Thursday, November 18, 2010

On to Africa

A short video about Kickstart from PBS News Hour.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Doorknob in Spanish?

I just came across this while visiting the Push for Peace Corps website. Peter Hessler's strong defense of the Peace Corps, in response to Nicholas Kristof's March 2010 critique of the organization while calling for the formation of a Teach for the World initiative, is passionate, funny, and accurate. Give it a read.

I didn't know the word for doorknob in Spanish. There weren't any doorknobs in Palacaguina. Seriously. But if you want to know how to actually communicate like a Nicaraguan, I'm your guy. America would be a wiser country if we had more people who had an intimate understanding of a foreign culture. And that doesn't require knowing the word for doorknob.

Maize 'n Brew Logo

Nice work, Luke!

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Explore Detroit with Johnny Knoxville

I sometimes feel like the stories of Detroit's "empty canvas" are just as ubiquitous as Detroit's blight. Looks like it might be a fun movie though. I'm excited to see Knoxville drive through the Heidelberg Project. Out tomorrow.

Technology and the Peace Corps

NPR's All Things Considered recently aired this short segment on how technology, specifically internet and cellphones, is changing the Peace Corps. No doubt that technology has changed the experience, but I'd be interested in learning what percentage of volunteers have internet/cellphone service in their sites. The availability of both varied greatly throughout Nicaraguan Peace Corps posts, and I imagine this to be the case in other countries.

The piece doesn't contend that the improved availability of internet and cellphones is good or bad, but it does assert that this technology keeps volunteers from integrating into the community, an important goal drilled into the heads of all Peace Corps volunteers. I disagree. For the volunteers that are lucky enough to have easier access to internet, I'm confident that it does not keep them from integrating into the community as much as a volunteer living in a rural village hours away from a phone or computer. If you aren't integrating into the community because you can have a 20 minute call with Mom every morning and an hour or two of internet time at night, you likely wouldn't be putting too much effort into integrating into the community without those crutches. In fact, I wonder if countries or posts with easier access to technology have a lower volunteer attrition rate, improved project results and more successful community integration/learning because volunteers in these sites have just enough contact with support systems at home to stay motivated and confident. Maybe that 20 minute call with Mom and Dad every morning keeps the loneliness, that would otherwise cause a volunteer to quit, just far enough away to keep the volunteer trudging through the two years and onto the successful completion of a project that forges deeper and more meaningful community relationships.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Survivor Nicaragua

Nicaragua was just selected as the host country for the 21st season of Survivor. The host, Jeff Probst, described the country as the land of “impenetrable terrain, smoking volcanoes and savage wildlife." That's pretty accurate when describing all of Nicaragua, but maybe a little over the top for the show. They're filming in one of the nicest areas of the country.

Should be interesting to see if Land, the documentary film about San Juan del Sur's quick development, gets any more buzz because of the show.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Happy Birthday, Cristian

I was in Palacaguina on a training visit, a weekend trip designed to give me a chance to visit the town I would live in for the next two years, and was meeting my host family for the first time. I had gone around the room and met just about everyone – Maria, Estela, Angela, Herman, Sergio Luis, Carlos, Erlinda, Carmen, and Emanuel – when Rosa walked up cradling Cristian. I wasn’t really sure what to do when she introduced us. It was hot and we were all crammed into a small concrete front room that offered no breeze. I was overwhelmed with the number of people staring at me and the number of unfamiliar names that had just been thrown my way. I had struggled through each introduction with the Spanish of a three year old, and now I had to come up with a reaction or something to say to a sleeping baby. I asked how old he was. Six weeks. And then I said that he was the first person I had met in Nicaragua that knew less Spanish than I did. I said it more as a truth than a joke, but the whole room shook with laughter. I had only been in the country for six weeks but I had already learned that it wasn’t hard, as a self deprecating foreigner with a thick accent, to get Nicaraguans to laugh, and this proved to be an extremely easy crowd. Cristian had helped me knock my first impression out of the park.

After that first introduction though, we didn’t really bother with each other much. In fact, we got off to a fairly cold start. As far as I could tell, Cristian didn’t do much other than shamelessly breastfeed, making any entrance into the common area a dangerously awkward experience, and steal the hammock from me during his mid morning naps. There was only one time that I held him. His mother was running errands and his grandmother was in the kitchen, so I was left to answer his cries from the hammock, picking him up and tenderly consoling him. He quickly stopped crying and to thank me peed all over the front of my shirt. After that, I stayed away from him for the most part, preferring instead to spend my time with his older brother, Sergio, who offered abilities I found more appealing – jumping, running, playing, walking, talking, joking, laughing.

