Friday, 27 May 2005

Mousetrap - 4

Graduate School of Rock
Snobsite.com
Though it is a site meant to promote a book (The Rock Snob*s Dictionary), it stands on its own as as web destination. Meant for Rock Snobs, and the people who have to live with them. Caveat: only if said Rock Snob has a sense of humour about his (yes, it;s usually a guy) obsession, as the site’s authors do. What is a rock snob? If you know who Zimmy is, and which Beatles track it’s cool to like, you’re one of them. For the rest of us, I’ll let the site answer: “Since the dawn of rock, there have been individuals, usually young men of argumentative tendencies, who have lorded their encyclopedic musical knowledge over others.” You get a snob Term of the Day, a large chunk of extracts from the book, an inbuilt blog, and a set of links to other “vaguely snobbish” sites and blogs.

Blog of the week
Tricks of the Trade
Very high up on my things-I-wish-I-had-thought-of list. It started with a blogger who asked his readers for suggestions on tricks of the trade, little professional secrets only people in a specific industry would know. His readers sent him a bunch of suggestions, which he turned into a column on an online publication he wrote for. That column saw huge traffic and citations across the web. So he decided to turn it into a reader-fuelled blog (which in turn, he plans to turn into a book). Down-to-earth suggestions from people in all walks of life, including - random sample, this - cooks, signmakers, parents of toddlers, failed job applicants and alcohol lovers.

Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be
Abandon Ware
For those of our readers old enough to remember MS-DOS games, or even early Windows games, this site is a wonderful blast from the past. An archive of downloadable games that were made by gamemakers now defunct, or made for machines that are now veritable museum pieces. Remember Dave, Digger, Prince of Persia, Hitch Hikers Guide To The Galaxy, Mortal Kombat, Grand Prix Circuit...? Well. they're all here. And free. And customised to be playable on today's lightening fast PCs. Enjoy. (Oh yes. See also: http://www.freeoldies.com/)

Their red caps are Russian
Badmash
A weekly internet comic strip created by three young second gen desis in the USA, Badmash is a favourite with the NRI crowd. Sandeep Sood, Nimesh Patel and Sanjay Shah take digs at the idiosyncrasies of South Asian culture in the US, at US politics, at just about anything in between. Aside from the standard strips, every now and then, they do an animation as well. A personal fave: the hilarious Dishoom, part of their “Green Card Party” campaign for Amitabh Bachchan for President in 2004. And yes, they idolise Mr Bachchan. [Gra├žias, Annie Zaidi]

Utility site of the week
The Universal Currency Converter ®
The internet is borderless. Currencies, however, are distressingly old-fashioned. This site remedies that. It lets you do instant conversions from any world currency to any other. It covers over 180 currencies in over 250 geographical locations, at live market rates, and also covers precious metals. The service is available to install on your own site in various versions from free, with ads, to a fully customised pay version. In a word, invaluable.

This column explores the wilder, wackier, weirder corners of the world wide web. Mail inthemousetrap@indiatimes.com.

Published in the Times of India, Mumbai edition, 27th May 2005.

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Friday, 20 May 2005

Mousetrap - 3

Eye in the sky
The Gateway to Astronaut Photography of Earth
The government is reportedly waiting for satellite pictures of the city to find out whether mangrove forests around the city have really been cleared. All I can say is that don’t really need to spend all those crores. They just need to check out this NASA site and download some really wonderful high magnification pictures for free. What kind of magnification, you ask? Well, one that has Chowpatty the size of the nail on my little finger is the best I’ve found, so far. Aside from these fabulous city views, you can also view some of their ready-made collections. After all, the site claims to host “the best and most complete online collection of astronaut photographs of the Earth.”

