Halcyon Days

Columns and reflections by Terry Britt

Archive for March 2010

Two Disagreeable Deals

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Between blogs and e-mailed newsletters, I get a lot of daily info on new products or services. Most of them are interesting enough to garner a little further research.

Occasionally, though, I run across something that makes me wish I could have that 60 to 90 seconds of my life back to spend on something more worthwhile. Last week, I was unlucky enough to see two such items on consecutive days.

One is just plain gross, the other just plain creepy.

One looks impossible, the other insensitve.

Both are crass examples of gimmicky marketing, and make me want to shake my head in resignation for human progress.

Thanks to Thrilllist Dallas, I am now aware of the latest bit of ridiculousness in that modern temple to gluttony better known as “restaurant food challenges.” A place in Fort Worth called the Cowtown Diner offers the “Full O’ Bull Platter” — a 64-ounce chicken-fried steak smothered in gravy with an accompaniment of six pounds of mashed potatoes and 10 slices of Texas toast.

It’s $70, but like any good restaurant serving up cardiovascular health-damning dares, Cowtown Diner will write it off the bill if one person can consume all of it in one seating, no time limit other than the restaurant’s hours.  Never mind that, for those of us who actually practice a little sanity with our meal portions, the mere picture of this monstrosity on its extra large pizza pan/serving plate is enough to trigger an uncomfortable tightening in the chest.

Think I’m being a little too dramatic?  Chicken fried steak dinners are among the most unhealthy options if you are dining out.  This is approximately eight (8) of those in one serving.

And then there is this to consider should you keel over from trying to tackle this or any other gigantic hunk of cooked meat with all the trimmings: You could carry on in this world as a box of pencils.

Yes, your survivors (maybe at the table with you for what became your Last Supper) can have your cremated remains recycled into pencils, which come in a box with a one-at-a-time dispenser and built-in sharpener, thus making the box an urn as the pencils are used. Your name and vital years are embossed on each pencil.

I would like to think anyone remembered this way postmortem would at least be used to write a bestselling novel or plans for a totally revolutionary technology. But, seriously, using what is left of dear old dad to jot down shopping lists and phone numbers?

Between these calls for clogged arteries and cremated novelties, I really don’t want to know the answer to the question, “Wow, what will they think of next?”

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Written by terrybritt

March 14, 2010 at 11:47 pm

The Art of Playing Catch-Up

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Palm OS Garnet v5.4.
Image via Wikipedia

As much as I love technology, computers, and cool gadgets, I readily admit that I have never been, in tech terms, an “early adopter” of new products.

I’ve never had the personal budget for it.  I am working on a long-term solution to address that longstanding issue, but I’m not likely to change my buying habits that much in future. About the most cutting edge I can say I’ve been recently with purchases has been with a new quad-core desktop PC with Windows 7 — and that came about two months after Windows 7 systems hit retail shelves.

“New” generally carries quite a price tag.  It can also mean buggy, disappointing, or short-lived, as consumers have learned over the years (Windows Vista or HD-DVD, anyone?)

As I have discovered over the years, patience can be a money-saving virtue when it comes to personal technology and home electronics.  Often, you discover the older item can meet your needs quite adequately, perform tasks very well, and, in some cases such as desktop PCs, can be upgraded or expanded with little pain or expense.

So it was last weekend that I finally acquired something I had truly longed for in the last couple of years, a smartphone.  Thanks to a little legwork and searching in a very non-traditional outlet (a local resale shop), I scored a Palm Treo 680 in perfect working order for just $50, with a car charger.  A trip to Fry’s Electronics the next evening for a wall charger and sync cable was another $30, making the total investment thus far a mere $80.

Not bad at all, even for an experienced last-generation technology shopper.

I’m really pleased with it on several fronts. First, the Palm Treo sports something I’ve never had on any cell phone I’ve had (work or personal), a full QWERTY keyboard.  It isn’t a roomy keyboard, I’ll grant you, but it is a vast improvement for composing text messages or short notes versus a standard alphanumeric keypad, even one with that so-called predictive text mode.  This is a fact that starts to hit home when you have never been much of a text-messaging guy, then find yourself in a relationship with a girlfriend who texts a lot.

Second, the phone is giving me a so-far pleasant revisit with the old Palm OS.  I first became acquainted with this PDA-centric operating system back in 2000 when I purchased a Handspring Visor (again, a rare case of me buying something rather current in tech terms).  I thought it was a greatly efficient, compact OS back then and this version (aka Palm OS Garnet) is much the same.  Dated though it might be, it is still a heavily supported operating system, both with commercial and freeware programs.  I’ve already found and installed a few awesome freeware apps onto the phone.

I have to say I’ve also been impressed with the sound quality on phone calls and with the built-in voice recorder, a great plus when you are a journalist often needing to record a quick interview on the spot.  The camera on the back of the phone is nothing to shout about, but not a concern for me, anyway.  About the only negatives I’ve found has been short battery life — previous reviews were spot on about that and made purchase of an AC charger a must — and the proprietary jack that makes an adapter necessary if I want to use standard mini-headphones with it.

Overall, though, I think I’ve found a smartphone that will yield quite a long time of solid service for me, and for less money than a lot of new basic messaging phones.  Sadly, it is starting to sound like Palm may not be with us much longer despite what is, by most accounts since it was first announced, a fantastic smartphone operating system known as webOS.

Age doesn’t necessarily diminish usefulness or relevance.  I remind myself of that every time I look into a mirror, too.

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Guy, get real!

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One of the most boneheaded moves ever by a college football team took place last week, and it wasn’t on a football field, but rather the entire campus.

