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 ( 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in the main tree that were originally only available by paying lingots (Duolingo’s original in-app currency, which has been replaced by gems… except when it hasn’t).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.


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.


Yesterday I said I was going to try Feedbin, a potential replacement for Google Reader, when Reeder was updated to support it. This is where I admit that I’m not a patient man, when there is something new and shiny to try out I want to try it right now. Needless to say I decided to open a Feedbin account and give it a try even though Reeder doesn’t support it yet.

I’ll save you a lengthy writeup of my initial impressions and just give a bullet point summary of my thoughts.

The Good

  • It successfully imported my feeds from the file Google Takeout provided me.
  • The site always uses Hypertext Transfer Secure (HTTPS) (I’m still baffled by the number of sites that use unsecured connections).
  • The web interface, both on desktop and mobile systems, is very clean and straight forward.
  • Adding new feeds is very easy (I’m surprised by the number of Really Simply Syndication (RSS) clients and services that fail in this regard).
  • No advertisements.
  • You can easily export your list of subscriptions.
  • The developer is pretty upfront about planned features for the service.

The Bad

  • No way (at least that I’ve found) to rename feeds or tags.
  • No way (at least that I’ve found) to easily delete tags, you have to remove the tag from each feed individually.
  • The interface doesn’t allow you to sort feeds based on tags.
  • It’s currently unsupported by Reeder (this isn’t Feedbin’s fault, but it’s an important feature for me).

The Indifferent

  • It’s not free (which is why there are no advertisements).
  • There’s a complete lack of social media features (I’m not against social media features, I just don’t use them).

Overall I like the service so far. While part of me still isn’t used to paying for an online service the other part of me that enjoys a complete lack of advertisements and other attempts of monetizing user data is quite content. When you sign up on the site it notifies you that your card won’t be charged if you cancel within the first three days. Since I like what I’ve seen so far I’m going to pay the whopping $2.00 and try it for an entire month.

PMC Ammunition Review

Like numerous other gun bloggers I was contacted by Anthony at LuckyGunner with an offer of free ammunition in exchange for a review. My guess is that these offers are being sent out as part of a Search Engine Optimization (SEO) strategy. I’m OK with that, offering free ammunition in exchange for a writeup that gives another link to LuckyGunner is a perfectly fair trade in my opinion. Unfortunately due to holiday craziness and rather unpleasant weather it took me some time to get to the point of actually testing the ammunition. LuckyGunner sent me 100 rounds of PMC .45 Auto, which I tested in my Glock 30SF, Glock 21, and Beretta CX4 (because I’m the only person dumb enough to get a CX4 in .45 Auto). Due to the weather we’re currently subjected to in Minnesota I did a simple function test. That is to say I just tested if the ammunition worked or not, I didn’t haul out my chronography to get muzzle velocity reading. Needless to say the ammunition worked in all three guns without any trouble. Granted my Glocks have eaten everything I’ve fed them and my CX4 only gets cranky when fed Wolf ammunition so I wasn’t expected any problems.

With all of that said there is one thing I want to mention about PMC .45 Auto ammunition, they use large pistol primers. I reload almost all of my own ammunition and have noticed several companies moving to small pistol primers for their .45 Auto brass. This move pisses me off because nothing puts the brakes on a reloading run like a brass case refusing to accept a primer. One of my biggest criteria for .45 Auto ammunition is whether or not the brass uses large pistol primers. If the brass does use large pistol primers it’s good, if it uses small pistol primers it’s bad. This is because .45 Auto, being a low pressure cartridge, can be reloaded numerous times. Buying factory ammunition is a painful ordeal because it involves paying far more than I can reload for so I try to recoup some of the costs in reloading the casings. The more times I can reload a case the more of my costs I can recoup.

In conclusion I have no problem recommending PMC ammunition. It functions and the cases can be reloaded, which are my only two major criteria.

My Initiation iPhone 5 Impressions

On Black Friday I was made aware of the fact that AT&T had refurbished iPhone 5s for sale. This caught my eye because the cost of refurbished iPhone 5s was $100.00 less than brand new ones and still came with the same warranty. On top of that my contract was up so I was eligible for one of those steeply subsidized discounts that are all the rage with cellular phone users. I upgraded my old iPhone 4 for a new black iPhone 5 with 64GB of storage.

