June 24, 2007

Mousetrap - 108

Rickshaw!
Teesra Pahiya
As you read this, sipping your coffee, three young people from Bombay will be revving up their engine and embarking on a madcap adventure. And the engine they will be starting is that of the humble rickshaw. Yes, that lick-and-a-prayer bucket of bolts that swerves through city traffic making a godawful racket. They will start at Calcutta, and drive 3,750km across the north, including a bit of Nepal, through hills, valleys, highways, dirt roads, not to speak of torrential downpours, and wind up—hopefully—in Manali two weeks later. They are participating in the Rickshaw Run, and are the only Indian team in the fray. And for the benefit of people like me who would have given their eye-teeth to join in, but couldn’t, this blog will chronicle their trip, live. Whenever they can get an internet connection, that is.

How many roads in a cannonball?
Weird Converter
There’s plenty to choose from when you’re looking for online converters for mundane stuff like currency, metric to imperial, and all that. But here, you’ll find the answers to queries that are rather more, um, unusual. For instance, you know how our teachers told us how long the small intestine was (er, I’m sorry Mrs George, I can’t remember..) But did you ever wonder how many small intestines it took to cover a marathon route? Or how many average size bowel movements it took to weigh up to an African Elephant? (7094.153846154 and 27501.52959855 respectively, by the way.) Right then, off you go now. Go see how many Tom Cruises it takes to balance the scales against an intimate body part of a Right Whale.

Show and tell
Video Jug
Not your typical video site. This one’s full of how-to videos covering just about everything you can think of and many things I’m pretty sure you never expected to find an instruction video for. The site promises “step-by-step through everything from the lighter, more welcome aspects of life (leisure, hobbies, beauty and style) to the more serious tribulations we all face in day-to-day life (health, legal, money, parenting).” So, yes, it isn’t just the dreary stuff and the hobbyist hints, there’s a lot of nicely enacted, funny stuff too. I particularly enjoyed the Modern Manners section, where you should look for the films on the proper technique for a man to man hug, and instructions on how to air kiss.

Spam, Spam, Spam
Pythonline
This one’s kind of niche. You’ll enjoy it if you’re a Monty Python fan, but then, these days when fdinding video clips and entire films online is child’s play, heck, go look them up. This is the official site for the series, with loads of trivia, pieces by the cast members, and hey, just a heck of a lot of fun. 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, 24th June, 2007.

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June 19, 2007

Mousetrap - 107

Waves To Friends
Worse Than Failure
Along the lines of the more family-friendly LOLs and BRBs and other such abbrevspeak, there’s another acronym that finds itself in pretty common usage online, and in real life, spelt out. It’s used to indicate an annoyed, surprised disbelief at some event or action, and has the same initial letters as this site’s name does, but, let us say, it packs in a lot more punch and feeling. This site focusses on instances where IT provokes the usage of this phrase, or it put it like the site does, “Curious Perversions in Information Technology.” There’s a regularly updated blog, and a forum that you can join and contribute to. And no, the title of this section is just another euphemism.

The best thing since sliced bread
Sandwich Project
Ever since the Earl of Sandwich got the feudal underlings to shove some venison—or something—between a couple of slices of bread, the human race has continued to experiment, always asking that eternal question: what can you put in your sandwich? This site has, as of this writing, 2927 answers for you, from the simple to the cholesterol magnets (look for the Douzzy and the various Elvis tributes). Yes, I know we’re not big on bread in this country, but hey, these would work well wrapped into a chapati too. You can browse randomly, name some ingredients and look for suggestions, search via common themes, or contribute your own.

wood ewe no how two say that?
Homophonerate
When too words are pronounced thee same, butt are spelt differently o'er halve different meanings, they are homophones. This cite invites yew two input any text ewe like, and then finds yew homophones from it's list. It’s an American list, sew account fore that when yew look something up. What wood yew u's it four? Um.. how about making up puns? Ore as a rudimentary code? O'er perhaps just two irritate yore readers?

