National Youth Leadership Forum (Envision Experience and Envision EMI) – Pricey Summer Camps of Questionable Quality?

My son was “nominated” by his 3rd-grade science teacher for what both the teacher and we thought might be a nice opportunity – a week-long summer camp that focused on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math). The camp is put on by the “National Youth Leadership Forum” (or NYLF) and was called “Pathways to Stem.” The teacher let us know that they had “nominated” our son – and only our son because of his interest in the natural sciences – and then, a few weeks later, we received this really opulent package of information about the program (see scan below).

When we opened the package, we were simultaneously impressed and disturbed by the contents. There were lots of gold seals and what looked like official language and endorsements.

shiny gold seal
Shiny gold seal!

But then we saw the price for the camp and balked!

summer camp price scan
The price… and a payment plan? Why would a summer camp need a payment plan?

Yep, you’re reading that correctly: $2,195!

For a week-long camp?!?

Our son has been doing summer camps for a long time since both of us work. The most expensive summer camp he has done has cost just over $200 – for a full week (most are around ~$150 per week). Granted, that didn’t include room and board, but the tuition only option for this summer camp was still almost $1,700, which is over 8 times as much as we had ever paid for another camp.

I hate to admit that we actually spent a little time considering this as a possibility for our son as we should have immediately been more skeptical. As we thought about it, we considered that college admissions are competitive and wondered if this might be beneficial. But we both quickly realized that, as college professors, we wouldn’t care if a student had spent a week at some summer camp unless that camp had led them to do original research and publish a paper or create some world-altering invention. That… That would be an impressive camp. But what was being proposed for this camp wasn’t all that compelling (see the sample schedule in the PDF below).

Even so, as busy professionals, we didn’t really have time to look into this right away, so we kind of just sat on it for about two months until I had a free day one weekend to look into a little more. I’m glad I did.

As it turns out, the National Youth Leadership Forum (NYLF) is part of a collection of camps and programs run by a for-profit company called Envision, EMI. The link we’d been giving in all of our paperwork (see the scans below) was to, but that redirects straight to the main Envision website: That was a little weird.

As I googled around, I found more and more information. Yelp actually provided some good starting places based on the reviews. From there, I ended up reading this very good (and amazingly balanced yet subtly critical) article in the New York Times. That article notes that there is no empirical evidence that such summer camps do anything for: (1) improving leadership or other skills in young people (they are too short and no one has tested their efficacy), or (2) improve the odds of young people getting into competitive colleges.

The Yelp reviews also pointed me to the Wikipedia article on the company, which has a very helpful section on “criticisms” of Envision, EMI. Not surprisingly, one of the main criticisms is that the company employs slick, high-pressure marketing techniques, like requesting that parents respond within 24 hours to reserve their child’s spot. Why do I have to respond in 24 hours?

card insert that suggests a need for urgency
This included card makes it seem like there is a reason to make a quick decision on this camp. There isn’t.

The other Wikipedia criticisms focus on how the company doesn’t deliver on its promises of an amazing educational experience.

The Yelp reviews had largely convinced me that this wasn’t the opportunity it claimed to be. The New York Times article sealed the deal. The Wikipedia section was just icing on the cake. Our son won’t be attending the National Youth Leadership Forum: Pathways to Stem summer camp. I’d much rather take the $2,195 and buy him a 3D printer (~$1,000 and $1,000 worth of supplies) and let him design and print 3D objects all summer long. That is a much better use of our funds.

Below is a scan of all the materials sent, from the various letters to the teacher, to us, and to our son, along with the promotional and informational materials and even some scans of the envelope (the seal on which is shown above):

NOTE: Throughout this blog post, I have not used the words “scam” or “fraud” or anything like that to describe the company or the camp. That is intentional. Technically, the company is delivering “a camp experience.” That the experience is less impressive than what the company seems to suggest does not mean this is a “scam” or a “fraud.” I have been very careful with my word choices here so as to avoid a lawsuit or libel claims. I think it is safe to say that this company offers summer camps that are WAY, WAY, WAY more expensive than almost every other summer camp we have considered for our son (the one exception is astronaut camp in Birmingham, Alabama, which involves some pretty hands-on training and is still just $1,000). For instance, here is a list of available summer camps (for summer 2017) in our area. None of them come anywhere close to the cost of Envision, EMI’s camps. Again, that does not mean Envision Experience, Envision, EMI, or the National Youth Leadership Forum are a “scam.” I think it would be more accurate to describe what Envision Experience offers as very expensive, possibly under-delivering camp experiences for people who really want their kids to succeed but may not realize that there is no scientific evidence these camp experiences will help their kids succeed.


