December 30, 2007

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It's that time of the year. When an editor's fancy turns lightly to thoughts of round-ups and best-of lists. “Yassah massah,” we say, and jump to it.

The quick version: If 2005 was blogging, and 2006 was all about the Social Web, Web 2.0, then 2007 was when the people jumped in and began to take the web back.

We began to use the web in ways that went beyond random surfing and forwarding allegedly funny pictures and unverified urban legends to our entire email address books. Small example: the burst of jingoism that saw Indian frantically emailing and SMSing their entire address books to make sure that the Taj Mahal was voted into some company’s little gimmick, the New Seven Wonders. Arguably more constructive was the trend of web activism. Gujarat, Nandigram, and other issues were discussed threadbare, on all sides of the debate, and people began tweaking web tools like social networks, blogs, event sites and the like to garner support, recruit participants for protests against other people’s actions or in support of their own. NGOs began to see the value of online presence and spruced up dead or languishing web sites.

And yes, Social networks became ubiquitous. (We who keep track of this have a name for this: YASN, which is short for ‘Yet Another Social Network.’) Not a day goes by when we don’t receive at least one invitation to a social network that some friend has just found. Folks who had never had more than an email address before that, people who had scorned personal home pages and blogs were now in social networks, and inviting all their friends in. Old webheads, luddites, famous writers and artists, journalists, serious professionals, pet-owners, hobbyists, activists, politicians, poets, painters, tinkers, tailors, greying grandparents and pre-teeners, they’re all leaving messages on each others ‘walls’ and ‘scrapping’ one another. We’re friends online with people we may ever meet. Heck, we use ‘friend’ as a verb now, much to the dismay of the language purists. I tell you.

Oops. Sorry. We got carried away. We had better quickly work in a couple of predictions or Editorji won’t pay us.

The Empire(s) strike back
Open Social
With the bad news out of the way, time to look at things a lot chirpier. A little while ago, Google launched an attempt to change the game back in its favour. This isn't a social network. Rather, it is a way for developers to build applications that work across many networks. For example, Friendster, hi5, LinkedIn, MySpace, Ning, Plaxo, XING, and yes, Orkut, along with a bunch of others, are implementing OS. Will it take the web back from Facebook? Frankly, we dunno. But hey, it’s going to be interesting to watch.

A little bird tells me
Twitter
Twitter is a simple service. It asks you one question: 'What are you doing?' And you can answer this in 140 characters or less. Friends, family, whoever, can subscribe to or 'follow' your updates, which they can choose to get via their Twitter page or cellphones (the message are well within the 160 character SMS limit). The controls are easy: you can permit random strangers to follow you, or not; you can choose who to follow, and how. The site's been around for a bit--we noticed it somewhere mid-year--but has gained momentum only over this last month. And we think 2008 will see a lot more Twittering.

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, 30th December, 2007.

This bit didn't run in the paper:

Could-have-been
Orkut
Orkut could have ruled. It’s been around for years, has a huge Indian presence, and despite a horde of me-too networking sites launched by eager desis wanting to cash in, none of them really made a dent. Orkut kept popping up in the news, with every second politician and righteous defender of our kulchur wanting it banned for some reason or the other, and bemused media types who barely knew what they were talking about trying to make sense of it. With the teen and pre-teen set, it became the communication medium of choice, outpacing even instant messengers. But privacy concerns—until recently, one’s settings did not permit control over one’s ‘scrapbook,’ for instance—and the perception that it was juvenile, meant that few fossils my age joined in.

The star
Facebook
This network, once restricted to college students, opened its doors to anyone who wanted to join. Cautiously, many early-adopters checked it out. Somewhere mid-year, Facebook opened its platform to developers to launch their own ‘apps.’ And suddenly, something changed. Everybody and her grand-uncle suddenly started popping up there. Folks I had never seen on any other forum, people who had never had more than an email address before that, old webheads, luddites, famous writers and artists, journalists, serious professionals, politicans, poets, painters, tinkers, tailors.. you get the picture. Now, even greying grandparents talk of Facebooking and leaving messages on each others ‘walls’ and ‘poking’ one another. I tell you. What is the world coming to?

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December 23, 2007

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Santa’s back
NORAD Santa
A quick reminder of this site, which I’ve mentioned every year. It’s run by the combined USA-Canada NORAD (North American Air Defense Command). And it ‘tracks’ Santa’s travels. You go read about why the military wound up running a kiddie service for more than half a century. And let the kids enjoy the rest of the site.

Happy Holidays
In a world where business and friendships cross borders, time zones and continents, it can be difficult to remember or keep track of regional differences for small things like public and bank holidays in different locations. Each of these sites has a slightly different way to help you do just that.
time and date calendar — No-nonsense national calendars
Earth Calendar — Lets you find holidays by date in different countries and for different religions.
The Q++ Holidays Portal — Run by a diary publisher, this one has month-by-month listings that show which countries have a holiday on a certain day, country-by-country listings if you want to check on a particular country, and a set of religious calendars, including ‘Chinese (both lunar and solar), Coptic, Christian, Hindu (both lunar and solar), Jewish/Hebrew, Muslim/Islamic/Hijra and Orthodox.’ Note that some of the info is available only under license.
GTS World Holiday Calendar — A daily list (with an RSS feed you can subscribe to), country-by-country search, and one that you can export to a calendar app on your PC.
Country Reports’ World Holiday Calendar — Pretty much the easiest to use, with the whole month displayed, with days marked with holidays and the country or countries that that observe them. Unfortunately, this one’s woefully incomplete.
bank-holidays.com/ — Self explanatory name, no? The current year’s holidays can be viewed free. Others need a paid subscription.
Phew. That was a lot of work. Now I need a holiday. Or maybe Editor Sahib will send me a nice present, you think?

What the Dickens
Charles Dickens' A CHRISTMAS CAROL
The full text, as it was originally published, with reproductions of the illustration plates as well. Great holiday reading for you and the kids, if you haven’t read it before. ‘And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God Bless Us, Every One!’

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, 23rd December 2007.

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December 16, 2007

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Where were you when the lights went out?
Mumbai Unplug
As I write this, it is many hours to go before Mumbai Unplug’s designated ‘batti bandh’ time, so I have no idea how successful it was. I hope it went well, because it makes me optimistic: political parties, rival media houses and businesses have put aside their differences and supported this; huge numbers of people care enough for our environment to make this gesture; and not least, because it reassures us that our future is in good hands (the four people who started this snowball rolling are striplings in their twenties). I’m extra delighted because this idea also demonstrates the power of networking and online collaboration. But that aside, why am I pointing you to the site again (this column featured it on October 21st), and that too after the event? For one, in October, the site was a mess, and I was uncharitable in my review. It has since spruced up quite a bit, and there’s now information there that has value beyond the 15th December, like how you can continue, in simple ways, to save precious resources. Secondly, this column runs in all editions of this paper. If it helps the Batti Bandh boys to inspire similar efforts elsewhere, I would be delighted.

Softer voices
Blogbharti
Links are currency in the blog world. Your chances of being read increase once other bloggers link to you. Preferably A-Listers. Who, alas, tend to link most to other A-Listers. Blogbharti, when it started up, promised to bring a wider selection of blogs to the fore, by seeking out and linking to less well-known blogs. I’m somewhat dubious—the reason why popular bloggers are popular and others are not, is because, well, the stars are just darn good at what they do—but there’s usually enough quality to keep one reading. The added attraction just now is a series of guest posts on, as one of the blog’s founders told me via email, ‘a diverse range of topics.’ How diverse? Alternative films, race and caste, Indian English literature, dalit consciousness, Hindutva, primary education, Sufi poetry, and much more. See http://www.blogbharti.com/the-spotlight-series/ to get the whole lot as the series unfolds. The argumentative Indian is alive, well, and online.

Free, free at (hic) lasth!
Free Beer
Come back here, young man, let me explain. Richard Stallman, open-source guru, explaining the Free Software concept, said ‘“Free software” is a matter of liberty, not price. To understand the concept, you should think of “free” as in “free speech,” not as in “free beer.”’ Then, a group of students in Copenhagen decided to ‘see what happens when an open-source structure is applied to a universally known product.’ Being students, and wags to boot, they chose, well, beer. Their site has the story. And the recipe! Which, as per open-source philosophy, you can use and adapt, provided you make your adapted recipe available under the same conditions. Um. Now what’s our Government’s position on this? Am I going to get pulled up for assisting unlicensed alcohol distillation?