Type cast
ban comic sans
On my blog, last week, I posted about typefaces, and asked friends to tell me what fonts they liked most. Now, I’d assumed that only designers and folks like me who work with them would have strong feelings about the matter. But the post surprised me with impassioned statements for and against a variety of typefaces. Which got me digging around, and brought this site up. It has a single-point agenda: ridding the world of Comic Sans (Windows users will know it). So if you dislike it as much, you can sign their petition, buy stuff from them, or just get a sticker that you can slap on to signboards and things that use it.

Stellar site
Bad Astronomy
Last December, this column featured a site about bad movie physics. This one’s on the same lines: ot picks on astronomy. There’s a list of movies that have earned the author’s disapproval, and he has kindly offered spoiler-free versions of most of his reviews, in case you haven’t seen the movie in question and want to at some point. Why take all the trouble? I’ll let him explain: “these movies have made an impression, and if it's wrong, at least I can use that impression to teach Good Astronomy.”

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

Published in the Times of India,Mumbai edition, 17th June, 2007.

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June 10, 2007

Symphony for monsoon and plastic roof

As I write this, it is sweltering.

My shirt is drenched, my skin prickles and the tiles outside my window are radiating even more heat. There is an expectant stillness in the air, a quiet, breathless anticipation. Clouds scud across a bright blue sky; they’re coming from the right direction, but there are too few of them, and they’re fluffy and white, practically all silver lining.

Damn. It’s still summer.

Y’know, there was a time when the end of summer was mourned, when the rains though loved, were dreaded. Because the change of season heralded holidays’ end and school’s commencement. Even then, though, the gloom would be washed away with the first showers, with the gallop up the stairs to the terrace for the ritual first drenching. And then, of course, paper boats must be made, with pages surreptitously torn out of brand new exercise books, and launched in the storm drains while dawdling one’s way to school, carefully finding the shortest distance between puddles to splash in en route.

Funny, I don’t have many rain memories from the first nine years of my life, when we lived in the East. There are vague recollections of one of those depression-in-the-Bay-of-Bengal type cyclones in Vizag; of running out to the terrace to pick hailstones to suck on in Secunderabad (this was before acid rain); but none from Madras.

As I write this, the sky has grown darker. While I struggled to turn a drizzle of words into a flowing whole, thicker, greyer clouds have covered the sky. Less sunlight, yes, but that hasn’t made a difference to the temperature. It’s muggy, and still, so very still.

In college years, the rains meant hikes in the nearer bits of the Western Ghats. It’s about the only time that part of the world is anything but brown. The undergrowth wraps itself around your sodden sneakers, wet branches lash your face, you squelch your way through mud churned up by a hundred pairs of feet before you. Water tumbles past you, in burbly streams and garrulous waterfalls, and ahead and behind you, scores of brightly coloured windcheaters mark the long line of hikers whooping and singing through the downpour.

When attendance registers gave way to muster sheets, the rains were more inconvenient—if no less welcome—as transport went haywire, as phone lines died, as meetings got delayed and flights and trains were cancelled. And sometimes they contributed to office morale, as stranded colleagues dripped their way back to office and shared food and other (strictly medicinal) stimulants through the night.

As I write this, the distant rumble has grown closer. A mad breeze whips the mango tree in front of the house into first a shivering at the touch of its sudden cold embrace, then quickly into a mad dance of reunion. The sun is nowhere to be seen. There is a flash of lightning, and almost immediately, the crash of thunder overhead. It’s almost here. Almost.

Thanks to the occasional travel writing I do, I have been fortunate enough to see the rain come rolling in to what must be the greenest, most beautiful places on earth. In Kerala, a whooshing torrent of water crashed through the palms and on to the sloping, tiled roof. Ah, I said, an early monsoon! To be told, with a grin, no, no, that’s just a pre-monsoon shower. In Assam, in the hills, in a circuit house perched on a knoll with a picture post card view, clouds came boiling through distant passes, filled the valley, obscured every peak. And then even the nearest trees faded to a hazy outline, and big cold drops sliced in horizontally, and yeeeha! I was walking in the cloud.

