Friday, August 01, 2008

Editor Retiring -- But Not Shy!

My friend Dan Smith retired yesterday, and celebrated his birthday at the same time.

Then he got right to work on a brand-new project.

Considering how hard and constantly Dan's worked as a journalist and editor over the last four decades -- and then some -- there isn't a lot of surprise to this. He's spent the last twenty years editing the Blue Ridge Business Journal, a publication serving southwest Virginia, each page reflecting Dan's standards and integrity, providing its readers with news, features, opinion and attitude that equaled any such publication anywhere.

Every two weeks Dan produced a paper that was always lively, that took stands, that shared insights, and that reminded us that business is only part of life: Dan's book reviews ranged across everything from ancient history to contemporary fiction and most categories in-between. Rare enough for a business paper -- and increasingly, alas, any paper -- to carry book reviews, the Journal under Dan was absolutely committed to them.

He's just as committed to helping young writers become better writers. I've watched him work with dozens over the years, making the best of them better and then helping them get better still.

Dan always goes out of his way to credit the freelancers who provided the bulk of the Journal's copy; those young writers are a big part of his legacy.

Not that he'd use a word like legacy. Dan is not one to rest on his laurels, or to rest much, period. He's always looking for the next story, the next book to read, the next person to tell about that story, or that just-read book.

He's a fine writer, too; his memoir, Burning The Furniture, gives good picture of a life that in many ways promised not to last nearly as long as it has. (Dan learns from his mistakes; some of those, well-recounted in the book, were large and long-lived: Dan's ability to learn large lessons is at the heart of his own long-livedness.)

Dan's also one of the funniest people on earth. Presenting me with an award a few years back he remarked that, "Keith Ferrell is like a Marseilles whore: he comes in on time and his work's always clean." I laughed as hard as anybody -- and have taken the opportunity, more than once, to repay the favor. Dan can laugh hard at himself, too.

And he's nowhere near done with any of it. A mite too early to talk about that new project Dan's got in mind, but when the time's right I'll let you know -- if Dan hasn't gotten to you first.

And if you're in the Rocky Mount, Virginia area next Friday evening, August 8, stop by Edible Vibe ( a terrific restaurant/coffee shop in downtown Rocky Mount) come here Dan read -- he does that well, too -- as part of our 4th Annual Franklin County Library Book Festival. There willl be half a dozen writers sharing their work. You'll know which one's Dan because he's the one I'll be making the most fun of. The balloon goes up at at 6:30.

It's been my pleasure and, no exaggeration, my privilege to write a number of pieces for Dan over the past four years.

I was pretty well full-formed as a writer by the time I met Dan, but I still learned a few things from him, not least of them what a fine, fine man Dan Smith is.

I'm glad I know him.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Overview Institute Unveiled

A long day in DC yesterday, making the formal public announcement of The Overview Institute, an organization aimed exploring the ramifications, implications, and the possibilities for changes in perceptual and consciousness that arise (as it were) from our ability to rise from our planet.

The Institute is named, and its concerns and avenues of inquiry and speculation flow from, the exemplary work of Frank White, whose The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution marked, upon its publication in 1987, the first sustained and consistent attempt to examine how human perception is altered (and perhaps transformed) by off-Earth experience.

Frank's book was of (groundbreaking) necessity anecdotal -- reminiscences, accounts, insights from individuals who'd been to space, all of them at the time astronauts or cosmonauts. To those anecdotes Frank brought and brings his sharp analytical intelligence and clear, focused thinking.

An indispensable book, and one that has refused to release its hold upon the imaginations and scientific curiosity of those who've read it.

Twenty-one years later and the handful of people who's been off-planet in 1987 has now swelled to more than 500, a number that will itself grow dramatically as various private-enterprise human space transport enterprises come on-line over the next few years.

At yesterday's event we unveiled our Institute's Declaration of Vision and Principles as well the other members of the Institute's Core Overview Group.

Most importantly, we called for others to sign our declaration, and join us in exploring the issues, opportunities, and areas of scientific, cultural, artistic, spiritual, philosophical inquiry raised by the Effect's effects.

As Frank pointed out in his eloquent remarks, the Overview Institute doesn't have an ideology or agenda -- the implication of his work and findings is that 500, or 500,000, or 500,000,00 people experiencing the effect in orbit might well manifest 500,000,000 different personal responses to and manifestations of the experience.

What we're hoping to apply quantitative scientific methodology to is whether or not the Effect itself exerts measurable neurophysiological/cognitive effects on the brain.

