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A Conversation with Alois Treindl

by Tem Tarriktar

alois2012Alois Treindl (born March 7, 1950) is the founder and director of Astrodienst. He was born in Germany and came to Zürich, Switzerland in 1976 as a research assistant in physics at the Swiss Federal Institute (ETH). Alois graduated from ETH with a Ph.D. in physics in 1981. During his studies, he became interested in various areas beyond the limits of conventional science, e.g., humanistic psychology, states of altered consciousness, parapsychology, and finally astrology. Astrology was, for him, a way to bring his main fields of interest together: his fascination with computing (he has been a programmer since 1970) and his curiosity about the human psyche. A chance encounter with a second-hand astrology book got him started in the summer of 1979, and the subject has remained a passion for him ever since. Alois was surprised to find a number of astrology books at the university library, among them the main work of the leading German astrologer of the 20th century, Thomas Ring: the four volumes of Astrologische Menschenkunde. Alois began studying with Thomas Ring for the next few years, until the death of the master in 1983.
Early on, Alois wrote his first computer program to draw color charts and has offered computer services under the Astrodienst brand since January 1980. He soon shared his planetary routines (PLACALC and the Swiss ephemeris) with the community of astrological programmers, and these have become the industry's standard tools for astrological computing.
In 1983, Alois joined forces with Peter Isler, and Astrodienst was incorporated; at the time, it was a computing service for the professional astrological community.
I recorded this interview with Alois at UAC in New Orleans, in May of this year.

Tem Tarriktar: Let's talk about the Web site as it is currently and what it has to offer. I've used it enough to know about the pieces that are on there ... Right now, you have numerous articles; you have an ephemeris for many objects, some very rare. You provide a forum where the astrological community can discuss just about anything and, of course, AstroDatabank, which is a huge service to the whole field. And I'm curious about how you see the site and what it does for astrology. What parts are you most proud of, and what is your aim with the site in the current situation? That's a lot of questions, but ...

Alois Treindl: It is a lot of questions. The Web site began just because we wanted to try out the Internet, and we had resources. The first thing we put on the site was the natal chart generator. We put this on in 1996, and we expanded from there. We put on more of these services just because we could do it. We had been a mail order company ... I mean, the business had moved from selling charts to offering computer reports. The chart business has declined, but we still sell a lot of charts. We charge; if you want a chart with a report, you have to pay a little extra.

TMA: You get a free chart if you just want to look at it on the screen?

AT: Yes, and you can print it out. We decided to basically give the chart service away for free, because we already had all this software with all these techniques, which originally astrologers had asked me to calculate for them. Nobody was asking for these calculations anymore, but we had the programs, so we put it all into this online service. We had been licensed to use the transit material written by Robert Hand in our reports. We had bought the rights from the company Astral Research. We had a license from them to use this, but their company kind of went downhill, so instead of continuing to license from them, we bought the company, because they wanted to give up anyway. And suddenly we had exclusive rights to the Robert Hand material but also to the other authors in Astral Research: Robert Pelletier and a few others. We did not quite know what to do with this simple cookbook style of text. So, we decided to put it on the site as a free service. Then, we added free interpretations on a simpler level than those we had done with Liz Greene, and this of course enlarged the audience quite a bit, because now you could have free readings at Astro.com.

TMA: I imagine it enlarged the audience a lot.

AT: Yes, because basically our business serves the astrological consumer, the people. Professional astrologers do not buy computer horoscopes. So, our paid services do not really address the astrological community; we do not have much to sell to them. We address the consumer of astrology, those who have a little interest in astrology. This is our audience, and we have been quite successful with a mixture of free offerings and higher-quality products for sale which are relatively expensive, such as the reports written by Liz Greene.

TMA: It seems that what your site offers you can't get anywhere else.

