Saturday, October 31, 2015

Parallel Worlds by Michio Kaku

Okay. I’m going to geek out on this one. Fair warning.

And I’ll say right up front that I’m sure the author, Michio Kaku, knows a lot more about the subjects he’s writing about than I do. He’s an honest-to-goodness physicist, with academic appointments, published articles, and textbooks on these subjects to his credit. Me? I dropped out of my baccalaureate astrophysics program because the math got too hard.

But with that caveat up front, I have to say that, for me, reading Parallel Worlds was an experience that went downhill fast. Kaku is admittedly trying to write about theoretical quantum and cosmological mechanics in a way that is understandable to an audience without advanced degrees in mathematics and physics. But unlike some science educators, who write in a way that avoids the most difficult questions, Kaku’s prose seemed only to prompt more and more unanswered questions in my half-educated mind.

Looking Back Into Expanded Space

The biggest of these unanswered questions has to do with the expansion of the universe, both during its theoretical inflationary period and generally. Let me try to unpack it.

When addressing our expanding universe, Kaku starts as many science educators do, explaining the observational effects of a finite speed of light.

Because light travels at a finite speed, the stars we see at night are seen as they once were, not as they are today. It takes a little over a second for light from the Moon to reach Earth, so when we gaze at the Moon we actually see it as it was a second earlier. It takes about eight minutes for light to travel from the Sun to Earth. Likewise, many of the familiar stars we see in the heavens are so distant that it takes from 10 to 100 years for their light to reach our eyes. (In other words, they lie 10 to 100 light-years from Earth. A light-year is roughly 6 trillion miles, or the distance light travels in a year.) Light from the distant galaxies may be hundreds of millions to billions of light-years away. As a result, they represent “fossil” light, some emitted even before the rise of the dinosaurs. Some of the farthest objects we can see with our telescopes are called quasars, huge galactic engines generating unbelievable amounts of power near the edge of the visible universe, which can lie up to 12 to 13 billion light-years from Earth.

Get it? Because it takes time for light to reach you, the farther out you look the farther back in time you’re looking. Theoretically, you could even look far enough back in time to see the very beginning of the universe.

Okay? That’s point one. Next, Kaku reminds us what Einstein discovered about the speed of light.

Einstein found something that Maxwell himself had missed: Maxwell’s equations showed that light traveled at a constant velocity, no matter how fast you tried to catch up to it. The speed of light … was the same in all inertial frames (that is, frames traveling at a constant velocity). Whether you were standing still, riding on a train, or sitting on a speeding comet, you would see a light beam racing ahead of you at the same speed. No matter how fast you moved, you could never outrace light.

Sounds like a paradox, but it’s the truth. And it’s not so much that the light ahead of you is speeding up so you can’t catch it, it’s more that, as you speed up to try and catch it, your mass makes time slow down so that you’re moving through less space than you were before.

It’s a headscratcher, but it’s point two, so accept it for the time being. Because here comes point three, which Kaku describes in a short section he calls the Doppler Effect and the Expanding Universe.

If a star, for example, is moving towards you, the light waves it emits are squeezed like an accordion. As a result, its wavelength gets shorter. A yellow star will appear slightly bluish (because the color blue has a shorter wavelength than yellow). Similarly, if a star is moving away from you, its light waves are stretched, giving it a longer wavelength, so that a yellow star appears slightly reddish. The greater the distortion, the greater the velocity of the star. Thus, if we know the shift in frequency of starlight, we can determine the star’s speed.

[Using this technique,] In 1912, astronomer Vesto Slipher had found that the galaxies were moving away from Earth at great velocity. Not only was the universe much larger than previously expected, it was also expanding and at great speed. Outside of small fluctuations, he found that the galaxies exhibited a redshift, caused by galaxies moving away from us, rather than a blue one.

With me so far? The doppler effect changes the wavelengths of light being emitted by moving objects, making them appear bluer or redder, the same way the doppler effect changes the wavelengths of sound being emitted by moving objects, making then sound higher or lower in pitch.

Finally, Kaku introduces us to Edwin Hubble, an astronomer famous for his vast collection of data on the doppler-shifted wavelengths of galaxies in the universe.

In 1928, Hubble made a fateful trip to Holland to meet with Willem de Sitter. What intrigued Hubble was de Sitter’s prediction [, based on Slipher’s discovery,] that the farther away a galaxy is, the faster it should be moving. Think of an expanding balloon with galaxies marked on its surface. As the balloon expands, the galaxies that are close to each other move apart relatively slowly. The closer they are to each other, the slower they move apart. But galaxies that are farther apart on the balloon move apart much faster.

De Sitter urged Hubble to look for this effect in his data, which could be verified by analyzing the redshift of the galaxies. The greater the redshift of a galaxy, the faster it was moving away, and hence the farther it should be. (According to Einstein’s theory, the redshift of a galaxy was not, technically speaking, caused by the galaxy speeding away from Earth; instead, it was cause by the expansion of space itself between the galaxy and Earth. The origin of the redshift is that light emanating from a distant galaxy is stretched or lengthened by the expansion of space, and hence it appears reddened.)

And it was that last sentence that made a lightbulb go off in my head. Kaku wants to move on to all kinds of mathematical predictions about this expanding universe--because, of course, Hubble’s data did show that not only were all the galaxies moving away from each other, it also showed that the farther apart they were, the faster they were fleeing from each other. But I didn’t want to follow, because now I had my own conjecture.