Although I’ve only had the phone for a few hours I feel safe giving my initial impressions. Overall I like the new iPhone. Apple installed a taller screen that, thankfully, is the same width at the iPhone 4 screen (I can still operate the phone with one hand, something that becomes more difficult as phone width increases) and Long Term Evolution (LTE) radios. Another positive change is a mostly aluminum back plate, which I hope it more sturdy than the iPhone 4’s glass back plate (I never broke mine but I know many who did).

Beyond those changes, some notable hardware improvements, and a new connector (which I’ll rant about in a bit) the iPhone 5 is a standard iPhone. If you like the previous iPhones you’ll probably like the iPhone 5 and if you disliked the previous iPhones you’ll probably dislike the iPhone 5.

Compared to the iPhone 4 the iPhone 5 feels like a toy. That’s not to say it doesn’t feel sturdy, the phone doesn’t creak or make any other odd sounds when you press on it, it’s just light. In fact it’s so light that it feels like an empty casing in your hand when compared to the iPhone 4. I doubt the weight difference is going to be appreciated by anybody as it is a very minor thing but it’s still something to note.

Since I upgrade from an iPhone 4 I never had much hands on experience with Siri. Siri is a pretty nice feature and has worked reasonably well for the minor testing I’ve performed so far. I should note that I’ve had great success with voice recognition software on Android so my expectations were high from the beginning. My testing consisted of performing searches, sending text messages, opening applications, and telling Siri to go fuck herself. Overall I was impressed although I must note that many foreign works are not transcribed properly by Siri (try doing a search for Odin, Thor, or any other Norse god and you’ll be amused with the results you get). Siri also has a decent sense of humor. When I asked “Do you know HAL-9000?” the response was “Everybody knows what happened to HAL, I’d rather not talk about it. But if you insist:” and the option to search the web for HAL is available. Little touches like that amuse me greatly and I do appreciate the attention to detail in that regard.

I was surprised to find an LTE signal in my dwelling. As far as I knew AT&T had not rolled out LTE in the Twin Cities yet. Even though LTE comes with the promise of blazing speed I ran a speed test on my LTE connection and was left wanting. The average download speed was a pathetic 4.63Mbps and the average upload speed was an even more pathetic 2.56Mbps. Perhaps the slow speeds are due to the fact that LTE is technically rolled out in the Twin Cities yet or it could be due to a ton of iPhone 5 users connecting to the LTE tower and soaking up all the glorious bandwidth. Either way I plan to do more speed tests in the future to see if things improve.

One of the most notable changes on the iPhone 5 is the connector. Gone are the days of the 30-pin iPod connector that has served use so well. In its place we now have Apple’s new connector which they dub Lightening. What does this mean for you? It means all of those 30-pin connectors you’ve been collecting over the years are worthless. Considering the number of Apple devices I’ve purchased over the years this is a big headache for me. Of course Apple sells a 30-pin to Lightening adaptor but at $29.00 you’re better off buying new cables, which Apple only wants $19.00 for. I understand why Apple is moving away from the 30-pin connector as it takes up a notable amount of room but it’s still annoying.

Speaking of annoying Apple has included one of my biggest phone pet peeves on their newest phone; the headphone jack is on the bottom instead of the top. Granted moving the headphone connector is a minor inconvenience but it still pisses me off. Why should my phone be upside down just to have headphones plugged into it? Unless you’re going to say “It shouldn’t,” don’t bother answering that question because you’re wrong.

Overall I like the new iPhone although I will admit it’s not that much of an upgrade over the iPhone 4. If I had to summarize the difference between the iPhone 4 and iPhone 5 I would say the latter is merely a collection of nice, albeit minor, improvements that have become available over the last two years. Nothing about it is Earth shattering but I felt it was worth the upgrade cost. My feelings are obviously subject to change based on future experience but so far I’m impressed.

