amateur Astronomy I did a while ago, is doing a bang-up job with the magazine. Keeping plenty of the old Chiefland Astronomy Village flavor despite the transplant to the rag’s new Tennessee locale. I am proud to say I have read and kept every single issue of Amateur Astronomy Magazine, and refer to it frequently. Does that mean AA is the supplementary or “different” magazine you have been looking for? Not necessarily. Like many smaller journals, it’s a little more focused than the majors, and may or may not fit you. What’s it like?

First of all, if you are an SCT user or an APO-wielder, you may feel a wee bit left out as you thumb through Amateur Astronomy. Since AA was Tom Clark’s creation, and Tom is, I shouldn’t have to tell you, one of the prime proponents of the Dobsonian—the man has a 42-inch in his backyard, for gosh sakes—the magazine tended to focus on these scopes under his editorship. ATMing has always been prominent in its pages, too, not surprisingly. That’s been one part of the AA formula. What else? Star party reports. Tom and Jeannie cruised to enough star parties in their massive RV to inspire even this star party fanatic’s open-mouthed admiration. Naturally, many of the events they visited got a writeup—this has consistently been one of my favorite features. Finally, big dobs plus star parties equals deep sky observing, and the magazine has tended to concentrate more on the larger universe than on topics of interest to Solar System or Lunar observers. I used to say Tom’s mag was like having the much-missed Telescope Making and Deep Sky magazines revived and combined under one cover.

The above describes the Tom Clark Amateur Astronomy, though, what is the Charlie Warren magazine like? At this point, it’s relatively unchanged. Like Tom, Charlie is, I believe, a Dob fancier. He’s also an astrophotographer, though, and I expect the magazine may eventually move a mite away from the old “DSOs with a big wooden telescope and an eyepiece” paradigm (though that was never all of what AA was about). Does the above sound like not quite your thing? Don’t be so sure. I own a Dobsonian or two, but, hey, let’s face it; those telescopes are just a part of my astro-life, not an Obsession. Nevertheless, I have found plenty to interest and inform me in AA over the years and I expect that to continue under the new Editor.

Production values? AA is not and never has been a fancy publication. It is 100% black and white with a nice, heavy-stock, perfect-bound cover. The cover is the only glossy thing you will find. In a way, I guess that is part of its charm: down to earth and info-packed. If you’re an inveterate astro-rag saver like me, don’t be afeared; despite the proletarian look, the magazine’s paper is of good quality and has held up well over the years with no signs of yellowing. The images are usually clearly reproduced and the text is eminently readable. How about the quality of the articles themselves?

Amateur Astronomy is what the current Editor likes to call “user supported.” Its articles are provided by subscribers or culled from club newsletters sent in by their editors rather than by paid staffers or free-lance writers. Since none of AA’s content is done on a for-pay basis as far as I know, you cannot expect professional-caliber prose all the time. Which is not to say there are no professionally written articles in the magazine. Quite a few pros including Steve Coe, Robert Reeves, and even your ol’ Uncle have contributed regularly over the years. Even the “Short Subjects” in the front of the magazine (tidbits from newsletters), are at least decipherable most of the time. One thing is sure: new writers need a place to learn their craft and be seen and AA provides a wonderful venue for that.

Astronomy Technology Today

I’ve taken note of this one in a previous blog entry too, and it has become, to be honest, my absolute favorite amongst the “alternative” astronomy magazines. So, it’s a little embarrassing to admit that when I was first told about this one, I opined, “NEVER make it.” Yeah, I know I’ve often said “Uncle Rod is Always Right.” Scratch that, or at least modify it to “Uncle Rod is Almost Always Right.” This new mag, coming up on its second birthday, has not only survived but appears to be thriving under the guidance of Publisher Stuart Parkerson and Editor Gary Parkerson. Why didn’t I think ATT would make it? Because it was something completely different, the first new idea in amateur astronomy magazines we’ve seen since Hector was a pup. Astronomy Technology Today is a journal for the astro-gearhead.

Yep, “astronomy technology” means ASTRO-STUFF. Everything from scopes and mounts to cameras and red flashlights. All that “junk” the equipment-oriented among us fret and salivate over. The only bad thing? If you can call it that? This is, of course, not a replacement for Sky and Telescope or Astronomy; if that’s what you’re after, look elsewhere. You will not find monthly star charts and observing articles in Astronomy Technology. There’s more here than reviews and product announcements, sure—there are construction articles for example--but the magazine’s content is unabashedly equipment oriented. That is certainly not a bad thing in Unk’s opinion, and you may find, if you search deep down in your amateur soul, the same thing is true of you. C’mon, admit it, you look at the Meade and Celestron ad-spreads in Sky and ‘Scope way before you read the articles about black holes, doncha?

