November 27, 2005

Mousetrap - 29

So fa so good
CouchSurfing
An online trading zone isn’t an original idea, but, I believe, this site was the first to adapt it to the needs of travellers looking for cheap, but rich travel experiences. It lets you connect with other members, and, hopefully, find someone in your desired destination who is willing to host you. (“Host” could mean you get to sleep on their couch, natch, but it could also mean a guest room, a place to pitch a tent, or even the floor.) Members are vouched for by a tiered verification system. You’d have to start at zilch, of course, and build cred for yourself by being a good guest. They haven’t got every country in the world covered (so don’t plan on Siberia or Antarctica just yet) but they’re getting there. Happy Trails!

Quick bytes
Del.icio.us
If you use different PCs at home and the office, or, perchance, find yourself at a strange computer, and need to get to a site that you just know you have bookmarked elsewhere, you’ll know the agony of having all your Favorites in one basket. This site seeks to ease your pain by storing your Bookmarks online. You’ll need to sign up, of course, but after that, you have an always on online bookmark system. Tags help you differentiate your bookmarks, and if you use them well, they make finding information a breeze. What’s more, you can share your tags with friends, and take advantage of the tags that other people have created to help you find stuff.

Wee Wee Web
TinyURL & durl.us
Large sites with automated content management systems generate file names on the fly, usually using lots of numbers. So, when you see an interesting link and, full of the milk of human kindness, decide to widen the horizons of your 127 closest friends by forwarding the link to them, you wind up with http://subdomain.domain.tld/topic/subtopic/month/date/hour/articleshow/veryveryverylongnumber.smthng which won’t fit into one line. And, if you have HTML mail turned off, it may look okay to you, but when your victims get your mail, they find the URL broken up into two lines, with only the first bit clickable, and naturally, leading nowhere except to a “page not found” notice. Way out? Go to one of these sites, paste in that address and instantly get something like http://tinyurl.com/az3v7 or http://www.durl.us/86which you can then send to your buddies, and no one will swear at you. Both those, by the way, will take you to this column’s web archive.

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Blog of the week

Whoops
The Accidental Elephant
Less than a month old, but this collaboration is already showing immense promise. Three bloggers in different corners of the world write and illustrate for children. While they keep it simple, they don’t condescend to their audiences, and there’s much to enjoy even by more cynical adults. The writing is warm and full of whimsy, and the illustrations charming. I see a book deal in this blog’s future!


Reader suggestions welcome, and will be acknowledged. Go to http://o3.indiatimes.com/mousetrap for past columns, and to comment, or mail inthemousetrap@indiatimes.com. The writer blogs at http://zigzackly.blogspot.com.

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

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November 20, 2005

Mousetrap - 28

By all that’s holy
The Internet Sacred Text Archive
I’m not big on religion, but this site’s first lines hooked me: “This is a quiet place in cyberspace devoted to religious tolerance and scholarship.” Not a rant in sight, just texts (mostly in English translation, but some with in the original language too) from just about every religion, tradition and belief that produced texts that we know of, from African religions to Zoroastrianism. The archive pulls together material from a huge variety of sources: scans from books and articles, material from early internet FTP archives and BBSes, even transcripts and retellings from religions with an oral tradition. It has over 45,000 files, some of them unique. For instance, comprehensive translations of the Upanishads and the Rig Veda that are unavailable online elsewhere. Amen.

And some ketchup
Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster
You’ve heard about the whole battle being waged by Dubya & disciples to have “Intelligent Design” taught in schools in the US, right? (Of course we wouldn’t dream of doing the same in this great and free land of many thousands of years of culture, right?) Anyway. A chap called Bobby Henderson wrote to the Kansas School Board, tongue firmly in cheek, demanding not only that ID be taught, but that his theory of ID be taught as well: that the universe was created by a Flying Spaghetti Monster. Read the rest on the site, and follow the, er, evolution of this “religion” and its “splinter” groups, each funnier than the last (they include Pastafarians, Linguinists, Pirations and Ninjaists), all poking fun at religion in general. Another great source for lots of links is the Uncyclopedia page on the cult.

