Murphy’s Law and Design


James Vornov has been posting some interesting reflections on Murphy’s Law over on his weblog, on deciding…better , recently. Here’s where he started.

Murphy’s Law Was Invented Here: It was named after Capt. Edward A. Murphy, an engineer working on Air Force Project MX981, (a project) designed to see how much sudden deceleration a person can stand in a crash. One day, after finding that a transducer was wired wrong, he cursed the technician responsible and said, “If there is any way to do it wrong, he’ll find it.”

  The Origin of Murphy’s Law: The traditional version of Murphy’s Law (“anything that can go wrong, will”) is actually “Finagle’s Law of Dynamic Negatives.” Finagle’s Law was popularized by science fiction author Larry Niven in several stories depicting a frontier culture of asteroid miners; this “Belter” culture professed a religion and/or running joke involving the worship of the dread god Finagle and his mad prophet Murphy. Since then, the relentless truth inherent in Murphy’s Law has become a persistent thorn in the side of humanity.
  Sod’s Law? While I admit that the name of Murphy’s laws is a pleasant one as is the story of how it came to light, but the original name for ‘if anything can go wrong it will’ was sod’s law because it would happen to any poor sod who needed such a catastrophic event the least.

What I find really interesting is this:

  Murphy’s Law The correct, _original_ Murphy’s Law reads: “If there are two or more ways to do something, and one of those ways can result in a catastrophe, then someone will do it.” This is a principle of defensive design, cited here because it is usually given in mutant forms less descriptive of the challenges of design for lusers. For example, you don’t make a two-pin plug symmetrical and then label it `THIS WAY UP’; if it matters which way it is plugged in, then you make the design asymmetrical (see also the anecdote under magic smoke).

I think this statement is true. I hope to come back to it after exploring the more generalized statement of the law.

[OnDecidingBetter News]

What I’m especially intrigued by is the connection between Murphy’s Law and design. While usually invoked against some abstract malevolent force, it’s really about the conquences of not thinking designs all the way through.

More and more, we’re not only living in a designed world, we are all becoming active designers. In the immortal words of Pogo, “we have met the enemy and he is us.”