December 24, 2006

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It’s Christmas tomorrow; a nice excuse for giving you a lot of good free stuff.

Soft spot
Softpedia
Since this is a web column, let’s start with stuff you can use on your computer. Oodles of free software here, for all of you who’d rather not spend money pimping up your machine. It’s all neatly sorted: Windows (natch), but also Mac and Linux stuff; programs for your handheld and cellphones; drivers; and yes, games. There are over 35000 products listed, though many are free-to-try (or what the rest of us call demos). Even better, the site reviews products, and new stuff comes in at the rate of around 100 a day. ’Tis indeed the season to be jolly.

Books for Kids
Want to get the little pride-and-joys out of your hair for a bit? Worried that they’re not reading enough? Concerned about the stuff you get on the web? Here are a few sites in which to let them loose.
The Rosetta Project
International Children's Digital Library
Children's Storybooks Online

Yum
Recipe Source: Christmas Recipes
If you haven’t quite had the time to figure out what the family’s going to eat tomorrow, Recipe Source will save the day. 77 recipes here, from the simple to the ones that you really have to love your family to take the time to do. I got hungry just looking at the titles, so you know who to invite for leftovers.

It’s a wrap
Word Wrapping Paper
Not a whole site, this. It’s a post on a blog, but a useful idea here for those of you who leave your gift-wrapping until the very last minute. You’ll need access to a printer, though.

Not-so-secret Santa
NORAD Santa
This one’s a repeat from last year, but it’s enough fun to repeat. In a nutshell, it’s the combined USA-Canada NORAD (North American Air Defense Command) at your service, to help you track Santa. It’s a fascinating story, and a really sweet initative. And it’s the 51st year since it began, offline.


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, 24th December, 2006.

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December 17, 2006

Mousetrap - 83

Search isn’t just about the top search engines. This week, a few unusual ways to find information you need.

Say that again?
howjsay
Finding word meanings is easy. Examples of usage, ditto. But English, with its various roots and influences and inconsistent spelling can be a right pain in the posterior when it comes to figuring out how to pronounce a word you’ve never heard used. Yes, dictionaries do give you all those wîrd letters and āk'sěnt's and strěs'is, but aside from students of phonetics, most of us don’t know our schwas from our elbows. HowJSay offers you words close to whatever you typed, and when you mouse-over the one you want, a real human voice—not a synthesiser—says the word for you. Encyclopaedic in its word list it is not (it has 34273 as of this writing), but you will find most commonly used words there. And if you don’t, chances are it will be soon: “unsuccessful searches are automatically considered for inclusion.” It’s child safe; the webmaster promises that profane language and erotica are not included.

Looks like..
Like Visual Search
You know how it is; you remember what something looks like, but you’d be damned if you could actually describe it in words. At least not words that a search engine could use to give you a relevant page. This new(ish) search utility won’t help you with all search. It focuses on e-shopping, serving up—for now—handbags, jewellery, shoes, and watches, with clothing and other “aesthetically oriented product categories” on the way. My wardrobe demonstrates that I have no aesthetic sense whatsoever, so I’ll just tell you that they offer you the ability to search for stuff by category, or as worn by celebs (through a bunch of Getty Images pictures, it looks like), or via a specific feature you like (that zipper on Paris’s.. never mind), and for colour variations. Coming up: you can upload a picture of your own and look for similar stuff. Go take a (ahem) look.

This comes recommended
This One Next
Search for books, music and movies based on stuff you like. It bases its recommendations on collective taste. Which means, for instance, that if some of the books you like appear on someone else’s list, chances are that you’ll like other books on that list. Rather like the way we seek recommendations from pals whose tastes we share. To get a quick reco, simply hit the home page and type in a title. To get more out of the site, you’ll need to register, so that you can save lists and get better results. You can choose to search just for books, for DVDs or for CDs, or via the main page, for all three.


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, 17th December, 2006.

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December 10, 2006

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What goes up must get sent up
Insultingly Stupid Movie Physics
“To protect the minds of children everywhere, so that they may grow up in a world where they know the difference between speed and velocity..” and so on. In other words, this is for the scientifically minded among you, the kind that like to tell everyone just why 007 would not have survived that jump if it had been for real. With equations. But don’t get me wrong; it isn’t a total killjoy for the escapist. The site has some pretty good reviews, and even commendations for good physics. A two-column layout makes it clunky to read, but it’s a well-written site, with a sense of humour, unlike so many of the boring nerds I have encountered...

It’s a date
Way Too Personal
Yes, yes, I know that thanks to our glorious kulchur we only visit matrimonial sites and such dating sites as do target this country are 98% filled with rather sad men trying to hit on any ID that’s remotely feminine-sounding. But then I’m being unfair. Minus the culture bit, that pretty much describes the perception of dating sites anywhere. Even so, there’s much innocent amusement to be got on those sites if you don’t take them too seriously. As this site proves. It was started by “an average, ordinary, run-of-the-mill gal who wasn't meeting the right kind of guys through more traditional dating methods.” She ran some personal ads, and got results that, er, surprised her. She began forwarding the really far out ones to pals, and that eventually evolved into this site. Lest you think the online dating scene is all about losers, she hastens to inform you that she met the man she eventually married online. Plus she’s got a couple of books out of it. Not all bad, hm?

You rock!
Automatic Flatterer
Boss mad at you? Friends not talking to you? Nobody wuvs you? Need a little ego boost? Get your butt over to this site, son.

Best eaten cold
RevengeLady
If the Automatic Flatterer didn’t work, and you’re nursing some serious grudges, this might be more to your, ahem, liking. Plenty of ideas here from the vaults, including a bunch of lists of Tops. Or you could ask the RevengeLady for advice. You could even check out the Revenge Quiz to figure out whether revenge really is your thing. Or if you’re really good at this, perhaps you can tell your story, and maybe it will make it to one of those lists. But even if you’re one of the gentle Gandhigiri types who has eschewed all eye-for-an-eye behaviour, you could still get much innocent amusement with some of the stories here.

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, 10th December, 2006.

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December 03, 2006

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Free as a bird
Open Source Windows
FOSS (Free and Open Source Software) refers to a growing movement worldwide to create and popularise software that is not tied up in legal tangles of ownership. “Free,” you must understand, does not necessarily mean zero cost; think, instead, of Free Speech. It is software that can be used for any purpose, the source code can be studied freely, and modified and redistributed. Prime examples would be the Linux operating system and the Firefox web browser. This site lists what its owners think are the pick of the crop. A short list, sorted by category (and covering pretty much every reasonably common use of computers), with brief introductions and links to their respective download pages.
More on Free and Open Source Software
If the subject interests you, do also see Free Software Foundation of India, the National Resource Centre For Free/Open Source Software and Sarovar, India's first portal to host projects under Free/Open source licenses. Quite a lot of what you see may be a bit too geeky to understand (let alone use), for the likes of you and me, but a few minutes of sifting is likely to yield something you can use. [NRCFOSS & Sarovar links via Prayas Abhinav.]

Only the paranoid survive
Worst-Case Scenarios
Sharks. Alligators. Child rearing. All have their hazards. Yup, even the little ’uns. And while most of us are fortunate enough not to actually land up in genuine worst-case scenarios, what if, hmm? There’s a wide selection of scenarios here, and very simple, cut-and-dried ways to get out of them. I don’t like the site’s navigation, but it’s worth the bother to take a look through. You may not need the bits about surviving failed parachutes, but they’re useful sections on dating, and a lovely one on the work place. Do check the one about getting out of a sinking car. Rather likely we’ll need that, given the way our weather’s going these days.

Damage control
A Year Of Living Generously
Right. So this planet is going to hell in a handbasket. What can you do about it? This site is an offshoot of an experiment where a hundred people spent a year living more generously. “We turned off the tap while cleaning our teeth, we composted, .. we gave friends goats instead of CDs..” Um. Never mind. The project has since expanded to over a thousand individuals and over 600 households who have committed to live more responsibly. You don’t have to sign up to do the earth some good. Simply browse through their suggested “actions” (6494 listed), and put a few into practice. For instance, not leaving your phone charger plugged in with the switch on. And if you’re buying me something, avoid the goats, okay?

