Sunday, January 23, 2011

 

Wired Astronomy


When we last left microcomputer (you do remember that word?) crazy Uncle Rod, he’d transitioned from his Commodore 64 and Apple II Plus and Creative Computing Magazine, to an IBM 486, PC World, and, at long last, some truly useful astronomy software in the form of David Chandler’s Deep Space 3-D.

The new astro software popping up like daisies on a spring field was great, but it was soon obvious one of the biggest uses for computers in amateur astronomy would have nothing to do with running planetariums on your isolated computer; it would have to do with computer to computer communications.

Actually, by the time I entered the world of serious computing with a genu-wine PC, I was already an online veteran. A local amateur buddy of mine had gone C64 crazy, acquiring two or three of the blasted things, and had set up a Bulletin Board System, a BBS, for local Commodore users. Hell, he’d had a second phone line installed to facilitate things. While a lot of what he put on the air with his BBS was general-interest and Commodore computer related, he also had some astronomy offerings. A couple of little programs for the 64 for download, some local astro related messaging, and even a space picture or two (shazam!).

“What exactly was a ‘BBS,’” the younguns ask? There’s nothing like one today, not precisely. It was sorta like connecting to a big website, I suppose. A website that offered many and varied things: message boards, file downloads, news, pictures, etc. How did you connect to one back in the dark ages? I plugged my 300 baud (don’t ask) modem cartridge into my C64, used a “terminal” program to dial the number of the desired BBS, and I was rocking and rolling online. While a BBS was sort of like a website, you had to disconnect and dial the phone number of another BBS to connect to a different “website.”

While my Bro’s BBS was diverting fun, given the primitive nature of the C64 and its software, it really wasn’t of much practical use in astronomy—or anything else. It wasn’t until I got my IBM (which came with a freaking 1200 baud modem), discovered a program called “The Blue Wave,” and found that a couple of the more advanced local BBS systems were connected to something called “Fidonet” that I got a sense of the potential of online astronomy.

What in the H-E Double Hockey Sticks was Fidonet? Fidonet was like a primitive Yahoogroups, I guess (I was gonna say “Usenet,” but fewer and fewer people know what that was/is). For you real old-timers, it was like a grassroots, civilian DARPANET. There were no direct connections between the BBSes scattered across the country, though. They shared message data by dialing each other late at night and shuffling packets down the line.

That was all transparent to users, of course, which was a good thing back in the days when most of us were pretty derned computer-ignorant. All we knew was that you logged on to your local BBS with your terminal program, entered the Fidonet messaging area, selected your board of choice, read the mail, replied to what you wanted to reply to, and posted new topics when you felt moved to—not at all unlike what we do on the Yahoogroups (or Astromart or Cloudy Nights boards) today.

That was one way you could access Fidonet, but it wasn’t the best way. Usually you wouldn’t want to sit connected to the BBS scanning and reading hundreds of messages. Remember, you were using the home phone line, and if hubby/wife or (most of all) a teenager in the house had a call to make, they would be right put out at you for tying things up. If they picked up an extension while you were online, your connection (often hard-won after many, many busy signals) would be instantly broken.

The solution? The Blue Wave. It was a mail reader program, in some ways the ancestor of the email programs we use today. But with one very important difference: it was an OFFLINE mail reader. The way it worked was simple and elegant. You gave it the telephone number of your BBS and the names of the Fidonet message boards you were interested in. When you hit the go button, it would connect to the system, download all new messages from your chosen boards, and log off, all in just a minute or two, avoiding much whining by telephone-crazy teens in those DARK PRE-CELL PHONE DAYS.

After Blue Wave did its message-gathering thing online, everything else was done in a disconnected state. You browsed the message boards just like being online, reading and replying to the “mail.” How could you reply? You composed your replies (and new posts) with Blue Wave, which stored them in an outbox. The next time you connected to the BBS, BW would upload your replies and posts in addition to downloading new messages. The Blue Wave made internet messaging practical for Mom and Pop America for the first time.

OK, so even computer ignernt Unk could now exchange messages over a network. What kind of messages? Most of all there was Fidonet Astronomy. Yeah, there was only one active amateur astronomy board on Fidonet (there were several jam-packed UFO messaging areas), but that was OK; the number of wired amateur astronomers was still vanishingly small, so our single board was more than enough.

