The Toxic NCAA Bracket

Tuesday, March 24th, 2009

Would you buy Arnold Kling’s toxic NCAA bracket?

Suppose that a week ago I had entered a March Madness pool, paid $10, and filled out a bracket.

Suppose that right now my bracket is looking weak, with only about half the teams I picked to make the sweet 16 still in the tournament. I have not been mathematically eliminated from winning the pool, but I need extremely good luck the rest of the way. (Incidentally, this example is hypothetical. I don’t follow college basketball, and I don’t enter any pools.)

At this point, my entry is no longer worth $10. If I were to sell it, I might get fifteen cents for it. If I were a bank, my bracket would be a toxic asset.

Now, along comes Tim Geithner with a fistful of taxpayer dollars. The way his plan works, you can put up a nickel to get a share of my bracket, and Tim will lend you forty-five cents, which you do not have to pay back if you lose. If you win, you and Tim split the proceeds. You’re happy, because for a nickel you’re picking up half a share of a bracket worth fifteen cents. I’m happy, because I sell my toxic bracket for fifty cents instead of fifteen cents. Somebody should be unhappy. Guess who?

Pakistan is…

Monday, March 23rd, 2009

Lexington Green shares his quote of the day from David Kilcullen:

Pakistan is 173 million people, 100 nuclear weapons, an army bigger than the U.S. Army, and al-Qaeda headquarters sitting right there in the two-thirds of the country that the government doesn’t control. The Pakistani military and police and intelligence service don’t follow the civilian government; they are essentially a rogue state within a state. We’re now reaching the point where within one to six months we could see the collapse of the Pakistani state, also because of the global financial crisis, which just exacerbates all these problems…. The collapse of Pakistan, al-Qaeda acquiring nuclear weapons, an extremist takeover — that would dwarf everything we’ve seen in the war on terror today.

A Democratic Mantle

Monday, March 23rd, 2009

These days, Kenneth Roth says, no self-respecting government wants to present itself on the world stage without the legitimacy of a democratic mantle:

Elections are now de rigueur, even if many a despot rejects the idea of actually abiding by voter preferences. The result is an embrace of “democracy” by such authoritarian leaders as Vladimir Putin of Russia, Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia, Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan, Umaru Yar’Adua of Nigeria and Mwai Kibaki of Kenya. They all have used some combination of violence, fraud and repression to ensure that elections do not threaten their grasp on power.

They get away with this charade in part because the Western democracies that might be expected to demand the real thing have economic and strategic incentives to settle for farce. Rather than insist on the elements of democracy that make it meaningful — a free press, a vigorous civil society, the rule of law, a fair and transparent process for counting ballots — they close their eyes to electoral travesty.

As Fareed Zakaria has pointed out, democracy and constitutional liberalism are two very different things — mob rule is not rule of law. So, democracy is flourishing, but constitutional liberalism is not.

Oxford economics professor Paul Collier (The Bottom Billion) examines this with empirical rigor in Wars, Guns, and Votes: Democracy in Dangerous Places:

Collier’s primary conclusion: democracy, in the superficial, election-focused form that tends to prevail in these countries, “has increased political violence instead of reducing it.” Without rules, traditions, and checks and balances to protect minorities, distribute resources fairly and subject officials to the law, these governments lack the accountability and legitimacy to discourage rebellion. The quest for power becomes a “life-and-death struggle” in which “the contestants are driven to extremes.”

Collier’s data show that before an election, warring parties may channel their antagonisms into politics, but that violence tends to flare up once the voting is over. What’s more, when elections are won by threats, bribery, fraud and bloodshed, such so-called democracies tend to promote bad governance, since the policies needed to retain power are quite different from those needed to serve the common good.

