“Sense of security, like pockets jingling…”

Growing up, my knowledge of a midlife crisis resembled the following:

1. Old guys driving fast cars
2. One of my favourite songs, “Midlife Crisis” by Faith No More
3. A state of mind for the meek

Well, I was a presumptuous young hoon when it came to point number 3 – because the concept of mid-life crisis seems to be a thing. And it scares the living shmoozies out of some people my age or thereabouts. According to Wikipedia, mid-life crises are a thing or aren’t a thing depending on the research. Whatever it is, people can engage in deep life reassessment as they near or reach middle age – something of a place marker for review, reflection and planning. Some initial questions:

1. Am I content with what I’ve done?
2. Am I content with where I’m going?
3. I really need to start thinking about retirement. WTF, retirement?!
4. Did I do enough stupid things in my pre-midlife days to feel like I’ve ‘lived’?
5. Could I have done better?
6. Will I ever stop creating lists?

I feel as though I have done plenty – so I’m okay with Q1. I reckon there was a bit of stupidity in that plenty, so Q4 is sorted. Q2 is tricky – though it’s difficult not to back the decisions made up until now. That said, Q5 is a doozy – I passed up at least 3 great career opportunities in my time so far due to indecision, misplaced loyalty and sheer naivety. A bunch of business opportunities were either ill-timed or exited too quickly – a web design business in 1996; an online accounting business in 2002; a growing consultancy business in 2006… quite a list now that I look back – so a firm ‘no’ to Q6.

Which leaves Q3. This is the one that irks. As a younger tacker I always thought people preparing for their retirement in their early 20s were boring sods living too far in the future – sacrificing the present unnecessarily and valuing thrift over experiences. That’s probably partly the case. For example, by not investing in property early (when every person and their 5 year old around me seemed to be buying up property left, right and centre, in many cases burdening themselves with heavy mortgages) I felt unencumbered and able to travel, start businesses, experiment with creative pursuits, just living for the sake of it…

Then sometime last year, this concept of ‘midlife’ became apparent. And I freaked out.

Not getting any younger. Kids will need their schooling funded. Need a house somewhere. Body is going to start doing strange things. Will the savings be enough… Need to beef up the retirement account… the words of the Faith No More song (and title of this post) ringing in my head…

So instead of buying music, gadgets, pants, or a really fast car – I started buying shares again (for the record, I actually did buy a car as well – a Volvo – very un-midlife crisissy). Week in, week out, I tracked the market and loaded up on as many shares as I could afford. I started longer-term savings plans, padded investment banker coffers through managed funds, discovered ETFs… and found this all quite interesting – even fascinating – for the first time in my life.

I remember having a so-called “Dollarmite” account when I was about 6 years old. This was the bank savings account marketed to 6 year old school kids in an attempt to teach long-term savings skills while building that bank’s brand awareness from a young age… It obviously left no lasting impression on me as far as early savings go, and as it turned out I have not banked with that bank since becoming an adult.

I needed a pesky, very real midlife crisis/stressor/place marker to ram the point home. I needed a midlife crisis to realise that midlife crises really exist in some way, shape or form. Thankfully, courtesy of this flexion point I am in a far more comfortable state of mind than I was 12 months ago.

Interestingly, the most unexpected of middle-aged people around me tend to be buying fast cars – so I can only assume that’s really a thing too. So, with the benefit of experience, I can now sum up a midlife crisis as:

1. Old guys driving fast cars
2. One of my favourite songs, “Midlife Crisis” by Faith No More
3. A complete, shock to the core wake-up call

Good night.

TL;DR: Lived and did a bit, thought the concept of a midlife crisis was BS as a youngster, then had something of a midlife crisis, made a bunch of investments and lived happily ever after.

Social media, its ‘gurus’, and personal branding

Note/edit: Some people have actually been offended by this post. A few people even unfollowed me on Twitter after reading this. If you’re going to be offended, please read on, and please do unfollow me if you’re offended. I would prefer, though, that before you unfollow me, you engage me and challenge my opinion, because that’s what this whole Internet thing should be about.

My friend Fernando Gros recently wrote an excellent post on his website about the distraction/noise of social media, the time cost to be considered, and the folly of so-called social media gurus.

Here’s my response/rant:

On social media and distraction

The whole thing started to go wonky when some clever sod coined the phrase “social media”. It’s a headline and PPT-friendly label, and not much else. The Internet is inherently social. Internet Relay Chat, bulletin boards, and newsgroups, to name three examples of services that were widely available in the mid-1990s, all provided similar levels of social interaction to today’s social media services. They were not better, by any means, but they were comparable, and usable with minimal (if any) training. They demolished the barriers to cross-border mass communication and collaboration among the masses.