But we're also quite deliberately seeking to engage the vision of artists from all media, cultural and thought leaders, activists, and above all interested individuals of whatever stripe and profession in exploring the question of just what space means -- and can mean -- to and for us here on Earth.

In my remarks I noted that it's now close to forty years since Norman Mailer launched his magnificent (if magnificently underrated) Of A Fire On The Moon with the words:

"Are we poised for a philosophical launch?"

As I said yesterday, and believe, "Now we are."

Take a look at our Declaration and, if it appeals, sign up for The Overview Institute (it's free.)

And tell others about it.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008


The October, 1993, gathering of many of the world's leading AI and brain researchers, science journalists, philosophers and others in Cambridge, Mass., to celebrate the ongoing life and works of Marvin Minsky was an intellectual and social delight from start to finish, but one of the high points for all there was Arthur's telepresence.

He looked great, all smiles and good wishes, and it was a pleasure to pose one of the day's first questions.

I can't remember what it was I asked, but I'll never forget -- or want to -- Arthur's response as he gazed out over the packed house in full color from the big screen that dominated the stage:

"Hello, Keith, and let me begin by saying thanks so much for rejecting my latest article!"

Brought down the house.

I was at first chagrined, but realized as the day passed that Arthur's comment brought me a certain cachet -- "You really rejected an Arthur C. Clarke article?"

"Not up to our standards," I said, making sure my eyes were twinkling as I did so.

When I dropped Arthur a note relaying the fun I'd had his expense, he responded with a lovely funny note of his own, along the lines of how he was eager to help me get a good laugh.

But the best laugh I ever got from this man who laughed so deeply and well, came a few years later, after his investiture by the Queen.

Now that he was Sir Arthur, I wrote him, he could view his various wheelchairs and other devices as support mechanisms existing... Against The Fall Of Knight.

He wrote back immediately, certain that I could have heard his laughter all the way from Sri Lanka.

I have no doubt that I had indeed heard it -- and I hear that laughter now, and think of the joy and insight, the vision and inspiration, the provocation and speculation, the smiles and, yes, the groans at the puns he loved, the treasure shelves of fiction and the nonfiction.

Arthur brought all of this and more to so many millions of readers over the course of one of the great careers in the world of ideas.

And even better, one of the great joyous lives in the world of humans.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008


Add to your blog as infrequently as I do, and the risk is that it become a necrology. My last entry marked Norman Mailer's death; today William F. Buckley died.

What a pair of blogmarks! And what reminders of the virtues -- and rewards -- of the productive life.

Reminders as well of a time in American political discourse now long past, and long since in need of resuscitation if not outright resurrection.

They were giants in those times -- the 1950s and 1960s -- and not just in retrospect. Buckley and Mailer each perceived and understood (not the same thing at all) both the readiness in America for a revolution, and also the need for one. That each pursued his revolutionary goals with wit and bonhomie as well as intellectual audacity and literary zeal gave the era a frisson sadly missing since.

I remember my father and myself watching Mailer on Buckley's Firing Line sometime in the latter Sixties. They went at it, they did -- at one point Mailer (my memory tells me) remarking that Fidel Castro was his idea of a great man, and Buckley falling most uncharacteristically silent.

But he was never silent for long.

What has stayed with me since that night was Dad's remark that, after all the fireworks, it was easy to imagine the two of them going out for dinner together. A distance and then some from the levels of invective hurled witlessly from both sides today.

My first professional publication came around that time, a review for the Raleigh News & Observer of Buckley's essay collection The Governor Listeth. I liked the book and Buckley's writing then, I like his writing now.

Politically, I was in his orbit if not his thrall for awhile, but only for awhile.

The revolution he sought -- and that so largely succeeded, or appeared to -- seemed to me to become derailed around the time Buckley (and a substantial portion of the electorate) became captivated by the Actor (I use the term loosely, to say the least) whose depth of inauthenticity in the wake, a decade later, of Barry Goldwater's genuineness, turned out to be exactly what America, and most but not all American conservatives wanted, or thought they did.

But Reagan was electable -- and how! And with his election -- which, to hear his name invoked during this year's primaries was the Ascension made American -- so much of what intrigued me about intellectual conservatism as propounded by Buckley, most vivaciously, disappeared, subsumed by Reaganism which rested its multifold cruelties and criminalities on an anti-intellectualism so severe and yet so charming (and marketable) that even the truest and most philosophical conservatives chose to follow the tide, Buckley chief among them.

Yet I never stopped reading him -- the essays, the novels, the wonderful sailing books and the exuberant memoirs. His ferocious productivity never fully flagged, and when he was found dead today it was at his desk in his study.

Where he wanted to be.