Melissa Chipman

IdeaFestival: Fail Early, Fail Often

September 24, 2012

Dr. John Barker is a former member of the University of Louisville plastic surgery department and current professor of experimental trauma and orthopedic surgery at the Johann-Wolfgang-Goethe-Universität in Frankfort. He is also the head of a new regenerative medicine institute.

In his IdeaFestival speech Saturday about the potential for medicine to develop a way for humans to regenerate and restore hand and facial tissue, he presented one of the most memorable facts of the entire festival. He said that the planarian flat worm can be divided into 179 pieces, and each of those pieces will eventually regenerate into its own separate flat worm.

But if you divide a planarian flat room into 180 pieces? The worm is dead.

How long did it take scientists to come to this revelation? To the magic number that creates a community of flat worms, and the horrible number that turns a flat worm into 180 lifeless chunks?

Trial and error. Failure. Experimentation.

Peter Sims opened the first session of IdeaFestival 2012 on Thursday morning with a presentation about his book “Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries.” He was either selected to go first to set in place a theme for the event, or a theme emerged from his presentation by virtue of it being the first.

Affordable losses. Experimental innovation. Failure. Imperfection.

Americans have been acculturated to distrust, fear and even be embarrassed by failure and trial. But these things lead to great leaps in discovery when it comes to science, art and entrepreneurship and business.

Sims encouraged making “little bets,” ones you can afford to lose, as part of the development process of any new venture. One of those little bets should be sharing the creative process with your clients or audience, he said. Tell your team and tell your clients that you’re coming to them with an imperfect first draft. Don’t be afraid of showing people imperfection.

Richard DeMillo is the former chief technology officer at HP and is now head of The Center for 21st Century Universities. He shared the stage Thursday with IdeaFestival founder Kris Kimmel to discuss the state of higher education in America.

DeMillo said that two-thirds of all American college students earn As and Bs.

“We’re all living in Lake Woebegone,” he said.

Grade inflation has reached epic proportions because we’re afraid of bruising the egos of college students. It may seem like a victimless exaggeration, but it’s making hiring decisions harder and harder as transcripts become less meaningful.

Our gussied-up college transcripts were just one example given by an IdeaFestival presenter about how we’re so afraid of failure and imperfection that we often bury it under beautiful facades.

Former U.S. Foreign Services officer Peter Van Buren spoke on Friday about his role leading a State Department provincial reconstruction team on a mission to “win the hearts and minds” of the Iraqi people. The title of his book is “We Meant Well,” and that’s a solid indication of how successful he felt that his team was. He was leading a reconstruction team, but he said, “my experience with rebuilding was with reading the pamphlets at Home Depot.”

The most stunning example that Van Buren gave of American efforts to cultivate an image of prosperity and hope, while ignoring critical issues, involved the U.S. embassy in Iraq, the largest U.S. embassy in the world. Embassy administration decided that the desert embassy’s grounds ought to be blanketed with lush grass to represent the vitality of U.S. culture. The officials flew in massive amounts of seeds and planted them. Almost immediately, “every bird in the country” says Van Buren, descended upon the grounds and ate every last seed. To thwart the birds, the embassy had sod shipped in; workers laid it and cared for it with billions of gallons of water.

Soon the lawn was so green and in such contrast to the surrounding desert that, Van Buren said, “you wouldn’t be surprised to see a ‘Bed Bath and Body Works’ next door on the block.”

As embassy officials played weekly lacrosse games on the lush green fields, just blocks away  other folks scrounged out a way to live. While soldiers lived in rough conditions, at the embassy it was one glossed-over misstep after another. Van Buren said, “At best we were goofy idiots. At worst we we empowering all the wrong people and disrupting existing systems.”

We create lovely veneers to hide problems. But as Tony Wagner said in his presentation Friday on the Finland Phenomenon, the world of innovation and creativity is a world of risk. In the Q&A session for this presentation, Kimmel repeated the oft-mentioned advice, “it’s better to ask forgiveness than to seek permission.”

The Shakespeare Behind Bars program proved a palpable point that we are capable of surmounting failures of the worst kind. Even after former inmate Larry Lucas decided to work toward rehabilitation, he got in trouble once again in prison. He was forced to give up the Shakespeare Behind Bars program until he had completed the punishment for his infraction.

When Lucas tried to rejoin the program, he learned a lesson in forgiveness. 

“The program let me back in without much question or hassle,” said Lucas.

But during this challenging time, Lucas said he learned the most important lesson from Larry Chandler, chair of the parole board, who asked him, “what are you doing to take advantage of the positive aspects of your incarceration?” 

In other words, how was he making the most of his failure?

