Sunday, July 25, 2010


Digital Issues

Thought we were done with the pea-picking astronomy magazines dincha? Not quite, not exactly. If you’ve read the latest installments of “The Trouble with the Magazines,” you know one of the things I get on my high horse about is the need for our astro-rags to move into the 21st Century. To begin to move away from the “printed magazine sold on the newsstand and through the mail” paradigm. Last year, I didn’t see much in the way of movement in that direction, at least not with the American monthlies. This year? Things are beginning to be different.

How so? It’s big news that Sky & Telescope is releasing DVDs containing their entire print run. That’s something many of us have wished and hoped for for years. That’s not the big digital news from S&T in this ol’ boy’s opinion. The big news, which has, strangely, not received much publicity and has not been talked about much by my brother and sister amateurs, is that you can now subscribe to a digital, online edition of Sky and ‘Scope.

Yeah, that’s big news, but Sky & Telescope is not the only magazine sticking a toe in the digital waters. The UK’s Sky at Night Magazine has been doing that for over five years, with each issue of their magazine being supplemented by a CD which has come to be an—if not indispensable—at least important part of the publication.

How about the other rags? They all have websites, and Astronomy Magazine has been selling .pdf (Adobe Acrobat) files of several of their pubs online for a while. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Wisconsin gang offer a digital edition of the magazine Real Soon Now. But they ain’t yet.

Yeah, everybody, from SkyNews to Astronomy Technology Today has a website. Some good, some bad, some icky. That’s not enough to qualify them as digital pioneers for me, though. That takes a wee bit more. What does qualify ‘em is digital magazine editions, even simple ones. The Strolling Astronomer (the ALPO journal), and Astronomy Technology Today offer.pdf versions of their publications, and are worthy of our notice. But not this time, muchachos.

I’ll look at ATT, Strolling Astronomer, and Amateur Astronomy’s digital efforts one of these Sundays, but for now let’s concentrate on the two biggest movers/shakers, Sky & Telescope and Sky at Night.

Sky & Telescope Digital Edition

Yeah, for some reason, the good boys and girls at the little old magazine from Massachusetts seem to be keeping mum about it, but for the last six months there’s been an online edition of Sky & Telescope. I wasn’t overly surprised to get an email from them some months back advertising a subscription to the digital S&T, since they’ve been quietly experimenting with the concept for a while. Last March, they previewed the then-current issue digitally, making it available to all and sundry for free. Having had a look at that and havin’ been impressed by it, I didn’t hesitate to send Sky ‘n Scope some dineros, especially since they demanded so few. A six month online subscription is $14.50, and I got a substantial break off’n that through the email offer they sent me.

Afore long, I was lookin’ at my first electronic copy, April 2010. What did I think? I wasn’t overly surprised at the format, since my first paid issue was done the same way as the one they gave away for free in March. First off, this is not just an Adobe Acrobat file. It’s not an Acrobat file at all. It’s an Adobe Air file. Ain’t never heard of Adobe Air? I hadn’t either. The long and short of it is that it’s "A program for development of standalone web applications that run outside the functionality of your browser." What that means for the computer ignernt like your ol’ Unk, is that when you open an online issue of Sky & Telescope, it opens in a custom reader put together with Adobe Air. What’s that like?

It’s purty fancy as you can see in the screen-shot above. Not only does it yield a clear display of the pages, at least as good as what you’ll get from an Acrobat file, it offers a startlingly cute effect when you turn a page. Grab the upper or lower corner of a virtual page with your mouse, and the page actually turns to the accompaniment of a sound effect. I reckon I’m easily impressed, but I thought that was neat.

How well does this thing work for actual reading? As above, the text and images look very good, perhaps slightly better than the average Acrobat document does when zoomed in tight. In addition to a pre-set zoomed-in view, there is a “close-up,” mode, a magnifying glass tool that, when passed over the page, shows an adjustable-magnification image that can be set for up to 200% zoom via a slider.

