Books Ahoy !

I am a bookworm – this is not a particular new or startling revelation to anyone who knows me. This particular love affair was fanned by my father who has a fetish for collecting things – books are one of these things :-) Over the years I have read a lot of books… I read comics and novels and magazines and newspapers. I read encyclopedias and almanacs and a whole lot of Readers Digest – I love their condensed books. I am the type of guy who will read the backs of cans or the small print in advertisements while waiting in lines :-)

Once I left college and entered the software industry – I became fascinated by the internet and awed  by the amount of information that was available. As my life became more and more nomadic (I was a software consultant) I found it difficult to carry around books (stupid international travel regulations restricting baggage to 30Kgs !) and buying books everywhere I went, while tempting, was way too expensive. Instead the addictive power of Google and broadband connections drew me to the flickering glow of the computer/laptop monitor.

Then suddenly blogging and RSS became mainstream and all of a sudden I was facing information overload. Bombarded by news items, article, opinions, rants, podcasts (I think podcasts a brilliant for certain situations – more here) and video blogging – there weren’t simply weren’t enough hours in the day to keep up!  I started feeling the computer and the broadband connection becoming a leash tethering me the glowing screen. I missed being able to lie on my back and or curling up on a couch with a book.  I bought a laptop and then a PDA (this was back before the iPod and way before smart-phones). Neither were satisfactory solutions – the laptop was too cumbersome, I was scared of dropping it and the battery life sucked. The PDA had more potential but had neither a big enough screen nor satisfactory software.

Last year I moved back home to Trivandrum (Kerala, India) – I looked at all the shelves lined with familiar classics from my childhood and promptly started reading them again (the lack of a reliable broadband internet connection played a part as well I admit). I found some of my colleagues at work shared my love for books and got recommendations, which I blended with my own list of books I wanted to read.   Then I went to the local bookstore and bought some books (actually I bought a whole lot of books) :-)

It feels good to be back reading books – I have broadband but it is not un-limited so I am more picky in what I use it for (software and media downloads mostly). I think I manage to grasp and read more using a book – I think the fact that unlike the computer there are no distractions or options helps one focus more and get deeper into the experience.

The price of books in India is a pleasant surprise compared to international book prices :-) There are few hard-covers and the books aren’t published using high quality paper but I can live with that. The only thing I miss is access to some of the comics/graphic novels I had when I was in America :-( I have heard of  the Kindle from Amazon and I think it’s brilliant – it is however – still a long way away from replacing a books.

PS: I have signed up for an online bookshelf called Readernaut check it out – you can signup if your are interested :-)

PPS: I am on Shelfari as well

Of podcasts…

I have to commute to work – this in itself is not uncommon and is not the point of the post. It is what I discovered to do with my time during my commute that I wanted to share. Initially I tried the various radio stations, and settled on National Public Radio station in Atlanta – 901 FM – WABE. It had the news and some fine western classical and the advertising was limited (or easier to tune out :-) ). Then it began its biannual fund-drive and I realized I needed something else during those week. That brings us to the topic of this post – Podcasts.

I had a heard a lot about podcasts – in fact they have been around so long that predictions of their demise have started coming up. I had downloaded and listened to a couple sometime back and I liked the concept. For awhile – I dallied with the thought doing it myself… Yeah – I know I can barely post enough for a blog and here I am thinking about podcasting – the arrogance of the man :-) . Then video blogs (vlogs) came along and I decided didn’t want really want to compete with svelte and sexy actresses pretending they knew what they were talking about ;-)  – but I digress …

So I started looking for some nice podcasts to listen to while on my commute. I have some favorites which I thought I’d put up post on…