LibreOffice Calc – splitting contents of cells into multiple columns (e.g., splitting commas)

I periodically have to take a column of text in LibreOffice calc that has names like this “Lastname, Firstname” and split them into two columns. I figure it out every time, but then I forget how I did. So, here’s a quick tutorial on how this is done.

Open your spreadsheet with the cells that need to be split, like this:

Select the column that you want to split:

Then go up to Data -> Text to Columns:

You’ll get the following window:

This window gives you several options for splitting the cells, using commas, spaces, semicolons, tabs, other, etc. I selected just “Tab” and “Comma” but could also select “Space” to get rid of the extra space. However, I’m going to leave the extra space and show you one more function that can be useful in more complex situations. Once you’re done, hit “OK” and you’ll see your single columns split into two:

If you want to get rid of the extra space, there is a LibreOffice Calc function for that. Click in cell C1 and then go up to Insert -> Function. You’ll see this window:

The function you want is in the Text Category (use the dropdown menu) and is called TRIM. Simple TRIM the text in B1 and it will get rid of the extra spaces:

When you’re done with your function, select “OK” and you’ve got your spaces removed. Drag that function down and it will remove all of the spaces:

You can then copy the new column without the spaces and do a “Paste Special” into the old column, overwriting the text with the spaces. Just make sure you turn off the “Formulas” when you do the “Paste Special” and you’ll get just the new text:

Delete the column with formulas and you’re good to go:


NY-Mount Marcy

The three of us at the summit marker just below the actual summit.

Summit Date

August 12, 2017 (around 11:00 am)


Ryan Cragun, Mark Woolley, Tom Triplett

Trip Report

In my big swing across the US that allowed me to complete most of the highpoints in the Northeast in 2013, I didn’t manage to fit in Mount Marcy. It’s a solid day hike, and I just didn’t have the time. I ended up arranging a trip to Lake Placid, NY specifically to hike Mount Marcy, with my two hiking buddies.

We all flew into Newark on Friday, August 11th, picked up a rental car, then headed to Lake Placid, stopping in Albany for dinner and food to take up on our hike the next day. We arrived kind of late (close to 11:00 pm) and planned an early start the next morning (on the mountain at 7:00) in order to hopefully avoid the impending rain storm that was forecast for the next day.

The trip reports we read about the hike varied quite a bit. Some suggested it was really challenging, with a lot of uphill and rugged terrain. Others suggested it wasn’t that challenging and was a pleasant hike. We also got variable times and distances for the hike. Some trip reports suggested it would take as short as 4 hours while others suggested as many as 15 (that’s a pretty big range). Mileage estimates were also varied, though with a smaller range, hovering between 12 and 17 miles. Because of all the varied estimates, we planned for a 10 to 12 hour, 17-mile hike, just to be safe. As it turns out, using my GPS enabled watch, I now have much more accurate information on the hike.

We stayed at a B&B in Lake Placid, got up at 6:00 am, and drove straight to the Adirondack Loj. There is a parking fee there ($5.00), and by the time we arrived just before 7:00 am, the lot was getting pretty full. This is obviously a popular destination for hikers. We got our boots and gear on, did some stretching (a requirement once you hit 40), signed the register, and hit the trail.

We made good time for the first three miles or so, covering them in about an hour. The first three miles of the trail are fairly level and it is mostly a well-maintained dirt trail, with a few roots, rocks, and other small objects in the way. But around the 3-mile mark, there was a noticeable shift in the trail and terrain. Not only was there substantially more uphill terrain, but it became rocky to the point that at times you are literally boulder hopping.

Me on a nice patch of the more rugged terrain.
Me on a nice patch of the more rugged terrain.

I’ve climbed a lot of mountains and was impressed with how rugged this trail got. This is not a trail you’d want to attempt in light tennis shoes (unless you’re an experienced trail runner); sturdy boots are a very good idea for this hike, ideally with good ankle support. We didn’t make as good of time on the remaining 4 miles to the summit but still did fairly well.

We arrived at the summit at just under 4 hours. When we arrived, the summit was completely enshrouded with clouds. We had no view whatsoever. We spent about 40 minutes on the summit, eating a little food and chatting with the forest ranger on the top who was reminding people to avoid the vegetation, which they are trying to get to grow back.

The three of us at the summit marker just below the actual summit.
The three of us at the summit marker just below the actual summit.

Alas, about 20 minutes after we dropped off the summit, the clouds broke and we finally had some nice views. It was at this point I took a photosphere:

We got better photos at this point, but we were still worried about the impending rain storm. The top of the mountain is largely exposed rock that wouldn’t be all that fun to ascend or descend in the rain. As a result, we opted not to return to the summit and instead to continue our descent. We stopped a few times on the way down to take advantage of some of the toilets that are along the trail and took a quick detour to the waterfall that is also fairly close to the trail. With our detours and stops, we returned to the parking lot in just under 8 hours. The distance on my watch indicated exactly 15 miles. So, there you have it – it is a 15-mile hike. Our average moving pace was 26 minutes per mile. If you know how quickly you can move on fairly rugged terrain, you should be able to estimate how long the hike will take you. We were passed by a couple who were clearly trail runners. They were the only ones moving more quickly than we were and they probably did the entire hike in 6 1/2 hours. I can see how this hike would easily take 12 hours if you’re not an avid hiker and in good shape. It is genuinely rugged terrain, particularly after the 3-mile mark, and you should be prepared for it.