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, 3rd December, 2006.

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December 01, 2006

Shazia Mirza, live

Shazia Mirza played to a packed house at the Juhu Mocha. And I mean packed!
Seats had filled up long before show time. People continued to push their way in: celebrities-in-their-own-right lined up six-deep in the back row; Page 3 People sat on hastily-provided cushions in the front; others squeezed in with friends, four butts on three chairs, local train style; the more athletic perched on window sills. A group of people who insisted on standing in the centre aisle turning a deaf ear to impassioned whispers from behind to sit the f*** down were finally shamed into doing so by the star of the evening. Those who could not bluster their way in watched live video in the open-air area. (Which accounts for two large tripods set up in the middle of the aisle, effectively blocking the view for a large swathe of the audience, causing even more rumbles of dissent.)

Ms Mirza took a short while to find her rhythm; she seemed unsure of her audience, and in the first few minutes, made a few patronising references that stiffened quite a few backs. As the evening progressed, there were other moments when people did not quite know how to react. Partly, I guess, we’re not used to performers using adult language, speaking of sexual acts and dissing their parents (sometimes, all three in the same sentence!) in the relatively intimate confines of a live stage act. Still, one would have thought we’re pretty used to effing and blinding in our day-to-day interaction, and we’re reasonably broad-minded about sex. But perhaps it is more that we, even the relatively worldly-wise sampling that came to the show, aren’t quite used to comedy routines that poke fun directly at us. We’re happy enough with the slapstick, mimicry and the lame witticisms of cricket commentators. But enough already with the sociology.

Ms Mirza played the crowd expertly, and once she segued into her regular routine—with, it must be said, a few repetitions and occasional checking of set notes—helped along in no small part by a face that exudes mischief even when being insulting, the initial nervous titters soon yielded to honest guffaws. Her act is based around her life as a British Muslim woman, and is laced with scathing comment on men, conservative attitudes and family life. Her cheery willingness to make herself the butt of her own jokes notwithstanding, she seems to have made herself quiet a few enemies. Undeterred, she uses her hate mail in her routine, laughing at stuff that would probably drive me to seek anonymity behind purdah.

The audience lapped it all up. And Ms Mirza, did she enjoy herself? It was a roaring success, she told me in an email. And she’ll be back; she has offers to perform in Goa, among other places.

Published in the Times of India / Outlook City Limits Mumbai, December 2006.

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Siteseeing 2

http://www.43places.com/

43 Places lets you make a list of, well, 43 places to see.

Why 43? The site says “Everything needs a name.” Quite. And: “We think 43 is the right number of places for a busy person to try and visit. Why not more? It’s too much. Why not less? You can do less, but it is still called 43 Places.”

So there.

It’s not just about making a list, though. This is a pretty active community site as well.

To help you get started on your own list (for which you must sign up for a free membership), you have access to lists made by other people (perfect for people who don’t subscribe to this fine travel magazine) and to loads of pictures and comments on destinations. You can also ask questions about places you intend to visit and check out places that others seem to want to go to.

If you’re the well-travelled type, you can be a good citizen and give other members advice about the places on their lists. And there’s a neat little gizmo that lets you invite other members to visit a place with you, and make up a team.

All very informal, and it can get pretty addictive. And the good part is that most of this, barring the list-making and the interaction with its members, is available without a sign-up.

(This column used to be called Cybertrack,.)

Published in Outlook Traveller, December 2006.

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November 26, 2006

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Accompanied by:
SingShot
For all you bathroom singers who just know that if you had a professional band backing you, you’d be a star too. Sign up, and you get tonnes of legal music with the lead vocals taken out, and the lyrics on screen for you to sing along to, karaoke style. You can also record your own take as well, and upload to the site for the listening, er, pleasure of the world, and get feedback from other members. And, naturally, you can listen to what other people have uploaded as well. (The last bit you don’t have to sign up for, but you will have to register if you want to leave comments.) [Thank you, Naomi Barton.]

Supersize greetings
geoGreetings
You’ve heard of sky-writing, right? This is just the opposite, greetings you can see from the sky. Unfortunately, it would be rather expensive to construct entire messages at oe place, but this Google Maps addict has a solution for you. Simply type in letters, and the site pulls out pre-selected buildings and strings them together for you into a message, and you can then send the link around to your pals. Why? I’ll let the creator explain. ‘I noticed that a lot of buildings in Google Maps looked like letters, and I thought “Hmmm, how could I use that as an excuse to spend even more time playing with Google Maps?” This is the best I could come up with.’ And here’s a message for you.

The End
Exit Mundi
Global warming? Nuclear holocaust? Giant meteors? Flatulence? There’s a massive collection of end-of-the-world scenarios here, from the very likely to the far, far, far out. And no, even the wildest ones do have some basis. The site’s author strives for amusement, yes, but also for objectivity. (That bit about flatulence? He’s talking about the methane ice on our ocean floors, methane emitted by microbes.) He says that he researches all the scenarios thoroughly, and “When a particular apocalyptic scenario lacks any realistic evidence, we will tell you.” So what are you waiting for? Go read. There may not be much time.

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, 26th November, 2006.

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November 19, 2006

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On the Origins of Darwin
The Complete Works of Charles Darwin
Darwin is one of the best-known names in science. The impact he made on our thinking was immense, and this site could show you why in a way that’s far beyond the bits we learned in school. It claims to be the first ever complete collection of all Darwin’s publications, bringing many of them to the to the web for the first time. Among them, transcripts of some of his handwritten diaries, like the one he kept on the Beagle. It features complete text, down to publishers’ ads, and gives you both formatted text and scans of the original pages. There’s a complete bibliography, naturally, and translations as well, and audio versions, plus works by others that help you understand Darwin, like contemporary reviews. of his books or obituaries and recollections of Darwin. A good entry point to the site is http://darwin-online.org.uk/features.html.

Crymm 2.0
Extortr
A site that pokes a bit of fun at several things. Most obviously the trend in deliberated misspelled words as names of online services (Flickr, Ryze, etcetera). And then there’s the whole Web 2.0 buzz about many-to-many and services that put power into the hands of users, letting them generate content. Of course there’s a fun to be had reading the fake extortion notes and examples and suchlike. Wish it were real, though. There’s a couple of people I’d like to add to my Extortr list..

Green Eggs and Dr Seuss
Dr. Seuss Parody Page
Everybody’s come across a bit of Theodor Seuss Geisel, better known as Dr Seuss. At the very least, you’ve come across a parody or a rip-off, but didn’t know it at that time. Well, this fan has a bunch of links to parodies of his works and style. On the main site. seuss.org, you’ll also find links to a brief bio, to other sites, and to his books. Just to make it clear, this is not an officially-sanctioned site.

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, 19th November, 2006.

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November 12, 2006

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Many-tongued
Ultralingua Online Dictionary
There are many online dictionaries out there, and on-the-fly translators too. This site combines a bit of both, covering the Romance Languages. It works like a normal look-up, of course, but also offers grammar resources, and lovely add-ons like the ability to conjugate verbs in those languages, or get words for a number (eg.: enter 935, and it will give you the German neunhundertfünfunddreißig or the Spanish novecientos treinta y cinco). But the best bit, to me, is the ability to produce a dictionary-enabled version of any web page. Enter the URL, choose a dictionary, and you get a page where every word can be clicked to yield a pop-up definition. Invaluable if you have a shaky grasp of a language and need help often. [Via Ethan Zuckerman.]

