May 28, 2006

Mousetrap - 55

Start here
DebbiesIdea
Long ago, a lady called Debbie Sankey dreamed of a reference work that would recommend which book of any given author would be the ideal introduction to her or his oeuvre. To quote the site, “Start reading an author with a poor or atypical example of his work, she observed, and you would likely never read that writer again--perhaps losing in the process a world of pleasure and knowledge. On the other hand, since there would seldom be one right book to read first, the resource would have to be a compendium of opinions.” And that’s exactly what this site delivers. Search by author or genre, and see what the site’s registered users have to say. With a simple sign-up, you can be one of them too. And what of Debbie? She died two years ago, aged ninety. This site is a vibrant memorial.

Prescribed reading
Hippocritis
Since so many of our medical friends are on strike, here’s a little something for them, with which to spend their spare moments. A nice little play on the name of the “Father of Medicine,” in whose name medics take an oath, gives you a hint that they’re not taking themselves too seriously. “Humor for medical professional and rest for the weary mind,” they say, and every month they deliver a fresh consignment for their readers. Sometimes it can get a little, um, graphic, I must warn you, but hey, it’s usually funny, so it’s all good. At the moment of writing, there seems to be some problem with the links on the menu, so you can’t get to the archives. A little jiggery-pokery, adding month-year (like so: “january05”) to the URL will get you some past issues, but it doesn’t work across the board, alas.

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This week’s blog

Bright sparks
The Daily Sunrise
Run by a couple of teenagers, one in India, the other in the UK, this photoblog started out, as the name suggests, to post a sunrise photograph every day. Along the way, it morphed into a site where the collaborators post pictures with other subjects as well, and discuss technique, image manipulation basics and tricks, and the duo seem to have built up a regular fan base as well. And the blog’s just a couple of months old. Look to your laurels, ye elderbloggers!


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, 28th May, 2006.

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May 21, 2006

Golden Wok [Restaurant Review]

What, I ask the captain, would he recommend? He looks puzzled. I rephrase. What’s popular, special kya hai? He hesitates. The place is still very new, he confides, and they haven’t quite figured out. Charming.

But true, that. The place has only been around since the beginning of April. And not too soon for me. Vashi and its environs, as far as I know, had only one Chinese restaurant which doesn’t pander to the Hindi-Chini-Bhai-Bhai palate, so I’m here with high hopes.

Atmosphere? Golden Wok is spacious, but uncluttered – two floors, ten tables on top, eight below. Not a red wall or a paper lantern in sight, though there are a few vaguely oriental prints on the walls, and spotlit shelves have little pots and thingummies as thematic concessions. Next to our table, nestled in a large urn, is one of those tennis-racquet-shaped thingies that electrocute bugs while improving your backhand. Way too much shiny glass for my taste, even, for some strange reason, a very large mirror covering one wall. But the cacophony that could result from all those hard reflective surfaces is muted by the sound of an indoor waterfall, and 80s disco music, played softly enough to be inoffensive. The seating, I’m afraid, isn’t conducive to long, lounging repasts.

A warning sign, for both the aficionado of genuine Chinese cuisine and the ones who prefer theirs bastardised: the table accessories include that trio of pungent sauces that no self-respecting Chinese cook would permit in his premises, which means that they’re kind of expecting you to smother all taste out of their food. I prefer the ones who look like they might throw you out if you ask for chilly sauce.

The menu has a fair mix of the usual suspects, plus some more exciting looking stuff. You have pages based around fish, prawns, squid (just a few items), lamb, chicken (a couple of pages worth), and a largish vegetarian selection. Strangely, no pork, which practically disqualifies a place from calling itself a Chinese restaurant.

We pick a soup and a starter. The Golden Wok Special (Rs 95), a thick soup loaded with fish, prawns, crab, tofu and mushrooms, is delicious, though a tad over-salted, but satisfactorily fishy. The Crispy Thread Chicken (Rs 120), chicken pieces wrapped in noodles and fried, is also very good, and quite a substantial serving for a starter.

(Chinese tea to sip between dishes and cleanse the palate isn’t on the menu, but it is served if you ask for it. Default cutlery is spoon, knife and fork. If you want chopsticks, you must ask. )

My Prawns in Orange Sauce (Rs 190) is delightful; just the right tang and not too sweet, the taste of the prawn getting through. The Chicken Hakka Noodles (Rs 110) that the staff suggest as an accompaniment is a bad idea. Oily and bland. Steamed rice or noodles work better.

