Baking Pi’s 1: Set Up

In the past few weeks, I’ve been playing around with the amazing Raspberry Pi embedded computer platform. In the “Baking Pi’s” series of posts, I will describe how to setup and use a Raspberry Pi for different applications.

Raspberry Pi is a powerful and affordable credit-card sized computer. With some basic programming and networking skills and a lot of patience you can use it to setup customized physical computing projects. In this first post, I will describe how to setup a Raspberry Pi and in future posts, I will describe how to use it for fun and useful projects with it, including a networked Rafigh, a simple interactive sound box and other things. I will work with a variety of Pi’s including Raspberry Pi 1, Pi Zero and Raspberry Pi B+. The set ups are very similar and I will mention when there are differences. I will also use a Mac computer (although having access to a Linux machine will be useful).

Note: These posts are fairly technical, and if they are not your cup of tea, rest assured that I plan to get back to my travel and life posts as soon as I have fun adventures to report 🙂

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Raspberry Pi family: (bottom to top) Raspberry Pi 1, Raspberry Pi B+ and Raspberry Pi Zero

Setting up the Raspberry Pi Software

First, we need to setup the Raspberry Pi to work in headless mode, meaning that we can connect to it via a different computer and don’t need to connect it to a monitor, keyboard and mouse. There are many advantages to setting up your Pi in this mode: you won’t need extra peripherals and you can embed the Pi in physical computing projects. In the case of the networked Rafigh, this step is essential because you will need to be able to leave the Raspberry Pi next to growing mushrooms and debug and control it remotely.

Before I start with the software, a note on how to power the Pi. I’ve been using three ways of powering the Pi with varying degrees of success. Surprisingly, many of the problems that arise with using Raspberry Pi’s are related to the use of power supplies that are not adequate or consistent depending on what other peripherals (Wifi dongle, lights, speakers) you connect to the Pi. The usual way is to use a good quality 5V, 2A wall plug (like this one). The trick is that some wall plugs claim that they can provide up to 2A current but in reality they are inconsistent, so investing in a better quality adapter is worth it. The Pi does work with adapters that provide less than 2A current though and depending on your project needs, a portable battery might be enough. The other two ways, I have powered the Pi are 1) using a consumer grade Duracell portable power supply and a combination of a Lithium Ion Polymer Battery and a PowerBoost 500 Charger. To me this last combination is very promising for wireless projects, but I am still experimenting with it and not sure how stable it is.

Once you have decided on how to power the Pi, you need to prepare your SD card. You can usually get away with a 4GB MicroSD card but I recommend using an 8GB one, as you might be tempted to use more space in the future. Setting up the SD card can be pretty straight forward if you are comfortable with using the command line (terminal) in Mac. First, you need to download a Linux distribution. I recommend getting the latest version of Raspbian Jessie from here. Also, if you are comfortable with using Torrents, I recommend getting the image file from the Torrent because it is faster and also doesn’t fail in the middle of the download.

Once you have the zipped image file. You need to unzip it into an .image file. After this open up the terminal in Mac. If you have an SD card reader/writer on your Mac, plug your empty SD card in there. Alternatively, you can use an external SD card reader/writer. My on-board SD card reader/writer has become a bit faulty and sometimes doesn’t let me write to an SD card. A trick I’ve used is to set the lock switch on the SD card to the middle position and sometimes this allows the write to happen. This method doesn’t work well if you are trying to write to a MicroSD Card. So I usually prefer using an external card reader.

Next, we want to copy the image to the SD card. Note that this process will erase all data on the card, so be careful not to put the wrong card in the reader! In Mac, open a Terminal window and (with the SD card in the reader) type:

diskutil list

This will list all the devices on your mac and their partitions. You want to dismount the partitions on the SD card. Be careful about this step, you don’t want to mix up your disks! First, you should identify your disk. Usually, it is easy to do that by looking at the size of the disk. Another method is to use the diskutil list commend before you insert the SD card and note what disks are there and then insert the SD card and note which new disk was added. In any case, once you know that your SD card is, for example, disk3, then you should unmount all of its partitions (you can identify these by the letters number combinations that follow the disk name). For example, to unmount partition 1 (i.e., s1) on disk3 use the following command.

sudo diskutil unmount /dev/disk3s1

Once all the partitions are dismounted, you are ready to start the image copying process. You can use the following command:

sudo dd bs=1m if=~/Desktop/2015-11-21-raspbian-jessie.img of=/dev/disk3

Where “2015-11-21-raspbian-jessie.img” is the name of your image file that is stored on the desktop. If you have problems with the “bs=1m” parameter, use “bs=1M” or “bs=4M”. Also, note that the name of the destination drive refers to the whole drive, not to a single partition (e.g., “disk3” not “disk3s1”).

This operation will take a while. In Mac, you can use Ctrl+t to see the status of the write operation.

Update: Since writing this article, I came across a very handy free little program called ApplePi-Baker that I can highly recommend to prepare your SD card. A neat feature of this program is that it makes backing up and restoring copies of your program easy. Also, when I had trouble with formatting my SD cards in the past (including encountering the notorious “bad superblock” problem!), this program allowed me to correctly reformat the SD card and saved me from throwing it away thinking it was broken beyond repair!

Connecting to the Raspberry Pi

Once you have the SD card ready, you are on your way to a working Raspberry Pi! Now, we need to setup the Raspberry Pi to work in “headless” mode. Again, there are multiple ways to do this and I will briefly cover three options.

The first option is to plug-in your Pi directly into your router. If your router is setup to accept DHCP (i.e., assign IP addresses dynamically), then you should see the Pi on your local network within a couple of minutes. You can use the terminal command on Mac to find out the Pi’s ip address:

arp -a

A second method to connect to the Pi is via ethernet cable.  The good thing about this method is that once you set it up, you don’t need an internet connection to access the Pi. On the negative side, this method might significantly slow down your wifi connection while you are connected to the Pi. For this method to work, you have to setup your Mac first. First, you need to set ethernet to DHCP. Go to Network Settings and click on Ethernet. In the Configure IPv4 select the “DHCP” option.

