Questions to Ask Missionaries and Evangelists

I was hurriedly walking to a meeting across my campus about a week ago when a young man stopped me and asked, “Do you mind if I ask you a question?” Without waiting for me to respond, he asked, “What church do you go to?” When I told him I don’t go to church, he then asked why. I really didn’t have time to engage with him and told him I was late for a meeting, which was true. He didn’t relent. I then told him I wasn’t religious and excused myself. He tried asking me another question, ignoring that I was late for a meeting. I then insisted that I had to go and finally just walked away.

That interaction stuck with me for a couple of reasons. First, it only occurred to me after the fact that he was probably not a student at my university. Since it’s a private university, he should not have been there evangelizing. Second, it dawned on me that what he was doing was disrespectful and that I was far nicer to him than I should have been. To that end, I’ve been reflecting on the interaction and how I should respond in the future. Perhaps I’m becoming that “old grumpy guy,” but I’m actually getting tired of being nice to people who are so disrespectful of other people’s beliefs that they try to convert them to their own.*

To that end, I started to consider questions that I might ask someone who is proselytizing the next time they accost me or knock on my door. I thought sharing these might help others who think similarly about this issue. And, if you have suggestions, please drop them in the comments and, if I like them, I’ll add them to my list.

  • Why don’t you respect other people?
  • Why don’t you respect me?
  • Why don’t you respect my beliefs?
  • Why do you think everyone needs to believe what you do?
  • Why do you think everyone needs to be just like you?
  • How insecure do you have to be in order to want everyone to be just like you?
  • Why are you opposed to diverse worldviews?
  • Why do you think you’re better than me?

Here’s my suggestion: Memorize one of these so you have it on hand and ready to use.

* Full disclosure: I was a missionary in Costa Rica from 1996 to 1998 when I was still a member of the LDS Church. While I learned a lot as a result of that experience, I deeply regret now having spent so much time trying to persuade other people to believe what I then believed. Evangelism is really disrespectful of others.

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Cooking Tips

I’m not a professional chef. I claim no real expertise as a cook or chef other than the fact that I cook for my little family a lot and I like to eat good food. As a result, I spend a surprising amount of time cooking. There are lots of other places where people can get cooking tips from experts and professionals. This post is just me sharing a few things I have learned over the years that I wish I had known before I started cooking. The tips are shared in no particular order.

Don’t Waste Chicken Bones (applies to other meats as well – pork, beef, fish)

We don’t eat a lot of meat in our house, but occasionally (a few times a month) we’ll have chicken and on holidays we often have a turkey. Sometimes, I buy whole chickens either pre-cooked or smoke five or six chickens at a time then freeze the chicken to use for recipes. But what to do with the chicken bones and scraps? The obvious answer is to cook them and turn that into chicken stock. But that can also take hours and hours if you cook them on the stove (many stock recipes require boiling for 4 to 6 hours).

Enter: InstantPot. Whenever I have chicken bones and scraps, I throw them into one of my InstantPots with any veggies that are on the cusp of going bad (e.g., celery that is leftover from a recipe, a spare onion, some carrots, a few cloves of garlic, etc.). I then fill the InstantPot up with water to just below the max fill line for pressure cooking, close the lid, and set the pressure cooker to manually pressure cook everything for 2 hours. That’s half the time you would normally have to boil the chicken bones and scraps and it works just as well. (NOTE: How long you pressure cook everything is flexible – if you only have 1 1/2 hours, that works; if you want to go longer, you can as well.)

When it’s done, you can let it cool on its own or release the pressure. I then use a strainer/colander to extract all the big stuff and spoon the chicken stock into mason jars. If it’s just a couple of small jars, you can store those in the fridge and use the chicken stock in the next week or so in any recipe that calls for chicken or vegetable stock. If it’s more than a few jars, these can be canned in a pressurized canner: 20 minutes at 15 pounds of pressure. Those are good for at least a year.

Chicken stock from a store costs anywhere from $0.09 to $0.34 per ounce (about $3.00 per carton). Since you’ve already bought the chicken, why not save yourself the money (and get better chicken stock in the process) by making your own? Yes, it takes a little time, but it’s mostly just letting your InstantPot do the cooking. I’m guessing my total time investment when I do this is 15 minutes for a small batch up to 30 to 45 minutes for a big batch of chicken stock (which might yield 4 to 6 quart jars of chicken stock).