Subtitled
Planet Read & Desi Lassi
Movies in other languages with subtitles in the one we read? Common. But subtitles in the same language? Think of it this way: not all who understand or speak a language can read it. So Planet Read aims to use Same Language Subtitling to help spread literacy. Stands to reason: karaoke-style subtitling below the visual does help increase understanding. Among its off-shoot projects (some commercial) is Desi Lassi, which streams music videos from Bollywood at you, with subtitles not just in Hindi but also transliterated in Roman script, and translated. (And so, for the first time, I actually figured out the lyrics of Chhainya Chhainya. I have to admit, though, it was difficult to keep one’s eyes on the words and not Ms Arora...)

The Late
Fuller Up, The Dead Musician Directory
When it comes to ways to shuffle off the mortal coil, popular musicians seem to have the widest range, from the banal to the tragic, from stupid to bizarre. And this site aims to catalogue them all. “A Site About Dead Musicians...and how they got that way,” is says, and lets your search by name and cause of death. Not for the queasy.

Wardrobe Dysfunction
Ugly, Ugly, Bollywood Fugly
A collablog dedicated to the sometimes outlandish choices our costume designers seem to make and inflict on our stars and hapless dancers in the background. Plenty of pictures, natch, so will take a while to load if you’re on a dial-up. (Frequent readers of this column will remember from a few months ago, that “fugly” is short for “fantastically ugly.” You can change the F word to something stronger if you wish.)

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, 12th November, 2006.

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November 05, 2006

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So you don’t have to
Squashed Philosophers
Back in school, there were these books we’d pore through before exam time; guides to the various textbooks, question sets and the like. (I remember people who never bothered with the actual prescribed texts; they just read these.) This site is similar. Except that it scrunches entire philosophical texts into digestible chunks, with estimated reading time and percentage of condensation helpfully indicated alongside. It covers only western philosophy, starting with Plato, working its through other ancient Greeks and Romans, then leaping forward a thousand years to chaps like Machiavelli, Descartes and Spinoza, to Darwin, Thoreau and Nitetzsche, and to thinkers from the last century, like Russell, Sartre and Turing. Philosophers, says the site’s owner (who has done most of the squashing), “are generally appallingly bad writers and you’re after ideas, not precise words.” There is also a section on the Divines, condensing a few religious texts, and Writers, which has a huge collection. Here, the bad writers bit clearly does not apply; most of the books lose much in the squashing. But if all you need is cocktail party conversation crutches, head on over.

Re: search
Research Beyond Google
This column doesn’t normally link to specific pages within a site, but this case is a very worthy exception. For most of what we search for on the web, Google and other search engines deliver. But, despite the eight billion pages—give or take a few million—that Google indexes, there’s even more data out there. As much as 500 times that, some say, in what is being called the invisible or “deep web.” This page explains the concept and lists, and links, to “119 Authoritative, Invisible, and Comprehensive Resources.” Invaluable for any specialist. See also this article that explains the Deep Web concept. [OEDB link via Sunil Shibad.]

Grave matters
Indian Cemeteries
A small site that lists graveyards, graves, and monuments from the times of the Raj. Lots of reader-contributed pictures, historical information about the churches or cemeteries mentioned in most cases, and a searchable database that lets you look up names, cities, regiments and campaigns, and occupations. It’s not comprehensive, of course, but it does go some way towards its objective: “preserving the memory of historic cemeteries in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Burma.”

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, 5th November, 2006.

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November 01, 2006

Blessed Beach Resort [Hotel review]

The cantankerous bits first. The name flirts with the truth; Om Beach is five winding, up-hill-down-dale kilometres away. The kitchen closes at 10 p.m., with nary a coffee available after that. There’s nothing to do on the premises but eat and watch TV (or get some Ayurvedic massage treatments, of which more anon). And yes, like the brochure says, there is internet access; a solitary computer, which connects at a creaking 7.2 kbps. Gah!
Now that I have that off my chest.
It is beautiful: a cluster of villas perched on a breezy hilltop, undulating lawns, plenty of trees, birds and butterflies and flower beds.. very idyllic. If you want to hit the beach, they drive you there and pick you up when you’re done, gratis. Permission for a swimming pool has just been sanctioned by the government. And Management says that when the Season gets underway, they take guests on boat rides to isolated neighbouring beaches, and run water sports.
Interiors: comfortable, large rooms, though the layout of mine felt cramped. They call ’em suites, but the sitting room is sparsely furnished, and not ACed, and the bedroom hasn’t a comfy chair. Big gripe: large, inviting bathtub. And no drain plug. Even if one had materialised, the water heater was one of those miniature jobs that yield half a bucket of hot water at a time. Tchah. But. A private porch looking on to the garden! Great place to watch them birds and butterflies.
Food? Oily (the veggies) to pretty good (the seafood); a limited menu, fair enough in a place with just 12 rooms; large servings, priced decently. They’re happy to go against their better instincts to satisfy weirdos like this reviewer, who prefer prawns not smothered in pungent batter.
The place is managed by the Kairali group, which has built a rep for its Ayurveda health tourism. And the Ayurvedic Centre was the highlight of my stay. (Unlike Kairali’s other establishments, where you follow a strict regimen, treatment here is optional—build it into your package, make instant appointments, whatever—so the place serves meat and alcohol, and permits smoking.) I indulged myself with two treatments in two days, the first while still stiff from the bone-jarring four-hour drive in from Goa. (Dabolim is the nearest airport, but until the monsoon damage is fixed, take the train, amigo.) After a two-hour session, I was so relaxed that my post-lunch meditative lie-down dissolved into another eight hours of oblivion. Bliss. I guess I’ll grant them the “Om” after all.

The Information
Location: Gokarna, Karnataka; 65km from Karwar, 135km from Dabolim, Goa.
Accomodation: 12 suite rooms
Tariff: From Rs 3500 for double occupancy. Ayurveda packages also available.
Contact: +91 11 51749800 (Delhi), +91 80 51122815, +91 8386 257718 (Gokarna), info@ombeachresort.com
Web: http://www.ombeachresort.com/

Published in the "Hotels" section of Outlook Traveller, November 2006.

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Siteseeing - 1 (Cybertrack - 14 )

Note. This column used to be called Cybertrack, a name that Outlook Traveller came up with, which I was never really comfortable with. This month, I suggested the new name, and they agreed. Yay!

www.holidayiq.com

HolidayIQ harnesses the opinions of its holiday-making members, and ties that to a database of hotels and resorts around India. Destinations are sorted state-wise, with hotels for each location. Large chunks of the destination lists haven’t been reviewed yet, though, and I didn’t find much value in the bits that were. And of the claimed 2200 hotels listed, by its own admission only around 800 have been reviewed so far. With 73238 members, one expects, um, more. The positives: detailed contact information for hotels; search by type (beach, spa, home stay, etcetera), tariff and rating; and the promise of deals filtered from those offered by travel portals. But be warned before you sign up, parts of their Terms of Use are truly idiotic for a site that will sink or swim based on user goodwill. Exhibit One: “Any and all information that is submitted by you including but not limited to comments, feedback etc is the sole property of the Company which may be used in any manner the Company deems fit.” Exhibit Two: “You hereby consent to the receipt of physical & electronic communication from us.” Spam ahoy! And the one that proves that this new economy company just doesn’t grok the web: “Any hyperlink to any page of our website should be with our written permission and consent.” Perhaps I shouldn’t give you the URL; they might sue me. Heh.


Published in Outlook Traveller, November 2006.

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October 29, 2006

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A beginners’ guide
BollyWHAT??
If you’re one of the three people in this country who don’t grok Bollywood, here’s where you can find your crib sheets. This site aims to make our films “accessible to fans everywhere! — er, well, as long as you speak English.” Originally it offered plot synopses, glossaries, transliterated and translated lyrics; now the site has expanded to include bios, gossip, filmographies, recommendations. And it does it all with a nice mix of fun and genuine affection for its subject. A great way to get yourself up to speed on the national obsession. If you want to, that is.

