April 29, 2007

Mousetrap - 100

Buy green
ecocentra
This column missed a few good dates in the last month or two, most notably April Fool’s Day and World Environment Day, last week. Well, I’ll continue to be an idiot all year long, and I’ll make up for last week, at least, by pointing you to this online marketplace with a difference. This one is for the buying and selling of eco friendly and ethical products. Products are defined for you: Organic / Natural, Fair-trade, Recycled, Charity / Campaign / Educational, and Energy Conscious. Oh yes. And it’s a free service. Now, don’t go using too much electricity browsing through what’s on offer, okay?

Fold here, cut there
Paper Toys
Great fun for the younger readers, for sure, and shouldn’t be too boring for you fogies of similar vintage either. You get a wide variety of models to choose from, including famous building, F-1 cars, motorcycles, the Taj Mahal, Bipasha Basu, even a T-Rex. You print out, make enlargements with your photocopier if you need to, and then cut, paste, and there you are. Oh, and sir, I was kidding about Ms Basu. Sir? Sir?

Radio Gaa Gaa
Music India Online
A nice site for a huge variety of Indian music. From classical (Carnatic and Hindustani), devotional, folk, ghazals, pop, remix, even fusion, and music from various regions of India there’s a heckuva lot to choose from. The music comes to you streamed, via their online player, which, even on my occasionally molasses-like connection, plays quite smooth. Turn it on. [Link from Megha Murthy, who says, she loves it because “there are no annoying pop-ups, and the songs that play don't have silly ads preceding them,” unlike some competing sites. ]

Presentation software
Bullshit Bingo
Bingo is the American version of the game we know in India as Housie. And this is, well, not an officially recognised variant as such, but fun all the same. If you’re in a company overloaded with bright-eyed and bushy-tailed professional manager type folks, chances are your eyes glaze over about 3 minutes into any meeting as the jargon whizzes past your cranium at dangerous speeds. Here’s one way to enjoy them instead. Hit the site, print our cards (a randomiser gves you a different permutation with each Refresh Page). The idea is to tick off words on your card as they are used during the meeting, and when yu get five in a row, get up and shout “Bullshit!” Whether you win or lose depends on who is speaking at that time of course. There are variations of the cards to suit various industries, though most of those aren’t as good as the one on the front page. Oh, and if you’re the boss, and you use this game? May I come join your company?

This edition of the column is number 100. And, next week will be precisely two years since it made its debut. No great shake when compared to some of the names sprinkled around these pages, but for the web, well, hey we’re glad it’s still around. Do write in and let me know how you rate the column over the last couple of years. And of course, continue to send in sites.

Reader suggestions welcome, and will be acknowledged. Go to http://o3.indiatimes.com/mousetrap for past columns, and to comment, or mail inthemousetrap@indiatimes.com. The writer blogs at http://zigzackly.blogspot.com.

Published in the Times of India, Mumbai edition, 29th April, 2007.

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April 22, 2007

Mousetrap - 99

Making it up
Langmaker
Languages change, evolve, morph, live and die out. That is the natural order of things. But there are other languages, constructed deliberately, for reasons that may include dissatisfaction with some elements of an existing language, or to communicate across languages, or just for very elaborate works of fiction. Examples include Esperanto, Klingon, Tolkien’s Elvish tongues, Nadsat, and so on. This site is a massive database of these “Conlangs.” It also includes neographies (invented writing systems), neologisms, Babel texts, resources and books.

Babel
Omniglot
This is a great site for anyone with the remotest interest in languages. It has scripts for “most alphabets and other writing systems currently in use, as well as quite a few ancient and invented ones.” There is heaps of information as well, about these languages and writing systems, a large essay section, tips on learning languages (put together by the site’s creator, who speaks and reads, oh, a dozen or so), and even some unsolved language puzzles.

