The Continuing Deterioration of Duolingo

A few years ago I used Duolingo in combination with a number of other resources to learn Esperanto. I also used it to dabble in a number of other languages. My experience at the time lead me to recommend it to people who expressed an interest in learning another language with some caveats. A few months ago I decided to reassign most of the time I spent on social media to more productive activities. One of those activities was returning to language learning. As part of this endeavor I logged back into my Duolingo account. After a couple of years of almost complete absence (I did log in a couple of times, but never to do more than poke around) I discovered that my small list of caveats has grown.

My previous caveats were mostly related to the varying quality of Duolingo’s courses. Most, if not all (I’m not sure about the service’s flagship languages such as German and Spanish), of Duolingo’s course are created, maintained, and updated by volunteers. This results in courses with wildly differing levels of quality. A handful of courses such as the German and Spanish courses are very good. Another handful of courses such as the Swahili course are notoriously bad. But most of the courses lie somewhere in between.

To briefly illustrate the variety of middling quality, I’m going to highlight four courses: Esperanto (a language I know fairly well), Japanese (a language I took in college), Latin (a language I’m decent at reading and writing, but shit at speaking), and Hebrew (a language about which I know almost nothing).

The Esperanto course is quite good. This isn’t too surprising since there are a lot of passionate Esperantists willing to volunteer their time and energy to create educational material (Lernu.net is a great example of this). The Esperanto course includes extensive language notes, audio that is generally good, and enough content (65 skills) to keep learners engaged. But the course hasn’t received a lot of updates since I last used it. In fact the only content update appears to be the inclusion of skills in the main tree that were originally only available by paying lingots (Duolingo’s original in-app currency, which has been replaced by gems… except when it hasn’t). Popular features in the top tier courses, such as stories, are not available in the Esperanto course and I have my doubts they ever will be.

The Japanese course was awful when it was first released. Japanese uses three writing scripts: hiragana, katakana, and kanji. The initial release of the course taught hiragana and katakana, but taught little if any kanji. I also remember the original audio being variable in quality. However, unlike the Esperanto course, the Japanese course has been improved. Now it’s serviceable and there’s apparently a major update about to be released, which hopefully means the course will become decent or even good. But in its current state it still has some issues with kanji. Periodically the shown pronunciations for a kanji character is wrong in the context of a sentence and the pronunciations are written in romanji (showing the pronunciation using the Roman alphabet) instead of furigana (showing the pronunciation using hiragana). The reason this matters is because most elementary level written Japanese material use furigana and higher level material will still use it for lesser known kanji. It’s better the get learners acquainted with how a language is used in the real world. The current course also lacks stories, but it sounds like that’s part of the upcoming update.

I was excited when I heard that a Latin course was going to be released. Latin is one of my favorite languages and I’ve studied it for years. I wasn’t expecting a lot from the Latin course since Duolingo courses tend to be bare bones when they’re first released, but I was expecting more than what was released. The entire course only has 22 skills and only teaches the present indicative tense. There are useful notes and audio for many of the sentences. The pronunciations in the audio are obviously attempting to replicate Classical Latin. For the most part they do an OK job, but not a great job. Unless more skills are added the Latin course is useless for anything other than dipping toes into the Latin waters. With that said, the foundation is good enough that a better course could be built upon it someday.

So far I’ve covered courses for language with which I’m already familiar. Now I’m going to highlight a course from the perspective of a totally new learner. I decided to try the Hebrew course because I wanted to dabble in a Semitic language. The fact that Hebrew is a one of only a few examples of a successfully revived language also makes it a novelty to me. However, I immediately ran into a major roadblock. Hebrew, like Japanese, doesn’t use the Roman alphabet, but the Hebrew course, unlike the Japanese course, doesn’t teach you the alphabet. If you’re completely unfamiliar with Hebrew and want to use the Duolingo course, you need to first find another resource from which to learn the alphabet. Obviously I can’t comment any further on the Hebrew course because I couldn’t get anywhere in it (and as I said I wanted to dabble, I’m not interested enough to seek out other resources), which is what I wanted to highlight.