At least twice during the event, we were told that a secret to success was to “fail early and to fail often,” but the inmate-alumni reassured us that all kinds of failures are surmountable, and that most kinds of failures can lead to discoveries and change and innovation.

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IdeaFestival: Shakespeare Behind Bars

September 23, 2012

While Baratunde Thurston’s presentation on Friday may have garnered the most enthusiastic and energetic audience response, no presentation earned a more emotional response at IdeaFestival than Saturday’s Shakespeare Behind Bars panel moderated by founder Curt Tofteland.  

Shakespeare Behind Bars (SBB) began in the mid-1990s at the Luther Luckett Correctional Complex in LaGrange, Kentucky. Now in its 17th season, it’s the oldest of its kind in the United States. SBB is a non-profit organization that produces Shakespeare plays with incarcerated adults and juveniles. Inmates vet who’s accepted into the program; they self-cast the the plays and run the tech.

According to the program’s website, the Shakespeare Behind Bars program “was founded on the beliefs that all human beings are inherently good, and that although convicted criminals have committed heinous crimes against other human beings, this inherent goodness still lives deep within them and must be called forth. Participation in the program can effectively change our world for the better by influencing one person at a time, awakening him or her to the power and the passion of the goodness that lives within all of us.”

The first person on the panel to speak was Steve Berry, the warden who first allowed SBB to try their program in Luckett. Tofteland asked Berry, “I want to know why you let the old hippy into the prison.”

“I let the old hippy in because I was desperate,” says Berry.

Luckett was built with 500 prisoners in mind, one to a cell. By the time Tofteland approached Berry with the SBB program, the population had soared to 1100. The prison had fitted each cell with two bunk beds and had turned a dayroom into a barracks housing 100 men.

Berry says the prison’s biggest problem is idle time. All of the academic and work programs offered at Luckett were full and had waiting lists. The warden was desperate to find programs to keep the inmates busy. 

“We had a lot of people who didn’t have insight or discipline,” says Berry. “The program helped them with that and helped a significant number of people from coming back to the prison.” 

LaDonna Thompson, commissioner of the Kentucky Corrections Department, also spoke on the panel. She’s a big fan of the SBB and makes it a point to attend plays and rehearsal. 

“I’ve been a little bit of a nerd for most of my life,” says Thompson. The program immediately piqued her interest. 

“Some of the inmates—and some of the staff, in fact—might never have seen Shakespeare without these shows,” adds Thompson.

Larry Chandler, retired chairman of the Kentucky State Parole Board, suggested early in the presentation that the SBB program ought to be judged by its products—the alumni of the program, those men and youths who have been released and are working to reintegrate into society. The panel featured two such men, Larry Lucas and Richard Hughes.

Lucas spent 27 years in Luckett and was released in 2010. He found it difficult to find work with his record as a convicted felon, so he borrowed money from his mother and sister, bought a truck and a lawn mower and started LSL Enterprises, a lawncare and landscaping company. He has two employees now and is a full time student at Jefferson Community and Technical College.

When he first saw SBB practicing in the yard, Lucas says he thought it was a little corny. But shortly thereafter, his sister came to visit and sparked an epiphany. All his sister said to him was, “Mama’s not getting any younger.”

Lucas had been sentenced to life without parole. He says, “The people who said that I couldn’t change that, that I couldn’t change myself, fueled my desire to change everything.” Later he amended that statement. “I didn’t even really have to change myself. I just had to change back to who I was as a kid.”

Lucas’s inmate friends coerced him to join SBB. He was accepted and worked with SBB for ten years until his release in 2010. 

“The more I started doing right, the more good things happened,” says Lucas.

Richard Hughes joined Shakespeare Behind Bars for the t-shirt. Luckett inmates wear standard khaki uniforms, but occasionally, participants in SBB are allowed to wear their program tshirt. That tiny opportunity to show a bit of individuality in a sea of standardization was enough of a draw for him.

Hughes was incarcerated for 12 years and worked with SBB for seven. Where Lucas delivered an eloquent and confident speech, Hughes’ story was served with a depth of passion and emotion that was palpable

“Shakespeare Behind Bars saved my life, in the sense that I didn’t know what I was about,” says Hughes.

He joined the program for the t-shirt—and the occasional pizza parties—but it didn’t take long for him to start earning choice roles and using the support of the program to look more deeply within himself.

His epiphany came while playing Sebastian in “The Tempest.” 

“I didn’t have to kill that man,” he says.

Hughes explained that SBB helps inmates achieve “true” rehabilitation. “When true rehabilitation takes place, you don’t have to have a monster back on the streets.”

