Blue Mind Illumination

These are two of my favorite quotes. The kind that stick with me and bubble up frequently:

“The sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever.”
         - Jacques Cousteau
“The cure for anything is salt water.”
         - Isak Dinesen

In the world of science, which has been my scholarly and professional domain for three decades, words like these are reserved for keynotes, postscripts, and plaques. Used publicly, such sappy sentimentalities regularly evoke cynical eye-rolling.

But what did Captain Cousteau and Ms. Blixen (Dinesen was her pen name) mean when they wrote them? Were they being literal, poetic, or both? Were they wonderfully prescient or merely passionate?

Chances are, if you are still reading this, you’re much like me. We’ve been put under that aqueous spell, found wonder, and healed ourselves through water. And if I asked you if those personal experiences required scientific verification you’d poke me in my cynical little eyeball.

I’d also wager that if such explanations were available, you—like me—would let your curiosity pull you in for an exploratory journey. If cognitive scientists, neuropsychologists, and physiologists held insights about cognitive benefits related to our love of water, we’d want them.

Some might argue that exploring the science of wonder, joy, love, and awe diminishes its experience. For me it’s just the opposite—inquiry grows the island of knowledge, which then offers longer beaches to explore.

So, over each of the past four years we have assembled top neuroscientists, explorers, big wave surfers, deep sea divers, musicians, writers, and educators in San Francisco, on the Outer Banks, Block Island, and the Cornish coast. Thrown together for three days, surrounded by water, and isolated from modern distractions, we’ve taken some deep dives into the topic known as “Blue Mind”.

Our simple goal has been to better understand “our brains on water” and to communicate what we find as widely as possible.

I won’t give it all away, and space won’t allow it, but suffice it to say the results from fMRI, EEG, and neurochemical studies are profound and surprising, with ramifications for conservationists, economists, architects, public health practitioners, athletes, travelers, educators, and parents.

Karen and Jacques’ lasting words are thoroughly and scientifically defensible: the spells, wonderment, and cures of salubrious waters are indeed quite real.

Please join me on October 12th for IF Water, and let the eye-rolling cease and the teaching and Blue Mind illumination begin.

“In the end, we conserve only what we love. We will love only what we understand. We will understand only what we are taught.” – Baba Dioum, Senegalese Naturalist.

- Dr. Wallace J. Nichols - Scientist, marine biologist and author of the New York Times best seller, Blue Mind

Howie Mandel: "No, but she has to LOOK"

Sometimes we just don't see what's in plain sight. Prof. Daniel Simons points out this funny example of inattentional blindness on his Tumblr blog. Co-author of the "The Invisible Gorilla" and a Psychology professor at the University of Illinois, Prof. Simons will participate in IdeaFestval 2011.

The lowest priced all-access passes of the year are now on sale for a limited time. I hope to see you in September!


"Serendipitor" will take you where you want to go - eventually

It's kind of like that first cab ride from the airport into a major urban center.

Artist and architect Mark Shepard has developed "Serendipitor," a downloadable app that will take you where you want to go - eventually. Art without Walls is bringing Shepard to the IdeaFestival as part of Creative Capitol.

Storyglot recently interviewed the artist about the value of being location-unaware.

Most location- and context-sensitive apps are about making things faster and more efficient. Serendipitor slows things down and disrupts the flow. Why do you think this is an important thing to do?

Computer science and engineering are practices that hold optimization and efficiency as important design challenges. And that’s all well and good when we’re talking about relatively instrumental applications of these technologies in urban environments. But artists frame questions in ways scientists and engineers do not, and when considering the implications of these technologies for urban life, one has to wonder what other criteria could be relevant. Who really wants a faster, seamless, more optimal and efficient life?

The best discoveries happen when we are not sure exactly where we are.

I hope to see you at the IdeaFestival!