When I first logged onto Fido Astronomy, I was gobsmacked; there was a huge amount of traffic (by the standards of the time) and the board was very capably moderated by an amateur who was a professional astronomer in his day job. The posts were incredibly useful. New supernova? You no longer found out about it too late to see it at its best, you knew about it right away. There was plenty of information and gossip about astro-stuff for the gearheads. And lots of observing reports.

Most of all, Fido Astronomy gave those of us who participated a real feeling of COMMUNITY. Just went out in the backyard and saw something cool? Come in and post a message about it. Before long there’d be replies from your fellow amateurs all across the country commenting on your post and adding observations of their own. Man, was that cool.

Fidonet was more than just cool for me, actually. It was a godsend. I was newly divorced and my social calendar wasn’t exactly full. I tended to work long hours for want of much else to do. I’d get home, and if it was cloudy I’d crack open a cold one, put a Booker T. and the MGs record on the stereo, fire up The Blue Wave, and go to an astronomy club meeting on nights when there was no astronomy club meeting.

Fido Astronomy was sweet, yeah. So wonderful I thought it would last forever. Alas, it had the misfortune to come along just as the world was changing and BBSes were going the way of the dodo. I enjoyed the hell out of Fido for a year or two, but by 1994 even those of us out in the hinterlands had begun to hear whispers about this “Internet” thing and what we were told was the SUPER astro board of all time, s.a.a., sci.astro.amatur.

As soon as I could find a way to do so, I connected to the Internet—like a lot of the more Internet-baffled of the time, unwisely choosing America Online. Despite the clunkiness of AOL, I found s.a.a. was everything it was cracked up to be. Almost. Yes, it was a super bulletin board for amateurs, with far more posters and posts than old Fido had ever had. Its only failing, which eventually proved its downfall, was that it was unmoderated. But that was OK at first. We moderated ourselves and had a high old time.

Nothing is forever, of course. While s.a.a. is still available from some ISPs and from Google, it’s well past its prime and is almost completely taken up by spam and craziness. Even if it weren’t for the trolls and morons, s.a.a. would be pretty passé by now. As the number of online amateurs grew, there were eventually enough of us to populate far more specialized amateur astronomy discussion forums. Thus came Yahoogroups (née eGroups). Hell, I wouldn’t be surprised to find there’s a Yahoogroup devoted solely to eyepiece caps now.

Below are the places I find and have found valuable. What will be interesting is to come back in a year or two and see how these websites are faring. Nothing stands still on the Internet, not even in the normally staid and conservative (with a small “C”) world of amateur astronomy.

Message Boards

Yahoogroups is still the reigning champ. And I say that not just because I myself own/moderate around twenty amateur astronomy groups. The strength of Yahoo is in its versatility. It is in the traditional email “mailing list” mold, but you have the choice of reading posts online on the Yahoo website where there are features like topic-threading, or receiving messages as plain email (or with a few non-ascii enhancements). You can also choose to receive blocks of email, “digests,” so as not to clog up your inbox. That’s Not All, though.

In addition to messaging, Yahoogroups gives each group a nice-looking web page and server space for storing photos and files. There’s a calendar that can be set up to send reminders for group events—very handy for astronomy clubs—and much other stuff. And it is all free. Is it any wonder there are hundreds of amateur astronomy groups on Yahoogroups?

And yet…and yet… As above, everything on the Internet has its season, and I sense Yahoogroups’ season may be passing. Compared to modern tropes, and especially the oh-so-popular Facebook, Yahoogroups is beginning to look antique and feel stodgy and slow. Yahoo tried to revamp the Groups into a more Facebook-like form, but users howled with outrage and Yahoo backed off. My club and my star party (Deep South Regional Star Gaze) are on Yahoogroups, but I am strongly considering moving them both to Facebook.

More and more, when you say “amateur astronomy message forums,” people think “Cloudy Nights.” Why? This website, a service of telescope dealer Astronomics, looks good, works well, and is easy to use. There’s lots of traffic and there are boards for almost any astronomy subject under the stars. I use it daily and could not get along without my morning CN fix.