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, 16th December 2007.

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December 02, 2007

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Cat food
LOLinator
A promise. The last LOLcats link. Yup, I’ll make it quick: This site will “LOLinate” any website for you. Just go over, enter the URL, and giggle. For best effect, choose a site that takes itself really, really seriously. (Courtesy friend of this column, Jugal Mody.)

No subtitles
Listen to a Movie
The site name says it all, but your columnist needs to earn his weekly crust by trying to sound all wise and glib and all. This site has, as of this writing, 1406 movies, and 284 TV episodes for your listening pleasure. Pick one, an audio player launches in a wee new window, and you’re set. The streaming audio was pretty decent even on my rickety home connection. I imagine this would work well for all the really fervent fans who have seen the movies in question many times over already, and could close their eyes and see every scene in their minds. Or, with their eyes allegedly looking at the spreadsheets they’re supposed to be working on in the office. I found it rather interesting to pick a movie I’d never seen and listen in, but then I’m weird. Say, does anyone know of a site that streams just the visual? Imagine watching one movie while listening to another.. Okay, I’ll stop now.

Veni, Video, Vici
Kaltura
This site takes the wiki model of collaboration to a level I would never have imagined. Its focus is video. An obvious development, I can say now, in hindsight, considering how digital camera prices have dropped and storage space on PCs has grown. You—or anyone—can start videos (the site calls them “kalturas”) and specify what you see as the goal, or aim. You don’t even have to have actual video footage ready to edit to be able to start; the site lets you import your video, audio, and still photographs from other sites, and put them together using its online editor. And you can choose whether to limit editing rights to just yourself, with invited friends, or throw it open to everyone. Likewise, you can look around for works in progress by other people and contribute your own work, sound, video, pictures, whatever. Right then, lights, camera, click!

A word in your ear
World Wide Words
This site is an old favourite that I drop into every once in a while. It is the hobby, obsession, avocation, call it what you will, of a gentleman named Michael Quinion who, as his tagline says, “writes on international English from a British viewpoint. The man’s a scholar—he has written large chunks of an edition of the Oxford Dictionary of New Words, plus several books on language—and a very witty gentleman. He picks words (or readers send in queries) and then writes short pieces about them, going over etymology, citations and much else, all with a little smile flavouring the words. No, no, don’t worry, no emoticons. I suspect he’d rather be boiled in oil. Also on the site: a set of longer articles, reviews, and a section on topical words which is worth a visit all on its own.

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, 2nd December 2007.

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December 01, 2007

Siteseeing - 13

redBus

You can book all your transport in India online these days: planes, trains and cars—sort of—but not busses. Until now, with redBus. Aside from e-tickets, you can order ’em by phone or SMS, and have them delivered to you at a small premum (in major metros). You can even get them from physical shops, which seems to me to defeat the point, but then, hey, I have exactly zero successful start-ups to my name.
They claim 3500 routes, over 2000 destinations and tie-ups with over 150 bus operators, mainly, so far, in the South and West. It’s difficult to verify this; there are no lists onsite, and the Search selections are dynamic, so I was unable to search for anything except the site-dictated destinations once I’d chosen a start point. Gah. And then I got few or no choices on a number of routes.
There are several other speedbumps. One search I tried got a result that seemed to imply an impossible one-hour journey. Because the site neglects to add the date of arrival, which would have revealed that it would take 27 hours. Criminal sloppiness. Then tere’s no way to easily plan a multi-leg journey. No maps either, unforgivable in this era of mash-ups, not even a lists of stops en route.
They can get away with this now. But when competition steps in, they might wind up missing the bus.

Published in Outlook Traveller, December 2007.

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November 25, 2007

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Pussyfooting
I CAN HAZ?
Remember the LOLcats meme this column wrote about a couple of months ago? Well, if you liked the lunacy of the whole thing, you’ll also like this one. You know the very long URLs that some websites—this newspaper’s for instance—generate? I told you ages ago about services like TinyURL and DURL that let you, in your emails or other communication, point to them by using a short, unique string of randomly generated letters. This service goes one better. You get to choose the words you want to use as your link (corollary: you need to choose words that no one else has chosen before) . For instance, http://icanhaz.com/mousetraps will take you to an archived version of this column.

Cat food
LOLinator
A bonus link for those of you who have become LOLcats fans (courtesy friend of this column, Jugal Mody). It will will “LOLinate” any website for you. Just go over, enter the URL, and giggle. For best effect, choose a site that takes itself really, really seriously.

Search and ye shall not find
404 Research Lab
A 404 page is a page your web browser shows you when a page on a website for which you have entered a URL does not exist. For instance, http://timesofindia.com/mousetrap will show you the Time of India 404 page (because, in their wisdom, the good folk who run the site do not link to this column about websites from the website; you will only find it in the e-paper). Your web browser will generate the error page automatically, unless the host website has its own 404 page. All the good ones do, because it is an opportunity to hold on to your reader, to guide her through to what she’s looking for. And, coming to the point, perhaps have some fun as well. This site links to the best 404 pages around, ones that are useful and amusing, that take the frustration out of finding a bum link. The site doesn’t seem to be updated for a while, going by the archives, but there are enough links there to keep you going.

Greek and Latin. Not.
The Internet Classics Archive
One of the senior citizens of the internet, this site has been around since 1994. It gives you over 400 works of classical literature, mainly Greek Roman (with a smidgen of Chinese and Persian thrown in), in English translation. Homer, Aesop, Aristotel, Marcus Aurelius, Hippocrates, Virgil, Caesar, Plato, Sun Tzu, Confucius, Omar Khayyam, they’re all here. No, junior, no pictures or animation; just the text, like in old books, y’know? Never mind.

“What’s for dinner?” “Go search!”
Cookin’ With Google
This will come in useful when there’s nothing cooked at home but you do have some ingredients. Enter the names of whatever you have, and the site, does a Google Custom Search, looking only for recipes that name those ingredients. Unlike many other recipe-generating sites, this one easily handles Indian recipes, even when you use non-English words. Which reminds me. Dinner calls! See ya next week, folks.

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, 25th November, 2007.

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November 18, 2007

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Below the belt
Panties For Peace
I’m late with this one—it’s been on my list for a while, but, erm, I forgot—so let’s cut to the chase. Y’all know what’s been happening across the border in Myanmar, right? (That’s the country that used to be Burma. Everyone renames these days.) Monks getting beaten up and killed, the military junta quelling rallies and all that? Well, this activist group has this rather novel form of protest. They want you to mail your scanties to that country’s foreign missions across the globe (a list is helpfully provided). Why? Apparently “the generals ruling Myanmar are superstitious and they believe that touching panties or the traditional women’s outfit sarong will eliminate their powers.” Now, folks, any ideas on what we can send Narendra Modi? And the CPM chaps in Kolkata?

Direction finder
Free Mind
Having trouble coping with all the information you have to deal with? The projects, the ideas, the plans, the sheer masses of data? Not surprising, in this information overload age. But, worry not. What you need is a “mind map.” No, not the “Here be dragons” and the large censored bits. That’s my mind. These are the type that management mavens and suchlike recommend you use; effectively a filing system for ideas. Thing is, they can get rather large and clunky. What this piece of free-to-download software helps you do is create one of those nifty li’l things and run it off your computer. Lots of neat little things like drag ’n’ drop, clickable web links and more. Go on then, free your mind.

Picturise this
Fiickr Toys
A few weeks ago, this column suggested you look at a site that gave you helped you generate Demotivators—parodies of motivational posters. This site helps you generate your own, or, if you like, straight motivational posters too, using your own pictures and text. But there’s a lot more: you can make kosher-looking magazine covers, LOLcats picture, CD or DVD covers, movie posters, photos in the style of a Warhol or a Hockney, and lots more. As the name indicates, there are quite a few generators designed especially for users of the photo sharing service, Flickr, but there’s enough there for just anyone to have a ball with.

