Disingenuous Christian Proselytizing

I get a lot of emails. I try to answer all of my emails but am increasingly realizing that some of it may not be worthy of a response. For instance, a few days ago I received an email from someone claiming to have listened to a podcast I did. Here’s what he wrote:

Hi Ryan

I hope I’m not taking too much of a liberty by contacting you on this address.

I just watched your excellent four years old interview with TheThinkingAtheist which explains why a lot of people (including me) hate religion.

However, it prompts me to ask you whether or not you believe that Jesus lived two thousand years ago as described in the New Testament scriptures?

Best regards

Chris Needs

I’m not above a little praise. This individual said that my interview was excellent. Since the question seemed reasonable, I responded:

Hi Chris,

Glad you enjoyed the interview.

I tend to rely on experts whenever and wherever I can. On this issue, I side with Bart Ehrman, a Biblical Studies scholar, who has far more knowledge than I do on the topic. He suggests that there was a Jewish reformer named Jesus who lived during the 1st century C.E. who had a following. He didn’t do most of what is claimed in the New Testament and died a failed messiah. But there is sufficient extra-biblical evidence to suggest he lived; it is likely true that he did. The book I would recommend on this topic is: Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth by Bart D. Ehrman. Ehrman presents the evidence and arguments for this topic in a clear and readable way. So, the short answer is, yes, I believe there was a Jewish reformer named Jesus roughly 2,000 years ago. Was he a savior god or messiah? No. Just a failed revolutionary who was killed by the Romans.



I was trying to be helpful and sincere. Then I got this email:

Hi Ryan

I so appreciated your quick response that I’m feeling guilty about taking so long with mine.

I’ve been carrying such a burden for you and I’ve been asking for ways to reconnect you spiritually.

Please watch this video [NOTE: I’m not providing the link, but it’s to a Christian evangelism video] and the second one in the series; let me know if you need the link.

Blessings Ryan

I look forward to meeting you one day

Chris Needs

I didn’t respond. This same individual sent another email with a link to the second video the next day.

I’m sure, at some level, Chris Needs believes he is doing the right thing. He thinks he is helping a “lost soul” come back to Jesus. But he used deception to begin the conversation. This is dishonest and disingenuous. Chris is not winning me back to Jesus by deceiving me. What he’s doing is showing me that he believes it is okay to be deceptive and dishonest in the pursuit of what he believes is a higher purpose – winning souls for Jesus. What he has actually accomplished is illustrated that he, like many other religious people, is willing to sacrifice morality for ideology.

(NOTE: His email is: chrisjneeds@gmail.com. If he emails you, be prepared for evangelism.)

Linux: How to Install Zotero Standalone (in KDE or Kubuntu)

I’ve used Zotero to manage my collection of books, articles, and other citations since Zotero was released. The software has become much more robust over time. As of the latest major milestone release (5.0), Zotero has moved to standalone software exclusively (they no longer piggyback on Firefox). With Mac and Windows, you can download executable files to install Zotero. With Linux, it’s a little trickier. Here’s my method for installing Zotero so I can launch it from the KDE application menu.

First, download the tar.gz file from Zotero.

Second, untar (i.e., unzip) the folder inside the tar.gz compressed file.

Move the resulting folder (Zotero_linux-x86_64) to a directory where you’ll want to run Zotero from. I use my /home/[user]/ folder but it can be any folder with read/write/execute access.

The Zotero website says that you should then run the bundled “set_launcher_icon.” I usually do that, but I still need to add Zotero to my application launcher. To do this, right-click on the KDE application launcher menu like this:

Select “Edit Applications.”

In the window that pops up, decide where you want to put Zotero (I went with Education) then select “New Item.” You’ll get this window:

Fill it in with the following information:

Name: Zotero
Description: (Whatever you want.)
Comment: (Again, whatever you want.)
Command: /home/[user]/Zotero_linux-x86_64/zotero

You can also add an icon for Zotero (I always do), like this one.

Obviously, replace [user] with your username. The line that really matters is the Command line as that is where the OS will know to look for the Zotero launcher. Make sure it is pointing to the file names “zotero” in the application folder (not “zotero.desktop” as that won’t launch the application).

Once you’ve done that, you should be able to launch Zotero for the quick launcher or from the application launcher:



Virtual Private Hosting – How to Remove a Domain with Certbot SSL Certificate (on Ubuntu 16.04 with apache)

It used to be pretty easy to remove a domain from my Virtual Private Server – dissable the site in apache, delete the files, delete the underlying database, and remove the domain from my DNS manager. Done.

With SSL certificates now a standard part of hosting websites (see here), this is complicated by the removal of those certificates. I am extremely grateful to the EFF for providing a free way to get SSL certificates through certbot and letsencrypt. Adding domains with certbot is pretty easy, but changing the domains with certificates is not so easy. In fact, it’s pretty complicated and there aren’t great directions out there (which is why I put this guide together).

