HK: Attendants

It seemed to me that HK is very well stocked with service people and attendants.  It seemed to me that even the smallest closet of a store can have several attendents.  They were everywhere. Maybe it was the size of the population versus area issue and this was the natural way to put them all to work.  Or something. It just seemed like everything that could use an attendant had one.  Without forethought I would have imagined it being overdone, inconvenient, and possibly annoying.  But I actually found it to be a surprising benefit and I began to get spoiled.  There always seemed to be cashiers, tellers, doormen, and other forms of help around in abundance.  But nowhere did that really drive home than at the pass control at the airports.

Case in point:

When I arrived in HK it was at a kind of off hours, i.e. not crowded. And yet when going through customs I noticed that nearly all of the stalls had agents AND there were ample officers that were guiding people and steering the lines and making things run efficiently.  E.g. There were attendents pre-checking documents in the line and at the head of the queue was someone keeping an eye and instructing you on which stall to go to. I passed through in what seemed like record time.  When I went to Macau by boat, it was also equally streamlined and efficient.

Contrast that with when I got back to SFO, where I got through completely put off and downright pissed.  I shall elaborate.
  • There were only 2 agents handling citizens and permanent residents, maybe 3 or 4 handling visitors.  With the ratio of visitors to non-visitors that actually seems reasonable to have more there, but still too few for all.
  • There was one officer there floating around occasionally steering people here and there but absolutely failing to make things better.  She let the long lines form like a grocery store, with a line of people behind each agent rather than a single line served by a next available agents like in HK and LIKE IT SHOULD BE.  That should just not have been allowed to happen.  Even the ticketing/checkin lines are single queue and the security checkpoints are mostly single-queue as well.  It's just more efficient and fair and less frustrating.  It can be proven mathematically that it is the best, quickest, and fairest system to those in the queue.
  • So there I am lining up in one agent's queue and wouldn't you know it'd be the wrong one.  The agent was just biding his time, chatting with passengers, making extra checks while his neighbor agent was passing people through efficiently at at least 3 times the rate.  I was burning.  By the time I reached the agent, the other queue was empty as was the bigger visitors queue.
  • Not only that, another plane's worth of people that came in behind ALSO passed through in advance of me.  In fact, the lazy attendant steered a good chunk of them to a temporarily open line (since the visitors were done processing) so even though they arrived later, they got through before me.  That just really pissed us off.
  • At no point could I (or my fellow line prisoners) reasonably jump out of our line because we'd have to go to the tail of the other line, which was long most of the time.  In hindsight I still would have gotten through quicker had I done that.
It was just a clusterfuck. They should be ashamed of themselves for having it in that state.  Even if the presence of fewer service people could be understood or justified by "hard times" pleas, that organization was inexcusable.

Anyhow, going back to HK.  With all the attendants around I was reminded at some point of Japan, which is dense country and the areas I spent some time in were also replete with attendants and very well serviced.  The contrast is that Japan is a culturally polite society and the service there is absolutely astounding.  Customers are always greeted and smiled at and well taken care of if needed.  You can get that level in the US but only on occasion and certainly not on a national scale.  HK was a bit more straight forward and reminded me more of the stereotype of service in, say, Germany.  You're basically attended to, not impolitely, and generally without any fake warmth.  It's just a way of being which is fine but I personally like the fake warmth because it just makes the environment better, to where I would argue the warmth really isn't all that fake as it's made out to be.  I mean, a smile and a kind word is more likely to put people in a good mood and respond in kind and more open to being sociable.  And I think that's a good thing.



In concert with my new developing handyman tasks and interests and the accompanying tool acquisitions, I made a number of impulse buys, my most recent being these multitools.  The top one I got a month ago and the bottom one more recently.
Over the years I've owned quite a few of these pocket sized multitools, mostly Swiss-Army-knives and their clones, and a couple of normal Leatherman-plier style clones, and that ilk.  Most were gifts actually, with only a few cheap purchases.  These were the first ones that I picked up that I can actually see myself carrying around and using.