Next, go to System Preferences and under Internet and Wireless, select Sharing. Here, enable Internet Sharing through Ethernet. Now, if you plug in the Pi via ethernet, you should see it after a while on the network using:

arp -a

Finally, the third way to connect to the Pi is via wifi. You can connect the Pi to the internet wirelessly via a compatible wifi dongle. This is an excellent (although sometimes faulty) option and with some tweaking should work well. In order to do this, you will have to edit the interfaces file on your Pi. In order to do that you will have to access the Pi file system either through one of the methods above or via a Linux machine. You can not use Mac without third-party software to manipulate files on the internal Pi file system. (You can access files on visible partition of the Pi in Mac using file sharing but that doesn’t give you access to the files we need for this step.) So assuming you can ssh into your pi, you will need to change the /etc/network/interfaces file:

sudo nano /etc/network/interfaces

You need to change the file contents to the following:

# Include files from /etc/network/interfaces.d:
source-directory /etc/network/interfaces.d

auto lo
iface lo inet loopback

iface eth0 inet dhcp

auto wlan0
allow-hotplug wlan0
iface wlan0 inet dhcp
wpa-ssid "your-network-name"
wpa-psk "your-network-password"

Once you have done this save the file, shutdown the Pi, plug  in the wifi dongle and power up. You should see the Pi on your network in a few minutes.

Note: In case you want to connect to a wifi hot spot that doesn’t have a password and requires you to use a login page to connect you can set a static ip address for your Pi and connect by putting the name of the network in the interfaces file. So your file would look something like:

# Include files from /etc/network/interfaces.d:
source-directory /etc/network/interfaces.d

auto lo
iface lo inet loopback

iface eth0 inet dhcp

auto wlan0
allow-hotplug wlan0
iface wlan0 inet static
address (your ip address here) 
netmask 255.224.0.0
network 10.224.0.0
broadcast 10.255.255.255
gateway 10.224.0.1
wireless-essid xfinitywifi

allow-hotplug wlan1
iface wlan1 inet manual
    wpa-conf /etc/wpa_supplicant/wpa_supplicant.conf

After this, Raspberry Pi will connect to the wifi network and you will need to use a browser to navigate to the login page and register your pi. If you want to setup your pi without a monitor and keyboard, a possible way (I wasn’t successful with!) is register the MAC address of your pi using anther device (e.g., your laptop) by spoofing its MAC address. See here  for more information on that method.

Once you know the ip address, you can ssh into the pi using

ssh pi@192.168.2.18

where you should replace “192.168.2.18” with your ip address. You will be prompted for a password which is “raspberry” by default.
Once you can SSH into the Raspberry Pi, the fun begins! A good first step when you are here is to do some basic maintenance in the Pi. The first thing, I usually do is to expand the file system and set the date and time. You can do both of these by accessing the configuration dialogue using:

sudo raspi-config

Next, you want to update the Pi using the following commands:

sudo apt-get update
sudo apt-get upgrade

When updating it’s good to keep an eye out on the disk size using:

df -h

To clean up after installing packages use

sudo apt-get clean

Finally, use the following commands to logout of ssh, reboot the Pi and to shutdown after you are done:

logout
sudo reboot
sudo shutdown -h now

It is important to shut down the Pi properly. Otherwise, the SD card might get damaged.

If you want to give your Pi a specific name (rather than an ip address) to use to log in to, you can use the Bonjour service described here. If you have multiple pi’s make sure you name them differently by following the instructions here.

If you would like to access the graphical interface of the Pi from your computer, you usually have to setup a VNC server. But if you are using a Mac, there’s an easy shortcut to access the graphical interface: using the X11 app! Here’s how to start it from the terminal:

ssh -x pi@<your PI's ip address>

Once logged in you can start an Xsession with:

/etc/11/Xsession

To end the session press Ctrl + x from the original terminal window.

Note: When connecting to the Pi, if you get an error with the message: “Warning: Remote Host Identification Has Changed” you can use the following command to clean your stored keys and get rid of the message:

ssh-keygen -R "you server hostname or ip"

 

 

 

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Chiapas

In November 2015, after attending the MXD 2015 Design Conference in Mexico City, I was invited to visit indigenous weavers in a Mayan village close to San Cristobal de Las Casas in the Southern Mexican state of Chiapas. The Mayan weaving tradition of Chiapas is world renowned and has continuously existed since per-Colombian times. I was delighted and honored to accompany my great friend, Karla Saenz, a Mexican artist and activist who has worked with the women in this community for several years. We were planning to conduct several collaborative workshop sessions where we would share knowledge: on the one hand, the ancient practice of Mayan textile weaving, and on the other, information about the recent tools and practices of wearable computing. I was thrilled to experience first-hand this extraordinary textile art tradition and to explore the idea of combining computational wearable technology with this traditional art form.

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San Cristobal de Las Casas

I arrived in San Cristobal de Las Casas a few days early and explored its beautiful market and plaza. San Cristobal is a colonial town set in the midst stunning mountain scenery and has been a center of trade for the diverse indigenous groups that live in the highlands that surround it. Upon arriving in Chiapas, I was immediately reminded of my previous trip to Guatemala and indeed, there are many ethnic and historical ties between this region of Mexico and its Central American neighbor. For years, the border between Guatemala and Mexico was practically open and people traveled freely between the countries. This state of affairs was challenged in the 1970’s when many refugees fleeing civil unrest and lack of employment started arriving in Mexico from Central American countries, especially El Salvador and Guatemala. In response, Mexico placed restrictions on future border crossings.

San Cristobal de Las Casas

San Cristobal de Las Casas

Chiapas has also been in the news recently (especially since the mid-1990’s) due to Zapatista uprisings that shook the nation and aimed to fundamentally question the role of the central government in this area. While the uprising was to some extent unsuccessful, to this day, there are autonomous villages that are primarily governed by farmer collectives. In addition to being a cultural center housing many indigenous cultures, Chiapas is also rich in natural resources and farming. It is currently the largest producer of coffee in Mexico (followed by Oaxaca and Veracruz).

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Coffee in Chiapas

All of these elements, the mountain scenery, the indigenous presence and the revolutionary vibes, add a romantic feeling to Chiapas making it, and in particular San Cristobal an traveler and activist hub. In its beautiful center and plaza, travelers and locals mingle, drinking organic coffee and sporting beards and dreadlocks. Of course, you only need to walk a little bit off the shiny center to again be face to face with poverty and exclusion that exists next to the magical mountain scenery.

