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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