Sunday, 27 April 2008

Mousetrap - 146

One World
Pangea Day
Pangaea (to use the spelling everyone not American uses) is the name scientists give to a supercontinent, one of many in the earth’s history of drifting continental plates, a single landmass that existed some 200 to 300 million years ago, from which the continents we know today broke apart and drifted away. Pangea Day is on May 10th, and will be celebrated with a 4-hour programme (starting 11:30pm, IST) of live music, short films and talks. It will be broadcast live from six locations (Cairo, Kigali, London, Los Angeles, Mumbai, and Rio de Janeiro) to a worldwide audience via TV, the web and cellphones. (For readers in Bombay, you can apply for a free invitation via the site.) It doesn’t stop after the show, though. The site promises to help people participate in community-building activities around the world, aside from making many of the performances available.

Did the Earth Move for You?
Paleomap Project
While we were researching the first few lines in the previous item, we found this fascinating site. It is a history site with a difference. It’s not about which branch of humanity slaughtered more people than others and hence got to write the books. Nope, this webmaster’s goal is, to put it mildly, huge: ‘to illustrate the plate tectonic development of the ocean basins and continents, as well as the changing distribution of land and sea during the past 1100 million years.’ So you get fascinating full-colour maps, animations showing the continents drifting around like flotsam in a Bombay monsoon flood, and, taking it many millions of years in the future, showing what the world could look like then.

Split Ends
Darn Divorce
Despite the best efforts of the guardians of our Glorious Culture, many in this country are realising that in some circumstances, a divorce, tough as it is on all concerned, is really the best path to choose. Well, as this blog says, it doesn’t have to be the end of the world. It is a ‘collection of random thoughts and news on the Dreaded D-Word. Some content may appear silly or cynical, but in no way am I undermining the distressing effects of divorce…’ There’s a lot here that could be useful; links to advice and articles, and some fun stuff too. Worth a look if you’re coming out of a split, or are affected by one.

Off Line
Shutdown Day
Another internet meme landed in your columnist’s inbox this week. The question being asked on this site is whether you can survive a full 24 hours without your computer. The idea is to use the time you normally spend in front of the keyboard for other things, like getting outdoors and communing with nature, playing sports, or just doing things with people you can touch and feel. As the site says, just ‘remind yourself that there still exists a world outside your monitor screen.’ Kind of ironic, that the message is being passed around online, no? When is this happening? It’s on the 3rd May, just around the corner. The day I have to file the next edition of this column. You think the editor will buy it and we’ll get paid leave? Watch this space.

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, 27th April, 2008.

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Sunday, 20 April 2008

Mousetrap - 145

As spoken in..
IDEA - The International Dialects Of English Archive
Two weeks ago, this column pointed to a site that served up a menu of common English words with their pronunciations in different parts of the world. This site, an archive that was started just over ten years ago, at the University Of Kansas in the USA, as ‘a repository of primary source recordings for actors and other artists in the performing arts.’ It is a sort of collaboration with the university’s Department of Theatre and Film and a global network of associate editors. It features recordings of one of two passages in English, with ‘both English language dialects and English spoken in the accents of other languages’ covered. You can download and play them for free.

Spare the rod
How Many Five Year Olds Could You Take in a Fight?
Another wee diversion—we need a life, yes?—dedicated to friends who swear they will never, ever, ever have children. Your results ‘are based on physical prowess, training, swarm-combatting experience, and the flexibility of your moral compass.’ But not to worry. All you’ll need to do is answer the questionnaire. But you’ll still need to steel yourself. The reward: a banner to display on your own site, with the number of brats you could take on filled in. (No real five-year-olds were harmed in the writing of this column. Promise. We love kids.)

Human Body and Mind - Sleep
As the good folk who put this page together will testify, your columnist has weird sleep patterns. The poor wee things get their copy in the pre-dawn hours if they’re lucky; otherwise it slides under the door just as the page needs to go to press. And one of the ways we keep tabs on our state of sleep deprivation is a li’l game on this microsite on sleep (part of the Beeb’s excellent Science & Nature section) which lets us shoot tranquilliser darts into virtual sheep as they gambol across the screen. It’s a test of reaction time, one of many tools and tests featured here that are designed to help you improve your sleep and your understanding of it. You can also get a personalised sleep profile, figure out your circadian rhythm, find out what foods keep you awake, read articles and more. See ya next week. We have sheep to put to sleep.

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, 20th April, 2008.

