Reimagined and Revamped. Fighting the spread of nonsense often feels like a Sisyphean task. However, the joy is in making the information available, not the hope of conversion.

Draw Mohammed Day

I fully endorse the mockery of religion, especially larger religions that expect people who do not share their beliefs to pay attention to their silly rules. Disallowing people to draw historical figures, like Mohammed, is an idiotic rule. If you like the rule, don't draw him. However I will:

This is my rendition of mohammed with his ceremonial blade, just after he hacked off one of his wife's head after giving a sermon of how peaceful Islam is.

P.S. I am fully aware that my rendition of Mohammed looks like an Amish serial killer. I never said my artistic skills weren't outdone by a 3rd grader.

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Skepticism and the closed mind

Tons of people have written on this, but as this blog is really for me, I wanted to get these thoughts down. Further, the focus elsewhere has mostly been on how skepticism is, in fact a more open minded position than the woo flavor of the day. This video sums up that position perfectly, so I won't go into that here.

What I wanted to discuss is why people think that. Recently, I have been encountering a lot of this "Don't be so closed minded" attitude from people around me. When I examine my own speech, and try to put myself in the other persons shoes, I can see why they might think such a thing.

These aren't stupid people, and they aren't making money by selling alternative medicine, nor are they chiropractors, astrologers, or anything like that where they have a financial advantage for promoting a particular brand of pseudoscience. They honestly believe that Joe Mercola is a good source for health information, or that vaccines cause autism, or that doctors have one single modality for improving health (a pill).

They didn't get there through blind faith, when they read something crappy or dangerous like Natural News, they think they are doing research. How can they know differently? They didn't go to school for science, they haven't done a PhD where you necessarily have to drill down deep to get a fully understanding of a concept, they have never had a need to understand multiple perspectives of a concept (especially perspectives that you don't already agree with)in order to wean out what claims are supported by evidence and what are not.

These are tasks that skeptics tend to do all on their own, without guidance. But without that tendency shared by skeptics, or without some sort of training to do it, or without the desire to even listen to perspective that go against their preconceived notions, how can those people (and let's not fool ourselves, we are talking about the majority of people) know that doing some reading, or listening to someone who looks like a doctor, or listening to a trusted friend, isn't the same thing as weaning out truth?

So when a person has a knowledgebase, that includes something like "there is energy in your body that can be manipulated by needles", and a skeptic says "that's not true", it's not really a surprise that they would call the skeptic closed minded. Further, the person, for the most part, will not know how many blog posts, how many journal articles, how many test results, and how much research the skeptic has gone through to actually get to the position he or she holds. Without that knowledge of how the skeptic has acquired their disdain for the woo, the skeptic does in fact just seem closed minded.

For the most part, I don't think skeptics enjoy dissecting claims without having the outlet to share. That is why some of us have blogs, some do podcasts, some simply get into conversations on topics. However, if we really want to teach, if we really want to make any sort of stride into the mind of a person who is wasting money or harming themselves with pseudoscience, it is important to get your thoughts compiled into the realm of their preconceived notions.

For example, when someone talks to me about a soul, I often ask what color it is. I haven't said, "souls don't exist". When they tell me its invisible, I ask the next question about weight, then the next about size, then location, etc etc. I'll sometimes ask about how it works with twins, or miscarriages. For the most part, I can enter into a conversation on an equal plane as the woo, and not appear closed minded. These sorts of questions don't say "you are wrong", they say, "tell me more about it".

That isn't to say I can bring people to the light each time I try. Hey, I can't even be sure it has ever turned someone totally off of woo. But it sure is better than having the conversation ending with "You are being closed minded".

From my experience, if someone tells you that you are being closed minded, you are probably coming off that way. Step back, ask some questions based on your knowledge, or delineate how you came to your conclusions.

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Pokeberry? I hardly know him!

Well that was my attempt at a pun.

I havent written for a while, real life has gotten in the way, kids, houses, work. On the bright side, we we will probably have our first industrial product shipped this year. On the bad side, less blogging, less time to point the skeptical eye at events and announcements. And less time to bring out the first update for Skeptic's Bingo. Sad.

So today we are talking about Pokeberries! Woohoo! Did you know that the dark dye that can be extracted from these berries can improve solar cells output by 2x? Did you know the pokeberries are from a weed that grows almost everywhere in the world and therefore are very cheap? Did you know that this method could " double the energy production of today’s flat cells at a fraction of the cost"? Does this sound familiar? Did you know that universities and companies like to hype up technologies long before they have even begun to be proven out?

If you were to read the many many websites that parroted the press release from Wake Forest, you would think a major breakthrough has occurred!

Perhaps it has, but none of the available information delineates this. Lets take a closer look. First the background.

