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They’re the self-evident rules for living that help us cope with life’s everyday curve balls. Sayings like, “If anything can go wrong, it will” or “A watched pot never boils.” Across cultures and countries, these universal truths help explain the unexplainable. Author Paul Dickson has spent decades gathering these “official rules” for living, and he’s come up with more than 5,000 to explain life, love and politics. He joins Kojo to discuss the principles that keep us sane amid bad days and bad luck.
- Paul Dickson Author of more than 55 nonfiction books including "The Official Rules;" contributing editor, Washingtonian Magazine
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThere are principles that don't have a scientific basis but they're laws of nature just the same. Observations like a watched pot never boils or if anything can go wrong it will. You don't need a PhD to know that the three-second rule prevents spilled food from contamination. And even Nobel laureates know that socks always lose their mates in the dryer. These are the universal truths that not only get us through the day, they help us cope with bad behavior and bad luck.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThroughout history these pearls of wisdom were passed down by word of mouth, kitchen placards or on bathroom stalls. But for more than three decades, author Paul Dickson has been meticulously collecting and publishing these official rules. He now has more than 5,000 of them and he's just published his last compilation.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIPaul Dickson joins us in studio. He's the author of more than 55 nonfiction books including his latest book. It's called "The Official Rules: 5,427 Laws, Principles and Axioms To Help You Cope With Crisis, Deadlines, Bad Luck, Rude Behavior, Red Tape and Attacks By Inanimate Objects." Paul Dickson joins us in studio. Paul Dickson, good to see you again.
MR. PAUL DICKSONYou too, Kojo.
NNAMDICouldn't you have made the subtitle a little longer? I don't think it was long enough. 800-433-8850. If you would like to share the little axioms or rules that you have come up with to cope with life, every day's hassles or those you have heard from parents or other relatives, you can call and share them with us, 800-433-8850. Paul, "The Official Rules" looks like a thick intimidating, well, reference book. But you only need to read the preface to realize that this book is not going to be a refresher on principles by great thinkers like Newton, Einstein, Darwin or Archimedes. No eureka moments here.
DICKSONThere are but they're different kinds of eureka moments. They're -- I mean, Newton's law explains why the paperboy throws the paper in the bushes five days in a row.
DICKSONBut Murphy's law explains why it's happening to you.
NNAMDIAnd only to you.
DICKSONAnd these are also rules that'll help you in everyday life. For example, I've subscribed to Olsen's Law, the necktie which says, the only way to keep food off your necktie is to keep your necktie in the refrigerator. So these are very practical. A lot of these are very practical laws about how you behave. But -- and I've been collecting from just people. I mean, people will call in today and I'll write them down in the book and I'll give them the person's name. Like Olsen got the law of the necktie just like Newton got the law of gravity. So...
NNAMDIThis tome of self-evident axioms and principles that we all live by has been a work in progress for decades. How did you ever get into this amid your prolific career writing about everything from baseball, which we've interviewed you about, and toasting, which we've also interviewed you about.
DICKSONYes. And writing history too. But what really happened, Kojo, in 1976, the year of the bicentennial, I got fascinated by hearing these comments people were making about Finagle's law or Murphy's law or how people were dealing with life through these sort of humorous takeoffs on scientific laws. And they often were stated like a scientific law. You would say a wrong number will displace a body immersed in water. In other words, you got a wrong number when you take a bath.
DICKSONSo what -- so I just started collecting them. And I came up with this title called the "The Murphy Center For the Codification of Human and Organizational Law," which was a very impressive thing. And then I named people who helped me as fellows of the center. So I started attracting others...
NNAMDINo, but what is your own title in this organization?
DICKSONOh, I am director for life.
NNAMDIWho gave you this title?
NNAMDII see. Go ahead.
DICKSONBut over the years, I've collected thousands and thousands of letters. And now since about the year 2002 they've been almost all emails, but occasionally one will come in a letter. But people wanted to get these to me. And so George McGovern -- Senator George McGovern sent me one.
NNAMDISo is he -- was he a fellow?
DICKSONHe's named in the book, yeah. The shorter the title, the more important the job.