Yer Granny could do it
Grandma’s Tales & Hip Hop Grandmom
Bloggers, so the cliché goes, are immature, maladjusted, geeky young men whining at the world. That may be true of some parts of the ’sphere, sure, but it’s by no means the rule. At any rate, these two ladies are about as far from that stereotype as one could get. Both teachers, they live in different corners of the country, and far from being socially inept, both project an immense sense of joi de vivre. And just in case you’re beginning to think they’re twins or something, no, they’re very distinct personalities. Go visit the ladies. They’re helping make blogging respectable for the rest of us.

Pre-history
Web Pioneers on the Wayback Machine
This paper has written about the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine before so I’ll only remind you that it is “an ongoing archive of the web” that gives you snapshots of sites as they once existed. This special collection points you to the archives of the sites that pretty much defined the web at the very beginning, before the dot com boom and bust: Yahoo!, the Trojan Room Coffee Machine (the first ever webcam), the NCSA, IMDB, Amazon (the first major e-tailer), NASA, WELL, even the White House. (Archive.org commenced work in ’96 , so you’ll only get ten-year-old snapshots.)

Playtime
The 50 Worst Video Game Names Of All Time
Self-explanatory, that title, no? I’ll just give you my favourites from the list. There’s Spanky's Quest. (The protagonist is a monkey. Get it? No? Never mind.) And Boobie Kids. And Sticky Balls. Really. Go see. [Link courtesy Ashwan Lewis.]

You’ve got book
DailyLit
Books by email? A chapter at a time? Not as strange as it sounds. As the site explains, many of us who find ourselves with little or no reading time spend hours a day reading email (or, if you’re like me, generally reading online all day). So the site offers you books mailed to you in bite-sized segments that should take you around five minutes to read. If you find yourself with a little more time on a given day, simply mail in for the next bit to be sent immediately, rather than the next day. All books currently available are public domain, so while you’re not going to get the latest bestsellers, you will get quite a few classics. [Link courtesy Chandrachoodan Gopalakrishnan.]


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, 29th October, 2006.

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October 22, 2006

Mousetrap - 75

G.I. Show
Calcutta 1945: An American Military Photograph Album
During World War Two, Calcutta played an imporant part in the Allied effort. Troops transited through the city en route further East and South-East. Not just Brits; many American soldiers too. And the University of Pennsylvania’s Van Pelt Library has made a rather unusual photo album available online. The pictures give you a sepia-tinted glimpse into that world, and with the photographer’s captions, give you a perspective on the average American’s view of the India of that era, much of which would be politcally incorrect to express now, of course. Though some may argue that many of those opinions are still held... [Link from Neha Viswanathan.]

Camera Veritas
The Weird Picture Archive
If you’re a reality TV fan, this site will keep you going between downloads of The World’s Most Shocking Police Videos and the Jerry Springer show. The tone is set right there on the front page, which, as of this writing, shows you a chap who can put a finger up his nostril.. and out of his eye socket. You can go search for your favoured brand of weirdness in the convenient categories (which sections for aliens, animals, humans, deformities, medical conditions, and much else), or use the archive search facility. Warning: this is not for the faint of heart or the easily offended guardians of culture, here or elsewhere. The pictures can gross out even The Simple Life addicts.

Ex Libris
BookMooch
You know how some people (and you know who you are) borrow books and never return them? Well, this site makes it all official. It works simply: you register for free, and list the books you want to give away. And you can check out what others have to offer, and mooch their stuff. You gain points each time you list a book, send one off (postage is your only expense) or acknowledge receipt of one, and you use them each time you receive a book. Go see. And, er, by the way, you can save yourself the bother of registering and just send your books to me…). [Link via Prayas Abhinav and Joan Pinto]


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, 22nd October, 2006.

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October 16, 2006

BEST days

We moved to Bombay when I was ten. I missed the old place, as I’d missed others as we moved from city to city, but as young lads do, I made friends fast—school chums, colony playmates, tuition pals.

It’s not as easy to make new friends when you’re older, in a new place; I know that now. For my parents, old pals from our home town were a link to their youth. The only such lived in Colaba and we in Chembur. And so, ever so often, we’d do our mini-expedition into South Bombay. For a middle class family, a taxi all the way was an indulgence. My brother doesn’t have the use of his legs, so the local trains, with the foot overbridges, and of course, the crowds, were too much of a hassle. So we took the bus.

The most convenient was the 8 Ltd, which then, as now, ran between Chembur’s Ambedkar Udyan and Flora Fountain. But then, the busses that plied the route were all double-deckers. The pollution, we quickly discovered, gave me blinding headaches when I travelled the lower deck. So I would be handed my ticket money and packed off to the top. (My parents and brother didn’t have the option; carrying John up the narrow stair to the top was difficult.)

Those rides were my introduction to the larger city beyond the lazy tree-lined avenues of Chembur. Over the years, I’ve got to know many other sides of this vast metropolis, but so many of those first impressions still define it for me.

Alone in the top deck, without Dad to point out the sites, I learned to orient myself in the city. Street signs were way too small to read from a moving bus; many were obscured with cloth banners and branches and, besides, the names weren’t the ones that I found on the old map I pored over, and they weren’t the ones that the conductor bellowed as he rang his bell. Commerce, on the other hand, can always be relied on for visibility. So shop signs, and even better, banks (because they put their branch names on their signage), those temples to Mammon, helped me figure out the geography of this city of money, the city Dad had moved to, to give me a better start in life.

I’d have charged to the front of the bus, of course, to pretend, when I thought that no one was looking (I was all of ten, after all) that I was the driver. With the wind blowing in my face, I’d mark off the areas we passed through: the bottleneck just before Sion, where now a flyover doesn’t seem to have helped matters; then Sion Hospital, and King’s Circle, which in all the years since, I still haven’t been in; and the broad sweep of road before Dadar’s huge traffic island; and the road narrowing again; and the confusing jumble before I found Byculla, marked by a Chinese joint visited once and forever imprinted; and then the church, and another hospital before the chaos of Mohammad Ali Road, with its fragrant set of restaurants, before VT, which was my mark to reluctantly make my way to the lower deck. And then we’d take a taxi to my parents’ friends home, within sight of Radio Club, where the adults would chatter away, and I’d be waiting to get home.

We’d head back, usually, at night. The return journey started at Electric House, with the 6 Ltd. Unless it was very late, in which case Dad would splurge on a taxi. As much as I dredge my memory, I don’t recall much of those return trips. I guess I slept through them, because all I recall is a blur of light and speed. In later years, I’ve come to know those sights better, as the boy-who-had-to-be-at-school-by-seven changed to the man-who-worked-into-the-wee-hours-by-choice.

And, ever so often, just for the memory, I take a bus back through the length of the city, even it means I have to change to another one to get me home, across the creek.


Published in Outlook's City Limits Mumbai, October 16th, 2006.

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October 15, 2006

Mousetrap - 74

In their own words
The South Asian Literary Recordings Project
Whoop-di-doo! Just right to fill in those gaps in my iPod. If you’re an admirer of fine writing, and, by extension, of its exponents, you’ll love this. Brainchild of the USA’s Library of Congress Delhi office, it was set up to celebrate the LoC’s overseas bicentennial. It features well-loved authors reading from their own writing. You’ll find Mulk Raj Anand, Faiz, Kaifi Azmi, Keki Daruwalla, a certain A B Vajpayee (as a poet, not a speechmaker, thankfully) and many, many others, over eighty of them in all, in recordings ranging from 30 to 60 minutes long, in 22 languages from all over the region. Warts and all—accents, mistakes stumbles, and the more endearing for that. And yes, all available free, in Real Audio, and the more friendly MP3 format. Bliss.

