Friday, October 27, 2006


Your Uncle Rod Gets a Ticket

It seems like a right good idea. Rather than requiring customers with problems to call a support phone number and speak to a live representative (after paging through countless audio menus), support is provided to them via a web-based email “ticket” system. If the customer has a problem, she/he fills in a form, a "ticket;" clicks a button; and, ideally, soon receives a response that fixes things.

A smart system can even determine if the problem is something for which there’s an easy fix the customer can undertake, and immediately respond with a set of pre-prepared instructions. No waiting on hold. No talking to non-English-speaking customer reps in distant call centers. As you might guess, this system can also potentially save companies money, so it’s no wonder it’s become all the rage for people selling everything from cookware to…well…telescopes.

I recently had the opportunity to test Meade’s web-based ticket system. It wasn’t a big deal, but I needed a small item, an RA lock lever for our ETX125PE. The lever on the scope had, it seemed, a stripped setscrew, which I noticed when the lever dropped off in the carrying case after a summer road trip to the Redneck Riviera, and I found could not fully retighten said setscrew when I put the lever back on the scope.

Filled-out my ticket, explained my problem, made sure my address and phone number were included, and waited to see what would happen. It took Meade about two weeks to respond, but respond they did with apologies for the delay and a promptly shipped part. I wasn’t exactly bowled-over by the response I got, but the advantages, the potential advantages, of this system were obvious. I wondered if Celestron would do the same thing (or whether they already had—I hadn’t been to their web site in a while)

On my next visit to, I noted that The Big C had indeed implemented the same sort of system (like Meade, they still retain telephone-based support). As someone who’s been involved in more than one “Blue versus Orange” Internet flame war (not always on the same side), I was mighty curious as to how the Celestron Bunch would stack up against the Meadesters. However, I didn’t need anything from 'em at the moment, and didn’t believe it would be ethical or fair to real customers waiting in line for me to fake it.

Then, couple of weeks back, I decided to take my ASGT/CG5 equipped C8 out to the club dark site over in Tanner-Williams, Alabama. Grabbed up the tripod and what should your Old Uncle see but a missing tripod leg tip. Was I surprised? Nope. For some reason, the tips on Celestron tripods (including my Ultima 8's fancy one) have always had a tendency to come unglued and fall off. While the ASGT tripod is made by Celestron's parent corporation, Synta, it obviously suffers from the same malady. In fact, I’ve had this happen on all my newer (non-“triangle” type) Celestron tripods, and have speculated that the “glue” they use on their tripods must be made from ground-up weasels.

I woulda just glued the leg tip back on IF I COULDA FOUND THE SUCKA. I scoured Chaos Manor South and the area I’d set up at at the dark site the last time. No tripod tip. I suspect it was left in Miss Dorothy’s Camry, which I’d used to transport the scope on the last trip to the backwoods, and which we recently traded in on a new Toyota for her.

Geez Louise, what a pain! Bad old Celestron? Nah, not completely, anyway. I was not blameless in this, as I’d figgered the tripod ends would fall off sooner or later. Our uber-humid environment is tough on adhesives. I had intended to check/reglue ‘em. “When I got around to it.”

Well, no need to cry over spilt milk. I located a rubber crutch tip from one of my Celestron field tripods (I permanently remove these rubber tips for steadiness’ sake), forced it over the open end of the ASGT’s nice tripod leg, and kept on truckin’. Then I realized there was an upside: this provided me with a perfect chance and excuse to check out Celestron's web-based support.

I didn't have much trouble generating a ticket on the Celestron site. Only hang-up was that when I clicked the button to send it off, the site responded with the information that it was not sending the ticket, since there was a set of instructions to fix the problem in the site's "knowledge base" (!).  I knew this just could not be the case--it would have to be a purty darned smart system to figger out where your Uncle lost his tripod tip. I clicked the "send anyway" button on the page and off she went. In retrospect, this probably had something to do with the subject line of my message. Instead of just writing "Lost CG5 Tripod Tip," I had to write, "Uncle Rod Needs a New Tip for His Consarned CG5." Keep it simple, muchachos.

So...I sat and waited. The "three days" mentioned on the site came and went. To whom--Meade or Celestron--would victory go?


