December 30, 2007

Mousetrap - 131

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

Mousetrap - 130

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

Mousetrap - 129

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

Mousetrap - 128

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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