Reviews Tech Takes

SMS Gyan – mobile search engine with a difference

I came to know about this startup called SMS Gyan when one of its founders (or someone from their team) emailed me about it. At the outset I would like to point out that this blog post is not a ‘sponsored’ post. I found their concept interesting, so I’m blogging about it. These guys do have some considerable reputation behind them, since they were part of the Economic Times Power of Ideas initiative.

SMS Gyan logoThe concept of SMS Gyan is that while some high-end phones have good web browsers, every goddamn phone has SMS capability. What SMS Gyan tries to do is that it tries to be an ‘answer engine’ instead of a ‘search engine’. I would have brought up WolframAlpha if I was a TechCrunch author, but that I am not. SMS Gyan and Wolfram are different thing and they shouldn’t be confused. SMS Gyan works like this – there are a few specified categories in which you can SMS queries to them, and then it sends you answers related to that. The categories currently available are: encyclopedia, dictionary, acronym, live cricket scores, movie/book reviews, weather, alerts, stock market, gadget price, calorie meter. You can find out exact details on how to format your SMS query on their website, so I won’t bother repeating it. If your phone has a web browser, you can route your query via the SMS Gyan WAP site – but that kinda defeats the whole point of SMS Gyan. The service then sends back pint-sized bits of information on whatever topic you ask it about.

I believe any search engine – whatever kind it may be – should be judged on the basis of the results that it gives. I decided to run some random queries in various categories to test SMS Gyan. I present the results here, with my commentary with [ ] braces.

  1. Encyclopedia
    1. quiz – A quiz is a form of game or mind sport in which d players attempt 2 answer questions correctly. Quizzes are also brief assessments used in education similar fields 2 measure growth in knowledge abilities andor skills.
    2. Kevin Smith – Kevin Patrick Smith is an American screenwriter director as well as a comic book writer author actor. He is also d co founder with Scott Mosier of View Askew Productions owner of Jay Silent Bobs Secret Stash comic novelty store in Red Bank New Jersey. He also hosts a weekly podcast wi.More [I think the message is truncated and you can get more info by sending back a message]
    3. Oompa Loompas – This article uses bare URLs. pls help improve this article by turning bare URLs into proper citations containing all of d information on d referenced works title date publisher publication author so that d article remains verifiable in d future. [This was a big boo-boo. Obviously, it’s capturing details from the Wikipedia page on this topic, but it caught the wrong information.]
  2. Dictionary
    1. quiz – competition in d answering of questions, hoax, interrogate. [Note that this is different from the encyclopedia result. Good!]
    2. whatchamacallit – an object of unknown name. [Not a very common word. I’m impressed it got this one.]
    3. bill gates – Oops no results. [Just testing what happens if I gave a non-dictionary word.]
  3. Books
    1. White Tiger – Amzn Rating: 4.0/5 , Caught in the rooster coop , From The Darkness into the light , Incredible Journey Through A Changing India , Is White Tiger at best a Paper Tiger? , Debut novel about India a fantastically dark read [Crap results basically.]
  4. Movies
    1. Taking of Pelham 123 – Reviewbag says: Sorry, I don’t have reviews for this query–Powered by
    2. Good Will Hunting Avg Rating: 4.1/5 , First and foremost, Good Will Hunting is a film riding young, exuberant energies , There’s nothing original in this picture, yet it’s intensely likable just the same , You’d never guess this just-off-center movie was directed by indie hero Gus Van Sant , With its sweet soul and sharp mind, it’s one of the most heartening films of the year , This beautifully realized tale is always engaging and often quite touching , Intimate, heartfelt and wickedly funny, it’s a movie whose impact lingers , Thanks to solid performances by Damon, Williams, and Driver, the story glides by on charm , Fairly bursts with the exuberance and youthful energy that must have attended its creation , It’s the individual moments, not the payoff, that make it so effective , Stuffed–indeed, overstuffed–with heart, soul, audacity, and blarney
  5. Acronyms
    1. TAANSTAFL – There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch [Impressed that it got this.]
    2. CORBA – Common Object Request Broker Architecture (Object Management Group); Concerned Off-Road Bicyclists Association

I could go on more about results from other categories, but I hope you get the gist of what the service does. Overall, I must say I was impressed with its abstracts on most information snippets that I asked it for. SMS Gyan is not coming up with the answers itself, but merely channeling information from other places online to you. In a situation where you are stuck with no GPRS/EDGE connectivity, or you have a phone which doesn’t have a (good?) web browser, SMS Gyan holds much promise in getting you in the information that you need. They’re also working on some new offshoots such as live event promotion SMS management etc. Yes, there are some glitches in the service – but these are early days yet and I’m sure their team will work on removing these over time.

The concept is extremely simple, yet the fact that a majority of phones in India are not smartphones might mean that SMS Gyan has a product which can actually take off and be successful. Give it a try online (WAP site) or check out the SMS query format.


