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Norman Sperling
2625 Alcatraz Avenue #235
Berkeley, CA 94705-2702

cellphone 650 - 200 - 9211
eMail normsperling [at] gmail.com

Norman Sperling's blog

Water Birds

© Norman Sperling, January 23, 2011

My bike rides got boring. The same trees, the same curves, the same streams and beaches. Even scenic trails aren't so scenic after many years.

Lately I've paid more attention to a big variable: water and shore birds. My brother Barry, a long-time birder, commented that they're very attractive because they're big, and out in the open. I might point out the avocets and black-necked stilts to a passing kid: "Those are shore birds." "Yep", she'd reply, "they shore are".

Songbirds, by contrast, are small, flit by too fast to identify, and hide in bushes. You may merely hear them. Barry's quite an expert at identifying them by their songs but, for now, I'd rather actually see the birds.

The ever-changing array of water birds brings unpredictable variety to my rides.

Astroscan Memories

© Norman Sperling, January 15, 2011

A recommendation by Sky & Telescope magazine last month, following a [.pdf] review last July, rekindled an old glow. The Astroscan telescope - my first big project - was once again named one of the 3 best inexpensive telescopes ... 34 years after it was introduced!

I remember its development clearly.

It was meant to be a superior first telescope, and it is. It has also proven to be a superior second telescope: folks keep it after they graduate to something bigger, and use it for a quick session, and as a convenient portable. Because people keep their Astroscans, remarkably few are offered on the used market.

Robert Edmund was taking over Edmund Scientific Company leadership from his father Norman. Norm has enjoyed retirement in Florida ever since. Robert had studied business management and knew how to run a going concern in changing markets. His telescope line was not doing well. Telescope leadership belonged to Criterion, Unitron, Questar, and Celestron, and Edmund Scientific wanted to earn its way to the top tier. The Astroscan was his opening salvo.

Robert Edmund hired me as a consultant in 1975, when I was 28. I was planetarium director at a private school, an hour's drive north of Edmund's. I was young and unknown and had even rougher edges than now. My ideas were unconventional, and entirely untested in the market. I contributed to a lot of Edmund's smaller astronomy projects, too.

I had observed observers observing in amateur, public, and school settings, and discovered that some of the wisdom of my elders wasn't wisdom. Telescope setup took frustratingly long, mountings were clumsy and shaky with narrow pivot points and long overhangs, eyepieces were tough to squint through, and views were underwhelmingly faint and dull. To improve on those, I preferred quick setup with minimal moving parts, stubby bodies, wide fields of view with wide exit pupils and bright contrast, lightweight and cheap. Those all shouted "Rich-Field".

Dr. Harvey Davis of the Lansing Astronomical Society introduced me to the principles of rich-field telescopes in the late 1960s. He was a friendly young math prof at Michigan State, where I was an undergrad. In the early '70s my friend - everybody's friend - Roger Tuthill made an RFT with an optical window (the success of which spurred us to do the same with the Astroscan). Roger's scope had a conventional cylindrical tube with a simple handle, so the only characteristics in which it was a predecessor of the Astroscan were the window and being an RFT. It didn't sell well at all.

No one in all history had ever gotten Americans to buy a LOW-power telescope, and we knew this was a huge hurdle. I assured Edmund that the telescope would please its users, but I explicitly never promised that anyone would buy it, and I wondered whether the expensive project would ever turn a profit. When Marketing VP Jack Sharff claimed that people would buy it, I thought that was bravado more than business sense. Sharff assured me that making it "popular" was his task, not mine. A good thing, because I understood almost nothing about marketing back then.

I wanted to make the eyepiece's exit-pupil an enormous 6 mm, because that's about the widest a dark-adapted human eye can take in. So, figuring from that, I championed a 4 1/4" f/4 (which the company nudged to f/4.2 for manufacturing convenience). Astroscan's richfield view - 3 degrees wide - means that finding things is easy, and keeping them in view is easy. It also means that hundreds of deep-sky objects are unusually contrasty, making them more obvious to beginners. The tradeoffs are minor: no astrophotography (which we wouldn't wish on novices anyway), planets look too tiny, and only a few double stars would look good. But any novice scope would only show pleasing detail on Jupiter and Saturn, the other planets being too small, featureless, and/or faint. So we swapped decent views of 2 objects (Jupiter and Saturn) to get superior views of hundreds of deep-sky objects.

I expounded on telescope design, exit pupils, and surface brightness in "Of Pupils and Brightness", Griffith Observer, January 1985.

At least as important as the optics, I wrote Astroscan's behavioral specifications. I remember blathering on and on for maybe 2/3 of a page singlespaced that I could have shortened enormously had I known the term "user-friendly". I didn't have the term, but I did have the concept. In beginner telescopes, it meant minimizing adjustments to fiddle with, and shortening the setup time (competitors, then and now, often take 15-20 minutes). Our setup time target was 3 minutes. We got it down to 10 seconds, and NO user's attention-span is too short for that.

While I did the optical and behavioral design, a brilliant young optical engineer, Mike Simmons, created the mechanical design that satisfied our needs. Simmons figured out that pushing the tube into the mounting made sense, and Simmons figured out that the ball-in-socket would work best. He was right. He advocated a very large sphere, with just the focuser-end of the tube sticking out. However, manufacturability, aesthetic appearance, and the awkwardness of a large-diameter sphere pointed the company to a smaller sphere, with more of the cylinder sticking out. This, however, is top-heavy, so to balance it, 2 semicircular slugs of cast iron surround the mirror. The extra weight, and the need for it, offended Simmons, and he left Edmund's soon after. I haven't seen him since the early '80s.