Not that I normally had to use 200% magnification to read the words or even to examine images. I found the reader’s zoomed-in single-page mode more than comfortable to read, and never had to resort to the close-up tool. The application ran well on any computer I tried it on, including an iPod Touch. Howsomever…turning the page, whether by grabbing a corner or just mashing a page-turn icon, was not always instantaneous. Occasionally I got a little clock icon and a short wait.

What else will the reader do? The normal things, not that different from Acrobat. You can, using tabs at the bottom, access subscription info, skip to a particular page, bring up a clickable table of contents, and show (some) other issues in the “archive.” There are also two toolbars, a horizontal one at the top and a vertical one beside the page display. The top one allows you to shift between one and two-page viewing mode, save the file to your local hard drive, switch to full screen mode, access help, and search the document. The vertical bar lets you add bookmarks, send a page via email (doesn’t work for me), print, add notes, and “share” pages on Twitter, Facebook, and similar social media. That seems to work well, though I assume the recipients of your tweets will have to be subscribers to look at the S&T pages you tweet about. Other than this Twitter/Facebook functionality, the reader is familiar territory for Acrobat users, including the need to drag the zoomed page around with your mouse to read it on a normal, horizontal-format computer monitor.

The reader worked right well, but one thing disturbed me. What if the online issues go away? If the digital edition goes belly-up? I was only offered a 6-month subscription, not a 12-month one, and I don’t see much about it on the Sky & Telescope web site, so I am not completely sure how serious the magazine is about this new paradigm. Furthermore, the online version of the magazine is being done by a separate outfit, a third party called “NxtBooks;” what if they go away? Bottom line: could I save the digital issues?

Turns out I could, though the process was a little awkward. The normal way to keep a copy is to use the reader’s “save to the desktop,” function, which involves putting quite a few files on your hard drive, not just documents as with Acrobat. The plus with this save method is that you retain the functionality of the NxtBook reader. Frankly, though, for portability and ease of use, I prefer a plain old .pdf. I was happy to see the NxtBook interface does sport a “save to .pdf” function, but until recently that would not work for me. Then, just the other day, outa the blue, it became functional, and that’s how I’ve been saving my issues. You don’t get groovy animated effects and sounds, but you do get a simple format you can read on any computer.

Anyhoo, reader aside, how are the issues? They are just like the print numbers save for a few enhancements. Sure, you can search and zoom, but other than that, computer-type functionality is limited to embedded URLs and links to pages in the magazine. You can click on referenced websites or on manufacturer web pages and go straight there. You can also click on links on the cover and in the table of contents to go directly to the referenced articles. Other than that, just like the non-virtual Sky ‘n Scope.

So what good is it? There are several things I like about the Digital Edition, especially given its modest cost. It gets here at least a week before the print copy, so I get to gloat to my buddies, “Oh, you got THE MAGAZINE today? Yeah, good issue, I READ IT A WEEK BACK.” Also nice is being able to print pages I want to take into the field. It keeps me from sayin’ bad words as I try to page to “Deep Sky Wonders” by red flashlight in the middle of the night. I like being able to search, too.

It’s not all gravy, of course. I won’t give up the print Sky & Telescope. For me, Luddite that I am, it’s much more relaxing to set in my easy chair, glass o’ Rebel Yell in hand, and browse than to sit behind a dagnabbed computer. That feel’s too much like W-O-R-K. Also, I gotta say…the print version is much more useable than the digital one during your Ol’ Unk’s…ah… “mornin’ ablutions.” Anyhow,  I’ve viewed the Digital issues without a problem on my iPod Touch, and I speck the magazine will be nothing short of spectacular on the iPad.