My first caveat when recommending Duolingo in the past was that some courses were good, some were OK, and some were terrible. If somebody expressed an interest in learning German, Spanish, or even Esperanto, I had no problem recommending Duolingo. If somebody expressed an interest in learning Japanese, I’d warn them away. My other major caveat was that Duolingo couldn’t be used by itself to become fluent in a language. Years ago Duolingo advertised itself as a tool that allowed users to achieve fluency (it would even rate how “fluent” you had become) in another language. The idea that one can achieve fluency in a language solely through translating sentences and typing out what was said in audio recordings is bullshit. Fortunately, Duolingo appears to have backed off from those historical claims and now prefers the much vaguer “learn a language” slogan.

Those two caveats remain, but now I have a number of new caveats when recommending Duolingo.

One of the biggest changes that was starting to roll out when I was first using Duolingo was hearts. Hearts are akin to hit points. Each mistake you make deducts one heart and if you make five mistakes, you’re kicked out the current lesson and blocked from doing anything other than practice. Duolingo claims that the heart system exists to discourage users from making mistakes, but this claim doesn’t hold up for two reasons.

First, what qualifies as a mistake is poorly defined and that definition changes. For example, missing punctuation normally wasn’t considered a mistake. Now it is (at least on some course). Sometimes a typo isn’t counted as a mistake (instead it’s highlighted as a typo, which doesn’t cost a heart), sometimes it is. Second, when you do something that is correct but the volunteers who created the course didn’t anticipate, it gets marked as a mistake and costs a heart. Consider the Latin course for a moment. Compared to English Latin has a very free word order. The standard word order in Latin is subject object verb (which is the same in Japanese, but the standard word order in English is subject verb object). When the Latin course was released on Duolingo a lot of my answers were marked as incorrect because the volunteers apparently assumed that everybody would use subject verb object word order whereas I normally use subject object verb word order for Latin. Likewise, Esperanto has a freer word order than English. Sometimes I’ll provide answers on the Esperanto course in subject object verb word order just to keep things interesting. The Esperanto course has existed long enough where most of those unanticipated answers have been discovered and are now accepted. However, when I first did the Esperanto course, that wasn’t the case. I’ve managed to block myself from progressing in both course by giving correct answers that the course creators didn’t anticipate.

If you run out of hearts, you have a handful of options. First, you can do a practice session, which gives you a single heart. Second, you can wait several hours. You get one heart back after five or six hours. So it takes almost a full day to get all of your hearts back. Third, the Duolingo app periodically provides you the opportunity to regain a heart by watching an ad. Fourth, you can pay gems (but not lingots for reasons I’ll get to in a bit) to get some hearts back. Finally, you can bypass the heart system entirely by signing up for Plus. The hearts feature brings one of the worst aspects of free-to-play games to the educational market: the choice between paying real money or grinding. But Duolingo manages to make this already annoying model worse by punishing you inconsistently and sometimes when you didn’t even make a mistake.

This leads me to one of my new caveats: if you plan to use Duolingo seriously, you should consider either paying for Plus or using the website. What do I mean by using the website? The hearts system only exists in the iOS and Android apps. If you log into the website to use Duolingo, you don’t have to deal with hearts (for now). This brings me to my second new caveat.

Your experience on Duolingo can be significantly different from other users. There are two major reasons for this. First, as I already mentioned, the website experience differs from the experience on the Android and iOS apps. The hearts system isn’t the only difference between the two. Notes that are available on the website can’t be accessed from the phone apps. Without notes you have to resort to a lot of trial and error, but the hearts system punishes you for using trial and error unless you subscribe to Plus. I also made a quip about gems replacing lingots except when they haven’t. If you use the website, you use lingots. If you use the phone apps, you use gems. There isn’t even a one-to-one ratio between lingots and gems. As I type this I have 3310 gems in my iOS app and 954 lingots on the website. When I earn lingots on the website, the number of gems that appear on my iOS app goes up and vice versa, so there is an exchange rate, just not an integer one.

The second reason your experience will vary from other users is A/B testing. Duolingo is infamous for it’s A/B testing. A/B testing is a method where a service provides one experience for one set of users and a different experience for another set of users. Because of Duolingo’s obsession with A/B testing, I have to warn anybody to whom I’m recommending the service that the experience I’m recommending may not be the experience they get. For example, a current A/B test on Duolingo is locking skill tests behind lingots (or gems). If you’re not part of this A/B test, you can test out of skills instead of drudge through multiple lessons. This is useful if, for example, you’re starting a course for a language with which you already have some familiarity. I tested out of the hiragana and katakana skills when I started the Japanese course because I learned those scripts in college (I didn’t test out of other early skills because I wanted a refresher). Since there is almost nothing to buy with lingots, this wouldn’t be a big deal. However, a new user won’t have any lingots so they will have to grind for some before they can skip a skill. If I had been a new user when I started the Japanese course, I would’ve had to do the hiragana and katakana skills, which would have been a waste of my time.

