Canadian-Iranian blogger facing execution

Hossein Derakhshan, file photo from the Wikimedia Commons

If you haven’t heard of Hossein Derakhshan, the first thing I should tell you is that we need to save his life.

Derakhshan, also known as “Hoder” and the “blogfather” is a Toronto-based blogger known for facilitating Persian anti-government dissent in the blogosphere and later changing his political slant and alienating some of his readers.

He has an intricate backstory,  one that is well summarized by an alumna of my J-school program, Kate Allen. You can read her synopsis (with embedded video at the end here).

Yes, he’s a controversial figure, but regardless of what he’s written, it is absolutely unacceptable that he is facing execution.

Carmen Chai, who I met in the Toronto Star radio room this summer, has listed several ways in which Canadians can help.

Read up, and please speak out.


Eco expert Candis Callison from MIT to lecture at Green College

Candis Callison. Picture from the UBC School of Journalism.

My thesis supervisor is really smart. No, like, really smart.
Not to mention down-to-earth, incisive and articulate.

Her name is Candis Callison and on Oct. 7th she’s going to make Green College a little more green-minded with her  lecture: “Spinning climate change, vernaculars and emergent forms of life.”

About the lecture

When: Thursday, October 7, 2010 5-6:30 pm
Where: Green College Coach House

Abstract: It has often been asserted as a democratic and scientific ideal that the discovery of objective facts and the dissemination of such information will drive action. But the line between what Bruno Latour calls matters of fact and matters of concern is anything but straightforward, and more often than not includes traversing not only the vagaries of media channels for mass communication, but also a diversity of meaning-making, ethics, and morality.

This talk will present research on such processes, providing insight into how Americans in various social and professional groups are translating, transforming, and re-articulating climate change for diverse constituents and wider publics.

About the speaker

Candis is graduate of the Comparative Media Studies Program at the MIT, where she earned her Master of Science. She’s currently working on her Ph.D. in MIT’s Science, Technology, and Society program.

As a journalist, she has worked for a variety of media outlets, including the CBC, CTV, and the APTN (Aboriginal Peoples Television Network).

In addition to her Ph.D. work, Candis lectures at the UBC School of Journalism and is raising two young daughters with her partner in Vancouver.

An invitation!

If you’re in the Vancouver area, and you’re curious about Green College–an interdisciplinary  graduate residence and frequent lecture venue–there’s no better time to visit than for Candis’ upcoming talk. Come for the love of learning and stay for the deliciousness of dinner. UBC students ($15) and members of the general public ($18) can purchase a three-course dinner ticket in advance or pay an extra toonie to simply walk in and join us on the day of the event.

We hope to see you soon!

The Green College dining hall in Graham House

Measuring my life in tomatoes

"My tomato timer" by Flickr user Melly ♥ Kay

Let’s see if I can get this blog post done in the span of one tomato.

(It’ll make sense soon . . . stay with me on this one.)

Quick background: I’m part of a small cohort of people at Green College who pledged to keep track of their daily activities in order to answer a simple question: “Where does the time go?”

About 20 of us signed up — probably to boost our productivity — while other residents dismissed it as a masochistic little experiment.

We started last week . . . and by the end I had to admit to my brethren that I had epically failed. But it wasn’t because I wasn’t keeping track of my time. Actually, I failed because I’d kept a ridiculously detailed log, and it slowly degenerated into excuse-making on my own behalf. (I’ll be honest: it got weird.)

By the end, it was impossible to sort the minutiae into the standardized hour-long blocks, as the group had set out to do. So, on Sunday, I started using a different system.

A friend suggested I try the pomodoro technique (“pomodoro” is the Italian name for tomato), which I’m finding really effective for keeping track of work that is untainted by what the Green College experiment calls “low work.” (That is, pretending you’re working while checking Facebook or going down a YouTube wormhole.)

The Pomodoro technique was named after the inventor’s kitchen timer, which was in the shape of a tomato. The official website explains the time management strategy in five simple steps:

  1. Choose a task to be accomplished
  2. Set the Pomodoro (tomato timer) to 25 minutes
  3. Work on the task until the Pomodoro rings, then write down what you accomplished
  4. Take a short break (5 minutes is the standard)
  5. Every 4 Pomodoros take a longer break (30 minutes is the standard)

That’s it.

I know, it sounds so unimpressive that you may wonder why I’m bothering to blog about it. Here’s the thing: it works.

Example: I usually slack off something serious on Sundays…but I got addicted to collecting these tomatoes and ended up being reasonably productive (remember, I’m only counting periods of totally focused work):

sunday 19 Sep. 8 finished tomatoes

  • 23:06 – 23:31 Read class notes and 14 more pages of Schudson
  • 18:00 – 18:25 Read 20 more pages of Schudson
  • 17:12 – 17:37 Read 18 pages of Schudson
  • 16:13 – 16:44 Read 10 more pages of Dewey
  • 14:20 – 14:45 Read 12 pages of Dewey
  • 13:47 – 14:12 Watched Al Jazeera Listening Post on Wikileaks and took notes
  • 13:13 – 13:38 Finished the Quebec reading.
  • 12:39 – 13:04 Finished the multiculturalism reading.