My main gripe is that they need to go further into the digital universe with this than they have. Why shouldn’t there be embedded video and audio? Instead of the cotton-pickin’ news section, why not a vodcast? Yeah, I know, a lotta that takes time and money. But there are things that could be done cheaply. Like more links in the text, not just to websites, but notes on a particular subject, and maybe extra content. Gary Seronik’s got a hot ATM project this month? We should be able to click somewhere and bring up a set of plans. You get the idea, I reckon: I’d like to see something a wee bit more “computery” than just a print magazine that’s been digitized.

There appear to be a few bugs in the NxtBook system, too. I realized I had forgotton to save the first issue of my subscription, April 2010, and decided I'd better bring it up and do that. Alas, I found I could no longer access it: "NOT AUTHORIZED," the web page said. I emailed the NxtBook support folks, and they responded quickly with a link they thought would help. Unfortunately, that brought me the August issue, not the April one. Ah, well.

There is one other minor annoyance. Figuring out when the new issue is available seems harder than it ort-ta-be. The only way I know when the new one is in the “mailbox” is that I set up an RSS feed. That works, but I have to remember to check the RSS folder (“Newtrack/Skytelescope”) in Outlook when it gets near Sky and ‘Scope time, which I usually forget to do. What’s RSS? Don’ ask me. All I know is that you can click “subscribe to RSS feed,” in the “subscribe” tab at the bottom of the reader screen, and you’ll get a notification in Outlook (or, I assume, your email reader program of choice) when each new issue becomes available. Click on a hyperlink in that notice, and you’ll be taken right to the magazine. You can also find out when a new one is ready by clicking the “subscription” tab in any previous issue. But you have to remember to do that.

I am, believe it or not, y’all, occasionally happy to be proven wrong. Just as I finished-up this article, I received a plain, old email announcing my new digital issue was ready for the reading. Now, it was about two weeks after the fact, but it’s still a move in the right direction.

In addition to timely emails announcing new issues, it would be nice if there were a page on the Sky & Telescope website devoted to the digital edition. Where you could go to find out about your subscription status and the delivery date of the next issue. As far as I know, there is not. There is a small ad for the digital magazine on S&T’s Facebook page, and that is it.

Despite my grumpiness ‘bout a couple of things, I’m happy with the Sky & Telescope Digital Edition. It’s a couple of clicks past what the other astro-rags are doing with their electronic issues. Skypub—I mean “Newtrack Media”—honchos: please keep this going in some form. I love the digital issues; don’t snatch ‘em away now that I’ve got used to havin’ ‘em.

Sky at Night Magazine Cover CD

No, there ain’t an electronic version of Sky at Night, but they do have what’s maybe half a digital magazine in the form of the CD that’s glued to the cover of every issue. I was right surprised when I first encountered the magazine and its “Cover Disk,” but I shouldn’t have been. Take a look at any newsstand in the UK and you’ll see a fair proportion—if not a majority—of the rags on the rack are accompanied by CDs or DVDs. What’s surprising is that it took till freakin’ 2005 for an astronomy magazine to pick up on this idea.

Slam the disk into the ol’ optical drive and what do you get? First thing you get is a consarned nag screen instructing you to hit “OK” if you’ve read and assent to the User Agreement, yadda-yadda-yadda. What this is for or supposed to do other than annoy me, I don’t know. Oh, wait, I DO know: it’s just lawyer foolishness. Past that is the menu shown here, emblazoned with a picture of THE MAN. In addition to a listing of “highlights,” there’s a menu bar at the top. Let’s start a-clickin’ there.

“Film Room” is always my first stop, since it’s the main reason I fool with the CD to begin with. What’s it got? There’s a variety of short movies on various subjects; most of ‘em from NASA and the ESO, usually. I was particularly taken by the May 2010 issue’s “zoom in on the Magellanic cloud” short. That’s not the draw; the draw is Patrick Moore’s half-hour (occasionally one hour) The Sky at Night TV show. Click it open and you immediately get blasted with that famous theme music, Sibelius’ "At the Castle Gate," and if you enjoy Sir Patrick’s work as much as the Rodster always has, you are in heaven, muchachos, heaven.

