Sunday, September 27, 2009

Five Awesome Sites I've Discovered Recently

  • Xtranormal | Text-to-Movie: Truly, truly awesome. It lets you make your own animated movies! The line is, "If you can type, you can make a movie!" When you sign up (there's a basic account as well as a premium account), you get a bunch of sets as well as pre-fixed actors. You type dialogue for them and there are a set of emotions and gestures for the characters too. The possibilities are truly endless. The current problems with the site are two: the characters speak like robots (I guess they can't help that, since the words are pre-taped); and there's no way to make characters do actions like running. So it works fine as long as all you want is a couple of characters talking to each other.
  • Animoto (via Surya S Nair): You know how when you want to make a movie out of a set of images, you have to work painstakingly with Movie Maker. (Well, I've never done it, but still.) Animoto lets you upload images and makes a cool movie out of it on its own! You can add soundtracks and video clips too. The only problem here is that the basic account lets you make only 30-second movies. I guess you can make a bunch of movies and then string them together, though.
  • Readtwit: For people who use both Twitter and Google Reader. I used to find it a pain to have to click links on Twitter and follow them even to have to know whether they were worth reading or not. But Twitread creates a feed out of your twitter stream and lets you subscribe to it on GReader. So you get to read 2000-character snippets of the article and can decide whether you want to click through or not. Pics and YouTube videos get embedded automatically too, which is cool.
  • Trendsmap (via Nikhil):Lets you see trending topics by geography, and also has a scrolling set of updates by geography. So if you're missing a city particularly, you can go to the page and see what people from the city are tweeting. - a new definition for vicarious living! For example, the night Nikhil shared the link, people in Bengaluru were tweeting about the sudden rain and the (as usual) heavy traffic. 
  • Our Delhi Struggle: It's a blog run by a foreign couple living in New Delhi. I had to obviously like it because of the PJ (Pun Joke) in the title, but I'm liking the blog mostly because (A) it's funny; and (B) it puts me in touch with Delhi again. Yes, vicarous living again!

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Monday, September 21, 2009

The Wheel of TIme

I stumbled upon Robert Jordan's 'The Wheel of Time' series by accident. Back then, I was fourteen and living in Trivandrum. My parents had a copy of the first book, The Eye of the World, and I read it purely because the cover looked so interesting. (Just look at it - doesn't it promise awesome adventure and excitement?) I finished the 800-page book in two days flat. Of course, it was only when I was nearing the end of the book that I realized that it was just the first of an entire series. But I didn't bother searching for the rest of the books in Trivandrum, because I was very sure I wouldn't get them.

So imagine my excitement when I landed up in Delhi and discovered that my school library had the entire series! Unfortunately, I was in twelfth by the time I made this discovery. And each of these books is a whopper - at least six to seven hundred pages long. I was sure that eyebrows would be raised at a twelfth standard student issuing big fat works of fiction.

So in order to fool the librarian, I would get a Jordan book and a Physics/Mathematics guide issued together. But her eye got beadier and beadier every time I brought the next in the series to her desk. And I had just finished reading the fifth one when the blow fell - she told me that twelfth graders were not allowed to issue fiction.

I should have protested, of course. Stifling students' imagination and all that blah blah. But she was one scary lady - huge and bulky and capable of silencing an entire library-full of students with a clearing of the throat. And I was just a spineless sixteen-year-old. Besides, I had already realized that I wouldn't be able to complete the series by the time the Board exams arrived. So I gave in.

But now I've discovered the series again! And it is still every bit a rollicking yarn as it was when I was fourteen! (So much so that I didn't even want to go out with my friends last night.) Unfortunately, my reading speed seems to have come down considerably from when I was in my teens, so the series might take me some time to finish this time around. But it's okay - I have time. After all, the final book is going to be published only in 2012!

P.S. - Anybody here who's into fantasy fiction and has recommendations? And don't worry, I read non-potboilers too. :)
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Thursday, September 17, 2009

Facebook: An Imminent Implosion

I hereby predict that Facebook is about to die. Or perhaps 'implode' would be a better word.

