Sunday, January 19, 2020

Duolingo: Lessons Learned after Three Trees and Beyond

If you aren't already being nagged by the little green bird hundreds of millions of users like me affectionally know as Duo, then you might not be familiar with the incredibly popular language learning app Duolingo. Duolingo offers 94 free courses in 23 different languages. What's unique about the app is that it gamifies the language learning process. By taking language lessons, you receive points. If you use the app every day, you can maintain your streak. You can even compete with other users in leagues.

I have spent a lot of time on the Duolingo app myself over the years. Through it, I've studied 6 languages for a total of 21,776 points, known as XP. I have completed the trees (meaning all of the available lessons at least once), in three of those languages: Arabic, French, and Korean. In all that time, I think I've learned a few things, so I thought I would share them with any readers out there who may use or be thinking of using this free and easy language learning tool:

  • Not all languages on Duolingo are created equal. I found the Arabic tree in particular to be quite weak and low-level, while French is extremely detailed and well-developed.
  • You can lose a trophy even after you complete a tree! After you complete a language tree, you get a special golden trophy for that language. I did this for French a long time ago, but when they did a major update and added more lessons I lost my coveted trophy! The worst part was, there was no way to test out of any of the added portions. So now I am painstakingly going through all the French lessons again so I can get my trophy back. I'm still bitter about this.
  • I find the lessons best for intermediate learners to maintain. I think starting Duolingo as a true beginner is hard, especially in languages like Korean and Arabic with a different alphabet. Very advanced learners might find most of the lessons too easy, so I recommend it most for learners who have had just some basic education in the language. It also works well for those of us who need a refresher on a language not used often or recently.
  • If you're competitive, the leagues can be a major motivator. I am amazed at how much time people have to spend on Duolingo when I see the high scores of the leagues I'm in, but then again they always push me to do more and more to stay in the upper ranks myself.
  • There's no correct number of languages to study. I've seen users start a ton of languages or go all in on one language for years and years. I'm clearly somewhere in between, but I think it all depends on your learning goals. I will say I've never seen someone succeed at learning multiple new languages at the exact same time.
  • It's totally worth submitting corrections. A lot of my corrections have been accepted when I get a question wrong but feel that my answer should have been accepted (just tap the flag icon when it says you got an answer wrong). They've been pretty quick to respond in multiple languages, so I think they're pretty agile with user suggestions like those.
  • The app is better for vocabulary than grammar. The app generates unexpected sentences (like the one from the screenshot at the top of this post) and does a good combination of exercise types to help you retain vocabulary, but I find it a bit lacking in grammar explanations. Other apps like Mango have great grammar explanations, but they're not free so it is what it is.
  • Lingots have become useless. The in-game currency of lingots used to be valuable, but now inflation is so high they're pretty useless. If you do just a small amount of Duolingo here and there, you'll still have enough lingots to buy whatever you want.

So what's been your experience with Duolingo? Love it or hate it? Feel free to let me know in the comments, and happy language learning!

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Tesla Model 3 Review at 10,000 Miles

After exactly five months, we just reached 10,000 miles with our Tesla Model 3. Every mile has been amazing.

We picked up our Tesla the day after we returned from Kenya. We ordered it while still overseas and requested a delivery date the week we returned, which worked out perfectly. Tesla does not haggle on pricing, so every vehicle is purchased through the website even if you go to a showroom in person. There was an option either to have the car delivered to our address or to pick it up from a service center, but I read that it's best to choose the service center in case there are any minor defects that can be resolved on the spot. The delivery specialist at the Tysons Corner service center had us fill out some basic paperwork, and we carefully checked over the car for any flaws. There was some minor residue from shipping that they cleaned off immediately, but there was also a noticeable misalignment where the top glass met the windshield which we scheduled to be fixed at a later time. We collected our key cards (there are no traditional keys; you normally use your phone and have the key cards as a backup) and off we went.

Driving a Tesla is unlike anything else. Since there are no gears to shift, all of the power is available the moment you press the accelerator—and there is no shortage of power. The Model 3 currently comes in three variations, including the low-end Standard Range Plus RWD (250mi, 5.3s 0-60), up to the high-end Performance AWD version (310mi, 3.2s 0-60). We choose the intermediate option, the Long Range AWD which gets 322 miles of range and goes from 0 to 60 mph in 4.4s. (N is reminded of the specs everytime we are at the front of the line at a stop light.) When you do have to slow down, you almost never need to move your foot. The electric motors of the car will use friction not only to slow down the car, but also charge the battery at the same time. This is referred to as regenerative braking. It's called one-pedal driving since you only have to manipulate the accelerator both to speed up and slow down, and you'll never want to go back to two pedals after you get used to it.

Even if you are not interested in the performance aspects or do not like driving at all, a Tesla is still the best vehicle you can buy. Tesla's full-featured autopilot is years ahead of any other manufacturer's, and it makes even stop-and-go traffic manageable. It uses eight cameras and various sensors to recognize the entire environment and drive accordingly. Also, since the Tesla has few moving parts, there is practically no scheduled maintenance. Other than tires and windshield wipers, which need to be periodically replaced on any car, there are only a few things to be checked every few years. Even the brake pads rarely get replaced due to the regenerative braking. It's expected that most Teslas will last for over a million miles. In the case of something unexpected, the car tells you exactly the problem on the screen; it does not just display a small "check engine" light that leaves you wondering what is wrong.

