Sunday, July 19, 2009

 

The AstroWebs

It seems like just yesterday that the AstroWeb got cranked up, that amateur astronomy (like many other things) took to that new-fangled World Wide Web like the proverbial duck to water. In reality, it’s been, conservatively speaking, near-about fifteen years since the Internet became a big presence in amateur astronomers’ lives. Starting with things like Archie and Veronica (don’t ask) and the Usenet (if you are wet enough behind the ears to not know what that is, see the entry on s.a.a. below), and winding up with Mosaic and Netscape and that newfangled hypertext WWW, the ‘net and astronomy seemed like they was made for each other, and still do.

What brought this to mind? I was browsing a 1995 issue of my little Skywatch newsletter and ran across my (short) list of great Internet astronomy sites. After I got over chuckling about the quaintness of the list and my naïve speculations concerning the Internet, I decided it might be time for a re-do. Herewith are some—a few—of my favorite Internet venues:

Adventures in Deep Space

Do you like the deep sky? I mean the DEEP sky? Way beyond the Messier? Beyond even the NGC/IC? If so, Steve Gottlieb and Mark Wagner have the place for you. Their website, subtitled “Challenging Observing Projects for Observers of All Ages,” is just that. Herein, you’ll find guides to the sky’s dusty attic corners, plenty of observing lists, and challenges aplenty (the Aintno list is here). What’s so great, though, is that not only is there plenty of stuff, but that it is presented in a useful and well-written manner. Unless you live out in the southwest desert (or, like Unk, have a Stellacam), you may never get to see all—or even many—of these things, but it sure is fun to read about ‘em.

Andy’s Shot Glass

Another thing I like—nay, LOVE—is minimalist astronomy. As I’ve said a time or three, nothing tickles me more than gettin’ it on with a cheap Chinese scope, some Rini eyepieces, and an old Meade DSI and seeing how far I can push out into the Universe. Andy Raiford thinks the same way, and encourages that sorta philosophy with his website dedicated to “Astronomy and Astrophotography for Non-Gazillionaries.” There’s an awful lot to read and look at. Much of it is dedicated to doing astro-imaging on the cheap, but there’s plenty for the cheapskate visual observer, too, with features on ever’thing from polar alignment to Solar observing. I must also note the very professional design of the page. It looks great and has a lot of video and cool stuff like that. The video, unlike what you see on some websites, ain’t just gratuitous, either; Andy uses it wisely to demonstrate methods and concepts best done with that medium.

APOD

Yeah, NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day is a more a professional website aimed at the general public than an amateur astronomy page. Many of the images posted daily are taken by spacecraft and professional observatories. And the blurb at the top of the page, “Each day a different image or photograph of our fascinating universe is featured, along with a brief explanation written by a professional astronomer” makes it sound like this site, beloved of just about anybody with even a marginal interest in the Great Out There, is a pro-only NASA public relations enterprise. It started out that way, I reckon, but in recent years accomplished amateurs like Anthony Ayiomamitis have contributed a substantial fraction of the daily pictures. No, I don’t find every day’s pic of interest (how could anybody?), but such a substantial number are that I now have an APOD app on my iPod Touch and keep this wonderful site with me alla da time.

Astromart

What can you say? Astromart, now owned by Herb York of Anacortes Telescope and Wild Bird fame, is an amateur astronomy institution, and is a measure of how far the I-net has taken us since the days of a certain thin little pulp magazine, The Starry Messenger, which not too long ago was the only source of semi-current astro-equipment classifieds. ‘Course, some folks will say, “Well, yeah, Unk, it’s an institution, but who wants to live in an institution?”

There’s no denying Herb runs a tight ship, and that some people have or have felt they have had their toes stepped on. Yes, Herb and the people who help him with Astromart are only human, and accounts have probably been pulled and ads nixed when they shouldn’t have been. B-U-T…this is usually because Herb and company are erring on the side of caution. A classified ad site is obviously a ripe fruit for the scammers. All you gotta do to see the veracity in that is take a stroll over to the dadblasted eBay. Herb can be draconian, but Astromart is as safe as any venture of this type can be and that is what most of us care about.

Astromart is more than just ads. There’s an auction site, news items, images, telescope reviews, and discussion groups too. Some of these things are popular and some of ‘em have lost a little of their appeal as the number of amateur astronomy related sites has mushroomed over the last five years, but all are well- done and potentially very useful. Astromart as a site is professionally done and easy to use and is and will remain a tremendous resource for amateurs.