NNAMDIAnd so he's become a fellow?
DICKSONYes, because he -- that was McGovern's rule. So senator, president, judge are short titles. But long titles like deputy administrator to the Secretary of Congress or something, you know, so it's less important the more the -- and I got others from all different people. People sent them from all over the world.
NNAMDISo that anybody who submits something and it is found to be valid and published is a fellow.
DICKSONAnd they -- right and their name goes on it. So that's the way I sort of give people their own payment for writing the book for me. This works a little bit on the Tom Sawyer principle. Remember Tom Sawyer would paint the fence and said to everybody, hi, I'm having so much fun. Why don't you join it? So this is -- basically this is written by other people. I'm just the collator of all this material.
NNAMDIWell, we are inviting people to call in on this show at 800-433-8850 and share with us axioms of their own. The fact that they are not being published, can that make them like assistance fellows maybe?
DICKSONOh, and there'll be more books. There have been seven of these books already so they're still being collected.
NNAMDIIn that case let's start with assistant fellow David in Silver Spring. David, you're on the air. Go ahead, please. What are your rules?
DAVIDWell, this is (unintelligible) myself and a friend in Chicago. We are both inveterate readers or as we like to call ourselves, bibliobors (sp?) (unintelligible) theory literary acquisition, which says if you've read all the books you've bought, you haven't been buying enough books.
DAVIDAnd there's a corollary.
NNAMDIYes, what's the corollary?
DAVIDDon't buy books, buy bookcases.
NNAMDII see. We're taking note of both of these for future editions of "The Official Rules." David, anymore to share with us?
DAVIDYeah, well, we can't -- it wouldn't be complete without mentioning Cole's law.
NNAMDIAnd what's Carl's law?
DAVIDThinly sliced cabbage.
NNAMDICould you repeat that, please?
DAVIDThinly sliced cabbage.
NNAMDIOh, Cole's law. I didn't get that, Paul.
DICKSONIt's a pun. It is actually in the book. It been around for -- Cole's law. When it's written it's funnier. It's C-O-L apostrophe S -- Col's law.
NNAMDIBut what does it actually say? I didn't understand exactly what he said.
DICKSONIt really -- when you say it, it means -- you're saying coleslaw.
NNAMDIOops, thank you.
DICKSONSee, you've been punned.
NNAMDII'm very slow, David. Thank you very much for your call. Who the heck was Murphy anyway?
DICKSONThere have been various theories about him. He was probably somebody in the aerospace industry right after World War II. And there were projects that would be -- get in trouble. And they'd say it was -- you know, if anything can go wrong it will. And then all sorts of corollaries came along to Murphy's law. And Murphy's Law is a very useful law. It sounds -- people will often say to me, well, why are you collecting all these negative laws, these Murphy type laws and, you know, anything can go wrong it will?
DICKSONAnd one of the things I found out is people who invoke these laws tend to be very positive people because Murphy's law is a way to sort of partitioning off bad luck. In other words, if you have a day in which everything goes wrong and you miss an appointment and this goes -- and this happens and you have a flat tire on your way home from work. And at the end of the day you can say, well, it really wasn't my fault. Murphy's law was in effect and there's nothing I could've, you know, done.
DICKSONAnd then the next day you find out that want O'Toole's law which is Murphy was an optimist.
NNAMDIThe Murphy Center, people should know, has a code of arms, am I correct?
NNAMDIIt also has a motto.
NNAMDIThe motto of the Murphy Center is (speaks foreign language) What does that mean?
DICKSONWhich means calamity if inevitable.
NNAMDIIs it? Disaster is inevitable.
DICKSONAnd the symbolism on the crest is -- or the symbol is there's an Edsel grill in there and then there's dangling coat hangers. Because coat hangers are very important to the whole concept of Murphy's law and the Murphy's Center, which is that there are various laws in the book about coat hangers. But they all boil down to the fact that coat hangers in a dark place will multiply. And that's why you have wire coat hangers. That's why you always have more coat hangers than you actually put in there. And it's part of the same dynamic that makes you find one sock in the laundry.