Collaboration rules!
The Wikipedia
There are many fabulous reference sources online. Unfortunately, some of the best require paid subscriptions. Not so the Wikipedia, “the free-content encyclopedia that anyone can edit,” which runs on the wiki platform. What is a wiki? Well, imagine a gigantic blackboard, which anyone who stops by can write on. (And also erase, totally or partially what someone else has written. Before you do that, please make sure you read their instructions!) So you have experts in different areas giving you detailed dissertations on their specialties, with links to other sites and related pages. While the English Wikipedia is the largest, there are also growing wikipedias in other languages, including Hindi, Urdu, Tamil, Kannada and Malayalam. Other Wikimedia projects include Wiktionary, Wikinews, Wikiquote and Wikispecies.

Home-grown
Kamat’s Potpourri
One of the older Indian personal websites, Kamat’s Potpourri is very much a labour of love, produced by Vikas Kamat and his wife, which includes work by his his parents, the scholars the late Dr. K. L. Kamat and Jyotsna Kamat. As the site’s FAQs say, “Among them, they share three Doctorates, Five Masters degrees and seven other University degrees, and Kamat’s Potpourri constitutes over a hundred person-years of work.” So you can expect scholarship and firm opinion for sure! There’s a vast repository of information on Indian history, art, mythology, and much else. One of the amazing things about it is that the older Kamats never used a computer. They would write up their information and mail it to Vikas by post. He would then scan pictures, retype articles, and upload. Like I said, a labour of love.

Blog of the week - Bride in waiting
BridalBeer
An anonymous (though a few bloggers I know have met her) young woman in Calcutta who “was briefly in love.I was in New York for long enough to miss it. Now I am in India, training to be a wife-for-life to a relative stranger (not a stranger who is a relative, we don’t do those).” She writes about the past with the Ex, life as it is now, and the “Would-Bes” she meets, interspersed with the occasional random link and her views on news articles.

Vita Brevis
The Death Clock
Life is precious. You sure you want to be spending all that time staring at your computer screen? Absolutely? Well, go try out this site. Enter your date of birth, weight, sex, attitude(pessimistic sadistic and optimistic are the options available) and whether or not you smoke. Hit enter, and a pop-up gives you your date of death, and a clock begins counting off the seconds you have left. Now, do you still want some more sites to look at? Come to think of it, that’s enough writing for the day. I’m off to get some sunshine.


This column will explore the wilder, wackier, weirder corners of the world wide web. Feedback, suggestions welcome. Mail inthemousetrap@indiatimes.com.

Published in the Times of India, Mumbai edition, 20th May, 2005.

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Friday, 13 May 2005

Mousetrap - 2

A little potty
Sulabh International Museum of Toilets
Dr Bindeshwar Pathak’s wonderfully quirky little site is the web face of his real life museum in Delhi, and a delightful, um, convenience stop on the information superhighway. Unfortunately, it’s a rather small site. Just a few clumsily designed pages, featuring an essay by the learned doctor, a fawning tribute to him, and an over-before-you-know-it stroll through the virtual museum. But you get to see France’s King Louis XIII’s throne (and I am not being funny here), a portable toilet designed to look like a stack of leather-bound books, commodes with arm- and back-rests… Do use the feedback form and ask the webmaster to expand the site.

Crumbs!
halfbakery
Speaking of toilets, where do you think you’d find Schrodinger's Toilet Seat? Try the halfbakery, where all the ideas that haven’t spent enough time in the oven find a home. It is a “communal database of original, fictitious inventions, edited by its users.” Aside from that toilet seat that is neither up or down, you’ll find a Zen photocopier, Custard-Filled Speed Bumps (speedbreakers to us), glow in the dark beer, and lots, lots more. You can browse without registering, but will have to sign up to contribute or comment. (Hat-tip to Karthi Marshan.)

Myth Universe
Encyclopedia Mythica
An encyclopaedia of mythology, folklore, and religion, it offers as much to the serious student as it does to the casual surfer. Myths sorted by region, folklore in various categories, the site can keep you occupied for hours. It also has an image gallery, a fantastic bestiary that covers all manner of mythical creatures from different cultures, a gallery of legendary heroes, and even a growing set of genealogical tables. The site also has a section on Hindu mythology. And you can subscribe to its RSS feed. No, that’s not what you think. That stands for Really Simple Syndication (among other things), which is a way to read fresh news or blog feeds via a feed reader.