What if, instead of the universe continuing to expand at greater and greater speeds, we are, in fact, looking at the past expansion of the universe as we look out at farther and farther distances, much in the same way (as discussed in point one, above) we’re looking farther and farther back in time because of the time it takes for the visible light from that part of the universe to reach us? Instead of a universe that begins with a “big bang” and then expands at an ever-increasing rate for eternity, we have a universe that begins with a “big bang,” expanding rapidly at first, but at slower and slower speeds as time goes on. But creatures within this second universe (i.e., us), looking deep into the universe’s past, see not just its early structures but its early rapid expansion.

I honestly don’t know if it’s an idea that is ridiculous or worthy on an honorary PhD from the City College of New York. I suspect Kaku could help me decide. But whichever, once the idea possessed me, I began scouring Kaku’s text for clues that might help me settle the score. Have people thought of this before? Is there any observational evidence that may support it? Is it even theoretically possible?

I thought I was onto a clue when Kaku started explaining eight phases of the universe’s expansion, from the “big bang” to the present day. In the first phase, according to Kaku, which ended at 10 to the negative 43 seconds after the “big bang”, the entire universe was a small bubble of space about the size of something called the “Planck length,” which is 10 to the negative 33 centimeters. (Sorry, the formatting function on this blog software won't let me do exponents, as far as I can tell.)

Let’s try to put those numbers into perspective.

10 to the negative 43 seconds is a shorthand way of saying 0.0000000000000000000000000000000000000000001 seconds and 10 to the negative 33 centimeters is a shorthand way of saying 0.000000000000000000000000000000001 centimeters. These are unfathomably small units of time and distance, but they are what the advanced mathematics used by Kaku and his colleagues tell us. More on that later.

Because the point I’m trying to make is that if we accept the math, the universe grew in size from 0 to 10 to the negative 33 centimeters in 10 to the negative 43 seconds. My own much simpler math tells me that this is an expansion rate of 10 to the positive 10 centimeters per second. Had the universe continued to expand at this rate for one full second, it would have grown to 10,000,000,000 centimeters (about 62,000 miles). But, remember, the universe stopped expanding at this rate after 10 to the negative 43 seconds.

I thought I was on to something. If I could calculate the expansion rates of the universe in each of Kaku’s eight phases, I could at least see if the universe had actually expanded more quickly in the past than it was now. So I desperately wanted to go on with these calculations, but Kaku is frustratingly unclear about the spatial dimensions of the universe at the beginning and end of each subsequent phase. He likely thought they were details that would largely be lost on his lay audience, and I probably shouldn’t blame him for that. Indeed, I’m sure I scared a fair number of my own readers off as soon as I started talking about 10 to the negative anything.

He does say at one point that the universe was about the “size of our solar system” at the “end of inflation,” but the way he’s describes it, I can’t tell if that was when the universe was 10 to the negative 34 seconds or 3 minutes old. And by the “size of our solar system” he could mean the diameter of Neptune’s orbit (roughly 60 astronomical units or 5.5 billion miles) or the diameter of the Oort cloud (roughly 100,000 astronomical units or 9.3 trillion miles) or something else entirely.

So I had to give up, and relegate the idea to the future PhD dissertations I can spend my retirement working on.

Big Bangs and Black Holes

You’ll notice that I’ve been putting “big bang” in quotation marks throughout this discussion. I do that because of the unfortunate and all-too-common phenomenon of astrophysicists adopting the worst possible names for their theories--proven or otherwise.

“Big Bang” is one, because the event that theoretically started our universe was not an explosion, as the word “bang” connotes to the interested layperson, but, as I began to describe above, an expansion.

But the grandaddy of all these mistakes, in my opinion, is “black hole.” Why? Because black holes just aren’t holes. Even though that’s what everyone thinks.

Here’s how Kaku’s own glossary defines “black hole.”

black hole          An object whose escape velocity equals the speed of light. Because the speed of light is the ultimate velocity in the universe, this means that nothing can escape a black hole, once an object has crossed the event horizon. Black holes can be of various sizes. Galactic black holes, lurking in the center of galaxies and quasars, can weigh millions to billions of solar masses. Stellar black holes are the remnant of a dying star, perhaps originally up to forty times the mass of our Sun.

Did you catch that? “Black holes” are objects, that can weigh up to billions of solar masses. They are not holes that you or anything else can “fall into.” Fall onto, maybe, but not fall into. And yet, so much of our popular understanding and imagination about “black holes” is coupled to the idea that they are wormholes of some kind or another, portals to other places in our universe or to other universes.

Kaku himself uses some of the popular graphical representations of “black holes” in his book. A sample is provided to the left, and you can begin to see some of my scribbles below the diagrams and Kaku’s caption.

Why, I ask, is he using two dimensions to represent a three (or an eleven, according to Kaku) dimensional phenomenon? Even in the plots shown here, no one would “fall into” the “holes” and travel through the “throats” that connect to other places or planes. If the image is to make any sense at all, “you” would exist as a point on the plane, and you wouldn’t ever be able to leave the plane, because it is the plane, not the three-dimensional space above it, that is trying to represent the curvature of spacetime. Put yourself on the plane and trace your possible trajectories. The top diagram still sort of conveys the idea it is intended to, but the analogy falls apart in the bottom diagram. Put yourself on one side of the plane or the other and you’ll see that there are some places you simply cannot get to.

So how did this “hole” concept come about in the first place? That’s the next big, ultimately unanswered question I had when reading Parallel Worlds.

But when Kaku first starts describing the theoretical history of the phenomenon, I have some hope that I may actually get the answer I’m looking for.

In 1783, British astronomer John Michell was the first to wonder what would happen if a star became so large that light itself could not escape. Any object, he knew, had an “escape velocity,” the velocity required to leave its gravitational pull. … Michell wondered what might happen if a star became so massive that its escape velocity was equal to the speed of light. Its gravity would be so immense that nothing could escape it, not even light itself, and hence the object would appear black to the outside world. Finding such an object in space would in some sense be impossible, since it would be invisible.