Astromart, which used to belong to Anacortes Telescope and Wild Bird, but which now seems to have been at least semi-spun-off, also has message boards, though that’s probably not why you go there. What are they like? They are pretty good. I read them daily, though there is not nearly as much traffic there as there is on CN. Why is that?

Part of it is that Astromart is now at least nominally a pay service (though the “pay” is a small one-time fee currently), and you cannot read forum messages, much less post them, without being a member. There used to be heavier traffic here, but, frankly, another thing that has reduced that is the message boards’ interface. Most folks find it less attractive and useable than the system on Cloudy Nights. Still, there are quite a few good posts and quite a bit of good info on the A-mart forums—if not as much of either as there used to be.

Yahoogroups, Cloudy Nights, and Astromart are hardly the only amateur astronomy bulletin boards on the Internet. Astronomy Magazine offers forums, and there are several boards run by independent operators. In the U.S., though, this pack is way back there in the dust compared to the big three.

Classified Ads

First there was the Starry Messenger, a little swap-n-shop periodical for amateur astronomy gear. When Internet astronomy hit, that begat Astromart, which was bought out by Herb York and Anacortes Telescope and Wild Bird and became the place to buy and sell astro gear. It still is. There are other online classified services for the buying and selling of astrostuff, but none comes even close in quantity or quality to A-mart.

The Astromart classified ad system is elegantly simple and easy to use. It just works. More importantly, perhaps, thanks to the tireless efforts of Mr. York and company, Astromart is about as safe as any classified website ever will be.

Curiously, the classified ads status quo between Astromart and Cloudy Nights is the exact opposite of what it is with messaging. CN has classifieds, but most people don’t like the system/interface as much as they like Astromart's, there is less traffic and fewer ads, and it does not seem as “clean” or safe as Astromart. In fact, as this was being written CN’s classifieds were down for "maintenance" due to increasing concerns about scams there. I hope they get it going again and going good, as there is certainly room for two astro-classified sites.

Not that the above two biggies are the only astronomy classifieds on the net. You can find quite a bit of astronomy gear on the eBay if that is your cup of tea, but there are numerous other astronomy websites offering classifieds, too. Like Astronomy Mall, a long time astro-web-hosting service. One thing all these places have in common, though? Few ads (Astronomy Mall had exactly ONE current ad when I checked just now), not much traffic, and a feeling that if you get scammed you shouldn’t expect too much help or hand-holding.

The Useful Stuff

There are plenty of astronomy sites that fit this mold: lots of good, general use information for you and me and even Joe and Jane Novice. Four I’d like to single out, though, are Heavens Above, Spaceweather.com, Andy’s Shot Glass, and Skymaps.com.

When I need to know anything about what’s up in the sky and when it’s up, especially when I am away from my astronomy software, the place I turn is Heavens Above. Heavens Above has quite a bit of good stuff, but the features I use the most are its satellite predictions and its all-sky maps. Need to know when the HST or ISS will make a good pass for your locality? Need to know what that bright satellite you saw last night was? Heavens Above will tell you quickly and elegantly. The site will also draw an excellent all-sky map you can print out and which can be tailored for your particular time, date, and location.

Heavens-Above has been around for years, weathering all the last decade’s changes in the Internet with aplomb. It’s easy to see why: it is not fancy, but it has the overriding characteristics of all good web pages: it works well and simply and does useful things.

When I need an all-sky planisphere-like star chart, Heavens-Above is not always where I go to get one. Not if I want something a little prettier and tailored, like the charts in the monthly magazines, to the coming month rather than a specific date and time. Where I invariably go for that sort of thing is Skymaps.com. The Skymaps chart, which is rendered with near typeset quality, is accompanied by a listing of the month’s most interesting celestial events. These are great for use with students or to hand-out at public star parties.

Y’all know me: I love telescopes. All telescopes. But I particularly love cheap telescopes. It just tickles me to see how much I can get out of a proletarian Chinese scope or an old 60s retread. If you are interested in astronomy on a budget, and especially astronomy with affordable imported telescopes, you owe it to yourself to check out Andy Raiford’s site.