Reasons for the Leatherman Skeletool CX (top one):
  • Firstly I admit that I thought it looked wickedly cool, like the spawn of a Giger's Alien and a Decepticon.  That prompted me to take a closer look at their features which I ended up liking.
  • It has a reduced tool compliment: Pliers with wirecutter base, a respectable knife, driver bits, and a bottle opener. And those items are actually sufficient for most too-lazy-to-get-real-tool needs. As an emergency device I'd keep in a car, maybe that's a disadvantage, but as a device I'll keep around more readily at hand, it's a bonus. 
  • The reduced compliment allows it to be smaller and relatively light while still being rather sturdy and therefore I'm more willing to carry it on my person or pack.
  • The carabiner is one key feature that got my attention: It makes it belt-loop and backpack-clip friendly unlike most other tools I've owned.  Also makes it quickly attachable and  detachable from said loop or clip.
  • The feature that sealed the deal for me, however, was that the knife is on the outside and thumbable.  Or more generally, I don't have to fingernail it out nor any of the tools which is something I always hated about the Swiss-army and other Leatherman varieties. Even the driver is exposed upon unfolding and doesn't need to be dug out.  Also, the knife is more akin to the kind you'd find in a dedicated pocket knife, not the thin and flimsier kind you'd have to fingernail out of a case.

Only real disadvantage I see is it's asymmetrical design can make it a little awkward to handle.  Otherwise I really like it. I get most use out of the beefier knife which can be quickly opened one-handed.  I now reach for it more often than not when I want to open a package or cut tags and such, rather than going to a drawer for scissors or a blade.  Speaking of, I used to be in the habit of pulling tags out of e.g. clothing because I was too lazy to search for scissors.  I haven't done that since.

As much as I wanted to I didn't take it with me on my trip to HK.  I had some irrational fears of it being confiscated.  Lo and behold, situations arose where having one would come in really handy. I ended up buying a fairly inexpensive "souvenir" multitool that got some use though.  It got me thinking that although the Skeletool is pocket friendly I should get one that is a little more keychain friendly as well.  That's when I discovered that my tool had what looks like even smaller little brothers available.  I got the one that had a scissor base instead of the pliers which I thought would be a nice complement at the time.  It also has a tweezer, a file, and a knife on the outside, but they're the fingernail variety which I'll forgive due to size.  This is more toy than tool for me I admit, but the carabiner at least allows me to quickly and easily detach it from my keys; no more passing around my whole set of keys when someone wants to use the bottle opener.

HK: Table bag holding hook

I don't know where it was invented but at HK stores and in particular the street markets these little devices were everywhere.  They are table hooks for holding your bag and whatnot under the edge of the table.  It's just a disk with a hook that you unwrap from the disk and let hang over the edge of the table and you hang your bag on the hook at the bottom.  I find it an ingenious design actually.

I bought a bunch of them, I should have bought more since they were cheap at the market.  The kind I got had a magnet in the disk for latching firmly to metal tables but with a felt-like cover so as not to scratch the surface.  I haven't tested hanging a fully loaded computer backpack on it but holds a respectable weight like the baby bag pictured.  They were designed with purses in mind, a lot of the ones I saw had more feminine designs on them and were next to compact mirrors and whatnot, though they were common in the sousvenir area too (where I got mine).

I can see these being popular out there; people I notice have an aversion to putting their personal effects on the floor. Yet I think I only saw it used only couple times, but that's not surprising since I haven't had all that much need to use mine either.  I'll probably keep one in my backpack.  I really like clever and useful devices.  I wonder if we'll start seeing them sold in the states.  The ones I got came out to be between a $1 and $2 a piece, but I can believe seeing them being hocked at like a Brookstone for $12-$25 and getting away with it.