Forward this
Hoaxbusters
I wish I had a buck for each time I get one of those mails telling me that Microsoft, or even Mr Bill himself, would reward me financially for forwarding a certain mail, or the one about the woman who’s husband is suffering from a rare disease (with a Bombay phone number too!), or any number of warnings about worms and virii that reappear every few months. For the frequent offenders I have a particularly nasty mail that one can’t reproduce in a family newspaper. For the people you can’t offend, however, I send them to this site. A pretty comprehensive, categorised listing of hoaxes, chain letters and urban myths, it’s the polite way to tell people they’ve been had.

Blog of the week,
Improbable research
You’ve heard of the Ig Nobels? The prizes that reward scientists who have conducted actual research into phenomena that, well, lets just say the cures for cancer and the common cold don’t feature in the list. Anway, the people behind the awards also send out a newsletter, and recently, like everyone else and his uncle, they started a blog. This one, updated fairly regularly, is a good place to start your daily aimless ramble around the web.


This column will explore the wilder, wackier, weirder corners of the world wide web. Feedback, suggestions welcome. Mail inthemousetrap@indiatimes.com.

Published in the Times of India, Mumbai edition, 13th May, 2005.

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Friday, 6 May 2005

Mousetrap - 1

What was that word again?
Word Spy
You know all those I’m-so-cool words that suddenly come into vogue with the with-it corpo crowd? That get bandied about by the young B-school grads with the power ties? This site is a good place to figure out what the heck they’re saying. Seriously, though (and before my MBA friends put a fatwa out on me), the site is a fascinating repository of what’s new and happening. It calls what it does “lexpionage,” or the sleuthing of new words and phrases. And the words it chooses aren’t the made-up variety of doubtful provenance that descend into your inbox with monotonous regularity. Word Spy includes detailed citations of each entry.

Click to find
Bartleby.com
This is what the net was supposed to be: free information across borders.
This site is one of many (we’ll cover some more in future columns) that give you online versions of books, absolutely free. Bartleby is best known for the invaluable set of reference books it offers. (A small sampler: Roget's Thesaurus, Fowler's King's English, Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, World's Orations, Oxford Shakespeare, Gray’s Anatomy, World Factbook, Oxford English Verse, the Bhagavad Gita, the King James Bible, and much more.) But it also has sections on non-fiction, fiction, and poetry.
Worth a virtual bookmark, hmm?

Creature Feature
Cryptozoology
Cryptozoologists study animals that are presumed to exist, ranging from the mythological to those which are presumed extinct. In this field of, um, science, these creatures are called cryptids, and include everything from the Yeti and the Loch Ness monster to the thylacine (or Tasmanian Tiger, sightings of which have been reported recently) and the ivory-billed woodpecker, recently spotted in the USA.
This site, run, not by professionals or organisations, but by amateur enthusiasts, lists many cryptids, has a bunch of interesting links and news, articles, pictures, a discussion forum, and lots more. Parts of the site are accessible only to members, but joining is free.

Sea Major
Jazz Goa
If you’re headed for India’s only truly tourist-friendly state, and you want to make sure you hear music other than techno, trance, or whatever the beach shack guys are playing these days, check out this site.
The aesthetics range from dull to chaotic (too many add-on services have been jammed in without customising the look), and the home page sounds like it’s been put together by the marketing team in a consumer products MNC.
But never mind all that. What counts is that it lists venues and musicians, has a few MP3 files by Goan jazz artists to download (and one solitary video), and best of all, a gig guide that lists coming performances.