Ethnic identification in the multiethnic societies that predominate among the bottom billion is a particular impediment. Leaders have no incentive to perform well, Collier explains, if voters cast ballots according to ethnic loyalty rather than governmental competence. Nor should we be fooled into thinking that democracy is working just because voters turn out in large numbers. Where identity politics prevail, “voting is likely to be primarily expressive,” like “wearing a football scarf.” It doesn’t mean voters have faith that their ballots will lead to more effective government. Besides, because news organizations in these countries are weak and objective information scarce, citizens probably don’t even know how well or how badly their leaders are performing.

Naturally Collier believes that the cure for failed democracy is more democracy — with a “visionary” leader.

How to write fast code

Monday, March 23rd, 2009

Kas Thomas shares some advice he received early in his programming career on how to write fast code:

“The CPU,” he said, “runs at a certain speed. It can execute a fixed number of instructions per second, and no more. There is a finite limit to how many instructions per second it can execute. Right?”

“Right,” I said.

“So there is no way, really, to make code go faster, because there is no way to make instructions execute faster. There is only such a thing as making the machine do less.”

He paused for emphasis.

“To go fast,” he said slowly, “do less.”

To go fast, do less. Do less; go fast. Yes, of course. It makes perfect sense. There’s no other way to make a program run faster except to make it do less.

The Brooklyn Bridge was built with no power tools

Monday, March 23rd, 2009

From 1870 — five years after the end of the Civil War — to 1883, the Brooklyn Bridge was built with no power tools, no heavy machinery, and only a basic, evolving understanding of how to make steel:

Both of the towers of the Brooklyn Bridge are in the water of the East River. Ever wonder how you dig a big hole in the bottom of a river bed? In the late 1800s? It’s called a caisson, which is a huge, watertight wooden box half the size of a city block. This monstrosity was constructed on the river, sealed with pine tar, and carefully floated to a specific location on the river. It was then slowly sunk to the riverbed by placing stone on top that would eventually become the foundation.

Done, right?

Wrong. With the caisson on the riverbed, it’s time to push it another 45 feet into the riverbed in search of bedrock. Workers did this through the continued application of stone to the top while workers in the caisson dug out the riverbed with shovels, buckets, and, when necessary, dynamite. There was nothing resembling an electrical grid, so there was nothing resembling modern lighting in this watertight pine-tarred box, which was slowly descending through the floor of the East River. There were no jack hammers, so when they hit rock, they used small amounts of dynamite to crack these rocks. In a pine-tarred box, at the bottom of a river, mostly in a very wet dark.

And when the caisson finally hit bedrock 45 [feet] underground, they had to do it all over again for the New York tower. 30 feet deeper.

The chief engineer ended up bed-ridden from caisson disease — which divers now call the bends:

As the New York caisson descended further than its Brooklyn counterpart, the incidents of the bends increased, killing two men. With no bedrock in sight, Roebling used his knowledge of geology and mineralogy to make an amazing decision: stop digging. It wasn’t bedrock, but it was compacted sand.

The New York tower. 78 feet deep into the riverbed. Resting on sand. It hasn’t moved.

Custom Everything

Saturday, March 21st, 2009

The future of shopping is custom everything:

Chris Clark is not a trend-obsessed tween or the kind of guy who lives for designer sneakers. The 37-year-old Dallas attorney is the rare person who actually just wears his running shoes for running.

Yet over the past few years Clark has bought three pairs of kicks from Nike’s NikeID program, carefully customizing everything from the laces to the soles to a label with his middle name — Inslee — emblazoned on it.

“Nike is what I’ve always worn,” Clark explains. “But sometimes you find a shoe that fits great and the colors in the stores are awful. I still care about how they look.”

Nike isn’t the only brand offering custom shoes:

In the sneaker world, there may be no greater brand contrast to Nike, with its high-tech designs and superstar spokespeople, than Keds. While the top-of-the-line shoes that Nike sells are generally priced above $100, Keds’ canvas sneakers retail for around $35.

Except, that is, for the custom versions, which became available through Keds Studio in August. The shoes, on which shoppers can print any color, pattern, or image, run $60. And in the first three months of business, Keds had 80,000 customizations, though not all translated into purchases, however, especially given the economic slowdown.