Zest Your Citrus

I have a number of recipes that call for zest from citrus – lemon, lime, or even grapefruit. Zest is a great ingredient to have around for sweet breads, cheesecakes, and even soups. And the bonus bit of information is that you can freeze zest and then use that frozen zest in those same recipes.

My recommendation, then, is to zest all of your citrus before you use it or eat it. Need the juice of a lemon or lime? Zest them first, then cut them up and squeeze the juice out. Going to have a grapefruit for breakfast? Zest it first, then enjoy.

I use small, cheap plastic bags (stored inside a freezer grade plastic bag) for my zest but you could also use a mason jar or tupperware to keep your zest in. And having a handy zester on hand that you can pull out whenever needed is ideal.

Grapefruit Spoons Are Awesome!

My wife and I really like grapefruit in the morning. We slice them in half, cut around the outside, then spoon out the endocarp (the part most people eat). For years, we used a regular spoon for this. Then I was introduced to serrated spoons. Wow! Game changer! They are so much easier to use for eating grapefruit.

Do yourself a favor and pick up a few grapefruit spoons if you like grapefruit in the morning. They are far more efficient when it comes to eating grapefruit than are regular spoons.

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Mexican Restaurants in Central Tampa

My New Year’s resolution for 2021 was to try a new Mexican restaurant (primarily food trucks and small places close to us in Wellswood) each month for all of 2021. To make the comparisons across restaurants I tried to be fairly consistent and order Mexican street tacos (at least one chicken and one steak) at every restaurant so we could compare across them (I did that at all of them except Renzo’s).

We just wrapped up the resolution with our last restaurant in December. It was a good experiment. We found three restaurants that are all very close to us that we will definitely be returning to (top three). By no means did we try even a small fraction of the Mexican restaurants in Tampa. It may well be the case that there are other, great Mexican restaurants that we need to try (if so, comment below; and if you’re a restaurant and want to comp me a meal, I’d go for that, too).

Here’s the list from best to worst (if you click on the links, you’ll see my review for that restaurant).

  1. Los Comparres – 5 stars (first place we tried; only place we’ve been back to so far – chicken tostadas are amazing!)
  2. Taqueria Mi Mexico – 4 stars (but best chicken street tacos we found)
  3. Crazy Burrito – 5 stars
  4. Chiles Mexican Restaurant – 5 stars
  5. Rocky’s Tacos Tampa – 5 stars
  6. Xtreme Tacos – 4 stars
  7. Miguelitos Taqueria & Tequilas – 4 stars
  8. Rene’s Mexican Kitchen – 4 stars
  9. Grandma’s Tacos – 4 stars
  10. Renzo’s – 4 stars (actually, Argentinean, so it really doesn’t belong on this list)
  11. Lolis Mexican Cravings – 4 stars
  12. Tacos Las Californias – 3 stars

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Plex Playlists with Amazon Echo

My music library is stored on my NAS. On my primary desktop at home, I mount the music folder and use Clementine to listen to my music. Everywhere else, I use Plex to play my music. Playing my music through Plex via my browser at work, via my Roku in the family room, and via the Plex Amp app on my phone, all works great. What doesn’t always work great is playing plex with an Amazon Echo device.

The first issue is that sometimes after I open Plex and tell it to play something, it just ignores me and does nothing, which is really annoying. I don’t have a solution for that problem. I may try to figure that out at some point.

The second issue is the one that I finally figured out. I have a number of really generic smart playlists that I have auto-generated in Plex. Most of these are generated based on the genre of music – Folk, Classic Rock, Alternative, Classical, etc. I’m all about keeping things simple, so I originally named most of those smart playlists in Plex as just the genre. In other words, my Folk playlist was literally just named “Folk.”

Enter the problem. I would say to my Amazon Echo, “Open Plex.” Plex would open fine. Then I would say something like, “Play playlist Folk .” My Echo would then say, “I’m sorry, I didn’t catch what you wanted to play. Try asking again.” For months (maybe even years), I just assumed that the Plex Skill was subpar and couldn’t do what I wanted it to do. I even double-checked with Plex’s list of Alexa Voice Commands to make sure I was saying things exactly right. But one day, for some reason, I had an epiphany: What if my Amazon Echo is getting confused with the genre and the playlist?

