A plaque remaining from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem.

Above, a 1934 plaque from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem. Discarded as trash in 2006.

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Entry from March 26, 2016
“You can’t win. You can’t break even. You can’t quit the game” (Ginsberg’s Theorem)

The Laws of Thermodynamics were translated into everyday English in Astounding Science Fiction in November 1953:

“You can’t win.” (The Law of Conservation of Energy.)
“You can’t even break even.” (Second Law of Thermodynamics.)


Astounding Science Fiction published three laws in December 1956:

1. You can’t win.
2. You can’t even break even.
3. Furthermore, you can’t get out of the game!


American Scientist cited these laws in 1964:

First law: You can’t win, you can only break even.
Second law: You can break even only at the absolute zero.
Third law: You cannot reach the absolute zero.


Three laws were cited in Business Week in 1970:

1. You can’t win.
2. You can’t break even.
3. You can’t even get out of the game.


The laws ere dubbed “Ginsberg’s Theorem” by at least 1974, but American poet Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997) has nothing to do with the laws. “Freeman’s Commentary on Ginsberg’s theorem” also has been cited in print since at least 1974 and describes capitalism, socialism and mysticism. The blog Freeman’s Commentary explained the origin of the term in 2006.


Wikipedia: Ginsberg’s theorem
Ginsberg’s theorem is a parody of the laws of thermodynamics in terms of a person playing a game. The quote is attributed to the poet Allen Ginsberg.

It is possible that the quote originates as a slight misstatement of the opening lines of “You Can’t Win,” by Charlie Smalls, as Smalls composed the song in 1974, earlier than any recorded attribution to Ginsberg.

Theorem
The “theorem” is given as a restatement of the first, second, and third laws of thermodynamics:

1. You can’t win. (restatement of first law of thermodynamics)
2. You can’t break even. (restatement of second law of thermodynamics)
3. You can’t even get out of the game. (restatement of third law of thermodynamics)

It is sometimes stated as a general adage without specific reference to the laws of thermodynamics.

Wikiquote: Thermodynamics
Thermodynamics is a branch of physics that studies the movement of energy and how energy instills movement. More precisely, it studies the effects of changes in temperature, pressure, and volume on physical systems at the macroscopic scale by analyzing the collective motion of their particles using statistics. 19th century physicists defined three Laws of thermodynamics to sum up the basic principles of the subject; in the 20th century, an unofficial “zeroth law” was added.
(...)
Zeroth: You must play the game.
First: You can’t win.
Second: You can’t break even.
Third: You can’t quit the game.
. A common scientific joke expressing the four laws, as stated by C. P. Snow. Quoted in Mahon, Tom (2011). Reconnecting.calm.

Wikipedia: You Can’t Win (song)
“You Can’t Win” is an R&B, pop and soul song performed by American recording artist Michael Jackson, who played Scarecrow in the 1978 musical film The Wiz, an urbanized retelling of L. Frank Baum’sThe Wonderful Wizard of Oz. The movie featured an entirely African American cast and was based on the 1975 Broadway musical The Wiz.
(...)
In 1982, part 2 of the song, in which Michael Jackson repeatedly sings “Can’t get outta the game”, was vocally overdubbed and retitled “Can’t Get Outta the Rain”; it became the B-side of the first single of his landmark album Thriller: “The Girl Is Mine”.

UNZ.org
Google Books
Astounding Science Fiction
Volume 51, Issues 4-52
November 1953
Pg. 8:
“You can’t win.” (The Law of Conservation of Energy.)

“You can’t even break even.” (Second Law of Thermodynamics.)

When you stop to think about it, that “You can’t win,” bears a strong resemblance to the old moral adage “You can’t get something for nothing.”

UNZ.org
Astounding Science Fiction
December 1956
Pg. 43:
1. You can’t win.
2. You can’t even break even.
3. Furthermore, you can’t get out of the game!

Google Books
Engineering Thermodynamics:
An Introductory Textbook

By J. Bb Jones and George A. Hawkins
New York, NY: Wiley
1963, ©1960
Pg. 263:
Someone else has suggested “You can’t win” and “You can’t even break even.” Do these appear to you to be apt paraphrases?

Google Books
American Scientist
Volume 52
1964
Pg. ?:
AN UNCONVENTIONAL FORMULATION OF THE LAWS OF THERMODYNAMICS
It has been reported that in a recent examination paper a student stated the laws of thermodynamics as follows:

First law: You can’t win, you can only break even.
Second law: You can break even only at the absolute zero.
Third law: You cannot reach the absolute zero.