But Cristian didn’t hold my cold shoulder against me. He grew up quickly and within months was greeting me upon my arrival at the house with a big smile and my name, “’veeed.” When he was learning how to walk, Sergio and I would sit on opposite sides of the room and have Cristian try to walk from one of us to the other, betting candy on how far he’d make it before falling. After he was more sure footed, he’d walk over to me to slap a high five or compete with Sergio for space on my lap. It was fun watching him grow up and by the time he was more safely trained at using the bathroom, he had won me over. By the time I left, I knew I’d miss him just as much as his older brother.

Through my two years living there, Cristian’s family repeated my initial joke about my Spanish at least once a week. Jokes or remotely funny stories had a tendency to be frequently retold among Nicaraguans, and no matter how many times they were shared, they always seemed to earn the same reaction. The one hundredth time something was told was just as funny as the first. It was boring at times, always retelling the same stories and jokes, but the ease with which the laughter came was reassuring. No matter what, laughter was just one old story away.

Last week, Cristian turned four years old. I called him to wish him a happy birthday and we briefly chatted. His responses were mostly “yes’s” and “no’s,” but he did ask me when I was coming to visit and generally spoke very well for a four year old. When he returned the phone to his mom, I told her that his Spanish was now better than mine. Her reaction was predictable – a hearty laugh. I like to imagine that 20 years down the line, I’ll be in Palacaguina for a visit. We’ll all be crammed into the same front room, and I’ll tell Cristian the story of the first time I met him. Without a doubt, he will have heard it before but no matter. It’s comforting knowing that the story will be met with the same reply as that first day. The whole room will shake with laughter.

Happy Birthday, Cristian. May your Spanish always be improving.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Obama's UM Commencement Address

President Obama using John F. Kennedy's introduction of the US Peace Corps to inspire UM's 2010 grads to willingly contribute part of their lives to the life of our country.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

LAND Trailer

I spent a number of weekends in San Juan del Sur during my two years in Nicaragua, and even within that short time frame, you could very clearly see how quickly the area was changing. Every trip revealed a new development, hotel, or restaurant, and the changing landscape often sparked a lot of discussion among volunteers as to the advantages and disadvantages of it all. I was never really able to settle anything in my head and found that most of time I was equally angry and excited about everything that was changing. Seems like this upcoming movie about the development around Nicaragua's southern Pacific coast doesn't try to settle it either, but simply presents the whole debate, even if the movie is very clearly trying to poke the embers of the fire (the provocative "Bring your Gun" motto seems a bit much as a subtitle). I'm hoping I can find the movie at some point and look forward to the debate.

LAND trailer for feature documentary from Julian T. Pinder on Vimeo.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

House Hunting - Detroit

I went on a Detroit house hunt a couple weeks ago, armed with twenty addresses I found on I wasn't planning on buying anything just yet, though it's tempting when some of the homes are priced like an inexpensive TV; I just wanted to get a better sense of what I could get for my money. But just a little bit of my money.

The houses I saw were throughout the city and ranged in price from $555 to $10,000. I was hoping I'd walk away with an understanding of differences between the two extremes. Are the houses priced at $10,000 in fairly good shape (that's relative) and in a decent city neighborhood? Are the houses priced at $500 bombed out with no windows, roof, plumbing, etc. in a neighborhood that no longer exists? I wanted to find out.

I didn't. We saw houses with boarded up windows, doors left open to the elements, and crumbling front porches located on streets with only one or two live-able homes left priced at the upper range and houses, from outside appearances, nicely maintained and seemingly live-able in well populated, functioning neighborhoods priced at the low range.

There just wasn't any apparent logic to the prices, which was disappointing given what I wanted to get out of the trip, but it was really cool to spend a lot of time driving through Detroit's residential areas. Driving around and experiencing the extremes of Detroit is all at once depressing, motivating, inspiring, hopeful, and humbling. I hope to get back soon for a second round of hunting with someone who knows more.

Anyone interested in buying a full city block in America's 11th largest city?

Picture from

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Want to create an online store?