The shell satisfied all my specifications, including being nearly student-proof (it's meant to be checked out by students and carried home on a school bus). An industrial designer did the detail work. It's cast in 2 pieces of ABS plastic (one with the focuser insert, one without) and glued together.

In the fall of 1976, just before the first ads came out, I asked Robert Edmund what amount of sales he'd consider successful. He said 800 units by Christmas. Privately I thought that unlikely. Well, they sold 3,000 Astroscans in those first 3 months, which taught me another business lesson: there are DISeconomies of scale, as well as economies of scale. For example, the company couldn't produce the telescopes fast enough, and had to add shifts. Part of the optical design was meant to use an excellent, but slow-selling eyepiece that Edmund had a thousand of. They ran out, and had to scramble, buying every eyepiece on the world market that could possibly work - some Astroscans were shipped with Clave Plossls worth almost as much as the entire scope! Robert Edmund soon had Penn State's Dr. David Rank design the RKE eyepiece line, stimulated by the need to make a new eyepiece for the Astroscan. I'm happy that the company has sold in the neighborhood of 100,000 of them.

It was Robert Edmund who selected and hired and coordinated all the various people whose work combined to make Astroscan a success. He paid for all the work and assumed all the risk. He paid me quite well. In addition, the Edmund family and company ALWAYS treated me exceptionally well, and very often did me favors far beyond a conventional business relationship. Then and now, I regard my relationship with Edmund as one of the best I have ever had. I consulted for them for 9 years, 1975-84, but I have been a customer of theirs for 50 years, and endorse them as a fine set of people.


Nobody since then has hired me to design a telescope, and such a project is beyond my personal resources. But I still get ideas.


Parts of this post appeared on the Old Scope list in February 2002.


© Norman Sperling, January 9, 2011

Since the 1990s the spam plague has kept threatening to kill the golden goose of eMail. It's turned a whole lot of people off from using eMail. The goose is not golden any more. Maybe not as debased as brass ... maybe silver.

If eMail is a killer-app, spam is a killer-app-killer. It has spawned a whole industry to fight it. I'm dissatisfied with my operating system because it has so many vulnerabilities
- which force me to buy security software
- which commandeers my computer every morning for its sweep and purge
- which blocks me from using my own machine.

And it's horrendously uneconomic! Spammers may earn less from spam than they force everyone else to spend to counter it.

Suddenly, Symantec says, the volume of spam eMail has plummeted – to less than 1/4 of its August 2010 volume. 3 major botnets they track shut down in late December. Symantec says they don't know where the spammers went.

I think they went into spamming blog comments.

The Media, They Are A'Changin'

© Norman Sperling, January 2, 2011

This New Year marks yet another time to adapt JIR's standard permission letter to new media. Successive iterations of "permission" letters have dealt with copyrights, and in what situations the publication can and cannot publish a writer's article. (or photographer or artist or whoever; or picture or puzzle or whatever). We have bulging files of "signed permissions", punningly nicknamed "singed persimmons".

But media keep inventing fabulous new ways to do things that old singed persimmons never anticipated.

JIR has permission to run articles submitted to it (why else submit an article?), and now grants subscribing teachers the right to copy an article per semester for their students. Previous publishers obtained authors' permissions to republish articles in anthologies. Since the 1990s, JIR has posted selected favorites on its website.

But now I want to adapt certain articles to perform in a one-man show (formerly called a "lecture"). And/or podcasts and other audio formats. And/or stage performances (one-act plays? college comedies?) And/or videorecord those (YouTube? DVD? iPod? classical or RPG-type animation?).

Of course, dramatists have turned stories into scripts for millennia. Some adaptations are easy: the classic Turboencabulator (v9 p20) distributes almost perfectly into a multi-part dialog. Other articles require so much re-working that the performance would be more "adapted from" or merely "inspired by" the original. I tried adapting Jeff Jargon's hilarious "Nature Versus Nurture: One Man's Diabolical Experiment on His Own Children" (v50 #1 p12) but never thought up a way to turn his brilliant data table into something that actors would do.

So, with the new year, I'm changing JIR's permission letter - again - to accommodate these new possibilities. Tell me what I'm still leaving out with this latest phrasing:
Please grant or decline your permission for JIR to non-exclusively republish, adapt, produce, and/or perform the Work in:
* JIR compendia or anthologies or websites: Granted -or- Declined
* audio formats including radio and podcasts: Granted -or- Declined
* video formats including television, movies, animations, and on-line: Granted -or- Declined
* dramatizations and live performances including stage plays: Granted -or- Declined

I'm also starting to ask addresses of people most likely to be able to find authors in the distant future (like a university, a professional society, or a stable young relative) because we've lost track of old contributors, and don't even know which ones are still alive.

Authors each have their own situations and motives, so each may react differently toward granting, or declining, various permissions. In the past, scientists with secure employment often granted blanket permission, probably because they gain more from spreading their ideas than from selling articles. Old people, too, often permitted everything, perhaps not expecting to earn enough soon for reselling to be worth it. Writers, on the other hand, often granted rights to publish in just one issue, and retained all else, hoping to resell the work again later. Or maybe the writers just knew where to resell content, and scientists didn't.


Dale: thanks for the blanket!
Technorati: 4DUNHAPZS5ZY, thank you.
SFO: my, that was short!

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