Kentucky development leaders showcase high-tech innovation

September 30, 2014

gamersJason Mize, left, a partner in the Lexington company Really Big Spiders, demonstrated its online game, “Tales from the Strange Universe,” to Jonathan Gay of the Kentucky Innovation Network. Lexington is now a hotbed for electronic game development. Photo by Tom Eblen


Who knew Lexington was becoming a hotbed for electronic game development?

That’s exactly why Commerce Lexington and the state Cabinet for Economic Development brought seven freelance journalists here to visit with local game developers at Awesome Inc., the tech business incubator on Main Street.

At a reception Tuesday, they were to meet with other local business leaders, including Carey Smith, CEO of Big Ass Solutions, the giant fan company.

Earlier in the day, some of the journalists toured Northern Kentucky University’s College of Informatics, a new program that focuses on data science applications. Others went to Morehead State University to see the Space Science Center. Later this week, most will be covering the annual Idea Festival in Louisville.

“We just wanted to show them that from small business to big you can do it here in Lexington,” said Gina Greathouse, Commerce Lexington’s senior vice president for economic development.

Lexington has seven full-fledged companies developing electronic and online games and several programmers and artists who work on them part-time, said John Meister. He is a board member of RunJumpDev, a local organization that helps game developers network and promote their products.

Meister also is a partner in one of those companies, Super Soul. After working 10 years as a software engineer, he teamed up with artist Richie Hoagland to develop the Xbox game Compromised in 2012. Their company will soon release Speak Easy, a 1920s-themed fighting game for PlayStation 4.

Meister said game development has been growing in Lexington because many technology workers play games and become interested in making them. Lexington’s low cost of living helps, because it is much cheaper to develop games here than in many other cities with large high-tech communities.

While he wasn’t that interested in gaming, Terry Troy, a Cleveland-based journalist who writes for Scientific American magazine, said he came away from the tour with many story ideas. He was especially impressed by Morehead’s Space Science Center, which has become a national leader in developing small space satellites for research.

“Kentucky is a state of dichotomies; you have the Creation Museum and then over in Morehead is the cutting edge of satellite technology,” Troy said. “I knew there was a lot of innovation in the state, but you just don’t realize how much until you see it. I’m impressed.”

Governor’s Scholars alumni hope to create powerful network

September 10, 2013

Randall Stevens was a shy kid from Pikeville when he was chosen for the second class of the Kentucky Governor’s Scholars Program in the summer of 1984. It literally changed his life.

“I think I became me in those five weeks of that program,” Stevens said. “It’s a huge confidence builder. It’s a social awakening with an academic background that really develops leadership.”

The experience inspired Stevens to study computers and architecture at the University of Kentucky, he said. Since then, Stevens has created several software programs and the companies to produce and market them. He also started Base 163, an incubator work space for Lexington technology entrepreneurs.


Randall Stevens

Stevens has met many other Governor’s Scholars over the years whose experiences were similar to his. That got him thinking about the potential of an alumni network, both for the former scholars and for Kentucky’s future.

He recently helped start the Governor’s Scholars Program Alumni Association, which will have its first gathering Sept. 27 and 28 at the Kentucky Center in downtown Louisville. The event is affiliated with the annual Idea Festival there that week.

Speakers at the event include several former scholars: U.S. Rep. Thomas Massie, a Republican who represents Northern Kentucky; Drew Curtis, founder of the online humor site; Jeff Fugate, president of Lexington’s Downtown Development Authority; and Rebecca Self, founder of FoodChain, an urban-agriculture nonprofit in Lexington.

Former scholars interested in attending the event or becoming affiliated with the alumni group can get more information at or, or by email at

The Governor’s Scholars Program began in 1983, with 230 rising high school seniors from across Kentucky who were brought together on Centre College’s campus in Danville for a summer enrichment program. The program is the oldest of its kind in the nation. This summer, about 1,100 students participated on three college campuses.

Scholars are chosen through a competitive process. The program is free to them and is financed by state government and private donors. Governor’s Scholars are eligible for big-dollar scholarships at virtually all of Kentucky’s public and private colleges and universities.

Stevens figures that there are now 25,349 Governor’s Scholars Alumni with three decades of accomplishments, life experiences and personal networks that could have enormous value. Simply publicizing what other former scholars are doing could spark ideas and create job opportunities.