Where knowledge is free
National Portal of India
The Indian Government’s very own portal. A much overdue, and for those of us used to making fun of government offerings, surprisingly good site. Its aim is to provide “single window access to the information and services being provided by the Indian Government for the citizens and other stakeholders.” It has sections aimed at citizens, business interests and overseas readers, listings of people in government, voluminous directories, important documents, downloads of forms searchable by state, tenders, maps (disappointing geographically speaking, considering what’s available online totally free, but compensates with maps you wouldn’t find easily elsewhere, like demographic info) and links to other government sites. The design and the interface are a bit grotty, in my arrogant opinion, but they do promise continue the “enhancement and enrichment” of the site, so there is hope. Into that heaven of freedom, my father...

Ego scraping
Googlism
A neat little gimmick that uses search results from Google to amusing effect. Pick a name, a place, an object or even days, dates and events, and let Googlism loose. Based on the search engine’s results, the page gives you a series of statements that are “what Google.com thinks of you.” For more fun, check out the links just below the search box (Who is, What is, Where is, When is) for the top searches and the results thereof.

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Blog of the week

No, really!
Literally
That’s the wonderful thing about the web. You can take your pet peeve and devote an entire blog to it. And if it’s a word that’s misused as often as “literally” is, hey, there’s a lot to blog about. Here, you get examples from the media and elsewhere of the word’s incorrect and unnecessary usage, and, just to be fair, its proper use too. Good fun. Literally.

Reader suggestions welcome, and will be acknowledged. Go to http://o3.indiatimes.com/mousetrap for past columns, and to comment, or mail inthemousetrap@indiatimes.com. The writer blogs at http://zigzackly.blogspot.com.

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

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November 13, 2005

Mousetrap - 27

MS Orifice
Microsuck
For many years, this site was known as [censored]microsoft.com, under which name it gloried till, I think, last year or the year before, when it also became available under the more socially acceptable URL you see here. (For the curious – not you, junior, go back to the previous item, there’s a good lad – you can still find it under the name that begins with “F.”) No prizes for guessing that the site’s founder is not part of Bill’s fan club. Aside from articles telling you what various people think is wrong with MS products, the site also has a long list of alternatives for those who’d rather not be in thrall to Redmond. And there’s also a forum. Viva la revolution.

Peer review
guimp
All the action happens in an area 18pixels square. News, games, downloads, a gallery (!), some graphics, links... Go see. Just remember not to set your monitor to very high resolution.

Feed for thought
http://www.bloglines.com/, http://reader.google.com/
Most blogs (and many news sites), offer you free feeds. So, instead of visiting each site, you get updates from all of them in a single window, via a feed reader service or application like these. Bloglines is a great service I’ve been using for ages. Google’s new Reader is making waves, and is worth checking out. The open-source browser, Firefox, offers you instant subscriptions via a little orange button in the bottom-right corner, and also via its Thunderbird mail and newsreader. To subscribe to a site’s feed, look for icons for “RSS,” “RDF,” “Atom,” “Site Feed,” etc. Most applications can also help you auto-discover feeds – simply feed in the URL, and the app will find its feed. Once you line up your subscriptions, it’s as easy as checking email. (Nudge, nudge, wink, wink: here’s a feed you could subscribe to: http://o3.indiatimes.com/mousetrap/Rss.aspx)

In your hands
Phone Feeds
If you hold you cellphone far, far more than you do the hand of your Significant Other, baby, you have trouble. But never mind. If that handset can do the WAP thing, you can use it to subscribe to news and blog feeds (see previous item), thanks to this free service. You’ll have to first go to the site via your computer, and find out whether it offers a WAP-compatible feed. If not, you can enter the RSS or Atom feed URL into the box on this page, and it will generate a free WAP-accessible feed that you can then access via your phone.

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Non-Blog of the week
Since I’ve already hit you with two blog-related items, no blog this week. Instead, hehehehe...
Patron saint
The Diary of Samuel Pepys
Blogs didn’t start out as personal diaries, but now that’s the norm, rather then the exception. This site brings you the writing of a man whose name is practically synonymous with the diary: Samuel Pepys, the 17th Century Englishman who faithfully recorded his thoughts on his life and times. It presents his diaries as if he were writing them in the present, rather than in the 1600s, with the diary entry of January 1st, 1660 posted on January 1st 2003, and succeeding entries following on from there. Pepys’s writing habits are faithfully followed – he wrote about each day’s events late every night, so expect fresh entries at 11 p.m. UK time. It’s much more than a straight reproduction, though: there are summaries, notes, lots of background information, all profusely hyperlinked and easy to navigate. If old Sam had been alive today, he’d have been a blogger.