Astronomics, Anacortes, OPT, Orion, and Skies Unlimited

If you are like Unk, you like looking at dealer websites, even if you ain’t got the money to buy squat. There are quite a few dealers I like; we are very lucky to be living in an amateur astronomy age where we have almost a surfeit of good guys doing the selling. That said, these outfits are some of the best, and have some of the best web stores. One thing that sets these apart from most of the rest of the pack, though, is how useful their sites are beyond just admiring new gear. Me? I frequently use all of ‘em when I am researching specs for a new book or magazine article. You? All offer some great reference materials that go beyond the what’s-for-sale. Astronomics has a growing library of old telescope manuals for your perusal (and Cloudy Nights). Anacortes has lots of reviews (and Astromart). Orion has always provided lots of tips and explanatory text, especially beginners. OPT, Oceanside Photo and Telescope, has manuals, tip-sheets, and instructional videos. Skies Unlimited has links and a nice newsletter. As for luscious new gear, you can usually see the latest Meade or Celestron wonder a lot quicker on these fine pages than you can at Meade.com or Celestron.com, and that goes for quite a few other makers’ stuff too.

Astronomy Magazine

I like Astronomy Magazine’s website. It is beautiful and professionally done. And yet…and yet…some of what is there is kinda ho-hum. There’s a java-based planisphere, editorial staff bios, and some forums. None of these things are compelling or useful enough to keep me coming back. What does? Mostly their fairly recent addition of “subscriber only” features. Login with a password and you will have access to much more detailed star charts (if still not close to good, ol’ Cartes du Ciel), and most engaging, columns by staffers like David Levy and Glen Chaple. Only Standboard Downcheck? They need more web-only content. Still, I think they are on the right track. My principle complaint about the page? Looks overly busy with every frackin’ square inch taken up by scrolling test, animated ads, popups, and polls. Come on guys, it looks cool at first, but wears thin real fast, and I have trouble makin’ heads or tails of the thing some mornins.

Astronomy Mall

This site is here at least partially for sentimental reasons. Back in the old days of the 1990s, this was a vibrant place because, if for no other reason, it allowed those of us without access to the Usenet and s.a.a. to read all them fascinating postings on that “big boys astronomy bulletin board.” Astronomy Mall provided that via a service called “Astro-Net Digest.” This was a frequently refreshed digest of s.a.a. articles. You couldn’t post to the Usenet via this feature, but at the time it was enough just to be able to read the missives of the luminaries who then inhabited s.a.a.—folks like David Levy. After a year or so, Astro-Net Digest disappeared. Why? Some IDIOTS started making noise that Astro-Net was violating some sort of “copyright” by reposting s.a.a. articles. Even in those days when the I-net was new and unknown territory, it seems unlikely anybody would really have been sued for re-posting cotton picking Usenet articles. I suspect the real reason was that whoever was tasked with getting the Digest posted got tired of having to do that.

That didn’t spell curtains for Astronomy Mall, however, and it continues on to this day it its role of providing links to websites of astronomy dealers and vendors. Yeah, some of the big names that used to be there—like TeleVue—have drifted away, but there are still big time outfits like Astronomics featured. Beyond these links? There ain’t quite as much of interest as there used-ta be. There are free classified ads, and for a while I thought these might lead to a renaissance of the site, but let’s face it, when people want to post or read an ad they go to Astromart. I just checked; there was a grand total of 19 active classified ads on the ‘Mall. Still, this is a site that occasionally comes in handy, especially when I’m searching for a small maker or vendor, and one you should prob’ly bookmark too.

Chiefland Astronomy Village

I couldn’t resist plugging the web page(s) of my favorite observing site/astro hangout. There have been some changes in the site and in the non-virtual CAV in recent years, but the web venue and Chiefland itself remain welcomingly friendly as always. If you are a member, you will find yourself going to the page frequently. Yeah, it’s simple in design and concept, but all the information you need is there: dates, important news, a Clear Sky Chart. In fact, the main reason I include the CAV here is that it is a model for the “simpler is better” web-design philosophy. You do not have to have tons of video and animation and music and god-knows-what else to make a website go. You need a clear and useable and useful page, and that is just what this is.