AT: Yes, this has always been true. Basically, in terms of astrological readings, we only have unique things. We don't do things which you can get elsewhere. We also have licensing contracts, so other companies have licenses from us, but we never sold report-generating software to end-users. That way, we and our authors get paid for each report.
So, we have a simple interpretation for free and high-level interpretations for sale. This is our marketing concept, that we give a lot away for free. We have about 160,000 unique visitors every day. And in the long run, maybe 1 or 2% of these visitors buy something at some point, and the other 98% never buy anything; they just use our services, but it's a business model that works for us. It's a sufficient stream of revenue to keep this going.

TMA: Do you also have advertising revenue from the large amount of traffic you have on your site?

AT: We did not have any advertising until January of this year. For the last two years, we have been suffering from the problem with the currency exchange rates. The Swiss franc has been gaining a lot of value. So, from our point of view, the U.S. dollar has been losing value. The euro has also fallen in value. It's a difficult position for the Swiss export business in general.

TMA: So, you're starting to put ads on the site?

AT: Yes, since January. We work with Google ads, with very much reluctance from my end. If you are a paying customer, then you see our Web site ad-free, but if you are not a paying customer, you see some ads. I'm not very happy about it, but this revenue compensates for what's happening with the economy.

TMA: Let's turn to AstroDatabank. What motivated you to take over AstroDatabank? Was it service to the astrological community that motivated you there? It seems to me that it's a huge service.

AT: People come to our Web site to look for many things, and we try to serve the astrological consumer. We try to lead them to more sophisticated material. My own background comes from the astrological community; I started as a student of astrology, and I have been close to the community all along. I would not want to have a company which only serves the consumers. We touch the whole field. This is why we created the Swiss ephemeris. We needed precise calculations for ourselves, but then we shared these with others, because we hated that people would say: "My astrology program gives a different position than Astrodienst." So, we gave our more accurate code to everyone. This way, we don't betray our past. We grew a good business out of this astrology "ground," and I'm still part of that, and we like to give back.

TMA: It's like composting the land.

AT: Yes. When I heard, in 2008, that AstroDatabank was in serious trouble, I contacted Richard Smoot, because I value the database very highly. Before that, in 2000, I had negotiated for a while with Mark McDonough about cooperating with him, because we had a birth database and a collection of other data on Astrodienst at the time. (Mark is a Pisces; my Sun is only two degrees from his.)

TMA: You have a Pisces Sun, yourself?

AT: Yes, the 7th of March. And he's quite close to that, so I had a good rapport with Mark, but it did not work into an active cooperation. But when I heard that AstroDatabank was in trouble, I thought this was a good opportunity. What would happen to it? It's such an important body of work, you know. And we had the means to take it over. So, I made a contract with AstroDatabank, which committed Astrodienst to making it public. I committed myself; I offered this. I put in the contract that this would be a public resource and that we will maintain the database according to their standards.
Still, it took much longer than we had planned until it was fully integrated. It continued to be maintained by Pat Taglilatelo until the beginning of this year. She wanted to retire all last year; I begged her to keep going, because we were not ready to take on the maintenance on our own.
We are very respectful of data collectors. I am in the process of establishing personal connections with all of them. I visited Grazia Bordoni in Milan in March. I have started seeing the most important French collector, Didier Geslain, in Paris, and we have made agreements on how to share the data; actually, he's very happy, perhaps because these collectors are often old, so they don't know what's going to happen to their data and the archives when they're unable to continue.
And we are also in the process of digitizing the data; the original birth certificates will all be on file. We cannot make them public, simply because there are a lot of privacy issues. The birth certificates include names of parents and addresses, and so on, but they are accessible to our own editors.

TMA: So, this is an ongoing mountain of work, an ongoing refinement of data and the updating of biographies?

AT: Yes. I hope to be able to form a small community of editors who contribute and directly edit the database. It is a lot of work. For example, this morning I read the newspaper and saw that Robin Gibb of the Bee Gees had died last week. I looked him up in AstroDatabank. Then I searched the Internet for the precise birth time, as far as it can be found. I put it in, and then I saw that his bio was not correct. So, I fixed that. After an hour, the Bee Gees were correct; then I noticed that the death of his brother is not in there, so it had to be brought in. Not that I'm a specialist, but we work now under completely different conditions from what Lois Rodden, or other collectors, had in the past. We don't need to write long biographies anymore, because we can just put in a link to Wikipedia and then write two sentences about a person. I wouldn't have the talent which Lois had to write these stories. She was a real writer. Wikipedia is quite good and is constantly maintained and updated, so if you link to it, you can just pick very important event dates, and put those into AstroDatabank.

