January 20, 2008

Mousetrap - 134

Be sharp
No prizes for guessing this is for the music buffs. As the name suggests, it’s a take on the Wikipedia model of collaboration, in this case a searchable, user-editable, and steadily expanding ‘collection of tunes, melodies, and musical themes.’ The entries include sheet music, audio files, and plain-text information. It also features a search engine that helps you find a piece of music—and this is so cool—even of you know nothing about it except the tune, or even the beat. There’s a virtual piano keyboard, or you can tap out a beat on your computer keyboard, or you can hum, whistle or sing to the computer. Being rather tune-challenged, to put it mildly, I had some rather weird results. Others, more musical than your columnist—admittedly a huge category that includes most of humanity, even the baseball-hatted chappie who sings through his nose—have reported better results. Go try it and write in about how you fared, okay?

Words are all I have
Since one is in this musical mood, and the neighbours haven’t complained—yet—here’s another site for you tuneful folks. Unlike the gazillion lyric sites out there, this one gets into what them words really mean. No, wait, that’s inaccurate. It doesn’t have the lyricists expounding on their intent. What this is a forum, where members come in and post what they think song words mean. Much debate and discussion and all that, and you don’t have to sign up to read what they have to say. The site stats, as of this writing, say the database covers 31,878 artists, 14,502 albums and lyrics for 369,577 songs. Most of it is songs sung in English, but I did find a few songs from the Hindi film industry as well. No ‘Eena Meena Dika’ though. One still searches for meaning..

The way we were
Historical Maps of India
One of the things I’ve never liked about our country is the paucity of good maps. That’s partly because of some kind of government regulations, I am told; security risks or summat. Pretty irrelevant, that, in an age where satellite imagery is easily available, and for free at that, on the web. Nothing fancy on this site, no Google Earth zooms and pans and fly-bys. It’s just a collection of links, but what a collection! The owner has painstakingly assembled links from all over the interwebs, pointing to scans and reproductions of maps going back to the 18th century. The area covered extends beyond the ‘India’ in the page title, with much of the neighbourhood that was under European colonisation included. There’s even a world map from 1772!

Self -portrait
10 x 10
Every hour, this the site automatically generates a grid (10 x 10, natch) of 100 words and pictures that ‘matter most on a global scale, and presents them as a single image, taken to encapsulate that moment in time.’ How does it figure out what matters? It scans feeds from several international news providers, and picks out the 100 words that appear most, factoring in some complicated linguistic stuff. What you get is a snapshot in time, a sort of patchwork that reveals much about the world and what we think is important. You can click through, look deeper, muse, fulminate, mourn, rejoice, whatever; that’s up to you. Fascinating way to spend some time, and kind of addictive, I must warn you.

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 January, 2008.

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January 13, 2008

Mousetrap - 133

Identity Crisis
Hell, my friend, is keeping track of IDs and passwords for every darn site you use. If you’re like me, you’ve got a loooong list and you’ve forgotten more of them than you can remember. It wasn’t for my browser storing passwords for me, I’d have no online social life to speak of. But here’s a solution. OpenID lets you wander around the web under one identity. Let’s say you have a WordPress ID, and Wordpress supports OpenID. You can then use that ID as your base, using it to sign in to other sites that support OpenID. What sites? The claim is ‘nearly ten-thousand’ as of this writing (there are a couple of directories the site links to, for reference). Worth checking out, if you’re part of the participatory web. And who isn’t, these days?

I dub thee..
You know how all the good domain names are taken? And how tough it is, if you’re launching something new, to come up with a name for your service / mash-up / bit o’ self-indulgence that isn’t already taken? Well, that explains all those weird site names one comes across these days. And what this site does is generate domain names for you. You can feed it prefixes and/or suffixes (or pick from the ready-made lists) and the generator combines them for you and presents you with a list. If you like something it comes up with, you can check for availability right there. (The scary part is how many of them are already booked! Perhaps it’s not as tongue-in-cheek a site as I thought it was.) There are also useful tips for picking domain names. If that’s all too much work for you, try the Web 2.0 name generator for random names.

She says
Ultra Violet
A new(ish) blog that is pretty much described by it’s URL if not its name. It is a feminist blog, covering the issues and challenges that Indian women face today. Their About page says that the site ‘provides a place to explore and understand the ways in which young women in India are challenging, negotiating and transforming unequal power structures. It is also a space to celebrate women’s histories, wisdom, creativity, laughter and love for life.’ There have been some interesting debates up there, and the contributors list features some well-known writers and bloggers, so it’s worth your time to visit. The only thing is, they’re all women. One can’t but wonder, how come? Can’t a man be a feminist?