But most spectacular of all was even higher up in the air, on a flight from Delhi to Bombay. Delhi was baking, with temperatures in the young 40s. As the plane zoomed southward, from empty, burnished blue skies, we flew over the monsoon’s vanguard, a scattered armada of little clouds, harmless puffs of cotton candy, casting enough shadow for perhaps one small town each. And then the captain told us to belt up; bad weather ahead. My knuckles went white as I peered ahead at.. at.. at a freaking angry, murky, swirling wall of cloud that extended up, down and sideways as far as the eye could see. The plane bored straight through and I could see nothing but that the wings were wet, streaming water. After an age, we broke through, and.. we were floating above an unruly carpet of cloud, brilliant, whiter-than-detergent-commercial white, twisted into phantasmagorical shapes by passing winds, spires, and spirals, and whorls, and castles, and mythical creatures, and waves, and, here and there, shafts of sunlight cut through, stirring up fluffy maelstroms where they met the thicker clouds. I completely forgot that I am terrified of flying.

As I write this, there is a clatter on the plastic roof of my neighbour’s backyard. Big, heavy drops stipple a pattern on the tiles, and quicker than you can say “the impressionist school,” they have the entire surface drenched. Thunder crashes once more, loud and long, drowning out the tappetytappetytap of the rain on the roof, but like a tablaichi spurred on by the cymbals in a mad fusion jugalbandi, the rain plays the roof even louder.

As I write this, the earth lets out a breath, and the air is sweet with the smell of the very first rain. There is a lull. The pause between movements, where the toffs say that if you clap, you reveal yourself to be a culture-challenged arriviste. Lightning carves a baton across the sky, thunder booms and the rain plays a tentative little riff on the coconut palm. A gust of wind and it all takes off again, and this time, there is no hesitation, no pause; the tattoo on the roof is almost a single sound, and it is joined by the violent gush of water from the terrace drainpipes. Lightning silhouettes the players in mid-note and the thunder goes into a long, long crescendo that sends the pomeranian two doors down into hysterics. The rain is now onenonstopneverendingcelebration.

As I write this.. Dammit, I’m not writing this any more. Screw the neighbours and what they’ll think. I’m not too old for a rain dance.

Published in Brunch, the Sunday magazine of the Hindustan Times, 10th June, 2007.

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Mousetrap - 106

Bring light
Light a candle for the victims of online child abuse
I have a deep-seated loathing for sites that needlessly hinder my wandering around the web by insisting on using massive, clunky flash files and no other navigation. But I’ll make an exception with this one (though its a huge offender) because its objectives are worthy, and ask you to drop by and take a look. It is focussed on what is, I think, the worst thing about the freedom of the web: sites that give perves access to child pornography.. The site features a TV commercial, and a few statistics, and asks you to light a symbolic virtual candle to join its protest against these scum. Please do. (Link courtesy Shaun Williams.)

Experimental
Science Toys
This one’s for you and the kids. There’s a bunch of interesting toys that you can make with them, or for older kids, that they can make themselves, using common household items. . These toys help demonstrate a variety of scientific principles, like magnetism and electromagnetism, radio, thermodynamics, aerodynamics, optics, math, computers and more. There are simple instructions to make each toy, with photographs or illustrations for reference, and an encapsulation of the science that makes that particular toy tick. Or levitate, or hum, or whatever. Most of the toys can be made easily at home, though in India, one may have problems getting the articles the site specifies, since it takes a western audience for granted. (The site also helpfully offers to sell you stuff from its catalogue “to make it easier to build some of the toys described.” Careful though: in this day and age you may just get Intelligence after you if you’re out shopping and you mention that you and the pride-and-joys are making a Gauss Rifle.

Bookmarks
Authorama
There are, of course, many other sites that let you read public domain books online, and all the biggies will have a much bigger list than this one. So why am I recommending it? The positive difference here is that you’re not reading unformatted ASCII text; the books have been formatted for the web, and are in XHTML. You can read them on your computer, or—and the site will detect this for you, and adjust output accordingly—on a handheld device. Or you can print (again, no need to change formats manually) and read offline at leisure. And don’t be put off by my disclaimer about the limited list; there’s enough good reading here to keep you occupied for quite a while.