This list made itself when I used this free online timer designed in Pomodoro style. (I should mention that you can pay for the official timer and booklet and what-not, but you can also find ways to be a broke student and still take advantage of this simple work rhythm.)

Apparently there’s also an app for this.

Obviously, people at the college were skeptical at first . . . but many have since come up to me and told me that there’s really something about 25 minutes that just, well, works.

Anyway, there’s no harm in getting a taste for it.  Personally, I’m kind of addicted to this friendly little vegetable, not to mention the joy of accomplishing something in under 30 minutes.

Speaking of which, I’ve finished this post AND my timer says…


Deviled Eggs

I remembered the following incident after listening to a podcast called Devil on my Shoulder. The episode was about people who say they found themselves “inexplicably doing something random and bad, something which made no sense to them at all.”

Picture by dfinnecy on Flickr

I knelt beside my best friend, running my fingers over the smooth contours of the object in my hand.

We were cloaked in the shadows of night, peering down from the 6th floor balcony of my downtown apartment.

Inside, the flicker of the television signaled that my parents were sufficiently distracted. They probably thought that we, like other 12-year-old girls, were out giggling about crushes or telling scary stories. They had no reason to suspect that their bookish daughter and her polite classmate were plotting an attack.

“What about him?” whispered Lily,* pointing to a balding man in a golf shirt.
“Nah,” I responded. “He’s walking pretty quickly.”

I don’t remember how or why we started doing it, but Lily and I had developed a mischievous game. We played it every few days, growing bolder each time. It had started with one egg, tossed very far away from a pedestrian walking below. He jumped and let out a little scream. As he looked up into the sky with a sort of bewildered awe, we muffled our laughter.

That was our simple goal: scare the heck out of people and laugh. We never planned to actually hit anyone.

But the night of “the incident,” Lily and I had each stolen two eggs from our parents — just enough to entertain ourselves for a couple of hours without stirring suspicions in the adults. We had already tossed one several feet ahead of a grumpy tenant from the building, who jumped back and paused briefly before screaming out the most typical reaction:


We loved watching the disorientation of the close call — people shaking their fists, scratching their heads or bolting into the night. It was fun to predict how different people might react, and to marvel at those that kept walking, unfazed. We didn’t even consider little old ladies, but teenage boys and drunks were favourite targets.

That night, a car pulled up in front of the building and a man in a suit stepped out. He leaned against the passenger door, as music spilled through his open windows. He watched the entrance of the building intently.

I vaguely remember shaking my head at Lily, as if to say the nice suit and glossy car were untouchable. It was interesting enough to wonder who he was waiting for, and where they might be going.

A woman soon emerged from inside. She was gorgeous, smiling as she showed off a flowing white halter dress. Against the night air, she looked like she’d been draped in the milky way itself. Her hips swayed melodiously, and the man coyly stroked his chin as she approached.

We couldn’t hear what they were saying, but even preteens could read such body language.

As if preparing to watch a movie, I sat down and leaned my cheek against my palm. It was terribly exiting, and I turned to make a comment to Lily about the possibility of a live-action kiss.

But when I looked at her, time froze.

The first thing I noticed was her hand up in the air… then the way she’d arched her back… and then the oval object in her hand.

Nnnnooo!” I began, as the egg soared past my eyes and hurdled down toward the scene below us.

And then, as if in slow motion, I watched as the egg not only hit the woman, but exploded all over the very center of her dress, its gooey contents splashing in every direction.

I was speechless, hands rising to my mouth.

The man’s smirk disappeared from his face, and his casual lean immediately turned into a wrestler’s pose. The woman’s shoulders locked and she stood, hands quivering, for what seemed like eternity.

Lily and I were silent. Several seconds passed before anyone moved.

Several floors above the couple, a family was having a barbeque. They were the only household with their lights on, and with visible activity on the balcony. A man had been leaning over the railing at the time of the egging.

His eyes locked with the driver’s.

Before we could process what was happening, the suited man began yelling accusations and the strongest one-syllable words we had ever heard in our young lives. The man on the balcony responded in kind, automatically defensive and enraged. As the venomous epithets flew between them, and the woman stared at her dress in disbelief, and I turned to Lily.

“Why…why would you d-do that!?” I stammered.

Lily’s face was blank, her jaw slightly dropped. She said nothing.

As the screaming grew louder, we went inside, almost slinking past my parents to get to the refrigerator. I quietly dropped my egg back into its carton.

In the harsh light of the kitchen, I clearly saw the look on Lily’s face. She was astounded.

“I… I don’t know why I did it,” she said, the colour drained from her face.