Why wasn’t it regarded as social media back then? The marketing fraternity wasn’t yet on board. It was mostly techies, derided for their geekiness but quietly admired for their command of these mysterious new communication tools.

I enjoy what ‘social media’ (or the evolution of the Internet to where it is today) has done, giving the average, non-techie person avenues for expression that they previously did not, or could not, understand or use. That’s all fabulous. The positive aspects of democratised access to information and greater freedom of expression is beyond debate.

However, with any great freedoms come the eventual negative side effects. We have to wade through large chunks of information chaff. We are bombarded with spammy or dubious requests for our attention. Unhealthy groupthink develops across multiple topics and geographic boundaries thanks to largely anonymous thought (read: conversation) leaders. Dodgy ‘facts’ and straight out lies spread exponentially.

This is the price we pay for unregulated communications. Would I wish to change that? No. One grins and one bears it, for the positive aspects make it worthwhile. And the fakers eventually get weeded out. Regulation would just bring more trouble, distorting the field in favour of the biggest and loudest.

On personal branding

The most enjoyable people online are those who use the Internet not to recreate themselves, but to simply express themselves. For millions of introverts in particular, these are the soapboxes they never had, or were ever capable of utilising.

Brands are useful façades for attraction and recall, but it’s not until you actually use the product or service that you can assess that brand’s real worth. It gives companies a chance to succeed and thrive in a competitive marketplace. Similarly, online tools do allow individuals to seek an audience and provide compelling reasons to engage – something funny, informative, controversial, bizarre. I enjoy that the Internet has raised the average person’s potential to engage and be engaged. It’s a human development that works to level the playing field. Internet services aside, most of us personally brand ourselves in everyday life anyway. What we eat, who we associate with, where we go, what we wear, the music we listen to…

On social media gurus

Like many dodgy businesses, self-professed social media gurus trade and thrive on the ignorance of others. That is what bugs me most.

It’s the Internet: there are no rules. It is a self-defining, self-correcting, constantly-evolving system where even the base infrastructure driving the whole thing is liable to change. Twitter, YouTube, Facebook and other services have only been popular for a handful of years. The Wikipedia entry for social media cites references that go back a mere five years. Something new will be released today, tomorrow, or next week that could eclipse or leverage into insignificance any of the services listed.

The iPhone has already saturated the world with innumerable ‘social apps’ that compete for our attention. Augmented Reality applications are starting to emerge, and though they are mostlyconfined to small mobile devices, the iPad and similar products will move this in an exciting new direction of innovation. Who knows where that will go? The semantic web is also only just starting to nudge its way into mainstream awareness, and could flip the whole system on its head depending on how it evolves and who invests in its evolution.

And, sadly, at each of these evolutionary steps there’ll be individuals and companies flogging their ‘expertise’ in the latest and greatest trend, and suckers will fall for it.

Installing Windows 7 off a USB drive on an HP Mini 2140

So the time came to move my netbook’s operating system to Windows 7, easily Microsoft’s finest release on every count including speed, reliability, usability and security.

Being technically inclined, and having installed various versions of Windows (back to tardy Windows 3.1) on machines of all shapes and sizes, I wasn’t expecting much drama. However, it took several missteps and two days of trial and error to conquer this one. If you own an HP Mini 2140 and want to install Windows 7 via a USB key, save yourself time and anguish, and refer to my guide below.

Note: You may wish to consult your local IT superstar if things get too techie for you. Alternatively, leave a comment to this post if you’re really stuck. I’ve tried to keep things as low-tech as possible given writing time constraints.

The Objective

Install Windows 7 on an HP Mini 2140 netbook using a USB key/pen drive/hard drive/other.

Several websites insist it is easy to install Windows 7 using a USB key, which is necessary since most netbooks do not have an inbuilt CD/DVD drive (the media of choice for consumer Windows installations). I consulted several of these sites, but they didn’t have specific instructions for the HP Mini 2140, which flatly refused to comply with any notions of simplicity. So…

The Problem

The HP Mini 2140 ignores the attempt to boot using the USB key, and makes it impossible to change the boot order after the first attempt.

The Solution (Short)

  • Ensure the boot order of the “USB Hard Drive” is set to “Second”, NOT “First”.
  • The size of the USB key should be set to 3072 MB. More information below.

The Solution (Long)

There are different steps to be taken depending on which operating system you have installed. This solution works when preparing/installing from a Windows 7 beta or ‘release candidate’ version. It should also work from Windows Vista, though I have not tested it.