Atlas Shrugged Review

A couple of months ago I finally finished reading Atlas Shrugged. While I’ve attempted to read this book a few times before I could never get very far. Needless to say I decided to give it one last try because as a libertarian I’m expected to not only read this book but to memorized it and express my undying devotion of its author, Ayn Rand.

Apparently I’m not a very good libertarian because on an arbitrary scale from 0 to 1 I give Atlas Shrugged a 0.5. Some libertarians are likely to ask how I could avoid giving this tome any rating besides 1. Answering that question and others is fairly easy and if you want a more detailed review please read on.

First let me start by fully admitting my reason for not finishing the book on my previous attempts. The style of writing used by Ayn Rand falls squarely into the category of romanticism. Romanticism is a style of writing that became popular during the Age of Enlightenment and has several defining features, one of which is verbose scene descriptions. I’m not a fan of this type of writing because I have a functioning imagination and therefore don’t need fine details describing a scene. Personally I’m a fan of Isaac Asimov’s writing style, which can be best described as very clear and to the point with little ancillary detail given. Atlas Shrugged is hard for me to read because I find the writing style extremely boring.

Of course that’s not my only criticism of the book. Before delving farthing into the aspects I dislike about the title though I feel it best to explain what I did like (this part will contain spoilers, if you haven’t read the book and don’t want any parts spoiled just stop reading now). The core story of Atlas Shrugged is very good and does a great job of explaining the dangers of government regulations and collectivism. In the story we’re introduced to several extremely successful producers including the main star Dagny Taggart and her male counterpart Hank Rearden. Both Taggart and Rearden are the best in their field (railroad management and metallurgy respectively). Unfortunately the government in Atlas Shrugged mirrors our government today; it’s comprised almost entirely of dick bags.

The United States remains the last major state in the world that hasn’t turned entirely to socialism although it’s speeding down that highway. Members of the government and private industry have become infected with the ideas of the greater good, fairness, and other general collectivist ideals. Dagny’s brother, Jim, is the owner of Taggart Transcontinental, the company Dagney also works for. Unlike Dagney who is a capable and productive individual Jim is a complete putz who concerns himself with altruism (collectivist altruism, not true selflessness). While Dangy keeps trying to run the railroad Jim keeps making backdoor deals with government officials.

Throughout the story Taggart Transcontinental goes from the most successful railroad in the world to a failing company. Taggart Transcontinental isn’t the only failing company of course, every company is slowly dying due to ever increasing government regulation. Atlas Shrugged does a very good job of describing how government regulations can slowly pile up and start decimating private industry. Another thing this novel does well is celebrate the producer of goods and services.

Eventually the super hero of the story, John Galt, is introduced. Being the most intelligent man ever to walk on this planet Galt has come up with a plan to fight back; by going on strike. Throughout the story the most productive people in the United States disappear and it’s later revealed that Galt has been whisking them away to a secret location so their productive ability isn’t assisting the state. All the productive persons whisked away by Galt are hiding in a valley where they practice anarcho-capitalism (even though this is never stated but i’ll expand on that later). The people in the valley are actively practising agorism (once again this is never stated) as they have created a counter-economy separate from state influence.

The core story is the main attraction of this book and it is very good. Unfortunately this core story is buried under a pile of failure. This is the part of my review where I expect to hear calls for my crucifixion by other libertarians. Thankfully as a libertarian I’m well armed and therefore anybody coming to nail me to a cross is going to have a fight on their hands.

I mentioned that the people hiding in the valley were practicing anarcho-capitalism. The valley has no actual government although one former judge has been assigned the task to conflict resolution should the need ever arise. Since everybody in the valley has voluntarily agreed to the judge’s arbitration it can’t be said he is a state in any capacity. So we have a valley full of successful individuals who are practicing capitalism without any state involved.

This leads us to a logical fallacy that exists within Atlas Shrugged. It is stated that government is necessary to protect the people of a country yet the people in the valley prove otherwise. They exist under constant threat of state thugs marching in and arresting the lot of them but they managed to avoid this outcome by concealing their presence (they have a device that creates the illusion of the valley being empty). Likewise Rand explained the necessity of government in her essay The Nature of Government but wrote a story where her main characters, the heroes, demonstrated no such necessity exists. Were this merely a work of fiction I’d pay little attention to such a failure of logic but as this is a work of philosophy it needs to be brought to light, and that brings us to my next major criticism.