Stripper
PikiStrips
Except for the few with genuine talent, most of us practically have to pay people to look at our photographs. And with digital photography getting cheaper every day, every one and his chacha are clicking away happily. And now, you can take bring your friends to a whole new level. You can tell little stories with a series of pictures, add captions and speech bubbles, and hey presto, instant custom comic strip. This is nothing you couldn’t do before, of course, provided, that is that you had good photo-editing software and knew how to use it. The difference hear is you really don’t need to know a thing about photo editing. Be afraid, world. Be very afraid.

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, 18th November 2008.

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November 04, 2007

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Thirsty?
India Water Portal
We take water for granted. Most of us barely give it a thought, enjoying the luxury of having it, quite literally, on tap. But, as we learn when we face water cuts or polluted supplies, the lack of it can be disastrous. Supported by the National Knowledge Commission, this portal is a huge knowledge base on water. Its creators say it was “created in a spirit of sharing and openness by a wide range of partners including technical water experts, research institutes, NGOs, Government departments, historians and hydrogeologists, IT specialists, educators and others.” There’s something for everyone: researchers and academics, journalists, kids, teachers, environmentalists, the casual passer by with some curiosity on the subject. Ask questions, participate in their forum, subscribe to their newsletters.. go, sign up. Your children will thank you.

Clean blogs
The Lazy Environmentalist & The Green Skeptic
Two takes on the environment. Lazy E takes the stance that we all care about eco issues, but most of us don’t have the time to do anything about it. So she tries to make it easier for us to make sustainable decisions by keeping us informed of steps others are taking, not just governments, but people like you and me. The Skeptic is, to my ear, a little more formal in his tone. His aim: “challenging assumptions about how we live on the earth and protect our environment. We have four focus areas: global climate change, social entrepreneurs, microfinance, and clean tech innovations.” They’re both good places to start when you’re making your first steps to widening your knowledge on the subject.

Chew on this
Slow Food
A dig at fast food and all that it means, “slow” food is about “living an unhurried life, beginning at the table.” Food, the site goes on to say, “should be produced in a clean way that does not harm the environment, animal welfare or our health.” The movement predates the web (it began in Italy, in 1989), and has national arms in several countries now, including what it calls convivia (local chapters in plain speak) in many more, and over 80,000 members. (There are a couple in India, though I didn’t see any activities listed against their names.) The site is a bit clunky, seeming to always say over several pages what it could say in one. Perhaps they believe in slow browsing too. Never mind my snark. They’re worth a slow, long look.

Globe-ambling
Slow Travel
From Slow Food, there came the Slow Movement, and Slow Travel is one of the results. It suggests that rather than “do” a country—y’know, fly from place to place on an itinerary, ticking must-sees off from a list—one should totally immerse oneself into a place, staying at least a week, exploring, wandering, really getting the feel of it. The site has articles, tips, lots of reviews and listings, forums, photographs, everything to help you learn from what others have experienced. It’s US-centric in its views, but otherwise well worth some armchair travel time, in preparation for your next holiday.

P.S. This is a site I featured here just a couple of months ago, but just in case you haven’t seen it yet (tsk, tsk, you must listen to the nice columnist), please go to the Earth Day Footprint Quiz and figure out your—yes, that’s you—impact on the planet.

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 November, 2007.

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November 01, 2007

Siteseeing - 12

TripIt

Right, so there’s a heckuva lot the prospective traveller can do online—that’s why Editor-san pays me the big bucks coffee money to write this little thingy for you every month—buy air tickets and hotel rooms, book cars or restaurant tables, view route maps, meet people, whatever. Thing is, by the time you’re done, you have one heckuva lot of e-threads to keep track of. This services does that for you. Just mail an e-booking to plan@tripit.com, and then, as you finalise stuff, mail all your other confirmations to it too. It then sorts all those confusing bits and bytes, and gives you, just like that, a ready-made itinerary, adding for good measure, links to check-ins, maps, weather, photos where available, and so on. Of course you can log in and chop and change all you want, even let friends in, so they can, for example, figure out when you’re free to be taken out for a drink. Limitations: the service providers it “recognises” are mainly from North America and Europe. So, if you want to use it elsewhere (or with more obscure services in the West) you will have to a certain amount of manual filling in. Right now, I’m taking bets: will TripIt cover our part of the world soon? Or will some desi quickly do a rip-off painted in the tricolour?

Published in Outlook Traveller, Mumbai edition, November 2007.

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October 28, 2007

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I fully intended to follow up last week’s column with some more sites fighting the good fight for our environment, but then, hey, you don’t read this column for its grey matter now, do you? So, here’s the usual dose of looniness. Next week, we’ll go green again. (Send in site recommendations, yes?)

Conference call, redux
ROFLCon
Every now and then, the web throws up a mad little idea with legs. I’m not talking useful stuff, mind you. I mean things that re just plain weird. (No remarks about this column now, Junior.) Like the dancing baby, or the Star Wars kid or LOLcats, which this column wrote about recently, and, oh, lots of others. This site’s noble objective is to bring them all together for a conference in spring next year. Why? Well, there are a few good, solid, scientific, research-oriented reasons peppered among the posts here, like thebit about their talking abut fame and celebrity online. But do you really need a reason? Heck, I’d go just to gawk. (And yeah, when I looked at the guest list, this column has covered quite a few of them.)

Facebook for President
The Right-Wing Facebook
So everyone with an internet connection and his second cousin are on Facebook. Big deal. Try getting on to this site. It’s reserved for US Presidential candidates. Alright, alright, we keeed. This is a parody, a satirical take on the right-wingers who are competing for their party’s nomination. There’s attention to fine detail—each has a profile, a Wall with messages from the others, a friends list, and so on—that makes the points its creators are aiming for in a light-hearted but devastating way. Now, any takers for an Lorkut Sabha? You do the work and this column will feature you, deal? Unless our humourless netas get both of us banned.

Warm and fuzzy
Despair, Inc
You know those cute posters with cuddly animals or scenic vistas and coupled with enthu motivational messages that make you want to tear them off their softboards and barf on them? Preferably with the person who put them up in the first place under the shreds? Well, this site feels that way too. And they’ve made a good thing of it, with their line of “Demotivators.” Available not just on posters but also on other merchandise. But you don’t have to buy. You can just go view their gallery and download the ones that really speak to you. Or use the DIY section to create your own. Then, print ’em out and put them up in your office. You know where.

Buy good
NGO products for the festive season
Yes, yes, I know, I promised only frivolity. But this one couldn’t wait, after all, we’re already into the festive season. Karmayog, which we’ve covered before, has a list of NGOs that offer products for sale. It’s neatly sorted by category, including small items as well as corporate gifts, and though mainly Bombay-based (that’s the city that’s Karmayog’s focussed on), there are quite a few options in the rest of the country too. So shop till you drop, and you wind up helping an NGO and its cause. Happy Diwali, Merry Christmas, Happy New Year.

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, 28th October, 2007.

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October 21, 2007

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In honour of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and Al Gore and their Nobel Peace Prize, here’s a set of links for the planet.

Give it away now
Freecycle
In India, thanks to the ragpicking industry, a lot or recycling takes places despite the lack of awareness of even simple things sorting garbage into organic and inorganic waste. Even so, all of us have stuff lying around at home that we will probably never ever use, but it just lies there, gathering dust. This movement came up with the idea of creating a network where disused stuff could be offered free—not traded, mind you—to anyone who wanted it. Its mission statement says: “a worldwide gifting movement that reduces waste, saves precious resources & eases the burden on our landfills while enabling our members to benefit from the strength of a larger community.” From its origins in Tucson, in the USA, the network now claims local groups (operating via Yahoo!Groups) in over 75 countries, with millions of members. In India, there are groups in Delhi and Gurgaon, Bombay, Bangalore, Hyderabad and Jalandhar.

Lights out
Mumbai Unplug
On March 31st this year, Sydney, Australia, got worldwide attention when its citizens voluntarily turned out the lights for one hour. Other places have followed suit: there’s Lights Out America (planned for March 29th next year), and. closer home, this group. Their intentions are good, though their site design is, quite frankly, better left in the dark, both in terms of utility and aesthetics. One of the people behind the site tells me a redesign is in progress, so bookmark this and visit them once they have got their act together. Meanwhile, I’m happy to tell you that the Navi Mumbai Municipal Corporation, like so many other cities in India, is way ahead of the curve. We’ve been having daily power cuts for years now.