My third new caveat is related Duolingo’s gamification. Gamification is a two-edged sword for educational tools. On the plus side gamification encourages engagement. A user may continue using the app and therefore learning because of the game elements. On the con side gamification often encourages the game aspect of the service over the educational aspect. Duolingo has leagues and leader boards. When you complete a lesson, you get experience points. At the end of the week the top three user in the league win. Mind you the prize is just mostly useless lingots, but that’s enough for a competitive person. This has lead a lot of users to grind experience points in lessons that they can complete with confidence quickly in order to climb the leader board. Since you receive the same amount of experience points for doing a previously completed lesson as you do for a new lesson, there’s no motivation to push yourself in order to win your league. So my third caveat is that if you’re a competitive person, Duolingo may distract you from actually learning.

Rather than improving, Duolingo has gotten worse since I last used it. I used to enthusiastically recommend it for a lot of people. Now I’m hesitant. If somebody is willing to primarily use the website or pay for Plus, it can be a useful service… so long as the language course that interests you is decent and you don’t get trapped in a bad A/B test. What worries me the most is that I see no indication that Duolingo is going to turn itself around. How many headaches will users tolerate for a supplemental tool?

My Review of the Sennheiser HD 450BT

My rule of thumb for adapting new technologies is that the technology must provide a net gain to my quality of life. I haven’t jumped onto the Internet of Things bandwagon in part because the added headaches outweigh the benefits. Being able to change the color my lights output would be mildly useful to me, but having to worry about the security issues involved with an Internet connected device, the possibility of not being able to configure my lights if the Internet goes down, etc. greatly outweigh the benefit.

This brings me to Bluetooth headphones. Ever since Apple had the “courage” to remove the standard headphone jack from the iPhone, Bluetooth headphones started seeing a rapid increase in adoption (at least as far as I can tell). I stuck with wired headphones because my use case made Bluetooth headphones a bigger headache than the benefits warranted. Apple’s “courage” did benefit me in one major way though, Bluetooth headphones improved rapidly and have finally reached a point where they offer more benefits to me than headaches.

I settled on buying a pair of Sennheiser HD 450BT for reasons I’ll get into in a bit. This review isn’t going to delve too deeply into the usual considerations for Bluetooth headphones such as sound quality, noise cancelling effectiveness, etc. More qualified individuals have already expounded on those features in great detail. Instead this review is going to be based heavily on my use case, which has a few oddball specifics. So before I begin, I’m going to explain my use case.

My Use Case

During the day I primarily use two computers. The first is my ThinkPad P52s running Fedora Linux, the second is my iPhone SE (2020). I do most of my work on the ThinkPad and listen to music and podcasts on my iPhone. Even though most of my audio output comes from my iPhone, I periodically needs to hear the audio on my ThinkPad. This need to jump between two devices is what has kept me using wired headphones. It’s easy to unplug a headphone jack from my iPhone (which relies on a Lightning to headphone jack adapter because of Apple’s “courage”) and plug it into my ThinkPad and vice versa. Disconnecting a pair of Bluetooth headphones from my iPhone and connecting them to my ThinkPad is a much bigger pain in the ass that involves going a couple of layers deep into Bluetooth settings on both devices.

So my use case requires the ability to easily switch between two devices and compatibility with both Linux and iOS.

Not My Use Case

It’s also worth noting what my use case isn’t. Many Bluetooth headphones offer some kind of active noise cancellation. I don’t like active noise cancellation because I prefer to maintain some audio awareness of my environment so I always turn it off if it’s present. I also don’t commute on public transit, don’t wear headphones when out and about (due to my preference for maintaining audio awareness), and work primarily from a desk. When I do travel, I always take my laptop bag, which is big and already packed with gear. A pair headphones isn’t much extra to carry when considered along with all of the other gear I carry. If portability is one of your primary criterion, I’m the worst person to ask.