Ignore the dancing golden spheres

Douglas Eby at the Creative Mind:

In his post Beauty, God, Death: What is Real Psychotherapy?, Stephen A. Diamond, Ph.D. writes about the 'point' of therapy: 'One of my former mentors, existential psychoanalyst Dr. Rollo May (1909 -1994), passionately argued that psychotherapy should be less about technique or what he pejoratively called ‘gimmicks’ designed to subdue symptoms than about enhancing the patient’s capacity to feel, experience, create, find meaning, and in general to become more receptive and accepting to life and love in both their positive and negative aspects.'

I'm not qualified to talk about the professional merits of that approach to counseling, but the points made by Eby have therapeutic value of another sort. In my view there is no doubt that our ability "to feel, experience, create, find meaning" is directly related to a personal expansiveness and willingness to engage the unfamiliar, not as a spectator, but as a co-creator.

Here's what I mean.

Despite telling the IdeaFestival audience exactly how a trick had been done, Teller had it right in 2008. It didn't diminish the magic. Over the course of 90 minutes, he related the history of a famous trick, how it was stage managed and the hours and hours of practice that it took to get it right. The IdeaFestival event was billed as the "science of magic."

As it turned out, the "gimmicks" that made golden spheres respond to his command were not that important after all. In fact, on reflection I realized that Teller had managed to deliver another kind of magic. While I was watching the mechanics of the trick, I was actually more engaged than I might have been at a Penn and Teller show poised for fireworks. I was simultaneously attentive, open, observant, relaxed and willing to listen to what he was saying.

I left ascendant.  

Even if they don't always end like we'd want, the best stories depend on a capacity for meaning-making. And that's particularly true for the stories we tell about our lives. Dancing spheres only have the power that we give to them.

If you get a chance, read the "Beauty, God, Death...." article linked above.


Muhammad Ali advice: Don't be that woman

When Muhammad Ali says "Tori, you don't want to go through life as the woman who almost rowed across the ocean," you might, if you were Tori McClure, listen.

She did.

Skills she learned in her second attempt to row the Atlantic - persistence, endurance, patience and tolerance - are the same ones she uses every day in her current position as president of Spalding University.

Filmed at IdeaFestival 2010, Tori was one of the many incredible people who appeared at the IdeaFestival to share their stories and hard won insight.

The lowest priced all-access passes for IdeaFestival 2011 are now on sale for a limited time. I hope to see you there!


Daniel Tammet on Sharp Cheese and Loud Shirts

In this engaging IF conversation Daniel Tammet helps us understand how similar non-savant and savant minds truly are. If you regularly use puns, metaphors and plays on words, your brain is creating unexpected connections that are quite complex, much like the savant brain does. Daniel also explains how biological "cross-sensing" - synesthesia - might be related to everyday language about "sharp" cheese and "loud" shirts.

Author of "Born on a Blue Day" and "Embracing the Wide Sky," Daniel was one of the many outstanding people at the IdeaFestival last year. Here is his IdeaFestival Conversation in which he talks about his life and insight. The latest IF Conversations may always be found on the festival's YouTube channel, IFTV.

For an extended look at Daniel speaking at last year's festival, check out this video.

The lowest priced all-access passes for IdeaFestival 2011 are now on sale. Purchasing your tickets today will help the festival continue to bring people like Daniel to you.


Talking to Pharaoh

Everyone shines, given the right lighting. For some, it’s a Broadway spotlight, for others, a lamplit desk

Susan Cain wrote a cool piece in the New York Times yesterday on all the ways - in addition to sometimes feeling like a specimen - that introverts are different from the majority of the population.

The majority of the population doesn't always appreciate it.

Though the [Diagnostic and Statistical Manual] did not set out to pathologize shyness, it risks doing so, and has twice come close to identifying introversion as a disorder, too. (Shyness and introversion are not the same thing. Shy people fear negative judgment; introverts simply prefer quiet, minimally stimulating environments.)

But shyness and introversion share an undervalued status in a world that prizes extroversion....

Yet shy and introverted people have been part of our species for a very long time, often in leadership positions. We find them in the Bible ('Who am I, that I should go unto Pharaoh?' asked Moses, whom the Book of Numbers describes as 'very meek, above all the men which were upon the face of the earth.') We find them in recent history, in figures like Charles Darwin, Marcel Proust and Albert Einstein, and, in contemporary times: think of Google’s Larry Page, or Harry Potter’s creator, J. K. Rowling.

