Sunday, November 30, 2008


A Letter to Santa

To paraphrase Charlie Brown, “Well, another Thanksgiving has come and gone.” What do I perceive? That the great American holiday just ain’t what it used to be. Oh, some folks still go all out with scads of relatives and a giant mutant of a turkey. Even some of us who don’t want or need to put on such a traditional feast do something special. Miss Dorothy and me? We invariably spend the holiday at the Hotel Monteleone in the French Quarter where Unk is more than happy to miss out on all the family cheer and togetherness in return for the opportunity to drink in the Carousel Bar (hey, if it was good enough for Faulkner, it is good enough for the likes of me).

Mostly, though, these days Turkey Day is simply a prelude to the dreaded Black Friday and its orgy of Stuff Buying. However you slice the bird, the Thursday in November also signals it is time to get serious about Christmas. To let The Man in the Red Suit, Ol’ Saint Nick, Father Christmas, KNOW WHAT YOU WANT. I hope y’all have all written and dispatched your letters by post or by chimney flue; time’s a wasting. Here’s MY Wish List (and maybe also my list of current pet peeves).

An Ethos for Everybody

I got raked over the coals for saying it, but I’ll say it again at the risk of being boiled in my own pudding and buried with a stake of holly through my heart: “The TeleVue 13-mm and 8-mm Ethos oculars are by far the best eyepieces I have used over 40 years of observing.” The shame of the thing is that these eyepieces not only cost so much (about 600 lean and mean George Washingtons and up) but had to come around at a time when too many folks ain’t worrying a whole lot about eyepieces or any other variety of astro-gear; they are wondering how they are gonna put food on the table and buy a few modest gifts for the kiddies. Course you do not need an Ethos to be happy, but (wait for it, wait for it) one sure does help, astronomically anyhow. Badda-bing. I think these things are so good that if I could work my will, there would be a Big E under every single amateur’s tree this Yuletide season.

A CCD Camera for the Rest of Us

After a few—make that quite a few—years of struggle, I am finally confidant enough in my imaging abilities to state that I can make good (not perfect) images with a CCD camera. I can bring back one or two recognizable portraits of deep sky objects just about every time (but not every time) I head to the observing site with computer, scope, and camera. But, you know, it really oughta be easier. Not just for beginners, but for the computer challenged among us, and for those of us who only get out to take pictures a few times a year. Heck, after laying off for a few months, askin’ me to work CCDsoft is like asking me to take the controls of Three Mile Island during a melt down and do something. Why does it have to be this hard?

It doesn’t. It could be real easy. Meade, of all people, showed what was possible. Oh, they, in typical Meade fashion, didn’t quite deliver, but they were so danged close. What I’m talking about is, of course, their series of DSI camera/software packages. Even I was able to produce color snapshots of deep sky objects, including some scary-faint ones, that pleased the hell out of me. And it was damn near possible to do exactly what Meade said you could and get “beautiful pictures the first night out.” Almost.

The Envisage program that shipped with the cameras had the potential to allow that. It did just about everything, and did quite a bit of hand-holding. For example, not only did it automatically take dark frames, it would remind silly ol’ Unk to “please cover the telescope so dark frames can be taken.” This software and camera combo also eliminated the necessity for some of the steps that had confused and halted me in the past: no bias frames, no flat fields. There was a built-in focus indicator, and the program would allow you to take short exposures that minimized guiding problems and would automatically stack those exposures into a finished picture, throwing out any bad sub-frames in the process.

So why didn’t the DSI get more amateurs into CCDing? Oh, it did—a little bit. The cameras’ very reasonable prices saw to that, but a lot of new owners got turned off in a quick hurry. These folks spread the word, too. The problem was the Envisage software. Yeah, it did a lot, and made a lot of things easy, but the User Interface was wicked bad. So bad that many newbies could never figure out where to go to get to the functions they needed. The manual was, not atypically for Meade (or Celestron), fairly lousy—if not terrible. Finally, the included image processing software, which Miss New CCDer would need to make her pictures look presentable, was at least as hard to figure out as Iris, and couldn’t do 1/100th of the things that daunting program can. Yeah, so close, but yet so far. I’m still hoping, though, that somebody, sometime, somehow comes out with the CCD equivalent of an Instamatic camera.