Google Books
Direct Conversion of Energy
By William R. Corliss
U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, Division of Technical Information
1964
Pg. 8:
The first two laws of thermodynamics have been paraphrased as (1) You can’t win; (2) You can’t even break even.

UNZ.org
Google Books
Analog Science Fact, Science Fiction
Volume 72, Issue 4
April 1964
Pg. 188:
Thermodynamics
1st. You can’t win. (Conservation of Energy.)
2nd. You can’t even break even! (Law of Increasing Entropy)
3rd. Moreover, you can’t get out of the Game! (You can’t reach absolute zero.)

Google Books
Thermodynamics:
The Men behind the Laws; An Inaugural Lecture

By John Sydney Dugdale
Leeds: Leeds U.P.
1968
Pg. 2:
Here is another version (attributed to an American student):

I You can’t win, you can only break even.
II You can break even only at the absolute zero.
III You cannot reach absolute zero.

Google Books
Business Week
Issues 2122-2130
1970
Pg. 5:
... the Three Laws of Environmental Economics:

1. You can’t win.
2. You can’t break even.
3. You can’t even get out of the game.

Andy Oberta
Newport News, Va.

Google Books
Energy:
A Crisis in Power

By John P. Holdren and Philip Herrera
San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club
1971
Pg. 18:
Thus the laws of thermodynamics have sometimes been stated this way: the first law says you can’t win; the second law says you can’t break even and you can’t get out of the game.

26 March 1973, Detroit (MI) Free Press, “Closing Quote,” pg. 24, col. 1:
Our engineering students quote the three laws of thermodynamics which you should know: First, you can’t win. Second, you can’t break even. Third, you can’t get out of the game.
-- University of Michigan engineering dean.

8 April 1973, The News and Courier (Charleston, SC), “Looking Around” by Thomas R. Baxter, pg. 1-D, col. 6:
R. L. SEIDEN sent along the following, after reading my piece on the laws which rule all organizations:

“Thursday’s article mentioned the Constitution, Hammurabi’s Code and the laws of thermodynamics.

“Hammurabi’s Code? Completely unfamiliar. But the laws of thermodynamics—as an engineer, I think of three, perhaps different from yours. They are as follows:

“1. You can’t win.
“2. You can’t break even.
“3. You can’t get out of the game.”

15 November 1973, Billings (MT) Gazette, “Our biggest energy waste” by Ray Howard, pg. 6, col. 5:
According to the UOP scientists, there are two fundamental laws of thermodynamics which apply to energy conversions. The first law of the thermodynamics is: You can’t win. The second law of thermodynamics is: You can’t even break even.

Google Books
Travels in Computerland:
Or, Incompatabilities and Interfaces:
A Full and True Account of the Implementation of the London Stage Information Bank

By Ben Ross Schneider
Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company
1974
Pg. 218:
Entropy, we are told is what you get when the second law of thermodynamics has done its relentless work. It means, a physicist friend of mine tells me, that you can’t win, you can’t break even, and you can’t get out of the game.

19 October 1974, Afro-American (Baltimore, MD), “‘The Wiz’ mello soul and Ken Harper got it on!,” pg. 11, col. 5:
The attitude unique to this musical is further unravelled by “Ya Can’t Win:” “Ya get in way over your head...ya can’t break even and ya can’t get out of the game...ya drink a glass of wine and smoke your smoke.”

Google Books
The Coevolution Quarterly
Volumes 8-9
1975
Pg. 138:
Ginsberg’s Theorem
1) You can’t win.
2) You can’t break even.
3) You can’t even quit the game.

25 July 1977, Colorado Springs (CO) Gazette-Telegraph, pg. 1:
... Fischer sees the wisdom of Ginsberg’s Theorem, which states: 1. You can’t win, 2. You can’t break even, 3. You can’t quit the game.

Google News Archive
21 November 1977, Rome (GA) News-Tribune, “It’s the wrong law” by Jim Bishop, pg. 4, col. 2:
Long before Murphy, it was Dr. Lester Keiser, a psychiatrist with a sense of humor, who propounded the law of life in 13 words:

“1) You can’t win. 2) You can’t break even. 3) You can’t even quit the game.”