The numbers support Hughes’s assertion to a staggering degree. National recidivism rates for inmates hover around the 50 percent mark. But for Shakespeare Behind Bars alumni, that number is less than 6 percent. The program, says Hughes, truly changes people.

 

“I used to look in the mirror and see a monster,” says Hughes. “Now I look and see a man.”

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IdeaFestival: Saturday Highlights

September 22, 2012

IdeaFestival 2012 concluded on Saturday. Kris Kimmel, the event organizer, reminded crowds that they can continue the IdeaFestival experience locally and in Lexington by enrolling in IdeaFestival University, a series of small pop-up classes that began in April and will continue throughout the year. Kimmel also announced the dates for IdeaFestival 2013 (September 25-28).

Friday’s talks included a presentation (with opera) by a theoretical particle physicist and an entrepreneur’s new vision for the bicycle in Tanzania.

Lisa Randall: ‘Knocking on Heaven’s Door’

George Gamow was one of the most forward-thinking physicists of the early- to mid-1900s, but in 1947, Gamow wrote, “we have actually hit the bottom in our search for the basic elements from which matter is formed.” Despite being wildly advanced in his theories, Gamow still believed that the study of physics was finite and that we were approaching the end of what we could discover about the known—and even the unknown—universe.

Lisa Randall is a theoretical particle physicist and cosmologist at Harvard University. She studies both the smallest and the largest known (and theoretical) objects in the universe. Randall was the first tenured female professor in Princeton’s physics department and the first tenured female theoretical physicist at both MIT and Harvard.

Randall also wrote the libretto for an opera about physics, “Hypermusic Prologue: A Projective Opera in Seven Planes,” in collaboration with the composer Hèctor Parra, which was performed at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. She gleefully shared a snippet of this work with the audience at the end of her presentation, to the delight of the crowd.

Randall’s most recent book is called “Knocking on Heaven’s Door: How Physics and Scientific Thinking Illuminate the Universe and the Modern World.” Her presentation focused on the nature and goals of the the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the enormous particle accelerator below the border of France and Switzerland, as well as recent ideas underlying cosmology and current dark matter experiments.

No one knew about blood cells or DNA until we had technology that advanced with theoretical ideals, explained Randall. The LHC is another instrument we can use to advance our theoretical understanding of the universe. It is a 27km-circumference underground ring that serves as a proton-to-proton collider. The purpose of the LHC is not to test particular theories or conduct specific experiments, but to perform these proton-to-proton collisions and collect as much data as possible.

Randall says that we are due for another radical scientific leap like the leap from classical mechanics to quantum mechanics—and the LHC may provide the basis.

Already, the LHC has given us evidence of the Higgs boson, a new type of particle with no spin (a quantum mechanical phenomenon of momentum). As far as we know, everything else in nature has spin or is made of particles that have spin. The Higgs boson is the first zero-spin particle. In Randall’s “physics lifetime,” this is the only particle to be discovered when we didn’t know where to look. This discovery happened (courtesy of the LCH) surprisingly fast.

In the Q&A session, an audience member asked Randall how the discoveries made using the LHC would impact our daily lives. Her answer was surprisingly frank.

They won’t, she explained. “You can go through your day without these discoveries making any difference in your life at all,” she said. “Physics is not important.”

But she added, “But it is human nature to be curious. A lot of what we’ve discovered in physics didn’t reveal itself as immediately important… but it was important.”

Jodie Wu and the Entrepreneur’s Rough Road

After the Q&A session, Jodie Wu was asked how old she was. The answer was 25. That question never ceases to disappoint me. It suggests that what Wu has accomplished is somehow more remarkable because of her age; young people accomplish staggeringly amazing things all the time. And it also suggests that if the answer had been 65, the strides Wu has made with her work would be less impressive. I expect better of IdeaFestival.

Wu is founder and CEO Global Cycle Solutions. As an undergraduate at MIT, she and her team won the 2009 MIT 100K Business Plan Competition. When she graduated, she moved to Arusha, Tanzania, to launch a company that creates an adaptor for bikes that allows people to use their bicycles to perform various manual tasks.

The inspiration for her 100K Business Plan entry came from time she spent in Tanzania observing farmers grinding maize in tedious and wasteful ways. Natives beat the maize with a stick or shelled it by hand. Both efforts destroyed the outer layer of the maize, which lead to significant material loss.

At first Wu brought a contraption she encountered in Nicaragua to Tanzania. Called the Bicimilliana, it was a bicycle that had been converted to a stationary machine that you pedaled to grind corn. But the machine cost $200—too much for the Tanzanians—and was a waste of a perfectly good bike, the primary mode of transportation in the rural areas.

