Chaotic systems are characterised by their sensitivity to initial conditions: tiny variations at the start of apparently identical systems will result in huge discrepancies between those systems further down the line. Attractors, however, are “sinks” of activity: states to which a system finds itself inevitably drawn.
Take, for example, a ball rolling around in a bowl. If you release a ball at a given point on the edge of a bowl, and then repeat this experiment, you will likely find that the rolling path it took to the bottom of the bowl was very different on both occasions. But in both cases, the ball ends up at the bottom of the bowl: this is the system’s attractor.
A Strange Attractor is an attractor that is much more complex than a simple point or oscillation: even a system that never returns to the same state twice can still find itself locked into a family of patterns, an often beautiful wandering trail through the “phase space” of the system’s possible states.
So what does this have to do with office life? Well, I have noticed certain patterns in the way that desks and office stationery interact. In particular, pens.
If you’re sitting at a normal desk, your Pen-to-Desk Ratio (PDR) will remain relatively static. That is, for every pen you lose at a meeting, or to a colleague who picks it up and never brings it back, the you will gain one in a similar subconsciously kleptomanic incident. If you start the month with three pens (PDR=3), you’ll generally come to the end of the month with somewhere between two and four writing instruments.
However, some desks are Pen Sinks. Pen Sinks are regions of dramatic instability in the Pen Dispersal Flux, attractors in the turbulent dynamical flow of consumable office equipment. I first noticed this while I was working at the Royal Bank of Scotland. At my last desk there, pens just accumulated. There was something about the desk that made people just want to leave their pens behind. I don’t think I had to visit the stationery cupboard even once for a fresh pen or a pencil in the entire two years I sat there. When I left for pastures new, I had literally a couple of dozen pencils, disposable ballpoints, marker pens, and highlighters stashed in my top drawer.
At Cedalion I moved desks several times, and the Pen Dispersal Flux was normal at all of them but the last one. It was the opposite of a Pen Sink: a Pen Repulsor. It was impossible to keep pens around. Not a month went by that I didn’t have to take multiple trips to the stationery cupboard to find something to write with.
And now, at my current client, I’m sitting at a Pen Sink again. I’ve been there for three months now, and there are six pens sitting on my desk whose origins are a complete mysery to me. I write with a very nice Cross pencil Abi gave me last year, so I don’t even have a need for cheap office pens.
Has anyone else experienced this phenomenon? Or alternatively, have you ever found yourself located at some other stationery nexus? Are you the one who ends up with all the staplers around the office? (Because they have to go somewhere.) Do you find paperclip fairy rings on your mouse mat when you turn up to work every morning?
Tell me about it. Maybe together we can delve deeper into this hitherto unexplored region of mathematics….