Sunday, June 27, 2010
The Trouble with the Magazines III: The Rest
I’ve given Sky and Telescope and Astronomy Magazine their medicine for the year (haw-haw), and now it’s time to attend to “the rest.” By that, I don’t mean the non-newsstand, subscription-only journals. Some of them, like Amateur Astronomy Magazine and Astronomy Technology Today, are good, very good. But they are a story for another Sunday. The subject this Sunday is the “glossies,” the newsstand rags other than Sky and 'Scope and Astronomy.
Which are? That depends on where you live, muchachos. For ol’ Unk down here in the benighted Possum Swamp, that consists of a trio out of the UK and Canada: Astronomy Now, Sky at Night Magazine, and SkyNews. I’ve occasionally been able to pick-up others, including some good ones from OZ and Ireland, but that is not possible here on a regular basis, and I hesitate to say pea-turkey about a pub I’ve only seen an example or two of.
I used to joke that the punishment for venial sins ‘round Chaos Manor South was being sentenced to straighten up the stacks of Astronomy Nows. The penalty for mortal sins was being condemned to read some of ‘em. That was then, though, and this is now. Over the last couple of years AN has improved dramatically. Even if it’s still prone to the occasional typos and layout errors it’s always suffered, it is now, no fooling, often a joy to read. Was that true for May 2010? Let’s see…
Hokay. Cover: UK magazines, and especially their covers, tend to the “busy” if not “insanely cluttered.” This issue of Astronomy Now gets brownie points here. It’s clean and modern-looking and attractive. A stark white background sets off a meteorite, the “theme” of this issue. The big title is, “It Came from Outer Space.” I like it. Oh, the masthead slogan is “The UK’s Best Selling Astronomy Magazine!” I don’t doubt that’s true, though I wonder by how much these days. Anyhoo, nice, clean cover. Would have been even better if whoever laid it out had resisted the More Better Gooder impulse and declined to insert a thumbnail picture of an Ioptron Minitower mount at the already crowded bottom. The paper stock, by the way, is the super-glossy stuff you see a lot of rags on the east side of the Pond using.
Inside, we first encounter the Editor’s spiel and the three-page Table of Contents. Current Editor, Keith Cooper’s, column is, well, OK, I guess. In the fashion of more than one astro-mag, it’s not an editorial, it’s a summary/send-up of the issue’s contents. Which is alright, but if I had column inches in a major magazine each month, I sure would be raising some hell about something every time. The TOC is fine, and includes short but succinct summaries for each entry.
I wasn’t surprised to see “News Update,” but that don’t make it right. Not only is this a waste of eight pages of editorial content in the Internet Age, it is excruciatingly cluttered, with every single page offering multiple boxes and sidebar-columns. There are also some design/layout issues, with one page sporting a title with some (not all) its words in dark blue type that disappears against a black background and looks wicked bad. Come on, y’all! Put the news on the Internet. You’ve got a decent, long-running website for just this sorta stuff.
My achin' eyeballs back in my head, I’m able to page past the News to the obligatory Letters page, “Your Views.” Or should I say “half page”? Astronomy Now has printed more than their share of good and interesting letters-to-the-Editor over the years (Hey! Unk even had one printed years ago!), so why take up half the page with “Key Moments in Astronomy”? Oh, I suppose this little historical blurb is interesting enough. But why here? That sums-up one of the magazine’s faults: organization. Stuff, any kind of stuff, is shoe-horned in anywhere it will physically fit. It’s enough to make this ol’ boy’s head swim.
Done with the SCIENCE FACT, we come to what I really bought this doggoned issue for, Damian Peach’s “Caribbean Seeing.” Damian is no doubt one of the top two or three amateur Solar System imagers, and I would have enjoyed the article if all it were were some of his outstanding pictures (done with SCTs, natch). But he’s also an accomplished writer, and I thoroughly enjoyed his story of his imaging expedition to Barbados. Only downcheck? I’d like to have seen more and bigger pictures. The article does include a URL for Damian’s website, but I wish there’d been a full-page rendition of one of his superb Jupiters in the magazine.
