Sunday, October 18, 2020


Cynthia Haven posts pictures of assorted messy desks over at The Book Haven. Having occasionally maintained such a desk myself, I am perhaps more apt to remember reading of them. There is Hugh Kenner in "The Untidy Desk and the Larger Order of Things", collected in Mazes:

There are clean-desk people--you know them, you may even be one--whose working space always looks scrubbed for surgery. They make a virtue of handling no paper twice---"Do something with it right now. Don't dither. 'In doubt? Throw it out.'" Any time the clean-desker takes down a book, it's no sooner snapped shut than back with it to the shelf. Each paper summoned from the files is rebounded instantly to the files again. The steady stream from the In-Basket get deflected just two ways: to Out-Basket, to trash. Promptly at five, the clean-desker  departs from a place where the only hint that anything happened all day is an overflowing wastebasket.
 Off-duty, clean-deskers measure their vermouth with an eyedropper, walk their dogs by the clock, succor their spouses by the calendar. Such people exist, and some of them ask fees for training decentered souls to be just like them.
 But there are also souls like mine, content amid what clean-deskdom calls unholy clutter. Cleaning up the room I'm sitting in at the moment, to the extent of meeting clean-desk standards would take a week. The few times I have tried it, useful things have invariably vanished forever: things I routinely laid hands on without fail, back when they were integrated with the mess I fondly manipulate. I am, to put it mildly, an untidy-desker.

The context is a review of G.K. Zipf's Human Behavior and the Principle of Least Effort, which appeared to justify the preferences of the untidy-deskers. Unfortunately, according to the prefatory note in Mazes, Zipf's reasoning was not really satisfactory, a point that Benoit Mandelbrot brought to Kenner's attention.

 Nor are the untidy-deskers limited to the world of literature department. In the classic Transaction Processing: Concepts and Techniques, Jim Gray and Andreas Reuter compare memory buffering in databases to a desk:

The main idea behind buffering is to exploit locality. Everybody employs it without even thinking about it. A desk should serve as a buffer of the things one needs to perform the current tasks.

They then qualify this with the footnote

Andreas's desk probably doesn't, but that's a different story.

 For the last seven months, my desk has been a corner of the dining room table.  This makes clutter impractical, for come seven o'clock a table setting will supplant computer and monitor. The clutter is to some degree transferred into small text files in the Documents folder of my computer; but there one has the timestamp to sort on and, with luck, a meaningful filename.

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