From the other dishes we ordered, the Chicken Burnt Ginger Garlic Rice (Rs 110) was my clear winner, even if a little too oily. The Roast Lamb with Mushroom and Bamboo Shoot (Rs 140) seemed to have lost an argument with the soya sauce, and the lamb was stringy and tough.

Dessert has limited options if you want to stay true to the mission. We picked the Honey-glazed Noodles with Ice-cream (Rs 70) and Date Pancakes (Rs 80). The noodles win hands-down, crisp, not ultra-sweet, and blending beautifully with the ice-cream.
The verdict: Food, decent. Excellent value for money in terms of serving sizes. A starter and a main course are more than enough for two moderate eaters. We ate heavy, but still got change out of thousand. The clincher? Warm, very friendly, attentive service. I’ll be eating there again soon.

~ Peter Griffin

The Golden Wok, 1 & 2, A Wing, Prithvi Park, Sector 30, Vashi. (Near Sanpada Station, next to the Lokmat building.) Phone: 27632312/3.
Open for lunch and dinner. Make a reservation on the weekend, or you could wind up waiting for nigh on an hour, swatting mosquitoes as the trucks roar past on the Sion-Panvel Highway.

Published in TimeOut Mumbai, issue dated May 19th, 2006 edition.



Mousetrap - 54

Car Seva
Wrecked Exotics
Awright, car fans, you’re not going to like this one. Or maybe you are. One’s readership is, um, diverse. You know all those sleek, sexy vehicles with many, many horses under the hood and the price tags so astronomical that you’d have to sell several houses before you could make the EMIs? You’ll see them all here, Lamborghinis, Ferraris, Bugattis, Porsches, Mercs, a few F1 cars, even some Hummers, over 6,000 reader-submitted pictures. And here’s the best part: they’re trashed. Totalled. Ruined. Utterly wrecked. The site says it’s all about showing you “the real consequences of reckless driving.” But, methinks, there’s a certain amount of schadenfreude here. For instance: “..almost a quarter of a Billion Dollars worth of damage within this car crash collection.” I found this site by accident. Heh.

Take two links and call me in the morning
Health Library
“Information therapy,” the site’s founders call it. They’re a doctor couple, Aniruddha and Anjali Malpani, and the site is the online face of the non-profit they run, the Health Education Library for People (HELP), which is a health education resource centre in Bombay. The real world centre and the web site are truly old-fashioned labours of love. The site features a searchable catalogue of the HELP’s books and pamphlets, book reviews, links to other sites, and much more. The good doctor also runs a blog, which you can visit at doctorandpatient.blogspot.com.

Duelling keyboards
The Flame Warriors
If you’re a member of an online community of any kind (who isn’t, these days), which includes the informal networks that build up around blogs, this is a must-see site. Wicked caricatures by a very talented illustrator, who happens to be a gifted observer of human foibles, with text descriptions, send up the various kinds of personalities you will have encountered online. If you spend even a tenth the time I do online, you’ll be chuckling away in seconds, as you forward descriptions to your online buddies. (And beware of the ones they send back to you. Your view of your self may not be quite what others see!) There’s also a message board, where suggestions for new Warrior types are welcome, aside from other fun stuff.

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This week’s blog

A profile of courage
Cancer, Baby
A young woman discovered she had ovarian cancer. With surgery and chemo, the cancer went into remission. Then, a little over a year ago, it came back. Cancerbaby (as she referred to herself) blogged her story, through treatment, through highs and lows, with generous doses of wit and humour, reaching out to others who were going through or had gone through the same experience. In January this year, another voice came in, a friend who was posting for cancerbaby. She had bad news: Cancerbaby was not doing too well, but was cheerful and still fighting. It didn’t sound good over the next few posts either. And then, last week, the saddest post of all. Jessica, to give her her real name, finally lost her battle. [Link via Uma Mahadevan-Dasgupta.]


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, 21st May, 2006.

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May 14, 2006

Mousetrap - 53

Masticated
GumArt
If you’re one of those people who have to chew gum all the time, you could find yourself with another hobby. This artist (he’s been doing it for seventeen years, he says) shows you how, with his rather, um, special art form. It’s pretty simple, really, he chews gum (in various colours) and then sticks it on his canvas in a variety of forms and shapes. The gum gives the works a three-dimensional feel, a sort of bas relief meets cartoon look. The works on display are “the surprisingly pleasing result of thousands of hours of chewing and spreading.” And in a related commercial site, he will happily sell you kits with which you can create your own works of art – a kiddie-style colour-by-numbers template, plus sticks of gum in the required colours. Chew on that!