The next iteration of Global Cycle Solutions involved retrofitting existing bikes with an adaptor that could be fitted with any number of interchangeable tools. So while natives pedaled from place to place, they could also be using the motion of the bike chain and the adapted tool to grind corn, purify water or charge batteries. Wu describes the bike adaptor as allowing the bike to become like an iPhone, where the tools serve like aps.

Wu said that she wished that she could say that her experience with entrepreneurship was a rosy tale of success. But her business was affected by long term droughts as much as her customers’ businesses were. Last fall, she said, her personal bank account dipped below $100, and she was forced to lay off seven of her ten employees in Tanzania. Her board told her to choose one thing that her business did and focus on doing that thing the best that she could.

Wu said, “I took my ‘little bet,’ as Peter Sims said.” Sims presented on “Little Bets” on Thursday

With less than $5k in the company accounts, Wu chose to put all of that money into purchasing high quality solar lanterns that sold for $50 each. These lanterns not only stored enough power to provide light after dark, they were powerful enough to charge batteries and cellphones. They were a hit. She’s now selling upwards of 1,000 lanterns a month. And it’s these lanterns that are keeping her bicycle-to-tool adaptor business alive.

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IdeaFestival: The Finland School Phenomenon

September 22, 2012

Thanks to bloggers and Twitter users with nationwide followings at last year’s IdeaFestival, students from DuPont Manual high school in Louisville garnered national acclaim for their questions for and engagement with IdeaFestival presenters. This year, their performance has been no less noteworthy. The Q&A session following Harvard Innovation Education Fellow Tony Wagner’s presentation was dominated by curious students.

Tony Wagner has become an expert on Finland’s education system, which is consistently ranked among the best in the world. Four years ago he wrote a book called The Global Achievement Gap, which highlights the gap between the skills kids need and what’s taught in schools—even the best schools.

Thirty-five years ago, said Wagner,  Finland was an agrarian culture with one product—trees. After doing an intensive study on the then-failing academic system in 1975, officials in Finland came to a number of realizations, then acted on them.

First, they determined that school systems must abolish all tracking. Classes should be heterogeneous groupings of students of different abilities. The result of this: in 2011, the average difference between the highest and lowest performing students was less than four percent.

Officials also concluded that administrations must abolish most teacher accreditation processes. Now, every teacher must have a Master’s degree. This is a far more rigorous program than a Master’s degree in the United States. Each student must spend a year in residency working with a master teacher, much like medical residencies in America. Teaching is now among the most prestigious professions in Finland, despite the fact that they are only paid slightly better than American teachers. Only one in ten applicants is accepted to teacher prep programs in Finland.

To allow for more teacher autonomy and creativity, Finland pared down the national curriculum. Now the K-8 national math curriculum is ten pages long.

Students have shorter school days and a shorter school year. When a student in Finland says that they have three hours of homework, they mean three hours a week. There is no formal testing until students are ready to graduate. Students then get to choose what subjects for which they will test. Students can go to school as long as they want to to prepare for these exams, and if they don’t pass, they can take them again.

In ninth grade, Finnish students choose their tracks and 45 percent choose the vocational/technical track. This is not a shameful decision; Finland values its blue collar workers and sends them to post-secondary school.

“Did you know that 40 percent of Harvard students are medicated in some way?” said Wagner in his presentation, adding that the nature of the American education system is stress-producing and full of contractions.

Wagner echoed several earlier presenters when he said innovation and entrepreneurship are “team sport[s].” But the American education system values and celebrates individual achievements.

We also value people who exhibit “expertise,” even though we know that most problems are best solved through interdisciplinary solutions.

As Peter Sims pointed out Thursday and Wagner repeated, in schools, we penalize failure, even small failures.

“We’ve created a risk-averse academic culture,” said Wagner.

The world of innovation is a world of risk and there is no innovation without some trial and error. Wagner mentioned talking to a student at Los Angeles’ groundbreaking High Tech High who said, “We don’t talk about failure here. We talk about iterations.”

American schools give students a passive experience. In Finland, after every 75-minute class block there is a 15-minute recess. Finland emphasizes the importance of “play” for all age groups. All preschools in Finland are “playschools” with very little academic structure. Wagner cited Montessori schools as an example of schools in America that have embraced this ideal.

The culture of American schooling relies on extrinsic motivation. We ply students with a carrot and stick model—test scores, achievement exams, highly competitive colleges, individual awards. In Finland, Wagner said, kids are more intrinsically motivated.

“We’re born with the innate capacity to innovate, but that gets schooled and parented out of us,” he said. “We can’t rely on cheap multiple choice tests anymore. We need to bring human judgement back into education.”