The main mistake they made was, I think, allowing external applications free entry. These apps may have been fun in the beginning, with people taking nonsensical quizzes and publishing them on their pages. But now the site is so cluttered with applications, and people are so addicted to using them, that the Facebook Homepage has become a flowing stream full of garbage.

Why do I go on Facebook? To keep up with my friends. I go to my Homepage and I check status updates. I check if people have uploaded photos. I spy on random wall conversations.

But now there are so many people and so many applications that most of the stuff on my Home page is just spam. Going by their Facebook activity, the people I know have nothing in their lives except Facebook. They take random quizzes. They open fortune cookies. They ask gurus what their future is going to be like. They tag their Top Friends' photos. They update their status ten times a day. They link their FB status to their Twitter account and spam even more. They play Mafia Wars and Farmville. In short, they spam.

So I get an email telling me that X has tagged me in a photo on Facebook. I follow the link eagerly, wondering which pic it could be. And then I find something called the 'Top Fans' application. I have been tagged because I am X's Top Fan. Yeah right. I curse X mentally and go to my Homepage to see what my other friends have been up to. And what do I see there? Y has just discovered that Z is her enemy of the day! M just opened a fortune cookie and his fortune is, "You shall rot in hell for publishing this on your wall!"

Am I actually expected to trawl through this junk just to keep up with my friends? Bah - I decide that I might as well just call them up or depend on good old-fashioned email.

It could be argued, of course, that these apps are not killing Facebook, but merely adding to it so that it becomes more than a mere social networking site - it is also now a site that people turn to for entertainment. And I don't mean the 'Let me check how fat my sworn enemy from college has become' type of entertainment. I mean the 'I have time to kill and there's nothing interesting on TV, let's see if I can find an interesting game to play' sort of entertainment.

But my problem here is this: social networking necessarily means connecting with people. But most of these apps do not involve such connections - they are things that people do by themselves to amuse themselves. The only way they involve others is if the results are published - something people actually do with irritating frequency, I might add. Sooner or later users are going to realize that the whole 'connecting with friends' part has been erased from the Facebook experience.

Which is why Facebook is just ripe to go the Orkut way. I bet that, the minute another social networking site comes along, offering people an even cleaner interface and the chance to log in and get updated on their friends' lives without having to fight their way through masses of junk, Facebook is going to die. It's going to be a long, slow death, but it's going to happen.

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Sunday, September 13, 2009

Thoughts on Books and Reading

Disclaimer: Long, meandering and highly self-indulgent post where I pretend that I know a lot about books. Some Thinking By Typing will also be practiced during the course of this post. Please excuse if you're not in the mood.

I've written many mental posts recently on the books I've been reading. I never got around to actually typing them  out because a) I didn't have enough to say; and b) I'm not sure if I have enough knowledge about books to be able to say anything of value about them.

But what finally prompted this post is the fact that I just finished reading Italo Calvino's If On A Winter's Night A Traveller. This was the first Calvino book that I'd gotten around to reading finishing. Mostly because I have this belief, well-founded or not, that translations are useless because of the sheer impossibility of capturing the flavour of the original in another language. I've read English translations of Malayalam books, and I always find myself mentally translating the English back to the Malayalam words that the writer must have originally used, and the translation always seems so dead in comparison.

But back to Calvino. IOAWNAT is a book about reading. The writer explores reading like I've never even thought of exploring it, and he explores it in a way I've never seen done before. The book is about you, The Reader. Or me, The Reader. I don't know which. Throughout the book, I couldn't figure it out. Is the book about me? Is the book about the writer? Is it about books in general? Is it about reading? Yes, that it definitely is of course, but what else is it about?

IOAWNAT contains the first chapters of eleven different books. It follows you, The Reader (or me, The Reader) as he pursues one book after another. He starts off reading Italo Calvino's IOAWNAT. He's unable to finish it because of a printing error. So he returns it and gets a fresh copy, which turns out to be another book altogether. In the process, he meets an attractive young lady, The Other Reader. She leads him on a wild goose chase through books written in other languages, books unpublished as yet, books written by ghost writers under popular authors' names. He starts each of these books, and is unable to finish them for some reason or the other. In the midst of it all, there's an organization that is trying to - well, I'm still not quite sure what the hell they were trying to do. There's also an old author living in the hills, who is struck by writer's block and spends his days spying on a young lady sitting in a chair and reading down in the valley. He wants to write the book that the young lady is reading.

