Sunday, April 12, 2009


Of DVDs and Binoculars

I could just as easily have called thisun “The Trouble with the Magazines: the Update.” I’d originally intended it to be nothing more than a follow-up to the blog from last summer that examined the state of our two much-loved newsstand astronomy mags, Sky & Telescope and Astronomy. One thing was sure, that blog generated enough heated discussion that li’l ol’ pot-stirrer me was eager to revisit the subject. And that will be the theme of this edition generally speaking. Specifically? One of the monthlies made Unk mad as a hatter, and this will be my chance to vent. Heck, what’s the sense of having a cotton-picking blog if you can’t use it to blow off steam every once in a while?

Before getting to the venting, howsomeever, let’s do a status report. If you-all don’t wanna go back and review the previous article, here’s the poop: last year I began to fear our beloved glossy astronomy magazines would not be around much longer. Aside from what little I knew about the business as a sometime magazine contributor, what made my fears tangible was the magazines’ physical presence or increasing lack thereof. I noted both had radically decreased their page counts, Astronomy going from an average of over 100 pages to eighty-something and Sky & Telescope shrinking from 130 or so to about 100. I also mentioned that the paper stock used by both monthlies was becoming ever cheaper, and would soon be approaching the quality and durability of dollar-store toilet paper. Finally, I noted with dismay the personnel changes at Sky & Telescope; two of their most knowledgeable and experienced hands, Kelly Beatty and Rick Fienberg were suddenly gone.

So where do both rags stand a year down the road from my last look? With me, they stand just where they always have. I continue to renew my subscriptions to Astronomy and Sky & Telescope year in and year out. I send them little blow-in cards in just like the swallows return to dadgummed Capistrano. Luckily, your ol’ Unk is still gainfully employed and can afford to do so. More and more I hear both magazines’ readers declare they just can’t afford it anymore. That’s not surprisin’ in this environment, I suppose. As costs have increased (and advertising revenues perhaps declined of late), subscription prices have naturally risen. Sky 'n ‘Scope stands at $37.95 per annum, and Astronomy is $42.95. When you are wondering how you are gonna pay the mortgage, it’s not likely you will even consider re-subscribing to a “hobby magazine,” even at these still relatively reasonable rates. To hear some amateurs tell it, there ain’t much need to, even if you ain’t having trouble keeping body and soul together. All the amateur astronomy stuff you need is on the blankety-blank Internet, right?

Mebbe so, Skeezix, mebbe so. B-U-T. When it comes time to seriously consider buying new gear, for example, who you gonna trust, Good Buddy Dennis Di Cicco in Sky &Telescope, or Joe Spit the Ragman over on Cloudy Nights? Not that there are not plenty of good and reliable reviews on the Interwebs, but most of the time I’ll pay more attention to Dennis. Yeah, I’ve heard that ol’ canard, “Sky & Telescope and Astronomy never give unfavorable reviews to advertisers.” Heard it for years, and there’s still no more truth in it than there’s ever been. Yes, the reviews in the newsstand mags tend to be more diplomatic and polite than what you read on your Uncle Ezra’s Telescope Review and Muzzleloader Web Site, but that’s professionalism, not bootlicking.

People have come to expect the radical and the one-sided from the Net, I suppose: “That Acme ED refractor SUX…I wouldn’t use the frackin' thing to scoop litter outa the cat box.” Me, I find that review style amusing on occasion, but I don’t want to pay for it in a magazine, or even read it regularly for free. And there are numerous other reasons for still preferring a non-virtual amateur astronomy magazine (most notably, Unk not wanting to hold a computer in his lap during his, uh, “morning ablutions”). That may change in the near future if something like the Kindle really takes hold, but for now if Astronomy and Sky & Telescope went away I’d replace ‘em with other magazines, not websites.

