What the Corporate Lunch Reveals

a depressing corporate lunch restaurant

Last night I was thinking about the SMELL of an office.  Normally offices don’t smell like much, except for at lunchtime, when there’s this nauseating smell of microwaved meals.  It’s a savory smell of preformed chicken, warm plastic, and ramen noodle spice packets.  It wouldn’t even bother me so much, except that it’s been designed in a lab to tug at my appetite.  So I breathe it in and am tricked for just a moment into thinking that it’s something I could eat.  Is that a carbohydrate, mushy noodles with a hint of sweetness?  Especially since this smell is wafting through the cube farm around noon and maybe I haven’t eaten yet.  But then it pervades my palate, and the stale, processed nature of it hits me.  Are the amino acids of that savory protein intact?  Probably not.

There is nothing fresh to eat in an office.  Oh sure, they bring in some delivered produce once a week, encased in plastic, the apples turning brown moments after I cut into them, leached of all antioxidants by months in cold storage.  Everything is on a conveyor belt, really.  The workers are moved into the building by rapid transit systems.  The frozen meal energy units are stamped out and packaged using some hellish alchemy that approximates nutrition to the minimum federally mandated standards.  The work product generated by these meals is emails and documents, packets of drudgery routed across vast global computer networks and spewed into the faces of recipients via glowing screens, lighting up our faces with blue light as we digest the mediocrity.  And afterwards, we eliminate the waste product in a corporate bathroom, squatting side by side in merciless stalls with huge gaps that deny us privacy.  All systems optimal and functioning as designed.

But when I try to go out for lunch, my frugal companions scowl at my madness.  How will I ever afford a house in the Bay Area if I squander my dollars on such extravagance?  No, no, we office drones must scrimp and save every penny.  Get a CostCo card and a big freezer.  Buy in bulk.  How will I afford children?  And I ignore them because I want a breath of fresh air, at least.  I know the food at the restaurants won’t be any better, though I did have a client down on Second Street in San Francisco with an organic salad place across the street.  SF systems require somewhat better fuel inputs to produce slightly less mundane work output.

But the average corporate lunch place, even here in the Bay Area, is nothing like that.  Lunch in the corporate world illustrates the depth of our descent.  White bread sandwiches with processed meats, canned soups, iceberg lettuce salads with trans fat dressings.  And don’t get me started on the decor.  Fluorescent lighting, travel photos of a beach with palm trees, faded by the sun coming in the window, a damaged dream of escape from the grinding routine of a systemized society.  So eat quickly or maybe just take your food to go and eat at your desk.  So much to do, so little time.  Choke down the calories, get on with it.   You do want your job, don’t you?

I notice the rare smokers I pass as I come back from lunch.  Only the smokers seem to take regular outdoor breaks in the corporate world, driven by the monkey on their backs to suck down carcinogens.  Do you know that nicotine actually improves cognitive function somewhat?  I assume the benefits are largely offset by the reduced lung function, but I haven’t looked into it.

And the higher up the status tree we climb, the fiercer the competition becomes.  In the ruthless furnace of Silicon Valley startup culture, white bread sandwiches are replaced by intermittent fasting.  Nicotine is a lowly nootropic.  Get your uridine stack in place and drive that motivation.  Pop the Modafinil and FOCUS, people, FOCUS.  Ship that code.  Build your brand.  Sink or swim, motherfucker.  Always Be Closing.  The Bay is a churning mass of wrestling bodies, competitors striving and scratching all around you, clutching at any advantage.  Is it any surprise that the psychopaths inevitably rise to the top?

But these modernists look at me askance when I say that maybe these systems are failing.  They are unsustainable environmentally and financially.  They are bereft of meaning, commoditizing all human experience.  It may be that the gears of these mighty systems around us will simply fall apart and fail as a consequence.  Humans have needs unfulfilled by these processes.  We need better nutrition, we need to be outside moving around basically all of the time.  We need some meaning, a supportive community, we need to cut each other some slack.  That’s my futurism.