Selection Criteria

I have several preferences when it comes to headphones in general. Closed studio style over-ear headphones are my favorite. In-ear ear buds are also acceptable to me so long as they don’t rely on a component that rests around my neck. Wired ear buds with equal length wires (I really hate the style where the wires going to the ear buds are different lengths) and so-called true wireless are both good in my book. I dislike on-ear headphones because I get a headache from wearing them for too long and open studio style never appealed to me because, even though I want to maintain audio awareness, I like having some amount of isolation as well.

I also have several preferences when it comes to Bluetooth headphones specifically. One of my favorite things about wired headphones is that they don’t rely on an internal battery that needs to be recharged periodically. For Bluetooth headphones I’d prefer having a battery life measured in days rather than in hours. Knowing that Bluetooth headphones do need to be recharged, I’d prefer a USB-C charging port (but will consider all standardized connectors other than micro-USB) since that is becoming the powering standard for a wide range of devices.

While I avoid video conferences and talking on the phone as much as possible, built-in microphones for those occasions when I can’t avoid either is a definite plus. So long as the microphones are good enough that the person(s) with whom I’m conversing can understand me, they’re acceptable to me.

Audio playback controls are a must. I hate having to turn on my phone screen to pause music or skip a song. This preference is so strong that my favorite pair of headphones, my Sennheiser HD 280 PROs, see very little actual use anymore. They sound great and they’re very comfortable, but they lack audio playback controls. Instead I usually use my ear buds, which do have built-in audio playback controls.

Because of the number of shoddy products on the market, I gravitate towards products made by companies with which I have had positive experiences. The downside to this strategy is that a lot of great options released by new companies fall off of the radar. The upside is that I get burned far less often by shoddy products. For similar reasons I tend to shy away from newly released products even when they’re manufactured by companies I trust. When I was young, I was willing to be the guinea pig for new products. Now that I’m older and have less free time, I prefer to let other people be the guinea pigs.

Since Bluetooth headphones, unlike traditional headphones, are necessarily a disposable product due to both their built-in battery (which wears out and usually isn’t replaceable) and continuously aging technology (for example, you usually can’t add new Bluetooth features to old headphones), I didn’t want to spend a fortune on a pair. I capped my budget at $150.

Based on my preferences I narrowed down my options to a handful of products. My three favorite options were the Sony WH-CH710N, Sony WH-XB900N, and Sennheiser HD 450BT. I eliminated the Sony WH-XB900N because of its focus on bass, which isn’t my thing, and opted for the Sennheiser HD 450BT over the Sony WH-CH710N because the former supports more high quality Bluetooth codecs.

My Review

That was a lot of preamble for a review, but I believe a review is far more useful if you understand both the use case of the reviewer and their preferences.

As I noted above, I’m not going to delve too deeply into the usual consideration for headphone reviews like sound quality and the effectiveness of the active noise cancellation. Far more qualified individuals have already written extensively on those topics. Suffice to say these headphones sound good to my ears. I haven’t tested the active noise cancellation to any extent so I won’t say anything about its effectiveness.

The three most appealing features of Bluetooth headphones for me are that Bluetooth is built into most modern laptops and smartphones (I had dongles), there are no wires to get tangled, and you’re not tethered the the audio source. My office is in the basement of my house. If I go upstairs, I can get to the furthest edge of my kitchen, a distance of approximately 60 feet with several walls and a floor in between, before the HD 450BT loses its connect to my laptop. I will also note that I live in the country so there is very little electromagnetic interference in my house on the wavelengths used by Bluetooth other than my Wi-Fi network and one or two other Bluetooth devices I use such as my Apple Watch. I’m not sure whether the range I’m experiencing is considered good for a pair of Bluetooth 5.0 headphones, but I’m more than happy with it.

My biggest gripe with Bluetooth headphones was solved by the introduction of multipoint connectivity, which allows a single pair of Bluetooth headphones to simultaneously connect to two or more source devices. Unfortunately, multipoint support is a bit of a mess. I’m happy to report that the HD 450BT multipoint support when simultaneously connected to my laptop and phone has fulfilled my needs. As I noted above in my use case, I periodically need to switch my audio source between those two devices. What I don’t need to do is get audio output from both devices at the same time. When connected to my laptop and phone, the multipoint support provides output from one of the two devices at a time. If I’m playing music on my phone, I don’t get audio from my laptop and vice versa. To switch between the two devices I only need to pause the audio on one device, wait a second or two, and start playing audio on the other device.

