May 27, 2007

Mousetrap - 104

Curious minds want to know
How Products Are Made
The holidays are winding to a close, so perhaps this is a little late.. But, nevertheless, if the young ’uns are driving you up the wall with questions you’re hard-pressed to answer, send them over here. This is a huge repository of information about the making of just about anything you can think of, “from daily household items to complicated electronic equipment and heavy machinery.” That isn’t all. There are detailed notes on inventors, and on each of the products that go as far as possible future applications. Heck, forget the kiddos; you’ll have a hard time getting unstuck yourself.

Curious minds want to know - II
Encyclopedia of Life
Giving you this URL now is a bit premature; this is a project very much in its nascent stages, and its intended scope is, to put in mildly, humungous. Which is to list and describe all species of life on earth. It will “serve as an online reference source and database for every one of the 1.8 million species that are named and known on this planet, as well as all those later discovered and described.” You can’t do much on the site as of now, except read their FAQs and check out the few sample pages, but that’s enough to give you an idea of how, if it all pans out, the EoL will work. Register for updates; I just did.

All the web's a computer - III
Zoho
I’ve written twice before about the so-called online suites (14th and 21st January), and it was pretty unforgivable to neglect this set of apps at that time. Mea culpa, apologies, and go see it now. In fact the delay helps, because they’ve added to the already awesome range of products. You have a word processor, spreadsheet, presentation maker, wiki, planner, mail, chat, and, well, more. Most of it is free (with charges coming in when you upgrade on some of the services), so definitely worth your while to check out. I’ll confess that I haven’t really examined it all in depth, partly because there’s so darn much of it. Perhaps you want to let me know what you think? You know the drill.

Bikini Wars
Leia’s Metal Bikini
As this paper noted yesterday, fans all over the world are celebrating the thirtieth anniversary of the first Star Wars movie (and Mr Lucas is undoubtedly still chortling as he cruises to the bank). Among the various fan sites that’s getting a lot of attention—not that it was suffering in anonymity before—this site’s focus is the outfit that Carrie Fisher wore in Return of the Jedi, when she is a captive of Jabba the Hut. Hordes of women have make up their own versions of the costume and posed in them for photographs that are added to the site’s gallery. Ah, nostalgia. (And if you’re a Star Wars fan, you may want to check out the Wired magazine special on the anniversary.)

Poll 2.0
The best 100 Web 2.0 sites and services?
A quickie to close. This is a survey that seeks to rate the best Web 2.0 services. Go vote, please.

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, 27th May, 2007.

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May 20, 2007

Mousetrap - 103

Viral
Who is Sick?
Matter of time before someone thought of this, I guess, and many would be kicking themselves for not having done so. This site is a mashup, that uses the Google Maps interface to let you know what diseases are going around. It’s brilliant in its simplicity: readers who are feeling in any way unwell can post their symptoms anonymously. Or can check out their areas for what illnesses seem to be going around; a quick glance at the map will tell you what’s been reported where. Useful to check the place you live and work, or plan to visit, or where dear ones are. Of course it relies on user participation to be effective. So for it to become more useful to you, you need to evangelise it to all and sundry. So if you’re sneezin’ and wheezin’ and your feet smell and your nose runs, log on here and tell the world about it.

Listen
Sound 101 :: Bad Vibes Horrible Sounds
There wasn’t enough space to write about this in the “101” column two weeks ago, so here you are now. This site is a university project to find the worst sounds in the world. The ones that set our teeth on edge, or that fill us with dread—or at least unease. It’s a simple interface, but will take a bit of time to load for those of you still on dial-up. Of course you’ll need a sound card and speakers or headphones. You simply play sounds and rate them, and then you get to see how your rating compares with the averages for that sound (from ratings by over a million visitors). I won’t tell you which sound leads the polls for the worst ever; it might make you throw up. When you’ve had enough, try out their mixer, which lets you combine awful sounds to come up with your own remix. No Bollypop samples there, strangely..

Sorry
Regret the error
In printing presses all over the world, there’s this invisible creature called the Printers’ Devil. Back in the days of moveable type, it copped the blame for any errors that crept in to printed matter through oversights, ignorance or mistakes. Despite most of the world’s major presses these days using computers, the Devil still makes a decent living. And this site lists the bloopers that appear in the media, the “corrections, retractions, clarifications and trends regarding accuracy and honesty in the media.” Most of the links tend to be North American, but there’s a fair sprinkling from other parts of the world too. Oh, and, um, last week, in the snippet about instructables.com, in the first line, “step by step instructions” should have been “step-by-step instructions.” We, er, regret the error.

