Saturday, July 22, 2006

 

Email and the Astro Biz

I recently had a somewhat troubling—but illuminating—experience with one of the best known vendors in the U.S. astronomy business. I'm not gonna name names because, for one thing, the folks in question quickly put things right, and, for another, they aren't the only ones in the business screwing up in this area.

Screwing up? In what area? Failing to respond to customer emails. Like many of you, I presume, I've gotten used to doing business via email rather than via telephone. For me, it's much easier to fire off an email than it is to find a spot at work with good cellphone coverage, look up a number, wait while I'm (inevitably) put on hold, etc., etc. Most of the time, email works just fine. But not all the time, not hardly. Unfortunately, many of the folks doing astronomy business haven't gotten the word that there are people like me who depend on email.

The incident that prompted me to think about this astronomy email "problem" was a simple one: I received an incorrect shipment from a well-respected seller. I went to their website (from which I'd ordered the misbegotten item in the first place), and clicked on their "email contact" button. A couple of days went by. Nothing. I launched a couple of more emails. Nothing. I finally broadcast an appeal via my mailing lists and (coincidentally, perhaps) finally received a reply. My problem was taken care of in short order, but why had it taken three days for that to happen?

As above, this wasn't the first time this has happened to me, either. The reason for this lack of attention to email enquiries, I assume, is because even the big names in the amateur astronomy world are pretty small potatos, really. I guess answering email gets shoved pretty far down the list of priorities when things are busy. This is not the case with all vendors. There are several, including a well-known Washington state outfit, who'll jump on your emails like a duck on a Junebug. But that's still not common practice with astro-sellers.

Bottom line? Vendors, if you are going to post an email address as a contact for you, it's incumbent on you to check your email AT LEAST once a day, and answer all the enquiries. If you can't do that, for whatever reason, don't list an email address as a contact for your business. It is not up to your customers to decide which contact method, email or telephone, is the "right way" to get ahold of you.

These are not glorious times for astro merchants...the last thing any of you need is to lose customers, right? Nuff said.

Friday, July 07, 2006

 

She's Dead, Jim?

Problems in RCX land? Much as I wanted this scope to be a big success from the get-go, a survey of postings on the RCX400 Yahoo group makes it look like Meade has some work to do. Yes, I know that reading Yahoogroups gives you a jaundiced idea of the “condition” of a particular scope. Most people only post problems. It has been my experience, however, that when there’s this much smoke there’s fire. I think the RCX has the makings of a classic, a telescope in the greatly-to-be-desired mold for us CAT fanciers. If Meade takes action to reverse a seeming slow downward spiral for their flagship instrument. I just hope it’s not too late already.

I figured the bargain was this: Meade would offer us these clearly ground-breaking SCTs (an improved and optimized SCT optical set, zero-shift focusing via a motor driven secondary, USB connectivity, a built in corrector heater, and more) for a more “realistic” price than they’ve been able to charge for their “standard” SCTs over the last decade or so. Essentially, the RCXes would cost about twice what we’ve been accustomed to paying for Meade’s (and Celestron's) feature-heavy CATs.

One thing this would do, I thought, would be allow the blue boys to discontinue their all too frequent practice of having early-adopters “beta test” new scopes. Even more importantly, it would allow Meade to spend more time QAing the scopes that come off the factory floor. If you ordered an RCX, you would be pretty damned sure it would work out of the box.

Alas, the RCX does not seem to be working out this way. I hear all too many stories about problems. Problems with the motorized focusing/collimation system, especially. Everything from motors “running away” to “just didn’t work the first time.” That’s not all, either. There appear to be software problems and drive problems too. Yes, the optics are good, “impressive” in my book. What good is that if you can’t focus or collimate ‘em reliably, though? It’s not just big things, either. For the price of an LX200GPS, people are willing to put up with small annoyances and shortcomings. For the price of an RCX? The jury’s out on that one.

I do know this: many more pissed off RCX owners (the customer base for these scopes ain’t huge to begin with), and Meade can pack it in. If the RCX comes to be perceived as a “problem scope” that comes with no more assurance of quality than a garden variety LX200 GPS, I’d guess sales will dry up. I mean, who’s going to pay nearly twice as much for the same old, “it can take pictures pretty well if you buy an SBIG AO-7 to go with it” and “the declination clutch wouldn’t hold/stripped out, so I had to buy an EZ Clutch kit from Petersen to fix it”?