I have experienced a couple of multipoint hiccups. The first is that sometimes when a notification is created on the device not currently playing audio, it’ll cause the playing audio to pause for a second or two (the notification sound may or may not play through the headphones). The second is that after pausing the audio on one device and attempting to restart it using the built-in audio playback controls, the command sometimes goes to the other device (so if I pause the music on my phone and press the headphone’s play button to restart it, that play command may go to my laptop instead). These hiccups manifest infrequently enough that it hasn’t motivated me to return to hard wired headphones.

Another quirk that I’ve experienced is that when somebody calls my phone, before answering the call the microphones activate and route the the sounds to the speakers. If somebody calls when I’m typing, I can suddenly hear my mechanical keyboard very clearly. I’d prefer the microphones not activate unless I answer the call and maybe this is a but that will be fixed in a future firmware update.

Speaking of firmware updates, one gripe I do have with these headphones is that firmware upgrades can only be applied using the Sennheiser Smart Control app. This gripe applies to most Bluetooth headphones so it shouldn’t be seen as a criticism specific to the HD 450BT, but a criticism of Bluetooth headphones in general. I want to apply firmware updates using fwupd on Linux. But if Sennheiser is going to relegate me to using its app to apply firmware updates, it would be nice if the app wasn’t so bloody slow. The firmware update I recently applied took at least half an hour, which seems like a ridiculous amount of time to apply a firmware update to a pair of headphones. This is easily my least favorite thing about these headphones and the only saving grace is that firmware updates seem far and few between.

Sennheiser advertises 30 hours of battery life for the HD 450BT. That advertised battery life is with active noise cancellation enabled. As I stated above, I don’t like active noise cancellation and always turn it off. When active noise cancellation is disabled, the battery life increases significantly. I last charged my headphones on Friday afternoon and have used them heavily since then including through two working days. While I do turn them off a night, I’d estimate they’ve been running between 30 and 40 hours (not always playing audio, I do pause my music when I have to concentrate on something). As I write this Tuesday afternoon, the Sennheiser app on my iPhone shows the battery charge is still at 90%. When I press the volume up and down buttons simultaneously, the headphones report more than 12 hours of playtime remains (which I believe is the maximum the headphones will report). Needless to say, I’m very happy with the battery life of these.

Pressing the volume up and down buttons simultaneously to get the battery life probably seems a bit intuitive and one of the more common criticisms I’ve read about these headphones is the unintuitive layout of the built-in controls. All of the controls are located on the bottom of the right speaker. From front to back there is the power button that doubles as the active noise cancellation activation and deactivation button, the volume down and up buttons, a three position audio playback control switch, and a button for activating a phone’s voice assistant (such as Siri on the iPhone). I actually like the button layout and for the most part really like the audio playback switch. Pressing down on the switch will play or pause your audio, pressing the switch forward goes back a song, and pressing the switch backwards goes to the next song. The only annoyance for me is that pressing down to pause or play music can be finicky. If the switch isn’t perfectly centered when you press down, the control doesn’t activate. Since the switch is easily moved slightly forward or backward when pressing down on it, it’s pretty easy to press the button without your audio playing or pausing.

The last thing I want cover is comfort. A common criticism of these headphones is that they’re uncomfortable when worn for a long time. Most reviews attribute this to the small holes in the ear cups. My Sennheiser HD 280 PRO headphones have large holes in the ear cups so my ears have plenty of room. The HD 450BT has narrow holes in the ear cups. The holes are slightly wider than my thumbs, which is just barely large enough room for my ears. If I don’t position the headphones with some care, the ear cups will press down on parts of my ears. I did find some aftermarket ear cups that are supposed to be more comfortable and may invest in a pair at some point, but the stock ones are decently comfortable although not nearly as comfortable as ear cups on the HD 280 PRO. Compared to the HD 280 PRO, which has a wide headband with a replaceable thick pad wrapped around the top, the headband on the HD 450BT isn’t nearly as comfortable. It’s narrow and the only padding is a thin integrated strip of rubber on the inside that has no discernible padding. I do like the clamping force of these headphones. It’s strong, but not too strong. To me the clamping force feels lower than on the HD 280 PRO, but it’s not so low that I’m worried about them falling off of my head. Overall, I find the HD 450BT to be adequately comfortable when worn for hours, but a couple of steps below the HD 280 PRO.

