Tuesday, 28 June 2005

Many lives, one day

There are two ways I could do this piece.

I could tell you about a day in the life of an obscure creative director in a Bombay ad agency. But an obscure CD’s life is pretty much the same anywhere in the world, innit? And, besides, for me, that was something I stopped doing five years ago.

It was good, was advertising. Taught me a lot, made me some great pals.

But one day I looked up and ten years had gone by, the industry wasn’t the same one I had jumped into from journalism, the agency I was with had morphed into a different creature while I wasn’t looking, heck, even being a creative director wasn’t the thing that I had aimed for when I started out as a copy trainee, aged 25.

The agency, after the last bout of changes, had made it clear that I didn’t exactly fit into their plans, and it seemed like a good time to drop out. So I did. And started over once more.

First jump was on to the dotcom rollercoaster. A lovely ride, learned new skills, had fun. And then, as bubbles have the regrettable habit of doing, it burst.

Since then, I have consulted with several small agencies, handled some clients directly, dabbled in other stuff that interests me, made some money, not made lots more, and generally have a more interesting life now. And while I have had the occasional twinge of what-might-have-been, I haven’t regretted it a bit.

So, instead of telling you what it’s like to be an obscure creative director, let me tell you what it’s like being an obscure advertising freelancer, part-time CD, occasional radio spot producer, Voice Over artist, columnist and travel writer, and full time net addict.

The day usually starts with bleary reading of SMSes – everyone more than marginally acquainted with me knows better than to try and phone me before noon, the rest talk to my voicemail – asking me to call someone back. If it sounds urgent enough, say a VO that has to be done that very day (hallelujah!), I make the call uncaffeinated. Otherwise, I only work the phone after breakfast and the papers.

Calls done, the computer is fired up. Mail from several accounts gets checked first – personal mail, freelance work, work at the office, mail from a column, daily summaries from my several online groups and blogs, all to separate in-boxes.

If it’s a really frabjous day, Outlook Traveller will be checking whether I’m free to do a trip for them, or a fat estimate for a web project gets approved. Less exhilarating, but not unwelcome, someone’s sent me a URL or two for my column (I review websites, with a slant towards the weird and off-centre). Or there’s a brief in there somewhere. Usually, it’s a client, or a small agency wanting to know status on a job that’s underway.

All are good. Attention if any kind is good. It wasn’t too long ago that I’d been in the financial doldrums, after a series of complications had taken away large chunks of time and wiped out my savings. You see, when you’re freelancing, you only get paid when you work. Seems self-evident, I know, but when you’ve spent most of your working life in the secure knowledge that there’s going to be a cheque coming in at the end of the month whether you’d earned every paisa or not, you tend to not plan too far ahead.

The morning backlog taken care of, its time to check in to Pinstorm – that’s the search engine marketing agency where I consult part-time. I switch on Trillian, a wonderful little app which lets me log into four different kinds of instant messenger via the same window. I chat with my team on jobs in progress, exchanging URLs and comments, and then with the account handlers on any new stuff or developments on existing clients. And decide whether I need to get into respectable clothing and make the trip into the office. If there’s nothing urgent, I wander the web a bit, and there’s a dozen Firefox tabs windows open in quick order. One will be tuned into Caferati, an online writing group I help run, another has my RSS feedreader open (no, it’s not that RSS – this means Really Simple Syndication), others will be online comics and news sites.

If there is anything urgent I need to do, I still do the web routine, except that I ration myself to just an hour. And then the bus into town, because I loathe city driving with a passion, and break into hives when I think about finding parking.

Pinstorm is, at present, a small team, but stretched. Growth has been phenomenal, and I spend more time there than I had planned to when I signed up. But it’s fun work. The scary part of the business model is that the agency only gets paid for results. That’s more than balanced out by the fact that clients do not have final authority over the creative. Part of the agenda for me now is expanding the creative team to be able to handle the increased work load, so it’s likely that I’ll be checking through CVs or meeting prospective writers and designers.

If it’s a day when it hasn’t been necessary to pop by the office, the only other reasons for making the sortie into the crowded, noisy, dirty metropolis is if I have a radio spot to produce (rare, because I still haven’t made a dent into that area), a VO to do, or an independent client to meet. The last I enjoy the least, most of the time. They’re usually blissfully innocent of advertising rates, and want cut rate copy (“It’s just words, yaar, why should words cost so much?”).