During the Q&A, Wagner took questions from educators and students alike about what schools and administrations can do to make changes to the system. His answers were thoughtful and practical.

But a Manual student named Zoe asked a question that provoked the most compelling answer of the evening and illustrated that something is going terribly right at that school. She asked, “What can students do to improve their own educational experience?”

“Incremental change is great, if you’re a glacier,” said Kris Kimel in response. “Sometimes you just have to refuse to do things.”

He concluded his message to Zoe with the following Steve Jobs quote, “It’s more fun to be a pirate than to join the Navy.”

Wagner’s most recent book is called Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World.

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IdeaFestival: Friday Highlights

September 22, 2012

Halfway through day two of IdeaFestival, organizer Kris Kimel announced that some organizations that had reserved blocks of tickets had released their reservations. So now, individual tickets to most events are available. The festival ends Saturday, and sessions run from 9 am until 5:30 pm.

Friday kicked off with two presentations featuring artists who are currently exhibiting at the Land of Tomorrow gallery at 233 West Broadway:

Grimanesa Amoros

Alice Gray Stites, curator of 21c Hotel and Museum, introduced Grimanesa Amoros, an interdisciplinary artist who was born in Lima, Peru and now resides in New York. Her work is currently featured in a Land of Tomorrow gallery group exhibition here in Louisville, and she is creating a site-specific installation for the soon-to-open 21c in Cincinnati.  

Amoros discussed a number of her installations from all around the world and showed concept videos documenting the creation, the inspiration, and the reception of these pieces.

The heart of her inspiration for most of these pieces lies with the floating, man-made islands inhabited by the Uru people of Lake Titicaca in her native Peru. Titicaca is the highest lake in the world. The Uros are a pre-Incan people who have constructed 42 un-moored islands made out of totoro reeds. The natives add to these structures every day otherwise they will sink.

To represent these islands in her installations, Amoros crafts translucent bubbles of varying sizes and arranges them either vertically or horizontally, so that they resemble either an island chain or a bubble pyramid or cone. These bubbles, which are either hemispheres or globes of silk screened fabric with striated patterns lit from within, also harken back to her seaside childhood and memories of the ocean churning foam onto the beach.

The first installation she highlighted was a chain of hemispheres created as a site-specific installation for Issey Miyake clothing store in NYC.  She constructed a similar chain for the Venice Biennale 54. Because of that city’s unpredictable floods, the curators of the exhibit insisted that she engineer an ‘escape’ system for her installation, a way of evacuating the piece if a flood was immanent. Amoros conceded to the request, but admitted that she would have preferred that, in the case of flooding, the gallery just let the bubbles float like they’re supposed to.  

She also created a work of public art for Times Square in New York. This was a pyramid of different sized globes constructed out of material that not only allowed light to shine from within the globes but also reflected the neon lights of the environment at night. The installation was part of the 2011 Armory Show and was called Uros House. Eventually Times Square police had to create barriers to keep people from stealing the smaller bubbles. But every time Amoros went to view her installation, she surreptitiously moved the barriers further and further away from the piece.

Creative Capital

Also participating in the Land Of Tomorrow group exhibition are four artists sponsored by Creative Capital. Without fail, the annual presentation at IdeaFestival by Creative Capital artists is among the most compelling of the event. This year was no different. Creative Capital has supplied nearly $9 million in direct support to artists every year. This year there were more than 3000 applicants for 42 grants.

Liz Cohen is a documentary photographer from Detroit. She presented works from several of her long-term projects. The first was a series of photos of transgendered sex workers in the American sector of the Panama Canal. The second was a project involving “tattoo artists who are motorcyclists, militia members, and miniature animal breeders.” Finally she showed photo documentation of her eight-year-long quest to hybridize a German-manufactured Trabant car with the iconic El Camino. Cohen trained with car customizers in auto body shops across the country. Over the course of the project, she took bikini model-style pictures of herself posing with the car, even when she was eight months pregnant with her child.

Sam Van Aken is the Director of Sculpture at Syracuse University. His presentation began with a film project involving Germans and their love of American Cowboys. But it quickly shifted to his interest in a water tower in Grover’s Mills, NJ. After Orson Welles’ “War of the Worlds” radio hoax, citizens of Grover’s Mills mistook the water tower for a UFO and took up arms and started blasting it full of holes. The owner donated the tower to him, and he took it down and turned it into a radio studio from which he broadcast his own radio hoaxes (primarily interrupting commercial oldies and country radio stations) until the FCC shut him down. The centerpiece of his presentation was his “Trees of Forty Fruits,” a piece of horticultural art created through grafting technology. Each of his trees produces forty different kinds of fruits. When he showed an artist’s rendering of the tree in full blossom, the audience burst into applause.