I spent the first couple of days in Chiapas exploring the few museums in the city that showcase Mayan medicinal traditions and textile and reading a little about the history of the region. My trip coincided with the last day of the yearly celebration of the Day of the Dead. I decided to visit a Mayan village a few kilometers from the center called San Juan de Chamula. Chamula is one of the highest and coldest villages in the mountains and its residents wear thick traditional wool clothes. I visited the village’s beautiful cathedral that had mixed Catholic and indigenous elements including floors covered with straw and with several people lightning candles on the floor and quietly praying.

San Juan Chamula

San Juan Chamula

I then walked to a hill overlooking the village cemetery where people had brought food to the graves of their relatives in order to eat and drink with them. There was a mariachi band that walked around and was sometimes asked to play a song by the grave of a family member. Strangely, this scene reminded me of one of Rumi’s famous poems:

If you come to visit my grave,
My tomb will appear to dance.
Brother! Don’t come without a tambourine,
for the sad can’t join in God’s celebration.

[Translation source is here.]

I feel he would really appreciate the Day of the Dead in Mexico!

Once I had explored San Cristobal and Chamula, my friend arrived from Mexico City and we visited the family that she has been working with in their village, Zinacantan. This village is renounced for its beautiful and intricate weaving patterns. The people of the village are also known for being great gardeners and for growing some of the most beautiful flowers in the region. There is some speculation that their sensitivity towards details and patterns is related to their experience in observing and caring for flowers (for example, in Guide to the Textile of Maya by Walter Morris, Jr.).

In the village, I spent two days with the family in their large communal home. Several sisters, their husbands and children lived together and managed a weaving business where all the girls learn weaving and embroidery at an early age and create garments for themselves and to sell. It was very interesting to observe how the weaving tradition is transmitted by example and how several weavers work on the same garment. During this time and especially during the workshops, with our hosts permission we took some pictures in order to document our process. However, I will not share these here in order to respect our collaborators cultural preference of not having pictures of their private residence shared with others.

I spent the first day getting to know the family and their craft. The family spoke among themselves in the local Tzotzil language, and communicated with my friend in Spanish. During the second day, after spending the morning observing the family’s weaving practice and their method of instructing their children in weaving, I started teaching the children about electricity and digital design. At noon, we were invited to have lunch with the family, a great honor and a wonderful experience! We sat around several cooking stoves where each family heated tortillas and shared a hearty corn and herb soup. We drank a sweet and hot corn drink that was soothing in the chill of the mountains. It was interesting to see that despite having a conventional cooking oven the family still sat around an open‑fire stove that allowed for conversation and sharing.

After lunch, I showed the family some examples of wearable systems, including HugBug and showed them how lights can be embedded into fabric. This demonstration opened-up a conversation with one of the men who had learned basic electronics at school. In the villages, weaving is traditionally done only by women. While he was not interested in participating in weaving, he expressed interest int he technology. I believe these meetings planted seeds of creativity in both my mind and our hosts about the possibilities of combining wearable computers and traditional textiles.

Experiencing such a communal way of being where gender roles are clearly divided – with men working in fields and women focusing on textiles – reminded me of my own Persian culture. I felt there was much similarity between the people of Chiapas and people who live in rural Western Iran; not only were the natural and political environment similar, but also the communal, tribal way of life. I hope in the future, I can learn more about similarities and differences between people living in different places in the world and in the process also understand more about myself!

Visiting Frida Kahlo on the DĂ­a de Muertos

The "frog-shaped" per-colombian urn on the left contains Frida's ashes.

The “frog-shaped” per-Colombian urn on the left contains Frida’s ashes.

I looked at the ancient frog-shaped Mayan jar on Frida‘s dresser again; according to the excellent Museo Frida Kahlo’s audio guide this is the final resting place of the revolutionary artist who had asked for her ashes to be put in a jar in the shape of a “frog” after cremation. The “frog” was the nickname of her (in)famous and beloved husband, Diego Rivera! I felt it was perfect that I was visiting Frida’s home and thinking about her life and death on the Dia de Muertos or Day of the Dead weekend.

Frida's half-full colors in her workshop.

Frida’s colors in her workshop.

Frida Kahlo is hard to categorize. Even today, after more than 60 years since her death, she is as avant-garde and relevant as ever. While the artistic style and political stance of many of his contemporary popular artists, not least of which Diego Rivera, has gone out of fashion, her art and life are still fresh like the flowers that adorn the garden at her museum. Frida’s art was full of complementing contrasts: Her artistic vision was distinctly Mexican but also multicultural (she had both Jewish and indigenous roots) and informed by latest European styles (Marcel Duchamp described her as a “Surrealist” which she did not like); her painting technique was influenced by traditional folk Mexican-Christian Ex-voto and Retablos paintings, as well as, (at the time very recent) photographic methods. In her life, she was deeply in love with her consistently unfaithful husband, Diego, and also had numerous affairs with both men and women (including possibly the American painter Georgia O’Keiff). Throughout her life, she lived in physical and mental pain and yet she loved life and its pleasures. In short, she transcended boundaries both in art and life and has been an inspiration to artists, feminists, revolutionaries, people with disabilities and many others.

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Frida’s brushes

La Casa Azul is where Frida was born, her childhood home and where she lived with her husband for most of her life and, finally, where she died. Visiting here is like going to a temple of art and life. Every corner from the exotic and earthly garden to the traditional kitchen to the room where Frida worked emanate with a vital pregnant energy that seems to sing, “in life and art, the possibilities are endless!”

Frida's wheelchair and canvas

Frida’s wheelchair and canvas

A particularly touching spot in the house is Frida’s workshop, where a collection of her colors and brushes sit next to her wheelchair. Frida’s life was full of pain; she contracted polio when she was young. It damaged her spinal cord and affected her leg. Additionally, when she was a teenager she was in a horrendous car accident where an iron pole went through her pelvis. She also suffered from a broken spinal cord, broken ribs, collarbone and pelvis. These injuries led to lifelong pain and an inability to give birth. In addition to these physical pains, she was deeply hurt by Diego’s unfaithfulness, including his affair with her sister. Finally, she had a miscarriage (due to the injuries above) in the States that deeply scarred her spirit. Despite these, Frida’s life was also full of joy; from her childhood she had a wild imagination that became her best friend when she was bedridden; she had many comrades, friends and lovers; and she also knew how to enjoy good music, mezcal and dance; one of her last paintings feature juicy watermelons with the phrase “long live life!” carved into them.