The idea of the Governor’s Scholars Program was to keep Kentucky’s “best and brightest” from leaving the state. Surveys show that about half of all scholars now live here. But Stevens and others think that original goal was too narrow.

gsplogo“It’s not good to try to keep them in Kentucky,” he said. “Just keep them connected to Kentucky.”

For one thing, Stevens said, when scholars leave Kentucky to achieve their dreams, they can end up in good positions to help future scholars achieve theirs.

Former scholar Darlene Hunt of Lebanon Junction went to Britain, Chicago and Los Angeles on her way to becoming a successful actress, producer and television writer. Matt Cutts of Morehead went on from UK to earn a doctorate in computer science from North Carolina and is now a top executive at Google.

“Having a Matt Cutts at Google is better for the network than if he had stayed here,” Stevens said.

Also, he said, Kentuckians often have a habit of achieving success elsewhere and moving back to home, bringing back knowledge and sometimes jobs and investment capital.

Some high-profile examples include Alan Hawse, a top executive with Cypress Semiconductor, whose move back from California led to creation of a technology development center in downtown Lexington. Self, the FoodChain founder, and her husband, Ben, moved back to Lexington from Boston after a company he helped start ran President Barack Obama’s 2008 online campaign. He and three partners then started West Sixth Brewing Co.

“The network is more valuable than just having people here,” Stevens said. The oldest scholars are now reaching mid-career and rising to positions of wealth and influence, he said. “The real power could be what happens when they do want to come back.”

A model for a different Kentucky image, reality

September 25, 2011

While driving to Louisville last week, I listened to a radio interview with Bob Edwards, who has published his memoirs. The Kentucky-born broadcaster talked about having to lose his accent for network radio and having to endure lots of hillbilly jokes.

Kentuckians cringe at such stereotypes, but I took it in stride that morning. I was on my way to the Idea Festival.

The festival, which started in Lexington in 2000 and has been an annual event since moving to Louisville in 2006, shatters stereotypes about Kentucky as a place of nothing but under-educated, narrow-minded, backward people.

People from around the world come to the festival to hear fascinating speakers discuss new ideas about every subject imaginable. The program strives to create an intellectual mash-up of scientists, business people, artists, students, politicians, academics and technology geeks.

The format is similar to the TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) conferences, whose “TED talk” videos have become an Internet sensation. The goal is to help attendees stretch their minds and open themselves to the kind of creativity that will produce the breakthrough ideas of the future.

IBM’s Watson computer was there to play Jeopardy! against high school students after the leader of the team that created the supercomputer explained how it works. An astrophysicist discussed string theory. A “neuromarketer” talked about how to trigger buying impulses in the brain. A researcher explained the science behind kissing.

A geo-strategist analyzed world political trends. A spoken-word poet talked about preserving humanity in a Facebook/Twitter world. A top IBM executive and the head of an organic tea company compared notes on fostering business innovation. Other sessions covered health care, climate change and the value of historic landscapes.

Author Wes Moore told the compelling story of his life and the life of a man with the same name and a similar hard-luck upbringing who became a cop killer, instead of the Rhodes scholar that he became. The idea Moore wanted to explore: how others’ expectations of us shape the life-altering decisions we make.

Then, out of nowhere, the stage belonged to Linsey Stirling, a hip-hop violinist from Arizona whose creative musicianship reminded me of what Lexingtonian Ben Sollee does with a cello.

“We all act as if math, science and poetry are different things, but all knowledge is connected,” said Kris Kimel, the festival’s founder and president of the Kentucky Science and Technology Corp. “What the festival is about is how to deconstruct and reconnect that knowledge.”

Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer and his staff worked from desks in the lobby of the Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts, where the festival was held, so they could attend as many sessions as possible.

About 300 city employees got to attend at least one session. Ted Smith, the city’s innovation director, encouraged them to use the experience to come up with ways to make local government more effective and efficient. “A lot of innovation comes from empowering people to bring ideas forward,” Smith said. “We want to encourage that.”

Eighty-five students from Louisville’s duPont Manual High School spent all week at the festival. Principal Larry Wooldridge said that happened because senior class president Michael Perry attended last year’s festival and convinced him that more students should come. Perry even set up a meeting between Wooldridge and Kimel to work out the details.

“These kids challenge me and the teachers every day. They come in with ideas, and they also say, ‘Here’s how we can do it,'” Wooldridge said. He said he hoped the festival would give him ideas for better integrating his school’s five diverse magnet programs.