Let’s face it; a Moore fanboy such as myself would be happy if the Cover Disk version of the TV show were shown in a postage stamp sized window with a squeaky monaural soundtrack. Just to be able to watch this wonderful program down here in Possum Swamp, where the dadgummed worthless PBS station won’t even give us Star Hustler (err… Star Gazer, I mean) anymore, is doubleplusgood.

I don’t have anything bad to say about the disk presentation of the program…except I don’t like to watch TV on my computer. Yeah, I know the youngsters out there in blog-land will think I am loco in my ma-go-go about that, but I just don’t. The disk’s TSAN episode used to be in a video format that could be read by a DVD player, and I could watch the show on the big screen. Recently, however, they’ve switched to a “Flash” movie kinda thing my DVD player don’t know nuttin’ about. Sky at Night folks: ain’t it time to move the disk to DVD and the show to MPEG format? PUH-LEEZE?

What’s next on the menu? Audio clips. Which can be anything; this time it’s a 2007 BBC Radio 4 program concerning the end of the British rocket development program back in the 70s. I ain’t much for sitting at the computer listening to radio shows, but this section has come in handy a couple of times when I’ve been speaking somewhere like the LSSP (Lower Slobovia Star Party) and was desperate for entertainment, any kind of entertainment, in the daytime.

The “Astro Images” menu button yields two collections of astrophotos, pro images and amateur pix (“Hot Shots”). It’s nice to see pretty astrophotos beautifully displayed on a computer screen, and the disk allows the magazine to publish many more amateur astrophotos than they otherwise would be able to. The Cover Disk’s image display program allows you to zoom, move the picture around, open it in your default imaging software, and save it to the hard drive if’n you want.

To the right of Astro Images is “Planetarium,” which constitutes my second favorite feature. What you got here is Sir Patrick and his TV show co-presenter, professional astronomer Chris Lintott, taking us on an tour of the month’s sky highlights via an animated onscreen planisphere. This is cool and there is really nothing else like it in the business. You can either sit back and listen to our friends point out the month’s highlights, or you can click on one of the circled areas of the planisphere to go to a specific portion of their commentary.

What do Patrick and Chris point out and talk about? Mostly what you get is basic stuff, but it’s appropriate for what you’d use a non-virtual planisphere for, and their reminders of WHAT’S UP and Patrick’s time-tested wisdom on same are useful no matter what your skill level. Only bringdown? By the time we get the magazine down here in the benighted ‘Swamp, near’bout a month late, Planetarium is a little (but not a lot) dated.

“Software” contains mostly freeware programs (occasionally demos or freebies of commercial ware). In May there were some old friends, Aberrator, AviStack, and Best Pair II. Nothing very new, but for those who ain’t got these excellent programs, this is a convenient way to get ‘em. The publishers are pretty good about keeping Macintosh users in mind, too, with some Apple-ware included on every disk.

There ain’t too much to “Tookit,” planetary observing forms is the main thing. These are useful, with well-executed planetary observing forms, as you’d expect from a magazine that bears the imprimatur of one of the top amateur planetary observers of all time. Only minor complaint? No Jupiter form did I see in May—there was Mars, Venus, and Saturn, but no Jupe. Come on, you-all, it’s time.

Also in the Toolkit section are software updates for go-to scopes. This is a good idea, but the Cover Disk folks need to do a better job of keeping up. They have an update for the Synta SynScan mounts like the EQ-6, yeah, but I note that what they’ve got here is version 3.11 when the software was updated to version 3.27 months back.

“Extras” don’t sound like anything too interesting, but this is the place where you find plans, pictures, and (sometimes) videos to accompany the magazine’s current ATM project. This time it’s a laptop shelter, which I reckon qualifies as an Amateur Telescope Making sorta project in this latter day.