Shop for the planet
HAUTE*NATURE
So, you make a lot of money, and you have to have cool stuff around you, or what’s the point, right? Well, this site, like EcoCentra (www.ecocentra.com), which I linked to in April, is about buying eco-friendly products. The added accent here, though, is on the look. Or as the site says, “blending style with sustainability.” And the site does deliver on that count. There’s bling aplenty, and lots of stuff your most style-conscious friends would be happy to have in their homes. This is a really nice thing to see y’know. It means that the issue is big enough for commerce to take note and jump on the bandwagon. And that’s a good thing, right?

Here are some more sites you can check out:
Lights Out America blog
Cleantech Blog - commentary on technologies, news, and issues relating to next generation energy and the environment.
The Conscious Earth - Earth-centred news for the health of air, water, habitat and the fight against global warming.
An Inconvenient Truth - the web home of Gore’s award-winning documentary, which hosts a lot of info we all could use.
Also, the 15th October was Blog Action Day (this column pointed you to it last month), and the focus was on the environment, so see the site for links to many more posts on the subject.

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, 21st October, 2007.

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October 14, 2007

Mousetrap - 122

Peace be with you
Qibla Locator
The other day, a friend and I were wondering how Muslim astronauts in earth orbit would orient themselves to Mecca when they pray, seeing as their position relative to the holy city would change constantly; not to speak of having several sunrises and sunsets to factor in every “day.” A little research online and I found that theologians have been discussing this awhile, and have come up with several possible solutions. But while doing that searching, I came upon this mashup that uses Google Maps to help the faithful locate the correct direction to face, wherever on earth they are. You can zero down to street maps, even buildings, where the imagery is hi-res enough (or where detailed maps are available), and a bright line shows you the direction of Mecca. You do need to be able to find things on a map, of course, and have some basic sense of direction and geography, but play around a bit, and you’ll have it mastered in no time. Eid Mubarak.

There was a poet of old named Homer..
The Limerick Odyssey & The Limerick Illiad
In ancient Greece old Homer wrote
Epics that even today we quote:
About the travels of Odysseus;
And that heel of young Achilles.
Are they verse as limericks? You vote!

Bookmark
Phenomenal Women
This site was created to promote a book. Not your average potboiler. This one’s about a subject that, despite horrifying statistics, we tend to not speak about very much in this country: child sexual abuse. The book, put together by an NGO called RAHI (Recovering and Healing from Incest), is a set of personal testimonies from five middle-class English-speaking Indian women, their ages ranging from 19 to 67, who have been sexually abused as children by close family members. They write about their experiences and the impact on their lives, and about healing and hope. This site presents excerpts from those stories.

Chart-topper
Gapminder
I was pretty uninterested in Math in school, and Economics in college didn’t exactly ring my bells either. But, y’know, if tools like this were around when I was soaking up the knowledge, who knows, I might have been giving Manmohan Singh, Amartya Sen, or at least, some bloggers I know, a run for their money. Or at least got better grades. Thing is, the presentations and tools on this site make data and numbers wonderfully easy to understand, visualising publicly available data in ways that doofus types like me grok them well enough to make wild statements about their numeric abilities. There’s a must-see link on the home page, to Hans Rosling’s TED 2007 conference presentation. After you’re done, get in touch, and we’ll go talk to Mr Chidambaram about giving us jobs.

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 October, 2007.

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October 07, 2007

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Go ahead, take the food from my table
Weebly
This is a scary site. For me, that is. Because it could cost me a lot of site design work. For you, however, it’s good news. Especially if you’re the type who goes cross-eyed when someone mentions things like DNS settings or FTP. First, it’s ridiculously simple to use: click, drag, drop, you’re done. I created a basic site layout in about 3 minutes without a moment of uncertainty. Aside from the basic templates, customisable layout elements and pictures, there are simple tools to bring in content from other providers (like Google Maps, Flickr, YouTube) and bung them in. There’s more. You can publish to a sub-domain on Weebly (yourname.weebly.com) for free; or if you already own a domain, simply point it at your site here; or buy a domain through them. I say, Editor Sahib: you know that raise you promised me..?

Beyond the spectrum
Invisible Light
This column has a weakness for unusual artists. Among its many other obsessions, that is. Anyway, he’s a photographer, and as we all know, photography is all about using light to give you an image. Except that this happy soul likes to play with light we can’t see. He shoots photographs that use infra-red light. To fascinating effect. It can be quite illuminating (heh!) to see what his shots throw up; some look familiar, others like they were shot on an alien planet.

Home of the Ig Nobels
Improbable Research
Way back in the early days of this column—the second, to be precise—I pointed you to this site’s original home. It has, since, moved to its own domain. The site hosts a blog, has links to its creator’s magazine and newspaper articles, and so is a good read all year. Most famously, though, it is the home of the Ig Nobels, which reward some rather strange scientific research. It’s all great fun and, strange as it may sound, some of it could actually be of practical use. Most of the winners do come to receive their awards (which are presented by real Nobel laureates). Among this year’s winners (announced on Friday), the Chemistry prize was for extracting vanilla flavour from cow dung (a certain political party will love this), and the Literature winner published a study of the word “the.” The US Air Force didn’t show up, however. They won the Peace prize this year for their much-ridiculed proposal to create a “Gay Bomb.”

Some of my best friends are in HR
Evil HR Lady
The Human Resources department gets a bit more of its share of the flack in any organisation. Not that they’re blameless, mind you. It’s just that part of the job is to play the interface when there’s blame being passed around. This blogger writes about the profession with wit and candour, and answers questions as well. She operates in America, in a Fortune 500 company, according to her site info, so her advice is rooted in US labour law, and may not be applicable in this country. But she’s a good read, so go visit. And when your HR cell sends out new paperwork, casually mention the URL in their hearing.

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 October, 2007.

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October 01, 2007

Dear Delhi

You know, there’s this thing Delhi and Bombay have about each other. People from either burg take great delight in sniping at the other. And when His Editorness asked me to write a Capital Letter, methinks the man was hoping I’d write a Delhi Sucks piece and earn some hate mail to put some spark into his life. But I won’t. Why make a Delhiwalla happy?
Oh darn. That truce didn’t last long, did it?
Ah well, at least it’s out of the way. And I can confess that I’m actually rather fond of old Smogville-on-the-Yamuna. The bits of it that I have seen that is.
Yeah, your city is so darn large. Bombay may stretch interminably northwards, but, because of its geographical constraints, it is a slim city, seen from a plane. Delhi sprawls outwards in every direction, horizon to horizon, a giant amoeba that seems to be gobbling up, nay assimilating, UP, Haryana, burping, taking a wee nap and then looking speculatively at Himachal Pradesh and Uttaranchal.
Sorry, carried away, wasn’t I?
Like I was saying, I haven’t seen vast swathes of the city. On my first visit, as part of a dance troupe—yes, honey, that was a long time ago, stop prodding my paunch—we were give an off-day from rehearsals and taken off on a lightning tour of the city, herded from monument to monument, with, every little while, getting Rashtrapati Bhavan pointed out to us without ever seeming to get any closer to it, leaving me with a deeply ingrained feeling that everyone went around in circles here and I’d never be able to find my way around, ever.
That feeling of disorientation has never quite gone away, though over subsequent sojourns one has acquired a slightly better idea of the geography. Heck, I have even, quaking in my flip-flops, sweaty-palmed, driven around the city. Bombay’s traffic is merely a perpetual traffic jam, and once you come to terms with that, it’s all part of the routine. Delhi’s drivers, aided by Delhi’s lovely roads, are in a league of their own for sheer fershlugging bloody-minded lunacy. But of that, much has been written, so one shall swiftly move on to.. No, wait. Those roads. Can we have some of them, please? Just a wee bit of the Ring Road? You’re hardly going to miss it.
And while we’re swapping, I’d like to get some of those majestic buildings, those parks, that feeling of space (I have slept in Bombay bedrooms smaller than the bathrooms in most Delhi houses). Oh yes, and a wee bit of your winter, preferably with a few of those foggy days you folks do so well. You can keep your summer, though. We’ll trade you some of our monsoon. But perhaps not. I don’t think you chaps really know how to deal with rain: I saw rickshaws pulled over to the roadside, hazard lights flashing on every car during a piddling half-hour shower the other day.
We—and I speak now for the rest of the country too—would also like some of the sporting action (and stadia), and the buzzing literary scene you have going.
No? Selfish sods, you lot.
I’ll just have to come back now, won’t I?

