The Rule of Law

The fame of Murphy, Sod, and Cohn is assured by laws that are not as silly as they seem to be.

As Lewis Carroll pointed out in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, people make up rules to suit themselves:

“That’s not a regular rule: you invented it just now.”
“It’s the oldest rule in the book,” said the King.
“Then it ought to be Number One,” said Alice.

There is a fine distinction between a rule and a law. Rules are more flexible and carry low end consequences. Laws are the legal versions of rules with high end penalties. Then there are rules of thumb (an expression derived from the practice of Roman bricklayers, who used their thumbs – from the knuckle upwards – to estimate measurements, hence the French word for inch: un pouce) but we needn’t go there.

In 1949, having supervised the work of a young engineer at Edwards Air Force Base, California, Capt. Edward A. Murphy is credited with saying, “If there is ever a wrong way to do something, he will find it.” Murphy’s Law. Over the years it has been the subject of many variations:

  • Anything that can go wrong will go wrong.
  • Left to themselves, things tend to go from bad to worse.
  • Nothing is as easy as it looks.
  • Everything takes longer than you think.
  • If there is a possibility of several things going wrong, the one that will cause the most damage will be the one to go wrong.
  • If anything simply cannot go wrong, it will anyway.
  • If everything seems to be going well, you have obviously overlooked something.
  • Whenever you set out to do something, something else must be done first.
  • When there is a very long road upon which there is a one-way bridge placed at random, and there are only two cars on that road, it follows that: (1) the two cars are going in opposite directions, and (2) they will always meet at the bridge.

MurphySod’s Law is the British way of saying “if something can go wrong, it will”. It’s a more extreme version of Murphy’s Law, requiring that whatever goes wrong will do so at the worst possible time and with the worst possible outcome.

Then there is Cohn’s Law, although the identity of the individual who contrived it seems to be unknown: “The more time you spend in reporting on what you are doing, the less time you have to do anything. Stability is achieved when you spend all your time reporting on the nothing you are doing.”

And for fans of the digital era, there is Cunningham’s Law: “The best way to get the right answer on the Internet is not to ask a question. It’s to post the wrong answer.”

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