Sex is all in the mind
Sex I.D.
Scoot, junior, this is not what you think. Part of the lovely BBC Science section, which is hour upon hour of fascinating reading (I spent a few hours getting distracted while I was supposed to be finishing this column), this test is designed to figure out the sex of your brain. In a little over twenty minutes, you go through a six-part test, some sections timed. Yes, you can pause midway if your boss comes in, and come back later, if your browser has cookies enabled. At the end, you get a rating of where your brain lies, as compared to the averages, with a detailed breakdown of the parts of the test. Each section also gives you links to further reading on that topic.

Kitty, kitty, kitty, kitty, kitty, kitty, kitty...
The Infinite Cat Project
Someone with whom a cat condescended to live took a picture of said cat and passed it around via email. Another cat-cohabiter happened to have that picture on-screen, and her/his cat bristled at it, and that someone took a picture of that, and likewise posted it online. Thus was born The Infinite Cat Project: pictures of cats looking at pictures of cats looking at pictures of cats looking at... well, you get the picture. So pull out the digital camera, round up your feline buddies, park them in front of the computer, open up the site and click away. Do see their submission guidelines before you send in pictures.

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This week’s blog

Shock and Awww
Cute Overload
Pictures by the bushel of juvenile (mostly, but some adults too) animals. All of them looking aww-cho-chweet. Or at least the people taking the pictures think so. Just the type of pictures that a certain kind of person thinks will enhance your inbox – until one growls at them and tell them to stop, that is, after which one is labelled cold and unfeeling. Ah well. Redeeming factor here: a sense of humour. And a glossary. From which I got my new phrase for the day: barfing a rainbow Yes, reader submissions are welcome. Not to me, to them. [Link courtesy Neha Viswanathan.]



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, 14th May, 2006.

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May 07, 2006

Mousetrap - 52

Geeksimum
Slashdot
The ultimate geek site, so if you’re one of the species, you know about this already. For the rest of us, it’s a great peek into that world. There’s a professional team (the were bought over, but the founders are active) posting fast and furiously, and reader submissions are encouraged. Posts get commented on even faster, and yes, sometimes very furiously; they have a huge and very involved readership. A Slashdot link boosts any site’s traffic figures (leading to the neologism “slashdotted” or the more formal “the slashdot effect,” which is what happens when a relatively obscure site’s servers get overwhelmed by its happy throngs). The name is a bit of an in-joke: say the URL out loud, and you’re saying “haitch tee tee pee slash slash slashdot dot org.” Yup, that’s geek humour for you.

And from the other side
SlashNOT
Of course every successful site has a parody. SlashNOT mimics Slashdot’s looks and design, and posts pseudo-serious takes on similar subjects. “Our primary goal was to be at least as funny as slashdot, but on purpose,” they say, and yes, they deliver. Alas and alack for those of us who prefer humour to improving our minds and keeping abreast of things, they post much less frequently then their inspiration, but then, it’s a far smaller operation. But yes, they do also encourage reader submissions.

668738727
PhoneSpell
We have more and more numbers to remember. But we also have convenient handsets to store them in so we won’t have to remember. In the US, companies that want people to call in have long used the alpha-numeric keypad (the sequence of letters is now standard in English-speaking countries) as mnemonic devices. For instance if your number was the one I used in to title this section, you could just remember the word “mousetrap” rather than the numbers. Of course, the number-letter combinations need to be second nature for you; not difficult in an SMS world. To get back to the site, it helps you choose numbers that can be converted into words, so if you haven’t done this long ago (like smart chaps like me, *ahem*) you can work backwards, enter your number, and look for likely words that you can give other people to help them remember your number. 929 2665, 66?