Published in Outlook City Limits, Delhi, October 2007, in a section called Capital Letters.

Siteseeing - 11

EveryTrail & GlobalMotion

Sister sites, with the same basic idea: mashing up maps (specifically Google Maps and Google Earth with some other services as well in the USA), GPS data, photographs, and personal notes. They differ in the fine focus. EveryTrail is about trips, and works best for treks and road trips. Routes are mapped via GPS device, and photographs are “geo-tagged” to the exact time and location at which they were taken (i.e. if your digi-camera and GPS thingummy are set to the right time). You can add notes as well, and then share the whole thing with friends. In places where you can get high-res imagery, you can practically do a virtual glide over a route. GlobalMotion is a wiki—anyone can edit it—and focussed on places. Each has pictures that are geo-tagged at that location, and notes, and downloadable data for your GPS. With both services, you can get deep into an actual satellite image, and put yourself into the shoes and behind the eyes of someone who stood at that exact spot and took a picture. They’re both still newish (GeoMotion will be a little over a month olf by the time you see this), but have a fair amount of stuff to snoop on. Go look. Add your own. While I go lobby the editor about giving me a GPS machine for my next trip.

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 Outlook Traveller, October 2007.

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September 30, 2007

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Wikid World
Wikiscanner
As Wikipedia gets bigger, more and more people are looking up things on Wikipedia, unreliable as it can sometimes be. And more and more organisations and special interests find themselves being written about. Not always to their, er, delight. Companies like to be able to control what’s being said about them, put their own spin on things, with entire departments devoted to the task. Now, the thing is that Wikipedia doesn’t like people or organisations creating pages their own pages or editing them. The sheer size of it means that it isn’t exactly easy to monitor this. Well, this young geek’s site tracks and lists “interesting” wikipedia edits. I.e., edits that are made on pages about organisations by users with IP numbers that originate in that organisations network. In simpler words, edits possibly made by companies trying to massage their own listings. Ah, what a tangled web we weave... [Via Jugal Mody]

The Doctor is online
WebMD
Change of season affecting your health? Worried about the next potential global pandemic? Want a clearer explanation of jargon your doctor has laid on you? Go visit the WebMD. Loads of information here enough to keep even the most determined hypochondriac happily occupied for hours at a time. Treatments, info about drugs, sections for men, women, and children. Really everything you could want. Except, perhaps, something that will read a doctor’s prescription.

Pointed
Willard Wigan
This is an artist’s website. A rather unusual artist. He specialises in sculpture that could fit, quite literally, into the eye of a needle. You get to see extreme blowups of his creations, with objects like match-heads, and yes, that eye of a needle, for comparison. The site seems to be in a state of flux the last time I looked, with incomplete content, but there’s still enough there to feast your eyes on.

Girls just wanna have fun
Shiny Shiny & Techie Diva
So many people seem t think it’s the male of the human species that is gadget happy, getting all his jollies from technology. These two blogs turn that logic on its head. They’re all about the tech and gizmos that women love. Where else would you read about an Armani phone? Floral USB hubs? Designer laptop skins? I must warn you that one person of the female persuasion that I know didn’t think much of these sites; she says they perpetuate outdated gender images or some such. I may have misheard. I was too busy checking out the übercool stuff they cover.

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, 30th September, 2007.

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September 23, 2007

Mousetrap - 119

Judging a book
Bad Book Covers
I must hasten to add that these are not bad in a way that will get the Moral Police morons after you. They’re just awful design, or bad juxtapostions of titel and graphics, or— oh, just go see. 112 images for you to giggle at, with the site owner’s snarky little captions.

Homer and me
Simpsonize me
If you’re a Simpsons fan, you’ll like this site, which lets you convert a picture of yourself into an image in the cartoon’s drawing style. It’s a marketing gimmick, really, and also a bit of a con, or that’s the impression I got. Despite the specifications about full-face pictures and a bunch of other questions, what you get bears little resemblance to the photograph you upload; you then have to fiddle around with a bunch of controls to get something approaching the source, so perhaps they’re just harvesting pictures for some nefarious ploy.

Royal Flush
Uncle John’s Throne Room
(Warning: this column’s potty mind takes over again.) Do you like to read when you’re, you know, expelling what your digestive system had decided it doesn’t need? If you do, you know that it’s difficult to get just the right reading material, stuff that you finish by the time you, er, finish. Newspapers and magazines work for some, since content is in small sections, but they’re unwieldy. Poetry works, since most poems tend to be short (and now I will have poet friends looking at me strangely when I tell them I’ve read their newest works). Fiction? Problems. Do you abandon a chapter mid-way? Read through past immediate needs because the suspense would kill you? This website, amigos, promotes a series of books that are designed for bathroom reading. And as incentive, doles out a selection from the books for free. They’re available in short, medium or long variations, to suit every bowel movement. So visit, print out, and, um, go. (And if the water runs out, hey, you’re prepared.) No, sonny, don’t take that hand-held device in.

Bedtime music
Snorchestra
If you have ever travelled by long distance train or lived in a dormitory, you’ll kick yourself for not having thought of this one. All those liquid, sinusitis induced sounds gone to waste. But never fear, this site’s owners want your contributions to use in their symphonies. In the meanwhile, go listen to their samples (the audio is free, no paying to listen with these generous souls. And read up on their plans (which include a live mix of snores from hotel rooms played in the lobby). Righty-o. See ya next week kiddies. It’s late, and I have an album to record.

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, 23rd September, 2007.

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September 15, 2007

Bamboo

It’s been a wait for the Bamboo. I first noticed the space many months ago, on another visit to The Park, but it only opened its doors in late August. When we visited, it was empty. On a Saturday evening. A cricket match being telecast at that time probably had much to do with it; there’s no widescreen TV Bamboo, unlike the bar and Zest, their other restaurant, to the disappointment of your dedicated reviewer. But there’s a lot else missing here—no paper lanterns, no red walls, not a brush-stroke typeface in sight—hoorah! But the design overdoes, it I think. Stainless-steel chopsticks? Doesn’t work for me. But enough about the decor.
We start by asking whether there was any Chinese hooch to wash down the travel dust, and whether there was a tasting menu. ‘No,’ and ‘huh?’ respectively, we’re told. So we decide on a beer with our starters. The sea bass baked in the hollow of a split length of bamboo (Rs 695), our waiter’s recommendation, is impressively presented and tastes wonderful, but to my mind, not wonderful enough for the price. The barbequed pork ribs (Rs 225) are excellent—tender, meat easily persuaded off the bone, nice sauce. Our other big production number is the Peking Duck (Rs 350 for a quarter portion). Pancakes ceremonially placed on plates, sweet bean sauce proffered for us to smear, then some crunchy greens and the strips of duck. Lips smacked all around.
Main course. The Lo Han noodles (Rs 245) with extra shrimp topping (Rs 50) is light and tasty, though the topping is all at the bottom (I got four of them off the last spoonful served to us). The Bamboo Rice (Rs 195), sticky rice served in a bamboo vessel, has us wondering why such a fuss was being made of steamed rice. The Beef Tenderloin (Rs 395) got the twelve-year-old at out table up in arms: not another sweet sauce, she says in disgust, stabbing it with the wooden chopsticks the waiter provided us with when we made fun of the metal stuff. She is mollified somewhat by the Fuyang Prawns (Rs 525), prawn wrapped in thin slices of chicken, which has a distinct bite too the sauce, but, to my relief (I’m a wimp when it comes to spicy food), not enough to overwhelm the prawn. The Long Jing tea I sip between courses isn’t complementary (Rs 95 for a cup barely larger than a thimble). Its task could have been as well performed by a glass of water. Chef Li’s Sweethearts (Rs 245), dimsum with ice cream, for dessert is okay—it looks like modak, says the pre-teen—but underwhelming considering it bears the chef’s name.
We pay, we scuttle off quickly. We can still catch the last of the match at Zest for the price of a coffee. India wins!
Peter Griffin
Bamboo, The Park Navi Mumbai, No 1, Sector 10, CBD Belapur, Navi Mumbai 400614. Tel: +91 22 2758 9000. Open 7.00pm-11.45pm. No service tax , 12.5% VAT. Meal for two without alcohol, Rs 1200.