Summary

I paid $99 for them and at that price I’m happy with my purchase. The multipoint feature fits my use case, the battery life is great (with the caveat that I disable the active noise cancellation), there are built-in audio playback controls, and the headphones are adequately comfortable. I’m not impressed with the Smart Control app, especially with the speed at which is updates firmware, but that’s an unhappiness I would likely have with any pair of Bluetooth headphones. If you’re looking for a pair of Bluetooth headphones in the $100 ballpark, I recommend considering them.

New Theme

Your eyes aren’t deceiving you. I changed the theme for the first time, at least that I can recall, since I started this blog. The old theme hadn’t been updated in a long time and a recent plugin update caused a catastrophic error to occur in the administration interface (why a theme that is only used by the user facing part of the site causes errors on the administration facing part of the site is something I can only attribute to WordPress being, well, WordPress).

I switched the theme over to the least offensive one I could find on short notice. I may change it again if I find something I like better. However, it’s tough finding a theme that doesn’t want to take up a third of the top of the page with a useless image, only show summaries of posts on the main page (I want the complete contents of each post to show on the main page to save you pointless clicking), or otherwise waste screen real estate and introduce unnecessary clicking. This blog is predominantly text and most themes seem geared towards multimedia (which is why I stuck to my old theme for so long). Maybe my preference in simple themes shows that I’m an old curmudgeon when it comes to blogging.

They’re Not Real Anarchists

Facebook performed another purge. Amongst the disappeared were a number of anarchist groups:

Today Facebook deleted a variety of far-Right militia and Qanon accounts along with anarchist and antifascist pages, including It’s Going Down and CrimethInc. The following is a joint statement in response.

This follows on the heels of Biden saying anarchists should be prosecuted and Trump taking a swipe at anarchists.

There’s nothing surprising about these events. Anarchists are a threat to the very system that Biden and Trump depend on for power and Facebook is usually quick to demonstrate its loyalties to the political class by banning whatever they’re criticizing at the moment. What is more fascinating to me are the anarchists who start going down the those aren’t real anarchists wormhole. Shortly after Facebook finished its purge I started seeing a number of anarchists, mostly those who identify as voluntaryists, posts memes saying, “Real anarchy is,” followed by any number of nonviolent but illegal or quasi-legal activities such as buying raw milk, homeschooling children, and dodging taxes. This is the same reaction I see whenever violence is attributed to anarchists by the mainstream media.

I take umbrage with this response for two reasons. My first reason is that it ignores a huge part of anarchist history. Anarchists have participated in revolutions, political assassinations, bombings, and other acts of violence. There is even a term amongst anarchists for such actions: propaganda of the deed. Anarchism shouldn’t be treated as a single unified philosophy, but as a number of different philosophies that share the common cause of opposing statism.

The second reason I don’t like this response is because it strikes me as pleading. Trump, Biden, and Facebook are not friends or allies to anarchists. Anarchists shouldn’t give two shits what any of them say about anarchists. Anarchists should setup and use their own social media platforms if for no other reason than to avoid having all of their personal information handed over to law enforcers by Facebook, Twitter, and other social media household names. Instead of telling them to go pound sand, the anarchists making these statements are effectively saying, “Your criticisms are fair, but I want you to know that my friends and I are not like that. We’re real anarchists! Please like us!”

When politicians or Silicon Valley companies say something disparaging about anarchists, I’d rather give them the finger than people who at least agree with me on a foundational level about the need to abolish government. I understand that an anarcho-communist is unlikely to agree with a vast majority of my individualist anarchist views, but I certainly have more common cause with them than I do with the likes of Trump, Biden, or Facebook.

Educating People in Order to Argue with Them

Long ago I was taken aback when a friend of mind who was a prolific online debater told me he swore off online debates. I was curious and asked him why. He said, “I’m tired of educating people just so I can debate them.”

After that conversation I started to pay attention to my online debates and quickly realized that most of what I thought was debating was actually educating. Since I hold views that are outside of the zeitgeist, most people I encounter have little, if any, understanding of them. In a majority of online debates the people with whom I’m debating make arguments that have no meaning within the context of what I’m saying. I then have to spent time educating them about what I mean just so they can actually debate me.