Keds had wanted to play in the custom space for years, says Charlene Higgins-Crawford, the company’s e-commerce director of merchandising and operations. “It’s taken us a while to figure out how to do it and to find a partner that had the technology.”

Keds Studio was in part made possible by the availability of very high quality digital printers at a price that made the results affordable. Software developments let them give customers a good — and necessary — look at what they were buying. Partnering with Zazzle, a custom printing company that handles the whole process, means the completed shoes can be shipped within just two weeks.

Lincoln biographies are completely worthless

Friday, March 20th, 2009

Almost all Lincoln biographies are completely worthless, Mencius Moldbug says:

They explain Lincoln as a saint, rather than the extraordinarily talented politician he was. Their method is as follows: tell us what Lincoln said, assume that he was saying what he was thinking, then praise this noble thought. When Lincoln emits “darky” jokes or other crass noises, this can be put down to necessary political opportunism, in which he had to engage if he was to fulfill his Father’s mission. (Note that the same method, with the same results, can be used for Barack Obama.)

Masters [Lincoln the Man (1931)] and Beveridge [Abraham Lincoln (1928)] put Lincoln in his political context, and they explain his speeches as what they were: not thoughts but actions, with intended results. Masters was America’s leading poet and Beveridge a major senator, and neither of them have any patience with the “great man” act. Their books are hard to find, unfortunately, but there’s always interlibrary loan.

Traveling-Wave Reactor

Friday, March 20th, 2009

The Traveling-Wave Reactor is noteworthy, Matt Wald says, for having come from something that barely exists in the nuclear industry: a privately funded research company — Intellectual Ventures, an invention and investment company in Bellevue, Washington — and for solving some of the major problems of conventional reactor designs:

As it runs, the core in a traveling-wave reactor gradually converts nonfissile material into the fuel it needs. Nuclear reactors based on such designs “theoretically could run for a couple of hundred years” without refueling, says John G illeland, manager of nuclear programs at Intellectual Ventures.

Gilleland’s aim is to run a nuclear reactor on what is now waste. Conventional reactors use uranium-235, which splits easily to carry on a chain reaction but is scarce and expensive; it must be separated from the more common, nonfissile uranium-238 in special enrichment plants. Every 18 to 24 months, the reactor must be opened, hundreds of fuel bundles removed, hundreds added, and the remainder reshuffled to supply all the fissile uranium needed for the next run. This raises proliferation concerns, since an enrichment plant designed to make low-enriched uranium for a power reactor differs trivially from one that makes highly enriched material for a bomb.

But the traveling-wave reactor needs only a thin layer of enriched U-235. Most of the core is U-238, millions of pounds of which are stockpiled around the world as leftovers from natural uranium after the U-235 has been scavenged. The design provides “the simplest possible fuel cycle,” says Charles W. Forsberg, executive director of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle Project at MIT, “and it requires only one uranium enrichment plant per planet.”

The trick is that the reactor itself will convert the uranium-238 into a usable fuel, plutonium-239. Conventional reactors also produce P-239, but using it requires removing the spent fuel, chopping it up, and chemically extracting the plutonium–a dirty, expensive process that is also a major step toward building an atomic bomb. The traveling-wave reactor produces plutonium and uses it at once, eliminating the possibility of its being diverted for weapons. An active region less than a meter thick moves along the reactor core, breeding new plutonium in front of it.

The Rise of Illiberal Democracy

Friday, March 20th, 2009

Fareed Zakaria wrote about the rise of illiberal democracy for Foreign Affairs before his The Future of Freedom got published:

The American diplomat Richard Holbrooke pondered a problem on the eve of the September 1996 elections in Bosnia, which were meant to restore civic life to that ravaged country. “Suppose the election was declared free and fair,” he said, and those elected are “racists, fascists, separatists, who are publicly opposed to [peace and reintegration]. That is the dilemma.” Indeed it is, not just in the former Yugoslavia, but increasingly around the world. Democratically elected regimes, often ones that have been reelected or reaffirmed through referenda, are routinely ignoring constitutional limits on their power and depriving their citizens of basic rights and freedoms. From Peru to the Palestinian Authority, from Sierra Leone to Slovakia, from Pakistan to the Philippines, we see the rise of a disturbing phenomenon in international life — illiberal democracy.

