YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Jack Smith

Encounters with our mechanical servants prove that a machine hasn't yet learned its place

June 27, 1985|JACK SMITH

As we have seen, there is a corollary to Murphy's Law ("Whatever can go wrong will go wrong").

The corollary, proposed by Dixon Gayer and known as Gayer's Law, is "Anything that can go wrong will go wrong, except at the repair shop where it will magically, mysteriously (and temporarily) repair itself. (Once outside the repair shop again, see Murphy's Law.)"

Tom Alexander of Laguna Beach reports a case of Gayer's Law involving his computer: "My computer goes one step further than yours," he says "not waiting to get to the shop. No, it does it when there's a hint of such a trip.

"Yesterday it went 'a 1/8lpsdz 1/8lpsdlp 1/8 3/8dfdf' and stuck. I couldn't shake it loose. So I shut it down and began again. Now it wouldn't move into any program. Just sat there blinking.

"I reached for the phone to call my friend who is a sort of computer doctor. He always seems to know when a computer's faking and when it's for real. Suddenly, the computer went into my program, the hieroglyphic gibberish gone."

That suggests that the computer is smart enough to anticipate being repaired, which it evidently dislikes, or considers a kind of punishment for its misbehavior. Like a small child who fears a spanking, it decides to be good.

Now Selma Hefley of Carson proposes a second corollary, known as Hefley's Law: "Anything and whatever goes wrong while still under warranty, guarantee or purchased insurance policy will go wrong in such a way that is not covered or that voids the contract."

In support of Hefley's Law, Hefley tells of the "nifty" used car she bought, along with an insurance policy to cover any necessary repairs to the drive chain, brakes, transmission, air conditioner, et cetera.

"Not covered by the insurance policy," she reports, "were the faulty tires that developed splits just days after the car-lot warranty expired. Nor does it cover the bracket that bolts the air conditioner to the car frame, the same bracket that broke with the second use of the air conditioner and caused it to shake the car and create a chain of repairs and labor costs to said air conditioner that also are not covered."

James R. Pratley of Rancho Bernardo, a retired U.S. forester, has formulated yet another variation of Murphy's Law, which he calls Pratley's Prophecy: "The fixing of one malfunction results in damage or malfunction to another part of the thing being fixed."

Item: Pratley took his brand new Chrysler to an authorized dealer for a carburetor adjustment. The adjustment turned out OK, but in testing the results of their work they marred a whitewall tire beyond repair.

Item: He had his water softener repaired and adjusted only to discover the next morning that the repairman had not replaced a small screw plug in the outer wall of the unit. As a result his car was encrusted with salt crystals that didn't do the paint job any good.

"In short," Pratley concludes, "it is almost impossible to have one item repaired without doing damage to something else."

I have had many experiences with Pratley's Prophecy. For many years, after we bought our house, it never leaked. It was like a tight little ship. Then we had it widened and a new roof put on. In the first rainstorm the back bedroom leaked. We called in a roofer and paid him several hundred dollars to fix the leak. In the next rain both the back bedroom and the front bedroom leaked. We have recently paid the roofer several hundred dollars more to fix both the leaks. I await the next rain with trepidation.

One of my sons recently bought a used Porsche. He decided to remove the radar detection device. A few days later the electrical system refused to work and he couldn't start the car. He had it towed in and repaired. A few days later the engine caught fire on the freeway, and he was saved from a possibly serious accident by a another motorist who flagged him down, stopped, and loaned him a fire extinguisher. (I don't know what law covers that kind of unexpected humanity. Maybe we can call it Smith's Law: No matter how dark and lonely things seem, a good Samaritan will always come along.)

Pratley's Prophecy applies not only to machines but also to the human body. Who has not heard a horror story of someone who went into the hospital for a hernia operation only to have his appendix removed by accident.

I had a close call myself a few years ago when I was in Good Samaritan Hospital for some blood and urine tests and was awakened at 4 o'clock in the morning by a nurse who snapped the lights on, looked at her chart, and said, "We're having surgery this morning, aren't we?"

My friend John D. Weaver came close to making medical history a few years ago in a Westside hospital when he went in for a simple prostate operation and found himself scheduled for a hysterectomy.

If this slight case of mistaken identity hadn't been straightened out in time the woman who had been identified as Weaver would have made it a double red-letter day for medical history by receiving prostate surgery.

I am such a believer in Pratley's Prophecy that before I take my car in, or before I call a plumber, roofer or repair man of any kind, and before I go to the hospital, I remember my favorite law:

"If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

Los Angeles Times Articles