Kimel said each of this year’s sessions — many of which were ticketed separately — attracted about 500 people. But he was disappointed that there were some empty seats. Next year, he wants more Kentucky business people and students to attend.

“When you get people in an environment like this, you get them to begin to understand that the world really is changing,” Kimel said. “If we don’t understand that, we’re going to be left out.”

Each time I attend the Idea Festival, I think about its potential to change outsiders’ stereotypes of Kentucky — and, more importantly, how such creative thinking could change the realities at the root of those stereotypes.

Ted Smith, left, debriefed some of the 300 Louisville city employees attending the Idea Festival last week to see what ideas for improving local government the festival's sessions and atmosphere may have sparked. He was sitting at the temporary office of Mayor Greg Fischer, which set up in the lobby of the Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts during the festival. Photo by Tom Eblen

Idea Festival: Unlocking secrets to ‘deep innovation’

September 23, 2011

IBM had Think Pads long before the invention of the laptop computer that now goes by that name. The original Think Pads were leather-bound pads of paper that IBM employees were given by management, beginning in 1923, to record their ideas and inspirations.

David Barnes, an IBM executive whose official title is “technology evangelist”, used the example to explain that innovation isn’t so much about a company’s technology as its attitude. He spoke at the Idea Festival on Friday about how to create and foster business innovation.

Too many companies are unwilling to trust employees enough to give them the time and flexibility to think creatively — or support innovation and new ideas when they come out of the rank-and-file.

“Too many companies are looking quarter-to-quarter; they are not looking long-term,” Barnes said. “They pretend they’re interested in innovation, but they’re not.”

Also talking about innovation was Heather Howell of Rooibee Red Tea, a Louisville-based organic tea company. The keys to her company’s success: “Get to know your customer. Be passionate.”

Howell said creating an innovative company is only possible if you trust employees and give them the freedom to innovate.

“Give them the leash to be creative,” she said. “The best thing I ever did was to not follow the rules.”

Idea Festival: Where art, technology collide

September 23, 2011

Artist Shih Chieh Huang created this sculpture using plastic bags and blown air at the Idea Festival in Louisville. Huang's work is being featured at the Land of Tomorrow's gallery in Louisville until Oct. 23. Photo by Tom Eblen

LOUISVILLE — The Idea Festival‘s third day Friday included mini-lectures by five artists supported by Creative Capital whose art uses modern culture, technology, everyday experiences and touches of humor to help us see things in different ways.

Shih Chieh Huang creates fascinating art installations by adapting modern technology to quirky, humorous and sometimes amazing new uses. It’s hard to describe his work; you just have to see it. To do that, click here. Or, better yet, see an exhibit of his work at the Land of Tomorrow gallery’s Louisville space, Sept. 23 – Oct. 23. For more information, click here.

Mark Shepard showed an “instructional video” that uses humor to comment on modern life, technology and urban architecture. His tool is the “Serendipitor” — an imaginary device for finding something by looking for something else. The device provides such useful instructions as: “Walk toward the heart of the city. If it doesn’t have a heart, give it one.”  See more of his work by clicking here.

Julie Wyman is a photographer whose art has evolved into recording “light events” without a traditional camera. That has included recording full moons to light in Antarctica. See more of her work by clicking here.

Pamela Z bends and synthesizes her voice and other sounds with images to create dazzling audio-visual experiences. She also has expanded into audio-visual art installations. See more of her work by clicking here.

Richard Pell is the creator of the Center for Post-Natural History, which has a location in Pittsburgh and does installations around the country. With big doses of humor, he explores how human culture and science has altered nature. He especially likes to focus on creatures who through selective breeding and genetic modification have become part of what he calls the “post-natural world.” Read more about his work by clicking here.

Creative Capital is a New York-based nonprofit that tries to be “a catalyst for the development of adventurous and imaginative ideas by supporting artists who pursue innovation in form and/or content in the performing and visual arts, film and video, and in emerging fields.” For more information, see its website.

Idea Festival: Brain secrets to making sales

September 22, 2011

LOUISVILLE — Sales success is not so much about selling. It is about easing potential customers’ pain and fear and appealing to their “reptilian” brain.

That was the message of Patrick Renvoisé, an author and former head of global business development for Silicon Graphics who calls himself an expert in neuromarketing. He studies how the human brain makes buying decisions, and he offered tips for influencing those decisions.