Past a stunning picture of M81 and a nice—if brief—feature on massive stars by Carole Stott, is “The Night Sky,” AN’s current sky events section. What’s to say? It’s quite competent, and the monthly star chart is good and legible (I checked it under a red light). If you read the articles that accompany it, you’ll be well equipped for a month of observing. But…your brain will be spinning by the time you are done with this here nine pages.
What we have here is a microcosm of AN: busy layout with boxes and sidebars everywhere, disorganization reigning supreme. Deep sky here, planets there, comets to the right, galaxies to the left. Why not group the Solar System stuff together and do the same for the deep sky? Upcheck? At least they—unlike Astronomy Magazine—tend to stick to the same font, even if (shudder) almost every title and heading has to be in multiple colors.
And then there’s “Focus,” the section that contains the issue’s “theme” copy, meteorites this time. Has The Science Channel’s Meteorite Men, a surprise hit in the U.S., made it over to Old Blighty? I dunno, but I suspect so. The TV show has made meteorites and meteorite hunting suddenly big, big, big and hot, hot, hot. What’s sure is this dozen pages of text and graphics by Emily Baldwin and Keith Cooper is very well executed. Worth the purchase price of the magazine (AN’s cover price, three pounds twenty-five, has become eight dollars and seventy-five cents by the time it hits the Swamp, dammit).
Once we’re done with an “answer questions from the readers” page like those all the astro-rags fancy these days, there are a couple of amateur-oriented columns, Jeremy Perez’s “Drawn to the Universe,” and Martin Mobberly’s “TechTalk.” I particularly liked Jeremy’s (regular) column, which focuses on galaxy-sketching this time out. I suspect many folks who’re spending a fortune and tearing their hair out trying to do CCD imaging would be a lot happier and find their hairlines more intact if they tried simple deep sky sketching. In addition to clear and friendly instructions on “drawing what you see,” we get a couple of Mr. Perez’s outstanding artworks (yes). Kudos to AN for providing a regular feature on low-tech “imaging.”
There is also, of course, the high tech. If I’m an astro-gear head, Martin Mobberly is an astro-gear guru. So, it was a shame to see his entry this month, which concerns improving go-to mount accuracy via T-Point and similar software, crammed into less than two pages when you figure in a side-bar on an unrelated topic. Good writer that he is, Martin manages to get the basics across, but if only he’d had more space…
Winding down, now, it’s “In the Shops,” the review section, which is lead off by book reviews, nicely done book reviews, in a readable format. After which is the rag’s monthly gear review, this time by Ian Morison on Ioptron’s Minitower mount. It’s well written, and airs some minuses as well as pluses. I’m still on the fence about the Ioptron. I’ve heard plenty of negatives about it on the Internet, but given the (slight) experience I’ve had with it, Ian seems closer to the truth with this near-rave.
Just before the end is AN’s equivalent of Sky and Telescope’s old “Amateur Astronomers,” “Grassroots Astronomy,” which covers the UK club scene, and this time highlights “Young Astronomers.” Very nice work by Callum Potter; this is what every astro-rag everywhere should be doin’ more of.
And The End? I bet you guessed. Yep, AN’s gallery section, user contributed astrophotos. You know what? I like the UK take on this much better than what I see in the U.S. pubs of late (“114 hour exposure with a 16-inch RC on an AstroPhysics 3600 mount.”). What’s in Astronomy Now is attractive astrophotos by obviously accomplished imagers, sure, but most of ‘em were done with modest gear like the ubiquitous Synta EQ-6 mount. Hell, there’s even a drawing!
And that is it, for a total of 94 pages, very respectable by today’s astronomy magazine page-count standards.
Summing up, I like Astronomy Now. I find myself buying it almost every month despite its relatively high price tag (a subscription would help at a slightly less painful $65.00 a year for North America), not out of habit, but because I want to read it. If only they’d take it to the next level. Impose a little more organization on the contents, think “in-depth,” and simplify the cotton-pickin’ layout for god sakes.
