Halcyon Days

Columns and reflections by Terry Britt

Archive for June 2008

A Free Trifecta

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To make a mild understatement, it was a big week for me and millions others who use and love Firefox.

The open source browser was finally released in an official 3.0 version on Tuesday, an event given greater significance by Mozilla’s push to establish a new Guinness Book of World Records mark for most downloads of a program in a single 24-hour period.  Eight million (including two by me) downloads were recorded, but I think it would have been close to that number even without the world record hype.

Firefox 3 didn’t need much p.r. assistance because its improvements in speed, security, and some of the neat interface changes add up to a strong reason to ditch Internet Explorer (or at least relegate it to secondary use status).  If you want all the details and some tips-and-tricks info, there are plenty of places to find it, including CNET.com and ZDNet as well as the offical Firefox site.  For my part, I’m just going to say I love its page rendering speed, the “awesome bar” (Firefox 3’s feature-laden URL address bar), the revamp of the extensions/themes/plug-ins interface and all the versatility added to the browser’s page bookmarking system.

It is a much improved interface that also gives me reason to highly reccommend the latest version of AVG Anti-Virus Free Edition.  It isn’t the only free virus protection software available, but it is one of the best, and now getting updates and navigation through the program’s features have become quite easier chores.  There is no excuse for your home or office PC to be without an anti-virus program with AVG’s free offering just a download away.

Finally, I have to reccommend a thrid free program I’ve recently acquired, the basic version of Winamp 5.5.  It’s a nice, highly functional alternative to Windows Media Player.  I use it primarily to tune in the streaming broadcast of my all-time favorite radio station, WEVL in Memphis, but I hope to revisit this program soon after I get time to play with some of its other features.

Together, this is a trio of programs that will serve as a technological reminder that “free” can still be best friends with “excellent.”

Written by terrybritt

June 22, 2008 at 11:56 pm

The Great Train Rescue

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I had gotten word there was trouble on the tracks about 4:30 p.m. Monday.

Eight miles east of the office, near downtown Edgewood, Texas, an Amtrak train had just suddenly lost all power and rolled to a stop. I took off in that direction, camera in hand, to get what would probably be a front page story for one of our weeklies.

As I approached the area of the track where the train was sitting, I could see they were unloading the passengers and waving them along to a waiting school bus. I got out and snapped a few photos of people walking along the edge of the track, then started looking around for somebody who looked like an Amtrak official to find out what had happened.

But then I saw something that told me it was time to stop being a reporter and start being a kind volunteer.

It was a woman lugging a suitcase that nearly reached her stomach in height, obviously in some discomfort from the nearly 100-degree heat outside and the slight incline she had to navigate toward the bus.

So I pulled my camera to my side and asked if I could carry her bag. The grateful smile was all the answer I needed. Along with her husband and another man who was ambling toward the school bus, we all found a small bit of shade on the other side of the street and talked for a few minutes about what had happened.

When the engines lost power, everything – including the air conditioning in the coach cars – was gone as well, leaving the passengers stranded in what must have started to feel like a pre-heating oven.

And then I found out I was standing with just three of 208 passengers who were suddenly stranded, trying to make their way from the tracks and hoping it wouldn’t be long before they could climb into something air conditioned on wheels again.

That’s when I really forgot about the camera hanging from my neck and the notepad and pen in my left hand.

For the next 45 minutes, I got immersed in carrying luggage, helping people down a steep and potentially treacherous rock grade and asking if medical assistance was needed. On the other side of the tracks, Edgewood police officers and volunteer firefighters were doing the same.

Vans from two churches in Mineola, about 25 miles away, pulled up to the scene with volunteer drivers helping some of the passengers get to the local high school, where an emergency shelter and triage was being set up. I spoke briefly to a young woman, a college student, as she made her way to one of these vans after I helped her down off the railroad grade.

She said she was a journalism student at Northwestern (La.) State.

“God bless ya, or should I say God help ya?” I asked.

She just smiled and replied, “Yeah, I know.”

I went back onto the grade to help others with luggage or footing until I finally saw most of the people had departed to the high school or were being taken care of by others on the scene. They did get the power back online in the train and moved it a little further down the track, but Amtrak officials had already made arrangements to get the passengers to the Dallas station by coach buses.

All told, it might not have been rated a dramatic and traumatic scene, but it could have been very quickly. As the chief of police put it in our conversation a bit later in the evening, “We did all right for local boys.”

They did more than all right. They were brilliant and inspiring in their teamwork and dedication in keeping the scene under control and the passengers as safe as possible. Of the 208 out there on a murderously hot afternoon, only two required immediate medical attention, one for a minor foot injury and the other for heat exhaustion complicated by diabetes.

By 7:15 p.m., they were all on air-conditioned coach buses, feeling better after water, Gatorade and snacks brought to them by the American Red Cross, and finally heading west again.

Of all the mysterious reasons as to why I continue to work in newspaper journalism, I suppose it’s the Errol Flynn-style adventures that occasionally crop up, never knowing one day to the next what situation I’m going to find myself in with nothing but my trusty blade – uh, I mean camera – to get me through.