Persistence in the Environment is the Meaning of Life

persistence-mouse

This whole postmodern slide into nihilism leaves some folks searching for the meaning of life.  Maybe things are easier for those stuck in Kegan’s Stage 3 mode, who get meaning from God and tradition.  They are here on earth in order to carry on their culture and fulfill the commands of God.  And maybe postmodernism has a nihilistic side that strips all meaning from existence.  But I am growing more and more comfortable with a mechanistic view of meaning.

If you sit down with the neuroanthropologist Terrence Deacon, you will hear his theory about the origins of life.  It goes something like this.  Some molecules bind together and form chemical reactions and structures that persist.  There is nothing really remarkable about this idea.  Molecules are bumping around and forming chains and capturing other molecules and behaving just as chemistry would dictate.  And they come together to form these dynamic processes that look like self-maintaining systems.

And pretty soon you have little living things.  Strange bundles of molecules that are chemically compelled to use the energy in the environment to maintain their structure.  It might seem strange to think of the goal of a single celled organism.  But if it can be said to have a goal, persisting in the environment isn’t a bad guess.  You might subscribe to Dawkin’s selfish gene idea and insist that it’s the replicator, the DNA, that has the goal of persisting, and I won’t argue with you.  But basically, if you don’t persist a self-sustaining structure, then nothing can stick to you and increase your complexity.

So there you have it.  Survive and reproduce.  In that order.  First and foremost survive.  If possible, reproduce.  The meaning of life.  Have a nice day.  But no one is ever satisfied with that damn answer.  It’s too easy these days for some of us First World crybabies to survive.  Or at least the survival part is easy if you are rich enough.  The reproduction part is complicated, as we know, with more educated women choosing to have fewer babies.  But I don’t really worry about that since persistence is the key.  Some parental investment strategies involve having lots of offspring and giving them little parental care, and others involve having fewer offspring and giving them greater parental care.  One offspring with greater survival skills will persist, where a multitude of offspring with fewer survival skills may fail.

I don’t have kids, but I feel that I contribute to life persisting by paying my taxes, giving to charity, and working in renewable energy, which will help all of life on earth persist.  In other words, it’s not necessary to have kids to contribute to the persistence of life.

Things that don’t take the necessary actions to persist aren’t around for us to even observe.  So it’s a pretty solid baseline for a good preference to have.  But is this really MEANINGFUL?  Sure.  If you are a fairly primitive creature, just surviving and reproducing satisfies your goals.  As you move up the ladder of complexity, you might care about your family and their persistence becomes the meaning of your life.  Even bacteria that form biofilms sacrifice themselves for their families.  Move up a bit further and the persistence of your tribe becomes meaningful.  This expanding circle of empathy represents more advanced beings finding meaning in the persistence of a broader and broader range of organisms.  Every animal is a DNA replicator just like us, after all.  We even share 50% of our genome with potatoes.

Hedonists say that pleasure is the meaning of life.  Some would want to offload persisting to a godlike AI and plug into a virtual reality, nonstop orgasm.  Gah!  Good luck building that infernal contraption, first of all.  Secondly, I predict that you can’t find meaning there, because if something’s meaning could get hacked, it would have stopped existing long ago.  But sure, go be a hedonist if you insist on deluding yourself about the nature of living things, which is to persist and to replicate.

Even my beloved Seligman’s PERMA model makes sense when viewed through the harsh lens of persistence.  Positive emotions give us something to look forward to.  Engagement generally occurs during the exercise of skill, and skills generally further the cause of survival, even unlikely ones like video games, which have been shown to improve some types of cognition.  Relationships matter to us social animals because we stick together in order to survive and of course we need others to reproduce (for now).  Meaning in Seligman parlance is being involved in something greater than ourselves.  On one hand, this could just be an extension of our social nature.  If we derive meaning from building cultural institutions like churches or academia, these things provide frameworks for survival.  On the other hand, if we see ourselves as part of a greater whole of all DNA based replicators, that’s a pretty awesome project to be part of.  And as for Accomplishment, I am quite satisfied with a Hansonian explanation of this.  We need status to maintain social standing and we need social standing to survive.  And really any account of flourishing or self-actualization that didn’t provide tools for persisting in the environment would be very hard to explain from an evolutionary perspective.