The world’s longest Fw:
Yahoo! Time Capsule
I stand accused of featuring way too many Google products. To which I say, hey, they do a lot of cool stuff! (Yeah, yeah, okay, we’re a G-roupie.) Anyway, to prove our secular credentials, here’s a cool Yahoo project. Caveat: you’ll need a Yahoo ID. Up to the 8th November, you can contribute images, text, audio, video—from your personal archive or created specially for this—to one of the categories of what they call an electronic anthropology project. They say it’s “the first time that digital data will be gathered and preserved for historical purposes.” (I think not. I recall several others, one of which I featured here.) These contributions will be handed into the care of the Smithsonian Folkways Recordings.

Star treatment
Anousheh Ansari Space Blog
A few weeks ago, the world’s first female space tourist (as in, not somone who had qualified as an astronaut, but paid her way with lots of money) took off in a Russian spacecraft and spent time at the International Space Station. And, as seems inevitable these days, she blogged it all. As with her little jaunt, she had help with the blog, but there is a lot of stuff she’s written. There’s also a Flickr photo set and her personal site. Go relive the journey with her.

Boom
The ORIGINAL Illustrated Catalog Of ACME Products
A little bonus for cartoon fans. Remember the Roadrunner cartoons? And how Wile E Coyote always seemed to get clobbered / burned / flattened by stuff with an “ACME” brand name? Well, this fan has curated a comprehensive set of them. Enjoy.


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, 15th October, 2006.

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October 08, 2006

Mousetrap - 73

Sync or swim
Gidol!
Got a digicam? Think you can make better music videos than the pros? This is for you. Gidol (originally called Google Idol, if memory serves, but not connected with either Google or any of the various country-name-here franchises of American Idol) is a global contest where anyone can post amateur videos set to well-known music. Members vote on entries in the contests, and winners get inducted into the hall of fame. Which may not be much, but hey, it’s better than putting up with the sneering of whoever’s been cast as the Bad Guy judge. (Incentive? The lads behind one video got an advertising contract from a cola MNC.) By the time you read this, entries will have closed on Gidol’s first Bollywood-themed contest, but you’ll be just in time to check out the results.

Attention-deficit stories
55 word fiction
Flash stories, also called short-shorts, are very short stories, usually not more than 500 words, frequently less. Micro-flash specifies far lower word counts, and fifty-fivers are even tighter: not more (and, the purists insist, no less) than 55 words. Here, you’ll find attempts from the blog world. Not one of them longer than this paragraph. (Which was 55 words precisely. Not including the contents of this parenthetic statement. Gah. Now I’ve ruined it.)

Edward Lear would be so proud
The Omnificent English Dictionary In Limerick Form
This rather unusual lexicographer;
His online word finder is half a
standard dictionary,
but it’s extraordinary,
’Cause the definitions are all perfect limericks, unlike this one.

How does your garden grow?
Gardentia
Great site for the amateur gardener who fell asleep in Biology class back in school. No, really. It lists plants not just by scientific names, but also by common names, including quite a few in Indian languages. Each one has a picture, description, and basic care instructions. There are also some articles and features worth reading, whether you have a proper garden or just a window box. The database isn’t perfect; family names aren’t clickable, but have to be scrolled through, for instance. I guess that’s because it’s still “under construction” (which it has been for ages). Should have been “still being planted” or something like that, no?

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, 8th October, 2006.

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October 01, 2006

Udaya [Restaurant review]

In the days of one’s miss-spent youth in Chembur, Udaya was one of our choices for an evening out. Simple reasons, really. Dark, dingy, not too much of a mark-up on the beer, and decent chakna. All that a growing lad needs.
Life moves on, and so do we. And a decade-and-some passes. And, one day, one hears that there was this great place for aappams in the former home-burb. Further questioning reveals that it’s a respectable place near the station, called Udaya. Could it be, could it be..? And indeed it turns out that it is. A few years ago, Udaya refurbished itself, getting all bright and cheery. And has developed a reputation for excellent Kerala food. Thanks to early exposure to said cuisine, one’s response to mentions of aapams and ishtew is, very literally, Pavlovian. So, hauling in tongue, one repaired to Chembur forthwith, drinking buddy of one’s youth in tow. Beer was quaffed (purely for old times’ sake, one hastens to assure you), while waiters were commissioned. Obviously, the punjabi/mughlai/chinese sectionn was scorned, and we debated the merits of chicke, fish and mutton. And, in a bit, soft, fragrant aapams arrived, accompanied with a bowl of Irachi Ishtu (mutton stew to you and me). Heretic friend opted for Meen Urukiyathu (fish flavoured very heavily with tamarind) and Neichoru (a rather heavy rice preparation) and then proceeded to tick into my stew. The quantity, fortunately, was enough to survive his depradations, or old friendships be damned, one would have finished his beer. Yes, excellent stew it was. And you know what? The waiter told us that the place had always served Mallu food. I guess we, erm, didn’t notice back then in the day.

~ Peter Griffin

Udaya Family Restaurant
Shrama Safalya Building, Near Railway Station, Chembur, Mumbai 400071
Phone: 25214628, 25218792 (Home delivery available)
Hours: 11.00am-4.00pm - 07.00pm-12.00pm
Cuisine: Kerala. Also Chinese, Punjabi, Moghlai. Serves beer.

Published in Time Out.

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The Planter's Life

Ran as one of two articles on the subject. Do get your hands on the piece that ran alongside about similar stuff in the coffee plantations of Coorg, by Usha Rao Banerjee. One irony: Ms Banerjee says she's a tea person. I usually prefer coffee. :)

The wind soughing in the trees—nay, conducting loud conversations, making little jokes and chortling at them, shrieking every now and then—streams burbling away around every corner, serried ranks of tea bushes covering every hill, green turning blue in the distance... Argh. And the prose turns purple. The hills have a way of doing that to you, up there in the clouds near Munnar.

And no, I don’t mean the parts of Munnar and its neighbourhood that have been the joy of tourists and travellers for the last century and a bit. (Not that Munnar is anything to scoff about; like Brighton, it is Bracing, even if a bit overrun with holiday-makers.)

Munnar is tea country, you see, and most of the land there, including most of the town, is owned by tea plantations, acres of rolling hillside covered by tea bushes as far as the eye can see, dotted here and there with sets of barrack-style blocks of houses that were formerly known as coolie lines (now more politically correctly referred to as workers’ lines, though the job has remain unchanged), occasionally also an in-plantation tea factory, and perched on some vantage point, the planter’s bungalow.

And, till not so long ago, the only way you could find yourself living in one of those bungalows was if you worked for a plantation company, or knew someone who did. Neither of which I can claim. But here we are, watching the mist roll down from the higher mountains, slowly blurring the outlines of the hills in the middle distance, and a polite cook is murmuring the lunch options while we sip our morning cuppa on the porch of a gen-oo-wine planters’ bungalow. How now, brown cow? Let me explain. I’ll have to cram in some history. Stay with me.

In the late 1800s, many an ambitious sahib—and not a few younger sons—began experimenting with various commercial crops. Coffee and various spices were tried, before I was generally agreed that the land best supported tea. Vast tracts of hillsides were cleared, and in 1877, the first tea bushes were planted. (They’re still going strong, by the way.) Over the years, many of the smaller plantations merged, or were bought over by the larger ones, until, just before the turn of the century, the James Finlay Group acquired pretty much the whole shebang. Some 33 estates were put under the management of the Kanan Devan Hills Produce Company. In the 1960s, the Tata group bought in, and the company became Tata Finlay. In ’76, the Tataa bought out the Finlay group, and the company became Tata-Finlay Ltd , and later, in 1983, it was all just Tata Tea Ltd. This century hasn’t been kind to the Indian tea industry, though—no, this isn’t that kind of magazine, son, we’ll leave the details to the business glossies—and for reasons too complex to get into here, in 2005, Tata Tea transferred ownership of the plantations to a company formed by its employees, the Kanan Devan Hills Plantation Company. KDHP controls roughly 95% of the privately-owned land around Munnar. The only other players around are Harrison Malayalam, with a couple of plantations, and the Woodbriar group, which bought over a former HLL-owned plantation (of which more anon).

