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The evolution of the paper clip, and other mysteries

IF you have ever worked in an office, you undoubtedly arrived at your desk on your first day on the job to find it mysteriously filled with office supplies. Where did these supplies come from? Who could have conceived of such utilitarian marvels as the petty-cash slip, the rubber band, and the gummed, adhesive label? Did they evolve from a primordial state or spring full blown from the brow of some forgotten aide-de-camp to Andrew Carnegie, Armand Hammer, or Lee Iacocca?

According to Fundamentalist Yuppies Inc. (FYI) - a group dedicated to income tax reform and spreading the gospel by electronic mail - all office supplies are of divine origin, having been invented for mankind along with the beasts of the field. The group believes that the supplies have existed in unchanged form for millennia. Every business school textbook in Texas and Arkansas is required by law to include a paragraph expressing this belief. Banned are all books that imply any different teleology, such as ``Lord of the Flies,'' ``Yertle the Turtle,'' and the ``Swing-Line'' office stapler catalog.

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FYI offers as its exhibit-in-chief the office routing slip. Without the routing slip, office communications would unravel into a series of unintelligible messages scrawled over folders in unintelligible handwriting; of unread notes tacked atop unread note ad infinitum; of random signs and arrows etched into foam cups: a Babel of screams and shouts; a cacophony of screeches and buzzing telephones.

FYI claims that, if one looks closely at depictions of Moses with the Ten Commandments, one will notice that the top tablet is not a tablet at all but a routing slip. Partially obscured by Moses' flowing beard are the checked boxes ``Take Charge'' and ``Prepare for My Signature.'' Scientists under contract to FYI also purport to have discerned the form of a ``While You Were Out'' message slip outlined by stromalites in the oldest piece of rock in North America.

Other scientists are skeptical of the fundamentalists' position. They believe that office supplies adapt to changing conditions through natural selection and hence change over time. As a prime example of evolution, these scientists cite the morphology of the paper clip.

At one time all paper clips existed as steel ellipses, varying only in size. Then the amount and weight of paper to be clipped expanded. The humble paper clip adapted. Ellipses gave way to rhombuses and trapezoids, steel to graphite rods and space-age alloys. With computerized word processing, the documentary bulk of the world increased a second time. Through obscure mechanisms the paper clip adapted once again. It evolved into the multihued, lucite paper clip.

The evolutionists' theory implies a time before lucite, a concept that many Yuppies cannot fathom. So they focus instead on the staple remover. This instrument, they assert, has undeniably existed in the same form forever. No matter how firmly or loosely something has been stapled, the teeth of every staple remover ever made will always tear it in exactly the same place. The top part of every staple remover always has taped to it ``Do Not Remove. Property of File Room.'' And the bottom part has always been gnawed and chipped in exactly the same places. In fact, as the Yuppies note, the gnawed portions of staple removers bear an uncanny resemblance to the flaked and chipped Stone Age tools depicted in authoritative sources such as ``In Quest of Fire'' and the first five minutes of ``2001: A Space Odyssey.''

Now look again in your desk. You will probably see a wooden 12-inch ruler. What are you supposed to do with it? Why is it there?

The ruler could be in your desk for the same reason that a ruler was in your desk in the seventh grade. If you look closely at the ruler again, you will see that it could well be the very same ruler. That does not give you a clue as to what use to make of the ruler, but it does tell you something profound: Your seventh-grade teacher may be lurking nearby. And that means you might be better off waiting tables or working in construction.

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James B. Kobak Jr. is a lawyer and free-lance writer in New York City.

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