Classic Telescope Catalogs and Manuals

Even if you didn’t grow up in the Golden Age of Amateur Astronomy (which, according to us codgers, was the 50s – 70s) you will find this page of abiding interest. Come on, admit it, you’re curious as to why us oldsters’ eyes glaze over at the mention of “Cave,” or “Unitron.” In addition to being educational, you may also decide the scopes themselves are amazingly attractive and interesting and suddenly find yourself embarked on a quest for a mint Super Space Conqueror. Me? Since I do considerable writing about the amateur astronomy days of yore, I find this site exceedingly valuable. What’s here persactly? Just what the title says: .pdf files of instruction guides and catalogs for every major (and many minor) telescope maker from The Day. Only change I’d like to see? More of everything, but especially more manuals. As is, the page is heavier on the catalog end of the spectrum.

Clear Sky Charts

Ever’body loves the Clear Sky Charts (formerly the Clear Sky Clocks, before some goober threatened legal action claiming precedence for that name). But most people love it as an embedded display on various webpages or as a desktop gadget or widget. Did y’all know Atilla Danko’s wonderful service, which provides a graphic representation of current astronomy-centric weather predictions for almost anywhere, has a pretty derned good website to go with it? Yep. In addition to allowing you to pull up a Clock (sorry, “Chart”) for the area of interest, it provides detailed instructions for interpreting the Clocks (there I go again), and other cool stuff besides. Hey! Don’t ask questions, just mosey on over; you will be glad you did.

Cloudy Nights

Astromart rules when it comes to classifieds, but when it comes to discussion groups, Cloudy Nights, “CN” to its fans, is where we all go these days. The site was begun a few years ago by a private individual, but didn’t really take off until it was purchased by a major U.S. dealer, Astronomics. People liked the user-contributed gear reviews that had been the site’s stock in trade, but the new regime added professionally written material including not just reviews, but observing articles and mucho other astro-stuff. You can even read this here blog there on occasion. What really turned the key, though, was the discussion groups.

These “forums” are very easy to use, very active, cover a very wide range of topics, and are what keep most of us coming back to CN day after day after day. Right after I check my email in the morning I head right over to the Cloudy Nights boards. And usually stay there for an hour. And usually come back three or four more times before the day is done. Yeah, some folks will tell you the moderating on the groups can be heavy-handed, and there may be some truth to that—at least where one or two of the mods are concerned—but ya gotta take the good with the bad, and this is an incredibly active and popular and valuable resource. Astronomics is to be commended (that is actually too weak a word) for giving us the wonderful CN as we know it today.

s.a.a.

If you got started in Internet amateur astronomy back at its dawning, s.a.a., sci.astro.amateur, was not just one of the first amateur astronomy resources on the air, it was, for years, the best. For y’all newbies? s.a.a. was a newsgroup, a forum/bulletin board site on a special part of the Internet, the Usenet, that runs parallel to the World Wide Web. Usenet began in 1979 and survived and even thrived until fairly recently. What was it like in the early – mid 1990s? It was like a rollickin’ 24-hour-a-day astronomy club meeting. Everybody who was anybody in our small world was there: the top writers, the top observers, the folks struggling to produce that new astronomy software. If anything sky-wise or gear-wise happened, you read about it first on s.a.a.

But I’m speaking about s.a.a. in the past tense. Is it gone? No, but it might as well be. I include s.a.a. here for blatantly sentimental reasons. See my blog entry on the subject if you want details, but suffice to say that s.a.a. and Usenet suffered a steep decline as the 21st century came in. Part of the reason was that by mid-decade of the new age there were many, many more places to talk amateur astronomy than there had been, starting with the Yahoogroups and proceeding to Astromart and Cloudy Nights. Also, lots of ISPs began dropping their Usenet feeds. Why? Partially, I reckon, because of legal concerns. Most Usenet groups are, unlike most Yahoogroups, totally unmoderated. In some ways that is great, but folks have, as some folks will, published scandalous and even illegal stuff there since ain’t nobody to say, “I don’t reckon so.” What mostly killed s.a.a., though, was the constant influx of crazies, spammers, and trolls. With many of the best posters having decamped for CN or Yahoogroups, these fools stepped in to pick up the slack. Want a look? Even if your ISP don’t carry Usenet, you can access s.a.a. through Google’s Google Groups site.

SEDS Messier and NGC Interactive Catalogs

These two pages, run by SEDS, “Students for the Exploration and Development of Space” are another couple of examples of the Simpler is Better principle. Neither the Messier nor the NGC database site is fancy, but both are tremendously useful. What’s there? For each object there’s basic data, an image or two, links and more. When I need the specs on NGC-umptysquat, this is where I go. Simple, clear, easy. Bellyaches? Only that I wish there were a little more detail for NGCs and ICs. Their entries are often limited to bare magnitude/positional data, a Dreyer description, and some links. Still, that’s often good enough for me, or at least good enough to get me started, since the NGC pages, like the Messier ones, invariably include hyperlinks to plenty of external data sources if I need More Better Gooder.