But only by a nose. Three days?! It took them 12 days to respond vice the 14 it took Meade. What do I say about this sitchy-ation? Two weeks seems like an awful long time to wait to get a response. I’m not sure why these companies can’t deal with emails at the same rate they deal with incoming phone calls. If you’ll recall, I wrote a blog entry not long back about the fact that many astronomy businesses seem positively allergic to email. Apparently this is the case with any kind of email you send to (almost) anybody in the astro-biz. I still can't figure out why.

Still, I suppose “about two weeks” for problem-resolution ain't too bad, and using these ticket systems does eliminate the above-mentioned hassles inherent in calling Meade and Celestron on the land-line. Yeah, two weeks is two weeks, but if you’re as busy as I am, email is an attractive alternative (I can fire off a quick one while I’m splainin’ ol’ Johannes Kepler’s laws to my students).

Sometimes, though, I'll admit two weeks is way too long to wait for help (say you’ve got a big star party right around the corner). If that’s the case, at this point Alexander Graham Bell’s baby is still your best bet.

The denouement? While they didn't have any spare tripod tips, the good folk at Celestron did have a spare tripod leg, which they sent me gratis. Thanks and a tip o' the cowboy had to the good boys and girls in Torrance. 

Sunday, October 22, 2006



Why what? Why did I set out for a star party under beautiful, crisp fall skies; arrive at a star party under beautiful, crisp fall skies; set up my beloved C8, Celeste, and her wonderful new CG5 mount under beautiful, crisp fall skies; and wind up with sunset weather like that shown in the lower picture? What kind of weather, you ask? In case you can’t tell from the image, that’s torrential rain. Severe thunderstorm warnings. Tornado watches. The change shown in these two photos happened in the course of about two hours.

That, in a nutshell, is what happened to me this past weekend at the just ended 2006 Deep South Regional Star Gaze (Louisiana). I had high hopes for this one, too. After a summer and early fall of just about no observing (well, one really good night last month), I figured I’d hit the jackpot given the weather conditions and forecasts as Dorothy and I departed Mobile. Nope. Sorry. Fuhgeddaboutit.

As above, when Dorothy and I arrived at pretty little Camp Ruth Lee in the backwoods of Louisiana near the Mississippi border, we were excited. It was clear. Who gave a fig what the weatherman was predicting?  Now, if I'd been honest with myself, I'd have admitted that there was high, high humidity, and that there was a feel in the air of "approaching front." But surely not. We'd waited all year for the DSRSG. We had to have clear skies for at least one night. My fellow observers obviously felt the same way, since despite dire weather predictions 121 eager astronomers made tracks for Camp Ruth Lee this year.

Why am I telling you all this? Partially to vent. I go to a lot of star parties every year, but I still look forward to each and every one. I get my hopes built up, and when things don’t quite work out the way I’d planned and dreamed and hoped, sure I’m a little bummed. This one, the DSRSG, is my “home” star party too. I’ve been every year for the last fifteen years, and it’s also the first star party Miss Dorothy and I attended together shortly after we were married. It’s special and I want it to be perfect in every way (which it was last year).

Another reason I’m talking about a “failed” star party (about three hours of viewing out of four days, good buddy) is to remind you, as I noted some time back, that there’s more to a star party than “just” observing. I had a pretty good time at this year's DSRSG. I would have had a good time even if I hadn’t been able to get in those three measly hours.

I saw (and annoyed) a lot of old friends, drank a lot (ahem) of Rebel Yell, and drooled over a bunch of downright cool door prizes (but didn’t win any, natch). I had fun giving my “Urban Astronomy” presentation, and I had a great time sitting in the chow hall with my bubbas as the rain came down watching 2001: A Space Odyssey (DVD equipped laptops and LCD projectors are the savior of many a clouded-out star party these days). Yeah, Rod’s Yell-fueled running commentary on “Stanley Kubrick as auteur” probably annoyed more than a few folks, but they were too nice to say so.

Heck, I had such a good time that I wasn't even bothered by our chickee cabin. Yes, it was rustic, but in the context of my favorite star party it seemed just fine. I sense the time is coming when your old Uncle will decide to say "no" to chickies and tent camping, but that day has not come quite yet. The cabin was bearable with only one bad part. I kind of hated to disturb the spiders who make the cabins their home the 51 other weeks of the year.