Michell evidently called these theoretical objects “dark stars,” not “black holes.” Kaku then goes on the describe the rest of the theoretical history, which includes a crescendoing set of mathematical calculations by famous people like Albert Einstein and less-famous people like Karl Schwarzschild, Johannes Droste, Georges Lemaitre, and H. P. Robertson. Along the way we’re introduced to a new term, “magic sphere,” which the scientists eventually come to understand as the thing now called an event horizon, the point of no return, the place where once light passes, it can no longer escape the gravity well of the “dark star.”

But when does the term “black hole” come into vogue? And, more importantly, why? Kaku is never very clear. In his description of the phenomenon’s theoretical history, he just abruptly switches terms, suddenly using “black hole” instead of “dark star” or “magic sphere” without any explanation and, apparently, without any awareness. Forty-some pages later, in a discussion on quantum theory and the role of physicist John Wheeler in its development, he makes a passing reference that it was Wheeler who coined the term “black hole” at a conference in 1967.

So, another mystery, but probably not one worthy of my future dissertations list. Hopefully, all I would need is a few minutes on Google and Wikipedia.

Objects in Space?

My third big question goes a whole lot deeper.

Let me pose it this way. Are objects things that hang in otherwise empty space? Or are objects and empty space made of the same stuff, with objects simply more concentrated forms of the stuff that makes up space? It may sound like an almost nonsensical question because so much of our physics and so much of what we have been taught is based on the first of these premises--that space is empty unless there is stuff in it.

But the more I read Kaku trying to define and describe “dark energy” and “dark matter,” the more this nonsensical question began to demand my attention.

What are “dark energy” and “dark matter?” Well, I put them in quotes because I suspect astrophysicists have again chosen the worst possible names for these discoveries (because that’s what they do), but no one’s going to know that until we figure out what they actually are. For current definitions, let’s go back to Kaku’s handy glossary.

dark energy          The energy of empty space. First introduced by Einstein in 1917 and then discarded, this energy of nothing is now known to be the dominant form of matter/energy in the universe. Its origin is unknown, but it may eventually drive the universe into a big freeze. The amount of dark energy is proportional to the volume of the universe. The latest data shows that 73 percent of the matter/energy of the universe is in the form of dark energy.

dark matter          Invisible matter, which has weight but does not interact with light. Dark matter is usually found in a huge halo around galaxies. It outweighs ordinary matter by a factor of 10. Dark matter can be indirectly measured because it bends starlight due to its gravity, somewhat similar to the way glass bends light. Dark matter, according to the latest data, makes up 23 percent of the total matter/energy content of the universe.

The energy of empty space? Invisible matter? Stuff that makes up 96 percent of the matter/energy in the universe? Clearly no one knows what this stuff is, but I can’t help but wonder if our struggle with it can’t be partly attributed to the idea that we’re looking at it with the wrong frame of mind. We call it empty and invisible because it’s not supposed to be there. Empty space is empty, inert, and it’s only when “real” matter (i.e., the stuff made up of protons and electrons) is placed within it that interesting things start happening.

But what if that’s wrong? What if space has a “viscosity”--it’s never truly empty but thicker in some places and thinner in others--and things like dark energy and dark matter are markers of the thin spots and things like stars and "black holes" are markers of the thick parts?

That changes everything. Take this fairly innocuous statement from Kaku’s text.

Einstein’s equations are notoriously difficult because, to calculate the curvature of space at any point, you have to know the location of all objects in the universe, each of which contributes to the bending of space.

Innocuous, but it has a point of view. Objects are things in space. I’m saying that objects might be space. I don’t have any idea of that makes any kind of difference to Kaku’s math, but I’d sure like to explore the idea with him.

Which brings me to my next point.

The Math Makes It True

I don’t know if I’ve ever written this down before, but it’s something I’ve thought for a long time. Math doesn’t make things true. Math is a description of how things appear to work. Sometimes, when the math is a really good description, it can be used to predict other things, and when those things are observed to occur, it becomes a testament for how good the math in question actually is.

We know that for centuries Newton’s “laws” of motion reigned supreme. But the use of the word “law” is just as misleading as “big bang” and “black holes,” because Newton’s “laws” are no more laws than “black holes” are holes. F = ma is a really good description of how objects in motion behave, and it can be used to make astonishingly accurate predictions about how things not yet observed are likely to act. But it is not a law. Einstein proved that.

Math does not make things true. Don't believe me? Let's take a concrete example from Kaku’s text.

As Newton observed, the gravitational force surrounding a point particle becomes infinite as we approach it. (In Newton’s famous inverse square law, the force of gravity grows as 1/r squared, so that it soars to infinity as we approach the point particle--that is, as r goes to zero, the gravitational force grows as 1/0, which is infinite.)

Got that? Gravitational force becomes infinite (whatever “infinite force” means) when the distance from a point particle goes to zero. Now, let's do what I do when I read a sentence like that. Let's ask, does it really become infinite, or is that just what the mathematical expression brilliant people wrote to describe a vast body of phenomena predicts will happen if such a circumstance ever actually occurred?

I say the latter, something, I expect even Kaku would agree with, since a few pages later we find this admission:

Newton’s law of gravity works fine over astronomical distances, but it has never been tested down to the size of a millimeter. Experimentalists are now rushing to test for tiny deviations from Newton’s inverse square law.

So, in other words, G, the gravitational force, may not equal 1/r squared if the distances involved are a millimeter or less.