Sky and Telescope

Like the other U.S newsstand glossy, Sky and Telescope’s web home looks a little cluttered. Pop ups and animated ads aplenty. Also like Astronomy, though, dig down a bit and you find some interesting stuff. Some real interesting stuff. Most interesting is the web-only content like the “Sky Blogs.” These epistles by Skypub (I can still say “Skypub,” can’t I, even though the magazine is now owned by the blandly named “New Track Media?”) are not only professionally written, they often demonstrate an awareness of the larger world of Internet amateur astronomy, something that used to be ignored by the big monthlies. Most useful of the ‘net- only content for me has probably been the site’s archive of articles from back numbers of the magazine. These .pdf documents, available for a modest fee per article, can be a godsend if you HAVE to have a particular article. I do wish they would make this service free for subscribers, but since I have a huge store of old S&Ts, just using this as an automated index is a tremendous help. The archive appears to be offline at the moment, but I have heard it will return. I hope so. All in all? skyandtelescope.com was one of the first astro-places I visited back in the dark ages when I was logging onto the web via a local “freenet” provider. It is still one of the places I go most.

Space.com

You want it—when it comes to space, and especially spaceflight oriented articles and media—and this place has got it. Yeah, if you want a wallpaper for your desktop showing M17, or wanna see the Shuttle lift-off, or just wanna keep pace with the repaired HST’s doin’s this is the place to do it. It’s just a shame that the site, owned by the same good folks who publish the Starry Night software, isn’t a little better designed. Hell, it looks like a derned rat’s maze, making astronomy.com and skyandtelescope.com look like paragons of simplicity. There is mucho good stuff here; the problem is finding it. Still, as with the other two, what’s here makes the trip worthwhile.

Space Weather

Do you love your PST? Would you not let a clear day go by without taking a look at old Sol in red or white light? If so, Tony Phillip’s spaceweather.com is the place for you. Hell, it’s worth visiting just for the daily shot of the Sun and the daily Sunspot number. There is a heck of a lot else here too; anything really of worth concerning the Sun-oriented shallow sky is on the page or available via a link.

The NGC/IC Project

If you are a seasoned deep sky nut, you are well aware ol’ man Dreyer’s NGC (and IC) is full of problems. Misidentified objects. Missing objects. Non-existent objects. This fine website, which represents years of collaboration between amateurs and professionals, aims to change that—to finally give us a “clean” NGC. There is a lot o’ material here, but what’s of most interest to me, and what will probably be of the most interest to you is the database. Type in NGC Umptysquat or IC Watchamacallit and you will be presented with an image and a cartload of data. The beautiful thing? Thanks to the efforts of the good folk of The NGC/IC Project, you can be purty sure most of what you read is correct. Only bug in the butter? Due to some internal problems (human type problems) this site had to be moved and is still in the process of being reconstructed.

Uncle Rod’s Astro Blog

Yeah, yeah, I know. Here I go tootin’ my own horn again. Howsomeever, I assume that since you are reading this you think my scribblings are of some value somehow to somebody. I am purty pleased at the way this blog has evolved from my random, short, and infrequent entries on the old AOL blogsite to a full-fledged weekly column. How long can I/will I keep it up? As the Astro Blog began to assume its present form, I wondered that too. When would I run out of stuff to talk to y’all about? I ain’t yet, and I’ve got a two page list of potential ideas for articles I ain’t even touched. The bottom-line answer? “I’ll keep the Astroblog going as long as it is still fun and somebody out there is reading it.”

Wunderground

On the dadgummed TV you look at the Weather Channel when you want weather. When you are on the stinkin’ Internet, you use Weather Underground. Yep, Weather Channel has an extensive website, too, but I like Wunderground better. Its predictions seem more accurate to me, I find the site easier to navigate, and I really like the astronomy stuff they feature. Yeppers. Not only can you get the usual sorta junk: Sun and Moon rise, Moon Phases, astronomical twilight times, you can look at a purty little clickable star chart (generated by Distant Suns). I like that. I like the whole site, actually.