Is that still not good enough?  What about art and love, you ask?  Well, I just argue that those are super tools for persistence, of course.  Still not enough for you?  Well, get out and persist into the solar system and then outer space, persist into the light cone.  We are just living things.  Persisting is what we do and who we are.  Get with it.

The Robot Lord Scenario – Chapter 10 (Ivan)

Chapter 9 here.

Sunlight warmed Ivan’s face and he smelled a diesel scented breeze. He cracked an eyelid open, trying to get his bearings. Oh god. He was on the floor of Cyn’s car in a painfully contorted position and his back was screaming in agony. Ivan gingerly turned his neck, eliciting a sharp pain that nearly made him call out. He looked out of the open car door. They were at a roadside service station. He tried to crawl out of the car on all fours without turning his head. He held his head perfectly still and somehow managed to get out onto the pavement and get himself upright without incurring too much suffering. He was squinting in the bright sun until he fished out his sunglasses and put them on with relief.

His message queue had over a hundred unread messages, but he sorted them by priority.

We are in the diner. I’ve 86’d all the cameras. Come get eggs, read a message from Cyn. Ivan noticed that the car was charging, and its door closed behind him as he headed toward the diner, holding his head upright and facing forward.

There were many, many messages, text, voice, and video, from Bryce. He didn’t think he could bear to hear her voice or to see her right now, so he brought up the most recent text.

You’re being silly. You have to talk to me to understand what really happened. This jealousy is totally unfounded. You need to respond at least to tell me that you are OK. I heard your coworker was driving some kind of crazy tank, and they say she is like a total badass, but still, I need to know you are OK. Respond to my fucking messages! I swear to god, nothing happened between Jayson and I. Nothing. For real! I should be mad that you didn’t even check to make sure we got out of that riot safely. Luckily Jayson’s security staff is awesome. Lightning and his team are SO amazing. We are on the boat now, but Jayson is arranging a flight to pick us up. We are going to the desert to decompress. Meet us at Burning Man. I will explain everything when I see you. Love, Bryce.

Ivan tried to tamp down his jealousy, anger, and confusion as he entered the old fashioned diner. The air was thick and greasy inside and his stomach churned with hunger. He could go for eggs, actually.

Cyn pointed at Ivan as he walked into the diner and laughed conspicuously. “Look at you, do you need a neck brace or what?” she cackled. The place was empty except for some insolent looking teenagers in a booth toward the back. They looked like locals, living off of god knows what out here in the boonies.

Batou scooted over in the booth to make room for him, staring at ether all the while, and Ivan gingerly placed himself into the booth beside him. The springy leather cushions sank down unexpectedly under his weight and his neck moved a bit, sending a spear of pain between his shoulder blades.

Cyn laughed again at the wince of agony on his face. “Ha ha, I felt a bit sore myself this morning but nothing THAT bad. You need to take up yoga, my friend.”

“Yeah right, who’s going to teach me? You?” retorted Ivan irritably.

“I could teach you some positions you wouldn’t believe, soldier,” replied Cyn with a lewd wink.

Ivan stared at her stupidly for a second while Batou gave a grunt of laughter. “Think he could handle a hard woman like you after that soft little Bryce of his?” he asked, staring off into space as he worked his windows.

“Maybe not,” admitted Cyn, grinning significantly over the rim of her coffee mug at Ivan.

“I, uh, I need eggs,” stammered Ivan, caught off guard.

“Good luck getting service from this brat,” muttered Cyn, as she turned to wave for the waitress. Sure enough, the girl at the counter pretended not to see them for a moment before sighing and sulkily trotting over, tablet in hand.

“What can we get you?” she asked, obviously staring off at her feeds as she took his order.

