December 24, 2006

Mousetrap - 84

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

Mousetrap - 82

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

Mousetrap - 81

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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