What’s the time?
Polar Clock
And a quickie to round things up: here’s a very unusual, very attractive online clock. You can just check out the page, or, if you like, download it as a screensaver. Check back to the main site for the latest versions; it’s a work in progress.

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, 10th June, 2007.

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June 03, 2007

Mousetrap - 105

Show and Tell
The ESP game & Peekaboom & Phetch
In the ESP game, you and an unseen random partner must type the same words in response to an image. Peekaboom is a guessing game, where parts of the image are revealed and parters take turns figuring out each other’s images. And Phetch is a treasure hunt except you’re searching the web for images. Aside from their use of images, the ability to play against real live participants online, their addictiveness, and the fact that they’re all made by the same folks, these games have another thing in common. They are part of a project where machines—i.e. computers—learn to read image content, an area where the human brain still comfortably outperforms Artificial intelligence. So, me hearties, you’re not wasting time and the office broadband connection; you’re assisting scientific research. And you can tell teh HR Manager that I said so.

Vote for!
n7w
For some reason, ever since Herodotus and Callimachus made their lists of the Seven Wonders of the World, way back around 300 BC, later generations have felt compelled to issue revised lists of the same number of must-sees (which, one is told, is how the Greek theamata best translates into English), all of them restricting themselves to just seven. Surely larger lists could do the job as well? Never mind. This site is the latest to follow that trend. It solicits votes online for its long-list, and has had a heckuva lot of parochial response. Judging by the number of emails I have got urging me to vote for the Taj Mahal, the meme has pretty much taken root with desis all over the world, and you may have seen the site already. If not, go see. The current shortlist is worth a dekko even if you’re not the voting kind.

Are you?
Creative Mumbai
Are you a loyal citizen, past or present, of Slumbay-by-the-Sea? Are you creative? Of course you are. Well, get your creative posterior over to this site and answer about ten minute’s worth of questions for this young Dutch student who is writing his thesis on the city and its creativity. (Lin via Dina Mehta.]

Speaking of surveys..
Free Online Surveys
Want to poll your friends about something? Have a project where you want a lot of responses? An online survey form makes it easier for your victims, sorry, respondents to help you out by giving them easy choices, buttons to click, things to pull down and whatnot. Unfortunately, you’ll need your own web space and have to be a wee bit geeky to get it all up and running. But this site can take all the pain out of it. The free option lets you create and run basic surveys with a variety of options, and you can upgrade to a paid account if you want more control. It’s pretty easy to use. I made up a survey for you, Gentle Reader, and it took all of five minutes. You can see it here.

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

Published in the Times of India, 3rd June, 2007.

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June 01, 2007

Siteseeing - 7

Cybercafe Search Engine and Cybercafes

In these days of wireless. connectivity and hand-held devices that help you connect up wherever you are, who needs cybercafes? Well, until Editor Sahib ponies up more dineros for his hard-working freelancers, I do. You see, WiFi is still pretty expensive in this country, and not exactly ubiquitous. And as for connecting up via cellphone or other hand-helds, you’re hostage to phone-provider signal, which can be spotty, to say the least, in some parts of the country. Cybercafes still rule for the likes of me, when I’m rambling. I tried searches on both of them. Cybercafes seems more flexible. It doesn’t have any obvious submission method, so perhaps the database doesn’t get spammed. It list just 417 establishments all-India, as of this writing. Cybercaptive has Country Search disabled, and doesn’t recognise the Indian state names I tried, so I wasn’t able to get a comparative figure. It does list other means of access, though, like cruise ships, hotels and airlines, and is, overall, friendlier in its tone, though a design overhaul is long overdue, methinks. Both deliver better results for North America searches, so if that’s where you’re headed, you’ll like them both. Got to go now. My home net connection is down, so I need to find a caf from where I can send this in.

Published in Outlook Traveller, June 2007.

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