It has been difficult to recognize this problem because for almost a century in the West, democracy has meant liberal democracy — a political system marked not only by free and fair elections, but also by the rule of law, a separation of powers, and the protection of basic liberties of speech, assembly, religion, and property. In fact, this latter bundle of freedoms — what might be termed constitutional liberalism — is theoretically different and historically distinct from democracy. As the political scientist Philippe Schmitter has pointed out, “Liberalism, either as a conception of political liberty, or as a doctrine about economic policy, may have coincided with the rise of democracy. But it has never been immutably or unambiguously linked to its practice.” Today the two strands of liberal democracy, interwoven in the Western political fabric, are coming apart in the rest of the world. Democracy is flourishing; constitutional liberalism is not.

Since the end of World War II, Western governments have embodied both democracy and constitutional liberalism:

Thus it is difficult to imagine the two apart, in the form of either illiberal democracy or liberal autocracy. In fact both have existed in the past and persist in the present. Until the twentieth century, most countries in Western Europe were liberal autocracies or, at best, semi-democracies. The franchise was tightly restricted, and elected legislatures had little power. In 1830 Great Britain, in some ways the most democratic European nation, allowed barely 2 percent of its population to vote for one house of Parliament; that figure rose to 7 percent after 1867 and reached around 40 percent in the 1880s. Only in the late 1940s did most Western countries become full-fledged democracies, with universal adult suffrage. But one hundred years earlier, by the late 1840s, most of them had adopted important aspects of constitutional liberalism — the rule of law, private property rights, and increasingly, separated powers and free speech and assembly. For much of modern history, what characterized governments in Europe and North America, and differentiated them from those around the world, was not democracy but constitutional liberalism. The “Western model” is best symbolized not by the mass plebiscite but the impartial judge.

The recent history of East Asia follows the Western itinerary. After brief flirtations with democracy after World War II, most East Asian regimes turned authoritarian. Over time they moved from autocracy to liberalizing autocracy, and, in some cases, toward liberalizing semi-democracy. Most of the regimes in East Asia remain only semi-democratic, with patriarchs or one-party systems that make their elections ratifications of power rather than genuine contests. But these regimes have accorded their citizens a widening sphere of economic, civil, religious, and limited political rights. As in the West, liberalization in East Asia has included economic liberalization, which is crucial in promoting both growth and liberal democracy. Historically, the factors most closely associated with fullfledged liberal democracies are capitalism, a bourgeoisie, and a high per capita GNP. Today’s East Asian governments are a mix of democracy, liberalism, capitalism, oligarchy, and corruption — much like Western governments circa 1900.

Constitutional liberalism has led to democracy, but democracy does not seem to bring constitutional liberalism:

In contrast to the Western and East Asian paths, during the last two decades in Latin America, Africa, and parts of Asia, dictatorships with little background in constitutional liberalism have given way to democracy. The results are not encouraging. In the western hemisphere, with elections having been held in every country except Cuba, a 1993 study by the scholar Larry Diamond determined that 10 of the 22 principal Latin American countries “have levels of human rights abuse that are incompatible with the consolidation of [liberal] democracy.” In Africa, democratization has been extraordinarily rapid. Within six months in 1990 much of Francophone Africa lifted its ban on multiparty politics. Yet although elections have been held in most of the 45 sub-Saharan states since 1991 (18 in 1996 alone), there have been etbacks for freedom in many countries. One of Africa’s most careful observers, Michael Chege, surveyed the wave of democratization and drew the lesson that the continent had “overemphasized multiparty elections… and correspondingly neglected the basic tenets of liberal governance.” In Central Asia, elections, even when reasonably free, as in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakstan, have resulted in strong executives, weak legislatures and judiciaries, and few civil and economic liberties. In the Islamic world, from the Palestinian Authority to Iran to Pakistan, democratization has led to an increasing role for theocratic politics, eroding long-standing traditions of secularism and tolerance. In many parts of that world, such as Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt, and some of the Gulf States, were elections to be held tomorrow, the resulting regimes would almost certainly be more illiberal than the ones now in place.