From the badlands
The Jesustan Diaries
The tongue-in-cheek travels and travails of a desi in the Land of the Free, which he calls Jesustan. The anonymous blogger, who signs himself ‘PS’, adopts the condescending style of countless white travellers in heathen lands, taking quiet little digs at all manner of Americana. But he’s even-handed, is PS. He just as frequently turns his scathing wit on desis in the US, and on the home country too. Unlike many bloggers, he doesn’t post daily. But he does promise one post each weekend, and he does long posts, so, I guess, it’s worth the wait.

This column will explore the wilder, wackier, weirder corners of the world wide web. Feedback, suggestions welcome. Mail inthemousetrap@indiatimes.com.

The first edition of a column in the Times of India's Bombay edition. Published 6th May, 2005.

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Sunday, 1 May 2005

Where books go after they’re down-sized.

New and Secondhand Bookshop



A hundred years ago, Jamalbhai Ratansi, who ran a business in the raddi trade, decided to start a shop on the Kalbadevi Road, near what is now the Metro junction. You see, along with the old newspapers, he also frequently bought bundles of discarded books by weight. So he decided to start selling them piecemeal, at prices way below the original cost, but still a tidy mark-up from what he paid for them.

Thus was born New And Secondhand Bookshop, Bombay institution and landmark. In 1917, it moved to its current location, just across the street from the now-demolished building that was its previous home.

Jamalbhai has since departed for the Reading Room in the Sky, but N&S is still very much here, run by Sultan Vishram, Jamalbhai’s grandson and the current proprietor.

Over the years, N&S has had a long string of famous customers. Sultanbhai pulls out a fat file of press clippings, and tells me that B R Ambedkar, R K Narayan, Manohar Malgaonkar, Mulk Raj Anand, P L Deshpande and Osho Rajneesh all bought books from the shop.

Ambedkar, he says, never came in, always staying in his car outside, while someone else bought his books. Rajneesh (then plain Acharya) would come in at least once a week, and spend an hour browsing, before bargaining vigorously over the books he wanted, “He would say he was a sadhu, and the books should be given free. But my uncle would tell him, ‘Aap sadhu hain, hum to sansari hain na?’”

Which is not to say, he continues, after the chuckles have subsided, that commerce ever dominated love of books. Jamalbhai would frequently told customers who couldn’t afford books, “Go ahead, pay later. Learn, learn!” And his son, Sultanbhai’s uncle, loved to say “Saraswati and Lakshmi can’t sit in the same place.”

The “New” in the shop’s name is technically accurate – they do stock new titles on certain subjects like interior decoration and art – but the tight margins in that trade make it an unattractive business proposition, so they make up less than 10% of inventory. It’s the musty smell of old books that dominates. The very rare finds are stored under lock and key. But out there in the open is the gamut from a 1955 Encyclopaedia Britannica set and Shaw’s Complete Prefaces to elderly pulp paperbacks and mildly bruised coffee-table books. (My personal finds dating back from impoverished college years include a treasured 25th Anniversary Peanuts Collection, a stack of cloth-bound Wodehouses, and much crime and science fiction.)

Sultanbhai only began managing the shop actively in the last few months, after the retirement of his manager, Chandrakant Mankame. Mr Mankame had served the shop for sixty years, starting at age 11, as the founder’s gofer. Jamalbhai had sent him to night school, where he learned English. As he grew up, he was given more and more responsibility, till he became manager.

He has a mind like a computer, Sultanbhai tells me. In sixty years, he had bought almost every book in the shelves, and could remember exactly which dusty pile in which crammed shelf in which narrow row housed a certain book. Without this human database (in January, after seeing the shop into its centenary year, Mankame finally retired), Sultanbhai has begun to reorganise the shop so that less elephantine memories can cope, rearranging sections, making out an inventory, and perhaps, if he can bring himself to go entirely modern, a computerised database.

“There’s no other proper shop like ours in Bombay,” says Sultanbhai. And, unfortunately, there soon might be none.

“The book trade on the whole is suffering,” he says, “There is TV, computers… People don’t read that much anymore. And all these books, until we get a customer, they’re just someone’s discarded junk. [The reorganisation and renovation] is my last effort. If business does not improve, I will have to close down and sell.”

