Sunday, 26 February 2006

Mousetrap - 42

This is forty-second edition of this column. Reason enough to pay tribute to Douglas Adams, the man who made that number famous.

The man
Douglas Noel Adams, known to his legions of devoted fans as “DNA,” died in 2001, of a sudden heart attack. He was just 49. Perhaps best known for the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books, he was also the creator of Dirk Gently, the holistic detective, and wrote a number of non-fiction works as well. The Hitchhiker series started as a radio show, went on to become a hit series of novels, a TV show, and now also a movie. An early adopter and ardent proponent of technology (What are are the benefits of speaking to your fans via email? “It's quicker, easier and involves less licking.”), he was also a talented amateur musician (high point: playing a set with Pink Floyd) and designed a game based on the HHGG books. Another immortal quote: “I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.”

Don’t Panic
Most Frequently Asked Questions
Maintained by the newsgroup, this is the definitive FAQ for DNA’s life, times and oeuvre. Lots of links to other sites, and a great starting point to a DNA voyage.

Life, the Universe and Everything
Defining social networking and online community before the terms became fashionable, h2g2 reflects the spirit of the Web as it was originally conceived: participative, collaborative and free. A simple concept: “researchers” from all over the world put in their takes on “life, the universe and everything.” Like the fictional Guide, this one has the words “Don’t Panic” in large letters right at the top. Set up by DNA himself, the site was later bought by the BBC (and is now also available on, and has continued to grow. Worth many hours of your time.

Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
Remember the text-based games of the late 80s and early 90s? No VR, 3D graphics, surround sound and force feedbac, just a black screen, a description of scenario, and you had to type your way through problems and situations with simple instructions. Fiendishly difficult, Hitchhiker was probably the best-known of the lot. You can find the original game on some abandonware sites, or play this java-based version (where, unfortunately, you can’t save games and continue later). Alternatively, you can try the graphically prettied up version at the BBC.


This week’s blog

Another chance to see
DNA was an environmentalist. In the eighties, he did a BBC radio series called Last Chance to See where he and Mark Carwardine travelled the world to see various endangered species. DNA also wrote a book by the same name based on the series. This blogger, some fifteen years later, thought, “So many of the fascinating creatures they had described were teetering on the very brink of extinction back in the late 1980s, one had to wonder how they were doing now, some 15 years later.” And so, Another Chance to See was born.

Reader suggestions welcome, and will be acknowledged. Go to for past columns, and to comment, or mail The writer blogs at

Published in the Times of India, Mumbai edition, 26th February, 2006.

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Sunday, 19 February 2006

Mousetrap - 41

In the beginning was the word
The Wordplay Website
The first sites were all words. Most of us till experience the Internet primarily via text. Add to that the fact that the web started out in the English-speaking world, and that the most represented language is still this notoriously quirky language, and it isn’t surprising that there are so very many sites that pay homage to the word in English. This site features “over 500 pages of word puzzles, games, amazing lists, and fun facts.” Play with their Anagram Generator, explore Palindromes, Spoonerisms, Pangrams, Malapropisms, and much, much more. Do see my personal favourite, Tom Swifties. BTW, there’s even a section called Net Lingua. Invaluable, IMHO, for those of you who find web argot incomprehensible.

Site of record
Internet Indian History Sourcebook
Part of a larger set called the Internet History Sourcebooks Project, that is one of those old-fashioned – in web years – labours of love. It is information presented freely, profusely referenced and linked, combining piles of original texts, translations, and links to other sites. Objectivity test? It links also to ‘nationalist’ sites, with a caveeat. Definitely worth your while whether you’re a student, teacher, researcher or plain old dilettante. Or a textbook re-writer in search of stuff to rant about / copy from.

Objects of affection
Mail Order Mysteries
If you grew up with a generous helping of American culture in the form of comic books, you may have also grown up with a hankering for the stuff advertised in those tiny ads in the back pages. The ones that promised you X-ray vision, spectacles that let you see behind you, magic tricks, fake dog turds and the like. This site lets you revisit those ads and those products. Warning: much disillusionment may result. Because it also tells you what the catch was with all that exotic stuff. Compensation: Move a step upwards in the site’s navigation, and there’s lots of other retro stuff for you to get nostalgic about.

This day, that year
ANYDAY Today-in-History
Pick a month, pick a day, hit the button. You get a massive listing of historical events (with a bit of a Western tilt), anniversaries and birth and death days of famous people. After you’ve checked out your own birthday (yes, no shame to that, everyone does, I share mine with Edison, Sheryl Crow and Archie Andrews), you could go look up some other stuff to make for interesting cards, trivia and just plain bugging your pals.


This week’s blog

By meter only
Hailing (heh) from the other side of the border, this blog started out with a wonderful idea: collecting and featuring the poetry, phrases, expressions, and words found on the back of rickshaws. There’s the expected mix, from the lyrical to the funny, and there are contributions from all over the subcontinent, not just Pakistan. Cool stuff, yes. But the bummer is the site’s owner seems to have lost interest some time after being featured in a popular Pakistani internet magazine many months ago. Pity. I never have luck with rickshaws.

Reader suggestions welcome, and will be acknowledged. Go to for past columns, and to comment, or mail The writer blogs at

Published in the Times of India, Mumbai edition, 19th February, 2006.