10 November 1978, Oakland (CA) Post, “On Location” by Vic Partipilo, pg. 4:
When the Scarecrow makes his first appearance in “The Wiz,” he is watching over a tiny garden planted with a few ears of corn on a garbage-heaped slum lot. Four crows frighten him into remaining on his perch, made out of a bent TV aerial, by singing. “You can’t win, you can’t break even and you can’t get out of the game.”

Google Books
Peter’s People
By Laurence J Peter
New York, NY: Tower
1979
Pg. 193:
GINSBERG’S THEOREM: 1. You can’t win. 2. You can’t break even. 3. You can’t even get out of the game.

Google News Archive
26 July 1979, Ocala (FL) Star-Banner, “Ginsberg’s Theorem Haunting Horsemen” by Bernie Dickman, pg. 2C, col. 3:
This is a story which illustrates the relative merits of GInsberg’s Theorem, a corollary of the famous Murphy’s Law.

In case you didn’t know Murphy’s Law, it’s simple. If anything can go wrong in a given situation, it probably will. Ginsberg went a little further. He said: a) you can’t win, b) you can’t break even, c) you can’t even quit the game.

Google Groups: net.sources.games
sunybcs’s fortune(6)
Col. G. L. Sicherman
2/28/85
(...)
Ginsberg’s Theorem:
1.  You can’t win.
2.  You can’t break even.
3.  You can’t even quit the game.

Freeman’s Commentary on Ginsberg’s theorem:

Every major philosophy that attempts to make life seem meaningful is based on the negation of one part of Ginsberg’s Theorem.  To wit:

1.  Capitalism is based on the assumption that you can win.
2.  Socialism is based on the assumption that you can break even.
3.  Mysticism is based on the assumption that you can quit the game.

Google Groups: rec.pyrotechnics
Mixing ammonia and chlorox—quoted from reference
Bill White
8/25/90
(...)
GINSBERG’S THEOREM:  |
1. You can’t win. 
2. You can’t break even. 
3. You can’t even quit the game. 

Google Groups: rec.humor
A jester’s tale…
Simos Hadjiyiannis
5/13/91
(...)
Get forgiveness now --
Ginsberg’s Theorem:
1.  You can’t win.
2.  You can’t break even.
3.  You can’t even quit the game.

Freeman’s Commentary on Ginsberg’s theorem:

Every major philosophy that attempts to make life seem meaningful is based on the negation of one part of Ginsberg’s Theorem.  To wit:

1.  Capitalism is based on the assumption that you can win.
2.  Socialism is based on the assumption that you can break even.
3.  Mysticism is based on the assumption that you can quit the game.

Google Groups: sci.chem
Getting close to absolute zero
Matthew J. Bernhardt
4/27/92
In article <18...@bach.udel.edu> (Brian E Flaherty) writes:
>Everyone has pretty much pummeled the WHYs of T=0, here’s a diversion:
>
> Ginsberg’s Laws of Thermodynamics:
>
> 1) You can’t win.
> 2) You can’t break even.
> 3) You can’t even quit.
>

Ah, but you’ve forgotten the most important part:

Freeman’s Commentary on Ginsberg’s theorem:

Every major philosophy that attempts to make life seem meaningful is based on the negation of one part of Ginsberg’s Theorem.  To wit:

1.  Capitalism is based on the assumption that you can win.
2.  Socialism is based on the assumption that you can break even.
3.  Mysticism is based on the assumption that you can quit the game.

Freeman’s Commentary
December 24, 2006
Freeman’s Commentary
Posted by hfreeman under Blogroll, computer history, murphology
(...)
Though I’m unsure of who wrote Ginsberg’s Theorem, I happen to know quite a bit about how Freeman’s Commentary came to be. In the mid 1970’s I was working at the Nasa Ames Research Center in Mountain View CA as what today would be called a Systems Administrator for the ILLIAC-IV project, one of the first few sites on the ARPAnet. Somewhere on the net I found a collection of “laws,” which included Murphy’s Law, Ginsberg’s Theorem, and many others.

Arthur Bloch, who I knew from UC Santa Cruz, included some of these laws, as well as many new ones, in his 1974 book, Murphy’s Law and Other Reasons Things Go Wrong (The original material from his book is present in many of the compilations on the Web.) Freeman’s Commentary first appeared in this book. As far as I can recall, it was something I said in a conversation with Arthur. Thirty years later, it seems like a good name for my blog.

Posted by Barry Popik
New York CitySports/Games • Saturday, March 26, 2016 • Permalink