It turns out, that may have been the problem all along. I don’t know that for certain, but I ran a little experiment and that may have been the case. I created the exact same smart playlist in Plex that contained all my music in the genre Folk but named it “Favorite Folk” instead of just “Folk.”

This video shows the results:

So, word of advice: If you want the Plex Skill to play your playlists, name them something unique that does not overlap with the genre. Otherwise, the Plex Skill and your Amazon Echo will get confused and not play them.

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PVC paintball gun holder

I play paintball frequently enough that I finally broke down and made myself a paintball gun holder. Is it a requirement for paintball? Of course not! Is it a convenient place to put your gun between games while you fill the hopper and work on it? Yes!

I initially tried a different design but didn’t like it. This was my second attempt and I’m quite pleased with it. I found several youtube videos showing how to make PVC paintball gun holders. They showed what I needed to see, but in almost all of them, the people creating the videos didn’t measure anything – they were just winging it. I’m not one for winging it. So, after successfully building my own, here are detailed instructions.

First, supplies. You’ll need:

  • PVC cutting tool (you can use a hacksaw if needed)
  • dry erase marker
  • ruler or tape measure
  • PVC fittings – all in 3/4 inch PVC (unless otherwise indicated):
    • 4 – 90 degree elbows
    • 4 – 45 degree elbows
    • 3 – tees
    • 1 – 3/4″ to 1″ tee
  • 3/4 PVC pipe cut to the following lengths:
    • 1 – 24 centimeter piece (9 1/2 inches)
    • 4 – 22 centimeter pieces (8 2/3 inches)
    • 1 – 16 centimeter piece (6 1/3 inches)
    • 2 – 11 centimeter pieces (4 1/3 inches)
    • 4 – 10 centimeter pieces (4 inches)
    • 1 – 5.5 centimeter pieces (2 1/4 inches)
    • 2 – 4.5 centimeter pieces (1 3/4 inches)

Here’s a photo of all the pieces labeled:

Once you cut all of the pieces of PVC, then it’s just a matter of assembling them in the right way. Here are the pieces assembled and labeled:

The hardest part of this build was cutting the 3/4″ x 1″ tee in half. That isn’t actually required. You could also just use another 3/4″ tee and turn it sideways, placing it under the barrel. If you do, the length of PVC that holds it up will need to be slightly shorter.

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Richard Bartlett’s claimed COVID-19 cure – A Skeptical Response

A family member sent me this video interviewing Richard Bartlett, MD, a family practice doctor in Odessa, TX. In the video, Dr. Bartlett claims to have found the cure for COVID-19 – an inhaled steroid, Budesonide. Here is my response to my family member:

TL:DR version: This guy’s claims are not credible and his proposed treatment does not have sufficient evidence to support it.

Here’s the long version of my response:

In the sciences, responsible scholars are unwilling to make any claims, let alone really bold claims, until other scholars have verified their claims. You may recall the cold fusion debacle at the University of Utah in the 1980s in which Stanley Pons claimed (with Martin Fleischmann of the University of Southampton) that he had discovered cold fusion. He was forced to retract those claims when no other scientists could replicate his research. Basically, it is highly irresponsible (and, in a pandemic it is reckless, unethical, and dishonest) to make claims that have not been tested, verified, and validated by other experts. As I watched the video, a number of red flags popped up for me. I will detail them in turn. But, before I do, I will note one thing that makes this claim seem almost credible.

The current evidence we have suggests that two drugs may help people with COVID-19, dexamethasone and Remdesivir. Dexamethasone is a steroid and it has been shown to help but is absolutely not a cure for everyone who takes it. It cuts the risk of death by about a third for patients on ventilators (it cuts the risk of death by about a fifth for those on oxygen). Remdesivir is NOT a steroid. It is an antiviral that interferes with the production of viral RNA (as opposed to DNA). Thus, it could seem credible that inhaled steroids like Budesonide would be effective, especially since our early understanding of COVID-19 was that it was a respiratory virus. This also seems plausible because COVID-19 is often contracted by breathing in particles from infected individuals into the lungs where the virus is able to infect cells. However, more research has revealed that COVID-19 spreads to other parts of the body and causes damage in other locations (e.g., kidneys, cardiovascular system, etc.). Thus, the claim that inhaled steroids works seems plausible. But just because something “seems” plausible doesn’t mean it actually works.