Meow
MyCatHatesYou
Cats, for all their regal reserve, can be pretty expressive. And if you don’t believe that, this site should convince you. Filled with contributions from all over the world, it claims to be “the largest collection of sour-faced, indignant felines on the Internet.” There’s a forum too, and a store, and whatnot. But really, it’s all about them cats who look at you with scorn.

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, 20th May, 2007.

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May 13, 2007

Mousetrap - 102

How to how to
instructables
At it’s basic level, it’s pretty simple; members post step by step instructions on how to do things. All manner of things: food, home improvement gadgets, vehicles (a wheelchair for crippled dachshunds is one famous item here), things that work through USB ports, and one particularly rivetting section labelled “not liable.” Of course some stuff is more useful or smarter than others. And yes, some of it is, um, weird. Never mind. This is where it gets really interesting, as community members comment, advise, suggest, critique and brainstorm. I’m no tinkerer—I prefer to think of myself as the cerebral type—but I find it all fascinating. If you’re less all-thumbs than I am, you could find yourself with a heckuva lot of projects to do here. It’s creativity, collaboration and practicality, and an object lesson in the power of the web.

Not kidding
Lets Fight Child Labour!
This site was sent in by its creator; now that’s a category I confess I approach with some scepticism after some fairly loony self-promoting emails. The letter had a certain juvenile exuberance to it. For good reasons, it turns out. Because the blogger is fourteen. Her sense of design is a bit too enthusiastic—her use of fonts and colours is positively eye-watering—and her exhortations to action are strident, but there’s a good cause here. She invites readers to send in opinions, suggestions, plans for action, and she will publish them. Go visit. Tell her I sent you hm?

Fasten your seatbelts
Airliners.net
If you’re at all fascinated by airlines, this is the site for you. Evidently a lot of people are; the site claims 300,000 visitors and three million page views a day. They is news, data on aircrafts, their history, and all manner articles, polls, chat and what-have-you, but the killer here is the photo section. There are over a million photos here, range from the documentary—shots of planes in flight, on the ground, taking off and landing. inside and outside—to the stunning. Things like clouds, contrails, the aurora, turbulence and, oh, just go see. There’s a cool search engine that lets you refine your search no end—want to see whether there are any shots of the last plane you flew? Type in the registration number in the Advanced Search. Or just go look at the most popular shots. There are over a million pictures to choose from.

Get the pitcher?
RateBeer
Ish nish shite thish. Hash lotsh of beersh from allovertheworld. People who know lotsh of impre.. , impersiv.. imp.. BIG words for taste and smell and colour and.. and.. shtuff like that, well, they join this site and they go around allovertheworld drinking beer and coming back to the .. wossname .. site and writing those .. wotisaid .. words so that other people who come there can deshi.. decide if they want to drink those shame beersh allovertheworld. And they have forumsh and magazines and events and they drink beer. Where was I?

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, 13th May, 2007.

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May 06, 2007

Mousetrap - 101

This column made its debut on the 6th May, 2005. And this edition is number 101. Happy birthday, Mousetrap. You can send me cheques for that traditional Indian sum, Rs 101. No? Darn. Ah well, here’s your cheap return gift. A set of sites with nothing in common except that they have a “101” connection.

Food
101 Cookbooks
The web’s full of recipe blogs, and the creator of this site can take a fair amount of the credit. or the blame. She started out in 2003, when she realised that despite the huge number of cookbooks she owned, she still wound up cooking the same recipes. As she says, “When you own over 100 cookbooks, it is time to stop buying, and start cooking. This site chronicles a cookbook collection, one recipe at a time.” It has grown beyond that, of course, and now also features original and contributed recipes, and a forum. She’s also a photographer, so you can look forward to delicious food shots. And the author had also turned out a book, thereby launching hundreds, if not thousands of hopeful bloggers on to the recipe-blog path.

Love, story
Cyberlove 101
So, is the web full of weirdos, or is it possible to find troo luhrve online? Check out this site before you make up your mind. A labour of, um, love, its creator says that the stories here are all true, gathered since 1998 in the course of her journalistic career. It’s both sides of the story: some end happy, some in tears, some are funny, some illustrate why Mommy says the net’s not safe for you. And if you get fed up of all that, there are a few links, poems, quotes, posters and, well, I’ll stop now. I gave up sugar some years ago, and I’m not used to so much sweetness.