Special care needs to be taken when preparing to upgrade from Windows XP or older operating systems, so check out this guide before continuing (skip the USB key preparation section below and replace it with the instructions from the site mentioned).

i. Prepare the USB key

Check out and follow all steps in this great tutorial at Into Windows. If you want to be ultra-cautious (and follow exactly what I did to achieve a successful installation), change the following:

CREATE PARTITION PRIMARY –> CREATE PARTITION PRIMARY SIZE=3072

I got the above partition size tip from from the AbstractCode website – thanks! It is possible that you will have installation success without making the above change to the partition size. However, since I did not have time to test it myself, I won’t assume that it works. If any of you try it, let me know it goes.

By this stage, you should have a ‘bootable’ USB key with all the Windows 7 installation files copied over. If not, please re-read all the instructions carefully at IntoWindows and repeat the steps in order.

ii. Double-check the contents of your USB key to make sure all the Windows 7 installation files have been copied over.

Check the total file size and number of files (highlight all folders/files, right-click, and select “Properties”) on your USB key. Check these figures against the total file size and number of files from where you copied the original Windows 7 installation files. If they match, proceed…

iii. Change the boot order of the HP Mini 2140.

  1. Restart the PC.
  2. Press the F10 key before Windows loads again. This will load your BIOS management/”Computer Setup” program. If you don’t know what the BIOS is, don’t worry. If you  really want to know, consult Google. Suffice to say, do not change anything except what is indicated below.
  3. Use your arrow keys to move to the “System Configuration” menu, and arrow down to select “Boot Options”
  4. Arrow down to the entry called “USB Hard Disk”. By default, this is set to “Fifth”. Use the left/right arrow keys to change this to “Second”. DO NOT change it to “First”. If you do so, for some reason the PC refuses to boot from the USB key, and then prevents any further change to the “USB Hard Drive” setting on future attempts (the USB Hard Drive option will thereafter say “USB Legacy Support” rather than “First”, and you will not be able to modify it. This can be undone by selecting “Restore Defaults” from the File menu, saving the settings, and restarting). After you’ve changed the order to “Second”, press F10 to accept the changes.
  5. Arrow back across to the File menu, then select “Save Changes And Exit”

That’s it. The PC will automatically restart. The sanity-saving tip was found via the NotebookReview forums.

iv. If the above instructions have been followed correctly, the Windows 7 installer will start automatically upon restart.

Let the installer do its thing. You will be prompted for various details as per the usual Windows 7 installation procedure.

v. Ensure to remove the USB key before the installer restarts the PC the first time, or else the installation procedure will go back to the start.

If you forget, and wonder why the installer’s back at the start again, don’t fear/hyperventilate. Just remove the USB key and manually restart the PC by sliding the power switch and holding it for about 10 seconds (this will force the PC to switch off). Switch it on again and the installer will resume from the correct position.

vi. Follow the rest of the on-screen instructions, and enjoy using Windows 7!

China-Australia workshop: Managing international students

I spent the day out at Shanghai University’s Baoshan campus, kickin’ it with members of the Chinese and Australian academic fraternity who were sharing their respective experiences of managing international students.

Australia has one of the highest per capita shares of international students, allowing Australian institutions to develop systems and processes for their management, together with national legal frameworks and policy standards. Meanwhile, China is seeing increasing global demand for its domestic education services, and is seeking to evolve its own infrastructure, service standards and capacity to handle current and future growth.

I met several interesting people from the sector: policy innovators, leading industry advisers, and miscellaneous misfits who were simply good value for a chat. Here’s a quick wrap of the day…

Most insightful point: That the presence of international students has forced Australian higher education institutions to provide international student support services, which has had the positive knock-on effect of placing focus on domestic student welfare as well. Market forces at their best? Probably.

Most agreeable point: That we should be doing more to leverage the diversity of student populations for better cross cultural understanding. Separate from this event, but along a similar theme, I coordinated a Monash-Jiao Tong joint cross-cultural eLearning class last week.

Presentation highlight: The ubiquitous Chinese “Rising Anti-virus” lion mascot popping up on screen, pointing its backside towards us and wagging its tail as it scanned the unsuspecting presenter’s PC for viruses. The likeable but ultimately distracting cat remained on screen for about twenty minutes. yes, twenty minutes. No one did anything. The Aussies in the crowd weren’t entirely sure whether it was part of the presentation or not (given the relative quality of the presentations, their confusion could be forgiven. See below).

