Persone Ordinarie

Image Credit: Paramount Pictures

I am on a streak.

It is not a writing streak, which would be more impressive.

But I’ve used the Duolingo app to learn Italian for 407 consecutive days.

Listening to the Robinhood Snacks podcast this morning, I learned that one of the co-hosts is also learning Italian using the app:

Duolingo is the most downloaded education app in the world — and now it’s Pittsburgh’s 1st unicorn.

The language-teaching app just hit a $1.5B valuation, but we’re fascinated with how it makes money: You learn a new language while translating the internet for Duolingo’s client without realizing it.

Duolingo has had translating partnerships since 2013 and it’s a reminder of the maxim, ‘if you’re not paying for the product, you are the product’:

Over the last few weeks, our native Spanish, Portuguese, and French speakers learning English have been working together to translate BuzzFeed and CNN articles while practicing their English skills. All of these articles have been published in the international versions of BuzzFeed and CNN.

With over 10 million users, we’re now able to guarantee high-speed, high-volume translations in a matter of hours. By combining the effort of multiple students translating each phrase, our algorithms are able to produce crowdsourced translations as accurate as those from skilled professionals, meeting the quality standards of major publishers.

It helps that the new money coming into Duolingo hails from Alphabet’s ($GOOGL) venture fund CapitalG, a credible source:

Now with a new round of funding from Google parent Alphabet, the fast-growing language-learning platform is looking to expand its technology, marketing, and staff.

Duolingo, which offers the most-downloaded education app in the world, just raised $30 million in a Series F funding from Alphabet’s CapitalG late-stage growth venture fund, becoming the first Pittsburgh-based tech start-up valued at more than $1 billion by venture capital investors. Duolingo’s new valuation is $1.5 billion. It has raised a total of $138 million, including from existing investors such as Kleiner Perkins Caufield Byers, Union Square Ventures, New Enterprise Associates, Drive Capital, Ashton Kutcher, and Tim Ferriss.

Yes, occasionally, actor/angel investor Ashton Kutcher makes good bets:

To his credit, he’s also married to Mila Kunis.

Speaking of marriages, if you hear the Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s “Christmas Canon” as you holiday shop in stores, you will recognize the tune because it is based on Johann Pachelbel’s “Canon,” popularly played at weddings:

It dates to the late-17th or early 18th century, and there’s speculation that it was written as a gift for the wedding of Johann Sebastian Bach’s older brother, who studied with Pachelbel. Some musicological research claims it couldn’t have been composed before the 1690s, according to Elaine Sisman, a professor of music at Columbia University. Other hypotheses suggest that stylistically it could have come at any point in Pachelbel’s career (he lived from 1653 to 1706).

Whatever the circumstances, what has widely considered the oldest existing manuscript of the piece is a 19th-century copy in Germany at the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin, or Berlin State Library. And what many scholars can agree on is that from there — long before Pachelbel’s Canon would come to be a wedding sensation — it would fall into obscurity for hundreds of more years.

This month, everyone is talking about Martin Scorsese’s latest film The Irishman (2019) on Netflix ($NFLX), a potential Oscar frontrunner.

Coincidentally, the first time I heard Pachelbel’s “Canon” as a kid was from watching Ordinary People (1980), the film which beat Scorsese’s Raging Bull for Best Picture.

“Canon” plays at the very beginning and at the very end of Ordinary People.

To this day, people debate which film was more deserving of the Oscar win.

Perhaps, as Shane Parrish blogged, there is survivorship bias in this dispute:

Can we achieve anything if we try hard enough? Not necessarily. Survivorship bias leads to an erroneous understanding of cause and effect. People see a correlation in mere coincidence. We all love to hear stories of those who beat the odds and became successful, holding them up as proof that the impossible is possible. We ignore failures in pursuit of a coherent narrative about success.

Few would think to write the biography of a business person who goes bankrupt and spends their entire life in debt. Or a musician who tried, again and again, to get signed and was ignored by record labels. Or of someone who dreams of becoming an actor, moves to LA, and ends up returning a year later, defeated and broke. After all, who wants to hear that? We want the encouragement survivorship bias provides, and the subsequent belief in our own capabilities. The result is an inflated idea of how many people become successful.

The discouraging fact is that success is never guaranteed. Most businesses fail. Most people do not become rich or famous. Most leaps of faith go wrong. It does not mean we should not try, just that we should be realistic with our understanding of reality.

These days, technology can serve to educate, but may also be to blame for rising numbers in youth depression, a subject that Ordinary People addressed, while unknowingly resurrecting an obscure piece of baroque music:

‘Ordinary People’ — opening

But maybe you prefer the intermezzo of “Cavalleria Rusticana” in Raging Bull.

To each his (or her) own.




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John Bonini

John Bonini

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