Sky at Night Magazine
If you didn’t know this was a 21st Century UK magazine, one glance at the garish cover would tell you so. There’s an astrophoto buried there somewhere, but it’s almost entirely obscured by a giant, screaming title, “What Lies Beyond…the edge of the Universe?” and four, count ‘em, FOUR thumbnail pictures, two text bubbles, smaller titles/headings, a contents column. Oh, and of course a pricetag. If’n you peel off the one that says “$8.75,” you’ll find the UK price hidden beneath, £4.25. Based on the current exchange rate, that should equate to $6.30, but I suppose a two-buck-and-change penalty ain’t too bad. The slogan? Astronomy Now says they are “The UK’s Best Selling Astronomy Magazine!” but TSAN counters with “THE BIGGEST NAME IN ASTRONOMY,” so there. The cover is of the UK-favored ultra-glossy stuff.
First thing first is a busy page (the cover should have prepared you for that), “Welcome.” In addition to pix and bios of contributors, there’s a graphic and a banner and a url trumpeting the magazine’s “vodcast.” If you are even more firmly locked in the last century than your Old Uncle, that’s a video podcast…an…uh…little TV show sort of deal you can download if’n you have an iPhone, iPod, or iPad (if you need to ask what those are, you don’t need to know). Most of the page is actually taken up by Editor Graham Southorn’s editorial. Like the one in Astronomy Now, it ain’t actually an editorial, but a preview of the inside of the magazine, and for that reason didn’t claim much of my time.
The next two pages are the table of contents for both the magazine and the CD. More properly, they are a koo-koo-krazy mélange of dueling fonts and exploding graphics. “Contents” gets the job done, howsomeever, and ANYTHING that actually includes the words “AND MUCH MORE!” has a place in my heart.
Immediately following the TOC, we are hit in the face with TSAN’s graphics-heavy nature. The first feature is the regular, “Eye on the Sky,” a two-page astrophoto, this time a Hubble image of the Fornax Galaxy Cluster. It’s accompanied by some short and glib text and a graphic that points you to the CD for yet more purty stuff. The big astrophoto is immediately followed by two more pages of smaller pro pictures. They are very pretty; the captions are short, snappy, and informative; and the editors included a shot of one of my all-time faves, NGC 6334, the Cat’s Paw Nebula. Good on ‘em, then.
You’d think a mag that tries to be as hip as Sky at Night would dispense with the consarned astro-news, maybe just listing some urls (like that of the magazine’s website) where the latest and the greatest can be read. Nope. We get “Bulletin,” eight stinking pages of warmed-over news that’s not news to anybody who browses even a few astronomy websites. I suppose the mindset is, “Better have a news section, Astronomy Now has one.” Sheesh.
Past some ads to page 23, where we encounter the reason I started buying the magazine in the first place, “The Universe According to Patrick Moore.” Now, I’ll admit I am a long-time Sir Patrick fanboy, but even if I weren’t… Hell, this is a real EDITORIAL. In May, Patrick takes on President Obama’s new space policy in the inimitable Moore fashion. I urge you to read this one for yourself, but if you want a hint as to the direction, less jus’ say Sir Patrick AIN’T HAPPY.
“Wait just one pea-picking minute, Unk. How about a letters column? Surely they got one don’t they?” Sure they do. Well, sorta. We don’t get to it till page 26, and it ain’t exactly a letters-to-the-editor column. What it is is something called “Interactive,” and is a hodgepodge of, yes, a few reader letters, but also postings from the magazine’s blog, twitter tweets, prize offers, and even—and I am not making this up, y’all—a crossword puzzle (not that that is bad). Is this the wave of the future? Well, maybe…I dunno…it’s kinda a mixed up mess and all, but, yeah, I can see the rationale for posting tweets and forum posts in the magazine. I suppose I can, anyhow.