Decisions are primarily governed by the “reptilian” brain — the part of our brain where instinct and basic survival skills reside — rather than the intellectual or emotional parts. The best way to sell customers is to diagnose their pains and fears and offer ways to ease them, Renvoisé said.

“When people want and need your product, what is their pain?” he asked, adding that fear-avoidance is one of the strongest human motivations.

For example, he told the Idea Festival audience on Thursday, Dominos Pizza figured out years ago that people who ordered delivery pizza were more anxious about when it would arrive than how good it would taste. Thus, the Dominos sales pitch of delivery within 30 minutes or the pizza was free.

After easing pain and calming fears, appealing to emotions is important. “We make emotional decisions and then try to rationalize them, not vice versa,” Renvoisé said.

Other advice: explain how your product is different and better than competitors’ products, and prove it somehow. Also, keep your message simple and visual.


Idea Festival: preserving humanity in a virtual world

September 22, 2011

LOUISVILLE — Spoken-word poet Azure Antoinette struggles with the problem as much as others do.

She worries that we are losing our humanity in a virtual world of digital communications, where many people pay more attention to their Facebook friends than their actual friends. Still, she said, she is addicted to her BlackBerry and is constantly on Twitter and Facebook.

“It’s this false popularity that’s very strange,” Antoinette told her audience Thursday at the Idea Festival. “We are all so self-centered.”

Technology has opened up amazing new ways to expand communication, she noted, but we must avoid short-changing the genuine interpersonal communication that enriches our lives. “We are moving away from a time when things are physically tangible,” she said, and that is not good.

As a poet, she also worries about what social media is doing to young people’s language and grammar skills. And she fears that popular culture is being confused with meaningful art and literature.

During a question-and-answer session after her lecture, an audience member had the best line I have heard this morning: “I’ve heard it said that a book commits suicide every time somebody watches Jersey Shore.”

Idea Festival speaker explains the science of kissing

September 22, 2011

LOUISVILLE — To Sheril Kirshenbaum, a kiss is not just a kiss.

The researcher and author opened the second day of the Idea Festival on Thursday with a lecture on the topic of her new book, The Science of Kissing.

Smooching, she explained, really is about chemistry. And biology. And evolutionary impulses about reproduction that are very different among men and women.

“A first kiss is nature’s ultimate litmus test,” Kirshenbaum said.

While men often see kissing as a means to an end (sex), women, who often have more acute senses of taste and smell, use it as an important indicator of whether to pursue a relationship. They literally are trying to find “the right chemistry” because “kissing acts on the body like a drug.”

Among kissing behavior she noted: Most people tilt their heads when they kiss, and two-thirds of them tilt their head to the right. Why is that? One theory is it is the way most infants nurse. Also, she claimed, people are more likely to pass germs through shaking hands than pressing lips.

“The best advice I can give is when you love someone, kiss them often,” she said.

Kirshenbaum is a scientist at the Webber Energy Group at the University of Texas at Austin’s Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy. Aside from studying kissing, her work focuses on increasing public understanding of energy issues as they relate to food, oceans and culture. She also writes the blog Culture of Science.


Idea Festival opens in Louisville by ‘rethinking’ city

September 21, 2011

The Idea Hub in the lobby of the Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts has become an outpost for offices of city government and several local companies during the Idea Festival, which began Wednesday and continues through Saturday. Photo by Tom Eblen

LOUISVILLE — The Idea Festival opened in Louisville this morning with a panel discussion called “Rethinking Louisville.” But moderator Ted Smith, the city government’s director of innovation, was quick to point out that “rethink” is not the same as “change.”

Those two concepts are often confused. The annual Idea Festival is about opening people’s minds to new ideas that lead to innovation. Some of those ideas and innovations will lead to change — a concept many people see as threatening — but not always. Sometimes, solving problems and improving communities and economies is about preserving what you have that works.

The Idea Festival began in Lexington in 2000 and moved to Louisville in 2006, seeking the sponsors and facilities that would allow it to become an annual event at a central facility. At this year’s festival, the Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts is that place.

Mayor Greg Fischer has moved his office to the Idea Hub, a group of desks in the Kentucky Center’s lobby.”The mayor wants to promote entrepreneurial thinking, so he said, ‘Let’s just move the office here,'” spokesman Chris Poynter said.

Fischer was in Washington for a meeting Wednesday, so won’t actually get to the festival until Thursday. But Poynter said that about 300 city employees will be attending festival sessions, as well as daily discussions led by Smith about how those ideas can be used to make local government more effective and efficient.

