Halcyon Days

Columns and reflections by Terry Britt

Archive for March 2008

A spin on the Photoshop Express-way

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Adobe’s long awaited free, online version of Photoshop – dubbed Photoshop Express – debuted on March 27. Being a user of the real McCoy in the workplace, I could not resist the urge to sign up for a free account and give Photoshop Express a tryout.

Before going on with comments and thoughts, let me remind everyone this is a beta, so the occasional glitch or hiccup (such as the Firefox 2.0 crash I experienced when switching to full-screen mode). With that in mind, here are my initial findings after a couple of test runs.

Essentially, this offering seems to be Adobe’s new way of drawing prospective customers into the Photoshop product family. Photoshop Express does that well, giving you a taste of the touch-up and editing functions you will find in Adobe’s various retail versions of Photoshop.

After signing up for an account (you have 2 gigabyte of space to utilize), you can start uploading images and going to work. You can create photo albums to help sort pictures, and one feature I liked is the ability to instantly transfer photo albums and images to a Facebook, Photobucket or Picasa account. I would imagine other social networking or photo sharing sites may be brought onboard in the future.

Once you select an image for editing, it comes up in a larger view and you will see an editing menu off to the left of the screen. This menu is divided into Basics (crop and rotate, auto correct, exposure, red-eye removal, touchup, and saturation), Tuning (white balance, highlight, fill light, sharpen and soft focus), and Effects (pop color, hue, black and white, tint, sketch and distort).

After playing with a couple of still life photos I had taken outdoors, I thought some of the editing functions will likely be more useful (or, in some cases, less confusing) than others to the casual user. On the plus side, with many of the editing tools that effect color, brightness, or contrast, Photoshop Express gives you a slider tool, located above the editing area, that includes a thumbnail of what the photo will look like with the slider moved to that position. You can also simply click on one of the thumbnails and the slider will automatically position itself to that reading.

It’s a design that takes a lot of the guesswork out for neophyte photo editors. On the flip side, getting exact control of the editing effect is going to take considerable patience, experimentation, or an upgrade to one of the retail versions.

On discussion boards thus far, several users have cited difficulty or inability to see any vital information on a given photo, stats like file size, pixel dimensions and original exposure settings. In fact, it took me a little roaming around the interface before I finally found the right button – the little “i” embedded in a blue circle at the bottom right corner of the “My Photos” page – to pop up basic info on the picture. An advanced button in that pane will reveal more information.

If there is one major thing missing from Photoshop Express in its current state, it’s a lack of context-sensitive help, which I think may frustrate some of the very audience the program hopes to capture. Right now, clicking the Help option simply opens a tab or window that brings you to a Photoshop Express general discussion and FAQ page. That may be enough to answer some questions, but some users will be turned off at the thought of having to dig through discussion board posts. Hopefully, the Photoshop Express development team will see its way clear to add a bit of “how-to” into the editing screen area, or possibly even a popup balloon when you point over a certain editing option.

Another caveat: Since Photoshop Express runs within an Adobe Flash 9 framework, your connection speed to the Internet is going to determine how well the whole thing works for you. I’m not sure I would try this on a dial-up connection.

 

Overall, you’ve got to tip your cap to Adobe for taking this bold, new step with what has been its flagship application for many years. It is both a recognition that Webware has truly arrived and also that Adobe needs a broadly accessible offering to help it compete with rival photo editing applications, many of which offer a lot of power for less money than Photoshop or are even free (The GIMP 2.0, for instance). Future developments on this program will be interesting to watch, and hopefully provide newcomers with an agreeable introduction to all that is Photoshop.

 

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Written by terrybritt

March 29, 2008 at 8:13 pm

The funny side of sacred

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I thought I would write a belated tribute to one of my favorite stand-up comedians, although that’s not quite the right term for him. He usually delivered his funniest material while seated.

When I was in my final year of high school, a new UHF television channel in the area began broadcasting. As I soon discovered, like other new stations around the country, this one needed to fill late night programming time and was willing to do so with some pretty adventurous (for East Tennessee, anyway) fare.