Isn’t there a market for rare books, I ask him. He shakes his head. “Once, yes, we’d find some rare books in our purchases. Now,” wry smile, “people are smart. They know what’s rare.”

Yes, I murmur to myself on the way out. But then New And Secondhand is rare too. And I hope to hell enough customers keep trooping in to take it into its second century, that Lakshmi can give Saraswati the teensiest helping hand.

New And Secondhand Bookshop, 526, Kalbadevi Road, Mumbai 400002. Ph: +91 22 22013314 Fax (care of): +91 22 22072024.

Published in the Outlook Traveller, May 2005 edition, in the column Favourite Things, under the title "Old Curiosity Shop" or some such.



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Travelling the world (wide web)

Imagine there’s no countries,
It isn’t hard to do


The web, brothers and sisters, has no boundaries. We’re one big, happy family, connected by Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s invention.

The world is literally at one’s fingertips, and for many a geek, that’s nirvana.

But, thankfully for the tourism industry, vast multitudes move their atoms and disposable incomes around the world, instead of pulling bytes to their desktop.

Today’s enlightened travellers make their own itineraries, rather than doing the despised package holiday routine. So guidebooks still figure largely in holiday plans, and travel magazines aren’t just for the armchair traveller.

But the net is now ubiquitous enough for it to have an increasingly bigger influence on travel choices. There are sites run by tourism boards and the like. And every resort and hotel worth its IT budget has a website of sorts too. For you, that’s plenty of places where you can check rates, preview local attractions, research taboos, check out possible side-trips and so on. But these are commercial sites, which, by definition, paint a seductive picture of what they’re promoting (and some can be rather economical with the truth). And there’s so damn many of them.

Where, then, does the canny netizen go to get an unbiased picture of the place s/he wants to visit?

There are sites (like the one run by this mag) with articles by specialist writers and photographers, of course. God bless ’em all, and may they prosper and continue to pay me (preferably more than they do already) to travel and write for them.

But there’s another, more democratic phenomenon which might interest you: the travel community site.

Here, ordinary people, people like you (not me, I’m a specialist, m’dear, don’t do this at home, etc.), exchange info, tips, raves and rants about the places they’ve visited or are about to, make connections with potential travel companions, show pictures, and much more.

These sites usually support themselves with ads, but are not beholden to their advertisers, since the ads are usually served by automated processes. So, while you most certainly will see bias on an individual level, you can rely on them not having a commercial axe to grind.

So, when you next wanna wander, whisper softly into you search engine’s ear, “travel community.” Happy trails.

Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world.


Siteseeing

virtualtourist, aside from the standard members’ articles and pictures, features a nifty do-it-yourself guidebook. As you wander the site, you can flag stuff to be included in your personal folders, then assemble it into a PDF which you can print or save.

world66 offers the basics, plus PDF guides, and stuff you can download to smart phones, GPS systems and other handheld devices.

bootsnall is geared towards the independent traveller, the backpacker, go with the flow type.

http://thorntree.lonelyplanet.com is the forum run by the backpacker world’s bible. ’Nuf said?

indiaresortssurvey, as the name suggests, covers Indian resorts. It lets you rate them, and check out other people’s ratings, and adds on goodies for regular contributors.

hermail.net is an international directory of women travellers.

flyertalk is dedicated to frequent flyer miles. As the site says, “all miles, all the time”

couchsurfing, hospitalityclub.org and globalfreeloaders all (in slightly different ways) let you link up with people at the other end of your return ticket to get yourself accommodation that’s free, cheap, or bartered on a reciprocal basis.

In addition, many online communities have channels or sub-sections devoted to travel. A random example anothersubcontinent.com, a community of (mainly) expat desis, who have, among their other fora, one dedicated to travel: www.anothersubcontinent.com/forums/index.php?&showforum=23


Published in Outlook Traveller, May edition.

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