The actual writing I tend to do in the still of the night, after the creative director and client handler duties are taken care of, with generous doses of Freecell and Scrabble and idle web surfing thrown in. The closer to deadline I am, the longer these recreational breaks, until I happen to glance out of the window and notice that the sky has begun to lighten. At which point I begin typing furiously.

Work done and emailed, a spot of reading, before I fall asleep, curtains drawn against the bright morning.

Today is another day.

Peter Griffin is a freelance writer, communications consultant and part-time creative director in Bombay.

Published some time in June, in Aurora, Karachi. It's an advertising and marketing publication from the Dawn group.


Thursday, 23 June 2005

Mousetrap - 8

It gnows what you like.
Gnod - The global network of dreams
An experimental project, Gnod is a “self-adapting system, living on this server and ‘talking’ to everyone who comes along.” Here’s the way it works. Type in the name of an author (on gnooks.com), and in a whirling matrix - you’ll have to wait a few seconds for it to settle down - it gives you other authors you might like. Likewise with movies. For music, the site first asks you to name favourite artistes, and then makes recommendations based on your choices. A related site that I didn’t find a link to on these sites (and in fact the way I found them - Thanks Nilanjana S Roy) is music-map.com, which does the same whirlpool act with musicians, bands and singers.

The world wild web
A “journey through the Internet into Wild India.” The site aims to become a portal of sorts for people interested in wildlife and adventure in India. It features contributed articles, special features, photography, a message board of sorts, tips on itineraries, resort reviews and an index to the National Parks. The flip side is that the site design is hard on the eyes, the navigation a bit clumsy, and worst of all, it doesn’t seem to have been updated since 2003 (except for the message board, an offsite utility, which does have recent questions and answers. Go visit, and tell them to update!

Moustache Database
Ever wondered how many kinds of moustaches exist there can be? This database seems to have all the answers. you can look up moustaches through history, on the upper lips of celebs and stars (nope, no Aamir Khan), and a few interesting ’tache tales. You might also want to check out the World Beard and Moustache Association, and the truly magnicient foliage at World Beard and Moustache Championships.

Comic relief
Raj Comics
Quite a favourite of mine for ages, this site features gushing introductions in bad English to the group’s stable of comic book characters, including a range of rather unusual superheroes, and some truly awful site design. So bad its good. Please go see. And meet Anthony (“the clouds thunder lightening flashes and dead man Anthony brakes out of his grave like a submarine fired a missile emerges out of the sea”), Super Commando Dhruva, the Master Out Witter whose “most potent weapon is his super fast track mind which helps him outdo and outwit any enemy in crunch situations.” and the rather hot Shakti (who changes into the mild-mannered, but also bootylicious Chanda.

I say, what.
The Chap
The Chap is British, obviously, and the online presence of a magazine by the same name. It deplores, with great style - and humour - the degeneration of standards in the UK, the vanishing of tweeds, the absence of moustaches and pipes and style in general. The site features selections from the magazine, a few other articles (see the bit on The Chap Olympics) plus an advice column, and a forum, free to join (www.sheridanclub.co.uk), that is thoughtfully designed to look like a Microsoft Help menu, “so you can spend even less time working and even more time conversing with your virtual chums.” Right then. Pip pip for now.

This column explores the wilder, wackier, weirder corners of the world wide web. Reader suggestions welcome, and will be acknowledged. Mail inthemousetrap@indiatimes.com.

Published in the Times of India, Mumbai edition, 24th June 2005.


Thursday, 16 June 2005

Mousetrap - 7

Survival of the funniest
Darwin Awards
The subject of many an internet forward, the Darwin Awards are part of internet lore. They started as fictional postings on Usenet, as far back as 1985. Online veterans will remember the story of the thief killed by the vending machine he was trying to rob, and the car with the jet-assisted take off. Both turned out to be untrue (see “urban legends” - see next website), but the term Darwin Awards stuck. The idea behind it is simple. Darwin Awards are darkly humourous tip of the hat to Charles Darwin. They “honour” people who improve the human gene pool by removing themselves from it in a spectacularly stupid manner. They are usually awarded posthumously – naturally – except in cases where “recipients” manage to sterilise themselves, ensuring that their genes don’t get passed on. Hours and hours of enjoyment in the archives. And yes, they’re all true stories. One of the conditions are that stories must be independently verifiable.