The Survival of the American Telescope Industry

Reckon I might as well wish for world peace. What killed the mainstream American telescope making industry (which over the last 20 years has pretty much been represented by Meade and Celestron)? It wasn’t poor telescopes. Most of Meade’s and Celestron’s products were competent—most of the time. No, it was us who killed it, aided and abetted by the folks in California. They convinced us and we convinced them that we must have all the bells and whistles, all the go-to gimcrackery in the world, for the same old “two grand for a top-of-the-line 8-inch SCT,” that had maintained for three decades.

What we forgot and what Meade and Celestron tried to ignore was that when the fat finally hit the fire not only were we were paying substantially less or in real dollars for a shiny new LX90 or CPC 800 than we paid for an Orange Tube C8 or a 2080 way back when, the market for amateur level scopes ain’t really expanded much since 1970. Not nearly enough to get production levels high enough to keep prices low while allowing makers and dealers to make a decent profit. Result? C-h-i-n-a, of course. Celestron is Chinese owned now, and, if you axe me, Meade soon will be. Why should anybody be surprised?

What do I think? I think it is likely already too late for telescope making as a major—or even minor—industry to continue here. Oh, a few custom/uppercrust/teeny-tiny manufacturers will likely carry on (AstroPhysics and Obsession, for example), but they ain’t even minor; they are miniscule. I believe that telescope making as a major occupation is gone from these shores and will not be coming back. I mean, it ain’t likely Bausch and Lomb is gonna suddenly slap its collective forehead and say, “Damn, we screwed up. Let’s bring back and update the B&L Pro 8001.”

Eyepieces for People Who Don’t Want or Can’t Afford an Ethos

Yeah, I might wish there was an Ethos under everybody’s tree. Or a Nagler. Or a Meade UWA. But that and two bits will get you a cup o’ java in this burg. There is still hope for something better in the ultra-wide field field, though. Afterall, the high end of the eyepiece AFOV scale is no longer 82 degrees; it’s 100 degrees. Shouldn’t there now be good, bargain “Naglers”? We’ve already seen some, the William Optics Uwans, for example. Yeah, yeah, I know, they are cheap, but not real cheap. When will we be able to buy 80 degrees for 80 dollars? There have been some cheap spacewalkers thus far, like those sold by Anacortes under the “Bird’s Eye” badge, the Knight Owl Ultra-wides, and a few others. Most unfortunately, though, while certainly good values, these oculars do not begin to compete with the Uwans quality-wise; not when you use ‘em in something faster than f/10 (at least). I keep predicting high quality but very inexpensive 80 degree AFOV range eyepieces for one and all, but that prediction is always for NEXT YEAR, and it looks like I’m doing that again this year.

ASCOM and Nothing But

If you don’t fancy toting a laptop into the field to send your scope on go-tos or assist your digital setting circles, you can stop reading now. While I’m very happy in most ways with most of the multitudinous astro-apps that inhabit my laptop’s hard drive, one thing bugs me: drivers. Telescope drivers to be exact. Telescope drivers for my telescopes to be even more specific. I was thinking the other afternoon, fer example, what a wonderful program Megastar still is. No, it don’t get updated much anymore, but it is still simple to use, blessed with a very clear display, and possessed of one of the most extensive collections of deep sky objects imaginable. I wondered why I don’t use it much these nights. Answer? It won’t talk to two of my most used setups: the ASGT mount and the Atlas mount running EQMOD.