Is the RCX doomed, then? Will this brave experiment by Big Blue fail? It doesn’t have to. I was actually quite impressed by the RCX in my initial encounter with the scope (a 10-inch). The optics were very nice indeed, it worked as advertised, and I had a great time scanning sucker holes with it on my recent trip to Pennsylvania. That said, there were a couple of things I found unsettling. Most of all, the motors. As I’ve mentioned on more than one occasion, Meade’s motors don’t inspire confidence. It’s not just that they sound like weasels with tuberculosis. It’s that it’s not uncommon for anybody’s Autostar on everything from the ETX to the LX200 to display “motor unit fault.” I had assumed the RCX would be WAY above all that. But…while the focusing and slewing motors on the RCX I tried worked well, they sounded a lot like the motors on my ETX-125PE: stressed-out.

The way the motors sound is not a big deal if they work. But it’s a perception. I saw that in my initial encounter with the telescope (at a star party). People would walk up to the scope on the field and form an impression of it based on the way it sounded. I’m afraid the impression they formed as it moved itself across the sky was: “just like an ETX.” No, that wasn’t fair, but that’s what was happening.

If it had just been motor sounds, I wouldn’t have been quite as concerned, but that wasn’t all that troubled me. While the (carbon fiber) OTA looked great, the fork and drivebase displayed a little less in the way of fit and finish than I’d have expected at this price point. It wasn’t so much that the fork arms and base castings look pretty much like those on the LX200GPS, it was that they just don’t seem to be fitted together as well as they could be or finished as smoothly as I’d like ‘em to be. Yes, this is largely a matter of appearances only (not completely; some RCXes have apparently been mechanically unsound), but, again, buying a scope is like buying a car. A lot of the purchase decision is based on emotions and perceptions and has nothing to do with a telescope’s utility or capability.

What’s gonna happen to the RCX, then? I think it’s stumbled to the canvas and the count is approaching “five.” There’s still time for it to get up and score a knockout, though. This is a groundbreaking telescope—I really believe that—and it deserves success. Meade deserves success for taking a chance with it. None of the RCX problems need be fatal “if.” If Meade can ensure the telescopes work well and reliably out of the box. If, on the other hand, large numbers of RCXes start/continue flowing back to California not long after they’ve been delivered, look out Meade, look out….

Sunday, July 02, 2006

 

Uncle Rod at Pennsylvania's Dark Sky Park


After finally arriving at the Cherry Springs Star Party late on a wet and foggy northern Pennsylvania afternoon, your old Uncle Rod spent an hour trotting around the observing field, meeting CSSP organizers from ASH (The Astronomical Society of Harrisburg), and getting the lay of the land. In truth, though, there ain’t much fun to be had in surveying a field full of Desert Storm covered telescopes. How about that nice, big dealers’ tent? It being almost 7pm, all those boys and girls had decamped. Shoot! But I had to admit I was a mite tired after 12 hours of flying and driving.

I hate to waste star party time sleeping at a motel, but there was really nothing for it. I got driving directions to the little town of Coudersport, Pennsylvania and the Mill Stream Inn where I’d be staying and headed on out. It was getting dark by now, and I was very mindful of the warning I’d been given to “watch out for the deer.” Bubba (my countrified friend, you know, bib overalls, shaved head, no shoes, 300 pound physique) would have had a fine and illegal time…I must have counted at least eight does on my way down into Coudersport, about 10 miles.

The Mill Stream Inn turned out to be a clean and spacious hostelry with some features I don’t normally associate with country motels: wi-fi Internet, a good selection of satellite TV channels, and a decent continental breakfast. I don’t mind telling you that I was beat. Figgered I’d have a beer and turn in. Gas station? No beer. Convenience store? No beer. One of the locals told me I’d have to head over to the town bar, “The Beef and Ale,” where they’d be happy to sell me a sixer. ‘Deed they were. A couple of the local brews and it was night-night time.

Next morning (Saturday, 24 June), after filling up on motel donuts, I headed back to the site. Wow, lots of scopes here, and lots of familiar names from my Internet user groups. After visiting with some very nice folks (I take back all those bad things I’ve said about Yankees over the years), I headed to the dealers’ tent.

In spite of the generally poor weather (I was told there’d been one half-way OK night so far), the tent was just about full. In addition to TeleVue, Camera Concepts, Knight Owl, and others, I found my buddy Bob Black had a nice spread set up. His new company is called “Skies Unlimited,” and I predict big things for it. Before long, the Denkmeier gang showed up with a passel of their wonderful gear, and I was very pleased to be able to meet the “Denks” in person, finally. Did I buy anything from any of these excellent vendors? What do you think?