Not convinced? Well, here’s another way to tackle the question and decide if it the math is determining or just trying to describe reality. Exactly what is a point particle? Sadly, it’s not in Kaku’s glossary, but let’s assume it is what he implies it to be. A single piece of matter that takes up no space. As nonsensical as that sounds (something that is nothing), that’s what it has to be if you are going to get zero distance away from it and drive that gravitational force all the way up to infinity because of that damned inverse square “law.” After all, if you’re going to get zero distance away from something’s center of mass (the point from which all of Newton’s calculations achieve something close to their inviolable reputation), that thing better not be taking up any space at all.

Except that’s not possible. Kaku himself constantly refers to something called the Planck length. That one is in his glossary. It’s 10 to the negative 33 centimeters, and it is basically the smallest possible length anything can be.

How small is that? Well, according to Kaku, the distance separating protons and neutrons in the nucleus of an atom is 10 to the negative 13 centimeters, and that’s a hundred quintillion times bigger that the Planck length.

Distance between a proton and a neutron = 0.0000000000001 centimeters
Planck length = 0.000000000000000000000000000000001 centimeters

In other words: Really. Freaking. Small.

But not zero. And if it’s not zero, then zero can never be in the denominator of the inverse square “law” and G can never be infinite. Assuming, of course, that the inverse square “law” even describes reality at distances less than a millimeter.

I think what I find most amazing is that science has a long and storied history of its mathematical formulas being shown to be descriptions of observable phenomena, not “laws” that dictate the behavior of objects in the universe. Just as Einstein refined Newton's "laws,", theoretical physicists like Kaku himself are trying to refine Einstein's "laws," knowing that there are situations in which even his remarkable formulas no longer describe reality. And yet, knowing this, they still insist on building entire fanciful edifices on the assumption that they these formulas are inviolable laws.

The Quantum Religion

Another annoyance I had with Parallel Worlds is that I much prefer my science education unmediated by religious metaphor. Kaku clearly doesn’t agree. For example, in his discussion about the multiverse, he says:

Theoretical evidence is mounting to support the existence of the multiverse, in which entire universes continually sprout or “bud” off other universes. If true, it would unify two of the great religious mythologies, Genesis and Nirvana. Genesis would take place continually within the fabric of timeless Nirvana.

Great. Is that our objective, then? Unifying religious mythologies?

But worse, not only does he have a penchant for religious metaphor, he poses challenges born of religious conjecture as if they were the gravest concerns scientists have to face. Here’s another piece of Kaku’s discussion of the multiverse, where every quantum fluctuation of every elementary particle theoretically results in two diverging universes, one, for example, where that single quark has top spin and another where it doesn’t.

When we imagine the quantum multiverse, we are faced … with the possibility that, although our parallel selves living in different quantum universes may have precisely the same genetic code, at crucial junctures of life, our opportunities, our mentors, and our dreams may lead us down different paths, leading to different life histories and different destinies.

Sigh. Yes, Kaku, like too many science popularizers, loves to theoretically extrapolate quantum phenomena into the arena of human actions (a patently absurd liberty, if you ask me). Because we say a quantum fluctuation can bud off two separate universes then, obviously, the same thing happens when I decide to wear my red versus blue tie to the physics symposium. How does even the math get them to this conclusion? Here, I can’t resist a quick diversion into what may be the most whopping extrapolation of this sort I’ve ever heard.

Electrons, in fact, regularly dematerialize and find themselves rematerialized on the other side of walls inside the components of your PC and CD. Modern civilization would collapse, in fact, if electrons were not allowed to be in two places at the same time. … But if electrons can exist in parallel states hovering between existence and nonexistence, then why can’t the universe?

Ummm...because the universe is not an electron?

It’s okay, though, because, you know, science is so much more interesting when you get to make these leaps and pretend they’re real. But I digress. Let’s get back to the previous quotation on the quantum multiverse, because Kaku is just getting to the part I want to highlight.

One form of this dilemma is actually almost upon us. It’s only a matter of time, perhaps a few decades, before the genetic cloning of humans becomes an ordinary fact of life. Although cloning a human being is extremely difficult (in fact, no one has yet cloned a primate, let alone a human) and the ethical questions are profoundly disturbing, it is inevitable that at some point it will happen. And when it does, the question arises: do our clones have a soul? Are we responsible for our clone’s actions? In a quantum universe, we would have an infinite number of quantum clones. Since some of our quantum clones might perform acts of evil, are we then responsible for them? Does our soul suffer for the transgressions of our quantum clones?

Okay. This one actually makes my head hurt. Someone please explain to me why it would even occur to someone to hold me responsible for the actions of a person with “precisely the same genetic code” as me--let alone someone who lives in another quantum universe. Am I responsible for the actions of my identical twin? You’re in big trouble, buddy. We know what your infinite (infinite!) number of quantum clones have been doing in the quantum multiverse. You’re going to have to come downtown and answer some questions.

Come Again?

And then, sadly, there is just the sloppy writing.

But instead of finding an elegant and simple framework, it was distressing to find that there were hundreds of subatomic particles streaming from our accelerators, with strange names like neutrinos, quarks, mesons, leptons, hadrons, gluons, W-bosons, and so forth.

I’m assuming Kaku knows that those subatomic particles didn’t come streaming out of our accelerators with those strange names already attached to them. Hello! I am the neutrino! It’s nice to meet you! Of course, it was people like Kaku who gave those particles those names. So why, I wonder, does he call those names strange?

All intelligent life in the universe will eventually freeze in an agonizing death, as the temperature of deep space plunges toward absolute zero, where the molecules themselves can hardly move.

Agonizing? Agonizing to who? People with billion-year life spans who will be able to experience the universe both when it is hot and when it is cold? Put another sweater on, Billy, the density of mass in the universe has dropped another order of magnitude.

I wish these were they only two examples I found. They are not.