"Long live life!"

“Long live life!”

Frida and Diego were deeply interested in Mexican history and art and their house is full of ancient sculptures and pottery. A few days prior to visiting there, I had visited the extraordinary Museo Nacional de Antropologia where a mind-blowing collection of artifacts from Mexico’s amazingly rich history and culture beckons. There, I came face to face with mysterious men, women and creatures of a distant magical past; a past that seems to have had lived on to some extent in the fiery blood of Frida.

Mayan Statue at the National Museum of Anthropology

Mayan Statue at the National Museum of Anthropology

Many prominent artists, politicians and revolutionaries passed through Frida and Diego’s house of joy and pain. Among them was an elderly Leon Trotsky (the Russian revolutionary dissident) who had a brief affair with Frida and who lived nearby in a house turned into office. Today, this is the Trotsky House Museum where you can visit his office where a Stalinist assassin killed him with a pickax.

Trotsky's Office where he was assassinated

Trotsky’s Office where he was assassinated

After visiting the Trotsky House Museum, I walked to the center of the Coyoacán neighborhood. This neighborhood, whose name means “place of the coyotes”, used to be (and still is) a bohemian corner of Mexico City where artists and revolutionaries lived. I soon realized that I had unknowingly walked into one of Mexico City’s important Day of the Day celebration spots. Many families had dressed up in costumes ranging from traditional skeletons to gory monsters and everything in between. It was really nice to see whole families dressed up with complex makeup and costumes walking down the street. There was music and much laughter and stalls set up that sold everything from hot chocolate and sugar skulls to the Pan de Muerto or Bread of the Dead, which of course I tried. After walking around for about an hour I walked back to the metro and back to my accommodation for a night of restful dreams full of happy dancing skeletons!

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Altar for the day of the dead

Top 5 Boulder Favs

A while ago I wrote a post about my top 5 favorite things in Toronto. In the last few weeks, I have spent time in another one of my favorite spots: Boulder, Colorado! In many ways, Boulder and Toronto complement each other: Boulder is small and surrounded by mountains, Toronto is large and very multicultural. Each place is unique and I feel it’s a privilege to experience them. So here goes, my top 5 favorite things about Boulder: (Warning: This is an opinionated piece and has no claim to objectivity!)

1. Hiking Heaven

Aspens changing color

Aspens changing color

If you like mountains, you will love Boulder! My experience of driving across the United States from Detroit to Boulder was: flat, flat, flat….MOUNTAINS! The area in which Boulder (and surrounding towns) is located is called the Front Range and this is where you reach the east side of the Rocky Mountains. A few years ago, I went on a mini-tour of the Canadian Rockies with my brother and sister-in-law and I loved it. It is nice to explore the southern parts of the mountain range.

Historically, this area of the United States was widely explored by mining efforts and so an amazing network of trails exists that provide for awesome hiking. I can only imagine the settlers who were arriving from the Eastern side of the country and had to traverse these majestic mountains to reach the West coast!

Flatirons

Flatirons

Nature in Boulder (and Colorado in general) is very accessible and even without a car you can go up the mountains and walk (or bike or snow shoe) for hours! Also, you can go exploring nature in a car with scenic drives or make elaborate intense plans to go up 14ers (one of Colorado’s many peaks that are higher than 14’000 feet or 42700 meters).

I’ve been lucky to go hiking with friends who have spent a lot of time here and know many good spots. Some highlights are (in order of approximate distance from Boulder):

  • Boulder Creek Path: Right in Boulder this beautiful and easy hiking path is actually used by a lot of people to get to work or school every day and it goes past a beautiful and tranquil creek. A must for short time visitors!
  • Mount Sanitas: Right out of downtown Boulder! You can walk up this nice trail and have a view of the whole city and surrounding areas.
  • Royal Arch: In the awesome Chautauqua Park, a beautiful hike with lots of good views and an unusual rock formation at the end.
  • Flatirons: Amazing beautiful rock formation that are popular with rock climbers but also are nice to hike to.
  • Caribou Peak: A historical hike close to the unusual little town of Nederland that passes by the Caribou ghost town and through mining trails.
  • Rocky Mountain National Park: Awesome hikes, mind blowing views, magical lakes and many animals! This park is about an hour out of Boulder and is definitely worth going to. It can get very busy, so it’s good to go early and on weekdays if you can. It has very nice accessible trails such as Bear Lake and Emerald Lake and also more challenging ones like Deer Mountain and the very high Long’s Peak.
  • Kenosha Pass: Mind-blowing aspen colors in the Fall. This is one of my all time favorite hikes! Part of the Colorado Trail but you can drive up to this part and have a short or long hike.

In addition to hiking, the mountains offer endless opportunities for other sports such as mountain biking, skiing, snow shoeing, … I haven’t tried any of these yet but I’ve heard they are world class! I plan to try skiing for the first time this winter.

2. Cultural and Spiritual Center

Shambhala Meditation Hall

Shambhala Meditation Hall

Boulder is a surprisingly rich cultural and spiritual center. In 1973, the Tibetan spiritual teacher Chogyam Trungpa set up his secular spiritual center, The Shambhala Meditation Center, here. Soon after he founded Naropa University, a private non-profit center where iconic artists, teachers and spiritual leaders taught courses, conducted research and create a vibrant and open-minded community. Teachers included Allan Ginsberg, Ram Dass and John Cage among many other prominent figures. Additionally, the university has a strong connection with Bhutanese teachers and institutions with an exchange program, lecture series and shared projects.

Today, both the Shambhala Center and Naropa University are active and exciting institutions in the city. When I arrived in Boulder, I took an excellent weekend meditation course at the Shambhala Center and met many interesting people. Additionally, I spent a lot of time in the Allen Ginsberg Library at Naropa University and browsed its excellent and eccentric collection of DVDs.