Heard it on the grapevine
The AFU & Urban Legends Archive
What is an Urban Legend? Briefly, it is a funny or gory - preferably both - story or anecdote that appears seemingly from nowhere, and the takes on a life of its own, spreading spontaneously (the internet and the “Fw:” button help). They are usually apocryphal, but not necessarily. Oh yes, they’re not necessarily urban either. And what’s AFU? It stands for the newsgroup, alt.folklore.urban, of which the site is a direct descendant. AFU is a newsgroup “devoted to the discussion and debunking of urban legends and other related issues.” The site categorises ULs neatly, and is a good place check not just for amusement but also as a way to check on things you hear about before you breathlessly pass them on.

What you don’t need to know
A parody of the Wikipedia (covered in a previous column), this wiki is supposed to be about satire, but winds up being knee-slappingly funny in its own right. As the site describes itself, it is an “encyclopedia full of misinformation and utter lies. It's sort of like Congress or Parliament. Unlike Congress or Parliament, however, we do have a sense of humor.” It doesn’t just laugh at the Wikipedia (on whose pages it originated, early this year), but also at itself. Try looking up the pages on Bombay, India or the indeed, the entry for Wikipedia. [Warning: the language can be, ahem, uninhibited. Not for the kiddies.]

On the road
Wooster Collective
Named after a street in Soho, New York, the Wooster collective showcases street art from all over the world. (Makes one wonder why we can’t get some of our ugly city walls painted by artists rather than let them be defaced with politicians’ slogans and advertisements.) There are huge amounts of eye-candy in the centre panel, done blog-style, with regular updates, and if that wasn’t enough, the sidebars are a veritable treasure trove.

Blog of the week
Streets, walls and the world at large
And while on street art, let me introduce you to this blogger (disclosure: she’s a friend), who has very few words for you. What she does have is wonderful pictures from around the world of, well, streets and walls. Downside: she posts infrequently. Must get her company to send her globetrotting some more. Er, can I carry your bags for you, Nandini?

This column explores the wilder, wackier, weirder corners of the world wide web. Reader suggestions welcome, and will be acknowledged. Mail inthemousetrap@indiatimes.com.

Published in the Times of India, Mumbai edition, 17th June 2005.


Thursday, 9 June 2005

Mousetrap - 6

A big thank you to the readers who sent in suggestions. Keep them coming, please (suggestions will be acknowledged). It makes the writing of this column so much easier for your lazy correspondent. And who knows, perhaps, like the first featured site today, I might get a book deal out of it.

News you better not use
News of the weird
It claims to be the most widely-read bizarre news feature in the USA, which I can’t corroborate. But it certainly lives up to its name. The site lists brief synopses of actual news items illustrating the, um, best of the weird, large parts of which are contributed by its devoted fan following (one more on my “why the heck didn’t I think of that?” list). Whether you choose to read it kill a little time while the boss is out at a meeting, or because it is a “ weekly chronicle of the continuing decline of civilisation ... [or] a therapeutic personal bench mark for reassuring yourself that it's all those other people (not you) who are the problem,” the site is well worth a visit. The archives are for paid subscribers, but you can read the latest column and the last 25 for free.

Blog of the week
“Brevity is for the weak” says Maciej Ceglowski. And then he proceeds to regale the web with long, well crafted and quietly funny essays. Topics include the worst pizza places in the world (the latest essay), and a guide to best practises for time travellers (based on a person who, on IRC chat, claimed to be a time traveller from the future).

The city that doesn’t sleep
Best of Bombay
This site wants to tell you where to party in the mega city. It also features sections on books, travel, music, movies, and the like, but some of those do not seem to have been updated in a while (Arts & Culture features “Theatre in Feb” as the second item on the list when I checked) and some of the listings sound to my ears like PR handouts or cut-paste jobs. Where it really comes into its own is the night life guide, which is where one suspects the hearts of the founders really are. Oodles of quick reviews, with useful information about ambience, cuisine, prices, whether a place serves alcohol or not, even recommended dishes and drinks. Their lists are searchable by category, location and budget, and seem pretty comprehensive to me. But then, I don’t get around much, with column deadlines dangling above my head. (Grazie, Salil Sojwal)

Extinct? Not if you can help it.
The Big Al game
Have a dino-crazy young ’un getting underfoot? Take the little tyke to this site and you won’t hear a peep out of him for a long while. He gets to role play an Allosaurus, from hatchling to adult, finding food, tackling all manner of other creatures, finding out what can harm him and what he can kill and eat. Along the way, there’s plenty of links where your pride and joy can get even more information and generally contribute to your feelings of inferiority at the level of his knowledge at an age when you were still accepted unquestioningly that cows, besides rallying the RSS, could jump over the moon.