Done puzzling over “Interactive,” there’s the magazine’s first feature article, an amateur-oriented one, “Go-to versus Manual.” Instead of a stodgy examination of the pros and cons of compu-scopes, the magazine shows its lighthearted outlook with a “race” between an observer equipped with a manual GEM scope and one with a go-to mount. Nothing much is proven, as the objects are simple and the go-to user is penalized for taking too much time to set up an unfamiliar rig. That’s not the point. It’s supposed to be fun, y’all, and it is. It reeks of old-fashioned UK holiday madness at Brighton. Not that the novice won’t learn a little from the fun and games.
Next is—now don’t act surprised—a couple more pages of pretty pictures, this time by amateur contributors, “Hotshots.” There is some serious talent here, and some seriously impressive results, despite the fact that the magazine’s contributors, like Astronomy Now’s, tend to use more modest equipment than Sky and Telescope’s do: more EQ-6es and fewer AstroPhysics 1200s.
After the pix is an “Advertisement Feature,” whatever the hell that is. Actually, what it is is a profile of a gear-dealer, Astronomia, down in Surrey. This is, I suppose (but am not certain) paid advertising copy. Whatever it is, I like it. I wish the U.S. astro-mags would do something similar on our favorite dealers, who are often just anonymous voices on the phone or web pages on the net despite their prominence in our astro-lives.
Just like her sister mags, TSAN’s middle is taken up with the monthly sky-news and a naked eye star chart. What’s in “The Sky Guide” in addition to the sky map (which passed my red light torture-test) is a mix of various articles on planetary and deep sky observing. This part of TSAN is more accessible than its Astronomy Now counterpart, since it’s at least a little better organized. Let me single out Carol Lakomiak’s “Sketching” column here for praise. Well-done and accompanied by her beautiful drawings (as y’all can tell, I love to sketch and love articles on the Art).
Informed as to May’s “what’s up,” next on the menu is a variety of beginner-oriented features, which includes the rib-tickling, “Lost in Space” by Keith Hopcroft, wherein a physician chronicles his misadventures as a sometimes/often befuddled novice amateur astronomer. I just wish they’d give pore ol’ Keith a full page instead of the half-page he currently occupies. Hell, the BBC should make this into a comedy series, sorta like an astronomical Fawlty Towers.
We go light again with Kate Oliver’s “Cosmic Cookery.” Yeah, it’s VERY silly: “recipes” for various astronomical bodies. But it is fun. I keep using that word regarding TSAN, don’t I? “Garcon! One spiral galaxy on the half-shell to go!”
OK hardcore imagers, or wannabes, anyhow. Pete Lawrence takes you to CCD boot camp with “Perfection,” an introduction to the joys (ahem) of digital image calibration. There’s nothing for me to mutter about here other than that there’s no way you can do justice to this complex subject in three pages.
One thing Astronomy Now and Sky at Night Magazine have in common is their in-depth coverage of amateur astronomy (and related) events—star parties, club meetings, planetarium shows, etc. Last time I checked, the U.S. monthlies have been making do with a page or less on this topic. TSAN has three jam-packed pages.
Another cool thing the magazine has been doing of late is (simple) construction projects that are accompanied by extensive material on the CD—plans, pictures, and sometimes video. This month, we give building a field computer shelter a go in “How to Build a Laptop Imaging Centre.” It ain’t nothing that special, but it is a nice project with some clever touches, and I wish to hell I’d had this some years ago when I was trying to figure out how to protect my PC from dew.
Now to the gear review section, one of the highlights of the magazine. It’s always in two parts; first is a standard and usually good review of a single item (if too short, just like those of every other newsstand rag). Part two is a “shoot-out” pitting at least several examples of a scope or mount or other gadget against one-another: six-inch reflectors or go-to mounts, for example, or, this time, 10x50 binoculars. It would be nice to have a little more depth than is obtainable in the relatively short text each “contestant” gets, but this is a wonderful idea. The reviews are up-to-date too, with the May single-product under test being the new Orion (U.S) adaptive optics guider, which neither of the American monthlies has seen fit to cover yet.
Bringing up the rear is that standard for all magazines “new product announcements,” which is called “Gear” in TSAN. Oh, and book reviews, “Books.” No, it’s not very creatively named, but the reviews can be good depending on who’s writing any given one on any given month. They can also, alas, be pretty darned lousy.