Several major Louisville companies also have rented desks in the Idea Hub to serve as a base for employees attending sessions.

Here were a few ideas from this morning’s sessions:

Louisville traffic patterns have adapted pretty quickly to the sudden closure of a cracked Interstate highway bridge. Rather than creating Interstate gridlock, local commuters are finding secondary streets and bridges that can get them where they need to go. That won’t solve larger issues of interstate commerce, but it provided a lesson.

“The discussion about bridges has always been about Interstate bridges,” Smith said. “Maybe it takes a crisis to say ‘Are all the alternatives on the table?'”

Another example of not always seeing things in front of our faces came up in an earlier session. Charles Birnbaum of the Cultural Landscape Foundation talked about how, when preserving and enhancing historic and signature buildings, cities often overlook the importance of the surrounding landscape. Landscape design and functionality is important, he said. “It’s another way to see and value place.”




Blogging this week from the Idea Festival

September 20, 2011

What’s the big idea? Well, there will be many of them in Louisville this week.

I’ll be there Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, blogging from the Idea Festival, writing about what this year’s stellar lineup of speakers has to say.

If you have never been to the festival, you’re missing something. Kris Kimel, who heads the Kentucky Science & Technology Corp., started the now-annual event in Lexington in 2006. It moved to Louisville in 2006 because it needed bigger venues and corporate sponsors.

Click here to check out the festival’s website, which has a complete program, speakers bios, a blog and other information.

Watch this space throughout the day Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, or follow my Twitter tweets here. Also, my column in Sunday’s Herald-Leader will look at some of the interesting things that happened at this event that is helping make Kentucky an internationally known place for ideas and innovation.


Idea Festival announces this year’s lineup

May 26, 2010

The Idea Festival, which began in Lexington in 2000 and is now held in Louisville each September, has announced this year’s lineup. There aren’t as many famous names as in some years past, but I’m sure it will be a fascinating few days; it always is.  Click here for details and ticket information.

What a cool photo from the Idea Festival!

October 16, 2009

Remind me never to schedule an overseas vacation again during the annual Idea Festival in Louisville. There are just too many interesting things going on there to miss.

Idea Festival founder Kris Kimel sent me this photo today, which was taken during the festival late last month. It shows a sidewalk painting by Julian Beever, a Belgian-based chalk artist. He did this work on a Louisville sidewalk during the festival. Amazing.

Idea Festival speaker profiled in New York Times

July 6, 2009

The New York Times Magazine on Sunday profiled Will Allen, the urban gardening guru and local food supersalesman who will speak this fall in Louisville at the annual Idea Festival.

Allen, 60, a former pro basketball player, is the brain behind Growing Power farm, which provides nutritious local food and jobs for inner city residents of Milwaukee, Wisc. Allen’s work has brought him one of the famous $500,000 “genius” awards from the MacArthur Foundation and other honors.

Allen will speak at the Idea Festival on Saturday, Sept. 26, at 8:45 a.m. at the Kentucky Center. Click here for more information. Click here to read the New York Times Magazine profile by Elizabeth Royte.

Learning to forgive the unforgivable and move on

September 27, 2008
Immaculee Ilibagiza. Photo by Tom Eblen

Immaculee Ilibagiza. Photo by Tom Eblen

Immaculee Ilibagiza lost most of her family in the tribal genocide that gripped her native Rwanda in the 1994. She would have been killed had not she and seven other women hidden silently in the cramped bathroom of a pastor’s home for 91 days until the danger passed. When she emerged from that room, she weighed only 65 pounds.

She came out of the experience and became a United Nations employee, a human rights activist and author of the best-selling book, Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust. What allowed her to survive, and to thrive in the years since, she said, has been her faith in God and the ability to forgive.

“Forgiveness came to me as a gift,” from her horrible trauma, she said.

Ilibagiza said people can’t do anything about the past, but through love, faith and forgiveness can make a better future. “If there is no forgiveness in our heart, no business will go on,” she said.

She also learned to judge people as individuals, rather than groups. And she takes pleasure in the simplest things in life. “Hold on to hope,” she told an enthusiastic audience at one of the Idea Festival’s most well-attended sessions. “Don’t give up.”

Bjarke Ingels: Imagining what a building can be

September 27, 2008

Bjarke Ingels of Denmark, considered one of the world’s best young architects, gave a dazzling presentation at the Idea Festival.