Boulder and Colorado also have a long relationship with the writers and poets of the Beat Generations especially Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassidy (who was born in Denver). While Jack Kerouac doesn’t mentioned Boulder in his writing, he spent a lot of time in Denver. There are several classic Beat spots in Denver to visit (check this guide if interested). Last year when I first visited Boulder, there was a strange and fun bookstore there called the beat book shop where radical books from the 60’s were for sale by a man who seemed to embody the beat generation’s infectious energy. Here’s a video of him describing his vision (and a really nice connection between Boulder and one of my favorite books, the Dharma Bums). Unfortunately, the book store is closed now and the owner has disappeared (to my knowledge). But you can still sit in the excellent Trident Booksellers and Cafe and watch the world go by while sipping a coffee and imagine having literary conversations with the visionary men and women of America. Or if you don’t want to only imagine you can attend an excellent open-mic poetry night at the Innisfree Poetry Bookstore and Cafe.

Jaipur Literature Festival

Jaipur Literature Festival

Finally, I want to mention the Boulder Public Library which has several locations but my favorite is the main center which has a beautiful inviting design and in which I have already spent a lot of time reading and writing! There’s a new cafe in this location where you can sit on top of a creek, sip coffee and read a book. Amazing! I’ve seen excellent classical music concerts here and attended a superb literary festival, the Jaipur Book Festival (I know, the name is confusing, but this one was in Boulder!) where I saw excellent talks by William Dalrymple, Simon Sebag Montefiore and Jung Chang. The video of the sessions are available online.

3. Vibrant Science and Technology Hub

One of the best things about Boulder and something that attracts a lot of visitors and residents, is its excellent learning and research institutions. CU Boulder is an excellent university with a lot of multidisciplinary research and teaching. The university hosts excellent events including the Conference on World Affairs.  I’ve been to several excellent talks and events there and look forward to more in the future.

CU Boulder in the distance, the side road leads to NCAR

CU Boulder in the distance (left), the side road leads to NCAR

Additionally, the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) is a world class research institute, housed in an interesting building complex on the edge of town and close to many trails. Other scientific centers in Boulder include the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).  Combined with CU Boulder’s excellent Aerospace Engineering Sciences and Physics programs, these centers attract a significant number of future (and former) astronauts and physic researchers to the city.

In addition to these institutes, Boulder is also home to a lot of startups and tech companies, ranging from the Maker hero SparkFun to bigger companies such as Google and IBM. An interesting event (that I didn’t go to but saw the poster) that weirdly combines Boulder’s spiritual and technological interests is Buddhist Geeks. I don’t think these guys are actually from Boulder but they have conferences and events there.

4. Old West Towns and Ghost Towns

Historical Park, Golden

Historical Park, Golden

When I was growing up, I was obsessed with Charlie Chaplin and I watched one of his movies, the Gold Rush, many many many times! In this movie, Charlie Chaplin goes to the mountains in search of gold and, of course, ends up in a lot of crazy adventures. Visiting the small Old West towns around Boulder reminded me of that timeless movie and also of the seriously harsh lives that many pioneers in this area signed up for.

These small towns have a lot of attitude and style and I highly recommend visiting at least a few of them if you are in Boulder or Denver. I’ve been to a few notable ones that I list below:

Train Cars Coffee and Yogurt Company

Train Cars Coffee and Yogurt Company

  • Nederland: Yes, the name is a bit confusing but this small town which is super-close to Boulder is a really fun and interesting place. It has a couple of awesome cafes, including Salto Coffee Works and Train Cars Coffee (set in three historical train cars, one of which was used by Buffalo Bill!!), some good restaurants, a mining museum and a LOT of nature around it (both hiking and ski hills). Also, it is the site of several festivals including the strange Frozen Dead Guy Days. Also, nearby is the site of the ghost town of Caribou.
  • Golden: A beautiful town set in the middle of stunning views of mesas and mountains, Golden is home to the Colorado School of Mines and
    also has a historic park and a peaceful creek you can walk beside.
  • Fairplay and South Park: South Park actually exists! It is not as funny as the town portrayed in the popular TV show but the creators of the TV show Trey Parker and Matt Stone actually met in CU Boulder. Fairplay, also called “The Real South Park!”,  is a very small and a very unusual town where the free spirited residents have expressive ways of arranging their gardens and residences. It is set against a backdrop of mountains meeting the planes.
  • Breckenridge and Frisco: These two towns are the more touristy of the bunch. They are still very beautiful with dramatic settings and      super popular in the winter time for skiing, snowshoeing and other winter sports.

5. An Experimental Liberal Attitude 

A Western art painting form the Leanin' Art Museum

A Western art painting form the Leanin’ Art Museum

There are a lot of things to “experience” in Boulder (and Colorado): quality craft beer, elaborate spiced teas (such as the excellent Bhakti Chai), weird events such as the Frozen Dead Guy Days, mind-blowing music venues such as the Red Rocks Park and Amphitheater and, over all, a laid back and open minded attitude to life.

As time goes by, I feel there are more and more interesting things in Boulder that are hard to categorize and I look forward to explore more in the future!

A “Big Sur” State of Mind

During the last week of July, I got to visit Los Angeles for the HCII conference. I had a few extra days prior to the conference and decided to make a trip up the coast along Big Sur to Monterrey and Salinas. My father decided to join me for the trip which was fantastic!

Griffith Park

Griffith Park

Our trip started on a Thursday morning in Griffith Park with panoramic views of LA. The first time I came to LA was more than 12 years ago and I vividly remember the pictures I took with James Dean’s statue on this hill overlooking the legendary Hollywood.

This moment made me reflect on how much my relationship with North America has changed over these years and what a complex relationship it is! I saw myself as an adventurous ant who landed onto a large comfortable immigrant bubble in Toronto, before stepping onto an unstable but exciting leaf and surfing the warm, sometimes threatening but always exciting ocean of multicultural North America and beyond and encountering many other strange and wonderful sea creatures!

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After a little picnic on the hill, we drove through the land of dangerous dreams: Hollywood, Sunset Boulevard and Beverly Hills to The Getty Center. For me these parts of LA epitomizes the American Dream with a hallucinatory combination of dreamers, visionaries and madmen who came here searching for fame and fortune, a small number making it and many others falling through the cracks onto the cruel pavements of skid row.