In this guide, I’ll show you how to remove a domain from a virtual private server (I use linode.com) along with removing the SSL certificate. I was hosting a domain and website for a friend, but that person decided they no longer needed the domain. Here’s how I removed it.

First, it’s always a good idea to back up the files associated with the domain, just in case. I use phpMyAdmin to manage my SQL databases. Log in to your phpMyAdmin site, find the database associated with your site, and select Export.

You shouldn’t need to change any options, just select “Go” and phpMyAdmin will export the entire database.

To download all the files associated with your site, you can zip them from an SSH terminal or download them via FTP. I use Filezilla. Find the folder that contains all the files for your website and download the whole thing.

Now that you have a backup of everything, it’s time to start unmounting.

First, you should dismount your site in apache.

sudo a2dissite [domain]

You also need to dismount the site with encryption, which is the same command, but with the following addition:

sudo a2dissite [domain]-le-ssl.conf

Then reload your apache2 configuration:

service apache2 reload.

If you’ve done everything correctly, when apache reloads, there won’t be any errors.

Next, delete the certificate associated with your domain in certbot. To delete the certificate associated with a specific domain, the command is:

certbot delete –cert-name [enter domain here]

That will delete the certificate associated with that domain.

You may also need to update your certificate profile by using the command:

certbot –apache

This will list all of the domains you have certificates for. You can then select all of the other domains on your server but drop the one you want to delete. That will create a new certificate with all of the domains minus the one you have deleted.

If you are wondering whether certbot has actually removed your domain, you can check by going to /etc/letsencrypt. You want to make sure that your domain is no longer showing up in either the /live,  /renewal, or /archive folders. If you still see it in there, it should be safe at this point to delete any folders with the name of the domain in it.

Next, you can delete the corresponding database. In phpMyAdmin, click on “Server: localhost” then click on “Databases.” Select the box next to the database you want to delete, then, at the bottom, click “Drop”. You’ll get a warning about destroying a database. Select OK and the database is gone.

We’re almost done. Now, delete the files for your site. You can do this with the rm command from the terminal or using your FTP client.

Now, you should delete the apache site files that are located in /etc/apache2/sites-available. These are the two that were dismounted earlier: [DOMAIN].conf and [DOMAIN]-le-ssl.conf.

You can restart the apache service one more time to make sure everything is working, but you should be good.

Finally, you can delete the domain from your DNS manager.

That should do it. The domain should now be gone, entirely, from your server.

Linux – 360 degree video editing on Linux

I recently purchased a 360-degree camera that I have used a few times. It takes 360-degree spherical photos and also films in 360 degrees. It’s not the most expensive such camera, but it does a decent job shooting 360-degree panoramic videos.

However, I have run into a couple of problems with the resulting footage on Linux.

First, as is the case with pretty much any footage shot on your phone, it can be bumpy and really needs to be stabilized. I addressed this to some degree by purchasing a 3-axis gimbal, which minimizes the need for stabilization. However, the software I typically use on Linux for editing videos – Kdenlive – doesn’t do a great job stabilizing 360-degree video. Additionally, Kdenlive doesn’t have a profile for 360-degree video and simply recognizes it as an equilateral rectangular clip (1920×960, 27.90fps). It’s still possible to edit the video using Kdenlive, but it treats it as just a wide angle clip and not as 360-degree video. Otherwise, Kdenlive edits the video as if it was any normal video clip.

Second, when you render an edited 360-degree video file in Kdenlive, it loses the tag necessary to tell youtube (or a desktop player; see below) that the video is 360-degree footage. As a result, it’s necessary to re-add that tag before the video can be played back on your computer or uploaded to youtube. There is a python script that can do this but it only works under Windows or Mac. It was released by Google and the GUI version is available here. I run it on a virtual machine and it works fine. It would be nice to be able to simply edit the necessary tags in the video using something like VLC or FFMPEG or a command line in Linux, but I have been unable to find directions that explain how to do that at this point.

Third, there are issues with playback. Until just recently (as in the end of 2017), playback of 360-degree videos on Linux was not really possible. There wasn’t a video player that had this option. However, as of the 3.0.0 version of VLC, 360-degree video playback is now possible. (As a bonus, VLC can also open 360-degree images as well. I love VLC.) Of course, VLC 3.0.0 doesn’t ship with most current Linux distributions, so you’ll have to install it from their PPA nightly branch. With VLC 3.0.0, it is now possible to video 360-degree video on Linux.

What is really needed to streamline this process on Linux? If the awesome folks running Kdenlive could create a 360-degree video profile (at least as a rendering option) that includes the necessary spherical tag, that would mean I could skip step 2 above entirely. That would be awesome. I’d happily donate some money to them if they could make that happen.


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 NYLFpathways.com, but that redirects straight to the main Envision website: envisionexperience.com. 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.