Production quality on this one came as quite a surprise. I reckon I was expecting that initially it would look similar to Amateur Astronomy: black and white with a simple layout. Well, it’s not a glossy—it's on pulp-type paper—but that’s where the similarity ends. It is full-color, is stuffed with image after image, well-reproduced image after image, and I find I hardly notice the lack of high-quality paper stock (the cover is nice and shiny). Layout is another surprise; it is very professionally done. As for article quality? It is generally high. The magazine, like Amateur Astronomy, is supported—in part at least—by unpaid contributions, but it has attracted the notice of quite a few very talented folks who are eager to submit to this endlessly fascinating up-and-comer.

One interesting thing about ATT is that the publisher offers two subscription options: print plus online access or online only. The online version of the magazine is identical to the print version, and is composed of .pdf (Adobe Acrobat) files. The online-only option is particularly attractive for our Canadian brothers and sisters, as it saves ‘em a whole lot on postage. It also allows ATT to be distributed to international readers where mailing a print version is expensive and impractical. While U.S. subscribers can also opt for “online only,” it is no less expensive than “print + online.” The price for either option is insanely reasonable--$18.00 for a year’s worth, 12 issues (that’s right, ATT is a MONTHLY)—but a dollar or two break for U.S. online-only subscriptions would be nice and might save some trees.

SkyNews

SkyNews is the little magazine that is almost there. This Canadian bimonthly is certainly “there” when it comes to names; it is edited by Terrance Dickinson (Nightwatch), one of the best of the best when it comes to the astro-writing game. Contributors include plenty of prominent folks, too, including Alan Dyer and Gary Seronik, to name just a couple. So why “almost there”? Despite some excellent articles—a recent review of DSLRs for astrophotography came to my rescue when I was trying to decide whether to jump ship from Nikon to Canon for my first camera—the magazine lacks focus and is way too skinny. While billed as “The Canadian Magazine of Astronomy and Star Gazing,” there’s little in here that would be out of place in a U.S. rag. The current issue, for example, headlines a story on NEAF. And, while the articles are good, there’s only so much information you can pack into 40 bimonthly pages.

Thin or not, SkyNews is as professional as it gets. Simple but attractive layout, with most pieces written by professional writers. The paper is a good grade of smooth ‘n glossy and the illos are as attractive as anything you’ll see in the U.S. biggies. Well, almost. Quite a few of the star maps/diagrams, I notice, are done with Starry Night Pro (the program’s seller, Imaginova, is based north of the border too), and are maybe not quite as eye-catching and clear as those done by the good folk in the art department at Sky and ‘Scope, for example. To sum up? A lovely little magazine. I just wish there were more of it and that it had a wee bit more of a personality. Not that Mssr Dickinson needs my advice. SkyNews has been plugging along for over fifteen years at last count; it obviously has a devoted audience.

Astronomy Now
I used to joke that back in The Day, back when the kids was livin’ at home, that the normal punishment for misbehavior at Chaos Manor South was being sentenced to reading a year’s worth of Astronomy Now. That was just a joke, y’all. Astronomy Now is not really a bad magazine; in fact, it’s a very good one. If it has had a fault in the past, it’s been that it never quite seemed to compare as favorably with the other newsstand biggies as it should. It invariably seemed just a small step behind, as if one more push would put it over the top. That push never seemed to come, though, alas.

How’s that? To begin with, AN has always been more similar to Astronomy than Sky and Telescope. If you’re looking for “advanced amateur” articles, forget it. What you get is a mix of gee-whizzy astronomy fact articles (“Postcards from Mars"), and basic amateur astronomy stuff (“How Clearly Can I See?”) similar to what’s in the American monthly. Unfortunately, in the past, the magazine’s overall quality has not quite been up to Astronomy standards. Not so much factual errors, but typos and awkward prose and odd layout choices/problems. I used to buy Astronomy Now on a monthly basis, finally got tired of hoping for improvement, and put her down several years ago. Don’t worry. I’m not gonna condemn an innocent astro-rag on the basis of my failing memory. I headed down to Barnes and Noble with the requisite $8.75 (!) to see what had become of this occasionally ugly duckling; to see how it’s fairing under the leadership of Editor Keith Cooper.