In the science journalist Winifred Gallagher’s words: 'The glory of the disposition that stops to consider stimuli rather than rushing to engage with them is its long association with intellectual and artistic achievement. Neither E=mc2 nor ‘Paradise Lost’ was dashed off by a party animal.'

Steve Wozniak, who spoke at IdeaFestival in 2007, is also mentioned:

THE psychologist Gregory Feist found that many of the most creative people in a range of fields are introverts who are comfortable working in solitary conditions in which they can focus attention inward. Steve Wozniak, the engineer who founded Apple with Steve Jobs, is a prime example: Mr. Wozniak describes his creative process as an exercise in solitude. 'Most inventors and engineers I’ve met are like me,' he writes in 'iWoz,' his autobiography. 'They’re shy and they live in their heads. They’re almost like artists. In fact, the very best of them are artists. And artists work best alone ... Not on a committee. Not on a team.'

Like the eremitic Daniel Tammet, who said last year at the IdeaFestival that "the world needs every kind of mind," I was happy to read Cain's piece because it accurately describes how I've felt as someone who often prefers books to people, and who has come to understand a bit more about himself in the past few years by taking some calculated risks in his life. But having decided that I no longer wanted to be a schmo, I've found that unless I'm aggressively speaking up I won't be heard. It's both a familiar and an odd place to be. When I don't answer a question immediately - when I don't share what's on my mind - when I don't reflexively dial the next number - the response, should anyone notice, is not one of curiosity. It's bewilderment. What's wrong?

Nothing, really. As Cain points out, "everyone shines given the right lighting." Yet I've heard that question so many times that the Housemartins' song, "The People Who Grinned Themselves to Death" now instantly comes to mind. I'm sorry about that.

But creating something new in the wood shop, teaching myself physical computing, reading by lamplight, turning out the lights to watch the Milky Way pivot around Polaris, feeling a particularly moving piece of music wash past my skin - it's "stopping to consider the stimuli rather than rushing to engage it" where I find pleasure and energy. And from the seasonal energies in the Mennonite and Amish traditions, to the modern slow food movement, to the The Long Now Foundation's oh-so creative appreciation of extended reflection, I think the world, or at least the part of the world I inhabit, is beginning to appreciate what's left unsaid.

I hope you'll allow yourself extended reflection at this year's IdeaFestival. There's value in that.

The quote at the very top of the page is from Susan Cain's blog. Her forthcoming book, "Quiet, The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking," has been pre-ordered on my Kindle.


Ocean spray from Saturn moon, Enceladus

Asked to name an organization searching for life, the average person might respond "SETI," which has looked for signs of technological civilizations in our galaxy since 1985. But closer to home, the Cassini robotic mission to Saturn has returned a trove of data, some of which hints at the possbility of simple life in our solar back yard.

Until 2005 science had no idea that the Saturn moon Enceladaus sported ice geysers near its southern pole. On daring dives through the plumes, the spacecraft in 2008 and 2009 collected samples that confirmed the presence of organics and water ice. Subsequent analysis now suggests that the source of those geysers is a salty ocean, according to

Nature puts the find in a larger context:

'It has liquid water, organic carbon, nitrogen [in the form of ammonia], and an energy source,' says Chris McKay, an astrobiologist at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California. Besides Earth, he says, 'there is no other environment in the Solar System where we can make all those claims'.


It's not about you

Co-author of Mavericks at Work, author of Practically Radical and past IdeaFestival participant, Bill Taylor has penned a couple of business-related posts at Harvard Business Review that have gotten people talking. The one I'm highlighting here, "We is greater than Me," is his response to a David Brooks' column, "It's Not about You."

The more executives, entrepreneurs, and talented individuals I get to know, the more convinced I become that true happiness, a genuine sense of satisfaction, comes, as Brooks suggests, not from 'finding' yourself but from 'losing' yourself — in a company you believe in, a cause you are prepared to fight for, a commitment to solve a problem that has defied solution.