Zakaria’s latest book, The Post-American World, came out last month.

Better, stronger, faster

Friday, March 20th, 2009

Ray Baughman and his colleagues have produced a carbon nanotube formulation that’s stronger than steel, as light as air, and more flexible than rubber — a 21st-century muscle:

It could be used to make artificial limbs, “smart” skins, shape-changing structures, ultra-strong robots and — in the immediate future — highly-efficient solar cells.

“We can generate about 30 times the force per unit area of natural muscle,” said Baughman, director of the NanoTech Institute at the University of Texas at Dallas.

Carbon nanotubes have fascinated material scientists since the early 1990s, when researchers started to explore the ultra-light, ultra-strong cylindrical molecules. Though bulk manufacturing difficulties have slowed the development of commercial applications, carbon nanotubes are already used in bicycle components, and in prototypes of airplanes, bulletproof clothing, transistors, and ropes that might someday be used to tether a space elevator. (On a historical note, carbon nanotube-infused steel was used to made Damascus blades, renowned as history’s sharpest swords, though the technique has been lost.)

Baughman became interested in carbon nanotubes while designing artificial muscles from energy-conducting polymers. He figured he could do the job better with linked carbon nanotubes. First he made haphazard tangles of fibers activated by charged liquids. Then he experimented with more structurally-consistent configurations, and other methods of delivering the charge.

His latest muscle, described Thursday in Science, is made from bundles of vertically aligned nanotubes that respond directly to electricity. Lengthwise, the muscle can expand and contract with tremendous speed; from side-to-side, it’s super-stiff. Its possibilities may only be limited by the imaginations of engineers.

I suspect there’s a misunderstanding here:

Natural muscles, said Baughman, contract at a maximum rate of 10 percent per second. In the same amount of time, his latest nanotube sheaths can contract by 40,000 percent.

I suspect it contracts 4,000 times as rapidly as natural muscles, not that it contracts by more than 100 percent in one second — or ever.

The original article includes some embedded videos — but none of them involve Lee Majors jumping over a fence in slow motion.

Altruists are Angry People

Friday, March 20th, 2009

Altruists are angry people, Michael Strong explains:

Are altruists occupationally prone to anger? Well, it turns out that they are, in fact, biologically inclined to be angry and punitive toward those who they perceive to be not being helpful.

Evolutionary psychologists believe that status is correlated with perceived community altruism because in part it was in our evolutionary interest to prevent free riders…

We are willing to punish those who do not contribute to collective action even at a cost to us, another finding that is inconsistent with rational choice…

Thus, the very fact that we have moral impulses to support the public good is necessarily intertwined with the fact that we have moral impulses to punish those who do not (and to punish those who do not punish those who do not, and so on)…

This instinct is especially harmful when used to punish those who are perceived not punishing free riders. This is the source of the bigotry against market economics among the do-gooders: It is believed that those who describe the positive outcomes of free enterprise are not doing their job to behave punitively toward free riders, and that therefore they, too, must be punished.

But it’s worse than that, Arnold Kling says:

You can signal that you are an altruist not by engaging in altruistic acts, but simply by expressing a desire to punish others. For example, by taking away AIG bonuses, you do a great deal to signal altruism, even though the actual social gains from taking the bonuses away are miniscule (the gains may even be negative).

Kling has more to say about deception and signaling. Read the whole thing.

