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September 16, 2008

Oh, electric day - The IdeaFestival and the case for thinking in a crass society

If you’re old enough to have had any feel for the ’60s, to have harbored then a sense of what might have been now, maybe you have a particular disappointment. Mine is the commodification of ideas. More than the lack of a working environmental ethos, the present dearth of basic human rights and the persistence of tribalism in so many places (including, recently, the streets of St. Paul), the selling of creative thought and the authorizing of imagination strikes me as our gravest cultural shortcoming. Such abdication of implicit gifts is the surest path to joining the Borg, I’d reckon.

But now wait a minute. That’s one hell of a selfish opening paragraph, one that excludes two generations of folks either too young to remember that time or who simply weren’t born, or any cognizant person then who just wasn’t plugged into that POV. Beyond that, the significance of any period is better left to the retrospection of future historians, not its participants. 

OK, fair enough. Still, there was an electric moment, however brief. There was a questioning, even if it was eventually left unanswered, or allowed to rot in the silence of those questioned. There was a bucking of ancient ways, of past -isms that had persisted only because of their ancientness. 

And while there’s just one past, there are always two futures. One happens as this day melts into tomorrow, and the other is wrought — imagined and then dragged into existence. It was this other future that came knocking back then, a knock that was in too many ways forgotten, or altogether ignored.

Still, the electricity. ZAP! Yes, I don’t remember it because, somehow and somewhere, that electron bop is still present. Yep. That’s why IdeaFestival — an egalitarian bash of freewheeling border smashing, a nurturer of wrought futures — is not just cool but patently extraordinary. 

Arriving in Louisville two years ago, IdeaFestival (IF) has reminded me of those electric days more than any other event our city has hosted. IF has presented thinkers — Ray Bradbury, Burt Rutan, Oliver Sacks, to name just a few — who are stiff and compelling antidotes to reality-TV, fat-free whatever and cell phone bills. The festival has presented the ideas and verdant imaginations of people who smash the hell out of carpe diem tomorrow, which too often seems to be our extant motto

For those needing reminding, IF is the creation of Kris Kimel, president of Kentucky Science and Technology Corporation in Lexington. He started the festival there in 2000, based not on the idea of a stuffy conference but the Sundance Film Festival and some of its non-linear, dynamic aspects. 

In the late 1990s, Kimel found himself on business in Park City, Utah, home of Sundance. “(I was) having dinner alone,” he remembers, “on a snowy November night. I was reading a flyer on the upcoming film festival and thought, How about a Sundance-like festival for ideas and innovation?” 

So there you have it: a prime example of getting an idea and continuing the getting. Of recognizing, acknowledging, protecting and cultivating that idea. Since 2000, Kimel has been working to grow IF into a Sundance-caliber event. That’s a lofty goal, considering there is no shortage of like festivals, nor has there been. 

Submitted Photo: IdeaFestival speaker Immaculee Ilibagiza is author of “Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust.” She survived that genocide by hiding in a bathroom with seven other women. She lived silently in the small room for three months. When she emerged, most of her family had been killed.
Submitted Photo: IdeaFestival speaker Immaculee Ilibagiza is author of “Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust.” She survived that genocide by hiding in a bathroom with seven other women. She lived silently in the small room for three months. When she emerged, most of her family had been killed.

I’ve known Kris for two years now. About 10 minutes into our first interview, I was taken by his enthusiasm and optimism, a practical, just keep moving sort of optimism. I’m not surprised with his results. 

Working with Brenda Kane of the APB Speakers Bureau, located in Boston, Kimel pushed from the beginning to convince internationally known people to come to Lexington. Every IF has presented local and regional speakers. 2008 is no different, with scheduled appearances from renowned University of Louisville professor and researcher Lee Dugatkin, now studying the biology of perspective, and film producer Stu Pollard (“Keep Your Distance”). But with each IF, Kimel and Kane have persistently convinced people who would have never come to Lexington, and then Louisville, to do just that. In 2000, architect Michael Graves, designer of the Humana building, was here. In 2002, Brian Greene, who remains one of the most well known theoretical physicists, brought his string theory. In 2004, renowned choreographer Twyla Tharp showed up. So did Sir George Martin, who, based on Kimel’s description, enlightened even those who thought they knew everything about making Sgt. Pepper: After his formal presentation, IF insiders were treated to two-and-one-half hours of highlights from Martin’s studio life, as Martin was treated to two-and-one-half hours of martinis. 