Getty Center

Getty Center

The Getty Center is a marvelous museum (amazing architecture, intriguing but not mind blowing art collection). J. Paul Getty (and many other California tycoons, like Hearst) were obsessed with ancient Mediterranean cultures (Greek, Roman, etc.). This passion for everything Greek and Roman (including a Californian interpretation of the lifestyle) is apparent to this day in many places (including in the fake arches and statues of some  downtown mid-range hotels!).

Getty Villa

Getty Villa

After visiting the museum and a stroll down Santa Monica beach, we headed to San Luis Obispo, a university town a few hours north. An interesting sight in this small town is the Bubblegum Alley, a small street with thousands of bubble gums stuck to its walls!

Bubblegum Alley

Bubblegum Alley

In preparation for this trip, I had re-watched Citizen Kane which made visiting The Hearst Castle even more fascinating.  William Randolph Hearst was a media tycoon and millionaire who was also an avid antique collector. This castle is the second largest home in the US and is located on a very large ranch (80’000 acres +). It is now a state park (although the Hearst cow herds still can graze the grounds). We took a short tour through the castle that was quite interesting: priceless ancient (sometime more than 3000 years old!!!) pieces were worked into the building (including complete roofs from the Middle Ages and statues from ancient Egypt).

Hearst Castle

Hearst Castle

The guide described that it was a great privilege for people to be invited to the house and on many occasions Hearst had packed his guests bags if he wasn’t approving of their demeanor. At the end of the tour we saw an interesting docudrama on his life and the guests he had at the house (including a clownish Charlie Chaplin and a reflective Winston Churchill). The visit was quite interesting, and, for me uninspiring! I did not feel admiration for this man or his “achievements”. Similar to Orson Wells, I felt the castle was a grandiose sign of an inferiority complex, a need to prove to the world that the owner was cultured and is worthy of admiration. I felt much more at home beside the sea elephants that were sunbathing in a cuddle puddle by the beach, a few miles from the palace!

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Leaving the sea elephants, we started driving along Highway 1, in the legendary Big Sur area. The views of cliffs meeting the ocean are simply breathtaking and have been a source of inspiration to many writers including Jack Kerouac and Henry Miller. The area is full of scenic spots and we stopped frequently to look at mind-blowing views that were visible at every turn. On one of the stops, we saw a whale puffing in the distance and in another, the beautiful Pffiffer Beach, we looked at the sun turn the sky red beside roaring majestic wave. The sound reminded me of the episode in Jack Kerouac‘s novel, Big Sur, where he is staying in a cabin in this area: listening to the ocean and sometimes screaming back, and writing poetry composed of only ocean sounds.

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Driving up and down this route with my dad, also reminded me of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, where the protagonist rides down the coast with his son on a motorcycle. I immensely enjoy traveling with my dad and have been to several interesting places such as India and Mexico together.

Henry Miller Memorial LIbrary

Henry Miller Memorial Library

We stopped at the Henry Miller Memorial Library, where a collection of his art and books are on display. Although, I’m not a big fan of Miller, I think once in a while there are moments of genius in his sexist and depressing work. Mehdi found a literary magazine called Ping Pong which according to him was mostly full of pictures of people’s behinds! We shared some good laughs on this trip!

John Steinbeck National Center

John Steinbeck National Center

We ended our trip up the coast at Salinas, a working class town that was the birthplace of John Steinbeck. In preparation for this trip, I had read Cannery Row and re-read Of Mice and Men. With Mehdi, we had a lot of discussion around his role in transforming literature (especially for championing the “everyman”) and capturing the voice of people (especially national and international immigrants in the US). Salinas is still a working class, agricultural town with farms surrounding it. On the way to the excellent John Steinbeck Cultural Center, we stopped by a farmers market and picked up a lot of fresh plums and peaches.

The cultural center was excellent and was curated around Steinbeck’s major novels that ranged from the serious Grapes of Wrath to the fun Cannery Row and Tortilla Flats. During the trip, Mehdi picked up a second-hand copy of Steinbeck’s last novel, The Winter of our Discontent, which he avidly read during the rest of the trip.

Pacific Biological Labatories

Pacific Biological Laboratories

After the center, we visited the actual Cannery Row in Monterrey which is a very popular tourist area on the water with many restaurants and souvenir shops. The only fun part left is the original site of the Pacific Biological Laboratories where Steinbeck’s buddy Ed Ricketts used work collecting samples of marine life for museums around the country. There are also some fish cannery worker shacks that are reminders of how hard it was to live there in the past.

That evening an incident reminded us that Salinas still has its rough social dilemmas and things have not changed that much since Steinbeck. We were having a hard time finding a place to stay the night (it was a Summer Saturday with lots of families coming to the coast to enjoy the beaches). I eventually found a motel online. When we arrived there, groups of men were hanging out in the front and back of the property. We took our luggage in the room which was worn-down but not too bad. Later on, when I went to get more things from the car (which we had parked in the back of the motel), I saw rows of cars cruising in the back of the motel where women were standing in the door of rooms. I realized half of the motel was a brothel and the other half was rented to unsuspecting (or suspecting!) travelers! The back of the motel was full of big pick up trucks with men sitting in them! I moved our car to the front of the motel, which was quiet and literally a “front” for the motel’s real operations. As I walked back to room, I saw another group of bewildered travelers in the room next to us. As it turned out, our room was quiet and we had a good night sleep (with all the locks on the door fastened, of course!), before heading out early next morning.

Solvang

Solvang

On the way back to LA, we stopped at two very different but interesting towns: Solvang is a small cute town that is built like a Danish village (complete with windmills and Danish pastry shops). It is interesting to walk its tourist-filled streets and then go to a grocery store to pick up great Mexican food! After Solvang, we briefly stopped at Santa Barbara which is a gorgeous town and a hangout of the rich and famous and has cinematic beaches and Spanish-style buildings (especially the courthouse).

Cinemas turned into shops, LA

Cinemas turned into shops, LA

Once we returned back to LA, I became busy with the conference and spent some time walking around LA’s old downtown area, a place filled with characters who have fallen through the cracks of society. Some of the original grandeur of the streets are still present but the site of many cinemas turned into cheap jewellery shops and old hotels turned into vacant properties are signs of a glorious bygone era.