So, I’m still subscribing and saving each issue of the Big Two as they come in? Well, sorta. Sky & Telescope continues to be dutifully filed as each copy gets read (which admittedly don’t take as long as it used to). With the exception of the issues one of my ex-wives used to line her birdcage or fed to her Labrador retriever, I’ve got most of the Sky 'n 'Scopes going back to ’65. They often come in handy when I’m researching something for a book or article or just get curious about what Meade was touting as the CAT’s meow back in 1982. Astronomy? Not so much. As the clock slowly ticks on toward retirement, we’ve begun slowly, ever so slowly, disposing of the unloved and unused around Chaos Manor South.

One afternoon, I realized all them issues of Astronomy were taking up lotsa room but were rarely, if ever, being referred to. Gritting my teeth I—a little reluctantly—threw out almost all the post-Richard Berry issues to include all the numbers published during Bonnie Gordon's Editorship. Yes, I did try to give ‘em away, but had no takers. New issues? When I finish ‘em, I hand ‘em off to my mates who still like to read the magazine, but don’t want to pay for it.

Sky & Telescope

How has Sky & Telescope fared over the last 12-months? Come si, come sa. The first thing I wanna talk about is something I hear a lot lately on the Cloudy Nights, on the Astromart, and on the dadgummed sci.astro.amateur (if you can find anything about astronomy there between the religious rants and ads for adult videos). That in recent times Sky & Telescope has been significantly dumbed-down. That the pre 90s (or pre 80s or pre 70s or pre 60s) issues was much more scholarly, and contained much more information.

The first claim is probably true if’n you interpret “scholarly” to mean “dry as dust.” Yes, compared to, say, a 1965 issue, the articles in today’s Sky & Telescope are written in a more spritely manner. Fer example, the results of an international conference about the always popular Quasi-Stellar Radio Sources that would in 1965 have been headlined “QUASARs at Prague” will today be touted as, “Black Hearts of the Cosmos” or some such. However, just because the writing is more engaging now doesn’t usually mean there is less information. I think Sky 'n ‘Scope does a purty good job of keeping the info density high while appealing to a wider audience than in the good old days. One casualty, I will admit, is math. Today, editors do tend to shy away from printing equations—more than they used to anyhow. On the other hand, Sky & Telescope never was the cotton-pickin’ APJ, and was never meant to be. I suppose this slight dumbing down—if you wanna call it that—is a fair price for wider appeal, which helps our avocation itself as well as the magazine, I reckon.

Physically, the magazine continued to shrink, with the latest issue weighing in at a mere 82 pages of the same thin paper that made me askeered last year. Until recently, I thought Sky 'n 'Scope was doing a right good job with the lower page count. There were still enough editorial (i.e. not advertising) pages to satisfy. Mostly that is still true, but I suppose it was inevitable the effects would be felt, and so they have. As y’all know, I am a Lunatic with a capital “L;” I am a big fan of Earth’s natural satellite. Which means I have also been a huge fan of Charles Wood’s “Exploring the Moon” column, which has been edumacatin’ me about Luna for years now. Unfortunately, apparently due to the reduced page count, Chuck’s column will now alternate with a new feature on deep sky observing, Ken Hewitt-White’s “Going Deep.” I’ve enjoyed Ken’s work in Sky News, fer sure, but I am still a little miffed I won’t get my Moon fix every month.

The principal unknown when it comes to Skypub—whoops, I mean “New Track Media”? Will the corporate masters allow the magazine to continue to serve the amateur/professional/astronomy educator community as it has done for—what?—near about seven decades, or will there be about-faces and destructive “new paradigms” in an attempt to capture some of Astronomy’s airport-impulse-buy readers? Hard to say. I couldn’t help but be suspicious when Sky & Telescope was sold. And even more when Kelly Beatty and Rick Fienberg left (and more recently, Steve O’Meara and David Levy). I think we all remember the unpleasantness surrounding Astronomy’s purchase by Kalmbach (the model train folks) way back when. Thus far my fears have been mostly groundless. New editor Robert Naeye seems to be doing a credible job of steady-as-she-goes despite the straightened circumstances.