KDHP didn’t have it all easy. The increasing competitiveness of the tea market suggested that they’d need a spot of bet-hedging. And, quite nicely for them, a bit of down-sizing had left a few managers’ bungalows tenantless. This year, they began letting in guests, starting with a half-dozen properties under the brand name The Tea Sanctuary (somebody got a raise for that bit of positioning, I’m sure). And in the porch of one of these edifices is the jolly sight of a jaded Bombay writer sipping tea and scribbling in a notebook.

The Woodbriar Group’s foray into hospitality differs in the details—their properties once belonged to HLL—and while they’re a small player in Munnar, with just one plantation, they have substantial holdings in Tamil Nadu.

There we are, all up to date and knowledgeable. (You can come back now, laddie.)
We were the guests of both The Tea Sanctuary (living in one bungalow, and being given the grand tour of several others) and Woodbriar (in the Talliar Valley Bungalow, Munnar, and the Stanmore Bungalow, Valparai). While each of the properties we saw was unique in terms of location, exteriors, plan and décor, they did have enough in common to give you a general description. Single-story structures, they’re built in the rambling colonial style, with large gardens, garage areas off to one side (or what were stables), connected, but separate kitchens and staff quarters. The structures are of that era, with thick walls and doors, high roofs, long passageways, you get the picture. Both companies have gone to some pain to ensure that the original (or appropriate) fixtures and furniture enhance the heritage experience; you’ll find even the cutlery bearing old British hallmarks. I can vouch for the authenticity of it all; never have I been so afflicted with nostalgia pangs for my grandparents’ bungalow. Except for the fireplaces (which the old folks didn’t need, in their coastal home), it all rang true.

The bedrooms here were uniformly large and airy, with large attached toilet-cum-bathrooms. There are concessions to the weather and technology here, with proper plumbing and water-heaters. Living- and dining-rooms are shared, but since there are never more than two other sets of guests on the premises, it still all stays nice and cosy.

You have a small staff at your disposal. A butler/housekeeper, a cook, and perhaps a gardener. The Woodbriar folk score higher here, as well as on the food front. That is, when it comes to the authenticity bit. While both claim to cater to Indian or English palates, the KDHP staff haven’t quite got the hang of it yet, while Woodbriar rocks. In fact the cook at Stanmore lead all the rest, rustling up bakes and pies that sent me off on another misty-eyed trip to the past. KDHP, with its huge holdings and presence in Munnar, makes up with in the add-ons it can offer, like temporary membership at its clubs, access to its private fishing lake and the like.

At all the properties, you’re offered a rather special experience. The crisp, fresh air, cool climate, and all around, up hill and down dale, rolling miles of so many shades of green that it makes your heart lurch with joy. The clouds are ever-near, birds sing, a rabbit may hop across your path... it’s enough to make a romantic out of anyone.

And a good thing too. Because the house and the environment are all you’ll get. Be very clear: the shops and restaurants, the hi-speed net access and the boutiques, the fleshpots in general; they’re all at an inconvenient distance. So you’d better go there with someone you love. Or at least get along with. And just let the plantation experience take over.


The information

The Tea Sanctuary (Kanan Devan Hills Plantation Co Pvt Ltd) currently has 6 properties available, Parvathi (3.5 km from Munnar), Sevenmallay (3.5 km), Chokknad (5km), Kanniamallay (6 km), Yallapaty (26km) and Southaparai (28km). All have three double rooms, except Chokknad, which has two. The company is considering including another 11 bungalows in the Tea Sanctuary fold.
Tariffs: Rs 6,000 to Rs 6,500 per room per day (packages for longer stays are available), which includes breakfast. Lunch and Dinner can be prepared at Rs 250 (veg) / 350 (n.v.), with mineral water, snacks, etcetera extra. (The irony: the tea company doesn’t throw in any free pots of tea.) Arrangements for airport pickups (Munnar is 135 km drive from Cochin), sightseeing, vehicle or bicycle hire, guides, etcetera can be made at cost. Tariff includes temporary membership at the High Range Club and the Kundaley club, with access to the facilities. Sports facilities cost around Rs 100 per hour. Golf at either course, however, will set you back Rs 1000 a game (and you must visit the Kundaley Club even if you don’t play; it’s a stunningly beautiful location). As will a session of angling for rainbow trout in a private lake far away from the madding crowd.
Contact: Web: www.theteasanctuary.com/. Email: tourism.munnar@kdhptea.co.in. Phone: Munnar: (04865) 230561-5; Delhi: (011) 41644787. Or via Kaizen Hospitality.

The Woodbriar Group’s Talliar Valley Bungalow is about 22km from Munnar. And its Stanmore Bungalow is a few kilometres out of Valparai in Tamil Nadu, a four-hour drive from Coimbatore. Both have three doubles, with the possibility of putting in an extra bed in some rooms. The company plans to open a few more of their bungalows to guests soon.
Tariffs: Rs 6000 per room per day (packages available). Includes all meals, plus organised activities including picnics, visits to the factory, cutting and making your own tea, even planting a tea bush that will bear your name, if you wish. Sightseeing, pickups, etcetera can be arranged through the staff.
Contact: Vinoo Robert, +91 9895030563, vinoo.robert@teil.in, www.briar.in/

[Not in the published article]
Other notes.
The plantations are all in pretty remote areas. Landlines are available, which is good, because the only cellphone service provider in those areas is BSNL, which does not permit private operator subscribers to roam on its network.
Net access? Hah.
If you’re driving, remember that plantation roads are usually rutted, steep and tortuous. Yes, even more so than standard issue hill roads. And even the ones that are a mere few kilometres away from civilisation will take a good half-hour of careful driving by the novice. And yes. This is mist country. Fog lamps are genuinely useful here.

Published in Outlook Traveller, October 2006.

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Mousetrap - 72

Regal largesse
Royal Society Journals Digital Archive
It’s the longest-running journal in science, with Volume One, Issue One published in March 1665. And every issue from that one up to the current lot is available on the site now, for free. But. Only up to December this year. Nearly 60,000 articles, with pretty much the who’s who of science in the bylines list, names familiar to us from high school science and everyday life. A small sampling: Bohr, Boyle, Cavendish, Chandrasekhar, Crick, Darwin, Davy, Faraday, Fermi, Fleming, Franklin, Halley, Hawking, Heisenberg, Herschel, Hodgkin, Huxley, Joule, Kelvin, Linnaeus, Lister, Marconi, Newton, Pavlov, Pepys, Priestley, Raman, Rutherford, Schrodinger, Turing, Volta, Watt, Wren.. But why am I prattling on? Go see! You have less than three-and-a-half months to catch up with three-and-a-half centuries of scientific study.

Democracy. Kind of.
PutVote
Social bookmarking has taken off big time over the last year or so. Works pretty easy: you find something you like (or not), you link to it via a bookmarking site, which your pals—and the web at large—can share. Your pals—and other members— may choose to mark those too, driving more traffic to the sites and pages linked to. Bloggers, linkers all, love these too. PutVote is, on the surface, just another of dozens of sites that offer pretty much the same service. Where it differs is its attitude. It’s focussed on India and Indians, has a sense of humour, and has a bunch of regular users already. Try it out. You can always vote by not voting.

Hair today
Men's Long Hair Hyperboard & Men's Long Hair Site
I’m indulging myself with this one, since I haven’t been to a barber in over a decade. I’m not completely something left over from a previous era, I find, since I see a lot of men wearing their hair long these days. Gentlemen, I have a clear lead, but take heart; genetics is having its way with me and there’s rather more forehead visible than when I started out. Anyway, the site’s names explain themselves, so go check them out. The second does not seem to have been updated since 1999, but it has several interesting pages, including pictures of styles you could use. The “hyperboard” is still active, though, so go snoop on the discussion threads there, and perhaps you could join in, if you wear your hair long.

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, 1st October, 2006.