“I’ll just put it in myself,” offered Ivan, taking the tablet tentatively from the girl’s unresisting grip. He didn’t understand why these places didn’t just fully automate at this point. Old fashioned values maybe? He typed in his order and then, just for giggles, opened a browser pointing at one of his compromised sites and loaded a backdoor onto the tablet before handing it back to the insolent young yokel. “Uh, thanks,” he said, as she absently held the tablet and gazed into the only world that mattered to her, the virtual.  

“Thanks!” repeated Cyn more loudly and the girl blinked in confusion for a minute before wandering back to the counter. “I swear to god, I’m going to go grab that coffee pot and pour my own goddamn refill with that space cadet serving tables here.”

“Get me some too,” suggested Ivan.

Cyn tisked and then climbed up out of the creaking booth, walked right past the waitress behind the counter, and grabbed the coffee pot and a cup for Ivan before returning to the booth. The young girl either didn’t notice or didn’t care, and her mouth hung open as she spun through whatever windows she was looking at.

“Here’s your coffee, honey,” teased Cyn, pouring Ivan a cup and then refilling her own before putting the coffee pot on the table between them and dropping into the booth.

Ivan blushed slightly at her familiar manner. Maybe one door was closing with Bryce, but another was opening with Cyn. He looked at her face as she lost herself in her own private interface, and she looked innocent for a moment, all of the hard cynicism drained away as she scanned and gestured.

“Danny, get this food here. Get out of that visor for a gosh darn second and take care of your customers, girl,” called an old man’s voice from the kitchen in back.

“Sorry, grandpa,” said the server. She swiped away her feeds and rushed to grab the food. When she got to the table, laden with plates, she gazed at the coffeepot sitting there in confusion for a moment. The smell of fried potatoes filled the air and it smelled good to Ivan. His eggs looked perfect, the hash browns were crisp and the toast was hot.

“Wow, this actually looks really good,” he admitted.

“Don’t act so surprised,” replied the girl taking up the coffeepot and topping off everyone’s cup before returning it to behind the counter.

“I like these little hole in the wall places,” admitted Batou, as he dug into his own breakfast.

The trio ate in silence for a few minutes, savoring the traditional breakfast food, carefully prepared.

“So anyway, while you lovebirds were flirting over there, I was digging into the forums to see what the fuck was going on with our identities getting owned,” said Batou. He speared a potato, dipped it in ketchup, and popped it in his mouth.

“We were NOT flirting,” gasped Cyn. She seemed genuinely offended for a moment, and Ivan actually felt a pang of disappointment. “I mean I didn’t even take my shirt off.” Cyn broke out braying in laughter at her own joke.

“Har har,” said Batou.

Ivan for his part looked at Cyn’s chest and wondered what she would look like with her shirt off. She had a loose black t-shirt on with a big red A on it.

“I do have boobs under here, I just keep them strapped down with a tactical bra,” Cyn assured him.

“I didn’t, I mean, I wasn’t,” sputtered Ivan in embarrassment.

“Oh yes you were,” said Cyn smugly, before returning her attention to her meal.

“Okay, yeah, seriously you guys,” said Batou. He was legitimately annoyed at this point and glared at Cyn for a moment, but she scrupulously avoided his gaze and kept eating her french toast, dipping each bit daintily in the side of syrup before putting it in her mouth.

“What did you find so far, Batou?” asked Ivan. He swivelled his entire upper body toward his angry little compatriot so he didn’t have to turn his neck.

“Well, like I said yesterday before the riot broke out, the overall operation looks like an Anon Op, but I can’t find any reference to the shit that went down at your two apartments.”

“Just knowing it’s an Anon Op doesn’t tell us much,” complained Ivan. “Half the time they are fighting themselves.”

“I know, I know,” sighed Batou. “But at least I tracked down the courier that delivered the explosives to your place. Order came from a drugstore in Idaho.”

“Ha, Idaho! What were they running?” laughed Cyn. She was getting into the conversation now.

“Some old Windows, you know the drill. I got onto their system and there was a bunch of malware on there, mostly being used to fake painkiller prescriptions and stuff like that. Funny thing is the crew that sent the bomb to Ivan’s place removed their kit right afterward, but another crew’s software logged the whole thing, the sneaky bastards. And the c2 connections all trace back to the same ISP. Wanna guess?”