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Sunday, 13 April 2008

Mousetrap - 144

The original Yahoo!
Shammi Kapoor
Way before David Filo and Jerry Yang named their ‘Yet Another Hierarchical Officious Oracle,’ this Indian film star had already made the word famous on this side of the world. But a lesser-known facet of the exuberant Mr Kapoor is that he was a net pioneer in this country (I’m told he is a founder and still chairman of Internet Users Community of India). This is probably the earliest personal website from a Hindi film star, certainly predating all the slick, commercially produced sites and allegedly personal blogs of today. He built the site himself, and it is dedicated to the Kapoor family. It hasn’t been updated since the late nineties, as far as I can figure, but it’s a wonderful insider look at that fascinating family, with photos of them in their pomp (and also of some of our current sensations in rather more rotund avatars). For a slightly more up-to-date look at Shammiji’s life, check out this fan site.

This column shares one thing with Amitabh Bachchan (aside from our distinguished good looks, natch). Which is that we don’t like the term ‘Bollywood.’ Well, okay, we can’t vouch for Mr B’s scorn—a vastly more connected friend told us of it—or the reasons thereof, but we dislike it because it is derivative, and we think it shouldn’t need to qualify itself against Hollywood. (End rant.) But we, the tall thespian and I, are in a small and shrinking minority. Because sites like this one (at last he gets to the point!) only institutionalise it the more. This one has no India roots as such. The bloggers are from Austria, the USA, Slovenia, Germany and South Africa and are linked by their transparently genuine affection for the popular Hindi film industry (yeah, okay, it is a mouthful). It’s ‘about International Bollywood Community. We write about difference and same views about indian cinema in different countrie. This place is to make bollywood fandome international.’ Aside from regular posts on films, the team also passes around a Shah Rukh Khan doll, which they photograph in a variety of locations, and track via a Google Map.

The Indian Railways Fan Club
Here’s another fan site, for a rather different Indian institution, the good old railways. With apex fares and budget airlines, many of us haven’t been on a train for yonks. But for your columnist, a rail journey has always been ‘real travelling.’ And these railfans (as they call themselves) think so too. This site grew from a mailing list back in the eighties, started by a group of railfans in Amercian universities (hence the ‘A’ in the URL), the contents of which were later archived by several members before being brought together here. You’ll find ‘anything and everything having to do with trains in India!’ Routes and timetables, technical stuff, history, travelogues, photographs, video and audio, simulations, screensavers and more. Lalooji would be pleased. (But no, it’s not connected with the Indian Railways at all.)

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, 13th April, 2008.

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Sunday, 6 April 2008

Mousetrap - 143

Tomahto / Tomayto
Sound Comparisons
‘England and America are two countries separated by a common language,’ said that caustic wit, George Bernard Shaw. And in My Fair Lady, the Broadway and Hollywood musical version of his Pygmalion, Henry Higgins says, the various accents used just in the UK, ‘One common language I’m afraid we’ll never get.’ American accents also differ widely from region to region, and, now, with English pretty much the world’s connecting language, the accents that come into play are mind-bogglingly diverse. This site has value, then, beyond the fun bit. You get a set of words, with recordings of the way they are pronounced in various parts of the world, which load as small mp3 files which play on mouseover. (There are also phonetic-transcripts of various defunct versions of the language, and sister sites that focus on other languages and their variations.) You’ll need a fairly decent browser and OS, a fastish net connection, and a sound card and speakers or headphones.

Mixed up
Will It Blend?
This site is a classic example of how to use the web to sell a product in a fun, non-intrusive way. The commerce angle is there all right, but the site went viral for its sheer lunacy. Its name tells the story. A gentleman in a lab coat asks the simple question: will it blend? He then tests the hypothesis with a food blender, what we call a mixie in India. And he performs his tests not just with fruit and vegetables, but with things like a garden hose, assorted plumbing hardware, a golf club, action figure toys, even electronic gadgets including—and this broke your columnist’s heart—an iPhone. All this in a section tagged ‘Don’t Try This At Home.’ Of course there’s another section called ‘Try This At Home’ which has more conventional uses of the blender, many of which would be quite easily within the capacity of your average mixie.

Barack Obama Stole Your New Bicycle
A month ago, this column featured a site called ‘Barack Obama Is Your New Bicycle,’ which took off on the feel-good vibes the USA presidential candidate seems to exhude. This one works just the same, except in reverse: every page refresh gives you fresh reasons why Obama is a bad idea. Less giggle-worthy then the original, we thought, and the database of ‘reasons’ seems smaller, but it’s worth a few minutes of idle clicking.