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Cybertrack - 13

http://whc.unesco.org/

If you're looking to make a list of places to see before you die (or the rupee crashes) the World Heritage Centre has choices for you. The WHC List is a long one—830 sites in 138 countries after the last set of additions in 2005—and covers both natural and cultural heritage. You will be spoiled for choice: from the archaeological remains in Afghanistan's Bamiyan Valley (no Standing Buddhas, alas) to Zimbabwe's Mana Pools National Park, Sapi and Chewore Safari Areas. Monuments, ruins, nature preserves, hot, cold, temperate, sea, islands, plains, mountains, you name it. Aside from basic information, many of the locations feature external links; there's an interactive map, an interface with Google Earth, ways to get involved in preservation, and more. Too much choice? Start with the 34 on the Danger List. Before they disappear. You must make your own arrangements though—no convenient tie-ups for online booking—and though WHC proclaims that these sites belong to all the peoples of the world, irrespective of the territory on which they are located, you will need to get visas. Or you could just start with the 26 in India. My score is a measly 6½. Editor Sahib?

Published in Outlook Traveller, October 2006.

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September 24, 2006

Mousetrap - 71

Performing seal
Official Seal Generator

If you’ve always wanted your very own personal seal, and you’re not good with image-editing software, this site could make your letterhead’s dreams come true. A quick selection from the set of drop-down menus to pick your symbol (there’s a wide selection), borders, colours and decoration, enter your text, and hit the “Go” button. Now, you can be the envy of your friends. Those few, those unhappy few, that don’t read this column, that is. (Alongside, for your viewing pleasure, a quickie I created for this column in about 30 seconds.)

Seeing stars
Perez Hilton
The site styles itself “Hollywood’s Most-Hated Web Site” and certainly takes pains to justify the tag line. It’s a hilarious blog, well-written, and adds its own little twist with blatantly retouched images to make its points. [Link via Sonia Faleiro]

Moom walk
The Museum of Online Museums
If there’s one place that has more museums than the USA, it’s the internet. And MOOM want to help you find all of them. It’s divvied up into three sections, the Museum Campus (real life museums with cool sites), a “Permanent Collection” with links that will interest those in design and advertising, and “Galleries, Exhibition, and Shows,” with a constantly updated list online collections and galleries, from the very personal and weird to the downright fascinating. Oh, and if you have a web exhibit of your own, they want to know.

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, 24th September, 2006.

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September 17, 2006

Mousetrap - 70

Quidquid latine dictum sit, altum videtur
Latin Quotes and Phrases
Veni, vidi, vici, you know. And if you’re an Asterix fan, chances are you know a few more. Like perhaps, nunc est bibendum and alea iacta est. (Of course, if you’re a lawyer, you can probably write a dictionary yourself.) Many of the words we use today in English (and indeed many other languages) have Latin roots, but while that’s a good reason to study this small index, the fun bit is finding a few more shall we say, not-so-classic terms. For instance, the Latin for “That's the way the cookie crumbles,” which is “.Sic friatur crustum dulce.” Or “Obesa cantavit,” which means “The fat lady has sung.” The title to this paragraph, by the way, means “Anything said in Latin sounds profound.” See what I mean?

Breaking up is hard to do
Ruined Music
Yeah, it was your song, the song that meant so much to both of you, filled with meaning, tied to special events and great times. And then s/he dumped you. And just hearing the first bars of that song is all it takes to send you into depression. (Or perhaps rage?) There, there. You’ll feel better soon. Promise. Well, maybe not so soon. Meanwhile, why don’t you hop over to this site and read about the songs other people have had ruined for them for ever and ever? You’ll find the most unlikely songs there—Macarena, would you believe?—aside from the soft ’n’ sentimental. And the site encourages submissions, so perhaps want to write about it?

Less is more
The 5K
Recently, while I waited for my ISP to install a new connection, I had to spend several hugely frustrating days using dialup. Most web designers these days take their audience’s broadband access for granted, so even seemingly simple sites take ages to load down a phone line. As I turned the air blue, I remembered this competition from around the millennial year. Its challenge: produce an entire web page, graphics and scripting included, that was under five kilobytes. Considering that today’s designers consider ten times that too little, they should go see the wonderful, quirky, original work that came out of that contest. Unfortunately, the 5K contest moved to its own site after that contest, but the archives don’t show up there now. Lucky for you, though, that I had this bookmarked: the list, and the 2000 winner.

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, 17th September, 2006.

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September 12, 2006

I'm blogging this

Over the last year or two, from the disaster relief blogging phenomenon that redefined online collaboration, to the furor over the advertisements of a certain business school, to the more recent block on blog sites by our government, blogs, blogging and bloggers have proved that they can be responsible; that they can contribute positively to the world they live in, that are here to stay. And what better way for an increasingly influential segment of society to assert its presence than a conference?

As I write this, the first ever BlogCamp India is winding down, with an informal quiz. The sponsor booths are being dismantled, and little knots of people dissect the last couple of days.

What’s it all been about then? One way to describe this would be to tell you about the various sessions. Sections on corporate , commercial and professional blogging. Geeky sections about very complicated things only die-hard geeks get excited about—or even understand. Broader topics like the place of blogs in the media, freedom of speech, censorship, responsibility, legal problems. But you get all that from the schedule on the BlogCamp.in wiki. Blow-by-blow descriptions of each session? Heck. With around 200 bloggers in attendance, most of them—or so it seemed—live blogging every session over free WiFi, an IRC channel which had a bunch of people logging in from other parts of the world, cameras of all descriptions catching every moment on still and video, live streaming video feeds, and heaven knows what else, I’ve been scooped before I even got my hands near a keyboard, for, alas, I possess a dilapidated laptop which doesn’t have a WiFi card. So I’ll just advise you to feed the words “BlogCamp India” to your favourite search engine and take it from there.

In the meanwhile, I’ll tell you this much. It was the first of its kind in India, a conference, or rather, an unconference (simply put: no audience, everyone is a participant), that brought together Indian bloggers from all over the country and a few from abroad as well. The mix was a lively one. While most of those present were young, male geeks, there was more than one grey head and receding hairline, and quite a few bloggers from the distaff side. Backgrounds and history varied wildly too, from one of India’s first bloggers to newbies who’d just about got their toes wet, from a very successful professional blogger to people who people who abhor the very idea of commerce on blogs, techies, researchers, utopians, marketers, poets, bloggers in Indian languages (a newish, growing and exciting area), people with new products and ideas to promote, others just there to meet and socialise, and yes, a special appearance by Sunil Gavaskar, a guest of the main sponsor, who was there in his role as a podcaster. (A podcast, named after the popular music player, the iPod, is a blog in audio format rather than text.)

Sponsorship by some big names—and not just from the e—world—indicates that as far as corporate India is concerned, the blogging community is worth befriending. Coverage from traditional media leads one to believe that blogging is taken a wee bit more seriously by the MSM (bloggerspeak for “mainstream media), that it is much less of a mysterious, niche activity than it was not too long ago.

A sum up? There was more than one glitch (and I admit to this as a member of the organising team) but I do think even the harshest critic will admit that it worked out pretty well. The issues and ideas that were discussed will continue to be debated, on blogs, naturally, but also at the next BlogCamp. For BlogCamp, like its attendees, is now here to stay.

Published in the Times of India, Mumbai edition, 12th September, 2006, in a much edited version.

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September 04, 2006

Mousetrap - 69

Mean
Online Etymology Dictionary
Etymology, the study of the history and derivation of words, is fascinating. And has many surprises in store as you dig around this excellent, well-written and -researched site. At the very least, you’ll have lots of fodder for small talk. “Camera,” for example, is worth the look up—and then you’ll find out why it sounds so much like the Hindi “kamara.” Or you could figure out the relationship between my first name and the Hindi “pathar,” both of which also share meanings and Indo-European roots. Actually, just look up “the.” Or “mean.” Much fun. Oh, did you know “radical” is closely related to “having roots?” Go. Goof off. (And yes, they’re related too.) Enjoy. Speaking of which, did you know... Never mind.