“What was it called, Double Six or something like that?” asked Ivan, swiping through his own command history files.

“Double Six,” said Batou.

“Yeah, great work, Sherlock, I could have guessed that one,” snorted Cyn. “Tell us something we don’t know.”

“Fuck, Cyn, these guys are deep,” said Batou, deflating slightly. He rubbed his chin, just sprouting a bit of wispy stubble. “We need more time. I want to go lay low somewhere for a couple of days and try to figure this shit out.”

“What about the Arkansas mission?” asked Cyn. “Rasmussen sent over a whole slew of docs on this front company that we need to go check out.”

“I’m not trusting Rasmussen much right now,” admitted Batou. “I’ve worked with the guy for years, but this whole Op is just too sketchy. I need some breathing room.”

“We could stop at Burning Man on the way to Arkansas,” said Ivan, thinking about Bryce’s offer.

“Burning Man?” asked Cyn. “You wanna party at a time like this?” She paused for a moment, thinking it over. “I like your style, Ivan.”

“Uh, well, Bryce said Jayson is taking her there and she wants me to meet her so she can explain what happened between them,” admitted Ivan, meekly. He suspected that Cyn wouldn’t like that idea, and he was right.

“Bryce!” shouted Cyn, pounding the table so loudly that even the spaced out waitress looked over in concern. “You are still chasing after that fucking slut? Are you a goddamn idiot? What does she need to explain to you, Ivan? How much richer and better in bed Jayson is?”

“She said nothing happened between them and that she can explain,” offered Ivan. He felt pretty lame saying it and half worried that he was blowing his chances with Cyn if things didn’t work out with Bryce. But he had been with Bryce for over a year now and he was still attached to her. He wanted to believe that he was mistaken about her and Jayson.

“Don’t go all ballistic about it, Cyn,” said Batou. “Black Rock City is actually a pretty good place to lay low. They keep bandwidth to a minimum there. It’s as close to off the grid as we can get and still have crowd cover.”

“You know what? Fine! Great! Let’s go there then,” said Cyn. Her eyes flashed angrily at Ivan. “Let’s go visit your precious Bryce so you can see once and for all what a cheating little whore she is and fucking get on with your life.”

“Well, if that’s how it turns out, then yeah, I’ll get on with my life,” Ivan told her earnestly.  

“Regardless of how the love triangle plays out, we need to lay low and figure out how to not get killed by some crazy ass hackers, Cyn,” said Batou.

But Cyn turned away from him and called the waitress. “Check, please! We’re out of here!” She turned back to Ivan and Batou with a grimace on her face. “Oh, and you two better figure out how to break this to Rasmussen, because I’m already on his shitlist and I don’t have any pull.”

“I’ll tell him,” offered Ivan. He sighed with resignation as he tried to open a voice channel to Rasmussen. He plopped the connection into their shared workspace, so Cyn and Batou could listen in.

“Ivan, glad to hear that you’re still in one piece,” said Rasmussen in a raspy voice. It sounded like Ivan might have woken him.

“You heard about that, huh?” asked Ivan. “Well, in light of the increased heat, we want to take a short detour to Black Rock City to get the lay of the land.”

“Excellent idea,” said Rasmussen, perking up. “I didn’t know that you were working on that particular piece of the puzzle. Let me know if you can locate any of Ardenwood’s assets.”

Ivan looked confused and was about to ask what the hell Rasmussen was talking about, but Cyn made a cutting motion across her throat, and he recovered himself just in time. “Will do. Talk to you soon.”

“Don’t forget the dehydration tablets,” said Rasmussen, and cut the connection.

“What the hell was THAT all about?” asked Ivan in dismay. The waitress brought over a slip of paper and Ivan stared at it for a moment before he realized that it had no KaosKoin code on it.

“What, uh, where’s the KaosKoin QR?” he asked the girl.

“We don’t accept those devil tokens here,” she said primly. “Cards are good though, Visa, Uber, that sort of thing.”