'Leadership is about service,' he told an interviewer last year, 'and you can't lead if you can't follow. It's never about you. It is always about the mission. And people will follow you if you're prepared to get a mission done, something with a goal that is a little bit beyond the reach of all of us.'

"You can't lead if you can't follow?" So why is it that no one ever talks about followership?

The comments following Bill's piece are particularly good. Check them out.


The TSA patdown, travel and the IdeaFestival

Here is a lightly edited version of a post from 18 months ago that describes how different vantage points can improve on "first answers and initial guesses."

On his blog The Prefrontal Cortex, 2008 IdeaFestival speaker and author of "Proust was a Neuroscientist" and "How We Decide," Jonah Lehrer, took the opportunity a while back to provide a rather unusual reason to travel, setting up the issue like this:

Travel... is a basic human desire. We're a migratory species, even if our migrations are powered by jet fuel and Chicken McNuggets. But here's my question: is this collective urge to travel - to put some distance between ourselves and everything we know - still a worthwhile compulsion? Or is it like the taste for saturated fat, one of those instincts we should have left behind in the Pleistocene epoch? Because if travel is just about fun then I think the TSA killed it.

Joking aside, spending an extended time abroad have a higher likelihood of solving particular psychological problem know as the Duncker Candle Problem, which asks participants to find a way to use a box with a few thumbtacks and a book of matches to a attach a waxy candle to a corkboard. Earlier this year, two business schools discovered that students who had lived abroad could think outside the thumbtack box, as it were.

Well, so what?

According to the researchers, the experience of another culture endows us with a valuable openmindedness, making it easier to realize that a single thing can have multiple meanings. Consider the act of leaving food on the plate: in China, this is often seen as a compliment, a signal that the host has provided enough to eat. But in America the same act is a subtle insult, an indication that the food wasn't good enough to finish.

Such cultural contrasts mean that seasoned travelers are alive to ambiguity, more willing to realize that there are different (and equally valid) ways of interpreting the world. This, in turn, allows them to expand the circumference of their 'cognitive inputs,' as they refuse to settle for their first answers and initial guesses. After all, maybe they carry candles in thumbtackboxes in China. Maybe there's abetter way to attach a candle to a wall.

As it turns out, those who were able to attach the candle to the wall were able to overcome a functional fixedness and emptied the box of thumbtacks to arrive at a novel solution. Read Lehrer's entire post to find out how.

And come to IdeaFestival 2011. You'll find new and incredible places that will take you beyond "your first answers and initial guesses."


Gorillas in our Midst

Not to go all Dian Fossey on you, but gorilla studies don't happen exclusively in the Rwandan highlands.

IdeaFestival 2011 presenter and experimental psychologist Daniel Simons has made a career out of demonstrating just how often what we think we know just ain't so. The surprise isn't that we miss things, but just how often we miss them, even when we think we're taking in the whole picture.

Simons is the author, most recently, of the "Invisible Gorilla, How our Intuitions Deceive Us."

The lowest priced All-Access Passes to hear Simon and many other thought provoking speakers are now on sale for a limited time.



Whose story are you telling?

Brought to my attention by IdeaFestival fan and filmmaker Tiffany Shlain, Lifehack has posted an up-close look at regret as told by a palliative caregiver, who says on her blog "that people grow a lot when they are faced with their own mortality."


Among the most frequently cited regrets of the people in this caregiver's charge were that they had "lived the life others expected them to live," or that they "had never had the courage to express their feelings." 

To come to terms with what's most honest and true about each of us as individuals doesn't happen without risk. That's certainly been the case in my life. But for too many, it's only when there's nothing left to lose that they can say out loud what's true for them. "I always wanted to do that, to be that, to go there" - or to explore, to find, and in the case of some,

to stop living someone else's life.