Published in Time Out Mumbai, September 2007.

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September 10, 2007

Vicious Circle

In the building where I once lived in the quieter, older, mainly residential part of Vashi, there was a bar that had, ahem, waitresses. It meant that there were always autorickshaws available near my house late in the night, and frequent entertaining vocabulary enhancement when the ladies had disagreements behind the joint. The place went through several changes of management and name—the basic service offering staying constant—until, just before we moved, the place got respectable. It still served booze, but the ladies were replaced with surly lads, families were welcome (the new owner invited the entire colony over for a meal when it opened) and it kept legal closing hours.
Some months ago, in synch with the property boom in Concreteville-by-the-creek, the place reinvented itself once more. Now called Vicious Circle, the place looks like a haven for the moderately well-heeled BPO exec: all glass, gleam and, well, decor. But. A large TV screen occupies one wall, making conversation a little difficult. The seating looks good, but is made uncomfortable by the way the table are jammed together; you’re constantly treading on the toes of your dinner partner.
Reading the long menu (the usual personality-challenged multi-cuisine mix) was thirsty work; we needed a beer to keep us going. Sneering at the papad and slices of cucumber and carrot that came with the drinks, we selected the Mutton Boti Kabab (Rs 170) for a starter. Pretty good, juicy boneless botis and a layer of kheema, mildy spiced; but it could do without the wilting bits of veggie garnish.
Next, slaves to duty, we sampled briefly from the cocktail menu. My friend’s Rain Killer (dark rum, white rum, OJ and honey, Rs 120) surprised me by being rather good; I hate rum, usually. But we both agreed that my Scotch Sour (scotch, fresh lime, sugar syrup and egg white) was even better, with more mule ancestry too, though I didn’t like the sticky after-taste of the egg-white froth. One must note here that while the service is attentive and prompt, our waiter kept rearranging things unasked. When he moved my glass for the second time, after I had moved it back where I wanted it with a very ostentatious thump, he lost two-thirds of his tip.
The Paya Soup (Rs 70) came in, and was pronounced genuine by my friend, a Sarvi connoisseur. I skipped that to save room for dessert. Our Mutton Vindaloo (Rs 160) was quite palatable, but didn’t taste at all like a vindaloo should; they seem to have forgotten the vinegar. My Rumali Roti (Rs 25) worked better with the mutton curry—that’s really what it was—than my companion’s rather injudicious Cheese Naan (Rs 40), which was a respectable snack on its own.
The desserts section on the menu was the slimmest, and rather uninviting. I plumped for the Doodhi Halwa (Rs 55), and regretted it: oily, rather tasteless.
Burping genteelly, we exited into the night, the last customers out. There were no rickshaws. The ladies must be giggling.
Peter Griffin
Vicious Circle, Shop 1 &2, F-Type, Sector 7, Vashi, Navi Mumbai. (2782-7272). Meal for two without alcohol, Rs 600. All credit cards accepted, except Diners. No debit cards.


Published in Time Out Mumbai, September 2007.

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September 09, 2007

Mousetrap - 118

For ever and ever
Immortality Institute
Aging’s a bitch, no? That steady loss of muscle tone, that degeneration of the senses, and then death. This site, like all of us, thinks that’s not a nice thing. And, unlike all of us, is working towards eliminating it. That is, the whole aging bit. Science, after all, has already extended life expectancy far beyond what it was even a few generations ago. And those boundaries are being moved further every day. Soon, they think, to should be possible to extend life indefinitely. (Of course nothing can stop death by disaster, accident or simple human idiocy.) The site seeks to advance awareness with an online forum, books, films and conferences.

Siteseeing
World Monuments Watch
If all the recent brouhaha about the new seven wonders of the world did anything aside from fill entrepreneurial pockets, it was this: it raised awareness of the host of wondrous structures that are our heritage. Many of these, alas, are in states of disrepair, with neglect, active destruction or the environment slowly destroying them. This site, an offshoot of the World Monuments Fund (which is definitely worth a visit as well), lists the 100 most endangered sites in the world, and takes you on a small virtual tour.. You get to see and experience just a little of the grandeur, and to educate yourself on what could soon mean that a virtual tour is all that we and our descendants can take.

Sights for sore eyes.
Grand Optical Illusions and Visual Phenomena & Grand Illusions
You know all those email forwards that insist that the attachments are amazing, will blow your mind, that you won’t believe your eyes? Well, compadre, here’s the motherlode. The first site claims it has 72 of the little suckers, everything from the seemingly diverging lines that are actually parallel, to the shapes that seem to shift as your eyes run over them, to, well, everything. And if that wasn’t enough, there’s many pages of them on the second site too, some duplicates, yes, but a slightly better layout. And it’s a site that also sells you stuff—toys and things—that you can display proudly in your home. Instead of sending me the damn things.

Windscreen
Scott Wade's Dirty Car Art Gallery
Have you ever seen a dirty car window and quickly wrote “Clean Me!” in the grime with your finger? No? You mean it’s just me? Well never mind. This artist takes those impulses much, much further. Helped along by the fact that he lives on a dusty road, which helps prep his “canvas” regularly, he does entire masterpieces on his and his wife’s car rear window. With brushes, I hasten to add. He has it down to a fine um, art, using the rain to help sometimes, or doing a piece in several stages (letting more dust build up between stints, filling up areas already cleaned by his brush). Then he photographs them and puts the pictures up here. And then the rain wipes the, er, slate clean. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go outside. The kids in my neighbourhood are budding artists, and I must go stifle their careers.

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, 9th September, 2007.

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September 02, 2007

Mousetrap - 117

Together
Blog Action Day
Bloggers love crusades, even if it’s just one blogger ranting about the system. This site seeks to harness some of that energy with a simple idea. On a given day—October 15th—every blogger enlisted will post about a single important issue. Nope, they won’t be following the media’s lead and talking about film stars going to jail. This one’s about the environment, and everyone’s free to approach it their way. If your blog is about films, post about movies that discuss the issue. If you write about your love life, then, on the day, write about, um, the population and the importance of birth control. “Posts do not need to have any specific agenda, they simply need to relate to the larger issue in whatever way suits the blogger and readership. Our aim is not to promote one particular viewpoint, only to push the issue to the table for discussion.” Blog on.

Cat food
I CAN HAS CHEEZBURGER?
It’s pretty hard to explain this site to you, or why it’s so popular, but your columnist will try anyway. Every now and then, the web is swept by a—there’s no better word for it—phenomenon. Something silly, but inexplicably attractive to the netizen, so much so that s/he feels compelled to send it on to fifty friends that very day. You remember the dancing baby in the nineties? Like that. This one is about pictures of cats, with large-type captions meant to indicate something the cat is saying. This statement is usually in a trademark kind of fractured, misspelled English, typified by the name of the site. And though the phenomenon—called “lolcats,” by the way—predates it, the site is credited with making it hugely popular. The site features vast archives of lolcats, with fresh stuff regularly added. Go see. And check out Lolcats as well, for another huge repository.

Hic
How to say cheers in different languages
Just what the world needs for lasting peace. A helpful little glossary of words and phrases used just before chugging down a glass of a booze. I’m not entirely sure how reliable it is; many of the words seem okay, but for India, one sees “A la sature.” And in the course of drinks drunk in various parts of the country, I’ve never heard that. Come to think of it, except for more westernised parts—which, in any case, use western toasts—I’ve never heard anyone say anything ritualised before a drink. Except, perhaps, “Repeat!”

Lifting is the new Research
The Snowclones Database
A snowclone is a type of formula-based cliché which uses an old idiom in a new context. It was originally defined as “a multi-use, customisable, instantly recognizable, time-worn, quoted or misquoted phrase or sentence that can be used in an entirely open array of different jokey variants by lazy journalists and writers.” And, faithful reader, your columnist is not only guilty of perpetrating snowclones on you at the drop of a deadline, but he is so darn lazy that he stole the first two sentences from Wikipedia. In fact he is going to totally goof off and tell you to go to the site to look up the origins of the neologism and see the examples on the site, all with detailed citations. Now, I must nap.

