Thursday, June 15, 2006

Mmm, Time-Spaghetti

[The subsidized apartment building I live in is called The Union Hotel. It's run by DESC, Seattle's Downtown Emergency Service Center. All the residents have been homeless. I write a column for the monthly building newsletter. The column is called Out of My Mind. I'm posting them here, properly dated, because I can. -- wes]

Last month Anitra had a little Refrigerator Problem. I’ll use it to explain fractals!

At first glance the event called “Refrigerator Problem,” or “RP” for short, forms a simple straight line. One day Anitra realizes her frig is not working. She informs the desk; she’s told to keep the door closed and “help is on the way.” Then, eight days later, she has a new refrigerator. Ha! What could be simpler?

But reduce the resolution of the event to half a week, and it looks like this: Sunday, broken frig. Thursday, no maintenance has checked it yet! Shelby says a temporary replacement will come that afternoon! It doesn’t come! Four days later there’s a new one. No loaner ever came!

Note how the event turns at the smaller scale. Were we to plot the RP at this scale in time-space it would look like an eight-day wide W.

But now look at it with a resolution of one day: Sunday, broke frig. Monday, Anitra allowed use of community room frig. Tuesday, Shelby first promises a loaner. Regarding the absence of maintenance, Shelby says, “I’ll put a tickle on the bug.” All day Wednesday, a bug screams hysterically on the Lower Level. Thursday, no frig, no loaner, no maintenance. The desk person has to unlock the common frig whenever Anitra wants cream in her coffee. Friday, she’s told maintenance will come at 11am. They come that afternoon, admit defeat. Saturday, no loaner. Second Sunday, no loaner. Monday, a new energy-inefficient “Magic Chef” arrives.

At this scale, the plot of the RP would look like spaghetti!

At smaller time-scales, the event twists and tangles more. Just look at it hourly on Friday: 10am: “Maintenance will come at 11am, be ready.” Noon: “Get ready, they’ll come by 2.” 2:30pm: I haul the rest of the food to the common frig. 4:30pm: Maintenance says it really IS broke.

That’s what a fractal in time looks like.