Obviously, if you can, try to go on a nice day. The views from the top are supposed to be quite nice. But even hiking in cloudy conditions, the terrain was pretty. We passed through multiple types of forest – pine and maple – and really enjoyed ourselves.



R (Linux) – creating a wordcloud from PDF

On my professional website, I use wordclouds from the text of my publications as the featured images for the posts where I share the publications. I have used a website to generate those wordclouds for quite a while, but I’m trying to learn how to use the R statistical environment and knew that R can generate wordclouds. So, I thought I’d give it a try.

Here are the steps to generating a wordcloud from the text of a PDF using R.

First, in R, install the following four packages: “tm”, “SnowballC”, “wordcloud”, and “readtext”. This is done by typing the following into the R terminal:


Next, you need to load those packages into the R environment. This is done by typing the following in the R terminal:


Before we begin creating the wordcloud, we have to get the text out of the PDF file. To do this, first find out where your “working directory” is. The working directory is where the R environment will be looking for and storing files as it runs. To determine your “working directory,” use the following function:


There are no arguments for this function. It will simply return where the R environment is currently looking for and storing files.

You’ll need to put the PDF from which you want to extract data into your working directory or change your working directory to the location of your PDF (technically, you could just include the path, but putting it in your working directory is easier). To change the working directory, use the “setwd()” function. Like this:


Once you have your PDF in your working directory, you can use the readtext package to extract the text and put it into a list. You can do that using the following command:

wordbase <- readtext(“paper.pdf”)

“wordbase” is a variable I’m creating to hold the text from the PDF. “readtext” is the package that extracts the text from the PDF. The readtext package is robust enough to be able to extract text from numerous documents (see here) and is even able to determine what kind of document it is from the file extension; in this case, it recognize that it’s a PDF.

The list can now be converted into a corpus, which is a vector (see here for the different data types in R). To do this, we use the following function:

corp <- Corpus(VectorSource(wordbase))

In essence, we’re creating a new variable, “corp,” by using the Corpus function that calls the VectorSource function and applies it to the list of words in the variable “wordbase.”

We’re close to having the words ready to create the wordcloud, but it’s a good idea to clean up the corpus with several commands from the “tm” package. First, we want to make sure the corpus is a plain text:

corp <- tm_map(corp, PlainTextDocument)

Next, since we don’t want any of the punctuation included in the wordcloud, we remove the punctuation with this function from “tm”:

corp <- tm_map(corp, removePunctuation)

For my wordclouds, I don’t want numbers included. So, use this function to remove the numbers from the corpus:

corp <- tm_map(corp, removeNumbers)

Finally, I’m not interested in words like “the” or “a”, so I removed all of those words using this function:

corp <- tm_map(corp, removeWords, stopwords(‘english’))

At this point, you’re ready to generate the wordcloud. What follows is a wordcloud command, but it will generate the wordcloud in a window and you’ll then have to do a screen capture to turn the wordcloud into an image. Even so, here is the basic command:

wordcloud(corp, max.words = 100, random.order = FALSE)

To explain the command, “wordcloud” is the package and function. “corp” is the corpus containing all the words. The other components of the command are parameters that can, of course, be adjusted. “max.words” can be increased or decreased to reflect the number of words you want to include in your wordcloud. “random.order” should be set to FALSE if you want the more frequently occurring words to be in the center with the less frequently occurring words surrounding them. If you set that parameter to TRUE, the words will be in random order, like this:

There are additional parameters that can be added to the wordcloud command, including a scale parameter (scale) that adjusts the relative sizes of the more and less frequently occurring words, a minimum frequency parameter (min.freq) that will limit the plotted words to only those that occur a certain number of times, a parameter for what proportion of words should be rotated 90 degrees (rot.per). Other parameters are detailed in the wordcloud documentation here.