Ruth Lee dining hall/kitchen/auditorium.
Was it all gravy? No. The food has already declined since we first moved the DSRSG to Camp Ruth Lee last year. Oh, it wasn't exactly bad, but, frankly, it was maybe about the same or a mite below the fare at our former home, Mississippi's Percy Quin State Park, which wasn't exactly an epicurean delight. As I've said before, however, my requirements are "edible" and "reasonably priced" and the meals are still that. Yes, the spaghetti sauce was watery, they were stingy with it and the overcooked pasta, and there should be more to a salad that some elderly lettuce. But it was a STAR PARTY, folks.  A big plus? The Ruth Lee folks opened up a late night snack bar reminiscent of the one at the Texas Star party and sold burgers and dogs that were very good indeed.

A final reason for making note of my semi-rained out 2006 DSRSG? To caution you. El Nino is back, I hear. What does that mean? Exactly? Go ask a derned weatherman. In general terms, though, I gather it means a wet fall and winter for us down here. Prob’ly for y’all too, wherever you are in the States. If El Nino continues on for another year, as it probably will, expect a cloudy spring as well. That’s been my experience since this El Nino business materialized (seemingly) suddenly about eight years ago. Another problem for DSRSG this year was that the way the New Moon fell meant it was held relatively early in October--we always have better luck in November.

So what? So... Look forward to your star parties, local, regional, and national. Mark the days off on your calendar. Pack scopes into car and drive for that wonderful field like a madman or madwoman. Just don’t get the idea you might actually see anything. Do expect to have a great time, though, no matter what. Dern sure don't forget the Rebel Yell (or that SISSY WHISKEY you drink). You may find a bottle or three more “useful” than Naglers as you and your mates sit under an EZ-Up on a rainy field and talk the current state of amateur astronomy and WEATHER--while doin’ exactly nothin’ about either, of course.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006


Astronomy Lawsuits: Here We Go Again (UPDATED)!

Lately it seems as if the astronomy business community has gone lawsuit crazy. It began a couple of years ago with Meade’s and Celestron’s destructive suits and countersuits against each-other, legal wrangling that arguably left both companies weakened. Now I’m told a couple of Ritchey Chrétien telescope makers (and maybe one scope vendor) have brought suit against Meade instruments.

This lawsuit, I’ve heard, asserts Meade has wrongly advertised/sold its new line of RCX400 telescopes as Ritchey Chrétiens when they are nothing of the sort, and that that has resulted in financial losses for the two companies bringing suit. This all seemed a little far-fetched to me, but the suit is apparently very real, though I’ll add the caveat that I have not yet been able to track down a copy of it.

What do I think? Like most amateurs, I’ve been aware from almost the beginning that Meade’s “Advanced Ritchey Chrétien” design is at best only peripherally related to what most people would call an R-C—that is, a Cassegrain telescope with hyperbolic primary and secondary mirrors and no corrector plate. It appears the RCX is possessed of a spherical primary, a hyperbolic (or, according to one optician who tested an RCX, parabolic) secondary, and a corrector plate. To me and to quite a few other amateurs, this spells “aplantic SCT” rather than “Ritchey Chrétien.” Just more pie-in-the-sky Meade hype, huh?

So, the telescope is not and should not be described at a Ritchey Chrétien. That aside, however, how is it as a telescope? Especially given that aperture inch for aperture inch it is the most expensive SCT on the market...

The true test of this telescope, I thought, would be how well it performed and lived up to its billing. When I finally got to try one I was suitably impressed (see my blog entry for July 7, 2006). The optics and the scope’s innovative features represent a true advance over the SCT design as we’ve known it for the last decade and a half, since these telescopes underwent their last major upgrade with Meade’s introduction of the original, groundbreaking LX200 (yes, I know Celestron did the first mass-produced goto scope with the Compustar, but nobody could afford the thing).

QA issues aside, the RCX400 performs, and that’s what I care about. It doesn’t matter much whether I like this design being called “Ritchey Chrétien;” as is the case with most amateurs, I can’t even dream of affording one of the “real” R-Cs top-of-the-line scope manufacturers build. For all I care, Meade could have called their new scope a “Catadioptric Thingamajig.” Of course, not everybody feels that way.  And no matter how good the telescope, some--and that includes me--don't like having the wool pulled over our eyes. 

Some people will have a hard time working up much sympathy for Meade, “What goes around comes around,” they will say. For some, this is poetic justice for the bout of lawsuits Meade brought against Celestron. Well, maybe it is, but, in my opinion wishing for a takedown of Meade is shooting ourselves in the foot. They’ve done a genuinely good thing for us in bringing the RCX to market. As I’ve said before, this telescope has the features we’ve asked for for years at a realistic and reasonable price. 