Document bag goodness

Related to my last post, I was at Daiso some months ago and they have a wall of document boxes, folders, protectors, folios and bags.  I was looking for the ziplock variety but sadly they didn't have the right selection of those.  They did have quite a few of the zipper variety though so I bought a stack of them in various sizes. Prior to that, the only document "cases" I had were the simple plastic ones that closed with a string or velcro, and a few bigger accordian-sytle ones that closed via elastic bands.  Last year I had a lot of legal paperwork connected with immigration and buying a house, among other things, and these things came in really handy.  Early on I had used plain-ole manila folders because I had plenty of those but didn't do a great job protecting and they always got all tattered and cards and things would fall out.  I dug out some plastic ones that I had held onto for decades and started using those instead;  being enclosed, they were much easier to throw into my bag without worry and being plastic they were more robust and protected things better.  However, I never liked the string/velcro closing flap and the plastic was old and thin and had a lot of creases in them from previous use so when I saw the ones at the Japanese store, I indulged... and indulged again a couple more times.

I just realized how mindboggingly useful these are.  And I only thought to write something down about it because I really don't see all that many people (or at least non-Asians) using them.  I certainly didn't use them or something like them before all that much and when I think about it it's only because I didn't know any better and what's commonly available isn't all that good. I started using A4 and B4 sized ones to hold and transport property-related papers.  On my recent Hong Kong trip I used a set of B5 ones to hold the family passports, money, and travel docs as well as little trinket/sousvenirs/pictures I collected and A5 ones for the red-pocket-money, receipts, and other random things.  Before I would have just had them in a jacket or pant pocket, or some pocket in my backpack, bag, or suitcase... or worse, in a plastic grocery bag.  Typically things would just collect and fall to the bottom of the bag, or I'd have to fish things out or empty out the pocket completely to get what I was after.  But with these, things were just better organized and convenient and easier to access.  It was nice to look in my backpack NOT for e.g. all individual passports and papers, but for a single identifiable sleeve-bag that had everything related in it, and kept things shielded from pocket abuse.  So I ended up looking for some more while I was there since I didn't bring enough and bought a few extra because they're not readily available at stores back home.

Most of the variety I got were the zipper closures and had a thicker plastic, usually with a mesh lining for robustness and sturdiness.  I have a few mylar-type with the ziplock-style enclosure that I actually prefer but the stores didn't have the size or type I wanted.  Still I'm happy with the zipper variety; I feel they're more general purpose.  These bags are sized according to the A and B paper size conventions which is wonderfully consistent.  The downside is that the US still uses the ridiculous letter-size documents and sets of non-cohering sizes for everything else.  Luckily the bags usually accommodate them if not as elegantly.  These items are so good I've also started using them for more permanent storage and not solely for transportation needs.  I haven't worked out exactly the role they'll play in my filesystem yet.  I never liked hanging file folders and fileboxes, as practical as they are so I'm always looking for a better system.

Office supply and stationery store envy

I don't know what it is about Japanese culture that makes it this way but their office supplies and stationery, and the sheer breadth of them, is like candy to me.  I'm not speaking of the gazillion Hello Kitty writing pads and pencil boxes, but the whole line of document protectors, card sheets, high-tech pens, bags, boxes... and yes even the notebooks and pencil bags too.  The variety, functionality, and style just make the American chain stores like Staples, Office Depot, Office Max look pathetically plain and simple.  In fact, I find the American chains utterly disappointing and more often I could just as well go to a CVS or Walgreens.  But even the 100-yen stores or $1.50 stores in the Bay Area like Daiso kick their ass regardless that they sell everything from clothes to kitchen and gardenware.

Why is it this way?  When I go to a Staples it seems like 90% of the shelf space is occupied by reams of plain-ole printer paper, pentax hanging file folders, 3-ring binders, and a rather pedestrian assortment of pens, high lighters, and sticky notes.  The selection is just... blah standard company office supply cabinet fare.  Maybe that's their goal, their target audience, but I suspect not given the areas they setup shop. I find myself going to an art supply store for some my desk wants instead, at least they have a more interesting and varied selection (mostly) and they're slightly more common than a tried-and-true stationery store.  Surprisingly, I don't find Amazon to be all that much of a relief; it's good if you know something rather specific but generally the cool stuff can be difficult to find and a lot of the things I can see at a Japanese store are not available.

