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7 October 2004

The formula that proves that 'Sod's Law' really does strike at the worst possible time

BOFFINS have finally proven mathematically a rule that everyone knows is perfectly obvious each time their e-mail crashes on a deadline or the shower runs icily cold.

A panel of experts commissioned by British Gas - a psychologist, a mathematician and an economist - has discovered the statistical formula for predicting Sod's Law occurrences: ((U+C+I) x (10-S))/20 x A x 1/(1-sin(F/10)).

And they found the original Sod's Law - 'Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong' - is only half the story. They also found a new rule, after testing the formula on over 1,000 people's experiences - 'Things don't just go wrong, they do so at the most annoying moment'.

This explains why your e-mail will most likely crash as you try to send something important, chances are highest that you will spill a drink down your clothes before a date and it's a safe bet your heating will most often break down in a cold snap.

Previous studies have shown Sod's Law isn't a myth - toast will fall butter side down, odd socks do breed and string can tie itself into knots. Now the British Gas formula allows people to calculate the chances of Sod's Law striking - and try to beat it.

Five factors - urgency (U), complexity (C), importance (I), skill (S) and frequency (F) - have to be applied to a task or an event, and each scored between 0 and 9. A sixth, aggravation (A), was set at 0.7 by the boffins after their poll of 1,000 people.

Calculating ((U+C+I) x (10-S))/20 x A x 1/(1-sin(F/10)) enables you to score a Sod's Law probability on a scale of 0 to 8.6, with higher numbers making it more likely that bad luck is right around the corner.

Anne Morton, of British Gas said: "In our experts' tests, the mercilessness of Sod's Law emerged. Not only do things go wrong, they do so when they are most likely to drive their victims up the wall.

"For example, Sod's Law shows how cruel it can be when it comes to the shower turning cold just as you've shampooed. Men aren't bothered, and so the chances of it happening to them are low; women hate it and it happens far more to them."

Spilling something down yourself before a date and the boiler breaking down in a cold snap are both the most likely and most annoying events.

 Sod's Law Event Likelihood (Out of 10) Annoyance (Out of 10) 1 Spilling something down yourself before a date 8.5 7.4 2 Boiler breaks down in a cold snap 8.2 7.8 3 Rush hour is worse when you're already late 7.3 6.9 4 Email crashes as you send important document 7.0 5.4 5 Washing machine breaks down before holidays 6.7 7.2 6 Cooker packs up when you expect guests 6.4 7.0 7 Shower runs cold as you shampoo your hair 6.0 6.2 8 Doorbell/phone rings as you get in bath/shower 5.3 5.2 9 Someone you're gossiping about overhears you 4.6 4.7 10 Spare light-bulbs never match ones that fails 4.4 3.4

Dr David Lewis, the psychologist on the British Gas project, said: "The lesson from this is that, to cut the seemingly unbeatable Sod's Law Gremlins down to size you need to change one of the elements in the equation.

"So, if you haven't got the skill to do something important, leave it alone. If something is urgent or complex, find a simple way to do it. If something going wrong will particularly aggravate you, make certain you know how to do it"

"For example, you spill a drink on yourself before a date because, making the urgent and important decision of what to wear, you forget all you knew about getting a cup to your lips and throw tea down yourself. So concentrate harder on drinking.

"And while a boiler breakdown in winter, when urgency and your own lack of ability to fix it, is second on the Sod's Law list, a boiler breakdown in summer is less likely to be an emergency and so isn't on the list.

"When you're emailing an important document anxiety will make it more likely that you will hit one of those mysterious keyboard combinations that make everything vanish. Try not to let your computer know you're in a hurry."

And he added: "There is, of course, a Sod's Law factor to the equation. If you judge your ratings wrongly, you might become too optimistic - and calamity will strike."

Sod's Law is the English expression for US saying 'Murphy's Law', which was named after a US Air force boffin, Captain Edward Murphy, who in the late 1940s used his boss as a human guinea pig in a painful experiment that went embarrassingly wrong. The French call it 'La loi d'emmerdement maximum'.

The equation has seven steps to forecasting a potential Sod's Law moment, so you can work out which factors you need to change to avoid it:

1 - Rate the urgency, the importance and the complexity of the task on a scale of 1 to 9 and add these three figures together

2 - Rate from 1 to 9 how skilled you are at the task, then subtract this from 10

3 - Multiply your answers to step 1 and step 2 together and divide by 20

4 - Rate from 1 to 9 how frequently you perform the task and divide this by 10

5 - Take the sine of your answer to step 4 (you'll fine this as 'sin' on most calculators) and subtract this from 1

7 - Finally, multiply your answer to step 3 by 0.7, and then multiple this by your answer to step 6, and you have your Sods Law rating.

8 - The closer to 10 it is, the higher your risk of falling victim to Sods Law.

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