While Atlas Shrugged is written as fiction is it obvious Rand meant it to be a philosophical work. Rand wanted to write a hand guide to her philosophy of objectivism but must have believed wrapping it in the thin veil of a fictional universe would make it more approachable. Whatever her reason great lengths of the novel are dedicated to explaining objectivism without actually using the term. In fact John Galt spews out an insanely long monolog (I read the book on my Kindle so I lacked page numbers but I heard the number of pages to be roughly 75, which seems reasonable) that explains the finer details of objectivism. This monolog is legendary and for good reason as it’s basically the worst part about this book. Atlas Shrugged would have been greatly improved had Galt’s monolog been remove, placed into a separate paper about philosophy, and a brief summary had been given in place of the monolog.

Let’s talk about the characters. The characters in Atlas Shrugged would be more property placed in early Superman comics. What I mean by this is every character is one dimensional to a degree that’s impossible to overlook. Each good guy is wholly perfect while each bad guy is entirely disgusting. I’m not just talking about actions but even physically; the good guys are all described as representations of perfect human beauty while the bad guys are all beady eyed, fat, or otherwise physical unappealing. Every action taken by the good guys is met with success while the actions of the bad guys are always met with utter failure. I’m a fan of antiheroes like Spider Jerusalem, Marv from Sin City, Dirty Harry, and Snake Plissken because antiheroes are interesting as they have depth. While Snake Plissken is an ass who cares for little besides himself he still ends up saving the day in his own way. On the other hand I never enjoyed Superman because he was boring, he always did the morally correct thing. Unlike the good guys in Atlas Shrugged Superman actually fails from time to time, which creates some interest as you try to guess whether or not his current action will be successful or not.

There are also a concepts in Atlas Shrugged that were introduced and either forgotten or barely expanded upon. At one point the government develops a new super weapon, which I believe was meant to be a criticism of government’s general willingness to spend money on destructive means instead of productive means. With the introduction of this new weapon you would think it would eventually be used against the valley but the good guys residing there are too awesome to be located so that never happens. It was disappointing to read a great deal of buildup regarding this secret weapon only to have it play no significant importance to the greater story. Several other instances of this happen throughout the story.

Atlas Shrugged is my definition of mediocrity. Parts of the book are real page turners while other parts are difficult to get through. Galt’s monolog, by far the worst part of the book, took me a solid two weeks to get through because I could only tackle a page or two at a time before almost falling asleep. I honestly don’t think it’s a good novel and am confused why so many libertarians feel it is one of the greatest pieces of literature ever penned by human hands. If you want a fiction book that covers philosophy I’d recommend some Heinlein. Not only could the man write but his novels were interesting, his characters had depth, and his philosophy was secondary to the story as works of fiction should be.

LR-308 Review

It came to my realization that I’ve had my LR-308 for roughly one year now and so far haven’t actually written a review about the gun. Since I’m writing canned posts for your amusement I figured this is as good of time as any to finally write my review.

For those of you who don’t know the LR-308 is DPMS’s AR pattern rifle chambered in .308. While many often refer to it as an AR-10 it’s truthfully closer to an SR-25. Like the SR-25, the LR-308 shares many common components with the AR-15 including the trigger group, buffer tune, and stock. The LR-308 also uses SR-25 magazines so you can get inexpensive quality magazines from Magpul (which works perfectly in my rifle) instead of having to track down the far more expensive proprietary magazines used by the AR-10.

For reference this is a picture of my rifle:

I know it’s not the best picture but it was taken with the camera on my iPhone is less than ideal light. Since taking this picture I’ve removed the Magpul pistol grip and replaced it with the original A2 grip. Unfortunately the storage compartment in the Magpul grip kept falling out every time I fired the gun. Some people may ask why I didn’t just continue using the Magpul grip without the storage compartment and to those people I can only reply that I’m somewhat obsessive compulsive and if something doesn’t work 100% I don’t want to use it at all. I’m not actually a fan of the standard A2 grip as I find it a bit small for my hands, which are more accustomed to the large grip of the Glock .45 pistols. In time I plan on swapping out the grip with a Hogue but for now I’m just leaving well enough alone.