Reader suggestions welcome, and will be acknowledged. Go to http://o3.indiatimes.com/mousetrap for past columns, and to comment, or mail inthemousetrap@indiatimes.com. The writer blogs at http://zigzackly.blogspot.com.

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

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November 06, 2005

Mousetrap - 26

Outer Cyber Space
Blog in Space
Of course you know that television signals and radio broadcasts don’t just come to our receivers; they also stream out to space... So, somewhere, some time, some poor alien will shrug its antennae and give up trying to figure out saas-bahu soaps. Never mind. Now, citizens of cyber space, you too can inflict your thoughts on the universe at large. Simply feed in your URL and RSS feed, and on to Andromeda. If you don’t have a blog, you can send an email message instead. And either way, there are snazzy badges you can display on your site. Go for it. In space, no one knows you’re a Sirius.

Knot your ordinary website
How to Tie a Tie
So, running dog of western values and slave to imperialism, a piece of coloured cloth knotted around your neck makes you feel well-dressed? And round-and-round-and-back-and-through (more formally known, I’m told, as a Four in Hand, or as we used to say in school, the samosa) getting to be a bit tedious? This site will show you variations such as the Windsor, half-Windsor, and Pratt, and for good measure, how to tie a bow tie. The rest of the site looks promising, but merely serves up search engine results for the various headings, some of them hilariously off-topic. For light amusement, see Animal Ties > Cairn Terrier (as a random example). You’ll find instructions on how not to choke your German Shepherd pretty high on the list.

Life under the microscope
Stalking the mysterious microbe
This one’s for the kiddies. Sam Sleuth has fun ways to teach them about the smaller inhabitants of our planet, with simple – albeit Americanised – analogies and colourful illustrations. Plus there’s news, experiments to do (no, Mummyji, they won’t get pond scum on the sofa), advice on what to study to become a microbiologist, and yes (this Mummyji will like), plenty of reasons why the progeny should wash their hands regularly.

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Blog of the week

Ignored lives
Lives in Focus
A writer and a photographer bring attention to people who rarely get visibility in mainstream media. Their current focus is the impact of India’s new patent law (passed earlier this year, as a step towards our acceptance into the WTO) on HIV-infected people who depend on Indian versions of patented Anti-retro Viral (ARV) drugs to survive. They are using the site to release over 2,000 photographs and 13 hours of video interviews they collected from AIDS shelters and hospices in Mumbai, Bangalore, and Hyderabad. In their words, they want to “harness the Internet to showcase an issue with global ramifications—not just as information but as a way to involve viewers.”


Reader suggestions welcome, and will be acknowledged. Go to http://o3.indiatimes.com/mousetrap for past columns, and to comment, or mail inthemousetrap@indiatimes.com. The writer blogs at http://zigzackly.blogspot.com.

Published in the Times of India, Mumbai edition, 6th November, 2005.

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November 01, 2005

I can see your house from here! [Cybertrack - 3]

Google Earth

Google Earth has caused significant undergarment torsion to the establishment, with even our First Rocket Scientist expressing concern at its freely available (to anyone with a whacking great broadband connection and Win2K or XP, that is) close-ups of the earth’s surface.

A clever mix of animation and actual satellite photography, and the globe is your plaything; spin it, flip it, fly around it, do a vertiginous zoom from outer space to close enough to see an individual street, building or even a vehicle. (I picked out out the yellow smudges of the taxi lineoutside Nizamuddin railway station, and, nearer home, the white streak of concrete changing to the black of tar road near the Vashi creek bridge.)

Google takes this already magical experience, mixes in mapping software, and harnesses the collaborative efforts of online communities, letting you overlay road maps, locate specific addresses, restaurants, hospitals, get driving directions, even put a thumbtack on your own neighbourhood.

For the traveller, this means you get a perspective on the place you’re interested in, a sense of of being there, that you’d never get from even a detailed line map.

