Reviews Tech Takes


There have been quite a few web-based ‘local search’ engines in India. ‘Local search’ is a search engine which enables you to find – at the very least – addresses and telephone numbers of various business establishments, restaurants, movie theatre show timings, etc in your particular city. A few major players in the Indian local search business are Yahoo! India Local Search, JustDial, AskLaila, OnYoMo; plus some niche players such as Foodiebay (restaurant listings and reviews) and (events, restaurants, pubs, cafes; I reviewed an associated service name Burrp! TV earlier).

However, most of these services are intended to provide you with information before you leave your house / workplace. You can look up information for a place you plan ahead in visiting. If you want to make a spur-of-the-moment decision to go to some restaurant or find a business when you’re on the road, you were pretty much screwed. Sadly, most of these local search engines don’t have good mobile interfaces (except for JustDial). JustDial also operates a human-operator assisted telephone helpline (6999-9999). The way this works is that you call the number, a human operator types in your queries into the normal JustDial interface, and then reads out the results to you.

As you can imagine, this procedure can be quite cumbersome. You may be unlucky enough to get an operator who isn’t that good / doesn’t understand what you’re saying. Many times call centre operations are based out of one city, and if you’re calling in from another city then they’ll be thoroughly confused (as I’ve found out at times).

So you were pretty much screwed in such situations…until now. To circumvent these and other problems, Google India launched Local Voice Search about a year ago. It was a laughable attempt at that time, because the whole operation was based on a human-operator picking up the phone and keying in whatever you wanted to know into standard Google Search. Totally not worth talking about. Now however, they have shifted to an automated voice recognition system – which makes the game a bit more interesting.

If you stay in Delhi (NCR), Mumbai, Bangalore or Hyderabad, dial the toll-free number 1-800-41-999-999. This connects you to Google’s automated voice-based local search system. The system will prompt you to speak a type of business (e.g., ‘cafe’, ‘pizza’…), restaurant / shop / other business establishment (e.g., ‘Subway’, ‘DHL’…), or movie for show timings (e.g., The Taking of Pelham 123).

The voice recognition system will they play back what it understood, ask for confirmation, and then prompt you to speak the area name in which you are seeking whatever you want. In case automated voice recognition fails, the system will transfer your call to a call centre where a human operator will assist your search. (Human assist is available only from 8am to 12 midnight though.) Once the system has recognized all your choices correctly, it will read out the top three results for you – and also send you an SMS containing details for free (if you’re calling from a cellphone number).

I have tried out the service a few times, and my reaction to it is mixed.

  1. Movie timings: Almost always fails to recognize movie names, especially if the movie name is weird (for instance the example I gave). When it does find a match, you don’t get results from all cineplex chains. That’s still understandable, because till now there’s no single service which allows you to check show timings across all chains. (Hint hint, entrepreneurs. Here’s an area you start-up. That is, if movie theatres stop being a dick and give you access to their data.)
  2. Restaurant / exact business names: Mostly gets it right. The problem is that the contact details supplied are often out-dated / not working, so you’re back to square one. Still, when it works this is a life saver. After all, you’re dialling in toll free, so it’s not as if your money is being wasted.
  3. ‘Vague queries’ (searching by business type): Hit-and-miss affair. Again, toll-free, so no harm in checking.

The main ‘problem’ with Google Local Voice Search is not so much of not an extensive-enough database or voice recognition. The main problem is that it’s search engine simply does not understand the concept of ‘proximity’. Once I tried to track down courier services in Bhikaji Cama Place or Vasant Kunj. Voice recognition identified the place name correctly both times. Yet, when it came to giving results, it gave me address in South Extension and Lajpat Nagar! (People who live in Delhi will realize how ridiculous this is.) And it’s not as if those services don’t exist in the places I specified (as I found out from JustDial mobile web search).