Selling sex legally in New Zealand

Friday, March 20th, 2009

Selling sex legally in New Zealand bears little resemblance to selling it illegally elsewhere:

Lucy works in Bon Ton, an exclusive establishment in the capital where an hour-long session costs NZ$400 (£140; $200). She says the reform has given her the opportunity to work for a legitimate business in a safe environment.
Lucy’s manager, Sarah, also believes criminalising clients would be a disaster for the industry and put the girls at risk.

Bon Ton caters to gentlemen who want to be “pampered in every way”
“This would scare away the quality customers,” she says. “We would be left with the dangerous sort. The nasty men won’t go away.”
According to Catherine Healy of the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective (NZPC), better and safer working practices are now the norm.

Across the industry, she says, women are now aware of their rights and exploitative brothel owners are becoming marginalised as a result of the reform.

“Sex workers say: I can work across town,” she says. “The dynamic has altered.”

Anna Reed, who was a sex worker in Christchurch for 23 years and is now NZPC’s local spokesperson, agrees that exploitative practices have become rare.

“Owners used to demand huge fines for being late. They used to hire and fire workers without reason.” But now, she says, “girls feel more able to stand up for themselves”.

Another key benefit of decriminalisation, according to Ms Healy, is a sea change in relations with the police: “If you’re the one committing a crime, you won’t ask the police for help.”

Now, Ms Healy says, the girls find law enforcement officials are on their side.

Another important point: it’s legal, but still frowned upon.

The Highs and Lows of the Great Zucchini

Friday, March 20th, 2009

Gene Weingarten tells the fascinating tale of the highs and lows of the Great Zucchini, the most popular and successful children’s entertainer in the DC area — who shows up disheveled, with no costume and a few beat-up old props, but who leaves the toddlers literally convulsing with laughter:

The show lasted 35 minutes, and when it was over, an initially skeptical Don Cox forked over a check without complaint. The fee was $300. It was the first of four shows the Great Zucchini would do that Saturday, each at the same price. The following day, there were four more. This was a typical weekend.

Do the math, if you can handle the results. This unmarried, 35-year-old community college dropout makes more than $100,000 a year, with a two-day workweek. Not bad for a complete idiot.

The Great Zucchini has mastered a brand of humor squarely aimed at toddlers:

Even before they respond to a tickle, most babies will laugh at peekaboo. It’s their first “joke.” They are reacting to a sequence of events that begins with the presence of a familiar, comforting face. Then, suddenly, the face disappears, and you can read in the baby’s expression momentary puzzlement and alarm. When the face suddenly reappears, everything is orderly in the baby’s world again. Anxiety is banished, and the baby reacts with her very first laugh.

At its heart, laughter is a tool to triumph over fear. As we grow older, our senses of humor become more demanding and refined, but that basic, hard-wired reflex remains. We need it, because life is scary. Nature is heartless, people can be cruel, and death and suffering are inevitable and arbitrary. We learn to tame our terror by laughing at the absurdity of it all.

This point has been made by experts ranging from Richard Pryor to doctoral candidates writing tedious theses on the ontol-ogical basis of humor. Any joke, any amusing observation, can be deconstructed to fit. The seemingly benign Henny Youngman one-liner, “Take my wife… please!” relies in its heart on an understanding that love can become a straitjacket. By laughing at that recognition, you are rising above it, and blunting its power to disturb.

After the peekaboo age, but before the age of such sophisticated understanding, dwells the preschooler. His sense of humor is more than infantile but less than truly perceptive. He comprehends irony but not sarcasm. He lacks knowledge but not feeling. The central fact of his world — and the central terror to be overcome — is his own powerlessness. This is where the Great Zucchini works his magic.

The Great Zucchini actually does magic tricks, but they are mostly dime-store novelty gags — false thumbs to hide a handkerchief, magic dust that turns water to gel — accompanied by sleight of hand so primitive your average 8-year-old would suss it out in an instant. That’s one reason he has fashioned himself a specialist in ages 2 to 6. He behaves like no adult in these preschoolers’ world, making himself the dimwitted victim of every gag. He thinks a banana is a telephone, and answers it. He can’t find the birthday boy when the birthday boy is standing right behind him. Every kid in the room is smarter than the Great Zucchini; he gives them that power over their anxieties.