TMA: And you can count on Wikipedia's updates to keep people current, because you're linking to it. What other parts of the site are you really proud of, besides AstroDatabank?

AT: The Swiss ephemeris. These are precise astronomical calculations for everyone who is programming in astrology and actually also quite a few astronomers. And it's well maintained; we have a mailing list of about 600 developers.

TMA: What happens when new objects are discovered and their orbital elements are published?

AT: There are services by the astronomical community - by some American universities actually, which bring out every month, always at the Full Moon, a new update of the orbital database.

TMA: Really? They do it at the Full Moon?

AT: Yes, you know why? Because in the past, astronomers could not observe at the Full Moon (too much light pollution), so this was when they had time to do their calculations and office work, and this has become a tradition in astronomy.

TMA: Ironic, isn't it? Ironic in the sense that some astronomers are, shall we say, allergic to astrology. I know that many are not. I have a friend who is an astronomer and an astrologer both. But anyway, go on. The astronomers publish the orbital elements and ...

AT: This is also a very special listing, something that needs to be done, but the extent of new bodies being discovered has become nearly impossible to imagine. We first published the Swiss ephemeris in 1998, and I think there were 8,000 minor bodies then, and at the last update there are 329,000 minor bodies, out of which I believe about 12,000 are named. It's a regular thing I do, every two months or so, I download a new list of orbital elements.

TMA: Of all these minor bodies, which ones do you think are going to gain traction in the astrological community - of the ones that were discovered, say, in the last 10 or 12 years?

AT: I think the larger transneptunian objects have a good chance of being accepted. There are bodies out there which are as big as Pluto, and I think they have at least a chance. But I am not the one who is doing research and trying to find that out ... I am not practicing; I have no space in my schedule.

TMA: Do you regret that? I know that, for myself, being so busy with all my work on the magazine, I have lost some of my chart interpretation and counseling skills.

AT: No, I do not regret it, because I did readings for maybe a year on the side, while having Astrodienst. I did see occasional clients, and I felt that I was not very good at it. You need to really love to do readings. I'm very good at what I do, which is working with computers. I do it well. I am very talented in that field; I like hard challenges. I like to solve difficult problems, and I don't take shortcuts. I am lucky to have found a group of people around me now who share that spirit.

TMA: You're good at delegating?

AT: Now I'm good at that. I didn't used to be. But in the last ten years, I have become very good at delegating. And it works. I can be away for half a year.

TMA: You obviously have a very talented staff. How many people work at Astrodienst?

AT: Eight altogether, which is not a lot, and they work only part time. Three are in production, doing customer order fulfillment, complaints, and so on. And five of us are what we call the Web team: three programmers, including me, and Juri, who is the Web designer and company manager now - he actually runs the daily operations. We also have an editor who is editing articles and managing the translations.
This is an important point: We have not created many new reports in recent years. Our growth has been adding new languages. We are expanding more horizontally than vertically at this time. Our Web site is now available in ten languages. Most people never notice, because they stick to their own language. Each page has a language navigation bar on the top right, and you can choose one of ten languages.

TMA: Including Chinese?

