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Chris Higgins

11 Wacky "Laws" Named for People

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Chris Higgins

In pop culture, sometimes people have big ideas — and then we name maxims after them. Here are eleven of the good ones.

1. Sturgeon's Law

The law: "90% of everything is crap." (In some versions, "crap" is replaced with "crud.")

The story: Science fiction author Theodore Sturgeon wrote a defense of sci-fi in the March 1958 issue of the sci-fi magazine Venture. He wrote, in part (emphasis added):

I repeat Sturgeon’s Revelation, which was wrung out of me after twenty years of wearying defense of science fiction against attacks of people who used the worst examples of the field for ammunition, and whose conclusion was that ninety percent of SF is crud. Using the same standards that categorize 90% of science fiction as trash, crud, or crap, it can be argued that 90% of film, literature, consumer goods, etc. are crap. In other words, the claim (or fact) that 90% of science fiction is crap is ultimately uninformative, because science fiction conforms to the same trends of quality as all other art forms.

Two trivia notes on this one. First, as you can see above, Sturgeon himself termed this "Sturgeon's Revelation," however, accidents of history (and the OED) turned it into Sturgeon's Law. There actually is a "Sturgeon's Law," and it is: "Nothing is always absolutely so." Second note — Sturgeon is the basis for Kurt Vonnegut's recurring character Kilgore Trout.

2. Godwin's Law

Wikimedia Commons

The law: "As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1."

The story: In the early days of internet chat forums (specifically Usenet newsgroups), Mike Godwin made the observation that all discussions eventually became fights in which someone was compared to the Nazis. Eighteen years after he created his now-famous law, Godwin wrote about it, stating in part:

The genesis of the idea came from my reading Primo Levi's books in the 1980s. ... It was difficult, after attempting a greater psychological understanding of why the Holocaust happened and how it was conducted, to tolerate the glib comparisons I encountered on the Internet (Usenet in those days). My sense of moral outrage at this phenomenon found an outlet after I read an article in in the Whole Earth Review about memes—viral ideas—that inspired me to create a kind of counter-measure. And so I created Godwin's Law and began to repeat it in online forums whenever I encountered a silly comparison of someone or something to Hitler or to the Nazis. ... The Law turned out to be more successful at propagating itself than I could ever have predicted.

Godwin went on to a rather awesome career as an attorney and author. I spotted him at a conference last year, and did not compare him to a Nazi even once.

3. Skitt's Law

The law: "Any post correcting an error in another post will contain at least one error itself."

The story: Skitt's Law is just one of many internet-themed corollaries of Muphry's Law, which itself states: "If you write anything criticizing editing or proofreading, there will be a fault of some kind in what you have written." So horribly, horribly true. (And yes, "Muphry" is an intentional misspelling referencing Murphy's Law.) Apparently the law was first coined by G. Bryan Lord, referring to a Usenet user named Skitt.

4. Sutton's Law

Wikipedia

The law: "Go where the money is."

The story: This one is actually based on a bogus quote, but at least it has a punchline. Bank robber Willie Sutton was asked by a reporter why he robbed banks. Sutton allegedly said, "Because that's where the money is." But he actually didn't say that at all, and in fact later wrote a book (jokingly called Where the Money Was) explaining the erroneously attributed statement and his real motivation for robbing banks — the thrill of it. In common parlance, the law means "Look for the obvious solution," making it a sort of corollary of Occam's Razor.

5. Reilly's Law of Retail Gravitation

The law: (paraphrasing) "Shoppers usually visit the largest mall in their region."

The story: William J. Reilly developed this completely serious law (including some nifty math supporting it) based on his observation that people will travel longer distances to reach a larger city. It can be used to determine the region around any given city that will draw people to that city (and thus its shopping malls) — which is useful if you're trying to figure out where to build a big new shopping mall.

6. Schneier's Law

Wikimedia Commons

The law: "Any person can invent a security system so clever that she or he can't think of how to break it."