“Glossary,” is, yeppers, a glossary of astronomical words/phrases to supplement the short list in the back of the magazine. The few dozen terms here range from “field stop” to “Abell galaxy cluster,” and I suspect will be of some interest to those of y’all still a mite damp behind your hearing appendages.

Tail End Charlie is “Magazine Links,” which is hot links to the magazine’s website, pod/vodcasts, Youtube videos, online Forums, and suchlike. Nothing too special, but it’s nice to have the links, which are scattered throughout the magazine, in one place and clickable.

So? The CD is good. I like it. I look forward to it, even if the only thing of interest to me some months is the TV program and Planetarium. For that alone, I reckon it’s worth the price of the magazine/disk package, $8.75. Sure, there’s always my o’erweening desire for More Better Gooder, but I think the Cover Disk does a good job of supplementing the magazine. Only P.O. factor for me (that’s "PUT OUT;" this here is a family-oriented blog, you-all) is, as above, I wish they’d change to DVD and let us have the TV show in MPEG format so I can enjoy Patrick’s adventures on the big screen while sipping my daily dose of Kool Aid.

Course there’s also the elephant in the living room: “When are y’all gonna give us a digital version of the magazine itself?” It would easily fit on a DVD with plenty of room left for what’s on the disk now. It could all be linked together and would be supercool. I am WAITING…

Spurious Book Review: Astronomy Magazine’s Atlas of the Stars (New Edition)

Those of y'all who know me, or at least read the blog regularly, probably realize that I am not a huge fan of the current incarnation of Astronomy Magazine. However, when they do good, I am happy to praise them, and they done good this time.

Some years back, four to be exact, I was surveying the newsstand at the Possum Swamp Wal-Mart when I ran across Astronomy Magazine’s Atlas of the Stars. Which was a magazine-format star atlas, as you mighta guessed. It was purty. It went down to magnitude 8.0. It was in color. And struck my fancy.

I had a lot of fun using the atlas, but four years of dew baths have taken their toll, with the pages looking a little curdled, and me having had to paste the cover back on a couple of times with Elmer’s Glue. If I weren’t so lazy, I would cut the thing up and put the pages in plastic protectors. Being lazy, I thought I’d just see if I could buy a fresh copy. Unfortunately, it’s outa print. But I heard Astronomy was fixing to come out with a new edition.

Didn’t spot the new one in Wally-World, but I stopped by the local Books-a-Million yesterday morning, and not only did they have the atlas, they were givin’ 20% off all day for discount card holders. That meant I walked out with my new star atlas for considerably less than the cover price of $12.95. Yeehaw!

What’s the story with the new one? It’s very much like the old one. It’s still a magazine, not a book, if a little larger than Astronomy Magazine at 9 x 10 ¾-inches. The cover and paper are also noticeably heavier than the monthly magazine’s. I do note the cover no longer claims the atlas “will last a lifetime” like the previous edition did. It might last a lifetime, but only if you never, ever take it outside for actual observing. Atlas of the Stars’ magazine heritage is immediately clear; you have to tear-out several frickin’-frackin’ response cards bound into it to make it fully usable.

Anything much different from last time? Yep, quite a lot. This is in no way just a reprint. There are 150 more deep sky objects included for a total of 1200, and the star count has gone up from 42,000 to 87,000 and a magnitude limit of 8.5. It’s not all new, however. The text sections between the charts that highlight the best deep sky objects on each map are exactly the same as last time.

What’s the practical effect of the “improvements?” I appreciate more DSOs. More stars? Not so much. The charts still look good and are reasonably legible under a red light, but the additional stars make ‘em even more cluttered than they already were. Yes, the 24 charts that span the sky pole-to-pole are all two-page spreads, but they are considerably less clear than those in Sky Publishing’s smaller format Pocket Sky Atlas, which, while it “only” goes down to magnitude 7.6, actually contains more deep sky objects than the Astronomy atlas. Pocket is the standard for smaller atlases in my humble opinion.