I’m certainly not unique in this. Consider Marxists for a moment. It’s pretty easy for them to have a very rudimentary debate about workers’ rights because that issue is part of the zeitgeist. However, if they want to make an argument based on historical materialism, they usually have to invest time in educating the other individual(s) on the subject so they have enough of an understanding to intelligently debate the issue. Libertarians have the same issue. It’s pretty easy for a libertarian to debate somebody about decriminalizing cannabis because that issue is part of the zeitgeist. But when a libertarian wants to debate monetary theory, they have to first teach their opponent(s) about the Austrian tradition of economics.

This problem runs even deeper. Few in what I will refer to as the masses appear to be educated on the topics of rhetoric and formal debate. Rhetoric is the skill of speaking convincingly. Formal debate is a framework which establishes ground rules for debates. A lot of people tend to conflate the two. They will try to argue against rhetoric by citing logical fallacies and make statements in a formal debate that contain logical fallacies. For example, consider the phrase “All cops are bastards.” The statement is valid rhetoric, but would not fly in a formal debate because the proposition is made with insufficient data (namely that every single individual who works in law enforcement is a bastard even though the debater is likely basing their argument on a small sample size of law enforcers).

I’m going to create two sides to further illustrate this issue: pro-cop and anti-cop. An anti-cop individual may say, “All cops are bastards,” as a form of rhetoric. They may not have meant the statement literally nor were they taking part in a formal debate. They’re merely trying to convince people to join their cause. But a pro-cop individual may rebut with, “That’s a hasty generalization fallacy!” The pro-cop individual is citing a rule that doesn’t apply to the situation. Now I’ll change the scenario. The two individuals have agreed to participate in a formal debate. When the anti-cop individual says, “All cops are bastards,” it would be proper for the pro-cop individual to say, “That’s a generalization fallacy,” because they both agreed to operate under the rules of formal debate.

How does this relate the the need to educate people in order to argue with them? More often than not I run into individuals who know nothing about rhetoric or formal debate. Their counterarguments will often involve pointing out logical fallacies in my rhetoric and making logical fallacies of their own. They know just enough about logical fallacies to recognize and call out a few of them, but not enough to avoid making the rest (which is usually the majority) of them or to know when they are appropriate to cite. They unknowingly (or knowingly, but I’m giving the benefit of the doubt here) attempt to establish an environment where I have to abide by the rules of formal debate while they operate by the rules of rhetoric. I then need to explain the difference between the two and convince them to pick one or the other. By the time that’s done the thread has digressed so far that everybody has lost interest.

This is where I reminisce about the good old days of the Internet when I could participate in online debates without having to spend a lot of time educating my opponents just so they could intelligibly argue with me. At one time I blamed the change on the diminishing state of education in the United States. However, when I was reminded of the term Eternal September, I started to blame two related issues: everybody and their grandmother is now online and Internet forums are more centralized. The early Internet was broken up into a large number of small Usenet groups, forums, and chatrooms. Most of those were topical so the people who joined usually already had an interest and at least a basic understanding of the group’s, forum’s, or chatroom’s topic. Today it’s not uncommon for a random user to find a Facebook group because it appeared on their Timeline when one of their friends made a comment in it. That random user may have no understanding of the group’s topic, but they end up posting a comment to the thread because they saw it on their Timeline and disagreed with something another user posted.

The Exodus

When COVID-19 started making headlines, I didn’t think much of it. A new virus makes the headlines every few years. But when governments started using COVID-19 as a justification to implement severe restrictions, I started to wonder if we were on the cusp of a major shift in the status quo. Now that we’re several months into the restrictions put into place to “flatten the curve,” I’m all but certain that we’re in the midst of major changes.

One major shift that has come of government COVID-19 policies is the worker migration from offices to home. Before the lock downs were implemented a lot of companies were still skeptical of the work from home model. At the beginning of the lock downs those companies were forced to either shutdown or transition to a work from home model. Now that those businesses have been operating on a work from home model for several months many of them are starting to question the old model. Consider the cost of maintaining a large office in a central hub for your employees. There’s the cost of the building itself. It’s either owned; in which case the costs of the building, upkeep, and property taxes are incurred; or it’s rented; in which case the monthly rent is incurred. Then you have the cost of municipal services such as electrical power, water, and sewer. Most offices offer employees some amenities such as coffee, snacks, etc. Often forgotten are the costs of added risks such as employees being injured or killed during their commute, employees coming in late or being unable to come in at all due to weather, and business being disrupted by power outages, civil unrest, etc. And then there are future costs to consider such as likely tax hikes as various levels of government scramble to make up for lost revenue.