UPDATE 7/20/2020: A new study suggests inhaling interferon beta may reduce the risk of developing severe disease from COVID-19 by as much as 79%. However, appropriate caution about the results is warranted as the study has not been peer-reviewed, has a small sample size, and needs replication. This study is a good illustration of how research should be done, in contrast to Dr. Bartlett’s claims.

Now, on to the red flags… 

Red Flags

As I watched the interview, a number of very serious problems surfaced. Here they are in detail.

1) The most outlandish problem with Dr. Richard Bartlett’s interview was that he was claiming things that are demonstrably untrue. He suggested that the very low death rates in Taiwan, Japan, and Iceland (among other countries) are due to the medical experts in those countries using inhaled steroids. That is demonstrably false. Iceland, for instance, closed all of its borders, tracked down every single case of COVID-19, isolated them, and eventually, stopped the virus. They also force anyone coming into the country to quarantine for two weeks – everyone! You can read about their efforts here. Similar approaches were taken in Taiwan, New Zealand, Vietnam, and South Korea. None of these countries attribute their low death rates to the use of inhaled steroids to treat patients. They used contact tracing and quarantine to minimize the number of cases. Dr. Bartlett is being dishonest and misrepresenting the facts when he claims that these countries used inhaled steroids to treat these patients when there is no evidence to support his claims. This was a major red flag suggesting he is being dishonest.

2) When Dr. Bartlett was asked how many patients he had treated, he didn’t give a direct answer. A scientist with compelling evidence would know exactly what their sample size is. I have published dozens of research articles and I make it very clear in all of them what my sample size is. Sample sizes are a component of any research study because other researchers need to know the basics of the research design so they can replicate it. Instead, he just keeps saying that he’s treated lots of people and has had a 100% success rate. He provides no more information about the patients: How severe were these cases (we know COVID-19 cases vary in severity)? How old were they? What other comorbidities did they have? He provides no additional information in a credible format. These are serious red flags to me.

3) As noted above, responsible scientists submit their research for publication before they make claims, particularly bold claims. Dr. Bartlett’s evidence is entirely “anecdotal,” which is to say he has no real evidence at all. Unless he has kept detailed records for every single patient he has treated with clear information about their diagnosis with COVID-19, the length of time they had the disease before they were treated, other medical interventions involved, all underlying comorbidities, and can rule out all other possible medical interventions that would have helped, and can aggregate that information into a clear pattern of success, he would not be able to publish these claims. Stories are powerful. We like them. And we find them convincing. But scientists don’t find them compelling. We want evidence. Lots of it. And we need to have it verified, ideally by 2 or more experts. Dr. Bartlett’s claims are extraordinary. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. He provides none.

4) These claims have all the hallmarks of a conspiracy theory. The video was posted on July 3rd. If this was the cure, major news outlets around the world would have picked this up. So far, none of them are touching this. Conspiracy theorists will point to this and say that it is evidence that there is a conspiracy against Dr. Bartlett. But that is the problem with conspiracy theorists – when something does happen, it supports their conspiracy; and when nothing happens, it also supports their conspiracy. It’s virtually impossible to convince conspiracy theorists that they are wrong because all the evidence, including the absence of evidence, is seen to support their conspiracy. Yet, doesn’t it seem far more reasonable to conclude that, if someone had found a cure nearly two weeks ago that every major news source on the planet would have put this on the front page or made this the headline in their broadcasts? Only a conspiracy theorist would look at the lack of media coverage and see a conspiracy to hide a cure. 