Who shall guard the guards?
Mission Safer India
The creation of former supercop Kiran Bedi, the site offers to step in if you have had trouble getting your complaints attended to by the police. It’s terribly badly written, and clumsily designed too, but if you wade through and try not to cringe too much, it’s a genuinely useful service. Just create an ID, and then you can fill in a complaint. The webmaster then makes sure your complaint is forwarded to the correct channels in the police hierarchy, though it’s up to you to then, with your printouts, to follow up on the matter. It deals solely with e-complaints, so no paper submissions will be dealt with. Now if only Ms Bedi would get someone to redo the site decently.

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 January, 2008.

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January 06, 2008

Mousetrap - 132

So, all hangovers taken care of and messed up your first cheque by writing the wrong year yet? Happy New Year, from the bottom of this little column’s, well, for lack of a better word, heart.

A watched kettle never boils
Kitchen Myths
The web is host to more myths stated as serious fact than any other medium. And many sites specialise in busting those myths with reason, research or just plain scorn. Says this site author: “The same sort of thing happens in the world of food and cooking, although on a much smaller scale. This page is my answer.” So you have the skinny about such stuff as baking soda used to absorb odours in the fridge, the alleged dangers of microwave cooking, and my favourite, how much alcohol is really left in a dish after cooking (not zero, as the conventional wisdom goes, I’m delighted to report), among many others. And should that pall, the site also has recipes. Eat up. [Link courtesy Ashwan Lewis]

You genius, you
The Blog Readability Test
Just a wee bit of frippery. Enter a URL (not necessarily a blog), and the site will tell you what level of education is required to understand its content. You, dear reader, will be glad to know that the site where I archive this column requires a genius reading level. Sheesh. So that’s why I don’t get fan mail.

For the record
Vinyl Sleeve Heads
This column is clearly not in a serious mood today. You want serious? G’wan, go back to the op-ed page. Right, it’s just us chickens now. This page just has.. but wait, I’ll have to explain something to the young ’uns; you old-timers hold on a sec. Now, kids, before mp3 players and CDs, people used to listen to music on things called records, which were discs, much like CDs, but large and black and made of vinyl, which were sold in covers made of thin cardboard. How big? Well, enough to cover your face. Now where we? Yes, It’s a simple page, nothing but pictures of people holding up record covers in front of their faces, usually with album covers that feature a face. And yes, it’s much funnier than it sounds. Go see.

With the grain
Free Rice
I must have had at least a score of friends pointing me to this link over the last couple of months, so perhaps you’ve heard of it by now. Nevertheless, you have a bleary-eyed columnist here, who needs to sleep. And this site’s stated objective is a winner: to give to the needy. Also dear to my heart is the method, a word game, where you get words in increasing degrees of difficulty, and you have to choose the correct meaning from four options. (Rather like the old Reader’s Digest word power games, except that here you don’t get a few lines of explanation and contextual use in the Answers page.) For each right answer, the site donates twenty grains of rice to the UN, paid for by the advertisers whose banners appear on every page. With every three words you get right, you advance one level. For every wrong answer, you drop one level. The site says, ‘This one-to-three ratio is best for keeping you at the “outer fringe” of your vocabulary, where learning can take place.’ My ‘outer fringe’ is now 49. What’s yours?

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 January, 2008.

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January 01, 2008

Siteseeing - 14

Travel Greener

Quicker than you can say Pachouri, we’ve suddenly come all over environmentalist. We now talk grimly of recycling, cutting emissions, carbon footprints and more, not just as dippy tree-hugger behaviour, but as something we all need to know more about. More talk than action, it must be said, but at least we’re taking it seriously. And we travellers—yes, you too, dear reader—must do our share too. The buying and selling of ‘carbon credits’ is one of the businesses born of this awareness.
Now I have to admit that I’m just over the clueless line about how exactly this works, but what I understand is this. When you fly, your share of the plane’s emissions significantly increases your personal carbon footprint. (A Bombay-Delhi flight would send 288 kilos of carbon into the air; Bombay-Boston would be 2689kgs.) You can offset the damage to the environment by purchasing carbon offsets, which are used in projects that reduce CO2 emissions elsewhere.
This site lets you make travel bookings (flights, hotels, cars), and uses its commissions to fund its environment-protecting projects. It also has calculators that let you calculate flight or road-trip emissions and then buy offsets directly. (The road-trip calculator only works for US trips, alas.) Cool idea, and a worthy model for someone to emulate in India. And when you do, please send me some free credits for pointing it out to you, okay?

Published in Outlook Traveller, Januray 2008.

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