It should come as no surprise that businesses are looking at the current landscape and questioning whether they should flee their expensive central hubs now that many of their employees are working from home:

A new survey by the Downtown Council shows 45 business owners say they are considering leaving downtown – citing the lack of people working or socializing downtown – and the idea that the police department could be dismantled.

[…]

“We are seeing business owners wanting to eliminate the overhead, especially in a world where it looks like there’s going to be a more hybrid approach happening – and people are going to be working from home – business owners and companies are looking to downsize,” he said.

Keep in mind that these are 45 business owners that bothered to participate in a survey. The overall number is almost certainly higher.

This exodus would cause a domino effect. If major companies begin to flee a city, supporting companies usually follow. What’s the point of operating a restaurant or a bar in a city if nobody is eating or drinking there? Likewise, employees that moved to the city because they wanted a short commute may begin looking for a place that’s cheaper and/or nicer. Minnesota is already seeing this as people working from home ask themselves why they shouldn’t work from lakefront property (or in my case, why not work from the woods).

Besides work the other major attraction of large cities has traditionally been big events. Concerts, sports, festivals, etc. usually happen in large cities. But those also vanished when the lock downs were implemented. Downtown Minneapolis is currently a ghost town compared to a few months ago and the same is probably true of other major cities.

We may be witnesses the beginning of the end of a system that really took off with the Industrial Revolution: population centralization. The Industrial Revolution brought factories and factories needed a lot of manpower so they tended to be built in existing population centers. Those factory jobs tended to pay better than farm work so laborers started to migrate from rural areas to those population centers. There was a cycle where factories went to where laborers could be found en masse and laborers started migrating to where factories could be found en masse.

A lot of labor is no longer physical and the Internet provides a mechanism for nonphysical labor to be done remotely. Thus the groundwork exists for the Industrial Revolution cycle to be broken. Employees can live in the boonies and work for a company whose nearest office is several hundred miles away or even across the globe. Many other city attractions also disappeared or went remote.

I think we may be at the beginning of an exodus away from cities. If it occurs, this could end up being another epoch like the Industrial Revolution.

Moving Up in the World

If anybody is still checking this feed, I want to let you know that I finally escaped the Twin Cities region. The misses and I bought a house on a few acres of land out in the country. While I wouldn’t necessarily advise buying a house at the moment (with the way things are going you’ll probably get some stellar deals in a few months if you’re willing to buy during a time of major economic uncertainty), the housing and land prices out in the country aren’t nearly as insane as they are in the metro area.

The only downside is that my Internet is much slower. Since this site is still hosting on a server in my home, the site’s performance will probably be terrible, but I’m not making any money off of this site so I don’t really care. With that said, that single trade-off is well worth all of the benefits (especially if shit keeps going downhill, I don’t really want to deal with civil unrest in a major metropolitan area).

Now that my biggest project is crossed off of the list, I hope to get back to writing more frequently.

Dream Job

Yesterday news broke that “Mean” Gene Okerlund died. Okerlund had one of my dream jobs. In the absurdity that is professional wrestling he played the straight man. If a coked out man in a flamboyant costume said something batshit insane he wouldn’t bat and eye and would continue his interview as if he were interviewing the CEO of a company. I’d say he managed to do what many people don’t, he lived an interesting and entertaining life.

Ten Years

It’s hard to believe that I started my blog almost 10 years ago (it came online January of 2009). In that time I’ve written 7,878 posts on a lot of different topics.

Looking back at my decade of blogging I can say that it has been a good use of time. Writing, like all other activities, is improved with practice and regularly blogging gives a lot of writing practice. Moreover, writing about topics requires more thinking than one might otherwise do. It’s also interesting for me to look back at how my interests and beliefs have changed over the last decade.

While I find that blogging has been greatly beneficial to me it has also be time consuming. In order to focus on other projects, I’m planning to do quite a bit less blogging in the coming years. I don’t plan to stop completely but I can’t keep up this pace while also keeping up with everything else. You’ll see new content here in 2019 but not as much. When the other projects I’m focusing on are further along, I’ll post about them here.

Anyways, here’s another the end of 2018 and the beginning of 2019. Hopefully the new year ends up being as absurd as the last year (I would hate to be bored in 2019).