In discussing project after project that his Copenhagen-based firm has done, he impressed the audience with not only his creativity and artistry, but with how he used architecture to solve each project’s “problems” and make it something special.

That isn’t easy, because many developers “are more interested in the bottom line than the skyline,” he said Friday.

“Functionalism liberated architecture from style” in the 20th century,” he said dryly. The result “was a lot of big boring boxes.”

Ingels works all over the world, and some of his most stunning projects are under way in China and the Middle East. But one of my favorites was the Mountain Dwellings apartment complex, which now dominates the view out Ingels’ own apartment window in Copenhagen.

The developer started out wanting to build two big boxes on the property: One for apartments, one for parking. Instead, Ingels’ and his co-workers created a stunning — and stunningly practical — solution to the developer’s needs that has become a design landmark. The interior parking garage is no less impressive than the living space.

The inspiration for some of Ingels’ ideas comes from the place-specific architecture of the past. There are reasons, he noted, that certain styles evolved in certain places hundreds and thousands of years before there were professional architects. Climate — and social climate — play important roles in a building’s design.  A glass tower might work fine for New York, but it makes no sense in an Arabian desert, he noted.

“We end up reinventing traditional forms and shapes, not as style, but as a new vernacular,” he said.

Ingels urged architects to become more pro-active in suggesting urban development, rather than waiting for politicians, developers and financiers to bring ideas forward.

Environmental sustainability is an important consideration in Ingels’ work. But, looking at it from the perspective of an Idea Festival, it was remarkable to see how he recycles and refines his ideas. An idea he pitched as a project in Sweden was rejected, but after much refinement, it turned out to be a perfect fit for a building for Shanghai.

It reinforced the notion that many Idea Festival many speakers stressed. They said ideas and creativity don’t come so much as flashes of genius, but from kernels of inspiration and a lot of hard work and persistence.

You can see more of Ingels’ work at his firm’s Web site.

Imagine Ohio River bridge as public art

September 26, 2008

Beligan artist and designer Arne Quinze is known for his large public art installations, many of which involve fluid masses of colorful wooden planks.

Quinze spoke at the Idea Festival on Friday, and he had a fascinating slide show of his work in cities around the world. Then, at the end, he had a surprise: A series of renderings and models of the old Ohio River railroad bridge turned into one of his art installations.

As it happens, Quinze met Louisville art collectors Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson in Europe last year. They invited him to Louisville to see their 21C Museum Hotel. When Quinze was here in March, he walked along Louisville’s emerging Waterfront Park.

“Within an hour of walking downtown, he saw the bridge and said, ‘I have an idea,'” said Alice Gray Stites, managing director of The Center for Contemporary Art at Louisville’s proposed Museum Plaza.

Quinze’s vision calls for turning what is to become a pedestrian bridge into one that would be a timeline of local history, with markers along the way. It would have music and lights powered by solar cells embedded in a mass of red and white wooden planks that would wind through the six arched steel spans atop the bridge. You can see some of Quinze’s renderings below.

“It’s a huge project, but I believe in it,” Quinze said. “We can do it and it would work.”

Stites said the Idea Festival presentation was the first time anyone in Louisville had seen Quinze’s proposal, so she doesn’t know what the reaction will be once it is shown to Mayor Jerry Abramson and officials developing public art projects for Waterfront Park. In addition to city approval, city funding also would be required to pull it off, Stites said.

Photo credit: copyright Arne Quinze

Photo credit: copyright Arne Quinze

Teller speaks, and reveals what is behind magic

September 26, 2008

Teller, the quiet half of the famous magic team Penn & Teller, started his speech at the Idea Festival by pulling a carpenter’s hammer from his coat pocket and placing it at the edge of the stage.

Teller said he planned to reveal some secrets of his magic, but he didn’t want videos of it showing up on YouTube. So he asked audience members to use the hammer to smash any video cameras they saw among them.

That introduction drew laughs. Many others were simply surprised to hear Teller, who is usually silent on stage, actually speak.

As it turned out, Teller was a terrific speaker, and he explained how he performs one of his most difficult illusions — making a red ball dance around in thin air. Let’s just say it has to do with thread, skill and lots and lots of practice.

Some magicians want to keep their secrets secret.  But Teller said his theory is this: “If you know how a trick is done, you’ll like it more, not less.”

During the explanation, he offered several insights into magic tricks and illusions and why they work, such as:

“Magic’s cause and effect are linked by poetry instead than physics.”

“Nothing fools you better than the lie you tell yourself.”