Beyond that I also replaced the standard DPMS trigger group. The stock trigger was extremely gritty and not at all uniform in its pull weight so I decided to replace it with a Geissele SSA. The SSA is an amazing trigger that breaks clean and requires little in the way of pull weight. Of course for the price they’re asking it should be making me breakfast in the morning as well but as they say buy once, cry once.

You can also see that I attached a Magpul Angled Fore Grip 2 (I first purchased an first model Angled Fore Grip but the wings wouldn’t allow me to slide it one past the front sling attachement point). The vertical fore grips I’ve played with before have left me wanting whereas holding onto a Picatinny rail is nothing but an exercise in pain so I went somewhere in between. I have to say I really like the angled fore grip as it offers several different methods of gripping onto it and the angle is more comfortable to me than placing my hand against the hand guard flat.

Finally I swapped out the standard DPMS charing handle for a BCM Gunfighter Mod 4. While the AR style charging handle ensures one will always have to remove his face from the butt stock to charge the rifle I can at least do it with one hand easier. I like the larger latch as it allows me to manipulate the handle while wearing gloves much easier than the stock one.

Beyond the above mentioned modifications my LR-308 is basically a DPMS affair. The upper has a forward assit (which I’ll never use but it looks kind of neat), free floating quad rail hand guard, and a 20″ heavy barrel. What may not be apparent is the fact that the upper receiver is a flat top with an attached sight/carry handle combination. Why not fancy optics on a .308? It’s because I setup the rifle for use in 3-gun heavy metal division, which requires a .308 or larger caliber and iron sights only. I can always unbolt the carry handle and drop an optic onto the rifle if I so desired.

Now that I’ve talked about the features of my rifle you’re probably wondering how it shoots. I one word beautifully. While I’m not sure on the maximum accuracy of the rifle since I only have iron sights and nowhere beyond 200 yards to shoot it I can say it’s more accurate than I am. Without issue the rifle holds 1 minute of angle at 100 yards (the best I can do with iron sights).

Recoil is very mangeable. While my M1A SOCOM 16 isn’t very difficult to shoot I can say I notice the recoil on that rifle more than my LR-308. Most of this is probably due to the fact the M1A is a far lighter rifle but part of it is also likely due to the way an AR pattern rifle operates. Since the bolt goes straight back into the butt stock and is inline with your shoulder you don’t get the rifle attempting to pivot up at the grip.

With all this said the rifle isn’t perfect. One ding against it is the sheer weight, the gun probably weighs between 11 and 12 pounds. This isn’t a big deal for a 3-gun competition since you’re only moving with your rifle for a few minutes at a time but carrying this monster around in the woods during deer season wouldn’t be a lot of fun. Most of this weight can be attributed to the 20″ heavy barrel. Although I fully admit the barrel is heavy it also doesn’t heat up to the point of throwing rounds as quickly as my M1A SOCOM 16 does (once you dump a magazine through the rifle the barrel has heated up an absurd amount).

Beyond that there isn’t much to say. If you’re familiar with the AR-15 platform you’ll be right at home with this rifle. The only major difference is size, the LR-308 is scaled up to accomodate the larger .308 round. The controls including the magazine release, bolt release, and safety all function identically to a standard AR-15. Like a standard AR-15, the LR-308 also utilizes direct gas impingement, a system many mall ninjas revile for its lack of tacticoolness. Then again the people complaining about the gas system are also likely the people complaining about the rifle being a DPMS, a cardinal sin to the mall ninjas who feel the quality of the rifle directly correlates to the price.

Those looking for a quality .308 that won’t bust the bank I can highly recommend the LR-308. While I admit it isn’t as wizbang cool as a SCAR 17 it also won’t cost you even half as much and you can actually find magazines for this rifle (with that said I really want a SCAR 17 so if you’d like to donate one please e-mail me and I’ll let you know where to send it).