Habeas corpus
An exquisite corpse
Have you ever played the Exquisite Corpse game? It uses, usually, a folded piece of paper, where participants each draw or write something, continuing on from the previous participants contribution. The catch is, he or she can only see what the person immediately before did. The results can be fun, and sometimes even pretty good. If you’ve wondered why it’s called that, it was created by the artists and writers of a surrealist group during the 1920s. One of the works read: “Le Cadavre / Exquise / Boira/ Le Vin / Nouveau” (“the exquisite / corpse / will drink / the new / wine”). This site is a collaborative experiment that brings the game online. You can enroll, and then wait your turn, while software (a delightfully named “Corpse Management System”) takes care of the mechanics. Of course you could just go there and check out the existing corpses, some of which are truly exquisite.

In a manner of speaking
Cliche Finder
A wee bit of fun. Enter a piece of text, hit the button, and you get all the cliches marked out for you in bold type. The application uses a list form the Associated Press Guide to News Writing as its base. There’s also a bookmarklet version, which you can add to your web browser’s menu bar. (You’ll be relieved to note that I ran this column through the Cliche Finder before sending it off to the edit desk. I passed. Maybe I should syndicate with AP, hm?)

Reader suggestions welcome, and will be acknowledged. Go to http://o3.indiatimes.com/mousetrap for past columns, and to comment, or mail inthemousetrap@indiatimes.com. The writer blogs at http://zigzackly.blogspot.com.

Published in the Times of India, Mumbai edition, 22nd 23rd April, 2007.

This column was scheduled to run on the 22nd, but the Times Trends page was dropped that day, and ran on Monday, 23rd April.

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April 15, 2007

Mousetrap - 98

Blogs without steroids
tumblr
Forgive the cutesy web 2.0 nonsensical name. If you’ve been thinking about blogging, but are intimidated by how complex it seems, this could be your answer. All you need to do (after signing up, natch) is choose from five basic types of posts: photo, quote, link, conversation or video, or a ‘regular post’ option. Next, enter content, and post. Done. None of the bells and whistles fervent bloggers adore, not even comments, blogrolls, statcounters and the like, though you can choose to mess around with your page if you know your way around HTML and CSS. And you can do cool stuff like send pictures from your phone-cam direct to your page. But at its most basic, it’s refreshingly simple and uncluttered; reminds me of when I first started playing with blogs.

Cargo
senduit
Even with fatpipe connections and free email with ginormous inbox sizes, when it comes to sending very large files, you will hit a roadblock. Which is that many providers (and office sysadmins) impose a maximum size to file attachments. So, if you want to send your buddies the sound file you created of you singing better than Sanjaya Malakar-or the video of you dancing better than him-you could be out of luck. Unless you use a service like this one, which lets you share files up to 100MB, for up to one week. There are others out there; it’s just that this one is really simple to use, and it has an easy-to-remember URL.

Once upon a time — your turn now
StorySquared
A cool way to write a collaborative story. Or just have a little fun with your friends. How it works is that you sign up on the site, and start a story. Write as much or as little as you like. You can then invite other people to add sections to it, one by one (the site takes care of the logistics). You can pre-define how long it can go on for, and you can end the story yourself, whether to make the story public or just shared with your list of invitees, or whether other members can request to be allowed to join in. Warning: the sign up process is fussy, but you can’t do much without it. If you do signup, look for a story called Mousetrap at http://www.storysquared.com/stories/show/329. That’s one I created just for this column’s readers. Feel free to request to be allowed to add your bit.

Tech support
Duh
About a year and eight months ago, this column featured a site called Huhcorp. I wrote that it was “a deadpan slash job on the typical consultancy corporate site.” This one is by the same folks, and this time they’re parodying tech companies and way of treating customers like morons. As with Huh, this is a chortle-filled waste of ten minutes. Enjoy.

Reader suggestions welcome, and will be acknowledged. Go to http://o3.indiatimes.com/mousetrap for past columns, and to comment, or mail inthemousetrap@indiatimes.com. The writer blogs at http://zigzackly.blogspot.com.

Published in the Times of India, Mumbai edition, 15th April, 2007.