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Sunday, 12 February 2006

Mousetrap - 40

Shoot the Messenger
How many internet messenger services do you use? And, more important, do the sysadmin types at your office block them all? If yes, and if your social life has been suffering as a result, this nifty little service could get you right back to old times, IM-ing away the hours that your silly company expects you to be filling with *shudder* work. Meebo lets you connect to MSN, Yahoo! and AOL’s messengers, as well as ICQ, Gtalk and Jabber. All in one browser window. That’s right, browser window. No need for separate downloads of all those services. It works pretty much like the real thing, with a few raw edges. No IRC connectivity though (if you’re saying “what’s IRC?” never mind), unlike my favourite app for this kind of stuff, Trillian, which is a pretty damn good download if you want a stand-alone prog. Also, the free version of Trillian doesn’t connect to Gtalk.

Sticky with it
If, like me, and many people that I know, you have several blogs, plus RSS feeds for picture services you subscribe to and other stuff like that, you have a slight problem when you want to point people to your blog / album / whatever. This service lets you painlessly merge all your feeds to display on one web page (with links to the original, so that those so inclined can trot over and see it in situ, as it were). You can also customise the look of your Superglu page, and add on some bells and whistles. Only just signed on, so haven’t spotted a downside I can warn you of. Let me know if you come up with something. [Gra├žias, Carlos Albuquerque.]

Make my day, pink
If there was an opening for a Scrooge-type character for this Festival they’d elect me. But hey, we have a column to write. Right then. You’ve ensnared the significant other – or think you stand a pretty good chance. And if you, young man, want to stay in contention, you’d better get yourself some insurance. Like a good St. Valentine’s Day gift. And this site has lots of ideas for you. It will even help you say them three magic words in around a hundred languages. And for the rest of you, yes, there are gift ideas for those not trying to get into each other’s pants. Bah, humbug.


This week’s blog

Nine-day wonder
The Kala Ghoda Gazette
If you haven’t been able to get to South Bombay for the Times of India Kala Ghoda Arts Festival 2006 (last day today! put down this paper and go!) this blog will help you catch up. A group of city bloggers wander the festival, chronicling their impressions for posterity and the city. It is an interesting effort in another way as well: It is financed by the Literature and Writing section of the Festival, as an experiment in new media, so the blog team actually gets paid to blog. [Disclosure: Caferati, my writers’ group, is hosting this experiment, and I’m one of the bloggers.]

Reader suggestions welcome, and will be acknowledged. Go to for past columns, and to comment, or mail The writer blogs at

Published in the Times of India, Mumbai edition, 12th February, 2006.

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Sunday, 5 February 2006

Mousetrap - 39

This week, a reversal. An all-blogs, all new column.

So many new blogs over the last few weeks that they deserve a special edition of this column.

From the shadows
How the Other Half Lives
A blog with a difference. With a focus on the parts of India that the (if you’ll pardon the expression) Shining bits tend to leave in the shade. The parts that are, if not actively ignored, then definitely not quite in the centre frame. Expect to see difficult questions on subjects like liberalisation, rural growth, and a bunch of other issues that we really should know more about. A collaboration between several well-known Indian bloggers, it is just a few days old and already drawing comments as long as its posts, and impassioned debates. Worth a bookmark on that score, even if it wasn’t for the quality of its contributors and the importance of the subject matter.

Metroblogging Mumbai
Metroblogging is a worldwide syndicate of blogs in and about, well, metros. And the Mumbai version is the first based on an Indian city, and the 40th in the network. Metblogs, says the parent site, “are a hyper-local look at what's going on in [a] city.” For the native, they’re a good way to keep pace with happenings, for the newbie and the visitor, a way to figure out what it’s all about. And of course, for the expat, a great way to keep in touch with home. The Mumbai edition seems to be finding its feet still, but the groundwork is done, so, hey, watch this space.

Everyone’s a critic
A South-Asia centred spin-off from the popular site, Desicritics launched on Republic Day. They plan to cover culture, media, sports, politics, business and technology. With the sheer numbers of its contributors (86 as of this writing) you’re guaranteed variety, and quantity. Pleasantly surprising to find there’s quality too. Not all of it, mind you. Well, okay, let’s put it this way. Ithink some of the posters have, ahem, “issues.” The site’s design leaves much to be desired, in my opinion, but the good part is that the critics are sporting about criticism. The designer came by my blog to leave a graceful comment after I’d done a post dissing the look. So the spirit is right too.

Reader suggestions welcome, and will be acknowledged. Go to for past columns, and to comment, or mail The writer blogs at

Published in the Times of India, Mumbai edition, 5th February, 2006.

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Wednesday, 1 February 2006

Cybertrack - 6

Sleeping in Airports

What do you do when you fly into a strange city (or even one you know, for that matter) at an hour when transport is unavailable or available only at a premium? Or if you have a wee hours flight, but getting to the airport at said wee hour would cost you several body appendages? And then there’s the matter of connecting flights with just enough time between them to make checking into a hotel a pointless exercise. And yes, what if you’re just plain careful, broke or tight-fisted? Simple. There’s a rather large facility available to you that you may not have noticed. The airport building itself. It’s free, since you’ve already paid for the tickets, and in most cases And not just as a spur-of-the-moment decision either. This site helps you plan you trip around airport snoozes, with reports on the facilities, the pros and cons on important stuff like the cost of food, the state of the toilets, the chances of being booted out, and so on, with ratings as well (basically an assessment of whether sleep, comfort and safety are possible). The process is truly democratic, because the listings are contributed by users like yourself, frank and uncensored. There are even unofficial tips from airport staffers, besides a lot of tips and pointers conveniently flagged. And the Features section is worth a fly-by. As of this writing, the site has close to four thousand listings and stories, funny, informative or just plain scary. I don’t think highly of the site’s aesthetics, but the structure is excellent. Have a good flight!

Published in the February 2006 edition of Outlook Traveller, in a column called Cybertrack

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