I spent the balance of a wonderful day touring the field, talking with amateurs. As ol’ Sol finally began his descent, I realized it was near-about time for my presentation, “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Video Astronomy, But Were Afraid to Ask.” I hope the nice people of CSSP didn’t find the down home humor that’s an integral part of any talk I give too “rustic.” Whether they did or not, I subjected ‘em to a whole lot more of it after the presentaton as well, since I was the designated “prize ticket puller” for the raffle (lots and lots of cool prizes, you betcha). Whether they found my Southern Manners tiresome or not, my audience was incredibly nice to this ol’ boy, that’s for sure.

What’s a star party really about, though? Observing. Almost magically, despite the dreadful weather that was being experienced all over the northeast at the time, the heavens opened up for us for a little while on Saturday evening. While there was still some haze, the sky was very dark and the summer Milky Way was dramatic.

I found myself in the odd and unenviable position of being at a major star party without a scope. Luckily, this did not last. The Meade rep allowed that seeing as how I probably knew more about running a 10-inch RCX (or any scope) than he did, I should take the controls of Meade’s new top of the line CAT. I didn’t protest too much. I spent a couple of hours sending this fancy new SCT (you read that right) from one deep sky wonder to another. I was impressed both by its features and its sharp images, and will be writing a more in-depth article on the scope (and the CSSP) for a future issue of my Skywatch newsletter.

All too soon, though, it was midnight. That was “pumpkin-time” for me. There was that punishing trip back down south the following morning. I know it’s a wee bit corny to say so (I’m a cornball at heart), but I left Cherry Springs with a heavy heart. I hope to return some day soon, and want to thank the fine folk of the ASH and the Cherry Springs Star Party for the wonderful reception and the wonderful time I had.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

 

You Still Wanna Know About UWANs?

Uncle Rod's review of the new William Optics UWAN 28, 16, and 7mm eyepieces, "The Night Everything Changed," can be read here.

 

Cherry Springs...WOW!

I've been to star parties in most parts of this country since it became a popular thing to do, starting with Riverside back in the 70s. But, you know what? I had never, ever been to one north of the Mason Dixon Line. Texas, yes (hell yes), California, sure but no Yankeeland venues.

That being the case, when I was invited to speak at the Cherry Springs Star Party way up yonder in Pennsylvania, near the little town of Coudersport, PA, I just could not resist. Well, that wasn't the only reason. This location, Cherry Springs State Park, just over the New York line, is justly famous for the Black Forest Star Party, a long-time fixture of observing life way up north.

The only bad part of Cherry Springs? Getting there. The powers that be just don't expect someone to want to fly from Mobile, Alabama to Elmira, New York (the cloesest airport to the star party). Your poor, old Uncle had to embark on a journey that involved three separate airplanes with stops in Philadelphia and Charlotte, NC. Not only were the U.S. Airways (aka, "Aeroflot") flights...err..."unpleasant," they were late, with me not getting into Elmira till 5pm. Evening coming on in a few hours, it was raining, and fog was rolling in. So, I was a little paranoid about negotiating the 80 miles between Elmira and Cherry Springs, completely unknown territory for me, in these conditions.

I needn't have worried. In this age of online driving instructions, it was simple to find the star party location without a single wrong turn. The only problem Your Old Uncle had was READING the printout of directions with his middle-aged eyes. I rolled into the park at just after 6:30pm (no, I don't often drive the speed limit).

Folks, this is a wonderful site, which features very dark skies (hell, there ain't nothing around), and superb cooperation by the State of Pennsylvania (when was the last time you visited a state park and saw a sign directing you to the "astronomy field"?). The State is also in the process of building domes for bigdobs, wiring the (large) field for electricity, and pouring concrete for observing pads. Upon my arrival, I was able to meet a few of the nice Cherry Springs folks (from the Astronomical Society of Harrisburg) on this evening (Friday, 23 June), but between the rain, chilling (in June!) fog, and me being tired, a little voice inside told Uncle Rod to head his Saturn Ion rent-a-car for the motel in Coudersport. More on that and the star party itself next time...

 

End of an Era Part 2

Well, so much for AOL. Most of y'all probably associate me with my long-held AOL address and, in fact, I've been with AOL since 1995, shortly after I discovered that Fidonet Astronomy was going bellyup and that there was this new thing on that new-fangled Internet thing called "sci.astro.amateur."

Anyhoo, amongst many other things that finally caused me to overcome my intertia and leave AOHell, was their recent decision to insert animated java ads into emails. I mean, I don't mind that with Hotmail...it's free. But with AOL, I had to look at these silly ads AND pay a premium price for the privilege of doing so. Frankly, IMHO, it shows a distinct lack of concern for the customer. No thanks. I've had enough.

So, don't use my .aol addy anymore...stick with rmollise@hotmail.com

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