The actual idea is as follows: There is a solar cell technology that is a bit different than what is commonly used. Most solar panels are made from silicon slices that have been doped in a way that lets them convert incident light into electrons. Alternatively, but similarly, some solar cells are made on a flexible substrate by laying down a thin film of material that can perform the same function. Other proposals for solar cells are wide and varied. One common theme is to create a three dimensional surface so that more light get absorbed.

So this new technology incorporates these same ideas, flexible substrate, larger surface area for incident light, and other features, but the places that actually trap the light are made from a polymer. I don't see a reason why this wouldn't work. Other incarnations of the same idea provide some improvement.

What are the key claims?

  • This solar cell is cheaper than other technologies, so much cheaper that is enables deployment in scenarios unavailable to normal solar cells.
  • This solar cell produces 2x the power than a "normal" solar cell.
  • This solar cell can collect more light at oblique angles than a "normal" solar cell.

I quoted "normal" because its hard to say what is normal these days. On houses, the most common type is the silicon based flat panels. But solar farms can use other technologies, like focused light with stirling engines, or even photovoltaics that are2x to 4x more efficient than a residential solar cell (these are known as full spectrum cells and are far more expensive, but you need less becuase you can concentrate the light).

So, the first question is, could these really be cheap enough to provide a boon to the solar industry? Well, when you have a panel installed, how much of the cost is associated with the cell and how much for the rest of the installation? Well let's do an example.

A typical solar installation is around 2000 watts. That means that you put enough panels up to make 2000 watts on on average on sunny days. During the day, you may get more than this depending on the sun, sky and time of year. But often you get less, like when its cloudy or night time. Most families don't use a full 2000 watts all the time, so the extra gets sold to the power company (or charges batteries), and then when power is needed but there is no sun, the power is returned from the power company.

Prices for silicon solar cells is as low as $1.75/watt. But when placed into modules for a large installation, when multiple cells are strung together and modules (generally 125 watts each) are electrically tied together, the price increases to about $4.23/watt. Then, in order to send the extra power to the power company you need an inverter which costs about $0.72/watt (or charge batteries which cost about 20 cents per watt, but you will require a charge controller also for extra cost).

So, then you have to get it installed which adds about 100% of the panel costs, so the cost of an installation is about $9.00/watt. The point of throwing all these numbers out there is that, even if the cost of the solar cell dropped to $0.00 the cost of an installation would still be quite expensive. The cells are a big part of the cost, but not even close to a majority of the cost.

The next claim is that it can create 2x the power of a normal cell. Can it? Well let's go to the source. The technology (which interestingly, does not seem to have US patent protection), was licensed to Fibercell inc (who really should buy a mac and use iweb to get just a basically decent website made). They have only one single performance graph on their website and it is shown to the right. This graph shows cumulative power over time (otherwise known as energy). It's true, there are times during the day where the slope of the Fibercell curve is 2x that of a normal silicon cell. But that hardly matters, what is important is how much energy it supplies over the whole day. If the 2x power could be sustained, then it would end up with 2x the energy over the whole day. Clearly this is not the case. The very graph they present to show how good it is, shows that in fact, it performs exactly as well as conventional solar cells.

One final question on that graph, for which I do not have an answer, why is the power maximized between 10:00AM and noon? Why does the power almost go to zero shortly after noon, and provide no extra energy after 3:00 PM?

The final claim is that this technology works better when the sun is at oblique angles. Well, the graph above shows that may be true at some angles and not other, but the problem is that it doesn't matter that much if it performs slightly better at oblique angles. There is something called the cosine problem for solar cells. If the sun hits the panel at an angle, there is less overall light on it than if it hits it straight on. It doesn't matter how cool the panel is, what cool features are on the panel, it simply can not get away from the fact that there is less light on the panel itself when the sun shines light on to the panel at an angle. The best/cheapest solution for this problem is to have a tracker, but in general people don't like these on their houses, plus it adds cost, but it can double the energy output from a panel. So, based on their own data and basic fundamental issues with non-tracking panels, this claim seems sketchy.

It's good to keep an open mind on this, perhaps this device can reduce the cost of panels by some amount, perhaps, as they show to some small degree, the performance is better than a normal solar cell. But there doesn't seem to be any actual data out there to support these claims in a way that is different than any other new solar technology.

Look for it for any new solar technology... If they hit these three things, then it is being promoted like every other new solar technology:

  • 1) <$1/watt
  • 2) reel-to-reel manufacturing
  • 3) 2x-4x better than "normal" solar cells

Here is an example, can you see any relevant difference in the boasts between the Fibercell technology and say, this one? Solar technology is improving on many front. There has not been a breakthrough that will lead to the benefits that this PR extolls. There probably never will be because the costs of a solar implementation is multifaceted, its simply not just the cost of the cell itself.

But, where are the pokeberries?

Funny how most of the articles about this technology focuses on the pokeberry angle. I guess it makes good news. What do the pokeberries do? They used a dye from pokeberries that gets spread on top of the cells. It promotes the absorption of light, like it could do for any solar cell. Really, that's it. Silly, huh?

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