And to end, a smile for you. A smiley, to be precise, an emoticon, one of those things that make language purists either cringe or utter grim predictions on our return to the dark ages of illiteracy. The smiley celebrated it’s 25th anniversary last year (19 September, 1982; yes, it’s that old!), and is still going strong. What led to its ‘invention?’ Well, it was the good old days of the BBSes, and, in the words of its creator: ‘if someone made a sarcastic remark, a few readers would fail to get the joke.’ Which sometimes led to acrimony, and ‘caused some of us to suggest (only half seriously) that maybe it would be a good idea to explicitly mark posts that were not to be taken seriously. After all, when using text-based online communication, we lack the body language or tone-of-voice cues that convey this information when we talk in person or on the phone.’ Go read the whole story.

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, 6th April, 2008.

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Tuesday, 1 April 2008

Siteseeing - 17

ResponsibleTravel & The Responsible Tourism Awards

Responsible Travel is a bit of a thing with us, starting with hikes in the Sahyadris as a college student; the Adventurers and Mountaineers Club walked with a large bag, where all hikers were supposed to dump their garbage, on pain of ostracism. ‘Take nothing by memories, leave nothing but footprints’ and all that. So it was a delight to chance upon these sites. The first claims hand-picked listings for 270 tour operators, and they cover pretty much all of the planet and various preferences, ‘over 160 countries, 250 different types of activities.’ (Yes, 173 India holidays as of this writing.) And it’s not just agents and operators—we would not have bothered with the site if that was it—but a lot of accommodation-only options, even self-catered and volunteering opportunities. The site also features unedited user reviews of listed holidays to help you make your choices, and the ability to book holidays through them. RT also created and runs the awards site, a reflection of the need to honours best practices in responsible travel. The awards ‘recognise individuals, companies and organisations in the travel industry that are making a significant commitment to the culture and economies of local communities and are providing a positive contribution to biodiversity conservation.’ You’re too late to nominate entries to the 2008 awards, but you can check out previous winners and their accomplishments. Go green, my children.

Published in Outlook Traveller, April 2008.

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Paul Theroux

In The Elephanta Suite, you examine the lives of visitors and tourists to India. Why did you choose to look at the outsiders? I chose Americans as the central characters in these stories because I cannot pretend to know much about the inner life of Indians. I have made the dramas of Americans abroad one of my obsessive subjects, and in this sense I am a great fan of the writing of Paul Bowles (The Sheltering Sky and many other works) and Graham Greene, whose characters are English but in alien surroundings.

You have travelled through India and Asia several times, including long train journeys. Could you tell us about your most unusual, most memorable experiences? I live and travel in the hope that I will meet someone — a trader, a desperate youth, an enigmatic woman, an Ancient Mariner, who will fix me with a glittering eye and say, “A strange thing once happened to me...” My travel books are full of such encounters. A man in Cambodia said to me last year, as an opening, “I did something in Siem Reap that I've never done before in my life...” See my new book, Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, for the whole story.

That’s the revisit of your classic The Great Railway Bazaar, retracing your steps through the countries you wrote about then? As I said, the book is called Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, and yes it is a revisiting. It was a tremendously enlightening experience. I was startled by the changes — in many countries, and in myself. I was also startled by the changelessness of — say — Burma. What is most striking is the materialism in India, SE Asia and China — places that, 35 years ago, were traditional societies, scraping along, are now countries full of rapacious consumers; not a happy sight, but perhaps inevitable. Where will it lead? Ask me in 20 years.

Have you seen any great travel writing from India? Vikram Seth’s From Heaven's Lake and Chaudhuri's Autobiography of an Unknown India both have a powerful sense of place and time. But much of Indian writing that I've seen is concerned with family life and seems to me more a sort of anthropology.

And any great travel writing about India? The obvious books are by Naipaul, Forster and others, but these describe surfaces and are probably very irritating to Indians — as irritating as books by Indians on American life, which, to me, are full of howlers.

You're off to lead a workshop with travel-writers-in-the-making at Madras/Chennai. Do you often do that kind of thing? People who conduct workshops often say that they wind up learning as much as the participants. Do you find that true for you? I very seldom do this sort of thing, which is why I volunteered. I wanted to meet unpublished writers and to read what they'd written. A lucky teacher learns from his or her students and when they stop learning it's time to find a new job.

Are you still haunted by Sir Vidia's Shadow? Is the catharsis complete? Not haunted at all. The book remains one of my favorites and I feel blessed that I met Naipaul when I was young, that I knew him well and that the friendship ended, so that I could write about it. I have moved on, and so has he. I look forward to Patrick French's biography — out in the few months.

Published in Outlook Traveller, in a section called 'Fellow Traveller,' April 2008.