One of my (and my dad’s) favorite places was the LA Central Library which is a really nice breezy building with comfortable desks and a good collection of books. Charles Bukowski, one of my favorite dark birds of the soul got inspired to write in this building, where he would devour books by Dostoyevsky and Celine. He started to write and send his work to publishers who kept rejecting him. He took on a menial post office worker job and toiled for years, drinking his days away and living in poverty but still writing. Eventually, he started to get published and became one of the most famous poets of America.

The last great cultural experience we had was when we stumbled upon the Museum of Contemporary art which has a great video installation by LA native, Kahlil Joseph. I did not know of this artist but his compassionate insider view into the impoverished and crime-ridden black neighborhoods of LA is eye-opening. I recommend two of his online music videos: “Alright” by Kendrick Lamar and “Until the Quiet Comes” by Flying Lotus.

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As we left California and its dreamy sunsets, in LAX, my phone slid out of my pocket onto a bus. I tried to find it to no avail. A few days later, someone from Texas called my dad and told him he had the phone and kindly send it to us via UPS. It was a great moment of kindness and I was grateful to him, reminding me that there are a lot of kind people in this world (especially as something very similar had happened to me before with the same phone!).

Museumania!

National Gallery of Art

National Gallery of Art

“Careful what you ask for”, the famous saying goes, “you just might get it!” This time I was careful to ask for a good thing: more museums and galleries, and that’s what I got when visiting Washington DC for a few days!

Washington is full of museums, monuments and galleries. I was there for a conference with a few extra days to stroll and explore around. I had a plan: get up in the morning, have breakfast, pack a light lunch, get on the metro and get off at the heart of it all: the National Mall, a great American public space, which in addition to housing many museums and monuments, is also a beautiful park and reflecting pool and is next to both the Capitol and the White House. This public space is both inviting and intimidating: on the one hand, it seems casual with ordinary folks running to get fit and picnicking and school children walking in colour-coordinated school groups from museum to museum; and on the other hand, you are being surrounded by neo-classical buildings with Roman style facades and some of the most important symbols of power of modern times: the Pentagon, the White House and the US Capitol!

But I was focused on the museums and galleries and so, without further ado, here’s my list of DC’s attractions with personal likes and dislikes:

The only Leonardo work in North America at the National Gallery

The only Leonardo work in North America at the National Gallery

  • National Gallery of Art: A fantastic start, this gallery is a wonderful collection of mostly European art including North America’s only Leonardo da Vinci. The East Building was being renovated when I visited but the underground hallway from the West to the East building was wonderful to walk through.

    American scene at the National Gallery

    American scene at the National Gallery

  • National Museum of the American Indian: Housed in a wonderful building, this museum tries to represent the diversity of native people (including the First Nations of Canada). At the time I visited, a fascinating, informative and heart-wrenching (temporary) exhibit on treaties between the US and native tribes was on. But some of the main exhibits were disorienting and over-stimulating. There’s a nice and slightly overpriced cafeteria where you can try native food from different regions of North and South America.

    Shirin Neshat's exhibit at

    Shirin Neshat’s exhibit at Hirschhorn Museum

  • Hirschhorn Museum: Small museum of contemporary art in a circular building. I was pleasantly surprised to find a whole floor dedicated to a retrospective show of New York-based Shirin Neshat’s work there.

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    European style dress with African patterns, Hirschhorn Museum

  • National Museum of African Art: Small and vibrant museum featuring high-quality art pieces from both contemporary and non-contemporary subsaharan African artists. At the time of my visit, the floor were divided into three themes: Heaven, Purgatory and Hell. Music and sound was used effectively!
  • Sackler Gallery: Small museum of Asian art, I saw an interesting exhibit of drinking cups from ancient Iran here, totally unexpected!American
  • Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery: These twin museums are usually open past 5:30 (until 7), so I headed to them after all the above museums. Here, there is a nice collection of self-taught art and American popular art commissioned in the 1930’s by Roosevelt’s New Deal movement when a lot of artists were commissioned to make art celebrating the American way of life. There is also a great gallery of American modern art. The Portrait Gallery is also interesting, with galleries dedicated to the Civil Rights Movement, and American presidents among others.

    Reports' car with bullet holes from Newseum

    Bullet-riddled reports van from Newseum

  • Newsuem:  This fascinating museum is the only one I visited that had an entrance fee but it was worth it! With focus on news, journalism and history, this is a fascinating place. Walking through the galleries makes one think of the power of images, words and sounds, the importance and price of freedom of speech and the impact of symbolic acts and objects. Among the many amazing exhibits, there are  exhibits dedicated to the Berlin Wall, 9/11, Pulitzer Prize winner photographs and journalists’ memorial. There are probably hundreds of hours of video footage available on events and photographs that can be viewed at interactive stations, including a lot of background stories, so it is easy to get lost in this museum and you have to be selective! A strange thing about it is that like TV news, there is a mix of serious and non-serious material. For example, next to the sombre hall of fallen journalists, there is an exhibit of American presidents’ dogs! This contrast was obnoxious in the beginning but I started to appreciate it later when I felt a break was needed between some of the more intense material. Also, the many school children groups had choices that were not jarring!
  • National Museum of American History: I found this museum more geared towards children and youth who were visiting in large school groups when I was there. It was loud, busy and the things on display were all over the place with much text describing them; in short, not really my scene! My favourite exhibit here was the original flag that inspired the US’s national anthem, the Star Spangled Banner.
  • National Archive: The final place I visited, where there was a mildly interesting exhibit on alcohol prohibition in the 1930’s US.

In addition to the above museums, I visited two cool sculpture gardens, the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden and the Hirschhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.

Sculpture Park

Sculpture Park

Finally, I visited several monuments including the Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial, National WWII Memorial and Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Our visit coincided with Memorial Day, a national holiday to commemorate Americans who have died in battle. This added a certain feeling of being in the centre of US at this day with many people visiting for parades over the long weekend and veterans at the memorial. Of the memorials, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was most touching: A V-shaped black wall with the names of the thousands of American soldiers who died in Vietnam, representing the psychic scar from the war on the nation. It was designed by the (then) 21-year-old Maya Lin in 1980.