Clearly, Google Local Voice Search has quite some way to go before it becomes a dependable alternative to ‘calling your friend who lives closest to the area you want to go to’. However, the concept holds so much promise that I’m sure Google (and other companies) will invest into efforts such as this – and we, as end users, would definitely want to adopt services such as this. Searching by speaking out words is so inherently intuitive that it has the potential to bring the power of search to a lot more people and in a lot more environments (d0esn’t tie you down to your computer desk).

Until then, we can only hope for better results than shown in the video below… ;)

Howard shows off the capabilities of his ‘amazing’ phone on The Big Bang Theory


Money speaks

I’ve got a sore throat for the past few days, so I went to the chemist to restock medicines prescribed by my doctor.  It is there that I had a sort of epiphany. Yes, life finally makes sense to me now. I found out today that I’m (Johnny) Cash.

NOT Photoshopped
NOT Photoshopped

I thought chemists treated you well and immediately brought medicines to you because of Bapu-ji‘s moving words (on currency notes, you know). It is only now that I realise that I’m Mr Cash.


I also went to my ICICI bank branch today, to sort out some foreign exchange transactions. Now the forex desk is located near the sanctum sanctorum of the bank – the bank vault. This is where they have their wealth management division, demat services, NRI banking, and as I mentioned, forex desk. So while I was talking to the forex banking officer, she received a call on her landline phone – one of those wireless Reliance WLL handsets. She took the call on speakerphone and guess who the caller was – a telemarketer from ICICI Bank offering her loan! I had this laughing fit right there, and a pretty noticeable one at that since that section is such a quiet area given that 3-4 senior bank officers sit in this particular section. All of them looking at me stern faces silently tut-tutting. One of them was this authoritative looking mustachioed guy, the type you know instantly when you look at him that his name must be Thyagarajan or something similar. (I wasn’t very much off the mark; his name turned out to be Srikanth.) I assume at least one of them thought of locking me up in the bank vault to shut me up but then…the customer is always right. :D

If I ever get into an argument with an officer at ICICI Bank, I hope they’ll try to terminate my account. In my defence, I’ll say that my conduct was not ‘unparliamentary‘ since I wasn’t in the Parliament in the first place. ;)


Sin City movie posterMy rating of Sin City: A+ (Oscar-worthy)
Cast: Jessica Alba, Rosario Dawson, Clive Owen, Benicio Del Toro, Bruce Willis, Nick Stahl, Mickey Rourke, Elijah Wood, Devon Aoki
Directed by: Robert Rodriguez, Frank Miller, Quentin Tarantino
Studio: Dimension Films

Frankly, I haven’t a clue myself why I’m clubbing a section on Sin City in blog post starting off with Johnny Cash and ICICI Bank anecdotes. The only semblance of an excuse that I can mumble out is “I saw the movie today, again, on Star Movies”. Not quite the same, what with all the editing to make it that Indian movie channels are forced to do but still a breathtaking experience nevertheless. There is something about Frank Miller’s movies that brings tears to your eyes for the sheer beauty of it like Sin City does. 300 too, for instance.

The film noir style of the movie grips you from the very beginning, even if you’re one of the squeamish ones who doesn’t like gore. The whole feel of the movie is so unique that you can’t help but watch it again and again; marvel at the amount of work that must have been put into making each and every scene. In a way, Sin City strongly reminds me of A Scanner Darkly. Every frame jumps out as if it’s a page from a graphic (in both senses of the word) novel.

Watch the theatrical release trailer for Sin City

The film’s substance is based more on style than anything else. It doesn’t have mindblowing story or particularly quirky dialogue (like the ones you’d find in Tarantino movies). Still, a star-studded cast and knock-your-socks-off visuals keep you hooked. Bruce Willis does a Die Hard cop routine. Clive Owen – the soul brotha of Jason Statham in that he was too poor to afford anything other than ‘the intense-look class’ at acting school while doing part-time taxi driving – does what he does best in looking intense, broodingly delivering dialogues, and driving ‘a hard top with a decent engine’. Mickey Rourke does a good Hulk impersonation. Then there’s the cute little Devon Aoki who plays Miho the assassin, a role similar to what she played in the critical flop DOA: Dead Or Alive (DOA is certainly one kickass popcorn movie). Jessica Alba is…Jessica Alba (you don’t need a reason to watch a Jessica Alba movie).