The problem is that Megastar uses built-in drivers, and for that reason can only be used to control scopes the author saw fit to provide drivers for. Megastar ain’t the only offender in this regard neither. Solution? Software authors: PLEASE just use ASCOM. What is ASCOM? It’s the “Astronomy Common Object Model.” What?! In simplest terms, it is an application, a freeware application, that, aided by user and manufacturer contributed telescope drivers, provides a way for astronomy programs to talk to telescopes and frees software authors from worryin’ about such drivers. ASCOM drivers exist for just about any computerized telescope old or new. If a soft can use ASCOM as the middle-man, it automatically supports zillions of scopes. Once installed, ASCOM is pretty transparent to users, too. So why don’t all astro-program authors give up foolin’ with built-in drivers and just use ASCOM? You tell me.

The Revival of the Great American Astronomy Club

I ain’t gonna belabor this to the extent I did a few months back. I’m just gonna say that if y’all out there who belong to and cherish a club want it to survive for the future, it is up to you to make the changes needed to ensure that. How do you do it? It’s simple. Be more friendly, especially to newcomers, and strive to serve the members you already have. What’s they-at mean? Don’t glare at and/or ignore the enthusiastic teenagers who show up at your meeting, and do more at that meeting than read the minutes of the last meeting, argue about the Astronomical League dues, and vent your spleen about the evils of go-to.

Frankly, one of the most alarming signs concerning amateur astronomy is the slow decline of the astronomy club. That's no doubt aided and abetted by the aging of club  members, but that ain't the whole story. Astronomy clubs, most astronomy clubs, are not doing anything to justify their existence. Once or twice a year public outreach ain't enough. Most aren't even doing a good job serving enthusiastic amateur astronomers. I'm keeping on keeping on with my local club here in Mobile (AKA "Possum Swamp"), but I am not at all sure how much longer I will do that.

A Stronger National Amateur Astronomy Organization for Americans

Speakin’ of the AL… Gosh-a-mighty, I worry about the AL. Lately I worry a lot. There ain’t no denying the AL does some things for amateur astronomy. In addition to the ever popular Observing Clubs, they encourage and reward young folks in astronomy. Trouble is, they just don't do enough to justify the dues American astronomy clubs send their way every year. Compare the AL to the national organization for amateur radio, the ARRL, and you'll see what I mean. I suggested to the incoming AL President that he should look at all the things the ARRL does for radio amateurs and strive to have the AL do the same sorts of things for amateur astronomers. He didn't quite sneer at my suggestion, but almost.

Which is why, when time comes for payment of a club’s annual Astronomical League dues, some of the more curmudgeonly among us tend to jump up and holler, “What for?” I suspect that in these tough times that is gonna be all the more common. A large part of the problem is that most rank and file amateurs have little contact with the League unless they are working on a Messier or Herschel certificate. Oh, there’s The Reflector magazine once a quarter, but while it's fancy as club newsletters go, that's really all it is (one of our local club members hadn’t received The Reflector in three years due to a mistake and hadn’t noticed).

More Using than Buying

Finally, my wish for you and for myself is that we actually get out and use some of the tons of gear we lust over and argue over on the blamed Astromart Forums and the Cloudy Nights boards ever’ dadgummed day. If you’re like me, your enthusiasm for this magnificent obsession of ours hasn’t dimmed. It’s just that the realities of Modern Times make it harder and harder to do something about that obsession. Me? I resolve in the coming year to get out at least twice a month, weather gods permitting, whether at the Chiefland Astronomy Village, or just at my club’s Possum Holler observing site and actually look at the sky. Yep, a…a…RESOLUTION

Well said, as almost always! :) So you think the Ethoi are the best. Better than Pentax XW's?
I'll stay with DSLR camera for AP. I have enough trouble with the computer in other ways not to add to that list. LOL
And last, wish I were home more to join a club. There are two in my area, but I drive the big truck, and just ain't home enough. I carry a scope in the truck, and try to get other drivers to view. Sometimes they do. Closest I have to a group or a star party.
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