I had mixed feelings when visiting these monuments; mixed feelings that were reenforced when visiting the museums and seeing the many perspectives represented (or not) in them. Even within the United States, the world seems a very different place depending on your social, racial, sexual and political stance … but that’s a topic for another time!

Vietnam Veterans Memorial

Vietnam Veterans Memorial

Top 5 Understated Toronto Favs

In the last few years, I’ve been extremely lucky to travel much to visit and work in many of the most interesting places in the world including Spain, Bhutan, Mexico and Kenya. Today, I want to list a few things about a very special place that I have written little about here before: Toronto. I emigrated with my family to this cold but friendly city more than 15 years ago. Ever since moving to this adopted home, I’ve always felt good coming back from travels and trips both short and long. So in the manner of lists about everything that are popping all over the place and for no particular reason, here are my Top 5 Understated Toronto Favs: (Warning! This is an opinionated piece and has no claim to objectivity!)

1. Tea Heaven

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Yes, I know this is a surprise but I believe tea is king in Toronto! China and India might be the places most associated with ancient tea drinking traditions, Kenya and Sri Lanka might be some of the largest producers of tea, Japan and England might have woven the most etiquette and ritual around tea, and, my native Iranians might have chosen it as their national drink, but it is Toronto, my friends, that in my mind owns the title of Tea Heaven. Wondering why? I challenge you to find more variety of teas anywhere in the world! While different places focus on a few special types of tea (for example, the super sweet and milky Chai of India and the small and strong red tea of Turkey), it is extremely hard to find all of these in one city in the world. In Toronto, you can find authentic Persian tea, Indian tea, Chinese tea and even a Japanese tea ceremony master! In addition to these, there are many many independent teahouses with different atmospheres all over town. My buddy Hamed’s Samadhi Teahouse in Kensington is a hub for art and spirituality events, while other places, such as Bambot, focus on board games. Because of Toronto’s cultural diversity ,many of the big franchises – Starbucks, Second Cup and the tea-dedicated David’s Tea – have a lot of teas on offer, something that is hard to find abroad.

In my recent travels, especially in Western Europe, I loved the coffee (and sorry to say, I’m not at all impressed by Toronto’s coffee scene, except maybe the Jet Fuel in Cabbagetown Parliament), but missed the tea. And now, a big reveal: in the cold winter days, when the sun shines through the frozen sky, I long for a big cup of Tim Horton’s green or Earl Grey tea! I know, this comment kicks my reputation as a tea enthusiast and I do agree the coffee at Timmy’s kind of sucks but the teas are surprisingly good (and are of the people with affordable, no frills prices)!

2. Public Library Champ

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For a few years after I moved to Toronto, I was completely obsessed with the public libraries: their open spaces, seemingly unending cultural resources (especially the movie and music sections), and great services, made me swoon with joy every time I walked through their colourful bookshelves. Over the years, this passion has turned into a kind of mature and settled love, where I still long for them but am not desperate to spend as much time as possible with them. Yes, my love of public libraries is old but the memories are still fresh: the first time I searched the Internet, the first time I opened a New York Times Review of Books Magazine, the first time I checked out 20 world music CDs: they all happened here!

In addition to being culture meccas and democratic spaces where the patrons don’t have to buy over-priced coffee, be hipsters looking for degrees, or even shower, to enjoy the free Internet, space and heat, libraries in Toronto offer great services such as free museum passes (in the last year, I’ve visited 5 good Toronto museums with these gifts) and great public and often free speeches: I’ve seen Wade Davis talk about his Into the Silence book and Thomas King share short funny-sad stories from his An Inconvenient Indian there. In short, if you live in Toronto, the public libraries are some of the hippest, awesomest, coolest places to be! And some of them are even in historical buildings and have great collections to check out (for example, the Osborne’s Collection of Early Childhood books). Check them out!

3. Movie Mecca

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Toronto is a movie mecca: it hosts two important international festivals (The Toronto International Film Festival and The Hot Docs Documentary Film Festival), more and more films are being filmed here, and there are important movie interest hubs all over town. In the last few years, I have seen Werner Herzog and Slavoj Zizek give talks on their films here. The Zizek talk was fantastic, you can watch it here. Among the institutions peppered around town are Queen Video (legendary video rental store), Suspect Video (strange horror and erotic sections) and Bloor Cinema (docs and late night replays). Sorry to say the National Film Board of Canada Mediatheque closed down recently. To end this on a fun note, Toronto also has its own very weird underground cinema, Cineforum, with some of the most fringe selections I’ve seen!

4. Food Funhouse

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Fusion is, or can be, confusion! But in Toronto, mostly its awesome. Again, another thing that struck me when I arrived here with my extremely unexperienced palate was to see the diversity of the culinary arts available to explore here. 3 Chinatowns, 2 Little Indias (that I know of) and a very large number of Japanese, Greek, Persian, Thai, Mexican, American, French and … restaurants to choose from. You can be authentic and go to the suburbs to try ethnic food without hearing much English or knowing exactly what you are eating (check out this blog for hints) or be cosmopolitan and try unusual fusions such as Thai and Hungarian or Korean and Mexican!

5. Multicultural Kaleidoscope   

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There is a lot of cultural diversity in Toronto and even if you don’t find the best of something, then at least you have leads to where you can find the best! This is best reflected in the music and art scene, as well as, the diverse neighbourhoods. A great place to start is to check out the international festivals from Harbourfront Centre’s summer festivals – they have featured Orchestra Baobab and Balkan Beat Box in explosive free concerts before- to Toronto Fringe Theatre Festival and events such as the Luminato Festival and International Festival of Authors. Small World Music is an independent world music promoter with nice events in the GTA and NXNE brings alternative rock bands to stages large and small around town.

For more underground tastes, there are also a lot of places that are more niche and off the beaten track, two places with very different approaches are Beit Zatoun (an activist hub) and Good for Her (for gender and sex activists). If you have any interest in classical music, there is a ton of free and very affordable events happening in Toronto. A great place to find them is here. One of my favourite venues especially for chamber music and piano recitals is Music Toronto events. Finally, if you are into performance and digital media art, there is much possibility here. The annual Nuit Blanche is a place to start (although I have to say, I’m not a huge fan because of many reasons) but there are also regular programs of cutting edge artists from Marina Abramovic to Ai Weiwei to Robert Lepage.