Each of us have a story to tell. And any good story has conflict. Otherwise there isn't a story, just a series of events. When reading the Lifehack post, I was reminded of Donald Miller's book, "A Million Miles in a Thousand Years," and in particular two sentences that brought me up short one night while quietly reading. Recalling the death of his uncle, he says:

My uncle told a good story with his life, but I think there was such a sadness at his funeral because his story wasn't finished. If you aren't telling a good story, nobody thinks you died too soon; they just think you died.

Whose story are you telling?


Can Aging be Treated?

In this video from Big Think, Aubrey De Grey describes his work, the differences between an engineer and a scientist, and responds to a question that perhaps you've never asked. Can aging be treated?

Aubrey will present at IdeaFestival 2011 on that very subject.

The least expensive all-access passes of the year are now on sale for a limited time only. I hope to see you at the IdeaFestival!


Video: People fall for street illusion

Fall into this well and even Lassie won't be able to help.

This video tweeted Maria Popova @brainpicker - if you don't follow her, you really should - reminded me of the street art by Julian Beever, who spent IdeaFestival 2009 figuratively digging a beautiful underground tunnel beneath the city of Louisville. The effort attracted quite a few curious onlookers, and, we're quite sure, was responsible for more than one unsolved disappearance.

Find our video interview with Julian here.


IdeaFestival Peeps' Show: the Science of Kissing


A research scientist and regular "Convergence" columnist for Wired, Sheril Kirshenbaum recently wrote a book with the too-hard-to-ignore title of the "Science of Kissing: What Our Lips are Telling Us." We didn't. One of the many fascinating IdeaFestival 2011 presenters, she was kind enough to respond to a few questions about our favorite pastime, the subject of every middle school crush and the one memory none of us ever lose.

Penny White, where are you today?

The least expensive all-access passes of the year are now on sale for a limited time only. Buy one and come see Sheril, Leonard Mlodinow, Aubrey de Grey, the "other" Wes Moore and other leading thinkers and creatives at the IdeaFestival. Let us hear from your lips. Just mouth the word, "yes."


1) You write that the kiss is "our most intimate exchange". What has been historically exchanged besides pleasure?

Kissing has been as much a social custom as a romantic gesture and we have many examples in throughout history from the literature where kissing as a means of showing respect or even in supplication was practiced with no mention of romance.

Kissing has probably arisen and disappeared throughout human history or a variety of reasons in different parts of the world. The first literary evidence we have for the practice comes of India's Vedic Sanskrit texts, composed ~3500 years ago, but humans have likely been kissing, or engaging in similar behaviors for far longer given there are so many similar kissing-like behaviors throughout the animal kingdom.

2) Ingrid Bergman said that “A kiss is a lovely trick designed by nature to stop speech when words become superfluous.” How is this true or not true?

Kissing is the ultimate way to express how we feel beyond what words can convey. On top of that there are hidden signals that help each individual--particularly women who have a stronger sense of smell and taste--decide whether to pursue a deeper connection.

For example, kissing puts us in very close proximity to sample another person's natural odor and research has demonstrated that women are most attracted to the scent of men with a very different genetic code for immunity. We're not consciously aware of this, but a couple with diversity in this area may be more likely to have stronger, healthier children. In this way, a good kiss helps a woman figure out whether her partner would be a good long term match.

3) Why kiss on the lips? Why not just rub noses?

There are many theories about why we kiss the lips, but anthropologists and neuroscientists recognize that the color red gets noticed as an attractive and alluring signal. The social kiss also likely evolved from the sniff greeting bringing out faces into close proximity and over time a brush of the lips may have accompanied a brush of the nose. Our lips are also packed with sensitive nerve endings so even a slight brush will send a cascade of pleasurable signals to the brain encouraging us to continue under the right circumstances.

4) Why do men and women remember their first kisses so vividly?

It likely has to do with the fact that we are actively engaging all or our senses in the process. An enormous cascade of information is being sent around our bodies as we access our compatibility with the other person. Novelty alone has a huge effect on these chemicals in our brains, so a first kiss really leaves a very lasting impression. Additionally, vivid memories create the opportunity to spend time processing the experience later, enabling us to anticipate equally emotional experiences in the future.