Last year I started to think about trying to create an online store. I didn't really have a specific product in mind, but I wanted it to be a niche market to avoid a lot of competition, and I wanted it to have a price point of at least $50 to make it more feasible to maintain a margin. That seemed simple enough until I realized that since the eighth grade I've bought every piece of clothing I've owned at The Gap, J.Crew, or Banana Republic. I'm not exactly "niche," and it was a challenge to come up with product that met that criteria. Last spring though, I was thinking about trying worm composting again and came across Nature's Footprint. They offered a drop-ship reseller program, and their product seemed to be the perfect match. I looked into it a little more. The bins were certainly "niche" and the prices/markups were high enough to feasibly make a solid profit on a few sales. All I had to do, it seemed, was become an official reseller, build a site, and market the bins. But any time I spent trying to create the site, I became pretty frustrated with my lack of web development experience. There were some pretty cool tools available to create a fairly nice website but nothing seemed to offer enough to create a real online store.

I played around with Weebly a lot. I had used it in Nicaragua to create the beginnings of a website for our Peace Corps class, La Empresa Creativa, and it was pretty useful to quickly build a functioning site, but their online store features were pretty inadequate. I didn't get very far and ended up just kind of shelving the idea for awhile.

A few months ago though, Simon sent me a link to Jimdo. It works a lot like Weebly but makes it very easy to set up a store. You can set prices, shipping rates, pictures, and product variations all by just dragging and dropping preset site elements from the toolbar. You can then link a PayPal account to your Jimdo account and within 30 minutes have the basics of an online store set up. I was excited and decided to give the worm bins a shot.

I applied and became a reseller, bought a URL for $8 from GoDaddy, had Luke Emeott create a logo, and used Jimdo to build the site. I shelled out $60 to Jimdo to have a little more freedom in the site design, and had it all up and ready within about two weeks. $68, little web development experience, and no product inventory, and the Urban Worm was born. I had created a "business."

I use quotation marks because it's not much of a "business" if it doesn't actually sell anything or if it sells something but doesn't turn a profit. Quite frankly, it'll be hard to do both for some pretty clear reasons I'll get into in an upcoming post. But, for anyone interested in creating an online store, I'd encourage you to check out Jimdo.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Urban Worm

Blogs are washed up and slow moving. Or so it seems after launching a new project this week and before having a chance to reveal it here, it was unleashed on Google Buzz and I got quick responses in emails, IMs, and phone calls from roughly 90% of this blog's readership. The digital world, apparently, does not wait. At least not as much as what I had grown accustomed to in Nicaragua where, I learned, there was more time than life.

For those that haven't yet seen it, take a look at my new site The Urban Worm. It's pretty cool what you can create online, mostly for free, with very little actual web development experience.

I'll write a little more about the actual process of creating this and what I plan on testing, but for right now, go to the site and send me your suggestions (new pages, new copy, other products, promotions, blog entries). Better yet, buy a worm bin. $10 spent on AdWords so far hasn't yielded any orders. Be the first!

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Push for Peace Corps

Contact your representative now to encourage the signing of a letter urging $465 million for Peace Corps in FY 2011.

And for those that need to be convinced, I leave it to the authors of my favorite two books about the Peace Corps experience (The Village of Waiting and River Town).

George Packer

Peace Corps provides the best return on the dollar in America’s entire foreign policy budget. The program educates thousands of young Americans in each new generation about the reality of life as lived by most of the world’s population.

Peter Hessler:

I was fortunate to attend Princeton and Oxford universities, but the most important part of my education was the two years I spent in the Peace Corps. I learned to teach and communicate with people very different from myself, and I learned Chinese — but the most important lesson was one of perspective. I saw the world differently, and that viewpoint has informed everything I’ve written since. This is true of many former volunteers in many walks of life: teachers, organizers, diplomats. It’s a shame that in a country with such an active foreign policy, relatively little attention and support has been given to the Peace Corps.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Peace Corps Week

In honor of the Peace Corps' 49th anniversary and the annual celebration of Peace Corps Week, I'll share with you a short tour of my former house (nicely updated by a current volunteer, Penny) in Pacaguina, Nicaragua. Complete with a shot of the latrine, the chickens, the neighbors, and the concrete washing table.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

UM Peace Corps

UM marks the 50th anniversary of the Peace Corps with this new site.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010