Some people, of course, haven’t come. Kimel balked when I asked who he couldn’t get. Never willing to settle for good enough, he wouldn’t accept that characterization. “It’s not that we couldn’t get them, it’s just that they weren’t able to come because of scheduling or some other reason,” he says. 

And so Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has never zapped IF. Nor have Grace Slick, Joni Mitchell or Bono, meaning Kimel’s hope of gathering musicians from different eras and genres remains elusive. 

Still, even when a speaker can’t come, the vision works out, which is the sort of Zen, non-defined way of IF. Steve Jobs couldn’t come, but later Steve Wozniak did, in 2007. All things considered, Kimel was happy the tech Steve came rather than the sales Steve. “At IF, we try to find people that offer the most interesting perspective and insights,” Kimel says. “Often this is not the most usual suspect. For example, in 2007 we thought Steve Wozniak as the technical brain … behind Apple provided a uniquely interesting story.” 

So how’s he doing? 

“The IF has grown progressively with each event,” Kimel explains. “Numbers continue to increase, with the largest jump (happening) since we moved to Louisville. Probably a 300 percent jump …. We also continue to draw more and more people from across the U.S. and globally.” 

Submitted Photo: The IdeaFestival was created by Kris Kimel in 2000, president of Kentucky Science and Technology Corporation in Lexington.
Submitted Photo: The IdeaFestival was created by Kris Kimel in 2000, president of Kentucky Science and Technology Corporation in Lexington.

IdeaFestival 2008, as of this writing, includes 50 speakers, events and installations — “Perhaps the most diverse group of presenters and performers to date,” Kimel notes. 

The most recognizable name is Teller, of Penn and Teller. Besides his role as silent partner to Penn Jillette, Teller is a noted author, an authority on the history of magic and a stage director. I am assured Teller will actually speak as he explores with us the science behind magic. 

Also appearing is Will Shortz, crossword puzzle editor of The New York Times and puzzle master on NPR’s “Weekend Edition.” You’ve got to love anyone who graduated from law school only to dump jurisprudence for puzzles; Shortz was so certain of his path he didn’t even take the bar. 

In addition, Immaculee Ilibagiza will speak. Author of “Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust,” she survived that genocide by hiding in a bathroom with seven other women. She lived silently in the small room for three months. When she emerged, most of her family had been killed.

And check out the Futurelab exhibit (futurelabexpo.com). Futurelab “is about changing the conversation students have about science and technology,” according to the company line. The display will be in four parts: deep space exploration, life science, robotic technology and nano technology. 

IdeaFestival’s rise to Sundance status continues to be spurred by what makes it unique among all such festivals — the accessibility. Many of the events are free, but even the others are affordable. An all-event pass will set someone back just $350, $205 for students. That’s just a few pizzas and a pair of shoes, or maybe what your chemistry textbook set you back. Bargain.

Other idea festivals — there are a lot and, interestingly, are proliferating — have become more affordable recently, at least in part. The Aspen Ideas Festival (aifestival.org) sold $10-$20 tickets for individual (albeit ancillary) events this year; the package price is still far beyond the means of many. And the venerable TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) event carries a 6,000-clam price tag — assuming they want you, that is, as attendance is invitation-only. 

No festival is rivaling the number of free events Louisville’s IF will mount, or its overall affordability. 


Getting an idea is not like cleaning out the basement one weekend. Any idea worth pursuing has a beginning, though not necessarily an end. Putting an idea into action is to begin a process future generations will continue. 

Carl Sagan once said, “If we long for our planet to be important, there is something we can do about it. We make our world significant by the courage of our questions and by the depth of our answers.” And Al Einstein once said, “If at first an idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it.” It’s not clear to me any idea suggestive of the former or fitting the description of the latter is on our political or cultural horizon. 

This year’s IdeaFestival will end 38 days before the most important national election in a very long time. What is clear to me is Barack Obama and John McCain each delivered himself to some kind of latter-day inquisition at a church in California. I do know no one seems much bothered about protestors in Denver being caged, or protestors in St. Paul being preempted along the lines of “Minority Report.” Not a front-page peep from Sens. McCain or Obama about the idea of free speech withering, or of the line between church and state fading. I wonder, where is George Orwell when we need him?

Without a doubt, Orwell would champion a celebration of ideas, in Louisville or anywhere. In “1984,” one of the keys to oppression and willing obedience was a reduction in the vocabulary of the average Winston, thus reducing if not eliminating the possibility of so much as imagining a better way, or even just a different way. Imagination and ideas, and a full language to conceive and express such thinking to oneself and then others, collectively is the mightiest sword of free people. That sword also makes a pretty good shovel when a mound of bullshit stands in your way.