Don’t miss this movie the next time it’s on telly, if you haven’t seen it already.

Canned laughter

Am I the only one who finds laughter tracks in so-called ‘comedy shows’ irritating? Wherever you look, there are TV shows masquerading as laugh riots when they actually aren’t. And why are they considered to be comedy? Simply because they have a laughter track. The ol’ faithful Wikipedia points out…

It was believed that the absence of guffaws meant American viewers could not tell if the particular show was indeed a comedy.

…which is then followed by a list of TV shows that got their asses kicked for not including laughter tracks. Seriously? Are our American brothers that dumb that they can’t recognize comedy without having crutches to guide them when to laugh?

So why did I snap now? The last straw ‘joke’ that broke the camel’s my back was this show they’re showing on Disney Channel called Home Improvement. Apparently, “in the 1990s, it was one of the most watched sitcoms, winning many awards“. Should have a reasonable amount of comedy, right? So I decided to watch one episode. Here’s a ‘joke’ from the show, in its entirety:

My mother-in-law is coming next week. [laughter track with wild hoots of laughter]

And then, every second sentence there’s canned laughter, regardless of whether any sane guy would call it a joke or not. Adding a laughter track does not make it a comedy show. It makes it a lame attempt at comedy, but not comedy. You know which other show on Disney Channel is guilty of the same crime? The Hannah Montana Show, featuring SnakeMonster.


It’s a show which revolves around one and only one ‘joke’ – Billy Ray Cyrus calling out to “mah-lee”. But when it comes to not making any sense at all, having no jokes, and stuffing canned laughter into every second of an episode, nothing beats…Friends TV showF.R.I.E.N.D.S. Every second of the show is carpet-bombed with canned laughter. And that’s still okay, if there are any jokes. That ‘if’ is never fulfilled as the canned laughter is played out even in normal conversational dialogue. Maybe the cornerstone of F.R.I.E.N.D.S.‘s success lies in the fact that Americans are too dumb to recognize what’s comedy, so when a show comes along where lots of laughter is pre-included, they think it’s a very funny show. In overseas territories people might laugh along assuming there must be some pun in English they didn’t get.

I know I must be the odd-one-out in not ‘liking’ F.R.I.E.N.D.S., but I also feel that shows which include laugh tracks are trying to insult the intelligence of the audience. Here’s a clip from the South Park episode Jakovasaurs parodying sitcoms with nonsensical laughter tracks:

Watch the ‘Jakovasaurs sitcom’

PS – If you are a fan of F.R.I.E.N.D.S., could you please explain to me what is so funny about the show?

Reviews Tech Takes


In 2007, I made a blog post about a website called ZipAZap, which used to provide TV listings. None of the service providers back then – including Tata Sky or Dish TV – had any good electronic programme guides (EPGs). Hindustan Times and Times of India often get listings wrong, drop channels at their whim and whore out ad space to promote their own channels, so I came to rely upon ZipAZap for TV show listings.

Those were days when our TV connection used CAS. Our provider was Wire & Wireless India Ltd (earlier called Siti Cable) which to this day hasn’t come to terms with the fact that I’ve switched to Tata Sky; like a jilted lover I keep getting calls from W&WIL once in every few months telling me its a ‘regular check-up call to ensure our customers are happy’. Yes, I’m very happy with Tata Sky, thank you [click]. Tata Sky provides a comprehensive EPG, but you need to tread carefully. Of late, they’ve started adding the words ‘hilarity ensues‘ to every other movie listing, which effectively kills any desire to watch that particular show. (Psst…for those not in the know, ‘hilarity ensues’ is the standard text Hollywood adds to any movies which they know is crap and deserves nothing more than a direct-to-DVD release.)