Yahoogroups

The Yahoogroups, née eGroups, Yahoo’s ubiquitous (free) mailing list service, is a fixture of modern amateur astronomy, that’s for dadgummed sure. Before eGroups, putting a mailing list up, an email communications tool where all mail sent to the list’s address is seen by all “subscribers,” was not easy to do. Usually you had to have access to a serious server at a university or some such. And considerable computer know-how. With Yahoogroups, it takes about 5-minutes to get a list going. At heart, Yahoogroups are fun and informative, and I know I have learned one hell of a lot from my own lists, the first of which, SCT-User, I started a decade ago. In addition to being free, Yahoo gives us tools to manage our lists we couldn’t have dreamed of having back in the day of Majordomo.

Every silver lining has a cloud to go with it, though, and so it is with the ‘Groups. It’s so easy to put ‘em up that you can bet somebody has started a group for almost any conceivable subject related to amateur astronomy. I’ve sometimes joked there is probably an “Eyepiece Caps Uncensored” group—and frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised if there were. But ain’t “lots” a good thing? Yes and no. This huge number of groups means the limited number of amateurs is spread thinly over a large number of lists. There is less activity even on the “major” Yahoogroups than there was five years ago, making any one group less vibrant and useful. Another consequence of the growth of Yahoogroups? They pretty much spaded the earth onto s.a.a.’s coffin.

Many, many s.a.a.ers decided the (usually) moderated and (usually) spam-free Yahoogroups were much preferable to the ungoverned (and increasingly weird) sci.astro.amateur, and deserted that uber bulletin board in droves. Is turnabout fair play? I dunno, but in the last couple of years, it appears to me Cloudy Nights has sucked some of the life outa Yahoogroups. Why? Most boys and girls I talk to like the paradigm of having all yer groups in one place and having the ability to jump easily from one to the next. Course, you can’t receive group messages as email as you can with Yahoo, but some folks don’t like that anyhow. Barring a major asteroid strike, though, I believe Yahoogroups will continue to be a daily fixture for me and for most other Internet aware amateur astronomers.

All miffed because you didn’t see your fave site here, are you, Skeezix? Don’t fret. I’m way out of space, and these only constitute the biggest of my biggies, and only those my bourbon soaked brain could recall at the moment. I am sure there will be at least a “Part II” to follow. ‘Specially if’n y’all help jog my memory as to what’s super-duper good out on the Web.

Comments:
The reason why Cloudy Nights is generating so much traffic on their discussion sites is because their heavy handedness is largely accountable. They set out clear rules and continuously monitor the boards. When threads are locked or individuals get out of line, the participants are firmly but politely advised why there's a problem.

Contrast this with Astromart. Astromart creates forums that are specifically geared for heated discussion, and then expresses exasperation and dismay when folks actually engage in those discussions. And then randomly, banishes them, never responding to repeated inquiries.

How Astromart draws a line between "dealers" and "buyers" is also left as an exercise to one's creative imagination.

Astromart may still rule the roost when it comes to used equipment, but trend analysis clearly shows that CN is generating more and more traffic in their classifieds as Herb York alienates more and more of his previously loyal participants.
 
I'm sorry to hear about Starlord. I gave him an 8" Dan Joyce mirror and some other parts to construct his sidewalk scope when I realized it would take years to do it on his disability income. I left s.a.a years ago and never knew the maniacs got him.

Yahoo Groups has an advantage over CN in that there is often a higher level of expertise on the groups, and the topics are a bit more restricted. They also don't have the heavy handed net-nanny moderation of CN where everyone is expected to keep the level of discussion suitable for a 14 year old even though the average age is more like 50.
 
I recently did a survey of the most popular Astronomy forums:

55,467 users on Bad Astronomy/Universe Today

32,878 users on Cloudy Nights

17,834 users on AstronomyForums.com

2,603 users on AstroMart's Forum

Bad Astronomy/Universe today has the most users, but is broader in scope covering more than amateur astronomy. Many professional scientists post there.

As for Yahoo Groups, Phil Harrington's Telescopes Group is one of the larger ones, with 7,256 users.

sci.astro.amateur is almost irrelevant now.

Matthew Ota
 
I recently did a survey of the most popular Astronomy forums:

55,467 users on Bad Astronomy/Universe Today

32,878 users on Cloudy Nights

17,834 users on AstronomyForums.com

2,603 users on AstroMart's Forum

Bad Astronomy/Universe today has the most users, but is broader in scope covering more than amateur astronomy. Many professional scientists post there.

As for Yahoo Groups, Phil Harrington's Telescopes Group is one of the larger ones, with 7,256 users.

sci.astro.amateur is almost irrelevant now.

Matthew Ota
 
Well, there's also "Universe Today." It's a digest of astronomy news of various kinds, and is loosely connected with the Bad Astronomy website.
 
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