Silly String

Finally, before you get the wrong impression, let me stress again that I’m sure Michio Kaku is a brilliant man. His specific area of expertise is something called String Theory, something I’ve managed to avoid talking about up to now. I’ve done this primarily because I know I don’t understand it, knowing only that it has something to do with all the smallest elementary particles in the universe not being particles but itty-bitty pieces of vibrating “string.” But as smart of Kaku is, so help me I can’t make any sense out of the metaphors he chooses to explain his brilliance.

The beauty of string theory is that it can be likened to music. Music provides the metaphor by which we can understand the nature of the universe, both at the subatomic level and at the cosmic level. As the celebrated violinist Yehudi Menuhin once wrote, “Music creates order out of chaos; for rhythm imposes unanimity upon the divergent; melody imposes continuity upon the disjointed; and harmony imposes compatibility upon the incongruous.”

Einstein would write that his search for a unified field theory would ultimately allow him to “read the Mind of God.” If string theory is correct, we now see that the Mind of God represents cosmic music resonating through ten-dimensional hyperspace.

Got that?

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This post was written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

Monday, October 26, 2015

Your Association in Three Slides?

My association organized a conference a few weeks ago in which one of the highlights was a series of commercialization "pitch" presentations. Graduate students working on research relevant to our industry were given the opportunity to pitch an idea to our industry members--an idea based on their research which could possibly be turned into a real product and commercialized. To help focus their attention, each was only given five minutes, and no more than three Powerpoint slides, to make their case.

It got me thinking. Could I do the same thing with my association? Could I "pitch" it, in five minutes and with the help of no more than three slides? Forget about trying to make a sale, of trying to convince a non-member to become a member; could I just do it? Could I pitch my association in five minutes and three slides? What would I say? What would I include? And, perhaps more importantly, what wouldn't I say? And what wouldn't I include?

In fact, I have been trying to move myself more and more in this direction. Crafting and crystallizing a clear message about my association--what it's for, what it's trying to achieve, how it goes about doing it, and the value it delivers to its members in the process of doing this. I've already got it down to two basic slides--one on our mission and vision, and a second on the various programs we run and are trying to create to make the vision a reality. So check, I've got the visual aids in order. But the presentations I saw at our conference made me realize that the place where I would still struggle is in only getting five minutes to speak.

The mission and vision piece is already fairly tight. We've done a good job defining who we are, what we want to achieve, and the envisioned impact we'll have when we're successful. That's probably two minutes, and it seems to resonate strongly with the members and prospects that I've already presented it to. The tough part, then, is in describing the how--the programs and activities, and the ways companies can leverage them for their own on-going success. If I've only got three minutes left to talk about that, I'm going to wind up giving something short shrift. Something is not going to get said and, for all I know, that something may the the most important program or activity from the point of view of the person I'm speaking to.

Near as I can tell, this is a common problem for associations. We do so many different things--many of them not as well as we would like--thinking that an expansive menu of activities is the only way to maintain and grow a participatory membership base. And when you try and summarize all that activity, you wind up either missing something, or not connecting it meaningfully to your audience.

It's a daunting challenge--this "pitch" presentation. In my experience, in order to sell our association to a particular prospect, I generally need to allow for some give and take. Give them the overview and then either listen for clues or ask directly which area is of greater interest to the candidate. Then, deep dive into that area and show them how other members just like them are getting value out of those program and activities. Don't sell them, in other words, on the entire association, just on the program that is the closest match for their needs.

Ultimately, like many of the student presentations I saw at our conference, you can only whet your prospect's whistle with five minutes at a podium.

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This post was written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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Monday, October 19, 2015

A Board That Governs Itself

A few days ago we wrapped up one of our Board's three in-person meetings each year. It was a great event, with a lot of discussion about our industry's and our association's future, and a lot of decisions about how we should be directing our resources to bring about the vision we have described for both.

I know I have peers who dread going to their Board meetings and who inwardly grimace when confronted with the level of dysfunction and micromanagement that occurs there. Thankfully, my situation is not like theirs. My Board has been working for a number of years now on elevating their own performance--on taking more responsibility for governing the association and giving me more responsibility for managing it.

Board meetings, under these circumstances, are not episodes to be dreaded, but rather events to be anticipated. Events where progress will be made, where success will be recognized, and where areas of challenge will be proactively addressed.

That's been my experience, and I'm starting to get used to it. But even now, there are times when my own Board surprises me, when their understanding of their role as governors and my role as manager surpasses even mine.

At our most recent meeting there was an issue on the table--and issue that many, even high-performing Boards wrestle with--and issue that they had discussed previously and which had historically been viewed as a clear purview of the Board.

And as the issue was discussed, two particular Board members--one of our most tenured and one of our newest--began to express a different opinion. The issue, they argued, was not an issue of governance, but an issue of management, and therefore had no place at the Board table. We're holding our CEO responsible for performance, they argued, and this issue is a tool that he should have in his toolbox. He can choose to use it or not to use it, but we should not be tying his hands one way or the other.

And, in as little as thirty seconds, the rest of the Board had agreed, and we were on to the next issue.

It surprised even me, that my Board, who have been embracing governance as their watch word for several years, would be so scrupulous about it. They did, in essence, what all high-performing Boards need to do. They governed themselves. They held themselves to the standard that they had set for themselves.

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This post was written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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Saturday, October 17, 2015

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

One of the most interesting parts of this famous novel is the foreword, in which Nabokov tries to frame the narrative he knows nearly everyone will find offensive inside a protective glove of artistic novelty and criticism. What I take to be an imaginary professor introduces us to the infamous confession manuscript of Humbert Humbert, which he has been asked to edit for publication following the true author’s unexpected death.

It’s a neat device, and it allows Nabokov to speak directly to us about the complicated task he has set before himself.