The Taking of Pelham 123

The Taking of Pelham 123 (2009) movie posterMy rating of The Taking of Pelham 123: B (Good)
Cast: Denzel Washington, John Travolta, John Turturro, James Gandolfini
Directed by: Tony Scott
Studio: Columbia TriStar

The Taking of Pelham 123 has run out of steam in Indian theatres by now, not that it took of much really. But I knew I couldn’t miss this movie since it’s directed by one of my favourite directors Tony Scott (brother of another of my favourite movie directors, Ridley Scott), and stars Denzel Washington (on of my most favourite Hollywood actors) to boot. To jog your memory a bit, this Washington-Scott duo has delivered some smashing films (and some of my personal favourites) like Crimson Tide, Man on Fire, and Deja Vu – among others such as Domino and Enemy of the State. I couldn’t watch this movie earlier when it was released since I was not in Delhi.

Watch the theatrical release trailer for The Taking of Pelham 123

The Taking of Pelham 123 is a remake of an old 1974 movie by the same name, based on a novel by the same name about a hostage situation on a New York subway train. John Travolta plays the role of Ryder, leader of a group of ‘terrorists’ (for the lack of a better word) who take people on a New York subway train hostage. They demand a ransom of $10 million to release the hostages; if they don’t get the money on time they threaten to kill the hostages (and actually do kill some of them). Denzel Washington plays the role of Walter Garber, a disgraced transportation authority official who has been demoted to the position of train dispatcher for taking a few weeks previously, and on whom the responsibility of negotiating with the terrorists falls upon. Yes, there’s an official police negotiator in Lieutenant Camonetti (played by John Turturro), but Ryder refuses to speak to anybody other than Garber. There’s a catch in that fact that the ransom demand is just a small part of a bigger plan on Ryder’s part to make money by investing in put options before the hostage situation happens. The train involved in the situation is subway train named Pelham 123, thus the name.

The movie revolves around how the hostage crisis unfolds over the period of slightly longer than an hour. Heavy bass soundtrack is littered all across the movie. After proving that he’s a son of a bitch in the movie Bolt, John Travolta fulfills the role of a dick superbly, albeit by needing to use the word ‘motherfucker’ way too often and wearing a biker tattoo to prove his Convicted Criminal ™ credentials. Denzel pulls off his usual police officer / hostage negotiator / army guy routine with elan. John Turturro does everyone a big favour by not showing the crack of his ass and standing beneath the testicles of an evil space robot. So where could the movie possibly go wrong?

Pelham 123‘s problem is that the whole plot feels a bit to conveniently arranged for a Hollywood movie. Where else other than a Hollywood movie can certified thugs walking into a subway train with ‘motherfucking machine guns to blow the fucking heads off’ – without any noticing? Where else can a cop car have a car collision, flip over, and have ‘three motherfucking somersaults’ before hitting concrete? The movie is good, but not great. The lead actors all do a satisfactory job, but somehow, they don’t seem to be into the movie with their heart and soul.

Meanwhile, those sleazeball Sony executives ensure that every few minutes of the movie we have to endure shots of a Sony product. Including John Travolta browsing the Web via WiFi on a Sony Vaio laptop in a goddamn subway train. I believe the reason for all goons choosing Sony Vaio laptops must be because they’ve opened a special 1-800-WE-LOOK-THE-OTHER-WAY hotline for orders from gangsters. Then there are Sony cars, Sony guns, Sony cellphones, Sony microphones, Sony helicopters, etc.

This is a great movie by usual Hollywood standards, but I’ve seen terrific stuff from Washington-Scott earlier – and this movie just doesn’t live up to those standards. Still, if you have an opportunity to watch it, don’t miss it.

(Denzel Washington is one of most favourite actors because he only does serious, intense roles and does them really well. The only non-serious role he ever played, I think, was in The Preacher’s Wife and that was pretty much a flop. So far I haven’t come across a Denzel Washington movie which I felt disappointed about after watching it.)


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.

Tech Takes

‘New and improved’

I went to the optician today to get my eyes checked. Yes, I prefer an automated refractometer (or whatever that thingymajig is called) test done rather than stumble blindly around for one whole day because of those dilatory eyedrops given by ophthalmologists when testing. I got that done only once – when I first got spectacles – and then never again.

I’ve been using Essilor‘s Crizal lenses for quite some time now. Nah, I wasn’t swayed by images of people giving Colgate smiles after wearing those. What I did find interesting was that my optician said that the lenses are ‘scratch-free, dust-free’ and whole bunch of other ‘frees’ (except for the price-tag, which is nowhere near free). But hey, it works. I was happy with is since it really is what all they said.

New and improved is an oxymoronic term (if it’s ‘new’, it can’t have been ‘improved’; if its ‘improved’ then it can’t be ‘new’) often abused by the likes of Cadbury Bournvita marketing executives. So when today I need to choose new lenses (power increased by .5 dioptres), I was very curious when the optician told me that now they had the new and improved Crizal A2 lenses.

