Letter to the Editor – Gun Control Laws

Attorney General Ashley Moody filed a brief with the Florida Supreme Court opposing a state constitutional amendment banning assault weapons on Friday, July 26th. That was two days before a young man opened fire at a festival in California, killing three people and injuring a dozen more with an assault rifle he purchased legally.

AG Moody’s opposition appears to be rooted in the definition of an assault weapon based on the magazine capacity. Why a hunter would need more than 10 rounds in a rifle or shotgun to take down a deer or turkey is beyond me. Perhaps there are some really terrible hunters out there. My neighbor is a hunter and he would mock anyone who required 10 rounds to kill a deer. Forcing gun owners to have to reload after 10 shots doesn’t seem to be particularly onerous… except when they are shooting people. Which is precisely the point.

The latest polling data suggest that more than 60% of Americans want stricter gun control laws. People are dying because politicians are unwilling to act (or stand up to the gun lobby). Ashley Moody, the Florida Attorney General, is refusing to let the people of Florida express their views on assault weapons.

I’m so frustrated with politicians and gun laws that I have taken to replacing what they say with what they really mean. President Trump said on July 29th about the Gilroy shooting, “We grieve for their families.” What he really means is, “We don’t care about these families.” And that’s what AG Ashley Moody is saying about the people killed at Stoneman Douglas High School and the people killed at the Pulse night club and the people killed at the Gilroy Garlic Festival. Politicians who oppose stricter gun laws don’t care about people dying. If they did, they would do what the American people want.

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.)

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.


I hate pets!

You know why I hate pets?!?  Because the “owners” of said pets are so often negligent of the animals.

Why am I suddenly ranting about pets?  Yesterday a cat climbed up on the window sill of our neighbor’s front window just as a torrential rainfall hit and began having kittens.   Yep, kittens, on a windowsill, outside, during a torrential Florida thunderstorm.  Luckily our neighbor’s kids saw the cat and were concerned enough about its welfare that they got a box and some towels and made a nice little place for the cat to have its kittens.  But they didn’t know anything about cats giving birth, so they came over to our place and asked Debi if she did.  This happened around 6:00 pm.  I was shopping for food.

Debi spent from 6:00 until almost 10:00 pm last night delivering kittens (granted, the cat does most of the work).  She read up on what the mother needs and will do (clean, large box inside in a warm location; eat the placenta and lick the kittens clean, respectively), how many kittens will typically be born (3 to 6), and what best cat-birth practices are.  Debi cut and tied off umbilical cords, ensured the cat had clean towels to lie on, and provided the cat with food (I took care of Toren).  The cat ended up having 5 kittens before Debi called it a night and went to bed.  The neighbors put the cat in the washroom at the end of their carport for the night.

Okay, what does this have to do with me hating pets?  It kind of sounds beautiful in its own way, right?  Yes, it is beautiful and amazing.  But it’s also infuriating!

The cat has a collar (studded leather with spikes, of course).  That means the cat “belongs” (or belonged) to someone.  Where the hell is the “owner?”  Why isn’t the owner taking care of the cat that it allowed to become pregnant?  Why is this pregnant cat roaming our neighborhood and trying to give birth on a windowsill in a rain storm?

You see, I don’t hate the actual pets… I hate two related things: (1) the idea of owning another animal, and (2) said “owners” of animals who do not treat their animals well.

Raising an animal to eat it?  I can live with that.  Your intentions are clear from the start.

Buying a pet that you neglect because you thought, on a whim, that it would be fun.  Yeah, not a fan!

3-4 million cats and dogs are euthanized in the US every year. While lots of people have mixed feelings about government intrusion into personal lives, I don’t think people should be allowed to adopt a pet without a “pet license” (same goes for having kids, but that’s an even more controversial argument).  And, in addition to taking an extensive training course on taking care of a pet, I think people should also have to pass a “means” test to illustrate they have the financial resources to care for a pet.  And then they should have to wait a month to be able to get one.

Now do you understand why I hate pets?