Many people dismiss full-electric vehicles because they are worried about running out of charge or not being able to drive long distances. However, neither of these are an issue with a Tesla. Besides the fact that an electric vehicle will travel much further on the same amount of energy than a internal combustion engine (ICE) car, it also provides highly accurate estimates of how much charge you'll have remaining when you reach your destination—unlike an ICE vehicle where you have to guess how much fuel you'll use and have remaining. Typically you should have a way to plug in the car at your home, and most people charging overnight will easily recoup the electricity used for their normal commute. But in addition to home charging, there are also thousands of public chargers scattered around. These are usually located at businesses that use the chargers as a way to bring in more customers, many of which are free while others will charge a minimal rate. We happen to have a free charger in our apartment building's garage, so driving our car is virtually free.

For people like us who like road trips, Tesla has built the most extensive network of fast chargers (called Superchargers) across the country. You can travel anywhere in the U.S. just by using the supercharger network. You typically only need to wait 15-20 minutes to charge enough to get to your next stop: just enough time to stretch your legs, get something to eat (most superchargers are at shopping centers or convenience stores), watch an episode of your favorite show on Netflix (or Hulu, YouTube, Twitch, etc.) with the 15" screen and amazing sound system, or play a video game (including Stardew Valley, Cuphead, Beach Buggy Racing, and multiple board and arcade games). Tesla also makes the highway hours more enjoyable, with autopilot doing most of the driving, and Caraoke providing entertainment for the passengers. We have taken three long trips so far (2400mi, $50 / 1300mi, $50 / 600mi, $20) and they were all the best times on the road that we have had.

One of the best parts of having a Tesla is how often they get over-the-air updates. In the five months that we have had the car, we have received six updates. Two of them have been "bug fix" updates, but all the others have included new features, including multiple entertainment options, a 5% performance increase (yes, the car is now faster than when we bought it), and improvements to the security system (four of the cameras constantly monitor all sides of the car and record if anything gets nearby). Tesla also takes feedback from users, so popular feature requests can actually be implemented within months. This is one reason why Tesla does not really use model years, since a car bought years ago can have the same features and functionality of a car bought today. You can go to bed one night and wake up in the morning with a car that still feels brand new.

If there is anything bad to say about Tesla, it would be that their customer service can be hit or miss. Unfortunately for those of us in Northern Virginia, we normally have to deal with the Tysons Corner service center, which has to be one of the worst service centers in the country, both with communication and workmanship. However, Tesla also has Mobile Service, which can come to your location to take care of most small issues, such as replacing a damaged or faulty part, and for larger issues we can drive to Richmond, which has one of the best service centers around. Luckily you rarely ever need service, but hopefully Tesla is able to standardize their service level at all locations in the future.

Sadly we will not be able to take our Tesla with us when we move to Seoul in July, but we plan to enjoy every minute of driving until then. If you have any questions about our experience or you plan to buy a Tesla and want a referral code for a free 1,000 miles of supercharging, please post in the comments below.

Friday, December 27, 2019

For the Whole Week of Christmas, Korean Gave to Me: An Over-the-top "ISP"

We're almost at the end of "winter break"/"holiday break", which means I'm almost done with my ISP. What's an ISP? It's short for Independent Self-study Plan, my golden ticket to avoid taking any leave around the holidays. As a new federal employee, I don't accumulate very much vacation time and I enjoy saving it as much as possible for future trips or emergencies. Moreover, because I'm staying in Department of State-provided temporary housing, I technically need to pay for every single day of leave I take while I am here. (Training leave is, unfortunately, not included in the deal. Estimates I've heard from colleagues of cost per day of taking leave is anything from $150-250 for a one-bedroom apartment for two people. So we take that seriously.)

So that's where the ISP comes in to save the day. Our language classes took a break for the holidays, so the only way to dodge taking leave was to create an ISP and commit to studying full-time on non-holiday days. You could also choose to split the days with no class, so you only need to come up with a study plan for days that you're not taking leave. I decided to go all in and study every single day we didn't have a holiday off, so I especially appreciated the extra holiday the President signed for us on Christmas Eve.

They really do take the ISP seriously. One night, I got home late from seeing a show with my sister and I figured I would just submit that day's log the next morning. I was surprised to get an email that morning, though, calling me and a classmate out for missing the previous day's study log and prompting us to upload it right away. I guess not everyone is on leave for the holidays. (Even with their strictness in adhering to the policy, the title of this post is definitely unfair... I gave myself an over-the-top ISP, so I only have myself to blame.)

I learned later than approved ISPs could take a lot of shapes and forms. I thought we had to be very specific, but I later learned that others had more general guidelines and I wish I'd been more flexible in constructing mine. More than once, self-motivated studying 7-8 hours per day by myself was a complete slog. There were a few moments when I'm sure I looked just like the stock photo I used for this post! (On a related note, I've learned I am definitely not a work-from-home type of employee.) At the end of the day, though, I'm glad I did the ISP because not only did I save leave but I hope I will have lost a little less of the Korean in my brain by the time we roll back into class in January. We'll see if that effort actually paid off after all!