This commentator may be excused for repeating what he has stressed in his own books and lectures, namely that “offensive” is frequently but a synonym for “unusual”; and a great work of art is of course always original, and thus by its very nature should come as a more or less shocking surprise. I have no intention to glorify “H.H.” No doubt, he is horrible, he is abject, he is a shining example of moral leprosy, a mixture of ferocity and jocularity that betrays supreme misery perhaps, but is not conducive to attractiveness. He is ponderously capricious. Many of his casual opinions on the people and scenery of this country are ludicrous. A desperate honesty that throbs through his confession does not absolve him from sins of diabolical cunning. He is abnormal. He is not a gentleman. But how magically his singing violin can conjure up a tendresse, a compassion for Lolita that makes us entranced with the book while abhorring its author!

In these pretend words of his pretend professor, I think we have the rare treat of hearing Nabokov speaking clearly to his audience about his intentions. Indeed, it is not to glorify pedophila (a crime for which he knows Lolita will bring him ceaseless accusations). His intention, instead, is to pull his educated reader sublimely through this most offensive subject with the enchantment and beauty of his powerful prose. In other words, to prove his staggering genius by writing a piece of immortal literature on the most abject of premises.

Did he succeed? Well, if we can stomach it, let’s take a look.

The first thing you have to understand is that Humbert’s madness is deep and it will be on full display.

Now I wish to introduce the following idea. Between the age limits of nine and fourteen there occur maidens who, to certain bewitched travelers, twice or many times older than they, reveal their true nature which is not human, but nymphic (that is, demoniac); and these chosen creatures I propose to designate as “nymphets.”

This is his confession, remember? Humbert is writing directly to you, and he wants you to understand his supposed crimes from his own perspective.

It will be marked that I substitute time terms for spatial ones. In fact, I would have the reader see “nine” and “fourteen” as the boundaries--the mirrory beaches and rosy rocks--of an enchanted island haunted by those nymphets of mine and surrounded by a vast, misty sea. Between those age limits, are all girl-children nymphets? Of course not. Otherwise, we who are in the know, we lone voyagers, we nympholepts, would have long gone insane. Neither are good looks any criterion; and vulgarity, or at least what a given community terms so, does not necessarily impair certain mysterious characteristics, the fey grace, the elusive, shifty, soul-shattering, insidious charm that separates the nymphet from such coevals of hers as are incomparably more dependent of the spatial world of synchronous phenomena than of that intangible island of entranced time where Lolita plays with her likes. Within the same age limits the number of true nymphets is strikingly inferior to that of provisionally plain, or just nice, or “cute,” or even “sweet” and “attractive,” ordinary, plumpish, formless, cold-skinned, essentially human little girls, with tummies and pigtails, who may or may not turn into adults of great beauty (look at the ugly dumplings in black stockings and white hats that are metamorphosed into stunning stars of the screen.)

How’s that for enchanting and beautiful prose? Read Lolita and you’ll get plenty more. John Updike, on the back cover of my paperback edition of Lolita, says “Nabokov writes prose the only way it should be written, that is, ecstatically.” And he’s right. But wait, Humbert is slowly coming to his point.

A normal man given a group photograph of school girls or Girl Scouts and asked to point out the comeliest one will not necessarily choose the nymphet among them. You have to be an artist and a madman, a creature of infinite melancholy, with a bubble of hot poison in your loins and a super-voluptuous flame permanently aglow in your subtle spine (oh, how you have to cringe and hide!), in order to discern at once, by ineffable signs--the slightly feline outline of a cheekbone, the slenderness of a downy limb, and other indices which despair and shame and tears of tenderness forbid me to tabulate--the little deadly demon among the wholesome children; she stands unrecognized by them and unconscious herself of her fantastic power.

Okay. Two things.

First, yes, Nabokov really does put on the very uncomfortable suit of Humbert’s and writes the novel from his disturbing perspective.

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, the majority of sex offenders that hanker for some throbbing, sweet-moaning physical but not necessarily coital, relation with a girl-child, are innocuous, inadequate, passive, timid strangers who merely ask the community to allow them to pursue their practically harmless, so-called aberrant behavior, their little hot wet private acts of sexual deviation without the police and society cracking down on them. We are not sex fiends! We do not rape as good soldiers do. We are unhappy, mild, dog-eyed gentlemen, sufficiently well integrated to control our urge in the presence of adults, but ready to give years and years of life for one chance to touch a nymphet.

Every sickening thought and obsession is on display. Indeed, Nabokov’s prose seems to revel in them, knowing that the deeper the pedophilc trench he digs, the more crowning his achievement will be when he romances the reader’s thirst for transcendence regardless.

Sometimes, however, the loquaciousness becomes overwhelming. Humbert’s tendency to scramble down rabbit holes is a prominent feature in the book. When he feels in control he goes on at length about the inner workings of his mind and his unique penchant for his undiscovered pre-teen nymphets. And when he begins to lose control, as he does, for example, after the illegal act with Lolita has been consummated and his paranoia over being followed and caught--or worse, to have Lolita stolen from him by some other nefarious Lothario--the meanderings of his mind become downright distracting.

Here, Humbert is imagining that he sees a puzzle, deliberately left for him by his elusive and illusionary arch nemesis, in the series of hotel guest books he and Lolita come across in their cross-country, motel-hopping odyssey.

