Sunday, 26 August 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
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.”

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 for past columns, and to comment, or mail The writer blogs at

Published in the Times of India, Mumbai edition, 26th August, 2007.

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Sunday, 19 August 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
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
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 for past columns, and to comment, or mail The writer blogs at

Published in the Times of India, Mumbai edition, 19th August, 2007.

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Sunday, 12 August 2007

Mousetrap - 114

The first time I glanced at this site, I read ‘sick food’ and thought it was about stuff like arrowroot porridge and hot soups. Further investigation corrected my mis-read. The ‘sig’ in the name is short for ‘Special Interest Group,’ and that is a pretty apt description. sigFood is a community of foodies, which, from the look of it has most of its membership in Bombay and Bangalore (there are a handful of other Indian and world cities covered too). It’s a very simple site: restaurant reviews by its members, all neatly tagged and categorised. The reviews are to the point and of a reasonably decent standard, though as with all group ventures, some are better—or worse—than others. The good part, to me, is that unlike the reviews one sees in the press, these aren’t necessarily about new, happening places; plenty of old favourites find space too. Bon appetite.

Au courant
This Is The New That
The world moving too fast for you? You haven’t kept track after pink became the new black? This is the blog for you, amigo. May you never be short of party small talk.

Ghost rider
KIDofSPEED & Elena Filatova
If you’re anything over 30 years old, the word “Chernobyl” will probably raise hairs at the back of your head. It’s when the world realised what could happen if nuclear power generation went out of control. The Chernobyl accident happened just over twenty-one years ago. Most of the surrounding areas of Ukraine and Belarus have been deserted all this time; entire cities now ghost towns, with nature taking over and nary a human being for miles and miles. Except Elena Filatova. Who has made trips through this spooky land all by herself, on her motorbike. Her English isn’t perfect, but has a sort of understated expressiveness all its own. And her photographs—lots of them—of the area more than make up for any slight gaps in the text. And if you, like me, wind up with a slight crush on the girl after you’re done here, go see her main site,, where you’ll find links to her other projects. [Courtesy Devangshu Datta.]

All roads lead to..
How would you like to take a walk through ancient Rome? Not the city of magnificent ruin that tourists flock through today; I’m talking of the city that the Caesars strode through. Well, you can’t. Yet. But you can get a preview, and bookmark this site for later. Right now, you see a lot of stuff about how this digital representation was made (scans from a scale model combined with data from ancient maps) and details that there are several thousand virtual buildings, a few of which even have the interiors rendered. Its designers are, they say, figuring out ways to make it possible for anyone to take a virtual reality walk through those streets via the net. Until then you can check out the picture gallery and a few (rather unimaginative) videos.

Reader suggestions welcome, and will be acknowledged. Go to for past columns, and to comment, or mail The writer blogs at

Published in the Times of India, Mumbai edition, 12th August, 2007.

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Sunday, 5 August 2007

Mousetrap - 113

Whatcha wanna do?
The site’s promise to teach you ‘how to do all the things nobody taught you in school’ isn’t quite bang on—though I’ll admit that those that were, I didn’t pay much attention to at that time—but it is, nevertheless, a fascinating repository of tips and advice from its members. The subject range is huge. Just a random wander around the site, and I now know how to become a scuba diver, fake appreciation for art, hold a seance, become a cheerleader, and learn about pro wrestling story lines. Not likely to be much use, I’ll admit, but it was a happy hour spent. But here’s one I’m going to use pronto: so you wanna ask for a raise? (You’re going to hear from me soon, Editor Sahib.)

Q and A
Google Image Labeler
In June, this column featured a site called ESP Game. Well, it looks like big brother Google is muscling in on the act. It’s essentially the same method. You play with a random stranger, and you’re simultaneously shown images. Both of you provide descriptive labels, and get points for matching results. You can play anonymously, or through a free Google ID, if you want to track your points. Why am I suggesting you go to a me-too site? Well, I think Google search rocks, and anything that helps make it better is good for all of us.

