The Corporation as Angel

Much like you, I’ve never had much truck with the kitschy view of angels.

My favorite take on angels comes from The Prophecy. The Prophecy is a rather kitschy movie itself, but it deserves real credit for portraying angels that behave like they come from the Pentateuch, not a Hallmark card:

Recently I just finished reading David Graeber‘s excellent Debt: The First 5,000 Years. One of his asides caught my attention:

[Corporations are] entities that, through a charming legal fiction, we imagine to be persons, just like human beings, but immortal, never having to go through all the human untidiness of marriage, reproduction, infirmity, and death. To put it in properly Medieval terms, they are very much like angels.

Legally, our notion of the corporation is very much a product of the European High Middle Ages…

As an abstraction for thinking about corporations, “angelhood” seems like a much better fit than “personhood.” What are angels? They are alien. They are immortal, and hard to kill. They ruthlessly pursue their goals. They don’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear (though sometimes, they can be bargained or reasoned with).

In Hebrew, the word for angel is Malakh, “messenger.” This rings true as well, as modern corporations are absolutely obsessed with their “message.” The wrinkle is that unlike Biblical angels, the message corporations want to give you is never the message that they are actually carrying. This is what makes wrestling with them so complicated.

Backscatter Spam Attack from

I’m currently suffering a backscatter spam attack, 95% of which is coming from’s misconfigured email servers. 500 emails and counting. I’ve certainly seen worse (much worse), but not anything on this scale for many years. It feels kind of… retro.

Presumably the reason backscatter spam has grown rarer is that these days, most mail servers are now configured properly. And yet — it seems that at end of 2011, there are still major service providers that employ systems engineers and product managers who do not understand the basic principles of mail server configuration.

So help educate the fine people who work for, here is an article that explains why you should never bounce spam and viruses. And here is the French translation of the same article.

You’re welcome, systems engineers and product managers! I’m glad we were able to have this positive cultural exchange.

The Halakha of Amazon Price Scanning

Reading “Amazon’s Jungle Logic” reminded me of a lecture I heard from a rabbi years ago, about the ethics of entering a shop to examine an item without any intention of making a purchase. Longtime readers of the Talmud (or even people casually aware of the Talmud) might not be surprised to learn that the Talmud has something specific to say about this situation. The Mishnah draws an interesting analogy between hurtful business practices and hurtful words, saying:

Just as there is overreaching in buying and selling, so is there wrong done by words. Thus, one must not ask another, “What is the price of this article?” when one has no intention of buying. If a person was a repentant sinner, one must not say to him, “Remember your former deeds…”

Here, “overreaching in buying and selling” means “overcharging”, or more generally, business fraud. The rabbis have plenty to say about business fraud in the Gemara. (They have plenty to say about everything in the Gemara.)

Some contemporary readings of this Mishnah argue that the underlying reason this behavior is bad is that it is unethical to waste a merchant’s time or falsely raise their hope. Under that reading, if you swoop in, scan some items, and then rush out of the store again to collect your five bucks, it’s hard to argue that you wasted that much of anybody’s time. Particularly if you walk fast, avoid eye contact, and above all, avoid talking to anybody — for most smartphone users, par for the course.

However, at least from what I can find in the Talmud’s sections on business practices — and I certainly might have missed a passage — I’m not sure that the “wasting the merchant’s time and energy” argument is really rooted in the text. As far as I can tell, the real problem stems from fraudulence. Or as R. Judah puts it, “One may also not feign interest in a purchase when he has no money, since this is known to the heart only, and of everything known only to the heart it is written, and thou shalt fear thy God.” (Meaning: you can fool the storekeeper, but you can’t fool God.)

Under that reading, I think the real question is, does price scanning with zero intent to purchase carry the whiff of fraudulence? I propose the following moral Gedankenexperimente. Imagine you walk into the store this Saturday, smartphone hot in your hand. A clerk stops you and asks if there’s anything he or she can help you with.

If you can look the clerk in the eye and respond with, “No thanks, I’m fine — I’m just heading over to scan this item with this Amazon app, and then I’ll clear right out,” with no hesitation or mumbling or red-facedness, then congratulations! Your heart and actions are aligned. Go ye forth and scan. Otherwise, consider taking a pass.

Of course, it’s worth mentioning that participating in Amazon’s particular little game this holiday season means running off to engage in commerce on a Saturday, which is super-duper illegal no matter how you slice it. I mean, at that point you might as well make sure that your Sabbath day price-scanning shenanigans involve some kind of bacon-related product. Go for the trifecta!

The YUI 3 Cookbook Draft is Done

For certain values of “done.”

  • Quite honestly, it still could use a couple of Loader recipes.
  • And at least one more i18n recipe.
  • Not to mention Luke Smith totally stole my tripleclick synthetic event recipe and did it better, so I need to redo that one from scratch.
  • Plus I need to update the App Framework recipes for 3.5.0.
  • Ditto for most of the Node.js recipes.
  • Above all, I should really give it a global editing pass before it gets to the editor and copy editor.

Yes, but aside from Loader, i18n, synthetic events, the App Framework, Node.js, and a global editing pass, the draft is done!

  • Maybe a FocusManager recipe.