Hassan Elahi says his art barely passes as art. After 9/11, he was mistaken for a terrorist and was subjected to a six-month investigation by the FBI that culminated in Elahi enduring nine polygraphs in a single day.  After this experience, Elahi decided that whenever he had to go anywhere, he would call “his” FBI agent. This “relationship”—which was entirely one-sided, he admitted—evolved as Elahi began to send the agent emails and photos and blog entries in addition to his phone calls. Every time he reported to the FBI, they responded with a simple “thank you.” Elahi decided that if providing some information kept him off the no-fly list, providing even more information to the FBI would further secure his freedom. So he turned his cellphone into tracking device. At this point he’s provided the FBI with over 50,000 pieces of evidence of where he’s been and what he’s done in the form of maps, photos, financial data, phone records, and transportation records.

“The way to protect your privacy is to give it up,” he says.  

If 300 million people started doing this, the intelligence community would have to be entirely reconstructed. Elahi says that with the amount of information we’re putting online, we’re all creating similar archives now.

“We need to take control of these archives, if we don’t, other people will, and they will be inaccurate,” he says.

Tahir Hemphill is the 2012-2013 Hip Hop Archive Fellow at the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He has created an online searchable database of over 50,000 hip hop songs recorded between 1979 to today. Hemphill says he was groomed to be a scientist but decided in college to become an artist, so all of his art is informed by science. These databases can be used to map lyrics and language and history to discover what is said over time and space. These data visualizations can be graphs or charts or maps. An example of this in practice is a data visualization piece called “Champagne Always Stains My Silk” which charts the popularity of certain champagne brand mentions in hip hop from 1980-2000.

Exhibits featuring these artists will be on view through November 2, 2012.

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IdeaFestival: Are We Hardwired to Bully?

September 21, 2012

When she was a child, Cynthia Lowen was painfully shy. She avoided clubs and sports, to her parents’ disappointment. She was most comfortable around books and horses—maybe most comfortable sitting quietly by herself reading books about horses. Lowen spent her childhood and teen years at a farm, mucking out stables and riding horses. The horses didn’t call her “giraffe neck,” she says, like her peers did.

It’s hard to believe that anyone would have made fun of Lowen’s appearance. She’s an exceptionally tall and striking woman. When I was a kid, I probably would have envied her long neck. I was a ballerina, and we coveted long necks; we called them “dancers’ necks.”

In April of 2009, Carl Walker Hoover, an eleven-year old Massachusetts boy hung himself after enduring daily anti-gay bullying from his peers. A few days later, Jaheem Herrera, also an eleven-year old from Georgia, also hung himself after suffering chronic anti-gay bullying at school.

Shortly thereafter, Lowen started work on the documentary that would become “Bully” with Emmy award winner Lee Hirsch, who directed the film. They chronicled a year in the life of America’s bullying crisis, following the stories of five kids and families over the course of the 2009-2010 school year. 

The trailer for ‘Bully’

In her presentation at this year’s IdeaFestival, Lowen focused on one of the children, Alex, a seventh-grader from Sioux City, Iowa. Alex is the very picture of the awkward stages of youth—all arms and legs, thick-lipped overbite, naive and with desperate to be accepted.

He has Asperger syndrome. He has trouble reading other people. In a film clip, he’s shown accepting brutal, violent, and scary bullying on the bus with an “aw shucks” attitude. The film shows kids punching Alex, stabbing him with a pencil. One kid threatens Alex by saying, “I’m gonna knock your fishlips off.” Another threatens to rape him with a stick.

All of this happens in full view of adults. The bus driver is aware. There are no hidden cameras; the filmmakers are filming in person on the bus. Most people would assume that kids would behave better in front of adults, but these kids have never been held accountable for their actions—secret or out in the open.

Alex tells the filmmakers, “I like school, but I don’t know how to make friends.”

He’s persecuted, but he doesn’t understand that he is.

Lowen said the assistant principal, who in the film is portrayed as a tragically inept Pollyanna, just assumed that the bullying was inevitable in Alex’s case. No one at school empathized with Alex.

When the filmmakers captured Alex’s brutal experience on the bus, they stepped away from the traditional role of documentarians and intervened. They showed the footage to the school and to Alex’s parents.

When Alex’s parents confronted the assistant principal, she said, “Buses are notoriously bad places for some kids…I’ve been on that route, and they were just as good as gold.”

She concluded the meeting by saying, “I’m not going to lie to you, I can’t make it stop.”

