We’re all victims of Finagle’s Law. The Authors Collection.

James R. Callan
James R. Callan

The official name is actually Finagle’s Law of Dynamic Negatives.  It is impossible to find the exact origin of Finagle’s Law, as it has been discovered by many cultures.  Finagle’s Law is complex and covers many areas of study, but the simplest description was stated by German author Friedrich Vischer, which translates to “The perversity of inanimate objects.”

There are some who change it slightly to: “The innate perversity of inanimate objects.”  This implies that the perversity is born in the inanimate object. Of course, others claim that an inanimate object isn’t actually born, so “innate” is impossible.  Other others argue that the perversity is a basic component of the object and that makes is innate.

A somewhat more formal definition is: Any inanimate object may be expected at any time to behave in a manner that is entirely unexpected and totally unpredictable for reasons which are completely unknown or thoroughly obscure.

Those who might doubt the veracity of Finagle’s Law should note that several episodes of Star Trek have clearly referred to Finagle’s Law.

Empirical proof is all around us.  For instance, do you ever run out of gas when you have plenty of time?  Of course not. But it isn’t clear which triggers the other. Do you run out of gas because you have no time, or do you have no time because you run out of gas?

Does the TV fail to work until the repairman arrives?  And then it fails to fail.

ATonOfGold-3dLeftDoes the elevator sit there waiting as you walk across the lobby and in the instant before you push the button, it is called to the floor most distant from where you are left waiting?

Does the open peanut butter sandwich ever fall peanut-butter side up?

Does the extremely simple snap latch fail to work when you most need it?

Does this simple latch get stuck and refuse to open, but only when you have important people waiting?

Are your keys always in the pocket that you cannot reach with your free hand? You must rearrange all the heavy bundles to get the key out.

Why is it that when tearing a piece of paper, be it a paper towel, newspaper, bathroom tissue or expensive wrapping paper (particularly if it’s your last piece) it tears perfectly – until the last inch, at which point it turns 90 degrees and rips down at warp speed?

Why is it that when you’re thumbing through pages looking for something, the pages flip one by one in an orderly fashion– until you get to the one you want, at which point twenty pages will flit over at once?

One answer fits all: The perversity of inanimate objects.

Having work in mathematics for many years, I was naturally familiar with the Finagle Factor.  It is an ad hoc multiplicative or additive term in an equation which is only justified by the fact that it gives the correct answer.  This is sometimes called the Finagle Variable Constant.  Certain mathematicians calculated it to be the right answer divided by your answer.

And along the same scientific lines, there is O’Toole’s Corollary to Finagle’s Law which states that the perversity of the Universe tends towards a maximum.

As exciting as all this is, I have run out of time. And that was, of course, predicted by Douglas Hofstadter in a 1979 book.  He stated what became known as Hofstadter’s Law: It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law.

And if the computer (the most perverse of all inanimate objects) is still working, thanks for your time.

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