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, 2nd September, 2007.

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September 01, 2007

Deckchairs of the Kings

Two-and-a-half kilometres of beach all to myself. A waiter from the restaurant trudges across the sand, bearing provender. I’m in one of those long pool-chairs, under a thatch umbrella. The waves gambol in a few feet away. A fairly determined sort of breeze comes in from the west. A chap could get used to this.

I’m at the The Beach at Mandvi Palace. It sits in the middle of the 450 acres of mildly domesticated jungle that make up the backyard of Vijay Vilas, the summer retreat of the former rulers of Mandvi. Rajesh Singh, the manager, tells me that it in bygone years, when the family and guests came out for hunts and suchlike, tent camps would come up around the palace. Right now, it is the only privately owned beach in India, with the property extending right up to the waterline. I hear that the family has refused offers from various hospitality chains to take over and run the palace as a hotel.

The current head of the family, Pragmulji III, doesn’t live here—he divides his time between Bhuj and Bombay—but he has entrusted the running of this venture to his nephew, Paranjayaditya Parmar. And what the younger man has wrought is a pretty nifty get-away-from-it-all kind of place.

I didn’t get to meet him either, because he was off campaigning for the elections way over on the other side of Gujarat, but when we spoke, his enthusiasm for the place was evident. Seeing the tent resorts in touristy places, he decided that tents made better sense to start up with, rather built up structures, which require lots of paperwork. But he was determined to do it his way. Instead of using the available block-printed Rajasthani tents, he and his wife designed their own versions and got them made locally. The furniture and other modifications came from a similar ad hoc process.

There is accommodation for ten pairs of guests at the moment, so it works out to a comfortable 200 metres of beach per couple at peak occupancy, a ratio that I have only seen in one beach in Goa and one other nearer home. (And no, I’m not telling you where either of them are.) Well, I exaggerate; the place also takes in day trippers, charging them a fee for access to the beach, so it may not be as desert-islandish for you as it was for me. But since it’s an eight kilometre drive to Mandvi, which in turn is many miles away from the rest of the world, you’re not going to get Anjuna levels of madding crowd any time soon.

As of this writing, the camp consists of ten tents in a clearing, each sleeping two, a sand dune and a line of scrub and trees separating them from the beach and protecting them from the worst of the weather. Each one is set on its own concrete plinth, a little sit-out in the front, with a couple of dinky camel-leather deck chairs. The styling is reminiscent of royal expedition tents of yore; scalloped edges, carved finials atop the tent poles, awning over the entrance. One looks around automatically for men on horseback returning from the shikaar or from a battle.
A quibble: considering the vast acreage available, they’re set rather too close to each other, with the support ropes of neighbouring tents overlapping. Given canvas walls, it might get noisy when the place is fully booked.

The tents are triple-layered, a candy-striped inner tent, over that a thicker outer, and over it all, a waterproof roof. It keeps the rain out very well, and the lack of natural ventilation is more than compensated for with a high power air-conditioner.
Inside, a coir-carpeted floor, twin beds, bedside tables with a small storage space, carved wood chairs, and a writing table. The chairs are nice-looking, but, alas, not comfy for lazing around in. So I wound up spending most of my time indoors in bed. Lighting is a couple of lamps beside the beds. At the back, behind the flap, is a largish tiled, walled bathroom, its roof an extension of your tent. Electricity and water are on 24 hours.

Meals are delivered to your tent, or you can amble over to the thatched roof restaurant that looks out on to the beach. Speaking of the fodder, nothing to write home about. The restaurant claims to serve Indian, Continental and Chinese, and local specialities. I tried all of them, and was, well, unimpressed. Perhaps it was just me, all grouchy about the Gujarati preference for tea, which meant getting instant swill instead of real coffee. On the plus side, I must add: outside of a 5-star hotel, this is the only place where I’ve had decent scrambled eggs. The manager tells me they do a good barbeque. I decided not to test this—as the only guest, it seemed a bit selfish to get them to rig it all up just for me—but he also tells me that they happily customise the menu to suit guest preferences.

Overall, the place does itself a disservice with its branding: it calls itself a luxury beach camp, which raises expectations way too much. It is, no doubt, very comfortable (ACs and proper plumbing in the tent!, Woohoo!) and gives fair value for your rupee, but I have seen and paid for—or rather, this magazine paid for—luxury, and this falls short. Dismiss that claim and take the place for what it is, and you have a pretty unique getaway.

The service is excellent; polite, attentive, eager to cater to personal preferences, quick to acknowledge, and compensate for, shortcomings. And the location the location! Ah, my friend, the calm beauty of the place, the exclusivity, more than make up for any complaints a sour journalist can think up.

Item: A waiter making the long walk from the restaurant with a tray of tea and toast, waving out to you as you wallow in the blood-warm tide pool you have discovered, waiting patiently for you to get back and get dry to offer to pour a cuppa for you.

Item: A semi-tame nilgai (the staff fed it when it was injured, and it has stayed around ever since) attempting to snuffle the mosambi slice off your glass of fruit juice. And an almost-feral cat prowling around the restaurant periphery, not begging, just implying by her manner that she would perhaps, maybe, when she feels like it, find the time to help you get rid of some of that pesky food on your plate. You throw her a bone, she pounces on with alacrity, and carries it off to the undergrowth where she can eat undisturbed by commoners and dogs.

Item: A symphony putting you to sleep at night. The wind soughing through the trees and the murmur of waves layered over with a chorus of frogs singing bass serenades, crickets chirruping the high notes.

Item: A cloudless night. I sit alone on the beach. The faint glow of Mandvi off to the East, the moon sinking below the horizon to the West, and overhead, a dazzling array of stars, with the haze of the galactic disc cutting a broad swathe through it all.

Item: Dammit, I could go on and on. Let’s just say that the place is so relaxing that in the course of about 48 hours, despite around eight hours in the water, and sleeping in late, I unwound enough to write, sketch, finish two books and sip from a volume of poetry. I didn’t miss the internet—I’m a certifiable web junkie—and it never occurred to me to try the camel rides or horseback jungle walks on offer, or even to go visit the palace. And I’m an absolute sucker for old piles. I’m still kicking myself for that one; from the photographs I’ve seen, the palace is in excellent condition, and well worth a visit.

Parmar tells me, in one of our chats, that he is checking out the possibility of bringing in a few kayaks and other unpowered craft. And that there were changes afoot. he plans to build a spa resort in the property; 20 cottages, a pool, a bar.
Yes, you heard that right, a proper bar in dry Gujarat. Apparently the government has declared that of the state’s 1666-kilometre coastline, the 15km stretch around Mandvi is now a Special Entertainment Zone (which makes SEZ a far cheerier acronym, no?) and liquor licenses and the like are in the process of being applied for and allotted. Good news for the Gujarati tippler, who now can get sloshed in-state rather than having to choose between patronising a bootlegger, importuning visiting friends to sneak a bottle or two in, or strolling across the border for a piss up. Alas, it probably means that this stretch will shortly be overloaded drastically, as the holiday-makers converge.

But as long as the Mandvi Maharao and his family use their property as sensibly as they have thus far, I’m inclined to think that their little slice of paradise will stay pristine.


Information

Getting there.
Bhuj, a little over 60 km away, is the nearest airport and railhead. There is at least one flight in and out every day, mainly to Bombay. Two trains connect with Bombay and other parts of Gujarat. From Bhuj, you can take a local bus (roughly half-hour frequencies), to Mandvi, and then take a taxi or a rickshaw to the Beach Camp. Or you could haggle for a taxi; fares are extortionate, higher even than Goa, so you could wind up paying as high as Rs 1000 for the trip.
Other possible connecting points: Gandhidham, 90km, Rajkot, 250 km; Ahmedabad, 450 km.