I noticed that whenever he felt his enigmas were becoming too recondite, even for such a solver as I, he would lure me back with an easy one. “Arsene Lupin” was obvious to a Frenchman who remembered the detective stories of his youth; and one hardly had to be a Coleridgian to appreciate the trite poke of “A. Person, Porlock, England.” In horrible taste but basically suggestive of a cultured man--not a policeman, not a common goon, not a lewd salesman--were such assumed names as “Arthur Rainbow”--plainly the travestied author of Le Bateau Bleu--let me laugh a little too, gentlemen--and “Morris Schmetterling,” of L’Oiseau Ivre fame (touche, reader!). The silly but funny “D. Orgon, Elmira, NY,” was from Moliere, of course, and because I had quite recently tried to interest Lolita in a famous 18th-century play, I welcomed as an old friend “Harry Bumper, Sheridan, Wyo.” An ordinary encyclopedia informed me who the peculiar looking “Phineas Quimby, Lebanon, NH” was; and any good Freudian, with a German name and some interest in religious prostitution, should recognize at a glance the implication of “Dr. Kitzler, Eryx, Miss.” So far so good. That sort of fun was shoddy but on the whole impersonal and thus innocuous. Among entries that arrested my attention as undoubtable clues per se but baffled me in respect to their finer points I do not care to mention many since I feel I am groping in a border-land mist with verbal phantoms turning, perhaps, into living vacationists. Who was “Johnny Randall, Ramble, Ohio”? Or was he a real person who just happened to write a hand similar to “N.S. Aristoff, Catagela, NY”? What was the sting in “Catagela”? And what about “James Mavor Morell, Hoaxton, England”? “Aristophanes,” “hoax”--fine, but what was I missing?

That goes on for two more long paragraphs, the obscure literary references of Humbert's mind mixing with his paranoid madness. All I can say, like it or not, if you read Lolita you’re going to spend a lot of time in Humbert’s addled and untrustworthy head.

Second, it becomes clear that Humbert is not really in love with Lolita--the 12-year old girl whose given name is Dolores Haze. He instead is in love with the ideal of coquettish youth and innocence he thinks she represents. And even he knows this distinction exists.

What I had madly possessed was not she, but my own creation, another, fanciful Lolita--perhaps, more real than Lolita; overlapping, encasing her; floating between me and her, and having no will, no consciousness--indeed, no life of her own.


I am not concerned with so-called “sex” at all. Anybody can imagine those elements of animality. A greater endeavor lures me on: to fix once and for all the perilous magic of nymphets.

But in this process of chasing and then conquering this dream, and then in the process of losing the girl to which that dream was attached, only to find her again years later on the verge of adulthood, pregnant with a child of her own, events that consume the near entirety of the novel's plot, something strange happens to Humbert Humbert.

...and I looked and looked at her, and knew as clearly as I know I am to die, that I loved her more than anything I had ever seen or imagined on earth, or hoped for anywhere else. She was only the faint violet whiff and dead leaf echo of the nymphet I had rolled myself upon with such cries in the past; an echo on the brink of a russet ravine, with a far wood under a white sky, and brown leaves choking the brook, and one last cricket in the crisp weeds...but thank God it was not that echo alone that I worshipped. What I used to pamper among the tangled vines of my heart, mon grand peche radieux, had dwindled to its essence: sterile and selfish vice, all that I canceled and cursed. You may jeer at me, and threaten to clear the court, but until I am gagged and half-throttled, I will shout my poor truth. I insist the world know how much I loved my Lolita, this Lolita, pale and polluted, and big with another’s child, but still gray-eyed, still sooty-lashed, still auburn and almond, still Carmencita, still mine; Changeons de vie, ma Carmen, allons vivre quelque part ou nous ne serons jamais separes; Ohio? The wilds of Massachusetts? No matter, even if those eyes of hers would fade to myopic fish, and her nipples swell and crack, and her lovely young velvety delicate delta be tainted and torn--even then I would go mad with tenderness at the mere sight of your dear wan face, at the mere sound of your raucous young voice, my Lolita.

He falls in love with her. He falls hopelessly in love with the young woman he takes to be Dolores Haze, and not the nymphet Lolita that he once imagined her to be. Except, tragically, the Dolores Haze he sees is not the real Dolores Haze, the young woman she would have matured into from the young girl he had wrecked with his “foul lust.” The closeness of her horizon, and her artificial distance from him, they are both a direct result of his pedophilic actions against her.

And although this damage is real, Humbert, blinded now by a different but still wholly imaginary vision of his Lolita, struggles to see it.

Alas, I was unable to transcend the simple human fact that whatever spiritual solace I might find, whatever lithophanic eternities might be provided for me, nothing could make my Lolita forget the foul lust I had inflicted upon her. Unless it can be proven to me--to me as I am now, today, with my heart and my beard, and my putrefaction--that in the infinite run it does not matter a jot that a North American girl-child named Dolores Haze had been deprived of her childhood by a maniac, unless this can be proven (and if it can, then life is a joke), I see nothing for the treatment of my misery but the melancholy and very local palliative of articulate art.

Remember what I said about Humbert's addled and untrustworthy head? This is perhaps where it shines though the most. It is less denial and more blindness. He is unable to see Lolita as anything other than he imagines her to be--and therein, of course, lays the unbalanced seeds of every soaring love that ever existed or was written about.

Still, even Humbert can recall certain moments...

...let us call them icebergs in paradise, when after having had my fill of her--after fabulous, insane exertions that left me limp and azure-barred--I would gather her in my arms with, at last, a mute moan of human tenderness (her skin glistening in the neon light coming from the paved court through the slits in the blind, her soot-black lashes matted, her grave gray eyes more vacant than ever--for all the world a little patient still in the confusion of a drug after a major operation)--and the tenderness would deepen to shame and despair, and I would lull and rock my lone light Lolita in my marble arms, and moan in her warm hair, and caress her at random and mutely ask her blessing, and at the peak of this human agonized selfless tenderness (with my soul actually hanging around her naked body and ready to repent), all at once, ironically, horribly, lust would swell again--and “oh no,” Lolita would say with a sigh to heaven, and the next moment the tenderness and the azure--all would be shattered.