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April 08, 2007

Mousetrap - 97

Faster than a broadband connection..
Superman through the ages
More than seventy years ago, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, boyhood pals, created a cultural phenomenon. Their creation, Superman, that child of Krypton, was the first superhero. Their comic defined the genre: skin-tight costume (and the chuddies on the outside), the secret identity, the special powers, the super-villains to battle. This fan site is a mother lode of information about the comic, right from it early days in the 1930s, and the novels. There’s even an encyclopaedia. And, to my utter delight, there are also scans of complete editions, large numbers of them. Such joy to see the character and the comic evolve and adapt over the decades, all of it without having to wait for the next edition. (Oh yes, if you’re the participatory type, see Supermanica which is a wiki that you can contribute to.)

I am..
Lost
This is a student project that aims to connect seven million people online, becoming, in the process, “the game with the most number of players ever.” It’s all about finding innovative ways to bridge the real and the virtual. You can only play by invitation from someone already in the game. And that invitation can be anywhere: graffiti, SMSes, tattoos, postcards, heck, skywrite it if you can afford it. Each time someone goes to your unique URL (generated for you when you join the game), and signs up, you get points. The more innovative your method of publicity the better. At the end of the game, the top finishers get cash prizes. So, pretty please, sign up via my invitation; it’s the URL above. And maybe give me bonus points for exploiting this column to work towards a prize, hm? After all, I get peanuts for writing it. [Link courtesy Albert Barton.]

When is Easter?
Unless you’re a devout Christian, you wouldn’t know that Easter falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox (and yes, I had to look it up). Luckily for you, me, and everyone planning long weekends out of town, there are quite a few online calculators that simplify things for you. Here are just three:
Easter Calculator
Easter Day
Ecclesiastical Date Calculator (Also lets you calculate other Christian holidays.)

Reader suggestions welcome, and will be acknowledged. Go to http://o3.indiatimes.com/mousetrap for past columns, and to comment, or mail inthemousetrap@indiatimes.com. The writer blogs at http://zigzackly.blogspot.com.

Published in the Times of India, Mumbai edition, 8th April, 2007.

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April 01, 2007

Mousetrap - 96

One site to hold them all
The Encyclopedia of Arda
If you love the Lord of the Rings, and Tolkien’s complex, detailed and vibrant creations in general, you have a multitude of options on the web: a search for ‘Tolkien’ as of this writing yielded about 17 million results. This site, though, has to be about the best I’ve seen (be warned, though, that I came to Middle Earth late in life and do not qualify as a rabid fan). Though the site’s creator warns that it is a work in progress—and, moreover, one that will take years to complete—it is a pretty exhaustive piece of work as it is, hugely cross-linked, indexed and sorted. And it takes the same stance as Tolkien himself did: “he presented himself simply as a translator, rather than originator of the tales. Hence, we try to describe his world from a ‘historical’ rather than a literary perspective.” Not one hundred per cent, though. There are also snippets about Tolkien and his opinions.

Screenscaping
Desktopography
If you’re fed up of your computer’s desktop wallpaper (that ghastly XP landscape! argh!) , there are innumerable sites that will happily give you free images you can use instead, and, of course, there are a bunch of marketers who will give you stuff that promotes their products. This is one of the first variety, and it stands out from the crowd for the sheer beauty of its offerings. An absolutely gorgeous set of images here, created by designers, organised in annual exhibitions. The negative: an anal interface that forces you to wait while Flash files download. But, as I learned in my years in the advertising industry, designers tend to want to totally control the visual experience. With the good ones, it’s worth it.

Do you have..
Bookfinder
We’re all used to startups that are the flavour of the month—week, day even, sometimes—before they just as rapidly get forgotten. Others flare bright, get bought over for millions or billions, then settle down to longer reigns. This one is a tad unusual. It never made the big time, but everyone who loves books seems to know of it. Founded by a young man (he was 19 at that time) of Indian descent, Bookfinder is specialised search engine. It looks for new, used, rare, and out-of-print books, even textbooks, from “every major catalog online, and letting you know which booksellers are offering the best prices and selection.” How successfully? Most rank it in the top two (with the 900 megatonne gorilla, Amazon). And here’s the clincher. It celebrated its tenth birthday in February. Worth many huzzahs that, in today’s attention deficit economy.