“I really … just don’t know.”


*I’ve changed my friend’s name, just in case our old landlord is still on the hunt for us. Just so you don’t get the impression that preteen girls are that easy to shake, I’ll cryptically mention that we were up to no good again in no time. Although eggs stopped disappearing from our parent’s fridges, we took to pranks on the telephone and devising ways to escape from our homes undetected at 4:00 a.m. to cycle down the steep hills of Trinity-Bellwoods Park. Don’t worry, moms and dads, we turned out okay.

Dr. Peter’s Diary: “I am a doctor, but I’m also a patient.”

Twenty years ago, a handsome young physician looked into a camera and spoke words he was not sure all Canadians were ready to hear.

“We’re going to be approaching this from a different point of view — a more human point of view,” Dr. Peter Jepson-Young said of HIV/AIDS.

“I’m going to be introducing you to someone with AIDS to help provide a name, a face, and an identity to this disease,” the Vancouver-based doctor famously explained.

“The person I’m going to introduce you to…is myself.”

Despite the initial fears and disapproval of his loved ones, Dr. Peter told audiences that he was struggling with HIV/AIDS at a time when many thought everyday interactions – like shaking hands – could lead to infection.

He also told them he was gay at a time when gay men were widely feared and demonized.

Far before the dawn of youtube confessionals, he showed Canadians that it was possible to talk about a poorly-understood disease openly and honestly.

“I am a doctor, but I’m also a patient.”

Filming the young doctor was David Paperny, who will be leading my advanced television course at the UBC School of Journalism this semester. He still remembers the project as one of the most important of his career.

In class yesterday, David told us that some viewers told Peter to “rot in hell” and cried out for the CBC to take him off the air.  But, at the same time, something more powerful happened.

Many Canadians were educated and inspired by the young man’s courage.

Although he was only supposed to tape a handful of shows, the Dr. Peter Diaries ended up chronicling about two years of the man’s life in 111 episodes. People grew familiar with him, and bore witness to his worsening condition. Many felt as though they knew him, or even loved him.

Before his death in 1992, the doctor set up the Dr. Peter AIDS Foundation, a non-profit organization that continues to care for people living with HIV/AIDS. His diary series was nominated for an Academy Award in 1994.

Twenty years later, the mayor of Vancouver has declared Sept. 3 – 10 Dr. Peter week, and the diarist is being remembered as a national hero. David is currently working on a new series of diaries that will allow a new generation to talk about how the disease affects their lives today.

But as we remember Dr. Peter, let’s not forget how much further we have to go.

Photo from the Dr. Peter AIDS Foundation website


• UBC Alumni screening of The Broadcast Tapes of Dr. Peter, Thursday Sept. 9 at 6 p.m. at the CBC Studios, 700 Hamilton St.

• 20th anniversary screening of The Broadcast Tapes of Dr. Peter, Friday Sept. 10 at 6 p.m. at the CBC Studios, 700 Hamilton St.

• Passions: A Benefit for the Dr. Peter AIDS Foundation, Sunday Sept. 19 from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. at the Dr. Peter Centre, 1110 Comox St.

Quest toward a new kind of university

"Squamish Chief" by Flickr user BigA888

I’m not going to lie, I originally signed up for an autumn weekend in Squamish, B.C. because, well … have you ever seen  pictures of Squamish, B.C.? It’s I-must-be-hallucinating stunning out there.

But scenery aside, the real point is that a small group of Green College residents (myself included) will venture up to Squamish on October 1st to meet Quest University‘s first graduating class.

In case your eyebrow just shot up, no worries, I had never heard of Quest University before today. More importantly, I’d never heard of a Canadian post-secondary school like Quest either.

Turns out it’s Canada’s very first independent, not-for-profit, nonsectarian university of the liberal arts and sciences.

It offers only one degree, a Bachelors of Arts and Sciences, and has been specifically designed to challenge the mass model (or diploma factory) style that many universities employ. (And the only kind I’ve ever attended, by the by.)

Quest undergrad students have had 20 person classes for their entire post-secondary career. I didn’t have classes that small in my fourth year seminars at York University. They also focus on one topic area at a time instead of balancing five different courses every semester.

We’re going to talk to Quest students about “interdisciplinary pathways inside and outside the academy,” as Green College principal Mark Vessey so eloquently put it. We’re also going to eat, hike and hang with them. I kind of wonder what the catch is, seriously.

“Quest U is a radical experiment in post-secondary education, not without affinities with Green College,” Vessey explained in an email invite. It was founded in 2002 by former University of British Columbia president Dr. David Strangway, who was also one of the founders of Green College.

As a member of the mass-educated crew, I’m excited to spend some time with students who have never made “just a number” jokes or devoted expletive-laden Facebook groups to hating their school.

Are they mountain-top flower children or trail-blazing academics? Stay tuned…

Check out the comments below for a bit of nuance!