Andy’s Shot Glass is, as is emblazoned across the top of its page, dedicated to “astronomy for non gazillionaires.” It’s filled with movies, files, useful little applets, and other cool stuff to help you get the most out of your el cheapo gear; especially if your agenda includes imaging. While it focuses mostly on Orion (Synta) gear, this website is a great resource for all bargain basement equipment owners.

At first glance, Spaceweather.com, which is operated by Dr. Tony Phillips and sponsored by NASA, would seem to be of little interest to anybody but solar observers. And it is the go-to place for daily data on Sol. There is other stuff too, though; especially if the other stuff you are interested in has to do with auroras or atmospheric phenomena. How much do I like Spaceweather? There is a link to it on my desktop. Nuff said?

Magazine Websites

The first web page I went to when I finally got access to the cotton-picking WWW? Sky and Telescope’s web site. That just seemed natural. Sky and ‘Scope had carried me through the previous three decades of amateur astronomy; surely they’d continue to do so in the electronic age. And they did. Some folks may accuse me of bias, since I write for the (print) magazine on occasion. I don’t care. Skyandtelescope.com is just flat out good. The site has had its ups and downs, but it is now definitely firing on all cylinders.

What do I like about it? Tons of stuff. There’s a good interactive star chart, blogs, a shopping center, and frequently updated astro-news. What do I like most? That’s easy, “This Week’s Sky at a Glance,” a weekly (natch) rundown on what’s visible. It’s kept me from missing lots of stuff I would have been sorry to miss. Better? You can now receive this feature on a special iPod/iPhone/iPad app, Skyweek, which is the fracking kitty’s meow.

There is a lot of stuff on Astronomy Magazine’s website, too: forums, news, sky maps (including a fairly impressive interactive charting system), and a lot more. But I’ve never found the page as useful as that of their competitor. Why? It’s a little cluttered and too glitzy for Luddite old me, I reckon. One interesting thing at Astronomy.com is supplementary content to go with the month’s print magazine. Shame they restrict it to subscribers, though—I believe that is shortsighted and that the carrot of offering it to all comers would actually help subscription sales more than the stick of pay-to-play does.

Sky and ‘Scope and Astronomy are not the only English language astronomy magazines, of course. In addition to non-newsstand and semi-pro-zines, some with fairly impressive websites, the UK’s pros, Sky at Night and Astronomy Now both have extensive online presences. One of these days I will do a blog devoted to nothing by astro-zine sites. For now, I’ll say that S&T and Astronomy are by far the leaders, but that there are a couple of up-and-comers.

Professional Resources

Back in the bad old days, if you needed information, hard core information, on astronomy and didn’t live near a major university and have access to its library, you were pretty much out of luck. What’s the Hubble type of PGC Umptysquat? Sorry Charlie. Of course, in this latter day when a C8 can bring back 15th and 16th magnitude galaxies with a 10-second exposure, we need this sort of data more than we used to. Lucky we amateurs now have access to some wonderful professional sites.

Foremost among these is the Digitized Sky Survey. What that is is the entire Palomar Observatory/National Geographic Sky Survey. Yep, all them wonderful plates the 48-inch Oschin Schmidt took way back when. Oh, how I dreamed of having this on microfiche in the 80s and CDs in the 90s. I could never afford either version, alas. Today, guess what? Free and online.

This site has saved my bacon more than once when I’ve been attempting a difficult observation. Add to that the fact that the folks who administer the page, the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, are real nice and have kindly allowed me to use their images in a couple of my books. Just don’t get much better.

A close second for me is good, old N.E.D., the NASA/IPAC Extragalactic Database. What is it? It is a gigant-a-normous data base of nearly 200 MILLION extragalactic objects. Type in your target’s ID, and NED swiftly delivers plenty of data about the most obscure objects: Hubble types, magnitudes, redshifts, even images. Frankly, I’d not be as far along with the Herschel Project as I am, given its preponderance of galaxies, without the help of NED. I love it. If you are a galaxy hound or an astronomy educator you will too.

Want something a little more visually oriented? Try ALADIN. It is a mammoth, free digital sky atlas plugged into numerous databases and catalogs. Unlike NED, it will bring you intra as well as extra galactic wonders with all the depth of information you’d expect from a professional resource. No, you won’t find its charts too useful for star hopping, but they will show you the universe in depth. This is another one, like N.E.D., Sky and Telescope, and Spaceweather that has its own icon on my desktop.