Clearly the Great Zucchini has a talent:

“In the beginning, I had almost no clients,” he said, “and I would sit at a table like this in a place like this, and if a mom would be walking by with her 3-year-old, I would pretend to be talking on my cell phone. I’d say, ‘Yeah, I do children’s parties geared for 3-year-olds!’ And a lot of times, the mom would stop, and say… ‘You do children’s parties?’”

When he first started, he found out what other birthday party entertainers were charging — roughly $150 per show — and upped it by $25. That worked; it seemed to give him agency. After a while, his weekends were so crammed with parties — seven or eight, every weekend — he felt overwhelmed. So, applying fundamental principles of economics, he decided to thin his business but not his profits by raising his prices precipitously — from $175 to $300. It turns out that the fundamental principles of economics are no match for the fundamental desperation of suburban parents. He still was doing seven or eight shows a weekend.

Weekdays, he mostly haunts places like this, drinking coffee and tending to his cell phone. It rings a lot. It’s ringing right now.

“Hello. Yes. Okay, sure, what date are you looking at?”

He flips open the tattered appointment book that is always with him. He’s got dates penciled in as far into the future as October.

So, he clears six figures, working two days a week, and his clients come to him from word of mouth; he doesn’t even have to work to sell his services.

On the down side, he turns out to be a compulsive gambler who can’t hold onto any of that easy money. He understands toddlers, because he really is on their level.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

Friday, March 20th, 2009

You got your Regency romance in my zombie apocalypse!

You got your zombie apocalypse in my Regency romance!

It’s two great tastes in one — Pride and Prejudice and Zombies:

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies features the original text of Jane Austen’s beloved novel with all-new scenes of bone-crunching zombie action. As our story opens, a mysterious plague has fallen upon the quiet English village of Meryton — and the dead are returning to life! Feisty heroine Elizabeth Bennet is determined to wipe out the zombie menace, but she’s soon distracted by the arrival of the haughty and arrogant Mr. Darcy. What ensues is a delightful comedy of manners with plenty of civilized sparring between the two young lovers — and even more violent sparring on the blood-soaked battlefield as Elizabeth wages war against hordes of flesh-eating undead. Complete with 20 illustrations in the style of C. E. Brock (the original illustrator of Pride and Prejudice), this insanely funny expanded edition will introduce Jane Austen’s classic novel to new legions of fans.

Jane Austen is the author of Sense and Sensibility, Persuasion, Mansfield Park, and other masterpieces of English literature.

Seth Grahame-Smith is the author of How to Survive a Horror Movie and The Big Book of Porn. He lives in Los Angeles.

(Hat tip to a horrified Yana.)

The Real Secret of Thoroughly Excellent Companies

Thursday, March 19th, 2009

Peter Bregman claims that the real secret of “thoroughly excellent” companies is trust — which strikes me as… less than actionable.

More usefully, he explains how Michael Newcombe, general manager of his favorite hotel, the Four Seasons, practices proximity management:

Every month he meets informally with each employee group. No agenda. No speeches. Just conversation. That helps him solve problems: for example, the time guest check-in was being mysteriously delayed.

During his meeting with the front desk staff, he learned they were slower than usual in checking in guests because rooms weren’t available. Then, in his meeting with housekeeping staff, someone asked if the hotel was running low on king size sheets. Most CEOs wouldn’t be interested in that question, but Michael asked why. Well, the maid answered, it’s taking us longer to turn over rooms because we have to wait for the sheets. So he kept asking questions to different employee groups until he discovered that one of the dryers was broken and waiting for a custom part. That reduced the number of available sheets. Which slowed down housekeeping. Which reduced room availability. Which delayed guests from checking in.

He fixed the problem in 24 hours. A problem he never would have known about without open communication with all his employees.