Teller may be one of the world’s most famous illusionists, but that doesn’t mean he no longer needs to practice.  In fact, he said he spends much of his time practicing tricks over and over to improve his skill and make them look effortless.

“The muses don’t drop by unless you keep regular office hours,” he said.

Looking to the past for signs of the future

September 26, 2008

Sometimes, it’s best to ignore conventional wisdom and look to the past for guidance.

The past week’s financial uncertainty set the stage for Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of the controversial book The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable at the Idea Festival on Friday.  Taleb describes “black swans” as the hard-to-predict events or developments that have profound impact.

Randomness plays an increasing role in society, and many people suffer from “an illusion of control.”  He criticized economists for long-term forecasts, most of which turn out to be wrong. Success often involves avoiding mistakes, and paying attention to what has happened in the past rather than experts’ theories of what might happen in the future.

He said people need to figure out ways they can gain from uncertainty, but protect themselves from risk. And, he said, “We need to teach people to have the guts to say ‘I don’t know.'”

Amy Chua speaks at the Idea Festival. Photo by Tom Eblen

Amy Chua speaks at the Idea Festival. Photo by Tom Eblen

Yale Law School professor Amy Chua looks at lessons America can learn from the past in her book,  Day of Empire: How Hyperpowers Rise to Global Dominance — and Why They Fail.

Chua’s thesis, which she outlined at the Idea Festival, is that nations that have dominated the world during different periods of history prospered by using strategic religious tolerance, ethnic diversity and inclusion. They fell from power and sometimes collapsed when they became less tolerant, more ethnically exclusive or lost their social “glue.”

Success throughout history has relied on a hyperpower’s ability to attract and take advantage of the world’s best and brightest talent. Rome dominated the world by making people it conquered Roman citizens. The Mongol empire was smart enough to incorporate the skills of other ethnic groups it conquered, especially Chinese engineers. America has prospered largely because of religious tolerance, immigration, opportunity and ethnic diversity, she said.

So, what could this theory portend for America’s future?  Chua said America must protect religious freedom and diversity and, while controlling immigration, must make sure that the world’s best and brightest can continue to find opportunity here.

But Chua also worries that if recent U.S. immigrants don’t assimilate as previous generations have, the U.S. could lose much of its social glue. “We really do have to take seriously the issue of national cohesion,” she said.

As long as the United States remains a nation of immigrants, it will have an advantage over countries such as China that are far less diverse.

American culture may rule the planet. But the exclusivity of U.S. citizenship makes it harder for America to maintain clout worldwide as other nations become more wealthy and powerful. “Wearing a Yankees baseball cap and drinking Coca-Cola will not make a Palestinian feel like an American,” she said.

One future challenge will be figuring out how to give people in other countries “more of a stake in America’s success and leadership,” Chua said. “You can really learn a lot from Rome.”

A prize for using design to help humanity

September 25, 2008

There is no shortage of international  prizes honoring flashy, provocative, beautiful or breathtaking architecture and design.

The new $100,000 Curry Stone Design Prize, administered by the University of Kentucky’s College of Design, is different.

The first Curry Stone Design Prize was awarded Thursday at the Idea Festival in Louisville to a South African architecture firm that, working without pay, designed and is building 10 houses for poor people in Capetown. The houses are made of timbers of wood and steel and bags filled with sand. They cost less than $7,000 each and can be built by their owners.

Beautiful? Provocative?  Not in the world of architecture. But for a world where it is estimated that 1 billion people — about 15 percent of the population — live in shanties, projects like this have the ability to reshape the way much of humanity lives.

That was the idea when Clifford Curry and his wife, H. Delight Stone, of Oregon decided to create the prize as part of a $5.5 million gift to UK. Curry had been a successful architect, pioneering the design of housing for elderly people. Curry, a UK architecture graduate, wanted to honor breakthrough design ideas that improve the human spirit, increase awareness of the environment or responde to areas of human need.

Like the famous MacArthur “genius” grants, the Curry Stone Prize comes with no strings attached.

“The concept is they can do whatever they darn well please” with the money, Curry said. “These are motivated people. I want them to figure that out.”

MMA Architects principal Luyanda Mpahlwa, 49, was unable to get a U.S. visa to attend the ceremony because of his anti-Apartheid work in South Africa years ago. But in a telephone interview, Mpahlwa said he expects to use some of the money to continue this sort of work, as well to expand a scholarship program for architects he has started in South Africa.