Reader suggestions welcome, and will be acknowledged. Go to http://o3.indiatimes.com/mousetrap for past columns, and to comment, or mail inthemousetrap@indiatimes.com. The writer blogs at http://zigzackly.blogspot.com.

Published in the Times of India, Mumbai edition, 1st April, 2007.

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Siteseeing - 5

http://www.world66.com/

World66 is a wiki-like site where content is completely user-generated. I say “wiki-like,” because you don’t have to know a lot of weird wiki mark-up language. How does it stack up against other user-driven travel guides? Pretty decently. The format is clean and well-structured and the user-interface make it simple and very quick to start new sections, based on what’s available already, or add to existing sections, through a quick set of menu choices via links and pull-down menus. How quick? It took me all of three minutes to add a new location (a very sketchy entry, admittedly) and add a section to another location. And that’s without even bothering to create a User ID, which you’d need to do if you’d like your edits to be credited. What this translates to for the casual reader or holiday-maker researching the options is a site that presents information in a clean, no-nonsense format, one that lets you spot instantly whether a place is covered in any level of detail. It also features an Accommodations section, a tie-up with an online provider, where you can make bookings, and a My World66 section, for registered members, with a few doodads for the quasi-geek ones among ye to play around with.

Published in Outlook Traveller, April 2007.

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The Park

The Park opened its glass-and-shiny-metal doors in February, and the punters have been rolling in with some regularity since then. Not surprising: it is the first five-star hotel in the city, and with its focus on the business traveller, it fills a much-needed niche for the very many software and BPO companies in a city that is beginning to feel its oats a bit.
It is unpromising at first sight: a large white brick of a building plonked next to the highway at Belapur; though, compared to some of the other truly ghastly edifices that have been inflicted on that particular node of New Bombay, it is, at least, inoffensive. The hotel’s literature seeks to lay the blame on inspiration from Modernism and Le Corbusier. Being a philistine, all I can say that if I was paying several thousand rupees a night for the privilege of staying in a five star, I’d like the place to look and feel like one. White walls, hard lines, lots of glass and metal? Nada. Sure, coloured lighting does soften and soothe the contours post-dusk, but even then the atrium and corridors look like a gussied-up barracks. In the rooms, a little more attention to the placement of the furniture would improve things no end. For example, in my deluxe room, the fancy flat-screen TV is off in one corner, at an angle from the bed and miles away from the couch—which faces the wardrobe—with an awfully uncomfortable chair placed at an angle to the screen. And the bathrooms: well, I’ve seen larger in suburban apartments. And in my biased book, no bathtub equals place that should have some of its five stars taken away. For me, one of the perks of this reviewing gig is getting to swim a bit. But, alas, the pool’s a wee little thing. If more than three people tried to swim laps, you’d need traffic signals. But hey, maybe it’s Modernism’s substitute for a bathtub.
What redeems the place for me is the level of service, which is superb, with well-trained staff who know when to be chatty and when to leave you alone. And the food rocks. As of my visit, Bamboo, their Chinese restaurant, hadn’t opened, but Zest, the 24-hour multi-cuisine restaurant, Aqua, at the poolside, and Dusk, the bar, were in business. I spent long hours eating, indulging in long breakfasts from the buffet (after all the busy firangs had gone off to kick outsourced butt), lazy late lunches and contemplative dinners. The menus are inviting and varied, the wait-staff know their stuff, the portions are ginormous, and junior chefs are usually around at the buffet, monitoring patron enjoyment levels. I swear I moved up a belt-notch for each day I was there.
The restaurants will get the locals flocking in, because if there’s an even bigger hole in the New Bombay leisure market than a luxury hotel, it’s in the area of fine dining. Poolside weekend buffet brunch packages and the like will bring in the yuppies in droves. And Zest? A place that stays open all night legally, that isn’t filled with smoke, rickshaw drivers and call centre kids; that’s something New Bombay desperately needed.
Overall, the place will do well, since it has a monopoly on the high end of the market. Once a few other majors move in (many are, I hear), it won’t be quite so much a walk in the Park.

Published in Outlook Traveller, April 2007.

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