Pre(web)history
20 Year Usenet Timeline
In the days before the web and networked communities as we know now them, there was an online community called Usenet. Its members observed and commented on many of the developments we take for granted today. In 2001, Google made twenty years of Usenet archives available through its Google Groups service. At over 800 million messages, they claim it is “the most complete collection of Usenet articles ever assembled and a fascinating first-hand historical account.”. That it most certainly is. And this page lists links to some memorable posts and threads, including the first mention of emoticons :)

Navel gazing
BlogCamp.in
India’s bloggers are planning a national meet for the first time. Based on the BarCamp “unconference” model (basic principle: there is no audience; everyone participates), the two-day camp in Chennai next weekend will feature informal chats, debates, presentations and demos by bloggers, about blogging and things related to it. Can’t make it to Chennai? Not to worry. There are plans for live text, audio and video feeds, aside from, of course, live blogging and reports on blogs.

Pithy
the four Word film review
Do I really need to explain this site? Naah. I’ll just say that my opinion of most films is usually one word. Any guesses?


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, 4th September, 2006.

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August 27, 2006

Mousetrap - 68

Hitting the write note
Rock Bottom Remainders
Everybody wants to be a rock star. No matter how much you achieve in other aspects of your life—or whether you have any musical talent—you still would love to strut the stage, spotlight following you, guitar slung low, hitting just that chord while the groupies scream your name. Why should some of the best-loved writers of our time be immune? Like who? Try Dave Barry, Stephen King, Amy Tan, Simpsons creator Matt Groening and others. The band’s name comes from the book industry's name for cut-price books, or “remainders.” How well do they play? Well, Bruce Springsteen once played them. He said: “Your band's not too bad. It's not too good either. Don't let it get any better, otherwise you'll just be another lousy band.” They play for charity, by the way.


Listless?
43 Things
Need goals? Simple. Make a list. Up to 43 items. Why 43? “More is too much,” the site says, and also, “Everything needs a name.” Right. What were we thinking? Anyway. Here, aside from creating your own list, you can browse through other people’s lists and use their items, and, if you see an item that you’ve accomplished, you can leave some helpful advice for the person who posted it. The rationale: writing down your goals helps you clarify your thoughts; you can get inspiration for your goals list from others; and you can share your experiences with others, and learn from them.

Making Tracks
National Rail Museum
Bet you didn’t know that five out of seven of the longest railway platforms in the world are in India? Including the Number One, Sonepur’s 2,415 foot platform. The Rail Museum site, an online presence for the real-world museum in Delhi, has heaps of facts like that. And some nice pictures too. The text is rather clumsily written, but not incomprehensible. A nice site to visit for the buff or out of casual curiosity.


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 August, 2006.

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August 20, 2006

Mousetrap - 67

All your’s
Apostrophe Protection Society & The Dreaded Apostrophe
Dedicate’d, unlike so many signboard painter’s, advertiser’s and (the horror) newspapers, to the correct use of that poor, harassed mark of punctuation. The first sites page’s are full of photograph’s and other example’s of misuse, plu’s a forum. The second ha’s detailed example’s of proper usage, with lot’s of little tip’s. Both feature set’s of interesting link’s the grammar lover wo’nt find uninteresting. Now, I’m looking for someone to set up a forum dedicated to sticking lighted matches under the fingernails of people who use “you’ll” (which, fercryingoutloud, is a contraction of “you will”) when they mean “y’all.”

Help me get US$18 million out of Zimbabwe
419 Eater
419 scams pre-date the net. But they’re an industry that has made the transition effortlessly. They’re named 419s after the section number of the Nigerian penal code that deals with “advance fee scams.” They prey on greed, offering you a share of a large sum of money provided you help get it out of insert-African-country-here, and if you bite, you will, at some point, be asked to send money, usually a small (but only in comparison to the promised sum) “processing fee.” This site’s FAQ is a must-see for basic information. But the main reason I recommend it to you is its focus on scam-baiting, or scamming the scammers. There are hilarious email records and photographs, and lots more. Go see. Mariam Abacha, and the family members of other assassinated dictators await you. [Link via Devangshu Datta.]

Flushed
The Good Loo Guide
The name of this CollaBlog tells you what to started out to be. And while the group of bloggers behind it haven’t exactly delivered on that score, what they have put together is a lot of links, frequently funny, to do with toilets. Go read. And till next week, I’ll use my brother’s attempt at a humorous sign off: to-de-loo.


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 / Outlook Traveller, Mumbai edition, 20th August, 2006.

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August 15, 2006

Choupal [Restaurant review]

The worst thing about Choupal is its location. You must brave the chassis-slaughtering motocross ups and downs of Turbhe naka to get to it. I kid you not. Even the large lorries from the APMC—who are the cause of the lunar landscape—slow down to a crawl as they pass, and we saw a stalled BEST bus getting a wheel replaced as we exited.
Choupal is a couple of months old, and specialises in North West Frontier cuisine. It is not a large restaurant; 12 tables for four and one larger round-table are set around a large obviously fake tree (with blatantly unrealistic foliage and weaver-bird nests). Wood and copper feature prominently in the decor—once you tear your horrified eyes from the tree, that is. And there’s live music of an evening. Big negative in a place this small. We could barely hear each other talk.
Choupal serves liquor, so you can wash the dust of the journey down while you peruse the whacking great menu, which comes in a frame. My friend drank an Aab-E-Taskeen (Rs 30), which is a sort of jeera-based drink, and I, a beer. We had decided that if it was to be frontier food, then we would concentrate on the mutton. So we glossed over the vegetarian dishes and shuddered delicately over the Chinese section (wrong frontier, chaps). We paused at the Rann (Rs 399), but regretfully concluded that an entire leg of lamb that promised to feed 5 to 6 was too much even for our massive appetites. Instead, we ordered a couple of plates of kababs as starters: a Barra Kabab (Rs 135); and a token chicken dish, Murg Angara (Rs 145). Both were delicious, succulent and not too spicy. As we finished smacking our lips over these, our main course arrived. Gustaba (Rs 145), minced meatballs in a thick gravy with a hint of sweetness to it, and Nalli Rogan Josh (Rs 145), a house specialty, mutton on the bone with the marrow, accompanied by a couple of paranthas (Rs 20 each), some slices of tomato, cucumber and onion that go by the glorified name of Baagichey Ka Salad (Rs 49), and a Ghosht Dum Biriyani (Rs 155). The paranthas were a mistake—too oily, a dryer naan would have gone better with the meat and gravy—but the Gustaba was good, and the Nalli was excellent, with the tender meat falling easily from the bone, and the marrow yielding to a most genteel sucking. The biriyani was fragrant and well-cooked, with generous chunks of meat. Most of the dessert menu was unavailable, thanks to a chef being on leave, so I couldn’t try the intriguingly-named Benaami Kheer, and had to settle instead for a Gajar Halwa (rs 55), which wasn’t anything to write home about. My pal ordered a Gulab Jamun Kesari (Rs 55), which came to the table piping hot—and tasted bloody awful.
The Verdict. Ambience, passable, and the tree is a good for a few jokes, though they should really dispense with the music. Very attentive and helpful wait-staff. Good food, decent portions, but the desserts seem avoidable. There’s a 10% service charge on your bill (I’m biased against restaurants which do that), but it’s not too heavy on the pocket. We ran up a much larger bill, because we were experimenting (and, erm, we’re gluttons) but you should be able to get a meal for two moderate eaters for between five and seven hundred rupees. My pal plans to take his wife and daughters there soon, so, yes, it’s worth risking the Turbhe road to eat here.

Choupal, in Centre Point, Dc1, TTC Industrial Area, Turbhe, Navi Mumbai. 27683311/22.

Published in the Time Out Mumbai. XXth XXXX, 2006.

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