You know what? I came away impressed. Despite fairly intense searching, no egregious typos or other faux pas did I find. Yes, it is still heavy on Discover-type armchair astronomy fluff scattered throughout the magazine, but I was favorably impressed by the reviews and other amateur astronomy-oriented pieces in the August 08 ish. Nick Syzmanek, Neil English, and Martin Mobberly in particular turned in some real good stuff. Only complaint? Too short. Mr. Editor, give these folks more room to stretch out, even if that means eliminating one of y’all’s cherished black hole sendups. The observing-centric articles were pretty well done, too, even if, like the gear pieces, they were too short. Almost every article in August got my interest right off the bat, BUT, just as it was gettin’ good, you CUT ME OFF. Don’t do that!

The Astronomy Now package? AN’s production values leave its American cousin in the dust. The cover is of that high-gloss stock favored by quite a few UK mags, and the interior pages are also very high quality paper (if a mite thin)—superior, easily, to what Astronomy and Sky and Telescope have been reduced to these days. The magazine’s format is a little odd, 8 x 11.5-inches, but that just adds to the distinctive look of this beautiful pub. I hope the AN guys and gals continue to push; I think they’ve got a good thing goin’ now, and I will be back to check on ‘em in a couple of months.

The Sky at Night Magazine

When he saw the first issue of The Sky at Night Magazine, your irreverent ol’ Uncle’s reaction was “Hay-soos Christmas, it’s Astronomy Now with a CD!” Yep, and that’s all there was to distinguish this magazine from AN at first. In the fashion of many UK periodicals of all kinds, there was an included CD (every month) rubber-cemented to the rag’s high-gloss cover. The CD was nice enough. On it, most of all, was a video of the current The Sky at Night TV show, which I appreciated—unless you like to look at TSAN on a freakin’ PC, you’re out of luck on this benighted side of the Atlantic. But that was about all of interest on the disk at first. Oh, there was a monthly animated planisphere sky-tour with Sir Patrick Moore and co-presenter Chris Lintott, but not a lot else worth two seconds of yer time. The magazine itself? Yay-ah…reminded me a lot of AN at its nadir. Basic articles plagued by typos and layout snafus. But…

Let me say rat cheer that I support anything—book, TV program, magazine, WHATEVER—with Sir Patrick Moore’s name on it. If it had not been for this man, who I don’t hesitate to call the greatest living amateur astronomer and astronomy writer, I would not be here typing this. One late spring afternoon when I was boredly browsing the stacks of Kate Shepard Elementary’s library with the rest of my 4th grade class, I ran across Patrick’s The Moon and How to Make and Use a Telescope (with H.P. Wilkins). The rest is history (well, maybe the little-bittiest footnote to history). So, I stuck with TSAN to see if it would evolve or just become comfortable in a rut, pressing on thanks to the weight of Patrick’s name and the novelty of the “cover” CD.

Three years later, what is the story? Brothers and sisters, I’m amazed. Far from being just a figurehead, Sir Patrick is a real part of the magazine, contributing a monthly column in his usual inimitable style. The personable Chris Lintott is there, too, providing a professional astronomer’s perspective. Content has been the biggest surprise of all. While the “gee whiz” armchair astronomy articles are heavy on pictures and light on prose, maybe that’s as should be to catch the eye of the current “visual generation.” 

I may not be part of that “current generation,” but even I prefer looking at pictures to reading the basics of them dadgummed black holes one more time. Don’t get me wrong, though, there is plenty of information between the covers. Particularly noteworthy are the monthly gear reviews, and, especially, the shootout comparos. Each issue three or four or more similar items are compared—scopes, mounts, whatever. The biggest plus? The reviewers are not pulling their punches; if the optics in a scope do not perform, that is said; not talked around. The reviews just tend to be closer to what a lot of us have wished for than much of what we’ve seen from the U.S. rags of late. For example, a recent review of 12-inch Dobs actually referred to the author’s star-testing of the scopes.

As mentioned earlier, physically TSAN is similar to Astronomy Now. But that’s just the paper and the cover. In my opinion, the layout of The Sky at Night is more innovative and readable than that of the other mag. TSAN usually looks modern while AN often just looks busy. Content-wise? The groan-inducing typos and similar errors were exorcised early on. What about the CD? It has grown along with the rest of the magazine. The TV program is still there, but Editor Graham Southorn and his staff are beginning to find some ways to move the CD from merely “cool” to genuinely “useful.” For example, a recent disk included plans/drawings to accompany a telescope making project in the magazine. Another how-to was bolstered by a video on the CD.