Now since Crizal lenses are already (supposedly) ‘scratch-free, dust-free’, what more am I to expect from my Crizal A2 lenses which I ordered? Probably a laser tracking system that shoots down dust particles mid-air. Or maybe the previous one was merely scratch-free, while this one can be used to cut upon bank vaults. Crizal’s India site gives a few clues.

"You can become Superman simply by buying our lenses!"
"You can become Superman simply by buying our lenses!"

If I don’t ge X-ray vision enhancement (I assume that’s what it means) with these new lenses instead of just vision correction, I’m taking them to court. :D

I’ll slip in something sideways here. I went to the British Council library yesterday to return some books. I was browsing through the shelves to find something new to issue, when I came across this:

iPod and iTunes for Dummies
iPod and iTunes...for *real* Dummies

Steve Jobs will probably have a heart attack if he comes across this book. If you need a fricking manual, scratch that, a fricking for Dummies book to operate an iPod / iTunes then it’s a probably a good indication that either technology is way too complex or that the preson reading the book is from Jajau. Lest you accuse me of Photoshopping the image, check out iPod & iTunes for Dummies at

Speaking of spectacle lenses, it isn’t as if I’ve not tried to switch to contact lenses. Bausch & Lomb allows you to try on their contacts, so I gave it a shot once. A sales assistant is assigned to help you put on the contacts for the first time. Try all I might I just can’t keep my eyes open when the contacts come close to my eye. The sales assistant tried many many times, but each time my eyes started blinking so rapidly that the contacts couldn’t even come close. Half an hour or so later, one sales assistant was trying to hold down my upper eyelid open, a second one was trying to keep my lower eyelid open, while yet another tried to put the contacts on – and failed miserably. I found out that day my eyelid muscles were stronger than hand muscles of grown men and women.

Seems like I won’t be wearing contacts without a whole entourage of people to hold open my eyelids.

PS – One of the artsy-fartsy types found out what a Mission Impossible 3 type start is called; the term I was referring to is ‘in media res‘.


Between these covers

'Between the Assassionations' by Aravind Adiga book coverMy rating of Between The Assassinations by Aravind Adiga: 5.7 / 10
Publisher: Picador India
Price: Rs 295

I’ve read both the novels that Aravind Adiga has published till now, but I thought I’ll first review his second novel since it was what he wrote first. In a George Lucasian universe, this is the ‘right’ way to count what came first. Between The Assassinations was published after Aravind Adiga won the Booker Prize. A longish excerpt of the book was published in a issue of Hindustan Times’ Brunch Sunday supplement (this was before the book was released), and that had me hooked. I went ahead and bought the book as soon as it was available in stores.

Between The Assassinations is collection of short stories on the lives of people based in a small town called Kittur in Karnataka, where Aravind Adiga hails from. The book is titled so because the timeline of the stories is between the period of Indira Gandhi’s assassination to Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination. In praise of the book, each and every short story is exquisitely described – you will feel as if you yourself are present there in each situation. (This trait of Aravind Adiga’s writing comes up in his later book The White Tiger too.)

There was a reason this book wasn’t published earlier and it is this – it is goddamn boring. All the short stories are just a description of lives of people in a small town city. Nothing sets it apart as being in Kittur; you can transplant the stories to any other place and they’d still be the same. Nor do you give a damn about the characters; they aspire for nothing and go out of memory after a few pages. This situation is similar to a short story in this very book where an aspiring writer’s stories are turned down because although they are well-written, yet the characters ‘want’ nothing. None of the stories are related to each other in any way. I kept hoping maybe he’d do that a la Crash / Babel, which would make the effort spent reading worthwhile, but no. Stories have no bearing to the two Gandhi assassinations either, except that the author said so. The incidents could be set in any other period without making a difference.

Between The Assassinations feels like a scientifically accurate paper describing the lifetime of snail – written in excruciating detail but utterly pointless. In isolation some of the stories are good but the novel doesn’t work as a cohesive unit; more importantly, it is marketed as a novel and not as a collection of short stories. Only a resident of Kittur would give a damn about it. Also, everything is written from a firang perspective. Dal becomes lentil stew; everything else is similarly translated. Ironic when you consider that Picador released this book only in India (at least, that was the situation when I bought the book).

What happened, I guess is, that Aravind Adiga using this novel as a ‘shooting practice’ before moving on the to ‘Olympic Games’ (his next novel) and chose the easiest topic which came to mind. Once he won a Booker, the greedy bastards publishing companies knew they could pawn this other book off as “…from the Booker-winning writer of The White Tiger“. Released it only in India since they knew nobody other than an Indian would rush out to buy and read this.

But for Aravind Adiga, this was good practice. For what he wrote next was truly praiseworthy…