5) Dr. Richard Bartlett has not, to my knowledge, ever published a single research article in the scientific literature. There is one Richard Bartlett with a user profile on Google Scholar – a law professor at the University of Western Australia (who, no doubt, is going to be pissed that someone with his same name is going to get a lot of negative publicity). There are some other “R Bartletts” who have published research, but those individuals do not appear to be Dr. Richard Bartlett from Texas. So you can see the Google Scholar profile for an actual scholar, here is my Google Scholar profile. The nice thing about Google Scholar is that it is publicly accessible. There are other ways to find research by scholars, but they are behind paywalls and the public cannot see them. But Google Scholar makes it quite easy to see whether someone is a recognized scholar. Dr. Richard Bartlett is not. Our most basic criteria for determining whether someone is an expert in the sciences is to see if they have published research in their stated area of expertise. In this case, Dr. Bartlett should have published research in medicine related journals, particularly on the uses of inhaled steroids or on the treatment of viral respiratory infections. He has not. He is NOT an expert. Just because he is a medical doctor does not mean he is an expert on these topics. There are lots of MDs who push treatments that are completely ineffective and even harmful

So, those are the red flags. I did some additional digging on this topic and here’s what I found:

a) I found two review articles by actual experts on the efficacy of inhaled steroids for treating COVID-19 (article 1 and article 2). Neither claim this is the cure for COVID-19. Here is the summary from one of those studies, “At present, there is no evidence as to whether pre-morbid use or continued administration of ICS [inhaled corticosteroids] is a factor for adverse or beneficial outcomes in acute respiratory infections due to coronavirus.”

b) Further digging by a local news channel called Dr. Bartlett’s claims into question as well. 

So, the long answer to your question is: Dr. Bartlett is, at a minimum, not being honest (as detailed above). He is also being irresponsible in making claims that have not been verified with peer-review. He is not an expert on respiratory infections or inhaled steroids. He is dishonest about his claims and evasive with his answers. The scientific literature does not support his claims, though responsible scientists admit that more research is needed.

My verdict: There is no compelling evidence that Dr. Bartlett has found “THE CURE” for COVID-19. Maybe this will help; maybe not. The only way to know for certain is to conduct rigorous clinical trials.

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Setting Up a New Windows Computer for Your Kids

I recently had a colleague contact me for some computer advice. He knows I’m a computer geek and was looking for some help setting up a new Windows laptop for his kids. He was wondering which antivirus software to buy.

If you’re at all familiar with my blog, you’ll know that I’m not a fan of Windows and run Linux almost exclusively in my house (I keep a Windows laptop around to use a book scanner). So, it may seem strange turning to a Linux user for advice for a Windows computer. But, it’s actually not that strange. Linux does so much right that it has taught me what you should do when setting up a computer, regardless of your operating system. So, here’s the advice I gave my colleague that I think would be good advice for anyone setting up a new computer for kids.

Antivirus Software

If what you want is just antivirus software, Microsoft Windows ships with antivirus protection now (Microsoft Security Essentials). If you don’t install any other software, you can make sure that you install that software. Plus, the price is hard to beat. It’s free. Also, from my perspective, it’s best for not slowing down your computer dramatically. Norton, Kaspersky, etc. all slow down your computer, which sucks. If all you want is virus/spyware protection, Microsoft Security Essentials is sufficient.

Additional Software

If you want additional software on the laptop to accomplish something else, that’s a different question. Since it’s for your kids, there are two types of software you could consider.

Home Internet Security

First, do you want to restrict where your kids can go online? I’m actually a proponent of simply teaching your kids good habits and not policing where they can go. That may not be your perspective. If you want to restrict where they can go, I’d suggest OpenDNS’s Family Shield (or Home). It restricts adult content and is free.

Ransomware

Second, there is also the concern of ransomware, which is basically if someone were to get a piece of software on your computer that then locks you out of your files. The easiest solution to this is just to install backup software like Dropbox and make sure your kids store any important files in the Dropbox folder. There is a free option that gives you 2 gigabytes. It’s generally good practice to back up all of your important files anyway (e.g., essays, homework, photos, etc.). So long as you have a backup, ransomware is basically not a problem. (See this guide for dealing with ransomware by Dropbox.)

Multiple Accounts and Administrator Accounts

You should also probably set up multiple accounts on the laptop, though, again, this is up to you and how much control you want to give your kids. Setting up a local account for your kids means they won’t be able to install software without your administrative password. If they don’t know what they are doing, this is generally a good idea.

Reinstall Windows

Finally, I’m not sure how good you are with computers, but I’d also suggest making sure you have a way to revert to a completely fresh install in case your kids manage to get past the software and screw things up. Since I build my own computers and run Linux, reinstalling my operating system is something I do regularly. But for most users, the very thought of doing that is terrifying. Microsoft has made that much easier.