If The Sky at Night Magazine can keep on truckin’, it threatens to become my newsstand favorite. Bringdowns? Given the current dollar – pound exchange rate, the cover price, $8.75, hurts a little, but, remember, Sky and Telescope is six bucks now and no CD will you find. Here’s a tip for my fellow Patrick Moore fans: most modern DVD machines will play the CD’s TV show so you can watch Sir Patrick on your big screen instead of a consarned laptop display.

AstroPhoto Insight

I reported on AstroPhoto Insight right here in this li’l ol’ blog not many months ago. There was good reason for that. While this one is a bit on the esoteric side, even moreso than ATT, being devoted entirely to the art and science of astrophotography (meaning digital imaging in these latter days), it is not just very good; it’s the only thing of its kind around at this time far as I know: a bi-monthly magazine devoted just to celestial picture taking.

What’s it like? I won’t mention paper stock cause there ain’t none. This is an e-zine presented in Adobe Acrobat format. There is no option for a print version as with ATT. In my opinion, that ain’t a problem. Luddite me can print out an article or a whole issue if’n I need reading material for my, uh, “morning ablutions.” I must admit it’s nice to have everything on a DVD, too. I just add each issue to the disk as I download it. When I want to refer back to an article, I do a quick search, which is much quicker than thumbing a stack of aged magazines. Yep, I said “download.” If you want a disk, you make your own after you download your issue from the website. That may be a small fly in the honey if you ain’t got broadband and want to get the “enhanced” version of the magazine (which includes videos).

Hows about inside? Editor Al Degutis continues to tweak and modify layout, but AstroPhoto Insight is perfectly readable right now. By “readable” I mean the articles themselves, not just the “printing” (or whatever you call a .pdf’s quality). How could it be otherwise since Al’s stable of writers includes almost everybody who is anybody in the imaging bidness? How mucho for an issue or a subscription? That’s maybe the best part. Al makes his current number available for free. All it takes is registering at his website. How can that work? Al ain’t no fool. As soon as you read your first copy, you’ll be more than willin’ to pony-up the small fee for access to back issues and other Good Stuff available on the website.

A Couple o’ Little Fellers
I cain’t talk about astro-mags and fail to mention two long-running and much-loved publications, The Reflector and The Strolling Astronomer. Like AP Insight, these are specialized publications. The Reflector is the journal of the Astronomical League and The Strolling Astronomer is the Association of Lunar and Planetary Observers' (ALPO’s) house organ. How do you get either? By joining their respective organizations. If you belong to a club, you are probably already an AL member and should be getting the magazine. If you have the slightest interest in Solar System observing, you know about ALPO and are a member. You oughta be, anyhow. Unk insists. Both magazines have gone beyond being merely club newsletters in recent years, with Editors Kent Marts (Reflector) and Ken Poshedly (Strolling Astronomer) turning out real magazines of interest to just about any amateur.

How do I call it, then? If I couldn’t get Sky and Telescope or Astronomy no more, what would I subscribe to? That’s a no brainer. I currently subscribe to (or buy every month) all of the above except SkyNews and Astronomy Now. If I had to say who impresses me most at this time? That’s hard. AstroPhoto Insight is remarkable. And I have a long-running love affair with Amateur Astronomy. I guess, though, that the two rags that have impressed me most; not just with their current content, but how far they’ve come in a short time, would be The Sky at Night Magazine and Astronomy Technology Today.

What the—?! You don’t agree? Tell me why. One of my favorite things about doing this here blog is the responses I get. The most valuable of those—though all are welcome—are, often, I find, from guys and gals who tell me I don’t know what I’m talkin’ about and must be outa my cotton-pickin’ mind. I rarely find myself persuaded by these, but I almost always learn something or at least have my neurons stimulated.

Till next week, then…

Comments:
Thank you from the UK for your tribute to the great Sir Patrick Moore.
He is without doubt the UKs most significant astronomer ever..as a kid in the 60s I read his book and was spellbound by his coverage of Apollo 13
 
What about Mercury? The best astro magazine on the market.

It is all great stuff about the science of astronomy, but seems to be overlooked.

As amateurs, we forget that we rely on communications from professional to enrich our understanding. Have you ever tried to read the Astronomical Journal? I have, and I can barely understand the abstracts, much less the articles.

We rely on only a few communication links between professionals and the wider society, often from science journalists who themselves easily get it wrong.

We need journals like Mercury to communciate science at a level we can understand. The articels are mostly written by professionals and educators. Like most small magazines, it is struggling, and needs all of our support.
 
Certainly I know about Mercury...but I have not seen an issue in so long...near about 15 years, I don't feel qualified to comment on it. What I remember from way back when was more "pro" than "amateur" articles. A high quality pub, though, certainly.

Unk.
 
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