One of the more important parameters that can be added is color (colors). By default, wordclouds are black letters on a white background. If you want the word color to vary with the frequency, you need to create a variable that details to the wordcloud function how many colors you want and from what color palette. A number of color palettes are pre-defined in R (see here). Here’s a sample command to create a color variable that can be used with the wordcloud package:

color <- brewer.pal(8,”Spectral”)

The parameters in the parentheses indicate first, the number of colors desired (8 in the example above), and second, the palette title from the list noted above. Generating the wordcloud with the color palette applied involves adding one more variable to the command:

wordcloud(corp, max.words = 100, min.freq=15, random.order = FALSE, colors = color, scale=c(8, .3))

Finally, if you want to output the wordcloud as an image file, you can adjust the command to generate the wordcloud as, for instance, a PNG file. First, tell R to create the PNG file:

png(“wordcloud.png”, width=1280,height=800)

The text in quotes is the name of the PNG file to be created. The other two commands indicate the size of the PNG. Then create the wordcloud with the parameters you want:

wordcloud(corp, max.words = 100, random.order = FALSE, colors = color, scale=c(8, .3))

And, finally, pass the wordcloud just created on to the PNG file with this function:

If all goes according to plan, you will have created a PNG file with a wordcloud of your cleaned up corpus of text:



Source Information:

Reading PDF files into R for text mining

Building Wordclouds in R

Word cloud in R

R (Linux) – basic installation

To install the R programming environment on Linux is pretty straightforward, but it does require a little bit of know how in order to find the correct packages. As is typically the case with Linux, there are multiple ways to get things done. I like to use Synaptic for installing and removing software, but you can also use the software manager that comes with your Linux distribution (in Linux Mint it’s called Software Manager) or the command line (in KDE based distributions, Konsole).

For the most up-to-date installation of R, it’s actually best to install directly from the R repository. A list of Linux repositories for the R environment is located here. In order to install from the repository, you need to update your list of repositories in Synaptic. To access your repository list in Synaptic, click on Settings -> Repositories.

In the new Software Sources window, click on “Additional repositories” and you’ll get this window:

Click on Add a new repository. You’ll get this window:

The exact information you put into that window will vary based on which mirror you chose. Here is what I added in mine:

deb xenial/

In order to ensure you have the right files and to follow best security practices, you should install the signing key as well. Directions for installing the signing key are found here, but it can be done with a simple command from a terminal:

sudo apt-key adv –keyserver –recv-keys E084DAB9

Once you have done all of that, you can install R from Synaptic.

First, open Synaptic, which will require your password. You’ll get the basic Synaptic Package Manager window:

Next, in the search box, search for “r-base”. Right-click it and select “Mark for installation” to install “r-base”:

In the above screenshot, I have already installed r-base, so the option “Mark for installation” is greyed out. But, obviously, that’s what I already did. When you select this, Synaptic will automatically select all the other necessary packages (there are about 10 to 15 additional packages necessary for R to run: r-cran-class, r-cran-lattice, r-cran-spatial, r-cran-survival, r-cran-codetools, r-cran-nnet, r-cran-mass, r-cran-boot, r-cran-nlme, r-cran-rpart, r-cran-cluster, r-cran-kernsmooth, r-cran-foreign, r-cran-mgcv, r-cran-matrix, r-recommended, r-base-core).

If you plan on installing any other R packages, it’s not a bad idea to also install “r-base-dev,” as it helps fill in dependencies for other packages.

Once you’ve selected r-base, hit Apply in Synaptic and all the software will be installed.

You now have the base software for R installed.

To open the R environment in a terminal, launch a terminal and simply type “R” at the prompt, like this:

Here’s where things can get a little complicated. To do different things in R requires various libraries or packages. Some of these can be installed using the R terminal while others need to be installed from your Linux distribution’s repositories. To install a library or package using the R terminal, you use the following command once you have opened the R environment:


The first time you run this, the R environment will ask you to select a mirror.

Choose one close to your location. R will then install the package, assuming you type everything correctly.


Before you start trying to install additional R packages, it’s a very good idea to install the following Linux packages:

r-base-dev build-essential

If you run into an error message, there are several possibilities. First, check to make sure you typed everything correctly. R is not forgiving on spelling mistakes. Second, if the error is something like:

installation of package ‘PACKAGENAME’ had non-zero exit status


dependency ‘PACKAGENAME’ is not available

There is a good chance that you need to install a package or library using Synaptic (or from a terminal using apt). For instance, to install the “tm” package, there is an unsatisfied dependency (meaning, a library or package that needs to be installed but cannot be installed using the R installer). The dependency is the ‘slam’ package. This can be installed using Synaptic (or, from a terminal, using the command “sudo apt-get install r-cran-slam”). Once you’ve installed the dependency, try re-installing the package and the error messages should go away.



I also have found that I like RStudio as an IDE for working with R. It’s a little bit friendlier to use than a straight command line interface as it keeps track of variables and loaded libraries. The personal version for your desktop can be downloaded here.

And a note on RStudio on Linux. I regularly get an offset from the cursor location and where the cursor actually is in the command window. It turns out this is a font issue. If you go up to Tools -> Global Options -> Appearance and change the font to anything else, this problem will go away.