B Skool
Business 2.0’s 101 Dumbest Moments in Business
This column doesn’t normally deep-link to a specific article on a site, but since it’s the one that got me going on the 101 theme, here you go. Business 2.0 makes an annual list (now in its seventh edition) that makes for delightful reading. And also makes you wonder how those companies stay in business, but that’s beside the point. Lots of giggle-worthy stuff here, which helps me ignore the fact that it’s a US list. I’d have preferred to link to a site that did a world-wide list, or perhaps one that focusses on Indian companies, but this one includes not a few multinats who have a presence in this country, so, enjoy.

Write Now
Write 101
Just as I was wondering how to fill in a fourth site, I remembered that in North America, “101” appended to the name of a subject indicates that it is basic course in a university. And, as a result, in daily speech, it refers to beginner level information. And if you have any writerly ambitions, this is as good a place to start as any. Some decent lessons, tips and links, some quizzes, and worth a look, though some of it is tedious. However, going by my inbox, a heck of a lot of newspapers, and some of the stuff I see on a writing forum I help run, more people need to be sent here instanter.

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, 6th May, 2007.

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May 05, 2007

Make your own world

Make your own world

“Why does the internet increasingly seem to revolve around communities?” the brief said, adding, “How do communities come about? How should they be nurtured?” and concluded cheerily, “That's all.”
That’s all?! Jeeze, laddie, people write whole books about this kind of stuff.
“Oh well. Just write about 300 words on communities by midnight.”
Ah.
Well, here it is in a nutshell. “No man is an island.” Or, if you prefer, “Man is a social animal.”
Replace the sexist M word with a non-gender-specific term of your choice, and you have it all. We’re hard-wired to seek company. Preferably people who share our interests, but if location gets in the way, whatever we can get. Example: people with slightly out-of-the-way interests who feel stifled in small towns, but who bloom when they move to bigger cities, where sheer numbers make it a tad easier to find kindred spirits.
Throw the Net into the equation; geography becomes irrelevant. Your potential universe expands to include anyone online. Add this: the explosion of the participatory web, Web 2.0, where it’s no longer Big Media dictating all content. You, me the chap who commissioned this article; it’s child’s play for us to join in, participate, create, find people who share our kinks. No matter how niche your passions are, you’ll find an online community to match. Giving up booze? Check. Like to distill your own? Check. Two-foot moustaches? Check. Go on. Try it, hit a search engine with your subject plus “community” or “forum.” (And here’s a tip: if you don’t find a community you like, start one. They’ll come.)
Here’s the good bit. We’re all multi-dimensional. It’s unlikely you’ll find any folks who share all your interests. But online, you can divide your time between all your interests without putting up with the other obsessions of you new buddies, unlike in the real world, where you have to trade off. You know: okay, I’ll come to the museum with you if you come to the strip show with me. In the virtual world, when you’ve indulged your, say, recipe-sharing side, you can then go log in elsewhere and pander to your—random example—inner Bollyfan, where fellow members may, for all you know, be unable to boil water without help.
Nurture? It’s even simpler.
Don’t try to be all things to all people. Find a real niche; for instance, avoid the temptation to start up an “desi version of XYX.” That’s really not a product differentiator, unless, of course, your goal is jingoistic. Stay focussed. Set clear and visible guidelines, and enforce them. Be gentle, but be firm. Be tough with trolls. Be polite with the freedom of speech wallas who demand the right to discuss their toenail clippings in a forum that’s focussed on ringtone appreciation. And most important, have fun. It defeats the purpose if you don’t.

Peter Griffin is a writer, columnist and web consultant. He conceptualises, creates and leads online communities, some for fun and some for profit. He blogs at http://zigzackly.blogspot.com.

Published in Tehelka, May 2007.

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May 01, 2007

Abandon, Ship

I’m floating on my back, in a blood warm-sea. Land is a thin smudge on the horizon. There’s not a sound to be heard except the stray seagull, and the watery patpatpat of the swell against my body. A voice yells my name. I raise an ear out of the water; Kedar, leaning over the rail of the Rosa, is demanding that I turn over and swim for the camera. Damn. Duty must be done. I flip over, and execute a few energetic freestyle strokes.

Rosa is the first recreational yacht ever listed on the Register of Indian Shipping. For those that know and care about these things, she’s a Gazelle (a design by the American naval architect Colvin), a bit under 60 feet, and uses a Chinese-style “junk rig.” She has been built a few miles away, in the yard of Kyondo Syokai Marine, in the backwaters of Fort Cochin. Dr John Crabtree, expat Brit, co-founder of the group, and skipper on this sail, says she’s more than ninety per cent Indian with just a few imported parts.