The story: Author Cory Doctorow coined the law in a speech about Digital Rights Management (DRM) and invoked the name of Bruce Schneier, a cryptographer who advocates peer review for cryptography. Doctorow continued his speech:

... This means that the only experimental methodology for discovering if you've made mistakes in your cipher is to tell all the smart people you can about it and ask them to think of ways to break it. Without this critical step, you'll eventually end up living in a fool's paradise, where your attacker has broken your cipher ages ago and is quietly decrypting all her intercepts of your messages, snickering at you.

7. Betteridge's Law of Headlines

The law: "Any headline which ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no."

The story: Journalist Ian Betteridge noted that many headlines are written as bogus questions, the answer to which is pretty much always "no." (I'll admit, I have written question-headlines myself.) Betteridge wrote a blog post (salty language warning) in 2009 explaining the issue. Here's a snippet regarding a story bearing the headline "Did Last.fm Just Hand Over User Listening Data To the RIAA?" I have bleeped one word below:

This story is a great demonstration of my maxim that any headline which ends in a question mark can be answered by the word “no”. The reason why journalists use that style of headline is that they know the story is probably bulls**t, and don’t actually have the sources and facts to back it up, but still want to run it. Which, of course, is why it’s so common in the Daily Mail.

8. Brooks' Law

Wikimedia Commons

The law: "Adding manpower to a late software project makes it later."

The story: Fred Brooks managed massive software projects (including the development of OS/360) for IBM, and wrote a 1975 book based on his experience called The Mythical Man-Month. His most widely-quoted observation was that when a software project was late, throwing more people at the project didn't help — in fact, it made the situation worse because the existing team had to explain everything to the new team members, thus wasting time on communication overhead. (It's more complicated than that, but that's the gist.) His observation has gone on to influence generations of project managers, myself included. Only a few of us, myself included, actually read the book.

9. Clarke's Third Law

Wikimedia Commons

The law: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

The story: Science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke proposed three laws, which were as follows:

  • 1. When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
  • 2. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
  • 3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

After stating his Third Law in his essay collection Profiles of the Future, Clarke wrote: "As three laws were good enough for Newton, I have modestly decided to stop there."

10. Hanlon's Razor

The law: "Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity."

The story: A play on Occam's Razor, attributed to Robert J. Hanlon. It may actually be attributable to science fiction author Robert A. Heinlein, who wrote in his story Logic of Empire: "You have attributed conditions to villainy that simply result from stupidity." Even prior to Heinlein's phrase, the concept appears all over the place.

11. Hofstadter's Law

Wikimedia Commons

The law: "It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter's Law."

The story: This recursive law appeared in Douglas Hofstadter's 1979 book Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. It came up in the context of programming computers to play chess, in which a chess-winning computer seemed perennially about "ten years" in the future. Hofstadter wrote:

"In the early days of computer chess, people used to estimate that it would be ten years until a computer (or program) was world champion. But after ten years had passed, it seemed that the day a computer would become world champion was still more than ten years away."

Closely related is Parkinson's Law, which states: "Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion."

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fun
Watch the Original Spinal Tap Short Film
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Chris Weeks // Staff // Getty Images

Spinal Tap formed in 1979, five years before the classic film This is Spinal Tap premiered. They performed on TV and began developing their personas as idiotic heavy metal monsters.

When the band, along with director Rob Reiner, went to pitch their mockumentary to production companies, nobody "got it." It wasn't clear what an unscripted comedy pseudo-documentary would feel like. So Reiner asked for the screenplay fee—$60,000—to be paid up front as a budget for a short proof-of-concept film.

That skimpy budget went a very long way, allowing the group to produce The Last Tour, a 20-minute Spinal Tap film exploring some of the plot (and many of the songs) that appeared in the later film This is Spinal Tap. There's a surprising amount of concert footage, as various bits that were repeated in Tap (some interview clips were even used in Tap unaltered).

The Last Tour is delightful because it shows a well-developed idea being implemented on the cheap. The wigs are terrible, the sound is spotty, but the vision is spot-on. The characters and the core story of the group (including a string of dead drummers) is already in place, and we get to see the guys improvise together. Tune in (and be aware there's plenty of salty language here):

(Note: Around 4:38 in the clip above, we see Ed Begley, Jr. as original drummer John "Stumpy" Pepys in the "Gimme Some Money" video. Stumpy died in a gardening accident, of course.)