Easy landmarks to find: Manhattan’s skyscrapers and the Statue of Liberty, the London Eye, the Eiffel Tower, the Gateway of India, India Gate. And yes, Rashtrapati Bhavan is dead easy. You can even figure out when the shots were taken by the angle of the shadows. The White House, though, has been blurred out, at the request of Georgie’s underlings. Hm. I see your point, Kalamsaheb.

Published in the November edition of Outlook Traveller, in a column called Cybertrack



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Shock and Awe

Fifty thousand years ago – give or take a few centuries – a rather large chunk of rock came hurtling in from space. As it screamed through the atmosphere, it heated up, lost some of its mass. But enough of it was left over (a meteorite about 60 metres across, weighing in at about a million tonnes) to make a rather large thump when it hit the planet’s surface. Not surprisingly, it made a fairly decent sized hole where it landed - a crater close to two kilometers in diameter, with walls over 130 metres high. The meteor itself – or what’s left of it – is, various references tell me, buried deep in the earth’s crust in the centre of the crater.

The impact, a six megaton explosion (or six hundred times the explosive force released by first atomic bombs), say scientists, generated enough heat to not just shatter the basalt rock, but to melt and vapourise it. It would have, quite naturally, finished off any local flora and fauna in the ’hood without a trace.

But the long years since then have seen Mother Nature slowly reclaiming what was hers. Water from underground springs liberated by the explosion flowed into the crater, covering the bottom of he basin with a lake. Rain, sand and wind erosion and erosion saw tortured rock being covered with sand. Seeds flew in, worked their roots into the soil, held it together, raised grass and shrubs and bushes and trees into the sky, and the earth healed.

But it healed in unsual ways.

While the walls of the crater became densely wooded, the lake turned into something altogther unique. The waters that fed it had nowhere else to flow - it is a basin after all. And the only escape is evaporation. But the salts and minerals they brought with them had nowehere to go and the lake slowly turned turned brackish. It now has very high pH value, it’s saltier than sea water, and a veritable soup of minerals. A hostile environment for life as we know it. But in the same way as Science has found life near volcanic vents on ocean beds, where it has no business being, it has also found unique, hitherto unknown, and evolving life in the Lonar lake. A small consultation with Auntie Google reveals that there is a form of blue-green algae that is essentially a new life form.

It’s not just the micro-biologists who will salivate though. Geologists spent decades debating the origins of the crater. It was once assumed to be volcanic in origin, considering that it was in the middle of the Deccan Plateau, which high school geography will have told you is the result of a steady build-up of lava oozing from the earth’s innards. It was only in the twentieth century that it was agreed that it was an astrobleme, not a geobleme. (Ooh, how knowledgeable search engines can make one sound! Those words mean, respectively, the scars on the earth’s surface formed by collision with extra-terrestrial objects, and those formed by internal explosions, like ’quakes or eruptions.)

Even now, with its provenance agreed upon, Lonar is a happy hunting ground for the rock-heads. Aside from being the third-largest impact crater on earth, it is the only one in basaltic rock. For more examples, you’d have to travel quite a bit. Like to the Moon, or Mars.

That’s all very well, I can hear you (and the editor) say, what of those of us who are not working on our theses? This is a travel magazine, not a Bill Bryson wannabe piece.

Very well.

Shun the carved out steps near the town - they’re for wussies. Make your way down any of the other paths, following the hoofprints of cattle, and, sigh, the trail of paan masala sachets down any other part of the crater. Start out from the East, where the gradient is less steep, and the walls less high. That’s because the meteor came in from the East, at an angle, causing the West side to pile up a little higher and steeper. Throw a large ballbearing into smoothened beach sand at an angle, and then look at the results to see what I mean.

Pick your way through the rocks (wear non-slip soles, please!) and look down around your feet frequently. For the collector of oddities, a five-minute stroll near the lip of the crater will yield a handfull of unusual pebbles in various shades and shapes. Glazed, fractured, veined, translucent, crystalline, pitted, deformed, they are the remnants of one our planet’s last known arguments with the solar system. That’s practically stardust you’re holding there, laddie!

(They, I tell Abhijit, are the merely surprised pebbles as opposed to what the boffins call “shocked rock” that sticks out of the earth walls like oversize warts. Abhijit is not amused. Photographers are a hard room to play.)

Oh right. Enough already with the Short History.