NNAMDISteve in Boyds, Md. has one for us. Steve, you're on the air. What's the source of your axiom?
STEVEWell, I've got two from my great grandmother.
STEVENow, the first one is to take care of your teeth, and the second one is it's a great life if you don't weaken. I found both of those to be very true.
NNAMDITake care of your teeth.
DICKSON...your teeth. Yeah, keep it a safe place. Murphy would say, take care of your teeth. Make sure you lock them up at night.
NNAMDIAnd it's a great life if you don't weaken.
STEVEYeah, and I used to work with a guy, retired now but he always said, don't take any wooden nickels. So...
DICKSONThere you go. Those are pretty much folk analogs. I mean, those are things that have been -- but they're good advice about...
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. Paul, these things we come up with to help us deal with life are usually passed on, as the case of David from his great grandmother, by word of mouth or on refrigerator magnets, cutesy placards. How did you manage to trace so many of them back to their original authors?
DICKSONWell, a lot of them were people who come out with them and call them that. I've -- one of them -- here's one I actually got from Eugene McCarthy was -- who ran for president, was this distinguished senator, United States leader. McCarthy's law of intelligence. Being in politics is like being a football coach. You have to be smart enough to understand the game and dumb enough to think it's important. And so...
NNAMDIThat's pretty appropriate in this town with this football team we have right now.
DICKSONAnd Roe's law, which is one of my favorites, is a man named Roe who wrote to me. He said, the odds are six to five that the light at the end of the tunnel is the headlight of an oncoming train. So...
NNAMDIBefore we dive into more of these rules that you have gathered, can we just remind ourselves the difference between an axiom and an idiom? These rules that you proffering here are axioms.
DICKSONAxioms, pretty much, except some are laws. Some are attempt to be almost like Boyle's law, the law of supply and demand, which is sort of inevitabilities. Axioms are more sort of distilled wisdom I think.
DICKSONSelf-evident truths, yes.
NNAMDIIdioms are expressions that cannot be understood from the meaning of its separate words. So an idiom would be like piece of cake.
NNAMDII'm going to hit the books tonight.
DICKSONYes. Those would be idioms. And they're often very confusing to people learning the language. And a lot of our idioms of course come from sports, like the idiom of a slam dunk or, you know, out in left field or something.
NNAMDIWhat's a maxim?
DICKSONA maxim is sort of the same thing as an idiom. It's more of a true -- another self-evident truth. It's just, I think, a synonym more than anything else.
NNAMDIIt's a short pithy statement...
NNAMDI...expressing a general truth, a role of conduct, sayings like look before you leap or what's good for the goose is good for the gander. That's kind of a proverb too, isn't it?
NNAMDIOnto the telephones again. Let's see who awaits us now. Erin is in Arlington, Va. Erin, what's yours?
ERINHi there, Kojo. My life truth is hey, it's your world, buddy, which is something that we say whenever anybody cuts us off in traffic or cuts in the line or does something else that's kind of offensive or sort of selfish. And it acknowledges the fact that everybody seems to think that they're the only person in the world.
NNAMDIIt's your world. Thank you very much for that contribution. Paul Dickson, what's fun about this book is that you can just turn to any random page and you can find a rule that applies to you. On page 173, for example, there's Joe's discovery. The reliability of any copier is inversely proportional to the number of copies needed. That's the truth, isn't it?
NNAMDIThese things are really true. And then just below Joe's discovery, there's John's understanding. If you do something really dumb once, it's stupid. If you repeat it often, it's philosophy. And here's a scary one from the same page. The Johns Hopkins miraculous secret for the early recovery of patients. Inflation. Yes, you see that bill?
NNAMDIYou tend to recover fairly quickly after that. On now to Angela who is in Washington DC. Angela, you are on the air. Go ahead, please.
ANGELAHi. I am in Washington DC and I have a rule that I made up. There's a newspaper here that had an axiom, if you don't get it, you don't get it, and I always loved that. And I came up with a rule for my life which is, the more you do, the more you do.
NNAMDIThe more you do the more you do. That's a good one.
DICKSONAnd that would be a tautology.