One Friday night, I was in my bedroom watching a little TV before calling it a night, and that was when I first saw a British comedy program called Dave Allen At Large.

What proceeded before my eyes and ears was 30 minutes of the funniest jokes and skits I had ever seen, all courtesy of this charming Irishman seated with a cigarette in one hand and a glass of whiskey in the other.

I had more trouble sleeping that night than I had bargained for, simply because I couldn’t stop laughing. It only took five minutes into the program before I decided I had better shut my bedroom door for fear of waking my parents from my laughter.

But was I ever hooked on this program.

Dave Allen was a groundbreaking entertainer in so many ways it makes the mind boggle. He was doing observational comedy long before anyone ever heard of Jerry Seinfeld. His storytelling abilities were masterful, and while his jokes were hilarious, they could also be extremely vicious in making a point.

As someone on one Web site put it, Dave Allen was an alternative comedian before the phrase existed.

Looking back on that time, I think what endeared me to Allen’s program was simply the style he exhibited on stage. He was the like the really cool uncle you might see at family reunions or holiday dinners, the jokester of the family who would tell outrageous stories and have you cracking up the whole day.

He often introduced the skits on the program with a few lines that seemed thought provoking. But then he would flash a sly grin that let the audience know immediately something hilarious was about to be seen, courtesy of Allen and his troupe of comedy actors.

I did my best to describe one of these skits the following day to my father, something Allen referred to as little known secret weapons of the British Army in World War II. Part of that skit involved British soldiers in the trenches, desperate to eliminate two German sentries, who send one of their own out in drag.

As he approaches the sentries, he flashes them, they are temporarily stunned, and of course he drops to the ground to allow the other British soldiers to pick off the two Germans like soda cans on a fence.

My dad, a World War II veteran himself, was shaking with laughter by the end of my recounting.

Dave Allen often drew upon his own memories as a young boy growing up in religiously strict Ireland for a lot of his jokes, which sometimes got him in big trouble with local authorities and Catholic Church officials, who didn’t appreciate the humor. In fact, a few towns in the UK and Ireland banned him from performing live because of what they deemed the offensive nature of his material.

For those of us who adored his wit and humor, though, the religious jokes were something of a religious experience in themselves.

All too often, we get so caught up in the seriousness of religious beliefs and expression that we become blind to all the humor and merriment that exists within them. There is nothing funny about God, we tell ourselves, despite the fact that there is so much to be laughed at regarding the human race, His prize creation.

Allen dared to think otherwise, and invited the rest of us to see what he was talking about.

He died three years ago this month at the relatively young age of 68.

I didn’t get to spend very much time reflecting on his passing. Five days later, someone even more influential to me suddenly died, way too early for her time as well at 63.

As far I as know at the time of writing this column, there is no Dave Allen compilation yet available on North American DVD. However, if you go to YouTube and type in a search for “Dave Allen”, you will find many video clips that will give you a sampling of just how funny and ingenious this man truly was in his career (although I would warn you some of his material is definite PG-13 level, so you might not want young children around).

Just one other warning: Be prepared to be hurting at the sides from laughter.

And I’ll leave you with the closing Dave often used for his programs: Good night, good luck, and may your God go with you.


Terry Britt subscribes to Dave Allen’s belief that a great storyteller never lets the facts get in the way. You can reach him at terrybritt@hotmail.com

Written by terrybritt

March 28, 2008 at 5:01 pm

Standing in for Gulliver

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Remember the Texas Department of Tourism slogan? “Texas: It’s like a whole other country.”gulliver-travels-1.jpg

If that’s true, then I’ve recently returned home from about four years of working in foreign lands.

To be honest, I never intended to find myself in places like Arkansas, Mississippi and Tennessee. Although I was born and raised in eastern Tennessee and attended college in Memphis, the state of Texas has been (and felt more like) my home for the greater part of the last two decades, for a number of reasons.

But after leaving Van Zandt Newspapers in 2001, and having short stays with a couple of small dailies in the state, I went eastward again and landed in central Arkansas.