  • Comedy – I decided to start out with something light and fun. I have a penchant for British humor and gave this one a try and liked it – Sowerby and Luff. Another one which is a very leftist American political comedy is NPR’s – Wait Wait Dont tell Me… – this is very topical and will make sense only if you are aware of the day to day dealings of American politics. Finally for geeky humor try – Ask a Ninja (this is a video podcast – so its not strictly commute friendly unless you are a passenger :-))
  • Philosophy – I have an audiobook of the seminal work of Robert Pirsig – Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
  • Life in general – Another great podcast I found on NPR is – WNYC – RadioLab
  • Internet and life online – This is a category I created for those of us who trawl the internet. We monitor it using blogs and RSS readers. We go to sites like Slashdot and Digg and take the pulse. There are podcasts for people like us – in fact they are video podcasts – but they can just as easily be simply listened to – Diggnation, Geekbrief.tv, and TWIT.tv (This week in technology)
  • .NET Technology – DotNETRocks – This is a great podcast for keeping in touch with the happenings in the world of Microsoft (which if you have looked at of late is exploding in size and scope of the developer offerings).

Sharing information trails

Over the course of my browsing and blog watching I come across several really cool (IMHO) products and tools.

In the early days I used to bookmark them, but that didn’t work when I bought a laptop and started working on more than one computer :-) So I developed this complicated system of exporting and importing bookmarks till I discovered USB drives and that Mozilla Firefox could be made portable. But speed concerns and the realization that USB drives have limited write cycles drove me to looking for an on-line solution.

I used Yahoo bookmarks for awhile (now they have upgraded the tool and call it Yahoo My Web) but then I discovered Del.icio.us and I was hooked. I have used Del.icio.us since January last year and its only got better. It is, IMHO the preeminent social bookmarking tool out there, not only because of its clean spare interface but also because of it’s creativity. My Del.icio.us links are available on this blog on the right side below the pictures.

However Del.icio.us is blocked by the firewall at work and a friend of mine was asking me for ideas to share links with people, so I started looking again. I saw this tool (called Trailfire) today that looks particularly promising. Whats different about this website (other than fact that it can be accessed from work :-)) is that you can make comments and annotations about a set of web pages and create “a trail” about a particular topic – for e.g.: TiddlyWiki Trail

Update: Well, the powers that be at work finally decided that Del.icio.us is a legitimate and useful website after all and unblocked it a few weeks back. I have however continued to use Trailfire. I many ways I think it is a great complement to Del.icio.us. While Del.icio.us is great for quick bookmarking and for searching, its rather hard to put together a montage of links based on a theme like Trailfire. Trailfire has become my preferred tool when I want to bundle a set of links based on a particular topic. It makes it really easy and intuitive to share these links with other people, while also adding your own comments as to the content, relevance etc of each link.

Wikipedia – what the internet was supposed to be

One of the ways that the world wide web (www) is described to anyone is : “It is a vast reference tool for any kind of information”. This is an inaccuracy, in that, while it is a medium through which people can easily share information, it is by no means a reference. The very simplicity and power of the world wide web is also the reason why it cannot be thought of as a reference tool. It is simply too easy to publish information on the Internet and as a result looking for a particular piece of information has become like looking for a needle in the haystack.

That’s why the wikipedia is so remarkable! It has used the very ease of publishing information and the easy access to the vast array of content creators that the Internet provides, as the means to create an on-line editable encyclopedia. The best definition of the wikipedia is given in the wikipedia itself

Wikipedia (IPA: /ˌwɪkiːˈpiːdi.ə/, /ˌwiki-/ or /ˌwɪkə-/) is an international Web-based free-content encyclopedia. It exists as a wiki, a website that allows visitors to edit its content; the word Wikipedia itself is a portmanteau of wiki and encyclopedia. Wikipedia is written collaboratively by volunteers, allowing articles to be changed by anyone with access to the website.

What sets apart the wikipedia from the other encyclopedias is the vast array of information that is contained on topics that are not necessarily contained in the others. You can find information on literally anything and if you find something for which there is no information, you have the freedom to add the information if you want… It is this spirit of drawing in the user to become an active participant, that allows wikipedia to be such a vast repository of information. It is also how the accuracy of the information is maintained, as the users can edit and correct inaccuracies in articles created by the others. A record is made of every change, so any change can be rolled back. Articles that have contentious or controversial information are marked as such and references are provided as well.

I love to simply browse the wikipedia… One picks up nuggets of information, quaint articles (like this one on the letter Z). There is a featured article section on the main page that I often peruse…