On the morning of Feb. 25, students at Texas A&M University at Commerce who wanted to get their free copy of The East Texan, the campus-published daily newspaper, could not find one on campus. The newspapers were all gone, allegedly taken out of their racks by members of the TAMU-C football team.

It just so happened that the lead story on the front page of that issue concerned the arrest of two of the football players on drug charges.

Bad and embarrassing for the football program as that might have been, even more negative attention came the university’s way by the theft of the newspapers and the subsequent comments from head football coach Guy Morriss when campus police interviewed him after finding videotape showing football players removing the newspapers that morning.

According to the police report, Morriss stated, “I’m proud of my players for doing that. This was the best team-building exercise we have ever done.”

Regardless of how you feel about the media or newspapers in general, this act and Morriss’ apparent sanctioning of it should disturb you to your very core. After all, we’re talking about Commerce, Texas, here, not Chongqing, China. Newspapers, even collegiate ones, have the right to publish arrests made by the taxpayer-funded police departments.

Worse yet, Morriss’ words come dangerously close to implicating that he was the genius behind an act of intentional censorship. According to the same police report, referenced by The East Texan in a report published March 1, his use of derisive remarks such as “that crap” in referring to the The East Texan and its report on the arrests is not exactly scoring him many innocence points.

But to me, a newspaper journalist for 27 years and a former college newspaper reporter and editor, Morriss’ little attitude display in the police investigation just proves something I’ve known for a long time: There are people within every university who regard the collegiate newspaper as nothing more than a student-produced fansheet.

The moment these young men and women have to run a story that doesn’t play the cheerleader for the university or any of its programs (drug arrests, parking issues, yet another tuition hike, etc.) they are branded as some band of traitors to their school. I speak from experience. A lot of other former campus newspapers reporters and editors probably could, too.

Apparently, Morriss is one with no understanding or appreciation for what goes into producing a campus daily newspaper. The East Texan’s March 1 article stated that Morriss asked how taking a publication that is free to Texas A&M-Commerce students could be considered theft. It was explained to him that the newspaper publishes a statement in each edition that the first copy is free to students, and every one after that costs 25 cents.

How or if The East Texan ever receives payment for extra copies is irrelevant here. Those responsible for taking all of the Feb. 25 editions distributed on campus did not do so because they needed floor covering to paint the inside of a house. They did it to prevent other students at the university from seeing an article about an arrest of two football players, and that is an act which is in violation of the First Amendment.

I’ve got a bit more news for Coach Morriss and those involved in the act: It may be a free publication, but I guarantee you it isn’t published for free. The printing press company that cranks out that newspaper isn’t doing so out of the goodness of its employees’ hearts. Oh, and let’s not forget the advertisers in that Feb. 25 edition — some of whom may be financial supporters of the football program — who are probably really ticked off about their paid ads not being seen that day by about 10,000 students, staff and faculty members.

Again going back to the March 1 report in The East Texan, in a meeting with Texas A&M-Commerce President Dan Jones regarding possible disciplinary action for the football players involved in the incident, Jones stated that Morriss said they would suffer the consequences as a team.

Well, I’ve got a unique and educational suggestion to offer.

All of the football players involved in the taking of the newspapers, and Morriss himself, should be given the task of producing one edition of The East Texan.

Perhaps only then, they will all have a better understanding of and appreciation for what the publication’s staff and student-reporters endure several times a week throughout each fall and spring semester, all while carrying a class load to get a college degree and, hopefully, a decent job after college.

Maybe they will learn another important lesson: Headlines are not always going to be happy ones, but the best thing you can do is keep yourself out of them.

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Written by terrybritt

March 4, 2010 at 12:59 am

Farewell 6, and thanks for all the music?

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BBC 6 Music plectrum (2006)
Image by radiothings.com via Flickr

It is with a note of nostalgic sadness that I have read of the BBC”s plans to make some service cuts, including the decision to silence BBC 6 music channel.

The station had the notoriety of being one of the first BBC digital stations when it went on-air in 2002. It wasn’t until a couple of years later when I learned about it (one of my 2 a.m. wonder-what’s-going-on-across-the-Atlantic sessions on the Internet), but once I started listening, I knew I had hit upon something really pleasing to the ears.

Fact is, my music collection (MP3 and CD) and enjoyment of what we broadly term “indie rock” today would be but a pale shadow of what it is, if not for BBC 6 Music, its excellent playlists and engaging roster of on-air hosts. I can run the names of a lot of bands…Doves, Hard-Fi, Razorlight, I Am Kloot, to name a few…that I probably would have never known about otherwise, certainly not from any terrestrial station in central Arkansas, where I was living and working at the time.

But here’s another fact: Radio is, and has been for a very long time, all about numbers, as in how many people are listening. According to the BBC, the station is reaching 700,000 listeners per week, only 1 percent of the adult population in the UK, and only 20 percent of the UK population knows about the station’s existence (I’m guessing that is from a recent survey). When the economy has gone as south as it has in the last two years, those figures are not going to bring a strong argument for another eight years or beyond on the digital airwaves.

Still, the reason the title of this article ends in a question mark is that the plug has not been pulled yet. The most recent information I have is that BBC 6 Music (and BBC Asian Network, the other digital station set for closure) will not be closed before the end of 2011 at the earliest. That means there is still time for you to discover what I did years ago, and possibly do a small part in keeping the station alive and kicking by joining a petition effort to keep it on the air.

Take some time to listen to one of the rare examples of a truly excellent radio station in a world overpopulated by stale and formulaic ones. Hopefully, the BBC will listen to us when we ask it to keep 6 Music.

BBC 6 Music Web site

Online petition site

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Written by terrybritt

March 2, 2010 at 5:00 pm

Posted in music

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