I had passed through the state numerous times but never set up residence in it. Once I did begin the next chapter of my career in Searcy (about 45 minutes north of Little Rock), I found an experience that was both good and bad – good outside the office, bad inside it.

I persevered through a rather negative work atmosphere to enjoy a couple of years of nice, appreciative people (not unlike Van Zandt County), beautiful scenery, and some fun assignments.

In retrospect, I probably should have counted the blessings I had there and not counted my yearly earnings. It was the latter, though, that tempted me to set sail again, moving on the lure of a higher paying position with a larger daily in Mississippi.

Going further east, though, was when everything started going south.

I never had an employment problem in my life until I moved to Mississippi, but I suppose the rules of work ethics and effort that hold fast in other states do not apply there. Then again, I now have a fuller understanding of why that state ranks last or damn near it in just about every socioeconomic category in the United States.

Maybe I just didn’t fit in there, though I certainly tried to be a good team player at two different publications. Maybe the people in charge of me felt that way, too, and that was their reason for unceremoniously sending me off to the sea of job searching twice in six months.

Weary and growing ever frustrated (not to mention seeing my bank account dwindling), I turned my steady boat of journalistic talent and experience toward Memphis. Surely this, my second home, the place of my collegiate alma mater and parents’ last years, would offer me the shelter of a fair wage in a stable position and an appreciative, sensible publisher.

About five months later, I realized the print journalism seas had sent me on yet another wrong turn. That was when I decided to make a phone call and put a six-year voyage out of its misery before I wound up doing the same to myself.

On an employment journey that took me to six different cities in four different states, I saw a lot of things and learned quite a bit about myself, the newspaper industry and people in general. There was much I will always remember fondly and much I would just as soon forget.

The one thing I found most in the newsrooms? A lot of people I don’t want to become in 15 to 20 years.

The good people I worked with in those places will know whom I’m talking about, and I’ll leave it at that.

Sometimes, the only way to know where home lies is to be gone awhile. Fortunately, an opportunity to come back to Van Zandt Newspapers, and Texas, opened just when I needed it most. If it were the closing passage in a modern retelling of a certain literary character’s travels, it might read something like this:

“And so, disenchanted with recent unfair twists of economic fate, and beleaguered from daily worries with Lilliputians, Brobdingnags, pompous editors and computer crashes five minutes before deadline, the young writer crossed the great river and set sail westward again, guided by the great Lone Star. He yearned to be back in the great land he once knew, where people were friendly, cattle grazed as far as the eye could see, and where high school football really meant something. It was not a perfect place, but he now knew beyond any doubt it was home, and that made it a far greater place than any amongst his many voyages.”

Well, it sure as hell beats sitting at a desk in Tupelo.

Terry Britt is an avid reader of classic literature and reluctant southern newspaper explorer. You can reach him at terrybritt@hotmail.com.

Written by terrybritt

March 22, 2008 at 7:17 pm

Of dreams, death, and self-realization

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pondsideThe whole sequence began with a doorbell ringing.

I opened a door to find my editor standing there. After asking me to step out onto the porch, he looked at me with a serious expression and said, “I’m sorry, but your mother died.” Then he turned and walked away.

Then I was walking into the newspaper office, ready to start a workday like any other. Except, as I was getting settled in at my desk, another person in the newsroom said the editor wasn’t the editor anymore. Whether he’d been fired or resigned, no one really knew. On top of that, a news clerk had gone missing and no one had been able to get in touch with her.

I just rolled my eyes about all of it, sat down and began writing a baseball story.

It only got weirder after that.

I was alone, driving through the darkness on a trip that seemed it would never end, crossing through towns and countryside, over rivers and farmland.

After that, I was in a small house filled with people. It was St. Patrick’s Day and everybody had big steaming bowls of corned beef and cabbage. Some of the people I recognized as relatives, but it was as if I hadn’t seen any of them for over 20 years.

And suddenly, I realized I had become a spiritual minister.

Soon, we were all in a small chapel. I was standing near the altar and proceeded to speak about every deep subject you can think of: The importance of loving and being loved, friendship, mutual encouragement, the divine plan behind everything that happens and why we are here – really, why any of us are here. After the service, a woman walked up to me and wanted to know where my church was located because she wanted to hear me speak another time.