“Give us minute, thanks,” said Ivan. “What kind of hillbillies are we dealing with here?” he asked Cyn, once the girl had gone. “We can’t use any of our cards, we don’t know how deep our identities are blown.”

“Don’t worry your pretty little head,” said Cyn with a gleam in her eye. She produced a handful of cash from her pocket, American dollars in multiple denominations.

“What are you, a fucking drug dealer?” asked Ivan in amazement. No one used that stuff anymore.

“Ardenwood is an investor in the fund, and there was some weird coverup of a scandal at a recent charity event, but I can’t see the connection here,” put in Batou.

The waitress came back to the table to collect payment, but when she saw the cash, her face blanched and she backed away in fear. “Grandpa, you better come out here!” she called. “They got cash.”

A skinny old white man came sauntering out through a swinging door. He was dressed in a white wifebeater and blue jeans with a clean white apron covering his clothes and a white paper cap on his head. He walked with determination directly up to the table where the trio of hackers was sitting and looked down at their money serenely.

“Well, well, well,” he said, squinting at Cyn with raw malice. “Cash money, with the all seeing eye and everything. Let me guess? You all don’t happen to be sovereign citizens, do you?” He closed his eyes dramatically and turned his head to the side, holding up one hand to forestall objection as the three customers sat there dumbfounded. “I can see with my eyes you ain’t. I would take such lucre from a proper sovereign citizen, provided it had the right signs. But you three couldn’t be such. I seen you come here, in that thing you call a car. And others might not see it for what it is, but I know an abomination when I see one. And others won’t see when their cameras overlook some activity in the restaurant, but this old man knows when his systems have been tampered with. And I see this strange crew, and I cannot unsee it.” He pointed dramatically at Batou and then at Cyn’s blue hair. “But I don’t want no trouble when the all seeing eye comes asking about you.” He paused for a moment after watching for their reaction. “Or whoever it may be. I know someone is going to come asking, and I want no trouble, and I won’t touch your filthy untraceables. I’ll take a card like any other HONEST citizen might. Don’t you try to put MY people in danger. Just pay up right and get on out.” And after delivering this deep throated tirade, the old man turned with dignity and strode back into his immaculate kitchen.

“Sorry, Grandpa’s a little crazy, but we do take cards,” explained the waitress.

Ivan suddenly remembered that he had hacked her tablet and he pulled up an interface and marked their bill as paid via Uber. He gave Cyn a wink. “You know what, we don’t want any trouble, Miss. I just paid with Uber and left you a nice tip. Let’s go guys.”

He slid himself carefully out of the booth and made his way stiff necked out the door, with Cyn and Batou close behind.  

“I thought you didn’t want to risk using any of your identities here,” whispered Cyn.

“I hacked the tablet when I put my order in,” replied Ivan under his breath.

Cyn broke out in a bout of braying laughter as the doors of her car snicked open. She slapped Ivan playfully on the rear. “I like the cut of your jib, son. I like the cut of your jib, you sneaky little fucker.”

Ivan felt flushed with pleasure that Cyn wasn’t mad at him anymore as they climbed into the car.

“That old guy did creep me out though, he knew a little too much,” mused Batou, as they headed off to that thing in the desert that never stops.

“We gonna follow em, Grandpa?”

“Now why would you think that, darling?”

“I ain’t no great seer, but even I know a sign when I see one.”

The old man smiled, drawing an ancient AR-15 from the cabinet. “You’ll be a seer, sure enough. You take after your grandpa. Gather the Sovereign Citizens. Use the CB. The All Seeing Eye has forgotten those channels.” A pause. “Did you see where they’re headed, child?”

“They SAID where, Grandpa. I didn’t need to SEE it. Burning Man, they said.”

The smile on the old man’s face grew wider yet. “It feels like the end times when the righteous rain down judgement on the sinners in the desert. Do you feel it, child?”

“Yes, Grandpa. I feel it.”

“It feels GOOD, doesn’t it, child?”

“Yessir. Yes it does.”