A few months back, ZipAZap rechristened itself as What’s On India. It went from a sensible-looking page to a so-called programme guide which looks as if an Excel spreadsheet has been crapped on a web page.

Pictured - How to crap an Excel spreadsheet onto a web page
Pictured - How to crap an Excel spreadsheet onto a web page (click the image to see how far the shit-hole goes)

By the time a page finishes loading, the TV show I might be interested in would probably get over. I really don’t understand what the need for this ‘makeover’ was. On top of that, programme details are provided in annoying little hover menus – I seriously get pissed off with those since in most cases you have to keep your mouse cursor impossibly still. (Reminds me of radio sets in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy universe.)

I finally found a replacement a few weeks ago called Burrp! is primarily a local search kind of site focussing on restaurant details / reviews, but tucked away in a corner of the site is Burrp! TV. worthy worthy

Burrp! TV did what ZipAZap got right the first time – and then made it even better. Scrolling to future time in ZipAZap involved loading the page again but on Burrp this is done using Ajax. You can switch forward/backward as much as you want smoothly. The interface is simply elegant and functional. Shows are colour-coded according to type. If you create a (free) account, you can even set your favourite channels to see a customised view (like I have done). Or you could browse by genre using the dropdown box at the top / links in the footer.

Clicking on a show title shows you brief details about it and allows you to set free SMS reminders. If the show is a repeating show or if the movie in question will be shown on some other day too, then Burrp! will tell you that too – which is quite handy! Say you come across a review of a good movie which is coming on TV tonight, but don’t have time to watch today. You can check Burrp! to see if its repeating on any other day; if yes, then you can find out the time/date and set an SMS reminder for it.

You can even set favourite recurring shows. Burrp! database stores information on which TV shows are part of a series, and once you set a series as a favourite you can set up SMS alerts for the whole series. You can choose how long before the show start time you want to receive the SMS, and I’ve found that Burrp! never skips an SMS delivery. SMS is useful, but in case you don’t want that you can opt for email alerts instead.

Specifically for movies, clicking on a movie title (after you’ve clicked once in the schedule view) takes you to a detail page where you can read a short blurb on what the movie is about (minus the ‘hilarity ensues’. Are you listening, Tata Sky?), cast, IMDB rating (helpful!) and even trivia related to the movie.

Search feature on Burrp! actually works, unlike ZipAZap’s couldn’t even find shows which its own listings were showing. Moreover, I haven’t found a single Burrp! listing to ever to be inaccurate. At certain times there are movies with the same title, but released on different years – may not even be remakes but movies with completely different plot-lines. I’ve had instances where Tata Sky’s EPG picked the ‘wrong version’ of the movie title in its EPG, but Burrp! got it right.

Oh, and BTW, Burrp! is not associated with Yahoo! in any way. Let me assure you of that. :P Despite! What! Anyone! Else! Might! Say! Or! Think!

My rating for Burrp! is 10/10. This is one web service which has got everything right – functionality with a beautiful design to boot.

Originally posted at Youthpad.

Missing The Point

There’s this ad by Eveready Ultima batteries which has been doing the rounds lately on television. See it if you haven’t already below (most slots don’t show the whole ad).

Eveready batteries flashlight ad

I  thought of mentioning this ad as a good idea gone terribly wrong. The concept behind the advertisement of using flashlights coupled with time-lapse photography is quite unique. No doubt it must have taken the team behind the ad a lot of time to make too. But come on! You’re selling Eveready batteries, not Duracell! I wonder whether this particular ad will make any impact as such. To understand how cool this ad is, you need to understand the basic concept behind it (time-lapse). If you don’t, I’m sure a viewer will dismiss it as a freakish incident they can’t explain. And that’s just the urban viewer! When you’re selling a mass market product like batteries, there really isn’t much scope of ‘being innovative’.

Clearly an ad done by an agency so much in love with the idea that they forgot what they were selling.