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History
When the FBI Went After Mad Magazine
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Warner Bros., IStock

In a memo dated November 30, 1957, an agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation identified as “A. Jones” raised an issue of critical importance: "Several complaints to the Bureau have been made concerning the 'Mad' comic book [sic], which at one time presented the horror of war to readers."

Attached to the document were pages taken from a recent issue of Mad that featured a tongue-in-cheek game about draft dodging. Players who earned such status were advised to write to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and request a membership card certifying themselves as a “full-fledged draft dodger.” At least three readers, the agent reported, did exactly that.

Mad, of course, was the wildly popular satirical magazine that was reaching upwards of a million readers every other month. Published by William Gaines, who had already gotten into some trouble with Congress when he was called to testify about his gruesome horror comics in 1954, Mad lampooned everyone and everything. But in name-checking the notoriously humorless Hoover, Gaines had invited the wrong kind of attention.

The memo got several facts incorrect: Mad had switched from a comic book to a magazine format in 1955, and it was Gaines’ E.C. Comics that had “presented the horror of war” in other titles. Despite getting these crucial pieces of information wrong, Jones didn’t hesitate to editorialize: "It is also of interest to note that…it is rather unfunny.”

The agent recommended the Bureau’s New York offices “make contact” with Mad’s headquarters to “advise them of our displeasure” and to make sure “that there be no repetition of such misuse of the Director’s name.”

Less than a week later, the Feds entered the hallowed hallways patrolled by Alfred E. Neuman. Their New York office would later report to Hoover directly that they had met with John Putnam, the magazine’s art director. (Conveniently, Gaines was not in that day.) Putnam told the agents he regretted the magazine using Hoover’s name and that nothing malicious was intended:

Putnam said that the use of the membership card and the name and address of the Director at the end of the game was referred to in their business as a 'gag' or 'kicker' in the same way that a comedian like Bob Hope or Milton Berle might use it.

Putnam swore that Mad would never again take Hoover’s name in vain; Gaines sent off a letter of sincere apology to the Director.

The Smoking Gun

Just two years later, in January 1960, Agent A. Jones was forced to file a second notice about the shenanigans at Mad. A recent issue had made not one, but two derogatory mentions of Hoover, including one in which he is blatantly and disrespectfully portrayed as being associated with a vacuum cleaner, “The Honorable J. Edgar Electrolux”:  

Obviously, Gaines was insincere in this promise…and has again placed the Director in a position of ridicule…it is felt we should contact Gaines…and firmly and severely admonish them concerning our displeasure…

It was by now clear Mad was not only polluting young minds, but that Gaines had absolutely no regard for the honorable Hoover’s position.

In June 1961, the FBI’s worst fears had been realized. Detailing an investigation into a Seattle-area extortion attempt led to the following:

Investigation … resulted in gaining admissions from the victim’s 12-year-old son and an 11-year-old companion that they had gotten the idea of preparing an extortion letter after reading the June issue of 'Mad' magazine.   

Working in concert with the Buffalo field office, the FBI determined another letter had been sent by a young boy demanding money in the style of a recent issue’s extortion advice. And there was a third under review that was sent to the agent of some professional wrestlers.

Mad was quickly becoming the scourge of the federal government. The FBI suggested the magazine be brought to the attention of the Attorney General for “instructing [readers] to deliberately violate the Federal Law.” They tried reaching out to Gaines, who was on vacation. (Time and again, Gaines simply not being in the office when called upon seemed to confound the FBI.)

Agent A. Jones, having exhausted all attempts to reason with these irresponsible anarchists, filed one last memo:

Despite assurances, they have continued to publish slurring remarks about the Bureau. In view of this situation, it was deemed useless to protest all such irresponsible remarks to a magazine of this poor judgment and capriciousness … we will have to wait and see if our action will result in increased discretion by this publication.

Poor A. Jones was unable to put an end to Mad’s reign of terror. But the magazine redeemed itself somewhat. In the 1970s, when the Bureau was trying to suppress the influence of the Ku Klux Klan, an agent suggested they copy and distribute a sticker from the magazine that read, “Support Mental Illness—Join the Klan!”

Hoover said no.

Additional Sources:
The Smoking Gun.

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