Wednesday, 2 March 2016


The Turbo-Encabulator
One of my favourite Facebook sites is The Sceptics Guide to the Universe and I get regular posts from them on my timeline. A few days ago they sent me a wonderful tale about the Turbo-Encabulator.

The Turbo-Encabulator was the brainchild of a graduate student called John Hellins Quick who, in 1944 managed to get a paper published in the British Institution of Electrical Engineers Student's Quarterly Journal. With his paper entitled "the Turbo-Encabulator in Industry", a legend of mechanical engineering was born.

I first heard about it in the mid 1960s and actually learned how to recite the paper in full, which probably tells you more about me than you really want to know.

The Turbo-Encabulator is of course a glorious piece of nonsense and a perfect example of what would later come to be known as "technobabble". What he described is a fantastical device, containing a number of impossible components performing incomprehensible functions by means of scientific laws that do not exist.

It really became famous when it was reproduced by Time magazine in 1946. Most people then were in on the joke, several of them adding other suggestions and advice on making it more efficient.

It then largely disappeared from pubic notice until 1962 which is probably when I first came across it. Since then, it has appeared several times and the example which you can watch below was made as an April Fools joke in 2013 by the otherwise respectable SciShow website.

Back in the old days, anyone reading anything of a scientific persuasion usually was of the scientific persuasion and as such, was unlikely to be fooled by gobbledygook. Sadly, as time has gone on, this is no longer the case and with the invention of the internet and other popular means of communication it's now possible to reach a much wider audience and therefore, makes them easier to fool.

This use of gobbledygook technobabble does have a long history and it brought to mind an incident in my childhood that went like this.

We were on a family holiday, it was the early 1960s and we were staying in a hotel/guesthouse in Herne Bay. In the evenings, we would all sit in the guest lounge and do whatever, (to be honest, I can't remember, so it can't have been very exciting).

This was the time when all the early space missions were taking place and me, as a crazed science kid, thought this was a fantastic time to be alive. Imagine my indignation then when, while waxing lyrical to whoever would listen, about the latest space mission, an elderly lady guest announced that they should stop sending up all those rockets because it was "upsetting the cyclone of the Earth".

Now this old biddy had probably been born in the 1880s so would not be fully up to speed when it came to space technology but what annoyed me most was her use of meaningless terminology to describe what she perceived to be some sort of a threat to her wellbeing.

The expression "cyclone of the Earth" of course, doesn't mean anything, what you have is a consequence of one of the peculiarities of the English language where a sentence may be grammatically correct but the words are semantically confused to the point where the sentence itself becomes gibberish. This is also sometimes called "word salad", more of which later.

You can see how she arrived at it though. A cyclone rotates, the Earth rotates and she is using the word "cyclone" in the wrong context. What she meant was that she though that rocket launches were affecting the rotation of the Earth, they don't of course, but that was what she meant.

There are some who use word salad intentionally in order to confuse and I will talk about some of them.

Back to word salad.

Historically, the term was used in a psychiatric context and describes symptoms of conditions such as dementia and schizophrenia where a sufferer would try to communicate using words in a random or confused manner.

It can also be used deliberately as a method of implying a competence in a subject without the need for any actual understanding.

Consider the genre of science fiction. Science fiction writers (usually anyway) have some understanding of the scientific principals they are describing so, even when using impossible concepts such as faster than light or time travel, they can use scientific terms in their proper context. 

Science fiction film or TV script writers on the other hand often have no such background knowledge, they are just script writers and might just as well be writing a cowboy or detective story. These people rely on the concept of the word salad to get them through an event in the plot where something is supposed to be happening but they don't know how to place it in the story.

Word salad was used regularly in the old TV series of Star Trek. 

Problem: the Enterprise is in a dangerous situation and should be escaping from whatever the threat is but, in order to develop the plot, it has to stay right where it is. How do you arrange this without the story looking clumsy?

Solution: Geordi calls up to the Captain and says, "I'm going to have to take the warp engines off line so I can recalibrate the dilithium matrix that was damaged by the gravimetric distortions".

Sounds good, doesn't it? But it's complete gibberish, it doesn't mean anything at all. 

Another area where word salad rules is in the world of corporate jargon. Here, words or phrases which mean one thing in plain English are used to describe something in an entirely different context. It's possible to construct entire paragraphs of corporate jargon that can mean just whatever you want them to mean according to the situation. There are online corporate bullshit generators where you can construct your own corporate statement from a choice of words or, if you're feeling lazy, it will even do it for you. Here is a good example of one.

If you are one of the unfortunate individuals who have to sit in at meetings which are conducted in corporate bullshit, this should lighten your day a bit. Play the Bullshit Bingo.

Where word salad reigns supreme however is in the world of complimentary and alternative medicine (CAM). It's deliberate use here is to confuse the public into believing absolutely anything at all, usually with the intention of parting them from their money.

There are several genuine masters of the art and I will talk about a couple of them here.

For my first example, step forward Deepak Chopra. Wikipedia describes him as "an Indian American author and public speaker. He is an alternative medicine advocate and promoter of popular forms of spirituality".

I would describe him more as a promoter of himself and living proof of the adage that a fool and his money are soon parted. His business, selling mumbo-jumbo remedies, oils, books and videos, is said to gross around $20 million a year and he has a personal fortune said to be around $80 million. He has more uses for the word "quantum" than you could shake a homeopathic stick at. CAM word salad should always find a place for the word "quantum". He also famously fell out with Professor Brian Cox.

Typical Deepak Chopra word salad quotes include

"good luck is opportunity meeting preparedness." and

“Never forget that you are not in the world; the world is in you. When anything happens to you, take the experience inward. Creation is set up to bring you constant hints and clues about your role as co-creator. Your soul is metabolizing experience as surely as your body is metabolizing food”

He goes on like that all the time.

You can also get an online new age bullshit generator based on Deepak Chopra quotes. You can have lots of fun with your friends and family by getting them to try to tell the difference between the real and the computer generated ones. It's also a handy tool if you are thinking of starting your own new age blog.

For my second example, step forward David Avocado Wolfe. For those of you who haven't heard of him, count yourself lucky. If you have a Facebook account, you almost certainly will have heard of him because it is a good day when you don't get one of his sickly platitudes posted on your timeline by a friend who has shared one of his posts. I always have unkind things to say to people who do this but they still keep on coming.

In the piece below, you can hear David Wolfe describing chocolate as being an octave of the Sun.

You can't have an octave of the Sun any more than you can have a floor space of cheese; the term is meaningless. So how does he get away with it?

The same as my old lady. She thought cyclone and rotation were the same thing. Okay, in a sense, they are but she was still mixing metaphors. In this case David Wolfe is throwing in the word "octave".

Well, an octave is something to do with music, right? Music is notes that are vibrations of the air. We already know about New Agy types and vibrations and although they should ideally be quantum vibrations, ordinary ones will do at a pinch. So, chocolate is a vibration of the Sun.

No, chocolate is not a vibration of the Sun. Even if you allow for the misinterpretation of the word octave, it still doesn't work. Strictly speaking though, what David Wolfe is actually saying is that chocolate is an interval between one musical pitch and another with half or double it's frequency.

Doesn't exactly roll off the tongue.

Anyway, enjoy this piece.

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