The main concern I have for Sky & Telescope? They, unlike their competitor, don’t seem to be trying much in the way of the Internet type ideas that will likely be the salvation of magazines as their lumbering dinosaur trot from print to electronic proceeds on apace. The Sky & Telescope website is OK, but does not have anything that would impel me to visit it on a daily (or weekly, or monthly) basis. When was the last time you heard a fellow amateur buzzing about what they saw there? On the other hand, they probably are continually chirping ‘bout somethin’ or the udder they read on Cloudy Nights or Astromart. Another example? S&T recently shut down its moldy-oldie Skyline telephone answering astro-news service. This was replaced by a podcast. That is a good thing. But why didn’t they KICK IT UP A NOTCH and also start Tweeting news via Twitter? Seems like that would be a natural.

What I’ve wanted for a long time is electronic versions of them gazillions of old Sky and Telescope issues. Don’t look like that’s gonna happen, I’m afraid. I understand there are contractual difficulties that preclude Sky 'n 'Scope’s older issues being made available in electronic form. But why not start converting the newer issues to .pdfs and offering subscribers the current issue as .pdf and/or print? Apparently there was some experimenting along these lines going on last year, but nothing has come of it yet. The magazine has made electronic versions of individual articles available for some time. B-U-T…even subscribers have to pay for these downloads. Come on, y’all, that is no way to run a railroad. Yes, as above Luddite Rod still wants his paper and ink, but a lot of sprouts don’t, and it seems to me that at least offering the option of an electronic S&T would be a good way to ensure their future loyalty and even save money.


Sometimes I think I'll learn my lesson. But I never do. To wit: I shoulda looked before I leaped, engaged brain before putting mouth in gear, etc., etc. Sky & Telescope is Tweeting on Twitter and has  been.


Then there’s “The World’s Most Beautiful Astronomy Magazine.” Well, that’s how they used to bill themselves in the masthead anyhow; today it’s “The World’s Best Selling Astronomy Magazine.” Something I’ve lately thought is a not so subtle symptom of the magazine’s troubles in the post-Steve Walther, post-Richard Berry era. Luckily, the rag is also in its post “Discover Magazine for Astronomy” days. Under amateur astronomer Dave Eicher, Astronomy has slowly crawled its way back from the disastrous tour of duty (as we amateurs saw it) of its previous Editor, whose tenure is little noted nor long remembered even on the “history” page at the Astronomy website.

Honestly, I know some of y’all who consider yourselves “advanced amateurs” (whatever the heck that means) have long turned-up your noses at “the other guys.” If you were to pick up a current issue of Astronomy, though, I believe you would be pleasantly surprised. Twarn’t long back that I found myself giving Astronomy my “Most Improved” award. While Sky 'n 'Scope seemed to be in the doldrums, if not decline, Astronomy under Mr. Eicher went from strength to strength. Yeah, I’ve been giving my current issues away, but I’ve found myself tearing out more and more articles to save for future use—at times the magazines I’ve dispensed to my buds have been little more than a front and back cover and the gee-whiz-black hole-astronomy-fact articles from the front.

And most importantly for the future health of the magazine, Astronomy seemed to be branching out again following the putting-to-sleep of their “Kalmbach Publishing” line of astro books some time back. While most of their non-Astronomy output has been magazine-format specials, these have been very good indeed. I particularly liked last year’s 100 Most Spectacular Sky Wonders and Atlas of the Stars. Liked ‘em? Heck, I found these two pubs useful enough that they are now included in my deep sky observing bugout kit—those things I grab for spur of the moment runs. Even more impressive, if in a tentative way, has been their online efforts. The magazine’s website per se don’t impress me overmuch, still. Seems cluttered, and has unneeded and mostly unloved stuff on there like forums (why bother when just about ever’body is gonna use Cloudy Nights or Astromart instead?). But there is getting to be more to Astronomy online than that.

A big surprise, and one of the nicest things anybody has done for the amateur community in a long  time is the conversion to Adobe Acrobat files of the much-loved, much-missed Deep Sky and Telescope Making magazines, shut down years ago when Kalmbach bought Astronomy from its founder’s heirs. No, Astronomy ain’t giving all these back numbers away for free, but almost. You can download ‘em for a lousy $3.95 apiece. I simply cannot say how happy I am to be able to finally complete my collection of Deep Sky and to have them in a format that’s more convenient for use in the field (print useful articles and stick ‘em in your observing notebook, or put all the issues on a CD for display on the laptop).