Conclusion

Do all of the above and your laptop should work fine for years. Plus, all of the above will cost you exactly $0, just some time.

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Unethical Amazon Review Modifications

I don’t always review products on Amazon. I don’t have the time. But there have been two instances over the past year when I have been contacted by someone because of a review I wrote on Amazon. Both times, these individuals have tried to bribe me to remove my negative review of the product. Here’s the latest email exchange over a backup cellphone charger that was a piece of garbage:

First Email:

taylor jack taylor.jack0528@outlook.com Tue, Dec 17, 2019 at 10:30 PM
To: “ryantcragun@gmail.com” ryantcragun@gmail.com

Hello,rcragun.
I’m Anna.I am a real person.Since everybody’s time is very precious,I just go directly to the topic.
Here is your review.
https://www.amazon.com/gp/customer-reviews/R1T2C38HIJ7JJQ/ref=cm_cr_getr_d_rvw_ttl?ie=UTF8&ASIN=B07SWTGDVW
I am very sorry to hear about the issues you’ve had with your item.Are you willing to help me to delete your review? If you have deleted your review, please tell me,We will give you an Amazon gift card.
Looking forward to your good news and reply !

My response:

From: Ryan Cragun ryantcragun@gmail.com
To: taylor jack taylor.jack0528@outlook.com
Subject: Re: Amazon compensation

I consider your proposal completely unethical.
You should be ashamed of yourself.
Best,
Ryan T. Cragun

I stopped responding after this, but have since received three more emails:

Email Two:

From: “taylor.jack0528” taylor.jack0528@outlook.com Using MailMasterPC/4.13.2.1001 (Windows 7)
To: “ryantcragun@gmail.com” ryantcragun@gmail.com
Subject: Re: Amazon compensation

From my perspective, we are very eager to compensate those customers who trust us but are hurt by us.
So please give us a chance. We will offer a $ 30 Amazon Gift Card.
Hope you understand us, our life and work are not easy.

Email Three:

From: “taylor.jack0528” taylor.jack0528@outlook.com Using MailMasterPC/4.13.2.1001 (Windows 7)
To: “ryantcragun@gmail.com” ryantcragun@gmail.com
Subject: Re: Amazon compensation

Time is limited and tight!!
How is thing going?
If you have deleted your review ,please tell me, I will give you $30 right away.
This is your review.
https://www.amazon.com/gp/customer-reviews/R1T2C38HIJ7JJQ/ref=cm_cr_getr_d_rvw_ttl?ie=UTF8&ASIN=B07SWTGDVW
Thank you.

Email Four:

From: Bessierh5 Nielsenqvl99 trisnatudd3cx@gmail.com
To: ryantcragun@gmail.com
Subject: $30 Amazon gift card

Hello rcragun.This is the final mail to you.
This is your review.
https://www.amazon.com/gp/customer-reviews/R1T2C38HIJ7JJQ/ref=cm_cr_getr_d_rvw_ttl?ie=UTF8&ASIN=B07SWTGDVW
If you are willing to delete your review ,I will offer an Amazon gift card worth $30.
If you have deleted it ,please tell me, I will give you $30 right away.
We will thank you profusely and even find a homeless kitten to hug on your behalf. We will waiting for you.
Again, this is the last email you will receive from us so we really do hope you are enjoying your purchase.My most sincere regards, I hope that you can reply to me as soon as possible.
Thank you and please have a fantastically glorious day.
Sincerely
Anna

With the previous company, I told them I wouldn’t delete my review. They were okay with that. They said that they would send me a new pair of headphones (the other ones died within a year) to make things right and hoped I would update my review to reflect that. That seemed fair to me and that’s what I did. They were okay with me leaving my review but wanted me to note that they tried to make things right.

That’s very different from what this person is doing. They are basically trying to bribe me to remove negative information from Amazon’s website so people will be misled about the quality of their product.

The product is NEXGADGET’s Solar Charger Power Bank. As I noted in my review, it was basically a useless brick during a 5-day hike in Wyoming. It didn’t keep its charge for a single day and wouldn’t charge in sunlight. Maybe I got a bad item. But that still speaks to the production quality and my review should stay on the website. NEXGADGET shouldn’t be trying to hide negative reviews but rather trying to make a better quality product.