Is that it? Of course not. There is tons of good stuff for amateur astronomer on the ‘Net, but we are just about out of our Internet space for this Sunday. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention just two more; however, both similar and similarly excellent sites. One you probably know about is NASA's Astronomy Picture of the Day, which is just what it says it is and is extremely wonderful. The other, which you may not know about, is the Lunar Photo of the Day, which is just as excellent on its beat. Go look at ‘em muchachos. You’ll thank me.

Spurious Book Review:  I haven't finished it, but I have had my nose buried in it all day. It is that good. I'm talking about my friend Tom Clark's new one, Starry, Starry Nights. In the note he sent with the book, Tom says he doesn't think it's great writing. I beg to differ. "Great writing" is more than just spotless prose. It must come from the heart; that is 99% of what good writing is about. The other 1% here is easily filled-in by tales of Tom's adventures--including a Shaggy Dog Story or two, I expect--and talk about his beloved telescopes. If you want to know what it was like to be an amateur astronomer at the end of the 20th century--like a Starlight Nights for our generation--get this, muchachos.

Next Time: A-OK!

Comments:
Rod,
CN's classifieds are now back up.
Brian
 
Yep...but I'd be curious to know what they did to eliminate scams...
 
Nice article. Thanks for the very useful links! Perhaps an article about Wireless Astronomy soon?
 
Not that I'm a member of your yahoo groups, but if you make them exclusively Facebook you wouldn't have me join. I'd think twice about moving them to FB.

Where are the other amateur astro blogs? Are there any great twitter accounts? I want reviews, astro thoughts and reminders, etc.
 
There are some good Astro-blogs...not tons, but some.

As for Facebook...I may not move things anytime soon, or I might. I, like most people, find FB very useful indeed.
 
I'm puzzled about [i]why[/i] Astromart is considered to be the "go-to place" to buy and sell equipment when Cloudy Nights seems to function quite fine? I've made many purchases through CN and have been very happy. But when I go to Astromart and try to find out what paying their fee gets me, there seems to be very little information in that regard. In fact, AM's own FAQ page is empty and has been that way for over a year. Uncle Rod, what do you know about AstroMart that I cannot seem to find my answers to on their website?
 
The most important thing I know about Astromart is that it is SAFE. Every single add is vetted. CN? The recent shutdown due to problems with scammers is enough to give _me_ pause.
 
I agree with CN's lack of interaction within their classifieds, but their user feedback serves a tremendous purpose to separate the chaff from the wheat. Common sense tells you that if decide to buy/sell from an individual without much positive history then you may encounter problems, just as with most places on the interenet, including eBay. Have you ever had to use eBay or PayPal's supposedly seller's/buyer's assurances you'll quickly discover that it isn't quite as easy a they make it out to be, and in fact all you're really protected of is not being charged their fees should a sale go awry. Additionally CNs Swap & Shop part of their forums takes an extra step towards protection in that only members can use that section. It is then up to the individual to decide whether they feel safe to buy/sell from a long-standing member of the Cloudy Nights community as opposed to a new member that signed-up the day they posted expensive astro equipment for sale. Again, common sense dictates your level of protection for a safe and secure transaction. I would hope that most of us amateur astronomers are clever enough to not act on those pesky emails from former Nigerian kings?

The recent "problem" with CN's classifieds had nothing to do with a transaction gone wrong, but had only to do with some shady person contacting a CN member and pretending to be an 'official' from Cloudy Nights. Checking with one of the real moderators of CN should have been an easy-enough method to put that grift in check.

As for my only qualms with Astromart, I would hope that if they tout themselves as a safer-alternative they should at least make mention on their website as to why they're safer and what one gets for their $12 sign-up fee. But as I roam through both sites (as much as AM allows without paying their fee) and look through the amount and caliber of gear available on both sites, I still cannot see that great of a difference between the two, which is why I'm still scratching my head as to what I may be missing.

Unk, I'm not trying to argue a point, and I'm certainly not involved with CN beyond being a happy and satisfied member, I'm just looking at this subject from the perspective of an relative newbie to amateur astronomy. I very greatly appreciate your opinions and love your writings, which are both helpful and inspiring to me. Thank you!
 
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