The Laws of Life 5

A law of Murphy. One of many.

Murphy’s Law

“If anything can go wrong, it will.” This is the law named after aerospace engineer Edward Aloysius Murphy, Jr. (1918-1990). It is the law which encapsulates the seemingly chaotic nature of inanimate objects in the popular imagination. That wasn’t how Murphy intended to have his law interpreted. As an aerospace designer specializing in safety-critical systems, he invoked it as a philosophy of defensive design against worst-case scenarios for making durable, robust systems.

finagle’s law

Despite this, Murphy’s law has spawned many satirical and jocular interpretations over the decades. There was Finagle’s Law, for example. While there was no one named Finagle behind the law’s name, science fiction editor John W. Campbell, Jr. (1910-1971) used the law repeatedly in his commentaries. The law is a slight extension of Murphy’s law: “If anything can go wrong, it will — at the worst possible moment.” This is also often referred to as Sod’s corollary to Murphy’s Law. Not sure who “Sod” is.


There is Resistentialism, a jocular theory which states that inanimate objects have a “spiteful character”, and they exhibit a high degree of malice towards humans. This is probably well-known to anyone who has spilled coffee on themselves.

hanlon’s (heinlein’s ?) razor

As an antidote to the nutty Resistentialistic theories involving objects with wills of their own, there is Hanlon’s Razor, which reminds us to “never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” “Hanlon” is probably a corruption of “Heinlein”. Science fiction writer Robert Heinlein, who wrote in a novel Logic of Empire in 1941: “You have attributed conditions to villainy that simply result from stupidity”. It turns out that it can be attributed to someone named Hanlon, however. A fellow named Robert J. Hanlon of Scranton, Pennsylvania.

I invoke something close to Hanlon’s Razor whenever I can’t find something I am looking for. Rather than thinking “someone stole it” or “someone moved it”, or “it grew legs and walked away”, I find it entirely adequate to think that I have misplaced it and it will turn up, and it usually does.

Variations on Murphy’s law

  • When you attempt to fix a minor malfunction you will cause a major malfunction.
  • It’s on the other side. This can be either Preudhomme’s Law of Window Cleaning, or the Fant Law of Searching for Keys in Your Pocket.
  • Lost articles will only show up once you replace it. This is seen by some as a confirmation of objects that grow legs and walk away, since once they “know” I replaced it, they walk right back into view.
  • The cost of the repair to a broken item is in direct proportion to its original cost. And the cheap, crappy stuff you have lasts forever.
  • Enough research will tend to support your theory. I am sure you will find a source somewhere that says inanimate objects have wills and intentions, and can grow legs. Somewhere.
  • Cargill’s 90-90 rule of software programming:The first 90% of the software project takes 90% of the time. The last 10% takes the other 90%. Where did the other 90% come from? Yeah, that’s kind of the point. And just in case you were wondering, they weren’t referring to 90% of the remaining 10%. This one was attributed to Tom Cargill of Bell labs, as to the tendency of projects to appear to meet deadlines, until they don’t.
  • Logic allows us to arrive at the wrong conclusion without being ashamed.
  • When all else fails, read the instructions.

The Laws of Life 4

Kinds of knowing

There is knowing that you know;
Knowing that you don’t know;
Not knowing that you know;
and not knowing that you don’t know. This last one is the most dangerous.

The Dunning-Kruger Effect

This is the idea where some people fancy themselves as experts in some field when in fact they are incompetent. They in fact don’t have the competence to know they are incompetent. We are all victims to this effect, to some extent. Many studies have confirmed, for example, that most of us believe we have above-average intelligence, which is statistically impossible. But at the extreme is anosognosia. Anosognosia is associated more with brain defects that seems more like dementia. The sufferer is rendered unaware of their dementia or that their cognitive skills are in decline.

The Big Fish, Little Pond Effect (BFLPE)

Being highly competent among a small group of less competent individuals is better for one’s self-esteem than the same person being among a larger group of more highly competetent people.  BFLPE is related to the Dunning-Kruger Effect in that manner, except that it is a factor affecting one’s actual success in their chosen field, since it links directly to self-esteem.

Sutor, ne ultra crepidam

Latin: “Shoemaker, not beyond the shoe.” Or, don’t make pronouncements beyond your expertise. This kind of sums up the last two ideas.

The Laws of Life 3

The Dilbert Principle

Scott Adams

“The most ineffective workers are systematically moved to the place where they can do the least damage: management.” This was coined by Scott Adams, the creator of the Dilbert comic strips. I have seen this manifested in my life of people promoted to managerial positions. In 1996, Scott Adams, also an MBA graduate from Berkeley, wrote a book named The Dilbert Priniciple (Amazon link) which, while satirical in intent, is often recommended or required reading at many business schools, and has sold more than a million copies and was a New York Times bestseller for the better part of a year. This is very closely related to …

The Peter Principle

Laurence J. Peter

This is the idea that all employees will rise to the level of their own incompetence. It is apt, since what do organizations do with their best employees? They promote them to management. But it becomes a very different job, not a job which uses the skills that made them so great at the previous job. While the Peter Principle allows that management were at least competent at their previous job; the Dilbert Principle allows for the possibility that management is formed out of a need for damage control. The Peter Principle (direct PDF link), a book co-written by Laurence J. Peter (1919-1990) and Raymond Hull, is the 1969 book which first came up with this.

The Laws of Life 2

Brooks’s Law

Fred Brooks came up with this rule in his 1975 book “The Mythical Man-Month”

Adding more manpower to a late software project makes it later. This is because 1) it takes time for new people in a project to become productive – they need time to learn about what has already been done and to become integrated with other team members; 2) the number of required communication channels increases factorially with the number of people added; 3) there is only so much division of labour that can be done before co-workers start getting in each other’s way.

Doctorow’s Law

Cory Doctorow

“Anytime someone puts a lock on something you own, against your wishes, and doesn’t give you the key, they’re not doing it for your benefit.” Cory Doctorow was saying this around 2003 in the context of DRM locks placed on some digital media purchased in a store or online, such as movies or audio recordings. Doctorow was an advocate of file sharing. DRM = “Digital Rights Management”.

The laws of life 1

This will be a short series exploring the laws which seem to govern our lives. There will be one or more laws, followed by some kind of discussion.

These are taken from a canonical list of eponymous laws mentioned on Wikipedia.

Betteridge’s law of headlines

“any headline which ends in a question mark can be answered by the word ‘no'”. To Continue Ian Betteridge’s quote: “The reason why journalists use that style of headline is that they know the story is probably bullshit, and don’t actually have the sources and facts to back it up, but still want to run it.”

Examples are: “Is Trump going to improve Obamacare?” or “Should you pay $20,000 for that perfect Espresso shot?” or “Will robots replace workers by 2030?”or “Should we treat incels as terrorists?”

Examples exclude any title that is a “Wh” question (as in Who, What, Where, When, Why), or a “How” question, where the article might actually have something worthwhile to offer. You have to instead look for that “clickbait” intent.

This also relates to clickbait videos on YouTube. I rarely watch any video whose title ends in a question mark, because I can sense what’s coming. Mostly bafflegab, with little actual information or evidence. One that I like is a recent video on my science feed that asks the question: “Has quantum mechanics proved that reality does not exist?” By applying Betteridge’s Law, you can save yourself 11 minutes you will never get back. Same for one of my Tolkien vloggers, who asks the questions “Did Gandalf really die? And does it matter?” No to both questions. It’s genius.