Presentation lowlight: A Shanghai government official, discussing the ramifications for international students who violate their visa conditions, had a slide containing a nasty (and prominent) skull/bones image with the statement “Drugs are dangous to your hearth!” (sic). It was kept on screen for no less than five minutes. I can forgive a couple of large-font typos during a professional conference. No, actually I cannot.

Refreshing approach of the day: The Chinese candidness about problems they’ve had with international students and ‘bad news stories’, such as students being victims of local crime. The Australian side, on the other hand, turned on the spin when it came to international student safety. My beautiful homeland down under may be safer than many other places, no doubt, but it is certainly no safe haven: many international students are affected by petty and beyond-petty crime, and I have taped assertions from international students in Australia to prove it. I hope the denials are purely for the sake of maintaining a positive public perception, and not an actual policy position. The things we do to protect our third biggest export earner.

Questionable statement of the day: “Education is not a commodity.” Well, I disagree. One only needs to look at the way education is ‘traded’ on the ‘open market’. Universities market themselves aggressively. Governments market education. International student income is classified as an export item. Online degree factories are booming. The semantics of the statement could be argued for hours, but there is no denying that education is an openly tradable good with many substitutes. Ignoring the fact is counterproductive, because we must ensure the customers (students) of the traded goods (qualifications, degrees) are being fairly treated and getting value for money from suppliers (universities, schools). This is evidently not happening, and it doesn’t take too many discussions with the student body to acknowledge this.

Various reminders of the day:

– International education is a great sector in which to operate.

– Never forget about students’ needs.

– We need to think innovatively (game changingly, even) when it comes to educational approaches in a globalised environment.

– People generally make bad presentations. Don’t make bad presentations.

– Never misspell bold statements in a presentation, and if you do, don’t keep it up on screen for five minutes.

– Don’t use an anti-virus product that ships with annoying screensavers, wallpapers and/or has any remotely cutesy rubbish cluttering your screen.

Pull your socks up, academic software people

It has always struck me how badly academic sites and software is designed, from technical, aesthetic and usability perspectives. Most seem to have been designed sufficiently well from a database/data storage perspective, but this often creates a long ‘click stream’ to achieve a goal, which is bad usability design and results in a frustrating user experience. Graphic designers evidently aren’t on the books of most journal publishing houses and academic software outfits, given the aesthetically unpleasing nature of most academic sites

Jingles, and the first jingle disendorsement/bitch: BBC World news jingle remix

Fox FM old logo

I have loved radio and TV jingles for as long as I can remember. Back in the mid 1980s, Melbourne’s EON and FOX FM (two of the first FM stations in Australia) radio had excellent jingles. I still remember a 1987 TV ad for Fox FM with its ‘fox’ mascot skiing on some slopes, with their catchy “have a good time with the Fox” jingle playing along. Those were the days.

I used to sit by the radio and wait for the jingles to be played – then recorded them for later listening, such was my obsession.

Eon FM, later rebadged Triple M, had numerous exceptional jingles in the late 80s/early 90s. The best was their 3-minute instrumental station theme song, a guitar and drum extravaganza played very rarely, and worthy music in its own right. If I find it, I’ll post it here. And endorse it! [note: after a bit of Googling, I found the darn thing! Awesome! Watch this space]

Eon FM Logo

I am not alone in my Jinglephillic ways… there are several sites and forums dedicated to radio and TV jingles. Why do jingles have such a profound effect on so many people? Reminders of certain life experiences/periods? Station-pride? The power of marketing?

Older jingles seem much more compelling than those we hear today, which tend to be too techy and less thoughtful. Why?!

…Which brings me to today’s bitch: The remixed BBC World News theme is RUBBISH! This includes the 40-second jingle leading up to news at the top of the hour. The previous (2005) version was among the best jingles I’ve heard. The new one sounds crappily ambient – no guts, no feeling, just some background rubbish that’s best left for an elevator or airport restroom. WTF are you doing, BBC?

Grr.

Coming to a rear-end near you

I won’t explore the puns of the subject. Make of it what you will.

Yes. “SUREN” is coming to a butt near you. Make of that what you will, too. See www.suren.com.cn.

The creativity machine of the Middle Kingdom is at work again. It’s not difficult to see which company they are ripping off, too (if you’ve been living in an igloo or North Korea for the past 50 years, see www.levi.com).

So my name’s hanging off Chinese arses everywhere. I’m trying to figure out whether that’s a good or bad thing, or whether there’s some symbolism in all this. Or, perhaps, whether someone, somewhere, is doing all this just to piss me off.

I wouldn’t it put it past someone, somewhere.