Which don’t mean the Astronomy atlas ain’t no good. Looking at the picture at left, you can tell I used the heck out of the last edition. No, neither it nor the new one would be my choice for star-hopping, but both are useable for that. Actually, I don’t star-hop much anymore anyhow. What I love this atlas for is as an accompaniment to my go-to scopes. For those evenings when I don’t want to lug a laptop into the field. One glance at the Atlas of the Stars, and I can see “what else” is interesting in the area of the object I’ve just punched into the hand control.

What else do I like? The two-page articles interposed between each chart that highlight the best DSOs. They haven’t been rewritten or changed in any way, but I don’t care. When I go on a spur of the moment deep sky tear with Charity Hope Valentine, my ETX 125, without knowing what I am gonna look at, these lists and descriptions and purty pix keep me a-rockin’ all night long.

What don’t I like about this little set of charts? Sorry to say, there are a few thorns to poke holes in unwary fingers. First off, if you’re after double stars, forget it. If you don’t know Gamma Andromedae is a double, the atlas won’t tell you. No double stars are indicated. If you’re as double star crazy as I have always been, that’s a fairly serious indictment.

What else? The atlas uses standard symbols for DSOs, which is a good thing. But…most nebulae are just little boxes. There are a few isophotes, but only for the bigger/brighter. And, unfortunately, their light-green color makes ‘em a little hard to see under a dim red light. Yes, I checked the atlas to see how it behaves under red illumination by ducking into Chaos Manor South’s laundry room, turning out the light, and examining the magazine with a red L.E.D. torch. Other than the nebulae, I didn’t notice any problems, but don’t take that to heart till I can try it under the stars in the real dark of night.

Unk's well-loved and used original.
My biggest peeve? They hide the frackin’ index on page 17! Let’s see…you want to go to the chart that best shows Hercules. Up front is an index, but it is a very silly index. Instead of just saying “Hercules,” the blurb for Chart 8, which is where Herc resides, is “A Showpiece Globular.” Now, most us could figger-out that that’s Hercules, but what if you want to know which chart cotton-pickin’ Lacerta the Lizard is on? Good luck, Charlie, unless you don’t mind thumbing over 17 pages to the constellation list, which is broken in half by a chart (!). Guys, this belonged on page one and in one piece.

Despite that irritant, I am fond of Astronomy’s Atlas of the Stars. No it ain’t a Tirion masterwork, but cartographer Richard Talcott has done a heck of a good job producing sky maps I can use and that I just like to look at.

Next time: There’s still plenty of Moon in the sky, and Tropical Storm Bonnie was just entering the Gulf as I finished this one up. So, no Herschel Project work this weekend. Next time I’ll inaugurate a new series, “Uncle Rod’s Telescope Academy.” See y’all then.

Thanks for the tip on S&T in digital edition. Though I subscribe to the print edition, I somehow missed the digital edition debut. Thanks for highlighting it. One question though, where is the option to save as PDF?
Steve B.
I discovered the PDF option comes when you try to download the Adobe Air version.
Thanks again for a great review.
Steve B.
Click the save icon, click the save button, and scroll'll find some hypertext that will allow you to save as a .pdf
Click the save icon, click the save button, and scroll'll find some hypertext that will allow you to save as a .pdf
"Sky at Night folks: ain’t it time to move the disk to DVD and the show to MPEG format? PUH-LEEZE?"

Fair comment, but would you pay more for a magazine with a DVD on it? Producing a DVD costs more than producing a CD-ROM because DVD media is still more expensive than CD media - and by a surprisingly large amount.

Sure, I can imagine some of our readers saying they would pay more. The danger for us, of course, is that we would lose readers if some were more price-sensitive.

- Graham Southorn, editor, Sky at Night Magazine
Hi Graham:

I understand you have to be careful, and that some people would be all for the idea until they had to dig deeper into their pockets. The BIG solution? JUST a DVD... ;-)
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