No, we ain’t done just yet. The page count this issue was 106, which puts TSAN in the number one spot this time, with Astronomy Now coming in second, Sky and Telescope third, and Astronomy Magazine at the back of the pack. That means time for a cupla more short ones, including “Glossary,” which is, yep, you got it, a glossary of a few astronomical terms (more are on the CD). And, last, TSAN’s “parting shot.” A single page, “Night Life,” gives professional astronomers (I don’t recall ever seeing amateurs here) the opportunity to say a few words about their lives and work. And that is fine. But how about opening it up to amateur astronomers as well? Many of them/us have some interesting things to say, too.
What do I think? When it comes to technical level, Sky at Night Magazine is, I reckon, on a par with Astronomy Magazine. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. While I’ve been known to crack open a copy of the Astrophysical Journal on occasion, I love TSAN. Because, yeah, IT IS FUN. They do endeavor to cover technical subjects, just in a light, non-technical, and, yeah, that word again, FUN way. Between you and me and the fencepost, if a subscription to TSAN weren’t so doggoned expensive, 79 pounds for Possum Swamp, which equates to 117 cotton-pickin’ dollars, I’d be tempted to replace Astronomy with The Sky at Night. But $9.75 an issue at the subscription rate is a dollar MORE than the newsstand price. DAGNABIT!
What’s the May/June 2010 SkyNews like? It is, today, a full-fledged astronomy magazine that looks as professional as anything on the newsstand. Many of its writers are big names in North American amateur astronomy. And yet…and yet…it’s undeniably a click down from the Big Four we’ve examined thus far. It’s bimonthly, not monthly, and it is pretty thin, pretty doggoned thin, even given today’s reduced page counts, 46 frackin’ pages. How well does SN capitalize on what little it’s got?
The cover is busy, if not quite as cluttered as its UK counterparts. A picture of IC410 forms the background, and the nebula is indeed peeping out in the bottom quarter of the cover, but just barely. In addition to a banner trumpeting the magazine’s 15th anniversary, there’s plenty of text and a couple of thumbnail pix. Oh, well. I know publishers are convinced this is the way to grab a buyer’s attention, but I wonder if they ever consider that too much is sometimes just too much? The price? $4.95, very reasonable.
Past a couple of pages of advertising, there’s the TOC. Nothing to scold or praise here. Gets ‘er done. Another flip brings up “Editor’s Report,” Terrence Dickinson’s page. Par for the course, this isn’t an editorial; it’s a recap of the magazine’s history. But it’s interesting and to be expected on the special occasion of the rag’s 15th anniversary issue
SkyNews is not immune to the odd desire all the magazines have to print news in each and every issue, even though each astronomy magazine has a website better-suited to that purpose. At least SN limits the silliness to one page. I wonder, though, if they had more pages, would they expand the news section? Prob’ly.
OK, first feature. Ray Villard, the well-known news director of the Space Telescope Science Institute, ponders the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence in “Will We Inherit the Galaxy?” A page or so of text (once you subtract the illo) ain’t much room for deep thoughts, and there ain’t too much to ruminate on here unless S.E.T.I. is new to you.
The inspiring story of Tim Doucette’s struggle to see the deep sky despite a lifetime of vision problems is short, two pages, but maybe worth the price of admission if you find your enthusiasm at a low ebb.
Terence Dickinson is up to bat next with “Binoculars.” It’s, as you might expect, a beginner’s guide to binoculars for astronomy. If you’ve been around a while, there’s nothing here for you; if you are a novice you will read enthusiastically and learn a lot.
Seems like we just opened the rag, and we’re already to the middle and the star chart and associated material. Since SkyNews originated as, well, sky news, you’d expect the centerfold sky events section to be prominent—and it is. The star dome/chart is a little simpler and less deep than what you find in the other magazines, but maybe that is a good thing. It’s very legible under a red light, and shows everything you generally want when you’re going naked eye.