According to Lowen, Alex’s school, East Middle School, had a strong bullying culture that began at the top. Lowen said that the reason the principal never appeared in the documentary was that he spent the year in his office. The staff, she said, was terrified of him. Students and faculty alike respected a certain kind of power and dominance in the school culture. The middle school’s sports team were called the Spartans. The favored students were the ones that showed this kind of dominance.

Alex was moved to a bus for disabled kids, furthering his isolation. When Lowen sought releases from the bullies’ parents for the film, she learned that the bullies suffered no consequences. The parents who saw the footage were appalled—not just at their kids’ behavior but at the fact that the school had never contacted them. How were they supposed to be part of the solution?

Thirteen million kids are bullied in the United States every year, Lowen said. But there’s a deep and pervasive culture that dismisses bullying to varying degrees. People say that there has always been bullying and there always will be. Bullying is human nature. It’s Darwinian. Survival of the Fittest.

Lowen decided to study Darwinian theory and even visited the Galapagos Islands where Charles Darwin first began to develop the concepts that made him famous. Lowen was trying to answer the question: Are we hardwired to bully?

Some stats:

  • Every day, 160,000 kids miss school because of bullying.
  • 29 percent of unemployed adults report having been bullied as a kid
  • 70 percent of all bullying behavior focuses on only three targets: appearance, sexual orientation/perceived sexual orientation and not conforming to gender stereotypes
  • 46 percent of kids on the autism spectrum are bullied, compared to 10 percent of the average population

But Darwin suggested that sympathetic communities produced more offspring. It’s a theory that doesn’t support institutional or hard-wired bullying.

Lowen concluded her presentation by giving some advice about what others can do to curb bullying and encourage victims to report abuse and recover.

She said we need to be teaching our kids social-emotional skills, not just academic skills. These include: curiosity, impulse control, critical thinking, self-confidence, resilience, creativity and problem-solving. These skills will help bullied kids bounce back and be strong, and will help kids that would normally be bystanders (kids who look the other way when their peers are bullied) become what Lowen calls “upstanders”—kids who stand up for the victims and who report bullying to adults.

From adults, we need strong leaders, said Lowen. All adults in a school community, from teachers to bus drivers to coaches to the lunchroom workers, need to be equipped to deal with bullying. School cultures must value all students. And of course, teachers and administrators can’t do it all.  Positive parenting is equally important.

Currently Lowen is spearheading an effort called “One Million Kids to See ‘Bully’”—an outreach program to help bring the movie to schools and youth programs across the country.

A post-script on Alex: he’s now 16, and he’s been touring with the filmmakers speaking about his experience. He’s a well-adjusted kid, says Lowen. Confident. Happy. Social. Some of his bullies have even apologized to him. And Lowen got to spend some time around horses during her visit to Louisville. She stopped by Taste of Innovation at Churchill Downs Thursday night.

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IdeaFestival: Thursday Highlights

September 21, 2012

When the organizers for IdeaFestival said that most events were sold out, they truly meant it. All of Thursday’s presentations were standing-room only.

Some highlights:

Peter Sims—Little Bets

When Kris Kimel introduced Sims, a best-selling author and entrepreneur, he said, “[Sims has] used the words ‘cool’ and ‘I love it’ and ‘awesome’ hundreds of times since he arrived in Louisville.” And indeed, Sims led his presentation with a discussion of Wednesday night’s dinner at Smoketown USA with Kevin Colleran, formerly of Facebook.

The concept of “Little Bets” comes from Sim’s book ‘Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries’ in which he posits that we need to do more to foster the idea of “affordable losses” in the workplace, in education, and in entrepreneurship.

Make “little bets” with your decisions, says Sims, ones that you can stand to lose. Fail with these bets, lose on these bets, and use them to discover the problems with your ideas. Once you’ve discovered the issues and discovered what works, that’s when you bet big. This is “experimental innovation.” Sims suggests that education needs reform because we are teaching students that anything less than perfect is unacceptable. Failures, even little failures, are stigmatized.

He suggests even the most risk-averse organizations can reform their thinking. Sims used the State Department as an example of an organization “which has 12 manuals for everything, manuals that answer every question.” That might have been okay during the Cold War, says Sims, but it’s not anymore because in our current climate, we don’t even know what the problems are going to be.

Entrepreneurs, especially, should think about failure the way most people think about learning. For every 100 small bets you place, you might get 6 breakthroughs. And that’s so fine. Some people are natural conceptual innovators—they don’t need to work through trial and error. These people are often prodigies, and some do their best work when they’re young. Mozart could create on the fly without trial or revision. But most of us are more like Beethoven—experimental innovators. Beethoven’s transcripts were a mess with loads of corrections and scribble marks so violent he often put his quill through the paper.