5) Do men and women kiss for different reasons? If so, what are those reasons?

Men are more likely to describe kissing as a means to an end, as something that's done with hopes of sex down the line. Women tend to place more emphasis on the act of kissing itself in order to assess compatibility and relationship status. The good news is that it's enjoyable for both genders.

The human population is moving and networking faster than ever before, and kissing customs and opportunities continue to be in a state of flux to accommodate emerging technologies. There are now kissing-bots, virtual partners, and companion androids. However, no matter what kind of experiences become possible, the kiss as we know it will never go out of style because promotes an important connection.

Thank heaven for doubt

In a time when certainty has never been more fashionable, Eric Schwitzgebel, a philosopher at the University of California, Riverside, has made a career of documenting just how unaware, moment to moment, we are of our internal thoughts, motivations and experiences. While the unreliability of introspection might seem like an odd choice of subject for a philosopher, over time he's argued, persuasively, I think, that we're not as transparent to ourselves as we'd like to believe, and uses that insight to draw implications about the jaw-dropping fact that we're conscious, reflective, sentient beings at all.

Schwitzgebel is out with a new book that the Boston Globe briefly describes.

Eric Schwitzgebel, a philosopher at the University of California, Riverside, has spent the last 10 years trying to make sense of this uncertainty. In his new book, 'Perplexities of Consciousness,' he argues that, contrary to our intuitions, we actually don’t know all that much about our own inner lives. Schwitzgebel contends that, when it comes to our own experiences, we are 'poorly equipped with the tools, categories, and skills that might help [us] dissect them.' When we’re pressed to characterize them, our emotions, perceptions, and imaginings 'flee and scatter' — they turn out to be 'gelatinous, disjoined, swift, shy, changeable.' We ought to be skeptical, in short, of the impressions we have of our own inner lives.

A related theme is picked up by David Brooks in "The Social Animal," which describes just how much of our lives are lived in deeper waters beyond the range of our conscious sonar. Jonah Lehrer, who spoke at the IdeaFestival in 2008, has consistently shown an appreciation for what we don't know that I've always found refreshing. Just recently, for example, he related false recollection to some particuarly effective advertising.

If Schwitzgebel et al are to be believed, a healthy suspicion toward what we think we know - and certainly what we tell others - is more than warranted. But why should our "emotions,  perceptions and imaginings" be so "gelatinous, disjoined, swift, shy, changeable?" What's the purpose?

Search me. But the longer I live, the more I think that our not-so-aware and imperfect minds should resist the easy answers in any case. That's just the mind's first - fearful - cut. In fact, I'm thankful that the connection between inner life and its outward report is so tenuous - and not because there are no truths to be had. On the contrary, a healthy doubt about what we think we know leaves us open to the possibility that the truths are more incredible than we could ever imagine. What's the rush?



Civilization could depend on the Spleling Be

What's your spelling bee story?

Presented by the IdeaFestival, the Spleling Be has been a hit, drawing people in bee suits to events in Louisville, Lexington and Chicago. More events are planned, including one at the IdeaFestival hive mind in September that you won't want to miss.

Recorded this winter, check out this audio from NPR's Only a Game in which one participant tells us that civilization depends on the IdeaFestival, good spellers and freshly laundered underwear.

I swere I herd one of those three things.



In the United States the next two or three days are Memorial Day weekend, a time for barbecues, racing in Indianapolis and the unofficial beginning of summer.

"Memorial" means "in memory of," and I couldn't think of a more fitting summation than the one offered in November, five months after the bloody battle at Gettysburg, the site of an accidental military encounter that marked the beginning of the end of the American civil war. Here it is in full.

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.


"The dangerous man has only one idea"

"The dangerous man is the one who has only one idea, because then he'll fight and die for it." - Francis Crick (quote via Lifehacker)

Tweeted last night, this quote instantly reminded me of the following post from a few months ago describing the IdeaFestival as being about "this too." I hope you enjoy it.

All-access passes to IdeaFeatival 2011 will go on sale very soon.