Again, calling it an R-C disturbs me in the same way many of the other inflated claims scope merchants have made over the four decades I’ve been an amateur have disturbed me— the “little-bit-pregnant” advertising of semi-apochromats comes to mind. No, I don’t like it, but I do like the RCX, no matter what Meade thinks they have to call it. Of course these are early days and the final verdict on this complex SCT is still out. Will the RCX prove to be reliable, and will Meade manage to make sure every scope that comes off its assembly line is equally good (unlike the poor LX200 16-inch)?


Monday, October 02, 2006


"I've Been Everywhere, Man, I've Been Everywhere"

Well, not quite, but, thanks to the kindness of my fellow amateurs who've had me visit their clubs and star parties as a speaker over the last couple of years, I've covered quite a few miles back and forth across the good, ol' USA. I'd never been to the Pacific Northwest, though, not until Herb invited me up for their yearly shindig, "The Anacortes Telescope and Wild Bird 2006 Optics and Imaging Expo," that is. I'm pretty sure y'all have heard of Anacortes, since they are one of the country's premier astronomy dealers, but did you know they have a big astro-get-together each year?

This is an event the above-mentioned Herb (York), the owner, chief cook, and bottle-washer at Anacortes and also the legendary Astromart, holds every annum. It's a mini-star party, but also an equipment show that features astro-speakers and manufacturer's representatives. 

What can I say other than "a good time was had by all"? Yeah, the flight from Possum Swamp to Seattle's Sea-Tac is a long one with three plane changes, but all was well when I finally arrived at the airport. I was soon picked up by Herb's son, Ray,  and taken to my nice (and very scenic) motel. Good time? Yeah, I know I had one, starting Friday night when I finally got to try some of that justly famous Seattle-area microbrewery output over a big steak with Herb, wife Paula, and several of his other guests at a joint so trendy Unk felt outa place--well, till he'd quaffed a pint. Yeah, the brew was a little different from the Dixie Beer your Uncle usually favors, but right good I'd say. Certainly didn't have a problem downing a few.

The big show was on Saturday, 30 September, and big it was with, in addition to your Silly Old Uncle, presentations from good (and very knowledgeable) folks from Takahashi, SBIG, Meade (Scott Roberts), and more. Also on-site was Paul Rodman, author of the Astroplanner software. Remember that title; I predict this new program will soon be one of the most used astronomy applications. While I felt like small potatoes in such illustrious company, the large audience who'd flooded the AT&WB premises were very kind during my (as usual) rambling presentations, which included, "The Past, Present, and Future of the SCT," "Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Deep Sky Video," and "Urban Astronomy."

One of the greatest things for me, living down here in our Astro-dealer deprived wilderness, was the opportunity to look at and fondle the latest beaufiful astro-stuff. In addition to a big, new RCX from the Meadesters, I was able to check out the beautiful scopes from Takahashi. You know, every time I get a look at those lustrous mounts and OTAs I start thinkin: "Man! That's for me! Takahashi Mewlon, here I come!" Course, a few days later I come back to reality with "Too rich for my blood." So it goes. Sigh. I reckon I do have Takahashi tastes; too bad your old Uncle has a Meade and Celestron pocketbook.

And there was more cool stuff. Like a new Maksutov Newtonian, the David Levy Comet Hunter. This 6-inch f/4.8 scope, which sports a lovely carbon-fiber tube and a high quality focuser, is indeed a thing of beauty. The example on the showroom floor had been autographed (on its tube) by David himself.

Looking at and playing with telescopes indoors scopes is cool, but using 'em on the sky is even better. Alas, 'twas not to be. The only down note Saturday was that, in typical Seattle fashion, I'm told, we went from clear, crisp, beautiful weather to damp, cloudy, and downright chilly in just a few hours. Not unlike good ol' Possum Swamp--well except for the cool part. The li'l star party that had been planned in conjunction with the local club was quickly scotched as wave after wave of clouds poured in off the Pacific.

Nevertheless, between the special deals on gear (amazing), giveaways (many), and free bar-b-que (lots), nobody left in a snit, that's fer dang sure. There's no denying that, as above, Washington is a long, long way from Possum Swamp, and that the plane rides are punishing what with today's pack-em-in-like-sardines airlines. But, dernit, it was worth it...I had such a great time that I'll go back anytime I'm invited (or figger out a way to invite myself).

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