Other examples of experimental innovators included The Onion. The satirical paper’s creative team suggests up to 600 possibilities for 18 weekly headlines; Chris Rock and Jerry Seinfeld, who test out comedy routines on small clubs extensively before touring bigger venues; and Frank Gehry, the architect, who revises his plans continuously and secures and trusts feedback from his team.

Sims showed clips of the documentary “Sketches with Frank Gehry” to illustrate that last point. Sims suggests that, unlike Gehry’s team, most teams default to the HiPPO model: that final decisions are made according to the Highest Paid Person’s Opinion. We need to get rid of that hierarchical creative model, says Sims, need to take the HiPPO’s power away from him.

Instead of HiPPOs, Sims said we should be stressing a culture championed by Pixar, one that values “Black Sheep.” Black Sheep think differently and are not afraid of failure. They are, as Sims said, people who will make little bets until the time comes to lay all of their money down.

David Kaiser—How the Hippies Saved Physics

David Kaiser is the Department Head of MIT’s Program in Science, Technology, and Society, and a Senior Lecturer in the school’s Department of Physics. The title of his most recent book, ‘How the Hippies Saved Physics: Science, Counterculture, and the Quantum Revival’ is a play on another popular title, Thomas Cahill’s 1996 bestseller ‘How the Irish Saved Civilization.’ His speech told the history of how the right kind of thinkers in the right kind of environment can revive a dying field.

Physics grew twice as fast as other sciences post WWII largely due to the needs of the Defense Department. In the mid-1960’s there were significantly more jobs in the field than students of Physics. But the bubble burst in the 1970’s.

When the bottom fell out of the physics market, hundreds of graduates entered a market that could no longer employ them. By the mid-70’s, Kaiser said, there were Physics PhDs from Stanford who had to go on welfare and unemployed PhDs from MIT.

A group that came to call themselves the Fundamental Fysiks Group (FFG) entered the field at the bottom of the crash and met up in Berkeley in 1975. They had a common interest in quantum mechanics and in asking the kind of questions that weren’t covered in their schooling.

The FFG was seated in the hotbed of the U.S. counterculture. This was a time when even prestigious scientific journals were publishing articles about studies of telepathy, precognition, remote viewing and psychokinesis. Bell’s Theorem of quantum mechanics opens the door to this. And people who understood and embraced these more theoretical aspects of Physics were suddenly “cool,” if not in demand.

The FFG became the darling of the counterculture. They transformed the field of Physics from one that was perceived as being an instrument of the Defense Department to one that was really “with it.” Physicists began doing experiments into the subconscious. Physics became a study about the big questions in life.

They were wrong more often than they were right, said Kaiser. But they made productive mistakes. These men and women were the right people at the right time to “save” the study of Physics by essentially making it hip. They had an unbreakable passion for quantum theory, were incredibly trained and had very open minds. And these hippy physicists helped bring foundational physics back into American classrooms.

Kevin Colleran

Colleran’s speech didn’t have a title. But the first thing that we learned about him might have served well as a title. He took the stage and told us, “I was the seventh employee of Facebook.”

Colleran joined Facebook as the first advertising executive. He worked for the company for more than six years, and by the time he left, he was the second-most tenured employee after Mark Zuckerberg.

Colleran initially joined Facebook without ever meeting the West Coast-based crew. He was living in New York and basing his work out of his apartment. Because the company considered his apartment the “East Coast HQ” of Facebook, the HR rep sent him minimum wage and non-discrimination policy posters to hang in his living room.

He tells a story about how Zuckerberg and the other West-Coasters thought he was black because his Facebook profile picture was one of him and the rapper 50 Cent that he’d snapped on Spring Break in Mexico. When he finally went out to California for a meeting, he says, “I totally trashed their diversity plan as soon as they saw me.”

Colleran says about the earliest iterations of Facebook, “I don’t know why people loved this thing when it first came out.” It was a single page. Users were only allowed a single picture.

Colleran addressed the differences between how people use Facebook and how the Facebook team intends it to be used. For example, the fairly recent addition of the “Timeline” component was met with wild disapproval from users. More than a third of users, he estimates, hated or still actively hate the Timeline function. But Zuckerberg intended Timeline to serve as a digital archive of the most important moments of our lives. Colleran talked about losing his grandparents at a young age and only having a couple of pictures of them, but no other sources of information.

Timelines, says Colleran, is in place to assure that those kinds of things never happen again. No one’s story will be forgotten. It’s the Facebook team’s hope that current users go back and upload baby pictures and life events that pre-date Timeline, so we can all have a digital, permanent archive of our stories. A very sentimental intent.

Colleran left the company last year and is now part of The Facebook Mafia, a group of former Facebook employees who formed a venture capital firm that invests in social media.

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