Moments when his monstrous appetite had been satiated, and in which he was able to briefly see her humanity and the damage he was doing to it, before the beast raised its ugly head again.

So does Nabokov succeed? On the strength of that last quoted paragraph, and many more like it, I’d have to say he comes very close. The prose is as delicious as the subject matter is nauseating.

But with me, at least, Nabokov’s had one great thing working in his favor. Having seen the movie Lolita was turned into--directed by none less than Stanley Kubrick--I couldn’t help but picture fourteen-year-old and older-looking actress Sue Lyon as I read paragraphs like that, and, even more helplessly, as I read any scene containing Lolita’s dialogue. If rather, I had been able to picture a twelve-year-old of my own imagination, I wonder if I would have been able to climb with Nabokov out of that stomach-turning trench he first had to dig.

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This post was written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

Monday, October 12, 2015

Program Objectives Define What Staff Will Actually Do

I've previously provided an example of an Operational Plan, the new term I've introduced in my association to describe a document owned by me and my staff. Comprised of three distinct elements, each one nesting in the one that precedes it, our Operational Plan describes how the association will go about achieving the success metrics identified by our Board of Directors.

Now I want to spend a little more time talking about the second of these three elements: the Program Objectives.

I've previously defined the Program Objectives this way: the controllable things staff will do in our attempt to accomplish our goals. And "controllable" is the most crucial concept to understand the difference between a Goal and a Program Objective.

Goals, by our definition of them, are by default stretch goals. If achieved, they will move the needle, advancing one or more of the metrics that we have identified as something that will move us closer to our future vision. There's no guarantee we will achieve them.

But Program Objectives are entirely in our control. They are the things we will do in our attempt to accomplish the Goals. If the Goal is to increase our member retention rate then the Program Objective is to visit more at-risk members this year. Will visiting more at-risk members improve our member retention rate? The answer to that question may surprise you.

We think so.

You see, there is never any guarantee that our Program Objectives are, in fact, the things that will accomplish our Goals. For some, the casual link has all but been established through years of observation and trial and error. Others are veritable shots in the dark. The casual link appears plausible, but they have never been tried before.

I think it's important to be honest about this. And part of that honesty is holding the person whose Program Objective it is accountable for it, but not, ultimately for the Goal to which the Program Objective is aligned. I admit, in other words, that sometimes we will accomplish our Program Objectives without accomplishing our Goals.

And when that happens, a rare and wonderful thing occurs. An opportunity to learn.

Did we increase our member retention rate? I might ask. No? Well, did we visit more at-risk members this year? We did? Then what went wrong?

There are several possibilities. In my example above, either visiting at-risk members does not impact our member retention rate (the Program Objective has no casual link to the Goal), or visiting at-risk members is not sufficient to increase our member retention rate in the amount specified (there are other Program Objectives that should be identified to work in concert with this one), or our ability to execute the program of at-risk member visits was hampered in some way (the Program Objective would have accomplished the Goal, but there was some resource deficiency that prevented its full execution).

Figuring out which of these three possibilities is the right--and then making the appropriate adjustments--is the most critical part of managing a set of Program Objectives. Each gives an on-the-ground understanding of the forces at work in your association, and holding your staff accountable for their execution is essential is you are to make accurate assessments.

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This post was written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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Monday, October 5, 2015

Why CEOs Do "It"


It is not on our job description. The board didn't tell us to do It. No one will notice if It doesn't get done.

So why do we do It?

We think It will help.

Help with what? Everything. Increasing our influence. Driving our agenda. Creating our future.

There's no guidebook for It. We have to go with our gut. Our gut tells us what It is, but we often don't know if It is even going to work. But we have to do something, because doing nothing is an abdication of our responsibility.

And doing something, even if It is not the right thing to do, is always part of the process of determining what the right thing is.


And that's why CEOs do It.

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This post was written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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Saturday, October 3, 2015

Broken Music by Sting

Two things stand out for me in this memoir written by the Police frontman about his childhood, adolescence, and early music career.

First, this tribute to books and English teachers:

I will become so swept up in these journeys of discovery that I will continue to read and read, long after the academic need has passed. There are no books in my house apart from a Bible and some equally unfathomable engineering texts from my father’s apprenticeship, but soon books will become for me an acquisitive passion filling up rooms and rooms with their dusty and inert bodies. Like my grandmother, I will never throw a book away, storing dog-eared paperbacks from school or college, year after year, stacked like hunting trophies on makeshift shelves in my rooms. For to sit in a room full of books, and remember the stories they told you, and to know precisely where each one is located and what was happening in your life at that time or where you were when you first read it is the languid and distilled pleasure of the connoisseur, and this lifelong pleasure I owe to Mr. McGough and others like him.

Remind you of any one you know?

And second, this description of the first time Sting played with Stewart Copeland:

Even at this very early moment of our relationship, it clear that there is something going on, some chemistry, some understanding, some recognition, a rapport and a tension between the amphetamine pulse of his kick drum and the shifting, rolling ground of the bass. It is like two dancers finding a sudden an unexpected harmony in the glide of their steps, or the sexual rhythms of natural lovers, or the synchronized strokes of a rowing team in the flow of a fast river. Such rapport is not common, and I realize very quickly that this guy is the most exciting drummer I’ve ever worked with, almost too exciting. I also realize that tempos will be abandoned as easily as loose baggage on that runaway train, and whatever music I shall manage to make with this whirlwind, it will not be gentle or easy, it will be a wild ride to hell and back.

Reminds you of the music they made famous, doesn’t it?

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This post was written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at