Glock 30 10-Round Magazines

As my company is shutdown all week I have a nice little vacation going right now. For the first time in what seems like forever I was able to hit the range and decide to do a little practice with my Glock 30SF. While I love my 30SF there is one thing about it I don’t like, the 10-round magazines. I’m not sure what Glock was thinking when they manufactured these magazines but getting that last round into the magazine is tough. I don’t mean tough like a math test but tough like 300 Spartans being expected to hold back Xerxes’s entire fucking army. Worse yet if you do get the 10th round into the magazine without destroying your thumb or magazine loader you’re going to have a fun time slamming the magazine home if the slid isn’t locked back. Did I mention having the slide locked back and lead to another issue, when you release it there is no guarantee it will fly forward as that 10th round is often in no mood to move forward.

With all that said the magazine spring wears down over time and becomes usable. I honestly recommend pulling the magazine springs out of new 30SF 10-round magazines and working them for a while (just compress a few coils again and again until you’re bored. Why this is required on new factory magazines is beyond me but I know Glock isn’t one to admit mistakes and thus this problem will likely never be corrected.

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

As this is still a new movie I’ll try to avoid giving away any major spoilers but alas this review is not entirely without them. If you still haven’t seen the movie I recommend you go see it, if you’re looking for an entirely amateur review by a huge fan of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s character continue reading on.

While the new Sherlock Holmes movies are based on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s characters and elements are taken from his writings most of the experience is new. I think the new writers have done a spectacular job of keeping the most critical elements of the story; Holmes and his characteristics, an entirely competent and capable Watson (most movies portray Watson as a bumbling idiot, nothing like the character in the origional writings), and in this movie they made a very convincing Professor Moriarty. Unlike the original writings the new movies have been far more action oriented, which is good considering the change of medium requires different elements to remain entertaining.

Anyhow this move finally introduces us to Moriarty, Holme’s arch-rival (who only appeared in two of the original writings). To say Moriarty is a total bad ass is an understatement, the man was the original super villain and equally capable as Holmes. This is one of the few movies I’ve seen based on Sherlock Holmes that does Moriarty justice. Instead of focusing on the man’s evil intent A Game of Shadows focuses heavily on his intelligence and comparability to Holmes. The movie is basically one giant chess match between Holmes and Moriarty… except with more explosions and far more gun play.

Yes the movie contains a great deal of gun play. Whereas Holmes and Watson periodically carried a pistol the original writings contained relatively little gun play. Considering the fact movies need to contain more action that movies if they are to be entertaining (in my opinion at least) the increase in action scenes was only logical. Lots of stuff blows up and/or gets shot.

I thought the story was well done and presented the strengths of both main characters. As the movie is a new release I’ll not delve into the overall story to any detail but I will say it’s good.

Overall I greatly enjoyed the move and on the Christopher Burg Scale of Arbitrary Ratings compromising fractional scores between zero and one I give A Game of Shadows a .9024. I highly recommend seeing it although I may be somewhat bias as Moriarty is one of my favorite literary characters of all time and this movie truly does him justice.

Hobo With a Shotgun

This weekend I had the opportunity to watch one of the few films that delivers exactly what the title promises. The movie is titled Hobo With a Shotgun and does in fact have a Hobo with a shotgun.

There isn’t much to say, the film is an exploitation piece so the gore content is extremely high while the story and writing are almost non-existent. You know what? That’s OK when the goal of the film is to replication exploitation films of yore. Instead of explaining the film I think two quotes pulled from the movie can actually sum up everything perfectly:

Drake: When life gives you razor blades… you make a baseball bat covered in razor blades.

After stating that Drake picks up a baseball bat that is covered in razor blades (and then hits somebody with it). The move it extremely literal. But the most iconic dialog in the entire film has to be the following:

Abby: You can’t solve all of the world’s problems with a shotgun.

Hobo: It’s all I know.

Seriously with awesome lines like that how can you go wrong? I attributed the second line to Hobo because the Hobo’s name is never given at any point in the film.

So what’s my rating on it? I don’t really have one, you should be able to tell for yourself whether or not you want to see it based on the information found at the provided IMDB link.