I got a fracking ticket!  It actually happened on December 21st on my way to do volunteer consulting work for the Tampa Child Abuse Council.  According to the officer, I was doing 50 mph in a 35 mph zone (I was coming down a bridge on North Boulevard over the Hillsborough River and he was parked illegally on a one-way road to clock me).  I drive that road every day to and from school and during rush hour everyone speeds.  I just happened to be on the road during a time other than rush hour and I think that’s why I got ticketed.  Arghh!  He said he’d be nice and drop it to 45 mph.  (Ahem, nice would have been a warning!)

Anyway, whether or not I deserve the ticket, Florida has an interesting policy in place.  You can either: (1) pay the ticket, eat the points against your license (too many and you lose it), and see your insurance go up; (2) fight it in court; or (3) take a defensive driving course and avoid the points against your license and having your insurance go up.  When I first heard about option 3, I thought, “Hey, that’s not a bad idea.”  Now, I’m not so sure.

There are some limitations.  You can’t have a commercial license.  If you have a commercial license, your SOL on this one.  You also can only do that once every 12 months and a total of 5 times during your lifetime.  Since I don’t have a commercial license and haven’t had a ticket in over 10 years, I qualified.  So, I decided I’d go this route.

But, of course, we left for Utah for two weeks right after I got the ticket, so I put it off until we got back.  You have 30 days from the date of the ticket to inform the Clerk of Courts what you’re going to do.  Once we got back, I started looking into this and found out that you have to sign an affidavit if you want to take the defensive driving course.  That seemed annoyingly cumbersome; I was going to have to fill out an affidavit just to take the driving course?  Turns out, one is automatically created for you on the Clerk’s website if you know where to look (hint: here).  The ticket doesn’t tell you that, nor does the Clerk’s website nor their rather uninformative phone message.  But I eventually figured it out.  So, I printed out the affidavit, signed it, and sent it with a check to the Clerk’s Office.  Theaddress was also not provided on the ticket; here it is:

Clerk of Circuit Courts
419 Pierce St.
Room #140
Tampa, FL 33602

Now for the class… We put our mail on hold while we were gone.  In the resulting stack I found six advertisements from various companies advertising their defensive driving courses.  It turns out that the defensive driving courses are all run by private companies that are approved by the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.  The price of the course varies from about $25.00 to $40.00.  Each of the companies has a selling point: cheapest, longest in business, etc.  Two caught my eye as they claimed to be “funny” or “humorous” courses.  Oh, and the course can be done entirely online, though they set a timer so you have to spend 4 hours on the fracking course.

I tried one of the cheaper ones first, but their website hung when I tried to register, so I went with www.funnyinflorida.com.  The account set up was fine, then I started the course (Monday).  The timer at the bottom is pre-set for each section and you have to wait for it to count down to zero before you can move on (which means I did a lot of multi-tasking while waiting for it to count down to zero).  The course, while full of information, didn’t really include any information I didn’t already know (e.g., a red octagon is the shape of a stop sign; drinking and driving is bad, etc.).  It’s probably not a bad idea to refresh yourself with this information every so often, but I didn’t really learn anything new.  I just spent four hours skimming the information, answering the questions, and then taking the test to avoid points and an insurance increase.

Oh, and I know the question everyone is wondering: Was it actually funny?  The answer: No.  After every few paragraphs of text they would just insert a joke, including sometimes inappropriate jokes about drinking and driving or hitting pedestrians, on the very pages where those things were strongly condemned.  Hilarious!    :|

And while the price isn’t that steep (they all advertise $8.00 or so on their flyers with an “*” leading to disclaimers), the actual price includes various fees, liking printing up a certificate and a mandatory state fee.  At the end, they also try to upsell you by offering to email your certificate directly to the Clerk or fax it to you or various other things, each option costing another $10.00 to $20.00.

So, I’m torn about this.  I think I’m benefiting from a program that prevents points from going on my record and keeping my insurance company from raising my rates.  But this is highly commercialized and seems like it is just a money making scheme for these companies.  If the State of Florida made this driving course “in-house,” not only could they more closely screen the content (removing the inappropriate, undermining jokes), but they could make more money.  And since pretty much every state is having budget crises, that seems like a no-brainer.

What do you think?  Is this a worthwhile service that should be provided be third-party, for-profit corporations or should it be handled in-house?  And should it even be an option?