Three years ago in a fit of exquisite timing I left a full time job with some pretty sweet benefits to start my own business. The IdeaFestival was my first client. At the time, I had learned from long exposure to information technology professionals that we were all publishers. One constant complaint in the rather large networks they managed revolved around the unauthorized use of those resources - given the means and opportunity, people did a lot of talking, and some of it not at all welcome. Well, that was just perfect. I had some things to say.

About that time, I had the good fortune to meet Kris Kimel, who founded the festival, and I explained that it might also want to talk out loud about ideas and their importance, its core purpose. And even though I'm sure he didn't quite understand this blogging business, to his credit he agreed.

In truth, there are people who understand social media far better than me, who know how to search-engine optimize digital nits down to the last file and meta-ID, who can program a web site to reach out and grab people by their Google-ad loving throat. I'm not one of them.

As a certified nerd - and irony of ironies, not someone known to talk much at all - what I wanted more than anything was to be involved with an event where all kinds of people celebrated all kinds of things interesting and new. We introverts are like that.

And as the son of a pastor who has lived in quite a few different places from Louisiana to Minnesota, Kentucky is my home now. It's a place that I've come to appreciate over the years. It once was the first frontier, known for an expansiveness of thought, the belief that over mountains and in fog-shrouded valleys on the Cumberland plateau, there was a new beginning. Descending the gap and buoyed on the Ohio, these visionaries and technologists built kilns and furnaces, they stacked trees, one over the other, to build walls to keep the cold at bay. The wrote letters to the public in Boston and Philadelphia.

Today, I often wonder whether its descendants know that engineers are inspired by birds to design flocks of machines, or really believe that the next step will not be the last - never mind whether that belief calls on the extra-natural or not - or that our self-aware biology is still one gaping, breath-taking mystery to philosophers and biologists alike, or that 500 other worlds and counting orbit stars far distant the yellow dwarf we know so well. Do they know that golden ages lie ahead? Do they know that doughty robots have sighted fountains near Saturn, or that oceans may spread across the deep below Enceladus or Europa, and that life clings to sulfur vents in the crushing depths of our own oceans, or that lately, some think that life may loiter in the thick orange atmosphere of Titan? 

Similarly, do people outside Kentucky know about the contentment found in fitting seashell-ed limestone rock wedged from soil inches deep? Do they know that these sturdy mortarless walls still line fields in the bluegrass with nought but gravity for an assist, the same implacable force studied by physicists? Do they understand that story and music runs thick as a washed July night in the highlands, because, far from the conventions of Boston and Philadelphia and safe in their redoubts, of course the explorers would send up sound and story? It's the normal respiration of any society able to recognize its good fortune.

Sadly, for many people the future lately has been one epistolary punch to the gut after another. Science makes its best always-subject-to-revision effort to describe reality, and much too often ordinary people will lodge their complaints against it before beating a retreat in this wired, wired world to whatever and whomever will offer solace. And the art! Can't the meaning be clear? It's all just so much to digest, these changes.

I've learned from many people at the IdeaFestival. From Nassim Nicholas Taleb, I learned history will occasionally deliver overwhelming news from the clear blue. It just happens. I learned from Jane McGonigal that games can be used to make a better reality rather than as a means of escape. I learned from Teller that knowing secrets behind the curtain didn't diminish the joy of staring slack jawed at dancing golden spheres. I learned from Burt Rutan that with supreme imagination and damn-the-critics determination, we can trip to space in safety and return in comfort. Someday, I'll do that. The elfin and poised Daniel Tammet argued during the most recent IdeaFestival that when we think in similes and puns, we're thinking not unlike a savant. I learned that his prodigious mathematical and language abilities are not so far removed from yours or mine.

I learned that there isn't a mind to waste, that when these discontented, these explorers, these westward movers describe new truths, their language and song never reference a single unchanging reality. It's not because I think what's real is unknowable. On the contrary: it's because what's real is pretty friggin' big. We ought to be humbled. I've learned, most importantly, that it's not an "either, or" after all. It's a "this too."