Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Living Like a Nica (book review)

I like this book a lot, and I respect the author. Despite the byline of "Phil Hughes and Ana Patricia Lopez", I'd bet that almost 100% of it was actually written by Phil Hughes, who has a lot of experience in a lot of things.

From the bio that I found under "Linux for Dummies", (a book he co-authored) "Phil Hughes [was] the president of Specialized System Consultants (SSC) and the publisher of Linux Journal magazine." Since 1968 he has worked in computing as a...systems programmer, consultant, trainer, and writer. In 1983, armed with that one English class he took in college, he turned SSC into a company" that specialized "in documentation for UNIX systems."

I'll break this up into positive and negative sections and try not to sound stupid.

First, the bad stuff.

This book needs an editor. Editing, formatting and design don't improve a bad book but the lack of them hurts a good book, and this is a good one. "Living Like a Nica" is a good first draft, one you would hand off to a friend for a sanity check, but not a final version. This is odd given Mr. Hughes's publishing background.

Punctuation is inconsistent and sometimes bizarre, a kind of thing I've seen before from those writing on Unix or Linux platforms.

Some examples (which may not reproduce here: see illustration) are: don´t, aren't, ¨busy¨, “important possessions”, where the apostrophe-like mark in the word "don't" is a sort of right leaning thingy not on my keyboard. The mark in "aren't" is a standard apostrophe. The quotes around the word "busy" are absolutely new and look like horizontal colons. The quotes around "important possessions" are real quotes, not the double apostrophe you find on a standard keyboard. We should see standard characters used consistently. But we don't. Not polite to readers. Needs more work.

Photographs and maps are low resolution. Poor to the point of uselessness. Considering that the book is a PDF-only work that can be radically magnified onscreen, higher resolution graphics are a must. The maps really suffer since enlargement just breaks them into pixels and blocks of color instead of unfolding them into more and more detail. "Which blobs are the roads again?"

It also doesn't help that many images overlap neighboring text. This is a layout issue. The author said he used Scribus when maybe he could have done a better job using the simpler OpenOffice.

Poor grammar and lightweight spellchecking are also too common: "Thus, I could let it be know that I am looking for electrical work." Mr. Hughes is better than this, and his conversational style is one of the book's highlights. But he makes the reader trip too often. He also gets into convoluted slippery sentences that sometimes end with no meaning having been produced. Call the editor, quick.

And there is repetition an editor would have caught. Take the desk story that appears on pages 14 and 40 (and I believe is mentioned again somewhere toward the end of the book).

Page 14: "I now have an L-shaped desk that is eight feet on each side, has seven drawers with locks on three and a keyboard drawer. Made to my specifications out of laurel. It cost about $225."

Page 40: "...the desk in my office. It is L-shaped and about three meters on each side. It has seven drawers, three with locks, and a keyboard drawer. It was custom made from laurel for about $225."

Arrr.

"Living Like a Nica" got me interested enough to look up more information. I'm now in the middle of "Nicaragua" by Moon Handbooks. It has none of the lithe grace of "Living Like a Nica" but fills some holes and raises questions that are not covered well in "Living Like a Nica". (Raises some neck hairs too.)

Like:

* Prevalent diseases (malaria, yellow fever, hepatitis, Chagas disease, polio, rabies).

* Weather and climate: Mr. Hughes generally likes it, but as I recall doesn't mention hurricanes at all, and isn't too specific about how vilely hot and humid or unforgivingly dry and dusty the weather can really be. I also don't remember much about floods or volcanoes (the country has several active and dangerous volcanoes).

* Environmental degradation and deforestation: One book says the country could be deforested by 2025. Another says by 2015. And there is a long history of heavy pollution from pesticides and other substances, including untreated sewage.

* Poverty: Is extreme and pervasive. In 2000 Nicaragua became the poorest country in the western hemisphere, and malnutrition is common.

* Crime and war: There may still be bandits roaming up north, and traveling off established routes requires local inquiries about how to avoid land mines.

OK, now the good side.

This book is about more than punctuation. It really is good. It's a story of one man (whom I suspect most of us would see as moderately well off since the sale of his publishing business) who set off to explore another kind of life, and who chose to live among, like, and with his new neighbors.

The writing style is comfortable and open, conversational and easy, and that is good. I think the book could be better if Mr. Hughes's wife, Ana Patricia Lopez, had made a higher profile contribution. No doubt she helped a lot but her explicit thoughts about life in her native country would add richness.

Mr. Hughes provides many examples of actual life in Nicaragua, and the book covers much you wouldn't ordinarily find. Like how to deal with a neighbor whose chicken your dog has just eaten. Or what it's like to be a self-proclaimed Taoist in a traditional Catholic society.

The book also offers practical advice, such as how to go about searching for a property to buy (as a residence), or how to start a business. And things like how to deal with government or business bureaucracies (generally, if you don't like the answer you get, try another office or come back later).

It would be nice to have more specific instructions on how to accomplish things, and where to go for more (and more official) information. Things like buying (and registering ownership of) property. Exactly how to buy a car or import one you already own. The steps needed to become a permanent resident or a citizen. How to guarantee a reliable financial link between a U.S. bank and a local one for those living on investments or a pension.

True, the author does cover these but in a general way, and there are no directions on where to go for iron-clad, rock solid information. This keeps the book from bogging down, but an added set of resources would be even better. (See the references for some clues.)

Two nice things, though. First, a discussion of skills you might need vs. skills you might already have, and what to do with them. And second, how to live well close to the ground, on little money and without fuss.

If you've done much camping or backpacking the possibility of living without a washing machine, car, or television set isn't frightening, and might sound like freedom. Mr. Hughes is enthusiastic, no doubt about it. "I see Nicaragua as the land of opportunity--much like the US was 50 years ago," he said in a Linux Journal article in May, 2007.

"It is hard for someone paying $2000/mo rent to imagine living on $200/mo but is is possible. And it is possible to live well here for $500/mo.

"If a Nicaraguan could live on $600/year and I paid more than that for car insurance then they must know something I don't. I figured it out.

"I moved to Esteli Nicaragua over three years ago. It is a big little town in the mountains in northern Nicaragua. It offered a good compromise between the 'city conveniences' I need (basically regular mail service and decent Internet connectivity) and being three minutes from the country. It also is a relatively inexpensive place to live and has decent weather year round."

That about sums it up. I like it.

Phil Hughes References:
Book: Living Like a Nica
Nica Plaza, "A resource for all in and interested in Nicaragua"
Nicaragua Living online forum
Phil Hughes in Linux Journal, December 2007: What's New Down Here?
Phil Hughes in Linux Journal, May 2007: Where is Phil Hughes?
Scribus publishing software
OpenOffice office suite
Etc.:
International Living Magazine

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