“There is a lot of need for these projects,” he said. “I am starting to look at what other materials combinations and types we could use. We want to take part in a body of knowledge that contributes to local housing situations.”

MMA was chosen from among five finalists; the others attended the ceremony and received $10,000 cash awards. Thirty anonymous nominators around the world suggested candidates, and a panel of judges met in New York in July to choose four finalists and a winner.

David Mohney, a College of Design faculty member, former dean and secretary of the prize, said MMA was chosen because it is an example of using conventional architecture in an unconventional way to promote social good. But all of the finalists had amazing stories to tell.

Wes Janz, 55, an associate professor of architecture at Ball State University in Indiana, helps people in third-world slums build well-designed housing from scavenged materials. Marjetica Potrc, 55, an artist and architect from Slovenia, works in impoverished communities. One project she discussed was a toilet that doesn’t need water that has been used in shanty communities in Guatemala. Antonio Scarponi, 34, an architect based in Venice, Italy, uses architecture and multimedia arts to illustrate social and political lines that unite and divide people.

The most unconventional finalist was Shawn Frayne, 27, an inventor in Hawaii, who has invented the first non-turbine wind-powered generator. It is small and looks like a violin bow. It uses wind to create very cheap electricity that can replace batteries. It can be used to power lamps, run small refrigerators and charge cell phones.

“Harder problems make for better inventions,” said Frayne, who created the generator after visiting Haiti and thinking that poor people there needed cheaper and safer sources of light than kerosene lanterns. “The problems in emerging countries are no longer isolated, but are showing up everywhere in the world.”

Emiliano Gandolfi, an Italian architect who led a panel discussion of the finalists at the Idea Festival, said the Curry Stone Design Prize recognizes a new sensibility among architects and designers, especially young ones like him, that design is about more than creating beautiful things. It can be about improving the human experience at all levels.

“What we are discovering is a new sensibility,” he said.

Michael Speaks, dean of the UK College of Design, said he’s glad to see the university on the forefront of that movement.

“Many people understand design to be the engine of innovation,” he said. “This prize recognizes social innovation and not just commercial innovation.”

Festival is like speed dating with ideas

September 25, 2008

The great thing about the Idea Festival is that you can bounce from session to session, topic to topic, idea to idea.

This morning, I heard neurosurgeon Katrina Firlik, author of Another Day in the Frontal Lobe, talk about brain surgery. “Brain surgery is not exactly rocket science,” she said. Yea, right. In addition to a lot of interesting insights into her work and medical science, she had some good advice for anyone facing a mysterious illness: The most important question to ask a doctor trying to make a diagnosis is, “What else could it be?”

Neurosurgeon Katrina Firlik speaks at the Idea Festival.

Neurosurgeon Katrina Firlik speaks at the Idea Festival. Photo by Tom Eblen

A little later, crossword puzzle master Will Shortz was talking about the world of puzzles and the people who design and work them. Shortz, by the way, grew up on an Arabian horse farm in Crawfordsville, Ind.  When he isn’t editing crosswords for The New York Times or talking about them on National Public Radio, his passion is table tennis.  Who knew?

But the most challenging sessions may have been the first ones this morning. Festival attendees walked quickly from room to room at the Kentucky International Convention Center in downtown Louisville for a series of 12-minute sessions on everything from opera to time travel to how people form beliefs. The presenters handled the strict time limits with varying degrees of success.  For example, physics professor Suketu Bhavsar, who talked about the concept of time travel, had little concept of time. He went way over limit, creating a crowd in the hallway waiting to get into his next session.

There was a session on how to write a screenplay, presented by Mark Shepherd and Brad Riddell, who teach at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts.  It’s a two-year academic program, but they compressed the key concepts into 12 minutes by talking very, very fast.  Don’t have two years to spare?  Here are the basics of writing a screenplay:

It should be able to be read quickly. Have a good story to tell and tell it well. Don’t be boring. Your story needs a “hook” — a simple premise that will appeal to the audience emotionally and have some “extraordinary” element. “Scripts are essentially actor bait,” Riddell said. “Movies don’t get made without strong actors.”  Focus on imagery and action, not fancy dialogue. “You should almost be able to turn off the sound and know what’s going on” in a movie, Shepherd said. Aim for maximum audience engagement and a character the audience will care about. Build suspense. A main character must want something badly and face significant opposition. Conflict must be created. There must be a satisfying ending.

There you have it.