AT: Yes. I worked a lot with Liz Greene, and she speaks English, so everything she wrote was in English. But Astrodienst at that time, as a chart service, had its customer base in German-speaking countries. So, everything we had done with Liz Greene was immediately translated into German. We had it in two languages. The Web site was, of course, bilingual, because the company was bilingual. I'm kind of bilingual. Even though my spoken English has mistakes in it, I read more English than German in literature. I have lived this kind of bilingual life for a long time; I enjoy it. So, the Web site was bilingual from the beginning, and it was easy to add more languages, because, in the past, before the Internet, we had licensees in Spain and France who used software from us to sell our reports, and these licenses are the reason that our reports were translated into so many languages - before the Internet arrived. So, when the Internet came, we already had a lot of our material in various languages. It was natural to have the Web site reflect this.
A few years ago, we undertook the task of cultural export of Western astrology to China by starting a Chinese version of our Web site. The idea was to bring the type of psychological astrology we are doing to East Asia. In Japan, there has always been a big interest in Jungian psychology, for example, but in the People's Republic of China, no - Jungian psychology is really unknown there. Somehow, I was fascinated by this big country, it was a challenge, and we decided to add Chinese and Japanese; we also felt that we needed to learn Chinese ourselves, because otherwise you can't go on a Chinese Web site. So, my colleague Dieter and I started learning Chinese, and he speaks Chinese now; I gave it up after two years, and I kind of lost most of it. But for two years, I was intensely studying Chinese.

TMA: Let me shift gears a little. As far as the direction of astrology, what's happening in the field, maybe you can give me some of your views on where you think astrology should be going and how we should get there.

AT: I grew up in this psychological astrology period - in the 1970s to the 1990s - and I regret that the focus has shifted, you know. More old-fashioned astrology has become popular. Back in my earlier years, I had a negative attitude about horary astrology and the idea of translating the old classical, Hellenistic, medieval astrology. First, as a European, you think: "This is an American thing; they think something which is old is better because they have nothing old." But I have come to respect traditional astrology more, because this field now has developed much more deeply and now includes a lot of techniques which really have been lost and are worthwhile to be studied. I have not done this kind of astrology, but I respect the people who are into it. If I know a person and respect that person, then I also begin to respect what he is doing. If he is an idiot, I will probably not be interested in really listening to what he is doing, but if I see that this is a clever person with a sharp mind who knows a lot, then I pay attention. And this has been happening. So, I think this movement to rediscover old astrology is important. And I'm happy to see many people under 40 here at the conference.

TMA: And many of them are heavily influenced by Kepler College, and let's just say, they have access to a lot more information about a lot more things than we self-taught astrologers had. I know what you're saying about the satisfaction of seeing younger people so involved.

AT: Yes, and Astrodienst is a service company. We try to serve the needs of astrologers, what is in demand, but at the same time keeping our own integrity, not to support nonsense. But we are always curious to find new people.

TMA: Well, it's a huge service that you provide. So, your company is named accurately: Astrological Service. I think the astrological community is extremely grateful to have these foundation items in place that can be shared. What is the best way for our readers and listeners to contact you or interact with you or your company?

AT: They can write to Webmaster@astro.com, which is me, unless I'm unreachable; then the e-mail is delegated to one of the staff, but usually it's me. Depending on what the message is about, I may delegate to one of my colleagues, but I put on that hat of Webmaster a lot.

TMA: And just for readers who may not be familiar with the site, it's Astro.com - one of the simplest URLs in astrology. I want to thank you for your time, Alois, and I really enjoyed the interview.

AT: Okay. Thank you.

*Tem Tarriktar is the founder and publisher of The Mountain Astrologer since its inception in 1987 (www.mountainastrologer.com). His interview with Dr. Alois Treindl was originally published in the Oct/Nov 2012 issue of the magazine. We republish it with the kind permission of the author/publisher.

© 2012 The Mountain Astrologer - all rights reserved

tma_coverHappy 25th Anniversary! The Mountain Astrologer, Dec. 2012/Jan. 2013 issue.

The Mountain Astrologer (TMA) is recognized as the best astrology magazine in the world. The American periodical was founded by Tem Tarriktar - see his interview with Dr. Alois Treindl on the left - who started publishing it in November 1987. Currently he and his team are celebrating the 25th anniversary of the by-monthly magazine which has recently become available as digital edition too. The TMA is written for professional astrologers and astrology students of all levels. Among its authors are many renowned astrologers like Donna Cunningham, Dana Gerhardt, Bill Herbst, Deborah Houlding, J. Lee Lehman, Rick Levine, Noel Tyl, Bruce Scofield.

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