There is the oasis of the really good indy or non-big-chain stationery store.  The last really good one I've been to is Bob Slate's in Harvard Square. It's like a closet compared to the square footage of an Office Depot but the variety and quality of items that can be found there is satisfying.  They don't have the cutesy stuff you'd see in a Japanese store and that's actually ok, possibly even preferable in some ways.  But in the end, the Japanese stationery store is the gold standard in my book.  I wish there were more of them out here and I wish their wares or something like them were more widely available in the US.


HK: Drink baggy

In my experience the most common drink carrier I see looks like so:
At a McD's (or was it Starbucks?) in HK, I was given a drink in a bag, like so:

Imagine that!  After some thought (and usage) I see quite a bit of advantage in using a drink bag over the cardboard carrier.

  • Reduced spillage -- The drink is essentially being carried from the top in the bag, whereas with the cardboard carrier it is essentially being carried from the bottom which is inherently less stable in terms of preventing spilling.  Consequently we have to walk on eggshells when carrying a tray with drinks and it's the main reason we tend to hold individual glasses from the top, where gravity and the centripetal action from swinging from the top reduces spillage.
  • Contained spillage -- The enclosing bag keeps what spillage does happen contained and not spread to one's clothing or other items.  It also makes it possible to embed the drink in a larger bag with other items with less fear.
  • Carrying convenience -- When the number of drinks is one or two, I find the bag carrier easier to carry.  With 3 or more, I'm not quite sure.  A tray has better capacity, but embedding a number of drinks in bags within a larger bag might be just as well, though it is certainly safer.  Still, the more common case is only a drink or two.
  • Trash volume -- Those cardboard trays are thick and can take up a lot of space, esp in the trashcan.  The baggies in contrast are thin and collapsible and can be used to collect trash or some other purpose if clean enough.

This analysis really only applies to drink cups that have lids.  Without lids, the tray model seems more appropriate but then you're probably not taking the drinks very far, only to the nearby booth and not your car or around the city.

But hrmm... plastic bag vs cardboard?  Seems to violate something, right?  I think the bags can be made just as environmentally friendly.  In fact I not long ago bought biodegradable "plastic" bags for composting.  I don't see a problem.  We should be using them.

HK: Inspired door bumper

Sometimes a really small simple dumb device can really get my attention when it does something right.  In this case, it's a door-bumper.  I saw a kind in HK that not only softens the blow of a door opening but can also hold it in place.  The modification is that the wall bumper also has a rubber hole that you can push the door bumper into to hold it in place.

The closest I've seen at Home Depot are the magnetic door holder, but then it's not really a bumper anymore.

When I see things like this, I think that not only should this other variety be more available but that all (or most) of the ones that I do see should just stop being made and sold to begin with.  Would probably reduce the need for those door stop triangles which in my experience never really hold the door open, only sometimes prevent the door from closing.

HK: Hot water

I moved into my house 5 months ago after 3 years in an apartment building and one thing that I absolutely miss is the quickness with which hot water appears at the faucet.  I remember this happening when I was a kid, having to leave the water running for 28 years before the water is hot and then rushing to use it before it runs out.  Even more, the water is freezing cold until it gets hot.

This is a common situation in houses I think, in particular old ones like mine.  I've seen some people in my area buy and install these on-demand hot water devices to alleviate this problem.  Some merely get one exclusively for the sink.  Our only device of that nature is the always-on hot water kettle that we use for baby-related needs primarily.  That doesn't count though, we have to fill it manually with filtered water.

Anyhow, I never had this problem in an apartment building so I was a bit surprised to see that even in a very modern building in HK there was an on-demand hot water device in the shower, like so.

Having used it, I totally want one, especially for my house.  It can make the water really really hot if desired and instantly.  Only trouble is I need one that connects to multiple faucets not just one, and this probably reduces the effectiveness a little do to the need for intervening pipe length.  Also, I'd need at least 3 of these (2 bathrooms and 1 kitchen) but even 1 would be a blessing.  Shame getting one installed is pricey.