Things to see and do
The Palace is open for guided tours during the day. You can also take walks, or camel or horse rides, on the beach or within the woodland around the camp, effectively a private sanctuary, with plenty of birds—flamingo in the right season, partridge, peacocks—and if you’re lucky, nilgai, chinkara and jackals.
The management will make arrangements for you if you want to make day trips from the camp. The Lala Bustard Sanctuary is 74 km north, where you can see the Indian Bustard, an endangered species, and the rare Lesser Florican. You may also see gazelles, foxes, jackals, wolves, and of course a wealth of bird life. For the devout, the 72-Jinalaya Jain complex at Badreshwar, the Jain temples at Naliya and Tera, the Hindu shore temples of Koteshwar and Narayan Sarovar, and the Lakpath gurudwara are within striking distance. The Bhuj-Mandvi area is good for shopping for Kutchi handicrafts. Mandvi is a big boat-building centre, and on your way in, you cross a creek where you can see massive wooden boats being built from the ground up. See the day trips section on the website (URL below) for more details on ll of these.
At the camp, your options are limited to what you bring with you and who you come with. No TV, but there’s satellite radio in the restaurant.
Cellphone connectivity is excellent on the beach, but can disappear in parts of the grounds. No internet access closer than Mandvi town. No alcohol served, since Gujarat is a dry state. Wait for the SEZ!

Best time to visit
Gujarat gets some pretty extreme doses of the monsoon, so, while the place is breathtakingly beautiful and pleasant in the rains, you could wind up stranded if transport succumbs to the weather. And, though the water deepens very gradually, the current is strong, and the water is choppy and brown. Summer gets extreme too: over 40°C in the day time. Peak “season” is December to March, when the westerners come in search of sunbathing. The water is calm and blue then—so management says, and the photographs I’ve seen agree—and it’s cool. In fact night temperatures in December can go as low as 7°C, so take thick pajamas!

Tariffs:
Rs 5500 per night (12 noon check-in/check-out) for two people, with breakfast, lunch and dinner. Packages available: 3 days / 2 nights, with meals, Rs 10,999 on weekends, public holidays and the Chritsmas / New Year week, Rs 8,999 on all other Mondays to Thursdays. These rates are for Indian citizens and foreign residents of India (who will have to produce proof of residence). Foreign tourists pay more: US$125 per day with breakfast, or US$150 per day with breakfast, lunch or dinner. (Taxes extra on all tariffs.)

Reservations
Tel: + 91 2834 295725 / 9879013118. Email: reservations@mandvibeach.com Web: http://www.mandvibeach.com/

Published in Outlook Traveller, September 2007.

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Siteseeing - 10

Airline Meals

Truly, my fellow travellers, the interweb is a wonderful place. One thought, when one covered websites dedicated to toilets, that nothing else could surprise one. But, I kid you not, there is a site dedicated to that other necessity, food, and the variety of it available in the air, as the name has already told the smart ones in the class.
The site started with a few of its creator’s photographs. He then found some others online, and added those. Later, he posted about it on some online forums, then got written about in the media, after which, the deluge: almost 19,00 images and 536 airlines covered as of this writing.
What you get is a picture of the food tray, with a description of the food, and a rating, sorted by airline. You will also find a special preferences section (Indian vegetarian figures, as do more niche categories such as lacto-ovo-vegetarian, and medical necessities like diabetic and gluten-free meals), airport meals, crew meals, behind-the-scenes pictures, menu cards, and even old airline ads. And if that’s not a bellyful, you can go to the forums to discuss all of the above. Now, put down your tray-table, little boy, and stop kicking the seat back of the nice columnist in front of you.

Published in Outlook Traveller, September 2007.

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August 26, 2007

Mousetrap - 116

Once upon a time
Khaufpur city welcomes you
More than twenty years ago, Bhopal woke to horror. A chemical leak in a factory poisoned the area, and many died that night. It didn’t end there. The toxins stayed, scarring and permanently handicapping some, affecting children not born at that time, the earth, the water. Activists still fight for justice, for compensation. Indra Sinha, the writer, is one of the people who have campaigned tirelessly for the victims and survivors. His newest book, “Animal’s People,” is based in a fictional city called Khaufpur—“Khauf,” in Urdu, means “fear” I am told—which bears a not coincidental resemblance to Bhopal. While the site could be seen as canny publicity for the book (which has made the Booker long-list), to me it, and the book, are really part of the bigger continuing campaign for justice in Bhopal. It is put together with attention to detail, with no little sense of humour. The typos are planned, the language reflects that used in some many babu-run sites. And the biting satire of some of its sections makes one smile. And think. Go visit Khaufpur, the city of promise. [Link via Nilanjana S Roy.]

Like this
Similpedia
Wikipedia, with all its flaws, is the reference site of choice for many, and has enough excellent content for to make it worth checking on when one is doing a spot of research. Wikipedia is big—almost 2 million articles as of this writing—and you might need a bit of help if you don’t know the naming conventions and taxonomy. This site can help you with that. Simply enter a URL, or a bit of text, and hit the search button. You get links to a bunch of Wikipedia articles on topics that the site’s alogorithms determine are related, or similar. I tried this with some of the sites I run, and the results were pretty good. [Link via “qaro”]

Not so Fab?
What Goes On - The Beatles Anomalies List
So many decades after they last recorded together, the Beatles are still objects of devotion. This site lists anomalies from their output. As in flubbed beats, stray sounds, errors, comments that crept in, and so on. It started off on a mailing list, as so many great sites do, and grew and grew. Why so many anomalies in the work of so famous a band? As the site says, part of the reason could be that the band was “innovating, experimenting, and working beyond the limits of the equipment. Equipment that at the time was the best available, but now looks very dated and clumsy.” It also points out that this is a labour of love. “Spending so long listening to and analyzing every last moment of the Beatles over a period of 12 years is something you could only do if you were a fan.”

Ingenuous
AfriGadget
Africa, regarded by scientists as the where our species evolved, is still very poor, and comparitively low-tech. Nevertheless, human ingenuity comes to the fore, solving complex problems, problems that more advanced cultures throw a lot of machinery at, with very simple ideas and basic technology. This blog showcases the best of these “AfriGadgets.” There is much here that can be adapted for use in India’s poorer areas. And, I think, we’d have some pretty good ideas to offer them too. IndiGadgets, anyone?

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 August, 2007.

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August 19, 2007

Mousetrap - 115

Sticking it to ’em
These Come From Trees Blog
This blog is the home of an interesting experiment in “environmentalism, viral marketing, and user interface design with the goal of reducing consumer waste paper!” You’ve come across guerrilla advertising before: stuff that sneaks up at you from unexpected places, never from conventional media outlets. This blog aims to remind people not to waste paper, and it recommends doing so right at the places where we most often use paper, using its stickers. Wait, use stickers to save paper; isn’t that counter-productive? Well, it says here that on the average, one sticker winds up saving a tree’s worth of paper every year. Go read up on how you can help. Just don’t put one of these near the editor’s chequebook, okay?

By design
RADness
That’s short for “Random Acts of Designess.” A clunky name in need of a random act of copywriting, you may say. But this column says cut the snark and listen. It is aimed at designers, has a simple plan. “Surf the web, find a good cause that needs some help with it’s identity, or promotional material (or anything else design related). Do some appropriate design work that you believe will benefit the cause and together with an explanation, just send it to them.” Works? Well, I found it via the previous site in this column; RADness’s creator sent in a made-over logo to the These Come From Trees blog owner. Your turn now. Send this to designer friends. And if they ask you where to find worthy causes, give them the address at the bottom of this column. I can point them to some very worthy ones. Seriously.

Your page
Squidoo
Are you an authority on some subject? Of course you are. But are you online? Now, not everyone has the patience (or the savvy, or whatever) to, say, run a blog, or build a website. Squidoo offers you an alternative. You can sign up and build a single page—they call it a “lens” here—about your passion. It’s quick, easy to configure and maintain, and it’s free. Check out their FAQ page for a heap of useful suggestions, or just wander around a bit and see how other people are using their lenses.

In the style to which you are accustomed
Earth Day Footprint Quiz
We’re starting to hear a lot now about the our carbon footprint, and related matters. This site had its quiz up way before the buzz got loud enough for everyone to hear. It’s pretty simple. Select your country from the map on the first page, and then answer 15 questions. When you’re done, you’ll find out how much of the earth’s resources in terms of land and water you are using; your “ecological footprint.” And you can compare it with other people around the world, and, more importantly, what the planet can sustain. The answers can be sobering. Yes, there are also suggestions on how you can reduce your footprint. Every little counts.

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 August, 2007.

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