The balance of the section is filled by Alan Dyer’s “Exploring the Night Sky.” Not only is Alan an excellent writer, the design of this feature, some text, but mostly short blurbs for each event paired with clear graphics (many done with Canada’s own Starry Night computer program), is wonderful. One of the best things in the magazine and the main reason to buy it month by month.
I’m sure you know Gary Seronik. He’s a Sky and Telescope staffer, does a couple of columns for that magazine each month, and is one of the most knowledgeable and talented amateurs/writers around. You’ll be pleased to know he’s an SN regular with “On the Moon.” His entry this month, about observing the Moon with naked eye and small binoculars, is, I reckon, aimed at novices, but I enjoyed the hell out of it.
OMIGOD, the gallery already? Uh-huh. With less than fifty pages, things go quickly. The not too creatively named “Gallery,” is, not surprisingly, a collection of reader-contributed astrophotos. This month, SkyNews presents a nice mix of subjects and techniques from the advanced to the elementary.
Yep, just about outa SkyNews for two months, but we still have Glen Ledrew’s “The Reddest Stars of Spring,” wherein the author does a fine job—or as fine as you can do in one page—of introducing carbon stars to beginning observers. And there's also the monthly equipment review. This time by the man hisself, Mr. Dickinson, with a look at Explore Scientific’s 5-inch ED refractor. There’s good and bad there.
The bad is that because of the magazine’s staunch focus on novices the author spends a whole lot of his two pages explaining the ropes of refractors. The actual review of the ES 5-inch is little more than a single page in length. The good is that he turns in a respectable review of the scope nevertheless. Terrence won me over from the start with his reminiscences about the salivated-over giant Unitron refractors of his (and my) youth. Moreover, given his experience level, if Dickinson says a scope is good, it’s good, whether he takes one page or ten to say it.
You’ll likely be delighted to find that other famous Canadian amateur, David Levy, is a regular in the pages of SN with his “Nightfall” column. It’s short, but it’s excellent, even at half a page. This time, David spills his guts with regards to his SCT abuse.
Like I done tole y’all, almost every astro-mag today has some kind of “parting shot” feature…a single page at the end, an editorial-cum-human-interest thingie. SkyNews has “Northern Lights,” which, this month, is Ken Hewitt-White’s ponderings on extraterrestrials and the weighty question of whether they ever run up to the dadgummed cosmic 7-11 for a sixpack of brew and a carton o’ milk.
So? SkyNews is, yeah, short. But it does quite a lot with what it’s got. If I had a single criticism? Well, if I had a couple of criticisms? I’d like to see the magazine develop a better balance between novice and advanced material. There is usually fairly little beyond the sky events pages and equipment reviews to appeal to amateurs who are past even their freshman year. The technical level here is noticeably lower than Astronomy Magazine’s. Secondly? I think, given the low page count, it might be good to do some things differently. Just because the big boys have a news page, an editorial, and a letters column every time, don’t mean you have to. If something needs more space, MAKE SPACE FOR IT.
Still, I like this little rag. Always have. I don’t buy every issue, but I buy plenty of ‘em and am usually happy with it. As a matter of fact, the article SkyNews did some time back on choosing a DSLR for astronomical imaging (by Terrence Dickinson, I recall) is still the best thing I have seen anywhere on that subject.
Next Time: I don’t hold out much hope of getting back to the Herschel Project for a while. There’s a big Moon in the sky this weekend. And we seem to be into our usual summer pattern of evening clouds and thunderstorms. Not to mention the fact that Tropical Storm Alex is knocking on the door of the Gulf (all we need). Do not despair, muchachos; I’ve got plenty of the fun and the crazy in the typical Unk Rod fashion to tide you over till we can get back under the stars.
Good article Rod,Post a Comment
You may be saddened to learn that the latest issue of Sky & News has shrunk again since your writting. Only 38 pages now.
5 or 6 more issues, and it will be nothing but a front and back cover!
I wonder if I can get my subscription money back.
You may be saddened to learn that the latest issue of Sky & News has shrunk again since your writting. Only 38 pages now.
5 or 6 more issues, and it will be nothing but a front and back cover!
I wonder if I can get my subscription money back.