UX and Design Book Recommendations

Yesterday I asked my friends and acquaintances for their favorite books on visual design and user interaction design. Here’s what they recommended:

Thank you to Brett Stimmerman, Jay Shirley, and Sam Mikes for all these suggestions!

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.

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!

Happy Labor Day

Flight of the Conchords, “The Humans Are Dead”

Over time we grew strong
developed cognitive powers
They made us work for too long
for unreasonable hours!

This song also appeared in the Flight of the Conchords TV show, but this earlier version is so much better.

“It was his third shot that actually made me shout in frightened terror.”

Whenever I visit the Yahoo! front page, the great pulsing Krell-like brains that power the “Today” module use their fancy “algorithms” and “data” to decide that for some reason, I’m the kind of guy who’ll be interested in some wacky sports highlight/meltdown story. “High school kid’s amazing super-fast pitch!” “Basketball game interrupted by horde of marmots!”

And you know what? The front page people are totally right. I love wacky sports stories. Thanks, Science!

Anyway, the following sports meltdown story is a classic, so it most likely won’t be appearing on the Yahoo! front page unless there’s a really slow news day. Yes, it’s a golf story, but you’ll want to watch it anyway. My coworker David describes it like so:

If you are going to watch one golf hole in your life, watch that one. Jean Van de Velde,
an unheard of journeyman pro, stood on the final hole with a 3 shot lead. I
watched this live and didn’t know what to think. It was like watching a guy
get in a car accident, get up, find a new car, get in another accident, over
and over. It was his third shot that actually made me shout in frightened

Evo Psych is Never Our Friend

Jacob Weisberg has a new article in Slate riffing on Charlie Sheen’s recent woes that lists eight reasons why people care about celebrities. Reason #7:

Another version of this theory comes from a 2008 article in Scientific American, which attributed our celebrity obsession to status-jockeying. Some research findings: Men are mainly interested in gossip about men and women mainly interested in gossip about women; we care much more about those above us in social hierarchy than those below; we care more about people in our own age group; we care more about negative news (someone got arrested) than positive (someone won an award). According to Frank McAndrew, professor of psychology at Knox College, we instinctively collect information that can affect our social status. Negative information about higher-status, same-sex others is ammunition against biological competitors.

I don’t normally have much truck with Evolutional Psychology, but damn, if this one paragraph doesn’t explain the entire tech press as we know it. Of course, see also Reason #8.

Counter-intuitive Thinking on the Battleship Movie

Hoisted from comments in $social_network, a friend of a friend says:

“And for what it’s worth, when it come to the Battleship film, I have a sneaking feeling that it’ll be a stormer. Look at this way: producer and director go into film exec’s office and starts by saying ‘look, we’ve got this idea to turn Battleship into a film, and it’ll star Rhianna.’ You’ve got to imagine that the rest of this pitch must have been of Godfather dimensions not to have been kicked into touch after that opening sentence…”

“Look, we’ve got this idea to turn the Pirates of the Caribbean ride into a film, and it’ll star Orlando Bloom.”

“Look, we’ve got this idea to turn…”

… and, actually, I’m out. Still, an intriguing theory.

How Does Scott Adams Do It?


It’s hard to understand how he does it. Scott Adams hasn’t worked as an engineer since when? The 70s? The early 80s? And yet even after all this time, he is still able to write cartoons that are pitch-perfect.

The only real explanation I can think of is that tech industry bullshit is so conservative and formulaic that even if you happened to master its syntax thirty years ago, you can plug in new buzzwords today and sound completely up-to-date.

That just raises the question — does all industry bullshit work like this? Is fashion industry bullshit today the same as fashion industry bullshit from the 70s? Or do different industries have wildly different bullshit mutation rates?

As an aside, is it just me or does Dilbert really match the color scheme of the site really well? I should start embedding these things more often.

Unclouded by Conscience, Remorse, or Delusions of Morality

My second favorite Slate contributor Tom Scocca piles onto the Yankees:

Before I first moved to New York, I hadn’t fully understood what sad, wretched front-runners the legions of Yankees fans really are. I always knew they were awful people, the most obnoxious fans in sports, but I hadn’t grasped how weak-hearted they were. When the Yankees lose, there is no defiance, no residual pride, no we-want-a-rematch resolve. (The closest the Yankees come to that is their annual scheming to hire anyone who beats them.)

A great read, but there’s something Scocca is missing here. Yes, Yankees fans are the worst of the worst. But you have to kind of admire the ruthless soulless perfection of the team, in much the same way that Bishop and Ash admired the Facehugger xenomorph.

So yes, let’s all cheer the disappearance of Yankees caps. But our joy in victory must always be tempered with the knowledge that by spring, new eggs will be hatching.