As I returned to my car, I saw my best friend from Texas sitting in the passenger seat.

“Need a lift?” I asked.

“Sure thing,” she replied.

We took a long highway that stretched out of the city into the country, all the while laughing, talking and singing an Irish song we both knew.

Then I was alone again, standing in the middle of a vast cemetery – and clutching a boombox in my left hand.

I felt disoriented. I looked around for a moment at a swirl of monuments, markers, trees, the warm morning sun. Then I heard the soft peal of church bells ringing out.

I walked toward the sound and eventually spotted an ornate white chapel, and everyone was waiting for me a short distance in front of it. I pressed a button on the boombox and a gospel song played. When it was finished, I began speaking about the eternal dance of life, death and love. As I was saying these things, a hawk descended from the sky and began flying in circles above us.

And that was how it all ended.

 

If this sounds like a truly bizarre entry from a dream journal, I can only hope you’re sitting down as you read the rest of this column.

It wasn’t a dream.

Not a single word of it.

Ever had one of those dreams so intense that, for a few seconds after waking, you think it all really happened? On March 15, 2005, and the days that followed, I found out just how well it can work in the opposite direction.

I wish I could tell you it was a unique experience, but it wasn’t. About five years earlier, my father died and I served as the pastor at that funeral, too.

The circumstances that led to my sudden expertise at delivering parental eulogies aren’t important, not as much as what I’ve realized from the experiences.

The fact is I’m not a minister, a priest, or a pastor. I’m not a theologian, a philosopher, or a social psychologist, either.

But for two days of my life, I suddenly had the answers to questions people have wrestled with for centuries – and what follows is the best interpretation I can offer.

The reason each of us is here in life is to be a blessing and a guide to one another. This can be accomplished in ways you wouldn’t think about, but which can have the most profound impact.

You don’t have to be a wealthy philanthropist handing out $10,000 donation checks to charities. You can save a life or change someone for the better simply by spending 10 minutes listening to that person.

Along the path of life, you will come to identify certain people who matter most of all to you – the people you love – which should always include those who brought you into this world and those you bring in.

Never dismiss or take for granted the time you spend with those you love most. Sip the moments with them as if they were a most excellent wine: something savored, cherished always, and like nothing else in the world.

And above all else, never miss an opportunity to tell them just how much you love them.

One day, you will wake up and discover you can no longer tell them.

One day, they will wake up and discover they can no longer hear you.

You will find something else along the way through life: Certain moments that will define who you are and the reason you’re here – moments of self-realization.

Don’t worry about trying to find them on your own. They will find you, and usually when you least expect it.

But when the moment arrives, everything – all the crazy twists and turns your life has taken, all the struggles you’ve endured, all the hurt you’ve suffered, all the happiness and joy you’ve felt – all of it will suddenly make perfect sense.

Maybe the moment will find you sinking the last-second shot that brings your school a state championship. Maybe it will find you typing the last line of code for the next great software application, or playing the last note of a concert that inspires 20 kids in the audience to want to play music themselves, or leaning over a person whose life you just saved with CPR.

It could even find you standing in literally the last place you could ever imagine yourself: next to a coffin, in front of about 100 people, talking about the best friend you’ve ever had and answering questions that are supposed to be unanswerable.

Recently, I came back to Van Zandt County, Texas, the place I called home for seven years. The first morning, I awoke and, for just a few fleeting seconds, had the strange feeling I had been asleep for a very, very long time.

Friday…November…well, I’ve got to go to the office and wrap up a few things, run by a few schools and pick up news items…basketball tonight, so I guess I’ll run home before that, eat dinner and give my mom a call and tell her about….

Oh.

Right.

I guess it really wasn’t just a dream.

But there are days when it’s difficult to know for sure.

 

On several occasions, Terry Britt has been mistaken for a member of the clergy – by members of the clergy. You can reach him at terrybritt@hotmail.com.

Written by terrybritt

March 16, 2008 at 7:45 pm

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