In this instance, I don’t have any dramatic photos to publish, and the story I’ll write probably won’t win any Texas Press Association awards.

I don’t think anyone will notice – not me, anyway, and certainly not any of the people Monday afternoon near downtown Edgewood who were just glad to have a hand to hold onto or to take their bag for them.

Immediately after this latest adventure, the swashbuckling Terry Britt rode off to cover back-to-back school board meetings in two different cities. You can reach him at terrybritt@hotmail.com.

Written by terrybritt

June 17, 2008 at 1:07 am

An Alleviating Day

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Sometimes, things mount up to the point that you feel you’ve just got to get away – even if only for a day.

After several weeks of a personal procession of things to kick your outlook on life where it hurts, I had to declare myself on leave for the better part of Saturday. In the aftermath of (a) a severe case of work-related burnout, (b) a really unpleasant incident with one of the neighbors, and (c) water seepage from a heavy thunderstorm covering most of my bedroom carpet and smaller areas at the front of the apartment, basically undoing several weekends of work on this place, I needed a nobody-but-for-me fun day.

I had planned to meet with my son for lunch or dinner on Father’s Day, but he was called away for a 10-day Civil Air Patrol excursion. I had to find a suitable substitute plan to put a smile on my face, and quick.

Fortunately for me, Dallas is only a 45-minute drive and I’ve got a car that, despite its age, still gets very good gas mileage. Equally as fortunate is the fact I don’t have to spend a lot of money once I get there.

I started the “Terry’s Day Out” event at the Half-Price Books mega store on Northwest Highway and Greenville. It was nice to be back in that store for the first time in a year and a half, browsing books, CDs, having a nice chat with an employee stocking the magazines section and enjoying a coffee and Danish in the café before heading out.

For the record, I picked up a hardback copy of Stephen King’s “Nightmares and Dreamscapes” short story collection, an anthology of Native American mythology, and CDs by Caesars (“Paper Tigers”) and Jesus and Mary Chain (“Honey’s Dead”). Total cost: $18.36.

That’s why I love Half-Price Books, folks.

From there, it was up U.S. 75 to Plano and a place I had never visited before, but will again – lots. Kegs and Barrels is the beer and wine store I wish I had a lot closer to home, and it would have been worth the drive if I had not gone anywhere else.

Save for a local bistro that is allowed to sell and serve Texas produced wines, one upscale steakhouse off Interstate 20 and one casual restaurant in a nearby town, I live in a dry county. To buy any kind of beer to take home, I have to go into Kaufman or Terrell and then I’m limited to the mass-made tasteless junk or the usual suspects in imports (i.e. Guinness, Heineken, Corona).

At Kegs and Barrels, though, I found a shrine to the wonderful beer world that is out there: English ales of every style, Belgian Trappist ales, German hefeweissens and microbrews both domestic and imported. Better yet, I didn’t have to wander alone through the aisles thanks to the woman behind the counter, Susan, whose business card bore the title “Senior Beverage Advisor” and whose mutual appreciation of and knowledge about the stock proved that some titles are still earned and deserved in these times.

A short time later, I walked out of the store with about $57 in a luscious variety of brews, a pleasant experience and a new comrade-in-pints who was also nice enough to point me to a very good place for dinner later on.

Before that, though, I was off to Whole Foods Market because getting much by way of organic and vegetarian foods and products is about as limited as the beer where I live. Having lived in Memphis most of last year, I got a little spoiled having a Wild Oats Market and even more mainstream supermarkets like Kroger with a special section of natural and organic groceries.

I stuck with dry goods only since I was not returning home immediately, but I scored a lot of favorites I have really missed in the past seven months, most of all Puffins cereal (I will be writing a separate story on this super-yummy creation very soon).

From there, it was back toward U.S. 75 and Susan’s suggestion of Akbar Indian Restaurant. It had been about nine months (again, while I was living in Memphis) since I had enjoyed dining at an Indian restaurant, so I savored every bite of this dinner. The food was awesome from start to finish, the service and atmosphere were both very nice and I would have been hard pressed to find more reasonable prices for it all.

Before heading east again, I took 75 back into Dallas – making a second stop at Half-Price Books for a book requested by a friend I was speaking to by phone – and sprinted down to the Henderson Street district for a nightcap at The Old Monk, a grand little pub I had discovered about five years ago while staying at a nearby hotel for a journalism convention. I found a seat at the bar and nursed a pint of Franziskaner Hefe-Weissbier from the tap, which proved to be a great choice for putting out a little of the fire from the curry I had just enjoyed.

When I returned home about 10:30 p.m. I realized an invaluable truth: Work may be a drag, other problems may pop up and gasoline prices may never stop rising….

But, sometimes, you’ve just got to hop into the car and make it your fun day.

Anyone wishing to receive pronunciation help with ale names like “Trois Pistoles” and “Weihenstephan” is encouraged to contact Terry Britt at terrybritt@hotmail.com. It could save you a bit of embarrassment.

Written by terrybritt

June 15, 2008 at 11:56 pm