As the walls begin to level out, the shrubs grow thicker, till all of a sudden you’re walking through the undergrowth of the trees that were so far below you. Insects hum, birds converse loudly, and the sun is there somewhere – you can feel the heat – but it’s dim and damp here. In a short while, you break through to the broader path, flattened by bare feet over the millennia, that circumscribes the lake. Decide whether you want to go clockwise or anti, get your bearings (so you know when you’re back here to find our way back up), and stroll. Go soft, and you’ll come upon birds of various feathers. And you’ll regret not going for those BNHS walks, because all you can say is “Look, a red one!” and “There! A yellow and black one!” You can hear peacocks, their calls clear across the flat expanse of water. If you’re lucky, you might see one. The closest we got was a peahen, which raced off into shelter, giving us offended looks, at our approach. The Greater Flamingo stops over here, I have read, and even I can recognise one of those, but it’s too early in the year for them. For the birder, there’s much to see. A photocopied sheet from the manager of the MTDC resort tells me that you’ll find: dabchick, red-wattled lapwing, dusky reed warbler, rufouse-backed shrike, golden oriole, spot-bill duck, small green bea-eater, ashy wren warbler, and much more. And for the non-aviphiliacs (yes, I just made that up), squirrels, rabbits, langurs, signature spiders, funnel spiders and, if you’re lucky, maybe deer.

As you walk around, at regular intervals, you come upon the ruins of temples, thousands of years old some of them, going by the MTDC manager’s handouts. More modern hands have left their mark too, informing us of Sanju’s deep affection for Rita in white paint on the ancient blocks. The horror. Aside from twelve temples there’s also supposed to be a dargah here somewhere, but we seem to have managed to miss it. One temple, at about a third of the way around, is in frequent use: an electric wire and a water pipe emerge from the trees, saffron flags flutter, a garbage pit buzzes with flies, litter everywhere. We move on. Or rather, I move on – my intrepid photographer picks his way through the mudflats, to take photos through the branches of a dead tree. “Surreal!” he says, breathlessly. “Get real!” I growl back at him. The sun is beginning to disappear behind the crater, and Abhijit wants a sunset shot. He gallops off, fatigue forgotten, leaving his writer panting in his wake, as photographers are wont to do.

By the time I break through the tree line he’s a distant figure near the lip of the crater.

I stop to take stock. Also to catch my breath. And as the sun turns the sky technicolour a realisation dawns on me. This is the furthest I’ve been from other human beings since a day, more than ten years ago, when I went off climbing a peak near McLeodganj, In Himachal.

I find a nice rock, apologise for adding to its trauma, and lie back to look at the sky.

Aah.


The information

Getting there.
By Air: Aurangabad, 170 km.
By Rail: Aurangabad or Jalna (98km)
Road distances: From Mumbai, 553km, Pune 401km, Nagpur 388km

Places to Stay
MTDC’s guest house is on the lip of the crater - Lonar has very few other half-decent options.
The service is warm and friendly, but the food is decidely erratic. Meals ranged from uncrecognisable, fiery, oily glop to a sublime fried fish delicately flavoured and done just right.
Tariffs: Rs 550 per 2-bed room, with attached bath with hot and cold running water, each room with a small front porch and a balcony/sit-out at the other end. (8 rooms) Two 16-bed dorms also available, at Rs 1250 per room. These rates will drop to Rs 450 and Rs 1000 respectively, February to April.
Booking via MTDC Central Reservation Division, Mumbai: (+91 22) 22026713, 22027762

Things to do.
The Crater is it. Ancient temples, some in ruins, dotted around the circumference of the lake, lush greenery, a profusion of bird life, some animals, interesting pebbles to collect, unique algae if you have your slides and microscope. MTDC’s staff will gladly arrange for you to be accompanied by an energetic local lad who will ensure that the hopelessly direction-challenged do not get lost on the one circular road around the top or the mud path around the lake. Carry drinking water and a snack.
If that won’t suffice, don’t go. Lonar, the town, offers little else: an ancient step well that has run dry and has become a rubbish dump, and a few temples near the Crater lip, a movie house. Oh yes, a wine shop of two.
You could take day trips to Ajanta and Ellora, but otherwise the nearest refuge for the all-mod-cons type is Aurangabad, several hours away by road.


Published in Outlook Traveller, November 2005 edition.



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