DICKSONYes. A repeated -- something that you repeat to give it a second meaning.
NNAMDIYou have created a tautology, Angela.
ANGELAWho knew? I'm hoping for a fellowship to go with it. But it's actually also true -- the opposite is also true, which is the less you do, the less you do.
DICKSONOkay. There's a reverse tautology.
ANGELAThere you go. (unintelligible)
DICKSONNo. I just -- I made the reverse tautology.
NNAMDIThe less I do, actually, the better I feel. Angela, thank you very much for your call. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue our conversation with Paul Dickson. He's the author of the book of -- he's author of more than 55 nonfiction books. His latest is called "The Official Rules: 5,427 Laws, Principles, and Axioms to Help You Cope with Crises, Deadlines, Bad Luck, Rude Behavior, Red Tape, and Attacks by Inanimate Objects."
NNAMDIYou can call us with your own rules. 800-433-8850. You can also send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. That's my rule and I'm sticking with it. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIOur guest is Paul Dickson. His latest book is called "The Official Rules: 5,427 Laws, Principles, and Axioms to Help You Cope with Crises, Deadlines, Bad Luck, Rude Behavior, Red Tape, and Attacks by Inanimate Objects." He is the author of more than 55 nonfiction books. Paul joins us in studio. We got a few by way of tweet and email, Paul. Stan tweets that "My axiom is no rule is greater than the game." We got one from Jim which I find intriguing. "Two moves equals one fire." In other words, moving is about half as disruptive as fire.
DICKSONOh, that's interesting, yes.
NNAMDIThat's a good one. And Janet emails that her dad's rule is everything takes longer than it does. That's a good one, isn't it?
DICKSONYeah. And that's part of Finagle's Law. I think the original of that is part of Finagle's Law.
NNAMDIIs Finagle's Law.
NNAMDIAnd then we got one from Phil who says, "Seek and ye shall incur search costs." Well, less so in the age of Google, he says. Okay. How about rules about politics and politicians. You mention Senator George McGovern. Since we are here in Washington DC...
NNAMDI...let's give lawmakers out there some good rules to mull over.
DICKSONOne of my favorites was the first law of political leadership. Find out where the people want to go, then hustle yourself around in front of them.
DICKSON(word?) Law, which is very useful in Washington, a politician will always be there when he needs you. Lloyd George's razor, which is famous David Lloyd George, if a politician -- a politician is a person who's politics you don't agree with. If you agree with him, he's a statesman.
NNAMDIAh, yes. I also like (word?) . Talking to politicians is fine, but with a little money they hear you better.
DICKSONThat's right. Adam's -- Historian Henry Adams had a fine one. Adam's political discovery. Political -- practical politics consist of ignoring facts.
NNAMDIHere's Jen in Washington DC with her contribution. Jen, what's your axiom?
JENOh, well, I have a couple of them, and was thinking of a couple more while you were talking, but my one I was going to mention first was David Foster Wallace, the truth will set you free, but not until it's through with you.
JENAnd Deepak Chopra was commenting on being named a lord of immortality. He said, the lords of immortality will always fail in the material world. That was pretty good.
JENAnd my dad's was, if you're always 15 minutes early, you're never late.
JENAnd mine is linear time is for suckers. Those are the four I share with you guys.
NNAMDIWell, I have a favorite from a guy who drives a limo here in Washington. He says, if you're on time, you're late.
DICKSONWell, the other one that's very useful, especially if you're in the car, the one I use -- some of these rules I actually use in my day-to-day life often, but one of my favorites is, you're not late until you get there. Which is -- if you're in the car and you're 15 minutes late for an appointment, you can relax because you're not really late technically until you get there.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Jen. You too can call us at 800-433-8850. For those of you in government jobs out there, you may have observed Gammon's Theory of Bureaucratic Displacement. What is Gammon's Theory of Bureaucratic Displacement? It says, in a bureaucratic system, an increase in expenditure will be matched by a fall in production. Ah, that's the opposite of doing more with less, huh?
NNAMDIIt's doing less with more.
NNAMDIIf you like to do less with more. Is there a good one we can apply to President Obama's tough year, Paul, especially the botched rollout of healthcare.gov?