Senior blogger
The Life of Riley
The generally accepted view is that blogs are things that young, tech-happy people use to tell the world—or their ten best friends—what they had for breakfast. This one breaks that stereotype. And how! You see, the voice here is a bit older than that. Olive Riley was born not in the last century but the previous one. She is 107 (she’ll be 108 on the 20th October) and going strong! She doesn’t type in her stuff herself, a young friend helps her with that, but the blog is all about her and her life. Aside from the conversations you can read, you also have audio and video to delight you as this sprightly lady talks about the years of her life, her memories of the changes. Fascinating reading, and all of it suffused with the spirit of this grand old lady. (Link via Prem Panicker.)

Reader suggestions welcome, and will be acknowledged. Go to for past columns, and to comment, or mail The writer blogs at

Published in the Times of India, Mumbai edition, 5th August, 2007.

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Wednesday, 1 August 2007

Siteseeing - 9


Every website with a few dollars to fling onto the table is talking communities and user-generated content these days. Anything more than small coins, and they commission a shiny logo with a half-shadow, throw in bevelled edges, stick a ‘beta’ below the site name, and hey, presto, Web 2.0!
This site, to give it is due, has focus. It aim—with a ™ at the end and all—is “Connecting business travellers.” Simple approach: upload contacts, share travel plans, and use the site to find people at the other end and set up meetings. You also get a heads-up when folks from your network are visiting your own stomping grounds. You have a fair amount of control over who gets to see what parts of your info, and yes, it’s free. The critical thing here, of course, is that you succeed in getting all your contacts on to the site too. Thing is, with so many prospective connectors falling over themselves to get your sign-up, is it worth the effort to go through the tedium of building your network on Yet Another Social Networking Site? Perhaps you suited folks who don’t want to be seen with the backpacker crowd would welcome the business focus? I dunno, really. I haven’t put on a tie since the last friend’s wedding. And for that, I knew the guest list. And the barman.

Published in Outlook Traveller, August 2007.

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Pies and Prejudice [Book Review]

Pies and Prejudice: In Search of the North
by Stuart Maconie
Paperback, 352 pages
Ebury Press
ISBN 9780091910228

England, to me, looks way too small to have a North, so this book is an education. My perceptions, I realised, cringing, are just the kind that I take voluble delight in castigating when I hear them in non-Indian accents about India. The England I know through books, movies and TV is London, plus stray other cities, plus an interchangeable bunch of counties in which thrived the Yorkshire dales and quaint accents of James Herriot’s stories and the never-was-land of Wodehouse. I know better now.
Maconie knows his subject intimately, and loves it unabashedly.
He explains the essence of Northness thus: Northerners, he says, are “different, we think; harder, flintier, steelier. We are the ones who turn the air-conditioning down in the meeting room, who want to sit outside the pub in October, who order the hottest curries, the strongest beer, the most powerful drugs. We like to think we’re different, and we cherish our prejudices.”
We go walkabout, from city centre to pub to concert to museum, as he chats merrily about wars, football, architecture, food, popular music (yup, the Beatles), Marx and Engels (“Eleanor [Marx] was married to Karl of course, who by contrast was a bit of a lardarse with rubbish hair who nicked all Freidrich’s ideas”), George Orwell, industrial decline, renaissance, Transcendental Meditation (“as it’s a trademark, TM™”), biting insults peppering even-handed overview. The cultural differences between North and South and the even lesser known (to the outsider) rifts within the north itself are fascinating. The rivalries of the natives—Lancashire and Yorkshire, Liverpool and Manchester—were ancient history, or jovial football rivalries to me, not simmering pressure cookers that explode every now and then even today. But no, it’s no sociological treatise, and it’s not a tourists’-eye view of the sights. This is from the inside, living, breathing, reminiscing with a chuckle or a sigh.
He’s a witty man, is Stuart Maconie. And he’s made a pretty good career out of it; the author note says he’s “known to millions,” with a reputation both in broadcast media and in print. And that’s one of the problems I have with the book. Not the fame; the wit. I will choose a funny read over high lit any day, but he never stops. Reminds me of some chaps I know, always the wise guy. It gets tiring, difficult to take in a book-length dose. I’d have enjoyed it more as, say, a weekly half-hour radio programme. More seriously, it’s a book that gives one the feeling that while it’s written from the inside, it’s also written for the insider. So many in-jokes, obscure references, untranslated argot that I kept flipping to the back, vainly looking for a glossary.
In this age of search engines and short attention spans, perhaps those quibbles are irrelevant. So read it in short spells, stay online while you read, and it’s worth your time.

Published in Outlook Traveller, August 2007.