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This week’s blog

Tailor-made
English Cut
This one’s by Thomas Mahon, a genuine Savile Row tailor, the kind that make “bespoke” suits as opposed to merely hand-made off-the-peg, made-to-order or – perish the thought – off-the-rack. Mr Mahon says he’s the youngest on the Row, and while most, except the staunchest traditionalists, have some kind of web presence now, I’m pretty sure he’s the only one who blogs. Charmingly written (if mildy typo-ridden), fascinating posts about the craft, Savile Row, its history and traditions, and even (in this day and age!) about the competition. Of course he, in a perfectly gentlemanly way, quietly tells you about his own expertise, training and plus points, and why you should go to him. But, as he acknowledges, £2000 (that’s around Rs 166,725) for a suit, bespoke or not, is a fair bit of money for most of us, so he’s kind enough to instruct you on those suits lower down the sartorial ladder. Quite easily the best corporate blog I’ve ever seen. [Link courtesy Albert Barton.]

P.S. This column is officially a year old today – this is edition 52. Thank you for your mail, and do keep writing in.

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, 7th May, 2006.

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May 01, 2006

Bombay Biriyani

Rule One. Don’t ask for Bombay Biriyani in Bombay. It’s one of those things like Chicken Tikka Masala and French Toast, unknown – at least by those names – in the lands of their alleged origins. (Aside: in the South where I spent most of my childhood, we ate Bombay Toast; when we moved to Bombay, we realised that the natives called it French Toast.)

As in so many cosmopolitan metros, you get food from all over the world, some authentic, some bastardised, but very little that’s truly native to the city. So if you would sup on biriyani, you have it easy.

The area around DN Road and Fountain gives you an excellent selection of regional varieties, including, I’m told, beef biriyani, though I haven’t come across it. As do the Muslim-dominated parts of Mahim (Kerala-style) and Bandra (more Bohri). The rest of the extended city yields a sprinkling of biriyani joints, as far afield as a five minute walk from my home in Vashi (where the kababwalla near the mosque cooks an excellent dum biriyani by the kilo, strictly by prior order), and even a truck-stop restaurant in Panvel.

But the mother-lode is in South-Central Bombay.

Mohammad Ali Road and its bylanes are practically lined with restaurants and carts, all of which will offer you fragrant mounds of the stuff, cooked in vast quantities, precise measures of the yellow, oily rice shovelled on to two pieces of meat and potato that have been simmering in gravy. In some places, a boiled egg is included, Hyderabadi style. There’s also the more expensive dum biriyani, layers of rice and meat cooked together in flour-sealed vessels. This happy situation extends northwards, to the belt that stretches from Byculla to Bombay Central, with one major outpost just off Haji Ali, the famous Noorani, much loved for its combination of tastiness, reasonable prices and very liberal meat:rice ratio. Aside from the standard varieties, Noorani does a mean Kerala-style fish biriyani, and if memory serves, a mild Arabi Biriyani, sprinkled with nuts and dry fruit, that caters to the Middle East clientele. And yes, come to think of it, there’s the Reshmi Tikka Biriyani, which, if I remember my Busybee right, is a uniquely Bombay concoction. Mildly, but definitely, spiced, with little boneless tikkas. Burp.

Published in the May 2006 edition of Outlook Traveller, as part of a multi-contributor feature on biriyani in various parts of India.



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Cybertrack - 9

http://www.gonomad.com/

GoNOMAD says its focus is “alternative travel.” Or, as they say in another place, “participatory travel.” In other words, not your average sightseeing-package-tour-with-attached-cook. The idea is to get people truly involved with the places they visit. This includes volunteering, home stays, educational tours. The emphasis is on “sustainable and responsible tourism.”

Started at the turn of the century, and has expanded steadily in terms of content and viwership (they claim more than 100,000 visitors a month, and a fairly high number of links to their pages).

What does the site give you? A pretty large searchable database that you can trawl for info about budgets, places to stay, transport and much more. Most of it is stuff you wouldn’t find on the average travel site, including a bunch of special interest options that include family travel, travel for women, gay and lesbian-friendly travel, bicycle tours, even writers’ workshops! There are heaps of well-written articles – the site claims that they are all top travel writers, but I haven’t had the time to verify this – some very competent blogs, photo galleries, miniguides, modes of transportation, destination mini-guides, and a “Travel desk” section by one of the editors that expands on some very useful travel tips.

(And yes, if you run an alternative travel business of some kind, there are listing options, and sponsored articles which run on the site, edited and posted by their team.)

There are also some deal finders (airfares, hotel rates, car rentals and the like) run by associates of the site, which, alas, seem to have a decidedly US focus.
Overall, the quality of the writing on this site makes it well worth a visit, even if you have no immediate “alternative travel” plans. Hey, who knows, they might even convert you!


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



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