DICKSONWell, I've been thinking about this for awhile, and I think the closest one came from a person named (word?) was the last name, from Albuquerque, New Mexico. He sent this to me years ago.
DICKSONAnd it's (word?) distinction. Foreigners often ask what's the difference between American political parties. It's really very simply. With the Republicans, you worry that they have not found solutions to the nation's problems. With the Democrats, you're afraid they might think of something.
NNAMDISix of one, half a dozen of the other. Here's Charles in Washington DC. Charles, your turn.
CHARLESHi Kojo. I'm a really big fan of Mr. Dickson's books. In the 1970s I concluded some research on Murphy's Laws and printed them, but one really has always stuck out for me, and that is that every profession communicates in its own language. Apparently there is no Rosetta Stone.
NNAMDII like that.
NNAMDIThat is very good.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. You too can call us. The number is 800-433-8850. What axioms do you have around the office or around the house? Share them with us. You can also send email to email@example.com. Paul, your rules are a lot of fun to contemplate, but I think a lot of people might be a little depressed after going through them. Is this book supposed to be a sad commentary on the state of thing?
DICKSONNo. It's just the opposite. I think -- I really do think that people who love this kind of humor -- and this kind of humor is not indigenous to our time. In the early part of -- about 1607, 1609, there was a tremendous fad in England called miseries, and they would publish these books of miseries which were all these things that did go wrong. And I think that people who generate towards these things tend to be people who are basically optimistic, humorous, and able to sort of partition parts of their lives and not blame everything on themselves, blame everything on the society.
DICKSONAnd so it gives you sort of an outlet. And if you make this observation, that they're really helpful to people in the sense that they are -- it's sort of giving almost a universal truth to something that's not always palatable. And so there's a humor in all this. I think of the Y2K thing, and one of Murphy's Law that Murphy's Law doesn't always obey Murphy's Law. And to everybody was expecting this huge debacle that planes were going to fall out of the sky and we're going to lose, you know, all our computers are going to blow up and our toasters are going to fall apart and everything because of some digit in the computers, and of course, nothing happened. Of course, that was an example of Murphy's Law not obeying itself.
NNAMDIAnd I think you may have hit on exactly what Steven in Alexandria, Va. was about to point out. Was that it, Steven?
STEVENYes. Well, the -- most people think of Murphy's Law as anything that can go wrong will go wrong, and that's a very fatalistic thing. But the full statement of the law is, anything that can go wrong will go wrong at the worst possible time.
STEVENSo if we make it a good time for something to go wrong, it prevents it from going wrong. That's why we have spare tires in our cars, even though we never get flats anymore.
NNAMDII was about to say, speak for yourself, Steven.
DICKSONI don't want to ride home with you tonight, I'll tell you that.
NNAMDIOh, yeah. Because...
DICKSONYou've invoked the wrath of Murphy by saying that.
STEVEN(unintelligible) it's there. But it changes it from fatalistic to something that actually gives us control.
DICKSONAnd also -- no. You're exactly right. The whole -- I mean, the book has about 12 pages of Murphy's Laws specifically, but a lot of them, they're literally meant to sort of give you an out, give you a petition the way things -- that you can disassociate yourself from things that go wrong. And there are times in the day when you're just very frustrated, things aren't working, you know, when the power goes out or something, you know, you become so -- one of the laws in the book, it says that if it wasn't for Thomas Edison, we'd be watching television by candlelight, and that's an important thing to remember.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Steven. Was it hard to organize these rules? Why not list them by theme, for example, love and relationships, politics, life's everyday hassles.
DICKSONThat was too easy. I wanted -- see, my major reward system, was to give a lot of people the name (unintelligible)
DICKSONI thought I would just do it alphabetically. So there may be a law on ice cream that's right next to a law about going to the hospital, and they're two different things. And the law's on ice cream are important. Like ice cream will solve almost any problem albeit temporarily.
NNAMDIOn now -- we have an axiom from Dina in Washington DC. Dina, what's yours?
DINAESO, Equipment Superior to Operator.