Uncle Phaedrus, Finder of Lost Recipes
Uncle Phaedrus can tell you how to make Fudge or fruitcake, Mothering Sunday Cake or Shrimp Linguine, Chocolate Decadence Cake, Moustakouloura, Kashk Bademjan, Tropkapfen, Zweiback, Coquilles St. Jacques Crepes, Croatian Hrstula, Krem√≥wki, even food for diabetics, food allergy and other special diet recipes. The the list goes on and on, and there’s drool on the keyboard. So, bon appetit, till next week.

This column explores the wilder, wackier, weirder corners of the world wide web. Reader suggestions welcome, and will be acknowledged. Mail inthemousetrap@indiatimes.com.

Published in the Times of India, Mumbai edition, 11th June 2005.


Thursday, 2 June 2005

Mousetrap - 5

Girls just wanna have fun
No, it's not that kinda site. This site is dedicated to those unfortunate young ladies of Indian blood resident in the USA, who find themselves constantly compared – unfavourably – with “Good Indian Girls.” Who is a Bad Indian Girl, then? “If you have a boyfriend, are not married at 25, have not mastered the art of making your own plain yogurt, have nosy relatives constantly inquiring about your life,” you’re it. Hmm. That should interest a lot of women right here in this city. Well, girls, you’ll find a bunch of short pieces that lampoon the members of the menagerie: the perv uncle, the nosy auntie, and so on, plus Letterman-style Top Ten lists, and lots of tongue-in-cheek advice. Go girl!

If it was just a set of reviews of watering holes not just in Bombay and India, but in other parts of the world as well, I’d raise a toast to this site. But it also has a nice selection of cocktail recipes, information about various kinds of alcohol, smart drinking tips, contests, and a lively discussion forum. Cheers!

Blog of the week
The Compulsive Confessor
I’m not much of a fan of the Dear Diary school of blogs. Too many people who think what they had for breakfast is something the world needs to know now! But eM (“twenty-something, single, female, journalist, with large groups of friends and who goes out for drinks pretty regularly. That's my life and that's what I write about. Okay? Okay.”) has a life that a lot of people want to read about, evidently, because she is quickly developing a a fan following. She writes with a degree of frankness that anonyblogs make all too easy, but the difference is she writes well.

Utility site of the week
Mumbai Navigator
Don't expect sleek design, pretty pictures or other frippery. The Navigator (designed by the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at IIT Bombay) is a strictly functional site that helps you figure out the public transport in this city. Pick a start and end point, and it will give you a travel plan, estimated journey time, and any changes in transport you need to make. Or simply enter a place name and find out what transport is available. Or browse the database of bus routes sorted by number, and train routes. The site hasn't been updated in the last few years, so it will deny the existence of trains to Panvel, for instance, or of the Thane-Vashi rail link. No train timetable either. And someone at IIT is a spelling purist: if you don't start place names with a capital letter, the site won't find them. (Merci, Rohit Verma.)

Take one subtext, get two paradigms free
Postmodernism Generator
Want to bamboozle the eggheads in your life? Pop by this site, and copy and paste one of the randomly generated essays it spouts. Don’t like what you see? Hit ‘Refresh’ and it’ll do you another. And when you’ve found the one you want, go over to the PoMo Title Generator and find yourself a headline. See ya next week, professor.

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, 3rd June 2005.


Wednesday, 1 June 2005

The Sula Vineyards Tasting Room

If you find yourself passing Nashik, and you feel the need to irrigate your throat a bit, drop by the Sula vineyards.
You can take a guided tour of the winery, with a tasting and a mini wine appreciation session thrown in (swirl, sniff, sip, repeat). If you wanna drink shome more, you can hook a leg on the bar rail, or shtagger out – glass door, be careful – to the sheating area, a large balcony, open on three shides, with a panra... panoram... lovely view of vineyards, lake in middle distansh, and the hillsh for, wossisname, variety. Wee li’l chairsh. You could fall off. And when you’re done, you can buy up a few botts at factory ratesh. Cheersh. Don’t drink and drive, now.

The Sula Tasting Room is open to the public (Sun, Tue-Thu: 11:00 am – 7:30 pm, Fri-Sat: 11:00 am – 9:30 pm, Closed Mondays). Tour + Tasting, Rs 100. More wine as per rate card. You can nibble at a cheese platter while you sip. No meals served, but lunch can be organised for large groups with prior notice. Email visitsula@sulawines.com or call 0253 2331663 to arrange your tour. Sula’s website - sulawines.com - has instructions on how to get there.

Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar

Published in Outloook Traveller, June edition, as the text below a photospread.