We had hit Cochin the previous day, grouchy as hell after waking up at dawn for a flight that was eventually more than an hour late. After a leisurely coffee with Dr John (as most people seem to call him) and Arun Louis, COO of the group and son of the other co-founder, the hospitality and real estate tycoon T M Louis, we learn that our plans—an overnight cruise and a picnic on a remote beach—had changed. The pre-monsoon winds make the water a bit choppy at night, and seeing as Kedar and I were landlubbers with not much more than a few ferry rides and white water rafting jaunts between us, John decides not to take a chance on us getting seasick. Instead, we drive down to the boatyard at Mattencherry, one of the oldest quarters of this old town, and get a guided tour of the rather grandiose-sounding Malabar Yacht Club. Sneezing through the faint hint of pepper in the air (hey, it’s the Spice Coast, and this is where them spices have been leaving our shores from for centuries), we walk through the rather beat-up boatyard, where a yacht is up for repairs, to the jetty, where Rosa bobs, sparkling white, with a big red star on her bows. John shows off the boat (GPS! Satellite radio! a hook to dangle mobile phone from! and yes, a large, traditional compass too), and tells us about the company.

From what I gather, he made his pile in the Gulf, met his wife there too, and after a bit of soul-searching, he decided to get into the yachting business in India. He scouted around for partners, and found an ideal fit in Louis Senior. After all the groundwork, the registrations and permissions, the land buying, the hiring of young trainees, they launched Rosa, and spent the 2006-07 season fine-tuning the boat and their business strategies, and doing the hard job of selling the concept to Indian tourists. Not much success so far—most of their customers have been holidaying westerners—but he’s optimistic of turning that around. The company has interesting plans: three more boats on the water soon, incorporating all the little refinements that last season taught them; cruises to Lakshdweep (with one boat based in the Islands); boats leased out to other operators along the coast; a proper, methodical sailing training programme that will get its graduates an international certification; and so on. John hasn’t had much luck with getting local lads keen to sail—his current trainees are from Tamil Nadu and Lakshdweep—but the boatyard and the resort are staffed from around the neighbourhood.

We head off to the company’s resort, Michael’s Land, at Kannamaly, about a dozen kilometres from Fort Cochin. The place is practically an island (it’s actually a peninsula, but connected only by a dirt track that’s just about cycle-worthy), about 10 acres in all, surrounded on three sides by placid backwaters. We’re met off the main road, where it kisses the lagoon, and ferried across in a small, canopied outrigger canoe, its outboard motor’s gentle coughing only a wee bit louder than the swish of prow cutting through the water.

Smiling staffers welcome us at the jetty, and our bags are whisked off to our rooms before we remember to lift them off the boat. We stroll down the coconut grove, to the small row of bungalows.

We meet John’s wife, Fumiyo, and over beer, prawns cooked Japanese style, and appams and stew, we chat some more. We decide on an early night, to get the most sailing we could out of the morrow.

I’m asleep ten minutes after dinner, and (this one’s for the books!) am up before dawn, wandering the shore, taking pictures in the soft light. At the far end of my perambulations, I see that Kedar has found an even better spot, where the sun picks golden flecks out of the ripples, and several boats have obligingly stopped in just the right spot. Swine.

Massive breakfast ingested, we head off to Matencherry, where the crew are scuttling around tightening whatchamacallits here, loosening thingummybobs there; and then we push off from shore. The motor takes us out of the harbour (moving under sail is discouraged by the port authorities) past massive dredgers, peppy pilot boats, passenger ferries and all manner of fishing boats. As we pass the famous Chinese fishing nets, my pulse has slowed down to Buddhist monk standards, and I am lost in thoughts of pirates, three-masters and the bounding Main... but I am jolted out my reverie by the ear-splitting klaxon of what seems like a bloody floating skyscraper behind us. It is one of the dredgers that work constantly at keeping the shipping channel navigable, imperiously demanding that we gedoutttheway now.

In a bit, we’re past the mouth of the harbour, nothing ahead of us but distant ships at anchor... and Africa. To my great delight, we twice pass encounter dolphins, far closer than I’ve ever seen them before, despite many alleged dolphin spotting rides. They do not do any spectacular breaching, and they disappear before I can get my camera focussed, but it’s still a major thrill.