NNAMDII love it.
DINAWe use it in the theater all the time.
DINASuperior to operator.
NNAMDITo operator. I think that just about applies in this studio right here, especially...
NNAMDI...over there where our engineer for today is sitting.
DICKSONI know. I notice in the control room that went over like a lead balloon.
NNAMDIExactly. Exactly. I think we're about to get cut off the air. Dina, thank --
DINAThat's why we use it in the theater.
NNAMDIEquipment superior to operator. You hear that Andrew? Dina, thank you very...
DICKSONI don't know if I like that.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. Our engineer today is Andrew Chadwick. I am sure that every country and culture, Paul, has their own rules to live by. Here's a favorite from Russia that our producer, Elizabeth Weinstein, frequently uses on Saturday mornings. It goes, (speaks foreign language) . Apparently translated it means, the first pancake is always a dud. Elizabeth informs me that this is an old Russian saying that she's been using for years and she always thinks of it when she throws that first pancake onto the griddle. Do you plan on creating an international edition of this book at some point?
DICKSONOh, it's been -- it's been twice -- the earlier version the official was twice translated into Japanese. Two different translations. I guess one different -- and I can't imagine some of these going into other languages. It's been translated into Danish and Portuguese, several British editions. They are universal in the sense that people really find them important. Now, going back to the pancake rule, there was another one which states that even Betty Crocker burns a cake now and again. So in other words, a lot of them have to do with ….
NNAMDIThat's good to know.
DICKSON...using food as sort of an analogy for everything else. But again, they're probably rooted in our -- sort of our folk mentality. One of the functions of language is basically to balance out life and the realities of physics and the realities of chemistry and all the other things that are forces in our lives. So language -- these are really about language. It's about language developing these funny little pieces.
NNAMDIAnd speaking of international, here's Diane in Fairfax, Va. Diane, your turn.
DIANEHi. This is a saying that my father, who was in immigrant from Poland always used to say, and it's kind of an example of how they don't really have to make sense to make sense. I'll say it, and then you can tell me if you understand what it's supposed to mean. He would always say, well, if my grandmother had been a bus, she would have had wheels.
DICKSONWe're taking a time out here.
DIANEHindsight is 20/20. Hindsight is 20/20. And he -- and we used to always laugh because my father had his PhD., he spoke six languages, and we kept going, we think you're losing something in there in the translation.
DIANEIt was so great a saying that my friends picked it up, and we still -- I still -- he's been gone 20 years, and I always smile whenever I use that.
NNAMDIWhat's the context in which you use it?
DIANEWell, hindsight is 20/20.
NNAMDIOkay. If my grandmother was a bus...
DIANEIf my grandmother had been a bus, she would have had wheels.
NNAMDII think I'll use that. Thank you...
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Diane. For those listeners who are new parents, you might be interested in this set of rules penned by Sandra Stark. She is La Crescenta, Ca., the first outing with the new baby rule. The more obvious a person's flu symptoms are, the greater the likelihood that they will insist on grabbing your baby's hand and cooing breathlessly in your baby's face. And we're almost out of time, but we forgot to mention that there are rules about inanimate objects in this book. Surely, there's got to be one regarding lost socks. There's got to be.
DICKSONOh, yes. Well, there's -- lost socks there's never one -- there's always an odd number of socks in the dryer.
DICKSONThat's the most basic one. But it's also -- Bell's rule I love a lot linear devices such as wired string, garden hoses, when left to their own devices, occupied over time, will twist themselves into tangles and weave knots.
NNAMDIExactly. I had a friend who lost his sock in -- after he put it in the dryer and claims he had it buried in his backyard.
DICKSONOh, I think it -- that explained black holes. That's where the socks are.
NNAMDIThe dryer moves. Paul Dickson. He is the author more than 55 nonfiction books. His latest is called "The Official Rules: 5,427 Laws," you can count them. "5,427 Laws, Principles, and Axioms to Help You Cope with Crises, Deadlines, Bad Luck, Rude Behavior, Red Tape, and Attacks by Inanimate Objects." Paul Dickson, always a pleasure.
DICKSONThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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