Update 1/8/20:

I sent a response to their last email hoping to get more information.

My 2nd Response:

Created at: Tue, Jan 7, 2020 at 9:02 AM (Delivered after 0 seconds)
From: Ryan Cragun ryantcragun@gmail.com
To: Bessierh5 Nielsenqvl99 trisnatudd3cx@gmail.com
Subject: Re: $30 Amazon gift card

Hi Anna,
I’d like to know your real name and who you work for. Please provide that information and maybe I’ll consider your request.
Best,
Ryan

Here’s their response:

Email Five:

Created at: Wed, Jan 8, 2020 at 3:32 AM (Delivered after -325 seconds)
From: Bessierh5 Nielsenqvl99 trisnatudd3cx@gmail.com
To: Ryan Cragun ryantcragun@gmail.com
Subject: Re: $30 Amazon gift card

I understand your mood,but
On the one hand , this is not a bribe,this is just a compensation,we just hope that you are satisfied with this transaction.
On the other hand , this is not a violation ,because this shopping platform has this option after all,and the choices are in your hand.I just need you to delete it ,not a good review.
So what do you think of it ?
please give me a chance.
If you have deleted it ,please let me know, thank you!

And my final response:

3rd Response

Wed, Jan 8, 2020 at 6:41 AM (Delivered after 0 seconds)
From: Ryan Cragun ryantcragun@gmail.com
To: Bessierh5 Nielsenqvl99 trisnatudd3cx@gmail.com

Definition of BRIBE: “persuade (someone) to act in one’s favor, typically illegally or dishonestly, by a gift of money or other inducement.” You are trying to persuade me to act dishonestly with a gift of money. It is literally the definition of a bribe. Please stop emailing me or I will report you to Amazon.com directly.

To be fair, this is probably some underpaid individual in China who sees this as an opportunity to make enough money to survive. It’s just a job to someone. And my ethical pleadings will never persuade them to stop doing what they are doing because they need to eat. I get that. But it’s still a bribe.

 2,514 total views

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.

 

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remove mold and mildew stains

Despite our best efforts at keeping our shower clean, we managed to get a small buildup of mildew in our shower that, by the time we cleaned it, stained the caulking.  I looked around on the internet to see if I could find any recommended products for cleaning mildew stains and mostly just found things like bleach or vinegar with a lot of scrubbing.  I tried that and it didn’t work very well – you could still see some stains in the caulk and grout.

Since I had to go to Home Depot for something else anyway, I decided to check the cleaning supplies aisle while there for products.  That’s where I found Zep Mold & Mildew Stain Remover.  It is a commercial strength stain remover.  I’m always skeptical about products as I’ve bought plenty of other products over the years that make over-stated claims.  This product, however, was relatively under-stated – it came in a nondescript blue gallon bottle and didn’t over-hype it’s claims.  And it was relatively inexpensive.  I bought it, skeptical that it would do anything, but figured it couldn’t make things worse.

On the back of the bottle it says to spray it on the stained areas and only let it sit for 2 to 3 minutes before rinsing it off.  I thought to myself, “There is no way this will have any effect in 2 to 3 minutes.”  So, I sprayed it on, thickly, and left it for a good 8 to 10 minutes.  When I went back into the bathroom, I was stunned.  Our tile, grout, and caulking were all glistening white.  I couldn’t stay in there, though, because the fumes were so bad they started to burn my eyes.  I sprayed the shower down as quickly as I could with water then left.  I came back about 10 minutes later and sprayed the shower down again.  All of the stains were gone!

Now, this isn’t exactly a miracle product – it did eat away at some of the caulking, which we ultimately had to remove, but that just speaks to the power of the product.  This is some serious stuff!

If you have mildew stains or even just mildew build up and don’t really want to expend a lot of elbow grease trying to get rid of it, give Zep Mold & Mildew Stain Remover a try.  I’m not getting paid to say this (though if Zep wants to send a check my way, I wouldn’t refuse it), but I’m recommending it highly.  If I had found out about this stuff before I spent an hour scrubbing my shower, I could have saved myself an hour scrubbing the shower and ended up with the same result.  Just be aware that this stuff is caustic and works fast – use with caution!

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