So what is writing, exactly? Does a writer channel something that's already written? Some Divine Thought, like Mohammed hearing God's voice and translating it for us? Or does the writing come from inside the writer, something that he makes up on his own? It is a natural process, or is it artificial? And what about reading? Why do people read? Do they read to be entertained? Do they read so that they can take away something from the book? More and more when I'm reading, I find myself struck by some passage or sentence or meaning, and my mind takes up that trail of thought and wanders away. Is that what books are for? So that the mind is stimulated in different directions? And am I being a hypocrite when I read partly because I know it'll improve my writing as well?

These are some of the things that Calvino raises. He talks about a hundred other things as well, which I might understand on a second reading. Which I don't think I'll bother doing, because a second reading of books seems like such a waste of time. Though I always find that whenever I come back to a book after many years, I gain a whole new perception of the book and it's like I'm reading another book altogether. (Another thing Calvino says, by the way.)

I'm in the middle of some six-seven different books right now, all short story collections for some reason. I don't know why I've bought so many short story collections recently. I don't even like them that much. The list, by the way:
  • Murakami - Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman: I started it back in June and then dropped it because I found other books more interesting.
  • Joyce - Dubliners: Blah. Not liking the stories at all.
  • Calvino - Difficult Loves: Liking it very much. But as usual, I can't finish short story collections at one go.
  • Stephen King - Night Shift: Recently started. Call him a 'mass writer' or not, King really is one of my favourite writers. His writing is simple and no-nonsense, and he can make you see what he wants you to see in a way that very few other writers can.
  • A collection of science fiction stories: Read only one so far and liked it very much. Though I'm not really into science fiction.
  • Madhavikutty - Ente Katha (My Story): I haven't really read Malayalam books since I was twelve or something. I picked this one up so that I could get back into it, but my reading pace was too slow for my liking. So I stopped.
Yeah, that's it, I think. I plan to finish them in the same mixed up fashion. Maybe dip into Calvino one day and Stephen King the next.

Another short story collection that I read recently was Kazuo Ishiguro's Nocturnes. As I've proclaimed many times on this blog, Ishiguro is my favourite writer. Not my ideal writer, possibly, but definitely my favourite. So I was very excited when I picked up his new book. But I have to confess I didn't like it very much. Good stories, all of them, but not up to his usual standard. When you pick up an Ishiguro, you expect something different, but this one wasn't. So my updated ranking of his books is:
  1. The Unconsoled
  2. Never Let Me Go
  3. The Remains of the Day
  4. An Artist of the Floating World
  5. Nocturnes
  6. When We Were Orphans
(I haven't managed to get my hands on A Pale View of the Hills yet.)

On the other hand, a short story collection I would recommend highly is Yann Martel's The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios. Despite the unwieldy title (it seems deliberate, because all the other stories in the collection have even longer titles) the stories are all - well, I don't know what adjective to use - interesting? Different? The last story especially (The Vita Aeterna Mirror Company: Mirrors to Last till Kingdom Come) was incredible. A tale of nostalgia and memories and loss and trying to capture the past. And all this through a way of writing that - well, go read it. The title story is also gripping. How is it possible for a writer to make the reader (me) shed tears at the end of the story despite knowing from the first that the protagonist is going to die and that I shouldn't attach myself to him? Yann Martel managed that somehow.

You know that thing publishers do where they hunt up old dead books by an author who has suddenly become famous, and publish it with a huge sub-heading 'By the author of Incredibly Famous Book!' For once I was glad that it happened to Helsinki Roccamatios.

But what I want to read right now is a good solid yarn, you know. Something that requires no brain, no mind. Something I can just breeze through and enjoy thoroughly. My cousin is reading Fellowship of the Ring for the first time now, after much cajoling from my part. I watch her with envy. How awesome would it be to go through Lord of the Rings again as if for the first time, just enjoying the adventure, not knowing what is going to happen next. Unfortunately, I've read the book (or my favourite chapters rather) too many times now.
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