We shut off the engine, the young rookies get the sails up, and we change course to sail South, parallel to the coast. There isn’t much wind, but John is optimistic about it picking up. A fishing boat is to meet us out at sea later, so that Kedar can take some pictures of the yacht in full sail from a distance. We drift along at the nautical equivalent of walking pace. One of the lads tells me of his ambitions: to learn to sail, to eventually get a job in shipping, and to get over “this vomiting.” He is shortly, and copiously, sea-sick, and spends most of the rest of the day looking quite miserable.

We’re not getting much wind at all, so I decide to take a swim. (Another option is a spot of angling, but we have no fishing tackle.) The sails are adjusted so that we’re holding our position relative to the sea floor. Ropes and floats are trailed off from the stern, because there’s a distinct current pulling in to the shore. I’m briefed about holding on to the ropes and getting towed behind the boat, and then I jump in. It doesn’t take long to realise that a half-knot’s worth of current can stretch pool-learned swimming abilities to embarrassment point, so I latch on to the ropes and let the boat hold me in place.

Until, of course, Kedar demanded those pictures.

It’s early afternoon now, and the sun is blazing. I am helped back aboard, and shortly after, we reverse direction, heading back North. We learn that the fishing boat’s owner had made extortionate demands for his services, so negotiations had, um, floundered. Visions of cold beer and chunky sandwiches evaporate (the boat was to also deliver our lunch, since we’d set out much earlier than was routine, before the restaurants had opened), but John comforts us with promises of a spread waiting for us at the jetty.

The much-hoped-for wind is also a no-show, so we sail back at the same sedate pace. I am badly sunburnt by then, so I sprint for the ACed comfort of the office the moment we dock. After the promised meal, I attempt to shower off the salt, with not much success: the plumbing is, er, basic.

As we head back to the airport (to find that our flight is, sigh, two hours late), I tot up the score. Cons: Bad sunburn. Lousy shower. Pros: A lazy day on a real, kosher yacht! A swim out at sea! And dolphins!

I’m ahead of the game.

The Information

Konda Syokai’s operations are grouped under a baffling array of names.
Costs: The sailing will set you back Rs 2000 per person for a five-hour cruise, including lunch and beverages on board. Should you want to stay at Michael’s Land, it costs Rs 2000 a night for a comfy double room, ACed, with attached bath; breakfast included, and other meals by arrangement. The resort is pretty secluded, so if you’re the type that needs proximity to the noise and the fleshpots, you should stay elsewhere.
Sailing + Stay Package: includes airport (Kochi) pickup and drop, a night at the resort, and sailing on either day, with a bit of sightseeing on land as a paid extra on the other day. The room will cost you Rs 1500, including breakfast, and the sailing, with lunch, Rs 2000 per person.
There are also overnight cruises available by arrangement, with a beach picnic down the coast, at Rs 4000 per person, requiring a minimum of three passengers. Yachts are available for longer cruises at Rs 12,000 per day, for up to six passengers.
Tips: The crew will give you anti-histamines; take them before the sail if you are at all prone to motion sickness. Take a swimsuit. And, as my peeling skin will tell you, do not forget to slather on sunblock, and take it with you if you plan to swim and need more for after you get out of the water.
Getting there: The resort is a twenty-minute drive from Fort Cochin (add an hour for the airport leg). The Malabar Yacht Club (where the sailing trips start) is five minutes from Fort Cochin. Detailed directions available online.
Contact: Michael’s Land: +91 484 2282899. Arun Louis (for sailing): +91 9349247899. Email: admin@kondosyokai.com. Web: www.kondosyokai.org

Published in Outlook Traveller, May 2007.

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Siteseeing - 6

Slow Travel

If you’re into itineraries and checklists and package tours with accompanying cook to make you food just like mummyji’s, turn the page now, there’s a good lad.
Right. So what is slow travel? It’s an unpackaged tour, if you like. The thought came from the Slow Food concept, which gave rise to the Slow Movement in general. (Look them up. Later. No rush.) The idea of slow travel is that you truly experience a place, staying at least a week in one location. You’re advised to hang around, make no must-do lists, see only what’s nearby. Slow travel could suit travellers across the bank balance spectrum. As the site says, you could rent house to give your kids run around space. Or stay on a farm to save money. Heck, you could rent a mansion and take your staff along.
The site has loads of tips and articles, affiliations with sponsors, listings and more. Weaknesses: as with so many good sites, it is, alas, aimed at the US resident, and is largely focussed on Europe. There is a paid editorial staff selecting what goes up, so it’s not your usual user-generated content site. You can check out the sister sites—a message board and a photo-posting forum—for the uncut versions.

Published in Outlook Traveller, May 2007.

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