And that’s not all; Astronomy has also begun online publishing of reprints of the “Celestial Portraits” series that ran in the magazine (like Eicher’s fondly-remembered “Universe from Your Backyard” series). Only thing I don’t like? These are a mite high at $8.95 per 25-page file; to get the whole series of 11 you’ll shell out nearly a C note.

Sounds like I really like the current incarnation of Astronomy, then. Yeah. I did, anyhow. But just recently they have P.O.ed me (“put out” of course; this is a family-friendly blog) to beat the band. Yep, just when I thought I’d learned to stop worrying and love Astronomy,  just when I’m distracted by all this good stuff, I get a one-two to the Solar plexus.

This started innocuously enough when a package dropped through the mail slot and landed with a ker-plunk in Chaos Manor South’s front hall. When I tore off the wrapping I discovered said package contained a DVD from Astronomy, something called Infinite Cosmos. Cool. Sadly, my cool-meter dropped precipitously when I discovered that, far from being an original production, this was just an old episode from the History Channel’s Universe series bolstered by a minute or two of original footage (Dave Eicher speaking at you--he's a nice enough guy, but has the star potential of Mr. Potato Head). I already had the whole season of Universe this episode was extracted from, so I mashed “eject” and threw the thing into a corner. Didn’t think much more about it till I started hearing some disturbing comments concerning it on the Cloudy Nights.

These comments had nothing to do with the fact that the DVD was a retread from History, but that folks like me, Astronomy subscribers mostly, who had received this DVD without asking for it had begun getting dun notices from Kalmbach: “Either return the DVD or pay for it.” The cost was fairly reasonable, $12.95, but buying the first one would apparently get a DVD subscription started, and the cost for future disks would go up to $28.00. Which is surely something of a stretch when you consider the fact that you can get whole seasons of Universe from Amazon or Best Buy for about the same price. But that’s beside the point. The point was the “bill,” which I soon received myself.

“It’s been months since you received Life and Death of a Star, the first DVD in the series. We've checked our records, and it appears we have not heard from you.” I was right put out, lemme tell ya. Especially since Miss Dorothy, busy as always, had glanced briefly o’er this notice and took her checkbook out. A little studying of the “bill” revealed a paragraph that admitted there was “no obligation” to pay or return the disk since the DVD was unsolicited. Legal? Yes. Smarmy? That too. How many harried folks would just, like Miss D., write a check?

The more I thought about it, the madder I became. Like good ol’ Popeye, that was all I could stand, I couldn’t stand no more. I sat down and drafted a two part email to Dave Eicher, the first part excoriating (in a polite way) he and his mates or whoever at Kalmbach dreamed up the DVD-dun scheme. I pointed-out that the name “Astronomy” was now being taken in vain at every Internet watering hole where amateurs gather because of this business. I also observed that I would think that in these economic hard times he couldn’t afford to alienate his audience; least of all his subscribers, for god’s sake.

That was part one of my email; what was the subject of part two? Somethin’ even more wrongheaded in this ol’ boy’s opinion. If you’ve been an amateur for even a little while, “Phil Harrington” is a name you recognize. Phil’s many excellent books, and especially his equipment guide, Starware, should be on every observer’s shelf, and usually are. Not only does Phil write right good books—when I was larnin’ the astro-writing trade I looked to his work as both inspiration and guide—he’s been an Astronomy contributor and columnist for years. A few years back there was often not much reason to read an issue except for Phil’s work.

One great thing he has contributed to the magazine is his monthly column on binocular observing, “Binocular Universe.” Not only did Phil write the book on binocular astronomy, literally, he continues doing that in his column every month, turning out installments that are both wildly accessible to young squirts and of unfailing interest to astronomy curmudgeons like Unk. Sky and Telescope does binoculars too, but nobody does it as well as Phil, and it was especially good there was a prominent feature on this subject in Astronomy. If there’s one thing a pub at least somewhat slanted toward the novice end of the amateur astronomy spectrum needs, it’s a binocular piece ever’ month, right?

Seems self-evident the answer is “yes,” don’t it? Well not to the folks at Astronomy, not no more. I was flabbergasted to learn that Phil’s column is being discontinued. Leaving aside the fact I consider him a friend, it just seems like a dumb move. Why would they do such a thing? At first I thought it might be because Astronomy has, in quite a coup, acquired David Levy as a columnist. Only so much can go into 88 pages.

Then, I started seeing new stuff in the magazine. New fluff more like. “Astroconfidential,” for example. I reckon you can guess at the worth of this two-page spread on the basis of its name alone without me having to go into the grim details. Suffice to say, someone asks professional astronomers (never amateurs thus far) insightful, Earth-shattering questions like, “Where do you see yourself ten years from now?” Sheesh, even if they think this goo is of interest to somebody out there, couldn’t they live with one page of it and leave Phil his single page?

That was the second part of the email I fired off to Mr. Eicher: trying to point out in my rambling and misdirected fashion that they were letting their readers down and harming themselves in the process of canceling Phil’s column. To my surprise, I got a response right away. Oh, not from Dave Eicher. Turned out he was, uh, “travelling,” and had asked Executive Editor Dick McNally to respond for him. Mr. McNally apologized for the angst caused by the silly DVD game, and promised Phil would "Continue to write on assignment for us."

Normally, I’d have let it go at that, but just as I set down to the computer, the scary AH-OOO-GAH announced “mail’s in.” And what should be in that batch o’ post other than another NOTICE ABOUT THAT CONSARNED FRICKIN-FRACKIN’ DVD. I shot one last email at McNally thanking him for his apology, but mentioning that another nag letter had just now come in.

Waalll…while it had seemed the Era of Good Feelin’ toward Astronomy was to be of short duration, I was at least somewhat mollified they’d bothered to respond to me at all. Until I learned shortly thereafter that what I’d received was nothing more than a form letter response, likely prepared well in advance of the receipt my missive.

2020 Update

What's happened at Astronomy? I don't have the slightest idea. Several years ago, I got tired of the magazine--I got tired of playing the "how many mistakes can you find in this issue" for one thing--and let my subscription lapse. Frankly, I find thinking about the magazine, let alone reading it, tiresome. But that is just cynical and jaded old me. I must admit beginners in astronomy can do a lot worse than Astronomy.

I received the same dang DVD, fired it up, realized I too had seen it on the History channel, and filed it away. Then they started sending me the same notices you received. So I followed the instructions, and sent it back, along with a note that was likely not as restrained as yours.
As for Phil, couldn't agree with you more. Starware should be required reading before you can post on Cloudy Nights! LOL
Keep hammerin' 'em, Rod.
I don't know about you Rod, but I spent the $8.95 to get the first of the 11 Deep-Sky sets, and was really dissapointed. I wish they had provided more information on what it was. I didn't expect to get PDF scans of the pages from the magazine, that I already have in my library. Seems a bit high for just scans, and the quality of the images shows the typical fuzzyness from copying a half tone image. I would have been alot happier if it had been scans of the original images, where you could enjoy their high quality. I would have expected to get something like this for free or maybe even $9.95 for all 11 sets. I mean what did it cost them, a hour of time running the pages in the scanner? I don't know how BBC's Sky at Night magazine is doing, but I sure enjoy their magazine as well as the attached CD with every issue. If It wasn't always a month behind.

I expected more from the download of the first file, and was very dissapointed with it being just a scanned copy of the magazine.
Rod - there's one more good thing about Astronomy magazine that you might have missed - they read your astro blog! Did you see the reference to it in the April issue in Glenn Chaple's column?

--Robert Harris
Glenn is an outstanding amateur, a great guy, and a very talented writer. I ain't hardly a beginner, but not only do I read his column on the first pass through each issue, I often share it with my undergraduate astronomy students and use (well, "steal") his excellent ideas and topics for my public outreach activities.
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